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Wisteria Sneak Peek: Chapters 1 – 3

I won’t say more than YOU’RE WELCOME and happy reading!

Chapter One

It’s said that the wisteria vine is a symbol of immortality.

Blythe Hawthorne had often admired the flower—as deadly as it was beautiful, and resilient enough to thrive for centuries even if left forgotten. Yet as she crushed a petal from the looming vines between her fingers and let its color bleed onto her skin, she pitied the wisteria for the fate that she and the flower shared. How tragic that they were to forever remain rooted in Aris’s garden, their splendor wasted on the likes of him.

Blythe, at least, had one advantage over the wisteria—she had thorns. And when it came to Aris Dryden, she had every intention of using them.

Blythe trailed a look across the garden to where dozens of guests stood in wait. Sunlight cut through the wisteria canopied above them, bathing the courtyard in a golden haze of light that had people squinting as they chatted, their breath pluming the air.

Blythe envied their fine coats. Her skin was chilled from autumn’s dampness, and the gossamer sleeves of her gown did little to stave it off. November was an unusual time for a wedding, though with Aris, she supposed she should always expect the unusual. If the alleged prince decided he wanted to get married on an autumn morning at an hour when the sun hadn’t yet dried the dew upon the moss, who was society to question him?

Aris Dryden was a man who got what he wanted. This day just happened to be a rare exception, for he was being forced to marry a woman he could not stand.

And to be fair, the feeling was mutual.

“You don’t have to do this.” It was Blythe’s father, Elijah Hawthorne, who spoke. “Say the word, and I’ll get you out of here.”

In any other world, Blythe would have taken him up on the offer to flee Wisteria Gardens. But to secure Elijah’s safety after he was falsely accused of murder, Blythe Hawthorne had spilled her blood upon a golden tapestry and bound herself to Aris—to Fate—for the remainder of her years. She even had a glowing band of light on her ring finger to show for it, the golden hue so faint that it was nearly invisible to the eye.

“I’ll be all right,” she told her father at last. It was no use to try and sway him with sweet words about how much she loved Aris or how happy she was to be marrying the brute. As it was, she was shivering in the damp air, itchy from what felt like a hundred layers of taffeta, and had to keep fighting off a sneeze every time her veil brushed near her nose. She had no patience left within her to lie, and Elijah was no fool; he knew that Blythe had never intended to marry.

“You’ll make a beautiful princess,” he whispered, and Blythe surely would have agreed, had Aris actually been royalty. “But I want you to remember that Thorn Grove will always be open to you. No matter the day or the hour, you can always return home.”

“I know that,” Blythe promised, for she understood that truth better than anything.

Only when Elijah seemed certain that there would be no talking her out of this wedding did he bend to kiss her head. He adjusted Blythe’s veil to shroud her face as he eased away. She scrunched her nose, turning to the side to sneeze.

When the lilting pings of a harp began a sauntering melody, Elijah extended his arm. “Are you ready?”

Never. A million years would need to pass before Blythe could even consider being ready. But instead of the truth, she told her father, “I am,” for if this was what it took to keep him from being hanged, it was more than worth the sacrifice.

As much as Blythe tried to focus, the world swayed as she stepped into the courtyard. The ground was a pathway of stepping stones with vibrant clovers that curved around each one; Elijah steadied her as she nearly slipped upon them, her choice of shoe providing little grip on the dampened soil.

Blythe’s heart beat against her chest like a torrent, drowning out the pinging of the harp that slowed its tune to match her careful footsteps. She looked to the crowd, to faces that blurred into sharpened slivers of too-white teeth and hungry eyes that devoured her with every step, as if readying to pluck the skin from her bones. Blythe held her chin sharp even as her hands fought a tremble, refusing to let anyone scent her fear.

It wasn’t until she saw her bridesmaid, Signa, standing near the front of the crowd in a beautiful lace gown that the pressure in Blythe’s chest deflated. Death loomed behind Signa, his shadows winding around her own fretting hands.

Tiny shocks pulsed up Blythe’s spine at the sight of his touch upon her cousin’s skin. Everything in her body ached to flee from Death’s presence, and yet . . . he was the one Signa had chosen. Blythe would never understand why, but if Signa was happy and Elijah was free, then all was well in the world.

As Blythe passed her cousin, the harp song faded and her father drew to a halt. Blythe was left with no choice but to finally turn her attention to the golden-haired man who stood before them in a coat as richly hued as a sapphire. Handsome, she supposed others might think him, and yet all Blythe could see was the resentment that festered within Aris Dryden like a poison. He masked it with a cleaving smile, as if ready to join the fray of predators set to devour her.

Aris stepped forward, offering Blythe his hand. Had Elijah not tensed beneath her grip, reminding Blythe of his presence, she may not have taken it.

“Hello, love.” Aris may have whispered the words, but his voice was a weapon that slipped through Blythe’s skin and carved her from the inside out. “I hoped you wouldn’t make it.”

She squeezed his hand, forcing her own smile onto a face she hoped looked half as vicious as his. “I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, my darling. Though do feel free to divorce me tomorrow.” The thread between their fingers shone bright, searing into their skin so intensely that Aris laughed to cover his grimace.

