Here’s your bonus! Please keep in mind this is not the final—it hasn’t been meticulously edited, and the content might change slightly before it’s published in the final book. Crest of the Thanes is scheduled to release late summer!
There are a great many dangerous creatures in the world—dragons, wraiths, and human-eating amphibians just to name a few, but I’ve never run into anything, and I do mean anything, that’s more likely to do me in than a pair of brown-haired boys with their father’s charm and a heaping dash of my sass.
“Not in the house,” I say to Lukas, beyond frustrated. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
My nine-year-old son holds up the Braxil lizard, clutching the creature around its middle, letting its golden legs dangle. The reptile stares back at me, judging my parenting skills.
“He’ll be lonely,” Lukas says, to which his twin brother gives me a solemn nod. The boys aren’t identical, yet the family resemblance is strong. Davyn is just a touch taller than Lukas, but their eyes are almost an identical color of blue—striking like my mother’s, and they’re both tall and lean.
So far, Davyn hasn’t joined the conversation about the lizard, but he’s here to offer Lukas emotional support.
“How can he be lonely in that menagerie?” I demand, referring to the greenhouse the boys have converted into their “Beast Emporium of Wonderment.” That’s what the sign on the door says at least.
Somehow in the last several years, we’ve ended up with a motley crew of lizards, snakes, rodents, songbirds, several feathered raptors, three barn cats, one blind donkey, and their prize: an island pig they’ve named Normanda. They’ve separated the predators from the prey, naturally. We’d have fewer animals otherwise.
Which would be fine by me.
“Just tonight?” Lukas begs, giving me the wide-eyed look that usually makes me cave.
“Don’t argue with your mother,” my husband says from behind me, stepping into the room. Avery is dressed in a long, crisp jacket, polished black boots, and a scarlet waistcoat. Since we’re back at our estate, he’s slipped into his official role as Captain Greybrow, son of the earl of Mardin, full partner in Thane & Greybrow Scouting.
Lukas turns to his father. “He doesn’t like the dark.”
“He’s a lizard.” When I realize the poor, delusional child is serious, I set my hands on my hips, refusing to give in again. They lost the last creature they brought into the house, and I found it under my pillow. It was a snake.
“Flink and Ruby sleep inside,” Davyn points out, concluding his brother needs backup. “Why can’t Granf?”
“Flink and Ruby are dragons,” Avery answers, only half invested in the conversation. He slips on his reading glasses and frowns at the parchment note in his hand. “And they can sleep in the greenhouse too for all I care.”
Sensing we’re talking about him, Flink opens one eye. The copper lesser dragon is perched on a rug in front of the crackling fireplace. He studies us with a hint of disdain before he snuffles loudly and falls back asleep. He’s about ten years old, still young for a dragon, but as lazy as ever.
Disrupted by Flink’s shifting, Ruby stretches and rolls toward the fire. She yawns, letting out a wispy, sparkling pink flame that matches her rose quartz scales.
Neither looks like they’re going anywhere.
Outside the window, a flurry of snow dances in the icy breeze. It’s the end of autumn, far too cold to be in Reshire—the capital city of the province Reginae. But you don’t dare refuse Lord Sebastian Thane when he summons you, especially when he’s the responsible part of your business equation.
Normally, we’re on our way to our private isle this time of year, soaking up the sunshine and ignoring the rest of the world. I have no idea what’s so important Sebastian felt the need to send for Avery and me immediately.
We arrived late last night by sleigh, in the middle of a blizzard, and yet somehow, the boys have found a cold-blooded creature to add to their collection. It’s one of their gifts—an awful gift, but a gift all the same. Beasts are drawn to the twins, and they to them.
The boys continue to cajole and whine, but my attention is on my husband. Captain Greybrow’s tawny eyes are narrowed with concern, lacking the laughter they usually carry.
“What is it?” I ask.
“A message from Grandmother.” His tone is off—he sounds slightly befuddled.
I wave the boys away, realizing too late they’ll probably take my dismissal as permission to set that awful thing loose in the house.
“Is she all right?”
“Hmmm?” Avery looks up, meeting my eyes. “Oh, yes. She’s fine. It’s about Heath.”
“What’s the matter with him?”
“Well.” Avery folds the note and places it in his jacket pocket. “Apparently, he’s dead.”
