The air smells like the rose water Grandmother kept in a cut crystal bottle on her dressing table when I was young. And yet, it’s not quite the same. This fragrance is sharper, fresher, more…pink.
It isn’t the deep crimson scent of bouquets brought by suitors, nor is it the sunny yellow smell of the lollipop-shaped rose tree topiaries beyond the library’s glass doors.
This is sweeter, with hints of apples and clover. It’s a gentle floral, pleasing without being cloying.
But there is something about it that concerns my sleep-hazed mind. I dance on the edge of consciousness, in those precious moments before dreams give way to reality.
Cold air caresses my bare arms and neck, making my skin prickle with goosebumps. Even once I’m awake, with sleep and dreams fading, it takes me several moments to remember where I am.
Wild roses, scented like cool summer mornings before the sun chases away the dew.
Rose Briar Woods.
My eyes fly open with a start. A velvet curtain pillows my cheek, and my shoulder presses into the sidewall of Gustin’s carriage—a carriage that should be moving.
My brother’s name stirs up both anger and anguish, and I sit up as the strong emotions clear my head. Why have we stopped?
I push aside the scarlet curtain and peer into the growing darkness beyond the window, hoping to find we’ve arrived at Lord Ambrose’s estate. Perhaps his staff took pity on me when they found me asleep and left me at peace for a few minutes.
But my chest tightens when I see nothing but dense, dusk-cloaked trees. The undergrowth is thick with raspberry bushes. The berries are small and not yet ripe. They fight for territory under and around the evergreens, their adversaries the wild roses that grow only in this spring wood.
The leggy, heavily thorned rosebushes bloom in froths of blush. Like holiday garlands, their long canes venture up the dusty fir trees, wrapping around the trunks and heavy boughs like true vines.
Roses don’t behave like that outside the wood. Even to grace an arbor, they must be trained and tied, pruned and coaxed.
But things don’t follow the natural rules here, because here is there. A Faerie wood—beautiful, wild.
An arched bridge marks the border between our land and the Fae’s. It’s a grand example of ancient architecture, built of gleaming white stone, spanning a river that protects the West Faerie border like a moat of old—keeping humans out, keeping the creatures of Faerie in.
Not that our people don’t mingle. We do. The high Fae come into Kellington, the westernmost city in the kingdom of Valsta, to visit our shops and sell their strange, magical wares in our market. Some brave humans even venture into their nearby village of Corrinmead.
But only the very bold, or the very foolish, enter into a contract or agreement with their kind. And no one, foolish nor bold, ventures past the boundary after nightfall.
Yet, here I am, on the wrong side of the bridge well after the sun-kissed afternoon hours, serenaded by the persistent warning of a raven. The bird’s repetitive, throaty cries do nothing to allay my growing fears.
“Mr. Anthony?” I call tentatively from the false safety of the carriage, my voice sharp.
The coachman doesn’t answer.
My pulse quickens, and my palms grow clammy.
Knowing I have no choice but to venture outside, my hand settles on the handle. It takes several moments to work up the courage to shove the door open, and I stop short when the smell of the rosy forest greets me at full force.
The gentle fragrance twines around my senses, soothing like a lullaby, promising I am safe and welcome.
“Mr. Anthony?” I call again at a whisper, desperately hoping the coachman only excused himself to tend to personal needs.
Fallen evergreen needles rustle under my feet, too loud in this familiar but foreign world. My gown brushes the ground, a smidgen too long for the slippers I chose this morning. A week ago, my maid would have chided me for sullying the skirt, but I have no one to chastise me for dirty lace now—nor do I have anyone to wash it.
The raven continues to crow, agitated on her perch high in a weeping spruce, and the noise further frays my nerves. But it’s not until I round the carriage that genuine fear lodges itself in my throat.
Not only is my coachman missing, but the pair of horses as well. The carriage sits in the middle of this empty dirt road, alone and abandoned. I stare at the surreal scene before me, unable to make sense of it. Each beat of my heart thrums louder in my head, until I fear it must be audible for miles.
