Grace loved the vineyard. It stretched over miles and miles, and she and Dar could disappear for hours without anyone ever finding them. Today it was warm, the sun baking down on the grapes, causing the fragrance to surround them.
She lay on a blanket Dar had brought, staring up at the clouds. Dar was next to her, putting flowers in her blonde hair. His olive-colored skin was dark from the summer sun, and his black hair, in need of trimming, curled at his ears. The two of them were hidden in a remote corner of the vineyard where grape vines touched the ground next to them.
“You look like a nymph,” Dar said. He pulled his hands back and gazed intently at her with a soft smile on his face. His gaze traveled over her hair, her face, her breasts. “I wish I could freeze this moment in time and carry it around with me.”
Grace took his hand, raised it to her lips, and kissed it. She hesitated before saying what she’d been thinking about all day. “Dar,” she whispered, “I don’t want to keep sneaking around.”
His smile faded. He let go of one of her hands and ran his fingers along her jaw. “I know. I don’t either.”
“So?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
“Your father wouldn’t approve of me.”
She huffed. “Do you even know why he doesn’t like your family?” She didn’t understand her father’s hostility towards them, considering Dar’s father was a respected governor. Things like wealth and status mattered to her father, who was the king’s general. Grace had only met Dar’s parents a few times, and they seemed like good people who ruled Shyra well. His mother had always been friendly to her at social events.
Dar didn’t meet her eyes. “I have an idea.”
He kissed the line of her jaw softly, sending shivers down her spine. “I think so.”
She wouldn’t be distracted. “Well, what is it?”
“Shyra doesn’t have a very good reputation.”
In court, Shyra was mostly spoken of as a poor and mysterious state overrun with fake magicians and crime. She’d only been there once and it seemed like a typical farming state, not much worse than the seedy areas of Renaul. If someone as good as Dar came out of it, the place couldn’t be horrible. He kissed her neck, and she closed her eyes.
“I don’t know,” she said, her voice shaky. “It seems like more than that.”
“Maybe you should ask him.”
She laughed. “He probably doesn’t even realize we know each other.”
Dar raised his head, meeting her eyes. “You probably know me better than anyone.”
She furrowed her brow. “I don’t know. . .” She trailed off as she ran her fingers through his soft curls. “It seems like there’s a lot about you I don’t know.”
“You know the important things,” he said, his voice quiet.
She didn’t say anything for a moment. She wished that were the case, but she doubted it. It hurt because she knew the opposite was true: Dar knew her better than anyone. He had some competition with Jocelyn, her closest friend since childhood, but Grace felt like she’d always hidden something from her, as well as from her parents and her brother. Not one specific thing or an unseemly secret about herself, just something about her very nature, as though she may not be good enough.
She’d never had those fears with Dar. She’d given all of herself to him in the last six months, even if it hadn’t been wise. Their relationship had started off playful, but she’d fallen for him quickly. He knew everything about her, from the birthmark on her stomach to how she liked her tea to her secrets, fears, and dreams. Yet Dar still had his secrets and a past that he tried to keep hidden.
“What about what happened two years ago?” she asked.
Dar’s jaw tightened. He lay down next to her, resting his head on her shoulder. He’d talked about some kind of tragedy that happened two years ago in Shyra, but he’d never given her the details. She’d never pushed him, but now she wanted to know.
“My parents took in two girls when I was four. They were pretty much my sisters.”
Grace touched the back of his head, her eyes wide. She’d always thought Dar was an only child.
“Two years ago. . .my family got into some trouble, and a lot of people were killed. One of my sisters nearly died, and the other disappeared. I haven’t seen her since.”
He’d lost so much. She feared saying anything in case he withdrew again. She ran her fingers through his hair. His body moved softly against hers as he breathed in and out.
“I want to see her again. I want to apologize for everything.”
“What would you say?” she whispered.
“‘Sierra, I’m sorry. I never should have let. . .’” Dar trailed off. He sat up suddenly, his back to Grace.
She sat up and felt flowers fall from her hair. She touched his shoulders, and he tensed.
