“How did it happen this time?”
Henry tensed at the sound of her voice, and he tore his eyes away from the lifeless body on the bed long enough to look at her. Diana stood in the doorway, his best friend, his confidante, his family in every way except by blood, but even her presence didn’t help rein in his temper.
“Drowned,” said Henry, turning back to the body. “I found her floating in the river early this morning.”
He didn’t hear Diana move toward him, but he felt her hand on his shoulder. “And we still don’t know…?”
“No.” His voice was sharper than he’d intended, and he forced himself to soften it. “No witnesses, no footprints, no traces of anything to indicate she didn’t jump in the river because she wanted to.”
“Maybe she did,” said Diana. “Maybe she panicked. Or maybe it was an accident.”
“Or maybe somebody did this to her.” He broke away, pacing the room in an attempt to get as far from the body as possible. “Eleven girls in eighty years. Don’t tell me this was an accident.”
She sighed and brushed her fingertips across the girl’s white cheek. “We were so close with this one, weren’t we?”
“Bethany,” snapped Henry. “Her name was Bethany, and she was twenty-three years old. Now because of me, she’ll never see twenty-four.”
“She never would have if she’d been the one.”
Fury rose up inside of him and threatened to bubble over, but when he looked at her and saw compassion in her eyes, his anger drained away.
“She should have passed,” he said tightly. “She should have lived. I thought—”
“We all did.”
Henry sank into a chair, and she was by his side in an instant, rubbing his back in the sort of motherly gesture he expected from her. He tangled his fingers in his dark hair, his shoulders hunched with the familiar weight of grief. How much more of this was he supposed to endure before they finally released him?
“There’s still time.” The hope in Diana’s voice stabbed at him, more painful than anything else that had happened that morning. “We still have decades—”
His words rang through the room as she stood still next to him, her breathing suddenly ragged and uneven. In the several seconds it took for her to respond, he considered taking it back, promising he would try again, but he couldn’t. Too many had already died.
“Henry, please,” she whispered. “There’s twenty years left. You can’t be done.”
“It won’t make a difference.”
She knelt in front of him and pulled his hands from his face, forcing him to look at her and see her fear. “You promised me a century, and you will give me a century, do you understand?”
“I won’t let another one die because of me.”
“And I won’t let you fade, not like this. Not if I have anything to say about it.”
He scowled. “And what will you do? Find another girl who’s willing? Bring another candidate to the manor every year until one passes? Until one makes it past Christmas?”
“If I have to.” She narrowed her eyes, determination radiating from her. “There is another option.”
He looked away. “I’ve already said no. We aren’t talking about it again.”
“And I’m not letting you go without a fight,” she said. “No one else could ever replace you no matter what the council says, and I love you too much to let you give up. You’re not leaving me any other choice.”
She was silent.
Pushing the chair aside, Henry stood, wrenching his hand away from her. “You would do that to a child? Bring her into this world just to force her into this?” He pointed at the body on the bed. “You would do that?”
“If it means saving you, then yes.”
“She could die. Do you understand that?”
Her eyes flashed, and she stood to face him. “I understand that if she doesn’t do this, I will lose you.”
Henry turned away from her, struggling to hold himself together. “That is no great sacrifice.”
Diana spun him around to face her. “Don’t,” she snapped. “Don’t you dare give up.”
He blinked, startled by the intensity in her voice. When he opened his mouth to counter, she stopped him before he could speak.
“She will have a choice, you know that as well as I do, but no matter what happens, she will not become that, I promise you.” Diana gestured toward the body. “She will be young, but she will not be foolish.”
It took Henry a moment to think of something to counter her, and when he did, he knew he clung to false hope. “The council would never allow it.”
“I’ve already asked. As it falls within the time limit, they have given me permission.”
He clenched his jaw. “You asked without consulting me first?”
“Because I knew what you would say,” she said. “I can’t lose you. We can’t lose you. We’re all we have, and without you—please, Henry. Let me try.”
Henry closed his eyes. He had no choice now, not if the council agreed. He tried to picture what the girl might look like, but each time he tried to form an image, the memory of another face got in the way.
“I couldn’t love her.”