Chapter 71

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Connor forgoes his runs for the next two weeks, putting the bandit at more than a month without turning up. People are beginning to talk, but it doesn't matter. Because the bandit will show up when he's ready, and right now, Connor's there for me.
Thomas never hints another warning toward me, not openly, but the look of contempt in his eyes every time he looks at me tell me he knows. He just can't prove it.
I don't tell Connor, though. He's got enough on his hands.
When the knights find out, they surprisingly go easy on him.
"Connor," Keaton walks right up to him one day, "you're a brave man. You know that? You're barely nineteen, already had a child and lost it, and yet you still hold up your responsibility to your kingdom, as strong as ever. You're a good man, Connor. Make sure it stays that way."
Me and Connor ourselves? We don't deny that it happened. That I did have his child and it did die. But, sadly, it seems of little importance. A life that barely ever was, and is now nothing but a vague memory. Every day, it seems more and more like none of it ever happened, and was all just a dream, a fantasy of our own imaginations.
And life returns to normal. Quickly. I mourn severely for a week, but by the time my mother is preparing to leave, I'm recovered. Not fully, of course. But I smile and Connor will kiss me and I can face the day without a tear in my eye. The baby hardly ever existed....
And I hate myself.
Because I'm happy again.
It's the last day of my mother's stay, and Andrea and Charlotte have decided to leave with her tomorrow morning. They finally drag me out of breakfast during my solitary lunch (Connor has been training furiously for hours on end every day. Not by his choice, but I can tell he missed it. He's already worked off his padding, and now he might be slimmer than ever, because we've both starved ourselves this week in fasting of grief.) and demand that I take them to meet him.
I sigh, but reluctantly decide it's time. I didn't want them to meet him at the funeral, because I knew how they would react to him, and I didn't want either of them to have to deal with the embarrassment.
"Come on."
I drag them into the courtyard, and we approach the fencing ring. As usual, Connor dominates the rink. This time he's facing off against two opponents.
As we stride across the field, I watch the helmeted man with bare hands as he whirls and spins and drives mercilessly into his enemies. Their tempered blades barely rise in time to deflect his fierce blows, much less get one in themselves.
He roars in rage, and his sword meets than of another man. The cling vibrates through the air with bone-shattering force. Then the other man's sword snaps in half, and he falls on his bum, holding up his hands to shield his face.
Connor regains his hold on his weapon, and turns to face the other man. But the latter took advantage of the prince's momentary distraction and slunk around behind him. As Connor whirls toward him, the opposing man whips off the prince's helmet and exposes his face in the space of a heartbeat. The blade has already risen, and the man's red, drunken face flashes in victory as the silver glints through the air.
Connor barely has time for his face to register surprise, much less raise his sword in defense, before the blade hisses down his face and leaves a trail of red.
He stumbles back, his hand pressed over his eye, and I suddenly freeze. My heart stutters in my chest, and my voice lumps in my throat. I feel my stomach drop.
No... oh, God... no!
The drunken man staggers sideways, bloody sword raised in victory, a lop-sided, crooked-toothed grin dominating his face. Connor stands quietly with his hand to his eye, head bowed and sword dead on the ground.
Silence.
Then, with painful slowness, he raises his head and drops his hand. His palm comes away stained red by his own blood.
The world narrows down to the prince, and I suddenly forget Andrea and Charlotte standing, breath-taken behind me. I forget the child I failed to have, I forget the marriage that should never have worked.
The world narrows down to Connor.
Connor, and his prey.
Blood trickles down his face in a long, thin, red line, and his mouth forms in a blood-curdling snarl. His eyes, so hard and crystal, instantly light ablaze, burning the the restrained fury of his entire, wicked, messed-up life. Cheekbones like daggers and hair spiked on his head like the flames of the sun, he looks slowly from his bloody hand to the foolishly chuckling man on the other end of the arena.