He got to his feet and kept his face averted from her. “I want that stuff to stay in the past, Grace. I don’t want it to come between us.”
She pursed her lips. Couldn’t he see that keeping things from her would come between them? After standing, she started to gather up the blanket. “Well, then, you shouldn’t say things like that.”
“Things like what?”
“‘You know me better than anyone.’” His gaze lingered on her as she folded the blanket. She looked at him, and he crossed the distance between them.
“I wish I could tell you everything.” He put his hands on her shoulders. “But I know it’s better for both of us if I don’t.”
She stepped away and picked up the blanket. “We should go. We’ve been here for two hours already.”
Dar took the blanket from her, and she picked up her bag. Maybe she was being unreasonable. She took his hand and leaned towards him. Why did he feel like he couldn’t tell her things about him? She’d told him everything about her.
They walked silently to the end of the vineyard where they came from, the opposite end of Sir Henry’s manor. The grapes twisted around wires and poles on either side of them. Dar took a few grapes and handed some to Grace. She played with them, running her fingers over the dusty surface.
“Do you talk to Lady Rebekah about your past?” she asked, her eyes on the ground.
Dar laughed. “No. Rebekah and I don’t talk about anything deep at all. When I talk with her, I think about you. When I kiss her, I think about you.”
He thought about Grace, and yet he was courting Rebekah. Not her. She hated to think of him kissing someone else, especially Rebekah. Flighty, shallow Rebekah.
They reached the spot where they usually parted ways. “I’ll see you later?” Dar said.
She nodded and glanced down at their hands. “Nothing in your past could change the way I feel about you. I care about you. Not what’s happened to you.”
He kissed her, holding her face in his hands. He pulled away and rested his forehead on hers. “I know.”
She stepped back. “Goodbye.” She turned and left. A few minutes later, she looked over her shoulder, but he was gone. He did that often: just disappeared. She worried he’d do that to her someday, just leave her behind without a thought.
Meet me at The Boar’s Bar at midnight. Come alone.
Grace stuffed the note into her pocket. She didn’t recognize the handwriting, and there was no name. Her attempts to guess who might have sent it were fruitless, but it had to have been someone who knew her curiosity often overruled her common sense. She hoped it was Dar, even if it wasn’t a very original way to get her alone. Since their small argument in the vineyard a couple days ago, she’d been waiting for a chance to see him.
A stout man stumbled to the barstool next to her. “Another pint!” he yelled at the bartender. He looked at Grace through his greasy blond hair. “Well, hello! Haven’t seen you around here before.”
Grace gave him a tight smile. Could he be the one who sent the note? He wasn’t the type she was expecting, to say the least. “I’ve never been here before.”
“Really? What do you think so far?” he asked.
She glanced around the tavern. Pockets of people were rowdy while others sat by themselves in the corners. A strong smell of garlic hung in the air. It wasn’t of the worst she’d seen in Renaul, but she knew her mother would faint if she knew Grace was here. She light was dim, but still, she didn’t see any nobles. She shrugged and noticed that his eyes were roving over her traveling cloak, no doubt looking for some bared skin. “It seems like a normal tavern to me.”
The man laughed as the bartender returned with another pint. “I’ll have you know that this is the best bar in the city.” He paused to take a gulp of his beer. “Can tell why you’ve never been here, though. Too rich for us folk, yeah? Had to travel all the way across the river?”
If he was the one to ask her here, why was he making conversation like this? Grace sipped her mead. “What makes you think that?”
He was about to respond when he looked over her shoulder and fell silent. Someone tapped her on the arm. Grace turned around; a man with a hood pulled over his head bowed and said, “Lady Grace.”
His voice was almost drowned out by the people around them, but she thought it might be Dar’s. She smiled. “You still insist on being anonymous?”
“Perhaps we could talk outside,” he said. She could only glimpse the lower half of his face, the outline of his jaw. In the dim light, she couldn’t make any conclusions about his identity.
Grace stepped off her barstool. She told the man at the bar, “Goodnight, sir.”
