Collin joked throughout the dance, and Aryen laughed and laughed. He loved it when he could make her laugh. It always made him feel like he was doing at least something right.
“Aryen, I’m next!” Randall Levven, one of their former classmates, appeared next to them as soon as the dance had ended. He wasn’t alone—three more young men surrounded Collin and Aryen before they had managed to take a step from the dance floor. On the verge of her eighteenth birthday, Collin’s childhood friend was a popular girl, her age being only part of the problem.
Barely breathing, Aryen shook her head. “I’m sorry, I need a break.”
“You heard the lady.” Collin wrapped his arm around her shoulders and led her away with a threatening look at her suitors.
Any Altokian girl approaching marriageable age became fair game. Any Redwynn girl even more so. Because belonging to one of the oldest, largest, most influential Banners in the country added to the girl’s attractiveness, of course.
Even if Aryen, her head full of music, had been ignoring the fact that she was expected to marry soon, Collin was ready for it. He and his twin brother had been hard at work keeping everyone away from her for a couple of years because there was only one person Aryen could love—their older brother Ryan, who all but sold his soul and left their home to make something of himself for the girl who, in society’s eyes, could never be his.
But she would be.
Collin knew it. The Redwynns and the Tautens lived in two different neighborhoods, technically speaking. Their properties stood back to back to each other, but Collin and his brothers were still seen as nobodies because they had no Banner behind them. Aryen’s and Collin’s mothers, however, were good friends, and never much cared about whether the Tautens belonged to a Banner or not. Years of friendship, of seeing each other’s houses from across the adjoining gardens, and endless bouts of their children’s mischief brought them close enough together that social standing meant nothing.
As far as Collin was concerned, the only thing that mattered was Aryen, the twins, and Ryan—four best friends glued together by numerous rapier cuts from fencing spars, years at the same academy, summers spent picking cherries and winters spent around the table with cherry pies, and so much happiness.
Aryen Redwynn might not realize it yet, or dare say so out loud, but Collin knew she loved Ryan. Why else would she talk about Collin’s older brother every single day for the past two years?
Collin and Aryen made their way through the crowd gathered in the Iveston Arts Center for their graduation ball. At one of the small round tables, Mark, Collin’s twin, sipped from a glass of bubbly lemon water and guarded their seats, reluctant to cause double trouble on the dance floor. Despite their status, Collin and Mark managed to flutter quite a few hearts when they wanted to. Not many girls could resist their softly curling blond hair, light brown eyes, and endless supply of witticisms.
Collin took a seat next to his brother.
“How’s the dancing?” Mark asked.
Aryen dropped into a chair across from them and fanned her face with her hand. “Hot! But fun. Suddenly everyone wants to dance with me.”
Collin scoffed. “There’s nothing sudden about it. You’re done with the academy. You’re bride material now.”
Mark handed Aryen a glass of bubbly water, and she drank deeply.
“Shush!” Aryen set her glass on the table with a determined thud. “Don’t ruin it. I’m just happy classes are over.” She leaned against the back of her chair and let out a relieved sigh.
“What a familiar feeling,” a voice said behind Collin. He flipped around and found Ryan, who had approached their table.
“Ryan!” Collin and Mark jumped to greet him. They had no idea he would be traveling from Walsch to celebrate their graduation with them.
Aryen rose from her chair too and shoved them aside. “It’s really you, just so pale.”
Ryan laughed, and Collin relished the pleased look on his face just as much as he appreciated Aryen’s excitement.
“You do look like a ghost,” Mark added.
“That’s what I get for spending two years in and out of the mines, I suppose.” Ryan shrugged and said to Aryen, who kept eyeing him, “You’ll stare a hole through me.”
“You’ll be fine,” Aryen grumbled with a smile.
Collin watched him too, gauging every word. Had his brother retained his affection for their common friend? His warm, expecting look seemed to be proof that he had.
High and quick violin strains filled the ballroom, signaling the beginning of a new dance.
Fingers intertwined in a tight knot, eyes darting from one Tauten brother to another, another young man approached Aryen. “Miss Redwynn, are you free for this dance?”
Collin was properly appeased to see Ryan loop his arm with Aryen’s. “Already taken.”
“I’m so sorry,” she told the nervous suitor then followed Ryan to the dance floor. Judging by her wide grin, she wasn’t sorry. Not even a little bit.
“This is not going to end well,” Mark muttered after the disappointed young man departed.
“Whatever do you mean?” Collin asked.
