Friday, November 26, 2021

Crown & Cinder Chapter 1

 

Do you like getting books for free and cheap? Well, have I got news for you - the Indie Black Friday sale is back and better than ever, with over three hundred and fifty ebooks to choose from, all for a dollar or even free!

Personally, I've already grabbed several shiny books for my kindle, and there are so many more awesome books, including ALL of my books, even C&C's preorder, so ... go check 'em out. 

I actually have a goal to hit 100 preorders this weekend on C&C, so if you could at least go snag that one (though it's best to get RP&S as well, since it's also only 99 cents), that would be incredibly lovely. I'm currently at 39, so that's only 61 to go!

(Sale's now over, but I've made it to 61 preorders! And you can still enjoy the following chapter 1!)

And, now, to whet your appetite, the first chapter of Crown & Cinder, which, I shall warn, is not edited and extremely rough, but do enjoy just the same. 

Chapter 1

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a girl, in possession of stepmother and stepsisters, must be in want of a fairy godmother to come whisk her away to some ball, where she might fall in love with a prince and live happily ever after.

Lizzy hated facts universally acknowledged. Far too often – and as in this case – they were the furthest thing from the truth. Yes, she had a stepmother, and, yes, Lady Benne did keep her away from polite society, but she’d never felt oppressed in her life. At best, “polite” society bored her, and she was glad to have an excuse to avoid it.

Besides which, fairies were, on the whole, a pesky folk who could rarely be relied on for anything. She had certainly never heard tell of any of them with enough self-awareness to godmother anyone. And who would ask that of a creature that would barely live a decade.

No, she was quite happy with her life. She knew her place in society, and she was glad of it. She had a roof over her head, a family that loved her, each in their own way, and she didn't have to listen to people whisper about her behind her back.

"Watch out for the Cinder!" she knew they would say. "Thinks she can be one of us - but it doesn't matter who her father is, it doesn't change the fire that runs through her veins!"

As though she would want to change one whit about herself! No, she was much better off acting as a servant in their household, where Cinders were supposed to be. Her best friend, cousin, and fellow Cinder, Charrie, was among the servants, and they didn't need anyone's approval.

And, so, Lizzy naturally thought it no consequence at all to herself when her younger half-sister rushed into the room, waving a sheet of paper, crying at the top of her considerably powerful lungs.

"Oh, Mother! Mother! Janet! You won't believe it! Oh, no, you won't believe it at all - I was just talking to the knights, and they had the most delightful news. Mother!"

Lizzy twisted the rag in her hand and rolled her eyes towards Charrie with a tired sigh. They had been sharing a very stimulating conversation, as they discussed Janet's latest insufferable beau, who had been to dinner last night. Janet was far too polite to him, in Lizzy's opinion, but she was far too polite to everyone. Why, if he'd been there to court Lizzy, she would have already turned him out on his ear.

But, then, when he eventually found out that Janet's real father had been nothing but a farmer, and that Lizzy herself was Lord Benne's true eldest daughter ... well, he'd be soon on his way, the same as all the other beaus. Not even Janet's sweet spirit and quiet beauty could entice a man who was truly after a title and connections. Perhaps Janet did well enough with her politeness. But she deserved better.

"Mother!" Lavinia shrieked again, and threw up her hands in frustration as she spun around and her eye fell on Lizzy. "Oh! Lizzy! Is Mother abed with another of her headaches? Oh, but she would so unreasonable at a time like this."

Lizzy stood, giving Charrie a regretful smile as she dropped her rag in the dirty water. She chose to not comment on Lady Benne being unreasonable, be it in agreement or otherwise. She hated agreeing with her half-sister for anything, and yet ... well, she was far too familiar with Lady Benne’s headaches. 

"Perhaps your marvelous news shall do mother good enough to cure her headache," Lizzy suggested, straightening the kerchief she kept tied around her otherwise unruly black curls. "She’s in her room with Janet. We may as well take the news to her."

Of course, given that this news apparently came from the knights, Lizzy didn't know how far she trusted it, but she knew that Lady Benne would want to hear it. Much as she tried, Lizzy couldn't convince her stepmother how improper it was for a young lady to spend as much time with the knights as Lavinia did. Truly, she had no idea why her father had married the woman - but she also had no idea why he'd married her own mother. 

Her father was a man who defied understanding. 

Perhaps there was a reason that Janet compensated by being far too polite. Lizzy would be the first to admit that it was probably the only thing that saved their family's respectability among their peers.

If only she were Lord Benne's real daughter. Letting people live on assumptions was dangerous business.

Lavinia was practically bouncing on her toes as they walked to her mother's room, and Lizzy was pretty sure that her younger sister was going to burst into pieces if she didn't tell her news at once. At least she wouldn't burst into flames. Lavinia's outbursts and foolishness only hurt her dignity and caused natural damage.

Lizzy couldn't imagine the terror and disgrace her sister would have been if she were the Cinder instead. Oh, but if only her father could have had a proper heir!

They could hear Lady Benne's moans and tears a full hallway before they reached her room, and Lizzy released a pained sigh. She was never quite sure how much of her stepmother's "headaches" were real, and how much she affected in a bid for sympathy. She had her guesses, though.

But she wasn't about to agree with Lavinia and call the woman "unreasonable." 

Lavinia burst into the room with a shriek of triumph. "Mother! You can stop this right now! I have the best of news, and even your worst headache can't compare to it, I promise. So quiet up and listen." She waved a sheet of paper about that. As Lizzy slunk into the room and leaned against the wall, she wondered if she should have taken note of this piece of paper sooner. But how important could it really be, coming from the knights the way it did. 

Lavinia was sixteen - far too young to be spending as much time as she did with the knights. And far too old to be acting like a child, the way she did.

But no one would listen to Lizzy's concerns about her youngest sister. Lady Benne was nearly as childish and silly as her daughter, Janet was sure that Lavinia would grow up in time - though where she got that idea, Lizzy had no clue - and their father would only smile indulgently and say that Lavinia was only making use of her youth while she had it. 

But, really, what use was it listening to the reclusive Cinder who preferred to spend time with the servants over her own peers? But who really were her peers? As far as she was concerned, servants were far less complicated, and far less concerned over the fact that Lizzy could toss sparks from her fingertips. 

"It's Prince Liam! He's finally coming home again, after all these years away!" Lavinia announced gleefully, as she shoved the paper into her mother's eager hands. "They're going to throw three balls to celebrate - and they're inviting every eligible maiden in all of Binfield to attend!"

"Every eligible maiden?" repeated Janet, glancing towards Lizzy, as though for help. Lizzy just shrugged. After all, she was just learning this information herself.

