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  • Cait Marie

Sneak Peek: The Missing Crown Chapters 1-3

It's almost time!! The Missing Crown releases November 16th, so I'm sharing an exclusive look at the first three chapters right here!

Just a reminder, this is the fourth book in The Nihryst series. You can technically jump in here without being too confused (I hope) because it takes place nearly two decades after the first three books, but it will spoil those earlier books. So, continue at your own risk.

Want to start the series from the beginning? You can find all the books here!

Without further ado, The Missing Crown...

Chapter 1

Elin

17 years after The Lost Alliance...

“There’s my favorite niece.”

Elin shook her head with a smile. “I’m your only niece.”

Phillip leaned over the chaise lounge to kiss the top of her head. Setting her book down in her lap, she twisted and reached up to hug him. He’d been visiting one of the southern villages when she arrived yesterday, checking in with the new guards he’d stationed there after receiving reports of multiple families missing goods and valuables from their homes.

“Did they catch the thief?” she asked, crossing her arms over the back of the chair as she shifted around and onto her knees. The book fell to the side of the seat with a light thump.

“No, but they will. They’re sure it’s the same man traveling from kingdom to kingdom—a wanted man from one of the eastern isles. He’s becoming reckless, so it’s only a matter of time.” Phillip glanced around the library. “Where are your brothers?”

“Kal is teaching them how to throw knives.”

His brow furrowed. “Your mother didn’t teach them that?”

“Oh, no, she did,” Elin said, laughing. “But Kal doesn’t know that.”

Phillip sighed and ran a hand through his pale hair. “Those boys are trouble.”

As children of a former pirate and rebellious princess, at fourteen, the twins were indeed trouble. She loved them though. At least, when they weren’t purposely irritating her. “You know, it’s very concerning that the future king is so gullible.”

“Be nice,” a deep voice said as footsteps neared them. Shane appeared at the corner of the towering bookshelf, eyes narrowing at her. “Stop teasing your cousin. Especially when he’s not here to defend himself.”

“But it’s so fun.”

Shane rolled his eyes as his arm went around Phillip’s back and he kissed him once. “I’m glad you’re home.”

Elin rested her chin on her hands with a smile. Seeing their happiness, the way they loved each other after all this time, warmed her heart. Shane and Phillip had been friends their entire lives, and that friendship continued to shine through their marriage. Even with her own parents, who argued and irritated each other more often than not, it was plain to anyone how much they loved one another. She wanted that so badly that it hurt sometimes.

“What’s that face about?” Phillip asked, always able to read her like an open book.

“Nothing.” She tried to play off the jealousy and sadness building inside. In less than two months, she’d sail home with her brothers and go back to the dull life of a princess. Her parents had only agreed to let her visit Detmarya until summertime. Growing up, she’d heard countless tales about her parents’ adventures and her uncles’ involvement with the war before her birth seventeen years ago. They all fought to give her a peaceful life. Well, not her specifically, as they hadn’t known her mother was pregnant, but their people in general. Elin was grateful for their sacrifices and hard work. That didn’t make the tutoring lessons, endless council meetings, and talks of a betrothal in her near future any easier though.

On top of that, she had impossible shoes to fill one day. How was she supposed to follow in the footsteps of the great Loxley and Adalina?

“El?” Shane moved around, as if to sit beside her, but she stood abruptly, knocking her forgotten book to the floor.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, swiping it up and setting it on the chair.

Shane put a hand on both of her shoulders, making her stop. Like he knew she was about to run. “What is it?”

“You can talk to us,” Phillip said in a soft tone as he joined them.

She knew she could. If anyone understood how she was feeling, it would be them. They’d talked about it before—Shane sharing about his dark days and Phillip not feeling worthy of his place in this family when he was younger. But she couldn’t do it. Not again.

Despite the wide-open space of the library, she felt the walls closing in. She was trapped and needed out. Glancing up at Shane, she managed to say, “I’m fine, really.”

“Elinore—”

“I said I’m fine.” She broke from his grasp, dodged Phillip, and raced down the stairs to the main floor. When her feet hit the marble, she didn’t stop. She ran out of the library and through the halls that were as familiar as her own across the sea.

