When Izzy shows up to theater class, the last person she expects to see is her sister’s ex-boyfriend Sebastian Rodgers. The whole school is buzzing about the reason for their breakup, but Izzy’s more concerned he’s now dating–or is it fake-dating?–her theater rival. How can she possibly shine on stage when the limelight is focused entirely on them? She needs this play to get over the foster father who abused her and her new self-harm habit.
Sebastian might only be taking the class to graduate, but that doesn’t give him an excuse to bomb auditions. They’ve been paired together. He’s adamant that he doesn’t want to be in Grease. And, worst of all, he and Izzy butt heads every step of the way.
They’ll have to learn to work together if they want the audition to be a success, and that’s the last thing Sebastian wants. The more time they spend together the harder it is to ignore the sparks flying between them.
Sexual chemistry and hypnotic attraction are just a part of acting though. Izzy and Sebastian are only pretending. Right?
Rule #1 of falling for the younger girl: Don’t let her know.
Even though Hadley Gibson seems to know everything.
Returning home after years away isn’t supposed to be easy, but Spencer Lee never imagined it would hurt so much. When he left, he didn’t expect to come back, but one email from his little brother has him running to the family ranch where hard work is an expectation but conversations are not.
Conversations about why he left, why he came back.
Why he can’t stay.
When a senior prank involving the family’s goats at the high school goes hilariously wrong, the prankster herself is sentenced to a spring break of work on the ranch.
Hadley is everything Spencer detests. Rich. Spoiled. Too darn happy.
And also in high school.
Her smile should send Spencer running from Gulf City just like three years before. The constant laughter should remind him how different they are.
Falling for a ranch hand is against the family’s rules.
But if there’s one thing Spencer has never been good at its following the rules.
Beware of sassy goats, ridiculous pranks, and an emotional ride with a HEA.
Hello, hello! We’re just under three weeks until the release of The Last Summer! This sweet, YA contemporary romance is set to release June 17. So, how about an update and a sneak peek? Keep reading for the first two chapters!
The ARCs are officially done and out into the world, which is a huge relief. I’ve been so behind with this book, but it’s ready! If you’re interested in reviewing an early copy, please fill out the form here.
Want the latest updates, sneak peeks, and exclusive giveaway opportunities? Check out my Facebook group: Cait’s Inner Circle
Without further ado, the first two chapters of The Last Summer. Mind you, the book is going through one final round of editing, so it might be slightly altered in the final version.
Lila’s Summer Bucket List
Sleep under the stars Attend a party Get a tattoo Use fake ID to sing karaoke in a bar Stand under the lights on the football field Go on a date Sneak out of the house Visit the baby goat farm Go to Chicago Midnight swim Spend a day in bed watching movies Stay up to watch the sunrise Be kissed in the rain Run through the halls of the high school Conquer a fear Paintball Try something new Dye hair pink Sneak into movie theater Climb water tower
Chapter 1 Saturday
Gavin leaned in close to whisper, “You’re doing that wrong.”
Lila whirled around, her long hair nearly smacking him in the face. “Why are you here?”
“Wow, nice to see you too, Weston.” He took a step around her to sit at the picnic table she’d been setting up. Grabbing the vase from the center, he spread the confetti around with his free hand before sitting the flowers back down on top.
“Seriously, what are you doing here?” Lila leaned against the end of the table with arms crossed.
He’d removed his graduation gown the second he and his mother got in the car after the ceremony. Ironically, the girl who worked so hard to get away from their small town stood in hers with it hanging open, revealing a pink dress beneath.
He turned to face her, straddling the bench and meeting her glare with a smirk. “I live twenty feet away, do really expect me to just hide out in my room all night?”
“Yes.” Her lack of hesitation stung, but he didn’t drop his smile.
She looked around, but they were alone in the shared backyard; he’d made sure before approaching her. Her mom stood in the kitchen, finishing up the food, and her father walked back and forth on the phone. Through the windows, Gavin saw Mr. Weston waving his arms around—no doubt speaking with another attorney in his firm. He had a habit of talking with his hands when frustrated.
“That was my gift, remember?” Lila asked. When he didn’t respond, she sighed. “This is my graduation party. Not yours. Not ours. Just mine.”
Gavin picked up a piece of metallic blue confetti. He twisted it, not sure what to say. She was right. As much as he hated it, his mother told him months earlier they’d have separate parties.
Tossing the confetti, Gavin stood. “Fine, but it’s going to be really boring then.”
She stared at him, not backing down, and narrowed her eyes. “No, it won’t.”
“Really?” He huffed and took a step closer. “You really think people from school are going to show up after you spent the last several years ignoring them and acting as if you’re better than all of us?”
Her face reddened as her jaw clenched. “Maybe if you didn’t act so immature—”
“Me?” He shook his head. She was the one who’d shut him out for no reason. They were inseparable growing up, then one day she just decided she was done with him. Their eleventh birthday was the last time they’d spent together as friends.
“Go away, Gavin.” She stomped past him, and though he wanted to reach out and stop her, he let her go.
