I’m so excited for this book! Less than a month to release day! Court of Secrets is a Reverse Harem Fantasy – it’s different from anything I’ve done before – but if you like fantasy, romance, political intrigue, and a story where the heroine doesn’t have to make a choice between the four sexy princes, this is the book for you! Keep reading to get a preview of the first two chapters of the book.
Nani hummed as she twisted my long blonde hair around the flowers and jewels she’d gathered for the day. Occasionally, one of the other servants would say something to her and they’d chatter away, full of optimism for me, while clouds of dread floated around me, threatening to block all the light.
Knots twisted in my stomach, and I fought the urge to tell my maids to leave me alone so I could curl up in a little ball on my bed and cry for a while. If I thought I could get away with that in secret, I’d be tempted to try it. But as it was, half of the maids who were flitting in and out of my rooms were on loan to my family from my betrothed’s household. How would he feel if they took word back that his bride-to-be wasn’t thrilled to marry him today?
I stared at my reflection in the mirror mounted above my dressing table. Another gift from the wealthy Baron I was about to marry. Nani and the others were turning me into someone I hardly recognized. The jewels in my hair were worth more than my family made in a year and the whole thing seemed superfluous. It was all for show. They wanted me to look the part of a Baron’s wife, rather than the daughter of a simple Knight. I knew my pretty face was the only reason this wedding was happening and the thought made me squirm in my chair.
“Kaia.” Nani stopped working on my hair and rested her hands on my shoulders. “Today is a good day. You’ll have an easy life and be cared for.”
I managed a weak smile and set my hand on top of hers. How did I explain that I didn’t want an easy life? I wanted adventure and excitement. I wanted freedom and wind blowing through my hair. How much of that would I get as a Baron’s wife? I knew my future would be entertaining nobles and running a household that was too big. Then, when children came along, I’d have to manage their lives too. My days of riding my horse and climbing trees were over.
“You’ll get used to it,” Nani said, as if she could read my mind.
I sighed, knowing I couldn’t keep anything from her. Nani had been my personal maid since as long as I could remember. Apparently, my mother had hired her after my sister was born to help care for me. She raised me, spending more time with me than either of my parents. I was going to miss her the most when I left this house.
“I don’t want to get used to it,” I said. “Why can’t they marry Rose to the Baron? I’d be happy with a peasant.”
“Hush, Cassia,” Nani chided as she smoothed my curls with her gentle hands.
It was true, I didn’t have the same ambitions as my family. My father was over the moon when he secured this marriage for me. It was a big step up in the social politics of the kingdom of Parlis. I wondered if things were different in any of our neighboring kingdoms?
My family barely counted as nobility since my father had earned his title in the last war with Udena, our neighbor to the south. It cost my family more than we made to keep up the facade of wealth, but my father was willing to do almost anything to play the game of courts and politics. I wanted nothing to do with any of it.
With a heavy sigh, Nani went back to fixing the curls on my head. By the end of the day today, I would be a Baroness and my father would get everything he ever dreamed. My marriage was his ticket to continue to climb the social ladder, his mind set on gaining favor with the king himself. Though, how a Baron was going to grant him that, I didn’t know. Part of me wished my marriage was somewhere far away, in a different kingdom, where he would be less inclined to visit.
A gentle knock on the door broke me from my musings. The activity in the room halted at the sound and every pair of eyes turned to the door.
“Who is it?” I called.
“It’s Rose,” my sister called as she opened the door. She was wearing a grey dress that looked like it was made of liquid silver. The fabric pooled on the ground as she walked softly toward me. While my over the top expensive dress had been a gift from my future husband, I knew hers was paid for by our family. I didn’t want to know what my parents had promised to obtain a dress of such quality.
I scowled at her, feeling heat rise to my cheeks at her presence alone. She was my older sister, yet she was dodging this marriage for reasons that were never explained to me, no matter how many times I insisted that the oldest daughter should be married first.
She liked to tell us she was interested in serving as a priestess in the Moon Temple, but I knew that was never going to happen. She was far too shallow to live a life of simplicity in a remote mountain maiden community. Her rouged cheeks and painted eyes were sign enough for me that her vanity was too great for that role.
