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ASWALKSOFshame went, this one bordered on epic.

And better yet, gave Madelyn Jones a lot of time to think about the consequences of her foolish actions during her semester abroad back in college. As if she hadn’t already spent the past six years doing exactly that.

At some points, hourly.

Though she had thought about it less and less as the years went by. That was what reality did—it chipped away at all the flights of fancy andwhat ifs, not to mention all the pointless angst that went along with it, and what was left was life itself. No more and no less.

Madelynlikedher life these days. She’d worked hard to assemble it.

Now it was as if she might as well not have bothered.

She laughed a little at that, though not because it was funny. She was sitting in the back of an armored SUV, halfway up the side of a mountain in the remotest region of the island kingdom of Ilonia, known for winning wars against the Visigoths in antiquity and for otherwise being a largely isolated wet and gray archipelago located off the coast of the Iberian Peninsula, north and east of the Azores.

When a person thought aboutisland kingdoms,they thought of sparkling blue waters the temperature of a cozy hug. Or Madelyn did. White-sand beaches beneath graceful palm trees, cocktails festooned with ripe and exotic fruits, and lovely, temperate winters bursting with tropical flowers in a riot of bright colors.

It was just Madelyn’s luck that even that was denied her. The capital of Ilonia was on a different island than this one, with an old harbor, colorful buildings arranged prettily enough, and the Royal Ilonian Palace set on the highest hill. That was where they’d landed, and while it was hardly the Caribbean she’d never set foot in but had dreamed about through many a snowy winter, she’d thought it was nice enough. Butthisisland—accessible only by one designated and highly regulated ferry or the monarch’s personal air transport—was considered the royal refuge in these green and cloudy mountains sticking up out of the Atlantic, covered in deep jungles, volcanic craters, and an improbable number of blue hydrangeas.

Here stood the tallest mountain in Ilonia, Madelyn had been told. With more pride than someone who lived in the American West and knew from tall mountains found reasonable. What that meant in practical terms was that they were high up and it was cold. It was still temperate enough compared to Madelyn’s home back in a little village near Lake Tahoe—a vast and mostly unspoiled lake nestled between California and Nevada and currently blanketed by the latest snowstorm, the way it would likely continue to be until June—but still. The slap of the cold as they’d climbed up the winding mountain road—the center vehicle in a convoy, flanked by the Royal Guard—was unexpected.

Like all the rest of what was happening to her.

“You have been cleared to approach the Hermitage, Miss Jones,” the forbiddingly sleek older woman beside her said in her smoothly accented English.

For the second time, since Madelyn had yet to make a move.

Madelyn had already gotten all the arguments out of her system. Or, more accurately, she’d grudgingly accepted their futility.

“Lucky me,” she murmured, sarcastically, because maybe she was still more in thegrudgingpart of her acceptance of this shocking turn her life had taken.

The woman beside her—the terrifying Angelique Silvestri, whose silver hair seemed to gleam with malice—only smiled.

It was the same smile she’d aimed at Madelyn when she presented herself at the front door of the house Madelyn shared with her aunt Corrine, a black-clad entourage splayed out behind her. The same smile that stayed in place throughout each and every interaction that had led them here, across the world and up the side of a mountain in the rain and sleet.

“You agreed to this course of action,” the older woman reminded her calmly.

Always so very calmly, as if that made it better.

“It was less an agreement and more blackmail,” Madelyn reminded her. She had fought too hard the past six years to take anything lying down. But then she sighed because she also wasn’t quite so foolish these days. She didn’t take pointless stands that might negatively impact her survival. That wasn’t an option available to her. Again, that was reality. That was life. And usually, she thought that was a good thing. “But I’m here. How many people would you estimate have died by slipping off that tiny path and falling to their deaths far below?”

Angelique Silvestri was an Ilonian minister. Madelyn didn’t know or care of what.

But she was very good at infusing her every utterance with the weight of her mysterious office when she spoke. “Very few commoners are permitted to set foot on this island, Miss Jones. Those who do are sufficiently aware of the privilege and do not tend to waste the opportunity on histrionics. All you need to do is walk up the path and enter the Hermitage. I hope that’s not too much to ask of a girl with your apparentresourcefulness.”

Madelyn did not dignify that comment with a response. One of Angelique Silvestri’s talents was making it clear that she was delivering a stinging set down, but opaquely enough to leave it open to interpretation. Was she referring to Madelyn’s job as a waitress in one of Tahoe’s fancier resorts? Or did she mean the fact that Madelyn had never asked for help—or anything else? All that was clear was thatresourcefulnesswas not being mentioned as a positive. Not along with the reminder that Madelyn wasa commoner.

But she bit her tongue because there was nothing to gain by getting into this again. She’d flown all the way here. She’d agreed to this back in Tahoe. There was no point in backing out now just because it was all a little bit more frightening than advertised.

That could be the title of her autobiography, really.

Spurred on by that notion, she pushed open the heavy SUV door—made heavier by the gusting wind and the sleet turned to hail that pelted her. She climbed out, taking a moment to pull the hood of her jacket over her head. It wasn’t much help, but she told herself it was better than nothing.

“Sometimes that’s all you get,” she reminded herself beneath her breath.

Life was nothing if not an opportunity to gather up the lemons and make lemonade.

She didn’t look back at the SUV and Angelique, swallowed up behind the tinted windows. Madelyn headed instead for the path up the mountain, which was little more than a narrow hiking trail carved into the forbidding rock. The trail wound away from the small, flat area where the convoy was parked, hugging the steep mountainside as it curved around and headed up.