Jackson has reluctantly accepted the throne of Cymmera, in place of his father. But his world is in turmoil, the kingdom under constant threat of attack. Worse still, Jackson suspects there is a traitor among his court. A powerful prophet has suggested a way to protect the realm, but that solution may drive Jackson and Ryleigh apart forever…
When a magic relic goes missing, Ryleigh has no choice but to journey in search of it. When Jackson discovers Ryleigh is missing, he must make a choice that will either claim their destiny, or bring an end to the only home he’s ever known.
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Kingdom of Cymmera Series
By Dani-Lyn Alexander
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Dani-Lyn Alexander
All rights reserved.
The soft brush of something against the carpet outside Ryleigh's bedroom door intruded on her restless sleep. Her eyes shot open. Her heart drummed wildly in her chest. Blood rushing in her ears drowned out whatever sound had woken her. With the Kingdom of Cymmera at war, even though she was in her own realm, human traitors or monsters could attack from anywhere at any moment. Goose bumps rushed across her skin, prickling her nerves. The memory of savages invading her home taunted her.
Wait. There it was again. The slightest whisper of something brushing against ... something. She slid quietly from the bed, got caught up in the blankets, and almost lost her footing. She bit back a curse, untangled her foot, and grabbed the baseball bat from beneath the bed. Although she had her choice of weapons now — sword, bow and arrow, flail, axe — the bat still felt the most comfortable in her hand, the most familiar. She switched off the small bedside lamp. No sense backlighting herself when she opened the door. She'd be an easy enough target if something waited out there.
She tiptoed across the bedroom, pressed her ear against the door, and held her breath. The rhythmic pounding of her heart slamming against her ribs masked any sound that might come from the hallway. She blew her breath out slowly, careful not to make any noise, and gripped the doorknob.
No good. Her hand was too slippery. She wiped her sweaty palm on her pajama pants and tried again. Turning the knob as soundlessly as possible, bat held at the ready, she eased the door open, just a crack at first, and peered into the dark hallway.
The small night light did little to dispel the black shadows that could hide all sorts of hideous creatures. A shiver tore through her at the memory of the savages that could emerge from a portal anywhere, at any time. With a deep breath, she opened the door enough to slip through, then closed it gently behind her.
The Jacobs' door at the end of the hall was closed. Nothing seemed amiss. They'd gone to bed hours ago and didn't usually get up during the night.
Dim light spilled from the open bathroom doorway.
She kept her back against the wall and crept as stealthily as possible toward the unknown. The desire to go back to bed and bury her head beneath the pillow assailed her. A fierce need to protect her sister demanded she ignore the fear. Her head pounded with the conflict.
The bathroom was empty. She crept past the door. When she passed Mia's closed door and reached the end of the short hallway, she re-adjusted her grip on the bat. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned her head against the wall, searching for the courage to round the corner. Raising the bat, she plunged into the dark living room. The instant she could reach it, she hit the light switch.
Now that she'd announced her presence there was no longer a need for stealth. She ran across the living room, skirting the floral print couch, charged into the kitchen, and flipped the light on. A shadow flickered across the floor and disappeared into a corner. Creeping closer, she tried to bring the image clearer, to make some sense of the shape that had skittered beneath the wood cabinet now bathed in light. She turned the bat around, hooked the handle with its end, and pulled the door open. Pots, pans, covers, all stacked neatly, as always.
Nothing behind the door or in the open laundry room. Thankfully, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs understood the need to assess danger quickly. They'd lived in Cymmera, had battled the monsters that lived there, were aware of the dangers lurking close by. If a room was empty, the door stood open.
Still on edge, though she'd searched the entire house, she dropped onto a chair, lay the bat across the table within easy reach, and leaned her elbows on the table. She massaged her temples, the pressure doing little to relieve the intense pounding behind her eyes.
Tension squeezed her chest, and she gave up on fighting the headache. Nothing seemed to be amiss, and yet she'd been so sure she heard something.
On the counter, a teakettle sat propped on a potholder. Mia. She should have guessed. Her sister had been sleeping so poorly lately. Ryleigh got up and hefted the bat over her shoulder. Mia would need her. With one last check to be sure nothing was out of place, she shut the light, backed out of the kitchen, and started across the living room. She stubbed her toe on the wood coffee table, knocking some of the precisely fanned magazines askew, then limped the rest of the way.
Once she had the pain in her foot somewhat under control, she turned off the living room light and approached Mia's closed door. She knocked softly and kept her voice a whisper so as not to wake Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs. "Mia?"
Ryleigh propped the bat against the wall in the hallway. She pushed the door open and found Mia sitting in bed with her knees pulled against her chest, her back against the headboard, and a thick blanket covering her and tucked beneath her arms. Steam rose from a mug of what Ryleigh knew would be Sleepytime Tea cupped between Mia's hands.
"You all right?"
Mia nodded, but the fear in her eyes was unmistakable.
"Mind if I sit for a bit? I'm having trouble sleeping."