Within minutes, she was out of the castle, escaping the guards and prison-like feel of the tall stone walls. In the heart of Ferda, she slowed. She hadn’t meant to come so far, but she needed to get away from that place—from the pressures of becoming the perfect heir. The only person who understood that was Kal, but she didn’t feel like seeking him out just yet. Not after their argument earlier that day. He’d find her eventually anyway, like he always did. Despite constantly teasing him, he was the only one who seemed to truly know her.

Checking over her shoulder to confirm she hadn’t been followed, Elin let out a long exhale. The streets were full of people going about their daily lives. None paid her much attention. Though, when the occasional set of eyes snagged on her and widened, she merely lifted a hand in greeting and continued on her way.

She thought about going to O’ Chwedlau—to the peace it offered—but she didn’t want to risk running into Gwyn. Her distant cousin would be just as insistent as Shane and Phillip. Instead, she meandered through the western part of the village, heading toward the hills beyond. Perhaps she’d wander into the forest for a little while to clear her head.

A warm spring breeze drifted through the street, lifting her copper-colored waves around her face. Wind chimes tinkled, and Elin turned as she tucked her hair back. From the window of the small shop on the corner, a pair of eyes watched her. Elin looked around, but the rest of the street had gone mostly quiet. Only a handful of people lingered outside a few buildings away. She glanced at the shop again and found the person had vanished.

Curiosity got the better of her. With a deep breath, she strolled toward the open door and into the darkness.

“Hello?” she called out, reaching for the dagger that wasn’t at her side. She silently cursed herself. The kingdom might be peaceful right now, but she still shouldn’t wander into dark shops alone and unarmed. Not with rumors of magic returning. That was one of the reasons she was to meet with the Prince of Haevlan. Her parents thought it important to build an alliance with the kingdom most in the realm had distanced themselves from since the detrimental war centuries ago between the humans and dark fae. The other kingdoms simply outlawed magic and banned any dealings with the northern land. They’d executed anyone who showed signs of those abilities, and they still did to this day, making it all but disappear from their world.

But if magic was returning in full, Elin’s parents thought it prudent to reach out and try to mend that broken relationship with Haevlan. No one in her family approved of the laws against magic or shunning a kingdom for its past. Her parents had dealt with witches and seers, and the ability to heal from the Heulwen had passed down from her father to her. Magic was an intrinsic part of their lives, whether the people wanted to accept it or not.

The door slammed shut behind her, and she whirled around with a short squeak.

“Who’s there?” She tried to instill the demanding tone she’d heard her mother use more than a few times throughout her life, but it came out weaker than planned, and shaky. Swallowing, she continued walking toward the faint light coming from the closest room. She stepped inside and saw the window she’d spotted from the street, but that wasn’t what held her attention.

At the center of the room sat an old lady at a round table. Candles and lanterns of various sizes were strewn around the room, as were plants and jars and vials. Books lined the shelves of one wall. But still, it was the woman Elin took another step toward. She had her eyes closed, her hands resting atop the table palms up. Something burned in a bowl on the stand at her back, with strongly scented smoke billowing to the ceiling. Elin didn’t recognize the smell, but it was pleasant, soothing.

“Princess,” the woman spoke without opening her eyes.

Elin jumped and placed a hand over her pounding heart. “How did you—”

“I see all.”

“Through the window,” Elin said, more to herself than the woman.

“No, my dear.” Her eyes snapped open then, causing Elin to still. They were as silver as her tightly curled hair. Nodding to the chair across from her, she said, “Please, sit. No one will harm you here.”

Elin knew she shouldn’t. She should run out of here and back to the safety of the castle walls.

“Thank you,” she said instead, taking a seat.

The woman turned to grab a deck of cards and began shuffling them. “How about a reading?”

“I didn’t bring any coins with me.” A lie, but she wasn’t about to spend her small allowance on someone pretending to see the future. Her family had dealt with real seers and witches in the past, so she had no choice but to believe in them. But that didn’t mean this one was authentic. Besides, she knew what her future held.

“You’re wrong,” the woman said.

Elin opened her mouth to insist she truly didn’t bring any coins, but she was cut off.

“Your future is not as you think.” The woman spread the cards out in front of her. “The reading is complimentary. Run your hand slowly over the deck and select the card that calls to you.”

Holding back a sigh, Elin reached forward. She did as she was told, pointing to a card at random when nothing happened.

The woman grabbed it, flipped it over, and slid it toward the princess. “The Great Thief.”

