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The Unwilling Bride by D.W. Collins – Sample

The Unwilling Bride by D.W. Collins (Post 200x300)Chapter One

Lady Anivia studied the sheet of music carefully as her fingers glided across her golden flute’s long row of holes. Her tutor had given her the new melody at her last lesson, and she wanted to master it before the music mistress came again. The complex tune was proving to be a challenge, but she refused to let it defeat her. The king and queen would be pleased to see how much her musical skills were improving. The instrument emitted a harsh squawk when one of the young woman’s fingers covered the wrong hole.

“It sounds like you are trying to call a duck,” Alice said.

Anivia smiled good naturedly at her personal maid. The girl had walked up behind the young lady-in-waiting without her presence being known. She knew that her mistress would not take offense at the playful comment. Lady Anivia always treated her servants kindly.

“You are right. I am going to need more time to get my fingers untangled.” Anivia laid the instrument across her lap. “I may need more time to get this piece ready for the music mistress.” She looked directly into Alice’s blue eyes. “What did you want?”

“Her Majesty told me to fetch you. She will be waiting for you in her private garden.”

Anivia got to her feet and hurried toward the king and queen’s royal garden. The fresh-faced, young lady-in-waiting was anxious to hear what her mistress might have to say. Queen Stephanie’s back was turned toward the garden’s narrow entrance when Anivia arrived. The girl announced her presence and curtsied deeply. The queen turned, touched the maiden’s cheek, and gestured for her to stand.

“Thank you for coming so quickly. The king and I were discussing you this morning, and I have some wonderful news,” the queen said. “Crown Prince Marius, the eldest son of our closest ally, is ready to marry, and his parents have agreed to accept you in marriage to him. The service will be in two weeks.”

Anivia was stunned. “Your Majesty, I hardly know this man. I have not spent any time with him; we have never even shared a dance.”

“Have you forgotten that he sat next to you at the last state dinner? I hoped the two of you would get acquainted then.”

“I remember that he ignored me and spent most of his time talking to General Eldwin. He found military matters far more interesting than me. I had no idea why you placed me next to him.”

Queen Stephanie smiled and patted Anivia’s hand. “I confess that I wanted the two of you to meet. I had no idea that the crown prince would be ready to choose a wife so soon, but I am so happy that he is and that he is choosing you.”

Anivia’s face flushed. “Do you really expect me to marry a man I do not love? I have other things I want to do first.”

“Calm yourself dear,” the queen said as she tenderly stroked Anivia’s long chestnut curls to calm her. “I understand your concern. Love will come; you just need to give it enough time to grow.”

“Shouldn’t my love sprout and grow before I marry? The man is a total stranger to me! I have never expressed any interest in him, not once!” Her eyes grew wider and wider with each word.

“I understand that. The king and I have raised you like a daughter, and young women of our station routinely marry the men their parents choose for them. My marriage was arranged; I did not know my dear William at the time of our wedding any better than you know Marius. Now the bond between us is very strong. You are always such a good girl; surely you have not grown so presumptuous to think yourself wiser than your king and queen. Don’t you know that we love you?”

“Can’t you understand that I am not ready to marry yet? Please have mercy on me, Your Majesty. ”

“Mercy? Please stop being so dramatic. There are girls all over this kingdom who would be thrilled with the chance you are being offered. Marius’ father is no young man, and the crown prince’s bride will be his queen in a few years. She will bear Marius’ royal heirs soon enough. What more could you possibly want?”

“I’ve never had the chance to enjoy the company of any man. Am I to marry before I have any experience at all? I do not know anything about men. How can I choose wisely?”

“Can’t you understand that you need not worry about that? Your king and I have done the choosing for you. Prince Marius will teach you all he wants you to know. No man wants a bride who’s been spoiled by other men.”

“I have no desire to be spoiled. I am no trollop! Do I have to accept the first offer for my hand? Marius is no prize!”

“Be still! Show your future husband the respect he’s due! You have to remember that you are not of royal blood. This is a wonderful match for a girl like you. He has a good reputation; he’s healthy, young, and known to be decent. Your marriage will strengthen the bond between our two lands.”