He watched as she started setting up the next table. Swiping a hand over his face, he turned and headed toward his house as he pulled out his phone. He’d show her immature. He texted his best friend, Dylan, while walking into his garage. Together, they’d bring her party to life.
“You ruined my party!”
Gavin laughed. “Weston, you need to relax.”
“How can I relax when you’re ruining everything like always?” she yelled.
He grabbed Lila by the shoulder and turned her toward him. “Look around!” His hand shot out past her head, pointing to the people gathered in the backyard. They all smiled up at the colors exploding above them. “Your party was boring, just as I said it would be. Now, people are having fun.”
She couldn’t deny that they all looked happy. Most had moved to sit in the grass and stare up at the sky. A handful of kids ran around with sparklers near the treeline. Music played from the speaker Dylan brought with him. She still couldn’t believe Gavin invited his best friend, not that she had a problem with Dylan. He was always the nicer one in that friendship. At least toward her. Rolling her eyes, she twisted back to face Gavin.
“Your party is in two weeks, why couldn’t you just wait until then?”
“Because I was bored.”
She wanted to smack the smirk off his face. Their parents watched from nearby though. She could almost feel her mother’s glare burning into the back of her head. Their parents had given up on forcing them together to mend their friendship, but they’d made them promise to keep the fighting to a minimum in public. As if Lila and Gavin were misbehaved children.
“Besides, you know I love that face you make when your surprise turns to anger,” he said. “That little crease between your brows lets me know I’ve done my job well.”
Lila shrugged his hand from her shoulder and walked away, refusing to indulge him any longer.
“You’re welcome!” he hollered after her.
She stuck her tongue out at him over her shoulder but continued walking. Her mom called her name in warning, and Lila gave her an innocent smile. Fine, maybe they were misbehaved children around one another.
“I’m going to kill him.” Lila flopped down on the swing bench beside her best friend.
Beth Ann draped an arm around her. “Oh, come on. Fireworks are awesome. Everyone loves them and seems to be having a good time. Just pretend it was all part of the plan. Take his credit.”
Lila snorted. “Yeah, right. Who would believe that?”
A loud boom echoed around them, and she watched as the sky glowed bright green and blue. Living outside of town, the Westons’ had a large backyard. With the Millers living next door, the two families shared the land, making the joined area even more spacious.
Lila’s dad and Mrs. Miller grew up together—best friends their entire lives. When he went off to college, they grew apart. For years, they only saw each other during holidays and summer breaks. When he moved back to Summersville with Lila’s mom, the three became near inseparable.
It was a story Lila knew well. Her father told it to her over and over as explained the importance of friendship, trying to smooth things over between Lila and Gavin. She was sure Gavin had heard it just as much. They eventually stopped. She felt as if they’d given up just as much as Gavin. It had been a couple years since she last heard the story.
A group of Gavin’s cousins laughed and ran by. Lila reached out and snatched up Emily before she could get away. The little girl squealed as Lila pulled her into her lap. “What are you doing, little monster?”
“Yi-ya, put me down!” Emily giggled.
The four year old’s mispronunciation of her name made Lila forget all her anger. She gave Emily a kiss on the cheek, squeezing her to her chest, then let go. The little girl skipped away, yelling to one of her older brothers. He stopped and squatted down so she could climb on his back. With her arms around his neck, he lifted her and ran after the others.
Lila couldn’t help but smile. Despite her strong dislike of Gavin, she loved his family. The Millers’ relatives visited often, and there were a lot of them. Lila’s father had one sister who lived on the other side of the country, whom they only saw a few times over the years. Her mom didn’t have any siblings, neither did Lila, so she always enjoyed having the extended-Millers around.
Apart from their families, a few of their parents’ friends and a couple of teenagers who worked at the Millers’ ice cream shop with Lila mingled around the party. Her coworkers had said hello and congratulated her before forming their own little circle, not interacting with anyone. No one else from their high school showed up, even though Lila had sent out invitations months in advance.
A momentary twinge of regret struck as she looked around, wishing she had done things a little different—that she was more involved in school while she had a chance. It would have been nice if at least a few people came.
The kids continued to laugh and play in the dim light of the tiki torches placed throughout the yards. Lila sighed as she watched fourteen-year-old Matthew spin Emily around on his back. “How is it they can be so fun and caring when Gavin is the worst?”
As if on cue, Gavin and Dylan strolled over to the swing.
“Ladies.” Dylan sat on Beth Ann’s other side, putting an arm around her. She laughed and playfully shoved him over.
Gavin lowered to the ground across from them, leaning back on his hands. “See, wasn’t that fun? You should’ve let me plan your party.”
“I’m actually surprised you two are having separate parties,” Dylan said.
With their birthdays only three days apart, they had shared a party every year until they turned eleven. After that disaster of a party, Lila started making up excuses about being too old and wanting to do something else. Even so, their families held all of their other holiday parties together.
“That was all her doing.” Gavin lightly kicked Lila’s swinging leg.
She rolled her eyes and looked to Dylan. “Having my own party was my graduation gift.”
