Once upon a time…
There was a girl, a boy and a dance. The girl shifted into a golden wolf and ran under the full moon. The boy was a prince with an obligation to his kingdom. And the dance was a moonlight ball for the prince to find his princess.
Josef and Ella have been in love since they were children, but it was doomed from the start. He is the last of the Gauthier line and the law of the goddess herself states a Gauthier must sit on the throne. Her blessing has assured it for hundreds of years. As shifting females can’t carry an infant to term, Ella is not a suitable match for her prince. They both try, and fail, to move on.
It is with a broken heart Prince Josef attends the ball. But there, under the light of the full moon, he dances a moonlit waltz and falls in love all over again. Perhaps there is hope after all.
A Cinderella Retelling
ONCE UPON A TIME, in the midst of a land filled with human and lycan alike, there lived a family by the name of Montrose. The mother Helena was fair of face and generous of spirit. Her laughter had been rumored to make even the goddess Luna herself smile in delight. The father Heinrich was a loving man who wished only for his family’s happiness. He inherited his estate and invested wisely, so they need never worry for money. The son Jonathan though not yet a man showed all the signs of having his father’s head for business and his mother’s selflessness.
The baby of the family was little Ella. She was the very image of her mother with her fair hair and delicate features. She too had inherited her mother’s generous spirit and had mastered the art of having her father wrapped firmly around one little finger. Unlike most children her age, Ella realized exactly how fortunate she was to have two parents who truly loved each other, a brother that doted on her instead of pulling on her braids, and a fine house and estate. Once every week little Ella would accompany her mother to deliver baskets of food and goods to those in need. Some families they visited every week, others only when they suffered a change in circumstance.
After a morning delivering baskets or learning lessons, Ella and her mother often spent their afternoons under the large weeping willow that sat on one side of the estate. The branches bowed so high, there was enough room to dance beneath them. Helena and Ella often held hands and spun in circles until they fell to the ground in a dizzy heap. Then they’d lie in the grass and stare at the branches above while Helena wove detailed stories for Ella about princes, knights, and the great lycan heroes of old.
Though Jonathan always said he was too old for such foolishness, Ella had seen him more than once sitting outside the curve of the branches. Sometimes his friend Josef would join him there. After the tale was done, Helena would give Ella a little smile and say, “I suppose we should go in and see to the rest of our work,” a little louder than necessary. They’d give the boys just enough time to scamper off before emerging from under the branches and brushing off the backs of each other’s dresses.
Ella asked her mother once why they didn’t just tell the boys they knew they were there. Helena simply smiled with a shake of her head. “Sometimes boys need to stay young longer than they realize. We wouldn’t want to scare them off.”
Occasionally Ella’s mother would send her outside with an afternoon treat for the boys. At first, Ella had just left it and ran off, but she quickly learned she could use it to get Jonathan and Josef to play with her. She’d hide the treats and tell them where they were hidden after they agreed to let her join their game. This worked spectacularly until the day a squirrel found the treats and ate them all up.
Jonathan had been furious that day, but Josef had stood between them and protected her from her brother’s ire. After that, they included her in their games whether she brought treats or not. They had the run of the property and the nearby woods. When the weather wasn’t as nice, they’d play hide and seek in the outbuildings.
Ella’s little world was perfect, a virtual paradise. But as things are wont to do when you take them for granted, one day her world came crashing down around her.
It started slowly, on a bright spring day when the willow was in full bloom and the birds called from the branches. Ella found her mother sitting in the seldom used drawing room, but despite Ella’s pleas, Helena could not be persuaded to dance in the shade of the great willow or even to tell Ella a story. Instead, she brushed Ella’s hair away from her face and tucked it behind her ear. “Go. Play with the boys. Tell them I said to be nice.”
And so it was. Day after day until they turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months. Anytime Ella asked what was wrong with Mother, Jonathan would distract her with a game or Josef would tell her a story. Now, Ella wasn’t an ignorant child, but she had her mother’s heart. So, she played Jonathan’s games and let Josef distract her with his stories because it seemed important to them that she not worry.
Finally, there was a day when Josef didn’t come, and her father took her by the hand and led her to the side of her mother’s bed. Helena opened her arms, and Ella crawled up beside her and laid her head on her mother’s chest, taking comfort in the beating of her heart. But her breathing sounded rough, ragged, like the purring of a sick cat.
Ella sniffed, knowing tears would only make her mother feel worse. Helena ran her fingers through Ella’s fine hair over and over again. “I love you, child. You are so precious to me. Never forget that.”
“I love you too, Mama.”
Helena’s arms tightened around her daughter. “I need you to remember your heart is what makes you beautiful. Your kindness for others makes you shine. Always be kind, Ella.”
