For a moment, the prince appeared to be struggling. Then he pulled the sword away from her neck and slid it back in its sheath. “All right. I will trust you.”
“Do you promise, Your Highness?”
“Yes, I promise,” the prince said.
“Thank you.” The peasant girl bowed her head in relief and joy.
“Now tell me what this sacrifice is.”
She looked up once again into the beloved face of her prince, knowing that she was about to gamble with her life. “Well, you see, when I made my journey here, I took two things with me: Your silver ring, and the missing fragment of your heart. However, my journey had not been easy, and I am afraid the fragment of your heart was lost along the way.”
“What?!” the prince roared, and once again the sword flew out of its sheath and pointed straight at her heart.
“Your Highness, you swore that you would trust me,” the peasant girl pleaded.
After a long moment, the prince lowered the sword again. “Fine. Continue.”
“I—I am not sure where the fragment was lost, but I know that we can find it if I retrace the steps I took in my journey to come here. I will need you to come with me in retracing my journey.”
“Why should I come with you?”
“Because you are the only one who can recognize the fragment of his own heart.”
“What then of the sacrifice?”
“To come with me, you must cease being a prince. You must leave behind your crown, your title, your riches and power and fame. You must come with me just as the man you are—just as you did when we first met. It is the only way you can draw the missing fragment of your heart back within you.” The peasant girl raised her chained hands in appeal. “Will you do that, Your Highness? Will you come with me?”
– – – – – – – –
“A few months after we left, I found out why my mom was so dead-set on us moving to New York to join my dad,” Christian said, his hand gripping mine as though drawing strength. “I didn’t tell you this, but the two of them had been arguing a lot before Dad left, and my mom wanted to join him there and—I don’t know, make up with him or something. Make us be a family again. But when we got there, Dad didn’t seem all that happy to have us around.”
His voice cracked, and he set his jaw, hardening himself for what he was about to say next. “No surprise he wasn’t happy. My asshole father was having an affair. While Mom was risking her life giving birth to Alex, he was busy screwing some other woman,” he bit out, his eyes flashing with gut-deep fury. “She was vice-president of the business our own company was partnered with, so the whole thing couldn’t be easily swept aside. Well, Mom took it hard,” he said with a humorless chuckle. “I mean, she was a mess—crying all the time and breaking glasses, stuff like that. She told me she was going to find a way to get that woman out of Dad’s life, and that I should forget about ever coming home again—”
He shut his eyes for a moment, his hand tightening around mine even more. “I didn’t know how to tell you. I knew how much you were looking forward to us being together again. I mean, I promised you and everything, but now… Anyway, I ended up doing something way more idiotic. I just…didn’t tell you. I have friends there—you remember the gang I mentioned? Well, when I told them about you, they told me that long-distance relationships never work out, and that you’d forget about me soon enough.”
“Did Ashley tell you that, too?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.
He winced and nodded. “Yeah, she did. So anyway, I stopped writing you altogether. I was hoping you’d get discouraged by my lack of response and just let it go. But the truth was, I didn’t want you to stop writing to me. I didn’t want to let you go.” He hung his head, and his hand nearly loosened its grip around mine until I tightened my own hold around him. “And before you ask, yes, I know how selfish I’d been. Selfish, and just a plain, fucking coward. I let you keep writing to me, sending me pictures and telling me how you were making your life better and better, and I ate it all up without once giving you anything back. I gave nothing back, and I thought—I had the nerve to think I was doing you a favor.”
Pulling his hand away, he turned aside and began to pace, much like Ate Grace did when she was in temper, but this time, Christian’s anger was turned toward himself. “It got worse when you wrote that you’d made it into St. Helene. I was so incredibly proud of what you’d done at first, but then I started imagining you here, surrounded by guys who could treat you the way you deserve to be treated, which is, frankly, the exact opposite of the way I was treating you. That and the trouble at home, coupled by pressures at school—well, let’s just say I turned into a mess myself.”
