The Scarlett Mark

Book Cover: The Scarlett Mark
Part of the A Reign of Blood and Magic series:

The first novel in Abby Lane’s Reign of Blood and Magic series “reprises beauty-and-the-beast themes with feisty characters and richly intriguing witchery.” —Kirkus Reviews

A Lord cursed for sixteen years.

A Princess manipulated by sorcery.

One enchanted evening is their only deliverance.

Seeking justice, Princess Scarlett challenges her stepbrother with a serpentine ordeal, unaware that her treasonous act will endanger her father the king, threaten her two royal sisters, and assist the premeditated plans of her step-mother—the queen. A wicked sorceress, the scheming sovereign has an agenda of her own to steal the throne and rid the castle of her stepchildren. Soon condemned to death, a risk saves the princess from execution, but forces the queen to banish her from the kingdom, delivering her to certain death.

Cursed by the same spiteful witch, Lord Nicolai is most dangerous when transformed. Feared by everyone, he can’t see an end to his beastly life until the princess arrives at his ghostly manor. When a chase ensues to break the curse, the princess risks everything to save Lord Nicolai.

Will a remedy be found in time, and how might the solution impact an evil queen, should The Scarlett Mark prevail?

Excerpt:

Prologue

Cynara

The eye of the storm circled toward Drum Manor, her resolve surrendering to wickedness. Gale force winds blew cold, threatening to topple the oak trees as if their brine-soaked trunks were no more than thin sticks. Lightning flashed white, rippling between gray clouds, and thunder roared and crackled. Mother Nature brewed a warning of evil entering the forest, but a witch’s wrath could not be stilled and the settling of scores persisted.

Cynara Musadora conjured the storm.

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She’d prepared for this night and wore the ceremonial robes of her coven, a black cloak flecked with silver that swirled around her legs. The fabric itself seemed to breathe an insidious life. She didn’t care. It was her destiny to wield darker arts, but until this moment, she hadn’t used her gift for nefarious purposes; and no one, man, woman or child, had been hurt by her art, even so, no human had harmed her emotional well-being like Nicolai Graydon.

In her life, she’d encountered many ignorant sards. Childhood friends, young adults, the odd household lord or lady, too. But after one cruel handling by a rake, she’d taken enough abuse and wasn’t suffering further exploitation. Not from anyone. There were consequences for manipulating a woman like her, and punishing the offender seemed appropriate.

After all, Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn and Nicolai’s rejection had been the worst. The betrayal had weakened her, causing feelings of shame, sadness, and grief. Losing his love, or what had seemed like love, had broken her spirit. She couldn’t overcome her grief and like a weakened fool, for weeks, couldn’t stop crying.

She’d loved the man!

But his betrayal had crushed her heart and torn it into two bloody pieces. Where a heart muscle should beat strong, now, only sorrow, silent rage, and two black stones beat weakly inside her chest. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t unreasonable that a man should suffer a similar fate and cry at sorrow’s door, too.

Yet in light of new ambitions, she was calm. Peaceful. She stepped from behind a tree, finding the pathway that led to the mansion and the man who had hurt her, shunned her, and forced their relationship to end. She’d hiked this pathway so many times before, it almost disappointed her that this would be her last visit beneath these trees.

The forest was full of old, gnarled oak. In the darkness, the trees were hauntingly beautiful and she treasured them. She swept aside their branches as if the limbs were her web, and she the spider skittering across the silk. Lord Nicolai, unaware of her pursuit, struggled on the line. She felt him. Heard him. The thrum of his heartbeat pulsed. Thump—Thump. She approached it, to wrap him within her curse to punish him for his crime, a love crime that drove her closer to his home.

Long jet-black strands of hair whipped into her mint-green eyes, and though cold air spat against her face and nipped at her hands, her desire for revenge did not abate.

“Soon, Nicolai,” she cackled. Lightning flashed and thunder boomed a second time. “Very soon, I will have your heart. Lady Alexandra cannot have what is mine.”

If she could not have the man she loved—or rather, had loved—if Nicolai could not see she was his other half, his better half, then she’d curse the bastard to the Netherworld.

