We are so thrilled to share this sneak peek into Stars & Steel, the second installment of author Nicole Knapp’s Hook & Crown series! This dive into a grittier Neverland is sure to enthrall readers of the series and new readers entering for the first time alike! Don’t miss out on this exciting fantasy retelling with a twist!
After escaping Neverland, Elena and Will are looking forward to starting over and moving on with their lives, but getting a fresh start is always easier said than done. Boundaries will be pushed, relationships will be tested, and not everyone will make it out alive. How do you stop a villain who does not die?
When it comes to Neverland, everything begins and ends with stars and steel.
Fly back into Neverland in this second installment of Hook and Crown, STARS & STEEL by Nicole Knapp—out next Tuesday, March second. Pre-order your copy NOW!
Elena was not the first student to disappear from the academy. There had been a few before her, mostly girls around Elena’s age but the occasional boy as well. Elena was the first to return, though. The headmaster was not sure where the students were taken. The only thing that the disappearances seemed to have in common were the open windows left behind in their rooms.
When Henry accepted the position as headmaster at the academy, he had been warned that something sinister surrounded the school. Upon his arrival, Henry was instructed to make sure that all windows remained closed “for the protection of the students.” That was the only information he ever received about the situation. Henry practically scoffed at the warnings. He did not believe them; he simply chalked it up to silly superstition. When the first girl under his watch disappeared, no one noticed for almost a week. Her name was Wendy.
As soon as it was brought to his attention, Henry had gotten the authorities involved of course. He was even considered a suspect for some time, but eventually was cleared. Days passed with no trace of Wendy, days then turned into weeks, then into months, but there was no sign of the girl. Guilt tore at the headmaster for years after her disappearance. When it happened again, Henry almost lost it completely. It was a boy that disappeared that time; he was only twelve years old. After the second occurrence, the headmaster became obsessed with preventing the disappearance of any more children from his school.
Henry’s obsession got so bad that he let everything else go. It got to the point that the academy itself began to fall into disarray. The closed windows mixed with London’s damp climate caused the entire building to develop a strange smell, and over the years all the building’s repairs fell to the side as the headmaster’s obsession grew. Henry could sense the scorn of the instructors; he saw the way they looked at him, with a mix of pity and disgust. He lost quite a few wonderful employees because of the state of the building and the missing students. But he could not stop. Henry was very thorough as he researched similar disappearances. A pattern emerged: every three years, a child would disappear from somewhere around the world. Most of the disappearances occurred throughout Europe and the United States, but there were some instances in Australia, New Zealand, China, and Japan. Henry also discovered another similarity: many of the missing children seemed to be orphans or had very few close living relatives.
Of course, there was no way to know for sure if all of the disappearances were related, or what actually became of the children, but Henry certainly had his theories. And then his own niece was the one to go missing, right after her arrival in London. When he attempted to check in on her to see how she was adjusting, he had found only an empty room and an open window and knew immediately what had happened. The headmaster knew this was the year a child would go missing, but he had hoped that his school would be spared this time, though it made him feel awful to think such things.
The headmaster hesitated to get the authorities involved once more, afraid that he would once again be a suspect. He was so tired of answering the same questions and receiving the same scrutiny each time a student went missing. He told himself that no one would even know that she was gone, as he was the only family she had. He knew what a horrible person those thoughts and actions made him. But then Elena reappeared, and Henry was so relieved. She did not show up alone though. Elena brought with her a young man, rugged but still handsome, with a strange accent. The young man, Will, did not seem to fit in, and once again the headmaster had his theories.
Henry should have turned Will out. He should not have allowed him to reside in the school with his niece, but Elena seemed so enamored by Will that Henry could not bring himself to do so. He felt that after his inappropriate thoughts and actions, that he owed it to his niece to allow her young man to stay. He felt that he owed it to her to allow her to find happiness, and Will seemed to make her happy. So, the headmaster bit his tongue about the strange situation, vowing to himself that he would do whatever he could to ensure that Elena lived a happy and safe life.
Because Elena was the first to ever return, Henry suspected that she had escaped from wherever she had been. Henry did not trust that Will would be enough to keep Elena safe. He could not resist offering a cryptic warning upon her reappearance, in the hopes that she would keep her guard up. Because if she did escape, then whoever took her could come for her again. And deep down Henry knew that it was not over.