“And spare you from a lifetime of misery? I think not. You have no idea how much I intend to—” he froze, having been speaking so quietly that their heads were bowed, nearly touching each other, when he demanded in a dangerous tone, “What on earth are you wearing?”

Blythe didn’t need to follow his gaze down to her feet to know that he was referring to her velvet green slippers. Her favorite pair, in fact. She’d adjusted her dress just enough to allow him a glimpse. As buttoned-up as Aris was, Blythe hadn’t had any doubts that he’d notice.

So, it seemed, had their guests. A quiet tittering sounded from the audience, and though Blythe paid it little mind, Aris’s jaw tensed. He squeezed her hands, hissing words through a false smile. “You are not marrying me in slippers. Go and change.”

Blythe curled her toes into the velvet. “And stop the wedding? I wouldn’t dream of it.”

If she weren’t already so aware of Aris’s power, she would have realized the full extent of it as his eyes flashed gold and the world fell still. Elijah’s foot had stopped mid-step on his way back toward the guests, and Blythe reached out to stroke her finger along the belly of a hummingbird that had frozen beside her, its wings unmoving. Some of the guests had their mouths ajar, bodies bent in stilled whispers, and not a single eye blinked in awareness. Only Signa and Death continued to move, swathed in the shadows. Signa drew a step closer, though Aris halted her with a scowl that seared like a melting sun.

“Go and put on shoes.” Aris bowed his head to Blythe’s level, holding back none of his contempt now that their guests were frozen. “This is ridiculous. I refuse to play your games.”

Blythe had earned every bit the reaction she’d hoped to from such a proud man, and the grin she sported said as much. “It seems you haven’t noticed, my love, but you’re already playing.”

The millions of golden threads surrounding them glimmered. Several wound around her wrist, and as Aris made a motion as if to tug her forward, Blythe braced herself. Yet it was Aris who stumbled back, clutching his own wrist with a hiss of pain. He looked not at Blythe, but to Signa, whose face was stony.

Had her cousin also struck a bargain with Fate? It seemed that he was unable to harm her, and Blythe’s realization came in the form of a baleful laugh as she drew chest-to-chest with Aris. Or chest-to-stomach, really, given that he was a good head taller.

“I will wait out the rest of my life rooted in this spot if it means beating you,” she told him, meaning each and every word. “Free the others from whatever spell you placed upon them and let’s get on with this charade.”

A long moment passed in which Aris did nothing. So long, in fact, that Death began to stir. Though she knew the reaper meant to help, Blythe tensed when his shadows inched closer. It was all she could do to keep her eyes on Aris, trying to ignore Death’s presence by putting as much heat into her glare as she could summon. She couldn’t say how long Aris matched that stare until, eventually, he gritted his teeth and grabbed hold of her skirts, tossing them over her slippers. Only then did Elijah’s foot hit the ground with a slap and the quiet whispers resume. The hummingbird darted over Aris’s head as the minister approached.

“Will thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife,” he began, and no sooner had the words left his mouth did Blythe’s world sway. She dug her heels into the earth, rooting deeper with each vow that passed his lips. “Will thou love her . . . Forsaking all others . . . Keep thee only unto her, so long as you both shall live?” Though she missed most of what the minister said, her world came crashing to a halt with his last question. Blythe glanced sideways at Aris, who kept his head down and his jaw so tight that she thought his teeth might snap.

“For as long as she lives,” he agreed, so curt that the minister flinched before turning his attention to Blythe.

“And will thou have this man to be thy wedded husband, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony? Wilt thou obey him, serve him, love, honor, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as you both shall live?”

Aris shot Blythe a black look that halted her laughter before it could escape. She cleared it from her throat. “I will marry him, and I will love him even more when he is sick.” She said it so sincerely and with such a disarming smile that, though the minister was thrown off, he brought forward a golden ring designed to resemble a snake, set with eyes of jade.

“Repeat after me. With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship . . .” Each word was acid in Blythe’s mouth, the ring burning as Aris shoved it down her finger while reciting the vows. Blythe bit her tongue as he pressed it so deeply toward her knuckles that she’d have to oil the blasted thing to get it off. Which she certainly would be doing the moment they were out of the public eye.

“Hello, wife,” Aris spat, voice too low for anyone else’s ears.

Blythe smiled through the pain, curling her hands around his so that she could dig her nails into his palms. “Hello, husband.”

Neither looked away as the minister motioned them to their knees for the ceremonial prayer. Whatever the man said was lost to Blythe, whose ring finger seared beneath her golden band.

It was not a ring, but a shackle. One, it seemed, that neither she nor Aris would be escaping any time soon.

Chapter 2

Most days, Blythe found solace in the act of slipping into her favorite ball gown. Yet on the day of her wedding she couldn’t stop fidgeting, claustrophobic in the mountains of taffeta that’d been piled upon her. Her feet, too, were positively freezing, the morning dew sinking into the fabric and dampening the velvet soles. Had she not fought so hard to aggravate Aris, she would have long since changed into something warmer.

