Maxon backed out of the room, smiling as he went.
“Do you want some food, fiancé?” I asked.
Carter grinned. “Oh, thank you, fiancée, but I’m actually kind of tired.”
“All right, fiancé. Why don’t you sleep for a bit?”
“I’d sleep better if my fiancée was with me.”
And then, forgetting I’d been hungry at all, I wiggled my way onto the tiny bed, half hanging off the edge and half squashed beneath Carter. It was shocking how easily I found sleep.
I FLEXED MY HANDS OVER and over. They had finally healed, but sometimes when I had a long day, my palms swelled and throbbed. Even my little ring was pulled too tight tonight. I could see where it was fraying on one side and made a mental note to ask Carter for a new one tomorrow. I’d lost count of how many twine bands we’d gone through, but it meant a lot to me to have that symbol on my hand.
Picking up the scraper again, I scooped the loose flour off the table and into the trash. A few other members of the kitchen staff were scrubbing floors or putting away ingredients. Everything for breakfast was prepped, and soon we could sleep.
I inhaled sharply as a set of hands wrapped around my waist. “Hello, wife,” Carter said, kissing my cheek. “Are you still working?” He smelled like his job: cut grass and sunshine. I had been sure he would be stuck in the stables—somewhere he would be hidden away from the eyes of the king—just as I’d been buried in the kitchen. Instead, he was walking around with dozens of other groundskeepers, hiding in plain sight. He came in at night with the outdoors hanging on him, and for a moment, it was like I’d been outside, too.
I sighed. “I’m almost done. After I tidy up here I’ll come to bed.”
He nuzzled his nose into my neck. “Don’t overdo it. I could rub your hands if you want.”
“That’d be perfect,” I crooned. I still loved my end-of-the-day hand massages—maybe more so now that they were given to me by Carter—but if my day ended well after bedtime, it was a luxury I typically went without.
Sometimes my thoughts got stuck on memories of my days as a lady. How nice it had been to be adored; how proud my family was; how beautiful I felt. It was difficult to go from being constantly served to being the one constantly serving; still, I knew things could be much, much worse.
I tried to keep the smile on my face, but he saw through it.
“What’s wrong, Marlee? You’ve seemed down lately,” he whispered, still holding me.
“I really miss my parents, especially now that Christmas is so close. I keep wondering how they’re doing. If I feel this sad without them, how are they managing without me?” I pressed my lips together, as if I could mash the worry out of them. “And I know it’s probably silly to care about this, but we won’t be able to exchange gifts. What could I give you? A loaf of bread?”
“I’d love a loaf of bread!”
I giggled at his enthusiasm. “But I wouldn’t even be able to use my own flour to make you one. It’d be stealing.”
He kissed my cheek. “True. Besides, the last time I stole something, it was pretty big, and I got more than I deserved, and I’m already happy with what I have.”
“You didn’t steal me. I’m not a teapot.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Maybe you stole me. Because I distinctly remember belonging to myself once, but now I’m all yours.”
I smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. Don’t worry. I know it’s a difficult season, but this isn’t forever. And we have a lot to be grateful for this year.”
“We do. I’m sorry I’m so down today. I just feel—”
“Mallory!” I turned at the sound of my new name. “Where’s Mallory?” a guard asked, coming into the kitchen. He was with a girl I’d never seen before.
I swallowed before answering. “Here.”
His voice was urgent, but the fact that he said please made me less frightened than I would have been otherwise. Each day I fretted more and more that someone would tell the king Carter and I were living secretly in his home. I knew that if that ever happened, the caning would seem like a prize instead of a punishment.
I kissed Carter’s cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
As I passed the girl she gripped my hand. “Thank you. I’ll just wait here for you.”
My forehead scrunched in confusion. “Okay.”
“We’re all counting on absolute secrecy,” the guard said as he led me down the hall.
“Of course,” I answered, though I still didn’t understand.
We turned down the officers’ wing, and I became even more confused. Someone of my rank shouldn’t be allowed in this part of the palace. The doors were all closed except for one, where another officer was standing just outside. His face was calm, but his eyes were worried.
