Chapter 34

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Willow's room is surprisingly empty and I let out a sigh of relief. I wasn't looking forward to explaining myself and state of disarray to one of the maids. I look around frantically, knowing that every minute we spend here is a minute Willow is by herself with Darius.

Hale lets out a low whistle as he looks around the room. "You weren't kidding about the queen stuff, were you?''

"Nope,'' I mutter, emptying a drawer on a side table. "I hear she gets a crown too.'' The journals fit perfectly in the drawer and I quickly shove the book and parchment that had previously occupied it under the nearest sofa. Hale watches me with an amused look.

I hurry into Willow's room and groan when I catch sight of myself in the mirror. My dress might be fixable, my hair- not so much. I can feel panic rising in my chest, constricting my lungs. Darius will take one look at me and guess I've been crawling around in some dusty old hole. And I'm sure it won't take him long to figure out which one.

Firm hands push me down onto the seat in front of the vanity. "Use a small brush to get the dust and dirt off of your dress. Sweep, don't scrub, and be gentle. I'll fix your hair.''

I gape at Hale as he grabs a brush and efficiently starts working out the tangles in my dark hair. "You forgot I had a sister,'' he murmurs, eyes narrowed in concentration.

I had forgotten. But clearly he's done this before, working on my hair with sure, confident movements. I grab a small brush, pulling the hem of my dress up to my knees. 

For a minute, all that can be heard are the quiet brushing sounds as we work. I feel awkward, like we're sitting in a bubble of tension that's about the burst. I avoid looking at him, though I can feel his eyes on me in the mirror.

"Are we going to talk about what happened early?'' he finally asks. My heart skips a beat. I knew  it was coming but that doesn't make it any easier.

"I'm not sure what really needs to be said,'' I start carefully. 

Internally, I'm begging him to drop it. None of this is his fault, he'd been under some sort of compulsion. But I- I had flirted and trembled beneath his touch and wanted more. I hadn't even realized that my best friend wasn't himself because I'd been so caught up in the fantasy of him wanting me. And now he knows it. 

He knows that some part of me wants him, had probably seen the yes forming on my lips when he asked me to leave with him. How can I possibly make this better?

Tears prick at the corners of my eyes and I grind my teeth, pushing them back.

"Perhaps you feel that nothing needs to be said but I disagree.'' Hale pauses, his fingers still in my hair. "I'd like to at least start by apologizing to you.''

"Hale, no-'' I protest but he talks right over me.

"I can see that you can't look at me and I'm not sure how to make this right. Something was done to me, to make me act that way...'' There's a long pause. "But I still feel guilty because part of me was still there, still aware. Part of me that liked what was happening, liked the way you looked at me.'' He swallows audibly. "I want to apologize profusely. I- I'm ashamed of what happened and I fear I've ruined our friendship.''

"No!'' I exclaim too loudly. "Gods Hale, don't apologize. I just-'' I bury my face in my hands. This is such a mess. "I can't look at you because I'm mortified about how I acted, not because of you. I've been worrying that I'm the one who's ruined our friendship. I know that wasn't you, but I have no excuse for how I reacted. I should be the one apologizing. I can only imagine what you think of me.''

My confession is met with silence and I peeked through my fingers to look in the mirror. Hale's back is to me, his shoulders shaking. 

I spin around quickly, nearly falling out of my chair. "Oh gods, did I upset you?''

He turns to me and I see that he's struggling not to laugh, though his eyes are a mix of amusement and exasperation. "I'm sorry, I'm not laughing at you, this situation it just so absurd.'' 

He crouches down and puts his hands on the arms of my chair, effectively caging me in. "Listen, we both feel embarrassed and awkward and it's okay. I was possibly possessed and forced to woo you on the dance floor, and you finally gave into my good looks and charm.''

I give him a weak smile, appreciating the teasing tone in his voice. 

"Seriously though Talia, it happened. Let's move past it and try to go back to normal so we can help your sister. We can never speak of it again if you'd like.''

The only problem is, I'm not sure I want things to go back to normal. His body pressed against mine, the racing of my heart and the hot knot in my stomach, it's an addictive feeling. Now that I know what it's like to be in his arms, I don't want anything else. How can I possibly go back to viewing him as a friend?

But I nod slowly, struggling to not let the confusion and  disappointment show on my face. 

I must be successful because Hale flashes me his small, crooked smile then goes back to my hair. I sit here, trying to not let my feelings swamp me, drag me down into the dark pit of self pity. 

I tell myself that, even as a friend, I'm lucky to have Hale in my life. And I should count my blessings that he even wants that after what happened.

But my heart aches, a physical pain in my chest. 

"Honestly though Talia, you do look beautiful,'' Hale says softly, breaking me free of my thoughts. His fingers burn against the nape of my neck. "I wouldn't be able to make it through tonight without telling you at least once." He lets out a low sound. "If we had been switched, I would have come with you without a moment of hesitation.''

My heart is racing, my pulse so loud in my ears that it echoes through my head. What exactly is he saying? I'm a whirlpool of swirling feelings, a little place in my heart swelling with joy and hope.

I meet Hale's eyes in the mirror and in them, I can see a reflection of my own conflicted feelings.

Hale looks away abruptly, yanking his hands away from skin. "Your hair is fixed, we'd better get back to the ball. Sebastian might be looking for you.'' 

He strides into the other room and I can see his hands are clenched into fists.

I stay seated and give myself a minute to absorb what's happened. Hale's back and forth attitude is frustrating but I think I understand now.

His eyes had flickered when he said Sebastian's name.

I truly think that just now, when I looked in Hale's eyes, I saw desire, wanting, frustration. For the girl his best friend, his brother, is interested in. It's too easy to imagine Hale pushing his feelings down for him. 

I recall the conversation we'd had after Sebastian asked me to the ball, where Hale had been strangely serious, saying that all he wanted was for his friend to be happy, that no one could treat me better than Sebastian. His words suddenly make sense. 

Looking at the love between Hale and Sebastian, the things they do for each other, I make myself a promise to be true to my heart and be honest with them. After this ball, after we help Willow, I'm going to stop denying my feelings. I owe them both that much and can't stand the thought of twisting this situation up more.

Sebastian will understand, I know it. And Hale- I have to believe in the things that his eyes were telling me. 

But first, always first, I have to save Willow.

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