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Tales of the Crimson Court Book 2
BY JESSICA ASPEN
An enslaved princess, a charming thief, and a power-hungry step-mother out for revenge…
ASHES: a twisted Cinderella tale of romance and magic
Forced into a life of drudgery by her step-mother, the evil queen, PRINCESS ELLASIN DREAMS OF ESCAPE. When sexy, devil-may-care Finn Aduain breaks in and invites her to take a walk on the wild side, instead of danger—Ella sees opportunity.
DISGRACED PRINCE TURNED CHARMING THIEF— Finn has his own SECRETS. But when he meets the charmingly innocent ash-girl, he’s intrigued. Seducing Ella into leaving the life she’s always known becomes his new mission.
Desperate for power, the queen has decreed a ball for Ella’s step-sisters to find husbands. This is the perfect night to escape. With the assistance of Finn, the castle ghost, and her own surprisingly strong magic, Ella finally discovers freedom. But FREEDOM COMES AT A PRICE.
Dare to discover Jessica Aspen’s world of steamy, fantasy romance in her brand new twisted fairy tale series: Tales of the Crimson Court
Editorial Note: Edited for language
She left the rose garden, heading further away from the castle walls and into the orchard. The apples had been ripening all month. Most of them had been picked, but she knew a few trees where the late ones would be just about ripe. A little nudge from her and she’d have one dropping into her hand for lunch.
But something was wrong. The apple trees’ branches were stiff and held away from her. Tension ran through the orchard. Even the grasses whispered anxiously. She sent her Gift into the roots, asking the trees for more information.
Ella glanced around. She didn’t see anyone, but just in case, she went into the shed and grabbed a pitchfork. The head gardener kept his tools sharp and the tines gleamed in the sun. She asked the trees again. The leaves waved as if a breeze flowed through them, pointing her to the back of the orchard, near the outer wall. Someone was here.
This might not be her castle anymore, but it was her orchard. She’d snuck out here year after year and babied these trees. She knew them as intimately as if they were her children. She’d helped the head gardener plant every new tree and mourned the dead. She wasn’t about to let anyone threaten them. As quietly as possible she slipped from tree to tree, using the movement of the leaves to guide her to the tree where she’d been planning on going anyway, the one with the last few apples. She still couldn’t see anyone, but the trees said someone was there.
She aimed her pitchfork at the lowest Y. “Get out, thief.”
A man appeared, perched in the branches, his dark blue crystal eyes wide with surprise. “You can see me?” He took a big audacious bite of a luscious red apple.
He was elvatian with the slender but muscular build of a Tuathan Lord. His hair was a dark, almost black, but the sun shining on the thick locks revealed lush blue highlights. And his eyes were the cobalt blue of the midnight sky painted on the night nursery ceiling.
She tried to keep the surprise of seeing him out of her face. “What are you doing here? This is a private garden.”
He tilted his head and swallowed. “Really? I thought the very high walls were an invitation to come in and feast on apples.”
“Ah, a jester. Well you don’t belong out here, that’s for sure. You’d best be gone before the gardener catches you.”
“I’ve already seen the gardener and he didn’t see me.” He dropped out of the tree, twisting his body neatly around and avoiding the sharp tines. “So, how is it, you—a dusty maid—can?”
Before Ella could move, he grabbed the pitchfork where the handle met the metal tines, and stepped in close. His body was right against hers and his eyes gleamed.
Adrenaline shot through her system and she gasped, her skin tingling. “How dare you.” She’d never been this close to a man. No one in the castle would touch her, she was a pariah, thanks to Ronatta’s spells. The lowest of the low.
He grinned. “How dare I?” He glanced around the garden. “In case you haven’t noticed, little maid, the gardeners are all gone home and we’re too far away from the guards stationed on the walls.” He moved in even closer, his body nearly touching hers. “We’re all alone, you and I. Completely…alone.”
Ella’s mouth dried up. He was right. They were all alone and she only had a useless pitchfork. What could she possibly do?
Holding the girl close, Finn felt a rise of attraction. Despite her servant’s attire, she smelled fresh, like the garden itself, with an underlay of something sweet and delicious. He closed his eyes and inhaled and while he was distracted she jerked away, aiming the sharp tines of the pitchfork directly at his groin.
