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At The King's Command

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“I trow that particular shade of blue is called woad,” said a faintly amused voice.

“Eek!” Juliana nearly came out of her numb, chilled skin. She spun away from the polished steel mirror to face the intruder. “Dear Lord,” she whispered in rapid Russian, “my jailer is a giantess.”

Her gaze traveled from the boatlike feet clad in sturdy clogs to the ruddy face framed by coarse yellow hair. The distance was at least a score of hands—the height of a grown plow horse.

“I don’t speak Egyptian, milady.” The giantess placed her pawlike hands on her hips and leaned forward, peering frankly at Juliana. “I assumed you was trying to decide what shade of blue your lips turned from the cold bath. I’d say woad, from the mustard leaf.”

“Woad,” Juliana repeated stupidly, shaping her lips around the difficult w.

“Aye, I knows me colors. Me da is a dyer. Blue as a titbird’s throat you are, milady.”

Clutching a robe around her shivering form, Juliana blinked in astonishment. The fact was, she had turned blue from the icy bath in the churning, spring-fed millstream. After the heartless dunking Stephen had subjected her to, she had slogged back to the house, cursing him in a patois of English, Romany, and Russian. When the ogress arrived, Juliana had been staring into the mirror and wondering if her coloring would ever return to normal.

“Who are you?” She managed to force the question past her chattering teeth.

“Jillie Egan.” The woman bobbed an awkward curtsy. “I’m to be your new lady’s maid.”

A lady’s maid. Juliana closed her eyes for a moment and surrendered to memories she usually kept locked away. As a girl, she had been attended by no fewer than four maids—all of them pretty as daisies, impeccably groomed, and nearly as accomplished as their young mistress.

“Milady?” The ogress interrupted her thoughts. “’Tis nigh time for you to be getting to supper.”

Jillie led Juliana close to the hearth fire and unwound the linen toweling from her hair. The damp locks reeked of strong herbs Stephen had used to kill the lice. Jillie untied the shapeless robe, replacing it with a long, fine shift. The sheer fabric was gossamer to Juliana’s skin, so deliciously different from the coarse homespun of her gypsy garb.

“Belonged to the first baroness, this did,” Jillie commented, shaking out the scalloped hem of the shift.

“Lord Wimberleigh’s mother?” Juliana inquired.

“Heavens, no. That one turned up her noble toes a score of years ago. Lord Wimberleigh’s first wife.”

Juliana caught her breath. It had never occurred to her that Stephen de Lacey had been married before. A wife. Stephen was a widower. Suddenly the thought colored everything she knew about him: the hooded sadness deep in his eyes, his bitter resentment of Juliana, his long, brooding silences and searing moments of high temper.

“Where are my own clothes?” she demanded.

“Nance said they was dirty past washing, crawling with vermin and such. She had them burned.”

“No!” The shout broke from Juliana on a wave of panic. “I must find them. I need my—”

“Bauble, milady?” Jillie handed over the brooch. “I spied it pinned inside the waist of your skirt.”

Juliana went weak with relief; then hope began to warm her blood. The ogress might be someone she could trust. Perhaps the only one she could trust until…She thought of the vurma trail she had left during her journey to Wiltshire, the bits of thread and fabric she had left to mark her way.

Hurry, Laszlo.

Praying her guardian would rescue her from her own foolishness, she closed her fingers around the brooch. “Thank you.” In spite of herself she was beginning to like the big bossy maid. As her tension and suspicion relaxed, she decided to give up her gypsy disguise. Her plan to exhort King Henry for help had failed, but perhaps here she’d find help from Stephen de Lacey. How far would he go, she wondered, and how much would he risk to be rid of her?

“Jillie,” she said speculatively, “can you do hair?”

The maid grinned. “Like I were born to it, milady. By the time I’ve done, your new husband won’t know you.”

“Well, Wimberleigh,” said Jonathan Youngblood. “Don’t keep me on tenterhooks like a side of pork. What’s she like?”

