Coming August 29, 2017!

So I Married a Sorcerer

The Embraced Book 2

So I Married a Sorcerer

About the New Series:

The Embraced is a new paranormal/fantasy romance series that is best described as Game of Thrones meets The Princess Bride.

This world has two moons, and twice a year they eclipse (or embrace). A child born on the night the moons embrace will be gifted with a supernatural power. They are called the Embraced.

Each of the five heroines is Embraced, so they all have a different kind of power. Of course, the heroes also have some awesome powers!

So what can you expect? Action, adventure, suspense, spooky stuff, shifters, dragons, elves, witches, lots of laughs, and of course, plenty of romance!

“Kerrelyn Sparks is a master storyteller and a superior world builder.” —Fresh Fiction

Book 2 of The Embraced: So I Married a Sorcerer Coming August 29, 2017!!
St. Martin's Press

DESTINED FOR DOOM―OR DESIRE?

Growing up on the Isle of Moon, Brigitta knew that she was born with the magical powers of the Embraced―even if she didn’t know how to wield them. But she has finally learned the truth: Brigitta is the lost princess of the kingdom of Tourin. She was sent into hiding as an infant to escape the wrath of her half-brother, the king. And now he knows just where to find her. . .

Rupert is a notorious pirate and sorcerer who can harness the wind with his hands. He’s spent most of his life plotting revenge on the evil king―and Rupert believes that Brigitta could be the key to finally destroying his enemy. But what begins as a kidnapping of the innocent beauty escalates into something deeper, and more passionate, than either captor or captive could have imagined. Rupert soon vows to protect Brigitta against the king―but will they survive long enough to find their happily-ever-after. . .or does fate have something else in store?

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PROLOGUE

In another time on another world called Aerthlan, there are five kingdoms. Four of the kingdoms extend across a vast continent. They have been constantly ravaged by war.

The fifth kingdom consists of two islands in the Great Western Ocean. These are the Isles of Moon and Mist. On the Isle of Moon, people worship the two moons in the night sky. On the Isle of Mist, there is only one inhabitant—the Seer.

Twice a year, the two moons eclipse. Any child born on the night the moons embrace will be gifted with a supernatural power. These children are called the Embraced. The kings on the mainland hunt and kill the young Embraced, and any who seek to protect them. Some of the Embraced infants are sent secretly to the Isle of Moon, where they will be safe.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Seer has predicted more war and destruction. But recently a new king and queen have ascended to power in the mainland kingdom of Eberon. King Leofric and Queen Luciana are both Embraced, so they have declared Eberon a safe haven for those who are born on the night the moons eclipse.

Because of the new king and queen, a new prophecy has emerged from the Isle of Mist. The Seer has predicted a wave of change that will sweep across Aerthlan and eventually bring peace to a world that has suffered too long.

And so our story continues with Queen Luciana’s four adopted sisters, who grew up in secret on the Isle of Moon. They know nothing of their families. Nothing of their past.

They only know they are Embraced.

 

CHAPTER ONE

“I cannot play,” Brigitta told her sisters as she cast a wary look at the linen bag filled with Telling Stones. Quickly she shifted on the window seat to gaze at the Great Western Ocean. The rolling waves went on for as far as she could see, but her mind was elsewhere. Calm yerself. The prediction will ne’er happen.

At dawn they had boarded this ship, accompanied by Mother Ginessa and Sister Fallyn, who were now resting in the cabin next door. This was the smallest vessel in the Eberoni Royal Navy, the captain had explained, sturdy enough to cross the ocean, but small enough to travel up the Ebe River to the palace at Ebton. There, they would see their oldest sister, who was now the queen of Eberon.

According to the captain, Queen Luciana had intended to send more than one ship to safeguard their journey, but at the last minute the other naval ships had been diverted south to fight the Tourinian pirates who were raiding villages along the Eberoni shore. But not to worry, the captain had assured Brigitta and her companions. Since the royal navy was keeping the pirates occupied to the south, their crossing would be perfectly safe.

Indeed, after a few hours, it seemed perfectly boring.

“If we don’t play, how will we pass the time?” Gwennore asked from her seat at the round table. “’Twill be close to sunset afore we reach Ebton.”

“I wish we could wander about on deck,” Maeve grumbled from her chair next to Gwennore. “’Tis a lovely spring day, and we’re stuck down here.”

Sorcha huffed in annoyance as she paced about the cabin. “Mother Ginessa insisted we remain here. I swear she acts as if she’s afraid to let anyone see us.”

“Perhaps she fears for our safety because we are Embraced,” Gwennore said.

Sorcha shook her head. “We’re safe now in Eberon.”

But only in Eberon, Brigitta thought as she studied the deep-blue waves. Being Embraced was a death sentence anywhere else on the mainland. The other kings abhorred the fact that each of the Embraced possessed some sort of magical power that the kings, themselves, could never have.

When Brigitta and her adopted sisters were born, the only safe haven had been the Isle of Moon. They’d grown up there in the Convent of the Two Moons, believing they were orphans. But almost a year ago, they’d discovered a shocking truth. Luciana had never been an orphan.

Since then, Brigitta had wondered if she had family somewhere, too. Had they hidden her away or, worse, abandoned her? She feared it was the latter. For in all her nineteen years of life, no one from the mainland had ever bothered to contact her.

You are loved, she reminded herself. She’d grown up in a loving home at the convent. Her sisters loved her, and she loved them. That was enough.

It had to be enough. Didn’t it?

Sorcha lowered her voice. “I still believe Mother Ginessa knows things about us that she won’t tell.”

Brigitta silently agreed. She knew from her special gift that almost everyone was hiding something.

“Let’s play the game and let the stones tell us,” Maeve said. “I need to do something. This cabin is feeling smaller by the minute.”

Brigitta sighed. Sadly enough, this was the largest cabin on board. Captain Shaw had lent them his quarters which had a large window overlooking the back of the vessel.

The ship creaked as it rolled to the side, and Sorcha grabbed the sideboard to steady herself.

“Have a seat afore ye fall,” Gwennore warned her.

“Fine.” Sorcha emptied the oranges from a brass bowl on the sideboard, then plunked the bowl onto the table as she took a seat. “Let’s play.”

Brigitta’s sisters gave her a questioning look, but she shook her head and turned to gaze out the window once again. It had been twelve years ago, when she was seven, that Luciana had invented the game where they could each pretend to be the Seer from the Isle of Mist. They’d gathered up forty pebbles from the nearby beach, then painted them with colors and numbers. After the stones were deposited in a bowl and covered with a cloth, each sister would grab a small handful of pebbles, and whatever colors or numbers she’d chosen would indicate her future.

“We’ll just have to play without her,” Sorcha grumbled. A clattering noise filled the cabin as the bag of Telling Stones was emptied into the brass bowl, a noise not quite loud enough to cover Sorcha’s hushed voice. “Ye know why she won’t play. She’s spooked.”

Brigitta winced. That was too close to the truth.

She could no longer see the Isle of Moon on the horizon. As the island had faded from sight, a wave of apprehension had washed over her, slowly growing until it had sucked her down into an undertow of fear and dread. For deep in her heart, she believed that leaving the safety of the convent would trigger the set of events that Luciana had predicted.

But how could she have refused this voyage? Luciana would be giving birth soon, and she wanted her sisters with her. She also needed Mother Ginessa, who was an excellent midwife.

“I’m going first,” Sorcha declared, and the stones rattled about the bowl as she mixed them up.

“O Great Seer,” Maeve said, repeating the line they spoke before each prediction. “Reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”

“What the hell?” Sorcha muttered, and Maeve gasped.

“Ye mustn’t let Mother Ginessa hear ye curse like that,” Gwennore warned her.

“These stones are ridiculous!” Sorcha slammed them on the table, and out of curiosity Brigitta turned to see what her sister had selected.

Nine, pink, and lavender.

Gwennore tilted her head as she studied the stones. “In nine years ye will meet a tall and handsome--”

“Nine years?” Sorcha grimaced. “I would be so old!”

“Twenty-seven.” Gwennore’s mouth twitched. “Practically ancient.”

“Exactly!” Sorcha huffed. “I’ll wait nine months for my tall and handsome stranger, and not a minute more.” She glared at the colored stones. “I hate pink. It looks terrible with my freckles and red hair.”

Maeve’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Who said ye would be wearing it? I think yer true love will look very pretty in pink.”

“He’s not wearing pink,” Sorcha growled.

“Aye, a lovely pink gown with a lavender sash,” Gwennore added with a grin.

“Nay, Gwennie.” Maeve shook her head. “The lavender means he’ll have lavender-blue eyes like you.”

“Ah.” Gwennore tucked a tendril of her white-blond hair behind a pointed ear. “Could be.”

“Are ye kidding me?” Sorcha gave them an incredulous look. “How on Aerthlan would I ever meet an elf?”

“Ye met me,” Gwennore said. “And apparently, in nine months, ye’ll met a tall and handsome elf in a pink gown.” She and Maeve laughed, and Sorcha reluctantly grinned.