“How did you get in here?”
He wasn’t about to tell her of the nearly forgotten postern gate hidden under a hedge that led out beyond the outer bailey and dropped off into the moat. He’d paid dearly for the information years ago, when he’d first arrived in the area and still thought there was a chance that Odette was hidden in the castle named after the woman who had caused all the misery in his life.
Instead, he went to move around the girl’s weapon, but she made a vicious move and he barely jumped back out of the way before the metal tines stabbed his most vulnerable part.
“Back off. I may be nothing but a servant, but at least I have integrity.” The crystals in her mossy green eyes sparked defiance.
“Yes, you definitely do.” To his surprise, Finn found himself smiling at the black-haired wench with the pitchfork aimed right at his balls. “Tell me, why is a serving girl so intent on protecting the king’s produce?”
“I—” She took a firmer grip on her pitchfork. “Don’t tell me you don’t think women should be warriors?”
“Oh yes. It only makes them more intriguing. But you, my feisty flower, are not someone who fights.”
Her whole face deflated. “You can tell?”
“Let me see.” He cocked his head to the side and examined her carefully. “If I had to guess, I’d say, ash-girl.”
“How did you know?”
“A bit of soot.” He slid his finger down the tip of her nose. “Just…here.”
Her breath caught.
For a second, Finn was distracted from his mission. He could take a few minutes, spend some time with this girl. Get to know her.
And then he recalled why he was here. Odette had waited so long. He couldn’t get distracted now.
He gave her a dazzling smile, the one that always got him out of trouble with women. “Now, since you are such a fierce defender of the king’s garden, perhaps you could satisfy my curiosity. There are rumors of a garden here with the most lovely roses in Underhill.”
Her face fell. “Oh, you don’t want to go there.”
“Why not? It’s really why I came.”
“You snuck into the king’s garden, risked death, all to see a rose garden? Why?” She eyed him suspiciously. “I thought you came to steal the apples?”
“Well, as good as the apples are, it’s harvest time on the other side of the wall and we have barrels of apples ripe for the picking.” He moved in close to her, appreciating the way her rapid breathing made her breasts move up and down. Their soft curves peeking out from the top of her badly fitting uniform reminded him that it had been a while since he’d last lain with a woman. Too long. Women loved men who loved them, all he had to do was let her see his true attraction, and she’d give him what he wanted. Besides, what he wanted was so small, just a flower. How could she resist?
He leaned in and let his arousal show as his eyes dipped down to her cleavage and back up to her face. Her pupils dilated, and he smiled in response. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s rumored that in the garden is a statue of a gorgon, held in perpetual imprisonment. And if you stare into her eyes, you too, will be turned to stone.”
The girl laughed. “She’s ugly enough for that.” She stared into his eyes for so many seconds he began to worry he was losing his charm. But then she nodded. “Okay, I’ll take you. But, promise me, no more stealing apples. Stealing from the queen is a capital offense. If the guard caught you, you could be killed.”
He nodded solemnly. “On my honor.” Using his best courtly style, with a flourish of his hand, he bowed. “After you, my lady.”
She blushed and set out through the trees, leading him away from the tall bright walls of the newer parts of the castle and instead in the direction of one of the stodgy gray towers to the side.
“It’s too bad. The flowers are very pretty, but the statue makes it unpleasant.” She shivered. “I usually don’t stay long.”
“Do you get much time to spend in the gardens?” His recollection of palace life was that the ash-girls were the bottom of the heap, abused by everyone from the parlor maids on down. But things might have changed in the decades since he’d lived in a palace. Many things had.
She gave a rueful shake of her head. “No, but I sneak off as much as possible.” She gave him a shy glance. “The gardeners cover for me.”
He could see why. With her riot of black curls and the mischievous sparkle in her eyes giving her a willful look, she must have half the male staff wrapped around her fingers. Despite her hard life, her face curved up, as if she smiled a lot, the apples of her cheeks a pale blushing pink. She caught him appraising her and her cheeks bloomed an even deeper color. His c**k stirred. Yes, he’d love to delve deeper into this serving maid. Perhaps when he’d found Odette and finally done what he needed to do, perhaps he’d come back.
