Princes of Ash – Chapter 1


I feel like an intruder in my own skin as I’m led up the aisle. 

It can’t be the dress, all white and sparkling, because it’s not so unlike the one I wore my first night in this palace. It’s older, though. That much I’m sure of. The touch of age has softened and yellowed the lace that frames my decolletage. Its long silk train drags behind me as if this were a wedding, and why shouldn’t it be? After all, three men dressed in their finest tuxedos are waiting for me across the room, their heads bowed as each step brings me closer to them. 

We’re unequivocally bound.

And then, there’s the man pressing my hand firmly into the crook of his arm, guiding me with pride.

Rufus Ashby. 

My father.

He could be the source of this feeling–this sense that I don’t belong in my own body–but I know he’s not. It’s not the weight of the tiara on my head, nor the PNZ members’ gazes following me as they stand erect, hands clasped behind their backs. It’s not the cloying scent of roses. It’s not even the sight of the throne ahead, the memory of all the pain I’ve felt in this room and the dread that there’s more to come.

I know exactly what it is. 

It’s the strange, tainted life growing inside me. 

I’d block it all out if I could—the stares of the frat. The weight of Ashby’s hand pushing on my knuckles. The curling sensation of sickness as I grow closer to the three men standing before the throne. However, I can’t possibly do it. I feel every gaze, every inch that brings me closer to them, as acutely as a thousand pinpricks. Or worse, the feel of them inside of me, making deposit after deposit of sperm.

It isn’t until we reach them–Wicker, Lex, and Pace–that I notice how stony their faces are. Perfectly composed, heads lowered in a supplication that I know can’t be real. 

I fight the urge to spit in their faces. 

Ashby turns as soon as we reach them, spinning me to face the room. A sea of somber faces stares back at us, and I swallow back bile at the memory of what they all did to me, not even a whole week ago. They all wait for him to speak, which isn’t a surprise. Ashby does seem to love having a captive audience, and he’s the King. If anyone thinks the coronation might be about the Princess, then they’re proven wrong the instant he steps forward.

“To create is to reign,” he eventually speaks, lifting his chin.

“To create is to reign,” the men in the room repeat.

 Candlelight sharpens Ashby’s features, and I shudder to think how much of them might be reflected in my own. He’s my father. As absurd as the statement was, I have no doubt in its truth.

“That’s the saying, isn’t it?” His blue eyes scan the room, lips curved into a satisfied grin. “I’ve dreamed of this day. I won’t deny it. To stand here with my blood,” he lifts a hand, gesturing to me, “and my spirit,” he turns to gesture to the Princes next. “And, most importantly, the heir they’ve made for me. For us.” 

I stand, frozen with disgust, as he places a palm on my belly, not even meeting my gaze. 

He actually appears to go misty-eyed as he addresses the room. “Today, I reign. Not with fear. Not with influence. But with blood and spirit. This isn’t just a coronation–it’s a promise met. Renewal and hope, but most of all, legacy.”

He turns to me next, finally looking into my eyes as he takes my hand. 

“Do you understand the covenants of your position?” he asks.

Despite how my belly roils, I nod.

He traps me in his stare, wide and fervent. “You will nourish the child that blossoms within your womb.”

I nod. “As you command.”

“You will serve it before anyone else–even your Princes.”

“Even their King?” The words escape my mouth without my bidding, but I can’t find myself to regret it, even as his stare turns hard and flinty. 

“I assure you,” he says, voice low, “your King and the wellbeing of his heir are as one.” 

His heir. I hear the word loud and clear, and that roiling sickness in my belly hardens to stone. I realize that’s what I’ll need to endure what’s coming.  


“I understand,” I say, hiding my doubt. It’s been less than forty-eight hours since the Valentine’s party–since I revealed the pregnancy–and I haven’t been able to worry about much beyond this moment. My coronation. 

“Danner,” Ashby says, holding my stare. “I’ll anoint our Princess as her Princes recite her covenants.”

My eyes scan the room furtively, preparing myself for whatever new hell they will put me through. That’s the difference between the girl I used to be and the woman I am now. It fascinates me as Danner steps from the shadows, passing a phial to Ashby. It’s familiar, similar to the one that was filled from the blood taken from me on the throne. Similar, but not the same. This one has a red ruby on the stopper.