And at that moment, I feel the chill down my spine as I look at the man with the blood gushing down his face, oblivious to his own pain and consumed by rage. Hungry for revenge. How that man is the same one who holds me every night and whispers comforts in my ear, and yet stands like the predator before the prey, aggressive and with the scent of blood in his nose. Intent to kill.
I can't even shout out, before he moves.
It's like watching your nightmares come alive. He suddenly wrenches out of his motionless stance and faces the grinning, red-faced man, not bothering to pick up his sword before facing the armed man. His body transforms into his weapon with that subtle, flowing ripple, that slight change in posture that tells every sense in your body to run.
He walks slowly, purposefully, across the arena, to the laughing man with the sword loosely clutched in his hand. Then, with startling abruptness, he raises a leg and hammers the man in the chest.
The latter stumbles back, still guffawing manically, and he swings his sword wildly at Connor's head. But now he's focused, and Connor ducks beneath the blow the moment the man's fingers twitch. He swings underneath, and swings his fist into the back of his opponent's head, watching him trip forward.
The enemy spins wildly, his blade flailing toward Connor's head- but with a deft flash of ungloved fingers, he brings up his hand and catches the blade dead between his fingertips. The man's smile falters.
And Connor's malicious grin of victory spreads on his lips as he twists, and with a sickening crack, the sword clatters to the ground, and the man emits a cry of pain. He clutches his arm, bent at an ungodly angle.
I shake myself out of my trance, now. Connor isn't in danger anymore. He's obviously quite fine, if he can readily break a man's arm, albeit pissed off.
I stride forward again, and Andrea and Charlotte follow uncertainly. I remember they wouldn't know that Connor is the vicious man with the blood streaming down his face. But I won't need to tell them.
I reach the edge of the rink, and now Connor is squaring off against the drunken man, who's grin grows more and more uncertain by the second. Without a moment's notice, Connor darts forward, dodges his opponent's uncoordinated swipe, and brings up his knee in a cold-blooded hit to the man's spine.
He stumbles forward with an "OOF!" and Connor doesn't hesitate to whirl around and kick in the man's shins before you could blink an eye, simultaneously dodging his opponent's next attack. The man winces in pain as there's a blood-curdling crack, and he hobbles on one leg, breath coming in short, harsh, gasps. But still, he makes the mistake of laughing.
"You trying to 'urt me, mate?" He guffaws. Then there's the impact of Connor's bare, bloodied fist across his face. His head snaps back, but the grin recovers across his face, now with a tooth missing. "That all ye got?"
Connor chuckles, but it's not the warm, inviting laugh I'm used to. It's cold, harsh, and arrogant. Murderous and sardonic and ominous. He sneers down at him with too much hatred burning in his eyes.
"You wish."
Then his fist comes down again, the thunder of skin to skull, and sweat and blood mix on Connor's face. But still the man laughs psychotically, and this only infuriates the prince further. And harder and harder he drives, until more teeth are absent from the man's face, and Connor's roars of fury drive the grin off the man's face. His skin cracks and liquid oozes down his cheek, but still Connor beats him. The man's grin slides off, and his eyelids flutter numbly every time his head snaps back on bone-shattering impact, on the brink of unconsciousness.
The prince's fist comes back again and again, every time soaked with more blood than before, until it splatters his armor and mingles with that on his face. But never once does he show any sign of remorse, or does the hatred in his eyes falter.
Connor's going to kill him.
"Connor!" I shriek, when I can't bare it any longer. I thought he would stop, soon, but he shows no sign of relenting. And I know he'll regret it afterward if he takes this man's life.
"Connor!"
He doesn't hear me. He's too far gone in his tunnel of fury, driving on and on and causing his knuckles to split and bleed and his bones to bruise, because the more pain he feels, the less he'll need to hurt himself about the child. I know, suddenly, why he was gone when I woke up this morning, why I haven't seen him till now. More importantly, where he was gone.
Jesus... they should never have let him drink.
"CONNOR! I roar, when he still ignores me. Andrea and Charlotte stare at me, mortified.
