Chapter 72: The Shackles of Pride
“Lord Percy!” Evelynn greeted, her gaze accusing as it shifted from Percy to Maura in his arms. “What are you—”
“Lady Evelynn,” he cut her off coldly, not caring for her tone and continued forward—but he didn’t miss the way Maura tensed in his arms. He frowned as he focused on the maid who stopped in front of a door on the right.
“Here we are, my Lord.”
Percy nodded curtly, then stared at the maid pointedly, expecting her to open the door.
“It’s locked,” Maura explained bluntly as she shifted the roses in her arms. “Could you set me down please so I can get my key.”
The harshness of her tone caught him off guard. ‘Why was she upset?’ Still, he complied with her wishes and stepped back as Ivy moved forward to support her mistress.
Maura pulled a key from her small handbag, unlocked the door, and pushed it open. “Thank you for your assistance, Lord Percy.”
Once more, the coldness of her tone grated against him as Ivy guided Maura into the room. Ivy shot him a confused look but quickly refocused on Maura, who was having difficulty staying upright.
‘Is it possible that Maura has misunderstood something?’
Frustration cut through Percy as he took a step forward—then stopped at the threshold of the room. There were too many eyes, and he could hear all too well the pair of footsteps headed sharply in his direction.
“Lord Percy!” Lady Evelynn stopped, so close beside him that Percy could hear the annoying sound of her breath as it hissed between her teeth.
Percy half-turned in her direction as the fingers of his left hand curled around the door frame.
Maura murmured something to Ivy, who returned to the doorway, and with an apologetic look at Percy, shut the door between them quietly.
Percy’s fingers curled into a fist as he withdrew his hand. He stepped back as Evelynn promptly moved between him and Maura’s door. The disapproval in her light-hazel eyes only made his knuckles pop with irritation.
“What?” he snapped.
“What?!” Evelynn echoed sarcastically. Her eyes widened in disbelief. “What are you doing carrying around that half-blood when you’re about to be officially engaged to me!”
‘Veles Breath. So you’re the reason Maura’s behaving this way.’
Percy ran a hand down his cheek and jaw as he took another step back and inhaled slowly. Annoyance, anger, and temperance battled within him. Evelynn wisely remained at a distance though she raised her chin slightly higher as if daring him to make a scene.
‘Because she knows that even I can’t afford to make a scene inside the palace.’
Percy unclenched his jaw and offered his signature smile, which was enough to make Evelynn shiver and drop her gaze.
“It seems there is a matter we need to discuss, Lady Evelynn,” he observed coldly. “Perhaps you’d care to join me in my carriage? I had planned on paying my cousin, Crown Princess Eleanora, a visit while I was in the palace after all.”
“I—I have other things to do right now,” Evelynn said timidly. “I still have to pack.”
“Oh, but surely the palace servants can handle that,” Percy replied as he stepped towards her. Evelynn bumped into the door just as his fingers circled her right wrist. “And the sooner we clarify the matter between us, the better.”
He turned, pulled her along behind him down the hall, and glared at the servants who gawked at them as they passed. The palace staff hastily resumed their duties or took cover inside the candidate’s rooms. Even the blonde-haired strumpet quickly turned and fled with her plate of cookies, leaving a trail of crumbs behind her.
“Lord Percy!” Evelynn hissed as they descended the steps. “You are going too—Oh!” She tripped and stumbled against his back. He steadied her and dragged her on as soon as Evelynn regained her feet. “Lord Percy!” she begged.
The ballroom flashed past them, with even more servants, and then they were outside. Evelynn whimpered but held her tongue as the Hawthorne carriage driver and footman bowed politely and opened the carriage door.
Percy assisted the pouting woman inside, gave the driver his orders, then climbed in and shut the door.
“You didn’t have to be so forceful!” Evelynn hissed, tears brimming against her lashes as she rubbed her wrist. “You could have asked me nicely. Is this how you intend to treat your fiancé—”
“You are not my fiancé.”
Evelynn flinched as the carriage pulled forward. She blinked rapidly and wiped a tear from her cheek as she hastily composed herself. “No—but I will be—”
“Let me make myself perfectly clear,” Percy continued mercilessly as he leaned back and crossed his arms and legs in an effort to restrain himself. “You will never be my fiancé.”
Evelynn gasped softly. Her hand fluttered to her throat as she swayed weakly to the side as if to faint. But Percy had seen this performance many times before and made no move to assist her.
Evelynn caught herself against the cushion, took a deep breath, and straightened with a reproachful glare in his direction. “Lord Percy, do you honestly think you can just end this because of a half-blood?”
“There is nothing to end because there was never anything between us,” Percy replied with a shrug.
“But our parents have agreed! The Dowager has even given us her blessing!”
“All premature and useless without my consent,” Percy reminded her with a malicious smile.
Evelynn shook her head incredulously. “But I am a perfect match for you! The right title and bloodline, but not too much power to draw unwanted political attention. That is exactly what you need to maintain the Hawthorne’s power and position.”