Stephen squeezed his eyes shut, silently cursed Havelock’s wagging tongue then opened his eyes to glare at his best friend. Jonathan sat easily in a carved box chair at the opposite end of the trestle table. Older than Stephen by a decade, he bore the scars of the Scots wars and the ample girth of good living. His bristly gray hair stuck out in spikes around a florid face, and he dressed like a ploughman, for he was never one to bow to fashion. A knight of the old order, Jonathan Youngblood had no use for the perfumed, posturing gentlemen who now dominated the court.

His warm brown eyes were the kindest Stephen had ever known. Blessed with an even dozen sons, Jonathan had sent Kit to live with Stephen, thinking the lad would fill the void of Stephen’s childlessness.

If he only knew the truth…Stephen batted the thought away. “I ought to give you no preparation at all,” he declared.

“Just a hint, then. Otherwise I shall spend the evening gaping like a visitor to Bedlam.”

Stephen sighed and took a sip of malmsey from his pewter goblet, then set the cup down. The metallic clank echoed through the cavernous dining hall, with its tapestry hangings and the hammer-beam ceiling arching like giant ribs high above. The table was laid with fine plate and crockery for a sumptuous meal. Spiked on wrought-silver holders were beeswax tapers, their flames bending gently from the breeze through the tall, slender windows.

Great princes, learned scholars and dour clergymen had dined at this table, Stephen reflected. But never a half-wild vagabond. No doubt she had the manners of a sow.

Blowing out a sigh, he decided to tell Jonathan the truth. “Her name is Juliana, and she claims to be from the kingdom of Muscovy or Rus. No doubt ’tis a fiction she invented. She has been traveling with a band of gypsies.”

Jonathan’s eyes widened. “I had heard the king saddled you with a foreign wench, but I thought ’twas another of Havelock’s embellishments. Or a jest of the king.”

“To Henry, it was a jest.”

“The king has a passion for amusement—at the expense of a good man’s pride.” Jonathan rested his thick forearms on the table and leaned forward. “So what’s she like? Sloe-eyed and passionate? I’ve heard the Romany folk are a hot-blooded race.” He jiggled his eyebrows.

Stephen scowled over the rim of his goblet. “She is rather…” He groped for a polite term. “Rustic.”

“Ah. An earthy beauty, then.”

“Not quite.”

“She’s not earthy?” Jonathan’s gaze moved past Stephen; he seemed to be studying something behind his friend.

“She’s not a beauty.” Stephen realized he had little notion of what his wife truly looked like under all the grime and tangled hair.

She had been too wild during the bathing, and he had glimpsed only raking fingernails and a red mouth spitting foreign curses.

In his mind’s eye he pictured her: dark strands escaping two thick braids, a dirt-smudged face, a small shapeless form draped in rags. “Her looks hardly matter to me. I intend to be rid of her once the king has had his fill of tormenting me.”

“I see.” Merriment gleamed in Jonathan’s eyes, and his lips thinned as he tried not to smile. “She is truly a humiliation, then.”

“Aye, a bedraggled wench with all the appeal of a basin of ditch water.”

“Why, thank you ever so much, my lord,” said a soft, accented voice behind Stephen. “At least I haven’t the manners of a toad.”

Jonathan wheezed in an effort to stifle a laugh.

The gypsy. How much had she overheard?

Slowly, still clutching his cup, Stephen rose from the table and turned. His fingers went slack. The pewter goblet dropped to the table, spilling wine across the polished surface. Stunned into silence by the vision that had entered the room, he could only stare.

She wore a gown and kirtle of dusky rose brocade with a high-waisted bodice and fitted sleeves, and an overgown with a long, trailing train. The square neckline of the bodice revealed her bosom—fine-textured and rosy, as inviting as a ripe peach.

Had it not been for her vivid green eyes, he would not have recognized the face. Every trace of dirt and ash had been scrubbed away to reveal a visage as exquisite as the delicate blossom of a rose in springtime.

Eschewing the usual fashionable French hood, she wore her hair long and loose, dressed with a simple rolled band of gold satin. A thorough cleansing had turned the indistinct dark color to deep, rich sable ablaze with gleaming red highlights. The endless length and fine, billowy texture of it made Stephen’s hands itch to bury themselves in it.

If I were to touch her now, he caught himself thinking, I would touch her hair first.

And with a dreadful, sinking awareness, he knew he would not stop there.

