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Dark Castle (The Dazzling Court Book 1) by Fawn Bailey, Isabella Starling (1)

1

Amber

If you pretend you’re a princess long enough, you might actually become one.

That’s what my mother told me when I was only nine years old, eyes wide open and staring into hers as she read to me from one of our books.

It was a thought that was ingrained in me from the moment I first heard it. My mother was reading me one of my favorite books, A Little Princess, and I devoured every part of the story.

But instead of teaching me the lesson I so desperately needed, it convinced me of one thing. I wasn’t a princess, and without a fortune behind my name, I never would be.

In my childhood years, I feared only a few people.

I feared the girls in my class who mocked me for my cheap shoes and my torn uniform.

I feared the teachers who, as rumor had it, received plenty of money from some parents, to advance the other kids, and who took their anger at the world out on me.

I feared the times when neither of my parents could find jobs.

I feared what my father was capable of.

There seemed to be one thing in common with all those fears – and it was money, or rather, lack thereof. Because money could change everything.

If we had the money, we wouldn’t have to live in the small, cramped apartment in the cheapest part of London.

If we had the money, perhaps Daddy wouldn’t drink himself into a stupor night after night.

If we had the money, we would be happy, and Daddy would never hurt Mummy or me again.

The words my mother read out in her shaky, permanently scared voice, were meant to console me. To teach me that I could be strong despite everything that had happened.

But her words did the exact opposite. They convinced me I would be the girl I so desperately wanted to be with the help of one thing – cold, hard cash.

They made the fiery-haired, golden-eyed little girl even more determined to find her way in the world, and eventually, find her own fortune – to have all the glittering gold in the world and to be able to pay in spades to have things go her way.

In many ways, I was still that bright-eyed little girl when I arrived in Luxuria. My head in the clouds, and my feet firmly on the ground in 4-inch heels that my best friend had given me as a farewell present, I was determined to solve all my problems with a husband who would be able to pay his way out of any situation.

In many ways, I was more naïve than I had been as a nine-year-old. Stubborn and proud, I had no idea what lay in store for me in the unknown country where I would go up against twelve other girls for the ultimate prize – the man I loved, and a crown to complement his.

Convinced that money ruled the world, I managed to forget about one very important thing.

All that glitters is not gold…

* * *

Excitement pumped through my veins, making me jittery as I walked into the arrivals section of Luxuria’s only airport.

I was nervous. If I hadn’t had my nails done in a pretty nude pink color to match my shoes, I would have bitten them down to mere nubs – a horrible habit I’d had since those days of skipped lunches and hidden bruises during my childhood in London.

But now, there was hope for a brighter future. Everything I’d ever dreamed of was within grasp. No more poor little church mouse. Very soon, I would be a queen.

I raised my head high, a confident smile playing on my lips as I exited the revolving doors leading me into the tastefully, expensively decorated lobby of the airport.

Finally, I had arrived. And I was ready for whatever adventure the world would throw at me.

My feet glided over the marble floors, and I marveled at the beautifully furnished interior of the airport. It didn’t feel anything like an airport. It was luxurious, from the cool dove-gray marble of the hall to the overstuffed, jade green plush velvet armchairs replacing the plastic chairs that I was used to seeing in such locations.

This country has money, I thought to myself, the corners of my lips tugging upward. Soon, I will, too.

Rueben Thorn, my best friend’s husband, had given me use of his private jet to ensure my safe arrival for the selection process at the court of Luxuria. My life was about to change forever.

In my twenty years of life, I’d experienced it all.

I’d been a ballerina. A slave. A good friend. A loyal submissive. But everything I thought I knew about myself changed the moment I met Prince Olivier Bellamy.

He rocked me to my core, making me reconsider the goals I’d set for myself. He made me fall in love. And for the very first time, I found myself wondering about things I’d written off long ago.

I needed money. I knew I would eventually marry to make ends meet for my family, even though I’d been estranged from them for years. But Olivier made me think there was more to marriage than just what each party brought into it with thick wallets and priceless family heirlooms.

Foolishly, I thought he would ask me to marry him after our first meeting. I was a hopeless romantic when I let myself, and I’d convinced myself that he would want me – no matter my rank or status. I let myself be that wide-eyed nine-year-old again, and I let myself dream of a future I would never have.

But Olivier left Rueben Thorn’s manor without asking for my hand in marriage.

I was heartbroken.

I spent months moping and crying to Thorn’s wife, Rose, about what had happened. I couldn’t forgive Olivier for choosing his country over me. True love meant always choosing your partner above anything else.

Right?

Wrong.

When the invitation arrived, I let myself be ecstatic before I allowed the calculating side of me to take over. The selection was a different game altogether. It meant competing against twelve other girls – strangers – to win the heart of Prince Olivier.

