Elizabeth slid her plate away and stared at the tablecloth. She had neither the appetite for breakfast nor any real yearning for nourishment.
By this moment two days from now, she would be experiencing her first morning as Jason Morgan’s wife and she wondered if she would feel the same way she did now.
Could their feelings have been brought on by the Dawning? Was it possible that after the consummation of their marriage, her heart would cease to pound when he was near—that the thought of him would not make her smile and her palms damp?
She did not think she wanted to live in a world where she did not feel this way—she’d fantasized about falling in love since the first novel Gia had smuggled her years ago.
She stood and belted her robe around her waist tightly. What if she truly had fallen in love with him but his feelings were inspired only by the Dawning? Could she live the rest of her life with a man who was fond of her but who did not love her? Who did not yearn to be with her when they were apart? Who was not constantly bombarded with memories of her touch, her kiss?
And even if she could, did she want to?
A knock at the door interrupted Elizabeth’s self-pitying thoughts and eager for the break in her thoughts, she pulled the door open. The smile fled from her face and her eyes flashed before falling flat. “My Lord, this is a surprise.”
Michael pressed his lips together and forced down the bitter feeling he experienced whenever he came face to face with his niece. “Elizabeth, may we have a moment to speak?”
She hesitated but drew back and gave him entry. “Please excuse the mess,” she said stiffly. “I have not the energy to finish my meal this morning and Gia has not cleared the table yet.”
Michael nodded. “Elizabeth—I know that we do not have the familiar relationship we had when you were a child but I had hoped you had come to trust me a little.”
She looked away and clasped her hands behind her back. “You surprised me when you gave your word that if Jason and I wished to remain married, you would see that it happened,” Elizabeth admitted. “I did not think you cared for my happiness.”
“I do,” Michael assured her. “It is just difficult to see that it happens—my position is important, Elizabeth, and I do significant things for the kingdom. At times—it may seem to conflict with your own views.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly. “I do not follow.”
“You are so very young.” Michael sighed and moved past her. For the first time that Elizabeth could remember, this was not Lord Michael Corinthos, Supreme Head of the High Council of Rhigwyn. This was a man she’d affectionately called Uncle Sonny in her younger years. His eyes were not guarded, his muscles relaxed.
And yet—there was tension in the air and Elizabeth wondered what had brought the change in him. Had her loving uncle been inside this man all along and she’d refused to see it? Or had he buried that part of him when his beloved young wife was killed in a tragic accident just before Elizabeth’s fifth birthday?
“When I was your age, I had not yet been promoted to the council,” Michael informed her. “I was in line for it but because I was merely your mother’s half-brother and not full-blooded, there were questions as to whether I would take my place on the council at all.” He exhaled slowly. “I was betrothed to a woman that I loved a great deal. I know that you know the story and I have neither the energy nor the desire to repeat it. We married shortly after I gained my place on the council and she was killed in a carriage accident three years later.”
“I remember Brenda,” Elizabeth blurted out. “She had long dark hair and dark eyes. She had a beautiful laugh and I would spend hours trying to copy it.”
Michael closed his eyes as if trying to fight the image of his young wife, laughing. Lady Brenda Corinthos had been dead for nearly fifteen years but Michael had never recovered from the loss and it seemed he never would. “When she was gone, I had only the council to live for. My responsibilities to this kingdom and to my family. To you, to Nikolas.”
He held a hand up to her and she fell silent. “Nikolas never needed guidance. Despite your parents’ best efforts, he has grown up to be a kind and compassionate young man who is going to be one of the greatest rulers this world has ever known. I have no doubt of that. But you—” he shook his head. “I worried about you from the moment I saw you move an object across the room when you were but a few months old. I was the one who discovered your powers,” Michael informed her.
“I was almost a year old when Mother found out…” Elizabeth trailed off. “You did not tell her?”
“No. I told Brenda and knowing Mirielle, she encouraged me to hide it. Hide it until Mirielle could not devise a plan to send you away.” Michael rubbed the inside of his wrist, pressing against his pressure point, hoping it would release the tension behind his eyes. “I promised Brenda that I would protect you with every fiber of my being—I would have even without her extracting the promise but…” he struggled to continue for his throat felt rather thick. He had never spoken to another soul what he was about to tell her.
“Brenda was an enchantress,” Michael confessed. “She was a powerful one and she wanted to train you herself. You remember her more vividly than you might have otherwise because you spent most of the first five years of your life with her. She thought of you as a daughter and…” he hesitated. “I did as well.”
“I did—” Elizabeth bit her lip and shook her head. “I did not know that.”
“When she died, it was hard to look at you. For though you were not her biological child, you seemed so much like her. It is ironic you mention her laugh for I have never heard another laugh as close to hers as yours. You have her kind heart, her impulsiveness—” His voice broke. “So many of the things I loved about my wife are in you, Elizabeth, and it is part of the reason that I never pressed an end to our distance. It was hard to look at you and not remember Brenda.”
“I am so sorry…” Elizabeth set a hand on his forearm. “For not knowing and for treating you as I did.”
“I know that you did not lead a happy life in these walls,” Michael continued, “but I did everything I could to ensure that you continued to breathe. Because I had promised Brenda—but also because I loved you. And the only thing in the world that I want for you, Elizabeth, is to be happy.”
“I will be,” Elizabeth promised with tears shining in her eyes. “I promise you, Uncle Sonny.”
He managed a weak smile at the familiar name. “You used to call me at that all the time. You called Brenda Aunt Brennie because it was hard for you to pronounce her name.” He cleared his throat. “I tell you this because what I say next is out of love and concern and not in a way to control you.”
Elizabeth frowned. “What is it?”
“I have had a man follow Jason for his own safety,” Michael said simply. “I cannot be sure who is behind the attempt on his family’s life but I know it leads back to the Dawning and someone on the council. This man followed him yesterday and reported back to me.” Michael met Elizabeth’s bewildered gaze. “He reported everything that Jason had done yesterday. Everything,” he repeated for emphasis.
Her cheeks flushed and she stepped back. “I promise you that it went no further than it did,” she said quickly. “We knew—we know that it cannot go any further until the night of the wedding. I promise you that.”
Michael nodded. “I thought you would be sensible about it but I thought I just might mention it to be sure.” He touched her cheek. “You really love him?” he asked quietly.
She nodded hesitantly. “But I am not sure that he feels the same. Or that I really love him.”
