Lilia Foret tapped her pencil absentmindedly against the page in front of her. Something wasn’t right. She glanced up at the series of dressmakers bust’s arranged against the wall, each one wearing a garment in various stages of completion. It was her senior collection—the work that was supposed to represent the last three years of her life—and she just wasn’t happy with it. She knew part of why: there was no unifying element. She knew she needed one, but nothing was speaking to her.
“Just color isn’t going to work; it needs a theme.” Lilia dropped the pencil and began to methodically braid her long, blond hair to get it off her neck. It was hot—she’d turned off the air conditioning and opened the windows to let in fresh air, but now she was feeling the full effect of Los Angeles during a heat wave. “Wish I could cut it…”
Lilia grimaced at the thought of the two times she’d tried hacking most of it off. It had grown back almost overnight. She’d been forced to tell her fellow students that she’d freaked out once she’d realized how short it was and put in extensions. The truth was that it had grown back magically, the heavy curls apparently part of her fae heritage. Her friend Becca always told her it was because Sleeping Beauty had to have Disney-level hair, even if she wasn’t asleep anymore.
Lilia’s phone buzzed with a text message, but she ignored it. She ripped the page she’d been working on out of her sketchbook and crumpled it up with a disgusted sound. “That’s it! I’m out of ideas, I’m washed up at the ripe old age of twenty.” Well, twenty plus the eight or so centuries she’d spent unconscious because of her crazy aunt’s sleeping curse.
She glared at the busts as she used the notebook to fan her face. The icy blue chiffon on the bust closest to her fluttered mockingly. “I hate you,” she told the chiffon, “on a deep, elemental level.”
Her phone buzzed again. “I’m not home.” She uncurled her shorts-clad legs from under her and pushed up off the carpet. There was Diet Coke in her fridge; icy, cold, refreshing Diet Coke. One of Lilia’s favorite things about living in the modern world was soda. And the ability to get a cold beverage any time. There were a few things Lilia missed about living in the twelfth century. The food was not one of them. She stood a few extra minutes in front of the open fridge, enjoying the cool blast of air, before she snagged a can and popped the top.
As she took her first sip, there was a knock on her front door. Lilia contemplated ignoring it—she was mid-self-loathing-creative-meltdown after all, whatever it was could wait—when the knock came again. Harder this time. She pulled a face. Maybe not just a package delivery, then.
“I’m coming!” She padded back to her work room on bare feet to grab her cell on the way. No sense opening the door to a random person without a phone to call 911. Alex and Becca would be so proud of her. Though Lilia could take care of pretty much anyone on her own, knocking people senseless with magic created, to quote Alex, “more mess than it was worth.”
Her phone claimed she had thirteen texts from Alex. “What…?” Lilia swiped the lock screen as she headed toward the door. “I said I was coming!”
She glanced down at the most recent message.
– Not my idea. Swear. Don’t hate me. Hate Becca. –
Lilia paused in concern. That was unlike Alex. She started to scroll back through the messages, but the knocking grew more insistent. “Okay! Okay! Something better be on fire—” she broke off as she swung the door open. Lilia blinked at the half-naked, well muscled chest in front of her. She recognized that chest. And that stupid leather vest. Her eyes travelled upward to broad shoulders, long dark blond hair half-pulled back, ridiculously strong jaw, and tawny-colored eyes.
“No.” The word was out before her brain had even processed his name—Talon. Fera prince. Snarky, annoying, disrespectful fae. “No,” she repeated. Then she slammed the door.
Lilia stared unseeingly at the closed door. Why was there a fae here? How was there a fae here? And why did it have to be Talon of all possible fae?
“That went well,” a muffled exclamation came from the other side of the door. Lilia narrowed her eyes as she recognized Becca’s voice.
“I told you to leave him in the car,” Alex’s voice replied.
“He’s kinda hard to boss around. I told him to stay in the car…and I told him to stay behind us.”
“I am twice your size; petite-fae, you would not have hidden me.” Talon’s rumbly voice carried through the door clearly.
Lilia closed her eyes and started counting to ten. She’d been startled, taken by surprise, knocked off her royal game. She didn’t want him to see her flustered again.
“Lilia, it’s Becca. Open the door.”
She mentally revised her counting goal up to twenty.
“I have a key, you know.” Becca said.
Lilia added another fifty onto the count.
“She’s probably counting. That’s her new thing. Lil, if you’re going up past a hundred, let me know and I’ll go sit in the car; it’s hot.”
Lilia opened her eyes at Alex’s comment. She swiped the phone back open and replied to the most recent text.
– Make it go away –
She could hear Alex’s sigh through the door.
– He’s not an “it.” Just hear us out. It’s hot out here. –
Lilia took a deep breath and opened the door. Three heads turned toward her in unison. “You two can come in. He can wait out here.”
Alex shook her head, her straight blond hair flying around her shoulders. “Not a good idea.”
“It seems like a perfectly fine idea to me,” Lilia bit out.
“You want to leave a fae on your doorstep? Look at him!” Becca poked Talon’s bicep.