As they approached a wall surrounding one of the towers, he noticed the garden was less regimented here. A few wildflowers peeped out of the borders amongst their more sedate cousins, and the grass was taller and un-cut.
“It’s just in here.” She pushed open an old wooden door set in the wall. The hinges creaked and he instinctively stiffened, checking from side to side.
“Don’t worry. No one comes here.” Her voice dropped. “They all think it’s haunted,” she whispered, and laughed.
Yes, he definitely wanted to come back. It had been a long time since he’d felt this way, as if the world were a bright and sunny place.
They entered the walled garden and the sounds of the castle grounds faded away. Here, it was as if time stood still. Roses bloomed everywhere, a riot of reds and pinks and purples, interspersed by thick lush greenery. There was no bird song, and even the breeze seemed to still. White climbers tumbled up and over a bench, leaving only a small space on the mossy stone to sit. And there, at the base of the old crumbling tower, were the yellow roses with bright red spatters, that he’d been sent to steal.
“It’s out of control. Do the gardeners never come here?”
“No, they’re terrified. I could tame it, I suppose, but I love the chaos. Everywhere else on the grounds the queen dictates complete control, but here—” she stroked the delicate petals of a white rose “—here, it’s all mine.”
She pointed at the statue in the center of the garden. Nothing grew up to its feet, and even the grass that was brave enough to come close looked thin and barren, a direct contrast to the over-blown color of the rest of the garden. “There she is. Are you brave enough to look into her eyes?”
There wasn’t any definition to the statue’s features. Just the suggestion of the shape of a woman in armor, her empty hands thrust to the sky. And coming from it a palpable sense of dread.
“She’s hideous.” He circled the statue, strangely entranced by its evil. “Who would put something like that here? I can almost believe she can turn a man to stone.”
“She’s ugly,” Ella agreed. “But I think you can tell your myth is just that.” She gestured to the rest of the garden. “No one else has turned to stone.”
“A pity.” The freshness of her face cleared his mind of the negative lure of the statue and he turned his back on it. “Now I’ll have to think of some other reason to be here.”
Her partially opened lips were soft and rosy, like the delicate petals falling to the ground with fall’s first cool nights. He needed to kiss those gently curved lips, take what she so innocently offered. Kiss her easy smile and maybe he could ease some of his own heartbreak.
From somewhere across the garden a woman called, “Ella!”
She flinched, stepping away. “I have to go.”
The moment was gone, leaving him feeling strangely bankrupt. He didn’t want this interlude to end. “Wait.” He caught hold of her hand before she went more than a few steps. “Meet me tomorrow in the town square. It’s the harvest festival and there’s so much to see.” He wanted to see her sparkle and shine at all the wonders of the fair.
“I can’t.” She bit her lip, sinking her teeth into the pink softness.
He suppressed a groan at her response. “You can. You’re the defender of the gardens. You took on a stranger with just a pitchfork, braved the vision of the gorgon. You can steal just one day.” He stroked the back of her wrist. “Please.”
She sucked in a breath and her eyes fluttered shut. When she opened them, she searched him with that deep mossy stare, as if to see if he were real.
He didn’t want to tell her he suspected he might not be very real at all unless she was here, talking to him. Touching him. There was something about this girl that woke him up inside, in a place he’d thought long dead. Maybe it was the possibility of finally being free of his quest. Maybe it was because her innocence reminded him of Odette. Maybe it was just that he was lonely and jaded, and in desperate need of something to guide him. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew—he had to see her again.
Jessica Aspen always wanted to be spirited away to a world inhabited by elves, were-wolves and sexy men who walk on the dark side of the knife. Luckily, she’s able to explore her fantasy side and delve into new worlds by writing spicy paranormal romance. She loves indulging in dark chocolate, reading eclectic novels, and dreaming of ocean vacations, but instead spends most of her time, writing, walking the dog, and hiking in the Colorado Rockies. To get your exclusive Jessica Aspen Starter Library please go to: https://jessicaaspen.com/free-book-offer/
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