I could have used that excuse myself and volunteered to join the maidens, but we all knew I valued my freedom too much. Though, a cloistered life of servitude to a goddess was probably not much different than the requirements of being a Baron’s wife when it came to making my own choices. My best bet was that my husband would travel frequently, giving me the run of the home while he was away.
“What are you doing here, Rose?” I asked.
“Cassia,” Nani scolded.
Rose glided over to me and one of the maids in my room brought her a chair. She sat down so she was across from me and stared at me with her large blue eyes. “Can’t I come to wish my younger sister well before her wedding?”
The words came out as sweet as sugar, but I knew better. I wasn’t sure exactly why she treated me as a rival, I certainly never wanted the same things that she did, but that was all I remembered of our childhood. Rose constantly trying to outdo me, making me feel inferior. Fixing my best smile on my lips, I reached my hand out and set it on top of hers. My whole life, I’d dreamed of something greater than the manor we’d grown up in. So had Rose. Though I wanted adventure and new worlds, whereas she wanted riches and luxury. Despite the fact that we were so different, in the end, we both just wanted out. Away from our parents and on to better things. Who knew, I might even miss her when I was gone. “Thank you, dear sister.”
Her lips twitched, her smile faltering for a fraction of a second. She was thrown off by my sudden kindness, but only for a moment. Quickly, she composed herself and clasped my offered hand in between her own. “I can’t believe my little sister will be a woman today.”
She leaned in, eyes sparkling with excitement. Gold curls fell in front of her face, but she ignored them. Looking at her was better than looking in a mirror. Everyone said we could have been twins. I think that was part of why she disliked having me around. If I’d been ugly, maybe she could have loved me.
“Are you prepared for tonight?” she whispered, as if she wanted to offer me advice.
“Lady Rose,” Nani chided. “You shouldn’t speak of such things.”
Rose giggled, then let go of my hand. “I hear the first time hurts.”
“It does, Lady Cassia, but it will not hurt long,” Nani offered. “I’m all finished and you look like a queen.”
Rose’s lips twitched again and I smiled. Her discomfort was sign enough that Nani’s skilled fingers had excelled once again. I had no doubt that I would look beautiful today with Nani’s help.
“Here.” Nani held up a silver hand mirror for me and I took it from her.
My eyes widened at the sight. She’d woven my long blonde hair into a crown on top of my head. Tiny wildflowers added hints of bright yellow and green. Jewels the color of champagne and berries added sparkle wherever the light touched.
At my request, she’d kept my face as my own, no added color to my lips or charcoal under my eyes. But she’s dusted my cheeks with a fine powder that made my face shimmer in the light. “I look like a faerie.”
“Hush now,” Nani said, giving me a stern look.
I’d grown up on Nani’s story about the faeries that lived in the other realm. It had been so long since anyone had seen them, that many people, including my sister, Rose, thought they were just a myth or at least extinct.
Whether or not they were real, I enjoyed the stories so much that the world had stuck with me. Immortal beings of immeasurable beauty who could control the elements sounded like an ideal way to escape. Rose, on the other hand had always fixated on the darker parts of the faerie stories that Nani told us.
Our parents, didn’t like the stories at all. They wanted us to be educated only in the things that would help us gain husbands and encouraged us to keep our heads away from daydreams. And here I was, on my wedding day, making all of their dreams come true.
Two of my maids carried over the gown that had been an early bridal gift from the family I was about to marry into. The bodice was beaded and covered in jewels, probably making it the heaviest thing I’d ever worn. The skirts were made of shimmering iridescent gold fabric that reminded me of the fabric on Rose’s dress. I wondered if it was the same material, but I had never spent much time learning the names of fabrics.
As if reading my mind, Rose touched the bottom of my dress as my maids held it up for me. “This is excellent quality silk, Cassia.” She stood, and smoothed the wrinkles out of her own dress. “Like mine.”
Another girl might get angry with her own sister trying to upstage her on her wedding day. I wasn’t that kind of girl. The only thing that bothered me about Rose’s dress, was the amount of time it was going to take my family to pay for it.