“If we’d had a party together,” Gavin started, “at least people would have shown up.”
“Gavin!” Beth Ann hissed
Lila shrugged, trying to show his words didn’t hurt, then pulled her feet up beneath her to turn more toward Beth Ann. “Are you excited about New York?”
She knew the answer, it was all they’d talked about lately, but she wanted to change the subject. Beth Ann nodded, understanding. “Yes! I’m so anxious though.”
“I still can’t believe you’re going to Harleson.” Dylan stuck out his lip in an exaggerated pout.
“I wish you didn’t have to leave so early,” Lila said.
With an acceptance into the early summer program, it was Beth Ann’s last weekend home. She hooked an arm through Lila’s and pulled her close. “As soon as I’m all settled, you have to come visit.”
“New York would be a blast!” Dylan said. Gavin agreed and leaned up to bump his fist.
“Oh, no. I wasn’t inviting you two,” she clarified.
“Come on, Bethy,” Dylan pleaded as he pulled her away from Lila. He sat her on his lap and kissed her cheek. “You know you have to invite me.”
She gave in and smiled but didn’t respond. Instead, she stood, pointing toward the table on the back deck and mumbling about getting food. Dylan followed as he always did.
Lila wrapped her arms around herself, watching her friend walk away. An invisible band tightened around her chest, her eyes burned, and she bit her bottom lip. She didn’t want Beth Ann to leave in two days. They’d talked about it for the last year, but it didn’t make it any easier. New York was so far from their small Indiana town.
The swing jolted, and she grabbed the arm of the bench in surprise. Her eyes snapped to Gavin. She had forgotten he was still there.
“Breathe,” he whispered, gently rubbing her back. She took a shaky breath, hating that he knew how to help her through the anxiety.
“Thanks,” she replied after she had control again.
He held a hand over his chest in mock surprise. “What? Did Lila Weston just thank me?”
She didn’t reply, she just shook her head and looked back to her friends on the porch. Dylan had never teased her like Gavin. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body and seemed to genuinely like everyone. They never spent much time together, but he treated her better than the rest of Gavin’s friends. Her dad joined them, pointing to the little speaker playing music. Dylan started talking to him in his typical animated form—probably explaining how the Bluetooth let him play music from his phone. Her father was alarmingly-bad with technology.
“Hey.” Gavin bumped Lila’s shoulder. With a wink and mischievous smile, he said, “At least you’ll have me around all summer.”
She groaned and jumped up. “Shut up, Gavin,” she said as she headed in the direction of her parents.
Chapter 2 Sunday
Lila opened the sliding glass window and handed over a chocolate chip ice cream cone. The shop stayed busy all day, but it had finally let up around dinner time. As summer break began and all the different graduation open houses took place, people typically came and went nonstop from mid-morning until they closed. The little boy at the window said a quick thanks then ran off to play on the playground with his friends.
“I can’t believe you have to work on my last day here,” Beth Ann complained as she stepped up to the window.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Lila said. “Mrs. Miller was desperate when Cass and May called in. I couldn’t leave her hanging.”
She knew it shouldn’t have been up to her, but she truly loved the Summer Scoop. Mrs. Miller hired her three years earlier, but she’d helped out before then unofficially. In their small, lake town of Summersville, there weren’t a lot of options—especially for teenagers—so Lila was grateful for the chance. Without the Scoop, she didn’t know what her life would look like. It had changed everything.
“I’ll be done by ten-thirty, then we can have one more sleepover,” she said. “We can stay up all night watching movies and eating junk food.”
“My flight is really early. I have to leave by like five. I don’t think I should stay up all night. As much as I want to…”
Lila sighed, frustrated that time had gone too quick. “Well, at least hang out here for a little while. I’ll get you some ice cream.”
“Vanilla swirl,” Lila finished with a grin. “I know.”
She turned away, grabbed a cone, and walked to the machine. Saying goodbye to her best friend would hurt. They’d planned to spend the day together at the lake’s beach, but now she was stuck watching others enjoy the sun from the shop on the hill beside it.
That seemed to be the theme of her life.
A plan to change that began to form as her mother’s words from the week before about making the most of her summer echoed in her mind.
“Mom, this isn’t fair,” Gavin said for the third time. “It’s my last summer before I have to be an adult. I have plans—fun plans. None of which involve working at the Scoop.”
“Honey, I know, but I really need the help.” She didn’t turn away from her spot at the desk in their living room. “I wasn’t expecting two people to quit the first week of summer.”
“So hire a couple more people,” he pleaded. “There are plenty of high schoolers wanting jobs.”
“I will, but I don’t have time to do it by tomorrow. Besides, it will do you good to learn some responsibility before leaving for school.”
Gavin groaned and flung himself down on the couch. His mom flipped through a stack of papers, making notes off to the side as she went. When he didn’t respond, she stopped. Setting the papers and pen down, she turned in her chair and took her glasses off. The weariness in her eyes struck him with guilt.
“Just give me a few weeks to get a couple more people trained,” she said. “Poor Lila is practically running the place by herself right now.”
