* * *
The night was close to dawn. Belviana awoke like someone who had been plagued by nightmares all night, and the still-darkness made it difficult to tell whether it was that night or another, but judging by the fact that her clothes were still on, and the beads of sweat and strands of hair clinging to her forehead, it didn’t seem like much time had passed since she’d passed out on the terrace. She sat up, propping her upper body up with one hand at an angle, and slowly turned around.
It wasn’t her bedroom, but it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar space either. It’s Aiden’s room. She’d been here a few times, but never this late in the morning. She’d always run off to her room after half an hour. Belviana slowly looked around the small room. Clean but patternless wallpaper, a small window, a sturdy chair, and a desk and dresser that showed some signs of use. An old leather satchel in one corner was all that was missing.
Shivering in the chill, she pulled back the covers and slid smoothly out of bed. The thermos of water he kept under the covers was already running cold. It seemed like an eternity had passed since Aiden had left, and she wrapped a thick shawl from the chair around her shoulders and listened in the direction of the hallway. The hallway was eerily silent, not even the sound of footsteps in the distance.
But she couldn’t just go out there. It was wiser to wait for Aiden’s return. She pulled her shawl up a little tighter, as if to ward off the chills, and settled back down on the edge of the bed.
Thinking of Aiden brought back memories of the night before, and she tapped her toes like an anxious person. What she’d given him last night had been of social importance, her most valuable possession, the pinnacle of shame that must not be discovered. Even in a relationship between nobles, much less a servant of hers. But it was a decision she had made for herself, albeit one that had been made almost out of desperation, an impulse that, in hindsight, made little sense.
But as much as she instinctively resented Aiden, it was because she couldn’t help it. She’d justified her actions with him under the guise of protecting the family’s honor when she’d planned to abandon them and run away. It was a terrible deception. So it was easier for her to self-rationalize that she’d had too much to drink last night, that she’d been mentally cornered, and that Aiden, despicably, had taken advantage.
The sudden opening of the door made Belviana jump and look in the doorway. Aiden was impeccably dressed, as usual. A black vest tailored to fit his slender frame and a white shirt pushed up to his forearms. His hair was slightly disheveled, the only sign of yesterday. He looked a little surprised to see her up and about. Standing with the door open, Aiden paused, but soon closed it with a bit of haste and set the tray he’d brought down beside the bed. It was a simple breakfast of freshly baked croissants, steaming hot cream soup, and milk warmed with honey.
“How are you feeling?”
Aiden’s question was so casual and nonchalant. As if yesterday’s events were a matter of course between them. With trembling hands, Belviana clutched the cloth tightly and asked what she had been wondering.
“What happened yesterday?”
“You fell asleep like you passed out. There were too many eyes to go to your room. Were you uncomfortable?”
“Not really, but…….”
She looked down at the thick comforter under her hand. It was very fluffy, as if a couple of winter blankets had been pulled up to replace the meager mattress. It smelled clean and freshly laundered. Belviana scrunched up her face as if she had a thorn in her neck. She didn’t like this at all. It was like being a cat comforting a mouse in a trap……. She stifled a sneer and asked.
“How did the banquet go? I wasn’t there…….”
“There are plenty of witnesses to the fact that you had a little too much wine last night. You were supposed to have fallen asleep on the terrace and gone back to your bedroom, and Lena will testify if necessary.”
Belviana hesitated, then asked something that bothered her.
“You sent her on a drinking errand, don’t you remember?”
Aiden’s eyes narrowed. It was only her intuition that realized Aiden hadn’t explained everything about the situation; he was gorgeous enough to stand out in a crowd of noblemen at yesterday’s banquet, and he was cunning as a snake, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he’d have one more poor maid’s child in his clutches. He glanced down at Belviana, then pulled a chair over to sit across from her. He pushed the tray some more toward her.
“Eat before it gets cold.”
She hesitated, then pulled the tray away as if she couldn’t resist. The sight of the food made her hunger rush like a lie. According to the manor’s schedule, she wouldn’t receive her first meal until the lazy afternoon. Belviana hurriedly scooped up some soup and shoved it into her mouth. The warmth of the food warmed her body. When she’d finished the last of the milk, Aiden checked his watch and stood up.
“I’d let you rest a bit longer, but you should get downstairs before it’s too late, it’s time for everyone to get up.”
“Can you stand?”
He asked grimly, bending a little at the waist to escort Belviana out. Aiden’s demeanor was suitably cold, as it had been before her engagement. As if the heat of last night had been a lie. No, as if her memories of the past few days had been a figment of her own imagination. She pushed his hand away nervously and stood up.
“You don’t have to do this. You’re just pretending to care about me because of what happened yesterday…….”
“It was going to happen sometime, and it’s such a small thing. It’s only in the South anymore that people get all worked up about premarital chastity and stuff. It’s not even half a day’s gossip in the capital.”
“Maybe, but it’s a big deal to you.”
Aiden retorted expressionlessly, catching her lightly as she staggered back from an overzealous shove. Belviana barely held back the urge to scream. It was better to do nothing at all than to show this kind of heartless, insensitive consideration. She clamped her mouth shut and let it out quickly.
“You’re completely wrong. My relationship with you has never meant anything to me.”
“I know you.”
“I’m sure Liam would understand, and he’s all I have.”
Belviana turned her head away from Aiden’s straightforward gaze. In her disillusionment with herself, she barely conceded. Bringing up Liam in this exchange had been a desperate attempt to hurt Aiden somehow. She’d barely thought of him last night.
Aiden clenched his teeth, then released them gently and smiled.
“Glad to hear you’re okay.”
“And if you brought that asshole up to get revenge, you failed half the time, because I feel like shit even if you hadn’t brought that bullshit up anyway.”
He said ferociously. His eyes glowed with a fierce intensity, as if all his calm had been a mask he’d been wearing all this time, and all the fury he’d been hiding flared up in an instant. He was graceful down to his fingertips, even when he was shouting insults at the lowest common denominator. It was hard to believe he was a mere servant. Aiden chuckled softly and brushed back a stray strand of Belviana’s hair. His voice was strangely sweet, like a lover’s.
“Unfortunately for you, our contract still stands.”
His hands cupped the nape of her neck and cheeks, and he bent slightly at the waist. His face was close, and Belviana closed her eyes on cue. His lips descended through her disheveled red hair, over her white forehead. The lukewarm warmth lingered on her forehead for a moment, then fell away. He gently pushed her out of his arms and picked up the tray. Even though she had only been in his arms for a moment, the space between them was chilling. Belviana called out to Aiden, who was about to open the door.
He didn’t answer, but she knew he was listening to her because his footsteps had stopped. Belviana clenched her fists, shaking with a mixture of emotions, and looked up. Her voice was a muffled sob, like a choked gasp from a head full of water.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve …… for you to do this to me.”
“I’m sorry if I did anything wrong……. I’ll make it up to you with anything I can. So let’s stop doing this now. This is something you and I will only regret. You know…….”
Aiden slowly raised his head and turned toward her. He held what he could in his hands, seemingly content, but then his face was empty, as if he’d never had anything. His lips twisted upward.
“I won’t regret it.”
“Even when you look at me like that, I’ve never regretted a single thing from the beginning, not even yesterday.”
“Because I was ready for that from the beginning.”