I had a feeling the move was calculated, seen as an investment by our parents. I wondered how much of my own wedding was a trap set for unwed members of the Baron’s social circle. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if my marriage was a set up to help get a better husband for my sister. She was the oldest, after all, and would inherit our family’s estate. The second child wasn’t as important in the grand scheme of things. I tried to push these thoughts from my mind. I shouldn’t care what my parents were plotting. I was about to be running my own household. At least I’d get my wish of getting away from here. Even if it wasn’t exactly as I dreamed.
I carefully stepped into my wedding gown and my maids slid it up my body. The dress felt like water against my skin. It was so smooth and luxurious that even the extra weight of the fabric didn’t bother me. Practiced fingers worked through all the buttons that went up the back of the dress until I was sealed up in the gown that was to bind me to one man for the rest of my days. I tried to ignore the tightness in my chest. Wasn’t I supposed to be happy today? The Baron wasn’t an unattractive man. He seemed nice enough, but the closer we got, the more I felt like a wolf who’d been broken to act like a dog. In some ways, I wondered why I wasn’t more like Rose. I never quite fit in, which made it harder for me. Things would be easier if I just accepted it or got excited about it like a girl my age was supposed to do.
I turned, and the skirts of my gown moved with me in a whisper of swirling threads. I had to admit, it was stunning. I ran my fingers over the details in the bodice and down to the flowing fabric at my waist and took a deep breath. Wearing this made everything feel so real. This was actually happening. Perhaps I could convince myself that everything would be alright in the end.
Nani set her hands on my shoulder and pressed her cheek against mine. “You look beautiful, like the autumn sunrise. I’ve never been so proud of you in all my life.”
The words were sweet, but it hurt a little at how much everyone was getting worked up about today. My only jobs were to look pretty, smile, and say the words at the wedding ceremony. To me, I wasn’t doing anything grand or significant, unless you took into account the alliance and financial benefits this would bring to my family. I managed a weak smile, and nodded.
Nani gave me a small hug, clearly trying to avoid ruining my hair or wrinkling my dress. She backed away and stared lovingly at my face. I wondered if she was memorizing what I looked like. I was doing the same thing, wondering what life would be like without her telling me what to do and helping me with every aspect of my day. She would stay here, to remain in my parents’ household, while I was surrounded by strangers starting tomorrow. That was the one thing I had requested in all of this, to spend the wedding night in my own home.
It was tradition to have the wedding at the bride’s home, so some households allowed their daughter one more night in her childhood bed. Other families, insisted that the bride and groom be swept away to his home that very evening.
Since the Baron’s estate was nearly a full day’s ride by horseback, I was granted the evening to rest here in my home. I wasn’t sure if the Baron would feel comfortable coming into my room tonight. I hoped he wouldn’t, even though I knew once the ceremony was complete, it would be his right as my husband. The whole thing made my stomach twist into knots again. If only there were something I could do that didn’t involve living on a secluded mountaintop surrounded by other women for the rest of my existence.
Another knock on the door caused all the chatter in the room to cease. Blood thrummed in my ears and I held my breath for a moment as the doorknob turned. I knew it had to be time.
My mother stood framed by the door, her face solemn. She wore a dress of deep blue trimmed in ivory, our house colors. Her once golden hair, now streaked with gray, was intricately woven into a braid on top of her head. She looked stunning, an older version of my sister and myself.
She took a few steps into the room and stopped in front of me, clasping her hands at her waist. “You look beautiful, Cassia. You will make your family proud today.”
“Thank you, Mother.” My tongue felt dry, as if I’d swallowed sand.
She offered her arm and I took it, letting her lead me to the gathered crowd waiting in our gardens. By sunset, I would be a Baroness and I felt like a flame burning within me was being snuffed out.
“You could appear more cheerful,” my mother said as we walked from my room toward the grand staircase.
With one arm looped through my mom’s elbow, I held my dress up with the other to prevent stepping on it as we descended the stairway. I turned to my mother and smiled. My stomach was still too nervous to form any coherent words.
