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
As one of the Embraced―one born with magical powers―the beautiful, innocent Luciana escaped certain death after her father hid her away on the Isle of Moon. Now, nineteen years later, her father has returned with a frightening request. He will be executed unless Luciana returns to the mainland and marries a man feared throughout the land: a terrifying brute known as the Beast.
Luciana accepts her fate and agrees to wed the Beast―Lord Leo―in order to save her father. Soon she learns that her betrothed is also one of the Embraced. With the ability to wield lightning, Leo’s immense power strikes fear into the hearts of men. . .and his mere touch can put an end to a woman’s life. But Luciana cannot deny the passion that burns between them. How can she resist the man who scorches her soul and makes her feel intoxicated with desire―even if surrendering to him could destroy them both?
"Kerrelyn has a unique way of weaving a story that I've never seen duplicated by another author. She pulls you in, thread by thread, and before you know it, you're addicted and putting down the book is impossible! The world building was extraordinary & the characters were multi-faceted & intriguing. I can't wait to get my hands on the next book in this new series!"
Vicki Rose, Platinum Book Reviews
"Sparks creates an intricate, layered world that’s easy to fall into without tons of backstory needed. This story is a joy to read. The Beast, Lord Leo, is everything you’d want… Readers will be fully invested in this Embraced series!"
RT Book Reviews (Top Pick!)
"Sparks starts a delightful new paranormal-romance series...Readers will relish Spark’s lovingly detailed and memorable tale and look forward to the next."
“How to Tame A Beast in Seven Days is a twist on Beauty and The Beast that is even more beautiful than the original and far more magical than the Disney version.”
Isha C., I Love Romance
“How to Tame a Beast in Seven Days is a light hearted, romantic fantasy that was a joy to read…I can't wait to see what the rest of this series brings.”
Liz’s Review, Goodreads
“So now.... if you enjoy a great plot, characters you will absolutely adore and a plot line that keeps you wanting more, then BUY this book!”
Anna Swedenmom’s Review, Goodreads
In another time on another world called Aerthlan, there are five kingdoms. Four of the kingdoms extend across a continent. There, the four kings thirst for war.
The fifth kingdom lies in the Great Western Ocean. It consists of two islands called Moon and Mist. There, the fishermen and traders rely on the two moons in the night sky to guide their boats safely home. Over time, the islanders began to pray to the twin moons, Luna and Lessa, and now they believe their goddesses are watching over them. The islanders and their queen live on the larger island of Moon. Only one person lives on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer.
The kings on the mainland refuse to bow to female gods. They worship the sun, a male god. They call their god the Light and their people the Enlightened. Anyone who denies their god is put to death.
Twice a year, the two moons align in the night sky. A child born on the night the moons embrace will be gifted with some sort of supernatural power. These children are called the Embraced. They are protected on the islands, but in danger on the mainland. The kings will not allow anyone to possess a power that they do not, so they dispatch assassins to kill the newly born Embraced. Parents who wish to save their child either lie about when the child was born or send the child secretly to the Isle of Moon where he or she will be safe.
And so our story begins on the Isle of Moon at the Convent of the Two Moons, where five young girls have been raised. They know nothing of their families. Nothing of their past. Nothing of the destiny in store for them.
They only know they are Embraced.
Red as blood. Black as death.
The thoughts jumped into Luciana’s mind the instant she spotted the red and black colored pebbles in her hand. Even the third pebble, marked with the number two, suddenly struck her as ominous. Two deaths? She quickly closed her fist around the Telling Stones to keep her companions from seeing them.
“Come now.” Gwennore, who sat to her right, gave her a sympathetic smile. “It cannot be that bad.”
“For sure,” Brigitta agreed. “ ’Tis naught but a game. Remember last week when I picked the stone with the number seven, and ye said I would have seven suitors vying for my hand? ’Twas nonsense, but I still enjoyed the sound of it.”
“Aye.” Sorcha smirked. “Ye liked it better than the prophecy I gave yerself.”
“That I would sprout seven whiskers on my chin?” Brigitta shuddered. “Thank the goddesses that hasn’t happened.”
“Neither have the seven suitors.” Sorcha’s eyes glinted with humor when Brigitta huffed and swatted at her arm.
“It doesn’t matter,” Maeve chimed in. “Why would any of us wish for seven suitors when we have one another?”
Gwennore patted Maeve on the knee. “Ye’re only fifteen. In a year or so, ye could be changing yer mind.”
“And there ye go again, treating me like a baby. I’ll be sixteen in a few weeks, and then I’ll be only one year younger than yerself.” She lifted her chin. “Besides, I wouldn’t care if I had a hundred suitors. I’m staying here at the convent with all of you till the end of my days.”
“Aye,” Sorcha muttered. “And we may reach the end of our days afore Luciana shows us the stones she has picked.”
Luciana sighed, still reluctant to open her hand. Out of the forty pebbles contained in the wooden bowl, only one had been painted black. And only two red. She and her friends had painted most of the pebbles with pretty rainbow colors or simple numbers. Since the pebbles were supposed to tell their future, they’d been clever enough to stack the odds in their own favor.
“Why the worried face?” Gwennore asked. “Have any of our predictions e’er come true?”
“Yers have,” Maeve reminded her. “One time I picked the pink, yellow, and number three stones. Then ye said I would find three pink seashells on a sunny day, and it happened the very next morn.”
Gwennore snorted. “Because ye went to the beach to look for them. ’Tis the same as I have always said. We make our own futures.”
“That’s not always true.” Sorcha frowned. “Did any of us ask to be left here as babes, rejected by our families?”