As the forest gave way to a clearing, Cynara trudged through tall grasses that swished with the breeze, marching toward the ridge, whose rocky embankment traversed the path between the land and the sea. The tide was stronger than usual and though the waves crashed beneath the cliff, surging against the rocks, the ugly roil did not lessen her pursuit.

Drum Manor waited on the other side of the meadowlands. Candlelight flickered on the other side of the dormer windows, drawing her closer. The light illuminating her footpath to the manor. Nicolai was inside that house and she knew where the lord entertained his company. In the great hall with his bride-to-be.

Though the thought of the pair caused Cynara to scream with rage, amusement soon creased her face. A matrimonial affair was not happening. No woman would wear his ring, nor share in his impassioned bed. She would find them, curse their future, and snuff out their passionate flames forever.

* * *

Lord Nicolai Graydon

Lord Nicolai stood near the banquet table, dressed in a rich black vest accentuated with silver brocade, holding a tankard of ale in his right hand. He grinned, swirling the amber fluid, acknowledging the fact he had reached a once unattainable goal—amassing his fortune through a betrothal commitment, and in so doing, returning his family name to its proper status. He considered this milestone while scrutinizing the gilt-edged hall. A windfall of capital presented itself in the form of wealthy guests. He contemplated men and women who were engaging in conversation, dancing to classical string music, feasting on finger foods, or stealing away to private chambers to share in more intimate pursuits. Drum Manor hosted the best of the best and he was grateful the wealthy were in attendance.

He watched them. Counts and viscounts discussing parliamentary issues. The Lord High Marshall, in company with members of the king’s privy council, droning on about military matters to nattering diplomats and stewards. Lords and ladies presenting their stylish daughters in the hopes of finding a suitable husband. He watched the drama unfold with a keen intellect, understanding that everyone who could make a difference in his future was sharing his home at this betrothal celebration. Lord Nicolai Graydon had risen in status, too, and he felt like he’d won a lavish prize. Gratefully, his life goals could mature due to this makeshift measure.

What more could a man do than celebrate his success and sip his ale? He supposed he could thank the woman who brought this influence into his life. Alexandra, the daughter of an earl; from the start he’d known she’d make the perfect wife. Yet, some aristocratic men considered their pairing a selfish pursuit of material gain, since her dowry advanced a required coin into his pocket.

He didn’t care what anyone thought about his actions. His debtors had demanded their funds, a manor required refurbishment, and his life needed a face-lift. He couldn’t wait to be wed to realize the wealth. And her delicate features, blonde hair and celestial blue eyes, provided the perfect genetics should their union bear children. Dressed in a pale blue surcoat threaded with silver, she shimmered like the metal. He should probably love the woman for all she brought to his life, but what did Nicolai know about love?

He had never considered the question of love until a hunting lad had enquired about his matrimonial motives, motives that could never define a lover’s true purpose. He had skirted the issue with a response long in coming.

What is love, anyway?

He sipped his drink and contemplated the question. The poets wrote about this notion of love as if its essence were a heady desire or a dark spell that squeezed at the victim’s heart, rendering them helpless. The minstrels sang of silly infatuations with high-pitched voices, imparting an intense lust and sudden couplings of the heart.

“Huh,” Nicolai recalled, chuckling under his breath. He had a fondness for a good song, but felt that love was no more than an incurable malady, an arthritic condition; a chain that threatened to drag its victims into a life of servitude. He did not care for such an affliction, but he did covet the monetary elements that came with commitment—the money a marriage would bring.

Someday, he might care for Alexandra, perhaps love her as well, but if not for his needs, he would never have chosen her for a bride. Despite her beauty, she feared his advances, shied away from conversation, and cringed at the slightest touch. Frankly, they entertained little chemistry. Bedding the woman might prove to be a chore.

Lord Nicolai, or Nick, as the more brazen ladies chose to refer to him, was not accustomed to a shy lady like Alexandra. A daredevil of a woman had been more to his liking. He licked salty ale from his lips as Cyn came to mind—a dark-haired vixen who had joined him in raucous exploits. He heated, recalling their affair, but their sex-play had ended when the marriage banns were announced. Perhaps he could find her again, take her as his mistress, and enjoy seductive pleasures on the side.

