"A unique and twisty magical romp!" Tamora Pierce, New York Times bestselling author
Merit Cravan refused to fulfill her obligation to marry a prince, leading to a fairy godling's curse. She will be forced to live as a beast forever, unless she agrees to marry a man of her mother's choosing before her eighteenth birthday.
Tevin Dumont has always been a pawn in his family's cons. The prettiest boy in a big family, his job is to tempt naïve rich girls to abandon their engagements, unless their parents agree to pay him off. But after his mother runs afoul of the beast, she decides to trade Tevin for her own freedom.
Now, Tevin and Merit have agreed that he can pay off his mother's debt by using his con-artist skills to help Merit find the best match . . . but what if the best match is Tevin himself?
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Merit Cravan, only heir to the barony of Cravan and current absentee from her own betrothal ball, locked herself in her room. Then pushed a dresser in front of the door, just in case. The dresser was heavy, and pushing it left her dress askew and her carefully curled and pinned updo a tangled mess by the time she was done.
“You come out this instant, young lady.” Lady Zarla punctu-ated her demand with a moment of consistent but quiet thuds on the stout wooden door.
“No, Mother.” Merit started yanking out the hairpins one by one, massaging her scalp. Her hair had a natural wave to it, but the maid had spent so much time heating and curling it that she no longer recognized the texture.
“Stop being such a child!” Her mother’s voice through the door was fierce but low, because fairyborn aristocracy wouldn’t be so uncouth as to yell.
“You stop being such a child!” As a retort, it lacked flair, and in many ways only supported her mother’s argument. Merit hadn’t considered herself to be a child for several years. As the only heir, she’d had to pack up her childhood early and assume certain responsibilities. And yet, at this exact moment, that was exactly how she felt. Small. Young. Scared. “I told you to cancel it.” Her words were calm, but the pins in her fist shook. She didn’t love him, though that puny fact would not signify with her mother. “He’s old enough to be my father.” If her betrothed were a few years older, he’d be old enough to be Lady Zarla’s father.
“He said he’d wait until you were eighteen. Honestly, Merit. Fairyborn gentlemen of his ilk don’t grow on trees.”
“He can wait forever!” Merit yelled, throwing her pins at the door. Her mother gasped at the slip in Merit’s decorum, and Merit did not care. No, she did not. And if she kept saying she didn’t care, eventually it would be true, wouldn’t it?
“Godling Verity, we are graced with your presence.” Lady Zarla’s voice had completely altered, her tone now reverent and careful.
Merit put a hand over her mouth, muffling the sound that wanted to come out. In the mess of things, she’d completely forgotten— her mother had hired a fairy godling to gift the union. Godling Verity was temperamental, even for her kind— any perceived slight would be blown entirely out of proportion. Merit slid down the wall, pulled her knees up to her chest, and wrapped her arms around them.
“Is there a problem?” The godling’s words held the crisp bite of authority. Merit didn’t think anyone had argued with God-ling Verity in her entire life. No sane person would.
"Lady Merit is indisposed.” Even through the door Merit could tell that Lady Zarla was holding on to her composure by her fingernails. “She’ll be back out in a moment.”
Fear spiked through Merit, but so did determination. She had already chosen the boy she would marry, and he was most certainly not the paunchy, gray- haired baron waiting for her in the ballroom. “I won’t,” Merit yelled without thinking. “I’m not coming out!”
It was the last straw. Her mother smacked the door with her hand. “You want to wait for your fortune hunter, you beastly girl? Want him to come back and profess his love? Well, he’s not coming. Not tonight, not ever. You will grow up and do as I say! Merit!” She banged on the door some more. “Get out here right this minute!”
Merit’s fingers slid over the beautiful beading of her skirt. She’d been so excited about this dress when she’d first seen the sketch. The exquisite detail, the sweetheart neckline, the deep purple of the fabric. It was the kind of dress her mother would wear— the dress of a woman, not a girl. Months ago, be-fore she’d actually met her betrothed and the reality had set in, before she’d fallen for Jasper, she’d touched the swatch of fabric the dressmaker had brought and looked forward to this moment. As if donning the dress would wave a magic wand, making her into a sure and steady adult. Now the hem was torn, the beading ruined.
“He will come back for me.” Merit was no longer sure if she was trying to convince her mother or herself.
A beat of silence then, a hesitation that told her that her mother was struggling with herself. “Fine. Wonderful. If he comes back for you—f or you, not your money or your title—you’re welcome to him. You’ll have my blessings. But he won’t come back, Merit.”
Her capitulation surprised Merit. It was too easy. “How are you so sure? You don’t even know him.”
“Because I made him an offer, and he took it. Took the coin and ran. He wanted your family’s money. Not you.”
Merit choked back a sob. The dull blade of betrayal sliced through her. Her mother was wrong; she had to be wrong. Jasper loved her. He loved her. He’d promised.
Lady Zarla smacked the door again. “Merit! You are the heir to one of the oldest and most respected baronies in this land, and you will act like it! Now, come out here before the guests start talking!”
Merit’s entire body trembled, but she made no move to open the door. Her mother was lying. She had to be. He would never— only it didn’t sound like her mother was lying, did it?
Merit heard a new sound then, the faint buzzing of wings. Her pulse sped up.
“You refuse to honor your mother’s choice?” Godling Verity crooned oddly, as though she was pleased by Merit’s disobedience.
Merit swallowed her fear. Her doubt. Even if her mother was right, she couldn’t marry her betrothed. The thought of his hands on her made her want to curl up and die. “I refuse.” The words rasped out of her throat, but the godling heard. There was no doubt about that.
Something tapped against the door— Merit would realize later it was Godling Verity’s wand. “Beastly girl is right. You will get your gift from me this night.” The hum of wings grew louder. “As you are still young, I will be generous and give you a chance to learn from your folly.” Merit could almost see the cold smile on her face. “If love appears, we will bow to your will. If not, it will be as your mother says. You will marry someone of her choosing by your eighteenth birthday.”
Merit placed her hands flat on the floor, trying to quiet the trembling of her body. It didn’t stop the fear slicing up her spine. For a second, she wavered. But then she thought again of her betrothed— of his greedy eyes on her, his clammy hands when he grasped her fingers and planted a dry kiss on her knuckles. “If I don’t?”
“Then you will become a beast in truth. Do you still refuse?”
Merit closed her eyes. “Yes.”
There was a flash, then a whoosh, and Merit felt like her world tipped sideways and split in half. She didn’t remember anything else until one of her mother’s footmen removed the door at its hinges. When she opened her eyes, it was to see the footman faint dead away, the heavy door in his hands clattering to the floor.
Then her mother screamed.