The Dragon Choker
A Cracked Slipper Novel, Book 2
fantasy series · fairy tales · strong female lead · mythology & folk tales
"There are times when you find a book - or a series - that you can't put down. The Cracked Slipper series is just that. The Dragon Choker, the second book in the series, is as gripping and beautiful as the first." —★★★★★ Reader Review
Eleanor Brice Desmarais, she of the cracked glass slipper and unladylike intellectual propensities, has learned that happily-ever-after is as rare as a frozen dragon, even for a happenstance princess. She survived a plot against her life, but her marriage to the alcoholic, womanizing Prince Gregory of Cartheigh remains at best a sham, and at worse, a potential noose around her neck. Gregory is increasingly suspicious of Eleanor’s unusually close relationship with his best friend, Dorian Finley, and with good reason. Ironically, Gregory seems to be engaged in his own scandalous love affair— with Eleanor’s scheming stepsister, no less. Eleanor understands the harsh realities of women’s lives in her kingdom, so she turns her energies to a school for impoverished girls, until an evil magician’s deception destroys the school and unleashes a festering plague. From the Fire-iron walls of Eclatant Palace to the slums of Meggett Fringe, no one, magical or mundane, is safe from the fever-induced delirium of the Great Burning. Not even Eleanor’s children.
As Eleanor’s happily-ever-after morphs from circumspect to heartbreaking to mortally dangerous, for both herself and Dorian, she faces her greatest losses and her harshest reckoning. No matter what life hands her, however, she finds the strength to do what she must. She stares down her challenges, protects her loved ones, and fights to change the world. Just like women everywhere, in her world, and ours.
— scroll down to read book sample —
"This is the second book in The Cracked Slipper series (retelling of cinderella) and I wasn't disappointed at all. This was a fantastic sequel to The Cracked Slipper." —NetGalley Reviewer
"...another great entry in the series..." —NetGalley Reviewer
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie embraced full-time motherhood after the birth of the first of her three children in 2003. Her family put down permanent southern roots in Charleston in 2011. She published her first novel, The Cracked Slipper, in February 2012. The first printing of the series sold over 40,000 copies. Stephanie has appeared on local and national media, been a contributor on many writing blogs and in writing magazines, and regularly joins with book clubs for discussions of her work.
Stephanie Alexander grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Drawing, writing stories, and harassing her parents for a pony consumed much of her childhood. After graduating from high school in 1995 she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications from the College of Charleston, South Carolina. She returned to Washington, DC, where she followed a long-time fascination with sociopolitical structures and women's issues to a Master of Arts in Sociology from the American University. She spent several years as a Policy Associate at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a think-tank focused on women's health and economic advancement.
In addition to her personal writing, Stephanie returned to the College of Charleston as an Adjunct Professor of Sociology, and launched her freelance ghostwriting and editing business, Wordarcher, LLC. She has ghostwritten dozens of books, from novels to memoirs to academic theses. Beginning in the Fall of 2015, as a single working mother, she attended law school on a full academic scholarship, earning her juris doctor with honors from the Charleston School of Law in December, 2017.
She currently practices family law in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, the Charleston suburb that is the setting of her latest novel, Charleston Green. Her personal experience rebuilding her life after divorce inspires both her legal work and her fiction. She published the second edition of The Cracked Slipper and its sequel, The Dragon Choker, in early 2020. The series is now complete with the release of final book in the series, The Glass Rainbow, in April 2020.
Her award-winning first Southern fiction novel, Charleston Green was released in April 2020 and is the 2020 Readers' Favorite Book Awards Silver Medalist for Paranormal Fiction.
Stephanie and her husband live in the Charleston area with their blended family of five children and their two miniature dachshunds, Trinket and Tipsy. She is represented by Stefanie Lieberman of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, New York, NY.
SAMPLE FROM THE DRAGON CHOKER
Chapter 1: Come What May
Eleanor Brice Desmarais did not often pass an afternoon mucking out stalls. She had no aversion to hard work. Eight years of living under her stepmother’s roof as the maid in her father’s house had left her accustomed to the aches that came along with a vigorous day’s labor, but all that was nearly two years behind her. It was hardly becoming for the wife of the Crown Prince of Cartheigh to haul hay bales and wield a shovel, even if her hauling and shoveling benefited not a mere cow or horse, but a unicorn.
