Read an Excerpt
Sunday, 9:15 a.m.
Sidonia busied herself with breakfast preparations as she did every morning, moving slowly about the big kitchen. Like the other rooms in the old house, the kitchen had been constructed two hundred years ago, when the Raintree first settled in the hills of North Carolina. Shortly after The Battle. Dante and Ancelin Raintree had claimed nine hundred and ninety-nine acres of wilderness, establishing a home place for the Raintree clan, a safe haven where they could recuperate and rebuild after the ravaging war with the Ansara. Over the years, the house had been remodeled numerous times, but some things never changed around here, such as honor, duty and the love of family.
The main house sat atop one of the foothills, surrounded by the forest, with spring-fed streams, ancient trees and an abundance of wildlife. Originally built of wood and rock, the house had been bricked a hundred years ago and wings added to the original structure. Two dozen cottages dotted the landscape within the boundaries of the safe haven, some occupied by relatives, many empty a good part of the time but kept ready for visiting members of the Raintree clan. Family was always welcome.
Sidonia, a distant relative of the royal family, had come to work for them when she'd been a girl of eighteen, brought into the household of Dranir Julian when his wife, Vivienne, was carrying their first child. Young Prince Michael had been an only child for many years, and he had bonded with Sidonia so much that she became like a second mother to him. It was only natural that when he grew to manhood, married and became a father, he chose her to be the nanny for his own children. And whenher Michael and his beloved Catherine had been brutally murdered seventeen years ago, it had fallen to her to look after the royal siblings—Dante, Gideon and Mercy.
Dante now lived in Reno, Nevada, owned a gambling casino and was still single, despite knowing full well he was expected to produce an heir. As the Dranir, he oversaw the Raintree clan and handled the clan's finances, having almost doubled the family's vast wealth during the past ten years. His younger brother, Gideon, lived in Wilmington and worked as a police detective. Gideon, too, was single and had made it perfectly clear to one and all that he did not intend to marry and most certainly would never father a child. Mercy remained at the Sanctuary as its keeper. Like her great-aunt Gillian before her, Mercy had been born a powerful empath, and so it fell to her to be the family's guardian, the caretaker of all things Raintree.
The nine hundred and ninety-nine acre refuge lay on a fault line, and whenever there were any shifts in the earth, any small tremors or minor earthquakes, those forces of nature simply spread out and went around the shielded sanctuary. But the Raintree absorbed the energy produced by the earth's numerous little hiccups. Long ago, a triad of royal Raintrees had placed a cloak of protection about the land, and, yearly, Mercy and her brothers renewed that ancient spell on the day of the Vernal Equinox in early spring. Only someone possessing magic power equal to or greater than the Raintree royals could ever penetrate the invisible barrier that shielded the sanctuary from outsiders.
Sidonia shivered as she recalled the frightening tales of the Ansara and the legend of The Battle that had wiped the evil warrior clan from the face of the earth. All except a handful who had escaped, never to be heard from again.
Rolling out biscuit dough, Sidonia pretended not to see the small child tiptoeing into the room. Perhaps it was the weakness of approaching old age—after all, she was eighty-five now—but she loved this little girl with a devotion that was almost sinful. Princess Eve Raintree, a beautiful, charming, precocious imp, had stolen Sidonia's heart the first moment she laid eyes on her. Princess Mercy had given birth at home, in her bedroom upstairs, only she and Sidonia present, as Mercy had wished. Her labor had been hard, but not difficult. Her child had come into the world a perfect specimen of feminine beauty, with her mother's golden hair and delicate features. And with the bewitching green Raintree eyes, a dominant hereditary characteristic that marked the ones who possessed such eyes as true Raintrees.
Sidonia refused to think about that other small but significant hereditary mark the child possessed, a mark known only to her and to Mercy. That one detail set Eve apart from all others and made her special in a way that must be kept secret, even from Dante and Gideon.
Eve crept up behind Sidonia, who held her breath, waiting to see what devilish trick the little one would conjure up this morning. Suddenly the rolling pin flew out of Sidonia's hands and danced through the air, landing with a thud in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gasping as if she were truly startled, Sidonia whipped around and held her hand over her heart.
"You scared me half to death, little princess."
Eve giggled, the sound like sweet music. "It's something new I've just learned to do. Mother says it's called lev-i-tation. I think I will be very good at it, don't you?"
After wiping off her hands on her floral apron, Sidonia reached down and tapped Eve on the nose. "I believe you will be very good at many things, but you must learn to control your powers and always use them wisely."
"That's what Mother says."
"Your mother is a very wise woman." Yes, Mercy was wise. And good and kind and loving. And the most powerful empath in the world. She could feel another's pain, remove it from them and heal them. But the price she paid in personal agony often depleted her energy for hours, even days.
"She's very pretty, too," Eve said. "And so am I." Sidonia chuckled. It was not a bad thing to know your strong points. "Yes, you and your mother are both beautiful."
Mercy was as beautiful inside as out, but Sidonia feared that might not be true of her precious little Eve. She was a good child, with a good heart, but there had been a few times when her temper had flared uncontrollably, and it was at those times Sidonia and Mercy had witnessed the incredible, untutored power Eve possessed.
"Where is Mother? Isn't she eating breakfast with me this morning?" Eve asked as she crawled up onto a stool at the granite-topped bar separating the kitchen from the breakfast room.
