Princess Aurelia is next in line to rule the kingdom of Tyralt, but she would rather be one of the common folk, free to learn and roam and . . . not marry the next tyrannical prince that comes courting. Naturally, the king wants Aurelia to marry for political power. Aurelia wants to marry for love. And someone in the kingdom wants her . . . dead. Assigned to investigate and protect Aurelia is Robert, the son of the king?s former royal spy and one of Aurelia?s oldest friends. As Aurelia and Robert slowly uncover clues as to who is threatening her, their friendship turns to romance. With everything possible on the line?her life, her kingdom, her heart?Aurelia is forced to take matters into her own hands, no matter the cost.
Release date: April 17, 2008
Print pages: 256
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Death disturbed the night. The sound of squeaking wheels grew louder, as did the clicking of horse hooves scraping across cobblestones. A rickety old wagon, its simple board bed held together with rusty screws, pulled up against the back of the palace.
Two servants slipped from the shadows, a bearded footman and a wiry kitchen maid with a shuttered lantern in her hand. The footman put his back and shoulder strength into opening an old storage-room door. It had not been moved for some time. Finally, the harsh brush of sliding splinters overcame the friction. A loud squeak echoed into the stillness as he pulled his hands away from the door, satisfied the gap was wide enough.
Meanwhile the maid had rushed toward the driver in the wagon seat and gestured for him to follow her inside. A scraggly, aged man climbed down from his perch, one mud-crusted boot at a time sliding into its foothold and landing less than gracefully upon the ground. The woman tried to encourage him to hurry but received only a sullen grumbling about arthritis on a cold night.
Her face tight with worry, she led both men through the doorway, passing shelves of f lour, sugar, and other baking ingredients on her way toward the abandoned cellar. At the top of the staircase, she lifted the lantern shutter to reveal a burning candle, and the group began a descent into the darkness, keeping their hands on the jittery, loose banister.
They hovered above a bulky lump draped in a linen sheet at the bottom of the stairway. Words were exchanged in rasping whispers, though no one was nearby to overhear the conversation. The footman’s face dripped with sweat, and the woman’s hands trembled, causing the lantern to shake and the light to flicker along empty walls.
In contrast to the nervous servants, the driver simply went about his job as he did every night. He asked the necessary questions, frowned at the distance he was told to travel, and nodded as his payment was increased.
Then the three lifted the awkward object, still wrapped within its sheet, and packed it up the stairs and out of the palace, where they loaded it onto the back of the wagon. Though the wagon bed had been empty, a lingering stench of decay caused the maid to pale and move away in fear of growing nauseous.
The footman dug his hand into a pocket and pulled out a thin purse of money to place in the older man’s callused palm. Having received payment, the driver nodded, slipping the purse into a pocket under his frayed, black coat. He pulled up the wagon f lap and slid the latch into place. Then, at the same slow pace with which he had climbed down, he negotiated his way back up to his original perch. The well-trained horses waited patiently for him to unwind the reins, and a croaked “Giddyap” swung the wagon into motion.
As the wheels rapped their way down the road, the two servants exhaled with the relief of having finished an undesired task. The woman shuddered and said, “I never thought I’d be dealing with the likes of him when I undertook this job.”
The footman murmured his agreement, sliding shut the obstinate door. A chill wind picked up, encouraging both servants to hurry along the path. They slipped through a stone doorway and entered the warm interior of a kitchen in the tumultuous midst of serving a royal banquet.
Down the road, no more than half a mile, the tattered driver hunched over the wagon seat in a futile attempt to fend off the cold. His stomach did not turn when he thought of his cargo. Even if he had been aware it was the body of the princess’s meal taster, the knowledge would have mattered little to him beyond its contribution to the purse in his pocket. To him, the body was just another corpse, resting on cracked boards as the wagon lurched its way toward an unmarked mass grave.
On the night of her younger sister’s coming-out party, Aurelia almost died. Of boredom. Her ankle itched as though a single ant were casually creeping over her f lesh. She squirmed and stared blankly at the banquet-hall f loor. If only she had not worn the violet silk with the stiff lace ruffle on the bottom. She longed to reach down and scratch, but years of royal training had not been entirely lost. She could not afford such a dramatic movement while her father was speaking.
The king stood at the head of the banquet table, his pale eyes staring at the guests’ foreheads. His gold crown f lattened his prematurely gray hair beneath its weight, and only his slate-gray mustache moved as he droned, “Loyalty and respect are the highest attributes of a young woman.” Please. Aurelia raised her eyes to the fresco on the ceiling.
