I almost didn’t make it to the dining hall for the evening meal. My stomach was tied up in knots that I felt keenly with every step I took, and I wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. But I took my duty as the Duchess of Württemberg very seriously and felt that I must be seen with my husband as often as possible.
It was a decision that I regretted almost instantly upon entering the dining hall. As soon as the smells of cooked meat and fish reached my nose, I nearly lost my balance, and would have, if not for the steading arm of my lady-in-waiting at my elbow. I gave her a small smile of thanks, the best that I could summon, and collected myself before walking down the length of the room. Since I was a child, I had become accustomed to being looked upon, which made it easy to disregard the stares that followed me. Only when I approached the head table did I realize that these were not the usual cursory glances.
There sat my husband, the duke, at the head of the table, as was his right. My chair on the other end was empty, of course, though I could not say the same for my husband’s lap. I stood stock-still, taking it in and refusing to let even an ounce of emotion show on my face, even though I longed to drop into a faint or turn and flee. I could do neither. I was not common-born, and I had a responsibility in every moment—even horrid ones such as this—to maintain a certain level of dignity.
“Good evening, my lord husband,” I called out to him when I was confidant I could keep my voice from shaking. I could let neither anger nor shame show, though I felt them both.
He took his time acknowledging me. It shouldn’t have surprised me; Wallace was always content to cause a scene. The woman perched upon his lap, however, had frozen the moment I’d spoken. It was Anne Clover, the maid who handled the chamber pots every morning. She was looking at me, as was every other person in the dining hall, courtier and servant alike. She did not have my gift for hiding her emotions and her shame-stained cheeks were visible to all who cared to look.
Good, I thought, rather meanly. Let her be ashamed. She should be. Yet, Anne Clover mattered little. I knew that. It was my husband who should truly be repentant.
Lazily, he sipped his small ale before turning those piercing gray eyes of his onto me. When he smiled, I dipped my head and curtseyed, though I was acting out of habit as much as out of a need to avert my eyes. His smile had been full of menace, as though he knew he was hurting me and had not the energy to care.
When I’d collected myself once more, I rose and returned his smile with one of my own. “I hope you fare well this evening,” I said, speaking loud enough for the entire hall to hear. I didn’t know what I hoped—perhaps that he would remember himself and shake the servant girl from his lap.
But if anything, his hold on her seemed to tighten, and right in front of me, right before the eyes of the court, he leaned over and kissed her. Anne made a strangled sound, as though her throat was closing up, and perhaps I could have felt sorry for her, if it were any other man’s lap she was perched upon.
I surveyed Wallace with cool eyes that belied the heavy pounding beneath my breast. He was a handsome man, of that there was no doubt. He was tall and muscular from the hours he spent fencing and jousting. His hair, which he kept neatly tied back, was long and the color of straw. His most notable feature was not his long, aristocratic nose, but his dark gray eyes which could pierce you with no more than a glance. I longed to be able to copy his cutting manner, but I knew myself to be hopeless at such imitation, else I would have cut him to the quick right where he sat.
“Will you join us, my lady?” he asked smoothly, as though naught a thing were amiss.
I found myself stuck—I couldn’t let the court know how seriously this slight vexed me, and yet, my feet felt like lead, so heavy that I could not move them even if I wanted to do so. “Is there a shortage of seating?” I asked at last. “Shall I find a chair more suitable for Miss Clover?”
The girl in question flushed scarlet, much to the delight of onlookers who laughed to see her embarrassed so. I myself felt my lips twitch, but I did not give into the smile.
“She is fine right where she is, aren’t you, sweeting?”
The knots in my stomach tightened to hear him coo to her so. When was the last time he’d ever spoken so kindly to me?
“Then I shall take my meal in my rooms,” I replied. “Good night, sir.” I bobbed a quick curtsey and turned to leave when Wallace’s laughter rang out.
“Don’t play the fool, Cecily. Come and take supper with us.”
My spine froze upon hearing how casually he would speak to me, his own wife. Did he have no regard for my station?
“Thank you, no.”
I had taken but one step further when I heard a commotion behind me. I turned my head to see that Wallace had indeed shaken the girl from his lap and was now stepping toward me.
“You will eat where and when I say you shall!” he commanded, his booming voice giving the stunned courtiers plenty to gossip about.
“Perhaps, if your dinner companions were chosen in better taste…” I spoke so that only he could hear, trying not to tremble as his eyes narrowed into slits.