“You shall be anointed with the blood of the greatest princess of them all. My princess. The mother of my first heir, Michael.” He unstops the phial, tipping it into his open hand. “May her blood bless your womb as you carry on my greatest gift: my name.”

I see now how womanhood is gained in Forsyth. It’s not about age or biology or losing one’s virginity. 

It’s about pain. 

And not just pain, I ponder as Ashby coats his palm in the ancient, red-tinged oil, but the constant endurance of it. It’s about a man pushing his slick palm to my belly and knowing to anticipate a sting.  

“My sons,” he says, “declare the covenants.”

“The Princess shall conduct herself with the grace of the mother,” comes Lex’s voice, flat and toneless.

Pace’s mechanical words come next. “The Princess shall not profane her body to the influence of other men.”

There’s a tense pause, and then Wicker’s cutting hiss. “The Princess shall thank her Princes for their successful seed.”

Lex adds, “The Princess shall be protected at all times.”

On and on it goes, their resentful voices ringing out behind me. Ashby’s palm remains pressed to my belly as we listen, but there’s no warmth in his touch. My eyes scan the room–Pace says something about the Princess’ required examinations–and the muscles in my shoulders tighten.

I already know these covenants. Stella and I read them back-to-front before I even decided to reveal the pregnancy. And we didn’t just read–we weeded through them to find the sinister subtext underneath. 

 A Princess’ time in the palace is split into two markable phases: attempting to make a baby and actually carrying one. Plenty of Princesses have walked these Palace halls, but she doesn’t reign until she’s created life. 

Despite searching for hours, we couldn’t find anything about a third phase of a Princess after she gives birth. 

“The Princess shall agree to these covenants wholly, explicitly, and without reservation.” Wicker is the one who finishes, and when Ashby raises an expectant brow, I do just as they ask. 

Wholly, explicitly, and without reservation. “I swear to abide by the covenants.”

If he’s surprised by the easy agreement, Ashby doesn’t show it. He merely pulls his hand back, revealing a sickening sight. The belly of my dress is stained with a red handprint. “She reigns,” he says, turning to smirk at the crowd. 

“She reigns,” they all echo, in varying degrees of boredom and excitement. 

Leaning down, he pitches his voice lower, something only meant for me to hear. “This next part is one of my favorites.” 

My muscles coil tight. 

“I’ve given a lot of Princesses away on their coronation nights, but this one is special,” he says louder for the others to hear. “This is more than just symbolic. Tonight, I’m giving my daughter to my sons.” Behind him, a PNZ member makes a low, amused snort, and Ashby tenses. Twisting his head, he searches for the source, snapping, “You will not pervert this glorious event.” 

It’s a struggle to restrain my own scoff. 

Every part of being a Princess is rooted in perversion. 

Composing himself, Ashby finally steps aside, gesturing to the space in front of me. “Come.”

Behind me, I hear their resistant, shuffling feet, and then they’re standing before me, the three of them—Wicker to my right, Lex to my left, and Pace in the middle. My Princes are perfectly poised, hands clasped behind their backs, gazes locked to some vague point over my shoulders. Some of Pace’s small, loose twists fall in his eyes, but he doesn’t flick them away. The muscle at the base of Wicker’s jaw is knotted tight, his blue eyes somehow both empty and full of fire. And Lex might as well be a mannequin, stiff and motionless, his pale jaw dotted with an uncharacteristic shadow of stubble. Bitter hate boils under the surface.


“Kneel for her,” Ashby suddenly commands. 

Before I can snap my shocked gaze to his, Wicker loses his straight posture, exploding, “Fuck that!”

 Ashby’s nostrils flare wide. “Kneel!”

Wicker glares at his father, and for a moment, it’s as if they’re blood, too. The swirling fury in their blue eyes, blonde hair gleaming in the candlelight, expressions obstinate and full of rage. But some part of me knows they couldn’t ever be truly related. Ashby is too bright–too icy and stiff and obvious. Wicker glares back at him, not with ice but with a knife’s gleaming edge. There’s a wicked violence in his nature that’s too Baron’esque to be anything else, and when Ashby glances at Lex, I see that darkness transform into bitter defeat. 

