Authors: Anne Gracie
She lifted her fist to swing at him and he caught her hand in his. At that moment the moon came out from behind the clouds, flooding the cliff topâand the woman's faceâwith clear, silvery light.
Gabriel had had the breath knocked out of him a dozen times. Each time he'd thought he was dying.
He'd been kicked in the head by a horse once. It had scrambled his wits for a while.
And a couple of times in his life he'd been so drunk that he'd lost all sense of time and place.
Seeing her face in the moonlight was like all of those rolled into one. And more. Gabe's breathing stopped. He forgot how to speak. He was unable to think. He could only stare. And stare. And stare.
She had the sweetest face he'd ever seen, round and sweet and sad and somehowâ¦right, framed by a cloud of dark, wavy hair. An angel come to earth. With the most kissable mouth in the world.
She gazed back at him. Her eyes were beautiful, he thought, eyes a man could happily drown in. He wondered what color they were.
“Release me this instant!” the angel snapped, and Gabriel's breath came back in a great whoosh of air. The angel was very, very human. And very, very frightened.
“Enchantingâ¦Pure magic turning every page. If you haven't already discovered the romances of Anne Gracie, search for them. You'll be so glad you did. She's a treasure.”
“Have you ever found an author who makes you happy? Puts a smile on your face as soon as you enter her story-world? Anne Gracie has done that for me ever since I read
and through every book thereafter.”
Romance Reviews Today
“One of the best romances I have read in a long timeâ¦
The Perfect Waltz
is the book to share with a friend who has never read a romance novelâconsider adding it to your conversion kit.”
All About Romance
“One of those books that needs to be read from beginning to end in one sitting. Honestly, I couldn't put it down!”
Romance Reader at Heart
THE PERFECT RAKE
THE PERFECT WALTZ
THE PERFECT STRANGER
THE PERFECT KISS
THE STOLEN PRINCESS
BERKLEY SENSATION, NEW YORK
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE STOLEN PRINCESS
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2008 by Anne Gracie.
All rights reserved.
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For Anne McAllister and Marion Lennox,
wonderful writers and fabulous friends;
with my gratitude, my thanks, and my hope of
eventual forgiveness for the fate of Zouzou.
he puppy was the final straw.
Nicky loved Zouzou with all his seven-year-old heart, so much so that on the second night he'd smuggled the puppy into his bed. Even if she hadn't heard excited puppy squeaks coming from beneath the bedclothes, Callie could have guessed by her son's look of extreme innocence that he'd broken the rules. But some rules were made to be bent a little.
She set the warm milk on the bedside table, kissed him good night, and left, hiding a smile.
Two hours later when the reception finally finished she looked in on Nicky again.
The puppy was dead.
Nicky was sitting up in bed, distraught, his face streaked with tears, the tiny puppy cradled stiff and lifeless in his arms. Dried yellow froth clung to its little muzzle.
“He wouldn't stop being sick. What did I do, Mama, what did I do?”
On the floor beside the bed was a half-drunk bowl of milk and an empty cup, the same cup she'd given to her son.
“Did you drink any of the milk?” she asked, scarcely able to raise her voice from a whisper.
“It tasted funny,” he said. “I didn't like it. So I gave it to Zouzou.”
And then she knew. Had he not fed his milk to the puppy, Nicky's would be the small, cold body on the bed.
She understood then what she had to do. There was no longer a choice.
Dorset, England, 1816
est not take the cliff path home, Capt'n Renfrew. It's blowin' up a storm, and without the moon, that path is treacherous.”
Gabriel Renfrew, late of the Fourteenth Light Dragoons, cast a cursory glance at the darkening sky and shrugged. “There's time enough before the storm hits. 'Evening, landlord.” He let himself out of the small, snug tavern and made for the stables.
A buxom, blonde tavern maid followed him outside and slipped a friendly arm though his. “Why risk the cliff path, Captain, when I have a bed upstairs that's right snug and warm?”
Gabe smiled. “Thank you, Sally. 'Tis a generous offer but I need to go.” He must be getting old, Gabe decided as he rode off. To choose riding a horse through the freezing darkness, home to an empty house, when he could be riding a curvaceous blonde in the cozy warmth of her bedchamberâ¦
But though mindlessness was what he craved, mindless coupling no longer appealed. And when the blue devils hit, as they had again tonight, neither drink nor women could help.
Nothing but darkness and speed and danger could scour his mind and heart clean.
Tonight the blue devils rode him worse than ever. Talk in the tavern had turned to the men who hadn't come home, to the families struggling on without them; Gabe's contemporaries, boys he'd grown up with, boys who'd followed him and Harry to war. “I'll take care of them,” he'd said so blithely as they leftâ¦
But he hadn't.
Why had he, of all of them, returned? Those other lads were grieved for, mourned, desperately missed. They were needed by their families.