Mark sighed. “While you were dancing, I overheard quite a few remarks about Aryen… eloping with one of us.” His cheeks reddened, and he took a hurried sip of bubbly water.
Collin chuckled. “Nice. They’re right, you know.”
Mark choked on his drink and sputtered. “What?”
Collin propped his elbow on the. “Just look at her.” He nodded toward Ryan and Aryen moving in a fluid dance. “She can’t take her eyes off him.”
“Of course she’s staring at him,” Mark whispered, glancing around, probably worried someone could overhear them. “He’s been gone for two years.”
“Ryan’s not any better though.” Collin leaned closer to whisper back, “He’s almost caressing her with his eyes. Yes, he’s been gone for two years, but he’s been gone because of her. And now he’s back, so, just you wait. The sparks are going to fly.”
Mark threw a crumpled cloth napkin in Collin’s face. “You talk too much.”
Collin shrugged. His twin could protest all he liked, but they both knew Collin was right.
The three brothers sat on their back porch after a lengthy, sweaty fencing match between Ryan and Collin. Ryan won, of course. Even after two years of limited practice, he still saw through all of Collin’s tricks. His older brother wasn’t Iveston’s youth fencing champion for years for nothing.
“It’s good to have you back,” Collin said.
Mark nodded his agreement.
“It’s good to be back,” Ryan replied.
Collin pulled off his fencing vest and dabbed it against his forehead. July beat down with heat, but he relished the high temperatures diluted by gentle breezes seeping through Iveston from a large lake near the city.
It had been several weeks since Ryan had returned home for the summer, but they still had not talked about the most important thing—Ryan’s plans toward Aryen.
“Maybe Aryen will finally ease up a little, now that you’re home,” Collin started with caution. “Ryan this, Ryan that. Ryan, Ryan, Ryan.”
“You’d think she’s in love with you or something,” Mark said light-heartedly, and Collin could just kiss him. He wasn’t sure how to breach the subject in any other manner than being direct, but his twin went ahead and solved the problem for him.
With deep longing in his eyes, Ryan stared at the Redwynns’ house across the gardens. “Can’t say I oppose the idea, Aryen being in love with me.”
Collin had waited a long time to hear those words, to know and not just guess that he was right about his brother’s feelings. But once they came out, his chest grew tight and heavy, and he grasped Ryan’s shoulder.
His brother faced him with a neutral expression, but Collin could still feel Ryan’s muscles tense under his grip. He swallowed.
“Aryen has no brothers, so I’ll say what has to be said. If you make her cry, I’ll make you pay.” Collin meant every word. She had been their neighbor, their sister even, for fourteen years. They had gone through everything together. Every birthday, every broken limb, every family squabble—everything. And Collin would not allow anyone to hurt Aryen, not even the brother he admired so much.
Ryan nodded. “I believe you.”
“That being said,” Mark joined, “we’ll reciprocate in a similar manner if she breaks your heart.”
Ryan laughed. “Good grief! Enough of this. When I came back, I thought something was cooking between one of you and Aryen.” He shot Collin a curious look. “Now, what’s going on? Are we going to have a falling out over her after all, like our mother has always predicted when she thought we couldn’t hear her?”
Mark snorted. “Not in a million of years. Collin and I would have to be idiots to not see who holds Aryen’s heart.”
“You and I are idiots anyway.” Collin stuck his tongue out. “Guarding our brother’s girl the way we did for two years. One of us should’ve run away with her while you were gone—”
Ryan smacked him on the shoulder and jerked his head toward the garden. “Speaking of.”
Collin turned and found a familiar slight figure coming toward them through the cherry trees. “When are you going to tell her about your feelings?”
“After your funeral. Because I’ll kill you if you don’t keep your mouth shut. I’ll tell her when the time is right. Without you two around.”
“We’ll always be around.” Mark wiggled his eyebrows. “Always.”
“Then we’ll have two funerals at once.” Ryan’s voice gained a more serious edge.
“Quiet,” Collin said when Aryen was thirty or so paces away from them, eyes downcast as she walked.
“Morning, Aryen!” Mark greeted.
She startled and stopped, clutching her hands together and glancing back at her house as though she could not decide whether to proceed or turn back. She lingered in the shade of a cherry tree for a few long moments before continuing toward them, her steps hesitant.
“Good morning,” Aryen whispered when she stopped in front of the porch.
Ryan sat up straighter, and Mark asked, “Are you feeling well?”
