Birth of the Phoenix

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by MINDY MARIN

As Ember celebrates her 18th birthday, she struggles to find her true purpose in life. In a world where men rule and women are viewed as objects to obtain, love is often placed last on the list. But everything changes when Elijah, the son of a Native Shaman enters her life. Knowing true love for the first time, Ember’s heart is broken when her father forbids her from seeing him again. Manipulated into marrying a man she doesn’t love, Ember finds herself trapped in a sadistic game, fighting to find a way back to her soul mate, Elijah. Will a reincarnation spell that binds their souls together be enough to save their love in this lifetime? Ceaseless takes you on a magical journey of love and betrayal that will leave you asking; what happens next?!

EXCERPT FROM BIRTH OF THE PHOENIX

DECEIVED

The morning of my engagement celebration is here before I realize it. Guests have continued to arrive over the last few days.  Mountains of gifts have already been delivered and the palace is overflowing with flowers and tempting smells. Most of the people here are complete strangers to me but two of those strangers I’m particularly anxious to meet, Gabriel’s parents. One would think they would be the first to arrive but to my knowledge they are still unaccounted for. I honestly have no idea about them as Gabriel has been rather mum about it all. I only know that Gabriel is of Spanish ancestry.

Flora is now in my room to help me dress and put my hair up. Mother has been nagging me to wear it in a braided bun but I feel like I’m her age when I do that, although mother looks quite beautiful when she wears it that way. No, this is my day. I know that many of the decisions surrounding my engagement are being made by others but my hair, well, that will be decided by me. I imagine it will take Flora hours to curl it and get me into my dress but it will be worth it.

“Ember, don’t you look lovely!” Diana says, trying to hold back tears.

“Thank you, although Flora should be the one taking the credit,” I say with a smile as I look up at Flora.

Flora just shakes her head from side to side as if to say she doesn’t deserve any credit at all.

“Yes Flora, you have done a wonderful job getting Ember ready for her big day,” Nathanael replies with a smile.

“We won’t stay. We just came by to say hello and to wish you luck. Oh, Ember, we will remember this day forever!” Diana cries as the tears finally begin to flow.

Nathanael wipes her cheeks and takes her by the hand. “Well, I better take this one downstairs before she fills the room with puddles,” he jokes.

Both he and Diana turn and wave as they exit the room.

“I’ll see you both later!” I call out to them as they close the door behind them.

Flora continues to curl my hair and four hours later I’m completely ready. My eyes are transfixed as I stare at the woman in the mirror. I almost don’t recognize myself. Shifting my eyes slightly, I catch sight of Flora. She is smiling widely, her pride in me clearly evident.

“My palms are sweating,” I whisper.

She smiles warmly as she approaches me and gently brushes the layers of my dress down.

“My heart feels as if it will beat out of my chest,” I say more to myself than anyone else.

“Be yourself, Miss Ember and everyone will love you.”

Tears prick my eyes as she leads me to the doorway. Steadying my racing heart, I take my time leaving my room to walk towards the staircase. As I slowly approach the first step I realize that Gabriel is standing at the bottom waiting for me. He is dressed in a black military style floor length dress coat and I’m thrown back by how handsome he is. He looks up to meet my gaze and we lock eyes with one another. A huge smile spreads across his face and I lose my breath for a moment. I grab on to the railing for dear life, trying not to lose my footing and tumble down the steps. Gabriel extends his hand as I near the bottom and I place my right hand in his palm.

“I have no words to describe how beautiful you look, Ember,” he whispers.

I give him a big smile. “Thank you, you don’t look too horrible yourself,” I answer, snickering lightly.

He rolls his eyes and chuckles. “Compared to you I shouldn’t have even tried.”

We both laugh and begin to walk towards the hall for our grand entrance. I fidget with my hands and bite my lip with anticipation as we approach the waiting area. Everything is breathtakingly beautiful inside of the throne room. The King has had the finest flowers in all the land laid throughout and the walls are draped in red velvet tapestries. The royal carpet cuts down the center of the room leading up to the platform of ceremonial chairs. Every chandelier and candelabra in the room is lit with hundreds of candles. It’s a vision to behold.

“Ember, don’t be nervous, just keep holding my hand, stop fidgeting and smile, alright?” he says as we wait in the side room to be announced.

I nod, breathing out calmly. Every dignitary and kingdom seems to be here. It’s almost too much for someone of my stature but then again Gabriel is in the military so maybe this is normal. Something I will eventually have to get used to. I can hear Lord Barthus announcing the King’s arrival and then my parents’ names are called, followed by Gabriel’s parents.

“Their majesties, King Zaragoza Armida and Queen Elsbeth Armida of Islamorada.”

Their majesties? Wait a minute. Only Kings and Queens are announced in that fashion. I turn to address Gabriel but Lord Barthus is already announcing us before I have a moment to think about the implications of what I have just heard.

“Prince Gabriel Luis Armida and Princess Ember Amelia Montaigu.”

My eyes widen to the size of saucers. Princess! Was I really just called a princess? I’m no princess, not even close to one. But, is Gabriel really royalty? He must be or they would not have announced him as a prince! Why didn’t he tell me? I walk slowly by his side trying to hold it together. I can’t imagine what the look on my face must be right now. I scan the crowd as people cheer our entrance. I need to find Diana. She’s the only person who knows me as well as I know myself and I’m sure she will see the horror on my face and help me somehow.

Gabriel squeezes my hand and gives me a smile. A smile I don’t return. In fact, I would much rather punch him right in the mouth but I keep my composure until we are able to sit down. We are seated to the left of both sets of parents with the King positioned rightfully in the center. The two large gold chairs, lined with jewels and cushioned in blue velvet are befitting a prince and princess but it’s almost as if the minute I sit in it, it will become my prison.

Gabriel holds on tightly to my hand until we are seated comfortably.  I immediately snap my hand away as soon as I possibly can, letting him know in no uncertain terms that I am not happy at what is transpiring. I briefly contemplate simply running out right then and there but as I try to plan my escape route the King stands to address the crowd.  I breathe in, trying to control the rage building within me.

