Authors: Aubrey Rose
By Aubrey Rose
The thrilling new follow up to the new adult bestseller
by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author
Happily ever after is just what they say in books. Real life is MUCH more complicated.
Brynn can't believe her good luck. Her Cinderella story continues in a castle on the edge of a Hungarian forest. But no fairy tale lasts forever, and a letter about her mother's death opens up a whole new world of nightmares...
Eliot, finally back in Hungary, is haunted by the lie he told ten years ago to protect his family. Now he finds that he can no longer hide his dark past from Brynn, and time is running out to finish his life's work in mathematics.
The problem that neither one of them can solve is this:
Once broken, can two shattered lives ever be made whole again?
Copyright 2013 by Aubrey Rose
First Kindle Edition: December 2013
Cover design by Aubrey Watt
It's easy to write the end of a fairy tale, but it's not so easy to live it. Everybody thinks that once they close the book, the story is done. But in real life the prince and the princess aren't perfect, and loving another person until the day you die can't be wrapped up in one little sentence. Sometimes the prince is hiding a secret about his past. Sometimes the princess pulls back because she doesn't want to get hurt anymore. Sometimes people are more broken than you think, and not everything can be mended with a dab of glue and a few happy words.
My mother died violently long ago in a land far, far away. Nobody wrote her story, because while fairytales sometimes start with orphans, they don't end in blood and death. Nobody ever knew what happened to her after the last pages of her life were torn out. My father told me only that they found her body in a river. He wanted to protect me, but even after he abandoned me and forgot my mother and moved on, I could not find out what had happened to her. I tried to search the Hungarian newspapers online to discover what I could, but the journalists—the people who were supposed to write stories that tell the truth—never did. All of the newspapers ended with a question—
—and no answers. After a while, they stopped asking questions.
I never closed the book, though. I owe her that much, at least.
"If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story."
Walking along the east side of the Danube toward the deli, Eliot paused for a moment to look around and enjoy the city in the sunshine. He'd never really stopped to look on his way from the Academy of Science down to the river, but now he understood the charm of Budapest as Brynn saw it. The trees alongside the steady current of water arched their branches over the benches set into the riverbank, and along both sides of the Danube time-worn stone edifices stretched their spires up into the blue summer sky. The old stone walls that held back the river seemed to have been carved by nature itself, and not stonebuilders at all. The green water glittered like diamonds, and white ferries glided past. One man in a kayak paddled south, his arms scooping the oars gracefully into the water as though he were pulled along not by his muscles but by his will alone.
Turning his back on the Danube, Eliot pulled open the glass door of the deli.
“Jó napot!” Eliot called to the shop keeper.
" Jó napot!" came the high-pitched greeting from over a high shelf of cheeses. Eliot could not see the deli clerk in the back of the store, but he greeted her back. His Hungarian was coming back to him quickly, although he could not shake some of the Americanisms that he had picked up during his ten-year stint in California. He picked up a package of cottage cheese, grimacing. It was good for him, sure. Brynn told him so, but he could not get accustomed to the texture of the cheese. Taking a bite of cottage cheese for him was always disappointing—he wanted it to be sweet, like a dessert.
"Do you have any Csabai szalámi?" he called out in Hungarian to the clerk, scanning the shelves for the least offensive brand of cottage cheese. The package was pink, he remembered. "I've been itching for something unhealthy."
"You've got it!" She came around the door laughing, her grayish puffed hair tucked up into a bun. She bent over the deli to pick up the szalámi. "How much?"
"20 dkg sliced," Eliot said, still turned away towards the cheese shelf. "Where's the cottage cheese with the pink label on it?"
"Down and to your right," the clerk called out, slicing up the szalámi. Eliot picked up the package, examining the label.
"And don't worry," she teased, "I won't tell the wife. The last time someone came in here for szalámi—"
Her words cut off as Eliot turned to face her. The clerk stood frozen with one hand outstretched, holding the neatly wrapped szalámi. Her eyes were locked onto Eliot's scar.
"That is," she stuttered, "the last time... it was another man who wanted to sneak some szalámi home." She finished lamely and turned her eyes down toward the counter. Her fingers jabbed quickly at the buttons on the register.
"Eighteen hundred forints," the woman said. Her voice was flat. She did not look up at Eliot, and she did not reach her hand out for payment. Eliot placed two bills on the counter, and she took them, setting down his change in the same manner. He picked up the silver and gold coin and slipped it into his pocket.
"Thank you," he said.
"Thank you," the woman replied. "Dr. Herceg." Her eyes flickered up at him once, and then she turned away toward the back of the store. As he left the store he could hear her whispering to someone else in the back.
"...can't believe he's back in Hungary..." were all the words he heard before the door closed behind him. A gust of wind blew a newspaper page across the street, and the air felt hot against Eliot's skin. Stifling. Clutching his lunch tightly in one hand, Eliot strode back to the academy. Sweat gathered on the back of his neck at his collar and trickled down his back. He could feel the hot dampness against his scars, and it made them itch.
Eliot spun as he heard the voice, his whole body tense. But no, it was only a student.
"Hello Mark," he said, as the dark-haired young man came down the stairs, nearly tripping over himself as he did.
"I'm done writing up the first set of results," Mark said. "Everything's formatted, all the proofs are done."
"Good," Eliot said, his mind elsewhere. "That was fast. Excellent work."