She reminded herself how sweet that small victory had tasted as the slippers squished beneath her toes and a perpetual chill settled into her bones. Yet all the while she kept a grin plastered to her lips as she stood beneath a wisteria awning, stuck beside Aris as they were forced to greet their guests. Surrounding her was a blur of faces she’d known all her life. Too many of them, in fact. This was no small ceremony, but a celebration worthy of a prince, where delicate chocolates and miniature cakes decorated with golden leaves were ceremoniously displayed on gilded trays and everyone’s wrists and throats glittered with their finest jewels.

Charlotte and Everett Wakefield greeted the newlyweds with smiles and words of encouragement. The duke and duchess leaned into each other, a sparkle in their eyes that had Blythe wondering what it must feel like to be so in love. She likely would never know.

There were faces in the crowd that Blythe didn’t recognize, too. Arrogant ones that waltzed about the reception as if in constant assessment. As Blythe scrutinized them more closely, however, she noticed their eyes were glassy and that they never uttered a word to anyone but one another. They must have been Aris’s guests, as it would have drawn attention if he didn’t have any in attendance.

The townsfolk never let these new guests stray far from sight. From the corner of her eye, Blythe watched as Diana Blackwater slid closer to one of Aris’s enchanted puppets—a man who could be no older than thirty, who claimed a pretentious air and was neatly styled in imported fabrics. Diana positioned herself in an effort to capture his attention, though the man could spare her no notice even if he wanted to as he looped slow circles around the garden, inspecting the decor. After several moments of following after him, Diana gave up with a hiss, fanning herself in a fluster. The moment she noticed Blythe watching, her spine stiffened. Ever so slowly—as if doing so physically pained her—Diana curtsied.

It was then, as satisfaction warmed her from head to foot, that Blythe realized how irredeemable her own soul truly was. That curtsy alone almost made her soggy slippers worth it.


“Can you not simply magic this day to its end?” Blythe asked after she and Aris were congratulated by a woman who ran a modest apothecary shop in town. Blythe had never properly met her before, yet she smiled and accepted the woman’s profuse congratulations all the same. “Must we see this charade through in its entirety?”

“You’re the one who insisted on a proper wedding,” Aris reminded her. “I wouldn’t dream of taking such an experience away from a blushing bride.”

Blythe swallowed the foul words that threatened to sear holes in her tongue. It wasn’t worth getting into another bickering match with him. Especially not when her father stood in the near distance, observing the newlyweds with a cautious eye.

It wasn’t that Blythe had wanted a wedding, exactly. Rather, she’d hoped to delay her inevitable fate for as long as possible, and had wanted something that Elijah could bear witness to. She’d wanted her father to see that she was well and that he needn’t worry, which was why she now smiled so wide that her cheeks were beginning to ache. She even wound herself around Aris’s arm when she wished for nothing more than to recoil. His hand snaked around her waist, gripping so tight that pinpricks shot along her skin and all she could think was how she would have to burn this gown and scrub his touch from her body the second she had an opportunity.

It wasn’t until Signa approached that Aris eased his hold, his steely demeanor cracking. If Signa noticed—and Blythe assumed she would have, given that Signa tended to notice most things—she said nothing. Instead, Signa took Blythe’s hands in her own. “You are the finest bride I have ever seen,” she told her, and Blythe smiled despite knowing she was one of the only brides Signa had ever seen. Blythe couldn’t believe that only a few short months ago she’d been uncertain whether she’d ever speak to her cousin again, just as she couldn’t believe that she’d only known Signa for the span of a single year. After all they’d survived, it felt as though they’d shared a lifetime together.

Signa looked to Aris next, whose jaw ticked. Only Blythe could feel how greatly he deflated in Signa’s presence, and while she did not favor Aris, she did pity him. Aris believed Signa to be the reincarnation of the woman he’d spent centuries searching for; he believed her to be Life, the only person Aris had ever loved. And Signa would never be his.

“Miss Farrow,” Aris greeted coolly, though every part of him turned predatory as Death’s shadows loomed closer. “Brother.”

“A shame that my invitation was lost in the mail.” Death’s voice was the shock of an eclipse, or the danger of seawater filling one’s throat. It suffocated Blythe, so different from Fate’s rich exuberance that she at once felt ensnared in an icy current and at a loss for breath.

“Have you plans for the honeymoon?” Signa asked. Despite the fact that the honeymoon was meant to be a surprise to the bride, that hadn’t stopped half of everyone who’d greeted them from asking about it. Still, from Signa the question was odd, for surely she could not be hopeful about this sham of a marriage. She was the only one who knew just how preposterous it truly was, though Blythe suspected that Elijah was also leery. And yet the warmth in Signa’s eyes was so genuine that Blythe’s stomach curled. Leave it to the girl in love with Death to be optimistic about Blythe being bound to Fate.

Signa, in part, had always reminded Blythe of an owl. Her eyes were unnervingly large, and whenever she was lost in her thoughts she often forgot to blink. Blythe had long since made up a game in which she would count how long it took Signa to remember, and Blythe played it then as her cousin stared Fate down with a pinch between the brows. It had been thirty seconds so far, and still Signa had not blinked. It was no wonder so many people found the girl odd; it was a wonder, too, that she never complained of dry eyes. Signa only stirred when Death steadied a gloved hand on her shoulder, and Blythe wondered whether he, too, counted the seconds. Or perhaps the couple filled their evenings staring into each other’s eyes and seeing who could be the most unnerving and go the longest without blinking.

