Olivia must act quickly—and live with whatever chaos results. As the assassin hunts his prey, a magic mirror appears to show Olivia the three paths that open before her . . .
~ If she hesitates only a moment, the princess will die—and she will become queen.
~ If she calls for help, she will gain great power—but she must also thrust away her own happiness.
~ If she runs to stop the murder herself, she will know love and contentment—but her whole country will suffer.
As she lives out each path, her wits and courage will be tested as she fights to protect her people, her friends, and her heart. And deciding which to follow will be far from easy . . .
A CHOICE OF CROWNS
New York Times bestselling author Barb Hendee reveals a world of ruthless desire, courtly intrigue, and compassion as one woman shapes the fate of a nation . . .
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I've heard it said the most important moments in one's life pass more swiftly than others. Perhaps it's true.
I only know that all my senses were on alert as soon as my father sent for me, asking me to come to his private rooms. Eighteen years old, I'd never once been invited to his rooms. In the past several weeks, he'd been closeted away much of the time, sending and receiving messages, but I had no idea what this was about — as he didn't see fit to share such intelligence with me.
Now ... he wanted to see me, in his rooms?
I could hardly refuse, nor in fact did I want to. I was curious.
Gathering my long green skirt, I nodded curtly to the servant who'd delivered the message and made my way to the base of the east tower of our family keep. I knew exactly where his rooms were located, even if I'd never been inside.
Upon arriving, I stood with my back straight and knocked on the door.
"Father? You sent for me."
"Come," he said from the other side.
With my hand shaking only slightly, I opened the door. Inside, I found a somewhat austere main room that appeared to be a study, with a large desk and chair. There were tapestries of forest scenes on the walls, and an interior door led to a bedroom.
My father, Hugh Géroux, sat behind his desk working on what appeared to be a letter, but he stood as I entered. In his early fifties, he still cut a striking figure, with a smooth-shaven face, dark hair with a sprinkling of gray, and dark eyes.
"Olivia," he said, as if meeting me for the first time.
We didn't know each other well, as I was the fifth and youngest of his children. I had two older brothers and two older sisters, and my father had used all four of them carefully to enhance his own wealth and prestige. My mother died of a fever when I was only seven, so my father raised us alone in a manner that was both distant and overbearing at the same time.
My family, the line of Géroux, was among the old nobility of the kingdom. While past famines and civil wars had destroyed several of the ancient families, ours survived. We were survivors. My father respected strength and nothing else.
His eyes moved dispassionately from my feet to my face, as if assessing me.
I knew only too well what he saw. I was tall for a woman. He was tall, and I could almost look him directly in the eyes. Unfortunately, the current fashion for women was petite and fragile. My hair was long and thick, but it was a shade of burnished red, and again, red hair was not currently in fashion.
Still, I'd been raised to remain sharply aware of everything going on around me, and it was no secret that most men found me desirable. My face had often been called pretty, with clear skin and slanted eyes of green.
I looked best in green velvet.
Though I was not vain, I had also been raised to understand that survival was based on value, and at some point, I'd be given a chance to prove myself valuable.
Had that chance finally come?
"You'll need to pack tonight," he said. "You leave for Partheney in the morning."
In spite of my careful awareness of self-control, I nearly gasped. "Partheney?"
This was the king's city. My family's lands were in the southeast corner of the kingdom. Partheney was in the northwest, near the coast of the sea. I had never been there.
"You're to marry King Rowan," my father said flatly. "His mother, the dowager queen, and I have arranged it."
I stood still as his words began to sink in, but I still couldn't quite follow what he was trying to convey. "King Rowan ... the dowager queen ... is this why you've been receiving so many messages?"
His eyes flashed, and I dropped my gaze, cursing myself.
Father did not brook questions from his children. He expected only two things from us: strength and obedience. But the slight shaking in my hands grew to a tremble. Had I heard him correctly? I was to marry the king?
Stepping around the desk, he approached me. "Do you know anything of the rumors surrounding King Rowan?"
Unfortunately, I did, hence the reason my hands trembled. Even here, in the isolated southeast, rumors still reached us. In his late twenties, Rowan de Blaise was a young king and had held the throne for only two years.
But over those two years, four betrothals with foreign princesses had been arranged via proxy. Envoys had been sent to Partheney to finalize negotiations. In all four cases, when the envoys arrived, Rowan refused to even see them. He'd sent them away.
"I know some of the stories," I answered my father. "I know betrothals have been arranged, and he's sent the envoys packing."
"Yes." My father nodded. "His mother, the dowager, was the one who arranged the betrothals. She is anxious to see him married and founding a line of heirs."
"Why will he not marry?"
My father waved one hand in the air. "That is of no matter. What matters is, the dowager has decided to stop seeking a foreign princess and marry him into one of our own noble families. She's wise and has chosen the line of Géroux. We'll be linked to royalty, and I'll be the grandfather of kings."
The truth of all this hit me, and my hands ceased trembling.
