“Did the letter arrive?” Ranon asked.
“Hell’s fire,” Powell muttered. “The last time this many men were interested in a single letter, it was because all the young men in my village were waiting to see who the prettiest girl had asked to be her escort to the harvest dance.”
“It’s been enough time,” Theran muttered. “How long can it take to write down the names of a few plants?”
Shira rolled her eyes. “Men are so dim about some things. The more it matters, the more time it takes.”
Theran gave Ranon a sharp smile. “So what’s Ranon hurrying that he shouldn’t be?”
Ranon snarled at Theran.
“I wasn’t talking about him,” Shira said.
“If anyone is interested,” Powell said, “Lady Cassidy has two letters here—no, three. And there’s a box for Gray. Looks like Prince Sadi’s writing on the label, and that’s definitely the SaDiablo seal.”
“Damn,” Theran and Ranon said.
Theran sighed, then raked his fingers through his dark hair. “Give it to me. I’ll take it out to Gray.” And try to figure out what to say today when that look of disappointment fills his eyes.
Powell handed over the box.
Breakfast felt like a cold, heavy lump in Theran’s stomach, and it got heavier and colder with every step he took toward the ground Gray was breaking for this new planting.
He’s working too hard, hoping for too much, Theran thought. These past few days, he had the feeling that Gray had made a blind leap and had broken the life he’d cobbled together, but wasn’t sure of what kind of life he would have in its place. What kind of life he could build.
If he could build anything at all.
Gray set aside the spade and reached for the water jug. He glanced at the box Theran carried, but he didn’t ask about it. He drank, then pulled a scrap of towel out of the waistband of his trousers and wiped his face.
“No letter,” he said.
There was a flatness in Gray’s voice, a lack of light in his eyes, that worried Theran.
“No letter,” Theran said. “But this box came from Prince Sadi. Gray, it hasn’t been that long since you sent the letter.”
“Long enough for a mother to decide that she doesn’t want a particular man showing interest in her daughter.”
Mother Night, Gray, what are you thinking?
The hurt in Gray’s voice made it clear exactly what his cousin was thinking: he wasn’t good enough to be more than a friend.
“Open the box,” Theran said. “Maybe there’s an explanation.”
Gray wiped his hands on his trousers to clean off some of the dirt. Then he took the box and set it on the freshly turned earth, which made Theran wonder why he’d bothered to wipe off his hands.
The box had a simple hook closure, so whatever was inside couldn’t be valuable. Or it meant that no one would be foolish enough to take anything from a box that had the SaDiablo seal.
Gray opened the box. He sat back on his heels. He lifted one Craft-preserved flower out of the box. Then another—and another until he was holding a bouquet.
“There’s a note and a book in there,” Theran said, looking into the box. “And something else.”
Handing the bouquet to Theran, Gray opened the note.
“ ‘Prince Gray,’ ” Gray read.
“A common-ground planting is a wonderful idea. The seeds I gave Cassie were meant to span the seasons, so there aren’t many yet that I can show you. I’ve sent flowers from the late-spring and early-summer plants, but hopefully you’ll be able to match the others from the sketches in the book. The bulbs can go in pots. Those, too, span the seasons—a reminder of family as she makes a new home. Burle spoke highly of you. I’m beginning to see why. I hope we can meet one day. Devra.”
Gray set aside the note, picked up the book, and riffled the pages. “Plants from Dharo. There are drawings and information about planting, and . . .” He closed the book and studied the cover. “Cassie’s mother wrote this book. Cassie said her mother knew a lot about gardening, but I didn’t realize. . . . No wonder she understands the land so well.”
“So this is good?”
“Better than good. It’s—” Gray’s eyes widened and his face paled. He grabbed the bouquet from Theran and shoved it in the box. “Cassie’s coming. You have to distract her. She’ll notice I’m breaking new ground, and she’ll ask about it, and I can’t lie to her. I can’t. And she can’t see what her mother sent. She’ll know then, and it will spoil the surprise.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
Step up to the line, Grayhaven, and be his shield. What he feels for Cassidy is something you’ve never felt for anyone. Not even in passing.
“Get that stuff tucked away,” Theran said as he rose and turned toward the house.
He watched Gray bolt for the stone shed, then hurried to intercept Cassidy.
“Is something wrong with Gray?” Cassidy asked as soon as he got close enough to hear her.
“He’s fine,” Theran replied, taking her arm and turning her back toward the house. “He’s got a bundle of work he wants to get done today.”
She wasn’t dressed for spending time in the garden this morning. Was that good or bad, since she always spent time in the garden after breakfast?
“Maybe I should give him a hand?”
Cassidy sounded doubtful. Was she trying to back away from Gray? She had been acting a bit skittish about being around him. At first Gray had been pleased about that, but that had changed more and more as the hoped-for letter didn’t arrive.
“I was going to come out and work in the garden, but Ranon is going back to his home village for a couple of days, and he and Powell said there was something urgent I needed to do before Ranon left, but they weren’t clear about what that was, and said I should talk to you.”
Theran tossed a psychic thread toward Ranon. *Next time you decide to be helpful, give me some warning.*
*We gave her a reason to come looking for you instead of Gray, so figure out why she’s supposed to be stuck at a desk for the next few hours.*
Go piss yourself. He didn’t say it, but the feeling traveled through the link between them—and the feeling was quite mutual.
What could he ask her to do that had to be done before Ranon left?