“You’d do better to obey your husband,” he growled, stalking closer still.
Even though he was still a few feet from me, I could smell his breathe, pungent with drink. “You are not yourself, my lord. You do not realize the scene you are—”
“Why in all hells do you concern yourself with what they think?” he bellowed, sweeping an arm out to indicate the courtiers who dined. “I never do.”
“Then perhaps, my lord, you might concern yourself with what I think.” I was doing my very best to keep the emotion out of my voice, but it trembled despite my efforts. It was a hard mask I was trying to wear, and the mounting shame of this moment was making it harder to maintain.
“Why should I?” he sneered, reaching me at last. “If I want a whore upon my lap, then I shall have one. Who are you to tell me I can’t, when you are no better?”
I gasped at the accusation, feeling the beginnings of tears prick my eyes. I did my best to fight them, but I knew it would be a losing battle, just as this one was with Wallace. He was drunk and nothing I said or did would make him recall himself. “I bid you good night,” I whispered thickly before turning on my heel.
I would have run, but for the hand that seized my arm, grasping tightly at my flesh. “You shall take your leave when I say and not a moment before,” he shouted, his face reddening.
Despite all the countless lessons I’d had on courtly bearing, I was losing myself to his drunken rage. “Please, Wallace—”
“Please!” he snapped, shaking me. “Please?! You are not worthy of my attention,” he decreed, snarling. “Get out of my sight before I whip the flesh off your body, inch by inch.” He tossed me to the floor then, in front of everyone, as though I was nothing more than a dog to be discarded at will.
A sob lodged in my throat, but I fought it back. He gave me a vicious, mean smile and then turned his back on me, walking back to the table where every courtier—and Anne Clover, of course—sat with gaping mouths and stunned expressions. Never once did he look back.
My ladies swarmed around me at once each one offering assistance, but I batted them away impatiently, standing to my feet and fleeing the room with as much dignity as I could muster. I did not let the tears come until I was safe inside my chambers and my ladies had been instructed to see that no one disturbed me.
I never could have imagined enduring such abuse as my own husband had just put me through. I hadn’t thought it possible, and yet, it had happened. When the first tears streaked my cheeks they were laced with sorrow and regret, but the ones that followed were hot and full of righteous anger. By the time my tears cleared, I knew just what I had to do. I would ride for home, for Hohenzollern. Upon learning what had happened, my cousin Susanna, the princess, would surely find room for me.
Wallace would be lucky if I ever returned to him, which I would only do if he got down on his hands and knees and crawled like a beggar. The thought filled me with no joy—I did not wish to return to him at all, under any circumstances, though I knew that if he asked, I must. Never again would I let him command me. Never.
I had bid my ladies to return to the hall and take their meal. A few had protested, but I knew it was for nothing but show. I was certain each was eager to be away from me. They must decide what way the duke’s favor was turning, and if they could benefit from it in some way. And if nothing more, they would hear the gossip and be plagued with questions after my health. They would relish it, to be sure. There wasn’t one in my train who cared more for me than she did her own future.
Once upon a time, I would have thought myself lucky to know who I was, to know that I was royal born and would never have to act so, but now I wasn’t so sure. I never would have thought that a husband could treat his wife so cruelly, either. And yet…
I shook the thoughts from my head as I saddled my horse. She’d been a wedding present from the duke, and he’d told me with pride in his voice that he’d named her Fortune, for that was what he’d found when I’d agreed to be his wife. From the moment I set eyes on her, so beautiful with her snow-white coat and so strong, I’d fallen in love. I would have left her for the memories she carried, but I feared that she would fall at the wrath of his hands once he discovered I was gone.
“We’re going home,” I whispered as I took a moment to stroke her neck. “Get us there quickly, Fortune.”
She was an obedient mare, and well trained. She took to the road and even though there was hardly any moonlight to see by, I trusted her to get me where I wanted to be. My mother would know how this should be handled, and I was certain that Susanna would give her leave for me to stay at the castle for a time while I worked this out.
That I would have to go back to Wallace was a certainty, one that made me feel faint. I could hardly get his face out of my mind. It had been nearly purple in his rage as he’d spat those horrible, hateful words: Get out of my sight before I whip the flesh from your body. I had no trouble believing that he meant every word and that he would take pleasure in carrying out his threat. Though I knew I had been nothing but the most devoted, dutiful wife I could be, it mattered not. Wallace ruled our household, and my wellbeing would depend upon his mood.
