“I’m sorry.” I put my hand gently on his arm. “I wish I could say something to make you feel better. But to be honest, I can’t imagine how horrible it must have been to grow up like that.”
He forced a smile, then shrugged, pushing away the memory.
“Anyway. Finn’s father left Elora, for his wife, which was just as well.” Rhys looked thoughtful for a moment. “Although I bet she would’ve thrown it all away to be with him, if he had really loved her. But that’s not the point.”
“What is the point?” I asked shakily.
“Rumor has it she keeps Finn around because she still loves his old man, even though he never loved her. Nothing’s ever happened between Finn and Elora, I’m sure.” Rhys let out a heavy sigh. “But . . .”
“Finn’s dad never looked at her the way Finn looks at you.” He let it hang in the air for a second as I tried to figure out what he meant. “So you’ve got that strike against you too. She never wanted to be a mother, and you’re getting the one thing she never had.”
“What are you talking about? I haven’t gotten anything she never had, and I definitely don’t have Finn. I . . . we never . . . it’s just official business.”
“Wendy.” Rhys looked at me with a sad smile. “I know that I wear my heart on my sleeve, but you’re just as bad.”
“I-I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I stuttered and looked away from him.
“All right.” Rhys laughed. “Whatever you say.”
To lighten the moment, Rhys made some joke that I didn’t really catch. My mind raced and my heart pounded. Rhys must be imagining things. And even if he wasn’t, surely Elora wouldn’t punish Finn for that. Would she?
Finn reached the stairs, and I scrambled to my feet. He had probably only been with Elora for fifteen minutes, but in my mind it seemed like forever. Rhys had been sitting next to me, but he got up much slower than I had. Finn looked over us with disdain, then turned and started walking up the stairs without a word.
“Finn!” I jogged after him, but Rhys rather smartly made his escape to the kitchen. “Wait! Finn! What happened?”
“A conversation,” Finn replied glibly. I scurried to keep up with him, but he made no effort to slow down, so I grabbed his arm, stopping him halfway up the stairs. He glanced back over his shoulder as if looking for Rhys, clearly avoiding my gaze. “I thought I told you to stay away from the mänsklig.”
“Rhys was just sitting with me while I waited for you,” I said. “Get over it.”
“It’s very dangerous for you to be around him.” Finn faced the top of the stairs but looked at me from the corner of his eye. “It’s dangerous for you to be around me.” I didn’t appreciate the way he wouldn’t look at me directly. I missed his dark eyes.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded.
“Let go of my arm,” Finn said.
“Just tell me what’s going on, and I’ll leave you alone,” I said, tightening my grip.
“I have been relieved of my duties,” Finn answered carefully. “Elora no longer perceives a threat, and I have been insubordinate. I am to pack my things and leave the premises as soon as possible.”
The air completely went out of my lungs. It was my worst fear. Finn was going to leave, and it was my fault. He had been defending me when I should’ve been defending myself. Or I should’ve just kept my mouth shut.
“What?” I gaped at him. “That’s not right. You can’t . . . You’ve been here for so long, and Elora trusts you. She can’t . . . It’s my fault! I’m the one who refused to listen!”
“No, it’s not your fault,” Finn insisted firmly. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Well, you can’t just leave! I have the ball tomorrow, and I don’t know anything!” I continued desperately. “I’m not a Princess at all, Finn. You have so much left to help me with.”
“I wouldn’t be helping you after the ball anyway.” Finn shook his head. “A tutor will be coming in to help you learn everything you need to know from here on out. You’re ready for the ball, no matter what Elora says. You’ll do wonderfully tomorrow.”
“But you won’t be here?”
He turned away from me and quietly said, “You don’t need me.”
“This is my fault! I’m gonna talk to Elora. You can’t leave. She has to see that.”
“Wendy, no, you can’t—” Finn said, but I had already started back down the stairs.
There was an unbearable panic settling over me. Finn had forced me to leave the only people who had ever made me feel loved, and I had done it because I trusted him. Now he was going to leave me alone with Elora and a monarchy I wanted no part of.
Rhys would still be here, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before she sent him away as well. I was going to be more alone and isolated than I had ever been before, and I couldn’t handle it.
Even as I was running down to Elora’s drawing room, I knew it was more than that. I couldn’t stand to lose Finn, and it didn’t matter how Elora or anyone else treated me. A life without him just didn’t seem possible anymore. I hadn’t even realized how important he had become to me until Elora threatened to take him away.