The Bride Tournament (Hexed Hearts Book 1)

The Bride Tournament (Hexed Hearts Book 1)

Katie Curtis

Chapter One

“Dear Miss Elizaveta Cinders,

We cordially invite you to the Galacian Royal Homecoming of Crown Prince—”

Ellie skimmed the rest of the invitation. High quality, ultra-white, and embellished with magical golden vines, the letter resembled a royal summons more than a polite invitation.

Crumpling up the missive, she relished the crinkling sound. She tossed the paper onto her spotless composition desk and strode from the otherwise dusty library, her footsteps on the shabby carpets echoing off dank walls.

A century ago, this family estate had been a proud home. Now, it teetered on the edge of structural failure. The income from her stingy stepmother’s various financial dealings and an annual harvest profit put candles in the windows and food in the larder, but barely. The only reason she tolerated Lady Irene was that she helped keep the sprawling manor habitable.

The rose-inlay runner, worn to a threadbare brown, halted below the painting of a blonde woman, dressed in a bright lavender gown. The lady smiled from the corner of her mouth as if imparting a secret.

“Oh, Mother, I wish you were here.” Ellie traced her fingertips over the frame, careful of the slivered wood. Even mounted in squalor, beauty shone in her mother’s portrait. Ellie’s gaze snagged on her own dirty fingernails. She dropped her hand.

Lady Eleanor of Elbourne Hall had married beneath her station. Far beneath. So low, her husband had been one step above a peasant.

“You had to marry for love, didn’t you?” Ellie mimicked her mother’s painted smile.

Marriage was a business deal, a signed contract for the mutual benefit of the families involved. Marriage passed down titles and provided nobles with an opportunity to produce heirs and transfer lands and wealth in the form of dowries.

She regarded her tarnished hands, hands not of a spell-casting lady but rather the calloused and tanned tools of a common laborer, magic-less and ordinary.

“I won’t ever marry.” The words slipped past her lips like a forbidden benediction. Women in this kingdom grew up yearning for marriages, for balls, for parties, for husbands. Not Ellie. She’d witnessed the loss of a loved one destroy her father, a forced marriage turn her stepmother bitter, and rejection from suitors drive her stepsisters into a crazed obsession.


The deep echo of the clock bell reverberated in the hall. She paused mid-stride and checked her pocket watch. Tea time. She bolted toward the kitchen. Skidding to a stop in the threshold, she bumped into a skeletal frame.

“Father, you must watch where you’re going,” she chided the wizened man, a ghost of the strong male who’d bounced her on his knee when she was a child.

“Ah, Ellie my dear. You look lovely today. Like your mother…” He trailed off.

Thaddeus Cinders stood a head taller than Ellie, yet lately his shoulders hunched together like a stem that had lost its water. His hair, once vibrant and golden, now wilted down his back in a scramble of drab curls. He’d attempted to contain the strands by tying a morbid black ribbon around the clump.

“That’s nice, Father. Why don’t you go sit in the parlor and work? I’ll pop around in an hour to bring tea and biscuits.” She shooed her father’s slender frame toward the south wing.

“Perfect, dearie.” He smiled and patted her cheek, the corners of his vacant eyes tilting in a sad expression.

She leaned against the kitchen doorframe and watched him teeter along the thin carpet, black clothes draping off bony shoulders and nonexistent hips.

Mental note: see what can be done with Father’s best outfits. Alterations must be made.

“Elizaveta!” A screech rattled through the speaking pipe. She winced.

After flicking open the metal clasp, she spoke into the copper tube running through the house’s walls. “Yes, Lady Irene?”

“Tea, in the green parlor. In precisely eight minutes. Do not be late.” The tinny order cut off as the woman at the other end snapped the metal valve shut.

“She’s lucky I don’t spit in the brew,” Ellie said, then buzzed about the kitchen in an efficient manner. The kettle whistled a moment later, and she placed four teacups, four matching saucers with floral designs along the edges, one canister of milk, and a dish of honey on a tray.

Exactly eight minutes later—she rechecked her pocket watch—she sailed into the green parlor. Balancing the tea tray in one hand, Ellie sidestepped the gargantuan skirts of the three women sprawled upon the settee and fainting couches.

The front of the estate had been refurbished in a semi-tasteful manner when Lady Irene married into the family. She used her sizeable wealth to keep herself and her daughters in fine clothes and silk hankies but refused to spend any more than she had to on remodeling. Despite the fact that she had married Ellie’s father for the estate.

“You’re late.” Marigold, her least favorite stepsister, pouted. Her too-full, bland-colored lips parted like a fish’s.

Ellie ignored her.

“Elizaveta, place the tea here.” Lady Irene waved a manicured finger at the only table in the entire room. Her teal lace sleeves clashed with the forest green wallpaper and cream sofas.

“I’ve seen the mail.” Lady Irene clasped her hands in her chiffon lap.

Ellie lost her forced grin. “Yes?”

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