"Hollie! Get him out of there before that man kills him!" Andrea shrieks. I blink, then realize what she's saying. I almost laugh, except now some poor peasant's life is in danger.
I grimace up at the fight. "I'm afraid Connor will be the one doing the killing."
With that I hop up to the ropes and begin to clamber over. Charlotte grips my sleeve.
"Hollie! What're you doing?!" She cries. "He's going to kill you!"
I sigh. "He'd better not."
Then I hurdle all the way over, and my boots crunch in broken gravel as I stride across the arena. Connor doesn't even look up.
"Connor." I call clearly as I walk, but still he doesn't react. The other man has stopped moving, and I cry with more urgency. "Connor! Cut it out, you bastard!"
But he raises his fist again, slower, and with more power behind the motion, and I know suddenly that this blow will end the man's life.
I sprint the last few meters and catch his hand in mine just as he goes to bring it down. He freezes in surprise, then jerks out of my grasp, and, without looking up, brings his fist back again.
"CONNOR!"
I swat him in the head, and his eyes snap toward me. My heart skips a beat in the wake of his burning gaze. Then his fist is raised, and I suddenly know he's going to hit me.
He freezes, then. Abruptly. And the fury on his face, dripping and drizzling with the blood over his brow and down his cheek, begins to fade. Then he throws himself at me-
His arms wrap around me.
I blink in surprise, then brace my hands against the cold metal of his breastplate, forcing him back.
"Connor!" I finally wrench away, and narrow my eyes up at him in disbelief. "Christ... you've been drinking again."
He grimaces. "Might've hadda few shots...." His speech is slurred, but only slightly.
"Where?"
He looks reluctantly at his feet. Suddenly the fearsome warrior from moments before has dwindled down to a guilty teenage boy. "The tavern...."
"How long?"
He shrugs.
"How long were you at the tavern, Connor?" I demand shrilly, and he runs a bloody hand through his hair, looking up at me with red-ringed eyes.
"Mmm... seven, eight hours. Straight."
"Jesus...." I pinch the bridge of my nose and shake my head, and he stifles a belch. I wrinkle my nose in disgust. "Connor, I'm disappointed in you."
He frowns, but quickly recovers. "See nothing's changed there, then."
The blood-covered man on the ground moans in pain, and I look at Connor expectantly. He looks, wide-eyed, back at me.
"What?" He says at last.
I slap my forehead. "Help him up!"
"Oh," He nods in agreement, then turns and offers his hand out to the man he just tried to kill. Obviously, the latter's in no condition to even raise his arm, which Connor realizes after a moment, then bends and pulls him to his feet. He lets go, and the man crumples again.
"Oh, Connor."
I help him pick the man up again and assist him over the ropes, where he braces himself, trembling, until his friends hurry over and take him, shooting furtive, terrified glances back at Connor, to his complete confusion.
We stand in awkward silence, watching the injured man stagger off into the distance. The silence is punctured by Connor's hiccups. I glare at him, and he shrugs defensively.
"What?"
I shake my head. "You're an idiot."
He purses his lips. "For once, I agree."
"Stop trying to suck up to me."
"Done."
"Connor..." I sigh again, "why didn't you just tell me you were still grieving?"
I look up at him hopelessly, and he sways slightly where he's standing, but he's nowhere near as bad as last time.
"I thought we were supposed to get through this together, Connor?" I finally cry. I'm so disappointed... I thought he was better than this. "I thought we made a deal! No man left behind, right? We'd stick by each other and help each other heal, not this! Not you going off on your own and giving up and drowning yourself in drink and violence!"
He lifts a hand hesitantly, then decides I might bite him if he tries to hold me, so he lets his arms hand limp to his sides.
"I... Hollie, I thought you had- you were, you know... better. I mean, you never showed any sign that you were still mourning, still hurt, and I didn't want to trouble you with my own problems, not when you seemed to be doing so well.... So I wanted to take on my troubles myself." He hiccups truthfully.
