I stared at him. “Excuse me?”
“As our honored guest, of course,” he added. “You will be treated with the utmost care and respect, and you will have everything you could ever ask for.”
“Wait.” I stood too quickly, and the blood rushed to my head. I fought off the dizziness, refusing to stumble in front of them. “You mean for the rest of my life, I have to spend six months with you? That was our deal?”
“Yes,” said Henry. He raised a hand to silence Walter, and he, too, stood. “I am aware it will not be easy, and you will face certain—challenges. But I assure you that I will do everything I can to ensure you are safe and happy. For the other six months a year, you may do whatever you wish. You may have an entirely separate life, if you would like—you will have complete freedom. And while you are with me, you will be treated like a queen. I will do everything in my power to make you happy.”
He was dead serious, I realized. Latching onto one word in particular, I remembered the myth and my blood ran cold.
“Queen,” I said, spitting the word out bitterly. “You mean you want me to be your wife?”
Henry frowned. “I am not proposing marriage to you, Kate. With your mother’s death, you will soon have nothing holding you here, and I am offering you a chance at a life you cannot possibly imagine.”
I bristled. How did he know about my mother? “What do you get in return? I’m not going to sleep with you if that’s where you’re going with this. I’m not that kind of person.”
He and Walter exchanged amused glances. “I assure you that all I want is the pleasure of your company. The platonic sort.”
Somehow I didn’t think that was all he was getting, but there was no point in even pretending it was an option. I wasn’t about to spend six months of the rest of my life with a stranger no matter what he offered me.
“No,” I said. “Thank you for your offer, but you’re crazy, and no. Now if you don’t mind, I have to sleep.”
They didn’t argue. Walter stood to join Henry and me, and I led them both to the front door, holding it open so they had no excuse to linger. As Henry exited, he stopped, his body less than a foot away from mine. He really was beautiful, and with him so close, it was hard to remember exactly why spending six months with him would be such a bad thing.
“Do you understand what will happen if you do not uphold your end of our deal?”
Ah, right. Because no matter how gorgeous he was, he was still crazy. “I don’t know, and I don’t care,” I said firmly. “Now please leave.”
“I will give you until midnight,” he said, joining Walter on the front path. “But I am afraid I cannot wait any longer. Don’t be so quick to dismiss my offer, Kate. This is the only time I will make it.”
Instead of answering, I slammed the door shut, trying to ignore how violently my hands were shaking.
James came by the next morning, and he was nice enough to bring me a bagel. I picked at it as we drove to the hospital, my appetite nonexistent. Luckily he didn’t make me talk.
As I sat by my mother’s bedside, holding her hand, a traitorous thought crept into my mind. If Henry had saved Ava—if it really hadn’t been my imagination or some horrible prank—could he save my mother, too?
I pushed the idea away. I couldn’t afford to think like that, not when I had to prepare myself for the end that was coming. Besides, what Henry had done was impossible. A fluke, or a trick of the light, or some horrible joke that Ava still hadn’t confessed to—whatever it was, my mother was on death’s door, and no magic trick was going to save her. She’d held on years longer than she should have, and I knew I should’ve been grateful for the time I’d had with her, but watching her slip away as the hours passed made it impossible.
It wasn’t until that evening as we walked slowly through the hospital parking lot that I finally told James what had happened that morning. He was silent as I finished the story, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his black jacket.
“You mean they just showed up like that, no warning or anything?”
I nodded, too empty to think much about it anymore. “They weren’t rude about it, I guess, but it was just—weird.”
He opened the car door for me, and I lowered myself into the passenger seat. It wasn’t until he sat down in the driver’s seat that he spoke. “You can’t go, Kate.”
“I wasn’t planning on it. She’d never leave me if I were like this.”
“Good,” he said.
We drove through the parking lot, and in front of us, the sun was setting. I blocked my eyes as I tried to find the courage to voice what I’d wanted to say all day. “What if he can save my mother?”
He scowled. “What else would he demand from you in order to do it?”
“Whatever it was, it’d be worth it,” I said quietly. “If it meant she’d be alive.”
James reached across the seat to set his hand over mine. “I know it would be, but sometimes all we can do is say goodbye.”
My face grew hot and my vision blurry, and I turned away from him to stare blankly out the window. “What do you think will happen when I don’t show up? Do you think he’ll hurt Ava? That was our deal—I did what he wanted, and he’d save her.”
“He won’t hurt her,” said James, though out of the corner of my eye I saw his grip on the steering wheel tighten. “Not if he’s any kind of human being.”