At first, I was bitter and angry. Why would I have to compete? Had I not done enough, charmed him to the point he could not resist me? I’d let him have it all… my virginity, my innocence and my submission. And yet, he planned to pit me against all these other women, to prove once again I was worth it.

A seed of bitterness was planted, and I watered it every day. Thoughts of hatred toward Olivier consumed me, mixed with confusing emotions of wanting to please him.

There was one thing I knew for certain.

Olivier Bellamy would become my husband.

For better or for worse, he’d be stuck with me.

I wanted what I’d had that magical night at Rose and Thorn’s house. I wanted Prince Olivier, who’d touched me with tenderness, knowing just how much he could hurt me but holding back because he didn’t want to break me during our first meeting.

I’d become addicted to him, my thoughts overwhelmed with him. And so, when I received the invitation to enter the selection process and possibly become Prince Olivier’s royal bride, I didn’t hesitate. Even though there would be twelve other women competing for Olivier, I was confident he would pick me in the end.

He had to.

The connection we had that night can’t be rivaled, I thought to myself as I mulled things over in the airport. We were meant to be together.

Pleased with my decision to come, I held my head just a little bit higher, feeling confident in my knee-length, pleated silk dress in a shade of green that complimented my stubborn red hair perfectly. It was made of the finest silk, pleasant and cool to the touch, belted under my sizeable bust and skimming over my generous curves in a way that made eyes turn. Yes, I was pleased with how I looked – for once.

My eyes scanned the crowd at the arrivals section, a shiver going down my spine. There was nobody with a sign with my name there, though I’d been told someone would be waiting for me.

Have they forgotten about me already? I thought to myself but managed to calm the nagging voice that insisted on being heard. Surely someone will come for me soon.

The airport was small, with only a few flights per day. Mine was the first of the day, with none other arriving until that afternoon.

I had two suitcases with me, laden with beautiful, expensive dresses I’d never be able to afford on my own. Luckily, Rose had taken care of it all. I knew she felt like she owed me, and for this occasion, I let her believe it. I needed every advantage over the other girls I could get, and the expensive faux furs, silk and cashmere inside my Louis Vuitton luggage would make me shine brighter than I would in my cheap, sad everyday clothes.

“Amber Jonathan?”

I turned around, flustered as I fidgeted with my carry on. Okay Amber, focus, I ordered myself in my head. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

I looked up into the man’s eyes with a well-practiced shy smile playing on my lips.

“That’s me,” I responded. “Are you here to take me to the court?”

“Yes,” the man replied, not wasting a single word. He took my luggage away from me, the suitcases I’d struggled with before tiny in comparison to his broad, tall frame.

It was my first chance to get a good look at him, and I tried to hide my surprise, though his all-knowing grin seemed to see every thought inside my head. How frightening.

He was handsome, not in a refined, sophisticated way like Prince Olivier, but devilishly so. His hair was jet black, unlike Olivier’s golden tresses. It was peppered with streaks of silver, slicked back and giving him a sexy, dangerous look. His eyes were gray, so bright they startled me. He towered over me.

“Come with me,” he said, and I tottered after him, struggling to catch up with his long steps in my sky-high heels and still attempting to look like I had some class.

“Do you work for the royal family?” I asked in a rush. Better to get all the information I possibly could, even if he was just a servant.

“I do.”

He didn’t elaborate, and I bit my bottom lip as we left the airport building. What greeted us outside were bright skies and a pleasant, cool temperature that made me glad I’d only worn a light Burberry trench coat over my dress.

Our surroundings were stunning. The airport was smack-dab in the middle of the country. To our far right, I spotted a large lake, seemingly never-ending in the mist that clung to the land. To our right, there was a smaller town with a gorgeous Gothic church in the center. The airport was built on a small hill, giving me an incredible view of Luxuria’s quaint, but remarkably well-preserved historical beauty.

I couldn’t focus on our spectacular surroundings, though, my thoughts filled with a nervous worry that I’d offended the man who’d come to collect me.

Have I already overstepped? I questioned myself, desperate to bite my nails yet again but managing to suppress the need to gnaw on my perfectly manicured talons.

I’d been warned by Rose that the Luxurian court was a bit old-fashioned. Even though I knew how to behave at these kinds of events after a few years of training, I was terrified of breaking a century-old tradition or offending somebody I was supposed to make a lasting impression on. For example, the man who was now storming a few paces ahead of me, carrying everything I owned in two strong, capable arms, his biceps bulging against the expensively-cut suit he was wearing.

In my hurry to not fall behind, I nearly stumbled over the cobble-stone path leading away from the airport and toward the drop-off area. Goodness, this place really is old-fashioned. I half-expected a carriage to be waiting for us.