This brought back a memory of something Nathan had told me back in our prep year, when I was still avoiding him. “Does this have something to do with the rumor that you’d gotten into trouble at school?”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t at school. One of our crew had gotten dragged into some dumbass turf war through some dumbass misunderstanding. The result was that I got into a fight and ended up getting arrested.” His lips twisted at the shock on my face. “It’s okay, I was declared low-risk and released back to my parents. But I’ll never forget the look on my mom’s face when she heard me being called a juvenile delinquent. It’s hell, Joy, knowing that instead of helping her, I’d caused my mom more pain through my own actions. It takes a special kind of talent to hurt every single person you love,” he added with a bitter laugh.
Every single person you love. My breath caught at that, but he was too immersed in his own recollections to notice his slip. Besides, the story wasn’t finished yet. “You wrote me a letter last year,” I said carefully. “You told me about the stuffed turtle your neighbors used to have. Then you had Nikki give me a photograph.”
He stopped pacing and turned to face me, and this time, the light fell fully upon him, illuminating the remorse in his face. “That’s because she’d emailed me to tell me that you told Nathan that you were my girlfriend. It made me feel even guiltier that I’d kept you hanging all this time,” he admitted. “So I decided to get my act together and end it—to finally set you free.”
“You did set me free. It wasn’t easy at first, but you were right about my life being great here,” I told him, and was caught off guard by the flash of raw pain in his eyes. “So tell me,” I added casually, “are you and Ashley still together?”
“No,” he rasped. “We never were.”
“Excuse me? That’s not what Nikki told me.”
He swallowed. “Ashley’s one of my friends’ sister, and she’s about two years older than us. For a while, yeah, I was kind of into her, and she seemed interested in me, too.”
“Oh.” I looked away, twisting my hands together as though I could squeeze my own pain into oblivion.
“It didn’t work out between us, though,” he went on as he walked toward me. “She kept pressuring me to do something I didn’t want to do.”
I actually recoiled. “Um, Christian, you know, I really don’t need to know how—”
“She wanted me to stop wearing my necklace.”
“What? What necklace?”
As I stared up at him in confusion, he gave me a tender smile. “This necklace,” he replied, curling his finger underneath the collar of his shirt and drawing out a long, thin rope made of a dark gray metal that looked like stainless steel. Dangling from this chain was a familiar ring made of intertwined silver knots.
My mouth opened but no sound emerged as I watched the silver ring—his wedding promise ring—catch the light as it turned gently in the air.
“I never forgot you, Joy,” he said quietly, his eyes grave and painfully honest. “You’re right, I was the one who broke our promise, but I never forgot. For five years, you were one of only two good and pure things in my life, and I know I crapped all over that, but I never forgot what you mean to me.”
“No way,” I breathed, awash in a kind of slow, bulging panic. This can’t be happening. Not again. If this turns out to be just a dream, or a joke, or lie… “B-but you love Ashley. I mean, she—she was kissing and hugging you in that photo and everything.”
Sighing, he reached into the outer pocket of his backpack and produced a small sheaf of photographs, which he handed to me. “These were taken on the same day as that photo Nikki gave you. We’d gone swimming at a public pool that day. Take a look.”
I did, flipping through the photographs of Christian and his friends playing around beside a pool. In every photo, Ashley was either looking at Christian or angling her body toward him, but in no other photo were they as physically close as in the one that Nikki gave me. More importantly, in every photo where he was dressed only in his swimming trunks, the dark gray chain swung from his neck, with the wedding promise ring hanging to the middle of his chest, right above his heart.
“If you’re wondering about it now, I asked Ashley to pretend to be my girlfriend in that photo Nikki gave you,” Christian added.
“Then what about the photo in your wallet?” I demanded, unwilling to admit defeat just yet.
“What photo? The one of Alex and Mom?”
“No, you’ve got a photo of Ashley behind that one. I saw it.”
Christian smiled again. Without a word, he fished his wallet from his pocket and handed it to me. Hesitantly, I flipped his wallet open until I found the photo of his mom and little brother. I reached into the clear, plastic pocket for the photograph I’d spotted before, and drew out a smaller version of the photo I sent him three years ago: me standing at a podium dressed in a white toga, with my gold medal and a floral lei draped around my neck, in the middle of delivering my valedictory speech during my graduation from elementary school.
