Delilah rushed to fill the gap between us so she could shake my hand, and I noticed she was a little taller than Ember. “I’ve heard so much about you. You’re a real hero.”
“I’m not even close to being a hero, but thank you,” I said.
“Sorry, sure.” When she released my hand, she stood up straight with her shoulders back, the way I knew Ember had taught her. Then she tapped her water bottle. “I need to refill this, so I should do that before we start up again.”
“Go ahead,” Ember told her, and the second Delilah was out of earshot, Ember turned to me and asked in an excited whisper, “What do you think?”
“Well, she has good posture,” I said.
“That’s it?” Ember stared up at me. “That’s all you’ve got?”
I glanced over to where Delilah was refilling her bottle at the fountain at the edge of the gymnasium. “She’s obviously a hard worker, and she seems to know her stuff.” Ember kept staring at me, so I added, “And she’s very pretty.”
Ember practically beamed. “She’s great, right?”
“She is,” I admitted hesitantly.
But not only was Delilah a Marksinna, she was one who could change her skin color, meaning she had an important bloodline. No one in a position of authority would look kindly on Ember messing with that.
“Just be careful,” I advised.
“I always am.” Ember looked so pleased that I didn’t want to completely spoil her mood.
By then it was time to start training again, and Ember began barking commands. Delilah seemed more than happy to follow them, which boded well for their burgeoning relationship. Even though Delilah was nobility, she seemed to respect Ember’s experience and leadership.
I realized I had my own forbidden romance that I needed to deal with, and before I could really head back to reality, I needed to talk to Ridley.
Over at the other end of the gym, Ridley held a clipboard, reading the papers attached to it. Since Tilda had gotten married last night, she was off today, which left him working her job for the day.
His brow was furrowed in concentration when I reached him. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I waited next to him until he noticed me, which thankfully didn’t take long.
“Tilda is really good at her job, but her handwriting is atrocious,” Ridley said, telling me something I already knew. “I will be so relieved when she gets back from her honeymoon in a couple days.”
“They’re taking a short honeymoon, so it won’t be too bad.”
He finally looked up at me, and I suddenly felt sick. I didn’t know what to say to him. All I wanted was for him to pull me into his arms, but I knew he couldn’t.
“Now probably isn’t the best time for this conversation,” I began, swallowing down my fear. “I just wanted to tell you that I, um, want to talk to you, I guess.”
“About what I said last night?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
“Now’s perfect,” he replied instantly. “Come on.”
A gym filled with people obviously wasn’t the best place to have a private conversation, and Ridley walked away. I followed him out into the hallway, which was quiet and deserted. Trackers-in-training should’ve been in class, but they were all either in the gym doing drills or out in the yard doing obstacle courses.
“So?” Ridley folded his arms over his chest and stared down at me expectantly.
“Well…” I exhaled shakily. “You know how I feel about you.”
“What if I told you I don’t?”
I looked up at him, his eyes filled with that dark intensity that made my heart race. “Ridley.”
“I said it. Would it be so bad if you said it too?” he pressed.
“I care about you,” I admitted, saying it aloud for the first time, and there was something terrifying and exhilarating in that. “I care about you a lot.”
One corner of his mouth pulled up in a crooked smile. “Good.”
“But you know the deal,” I said, and his smile fell away. “We would both lose our jobs, and as much as I do care about you, I’m not willing to do what my parents did. My dad sacrificed a lot, but my mom gave up everything. I know she loves my dad and she loves me, way more than she ever cared about Storvatten, but that doesn’t mean she wants this life that’s been thrust upon her either. And unlike my mom, I do really care about Doldastam and my job, even as imperfect and insane as it has been lately.”
“You’re not your mom, and I’m not your dad,” Ridley countered. “I would never ask you to give up the life you’ve chosen. I know how much your job means to you, and I wouldn’t let you sacrifice it for me, even if you wanted to.”
“But that goes for you too,” I argued. “You have to go after Viktor. I can’t let you lose your position as the Överste, not when it’s so important to you, and the kingdom needs you. But where does that leave us? Neither of us can give up the things that are standing in our way.”
“I can,” he said simply.
“No, Ridley, you can’t.”
“Not right now, that’s true. But as soon as we have Viktor, and I mean the very second, I’ll quit.”
I shook my head. “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You don’t have to. I want to,” he insisted. “I’ve done this job long enough, and I’m sure that Tilda would be twice as good as me, and she’ll probably want a desk job soon. So I’ll find something else.”
“What else?” I asked.
“Anything else.” Ridley grinned. “That’s the point. I don’t care. I can do whatever I want. But the thing I want most is to be with you.”
Suddenly, I felt dizzy. It almost sounded too good be true.
“You really wanna do this?” I asked breathlessly.
“Yes. Once we catch Viktor, I want to give us a real shot.” He took my hands in his. “What do you think?”
I nodded, too excited to speak at first. “Yes.”
Ridley stepped away from me to look through the narrow windows in the gymnasium door, checking to see if anyone was watching. They must not have been, because he rushed back over and pushed me back against the wall, so we were more hidden if anyone decided to pry, and he kissed me full on the mouth.
It ended much too soon, with him pulling away from me as he tried to catch his breath. “I have to get back. And so do you. And right now I’m still your boss, so that’s an order.”