Chapter One of "The King's Spy". Please Enjoy!

                                                             Chapter One

A guttural cry of “stop, she’s setting a trap.” lifted from deep within as Lady Eileen Fraser lay beside her cousin Mary atop the large flat rock overlooking the glen. Her heart twisted in protest as she stared at her older sister, Shayla, standing with her arms wrapped around the neck of their neighbor, Baron Donovan Forbes.  Once again, Shaya’s promiscuity was about to ruin everything.

 

Eileen bunched her hands into fists.  Narrowing her gaze, she made a snap decision as fierce determination coursed through her.  There was only one way to free Novan.  “I’m stealing his horse.”

 

“Purloining his gelding is bound to cause trouble,” her cousin Mary warned quietly.  “Stealing is not only a sin but it’s likely to get you killed.”

 

Eileen paused as she squinted down at the couple standing beside the copse of pines near the tumbling water of the rapids.  A burning sensation filled her chest as she flattened her palms against the rock.  “I’ll take my chances,” she said making a hasty sign of the cross.  If her sister’s fiancé rode down into the glen and found his soon-to-be-wife in the arms of their handsome neighbor the fast-moving water would be running red with Novan’s blood. 

 

Her breath hitched as she scanned the narrow mountain pass leading into the glen.  Seeing no movement, she swung her gaze back to the couple still locked in a tight embrace.  “Doesn’t he know tis best never to trifle with a betrothed lass?” she asked, a sneer filling her tone.  “Especially when she’s contracted for marriage to the braw Lord Newell Ogilvy.”

 

“Is Ogilvy?” Mary asked in a soft voice.

 

 “Braw?”  Eileen hesitated, surprised by her timorous cousin’s question.  She glanced over at Mary.  Was Ogilvy the one her cousin was interested in?  A chuckle tickled Eileen’s throat at the thought that her sister finally had some competition. 

“Aye,” Mary nodded her creamy white skin reddening.

Eileen chuckled.  “Are you perchance making a list of all the single men in the area who have broad shoulders and exhibit raw strength with the hope of convincing your father to allow you to marry one of them?”

She watched Mary dip her head.  Although she had tried for the past few months to act as if she knew all about men, she didn’t really know any more about them than Mary.  But she had to assume a superior knowledge of everything male just to survive her sister’s taunts.  “Shayla brags it’s the only kind of man to pursue.”

“So, what are you going to do about Novan?” Mary asked, gnawing on her lower lip.

“With Donovan?”  She asked then paused.  “Nothing that will get you in trouble,” she added as she began inching backwards off the rock.   “I don’t particularly care to face the Duke and explain to him why I’ve got you in trouble again.”

“Thank you,” Mary muttered then gave an audible sigh.  “Father can be truly frightening when he’s in a temper and sends for Brother Simeon.  That means, I’ll have another lesson on the perils of sin.”  She shook her head.  “But, why aren’t you more afraid of your Da?”

“Because he knows that I’m usually attempting to avert another family disaster,” she said then shrugged, nonchalantly hoping to lessen her cousin’s worry.  “Especially, when I tell him about Shayla’s latest attempt at breaking another betrothal.”

 “When your sister learns that you’ve snitched on her,” Mary said, her voice wobbling, “I’d rather not be around.  She can be very vindictive.”

“Don’t remind me,” Eileen chuckled as her booted feet touched the rocky ground and she straightened.

“I suppose you have a plan?” Mary asked as she joined her and brushed away the dirt from her velvet tawny colored cote.

“Always,” Eileen fibbed as she straightened her serviceable brown garment.  She wasn’t about to admit to anyone that while she might have all kinds of plans, most of the time they didn’t work for one reason or another.  The fault wasn’t in her planning but rather in her execution.

“As usual, I suppose I’m to serve as the decoy?” Mary asked, her hazel eyes darting away.

“Only at the very last minute,” Eileen admitted as they surreptitiously slipped down the knoll hidden from sight in the glen.

                                                               *   *   *

Baron Donovan Forbes opened his eyes as he nibbled beneath Shayla’s ear.  He shifted his gaze to scan the high mountain pass leading into the glen.  While Shayla Fraser had been the reigning neighborhood beauty for as long as he could remember, she’d brought more than one unwary lad to his knees during her reign.  But Novan had no intention of being counted amongst their number.  There was only one reason he stood alone in the glen with her and that was to learn if she knew anything about the disappearance of the King’s Messenger, Tom Cowie.  As of now, he only knew that Tom’s last known stop had been the Fraser compound and it had been rumored that he left the compound with her brother, Patrick.  

As a member of the small elite force, known as the King’s Men, one of Novan’s duties was to track down missing people.  Living in Edinburgh, his job kept him way too busy to find time to return to his old neighborhood.  On the pretext of paying a long overdue visit to his mother, he’d come alone to call on his neighbors, the unpredictable Frasers.  It was unfortunate that Shayla’s shallowness and wanton reputation presented the Frasers in such unfavorable light.

Seeing nothing unusual along the pass leading to the glen, he shifted back to nibble his way down Shayla’s neck.  Suddenly, the hair at the nape of his neck prickled.  He tilted his head and surveyed the clusters of rocks and yellow flowering gorse bushes dotting the hillside surrounding the glen.  He hated it when he got that creeping sensation of being watched.  When that happened, he’d discovered that something inevitably went wrong.   An icy chill slithered through him and he found it difficult to breathe.  Was he about to find himself caught in a trap? After all, Shayla had said that she was being forced to marry Ogilvy. 