"Thank you!" Mark said. His face flushed with pleasure behind his glasses at the compliment. He was less than ten years younger than Eliot, but Eliot knew that the student admired him more than he deserved. He used to be a mathematician to idolize, yes, but now—
"I'm going home for the day," Eliot said, deciding as he spoke that it was the right thing to do. "Let's take a break."
"Send me the proofs," Eliot said. "I'll look them over." They weren't done, weren't near half done. The first set of results were only the beginning. There was the general case to prove, and Eliot hadn't yet been able to crack the proof.
"I will, I'll go do that right now," Mark said. "Dr. Herceg?"
Eliot stopped in the middle of the sidewalk.
"When...when is Brynn coming back to the academy?" Mark had his hands stuffed awkwardly in his pockets, and he looked at Eliot with a mixture of jealousy and concern. "I haven't seen her in a while."
"Soon, I hope," Eliot said. "When she's ready."
"She didn't call me back," Mark said, his mouth twisted anxiously. A surge of pity swept through Eliot.
"She's having a hard time," Eliot said. "But she should be back before the end of the semester."
"Can you, uh, can you tell her I hope she feels better?" Mark said. "And can you give her this?"
He held out an envelope and Eliot took it. It felt heavy in his hand.
"Thanks, Dr. Herceg," Mark said, averting his eyes. "I'll see you on Monday."
"Yes. I'll see you then," Eliot said.
Driving through the winding streets of the mountains toward his estate, Eliot breathed more easily. The air up here smelled fresher, cooler than in the city. He was glad to live away from the bustle of Budapest, tucked into the forest. Above the entry gate he could see the roof line of his house. Brynn called it the castle, and he supposed it was, technically. He parked on the side of the long driveway and picked a sprig of daisies from one of the flower beds before walking up into the house.
Stepping out of his shoes, Eliot looked into the small mirror in the entryway. He frowned at his face. The white scar running down the side of his cheek was more noticeable now that he had been spending more time outside and his skin was tanned.
Everybody knows me. Everybody knows.
Eliot reached out abruptly and took the mirror off of the wall, placing it face down onto the side mantle.
"Brynn?" He called her name but received no answer. He walked to the kitchen and put the food in the fridge, then saw her through the window outside by the pool. Picking up the envelope and flowers, he opened the back door.
She wore a white bikini, something Marta had bought for her. Brynn hated it at first, but Eliot gave her a wrap to put over it, along with so many compliments that she soon abandoned the wrap when she went outside. Today she lay on her stomach, the wrap forgotten. Her body curved invitingly under the sun, her skin slightly tanned and gleaming, her hair wet from the pool. She stayed close to the house most days, and although she said that she loved the pool, Eliot saw her eyes occasionally flicker in fright toward the forest just beyond the estate. She claimed she stayed away from the forest now because of the summer ticks in the brush, but Eliot knew when she looked into the woods that it was something else she was scared of. As though she could see the hunter waiting for her there.
"Flowers for the princess," Eliot said, walking up to Brynn. She jerked her head up, and Eliot saw the same fear that he saw most nights, when she woke up in a cold sweat from the nightmares. Her expression quickly softened as she saw the daisies.
"Oh, thank you, Eliot," she said. She closed the notebook in front of her quickly, but not quickly enough.
"Is that work?" Eliot said.
"Just the last part of the proof," Brynn said. "I'm close to getting it."
"That's what you said last night at two o'clock," Eliot said.
"Yes, well, it's taking a little longer than planned," Brynn said.
"Don't stress over it," Eliot said. "The main work's been done, at least for this paper—"
"But we haven't solved the problem yet!" Brynn sat up, her dark eyebrows knitting together. He could see a flush rising on her cheeks. It was adorable, really, how she got so worked up over the proof. He remembered when he had been so fervent about his mathematical work. Seeing him smile, she shook her head.
"Sorry," she said. "I really need to relax. The past few nights have been rough."
"This isn't relaxing?" Eliot sat down next to her and tilted his head teasingly, trying to lighten the mood. Brynn's laugh came out a bit forced.
"What, sunning myself next to a castle in Hungary while a prince brings me flowers?
a prince," Eliot said, lifting one finger in protest.
"Sure thing, prince. Where did this pool come from anyway?" Brynn said. "How did I not notice it when I first came here? It's huge!"
"It was covered up," Eliot said. "And the snow covers it, too."
"You think you know a place, and then the snow melts, and it's completely different." Brynn gazed around the estate. The first time he brought her here, it had been freezing cold.
"It's not that different," Eliot said. He saw her eyes drifting to the forest, to the trail where the hunter had assaulted her, tried to—
He cleared his throat and reached over slightly to touch her knee. He could feel her tense under his touch, and his fingers curled back involuntarily.
"Would you like to come in for some tea?" he said.
"Not right now," Brynn said. "I want to keep working. On the problem
my tan." She turned a smile up toward him, but he could see that all was not right under her shield.
"Of course," he said. He stood up awkwardly. "Oh, and here. Your friend from the academy wanted me to give this to you." He held out the envelope to Brynn, who took it hesitantly.
"Yes," Eliot said, trying not to let any emotion show on his face as she said the name.
"Thanks," Brynn said. She lay back down on the pool chair, tossing the envelope down on top of her notebook. He could tell she didn't want to make a big deal of it, so he didn't. A strange tension pricked the air between them.