Authors: Christina Dodd
The Runaway Princess
Â Â Â “Who could she possibly be?”
Â Â Â Fear took a stranglehold on Evangeline's throat.
Â Â Â Just as gravity caught her, hands yanked her back.
Â Â Â Evangeline backed toward the corner of the chamber.
Â Â Â “A bomb?” Evangeline said stupidly.
Â Â Â With both hands, Evangeline muffled her gasp of horror.
Â Â Â Danior didn't, as Evangeline feared, throw her over his shoulder again.
Â Â Â Evangeline stiffened on his back as she gazed up .Â .Â .
Â Â Â “Not until you put me down.”
Â Â Â Evangeline tried to sidestep him, but he caught her arm.
Â Â Â Evangeline sagged against the wide stone sill.
Â Â Â With both hands holding Evangeline's bottom, Danior lifted her,
Â Â Â
You'll depend on me for everything, Evangeline.
Â Â Â Danior stared up at the rope dangling from the storeroom,
Â Â Â For one horrified moment, Evangeline thought Danior had .Â .Â .
Â Â Â Grinning with obnoxious delight, Dominic slapped .Â .Â .
Â Â Â The only sounds in the forest were the ceaseless drumbeat .Â .Â .
Â Â Â Evangeline never actually lost consciousness.
Â Â Â If Danior was trying to distract her, he'd achieved his goal.
Â Â Â Evangeline had never seen the prince smile like that.
Â Â Â “Wake up, dearling. We have to go now.”
Â Â Â Evangeline balanced her plate on her knees .Â .Â .
Â Â Â Hours later, on the banks of a tiny spring .Â .Â .
Â Â Â Evangeline halted in the middle of the path,
Â Â Â “Another prophecy fulfilled.”
Â Â Â Danior fought the drive to lie in wait,
Â Â Â “Your Highness?” the guard called from the open hatchway.
Â Â Â The boat's bow tilted straight down as it dove .Â .Â .
Â Â Â “The princess has run away from the prince.”
Â Â Â Victor slammed into the door, bringing Evangeline to her feet,
Â Â Â Two fires roared in two fireplaces .Â .Â .
Â Â Â Evangeline wasn't eating.
Â Â Â “I hate to interrupt this touching spectacle, Highnesses.”
The Pyrenees, 1816
“Who could she possibly be?”
Ignoring such vulgar speculation as beneath her, Miss Evangeline Scoffield posed at the door of the dining room and, with icy dignity, waited for the maÃ®tre d'hÃ´tel.
Bowing, he twitched his mustache as he asked in French, “Your usual table, Mademoiselle?”
The flurry of whispers started in a dozen languages.
“Probably a wealthy widow.
“Perhaps from one of the noble families of Europe. Napoleon displaced so many, you know .Â .Â .”
Evangeline knew that none of the travelers who had flocked to this spaânot the Spanish lord, not the Prussian general, and certainly not the over-loud Englishwomanâcould imagine the truth.
“Thank you, Henri,” Evangeline answered in his own language, blessing him with a wistful smile. “You are too good.”
Henri's eyes glistened with pleasure. “I live only to serve you.”
With a recently acquired, and to her, quite surprising, sense of drama, she replied, “To serve me could prove dangerous.”
“For you, I laugh at danger.”
“Believe me, I am not someone to whom you should make such an avowal.”
The whispers continued.
“The servants hint she is a princess .Â .Â .”
“All alone, poor thing, without even a maid .Â .Â .”
Closing his eyes, he pressed his hand on his chest over his heart. “Such beauty as yours is a reward in itself.”
Beauty? No one had ever called her a beauty before, but in this magical place, anything was possible. “Take this.” She slipped some coins into his hands. “I have suffered such travails in my life, I cannot allow genuine kindness such as yours to go unmarked.”
His eyes snapped open, and he pocketed the gold immediately. “For a smile from you, I would walk barefoot over the rocky ground, fight a dozen men, wrestle a ferocious bear, face the devil himselfâ”
“Enough.” More than enough. He tried to speak, but she handed him another coin and his mouth snapped shut. She nodded, not like a misplaced princess but like a sensible Englishwoman. “I will be seated now.”
This resort had once been a private chÃ¢teau near the Spanish border, the summer home of a wealthy duke. When Napoleon's defeat had impoverished its owner, he had been forced to find a way to maintain his home. Taking advantage of the thermal springs
nearby, he now catered to the nobles' desire to combine travel and healing. Two fireplaces blazed in the room where Evangeline now stood, cherubs smiled from marble arches, and broad windows overlooked the verdant valley below.