That made him groan again. He hung his head back and raked a hand through his short chestnut hair. “I have to work with Lila?”
“You know she works there. This isn’t news.”
“Can’t we work different days or something?” he begged.
“She works almost every day, usually all day.”
“Of course she does,” Gavin muttered. For years, he’d heard about how perfect and responsible Lila was and how he should be more like her. “Mom, you know she hates me.”
She sighed. He knew she was just as tired of them fighting as he was, though he’d never admit it out loud. “This needs to stop. You’re practically adults now. You need to talk to her and figure out what happened all those years ago.”
Gavin shrugged. They’d had that conversation countless times. The truth was he had no idea what started it. He remembered playing in the sprinklers as kids, laughing and building snowmen in the winter. They did everything together, until they didn’t. She wanted nothing to do with him.
“Only a few weeks?” he asked. Knowing how important the shop was to his mom, he did want to help. Now that his dad spent so much time from home, she did everything on her own. And she she rarely asked for help. Gavin just didn’t want to spend his summer being nagged by his uptight neighbor. Or, at least, that was the reason he told himself over and over.
If only he’d believe it.
“Two or three weeks tops.” When the phone rang, she stood and patted his leg. “Thank you. You’ll start tomorrow morning.”
“Ugh!” he yelled, over-exaggerating as she walked by laughing. In the kitchen, she answered the phone, and by her tone, he knew it was his father, who was out of town for a company business trip. Something that happened more and more lately. Gavin wondered if he was assigned the trips or if he volunteered to get away.
Rolling to his side, he snatched his phone up and texted Dylan. His friend sent several laughing emojis in response to the news.
Gavin: Thanks for the support. You know this affects your plans too, right?
Dylan responded with the poop emoji, and he laughed. His friend then sent a basketball emoji. Gavin shook his and sent a thumbs up. Dylan used way too many emojis and GIFs, but it mirrored his over-the-top personality. Gavin stood from the couch and moved toward the stairs. As he began to climb, he yelled down to his mother, “I’m not wearing the uniform though!”
Well, it’s been two months since my last post… my bad. It’s been a crazy couple months! So much has happened. I will try to keep this short.
The Lost Legends
My debut novel released March 17!!
The amount of love and support it has received is overwhelming. I am so happy to see people enjoying it!
The Lost Legends is the first in a Robin Hood/Tangled retelling series. You can find this YA/NA fantasy on Amazon here!
Fun Size Anthology
My short story, The Lost Warriors, released March 10 in this anthology by Circle City Publishing!!
It is a brief backstory of the Nihryst about when they were cursed, sent to war, and then abandoned. You can get a copy here!
The Last Summer
My next book releases June 17!!
It’s currently in editing. ARC sign ups will go up soon, so be sure to join my Facebook group if interested!
This is a sweet, YA contemporary romance. It’s light and fun, with a bit of feels through out. It will make a great summer read! Pre-order on Amazon here!
I am currently working on the second book in The Nihryst series, The Lost Prince. I’m about a third of the way done with the first draft and aiming to release in November! The 10th anniversary of Tangled happens to be that month, so what better timing is there? This book is intense, and I think I’m going to end up loving it more than book one. I already have the cover, which is absolutely gorgeous. My designer did such a wonderful job. It made me cry, it’s so perfect. I’ll be doing that reveal in a couple months.
I’m working on the sequel to The Last Summer, title TBA. The two books can be read as standalones but go together. The Last Summer is about Lila and Gavin; the second book takes place after and is about their best friends, Beth Ann and Dylan. I already have the cover for this as well, and it’s amazing. I’m aiming for this to release early in 2021, but we’ll see… it might be earlier if I get it done quickly.
I have a couple stories being published in anthologies later this year as well. One is another backstory of a character in The Lost Legends. The other will be unrelated, and I have yet to start it, but it’s for an anthology I am putting together with a friend.
There is also half a fae book done that I started a couple years ago and am jumping back into now. I have an incredibly perfect cover for it (by the same designer as The Nihryst books), and it’s already plotted out with over 40k words written. So, I might finish this and sneak in its release this fall. I’m not officially announcing it yet because I have a lot to catch up on before I can focus on it. The part I have written needs A LOT of work, as I have learned a lot about writing since I started it. But I love the story and am excited to finish it.
The Ursula retelling got a new cover recently… because I have no self-control. It was too beautiful to pass up though, and it’s the same designer as The Nihryst books again. However, I haven’t worked on the story in months. It’s plotted out for the most part, but I just don’t think it’s happening this year.
I have a ton of other stories started and ideas written down too! Including a sci-fi retelling series, where there may or may not be a Lion Kingstory with humans and cyborgs instead of lions and hyenas… I cannot wait to share them all!
Want the latest updates, sneak peeks, and exclusive giveaway opportunities? Check out my Facebook group: Cait’s Inner Circle
Do you have eclectic taste? Bored with the same recommendations about what to read next? Then the Fun Size Anthology is the perfect choice for your next read. Find the answer to what you’ve been looking for in this collection of short stories to get new ideas of what to add to your TBR pile.