She tilted her head back to see her mother’s face. “What if they aren’t kind to me?”
Helena gave her a sad smile. “How you react to them says far more about you than it does them. Remember that.”
Ella nodded, and Helena started to cough. Her father came in and lifted Ella off the bed. Her mother reached for her, and Ella reached back, a lifetime of space between them that widened with each step her father took.
It rained the day they buried Helena beneath the willow tree as if the whole world mourned with them. Ella stood between Jonathan and Josef, holding their hands as the box which held her mother was lowered into the ground. For a week afterward, Ella did not leave her room. Every day, the boys and her father would come by and knock on the door, but she refused to let them in. After a week, she appeared at the breakfast table though she spoke to no one. She spent the remainder of the day sitting beneath the willow tree, talking to her mother while her tears watered the ground.
This went on for a month and every day, the once vibrant, beautiful tree looked a little less full, a little less lively until it died completely. It was then Ella became legend, for her grief was so great her tears had poisoned the ground around the tree. Or so they said. Of course, they also said the goddess Luna walked amongst them in disguise and that children born on the night of the full moon would reflect the light of their goddess, so what did they know really.
When the last leaf fell from the willow tree, Ella stood, brushed her skirts and made her way into the kitchen. She ordered the staff to prepare the baskets for the needy. Ella stood by the wagon and watched as the baskets were loaded. She climbed into the driver’s seat only to find Josef and her brother standing in front of the horses with their arms crossed over their chests. With a little smile, she slid to the middle of the bench. One boy sat on each side of her and Jonathan took the reins. And so it began, that the three were inseparable from that day to this.
Sixteen Years Later
AFTER ONE LAST CHECK to ensure she had all the needed baskets for her weekly visits, Ella climbed onto the wagon. With a snap of the leather reins and a click of her tongue, the horses began their brisk walk forward. The day was warm and the sky clear but Ella found herself unable to truly enjoy it. For the first time in a long time she was making the deliveries by herself.
Jonathan was overseeing some work in the south field, and Josef hadn’t been by in several days. She felt a sting of disappointment at the latter but quickly quashed it. Josef had far more important things to do than spending time with her. Even if they had been best friends their entire lives.
She was nearing her first stop when she heard the distinct sound of a horse trotting up behind the wagon. She steered to the side and slowed to allow the rider to pass.
“I suppose it was too much to hope that you’d wait a few extra moments for me, little bird.” The familiar voice brought a smile to her face.
“I wasn’t certain you were coming,” she answered and pulled the wagon to a halt.
“Have I ever missed delivery day?” Josef asked. He shot her an offended look as he dismounted and tied his horse to the rear of the wagon.
“There was that one time.” She pursed her lips in an effort to hide her smile.
He lifted his brow and climbed up beside her to take the reins. “Would you be referring to the time you and Jonathan dared me to eat those purple berries, and I couldn’t stop vomiting for three full days?”
She shrugged one shoulder and tried to keep a straight face. “Excuses, excuses, Josef.”
He smirked at her teasing and snapped the reins to get the horses moving again. She watched from the corner of her eye as he expertly directed the wagon to their first stop. His dark brown hair was unruly as usual and his gray eyes constantly searched for hazards along the roadway. He hadn’t shaved, and a fine layer of stubble lined his jaw. She allowed herself a brief moment to wonder what it would feel like beneath her fingers.
His worn trousers and linen shirt were his normal delivery day wear because he often helped with small chores while they made their rounds. Her heart raced as she took him in. With effort, she pulled her eyes away. He wasn’t hers. Could never be. Maybe if she kept reminding herself of that it would sink in eventually.
There was a time, however brief, that the two of them had been contracted to marry. Like most lycan contracts, it contained a provision concerning shifting females in its wording. Only non-shifting females could carry children to term, therefore the contract was invalidated if the woman was revealed to be a shifter. When Ella shifted on the first full moon following her sixteenth birthday, the elation that came from running through the woods was dampened the next day when her father told her of the contract.
Josef’s father had banned him from even visiting her and Jonathan. It was an order Josef promptly ignored. Eventually, his father gave up and allowed the friendship to continue with the admonishment that Ella and Josef could never marry and they should behave accordingly. Not that they had ever acted otherwise. For while Ella may have been mooning over Josef for a good portion of her life, to him, she was nothing more than Jonathan’s little sister.
So, now she sat a mere breath away from him and pretended not to look at him. It was a life Ella was resigned to as she was unlikely to marry anyone else. At least she would always have a home with her father.
“You are unusually quiet today. Is something wrong?” Josef asked as they arrived at the first stop.