I would be queen.
Clearly there were obstacles, but I allowed my initial worries to vanish and let my mind flow. Father expected complete success from himself and would expect nothing less of me. This thought made me brave.
"If Rowan has refused to even see the envoys," I began, "what makes you and the dowager think he will agree to entertain negotiations this time?"
My question was bold, but instead of growing angry, Father only looked at me as if I were simple — which I was not.
"Because as I said, you will leave in the morning," he answered. "I'm not sending envoys. I have no faith in envoys. I'm sending you. You'll go to the castle, meet the king, and handle negotiations yourself. You are a daughter of the Géroux. He cannot turn you away."
"You'll not come with me?"
"No. That was my first instinct, but the dowager believes it best if the king is given no choice in facing you directly. It will force him to be ... polite." His expression darkened. "And you will not fail to secure him. Do you understand? You will not fail."
I met his eyes without flinching.
* * *
Dinner that night was both strained and exciting. We sat in elegant clothes around a long table while our servants poured wine.
I allowed Father to deliver the news to my siblings — after the first course had been served. Silence followed for a long moment.
Inwardly, I triumphed at my sisters' mouths falling open.
"Olivia?" Margareta asked. "To marry King Rowan?"
She herself was married to a minor baron who'd not only forgone a dowry but also paid a fortune for the privilege of the marriage — in land. My father had long wanted a forty-square-league territory at the bottom of our own lands that boasted fine vineyards. Margareta was a shrewish woman who didn't care for her husband, but she'd married him all the same, as Father had ordered it. Unfortunately, her husband soon grew tired of her and began bringing his mistresses to live at the family manor.
Margareta now spent much of her time here, citing that Father "needed her." He did not need her, but he didn't mind her presence so long she played the dutiful wife and gave the baron no reason to demand his land back.
Raising a goblet to his mouth, Father offered her a measured stare. "Why not Olivia?"
"Because ... because ..." interrupted my other sister, Eleanor, "she is so young."
Eighteen was hardly considered young for noblewomen. I'd had female cousins married off as early as sixteen.
But — I shamefully admit — with some glee, I knew this news would come as a particular blow to Eleanor. At the age of twenty, she was engaged to marry a silver merchant. Father had arranged it. The man had no title, but his family was obscenely wealthy. Over the past months, Eleanor had been boasting to Margareta and me about the upcoming luxuries she would enjoy for the rest of her life.
As she stared daggers at me across the table, I could see the quiet fury in her face, and her thoughts were so open.
Why her and not me?
Both my sisters had inherited our father's dark hair and our mother's small size. They were considered fashionable and beautiful. I had inherited our mother's coloring and our father's height.
My brother George — the eldest — had also inherited our father's coloring. He swallowed a bite of roast beef. "Do you think Olivia can manage this?" George would inherit our lands and my father's title. He was calm and calculating, all mental gears and wheels and little heart. "I've met Rowan twice, and he struck me as rather intractable."
Father nodded. "She'll manage."
This turn in the conversation caused both my sisters' faces to light up.
"I've heard King Rowan prefers men," Margareta said, not bothering to hide her spite. "That may prove challenging."
I shrugged, speaking for the first time. "He'll still need to marry. The people expect it. The nobles expect it."
Her brown eyes flashed hatred at my cavalier reaction.
Eleanor leaned forward. "I've heard he's so possessive of his throne that he won't share it with anyone, not even a queen."
"That's not true," George answered without an ounce of passion. "He works well with the Council of Nobles. He's no tyrant. So long as Olivia makes no mistakes, she'll secure him. She'll have the support of the council and the dowager queen. They all want to see him wed. Olivia just needs to act wisely."
As these words left his mouth, a fraction of my confidence wavered. He and my father would both view any failure here as my failure, that I had made mistakes. Without meaning to, my gaze shifted to the empty chair at the table. This had belonged to my other brother, Henri. Of all my siblings, he might have been the only one to show me support, to perhaps offer comfort. But he wasn't here. Father had wanted him to rise high in the military, and he expressed a preference to study the arts of healing abroad. They'd argued.
In a cold rage, my father had purchased him a lieutenant's commission in the far north, in the cold, along the border, and sent him away. Henri hated the cold, but Father believed in punishing any act he viewed as dissent.
I could not forget this.
I could never forget this.
"She will succeed," Father said.
I nodded. "Of course."
Eleanor's jealous anger glowed on her face, but I met her eyes evenly. I couldn't wait to be queen and force her to kneel and kiss my skirts.
* * *
The following morning, as the sun crested the horizon, I stood in the courtyard of our keep watching my trunks being packed into a wagon. I'd packed everything that mattered to me, as I had no plans to return.
No one from my family was present to see me off, but I hadn't expected anyone to rise early. There was no love lost between any of us, and it was pointless to pretend otherwise.
