Author Willow Fox ebook Royal Reaper (eBook)

Royal Reaper (eBook)

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From princess to grim reaper…

A murderer is after the throne.

I sneak out only to end up dead at the local tavern. Now, my boyfriend is accused of my death and my younger sister’s life is in danger.

I have to protect those I love and left behind. How does one do that while dead? By attending Reaper Academy.

At least death is on my side.

This is the sweet/clean version. Steam Rating: 🌶️

Chapter One

Ophelia waited until her family was asleep. Her younger sister Mara's bedroom sat across the hall in the eastern tower. Mara was the closest, and the most likely to catch Ophelia sneaking out. Her father's room perched at the opposite end of the castle, in the top of the western tower. He slept through anything. Ophelia ditched the golden gown and left it in a heap on the floor, trading it for something less conspicuous. She needed to blend in where she was going. She couldn't do that with a crown atop her head or the princess outfits she was accustomed to wearing. She didn't want to draw attention to herself.

"Ophelia?" Mara knocked on the bedroom door. She carried a candle to illuminate her way, and turned the handle, walking into her sister's room.

Ophelia cursed under her breath and stowed the gown behind the three-tiered changing screen. She hoped Mara was alone. "Come in."

"You're going out," Mara said. It wasn't a question. Ophelia was dressed in a bland beige and gray cotton dress. "Not much of a disguise with you wearing the crown." The older princess lowered her head, and Mara carefully removed the golden tiara, placing it on the nightstand. "Is he really worth it?" She sat down on the edge of Ophelia's bed. Ophelia pulled at the ribbons holding her up-do, causing her red hair to cascade down her back.

"He's perfect." Ophelia's smile lit up her face just thinking about him. "Eyes like honey. Hair as dark and rich as the blackest night. Larkin will be the death of me."

All of nineteen years old, Mara laughed and rolled her eyes. "Don't be so dramatic. You could have it worse. Be like me; the thought of marrying a prince brings bile to my lips."

Ophelia pushed a brunette strand of Mara's long hair behind her ear. "I will do whatever I can to make it so you will be happy." For Ophelia, it was no secret that Mara's love interest was not a boy, but in fact, a young noble girl of twenty who had been invited to keep the younger princess company. If either of their fathers had discovered the secret they kept, they would have been separated at once, Aurora banished from the kingdom, and Mara likely locked up in her room with a doctor at her bedside trying to fix her head.

"I know, and that's why I love you."

The older princess laughed and shook her head, smiling. "Is that the only reason?"

Mara sighed, contemplative as she stared up at her older sister. "I wish I looked more like you," Mara whispered.

Naturally curling, rich autumn hair, like crimson maple leaves, made Ophelia look just like their mother. Ophelia's pale blue eyes caught all the boys' attention, not that it mattered; she was to wed Prince Astin. "And I wish I looked more like you." Ophelia kissed her sister's cheek. "I'm covered in freckles and I burn from just a minute under the sun. You are the lucky one, Mara."

Mara shrugged and pursed her lips together. "When can I meet him? You've already met Aurora."

Ophelia laughed under her breath. "Only because I caught the two of you kissing in your bedroom." She'd witnessed far more than innocent kissing between Mara and the noble girl.

Ophelia's stomach grumbled hungrily. She'd barely seen her sister since the noble girl had come to visit. They'd been close in age and seemed to be, until recently, inseparable, not that Ophelia minded. She kept any hint of jealousy well-hidden. Mara could use a friend, one who was not her sister, someone whom she could trust and confide in.

Ophelia had expected to find the two young girls sitting around a table sharing a cuppa or divulging secrets on boys. 

She hadn't bothered to knock. It wasn't as though her sister had ever offered her much privacy. Besides, the hour was nearing dinner and it was time to remind the girls to wash up before their evening meal.

A loud squeak resulted from behind the door. Was she crazy enough to be moving furniture around in the room? Surely, her maid Sophia would bring in help if Mara wished to redecorate the room. At this late hour, Ophelia could not even fathom a guess as to the strange creak and groan coming from the room.

Turning the handle to the door, her eyes widened as she caught sight of her younger sister intimately crawling down the noble girl's body.

Ophelia had not wished to stare and watch the scene any longer than the brief second it took to open the door and witness what was occurring. There were no locks on the doors, making what they were doing an even greater risk. Had they not thought to move a dresser or even a chair to secure the room?

"I—dinner will be ready in twenty. I suggest you both come downstairs and look presentable for your father, the king." Ophelia hadn't known what to say or even how to react. Mara had always grumbled at the thought of marrying a prince, but Ophelia had taken it to mean nothing more than her own discomfort with an arranged marriage and wishing to choose her suitor.

