Being a Princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!
Between keeping high security secrets from everyone (including Rigel) and trying to keep Rigel and Sean from killing each other (with no help from Trina, of course!) M has more than enough on her plate already.
She knew that as the newly discovered Princess of a secret Martian colony, she’d have to return there someday—but over spring break?? An emergency requires her immediate presence but not everyone is overjoyed to have their long-lost Princess back. Can she win her people over in time to save the colony from destruction? And what will she have to give up in return?
Book 3 of the electrifying new Starstruck series from New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Brenda Hiatt
Publisher: Dolphin Star Press
Print pages: 306
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Listen to a sample
A year ago, if someone had told me I was born on Mars, heir to the last legitimate Sovereign of a three-thousand-year-old underground colony there, I’d have thought they were crazy. Of course, I also would have thought they were crazy if they’d told me nearly every cool kid from Jewel High would be at my sixteenth birthday party. My last birthday party had been a three-person sleepover with Bri and Deb, my whole circle of friends at the time.
A year ago, I was plain, acne-ridden Marsha Truitt, twice-orphaned nerd, being unwillingly raised by an “aunt” and “uncle” who had no more idea who my real parents were than I did. It had been a pretty big shock to learn last fall that I was really Princess Emileia, born Sovereign of Nuath, the secret colony on Mars, and of all the Echtrans (expatriate Martians) on Earth.
Not that any regular Earthlings, including my aunt and uncle, knew any of this. That wasn’t why I was so much more popular now than last year. No, that had to do with my (real) relationship with Rigel Stuart since the start of the school year, and my (pretend) relationship with Sean O’Gara since Christmas.
“Gee, M, maybe you should’ve asked Rigel to have your party at his house, it’s so much bigger than yours.” My best friend Bri shoved her way through the crowd, her dark curls swinging behind her. “Though maybe that would be awkward these days?”
I shrugged, not sure how to answer. I mean, she had a point, since Rigel’s house was about four times the size of my aunt and uncle’s “historic” little cracker box. But it would have been awkward.
“C’mon, everybody, let’s do cake!” Sean—tall, handsome, and the reason for the awkward—called from the small dining room across the hall.
The crowd moved in that direction but I hung back a little, hoping to at least brush Rigel’s hand first. Suddenly, there he was beside me, dark-haired, broad-shouldered and gorgeous, just like he’d sensed my thought—which, of course, he had.
“Did you actually invite this many people?” he whispered, brushing my hand to give me the boost I craved. He had to be craving it, too, since we got so few chances for physical contact these days. Now that most people thought I was dating Sean instead of Rigel.
Craving is right. It sucks to go so long without touching you, he sent silently in response to my thought. Their stupid antidote hasn’t changed that.
I smiled up at him, trying to hide my frustration from him the same way he was trying to hide his from me. “I originally invited about half of these people,” I whispered back, “But Bri mentioned it at lunch on Wednesday, so…” I waved a helpless hand at all the people who’d have been hurt to be left out.
Rigel and Sean, and Sean’s sister Molly, were the only other Echtrans attending Jewel High, and all of them were here because of me. Shortly after Rigel moved here in August, he and I discovered we had a special bond, the graell, that was so rare most Martians didn’t even believe in it, outside of fairy tales. Because of our bond, even though I was a nobody and Rigel was the new star quarterback of Jewel High’s formerly lame football team, we started dating.
Thus my meteoric rise in popularity.
Sean was no slouch, either, of course. He’d come to Jewel late in the fall semester and almost immediately became the star of our also formerly lame basketball team. Unfortunately, Sean also happened to be the guy that Nuathan tradition said I was supposed to pair up with. And Nuathans, I’d learned by now, were all about tradition. Way too much about tradition, in my opinion.
To keep the peace, especially on Mars, which was teetering on the edge of civil war, I was now having to pretend I was with Sean, even though Rigel was, and would always be, my soul mate and the love of my life. I knew this. Rigel knew this. The whole Echtran Council knew this. And Sean knew this, though he clearly kept hoping I’d buy into the make-believe and become his girlfriend for real.
Thus, the awkward.