“I resized and cropped it. The original’s in a frame at home,” Christian told me.
Numbly, I handed him back his wallet. “So now what? What does this all mean?”
“Well, I was kind of hoping—” Christian, who’d been reaching for me, stopped abruptly, his smile fading when I took a step back, trying to keep enough distance between us. “Joy?” he said uncertainly, blanching when he saw the look on my face.
“What do you want from me?” I asked plaintively, my arms crossed over my chest.
He stared at me in a kind of awful, rising dismay. “You’re afraid of me.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Yeah, you are.” He advanced again, which made me take another step back. I could practically feel him pulling away from me. “I’m sorry,” he said heavily. “I screwed up royally from beginning to end. Did you know, I kind of had this fantasy about how it would be like when we met each other again?” Grimacing, he lowered his backpack and started tossing it from hand to hand. “You’d be overjoyed to see me, and I’d catch you in my arms and twirl you around, and violins would play and roses would fall from the sky. But then I saw you walking with Nathan. I saw how close you two were, and I just—” His backpack swung back onto his shoulder as he spun around to face me again. “I’m sorry, but the thought of you with Nathan or any other guy just—it drives me insane. It makes me do insane things. And what’s worse is it’s all my fault. I know I’ve got a temper and I’m trying to do something about it, but you have to believe me, I would never do anything to hurt you.”
“You already have,” I countered, making him turn pale. “The truth is, I don’t know if I can trust you again, Christian.”
Pure agony rippled across his face. “I know,” he croaked, shutting his eyes. “I know that, but…will you let me try?”
“What do you mean?”
“To win back your trust. To become friends with you again. Will you?” He opened his eyes and gave me a look that was a mix of pleading and hope and, behind that, iron-hard determination. Once again, I could feel my defenses dissolve into a puddle at my feet.
I tilted my head as I considered it, then I smiled up at him. “I think I’d like that. Friends sounds like a good idea.”
His entire body relaxed, and he smiled back—a beautiful, dimpled smile that seemed to settle around me like a warm coat. “Shake on it?” he said, offering his hand.
I accepted his handshake. “It’s a deal.”
He approached me again, and this time, I didn’t move away from him. “Full disclosure, though,” he added huskily as he pushed my hair back behind my ear. “I spent the last five years telling myself I had to let you go. Now that you’re here, I’m never letting you go, ever, so you might as well get used to it.”
“Well, that’s a weird thing for a friend to say,” I pointed out, fighting back a grin.
“A friend, sure. But I’m aiming for more.” Before I realized what he was up to, he leaned down and brushed his lips against my cheek. “I’ll make you fall in love with me again, Joy,” he whispered, just before he pulled back and smiled into my eyes.
He stepped back and glanced around the empty hall, as if he hadn’t left me on the verge of spontaneously combusting. “The rain’s stopped, but we haven’t seen anyone else. It’s gotten pretty late, too,” he observed. Then he turned back to me. “You want to bet your mystery author isn’t going to be posting anything tomorrow?”
I just gaped at him in speechless, dazed astonishment, one hand creeping up to cover the tingling spot on my cheek where he’d kissed me. His grin flashed, and he offered his arm to me. “May I have the honor of walking you home, my lady?”
We stepped out into a cool, sparkling wonderland, and I barely felt the concrete underneath my feet as I walked with my hand on his arm. Later that night, I opened my wardrobe door and unstuck the photograph that Nikki had given me from my mirror. Sure enough, peeking at the edge of Christian’s collar was something I hadn’t noticed before: a dark gray chain hanging around his neck, disappearing underneath his T-shirt. I hugged the photograph to my chest and danced around my room, singing sappy love songs to myself and marveling at how something that had caused me such misery before could make me so happy now. Then later still, I opened my tin box and took out the crimson pouch that contained my own wedding promise ring. And for the first time in almost a year, I cradled the silver circle in my hand until it warmed against my skin.
And wondered when I’d get the chance to tell Christian that once again, he’d already succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.