Yes, I knew that I would have to return. My mother would insist that I forgive him, which as a lady, a royal duchess, I would—but only after he dismissed Anne Clover from court and promised me his unfailing fidelity.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I was surprised when Fortune stopped and I realized that we’d made it safely to Hohenzollern. “Good girl,” I praised her, patting her flank before I gently guided the reins toward the stable. I would see her safely in the stable before I went to Susanna. She would be surprised to see me, to be sure. I had only made it back home once since my marriage to the duke, and she’d known I was coming. But there was nothing to do for it now; I was here already and everything would soon be explained.
At first, the stable seemed empty. I shouldn’t have been surprised—it was time for the evening meal, after all—yet, I was annoyed. Now that I’d dismounted, I realized how hungry and tired I was. I wanted nothing more than to see my horse cared for so that I could seek solace with my mother, and perhaps partake in a bit of supper myself. A movement out of the corner of my eye had me turning my head and when I saw a figure crouching down low, watching me, my irritation grew.
“Are you the stable boy?” I demanded, my voice harsher than I normally would have used, but justified given the circumstances.
“Whatever are you doing on the floor?” I snapped. “Get up, then. There’s work to be done.” I held out the reins, arching a brow when he stood, dusted off his trousers, yet made no move to take them. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
“Forgive me, princess, I don’t mean to—”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” I exclaimed, with an unladylike snort of laughter. “You must be new.”
“What gave me away, my lady?”
“I am not the princess. Any servant worth his salt would know that.” Not that he could be blamed entirely for the slipup. We both had the same thick, dark raven hair. Though mine often spilled in curls down my back, it was held up in pins at the moment. We were of a similar height and build—both with small waists and narrow hips, though Susanna’s chest was more endowed than my own. We also shared smooth skin as white as milk and full, rosebud mouths. Still, for all those shared qualities, no one could deny that Susanna had the bearing of a princess, which added to her beauty in a way that I would never know.
“Forgive me, my lady. And whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
I tilted my head to the side, examining him. My first thought was that he did not speak very much like a servant. Nonetheless, I opened my mouth to answer him when it occurred to me that perhaps it would be better if I did not. If he didn’t know who I was, then perhaps he would not remember seeing me at all when my lord husband began asking questions. Smiling to myself, pleased with my own cleverness, I dismissed his question with a wave of my hand. “Never you mind. Go about your business and leave me to mine.” I’d barely spoken when I felt him move behind me. A sudden chill ran down my spine, and heeding my instincts, I spun around to find him right behind me.
“I would very much like to,” he said in a quiet, steady way that would have been comforting but for his unnatural closeness. “But I’m afraid you’re my business now.”
“I beg your pardon?” I huffed the question, even as my heart began to pick up speed. “Do you forget yourself, sir? Do you forget that you address a lady, one far above your station?”
He did not smile, but a twitching around his lips told me that he would have liked to. “You high-breds are all the same, aren’t you? Always concerned with your own importance. There is more to the world than you know, princess.”
“I already told you—”
The word was spoken softly, but with enough authority to shock me. I took a step back, until I was leaning into my horse. “You do not command here! Why, you are nothing more than a… than a…” I trailed off helplessly, thrown by his calm, by his quiet authority in the face of my anger.
I took a closer look, certain that if I could recognize him, I would recall his master, who would undoubtedly be hearing from me. The man was tall, standing a good head or more above me. He had a full head of copper curls and stubble of the same color marring his cheeks. His lips were lush, the color of ripe berries, and I decided on sight that they were lips unaccustomed to smiling. No, I did not recognize him, not even on a closer look. Though he wore servant’s clothing—trousers and sturdy boots, and a long-sleeve white tunic that opened at the chest—somehow he carried himself in a manner that belied his station.
“I do not know why you are here, but it is not the place for you. It would go better for you if you returned at once.”
I blinked my large, blue eyes in surprise. “Why? Is there danger afoot?” Something in his expression changed when I said her name and I smiled, finally feeling as though I had the upper hand. “Yes, perhaps I shall go fetch her right now, I think she would like to know there are impertinent stable boys in her household.” I turned to go, but I had not gone two steps when I felt his hand close over my arm in a surprisingly strong grip.
“I cannot allow you to do that.”
I whirled on him, irritated with his matter-of-fact tone as well as the fact that he would dare lay hands on me. “Who do you think you are?” I demanded. “How dare you touch me!”