“Tha’s how I know—normal people don’t talk like that,” the man said as she followed the hooded figure outside.
The brisk night air hit Grace as soon as the man opened the door for her. She saw his hand on the door—pale, short fingers, a silver ring around his pinky. He wasn’t Dar. She pulled her cloak around her, her mind racing with questions.
The smell of garlic lingered outside, too. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the man grab for her arm. She stepped away, avoiding his hand. “Why did you want me to come here?”
The man glanced around, his face turned toward a pair of men by their horses, laughing. One of them stumbled on something, falling to the ground, and they just laughed harder.
“We’re alone,” Grace said, “so get on with it.”
“I’m here about Dar from Shyra,” the man said. “He is not safe for you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
“I know you desire each other, but he is dangerous. I’m here in your best interest, Lady Grace. He will be of no good to you.”
Who was this man? If he’d seen it, then who else had? She took a step toward him, but he moved away from her. She narrowed her eyes. “Who are you?”
“The note was anonymous, and that’s how I choose to stay. You must know that you and Dar come from two different worlds.” His voice filled with disgust. “It’s simply impossible to think a lady of your standing could be with something like him.”
“He’s a noble, as well.” She almost spoke about Dar’s courtship with Rebekah, but she caught herself, knowing she shouldn’t defend Dar or herself. “It makes no difference since we’re not involved.”
“Please, I’m not blind,” the man said, his voice rising.
Grace tried to laugh; it didn’t sound very convincing. “So, this is why you asked me to come? To warn me against a man I have nothing to do with?”
“You need to set your sights on another noble. Dar is not what you think he is.”
“I’m not interested in him,” Grace said, raising her voice. “But even if I were, who are you to tell me to whom I should direct my affection?” She made a grab for his hood, but he moved away quickly and her fingers caught the air. “Do you have any idea to whom you speak?”
His mouth twisted in a smile. “You’re Lady Grace Ellengreen, and your father is a General in the King’s army. I don’t think he would like to hear about your relationship with Dar.”
Grace stiffened. She wanted to scoff about how old-fashioned her father was, unable to see how the norms between men and women were changing, independent of parental desires, but she didn’t want to admit anything to this stranger. Whatever had caused it, the hostility between her father and Dar’s was enough to keep her quiet. Or enough to search out Dar in the first place. Probably both.
“Our nonexistent relationship?” she asked. “What are you going to tell him, that even though Sir Dar and Lady Rebekah have been courting for eight months—”
“I’ll tell him about your meeting in the greenhouse.”
Grace froze and she clenched her fists. How did he know about that? They’d been completely sure to cover up their trail.
“Or the time at the masquerade ball.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her voice came out stronger than she felt.
“I’ll tell him if it will get you away from Dar. He’ll only bring you danger and death.”
“Who are you, that you have such an interest in my well-being?” Perhaps this man was some kind of an admirer. Was he saying these things because they were true or because he wanted her? It may be conceited to think such things, but why else would he be warning her? He couldn’t be telling the truth about Dar. There was no way.
“I already told you, you won’t find out.” The man backed away. “Take heed, Lady Grace. Don’t let your foolishness run away with you.”
Grace glared at him as he moved toward the stable. She rushed after him, raising her skirts and nearly tripping over loose stones in the road. She intended to follow him, but when she reached the stable, his horse went galloping past her, sending up a cloud of dirt that made her cough. He faded into the darkness, and she knew she’d never catch up to him without more comfortable riding clothes on.
Her heart pounded as she untied and mounted her horse. Who was he? Why did he care what she did with Dar? Would he tell anyone about her relationship with Dar? And did any of the things he’d said have truth to them?
She and Dar had started seeing each other six months ago. It was just kisses at first, but then they began to meet at night, talking in earnest, sending private letters, meeting in Sir Henry’s vineyard. They kept their relationship secret since he made no indication of wanting to leave Lady Rebekah, and the thought of doing something without the knowledge of her parents or older brother excited her. She soon started to feel taken advantage of, even though they weren’t sleeping together, and whenever she tried to press the issue of him breaking it off with Rebekah, he would push the conversation elsewhere.