Michael shook his head. “You either are or you are not. There is simply no in between.”
“But—” Elizabeth twisted he fingers together. “What if what we feel for each other disappears after the Dawning? What if the feelings are there only to—speed things along tomorrow night?” Her cheeks were warm as she asked the mortifying question but surely if anyone would know it would be Michael.
“I cannot say for certain that you are wrong,” Michael admitted. “Nowhere in our research have the chosen two reported such events but I regret to say I do not know it to be untrue.”
“Oh.” Devastated, Elizabeth sank onto her sofa and stared into space. “So what my mother says is true. No one can love me.”
“That is not true,” Michael said quickly. “You had a vision about the fire, did you not?”
Elizabeth raised her eyes at him and blinked. “How could you know that? Mrs. Morgan was sworn to secrecy.”
“Alexis informed her sister that she had been aware of your gift since you were twelve.” Michael sighed. “I needed someone to confide in and Alexis is still one of the very few people I trust implicitly. Alexis told me and I am telling you. You received that vision because you and Jason are connected.”
Setting aside the information about Alexis for later, Elizabeth nodded in agreement. “Through the Dawning.”
“No—” Michael sighed. “Even before the edict against enchantresses, we could not utilize them the way we can sorcerers. Sorcerers receive visions and can state them by rote. They do not connect to the people in the visions and can call upon the ability by chanting spells, using herbs. Enchantresses must feel something for the person they are foreseeing. You must be connected to Jason in order for you to have received that vision.”
“So you believe my feelings for him are real?” Elizabeth said with some hope in her voice and this time, Michael chose the answer she wanted to hear rather than the logical one. He was not sure but he would not let her down again.
“I believe that you love him and if you love him, he must surely love you in return,” Michael replied.
Laura leisurely rifled through the vast contents of her wardrobe searching for just the right color to wear into the village that day. She’d opened the windows in her bedroom wide open so that sunlight streamed in.
Today would be the day her life returned to where it had once been. She would again be Lady Laura Spencer, a woman to be both respected and feared. Her son would be marrying one of the most eligible young women in the kingdom—a woman descended from the kings and queens of Derwyn.
She would be the mother of the chosen man and would want for nothing all the rest of her days. Michael would see to it that her beloved first born would be betrothed to Lady Robin Scorpio for once Jason Morgan was dispatched of that night, he would have no other choice.
Laura selected a robin’s egg blue gown and smiled secretly at the color’s name. It seemed only fitting that Michael Corinthos would be the one to give her back her life when he’d been the one to steal it away in the first place.
She pressed her lips together firmly and closed her eyes, blocking out the memory of returning from an emergency council meeting to be told her daughter had died in their absence.
Lesley had been their miracle child—a little girl that Laura had had long after giving up hope of having a second child. With her dark hair and dark eyes, she had resembled Laura’s father and she’d been named for Laura’s mother.
She was Laura’s entire world as Lucas was her husband’s.
Michael Corinthos had stolen that from her.
Luke wrapped his hands around her slender shoulders. “Angel, Lucas was hoping you might be ready to meet Summer at the wedding tomorrow.”
Laura set the dress on their bed and turned to wrap her arms around his waist. “Of course I’ll meet her tomorrow,” she promised her husband.
She did not see a problem in giving the promise, for tomorrow the wedding would be that of her son and Robin.
And silly little Summer Holloway would be a maid again.
Alexis found her sister in the vegetable garden behind her home. Susan was on her knees, digging up carrots and placing them in a basket next to her. “You do realize I have servants to perform this task, yes?”
Susan did not even give her sister her attention. “Servants are well and good for some people but I do not like being served.” She tugged another carrot by its green top and placed it next to the others. “Have you just come from the palace?”
“I was speaking with Michael—he spoke with Elizabeth this morning. He was very pleased with the outcome but—he is worried about her.”
“She does not believe my son loves her, does she?” Susan murmured. She examined a carrot before sighing. “This has not grown long enough.”
“She is frightened,” Alexis corrected. “Her entire future rests on Jason and their…connection is so sudden—she is unsure that it is real. She suggested to him that it might be brought about by the Dawning and when he did not immediately deny it, she feared the worst. She has not had much happiness in her life.”
“I thought it might be something along that thought.” Susan hesitated. “They will love each other deeply but I cannot discern if the feelings exist now or will develop in time. Is it possible the connection is from the Dawning?”
“I will not lie and say it is impossible—though I have never heard of such a thing before. But I myself do not believe it.” Alexis clasped her hands behind her back and stared off at the rolling hills of the land behind the house. “There is magic in this world, Susan. I have known it all my life. Why is it that people are more likely to believe in a woman who can call upon the rain than in two people who fall in love in an instant?”
Susan looked up at Alexis then curiously. “You are quite extraordinary, sister.”
“You are the extraordinary one,” Alexis corrected with a soft smile.
Susan stood and left the basket on the ground. She embraced her sister and kissed her on the cheek. “Any enchantress can call upon the rain—but a truly astonishing woman sees the magic in everyday life.”
Emily tucked her legs underneath her and arranged her gown over them while curling into Nikolas’s side as he read silently from a sheaf of papers his father had handed him that morning.
“You are not reading,” Nikolas murmured, slightly surprised. It had become their routine to meet in the makeshift library and today was the third day since their marriage had really been borne.
“I would rather watch you,” Emily confessed with a shy smile. “You look so solemn. Is what you are reading serious?”
“Not especially.” Nikolas shifted the papers to one hand and wrapped his other around her shoulders, pulling her head under his chin. “Father says I should take on more responsibility and I am looking over the council’s suggestions for new laws.”
“What sort of things are they suggesting?” Emily asked curiously.
“Nothing too drastic—but Michael has added a note at the bottom indicating he would like to petition to repeal the edict against enchantresses.”
Emily slowly pulled away from him and looked at him oddly. “And you are against that?”
“No,” Nikolas remarked hesitantly. “I do not believe all women should be blamed for the actions of another who lived so long ago.”
Emily exhaled slowly and smiled, reaching for his hand. “I thought you might say that but—I was unsure. But I know that you adore your sister—”
“What does Elizabeth have to do with anything?” Nikolas asked, wincing inwardly as he realized his voice sounded both guilty and weak.