The back of her gilt chair bit into her shoulder blades, and the heat generated by close bodies made the dab of face paint on her cheeks gleam. Her lady’s maid had dared her to wear the paint, and Aurelia had never refused a dare in her seventeen years.
Thinking was becoming a trial in this stif ling atmosphere. Must nearly every lord and lady in the kingdom attend Melony’s coming-out party? Where was the appeal in seeing Aurelia’s younger sister dance with every titled man in the room? And why must all the dull society members insist upon participating in the celebration?
Aurelia reached toward her dessert plate and crushed the remaining cake crumbs beneath her fork. The rich smell of chocolate clashed with the multitude of perfumes oozing off the guests. Brocade sleeves and frock coats rustled as the speech dragged on, and the whalebone stays in Aurelia’s corset dug into her diaphragm. Breathe, she told herself. It’s going to be a long night, but then it will finally be over.
For weeks the entire staff had hurtled back and forth, preparing for Melony’s debut. The ballroom and banquet-hall f loors were waxed, and tall crimson candles in golden candelabras lit up every corner of the rooms. Long-stemmed roses sprang forth in bouquets of fifteen, one for each of the fifteen years leading up to this exceptional birthday. The pale green silk for Melony’s dress had been imported a year in advance, and the palace musicians had been practicing just as long. At first Aurelia had enjoyed the beautiful dance rhythms haunting the palace hallways, but she had long since come to associate the sound of tuning up with the grinding of an oncoming headache.
At least her sister was enjoying herself. Sitting on Aurelia’s right, in sharp contrast to her older sister’s dark features and darker mood, Melony glowed. Her blond hair glistened in the candlelight and her green eyes matched the sparkle of the emerald necklace at her throat. A smile of sheer pleasure spread across her face. Any other observer might have assumed the brilliant smile was for the king, but Aurelia noted her sister’s darting glances toward the end of the long table. Which young noble had captured Melony’s interest this time?
Aurelia leaned over to whisper the question in her sister’s ear, but a sudden wave of champagne glasses interrupted. “To Tyralt,” the king said, his voice gaining in strength, “the most powerful kingdom on the southern coast.”
Noting the hesitation on the faces of several of the foreign guests, Aurelia took a sip of champagne. She doubted her father’s tactless statement was an accident. He preferred to use words rather than armies to maintain Tyralt’s legacy of power within the region.
“I am told we live in an Age of Reason,” the king continued, “of Rationality, of Enlightenment.” His face cracked a smile as he aimed his glass in Melony’s direction. “But I ask you, gentlemen, of what use is reason in the face of beauty?”
A round of chuckles rippled along the table, cleansing the air of the earlier tension. “To Melony, a true jewel of the realm,” the king said.
“To Melony,” the guests echoed with enthusiasm.
The gold clock chimed ten. At last! Time for the dancing to begin. The king stepped forward, offered his arm to his younger daughter, and led Melony out through the wide archway connecting the banquet hall to the ballroom.
As the crowd’s eager eyes focused on the pair positioning themselves for the opening waltz, Aurelia knew her chance had come. Quickly she reached up to secure her tiara. Then, bending down, skirt hitched up, she scratched her ankle in a highly satisfying, undignified manner.
Now for the agony of the ballroom.
Aurelia lifted her empty glass and twirled its thin stem between her fingers, stalling until the final strains of the waltz came to an end. She admired her sister’s powers of persuasion. The king had opposed the playing of modern waltz music among the usual minuets and gavottes. He feared the close waltz hold would invite scandal, but Melony had pleaded with her innocent eyes and won the day.
Now the king’s gaze lifted from Melony’s face and reeled Aurelia in. Duty called. She set down the glass, stood up, and stepped into the rapidly filling ballroom.
A towering gray wig promptly blocked her view. “Oh, my dear, you have grown up,” gushed the female owner of the powdered wig. “You were a little sprig of a girl in your father’s wedding train the last time I saw you.”
Aurelia peered at the petite, older woman, identifying her as a duchess from several kingdoms over. “You must be mistaking me for my sister Melony. I was not present at my father’s second wedding.”
“Perhaps not at the actual ceremony, but you were a member of the original wedding train.” The duchess placed a gloved hand above her mouth as if sharing a secret. “I remember the rehearsal. You had a tantrum because you disliked the frilly dress, and you tore the bows and ruffles right off. Your father removed you from the wedding because your stepmother was so upset. My, how you have changed.”