Brigitta turned to peer out the window once again. Over the years, the Telling Stones had proven to be an entertaining game. But then, a year ago, something strange had happened. Luciana’s prediction for her own future had actually come to pass. She’d met and fallen in love with the tall and handsome stranger she’d foretold in specific detail, using the Telling Stones. And if that hadn’t been amazing enough, she’d become the queen of Eberon.

Eager to experience something equally romantic, Brigitta had begged her oldest sister to predict a similar future for her.

A mistake. Brigitta frowned at the churning ocean.

Blue, gold, seven, and eight. Those had been the stones Luciana had selected. Blue and gold, she’d explained, signified the royal colors of the kingdom of Tourin. Seven meant there would be seven suitors to compete for her hand. And eight...in eight months, Brigitta would meet a tall and handsome stranger.

The eight months had now passed.

She pressed a hand against her roiling stomach. When they’d boarded this morning, she’d quickly assessed the captain and his crew. None of them had struck her as particularly tall or handsome. Captain Shaw was portly, bald, and old enough to be her father.

As for the seven suitors vying for her hand, she had initially been thrilled, considering the idea wildly exciting. But when her sisters had likened it to her being a prize in a tourney, she’d had second thoughts.

Why would seven men compete for her? She had nothing special to offer. Even the gift she possessed for being Embraced was hardly special. And did this contest mean she would have no choice but to marry whichever man won her? The more she’d thought about this competition, the more it had made her cringe.

So, five months ago, she’d played the game again, hoping to achieve different results. But to her shock, there had been four stones in her hand.

Blue, gold, seven, and five.

Had some sort of mysterious countdown gone into effect? Reluctant to believe that, she’d attempted the game again a month later. Blue, gold, seven, and four. Alarmed, she’d sworn never to play again.

But one month ago, Sorcha had dared her to play, taunting her for being overly dramatic. Those words never failed to irk Brigitta, so she’d accepted the dare. With a silent prayer to the moon goddesses, she’d reached into the bowl, swished the pebbles around, and grabbed a handful. And there, in her palm, four stones had stared up at her.

Blue, gold, seven, and one. A fate was shoving itself down her throat whether she liked it or not.

And she did not.

Brigitta had been raised on the Isle of Moon, where women were free to determine their own futures and everyone worshipped the moon goddesses, Luna and Lessa.

It was different on the mainland. Men were in charge there, and everyone worshipped a male god, the Light. Luciana had been fortunate to find a good man who respected her independent nature. As king and queen, they had declared it safe to worship the moon goddesses in Eberon.

But it was not that way elsewhere. In the other mainland kingdoms, Brigitta would be executed for making the sign of the moons as she prayed. Executed for being Embraced. So why did she keep picking the blue and gold colors of Tourin?

And why would seven suitors compete for her? She glanced at her sisters. Sorcha had always seemed the strongest, with a fiery temperament that matched her fiery red hair. Gwennore had always been the smartest. Maeve, the youngest, had always been the sweetest. And Luciana-- now married --had been their brave leader. Brigitta had never been quite sure where she fit in.

Gwennore, with her superior intellect, had always been the best at translating books into different languages. Maeve had excelled in penmanship, and Sorcha in artwork. Luciana had been good at everything.

But Brigitta...the nuns had despaired with her. When transcribing a book, she could never stay true to the text. A little embellishment here, a tweak there, and eventually she would take a story so off course, it was no longer recognizable. This, of course, upset the nuns, for their male customers on the mainland were paying for an exact copy of an old tale, not the romantic fantasies of an overly dramatic young woman.

Whenever the nuns had fussed at her, her sisters had come to her defense, insisting that her story was much better than the original. And each time the nuns tried to use Brigitta’s overly dramatic mistakes for kindling, her sisters always managed to rescue the pages and give them to her. They’d even begged her to finish her stories about dashing young heroes, so that they could read them.

Brigitta adored them for that. She’d do anything for her sisters, including this voyage to Eberon that she was so afraid would activate the events she’d been dreading.

She shifted her gaze back to the rolling motion of the ocean, and her stomach churned. Did a person’s destiny have to be set in stone, in this case the Telling Stones? This was her story, so why couldn’t it be one of her making? Surely she didn’t have to stick to a text that had already been written without her consent. Couldn’t she be the author of her own destiny?

“Ye should watch the horizon, not the waves,” Maeve said as she sat next to Brigitta on the window seat. “’Tis a sure way to make yerself ill.”

“Oh.” Brigitta turned to her youngest sister. “I didn’t realize...” Her stomach twisted with a sharp pain, and she winced.

Gwennore gave her a worried look. “Ye look pale. Would ye like some bread or wine?” She motioned toward the sideboard and the food that had been left for them.

Brigitta shook her head. Perhaps if she sat perfectly still for a few moments, the nausea would pass. “Did ye finish playing the Game of Stones?”

“Aye,” Maeve answered. “Didn’t ye hear us giggling?”

Brigitta groaned inwardly, not wanting to admit she’d been too engrossed in her own worries to pay her sisters any mind.

“My prediction was the best,” Maeve continued. “In four years, I’ll meet a tall and handsome stranger with green teeth, purple hair, and three feet.”

Brigitta wrinkled her nose. “Ye call that handsome? How can he have three feet? Does he have a third leg?”

Maeve waved a dismissive hand. “We didn’t bother to figure that part out. But he is taller than most.”

“Aye.” Sorcha snorted. “By a foot.”

Maeve grinned. “As ye can see, the game is nonsense. Besides, I have no desire to meet any man, no matter how tall or handsome. I plan to live the rest of my life with all of you at the convent.”

“Aye,” Sorcha agreed. “I’m not leaving my sisters for an elf in a pink gown. ’Tis naught but a silly game.”

“Exactly.” Gwennore gave Brigitta a pointed look. “So ye shouldn’t believe anything the stones say.”

They were doing their best to relieve her fear, Brigitta realized, and as her heart warmed, the ache in her stomach eased. “Thank you. What would I do without ye all?”

The ship lurched suddenly to the right, causing Brigitta and Maeve to fall against the padded wall of the window seat. The oranges rolled off the sideboard and plummeted to the wooden floor. Empty goblets fell onto the floor with a series of loud clunks.

Sorcha grabbed on to the table. “What was that?”

Loud shouts and the pounding of feet sounded on the deck overhead.

“Something is amiss,” Gwennore said as she gazed up at the ceiling. “They’re running about.”

Maeve peered out the window. “I believe we made a sudden turn to the south.”

“That would put us off course,” Gwennore murmured.

The door slammed open, and they jumped in their seats.

Mother Ginessa gave them a stern look, while behind her Sister Fallyn pressed the tips of her fingers against her thumbs, forming two small circles to represent the twin moons.

“May the goddesses protect us,” Sister Fallyn whispered.

“Stay here,” Mother Ginessa ordered, then shut the door.

“What the hell was that?” Sorcha muttered.

A pounding sound reverberated throughout the entire ship. Thump...thump...thump.

“Drums.” Gwennore rose to her feet. “The sailors beat them to set the pace. They must be using the oars.”

“Why?” Sorcha asked. “Is something wrong with the sails?”

Gwennore shrugged. “I suppose we need to go faster. Perhaps we’re trying to outrun another ship, but there’s no way to know unless we go up on deck.”

Sorcha slapped the tabletop with her hand. “Why do we have to stay here? I hate being in the dark.”

Brigitta clenched her fists, gathering handfuls of her skirt in her hands. The prediction was coming true, she knew it. Her stomach roiled again, and her heart thudded loud in her ears, keeping time with the drums.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The drums pounded faster.

Beads of sweat dotted her brow, and she rubbed her aching stomach as she rose shakily to her feet. “The fate of the Telling Stones has begun.”

“Don’t say that.” Gwennore shook her head. “Ye cannot be sure.”

“I am sure!” Brigitta cried. She’d had eight months to consider this fate. Eight months to prepare herself. “’Tis happening now. And I will not remain hidden in this room, meekly accepting a future I do not want. I’m going on deck to face this me self.”

Sorcha jumped to her feet. “That’s the spirit!”

“Aye.” Maeve ran to the bed where they’d left their cloaks. “And we will go with you!”

They quickly slipped their brown cloaks over their cream-colored woolen gowns.

Gwennore rested a hand on Brigitta’s shoulder. “Ye don’t look well. Are ye sure ye’re up to this?”

Nay. Brigitta drew a deep breath. “I have to be...”

“Aye.” Gwennore gave her a squeeze. “Ye’ll do fine.”

“Come on!” Sorcha opened the door, and they filed into the narrow passageway, then climbed the steep wooden stairs to the deck. When they pushed open the door, it bumped into a dog that had been sitting in front of it.

“Julia!” Maeve cried out when she spotted the shaggy black-and-white dog. “It is you, aye?”

With a low growl, the dog backed away.

“How many times do we have to tell you?” Sorcha grumbled. “That dog is a he.”

Brigitta narrowed her eyes. The last time she’d seen this dog, he’d been guarding Luciana at the royal palace in Ebton.