“Why do you want to know, Miss Farrow?” Aris asked, the timbre of his voice earning the reaper’s attention. “Would you like to join me, instead?”

Death, to his credit, did not take the bait. Though his eyes were dark, fathomless things, Blythe got the distinct impression that the reaper was watching her. Every inch of her skin crawled, and the hair upon the back of her neck stood alert. As Blythe soothed it back down, Signa chided, “This situation is only as bad as the two of you make it. If you’re stuck with each other from here on out, I’d hope that at the very least you stop trying to kill each other.”

Blythe bit back her scoff. How easy that was for Signa to say. She wasn’t the one who had to spend the rest of her living years with this beast.

“I can’t kill her,” Fate corrected in a flat monotone. “You saw to that when you made me vow not to hurt her. It’s no matter, though, as her pathetic human life will soon pass and one day I shall build my bed atop her bones and sleep soundly for the rest of eternity.”

As silly as the imagery was, it sparked a fire in Blythe’s chest. “Don’t sound so eager, husband. I plan to live at least a century more, if only to spite you.”

Signa pressed her lips together, and Blythe knew her cousin well enough to recognize there was something on her mind as she took hold of Blythe’s gloved hands. “Let me know the moment you’ve returned home,” Signa whispered, an urgency in her tone. “There’s something I really must tell you.”

Blythe wanted to tell her that whatever it was, it needn’t wait. And yet Signa was already being pushed forward by the never-ending line of guests eager to congratulate the new couple on a happy marriage. The next time Aris decided to throw a soiree, they would need to discuss the list of attendees beforehand.

Quickly, Blythe promised, “I will, of course,” before Signa and Death were swept away.

Blythe hadn’t the faintest awareness of how long she stood there, lips frozen into a false smile and her tongue thick from repeating her thanks. It was a relief when the line ended and she was finally able to get her hands on a glass of champagne.

She watched as the others drank, then waited for Aris to try a sip before she cautiously took the flute from his hand and drank that. She ignored his scowl and waited five minutes to ensure nothing happened before taking another sip.

Across from her, a striking woman with deeply suntanned skin and a pompous man of fair complexion greeted fawning guests. They wore outfits adorned with gold, and the woman’s hair was nearly a perfect match. They had the glassy eyes of the other marionettes, though these two at least spoke to those around them with pleasant smiles.

“Who are they?” Blythe asked, squinting at the golden haze around the couple to distinguish the thousands of threads woven around their bodies.

Aris polished off his champagne. “They believe themselves to be my parents,” he said, as simply as if he was telling her that the month was November.

It was not the response she’d anticipated, and Blythe cleared her throat before she could choke on her drink. “What do you mean they believe themselves?”

Aris’s eyes shone for the briefest moment as one of the staff passed by. Blythe watched as his threads ensnared the maid, altering her path so that he could pluck two more flutes from her serving tray. Blythe reached out, expecting that one of them was for her until Aris made fists around both stems. “Someone had to play the part. It wasn’t as though a prince would be allowed to marry without his own family in attendance. Besides, they’ll forget everything that’s happened once their purpose has been fulfilled.”

“It’s not fair to turn these people into your puppets, Aris. You shouldn’t twist someone’s mind just to fit your agenda.”

“Why not?” He twirled a finger lazily along the rim of the crystal flutes. “I’ve done it to you thrice.”

It was fortunate that she’d not yet eaten, for Blythe’s stomach flipped. Vaguely, she remembered one of the times, back when Aris had tried to extract information about Signa and why she’d been banished to Foxglove. Blythe had a feeling that the second time had to do with the gap in her memory from her first night meeting Aris and visiting Wisteria Gardens. But as for the third…she hadn’t the faintest clue, which was all the more terrifying.

Trying to fight back the shakiness from her voice, Blythe told him, “You will never again use such powers on me.” She wasn’t sure what leverage she had or what she could offer to make such an agreement worth his while. Regardless, she spoke the words plainly, and with every ounce of fire that raged within her.

“Dear God, do you always screech when you talk?” He rubbed at his temples with a groan. “Your cousin already saw to it that I can bring you no harm.” Though Blythe had guessed something of the sort based on their earlier conversation with Signa, she was surprised by how easily Aris admitted to it. For someone as dangerous and as aggravating as he was, the man was certainly forthcoming.

Still, Blythe pressed, “Even if it’s not to hurt me, you must promise that you’ll never make me into one of your puppets. I will not live in a home with someone who manipulates me.”

She tipped her chin, defiant despite having no leg to stand on in this argument. Still, to her surprise, Aris did not taunt her. He only drank deeply from his champagne and said, “That was never my intention.”

The squeeze of her chest loosened. “I’m relieved to see that you can be reasonable.”

“Reasonable?” So bleak was his laugh that Blythe was immediately on edge. “It’s not worth the effort to manipulate you when I have no desire to even look at you for any longer than necessary. Though I do advise that you get comfortable with my powers, love. If you insist on keeping up our guise, know that there is a cost.”

