Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
“You don’t like to be called by your royal title, eh?” she mumbled.
Such a thing was without class, of course, she thought with disdain. One born to royalty had certain obligations despite what one wanted. But then again, the Serenian was without class, himself. And he had been stripped of his title and positions, although Catherine had not been told why.
“You did something that annoyed your father, you bastard,” she said, nodding her head.
“Something so bad he disinherited you before he died.”
Probably insulted someone, she thought as she walked away from the room which had been given to their Outlander guest, no doubt someone very high up in Serenian politics or even someone from one of the Outland kingdoms near Serenia.
“Someone with enough clout that you got your dirty little hand slapped by your King,”
Catherine chortled as she headed down the stairs.
In her mind’s eye, she could see him before his father, trembling and pale, begging to be allowed to hold on to the title he so disliked. She could almost hear the wheedling in his voice as he pleaded.
“No,” she said as she stopped on her way down the marble steps. “You wouldn’t beg anyone for anything, would you, Conar McGregor?”
She stared off into the distance, seeing an angry, hurt young man fighting for his birthright, not begging for it to be reinstated. There would be blood and sweat flowing, not tears and perspiration caused from fear.
“What did you do, McGregor?” she asked as she took a few slow steps down the stairs.
“What did you do to cause such a reaction from your father?”
Whatever it had been, she thought as she left the stairs and headed for the library where her brothers were waiting for her, it had been enough to sour the man on life and people in general.
“Who the hell cares?” she thought as she jerked open the library door.
“Addleheaded rhino butt.”
Tzar Thomas Steffensberg yawned. His wife glared. Their son, the Tzaravitch Peter, hid a grin behind his linen napkin.
Yuri looked from one of the two speakers to the other and sighed. How long were the Tzar and Tzarina going to allow this swapping of insults at their dining table to last?
Marie Catherine frowned. She didn’t like the soft grin on the bastard’s face. He was saving his worst for last, she just knew it, and to forestall the inevitable reference to her weight, she aimed straight for his jugular. A sweet smile curved her full lips, and she purred her insult at him with a sultry, seductive breath of air.
The smile slid from Conar’s face slowly. The light of battle died. He swallowed, picked up his napkin, gently wiped his mouth, laid his napkin neatly beside his plate and then turned to his hostess.
“May I be excused, Highness?” he asked in a soft voice.
Tzarina Charlotte nodded, unable to speak. She barely heard his parting words as the young Prince turned away from her table and strode off, Yuri Andreanova following close on his heels.
Her heart lurched with a great sadness for the man’s obvious embarrassment and she swung hostile, furious eyes at her daughter. Shocked by the pleased grin on Catherine’s face, her mother could only stare at the girl,
At last! Catherine thought with a smirk. She had managed to wipe the smug smile off the bastard’s taunting face. She lifted her chin and looked across the table to her brother. The smirk left her face.
“That was mean, Cat,” Peter told her. He threw his napkin to the table and pushed his chair back. “Mean and uncalled for.”
Catherine stared at her brother. “He was insulting me, Peter.” She looked at her younger brother. “Who started the insults, Mikel? Him or me?”
Her tawny-haired brother shrugged. “I wasn’t listening.” He glanced down the table to where his mother sat. “May I also be excused Mother?”
The Tzarina nodded at her youngest child. Folding her hands in her lap, she looked at her husband. “Thomas, you must speak to your daughter.”
His daughter, the Tzar thought with a pang of regret? Why was she always His daughter when she managed to alienate a possible suitor? Why wasn’t she ever Lottie’s daughter when the girl, without fail, insulted a highborn male guest there to look her over for marriageable material? He glanced at Catherine, took in the mulish look on the wayward chit’s face, glanced back at the set look on his wife’s and sighed mightily.
“Catherine,” he began only to have his daughter bound to her feet.
“He started it, Father.” Her face was livid with anger. “From the moment he sat down at this WINDBELIEVER
“As I recall, Cat,” Peter reminded his sister, “all the man did was greet you.”