The part where Wicker grits his teeth and slowly drops to his knees?

That’s the part Ashby has instilled in him. Defeated compliance.

And I savor it. 

The sight of Wicker below me, the sound of Lex and Pace following suit, the way they all look lined up in front of me in submission…

It’s as close to feeling intoxicated as I can get. 

“Welcome your creation,” Ashby growls.

Pace moves first, pitching forward to press his mouth to the red handprint on my stomach. He lingers for only the barest moment, and from my vantage, I can see the flutter of his dark eyelashes before he pulls back, lips painted red. Wicker is next, that knot at the back of his jaw pulsing as he springs forward. I flinch as much at the hatred in his eyes as I do the sudden movement, the hard bounce of his lips barely brushing my dress. If he notices, then he doesn’t care, immediately snapping back to his position. 

He looks almost as sick as I feel. 

Lex is last to bend toward me slowly, but when he does, his amber eyes rise to mine, trapping me in their fiery heat as his lips press to my belly. His stare is the most complicated. There’s menace, yes. Anger. Distrust. The threat of violence. But there’s also a strange sense of connection, as if this hatred and hurt we feel has bound us in some inevitable way.

There’s an unmistakable tension that grows in the room at my lack of reaction, and Danner, who’s been standing off to the side, clears his throat and leans in. 

“You must bestow them with your grace now, Princess.” 

I cut my eyes to him. “My… grace?”

“A touch, a kiss.” Danner glances at them–the Princes–and then back at me. There’s a plea in his eyes. “A physical sign of affection will seal the union.”

Of course. If this is a wedding, then there must be a kiss.

I follow his gaze to them, idly wondering, “And if I don’t?” I know Ashby hears the question because the same fury sparks in his eyes that was once meant for Wicker. 

The question is purely rhetorical. 

It’s never once been a question to me that I had a choice in this.

“Girl,” Ashby hisses, leaning close to my ear to whisper, “you may be pregnant, and you may be my biological child, but I still wield a power you do not want to test.”

The cutting voice in my ear… it’s the voice of the man in the video who gave his son lashings for failing to make enough deposits. A mixture of fear and revulsion shudders down my spine. My Princes are still on their knees, and I step forward, towering over the three of them to bestow my grace.

Grace. The word churns in my mind. An undeserved favor that cannot be earned, only given. At this moment, I understand the meaning behind it. These men—these rapists—they do not have my forgiveness. Nor my respect. But as my Princes, as the potential father of the heir, I can give them my grace.

I step to the right, looming over Wicker’s broad shoulders, a loose lock of golden hair curls in front of his eye. I loathe how handsome he is, how everything about his face is perfectly symmetrical, the product of generations of excellent breeding. It’s also a big part of what makes him powerful. The deceit of it. 

Running my finger under his sharp chin, I tip his face up to mine, watching as his piercing blue eyes glare daggers at my mouth. I bend at the waist, brushing my lips over his. It’s just what Danner wanted: an intimate caress. His lips are stained with the metallic taste of old blood, but my kiss is so gentle and coaxing that I can feel his breath go shallow against my mouth. 

All it takes is a sweep of my tongue. 

His jaw yields instantly, lips parting to taste me back. He’s so easy, so fucking bound to his weakness that a sound even escapes him, throaty and full of desperate grit. 

But before he can surge up, I bite down–hard–puncturing his bottom lip. 

Wicker jerks back, hissing as his eyes bore into mine with some mixture of shock, arousal, and rage. “Bitch!” he spits, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. Fresh blood smears across his snarled lips.

Moving a few steps to my left, I stop in front of Pace next. His expression is cold—eyes resentful for being on his knees. In his mind, that’s my place, a position of submissiveness. Perfect for a pet

But not here. Not when I’m being honored for the gift in my womb. Running my fingers down his cheek, I admire the sharp bone there as his black eyes watch me. The hollow beneath it. The cut of his jaw. The way his throat moves with a casual swallow as I touch the bob of his Adam’s apple. 

He doesn’t even flinch when my fingers close around the column of his throat. If anything, he just tips his head back, a challenge in his eyes as my thumb digs into the pulse. It’s incendiary, the frustration and anger that mixes inside my chest as I bend down to push my lips against his, fingers tightening. But he doesn’t give me what I want. There’s no whimper or wheeze, no sign it’s affecting him at all. 