Not as much as you think. Aurelia eyed the woman’s ridiculous wig and overblown skirt with hidden distaste. Thanks to the queen’s desire to display her natural assets, the tall wigs, bulky panniers, and wide hoops that were still the rage in neighboring kingdoms had disappeared from Tyralian court fashion. Foreign guests such as this woman were easy to identify. Even the foreign men in their plumed hats and buckled shoes stood out next to the bare heads and plain boots of native Tyralians.
“Of course your stepsister took over your role in the actual wedding. She did a lovely job for a three-year-old. One would have thought she was born royal.”
Aurelia put on a weak smile. “Melony was two at the time. She had not yet turned three, and you need not refer to her as my stepsister. She is my true sister in all the ways which matter.”
“Yes, I’m not surprised you feel that way. It was so good of your father to adopt the child when he married her mother. Such a blessing both Melony and the queen have been to the entire kingdom.”
Aurelia stepped aside in a discreet attempt to withdraw, but the duchess dropped her voice and continued. “And such a shame about your brother’s death and your mother’s disappearance. Prior to the announcement about the new wedding, there was a great deal of concern. People feared your father might never recover from his grief. ” She opened her fan. “The rumors! I remember my aunt telling me her husband told her the king of Tyralt had locked himself in his library and refused to come out for months. You were too young to remember any of this, I’m sure.”
But Aurelia did remember. She remembered the lowering of her brother’s coffin and the subsequent pain on her father’s face when he announced that her mother had abandoned him and Aurelia. She remembered the hardwood surface of the closed library door. Only a stranger would dredge up those memories in this reckless fashion. “I am sorry, but I must—”
The woman barreled on, plunging into even more personal territory. “Well, my dear, when are you going to find yourself a husband?”
A drunken lord in a white cravat chose that moment to join in the conversation. “Yes, Yer Highness. I say ya oughta stop leadin’ all the gennlemen on.” He squinted red eyes at Aurelia and reached out a pawing hand toward her bodice.
She backed away. Why did perfect strangers insist on making judgments and personal comments?
A serving maid came to the rescue, toppling the contents of her tray all over both the lord and the duchess. The man and woman gaped in alarm at their wine-stained clothing. “Oh, I am sorry!” gasped the maid, then covered her mouth with her hand and gave a discreet nod toward the center of the dance floor.
Recognizing the girl as one of Melony’s servants, Aurelia looked up to catch a conspiratorial wink from her sister. The younger princess released a brilliant smile in her direction, then turned to bestow it upon an eager swarm of young swains.
Aurelia grabbed the opportunity to sweep away from the duchess and the lord.
Right into her father’s waiting glare. “What has kept you?” He came forward.
“The duchess wished to speak with me. I did not want to offend a guest.”
Her father spared a glance for the man and woman dripping in red wine. “You appear to have failed,” he said, then turned toward a group of men gathered a few feet behind him. “The duchess is of little import in comparison with the suitors waiting to meet you.”
Suitors, my eye! Aurelia noted the gray beards on two of the wealthy nobles coming toward her. Sweat formed inside her long white gloves, and her chest tightened. The music changed to a gavotte, and a hand touched her elbow. She lifted her gaze reluctantly to accept her first offer to dance for the evening.
Robert Vantauge leaned comfortably back against the ballroom wall, his arms linked across his chest, a jaunty tilt to his head. He had been gone from the capital for four years, his father having chosen to move the family to the unsettled northern region of the kingdom. Robert was back under the guise of visiting his cousin Chris. However, Chris, who was standing beside him, had barely received a moment’s worth of attention this night.
Robert’s eyes followed Aurelia’s dancing figure across the room without blinking. They shone very blue under his dark features and wavy brown hair. Many of the nearby girls had observed those eyes but had given up on drawing their gaze.
He was in a state of shock. The scraggly girl he remembered from his childhood had transformed into a young woman: slender, sharp, and stubborn. He could visualize her entrance into the banquet hall earlier that evening. She had walked with confidence, her thick brown hair swept up in an elaborate coif; her diamond tiara dipping down above the dark crescents of her eyebrows; her cinnamon skin gliding over matching cheekbones, raised chin, and the smooth curve of her jawline. She had held her bare shoulders with poise above the neckline of her expensive gown.
He had scarcely recognized her and might not have known her at all if it were not for those familiar dark eyes, shining with intensity. Upon first glance, he had feared a polished persona had replaced the opinionated rebel from his past, but not much time went by before the polish began to fade. She had fidgeted all through the king’s speech, and now she was dissecting the head of some nobleman who had stepped on her foot. Robert grinned in enjoyment at the improper display.