“If I remember correctly, his name is Brody.” Gwennore squatted and extended a hand to the dog. “Is that right?”

With a soft woof, the dog placed his paw in her hand.

She grinned. “Good boy.”

“Nay, she’s too pretty to be a boy!” Maeve wrapped her arms around the dog, and he whimpered with a forlorn look.

“Why is Luciana’s dog here?” Sorcha asked.

Gwennore straightened. “I suppose she sent him to guard us.”

Brigitta studied the dog closely. “I’m more curious about the first time we met him. How did he end up on the Isle of Moon?” A strong breeze whipped some of her hair loose from her braid, and by the time she pushed it away from her eyes, the dog had slipped away.

At least, the cool spring breeze was making her stomach feel better. With a quick glance up, she noted the sails were full. They were mostly white, but two stripes crossed each sail diagonally in the colors of red and black, the royal colors of Eberon.

“What are ye doing here?” Mother Ginessa grabbed her and quickly pulled the hood of her cloak over her hair. “Ye mustn’t let anyone see you.”

Brigitta’s breath hitched as a tingling sensation crept along her nerves and blurred her vision for a few seconds. The older woman’s touch had triggered her special gift, and Brigitta was reminded once again that Mother Ginessa was hiding a great number of secrets.

A loud whistle sounded, and the drums abruptly stopped. The oarsmen were belowdecks, so Brigitta couldn’t see them, but she felt the ship slowing down. After another whistle, crewmen began lowering the sails.

“Goddesses, protect us!” Sister Fallyn cried as she made the sign of the moons. “We’ll be dead in the water!”

“Nay!” Mother Ginessa scrambled up the stairs to the quarterdeck where Captain Shaw was standing with the first mate and helmsman. “We cannot slow down! We must evade them!”

Them? Brigitta turned toward the bow of the ship, and her heart lurched. With the sails furled, she now had a clearer view. Three large ships were fanned out before them, blocking their passage to Eberon, and each ship had sails bordered with blue and gold.

“The royal colors of Tourin,” Sorcha breathed.

Holy goddesses. Here was clear proof that the fate of the Telling Stones had begun. A sharp twinge shot through Brigitta’s stomach, but she ignored the pain and stumbled up the stairs onto the quarterdeck.

“We tried evasion,” Captain Shaw was explaining to Mother Ginessa. “But with three ships, they can continue to block our every move.” He crossed his arms as he studied the ships. “They haven’t gone to battle stations, so I believe they mean us no harm. I can only conclude that they want something.”

“Please, Captain.” Mother Ginessa latched on to his sleeve. “Ye cannot let them catch us!”

The captain gave her a curious look. “Do you know why the Tourinian Royal Navy has stopped us?”

Mother Ginessa quickly released him. “Of course not. But if we cannot move forward, then we must go back.” She glanced at Brigitta. “We should go back to the convent. We’ll be safe there.”

“Not necessarily.” Captain Shaw frowned. “If we return to the Isle of Moon, they could simply follow us.”

“We have cannons.” Sister Fallyn clambered up onto the quarterdeck. “Why don’t we shoot at them?”

Captain Shaw gave her an incredulous look. “That would be suicidal. They have us outnumbered and outgunned.”

“Holy goddesses!” Sister Fallyn made the sign of the moons. “We’re doomed!”

“Calm yerself, Sister!” Mother Ginessa fussed.

“There is no need for you to worry,” Captain Shaw assured them. “If they meant to attack, they would have already done so. And I seriously doubt the Tourinian king wants to start a war with Eberon. King Gunther’s hands are full right now. Norveshka has been attacking him from the east, and on the west along his coastline, he’s constantly plagued with pirates.”

“Sir.” The first mate handed him a spyglass. “The middle ship is waving a flag.”

Captain Shaw peered through the spyglass. “Ah. White flag with a sun. I was expecting that.”

“What does it mean?” Brigitta asked.

The captain lowered the spyglass. “Even though the mainland kingdoms are often at war, we have one thing in common—the worship of the sun god. That flag means they come in peace and merely wish to parley.”

“Peace?” Sister Fallyn scoffed. “Tourinians don’t know the meaning of peace. They are violent, vicious, and cruel! A bunch of murderers and thieves! Nothing good has ever come from Tourin!”

Brigitta gave the nun a surprised look. “I thought ye came from Tourin.”

Sister Fallyn huffed. “Well, aye, but I escaped as soon as I could.”

Brigitta wondered what had happened to the nun, but the ship suddenly tilted to the left, causing her to stumble toward the side railing. One look at the churning water below made her stomach lurch. Quickly she looked away, but even the sound of the ocean slapping against the sides of the ship nauseated her.

Mother Ginessa grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ye must go below. We cannot let the Tourinians see you.”

Brigitta swallowed hard at the bile rising up her throat. “Why me?”

“Aye, why her?” Sorcha demanded as she and the other sisters scurried up the steps to the quarterdeck.

Captain Shaw winced. “Begging your pardon, ladies, but you’re not supposed to be on my deck without my permiss-—”

“Look!” Gwennore pointed at the middle Tourinian ship. “They’ve launched a dinghy.”

The captain groaned as it became clear that his quarterdeck would remain overcrowded. “They’re sending an envoy over to talk to us.” He gave Mother Ginessa a pointed look. “I will ask you once again, madam. Do you know why they are so interested in us?”

“Aye!” Sorcha aimed a frustrated look at her. “What do ye know that ye’re not telling us?”

Mother Ginessa heaved a resigned sigh. “Very well. I’ll tell Brigitta after she comes belowdecks with me. We cannot risk the Tourinians seeing her.”

“This is my ship,” Captain Shaw growled. “I need to know what’s going on.”

A whistle sounded from the crow’s nest above them. “Incoming from the south!” the sailor yelled.

Captain Shaw lifted his spyglass to study a new group of ships coming straight toward them. “Damn,” he whispered.

Brigitta swallowed hard. There were nine ships on the horizon, the middle one leading the pack. The sails seemed mostly white with some sort of black markings, but they were too far away for her to see clearly.

“Are they Tourinians?” Mother Ginessa asked.

“Aye. But not the royal navy.” The captain turned toward the first mate. “Sound the alarm.”

As a horn blasted, Brigitta’s stomach twisted with a sharp pain. “What’s wrong, Captain? Who are they?”

“Pirates.”

Brigitta gasped. A strong wind knocked her back a step and blew the hood off her head.

“We’re doomed!” Sister Fallyn cried. “Doomed!”

“The wind is behind them, so they’re coming in fast.” Captain Shaw gave Mother Ginessa a stern look. “And the dinghy from the Tourinian navy will arrive in a few minutes. You need to talk now. What do we have that is so valuable?” He glanced at Brigitta. “Or is it whom?”

A wave of light-headedness struck Brigitta, and she grabbed on to the back railing to steady herself.

Mother Ginessa’s eyes glistened with tears as she turned to Brigitta. “I am so sorry, child. I have tried to protect you all these years, but I fear I have failed.”

“Nay, ye’ve always been good to me,” Brigitta whispered. “Please tell me what I need to know.”

“Very well.” Mother Ginessa pulled Brigitta’s hood up to cover her hair. “Ye’re the princess of Tourin.”

Brigitta’s thoughts swirled. “Nay, I—” Her stomach heaved. She leaned over the railing as she lost her battle with nausea.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Rupert stood in the crow’s nest of the lead pirate ship, using his spyglass to study the vessels in the distance. His own design, the spyglass was better than any other he’d seen on Aerthlan. Not only did it give him a strategic advantage, but it provided some entertainment as well. For he could actually see people’s reactions when they realized a fleet of pirate ships was headed their way.

Some captains and crew scrambled frantically about like a bunch of ants that had just had their ant bed kicked in. Those were usually the Tourinian naval ships, loaded with so much gold they became overly heavy and cumbersome.

King Gunther was too paranoid to have anyone but the royal navy transport his precious gold from the mountainous region of northern Tourin to his capital of Lourdon in the south. He’d equipped each of his naval ships with a dozen or more cannons, figuring that would keep anyone from attempting to steal his gold.

Rupert had been proving him wrong for seven years.

Now, as he watched the three Tourinian naval ships, he noted how easily they maneuvered around the lone Eberoni vessel. Obviously, they were not burdened with gold. No, they were on a different sort of transport mission—-abscond with the Tourinian princess and deliver her to her older brother, Gunther. Already, they had launched a dinghy that was headed for the Eberoni ship.

Fortunately for Rupert, he had a spy who worked with the carrier pigeons at the Tourinian royal court. Whenever Gunther had a message sent, Rupert received a copy of it.

Unfortunately for Rupert, he and his fleet had been farther south, so it had taken longer for the message to reach him. But with a strong wind at their backs, Rupert’s fleet had managed to arrive just in time.

Why? he wondered once again. Why was Gunther reclaiming a sister who had been declared dead years ago?

Was she truly alive? Rupert had read the message at least ten times before daring to believe it. She must have spent the last nineteen years in hiding. Just like him. The prospect that she’d also survived was more exciting than he cared to admit. He’d immediately headed north to see if she was, indeed, alive. And to capture her for himself.

