I stared at the ceiling, my eyes moving in and out of focus while I thought of how blood looked when it was combined with ice. How it would mix with water, thinning against the liquid yet maintaining its deep red hue, matching the color it was when I stole it from its home — the body it spent its life trying to pump through, coddling the organs that were no longer throbbing with a pulse. I grew colder as the unfamiliar pull in my stomach spread.
CHAPTER ONE (Raven)
Pulled from my dark and delicious thoughts as I dragged my tongue across my lips to cure my dry mouth, I looked toward the door. The knocking hadn’t ceased, and it had been well over a minute, but I couldn’t move from this bed.
This room was too fucking pink.
Everything. Everything was pink, down to the color of the soft floor. If they planned for this to be my nursery, they had severely underestimated how twisted I would end up as an adult. It was unbearable and nauseating being in this room, and I suddenly ached for the dark hallways of this gloomy castle.
The only resemblance I had to the outside world was the silver of my bedposts. Everything else was pink — light pink, dark pink, pink that didn’t even have a name because there wasn’t a word in this world that could be as vomit-inducing as this color. No one could be this happy.
After meeting Mira, the dress I was still wearing was a stark contrast to the happiness that this room was attempting to conjure up and failing tremendously. If anything, it only added to my annoyance — as was the persistent knocking on my goddamn door.
Day one of my living hell in Reales left me with little to no energy. My doorknob rattled, and I sighed, listening to my name called from behind the door. He wouldn’t go away until I answered.
Sitting up slowly, I rubbed my face with my palms and rolled my neck. I had the damnedest feeling that my weeklong excursion here would be extended.
A headache formed behind my eyes as the knocking resumed. Clutching the portrait of my mother holding me as a baby to my chest, I threw my feet over the bed and begrudgingly walked to the door.
After pulling it open, I shoved the portrait at Cade’s chest. He cocked an eyebrow and looked down at it. “My mother.” I took a step to the side so he could come in.
Zeke was leaning against the wall of my hallway; his cheeks stained with dry tears. His head was hanging; his shoulders slumped as he stared at the floor. It had been hours since I left him there on his knees, begging for my forgiveness. “Go, Zeke.”
He didn’t look up as I shut the door behind Cade, whom I assumed had been trying to find me since I hadn’t shown up for dinner. “You look like her,” he said as he stared at the large portrait of her on the wall.
I fell back on the bed and grabbed one of the thick, pink pillows, which I guessed were for decorative purposes since it was prickly and not at all comfortable, and smushed it over my face in an attempt to suffocate myself.
He started trying to yank it away from my clutches, but I shook my head underneath the plush, groaning as he finally overpowered me. “Tell me what happened.” He sat beside me and pulled me into his lap, leaning against the iron rails of the headboard.
Burying my forehead against his neck, I curled into him as his arms wrapped around my body. I felt too tired to speak. It would mean it was all true if I said everything out loud. “Mira came into the throne room and told me my entire life story.” Hot tears pooled in my eyes as I blew out a hot breath. After the extremely trying last few months, I wasn’t sure how my body could still produce tears. “Leonidas is my father.”
He drew in an audible breath. “Raven, I swear I didn’t know that.” He rubbed my arm. “He never told me who you were, just that you needed protecting.”
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I nodded against him, unsure what or who to believe anymore. “He murdered my mother because she was a witch and stole me away to give to your father. My sister, Mira, was there the night it happened.” My tone carried heavy disbelief as I tried to imagine the horror that Mira must have experienced at that moment.
“Raven,” he breathed, tightening his hold. “You are an heir to Reales.”
That would never sound normal. “I am the Princess of Reales and the rightful Queen of Seolia.”
“The engagement is to bind our kingdoms,” he lamented, and I wondered if he would ever be able to utter the word engagement again without sounding so bitter.
“She wants me to marry Zeke so we can rule together and so we’re never pulled apart again.”
“What do you want, Raven?”
I wanted to go back in time, reverse all of it, return home, know my mother, and not hate Zeke. I wanted to love Cade. I wanted all of the things I couldn’t have. “I want to sleep. I don’t want to stay here alone, but I don’t want to stay in that house.”
He kissed the top of my head before shifting me from his lap to the bed. “I’ll get our things and be back soon. We can sleep, wake up, and digest all of this better.” Leaning over, he kissed my temple before he stood and left.
I curled against the pillows and closed my eyes, trying to talk myself into sleep, when another knock on the door had me groaning into the pillow. Hitting it with my fist, I stood and wondered if Cade had forgotten something. But when I opened the door, my face fell.
Zeke looked as ravaged as I felt but beautiful with his forearm propped against the doorframe.
I didn’t say a word, keeping my eyes off his and on the floor behind him. He remained silent but watched me, the heat from his gaze warming my skin. “Please come back and stay with me,” he whispered. “Raven, please. Don’t let him touch you as I have.”
“I can’t do this right now,” I murmured, trying to prohibit more tears from escaping.