A familiar sense of indignation rose up in her on the way back to the manor. Why did he insist on remaining quiet about her? Maybe he was ashamed of her and he just used her father’s hostility towards his family as an excuse. But then that would mean he’d lied to her time and time again when he said she was unlike other nobles because she cared about people, because she listened to him, because there was something different about her. She didn’t think she could accept that he’d been lying the entire time. His feelings for her weren’t a lie. They couldn’t be, not when he gained nothing but her company from their relationship, not even sex.
She played the conversation with the hooded man over and over in her mind. Two different worlds. Not safe. No good. Danger and death. For weeks she’d tried to reconcile her situation with Dar. She’d give Dar one chance to explain what the man was talking about, and then. . .
She didn’t want it to end; but was the curiosity she’d had about Dar since they were children enough to keep her with him? She couldn’t deny he was one of her best friends now. The last six months had been some of the happiest of her life. She sometimes felt as though she was becoming a woman because of her time with him, as though the world was being opened up to her.
Was it those things or was it the mystery of him, the rebelliousness of being with the son of a man her father hated, the feel of knowing she could have something that belonged to Rebekah Mortren, whom she’d envied since she was young? She couldn’t tell where her real feelings for him began.
The Ellengreen estate was quite large, even for a noble family. The stone manor loomed high in the sky, blocking out the stars. Gardens and grassy lawns surrounded it. Almond trees lined along the back of the manor. Grace’s father allowed peasants to use the fruit for income, taking a profit of the money they earned.
Grace approached the stables slowly. Her mother went to bed around eight o’clock, and her father was training with troops, but she knew her brother had recently been taking late night rides. She and Dar had narrowly avoided him a few times over the last couple weeks. Tonight, however, his horse was in its stall.
Grace dismounted her horse and led her to its stall. When she turned around, someone stood in the door, and she jumped in shock. She recognized Dar’s face and put her hand over her heart. “Don’t do that!”
Dar chuckled. He glanced at the horse and Grace’s traveling cloak. “Where have you been?”
Grace came out of the stall, closing the door behind her. “What are you doing here?”
“I just thought I’d drop by. I whistled nearly twenty minutes ago.” He reached for her waist, but Grace stepped away.
“I was at the Boar’s Bar,” she said.
Dar’s brow furrowed. “At this hour? Why?”
She took the note from her pocket and held it out for him. He read it, then looked at her with wide eyes. “Did you go alone?”
She huffed. “Oh, I forgot you’re still with my father in the last century. I can take care of myself.” She opened her cloak and showed him where her dagger hung from her waist.
“As skillful as you are, without it, you’d be powerless. You’re not exactly someone of stature.” He half-smiled, holding his hand up to her head, which barely reached his shoulders.
She glared at him. “I’m not completely helpless.”
He waved a hand. “All right, whatever you say.” He held up the note. “Who was it?”
“I don’t know. He never took his hood off, but he knows about us.”
Dar’s eyes widened, and he straightened up. “How?”
“I don’t know. He knows about the greenhouse and the masquerade ball.”
“What did he want?”
Grace paused, meeting his eyes. “He said you were dangerous.”
Dar broke eye contact, and his shoulders sagged.
Her eyes widened. So there was some truth to it. “He said you would only bring me danger and death, that you were no good for me, we were from two different worlds.” Grace tried to catch his eyes again, but he was looking at her horse now. “Dar?”
He shook his head. “I should have known this couldn’t last.”
“What do you mean?” When he said nothing, she put her hands on his shoulders and turned him to face her. “What was he talking about?”
Dar stepped away, running a hand through his dark hair. “What did he look like?”
“I told you I didn’t see him.”
“What about his skin color?”
She paused. “It was fair.”
“As fair as yours?”
“It was dark in the pub, I don’t know. What does it matter?”
“What does it matter?” he repeated, looking at her sharply. “I need to know who he is. And why he’d lure you out there alone, just to. . .he could have killed you!”
“There were plenty of people around,” she lied. “Now, tell me what he was talking about.”