"We're almost ready, my lady," said Captain Reynaud, the head of my family's guard. He was in his late forties, of medium height and a solid build. His beard had gone gray, but his hair was still brown. He wore a wool shirt, chain armor, and the forest-green tabard of the house of Géroux. He was loyal and steady, and I trusted him with my safety.
Father assigned him and nine other guards to escort me to Partheney. Captain Reynaud had made the journey several times with my father or George, and he knew the best routes for each time of the year. Thankfully, we were now in early summer and the roads should be dry.
I watched two of the men tying down my final trunk.
Another guard led my horse, Meesha, from the stable. She was a lovely creature of dappled gray. I'd decided that I would prefer to ride than to sit on the wagon's bench.
Walking over, I reached out to take her reins, and then I stroked her nose. The guard walked away to check the lashings on the back of the wagon.
"We have quite a journey ahead," I whispered to Meesha.
Yes, a long journey with an uncertain ending. I'd stayed up late in the night, talking to my brother, George, as I oversaw the packing of my belongings. Though he and I had seldom had reason to speak outside of the dinner table, he'd been only too willing to help prepare me.
Linking our family to royalty would open doors for him.
Still, he'd told me little that I hadn't known before. Father expected us all to be well informed.
George didn't know any more than anyone else as to why the young king was so reluctant to marry. A man in his position should have a legitimate child in the cradle by now. But Rowan's path to our throne had been unusual. When he was a boy, his father had been king of a small territory off our eastern border, known as the kingdom of Tircelan. His father died, leaving the queen, Genève, and their son, Rowan, at the mercy of a pack of ambitious nobles all vying for power.
Our own king, Eduard, was a widower with a small daughter named Ashton. Upon hearing of the death of the neighboring king, he rode to Tircelan to personally offer any needed assistance — as he feared possible upheaval or civil war so close to his own border.
But upon meeting Genève, Eduard fell in love. They married, and Tircelan was absorbed into our own, much larger kingdom. Any initial resistance was stamped out quickly. This all occurred when Rowan was twelve and Ashton was two. Not long after, King Eduard formally adopted Rowan as his son.
Over the next fifteen years, the blended royal family became admired and loved by the people. Eduard was a good king, respected by the noble families for his attention to securing our borders while not over-taxing the commoners.
Then one night at dinner, he grabbed at his chest and died.
By right of blood and birth, Ashton should have taken the crown, but she was only seventeen — and a woman — and our council of twelve noblemen held a vote to crown Rowan as king. This vote passed unanimously. There was some surprise among the common people, but Rowan and Ashton had long been viewed as brother and sister ... and he was the elder brother.
He was crowned without incident two years ago.
Now, he needed a queen. He needed to secure the line with heirs.
I had no intention of letting this chance slip through my fingers, not for any reason. No matter the obstacles, I would overcome them.
Footsteps sounded behind me, and I blinked at the sight of my father walking across the courtyard. Had he come to see me off? To kiss me good-bye?
The absurdity of either reason almost made me laugh.
What did he want?
Stopping a few paces away, he studied me. This morning, I wore a gray cloak over a simple traveling gown. Even in summer, the nights and mornings could be cool.
"Daughter," he said.
"Yes, Father?" I responded dutifully.
"Lord Arullian has asked for your hand again."
Of all the things he might have said, this was not what I expected. Lord Arullian was a corrupt earl in his late fifties — rumored to be sadistic. He'd already had three wives. Two of them died under suspicious circumstances, and the last one killed herself by drinking poison.
Watching my father carefully, I said nothing.
"It would sadden me to see you in his hands," Father went on, "but the connection would be good for the family. Should you come home in failure, I see little choice but to accept his offer."
Though the morning was not overly cool, I shivered.
His threat was clear. I would succeed or he would make me suffer as Arullian's next wife.
"Yes, Father," I answered. "But I won't fail. The next time you see me will be to attend my wedding to King Rowan."
He smiled. "Of course. I have no doubt."
"We're all set, my lord," Captain Reynaud called. "Is Lady Olivia ready to leave?"
Stepping toward me, my father reached out. I took his hand, put my foot in the stirrup, and let him help me settle into Meesha's saddle. I could not remember him ever having touched me before.
"Good-bye, daughter," he said.
I looked around the courtyard at the keep. I would not miss this place. I hoped to never see it again.
My new home was the castle in Partheney.CHAPTER 2
Four days later, I'd begun to question my decision to ride Meesha rather than riding on the wagon's bench next to our driver. Though Meesha was a gentle creature, I'd never in my life spent four straight days in a sidesaddle. My back ached, and the pain in my right hip, where most of my weight was supported, had become nearly unbearable. I envied the men riding astride.
Still, I was determined to show no weakness, and had been gratified to see so much of the kingdom. Though we entertained frequently at the keep, and I was skilled in the arts of polite society, I'd never been off my family's lands. Today, as the sky grew continually darker and the air more damp and cool, I knew we neared the west coast.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Choice of Crowns"
Copyright © 2018 Barb Hendee.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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