Luciana winced at the harsh reminder. Like the other girls, she’d been an infant when she’d been dropped off at the convent. According to Mother Ginessa, they were all orphans. But did that mean they had no family at all?
Gwennore’s white-blond hair, lavender-blue eyes, and slightly pointed ears could only mean that she possessed some elfin blood. Did she have family in the elfin kingdom of Woodwyn? Sorcha had fiery red hair like the fierce warriors from Norveshka. And Brigitta looked similar to the people from the coastal kingdom of Tourin.
Luciana suspected they had been abandoned because they were Embraced. But whether they had family or not, they still had each other, so at a young age they had declared themselves sisters. They were their own family, and the one prophecy they had all agreed upon was that the Convent of the Two Moons would always be their home.
Each day, there was an hour before dinner that the nuns had set aside for quiet meditation. Luciana and her sisters had tried when they were young, but whenever they had formed a circle on the floor in their room, attempting to meditate, invariably someone made a funny face and the others started giggling. It didn’t take long before pillows started flying and the air was thick with goose feathers.
Luciana, the oldest and eight years old at the time, was told that she and her sisters should invent a quiet game that would leave their room neat and tidy and not disturb the nuns, who were meditating nearby.
Since the convent was located on the Isle of Moon, there were several beaches close by. Early one morn, the girls had accompanied a few nuns to the nearest beach, where they had dug for clams. And while they had worked, the nuns had talked about the latest prophecy from the Seer. He had predicted more wars on the mainland. More death and destruction.
Not surprising, Luciana had thought. In her eight years of life, she had never heard of peace on the mainland. Fortunately, the four mainland kingdoms were so busy fighting one another that the island kingdom was mostly forgotten. And the two islands, Moon and Mist, never fought each other. What would be the point? There was only one inhabitant on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer.
And that was when the idea had struck. Why not invent a game where she and her younger sisters could pretend to be Seers? After collecting forty pebbles, they had decorated them with colors or numbers. Since most of the nuns spent their days in the workroom translating and illustrating books, there was always a supply of colored paints on hand.
The nuns had given them an old wooden bowl from the kitchen. After the paint had dried, the girls deposited the pebbles in the bowl, then draped a cloth on top. To play the game, each girl would reach into the bowl, grab a few Telling Stones, and then her future would be told.
And now, eleven years later, Luciana clutched three of the stones in her hand as a chill shuddered down her spine. Why would three harmless pebbles unnerve her? Prophecy was not her gift. Or curse, as she was more apt to put it.
“Hurry,” Sorcha told her. “I want to have my turn afore the dinner bell rings.”
“O Great Seer”—Brigitta repeated the line they spoke before each prediction—“reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
Luciana opened her hand to show the pebbles. Two of her companions frowned. The other two winced.
Like the others, Maeve quickly adopted a hopeful expression. “Perhaps the black stone refers to yer lovely black hair.”
“I think ’tis sadly obvious what the stones foretell,” Luciana began, her words causing apprehension to steal over her sisters’ faces. She affected a bright, cheery smile. “The number two means that in two weeks I will meet a tall and handsome stranger.”
“Of course!” Brigitta clapped her hands.
Luciana pointed at the red stone. Not blood. “He will have red . . .”
“Freckles?” Sorcha wrinkled her nose. “Like me self?”
“Hair. Beautiful hair like yers.” Luciana motioned to the black stone. “And he will have a black . . .” Heart? She shoved that thought aside as she set the stones on the floor. “A black horse.”
“Excellent!” Gwennore nodded. “Whose turn is next?” “Mine.” Sorcha slipped her hand under the cloth. The pebbles clattered against one another as she rummaged through them. When she withdrew her hand, fisted tightly around some stones, the wind picked up outside.
Maeve closed her eyes briefly. “A storm is brewing over the Great Western Ocean and headed our way.”
This was one prediction that Luciana felt sure would come to pass, for Maeve was somehow connected to the sea. “We should close the shutters.”
“But first ye must tell my fortune,” Sorcha insisted, opening her hand to reveal four pebbles. “O Great Seer, reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
Yellow, green, one, and three.
“In one year ye will meet a tall and handsome stranger,” Luciana began.
Maeve groaned. “Why do ye always have us meet tall and handsome strangers?”
“Would ye prefer a short and ugly one?” Gwennore asked.
Maeve huffed. “Why must we meet a man at all?”
“Because I’m not keen on marrying a squirrel,” Sorcha muttered.
“We’re not marrying,” Maeve argued. “We’re staying here forever as sisters.”
“I know,” Luciana admitted. “I just like to pretend we’ll experience exciting adventures and true love.”
Sorcha lifted her hand with the four pebbles. “And?”
“He’ll have blond hair and green eyes,” Luciana said.
Sorcha nodded. “Very good. And the number three?”
Luciana bit her lip, considering. “He’ll have three . . .”
“Teeth,” Gwennore said, her eyes twinkling with mis- chief.
Sorcha glared at her, while everyone else grinned.
“He’ll give yerself a necklace of three precious stones to demonstrate his love and devotion,” Luciana finished.
Sorcha smiled. “Ye always give the best predict—” A blast of wind shot through the windows, whisking the cloth off the bowl of Telling Stones. Drops of rain blew in and splattered onto the wooden floor.
“I’ll get the shutters.” Luciana scrambled to her feet.
“I’ll help ye.” Sorcha dropped her pebbles back into the bowl as she stood.
When Luciana unlatched the door, a gust of wind whisked it open. Sorcha helped her pull it shut as they stepped onto the covered portico that bordered the eastern side of the courtyard. The wind whipped at their braided hair and tangled their long skirts about their legs.