“I think not,” he whispered to himself, swallowing his ale in a choked gulp. Removing the woman from his life had been a wise decision, as their last encounter had ended horribly. Cynara had fought the news of his upcoming marriage. She chanced to be a take-all or take-naught sort of woman, a wanton warrior who would crush a man’s genitalia if he didn’t pay close attention to her needs. A regrettable cost he couldn’t afford to pay.

The time had come to announce the engagement, so Nicolai placed his empty mug on the table and went in search of Alexandra, finding his betrothed where a dutiful daughter should reside; at her father’s side, behind her mother’s skirt.

“There you are,” he acknowledged, reflecting on her beauty while crossing the space between them. “You’re dressed like an angel in your pale blue gown. Lady Alexandra, I swear, your eyes are glowing with an inner light.”

She curtsied, dipping daintily. “Thank you for your kindness, my lord.”

He extended his gloved hand toward her. “May I have your hand, my dear? It’s time to make the betrothal announcement.”

Alexandra breathed deeply, sighed, then placed her petite hand atop his palm, lowering her gaze. “Yes, Lord Nicolai.”

Gently, he pulled her to him. A tiny, fragile bird, she appeared ready to flee while flitting to his side. He felt the fright in her quivering hand.

“Alexandra, my dear,” he whispered, ushering her away from her father, and escorting her toward a raised platform. “You must not quiver with fright. Soon, I will be your husband.”

“I’m not frightened of you,” she mumbled, taking a deep breath. “Lord Nicolai, if I’m to be honest with you, I’m not ready for marriage, or this betrothal.”

He studied her sedate expression, fingering her shoulder. “I know our engagement is sudden, but it’s a good match for our families. Surely a beauty, such as yourself, yearns for a husband? Isn’t that why your mother brought you to court a fortnight ago, to find you a suitable partner?”

Unresponsive, the angelic woman glanced at his fingers. He listened to her stiff breathing and perceived a weak heartbeat pulsing beneath his touch. Her fear was obviously expressed. Was she concerning herself with the possibilities held within their bedchamber? He removed his hand.

“I confess, I was excited to explore the idea of marriage,” she confided, nibbling at her lip. “Nevertheless, I didn’t imagine I’d find myself betrothed so quickly. And to— a rake of a man.”

Surprised at her temerity, he grasped her hand and whispered words only she could hear. “A rake of a man?” Nicolai chortled, leaning closer, grazing her earlobe with his lips. “My reputation precedes me. I assure you, my dear, I am a gentleman, and as such will treat you with the utmost respect.”

“I don’t doubt you will respect me, my lord. However, I’ve heard tell your standing rule with women is one of mutual affection.”

“I’m uncertain as to what you imply, but I imagine in time you’ll assert your position.”

“You know,” she said, blushing, “your clandestine relationships with the opposite sex.”

Nicolai shook his head. “Will it go easier for you if I promise to love only you?”

“Do you mock me? Am I wrong to want a loving commitment? A man who will share his flattery with only one woman. With me?”

He broke their contact and faced her, assessing her expectant mien. One white lie; what did it matter if he shared a mistruth? “I see how this matter concerns you, so to aid in putting worry behind us, I promise to bestow my fragile heart upon your good graces. Perhaps, in time, some affection, too.”

He studied her wary expression, then attempted to lead her toward the podium. She glanced at her parents and her former life with concern, then paused, seeking his observation again.

“Are you toying with me?”

“I assure you, where matters of the heart are concerned, my courtesy extends further than the physical pursuit of a gentle-born lady. I make you this promise: to take proper care and consideration of you. Come now, we have an announcement to make.”

He extended his right hand toward Alexandra, and he watched her studying his palm, perhaps considering whether she should accept his offering. He worried when an awkward silence stretched. “Alexandra…”

Nicolai winked when she placed her hand in his. “I’ll trust you then, my lord, to keep your word.”