Catherine’s upper lip lifted in a vicious sneer. “And in that greeting did you not hear him insult me?”
“I believe his exact words were, ‘And how is my fat little dumpling tonight?’ ” Peter’s eyes glittered. His mouth twitched but he forced the humor down. “Prince Rupert of Churdan likened you to a ‘plump little partridge’ if memory serves, Cat, and you certainly didn’t answer the greeting of that gentleman by calling him a ‘despicable cur’.”
“Prince Rupert did not respond with calling me an ‘overstuffed loony bird’, either!”
Catherine hissed. She turned to her father. “Don’t you understand? I detest being in the same room with that uneducated ass.”
“Marie Catherine!” Her mother had heard enough. “I would venture to say Prince Conar is far better educated, and certainly has possession of better manners, than you! Your last remark was, as Petya said, uncalled for. I shall expect you to apologize to the Prince before he retires for the evening.”
“I will not!” her daughter shrieked. “He started it.”
“And you kept it up all through supper,” her father reminded her. “New insults arrived with each new course.”
Her father rose, braced his hands on the table and leaned forward, piercing his daughter with a look that said he was tired of the whole situation. “As your mother has said, you will go to Prince Conar and apologize to him.” As Catherine’s mouth opened, he held up his hand. “This is not your father asking you, Marie Catherine. This is your Tzar commanding you.”
The young woman’s mouth snapped shut and she curtsied to her father, then her mother.
“May I leave the table?”
“You may,” her mother agreed, “then you may proceed immediately to His Grace’s room and make your apology.” Her lids lowered. “You may be certain I shall ask him on the morrow if you did as you were told.”
“Yes, Mother,” Catherine said. She glared at her elder brother. She could find no support from that direction. Her back straight, her chin up, her hands balled into fists at her side, she marched regally from the table and was soon out of sight.
The Tzar turned his attention to his son. “Well, Peter. What do you think?”
“Yes,” his mother asked breathlessly. “What do you think of him?”
Peter leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his thin chest. “I believe before God they are made for one another.”
Catherine stomped up the stairs, ignoring Yuri’s melancholy smile of encouragement as she neared Conar McGregor’s door. She nodded toward the door and grimaced at Yuri knocked lightly on the heavy oaken portal.
“Get lost, Andreanova!” came the gruff command from inside the room. “Go screw your wife and leave me the hell alone!”
Yuri’s face turned a deep crimson and he couldn’t look at his Tzarevna. He took a deep breath, bunched up his fist, and knocked again, louder and more rapidly.
“Damn it, Yuri!” Conar snarled as he yanked open the door. He stopped, seeing the fat bitch who had begun to make his life miserable, standing on the other side of the door. His eyes narrowed. “What the hell do
want?” he growled.
Her gaze slid over his naked chest, took in the hard muscles, the light furring between the manly breasts, the delineated ridges on his upper abdomen, the thick mat of golden hair above WINDBELIEVER
the waistband of his breeches. Slowly she looked up into his face. Never had she seen eyes such a color of blue. They were the shade of sapphires, deep, deep blue, and mesmerizing. His face, despite the wicked scars on his left cheek was handsome, purely male, chin deeply cleft, high cheekbones, long, thick tawny lashed. Taller than her, she had to lift her head to take in the tasseled gold of his shoulder length hair. The deep tan which covered him only made the gold of his hair that much more striking. He was a prime specimen of a man at the height of his sexual attractiveness. Her close scrutiny came to an abrupt end when his sarcastic voice broke into her contemplation of his full lips.
“Like what you see?” he smirked.
Catherine blinked away her confusion. What the hell had just caused her heart to leap to her throat and her belly to lurch while she stared at those dusky lips? Surely the sight of this pompous fool half naked had not caused this heavy thudding of her heart! Or the glimmer of sweat she could now feel under her armpits.
“I hate to be the one to break this to you, baby, but you’re not as irresistible as I seem to be to you and I don’t care to stand here freezing my ass off while you ogle me. If you’ve got something to say, say it, and go!”