Just as I stumbled, I grabbed onto the man’s sleeve to steady myself.

My luggage tumbled to the ground and the man turned to face me, a snarl on his face. Yet he let me hold onto his arm, supporting my full weight as if I weighed nothing at all. Once I composed myself, I gave him an apologetic look, coming face-to-face with stormy, unforgiving and cold gray eyes. It made me take a step back, and he cleared his throat, giving me a stern glance.

“Don’t sneak up on me like that, or you’ll get hurt.”

I was so shocked by his words I couldn’t even manage a reply, instead just nodding and falling into step behind him again. At least he’d slowed down now, and I could keep up easily without breaking a heel.

Before I had time to question his strange, almost threatening response, we arrived at the drop-off section where a lacquered white Rolls Royce was waiting. My eyes widened at the sight of it and I felt the now familiar rush of excitement as two other men joined us. The air stank of money.

The two other men were both wearing uniforms, a navy suit with pinstripes, complete with a driver’s hat for one of them. I didn’t fail to notice that their suits, while still appearing expensive, weren’t cut as flatteringly as the other guy’s.

He must be someone important, I thought to myself, trying not to let panic take over. I need to impress him.

The men nodded at me, greeting me with a respectfully muttered “Miss Jonathan,” before loading my luggage into the car.

I had to bite my tongue to stop all the questions I had from pouring out of my mouth, painted with dark pink gloss. Thank goodness I’d decided to change at the last moment in the airport’s bathroom. I had a feeling these three men would not be impressed by the black, comfortable leggings I’d worn on the twelve-hour flight from the States to Europe.

Eager to fire off questions, I reminded myself to be patient.

I had no idea what I was getting into, and I wanted to know so many things – like when the other women would arrive, and whether I’d be able to see Olivier soon. However, the man who picked me up was wearing a somber expression that made me shut my mouth again. He didn’t seem like the type who liked to answer questions, so I kept them to myself, for the time being at least.

It would have been nice to know his name, but I was too intimidated to ask him. I had a feeling he was well-aware of my nerves, as he grinned at me in a way that said I can read your thoughts, little girl.

He helped me into the vehicle, and I settled into the plush, buttery cream leather interior. It was an incredible car, one that I’d only seen in movies before.

The two men who’d been loading my suitcases into the trunk took the two front seats, and the other man, the one that made me a little afraid, climbed into the back with me.

I looked through the window as the car pulled away from the airport, a frisson of excitement making my hands shake in my lap.

“Nervous?”

I looked into the man’s gray eyes and offered him a shy smile.

“A little bit,” I admitted. “This is all so new to me.”

“But you’ve met Prince Olivier before. You know what to expect, don’t you?” His eyebrows shot up and it hit me just how handsome he was, making me blush. God, how I hate being a redhead. It was impossible to hide things like embarrassment from anyone.

The man seemed to realize how frustrated I was and grinned at me with a mixture of curiosity and a twisted sense of humor, almost as if he enjoyed me being so nervous.

“Not really,” I told him. “I met Olivier at a party my friends organized. Rueben Thorn, perhaps you’ve heard of him?”

It would be hard to imagine that he hadn’t. Thorn was a world-renowned businessman, after all.

He stared at me blankly without providing an answer, and I sighed, a barely audible sign of my exasperation.

He was such a hard man to read, and he seemed intent on making this conversation even more difficult than it had to be. But I decided to fight my own nerves and get some information out of him. After all, I deserved to know what was going to happen next.

Before I could ask a single question, the man looked out of the window and began talking himself.

“Luxuria is a little old-fashioned, you’ll find. You might be surprised by our traditions, but we love them. We’ve been following them for centuries.”

“I heard about that,” I offered as way of making conversation, but he didn’t say another word. I cursed myself inwardly for backing myself up into a corner yet again, forcing the next question from my lips. “Can you tell me about the selection process?”

“You will find out everything soon enough,” he replied, never taking his eyes off the scenery outside the window. “But the gist of it is this – you and twelve other women will be competing for the Prince’s attention. It is a tradition that has been followed in Luxuria for over five centuries. There are usually twelve women.”

“I was wondering about that,” I said. “It seems such an odd number to have thirteen. You know, it’s always thought of as an unlucky number.”

“It is,” he replied. “But as you know, the Prince insisted on adding a thirteenth woman to the selection.”

“Who?” I wondered out loud, and he laughed at me, raising his eyebrows in disbelief.

“I’m sure you can figure it out.”

I blushed yet again once the realization hit me, eliciting an amused smirk from the man in the opposite seat.

Has Olivier really gone against his own country’s tradition to include me in the selection process?

The thought filled me with butterflies. I knew there had been something special between us. This only confirmed that Olivier felt it too, and it made me so excited.