Mia shook her head. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth, but it didn't reach her eyes.
Ryleigh climbed onto the bed, folded her legs, and sat facing Mia. "Bad dreams?"
Mia nodded again, and a shiver ran through her. She pulled the blanket tighter. When she finally spoke, her voice shook. "Really bad."
Her younger sister had been through so much in her fourteen years. The death of their parents in a terrorist attack. Her grandmother's prolonged illness and eventual death. The fear that someone would take her from Ryleigh and put her in a foster home, since at seventeen, Ryleigh wasn't yet old enough to be her legal guardian. Being chased from her home by fierce savages and forced into another realm where violence and monsters were a way of life.
Ryleigh tucked the mass of brown curls behind Mia's ear, but it only popped out again a moment later. "I wish I could tell you everything would be okay."
"But that would be lying."
Ryleigh forced a smile. "It might be lying. It might also be true. We have no way to know."
"No kidding." Mia sighed and rolled her eyes.
The gesture threatened to bring a genuine smile to Ryleigh's lips. She bit the inside of her cheek. "Look, Mia. We've talked about this before. I can't promise you everything will be all right, but I can promise you I will always stand by your side. I will protect you and take care of you as best I can."
Tears shimmered and tipped over Mia's thick lower lashes. "I know." She shook her head and swiped the tears. "But you have responsibilities now. To more than just me. An entire kingdom is counting on you to save them. You ca —"
"Stop right there." Ryleigh held up her hand, halting any further arguments. "You come first, Mia. You always come first with me."
Mia finally formed a tentative smile. "I know. You're my hero." She clutched the mug against her chest in a two handed grip and batted her lashes.
Ryleigh reached a hand under the blanket and tickled Mia's feet. "You sarcastic little brat."
"Stop. You're going to make me spill my tea." Somehow, Mia managed to balance the mug through the fit of giggles. She regained control of herself and placed the cup on the nightstand beside the bed. "You have to go soon, Ryleigh. The dreams are coming more frequently. There's violence coming ... bad things." She tucked her shaking hands beneath the blanket and pulled it up over her shoulders.
Mia's delicate features and slight build made her appear so fragile, yet she possessed great inner strength. She never would have made it through the past month if she didn't. "I'll go soon enough."
"Can I come?" She sat up straighter.
Ryleigh frowned. "I thought you said violence was coming."
"Then why would you want to come?"
Mia shrugged. "I miss Sadie and Kiara ... and Dakota." A blush stole up her pale cheeks as she played with the edge of the blanket.
Her sister had the biggest crush on the young Death Dealer in training. This time, Ryleigh couldn't stop the smile.
Mia ignored her. "I miss Nika and Nahara." She grinned. "I want to fly again."
Ryleigh couldn't argue with that. Flying on one of the huge hounds had been the most amazing experience of her life. They both appeared similar to enormous Tibetan Mastiffs, except for their wings.
Nika was gorgeous, with his black fur, mane, and wings, but Nahara, with her cream color coat and the pink and gold markings forming a crown around her head, then leading down her back and onto her wings, was truly incredible.
"We'll go soon."
The excitement lighting Mia's eyes dimmed, and she lay down.
Great. Now Ryleigh was going to give in. "I worry about taking you there after you got so weak the last time."
Mia pulled the blanket up under her chin and snuggled down into the pillows. "I'll be okay. I feel fine now, and I won't stay as long this time. Kiara said I'd get stronger each time I visited. Until, one day, I'd be able to stay." She looked up at Ryleigh, eyes pleading.
"All right. We'll go this weekend."
Mia smiled even as her eyes dropped shut. "I knew you'd say yes."
A surge of love shot through Ryleigh. Despite only three years difference in their ages, Mia was more like a daughter than a sister. Ryleigh had helped raise her since she was a toddler and had pretty much taken care of her on her own once their grandmother fell ill several years ago. She stood beside Mia and tucked the covers tighter around her. "I love you, little sis." Ryleigh kissed her sister's head.
"I love you too, big sis." The sleepiness in Mia's voice made her sound so much younger.
She smoothed Mia's hair back off her face. The dark circles beneath her eyes had gotten worse over the past few days. She had no doubt Mia's destiny lay in Cymmera, as did her own. Eventually. But she desperately wanted to offer Mia the opportunity for a few years of normalcy. Friends, sleepovers, boyfriends ... human boyfriends ... proms ... Ryleigh rolled her shoulders, the weight of responsibility sometimes too heavy a burden.
When Mia's soft snores became more rhythmic, and she would probably sleep the rest of the night, Ryleigh got up and moved quietly to the door. She reached for the light switch but thought better of the idea and left it on. No sense taking any chances Mia would wake frightened in the dark. She closed the door gently behind her and reached for the bat she'd left beside the door. The bat was gone.
She jumped, and her back hit the wall. "What are you doing here, Jackson?" She stared into the darkest, most intense eyes she'd ever seen. Eyes that bored straight through to her very soul, as they had the last time he'd pinned her with that same passionate gaze. Heat laced with the adrenaline charging through her system.