He galloped faster through the fleeting shadows. The narrow, moonlit path disappeared as the thickening clouds obscured the full moon. The waves pounded on the rocks below. Salt mist stung his skin and Gabriel rode the fine line between life and death, as he'd done so often before, giving fate a chance to change its mind.
Proving to himself yet again that, against all the odds, he was still alive. Even if he didn't know why.
The English Channel
o! This isn't right!” Callie, fugitive princess of Zindaria, was trying to force her dizzy head to steady. “I paid to be taken to Lulworth.” She clutched the rail of the pitching boat and peered desperately out into the night. Shifting clouds blocked the moonlight and all she could see were white caps and looming dark cliffs. There was no sign of life, no building or habitation.
Was this even England? She had no way of knowing. It was the middle of the night and she'd been woken roughly from a fitful sleep. The seven hours before that she'd spent being violently ill.
“You and the lad are to go ashore here, ma'am. Captain's orders,” a sailor told her.
Where was Nicky?
He'd been here just a moment ago. “Where's my son?”
“I'm here, Mama. I was just getting the bandbox.” Her seven-year-old son stepped over a coil of rope and hurried to her side.
Callie put a hand on his shoulder. Nicky was the most important thing in her life, the reason she was here in the first place. “This is not where I paid to be brought,” she told the sailor in a voice she hoped sounded firm. “Lulworth is a small town, on a sheltered coveâ”
Without warning, Callie found herself seized by two burly seamen.
“Whatâ? How dare youâ!” What was happening? Surely they didn't mean to throw her overboard? Nickyâ¦Terrified, trying desperately to reach Nicky, she fought like a wildcat, kicking, screaming, gasping in terrorâ¦
“The boy first,” someone yelled. “She'll follow tame enough then.”
She twisted frantically in time to see a seaman grab Nicky as if he weighed nothing. He hauled him to the ship's gunwale, lifted him, and dropped him over the edge.
The fight went out of her. She made no struggle as the men slung her, too, over the edge of the ship.
She braced herself for the embrace of the sea. Death by drowningâdear God, don't say she'd brought Nicky this far just to have him die like thisâ¦
The sailors let go and she fell. And landed with a thud in a small, violently rocking dinghy. A sailor steadied her.
Nicky sat in the bow, his face pinched, pale, and fearfulâbut alive.
“Nicky, thank God!” She lurched across the wooden seats toward him.
The small boat rocked perilously.
“Sit down, miss! You'll have us all in the drink!” The sailor grasped her arm and wrenched her down to sit in the stern.
Furious, terrified, but realizing she had no choice, Callie sat, not taking her eyes off Nicky for a moment. The waves were getting larger and the dinghy pitched and tossed. She could swim a little; Nicky couldn't.
What was happening to them? She scanned the distant shoreline frantically. Thoughts of white slavers, wreckers, and worse flew through her mind. She knew it had been risky to pay an unknown captain of a shabby boat to take them across the Channel. It would have been riskier, though, to take the regular packet from Calais, for then they would have certainly been found. And returned.
“I demand you put us back aboard the ship this instant!” she stammered, trying desperately to make her voice work. “This is not Lulworth and Iâ”
There was a shout from above and her bandbox came flying down. The sailor caught it and passed it to Nicky. A moment later her portmanteau was dropped into the man's arms.
The sight of her possessions insensibly calmed her. Perhaps she and Nicky were not to be murdered for their belongings after all. But where was this place, this dark, unknown shore?
The sailor seized the oars and began to row.
“Where are you taking us?”
“Captain's orders to put you ashore here, ma'am. Storm's a-comin'.”
“But there's safe harbor at Lulworth. It would give shelter from a storm.”
“Preventives in Lulworth Cove, ma'am. Capt'n hates preventives.”
“Preventives?” She was so bewildered she couldn't think. “Butâ¦”
“Orders, ma'am,” he said indifferently and hauled on the oars.
She subsided. There was no point arguing. The sailor wasn't listening. All his effort was in rowing, and it took all her effort to hold on. The little boat was being tossed on the sea like a cork. She had her portmanteau under her feet. Nicky was wedging the bandbox under his, but they needed both hands to hold them steady.
“This is the breaker line, ma'am,” the sailor said after a few minutes. The roll of the little boat was getting frantic. “I daren't take you further. You'll have to wade ashore from here.”
“No. It's too deep and my sonâ”
Before Callie could stop him the sailor had hauled Nicky over the side and placed him in the sea.
“He can't swim!” Callie screamed. Without waiting for a response she scrambled into the water after Nicky, hauling herself along the boat's side until she reached him. The water was chest deep and freezing.
“Hold on tight to me, Nicky! Put your legs around my waist and your armsâyes, that's right.”
Nicky clung to her, wrapping his arms and legs around her body like a small monkey. He was shivering.