“C’mon, M.” Sean brushed a coppery strand from his forehead and motioned to me. “The candles are going to burn out before you can blow them out.”
Go ahead, Rigel thought. I’ll still be here.
Thanks, I thought back, grateful—again—that Rigel and I had never told anyone else about our ability to communicate this way, since it was practically the only thing keeping us sane these days. Besides which, if the Council knew, they’d no doubt try to find an antidote to that, too, instead of just to the awful physical symptoms we both suffered whenever we were apart too long. Not that we’d been apart long enough since receiving their serum to know how well it really worked.
And I hope we never will be, we both thought at the same time.
With secret smiles, Rigel and I linked pinkies for a second. Finally, I moved forward, the crowd of jocks, cheerleaders and actual friends of mine parting with difficulty to let me through. I saw Sean’s bright blue gaze flick to Rigel behind me for a fraction of a second and noticed a very slight tightening around his mouth, but then he was grinning again.
“Make a wish.” Sean threw an arm around my shoulders. “A good one,” he added, giving me a little squeeze.
I didn’t stiffen like I used to, but I also didn’t look at him, not wanting to see what I knew I’d see in his expression. Instead, I faced the cake and took a deep breath.
I wish for a permanent, perfect solution to our problem, I thought to Rigel, then blew out all the candles in one try.
* * *
Even though it was a Saturday night, people started leaving my party around ten o’clock. I figured part of the reason was my Aunt Theresa, who was becoming less and less gracious the later it got (she and Uncle Louie were usually in bed by ten).
But I knew the main reason was that Trina Squires was throwing a party tonight, too—a last-minute thing, announced after word got out about my birthday party. Which was Trina all over. I tried not to let it bother me, though I did wonder how she’d managed to bully her parents out of the house for the evening. Of course, they pretty much gave her everything she wanted, from a new car to the latest fashions, so it probably hadn’t been hard.
Even Bri and Deb left around ten-thirty, though probably not to go to Trina’s. They’d always hated her as much as I did, and it was definitely mutual, though Trina reserved her worst nastiness for me.
By quarter to eleven, only Rigel, Sean and Molly were left. Aunt Theresa pointedly started picking up plates and napkins and yawning widely. Uncle Louie had gone upstairs a while ago and was already snoring so loudly we could hear him through the ceiling.
“Let us do that, Mrs. Truitt.” Molly smiled, her gray eyes wide and innocent as she stacked a bunch of paper cups to throw away. “You can go on to bed and we’ll head out as soon as we’ve cleaned up.”
My aunt hesitated for a second, then smiled back—something she rarely did at me. “That’s very thoughtful, Molly. Thank you. Marsha, don’t let your friends do all the work. Anything not done by eleven o’clock you finish up by yourself, since their parents will be expecting them.”
I nodded and she headed up the stairs. Before she even reached the landing, I was reaching for Rigel, dying to take advantage of this brief opportunity when we wouldn’t have to pretend. His hand met mine halfway and our fingers intertwined, a blessed relief. I was tugging him unresistingly toward the kitchen when Molly spoke.
“Wow, quite a crowd, huh?” she said a little too casually, watching my aunt’s retreat. “I think everyone had a good time, though.” Then, more quietly, “We have news, and thought this would be our best chance to tell you.”
“News?” I reluctantly delayed the Rigel-kiss I so desperately needed. “You mean from—” I hesitated, then heard my aunt’s bedroom door close. “From Mars?” I exchanged glances with Rigel, along with a spike of shared anxiety, since in our experience most news from Mars hadn’t been good—at least for us.
Sean picked up the trash bag my aunt had brought out and started tossing paper plates and plastic forks into it. “Yeah. Our folks suggested we let you, um, both of you, know right away.” Though he frowned at our still-clasped hands, he continued without trying to provoke Rigel, like he did way too often. “There’s more and more call for elections, not just for legislators, but for a President or Prime Minister or something.”
My heart beat a little faster. “You mean, somebody more permanent than the Interim Governor they have now? Somebody who could lead long term?” Maybe this would let me off the hook! It’s not like I wanted to be a leader, even after months of studying Nuathan history, government, society, and protocol. If I didn’t have to be Sovereign, I could live a normal life, be Rigel’s girlfriend openly again… It sounded too good to be true.