Who doesn’t love the timeless battle between good versus evil? That age-old fight takes many shapes, and they’re all included within the pages of this anthology, ranging from outlaw bikers to angels & demons. Millionaire philanthropists who fight evil to fairy tale characters. FBI agents on the hunt for a notorious serial killer to dragons and sorcerers. Thirsty for a new spin on vampires? Enter the pages of this gateway of stories, and get to know some great authors and learn more about their worlds. Get your recommended daily bite-sized dose of goodness from these stories and more inside!
✨The Lost Warriors Blurb✨
Most people would be sentenced to death for stealing from King Henri. But not Loxley. When Loxley gets caught, instead of a death sentence, he’s ordered to serve the king. There’s a war brewing with another kingdom, and Loxley gets called to action along with his band of associates. They are able to win the war, but at great cost to King Henri. Now Loxley has to answer for that. What will become of Loxley and his gang’s fate?
For the first eleven years of their lives, neighbors Lila and Gavin were inseparable best friends. They did everything together. Until they didn’t.
Every detail of Lila’s life has been meticulously planned out since she was a child. To the point where she forgot one vital thing: to live. When she receives news that drastically alters the path of her future, she realizes she has one last chance to create memories and make the most of her summer.
Gavin, on the other hand, is known for his carefree attitude. He has lived a charmed life for almost eighteen years. He’s never short on friends or a good time, he has a supportive family, and he’s all set to go off to college and follow his dreams. The one thing he doesn’t have is the girl.
He doesn’t know why Lila pushed him away all those years ago, but when Gavin finds her summer bucket list, he’s determined to help his goody-two-shoes neighbor cross off every item and hopefully mend their friendship in the process. Even if that’s not all he wants from her.
So what happens now? Well, the signed copy form closed a few days ago, and my pre-order swag (a Nihryst card of Loxley, like on the cover) should be here in the next few days. Once the book is finished being formatted and I get a proof to make sure it all looks okay, I will be ordering a huge shipment of paperbacks to send to those who ordered, to bring to the launch party, and to send to book bloggers to share on Instagram (official announcement coming soon, but if interested, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Limited number of copies.).
I’m putting together a big giveaway, some smaller ones, and planning the launch party. And I’m basically just going to keep pushing the book. I can’t believe it comes out in 11 days!!
I am also working on a YA contemporary romance coming out this summer. The cover reveal is scheduled for March 11, and I cannot wait for everyone to know more about this book. I have loved writing it; it’s a nice change from fantasy. Think A Walk to Remember but with more ice cream and shenanigans. It’s fun and emotional, and I’m excited for you all to meet Lila and Gavin!
Bloggers and readers, if you’re interested in helping with the cover reveal March 11, the blog tour in June, ARCs, or all of the above, please fill out this form: https://forms.gle/1c6nDKPp9RDsa4Nz5
Want the latest updates, sneak peeks, and exclusive giveaway opportunities? Check out my Facebook group: Cait’s Inner Circle
Just a short post tonight, I wanted share something from a current read since it’s been a while, and couldn’t resist s quote from The Nihryst: The Lost Legends by Cait Marie @c8_marie 💕💕 ••
(Disclaimer, this is likely the first of several similar posts…so yeah, haha. This isn’t my favorite quote so far, but I felt it was a good one to share, I’ll share a better one soon! **And I’m just on ch. 3 🙊😍**) posted on Instagram – https://ift.tt/38qcBnt
In honor of International Fairy Tale Day, I thought I would surprise you all with the first two chapters of my upcoming debut YA fantasy, The Lost Legends, available March 18!
But first, here are what some of the early readers are saying…
His feet slid across the loose gravel as he pulled himself around the corner of a building, nearly dropping the bag hanging from his shoulder. The bay glistened at the bottom of the hill, mere blocks separating him from his escape. Footsteps pounded the cobblestone streets all around. The sound of clanking armor and people rushing to get out of the way echoed off the stone buildings.
Loxley ran down the shadowed, narrow alley, keeping his goal in sight. He glanced over his shoulder to see a dozen of the king’s guards trailing behind him. Trying to slow them down, he grabbed onto a stacked tower of crates and shoved it to the ground as he ran by. He was yards from the open docks. His crew waited for him on the ship.
Or so he thought.
As soon as he stepped out of the alley and into the sun, guards came at him from both sides. He turned, looking for a way out, but the men who had followed him caught up. Guards surrounded him from every direction. With the water ahead as his only option, Loxley took a deep breath and prepared to jump. When he stepped forward, a path cleared among the guards to reveal his crew. Ropes and chains restrained each of them. One guard held a dagger against the throat of his second in command, Briar. Though his crew subtly nodded for him to go, he knew he could never leave them. After all, it was him the guards truly wanted. Slowly, he lowered the bag of stolen goods from his shoulder and raised his hands in surrender.
“Then what happened, Mama?” Adalina looked up at her mother with big, expectant eyes.
The queen pulled the blankets up tighter around her daughter’s shoulders with a smile. Adalina knew the story. She had asked to hear it almost every night for years. Some would argue that she knew it better than the man behind the legend himself.