He didn’t respond. He was pacing around in the straw, mumbling under his breath.
“What did he mean, two different worlds? Shyra?” Grace asked, raising her voice. Dar’s home state wasn’t so different from Renaul. “It’s not so—”
“He’s right.” Dar stopped pacing and looked at Grace. “I was stupid to think this could work.”
She frowned, and her hidden feelings of incompetence since they’d started meeting in secret came again. She clenched her hands into fists. “Right. I should have known, too. I was just a few thrills on the side while you and Rebekah—”
“Rebekah?” Dar scoffed. “Oh, please, Grace, she’s nothing. Our courtship is an act, a cover-up.”
“A cover-up for what?”
“No. This is. . .bigger than just us. I shouldn’t have brought you into this.”
“Into what?” Grace asked, but she knew she was losing him. He was already drifting away, his stubbornness taking over the one-sided conversation. She swore and struck the stall door next to her. “I should have ended this a long time ago, before you made me feel like a complete fool.”
Dar nodded. “I should go back to Shyra.”
Her mouth fell open, and she stared at him. “What?” That was the last thing she’d been expecting. Why wasn’t he defending himself?
Dar stared past her, and she stepped forward, trying to put herself in his line of vision.
“Don’t I deserve to know what’s going on?”
“We’ve been together for six months!” Her voice was unsteady. “I think I have a right to know what that man was talking about!”
“No, you don’t.” He started pacing again. “I can’t do this any longer. I keep trying to have it both ways, have you and be normal, but it can’t be that way. I have two choices now: giving you everything or leaving you behind.” He stopped, looking at Grace. He closed the distance between them. He leaned forward to set his forehead against hers. Her breath caught in her throat, and she closed her eyes. “You don’t know how much I want that first choice. . .but I can’t do that. We’re both lucky he decided to warn you instead of. . .”
Grace opened her eyes and took hold of his shirt. She knew if she asked the questions burning inside her—instead of what? Are you dangerous? Why?—he’d withdraw from her.
“You don’t have to leave,” she said. The distance was so far, nearly two days. She’d resolved to let go of their late night meetings, but couldn’t imagine not even seeing him at social events. “You don’t have to go back to Shyra.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You’re not going to tell me the truth, are you?” she whispered.
Dar shook his head. “I want to keep you safe.”
Grace took a step back, fighting off tears. “For all I know, you could have sent someone to tell me those things, just so you could have a way out.” Her voice came out shaky, and she hated it.
His eyes widened. “Grace.”
“You knew I’d go, even though it was stupid.”
Dar raised his voice. “I didn’t send that note.”
“Then who did?” Grace demanded. She couldn’t believe this was happening, that he was treating her like this, like the last six months meant nothing to him.
“I can’t tell you.”
“You won’t tell me. But I could find out.”
“Really? How are you going to do that?”
She glared at him. Dar touched the side of her face and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Don’t make this harder for either of us. That man was right; I’m not safe for you.”
She tried to meet his eyes, but he was looking at her blonde hair as he twirled some of it around his finger, like he used to when they were hidden in the vineyard. “Is this about Sierra? And the people who died?”
“Stop it,” he whispered. He stepped closer, tracing his finger along her jawline. “I could live without you, but not if it was because something happened to you on my account.”
“Nothing is going to happen. . .” Grace trailed off. There was something, probably many things, she didn’t know about him. Something he was hiding.
Dar leaned down, taking her face in his hands, and kissed her. She closed her eyes, putting her hands on his waist. What if this was their last kiss? She held onto him as though he may fall through her fingers like water. His fingers wove into her hair, sending chills down her spine.
He pulled away first and set his forehead on hers again.
“Dar,” she whispered.
He stepped away, and his shirt slipped from her fingers. He turned and walked to his horse. She leaned against the nearby stable door, holding back tears. After he mounted, he said in her direction, “Goodbye, my lady.”
Grace let her tears fall once he was out of sight. She tried to tell herself this was best, even though she wanted to run after him. She dropped onto the ground, finally let her tears fall.