Blythe set down her flute with such force that she had to double-check she hadn’t shattered the glass. “If you hadn’t pretended to be a prince in the first place, there would be no guise to keep up with.”

Aris shrugged. “Perhaps. But with a face like mine, what other role do you expect I might play?”

She couldn’t tell whether he was joking, but Blythe laughed at the ridiculousness all the same. She was about to inform Aris just how much of a fool he was when Blythe caught sight of her father. Though he’d been in conversation with Signa, it seemed that Blythe’s laughter had drawn his attention. Her spine snapped straight as Elijah descended on them. Quickly, she leaned toward her husband and commanded, “Pretend that I am the most brilliant person on this earth, or I will make every second of your life absolute misery.”

“Do you mean to say that you’re not already doing that?” Aris scrunched away from her, though there was no time for him to ask questions before Elijah stood across from them. Aris straightened. Powerful though he was, it seemed even a deity could become nervous in the presence of a father-in-law.

“Mr. Hawthorne,” Aris acknowledged with a dip of his blond head.

“Your Highness.” There was an iciness to Elijah as he greeted the prince, though it melted as his attention turned toward his daughter and he held out his hand. “Dance with me.”

There was no universe in which Blythe would ever refuse. Letting her hold on Aris slip, she took her father’s hand and wordlessly allowed him to lead her to the dance floor. Given Elijah’s lack of concealment over his distaste of society, Blythe had nearly forgotten just how refined her father could be, his chin high and his shoulders confident as he swept her into a waltz, each of his steps utterly precise. Even more surprising, however, were his words.

“I put a knife in your travel chest.” Elijah spoke easily, and Blythe was grateful for the swell of the music that swept his voice away from the other dancers. She gaped up at him, though there wasn’t so much as a furrow between Elijah’s brows.

“An unusual gift for a new bride,” Blythe admonished. “Do remember that I chose this, Father. Aris isn’t forcing me into anything—”

“Oh, come off it.” Though his words were blunt, they were not unkind. “I was set to hang. I have been in this world long enough to know not to look for coincidence where none can be found. You may bat your eyes at that man all you’d like, but do not take me for a fool.”

Blythe ground her teeth, knowing there was no choice but to choose her next words carefully. “Marriages of convenience happen every year.”

“They do,” he agreed, cutting cleaving glances in Aris’s direction. “But that was never meant to happen for my daughter. I would sooner have died a thousand deaths than have put that on you.”

“You’ve put nothing on me,” she whispered, breathing a little easier now that some truth of her and Aris’s arrangement was out in the open. “Perhaps you were ready to die, but should we have a million more lifetimes, I still would not be ready to let you go.” Blythe had lost too many people she loved in the past two years, and she’d be damned to let anything happen to her father. Something in her expression must have made him understand as much, for his hold on her softened.

“Very well,” Elijah whispered. “But know that you are my world, Blythe. You are my proudest accomplishment, my heart and my soul. Should anything happen to you—”

“It won’t,” she promised. “It’s marriage, Father, not murder.” Though she tried to say it jokingly, Elijah’s eyes held storm clouds.

“I put a knife in your travel chest,” he repeated, and it was an effort for Blythe to not roll her eyes. As perceptive as her father was, there was no way for him to ever know that a mere knife would never be enough to kill Aris. Still, if it made him feel better, she’d accept it.

“I’m glad you told me before I accidentally stabbed myself,” she said. “I’ll accept it, though I’ll have no need to use it.”

Elijah continued without pause. “I want you to write to me every week, at least for the first few months. End every letter with a random fact so I know it was written by your hand. And should something ever happen—should you need me, or if you’re hurt—mention your mother by name and I’ll know to come at once.”

“It’s not as if I’m going far,” Blythe said. “Wisteria Gardens is but a carriage ride away.”

“No doubt Aris will want to return to Verena,” Elijah challenged, and Blythe wished with everything in her that she could tell her father such a place was not even real. She’d tried to look for it on a map once, just to see, though every time she searched her vision would swim and her mind would grow hazy until she eventually forgot what she’d been searching for. Aris was nothing if not thorough.

“We’ll remain here in town once we return from our honeymoon.” Neither she nor Aris had actually spoken of their plans. In fact, they’d hardly spoken at all since the day she spilled her blood onto his tapestry. She hadn’t given thought to where they might live, for the answer seemed obvious—there was no Verena. Surely, they would remain at Wisteria Gardens. And yet her father’s eyelids drooped, and while he made no further argument, he seemed saddened by Blythe’s confidence.

“A letter,” he repeated, holding her tighter as the music quieted, the song coming to its end. “Every week, no matter where you are in this world. Promise me that.”

It seemed there would be no getting around it. “If I cannot take a carriage ride here myself, then fine, I will send you a letter. And you will send me one as well, so that I know neither you nor Thorn Grove has crumbled without me holding everything together.” She punctuated her jesting with a smile, though it wavered at the corners. Most young girls assumed they would one day leave their home to start a new phase of life, but Blythe had never seen the appeal. She loved Thorn Grove, just as she loved her family. The idea of leaving them behind—especially when her father had overcome so much these past years—was something Blythe never thought she’d have to face.