Collin tensed. Aryen’s eyes were puffy and red, and her overall fidgety posture was hardly a sign of good news. Two days ago they had celebrated her eighteenth birthday. Her parents gifted her a new expensive Marrel violin and finally granted their permission for Aryen to study at Conseratto, Altok’s most prestigious music school. Her dream came true, and she did not have to get married that year, but she obviously had been crying. Collin did not like it at all.
Aryen drew in a shaky breath. “I promised that I would always be with you three. I truly meant it, but I won’t be able to keep that promise. Father is going to participate in the Senate elections, and I’m going to Conseratto, so we’re all moving to Lankorn and—” Aryen pushed out the passage in one breath and had to stop for air. When she did, she hid her face behind her hands.
“Don’t worry,” Mark said in a soothing voice as he rose and came to hug her. “You’ll still see us. I’m also going to study in Lankorn, remember? Medical school or not, I’ll make sure to find time for you.”
She threw her arms around him and, sinking into his embrace, started crying.
Ryan and Collin stood up as well.
“Oh, Aryen.” Collin offered his warmest smile and another layer of hugs. “It’s not the end of the world. Mark’s right, you’ll still see us a lot. I’ll come visit often.” Even as he said that, doubts wormed their way into his mind. Something was wrong. Her sobs carried too much desperation.
Ryan peeled Mark and Collin away. “Aryen, what’s going on?”
She blinked, sending a new stream of tears down her pale cheeks, and stuttered, “N-nothing. We’re moving to the capital and—”
Ryan cupped her face with his hands. “Stop. If you were only moving, there would be no reason for you to cry so hard. What is it?”
Collin needed a reassurance that everything was fine, that she was only sad because of a temporary separation. But Mark tugged on his sleeve, and even though Collin wanted to stay, a part of him agreed. Those two needed to talk alone. The moment felt right.
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
After ten painful minutes, Ryan stormed back into the house.
“Well?” Collin asked as he and Mark followed him to the sitting parlor.
Ryan picked up the headset of the only telephone apparatus they had and spun the dial with fury that could be warranted by nothing less than an insult upon the entire Tauten bloodline. “Afternoon. Connect me to Morrin Mining Enterprise, please.”
“What are you doing?” Mark asked, sounding as confused as Collin felt.
He glanced at them over his shoulder, and Collin shivered under his seething glare.
“What happened?” Collin asked, straining to remember the last time he had seen his older brother so angry.
Ryan waved him off and turned back to the telephone. “Close the door behind you.”
Dead, skin-prickling silence settled over them as Collin searched for words. Oh, there were plenty, and he never, ever had any trouble sharing his mind with others, but right then he couldn’t help feeling that he should refrain from questions or comments. Even if they burned him from inside out.
Mark quietly tugged on Collin’s arm, and they left the parlor.
“What do you think is going on?” Collin asked after they retreated to their room.
Mark sat on his bed with a heavy sigh. “Whatever it is, it’s not good.”
Collin barely survived until the evening meal, hoping that after a few hours Ryan would simmer down enough to share what had transpired between him and Aryen.
Ryan did not join them for the meal. When Collin went to Ryan’s room to check on him, his older brother was packing.
“What are you doing?” Collin exclaimed, staring in shock at Ryan’s black leather trunk, which was almost full.
“I’m going back to Walsch,” Ryan said coolly.
Collin struggled to process the news. “Walsch—what? Why? You said you’d stay until the end of summer.”
“I accepted that job Mr. Morrin couldn’t fill for a while. Remember, I told you about it? The lead position for the southeast branch restoration? According to the old maps, there’s still lots of silver there.”
Collin always scoffed at every description he had read in novels of blood draining from people’s faces, but that was exactly what he felt right then. Even his fingertips grew cold. “Didn’t you say several people quit within the last six months because the job’s too dangerous?”
Ryan tossed a pair of bunched up socks into the trunk and shrugged. “So?”
Collin shook his head. “Why are you doing this? You’re Mr. Morrin’s personal assistant. You already have a nice position. Why do you need to get involved with actual mining?”
Ryan huffed and leaned with one hand onto his wrought-iron bed frame.
“Did you tell Aryen you love her?” Collin knew he was treading on thin ice, but he had to know what happened. “What did she say?”
“She…” Ryan pressed a tight fist to his mouth.
Collin patiently waited for him to continue, but he never did.
“Tell Mother not to worry. I’ll eat something later.” Ryan continued packing, ignoring Collin’s dropping jaw.