"Well, that's what the proclamation says." Lavinia gave a small shrug. "Though, it's an exaggeration to make them sound more benevolent, or at least, that's what Sir Owen said. The actual truth is that to actually attend, Father will have to register us, and then they'll let us know if we're selected - but we're the first to know! Sir Noah promised me so! If Father makes sure to register us at once, then we're sure to be chosen!"

Mother sat up straight and then fell back against the pillows with a cry of despair. "Oh, but then we are doomed! That man will neglect his duty just to vex me, I swear he will. He cares naught a wit for the fates of his daughters, only that I am the most miserable woman in all the land! And this is such an opportunity, too! Why, a royal ball! Think of the husbands you could find there! Perhaps even the prince himself!"

"It's a royal ball, after all," said Lavinia, nodding sagely as though she knew what she was talking about. "In the prince's honor, where they're making a specific point to invite maidens. Sir Nathaniel says that means only one thing."

Mother gave a massive sigh and glanced towards her eldest daughter. "Of course - if they have our crown prince safely home again, it's high time that he take a wife." She suddenly pushed herself out of bed, clutching the paper to her heart. "And shouldn't that wife be one of our own, not some foreign princess - we were all sure that he was going to take a foreign wife, you know. Ah, but love is never sensible." She shook her head with a passion and called for a servant to help her out of her nightdress and into something practical. "I shall take this to Lord Benne, and I will have him send it in, as he ought. Troublesome man he might be, he shall do his duty, or I won't let him hear the end of it."

Lizzy, though servant in all but name, wasn't allowed to handle clothing - fire was too much of a liability with cloth. So, she quietly slipped out of the room, wishing that this would be the end of the matter, but knowing that, no matter the outcome, it most certainly wouldn't. No, they would be hearing about this ball for the end of their days, their mother forever lamenting how Janet could have won the prince.

"The proclamation says every maiden," came Janet's quiet voice, as she stepped out into the hallway with her.

Lizzy shrugged. "Even farmers' daughters, I suppose. I doubt you have much of a chance, no matter what your mother might think, but I suppose you can let yourself dream. If anyone deserves love, it's you. And, surely, someday, some man will look past your birth to see that."

"I was thinking more along the lines of a certain Cinder's daughter." Janet laid a hand on Lizzy's arm. "You deserve love just as much as I do." 

Lizzy drew in a deep breath and shrugged. "I have all the love I need right here in this house, though. Besides, I'm not just a Cinder's daughter, but a Cinder myself - there's no arguing about that." She held up a hand and let a small flame lick at her fingertips. "I don't know why my father married my mother, but he was always an eccentric. I'm not an easy person to fall in love with - and I will only accept the purest and most ardent affection in marriage. And I know that my noble birth is the only thing attractive about me."

Janet pressed her lips into a line and shook her head. "I think you care too much about what others think of you."

"I don't care a whit what others think, but I'm not going to put myself in a position that I'm at their mercy." Lizzy balled her hand into a fist, extinguishing the flame. "And I left Charrie alone, cleaning the entry hall, and you know how intimidating that entry hall can be. Or, if you don't know, take my word for it. It's intimidating."

Janet shook her head. "Lizzy, the only reason that people will never accept you is because you've decided in advance that they can't."

"That and the fact that I'm a Cinder." Lizzy glanced over her shoulder at Lady Benne's bedroom door. "You know, for someone who ran away from duty to marry a farmer in her youth, your mother is terribly determined to see both you and our sister in a high-ranking marriage."

Janet glanced down and heaved a heavy sigh. "She loved and lost and learned the error of her ways. Mother doesn't talk about it, but I know the hardships she faced because of her marriage to my father proved more than she could bear. She just wants to see Lavinia and I taken care of. We don't have fire magic to protect us, after all."

"Well, I hope you find only the truest love, too," said Lizzy, shrugging. "Maybe this ball will change things. Maybe you can find true love."

She pulled away from her stepsister and hurried down the hall.

~

True to Lady Benne's prediction, Lord Benne proved reluctant to send in the registration that, supposedly, would secure his daughters' futures and fortunes. As Lizzy expected, this boiled into an ongoing argument between them, Lady Benne pestering him to send it every moment they were together, and Father egging her on with his silence and stubbornness.

"I don't see how you say you care about them, when you won't do even this small thing for them!" Lady Benne declared one day, as Father sat in the sitting room, reading a book with Lizzy. She wasn't allowed to handle paper, so would read over his shoulder for an hour at least, every day. "Think of the opportunity, my Lord! Why, I was just talking with Lady Kalis, and her husband is filling out the application as we speak! And when we could have sent it in a full week ago! Oh, but if the prince choses their Birdie, I don't know what I'll do. A more brainless girl, their never was."

Lizzy had to agree with that statement. Lavinia's best friend was harmless enough on her own, but wouldn't even think twice about following Lavinia into the worst of her schemes. It was truly embarrassing.

"If he choses Birdie, then I will pity the kingdom, but isn't the girl's only purpose to look pretty on his arm and charm his guests?" Lord Benne gave a long, tired sigh. 

"Oh, but the brainless fool will mess even that up! Ah, and to think that he could have my Jane, but, no, you insist on sitting there, letting this opportunity slip through our fingers! I swear, I married the most unreasonable man alive!"

"Well, given that I haven't died yet, like your last one did, I think you could have done worse, my dear." Father turned the page of the book without even glancing her way.

Lady Benne gave a huff as she sauntered further into the room. "How can you deny the girls such an opportunity! It would take but seconds of your day, and yet there you still sit."

"This is a good book, and my Lizzy is enjoying it." Father finally glanced up. "You should know better than to interrupt our reading time, by now, though you're welcome to claim your own book and join us."

"You know what, I'm tired of all this! I don't want to talk about it anymore! If I hear another word about our prince and his balls, I swear I shall scream. I am going to lock myself away in my rooms, and I shan't emerge until this whole foolishness is over. I don't even want to know what poor girl he choses! If he chooses one at all."

"Well, that really is too bad, given that this came today, and you're expected to chaperone the girls." Father pulled a letter from the pile of papers next to him and held it out to her. "The crown expects to see the girls there, so there will be no avoiding it. Perhaps Lady Kalis will receive an invitation, and the girls can attend with her..."

Lady Benne gave a shriek that liked to have turned every soul in the house deaf, and she rushed forward to snatch the letter from his hands.

"You vexing, vexing man!" she cried in triumph, as she greedily read the official document within the envelope. "All this time, and you had sent it in all along."