“You must be the lady Juliana, the new baroness.” Jonathan bumped against his chair in his haste to get up. He swept into a dramatic bow. “I am Sir Jonathan Youngblood of the neighboring estate of Lytton Mount.”

“Enchantée.” With a slim white hand, Juliana swept back a glorious lock of soft hair. Pinned to her bodice was the large brooch she had brandished in front of King Henry. She gave a faint smile. The color stood out high in her cheeks. “It appears my husband was entertaining you with his vast charm and wit.”

Stephen hated himself for recognizing the hurt in her voice. He hated himself for caring that his words had wounded her.

She faced him squarely, dipped her head in greeting, and said, “Le bon Dieu vous le rendra.”

Her French was impeccable. The good Lord will repay you. He did not doubt it for a moment.

Moving cautiously, as if navigating a snake pit, he took her hand to lead her to the table. Her easy grace surprised him. She took her place in a nobleman’s dining hall as effortlessly as if she had been doing it all her life.

The servitors came in their usual formal parade, with river trout and salad, venison pasty and loaves of dark bread, cold blood pudding and soft new cheese. Juliana received them with unexpected poise, nodding at the spilled malmsey and whispering, “His lordship needs more wine.”

Stephen scarcely tasted the food he ingested mechanically.

He could not tear his attention from his wife.

Her manners astonished him. Where had she learned to wield knife and spoon so deftly, to sip so daintily from her cup? And, Christ’s bones, to murmur such apt and discreet instructions to the servants?

Everyone knows gypsies are great imitators. Much like a monkey…The words of Nance Harbutt echoed through his mind.

But that wasn’t the answer. It couldn’t be.

Stephen barely heard the bluff, easy conversation of Jonathan, barely heard Juliana’s soft replies as they discussed Kit, the weather, and her wild claims about her past. Caught in the grip of amazement, Stephen could do no more than stare at his wife.

He had expected the crude gypsy wench to be overwhelmed by the opulence of his home, crammed with the spoils of battles fought by his ancestors, church treasures plundered by his father, and the rich yields of his own endeavors as baron of Wimberleigh.

Instead, she seemed only mildly interested in her new surroundings. It was as if the plate tableware, the Venetian glass cups and art treasures adorning the hall, the solicitous servants, were commonplace to her. As if she had found herself in these circumstances before.

Nonsense, Stephen told himself. Perhaps the treasures were so alien to her that she could not begin to grasp their value.

He forced himself to attend to what Jonathan was saying. “You tell a most singular tale about your past, my lady,” said the older man.

Juliana took a dainty bite of salad, then with a slender finger traced the rim of her glass fingerbowl. Just for a moment, sadness haunted her eyes, a melancholy so intense that Stephen’s breath caught.

Then her eyes cleared and she gave Jonathan a serene smile. “It is no tale, my lord, but the absolute truth.”

Stephen suppressed a snort of derision. Small wonder gypsies were outlawed. No one should be so adept at lying.

“The unexpected marriage to Lord Wimberleigh must have given you a bit of a turn.”

“Indeed it did,” she admitted with a pretty shrug. “I confess that I felt like the lady of Riga.”


“A small principality to the west of Novgorod. My old nurse loved to tell the story. The lady of Riga found herself on the back of a tiger. Once mounted, she had no way to go but onward, for if she tried to get off, she would be eaten alive.”

“So you liken marriage to Stephen to a ride upon a tiger.” Jonathan seemed to be enjoying himself enormously.

Stephen vowed to ignore this foreign woman, ignore the garish beauty that so overpowered Meg’s demure costume. He would ignore Juliana’s captivating smile, her low-toned, beguiling speech.

To do otherwise would be to open his heart to unspeakable pain. He endured the meal in silence, then said his farewells to Jonathan.

“She is charming,” Jonathan said as they waited in the darkening yard for Kit to bring round his horse. “Tell me, where would a gypsy wench learn such manners?”

“I know not. Nor do I care.”

“She is fascinating to watch.”

“So is a poison asp,” Stephen stated. “Here’s Kit.”

The tall, sturdy lad approached with Jonathan’s horse in tow. “You’re good to the boy. He was getting lost amidst my wild brood.”