“Thank you, Lord Steward for the introductions,” he begins boldly. “Today is a great day of celebration in our kingdom. As you all know, we lost our beautiful Queen in a tragic accident many years ago before we were able to have children. Without an heir to the throne, as King I am to appoint the closest family member to take power should death befall me. I am honored to appoint my nephew Prince Gabriel Luis Armida of Islamorada as heir to the throne of Erindale.”

The room erupts in cheers as the King motions his hand to Gabriel, asking him to rise. Gabriel gives a wry smile as he stands and bows to the King before taking his seat once again. The King turns back to the crowd of people while I stare at Gabriel. My heart is racing as my fists clench under the table.

 “As is tradition,” The King begins again. “The prince is to be married before accepting the title of heir. Acting on the power given to me by the high court of Erindale, it is my decision to crown the daughter of Grand Duke, Sir Edward Montaigu, princess of Erindale.”

The King turns in my direction and I force a smile to cross my face as I bow my head slightly. The King motions for Gabriel and I to stand before he turns back to the crowd. Gabriel rises to his feet and takes me by the hand, somewhat forcefully, letting me know I am to stand as well.

 “I therefore announce the engagement of Prince Gabriel of Islamorada and Princess Ember of Erindale! With this union our two kingdoms will secure amnesty with one another should there be an act of war on our lands. Please rise and join me in celebrating our new Prince and Princess!”

The crowd roars in thunderous applause and the music begins to play as Gabriel forces us to bow to the people. I try to smile and put on a happy face but my body feels completely numb at the moment. I think my brain is going to explode with the amount of information it’s trying to process. I try to look at my parents or at least my mother for some sort of comfort but the room is spinning. I feel as if I might pass out at any moment!

Gabriel directs us to another section of the room where a line of individuals is already forming. We greet people for hours and all I can think about during it all is how angry and confused I am. Finally, Gabriel’s parents make their exit and I take this opportunity to escape. I run out of the room as quickly as possible.

Gabriel follows after me, calling my name and begging me to understand, to listen to what he has to say but I hear nothing. Tears soak my face as I make my way to my room, determined to rip this dress off and burn it. Throwing my door open, I dash inside.

“Please, Flora, get me out of this!” I beg.

 “Miss Ember, what is it? Why are you so upset?” Flora questions.

“Just help me get this thing off!” I yell.

“Alright dear, alright,” she says calmly.

She unties the sash to my corset and I can feel the vice loosening around my lungs. I grab a hold of the material and begin to feverishly rip it away from my body. Material is flying from my fingertips as the corset is ripped from my bodice and the lace from my sleeves comes undone.

“Miss Ember! What are you doing? Your beautiful dress!” cries Flora.

“Get out, Flora!” I snap back.

She respectfully listens and quietly walks out of the room, closing the door behind her. Free of my wretched dress I walk to the balcony in my chemise, looking out toward the wildflower field. I am officially a princess. How can this be? Why didn’t anyone tell me or even ask me if I wanted this? As usual, all the decisions are being made for me. Not even my mother can be honest with me this time. Why? I’m so confused. I feel betrayed by everyone I know, betrayed by Gabriel.

“Ember!” Gabriel says as he walks onto the balcony. “There you are!”

 I turn to face him, unsure of what my first words will be but one thing I am sure of, is that I am not going through with this wedding.

“Heavens, Ember! What have you done with your dress?” Gabriel asks with a look of shock on his face.

He walks towards me and opens his arms as if he is going to hug me. But I don’t allow him. Instead I slap him across the face as hard as I can. All the rage and anger that has built up within me I put into that one motion.

“Bastard!” I yell.

He seems to get angry at first and then takes a deep breath before he speaks to me again. “Ember, let me explain.”

“If you think I’m going to listen to any more of your lies you are sorely mistaken,” I reply sharply. “This wedding is off! I don’t want to be a pawn in whatever game it is you’re playing with my father and the King. You can find some other stupid girl to trick into becoming a princess but it’s not going to be me!”

He comes toward me again but this time he doesn’t back down. He grabs me by both wrists and holds my arms to my sides, obviously making sure I don’t slap him again.

“Now listen to me very carefully,” he says firmly. “I did not intend to hurt you, nor do I think you are stupid. There are a lot of things you need to understand, Ember but I was not at liberty to tell you until you agreed to marry me.”

He lets go of my hands but the tightness of his grip still lingers. I don’t move right away. Gabriel steps back and I can see the anger reflected in the way he is carrying himself. His eyes narrow as he begins speaking once again.

 “Seeing how you are insisting on doing things the difficult way I have no choice than to tell you the cold truth of it all. The war I told you about is about to begin in your precious little kingdom and since Erindale has no heir to the throne your King was bound to be overthrown or worse… murdered!”

My hand rises to my mouth. Murder the King! Who would think to do such a thing? Gabriel approaches me again placing one hand on the balcony railing while his other hand pushes my strewn hair over my shoulder. He starts speaking calmly.

 “My father offered your King amnesty with the agreement that he would allow me to be heir to his kingdom. The only way he could do that was if your father agreed to offer you as my bride. Your father was warned if you didn’t agree to the terms that he would be executed for treason as well as you and your mother. Your King had no choice and, honestly, neither do you.” His fingers touch my face lovingly. “My father is a powerful man, relentless even, and when he wants something he will not take no for an answer. I love you, Ember. I know at first this was just an arrangement for me but after spending time with you I honestly grew to love you, please believe me when I say that.”

I stand there for a moment trying to soak it all in. My heart is beating exceptionally fast and it’s hard to catch my breath. A war is coming sooner than I thought, my family is in danger and my freedom depends on this arrangement. These are the absolutes of my existence at this moment and that is all I can find room in my head to accept. We don’t speak. We simply stare at one another for quite some time until I can get my head straight. Gabriel steps back, bending slightly so that he can look me in the eyes. Finally, I muster the voice in my throat and speak.

“I will do it,” is all I can say.

Gabriel smiles as he reaches to embrace me. “Ember, I knew you would make the right decision. Everything will be alright, I promise.”

“I’m not doing it for you,” I state somberly.

He stops short of hugging me and looks at me with a disappointed glare.

“If that’s the way you want it, then so be it,” he growls through his teeth.