He lifted his hand to wipe away the ones that did, but I jerked my head away from his touch. “Please leave.” It was taking everything I had not to look at him as my voice broke on the words.
“Raven, I am not giving up that easily, or ever. You may as well get used to it.”
I put them behind my back when he tried to reach for my hand and finally met his eyes. “Do you need me to say it?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Do you need to hear me tell you that I don’t want to be near you? That the thought of you physically makes me ache. Is that what you need to hear so you’ll leave?”
A tear fell down his cheek as he inhaled a stuttering breath. “Raven,” he said on a choked exhale.
I averted my eyes again. “You should have stayed today instead of leaving me again, instead of letting me find you with Jeanine.”
“Raven,” he whispered again, leaning his head against his arm.
“But you know who was there for me? Who helped me clean off my dried blood? Who listened as I told him the horrors of what I went through? It wasn’t you.”
I covered my face with my hands.
“I’m sorry, Raven.”
Dropping my hands as he reached for me again, I shoved his away. He towered over me as he straightened from the door, running a hand through his hair. “I was scared and irritated with you. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t know how to do this, Raven, but it doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to learn.”
“You fight,” I cried. “I told you not to walk away from me, but you did it anyway, and every time you do, I find you with Jeanine.” He opened his mouth to speak, but I didn’t let him. “Every time you’ve hurt me, I haven’t walked away from you. I’ve let you explain, let you apologize. I don’t leave you. And it makes me pathetic.” I took another step away as his fingers brushed mine. “You should have told me the truth.”
At that, he stopped moving, stopped fidgeting.
“I am tired of forgiving you. I am tired of kneeling to you only to get my knees bruised.”
Our eyes were glazed and sunken in as we stared at one another, our souls fighting within us to reconnect, but I felt nothing but heartbreak. “I need you to leave me alone. Find someone else. Go back to Jeanine. I don’t care what you do, but I need you gone.”
Shaking his head as I closed the door, he stopped it with his hand. “I promised you I wouldn’t move on, Raven. I can’t move on. You are it. We are it.”
“You promised me a lot of things,” I whispered, his hand falling. I had nothing left to give him as I closed the door, no tears left to cry for the man behind it.
Kicking off my shoes, I pulled back the quilts on the bed to climb in and tugged them over my head, burying myself under them.
I had a sister, so something good had to come out of this mess that had become my life. I could spend time getting to know her and listening to stories about our mother. Being around her made me uncomfortable, but it had to be because of all the information I’d had to take in.
She was my sister. I owed it to myself and to her to try.
I groaned, imagining the effort it would take to stay away from Zeke. He lived in this castle and would be everywhere: my fiancé. My eyes rolled at the idea of marrying him now. How could I? I refused to pretend in my kingdom, which meant we would have to live separately. He could stay here with his precious Jeanine, and I would return home — only if I decided to marry him. I wasn’t sure what binding our kingdoms together could do. I could stay in touch with Mira without needing to marry Zeke.
A muffled knock on my door had me peeking out from under my fortress of quilts, realizing that Cade had no way of getting back in. Again, I threw off the blankets and shuffled to the door, throwing it open to see him and four servants carrying our two trunks.
I stepped to the side and held the door open while they brought them inside. Zeke stared at me as Cade waited in the hall while the servants finished; determination etched into every line of his face.
When the servants passed by me to leave, I thanked them, and their eyes widened. I flicked my eyes to Cade, who had also noticed how they seemed shocked. And then Cade looked at Zeke, whose eyes never left me. “Do you need something?”
I tangled my fingers in my hair, scrunching it. These men were going to age me. Today had been the longest day of my life, and all I wanted to do was sleep, but they seemed hellbent on making sure I didn’t.
“Her,” Zeke replied assuredly.
Cade looked at me.
I sighed. “I told you to leave. You can’t stand in my hallway all night.”
Cade looked at Zeke again and motioned for him to go, but he wouldn’t stop staring at me.
“Cade, just come in. I’m tired.”
Cade hesitated before he nodded, putting his hand on my waist and kissing my temple before walking into my room.
Zeke’s fists clenched at his sides, his jaw tight as he pulled up from the wall and came to me again. I shook my head, but Zeke wrapped his fingers around my wrist and yanked me out into the hallway, the door falling closed behind me. “Stay with me,” he said again.
Putting my hands on my waist, I blew out a frustrated breath.
“I am not leaving this hallway until you leave with me.”
Groaning, I rubbed at my temple as my headache spread to my bones, making everything inside me ache. That, and I missed him terribly even as he stood here. “I am not leaving with you.”
You stubborn man.
Throwing his hands up, he leaned against the wall again and crossed his feet at the ankles. “Then I will be right here for when you do.”
“You do not understand what I am trying to tell you,” I snapped, flames flaring behind my eyes. He grinned at my anger, and I glared. “We are done. Whatever this is, it’s over. I can’t do this.”
“I don’t like repeating myself, Raven.”
