Authors: Gaelen Foley
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Historical, #General
Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to my lifelong and most loyal friends,
Shana, Elizabeth, and Janeen.
Special thanks to my mom, whose insight, based on her years of work with victims of family violence, contributed greatly to my understanding of the scars such tragedy leaves, and the hope for healing that its brave survivors inspire in us all.
She is a pearl
whose price hath launched above
a thousand ships,
And turned crowned kings
He after honor hunts; I after love.
“You are mine,” he ground out. “You know you are.”
She stared up at him in silence, barely daring to breathe.
He was panting, his onyx eyes flashing like heat lightning. She did not know what he intended, she only knew he was far stronger than she. His hard chest against her, she could feel his rushing pulse.
“You know you are mine,” he whispered again. “Say it.”
Was he asking for permission to deflower her? she thought in alarm. She meant to ease him back to reason with a tactful reminder that she was soon to marry another man—a man who would probably kill her if she came to her wedding night not a virgin—but when she opened her mouth, only one word slipped out. “Yes.”
The sound of her rapid, shallow panting filled the narrow space between the box-hedge walls of the garden maze. The hedges towered over her, closing in on her, and the pounding of her pulse was so loud in her head she knew they would hear. She inched down the narrow lane, her bare toes creeping silently over the cool, lush grass, her chest heaving. Constantly she looked over her shoulder. Her whole body was shaking, her hand bleeding, maybe broken from punching Philippe in his smug, sneering face with the sharp edge of her huge diamond ring. But at least she had managed to throw herself out of his iron grasp and had torn into the maze, where she thought she could evade them. She dared not call out for help because only the three men would hear.
No one else was outside on such a night, when the breeze spattered rain from a sky deepest indigo smeared with gold clouds. The cicadas roared in waves, while the wind, as it rose and fell, brought fragments of a tinkling minuet spilling out over the vast gardens and the royal park from the ball in progress—her engagement party. Her fiancé had been unable to attend.
She jerked her face wildly to the left, hearing movement on the other side of the dense hedge.
He was right there. The acid taste of the wine she’d drunk rose in the back of her throat.
She could see the shape of him, tall, bedecked in his finery. She could see the shape of the pistol in his hand and knew her pale silk gown was sure to be visible through the branches. She crouched down and moved silently away.
“Don’t be afraid, Your Highness,” came Henri’s mellifluous voice from several rows away. “We’re not going to hurt you. Come out now. There’s nothing you can do.”
They had split up so they could surround her. She choked back a sob, clawing to keep hold of her fragile control as she tried to decide which way to go. She had run around in this maze since she was a little girl, but she was so frightened she had lost all sense of direction.
She heard the lulling splash of the fountain in the tiny center courtyard of the maze and used the sound to try to orient herself. Clenching her fist so tightly her nails dug into her palm, she huddled against the bush, edging inch by inch down the lane. At the end, she pressed her back flat against the scratchy bushes, too scared to turn the corner. She waited, shaking, praying, trying to gather her nerve, her stomach in knots.
She didn’t know what they wanted.
She had been propositioned many times by the gilded, predatory courtiers of the palace, but no one had ever attempted to haul her away before. No one had ever used guns.
She would have cried, but she was too terrified. The breeze rose again. She smelled cut grass, jasmine, man.
“Your Highness, you have nothing to fear. We are your friends.”
She bolted, her long, black hair streaming out behind her. Thunder rumbled, the scent of a summer storm on the wind. At the end of the lane, she stopped, again too petrified to turn the corner, lest she find Philippe or the blond one, Henri, standing there waiting to catch her. She kept thinking how her ex-governess always said something like this would happen to her if she didn’t mend her wild ways, stop acting so bold.
She vowed she would never be bold again. Never flirt. Never trust.
Her chest lifted and fell, lifted and fell.
They were coming. She knew she could not remain where she was for more than a few seconds longer.
I am trapped. There is no way out of this.
And then there came another voice, barely audible, a ghostly whisper.