I shake my head. God... how does he always take these things and make me feel like I'm the one that should be apologizing? Somehow, he apparently does every for me, to keep me safe, to protect me from his own inner demons. I don't know how he does it... but when I look up into those eyes, watery and blood-shot but blue and truthful... a blind man could see he's telling the complete and honest truth.
Then there are hurried, scuffling footsteps from behind, and we both turn as Andrea and Charlotte scamper across the arena, panting slightly in their heavy gowns as they come even with us.
"H-Hollie...." Andrea gasps once they've stopped and are doubled over with their hands on their knees, breathing hard. Not many ladies have a chance to work out like I do. "Don't... scare us... like... that...."
Connor stares uncertainly on, and I explain. "Connor, meet Andrea, Charlotte. Friends from Prenner."
"Ah...." He nods, then remembers. "The ones you didn't want to meet me."
Charlotte starts to catch her breath, and finally straightens. As she begins to take Connor in, her eyes widen, and travel up and down his body several times more than I consider necessary, until I want to jump in front of him. Hey, at least he's wearing armor.
"Hollie...." She murmurs in awe. "When you said he was homely... well, all I can say is, I'd really like to meet your definition of handsome, now."
Connor raises an eyebrow. "You told them I'm ugly?"
I roll my eyes. "Because I knew they'd never give me a break of I told the truth."
A cocky grin plays across his face. "The truth?"
"Oh, shut up." I snap. "Your ego is already big enough as it is."
Andrea is upright, now, and she takes in the view with some amount of self-consciousness, embarrassed to look at him for too long.
"Andrea, dear! Don't you agree with me?" Charlotte insists, unable to look away from Connor, who shuffles uncertainly under her starstruck gaze. "Isn't he gorgeous?"
Andrea blushes and looks at her feet.
"I didn't notice when he was beating that man to a pulp," Charlotte continues conversationally. "but now.... Christ, Hollie, you're lucky!"
I look up in disbelief at my drunk husband, who sways slightly on his feet.
Lucky?
He belches loudly in response, and quickly clamps a hand over his mouth in embarrassment. He looks over their disgusted expressions and takes his hand away to grimace at me.
"Aye... I can see why you didn't want them to meet me."
I snort. "Ya think?" I look him up and down, bloody armor and red-plastered hair and bruised fist and all, and sigh. "Come on... let's get you cleaned up.
I grab his arm and move to haul him out of the arena, and he grudgingly follows. To my dismay, Charlotte and Andrea tail us, Charlotte chattering all the while... but what're you going to do? I can't tell them to go away... they mean good, after all, and they're two of my only friends.
So they follow us all the way up into our chamber. I pause at the door, wondering if I should make them wait outside, then quickly decide this will raise numberless objections, and decide to make it easier on all of us and let them in.
The door shuts behind us.
"We need to get that cut on your face cleaned up." I say immediately, and he raises an eyebrow doubtingly.
"That would be easier if I could move." He states. He holds out his arms helplessly in a T and waits. "Armor first, love."
"You can't order me around." I sneer, but I move forward to begin unclasping the straps under his arms. Andrea and Charlotte seat themselves at the table and watch, though I try and pretend they're not there. The occasional giggling doesn't help matters.
"I can do whatever I want." He purrs.
"You can't take your armor off, though." I retort, and he wrinkles his nose. I undo his hauberk and drag the heavy metal off his body, then unhitch his chest piece. He rolls his freed shoulders contentedly, still hiccuping every now and then.
"And how many shots did you have?"
I ask as I remove his shoulder plates. He shrugs, jerking the buckle out of my grasp.
"Eh...."
"That's not an answer."
"It is, actually, in the sense that I had so many I can't remember the precise number."
The shoulder plates clatter to the ground, and I grab his arm to undo the gauntlet.
"You're very good at that, Hollie." Charlotte remarks, and Connor sniggers. I crush the toe of his shoe under my heeled boot, and he winces.