Ella gave a small smile and shook her head. “Just daydreaming.” It would serve no purpose to tell him her heart broke a little more every time she saw him. No, all that would accomplish was putting an end to his visits. He wouldn’t purposely hurt her. She climbed down from the seat, grabbed a basket and knocked on the door of the little cottage.
IT WAS THE LAST stop of the day. Ella sat by the fire with Mrs. Woodson and two of her children while Josef repaired a broken hinge on the front door. The house wasn’t on their usual list of stops, but Mr. Woodson had been injured working his field. Ella’s ability to always know when someone needed their attention amazed Josef. He finished repairing the hinge and glanced at Ella. The youngest of the children sat on her knee and played with Ella’s hair while she spoke to Mrs. Woodson. He smiled even though the sight brought a pang to his heart.
He could think of no woman of his acquaintance that would make a better mother than Ella, but that future was denied her. Clearing his throat, he moved his eyes back to the door. “All done,” he announced.
“Fantastic,” she said, and his head turned to her of its own accord, as it did every time he heard her voice. She grinned and his heart skipped a beat. “Could you unhook one of the horses from the wagon?”
He furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why?”
“Their horse was startled by a snake and ended up breaking his own leg, along with that of his master. He was put down, and they need one to pull the plow.” Mrs. Woodson was protesting Ella’s generous gesture but Ella acted as if she couldn’t her, because that was her way. She constantly gave without expecting anything in return.
“They can have my horse. We’ll leave him in the stable on our way out.”
“Oh, we couldn’t,” the woman exclaimed and wrung her hands together. “My—”
Josef held up his hand to cut her off. “It’s only a horse to me. To you, it’s a livelihood. We will leave the horse, and I will hear nothing else about it. Men will come tomorrow to finish the plowing. You don’t want to miss your window for getting the crop in the ground.”
Ella smiled again and Mrs. Woodson wiped tears from her eyes. “Thank you. You have no idea what this means to us.”
“Yes, he does.” Ella patted the woman’s hands. “I’ll check in on you next week. Would you like assistance moving Mr. Woodson out here before we leave?” The man in question was currently lying in bed in the other room so the children wouldn’t inadvertently jostle his wounded leg.
“No, thank you. We get on well enough. Thank you again, both of you.”
“Of course.” Ella stood so they could leave.
Josef led his horse to the stable and made sure it was fed before he left. He climbed up on the seat beside Ella and snapped the reins.
“That was incredibly kind of you.”
He shrugged. “It was easier than unhooking one of yours. Besides, I’m in the better position to be giving away livestock, don’t you think?”
She waved a hand through the air in dismissal. “Father doesn’t care. He trusts my decisions on such matters. In this case, I’d say you were mistaken anyway, since that horse was your way home. I guess you’ll just have to walk.”
He chuckled. “You forgot who’s driving the wagon, little bird. I could just take you home with me. Tonight’s the full moon. We’ll be running together anyway.”
“That’s very presumptuous of you, Josef,” she said. “What if I have made plans to run with someone else? You are not the only wolf around, you know.”
The thought made his stomach churn and his palms slicked with moisture. “Are you running with someone else?” Even to his own ears, his voice sounded strained, desperate. Unfortunately for him, he had the bad luck of being in love with his best friend’s little sister—a woman he could never have. He knew that, but it didn’t make the idea of her being with someone else any easier to bear.
“Of course not.” Her voice was soft as she took mercy on him. “I did promise Katrina I’d help her with some things, though. I’ll have to meet you later.” Katrina was Jonathan’s wife. They lived in a small cottage elsewhere on the property. Katrina was currently expecting their first child, and Ella was elated to be an aunt. She’d been doing far more for her sister-by-marriage than need be, but it made her happy, so Josef hadn’t said a word.
“Should I send a carriage?” he asked, knowing she’d say no. It was still proper to offer.
She crinkled her nose. “Absolutely not. I’ll ride Bandit.”
As he pulled the wagon back onto Ella’s estate, she bounced in the seat beside him and clapped her hands. For a moment, she reminded him of the child she used to be. “Father’s home.”
Heinrich Montrose had been traveling for several weeks on the king’s business. What was supposed to have been a short trip was extended twice. Ella hopped from the wagon before he even pulled to a stop and his breath caught. He hated when she did that. He climbed down and handed the reins off to a servant only to see Ella pull up short as Jonathan approached them at a quick pace.
He darted a glance at the house before motioning for the two of them to follow. Josef and Ella exchanged a glance. This was abnormal behavior for her brother. Once hidden and no longer visible from the house, Jonathan turned to face them. “I’m not quite sure how to tell you this,” he said looking at Ella.
Her face paled. “What is it? Did something happen to Katrina? Father?”
He held up his hands. “Calm down, Ella. Everyone is fine.” He took a deep breath. “Father is married.”