“Maintain?” Percy echoed with a mocking smile. “The right bloodline?” He snorted as he plucked a handkerchief from his jacket and wiped the hand that had held her wrist. “I have no intention of polluting the Hawthorne bloodline with that of a smuggler.”
“My grandfather was not—”
“Your father should have dropped this matter the first time I turned him down, but instead, he went behind my back to the Countess. A waste of flattery and effort as I have no intention of obeying Mother in this matter. You, Lady Evelynn, will never be Countess of Hawthorne.”
“You really think you have enough power to defy the Dowager?” Evelynn shot back with a sneer. “Even if you are the Earl of Hawthorne, she won’t forgive you so easily.”
“Unlike the Crown Prince. I know when to cave to a woman’s demands and when to stand firm.”
Evelynn’s smile faded as the carriage pulled through the Rose Palace gates. Uncertainty replaced confidence as her face grew pale. Her unfocused gaze swept towards the door as the carriage stopped.
“I trust there will be no more misunderstandings like this in the future,” Percy said bluntly as he opened the door. “I would hate for malicious rumors to ruin your chances of a happy marriage with someone else, Lady Evelynn.” He stepped down and didn’t bother to assist her from the carriage.
“Don’t patronize me!” Evelynn shouted after him as the footman hastened to assist her.
Percy laughed as he continued down the path, purposefully lengthening his strides, which forced Evelynn to run after him.
“Don’t do this to me, Percy,” she pleaded as she clung to his arm. “Don’t do this to my family.”
“Those who dare to climb beyond their position must be willing to risk the fall if they fail.” Percy pushed her hands away as they entered the foyer.
“Cousin!” Eleanora said with a hint of surprise as she descended the stairs, dressed more like a soldier than a crown princess.
‘Honestly, was she trying to fit in at all as Nicholas’s wife?’
Percy shook himself and cleared his throat. “Your High—”
His greeting was cut short as Evelynn flung her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his startled mouth.
“These dresses!” Ivy said with a sigh as she removed the spring blue gown from the wardrobe and ran her fingers timidly down the sheer cloudy lace that adorned the bodice. “They’re too beautiful to wear.”
Carina laughed as she took the dress and held it beneath Ivy’s chin. “You should pick one,” she suggested quickly. “I’ll have it altered for you. We’re almost the same size now,” she added with a wink.
“My little mistress has grown,” Ivy confirmed with a proud smile. “And now she has become a court lady.” She looked down at the gown and sighed. “But such dresses are not meant for slaves like me, my Lady.”
“You won’t be a slave for much longer,” Carina promised as she added the dress to her chest.
“Even then, I will just be a commoner who was once a slave.”
Carina sighed as she grabbed the last dress from her closet. “Don’t let the titles others give you limit your happiness.” She turned and handed the dress to Ivy. “Afterall, I will always be a half-blood, but I still made my way into the palace.”
Ivy smiled ruefully and shook her head. “I do not have your cleverness, my Lady.”
“Cleverness does not always bring happiness.”
Ivy’s smile faded as she folded the dress. She placed it in the chest and shut the lid. “Are you not happy here?”
Carina laughed at the worried look on Ivy’s face. She took the older girl’s hand and hopped over to the bed, where they sat together upon the soft blankets. “I am happier here than I was at Turnbell Manor.”
Ivy smiled with relief, but a shadow still lingered in the dark circles under her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Carina asked quickly. “In all the excitement, I didn’t notice at first—but you look overly tired.”
“It’s—it’s Gus, Miss,” Ivy murmured.
Carina tightened her grip on Ivy’s hand. “What happened?”
“After you left. Lady Sophya and Lord Josiah—they whipped him.”
“But Lord Percy saved him!” Ivy added swiftly. “He all but threw your family out on the streets! He took away the servants, slaves, and the estate—though the Countess made him give the Manor back. He even took Josiah’s business.”
“Wait—What?” Carina gasped, trying to follow Ivy’s rapid conversation.
“And Gus is getting better. His fever broke this morning, so the doctor, Mr. Hayes—the same one who looked after us—he says Gus will be fine now. He’ll be on his feet in a few weeks or sooner as long as he gets rests and proper care.”
“Oh, Ivy!” Carina whispered as a tear ran down her babbling friend’s cheek.
“He’s strong, Miss,” Ivy continued as she hastily wiped the tear away. “I’ve been praying—I don’t know what else to do—I’ve been so afraid—”
“Shh!” Carina pulled her into a hug. “You have been so brave!”
“I wasn’t—I didn’t know what to do without you—I really thought he might die!” Ivy sobbed.
Carina closed her eyes and tried to hold back the fists of pain and guilt that hammered at her chest. “I’m sorry,” she choked out. “I thought he would be safe. I thought the Countess would get him out before anything happened.”
“We don’t blame you, Miss!” Ivy’s muffled voice protested quickly. “We would never blame you.”
‘You won’t, but I will—because I will always know I could have prevented this—even if it came at a cost.’