Emily shook her head. “I could think of no other reason for the way that she is treated. Your mother never mentions her, I have not seen her within fifteen feet of your father and she spends most of her time in her rooms. She is the crown princess of the realm yet she is so rarely seen in the kingdom. And—” Emily hesitated. “She once had a cut on her hand and it was gone the next day. She is an enchantress is she not?”
Nikolas looked away and contemplated his next words. The secret of Elizabeth’s blood was one guarded so closely—he could not imagine divulging that to anyone.
Though Emily was certainly not anyone, he rationalized. She was his wife and was already in possession of this knowledge. Surely a confirmation would do no harm. They were married and if he hoped for his marriage to be successful, there must be no secrets between them.
“She is,” Nikolas told her. “Though next to no one is aware of this. My parents, myself, Michael and now you are the only people that know.” He hesitated. “Though she may have told Jason, I cannot be sure.”
“I can imagine it must be a very lonely experience.” Emily rested her chin on his shoulder and peered up at him. “I hope that she loves Jason only half as much as I love you.”
Though she’d taken every opportunity the past few days to assure him of her love, Nikolas still felt the slight jolt to his system when she said the words. “I want a daughter with your smile,” he found himself telling her.
Emily flushed and twined her hand in his, lacing their fingers together. “Your mother wants a son,” she informed him. “She told me that I have been remiss in my duties as your wife and suggested I see the sorcerer about herbs.”
“Oh she did, did she?” Nikolas asked, more amused than annoyed at this report of his mother’s behavior. He’d had conversations with her along the same lines since the first morning after the wedding. Emily was young, he was young—where did the problem lie?
He attributed Emily’s failure to conceive to the fact that he’d rarely initiated intimacy. He had not wanted to push her and it was only on nights when he could not hold himself back that he’d reach for her.
“I was quite angry with her,” Emily continued. “I informed her that we wanted to be by ourselves for a little longer before starting a family. Your mother—Nikolas, she is quite cold and not loving at all. How is it that you are so different than her?”
Nikolas had no answer for that so he just sighed. “I suppose some people are born with the capacity to love and some are not. My mother loves no one but herself and her position. I doubt that she and my father shared the marital bed more than it was necessary and I do not remember them ever sharing rooms.”
“My mother told me before our wedding that many marriages are that way but I am so grateful that ours is not.” Emily smiled hesitantly. “You really want a daughter?”
“Of course. Sons are nice but—there is so much pressure on a boy to become this person—this figure, this symbol.” Nikolas shook his head. “Though a girl would still be first in line if she were born first, the boy would always be looked to as the rightful heir and I am just not sure that I ever want a boy.”
She leaned up and kissed his cheek. “Well I do. I want a little boy with your eyes and your heart. I want a large family, Nikolas. Not just one of each.”
“It is my wish to give you your heart’s desire.” Nikolas leaned down and kissed her softly. “I have a surprise for you, love.”
“A surprise?” Emily’s dark eyes lit up. “What sort of surprise?”
“I have asked that this wing be renovated and my father has given his permission for this to become our private area.” He kissed her fingertips. “I believe we will use the bedroom with the view of your family’s lands for our room.”
“Oh, Nikolas…” Emily could hardly breathe—did not know what to say in response.
“I cannot give you back your family home, but I can hope that we can create our own here.”
“I do not need a pile of bricks to be at home,” Emily said after a moment. She kissed his chin before trailing her mouth over his jaw. “I have realized that you are my home.”
“A little higher,” Caroline directed Georgiana. The younger woman got to her knees and held the hem up a few centimeters higher. “Yes, there.”
“It is a good color for you, Lady Benson.”
Though there was no arrogance in his tone, the drawl of AJ Quartermaine was unmistakable. Caroline could hear her seamstress muttering under her breath.
“Caroline, if I could have a moment of your time,” AJ requested.
She narrowed her eyes as Georgiana automatically began to rise. “Stay,” she commanded. “There is nothing this man has to say to me that he cannot say in front of you.”
AJ frowned but nodded. “If that is the way it must be, then all right. Caroline, there is no mistake that I am not always the most intelligent man when it comes to conversing with you.” He smirked. “Is that a snort I hear from you, my dear girl?”
Georgiana’s face reddened. “No, My Lord,” she muttered.
“No, there is no mistake that you are an ass,” Caroline declared. “Please come to the point and do so quickly. I have so little patience where you are concerned.”
“I did not think you would ever care for me,” AJ blurted out. “I knew that you knew about Keesha so I attacked verbally. When I decided to apologize, you refused my every peace offering.”
“Georgiana, please leave us for a moment,” Caroline said. Once her seamstress was behind the curtain, she glared at the Quartermaine heir. “Do you think me a fool, sir?”
“I do not believe the rumors about your wife—that you drove her to her suicide and if you were not so stubborn, you would know that no one of substance believed them either. I know that when the Queen sent in her petition to dissolve the princess’ impending marriage, she named you as a possible suitor. No one believes the rumors.”
His shoulders slumped and he looked away. “I cannot tell you how it feels to know that you do not believe that. I loved my wife, Caroline, despite her—infidelity. I raised neither my voice nor my hand to her.”
Caroline looked at him oddly. “Did you think that I believed differently? Vile though you be, My Lord, vicious is not one of your qualities. You would not strike a woman when words do all the damage that you require.” She arched a slim eyebrow and tipped her towards the entrance of the shop.
“I never meant to hurt you,” AJ continued, ignoring her command to leave. “I only said it to keep you at a distance, My Lady.”
Caroline stepped off the stool and without her shoes, she came merely to AJ’s shoulders. “Perhaps I am naïve in the ways of men, but I promise you that I do not understand a word you are saying. You tell me I look like a teen-aged boy so that you could keep me away?”
His gaze swept down her body, examining it as it was encased in the daringly low-cut midnight blue gown. “My Lady, a teen-aged boy you most certainly are not,” he drawled after a moment.
She furrowed her brow in concentration. Surely the heir had an angle he was working—she could not discern it yet but she would, she was sure of it. “You have an ulterior motive here, Sir, and we have already agreed you do not think me a fool so why do you not just say what it is what you want to say so that we may be done with it.”
“Caroline—” AJ closed his mouth abruptly and shook his head. “There is nothing I can say, is there?”
“I’m not at all sure what it is you think I ought to know.” Caroline tugged at the bodice of her dress. “AJ—”
“I want you to attend the ball with me tomorrow,” AJ told her. “That is what you ought to know.”
