Rane Barton and her sisters only have their exceptional beauty to recommend them and save their ailing family estate. Rane even catches the eye of the prince. But when she discovers the reason for her beauty and her uncanny abilities, Rane has to choose: protect her family or protect her heart.
Linny looked at Tilda expectantly. “What do they say about war?” she asked. There was one thing predominant on our minds, as always, getting a rich husband. War would seriously disrupt that cause. I was nearly twenty and I almost felt guilty for four wasted seasons. I had proposals enough, but I suppose I held off to see what kind of match Tilda would make before I threw away my heart on riches. Now it seemed as though Lodore would go to war, and if we didn’t act quickly, only old men would be left.
“That King Humphrey seems to be wavering,” Tilda said. “They all want to fight Ceran.” She smiled brilliantly. “Aren’t they all so brave and daring? They said the prince has been badgering his father to let him march to Genland and Covere’s aid.”
My eyes flickered back to his box. I caught his gaze again. This time I it startled me. I blinked stupidly several times and noticed Tilda was grinning and waiting for his eyes to survey the rest of the box, as men usually did.
The prince did glance at Linny and Tilda briefly, but he returned to me. Something told me he stared at me for more than my beauty, but I dismissed the thought instantly. Why else would he stare so long? And what else could he see besides my famously beautiful face?
But why did he not stare at my sisters as well?
“And if we go to war?” I pressed. “How long?”
“Two or three weeks, perhaps less.” Tilda was pouting at the prince’s lack of attention to her. “It must be your haircut. It’s a pity you didn’t take me with you when you did it, Rane.”
I shrugged, shaking my head and wondering at the lack of weight around my head. I cut it off less than a week before and sold my dark locks for a handsome sum. I was far from the only girl in Lodore City with hair that tickled her chin, but my action enraged Father. It took several days before I could put the money back into the Park and only because I convinced Gabe, my father’s foreman, to take it and fix up some of the empty tenant farms. Maybe if they were in better condition they might actually get rented out. Gabe was the most loyal employee a man could ask for, and it was only his love for the park, his desire to keep it in my family’s hands, and the fact that he was desperately in love with my youngest sister, Ari, that he defied my father by taking it.
“I know,” I agreed with her. “Your hair would have gotten twice as much as mine, but it’s no use now. Father forbade it.”
Tilda sniffed. “So what? Everyone is doing it, and I can’t have the other girls looking better than me.”
“Oh, Tilda!” Ari interrupted our conversation, and we turned, expecting our younger sister to try and convince Tilda against lopping off her luscious hair. “That man is staring at you again!” She nodded in distress to the elderly Count of Mercer, seated in the box next to us.
Tilda’s gaze shot up. She smiled brightly, giving him a little wave. Linny and I could hardly cover our smiles quick enough with our fans.
“Tilda, I wish that horrible old man would propose to you,” I teased as Linny and I both turned politely away from Tilda’s blushing beau.
“He’s the richest man in Lodore,” Linny added with a smirk. “Even richer than the king. We could all marry farmers if you do.”
“Tilda! Oh, Tildy, you wouldn’t!” Ari whispered, scandalized. She managed enough nerve to look at the wrinkled count before turning away and suppressing a slight shudder. I worried that the attention of our entire box might do the old man some harm if we weren’t careful. “They say he’s awful! Mrs. Holton said he beat one of his footmen half to death because the poor young man flicked mud on him inadvertently. Right in front of his club. And that he would have killed him if someone hadn’t stepped in.”
Tilda rolled her eyes and sighed at Ari’s dramatics. “Don’t be silly, Ari,” she replied, unperturbed. “Of course I’ll marry him if he ever asks. Dr. Willow assures me that Mercer will be dead within a year. I only hope I can manage to get him to speak to me before he kicks the bucket. I suppose I’ll have to insist on a scandalously hasty wedding; otherwise that silly, spinster sister of his will get it all!” She laughed.
Ari turned up her petite little nose and clenched her jaw. “You’re awful, Tilda.”
Linny smiled reassuringly at the disgusted sixteen-year-old. “Don’t be sentimental, Ari,” she cautioned. “If we don’t all scrape up enough through magnificent marriages, you’re going to have to take up the slack. We, all of us, would throw ourselves at a hundred men like Lord Mercer to ensure you will be able to marry Gabe.”
Ari blushed and flipped her fan in front of her dainty face. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Sometimes I thought it was too bad Ari lacked the real talent to ensnare men the way Linny, Tilda or I could. Her innocent features—wide, pale blue eyes and shining blond hair—the delicate voice that hinted at a singing voice far lovelier than even the famous soprano we all half-ignored could have convinced even the most cynical creature on the planet of her undying devotion should she wish it. But of course every single one of us had purposefully kept that education from Ari.
I glanced over at Linny, knowing that my just younger sister agreed more with Ari’s view than with Tilda’s. Still, like Tilda and I, she would go far to protect Ari from the fate one or all of us would have to face.
I watched as Tilda flirted with the old man in the next box and wondered if she truly was serious. There were probably several much handsomer, much more likable men in Lodore with money enough to spare on our beloved, yet dilapidated and failing estate. But I knew Tilda. She would get as much as she could. From the looks of it she planned on being an incredibly rich widow and capture real love—at least her version—when Blacks Park was safe.And try as I might, I would not blame her. I had no one in mind, of course, but if Tilda married the Count of Mercer, it would leave me free to choose for myself. I happened to like that idea.