"She has gone up to Amadahy Pointe to meditate. I expect her home soon." Sidonia returned to her task. She picked up the rolling pin, washed it off, then used it to spread the dough into a half-inch-thick circle.
"Is something bothering my mother? Is something wrong?" Eve asked, with a wisdom far beyond her years.
Sidonia hesitated, then, knowing Eve had the ability to read her thoughts if she chose to do so, said, "To my knowledge, nothing is wrong. Mercy simply felt the need to mediate."
Sidonia cut the dough and placed each raw biscuit in the rectangular pan, then popped them into the hot oven to bake.
"May I have a glass of apple juice while I wait for Mother?" Eve glanced at the refrigerator.
"Yes, of course you may."
Suddenly the refrigerator door swung open, and the pitcher of juice lifted up and floated out of the refrigerator and across the room. Eve's tinkling girlish giggles jingled about the room.
Sidonia grabbed the pitcher midair and set it on the bar. "You're a little showoff."
"Mother said that practice makes perfect, and that if I don't practice my skills, I won't master them." Eve sighed heavily. Dramatically. The child had a flair for melodrama.
"Mother frowned when she told me that. I believe she worries about me. She thinks I have amazing powers."
"Yes, we know, your mother and I. And we both worry, because you are so young and unable to direct your powers. That is why Mercy told you that you must practice. It was no different with your mother and your uncles. They had to learn to control their powers."
"But I am different. I'm not like Mother and Uncle Dante and Uncle Gideon."
Sidonia gasped. Was it possible the child knew the secret of her conception? Sidonia shook her head to dislodge such foolish thoughts. Eve might be talented far beyond any of the other Raintree children, might excel in talents even adults in the clan would envy, but she was still only a child. She might read other people's thoughts, but she did not always understand the words she heard inside her little head.
"Of course, you're different. You're a member of the royal family. Your uncle is the Dranir, and your mother is the greatest empath in the world."
Eve shook her head. Her long blond curls danced about her shoulders. "I am more than Raintree."
A shiver of pure, unadulterated fear quivered through Sidonia. The child sensed the truth, even if she did not know what that truth was. Sidonia removed a glass from the cupboard, lifted the pitcher and poured the apple juice for Eve. She set the glass in front of the child. "Yes, you are more than Raintree. You are very, very special, my precious."
More special than you will ever know, if your mother and I can protect you by keeping your secret.
Mercy Raintree sat on the firm, grassy ground, her eyes closed, her hands resting in her lap. Whenever she was troubled, she came to Amadahy Pointe to meditate, to collect her thoughts and renew her strength. The sunshine covered her like an invisible robe, wrapping her in light and warmth. The spring breeze caressed her tenderly, like a lover's soft touch. With her eyes closed and her soul open to the positive energy she drew from this holy place, this sanctuary within a sanctuary, she focused on what was most important to her.
Mercy sensed impending danger. But from whom or from what, she did not know. Although her greatest talents lay in being an empath and a healer, she possessed latent precognitive powers, less erratic than her cousin Echo's, but not as strong. She had also been cursed with the ability to sense the emotional and physical condition of others from a distance. Clairempathy. As a child, she'd found her various empathic talents maddening, but gradually, year by year, she had learned to control them. And now, despite both Dante and Gideon blocking her from intercepting their thoughts and emotions, she could still manage to pick up something on the outer fringes of each brother's individual consciousness.
Dante and Gideon were in trouble. But she did not know why. Perhaps it was nothing more than stress from their chosen professions. Or it could even be problems in their personal lives.
If her brothers thought she could help them, they would ask her to intervene. This knowledge reassured her that their problems were within the realm of human reality and not of a supernatural nature. Her brothers were, as they had pointed out to her on numerous occasions, grown men, perfectly capable of taking care of themselves without the assistance of their baby sister.
Past experience had taught her that when their souls needed replenishing, their spirits nurtured, her brothers came home, here to the Raintree land, deep in the North Carolina mountains. The home place was protected by a powerful magic that had been established by their ancestors two centuries ago after The Battle. Within the boundaries of these secure acres, no living creature could intrude without alerting the resident guardian. Mercy Raintree was that guardian, protector of the home place, as her great-aunt Gillian had been until her death at a hundred and nineteen, and like Gillian's mother, Vesta, the first keeper of the sanctuary in the early eighteen hundreds.
Taking a deep, cleansing breath, Mercy opened her eyes and looked at the valley below, spread out before her like a banquet feast. Late springtime in the mountains. An endless blue sky that went on forever. Towering green trees, the ancient, the old and the young growing together, reaching heavenward. Verdant life, thick and rich and sweet to the senses. A multitude of wild flowers blooming in abundance, their perfume tantalizing, their colors pleasing to the eye.
Mercy wasn't sure exactly what was wrong with her, but she felt a nagging sense of unease that had nothing to do with her brothers or with anyone in the Raintree tribe. No, the restlessness was within her, a yearning she was forced to control because of who she was, because of her duty to her family and to her people. Whenever these strange emotions unsettled her, she climbed the mountain to this sacred peak and mediated until the uncertainty subsided. But today, for some unknown reason, the anxiety clung to her.
Was it a warning?
Seven years ago, she had allowed that hunger inside her to lead her into dangerous territory, into a world she had been ill prepared for, into a relationship that had altered her life. She would not—could not—succumb to fear. And except for brief visits to Dante and Gideon, she would not leave the safety of the Raintree sanctuary. Not ever again.