He inhaled sharply.  Experience had taught him that women often said one thing but frequently meant something else.  And with Patrick’s sister, Shayla, he didn’t put any trust in either her or her actions.

Um-m-m feels w-o-n-derful,” she purred.  “Do it again.”

Again? Novan frowned.  And to think the Duke of Lanark, the man responsible for the daily operation of the King’s Men, had often said that seduction was one of the easiest ways to gain information.  Personally, he would rather be skulking in a back alley and ferreting out secrets than using his body to offer meaningless promises.  He knew all about empty promises.  His father had been the master of them and he’d promised himself he wouldn’t be like that. 

But, he needed the information Shayla knew to further his investigation. Therefore, he had to continue.  He bit his bottom lip as he felt her upper body stiffen when she took a deep breath. Since he couldn’t force himself to continue the seduction nor could he give into his instincts and turn tail and run, he would simply have to out-maneuver her.  Otherwise, he would be laughed out of the organization for failing to do his duty. 

“You are such a virile, braw man,” Shayla whispered.  Her smoky voice sent a shower of chills down his spine as she tightened her hold on his neck and brought him flush to her full womanly figure.

A chuckle of distaste tickled the back of his throat.  “Aw, dearling, with words like that, a man’s mighty grateful to be a man,” he breathed hoping he sounded sincerer than he felt.  “Is that what chased the King’s Messenger away a fortnight ago?”

“Oh, Novan, my words are reserved for you alone,” she breathed, her hot breath coercing goosebumps of aberrance to rise on his arms.

He clenched his jaw, not only despising the necessity of such a suggestive interlude but the ease in which she lied without compunction.    “I bet you say that to all the men,” he said, lifting his head away from her. 

She flipped a section of her blond hair over her shoulder, sending the golden waves dancing in the sunlight.  Then fluttering her long lashes, she dipped her head.  “Would you be jealous if I said, aye?” 

“Might be,” he forced himself to say, realizing that the very thought of seducing Shayla turned his stomach into a sour churning mass of disgust.

“Then you’ll help me break free of Ogilvy’s hold over my father?” she asked, raising her head just enough for him to see that although she smiled, her blue eyes resembled blocks of ice he’d often chipped out of the loch on a winter’s day.

He shivered in repugnance at her cold-hearted, unscrupulous intent.  Attempting to get his investigation back on track, he hedged.  “Let’s do a little horse trading first, like . . . tell me what you know about Patrick leaving with the King’s messenger.”

Her smile widened like a woman confident she’d found a cache of stolen coins.   “You will need to ask my maid, Dora.  She’s the one who told me that she saw them slipping away before dawn.”

“Aye, I will now that I have your permission to speak with her,” he said. Relief spread through him as he realized he’d gotten what he needed.  It would only be a matter of a few more seconds and he could leave and go about his business.

“But, why are you so interested?” she asked, her voice a syrupy purr as she fiddled with the tie holding his linen shirt closed at his neck. 

He put his hand over hers, preventing her from untying the garment. “I thought since I’m visiting my mother for a few days that Patrick and I might do some fishing.  But now that I’ve discovered he’s left I’ll--”

“Oh, pooh!” she exclaimed, wiggling her hand out from beneath his.  “Why are we discussing my brother?” she asked then made a shooing motion with her hands.  “Now, get the blanket that’s tied behind my saddle and I’ll show you exactly how much I appreciate a man who helps me break a contract.”

Not about to be caught in her web of deceit, Novan tightened his hold on the female tyrant.  There was no doubt in his mind Shayla’s calculated infidelity would be of interest to Ogilvy.  Now that he’d gotten what information he could, maybe his next stop after he left the Frasers ought to be at Oglivy’s and—

“Eeee yowl!” came a whoop close-by.  Novan jerked away in surprise.  Quickly releasing Shayla, he turned.

 Stunned, he watched Shayla’s younger sister, Eileen, gallop away atop his gelding.  Her white thighs flashed for a moment in the sun before she pulled her cote down over her knees.

“Great Bran!” he exclaimed.  He didn’t often call upon the Welsh God but he knew he needed to apprehend the brat before she could go through the tan bag that was attached to his saddle. Sprinting toward the remaining mount, he tossed the reins over the mare’s head and leaped onto the saddle.  Kneeing the mare, he took off after the sneaky thief.   One thing for certain, the russet-haired lass could ride, he thought as he flew up the hill and around the knoll after her.

Although he knew he wouldn’t catch his gelding, he pressed the mare onwards.  Then surmising Eileen’s destination was the stables, he cut across the paddock and headed toward the barn.  As he spied the entrance, she disappeared down the main corridor.  Vaulting from the back of his mount, he hit the ground and sprinted after her through the old airless stable.  She wouldn’t try that trick ever again he promised himself.  Especially not after he caught her and proved to her the inadvisability of stealing a horse. 

Breathing hard, he grabbed for her as she was about to slip around the corner of a stall at the back exit.  Gathering her roughly in his arms, he managed to gasp out, “Got you,” as the toe of his boot caught and he stumbled.

“Nay,” she grunted as his shoulder ricochet off the wall. 

Struggling to maintain his hold, he regained his balance as she squirmed to get away.  Tightening his grasp on her slim waist, he exclaimed, “Give up.  You won’t get away.”   Then he froze as he realized how unbelievably right she felt in his arms as he held her snugly against his body. 

“Eeee yowl,” she yelled, stomping on his toe.  Slamming her head back against his aching shoulder, she rammed her elbow into his abdomen where he was healing from a recent knife wound.