She rushed from the room, calling for her daughters, once again leaving Lizzy and her father to their book.

"You could have told her from the start and saved yourself a week of grief," said Lizzy, wrinkling her nose as she stared after her stepmother.

"Saved myself, perhaps, but what grief would she have wrecked if today's invitation had never come?" Father glanced up at Lizzy with a conspiratorial smile. "No, it was best that I remain the sole villain in this crime. Besides, in a life as dull as mine, I have to take my entertainment where I can."

Lizzy frowned over the fact that Father considered this to be entertainment. "Well, she's happy now, at least. I doubt we'll still have any peace, but at least she's happy."

"The invitation is for all three of my daughters," said Father.

Lizzy tensed, and she smelled smoke from where she gripped the back of his chair. "Would they really miss one girl? I'm a Cinder, Father. You know I can't..."

"Things haven't been as cruel to people of your type, not as they were when your mother lived."

But Lizzy just shook her head, folding her hands together as she glared at the fingerprint scorches that she'd just left on his chair. "I can't, anyway. Not that night. I have to attend the hazel tree."

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Rose Petals & Snowflakes - Chapter 1

 Okay, first off ... a bit of a statement - I am semi-retiring this blog. I mean, I have been posting less and less over here, you may have noticed, but I'm going to go ahead and say that posting here is no longer a priority. I will still post first chapters here and the occasional announcement, but mostly because this is the blog tied to my Amazon page and is thus the easiest way for me to put announcements there.

To properly keep up with me, I highly recommend being subscribed to my newsletter (which will give you access to Ardnek Afterthoughts, my blog with sneak peeks and bonus content) and/or joining my Discord Server (which is where you need to be if you're interested in betaing my books in the future). 

And now the first chapter of Rose Petals & Snowflakes!

(Click the pretty picture!!!)

   1

The king of the North Country lay dying. Even his wife and younger daughter, who’d been optimistic to the end, were forced to concede to reality, and they now took turns in a constant vigil at his bedside. His elder daughter, ever the pragmatist, applied herself to matters of state so that their kingdom not fall into ruin.

Of course, the most pressing matter was finding their elder half-brother, on whose shoulders the affairs of state ought to fall.

She had sent messengers to all corners of the land and beyond, and, one by one, they had only returned in vain. Today, however, a man had finally returned with news – and it was troubling news indeed. If he was right – and the uncomfortable knot in the princess’s stomach said he was – then they were in trouble indeed.

And so she tucked the matter away and went in search of her sister. She needed a distraction and figured that her sister, who’d been at their father’s bedside the whole day, could use the same. By the time she’d reached his bedchamber, she’d settled the knot of nerves in her stomach – after she’d nearly worried off her lower lip.

Knocking lightly at the door, she stepped into the room and sighed as she sat down at her sister’s side. “How is he, Mari?”

Snowmari blinked and sat up straight. “Asleep. Keep quiet and don’t wake him – you know that he doesn’t like to hear us talking about him.” She took her sister’s hand. “Oh, Elin! Just look at him! Does he even resemble the father we know and love? And if James – Elin, have you found any news of James?”

Elinrose released a sigh. “I have a lead, and that’s why I need to talk to you. This … it’ll be best if I personally pursue this. I’m leaving in the morning, and I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’ll return with James when I do. I promise.”

Snowmari sucked in a breath. “Very well. Where is he?”

“Nowhere good, which is why I’ll have to retrieve him myself.” Elinrose put a hand on Snowmari’s shoulder. “Also, it’s Mayblossom’s bedtime, and I think she would like it if we both tucked her in.”

Snowmari frowned, her gaze flicking to their father. “Very well. We can leave a servant with him for a few minutes.” She shook her head. “Oh! But to see him like this, when he was always so strong and…” She took a deep breath and stood. “Let’s go find Mayblossom, yes?”

“Yes,” agreed Elinrose, hooking her arm through her sister’s and guiding her out of the room. “Now, I just want to let you know that I’ve already spoken with Chancellor Markim. You won’t need to worry about affairs of state while I’m away, as he will handle them. I hope to not be gone long … but if I don’t return with James before … well, you know happens, don’t hesitate to hold a coronation for Mayblossom and take the position of regent.”

“But…”

“Only if I don’t return.” Elinrose held up a hand. “I plan to return with James before the inevitable and not leave you in this position. I just want to make sure that we have the backup plan in place.”

“Right.” Snowmari gave an exaggerated sigh. “It’s just, the way you’re talking … I’m worried, that’s all.”

“Of course, but I’ve already told you that you have nothing to worry about.” Elinrose patted Snowmari’s hand.

She didn’t like patronizing her sister, but Snowmari could overreact with such melodrama over the most minor issues … and that was the last thing that Elinrose wanted right now.

Snowmari released a sigh. “If you say so. You’d better return with him – I don’t know what I’ll do if you don’t.”

“Chancellor Markim will take care of affairs – whether until my return or until Mayblossom comes of age. You will be her regent officially, but he will be your chief advisor. Use him.”

“But shouldn’t you…”

Elinrose pulled them up short as they had reached Mayblossom’s room. “I plan to return with James. Now, no more of this – we don’t want to upset Mayblossom. She may well have the world on her shoulders before long.”

“And yet you stand there, upsetting me!” Snowmari shook her head and pulled away from Elinrose. “Now, look at me! I’m a ball of nerves – how do you expect me to not upset Mayblossom when I have this weighing on my mind?”

“Hey!” Elinrose bit down her frustration, knowing that one of them had to remain calm. “Everything will be fine. But if you don’t want to give Mayblossom her good-night kiss, then, by all means, run back to Father’s side and worry yourself away.”

Snowmari folded her arms over her chest, drawing in a breath. “Fine. Where is James?”

Elinrose took Snowmari by the arm again and pulled her into Mayblossom’s room, where their eight-year-old niece sat on her bed, playing with her dolls. Mayblossom smiled at first, but it melted into a frown as she glanced between her aunts.

“Is something wrong?” Mayblossom hugged one of the dolls to her chest.

“Oh, Aunt Mari and I are just so regretful that we have to come put an end to your game!” Elinrose slipped into a smile as she swept over to the bed and sat down at Mayblossom’s side. “Bedtime, you know.”

Mayblossom gave a slow nod as she reluctantly set her dolls to the side. “All right. I thought Grandpa…”

“Grandpa’s still with us,” said Snowmari, rushing over to sit down on Mayblossom’s other side. “Don’t worry – he’s stubborn and will cling to life as long as he can.”