After several panicked moments, a strange sound catches my attention—and it comes from not far away. Perhaps I would have heard the odd noise sooner if it weren’t for the raven’s incessant cries…or maybe my brain was simply too addled to process it.
Either way, I now focus on the shuffling and snorting. It sounds like a dozen pigs rooting through the undergrowth. Twigs snap, and bushes rustle. Something tiny squeals as if suddenly snatched from the safety of the ground by a predator.
My instinct to flee is strong, but where would I go? I could run in the opposite direction, into the forest on the other side of the road, but what new danger awaits me there? I stand frozen like a spooked rabbit as my eyes dart around me, first looking for protection and then a weapon.
I’m just leaning down to pick up the largest rock I can hold when I’m snatched around the waist and pulled into the brush behind me.
Before my mind can wrap around my predicament, my abductor briefly presses a hand over my mouth. “Don’t scream.”
I’d defy him if I were capable, but the shock has stolen the air from my lungs. I’m tugged to the ground, made to crouch precariously between the roses and raspberries, barely able to avoid either’s wicked thorns. The position is awkward, especially since it puts me so close to the man who snatched me from the road.
Dressed in black, he wears a mask over his eyes like a thief. His wide-brimmed hat is black as well, and it further shields his features in the fading light.
He yanks at my layers of skirts, which have caught above us in the brambles, tugging them out of sight. The sound of ripping fabric makes me cringe, but my dress matters little right now.
I suck in a strangled gasp when the bushes on the other side of the road shift as the owners of the strange noises reveal themselves.
I nearly say the word aloud, horrified to discover they’re real.
Pinkish-gray like pigs, with patches of coarse hair and snouted noses, they wear rags over their thick, stout bodies. Their eyes are beady black and too small for their deeply wrinkled faces.
With snorts and cackles, they surround the deserted carriage.
A particularly ugly one, the tallest of the bunch and about as tall as a five-year-old child, climbs the carriage rack and hoists the largest of my trunks over his head. The others crowd around, squealing with glee.
I cry out when the vile creature throws the trunk to the ground, but the man’s gloved hand presses over my mouth once more, muffling the sound.
“Shhh,” he murmurs into my ear before dropping his hand. “You don’t want them to find us.”
“Can they hear that well?” I ask, feeling faint at the thought.
“It doesn’t seem like the best time to test their abilities.”
I glance at the man, and my attention latches onto his eyes. They’re shadowed under the brim of his wide hat, impossible to make out in the growing night.
Filled with dread, I turn back to the goblins. Silken gowns, lacy petticoats, stockings, and hair adornments scatter over the road, trampled by the creatures in their haste and greed. They claw at my belongings, fighting over them, ripping the fabric and awkwardly fitting their newly won treasures onto their bodies.
One tugs a corset over his fat torso, and another plops a hat onto his head. They raid my jewelry box and drape necklaces over themselves like drunken pirates.
It’s a disturbing sight and so ridiculously absurd, so darkly amusing, I almost laugh. But the hysterical giggle catches in my throat when they move on to the last piece of luggage.
“No,” I murmur, struggling against my rescuer’s grip, determined not to let the monsters get their hands on the contents of my second trunk.
“They’ll rip you limb from limb,” the man whispers impatiently, holding me firmly in place.
It’s too late anyway. A goblin throws the trunk, and the latch breaks as soon as it hits the ground. Precious tins of paint scatter with brushes, waxes, oils, and all my other supplies.
I breathe in a heartsick gasp that draws the man’s attention.
He studies me, but my eyes are on the goblins. The wretched creatures poke and prod my most cherished possessions. They jab their grubby fingers into my prepared tins of paint and then slather it over their bodies, snorting gleefully. They snap my brushes and dump colorful, powdered pigments onto the ground.
A particularly stealthy goblin shuffles to the side of the road and tucks my palette into his new corset while the others aren’t looking.
I turn away, feeling ill, hiding my eyes against the stranger’s shoulder.
“Be thankful it’s not you they’re pulling to pieces,” the man points out in a bare whisper.