Clearly, she'd been wrong. Why had Mara said nothing sooner? Had she worried about the ramifications of what it would mean? A princess could not marry another girl, noble or otherwise. When she became queen, she would do whatever it took to ensure her sister's happiness.

Mara had made her sister swear not to tell their father of her transgression with Aurora.

Ophelia had no reason to tattle. Besides, she herself was not a young woman who would kiss and tell. She needed to calm her own nerves, thinking of Larkin, and perhaps trust that her family would accept him even though there was no royal blood in his veins. No Dacre daughter it seemed would ever be happy with marriage. "I shall tell father of Larkin when he won't have a heart attack knowing I've been sneaking out."

Mara snorted under her breath. "That shall never happen. Tell me a story about him."

Ophelia sighed. She didn't have time, not without being late. However, she couldn't resist her younger sister's smile. Thinking of Larkin sped up her heart and made her cheeks flush. When had she fallen in love with the young man? He had stolen his way into her heart, but she had not the faintest idea when it had begun. "He's warm, kind—a gentle soul. He helps those less fortunate. I've witnessed Larkin pay for a beggar's meal on many occasions." Ophelia hoped that would satisfy her nagging sister's curiosity. Divulging what it was like to press her lips to his or feel his engorged member against her dress as they danced intimately was not a story she wished to tell. Besides, she thought Mara would not desire such intimate details, either, considering her affection for Aurora.

"Why would he do that? We provide rations to the poor."

Did her sister not realize the need of the people grew every year? There was never enough food to feed the entire kingdom of Casmerelda. "Sometimes there isn't enough. Or they're too proud to come forward looking for help." Ophelia dropped a kiss to her sister's cheek. "He's a gentleman. You'd like him if you ever met him."

"Maybe he's doing this to impress you?"

"No." She'd been around Larkin long enough to know what was real and what wasn't. "He barely can afford his own plate. He's taken on additional responsibilities to pay for our nights at the tavern."

"Why don't you pay?"

"He'd never allow it." Ophelia refrained from telling Mara that she'd lied about her name and that she was next in line for the throne. It was something Ophelia should have told Larkin, but she'd waited too long. Now it complicated matters. She'd fallen in love and feared she'd lose him.

"Let me come with you. Aurora is visiting her family for the week. The palace gets boring after a while."

"Absolutely not!" Had Mara grown mad? She allowed no guards to accompany her and would not risk any life besides her own.

The brunette sighed and folded her arms across her chest. Pouting, just like a child, she emitted a heavy breath, blowing her bangs to the side. "Fine. Do you love him?"

Ophelia smiled brightly. "Almost as much as you."

That seemed to settle Mara down, at least momentarily, on the idea of tagging along. Silence enveloped them as Ophelia applied a coat of ruby lipstick and added a dash of eyeshadow to accentuate her features. She desired to dress up for him, to wear a gown fit for a princess, but there was too much risk involved, for both of their sakes.

"Have you kissed him yet?" Mara was full of questions tonight.

"Yes." Ophelia's cheeks flamed at the admission. She wasn't supposed to be kissing other boys. Although her heart was tied to Larkin, in less than a year she would marry Prince Astin Stafford. Her parents had settled with an arranged marriage when they were young for the sake of the kingdom, but that wasn't what she desired. Countless times she had contemplated running away, but where would she go? She couldn't hide forever.

Mara grinned, leaning forward at the edge of the bed, tugging on her bottom lip with her teeth. "Is Larkin a good kisser?"

Ophelia opened the trunk at the foot of her bed. She rummaged through for a moment, pulling out a dark blue cloak. The leaves had been falling fast, and winter was coming soon. She secured the ribbon around her neck and tossed the hood up over her head. She bent and dropped another kiss to her sister's cheek. "He's an amazing kisser. Now get out and go to bed!"

Mara whined, "I will, after I watch you leave."

Ophelia rolled her eyes. No sense in arguing with Mara. She wouldn't rat Ophelia out for sneaking out of the tower and down to the city streets. Mara had known about Ophelia slipping out to meet Larkin for over a year. Ophelia unlocked the window and pushed the heavy glass upward. It squeaked, but no one ever came to check on her. Perhaps the guards knew what she was up to and didn't care? Or maybe they were too busy playing cards and gambling their night's pay.

She swung one leg and then the other out the window, sitting on the ledge. "Leave it cracked for me to get back in." She crawled out onto the nearest branch. Using the moonlight to see, she carefully climbed down the tree. Ophelia glanced back at her bedroom window. Mara stood, candle in hand, waving to her older sister. Ophelia waved back before dashing through the darkened streets away from the palace.