The unicorn in question peered into the stall. Her white mane fell over the edge of the half door leading to the paddock. “This is unnecessary,” Teardrop said. “Let me call the groom.”
Eleanor shook her head. The grooms had lingered, embarrassed and confused, until she snapped at them to take their leave. Her own rudeness irritated her. As one who had spent much of her life in servant’s shoes, she always treated the help with respect.
“I agree with Teardrop,” said her parrot, Chou Chou, from his perch above her head in the rafters. “It’s frightfully warm. You might expire.”
“Hush, Chou,” said Eleanor. “I’d rather be out here in pants than inside in a petticoat and corset.”
“Why don’t we take a ride?” asked Teardrop. “We could visit the beach at Porcupine Bay.”
“No,” said Eleanor. The thought of Porcupine Bay brought memories of his pale eyes reflecting the sky. She attacked the hay with her pitchfork.
Three festive weeks had passed in the resort town of Solsea, full of the usual summer diversions: parties, tournaments, picnics, hunts. At every event Eleanor stood beside her husband, Prince Gregory, smiling and laughing and dying inside. Only her newborn daughter, Leticia, brought her any real happiness.
Leticia was over two months old. Two months since she was accused of the theft of an enchanted national treasure and her husband abandoned her. Since she’d exposed Ezra Oliver, the king’s chief magician, as the true culprit, and sent him into magical oblivion.
Two months since Dorian Finley had sworn he would find a way to love her.
Eleanor knew one false move on her part or Dorian’s would send them both to the scaffold. Gregory was the heir to the throne, the keeper of the Great Bond. The living legacy of three hundred years of good fortune wrought by a mystical synergy between unicorns, dragons, and the Desmarais family. He would hardly suffer an affair between his wife and his best friend. Eleanor and Dorian had not spoken more than pleasantries since their last night together during her exile at Rabbit’s Rest Lodge.
The misery of their separation in plain sight finally drove her to the physical exertion of cleaning the unicorn barn. An ocean breeze drifted over the cliffside and across the rolling grounds of the royal compound, Trill Castle, but it stopped short against the walls of Willowswatch Cottage. The modest moniker belied the mansion’s heft. Its Fire-iron and granite walls blocked any hint of moving air that might have found its way to her sweaty forehead. The unicorn barn, with its stone façade and dazzlingly white interior, was cheery, but a stable is a stable. Wide un-paned windows let in both sunlight and flies, the latter of which buzzed around Eleanor’s face. Heat bore down on her from all sides. She ignored the headache pounding behind her eyes. She’d barely managed a full meal a day the past few weeks.
She brushed a few strands of damp blonde hair behind her ears. Sweat dripped down her face, and she wiped it away with the tears that snuck out of her mismatched eyes. One blue, one brown, both stinging with cooped-up frustration. At least the perspiration provided a disguise, let the tears flow without suspicion.
“What in the name of holy HighGod is this?”
Eleanor straightened, only to be confronted by both sources of her misery. Gregory and Dorian, in their riding clothes, stood in the barn’s entrance. Gregory walked to her, but Dorian stayed framed in the passageway.
“Sweetheart,” continued Gregory. “What are you doing? Let me call a groom.”
“We tried to convince her, sire.” Chou Chou flew down from the rafters and lit on the handle of her pitchfork. As he flapped around in an attempt to maintain his balance, a few red and blue feathers floated down amidst the hay. “Talk some sense into her before we have to call a witch to revive her.”
Eleanor wiped at her face again and forced a smile for the millionth time since her return from Rabbit’s Rest. “I don’t mind. The exertion will help me fit into my dresses again.”
“Hardly. I think you slighter than ever before. Don’t disappear on me. I need something to hold onto.” Gregory ran a hand down her arm and her skin crawled.
She glanced at Dorian, but he was examining a stirrup. He turned it over in his hands, and the silvery Fire-iron threw reflections of sunlight against the walls in jolly rainbows. Eleanor wished he would look at her.
“Where are you boys going?” she asked, turning back to the hay.