“You make it sound like I am being forced onto him as much and he is being forced onto me. Has he ever expressed any affection for me at any time?”

Queen Stephanie voice began to rise as her patience waned. “The prince told our king that he thinks you are very comely and that he has admired you for some time. I believe he will do his best to please you. Stop being foolish and just do your duty!”

Doing her duty was the last thing on Anivia’s agitated mind. She had dreams of love and romance, and she wanted to be wooed and courted instead of having her budding body brusquely parlayed to a man she did not know in exchange for a stronger alliance with a neighbor. “This is not fair!” she screamed. “I’m too young to lose my freedom this way. I won’t do it!” She turned on her heel and ran out of the garden.

Queen Stephanie needed a few seconds to recover from the shock of her ward’s unexpected outburst. What in the world had come over Anivia? Her ward was usually very well behaved, but this act of outright defiance would need to be addressed. No lady-in-waiting could be allowed to behave so impudently. The situation was intolerable.

Little Miss Anivia had overstepped her bounds. She had not only defied the people who had taken her in as a much loved daughter, but she had also refused to obey her king and queen. The girl had earned herself a sound spanking, and Queen Stephanie was going to see that she got it.

The queen hurried into the castle and rushed from room to room. She finally found King William working in his private study. “Dear husband,” she said, “I have a problem that needs your immediate attention.” He raised his eyes until they met his wife’s. Stephanie was not given to histrionics, and he had no idea what could be causing her distress. “I told Anivia about the match we arranged with Prince Marius, and she refused!”

“Refused? Why?” the king asked in amazement.

“She says she wants to pick her own husband.”

King William shook his head. “Who does she want to marry that would be better than a crown prince?”

“I don’t think she has anyone in mind. She’s just being a rebellious brat, and I think you need to take her in hand. Her behavior is a terrible affront to both of us.”

The king dropped his face, for Anivia was a particular favorite of his. She had charmed him since she was a toddler. Her father had been one of the kingdom’s most trusted provincial stewards. The man and his wife and been killed in a cross border raid, and the king had raised the girl as his own ever since. He and Stephanie had both indulged the pretty little girl. Now he had to face the fact that he been too tenderhearted with her. Facing the consequences of his lack of parental discipline was very disconcerting. “What do you want me to do?”

“She needs to learn her place before it is too late,” the queen stormed. “You need to act like a father before she ruins her life. Take her to the garden, cut a switch, and stripe her thighs and behind. A good dancing lesson will not kill her. In fact, it will help her to mind her manners.”

He shook his head. He knew his wife was right, but neither of them had ever laid a hand on the girl. In fact, they had been far more strict with their sons than they had ever been with her. “I will speak with her,” he said in a weary voice.

“Please do. She’s going to destroy her life if we don’t get her under control right away. Please don’t let her get away with this insolence.”

* * *

Anivia hurried to the castle’s main garden and sat on the long stone bench that was next to the largest fountain. A moment later, another lady-in-waiting, Irelia sat beside her. The two young women had been friends since they had been girls, but they spent less time together since Irelia’s marriage to General Eldwin. Since her wedding, Irelia had changed and began acting superior to the other ladies-in-waiting, especially the ones who were not married. Anivia had not experienced Irelia’s disdain yet.

“What’s the matter?” Irelia asked as she placed a hand on Anivia’s shoulder.

“Oh, it’s the worst thing. The king and queen want me to marry Crown Prince Marius,” Anivia moaned.

“What’s so terrible about that? Marrying him will make you a queen someday. I’m jealous.” She smiled warmly, but the fact was that she always competed with Anivia and had been very pleased when she had been first to marry and to a man of high rank.

Anivia leaned against her friend and accepted a tender hug. “You know me better than anyone. I don’t want to marry… there are too many things to do and learn. A husband will just barge in and ruin everything.”

“There are times I can’t understand you at all,” Irelia said. “It’s time for you to grow up. We are women, and our place is at our husband’s side. My Eldwin has given me so much happiness. I love serving him and sharing his success. Can’t you imagine how wonderful it would be to be a queen? ”

“I suppose,” Anivia said doubtfully. “Being a queen would be great if I did not have to marry.”