The single word seemed to rise from the earth, or to slip out of the very air.
She nearly sobbed aloud to hear it, wanting with all her heart to believe it was not her panicked brain playing tricks on her. Only one person called her by that name, the Spanish version of her proper Italian title, Principessa.
If ever she’d had need of him, it was now.
Beautiful, blackhearted Santiago.
He alone could have saved her from this nightmarish game, but he was far away on the king’s business, intelligence-gathering and protecting the ambassador in Moscow, where the new alliance against Napoleon was being formed.
Darius Santiago was an insolent, arrogant heathen, of course, but he did not know the meaning of fear and she quite believed he could do anything. She had not seen him in nearly a year, but he was always lingering near the outskirts of her heart, with his arrogant smirk and his coal-black eyes, as though watching her from across the miles by some occult vision.
“I grow weary of this chase,
” Henri warned. She saw movement through the rows, made out tousled blond curls. She saw the Frenchman stop and cock his head, listening.
Wide-eyed, both hands pressed to her mouth to silence her ragged panting, Serafina began backing away. At a tug on her hair, she almost screamed, whirling to find that one of her long black curls had merely snagged on the grasping bushes.
She knew she heard it that time! But how could it be? She froze, her gaze darting wildly.
Could he know somehow that she was in danger? Could the bond between them still be so strong?
And then she realized she felt him there, felt his strange, silent power all around her in the night like the imminent storm.
“Make your way to the center courtyard,” the dark, airy murmur instructed her.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered, closing her eyes, almost sick with relief. He had come.
Of course he had come.
Even though he did not want her, even though he would never love her, she was of the royal blood and he was honor-bound to protect her.
Darius Santiago was the king’s most trusted man, a master spy and assassin. His loyalty to her father was absolute. If ever there was dark work to be done protecting the kingdom and the royal family of the small Italian island kingdom Ascencion, Darius was there to shoulder it without complaint. His presence here now made her realize there was even more to Philippe’s attempt to abduct her than she had guessed.
She lowered both hands from her mouth to her sides. Her chest still heaved with each breath, but she lifted her chin, awaiting Darius’s instructions.
“Go to the courtyard, Your Highness. Hurry.”
“Where are you?” she breathed, trembling. “Help me.”
“I am near, but I cannot get to you.”
“Please help me,” she choked, stifling a sob.
“Shh,” he whispered. “Go to the inner courtyard.”
“I’m lost, Darius, I forget.” Blinded now by the tears she had been staving off since Philippe had first seized her, she stared through the dense green lace of the hedge trying to see him.
“Stay calm, be brave,” he softly instructed. “Two right turns. You’re very close. I’ll meet you there.”
“A-all right,” she choked out.
“Go now.” His whisper faded away.
For a moment, Serafina could not seem to move. Then she pierced the cold fog of fear, forcing herself. She set out for the tiny, brick-laid courtyard, legs shaking beneath her, her scraped knee still burning from before, when she had slipped on the grass. The mist-hued gown of gossamer silk she had been so delighted to wear now had a tear at the knee. Each movement was torturous with her effort to be silent, slowed by her tremors of fear, but she painstakingly followed the lullaby of the fountain splashing in its carved stone basin.
With every inch gained, her mind chanted his name as if she could conjure him,
Darius, Darius, Darius.
She came to the first corner.
Steeled herself. Peeked around.
She moved on, gathering confidence. Images flashed through her mind of Darius watching over her all through her childhood, calming her with a look, her stern, beloved knight who would always protect her. But when she had finally grown up, nothing had gone according to plan.
Darius, don’t let them get me.
Ahead she saw she’d have to slip past a break in the left wall of the lane where it intersected another path. She prayed her pursuers weren’t down there to see her pass. At the break in the hedge, she hesitated, her courage faltering.
A bead of perspiration ran down her cheek.
Let them put that in the newspapers,
she thought madly, brushing it away with the back of her hand.
the Princess Royal sweats!