“Daddy needs to come back home soon.” Mayblossom gave a huge sigh. “I know he doesn’t like to be around me ‘cause I remind him of Momma, but with Grandpa so sick…”

“Your daddy loves you plenty well!” Elinrose countered, tapping Mayblossom’s nose. “He’s just silly and likes to adventure instead of staying here with us. Now, sweet dreams, and don’t worry yourself about it. I’ve already made up my mind that I will be going to find him myself this time and let him know that it’s more than time for him to move on and come home.”

Mayblossom wrinkled her nose but nodded as she tucked herself under the covers. “Good. I just wish…” Here she gave a colossal sigh. “I hope I don’t scare him away once he’s the king. It won’t be any good if he runs away then.”

“I think you eavesdrop more than any little girl ought.” Elinrose pulled the blankets up to the girl’s chin, pressed a kiss to her niece’s forehead, and then stood, shaking her head. “As I said, there’s no reason for you to worry.”

She nodded to Snowmari, who launched into a quiet lullaby. Mayblossom gave a slow sigh, closing her eyes.

Elinrose pinched her lips together as she listened. Mayblossom’s fears weren’t unfounded. Perhaps if Raine, her mother, had survived her birth, then things would have been different, but she hadn’t.

James loved his daughter, Elinrose had no doubt about that, but the truth was, he was sentimental, and Mayblossom was the image of her mother. James had adored Raine, and while that affection did extend to their daughter, the pain of loss still drove him away after only a few weeks with the child.

Indeed, the problem only got worse the older Mayblossom got. The more she looked like her mother. No, the girl had a right to worry. James wouldn’t have the liberty to wander away for adventures once he was king. If he returned home at all in order to become king…

Elinrose balled her hands into fists. Her brother was sentimental and an idiot, and tomorrow she was going to risk her own life and freedom to get him out of the trouble he’d found himself in this time.

But that sentimental idiot was her older brother, and even though it was only by half-blood, she loved him as much as though it were full-blood. She would save his sorry backside, and she would see him on the throne. And then she would face the issue of how to keep him on that throne, rather than gallivanting across the countryside as was his princely wont.

Snowmari’s song ended, and with a few whispered words of comfort, she stood and retreated to Elinrose’s side.

“Good night May-dearest,” she said, twisting into a smile, and Elinrose pried herself out of her thoughts to repeat the words, and two sisters stepped out of the bedroom together.

“Do you have to go find James yourself?” Snowmari protested, hooking an arm through Elinrose’s, as though she could physically anchor her sister to the castle. “Surely some messenger could do just as well. Or … maybe I could go in your place! You know that I can’t do half the things that you do for the kingdom. Let me go! Let me be useful!”

Elinrose bit back a sigh and shook her head. “I wish, but I’ve already considered all of our options. Alas, Mari, but you and James are too much alike, and the trouble he’s in is … tricky. Mayblossom might be able to free him, were she older, but she’s not, and as his only heir, we can’t risk her. No, it has to be me. I leave in the morning, and there will be no further argument.”

Snowmari released a long sigh, tightening her hold of her sister’s arm. “Fine. I … I guess I’ll just stay here. And worry. Do what you can.”

