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Willow gave him a lopsided smile. “As a little girl, I used to pretend I was secretly a cursed princess. If I’d known all these things were here, I don’t think they would have survived my rambunctious games.” Her smile turned wistful. “I suppose every little girl who lives in a broken, abandoned castle dreams of being a princess.”

“What if it was true?”

Chuckling, she shook her head, then looked around at all the treasures so carelessly abandoned here. “I’d be a princess of nowhere, my royal blood forgotten by time itself.” Giving in to the fanciful thought, she strolled around the chamber, picking up knickknacks here and there. “My heritage would be noble and proud, but I’d be the last of my family.”

“Why the last?”

She raised an eyebrow at him, gesturing around herself. “Because if I still had family, they would never have let me live here like this.” Alone.

How many nights had she lain in bed, imagining a long lost ancestor riding in to claim her? How many times had she wished someone would come rescue Helegert from this ruin, rebuild it to its former glory, and fill it with elegant people dressed in butterfly gowns and finery? She longed so badly to hear these echoing halls filled with laughter and conversation.

When the silence stretched long, she looked back at Sebastian to find him watching her with something like pity, or regret, but not quite. He crossed the distance between them until he stood so close she had to crane her head back to hold his gaze.

That easily, her heart was set aflutter, and her mouth went dry, yearning for his kiss to give her breath. His nearness alone made her dress feel too heavy and warm. She rocked back on her heels, then up onto her toes, drawn like a magnet to his lips. Willow silently willed his hands to touch her, to relieve the aching tightness of her skin. In that moment, she needed him more than her next heartbeat.

Leaning in, Sebastian whispered, “If I asked you to come to Kesteran with me when I leave, would you?”

Leave Helegert? Never!

Yet even as she thought it, she remembered last night’s wakeweed-tainted dream of Helegert crumbling behind her. Willow wasn’t a superstitious sort, but that dream had unnerved her far more than she cared to admit.

Grandmother Rowena had loved to tell her faery stories about how Helegert was alive, and each Faithblade woman to be born in it became a part of it, as it became a part of her. She would tell tales of impossible feats and magical happenings that had kept their family safe and cared for within its walls for generation after generation, and each story ended with the same lesson: Take care of Helegert, and it will take care of you.

Whether she wanted it or not, Willow was part of that tradition. Helegert was part of her, as she was part of it, just as her foremothers had been, to the point where she feared her presence here was the only thing keeping the walls upright. If she left… What if Helegert really did fall? It would be her fault.

“No,” she said, the simple word causing her chest to constrict in a painful spasm. “I’m afraid the good people of Icerton had it right when they dubbed me the ghoul of Helegert Keep. I’ll haunt this place until I die, and forever after.”

It was her duty.

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