If anything, his grip on me tightened. “I’m afraid I can’t risk you’re leaving. You’re going to have to come with me. Just remember, I did try to warn you.”
“Warn me about what?” I practically spat the words at him, my fury incensed when he did not so much as blink. “Unhand me, you brute!”
“Come along quietly now, or I’m afraid I’ll have to gag you.”
The way he spoke without wavering, the dead-set look in his eyes, told me that he would not hesitate to carry out his threat. Yet, I dug my heels in and yanked with all my might. When I did not find myself released, I took a deep breath, preparing to scream at the top of my lungs and alert anyone nearby to my plight. Before I could, however, I felt his hand come down sharply on my backside. It was only once, but it was swift and hard. I opened my mouth to shout my indignation, but his hand came clamping down over my lips, smothering my outraged cries.
“Do as I say, or it’ll be worse for you,” he promised.
Just then, looking at his stony, unrelenting face, I longed to weep. I knew I was lost—there was nothing I could say or do to stop this stranger from having his way with me. Though I did not trouble to reply, he must have sensed my defeat, because before I knew it I felt his hands around my waist, lifting me back in Fortune’s saddle. Before I could utter a word more, he himself was sitting behind me and urging the mare on with a clap of the reins. It was all I could do to hold back the tears as I turned my head for one last look at the castle. The lights shone, seeming like beacons of hope that I’d been riding toward only moments ago. Now, one by one, they faded away. I could imagine the laughter and dancing that was taking place in the dining hall just now. All of the court would go on with their flirting and feasting, none of them having any idea that I’d been there at all.
Though the sun was out, its rays did nothing to diminish the chill in the air. I shivered, my teeth chattering despite myself. My thighs ached nearly as much as my backside from long hours in the saddle and my eyes grew weary of rows of trees stretching as far as the eye could see for my only view. Yet, I would not—indeed, could not—cry. It would only delight my tormentor and I had no intention of giving him that pleasure.
He was letting me ride alone as he walked along, but that did not make him a man of honor. Indeed, he was a coward who had stolen me away from the only true home I’d ever known. Tears of anger and frustration, of fear and hopelessness, prickled at my eyes, but I shut my eyes tightly against them. I will not, I told myself. I will not cry. It was my mother’s voice I heard; she’d been strict with me and quick to rap my knuckles if I ever forgot my teachings. Practically from the time I left the breast I’d been reared to be the epitome of a lady, as my parents lived at court and expected that I would do the same.
I liked the life of a duchess—pretty dresses, fine rooms, with servants to wait on me and fulfill my every whim. I was ill-suited to hard rides and I longed to make my complaint known, though I doubted it would mean much to the man who held me prisoner. I looked down at him, walking astride the horse while he held the reins. Idly, I wondered if it was to ensure that the horse did not buck or that I did not attempt to escape.
He’d hardly spoken to me since he’d captured me and carried me off like some wild savage, but that suited me fine. If he had the audacity to address me, I might forget my courtly manners altogether. After all, he didn’t deserve courtesy.
“We’ll be stopping to rest soon.” His gruff voice startled me as it broke into my thoughts. “Then we’ll trade places for a while.”
I didn’t demean myself to answer, but I was horrified by what he suggested. He couldn’t mean that I would be forced to walk in the snow… surely not! Yet, I knew without asking that it was exactly what he meant, and that however abhorrent the idea was, it was a fate that I must bear. Oh, how horrified my lady mother would be to see me treated thus! Thinking of her, and the fact that I might never see her again, made the tears that had been threatening ever since my abduction spring forth and a sob worked its way from my throat despite myself.
“Are you unwell?”
I ignored the rough man who dared to address me so, trying to get the horrible thought out of my head. Of course I would see her again. I would escape this horror somehow. I would return to Hohenzollern, to those that loved me. I had to believe it—it was the only hope I had to cling to now.
“I said, are you unwell?” he queried again as he tugged on the reins and halted the horse.
A grim little smile curved my lips. “Frankly, no, not that it’s any concern to you.”
At first, I’d thought he might reply. Indeed, he opened his lips to do so, but in the end he closed them again and continued walking. After a moment, Fortune followed suit. I wished I could feel even the slightest joy at this small victory, but I was too tired, too cold and hungry to feel anything but miserable and frightened.
I’d never given much thought to the fire that was kept burning in my rooms. They were always there, as they should be, and it had never occurred to me to give a moment’s notice to who had performed the task. Right now, I longed for nothing so much as a nice, bright fire to warm myself beside. That, and perhaps my comfortable bed with down blankets piled high as the eye could see.
