Chapter 14

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Sam entered the front vestibule, amazed at how little it had changed since she had run away. It hadn’t been that long, really—just shy of a month—yet she’d expected Castle Haywood to show the signs of her absence. But the room looked as though time had frozen: everything remained the same down to the wax-coated chandelier that was still missing two candles and the splotch of burgundy on the blue area rug where a guest had spilled his wine.

“This place is almost as over the top as the Center,” Braeden said under his breath, his nose wrinkling.

Sam turned to Braeden in surprise. Castle Haywood, over the top? All she could see were the off-kilter curtain rods and the dull hardwood floors in desperate need of a good polish. It must have been different viewing Haywood through an outsider’s eyes.

“Have you been inside Castle Haywood before, Sam?” Tristan asked. He tugged at the formal hunter green doublet he must have packed just for this occasion and smoothed out an imaginary wrinkle.

“Aye, once or twice,” she said, pretending fascination with a nearby painting. She blinked as the painting came into focus. It was a watercolor of a lilac, one she’d painted herself five years ago. The duke must have moved it from her bedroom after she left. She swallowed down a lump that had formed at the back of her throat. Now was not the time to get sentimental.

Sam felt a warm hand on her shoulder. “Are you alright?” Braeden asked quietly.

 “I’m fine,” she said with more surety than she felt, turning around to face him. She tried to smile, but the scabs on her lips stretched painfully and her attempt turned into more of a grimace.

“You still look like you, you know,” Braeden said, his expression unreadable beneath the low brim of his new hat.

“He won’t recognize me, I’m sure of it,” she said. Her eyes darted back to the lilac watercolor.

“I’ve heard he’s clever, the Duke of Haywood,” said Braeden.

“He is clever. Just not…observant.”

“Hmph.”

“Come on, Tristan’s going to think we’re conspiring against him if we keep to the corner like this.” Sam moved to join Tristan in the center of the room.

Braeden grabbed her wrist, halting her in her tracks. “I can help you, if you’ll let me. If something happens.”

Sam laughed mirthlessly. “If the duke recognizes me, it’s over. Trust me on that.”

“I can help,” Braeden insisted, his grip on her wrist tightening. “I can make him forget you’re even in the room.”

Sam raised her hand to touch Braeden’s cheek, but stopped halfway when she felt Tristan’s eyes on them. “You’re a good friend, Braeden,” she said, letting her hand drop to her side.

Two circles of red bloomed beneath his high cheekbones. “We’re friends?”

“Aren’t we?”

Braeden’s lips curved into a rare smile. “Friends,” he agreed.

Sam felt something shift between them, but a new voice, once she hadn’t heard in months, interrupted her thoughts before she had the chance to think too deeply on it.

“Paladin Lyons, Masters Braeden and Sam,” the voice called with an affected accent – Gillain, her father’s steward. Now there was one person she hadn’t missed, and no doubt the feeling was mutual. Gillain was a pompous, arrogant man who lorded his stewardship over the other servants with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Some of the servants were Sam’s friends, and she’d borne witness to more than one of Gillain’s infamous set downs. She was also convinced that his dignified accent was fake.

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