The black stallion poked his head over the door of the stall and snorted out a greeting. Princess Kaylee stood on tiptoe and brushed a hand over his silky mane.
“Aren’t you a beauty?” She looked up at the placard above him. “Tarot, is it?”
The horse shook his head and pawed at the ground. “No? Then what is your name?” He whinnied and she smiled. “Midnight. I should have guessed a horse as magnificent as you would have such a majestic name. I’m Kaylee, Princess of Palindore. Soon to be Princess of Breniera.”
She let out a shaky breath, still amazed she would be marrying in less than a week’s time. Midnight nickered and bumped her shoulder with his head. She smiled and smoothed a hand over his velvety nose.
“Yes, I am very lucky to be marrying Prince Devlin. He’s all I could want. Kind, intelligent, witty, and very handsome, too.”
As if conjured by her thoughts, Devlin stepped into the stables, his lips curving in a wide smile as he turned toward her. His jet-black hair fluttered in the breeze, and his silver eyes shone like a new coin.
“Have you found a horse you fancy riding?” Devlin asked as he walked up to her.
“Yes. I’d like to ride Midnight.”
“Midnight?” He laughed. “Do you mean Tarot, here?”
“I do, but his name is Midnight. He told me so himself.”
Devlin lifted her hand to his lips. “Then Midnight it is. George, we’ll take Tarot and Oberon.”
“Right away, Your Highness.”
The stable master scurried away, leaving Kaylee alone with Devlin. He towered over her, her head barely reaching his shoulder, yet she felt safe, protected, and cherished by his nearness.
“Our fathers have finalized the marriage contract,” Devlin said, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. “They’ve declared our union one to bring peace to Breniera and Palindore.”
“Hopefully the kingdoms will follow our example and learn to put their squabbles aside.”
“I second that hope.” He smiled and her stomach fluttered. “How about a quick walk while we wait?”
She peered at him from under her lashes. “That would be wonderful.”
Devlin tucked her hand in the crook of his arm, steadying her as they walked over the uneven ground. His smile deepened, revealing a dimple that made Kaylee want to press her lips to the spot. She felt her cheeks flame and lowered her eyes, afraid what he might think of her forward thoughts.
They wandered across the field, stopping under the fragrant shade of an apple tree. A gentle breeze scattered petals around them, tousling Kaylee’s golden curls.
“A trinket for your thoughts,” he said, voice low.
“I was just thinking how lovely it is here in Breniera. It isn’t what I expected at all.” She turned to him. “You aren’t what I expected either.”
Devlin’s dimple deepened as he stepped closer. “You didn’t expect me to be so
Kaylee heard the teasing in his words and laughed. “Handsome? Compared to the other princes I have met, I don’t know that handsome is the right word.”
“So, I’m not handsome?” Devlin shot back, eyes wide.
“No,” Kaylee whispered. “You are more than handsome.”
“And you are more than beautiful.” He lifted her hand to his lips again. A shiver raced down her spine at his touch, and his fingers tightened around hers.
“Are you cold?”
She shook her head, overcome by his nearness.
Devlin studied her a moment, rubbing his thumb over her wrist. “Your pulse is racing. Do you fear me?”
“N-No,” she stammered, feeling her face flame. “I’m just anxious about our wedding.”
“Ah,” Devlin said, bowing over their joined hands, his lips tipped up at the corners. “Me, too. When I learned of our marriage, I worried we wouldn’t suit. Now, I find myself longing for our wedding day so I can learn all there is to know of you.”
He nodded. “Marrying for duty will not be such a hardship when I will be waking next to the most beautiful princess in the realm.”
“Nor will it be for me, waking next to the most handsome of men.” Kaylee tipped her head to the side. “What were you expecting?”
Devlin kissed the back of her hand. “An old maid. Instead I have my own damsel in distress.”
“You believe me in need of rescue?”
He shrugged and brushed a finger over one of her golden curls. “Well, I must confess I have begun to dream of you being in need of rescue.”
