Dark Secrets, a Paranormal Noir Anthology releases tomorrow.
Six award-winning authors bring you this spellbinding collection of stories about dark desires, mysterious worlds, and danger that lurks in the shadows of the night. Where nothing is black and white; where things might not be as they seem; where magic and mayhem rule.
HEART’S BLOOD by Jeffe Kennedy, a Twelve Kingdoms novella
A dark fairytale retelling of a princess robbed of rank, husband and even her name.
Nix is nothing. The Princess Natilde—her former waiting woman—attacked her on the journey to wed Prince Cavan, stripping her of everything and taking her place. With no serving skills, Nix becomes a goose girl. Perhaps if Nix keeps her promise never to reveal who she really is, Natilde won’t carry out her vile threats. Prince Cavan entered his arranged marriage determined to have a congenial, if not loving relationship with his future queen—for the sake of both their kingdoms. But, his wife repels him more each day and he finds himself absurdly drawn to the lovely Nix.
With broken vows, anguish and dark secrets between them, Cavan and Nix struggle to find the magic to restore what’s gone terribly wrong… if it ever can be.
Here’s an excerpt:
Nix knew how to do many things. She could dance and speak several languages, able to make charming conversation in all of them with diplomatic skill. She rode with a perfect seat, understood how to feed a village, the political status of all the known kingdoms—the Twelve, Kooncelund and beyond—along with who stood to be an ally or an enemy. Not to mention all those small spells to please and divert the faeries, to ensure continued good luck. Nothing like her mother’s sorcery. She’d never managed that, something of a disappointment in that arena. Which made her all the better to be sent off to be a foreign bride.
She’d trained to be a queen—skills not at all useful in a servant.
Under Mrs. Crocker’s gentle, but insistent questioning, Nix found herself as wanting as the housekeeper clearly did. She dared not risk revealing her true nature. Couldn’t even contemplate what Natilde would visit upon her. Not again. To protect Falada and herself, she must be forever nothing more than the serving maid she appeared to be. One who’d somehow never done a useful chore in her life.
“You cannot cook or sew,” Mrs. Crocker recapped with some exasperation. “You’ve never done laundry, scrubbed a floor or served at dinner. What on earth did you do at your previous home?”
Flailing for an answer, she cast about the warm kitchen, empty of other servants in this lull before supper preparation, hoping for inspiration. Then gasped aloud when her gaze fell on Prince Cavan, darkly imposing, standing in the doorway and staring hard at her, anger in the line of his jaw.
For a panicked moment, she imagined he’d somehow found her out and, flinging herself back in an instinctive need to hide, she nearly toppled over the rude bench, saved only by the rung she’d tucked her feet behind, scraping her shins painfully. Mrs. Crocker followed the direction of her gaze, but seemed unsurprised to see the prince standing there. Or, rather, not taken aback by it.
“Your Highness,” she nodded, but did not rise. “What can I do for you that you could not send for?”
His gaze lingered over Nix, taking her measure in a way she recognized, a way she herself had been taught, to weigh the value of a person, their relative worth and usefulness. But with no glimmer of any other knowledge. He believed her a servant, which meant Natilde would have no reason to make good her threats. Easing her breath, she watched him through her lashes. She’d spotted him before, standing in the tower window, warm light framing his lean body, face shadowed. This close, he looked no less brooding, body lean and lethal as the sword he was reputed to wield so well, gray eyes like granite framed by lashes as black as his coal-dark hair. For his part, he looked away, dismissing her as beneath further notice and turning his attention to the housekeeper.
“My bride requires a maid or two to assist her. I’m sure you know the best choices. Send whoever you choose up along with a hot bath, soap and so forth. Anything she requests, of course.” His words, all graciously chosen, nevertheless seemed barbed with displeasure.
“Of course, Your Highness.” Mrs. Crocker folded her hands around her tea cup. “And for you?”
He hesitated, an almost palpable pause that tempted Nix to glance up, though she managed to tame the impulse. “Have you any of that Branlian whiskey?” he asked quietly.
With a knowing sigh, Mrs. Crocker, heaved herself up. “Don’t be telling your father I gave it to you is all. And don’t drink so much that you can’t do your duty by Princess Natilde, hear?”
“I want it so that I can do it.” He sounded wry, a hint of a laugh behind it.
Fortunately neither he nor Mrs. Crocker appeared to notice Nix’s reflexive start at the sound of her name. Not anymore. Not ever again. Nix studied her hands, fervently wishing to fade into the floor.