There’s just his mouth pinching mine into a slow, slick liplock. 

When I pull back, I’m hoping to see the loss of breath in his eyes, but the closest sign of weakness I get is another swallow against the tightening vice of my palm. 

When I step away, finally letting him go, my hand twinges.

Lex is somehow the easiest and most difficult. He waits for me with a hard gaze, eyes locking into mine. I only hesitate for a moment before reaching out. My fingers smooth back his hair, nails dragging along his scalp until they meet the tight band that holds it all in place. 

He grunts as I yank it free. 

The long strands cascade around his face, brushing his cheeks and shoulders as he glares at me from beneath the wild mane. This is the man I know. Lagan. Not the sterile man who toys with me on his examination table, but this feral, untamed, relentless animal that fucks me with abandon. 

That’s the man I choose to give my grace to.

I do it with a fist in the back of his hair, twining it around my wrist and wrenching his head back. His eyes are tight, but I know it’s not from the pain. It’s from the way I descend, never closing my own eyes as our lips meet. 

I watch the coldness in his stare grow as I kiss him. Lex doesn’t kiss me back. His lips don’t move at all, actually. He just watches me, rigid and coiled, mouth pressed into a tight, unhappy line as if he’s simply waiting for it to be over. 

Maybe this whole coronation thing isn’t so bad after all. 

I release him, hoping the pull is painful, and nod at Danner, signaling I’m finished.

“Pace,” Ashby says when I resume my position beside him. “You wanted to do this part.” 

I discover then why Pace is in the middle. It’s him who reaches into his pocket, extracting a small golden box. My pulse quickens at the sight when he pries it open, revealing a ring. It’s lying on a bed of purple velvet, shaped like a crown. Much like the tiara I’m wearing, it sparkles with gold and diamonds. Unlike the tiara, this ring is new. Every successful Princess gets one–the real golden ticket to East End. I stare at it, this piece of metal and rock, and I can’t contain it. 

A low, grim laugh escapes my throat. 

This is it? This is what every Princess endures pain and torture to get? Her coronation, the ring, three gorgeous men kneeling before her, and not even a vague promise as to her own future? 

It’s a joke, is what it is. 

Behind Pace, Lex and Wicker watch me like I’m one step away from losing my mind. I may just be, and the sensation of Pace reaching out to take my hand doesn’t make it any better. 

His touch isn’t like his father’s or Lex’s. Where they’re cold, Pace is a roaring fire, his skin hot enough to singe me as he plucks the ring from its bed of velvet. His dark eyes hold mine, too. That might be the worst part–the sly, malicious quirk of his mouth as he lifts my third finger, threading the ring onto it.

But just as he twists it, a tight sensation tugging at the skin, the door at the back of the room flies open. The sound is loud enough to snap the breathless tension in the room, making me–and everyone else–jump. 

“Don’t you fucking dare take this any further.”

All eyes move to the disturbance: a slim, commanding silhouette glaring down the aisle at us.

Fucking hell.

It’s my mother. 

She didn’t come alone. Sy, Nick, and Remy are a hulking, furious force that storms into the room behind her. My insides clench up so tightly at the sight of them that it’s a struggle to even remain standing. Each of their eyes seeks me out, pinning me with that frantic Bruin intensity, but none so intense as my mother’s. 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. 

I was supposed to have time before I faced them and the reality of what they’ve seen- that video of the cleansing–a detailed montage of my own destruction.

Shame isn’t a strong enough word for the emotion that tugs me under. It’s despair, hopelessness, and disgrace, all mingling into the hard pit of my stomach currently occupied by a fetus. 

Coolly adjusting his shirt cuff, Ashby greets, “Libby,” and my shocked gaze whips to him. It’s a name I’ve only heard once or twice in conjunction with my mother and never by anyone who wasn’t a close confidant. “Sorry, you missed the ceremony, it was really quite beaut—.”

His words are cut off when my mother, dressed in tight spandex pants cuffed with leopard print and a low-cut matching shirt, strides up to the King and slaps him across the cheek.

I hear a gasp, then realize it came from me.