“No chance of that here,” Stephen said, and a familiar ache flared to life inside him. “Kit is quick of wit and masters every art I introduce.” He forced a smile. “Though I trow, other arts will interest him before long. He can hardly pass through the hall without setting the maids and scullions to sighing.”

Jonathan laughed. “Teach him chastity, Stephen. I’d not have him siring a brood before his time.”

“He’ll learn no bad habits from me.” Stephen stood watching as Jonathan bade Kit good-bye and trotted off down the lane. Chastity. Stephen was reputed to be the most profligate of noblemen, frequenting the dives of Bath, the harborside stews of Bristol, the gaming houses of Southwark.

He took no pride in his reputation, only a bleak satisfaction that it had made him distasteful to marriageable maidens. Now that Juliana had come into his life, he wondered what would become of the bad habits he’d cultivated so assiduously.

For a long while, he stood in the formal garden with its cruciform walks enclosing fragrant beds of foxglove and woodbine. The clean fragrance of springtime enveloped him, and he paused near a fountain to gird himself for the coming hours. The stone basin still held the warmth of the sun.

He pressed his fists against the basin, trying to banish all feeling, all emotion, forever. Yet he was like a rock in the sun, holding its warmth even as darkness surrounded him. He remembered Juliana’s smile when he had no business thinking of her at all.

The sun slipped below the horizon. A few more minutes, and it would be time for him to go.

Shuddering, he turned and went back inside.

Juliana stood waiting in the entrance to the hall. She held a hooded candle in one hand. The diffuse light showered her eyelashes and hair with gold dust and carved mysterious shadows in the hollow of her throat, between her breasts.

God Almighty, Stephen thought. Didn’t Jillie know a lady should wear a silken partlet there for modesty?

Just below the overtly feminine hollow, the jeweled brooch winked, its large center stone as darkly brilliant as fresh blood.

“What do you do after supper, my lord?” she asked softly.

Her question panicked him, and he lashed out in anger. “I’m sometimes wont to tumble a wench or two.” Narrowing his eyes, he let his burning gaze sweep over her. “Three are even better.”

Her small teeth caught in the fullness of her lower lip. “I do not believe you.”

“You know nothing about me,” he said.

She shrugged, the motion of her shoulders as graceful as a waterfall. “How much I learn is up to you. I noticed a music room connected to my chambers. Perhaps I could play for you—”

“The collection of instruments does not include gypsy bells and guitars.” Stephen saw the look that crept into her candlelit eyes. I have to hurt you, Juliana, he thought, wishing he could explain, knowing he could not. To show her kindness would be a far greater cruelty.

Juliana came awake slowly. Just for a moment, she was confused by the lavish bed hangings that soared above her, the silky warmth of the fur-lined covers blanketing her.

In that distant, half-aware realm between waking and sleeping, she fancied herself in the nursery at Novgorod, waiting for Sveta to come with a cup of warm honey-sweetened milk and a tray of soft bread and herbed sausages.

The image drifted away and Juliana came up on her elbows. Lynacre Hall. She was here in this noble house, not in a bedroll under a tree, nor beneath the rank mildewed covering of Laszlo’s caravan. She lay in a strange, beautiful chamber that had once belonged to the wife of Lord Wimberleigh.

What had the first baroness been like? Had he loved her, hated her, regarded her with cool indifference?

Had she been responsible for making Stephen into a cold, angry man, or had he always been that way?

Juliana decided to find out. In the cool morning breeze through the open window, she called Jillie and then waited, absently petting Pavlo’s long, sleek head and listening to the manor come to life—the call of the goose girl, the sound of shutters being opened, the scolding of chickens, voices from the bakehouse. A few moments later, Jillie came into the room, balancing a salver between her arm and hip.

“Ah, you’re awake, then,” she said briskly, thumping the tray down on a spindly gaming table. “Good morrow, milady. Hungry?”

“Always,” Juliana admitted, throwing back the counterpane. During her years with the gypsies, she had often gone to sleep with hunger gnawing at her belly. Begging, pilfering and poaching had their limits.

Jillie rummaged in the carved chest at the foot of the bed and emerged with a long wrinkled robe of finely woven wool. As Juliana put her hands through the gaping armholes, the scent of lavender and bergamot rose from the garment.