They all pleaded to know why Ryan volunteered for the job, but he refused to answer. Both Collin and Mark pestered him again about what Aryen had said, but Ryan acted like they weren’t even there.
He left the next morning without saying goodbye.
Upon hearing about Ryan’s departure, Collin hid himself in the farthest corner of the library, away from everyone’s eyes. Sitting cross-legged on the hard floor, he watched the sun travel across the sky, casting various shadows through the window, and searched his mind and heart for what he had done wrong.
What did Aryen say to drive Ryan away?
Why did Collin even care?
Ryan never asked him to meddle, to shoo Aryen’s suitors away or watch out for her while he was gone. Nobody asked Collin to do anything. But he saw how Ryan straightened his back just a smidgen more when she showed up. How he left no stone unturned when he decided to find a rare edition book about Aryen’s favorite conservatory for her birthday three years ago. How he encouraged her love for music when her parents told her she should try something else. Ryan loved Aryen for who she was and cared nothing for her Banner.
The truth of it was that the Redwynns would not allow Ryan anywhere near her if they knew he had plans to marry her. That was why Collin felt like he needed to get involved, to help Aryen see her feelings, to encourage her to give Ryan a chance because he deserved it more than anybody else.
Collin thought he did his best—he praised Ryan to the skies, wrote plenty of letters to his brother telling all about Aryen’s accomplishments. He kept their attachment alive and burning.
Or did he?
Maybe he had imagined it all.
Maybe Aryen gave her heart to someone else while they weren’t looking. Collin wasn’t always around her after all. She had classes at the music school. Her family hosted dinners and parties to which the Tautens weren’t always invited.
Aryen loved Ryan, of that he was absolutely certain. She spent every minute she could with the brothers after the graduation, always gravitating to Ryan. Then what went wrong?
Collin scraped himself off the floor and all but ran over to the Redwynns’ house.
But just like Ryan, Aryen was gone. Left to Lankorn that same morning to pursue her dreams and study music, and left Collin without the slightest chance to get his answers.
Four months later they all stood in a wind-swept cemetery, watching workers place a stone on Ryan’s symbolic grave. Only four months had passed between the conversation that was meant to bring joy to two people and the day they all bade Ryan farewell. The job, Ryan’s last endeavor to prove himself, turned out too dangerous after all. A tunnel in the mines collapsed during the owner’s progress evaluation visit, taking forty-something lives. Nobody knew exactly how many—they still continued the excavations. In fact, Ryan's body hadn't been found yet, but too many days had passed for him to survive. Others’ deaths did not make anything easier for Collin though. Only more meaningless.
Standing next to his family, he watched Aryen from underneath the rim of his knitted cap pulled over his eyebrows. She had returned from the capital for the funeral and wept and wept in Collin’s mother's arms when they met at the graveyard that morning. Thin and pale, shadows haunting her face, Aryen stood at the other side of the grave and refused to be held or be otherwise comforted by her mother or sister. A part of Collin insisted that she deserved the misery for what she had done to Ryan, whatever she had said that drove him away to his death. But a different part of him, a much larger part, despised him for his vengefulness. Aryen would live with that burden for the rest of her days, never able to obtain forgiveness. Maybe she deserved that, but Collin was in no hurry to pass such final judgement on anyone, no matter the depth of his own anger and grief.
After the funeral ceremony, the Tautens returned home with their closest friends for a ceremonial meal of meat-stuffed rolls and tea. His mother and Mrs. Redwynn settled down to talk in the guest parlor. Aryen and her sister stayed with them, but Collin could not bring himself to join them. His mind boiled and his heart throbbed with everything he had been bottling up for months.
There was a lot to bottle up. So many things had happened since Aryen left home and went to study in Lankorn.
Their maternal grandfather had died and, suddenly, they weren’t nobodies anymore. The grandfather had cut Mother off some twenty years ago, but her family invited them back, and the Tauten boys had become bachelors of interest overnight.
Collin had gone to meet his long-estranged family in Lankorn. He saw Aryen, and they argued over Ryan’s departure. She explained that she told Ryan that she was done with them all. And although she seemed pained by her confession, and Mark insisted she must have had good reasons for such cruel words, Collin refused to forgive her.
As Mark and Collin continued integrating into their Banner, they attended the First Ball, an opening party for the Bridal Season. They weren’t looking for wives, but the family insisted it was a great way to get seen, so they went. Aryen was there too. Oddly outgoing, Mark danced with her, but Collin’s grudge against her still burned strong. He hadn’t said a single word to her that evening.