Luciana stepped into the courtyard to peer up at the thick gray clouds. Even though there should be a few hours of sunlight left, the sky was rapidly growing dark. A fat drop of rain plopped onto her cheek, then suddenly the clouds released a deluge.
“Hurry!” She jumped back beneath the portico while Sorcha ran to the window on the right side of the door.
A clap of thunder sounded in the distance as Luciana rushed to the window on the left. She caught a glimpse of her sisters inside, lighting candles and drying the floor.
The bell outside the convent clanged wildly, distracting her from her task. At first she assumed the noise was caused by the wind, but then a male voice shouted beyond the thick wooden gate. A visitor, now? Perhaps he was a poor traveler who sought refuge from the storm.
Two nuns scurried across the stone-paved courtyard to meet the stranger, their cream-colored woolen gowns soaked by the time they reached the grated lookout hole in the gate. Luciana couldn’t make out their words over the howling of the wind. When the nuns opened the gate, a man tromped into the large courtyard, leading a horse.
He was a tall man with a large floppy hat pulled low against the storm. With the dim light and heavy rain, Luciana couldn’t see him well, but he moved like an older man who carried a heavy weight on his broad shoulders. While he tethered his horse to the nearby post, a covered wagon slowly rolled through the gate.
After closing the gate, the two nuns rushed down the portico on the western side of the courtyard till they reached the last door that led to the office of Mother Ginessa, the leader of the convent.
This was strange, Luciana thought. The merchants who came to collect finished books usually did so in the morning, and they would never come in the rain, when the water could destroy the beautifully copied and illustrated books that the sisters were famous for. Their books, transcribed in all four mainland languages, were considered treasures throughout the known world, and the money earned kept the convent well maintained and the nuns well fed and clothed.
Two men descended from the driver’s bench of the covered wagon, and the man with the floppy hat talked to them as they circled to the back of the wagon.
A flurry of movement brought Luciana’s attention back to Mother Ginessa’s room. The two nuns had exited and were dashing south, apparently headed for the kitchens that lay beyond the chapel and graveyard.
Mother Ginessa left her room and hurried down the portico to where the man was waiting. He removed his hat in greeting, and to Luciana’s surprise, Mother Ginessa curtsied. Not a merchant then. The man must be a noble.
A flash of lightning lit up the sky, allowing Luciana a better look at the man. He was dressed all in black.
Black. A clap of thunder broke overhead, and the wind blasted more rain at Luciana. She turned her back. Think nothing of it, she admonished herself. Many men wore black.
She closed the shutters, then held them still with one hand while she turned the sharp hook into place to latch them shut. It was normally an easy task, but the wind was rattling the shutters so badly that she rammed the hook down with too much force and pricked her thumb.
With a wince, she stepped back and looked at the blossoming dot of blood. Red.
A sudden noise made her spin around. Her heart stilled as she realized what the two men had just removed from the wagon and dropped onto the courtyard. A black coffin.
Red as blood. Black as death.
“Come on!” Sorcha unlatched the door to their room, and the wind whipped it open with enough force that it banged against the inner wall.
Luciana followed her inside, and together they pushed the door shut and shot the bolt. The room was darker now with the shutters closed. The light of four candlesticks cast flickering shadows on the whitewashed walls.
“Whew.” Sorcha brushed damp red curls back from her face, and Brigitta handed her and Luciana towels.
Luciana dried her face, then winced at the splotches of blood she’d left on the cream-colored linen.
“Ye’re injured?” Gwennore asked.
“Only a prick of my thumb.” Luciana pressed the towel against the small puncture.
A crack of lightning sounded outside, followed quickly by the rumble of thunder.
Sorcha patted her hair dry. “I wonder if the visitors will be joining us for dinner.”
The three girls who had remained inside stared at her.
“Visitors?” Gwennore asked. “Who are they?”
Sorcha shrugged. “I haven’t seen them afore. There was a man in charge and two servants.”
Maeve frowned. “He’d better not be one of yer tall and handsome strangers.”
“He’s a nobleman,” Luciana said. “Mother Ginessa curtsied to himself.”
The other girls gaped. Usually, only book merchants came to the convent.
“The servants were driving a covered wagon,” Sorcha continued, then dropped her voice to a dramatic whisper. “And ye won’t believe what was inside. A coffin!”
The other girls gasped just as a booming crack of thunder sounded overhead.
“May Luna and Lessa protect us.” Brigitta lifted her hands to her chest, thumbs pressed against forefingers to form two circles, a gesture of supplication to the twin moon goddesses.
As the other girls made the sign of the moons, Luciana peered at her injured thumb. The bleeding had stopped, thank the goddesses, but her nerves were becoming increasingly tense. The arrival of a coffin did not bode well. It had been three years since one of the nuns had died. Three years of peace from her accursed gift.
A pounding on the door made them all spin around.
“Open the door, please,” the voice outside called. “This is Sister Fallyn.”
Sorcha pulled back the bolt, then unlatched the door, carefully jumping back as the wind slammed the door open.
Sister Fallyn’s gown of cream-colored wool was soaked and smelled like a wet sheep.
“Please come in from the rain,” Brigitta urged her.
The young nun shook her head. “I must not tarry. I’m to take Luciana to Mother Ginessa’s office.”
Luciana’s breath caught. The nobleman was there.
Sister Fallyn looked her over and clucked her tongue. “Heavenly goddesses, yer hair is a wild and tangled mess. Ye should braid it again afore ye meet—” She winced.
“Meet . . . ?” Luciana gripped the bloodstained towel as a sense of foreboding pressed down on her. Something was about to happen, something she wasn’t sure she wanted.
