With: Amber Mitchell
Things are way more tense in War of the Wilted, the second novel in the Garden of Thorns trilogy. Though Rayce and Rose have managed to realize their feelings for each other and she is finding a place in his rebellion, the constant threat of war looms over them. This is especially evident when it comes to the Gardener.
Forced for seven years to perform in his burlesque troupe of dance girls known as the Garden, Rose wants nothing more than to end his life but Rayce needs him for the valuable information he has. The rebellion has never been lucky enough to capture someone who knows the emperor’s plans and Rayce cannot afford to give that up, even for Rose.
Tension reaches a near breaking point when the Gardener’s only request is for Rose to serve him dinner nightly in return for more information. Though Rayce doesn’t want to ask Rose to consider this option, the rebellion doesn’t have another choice.
This is the scene where she gives him his answer. Ironically, I set it in the kitchen, a place that has served to bring them together in the past. Right now, they stand in an awkward in-between with each other, uncertain where their future lies.
I absolutely love the simplicity of this conversation, like a bittersweet slow dance.
“I’m sorry I even have to ask you this, Rose, but with the recent news, our need for more hands has become even greater.” He sucks in air like the next thing he has to say stole it away from him. “Will you accept the terms the Gardener offered so we can get this information?” His voice is low and deep. “If you think you can’t, I understand.”
The uncertainty in his movement tempts me into saying yes. Perhaps this sacrifice can be the thing that builds a bridge back to him. The vial Arlo gave me feels more like a boulder on my chest. Allowing him to believe I’m doing this for our cause is wrong, but Arlo is right—it’s the only way we can both win and Rayce will never need to know.
“If his demands are the only way to help the rebellion, then I’ll do it.”
The words should be far more satisfying. This little trick is the way we both get what we want. So why does it feel so shallow?
His eyes widen. Clearly he isn’t used to me giving in. I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or insult.
“You have no idea how relieved I am to hear you say that.” He lets out a breath, his shoulders deflating as his tension dissolves. “It takes so much pressure off. Thank you, Rose. I can’t even imagine what this must be like for you. I wanted to protect you from him, that’s why I tried to keep you away from there in the first place. I know this isn’t easy and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make you feel safe. If you want me to walk with you every night, and stand right inside the cell, I will. Whatever it takes to make this as easy for you as possible.”
His sympathy churns my stomach, the knowledge of my deceit threatening to crush me. I’m not upset that the Gardener is going to die, but lying to Rayce to get what I want breaks my heart. Having him willfully by my side as I feed the Gardener poison would just make everything worse.
“No thank you. I appreciate you wanting to help, but I’ll be able to manage.” I clear my throat, searching for a shred of comfort by wrapping my arms around myself, but everything is hollow…my words, my hands, my intentions. “He’ll continue to see me as weak if you’re there all the time. I just want to help the rebellion.”
He kicks off the table and makes his way to me, his eyes much more gentle than before. “And you have, Rose. More than you know. You’ve helped me so much. What you’re willing to do to help the rebellion, to help me, proves without a doubt that I can rely on you.”
His nearness teases my cold hands still damp from the dishwater. He reaches out like he’s going to touch my face but seems to think better of it and grabs the towel I slung over my shoulder instead.
“I’m…glad.” The words stick in my throat.
He nods to the mound of dishes behind me. “You wash, I’ll dry.”
Though he doesn’t touch me, we stand close, closer than two people fighting, but not close enough to be lovers, either. The warmth of his body fades just before it can heat my own, trapping me in this endless cycle of frustration.
“Although,” he says, pausing while drying a pot, “I do wonder what his angle is with this request. He could have demanded anything, a different cell, finer clothes. I would have never given him the freedom to move around outside of a cell, but he didn’t even try to bargain for that. For someone so greedy, it seems a little off that his only request is you.”
I don’t look at him, glaring down at the white suds in the freezing water. The reasoning behind the Gardener’s request has always seemed clear to me, even if I don’t trust the information we get in return.
“Because the only thing that monster…” My hands grip the sponge like I’m trying to rip it in two. “The only thing he cares about more than comfort is power, and this is a play at power. Power over me. I told him I would never serve him again, and he’s using his position to prove me wrong.”
The soft sound of cloth wiping metal stops. Before I can turn to see why, Rayce’s shoulder presses against mine, as solid as a wall, like he’s trying to keep me upright.
Like flowers denied water, people are wilting under the emperor’s tyranny.
Rose will not rest until the Gardener is dead. But there are bigger battles to fight, and Rayce—leader of the rebellion and the only man Rose has ever loved—believes their best chance at winning the war is to join forces with her sworn enemy.
Saving innocent people is more important than her quest for revenge. But their new ally can’t be trusted—and he knows her darkest secret. One betrayal could leave the war and Rayce’s life hanging in the balance, and Rose will need to make the ultimate sacrifice to save them all.
The Garden of Thorns series is best enjoyed in order.
Book #1 Garden of Thorns
Book #2 War of the Wilted