Kaylee ducked under a branch, smiling coyly. “And what do you do once you’ve rescued me?”
“First I kiss you.” He leaned in and brushed his lips over hers. “Then you return the favor.” He closed his eyes, waiting. Kaylee took a shallow breath, then touched her lips to his. They curved into a smile, and her stomach fluttered.
“Then what?” she asked, breathless.
“Then, we start over again.” He kissed her until her head spun, and her pulse raced.
Kaylee leaned against the tree, her lips parting slightly, knees going weak at
Kaylee leaned against the tree, her lips parting slightly, knees going weak at
the glint in his silvery eyes.
He stroked a finger over her cheek. “I would love to stay here kissing you, but someone is bound to come looking for us soon, and the horses should be ready now.”
Kaylee flushed. “Then we should return.”
Devlin led her back to the stables. Outside, Midnight stood beside the largest horse she had ever seen. Black, with a silver mane and tail, Oberon made a most regal mount.
“Shall I help you into your saddle, Princess?”
Kaylee smiled and nodded. Devlin moved behind her and set his hands on her waist, his breath tickling her ear.
“Up you go.” He lifted her onto the saddle, holding her steady until she was settled. Her pulse raced at his touch, and her fingers fumbled with the reins.
He stepped away and mounted his horse, then turned to her. “Ready?”
She nodded, urging Midnight into a walk with the click of her tongue. They retraced the path to the apple tree, and Kaylee looked around, longing to feel the wind in her hair.
“How about a race?”
“That tree line ahead.” Kaylee pointed to the edge of the wood barely visible on the horizon.
“What does the winner get?”
She tipped her head to the side, her hair cascading over her shoulder. “What do you suggest?”
“Another kiss?” Devlin smiled, bringing his dimple back to life.
Kaylee flushed again but nodded.
“It’s a good thing Arabella didn’t want to join us,” Devlin teased.
Kaylee hid a shiver at the mention of the princess. She didn’t think she would ever understand his twin sister. The young woman was icy and distant toward her, not at all like Devlin, except in looks.
“I don’t think I’d want to give her a kiss.”
“I believe the feeling is mutual.” Devlin shook his head, dimple deepening.
“Besides, one of you would have to beat me for that to happen.”
“You don’t think I can beat you?”
“Riding side-saddle?” He waved a hand in the air. “Let’s just say I’ve been racing my horse for a long, long time.”
“Did you hear that, Midnight?” Kaylee whispered. “He doesn’t think we know each other well enough to beat him. We’ll show him, won’t we?” The horse stomped his foot, and Kaylee turned to Devlin. “Ready?” He nodded. “Go!”
Midnight didn’t wait for her to touch her knee to him. Instead, he took off with the sound of her voice. Kaylee leaned forward, enjoying the feel of the wind blowing through her hair as they raced toward the tree line. Devlin’s horse thundered behind her, and she glanced back, knowing she was going to win.
When the tree line loomed before her, she nickered and Midnight slowed to a walk, halting at the edge of the wood as Devlin rode up.
“You were saying?”
“How did you do that? Your horse left without you nudging him or anything.”
Kaylee shook her head. “Didn’t anyone tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“I can speak with animals.”
“As in carry on conversations?”
She nodded. “Doesn’t your sister have an animal ability?”
Devlin scratched his head. “If she does, I’ve never heard of it.”
Kaylee’s jaw dropped. All princesses had an animal gift; at least all the ones she had ever met.
“What about your mother? Doesn’t she have a gift?”
“She always says she was gifted with agility and grace, but I never thought she was speaking about an animal ability.” Devlin cocked his head to the side. “What about your mother’s ability?”
“She also speaks with the animals. Many gifts are hereditary, so perhaps Arabella’s gift is as your mother’s. She does seem to be quite graceful and agile.”
“Perhaps. So, how does this animal thing work? Do you actually speak in their language or do they understand human speech?”
Kaylee clicked her tongue, and Midnight walked down the tree line. “Both. Midnight understands what both you and I are saying now, and I understand his nickers and whinnies. I can also speak to him in his language.”