Stars danced before Novan’s eyes as dizziness overwhelmed him.  “Ah-h-h”, he exclaimed as he lost his fight to stay upright through the pain.  Tightening his grip on her squirming body, he turned and took the full blunt of their fall as they crashed to the hard-packed dirt floor.  Chaff puffed into the air and settled all around them as he landed painfully on his side.   “Ooof-f!” he gasped as he realized that the small pile of fresh straw had offered no cushion for them at all.  Rolling to his back, he wrapped his arms around her waist and held her atop him.  Not about to let her get away until he told her exactly what he thought, he took a deep breath.

Immediately, she began hammering her fists against his chest, her emerald eyes blazing in anger.  “Idiot, I just did you a huge favor and this is the thanks I get?” 

“Stealing my horse . . . isn’t a favor,” he gasped as he released his hold on her.  She scurried away on her knees as he struggled to his feet.  He drew in a slow breath and flashed her a fake smile as he politely reached his hand toward her.  “Now, let’s . . . settle this.”

She slapped his hand away and stood on her own.  “With that demonstration of gratitude, you needn’t worry you’ll be the recipient of my goodwill again,” she hollered, brushing herself off.

He drew in a deep breath and shook out his stinging hand.  “If stealing my horse is your idea of a gift, don’t ever bother gracing me with your charity again,” he said as ire stole through him at her angry shout.   Fury at her blatant disregard for the law of the land and her own safety seized him.  “Stealing is a capital offense, punished by hanging,” he ground out. “For that salient bit of legalese, I will take my own reward,” he said as he grabbed her shoulders.

“A-ack,” she cried, trying to pull away.

Pulling her tightly to him, he pressed his mouth to hers, muffling her objection.  It was a brazen method to use to teach her a lesson and he held nothing of his ire back. But stunned by the feel of her plump lips pillowing his, shock waves rolled through him as the tinder surrounding his heart ignited into a fiery blaze of desire.  Never had he experienced such an incredible jolt of heat at a first kiss.  Gentling his lips, he nudged hers apart, seeking her essence.  He’d kissed women before, including her sister a few minutes ago, but never had he thought that little Eileen Fraser, the terror of the neighborhood, would light the kindling surrounding his cold heart.  Nor would he have thought that he could burst into such an instantaneous conflagration.  He heard her soft moan as she looped her arms around his neck.

He froze.  Merciful Bran!  What was he doing kissing Patrick’s little sister?  When Patrick found out, his best friend would geld him for sure.

He tore his lips from hers and gazed into eyes like the wind-tossed waves of the North Sea.  They reflected his own confused reaction.  Swiftly, he released her and took a step back.  He saw the slap coming but was unprepared for the force behind it.  When it hit, it rocked him back on his heels, stinging like a hundred attacking bees.  He knew there would be no way of hiding her response.  The blow would leave its mark.

By all that was holy, why had he allowed his unmitigated anger to get the best of him, he wondered as he watched Eileen race out of the stables.

Um-m-m,” a clearing throat sounded nearby.  “That twas most interesting.”

Novan squeezed his eyes closed as dread pounded in his chest.  Then opening them, he turned slowly, unsure of what tactic he ought to take to reassure Eileen’s father.

 “Do me eyes deceive me, or did ye just buss me youngest daughter on the lips?” Baron Keith Fraser asked, wiping his hands on a cloth as he stepped out of the stall midway down the center aisle inside the stable.

“She stole my horse!” Novan exclaimed, still dazed that he’d let his anger over-rule his good sense.

“So, me ears heard,” Fraser said with a chuckle as he slung the cloth over the top rail of a stall then brushed his graying hair away from his careworn face.  “But that’s probably not the best way to thank me youngest lass for returning it to ye,” he said as he closed the stall’s door.  “Now, if it was me eldest daughter that would be a different verse.”

Hearing the Baron not only mention his elder daughter but of him kissing Eileen, Novan’s throat tightened.  “No, sir, I--“

“I like ye lad.  Always have,” Eileen’s father said.  Novan watched the man’s square jaw relax into a smile.  Then the Baron sobered as a frown wrinkled his forehead.  “If your father hadn’t passed a few years ago then,” he paused as he shook his head.  “Anyway,” he shrugged.  “What we need is a good dram of whisky.”   He slid his corded arm across Novan’s shoulders.  “Come to me office and we’ll put something on that stinging cheek.  Got to admit me lass has a fine aim,” he said then grinned.  “Reminds me of her mother before we were married.”

The word ‘married’ seemed to hover in the air for a few seconds before Novan brought the tips of his fingers to rest against his sore cheek.  “Think you could send your men out to the glen to give Mary and Shayla a ride back before we have that dram,” he asked, skimming his hand over his cheek checking for damage that might’ve occurred to his jaw. 

“Aye,” Fraser agreed.  “Did they decide to take a wee stroll?”

“Aye,” Novan mumbled, figuring the truth was bound to come out but hoping he would be long gone before Shayla placed her spin on things.

A Bride for the King Chapter One- Please Enjoy!

                                                                                       Chapter One

Barovia-1859                                         

 

         Belle lingered at the rain splashed windows, her arms hugging her churning stomach.  Although the summer downpour obscured the view of the quaint seaside village below, she could see the vague reflections in the windowpane of the three men striding into the inn’s private sitting room behind her.  She glanced over her shoulder at her twin, nodded once and returned to peer at their reflections in the glass.  She narrowed her fuzzy gaze as her sister walked toward the three British Naval Officers.