But don’t forget why you’re here, I reminded myself. The money is just as important as Olivier himself.

“If you’ll look outside now,” the man said, motioning toward the window. “You’ll be able to admire the landscape of Luxuria.”

I followed his gaze to the lovely countryside that surrounded us. It was a mixture of France and Italy, beautiful in the autumn glory of the day. The leaves were changing already, painting the forests in enchanting golden and ruby colors. It was breathtaking and made me gasp as we drove down the winding road. The man seemed pleased at my reaction, glancing at me for a beat too long before looking back at the sprawling forests outside the window.

“Do a lot of tourists visit Luxuria?” I wondered aloud, and the man shook his head.

“We only accept a small number of them each year. We protect our country from the riff-raff.”

I blushed, feeling almost attacked. I was English but having lived in the States for the past few years, I felt a little offended by his statement.

“Your English is so perfect,” I added. “But the official language of Luxuria is French, isn’t it?”

“Correct,” he nodded. “Although a lot of people are bilingual and speak Italian as well. Mostly everyone speaks English, though. It is taught in our schools from an early age.”

“So, you are a native, too?” I asked, but his sharp cool gaze reminded me I didn’t get to ask as many questions as I would have liked. I looked away, hating myself for blushing a third time. “I’m sorry, I’m just curious about Luxuria… I did some of my own research, but I would love to learn more from a local.”

“And you will,” he replied. “Soon enough.”

His words seemed cryptic.

The rest of the ride was spent in silence, but I didn’t mind much, focusing my attention on the glorious landscape on the other side of the window.

Luxuria was scenic and stunningly beautiful. I didn’t see anything out of order – not even a piece of litter on the ground. We drove through little towns that I’d seen on images when I did some research on the country. Every sight out of the window seemed perfect for a photo op, and I couldn’t get over the beauty of this tiny country I hadn’t even known existed a year ago.

I felt like Cinderella being delivered to the royal ball in that beautiful car. It was much better than a pumpkin carriage… but I was no princess, after all. My mother’s words still rang out in my head every time. For now, I was just pretending… but soon enough, my dreams of being a princess would come true.

My eyes turned to my hands at the thought of everything I’d been through. The things I’d put up with, just because I thought they’d mean financial security, not just for myself, but for my family, too.

I’d hidden it from Rose and Thorn for a long time. They assumed I had no ties to my family back at home. My father, who had mercifully passed away a year prior with alcohol poisoning, was out of the picture, but I still had a mother and three siblings to think of.

That’s why it was so important that I won over Olivier. Though I had no doubt the other contestants would be stunning, adorned with royal titles and an impressive scholarly background, I had one advantage.

Prince Olivier had taken my virginity in a night filled with lust and passion six months ago, and I knew I’d made an impact on him just like he had done to me.

My hands smoothed down the Fendi plissé dress clinging to my body. It went so well with the nude Louboutins I was wearing. I almost felt like I wasn’t myself. As if I was playing a role in a film.

It was hard not to feel like a fraud when I was used to tattered hand-me-downs and scraps from a table that was more often empty than full. The designer clothes could hide where I came from, but they didn’t stop me from feeling like I was on a film set.

Well, if I am really an actress, the selection is the role of a lifetime.

“We’re almost there.”

The man’s voice woke me up from my thoughts, and I looked out the window again.

The winding road led up to the most glorious building.

It stood in the distance, reminding me of a fairytale castle. It was built in a combination of white and red brick and had a beautiful blue roof, with towers rising from the main building. The entire building stood on a small hill, surrounded by a sprawling property with a brook running around the castle. It was truly magnificent, and I couldn’t help the huff of breath that escaped my lips in admiration.

“Stunning, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said. “Pictures don’t do her justice.”

“A beautiful thing is always meant to be appreciated in person,” he muttered, and when I looked at him, he was looking into my eyes.

“I’m sorry to be so forward,” I said, fighting off the blush from my cheeks and twisting my hands in my lap. “But you never introduced yourself.”

We came to a stop in front of the castle, and for a second, I was convinced he wasn’t going to answer me. But he kept looking, and finally, his reply came, hitting me like a brick.

“I’m Prince Olivier’s brother,” he said.

“I thought he was an only child?” I asked, my eyebrows shooting up.

His expression darkened.

“I’m a bastard,” he replied, shocking me with the honesty of his statement. “You can call me Bruno.”

“O-Okay,” I stuttered, trying not to convey my surprise and failing miserably.

“We’re here,” he said next, and the car door opened to an incredible view of Luxuria’s winter court.

Bruno stepped out first, offering me his hand and grinning that wicked smile I’d come to know all too well.

“Welcome to Luxuria, Amber Jonathan.”

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