“You have asked and I have answered that question before,” Caroline said shortly. “There is nothing left to say—”
“Only because you refuse to listen,” AJ cut in. “I want to escort you to the ball and then ask your father for permission to marry you.”
She blinked and shook her head. “No—what is your angle? I have no inheritance, no real standing in the council at this moment. It will be many years before Michael is ready to step down and I have not been promised—”
Her flow of words was abruptly cut off when AJ pressed his fingers to her lips. “Why is it that you think I must want something from you if I wish to marry you?” he asked curiously.
“Do not be ridiculous, AJ. No one marries unless there is something to gain,” Caroline retorted. She stepped back from him. “What is it that you want from me?”
AJ exhaled slowly and prayed for the patience to explain certain things to her. “I have never been very kind to you,” he admitted. “I felt that you were too young—wrong for the council. But I do not believe this anymore and once I realized that Michael was correct in asking you to replace my grandmother, I—I began to see all of the other good things about you.”
“Such as?” Caroline asked warily.
“You are beautiful—” He held a hand up to ward off her protests. “I know I have said differently but I explained my reasons for being so cruel to you. I believed you thought my wife’s suicide was my fault and I did not think you could ever come to care for me. I sought to rid myself of my attraction towards you by arguing with you—only it backfired.”
“Backfired,” Caroline repeated slowly. She felt dizzy—out of sorts. Was AJ Quartermaine, heir to the entire Quartermaine fortune and land—actually proposing that they marry?
“I discovered that I liked your sharp wit, your quick tongue. You do not back down, Caroline. You have real spirit—real fire.” AJ nodded. “I admire it in a man but I did not realize it would be so attractive in a woman.”
Caroline folded her arms tightly across her chest and studied him. She decided to call his bluff. Surely if she agreed to this farce, his real motive would reveal itself in time. “All right, AJ. You may escort me to the ball tomorrow and speak with my father.”
He knew her almost as well as she knew herself and he smiled—knowing she was testing him. “You think that you have won, Caroline, but you do not know how determined I can be when I want something.”
He stepped towards her and took her hands in his, practically forcing her hands to her side. He twined their fingers together and she stared down at them oddly—as if this was something she was not expecting at all.
“And what exactly do you want?” Caroline asked, her eyes wide with surprise as AJ stepped closer to her—just an inch too close to be respectful.
“I would think that was obvious, My Lady.” AJ lowered his mouth to hers but just before his lips could brush hers, she jerked away.
“I am not a pure woman,” Caroline blurted out. “I have been with another man.”
AJ sighed. “Yes—Jason, I know that you were almost engaged to marry him—”
“Caroline, you will not convince me to change my mind,” AJ warned her. He gripped her hands tightly and kissed her.
Caroline had been accustomed only to Jason’s kisses before and they had been teenagers—both clumsy and awkward. Her first kiss with him had ended when he sneezed.
But a first kiss with AJ was—it was everything she’d wanted. His breath was hot on her neck—his tongue swept inside her mouth and rubbed against her own. He released her hands and almost against her will, she gripped his shirt and tugged him closer.
A moment later—or perhaps an eternity—a cough sounded from behind them and Caroline jerked away from him, her chest heaving from the exertion.
“I apologize, My Lord, for my interruption,” Georgiana remarked, “but if my lady’s dress is to be ready for the ball, I must finish the hem.”
AJ nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He kissed Caroline’s hand before exiting the shop.
Caroline pressed a hand to her racing heart and turned to her seamstress. “How much of that did you hear?” she demanded.
“Enough to know that Lord Quartermaine is more than the jackass he has always appeared to be.” Georgiana gestured for her to get back on the stool. “Congratulations on your impending my marriage, My Lady, for I knew all long you would not end up a spinster.”
Caroline shook her head. “He has an ulterior motive, Georgiana. I only agreed to marry him so that I could find out what it is.”
“Yes, I suspect he does have an ulterior motive. Men always do.” Georgiana smiled brightly. “He wants you in his bed and cannot do so without marriage.”
Caroline peered down at her. “Do you always think with your glands?”
“No, but I am engaged to a very candid stable hand,” Georgiana informed her mistress. “And he hides nothing from me.”
Laura examined her nails closely and discreetly glanced over at Barbara, seated on the other side of the council table. She was quiet and withdrawn—and Laura knew that the other woman’s inability to act normal would be the reason her part in the plot to kill Jason Morgan would be discovered.
Barbara would be captured but her fear of Laura would keep her mouth shut and the Spencer matriarch would be safe from reprisals. It’d been ingenious really to bring the woman into her plot, Laura decided. Though she had not actually required the woman’s assistance, a decoy suspect was a must and she’d chosen rather well.
Her son would be as good as a king in this worthless land and as his mother, she’d rise to the top.
And perhaps the lovely Robin would give her a granddaughter one day.
Michael leaned back in his chair, slightly amused by Laura’s bright smiles. The woman was up to something. One did not protest vehemently to a marriage and then blindly accept it days later.
Something was not right and Michael had a good idea of what it was. But without proof, he was nowhere. He only wished to remain a step ahead of the woman and keep Jason Morgan safe.
If asked, he would state it was his duty to the kingdom to keep the chosen man safe at all costs but someone who knew him well would know his true answer. His beloved niece loved him and all Michael wanted in the world was to give the girl what she wanted.
And for that reason, Jason Morgan would have the protection only Lord Michael Corinthos could offer.
“Are the arrangements in line for the wedding tomorrow night at dusk?” Michael asked.
Monica nodded. “I spoke with the king earlier today and he agreed to make the announcement tomorrow around noon. I believe it shall be met with approvals for it is a rather amusing pairing—the peasant and the princess.”
“Yes, even the most cynical person would find romance in that,” Jasper boasted causing his companion Skye to roll her eyes to heavens.
“Besides which—Princess Elizabeth is so rarely seen in public, the mere idea of her public marriage will cause the courtyard to become packed. I do hope that Sir Lucas Spencer is ready for such a possibility,” Monica remarked.
Luke nodded. “He has the entire guard on call for tomorrow. There will be no chance to do mischief.”
Scott Baldwin cleared his throat. “The Academy has sent over their list of students,” he informed Michael. “I have set appointments to meet with all three after the Dawning if that is acceptable to you.”
“Yes, I believe the sorcerer agreed to stay on until a suitable replacement has been found.” Michael slid some papers to the left. “I do not have to tell you how important this wedding is to the kingdom and to me personally.”