For the ransom, he thought, correcting himself. She was nothing more than a tool that would allow him to torment her bastard brother and steal more of his gold.

“Have you spotted her yet?” Stefan yelled from below. “Will you even recognize her?”

Rupert winced inwardly. “I will.” Somehow.

Stefan’s dubious snort was his only answer.

With a groan, Rupert shifted his gaze back to the Eberoni naval vessel. How would he recognize a woman he hadn’t seen since she was a babe? Hopefully, she’d be the only female on board. That would make it easy.

Holy crap. There were five—no, six females crowded on the quarterdeck with the Eberoni captain and two of his crew. Even worse, the women were all dressed exactly alike. Cream-colored woolen gowns topped with plain brown cloaks, the sort of clothes worn by nuns. Had the so-called princess been hiding in a convent all these years? If so, she’d brought half the damned convent with her. “Shit.”

“What’s wrong?” Stefan asked.

“Nothing.” Rupert quickly studied the lineup. The women wore their hair plaited in a single braid down their backs. The first one had black hair speckled with gray. Another one had the white-blond hair and pointed ears of an elf. The next one looked like a Norveshki with her wild red hair slipping free from her braid. Three down.

The fourth woman was making the sign of the moons and appeared ready to faint at any moment. She looked Tourinian with her blond hair and pale skin, but she seemed a bit too old to be nineteen. The girl next to her looked a little too young. Black hair.

Dammit, what color hair did the so-called princess have? The last time he’d seen her, she’d been bald. And about two feet tall.

“Well?” Stefan called. “Do you see her?”

“I’m working on it.” The sixth woman stood by the railing with her hood pulled up over her head. Suddenly everyone on the quarterdeck turned toward Rupert’s fleet, and the captain lifted his spyglass.

“They’ve spotted us,” Rupert warned his old friend.

“Is the princess there or not?” Stefan asked.

Indeed, that was the question. For if she wasn’t, Rupert would turn his fleet back south. He focused once more on the woman by the railing. She had to be the one.

He tapped into his power. It swirled inside him, gathering energy as he inhaled deeply. Then he released his breath slowly, aimed straight at the sixth woman. As the air traveled, it became a wind, growing stronger and stronger till it buffeted against her, knocking her back a step and whisking the hood off her head.

Holy Light. It was her. Brigitta.

“Well?” Stefan asked.

“She’s there.” She’d grown up well. Extremely well. “Holy crap.”

“Why the foul language?” Stefan chuckled. “Is she still bald?”

Rupert forgot to answer as he studied her through the spyglass. He forgot to think. Or even breathe. A few tendrils had escaped her long blond braid to curl about her heart-shaped face. Pale, creamy skin, high cheekbones, rosy cheeks and lips. Her eyes, they were as beautiful as he remembered.

With a quick intake of breath, he closed his eyes. Dammit. He didn’t want to remember anything from that horrific day. It was the stuff of nightmares that had haunted him for the past nineteen years. Even so, for the few seconds that he had gazed upon the baby girl, life had seemed...perfect.

At the age of three months, she’d lain in a fancy white crib, festooned with ribbons and lace, and when she’d peered up at him, he’d been surprised by her eyes. Not only big, but a brilliant shade of turquoise. Were they the same color now? He opened his eyes and readjusted his spyglass.

“Why aren’t you answering?” Stefan called, then lowered his voice. “Is she that ugly?”

She was more beautiful than ever. “She’s...tolerable.”

Brigitta. Rupert had been almost seven years old when he’d first met her, but he’d thought she was the most angelic baby he’d ever seen. A sense of peace had enveloped him, an odd but certain feeling that he’d found the one who would share his destiny. So he’d leaned over the crib to give her a smile.

Unfortunately, she’d reacted by spitting up milk all over herself. He’d been surprised that a baby’s stomach could hold that much milk. It had kept coming and coming.

Back on the ship, the oldest nun said something to Brigitta as she raised the hood back over her blond hair.

“What is she doing?” Stefan asked.

Rupert winced as the princess of Tourin leaned over the bulwark and lost her last meal. “The usual.” Don’t feel sorry for her. She’s the enemy.

The other women fussed over her. The oldest one led her to a trunk where she could sit, while two others rushed off and quickly returned with a bowl of water, a towel, and something to drink. They care about her. And if she cared equally for them, it might be something he could use against her.

He tucked the spyglass under his belt, then positioned his black mask over his eyes. His forehead and most of his hair were already covered with a dark-red scarf tied in a knot over his right ear. He plopped a large hat on his head and adjusted the black, shoulder-length, horsehair plaits that were glued to its inside brim. With this hat on, everyone assumed he had black hair.

With this hat on, he became the most infamous pirate that the world had ever known. And after nineteen years, he would finally have his revenge.

# # #

“Are ye feeling better, child?” Mother Ginessa asked.

“A little.” Brigitta passed the goblet of wine back to Gwennore, then rubbed her still-aching stomach. “How can I be a...a princess?” She certainly didn’t feel like one.

Mother Ginessa sat beside her. “Yer father was King Garold. He sent ye to the convent when ye were barely four months old.”

“Why?” Brigitta asked.

“I suppose he meant to keep ye safe.” Mother Ginessa glanced away with a guilty look.

She’s still hiding something. Brigitta’s mind raced as she tried to recall everything she’d learned about Tourin from her studies at the convent. Civil war had plagued the kingdom for centuries. A long line of dukes from the south had rebelled against the northern kings from the House of Trepurin. Nineteen years ago, Duke Garold from the House of Grian had finally defeated the northern king and taken over the country.

I was a baby then, Brigitta thought. Had the Tourinian Royal Navy come here because of her? Did her father want her back? But no, King Garold had died five years ago in a battle against the Norveshki.

A pang of grief struck her, not just because her father was dead, but because she had no memories of him to mourn. He’d never sent for her. Were her fears correct and he’d rejected her? What about the rest of her family? “Is my mother still alive?”

Mother Ginessa shook her head. “I’m sorry, child.”

Brigitta’s shoulders slumped. She would never know either of her parents.

“Then the current king, Gunther, is her older brother?” Captain Shaw asked.

Mother Ginessa grimaced. “Half brother. He was born from King Garold’s first mistress. I think he’s about twelve years older than Brigitta.”

The captain glanced over the portside railing, then ordered his first mate to oversee the arrival of their guests. “They’re tying the dinghy off now. If King Gunther has sent for his sister, we can hardly refuse—”

“But we must!” Mother Ginessa jumped to her feet. “Do ye not know how Gunther became king? He killed the legitimate heir, Brigitta’s younger brother.”

Brigitta gasped. She’d had a younger brother? And her older brother had killed him? Her stomach twisted again.

Captain Shaw frowned. “Surely he wouldn’t send for her just to harm her.”

Mother Ginessa shook her head. “We dare not take that risk. ’Tis not safe—”

“I don’t want to go.” Brigitta eased shakily to her feet. “Can I not refuse?”

“Aye!” Sorcha moved to stand beside her. “She belongs with us!”

“The Tourinian officer is asking permission to come aboard,” the first mate called from the main deck.

“I’ll deal with this,” Captain Shaw said quietly, then shouted as he proceeded to the main deck. “Permission granted!”

Brigitta’s heart pounded. The fate of the Telling Stones was unfurling around her. Would she be taken to Tourin against her will? How could she even face Gunther, knowing that he’d killed her younger brother? And what if she never saw her sisters again?

“Goddesses, help us!” Sister Fallyn made the sign of the moons.

Brigitta pressed a hand to her racing heart. It felt like she’d suddenly been flung into one of her overly dramatic stories. If so, wouldn’t this be the perfect time for the dashing young hero to make his appearance? After all, the blue-and-gold part of Luciana’s prophecy was coming true, so shouldn’t the part about a tall and handsome stranger also come true?

She turned toward the newcomer who was climbing a rope ladder to the main deck. A striking blue hat with gold trim came into view, but then Captain Shaw stepped in front of the newcomer and blocked her view.

“Welcome aboard. I’m Captain Shaw.”

“Thank you. I’m Lieutenant Helgar,” the Tourinian officer responded in the Eberoni language. He stepped onto the deck and removed his hat.

Good goddesses! Brigitta gasped in unison with her sisters, then quickly squelched the expression of horror that must have flitted across her face. The lieutenant’s face was scarred with burns. He had a patch over one eye, and half of his mouth was twisted in a permanent sneer. Instead of an upstanding naval officer, he looked more like a notorious pirate.

She glanced over her shoulder at the pirate fleet that was rapidly approaching. Holy goddesses, they could look even worse.

“Your Highness,” the lieutenant said, and it took her a moment to realize he was talking to her. She turned back to him as he bowed. “I bring greetings from your esteemed brother, King Gunther.”

Captain Shaw motioned to the three ships. “You’ve gone to quite a bit of trouble just to extend greetings. May I know the purpose of your visit?”

“Of course.” The lieutenant’s smile looked strained, as if it pained him to move the muscles of his damaged face. “The king regrets being separated from his dear sister all these years. He invites her to join him at the royal court in Lourdon.”