Blythe held tighter as the waltz came to an end. It was Elijah who slowly released hold of his daughter, though he waited a beat too long to do so.

“It is my hope that I’m only becoming more paranoid in my old age,” he told her softly. “It is also my hope that Aris is a good husband, and that you will one day share the kind of love that your mother and I once had. But if not—if anything should ever happen—there’s always the knife.”

Even Elijah cracked a smile when Blythe laughed, though it was short-lived as guests began to file toward the courtyard where four gray horses waited with an ivory carriage.

Gently, Elijah squeezed her hand. “Do not make yourself small. Do not change yourself to suit him. Teach him how to treat you, and remember that you deserve everything this life has to offer.”

Heat prickled Blythe’s eyes, and she looked away before her father could see the tears fall. She turned her face ahead, to where Aris waited, and nodded. “I will.”

Before she could change her mind, Blythe released her hold on her father and stepped toward Aris and into her new life, feeling her heart shatter with every step.

Chapter Three

Blythe wondered if there was a world in which she might have enjoyed having a wedding. Was it possible that she’d have gotten misty eyed as she looked upon the faces of loved ones waving her off? Could she have laughed with her beloved as they ran hand-in-hand toward a gilded carriage, dodging rice and flowers thrown by cheering guests?

She wondered, too, how quickly her thoughts might have wandered to the honeymoon. Customary though it was for a bride not to know what her new husband had in store, Blythe imagined she would have spent weeks sleuthing for answers, determined to uncover where they were traveling and how to best pack.

She supposed she should have been glad to have never wanted to get married, for she had no preconceived notions or idealistic fantasies as to what she should expect as Aris pushed her into the carriage and slumped in after her. He wore his smile until the very moment the door shut and he drew the velvet curtains closed. Only then, as their carriage took off down the hill, did Aris throw himself into the seat across from Blythe, drawing his legs close to avoid having to touch her. God forbid.

She scoffed, choosing to listen to the vengeful little voice in her head that told her to stretch her legs and take up as much space as physically possible in the confines of this carriage. She propped her feet onto the leather seat beside him and bent to touch her toes.

“What’s wrong, love?” she teased as he shifted away. “Afraid I’ll ruin you?” They were the same cloying words that Aris had thrown at her the day she’d barged into Wisteria Gardens and demanded his help saving her father, and they made his lips twist. If he wanted to scowl and bemoan their situation, Blythe had no problem letting him. But the carriage was much too small and oppressive for her to do the same. She swept fallen strands of hair off her neck, mulling over ways to make this trip at least moderately tolerable.

All the while, Aris rubbed the band of light around his finger as if trying to pry the thing off, glaring at the drawn curtains as though they were the source of his immense dissatisfaction. Blythe barely spared him a glance, aware of how futile the effort was. She’d tried it herself too many times to count.

When the toe of her slipper brushed his thigh, Aris looked half ready to burst from his skin. “You are a filthy, deplorable abomination—” He paused, brows pressing toward the sky. “What on earth are you doing?”

Blythe was bent forward at the waist, hands behind her as she stretched her fingers back to try and tug the fastenings of her corset. “Surely you don’t expect me to sit here for hours, hardly able to breathe. Your temper is making this carriage so unbearably hot that I will parish if I cannot cool myself. Besides, we’re married now. You should be the one tearing me out of this infernal thing.” She sighed her relief as one of the laces finally came loose, giving her enough room to wiggle an inch or two in the corset. She’d have pried more of the laces free if she could reach them, but for now this would have to do.

All the while, Aris observed her straining with flattened lips and brewing annoyance, but that was nothing new. “Why would I expect you to sit in here for hours?”

Blythe made a gesture to all that surrounded them. “We took off in a carriage after our wedding reception. What else am I to assume but a honeymoon?”

There was no world in which she expected the carriage to fill with Aris’s bitter laughter. It practically slithered over her, making her loosened fastenings feel like snakes gliding across her skin.

“I would sooner drive a stake through my chest than travel anywhere with you. Honeymoon.” He scoffed, eyes flashing a dangerous molten gold. “You have lost your mind. We’ll be returning to Wisteria once our guests have dispersed.”

In the blink of an eye, golden threads shone from every direction. No longer did they seem like distant gossamer things, but slick as metal and so sharp that a single touch threatened to break skin. Blythe pushed to the edge of her seat and threw open the curtains, craning her neck to see that, in the distance, guests were filing out of Wisteria Gardens. One after the other they shuffled forward, silent as they ducked into their carriages.

Aris was controlling them. Of course he was controlling them, because why wouldn’t he be?

“You have all the power in the world and this is how you choose to behave?” She leaned back before she caught a glimpse of her father or Signa, tempering herself. It wasn’t worth making a fuss; that would only encourage him. “The least you could have done was take me to the sea. I wouldn’t have said no to a safari, either.”

“I would rather chew off my own arm,” was his only reply.

“People will ask questions if they know we’re still here,” Blythe argued. Ten minutes in the carriage, and already the horses were circling back to Wisteria Gardens.

“No one will ask questions if they can’t find us,” he said. “I’ve had enough of your friends pestering me. We’ll leave town for the length of a honeymoon, return when the timing is appropriate, and then we’ll say our goodbyes—”

“To each other?” Blythe perked up.