He is angry and I can tell he will not take this rejection lightly. And suddenly the voice I haven’t allowed myself to hear speaks again. He’s dangerous. My eyes close as I remember Elijah’s warning to me. I turn away from Gabriel and place my hands on the edge of the balcony. The cold stone feels refreshing under the palms of my hands.

“I’m tired. I wish to be alone now,” I state.

I can feel him come up behind me but I have no time to react. He grabs both my arms hugging them to my body as he wraps his arms around my waist. He is squeezing me so tight I can barely breathe. He then places his mouth to my ear and I can feel his hot breath against my skin.

“Remember your place, Ember. You will soon be my wife and you will do as I say, when I say it, understood?”

Spinning me around to face him, he kisses me. But this kiss isn’t passionate at all, it feels violent and possessive. The sweetness I experienced from him before is not present in the least. This can’t be happening. Unable to get my arms free, I do the only thing I can think of to defend myself and bite his lower lip.

He screams out in pain as he pushes me away. The lines on his brows tighten and his eyes darken as his face morphs into something horrendous and frightening. He taps his finger against his lip and then looks at it, seeing blood. His whole body seems to stiffen and the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I am unable to hide my fear as he raises his hand to strike me.

“Gabriel!” yells Nathanael.

Gabriel’s hand pauses as my body trembles. He lowers his hand and steps away from me. The minute he does I fall to my knees, placing the back of my hand over my mouth to try and cover up my quivering lip as I begin to sob uncontrollably.

“Nate, I didn’t know you were still here. Ember and I were just having a discussion, she’s just a little shaken up is all,” Gabriel replies coolly.

“Diana and I have been looking for the two of you forever but I see now is not a good time,” Nathanael says with a disapproving tone and a grimace on his face.

Gabriel seems to catch on to Nathanael’s concern and dismisses himself saying, “I was just leaving, it seems Ember is too tired to continue our discussion this evening.”

Gabriel lightly brushes shoulders with Nathanael as he passes and I can see from Nate’s expression that he takes it as a threat. Once he sees that Gabriel has actually left he turns back to look at me. I’m still on the floor. I know I need to move but my body is rejecting the idea. I’m completely embarrassed by my stupidity, for lack of a better word. How could I have been so blind?

“Ember, are you alright?”

I just nod and begin to pull myself up. Nathanael reaches his hand out to me and I take hold of his palm as he helps me the rest of the way up.

“Do you want me to get Diana for you?” he asks.

I snap into reality at that thought and begin to panic.

“No! Please don’t tell her! Please don’t tell anyone!” I beg.

He stares at me, unsure. “It’s going to be alright, Ember. I won’t say anything. I promise,” he assures me. “Are you sure you’re going to…”

“I’m fine,” I snap, cutting him off mid-sentence. “I just really want to be alone please,” I mumble, turning to look out over the balcony again.

Nathanael says nothing else but I can hear the door close behind me. I quickly run to it and begin to prop furniture in front of it to block anyone else from coming in, specifically Gabriel. I then pull and push my wardrobe closet until it is completely covering the doorway. Alone and frightened, I finally break down. There are so many thoughts spinning in my head but one in particular keeps resurfacing. I begin to seriously consider it. If I’m dead, I would not have to marry him. My father and mother would likely be killed but there’s a chance that would happen regardless, considering how unpredictable Gabriel’s father is. There would be a war and the King would most likely be overthrown or killed, but that’s his problem, not mine. If I ran away I have the sneaking suspicion that Gabriel would find me. No, the only way out of this is death. Plus, I would rather be dead than married to a monster.

“Elijah, why didn’t I listen to you?” I question aloud as more tears escape my eyes.

 Slowly I make my way back outside to the balcony. My hands find the edge again and I remember how the coolness of the stone felt against my skin earlier. I am somehow comforted by it. There is a light breeze in the air now and it makes me feel as if I could fly through the sky. With determination, I pull my legs up one at a time and sit on the balcony edge. Balancing myself with both hands, I stand up. With my arms spread out to the sides like a bird, I take a moment to admire the view. It’s so beautiful, my favorite since I was a little girl. Smiling, my eyes close as the breeze flows through my hair. This is the perfect way to die. Resolute about my decision, I give way to gravity and let go of control over my body.

Floating through the air like a bird.

Flying away from what would surely be hell on earth.

I am now… free.

SECRETS

I can hear a faint voice calling my name and I’m sure when I open my eyes I will be in a different place, a heavenly place, a place free of Gabriel and the life I would have with him. A light breeze is still kissing my skin and the soft bedding under my body feels oddly familiar.

“Ember, open your eyes,” the voice says.

I blink my eyelids open, still a little blurry from so many tears. I find myself back in my room which confuses me greatly. How did I get here? I know I jumped off the balcony. Didn’t I? I turn to the man holding me and smile. I am in a better place after all.

“Elijah?” He smiles and I can see the relief on his face. “Am I dead?” I ask.

“No Ember, you’re not dead, I saved you.”

“Why? How?”

“I know you think that your life is over, but this is far from the truth, your life is just beginning. And it doesn’t matter how I saved you, you are safe and that is all I care about,” he says with a slight tremble in his voice.

“Elijah, you were right about Gabriel. He’s a monster and I’m being forced to marry him!” I sit up in a panic. “Don’t you see that death is my only escape?”

He raises his hand to touch my cheek and his skin is so warm, so comforting.

“You’re beautiful, do you know that?” My eyes close as he continues, “My life would never be the same without you.”

My heart is aching in my chest. I can remember the first time Elijah touched my skin, the electricity that flowed through my body and the instant connection I felt with him. I didn’t allow myself those feelings so I pushed them deep inside of me. Why? I don’t know, maybe out of fear that something might happen to him if I allowed myself to love him. And then Gabriel came along and distracted me; blinded me from the truth. But here I am and here he is, afraid of something happening to me because he loves me. All of the emotions from our first encounter together come rushing back to me and I find myself helpless in his arms. I raise my head to look at him, face to face. He gently wraps his hands around my cheeks and traces my lips with his thumb. Pulling me closer, he touches his lips to mine, my body trembles from the power that flows through me. His hands work their way through my hair while he holds me tightly against his chest. I feel completely safe in his arms, like it’s where I was always meant to be. We hold each other through the night and fall asleep without a care in the world and at that moment, everything is right.

