The Queen of Gold and Straw releases next Monday! Here’s a sneak peek of the first chapter. Enjoy!
“Oh, Greta. He’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen,” Emma gushes. She presses a hand to her chest, acting like an old woman even though she’s only seventeen. “And so tall. I could gaze at him all day.”
I shake my head, wishing I were at another table—any other table. Millicent, my dearest friend, sits with Rembright. She looks lovely in her soft green dress, with gold and burgundy wildflowers woven in her hair. The blooms match her bouquet, which I worked on until the wee hours of the morning. It’s a miracle I’m awake at all.
The wedding is a large one, though provincial. Half the village is here, all gathered to wish Millicent and her new husband the best. They’re two of the kindest people, soft and gentle and loyal, and I cannot imagine a sweeter pairing. I truly couldn’t be happier for them.
But I am going to miss her fiercely when she moves deeper into the forest.
I blink several times, already feeling her loss…and feeling guilty for harboring anything but joy at their union.
“Word has it he’s looking for a bride,” Millicent’s younger sister goes on, not yet realizing she’s far more invested in the conversation than I am.
I take a sip of cider. The Rausches—Rembright’s relations—donated it for the occasion. It might not be wine, or the exceptionally expensive champagne that a few of the richer families have had, but it’s very good—and a treat I don’t often have anymore.
“Do you think he’ll pick someone from the village?” Emma continues, finally asking a question that pulls me into her one-sided conversation whether I like it or not.
I run my finger along the rim of the earthen cup in front of me. “I highly doubt it. Kings don’t often marry commoners.”
“It happens,” she protests, her face crumpling as if I’ve dashed all her hopes and dreams. “And wouldn’t it be thrilling? I could certainly use a little excitement in my life—a little adventure.” She brightens as her dreamy look returns. “A little romance.”
If there were a girl a king would pick to marry, it would be Emma. She’s delicate and soft—as bright as the sun. Her family might be poor, but they are complete and so full of love it hurts.
I look over the guests. My father’s absence is conspicuous, though no one expected him to come. He never does. No one would want his company if he did.
“Can’t you just be happy for your sister?” I ask, gently chastising. “Must we speak of the king today?”
Emma frowns, and then her face softens with something that looks a little too much like pity for my liking. “You’re still welcome in our home even though Millicent is married—you know that, don’t you? Of course you do.”
Laughing, I wave her concern away. “I never assumed you’d turn me away if I came to visit.”
“Oh, Greta, I’m sorry.” She moves from her seat and sits right next to me. “I’ve been prattling on, not even realizing how hard this must be for you. You haven’t lost her—or us.”
She hugs me, drawing the attention of others around us—including her sister. Millicent frowns, worry shadowing her eyes on a day when she should be nothing but blissful.
I shake my head, reminding her that she promised me. No tears, not today.
“I know that.” I gently push Emma away. “Now stop.”
She laughs. “Who knows? Maybe you’ll marry the king, and he’ll sweep you away, giving you the life you’ve always deserved.”
“I wouldn’t wish the king’s attention on anyone, certainly not myself. And I’ve had a fine life.”
“Do you think he’s as awful as they say?” Emma nibbles her lip, too sentimental to believe our handsome monarch might be as cruel as he is mad.
I meet her eyes, making her look at me. “Yes, I do.”
Something behind me catches her attention, and a smile plays at her mouth. “Well, perhaps the king isn’t for either of us. But maybe someone else has his eye on you?”
Before I can answer, she leaps from her seat, beaming. “Hello, Sigwald.”
“Emma,” the son of a local baker says from directly behind my chair.
Closing my eyes for just a moment, I listen to the two exchange pleasantries about the ceremony.
“Hello, Greta.” Sigwald lowers himself into the seat Emma just vacated.
He’s very handsome, with his flaxen hair and honey-brown eyes. All the girls adore him; all the girls want his attention.
But I do not. My heart already belongs to another boy, one who can’t come to events like these.
“Good afternoon,” I say, folding my hands in my lap.
Emma beams at me over Sigwald’s head, too helpful for her own good. She then scampers off to her sister’s side.
“Millicent is a lovely bride.” Sigwald’s tone is cordial, and he smiles at the recently wed couple.
“The flowers are your creation?”
He nods, unsure what else to say. He’s not articulate, and I also lack a gregarious nature. Our conversations are full of awkward pauses while we struggle for subjects to discuss.
No matter what Emma, her sister, or their mother believe, we’re not a good fit.
Sigwald swallows, looking up at the sky. “It’s a beautiful day.”
“Yes,” I answer eagerly, grasping hold of something easy to speak of, even if it’s the dull weather. “Autumn is my favorite season.”
“Is it?” he asks, too interested to be believable. “With how you love flowers, I would have thought it would be summer.”
“Autumn is when my favorites—the purple bells in the meadows—go through their second bloom.”
Sigwald smiles, and once again…we’re done. More silence, more struggling.
“I…” He shakes his head, frustration shadowing his face. It looks painful, the poor man. I know he cares for me, or at least he thinks I’m attractive. But there’s just nothing here. “Oh! Mother still has the sachet you made her.”
“Does she?” I smile.
Let this end soon.
He nods…again and again.
“Come here, Greta!” Millicent hollers, grinning because she more than anyone wants Sigwald and me to fall in love and follow her into marriage. “I’m going to throw my bouquet!”