Brigitta winced. This lieutenant intended to take her against her will. She should have known dashing young heroes only existed in the stories she made up. There would be no one coming to her rescue. This was real life, and she would have to protect herself.

She squared her shoulders and attempted to look regal. “How kind of my brother to offer such a lovely invitation. But I fear I must respectfully decline.”

The lieutenant’s smile faded as his expression grew harsh. “Perhaps Your Highness doesn’t understand. No one refuses King Gunther.”

Captain Shaw cleared his throat. “My good man, this young woman didn’t even know she had a brother until a few minutes ago. She has only now learned her true identity. Since I have orders from King Leofric to deliver her to the royal court in Ebton, I propose we let her continue the journey while she adjusts to her new—”

“No,” Lieutenant Helgar interrupted. “She’s coming with us.”

As the tension mounted, Brigitta fought a growing sense of panic. When the dog, Brody, stalked toward the lieutenant and growled, Captain Shaw lifted a hand to calm him.

She should at least be as brave as the dog, Brigitta thought. She steeled her nerves and descended the steps to the main deck. “My sister, Queen Luciana, is expecting me to arrive this evening. I will gladly visit my brother at a later time. Surely he would not want the king and queen of Eberon upset with him.”

The lieutenant gritted his teeth. “King Gunther will not allow foreign rulers to hold his sister hostage.”

Was this situation going to endanger Luciana? Brigitta hesitated, but when Brody positioned himself in front of her, she felt encouraged. “Queen Luciana is a sister who is dear to my heart. I would be her guest.”

“She is not of your blood. Your only family is King Gunther, and you must do as he commands.” The lieutenant raised a hand, and a thundering noise emanated from the three Tourinian naval ships as cannons were wheeled into open gunports.

Brigitta gasped.

Captain Shaw stiffened. “I suggest you reconsider, Lieutenant. Your actions are tantamount to declaring war on Eberon.”

“There will be no need for war if you return our princess,” Lieutenant Helgar growled. “Need I remind you, Captain, that you are outmanned and outgunned? If you wish to keep your other guests alive, you will do as I say.”

A chill ran down Brigitta’s back. She couldn’t allow any harm to come to her sisters. Or the captain and his crew. She would have to go with this awful lieutenant.

Good goddesses, but the fate of the Telling Stones had seized her in a firm grip. Was there no escape?

“Heavenly goddesses,” Sister Fallyn cried. “We must pray for a miracle!”

Suddenly the sky grew dark as large gray clouds covered up the sun.

As a shadow fell over the ship, the crew huddled together, whispering. Her heart thudding, Brigitta glanced up at the sky. The clouds raced by them on either side of their vessel, yet directly overhead a dark cloud hovered, eerily still. A strong wind whistled past their ship, headed straight for the Tourinian navy.

The ships floundered as the gale-force wind struck them hard, tossing them about. Shouts and screams echoed across the water as the Tourinian sailors fought to control the cannons that reeled back and forth. Several broke free from their chains and crashed through the sides of the ships to plummet into the sea.

“Dammit, no!” The lieutenant watched from the portside railing.

The powerful wind continued to slam into the damaged Tourinian ships, eventually turning them until the wind filled their sails. With a great whooshing noise, the wind swept all three ships north.

“No!” the lieutenant shouted.

“Sir!” His two crewmen who had remained in the dinghy scrambled up the rope ladder to join him on deck.

“What’s happening?” his first crewman cried in the Tourinian language.

“Holy Light, save us!” the second crewman yelled.

Brigitta ran to the opposite side of the ship to peer over the railing. The water surrounding them was strangely smooth, while in the distance huge waves and screeching winds were carrying the Tourinian navy far away.

As the ships faded from view, Lieutenant Helgar continued to pound his fists on the railing and bellow with rage.

Sister Fallyn fell to her knees. “The goddesses have answered my prayers!”

“Don’t be a fool!” Lieutenant Helgar hissed at her. “Your silly female gods could never—”

“Don’t ye dare insult our beliefs!” Mother Ginessa yelled.

Captain Shaw gave the lieutenant a stern look. “You will treat my guests with respect, sir. You and your men are now my guests, too.”

The lieutenant stiffened. “You’re taking us prisoner?”

Captain Shaw snorted. “Our countries are not at war. You will be treated well. But for now, we have another concern.” He motioned toward the fleet of pirate ships. “They will be surrounding us soon.”

Brigitta followed Captain Shaw back onto the quarterdeck. The pirate ships were steadily approaching. Somehow, the wind behind them was much milder than the one that had pushed the Tourinian navy away. “Why is the wind behaving so strangely?”

“Why, indeed?” The captain narrowed his eyes as he studied the pirate flagship in the lead. “I’ve heard rumors about him over the years, but I always assumed it was nonsense.”

“It is true,” the lieutenant grumbled as he joined them on the quarterdeck. “He’s a bloody monster who can control the wind.”

“What?” Brigitta blinked. How could anyone control the wind? As the nine ships closed in, she could see the black crossbones on their sails. A shiver ran down her spine. Had they escaped one dilemma to only land in a worse one?

“Who is this pirate?” Mother Ginessa asked.

Lieutenant Helgar’s mouth twisted. “Rupert.”

Brigitta and her companions gasped. Even on the Isle of Moon, they had heard of the notorious pirate Rupert.

“He’s Embraced, so he has the evil powers of a sorcerer,” Lieutenant Helgar spat out. “He should have been murdered as a child.”

Brigitta exchanged a wary look with her sisters.

“So he can actually harness the wind,” Captain Shaw murmured. “I never would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

“Let the monster try to board this ship,” Lieutenant Helgar growled. “I’ll rip him to shreds.”

Captain Shaw looked askance at the Tourinian. “This is my ship, Lieutenant. I’ll make the deci—”

“He did this to me!” Lieutenant Helgar lifted his hands, curling them into fists.

“He set yer face on fire?” Sorcha asked.

The lieutenant turned, aiming a fist at her, but when Brody growled at him, he lowered his hand and took a deep breath. “It was five years ago. The bloody sorcerer had only four ships then, and we went after him with a fleet of twelve. Sneaked up on him in the fog, but when he noticed us, he blew the fog away. Just as we were preparing to fire our cannons, the bastard turned our ships on each other. Our entire fleet, blasted with our own guns! The ship I was on burst into flames. I survived...” He heaved a sigh. “Like this.”

Brigitta winced. The lieutenant’s story was definitely tragic, but she had a hard time feeling very sympathetic when he’d almost hit her sister. She glanced back at the pirate ships. They were spreading out as if they planned to surround the Eberoni ship. What on Aerthlan did they want?

An arrow whizzed over their heads and struck the mainsail mast with a thunk.

“There’s a message attached.” Captain Shaw motioned to one of his crewmen to retrieve the message.

“How did they manage to shoot an arrow so far?” Gwennore asked.

“Rupert must have done it,” Lieutenant Helgar grumbled. “He put a strong wind behind it.”

The crewman dashed onto the quarterdeck to hand the message to Captain Shaw.

He unfolded the paper. “It says ‘You will deliver Princess Brigitta to our flagship or suffer the consequences.’”

Brigitta’s heart lurched in her chest.

Mother Ginessa grabbed her arm. “How do they know she’s the princess? I never told anyone.”

“The Wind Sorcerer must have discovered it by using his evil powers,” the lieutenant muttered.

“Rupert?” Brigitta asked. “Why would he want me?”

“No doubt he means to force King Gunther into paying a ransom,” Lieutenant Helgar replied as he glared at the lead pirate ship. “The bloody monster.”

“We cannot let her go.” Mother Ginessa held on to Brigitta. “She couldn’t possibly be safe there!”

Captain Shaw gave the pirate flagship a wary look. “If they seek a ransom, they would have to keep her safe.”

Mother Ginessa gasped. “Ye mean to hand her over?”

“I don’t believe we have any choice.” With a grimace, Captain Shaw crumbled the message in his fist. “They have nine ships. We cannot evade them or outrun them, especially with this Rupert fellow controlling the wind.”

With a sinking heart, Brigitta watched as the nine ships formed a circle around them. “What are the consequences if I don’t go?”

A horn blasted from the pirate flagship, then crewmen on each pirate ship lined up with arrows aimed at the Eberoni vessel. One by one, the arrows were quickly lit.

“Damn,” the lieutenant muttered.

Brigitta spun about. Good goddesses! They were completely surrounded by flaming arrows. One word from the horrid Rupert, and the arrows would set their ship on fire. Her sisters would either burn to death or drown.

Tears stung her eyes. “I have to go.”

“Nay!” Maeve grabbed her.

“I have to go now!” Brigitta pulled away from Maeve and Mother Ginessa and ran down the steps to the main deck. In a panic, she turned toward the captain, who had followed her. “How? How do I leave?”

“The dinghy is still tied off to port.” Captain Shaw motioned for two crewmen to come forward. “My men will row you to the flagship.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

He gave her a sympathetic look. “No, thank you. Your bravery is saving everyone on board this vessel. But please be assured that Rupert will not dare harm you, not when you can earn him a hefty ransom. As soon as we reach Ebton, I will inform King Leofric so we can mount a rescue.”

