“Contain yourself, Princess.”
Using restraint, I left the room as calmly as I could. I wanted to rush out, feeling much like a kid on the last day of school. I wasn’t sure that I knew my way back, and I had no idea where Finn was, but as soon as I thought it was safe, I picked up my pace, nearly jogging away.
I’d made it a little ways down the hall, past several closed doors, when somebody stopped me.
“Princess!” a voice called from one of the few open doors.
I stopped, tentatively peering inside the room. It appeared to be more of a den, with a lush red rug in the center surrounded by leather chairs. One wall was made of glass, but the shades had been pulled shut over most of it, leaving the room in shadows.
A heavy mahogany bar sat in the corner, and a man leaned in front of it, holding a glass in his hand. I squinted, trying to get a better look at him. His hair looked disheveled, and he was dressed nice but casual.
“Don’t you recognize me, Princess?” He had a smile in his voice, so I thought he might be teasing.
“It’s just hard to see,” I said, stepping into the room.
“Garrett Strom. Willa’s father,” he told me, and I could see his grin widening.
“Oh, right. It’s good to see you.” I smiled back, feeling more at ease. I’d only met him at dinner the other night, but I liked him. “Can I help you with something?”
“Nope. I’m just waiting for your mother, but I’m assuming it’ll be a long day, so I got a jump start.” Garrett motioned to the drink in his hand.
“Do you want something to drink?” Garrett offered. “I’m sure you need one, with Elora putting you through your paces.”
I chewed my lip, thinking. I’d never drank before, other than a glass of wine with dinner, but after the last few days I definitely could use something to take the edge off. However, Elora would kill me if she found out, and Finn would be more than disappointed in me.
“No, I’m good.” I shook my head. “Thanks, though.”
“Don’t thank me. It’s your liquor,” he pointed out. “You do look worn out. Why don’t you take a load off?”
“All right.” I shrugged and sat down in one of the chairs. The leather may have looked distressed, but the chair had the hard buoyancy of being brand-new. I moved around, trying to get comfortable, before eventually giving up.
“What is she having you do?” Garrett asked, sitting down across from me.
“I don’t know. She’s making a seating chart.” I leaned my head against the back of the chair. “I don’t even know why she wanted me there, except to point out what I was doing wrong.”
“She just wants you to feel included in all of this,” Garrett said between sips of his drink.
“Well, I’d rather not be included,” I muttered. “Between her and Aurora giving me icy glares and judging everything I say and do, I’m perfectly happy to be left out.”
“Don’t let her get to you,” Garrett advised.
“Both,” he said with a laugh.
“Sorry. I don’t mean to dump on you.”
“Don’t be sorry.” He shook his head. “I know how hard this can be, and I’m sure Elora isn’t making it any easier on you.”
“She expects me to know everything and be perfect already, and I haven’t been here that long.”
“You’re strong-willed. You get that from her, you know.” Garrett smiled. “And as strange as it sounds, everything she’s doing—it’s to protect you.”
It was the first time anyone had drawn any kind of comparison between Elora and me, and it warmed me in a weird way. I realized that he was one of very few people I’d met who called her “Elora” instead of “Queen,” and I wondered exactly how well he knew her.
“Thanks,” I said, unsure what else to say.
“I heard Willa visited you last night.” His eyes settled on me. My vision had adjusted to the darkness of the room, and I could see the softness in his gaze.
“Yeah, she did. She’s been very helpful.”
“Good. I’m glad to hear it.” Garrett looked relieved at that, and I wondered what he’d been expecting me to say. “I know she can be a little”—he wagged his head, searching for the right word—“Willa at times, but she means well.”
“Yeah, Finn filled me in.”
“I’ve been working on her to lighten up on the mänks. But it’s a work in progress.”
“Why is she so hard on Rhiannon?” I hadn’t seen Willa talk to her much, but what little she said had been filled with jabs and snide remarks, even worse than Aurora’s.
“Rhiannon got to live with me nineteen years before Willa did,” Garrett explained. “Willa’s always been secretly afraid that I preferred Rhiannon over her, but the fact is, while I love Rhiannon, I only have one daughter.”
I had never thought about him loving Rhiannon, or anyone loving the mänsklig left behind. I looked in the direction of the War Room, as if I could see Elora through the wall. I couldn’t imagine her loving anyone.
But the only babies among the Trylle elite were mänsklig, and at some point parental instincts had to take over. Certainly not with everyone, but it made sense that some, like Garrett, would feel as if the child they raised was their own.
“Do you think Elora loves Rhys?” I asked.
“I think Elora is an incredibly hard woman to get close to,” Garrett allowed carefully, then he smiled at me. “I know she loves you, though.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” I said dryly, unwilling to even consider what he’d said, let alone believe it. I’d been burned by enough crazy moms already.
“She speaks very fondly of you. When you’re not around, of course.” He gave a small chuckle. Something about the way he said that, I felt a sense of intimacy in it.
An image flashed before me. Elora sitting at her vanity, wearing a robe, and putting on jewelry. Garrett was behind her, still lying in her bed with the sheets covering him. She made some offhand comment about me being prettier than she expected, and before he could agree, she told him he needed to hurry and get dressed.
I shook my head, clearing it of the thought.
“Are you dating Elora?” I asked directly, even though I already knew the answer.
“I definitely wouldn’t call it dating,” he scoffed and took a long drink. “Let me put it this way: I’m about as close to her as anyone can get. Well, at least anyone can get now.”