Instead, I had to content myself with the meager burning of a few twigs that we had managed to uncover from the blanket of snow that surrounded us. I supposed I should have been grateful that my captor had provided that much, but I wasn’t in the mood to feel appreciative. Which was why when he offered me a freshly killed, cleaned dove, I only stared at him.
“Your dinner, my lady,” he said with only the faintest hint of mockery hiding in his deep voice.
I had watched him roast the bird over the fire, yet I was surprised to find it offered to me. “Thank you, no. I don’t eat pheasant.”
“This isn’t pheasant, your ladyship. It is a dove, and you will eat it. Unless, of course, you wish to starve.”
I raised my head to meet his stare, my blue eyes glaring fiercely into his dancing light gray ones. I took the bird out of his hand, steeling myself against the feel of it, and hurled it onto the ground.
I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it was all I could do to keep from flinching. If I’d ever done such a thing in Wallace’s presence, I would have paid for it, and swiftly. But when I chanced to look at my captor, his face was inscrutable, his eyes dancing and merry as always.
“Now you must pick it up and eat it cold,” he said, as though it mattered not one bit to him. Before I could offer a reply, he had walked around to the other trunk in front of the fire and made himself at home. As much as I wished I could pretend otherwise, I was hungry. I couldn’t help but keep darting looks at him, and watching him eat his bird made my stomach growl.
But I couldn’t be made to play fetch like a common dog! I would rather freeze to death than to let him see me obeying his casually issued command. Instead, I glared at him, daring him to meet my eyes, but he kept right on eating as though it meant little whether or not I did as he’d instructed.
I tried to distract myself by thinking of other things. Perhaps I could work on my escape plan. Perhaps I could distract myself with thoughts of my family, who surely must be looking for me by now. My kidnapper had the upper hand now—I was, after all, a lady and one of small stature and build at that. I could not fend off an attack, nor could I outrun him. But one day, when I’d returned to the castle I’d grown up in, he’d pay for the time he’d stolen from me.
Yet, even thoughts of vengeance fled in the wake of my growling stomach. The longer I waited, the colder I knew the meat would be. Casting another hot, hateful glance at my companion, I eased off the log and walked to where I’d thrown the bird. I snatched it from the snow, wincing to see the dirt and grass that had dirtied it. As I marched back to my seat, I caught sight of him looking at me. When I reached the fire, he held out his hand.
“Give it to me,” he said, not unkindly. His voice wasn’t even slightly mocking this time. “I’ll warm it for you.”
Who did he think I was, to need favors from one such as him? I was a royal duchess of Hohenzollern, and I needed help from no one. Glaring at him, I brought the dove to my face and sank my teeth into the cold meat. As I chewed, I lowered the food and glared at him defiantly.
“Very well.” He shrugged and went back to eating. Only then did I notice how much smaller his bird was than mine. For a moment, the briefest of instances, I almost felt remorseful of my treatment of him. It fled with his very next words. “The next time you choose to discard the food I offer you, you will not eat. I am trying to be considerate of your… unusual circumstance and of your hardship, but I am not going to be played for a fool, my lady. You will take what you are given or have nothing, and I shan’t tell you again.”
My cheeks burned with indignation. What right did he have to speak to me so freely? Why, if we were back at the castle… but we weren’t. And no matter how hard I tried to tell myself otherwise, I might never make it back. But I would not be made a peasant, not by this man, or any other!
“You may address me by my proper title, which is Duchess,” I told him, my voice clear and cold. Neither of us spoke again as we went back to eating.
The music swirled around me like a beautiful tapestry of melody and my feet moved obediently in step with my partner.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Lady Cecily?”
I acknowledged the wizened Lord of Archester with the best smile I could manage, stifling a yawn. “Very much so, thank you, my lord.”
“And are you eager to be a wife?” he asked as he twirled me around. “Eager to be a duchess?”
I went through the steps fluidly—I’d been taught to dance nearly before I’d learned to walk—easily disguising my annoyance at the personal question. It wasn’t as though he’d been the only one to hint around the matter, though he was the only one who dared to ask outright. As the cousin to the princess, I already enjoyed a certain amount of special treatment at court. Now that I was to wed a duke, my star would rise and there was bound to be a certain amount of envy and speculation among the other courtiers. Having never met the Duke of Württemberg before—not that such a thing was uncommon—I was a bundle of nerves, not that I intended for anyone to know it.