This time, Elin couldn’t stop the snort from escaping. Staring up at her from the card was a poorly painted version of her own father. Of course the woman was using a deck of Nihryst cards. They weren’t the real ones. Those were back home, safe and sound in a glass case, though their images had all faded after the curse was broken. Elin had seen imitations throughout the various kingdoms, but never had someone tried to read her fortune with them.

“Yes, you have strong ties with the thief,” the woman said.

“You could say that.” Elin crossed her arms over her chest.

“But that is not what this means,” she went on, undeterred. “This tells us that you are hiding. You will be trying to get away with something soon. Select another.”

Elin picked a card.

“The Honorable,” the woman said, showing Ren’s image next. Elin never met the man who had been her parents’ friend before his tragic death—the man her aunt Brienne had loved for decades in secret—but she’d heard all about him. One of her younger brothers was even named after him. In the older decks though, he was labeled as The Guardian. She wondered when that had changed and how.

“That seems counterproductive,” Elin said. “The Honorable and the Great Thief?”

The woman smirked, her skin wrinkling near her eyes. “Yes, so it would seem. But you know that’s possible more than most. Don’t you? Or are you saying your father’s days of stealing for those in need were dishonorable?”

Elin shifted uncomfortably. Not many knew the full truth about her father. Her parents hadn’t revealed the connection between the cursed thief and the lost prince to anyone outside those they trusted and their council of advisors after the war to convince them of the truth—that he was, in fact, the rightful heir of Rayerna.

“This card represents the true love of your life,” the woman said. “Together, you will achieve greatness, but only if you find one another. Your lines seem to cross but are blurred from there.”

Leaning forward to rest her arms on the table, Elin whispered, “Who is he?”

The woman remained quiet for a long moment before shaking her head. “I cannot see that. His path is too far away—too unknown. He has decisions coming he must face in order to find you.”

Elin sighed. She knew she shouldn’t have been lured in with that one, but she hadn’t been able to stop herself. The woman stood and walked to a cabinet in the corner of the room. She poured two glasses of what appeared to be water then brought them over.

“I’m sorry, dear.” She handed a cup to Elin, who thanked her but set it in front of her without drinking. She might have been foolish enough to wander in here unprotected, but she knew better than to ingest anything from strangers. No matter how old and kind they seemed.

As if understanding, the woman sat again and began sipping her own water. She started rambling more about the future, but Elin barely listened. Her thoughts were still on that true love she was supposed to find. In a couple months, she and her mother were hosting the royal family of Haevlan so she could meet the oldest prince. Haevlan was on the other side of the world, so maybe that was what she meant by him being too far right now.

Elin picked up her water, deciding it was safe after the woman drank it. She took a small sip to sooth her dry mouth and parched throat. No more than a few seconds passed before her head began to throb. Her heart raced as she wondered how big of a mistake she’d made in coming here.

“Is something wrong, dear?” The old woman’s sweet tone didn’t match the calculating eyes boring into her.

Shoving her chair back, Elin jumped to her feet. The room tilted. She blinked a few times, trying to fight the overwhelming lightheadedness.

“The water,” Elin said, grabbing and throwing the glass to the floor. It shattered to a thousand pieces at her feet. “What was in the water?”

“Nothing, I swear.” The woman stood. She turned to reach for the smoking herbs behind her and then slowly walked around the table. “These, however, are my own special creation.”

Around her, the world began to spin. Elin stumbled as she tried to move toward the door. Lead filled her limbs, weighing her down. She grabbed the sides of her head, her fingers tangling in her hair, to keep it from bursting.

“You see,” the woman continued as she followed, “I’m not a seer, though I do possess some of those abilities, passed on to me from an ancestor. But my power lies in the manipulation of plants…”

Elin managed to reach the front door, all but collapsing against it. There were people outside, she remembered. If she could just get out to the street where they could see her…

The door wouldn’t budge.

“I created this especially for you, Princess. It took a while to figure out how to counteract the Heulwen in your bloodstream, but I finally managed to do so.”

Tears fell down Elin’s cheeks as she yanked on the door with her dwindling strength. The healing properties from the Heulwen flower shouldn’t allow this to happen. Its powers lived within her father, passed on from his mother when he was born. It had kept Elin’s own mother from dying while trying to break the curse on the Nihryst because she was pregnant with his child. It had then protected Elin growing up, mending any major injuries quicker than normal. The flower didn’t make her invincible, but it should have kept anything like this from happening.