“Well, I pity the crown princess.” A female voice slipped under the harmonic music, catching Robert’s attention. Aurelia’s lady’s maid, Daria, stood at his left elbow speaking to Chris. She wore the white gown of servitude, and her typically pale face glowed with a rosy hue against the fabric. Her first full day of married life must have agreed with her, despite the fact that her new husband, being a courier, had not been invited to the party.
Robert joined the conversation. “It’s her partner you should take pity on.” He nodded toward Aurelia’s enraged face as it disappeared in and out behind the colorful screen of spinning couples.
Daria’s dark curls swished as she laughed. “Yes, she is giving him the back side of her tongue, which he no doubt deserves. I still pity her. The poor girl is trapped like carrion among the men in this ballroom. Are you aware, Robert, she’s already had to refuse seven proposals of marriage?”
“And who forced her to refuse them?” scoffed Chris, pausing in the aimless pursuit of buttoning and unbuttoning his wide sleeve cuffs. A smirk spread across the fine bones of his smooth face, and he lounged against the tall back of a chair with relaxed grace.
Daria shoved him. “You know five of those so-called suitors were old enough to be her father, even her grandfather.”
“And what was wrong with the other two?” Robert asked.
“Besides the fact they were only after her money and her title?” Daria bristled. “One was an utter fool. He couldn’t even stand up to his father, much less help run a country. The other was cruel.” She shuddered. “He beat his own horse.”
Robert grimaced. He held animals in higher esteem than most people.
“Now,” Daria said, “Aurelia can only wait, knowing sooner or later her father is going to select some suitor and give her no choice but to marry him.”
Chris shook his head. “Do you really think Aurelia’s that easily overpowered? When has she ever obeyed an order?”
Robert had to agree with his cousin. The Aurelia he remembered had broken as many rules as she had followed. She had talked her way out of more punishments than anyone Robert knew—except for Chris.
“Don’t be so certain.” Daria’s expression grew serious. “Ever since her brother’s death, her father has held the kingdom over her head like a giant scepter he can smash her with. If she refuses to marry, she cannot inherit.”
“She would lose the kingdom.” Robert frowned. “And we would lose a strong leader.”
“Her second cousin, the king of Montaine, would take over Tyralt,” Chris muttered.
“At least Melony can’t inherit.” Daria motioned toward the grand portrait of Aurelia’s sister hanging on the wall. The younger princess held no claim on the crown through blood. “Can you imagine her dealing with a crisis?”
Chris jostled his friend. “Come on, Dar, Melony’s not that bad. She’s just not Aurelia.”
On this point, Robert was not certain he agreed with his cousin. He had never known the younger princess well, but he had observed her telling one person one thing and another the opposite in order to keep both happy. He did not like the idea of being unable to trust the person making decisions for the entire kingdom. His father and mother had taught him to value people who were willing to disagree with him. “Far better that, than to place your trust in someone who will deny you their support in a dangerous situation,” his mother had said. One thing Aurelia had never been afraid to do was argue with him, or anyone else for that matter.
“If Aurelia did love someone,” Daria continued, ignoring Chris’s comment, “she’d probably run away and marry him whether or not her father approved. As it is, she doesn’t care a bit for any of those suitors, and she wouldn’t gain anything by infuriating the king.” Neither Robert nor Chris disagreed. “By refusing to marry, she would just succeed in losing what is most precious to her.”
“At the moment,” Robert said, nodding toward the princess, “I think she’s holding her privacy most precious because she hasn’t had any all evening.”
Daria smiled, a gleam in her black eyes. “Neither has she had a moment away from those titled aristocrats. I dare you, Robert, to go rescue her.”
“And just how would I do that?” he asked.
“Go ask her to dance, of course. Then waltz her this way and out from under her father’s watchful eye.”
“Don’t.” Chris gripped Robert’s elbow. “Every man who speaks to her these days is put on the palace watch list. They intend to pack her wedding trunks within the year. Anyone who is a potential husband is required to speak with her father, and anyone in the way becomes an object of palace scrutiny.”
Aware he was ignoring sage advice, Robert shook the hand off his elbow and took a step forward. “Oh, calm yourself,” he teased. “She’s danced with ten or fifteen men thus far tonight. By the time anyone gets around to worrying about me, I’ll be safely back on the frontier. Of course I’ll accept Daria’s dare. You obviously aren’t up to the challenge, and if I don’t, Aurelia may suffocate before I get a chance to talk to her.”