He squeezed her fingers, then commanded the orchestra to stop the music. The conversations drifted away to silence. “I am honored to announce my betrothal to Lady Alexandra von Kampen, the beloved daughter of the earl and countess, Lord Victor and Lady Anna von Kampen. We will be wed in the private gardens of her ancestral home in a fortnight’s time. We thank our friends and family for celebrating this occasion with us. All we ask is that you support us in our journey to the altar.”

Lightning streaked white inside the great hall, and the thunder boomed so loud, the entire chamber quaked. A gust of wind struck the manor house with such force, the double doors at the end of the hall surged open and banged against the wall. The woman who had entertained Nicolai’s earlier thoughts stepped inside the room, dressed like a nymph risen wet from the sea.

Nicolai cringed. Alexandra staggered backwards. The angry mien shadowing Cynara’s facial features caused his heart to skip a precious beat.

“What do we have here, a party?” she hissed, assessing those assembled in the great hall. She swept a black hood from her head, detached her cape, then let the material slide from her shoulders to form a large stain on the flooring. The fabric of her silver-patterned dress molded to her feminine figure and outlined the curvy hips Nicolai remembered well. She walked across the hall to meet him with the grace of a serpent accustomed to the constriction.

“Rude of you not to include me, Nicolai.”

He cleared his throat. “What has brought you to my home, Cynara? You’re no more than a lowly woman and have no right attending this celebration. Furthermore, you were not invited.”

“I have every right to be here,” she rasped, pointing at him. “I should be standing beside you—not her!”

“What do you insinuate? Accept your lot in life. You were not invited to stand anywhere near me, Madam.”

Once quiet as a dormouse, Alexandra squeaked, “Nicolai, who is this woman?”

He glowered at Cynara’s minty eyes, wishing he could answer that damnable question. For a certainty he knew her and remembered her, but after their last meeting, he had thought their paths would never cross again.

“Her name is Cynara,” he growled, taking one uncertain step forward. “But the ‘Cyn’ nickname was more to my liking.”

“Nicolai, you ignorant sard,” the witch spat. “I should have known you’d be a terrible life partner when you couldn’t appreciate my name. The ‘Cyn’ assertion is disrespectful. It gives the impression of a bad seed and I’m nothing of the sort. I promise you this, you’ll never forget the ring of Cynara again.”

“Don’t throw your empty threats at me. You’re not an innocent in this affair. Surely you know, we were never meant to be more than bedmates,” he called out, unmindful of his guests. “I respect your lot in life. I do. A pity you can’t accept mine.”

“That comment will cost you dearly.”

“Cynara, my affairs no longer concern you. Our relationship is over. Accept it. Retrace your steps, collect your cloak, and leave my home.”

Whatever her purpose, Nicolai’s demands did not deter her movement. She appeared to sadden at first, and he almost felt sorry for her, but then her face contorted with anger and she progressed closer. So close, he could see the fiery sparks in the whites of her eyes. Should he be afraid?

She paused meaningfully. “Cynara, Nicolai. Always remember it was Cynara who put you in your place.”

“What’s the meaning of this intrusion, Madam?” Alexandra’s father bellowed.

Nicolai groaned, watching his soon to be father-in-law, a know-it-all blatherskite, pace forward across the hall. The blighter stepping into the fray wore a belt under his girth to hold an overly large tummy. No hope from this quarter—the man gave the impression of a fool as he slobbered further with his prattle.

“Who are you to walk uninvited into this hall? This is my daughter’s day, Madam, and you will not dishonor it. Do what has been asked of you and leave this place.”

“This should have been my day,” Cynara howled, waving his words away as if he were a fly, and turning her attention to Alexandra in an unnatural way. Nicolai saw the hate in Cynara’s expression as his fiancée stepped backward in response, toward the natural protection of her father.

“Soon, your daughter will wish she had never been born,” Cynara spat, moving closer to the pair. “Perhaps she will also wish you had never sold her to this cat’s-paw.”

“My guests and I have heard enough,” Nicolai raged, facing his former lover. He grabbed Cynara’s arm and attempted to escort her from the hall. But she pulled free of his embrace, broke their contact, and raised her hands against him in an unnatural manner.