Yuri would later swear a demoness leapt into the Tzarevna’s body and took over when those cutting words finally penetrated. The shapely bosom heaved, the hazel eyes went dark as sin, the pretty little mouth hardened, the delicate bones in her right hand curled into a fist and her ivory-toned arm shot forward with enough power to knock the Prince flat on his ass on the floor.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” she screeched, making the five words sound as though they were one.
Knocking Yuri’s restraining arm out of her way, she took a step into the Prince’s room, stared down at him as he lay bracing himself on one elbow while he rubbed his rapidly bruising jaw with his other hand, and delivered an unladylike kick to his shin.
“Ow!” the young man yelped, drawing his leg out of her way as she prepared to kick out at him again. And she would have had Yuri not grabbed her around her waist and swung her out of the room. “You bitch!”
“Bastard!” she shouted, squirming in Yuri’s arm as the warrior attempted to pull the Prince’s door shut behind them.
“Fat cow!” was the muffled explosion from the inside of the room as the door closed.
Yuri manhandled the young woman down the hall, flinching as something hard hit the Prince’s door from inside. “Highness, please!” Yuri growled at her. “Stop this!”
She was trying to twist out of his grip and not succeeding. Andreanova was a very strong man. Her snarls and grunts did not impress him, nor did the vulgar words that were squeezed out of her when he increased his pressure on her waist to calm her down.
“You’re going to get into trouble with your parents if you don’t stop!” Yuri told her.
At the mention of her parents, Catherine stilled. A flame of shame crept up her neck and caused her to draw in a very concerned breath. She felt Yuri’s grip loosen and she found herself on the floor, his hand still at her waist in case she decided to bolt for the door again.
“Are you calm, now?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” She lowered her head, took a deep breath, let it out, and lifted her head to look up into Yuri’s worried face. “He makes me so angry,” she explained.
Yuri nodded. “I know. And you make him just as angry.”
“I can’t tolerate the man, Yuri!” she swore, turning her face from him.
“Can’t or won’t?” Yuri asked quietly. He dared to put a thick finger under her quivering chin to lift and turn her face so he could look at her. “He’s not like the others, Cat,” he said, using the nickname he and her brother Peter had begun calling her when she was three. “This man is different.”
“He’s rude!” she spat.
“Yes, at times he can be,” Yuri agreed.
“And he’s arrogant!”
“Like you?” Yuri grinned.
Her lips formed a child-like pout. “Worse,” she mumbled.
“Were you sent up here for a reason or did you come to continue the insults?” Yuri asked, moving his hand so his fingers lightly gripped her chin.
“Apology,” she mumbled.
“Do you not think you had better do that then?”
She shrugged. “I suppose I shall have to.”
“Do you want me to knock on the door for you?”
Her teeth nibbling on her lower lip betrayed her uncertainty and her need for this warrior’s protective barrier between her and the boogey man behind the door.
Yuri chuckled. “Come along before he lets that foul temper of his stew overly long. The man can be irrational when he feels he’s been annoyed.”
“He’s irrational to begin with,” she muttered as Yuri lifted his hand to knock on the door.
Conar heard the knock, knew it was Yuri, no doubt coming to apologize for the bitch’s actions. He ignored the first succession of raps, but the second set, more decisive and, to his way of thinking, demanding, made him snarl to keep from hurling something else at the damned door.
Already a pretty vase lay shattered at the threshold. He stomped to the door, jerked it open and his face immediately flushed with rage when he saw the woman peeking from behind the bulk of Yuri’s shoulder.
“Her Grace has something to tell you, Highness,” Yuri began, cringing at the warning look the Prince darted his way. “Conar,” he corrected.
Catherine glanced up at Yuri. So the man really didn’t want to be called by his title. She risked a glance at the Prince’s face and saw no resentment there at the breech of protocol. If anything, she thought with a mild grimace of confusion, she saw relief. She wasn’t so sure she liked the familiarity that would cause a man like Yuri to break with traditional values.