“‘He who dares not grasp the thorn should never crave the rose,’ as Brontë said.” There was a wry expression on Henry’s face as he continued. “She has always been fiercely intelligent and determined, but she held herself apart from most others, for her own protection, to give herself distance if she ever needed to run. Capturing her heart was like wrestling a bear. I still have the scars to show for it.”
Etta, not for the first time, or even the twentieth, wished she had a better grip on the timeline of her mother’s life—when she had left the Thorns, when she had gone to infiltrate the Ironwoods, and when she had ultimately betrayed both by hiding the astrolabe and disappearing into the future. But it fit. All of this fit.
Is it possibly Henry?
More than possible. Etta brought her hand to her face, pressing her fingers hard to her temples, as if that could ease the pounding there. Her shoulder complained each time she shifted, but the pain only chiseled down her thoughts to their bare truths. Each small argument, each scrap of evidence, was beginning to form an undeniable picture.
She wanted Nicholas—she wanted to see his face, and measure his thoughts against her own until they made sense. Etta hadn’t understood how she’d used his steady resolve as a shelter until it was gone, and she was raw and exposed and trapped. When she’d been orphaned, she’d left the braver parts of herself with him, and what was left of her now was too cowardly to admit what she already knew to be true.
“It was for her as it was for me,” Henry said, eyes back on hers. “Truthfully…I don’t know that she named you for me, so much as for a moment in time. I suppose you are a tribute, a kind of memory to who we were. It’s—well, it’s unexpected, given the way she left us.”
Etta didn’t trust her voice enough to speak.
Her whole life, all eighteen years of it, her father had lingered as a kind of question mark in the background. A ghost that came around haunting now and then in her thoughts to remind her of the loss—to expand that gap in her family portraits. But there had been many ghosts, and many gaps, on both sides of her family, and Etta had never let herself dwell on any of them in particular, because it seemed ungrateful in the face of everything and everyone she did have.
Father. A word from a vocabulary of love she’d never learned. Etta couldn’t make any more sense of it than she could of the way she felt. An involuntary, panicked elation that left her feeling like she needed to run to him or away from him.
“What am I doing here?” Etta asked finally.
“At first, we only wanted to protect and heal you—you were almost dead when Julian Ironwood brought you back to us. From here on out…well,” he said, “I should like to hope you will aid us against Ironwood, considering all he’s done to you. And if I’m lucky, you might tell me a little about yourself, beyond what I know.”
“Which is what?” she asked, shocked by the eagerness in his voice.
“That you were born and raised in Manhattan. That you enjoy reading, and were homeschooled from a young age. I know that you have performed across the world in many competitions, and that you feel very strongly about Bach over Beethoven.”
“You read the Times article,” she said quietly.
“I read everything I could find from this…Internet…creation,” he admitted. He said Internet like he was testing the word in his mouth for the first time. “Not nearly enough. There’s one question in particular I’ve had for weeks now, and I desperately wish you’d consider answering it—but only if you are comfortable.”
The way he framed it satisfied her pride and appealed to her curiosity, but there was one weight she needed to remove before she could continue.
“I need you to answer a question for me first,” Etta said. “But I don’t know if I can even trust your answer….”
“Ask and see.”
She took a pacifying breath, waiting until the pain in her throat eased enough to speak normally. “The night of the concert…were you or any of your Thorns involved in a shooting?”
There. A flicker of something in his face. Henry’s lips compressed and she heard the harsh breath leave his nose. “Do you mean Alice?”
Etta had expected a quick dismissal, an annoyed defense. But that softness in his expression rubbed at the fragile shield she’d constructed around her heart, and the heaviness in his words nearly cracked it altogether.
She swallowed again. Nodded.
It was a long while before he spoke again, and the whole time, he never broke his gaze away from her. Etta could see his mind working, as if deciding how best to continue—or was he deciding what she could handle?