The he sheets are soaked with sweat when I jolt awake. It’s happened every night since I returned from Neverland. The same thing, night after night, with no reprieve. Nightmares so realistic that I can smell the scorched wood of the burning Jolly Roger, hear the terrible sound of fairies being shredded apart by mermaids, feel the blood on my skin. My blood, Will's, Aiden's. So much blood, hot and sticky, gushing from around the hilt of a dagger and onto my hand.
He appears in my dreams most often. Aiden. I see his green eyes, strangely bright and hypnotic. They draw me in as he smiles at me. Then he tells me he is going to kill me. And that is usually when I wake, soaked in my own sweat, gasping for air. But he can't hurt me anymore; Aiden can't kill me, because he is already dead. I killed him. I shoved a dagger into his heart. I watched the light leave those strange eyes as his life slipped away.
Will says that he does not hold his brother's death against me. He says that it had to be done, that there was no other way, it was either Aiden or me. Will is so good to me, always comforting and reassuring me when I am falling apart, even though he is struggling too. But no matter how loved he makes me feel, I know that he loved his brother too.
What happened in Neverland will likely haunt the both of us forever. How could it not? The events that occurred over those weeks, both good and bad, will be ones we will never be able to forget. One thing I know for sure though: I will never go back there.
The boy paces the short length of his tree house. Outside, lightning cracks across the dark sky. It has not stopped storming since he returned to Neverland. My own fault, he muses. Since he failed to harvest the girl’s youth, his magic has been greatly diminished and what remains is erratic and hard to control. The instability of his magic and emotions could be catastrophic for Neverland.
Thunder booms in the distance, so loud it reverberates in his bones. He must find a way to regain his power, to stabilize it, and he must do so quickly, before it destroys him entirely.
The pirate rolls over and breathes in the scent he has come to love. Lavender and something sweeter. Vanilla, maybe? He could breathe her in forever and never tire of that smell. Her auburn hair is splayed across the pillow, her breathing deep and even. He envies her ability to sleep, even if she does still have the dreadful night terrors that wake her so often.
Will has not slept for more than a few hours in the days since coming to this world. No matter how hard he tries, sleep eludes him. The images burned into his memory are too strong to allow him sleep. Ruby blood, pumping onto the sandy floor of a cave, the black tendrils of malice being cast into a fire, a burning ship in the dark, the woman he loves lying on a stone altar in that same cave. Those images will never stop haunting him.
Elena rolls toward him, her head coming to rest just over his heart. She sighs through her nose before her breathing evens out once more. The pirate wraps his arms around her and pulls her close. He closes his eyes and waits for the nightmares to come so he may chase them away for her.
I wake in the morning to the smell of salt and wind. Despite the nightmares last night, a small smile tugs at my lips. It seems impossible that Will could still smell like the sea. Maybe it is in his blood. I asked him, more than once, if he regrets his decision to leave Neverland. "I do miss the sea, my ship," he told me, "but I would have missed you more had I stayed."
The same response, every time. And every time it melts my heart. But I can see the strain on his handsome face, the dark smudges that seem to be permanent beneath his eyes. I know coming here has taken its toll on him. I know he is not sleeping, and yet night after night, he comforts me when the nightmares tear me from sleep. I wish there were something I could do to help him, but I do not know what.
Will barely leaves my room, well, our room I suppose. He is constantly preoccupied with thoughts of the future, with finding work and providing for himself, and me as well. All of that mixed with adjusting to this world, it has him in a downward spiral. As odd as it may sound considering what we went through in Neverland, things were easier there. We meshed so well together, we got along, we were happy being together. Here, it is all stress and bickering and nightmares.
It has crossed my mind that maybe we should have just stayed in Neverland. Thanks to the way time moved and the island’s magic, we would have stayed young for a long time, and we would have no worries about the future or money or jobs or school. The island would have provided everything we needed. But then I picture the blood pulsing over my hand, I feel it, sticky and hot on my fingers, and those thoughts are chased away in an instant. Often I do wonder what happened to the Lost Children though. Are they alright? Are the fairies caring for them? Surely they are better off now that he is gone…
Will and I do not speak of him often, and when we do, we don’t say his name. It has become a taboo in our relationship. I am not stupid though. I know that his brother haunts his thoughts.
