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Sliding the meat off between his teeth, he gestured with the knife point down the front of her dress.176
It took her another moment to understand.
Ah—the father of her child. The one that, as far as the Erlking knew, was nothing more than a farm boy she’d had a tumble with. Nothing meaningful. Nothing of importance.
“No,” she said, scooping some buttered peas onto the edge of her own knife. “Why would I?”
He made a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Ladies can be sentimental.”
She shot him an irritated glare. “We are not the only ones.”
“What was he like?”
She shrugged. “What do you wish to know?”
“Was he charming?”
She pictured Gild—she couldn’t help it. But then she tried to swipe the image away, worried that even to think of him would give away the truth she wished to keep hidden.
Instead, she thought of Thomas Lindbeck, Hans’s older brother. She had once thought herself in love with him; it felt like a lifetime ago. She wondered distantly whether he married the girl he’d been sweet on. If he was running the mill in her and her father’s extended absence. Had life gone on in Märchenfeld, or would the scars of losing five innocent children to the wild hunt haunt them for as long as it would haunt her?
“He was … charming enough.”
She wished—oh, how she wished—she could feign neutrality, as the question itself was asked as if it meant nothing. But again, she found herself thinking of Gild, and she could not keep the heat from climbing up her neck and spilling across her cheeks.
“He does not compare to you, my lord, if that is what you’re asking.”
His eyes sparked. “And did you love him?”
The word came like an arrow, straight through her chest, wholly unexpected. How could she answer such a thing? Already she could feel the177hollow place inside her expanding, searching for a flutter of a heart, and she could almost, almost feel it.
Did she love him?
Did she love Gild?
If she were being honest with herself, she did not think she had been quite in love with him that night they had lain together. She had wanted him. Yearned for him. Yearned to experience something with him that was entirely new to her, to both of them. She had not regretted their intimacy then, and despite all that had happened since, she could not regret it now.
But had she loved him?
Not exactly. Love grew out of shared memories, shared stories, shared laughter. Love was a result of knowing the many things a person did that annoyed you to the ends of the earth, and yet, somehow, still wanting to hold them at the end of every day and be held by them at sunrise every morning. Love was the comfort of knowing someone would stand by you, accept you, despite all your eccentricities, all your faults. Maybe loving you, in part, because of them.
She hadn’t had that comfort with Gild, despite what they’d shared, despite how just thinking about him made her tingle with anticipation, eager to be near him again.
It might not have been love then. But a seed had been planted, and in the months since, it had continued to grow. It grew with every passing day. Blossoming into something unexpected and frightening and true. Her yearning had morphed into tenderness. A desire, so powerful, to see him free, to see him happy—regardless of whether or not he could be free and happy withher.
Was that love?
She didn’t know. But she did know that she had no other words that came close to describing what she felt for Gild.
“You had me convinced that you felt hardly anything for him,” said the Erlking, pulling a dark purple grape off its stem with his sharp teeth. “Now I see. I wonder what else you might have lied—”179
“Youdon’tsee,” she said, surprised at the flare of anger inside her. “You couldn’t possibly.”
“I might surprise you,” he said, a teasing new tilt to his mouth.