He had plenty to say the next morning. The ball nearly ended with a tragedy. A fire broke out, and Aryen suffered a concussion when people fled in panic from the burning building. The same night, Collin and Mark received news that Ryan was in trouble, buried in a rock fall in the mines. The next morning, they visited her in the hospital, and Collin pleaded with Aryen to understand what possessed her to destroy their friendship. She refused to explain. Maybe she couldn’t. Maybe her head hurt too much from the concussion. Collin left the hospital feeling like he had lost two family members instead of one that day.
They hadn’t talked since.
Standing in his home after the funeral, Collin realized he should stop being a child. He lost his brother. He did not need to lose a friend on top of it.
He took a deep breath and forced his feet to move, but once he entered the parlor, his resolve evaporated at the sight of the girl who used to live across the gardens.
Noticing him, Aryen set her cup on the mantle and hurried to leave. Collin stepped in front of her when she reached the doorway.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, avoiding looking at him. “I know you don’t want to see me, but our mothers are friends, and we came to—”
Pressing a hand to her throat, Aryen pushed past him.
Collin caught up with her not far down the hallway and placed his hands on her shoulders. “How are you?” he asked and grimaced at the stupid question. Nothing else came to mind though.
All he could think of in that moment was that Aryen had been hurting as much as he had been, and he left her to deal with her grief all alone. He broke the secret oath he had given himself years ago to not fall in love with her. To not let anyone else steal her heart while Ryan was away. His brother loved that girl so much, sometimes it seemed like she was the only reason Ryan breathed.
Collin had broken parts of that oath a long time ago. He had failed to fulfill his brother’s duty to guard his own heart, but he could still remedy it. He could stomp out the thoughts of Aryen being available and give her brotherly comfort and support.
He could do it, no matter how hard it would be. He had to.
Ryan was gone, and Collin could love her now, but he would never betray his brother’s memory with such disloyalty.
Aryen clung to him and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. “How am I? Who cares? How are you?”
Placing a light kiss on her cheek, Collin released her. “I’m an idiot. For blaming everything on you.”
Aryen shrugged, guilt still evident on her face. “We’re both… far from clever.”
Mark joined them in the hallway. “I heard your mother say you lost Herb?”
Collin cursed himself on the inside. Months ago, right after that ball, she mentioned something about her favorite violin, but he was too mad at her to listen. That violin, a part of her soul, meant the world to her, and he ignored her.
Aryen heaved a resigned sigh. “I wish she wouldn’t have brought it up. It’s not like it matters to anyone but me.”
Exchanging a calculating look, the twins sandwiched her from both sides, and Aryen giggled despite the sad circumstances, sending another crack across Collin’s heart.
“It matters to us,” he said.
“I’m tired of all the condolences. At least now we can talk about your misfortunes instead,” Mark said with a look-how-clever-I-am grin. “So what happened to Herb?”
Aryen sighed again. “Gone. Destroyed in that fire during the First Ball.” Her fingers twitched—a sign of restless desire to play. She stepped away from them and crossed her arms on her chest.
Mark narrowed his eyes. “When was the last time you played?”
“It’s been a few weeks.”
Collin almost groaned. She had not touched a violin in weeks! “How are you still breathing?” he joked even though deep inside worry and fury with himself waged a raging battle.
“I’m starving,” she said.
Her refusal to answer, to confide in them, shouldn’t have been so surprising after Collin’s behavior, but logic did little to assuage his disappointment.
Mark shot him a quick concerned look before smiling at Aryen again. “Should we steal a plate of rolls and make Collin read to us in the library? The visitors are starting to leave. No one will mind our absence.”
“And that is why you’re the smart brother.” Collin clapped Mark on the back and headed to the kitchen, hoping, pleading with everything in the universe that no one else saw just how much he hated himself right then.
The three of them cozied down under thick quilts on a sofa in the library, hands full of baked goods. Collin read to them from Maccanan’s Best Poems. Aryen’s face relaxed as she leaned on his twin’s shoulder, eyes downcast as she ate and listened, and Collin braved to nurse a glimmer of hope that things weren’t too broken between them. That they could still return to what they had been, or at least to something close to that.
The next day, Aryen left Iveston again. So did Mark, who like Aryen had to go back to his studies. Collin was left to stew in his atrocious moods brought on by his loss and feelings of failure. Like it wasn’t enough to be the most emotional one of their bunch already.