“To this town, you cretin.”

At first, Blythe thought he must have been joking. She waited for him to laugh or for those smug lips of his to twist into a smile that would confirm he was only trying to rile her. Yet Aris kept all composure as the palace came back into view.

Blythe stared at it, her mouth dry as she thought of her father’s warning. “Excuse me?”

“This entire town believes me to be a prince,” he said with a flourish of his hand. “I had to compel strangers into believing they were my parents. Surely you did not expect that we would remain here.” Though he wasn’t asking, Blythe made it a point to answer him.

“And whose fault is it that they believe such nonsense? If you hadn’t felt the need to inflate your already monstrous ego, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Aris’s knuckles whitened as he clenched his hands against the seat. “If you hadn’t ruined my bargain with Miss Farrow, then we wouldn’t have this problem, either.”

She folded her arms, ready to rip the stifling lace sleeves from her gown. They were only feet away from the palace now, and every inch that the carriage crawled forward had Blythe pushing back in her seat, trying to create distance between herself and Wisteria Gardens.

She’d always known that she’d made a rash decision in taking Signa’s place. It hadn’t ever been one that she’d regretted, though. At least not until that moment, where the prospect of building a life away from her father loomed before her.

“I’m not leaving.” Blythe kept her voice void of the emotion that threatened to make her sick.

“Of course you are. Everyone expects that I’m taking you to Verena—”

“Verena isn’t a real place!” she hissed. “It doesn’t matter what they expect. You have the power to placate their minds, should anyone question me staying.”

The courtyard they approached was a ghost of what it’d been less than twenty minutes prior, all signs of the wedding eradicated as though it had never happened. If only she could be so lucky.

“I may have that power,” Aris said, “but that doesn’t mean I intend to use it for you. My home was made to move; I will not remain here a second longer than necessary.”

Blythe’s mother had died, and it hadn’t taken long for her brother, Percy, to follow. Byron Hawthorne, too, had gone away with his new bride so that she could give birth to her nephew without anyone analyzing the timing of their union.

That left Elijah with no one, and after all he’d been through, the thought of him wandering alone through Thorn Grove was too much to bear.

The carriage rolled to a stop upon the pristine path of the courtyard, and while Aris hurried out, Blythe remained seated.

“I won’t leave.” Though the words were a whisper, the ferocity within each one was unrivaled. “Should you try to take me, I will tear my nails across your eyes and crawl back here if I must. I will tie myself to the forest trees and bite every hand that tries to drag me away.”

“You are a demon in human flesh.” Aris tugged a hand through his hair, turning his dissatisfaction toward the sky before he blew out a breath. “Where do you even come up with this nonsense?”

Blythe braced herself against the carriage, both heels pressed against either side of its door as if pushing herself deeper inside. She clutched the seat, fingers curling into the leather. “I will not leave this carriage until you agree that we are staying.”

            Aris looked plainly upon her defiance, hands held behind his back as he studied her. “Is that so? Very well then, let’s see if you mean it.” Without missing a beat, he slammed the carriage door shut so hard that Blythe had to draw her feet back at the last moment so they wouldn’t be caught. She fell to the carriage floor, clawing her way back up in time to see through the window that Aris had given one of the horses a slap on the rump. Whoever their driver was, they were clearly magicked and not in their right mind, for the carriage once again took off down the hill.

Blythe’s mouth hung ajar as she tried to find the words to convey her rage as she watched Aris’s figure shrink in the distance. He waved as they journeyed onward, and the last thing she saw of him was the infuriating, satisfied smile etched across his lips.

Blythe hadn’t the faintest clue where the carriage was destined for, nor did she care. She’d spent the past hour cursing her wretched husband with every foul word she’d ever overheard, still in her bridal gown with half of her corset laces loosened and her hair strewn about.

Had Blythe spent less time sulking and more time squinting out the window, she might have noticed the thousands of golden threads that wound around the carriage, carving a path that became increasingly familiar. And yet she was too lost in her own thoughts—concocting plans on how she might commandeer the carriage and run away to Foxglove to spend the winter with Signa—to notice when they stopped moving.

She froze at the sound of a horse’s weary huff, only then pulled from her thoughts.

“Why have you stopped?” Blythe called to the driver, the hairs on her neck standing. She was met with no answer.

Peeling apart her fretting hands, she bent to peer out the window.

To anyone else, the trees that surrounded her might have looked the same as any other forest. But Blythe had spent her entire childhood amongst these trees and recognized with a single glance precisely where the carriage had taken her—to the woods behind Thorn Grove.

To the woods that housed her mother’s garden.

All at once, the tension left her body. She stepped out of the carriage, heedless of the threads of fate that wound around her, guiding her through windswept trees that bowed as if to greet the return of their forgotten ruler. Their beauty came with great greed as they swallowed up every ounce of warmth and sunlight, feeding themselves while leaving nothing but darkness and a bitter chill that bit through her slippers. Blythe braced herself against the cold, wondering with each step forward why Aris would bring her here of all places. It took several minutes before she stopped looking for him behind every tree, half convinced that he intended to jump out and surprise her only to laugh at his own cruel joke. But the deeper into the woods she traveled, the more Blythe realized that Aris was nowhere to be seen.