Brigitta nodded. “Thank you.”

While the two crewmen climbed down to the dinghy, Brigitta’s sisters rushed forward to hug her.

“Fear not, child.” Mother Ginessa touched her cheek. “I will come with you.”

Brigitta shook her head. “Nay, ye mustn’t. Luciana needs ye more than I. Ye’re the best midwife around.”

Mother Ginessa frowned. “I dare not send ye to those ruffians without a chaperone.”

“I’ll go with herself,” Sorcha declared.

“And I,” Gwennore added.

“Nay!” Brigitta cried. Here she was trying to keep her sisters safe, and they wanted to endanger themselves?

Mother Ginessa scoffed at the two girls. “Absolutely not! How can ye chaperone yer sister when ye’re a year younger than she is?”

“Oh, heavenly goddesses,” Sister Fallyn wailed. “What will become of our poor Brigitta?”

Mother Ginessa turned toward the other nun with a speculative look. “You.”

“Aye.” Sister Fallyn nodded as she made the sign of the moons. “I will pray for another miracle.”

“Nay,” Mother Ginessa replied. “Ye’ll go with Brigitta.”

What?” Sister Fallyn squeaked.

Mother Ginessa grabbed the nun by the shoulders. “Ye must keep Brigitta safe. I’m counting on you.”

“Holy goddesses!” Sister Fallyn turned pale.

Brigitta winced. How could she ask anyone to share this ordeal? “Perhaps we shouldn’t--”

“Nay, she will go with you.” Mother Ginessa gave the nun a stern look. “Ye can do this, Sister. Ye must be strong for Brigitta’s sake.”

Sister Fallyn nodded, her eyes filling with tears. “Aye, I will not disappoint you.” She hurried to Brigitta’s side and latched on to her arm. “Fear not, child. I will not let any harm come to yerself.”

Brigitta smiled through her own tears, for she could tell the nun was as terrified as she was. “Don’t worry,” she told her sisters, who all had tears streaming down their cheeks. “I’ll see ye again. I promise.”

The captain helped her over the side, and slowly Brigitta made her way down the rope ladder to the dinghy. The two crewmen helped her settle on a wooden bench. As she waited for Sister Fallyn, she glanced at the pirate ships. One by one, the flaming arrows were being extinguished.

Ye made the right choice, she assured herself. Her sisters would be safe. Surely the pirates would not harm her. She was a princess, after all.

But no matter how much she reassured herself, her heart still pounded with fear. And with a small but steadily growing spark of anger. For even though she’d chosen to leave her sisters, what choice had she really had? The pirate Rupert had orchestrated these events so she would be forced to submit to this fate. How dare he!

And what had happened to the fate of the Telling Stones? Was it still going to come to pass? Would she still go to Tourin and meet the tall and handsome stranger?

A sudden movement caught her eye and she blinked, not wanting to believe what she’d seen. But the splash in the water was undeniable. The dog, Brody, had jumped overboard!

Sister Fallyn settled on the bench beside her and whispered a prayer to the goddesses, Luna and Lessa.

“Wait,” Brigitta told the crewmen as they untied the ropes and pushed off. Desperately, she scanned the surface of the water, but she couldn’t see Brody anywhere. The sea was calm, eerily still like a sheet of glass, and she wondered if the pirate Rupert was causing it.

“What is it, my lady?” a crewman asked as they slowly floated away from the Eberoni ship.

“Never mind.” She continued to search the water as the two crewmen rowed toward the pirate flagship. Where was Brody? Hadn’t she seen him jump into the sea? It had happened so fast, perhaps she had imagined it.

She glanced at the Eberoni ship and her sisters. They were waving and giving her encouraging smiles, but she could see the pain in their faces and sense the fear in their hearts. Goddesses help her, she was feeling it, too.

Would she ever see them again? What would happen to her and Sister Fallyn? As a tear rolled down her cheek, she angrily brushed it away.

How dare the horrid pirate Rupert separate her from her sisters and force a fate on her she didn’t want! Just so he could increase his coffers of gold? The man was worse than a sorcerer. He was a criminal, driven by greed.

He would regret kidnapping her, she’d make sure of that. For he would soon discover that she was not a willing captive.

 

CHAPTER THREE

So two women were coming. They hadn’t dared send the princess alone. From his position high in the crow’s nest, Rupert watched the two women through his spyglass. The older blonde was making the sign of the moons while she prayed. She was probably a nun.

The younger one was scanning the water as if she was searching for something. Had she taken the vows of a nun, too? If she had, she wouldn’t be allowed to keep them for long. Most probably, Gunther was planning to marry her off in order to gain a powerful ally. Whatever Gunther’s reason was for suddenly wanting his sister back, one thing was clear: The bastard would use her to his advantage.

You could protect her. Rupert pushed aside that thought. He wasn’t absconding with the girl to help her. His purpose, the sole purpose for everything he did, was revenge.

Using the power of wind, he eased his ship closer to the Eberoni vessel, so the dinghy would not have far to travel. As the rowboat came along the starboard side, his crewmen tossed over two long ropes so the rowers could tie the dinghy off at bow and stern.

While his crewmen lowered a rope ladder, Stefan leaned over the railing and greeted the women in the Eberoni language. “Welcome aboard the Golden Star. I am Captain Landers.”

A lie, but then most pirates avoided using their real names. Rupert included. He tucked his spyglass under his belt and waited for Brigitta to come into view.

And waited.

The longer he waited, the more tense he became. For one emotion after another was bombarding his senses. Nervousness? No, stronger than that. Dread. Part of him dreaded seeing her again. After all, the first time they’d met had proven to be the worst day of his life, a day that had condemned him to nineteen years of grief, heartache, rage, and an endless supply of nightmares.

At the same time, he was also eager, eager for the revenge that was now one step closer. His failure to kill Garold still rubbed at him. A Norveshki dragon had beaten him to the task. He’d also failed to kill Garold’s legitimate heir, for the bastard, Gunther, had conveniently done away with his younger half brother. But Gunther was still left, and Rupert was determined to kill him. The House of Grian would be utterly and completely destroyed for all time.

The fact that Brigitta was also a member of the House of Grian was...unfortunate. It made another part of him, a tiny part, feel guilty. For he fully realized he was using her as a pawn. Just like Gunther would do. Dammit. How could he sink as low as that bastard?

Frustration buzzed around him like an annoying insect, but he swatted it away. He’d come too far, suffered too much to back off now.

As he chased away the guilt and frustration, another emotion bubbled up to fill the vacuum. Curiosity. What would she be like? If she’d been raised in a convent, would she be nothing like the wretched men in her family? What if she was totally innocent, as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside?

His heart thumped, quickening its pace and pissing him off. What the hell did it matter if she was beautiful? She was the enemy, spawn of the rat Garold who had stolen the throne of Tourin through deception and murder. She would be his prisoner, dammit, and her brother would have to pay handsomely if he wanted her back.

Where the hell was she? Were the women refusing to board? Shit. By now the Tourinian naval ships might be trying to tack their way back.

Rupert slipped on his leather gloves, vaulted over the railing of the crow’s nest, then slid down a rope to the main deck. As he approached the starboard railing, he asked Stefan in Tourinian, “What’s taking so long?”

With a sigh, Stefan turned toward him. “Apparently it’s difficult to climb a ladder in a long skirt. Not to mention the poor woman is trembling with fright.”

Brigitta was afraid? Guilt pricked at Rupert once again as he glanced over the bulwark.

It was the older woman who was trembling as she ascended the ladder. Brigitta was standing on the rowboat, clinging to the rope ladder with one hand while she used the other to keep her companion’s skirt from getting caught underfoot.

The older woman slowly climbed, pausing on each narrow wooden slat as if she needed a moment to rally her courage. She wasn’t that old, Rupert realized. Perhaps four or five years older than himself. But she was definitely frightened. The princess smiled at her as she murmured encouraging words.

She’s brave, Rupert thought. And caring. No doubt the older woman had come along to watch over the younger one, but it was Brigitta who was doing the comforting.

A barking sound broke Brigitta’s concentration, and she whipped her head toward the sea.

A seal? Rupert was surprised to see a large black seal swimming next to the dinghy. Seals normally stayed much closer to shore where it was easier to catch fish.

Brigitta’s shoulders slumped as if she was disappointed; then she turned back to help her companion. By now the older woman was halfway up, and soon she would be out of the princess’s reach.

“Let’s get on with this.” Rupert motioned to two of his most muscular crewmen. “Pull the ladder up.”

“Hang on, madam,” Stefan yelled over the bulwark.

The older woman yelped as the two men hauled her up the side of the ship.

“We have you,” Stefan said while the two muscular crewmen hefted her over the railing.

The woman took one look at the bare-chested, tattooed seamen who had manhandled her and shrieked, pulling away from them with enough force that she barreled into Stefan and nearly knocked him over.