Yet, the smile the lord gave me suggested that he knew things I was not saying. “You need not fear, my lady. I hear that the duke is quite an honorable man.”
“Indeed, I have been well informed.”
“I met him once, I believe.”
I was so caught off-guard, I nearly missed a step in the dance, but fortunately I caught myself just in time. I’d never spoken to anyone who had met my future husband and I could not deny my curiosity. I looked at my partner, my cheeks flushed from making such a silly gaffe, and hotter still to see the patronizing smile he’d fixed on me.
I won’t ask then, I thought to myself. Better he think me unfeeling than nothing more than a simple maid.
“A very intelligent man.” He offered up the information like half-hearted alms for a starving woman. Though I didn’t meet his gaze again, I devoured the information as though I truly were famished. “He will surely consider himself quite fortunate to gain such a beautiful bride.”
This time, I did slip in my step. When I looked, horrified, at my partner, he was indeed laughing at me. Mercifully, the music stopped just then and I was able to hide my flushed cheeks as I dipped my head and curtseyed.
“Another dance, my lady?”
I was tempted. I wanted to hear any tidbits he might be willing to share, but I was beginning to suspect that he was only amusing himself at my expense. “No, thank you, my lord. I must confess myself to be a bit tired.”
“Very well,” he said agreeably, taking the hand I extended to him and bending over it. “I shall look forward to dancing with you again. Mayhap on your wedding day.” His teeth gleamed as he teased me once more.
“Mayhap,” I agreed half-heartedly, forcing myself to smile as he kissed the back of my hand. I pulled it away a moment before it was courteous to do so, but the Lord of Archester did not seem in the least offended.
After we’d parted I did indeed retire to my room. For now, I was a lady in waiting to my cousin, Susanna, but soon, after I was wed, I would have chambers and ladies of my own. It was a small solace, marrying someone I only knew through others’ stories so that I would inherit a small part of his influence and power. Yet, it was what my parents had always planned for me. I’d known all my life that I would marry—indeed, each dance lesson, my tutelage in the fine arts, was to prepare me for it. There had never been a question of choosing another path. As the only daughter to the Lord and Lady of Sheridan and cousin to the Princess of Hohenzollern, there could be no doubt that I would marry to strengthen the family and secure loyalties for the princess. I was no more than a chess piece in this game—that I’d known from the start—but even so, I had hoped that I might make a suitable match.
I hoped and prayed nearly each waking hour that the duke might be such a match for me. There was no doubt that my mother thought him so—for although it was my duty to marry well, I could not believe she would place me with a man who would do me harm—but I would not be able to get a good night’s rest until I laid eyes on the man in question and saw for myself what type of man he was. Would he be loving and kind, as I so hoped? Would he find me beautiful, as the Lord of Archester had suggested? Or would he think me plain and set his eyes on a more desirable lady? The thought made my stomach turn. I shut my eyes against the pain and wished that Susanna were back from the evening meal so that we might play a game of cards to take my mind off things. Unfortunately, she and the rest of her ladies were out, leaving me to the lonely chambers and my anxious heart.
There’s nothing to be done for it, I told myself as I sat up in the bed, determined to put my fear aside. No good would come from dwelling on something I could not change.
At that moment, the door opened and a pair of the princess’s ladies poured in, all whispers and giggles. They halted when they saw me, but couldn’t quite hide their smirks behind their hands.
“Jane, Mary,” I greeted each of them in turn with as much warmth as I could manage. I had nothing against the girls, aside from the fact that they were vain and silly.
“Your Grace,” the one called Jane giggled, giving an exaggerated curtsey.
“Not quite yet, I’m afraid,” I remarked with a tight smile.
“What are you doing up here all alone?” Mary asked. “Thinking of the Duke of Württemberg?”
I knew she was teasing. I knew that neither of them meant any harm, and yet, even though I smiled, I felt that I would be sick any moment with the looming uncertainty.
A sudden lurching in my stomach brought me out of my thoughts. Doubled-over at the waist, I retched for what had to have been the fourth time in the last hour. Not that I could keep track of time—who could in this mess of swirling snow that blinded one past the point of seeing? I was cold, weak, and miserable, though I refused to say so.
“Are you unwell?”
The gruff voice startled me, though I carefully kept my expression blank. Nor did I give him the scathing reply that readily supplied itself—surely he could hear for himself that I was anything but well.
