I froze and looked to him, but he refused to look at me. He just stood stoically, hands behind his back, and waited for Elora to ask for further assistance.
I might’ve stood there until Elora dismissed me, but Willa looped her arm through mine and started to drag me away.
Rhys and Rhiannon were just ahead of us, whispering quietly to each other. Garrett stole one last glance at Elora and walked on to the front door.
“So, I’ll come over about ten tomorrow morning,” Willa said, purposely keeping her tone light and cheery.
“What for?” I asked, feeling somewhat dazed.
“To help you get ready. There is so much to do!” Willa said and then shot a look in the direction of the dining room. “And your mother doesn’t seem to be the helpful type.”
“Willa, don’t talk bad about the Queen,” Garrett said without conviction.
“Well, anyway, I’ll be over to help you with everything. You’ll be fabulous.” She gave me a reassuring smile and squeezed my arm right before she left with her father.
Soon Rhys and I were alone, standing in the entryway.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I lied.
I felt oddly shaky and ill, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to be a Princess anymore, if I ever did. There weren’t many more dinners like this I could handle. I took a step away, preparing to tell Elora just that, but I felt Rhys’s hand warm on my arm, stopping me.
“If you go in there, you’ll just make it worse,” Rhys insisted gently. “Come on.”
He put his hand on the small of my back and ushered me over to the stairs. When we reached them, I expected him to try to push me up the stairs to my room, but he didn’t. He knew that I had to wait for Finn to find out what had happened.
I peered in the direction of the dining room, hoping to catch a glimpse of something. I wasn’t sure what that would help, but I thought if I could just see what was happening, I could somehow make it okay.
“That was a rough dinner,” Rhys said with a joyless laugh and sat down on the stairs. I couldn’t see anything, so I gave up. Pulling my skirt underneath me, I sat next to him.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault,” Rhys assured me with his lopsided grin. “You just made this house a whole lot more interesting.”
Elora had purposely pulled Finn aside to make a public spectacle. Otherwise, she would’ve lectured him privately, inside his head. For some reason, she had wanted me to witness that. I didn’t understand what exactly he had done wrong, except disagree with her. But he had been respectful and hadn’t said anything that wasn’t true.
“What do you think she’s saying?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Rhys said. “She’s never really yelled at me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.” I stared at him skeptically. Rhys was always flouting the rules, and Elora was about as strict as they came.
“No, seriously.” Rhys laughed at my shock. “She’s snapped at me to knock stuff off when she’s around me, but do you know how often she’s even around? I was raised by nannies. Elora made it perfectly clear from day one that she wasn’t my mother and she never wanted to be.”
“Did she ever want to be a mother at all?” From what little I knew of her, she seemed to be lacking even the slightest bit of maternal instinct.
“Honestly?” Rhys debated whether or not to tell me, before sadly replying, “No. I don’t think she did. But she had a lineage to carry on. A duty.”
“I’m just part of her job,” I muttered bitterly. “For once, I just wish that somebody actually wanted me around.”
“Oh, come on, Wendy,” Rhys admonished me softly and leaned in closer. “Lots of people want you around. You can’t take it personally that Elora’s a bitch.”
“It’s a little hard not to.” I fidgeted with my dress. “She’s my mother.”
“Elora is a strong, complicated woman that you and I can’t even begin to understand,” Rhys explained tiredly. “She is a Queen above all else, and that makes her cold and distant and cruel.”
“What was it like growing up with that?” I glanced over at him, suddenly feeling guilty for moping about my life when he’d had it even harder. At least I had Matt and Maggie.
“I don’t know.” He shrugged. “Probably like growing up in a boarding school with a strict headmistress. She was always lurking in the background, and I knew that she had the final say on everything. But her interaction with me was at an absolute minimum.” He looked at me again, this time uncertainly.
“She’s not quite as secretive as she thinks, though. This is a big house, but I was a sneaky little kid.” He bit his lip and fiddled with a button on his blazer. “You know she used to sleep with Finn’s dad?”
“I do,” I said quietly.
“I thought he would tell you.” Rhys fell silent for a minute, chewing his lip. “Elora was in love with him. She’s strange when she’s in love. Her face is different, softer and more radiant.” Rhys shook his head, lost in a memory. “It was almost worse seeing her like that, knowing that she’s capable of kindness and generosity. It made me feel gypped that all I ever got were icy glares from across the room.”