“You rat fucking bastard,” she seethes.

Hardly looking fazed, Ashby tilts his head at Danner. “Prepare the conference room.” He then chuckles, rubs his jaw, and adds, “I always forget just how cliche your West End temperament can be.”

My mother lunges, and that’s what draws the Princes out of their shocked lull. Pace grabs her around her upper body, wrenching her back. “Hands off, jailbird,” Nick growls, grabbing Pace by the shoulder and spinning him around. Faster than I doubt anyone could react, he has his pistol drawn, barrel pressed to Pace’s temple.  

Ashby gestures to Nick. “Point proven.”

My mother goes for him again, but this time, Sy is there, trying to pull her back to the invisible line that separates East and West. Unfortunately for him, she came wearing her signature spiked heels, and all it takes is one tactical stomp to have him roaring in surprise. 

“What the fuck, Mama B!” he shouts, hopping on one foot.

Meanwhile, Remy marches straight up the aisle toward me, eyes bouncing around, and fuck. There’s already been enough blood involved with this ceremony. The last thing I want is more, especially if it’s theirs, and judging from all the PNZ members springing to their feet, that’s exactly how this will go down.

“Stop!” I shout, holding up my hands, probably looking like a lunatic in this blood-stained dress. Okay, there’s no probably. “Nick, put the goddamn gun down.” His blue eyes flick to mine, narrowing, and I wonder for a second if I even have any right. Maybe they saw that video and are done with me. Maybe I’m not worth making peace over anymore. Maybe I’m damaged goods. 

But suddenly, he huffs, relaxing his elbow and dropping the barrel. 

Strangely enough, I actually feel I have more sway with the dark-eyed man currently snarling at my mother. “And Pace, don’t you ever fucking touch my mother again!”

A shadow crosses the doorway–Danner returning. “The conference room is ready,” he says in that quiet, stoic voice, as though nothing is out of place.

Ashby, unshaken as always, makes a sweeping gesture toward the door. “So let’s begin the negotiations, shall we?”

In the quiet of the conference room, my mother avoids my gaze. I’m pregnant, carrying her first grandchild, and she can’t even make eye contact. The Dukes are bad enough, but my face feels wan and bloodless at the notion she’s seen the video of my ruin. 

That notion from before of being a stranger in my own skin is something I embrace now. Let this thing inside of me have the churning shame of it while I hide in a dark corner. 

“Thank you, Killian, for being here on such short notice,” Ashby says from the seat at one end of the table. “Normally, we have the Baron King witness such things between our houses, but he was unavailable.”

Killian Payne sits at the other end, an aggrieved expression on his face. I don’t blame him. Who wants to get involved in this shit-show? My mother and Sy sit on opposite sides of the table from me, but Remy, Nick, and all three of my Princes have been left outside in the hallway, under strict instruction to keep it civil. Dimitri Rathbone is the peacemaker. God help us all.

While we waited for Killian to arrive, I had time to change, having Stella help me out of the heavy lace and into something less bloody and symbolic. Now, I’m withering under the weight of the tension.

“It’s unfortunate that you had to interrupt our ceremony this evening with such a dramatic entrance,” Ashby starts, gesturing to Danner in the corner. He’s holding a stack of folders in his hands. “It’s as if you didn’t trust me to carry out these negotiations as planned.”

“We didn’t.” Sy stares at him, and there’s a sharpness to his gaze that I’m not used to seeing. “You shouldn’t have made her sign anything before this meeting,”

Danner walks around the table, passing a folder to each of us while Ashby continues. “I’ve already taken the liberty–” a pause while Ashby smirks at my mother, “pardon the term–of writing up the next phase of our agreement. I’m sure you’ll understand that it must adhere to the principles of the Princess’ previously agreed upon covenants.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Sy grinds out. “This is a negotiation, Ashby, which means both parties give and take.” There’s a second where Sy’s glaze flicks to me; blink, and you’d miss it, and I shrink back into my seat. 

“I don’t see how much leverage you have, Perilini. The Princess is carrying my heir, which, by extension, rightfully makes her my property.”

“Like fucking hell,” Mom snaps, eyes flaring.

