Gilded by Renita Pizzitola
True love comes with a price.
Kyla Ashbury, half-fae, must learn to wield her Earth magic to protect herself from the king’s guard. Fleeing her betrothal to the prince, she takes refuge among the woodland fae, who are experts at Earth magic. Before she can learn to control her gift, she has to return to the castle to undo some of the damage done when she ran away with Grant. Wielding power she can’t control makes the situation worse.
Grant will do anything for the girl he loves. Even with his power to foresee danger, keeping Kyla safe is a constant challenge. As answers lead to more questions, he wonders if he is endangering her further.
Kyla’s growing talent destines her to a power struggle she doesn’t want. Every choice she makes seems to jeopardize those closest to her. She must learn to control the angry magic coursing through her if she ever hopes to live a normal life with the man she loves.
A Lyrical Press Young Adult Fantasy Romance
All rights reserved, Lyrical Press, Inc.
With clenched teeth and a forced smile, I turned to Grant. “She won’t stop staring at me.” The nymph’s sneer grated on me, but the way she leered at Grant downright burned me up.
“She’s curious. I told you they don’t get many visitors. You’re a bit of an anomaly.” He smiled and kissed my cheek leaving behind a warm spark.
Though sweet, he was oblivious. As the first male visitor these woodland nymphs had seen in quite a while, he was an anomaly. As competition, I posed a threat. They shared their new toy, Grant, but me they wanted out of the picture. Living with them had been Grant’s solution to our running away from the castle, well, temporary solution. At least it had better be, because if I had to spend much more time here I’d go insane.
I nodded at Willow, whose name fit her slender frame well. “If you say so, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that one over there poisons my dinner.”
With his hand on the log where we sat, he grinned, stretched his long legs, crossing them at the ankle, and leaned back.
“Just saying, if I keel over, you know where to look. I’m not pointing any fingers or anything but she has that look.”
“You think? Hmm.” He stared at her as she braided vine into rope, and rubbed his chin. “She does look capable of murder. Look at that smile and the way she’s talking to her friends. She just laughed. Uh-oh, and waved. Watch out for that one. She’s lethal.”
“Ha ha. Fine, but when I go missing, you’ll be sorry.” The corner of my mouth twitched up, though I attempted a scowl.
“I would, which is why I’d never let anything happen to you. We came here to keep you safe, not endanger your life. So quit worrying. I don’t think Willow plans to kill you. Well, not today at least.” He narrowed his gaze and studied her a second longer.
I swatted his arm.
He laughed then faced me. A fine line etched between his brows, on an otherwise perfect face, as his crystal blue focused on mine. “You’ll never fully understand your connection to the earth if you don’t practice. I can’t teach you, but they can. I’ll feel better traveling knowing you can protect yourself.”
“I know, I know. I’ve been trying though.”
I concentrated on a nearby flower bud and it inched open.
Grant observed my handiwork.
The blooming daisy stalled as my magic fizzled. With a forced smile, I squared my shoulders. “Impressive, huh?”
“You’ve made so much progress and you’re a quick learner too. Don’t worry. You’ll get the hang of it soon.” He leaned in and kissed me.
The tingling warmth started with my lips, radiated throughout my body, and I melted into him. His sweet kiss blazed into passion but it was a bad idea. Wrong place, wrong time. I pulled back, giggling as his reddened full lips dipped into an adorable pout.
His gaze drifted down. “Huh, interesting.” He studied the flower, now radiant in full bloom. Maybe even a little brighter than its neighbors.
My cheeks grew warm as he shot me a suggestive glance.
“Keep this up and you might solve the deforestation problem. Well, I think it’s time for your lesson with Summer. I’m going to find a cold pond to jump into or something.” With a wicked grin, he winked.
My heartbeat raced as he strode away. His lean frame moved with ease as his muscles worked in perfect tandem from years of training, gracing him with the well-worn confidence of a castle guard. Who would have known our relationship would ever get here? After the mixed feelings, not speaking to one another and of course me almost marrying a prince, it seemed a miracle we’d pulled through. I couldn’t be happier. Well, that was almost true. I would be happier if the royal court wasn’t hunting me down.