"My uncle wants to have dinner with us tonight," I say, breaking the heavy silence in the room. Standing in the tiny bathroom, I can practically feel Will stiffen in the other room. Dragging a brush through my hair, I turn to lean against the door frame. "You have to get to know him eventually, Will." I know he is not looking forward to it, but my uncle is the only family I have.
"Aye," Will scrubs at his face with both hands. "Can you blame me for putting it off though?"
I cross my arms over my chest, but a smile tugs at my lips. "No, but let's just get it over with."
"As you wish, love," he sighs. His voice is resigned, a deflated version of the rough yet melodic voice I love so much. It is just another sign of his unhappiness. He tries to act and sound normal, like himself. But I know him far too well to fall for the act. He can’t fool me.
To top everything off, my Uncle knows. I do not know how much he knows exactly, or how he could possibly know, but he knows. A couple of days after I got back, Uncle Henry called me into his office as I was walking past.
“Elena,” he began. “Where were you really these past few days?”
I had protested, insisted I hadn’t gone anywhere. He had given me a knowing look.
“I went into your room looking for you,” he said. “The window was open.”
I ducked my head to hide the blush burning in my cheeks.
“I warned you, Elena,” he continued. “Nothing good comes from open windows. They only invite strange people in, and strange people can lead you to strange places.”
I sucked in a breath, unable to conceal my shock. Uncle Henry gave me that same knowing look then pushed his spectacles up his nose.
“Perhaps you learned your lesson,” he said before turning his attention back to the stack of documents on his desk.
Swallowing against the lump in my throat, I nodded and practically ran out of his office.
How could it be possible for Uncle Henry to know about Aiden and Neverland? Was I not the first person to disappear from the school? Has Uncle Henry seen or met Aiden? The wheels in my head began to turn, connecting dots I had not even noticed until now. I had so many questions I wanted to ask, but at the time I could not find my voice, or maybe I was just too scared to hear the answers.
I have only seen my Uncle a handful of times since that encounter, but he has not mentioned my disappearance since, or hinted about any of it, so I acted like nothing happened as well, but the unanswered questions still burn in my mind. It never occurred to me that some of Aiden’s other victims could have come from this school. I suppose I had assumed that Aiden just chose his victims at random. The more I thought about it though, it made sense for Aiden to target the same places. I mean, it’s not like anyone could catch him in Neverland.
Will does not know about any of it; I never told him about the strange conversation with my uncle. I should tell him, but I feel like it would only make him feel more self-conscious around my Uncle and all I want is for the two of them to get along. I’ll tell him, I will, when the time is right…
That evening, hand in hand, Will and I descend the staircase to meet my uncle. We both stop suddenly at the sight of a familiar head of honey colored hair at the bottom. Cash. Guilt tears at my insides and Will's hand tightens around mine. Cash is a large sore spot in our relationship. Understandable, considering that the night Will arrived in my world, I was out with Cash.
As if the tension between Will and I is not bad enough, things with Cash certainly are not wonderful. We have barely spoken two sentences to each other since Will arrived and I told Cash that I could not see him again. And now when we cross paths, he turns away without any acknowledgement of my existence.
The day after Will showed up in my room, a knock at the door woke me. When I opened the door to find Cash standing there with two cups of coffee in his hands and a smile on his face, it made me want to sink through the floor. It was even worse to watch Cash’s smile fade when Will came up behind me, kissed my shoulder and asked, “Who is it, love?”
“Oh,” Cash had said.
And then he turned and walked away, dropping both cups of coffee into a trashcan before turning the corner and disappearing from sight. The smug look on Will’s face when I turned to him only spiked my temper.
“Stop smiling,” I had snapped.
His face had fallen, but he recovered quickly, an angry look taking over his features instead.
“Why does it bother you? The boy clearly wants you; I was only showing him that his efforts are futile.”
“It was unnecessary Will,” I said, brushing past him and walking into the bedroom.
“Do you want him now? Is that it?” he demanded, following behind me.