“That seems like a very handy skill to have.”
Kaylee grinned. “Well, I’ve always envied Princess Gabrielle’s ability to see through the eyes of other animals. But of the two, the ability to send messages back to the castle has been very helpful.”
“For those times you and Trevor were causing mischief?”
Kaylee laughed thinking of the trouble her brother always seemed to find.
“Mischief? Not on my part, but Trevor was always good for a few pranks.”
The horses trotted on, keeping just outside the woods. A cool breeze swirled around, filling the air with the scent of pine and a hint of a flower Kaylee had never smelled before. Shrubs lined the edge of the trees, white blossoms dotting the dark green foliage. As they neared one of the bushes, Midnight let out a loud nicker and stopped.
“What is it, boy?” Kaylee asked.
Midnight pawed the ground and snorted. With a shake of his head, he whinnied and backed away.
“There’s nothing there.” Kaylee rubbed a hand over his neck and looked around. “You must smell something from earlier.”
“What did he say?” Devlin asked as his horse laid back its ears.
“He smelled someone here.”
Devlin moved forward and peered into the trees and bushes. “I don’t see anyone.”
Midnight pawed the ground again.
“He will feel better if we leave here.”
Devlin grinned. “I can think of some other places we could go.”
Kaylee flushed as anticipation shuddered through her. “A ride in the other direction would be sufficient.” Midnight turned and trotted into the open field, with Devlin’s horse close behind. “There. Better?” she asked as they moved away from the wood. The horse snorted and nodded his head. “Good. Now behave.”
They started back toward the apple tree, barely going a dozen feet when a crash reverberated through the trees behind them.
Kaylee jumped, stifling a scream. “What was that?”
Devlin shook his head. “I’m not certain.”
He turned his horse and headed back toward the bushes. Not wanting to be a hindrance, Kaylee hesitated, unsure what to do.
“We should go and help him.” Her voice shook. The horse tossed his head. “He may need us.” Midnight snorted, then walked forward.
“Who’s there?” Devlin called out, his hand sliding to the short sword at his waist. He pulled the blade from its scabbard, pointing the tip toward the trees.
The horses twitched their ears and quietly nickered. Kaylee held onto the reins, knee hooked over the pommel, ready to gallop away should a wild animal burst out at them.
More branches cracked, and Kaylee trembled as a shadow moved not very far from where she waited. A moment later, Princess Arabella stepped from the trees, and Kaylee gasped, shocked a princess would leave the castle dressed in such a fashion.
Black thigh-high boots and leathers clung to the princess’ long legs, making them seem even longer. A black jerkin, snugged tightly at the waist, completed the outfit. Blue-black hair cascaded to her waist in gentle waves. A silver circlet graced her brow, and anger lit her purple-blue eyes.
Arabella sauntered forward and ran a hand over the edge of Devlin’s blade, pressing her palm against the sharp edge. “Going to run me through, brother? And here I thought you had forgotten about that time I stabbed you with the dagger.” She lifted the sliced hand, watching as blood trickled down her wrist. Turning to Kaylee, she smirked as she licked a drop away.
Kaylee saw spots and swayed in the saddle. She swallowed hard and squeezed her eyes tight, fighting away the dizziness she always felt at the sight of blood, knowing she could not afford to give in to unconsciousness now.
“Which time would that be?” Devlin asked. “You’ve stabbed me more than once.”
“And you deserved it each time, no matter what Father said.”
“Arabella.” Devlin’s voice was gruff, filled with irritation. “The first time you stabbed me I was six and napping in my room.”
“Yes, but Father had taken you riding without me.” Arabella pushed her lip out in a pout.
“He always took you places he didn’t take me. Did things with you he didn’t do with me.”
Anger swirled in her eyes. “He likes you better. Always has.”
“You know that isn’t true.”
“A point we’ll never agree on.” She nodded at the sword he still had raised.
“Do you intend to use that against me?”