Sister Fallyn peered over her shoulder at Mother Ginessa’s office and mumbled to herself, “Perhaps she should know afore, so it won’t come as such a shock . . .”
Luciana stepped back. Thunder rumbled overhead, making the air around her feel charged with tension. The skin on the back of her neck tingled.
Sister Fallyn turned to face her. “Aye, ’tis best to tell ye now. The man who just arrived is yer father. And he’s come to take ye away.”
Luciana gasped. The towel fell from her hands and fluttered to the floor. A father? She looked at her sisters, and her heart clenched at the sight of their stunned expressions. They must have heard the same thing she had. Even so, she didn’t want to believe it. “Nay. I don’t have a father.”
“That’s right!” Maeve latched on to Luciana’s right arm. “She’s an orphan. We all are. Mother Ginessa said so.”
Brigitta took hold of Luciana’s left arm. “She’s not going away. Her home is with us.”
Sister Fallyn sighed. “I know how close ye are to one another, but there is no help for it. Luciana’s father has the right to take her with himself.”
Luciana swallowed hard. “How can I have a father?”
With a grimace, Sorcha muttered under her breath, “Mother Ginessa lied to us.”
The other girls gasped, and Sister Fallyn quickly raised her hands. “Don’t judge her harshly. She was only doing what Luciana’s father asked her to do. He wanted Luciana to be raised as an orphan, so she wouldn’t wait her whole life for a reunion that would ne’er happen.”
Luciana stiffened as if she’d been slapped on the face. “Ye mean he didn’t plan to e’er come back for me self?”
Sister Fallyn winced. “I’m only making matters worse. Come along, so ye can hear what yer father has to say.”
And just like that, with a few words from her father, everything would be resolved? All these years her father had been alive. Nineteen years. How could nineteen years of being unwanted suddenly disappear as if they’d never happened? Anger swelled inside her. “Why should I see him? He abandoned me.”
“That’s right.” Maeve tightened her grip on Luciana’s arm. “She’s staying with us.”
“He’s yer father.” Sister Fallyn motioned impatiently with her hand. “Come now. Show some respect. Don’t leave himself waiting.”
Respect? Luciana’s anger twisted in her gut. How could she respect a father who had never planned to return for her? She should reject him, just as he had rejected her. He should feel the pain—
A twinge of shame pricked at her. Since when did she knowingly try to inflict pain on anyone? She’d been raised better than that. Even though it was not her parents who had raised her. “Is my mother alive, too?”
Sister Fallyn sighed. “I don’t know. Ye’ll have to ask yer father.”
“She’s not seeing him,” Brigitta cried. “She’s not leaving us.”
Luciana’s eyes filled with tears. How could she not remain with her sisters, as much as she loved them? But if she refused to see her father, he might leave and never come back. She might lose her only chance to meet him. “Are ye not curious about himself?” Gwennore asked.
She was curious. But what would she say to a father she’d never known? Why did ye not want me? Was it because she was Embraced? Had he sent her here to protect her? But why make her believe she was an orphan? He could have come to visit her. He could still have been a father to her. But he had completely rejected her.
And why did he suddenly want to take her away? This was the only way of life she’d ever known. Her sisters were her family.
“Are the rest of us orphans?” Sorcha demanded. “Or was that a lie, too?”
Sister Fallyn turned pale as she hesitated. “I don’t know. But I do know this—if Mother Ginessa lied to us, then she had a very good reason for doing so.”
“Perhaps she was protecting us,” Gwennore suggested. “Because we’re Embraced.”
Sorcha huffed. “I don’t care what the excuse might be, I don’t like being lied to!”
Luciana took a deep breath, her decision made. “I would know the truth.” No matter how much it hurts.
As she stepped toward the door, Maeve and Brigitta reluctantly released their grip on her arms. She stopped at the door and looked back at her adopted sisters.
Sorcha still looked angry. Gwennore attempted to smile, while Brigitta sniffed. Maeve looked so young and lost with the tears streaming down her face that Luciana thought her heart would break in two. As the oldest, she’d been the one to dry Maeve’s tears when she’d scraped a knee or hold her in the middle of the night when she’d had a bad dream.
“Chee-ana,” Maeve whispered, using the shortened version she’d called Luciana when she’d been too young to manage her full name.
“I’ll come back,” she assured them. Somehow, she would convince her father not to take her with him. She needed to stay with the only family she’d ever known.
As Sister Fallyn scurried across the courtyard, Luciana followed at a slower pace, heedless of the heavy drops of rain pelting her head and shoulders. No doubt she would look like a drowned rat by the time she met her father.
Did it matter what he thought of her? A rebellious streak in her wanted to answer no, but she knew herself better than that. Whether it was her natural demeanor or a result of growing up dependent on the generosity of nuns, she didn’t know, but she had always been the sort of child who was eager to please. She simply hated to disappoint.
The wind seemed to mock them, shoving them back a step for every four they took. She turned her face away from the stinging rain and slowed to a stop when she spotted the two servants carrying the coffin into the chapel.
A streak of lightning lit up the sky so brightly she squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them, a movement and flash of color drew her attention to the graveyard. Through the sheet of rain, she detected a woman wandering among the gravestones, her head covered with a sheer black veil. Her gown looked expensive—a rich red brocade.
Thunder cracked overhead just as Luciana was struck with a sudden realization. Even though the woman looked as solid as Sister Fallyn, her skirt was not moving with the wind. Her red gown and black veil were dry. Red as blood. Black as death.
The inhabitant of the coffin had not remained inside.
Luciana sucked in a long breath. Her gift was still with her.