“I-It's cold, Mama.”
“Here's your stuff, ma'am.” The sailor passed her the bandbox. As if she cared about the bandbox when her son was in the sea. But Nicky had made it his own personal responsibility during the journey and now he was reaching for it. Besides, it contained important papers and dry clothes for Nicky.
“Loop the strap around your wrist, Nicky,” she told him. “It will float and the oilskin cover will keep it dry inside.”
The dinghy washed closer. Maybe the sailor had more of a conscience than his captainâhe was in real danger of capsizing but he seemed intent to see they had their luggage. He waited until he saw Nicky had hold of their bandbox.
“Your bag, ma'am.” The sailor handed the portmanteau to her. Callie staggered as a wave broke over her. She clutched it in one hand, holding Nicky against her with the other.
“Godspeed, ma'am.” The little dinghy moved swiftly away into the night.
“But where are we?” she shouted after him.
His voice floated back. “Go up the cliff path, then turn west to Lulworth.”
“I don't even know which direction west is!” she yelled. But her words were lost on the wind. And in the darkness, she could no longer see the dinghy, let alone the ship they'd left France in.
“West is where the sun sets, Mama,” Nicky told her.
Callie almost laughed. The sun had set a long time ago. But the waves were pushing them to shore. She shifted her grip on Nicky and waded toward the beach. The wind was getting stronger by the minute. It sliced through her saturated clothing. If she was freezing, Nicky would be even colder.
But he was alive, and that was more important than anything. And they were in England. And despite the fact that she was sodden and frozen and had no idea where she was, her spirits lifted a little. She'd succeeded.
Finally they reached the shallows and she put Nicky down. They stumbled, shivering, out of the water. The beach was studded with rocks and broken shells and was difficult to walk across in the dark. Callie's slippers had come off in the sea and she stubbed her toes painfully several times. She didn't care. The beachâ¦Dry landâ¦England.
“Come on, darling.” Relief was making her feel dizzy. “Let's get you into some dry clothes and then we'll find that path. With any luck we'll be at Tibby's for breakfast.”
“Will there be sausages, Mama?” he asked hopefully, through chattering teeth. “English sausages?”
Callie gave a choke of laughter. “Perhaps,” she told him. “Now hurry!”
At the base of the cliff she opened the bandbox. Everything in it was dry, thanks to the oilskin cover. She took out a change of clothes for Nicky, a cashmere shawl, and her spare pair of slippers.
She swiftly stripped Nicky naked, dried him with her shawl and dressed him in clean, dry clothes. He'd been prone to all manner of ailments throughout his childhood and she didn't want him to catch a chill. She wrung out her skirts as best she could, dried her feet, and slipped on the shoes.
She glanced up at the cliff. She'd never get up the steep path with her skirts dragging and clinging around her legs. For two pins she'd remove her skirt and petticoat and climb in her drawers, only her petticoat, with its secret pockets, was currently her most valuable possession.
She knotted the skirt and her petticoat high on her legs, as she'd seen fisherwomen do. The icy wind bit into her wet skin. “Now, for the climb,” she said and picked up the portmanteau.
Nicky stared up at the cliffs. “Do we really have to climb all the way up there?” No wonder he sounded daunted by the prospect. She could just make out the top by a faint lightening of the darknessâa change of texture, rather than shade.
“Yes, but the man said there was a path, remember?” Callie tried to keep fury out of her voice. The cliffs were enormous and very steepâdumping them there was more than outrageous, it was criminal, given Nicky's leg!
They scrambled upward, Nicky in front, so Callie could help him if he stumbled. The weight of the heavy portmanteau soon had her palms burning. Gusts of wind whipped at them.
“Stay away from the edge!” she called to Nicky every few minutes. The path was frighteningly narrow in places: in the darkness it was terrifying.
“I can see the top, Mama!” he called after what seemed like forever.
Callie paused for breath, cooling her burning palms against her wet skirt, and looked up. Almost there. Thank goodness! She heaved a huge sigh of relief. With any luck it would not be far to Lulworth.
abriel Renfrew rounded the bluff at a gallop. The narrow cliff path was barely visible yet Gabe didn't slow his pace. One misstep could send them over the edge but both rider and horse knew the path well. They'd ridden it almost every night for the past few weeks.
Cold salt air bit into his lungs. The storm was closing in, fast.
Trojan suddenly broke stride. Gabe looked up. “What the devilâ”
A child stood directly in his path, staring and terrified. Horse and rider were almost upon him. There was no time to stop, no place to maneuver. On one side rocks rose steeply among scraggy bushes, on the other lay a plunge to certain death on the rocks below.
“Get off the path!” Gabriel shouted. He hauled on the reins, felt Trojan's muscles bunching in the effort to slow enough to stop before the child was trampled.