When we’d first heard rumors of the king’s pursuit, I’d wondered if it was idle gossip, but Nanny, a local healer and trusted friend, confirmed it. King Alastar wanted me returned to court to fulfill my obligation to marry his son, Prince Liam. The sad part, I had never wanted to hurt Liam. If I could fix this I would, but going back wasn’t an option. We would remain on the run, attempting to stay a step ahead of the king’s guards.
Leaves rustled with approaching footsteps. With my hand as a shield, I squinted upward at the hovering silhouette with striking topaz eyes.
“Ready?” Summer stared down at me then stomped off toward the dense oaks.
I scrambled to catch up. She never let me forget how much of her valuable time my pitiful attempts at magic wasted, but I couldn’t complain. At least she was even willing to help. It was safe to assume she did it only to gain Grant’s approval, and she probably wanted a lot more than just his gratitude, but if it meant us getting out of this woodland faery hell, I didn’t care what her reasons were.
Hell was an exaggeration, of course, considering this part of the forest was beautiful. Ancient oaks surrounded the clearing the nymphs called home. Emerald grass sprinkled with wildflowers carpeted the ground and everything was always in bloom, though I had yet to witness a rainstorm.
But the majestic setting didn’t hide the fact these girls were odd. They looked no different from other fae, or any human for that matter. Well, minus their homemade garments comprised of various fabrics belted with vine and adorned with flowers. They lived deep in the woodlands and separation from the rest of Tir na nOg seemed to mess with them. They dwelt in small twig huts hidden in bushes, bark and leaf homes built between branches and slept on vine hammocks stretched tree to tree. One thing they were good at, making use of their element, the earth.
The biggest problem was the way these touchy-feely nymphs always pawed at Grant. Every time I turned around, a different girl had draped herself all over him and sometimes it wasn’t just one but two or three. He dodged their advances but his unease seemed to fall more along the lines of embarrassment while rage fueled mine. I didn’t even hang on him like that.
As we marched into the forest to my probable death, I practiced here and there, attempting to make a plant greener or move a tree root. Even better was when I caused small cracks in the soil. I didn’t care for magic lessons, but did enjoy my newfound skills.
Summer stopped in a clearing. “You seem to be getting the little stuff and since today is your last day, I figured I would show you the big stuff.”
To my relief, she didn’t intend to subtract me from the Grant equation but I did wonder what she considered “big stuff.”
A tall oak tree’s branches rustled as if a strong wind blew through them but the air stood still.
“Lesson one, trees. If you concentrate hard enough, you can manipulate anything connected to the earth. I know you’ve worked with roots before but it doesn’t stop there. What you shouldn’t do, though, is injure a tree. They are sacred and you don’t want to disturb the natural balance.”
Being an earth user gave me clear understanding of what she meant. Trees pulsed with life under my palm. A gentle hum invigorated me when the element surrounded me.
“Something like this–” She rustled the tree again. “–could be used as a distraction or even shake something loose. You try.”
“Okay.” I attempted to mimic what she’d done, but got nothing. “What am I doing wrong?”
“I doubt you’re doing it wrong, but I think you’re concentrating on the wrong parts. You seem focused on the tree’s branches but it’s no different than wanting to move your arm. It can’t move without the help of your brain and the signals it sends to your nerves. The earth is the brain and the roots are the nerves. Send your thoughts through the earth and into the roots.”
With increased determination, I concentrated on the ground surrounding the tree.
“Picture the roots. They are alive.” Her melodic tone helped my meditation. “Deep in the earth they travel, soaking the nutrients and dispersing them into its massive branches.”
I pictured what lay beneath the soil, roots of all sizes and varying lengths like my tree of life necklace. My body buzzed as my connection to the earth grew stronger. Sending my energy into the tree, I visualized the branches moving. The hum grew louder and my nerves tingled. The branch fluttered. Pathetic. “What happened? I felt it. A link formed and all I got was a tiny little twitch in the tree. You made the whole branch move.”
“It takes practice. You’ll get it.” With pursed lips, she studied me and shrugged. “Well, unless it’s because you’re half-fae.”
Just as I thought we’d made a breakthrough, she’d taken a stab at my half-breed status.
“Now, lesson two. The ground.”
“Huh?” How did we move on to lesson two when I didn’t get lesson one?