The following morning…

I awaken to the sound of someone banging on the door. Flora calls out to me to see if I am alright. I inherently start to respond but Elijah places his finger to his lips, warning me to keep quiet.

“Meet me by the lake at sundown. Be careful he doesn’t follow you,” he whispers in my ear.

Kissing my forehead, he disappears over the balcony. I run outside to make sure he hasn’t fallen to his death but as I look out over the yard he has completely disappeared. How did he do that?  I watch for a quick second, trying to see if I can spot him and when I can’t I step back inside. Dreading the task of pushing my wardrobe closet from blocking the door I call out to Flora.

“I’m here, Flora. I’m alright but the door seems to be jammed. I’ll have to free it up before you can come in.”

“Alright Miss Ember. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes to assist you.”

With that, I listen as her footsteps fade off in the distance. I run through last night’s experiences in my mind, trying to remember what all took place. It seems too much for one lifetime let alone one night. There are several things that most certainly stand out. Firstly, I know that I fell to my death but am somehow still alive. Secondly, I am now a princess of Erindale and lastly, I am to marry Gabriel in a week’s time.

There is also the matter of the heart I can no longer deny. I am undoubtedly in love with Elijah. I had been blinded by Gabriel’s charm and good looks. But it is very clear to me that his heart and soul are not pure. He has evilness within him. I saw a glimpse of it last night. In hindsight, I realize that there were other clues that I simply ignored. Elijah, on the other hand, comes to me with a pure and caring heart. He loves me for me and I see now that it was he who had my heart and best interest in mind.

How can I marry someone I do not love? Someone who is clearly dangerous. How will I be able to pull this off when my true love lie with someone else? These are questions that I do not have answers to. I survey my room and find the tattered dress I wore last night. I quickly gather it up and place it in the trunk at the foot of my bed. Somehow I muster the power to push the furniture from my doorway. It seems last night, in my fit of anger, I had much more strength. Today I am regretting it.

Flora returns without a minute to spare. She does not speak of last night’s events, nor do I. Brushing my hair and pulling it up on the sides she places my best hair combs in. There is a dress box delivered by one of the handmaidens a few moments later. A navy blue velvet gown with a green chemise is inside. It has a lace up front with a braid trim and slashed sleeves.

“A gift from your new in laws,” Flora states, a hint of animosity in her voice. I know from her expression that she does not care for them and, of course, neither do I. “You’re overdue for breakfast,” she adds. “They will be waiting so it’s best you make haste,” she warns.

I nod and take in a deep breath, trying my best to concentrate on the thought that I will get to see Elijah at the end of the day. As Flora exits the room I step to my dresser and retrieve the small pinkish stone Elijah had given me on the night we first met. Slipping it inside my dress pocket, I quickly make my way down the staircase and into the dining hall. Everyone is already seated but all the men stand as I enter the room.

“Ah, my beautiful bride to be has arrived,” Gabriel says joyously.

It is in these moments he seems to be such a completely different person, the one I thought I loved just a day ago. I fake the best smile I can and give him my hand when he extends his out to me. He stands and escorts me to my seat, next to Diana with Nathanael on my right. My mother and father sit to Gabriel’s left while his parents are seated across from us next to some dignitaries whom I don’t know but I’m sure have traveled here with the King and Queen of Islamorada.

“I’m so glad you could join us,” his mother says and I pick up the slight sarcasm in her tone.

“I do apologize for my tardiness but there was a delay in my getting dressed, it seems the size was just a bit smaller than my usual gowns,” I say with a smirk.

“That is because it’s French dear,” Gabriel corrects.

“I guess you’ll have to lose a little weight before the wedding then seeing as we already have a dress on its way from the same dressmaker,” Queen Elsbeth states nonchalantly.

Diana grabs my hand under the table, knowing very well what my next move will likely be. I grind my teeth together, trying to keep my composure. My fingers slip into my pocket where I feel Elijah’s stone, remembering the words he spoke to me when he gave it to me.

“Whenever you are troubled,

rub all your worries off on this rock.

Even though you may not be strong enough

to handle them, the stone always will be.”

“Oh, I didn’t know a dress was to be chosen for me. I’m sure it will be lovely and fit just fine,” I say as politely as I can.

On queue to save the moment, the servants arrive with trays of piping hot food. I do my best to keep food in my mouth at all times so I won’t have to speak again. Diana keeps a constant vigil on me, watching me carefully. I know she is dying to get the words off her tongue that she is so tightly holding on to. Nathanael seems to have a few thoughts on his mind as well but not for me. Every time I glance his way I see him glaring at Gabriel in a very ireful way. Had they not grown up together, Nathanael would surely have called him out on his actions already but it seems now he is waiting for Gabriel to make the first move. Everyone seems to be having their own private conversations at the table; no one really talks about anything of importance and thankfully no one has yet to include me in any of the dialogue.

Finally Diana has had enough. “Ember, I simply must show you the sketches for my wedding gown. Would you mind excusing us?” She asks those at the table, specifically looking in Gabriel’s direction. Gabriel seems to be caught off guard but agrees just the same.

“Oh, yes of course,” Gabriel replies as all the men stand up again.

Diana takes my hand as we make our hasty exit. I shudder at the thought of having to lie to my best friend, but am elated to be out of that room and away from him, finally. Diana nearly pulls my arm off dragging me up the stairs to my room. Closing the door behind her she immediately begins her questioning.

“What in the world is going on? Are you alright? Are you hurt? Please tell me what’s happening?!” she pleads.

“I don’t know what to say,” I state honestly.

For the first time in my life, I truly am speechless. How can I tell my best friend what is going on and still keep her out of danger?

“Ember, I know you were in just as much shock as I was to find out you are now a princess! I could see it all over your face at the engagement ceremony! Also, last night when I sent Nathanael to find you he came back looking white as death. I spent nearly an hour trying to drag information out of him! He told me you had fallen ill and were staying in for the rest of the night and that everything would be alright but I could see from the look on his face that things were definitely NOT alright!”