Blythe hadn’t visited her mother’s garden since before Lillian fell ill. She’d been too sick to argue when her father made the choice to seal it off, and hadn’t felt prepared to face it once she’d healed from the poisoning. Then there’d been the fire, of course, and Blythe couldn’t bear seeing her mother’s favorite place reduced to ashes.

If not for the familiar iron gates, Blythe might not have recognized where she was. Even in a bitter winter, her mother’s garden had always been a spectacle. Lillian had donned her thickest coat and walked to her garden every afternoon to ensure the resilient hellebore and pansies that took their turn in the spotlight were tended to. Elijah had once asked why Lillian wouldn’t let him send one of the servants in her place; she hadn’t believed any of them could properly care for the garden. Not like she could.

For the majority of her youth, Blythe had gone with her mother, enjoying little more than watching the tiniest sprouts bud into spectacular flowers. As she got older though, Blythe’s visits became less frequent, for she was distracted with tea and lessons or with books that seemed so much simpler to read inside by the hearth.

Footsteps soft as to not disturb the garden’s silence, she made her way around its edges, tiptoeing over char and toward the headstone near the edge of a pond. Her mother’s grave. It’d been cleaned recently, though even a scrubbing could not conceal the havoc the fire had wrought. The headstone was a fragile thing, one corner cracked and crumbling and another section discolored, making the words upon it difficult to read. The earth was overtaking it, too, moss from the pond’s edge climbing its way up the stone. But that was only nature, and Blythe didn’t think her mother would have minded. She probably would have enjoyed the idea of having her body taken by the earth she so loved.

Blythe pressed her hand upon the stone, feeling the sting of heat behind her eyelids as she curled her fingers into Lillian’s engraved name.

“Hello.” Blythe’s voice was little more than a breath as she sank beside the headstone. “I’m sorry that it’s taken me until now to visit, but I bet you never believed that I’d get married, did you?” Blythe’s smile was small as she tipped her head against the stone, listening for a response that would never come. She was sorry, too, that she had allowed the garden to fall to such ruin. That, however, was a truth that she kept to herself.

What she would have given to go back. To have set aside whatever it was that had felt so important at the time and joined her mother on her journey to the garden. Even if Blythe could have gone just once more—even if she could have made a single new memory with Lillian—she would have bent the world to make it so.

She pressed a kiss upon the stone, chest aching. It was a feeling she knew would never go away—one that dulled with time, perhaps, but also one that spawned from the absence of something that could never be returned. As if someone had reached within her to pluck out a piece of her very soul, and had left her fumbling as she learned to live without it.

How cruel Aris was to bring her to this place. Every day she felt her mother’s absence like a knife between her ribs.

But Lillian wasn’t the only one who had taken their last breath in this garden.

Blythe rose from the headstone, not bothering to lift the hem of her dress as it drug through ash she wished would have disappeared by now. She hated wondering whether it was flowers or her brother that had made that ash.

Percy had never loved the garden as she and her mother had. He’d accompanied them numerous times over the years, though mostly so that he and Blythe could chase each other through the trees. She could still hear his laughter in the wind and her mother’s gentle chiding in the birdsong that slipped down her skin and made her shiver.

Percy had changed over the years, but never would she have suspected him capable of hurting them. The pain of his betrayal was worse than any poison, and she understood why Signa had kept the secret from her for so long. It was the same reason she wished to keep the truth from Elijah.

Never, not in a million years, would Blythe have hurt Percy the way that he had hurt her. Not even now, knowing all that she did.

“I wish that things had worked out differently.” Blythe stooped to her knees. “I wish you would have told me all that you were dealing with. We could have figured it out together.” She kissed her hand, then pressed it upon the ground. Burnt twigs were littered upon the earth where Blythe used to spend days smelling thickets of poppies. She waited every year for the wolfsbane to bloom in the spring, and for the frogs to come out of their hiding and perch themselves upon the lily pads.

Now, it was quiet. There were no frogs. No wolfsbane or poppies, or even the most resilient of hellebore. The fire had ravaged the garden that she so loved, and Blythe doubted that it would ever regain the splendor it once had. Every scorched tree was a reminder of all that had changed over the past two years; of all that Blythe had lost.

But there was no going back. The pain of that knowledge and the ache of her loss drew a tear from her eyes, and as it slipped down her cheek and onto the earth, Blythe forced herself back to her feet.

It was then that she saw it—a tiny crimson petal right beneath where she’d been crouched. Certain that her eyes were betraying her, Blythe bent to inspect it. But before she could get any closer, she cried out as her ring finger burned with such a sharpness that her vision swam. The world tipped beneath her as a hot current beat against her skin. She stumbled in search of the nearest tree, but it winked out of sight before she could grab hold of it. One blink, and her vision went black.

Another blink, and Blythe’s entire being felt as though it was being swallowed whole. As if someone was breathing through a reed and had sucked her up into it.

She clamped her eyes shut to fend off her sickening stomach, and the next time she opened them she was back at Wisteria Garden, on her knees in the empty courtyard and in the precise spot where she and Aris had separated hours prior.

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