She tried to yell—to scream for help, but her voice came out in a helpless croak.

“Please,” Elin begged as her legs gave out and she slid to the cold floor.

The woman crouched beside her, a lantern in one hand and the bowl of herbs in the other. Up close, Elin could see that she was older than she appeared.

“If you let me go, my family will pay you. Whatever you want, they will make it happen.” She could barely get the words out. Despite the flickering lantern lighting up the entryway, dark spots flooded her vision as she fought to stay conscious. She could no longer move her arms.

“They cannot give me what I need.” The woman set the bowl down beside them. She wrapped her fingers around Elin’s wrist, as if counting the beats of her slowing heart.

A sob made its way up Elin’s throat. “Please don’t kill me.”

If she made it out of this, she swore to the stars she would never complain about her boring life ever again.

“Oh, sweetheart, I’m not going to kill you. I promised no harm would come to you, remember?” She placed a hand on Elin’s cheek, but the princess couldn’t even flinch away from the touch. “Don’t worry, the fear will be gone when you wake up.”

“What do you mean?” Elin whispered, her eyelids growing too heavy. Panic seized Elin as the darkness began to take over.

“When you wake up, you won’t remember any of this.” A malicious grin spread across the woman’s face. “Or your old life.”

Chapter 2

Kal

Kal stormed into the council room full of people. He nudged his way through the crowd, rounding the table to his fathers. Phillip stood looking down at a map of the western realm on the long table at the center of the chambers, listening to reports from the commanders whose legions had recently returned from various villages and the surrounding forest. Even the mountains in the south had been combed through carefully.

“I want the ships moving out within two days, do you hear me? Send them in every direction.” He glanced up at the commanders circling the table, who nodded and wasted no time leaving to pass on the orders.

“Still nothing?” Kal asked as he stepped closer to Shane. The king shook his head, the circles beneath his eyes appearing darker than ever. Kal put a hand on his shoulder. “We’ll find her.”

Shane nodded, but he didn’t look convinced.

“Did Aunt Ada and Uncle Lee depart yet?” Kal directed to his other father. As soon as the room cleared, leaving the three of them, Phillip’s façade dropped. He ran a hand through his dark blond hair.

“Yes, they’re heading back to Rayerna to start the search there and farther north. They went with the morning tide.”

Kal glanced down at the map with a frustrated groan. For over a week, he’d scoured this kingdom high and low without finding a trace of his cousin. When she hadn’t returned that first night, he’d foolishly thought she was just throwing a fit and needed some space. He’d assumed she’d gone to stay with Gwyn or one of the others in O’ Chwedlau, perhaps to Phillip’s mother down in the village. But no one had seen her.

And she still hadn’t returned.

His stomach twisted as images of what she might have endured flooded his mind. If he’d just gone after her that day…

“Stop,” Shane said in a soft tone, as if sensing the direction of his thoughts. “This isn’t your fault. There’s enough guilt around here as it is.”

Both of his fathers, he knew, bore that burden just as much. They’d explained the conversation that had prompted Elin to run, but Kal knew it wasn’t anything they’d said. Her parents had agreed once they’d arrived that it was no one’s fault. Kal had only seen them briefly when reporting in from one of his numerous searches. Ada had been beside herself, overcome with worry while also threatening to burn down the world to find her daughter.

Lee had remained eerily silent, reminding them all of his brutal past. Reminding them that stories of the fierce immortal warrior Loxley were still told throughout the realm, and likely beyond. He’d been feared for good reason.

Not that Kal had ever been frightened of the former pirate who’d rescued him and his sister when they were children.

“The people know,” Karey’s voice cut in as she joined them, his thoughts seeming to summon her. Phillip draped an arm around her and kissed the side of her head. She reached out to grab one of the small, stone ship figurines they used to show where the fleets were heading and began twirling it in her hands. When she met Kal’s eyes, her words registered, and he cursed under his breath.

They’d tried to keep the people from knowing the princess was missing to avoid any panic. Detmarya had known peace for seventeen years now, for the most part. Someone taking the princess could mean another potential war, or it could mean a dangerous criminal stalked their streets.

Though, there truly was a dangerous criminal as it was. That was the excuse they’d used for the thorough hunts. The thief, Silvius, was still out there. He was wanted for more serious offenses, but a lot of it was hearsay. At least, Kal hoped a killer wasn’t running amok through their kingdom. Some said the death of those three villagers in Varletia across the sea were his fault, while others claimed it was self-defense.