 

        “Let me make sure I understand you correctly,” Rita said, her mocking tone sending a trickle of trepidation through Belle as her sister addressed the captain who had accompanied them ashore.  “You are telling Her Royal Highness that you’re not only abandoning her in a foreign port but you are also leaving her without British protection?”

 

        “Your Ladyship, ‘tis not our intention--” the captain began.

 

       “Are you saying we haven’t accurately assessed the situation?” her sister inserted as she swept forward and halted with a swish of her skirts before the officer, her arms held akimbo.

 

        “Excuse me for a moment while I verify something,” The captain said as he turned to confer with the other two men.

 

       “By all means,” Rita said giving a dismissive wave then she began to tap the toe of her slipper impatiently on the amber varnished wooden floor.  

Belle noted her own tight smile reflected in the glass.  Leave it to Rita to dive right into the crux of their problem.  She sobered, afraid that her unguarded expression might be seen and reveal their ruse.  Leaning forward, she studied the images of the three men whispering fiercely in the room behind her.  She frowned.  Granted, the men had escorted them from the ship, through the churning Ionian Sea to the quay and then up through the narrow, winding cobblestoned streets in an antiquated coach pulled by four mismatched nags to the Black Swan Inn.  But really, Admiral Birkhead had assured her that his men would remain with them until their brother and King Stefan arrived.  Obviously that wasn’t the case now and the plan had changed. 

 

       “Your Ladyship,” Captain Waverly, wheezed, “‘tis not so much that we’re deserting you, ‘tis . . .”

 

       Belle took a deep breath.  Time for her to go to work.  Lifting the train of her bottle-green velvet riding habit, she straightened her spine and turned to survey the room.  “Gentlemen,” she announced to gain everyone’s attention.  “We do understand the untenable position you have been placed in,” she said choosing her words carefully. “And we do deeply and humbly appreciate your valuable assistance.”

 

       “Oh! Thank you, Your Highness,” Captain Waverly said, bowing his graying head at her, “for not only your kindness but also your patience and understanding.  If King Stefan’s troops weren’t already stationed around the inn then we would gladly remain until His Royal Highness personally arrives.  However, with his troops positioned around the perimeter, our orders from the Admiralty Fleet were to see you settled then return, post haste to our ship.  We’re to sail with the tide.”

 

       Belle nodded and glanced at her mirror image still tapping her foot.  One thing for certain, life hadn’t been dull growing up with such a mercurial older twin.  Belle had never been able to predict what her surly sister would do next.  “I am sure his Majesty and our brother will be here soon,” she said, pride keeping her from arguing with the senior officer.  “Therefore, we will remain sequestered here until they arrive.”

 

      “That would be advisable, Your Highness,” Captain Waverly nodded and then opened his mouth as if he would like to say more but closed it as if he’d had a sudden change of heart.

 

       Wise man, Belle thought as she glanced at the other two naval officers.  Were they as cavalier about deserting them as the Captain?  She narrowed her gaze wishing she had been able to wear her spectacles.  It appeared that young Mr. Ainsley shuffled his hat from one hand to the other while Mr. Trumble looked everywhere but at them.  She nodded.  Rita had been right all along.  There would be no help from the British Navy or from its officers.  They were strictly on their own, abandoned in a foreign country. 

 

        Belle straightened.  “Thank you, Gentlemen.”  Raising her chin, she took a resolute breath.  Since she had assumed the role of the future Queen of Barovia for her twin for a few days then she would act like one.  “And since your services are no longer available, we bid you adieu.”

The naval officers looked at each other then bowed quickly.  “Thank you, Your Royal Highness,” Captain Waverly said in a rush as he began to back out of the room.  “And may we be so bold as to wish you every happiness in your marriage?”

 

        Belle froze at the innocuous reminder then managed to thaw enough to issue a hasty “Thank you.”  She forced her lips to part in a stiff smile as she flicked her hand in dismissal.  Quickly, the men removed themselves from her presence.  As they shuffled out of the room, she glanced at her sister who had suddenly turned away.  Belle frowned as she noted Rita’s shaking shoulders.  She bit her lower lip, hoping Rita’s mirth wouldn’t give away their game.  She remained in her regal stance until one of the King’s guard finally closed the private sitting room door, then she collapsed in the nearest chair.  “Oh, my! Rita how will you ever do this?”

 

         A giggle met her question.  “You were rather impressive, Belle,” her sister said then swirled, her claret riding skirt belling away from her ankles.  “Perhaps you were the one destined to be Queen.”

 

          Surprise along with a sense of relief washed over Belle.  She’d passed her first test as the soon-to-be-Queen Rita.  “Oh, don’t talk nonsense,” Belle scoffed.  “Need I remind you, that being the eldest, you were the one who married King Stefan by proxy this morning aboard ship, and not I?”

“And how do you know that I didn’t . . . sign that document as Isabelle Marguerita Mary Elizabeth?” her sister asked, archly.

 

         Suddenly, Belle felt lightheaded.  Had Rita signed her name?  The question had every muscle in her body turning to mush.  Thank goodness she was sitting down otherwise she would’ve ended up in a heap on the floor at the frightening thought.  “Rita,” she gasped.  Gripping the arms of the chair, she started to rise.  “You didn’t!”

 

         Although a half-smile curled the corners of Rita’s mouth, her hazel eyes narrowed coldly. Sweeping her hands behind her chignon, she brushed a strand of ginger-colored hair from her face.  “Now, Belle, don’t be tedious.  Would I do that to you?”