Irelia poked Anivia’s ribs playfully. “Stop being so silly. The only way to ever be a queen is to marry a man who will be a king. You are not even of royal blood; a chance like this will not come along again. You’ve got to grab it. Just think—I’ll have to curtsey to you.”

Anivia shook her head and let it slump. “Don’t you understand? Nobody even talked to be about what I might think. Her Majesty just told me that I would have to marry; my feelings did not matter at all.”

The king approached and interrupted the young women’s conversation. He faced Irelia and addressed her first. “I am going to ask you to excuse Lady Anivia and me. We have a very important matter to discuss.” Irelia curtseyed and hurried away.

King William used a finger to lift Anivia’s chin so their eyes could meet. He was sad when he saw that her face was streaked with tears, because he loved the girl like a daughter, and he did not want to bring her any distress. Still, he knew that his Stephanie was right. Anivia was spoiled, but she had to face reality for once, and he was going to have to act like a father to her. Although he encouraged the men of his kingdom to spank their women when needed, he hoped he could frighten Anivia into compliance without resorting to the switch.

Anivia had actually felt tempted to flee, but the castle was the only home she had ever really known. Her mother and father had died when she was just a toddler, and they existed only in her misty memory. The king and queen were the only parents she knew. Her eyes went wide when the king drew his knife and cut a long whippy branch off a nearby tree. He cleaned the fearsome stick patiently so she had plenty of time to think about how it could be put to use on her bare skin.

She stared in breathless dread as he swished the switch menacingly through the air. No person had ever so much as laid a hand on her before. The maiden had seen a few switchings, but she could hardly imagine how much pain that awful piece of wood was going to cause her. By the times their eyes met, his face looked very stern.

“The queen says you were quite rude to her. She wants me to use a stick like this to stripe your bare backside,” he said. “Is that what you need?”

“Please don’t beat me, Your Majesty!” She fell at his feet and shamelessly clutched his ankles. Her flowing chestnut tresses hid her face from his view. “I love the queen and you with all my heart. I meant no offense. Please, please have mercy on me.”

“Why are you refusing to marry Prince Marius?” King William asked in a stern voice.

“Please forgive me. I was just surprised at the suddenness of your request. I meant no offense. If you want me to marry him, I will do my duty.” She did not mean a word of what she said but was merely trying to gain some time and avoid being punished.

He ran the tip of the switch across the cloth covering her uplifted buttocks, and she shivered. “I hope that the crown prince never hears about the rude words you have spoken. Your impudent refusal of his generous proposal would bring great shame on our kingdom and me.” Anivia could hardly express her relief when the king finally pulled the switch away and told her to stand. In fact, he was almost as relieved as Anivia. He was too softhearted to spank her this day, no matter how much she deserved his correction.

The young woman did not take her king’s well-intended warning to heart. He had hardly walked out of the garden when she began to fume again about the prospect of her impending marriage with Crown Prince Marius. She could not keep herself from being furious that she was being forced into marriage against her will to a man who was not her choice. Of course, no man was her choice at this time because she valued her freedom far too much. In her mind, marriage was nothing but a form of servitude that men held their women in. She had seen husbands bare their wives’ behinds in the castle’s courtyard to harshly punish some disobedient act, and she knew that the king fully approved of that form of discipline.

* * *

The next day was exceptionally beautiful, but Anivia was still brooding about her upcoming wedding. Her personal maid Alice knocked softly before entering her mistress’s room, without waiting for admittance. Lady Anivia always treated her more like a younger sister instead of a servant.

“Good morning, my lady. I have your cup of tea.” The girl set the steaming cup next to Anivia. She could not help smiling. “Lady Irelia’s maid Cynthia told me that you are going to marry Prince Marius. You must be so excited!”

Anivia refused to take out her anger on the faithful serving girl. “I have not made up my mind about what to think,” she whispered. “I am still in shock at the whole situation.”

“I hope you find all the happiness in the world,” Alice prattled on. “I have a favor to ask of you.” Anivia gestured for the girl to continue. “May I please go with you and be your maid after you marry? You are the best mistress a girl like me could hope for, and I don’t want to see you go. All the other maids say I am so lucky to get to serve you.”