“You did not eat much,” he commented when I did not reply. “Perhaps you have an empty stomach.”
“It was probably the damned bird you fed me,” I snapped.
He arched his dark brows, clearly unimpressed with my slip in decorum. With the acrid taste in my mouth, I couldn’t trouble myself to care about his opinion.
“As soon as we are able, we will stop and you can rest.”
I wiped my mouth and regarded him with narrowed eyes. “Oh, please, you needn’t trouble yourself on my account.”
He made no reply, only yanked the reins to keep the horse moving. My stomach settled long enough for me to doze in the saddle, rocked to sleep by the steady motion combined with my bone-weariness. When we halted suddenly, my eyes snapped open and my body tensed, preparing to face danger. Much to my surprise, I saw that we were in front of a small tavern. True to his word, the man who’d made me his prisoner had stopped, seemingly at the first opportunity.
“I cannot sleep here,” I announced, since I could not bring myself to thank him.
“Then do not sleep,” he said, as if it mattered to him not at all. “But you need to rest, as do I. We shall take shelter for the night. A hot meal will do you good, I think.”
“I will not share a room with you, and certainly not your bed,” I continued peevishly. I was not a bit happy about the situation and I was determined that he should never forget it, not even for a moment.
“As you wish, princess.”
I rankled at his words. “I am not the princess.”
“I see. Then what right do you have to think so highly of yourself?”
My lips parted to make a reply, but I found that I could not speak. No one had ever dared speak to me so openly before! Why, who did he think he was? The one in control, of course, which meant that no matter how gently he spoke, nor what considerations he offered, I would never be able to do more than loath the very sight of him.
“Come,” he said before swinging me from the saddle as though I were no more than a common servant. “Let’s get inside before you worsen.”
As though he had a care for my health! If he had, he wouldn’t have secreted me away from the castle, stolen right out from under my family’s noses! They would be in such a dither when they discovered me missing!
I walked reluctantly beside him until we’d reached the inn. The woman at the front looked at us without interest when my jailer asked for a room.
“Two, please,” I interrupted, my voice sweet as morning wine. “It would be improper otherwise, you see. He is not my husband.”
Suddenly, the woman’s interest was piqued and she gave my captor a suspicious, eagle-eyed look that would have made a number of men squirm. Anyone, save the one that had abducted me. He only stared back at me with his infuriating calm.
“What’s that you say, miss?” the innkeeper queried. “The lad isn’t your husband?”
“No! My husband is the Duke of Württemberg, and this man,” I jabbed an accusing finger in the direction of my captor, “has been holding me against my will!”
The innkeeper’s brow furrowed as she looked with notable concern from my face to his. “Well, what have you to say for yourself?”
“Please, my lady, this woman is—”
“Don’t be trying to sweet-talk me now, lad! I know your kind! Yes, indeed! You best be out with the truth!” She came around to stand beside me, crossing her arms across her considerable chest. Her nearness gave me a boost of security that I hadn’t felt since this entire ordeal had begun.
“Please, madam, I assure you—”
“What’s this, now?”
I turned my head at the sound of a new voice and saw a tall, robust man making his way toward us. His dark hair was lined with silver and his eyes were dark as obsidian.
“What’s the fuss about, wife?” he demanded of the innkeeper.
“George, to hear this young lady tell it, she’s been kidnapped by this man here who’s keeping her from her husband!”
I felt nearly weak with relief at her coming to my rescue. Finally, finally, I could get back to Hohenzollern. I could nearly feel it within my grasp.
Her husband turned to my abductor, his face as angry as a storm cloud. “What kind of man does such a thing?” he demanded.
“I would never harm a lady,” my captor told him smoothly. “And certainly not a single hair on this one’s fair head. Truly, sir, this is my wife. She took a spill from her horse not a fortnight ago and has been speaking nonsense ever since. In fact, we’re riding to see the doctor now.”
I’d begun shaking my head long before he was finished speaking, but I could see that the innkeeper’s husband seemed inclined to believe the tale. “No, I’ve known how to ride since I was a babe, I’ve never fallen—”
“A lass who’s never fallen?” he chucked to himself. “Well, now. There’s something you don’t see every day.”
“My father had me tutored in riding right along with the squires!” I protested, missing the glances the man and his wife exchanged. “Why, it is not uncommon for a well-bred woman to know how to ride! The princess herself has never fallen!”
