Together we leaned back into the pillows, his warm weight settling over me as we both set out to prove we meant everything we’d said to one another. And in that moment, I forgot about the rebellion. I forgot he was kissing Lila Hart and not the real me. I forgot about Knox and Scotia and the Mercers and every terrible thing that had happened over the past few days. I lost myself in him—I lost myself in us, and for the first time since this whole mess had begun, I remembered what it was like to be me again. I remembered what it was like to be loved.
I wish I could say that night was perfect—that it was straight out of one of the romances Benjy had read to me, full of fireworks and grace and everything a first time should be.
But it was awkward. And we fumbled. And neither of us knew quite what we were doing. And afterward, once it was over and we lay tangled together underneath the sheets, we both watched each other as if we couldn’t quite believe what we’d just done.
“All right?” I whispered, running my fingers through his hair. He nodded, his brow furrowing.
“I’m good. I’m really good,” he promised, tracing an invisible pattern on my arm. “Are you okay?”
I nodded in return, and for several seconds, we were silent. At last I couldn’t take it, and I blurted, “That was weird.”
An odd, strangled chuckle escaped him, as if he’d been trying to hold it in and failed. “Really weird.”
“Is it always supposed to feel like that?”
“Really? You’re asking me?”
I looked at him, and he looked at me. And together we burst out laughing.
This was what I’d missed—happiness that wasn’t weighed down by grief. Enjoying all the moments together we could steal. Looking into his eyes and knowing that no matter what happened, I would always have him, and he would always have me. This was what I was fighting for. This was what we were both fighting for.
I laughed until tears stung my eyes, and even then, Benjy’s unintentional snort only egged me on until my stomach ached and I could barely breathe. That night may not have been perfect, but it was ours, and I wouldn’t have traded it for all the romance novels in the world.
* * *
Somehow, miraculously, by the time cheers echoed from every side of Elsewhere as the Blackcoats declared victory, Mercer Manor was still standing. Even the guard outside our door let out a whoop of triumph, but it was another six hours before the door to the Augusta Suite finally opened.
Benjy and I were curled up on the bed as he read a book to me, both of us fully dressed now, but we sat up when a soldier appeared in the doorway. It was the same one from the foyer—the leader of the squad that had taken Hannah away. “Miss Hart,” he said gruffly. “Mr. Creed wants to see you.”
“It’s about time,” I said, and I glanced uneasily at Benjy. He kissed my temple.
“I’ll be right here when you get back,” he said, and I squeezed his hand.
“You’d better be.”
The soldier led me through the hallway and down the familiar grand staircase. I expected him to open the front door, and I was just about to mention the fact I wasn’t wearing shoes when instead, he opened the doors to Mercer’s office.
Knox sat behind the desk, his reading glasses perched on his nose as he sorted through several files. In the background, a television monitor displayed a twenty-four hour news channel, and I briefly saw a picture of what looked like a bird’s-eye view of Elsewhere.
“This close the whole time, and you couldn’t bother to say hi?” I said, crossing my arms. The soldier shut the door behind me, leaving us alone.
“I was a little busy winning the battle,” said Knox. He finally looked at me, and even with the ten feet between us, I could see that the lines in his face had deepened, and the skin underneath his eyes had turned purple.
“Is Hannah alive?” I said, and he nodded.
“She’s being held in an underground facility right now with the other prisoners of war.”
“She’s not a prisoner,” I said. “She’s my mother.”
“I know.” He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m doing my best here, Kitty. The prisoners want someone to blame, and there’s a chance she’s going to take the fall.”
My stomach tightened. “If that happens—”
“It won’t.” He straightened, and his dark eyes met mine. “Tonight, during shift change, Hannah is going to disappear.”
I opened my mouth to object, but before I could utter a single syllable, he continued.
“She’ll be alive, and she will be moved to a safe location only I know,” he said. “Everyone else will be told she was executed. Do you understand?”
I clenched my jaw and nodded. If nothing else, at least Hannah would be safe. “Why didn’t you tell me she was my mother?”
“I only found out when I read your files. She was no one to you until you arrived in Elsewhere, and once you were here, it was safer that you didn’t know. I only showed her who you really were when I thought Mercer was going to kill you.”
“He was,” I said, my skin going clammy at the memory. Teeth or toes. “And you left me.”
“I had no choice. If I stayed, Mercer would have caught on, and then we would have both been dead.”
For a long moment, I was silent. He was right, of course, but no amount of rationalizing it would ever make me forgive him. “I needed you,” I said shakily, “and you were off playing soldier instead. Mercer had us in the cage—Benjy and me. We nearly died—”