I glance at Sigwald and find his cheeks have gone pink. “You should…” he begins.
I stand, relieved to be away—but not eager to participate in this particular tradition.
“He loves you,” Millicent whispers, clasping my hands with excitement. “I know it. You’re next.”
“That sounds like a threat.”
She laughs, hugging me tightly, and then commands the lot of us to stand back.
I find a place next to Emma and several other girls from the village. Most I’m friendly with, but a few want nothing to do with me.
When I end up elbow to elbow with Clotilde, she scowls and moves away.
It stings—it always does. But I’m used to it. Forcing a smile, I ignore the girl and shift toward the back, positioning myself so there’s little chance I’ll catch the flowers.
“Are you ready?” Millicent asks.
The married couples and men surround us, teasing and laughing and cheering for their favorite girl.
No one cheers for me. At least, no one does until Sigwald calls out, “Catch it, Greta!”
And I’m so dumbfounded, I don’t move out of the way when Emma purposely shifts to the side, letting the bouquet pelt me right in the chest. On instinct, I grasp the flowers.
The crowd cheers and many tease Sigwald in a lighthearted manner. His eyes meet mine, and I feel like I’ve swallowed lead. I force a smile, desperately hoping no one can see how fake it is.
“Congratulations, Greta,” Emma says, smirking. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she and Millicent arranged this.
I shake my head, letting out a frustrated laugh. “You’re an imp.”
“And you’re next.” She wags her brows.
People wander back to the tables, off to nibble on more of the free fare. I find my seat, desperately relieved when Sigwald is distracted by his brothers.
“How are you, dear Greta?” Millicent and Emma’s mother asks a while later, setting her hand on my shoulder.
I look up at Nanette, putting on a smile. “I love how happy Millicent is.”
“I do too.” She sits, sighing. Her hair is blond, like her daughters’, and fine, wispy curls escape from her bun, framing her temples. “But I’m going to miss her around the cottage. I suspect you’ll miss her too.”
My eyes begin to sting, but I quickly blink away the tears.
“Life is full of joy and pain, isn’t it? Sometimes together.” She looks at me, her eyes a little watery as well. “Your mother would have loved your flowers.”
A rogue tear escapes, attempting to trickle down my cheek. I quickly wipe it away. “It’s hardest on days like these.”
“Joy with pain,” Nanette agrees. She was Mother’s most cherished friend—they were as close as Millicent and I. She misses her too.
Nanette stays a few moments longer and then stands, but before she goes, she clasps my hand and squeezes it hard. “Do not be a stranger now that Millicent has a home of her own.”
I nod, pressing my lips together to trap in far too many emotions, and she moves to join the elder Rembrights at their table.
The sound of several horses and a carriage fills the cobblestone streets, and we turn, curious to see who’s passing through. Levinfeld is a busy village, full of travelers. It’s not unusual to spot someone of importance as they make their way to the castle.
“It’s the king,” someone whispers from nearby.
Morbidly curious, I glance across the square, searching for Emma. She stands with a group of girls her age, and they stare down the street with stars in their eyes.
Unable to resist, I turn to watch as well.
The horses are all chestnut, every one of them, and adorned in scarlet and gold. They glisten in the afternoon sun, almost too beautiful to be real. The carriage slows as it passes our celebration, and a man pushes back the drapes and calls for his driver to stop.
The crowd is atwitter with excitement. The king himself, young and handsome, leans out the window, taking in the scene with startlingly dark eyes. “What is the occasion?” he calls out, looking mildly disinterested. But he must be a bit curious, or why would he stop?
We stare at him, most too befuddled to answer. I’ve seen him on several occasions at the top of his castle, standing on a balcony—but never this close. With his ash brown hair and strong, handsome build, he’s everything Emma said and more.
“My daughter’s wedding,” Millicent’s father ends up answering, bowing his head. He sounds terrified, and for good reason.
The king’s eyes fall on the couple, and he says with little feeling, “Many congratulations.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” they murmur, Rembright bowing and Millicent dipping into a hasty curtsy.
His gaze lingers on them for a moment longer, and then it drifts over the rest of us. I freeze when he spots me. I desperately wish I weren’t sitting alone, vulnerable without the cover of company. My heart hastens its pace, terrified he’s going to acknowledge me, talk to me, do something that brings attention to the fact that I don’t quite fit in.
Our eyes lock. I feel like a rabbit, trapped by a wolf. I hold my breath, not even daring to move.
After several long moments, he pulls his gaze away and raises his hand, informing his driver he’s had his fill of the peasant types and would like to continue on his way.
I sit back, reeling, watching as the carriage rolls down the street.
When I finally pull my eyes from the royal entourage, I find Sigwald looking my way and frowning. And he’s not the only one who noticed the strange exchange. A quick glance confirms that half the people in attendance are staring at me, questions etched across their faces.
Millicent meets my gaze, and she widens her eyes. I subtly shake my head, silently telling her I have no idea what just happened.
A few minutes pass, and then people move on. I was a novelty for a moment, but they grow bored quickly. Thank goodness.
Finally, when the food is gone, the children have wandered off to play, and the elders settle into clusters to reminisce, I say my goodbyes to the bride and her new husband. Then I slip away, my mood melancholy and pensive, and head for the forest. Rune didn’t say he’d meet me today, but I have no doubt he’ll find me.
Whenever I need him, he always does.
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