With a chuckle, the queen shifted on the edge of the bed to rest against the headboard. “You know the rest.”
“But I like when you tell it,” the young princess insisted.
“Well,” her mother continued, “they were brought to the castle’s dungeon to be sentenced by the king. But when most of his advisors called for their death, the queen begged for mercy and the king agreed. Loxley and his men had caused trouble in the kingdom for years. They were smart and strong. So, the king came up with a different punishment. They were forced to serve as soldiers and spies in the war against Rayerna for three years.”
Adalina sucked in a breath and covered the lower part of her face with the blanket. She knew what was coming.
“Just as they were brought to the ship, the king’s mother appeared.” Growing weary, the queen moved lower in the bed and put an arm around the princess. “It was rumored that she was a witch, but no one was ever certain until that day. The king had collaborated with her in secret. On the day they were to depart, she went to the crew and pulled out a stack of cards used to tell the future.”
Adalina sat up a little with a grin, and her mother reached over to the bedside table. The princess held out her hands with anticipation as the queen placed two dozen cards in her palms. Together, they flipped through them, looking at the painted faces on each. Adalina stopped on her favorite and pulled it out on top. The dark-haired man looked brave, not cruel or troublesome like the story depicted.
“With their faces on the cards, she cursed the crew. So long as their images remained intact, the Nihryst would remain whole. Never aging. Never dying. The king promised that, after three years, the curse would be removed, and they would simply be banished from Detmarya for their treasonous acts. But instead of being brought to a different kingdom and set free, they were stranded on a remote, secret island called Cyfrin.
The rest of their lives wasn’t enough for the witch though. She believed them to be responsible for her second son’s death during the war—the king’s younger brother. She wanted them to suffer for all of eternity, so she refused to lift the curse, leaving their lives connected to the cards.”
“They were to live on the island forever as immortals,” the princess finished in a whisper. She grazed a thumb over the ancient language that swirled in gilded symbols along the edges of the cards.
“With the cards as the only clue to break the curse.” The queen kissed the top of Adalina’s head as her eyes began to flutter shut.
“I will break their curse.”
The queen didn’t open her eyes, but she smiled at the conviction in her daughter’s words. “Yes, my little blodau, perhaps one day you will be the one to find them and break your great, great, great, great grandmother’s curse.”
Adalina settled back down in the bed. She held the cards close to her chest with one hand while the other held up the most treasured item in her possession. Looking at the intense sea green eyes, she quietly made her vow. “I will find you one day, Loxley. And I will set you free.”
14 years later…
“How many times are you going to read that?” A boot nudged Adalina’s foot.
With a sigh, she closed her book and set it aside. She blocked the sun with her hand, squinting up at her brother. “Do you need something, Shane?”
He laughed and sat down across from her in the grass. The bright blue sky reflected in his eyes as he leaned back on his hands. Sensing something was wrong, Adalina sat up straighter, her back leaving the great oak trunk.
“Shane?” Her gentle voice questioned his silence.
“It’s nothing,” he replied, looking back down at the ground. He picked at a couple blades of grass. The light breeze blew the small pieces around as he pulled them apart. “Just stressed. I needed a break.”
“Is he still planning something?”
Shane scoffed. “Isn’t he always?” He tossed the remaining strands of grass and shoved a hand through his dark hair. “He’s being very secretive, yet he demands my presence. It’s confusing.”
Adalina understood. She knew how sporadic her father had been since their mother’s death. It was as if he wanted to confide in someone, but he couldn’t make up his mind who that should be. He constantly acted paranoid and on edge. After fourteen years, it seemed to be getting worse instead of better.
“Hey.” She bumped his knee with her toes, and his eyes met hers reluctantly. “It’ll be all right. You’re doing as much as you can.”
“But is that enough?”
At that, Adalina crossed her own legs and scooted closer. She covered his fidgety hand. Knowing what he was really thinking, she squeezed his fingers and said, “Yes, Shane, it’s enough. You are going to be a great king when the time comes. No one cares about this kingdom more than you. The people know that—they love you.”
The tension in his shoulders loosened, and he gave her a small smile. Though they were five years apart, they had always been close. Along with Phillip, Shane’s lifelong best friend, they often felt as if they were all each other had in the world.
“So,” Shane said, changing the subject. He reached around her to grab the book off the ground. “Why are you reading this today? Don’t you know every word by now?”
Adalina rolled her eyes and made to take it back, only to have it pulled out of reach. Shane quickly got to his feet and she followed. He held it up in the air, teasing her. With resignation, she leaned against the tree trunk and crossed her arms.
“You’re going to laugh,” she said.
He flipped through the worn pages of their mother’s book. It opened to reveal the Nihryst cards lying between the middle pages. Scanning the familiar faces, a corner of his mouth tugged up as memories flooded them both. He looked back up, waiting for her to continue.
“I think I can find the island.” Her words were barely more than a whisper.