“Nicolai Graydon,” she shouted, “you have wronged me!”

He tried to laugh, but the sound came out strangled. The situation grew more ludicrous as the minutes passed. At one time he had taken his pleasure from this woman, as most lords were inclined to do in the company of a common servant, but now she was embarrassing him in front of his guests.

“Cynara,” he said, attempting to placate her. “A man cannot wrong a fallen woman. Saying anything more will only serve to embarrass you. You do not know your place and have entertained us long enough.”

Nicolai searched the crowd of shocked guests until he saw his butler. “Bensen,” he called to him, “escort this woman from the hall and have her away.”

Cynara’s face distorted and colored purple with rage. Her sudden scream echoed throughout the great hall. “I would ignore your master’s instructions, if I were you.”

The butler was not deterred by her caustic tone, and had not advanced farther than a few steps before she raised her hand, splayed her fingers wide, and directed a current of energy at him. Lightning sizzled from her fingertips and surged across the room. The candlelight flickered; the thunder echoed her anger and raged aloud.

Nicolai could not believe the scene he was witnessing. Black magic wrapped Bensen in a cocoon of light and lifted him off the floor as if he were no more than a rock, then catapulted him across the hall. He lay on the flooring like a beaten dog, whimpering, clutching the leg of a lounge chair. Helpless, all Nicolai could do was stare at him in shock.

“Who’s next?” Cynara screamed, facing Nicolai while women cried in fright and ran from the hall in panic, with husbands, fathers, and servants following.

Alexandra tried to flee the melee, too and attempted to reach her parents, but a force held her in place. “Mother?” she said, whimpering. Her face contorted in fear and tears filled her eyes. She reached for her mum, but Lady Anna could not free her daughter from the evil.

Cynara’s eyes pierced Nicolai with white-hot anger. “I hate you, Nicolai. I abhor you for using me. I curse you to the blackest depths of the Netherworld for as long as you shall live.”

He didn’t know how to respond. After witnessing her unnatural power against his butler, Nicolai didn’t know whether he should laugh or cry. For the first time in his life, he was frightened. His only thought was to protect Alexandra. He grabbed her hand and tried to escort her to safety, but she had become affixed to the floor, rooted there like a statue.

What in the sarding nether land was he supposed to do?

“If you think to leave, my lord, you should be aware that a predator always gives chase.”

Nicolai stepped away from his betrothed, sensing that standing near Alexandra would only threaten her further. He heard Cynara chanting in her witch’s voice, loud and shrill, speaking slowly at first and then so quickly he couldn’t understand the language.

What in God’s bones was she muttering?

Though he didn’t need to understand her foreign words to know lives were in danger. Cynara held all their fates in her hands.

White light blinded him and the thunder boomed again as if the storm was churning inside the hall. Dark powers were consuming his home and he couldn’t protect himself, Alexandra, or any of the guests he had welcomed to Drum Manor.

And then Cynara wailed: “Within this hour, I bind thy power. To be mine for eternity, cursed with black poverty.”

A celestial body entered Nicolai’s chest and grasped his beating heart. Light energy squeezed his lifeblood and pulled him away from his betrothed.

“Cynara, please don’t do this—” Nicolai begged of her, groaning in agony. He fought against the electric current burning him inside his chest. The powerful surge yanked him off his feet and slid him beneath her heated, maniacal gaze.

Strange laughter filled his head and pressed against living tissues; the pain so intense, he curled into a fetal position, clutching at his chest and excreting urine inside his pants. He begged for mercy, moaning in pain, but he could see from her crazed expression that a merciful escape would not be possible.

“You foolish man, I curse you to live in darkness for the rest of your miserable life. You have wronged me. And because of your ill-treatment, you will live in a black existence like a cat chasing a mouse, unable to hold the love you forfeited when you wounded me.”

“Please, Cynara,” Nicolai cried, writhing on the floor. “Please, release me…”

“Leave him alone, you monster,” Alexandra shrieked, finding her voice.

Cynara shouted: “No more from you, little bird!”

