“Long live King Linus!”
A crystal flute is poised at my mouth; I can feel the kiss of glass against my bottom lip as my fingers clench tighter around the stem, already anticipating the bubbling crispness of champagne on my tongue.
“Long live the king!”
The jubilant chants fill the air from all directions, until every chandelier hanging in the Great Hall of Waterford Palace is rattling like hail against cobblestone. The strangled exhale that sounds from my left is so faint, I’m not sure how I hear it over the din.
Such a small sound; such enormous consequences.
My wide, wild eyes cut to my father — resplendent in his coronation finery, the ornate crown gleaming atop his salt-and-peppered hair. I watch in horror as his cheeks mottle into a deathly purple hue, as his foaming lips part like a fish out of water, gasping uselessly for breath.
His champagne flute hits the dais a second before he does, splintering into a thousand razor-sharp pieces all around my feet. The shards tear into my skin as I fall to the platform and scramble to his side. They score my hands, pierce the thick tulle skirts of my ballgown like shrapnel from an explosion.
I ignore the welling blood; that pain is of little consequence, compared to the pain in my heart as I watch the poison take its deadly effect on Linus’ nervous system.
All around me, the room is in an uproar. Sounds assault my senses, but they seem dull and distant. Far removed from my spot up here on the platform. Yells of horror pierce the air, high-heeled feet scramble across shining marble floors, courtiers duck for cover and call out for whatever gods they pretend to worship.
I do not run.
I do not pray.
I do not look away from my father’s face. I hold his stare until his eyes go glassy, the scream building in my throat until I can no longer contain it.
“HELP! PLEASE, SOMEONE HELP US!”
But there’s no one to help.
Nothing to be done.
Because… he’s gone.
Before he ever truly got the chance to rule.
Before I ever truly got the chance to know him.
My eyes drift from the pink-tinged froth at the corners of his gaping mouth to linger on the deep slash wounds in my own palms. I stare at the blood on my hands until I can no longer stomach the sight. My head cranes back, my lips divide, and I unleash my anguish on the world.
I scream until my throat goes raw, scream until the sound runs out, scream until—
* * *
Someone is shaking me.
“Emilia! Emilia, wake up. You’re dreaming.”
The scream catches in my throat and turns to a sob as my mind spins through image after image, still bubbling fresh on the surface of my subconscious.
Linus… the poison… all that blood…
“Hey. Breathe.” Two large hands flex against the bare, sweat-slicked skin of my biceps, hard enough to jolt me fully awake. “Just breathe, Emilia.”
My breaths are coming so fast, I feel dizzy. Even after I snap out of the dream, disorientation lingers like a haze over my brain. Thoughts spin sluggishly, thick as syrup.
“Th- th- the champagne,” I gasp out, still hyperventilating. “It was— it was—”
“Listen to me — you’re safe. You’re fine. You’re in your bed. No one can get to you, Emilia. Do you hear me? No one will hurt you again.”
The voice is gruff but oh so familiar. I focus on its deep timbre and it instantly calms me, offering safe refuge from the potent terror of my own mind. When his hands tighten once more, I manage to crack open my eyelids and focus on him. As soon as I do, I’m trapped in a tractor-beam blue gaze.
My stomach jolts.
“Another nightmare,” Carter murmurs lowly, staring at me in the darkness. He’s so close I can make out the tiny scar that bisects his eyebrow; the bands of deeper blue that ring each of his irises, the faint stubble shadowing his jawline at this late hour. His hair is sleep-tousled, his chest bare, as though he leapt from bed after an abrupt awakening at this late hour.
He must’ve heard me screaming through the wall.
It’s been a month since the night of the coronation, when a poison-laced champagne flute nearly killed my father. So nearly, in fact, I was certain he was dead as the King’s Guard rushed him to the nearest hospital. Certain I’d be left to mourn the loss of yet another parent… only this time, I’d have a crown on my head and a country to rule.
Talk about multitasking.
Each day, I thank my lucky stars that the doctors were able to reverse the paralytic effects of the poison. Impossible as it seems, Linus is alive. Weaker and frailer than before, to be sure… but miraculously, unquestioningly alive.
I just wish my subconscious would remember that small fact. As soon as my eyes slip closed at night, I’m back on that coronation platform: blood welling in my palms, glass slicing my gorgeous ballgown, chaos erupting as the king falls to the ground.
“You’re okay,” Carter assures again. “It was just a dream.”
Just a dream.
Just a dream.
Just a dream.
Just… four long weeks of waking sweat-drenched and screaming. I thought things would get better after enough time had passed, after Linus was released from the hospital and things returned to normal at the castle, but they haven’t. If anything, they’re worse than ever.