“Don’t be stupid, you know I only want you,” I said. “But you didn’t need to rub it in his face like that. I was going to tell him that we couldn’t be together, I didn’t need you to do it for me.”
Will was quiet for a moment, his face unreadable. Turning away, I entered the bathroom and began brushing my teeth. When I finished and looked in the mirror, he was standing behind me.
Wrapping his arms around my waist, he met my gaze in the mirror. “I apologize love; I should not have interfered.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” I agreed, though my temper was already fading.
“It just bothered me to see him trying to take what is mine,” he had said softly. Turning in his arms, I wrapped my own around him. “But I am yours, that’s not going to change,” I said, pressing my lips to his.
That was the end of the fight, well, that particular one at least. The tension surrounding the three of us never seemed to fade though, and now, leading Will down the stairs, past Cash and towards my uncle’s office, I can’t stop the burning in my cheeks. I look down at my shoes to hide it from Will. I know he sees it though and it makes me feel even worse. I shouldn’t care about Cash; I shouldn’t worry about how he feels, but I do. My focus should be on Will, on making his adjustment to this world as easy as possible. I do care about all of that, of course, but for some reason I can’t stop from caring about Cash.
When we round the corner, Uncle Henry is already waiting for us outside the door of his office. His hands are in his pockets, and while he wears his usual kind smile, behind the spectacles perched on his nose, there is wariness in his eyes.
"Uncle Henry," I greet him, trying to keep my voice cheerful as I lean up to kiss his cheek.
"Good evening, Elena, William."
The two men exchange a handshake, and with pleasantries aside, we head into the cold night. On our way out the door, I find myself glancing to where Cash was standing, but he is already gone. Something in my stomach tightens.
Will knows that Elena's uncle does not approve of him. He can see it in the man's eyes. But no matter how little the old man thinks of him, it cannot possibly be any worse than what Will thinks of himself. All he wants is to prove to Elena, Henry, and himself that he can be worthy of both respect, and Elena's love. He wants to prove that he is not just a pirate. He wants to prove that he is not uncivilized and plagued by darkness and the thirst for battle.
Then of course, there is the matter of the blond boy, the one Elena was with the night Will arrived in London. He knows that nothing really happened between the two of them, but it does not mean that he and the boy will be friendly anytime in the foreseeable future. As the trio exits the school, Will notices Elena's head turn to where the boy had been standing. The boy is gone now, but as his hand tightens around Elena's, something heavy sinks in his stomach.
Dinner passed without any major issues. Will did wonderfully for someone who spent lifetimes living in Neverland and not in the modern world. Luckily for us, the conversation stayed light and Uncle Henry was great as well. He was polite, well mannered, gracious, and he did not so much as hint at his knowledge of the events surrounding my disappearance, or where Will was really from. Sitting at that table, I realized that Will is not the only one who does not know my uncle very well. As he spoke, telling little stories here and there, it dawned on me that Uncle Henry may be trying to get to know me as much as he is Will.
Back in our room, lying in bed with Will, I can't stop thinking about just how lucky I am to have him, to have someone to love like this. Will feels like home. When I am with him, it feels as though I could be anywhere, in any situation, and still be alright, as long as I am with him.
Rolling to my side, I lay my head on Will's chest. His familiar, strong heartbeat pounds against my cheek. His skin is warm and still somehow smells like the sea. He always smells of salt and wind and smoke, even after he has showered. I soak it all in, the smell, the rhythm of his heart. As my body begins to relax and sleep finally takes me over, it feels as though everything will be ok.
Far away, on an island in the middle of a vast blue sea, a boy with strange green eyes paces. The boy has laid his traps, he has placed his pawns, and he has chosen his players. A wicked, devilish grin spreads across his face. It is time.
At the edge of the room, the fairy hovers in midair, watching the boy pace about, her wings beating lightly behind her. The fairy thinks that even with such a menacing look on his face, the boy is still beautiful.
With his magic fading, the fairy has stepped up and done her part to help Aiden set his trap for the girl and his brother. She has spent each night outside the girl’s window filling her and the pirate’s heads with countless nightmares and images. Aiden’s plan is clever, brilliant even. The fairy is proud to stand by his side.