Lightning flashed quick and silver and enclosed Alexandra within a cloak of crimson flames. For an instant, a beautiful angel stood inside a hateful light, appealing for help. She screamed in terror, her hands clawing, trying to escape the heated barrier. The fire melted and destroyed her flesh. The heat burned her so efficiently, soon only flames surrounding a woman’s shape were visible. A million stars consumed her slender form and then simply burst apart like diamonds scattering in the air, falling to the ground, then dissipating. Soon, nothing remained. The space where Alexandra had stood was empty, not even an ash littered the planked floor.

Nicolai’s betrothed was gone. Lady Anna screamed in horror. Cynara did not appear to hear the mother’s cries of distress.

“Consider your betrothal broken, Nicolai.”

Earl Victor von Kampen, undone, stepped backwards, tears leaking from his eyes as if he could not believe what had taken place. He beheld the spot on the flooring where his daughter had fallen, and wailed like a baby, then grasped his countess’s hand and rushed her away.

“What have you done?” Nicolai asked, incredulous, feeling the weight of his loss in the empty hall.

“What have I done?” she said, pointing at him, “What have you done, Nicolai Graydon? You brought this storm upon yourself, not I.”

She approached him where he lay on the floor, and he knew she felt joy in his suffering. He saw she was a witch and did not care about the lifeblood lost. She reached toward his chest and her fingers squeezed into a fist. White light formed the shape of a hand and tore inside his chest, to squeeze his heart. “Feel this,” she said, her tone calm and peaceful.

Nicolai writhed in agony. Pain twisted like a knife inside his gut. His world shifted, setting in motion a transformation. The witch shrouded him in her dark magic, but he barely heard the conjuring.

Make me strong where this man is weak, and give him little wisdom to seek.

Twist his heart into cold black stone, never to love again, for the pursuit of love will capture him alone.

Set on him a sharp ugly tooth—a black cat in the night, to feed on red ruins.

Before me now let him cringe in pain, never to enjoy the fruits of life again.

“Cynara,” Nicolai cried, trying to breathe, tears streaming down his face. “Please, I beg of you. Have mercy.”

Mutatio, mutatio—” She invocated her spell, then lifted him off the floor and spun him in a circular motion, rotating him, faster and faster.

“Transform! Change! My will be done!”

Pulled off the ground, Nicolai knew something was wrong. Liquid fire shot to his veins and flowed to the tips of his fingers and toes, burning his blood vessels. His insides pulled apart and then molded back together, a whir of cells and molecules, separating and reforming, while his mass spun in the air. He convulsed, twisted and flexed, but he did not catch fire. Human flesh softened to workable putty and reshaped into a new form. Cynara relinquished her hold. The spell loosened its grip, and he fell.

He landed on the flooring perfectly intact on his feet—on four feet—knowing a wicked event had occurred. Cynara towered above him. He tried to talk to her, but only a snarl emanated from his mouth.

“Look at you, Nicolai,” she cackled with ill humor. The evil cadence ricocheted in his head. He watched as the minty color in the matrix of her eyes returned to normal. “You poor, furry creature. You don’t know what you’ve become.”

He snarled again and leapt at her throat, swiping at the witch with thick black paws and extended claws, but she pushed him away as if he were no more than a gnat.

Her voice became serious, yet again. “You answer to me now, Black Panther, and though your teeth are sharp and your claws are deadly weapons, you cannot use them against me, for I am your keeper, the situation no different than how you kept me. You are cursed with black magic, Nicolai. Cursed.”

He growled. He stalked around her, pacing back and forth, searching for possibilities to attack, his huge black paw swiping through the air. He wanted to lunge at her throat. The hatred inside himself raged to fight, to taste her blood, but he could not attack. He roared in frustration and jumped against an impenetrable barrier.

Cynara returned to where her cape lay on the flooring, picked it up, and swept the silvery blackness around her shoulders, attaching her ceremonial robe at her throat. The hall was empty and they were alone. His butler had managed to crawl to safety, but Nicolai was not safe. He’d lost everything.

“It’s not as bad as it seems. You won’t hold this form for long. I promise you, you’ll be a man again, but you won’t enjoy the carnal pleasures of a woman beneath your loins,” she said, snickering. “I will satisfy myself knowing that this black transformation will make you miserable for the rest of your dying days.”