“Luciana!” Sister Fallyn cried out. “Why on Aerthlan are ye standing there in the rain?”
She glanced at the nun, who had reached the shelter of the portico, then looked back at the woman in red. The ghost must have heard Sister Fallyn, for she had turned toward them. She lifted her veil to uncover her face.
It was her face. Automatically, she lifted her hands to form the sign of the twin moons. May the goddesses protect her. How could this spirit look exactly like her? Was this some sort of premonition that she would soon be dead?
But no, the ghost seemed real.
“Hurry!” Sister Fallyn yelled once more, and Luciana lifted her rain-soaked skirts to run toward her.
The nun shook her head disapprovingly. “Heavens, ye look like ye took a swim in the ocean.”
“I—I’m fine.” Luciana glanced back at the graveyard. Her look-alike ghost was gone, thank the goddesses.
Sister Fallyn knocked on Mother Ginessa’s door, then opened it slightly. “I’ve brought herself.”
Luciana’s heart pounded so loudly she couldn’t hear Mother Ginessa’s response.
Sister Fallyn opened the door. “Go inside now.”
This was it. Luciana brushed back wet tendrils of hair that had become plastered to her cheeks and hooked them behind her ears. Steeling her nerves, she stepped inside.
The room was dark, lit only by a candle on Mother Ginessa’s desk and the low fire in the stone hearth that illuminated the bottom half of a large man. His shoulders and face were still in shadow, but Luciana heard his quick intake of breath.
She attempted a curtsy. She’d never had a reason to do one before, so her execution was a bit wobbly.
“Luciana,” a deep male voice whispered.
She stilled. He knew her name? Had he always known it, or had Mother Ginessa told it to him a few minutes ago?
“Amazing,” he said. “You look just like your sister.”
Sister? Was that the ghost? Luciana shivered.
“By the goddesses, child, ye’re soaked through.” Mother Ginessa drew her closer to the hearth. “And yer hands are like ice. We cannot have ye catching a cold.”
“I’ll build up the fire.” The man turned toward the hearth and added a log.
Mother Ginessa wrapped a woolen shawl around Luciana’s shoulders, then used the edge to pat her face dry.
Luciana’s gaze met Mother Ginessa’s. Why did ye ne’er tell me? she asked with her eyes.
Mother Ginessa pressed her warm hands against Luciana’s cold cheeks. “’Twill be all right. Now sit yerself by the fire. I have some wine warming on the brazier.”
Luciana perched on a leather-covered footstool, her gaze venturing to the man nearby. He was leaning over, using a poker to coax the fire into a brighter blaze. The flames illuminated his face. A long straight nose, wrinkles around his eyes as if he’d spent too much time squinting into a bright sun, a trimmed beard with more gray in it than black. His hair, almost entirely gray, was tied with a strip of leather at the nape of his neck.
He continued to jab at the fire as if he knew she needed time to adjust to his presence. She attempted to feel some sort of connection...but he was a stranger.
He settled in an armchair across from her and leaned forward, his elbows propped on his knees. His eyes were a sharp blue, as if age had not diminished his sight or intelligence. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am your father, Lucas Vintello, from the kingdom of Eberon, where I hold the title of the Duke of Vindalyn.”
Luciana stiffened so suddenly she nearly slid off the narrow footstool where the leather had been made slick by her wet gown. She righted herself before he could grab her. He was a duke? Lucas? Had she been named after him?
He lowered his hand once he saw she was steady. “No doubt, my arrival has come as a great shock.” He gripped his hands together so tightly his knuckles turned white.
He was nervous, too, she thought, and that realization made her feel more at ease. She lifted her gaze to meet his eyes. They were glimmering with unshed tears.
“Luciana,” he said softly. “I want you to know that I have always kept you in my heart. I’ve prayed for you every day, and I am so...happy to see you again.”
Her heart swelled with a longing that threatened to push aside her resentment. But not quite all of it. For why would a loving father abandon a child?
“Mother Ginessa has been telling me how well you’ve done with your studies,” he continued, glancing toward the nun who was busily filling two goblets. “She says you’re proficient in all four of the mainland languages. And I know how well you can write and draw.”
“Aye, that he does,” Mother Ginessa agreed as she handed him and Luciana each a goblet of warmed wine. “Remember how surprised ye were when someone purchased the first book ye transcribed and illustrated?”
Luciana curled her hands around the warm goblet as she gave the duke a questioning look. She’d completed her first book two years ago. As a practice exercise, it had clearly been inferior to the works produced by the more experienced nuns at the convent.
He nodded, beaming proudly. “I have everything you’ve done. Even the drawings you did as a child. Mother Ginessa sent them, along with reports on how you were faring.” His smile faded. “Of course, I had to keep them secret.”
Why? What was wrong with her? Luciana took a gulp of wine and nearly choked. It was much stronger than the watered-down wine she and her sisters usually drank.
“Are you all right?” the duke asked.
“Aye.” She set the goblet on the stone floor with a clunk. “Nay, I am not,” she corrected herself and lifted her chin to face him. “I don't understand why I am a secret. Why did ye send me self here as a wee babe? If ye truly care, why did ye ne’er come back for me?”
“Luciana,” Mother Ginessa fussed. “Ye shouldn't—”
The duke lifted a hand to silence the nun as he shot her an irritated look. “Why does she have an accent? She’s of noble blood, yet she speaks like an islander.”
Luciana winced. Her first time to open her mouth and she was a disappointment. Why should ye care? A rebellious streak in her mind hissed. Ye don't plan to leave with himself.