Kal sank into one of the chairs, feeling nauseated. “Do you think it was Silvius? Would he have kidnapped her?”

Phillip tapped his knuckles on the table in a quiet pattern, waiting a long moment before shaking his head and turning toward Kal. “I don’t know. There have never been reports of him taking anyone, but…” He sighed. “He’s all but gone missing. Word is he’s left and gone north. I hadn’t thought anything of it other than he’s someone else’s problem now.”

“We had bigger things to worry about,” Shane said, putting a hand over Phillip’s. “It’s not unreasonable that you put him out of your mind.”

“I should go after him,” Phillip whispered. “I don’t think it’s him, but he’s the only possible lead we have. The rest of the fleets should continue as planned while I take a legion north.”

Karey moved to Kal’s side, letting them have their moment. As they began talking about his father leading a crew through the mainland, Kal thought back to the last time he’d seen Elin. And yelled at her. They’d argued and teased each other all their lives, but as the heirs of their respective kingdoms, they understood each other in a way the rest of their families couldn’t. The most open and genuine chats he’d ever had were with his missing cousin.

That last day though? The arguing had turned real. They’d both said hurtful things, and he prayed to the stars he’d get the chance to apologize. He hadn’t meant any of it.

“How are Ren and Will?” Kal asked his sister. When he left, the twins had been locked in their rooms to keep them from running off after Elin themselves.

“They left with Aunt Ada and Uncle Lee. They weren’t exactly happy about it, but I think at least Ren understood that if someone is targeting their family, they couldn’t just go traipsing through the kingdom. Will, on the other hand…”

Kal huffed a breath through his nose. The older twin—by ten minutes—was by far the most rambunctious of his cousins. He’d always been the troublemaker, usually dragging poor Ren along with him. The two had begged Kal to teach them to throw daggers the day Elin disappeared.

“I should have insisted she come out to train with us.” Kal stood and began pacing, but Shane grabbed his arm to stop him.

“Don’t do that. You left her safe in the library,” he said. “Do not carry such guilt, Kal.”

But he did. If he hadn’t argued with Elin, she’d still be here right now. It wasn’t his fathers’ fault she took off while talking to them about the future. It was his. He’d been the one who yelled at her to grow up. He’d been the one to upset her enough that she needed to get out of the castle for a bit.

Kal shrugged out of his father’s hold. Something more needed to be done. He couldn’t just stand here anymore.

He marched around the table, heading for the door. His fathers and sister called for him to wait, but he ignored them. Before he could reach for the handle, the door burst open as Gwyn charged into the room out of breath. As if she’d run all the way here.

Kal raised an arm, ready to catch her, but she shook her head. Doubled over, she heaved in a couple deep breaths as the others quickly rushed over to see what was wrong.

“Gwyn, what is it?” Shane asked, putting a hand on her back to steady her.

“Someone saw her,” Gwyn said between gasps. “Now that people know the truth, they’re stepping forward to help, and someone saw her in the village that day.”

“Who? Where?”

“Down on the west end.” She straightened, holding her side with one hand.

“The west end?” Kal asked. Why would Elin stray to the edge of town by herself? She knew it wasn’t safe. The kingdom itself had been peaceful since Shane took the throne, but there were still areas they shouldn’t visit alone, especially a young princess. That corner of Ferda housed rundown taverns and brothels, seedy establishments she had no business wandering near unguarded.

Gwyn nodded. “One of my men saw her enter a fortune teller’s shop at the end of the street he’d been on, but he’d gone inside one of the taverns before she came back out. He said he didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

Turning to grab his jacket hanging off the back of a nearby chair, Phillip said, “We need to go down there and question the shop owner.”

“I was just there,” Gwyn called out as he pushed past her into the hall.

“And?” Kal asked, moving to join his father.

“There’s nothing there. Not a scrap to indicate anyone even owns the place.”

Kal stilled. “The fortune teller?”

She shrugged. “Gone, as if she never existed. I asked around, and the only thing people could tell me was that she was an odd, old lady. Apparently, she was new around here and kept to herself. No one even knows her name.”

Phillip’s shoulders drooped, and Shane moved to his side, taking his hand. Watching with tears in her eyes, Karey stood in the doorway of the council chambers with her arms crossed. Kal hated nothing more than seeing his sister cry, his family hurting. It brought back hazy memories of his childhood before the two were adopted. Most of the images were never fully clear, but the fear, sadness, and pain remained with him.