Anivia could not help feeling flattered by Alice’s request. She knew full well that most maids felt little affection for their demanding mistresses. Some of the ladies-in-waiting disciplined their maids severely for very small infractions. Less than a week before, Irelia had told Anivia about harshly switching Cynthia for forgetting to sew a button onto the dress that she had wanted to wear. “I striped the little peasant’s broad bottom good and proper,” Irelia had crowed. “She won’t sit easy on her lazy butt for days.” Anivia had boldly informed Irelia that she hated to hear about her friend’s abuse of the servant, but Irelia had refused to admit to doing anything wrong. “These stupid wenches are lucky to be allowed to serve us. Their lives are far better than most other women’s.”

Anivia did not agree. She had hardly ever scolded Alice and had never switched her. She raised her eyes to meet Alice’s. “I will ask Prince Marius to allow me to take you along. You have been very faithful, and I do not want to lose your service. I will do my best for you.” Alice spontaneously wrapped her arms around Anivia and hugged her gratefully. The serving girl helped her mistress dress for the day before leaving the room to attend to other duties.

Anivia was relieved to see the girl go. She wanted to get as far away as possible from all the wedding chatter in the castle, so she climbed the narrow spiral stairs to the top of one of the castle’s tallest towers to find a little solitude. The spectacular view of the kingdom afforded by the high vantage point lifted her spirits. The houses, horses, men, and carts looked like toys scattered on a green nursery room’s carpet. Her eyes drifted down some of the major roads as she wondered what it would be like to travel far away.

Soon, her attention shifted to sights closer at hand. A long line of brightly uniformed soldiers stood just below her. For a few minutes, her eyes drifted from one of the young military men to another. They were lined proudly along the parapet beneath her. The castle’s usual garrison was heavily reinforced by troops who had accompanied the king’s two generals. The extra soldiers were here for her wedding, and some of the young men were very handsome. Even that pleasing sight saddened her because she was keenly aware that her upcoming marriage would put these and all other young men beyond her reach. Her wedding would condemn her to hopeless bondage!

The miserable bride-to-be was just about to retreat from her lofty perch when she heard a melodious voice wafting up from the picturesque scene below. A wandering minstrel was making his way along the road toward the castle. Anivia surmised that he had heard about her upcoming marriage and hoped to earn a few gold coins by entertaining the wedding guests. The rich timbre of his voice warmed her heart. She hurried down the narrow stairs and reached the gate house before the musician’s arrival.

The creaking chain slowly lowered the drawbridge to give her an unhindered view of the man. Anivia recognized him at once. The traveling minstrel Thierry was well known for his sweet melodies and his exciting tales. He had entertained the king’s guests a few times, but most of his stories and songs were too bawdy for an innocent young girl’s ears, so she had usually been consigned to her nursery or later to her bed chamber when he had visited.

The minstrel’s appearance captured the damsel’s fancy at once. He sat his tall gray stallion very well. Anivia was fascinated as she watched his fingers dance across the fingerboard of his beautiful mandolin. His handsome features and thick red hair seized the young girl’s full attention. Anivia could not take her eyes off his tight breeches or his tailored coat, and she could not help giggling when the musician doffed his plumed hat.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing the fetching bride-to-be who is the talk of the countryside?” Thierry asked in his most flirtatious voice. “I am here to entertain you and your distinguished guests, fair lady.” Anivia blushed prettily. The guards at the gate were not as impressed. They ordered the minstrel to dismount. One took his horse to the stable while the other directed him to the tiny office of the king’s chief steward. That faithful servant could decide if the minstrel’s services would be desired.

Thierry had barely gotten out of sight when a group of grubby-faced children from the village surrounded Anivia. They always waited for the drawbridge to be lowered for the day so they could hurry into the courtyard and beg for treats. Any day they could locate Anivia was a good one. She was their favorite lady-in-waiting. Her fingers ran through a few of the urchins’ hair as she led them to the castle’s main kitchen. She collected a small basket of treats, which she then distributed to the noisy little ones.