I blink at him, shocked. The Duke of Reginae wasn’t a year over forty. “What happened?”
“Riding accident.” Avery shakes his head, troubled over the loss of his cousin. “You know what this means?”
There’s a crash from somewhere down the hall, followed by Lukas yelling, “Catch him!”
I cringe and close my eyes, turning my head toward the ceiling. Why do I have the feeling I’m going to find a lizard in my bed before morning?
With a sigh, I open my eyes and turn back to Avery. “Sorry. What does this mean?”
“Sebastian’s now the Duke of Reginae.”
I open my mouth to argue, only to close it again a few moments later. Heath lost his first wife young and only recently remarried. Though word had it the couple was trying for a baby, it hadn’t come to pass. And now it’s too late. Since there are no heirs in his line, the title reverts to Sebastian’s grandfather, who passed away two years ago last spring. That only leaves Sebastian, and after him, Avery.
“Why hasn’t someone mentioned it before now!” I demand, snatching the note from Avery’s hand and quickly skimming it.
It seems the accident occurred at the end of summer. Though Heath clung to life, he finally passed three nights ago, right before we arrived in Reshire.
“Heath had plenty of years left to have a son,” Avery says, crossing his arms. “We never expected Sebastian to take his place.”
“So that explains Sebastian’s curt summons.” I let the note drop to my side. “What does this mean for the business?”
Avery shakes his head. “We’ll find out soon enough.”
Reginald clears his throat from the door, alerting us to his presence. “Lord Thane is here to see you, sir.”
I share a look with Avery before he answers the steward. “Thank you. Bring him up.”
Sebastian walks right past the man. “I’m already here.”
Reginald, a stickler for decorum, looks abashed. No matter, he bows to Avery and closes the door behind him.
Sebastian turns to us, his expression tight. “I have a situation on my hands.”
“Situation?” I ask. “Is that what you call becoming the ruling duke of Reginae?”
“It’s more than that.” My oldest friend meets my gaze. His eyes are troubled—a rare thing for calm, unflappable Sebastian.
We were born only a day apart in a nearby village. Though we didn’t always get along, we grew up together and eventually started the business. I loved him once, and there was a time he loved me as well—though we never seemed to harbor the emotion in the same season. But that was a very long time ago, and not a day goes by I’m not thankful I wake up as Lady Greybrow and not Lady Thane. Now more than ever.
As if it pains him, Sebastian finally says, “I’ve done something foolish.”
“Oh really?” I ask, my interest piqued. I settle onto the arm of a settee, smirking. “Well then, by all means, please share.”
Ignoring me, he turns to Avery. This must be bad if he’d rather tell his cousin. “I sold my ring years ago.”
Avery’s eyebrows shoot up, and a swift grin stretches across his face. “You didn’t.”
Thoroughly delighted, Avery tips back his head and lets out a hearty laugh.
Sebastian bristles, but he doesn’t say anything else.
“I don’t understand,” I say. When Sebastian doesn’t answer, I turn to Avery. “What ring?”
Avery sits on a chair in the corner, wickedly amused. “Yes, Sebastian, what ring?”
Looking very much like he’s suppressing the juvenile urge to roll his eyes, Sebastian turns to me. “A signet ring is crafted when a male of the nobility is born. It carries the family crest and the boy’s name—”
“Our boys didn’t receive rings,” I argue, looking at Avery.
“Grandmother has them.”
Of course she does.
Sebastian continues, pretending I didn’t interrupt. “The ring is completely worthless unless you’re of the ruling class—which I wasn’t. But we all have one, just in case we swiftly rise in ranks.”
“Like you did,” I say.
“What’s the problem?” I ask. “You sold a fancy family trinket. So what?”
“He needs it to seal the official document at the ceremony that will give him governing power over the province,” Avery answers for Sebastian.
I set my hands on my hips, thinking they’re making a bigger deal out of this than necessary. “Have another one made.”
“There’s no time.” Sebastian runs his hands through his hair, groaning under his breath. “Besides, the rings are made by the king’s jeweler, and each one produced is uniquely stamped. You can’t just make a reproduction.”
Avery stands. “Plus you don’t want someone running around with Sebastian’s real ring, signing all kinds of unsavory documents.”