At the bottom of the stairs my father waited for us. He wore a velvet tunic and I could see the perspiration shining on his face. Medals were hung on his chest and he wore the red sash of the royal knights.
My family had come from a long line of merchants, some of the wealthiest in the land. The comfort provided by several generations of successful business wasn’t enough for my father. He had to have the status that went with it even if it cost him multiple generations of his family’s hard earned wealth to reach it.
“Darling,” my father offered his hand to me, palm up, and I set my fingers tentatively in his grasp. “You look beautiful.”
I curtsied, and moved forward, allowing him to lead me to the front door. “Thank you, Father.”
“I know this isn’t what you want to be doing. I know how much you value your freedom. And that’s my fault, I was too lenient as a father.”
“That’s not true,” I objected.
My father held up his hand indicating that he wanted me to stop talking. I clamped my mouth shut.
“Since I was away for most of your youth, you were given time to do things that most young ladies don’t. All of the time spent in the fields riding your horse without a chaperone present, all of that interacting with peasants and farmhands.”
“They were my friends,” I said. The wound was still fresh, even though it had been over a year since my father had forbade me from speaking with any of the people that were below us in his newly acquired rank. I had disobeyed a few times, but my father knew too well that if he punished me, I would only continue to disobey. Instead, he threatened those around us for violating his rule. After that, none of my childhood playmates were willing to risk spending any time with me.
“I know you think I’ve been tough on you, Cassia.” My father turned my chin so I was forced to look at him in the eye. “But I do care for you, in the best way I can. And that is why I have come to an arrangement with your soon-to-be husband.”
I straightened, the tiniest flicker of hope trying to break through the unease I felt. “What kind of arrangement?”
“You will be permitted to continue your riding,” my father said. “Without a chaperone once you have grown accustomed to your new home. It took some negotiation on my part, but I was able to convince him that if he wants a happy wife, allowing you a taste of freedom on occasion would be in his best interest.”
Coming from my father, this was the best gift he could ever give. I let go of his hand and gave him a hug. The kind of hug I hadn’t given him in years, not since I was a small child. He wasn’t used to physical affection, and at first he tensed at the touch. But then his shoulders relaxed and he reached one arm around me and patted me gently on the back. That was about as good as it got from him.
I let go of my father and stepped back, lifting my chin higher. If I could be given time alone, away from the confines of daily life, just a little taste of freedom every now and then, maybe I would be able to survive this marriage. I might even find my own peace there.
“He’s a good man,” my father added. “He won’t hurt you. Please, try to make him a little happy.”
My cheeks flushed and I hoped my father wasn’t referring to the same thing that my sister had referred to earlier today. But there was no way I was going to ask him for clarification. Instead, I took his hand again and took a deep breath.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, feigning confidence.
My father nodded to the servants stationed on either side of the doors. The men stepped forward, and opened them wide so that both of us could pass through the doors together.
Soft late afternoon sunshine filtered past the doors, illuminating the entryway. In front of us, the entire world was covered in a warm, golden glow.
It was a spectacular late summer day and no bride could have hoped for a better evening to celebrate her wedding. I licked my lips in anticipation and ignored my racing heart as my father guided me out of our house onto our manicured lawn.
Rose petals lined our way, trimmed with boughs of pine tied with gold ribbons to form a walkway. The smell was intoxicating, filling the air with the last remains of summer intermingling with the first taste of autumn.
I didn’t plan a single detail for my wedding, but this is exactly what I would have chosen. A rush of gratitude surged through me as I considered the fact as much as I wanted to get away from them, and as I often disliked my sister, she and my mother had worked together to create something beautiful for me.
With each step, the gathered crowd drew nearer and I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. After three more heartbeats, heads started to turn toward us, as a low murmur sounded in the distance. Then the crowd stood in anticipation of our arrival.
The path of rose petals cut an aisle through the crowd that led to my fate. I let my body take over, allowing my mind to detach from the moment. If I over thought this, I might not make it through. But this was my future, this was for my family, and this was better than I could hope for as the youngest daughter. I should be grateful. I tried to be grateful.