"Yes... had lots of practice." I glare at him pointedly, and his face grows red. Too many times, this past year, has he injured himself on a bandit run or a quest or hunting trip or in the arena, and I've had to drag him up here to tend to him myself because he's too much of a wuss to go to the physician and admit he's injured.
"Andrea, you must be good with armor." Charlotte smirks, and Andrea chuckles softly, but sadly.
"No, not quite.... Augustus is a merchant." She explains. The room falls into awkward silence, punctuated by Connor's gauntlet ringing against the stone.
I pull the belt off from over his heavy chain-mail, and slip it over his head, followed by the leather cover beneath. I pile it all in a corner, and go to lead him to the washbasin, but he stops me.
"Do I look out of armor to you?"
I raise an eyebrow coldly. "Don't talk to me that way."
"Sorry." He mutters quickly, and Charlotte and Andrea barely manage to stifle their giggling. Connor's face grows red. "It's just... new armor, you know, supposed to try it out. All the knights have to. Someone noticed that particular area was generally vulnerable during battle, so... now it's just a pain in the ass, quite literally...."
He looks helplessly down at the metal pieces folded over his hips and groin, multiple layers for flexibility and defense.
"And you can't undo that part yourself?"
He snorts. "Hollie, I can't bend over."
"You were fighting just fine earlier." I retort. He shrugs.
"I didn't have to touch my toes then, did I, sweet?"
I sigh, then reach down and fiddle with the buckle, planning on the best way to kick him once I take it off.
"Mind the goods, love." He purrs, and I glare up at him.
"One more comment from you-" I turn and glare at the giggling girls. "Not helping!"
They fall silent immediately, barely suppressing the sobs of laughter shaking their bodies.
I reach down, trying to ignore the decidedly sensual grin creeping across his lips. I find the leather buckle, a million straps and brass pieces, and slide my fingers underneath.
He growls in pleasure, and his hands rest on my backside. Charlotte falls out of her chair in fits of laughter.
"Very funny." I sneer, trying to twist backwards, but his arms hold me tighter to his body, and I freeze. "Connor, let me go."
He purrs. "Well, unbuckle the belt, then, dearest."
I squirm in his grip, my hands splayed against his chest and forcing my body away as he pulls me into him.
"You can reach it fine!"
He sighs, and releases me then, and reaches down to unbuckle his loin-guard himself. It's over his trousers, even, so I don't see why he tried to be so provocative about it all. He tries for a half grin, but my face remains stoney, because I didn't find it funny at all.
He shrugs helplessly. "Sorry, Hollie. Just trying to cheer you up a little... I thought you would laugh."
"Awwww!" Charlotte coos, and Connor's face reddens further.
"Come on, Connor." I sigh, and tow him behind the dressing screen to the wash basin.
Sorry bout them, I mouth to him, and he grimaces apologetically.
Sorry bout me.
I roll my eyes and stand on my toes to kiss his cheek. When I pull back, he stares at me in confusion. I point to the giggling girls on the other wide of the dressing screen and whisper, low enough so they can't hear over the sound of their own chatter.
"It's fine," I pry my hands under his shirt, moist with sweat, and lift it off his body. "I know you meant it as a joke... but they don't know that, and I... I just don't want them to have a bad opinion of you."
He nods, and I take a long look at him. I can use the blood and bruises as an excuse, but then... it is Connor. Shirtless.
Since he lost his extra weight, his abdomen shows in separate, taut ridges as usual, and his pectorals are deep and powerful. The muscles on his arms and legs are again defined sharply, veins tracing purple rivers down his forearms beneath his skin.
His facial acne isn't so bad this week. But I swear his voice has gotten deeper, hence the Adam's apple in his throat. As I scrutinize his body for injuries, I can't help but notice his other 'flaw', so I've labeled. Hair, dark gold, nearly brown like his sprouting stubble, trails over his chest and thickens on the lower half of his torso, below his naval and running into his trousers.
But I've come to love these imperfections. They define him, I think, and make him more unique. They make him more human. And I love them, because I love him.