She navigated the dirt paths and pulled the cloak tighter around her petite frame as she shivered.

As she rushed down the narrow streets and without the moon to guide her, she found it difficult to see the path at her feet. She hummed softly, her breath and noise trying to warm herself as much distract her from the night chill that settled on the kingdom. Just thinking about him and the warm fire inside kept her extremities from burning cold. He had a way of arousing her without so much as having to touch her physically. His deep breath as it caressed her cheek when she leaned in made a delicious shiver run down her spine, causing her insides to tingle and wetness to seep from her folds. She would never admit to such embarrassing feelings that he brought upon her, for fear of what he might say. She may have grown into a young woman, but her desires were fueled out of her wanting and craving everything that he could not give her without royal blood.

Why did she continue to care and listen to her father, the king of Casmerelda? Would it not be better to find her own happiness with the man she loved?

In the distance, she could see the tavern and a gentleman standing outside. It had to be Larkin. He always waited outside for her. He had once jokingly insisted that he wanted all the other patrons to know she was taken.

"You're late." Larkin feigned annoyance when she approached. He shuffled upon his feet, in a clear attempt to keep warm.

"Sorry, I got out as quickly as I could. My sister wanted to chat before I left." Ophelia wrapped her arms around Larkin's neck, pulling him into an embrace. The heat between them sizzled, the cold air long forgotten as she pressed her lips to his, drinking in his warmth, which only further stirred the desires, she felt for him.

Pulling back, her lips stung and her nose ached as she scrunched it, feeling the numbing effects of the chill. "It's cold tonight. Can we go inside?" She shivered and rubbed her hands together to keep warm. Ophelia could smell firewood burning from inside the tavern.

"It's not that cold." He breathed in a whiff of autumn air. "It's not even winter yet. Come on." He opened the door and led her into the warmth of the building. Music blared from the four musicians playing near the door. They looked cold, bundled in brown and black coats with thick scarves, as they sang to the crowd. The floor vibrated from the patrons dancing and added a hint of sizzle to the air, exciting the crowd.

"Are you going to dance with me tonight?" Ophelia asked, stepping further inside, away from the cold draft of the door. His warm liquid honey eyes always mesmerized her. She held his hand as they moved further into the tavern. No one recognized her as Princess Ophelia. Out here, she was just Leila. None knew her father was King Philip or that she was next in line for the throne. She reveled in being anonymous, slipping into the crowd and pretending to live as one of them, a commoner. It was the only time she was given the opportunity to blend in.

"If I agree, will you finally let me meet your family?"

Ophelia pursed her lips, trying to come up with an excuse. Nothing came to mind. "We've talked about this. My father doesn't want me seeing anyone." Ophelia wouldn't risk his life, and giving him the honest reason would do him no good, either.

"What about your mother?" Larkin pressed the issue. "Surely, she can help sway him?"

"Maybe if she wasn't dead."

That stopped Larkin in his tracks. "I'm sorry, Leila. I had no idea."

How could he have known? She'd never told him her mother had been Queen Marie. Had he known she was the princess and heir to the throne, he'd have known the brutal details of her mother's murder. Although Casmerelda was a small and relatively young kingdom, everyone knew of the queen's death; word had traveled as far as Stile, a country that bordered the Jade Sea along the southwestern most point.

Shouts erupted from inside the castle walls. Ophelia's eyes shot open. The clank of metal against metal caused a shiver to course down her spine. She froze, unable to move, uncertain what was going on.

"Ophelia!" Her mother rushed into the bedroom, a candle in one hand and baby Mara in the other. Swiftly, she shut the door with her. "Take your sister. Get under the bed!"

"What's going on?" Ophelia's bottom lip trembled. Never in her life had there been a breach within the castle walls. It wasn't possible that someone could be invading, could it? Her parents had forced her to learn the art of being silent. It wasn't easy for a young child to master, even harder for an infant. She'd struggled with her laughter during the practice sessions. Ophelia was confident this wasn't a game. She'd never been asked to protect little Mara.

"Don't come out until I tell you to, all right?" Guards rushed through the hallway. Boots pounded on the floor, causing a slight rumble. "Hurry."

Ophelia quickly fell to the floor and slid under the mattress.

Her mother bent down, sliding the sleeping infant beside her sister. "Keep her quiet, Ophelia. These men, they're no good."

Ophelia held her breath, cradled the child, and didn't move an inch. How was it Mara could sleep through the invasion of her home? Chewing her bottom lip raw, Ophelia wished she could sleep as soundly as her sister. Through wide eyes, she watched the door creak open. From beneath the mattress, she cringed as brown boots covered in dirt walked into the bedroom.