“It won’t really happen, of course.” Sean sounded certain. “But the Interim Governor is already campaigning, building support, and a bunch of Royal Echtrans are heading back to Mars as soon as possible to do the same thing.”
“Gee, that wouldn’t include your Uncle Allister, would it?” Rigel crumpled up the paper tablecloth and shoved it into a trash bag with unnecessary violence.
Molly shook her head so vigorously her dark hair flew around her head. “There’s no way they’ll let him go back after what he tried to do to you, Rigel. Mum says he and his pal Lennox are still under guard in Montana, and a good thing, too.”
I heartily agreed. Allister Adair, ex-member of the Echtran Council, and Lennox, former governor of the Martian compound in Montana, had conspired to take Rigel out of the picture permanently. I’d been incredibly lucky to make my deal with the Council—the deal involving Sean—in time to save Rigel’s life.
“So, um, what am I supposed to do about all this?” I asked before I could think too much about that close call and upset Rigel with my feelings. “I already made that video they wanted right after Faxon was ousted and I’ve recorded two more statements since then.”
“My dad says those last two statements didn’t get nearly as wide an airing on Mars as they expected.” Rigel’s voice was factual but I could feel his excitement at the idea of me not having to be Sovereign after all.
Sean frowned again, though not at Rigel this time. “My folks said the same thing. Of course, communications are still screwed up there, so some villages used that as an excuse not to air them, especially villages that are either still anti-Royal because of Faxon’s propaganda or that have Royal leaders with their own agendas. Disloyal, shortsighted dabhal —“
“Sean,” Molly cautioned him, though dabhal really wasn’t much worse than “damn” in English. Then, to me, “Anyway, Mum’s worried you haven’t had a chance to start building support of your own.”
“I thought that’s what our trip this summer is supposed to be about. Isn’t that why your mom fixed it with Aunt Theresa so I can to go ‘Ireland’—” I made air quotes— “with you guys?”
“Yeah, but now she says summer will be too late.” Sean threw the last few paper cups into the trash. “That some Royal or other might have enough support by then that it’ll be almost impossible to get you Acclaimed Sovereign. Especially since people have got used to not having one the last fifteen years. I mean, most of them hated Faxon, but now he’s out . . .” He trailed off with a shrug.
I didn’t say anything for a few minutes, carrying the trash and recyclables into the kitchen, throwing away potato chip crumbs and rinsing out the empty onion dip bowl, trying to get my confusing emotions under control.
A part of me was almost giddy at the thought that I might not have to do the Sovereign thing after all. At the same time I couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed, after everything I’d been told about the Nuathan people needing me and wanting me so badly. Also disappointed, mainly because I’d been looking forward to seeing not only Mars, but the all-Martian village in Ireland where Molly and Sean had lived for a year and a half before coming to Jewel.
Once or twice Rigel brushed my arm or touched my hand as we handed off bags of trash. I appreciated it, though the hints of elation coming through told me he was totally fine with the idea of me maybe not becoming Sovereign after all. And so was I. Of course I was.
Just as the last traces of the party were dealt with, right on the stroke of eleven, there was a light tap on the front door. Swallowing, wondering what other “news” I’d have to hear tonight, I opened it. The O’Garas stood on the porch.
“Happy birthday, Emileia,” Mrs. O’Gara greeted me with a smile. “Again.”
My real birthday, I’d discovered last fall, was actually a week earlier than the one I’d always celebrated—the one on my faked birth certificate. The O’Garas had thrown me a private party last weekend at their house with just them, Rigel’s family, and the two members of the Council who’d recently moved to Indiana. For three wonderful hours Rigel and I hadn’t had to pretend, which was the best present they could have given me, though I doubted they thought of it that way.
“Thanks. Do you want to come in?”
Lanky, sandy-haired Mr. O’Gara glanced past his wife toward the stairs. “Have your aunt and uncle gone to bed?”
Uncle Louie’s snoring was louder than ever, so I nodded.
“Even so, outside might be safer.”