“What?” she asked. “You aren’t going to learn this stuff overnight. You understand the mechanics and can practice on your own, but no matter how many times you try today it’s not going to happen.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Now, same concept. The earth is the brain and you have to connect with it then tell it what to do.” She looked down, and the ground shook underneath us.
My stomach dropped. I hadn’t expected her to create a mini-earthquake.
“You won’t get this one today but give it a try anyway.”
I took a deep breath, exhaled, and willed myself to calmness.
She released a sigh. “Maybe we should skip this. You’ll just waste all your energy because there is no way you’ll be able to do it. Your magic isn’t strong enough and I doubt you even know what you’re doing.”
I shook off her comment and stared at the ground. “I’m going to try it.”
Focused on the land beneath me, I connected with the earth. A familiar buzz ran through me and drifted into the soil.
“Don’t be ashamed to give up.” Criticizing me might have been Summer’s favorite part of the lessons.
Ignoring her distraction, I persevered.
She let out an even louder and more dramatic sigh.
Anger flared. My body quivered as it sought and made its connection. An invisible thread wove through the earth and me, pulled tight and bound us as one. A ball of energy burst forth, flowed through me and plummeted into the soil. The ground shook. Nowhere near the magnitude of what Summer had accomplished but it shook.
“I did it!”
Summer smirked and tossed her blond hair over her shoulder.
“Did you say all that stuff to piss me off on purpose?”
“How did you know it would work?”
“I heard the story about you taking down a girl at the portal. You were scared and angry. Grant says you manipulated your element like an old pro. I saw you make an entire garden bloom while kissing Grant. It’s obvious your emotions play a lot into your ability.”
Emotions did seem to amplify my abilities.
“It has to be the half-human part of you. Full fae are bound to their element through magic. We feel what it feels, allowing us a deep instinctual connection that comes without effort. It’s a part of us. You, on the other hand, have all these human emotions getting in the way of your primitive connection to the earth. So, I figured if we can’t go around them, might as well go through them.”
“That’s amazing.” I smiled at her. “Thanks. For everything. I appreciate what you have shown me and, well, your willingness to teach me.”
Happiness crept onto Summer’s face. She waved dismissively. “I’m tired of getting nowhere. I had to think of something. That’s it for today. You know what you need to do, practice. Over time you’ll get better.” She walked in the direction we’d come from. “Let’s head back.”
Eager to share my news, I couldn’t wipe the happy expression off my face the entire way back. The dense trees opened to a clearing as we turned the corner. My gaze landed on Grant, which also meant I found Willow. Anger surged as she leaned into him, her palms flat against his firm abdomen. Lily, whose complexion was as flawless and milky as the flower, stood on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear while she ran her dainty fingers through his dark hair then danced them along the back of his neck.
Grant tried to sidestep the two fae but came face to face with Laurel. With brown hair cascading over her shoulders, she pressed her hand to his chest, and leered at him.
Today’s practice hadn’t even taken long. What had gone on during the longer magic sessions? Their day-to-day obnoxious flirting annoyed me, but this crossed the line.
“Maybe now is a good time to use what you’ve learned,” Summer whispered. “If emotions strengthen your element, no time like the present to practice.”
I glanced at Grant and his entourage of nymphs then back to Summer. Was she serious?
The ground beneath the girl-Grant-sandwich became my focal point. Bound to the earth, I siphoned emotion-fueled magic into it. The land rumbled. The more I concentrated, the harder it shook.
Willow lost her balance and wobbled with outstretched arms. Lily grabbed a tree to steady herself, as did Laurel.
Grant scratched his head and searched the area. He spotted me.
Releasing the hold, I tugged at the bottom of my shirt. He wouldn’t be too happy with my behavior toward our hostesses.
He looked to Summer.
She shook her head and pointed to me.
He studied me a second then grinned.
The other girls, who must have put things together as well, glared at me.
“Hey, sorry, girls. We were practicing,” Summer said. “I’ve been trying to teach Kylie a few new things and had no idea the magnitude of her power. She’s a natural. Who knew? It’s my fault. I should have explained things better to her.”
I stared at Summer.
The three girls studied us with narrowed gazes.
“Guess we should be more careful around her.” Summer chuckled. “Who knows what she’s capable of.”