"Philip!" her mother screamed at the top of her lungs, calling for her husband, the king. Would he save them?

Ophelia didn't move, hiding in the darkness beneath the bed, cradling the tiny bundle in her arms. She tried not to shake, afraid it might wake her sister and cause them both to be seen.

"Your children, they will be all right. I promise you that much, my queen. I am so terribly sorry there isn't more I can do. Hide behind the screen. Perhaps it will keep you safe."

"Who are you?" Her mother's voice shook with nerves.

Ophelia did not move. She could hear the soft patter of footsteps as her mother took his advice and hid.

The man turned and walked out, the click of the door following him as he exited the princesses' bedroom. Ophelia opened her lips, about to ask if it was safe to come out.

A moment later, two sets of black boots stormed the bedroom, the door flung open in haste. "In here!" called a gruff voice. "This is the princesses' room!"

"Please." Her mother's voice quivered as she revealed herself to the intruders. "Do not touch my daughters. You can have me."

Ophelia shut her eyes, but it didn't diminish the putrid stench of the men or the sound of their heavy breathing. The sound of a latched buckle unclasped and one man's drawers hit the floor.

Her stomach turned. Where was her father? Where were the guards? Someone had to come soon, didn't they? When would it end?

"Where are your daughters?" the man asked. Ophelia felt queasy. She recognized the voice; it was one of the newly assigned east wing guards. He'd been unkind to her earlier that afternoon, leering at her as she had asked politely for pastels to color with.

"You'll never touch her!"

"Please, no." Her mother's soft cries erupted from above the squeak of the mattress.

With Mara asleep at her side, Ophelia covered her own ears but opened her eyes to see her mother's dead body fall unceremoniously to the floor, staring blankly back at her. She opened her mouth, wanting to scream, but the words and sound did not come. It was probably for the best or the men would have murdered her next. There was a thirst for royal blood.

Ophelia swallowed the memory and the feeling of anxiety rising in her chest. "Can we please talk about something else tonight?" She didn't want to fight with him.

"Of course, Leila. Let me buy you a drink."

"That would be great, thank you." She had only been given wine at home for meals where they were hosting company. Indulging in alcohol for any other reason had been forbidden by her father. Ophelia had not understood his reason, except perhaps he worried about his daughter's wellbeing.

Larkin shuffled over toward the bar. She watched with fascination, smiling as she found herself unable to tear her gaze away, remembering the summer before when they'd met on the bridge. 

"Is this seat taken?" the young man asked her.

Ophelia sat on the stone bridge, her feet dangling from the side. "It's all yours," she said. She wore a beige dress and dark blue cloak, letting it cover the top of her head. It wasn't a cold evening, but she was trying to be inconspicuous.

"Do I know you?" he asked, trying to get a look at her face as he sat down beside her. He let his legs hang from the side of the bridge also.

"I doubt it." Hesitantly, she turned slightly to face him and was surprised by his looks. As children, they were taught that beauty was only in royal blood, but Ophelia was questioning much of her upbringing. He was quite handsome. She felt lost in his eyes of liquid amber, unable to pull her gaze away. She couldn't let him know who she was. Her mother had told her they'd once considered naming her Leila, but Ophelia was a stronger name for a queen. "Leila." She held out her hand. The lie had easily spilled from her lips. She considered it more of a half-truth.

"Larkin." He smiled, and his eyes twinkled. Perhaps it was the reflection of the sun setting and the water down below. "I swear you're familiar."

"I doubt it." Ophelia couldn't let him know who she was. She'd sworn to herself that she wouldn't tell anyone, for fear that she'd be kidnapped. It wouldn't be the first time that greedy men kidnapped a princess for ransom. She'd heard the tales growing up, and they scared her. It had been why she was required to take a guard with her when she left the castle grounds.

Larkin stared at her and then turned to face the last few rays of the sun as it dipped below the horizon. The pink and purple haze danced across his jaw and up his cheek line. Ophelia tried not to stare, but it was impossible. "I know where I've seen you before."

"You do?" She swallowed, a knot forming in the back of her throat. He couldn't know who she was; she'd be in a whole lot of trouble if anyone found out.

Larkin nodded, sure of his response. "Yes, the market. I'm positive I've seen you there. Buying produce or fish, something." He grinned. "Am I right?"

A princess had no reason to procure food when the kitchen staff was responsible for tending to her meals. She had gone on occasion with her sister and the guards when they had desired time away from the palace. "Maybe." Ophelia smiled coyly, her fingers tangling in her red tresses as she played with the strands of her hair. Surely, he would have known she was the princess with her entourage following her around. He had a way of making her nervous, the anxious feeling gripping her stomach as her hands trembled slightly. Expelling a nervous breath, she tried to contain her worries. He seemed harmless enough and friendly. "Why didn't you speak to me sooner?"

