Chapter 1 - The Invitation

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Seeing a car in one's driveway is never a good sign. No ordinary human, my family included, could afford private transportation fancier than a bicycle. After the war with the vampires, cars became a luxury. And vampires like to hoard luxuries for themselves.

I was walking home from a perfectly ordinary day at school when I saw the sleek, black vehicle as I rounded the corner onto my street. Who could it belong to? My brain scrambled to come up with an answer. Could it be someone one of my parent's bosses? The mayor? As I came closer, it was clear nobody in this town could afford a car like this. For one thing, it looked brand new. Completely spotless, without a speck of dust on the glistening exterior. The only people who could drive something as fancy as this were vampires.

My knees wobbled as I stepped tentatively onto my front porch. I took one glance back at the car behind me, it's headlights leering at me menacingly. I hoped - prayed - that my parents were all right, that this visit from vampire did not mean our lives were about to change forever. I opened the door.

"There's Avery!" came my mother's cheerful voice. There was the barest hint of tension in it.

I looked around the living room, flinching as the door creaked shut behind me. A woman with a blond ponytail and glasses sat on our old mint green sofa, my parents occupying the armchairs across from her. She rose to greet me and I saw that she wore a sharply tailored black pantsuit.

"Hello Miss Crawford. Would you please sit down?" she asked. Her voice somehow managed to be soothing and icy at the same time.

Dad rose, probably to fetch a dining chair, but the woman waved her hand dismissively. He gave my mom an embarrassed glance and sat back down. The woman gestured to an empty spot on the couch. I sat down, trying to keep as far away from the woman as was physically possible - and socially acceptable.

Up close I realized the woman was actually human. She was beautiful, in a cutthroat executive kind of way, and her skin was pale but it didn't hold the unnatural tint of death. I felt my heart stop racing knowing she wasn't going to bite me. But then who was she and what did she want?

"My name is Melanie Caldwell. I am a representative of His Majesty King Nathaniel Alexander Bryce," she said proudly.

I felt the color drain from my cheeks. I glanced over at my parents. They were smiling at me nervously. Why would a representative of the king be here, in my house? What could he want with my family? With me?

Ignoring my unease, Melanie Caldwell continued. "I am here, Miss Crawford, to let you know that you have been selected by His Majesty himself to be a potential candidate to be his future bride and queen."

"You're joking, right?" I said incredulously. My brain mulled over her words but couldn't make sense of them. Me? Bride? Queen? Vampire?

The corners of Melanie's mouth turned up slightly. She reached for one of the official looking papers papers that lay in a pile on the coffee table and held it out to me. I tentatively took it from her, almost dropping it from my sweaty, shaking hands.

The first thing I saw on the letter was the name Nathaniel Alexander Bryce, written at the bottom in an elegant script. The gold embossed royal seal was next to it. This has to be some kind of elaborate forgery. A prank for some new reality series. But there was no camera crew, only Melanie Caldwell and her shiny black car.

The words of the letter blurred together as I scanned its contents. It confirmed everything Melanie had said. I folded the letter and with a sinking feeling in my gut, handed it back to her. She placed it on top of the pile.

"Your parents tell me that you may be apprehensive about participating because you are seeing someone. Is this correct?" Melanie asked.

I nodded solemnly. Rowan. We had been together for two years. What would he think of the fact that the vampire king himself wanted to steal his girlfriend away? He'd probably march into the king's castle himself, stake in hand. I smiled, earning a cool look from Melanie.

"Well, if the chance of being the most powerful woman in the country, or being immortal, is not enough, then perhaps monetary compensation would entice you," Melanie said. "I'm sure your... boyfriend would understand."

"You don't know anything about him! Or me for that matter. I don't want any part of your stupid offer," I said, crossing my arms.

Melanie's lip curled into a sneer. She opened her mouth to say something but my mother interrupted.

"Honey, you would earn more per day than your father and I do in a month. Ms. Caldwell showed us the numbers. You know how much this could help our family? Help you? You could go to college! I don't think Rowan would be so against something that helps your future."

Her words made my blood run cold. "I can't believe you're asking me this. You want me to whore myself out to a vampire?"

Melanie gave an amused chortle. "Technically there wouldn't be anything of a sexual nature until the wedding. Provided you win, of course."

I glared at her. "That doesn't matter. I won't do it. I won't sacrifice my freedom and happiness for a date with some man I don't know. Even if he's the king."

"Sweetheart, please -" Dad began.

"I don't want any part of this! No king, no competition, no money! I just want to live a normal life, with Rowan! Don't you two care about my feelings?" I said, angry tears falling from my eyes.

"Avery, we're concerned too but you can't deny that this is an amazing opportunity!" Mom pleaded.

I shook my head. I shot a glance at Melanie, surprised to see she was holding her tongue. She sat back, arms crossed, watching our exchange with cool disinterest. I've never hated anyone as much as I hated her that moment.

"The answer is no. It'll always be no. Nothing anyone says could ever change my mind," I said through gritted teeth.

"Avery!" Mom said. She was getting exasperated. "Don't you think you're being a little selfish here?"

I felt like I had been slapped. Selfish? For wanting to be in control of my own life? For not wanting to betray the boy I love? A wave of despair rolled over me. How could they? They were my parents. They were supposed to protect me!

I couldn't look at their hopeful, expectant faces anymore. I couldn't be in this house anymore. Especially not with that black suited snake Melanie Caldwell, sitting back and watching my world crumble into pieces the way she would an afternoon soap opera. Without saying another word, I went for the door. My parents called my name but I ignored them, wiping furious tears from my eyes. I made sure to slam the door behind me.

The headlight and grill face of Melanie's car taunted me as I passed. I wanted to spit at it but changed my mind. They already thought I was acting like a child and I didn't want to give them more proof.

I wiped my tears and turned to go towards the only person left who cares about me. The only person who would never ask me to sacrifice my freedom. I went to see Rowan.



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