I can’t believe that Nathanael actually kept my secret. My respect for him has increased tenfold. I watch Diana. She is clearly concerned but what can I say to her? She is most assuredly smarter than I thought. She has matured so much this year, much to my dismay at this moment.

“You’re right, Diana.  I was a little shocked at the ceremony. Gabriel had told me he had a surprise for me but I honestly didn’t know it was that big of a surprise! I just needed a few minutes to take it all in last night. I’m fine. Really. Why would you think I was hurt?” I ask.

She looks at me with disbelief, probably because she knows I am lying.

“Nathanael said you were ill and that Gabriel was tending to you. There’s just something about him that rubs me the wrong way. At first I didn’t notice but now. I don’t know how to describe it.  Em, you would tell me if there was anything going on, right?” she asks.

I want to cry. I want to run and hug her and tell her how scared I am. I want to tell her what happened last night with Gabriel and what happened with Elijah. My heart aches that I can’t tell her what I did and that had Elijah not saved me I wouldn’t be here. But I could not put her in any danger. It would hurt a thousand times worse if something happened to her because of me than it does right now to lie to her.

“Everything is fine, I mean it. Gabriel is just not very good at expressing his feelings so he seems a little off sometimes but he loves me. He’s going to take care of me and were all going to be safe and happy,” I say, trying my best to smile.

“Safe?” she asks. “What do you mean? Why would we not be safe?”

Stupid me, I slipped again. I really should stop talking. I blow out a loud breath and look to the ceiling for a moment, trying to decide what I should do. What can I say?

“There is one thing,” I start as I meet her eyes. “But you have to promise to keep it a secret for now.”

Diana looks worried. “What is it, Ember?”

“There is a war coming to our kingdom. Gabriel and my father are already preparing to leave at a moment’s notice. That is why we have to be married so soon and the reason why I was made princess, so our two kingdoms could join together to keep us all safe.”

Diana stands motionless, trying to absorb what I have just told her.

“Will Nathanael…” she starts to say but she can’t complete her sentence. I know what she is asking though.

“I don’t know,” I whisper.

My heart breaks for her. I suddenly feel so selfish. Her true love may have to leave for war and possibly not come back and all I can think about is how much I want Gabriel to leave and never come back.

“Nathanael is smart and strong and he loves you with all his heart, that’s enough to make anyone fight to stay alive don’t you think?” I say absolutely.

Diana smiles but I can see in her eyes that she is unsure of the future. Not that I blame her. War is difficult for anyone and as much as I want Gabriel gone I don’t want that at her unhappiness. I offer her a genuine smile this time and place my hand on her shoulder.

“You know, I think I remember you saying something about wedding sketches? So, where are they?” I ask, figuring a change of subject is in order.

“Oh, I have to go and get them. Will you still be here when I return?” she asks, unsure of anything anymore.

“Of course, silly! I don’t have anything planned until this evening,” I say with a smile, remembering that I will get to see Elijah tonight.

“And what is it that you have planned this evening?” Gabriel asks from my doorway.

I jump, snapping my head up. I can feel the tension coming from Diana, and I try to remember not to let my face give me away.

“I was just leaving, see you later, Ember. Goodbye Gabriel,” Diana says uncomfortably as she quickly leaves. Now I am alone… with him.

“I have plans to go into town with my mother later to make some arrangements for the wedding,” I say, trying not to stumble over my words.

Gabriel walks slowly towards me, over confident and pompous as always. He walks behind me and gently kisses my neck. It gives me goose bumps, but not in a good way. I can feel his hot breath against my skin.

“All the plans for the wedding have already been arranged, there’s no need for you to leave for town tonight. Besides, I’m sure we can find something else to do,” he says hotly against my skin.

He places one arm around my waist, pulling me against him, while the other arm drapes around my chest. His hand begins to move, stroking my throat. I tilt my head to the right, trying to distance my face from him. He disgusts me so much I can barely contain myself but I know I have to get away from him tonight to meet Elijah so I put on my best performance. I turn quickly so that I am face to face with him, almost kissing his lips. I gently pull his hands away from my body and place his hands in between mine, holding them up to my chest.

“Now, now, dear fiancé we don’t want to spoil our honeymoon, do we? Can’t a girl have a few surprises of her own for her future husband?” I bait.

He writhes uncomfortably for a moment, not sure if he can believe me. A huge grin comes across his face and I can tell he is going to swallow the bait.

“So am I to believe you’ve changed your mind about me?” he asks coyly. I place my hands on his face and look him in the eyes.

“I see it like this, either I fight you and be miserable for the rest of my life or I accept my new found position and use it to my advantage. I choose the latter,” I say, kissing him feverishly.

I hate what I am doing but it is needed for the moment. I open my mouth and lick his lips as I place my tongue to his then pull away. He stands there, shocked for a moment, then wipes his wet lips with the back of his hand slowly, gawking at me. He gives a huge smile and steps closer to me again.

“Now that’s more like it,” he says, pulling me against him again. I smile and gently pry myself away from him.

“You really must be patient my dear, what would our parents think if they saw us carrying on this way before we were rightfully married?” I ask, taking another step back.

“You’re right, my sweet Ember, things will be much better when I can have you all to myself, with no one around to disturb us,” he says, walking towards the doorway. “Go have fun planning with your mother. I’ll be waiting for you when you return.”

I give him my best smile and wait for him to be out of sight before I close my door. I run to the wash basin, feeling queasy. I stick my face in, opening my mouth to take in some water. I swish it around and spit it back into the bowl, making all sorts of hacking and coughing noises. Gabriel’s words echo in my mind ‘things will be much better when I can have you all to myself, with no one around to disturb us’ I feel a pain equal to a stab in the gut. I can fake being happy. I can fake getting married and living in this kingdom with him. But I cannot bring myself to give him my body. To make love to him, consummate the marriage, it’s too much for me to bear! I run to the balcony, losing the contents of my stomach to the ground below. I wipe my mouth with my hand and look out to the wildflower field. I stare intensely in the direction of Elijah’s land, as my fingers work their way back to the stone he gave me.