“Just taking Vigor and Senné for a ride down to Porcupine Bay.” Porcupine Bay, again. The hay crinkled and crackled as Eleanor flung it about Teardrop’s stall.
Dorian finally spoke. “Would you and Teardrop join us?”
“I must return to Ticia.” Eleanor probably would not have joined them anyway, but her breasts ached after two hours away from her daughter.
Gregory scowled, and a line appeared between his light brown eyes. “Again? What about the wet nurse?”
Dorian opened Senné’s stall door. He eased the black stallion’s silver horn aside and disappeared inside.
“Gregory,” Eleanor said. “I can’t stay away from her all day.”
“Hasn’t this gone on long enough?”
She swallowed her pride and sidled up to him. “Oh, stop. Don’t you want me to come along to the Harper’s dinner tonight?” She touched his cheek.
To her surprise he grabbed her around the waist. He spoke in her ear again. “I want you to enjoy yourself. Have a few glasses of wine. Relax.”
She knew exactly what he meant. As she whispered her reply, she caught Dorian watching them over Senné’s stall door. “You know I have to see a witch first, husband. The birth—I need to know all is healed.”
“Well call one. Soon.” It was a command, not a request. He kissed her nose and strode into Vigor’s stall.
Vigor and Gregory followed Dorian and Senné into the courtyard. The grooms rushed around them, handing off bits of tack and hoof picks, happy to be allowed to do their duties. Senné and Vigor stood beside each other, black and white, like two giant chess pieces.
“Enjoy the ride,” said Eleanor, as Dorian swung into the saddle.
“We’ll miss you, and Teardrop,” he replied. She cringed at the distance in his voice. He could have been speaking to his butler.
Gregory kissed her again. This time she felt the flick of his tongue. He mounted and she held Vigor’s bridle. The unicorn nuzzled her with his velvety lips. She stroked his nose and squinted up at Gregory.
“Dorian and I have been called to Point-of-Rocks to meet with the Ports Minister,” he said. “There’s a shipment of raw Fire-iron coming down from the Mines. A big one.”
“Bigger than usual?”
“Early summer yields are always good. The dragons burn hot in the spring months. Mating season,” he said with a laugh. Eleanor ignored the reference to mating and attributed his mirth to the thought of copious amounts of money. Fire-iron, the light, wondrously versatile result of a dragon’s body heat and fiery breath, was the lifeblood of her country.
“We leave the day after tomorrow.”
“How long will you be gone?”
“Oh, nine, maybe ten days.”
Eleanor’s heart sank. It must have shown on her face, because Dorian teased her. “Don’t be glum, Eleanor. With Gregory gone you can hole up with Ticia all day and night if you choose.”
She tried to join him in their old banter. “I hope the Ports Minister has stored up on whiskey and wine if he’s to entertain you two for ten days.” It was a sorry attempt, but Gregory didn’t seem to notice. He grinned.
“Don’t worry, Dorian will bring me back to you with my brains intact.” He leaned down. “Now go send for that witch. I don’t want to wait another two weeks.”
She watched them go, across the grounds toward the steep path leading from Neckbreak Cottage to Porcupine Bay. Gregory didn’t look back, but Dorian did, although he didn’t wave or smile. Eleanor felt warm breath on her neck and rested a hand on Teardrop’s silky neck. Chou Chou lit on her shoulder. Neither spoke, but their silent understanding comforted her. She kept her face from crumpling. When Dorian and Gregory disappeared she walked up the stone path to Willowswatch to attend her daughter.
The next evening Eleanor sat on a blanket on the south lawn with her beloved stepsister, Margaret. They passed Eleanor’s daughter and a basket of grapes between them. Ticia smiled and cooed and enjoyed the attention. Eleanor missed the company of her other dear friends, Anne Iris and Eliza, but with Anne Iris recently married and pregnant (under speculation that the two had not necessarily happened in that order), and Eliza busy with her second baby, neither had made the trip to Solsea this year.
“I wonder how Anne Iris is getting on,” said Margaret, as if reading Eleanor’s mind.
“I wonder how her husband is getting on.”