He worked with his father at their publishing house, helping with every odd job he could, dealing with editors and illustrators and paper producers and, of course, writers. Those writers. They dwarfed Collin when it came to moodiness and discontent. Wrong shade of blue, lettering too small, too large, too boring. The things writers complained about.
On some days they complained entirely too much. Collin exhaled loudly as he stared at the dark ceiling in his bedroom at the end of one such day. Mark’s bed stood made and neat—a constant reminder of how alone Collin had become. His oldest brother was dead, his twin gone to become a doctor, his best friend gone to become a musician. Collin had his parents, but their grief over Ryan was still fresh and raw, and he couldn’t burden them while they also needed comforting.
A crunching sound interrupted the suffocating silence, and Collin strained his ears. His bedroom windows faced the street, and just as the sound had died, he recognized it for it was—motorcar tires on their gravel driveway.
Tossing the blanket aside, he pushed out of bed and leaned on the windowsill. Who in the blazes needed to bother them after ten in the evening?
A small black Stinger with a mean-looking grille shone its lights on the front door. Two people exited the vehicle. Collin pressed his face to the glass and held his breath, forbidding himself to even dare to hope that the tall young man might be…
The subject of Collin’s rapt attention stepped into the light, and there was no denying that the young man’s raven hair and determined face belonged to Ryan. Collin peeled away from the window and bounded downstairs, sliding down the handrail and nearly landing on his face.
His father was already at the door, holding the son they all thought dead in his arms, his shoulders shaking with silent tears. Collin had never seen him show so much emotion.
“They told us you were dead,” Collin exclaimed when Ryan pulled back.
“I’ll get your mother,” Father said.
The man that accompanied Ryan stepped inside as well. “Perhaps I could talk to both of you at once and explain why your son had to be presumed dead?”
“Of course.” Father led him into the house, and Ryan went into their small guest parlor.
He sat on the worn leather sofa and sunk between the cushions. “Ah. I’ve missed our house.”
“You shouldn’t have left,” Collin blurted out, clearly remembering freezing at the cemetery on the day of Ryan’s ceremonial funeral. It had been a cold day, but Collin’s chill came from their unbearable loss. Apparently, all that pain and all their grief were unnecessary.
“How dare you pretend you were dead?” Collin shouted as he jumped on the sofa next to Ryan and grabbed him into a headlock.
“This is not the kind of welcome I anticipated,” Ryan half-laughed, half-wheezed through Collin’s grip.
“You don’t get a welcome.” Collin squeezed a little harder, just to deliver his point, then shoved Ryan away. “I don’t have any love for a brother who let our family believe him dead and made us suffer.”
Rubbing his neck, Ryan stood. “I am sorry, but I had to do it.”
Mother came into the parlor and embraced Ryan as she sobbed. She kissed him on the cheeks, and repeated, “You’re alive. My boy is alive,” over and over again.
Collin’s eyes stung and he struggled to swallow the lump in his throat.
At long last, Ryan managed to calm Mother down by holding her tight and reassuring her several times that he was indeed safe and sound.
“Well, then,” Collin started, “is it a miraculous survival or…?”
Ryan stole a guilty look at their mother. “I am sorry it had to be this way. Mr. Morrin needed—still needs—us to be dead. He thinks it’ll help investigate who caused the accident in the mines, who’s after his wealth. Please, forgive me for putting you through such a difficult situation.”
Mother wiped her cheeks with her fingers. “I’m sure I’ll accept that later, after I’ve had time to think about it. Dinner?”
Ryan laughed. “Yes, please.”
Mother gave him another careful hug before heading to the kitchen.
“Did you get rid of all my clothes already?” Ryan joked as he went upstairs.
“Not funny!” Collin almost kicked him behind his kneecap. “No. We haven’t touched anything yet. I couldn’t…” The words wouldn’t come, and Collin pressed a fist to his mouth.
Ryan pulled him into a tight hug in the middle of the staircase. “I won’t leave again. Well… I have to go to Lankorn, but I will never leave you hanging like I did last time.”
Collin hugged him back. “You’d better not.”
They stood there, quiet, for another moment, then continued on their way with entertained chuckles. Collin thanked Providence for saving his brother. And for giving him another chance to be useful.
Once in his room, Ryan dug in the drawers of his stained oak dresser until he found a white, woven shirt and a pair of loose pants. “Have you seen Aryen recently? Did she come down for the… funeral?” He seemed uncomfortable at having to use the word.
“She did come. Despondent and ghostly.” Grinning, Collin sat on Ryan’s bed.
Ryan pushed him over. “Have you heard from her since?”
