Chapter 71: The Color of Desire
It took Carina a moment to find the energy to stand. The last thing she had expected after successfully becoming Eleanora’s lady-in-waiting was to feel tired and alone. She waited until the Clemont siblings had gone a safe distance down the path before opening the door. The footman stepped forward instantly and helped her down. Carina thanked him and tested her injured foot against the gravel path.
Even with the secure bandage and her shoe, her ankle still wobbled every few steps. Carina sucked in her bottom lip as she attempted to rein back her frustration. She could feel the tightly wound ball of nerves in her gut constricting with each near tumble.
“Patience is the key to victory.” Countess Constance’s words rippled through her as Carina straightened her spine and continued forward slowly. Her body felt heavy and fatigued. Her mind as scattered as the chessboard of plans she had so carefully arranged. ‘Focus, I just need to focus.’ But the next step eluded her as the sun beat down and the path before her stretched forward like an endless nightmare.
Carina stiffened, unable to believe her ears, then turned slowly towards the familiar voice.
“My Lady!” Ivy rushed towards her; arms outstretched. Before Carina could blink free from her daze, she was wrapped in the warm comfort of an old friend.
“Yes, silly.” Ivy pulled back. Her jade-green eyes shown with tears that spilled down her cheeks even as she smiled and laughed. “Who else would it be?”
Carina took in a ragged breath and then hugged Ivy fiercely. She buried her uncertainty and fears in the nostalgic scent of Ivy’s honey-blonde hair—the smell of home.
‘Why couldn’t it always be like this? Just me and Ivy. No more plans, no more revenge, no more constantly looking over my shoulder and waiting for the future to change.’
No sooner had she thought the words—then a cold chill tightened around her heart painfully.
“I missed you too,” Ivy murmured as she patted Carina’s back. “And someone else is here to see you.”
Carina blinked slowly and looked over Ivy’s shoulder. For a moment, all she saw was Maura’s pale ghost, who stared back at her with soulless eyes. Then the pain in her chest lifted, the sunlit garden path emerged, and Percy stood before her with a soft smile and a bouquet of coral-colored roses. “Lord Percy?”
Ivy stepped back and wiped her tears as the Earl moved closer. “I assume congratulations are in order, Lady Maura,” Percy said with a confident smile as he held out the roses. “Not that I ever doubted you.”
Carina hesitated. Her tired ice-blue eyes hovered over the vibrant red-orange colors questioningly as her mind flipped habitually to the pertinent information. Coral roses had a dual meaning. While they might innocently imply Percy’s intentions to celebrate her success, coral was also the color of desire and secret affection.
‘But—surely, it is simply the former.’
Keenly aware of Ivy’s gaze that bounced between them with excitement, Carina accepted the bouquet. The roses smelled heavenly as she brushed her nose against them and inhaled their refreshing fragrance.
“They are lovely, thank you, Lord Percy. And yes—” she met his winter-gray eyes with a satisfied smile “—I am officially lady-in-waiting to Crown Princess Eleanora.”
“Oh, Maura!” Ivy gasped. She squealed and embraced Carina again, nearly crushing the roses as Carina’s ankle gave out beneath the unexpected weight.
Percy caught them both and held onto Carina’s waist as Ivy backed away hastily.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean too—”
“It’s fine,” Carina cut in with a tense smile. She attempted to place weight on her ankle again, but it caved almost instantly.
“Oh, no!” Ivy gasped as she covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry! I—”
“No, Ivy—I hurt my ankle early on during the Selection—while dancing. This isn’t your fault,” Carina explained hastily.
“What?” they both replied with varying degrees of shock.
“It’s nothing. It is getting better.” Carina tried again to put weight onto her ankle, and again it failed to support her. “Okay, it was getting better—”
Percy scooped her up quickly with a reproachful glare. “You shouldn’t be walking alone with an injury like this,” he stated sharply. “And if the Selection is over, why aren’t you resting?”
“We were sent to collect our things,” Carina explained coldly, annoyed by his tone.
“That is a task for servants!” Percy snapped as he spun towards Lily Palace. “Miss Ivy, will you assist me in collecting Lady Maura’s belongings?”
“Of course!” Ivy answered as she hastily followed them. Carina glanced over at her, anxious to reassure Ivy—only to find her former maid smirking quite happily behind them.
‘What is she so delighted about?’ Carina clenched her jaw and suppressed a groan as she glared into her armful of roses. ‘Damn you, Captain Beaumont, this is all your fault!’
The palace maids looked up in surprise as Percy entered through the front doors with Carina in his arms.
“Where is Lady Maura’s room?” the Earl demanded. His sharp tone quickly sent the maids scrambling to bow before him.
“If you please, my Lord, I can lead the way,” one of the older maids suggested hesitantly.
Percy nodded and followed her to the staircase. Carina buried her face behind the roses as more eyes peered curiously over the railing above.
‘As if a half-blood becoming the crown princess’s lady-in-waiting and Baroness wasn’t enough to fuel gossip—now this!?’
They swept down the second-floor hallway like some grand procession as the servants scrambled to clear a path and gawked after them silently. Tiffany, who stepped out of her room with a plate of cookies, coughed out a mouthful of crumbs when she caught sight of them.
‘Well, I suppose it can’t get much worse.’
A bang came from ahead of them in the hall. Carina lowered the roses cautiously and caught sight of a pale Evelynn, who glared in their direction with a small pile of books scattered at her feet.
“Lord Percy,” Evelynn greeted through clenched teeth. Her hazel eyes flashed like a viper about to strike as they settled in on Carina. “What are you—”
“Lady Evelynn,” Percy replied coldly as he continued past her without the slightest hesitation.
‘I was wrong—it definitely just got worse.’