Bad enough to bring a man who absolutely hates me running to help…
As my breathing slows and awareness returns, I’m all too conscious of Carter’s presence beside me on the bed. Of the large, callused hands curled around my biceps. Of the narrow space separating our faces in the darkness. Of the smell of his skin — smoke and bourbon and spice — washing over me like a drug.
I suck in a sharp breath.
This is the closest we’ve been in weeks. Since that awful, wonderful night in the greenhouse, when we crossed an unspeakable line. Since we—
I don’t allow myself to think about the things we did, the things we said. And I definitely don’t allow myself to think about the things we left unsaid. If I did, I’d go crazy. No good ever comes of craving things you can never have again.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, voice cracking. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
He’s silent for a moment, just staring at me. I can feel each stroke of his gaze against my skin like a physical caress and, sweet christ, the need to lean into his chest, to absorb his warmth is so strong I nearly buckle under the pressure.
Take me in your arms and hold my tattered soul together, I want to beg. Even if it’s only for a moment.
As though he’s heard the plea aloud, Carter’s fingertips dig into my arms. There’s an edge of violence in his grip; I’m not sure whether he wants to shake me or crush me to his chest. Hell, I doubt even he knows for sure. He’s looking at me like I’m half-poison, half-cure. Equal parts salvation and devastation.
Back at you, stepbrother.
His jaw clenches tightly. I watch a muscle tick rhythmically in his cheek, and I know he feels it too; that undeniable attraction that’s always dragging us toward each other, even when we’re totally at odds. Even when we hate each other.
“I’m fine,” I cut him off before he says something that’ll make it harder to maintain the cool mask of composure I’ve been wearing around him for the past few weeks. “Really. You can let go of me, now.”
His hands fall away like I’ve scalded him.
With considerable effort, I drop my gaze and look down at the bedspread. My legs are still tangled in the sheets, evidence of the battle waged with my unconscious mind. I pull them free and curl my knees up to my chest, scooting back against the headboard to create some much-needed space between us. I think he’s going to leave without another word but, to my great surprise, he stays. There’s a long silence before he finally breaks it, voice carefully empty.
“You were screaming.”
I bite my lip.
“Not just a few small sounds of distress, like it used to be. This sounded like…” He blows out a breath. “Like someone was in here murdering you.”
“I…” Trailing off, I swallow hard. I can’t contradict him. He’s right. I can still feel the rawness at the back of my throat from the ragged wailing session.
My gaze darts up to his and for the first time, I notice how exhausted he looks. Not from a singular sleepless night, but many. The dark circles under his eyes are a perfect match for my own. Evidently, I’m not the only one my night terrors have been keeping awake, these past few weeks. Shame stirs inside me.
“Carter, I’m… I’m sorry…”
He clears his throat with a rough sound. “The nightmares. They’re getting worse.”
“What was this one about?”
“The same thing they’re always about.”
His brows lift.
“The coronation. I was… reliving it. The champagne. The blood. Linus…”
He stares at me, not speaking, so I continue.
“In the dream, he dies in my arms. Every time. I don’t understand why I dream he’s dead. The doctors revived him. He’s alive. I know he’s alive. But every time I close my damn eyes…” I shake my head, suddenly fighting tears. “I think there’s something wrong with me. Maybe I’m going crazy.”
“Hey. Look at me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” His eyes are intent on mine. “It’s this fucking place — this whole fucking world — that’s crazy. Not you.”
Is Carter Thorne really being kind to me?
Kindness from him is such a rarity. It’s enough to make my heart skip a beat.
My teeth sink into my bottom lip to contain the words I’m afraid to speak. I want nothing more than to hurl my body forward, into his arms. To find solace against the smooth planes of his strong chest, soaking up his heat until the shadows of my mind are chased away.
But I can’t.
If he sees the sudden longing in my eyes, Carter doesn’t comment on it. But his jaw clenches tighter and his strong hands curl around the thick fabric of my bedspread, as though he’s fighting for control.
“You should probably go,” I force myself to say, hating every treacherous syllable.
“Right. We wouldn’t want any of the castle staff getting the wrong idea about what I’m doing in your bedchambers in the middle of the night.”
I flinch back at his suddenly caustic tone. “Carter, you know that’s not what I meant—.”
“Don’t worry about it.” He’s already halfway to the door, his angry strides illuminated by the moonlight spilling in through the glass wall of my terrace. “Next time, I’ll let you scream.”
My door slams loud enough to rattle the painting on the wall, leaving me alone in the dark once more with only my nightmares for company.