Sebastian pales. He apparently hadn’t thought about that—and why would he? It’s Avery with the pirate past, not him.
I finally realize what all this is about.
“You want us to track down the ring.” I pause. “When’s the ceremony?”
“You must understand, I sent the letter right after Heath’s accident.” He turns to me. “It’s not my fault you run away to your island every winter.”
He’s just jealous he doesn’t have an island of his own.
“You’re avoiding my question,” I say, narrowing my eyes.
“A month!” I exclaim. “Sebastian! Do you even know who you sold it to?”
The future duke’s eyes flash with irritation. “I haven’t the slightest idea.”
Now fully awake, the dragons watch as Sebastian paces the room. He best be careful. If he becomes too upset, Ruby will send a flame at him, calming him with her charisma element. She doesn’t like it when humans become agitated—it makes it difficult to enjoy a nap.
“Why did you sell your ring?” Avery asks, his tone still more amused than it probably should be.
Sebastian green gaze darts to mine, and then he turns his attention to the fire and waves his hand. “It was years ago.”
He’s obviously reluctant to discuss it—which makes me want to know all that much more. “When?”
Sebastian doesn’t turn right away, but when he does, I see his eyes flicker with indecision. He doesn’t want me to know.
“Spit it out,” I demand.
“Right after you lost our money, while I was following you about Kalae making sure you didn’t get yourself into too much trouble.”
I let that information process, and then I cross my arms. “I thought you were working for your grandfather during that time.”
“He wanted me to return to Reshire.”
And now I feel the tiniest bit guilty.
I share a look with Avery, and the captain suppresses a smile. I hate that he can read my mind.
Turning back to Sebastian, Avery says, “We’ll find your ring on one condition.”
Relief washes over Sebastian’s face, and he nods. “Anything.” Then, thinking better of it, he amends, “Almost anything.”
“You and Adeline will watch the boys for us while we’re gone.”
I suck in a breath, wondering if Sebastian will actually accept the offer. Lukas and Davyn are well-behaved. Mostly. But they are exuberant, and Sebastian and Adeline’s daughter, Calla Marie, prefers tea parties to snake wrangling.
Sebastian gives us a humorless laugh, knowing full well how the cousins get along. “Of course.”
“Congratulations, Duke Thane.” Avery grins as he leans a hip next to his chair. “You’ve hired yourself the finest scouts in the business.”
Rolling his eyes, Sebastian starts for the door. “Where are the boys?”
“Looking for the lizard they lost in the house,” I call to him.
He groans as he turns the corner.
When he’s gone, I turn to Avery. “How are we going to find a solitary ring in all of Kalae? It could be anywhere.”
Avery drums his fingers on the arm of the chair. “Let’s hope we’re as good as we say we are.”
I study my reflection in the standing mirror, my fingers drifting over the gown’s neckline.
I’ll have to trim it with lace. It’s too simple, too basic—unfitting for a duchess.
How did I, a seamstress from Grenalda of all places, become the future duchess of one of the most prosperous provinces in Kalea?
The chamber door opens, distracting me from scrutinizing the fifteenth gown I’ve tried on. Thankfully, this is the last. The rest are tossed atop the bed, waiting to be altered.
Sebastian meets my eyes in the mirror as he strides into the room. Even after all these years, that man still takes my breath away.
My husband wears a pensive expression today, as he has since news reached us of Heath’s death, but he gives me a small smile when he sees me.
“Forgive me,” he says without bothering with a greeting.
I turn, my gown’s hem sweeping the floor. “Forgive you for what?”
He crosses the room, closing the distance between us. His hands settle on my bare arms, sending a delightful shiver down my spine. He studies me, looking guilty.
I narrow my eyes. This isn’t a flippant “forgive me.” He truly means it.
“What is it you’ve done?”
“It’s more what I’ve brought home.”
Before I can ask him to elaborate, Calla Marie shrieks from somewhere in the manor, her shrill eight-year-old voice echoing off halls and filling the stone rooms.
“What in the provinces,” I begin, pulling away from Sebastian to check on our daughter.
But Sebastian tugs me back, shaking his head. “She’s fine.”
“She doesn’t sound fine!”
“The boys are with her.”
“The boys?” I ask, blinking at him. “What boys?”
“Davyn and Lukas.”
