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Table of Contents
About the Author
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For my own adopted sisters—
MJ Selle, Vicky Yelton, and Sandy Weider,
Bestest best friends, critique partners,
quality control experts,
And all around wonder women.
Consider yourselves Embraced.
With the completion of another longer-than-usual book, I am once again relieved and grateful that my publisher, St. Martin’s Press, never hesitates to allow me all the room I need in order to tell a story. My sincere thanks to everyone at St. Martin’s, including Jennifer Enderlin, Brant, Alexandra, Marissa, Brittani, Jordan, the art department, the lovely ladies at Heroes and Heartbreakers, and everyone else working behind the scenes to make my books shine. A special thank-you to my new editor, Monique Patterson, for loving this series and for so graciously taking me on.
I am always grateful to my dear friend and literary agent, Michelle Grajkowski of Three Seas, for continuing to watch over me. My critique partners/best friends are listed in the dedication, for they are always there for me with encouragement, love, and even tough love, whenever I need a swift kick in the pants. My husband and children are a never-ending supply of love and support. Special thanks go to my husband/best friend/tax man/road manager, who keeps me laughing and is always on the lookout for Brody in whichever form he may have adopted.
And finally, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my readers and booksellers/librarians for Embracing the new series. To me, you are also Embraced, because lending your support to an author is your awesome power. Thanks to you, the magical world of Aerthlan can continue to flourish.
In another time on another world called Aerthlan, there are five kingdoms. Four of the kingdoms extend across a vast continent. For centuries, these countries have been ravaged by war.
The fifth kingdom consists of two islands in the Great Western Ocean. These are the Isles of Moon and Mist. The island people worship the twin moons in the night sky. Several villages exist on the Isle of Moon, but there is only one inhabitant on the small Isle of Mist—the Seer.
Twice a year, the two moons eclipse or, as the people call it, embrace. Any child born when the moons embrace will be gifted with a magical power. These children are called the Embraced, and traditionally, the kings on the mainland have sought to kill them. Some of the Embraced infants are sent secretly to the Isle of Moon, where they will be safe.
For as long as anyone can remember, the Seer repeated his dire prediction of war, destruction, and despair. But not anymore. Now he claims a wave of change is sweeping across Aerthlan, a change that will bring peace to a world that has known violence for too long. And that change is happening because of five young women from the fifth kingdom.
The women were hidden away as infants on the Isle of Moon, and there, they grew up as sisters. The oldest, Luciana, now rules over Eberon with her husband, King Leofric. Brigitta reigns over Tourin with her husband, King Ulfrid, also known as the infamous pirate Rupert.
Three sisters remain: Gwennore, Sorcha, and Maeve. They know nothing of their families. Nothing of their past.
They only know they are Embraced.
Gwennore was ready to scream.
But if she did, others might hear and foil her escape. What could she do but continue her climb up the hillside, even though she felt as if she were falling into a dark pit.
She was a storm on the verge of breaking. An overfilled wineskin about to burst. A sizzling pot threatening to boil over. Luna and Lessa, help me, she sent up in fervent prayer to the twin moon goddesses.
Maybe she should learn to curse like her sister Sorcha. But the ever-rational part of Gwennore’s brain reminded her that it was more sensible to do what she always did. Remain calm. Eviana was beside her, and it would be a shame to expose an innocent child to foul language. The little girl was only three years old. Today.
“Gwennie?” Eviana tugged on her hand. “What’s wong?”
Gwennore forced a smile. “Nothing. Everything is perfectly fine.”
Eviana scrunched up her little nose with a dubious look.
The child was far too insightful, Gwennore thought, even though it was one of the things she loved about the little girl. “Shall we rest a moment to catch our breath?” When Eviana nodded, Gwennore glanced down the hill at the encampment along the Norva River.
Tonight was the Spring Embrace, when the two moons would align in the sky, and that meant a number of Gwennore’s family and friends would be celebrating their birthdays. Her oldest adopted sister, Luciana, now the queen of Eberon, would be twenty-three, and her twins, Eric and Eviana, were turning three. Sorcha, just six months younger than Gwennore, would be twenty-one. The king of Tourin was turning twenty-nine. Ulfrid was his real name, but his wife, Brigitta, still preferred to call him Rupert.
And there were even more reasons to celebrate. Brigitta and Ulfrid had brought their little boy, Reynfrid, for everyone to see. The general of the Tourinian army, Stefan Landers, and his wife, Lady Fallyn, had traveled with them. Gwennore had been delighted to see the former nun again and meet her adorable two-year-old daughter. And more babies were on the way, since Luciana, Brigitta, and Fallyn were all expecting.
With so much to be thankful for, Luciana and Brigitta had teamed up to plan a huge party on the banks of the Norva River, which served as the border for their two countries. On the northern side of the river, in the country of Tourin, there had to be at least fifty tents set up.