Elinrose forced a smile. “Austere willing, I’ll be back before you even realize I’m gone.”

 ~~~~~

Of course, Elinrose knew even then that her words were but a cheerful exaggeration. Though she left at the first light of dawn the next morning, she had a journey of two days on horseback before she arrived at the mysterious Forest that formed their country’s border. Rarely had anyone ever stepped into that wood and returned afterward. She couldn’t imagine what had possessed her brother to take the risk, but here she was now.

“None of you are to follow me,” she instructed the soldiers that had accompanied her this far. “You can wait for me a week, but then return to the castle if I haven’t emerged again.”

“Of course, your highness,” said the captain. “Are you sure you want to go in there yourself?”

Elinrose shook her head. “I have to, but thank you for your concern.” With that, she spurred her horse forward into the ominous wood.

Despite the temperature rising as she threaded through the trees, a chill settled over Elinrose. This forest was oddly lit. No sunbeam seemed to penetrate the foliage above, yet a green glow was everywhere, casting shadows at odd angles.

The plant life was odd here as well – though, having grown up in an ice-locked kingdom, Elinrose supposed that the large, leafy trees, vines, and bushes could be perfectly normal in a warmer clime. Still, it set her nerves on end, especially as she stared at the jagged leaves and thorny stems. The very air hung with a sense of foreboding, and the constant rustling in the undergrowth didn’t help.

She tightened her grip on her horse’s reigns. If she could just see what were making the noises…

No, she had to focus. She had to find James, do what she had to do to get him out of here, and then see him back to the castle. If she didn’t escape herself, if she had to remain behind to buy his freedom, then so be it.

But she really hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.

And, first, she had to find him. Elinrose hardly knew how to begin. The Forest was huge. How was she to even know where to begin.

Well, there was nothing to do but to press forward and pray to Austere that she was going in the right direction. People lived here – or so the legends said. She didn’t know how much faith to put into those legends, but what else did she have?

And then it started raining.

It didn’t rain in the North Country; it snowed. And while the canopy of leaves over her helped, it also made for solid streams of water that dumped on her head at the most inopportune moments.

Still, Elinrose pressed forward. She had to find James. She was in the Forest. She’d made her decision. There was no turning back now.

The rain subsided, and a thick mist took its place. The light was fading, so Elinrose decided that it wasn’t worth it to press any further that day. She dismounted, and, not knowing where better to set up camp, she opened her saddlebags to retrieve some jerky and sat down dejectedly on a rock.

What was she doing? Her country was in a critical state, she was the best to lead it, and here she was, chasing after her idiot of a brother who clearly had no respect for the power that was due him. And she was pretty sure that it was too late for her to turn back.

An unexpected crack of thunder tore the air, and her unsecured horse bolted. Elinrose hadn’t even time to leap up and grab the reigns. The mare was gone.

The day was getting worse by the minute. Now she was alone in this Forest without her supplies and little practical knowledge for survival. She wanted to curl up under a rock and cry … but there were no rocks at hand to serve such a purpose. No, she had to press forward and … well, she honestly didn’t know what she was going to do. She didn’t do things on whim and without a plan … but this Forest defied plans.

It was growing dark, so she knew that she needed to find somewhere to sleep for the night. But the ground was wet, a chill had settled into the air, and her horse had taken her blanket and tarp. What was she to do now?

The trees shifted, and another chill shuddered down her spine as they formed into an arching path ahead of her. She dared not take this path, and yet, as she glanced about herself, she found that the Forest had closed on her every other side.

“Foul magic,” she swore under her breath, and then she stood. She had no recourse but forward.

Was this why no one returned from the Forest? She hadn’t even found James yet!

Hiking up her riding skirts, she took one step forward, then another. Then she broke into a run.

She was already lost. Why not follow the path before her?

Then, just as suddenly, she was at a dead end. The trees closed into a curtain before her, and she drew up short.

“What now?” she breathed, gaze darting about, and she drew back in muffled surprise as she saw a pair of eyes glowing from the darkness before her.

“Are you lost, princess?”

 Elinrose swallowed down fear at the rough, growling voice.

“Who’s there?” The question came out at a higher pitch than she liked. “How do you know that I’m a princess?”

The answer was a low chuckle that sounded even more like a growl. “I smell the nobility in your blood, and you reek of purpose and quest besides. Are you related to one of the princes we have wandering about? Perhaps you’ve chased after your lover?”

Princes? The thought lodged in her throat.

“I’m looking for my brother,” she admitted. “Our father is dying. Do you know where I might find him … sir?”

There was a sound of crunching and crackling as the mysterious figure drew near. The shadow … did not seem human.

“I may be able to take you to the foolhardy fellow who shares your scent,” the man answered.

But then, he burst out from the tree line, and Elinrose saw that it was, indeed, no man at all, but a great, shaggy bear.

She took another step back, but held her composure in an iron fist.

“You’re a talking bear.”

“And you’re an observant princess.”

Elinrose nodded sharply. “Will you help me find my brother?”

If legend and lore were to be believed, then this bear was as likely to be friend as foe.

“I might,” he answered, with another growling chuckle. “How desperately do you wish to find him?”

He was bargaining. Elinrose knew better than to give in to such a scheme – yet what else could she do? Her brother had to be found, and she was without a horse now.

“I’m afraid that my horse ran off with everything I had of value,” she answered noncommittally.

“Did he, now?” asked the bear, tilting his head to the side. “How unfortunate.”

Elinrose lifted her chin. “Are you patronizing me?”

The bear took a step towards her, giving a growl that sounded strangely – and terrifyingly – like a chuckle. “You have courage, princess. Perhaps I shall take pity on you.”

“I don’t need your pity.”

“Ah, but you do – and your brother as well,” the bear answered. “So does every mortal soul that steps foot inside this Forest. Pity, for they are fools. Come, mount upon my back, and I will take you to your brother, though what good it shall do, I don’t know. Every soul who steps foot in this Forest entangles themselves in a web that is not easily undone.”

He took another step towards her, and every muscle in her body screamed to run, but she held her ground.

“How can I trust you?” she asked.

He gave another growling chuckle. “You already trusted yourself to this forest, and it is a thousand times more dangerous than I could ever be,” he answered. “You will trust me because you must. Without my help, you have no hope of finding your brother – no hope of finding your way out of this Forest.”

“And you’re doing this out of pity?” she asked.

“Does it surprise you that a bear can possess a heart?” he asked. “Did you not know that our hearts are the largest in the Forest? Come now, let us find your brother. If I have heard correctly, your father’s life drains away as we speak. There is no time to waste.”

He was upon her now. Even on his all-fours, he stared her in the eye. And yet, that seemed to reassure her, for though his mouth was filled with teeth sharp indeed, those eyes were strangely gentle. Human, even.

“You’re a trifle large for me to mount,” she pointed out.

“True enough, but we must manage,” he answered. He turned from her and crouched down so his belly was against the forest floor.

She grimaced as she took hold of a large clump of his fur, hoping that she wasn’t hurting him, and climbed onto the beast’s back in a heartbeat. In the rain, the bear smelled strongly of wet dog, and Elinrose knew that her dress was ruined for good.

