Rafel Riva, crown prince of Rivand, felt restless and the only reason he could imagine for his desire to flee the palace lay in the ball to be held that evening. Four and twenty young women of lineage and wealth had been invited. The thought of meeting and greeting them chilled him.
He glared at his mother’s back. His escape from the palace had been delayed while she gushed about the gaggle of girls who would attend. Each one had been evaluated as to their suitability as a bride. Her choices had been based on the prestige they would bring to the family.
The queen turned. “Rafel, you are five and twenty. ‘Tis time you were wed. You must choose one for your bride and make her the happiest of women.”
And him the glummest of men. “Yes, mother.”
“Three princesses are among the most eligible. The duke’s daughter will also do. But a princess will bring honor to Rivand.”
His stomach clenched. Choosing a bride meant there could be just one woman in his life. A dreary and boring fate. He liked women, all women.
He hurried along the corridor toward a side door and an escape from the noise and bustle of preparation. All to celebrate an event he found distasteful. So engrossed in his plan to escape when a hand clamped his shoulder he reached for his sword.
“Son, I’m glad I caught you.” The king smiled. “Have you seen any among the young ladies you would choose as a bride?”
Rafel shook his head. He had avoided watching the arrivals of the past few days. “I’ve been busy.”
“I have several suggestions. The time has come for you to put aside your wild ways and settle into providing heirs for Rivand.”
“Leave your list with my body servant. Mother left hers.”
The king nodded. “I will. Perhaps by comparing the two you will find the perfect candidate. My list contains those who come from prolific families. I expect you and your chosen bride to present the kingdom with a son by this time next year. There’s nothing like a son to drive wildness from a man.”
“Yes, Father.” Rafel’s hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. Was there a need for an heir to have an heir? He had three younger brothers, all in line for the throne.
Rafel watched his father walk away. Only a few strands of gray touched the king’s dark hair. His father was a hale man and good for many more years of rule. As thoughts of twenty or thirty years of being crown prince arose, Rafel groaned.
He reached the exit nearest the stable and slipped outside. The brother next in line for the throne emerged from behind the hedge. “Rafe, aren’t you excited?”
Rafel shrugged. “Nor particularly.”
“But you might find love with one of the ladies.”
“Or eternal unhappiness. What is love beyond a trap lauded by the verses of poets? I have no desire to marry. If you like you are welcome to them all.”
Peder frowned. “Everyone says you must marry.” He scuffed the dirt with the toe of his boot. “What if you chose the maiden I love?”
Rafel leaned against the palace wall. “Do you have a choice?”
“I do. She loves me but her parents are angling for the heir to the throne. You have all the luck.”
Luck, Rafel thought. “Hardly.” Tonight he would meet young women all vying for his attention. He pushed away from the wall. “See you at the ball.”
“Where are you going?”
“For a ride.”
“You’d better be back in time.”
Rafel laughed. “If I’m not, you can take my place.” He dashed to the stable.
As he saddled his roan gelding he overheard the head groom speaking to another man. “Tonight the prince chooses a bride. I’ve placed my money on the princess of Manir. Who have you picked?”
The other man snorted. “No choice for me. One hundred years have passed since the witch took the first crown prince.”
Rafel frowned. A witch. How superstitious the lower classes were. He’d only heard of witches in stories designed to frighten children into obedience. He led the horse from the stable, mounted and rode through town to the south gate. As his steed flowed from a walk to a canter he recalled the painting of a man called “The Lost Prince.” Rumors said the young man had vanished mysteriously. Rafel wished he could do the same and stay away long enough to miss the ball.
Sunlight filtering through the dense foliage of the summer growth roused him from his reverie. How long had he been gone? His stomach growled and he knew he’d missed the midday meal. He tried to turn the horse but the steed burst into a gallop along the narrow trail. As suddenly as the urge to return to the palace had arrived, the feeling vanished. Rafel felt an eagerness to find the trail’s end.
The pounding pace continued. Rafel loosened his hold on the reins. Trying to halt the horse seemed impossible. The trees opened into a clearing. The steed halted at a picket fence. Rafel frowned. He’d never heard of anyone living in the forest. He studied the scene. Rose bushes lined the fence and filled the air with their sweet scent. A path led from the gate through a garden with flowers on one side and a kitchen garden on the other. The flagstones ended in front of a small weathered cottage.
Who lives here? Rafel dismounted and walked to the gate. He paused with his hand on the latch.
Wouldn’t be polite to wander into someone’s house without an invitation. A trace of smoke rose from the chimney. Someone lived here. “Hello,” he called.
The cottage door opened and someone walked along the path. As the person neared he saw a woman with hair the color of sunshine and a body with enough curves to intrigue him. When she reached the gate, he met the gaze of eyes as blue as the summer sky.
“Welcome.” She opened the gate.
The music of her voice danced along his spine. “Who are you?”
“Some call me the Witch of the Woods. I am Emme. Are you the crown prince of this time?”
His brow furrowed. What did she mean? “I am Rafel Riva, crown prince of Rivand.”
She smiled. He sensed something predatory in her gaze. He stepped back.
“Enter my garden.”
Her honeyed voice lured him a step or two. He grasped the gate. “I wish I could, fair one, but I must return to the palace.”
Her laughter trilled. “’Tis not to be. You have been called. You have a chance to end the curse I placed on the House of Riva. You look so much like the one who came here before. Your hair is black and your eyes are the green of summer leaves.”
“What is this curse?” he asked.
“The first prince I called refused to announce his love for me. His father, the king, tried to burn my refuge and failed. Every hundred years I will call the crown prince. He will be given a chance to end what I called on the family.”
“What must I do?”
“Give me your love and marry me.”
Her answer produced a bark of laughter. “Marriage. You’ve chosen the wrong prince, my fair witch. I prefer my single state.”
“That is not the answer I want to hear.”
Rafel studied her. She was beautiful but so were other women. “So you cursed my family for a selfish reason. Just because my ancestor refused to love you. What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. He entered the amber globe and vanished.” She waved her hand and an oval of amber appeared on the grass near his feet.
“Surely there’s another way.” If she had lived a hundred years how did she remain young? He rubbed his arms. She must be a witch.
“The only way is for you to love and marry me.”
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Not even to break the curse.”
Rafel squared his shoulders. “Not even then. If I said I loved you that would be a lie. My mother wants me to marry for prestige and my father for heirs. You demand love. I can please none of you.”
She waved her hand. “So be it.”
The amber globe grew until he was surrounded. Rafel tried to escape but his blows bounced from the smooth surface. He closed his eyes. When he opened them he faced a forest but not the one he’d left for the leaves were touched with the bright colors of autumn.
“Come.” A soft voice commanded. “Come.” The call came again, this time spurring him to run toward the trees.