“Safer, maybe, but it’s like ten degrees out there.” In fact, I was already shivering. We’d had a late cold snap yesterday, not terribly uncommon in early March in north-central Indiana. It had dropped temps by almost thirty degrees, along with a foot of snow, and the O’Garas, who’d lived in a climate-controlled underground colony their whole lives, weren’t exactly used to that.
“I’ve got my omni.” Sean pulled the amazing little Martian device out of his pocket.
Rigel scowled—I knew how he felt about Sean owning one while he didn’t. Rigel’s grandfather, Shim, a senior Council member, had helped draw up some guidelines for Echtrans new to Earth, and carrying things like omnis around was definitely discouraged.
I just said, “Will it work for this many people?” Because it would be safer to talk on the porch, if it was going to be about Martian stuff.
“If we’re all touching.” Mr. O’Gara didn’t seem to register Rigel’s disapproval. “All right, then, everyone outside.”
We all trooped out to the front porch and as soon as I closed the front door behind us, Sean flicked on the omni’s holographic screen, punched in the settings, then stuck it back in his pocket. He put one hand on my shoulder and the other on his mother’s, who touched Molly, etc. Rigel was on my other side. As soon as Sean touched me, the cold disappeared, of course. Personally, I thought the omni was beyond awesome, like an iPhone on steroids.
“So, did Sean and Molly have time to tell you about the change of plans?” Mrs. O’Gara loosened her scarf, revealing hair as coppery as her son’s.
“Um… That we might not go to Mars after all?”
“That’s not what we said,” Sean protested. “We’re still going, right, Mum?”
“You lot are, along with your dad. I need to stay here to deal with things at this end. The Council feels that could be important.” Mrs. O’Gara had replaced her brother Allister on the Echtran Council when he was booted off.
I glanced at Sean, confused. “But you said that by summer the other guys will already have all their, um, political machinery in place. It sounded like there wouldn’t be much point in me going.”
“By summer, possibly,” Mr. O’Gara agreed. “That’s why the Council believes the timetable should be moved up. They want you to leave on the very first transport rather than a later one.”
“The summer dates were chosen to interfere with your school year as little as possible.” Mrs. O’Gara spoke briskly now. “But these new developments outweigh that in importance.”
Sure, all of this was way more important than school—I’d realized that a while ago. But it would still cause a lot of questions, both at school and at home, to leave before the semester was over.
“Can two or three weeks really make that much difference?” I knew from my longtime astronomy hobby (with an extra focus on Mars these past few months) that launch windows between Earth and Mars only happened every twenty-six months, and only lasted a month or so.
“You’re thinking of Earth ships.” Mr. O’s smile was almost—but not quite—patronizing. “Ours travel much faster, giving us a longer window of opportunity for launching.”
Oh. I hadn’t studied much about the Martian space program yet, but I should have guessed that, as advanced as they were. “Then when would we leave?”
“The first transport is scheduled to leave around the start of your spring break, three weeks from now.”
“Three weeks?” I practically squeaked. I’d been excited about leaving in three months, but— “That’s…that’s crazy. Isn’t it? I mean, the politics on Mars can’t change that fast, can they?”
Mrs. O’Gara leaned forward and caught my eye, then turned to the others. “I need to discuss a bit of private Council business with Emileia. Would you all mind waiting in the car? It will only take a moment, and then we’ll take you home, Rigel.”
Though Sean and Molly looked surprised and Rigel looked worried, no one argued. Mrs. O waited until they were inside the van with the door closed to put a hand on my shoulder—which I appreciated, since she now had Sean’s omni.
“It’s important for you to know that there’s much more at stake here than mere politics.” Her blue eyes held mine, her voice deadly serious. “None of the others, not even my husband, are aware of the larger issue, but you should be.”
Breathing suddenly became harder. “You mean…the Grentl?” I’d gotten in the habit of never thinking about that race of potentially hostile, super-advanced aliens, since it was such a huge secret I’d promised not to tell even Rigel.
Mrs. O nodded. “A message has come from them—the first since Faxon’s overthrow—and no one on Mars can decipher or respond to it. Our hope—our fervent hope—is that you will be able to do both, as soon as possible. The fates of both Mars and Earth may depend upon it.”
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