On the southern bank of the Norva, the Eberoni had erected even more tents. On both sides of the river, meat was being roasted over large pits, and food was being prepared. People bustled back and forth over the bridge, a comforting reminder of the peaceful and relaxed relationship between the two countries. After all, the two queens, Luciana and Brigitta, considered themselves sisters.
Unfortunately, those same two women were competing with each other to see who could arrange marriages for the three remaining sisters. It was ridiculous. Gwennore was happy for Luciana and Brigitta, truly she was, but just because they were happily married, that didn’t mean it could happen for her.
For the last few years, Gwennore’s level of frustration had been slowly escalating. How could she tell her older sisters that they were wasting their time and money giving her beautiful gowns? The noblemen at the Eberoni and Tourinian courts wanted nothing to do with her. No matter how well she was dressed, she was still an elf.
She doubted her sisters would ever understand, for they had always considered her as one of them. The five young women had grown up at the convent, surrounded by love, so it had come as a hard blow when Gwennore had realized that people on the mainland saw her differently. All the love and acceptance to which she was accustomed was gone. To the people of Eberon and Tourin, she didn’t belong.
white-blond hair, lavender-blue eyes, and pointed ears, it was obvious she hailed from the elfin kingdom of Woodwyn. But for some unknown reason, the elves there had rejected Gwennore and sent her as a babe to the Isle of Moon. She had no memory of Woodwyn and no recollection of ever meeting another elf. What little she knew about them and their language had been learned in the convent when she’d transcribed a few of their books. She felt sure she would never fit in there.
Just as she could never feel at home in the countries of Eberon or Tourin. The only place she had felt truly comfortable was the convent on the Isle of Moon.
But that had changed after Luciana had given birth. Gwennore had found two sanctuaries at Ebton Palace—the vast library where she could hide in a curtained-off window seat and escape with a good book, and the nursery, where there was no need to hide or escape. There, she was free to be herself.
The twins had grown up with Gwennore, loving her just as her adopted sisters had at the convent. It was Eviana, though, with whom Gwennore felt a special bond. From the moment the little girl was born, Gwennore had been drawn to her. She loved her with a maternal fierceness that gave her enough joy that she remained at the palace in spite of the prejudice she encountered from other courtiers.
The main problem, as far as she could see, was that no one understood the elves. They attacked Eberon to the west and Norveshka to the north, streaming across the borders to kill and maim, then retreating without bothering to claim any plunder or land. Since they didn’t seem to want anything, other than the pleasure of killing a few people, they had a reputation of being coldhearted and vicious.
So what man in his right mind would want to marry Gwennore? The fact that she’d been raised in a convent to abhor violence didn’t seem to matter. Nor the fact that she prided herself on her ability to remain calm and rational. She was intelligent enough to converse in all four mainland languages, yet she was still regarded as some sort of violent creature that might go on a killing spree at the drop of a hat.
A month ago, Luciana had planned an elaborate ball at Ebton Palace. Noblemen had flocked around Sorcha and Maeve, as well they should, since they were both beautiful young women. Usually at these events, the only men willing to dance with Gwennore were Luciana’s friends Brody and the newly promoted Colonel Nevis Harden. But Nevis was usually away with the army, and Brody was a shifter, who could take human form for only two hours a day. Gwennore and her younger sisters had been shocked when Luciana had revealed the truth about Brody, but now Gwennore was accustomed to seeing him in his usual guise as a furry black-and-white dog.
At this particular ball, Luciana had invited two young earls, with the hope that they would fall for her sisters. The two earls had found Gwennore, half hidden behind a column, and after looking her over, they had smirked and talked to each other as if she weren’t there.
“Maybe she’s part fox,” one had muttered. “Could be why she has those pointed ears.”
The second earl nodded. “I wonder if she’s hiding a tail beneath her skirts.”
The first one snorted. “Who on Aerthlan would be willing to find out?”
“Maybe the Seer would have a go at her,” his companion replied. “I hear the old man is blind. And he’s lived alone for decades. He must be desperate.”
The first earl snickered as he looked Gwennore over once again. “No one could be that desperate.”
Gwennore’s cheeks had flared hot. “Leave me be, or I’ll tell the king and queen how rude ye are.”
They had looked worried for a few seconds before the first one lifted his chin in defiance. “The king needs the support of us nobles. He doesn’t need the likes of you.” And with that, the two had sauntered off to enjoy the ball.
“Shall I clobber them for you?” Brody whispered as he came around the column.
He had heard. Gwennore’s face burned even hotter. Of course he had heard. As a spy, Brody was accustomed to eavesdropping on private conversations.
“Come on, let me punch them,” Brody growled. “They deserve it.”
Gwennore shook her head. “Luciana has worked too hard to make this ball a success. I don’t want to ruin it with a brawl.”
Brody frowned. “She needs to know that she’s matchmaking with a pair of assholes.”