She handed a bundle to one of the older girls. “Take this home to your family. I know your father has been too sick to work.” The girl took the food gratefully and kissed her benefactor’s hand.

“Thank you, my lady. Yesterday we had the last of that ham you gave us, and Momma was worried.”

Anivia hugged the girl and kissed her forehead. “Don’t worry. I told the king about you, and he told me to see that your family does not go hungry. Is your father getting any better?”

“Oh, yes. He is able to walk better each day. That draught from the king’s physician really helped, but my mother was afraid that…”

Anivia touched the girl’s lips to silence her. “Keep your thoughts happy. I will not let you starve.” She slipped a shiny apple into the girl’s hand. “I saved this for you.” The luscious piece of fruit was the girl’s favorite, and her face beamed with pure joy at the simple treat.

One of the boys took Anivia’s hand. “Can I see Whimsy? Has she had her puppies yet?”

“You don’t need to worry. She’ll have a puppy for you in a few days. You can have the pick of her litter.” She walked to the kennel with the smiling boy following close behind. Whimsy was Anivia’s favorite castle dog. She usually yipped at the lady-in-waiting’s heels, but now her body was bulging with a large litter.

The kennel master greeted Anivia as she walked into the dimly lit space. “I moved our mother-to-be into a larger pen.” He pointed to the dog’s new quarters.

“Is my girl doing well?” Anivia asked as she knelt beside the dog and slipped a piece of bacon into her mouth. Whimsy clumsily got to her feet and licked the boy’s face. He giggled happily.

“Oh, yes. She’ll have a fine litter unless I miss my guess. I expect her to deliver in a day, two at the most. Don’t worry, my lady, I’ll take good care of her. I’ve minded the king’s pack for many years.”

Anivia petted Whimsy for a while before walking back into the sunlight. The sight of a finely appareled coach clattering across the drawbridge darkened her mood. The occupants were most likely guests who were coming to witness her being forced into unwanted matrimony. She shook her head. Weren’t brides supposed to be happy before their wedding day? Anivia was very anxious as she felt her last two days of freedom rapidly slipping away.

A stable boy and one of the scullery maids walked toward Anivia. Servants always felt comfortable approaching her because she always treated them kindly. The couple’s eyes twinkled with the excitement of their own young love. The girl curtseyed before she spoke. “Good day, my lady. We hope you’ll have a beautiful wedding and a happy life with Crown Prince Marius.”

The unhappy bride-to-be replied with a simple “Thank you.” She guessed that the pair in front of her was far more likely to enjoy wedded bliss than her. Anivia moped around the courtyard for a while. Finally, she sought the solitude of the music room and her flute. The sweet music gradually transported her to a blissful realm free of any vexation.

More fine coaches rolled up to the castle, and a dozen more wedding guests arrived during the rest of the afternoon. A good number more would follow in the next two days. Crown Prince Marius and his parents had sent word that they planned to be the last to arrive.

King William hosted a fine dinner that evening for the guests who had arrived early. Heaping platters of beef, pork, and lamb covered the great hall’s long tables. The abundant flowing wine and Thierry’s sweet music put everyone in a festive mood, except for Anivia.

“Are you not feeling well?” Queen Stephanie whispered into Anivia’s ear.

The girl wanted to be polite, so she chose a diplomatic answer. “It’s nothing. I just feel nervous.”

Queen Stephanie gave a soft laugh. “Try not to worry so much. Everything will be better in a few days. When I was a bride-to-be, I did not think I would survive my wedding… or my wedding night.”

Anivia tried to force a polite smile, but her effort failed miserably. “I appreciate your encouragement. I am sure you’re right, and things will be better soon.” Mercifully, the queen accepted the unconvincing answer and turned to another person at the table. Anivia was grateful for the brief moment of peace. She could hardly control the urge to scream. How could all these people just chat and eat while her life was about to be destroyed? Why couldn’t they understand that she was not ready to get married? Her eyes darted around the table.

No one was paying the least bit of attention to her distress. In fact, the only eyes that met hers at all were Thierry’s. He was singing a sweet ballad that almost seemed directed at her. She could not take her eyes off of him. As the evening wore on, she realized that he was returning her looks. When another musician relieved him, she took a risk and announced that she was retiring for the night.