“I almost wish it were.”
What am I without my supplies? How will I save Gustin now?
Amused, he says, “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
Though reluctant, I crane my head back to look at the man. Before I can answer, a whiff of smoke catches my attention. I turn toward the road just in time to see the goblins light the carriage on fire. The fabric catches first, but soon, the entire thing is engulfed in flames.
The last remnant of my family’s fortune is now ablaze. The monsters dance around their bonfire, many tripping over the petticoats they’ve bunched up to their chests. One suckles toxic pigment straight from his fingers, and a morbid smile crosses my lips as I imagine his slow, painful death.
“Are you all right?” the man asks. The goblins are too preoccupied with their revelry to hear us now.
Am I? I’m not sure.
With a heavy sigh, I answer, “I will be somehow. They’re just things, after all.”
Precious things. All I had left.
Absently, my hand drops to my finger to twist my grandmother’s ring—and then my eyes fly down when I realize what I’ve done.
I packed it with the other things, thought it was best to hide it from Lord Ambrose considering the circumstances. And now it’s gone—lost with everything else.
“Yes, I figured that.” Wry humor laces the masked man’s tone once more. “But I was asking if you’re growing weary.”
Feeling a bit awkward, I primly answer, “It’s not my first time crouched amongst bushes.”
Though the last was easily ten years ago, and I was playing a game of hide and seek in Grandmother’s garden with Gustin—long before I became a nuisance and a burden to him.
“So, you’ve hidden from goblins before?” he asks skeptically. His voice is dark and rich, fitting his mysterious persona.
“Well…no. This is a first for me.” I study him, intrigued despite myself.
Who is this man?
“You?” I ask.
“It’s certainly not my first experience.” He pauses, smiling beneath the shadow of his hat. “But the company is new.”
Night falls around us as we hide, and despite my bluster, my muscles grow fatigued. It feels like we wait hours for the flames to die and the coals to dim to a smoldering red. Sensing my exhaustion, the man holds me tighter, supporting my weight with his arm so I don’t topple into the brambles.
Despite his nearness, subtle sounds spook me, making me think we’ve attracted the attention of other, smaller creatures. I swear I see them from the corner of my eye. They’re perched far too close in the bushes, but when I turn, there’s nothing looking back at me.
Finally, the goblins leave, dragging their treasures with them into the forest from which they came, and the woods fall silent. I stare at the wreckage in a strange sort of shock.
A sudden breeze blows through the trees, only now making me realize how cold it’s become in the spring wood. I shiver, and the man shifts as if trying to block the wind.
“I believe they’re gone,” I say quietly.
Together, we stand. My legs protest after crouching for so long, and my dress catches on more of the thorny twigs.
Even though my rescuer offers his hand, I still manage to trip on a raised, uneven root. I stumble forward, losing my balance.
On instinct, the man catches me. I fall against his chest, and his arms wrap around me in an embrace that could be mistaken for amorous. Suddenly, I’m very conscious of this stranger I’m pressed against.
Things I didn’t notice before shift into clear focus now. The man’s leather jacket does little to hide his strong, toned build. His arms are like bands of iron, and they held me securely all that time. The thought makes my chest grow warm.
My hand rests on his abdomen, and when he shifts, I feel the toned definition of his muscles under my palm. There’s something undeniably appealing about the mystery of him. For a fleeting moment, I wonder what it would be like to paint him.
The thought barely crosses my mind before it races ahead to the romantic scenarios I’ve read in the copper-apiece adventure novels I began to purchase when Grandmother was no longer around to tell me they are cheap and tawdry. Because of them, I know a hero is supposed to kiss the damsel in distress once the peril has passed.
Will this man expect a kiss in exchange for the valiant services rendered? Would I let him kiss me if he tried?
But that’s a ridiculous question—I certainly would.
The rogue thought makes my face heat. I don’t even know this man. Yes, he saved me from the goblins, but that doesn’t mean his intentions are pure.