Michael’s personal life rarely made a showing at council meetings and for this reason, all other members of the group looked at him oddly. Even Alexis was a little surprised for with his relationship with Elizabeth always in tatters, he was not quick to remind anyone that he was her uncle.
“Elizabeth has grown to care for Jason very deeply and I am told that he feels the same towards her,” Michael looked at Alexis who nodded in confirmation. “I do not have remind those who are married in this room how uncommon a love match is in this life and for that reason, I prefer that tomorrow go off without any sorts of problems. Have I made myself clear?”
“Crystal,” Laura murmured and this time Michael knew the sparkle in her eyes was due to the fact that she intended to cause any sort of problem she could think of.
He only wished he knew her next move.
He discovered it shortly after he’d retired to his rooms for the night.
He was seated at his desk in the sitting room reading over his notes from the day when someone began banging on his door.
Michael barely had it open before a pale Elizabeth threw herself into his arms, babbling incoherently. “You have to stop them!” was all that he could discern.
After a quick glance to be sure no one was in the hallway, he shut the door and led the trembling girl to the couch. “Elizabeth—”
“They’re going to kill him!” she cried. Her breathing was quick and shallow—punctuated by immense heaving hiccups as if she couldn’t quite catch her breath and keep it.
“Elizabeth, you must calm down and tell me what you know,” Michael ordered. “Who is killing who?”
“Jason!” Just the name sent her into another round of hysterics and Michael began to grasp the fact that his niece was truly terrified. She had received another vision and again, it was to warn them of Lady Spencer’s next move.
He stood and crossed to his liquor cabinet, intending to pour her a stiff brandy. He hoped it would calm her enough to tell him of the vision.
She clutched the glass in her trembling hands and gulped it straight down. The burning liquid caused her cough violently but after a few more moments, her crying subsided.
“You had another vision, didn’t you?” Michael asked, kneeling in front of her.
She nodded, biting her lips. “Tonight—they—there are men,” she drew in a deep breath, forcing herself to remember that it hadn’t happened yet and if she was going to stop it, she needed to tell Michael exactly what she’d seen.
“Men—they snuck into the house, went up the stairs and went into the room Jason is staying in. They go to the bed and—” Elizabeth closed her eyes, remembering the silver glint of the knife. “They put a pillow over his face and begin to—they will—”
“Smother him?” Michael suggested.
She shook her head. “The pillow is only to muffle his screams,” she said hoarsely. “They stab him. And they keep stabbing him until he is dead.”
Michael inhaled sharply. What a thing for a young girl to see. “All right—you say they go into Jason’s room. They know which one he is staying in or do they try other rooms?”
She closed her eyes and pictured it again. “They know which one but—they speak of the others in the house and discuss killing them all. My—the visions ends with Jason. I do not know if they plan on continuing.”
“Did they give any clue as to who hired them?” Michael pressed.
She shook her head. “No. Uncle Sonny—you must stop them—they cannot kill him.”
“Of course not.” He kissed her forehead. “I will—”
Elizabeth took his hands in hers and met his eyes intently. “No, you do not understand. Jason is my world,” she said softly. “If he is not here, I have no reason to continue living. Promise me.”
It would be a foolish promise to give for the assassins could have already arrived at Alexis’s home and done their deed but it had been so long since she’d looked at him with blind trust in her eyes. She trusted him to keep the man she loved safe.
It was a foolish promise to give but Michael gave it. “I promise. Now—I must go to Lady Davis—”
“I must come with you,” Elizabeth said. She stood. “Please—I must see for myself that Jason is all right.”
It went against his better judgment to allow Elizabeth to accompany him but Michael merely nodded and told her to fetch her cloak.
Alexis had been the last to turn in for the night and she was fast asleep when her servant Simone roused her. “My Lady, I beg your apologies but Lord Corinthos and Princess Elizabeth are waiting in the foyer.”
Alexis sat straight up. “Simone, are you quite delirious? It is nearly midnight—”
“My Lady, Lord Corinthos commands your presence at once,” Simone told her employer.
Alarmed now—for Michael would not have let Elizabeth leave the palace walls unless it were an emergency, Alexis pulled a robe over her nightgown and rushed down the stairs.
She found Elizabeth dressed in a long cotton shift with a dark blue cloak thrown around it to protect her from the chill of the night air. “Princess—”
“Go to Jason, Elizabeth,” Michael told his niece. “See for yourself that he is safe and I will tell Alexis what is going on.”
Elizabeth nodded and hurried past Jason’s aunt. It was only then that Alexis realized the princess’s face was as pale as her nightgown—and that she wore no shoes.
“Elizabeth had another vision,” Michael told Alexis once his niece was out of sight. “Men will come here tonight, kill Jason and then leave. She was so terrified that she insisted on coming with me to be sure he was all right.”
The knowledge drained what color was left in Alexis’s face. “You are saying that the villains who tried to burn down the farm will kill my nephew while he sleeps?”
“They will certainly try but I have given my word to Elizabeth no harm shall come to her future husband and I mean to keep it.”
Elizabeth approached Jason’s bedroom with much trepidation. What if she was already too late? What if her vision had not been warning her of what was to come but rather—what had already happened?
She touched his doorknob and whimpered when she was assaulted with another image. Two men—tall and dark. They were exiting his room—blood was dripping from one of their faces and another still held the knife that he had plunged into Jason’s heart.
She tightened her hand around the knob and couldn’t fight the growing terror. If she lost him she did not know what she would do. It no longer mattered if he would love her come the morning after the Dawning. They had a lifetime to develop that but if he were dead, surely she would be as well.
Elizabeth pushed the bedroom door open and sighed in relief when she recognized Jason’s dark blonde hair on his pillow and the steady rise and fall of his chest. She wasn’t too late and she would not lose him.
She closed her eyes and the scene from her vision flashed behind her eyes. The cool glint of the knife as one of the villains raised it over his head. The way his legs had kicked as he struggled for air.
The cool discussion they’d had over his broken and bleeding body whether or not to kill the remaining family members—and rape the females. “On to the lady of the house,” she could still hear one of them saying.
The memory made her sink to her knees and she buried her face in her hands, aware the vision would haunt her for the rest of her life.
The sound of her soft cries and the light spilling in from the hallway caused Jason to sleepily open his eyes. He thought at first the girl was his sister until he recognized the brown curls.