Stefan regained his balance as he steadied her. “Don’t worry, madam. You’re-—” His speech halted when she gazed up at his face.

For a moment they froze, then the woman apparently realized she was clinging to his coat.

“Oh! I beg yer pardon.” She released him and jumped back, her cheeks blushing.

Stefan continued to stare at her in a daze.

Rupert snorted. But his amusement quickly soured into a pang of regret. For it was his fault that Stefan had taken on a life of deception and thievery. At the age of thirty-eight, Stefan should have been long married with half a dozen children by now.

“Your name, madam?” Rupert asked softly in Eberoni.

The woman spun around and gasped, her eyes widening at the sight of a masked man. “Goddesses protect—” She stopped herself with a gulp and clenched her hands to keep from making the sign of the moons.

“You may worship as you please while on board, madam,” Rupert told her. “As seamen, we are indebted to the moons and stars for navigation.”

“Oh, thank you.” She eyed him warily. “And ye are--?”

“Rupert.”

With a look of horror, she stumbled back. Stefan caught her, and she jerked away from him. “I’m quite fine, thank you.” She wrapped her cloak tightly around herself as her gaze flitted nervously about the deck. “I am Sister Fallyn from the Convent of the Two Moons.”

Stefan winced. “Dammit to hell.”

The nun shot a disapproving look his way. “I would appreciate it if ye refrain from using such foul language in front of my charge—oh, Brigitta!” She ran to the railing and looked over. “Are ye all right?”

The ladder had fallen back down the side of the ship.

Rupert peered over the bulwark. The princess had taken hold of the ladder to begin her ascent, but she was looking back at her companions on the Eberoni ship. After one last wave, she turned back to the ladder and glanced up.

Rupert stepped back out of view. Holy crap. There had been tears on her cheeks. Don’t feel sorry for her. Her family was guilty of heinous crimes. But what if she was as innocent as she looked?

Dammit. Rupert scrubbed a gloved hand over the two-day-old whiskers along his jaw. Why should he feel guilty? He was doing her a favor by keeping her away from her evil brother.

“Be careful!” Sister Fallyn yelled to Brigitta.

Rupert glanced over the bulwark once again. The princess was holding a wooden rung with one hand while using the other hand to lift her skirt out of the way. Slowly but steadily, she worked her way up. Too slowly.

He opened his mouth to give the order to have her hauled up, but hesitated. The rope tied to the stern of the dinghy was right next to the ladder, so he could easily help her himself. She’s the enemy. Stay the hell away from her.

But the image of her tear-streaked face needled him. Hadn’t he made a pledge to that innocent baby girl in her lacy white crib? “Shit.”

Sister Fallyn eased away with an appalled look.

Rupert swung over the railing and slid silently down the rope. He stopped with the toes of his boots resting on a large knot. Next to him, Brigitta was focused on her skirt and apparently oblivious to his arrival.

“Need any help?” he asked in Eberoni.

“I’m quite fine, thank—” She gasped as she finally noticed him. “Ack!” She jerked away so fast, her feet slipped off the rung, leaving her dangling from her hands.

“Careful.” He looped an arm around her and pulled her close.

Another gasp. Her head lolled back, then her eyes glazed over and flickered shut.

What the hell? Had she fainted at the mere sight of him? She was still breathing, for he could feel the gentle pressure of her breasts moving against him. A lavender scent wafted toward him, tempting him to bury his nose in the beautiful curve of her neck. As he searched her face, he noted a few golden freckles amid the rosy pink of her cheeks. She looked so young, yet the body pressed against him was definitely mature. Well curved. Soft.

Don’t react, he warned himself. Remember who she is. The enemy.

“Brigitta,” he whispered, and her dark eyelashes fluttered before opening to reveal her large turquoise eyes. Damn.

“What...? Release me!” She frantically pulled away and scrambled to place her feet back on a wooden slat.

“Allow me.” He lifted her skirt a few inches. The enemy had nice ankles.

“Stop that!” She swatted at his arm.

“I’m only trying to help.”

She scoffed. “If ye truly wanted to help, ye would tell that horrid Rupert that he has no right to kidnap me or threaten the lives of my sisters.”

Horrid Rupert?”

“Aye. And he shouldn’t have sent you here to startle me with that ridiculous mask ye’re wearing.”

“Ridiculous?”

“Aye, for it makes no sense for ye to wear it. It hardly conceals the fact that ye’re a pirate. It rather confirms it, I would think.”

His mouth twitched. Brigitta was more feisty than he had expected. “Shall I carry you on board?”

She blinked in surprise. “Don’t be silly.”

That was a first. He’d been called a bastard, thief, sorcerer, and monster, but never silly. He slowly smiled.

Her eyes widened, then she ducked her head to focus on her skirt as she went up another step on the ladder. “’Tis silly to think ye can carry someone and climb at the same time. Ye have only two arms like everyone else.”

“Ah. That is true.” He lifted himself up a bit higher on the rope to keep her at eye level. As his arms took on all his weight, his shirtsleeves pulled tight against his biceps.

Her gaze shifted to his arms, then back to the ladder. With her cheeks blushing, she carefully maneuvered up another step. “Ye would definitely need to keep yer hands free.”

“True. A man should always be free with his hands around a beautiful woman.”

She scoffed. “That is not at all what I meant and ye know it.” Her cheeks bloomed a brighter pink. “Now please, leave me be. I can manage perfectly well without you.”

“Aye, no doubt you can. But at this rate, the sun will have set by the time you reach the top.”

She shot him an annoyed look. “Are ye in a hurry to set sail? Why? Do ye have a number of villages to plunder afore nightfall?”

He gritted his teeth. Very well, let her think the worst of me. If she hated him, he wouldn’t feel so damned guilty about using her. “There’s always another village for me to pillage.”

“A poetic pirate,” she muttered, then grabbed on to the next rung. “And have ye no remorse for the suffering caused by yer criminal behavior? No regret for forcing me to come here or threatening the lives of people I care about?”

His grip on the rope tightened. He had enough regret in his life to fill the ocean. “I would need a conscience for that, and it was ripped from me many years ago.”

She blinked, then her gaze grew soft as she looked him over like he was some sort of lost puppy. “I’m sorry.”

Holy crap. He wanted her anger, not her pity. If she abhorred the sight of him, she would avoid him while on board, and he wouldn’t be constantly riddled with guilt. Or reminded that she was beautiful. More than beautiful. Brave and feisty. Intelligent. Compassionate. Everything he’d ever wanted—-he crushed that thought with a mental fist. “This is taking too long. I’ll carry you up.”

“Nay.” She adjusted her skirt and ascended another rung. “We’ve already established that it isn’t possible.”

“Oh, but it is.” He leaned toward her. “All you have to do is climb onto my back and put your arms around my neck.” When her eyes widened, those beautiful eyes, he lowered his voice to a whisper. “Then you wrap your legs around me and squeeze me tight.”

“Enough! Leave me be.” She quickly stumbled up another step, her cheeks flushed. With anger, no doubt. For he’d proven himself to be a complete ass.

Mission accomplished. His heart twisted with regret as he slowly hauled himself up the rope.

Rip.

“Oh, no,” she groaned.

He glanced down. In her haste she’d managed to rip a section of her skirt away from the waistline of her gown. “Do you need—”

“Go away!” she yelled at him.

“As you wish.” He hefted himself over the railing and ignored the disapproving glare of the nun. Even Stefan was glowering at him. “What?”

“We’ll talk later,” Stefan muttered.

With a snort, Rupert motioned toward the ladder. “Haul her up.” Then he strode across the deck and climbed up to the crow’s nest.

Distance. That was what he needed. So he couldn’t smell the lavender scent of her skin and clothes. Or be tempted to touch her golden hair or pretty face. Or hear the lovely lilt of her island accent.

Dammit. He glared at her as his crewmen pulled her over the railing. Even if he kept her at a distance, there was no way to keep her out of his head.

# # #

As soon as Brigitta’s feet landed on deck, Sister Fallyn snatched her away from the crewmen who had hauled her aboard. Only the slightest of tingles brushed against Brigitta’s special gift as one of the Embraced. Apparently, the two sailors and Sister Fallyn harbored only a few secrets. Unlike the masked man.

Brigitta cast a nervous glance around the deck. Crewmen bustled about here and there, and a man in a fancy hat was giving orders, but he was nowhere in sight. All these years she’d thought Mother Ginessa was hiding a great deal, but the older nun’s secrets were minuscule compared with the masked man. One touch from him and Brigitta’s special gift had erupted like the fiery blast from a cannon. After the initial shock, the massive weight of his hidden burden had dragged her under, causing her to black out for a few seconds.

Don’t let him touch you again. She’d tried her best to shoo him away, for she hadn’t wanted to risk another touch. Wrap yer legs around him and squeeze him tight? Ha! That much contact might render her unconscious for a week.

Or it might be exciting. She banished that thought. Only a scoundrel would talk the way he did. And only a ruffian would wear a mask. Indeed, it was a great relief she couldn’t spot him anywhere. Even though she was incredibly curious about his secrets. What was he hiding that was so huge? And how on Aerthlan did he survive with such a heavy burden?

