Lowering her head back into her hands, Rochelle started to shake—and Boone stroked her shoulder, letting her have a moment of emotional release.
“She’s dead,” Rochelle said. “My love is dead . . .”
“Oh, God.” Boone eased to the side and got out a handkerchief from the back pocket of his leathers. “She’s dead?”
Sniffling, Rochelle accepted the square and pressed it to her face. “She’s dead and part of me died with her. I haven’t been the same since. I am never going to be the same.”
“Dearest Virgin Scribe . . . Rochelle. Tell me what happened.” He rubbed her back again. “From the beginning. And I can’t imagine what it’s like, holding this all in.”
His friend took a shuddering breath. “When I came here, a year ago, to break the arrangement with you, she and I had decided to stop fighting the attraction and commit to a relationship. I was scared about my family finding anything out, but she was . . . she was my whole world. I’d never been so happy, so complete. And she didn’t know about you. She didn’t know about . . . all of this and everything that comes with it.” Rochelle indicated the formal room with her hand. “I knew I couldn’t go through with the mating with you. Not just because of what it would do to her, but because of what it would do to you. Both of you deserved more than that. And she especially deserved my respect and my love. She was no one’s shameful secret.”
“So you came here . . .”
“And I told you, and you called me brave.” Rochelle sniffed again and patted her nose. “I’m not brave. I was trying to hold on to my family and have her at the same time. I knew my parents would never understand or accept her, and worse, I’m their only offspring. After me? There is no one left of the bloodline. I was hemming and hawing over this socalled problem . . . when . . .”
Distantly, he caught a whiff of hot chocolate and straightened. Maybe he should tell Helania to wait a moment? After all, even though he trusted Helania with everything in his life, she was a stranger to Rochelle.
“Ah . . . listen, Rochelle.” He reached for her hand. “I’m just going to—”
As the contact with his friend’s palm was made, Boone froze, a sense of shock and disbelief flooding through him. While Rochelle sniffed again and looked at him as if she were waiting for him to finish her sentence, he slowly turned her hand over.
There, in the center, was a network of fine scars that had been salted into place.
“What is it?” she asked him.
Boone swallowed hard as he stared at the wounds. “Where did you get these?”
“I buried my love. Out at a state park. With her sister—” The crash of a tray shattered the quiet, and Boone jumped up. Helania was standing in the archway of the parlor, her face white, her hands shaking, the mugs of hot cocoa and plates of sandwiches in a mess at her feet.
“What are you doing here?” she croaked out to Rochelle.
Helania went completely numb as she stared at the female who was sitting, composed as a matron, on Boone’s formal sofa. The clothes and the jewelry were nothing familiar, nor was the makeup or the hairstyle, but the face . . . that face was unforgettable.
And the recognition was not only on Helania’s side.
The female slowly stood up, her hand falling out of Boone’s, her visage going pale. “It’s . . . you.”
Helania went to take a step forward, but when she put her foot down, it was on broken china. Falling off-balance, she caught herself on the archway’s molding. When she looked up next, the female was right in front of her.
“I don’t understand,” Helania said.
The female stared at her for the longest time. “You look so much like her it hurts.”
The next thing she knew they were embracing like family who had been separated for a generation. And in that moment, Helania did not care about anything other than the fact that this stranger, whom she’d met at a great, tragic turning point in her life, was here.
“They found Isobel’s killer,” Helania said in a rush. “We have him. I was trying to reach you to let you know.”
“They do?” The female pulled back. “They found him?”
“Yes. The Brotherhood has him.”
“Oh, thank God.”
“I tried to contact you on Facebook to let you know. He didn’t just kill Isobel. He killed another female—”
“I know.” The female looked at Boone. “And that’s why I asked to see you tonight.”
It was at that point that Helania put two and two together more properly. “Wait . . . you were arranged to be mated with Boone. You were going to be his shellan.”
“Yes.” There was a long pause. “I’m Rochelle.”
“Rocky B. Winkle. On Facebook.”
“Yes.” The female looked back and forth between them. Then she stepped away. “Helania . . . how much did Isobel tell you about us?”
“She said that you were best friends? And you told me that yourself.”