“No,” Devlin said, his eyes flashing like quick silver. “I never did. It was out to protect Kaylee from whatever was in the trees.” He swiped the blade over his tunic before shoving it into its sheath. “I didn’t know it was you. I thought it was an animal.”
Arabella smiled up at her brother, and a chill danced down Kaylee’s spine at the feral rage in the girl’s eyes. Never before had she seen such undisguised hatred.
“Perhaps it would have been better if it were an animal.” Arabella stepped forward and took his hand in hers, turning it palm up.
“What are you doing?” Devlin tried to tug his hand away, but she held it firmly in her grasp.
“Ensuring I am the one who is crowned queen.” Arabella pulled a dagger from her waist and pressed the tip to his finger, smiling as blood welled around the blade. Devlin flinched and yanked his hand away.
“Blast it, Arabella! Have you lost your mind?”
“No, I am quite sane, brother dear,” Arabella said. “You have stood in my way for almost eighteen years, even though I am the firstborn. But that ends today. Father will have no choice but to make me his heir.” She turned to Kaylee, a wild look in her eye. “Your turn now, Princess.”
Kaylee’s horse sidestepped away.
Devlin reached out, his gaze unfocused. He shook his head, then swayed in the saddle.
“Devlin? What’s wrong?”
Kaylee gripped the reins so tightly her knuckles turned white. Fear was thick in the air as Midnight backed away from Arabella, tossing his head as he nickered loudly. Devlin opened his mouth but no sound came out. His eyes rolled back and he toppled from the saddle, landing face first on the ground.
“Devlin!” Kaylee screamed, the sound echoing through trees, startling Devlin’s horse into a gallop. “What have you done?” She shook her head, confusion and panic warring inside.
“It’s just a simple spell,” Arabella crooned. “Once I have a drop of your blood it will be complete, and I will be the only heir to the throne.”
Arabella took a menacing step forward, and Kaylee backed her horse away, not wanting to give the princess a chance to finish what she had started.
“Why? What did he ever do to you?”
“He’s the heir because he’s male, but I’m a better swordsman, a better rider. My skills in diplomacy outmatch his, too. But does that matter?” She swiped a hand through the air.
“No. He’s a man, so he must be the heir.”
“But that’s the way things are. He didn’t choose for it to be that way.”
“The way things are.” Arabella stepped closer, waving the dagger menacingly.
“Would you feel that way if all you ever heard was how wonderful your brother was? Devlin rode the fastest today. Devlin collected all the rings on the lance.” Arabella mimicked her father’s voice as she moved closer to Kaylee. “Not one word about how I beat him in the race, or how I collected all the rings and knocked over the dummy.”
“At least you were allowed to train with him,” Kaylee said. “I was never allowed to even ride with my brother until a few years ago.”
“As if you would want to swing a sword. Enough of this distraction. Things are going to be different from now on.” She reached for Kaylee.
Her horse needed no command. He galloped into the woods with Kaylee hunched over his neck, her face pressed against his mane. They thundered on, jumping over fallen trees, slipping on rocks, but she held tight, even as branches grabbed at her, pulling her hair, piercing her skin deep enough to draw blood. Tears streamed down her cheeks, soaking into the horse’s neck, but they didn’t stop their flight.
When the horse finally slowed, Kaylee looked up at unfamiliar surroundings.
An old house stood in the middle of a grassy field. Most of the shingles were missing from the roof, and the entire structure appeared to list to one side. At one point in time it had been painted, but Kaylee couldn’t determine the color from the scant chips that remained.
A wide porch circled the house, with a pair of worn rockers sitting near the screen door. Kaylee urged Midnight forward, surprised at how calm she felt after the panic and fear she had carried through the woods.
She was a few lengths from the house when the door opened and a young woman came out. Kaylee lifted a hand to wave, catching sight of the blood seeping down her arm, soaking the pale blue sleeve. Her vision grew spotty, her breath became shallow, and a dull roar filled her ears, drowning out whatever it was the young woman was saying.
The world tilted, and Kaylee slipped from the saddle, falling to the ground in a heap, her mind giving over to the darkness surrounding her.