Mother Ginessa huffed with exasperation. “She was raised here. Of course she speaks like an islander. Would ye prefer that she’d grown up standing out as different, without e’er knowing a reason why?”
With a sigh, the duke set his goblet on a nearby table. “You make a valid point, but I didn’t anticipate this problem. I assumed she would speak like an Eberoni, since the islands and Eberon share the same language. She’ll have to lose the accent within a fortnight. Can she do that?”
Mother Ginessa nodded slowly. “Aye, I believe so. She’s very bright—”
“And I’m right here,” Luciana added, growing increasingly annoyed that she was being discussed like a codfish at the local market. “Yer Grace--”
“You should call me Father.”
She opened her mouth but couldn’t bring herself to say it. “I appreciate ye remembering me self after nineteen years, but I see no reason to be changing. I speak like an islander because this is my home. I have no wish to leave.”
“Luci—” Mother Ginessa began but hushed when the duke lifted a hand.
“I can understand why you’re somewhat...distrustful, since it must look like I abandoned you. But I never forgot you, Luciana. Not for a moment.” His eyes flared with emotion as he pressed a fist to his damp coat. “Giving you up was like having part of my heart ripped from my chest.”
He seemed so sincere, Luciana blinked back tears. “Then why? Why did ye want rid of me?”
“My dear child.” He clasped her hands in his own. “I never wanted rid of you. Even when your mother begged me to send you here, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“My mother? Is she alive?”
A pained look swept across his face. He released her hands and with haunted eyes turned to gaze at the fire.
You killed her.
The soft voice carried across the room like the wisp of a breeze.
Luciana looked sharply across the room. There, beyond Mother Ginessa’s desk, stood the look-alike ghost.
The woman in red stared back, her mouth twisting into a knowing smirk. “So you can hear me, too.”
Luciana glanced at Mother Ginessa and the duke. Neither of them seemed aware of the new presence in the room.
“Don’t pretend you can’t see or hear me.” The ghost moved closer, her steps gliding silently over the wooden floor. “You obviously have the same gift I had.” She shrugged. “Hardly surprising, given the fact we’re twins.”
Luciana swallowed hard. No wonder they looked identical. But how could she have shared a womb with another soul and not know it? Wouldn’t she have felt a terrible loss as an infant? Perhaps that was why she’d bonded so fiercely with Brigitta, who was only six months younger than herself. And why she felt so close to all her adopted sisters. She’d needed to fill a void.
Her sister chuckled. “You didn’t know, did you? That there were two of us.”
Two. Luciana remembered the third Telling Stone.
“I was the firstborn,” the ghost continued. “I was the one Papa wanted to keep. While you...” Her nose wrinkled with disgust. “You were sent to this wretched rat hole. Just punishment, I would say, for killing our mother.”
Not knowing how to react, Luciana simply grew still. After being raised in a convent that valued peace and harmony, she was not accustomed to being on the receiving end of such cruel words. Could it be true that she was somehow to blame for her mother’s death?
She didn’t know what to believe, but one thing was certain. She couldn’t converse with her dead sister without revealing her gift. Mother Ginessa knew about it, but Luciana wasn’t sure how much the duke knew. Besides, what could she tell him? I just met my sister and she hates me?
She leaned toward the duke, who was still gazing forlornly at the fire, apparently lost in painful memories. “Ye mentioned afore that I look just like my sister?”
He covered his mouth to suppress a sob. “Poor Tatiana.”
Luciana glanced at her sister. Even their names sounded alike. “What happened to herself?”
Tatiana snorted. “I died, obviously. Not too sharp, are you?”
With his shoulders sagging, the duke wiped tears from his face. “Poor, beautiful Tatiana. To have died so young.”
“You see?” Tatiana moved closer. “See how he grieves for me? I’m the one he cares for.”
Mother Ginessa crossed her arms. “It seems very chilly all of a--” She blinked, then cut a questioning look at Luciana who nodded very slightly. With a wary glance around the room, the nun made the sign of the two moons.
“How did my sister die?” Luciana asked the duke.
“Struck down by a plague,” he grumbled. “The king demanded we go to his palace in Ebton. On the journey there, we stayed at an inn in the port of Ronsmouth. Tatiana and I both became ill, though she was suffering much more than I. Keeping our identities a secret, I hired a vessel to bring us to the Isle of Moon. I’d learned from my correspondence with Mother Ginessa that you have a gifted healer here in the convent.”
“Aye.” Mother Ginessa nodded. “That we do.”
Another tear rolled down his cheek. “We were too late. My poor Tatiana died on the voyage.”
Luciana felt a surge of sympathy for him. He obviously loved his daughter. “I’m so sorry for yer loss.”
He gave her a sad smile and patted her hand.
“You should feel sorry for me!” Tatiana stomped a foot, but it made no noise. “It’s terribly unfair. I was so looking forward to showing off my new gowns at court.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t get to meet her,” the duke told Luciana. “You would have loved her.”
Luciana glanced at her sister’s pouting face, then decided to change the subject. “Can ye tell me about my mother? What was she like?”
His eyes took on a faraway look. “She was the world to me. It was an arranged marriage, of course, ordered by the king, but Ariana was so clever, so lovely, so kind and pure of heart, I couldn’t help but fall madly in love with her.”
“There.” He pointed at her, his eyes glistening with tears. “She smiled just like that. And she had beautiful black hair and sea-green eyes. You and Tatiana resemble her greatly, although you both have blue eyes like me.”
“I obviously inherited the greater share of their intelligence,” Tatiana boasted.
Luciana ignored her sister and asked, “Can ye tell me what happened to my mother?”
