and their kindness had become cruelty

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"My home looks out over the South Sea," said Enrico. "Water, then cliffs, then Castilsur on the bluff. It isn't like this. I could take you there one day, Clarita."

The nickname only her mother used sounded wrong on his lips.

"Then again, no doubt you want to stay in the forest." He paused. "Your current actions to the contrary. Do you always walk so fast?"

"Am I walking fast?" said Clara, slightly winded. "This is a comfortable pace to me."

"I can keep up easily enough," said Enrico, matching one long stride to two of her steps. "You grew up used to walking through the forest, I suppose."

"I did," said Clara, looking ahead.

"Like Lady Maitea."

"Yes, my mother grew up here too. Vallebrion is her family holding."

"So I have learned," said Enrico. "Your mother must miss the forest, being cooped up inside the palisade."

"She does, but she has me and Aunt Amarante to do her walking," said Clara, "and a garden inside the walls."

"So sad when illness robs the vitality of one when so young."

" 'Tis better than dying."

"Some might say so."

Clara stopped and looked around. She had been so focused on keeping Enrico far away from the grotto that she had strayed into a part of the forest she did not know well.

"Is this where you have been taking me all along?" said Enrico, opening his hands to take in the little clearing in which they stood.

"I've just been walking," said Clara. "No particular destination in mind."

"Is that so?" She could tell Enrico was watching her try to get her bearings. "How far is it back to the holding?"

"About a half-bell," said Clara. "That way." She pointed.

"Then perhaps we ought to start in that direction." Enrico looked upwards. "There's a lowering sky."

Clara nodded. Enrico walked slightly behind her, silent until the point when he said, "You don't like me very much, do you, Clarita?"

"What makes you think that?" Clara didn't turn around.

"What have I done to offend you?"

Jumping over a log, Clara said, "Sometimes two people don't take to each other."

"I find you quite enchanting, you know."

You find my holding enchanting, thought Clara. "I'm much obliged."

"I have hopes for us." There was a dangerous thread in his tone, but Clara scarcely noticed it.

"Master Enrico, there is no us."

"Am I to have no hopes, then?"

"Hope all you wish, sir."

She didn't realise how close he had gotten until he grabbed her elbow and spun her around, putting his other hand against her throat and pressing her back against a tree trunk.

She stared wide-eyed up at him, too shocked to struggle. She could feel his raw strength in the way his fingers caged her neck. "Clarita, girl, I have plans for Vallebrion. Plans with which your father is in full agreement. So you would be wise to be a little more gracious towards me. Or did your mother not teach you the manners you owe to a lord?"

"Lord and heir of nothing," Clara said, "or you wouldn't be here begging for my inheritance."

The clouds above released their burden of rain. A storm of similar ferocity broke across Enrico's face, and he tightened his grip sharply, shoving her backwards into the tree. With a creak, the trunk gave way. Clara stumbled backwards, away from Enrico. He lunged towards her, and she ran.

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