Larkin shrugged, frowning. "You were with someone, probably?"

"My family." Ophelia nodded, building on the lies she'd already told. "I'm sure I was with my father." Anxiously, she swung her legs back and forth, the shoe on her right foot slipping off and splashing into the stream. "Shit!" Her words may have been far from ladylike, but if she lost the shoe there'd be hell to pay.

"It's just a shoe."

Ophelia was about to open her mouth to protest, when Larkin stood and walked toward the edge of the stone bridge. The shoe had sunk beneath the murky surface. He climbed down the side of the bank between stone and grass, jumping in as he reached the edge. "Be careful!"

Larkin dove down, while Ophelia watched from above. She held her breath, waiting for him to reappear. Becoming lightheaded, she opened her lips, exhaling, and let the air fill her lungs again. "Larkin?" Her voice trembled. Had something dragged him under?

He caused quite a splash, breaking up through the water. "Is this it?" he asked, soaking from head to toe. The river may not have been wide, but it was deep.

"Yes! Thank you." It may have just been a shoe, but she'd borrowed it from Sophia, the girls' maid, without her knowledge. The princess might have had tons of nice clothes, but commoner clothes were harder to come by. She couldn't exactly ask her father for such a wardrobe; there would be questions.

Larkin swam to the edge of the bank and climbed out. A few minutes later, he joined her back on the bridge. The stars had come out and peppered the night sky. "For you." He handed her the wet shoe.

"Thank you."

"You can thank me with a drink at the tavern and a dance."

Ophelia raised an eyebrow. Was he serious? She was to marry Prince Astin Stafford. Of course, Larkin had no idea, because he thought she was Leila. The buzzing in her stomach started up again. He made her anxious, but it did not dispel her desire to see him, either. What harm could one night out cause? "You expect me to buy?"

"I did save your shoe." Larkin grinned. "I'm kidding. It's my treat." He offered his hand, helping Ophelia to her feet.

Chapter Two

On most days, Wynter didn't mind his job. Today wasn't one of those days. Without a doubt, he could sense trouble was brewing. The fact that his reap was a princess, no less, didn't make him feel the slightest bit better. He'd been watching her since she was a child, protecting her any way that he could. A part of him felt responsible for her mother's death, not that he could have done anything to prevent it. He was no dark angel.

Stepping foot into the tavern, the warmth of the patrons and the hearth in the corner heated the room quite nicely. Even so, he didn't remove his scarf, knowing his time inside would not be long.

He had yet to lay eyes on the princess, but he could feel her presence, knew she was close as he was drawn toward her. From the distance, he caught sight of her red, fiery hair. She was beautiful, her thick locks of red and her pale blue eyes. She looked like her mother, and as she grew into her splendor, the resemblance became uncanny. Years ago, he'd stepped foot in the palace and been forced to visit Queen Marie upon her death. Wynter had not known the task of being a grim reaper would extend so far as the royal family of Casmerelda. Perhaps he should have known, as no one was above death. That fateful night, he'd trotted into the palace, slipped as far as the girls' bedroom, and assured the queen her children would be safe. He'd kissed her and taken her soul, freeing her from the world she lived in.

Not even now, could he change what was to become of Ophelia Dacre. The scroll sizzled at his side and he didn't have to unravel it to know that she would be no ordinary reap. Unlike the thick black legible cursive that etched to the parchment, her name had been a sparkling shade of purple, glimmering and shining under the sun. Wynter had not quite known what that meant, having never witnessed such an action on the scroll that signified who was destined for death. He himself had been human once, many years ago. With a sigh, he tried not to think of the life he'd lost, the people who were now gone and how the memory of him had faded like the wind.

Wynter approached the table, taking the opportunity while the gentleman who was with her had disappeared to the bar to get them both drinks.

"Handsome fellow you got there." Approaching a stranger was always the hardest part of the reap. He'd been doing it for decades, and it never felt any easier.

She turned her head upward, smiling weakly at him. "Larkin?" she asked and glanced back at the bar. "Yeah, he's pretty amazing. He's also taken, if you're asking."

Wynter studied her for a long moment and laughed. "Not my type. He looks remarkably like a friend of my brother." He had a knack for lying when he reaped. Telling stories made it easier to get acquainted with the soul he was to take. Besides, he had to kiss her in order to bring death, and most girls he would lean in and plant his lips on would pull away and pummel him first.

Being a grim reaper was no easy task.

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