Somehow he managed to maneuver through the revolving swirls of silks, taffetas, and velvets overflowing the dance floor. He sidestepped several couples just in time to avoid being stamped on by an ill-placed boot or a high-heeled shoe and emerged, feet intact, just behind his old classmate.
Aurelia shook her head at an insistent partner’s demand for a second dance and managed to slip loose of clinging arms. She recoiled, fortunately in Robert’s direction. Another lurker reached out a hand for her elbow, but the would-be partner was too late. Robert had her in his grasp, spinning her around to face him.
“How dare you!” Anger f lared, transforming the landscape of her face. Sharp lines and angles replaced the smooth curves of her chin and jaw. Muscles tightened around her cheekbones, and her eyebrows spiked as she tried to tug her right hand out of his grip. Her brown eyes boiled with indignation and, due to a fierce tug, her hair arrangement tumbled halfway down her neck.
“Don’t snap,” Robert scolded, encircling her waist in waltz position. “You’ll draw your father’s attention, and we’ll never escape.”
“My father’s attention?” The scornful tone let Robert know she had kept the same opinion on this point. She managed to free herself from the dance hold but not the tight grip on her right hand.
Robert tugged her back, whispering, “You are still a falcon, one camouf laged in silk, face paint, and hairpins, but a falcon nonetheless.” He waited to see if the old name-calling would stop her from taking flight.
Emotions flicked across her face, first wariness, then surprise, and finally, recognition.
“Robert Vantauge!” Her eyes lit up. “When did you arrive? I thought you had gone off to become a frontier hero and live on the land. You were going to come back with a pack full of furs and stories about how you’d collected them.” She eyed the proper attire he had borrowed from Chris, clicking her tongue. “I must say that as a frontiersman, you are an abysmal disappointment. Where are the scars, the hunting knife, and the buckskin jacket?” She could always parry with her tongue as well as he could with a sword.
“I’m afraid I collected more bruises than scars. My knife is in my saddlebags, and my jacket is hanging behind the door in Chris’s room. I came for a visit and had the misfortune to arrive last night, too late to attend Daria’s wedding and too early to avoid this exercise in elitism.”
Aurelia’s face darkened.
“And,” he added, putting on a forcefully cheerful voice, “just in time to rescue ye fair maid. I have been sent on this mission, risking your wrath, to lead you over to yon comrades.” He wagged his head. “’Tis a shame. You seem to have left them yearning for your presence far too long.”
Aurelia leaped up to see her friends beyond the crowd of heads.
“No, no, no!” Robert embraced her in waltz position. “We don’t want to draw unnecessary attention.”
She beamed with anticipation and graced him with a smile.
At that moment he knew he was in trouble.
“You’ve been bad,” she said, “arriving at the palace last night and not bothering to let me know you were here.”
“I won’t beg your pardon.” He grinned. “I was exhausted by the time I arrived. Even Chris barely received three words from me, ‘Hello. Good night.’ Then today the palace was so hectic I couldn’t have grabbed a minute of your time if I was holding your lady’s maid at sword point.”
“Ha!” She shook her head, knocking off several tenuously placed hairpins. “I will only forgive you if you promise to wait for me tomorrow night before you and Chris leave.”
“Tomorrow night?” Her teasing threat was too far out of context for him to manage a smart response.
She laughed at his confusion. “Yes, it’s Carnival, the Night of the Masks. Remember all those nasty tricks we used to play on our instructors, like the time we spent the whole night painting the classroom black?”
Robert did remember that night with the paint. He and his friends had been caught, eventually. His father had taken two months to uncover the names of every student involved. Being the daughter of the king was no caramel apple, but being the son of the king’s royal spy had its drawbacks as well. Robert had paid for that practical joke long after many of his fellow students had forgotten it had ever occurred.
“We’re old enough to go out in disguise now,” Aurelia said. “You must wait for me before you go.” She frowned. “It’s no fun alone.”
A trace of sadness in her voice made Robert promise despite misgivings. “All right, it’s not like I can refuse the order of the princess.”
Her voice fried him to ash. “It’s not an order, Robert, but even if it was, I expect my friends to have enough courage to refuse an invitation.”
Nothing had lengthened her temper over the last four years. He resorted to humor, the only defense available, and swept her a mocking bow. “I’ll be your lifelong friend then, since I won’t put up with being pushed around.”
“Really?” Her eyes danced. She splayed her hands against his chest and pushed, hard.
Robert held his footing without giving ground. “Yes, and thank you for the invitation.” He encircled her waist with his hands and twirled her toward her anxiously waiting friends. His mind spun as he looked down at her laughing face. He could not imagine why someone was trying to kill her.
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