Well, that was why she was wearing an old dress.

“Hold tight,” the bear instructed, and then he took off at a bounding run.

The Forest blurred into a streak of gray-green, and she held tightly to two fistfuls of his fur, not knowing what else to cling to. He didn’t protest, so she supposed it must be all right. At length, the bear slowed to a walk, pausing every few moments to sniff the air.

“So, what is your name?” she asked after a moment. When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Come now, I can’t just call you ‘bear,’ now can I?”

“Bear will do,” he answered. “Now, quiet, princess. We’re near your brother.”

Elinrose clamped her mouth closed in a frown.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Rizkaland #4 Title Reveal!

 


So ... um, hello! I've not fallen off the face of the earth this blog tour! (I just feel like I have). This book's release has been CRAZY. Hands down, no questions. But it's here now, guys. All shiny, exciting, and ready for all of you to read. 

So, um, go read it.


And now it's time to reveal something that you guys have surely been anticipating forever. Book #4!


That's right,  The Isle of Talking Beasts. Yes, I decided to name it after the setting, but, guys, a LOT goes down in this book. 

So, first off, you can add it to your Goodreads TBR here, and all check out its inspiration board on Pinterest

Yes, I've got it marked for 2025 for the release date. It's pretty up in the air when I'll actually get to write it, but I have the next two years of releases booked (cough), and I know I need to get The Cost of a Queen and The Song of a Dragon both out before this one. I would love to move it up sooner, but it's still very nebulous as a story, so I really don't know. (Though, I'm hoping, after this one, the rest of the series will follow quickly enough).

Some things that will go down:

The POV characters are Eden (whose name was very recently changed from Edna, who you'll see on the board and if you'll remember I called her by that name in Lady Dragon, Tela Du), Alex, Louise, and Quinton. And possibly Wyn. (The possibility is whether or not she'll be a POV. She's in the book)

If you've read the end of Love and Memory, you'll have heard a few allusions to this book. As I said, things go down, and Wyn is carrying a biiiiit of trauma from it.

It's about a year after LaM's epilogue, and it does feature a few weddings.

Eden is obsessed with fairy tales, Alex is into video games, and the book will feature a bit of a wake-up for both of them. Louise is deaf, and I really look forward to working with that. Quinton is based on my cousin. Um ... I don't know what more to say about that for him. 

Eden is, by the way, the blonde.

So ... yeah. This is going to be a ton of fun, and I can't wait to share it with you in another half of a decade!

Blog Tour Stops 'cause I missed the last couple days:

April 21st – Wednesday
Madi’s Musings: Interview – Kendra
Live. Love. Read: Review
Safe Return Doubtful: Portal Fantasy and the Doorkeeper

April 22nd – Thursday *Release Date*
Lands Uncharted: Interview – Kendra
Fantastical Notions: Review
Rachel Rossano’s Words: Motherhood in Fiction

April 23rd – Friday
Dreams & Dragons: Interview – Kendra
A. R. Silverberry: Interview – Andrew
Light & Shadows: Review


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Love and Memory - Chapter 1

 


So ... I've been holding out on posting this as I wait for Amazon to declare Love and Memory published, but it's late and it still hasn't happened. Hopefully, come tomorrow morning, but ... anywho. 

I just realized that I've never shared the first chapter of the book to this blog. So I'm going to do it now. Because I don't have time to type about the PoV's, and I like having first chapters posted so I can link them on my website. 

*wanders away for a moment to glare at Amazon again*

Oh, and feel free to check out today's other stops on the tour:
Madi’s Musings: Interview – Petra
Katherine A. Massengill: Review

Now for the chapter (by the way, it does contain spoilers for the previous books, but not as badly as the second book, so there's that...):

Chapter 1 

 

I can do this.”.

At least, that’s what Clara tried to tell herself as she climbed the ladder to the diving board.

“I can do this.”

There was no reason why she couldn’t, why she shouldn’t just march to the end of the board and execute a perfect backflip into the water below.

And yet she didn’t.

She just stood there, staring at the end of the board, her mind playing in loop the last dive she’d made into the pool below. A memory of but a month before … that was also twenty-five years old.

“Clara, the end of the diving board is just down there. Did you get lost? Again?”

“Rhodes, hush!”

Clara twisted around to see her best friends – former best friends? – standing on the ground below her. Rhoda was scowling, and Kath was trying to balance that with a grin too big for her face.

Neither was helping.

“I can do this.”

All she had to do was run down the board and plunge hands-first into the water below. She’d done this a thousand times.

Twenty-five years before.

A month ago.

She’d promised herself last night that she would get on this board. She’d succeeded. She could turn away now and be fully satisfied with herself.

No.

“I can do this.”

She knew that she could. She would.

The promise had merely been for taking the first step. If Clara didn’t take the second one now, she never would.

That’s just what she did.

“I can do this.”

She didn’t let herself wait another moment. She ran, raising her hands over her head, sucking in a lung-full of oxygen. Then she was at the end of the board, her body taking over as she leaped into the air and curled downward into the water below. It was a perfect dive, if she could believe the cheers of her observers, just before she submerged.

She’d done it. Now all that was left was to swim upwards and…

Swim upwards and…

Swim upwards…

Her lungs burned, screaming for her to return to the world above.

The world she didn’t belong in anymore.

She balled her left hand into a fist, glaring at the sapphire ring that she wore on her third finger. A ring that she’d worn for the last month.

The last twenty-five years.

She was the Water Princess. She should have control of this situation.

But that had been Rizkaland. Here, it seemed, water had command of her.

Hands closed around her arms. Kath was on her one side, Rhoda on the other, both hauling her upwards. Clara didn’t fight them, even as they pulled her head into the air again. Her lungs were too grateful for the oxygen.

“Clara!” Rhoda was shouting. “Clara! What was that? Are you trying to drown yourself? Clara!”

“Hush, Rhoda,” Kath shoved Rhoda away, putting herself straight into Clara’s line of sight. “Clara, deep breaths. Are you okay? Clara, you did it!”

Neither was helping.

Clara pushed away from both of her friends, swimming to the side of the pool.

She’d not done it.

She’d taken the first step and the second, but she’d failed the third.

And the third had been the most important.

“That was good, Clara. I’m proud of you.”

She looked up to see Mrs. Gimmons, Rhoda’s mom, standing over her as she reached the side of the pool.

“What do you mean, ‘that was good,’ Mom?” Rhoda protested before Clara could answer herself. “That was the most basic dive ever, and then Kath and I had to go rescue her. We’re used to better than that from her. Clara, what has gotten into you?”

“Leave her alone, Rhodes!” Kath again sprang to Clara’s defense. “Don’t you remember how I was last year?”

You were recovering from a head injury,” Rhoda returned. “And also not acting like this.”

“Hush, both of you, you’re not helping,” Mrs. Gimmons chided. She crouched down and held out a hand to Clara. “Would you like to come with me and talk about it?”

Clara accepted the offered hand but didn’t say anything. Did she want to talk about it? She didn’t even know.

“Come with me to my office,” Mrs. Gimmons instructed. “Rhoda, you’re in charge until I get back. Be helpful.”

Clara remained mute as she followed the woman into her office. Her gaze dropped to her ring again.

“Don’t let Rhoda get to you – she doesn’t understand,” Mrs. Gimmons stated, as she shut the door behind them. “And, frankly, I don’t think that Kath does, either. I’m proud of you.”

“I couldn’t come back up,” Clara finally stated, her voice barely above a whisper.

