Then her arms are pulling me closer, hands grasping, holding on like something is trying to wrench her away. And she’s crying.
No—not crying. Sobbing. Great, heaving, broken sobs that wreck me.
I gather her even closer, rocking and rocking, pressing my face into the crook of her neck, trying to weave myself around her.
“It’s all right, Sarah.”
“I . . . I was so . . . afraid.”
“I know, but I’m here now. I’ve got you.”
“I hate this,” she chokes out, pressing into my neck. “I hate being afraid all the time. I hate it.”
And I can’t think of anything to say. I can’t tell her it’s okay, because it isn’t. It’s all fucked up and wrong. So I give her the only thing I can: me. I let her know she’s not alone.
“I’m afraid too.”
Her breath catches in her throat, and her lips press into my neck.
“What do you mean?”
She hugs me tighter, resting her cheek on my shoulder, and my hands grasp her closer, both of us shaking.
“I’m afraid of wanting to be king, of wanting to do it well,” I rasp out. “Of thinking I might be capable and really trying . . . only to fail. To find out I just don’t measure up. I’m terrified of letting everyone down, that they’ll all get hurt because I’m such a fuck-up. So I don’t bother . . . and it’s all because I’m just too damn scared.”
I run my hand over her hair, petting her, the way my mother used to when I was ill. Her shuddering slowly eases in the quiet that follows my confession. Her tears taper off to a sniffling trickle.
“I believe in you, Henry,” she says so softly. “I believe you can do anything . . . everything you set your mind to, because you care so deeply for everyone you meet. You will be amazing. I know it in my heart and to the bottom of my soul. And I would tell you the truth, I promise—I wouldn’t let you try and fail.”
And it’s miraculous what that does, how her words make me feel. Like I’m a hundred feet tall and a thousand times as strong. Like I’m a superhero or a god.
Like . . . I’m a king.
I run the back of my hand over her cheek. “I’m supposed to be comforting you.”
She smiles gently. “You did.”
I press a kiss to her forehead and don’t even think about letting her go. I shift back against the headboard and hold Sarah in my arms, her head on my shoulder, her sweet breath against my neck . . . until she falls asleep.
“WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER?”
When Penelope’s topaz eyes go hard and her chin lifts, I know I’ve chosen exactly the wrong words.
“Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with her.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
I walk past her through the doorway, into the sitting area of the bedroom. I don’t think I’ve ever been in this particular bedroom. It’s covered in shades of rose and fuchsia and pink—nauseatingly girly, as if a Barbie Dreamhouse puked all over it.
Penelope shuts the door and stands in front of me, securing the belt of her robe defensively.
“The fugues,” I begin, “when she ‘blinks out’—she called it a quirk. It’s not a quirk, is it?”
The tightness in Penelope’s face dissipates, softens, and something like sadness rises in her eyes. “No.”
My heart jackhammers in my chest and my breath skips. Because I knew it before I walked in here—but to hear someone else say it, to hear her sister confirm that there’s something wrong with Sarah—something I may not be able to fix, some broken part of her she won’t even show me, let alone give me the chance to mend . . . it’s horrendous.
“I’ve seen it happen to men—soldiers with PTSD. They slip away and get trapped in another place, another time . . . a bad time. Is that how it is with her?”
Penelope’s lips fold together, her chin trembling. “Yes.”
A hundred horrific headlines flash in my head at once. I squeeze my eyes closed but I still see them.
“What happened to her?” My voice sounds tortured even to my own ears. “Please, Penny, I have to know.”
Her pale blond hair sways when she gives a little nod of her head, almost to herself, then motions for me to sit on the sofa. And I have to force my knee to stop bouncing with unspent energy, bracing for what’s to come.
The fire pops and her voice is gentle when she speaks, like a nanny reading her charge a bedtime fairy tale. Did you ever notice how genuinely fucked up fairy tales actually are?
“Our mother was traditional when it came to marriage. Very old school—“till death do us part,” a trousseau she stitched herself, a virgin on her wedding night—the whole damn thing. She was . . . innocent . . . only just eighteen when she married our father. He was thirty-five. Her parents, our grandparents, were cold arseholes; I already told you that. They were pleased to be rid of her. After the wedding, he took her to his estate in Everly.”
Everly is more moor than town. Jagged mountains on one side, cold ocean on the other—the weather as harsh and hard as a castle’s stone.
“My very first memory is the sound of my mother screaming . . . begging him to stop. He would go into rages for no reason at all. And he was merciless. Sadistic. Things would be quiet for a few weeks after, sometimes a few months . . . but then it would happen all over again. Sarah and I didn’t attend school; we had tutors. He said it was because it was the best education, but I think he just wanted control. The handful of servants we had were completely devoted to him—whether it was because they were loyal or terrified, I’ll never know.”