Collin propped his head on his hand. “No. Why? Are you going to tell her you’re alive?”
“I can’t. Not yet.” He balled his clothes and went to the washroom out in the hallway.
For the next four weeks, when Collin returned from work, he found his brother pacing the hallways or looking through the windows or sitting at the piano but not playing—all done with stiff shoulders and an impatient frown. The investigation lasted longer than anyone had expected. Mr. Morrin’s enemies took great care to hide their involvement. In Ryan’s mind though, every day lasted much longer than mere twenty-four hours.
“I can’t take this anymore.” Ryan pushed away from the dinner table at the end of the fourth week, his chair sliding across the floor with a loud screech. “I’m going to Lankorn. Tomorrow.”
“You go with him,” Father said to Collin. “Stay with Uncle Damien and Aunt Olivia. They have a small household, and it’ll be easier to hide that you’re alive.”
They left the next morning.
Collin barely restrained himself from smiling the whole day they rode the train. Ryan’s intensity had gone up exponentially as they sat quietly in their compartment, but his demeanor was different. His cautious, meticulous, plan-loving brother had changed a lot since his return from Walsch. Collin surmised near-death did that to people—reminded them that life could end at any moment, forced them to act and to reveal things that were too intimate before. This time, Collin knew Ryan would stake his claim for Aryen’s heart. He had a fighter’s look, determined and steady, even if he had been refusing to talk about her past his first brief questions the night he came back.
It snowed the day they arrived to Lankorn. Soft, white flurries filled the air in the afternoon, and Collin watched them through every window he could. He was unable to pry his eyes away from the snow, as though it counted moments for him until something important happened.
He spotted a motorcar at the far end of the driveway. It stopped and left a passenger. Their visitor took quick strides toward his aunt and uncle’s house, and Collin recognized Aryen immediately. Did Ryan telephone her already? He had not seen him do it, but he wasn’t surprised.
Well, maybe a tiny bit. Ryan had changed, but Collin still expected him to take at least a day before he reached out to Aryen. He expected Ryan to come up with some grand gesture or a quiet dinner party or something to reveal his return from the dead in an exciting way. Ryan, obviously, had no intention of wasting his time on anything like that.
Collin hurried and opened the door for her. “You’re already here.”
With a bit of reluctance, Aryen faced him. “I didn’t know you were here.”
He frowned. Perhaps, Ryan hadn’t talked to her yet. “Come inside already. It’s freezing.”
With a nod, she trudged inside.
Aunt Olivia came into the entryway. “Aryen, what a surprise. What brings you here?”
Also curious, Collin glanced at his friend, who burst into tears. He did not expect that. Ryan definitely hadn’t talked to her yet.
“Take her to the south parlor,” Aunt Olivia said.
Collin brought Aryen to the aforementioned parlor. There he freed her from her outdoor clothes and boots and wrapped a soft throw around her shoulders. “Cry as much as you like.”
“I can’t play violin, and I miss Ryan.” Her sobs shook her whole body. “I miss him so much. There isn’t a moment that goes by without me thinking about him.”
Collin itched to tell her that Ryan was alive, that she didn’t need to cry, but he would never steal that moment from Ryan. “Aryen, what happened to him wasn’t your fault.”
She would not be consoled. “I know I haven’t acted like it. I haven’t even really admitted it to myself, but I love him. I love him. I always have, but I’ve been so distracted by my music that I… How could I be so blind and stupid?”
Collin held her until she ran out of tears and fell asleep with her head on his shoulder. Taking care to not disturb her, he slid from the sofa they were sitting on and placed her head on a decorative cushion. He tucked the throw around her and resisted the urge to adjust a lock of her hair. There was a small cut under her chin, and he almost brushed his fingers across it, wondering how she had gotten it. Admiring her tear-stricken face wasn’t part of his duty to Ryan though, so Collin left the parlor.
For hours he and his brothers waited in the eating nook of their uncle’s kitchen, playing card games while the staff went about their business. They sat there because it was warm, food was handy, and the whole atmosphere laden with stronger smells and older furniture reminded them of home. Now and then, Aunt Olivia checked on Aryen, who continued sleeping. She must have been completely exhausted to collapse into such a deep slumber. Regret gnawed on Collin with renewed force. He should have been there for her.
Ryan played with them and waited with easy patience, but Collin didn’t miss the frequency with which his older brother stole glances at the door. At last, in the middle of another round of Drunks, Ryan rose from the table and left the kitchen. No more walking around in circles.