Rochelle took another step back. “Did she . . . tell you about her boyfriend?”
“Yes, oh my God, do you know him? Can you get in touch with him?” Helania nodded toward Boone, who was sitting with great stillness on the sofa. “He and I have been working on the investigation into Isobel’s death—and also on a second killing. That’s how he and I met, by the way. And we’ve been hoping to find that male who meant so much to Isobel.” She glanced back at Boone. “See, I told you Isobel’s mate wasn’t the one who killed her. I knew he made her happier than I’d ever seen her before.”
When no one said anything else, Helania looked to the female, but Rochelle just kept staring at Boone. Who kept staring up at Helania.
“What?” Helania said.
The other female took a deep breath and dropped to her knees. One by one, she gathered the broken china pieces and put them on the tray that Helania and Thomat had worked so hard on to kit out nicely.
“We’re going to need a cloth of some kind to properly clean this up,” Rochelle murmured. “Perhaps we should call a doggen—”
“You can tell her what you just told me,” Boone said softly. “It’s okay.” Rochelle froze with half a plate in her hands. Lifting her eyes, she stared upward at Helania. And then in a quiet voice, she whispered. “Your sister . . . was my one great love.”
Helania opened her mouth to say something—but then she blinked. Did a double-take. Felt sure that she had not heard what she had, but rather had read the female’s lips incorrectly.
“Isobel . . .” Rochelle repeated, “was my lover. We were so much more than friends.”
Tears threatened in the female’s lovely eyes . . . and then spilled down her cheeks, dripping off into the ruined china.
“I never knew,” Helania heard herself say hoarsely. “I never guessed . . .”
That my sister was gay, she thought.
“I told her she couldn’t tell anyone.” Rochelle placed the half plate onto the tray and sat back on her high-heeled boots. “I made her promise, because of who my family was, that she wouldn’t tell a soul. And that was the first of so many regrets for me after she was gone.”
“I never guessed,” Helania repeated. “She referred to you as her—”
“Boyfriend. I know. I told her to.”
“Wait, that night.” Helania lowered herself down so they could be eye to eye. “That night you came to tell me she was dead . . .”
“I knew where she lived. She’d told me your address. When we found her in that club . . . I can’t even tell you what that was like. I knew she would want you to know immediately—instead of having to wonder and worry about what had happened to her when she didn’t come home. So I took her body to my secret house, the one I bought on my own and my parents never go to—”
“The white house.”
“On Macon Avenue. Where we prepared her for the Fade Ceremony.”
Helania glanced back at Boone. “So we were close tonight.” She refocused on Rochelle. “We were trying to find that house. I couldn’t remember the address. I was desperate to find you.”
“I live there now.” Rochelle let herself fall back so she was sitting on the floor, and the fact that her pristine white slacks were getting stained with hot chocolate didn’t seem to matter to her in the slightest. “That night, while you and I were preparing her, I wanted to tell you the truth. But I’m a coward—and I didn’t know how you’d react, either. The last thing I wanted to do was spoil your memories of your sister. She loved you so much. She thought about you all the time. All she ever wanted was to take care of you—and the idea I might ruin that memory of her in your mind . . . I couldn’t tell you because I didn’t know what your thoughts on us were going to be.”
Helania remembered back to the months leading up to Isobel’s death. How Isobel had been so very happy, so radiant, so optimistic. Unlike anything Helania had seen before.
Reaching out with her scarred palm, she put her hand on the other female’s shoulder. In a strong, certain voice, she said, “Let me tell you what my thoughts are. You were the love of her life, too, and you made her happier than I’d ever seen her.”
Rochelle’s eyes welled with new tears. And then the female put her scarred hand over Helania’s.
“I cannot tell you,” the female said roughly, “what that means to me. It’s like Isobel just spoke to me from the grave.”
* * *
Sitting on the sidelines, Boone was both having trouble catching up and feeling very proud of the two females on the floor in front of him. Surrounded by the broken shards of the glymera’s propriety, Rochelle and Helania were reaching across, literally and figuratively, the divide of misinformation and lifestyle and death . . . and finding solace in each other.