“Elijah,” I whisper reverently, tears running down my cheeks.

How can I be with Gabriel as his wife and love Elijah at the same time? It isn’t right and it’s unfair to keep Elijah waiting for me when he might be able to find happiness with another. I have gotten myself into this mess and I won’t drag poor Elijah down with me. I will do the right thing. I will have to go to Elijah today and tell him I can’t be with him. My heart shatters into a hundred pieces with that thought.

“I will do what’s right,” I mutter, trying to gain the confidence I am desperate for.

Straightening out my dress and wiping my eyes, I make my way to mother’s room. If I am going to get away with this plan I will have to convince mother to go to town for me. As I step inside I see that mother isn’t there. Where is she? I start walking around and find her reading in the library. She seems surprised to see me but happy nonetheless.

“Ember, how are you my darling?” she asks.

“I’m a little confused actually,” I say.

I have not spoken to either of my parents since the engagement ceremony. I think it’s time to have a chat about what happened and figure out how I can convince her to help me.

“I know you must be, dear and I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you beforehand what was going on but your father…” she hesitates mid-sentence. “ well, your father and I thought it would be best to let Gabriel handle things,” she finishes looking down at the ground, knowing that I will not believe her.

“It’s alright, mother. I know what’s going on so you don’t have to try and cover for father’s actions. He was only trying to keep you safe, I understand,” I reassure her.

I honestly don’t believe that but it’s the right thing to say. I know my father better than my mother does and he always has an ulterior motive. His actions I suspect were to save himself more than anyone else. Mother smiles and embraces me in her arms.

“Oh my sweet girl, I am so proud of the woman you have become,” she says.

I squeeze her tightly in my arms, not sure what is going to become of her future, or mine.

“Mother, I need you to do me a favor,” I say pulling away from her.

“Sure dear, what is it?” she replies, slightly confused.

“I want to surprise Gabriel with a gift on our wedding night but with all the planning going on I can’t seem to find the time to get into town to look for anything. I was hoping you could go for me tonight and pick something up?”

“Of course I will, I would love to help, it seems like most of the plans have already been made without us,” she says with a hint of sadness in her voice.

“I know. I am truly sorry about that, it seems Gabriel’s parents do things a bit differently in their kingdom. That is why I wanted to ask you to help me with this favor, so you can feel a part of my celebration,” I say.

I hate the idea that I am using her but in some ways what I am saying is the truth. I did want her to feel like she had SOME part in my wedding day. Especially since Gabriel’s parents have pretty much taken everything away from her.  She smiles and hugs me again.

“Thank you for thinking of me my sweet Ember.”

“You’re welcome, mother.”

“Do you have anything in mind?” she asks curiously.

“I’m thinking of a dagger, hand forged by a master sword smith,” I reply.

“Oh my, that’s quite an interesting wedding gift, are you sure that’s what you want to give him? Maybe a horse or new cloak would be a better choice?” she asks.

“No, I want a dagger. It can’t be just an ordinary gift mother. He is a prince after all and a captain in the military. A dagger is a more acceptable gift,” I say, hoping to convince her to be gone long enough to satisfy my absence.

“Well if that’s what you want then I will head to town straight away, finding the perfect dagger is no easy task.”

“Thank you, mother, I am indebted to you,” I say kissing her on the cheek.

I smile and exit the room. I then arrange for the carriage to pull up in front of the gatehouse so Gabriel will not suspect anything. My plan is to walk mother out then quickly disappear through the inner curtain wall, out towards the stables so I can take Lilly, my Arabian horse. I will ride her through the black forest to meet Elijah by the lake. I feel my fingers against the stone and chew on my lip nervously, praying that all goes as planned.

WAKANDA AMADAHY

I wait in eager anticipation in my room until the time finally comes to put my plan in action. I am wearing a black dress under a dark green cloak in hopes to blend in with the surrounding forest on the off chance I am followed. I toss my hood up and briefly look around the castle trying to ascertain Gabriel’s whereabouts but he is nowhere to be found which makes me a little worried but I am sure this will work so I go forward anyways. I collect mother from her room and lead her to the carriage.

“Why is the carriage meeting me here?” she questions.

“Because I want everything to be a surprise, mother.”

She looks at me confused and starts to say something but I quickly open the door and help her inside. I give her a quick peck on the cheek before closing the carriage door, halting any other possible dialogue. She waves at me and is off. When I am sure she is down the road I make my escape towards the stables.  Lilly is already saddled for me when I get there. I had asked the stable boy to prepare her for me earlier, in secrecy of course, and then paid him a silver coin for his silence. I quickly straddle her and direct her out of the stables.

“Ride hard, my beautiful girl,” I whisper in her ear.

Lilly throws her majestic head back and snorts as if in agreement. She keeps a good pace on our ride to the lake as if she senses the urgency of the matter. My heart races as the wind blows through my hair and I can smell a touch of mint leaves in the air which is soothing to my senses. The sun is just beginning to set when I finally reach the lake. I stop short when I see a figure near the edge of the water.

“Elijah,” I mutter.

He stands with his back to me wearing only brown trousers made out of animal hide. He’s looking out over the water while the wind blows his long black hair off of his neck. The setting sun glimmers on his brown skin making it almost iridescent while his broad shoulders rest upon his muscular back and arms. He is, for lack of a better word, breathtaking. He turns to look at me as soon as he hears Lilly’s hooves patting the ground. I can’t help but smile when I see his beautiful face. Helping me down from my horse, his hands wrap around my whole waist and he spins me around, setting me gently on the ground.

“Beautiful Ember, I hope your journey was uneventful,” he says with a smile.

“Yes, it was. I’m sure I wasn’t followed. Gabriel was nowhere to be found when I left.”

Elijah nods and brushes the hair from my face. “Do not worry about that now. I have something to show you.”

He places his hand in mine and escorts me to the edge of the lake. The water is shimmering with gorgeous colors. Reds and purples reflect from the now setting sun to make a kaleidoscope of colors bounce off the water. He is watching the lake and then turns to me while I turn to him.

“Do you mind getting a little wet?” he asks with a grin.

“Um, no but… I don’t know how to swim exactly, Elijah,” I say timidly.