“Just do your best,” someone said from inside the room. I knew that voice.
I pulled myself around the threshold and took in the scene. America was lying on a bed, blood streaming out of her arm while her head maid, Anne, inspected the wound and the prince and these two guards watched on.
Anne, not breaking her gaze, barked orders back to the guards. “Someone get some boiling water. We should have antiseptic in the kit, but I want water, too.”
“I’ll get it,” I offered.
America’s face perked up, and she met my gaze. “Marlee.” She started crying, and I could see she was losing her battle with the pain.
“I’ll be right back, America. Hold tight!” I dashed to the kitchen, grabbing towels out of the cupboard. There was water already boiling in a pot, thank goodness, so I poured some in a pitcher. “Cimmy, you’re gonna want to top off this pot,” I called in a rush, moving too quickly for her to protest.
Then I made my way to the spirits. The best liquor was kept close to the king, but sometimes we used brandy in recipes. I’d mastered a brandy pork chop, a chicken with brandy sauce, and a brandy–whipped cream for desserts. I grabbed a bottle, hoping it would help.
I knew a thing or two about pain.
I came back to Anne lacing thread through a needle and America trying to control her breathing. I put the water and towels behind Anne and walked over to the bed with the bottle.
“For the pain,” I explained, lifting America’s head to help her drink. She attempted to swallow but coughed up more than she actually drank. “Try again.”
I sat beside her, steering clear of her injured arm, and tipped the bottle again to her lips. She did a little bit better that time. After she swallowed, she gazed up at me. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
My heart broke to see her look so scared, even though she was safe now. I didn’t know what she’d been through, but I was going to do my best to make it better. “I’ll always be here for you, America. You know that.” I smiled at her and brushed a lock of hair away from her forehead. “What in the world were you doing?”
I could see the debate in her eyes about answering. “It seemed like a good idea” was all she said.
I tilted my head. “America, you are full of nothing but bad ideas,” I said, trying not to laugh. “Great intentions but awful ideas.”
She pursed her lips as if to say she knew exactly what I was talking about.
“How soundproof are these walls?” Anne asked the guards. This must be their room.
“Pretty good,” one answered. “Don’t hear too much this deep
in the palace.”
Anne nodded. “Good. Okay, I need everyone in the hall. Miss Marlee,” she continued. It had been so long since anyone besides Carter had used my real name that I wanted to cry. I didn’t realize how much my name meant to me. “I’m going to need some space, but you can stay.”
“I’ll keep out of your way, Anne,” I promised.
The boys backed into the hallway, and Anne took over. As she spoke to America and prepared to stitch her up, I couldn’t help but be impressed with how calm she was. I’d always liked America’s maids, especially Lucy, because she was so, so sweet. But this made me see Anne in a whole new light. It seemed unfortunate that someone who was so capable in a crisis couldn’t do more than be a lady’s maid.
Finally Anne began to clean out the wound, which I still couldn’t identify. America screamed into the towel in her mouth, and though I hated to do it, I knew I had to pin her down to keep her still. I climbed on top of her, focusing most of my effort on keeping her one arm straight.
“Thank you,” Anne mumbled, pulling out a tiny black speck with some tweezers. Was that dirt? Pavement? Thank goodness Anne was thorough. The air alone could leave America with a nasty infection, but it was clear that Anne wasn’t going to let that happen.
America screamed again, and I shushed her. “It’ll be over soon, America,” I said, thinking of the things Maxon had told me before I was caned and the words Carter had spoken as it was happening. “Think of something happy. Think about your family.”
I could see she was trying, but it clearly wasn’t working. She was in too much pain. So I gave her more brandy and continued to give her sips until Anne was finished.
When it was all over, I wondered if America would even remember any of this. After Anne wrapped the wound in a bandage, she and I stood back and watched America sing a children’s Christmas song while drawing imaginary pictures on the wall with her finger.
Anne and I grinned at her sloppy movements. “Does anyone know where the puppies even are?” America asked. “Why are they so far away?”
We covered our mouths, laughing so hard we were crying. The danger had passed, America was taken care of, and in her head there was a puppy emergency.