“It was for her as it was for me,” Henry said, eyes back on hers. “Truthfully…I don’t know that she named you for me, so much as for a moment in time. I suppose you are a tribute, a kind of memory to who we were. It’s—well, it’s unexpected, given the way she left us.”
Etta didn’t trust her voice enough to speak.
Her whole life, all eighteen years of it, her father had lingered as a kind of question mark in the background. A ghost that came around haunting now and then in her thoughts to remind her of the loss—to expand that gap in her family portraits. But there had been many ghosts, and many gaps, on both sides of her family, and Etta had never let herself dwell on any of them in particular, because it seemed ungrateful in the face of everything and everyone she did have.
Father. A word from a vocabulary of love she’d never learned. Etta couldn’t make any more sense of it than she could of the way she felt. An involuntary, panicked elation that left her feeling like she needed to run to him or away from him.
“What am I doing here?” Etta asked finally.
“At first, we only wanted to protect and heal you—you were almost dead when Julian Ironwood brought you back to us. From here on out…well,” he said, “I should like to hope you will aid us against Ironwood, considering all he’s done to you. And if I’m lucky, you might tell me a little about yourself, beyond what I know.”
“Which is what?” she asked, shocked by the eagerness in his voice.
“That you were born and raised in Manhattan. That you enjoy reading, and were homeschooled from a young age. I know that you have performed across the world in many competitions, and that you feel very strongly about Bach over Beethoven.”
“You read the Times article,” she said quietly.
“I read everything I could find from this…Internet…creation,” he admitted. He said Internet like he was testing the word in his mouth for the first time. “Not nearly enough. There’s one question in particular I’ve had for weeks now, and I desperately wish you’d consider answering it—but only if you are comfortable.”
The way he framed it satisfied her pride and appealed to her curiosity, but there was one weight she needed to remove before she could continue.
“I need you to answer a question for me first,” Etta said. “But I don’t know if I can even trust your answer….”
“Ask and see.”
She took a pacifying breath, waiting until the pain in her throat eased enough to speak normally. “The night of the concert…were you or any of your Thorns involved in a shooting?”
There. A flicker of something in his face. Henry’s lips compressed and she heard the harsh breath leave his nose. “Do you mean Alice?”
Etta had expected a quick dismissal, an annoyed defense. But that softness in his expression rubbed at the fragile shield she’d constructed around her heart, and the heaviness in his words nearly cracked it altogether.
She swallowed again. Nodded.
It was a long while before he spoke again, and the whole time, he never broke his gaze away from her. Etta could see his mind working, as if deciding how best to continue—or was he deciding what she could handle?
“Never,” he told her. “I would never harm Alice, though I’m not sure she felt the same about me. I believed her when she said she tried to stop you from traveling. To protect you.”
“She told you that?”
A rebellious thought rose in her. Alice trusted him.
“After you disappeared, I stayed with her,” he said. The words slammed through Etta’s heart, making it throb in her chest with a mess of relief and gratitude and envy.
“Her last thoughts were only of you.”
She wasn’t alone. Alice didn’t die alone.
Etta pressed a hand to her face, drawing in breath after breath to stave off the crush of tears. “She wasn’t alone.”
“She wasn’t alone,” he said softly. “She shouldn’t have suffered that at all, but at least…there was that one small bit of mercy.”
Etta heard him shift, his feet moving against the carpet, but he didn’t reach for her, didn’t feed her comforting lies. He remained nearby, silent, ready, until the metronome of her heart slowed enough for her to find her center again.
“Thank you,” Etta managed. “For staying with her until the end.”
He nodded. “The honor was mine. Are you satisfied with your answer?”
“Yes,” she said. “What was your question?”
“Did your mother give you any sort of traveling education and training?” Henry asked. “The fact that you so willingly followed the Ironwood girl made me think not, and yet it’s so unlike your mother not to have thought through something five steps past everyone else, and there should have been any number of precautions to protect you against this.”
Etta gritted her teeth at the humiliation that itched inside of her. The embarrassment at being so unprepared for a traveler’s life was familiar, but feeling it now meant that she cared what this man thought of her. She didn’t want him to somehow think less of her.
“I didn’t know I could travel until the night of the performance.”
His hand rasped over the faint stubble along his chin and jaw, eyes softening in a way that made her hate herself, just a little bit, for how much she appreciated it. “None of us are born speaking a half-dozen languages or feeling at ease in the Roman Empire. You’ll pick it up quickly enough, and there are many here, myself included, who would be happy to help you in any way we can.”