“But you got on the board and dove. That’s progress.”

“I couldn’t come back up,” Clara repeated. “I stared up at the surface of the water, and all I could think of was that the last time I did that, I … I left everything behind.”

“Of course.” There was no judgment in Mrs. Gimmons’ voice. “The last time you dove into that pool, you went to Rizkaland.”

“And I left through that pool,” Clara exclaimed. “I spent twenty-five years in Rizkaland, and then, one day, I was told that it was time for me to leave, so what did I do? I left. Walked right back through the waterfall. Leaving behind my own children! Staring up at the surface of the water, it was like I was leaving them all over again – and this time, I just couldn’t do it.”

Mrs. Gimmons put a hand on Clara’s shoulder. “I wish I could say that it gets easier…”

“I don’t want it to get easier!” Clara protested, turning away. “I want … I want to go back. But I can’t. And diving into that pool is just a slap-in-the-face to remind me of that fact.”

“Yet you did it,” Mrs. Gimmons pointed out.

Clara swung her head to meet the woman’s eyes – green eyes that filled her with another wave of longing. Her mouth fell open, but no sound emerged.

“I can’t say that it gets easier,” Mrs. Gimmons continued. “You’re going to go your whole life, longing for what you left behind in Rizkaland, just as you left so much here. That was why you were able to leave. Right now, your ties to Rizkaland feel stronger because they’re fresh…”

“I left my children,” Clara cut in.

Mrs. Gimmons glanced down, fingering the locket around her neck. “We all did – except Kath and Rich.”

Clara swallowed. “Timothea was only eight. No child should lose their mother that young – and I just left her standing on the edge of the Ri! I should’ve … why did I leave? Why couldn’t I have brought her back with me?”

“Clara…” Mrs. Gimmons took a deep breath. “I know that it’s hard. I can tell you, standing here, after twenty years, you still ask those questions every day. But what you did today was the first step. You confronted those questions.”

“I couldn’t make it to the surface. I would have drowned myself!”

“I was watching and didn’t let it happen.”

Clara hugged herself. “Thanks. I guess.”

“Clara, it doesn’t get easier, but as you find more reasons to anchor yourself here, it does get less hard.” The woman stood and retrieved Clara’s cell phone from her bag. “I’ve got to get back to class, but why don’t you reward yourself for your progress today?”

With that, she was gone.

***

“Would you look at this? Kevin, your cousin just got engaged!”

Andrew looked up from his laptop at Mrs. Eaglechaser’s remark.

“Really?” Kevin answered from his side of the room. “Petra’s finally caved and said yes?”

A grin curled the corner of his mother’s mouth. “Oh, no, they’re still in the air. Summer and Tyler are the happy couple.”

Summer and…” Kevin repeated, taken aback. Andrew didn’t really blame him. “You’re kidding, right?”

But Mrs. Eaglechaser just shook her head. “It seems that he had meant to merely ask her out on a date, but it came out as a marriage proposal, and she just decided to go along with it.”

Andrew frowned, knowing that this could only be half of the story – if that. However, this wasn’t the time or place for the full story. He’d have to ask Mrs. Eaglechaser later, one-on-one.

“That does sound like just the sort of thing that Tyler would do,” Kevin admitted. “But … Summer playing along with it? I do hope she’s not doing it to break his heart. It’d be just like her, and he doesn’t deserve that.”

“Oh, hush,” inserted Tina, Kevin’s younger sister. “It’s romantic.”

“I’m going to call Summer,” Kevin declared, standing up. “I need to hear this from her.”

With that, he left the room in search of a telephone.

Andrew met Mrs. Eaglechaser’s eye. “They’re going to be just fine, aren’t they?”

Mrs. Eaglechaser nodded, turning back to the computer again. “Everyone has to sort themselves out in their own way, and if this is the step that they feel that they have to take, then I wish them all the best.”

Andrew frowned, a question dangling at the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t ask it, thanks to their audience. Kevin might have gone, but Tina and Andrew’s own younger brothers were still in the room, and they…

They didn’t know about Rizkaland.

Andrew’s cell phone interrupted his trail of thoughts.

“Is that Clara?” Mrs. Eaglechaser asked. “You’d better answer.”

It was. Andrew flipped the phone open as he retreated to the hallway.

“Hey there,” he said. “Long time, no talk. How are you?”

He frowned as he considered what she’d told him last night of her plans for today.

“Oh, Andrew.” Her voice came out in a breathy rush. “I miss you so much.”

Andrew swallowed before answering, knowing from the pitch in her voice that if he didn’t keep himself calm, she might break entirely. It always amazed him how she could be so strong and yet so fragile all at the same time.

Like a diamond.

“Hey, at least we have phones to call each other with. We didn’t have that … before.” In Rizkaland.

“Our separations never felt pointless before,” she answered, her words a forced hiss.

“So, um, you said that you were doing a class with my Aunt Leah today,” he prompted, not quite sure that he wanted to poke the beast – so to speak – but suspecting that this was the reason for her call. There was no use beating around the bush, and he knew that she was trying to do just that.

She gave a heavy sigh, and Andrew could almost hear the shuffle of her feet as she tried to evade the question. He knew her too well.

“Yeah,” she finally admitted.

“And?” he prompted.

She hesitated again, no doubt with more foot-shuffling.

“It’s over.”

“Ah,” he said when it was clear that that was all she would offer. “So, how did it go?”

Her answer hesitated a third time, and he might have wondered why she’d called at all if he hadn’t known her so well.

“It’s not fair,” she finally blurted. “You went through to Rizkaland at a campsite that you won’t have to visit ever again. I went through that stupid pool that I have to look at every single horrid day!”

Andrew had to pull the phone a few inches away from his ear to keep her outburst from blowing out his eardrum. He still heard her clearly, despite the distance.

“I agree, it stinks,” he finally said, once he was confident that she’d finished. “But you faced it today. Didn’t you?”

“I tried.” Her voice dropped to a growl. “I dove into that horrid pool and nearly drowned myself because I couldn’t come back up. Kath and your cousin had to come rescue me.”

“You … nearly drowned?” Andrew’s heart constricted at the thought. Sure, he’d come close to losing her before, but in a pool that she used to swim in every day? When he was so far away?

“It was all in my head, psychological.” Her growl cut back into his thoughts. “I somehow thought that if … if I didn’t come up, I might go back. Completely bonkers. I know better, but it didn’t stop me from staring up at the surface of the pool and feeling that leaving would be leaving … all that, all over again.”

The last few words came out in a jumbled torrent that threatened tears. Tears that he heard her swallow down with shaky breaths as she tried to regain control of herself. He ached to be there at her side, to gather her into his arms, to tell her to let go, and then to kiss away the tears when she was done.

But there were miles and miles between them. Three days by car.

“You’re amazing, Alice,” he told her instead. It was all that he could do. But words felt hollow and empty when sent across that much distance. Why couldn’t he do more for her?

But, somehow, those words were enough, as her sniffles died, and her tone was brighter when she spoke again.

“Not half as amazing as you, Tom Canty,” she answered. “I’m just sitting here, wallowing in myself. You’ve gone back to taking care of your brothers and being useful.”

Andrew opened his mouth, glancing behind him to the room where his brothers were. “They’re easing me back into it.”

“I know, the big history project that Mrs. Eaglechaser is doing.” Her voice pitched again. “But at least you have something in this world. I just … I just feel so lost!”

“I wish…” Andrew trailed off, honestly not sure what he wished. “What about your goal of the Olympics? Aren’t you working towards that?”

There followed another silence and inaudible foot shuffle. “I … I’m struggling to get excited about it the way that I used to. Not when all I want is to be with you, helping shoulder your burdens.”