“Ada.” Shane’s eyes looked sad as he stepped forward with the book. “It’s just a story. We’ve been through this. There—“
“Is no island,” she said in unison with her brother. She had heard the same thing more times than she could count. “But look.” She moved to stand beside him and pointed to the open page.
The pages were designed similarly to the cards. The story of the Nihryst was written just as she remembered her mother telling it to her all those nights. The edges, however, had the same swirling language as the cards. Small painted images of her kingdom and the other nearby islands surrounded by symbols filled the pages. Though she couldn’t read the language, she recognized a little of it by where each symbol appeared in the book.
Every time she looked at the map, the colors and letters whirled together, forming images in her mind. She spent hours staring at it, trying to decipher the meanings. Sometimes, it felt as if her whole life had been about decoding the book.
“See this symbol here? Well, it’s on a couple other pages, always near the bottom left corner,” she explained frantically, taking hold of the book. “I think it means southwest.”
Shane looked down at his sister with raised brows. He had never seen the pages as she had, as if they were full of magic. No one had, except their mother. Even then, it was as if she couldn’t see them but knew the princess could. She had watched her daughter’s face light up in wonder each time they read it together. After her mother died, Adalina stopped mentioning the symbols because of the anger it brought to her father’s eyes.
“And here, this one.” Adalina pointed at the image of a rose seemingly in the middle of the ocean. A rose Shane saw as simply a decoration was a clue in her eyes. “Do you remember that island some of the navy men used to speak of? The one they hated stopping at and avoided whenever they could?”
“Tugora,” he answered. “The—“
“Pirate island, yes.” She looked up, excited that he understood and followed her train of thought. “Well, I overheard one of them talking about a Rosy Inn one time, and I think that’s what this symbolizes. I think the key to finding Cyfrin is there!”
Shane sighed and stepped away, pinching the bridge of his nose. Adalina held her breath and waited.
“Ada, it’s just a flower. It’s a decoration on a pretty page. This was fun when we were growing up, but we’re adults now. It’s time to move on.”
She couldn’t meet his eyes. She knew it was coming, but it still hurt. No one had ever seen the things she put together. Only her mother had ever entertained the idea that she might figure out the clues one day.
“I know you think this is just some make believe game,” Adalina said softly. “You don’t have to believe I’ve started figuring out the clues. But these aren’t just stories, Shane.”
She finally looked up and met his gaze, his light blue eyes matching her own. He shook his head slightly. “They are though. They’re bedtime stories meant to teach children not to steal or go against the crown.”
“But they were real people! Our great, great—“
“Great, great grandmother was accused of being a witch,” he continued. “Yes, they were all real people. Real people with exaggerated stories for entertainment.”
She started to turn away, but Shane grabbed her elbow to stop her from leaving. “In all likelihood, they were the thieves we’ve heard of, but they were probably thrown in the dungeon cells and never seen again.”
When she didn’t respond, he walked around to face her and continued, “It’s been over a hundred years and no one has ever found the island. Cyfrin doesn’t exist. They weren’t turned into immortals.”
Adalina’s eyes began to burn, and she hugged the book tighter to her chest. She knew with every fiber of her being that he was wrong, but he was right about one thing: it was time to stop daydreaming under trees and talking about coded maps as if she were on a treasure hunt. She could act the part of the mature princess—who no longer believed in fairy tales—that they all thought her to be.
Clearing her throat, she glanced at her brother with a nod. “You’re right. It’s childish to believe in these stories. I just held onto them for so long because…”
She trailed off. While she had started off with a lie, the last part was true.
“Because our mother gave you the book and the cards,” Shane finished. “She believed they were real too.”
Adalina nodded again, trying to swallow past the lump in her throat. The prince wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed before guiding her back toward the castle. They walked slowly, neither eager to return to their duties. The wind stirred the fallen leaves at their feet. Their footsteps crunched as they made their way to the stone walkway shadowed by the towering stone walls. The red and orange hues of nature reflected off large windows.
Inside, they continued toward their father’s study. They both knew he would still be in there, looking over spilled books and papers that made sense only to him. Adalina had started to fear that Shane may need to step in as king sooner than expected. She kept those thoughts to herself though. She was the princess, but it would still be considered treason.
“Are you excited for the ball? It’s getting close,” she said, trying to sound casual as they crossed the marble floor. Guards stood near the doors, but no one else came through. The entryway was quiet as the staff went about their work elsewhere.
“Ha! No,” Shane replied with a groan.
She looked at him in surprise. Lady Beth spent little time in Detmarya—a short visit each year—but Shane had never complained about her presence or impending proposal.
“I thought you liked Lady Beth?”
Shane rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. Their steps slowed when they reached the staircase. They stopped beside it, wanting to prolong going up to their father.
“I do,” he said, bracing a hand against the banister as he turned to face her. “She’s sweet. I just…”
“Don’t love her?” Adalina gave him a soft smile.
He nodded. “And I really don’t want an entire celebration just to announce the official betrothal.”
“The celebration is for the end of the harvest season,” she said, correcting him. “Your announcement is an added surprise for the people.”