Elizabeth hastily wiped her eyes and stood at the sound of his voice. “Jason—Lord Corinthos bids you to join him downstairs immediately.”
Bewildered, Jason pushed the blanket off his body and swung his legs to the ground. Her cheeks flushed when she realized he wore no more than a pair of pants and she was clad in little more than a thin shift. This was not all appropriate.
“Elizabeth, what is going on?”
“I told you—Lord—”
“Don’t insult me by thinking I don’t know how upset you are.” He stepped towards her and she instinctively took a step back. “Elizabeth—did your mother do something?”
“I saw you die,” she whispered hoarsely. “They came into your room, covered your face with a pillow and stabbed you. And I watched it happen.” She covered her mouth to suppress her whimpers.
Jason paled. “You had another vision,” he stated slowly. His mother had always taught him that her visions were not sent to her so that she could stop what was happening but so that she could prepare for what would be. She’d foreseen her husband’s death and had not stopped it.
How could it be fated that he was to die before the Dawning? Was the world meant to be cursed for a thousand years?
Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Yes—Michael has promised to protect you. Please come downstairs so that you might hear his plan—”
“I cannot, Elizabeth.” He took her hand in his and squeezed it. “Your visions are not sent to you so that you can stop them from happening. It is dangerous to try to thwart Fate.”
“But I did it before,” she whispered. She shook her head. “Jason—the day the men came with torches, you knew it was a vision—”
“I did not know until after I had stopped it,” Jason informed her.
She stared at him. “You mean to stay in this room so that those men can do what they’re coming here to do?” she asked in disbelief.
“I know that you don’t understand—I didn’t understand why my mother chose not to interfere when she knew my father would be killed but I eventually came to terms with it and—”
“I have in my life only received two visions,” Elizabeth told him, “and they both involved you dying. Do you really wish for that to be my memory of you? That I could have saved your life and you would not let me?”
She silenced him with a glare and then stunned him when she untied her cloak and let it drop to the floor. “Then have it your way.” She crossed the room to sit on his bed. “I hope the men aren’t long—I should like to get this over with as soon as possible.”
“What do you think you are doing?” Jason demanded. He yanked the cloak from the floor and tried to hand it to her. “Put this on and go back to the palace.”
“I am not going back to my rooms so that someone may come and tell me at dawn that you are dead,” Elizabeth retorted. “I’ll wait here.”
“If you’re here when they come—”
“I have already prevented your death, you imbecile, by telling my uncle. He is downstairs and will not leave until he knows that you are safe—even if it means staying by your side until the wedding.” She crossed her arms tightly. “He has given me his promise that you will remain safe.”
“Elizabeth, the next time you receive a vision, you must promise me you will not interfere,” Jason commanded.
“No,” she retorted. “I am not as selfless as your mother. I do not understand why the Fates would send a vision such as the one I saw if they did not mean me to stop it.”
“I watched them stab you,” she whispered, horrified. “It was as though I were standing in this very room and I could not stop them. I screamed for them to stop but they just kept stabbing until the sheets were so stained with your blood that I couldn’t see the original color and you expect me to just sit and let you die in that manner?” Tears filled her eyes. “Perhaps if you were in my place and you watched someone you love die, you could do the right thing and let the Fates prevail but I am not as heartless.”
She yanked her cloak from his grasp. “I am going downstairs. You can join us or you can sit up here. I am not sure I care any longer.”
“Elizabeth—” He grabbed her wrist to keep her from leaving. “I am sorry—I did not—I am not sure what I would do if I had received such a vision. It took a long time for me to accept my mother’s decision but—I have been raised not to interfere.”
“Then you better learn to interfere because I will do anything I have to do to prevent the people I love from being hurt,” Elizabeth declared.
“Elizabeth—” Jason hesitated. The last time they had set on eyes on each other had been the day before when he’d inadvertently hurt her feelings and caused her to believe that Dawning was the reasoning behind his feelings. He wished that he could take the time and explain to her that he had just been surprised how quickly he’d grown to love her. He wanted to tell her that not only did he love her, but that no one would ever love her as much as he did.
But now was not the time for it. There were men coming and Jason realized they were all in danger—not just himself but his mother, his aunt and his siblings. And now Lord Corinthos and Elizabeth. “We should go downstairs. Give me a moment to get dressed.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks flushed as she remembered the state of their undress. “Of course. I will just be downstairs—”
“No—it will only take a moment.” Jason buttoned his white shirt and pulled on a pair of boots. “Did I make you nervous?”
“No,” Elizabeth blurted out. “I had just never seen—you are the first man—we really must go downstairs, Jason.”
He took her hand and led her out of the door, their argument almost but not completely forgotten.
The entire family had gathered by the time that Jason and Elizabeth finally joined them. Alexander had his arm around his little sister, who looked appropriately terrified.
Susan stood off the side, as impassive as ever. “Did you sort out your differences?” she asked them calmly.
Jason nodded. “I tried to explain to her that she should not interfere with her visions-”
“On the contrary, Elizabeth should absolutely interfere with this vision,” Susan remarked. “I know your true future, son, and dying this night is not it. Those visions were sent to Elizabeth so that she may prevent them from occurring.”
Properly chastised, her son nodded and looked to Lord Corinthos for the next move. “It is too late to evacuate the house,” Michael decided. “Those who hired these men could have others watching the house by now. Susan, I would like you to wait in Jason’s room with me in the event I need to restrain them.”
“Yes, my lord,” Susan nodded. “And the children?”
“All four of them must wait in the basement. Alexis, you are in charge of their welfare,” Michael instructed.
Alexis nodded and gestured towards the back of the house where the door to the basement was located. Jason, however, stood his ground. “You cannot cart me to the basement as though I were a small child,” he protested.
“It is your safety that is paramount,” Michael informed him. “Yours and Elizabeth and the Fates be damned, the two of you will be wed tomorrow. The very future of our world depends on it.”
“Jason,” Chloe said softly, “please come with us. If you’re up here, I’ll be so scared for you.”
It was for his sister that Jason relented and not for Lord Corinthos, though he doubted the older man was aware of the distinction. He took his sister’s arm and led her towards the basement doors, Alexander and Elizabeth following behind them.
Alexis lingered for a moment as though she wished to say something to Michael. But she didn’t and followed her niece, nephews and the princess.