 

        Belle settled back into the chair.  Her sister had played a variety of self-serving games before.  She knew it was best if she remained calm.  “I hope not but I distinctly recall that you, Marguerita Isabelle Mary Elizabeth, vowed never to follow another dictate from either our brother or Queen Victoria after we left England.  So, what’s changed?”

 

        “I didn’t realize you were so eager to comply with our brother’s arrangement for you to marry that old codger Umberford with his passel of brats once you return to England.”

 

        Belle inhaled sharply then decided she wouldn’t give Rita the satisfaction of knowing how much the mere mention of Umberford’s name made her skin shrivel on her bones.  She shook her head and smoothed the material of her riding shirt over her knees.  “You know I’m not the least bit happy with Edward’s scheme.”

 

         “Oh!” Rita exclaimed.  “Now, don’t get your corset in such a twist.  You’ll get all flushed about the collar and we’ll both be in trouble,” she added in a rush.  “I was simply being facetious.”  She pivoted then seemed to hesitate.  “That’s why I suggested you pose as me so I could have the time to adapt to my role.”

 

          Her pleading tone hung suspended for a moment in the silent room.

 

           Finally, Belle nodded.  Of course, she understood.  Truth to tell, it was bad enough that their brother was forcing her to marry Umberford.  But, for Rita to be used as a political pawn to regain their grandfather’s lost estates in Barovia was an abomination of the worst order.  She turned away gripping her hands in frustration.  For her sister to be forced to facilitate their brother’s greed and give up the man she loved was intolerable.  No one should have to endure that kind of pain, especially not Rita.  She had already sacrificed so much.  Belle turned, suddenly chilled by her own selfishness for not being more empathetic.  After all, she had never been in love like Rita was.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I know none of this has been easy for you.  Have you heard anything at all from Tony?” she asked, gently.

 

         “Nothing,” Rita whispered, her voice cracking.  Hurrying across to the fireplace, she braced her forearm against the mantle.  “But then I didn’t expect to,” she said.  Pivoting, her twin faced her squarely.  “Major Anthony Winston is gone.  He accepted a post in India.”  She straightened, her jaw jutting forward.  “When he found out that I was to marry King Stefan of Barovia, he told me that we had to set aside our love and not only obey Edward but our Queen as well.”

 

         Rita’s words seemed to vibrate throughout the room.  Belle hugged herself hoping to ward off the pain her sister’s words caused.  For one person to have such power over so many was frightening.  She paused at the rebellious thought, suddenly realizing that perhaps Rita’s championship of America’s right to declare their independence from Great Britain had merit.  She nodded, re-affirming her agreement with Rita to switch identities until her twin could come to grips with her life altering situation and accept the fact she was to be the Queen of Barovia. 

 

         “And that being the reality,” Rita added as she moved toward her, “we’ll stick to my plan of you waiting to switch places with me until after I’ve met King Stefan.”  She raised her hand, halting Belle’s further comments.  “And if I decide that I can like him, then we’ll return to our own identities and I will marry him in the Barovian Ceremony that has been scheduled three days from now.  Agreed?”

 

        “B-but,” Belle felt obligated to say.  “You agreed to this marriage.  There is no way out but for you to become King Stefan’s wife.”

 

        “Let me remind you that I never agreed to anything.”

 

       “Then why did you go along as if accepting it?” Belle asked as a fluttering sensation clenched her stomach.  Her sister released a dramatic sigh then swirled with a dramatic flair to face her.

 

        “That’s just it,” Rita said.  “Like you, I’ve had no say in the matter.  Everyone, including you, just assumed my compliance.  So,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.  “You’re as much at fault as Edward.  That’s why I need your help.” 

 

          Belle took a deep, pained breath.  “I know,” she sighed as a wave of guilt washed over her.   “And I did promise that,” she added.  For truth to tell she’d been relieved that Rita had been chosen to be queen instead of her.  That is, until she’d met Umberford.  She shivered and rose from the brocade padded chair.  “All right,” she said as she began to pace.  “I promised I would help and I will.  When I say I will do something, I do it.  No, matter the consequences.”

“That’s what I love best about you,” Rita said, latching onto her wrist.  Belle found herself halting as her twin tugged her into a tight embrace.  “You are the only one who truly understands me,” she said.  “Remember when we first switched places at age twelve and you went to Brighton for me?”

 

          Belle nodded, caught in her sister’s tight hug.  “I was terrified the whole time that either our Aunt Ellie or her Majesty would discover I was an impostor,” she confessed as she returned her sister’s hug.

 

            “But that didn’t happen, did it?” Rita said as she pulled away.  “We are so alike that no one ever notices our differences.”  Turning, her sister faced the oval mirror above the fireplace.  “You act and react exactly like me.  We mirror each other.  That is why I’m inherently confident that you will always react as I would.  So, there’s nothing to worry about, is there?” she asked as she pivoted.

 

         “I hope I can live up to your expectations,” Belle murmured.  She moved away to gaze out the balcony windows as a heavy weight settled in her chest.  Rita was wrong.  In many ways they were the complete opposites.  The problem was that Rita had never taken the time to discover those differences. 

Peering through the rain streaked French doors leading onto the balcony, Belle searched the desolate inlet below for the HMS Sea Hawk. The British Man-of-War that had brought them to Barovia.  A bleak sense of desperation swept through her as she searched the horizon for a tiny dot, hoping for one last glimpse of the British Man-of-War and a bit of the familiar.  Finding nothing, she gulped back her dismay.

