Book One in a brand new series; Rosa Royals
Only two things are certain in this life: death and dishes.
God, I hate doing dishes. But it’s the trade-off for Willow cooking, so I plunge my hands in the soapy water.
“Out, damn spot! Out, I say!” I scrub at ketchup that’s dried on a plate. Posie’s been reciting Macbeth again and she’s got it stuck in my head. I hear the door open, but I’m too fixated by the stain to look up. “Posie. Close the door. You know how bad the flies are right now.”
There’s no sassy retort from my little sister.
“Posie?” I look up.
Instead of a scrawny kid, there’s a massive man filling our doorframe. What the hell is a man doing in my cabin? I startle, and the plate slips from my hands, rattling as it hits the bottom of the sink.
Wide, rounded shoulders. Piercing, bright blue eyes. Carefully combed back, thick dark hair with a thick, well-groomed beard. Muscles built for work. His arms catch my gaze, colorful tattoos swirling over his skin. He stands, feet apart, arms crossed over his chest as if he belongs here.
“Briar.” His voice is as deep as his shoulders are wide. His gaze rests heavy on my face. “We finally meet.”
My first thought is the safety of my sisters. “Where are the girls?” I wipe my hands on my apron.
“They’re where I found them—reading in the field. They’re distracted by fairy cakes from my sister, Cecily. She sends her thanks.”
Cecily Russo, the girl who passed through the woods a few months ago. A friend of ours asked us to give her food and shelter, and we did. This must be the eldest of her brothers.
“Aldo?” I breathe a sigh of relief. He means us no harm.
He nods. “That’s me.”
I nod at his arms. The swirling branches of a tree wind around his arm, the names of his family inked to his skin. “She mentioned your tattoos.”
“And my sister mentioned your beauty.” He shakes his head. “But I’m afraid she didn’t do you justice.”
My face heats.
I change the subject. “I’m surprised Posie let you pass. She thinks of herself as our little guardian. I guess her sweet tooth is her weakness.”
“She’d eaten two cakes before I’d even made it up the stairs.” He shifts his weight on his heavy boots.
I try to smile, but this man’s presence has me on edge. “How is she—your sister?”
He nods. “She’s well. Thank you for helping her.”
What do I do? Offer him tea? Ask him to leave?
Wiping my hands on my apron, I grab the bamboo handle of my pale blue teapot. “Would you like tea?”
“I’m not staying. I’m only here to give you a message.” He glances over his shoulder, checking on the girls.
“A message?” I peer past him. They’re on a blanket in the field where they were reading earlier, now laughing and nibbling on the pastel iced cakes.
“You girls live alone?” He turns his fierce gaze back to me.
“Alone. But not lonely.” I nod.
He eyes me. “You’re young. To be alone and charged with the safety of two girls.”
“I’m not so young.” Twenty-five is right around the corner and Willow’s a year younger than me, though Posie’s only twelve. “What’s the message?”
“The forest is no longer safe.” The look he gives me sends chills down the back of my neck.
The forest is our refuge. I’ve always felt safe here. What is he talking about? I find myself fumbling over my words. “I—I don’t understand. We’ve lived here almost all our lives. We rarely ever see people in these woods.”
“There’s a war brewing between families over a dispute from a long time ago. Recent events have brought old hatreds back to the surface. The Meralo-Bianchi families are out for blood.”
“I’ve heard of them.” Two deadly families joined by marriage. When we lived in the village, I remember Mother warning us to keep our distance from their gated compound. “What would they want with us?”
His eyes are bright blue, but now they darken like storm clouds. “Who knows how they will use three little girls alone in the woods?”
The word use sends graphic images through my mind and an icy wave down my spine. “We’re not helpless…” but my words trail off.
Are we really in as much danger as he says?
He takes a step toward me. “You girls have been brave, getting along on your own in these woods. But things have changed. You’ll come now to the Russo castle where you’re safe.”
I think of the dark secrets my sister and I harbor. It would be devastating if they were revealed. We’re better off taking our chances in the woods.
I take a step back, shaking my head. “We…can’t come with you.”
Anger flashes over his face. This man’s not used to being told no.
He takes another step toward me. “I’m not leaving you girls here in the woods.”
“We’ve been in these woods for years and we’ve been just fine—”
His voice is a growl. “Just fine? This morning, three of my men took down a Meralo spy on the other side of your barn.” He moves in, his dark eyes piercing mine. “Can you imagine what he could have done to you girls, had I not had security posted for you?”
There was a man on the other side of the barn, just paces away from where my sisters read in the field? Icy tendrils creep further down my spine. No… it can’t be!
I wrap my arms around myself, hugging away the chill. “How long have you been watching us?”
“Since my sister came home and told me you helped her.” He shrugs as if it was nothing, just a simple favor, posting guards around our home, keeping us safe. “I figured, an eye for an eye.”
“Well…” What would have happened had Aldo not sent help? Still, having men posted without my permission, watching us go about our days—it’s eerie. I swallow hard. “Thank you?”
“Anytime.” His dark brow narrows. “There’s more.”
Of course there is. This is turning into one of the strangest days of my life. I sigh. “Okay.”
“Your father paid me a visit.”
My heart thuds in my chest at the mention of Father; he left years ago. I feel the color drain from my face. “My father? I haven’t seen him in ages. What did he want?”
“For your last name to be Russo.” He crosses his big arms over his huge chest.
I shake my head. “I don’t understand.”
”He wanted to arrange your marriage.” His gaze holds mine.
“To you?” My brows fly up. Can’t be.
Aldo nods. “He wants you to be my wife.”
“Your…wife?” My mouth gapes.
I sound like an echo, repeating questions, but it’s all so surreal, such a shock and I can’t wrap my mind around it. It’s too much. This strange man barging in here, telling me we’re in danger, saying he’s seen my father…
Demanding I marry him….
He closes the distance between us. His fingers brush mine as he takes the teapot from my hand, leaving a trail of fire in their wake. He sets the teapot back on the stove.
“What did you tell him? M—my father?” I stammer.
“I told him…” He moves in so close the clean scent of his soap reaches me. His face is inches from mine. His eyes hold my gaze and I can’t look away. His flawless lips form one word. “Yes.”
“Of course you did,” I murmur more to myself than him.
This is such a strange meeting, such a crazy story he’s telling me, yet I believe every word. Why wouldn’t it end with this stranger willing to marry me, a woman he’s never met and knows nothing about? But why? Why in the hell did he agree to this?
I stare up into his steely gaze, realizing there’s a more important question at hand. “And what if I say no?”
“You have one week to come willingly.” He leans in, pressing his lips against my cheek. The kiss is chaste—but heat emanates off him and the innocent gesture sets fire to my blood. His mouth leaves my cheek, brushing over my ear, sending searing tingles down my spine. “After that?”
“Wh—what?” I pull back from him.
He’s absolutely massive as he leans over me. His expression is dark, his voice low and rumbling, making the hairs stand on the back of my neck as he says, “I’ll come and take you.”
“And don’t try anything foolish.” He turns his back to me. His hand goes to the handle of the door. He calls over his shoulder. “Best keep this door closed—I hear the wolves are as bad as the flies.” The door closes.
“Wolves?” I release the breath I’ve been holding. “There are no wolves in these woods.”
On weak knees, I find my way to the oversized floral armchair, slumping down into its soft cushions. My hand shakes as I bring it to my face. My palm is cool against the heated skin of my cheek.
A creepy feeling crawls over my skin as it hits me — the wolves he’s referring to are men. Bad, dangerous men who want to harm us.
Is he the big bad wolf? Or our knight in bearded armor?
What should I do?