As soon as she was in her chamber, she wrote a note and had Alice secretly take it to the minstrel. A half hour later, he accepted her invitation and joined her in the privacy of her room. Her intentions were innocent enough, but Thierry planned to take full advantage of the girl’s naïveté.

“I am flattered by your invitation,” the worldly minstrel said when she latched the door behind him. He correctly guessed that the bride-to-be was feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of her impending marriage. He’d be more than glad to let her taste a little experimental pleasure before she would have to surrender her maidenhood to the crown prince.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I need someone to talk to, and I hope you will listen.”

“Of course I will,” he said with a smile. The girl’s daring approach amused him.

“King William is forcing me to marry a man I do not love.”

“What do you have against him?”

“Nothing really. I just don’t want to lose my freedom. Once I am a man’s wife, I will no longer be in control of my life. He will be able to make me do whatever he wants.”

Thierry smiled. The girl was so enticing. He wished he could get her to do some of the things he would like her to do. Those naughty thoughts were hard to push aside. “Do you mean to tell me that you would not like to be a princess or later a queen? I thought every maiden had that dream.”

She blushed. “Someday perhaps, but for now I just want to enjoy my freedom. This marriage was arranged without my consent. No one bothered to even ask me if I had any interest in the crown prince. They shouldn’t be able to do a thing like that.”

He could not help being amused by the fire in her eyes. His first intention had been to steal a kiss or two, but the longer she went on, his desire grew. He was no fool. She was betrothed to a powerful nobleman, so seducing her would be dangerous, but he could not help himself. Her budding body was too succulent a prize to resist. He had bedded many wenches, and this inexperienced girl would not be a challenge. “I understand how you feel. You are being treated very badly.”

As their clandestine conversation went on, she soon believed that he had a sincere concern for her feelings and did not resist when he draped an arm around her shoulders. No man had ever touched her in such an intimate way, and the warmth of his embrace was very exciting. Her mind began to whirl as he plied her with wine to increase those warm feelings and dull her inhibitions.

He waited for an unguarded moment to make his next move. When she stopped her endless complaints about the injustice of her situation for a moment, he struck and surprised her with a kiss. She vainly tried to pull away, but he kissed her again. His third kiss subdued her completely. “Forgive me, my lady, but your lips are irresistible.”

Anivia had never been kissed by a man before. His lips felt so very good on hers, and their kisses soon grew more passionate. She felt intoxicated by his romantic charms. Her ability to resist abandoned her when one of his hands skillfully opened the buttons on her bodice, and she could do nothing more than sigh when his hand cupped one of her breasts. No man had ever laid his hands or eyes on her creamy mounds, and she found the experience too thrilling to resist.

Thierry was pleased at how well his seduction was progressing. His tongue casually darted between her stiff nipples. She sighed urgently and actually lifted her aroused flesh for more of his attention. He sucked gently at first, but as the girl’s excitement grew, he nipped and stretched her hardened nubs. Her wanton moans grew more and more intense, and he grew more aroused as well.

Thierry might have well succumbed to his own raging lust at that moment if Anivia had not begun to realize how vulnerable her position had become. A gust of cool air from an open window struck her exposed breasts and suddenly broke the spell. For a moment, her reaction had been so strong that Thierry was suddenly afraid she’d create enough of a disturbance to draw attention to their illicit tryst. That calamity could lead to quick and painful justice for him. He did not need much imagination to guess what kind of revenge an outraged king or crown prince would exact upon his person. Needless to say, young ladies would no longer be interested in him once he had been mercilessly emasculated. The dark woods would be a better venue for his seductive efforts. “The castle is quiet now,” he whispered. “We can escape and start a new life together in a place where you will not be forced to give your body to a man you do not love. Will you come with me? I will show you how a man should love a woman. We will make beautiful music together.”