He returned a few minutes later, confusion creasing his brow. Mark and Collin exchanged a questioning look. It must have not gone according to plan. Ryan sat at the table, drumming his fingers on its top and by all signs not ready to share. They had better let him be.
They played another round of Drunks, but Ryan was quiet throughout the game, his eyes distant and concerned. Collin’s tongue burned from all the questions that begged to be unleashed, but he had learned the hard way that it was no use to pester. All he had to do was wait just a little while longer. Aryen wouldn’t sleep forever. But how he hated to wait right then.
Ryan went into the cooking area.
The moment he had disappeared in there, Aryen walked into the eating nook, still bundled in the throw.
“Ah, you’re up,” Collin said, aiming to be loud enough for Ryan to hear him from the cooking area.
“What happened to your face?” Mark asked Aryen, rising to his feet.
With a mug in his hands, Ryan stepped back into the eating nook. It seemed that Mark was blocking Aryen’s view because she didn’t notice Ryan at first. When Mark shifted position, she froze. Her mouth parted, but no words came out. She rubbed her eyes, then stared at Ryan in disbelief. She obviously doubted her sanity.
“Ryan,” Aryen whispered, her face paling.
Collin found it odd that Aryen would be so shocked to see him.
Ryan took a sip from his mug of something topped with fluffed cream and licked his top lip. “Hey.”
“Hey?” She glared at each of the three brothers in turn, eyes hard. Collin braced himself. Aryen was livid. Something was wrong. Hadn’t Ryan already talked to her?
Judging by Ryan’s sheepish expression, that was not the case. Where did he go then when he left in the middle of the game?
“How long have you known?” Aryen demanded from Mark, who took a few steps back, hands raised in surrender.
“Now, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation.” Collin shuffled a deck of playing cards. Maybe if he acted in a calm manner, she would not shred them to pieces.
“I will listen to your explanations over your dead body!” Aryen dropped the throw and sprung toward him.
Collin jumped away from the table and circled to the other side. “That’s just not fair, Aryen!” He needed to keep teasing her, to make her laugh. “You’ll mourn my brother’s death, but you’ll kill me yourself? I thought we were friends.”
She grabbed a half-eaten sweet roll from his plate and hurled it at his head. “Friends tell each other about important things like their brother being alive! Didn’t you see what his death did to me?”
She reached for another roll, but Ryan stepped closer before she threw anything else. “Don’t kill my brothers. I don’t think our mother could take it,” he said with a crooked smile and set his mug on the table behind her.
For a moment, they stood face-to-face in complete silence.
“You have got to breathe,” Ryan said in a soft tone.
Collin knew that line was meant for Aryen, but he realized he had been holding his breath as well.
She threw her arms around Ryan and squeezed him tight. “You’re alive!”
“Yes, I am.” Ryan’s shoulders and face relaxed, replaced by a content growing smile.
“Collin,” Mark whispered beside him. He had no need to say anything else. Collin knew when to make himself scarce.
Aryen pulled away from Ryan. “It wasn’t a dream,” she whispered with a hint of horror.
“No, it wasn’t a dream, my love.”
Collin considered their exchange. Did Ryan tell her he was alive after all, and she, tired and sleepy, misinterpreted his appearance as a dream? That would be rather silly. But not impossible.
“Oh, no.” Aryen ran past the twins and out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” Collin called after her.
Ryan caught up with her in the hallway.
“I shouldn’t have…” Aryen glanced at Mark and Collin, who remained in the eating nook but watched through the doorway.
Collin knew they should give them their space, but he couldn’t turn away and miss the satisfying conclusion.
“This is so embarrassing,” Aryen muttered.
“What’s embarrassing? This?” Taking her hands, Ryan kissed her on the lips.
Collin turned on his heel and walked back to his seat at the table.
A considerable, tangible weight had lifted off his shoulders and his soul. He might have failed everyone, himself included, but he could still continue on with his oath and be happy for Ryan. Be happy for Aryen. Be happy in general because wallowing in misery forever just wasn’t his way.
“What’s with that scheming face?” Mark asked, one eyebrow raised in curiosity.
“It’s going to be so much fun,” he answered as colorful images danced through his mind, filled with wedding flowers, nieces and nephews, puppies, countless books, secretly shared sweets, and being the best uncle ever.
©2019 Ava S Quill
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be perceived as real.
All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For more information contact: email@example.com
Cover design by Varvara Jones. Cover image courtesy of Simon Lemnhöfer.