ChÃ¢teau FortunÃ© was now one of the crown jewels of the grand tour, and Evangeline reveled in being one of its shining facets. Albeit temporarily. Her emerald silk skirt created a satisfying rustle as she threaded her way past the white linen-draped tables, and without appearing to, she observed the heads that swiveled her way.
“She's very nicely .Â .Â . formed. Do you suppose she had something to do with that scandal in Saxe-Coburn?”
“Stodgy Saxe-Coburn? Don't be ridiculous. She has the looks of an exotic.”
Curiosity about this mystery woman ran rampant in the dining room, and Evangeline lifted her exotic chin and fixed an inscrutable smile on her lips. A smile she had practiced in the mirror.
None of the people here could possibly guess the truth.
With a flourish, Henri pulled out her chair. She seated herself with murmured thanks and placed her drawstring clutch on the table near the Limoges salt cellar. She pulled up her Brussels lace stole and draped it around her shoulders.
“Mademoiselle is chilly?” Henri asked. “In the mountains, it is cold at night, even in the summer. It would be warmer by the fire.”
“Mademoiselle prefers to have a view of your imposing mountains,” she said.
Henri shrugged in Gallic resignation. Then, in rapid succession, the waiters poured her a glass of fragrant, ruby wine and laid the snowy napkin in her lap, while Henri announced her choice of soups and entrÃ©es. The mere recitation made her close her eyes in anticipated ecstasy. She loved good food. She loved eating in such an exquisite setting. She loved Henri's fawning approbation as she placed her order.
When she finished, the four men bowed and backed away from the table. They were kind, even beyond the kindness she bought with her generous gratuities.
Was it perhaps because they felt sorry for her?
That truth stabbed at her. Abruptly, she turned her head away from the other diners and tried to stare at the moonlit peaks. Instead, she saw only reflections in the window. Even now, as the fervor her appearance had created faded, the wayfarers lost interest in her. They returned to conversations with their spouses, their children, their lovers. Everyone here had someone else. Only she remained alone.
She had imagined that would change in the six days she had been here, but her very person discouraged familiarity. Her lingering good sense kept her apartâand alone in the Pyrenees, she'd found, was much the same as alone in England.
The reflections in the window wavered with the sudden glaze of tears in her eyes.
Alone, without a home, without a family .Â .Â .
Henri's voice spoke beside her. “We have the bread, still warm from the oven.” A yeasty scent accompanied the basket of golden, crusty rolls. “We
soupe de poisson
.” The scent of oregano and trout in a tomato-based broth appeared under her nose. “And we top off your glass with wine. You need to drink more wine, Mademoiselle, to warm your blood and bring roses to your cheeks.”
Blinking the tears away, she looked up at Henri's shrewd face.
His comprehensive gaze took in her sadness. Jerking his head toward the far end of the chamber, he whispered, “You have an admirer.”
She tried to crane her neck to see, but Henri said, “No, do not look!”
Settling back into her seat, she unbuttoned her elbow-length gloves and laid them in her lap. “You jest.”
With the sigh of a wronged puppy, he said, “Not I! Wait until I leave, then glance around the room, and you will see him. Near the fire, facing you.” Leaning closer, Henri murmured, “The virile one asked to be placed where he could watch you.”
Evangeline's heart gave one huge thump, then resumed its usual smooth beat. Henri was wrong, of course, or exaggerating. Through the years men showed themselves remarkably able to resist her charms, even when those charms were dressed up with silks and lace. She suspected it had something to do with her expression, which she had been told was severe. “Thank you, Henri,” she said in a dismissive voice, and ignored him as he backed away.
She was not going to glance toward the fire. She wouldn't put it past Henri to have bribed some man to show interest in her, and she was quite certain Henri's definition of virile did not coincide with hers.
Tearing a roll into halves, she buttered it and took her first, heavenly bite. She adored France. She adored the language. She adored the architecture. She adored every dish that had been set before her. But most of all, she adored their bread.
Firm, white, with a tough texture wrapped in a savory case, it fed the gourmet soul she didn't even know she owned. Almost embarrassed by the sensual pleasure she found in a simple loaf, she hastily opened her eyes and looked across the roomâand saw him.
He was virile, and he
She looked away so fast that the tendons in her neck cracked.
at her. In their moment of regard, she observed interest, speculation, and an intense .Â .Â . well, it looked like .Â .Â . but it couldn't be.