Anivia was far too inexperienced to be able to resist his charms. She knew full well that if she stayed at the castle, she would have to marry Crown Prince Marius. Her nimble fingers quickly closed her gaping bodice, and she followed the minstrel out the small postern gate at the back of the castle. He had hidden his tall, gray stallion nearby, before the drawbridge had been raised for the night. It was an important precaution. Men in his trade often needed to make quick escapes. He lifted the girl onto the horse and mounted behind her. Anivia was quite petite, so their combined weight was not too much for the stout animal to bear. The canopy of dense woods concealed their escape from any sentinel’s gaze. Thierry guided his mount along the narrow forest trail.

The moon was full, and that made their escape easier. Of course, he also realized that the illumination would make any pursuer’s task easier too. Anivia had seldom been outside the castle at night. The dense forest’s unfamiliar sounds made her feel very uneasy. She was especially worried by the eerie cry of a nearby owl and the distant baying of a pack of wolves, so she leaned close against Thierry. His presence was very comforting.

The worldly minstrel enjoyed feeling the girl’s warm body pressed against his chest. He held her tight so her back was pressed against his body, as his nimble fingers began to slowly reopen her bodice. The quick glimpse he had received of her milky breasts earlier had made him hungry for much more. He could hardly wait to strip the girl and enjoy seeing her body exposed in flickering firelight.

Anivia had never felt more helpless. She was trapped between the terrors of the dark woods and the increasingly persistent Thierry. There was no doubt in her mind that Prince Marius would no longer want her if Thierry’s lust was satisfied, but she did not want to be left alone in the frightening forest. Things had surely gone too far. Anivia gasped when she felt Thierry pull the top of her dress off her shoulders. He had bared her to the waist and the cool night air made her nipples jut invitingly. She hated herself for being tricked into this situation. If the minstrel took her maidenhood, no decent man would ever want her. Tears of regret dripped onto her bared breasts as the minstrel casually pinched and pulled her nipples. She felt a maddening combination of humiliation, titillation, and rage as he groped her.

“Do you think that fool prince would bring you so much pleasure, wench?” Thierry gloated.

“I should have not summoned you,” she gasped. “Please take me back to the castle before we are both severely punished. I have made a terrible mistake.”

“Your foppish prince will no longer be interested in you after I’m done. Of course, that should make you happy since you’ll not have any more marriages forced on you.” He pinched her swollen nipples and made her groan again. They were about three hours from the castle when he turned the horse off the trail and pulled up in a small clearing. He lifted her off of the saddle and made her stand beside a large tree. She trembled as he bent her wrists behind her waist and clutched them with one big hand while the other continued to toy with her breasts. “I’m going to build a nice fire so I can watch you dance for me.”

The minstrel could not believe his good fortune when Anivia did not resist. His talk had been brash and even threatening, but he was really not a brute. He wanted to seduce the girl, but his hard talk was all a bluff. If she had resisted, he would have capitulated.

Unfortunately, Anivia could not read Thierry’s mind, so she felt completely powerless in his grip. She had wanted nothing more than to get free from the formerly charming rogue who had so quickly made her his ruthless captor. He touched her body with a sense of entitlement that she found maddening, but also unexpectedly exciting. He had uncovered an unexplored river of submissive desire that made her vulnerable. What kind of wicked spell had he cast that cowed her so thoroughly? She waited until the minstrel walked away to gather wood before she pulled her dress back into place.

The fleeing pair was already several miles from the castle before Anivia’s maid, Alice, discovered a note that had been left on her mistress’s pillow. The short letter was addressed to Crown Prince Marius and informed him that his missing bride-to-be had no interest in marrying him. She wrote that she wished him well, but she had no desire to ever be his wife. King William was furious when he read the terse message. He would send his soldiers after the fleeing girl and have her brought back. Normally, such an order would take a day or more to put into motion because his generals were stationed a considerable distance from the castle. Fortunately, both generals were at the castle so they could attend the upcoming wedding. Generals Eldwin and Almar received their orders and rode out with some of their best troops in less than an hour.

One of Almar’s sharp-eyed scouts discovered fresh hoof prints near the castle’s postern gate, and the soldiers followed the trail carefully. Fortunately, the escapees did not seem to be making quick progress. The party rode for three hours and never slowed their pace until they heard frightening sounds coming from the clearing ahead.

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