Lilia looked. In addition to the shirtless vest fashion emergency he had going on, he was wearing tight leather pants and…she glanced away from his feet. “He didn’t come with shoes?”
“Oh good lord,” Becca huffed as she pushed past Lilia into the condo. “Talon, come in and sit over there.” She waved vaguely in the direction of the living room.
Lilia looked at the white leather of her couches and then back to Talon. “Is he clean?”
“Clean enough, little princess.” Talon grinned.
“May I see you both in my work room?” Lilia bared her teeth in a mock-polite smile. Alex at least had the decency to look uncomfortable. Becca just tossed her dark brown hair over a shoulder and headed down the hallway.
“Why don’t you have the air on?” Alex whispered as they followed.
“I was trying to think. Needed fresh air.”
“The collection isn’t going well?”
“Horribly. It’s a disaster.”
Alex patted her shoulder. “You’ll figure it out, Lil; you always do.”
They joined Becca, who was already in the work room leaning against the over-sized sewing table, her arms crossed. Lilia could tell she was trying to look casual. And failing miserably.
“So,” Lilia asked as she closed the door behind her, “which one of you is going to explain why we’ve got a full-blooded fae in my living room?”
“Well, I was kidding when I said you should hate Becca, not me…” Alex smoothed her bangs down, a nervous gesture Lilia hadn’t seen from her in years. “She’s had a hard day.”
Becca puffed out sarcastic, “Pffft.”
Lilia looked at her with an eyebrow raised. “What happened?”
Becca uncrossed her arms and braced them against the desk behind her. “Okay, bringing him here without warning you first was probably not the best life choice, but I’d already had it with the fae drama for the day. I only have so much tolerance for magical assholery, and I’ve reached the limit.”
Lilia sat in the overstuffed chair in the corner and folded her long legs under her. “This sounds serious.”
Becca nodded. “Yeah, kind of. So, you know how when I did…whatever it was I did to save Nicholas…I kind of ingested the spell, took on the fera magic?”
Lila nodded. The summer before, Nicholas Hunt, Becca’s now boyfriend but then enemy, had been turned into a beast through contact with a fae curse in the form of a mirror. Becca had taken on the spell directly, her magic becoming tangled with the enchantment. When Nicholas had started to break the curse on his own by falling in love with Becca, the result had nearly killed her…until she’d drawn the spell out of Nicholas with a kiss. It was all very romantic, and a bit awe-inspiring because Becca now not only had terre and verde fae powers, but fera as well—her new power manifesting as a golden lion. She’d also taken on the spell’s main feature: the ability to be a portal to the fae realm.
“So apparently, not only am I a ‘portal’ now, but because I’ve got fera power I’m considered ‘fera,’” Becca air-quoted up a storm. “Or like some sort of sub-species of fera. I don’t even know. The point is, because I’m ‘fera’ I can be summoned by their king.”
Lilia gaped at her. “Summoned?”
“Like, did they send an engraved invitation or were you just like…”
“Walking into an Old Navy dressing room and boom, I disappear! And there I am in the Fae Realm in some weird fera counsel with the king and his demi-highness out there…”
“You were clothes shopping without me? That’s not ever a good idea, Becks. You know you make horrible clothing decisions.”
Alex snorted and then covered her nose in mock horror. “Sorry.”
“Focus, Lilia,” said Becca.
“Sorry. It’s just…tell me you didn’t buy anything in orange. I know you love it, but it’s just not your color.”
“I didn’t buy anything at all! I was poofed away into the Fae Realm. What if I’d been driving?! That could have been a disaster. So there I was surrounded by all these fera and King Beorn and they’re all ‘blah blah blah, Fae Realm politics, and drama, and blah blah blah…Talon is being sent back with you to protect Lilia and blah blah blah,’ and then I was poof back at Old Navy with Talon.”
Lilia stared at her. “Protect me? Why do I feel like that ‘blah blah blah’ is a whole lot of things I don’t want to hear?”
“Basically it comes down to this,” Alex interjected. “King Beorn told Becca that there’s been a lot of internal political strife in the Fae Realm. There’s a ton we just don’t know about the fae, including that there are more divisions, factions—”
“Houses, he called them houses…like they’re freaking Hogwarts.” Becca rubbed her forehead.
“Whatever you want to call them,” Alex continued, “than we even know about. Like five or six; you’ll have to ask Talon. But the point is: there’s one house that’s headed by a real peach of a guy. He’s still pissed about the fact that he was supposed to marry a fae queen and didn’t get to, so now he’s decided he’s going to marry the new queen of the terre-verde.”
Lilia looked between Alex and Becca. Their tension was palpable; it had been increasing with the telling of the day’s events. Now they were both so visibly on edge Lilia was almost afraid to ask.
“Who’s the new queen of the terre-verde?”
There was a long silence. Becca was staring at the carpet, avoiding Lilia’s stare. Alex smoothed down her bangs again.
Becca finally looked up from the carpet. “You are.”