Ashby ignores the outburst. “The covenant has been signed and sealed.” He looks down at the table. “Maybe it’s best if Killian reads over the proposals—an unbiased participant.”

Killian sighs, and I get the feeling he’d throttle Ashby with his bare, heavily tattooed hands if he had the chance, but he flips open the folder and begins reading instead. “The Princess will continue to visit West End, one day a week, under supervision for the duration of her pregnancy. She will live in the safety of the Palace with her Princes and will continue her education at the university to the best of her ability and health. East End will provide all healthcare and emotional support needed during this time. Yadda yadda, at any point, if the strain of these things poses a risk to the child, all activities will cease.” He takes a breath and looks up at my mother. “Liberty Sinclaire may attend one doctor visit, host a baby shower, and will receive notice at the time of birth. Verity Sinclaire and child will be available for visitation three days post birth.”

“You’ve lost your fucking mind.” My mother’s voice is clear and unwavering.

All eyes move to her. Ashby leans back in his seat. “Libby, do you care to expound?”

“I’ll expound my heel into your testicles, you fucking snake.” She presses her palms onto the table, scowling. “I raised this girl for twenty goddamn years. You have no place in her life. You’re a sperm donor, at best. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you dictate my place in her life or vice versa!”

He laughs without a trace of humor, looking toward Sy. “Let me know when we’re really ready to negotiate because I don’t think that you—”

My mother snaps, “No, you don’t think. You don’t need to because here’s what’s going to happen.” She bears down, eyes sparking with threat. “My daughter moves home with us–her real family. She’ll return here for doctor appointments—supervised—and return to West End immediately. Any union with your Princes will be dissolved. I will have full access to my daughter and her child as she wishes.” Her final words emerge through gritted teeth. “And when the child is born, we will retain custody.”

Sy leans back, massive arms crossed over his chest. “Sorry, you didn’t think you were negotiating with me, did you?” He nods toward my mother. “Because she’s the one you have to convince. I’m just here to put pen to paper.”

The tightness of futility twisting in my chest isn’t unlike being bickered over like the last piece of meat at the family dinner table. “I signed the covenants. I did it this morning, by choice,” I say, finally speaking up. My mother’s eyes snap to mine for the first time, flaring. Lower, I admit, “We both know coming home isn’t an option for me, mama.” The words are obviously half empty, and Sy must hear that. It’s not all a lie. I did sign the covenants, by choice, at the silent dining room table as Ashby sat across from me. Maybe that’s what made it so easy–the lack of pain and humiliation in it. For the first time in my life, I felt like an adult. 

I’m not stupid. It was clearly a tactic. Ashby wanted me to feel that way, empowered and independent instead of trapped and hopeless.

But the parts that made it easier are a lot harder to swallow. The Dukes and my mother know what the Princes did to me, and there’s no walking away now. Not with their baby inside of me. 

 “Verity,” Sy says, pitching closer over the table. “You don’t have to keep this up. Not after what they did to you.”

My face falls, but before I can form a response, Killian agrees, “You have something they want. That gives you leverage, Verity.”

Ashby’s next words emerge pointedly. “I don’t think we need the West and the South coaching our Princess.”

Sy’s eyes roll, but it’s Killian who snaps, “She deserves to know her status in that seat.”

“It’s okay,” I cut in, offering Killian a flat, dull smile. “I know the play here. With all due respect, Killian, you don’t have all the information. I know what I’m doing.”

My mother thrusts a finger at me. “Now you listen to me, missy.”

Finally, I burst, “Listen? You want me to listen? I might if you ever said anything!” My mother’s mouth snaps shut, lips pursed into a tight, angry line. “When were you going to tell me that Ashby is my father, Mama? Because you should have told me back when you were grooming me to be a rival Royal. You should have told me the instant you discovered he chose me as Princess. You should have told me something!” Shaking my head, I release a tight, bitter laugh. “I can’t believe you’d let me go into this so ignorant and unprepared.”

“Let you?” she shrieks. “Short of tying your ass up and dragging it back to the gym, I did everything I could to stop you from doing this.”

“Everything but tell me the truth.”

Her eyes widen. “I was protecting you!” 

“You were storing me. If not for Duchess, then for something else.” 