Clenching his jaw, he took a deep breath and turned on his heel. When Karey yelled after him, he heard their fathers holding her back, reassuring her that he’d be fine. That he just needed space.

But that wasn’t what he needed. What he needed was to see that shop for himself. To find his cousin.

What he needed was to help his family.

* * *

Entering the shop Gwyn had indicated sent a pang of fear through Kal, even with a handful of guards in tow. It was utterly empty, just as she had said. He’d hoped with everything he had that she had been wrong. Still, he walked through each room, inspecting every nook and cranny himself.

“There’s nothing, Your Highness,” one of the guards said.

Kal nodded and thanked him, his eyes not leaving the parlor room as he told them he’d meet them outside in a moment. He lifted a lantern they’d brought and stepped closer to the bookshelves lining one wall. Running a hand along the smooth wood, he noticed the lack of dust. Someone had definitely been here recently. He turned to face the room with a sigh. There was nothing else.

Except, on his way out, something caught his eye. Kal moved toward the bare patch of wall opposite the door and knelt. At the corner of another shelf, there was a tiny sliver of floor that was a different shade of brown than the rest. He reached beneath the shelf, his fingers brushing something flat.

When he pulled it out, he released a breath. It was a card. A Nihryst card marked with The Great Thief. Kal stood, looking at one side then the other. The card was beautiful, with such detail that he knew the deck it came from must have cost a small fortune. Though, the man painted on the front didn’t accurately portray his uncle.

He slid the card into his pocket before lifting the lantern once more and heading out the door.

“Search the place again,” he told his men. “Tear it apart brick by brick if you have to, but look everywhere.”

“Yes, sir.” Pity filled the man’s eyes, but Kal didn’t care. He needed to get back to the castle.

Because if they could figure out who painted these cards, they might discover who bought them. And that would bring them one step closer to finding Elin.

Chapter 3

Riley

Riley shifted her faded leather bag higher on her shoulder as she walked down the cobblestone street. With the bright sun shining down and the content chatter flittering through the breeze, she couldn’t help but smile. These kinds of days were her favorite—when the sky above remained clear and she could go into the market. She loved her grandmother, truly, but there was nothing like an independent trip into the village. Since her parents’ death a few years ago, she’d rarely been left alone. Her grandmother had grown overprotective, moving her from village to village, never staying in one place too long.

Villagers greeted her with cold stares, but she didn’t let it deter her. They’d just moved here a couple months ago, so she understood their wariness. She waved to the man selling trinkets and jewelry and then the woman with beaded dresses unlike any others. Most were dyed such brilliant, vivid colors. Others were more natural shades, yet still looked elegant with clean stitches and intricate beading. Riley had begged her grandmother for one, but she didn’t approve of such clothing. She’d said they were improper, too revealing with their low-cut necklines and tight bodices.

Instead of stopping to look at them, she continued past the booth in the market toward the butcher’s shop at the end of the street. A bell chimed as she opened the door and stepped inside. Only a few people waited in line before her, but none spoke to her, which suited her just fine. It was better to be ignored than treated poorly, and she’d experienced plenty of the latter from the others her age in the few times she’d attempted to meet them, wanting to make friends.

Her grandmother was a healer with a special gift for plants and herbs. The people paid for her services when needed but otherwise stayed away out of fear. Despite Riley’s lack of any such skills, they’d called her a variety of names, the least hurtful being a witch.

“Next!” the woman behind the counter shouted. Riley quickly stepped forward, and the butcher narrowed her eyes before turning toward a cut of meat already wrapped and ready to go. All of the shops she frequented knew the routine; they knew she was there to pick up her grandmother’s orders and typically had them ready so she wouldn’t linger.

Digging out a couple of coins she passed them over and placed the roast into her bag. “Thank you.”

The woman harrumphed, motioning for the next customer. As she turned to leave, the conversation of those behind her caught her attention.

“Yes, we’re leaving the week before solstice. Harold wants to stop and visit an old friend first,” the lady said. “It’s less than a day’s journey from his friend’s home to Ferrington, so it won’t put us off course too much. We should arrive in time to see the fireworks, and the festival itself lasts a few days.”

“The girls are begging me to take them, but we just cannot do it this year,” the other said, shaking her head. Riley had slowed her steps to listen.