“I’ll warn Sorcha and Maeve,” Gwennore whispered. “That will be enough. I don’t want to cause any more political problems for Luciana and Leo.” They were still having enough trouble with a traitorous group of disgruntled priests led by Lord Morris.
Brody scowled at the two earls. “As soon as I shift, I’m going to bite them.” He gave Gwennore a wry look. “And no one can stop me, because I’m a naughty doggy who never passed obedience training.”
That had made her smile.
“That’s more like it.” Brody smiled back as he leaned against the column. “Did you want to dance again?”
“Ye’ve already done yer duty with me and Sorcha. Ye should dance with Maeve now.”
His smile turned into a grimace. “No. Hell, no. Not as long as she persists in calling me Julia.”
Gwennore’s laugh abruptly ended when she spotted one of the earls talking to Maeve. “Oh, dear.”
A growl sounded low in Brody’s throat.
“Are ye planning to shift now?” Gwennore whispered.
“Considering it,” Brody muttered. “I can either stay human and insist she dance with me, or become a dog and bite the bastard.”
“Or ye could become a dog and dance with two left feet,” Gwennore teased him.
Brody snorted. “I can do that while still human.” He strode toward the earl and Maeve, and Gwennore had waited to make sure her youngest sister was safe before escaping back to the nursery.
But now that she was here on the Norva River, there was no library or nursery where she could hide. Her hope of enjoying the celebration surrounded by only family and friends was gone, for Luciana and Brigitta had both invited a number of single noblemen. And just a few minutes ago, the infamous two earls had shown up.
“I can’t stand it anymore,” Gwennore whispered as tears filled her eyes. If she had to endure one more man eyeing her like she was some sort of loathsome insect, she might explode like a screeching demon from hell.
The only solution to her problem, as far as she could tell, would be to return to the Convent of the Two Moons. Mother Ginessa and the nuns would welcome her. She would be loved there. But then she would have to go for months without seeing her adopted sisters or this little girl she loved so much.
“I can’t stand, too.” Eviana lifted her chubby arms in the air, her signal that she wanted to be held.
With a smile, Gwennore picked her up. With the little girl’s arms wrapped around her neck, she closed her eyes to keep the tears from flowing. This was why she stayed.
But as much as she cherished moments like this that made her heart swell with love, she was always aware of an underlying twinge of heartache. For she had no doubt that this was as close as she would ever get to motherhood.
How could she give this up? No, she would stay at Ebton Palace to be with the twins. And when Luciana gave birth in three months, Gwennore would be there to help with the newborn. Twenty months ago, she’d gone to Lourdon to help Brigitta with her baby boy.
This was her life. Always the helpful one, moving silently like a ghost through the shadows of the royal palace and only coming to life in the nursery. Or her own imagination. For she still dreamed of a world where she could shine. It would be a beautiful world, filled with wonder and excitement. And a tall and handsome stranger would love her for who she was.
“When do we see the fwowers?”
Eviana’s question pulled her back to the real world. A world where she was using a flower-picking expedition to evade scornful glances and crude insults.
Gwennore sighed. Why waste her time wishing for the impossible? This was reality, and she should accept it and make the most of it. “We’ll see the flowers soon. There’s a whole field of
them on top of the hill.”
She shifted the little girl onto her left hip, then held up her long silk skirt with her right hand to climb the last remaining steps. “I spotted them from the carriage window when we were arriving yesterday.”
“I can give some to Mama?”
Gwennore nodded. “She’ll think it’s the best birthday present ever.”
Eviana grinned. “Ewic won’t have fwowers for her.”
“Maybe we should pick some for him, too.”
Eviana scrunched up her little nose. “He poked me.”
“Did ye tell him to stop?”
She shook her head. “I poked him back.”
Gwennore snorted. “Do ye have a present for yer brother? ’Tis his birthday, too, ye know.”
Eviana bit her lip while she considered, and the movement made her look so much like her mother that Gwennore smiled. The little girl had her mother’s black curly hair, but her green eyes had come from her father.
“I don’t think Ewic wants fwowers,” Eviana mumbled.
“Ye make a good point,” Gwennore said. “We’ll have to find something more suitable for a boy. Maybe a walking stick from the forest or a pretty rock from the riverbank.”
“A big wock!” Eviana stretched her arms wide.
“All right.” Gwennore took a deep breath as she reached the top of the hill. The winter snow had melted over a month ago, and now the afternoon sun shone on a carpet of bright-green grass dotted with flowers of yellow, orange, and purple. “Well, what do ye think?”
Eviana gasped. “It’s bootiful!” She squirmed to be let down, then rushed about plucking flowers.
Gwennore watched her for a moment, then glanced back toward the encampment by the river. Kegs of beer and wine had already been opened, and the sound of laughter blew toward her on a breeze. She spotted the two kings, Leofric and Ulfrid, trying to teach their sons, Eric and Reynfrid, how to skip stones across the river. Her adopted sisters were busy overseeing the cooking. Luciana spotted her with Eviana and waved.