Unable to reply, he watched her saunter toward the double doors at the end of the great hall.

“Not that I care, but accept some words of advice. If you think to pursue sex-play with a woman, you will change into the panther, and when the darkness transforms you, I promise, carnal pleasure will not bring satisfaction. Your teeth are deadly sharp, your claws as well.”

She grabbed one door and closed it, then paused while holding the other. “Good night, Nicolai,” she said with a satisfied grin, cackling with a shriek that grated his eardrum. “Black becomes you.”

She slammed the door and escaped into the night. Nicolai wondered if he’d ever see her again.

COLLAPSE
Reviews:on Kirkus Reviews:

"Lane’s yarn, the first in her Reign of Blood and Magic series, sometimes bogs down in ruminative longueurs as characters brood on their predicaments, but it features rousing magical action set pieces and sorcery that’s engrossing and creepy. Lane’s prose is sometimes rough—“ ‘Bon appetite’ ”—but intense and evocative: “Round and round [Scarlett] went on the stone stairs, each step downward taking her closer to her final punishment….all too quickly she would fall silent, buried by wet mud in her grave.” The result is an imaginative fantasy that reprises beauty-and-the-beast themes with feisty characters and richly intriguing witchery."

Jo Niederhoff on Manhattan Book Review wrote:

"The Scarlett Mark is the sort of book which would have swept me off my feet back in high school, and reading it now makes me nostalgic for all those old epic fantasies that first got me interested in writing. It has strong ties to fairy tales that many readers will recognize, but it isn’t a strict retelling of any. Rather, it stands on its own, with a richer backstory than most fairy tale retellings and with powerful, fascinating characters. As the start of a trilogy, it does a fine job introducing the world and its rules without giving too much exposition, and I’m fascinated by all the characters, even the wicked, ruthless Cynara."

on Self-Publishing Review:

"Author Abby Lane unleashes a heroine-focused fantasy saga that boldly stands above a crowded genre with The Scarlett Mark. This fairy-tale fusion of wild magic, evil witches, banished princesses, and unlikely heroism is dripping with rich descriptions and fascinating narrative depth. The three-dimensional characters breathe and grieve and thrive on these carefully crafted pages, and Queen Cynara is a tour de force creation, a deliciously penned villain. Borrowing inspiration from modern and classic authors of the genre, yet creating a magnificent new world all her own, The Scarlett Mark is an impressive start to an immersive and lavishly written series."

James W on Amazon wrote:

Abby Lane’s Scarlett Mark is satisfying medieval ‘romantasy’ that offers a promising start to what has the potential to be a tale of epic proportions.

The first installment of a series (A Reign of Blood and Magic), Scarlett Mark wastes little time in setting the table. Leaning heavily on the tried and true fantasy template, the novel’s first act pits protagonist Princess Scarlett of Velez against an oh-so-evil stepmother (Queen Cynara), eventually leading to Scarlett’s banishment to the dreary Drum Manor, where she meets the mysterious Lord Nicolai.

What follows is a classic 'good vs. evil' tale of love, lust, and betrayal, featuring the healthy dose of magic and swordplay that you’d expect from a fantasy novel. While the story’s momentum has a tendency to lag (particularly in the second act), it’s an acceptable concession given all of the world-building that Lane accomplishes in three hundred pages.

At the end of the day, Scarlett Mark accomplishes what every author hopes for a debut, entertaining an audience while dutifully laying the groundwork for future installments. Sure, it’s well-tread territory, but to her credit, Lane ‘stays in her lane’ (pun intended) from beginning to end, treating readers to an unapologetic slice of genre fiction.

Roxy Boroughs on Goodreads wrote:

A complex tale of vice, dark magic and redemption, with a plucky heroine, a tortured hero and a wonderfully wicked villainess.

I found the pace slow on occasion, but the descriptions of Drum Manor were deliciously gothic. The sexual tension between the hero and heroine is terrific, and the climax—spectacular. I’m looking forward to Book 2, “The Ebony Queen.”


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