“I will. And I will do my best by her.”
Chade froze. Then he nodded weakly, relief slackening his face. I saw now how deeply he had feared I would refuse him. That shamed me.
Shun drew a breath to speak but I stopped her with an uplifted hand. “Unfortunately, I have to leave now. I will need to prepare a place for you at Withywoods,” I announced.
She looked startled. Good. Keep her unbalanced until it was all determined. I spoke calmly, taking it all out of Chade’s hands. “You will be given enough money to stay at this inn for three days. Riddle will remain here with you, as your protector. You need have no fear of him. He is a man of honor. You don’t seem to have brought much with you from your old home. So if there is something you need, just let him know. In three days he will escort you to Withywoods, where I will greet you as my cousin, come to help me manage my household.” I took a breath. It was only logical, the best way to explain her arrival, and yet it still pained me to say the words aloud. “Since my wife’s recent death.” I cleared my throat. “I have a little girl at home. And a large holding to manage for Lady Nettle.” I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “You will be welcomed there. And you may stay as long as you find it to your liking. You do need to know that I do not live grandly as a nobleman, but as a Holder, the trusted caretaker of a large estate. I am not sure what you are accustomed to, but you may find us rustic. Simple. As my ‘cousin,’ you will have tasks to do, but I assure you that you will not be treated as a servant by anyone, but as a family member who has come to help in troubled times.”
“Tasks?” She said the word as if she could not fit her mouth around it. “But … I come of a noble family! On my mother’s side, I am …”
“You aren’t,” Chade cut in decisively. “That name is a danger to you. You must leave it behind. I’ll give you a new name. My own. You are a Fallstar now. I give you my surname. The one that my mother gave to me. Shun Fallstar.”
She stared at him, shocked. Then, to my horror, tears formed in her eyes. Mouth ajar, she looked at Lord Chade as the drops began their slow passage down her cheeks. Chade went pale, the old pock-scars standing out against his face. Many thought them the sign of his survival of some plague. I knew them for what they were: the traces of an experiment with a mixture that had proved far more explosive than he had thought. Like him, I bore some scars from the things we had exploded together. Just as we had this girl’s life.
I thought of the other life this would impact. My child, who was still just coming to know me. Bee was still adapting after her mother’s death. I wondered how she would react to this sudden inclusion of a new family member and knew the answer. She would not welcome it, any more than I did. Well, with a great deal of luck, it would not be for long, just until Chade found a better solution for all of us. Still. I looked at Shun. “Have you any experience with children?”
She made a quick swipe at her tears and shook her head. “I grew up with my grandparents. My mother was their only surviving child, so there were no other youngsters in their household. Only me. The servants had children but I had little to do with them. And my mother’s nieces were the children of her husband’s brother, and perfect little beasts.” She took a breath and exclaimed, “I told you, I can’t pretend to be her governess. I won’t do that!”
“No. I only wondered if you were accustomed to children. You aren’t. And I have no problems with that. I suspect you thought you might guard my child for me. I don’t think that will be needed at all. I can find other tasks for you, ones that have to do with running the household staff.” Yet another thing I must invent. Busywork to keep her occupied.
Given the sort of child that Bee was, perhaps it was best that Shun had no experience of other children. Bee might seem less odd to her. But the vehemence of her instant response to the thought that she might have to care for the child was a small warning to me. I would keep Bee at a safe distance from her until I had gauged her character. I stood to leave. Chade looked alarmed.
“I’d hoped to talk more with you! Can’t you stay the night? The storm outside is only getting worse. Riddle, could you see if the inn has another open room?”
I shook my head. I knew he wanted to have a long, private conversation with me. He longed for a chance to explain every part of this, and to explore every possible solution. But there was someone else who needed me more. “I can’t. Bee isn’t accustomed to being left alone.” Was Bee asleep yet? Or lying awake and wondering when her papa would be back? Shame that I had all but forgotten her in this strange business washed through me, followed by uneasiness and urgency. I needed to get home. I looked at Chade.