He shrugged as if to say it didn’t matter. He’d be the center of attention regardless, and Adalina was one of the few who understood how much he didn’t love that aspect of this life.
“Are you excited?” He raised an eyebrow with a smirk, changing the focus to her.
“Wipe that grin off your face.” She smacked his arm with a laugh.
“Rumor has it that a certain prince is attending…”
“It’s not a rumor if he’s on the guest list,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“You’re right.” Shane’s face shifted into a mischievous grin. “Those weren’t the rumors I heard about Prince Michel’s visit.”
Adalina felt the heat rise in her cheeks. As Shane turned to go up the stairs, she grabbed his wrist and yanked him back around.
“Fine!” she said in an exasperated whisper. “Tell me.”
He laughed and crossed his arms. “He’s extended his stay. I saw the letter myself.”
She raised her brow and urged him to continue.
“He’s asked to stay an extra couple of weeks. He is coming earlier than planned, and the rumor is,” he dragged out the words, making her suffer with impatience, “he wants to stay because he has proposal plans for some mystery girl.”
Adalina’s eyes widened, and her jaw dropped. She quickly covered it with her hand, trying to appear unconcerned. She knew she wasn’t fooling him though. A thousand butterflies fluttered in her stomach. Words wouldn’t form as she tried to come up with something to say.
Shane shook his head with a quiet chuckle. “Most people seem to think it’s one of the noble ladies.”
That eased some of her worry. It would be extremely difficult to carry on as normal for the next couple months if the people thought their princess was getting married.
“But we both know it’s really you,” he interrupted her thoughts with a wink. Quickly, he jumped back out of reach as she moved to hit him again.
Their laughter was cut off by a handful of people rushing through the doors. There was an urgency in the way they moved down the hall. When closer, Adalina saw a man being carried between them on a blanket. Melanie, Adalina’s lady’s maid, led the group. She met the princess’s eyes and rushed over to the pair.
She bowed her head. “Your Highnesses.” As she raised, she lifted a hand to usher them up the stairs. The group passed. The carried man looked barely conscious, and his moaning could be heard over their movements.
“What’s wrong with him, Melanie?” Adalina asked as she paused.
“Nothing for you to worry about,” she explained. “He’s come down with something, but he’ll be fine. You two should head upstairs though. We don’t want to take any chances.”
Shane thanked her and grabbed Adalina’s elbow to pull her along. As they climbed, she looked back over her shoulder and saw the people disappear around the corner. Adalina knew something more serious was going on—the former nursemaid didn’t even scold her for addressing her improperly—but she let it go for now.
“Don’t worry, Ada,” Shane said as they reached the landing. The study was a few feet away, the door firmly shut. “They’ll bring him to the infirmary and take care of him.”
Adalina looked to Shane and nodded. Moments like these, where he took charge and comforted her, reminded her of the king he would one day become. His air of confidence made him appear older and wiser than his twenty-four years. They paused outside the door that led to where the king schemed. There were still three months before the ball, but the closer it got, the less they saw of him. It concerned both of his children.
“You never answered me,” Shane said, bringing her back to the present. “Are you excited about Michel coming?”
She laughed and shook her head. “You’re very persistent.”
“It runs in the family.” He nodded toward the book tucked under her arm.
“Yes, I’m excited,” she replied, moving a strand of auburn hair behind her ear.
“Good.” With a hand on the doorknob, he added, “Just wait until after my own engagement announcement for yours please.”
Then he was gone, and she was staring at the dark, wooden door. With a sigh, she turned and walked up another flight of stairs to her bedroom. She thought of the prince across the sea and couldn’t stop the grin from spreading. Biting her lip, she quickened her pace, nearly skipping to her door.
Her room sat empty, but a small flame crackled in the fireplace. It fought off the chill that made its way into the air with the changing season. Outside of those in the castle, Prince Michel was her closest friend. She remembered visiting Rayerna after her mother’s death—spending the summer with a prince who knew nothing about cheering up a little girl only a year younger than him. But that hadn’t stopped him from trying. Images of running through the gardens and bright-colored flowers that seemed to glitter in the sunlight filled her mind. Unlike her brother, Adalina loved celebrations and couldn’t wait for the ball. The thought of Michel proposing made her heart pound.
Adalina crossed the room and sat on the edge of her bed. Her fingers slid between the pages of the book and expertly pulled out the card of Loxley. She trailed her thumb down the side. Clenching her jaw, she put the card with the others, then put the book into the drawer of her bedside table.
She flopped back onto the soft comforter, replacing the book that was so often held to her chest with a small pillow. In a few months, she would be engaged to a man she loved. She would one day rule beside him as the queen—not that that truly mattered to her. What she wouldn’t have was her mother there to see her marry someone who made her happy.
Thinking of her mother and the book safely hidden away, Adalina rolled over and hugged the pillow tighter. Shane was right: she needed to move past the fairy tales. She needed to live in the real world. Knowing he was right didn’t make it easier. She thought about his disbelief in the story—in her understanding the symbols—and she fought the tears threatening to fall. Instead, she focused on the memory of hazel eyes and a prince always fighting to make her smile.