I arched a brow. He quickly closed the distance between us, my spine hitting the wall behind me. He caged me in with a wicked grin spread across his soft lips. “I told you when we got here that you are mine. You will not escape me.”
I moved to duck out from underneath his arms, but he slid them lower on the wall to trap me. “I don’t want to be the asshole, but I will be if that’s what it takes to get you back.” His voice was so low that it sent chills dancing across my skin. “And I will, Raven. I will get you back.” His grin had turned smug, knowing exactly what he was doing to me. “Miss me?”
“Don’t get excited because of how my body reacts to you. My mind is louder.”
“Oh, baby.” His chuckle was gruff. “I am always excited around you.” While running his fingertips down my arm, his eyes slid even lower. “Thinking about you in my bed, underneath me…” His hand slid over my heart. “Falling asleep with your heart beating in my ear.” His eyes were pools of gray and filled to the brim with pain as they rose again. “Please stay with me. I can feel you, Raven. I know there’s something there.”
There would always be something there, but it didn’t take away from the simple fact that he had lied to me. But even with that knowledge, I found myself considering his offer.
I would never get the chance to know what my answer would be since the door to my room opened before I had an opportunity to speak. My head rolled against the wall to look at Cade as he glared at the two of us. Zeke’s gaze remained locked on mine; his palm planted firmly against my heart.
Sighing, I pushed at his arm to uncage me, but he stayed right where he was. I did it again, and he finally dropped it, but not before putting his mouth right against my ear. “Don’t let him touch what’s mine, Raven. And you are.” Towering over me again, he looked at Cade. “I’ll see you two for breakfast in the morning.”
Cade came and grabbed my hand, tugging me with him to my room. I looked back at Zeke again, and there was desperation behind that cocky smirk.
When the door closed behind us, I stared at it as if I could still see him standing there.
Cade paced back and forth across the room. “What’s going on between you two?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer that question, so I didn’t.
He crossed the room to me. “Do you still love me?”
I wondered if I’d ever be allowed to sleep. “Men,” I grumbled, sidestepping around him to walk to the bed. “I received life-changing news tonight, and you’re both more concerned about how I feel about you.”
He sighed while helping me fold the bedding back so we could lie down. “You’re right. You’re completely right.” He removed his shirt and tossed it to me. “Still want to sleep in my shirts?”
I caught it with a smile on my face. That warmed my deadened heart a little.
Nodding, I dropped it back to the bed and pulled my dress off, looking down to see the bruises fading from my near extinction in the forest. When I caught Cade staring for entirely different reasons, I quickly pulled his shirt over my head.
“Still fits,” he mumbled.
I giggled, tugging it lower to cover my thighs. “Maybe I should wear this around Reales and tell everyone it’s how we dress in Seolia.”
He laughed, lowering down into the bed. “That would keep tourism thriving.”
Climbing into bed next to him, I rolled on my side and allowed him to put his arm around me to pull me back against his chest. I missed Zeke, but Cade was still my best friend. I wasn’t going to feel guilty for letting him comfort me. At least, that was what I kept telling myself until I heard his heavy breathing behind me.
But even still, Zeke had been frustratingly correct about one thing: I was his. And I was very aware of another man’s arm around me. It didn’t bring me the same feeling of safety as it once did.
Once Cade was in a deep sleep, I moved out from underneath his arm and grabbed a woven quilt from the edge of the bed, lying down on a small bench at the foot of it. Curling up in a ball underneath the blanket, I stared at the door and wondered if maybe he was still out there, waiting for me.
And like every night since we’d met, he was my last thought before I fell asleep.
* * *
I trembled, knowing I was deep within a dream, but Zeke wasn’t here.
Black ink dripped on my skin as I felt for a way out of this box made of glass.
Bringing my hand to my face, I watched as it stretched between my fingers, thick with something corrupt.
My head rolled back as it seeped into my skin, power thrumming through my veins. “What are you?” I muttered to the black sludge as it continued to dribble down.
All I could do was think while it sank into my veins.
Building and encouraging my hatred.
Leonidas took my mother from me. My sister had been in a kingdom only separated by water for twenty-five years. My father had left me stranded in my domain and murdered my mother simply for possessing magic — the same dark magic he entrusted his kingdom to — a kingdom that I had been the rightful heir to for my entire life. I relied solely on a man’s attention to keep me going daily — a man who had lied to me my whole life.
I fell deeply in love with my mirrored soul, only to find that he contained all of my answers and refused to share them. I received the answers to the questions I’d been asking my entire life, answers I craved, and they only bred more questions. I was tired of asking them. It only added to the layers of woe currently wrapping my heart in layers of black.
I could feel magic deep in my bones. Growing. Becoming. Like I hadn’t yet scratched the surface of my capabilities.
Someone would burn for this. I would satisfy the need for blood, but I needed more time. The decision to kill was never a light one.
I slowly lifted my head. My reflection stared back at me, but it was unrecognizable. My green irises were black, and every inch of me was cold. “Hello, you,” I cooed to the stranger staring back at me.