From beside me comes Ashby’s low chuckle. “You did raise a sharp one, Libby, I’ll give you that.”

Her furious gaze whips to him. “Call me that one more time, and I’m going to come over this table and feed you your teeth, you smug son of a bitch.”

He shrugs. “You did have twenty years. Surely, the girl realizes you’ve been keeping this secret as a sort of currency.”

I did realize it, but hearing the words said aloud still stings, all the more when she meets my gaze, saying with certainty, “She realizes that you only wanted her when she became useful to you, and one day she’ll realize that I was right to give her those twenty years.” 

“Miss Sinclaire,” Killian warns my mother. “No one can appreciate the complexity of family drama quite like I can. Trust me. But let’s stay on topic here. We need a compromise.”

She drops back into her seat, eyes narrowed. “Well, it sure as fuck isn’t going to come from me. I’m not leaving this shit palace without my daughter.”

Ashby takes a moment to look between them, that serene grin never leaving his lips. “Danner, hand me that remote control.”

Danner moves silently across the room and returns with a remote. A moment later, a massive television slides up and out of the floor. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this,” he sighs, pressing a button, and a still photo pops up. My stomach sinks like a boulder. I recognize the image immediately, even though it only reveals my face. My makeup is smeared, and my hair is a mess. 

This is moments after all three of my Princes raped me on the ceremonial table. Moments before the Royal cleansing, when every member of PNZ coated me with their cum. This is the moment they broke me. Maybe it’s even the moment they sealed my fate here, their seed finally taking hold.

Maybe the child growing inside me was created in the midst of that. 

The thought alone makes my stomach churn, but worse than that is Sy’s grimace as he pointedly averts his gaze. Wordlessly, I spring from my seat, knees smarting when I slam down on the floor to wretch into the trash bin in the corner. My back heaves, the flexing muscles painful as I lose whatever was left of the morning’s post-contract breakfast.

I hear chair legs scrape against the floor, but only one of the people in the room reaches me. 

“There, there,” Ashby says, his hand giving my shoulder a pat. “I’ll need to have Lex make you some shakes for that morning sickness.” 

Shuddering, I flinch away from his touch, scrambling to my feet. “Turn it off. Please, just… turn it off.”

“Turn what off?” When I turn, my mother is regarding the image on the screen with a drawn face. “What is it I’m looking at?” 

I freeze, looking at Sy, and he gives me a small shake of his head, eyes sliding away. 

It hits me then. 

Lex really was bluffing during our dance the other night. 

She hasn’t seen it. 

Ashby’s eyes flick to mine, the threat unspoken. If we don’t get them to agree to his proposal, he’ll show it. “Please,” I whisper, too desperate to feel ashamed of the way my voice cracks. “Please don’t show her. I did it–I signed the covenant.” 

My mother’s whole body is rigid as she growls out, “What did they do to you?” 

Ashby pulls out my chair for me, casually explaining, “There was an unfortunate incident a few weeks ago. We learned that Verity has been involved in an ongoing series of espionage with your Duchess, Lavinia Lucia.”

“That’s a gross exaggeration,” Sy says, eyes sliding from Ashby to me. A silent understanding passes between us. “Girls like to gossip. It was locker room talk that you’ve blown entirely out of proportion.”

Panic builds in my chest as I numbly take my seat, the fear of revealing the truth about the Monarchs worse than them seeing the video. The video of the cleansing makes me look bad, but the betrayal that led to it? Well, it affects more than me.

“Verity revealed classified and sensitive information about assets in my Kingdom to Lucia during an unapproved visit to West End.” His voice raises a notch. “Her misguided loyalty to the West End put my Kingdom at risk, and because of those actions, she was punished accordingly.” He nods to the screen and holds up the remote. “That punishment was recorded and is currently on a server waiting to be released to all of Forsyth. If you give me my demands, I won’t release it. If you refuse, it will be delivered before your next breath.” His lips turn up at one corner. “My Pace is incredibly gifted in this area, you understand.”

Sy curses under his breath, and when our eyes meet, his are filled with both pity and annoyance. “First, let me assure you that I was unaware of any unapproved visitation, and that’s been handled with my Queen. Second—”

Your Pace?” My mother’s slow, mangled laugh fills the room. Her eyes are full of a pain I can’t quite understand, but it’s hidden beneath a wrath that’s so West End I get overcome by a wave of homesickness. “Is that what you tell him, Rufus? I wonder how loyal those gifted boys will be to you when they find out where he came from.”