He shut his eyes briefly. “She died. Two days after birthing you and Tatiana. You and your sister were born on the night the moons embrace, but of course we didn’t want anyone to know that. Even though Ariana suffered greatly, she held on for two more days, so we could convince everyone that you were born at a later date. Her last request was that I send you away—-”
“Why?” Luciana winced at the sound of her sister’s snickering.
“My dear child.” He took her hands in his. “We did our best to conceal the time of your birth, but there was no way to hide the fact that there were two of you.”
“Twin girls are considered a blessing here on the island,” Mother Ginessa explained, “but I’m afraid it is quite different on the mainland.”
“Twins are considered an abomination, caused by the twin moons. Female twins are even worse, for they represent the goddesses themselves.” The duke squeezed Luciana’s hands. “The only way to keep you both alive was to separate you. We could never let anyone know that you’re twins.”
“So ye sent me self here to protect me?” Luciana sighed. “But why let me think ye were dead? Could ye not have come to visit?”
“Repeated visits here would have aroused the suspicions of the king’s spies. I couldn’t risk them finding out about you, not when it would mean your death.”
She winced. “Is it truly that dangerous?”
“I’m afraid so,” he replied. “In your studies, have you learned about the religion of the Eberoni?”
Luciana nodded. “They worship the sun god called the Light, so they are called the Enlightened. The head of the church is the Eberoni king.”
“Exactly. So anyone who refuses to follow the king’s religion is considered a blasphemer and put to death.”
Luciana sat back. “He would kill someone for worshipping the goddesses? Why? Luna and Lessa are helpful. They guide the men home from the sea.”
Mother Ginessa raised her hands to make the sign of the moons. “The Eberoni fail to understand the loving care the goddesses bestow upon us.”
The duke snorted. “It has nothing to do with love or understanding. It’s about power. As long as the king is the head of the church, he alone can decide who has offended his god and deserves death.”
Luciana regarded the duke curiously. “Then ye do not follow his religion?”
“I do, actually.” A corner of his mouth lifted with a wry look. “As does everyone in Eberon who values his head. You will have to, also, when you return with me.”
Luciana stiffened. “Ye expect me to change my beliefs?”
“I won’t tell you what to believe, but for your own safety you have to at least pretend to be Enlightened.”
“Nay.” She shook her head. “I cannot go. I would have to give up my beliefs, my home, and even my sisters.”
He tilted his head. “Sisters?”
“Aye. I have four sisters here.” Luciana’s eyes misted with tears. “I belong with them. We made a vow that we would remain together forever.”
The duke watched her sadly. “You...truly have no wish to come home with me?”
“My home is here. I cannot leave my faith. Or my sisters. I am the oldest. They need me self.”
He rubbed his brow, frowning. “And what if I need you?”
Tatiana snorted. “Why would Papa need you? You’re as coarse as a peasant, and your accent is simply horrid.”
Luciana sighed. “I don't want ye to think I’m ungrateful for yer visit. I hope ye’ll come back often.”
He leaned toward her, watching her closely. “Have you been happy here? That is what I prayed for every day.”
She blinked back tears. “Aye. I’ve been very happy.”
Mother Ginessa rested a hand on Luciana’s shoulder. “Luciana and her sisters have been a delight to us who ne’er hoped to have children of our own.”
Luciana smiled up at the nun. “We’ve been blessed to have a loving home.”
The duke exhaled slowly as he leaned back in his chair. “All right, then. I will leave you here.”
Luciana grinned. “Thank you!”
Mother Ginessa stepped back, clearly stunned. “Bu—but, Yer Grace. Ye told me earlier that ye need her—-”
“No. She's happy here. And safe." He rose to his feet. “I stand by my decision. When the ground dries, we’ll bury Tatiana, then I’ll be on my way.”
Luciana stood, growing increasingly concerned by the frantic look on Mother Ginessa’s face. “What is wrong?”
The duke took hold of her shoulders and gazed at her with tears in his eyes. “Luciana, live a long and happy life for me. That is all I can ask.”
“Ye’ll come see me self again, aye?” Her heart dropped when he lowered his hands and looked away. Was she going to be rejected once again?
Mother Ginessa paced across her office, then turned with a defiant look. “Nay. I will not have this. Ye will tell yer daughter—”
“She is my daughter,” he ground out. “That means the decision is mine.”
“Nay, the decision is hers!” Mother Ginessa pointed at Luciana. “This is not the mainland where the men order the women about. Yer daughter is well educated and perfectly capable of making a decision for herself.”
“I cannot ask her to do this for me!”
Mother Ginessa snorted. “Ye felt fine with it less than an hour ago.”
“I was wrong!” He grimaced, clenching his fists. “I thought I could do it, but I dare not. I’ve lost one daughter. I cannot risk losing the other.”
“Why would ye lose me?” Luciana asked, but he shook his head, refusing to answer.
Mother Ginessa scoffed. “Clearly ye don't understand the way yer daughter has been raised. Here, in the Kingdom of Moon and Mist, a queen is our ruler. Women run the fish market while their husbands are away fishing. Women manage the shops while their men are away on their trading ships. Ye will tell yer daughter everything she needs to know, and then she will make the decision—”
“I will not endanger her,” he insisted.
“Then ye endanger yerself!” the nun yelled. “If ye go back without her, ye’ll be executed.”
The duke gritted his teeth. “You overstep yourself, madam.”
Mother Ginessa merely shrugged. “My convent, my rules.”
“My daughter, my decision.”
“Nay.” Luciana lifted her chin. “Ye will tell me. I have the right to know.”
He sighed. “You’re so much like your sister.” His mouth lifted with a wry smile. “Every bit as stubborn.”