"You going to finish checking me out and get a cloth?" He says flatly, and I blink, wondering how long I stood staring at him. I stick my tongue out to conceal my moment of weakness, and quickly trot to the wardrobe and retrieve a rag for his face.
I soak the coarse cloth in the washbasin (which somehow always seems to be full) and lift it to his face. He closes his eyes and lets me dab away the blood from his skin.
After most of the crimson liquid has been wiped away, I can see the still-oozing line of blood clearly enough. The skin has been split from the inner end of his left eyebrow, leaping over his eye and slicing across the jagged cheekbones to the sharp corner of his jaw.
"Christ... you're going to have a scar there." I murmur. One more imperfection that makes him even more unique. He grimaces, and it turns into a wince as I dab above his eye.
"Will you still love me?"
I stop, startled.
"What?"
"I said," he repeats, "will you still love me?"
I frown at him as his blue eyes peek from between long, dark lashes.
"Of course I'll still love you!" I cry. "So you think I'm that shallow, then? That I'd stop loving you just because your face is disfigured?"
His face isn't disfigured, but even as I say it, I know it's true. So what if he has a scar, now? That doesn't change who he is. And even though this one is thin, what if it had been worse? Ruined his entire, gorgeous, face?
I suddenly realize I wouldn't care. As much and as often as I love and comment on his sculpted body and handsome features, if that sword had torn his skin and mottled him beyond recognition... my feelings for him wouldn't change.
And I realize at the same time how far I've come, and how much I've matured in these two years. My relationship has come from interest, dislike, lust and yearning, decisions and mistakes... to this. This, when his outward appearance no longer affects the way I feel about him, but only so I could tease him.
What is this, then? This when I would not care whether he was the angel of God that he is or a demon of Hell, not a peasant nor a prince, a dwarf or a giant.... This, when I love him unconditionally.
This... this is love.
"Connor," I bring my lips close to his ear, standing on my toes and dabbing gently at his wound. "I would love you forever, no matter what you looked like or what title you wore. I would love you to the ends of the earth... and back again. I'll always love you... even when I might hate you."
He looks confused for a moment, and I brush his hair back from his face, his skin warm beneath my body. The corner of his mouth twitches as I grasp his hand in mine and soak his bleeding fist in the wash basin. Red clouds on the clear water.
"You know," He says at last, his voice soft to keep the conversation private. "Hollie, I feel the same way about you, strangely enough... but that was so beautiful, I feel bad to ruin it with my blundering speech, so I suppose you'll have to settle for a 'ditto'."
I snort, and he smiles at that.
Then he cringes as I scrub the blood from his split knuckles and forearm. I shake my head sternly.
"You shouldn't have lost control, Connor." I sigh knowingly. "You nearly killed that poor man-"
"Do you see what he did to my face?" He cries, jamming his free finger toward the slowly-seeping line down the side of his face. "It's hardly a fair trade! His scars will go away!"
I roll my eyes. "Yes, he scratches your face, and you break his arm and leg and knock out half his teeth, shatter his nose, and probably fracture his skull. Yes, that seems pretty fair."
He frowns, running his free hand distractedly over his jaw. I glance up at him. "You ought to shave tonight."
"NO!" He cries, the moment I finish fastening a bandage around his knuckles, and he wrenches from my grasp and runs dramatically back into the room.
"Connor!" I call after him. "Forgetting something?"
Wait for it.
"Jesus!" He yelps, and runs back behind the dressing screen. "Hollie, why didn't you tell me I wasn't wearing a shirt!?!"
"I don't mind!" Charlotte calls between giggles, and his face turns an impressive shade of red. I shake my head.
"You see why I was hesitant to introduce you to them?"
He hiccups loudly, nodding. I slap my forehead.
"I'm gonna... uh... leave, for a while...." He says awkwardly, once he's located a clean shirt. He sidles out the door, and it latches behind him. I turn to face Andrea and Charlotte with an exasperated roll of the eyes.