The sound of a shower on her silk skirt distracted her, and looking down at her hand, she realized she had squeezed the piece of bread until the crunchy golden crust had flaked away and fallen into her lap. Carefully, she placed the mangled roll on its designated plate. She brushed at her skirt. She gazed at the table in front of her. Steam rose from the soup, carrying the scents of warmth and security.
Controlling the tremor in her fingers, she grasped her spoon. Dipping it into the broth, she lifted it to her mouth. Good sense returned even as she swallowed.
Her spinster mind, egged on by Henri's melodramatic speculation, had exaggerated the depth of the
stranger's regard. The stranger watched her, yes. Smoke circled around his head from the lit cheroot between his fingers. But no doubt he watched her with the same inquisitivenessâoh, call it by its true name, nosiness!âas did the other travelers bent on satisfying their hunger for scandal.
Taking another spoonful of the soup, she sighed as the flavor of oregano pursued the fish and roasted garlic. Yes, soup. Heavenly, yet ordinary.
But despite the protection of the stole across her shoulders, despite the warmth of the dish before her, a chill chased up her spine.
Imagination, she told herself. Leona had always said she had too much imagination, and sometimes Evangeline thought the wicked old woman had encouraged it. Nevertheless, she experienced the urge to look up, and as Henri whisked the soup bowl away and replaced it with a plate of lamb, she did so.
The stranger stared directly into her eyes, and he lifted his glass in salute.
Her lungs ceased to function. Her heart leapt, and she gawked like a rabbit mesmerized by a snake.
His ebony lashes framed blue eyes; she could see that even from across the room. But not sky blue, or cornflower blue. Burning blue, blazing with a passion for .Â .Â . for what?
For her, if his wolfish smile was any indication.
In Toulouse, she had presented money to a boy who had smiled like that, because she'd thought him starving. She had given him more when it looked as if he would attack and take from her everything she
hadn't freely yielded. She wasn't a brave woman; she never had been, and that boy, and now this man, made her nervous.
But for all his hungry display of teeth, the stranger did not seem to be starving. His tailored black frock coat fit so tightly as to be a second skin. It outlined shoulders broad as those of a peasant who worked the fields. And indeed, in some aspects he resembled a peasant. His hands were big, so big they swallowed the wine goblet he held.
He lifted the goblet to her again. His rapacious smile expanded, and she found herself on her feet.
She had to leave this place. Now. Tonight.
No, first thing tomorrow morning. This was a farce. She didn't know why she thought she could cozen everyone. Cozen herself. Normally, she was sensible, and a long history of daydreaming was no excuse for such recklessness.
She turned her petrified gaze on Henri.
“Is the lamb not to your taste?”
“Yes. No. I don't know.” She clutched the tails of her stole in sweaty palms and reached for her ice goddess aura. “I'm retiring to my suite.”
An expression of what appeared to be acute gastrointestinal distress contorted Henri's features. “I will fix it. Whatever is wrong, I will fix it. The lamb is too spicy, isn't it? I warned that fool of a cookâ”
She stepped forward.
He stumbled back “You cannot go without eating. You never go without eating .Â .Â .”
His wail sounded in her ears as she hurried through the crowded tables toward the door. Eat?
She couldn't eat. A strange man had
at her. Looked with an intent she'd seen directed only at others. Nothing in her life had prepared her for this kind of .Â .Â . interaction.
Wistful dreaming, she now realized, had in no way prepared her for reality.
The buzz of conversation grew around her as the tourists noticed her retreat. Curious faces stared. Her cheeks flamed with chagrin. She was hurrying like a woman forced, through desperate circumstances, to earn a living. She had hoped never to hurry like that again.
Something jerked her stole, holding it so tightly that she was whipped around to confront .Â .Â . no one. The trailing lace had snagged on the finial of a chair. She freed it with a yank that popped the delicate threads. She continued her race to the entrance, past the bowing waiters. She reached the portal and continued, ignoring Henri's wail. Past the comfortable sitting chamber, past the curving stairway, along the dark, empty hallway to the double doors at the end. With trembling fingers, she pulled the key from her pocket. She could scarcely fit the key in the lock. Then it fit, and she turned it. The door opened, she stepped inside, and closed herself in.
She leaned against the door, her heart pounding.
Had the stranger chased her? Was he even now striding toward her bedchamber, that peculiar combination of determination and disdain on his face?
She would lock the door. She would save herself from that man.
Pressing her ear to the polished wood, she strained to hear footsteps, but the thick walnut
muffled any sound. Was he standing out there, preparing to knock?