He moved closer. "I was feeling ... restless."
She inhaled deeply, his rich, earthy scent invading her lungs. Her body betrayed her. Even as she struggled to maintain the scowl, her heart rate accelerated.
He placed his hands against the wall on either side of her head, effectively caging her between his body and the wall. "I thought I'd check up on you." He nuzzled her neck, just above her frantically racing pulse. "Make sure you guys were okay."
She fought the urge to melt into his arms. "How thoughtful of you." Definitely too breathless.
He pulled back, his customary cocky grin firmly in place. "You are a stubborn woman, Ryleigh Donnovan."
She lifted a brow. "And don't you forget it, Mister Maynard."
His laughter warmed her in ways she didn't want to think about, wasn't yet ready to face.
His expression sobered quickly as he glanced at Mia's door. "Is she all right?"
The concern etched in the depths of his eyes touched her as nothing else could have. His tenderness toward Mia had helped him worm his way into her heart, even when he frustrated her nearly to death.
"She has nightmares, says there's violence coming to Cymmera. I don't know if it's just bad dreams or something ... more." She really wasn't ready to contemplate the possibility Mia knew the future.
Jackson cradled her cheek in his hand. "It'll be all right. I'll have Kiara talk to her and check her over."
Relief lifted some of the pressure from Ryleigh's chest. "Thank you."
Kiara was the strongest healer in Cymmera. It didn't hurt that both Ryleigh and Mia liked the soft-spoken woman. And her daughter, Sadie, was adorable. A small glimmer of happiness surfaced at the thought of the rambunctious toddler. Yes. A visit to Cymmera this weekend would be good for her as well as Mia.
"I miss you, Ryleigh." He traced the line of her neck with his finger.
"I miss you too." What could she say? It was true. But it didn't matter, nor would it change things.
"Come home with me."
"You know I can't. Not yet."
"Yet?" He grinned and held her gaze.
She bit her lower lip to keep from smiling back at him.
Jackson groaned and pushed away from the wall. He turned his back on her and wandered down the hallway into the living room but didn't bother turning on the light.
Ryleigh followed but remained silent. This was a sore subject between them. Now that Jackson had taken his father's place as King of Cymmera, he wanted Ryleigh to rule beside him.
He finally turned back to face her. "I need you with me, Ryleigh. I need you to take your place at my side." He raked a hand through his thick, dark hair.
Even in the dim light cast from the hallway, Ryleigh could make out tufts sticking up. She took a few steps closer to him, reached up and smoothed his tousled hair. "I know. But I can't now. You know that, Jackson. You said you understood."
He gripped her wrist and brought her fingers to his lips. "I do understand. But it doesn't make it any easier to be without you."
"It's not easy for me either, you know."
"No. I miss you. All the time. I think about you constantly. The urge to be with you is overwhelming."
He pulled her into his arms.
She lowered her voice even more. "It scares me. I'm afraid of losing myself." The confession didn't come easy. Jackson was a strong man. A warrior. It would be easy to lose her own ambitions, her sense of self, her independence. She lay her cheek against his chest, letting the steady, rapid beat of his heart soothe her.
Jackson rested his chin on her head. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to pressure you. The desire to claim you is almost irresistible now."
She wanted Jackson so badly, wanted to be with him all the time. But her first responsibility was to Mia. She had to stay in her own realm until Mia was strong enough to survive permanently in Cymmera. She'd already resigned herself to the fact she'd one day live there. It seemed her destiny and Mia's surely lay in that direction. But she hadn't yet found a way to wrap her mind around her role as queen. It was just too far-fetched.
Jackson pulled back. He smoothed a strand of loose hair behind her ear. "Come with me now."
"We just went through all of this. I ca —"
"Not forever. Just for tonight. Come with me for a while." He tugged on the hair he still held. "We'll work on your training, since you've probably forgotten everything I taught you."
Ryleigh laughed, relieved he'd let the difficult conversation drop. Mia should sleep the rest of the night, didn't usually get up twice. On the off chance she did, Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs would be there. The couple had been kind enough to take them in, and they would take care of her until Ryleigh returned. She shrugged. "Sure. I guess I could go for a little while." She wouldn't sleep anymore tonight anyway. "Let me change quick."
"Fine, but hurry up about it. I don't have all night."
"Yes, dear." She rolled her eyes but figured he couldn't see in the dark.
He swatted her behind.
She may have figured wrong.
"Don't roll those eyes at me, smart ass. As usual, you underestimate my special powers."
She laughed, not quite sure if he really could see more clearly in the darkness or just knew her well enough to expect the gesture.
Jackson followed her down the hallway to her bedroom.
She opened the door but then stopped short and glanced over her shoulder. "Give me the bat, though. I want to put it away first. Otherwise I might forget, and I won't have it if I need it."
Excerpted from Lost Princess by Dani-Lyn Alexander. Copyright © 2015 Dani-Lyn Alexander. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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