“My sister has great regard for you,” Susan remarked idly as the two climbed the staircase to Jason’s room. “It is a shame a good man such as yourself has imprisoned himself in duty and obligations.”
“Your sister is a kind woman. It is a pity that she never married,” Michael remarked.
“It is a pity you never remarried,” Susan replied. She waited for him to enter the room first. “You have such great love inside you. Why do you hold it back?”
“Madam, you are the mother of the next prince of this realm. Do not make me treat you as less,” Michael said coldly. Susan remained unruffled but allowed the subject to change.
Susan moved into the shadows of the room while Michael arranged himself on the bed and they settled in to wait.
Jason sat in one of the old abandoned chairs in the basement and pulled Chloe into his lap as though she were five rather than sixteen. He could feel the trembling of her body and sought to soothe her terror.
Alexis was in the kitchens, finding some food and water for them—there was no telling when Michael would allow them to resurface.
Elizabeth clutched her cloak tightly around her for the air was chilly in the small room. Alexander found a blanket to wrap around her shoulders. “Is that better, My Lady?” he asked.
“Thank you and I must ask you to call me Elizabeth,” she directed. “Please.”
“Of course, Elizabeth,” Alexander nodded. “I must thank you for speaking with Jason about the university. I am most pleased that I will be attending in the fall.”
Elizabeth smiled. “It is an honor to attend and I know that you will make the most of it. This fall will be the first year that women are allowed to attend, did you know that?”
“I did,” Alexander nodded. He smiled then, the first easy smile in her presence. “I am hoping to find a woman to marry who is as worthy as my brother’s future wife.”
The compliment made her cheeks blushed and she looked towards Jason who was telling Chloe a story about their father. “He’s a very good brother, is he not?”
“The best. Chloe was young when my father died.” Alexander sighed. “She has so few memories of him and Jason has always tried to keep those memories alive for her.” He looked at her. “What of your family, Elizabeth? Do you have siblings?”
“I have a brother, Nikolas,” Elizabeth hid her smile at Alexander’s question for surely he knew of his king’s family. “He has recently married the Quartermaine lady, Emily.”
“And are you close to him? To your parents?”
“I am as close to Nikolas as I could possibly be,” Elizabeth reported. “He has so many responsibilities and I did—I was not allowed much contact,” she confessed.
“Because you have the gift,” Alexander nodded. “I was surprised when I heard but it explains the way you rushed to tell us about the fire and why my mother was so adamant your name be kept out of it.”
It occurred to Elizabeth that both Morgan siblings were now aware of her abilities and she wasn’t sure how that sat with her. Though their mother possessed the abilities, how would they feel about it in an untrained girl?
“It is a blessing that you will be trained by my mother,” Alexander continued, “for she is one of the more skilled women.”
“Then you do not find fault with me?” Elizabeth asked hesitantly.
“How could I find fault with someone my brother so clearly loves?” Alexander replied.
She shook her head. “He only thinks that he loves me. After the Dawning, he will feel what most feel about me.”
“And what is that, Princess?” Alexander asked, slightly amused by this beautiful girl’s insecurity.
Her forlorn answer made him blink and he leaned back, trying to discern if she was kidding. “I do not believe that, Elizabeth.”
“You just do not know me well enough,” she sighed.
They were not waiting in the bedroom long before the muted fall of footsteps was heard on the stairs. Susan tensed—though she knew Lord Corinthos was a formidable opponent and would keep them both safe. She could not help but picture her helpless son lying in the bed without any inclination of his impending death. Though she’d already come to care about her future daughter-in-law, she felt another rush of love for the girl who’d saved Jason’s life.
The door slid open smoothly and she could see the shadows of two men. She braced herself, ready for Michael’s call if he needed her.
“Fetch the pillow,” one of them hissed.
She heard the snap of Michael’s fingers and closed her eyes, concentrating on the lock on the door. When she was sure it had melted shut, she flicked her wrist and the candles in the room lit.
The two men in the room stumbled back from the bed, having recognized the Supreme Head of the High Council. Lord Michael Corinthos flicked the blankets from his body and stood, leveling his cold eyes at the would-be murderers.
“What in blue hell—” one of the men started to cry out.
“Silence!” Michael roared.
One of the men reared back and went for the door only to find it melted shut. “She ain’t said nothing about him being no magician!” he yelled to his partner.
“He ain’t the one doing nothing,” the other man remarked. He had cold brown eyes and a smirk on his face that would have given Susan a chill if she were not so sure of Michael’s abilities.
“What you mean?” the second man—clearly the more panicked one—he was not grasping what the first one had.
“It’s the woman—she’s one of them witches.”
“You really have no grasp of intelligence do you?” Michael remarked softly. “Do you realize what you were sent here to do?”
“Quiet!” the brown-eyed man barked. “We say nothin’.”
“You say nothing, you die.”
“We dying anyway.” He folded his arms. “I ain’t stupid.”
“If you possessed any intelligence, you would know that I control the way that you die,” Michael remarked. “You were sent here tonight to murder Jason Morgan. Not only is he the nephew of a council member but he is betrothed to Princess Elizabeth.
The second man let out a low whimper. “Mistress ain’t say nothing ‘bout that.”
“Quiet!” the first man ordered again.
“If you do not cease giving him orders, I will have my woman cut out your tongue,” Michael warned him.
Susan bristled at being called his woman but when the man shot her a wary look, she made an attempt to look intimidating.
“Now—who is your mistress and what did she send you here to do?” Michael demanded.
“Lady—” the second man began.
“Lady Barbara Jones,” the first man interrupted. “We work in her stables. She said that the boy had decided Lady Robin was not marriage material after he’d bedded her so we come to cut out his heart.”
“That’s a filthy lie,” the second man said heatedly. “If I’m gonna die, it’s gonna be with a clean conscience.” He looked to Lord Corinthos. “Lady Laura Spencer hired us. She told us to sell out Lady Jones if we’s caught. We don’t work in no stables. She keeps us on personal retainer.”
“And what did she tell about you Jason Morgan?” Michael prompted, somewhat pleased with the second man’s antics.
“Lady Spencer tole’ us that Jason Morgan were the reason her son weren’t gonna be a prince and she also hates you, sir,” the man reported meekly. “We was tole to come here and cut out the boy’s heart. And then we was supposed to rape the woman of the house.”
Alexis, Michael thought. His eyes narrowed. “And did your mistress give you her motive for this second crime?”