"Oh, that man."
Charlotte beams at me. "Hollie, you mislead me! When you talked about him, you made him sound like some massive, lumbering boar of a man! But Connor..." She flutters her eyelids. "Dear, he's positively strapping!"
I shrug. "He's a rude, spoiled, ass."
"And you love him." Andrea notes, and I bow my head to hide the smile. "Admit it!"
"Alright... I'm... fond of him."
"More than that, I hope, given the way he acted around you!"
"What do you mean?"
"Hollie," Charlotte rolls her eyes like I take her for an imbecile. "I saw how comfortably you removed his armor. You knew every inch of that man's body. There was no concealment in either of you- it was like you were so close, you barely needed to ask normal questions, because you already knew the answers, like you were the same person! And the way he watched you...." She shudders. "The intensity of his eyes... it sends shivers up my spine."
I raise an eyebrow.
"Good shivers."
Oh, yeah, that clears things up.
"Hollie... he loves you." Andrea shakes her head. "I know he was drunk, and all... and I'll admit, when I realized the man in the arena was your husband, I freaked out, for your sake, because I could only imagine... but just the way he acted around you. So comfortable, so content... he would have carried you on his shoulders without another thought, kissed you for no reason or sat you on his lap."
It takes me a moment to process this. Because I don't think about how much of a big deal it really is every time he does carry me on his shoulders (it's only happened once. Long story) or kisses me simply because he wants to, the times he's picked me up onto his lap to sit closer to me. But it is a big deal, especially for someone like Andrea, who lives with no love in her marriage. There're no arms around her every morning when she opens her eyes, no adoring eyes looking into yours like you're the most perfect person in the world.
"Andrea... how has Augustus been treating you?" I inquire slowly. Her lips twitch in a smile, though, to my surprise.
"Better, actually." She says softly. "He's a good man... overall... and I'm lucky. I mean, at least he's honest and faithful. I have yet to return home and find a whore in his bed. Since you said those things to him... he's taken more responsibility for the child, you know."
"But has he been better to you?"
She looks at her clasped hands. "Well, I thought so... but after seeing the way you and Connor are around each other, I no longer know what true marriage should look like."
"Me and Connor were lucky. Unbelievably so. In a one-and-a-million shot, we somehow landed with each other, and it somehow worked out. Don't get me wrong, we've had our rough times... but at the end of the day, we still love each other. Honestly, we flunked. Arranged marriages aren't supposed to work like this! We shouldn't love each other, but we do anyway! But if Augustus is treating you well... you're luckier than most women."
She closes her eyes and bites her lip. "I- the day after you spoke to him-well, yelled at him- I woke up with flowers in a vase on the table."
She smiles weakly, and Charlotte pats her on the back. "How sweet!"
She shrugs helplessly. "I think he just wanted me to know... he didn't hate me."
"But has he done anything else?" I insist.
"Well... he took me on a picnic... just the two of us, only last week...."
"Romantic! Did you kiss?" Charlotte squeals. Andrea shakes her head, laughing slightly.
"No, no... Charlotte, our relationship isn't like Hollie and Connor's. There's no love. We... respect, each other, I suppose, but that's it. We talk and deal with it all, and try not to hate each other. But, no... we've never kissed. Not even on the night when he said he wanted a child... it was quick, simple, and practical. Nothing more."
I feel a shudder in my loins as I recall the night of my unnamed child's conception. To say Connor kissed me would be an understatement. And to think... we had done it for pleasure, with no intent of procreation. How different our lives are.
"Well," I stretch my arms and yawn enormously. "I'm glad that, in the least, he's treating you like a person, Andrea. And now... I actually should go see Martin and get something for Connor's wounds, because he's not going to do it. So... good afternoon. And goodbye."
They get to their feet, and we embrace briefly. "Until next time."
Andrea stops at the door, however, and smiles back at me.
"Hollie... be good to Connor. He loves you, you know."
"I know."

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