It was Andrew’s turn to fall silent as he carefully considered how to answer that. Finally, he took a deep breath. “Clara, I’d love to have you here with me, but we both know that it’s not going to happen right now. Right now, I need you to help me focus. I need you to be working towards your goal of the Olympics because then I’ll know that you’re doing something with your life.”

“Yes, but…”

“Clara, please. It may seem silly to you now, but it once meant everything to you.”

She gave a heavy sigh. “I’m not that girl anymore, Andrew.”

“I know,” he said. “But I’ve been discovering that I’m no longer the boy whose world revolved around his younger brothers.”

Clara sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh, Andrew…”

Silence hung between them again. This was when she’d usually take his hand, cup her other hand to his cheek, and force him to look past all of his doubts and focus solely on her. But she wasn’t there. All he had to focus on was a family photograph of the Eaglechasers, hanging on the wall in front of him.

“Okay,” she finally said. “If me fitting myself back into my old life will help you that much, I’ll do it. Just … don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything else that I can possibly do. I know you, Tom Canty, the way that you can get it into your head that you’re all on your own and have to put the world onto your shoulders, but you don’t. I know there can’t be much that I can do, but … if there’s anything, let me know.”

“As long as you’re not afraid to ask me,” he returned, wanting nothing more than to gather her into his arms and just hold her. That was what he needed from her. He glanced down the hallway to see Kevin headed towards him. “Hey, I’ve got to get back to work now, so I’m going to let you go. Let you get back to whatever it was you were doing.”

“I was diving, but I think I’m going to pull out some schoolwork now. Maybe science.”

Andrew gave a small chuckle. Her science curriculum was his dad’s website – a site that he moderated. “Let me know if I can help you at all. I love you, Clara.”

“Love you, too. Bye.”

Her line clicked off with a hollow buzz. Woodenly, Andrew shut his own phone, lowering it from his ear and balling a fist around it.

“Clara again?”

Kevin’s question cut into his thoughts. Andrew nodded distantly.

“Yeah.”

“Must be difficult, a long-distance relationship like that.” Kevin shook his head. “I don’t envy you, Andrew.”

Andrew gave a grudging grin. Kevin didn’t know the half of it.

“We’re making it work,” he said, as much to convince himself as his best friend.

Kevin smiled encouragingly. “I’m just glad that you’ve found a girl. You’ve been so wrapped up in your brothers since you were twelve, but since meeting her, you’ve been focusing more on yourself. Whatever anyone else might say, she’s been good for you.”

Andrew nodded. “So, did you get ahold of your cousin?”

Kevin frowned. “I did.”

“And?” Andrew had a good idea of the conversation’s likely result, but he needed to hear it.

“I can’t talk her out of it.” Kevin threw up his hands. “She swears up one side and down the other that she’s serious. Tyler’s the last person whose heart she’d want to break. Apparently, she’s scared of his sisters.”

“Well, they’ve known each other their whole lives,” Andrew pointed out. “I think he knows what he’s getting into with her, and I think she could use a good influence.”

Kevin gave a bark of laughter. “I guess, but … Andrew, you’ve met Summer. You know what she’s like.”

Andrew rubbed the back of his neck at the memory. Summer had been most of the reason that Clara’s early attempts at flirting had terrified him so thoroughly.

“Tyler’s worse than you, when it comes to trying to fade into the background. At least you can get started on tangent about science. If I’ve heard him say more than three words together, I’d be surprised. The thought of them together feels all wrong, but,” Kevin paused to shrug, “talking to Summer just now, I’ve never heard her sound so mature. I can’t help the foreboding in the pit of my stomach, but if he’s had this influence on her already…”

“She’s got three older brothers who can keep her in line,” said Andrew. “And he has younger sisters who won’t let her get away with anything. I really don’t think that you need to worry about it.”

***

Clara lowered the phone from her ear and just stared at it, heart hammering in her chest. Everything in her screamed to redial his number and get him back. Did she have more that she wanted to say to him? No.

She just wanted to hear his breathing, close her eyes, and pretend that he was there beside her, physically.

Her backpack lay on the other side of the room, with the day’s assortment of homework inside. She’d told Andrew that she was going to do some science. She’d also promised him that she’d get her head back in the game and focus on her goals.

“Clara! What was that? You tried to drown yourself out there!”

Clara’s head snapped up to see Rhoda standing in the office doorway, Kath hovering behind her. But what was there to say that Andrew’s cousin would understand? Clara just shrugged.

“Is that your cell phone?” Rhoda continued, storming forward. “Did you seriously just ditch the rest of class just to talk to your boyfriend, Clara?”

Clara just shrugged again. There was no use denying it. “He just hung up.”

Rhoda gave a violent roll of her eyes. “This isn’t cute, Clara. What’s gotten into you? A month ago, a boyfriend was the last thing on your mind, but you meet Andrew and – bam! You can’t even breathe without needing to call him.”

She had a point.

“Oh, hush,” said Kath, stepping forward. “She’s in love, and love can change a person. You know that.”

Rhoda rolled her eyes to Kath and shook her head. “I don’t even know this new Clara.”

Kath’s gaze drifted to Clara, and then her eyes fell. Her answer was a mumble. “Then we need to take the time to get to know this new Clara.”

Rhoda stared at her a long moment before rolling her eyes again. “Honestly, though, what’s gotten into her? Falling in love shouldn’t produce a one-eighty personality change like this.”

No, but falling into another world and being married for twenty-five years would.

“It’s like…” Rhoda’s gaze drifted to Clara’s stomach. “Clara, please tell me you’re not…”

“No!” Clara took a sharp breath and hugged her arms over her stomach, defensively. “I – no. I don’t … know Andrew that well.”

The lie tasted awful on her tongue, but it was the should-be truth of this world. In Rizkaland, she’d known Andrew, mind, soul, and body. She’d borne six of his children. But here, they were supposed to be near-strangers. That was the act that they tried to put on, though they hadn’t waited to plunge into a romantic relationship again.

She wasn’t carrying his child now. Her mother had already made sure to check that.

“Oh, come now,” said Kath. “Do you really think that little of Clair? And your own cousin.”

“The Clara that we grew up with, never,” Rhoda declared. “But this new Clara who has possessed her body? I really don’t know. As for Andrew, I would think that he knows better, but…”

“Your cousin is a perfect gentleman,” Clara cut in. “We’ve never even kissed.” Not since coming back. That was the truth, at least.

“They have this distance between them,” Kath declared. “Really puts some hampers on their relationship.”

Rhoda rolled her eyes again – she was going to roll them right out of her head if she kept this up. “I guess that has to explain why she has to call him every five minutes.”

“I try to limit it to three times a day,” Clara inserted.

“Well, texting him every five minutes.” Rhoda waved a dismissive hand. “Clara, I don’t think you realize this, but Andrew has a lot of responsibilities in his day-to-day life. He…”

“He lost his mother at twelve, and he’s been the primary caretaker for his younger brothers ever since, yes, I’m quite aware of his struggles,” Clara cut in, leaping to her feet and flashing Rhoda a glare. “He’s been defined by his responsibilities since he was twelve. That’s not healthy for a kid. Do you want to know what half of our conversations are about? His brothers.” The other half were about how much they missed Rizkaland. “That guy was desperate for human connection. I’m just happy to provide that for him.” Clara shoved her phone into her backpack, shouldered it, and stormed out of the office, trembling as she tried to swallow down tears.

Life just wasn’t fair.

 

 


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