“It’s alright, I will carry you,” he says, smiling mischievously, obviously remembering the fact that he has had to carry me before.

“What about Lilly?” I ask.

“She will be safe here.”

“I, I don’t have a change of clothes,” I reply suddenly nervous about how I would explain wet garments to Gabriel.

He nods his head as he contemplates before helping me out of my cloak. I think for a moment and then start to remove my dress. His eyes widen as I let it drop to the ground, leaving me in only my chemise. He stares at me in awe and appreciation before averting his eyes respectfully. He gently places the cloak over Lilly’s back and sets the dress atop it.

“This,” he clears his throat as he motions to my slip. “Will dry easily, your cloak and dress on the other hand should stay here.”

I nod in agreement. I know I should be embarrassed being this exposed to him but oddly I am not. Unlike Gabriel, Elijah has complete respect for me. It appears he is the one more embarrassed by my attire than I.

“Do you trust me?” he finally asks.

“Completely,” I reply.

He smiles right before scooping me up into his arms and wading into the lake. The water is still warm from the sun’s heat but his skin is even warmer. He begins to take us into deeper water until he can no longer touch the bottom of the lake. I gently slide off his back and he takes me by the hand, pulling me alongside him as we float.

“On my third count, I want you to take a deep breath and go under with me. I promise I won’t let go of you,” he says sincerely.

I believe him. Somehow I know deep in my soul that everything he says to me is the truth. I nod my head.

“One, two,” he glances at me and I nod again. “Three.”

I inhale and dive under the water with my eyes wide open.  He leads me down towards what looks like large boulders. I start to feel a bit frightened as I’m not sure I will have enough air in my lungs to go much farther but Elijah grips my hand tighter to reassure me. He pulls me down deeper into what appears to be a black hole. Grabbing me by the waist he guides me up towards the surface.  What I see next is the most amazing thing I have ever experienced in my lifetime.

       I let out a soft gasp as I look around. We are in a cave, underneath the lake. A greenish blue hue touches everything around us. The water glows as if the light within it is alive. I move my hand through it, awed that the light follows my fingertips. It’s like magic. The sand is snowy white on the small shore and there are flowers everywhere made of colors I have never seen before. My eyes look above and I see huge vines of gorgeous blossoms that saturate the ceiling and rocks. How am I even breathing?

“This is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” the words trickle from my tongue.

“I know,” Elijah replies softly.

 I turn my head to look at him and see that he isn’t looking at the water or the flowers, he is looking at me. My cheeks flush with color as my eyes dart down, suddenly very embarrassed. I feel his fingers under my chin as he has me look at him again.

“You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Ember,” he says, gently touching my face and placing his lips to mine.

It is the most tender, genuine kiss anyone could ever experience. A spark travels over my skin and I feel like I am floating on air even though I am still in the water. There is no possession or roughness like the kisses with Gabriel and I realize with no uncertain terms that Elijah is truly my soul mate. He pulls away from me but his lips continue to hover above mine.

“I love you, Elijah,” I whisper.

“As I love you, Ember,” he states as his lips touch mine once more.

We hold each other in the water, kissing as if this was the only place we were meant to be. I don’t know how long we stay like that. It could have been hours for all I know. With a heavy sigh he pulls away once more and I feel his hand lace with mine. We make our way to the shore where the white sand feels like silk between my toes.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“This is Wakanda Amadahy.” I look at him confused as he touches my cheek with a smile. “It means water that possesses magical power.”

“How do you know of this place?”

“I am of this place and this place is of me,” he replies.

“I don’t understand, Elijah,” I say, wondering if any of this is really happening or if I am dreaming again.

“I know it is hard to understand.” He takes my hand and leads me to a small boulder where he has us sit.

“You can tell me anything, Elijah.”

“My beautiful, Ember. I have magic in me, as my mother has magic in her. She is Shaman to the people in our land. I am next in line to take her place, although I do not feel I am worthy of this gift,” he states as his eyes lift to the flowers above us.

“So, you’re like a prince or something?” I question. He smiles and meets my eyes again.

“In your land I would probably be considered a witch but in mine I am a healer. Our people follow my mother as their leader by choice because she guides them and protects them. No one is forced to follow, as it is in your world, but I guess I would be considered a prince in your eyes.”

I wrestle with the thoughts in my head about Gabriel being a prince and the fact that I have now been given the title of princess. My heart aches again. I know I need to tell Elijah the truth and end things between us before he ends up getting hurt. I am prepared for my hurt but I won’t put him through it as well.

“Elijah, I have to leave you now and I can’t come back,” I say sadly, my heart heavy with sorrow.

“I don’t understand. Do you not love me? Do you not think I will protect you from Gabriel?” he asks and I can hear his confusion.

“It is because I love you that I must leave. I’m no good for you. I will never be able to leave Gabriel.”

He stands up and I can see that he is upset. I can also see he doesn’t understand why I must do this.

“Elijah, they have made me a princess. I am trapped in a twisted game between the King, my father and Gabriel. It’s not fair for you to never be free to love someone else when I cannot love you back completely.”

Tears fill my eyes and I have to look away from him.

“Ember, what has he done to you?” he asks, a hint of anger welling inside him.

“It doesn’t matter, I will be married to him in five days and I will have to…” I trail off, unable to finish the thought that is coming back into my mind.

“Please, give me your hands,” he demands.

“What?” I ask confused.

“I need to see something. I need to see your hands,” he says, almost in a panic.

I place my hands out in front of me. He takes them in his and looks me deeply in the eyes. There is an urgency there that frightens me, yet, also reassures me.

“You said before that you trusted me completely, would this still be true?”

“Of course. Yes, yes, I trust you,” I say, nodding.

“Come with me.”

He helps me up and guides me back to the shore. I must admit that I’m beginning to be afraid of what he is going to do next. He reaches down into the cool water at the edge of the shore and pulls out a shell. He breaks it in half, which makes the edges on each piece serrated and sharp. He then takes his own hand and draws the shell across his palm. He never flinches but I can see blood pooling on his hand.

“Elijah! What are you doing?!” I shout.

“It doesn’t hurt, believe me,” he says calmly.