“Will you be attending the harvest games?” the first woman asked as she approached the counter.

“We’ll see. My husband has been working hard and saving up to surprise them.” She seemed to notice Riley then and narrowed her eyes. “What?”

Riley backed away. “Sorry, I… I was just wanting to hear more about the festival.”

Both women scoffed, and the butcher shooed her out of the shop. Riley had learned enough though. There was some big festival taking place on the solstice in Ferrington—wherever that was. She’d only heard of fireworks before, but she longed to see the colorful explosions of light in the sky.

Sighing, she continued on with her quest. After she gathered everything on her list, she wandered down the street at a slower pace. She watched villagers go about their usual business. Some were working, while others were probably heading to visit friends and family. And though she wished for those kinds of relationships, this place had become home. She barely even remembered their old village. Riley loved it here, even if they weren’t so welcoming. She loved the calm peace she felt while walking along the old cobblestone lanes, with the sun beaming down on her, as birds chirped from the surrounding forest.

Riley found herself at the stand with the dresses again. She wiped her hands on her modest brown skirt before getting closer to the beautiful garments.

“Back for another look?” The woman selling the attire gave her a small smile when she approached. Riley wondered briefly if it was genuine or if it was simply in hopes that she’d spend her money there.

Trailing a finger down the gauzy material, Riley only nodded. While she loved the colorful pieces, it was this cream-colored one that drew her in every time. With a flowery, swirling design embroidered on the bodice, sweeping down into full flowing skirts, it was the most breathtaking dress she’d ever seen.

“You should get that,” a deep voice said behind her.

Riley whirled around and came face to face with a young man. She raised a brow at the stranger. It was rare to get new people here—or so she’d gathered in her time here. That was just another reason these people didn’t like or trust her and her grandmother. He appeared her age, with dark hair and a tall frame, but she definitely hadn’t seen him around before. She’d have remembered those warm hazel eyes.

The dressmaker left them to talk to a couple other women on the opposite side of the open tent.

“I can’t.” Riley shook her head, then she tucked back a piece of fallen hair behind one ear.

“Why not?”

She couldn’t believe this boy she’d never met was questioning her. If she hadn’t already assumed he was new to town, his behavior would have told her. The people here were not intrusive. They were quiet and minded their own business for the most part. And they really didn’t converse with her unless necessary.

Crossing her arms, she pushed past him to head home. “Because I can’t.”

He wasn’t easily deterred and fell in step beside her. “I saw the way your eyes lit up when you looked at it. You have a bag full of food and supplies, indicating you have money, so what’s the issue?”

“Why do you care?” she asked, stopping in the middle of the street and turning toward him. She hated her curt tone, but she wasn’t used to anyone taking an interest in her. It made her suspicious, even though it was what she’d wanted for a while now. Especially since he seemed to know what she toted around. “I don’t even know you.”

“Logan.” He held out a hand in front of him.

“Are you serious?”

His brow scrunched. “Why would I joke about my name?”

Riley rolled her eyes and began walking again. A horse-drawn cart rolled toward her, and Logan tugged her to the side of the road. She shook her head in disbelief. “I would’ve moved.”

He didn’t respond, but he did keep up with her as she made her way down the street. The infuriatingly good-looking boy. She supposed this might have been her chance to make a friend, but she was too wary of him.

When they reached the edge of the village, she finally slowed and broke the silence. “If you follow me all the way home, I’m not responsible for what happens to you.”

A soft laugh escaped him, and she hated how much she liked the sound. “Have someone waiting for you who will take me out? A brother? Or a husband?”

With narrowed eyes, she stopped and faced him once more. “First of all, do I look old enough to be married?”

He opened his mouth, but she didn’t wait.

“I’m not yet eighteen, and besides,” she stepped closer, “I can take care of myself.”

Before he could respond, she had her small dagger drawn and pointed at his chin. He held up both hands. Instead of looking the least bit worried though, he grinned and took a step back.

“Also, my grandmother doesn’t take kindly to strangers, so it’s in your best interest just to go away.”

“Will you be back tomorrow?” Something sparked in his dark hazel eyes. “I could use a guide around the village.”

Scoffing, she turned around and began walking down the dirt path that led through the woods toward their cozy cottage.

Behind her, he called out, “Can I at least get a name?”

“No,” she yelled over her shoulder.

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