The girls stiffened and exchanged suspicious glances.
I suppressed the giggles building inside me. If only they knew I couldn’t even figure out how to make a flower bloom.
“Well, she should be more careful,” Laurel said.
“So should you,” replied Summer with a menacing stare.
Willow, Laurel and Lily squared their shoulders and huffed off.
Certain they were out of earshot, I laughed. “I can’t believe you said that.”
“It’s true.” She shrugged and walked away.
As Grant approached the strong, sharp angles of his face softened into a boyish grin. “Well look at you, little miss earthquake.” He wrapped his arms around my waist and kissed me. “Oh and by the way, I changed my mind about Willow. If she cooks you dinner, don’t eat it.”
“Told you so.” I pulled him back to finish our kiss.
* * * *
The sun peeked over the horizon, and though we had a long day ahead of us, I wasn’t ready to give up one of my few alone moments with Grant. So, I remained snuggled into him, enjoying the gentle hum pulsing between us.
A small thatched roof protected the hammock we slept on, but it offered no privacy, which was why we slept fully clothed. Always prepared to spring out of our make-shift bed at a moments notice, though typically, we were up with the sun.
This bittersweet moment, lying here with the love of my life, should have brought so much joy, but today we would venture to a portal back to the human world. Leaving our current location put us in jeopardy of running into the king’s guards but once we crossed over, I risked discovery by The Rite of Purity, the brotherhood who tracked and killed all otherworldly creatures. As far as they were concerned, I was an abomination and heading home was sure to put me on their radar again.
Even though it was dangerous, seeing my best friend Lexie, whom I missed terribly, stirred excitement. I also couldn’t wait to see my parents and my adorable little sister, Katelyn. For our protection, she and I had been swapped as babies, referred to by the fae as changelings. She had lived in the magical otherworld of Tir na nOg, while her human birth parents, the only parents I had ever known and loved dearly, raised me.
While eighteen years passed for me in the human world, three had for Katelyn. People believed fae never grew old, but they did. Human time just ran too fast to see them age.
Listening to Grant’s soft breathing as he slept calmed my restlessness. The moment we got up the day began, for better or worse. Still and quiet, I hoped we could stay like this.
Somewhere in the distance was a soft rustling. It may have been Meadow, always the first to rise, flitting about gathering berries for breakfast. I twisted to see if she or any other girls had awoken. Instead of those of a woodland nymph, I stared into the brown eyes of an animal.
I shrieked and jerked away so fast the hammock sent me rolling over Grant and the whole thing tipped. My back hit the ground with a thud.
Grant, now wide-awake, tried to break his fall and managed to stop most of his weight from crushing me.
Propped on one arm, he looked down at me. “If you wanted me on top of you, you could have just asked.”
“As fun as that sounds, it’s not such a good idea. We have an audience.”
Grant’s head shot up and he looked around. His gaze settled on a brown lab. He pushed himself to standing and helped me up. “Are you okay?”
“Minor concussion.” I rubbed the back of my head. “I’ll survive.”
He grinned then looked at the dog. “I’m guessing if you’re here, something’s wrong.”
The dog sneeze-snorted and walked into the woods.
Grant grabbed a shirt and jeans from his bag “I’m sure he needs these. Be right back.”
What did this mean? Conor shouldn’t be here. My stomach wrenched.
Oh God, where was Lexie?
Grant emerged with Conor, now in human form, dressed in Grant’s t-shirt and jeans.
“Where’s Lexie?” My best friend should be safe at home with her boyfriend, but he stood here in front of me.
Conor ran his hand through his overgrown brown hair, exposing dark eyes framed with worry. “She’s safe, but there’s a problem.”
“She’s here isn’t she? Lexie’s in Tir na nOg? You guys went to court?”
Conor’s shoulders drooped as he confirmed my worst nightmare.
The air stilled, time slowed and my knees weakened. She might be safe now, but for how long? The king had her, but wanted me. He would use her against me.
“This is all my fault.” Grant paled and slumped against a tree. “We shouldn’t have stayed here so long. I should have risked it. We could have stopped you two.”
Conor squared his shoulders. “No point in worrying about what ifs. We need to figure out the right now.”