 

           Straightening, she took a deep breath, forcing back her rising tide of uneasiness.  Now wasn’t the time to fall apart.  For once again, circumstances demanded that she hold the tattered pieces of both their lives together.  She took another deep breath and blinked back the tears welling inside.  In a fortnight she and Rita would be separated.  She to live in England and Rita to reign as Queen of Barovia.  If what she’d learned about Umberford’s strict dictates were true, then she and her sister would never see each other again.  No matter what their brother had promised, Belle knew this would be their last time together.  She had only this one last chance to make things right for her twin.  She had to do all she could for Rita.  She would have no more chances to correct the mistakes she’d made in the past regarding her sister. 

 

          Belle choked back the panic threatening to swamp her as she thought of their uncertain futures apart.  She took a slow, steady breath.  She knew from experience that it did no good worrying about tomorrow.  She couldn’t change the past and the future was too ambiguous to predict. To do that she would need a crystal ball.  She gulped at the thought.  She’d watched their aunt dabble in the black arts.  The arcane had led to nothing but disappointment and heartache for Aunt Ellie.

 

          Slowly, she turned away from the balcony doors.  She might as well face the inevitable.  She had been abandoned in a foreign country with her sister, their aunt, and two ladies maids dependent upon her.  All they had was each other.  That being the case it would have to be enough until Edward arrived with King Stefan. 

 

           A frantic scratching sounded at the connecting door, followed by a yelp.

 

        “There’s Muffy,” Rita said, “Aunt Ellie must be up from her nap.”

 

          The door swung open and a white ball of fur tumbled into the room followed by their petite blonde-haired aunt.  The small dog raced around Aunt Ellie’s floor length mauve skirts, yipping shrilly preventing the middle-aged woman from moving further into the room.

 

        Belle looked on in amusement as Rita scooped the small yelping dog up into her arms.  The smile dropped from her lips as Belle realized that their ruse was about to be undone by a ball of fluff, Aunt Ellie’s most recent addition to their entourage.

 

       Hastily crossing the room as the dog licked joyously at Rita’s face, Belle held out her arms.  “Give him to me.”

 

       “Oh, Muffy,” Aunt Ellie exclaimed.  “Imagine that!  Now you like her Ladyship just as much as you do her Royal Highness.”

 

        Rita arched her eyebrow.  “You sure?” she whispered, pausing to deposit the wiggling canine into Belle’s waiting arms.  

 

        Belle nodded, wishing their aunt hadn’t turned so formal in her use of titles.  Especially now that they had changed identities.  But then her aunt had lived with them for nearly eight years and never seemed to be able to tell the two girls apart.  So, surely she would be able to remember who her aunt was addressing?

 

        “Definitely,” she nodded then narrowed her gaze on the oversized rat as Rita handed the dog over to her.  The dog squirmed then let out a high-pitched howl as Belle fought to hold onto its squirming, wiggling body.  Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all, she decided.

“Oh, you bad boy,” their aunt scolded as she quickly lifted her pet from Belle’s arms.  “I am so sorry Your Highness,” she said.  “I do not know what has gotten into Muffy?”

 

       Belle knew exactly what was wrong with the dog but instead chose to say.  “Oh, don’t worry, I’ve heard that all males are fickle.”  She smiled to soften her words.

 

        “Not just males,” Rita said, her tone hard.  “I’ve also known a few females that fit into that category.”

 

       “True,” Belle acknowledged as she waved her hand for Rita to ring for tea.

 

       “My Muffy has always been so good.”  Aunt Ellie’s voice trembled as she looked soulfully up at Belle.  “I just don’t know what has gotten into him.” 

Belle laid her arm across their aunt’s shoulders and directed her toward the armchair positioned near the fireplace.  “Don’t fret, my dear.  Tea will be here soon.”

 

       “But, Muffy...”

 

      “Is fine,” Belle inserted.  “Like humans, some animals don’t travel well.  It was a rough crossing for us all.”

 

       “Oh, my yes and especially for you, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said.  “I am so glad to see you have regained the bloom in your cheeks.”

 

       Surripediously, Belle glanced at Rita who still looked a bit pale.

 

      “I’m told that the idea of marriage does that to one,” Rita quipped as she crossed to the fireplace.  “Aunt Ellie, allow me to take Muffy for you.  He’ll be better off with one of the maids while we have our tea.”

 

      “Good idea,” Belle said as the sitting room door opened and Agatha, her lady’s maid, wheeled in the tea tray.  “Let’s all sit and have a relaxing cup while we wait,” she invited.

 

       “Right, might as well make ourselves comfortable,” Rita agreed with awry twist to her lips.  “Who knows how long we’ll be forced to kick up our heels here,” she added as she handed the dog over to the maid.

 

      Without a thought, Belle crossed to the tea trolley and selected a teacup.  “Aunt Ellie, would you--“

 

       “Oh, no, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie popped up out of her chair as if she’d sat on a hot coal.  Adjusting her pink-fringed paisley shawl, she hurried across the room.  “Please, Your Highness, allow me to do the honor,” she said, hastily snatching the cup from Belle’s fingers before she could object.

 

      Sphynx-like, Belle stared at the petite woman for a moment.  Then she glanced over at her twin, her heart hammering in her chest.   Had she unknowingly given away their game?

 

      Rita’s small shrug indicated that she had no answer and that only time would tell.

 

      “Very well,” Belle muttered as she allowed Aunt Ellie to proceed.  Resuming her seat, she watched their aunt turn and set the cup on a saucer.  “I really wish we could drop the ‘your highness’ bit though,” she added.