“Aye, she did,” he was eager to please and hoping for a reprieve. “She say you ain’t value no one since your wife like you value Lady Davis.” He slid a glance towards his companion. “Ronald here likes the rape, I do the knife work.”
“Quiet,” ‘Ronald’ hissed.
“I ain’t tellin’ no more lies for that woman.” He looked to Michael. “Lord Corinthos, can I just be shot right between the eyes? Nice, clean and easy?”
He was a deplorable man, Michael decided, but he had a twisted sense of loyalty. His death would be as quick as he’d like. “Yes. As for your friend, Ronald…perhaps he shall like to experience our dungeons before his death?”
The fear grew in the other man’s eyes and Michael decided he’d had enough of the two of them. He knew who was behind the plot and that was enough for him. He nodded to Susan, who clapped her hands.
Ropes appeared from nowhere and quickly bound the two men together. With a flick of her wrist, they were blindfolded and gagged.
Michael leaned down near Ronald’s ear to whisper, “And if you speak of the woman’s abilities, I will make your death even more torturous and painful.” He looked to Susan. “Go send one of the stable hands for the captain of the guard. Tell him that we have successfully terminated the assassination attempt against the future prince.”
“Do you think it wise to send for Sir Lucas?” Susan questioned.
“Lucas and his father will not be held accountable for the crimes of Laura Spencer,” Michael decided. “Send for him.”
Within the hour, Ronald and his accomplice had been dragged away in chains. Michael had said nothing about who had hired the men, deciding that the boy would learn of his mother’s treachery away from his men to save dignity.
When they were gone, Michael knew it would be dawn in only a few hours. He sent Susan to fetch Alexis and the children from the basement. He would get Elizabeth home and double check the arrangements for the wedding.
Chloe leapt from her perch on Jason’s lap. “It is over then?” she asked her mother eagerly.
“Yes,” Susan touched her daughter’s shoulder. “Michael confronted the men and found out who hired them. It is over and the only thing left to do is to welcome the princess into our family tonight.” She smiled at Elizabeth, “Your uncle is waiting to take you home.”
Elizabeth nodded and handed Alexander back the blanket she’d used. “Thank you for your kindness,” she said softly. She glanced at Jason for a brief moment before starting up the wooden staircase.
“I think you should escort her to her uncle—he is outside waiting for her,” Susan told her son in a soft tone.
Jason nodded and moved towards the steps, disappearing after the brunette. Chloe frowned. “What is going on?” she questioned.
“I suspect our dear brother said something that upset the princess,” Alexander remarked ruefully. “Seems to be a man’s lot in life.”
“Elizabeth—” Jason caught up with her in the foyer and took her by the elbow. “I thank you for all the help you have given my family tonight,” he told her.
Elizabeth nodded. “I only did what I thought was right.” She hesitated. “I have been considering what you said the last time we saw one another and I want you to know that it is all right that you do not really love me. It is disappointing but I should have known better than to believe—”
He stopped her flow of words by pressing his finger to her lips. “I did not answer you when you asked the question because I had not thought of it before. I am a cautious man by nature and I needed to think it over.”
“And now that you have,” Elizabeth continued, “you realize that I was correct and as I was saying, I can live without my husband loving me. You are a very kind man and I could hardly ask for more—”
“And now that I have, I realize my first conclusion was correct. I do love you and I can only hope that you love me as well.”
She blinked and shook her head. “Once the Dawning is over, you will feel differently—”
“Once the Dawning is over, you will be my wife,” Jason told her. “And I suspect a man will always feel something towards a wife that he did not when they were merely betrothed. Elizabeth, I love you and before you leave, I will hear the words from you.”
She was still uncertain but she decided that they would see who was right when they woke the next morning. “I love you,” she admitted in a soft voice.
He kissed her forehead. “Go home and sleep,” he instructed.
Elizabeth nodded and smiled at him shyly. “I am glad that you are safe and—because of you, I have my beloved uncle back in my life. I thank you for that as well.” She braced her hands on his shoulders and kissed his cheek before pulling the hood of her cloak over her head. She disappeared outside and Jason turned to see his mother smiling at him.
“You are so like your father,” Susan murmured. Her eyes shone with tears. “I would have saved him if I could, my son. I do hope you believe that.”
Jason crossed the room and embraced his mother. “I know. Your vision of Father’s death and Elizabeth’s of mine are different and you would be the first to remind me of that. And telling me that I am like him is the highest compliment you could give me.”
“He would be proud of you,” Susan continued, “and he would welcome her to the family. She is the kind of girl he always hoped you would marry and I believe he is smiling down on you from the Heavens.”
“And perhaps he is the one who sent Elizabeth the vision,” Jason said, knowing the thought would give her comfort.
“Aye, I believe that he might have.” Susan kissed his cheek. “Now—we must sleep for as many hours as we can afford. Tonight, my eldest son weds and we will need our strength.”
Elizabeth followed Michael in silence to the palace and was surprised when he stopped suddenly and turned. “Uncle Sonny?” she asked hesitantly.
“Do you believe Lady Davis would consent to my courtship?” he asked abruptly.
Elizabeth blinked. “I believe that she would, Uncle. Is it something that you are considering?”
“I am too old for marriage,” he muttered. He turned back around and resumed his brisk walk. Elizabeth doubled her steps to keep up with him. “But Alexis is only two years younger than I. I should banish Susan Morgan for planting these thoughts in my head.”
“I believe that putting the question to Lady Davis is the second most intelligent decision you have made,” Elizabeth declared.
“And the first?” Michael asked, glancing at her.
“Betrothing me to Jason Morgan, of course.” Elizabeth offered her uncle a gentle smile. “Though it was not your decision at all, I suppose, but the Fates.” She hesitated. “Do you believe your Brenda smiles on you?”
He paused for a moment in his walk and stared at her. “She did not for a long time but I believe she does now for I have finally begun to fulfill my promise to her. You were the daughter she never had the chance to have.” He smiled her. “And you are the daughter I never dared to hope for. I only hope that you believe I’ve done right by you.”
“As long as I marry Jason tonight, there is nothing you could for me that would be more right,” Elizabeth told him honestly. “Perhaps your Brenda sent him to me.”
“Perhaps. She always was a bit of a matchmaker.” Michael smiled at her again. “Come, it is nearly dawn and you have not slept at all this night.”