Besides, with the way he’s dressed, he must be a bandit. Gustin would have my head if he found out I was entertaining these sorts of thoughts about a common thief.
Not that Gustin is a pillar of virtue himself. If he was, he wouldn’t be languishing in a debtor’s prison in West Faerie after gambling away our family’s estate in a game of chance with Lord Ambrose. Only a fool falls into a Fae’s trap.
Only a fool would barter with that same Faerie for her brother’s life.
Perhaps it runs in the family. Sister like brother, I suppose.
“Why are you in the forest?” the man asks, pulling me from my wayward thoughts. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous to pass the boundary at this time of day?”
“I have business with Lord Ambrose. I must have dozed off in the carriage, and I didn’t realize…”
How did I fall asleep on such a short trip? And what happened to my coachman and the horses?
Like a command, the man replies, “You have no business with Lord Ambrose, or any of the Fae. Go back to your side of the bridge, where it’s safe.”
“I have nowhere to go,” I admit, wondering why I’m sharing that bit of information with this man. “And I have come to work off my brother’s debt.”
“There is nothing you can offer Lord Ambrose that he will want,” my rescuer says, almost as if he’s growing bored of the conversation. “You’re a lovely girl. Go home—knock on the door of any eligible bachelor. Surely he will take pity on you and your plight, and you’ll be married in a week.”
I bristle, unsure why that statement sounded like an insult but certain it was.
“Do you, bandit, have personal insight into Lord Ambrose’s desires?” I say hotly. “I am an artist, renowned and respected. People come from cities near and far to sit for one of my portraits. The Fae are known both for their love of art and their narcissism. How dare you tell me I have nothing to offer?”
The man jerks his head toward the smoldering remnants of my belongings. “That may be, but I imagine it’s difficult to paint without supplies.”
Though my heart wrenches, I hide my anguish. “That is none of your concern. I’m thankful you saved me, but I ask you to now go about your own business. I can tend to mine.”
The man shifts, and though it seems as if it would be impossible for us to come any closer, I now feel as though every inch of me presses against every inch of him. Thankful for the cover of night, I swallow.
“What’s your name?” he asks, his tone laced with amusement once more.
Having no intention of answering, I tilt my head to the side, refusing to look at him.
The man chuckles under his breath. “You’re willing to involve yourself with a Faerie as cold and callous as Lord Ambrose, but I don’t even get your name after saving your life?”
Perhaps it’s his laugh that captures my interest, or maybe it’s because I’ve never allowed a man to hold me like this. But no matter the reason, I suddenly feel like a moth drawn to a dangerous flame.
“Alice,” I finally answer, hoping he won’t hear the hitch in my voice.
“Alice?” He sounds skeptical—as if perhaps he thinks I’m lying. And maybe that would have been wiser.
“That’s right,” I answer, this time a touch hesitant.
“Very well. I will give you a choice, Alice,” he says solemnly after another few long seconds, acting as if we’re about to enter into a contract. “I will accompany you back to the boundary, or I will escort you to Lord Ambrose’s estate. Take my advice and choose the first. Even wandering the streets without a copper to your name is preferable to making a deal with Lord Ambrose.”
“What business do you have on this side of the fence?” I ask instead of answering. “Why don’t you take your own advice and go home? Surely stealing from the Fae is far more dangerous than stealing from humans.”
I can just make out his smile in the night. Amused, he asks, “You have pegged me for a thief?”
“What else could you be in that mask?” I demand.
He leans in. The side of his jaw brushes against my cheek as his words caress my ear. “The only things I’ve ever stolen are hearts, Alice. Go home before I’m tempted to claim yours.”
I jerk back, startled by the bold words, and he laughs again.
“Have you made your decision, fair painter?” he asks. “Where will I take you?”
I stare at the man, my breath shallow and my cheeks warm. I want to pull the mask from his face and look at him in the dusky starlight, but I’m not that brave.
“To Lord Ambrose’s estate,” I say firmly. “Right now, there is nothing for me in the human world.”
He nods, looking resigned to my decision. “Very well.”
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