 

     “Oh, no, Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said as she glanced over her bony shoulder then turned back to pour the tea.  Belle noted a blush stained her aunt’s porcelain face as she crossed the room.  “I couldn’t possible agree to that,” she said, offering her the cup filled with Oolong tea.  “You must become comfortable with hearing your new title.”  

 

        “I suppose you are correct,” Belle sighed then added, “Thank you,” as she accepted the fragrant brew.  When she took a sip, a tingling sensation floated across her tongue. Gracious!  That wasn’t Oolong.  She frowned as she swallowed then noticed that their aunt had returned to the tea cart.  What new brand had Aunt Ellie forced them into trying this time?

 

         “Would you like a cup?” Aunt Ellie, twisting the black band of her cuff back into place before raising an empty cup and waving it at Rita.

 

        “With or without what you just slipped into her Highness’ cup?” Rita asked.

 

         Belle choked as she went to swallow another sip.  Her eyes began to water.

 

         “Oh, dear!” their aunt squeaked.  “You weren’t supposed to see that.”

 

         Finally getting the tea down, Belle wiped at the tears streaming down her face and then managed to gasp.  “See what?”

She heard Rita’s cold chuckle.  “I suspect you are drinking one of Aunt Ellie’s offensive potions,” her twin said.  “But, by now we both realize that while they may taste awful,” she shrugged. “They are innocuous.”

 

          “O-oh!” Aunt Ellie exclaimed then her shoulders drooped.  “I know that I ought to be offended by your words but . . . you’ve only stated the truth.  I am a complete failure when it comes to casting spells.”  She signed, a doleful expression sweeping across her countenance.

 

           “Um-m,” Belle said clearing her throat.  “So, what exactly did you put in this?” she asked as a tingling spread down her throat and into her chest.  She coughed then managed to gasp out.  “Should I be worried?”

 

           “Oh dear!  Do you feel ill, Your Highness?” Aunt Ellie asked.  A deep frown drew her thinning brows together as she began twisting her lace hankie this way and that.

 

            Belle shook her head, her eyes beginning to water again.  “Not necessarily… ill, just…strange.”

 

         “Oh!” Aunt Ellie gasped.  A delightful giggle erupting as a grin spread across her wrinkle free face.  She clapped her hands.  “Imagine that!  It’s working!  It’s really working.”

 

         Belle coughed again then pinched her throat to prevent the sneeze tickling the back of her nose from spewing forth.

 

         “What makes you say that?” Rita asked as she handed Belle a lace hanky.

 

          “I have been practicing,” Aunt Ellie said, proudly, her thin lips stretching into a wide smile.

 

          “But, what exactly did you put in my tea?” Belle asked again as she mopped at her streaming eyes.

 

        Aunt Ellie dipped her silver streaked blonde head, then fingered the coral brooch she wore pinned at the neck of her dress for a moment.  “A-a few of my very special herbs,” she said, shyly. 

 

       “From our herb garden?” Belle asked, trying to decide if she should be alarmed by the strange aftertaste.

 

           “That . . . and a few other things I found,” Aunt Ellie said, nodding vigorously.  The movement caused the braids coiled at the back of her head to sway precariously.  

 

      “Like eye of toad?” Belle mumbled.

 

       “Oh no, my dear,” Aunt Ellie trilled, shaking her head briskly.  “Love potions never use toads, or frogs, or lizards, especially not when dealing with royalty, Your Highness.”

       “A l-love potions?” Belle stammered.  “Why on earth do you think I need one of those?”

       “Well,” Aunt Ellie seemed to hesitate then peered up at her as she extracted two pins from her hair and tucked them back into her coil.  “Because I wasn’t sure that the spell I put on your brooch would work.  I thought… I had better mix you a special potion as well.”

     “Oh-h-h,” Belle sighed, swallowing back the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.  “And the reason you felt it necessary to go to such lengths was--”

“Your Highness,” Aunt Ellie said, leaning towards Belle and grasping her hand.  "For the past eight years you and your sister have been the light of my life.  I want only the very best for you.  I want you…to be…happy.”

Tears welled up in Belle.  “And you think one of your potions will do the trick?” she asked, softly, wanting to remember this overwhelming moment of love pouring out to her for the rest of her life.  Knowing that someone wanted the very best for her would have to be enough to sustain her through the dark years she served as Umberford’s wife.

“Oh, yes, Your Highness, I know it will.”

Belle flipped her hand to clasped Aunt Ellie’s in her own.  She knew the dear lady had loved and still mourned her husband.  “And you really believe that love is necessary in a Marriage of State?”

“Oh, my dear child,” Aunt Ellie said, softly.  “Not only is it necessary but it is essential if the marriage is to succeed.”

Belle peered into the kind blue eyes, so wise in courtly protocol yet naïve in so many of the ways of the world.  “And you think your potion will help me attain happiness?” she asked as she remembered the blackened kitchen walls she’d help scrub down more times than not after one of Aunt Ellie’s potions had gone awry.

“Oh, yes, Your Highness, it is my fondest wish for you.”

Belle hated to disappoint the woman who had been a loving surrogate mother to them.  She lifted her cup from where she had set it on the small table beside her.  She stared into the cup for a moment then swirled the contents.  Raising it to her lips, she tipped it and swallowed the remaining contents in one gulp.  Gently, placing the bone china cup back on its saucer, she bravely met her aunt’s expectant gaze.  “Then may all your wishes come true.”

The poignant moment was lost when Rita hurriedly clapped her hands.  “Brava, Your Highness, brava!”