“Brigitta!” Sister Fallyn shook her. “Are ye all right?”

“Aye.”

“Oh, thank the goddesses. Ye seemed to be in a daze for a moment.” Sister Fallyn lowered her voice to a whisper. “I completely understand. Ye poor child. It must have terrified you to be hauled over the railing by those burly, half-naked seamen.”

“What burly, half—nak--” Brigitta stopped when Sister Fallyn placed a finger over her mouth.

“A young innocent like you shouldn’t even repeat such words.” Sister Fallyn shuddered. “Goddesses help us, ye can see their muscles. And tattoos.”

Brigitta glanced around the deck once more. Goodness, there were a number of muscular men without their shirts. And some rather interesting designs inked on their arms and chests. Why had she not realized that before? Because ye were looking only for the masked man.

With a small gasp, she pressed a hand to her chest. Why did she keep thinking about that scoundrel?

“Shocking, I know.” Sister Fallyn grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her away. “Don’t look at them. It might give you lurid thoughts. Thank the goddesses I am immune to such things.” She waved a hand to fan her face. “Why, I hardly even notice it.”

“Are ye all right?” Brigitta asked. “Ye seem a bit flushed.”

“’Tis a trifle warm, that’s all.” Sister Fallyn turned her attention to the tear in the waistline of Brigitta’s gown. “Don’t worry about this. We can sew it back. We’ll just need a needle and some thread.” She turned toward the man with the fancy hat, and her cheeks blushed a brighter pink. “Captain—?”

“Landers.” The man removed his hat as he made a bow. “Your Highness, welcome aboard the Golden Star.”

Brigitta frowned at him. “It was an invitation we dared not refuse. If anything happens to my—” She glanced at the Eberoni ship.

“Your travel companions will not be harmed,” Captain Landers assured her. “And neither will you. You will both be safe here.”

“Safe?” Sister Fallyn gave him an incredulous look. “We’re surrounded by burly, half-naked men!”

With a hint of a smile, the captain plopped his hat back on his head. “I’ll make sure they’re fully dressed from now on.”

“Please do. Also, we will require needle and thread,” Sister Fallyn said, and while the nun and captain continued to talk, Brigitta turned to the railing and waved at her sisters in the distance.

They waved back.

“I miss you already,” Brigitta whispered.

A barking sound drew her attention to the sea. The seal was still there. It lifted a flipper and slapped the surface of the water as if trying to tell her something.

Below her, the dinghy had untied the mooring ropes and pushed off from the pirate ship. The rowers set a steady pace back to the Eberoni naval ship. The rest of the pirate fleet moved slowly away, leaving an open space to the east, so the Eberoni ship would be able to sail away. And leave her and Sister Fallyn behind.

She gripped the railing hard as her heart sank. What would happen to her now? The Telling Stones had always shown blue and gold, the colors of Tourin. So why was she on a pirate ship? And where was the tall and handsome stranger she was supposed to meet?

A tingling sensation crept down her spine, as if someone was staring at her. She glanced over her shoulder, but the crewmen were all busy hoisting sails and tying off ropes.

A sudden wind swept past her. She turned with it just in time to see the dinghy take off. The rowers yelped in alarm as their boat skipped like a stone across the water’s surface all the way back to the Eberoni ship.

Brigitta blinked. It had happened so fast. It must have been caused by the Wind Sorcerer, Rupert. She glanced over her shoulder again, but none of the crewmen seemed to be paying any attention to the dinghy.

By the time she looked back at the Eberoni vessel, the rowers had already tied off the dinghy and were scrambling up the ropes like frightened mice.

The second the rowers landed on deck, another wind, an even stronger one, shoved Brigitta up against the rail. It shot past her and blasted into the Eberoni ship, filling its sails and pushing it away.

“Nay,” Brigitta breathed. That horrid Rupert was whisking her sisters away. She waved frantically at them, and they scurried to the back of the vessel to wave at her.

Tears burned her eyes as their ship raced away and became a smaller and smaller speck on the horizon.

“Goddesses protect us,” Sister Fallyn whispered as she made the sign of the moons.

Brigitta wrapped an arm around the nun and gave her a tremulous smile. “Thank you for coming with me self.”

Sister Fallyn blinked away tears. “I will try my best to protect you.”

“I know ye will.” Brigitta gave her a squeeze.

“Aye, well.” Sister Fallyn sniffed. “We must be strong enough to confront the future without fear.”

“Aye, Sister.” Brigitta nodded.

“And we must always remember our training. Shoulders back. Chin up. No matter what, we will remain calm and dignified. Serene in the face of danger.”

“Ladies?”

“Ack!” Sister Fallyn jumped when Captain Landers approached them.

He smiled. “I’d like to introduce Jeffrey.” He motioned to a boy who looked about ten years old. “He’ll be taking care of you.”

“My ladies.” The boy sketched an awkward bow, then gave them a lopsided grin.

Brigitta exchanged a look with Sister Fallyn. What on Aerthlan was a young boy doing on a pirate ship?

Sister Fallyn aimed a disapproving glare at the captain. “Why isn’t this boy at home with his family? Don’t tell me ye stole him!”

“I ain’t stolen,” the boy muttered.

Captain Landers’s eyes narrowed as he returned the nun’s glare. “We don’t steal people. Only gold.”

“Oh!” Sister Fallyn scoffed. “How magnanimous of you.”

The captain stepped toward her. “We know what we are, Mistress Fallyn. We don’t pretend otherwise.”

Her chin went up. “It’s Sister Fallyn.”

He arched a brow, then turned to Jeffrey. “Escort them to the guest rooms, please.”

“Aye, Captain!” Jeffrey saluted.

“Ladies.” Captain Landers bowed, then strode toward the rear of the ship and climbed the steps to the quarterdeck.

“Infuriating man,” Sister Fallyn muttered. The ship suddenly lurched, causing her and Brigitta to stumble. They grabbed on to each other to retain their balance.

Jeffrey grinned at them. “Don’t worry. You’ll soon have your sea legs.”

“The ship is turning around.” Brigitta looked over the railing. The other pirate ships in the fleet had fanned out in formation behind them. Was the horrid Rupert moving all the ships with his wind power? “Where are we going?”

“South, probably.” Jeffrey shrugged. “We go wherever Rupert wants us to go. Come on!” He scampered toward the door that led below the quarterdeck.

As Brigitta followed the boy to the back of the ship, she scanned the quarterdeck, searching for someone who looked like he might be controlling the wind. But only the captain and a helmsman were there.

The tingling sensation inched up her spine once more, and she glanced back. Why did it feel like someone was staring at her? And where had the masked man gone? Why did he wear a mask when none of the other pirates did?

She touched Sister Fallyn’s arm. “Did ye see the masked man earlier?”

The nun shuddered. “He’s a frightening one, he is. Ye should keep yer distance from him.”

“Do ye know where he is?”

“Far away, thank the goddesses.” Sister Fallyn pointed up.

Brigitta glanced up and her heart stuttered in her chest. She couldn’t see him well, for the sun was too bright overhead, but she could make out his tall silhouette against a blue sky that was now devoid of clouds.

He was standing in the crow’s nest, facing her. Watching her, she could feel it. He bowed slightly, and her heart leaped into a fast rhythm. Who was he?

Unlike the other bare-chested crewmen, he was wearing a white shirt. She had noticed earlier that the top few buttons were undone, and his neck and chest had seemed tanned...and strong. And when he’d held his own weight, his sleeves had pulled tight against the muscles in his arms.

She turned away, not wanting to admit she’d studied him that carefully. But how could she not be intrigued? Her special gift compelled her to uncover secrets, and he was hiding so many. He was even hiding his face.

She shook her head. There had been something off. Something wrong, but she’d been too flustered to figure it out.

His eyes had been a golden color. Amber, and they had twinkled with a smoldering fire. Because of his mask, only the bottom portion of his face had been visible, but it had looked quite attractive. His jawline had been strong and sharply defined, his mouth wide and expressive. When he’d smiled, she’d forgotten to breathe for a moment.

Why would such a handsome man need a mask?

She stiffened with a gasp. Tall and handsome? “Oh, no.”

“What’s wrong?” Sister Fallyn asked her.

“It can’t be.” Brigitta shook her head again. “Who is the masked man?”

Before the nun could answer, a deep voice whispered, “Ni Rupert.”

Brigitta spun around, but no one was behind her. “What was that?”

Jeffrey chuckled. “You have to watch what you say on deck, my lady. Rupert can bring your words to him on the wind and then send his back to you.”

A chill prickled Brigitta’s arms as she lifted her gaze once more to the crow’s nest. The masked man had introduced himself on a breeze. Ni Rupert.

“I am Rupert” in the language of Tourin.

Good goddesses, no. He was a pirate and a Wind Sorcerer. He couldn’t possibly be her tall and handsome stranger. Even if he was tall. And most likely, very handsome.

Her chest tightened. The Telling Stones were mocking her. For there was no way that her destiny could be linked to the infamous pirate Rupert.