Not understanding, I shake my head. “Lucia and Avery’s Davyn and Lukas? They should be halfway to their island by now.”
“Well, they’re not.”
Laughing, I again try to pull away from him. “You should have told me Lucia was here. How long have they been down there? I’ll call for tea—”
“Lucia and Avery aren’t here. They’re running an errand for me.”
I purse my lips as I attempt to puzzle out what my husband is trying to tell me. “An…errand? All right, Sebastian, what’s going on? What have you done?”
A brief smile—an irritatedsmile—flashes across his face. “Something unfortunate.”
“You might as well tell me. You know I’m going to find out sooner or later.”
His hands find my shoulders again, and he slides his palms up and down my arms, reluctant to begin. Finally, he says, “Several years ago, before we met, I sold my birth ring.”
I stare at him for two seconds…three…and then four.
“You what?” My voice is slightly too high-pitched, but there’s little I can do about that now.
“I’ve asked Lucia and Avery to find it for me.”
“When you say findit, you mean you don’t know who you sold it to?” I pull away from him, my throat tightening. He musthave that ring.
“I don’t, but I have faith that the Greybrows will track it down before the ceremony.”
This cannot be happening.
Feeling faint, I fan my face with my hand. “Sebastian…”
I whip back, my temper flaring. “Sebastian!”
He clenches his jaw and lowers his eyes to the floor. No matter how angry I get with him, I know it won’t compare to how angry he is with himself.
“Why would you do that?” I demand, my tone softening.
“I was never meant to rule the province.” He shakes his head, looking as if the weight of the world has suddenly been deposited on his shoulders. “I never dreamed it would come to pass. Heath had nothing but time to have an heir.”
“What are we going to do?” I whisper.
“We’re going to pretend all is well until Lucia and Avery return.” He cringes when there’s a crash followed by another scream. “And we’re going to keep the children from maiming each other or the estate.”
I close my eyes, resisting the urge to rub my temples. A headache is already blooming behind my left eye. “The boys didn’t bring any of their pets, did they?”
Well, that’s a relief.
“And the dragons went with Lucia?” I ask, desperately hoping they are.
It’s not that I don’t adore Flink and Ruby—I do. But the jeweled reptiles are destructive beasts, and I’d rather not have them in my home.
“No, I believe Lucia left them in their steward’s care.”
I stare at Sebastian, hating myself. “But they loathe him.”
Sebastian begins to shake his head. “No. Adeline…”
“I don’t like it any more than you, but it’s your fault Lucia and Avery are traipsing across Kalae. The least we can do is watch the dragons.”
Sebastian winces at the reminder.
“I’ll send Oliver to fetch them,” I say with a sigh, speaking of our hound master. The dragons like him well enough—likely because he feeds them whenever they come to visit.
“You are a patient woman,” Sebastian says, stepping forward, wrapping his arms around my waist and pulling me close.
“Don’t remind me.”
He leans down, brushing my hair behind my shoulder, and presses a kiss to the crook of my neck. I close my eyes, melting into him.
He’s everything I’ve ever wanted. Respectable, upstanding. And there’s something about his controlled, reserved manner I adore.
I keep waiting to lose the fluttery feeling I get when he’s around, but it’s still there, has been for years.
“I have to meet with the magistrate,” he says with a sigh, pulling away.
“Don’t go yet.” I attempt to pull him back. “I’ve barely seen you these last few days.”
“It will calm down eventually,” he promises, kissing me briefly before he heads toward the door. “You might check on the children. I’ve left them with Bridget, but…”
Though he trails off, I know what he means. Calla Marie’s nursemaid is likely no match for the Greybrow twins. In fact, the only two people alive who are a match for the boys are Avery and Lucia.
After Sebastian leaves, I walk to Calla Marie’s playroom, the place where I expect to find Bridget and the three children.
“Bridget,” I say after I open the door, freezing in place. “Why are you standing on the table?”
Calla Marie is next to the plump, matrony woman. Bridget’s hands are clenched to her chest, and she scans the floor with an expression of pure horror.
The twins are on the floor, crawling on their knees, moving toys, games, and pillows…searching for something.
“They’ve brought a snake, Mama,” Calla says before Bridget can answer.
