The gardens were cool with the dropping temperature. My window of time was ending. But Prince Lorenzo! Prince Lorenzo who had seen me. If I could fall in love with him, he could break my curse!
Do not trust the prince, Orin had said. Anxiety wrapped around my middle and squeezed. Trust the prince or trust a Kelpie?
And there was Prince Lorenzo. Tall, dashing, and glad to see me. The coils around my chest loosened a fraction.
Over the next weeks fall drew nearer. Every day I spoke with Orin as I cleaned the pens. Every evening I soaked the stench away and walked the grounds with the prince. He was kind, attentive, attractive, witty, and could be my salvation. I willed myself to fall in love with him.
I dressed for the evening in my finest red dress. Butterflies tumbled through my middle and my breath plumed in a tiny white puff. The first frost would come this week. I would kiss Lorenzo. Tonight, I would break the curse. I knew he cared for me. I’d grown to care for him, too. Surely that was enough?
Lorenzo took my arm as we strolled towards the Kelpie pens. His fingers were warm over mine. We stood just outside the ring of enchanted stones. Anxiety dribbled through me. I heard a soft ripple and knew Orin was approaching the shore.
I started to tug Lorenzo’s arm to move us away, but he held me fast, stealing my breath as his hands circled my waist.
“Rhiann,” Lorenzo started. I could hear Orin’s soft ripples and my middle writhed with discomfort. From the corner of my eye I saw Eric watching behind the tree, a huge smile plastered on his face.
“I’ve grown to care for you. Deeply.” Lorenzo’s deep voice should have sent little spangles over my skin, but instead, my skin crawled. This was it! This was the moment he declared his love and we kissed, and the curse was broken! What was wrong with me?
My heart stopped. Kiss him! My brain screamed. Break the curse! His face angled towards mine. I should tip mine to meet his.
Lorenzo jerked his face back.
In horror, black smoke seemed to curl around Lorenzo. I tore myself from his grasp and bit back a scream as Eric seemed to stretch from his tree into the prince. The two men melted into each other.
Then my blood turned to ice.
Before me stood the wizard. The giver of my curse. His staff sparked with purple crackles of lightening.
He whirled his staff in the air, magic crackling from the end and sending terror vibrating through my limbs.
“You will bow to me! I will have your lands, and I will have you as my wife!”
Orin screamed and the wizard took another threatening step. He raised his staff, intent on striking the sizzling end of it straight down on Orin’s head.
My heart nearly burst inside my chest. Orin. I was in love with the blasted Kelpie.
Knowing I would die at the hands of the curse-giver or at the touch of my beloved, I flung myself at Orin, knowing that the moment I touched his watery skin, I’d sign my own death. But it did not matter. Not anymore. I would die free. I’d give the Kelpie my first kiss. The kiss of true love.
“No!” the wizard shouted as my feet left the ground. Time slowed as I leaped into the water. My hands found Orin’s long face. Cupping my hands around the giant head, under the curve of his jaw, they stuck firm. Tiny tethers tightened like stabbing needles into my flesh. Ignoring the pain, I put my lips on his wet nose.
And light exploded around us.
The needle pricks released, but where I’d held the face of a horse in my hands just moments before, it melted away, soaking me in a shower of droplets. The wet horse nose became a pair of lips, warm and firm beneath mine, and suddenly hands wrapped around my waist. I tried to back away, to see what had happened, but I couldn’t move. My lips were still glued to Orin’s.
Thunder boomed and lightening crashed, striking the tree and scattering sparks like flaming arrows that hissed as they hit the water.
An inhumane shriek rippled down my skin and I yanked my face away to find the wizard engulfed in red flames, licking up his robes, catching his hair.
He bellowed, but his words were lost in smoke as the flames reached into the heavens, dissolving the wizard into a smoldering pile of ash.
Shuddering, I gripped the arms that held me.
My head whipped around. Dark, damp hair, and dark eyes met mine.
“Lorenzo,” I breathed. It was the face of my child-hood playmate. All grown up into his manhood. My mouth went dry. The years had been most kind to him.
“But…but what of Orin?”
One side of his mouth tipped up. I squeaked as he scooped me into his strong arms and waded fully to shore, away from the stinking pen waters, now reeking of burned wizard and Kelpie blood.
“I am Orin. And Lorenzo. I always have been. I was cursed, too. Your kiss freed us both.”
He put me gently on my feet and my eyes scanned his face. The weight of the curse had lifted, and I slowly reached out and traced Lorenzo’s jaw, strong and firm. His chest was bare—he was entirely bare but for a pair of tattered breeches that hung low on his hips. Without meaning to, my fingers lightly grazed a crescent scar on his chest. Another on his bicep. Bite marks. From the Kelpies.
He stroked a piece of soggy hair behind my ear.
“We are free.”
With gentle fingers he tipped my chin upwards. “Marry me, Rhiann. It’s why I went to Evermore to begin with. To ask your father for your hand, to solidify the alliance of our kingdoms. But instead, I met with the wizard. And I became part of your curse.”
His fingers feathered over my jaw and worked into the hair at the base of my neck.
I was stunned.
“Marry me?” he whispered again.
Marry my one true love?
“Yes. But only if your father gets rid of the Kelpies.”
“Most assuredly,” he chuckled.
And then his lips met mine in a kiss full of promise.