Around me, Conor never showed much emotion unless it involved his responsibility to guard those he was designated to protect. Lexie wasn’t assigned to him, but clearly, she topped that list.
Grant took a deep breath, scrubbed his hands over his face, then asked, “What’s going on?”
“Well, as you figured, we did go to court. We had no idea you two had taken off.” He gave Grant a thanks-a-lot look. He directed his last comment to me. “Lexie won’t be allowed to leave until you return.”
“What have I done?” I spoke to myself as the realization sunk in. My best friend held prisoner until I returned. Alastar’s decision to keep her hostage wasn’t surprising, but it was still hard to accept. “Does she know what’s going on? Is she scared?”
“No. They’ve charmed her. She has no idea about any of this, and just as well too. I’m sure the king expected me to come find you and pass his message along but I figured you’d also want to know.”
“Of course.” Grant jumped in. “We’ll go back right now.”
“Wait, are they still looking for Grant?” I asked Conor.
Grant looped his fingers through mine and, with a gentle tug, pulled me against him. “It’ll be fine.”
“No. I can’t let anything happen to you. I’ll go. Just me. I’ll talk to Liam. Something. I can’t let them hurt you.” My throat tightened. Talking to Liam wouldn’t help. He hated me, and if by some chance he didn’t, he would never speak up to his father, but I had to think of something. Running away had seemed like such a good idea at the time, but had not been if it meant endangering him and Lexie.
“I’m not letting you go back and face this alone,” Grant said, his voice holding a gentleness reserved only for me. “I’m involved as much as you.”
I looked to Conor. “What if you tell them I’ll come back if they promise not to hurt Grant? Like give him some kind of immunity?”
“It’s worth a shot. I’ll see what they say.” Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked down.
If the king didn’t accept this offer, he’d threaten Lexie. What did the king have to lose? He didn’t need to bargain with us. We had no leverage. But, if Conor didn’t try to negotiate our return, it left Grant at risk.
“I’ll go now and see what they say. I think you’ll be safe here for the time being. I shifted frequently so no one could follow me. I’ll do the same on my return and meet you here in a few hours.”
We agreed, said our goodbyes and he disappeared into the trees. There was soft rustling then a dark bird appeared over the tree line and soared off into the sky. The ease with which Conor shape-shifted made me thankful we had a puka as an ally.
The only time I’d ever seen Grant this upset was the night I’d been convinced, thanks to a little ambrosia wine, I wanted to be with Liam.
“This is my fault.” He frowned. “We should have gone to Lexie and Conor right away. I worried so much about keeping you safe, helping you learn to protect yourself, I put everyone in even more danger. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be sorry. You couldn’t have known.”
He embraced me and for the moment, his arms were my security. Even if Grant was given immunity, I wouldn’t be allowed near him. If the king suspected we acted together, he’d keep us far apart in the future. A life without Grant was no life at all. How could I function without him? I needed to put a stop to this marriage but, without him by my side, didn’t know if I’d be strong enough to find a way out of my betrothal to Liam.
I hugged him tighter, clinging to the memory of our bodies meshed as one, safe, secure and full of love. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, this might be the last time we’d feel this way, and it left me broken.
“No matter what the answer is, we go back tonight,” he said.
I nodded into his chest. Returning was the right thing to do, but I knew what it meant. Once behind those castle walls I’d be subject to Alastar’s will. But what other option did we have?
Somberly, we gathered our belongings and said goodbye to the girls. As much as I couldn’t stand them, being with them was a lot more pleasant than where we were headed.
We tried our best to continue the day as normal but I often caught Grant staring at me. Our separation seemed inconceivable. He was my life. It was unfair it took us this long to come together only to be ripped apart in a fraction of time.
Around midday, Conor came back.
“King Alastar has agreed to give Grant immunity if he returns you today.”
My heart leapt with joy, but Grant and Conor didn’t share my enthusiasm. “What is it? What’s wrong? This is a good thing, right?”
“I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t like it,” Conor said. “The king isn’t one to do anyone else favors, but what choice do we have now? We have to go back and be cautious. Grant, you could choose to stay in hiding, but I know you won’t leave her.”
“Absolutely not.” He shook his head and crossed his arms.
“Then we go.” Conor’s voice wavered.
I glanced between the two boys. This might be the beginning of the end.