Belle wrinkled her brow and eyed her sister warily.  She only hoped her bravada hadn’t landed her in more trouble than what she was in already.

*   *  *

Prince Nikolai Orsini Garaini, otherwise known as ‘Niko’, slapped his black leather riding gloves against his gray breeches then frowned.  Blast!  The situation wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination.  Although his men had secured the perimeter of the Black Swan Inn, the life of their future queen was in jeopardy.  “And you say the rebels have cut off all access by road into the village?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Colonel Cyrek Domokos handed him the spyglass and pointed to the main road leading into Saranda.  “There is a main force waiting by the bridge down there.”

“How many?” Niko asked as he swung the scope and adjusted the knob to focus on the road running east from the village of Saranda to the town of Suri Kalter over the mountains.

“About three dozen.”

“Have they pitched tents?”  Niko asked as he turned the glass to the south.

“No,” Cyrek assured him.  “Evidently they don’t think they’re going to be there that long.”

“Good,” Niko said knowing if his enemy was entrenched it would be more difficult to roust them out.  “And the south road?” 

“It’s guarded by a small force,” Cyrek replied.

“So, we’re up against a contingency of about fifty-four rebels?” he asked then wondered if the rebels were there simply to attack another village or if they had been informed that their future Queen had come ashore.  If that was the case, then their presence meant that they were there to harm the Lady with the aim of striking a crippling blow to the country.   

“Could be more,” Cyrek said, slowly.

Niko heard the caution threaded through his friend’s words.  “And the village itself?” he asked, pivoting in that direction, knowing stealth had always been the best option when creating a plan.

“We’re not sure, Your Highness,” Cyrek said.  “The villagers are believed to be loyal to the Crown.  However, there could be rebels planted in every house or none at all.”

Niko nodded.  In these uncertain times, his first priority was to keep her ladyship safe and to effectively extract her from harm’s way.  “Has there been any unusual movement seen inside the village?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Cyrek said.  “As you ordered, our men have filtered into the village over the past two days.  Some dressed as fishermen, others as itinerant peasants and a few appear as tradesmen.  They are positioned both inside the inn and stationed around it.”

“Good,” he said then frowned.  If there had been any way he could’ve delayed the lady’s arrival until after he’d found out with certainty that someone was supplying information to the rebels then he would’ve.  But Stefan needed this marriage pronto to stabilize their country.  “And the lady?”

“She and her entourage arrived minutes ago while you were making your way up here.”

Niko nodded then hesitated.  “How large a group?”

“Nearest I can tell,” Cyrek said, “there’s a middle-aged chaperone, two ladies maids, and another female.”

“Likely her personal secretary,” Niko guessed, pleased she had kept the number of attendants to the maximum his cousin had requested.

But that by no means solved his problem of how to extract her from a village surrounded by rebels.  Slowly, he began to pace the small ridge above the main road as he considered the solution.  Halting, he waved his officers waiting for instructions over as he bent and drew a squiggly line in the dirt.  “While I had planned on bringing her Ladyship into the Bay of Vlore,” he said, pointing to the make-shift position.  “With the storm and the Austrian-Hungarian blockade in the Strait of Otranto, I had no other choice but to move our rendezvous point to Saranda since it’s the only port deep enough to handle a British Man of War.”  He drew a circle.  “Now, we have the task of removing Cousin Stefan’s bride from the threat of the Yugoslavian rebels blocking all our exits from the town.”  He straightened and stared at his friend.  “Stefan hasn’t been king long enough to gain the full backing of all of our countrymen.  If the rebels can stop Stefan’s marriage, our very existence is in jeopardy.”

Cyrek nodded.  “Because without this marriage, we have no link to Queen Victoria and England’s might.  And without that military power behind us--”

“Greece, Yugoslavia and Austria-Hungary will invade, claim our land as their own and we will become a bloody battlefield caught between the three countries,” Niko said.  “Our defenses cannot withstand the collective invasion of all three nations at once,” he admitted then took a deep breath.  “Therefore, to prevent that, here’s my plan.”  Hastily, he began drawing in the dirt.  “We’ll leave you, Major Kelso and your rifle troop here to pin down the rebels at the bridge,” he said pointing at the position he’d drawn.  “Captain Bjorni, we will send you and a squad of your men to the south to hunt down the rebels along the road,” he said moving his index finger over to that position.  “Major Hondros, you are to maintain your orders to fire at will upon anyone threatening the safety of her Ladyship.”  He swept his gaze over his cadre of officers.  “As for me, I’ll circle around to the village of Vorshi.  Procure Stefan’s yacht and sail back here.  Since we’ve masked the ship’s markings and it appears as an ordinary fishing vessel, we’ll anchor off the promontory.  A skiff will bring me ashore.  I’ll then make my way up through the village and proceed on to the inn.”

“And at the Inn?” Cyrek asked as his bushy eyebrows drew together.

“I’ll convince her Ladyship that she must accompany me out by boat,” he said then straightened.  “Any questions?” he asked as he swept his gaze over his men.

With a shake of their heads, they responded, “No, sir.”

Niko nodded then continued.  “Once you have quietly rounded up the rebels, you and Major Hondros will escort her ladyship’s entourage to Ksamilli.  The following morning, you will proceed to Berat where we’ll meet you outside the city in the field across from the public market.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Cyrek snapped him a salute.  “Rest assured the men guarding our future Queen will protect her with their very lives.”

“I know,” he said, returning the salute.  The men in his command were seasoned veterans who had served together, like he and Cyrek had, for over ten years.  With men like these, what inevitably went wrong was halted before it became a problem.

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