Ashby pauses with his hand poised over the paper, eyes locking on hers. “You overestimate your credibility.”

“And you underestimate how much currency I’ve collected.” Her head tilts, and she rests her elbow on the arm of her chair. Her sharp red nails gleam in from the overhead light. My mother isn’t just smart. She’s a survivor. She’s also fucking terrifying. “You’re not the only one with leverage, King Prick. Now that you’ve revealed to the world that Verity’s our daughter, I have no reason to keep your other secrets. Including ones that could threaten the house of cards this gaudy castle was built on.”

Sy, Killian, and I exchange a look. None of us are privy to whatever this leverage might be.

There’s a long moment where they just stare at one another, Ashby stiff and unblinking. That unsettling half-grin is still frozen on his face, but I detect something uncharacteristic in his gaze.


“You can have a week out of every month,” Ashby concedes, breaking her stare to open the folder. 

My jaw drops, but I’m quick to compose myself. Quicker than Sy, at least, whose forehead is puckered up in confused shock. I wasn’t expecting to be able to go home ever again–not after everything.

I see the moment it clicks for my mother that she has him by the balls. “You just had her for nearly two months. I want that time back.” Her nails tap on the table. “I want her in West End every other month, in fact.”

Ashby doesn’t even look up from what he’s jotting down to scoff. “That’s a demand so absurd, it borders on humor, Liberty.” 

“Two words, honey.” My mother leans over the table, catching his gaze. “Dungeon twins.”

Ashby drops his pen, head whipping upward to gape at her.

Mother inspects her nails. “As far as currency goes, that’s a nice golden bar.”

Huffing, Killian taps his fingertips on the table. “What’s it going to be, Ashby?”

“Give me a moment!” he snaps, making me jump. Sy sees this, looks between Ashby and my mother, and straightens.

“That’s a fair deal, Ashby.” Sy nods. “One month here, one month there.”

Ashby looks at him, openly seething, “It’s anything but fair. This is my heir. I won’t have it at the mercy of your West End mongrels.” 

Killian straightens, too, obviously sensing some hope. “You can take precautions. Send a Prince with her.” 

“No,” Sy says, the tone brooking no argument. “You can send someone with her, but it can’t be a Royal.” 

“Danner,” I suggest, perking up at the prospect. An entire month back home without Ashby or any of the Princes breathing down my neck. Suddenly, I’m curling my hands into fists to hide their shaking.

“I need Danner here.” There’s a vein in Ashby’s forehead that’s protruding oddly, and I realize why. 

He’s going to agree.

What the fuck does ‘dungeon twins’ mean? 

“We’ll send her handmaid,” he says, picking up his pen. The muscles in his face are taut as if he’s gnashing his teeth.

My mother chimes in, “We want someone with her when she’s here, too. One of my boys.”

“Ballsack,” Sy decides, nodding. “He’s a good kid, strong fighter. And you’ve had him in your dungeon before. He’ll behave himself.”

Ashby’s fingers flex around the pen. “Fine,” he grits out. “One month, then she returns here,” his gaze flicks to Sy, “and the Dukes give us an arms shipment of our choice.”

“We can accommodate that,” he says, eyeing my mother for approval. “She can return here for medical care. We all trust you have the baby’s best interest at heart.”

Ashby’s glower rises to Sy. “I’ve waited twenty years for this. I assure you, I’ll spare no expense.”

Around me, the negotiations continue–stipulations like how I’ll be required to fulfill my duties on campus and all fraternity-related events. I can barely believe it. This morning, I signed my life away–for the second time–and now my mother’s gained me a morsel of it back. 

When the next nine months are finally hashed out, Killian runs a palm through his hair and clears his throat. “So everyone is in agreement?”

Everyone, that is, except me.

But I’ve known, for a long time now, no one cares about what I want.

I’m just a pawn in a larger game.

A vessel to carry an heir.

Newsletter signup

Sign up for the Forsyth mailing list!

Hold tight, we're doing this shit!

Thank you for sign up!