“True,” said Margaret. She ran a hand over her kinky brown hair, made kinkier by the summer humidity. “Perhaps pregnancy will distract Anne Iris from flirtation.”
“Doubtful. She’ll have more cleavage to flaunt than ever.”
“Poor man, he’ll be a jilted husband before he even has a chance to be a jilted father.”
They laughed, and Eleanor felt a prick at the reference to jilted husbands. She’d enjoyed a brief respite from guilt in the weeks following her return to Eclatant, but lately her conscience had been hanging on her skirt like an insistent child. Although she had been a jilted wife for the entire duration of her marriage, she couldn’t fully embrace her husband’s comfort with deceit.
Gregory, Dorian, and Raoul Delano crossed the lawn. Raoul sat on the blanket beside Margaret and kissed her cheek. A blush lit Margaret’s face, and Eleanor marveled at her friend’s happy beauty. She only wished her stepmother could see it. How Mother Imogene thinks her homely I’ll never know.
Gregory pulled Eleanor to her feet and took Ticia. He held the baby high in the air and blew on her belly. He snuffled at the fat rolls around her neck and she tried to suck on his chin. Eleanor laughed. Gregory’s love for their daughter always elicited a genuine reaction from her. He rested the baby on his shoulder. She seemed no larger than a kitten against his broad chest. His auburn hair melted into the fuzz of the exact same shade on her head.
“Did you find a witch?” he whispered.
“I did, but she cannot come until Friday.”
Gregory exhaled, hard. “Well, we can both think on it while I’m away.” He spoke to Dorian. “I’ll need something to distract me from my loneliness.”
“You can drink alone,” said Dorian. “You’ve done it before.”
“Alone?” asked Eleanor.
“Dorian’s sister changed the dates of her visit. She’s arriving tomorrow with her family.”
Dorian looked out over the cliffs. He pulled a flask of whiskey from his pocket and took a long drink. “Gregory generously gave me leave to remain at Trill with Anne Clara and Ransom and the children.”
Eleanor feared her voice would shake, so she waited a moment to speak. “How kind of you, Gregory.”
“Ah, Dorian only sees Anne Clara a few times a year. It was the least I could do for keeping him locked in the Council Room at Eclatant.” Gregory gave Ticia to Eleanor and sat on the blanket.
Eleanor smiled casually at Dorian. “Are you anxious to see Anne Clara?”
“I am.” His eyes, so light they were at once the color of the grass and the water and the washed out sky, were fixed on the Shallow Sea.
Eleanor strained for some hint, for some acknowledgement from him. He sat on the blanket beside Gregory. He tapped his fingers on the hilt of his father’s Fire-iron knife, the one he always kept in a sheath along his right boot. As she looked down at his dark hair a terrible thought struck her. Dorian had changed his mind.
Gregory left the next morning with several Unicorn Guards. Anne Clara and her family arrived a few hours later. Eleanor drifted through the next two days in a fog of false happiness. She planned picnics and tea parties. She took a long nap with Ticia. She spent a floury afternoon in the kitchen making cakes with Anne Clara’s children.
One of the Finley cousins hosted a dinner in honor of Anne Clara’s visit, and Eleanor took an hour determining which of her gowns Dorian would find most enticing. Her choice, soft blue silk with lace trim around the bodice, emphasized her nursing-enhanced cleavage. She hovered beside Dorian throughout the party, hoping he’d ask her for a dance. She had watched with disdain for two years as countless other women desperately maneuvered around him. Her efforts were just as soundly ignored. She called for her carriage before the clockworks struck ten. Raoul and Margaret accompanied her back to Trill. She rested her head against the rocking window and closed her eyes; both to give Raoul and Margaret privacy and to avoid the passionate looks flickering between them.
On the third morning of Gregory’s absence she made her way to the unicorn barn again. The grooms must have assumed her unsatisfied with their supervision of her mare’s care. She could hardly detect an errant piece of straw, and could see her own reflection in the Fire-iron trough of clean water. She sat down in the scratchy straw with the pitchfork over her lap. Chou Chou and Teardrop refused to leave her alone.
“The weather is fine, is it not?” asked Chou.
“Lovely,” said Teardrop. “Though I do feel thunder on the horizon.”