“Is she so terrible, then?” Mrs. Crocker sounded as if she gossiped with the royal family on a daily basis. “She looked lovely enough. Does her disposition not match her pretty face? Sorry, Nix, if you have an affection for your mistress and we offend you.”
“I bear no affection for her, no,” Nix whispered. She sensed the prince’s eyes upon her again. Then his bootsteps sounded on the scrubbed stone floor, pausing next to her. His fingers on her chin, raising her face to meet his penetrating stare. He held the bottle of whiskey in his other hand and took a long drink as he studied her. “Your mistress would have had us send you out into the winter.”
It sounded like a dare. A statement he clearly expected her to answer, though he didn’t pose it as a question.
“I should go then,” she managed, though her voice quavered at the prospect. Leave Falada? It would be the severest of blows, but not unexpected. But he did not release her. Instead those strangely hypnotic eyes held her fast, even as he took another swig of whiskey.
“Your people must be heartless, to accept such barbarity. I would no more abandon the infant heir I hope to get on your mistress to a blizzard than have you sent away in this season. You barely made it here in time. Winter is setting in firmly.”
“Nix and I have been discussing what she might do.” Mrs. Crocker had a soothing tone. Why should the prince need soothing and why would the housekeeper be the one to do it? “No one will be sent away.”
“Good.” The prince grunted the word, then took another pull of whiskey, still holding her chin, but gentling his grip, stroking the bones of her jaw, not unlike she’d settle Falada. “What have you hit upon?”
“We’ve yet to decide on the perfect place,” Mrs. Crocker tempered with a diplomacy that surprised Nix. “She’s not been here long and is still recovering from her journeys.”
“Ah.” The prince seemed to recall himself and released her. “Of course. I’ll leave you to your duties and attend to my own.” That wry tone again. He turned away, took a step, then spun back with such liquid grace she imagined he could have run her through before she knew it, had he a sword in his hand. “Your mistress—has she more of that perfume in her belongings?”
Impossible, given her nerves and despair, but Nix nearly laughed at the consternation on his face. Superstitious of bathing, the newly minted Princess Natilde had instead doused herself with the perfume she’d bought from a lady of Duranor they met at an inn, using Nix’s coin. Nix would have warned her from using too much, even owing her only enmity, had the woman been inclined to listen at all.
Suppressing the urge to smile at him, she shook her head. “I believe she used it…all. There is none left.”
“This explains a great deal,” he muttered, and drank of the whiskey yet again, gaze lingering on Nix.
“I’ll take that liquor away from you, young buck,” Mrs. Crocker scolded, “lest your whiskey dick leave you unable to perform.”
Her face hot with scandalized shock, Nix goggled at the housekeeper, terrified that the prince would strike her down for her insolence. Instead he laughed, losing the brooding mien and sounding carefree, and suddenly much younger. Even more astonishing, he kissed the woman on the cheek and pinched her ample hip. “Aw, Brenna. Don’t be jealous. You’ll always be my first love.”
Mrs. Crocker actually giggled, then made a swipe for the bottle, but he held it away from her, took one more long pull, then set it in front of Nix. “Here. What was it—Nix? You have the rest. You need some color and spirit. No more cringing like a ghost haunting our kitchens. You’re not the one facing a burdensome fate, after all.”
He’d gone back to mean and wry. Had he been forced into this marriage? Nix had thought him willing all along. At least as willing as she, with the hope they’d build something together. For the first time she considered her dire circumstances with a sense of reprieve. How would it have been to be the woman waiting upstairs as he sneered about her in the kitchen, fortifying himself for the dreaded duty of divesting her of her virginity? Perhaps he and Princess Natilde deserved each other.
The prince must have read some of it in her face because he shrugged and gave her a self-deprecating twist of his mouth. “Don’t look so shocked, little ghost. With your mistress I shall be all that is gallant and noble. She’ll never guess what’s said of her in the kitchens. You’ll keep my secrets, won’t you?”
Unable to muster an answer, oddly flustered by his trust in her, she nodded. He ran a hand over her hair, then kissed her forehead with the same affection he’d shown Mrs. Crocker. Then, with a wink, slipped the whiskey from her hands and took one more drink before handing it back. “We who are about to fuck, salute you.”
“Oh, go on with you now!” Mrs. Crocker plopped aggrieved fists on her hips, but laughter sparkled in her eyes.
The prince held up his hands as if surrendering and headed to the doorway. Just before exiting, he turned back and pinned Nix with a discomfiting stare. “She likes horses,” he said. “Something in the stables, perhaps.”