“Stubborn? Ha!” Tatiana turned her back.
Luciana sat on the footstool. “Tell me everything.”
With a groan, he settled back in the armchair. “All right, then. What do you know of Eberon?”
“Of the four mainland kingdoms, it is the closest to the islands,” Luciana began. “’Tis named after two major rivers—the Ebe River in the north and the Ron River to the south. The capital is Ebton, which lies on the Ebe—-”
“Very good,” he interrupted. “And the history?”
“Seventy years ago, the nobles rose up in rebellion against a tyrant king. The leader was the Earl of Benwick. He became king and founded the royal House of Benwick.”
The duke nodded. “Then the king rewarded those who had helped him by giving them tracts of land. His greatest ally, Allesandro Vintello, became the Duke of Vindalyn. He received a large amount of land far to the south.”
“He was yer ancestor?” Luciana asked.
The duke smiled. “Yours, too. The land was considered too dry and too far away from the royal court in Ebton. Nobles usually prefer to be closer. But Allesandro was a wise man. He planted vineyards and olive trees. After years of hard work, Vindalyn became famous for its wine and olive oil. The castle of Vindemar on the Southern Sea is one of the strongest fortresses in the kingdom. Now Vindalyn is the richest and safest duchy in Eberon.”
Luciana glanced at her goblet. The wine they drank at the convent came from Vindalyn. All these years she'd been drinking it without knowing it came from her father’s land.
“Unfortunately," the duke continued, "the House of Benwick has now become as corrupt as the tyrant they once usurped. What do you know of the current king?”
“King Frederic,” she replied. “He has ruled for almost thirty years. He has one son--his heir, Prince Tedric.”
“Exactly.” The duke gave her a wry look. “But no doubt your books have refrained from mentioning how cruel and ruthless Frederic is. He detests the nobles who own so much land and the allegiance of a great many vassals. So he has devised several methods for stealing the land back. One way is to deny a noble permission to marry. If there is no legitimate heir to inherit, the land reverts to the Crown.”
Luciana blinked. “Is that why ye didn't marry again?”
The duke nodded. “He doesn’t want me to have a male heir. Frederic has craved my land for years.”
Luciana bit her lip. With Tatiana gone, she was next in line to inherit.
“Another way the king steals land is by ordering a nobleman to fulfill a task for him. If the nobleman fails, he is declared a traitor to the Crown, and he and his entire family are executed. With no heirs left alive, the land goes to the king.”
Luciana winced. The king was definitely a tyrant.
The duke leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “A month ago, the king decreed that Tatiana must marry his nephew, Lord Leofric of Benwick, the current Lord Protector of the Realm.”
“Ugh.” Tatiana shuddered. “The Beast of Benwick. It’s enough to make me grateful I died.”
“I was ordered to deliver her to court,” the duke said.
“Would ye not be excused if ye explain that yer daughter has died?” Luciana asked.
“There are no excuses for disobeying a royal command. Frederic is eager to label me a traitor and seize my land.” The duke sighed. “Then all my people would come under his power and be subjected to his harsh rule.”
And ye’ll be executed, Luciana thought. But the duke hadn’t mentioned that. He seemed more concerned about the welfare of the people who depended on him. And he’d planned to return home without letting her know about the danger he was in. He did love her. He loved her so much he was willing to face execution in order to keep her safe.
There, she thought as a pang reverberated in her chest. There was the kind of love she’d always craved in her heart. And there was the connection, the resemblance. She loved her sisters with the same kind of love he was showing for her.
Her heart swelled. This was the man she wanted as her father. And he needed her.
Tears filled her eyes. “That’s why ye need me self to go with you. So ye can deliver a daughter to the royal court as ye were ordered.”
He nodded. “I still have two months before the deadline runs out. Unfortunately I cannot present you at court as Luciana. Once the king realizes you’re a twin...”
She would be killed. A chill stole down Luciana’s spine. “Then I must pretend to be my sister?”
He regarded her sadly. “I’m afraid so.”
Tatiana scoffed. “What a ridiculous notion! No one would ever believe that you’re me.”
“And if the pretense is discovered, we would both be executed for deceiving the king,” her father added.
Luciana swallowed hard. This was too much. How could she possibly do this? She started when her sister suddenly burst into laughter.
“I just realized!” Tatiana slapped her leg noiselessly as she continued to laugh. “Oh, this is too rich. Now you will have to marry the Beast of Benwick!”
Luciana gasped. A surge of panic bubbled up her throat. How could she marry a man who was referred to as a beast? Without thinking, her hands formed the sign of the moons.
Her father winced. “That gesture alone will get you killed.”
She flattened her hands against her chest. Her heart was thudding beneath her palms.
“I can see how frightened you are.” Her father patted her shoulder. “Fear not, child. I will not ask this of you. The king doesn’t know of your existence here. As long as you stay here, you will be safe.”
How could she remain, knowing her life here would cost her father his life? “I...I cannot stay here.”
“Think, Luciana.” Her father grabbed her hands. “If the king ever learns that we tricked him, we will die. One slip of your accent, one sign of the moons, one mistake, and you will die. You must remain here where it is safe.”
She blinked back tears, but they threatened to overflow. How could she say good-bye to her sisters? And if she left, she would have to give up more than her home, her sisters, and her beliefs. She would lose her identity.
But how could she send her father back alone when it would mean his execution? How could she live with herself then? “I will go with you.”
“Luciana.” Her father’s eyes glimmered with tears.
She squeezed his hands. “Together, we will succeed.” Or together, they would die.
Two deaths. The Telling Stones mocked her.
Red as blood. Black as death.