He reaches his other hand out towards me with the other half of the shell grasped in it. He is breathing in deeply as his eyes bore into me.

“You want me to cut my hand?” I ask, astonished at what he wants me to do.

“I promise you, it will not hurt and I will heal it before you leave this place.”

I stare at him and see the steely determination in his face. But there is something else there as well. Fear perhaps.

 “Trust me,” he pleads.

Although it is a crazy request, I believe everything he is telling me. I have seen with my own eyes this place. I have seen him come to me as a spirit to warn me of Gabriel’s evilness. And more importantly, I see his undying love for me. He would never do anything to harm me.

“I trust you,” I say reaching for the shell.

I hold it in my right hand and slowly slide it across my left palm until I begin to bleed. Oddly enough, I feel absolutely nothing. I look up at him, amazed. Elijah places his bleeding hand into mine and a jolt of energy shoots through me like a bolt of lightning. I am frozen where I stand. Images begin to float across my mind. All of the memories from the past few days flash before me like pictures on a canvas. But this is different. I can see Elijah standing outside of them. My eyes flutter as I experience these events again.

Gabriel telling me that I have to marry him and why

Gabriel grabbing me, handling me roughly

Gabriel raising his hand to me when I bite his lip

Gabriel telling me his plans for our wedding night and finally

I see myself jumping from the balcony

My heart beats faster and faster and I’m having trouble catching my breath as image after image play like some horrible nightmare I can’t escape. All of the fear and disgust I felt over the last two days wells up inside of me to the point that everything goes dark. Soon I find myself lying on the soft sand unconscious.

“Ember! I’m so sorry! Are you alright?” Elijah cries out.

“I’m dizzy. What just happened?” I ask as I sit up.

Elijah breathes out a sigh of relief and then immediately jumps to his feet. He starts pacing back and forth, clearly in anguish with his thoughts. His hands clench into tight fists at his sides and I can see that his face is now streaming with tears. His breathing is very erratic and I’m getting really concerned. What happened to me?

“I’ll kill him,” he growls in a voice hardly his own. He stops in front of me and kneels down. “I won’t let him harm you again. I’ve never wanted to hurt someone so much in my life,” he mumbles as he rises again and immediately starts pacing once more. He starts talking quickly in a language I don’t know.

“Elijah, you’re scaring me,” I say, unsure of what I should do.

He stops short and comes back to me. He once again kneels and places my hands in his.

“I read your memories through your blood.”

“My blood?” I question as my jaw drops.

 “Yes. I’m sorry, Ember. I shouldn’t have invaded your privacy like that but I needed to know what made you so scared that you would give up your whole life to protect me. Ember, I am so sorry I was not there to keep you safe,” he says as tears streak his cheeks. “To keep him from…”

“It’s not your fault,” I interrupt. “I didn’t listen to your warning. I was stubborn and now I have to deal with the choices I made. Elijah, I can do this, it will be hard but I can let you go to live your life.”

There is a long silence as we look into each other’s eyes. Tears are being shed by both of us.  Sorrow and fear can be felt around us as we imagine a life without each other. Neither of us likes the prospect of being apart. As I stare into his peaceful and loving eyes my heart breaks further.

“There has to be another way. I will find another way,” he states, squeezing my hands.

“I have to go now. If I’m not back by the time my mother returns I don’t know what Gabriel will do.”

Elijah nods his head and helps me back up. We stand at the shore, looking onto the water, hand in hand before he finally takes a step forward. We take a few steps before we stop short. I look at him confused.

“I almost forgot,” he says kneeling down to scoop some of the water into his hands.

“Put your hand in here, the one you cut earlier.”

I place my bloodied hand into the water he holds in his cupped hands and watch as he closes his eyes. He cups both hands around mine as he begins to speak in another language, the same one he spoke earlier but this time it is not in anger. This time it is gentle with an even cadence, almost like a prayer.

“There, all better now,” he says with a slight grin.

I tear my eyes away from him and look down at my left palm. There is no sign of the cut at all. It’s as if it never happened. How did he do that?

“Amazing,” I whisper.

“We better go. We don’t have much time,” he says with urgency.

“You’re right,” I say breathing in deeply, not wanting to leave this place.

He gives me a halfhearted smile before scooping me into his arms and back into the water. My mind is elsewhere as we make the trek back to where we came. Back to shores that will lead me to Erindale. Back to Gabriel and a life I do not want. Before I realize it we are already on the other side. The night is black and thick fog floats above the lake when we return to the shoreline. The air expels from my lungs as he sets me down and I know our time together is coming to an end.

We walk in silence towards Lilly; Elijah reaches up to grab my dress and hands it to me. My heart aches in a way I’ve never experienced before, it’s almost too much to bear. I pull my dress over my head to cover my wet chemise. Elijah is standing at a distance looking up at the dull moon. I slowly walk over to him and place my hand on his back. His skin shudders at my touch and when he spins around I can see the tears welling in his eyes.

I gasp for air at the sight of seeing him in so much pain. He reaches out and places his hands around my face. We stand there looking into each other’s eyes, frozen.

“I should be on my way, it’s getting late,” I manage to say.

“Ember, please tell me you believe our love is worth fighting for. I can’t watch you go back to him without knowing,” Elijah pleads.

I take in a deep breath and search within my soul for an answer. I know how my heart feels, if only my mind would stop spinning with endless questions.

“If our love is truly meant to be, then we will find a way,” I say with a smile.

Elijah places me up onto Lilly’s back, checking every strap and lacing on her saddle before he will allow me to leave. He takes my hand in his and inhales a deep breath. His eyes are full of love and it’s almost more than I can handle.

“I love you, Ember, please do not forget that. I will wait for you, even if it takes a thousand years, I will wait for you.”

I nod and turn away. I can’t look at the tears rolling down his cheeks as I’m sure his expression mirrors mine. I give Lilly a swift kick in the sides and whistle her forward towards home, away from where I wish I could stay forever but will never be able to.

AUTHOR NOTE: 

We hope that you enjoyed this sneak peek at Book 1 in The Ceaseless Trilogy, Birth of the Phoenix. It is currently available in paperback and e-book. Links for purchase can be found HERE