“You can see for yourself what I mean,” my captor interjected softly, ignoring the daggers I glared at him. “She’s a sweet woman, I swear it, but a bit… daft at the moment.”
“I am not!” I spat at him, stomping my foot. “It’s true!” I turned to the innkeeper, reaching for her with pleading hands and feeling my hope begin to fade as she backed away, as though my touch would burn her. “Please, you have to listen to me! My name is Cecily, the Duchess of Württemberg! Write to my husband, and he’ll come for me. Please, all you have to do is write to him!”
“She is overtired,” he said, while turning to me with a pitying smile. “Of course, Duchess, we’ll do as you ask at once.”
I flew at him then, my hands reaching for his face. I’d never struck another person in all my life, but if he hadn’t captured my hands just then, I would have dug my fingernails into the flesh of his cheeks with pleasure and made him bleed.
“I’ve seen enough,” the innkeeper’s husband announced, his voice gruff. “Take your wife to bed and be sure to keep her in line while you lodge with us.”
“Thank you for your kind understanding, sir.”
“He’s lying!” I cried, feeling tears well in my eyes. “He’s lying, I swear it! If you’ll only write to the duke, tell him that I am here…. please.”
“Come along now, sweeting,” my abductor said, pulling me along. No matter how hard I dug my heels in, it did nothing to slow him down.
“Let me go!” I spat at him. “I won’t tolerate this for another second! I—”
“Stop it,” he hissed in my ear as he continued to lead me to a room. It was the first time that he’d spoken to me in such a hard voice, and for a moment it did send me into silence. “I will not force myself on you, if that’s what you fear. If I’d wanted to take you, I would have done so without paying for the pleasure.” He gestured to the inn.
For some reason, the way that he’d said it, the way he insinuated that he didn’t find me desirable rankled me even more. “If you want me to stop, take me home! I’m not going to stay here and let you have your way with me!”
“You’re causing people to stare,” he told me in a clipped voice that was laced with warning.
Proper ladies did not raise their voices and they certainly did not cause a scandal, but I was beyond the rules of gentility now. Let them stare—let him be embarrassed. Perhaps it would be enough to get me my freedom. “I will not be forced to—”
He was much taller than me, a head at least, and he had a large, muscled form. He had no problem picking me up and hoisting me over his shoulder, carrying me as though I weighed no more than a barrel of hay. People were indeed staring then, not that he seemed to notice.
“Put me down!” I demanded, battering him with my balled fists and kicking feet. That, too, he ignored, walking toward what I presumed was the room he’d paid for. Still, I was determined not to give up. “At once, you brute!” I shrieked.
He did not heed my words until we were safely inside the room and he’d closed the door behind him. When he set me down, it was not very gently, and I glared up at him from the floor. “I understand that you are not happy to be here,” he said, returning my angry stare. “Nor am I pleased to be saddled with such a spoilt little girl. I suggest we both do our best with the situation at hand.”
“If you’re so unhappy with me, then take me home!”
“I also suggest that you start behaving like the royalty you claim to be,” he continued in the same measured tone, as though I’d never spoken. “Or I shall see you soundly thrashed.”
I glowered, making my hatred for him plain. If my eyes could have pierced him, he would have bled to death then and there. How dare he threaten me?
My abductor met my stare, as calm as ever in the face of my wrath. At that moment, he bent his hulking frame over me, and I couldn’t help but take notice of how big and broad his shoulders were. They looked accustomed to hard labor, and if his easy handling of me earlier was any indication, all of him was probably hard and muscled beneath his tunic. A single copper curl fell over his eye, which he brushed away impatiently.
“Do you understand?”
A little gasp escaped my lips. First, he had the gall to threaten me, but now I must show acquiescence of my situation, like a chastened child? I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t!
Yet, the stern warning in his eyes was enough to temper my anger. I had no true choice here, royalty or not. I had to go along with whatever he wished, regardless of how terrible I might find it. When I was returned home, when he was captured, he would be punished for his crimes, but until then I was subject to his will. And his large, heavy hands told me that he would have no problem carrying out what he’d promised.
His features were hard with determination—his chiseled jaw clenched as he waited for my answer. I knew that if I pushed him, he would deliver on that threat and more, so as much as it pained me, I bowed my head. Though I refused to speak, he must have decided that he’d humiliated me enough for the moment. He straightened and gave me a nod.
“Very well then.” After he’d spoken, he offered me a hand to help me from the floor, and I forced myself to accept it without flinching.