I’d just finished filling the stoneware flagon when the front door opened and the clatter of boots filled the house. Quickly, I placed two goblets and the flagon on a wooden tray. I walked light-footed into the sitting room, its stone hearth dark in the heat of summer and Mother’s seat beside it still draped with the knit lap blanket she always used in wintertime. Somehow, none of us wanted to be the one to finally fold it away into the small trunk that held several other of her belongings.
Poppa, Kenton, and the two men stood assembled by the doorway in an awkward formation for a few seconds before Poppa gestured for everyone to sit. He raised his eyebrows at me.
“Ah, thank you, Mara. Will you set it down over here?”
I nodded, my gaze lingering for a breath or two on Poppa’s eyes, which were tender and spoke to me of his desire to draw me in, where he knew I wanted to be.
The only good thing that had come of Mother’s death, he’d said recently, was that he saw me more clearly, freed from the veil of protection Mother had always draped over me. He couldn’t give me what I really wanted, though. Nestar would take over Graylaern Vineyards someday, not me. And even if there were no Nestar, I could never do more than fix the meals and tend the house—and possibly continue to boss the workers.
Because I was a girl.
“I’ll come right to the point,” Jamery said.
“May I offer you some wine?” Poppa asked as he poured.
His secretary glanced at the wine as though he very much wanted some. Jamery offered a tight-lipped smile. “Very well, then. Thank you.”
He made his way toward the couch and the others followed. I stepped back, intending to stay as long as Poppa allowed me.
Jamery reached for a goblet. “Lord Nelgareth has expressed concern that your Firstfruits have fallen short over the past six months. I offered to come in person to sort out any miscommunication.”
My bones went rigid. There was no way Poppa had made a mistake.
Determined to show his always-present hospitality, Poppa smiled at Jamery’s secretary and gestured to the remaining goblet. “Please—have some wine. I’ll be happy to listen to your concerns.” He turned his attention to me. “Will you bring some goblets for Kenton and me, please?”
I nodded—too curtly, probably—and glanced once more at the men. Jamery rolled his cup between his hands, his mouth twisted like a thirsty leaf. I shuddered and returned to the kitchen to fetch more goblets, fighting a sudden urge to stay there, hidden among the pots and pans and cooking mess. Invisible, the way Mother had kept me. Safe.
But I didn’t want to be invisible. So I grabbed two goblets and turned to face the sitting room. Safety be damned.