Eleanor opened her mouth to reply; then shut it. She dropped the pitchfork and hung her head between her knees. Her stomach clenched as she held back the sobs that had been hopping around her mid-section for three days, searching for a way out. Teardrop snorted. She nibbled at Eleanor’s hair and her wide hooves rustled the straw. Her mane rested on Eleanor’s back like a comforting blanket on a cold night. Chou lit on Eleanor’s head.
“There, there, darling,” whispered Chou. “Please, don’t—”
She lifted her head. Dorian looked down at her over the stall door. She wiped her eyes and stood. Chou left her head for Teardrop’s back.
“We could ride down to Porcupine Bay,” Dorian said.
A few wordless minutes later and Eleanor and Teardrop were following Dorian and Senné across the grounds. They passed Margaret and Raoul as they set up a game of lawn bolls.
“Off to Porcupine Bay?” asked Raoul.
Eleanor nodded. “If only you could join us.”
“If only we had unicorns we might,” said Margaret. “I don’t fancy hiking down that cliff in my dancing slippers.”
Dorian and Eleanor waved goodbye and continued on their silent way. Eleanor did not fear the incline. She only feared what Dorian might have to say when they reached the beach. She ignored the breathtaking view around her, and the chattering of the cliff lemurs. As they descended, the wind picked up and blew the smell of salty water and damp seaweed into her face. She imagined his explanations: the danger, the immorality of lying to Gregory, the pointlessness of continuing an affair with no hope of ever being anything but just that. She heard herself trying to rationalize with him, and then screaming and crying then agreeing with the hopelessness of it all. Her imaginary dialogue so engaged her that she lost her balance when Teardrop stopped behind Senné at the edge of the blood-colored waters of Redwine Falls.
“Let’s go this way.” Dorian pointed past the falls and back up the cliffside. She nodded. As they began the ascent Eleanor took hold of Teardrop’s mane. She could see the falls behind them, but the path had already faded to nothing but a jagged edge along the rock. There was no beach below, only boulders reaching their scarred faces out of the tossing waves like drowning sailors gasping for air. She waved at the gulls screeching and hissing around her head. Teardrop nicked one with a swing of her horn and they retreated.
“They’re protecting their nests,” shouted Dorian over the wind, waves, and protesting birds.
She looked down, her face blanching with dizziness, and counted no less than ten twiggy brown nests full of fat yellow eggs in the rocks around Teardrop’s hooves.
“Teardrop, are you sure you can do this?” she asked.
“No,” said Teardrop, “but I will try.”
Eleanor gritted her teeth. “I’ll leave you to it.”
They climbed for half an hour. Teardrop slipped twice and dislodged several loose rocks. With each jolt Eleanor shut her eyes and muttered prayers.
Senné stopped and waited for Teardrop to catch up. Dorian pointed out a long, dark patch in the blue water. “There’s a reef out there. No ships can get within half a mile, not even the villager’s fishing boats.”
Teardrop’s footing improved with each step. Eleanor relaxed and watched the sea. She wondered how many living beings, other than the gulls and a few bats, had ever taken in the view.
She faced forward again and her heart stopped. Dorian and Senné had disappeared. She looked down, searching for Senné’s black form against the gray rock.
“Do not fear,” said Teardrop. “Here we are.”
Eleanor slid from Teardrop’s back. The mare ducked into what at first seemed nothing more than extra darkness amidst a host of cast shadows. Eleanor could just make out the flash of Senné’s horn and the light in his liquid eyes. Teardrop walked the three paces across the cave and stood beside him. He puffed in her ears and she nipped his shoulder. Both settled into quiet watchfulness. Teardrop glowed softly white against Senné’s black bulk.
As Eleanor walked further into the cavern she could see her hands again. She turned toward the light, and climbed through another opening in the rock. She wondered how Dorian, with his height and breadth of shoulders, had contorted himself to fit.
He stood in a chamber made from a space between the cliff wall and a pile of boulders a hand span above his head. Sunlight streamed through the haphazard cracks between the rocks and struck the hardpacked dirt floor.
“I thought this place…we could come here…”
Eleanor threw her arms around his neck. His mouth found hers and they both tumbled to the ground.