My daughter has taken after her father, with the darkest, greenest eyes imaginable and brunette hair the color of teak. Despite her young age, her curls have already grown to the middle of her back in smooth, thick ringlets. Call me biased, but I think she’s just about the most beautiful child alive…but perhaps not right at this very moment, since her face is bright red, and her eyes are scrunched into slits. “And they’ve lost it!”
“He’s not a snake,” scoffs Lukas, the more gregarious of the two boys. He tosses aside a pillow, flinging it into the middle of the room. “He’s a Braxil lizard, of the family Braximilious.”
Davyn pauses in his search and looks over, his brown hair flopping over his forehead. “It’s speculated Braximilious are related to dragons, albeit distantly.”
“Child,” I say, crossing my arms. “Did you just say ‘albeit?’”
“I know what it means.” Laughing, I shake my head as I look around. I’m no more fond of lizards than my daughter.
“There you are, Granf!” Lukas announces after another several minutes of searching, pulling the small, scaly beast from under a side table. It looks thoroughly unimpressed with the commotion.
“Do you have a cage or a jar or somethingyou can put it in?” I ask.
“You can’t put a lizard in a jar.” Davyn frowns. “It will suffocate.”
My eye twitches.
“We have a terrarium with breathing holes,” Lukas offers. “But it’s at home.”
“How did you transport him here?” I ask, though I probably don’t want to know.
Lukas pats his long jacket. “In my pocket.”
“He can stay, can’t he, Aunt Adeline?” Davyn asks, his face full of hope and the slightest bit of fear. Though technically I’m not their aunt, they’ve adopted the title, just as Calla Marie has with Lucia and Avery.
“If you find something to put it in—I don’t want it wandering about the manor. Do you understand?”
They both nod, the picture of youthful exuberance.
“And you must apologize to Miss Bridget and Calla Marie for scaring them,” I add.
“We’re sorry,” says Davyn solemnly to the nursemaid and Calla. “It won’t happen again.”
So he claims, but I won’t be surprised when it does.
Bridget huffs out a breath and nods. However, she remains on the table, and I have a feeling she won’t come down until the reptile is out of the room.
“Come with me now.” I nod toward the door. “I’m going to have Oliver pick up Flink and Ruby from your home. Perhaps you can go with him, and he can help you locate your terrarium.”
Lukas’s face lights. “And we’ll bring back Normanda!”
I hold up a hand. “No. Normanda—whoever and whatevershe might be—must stay at your home.”
“She’s a Kermon hog,” Lukas explains. He’s so excited, he’s waving his hands andthe lizard in the air. “From the southern islands. They’re the best trackers in the entire world. Better than hounds even.”
Davyn rescues the lizard from his brother, tucking the reptile close to his body. “We snuck her onto the Serpent last winter, and she’s gotten huge.”
“Mother wasn’t pleased at first.” Lukas grins. “Ruby doesn’t like her, and she and Flink fight over food. Oh! On the ship, she also ate Casper’s pet rat—”
“Bones, fur, tail and all,” Davyn adds, deadly serious.
Lukas nods and continues, “But we convinced him it was an honest mistake, and he promised there’d be no hard feelings.”
After a long moment of processing all that, I shake my head. “No hogs. Now…come along.”
They fall into step with me outside the playroom.
“Aunt Adeline?” Lukas asks.
I’m almost scared to respond. “Yes?”
“How long are Father and Mother going to be gone?”
“Oh,” I glance at the boys, my expression softening. “I’m afraid I can’t say. They’ve gone on a scouting mission. A few weeks at the most, I hope.”
Any longer than that and we’re in real trouble.
“Are they looking for more orchids?” Davyn asks.
Lukas leaps ahead and holds out an imaginary sword, moving about as if he’s in the middle of a fight. “Or dueling sirens?”
“They didn’t duel the sirens,” Davyn corrects. “Mother shot them with enchanted arrows.”
Lukas stops abruptly and turns to me. “Where were you, Aunt Adeline? Weren’t you with them?”
“Oh…no. I was here, pretending to be engaged to your Uncle Sebastian.”
“But you’re married to Uncle Sebastian. How could you be pretending?”
“It was complicated.”
The young boy gives me a knowing look. “Father said that’s what adults say when they don’t want to explain something.”
Captain Greybrow is a smart man.
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