As we walked between the waiting visitors, I felt like I wasn’t even there. Like I was watching a stranger walk to her waiting groom. Ahead, I saw an archway that had been erected for us. The wooden frame woven with pine and roses, matching the path I’d just taken. A man stood under the archway, waiting for me. He was a stranger and this was the first time I’d seen him up close. The day my father and he met to agree on my marriage, I’d watched from my bedroom window as he exited our home. He’d turned and looked at me for a second, giving me a chance to see his face, before climbing atop his steed.
I studied his face and realized he was younger than I’d originally thought. He was clean shaven, with a shadow of dark hair that was already trying to grow back over a strong jaw. His skin was tanned from the sun and he had deep brown eyes. Straight black hair was pulled into a tail at the base of his head. He was a handsome man, and likely less than ten years older than me. I should consider myself lucky. Perhaps, being married to him wasn’t going to be so bad.
We stopped in front of the waiting baron and the high priest who was here to bind us under the eyes of the gods. My father kissed my cheek before passing my hand to the stranger who would be my husband for eternity. There were no second chances on marriage. This was my one chance. My chest constricted again and I took shallow breaths as my betrothed guided me to my place under the archway.
“Breathe, Cassia,” he whispered as he flashed a smile. “I’m just as nervous as you. Just think of me as Aaron, ignore the titles, I’m no different than you.”
His words made me relax, just a little, and I managed an actual smile as I took my place next to him.
The priest lifted his hands, indicating the start of the ceremony and I heard the rustle of fabric and creaking of chairs as the guests took their seats.
The next several minutes flew by as a priest completed the ceremony by setting a pair of matching floral wreathes on our heads. We turned toward each other in preparation for saying the words of commitment. My mouth was dry, my palms were sweaty as the priest set my hands into those of the man who would be my husband as soon as we said our words.
The baron stared into my eyes and I realized he looked just as timid as I felt. This was new to him, too. We might be strangers, but perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
He opened his mouth to speak, but I couldn’t hear the words as a roar broke through the gardens. My ears rang, and I feared I was losing my mind. Then, I realized the sound wasn’t in my head. It wasn’t my own fear taking over.
The baron dropped my hands and turned away from me, I followed his gaze and froze in fear at the sight in front of us.
Behind me, I could hear screams from our guests and mass commotion of tipping chairs and running people competed against another roar from the creature standing in front of us. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the beast, it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Hovering above us, flapping large leathery wings, the monster most closely resembled an overgrown bat that gained the ability to walk upright. It had leathery skin with splotches of fur in places it didn’t belong. It had a snout that protruded from its face filled with large, pointed teeth. Drool dribbled down its jaw onto its hairy chest. Yellow eyes fixed on me and it tossed its head back before releasing another roar.
Next to me, the baron was the first to regain control of his functions. He took off running, followed by the priest. I stood alone, still frozen in terror as I stared down the creature in front of me. It spread wide, leathery wings in front of me. They were lined with veins and nearly transparent. Then, the creature dropped to the ground, landing on all fours, wings still spread wide as it scurried toward me.
I turned my head to see Rose calling for me. She was waving frantically trying to get my attention.
I glanced back at the approaching beast, to find that it was no longer focused on me. Instead, it had turned its gaze upon my sister. It lunged forward taking wide steps made longer by gliding on its massive wings. Snapping its jaws, the beast headed right for my sister.
Something inside me clawed at my skin, as if trying to get out. It was as if I had my own beast that wouldn’t stand for this. My sister might drive me crazy most of the time, but she was the only one I had. Fire roared to life within me and without thinking, I chased after the monster.
Somehow, I was able to reach my sister before the creature did and I shoved her out of the way, taking her place.
The beast reared when it approached me, rising up to its full height. Clawed forearms reached for me slashing through the air. I ducked away from them but not in time to prevent damage. The beast managed to grab my side, dragging its claws through my beautiful gown tearing a split right down the side. It was a wonder it didn’t break the skin.
I glanced over at my sister to see her crawling away from the creature. No one else was around, everyone had fled. None of the knights, none of the merchants, none of the brave hunters had stayed to face off against this creature. I was on my own.