“Uneven dye job,” Jillie muttered, shaking out the folds. “Me da does better work—when he can get it.”

“Is there no work for a dyer, then?” Juliana peered at the thin brown liquid in the cup.

“Time was, he had the vats in the dying shed bubbling day and night—year ’round. But the trades have been moving to the cities—to Bath, to Salisbury and even London town.”

Juliana took a sip. Small ale. Hardly her favorite for breaking her fast. She bit into the bread. The flour had been coarse ground and was mealy; her teeth crunched down on a hard piece of chaff. She was going to have to make some changes around here.

With elaborate casualness she said to Jillie, “Didn’t the former baroness patronize local tradesmen?” She crumbled the bread crust between her fingers. “Dyers, millers and such?”

“No.” Jillie looked down at her large red hands. “The lady Margaret never seemed to…to think of such things.”

Margaret. Her name was Margaret. “I see. What sorts of things did she think of?”

“Don’t know, rightly. Fashion things, music, needlework, mayhap gaming in the hall.”

“And her husband.” Juliana hated herself for wanting to know. “Did she think of him?”

Jillie slapped her hands on her thighs. “Blind me, but I forgot to draw your water, milady. I’ll be back in a trice.” Moving with surprising swiftness, she left the chamber. When she returned with a ewer of warm water for washing, she seemed disinclined to speak.

Juliana did not press her. She had not a single friend in this place, and she was loath to test the loyalty of her only prospect.

Jillie helped her dress in a pale peach-colored bodice and gown. “Nance was up late tucking this to fit you, taking up the hem.” She stepped back to survey her mistress. “’Tis a good fit.”

Juliana heard the flatness in her tone. “But?” she prompted.

“Ah, listen to me. ’Tis not my place to judge my betters—”

“Jillie.” Juliana spoke the name carefully. “You must always speak your mind to me.” It felt strange inviting intimacy with a servant. Yet in her present circumstances, she had sore need of an ally.

“The color’s wrong, milady,” Jillie blurted out. “You’ve a fine rich mass of hair and roses in your lips and cheeks. ’Tis the jewel tones you’ll favor, not this pale washed-out stuff.”

“Then dye my gowns,” Juliana said simply.

Jillie’s jaw dropped. “Truly?”

“Truly. Tell your father I’ll gladly pay his price.”

“Ah, milady, you’re—”

A loud clanking sound rattled through the open window. Juliana hurried over, followed by Jillie. In the courtyard below, on the gravel drive, rolled a sturdy cart laden with crates and oddly shaped parcels.

“What is this?” Juliana asked.

“The new shipment. His lordship’s always bringing things from London town.” Jillie sighed and propped her chin in her hand. “The world is so big,” she said wistfully. “’Twould be a rare blessing to see it. I ain’t once been out of the shire.”

“Never?” The very thought made Juliana feel cramped and restless. “I’ll tell you about it someday.” She moved toward the door. “For now, we must receive our guest.”

An hour later, she stood in an airy solar and looked through oriel windows over the apple yard, enclosed by a high brick wall and white with May blossoms. Lynacre was a strange and beautiful place. She had yet to make sense of the house, with its gable-ended great and small wings, the porches, the clusters of chimneys, the crenellated parapets. The grounds provided a puzzle of their own. Thus far she had noticed at least three separate walled gardens, thick woods rearing almost menacingly to the west, and layer upon layer of soft green fells leading down to the river.

She lowered herself to the window seat, drew her knees to her chest, and rested her temple against the sun-warmed leaded glass. Aye, the estate was strange and beautiful—much like its master. The thought of him reminded her of the old Russian story of Stavr, an enchanted prince who was trapped in his forest kingdom. He could only be freed by the kiss of a princess, freely given.

“What the devil are you doing?” snapped a furious voice from the doorway.

Juliana froze. To her mortification, she discovered that she had pressed her fingers to her lips and closed her eyes, lost in the fantasy of a magic kiss. With as much dignity as she could muster, she jumped up and shook out her skirts.

Stephen stood there in the same trunk hose and jerkin he had worn the day before. A light golden stubble softened the hard lines of his cheeks and jaw. His pale hair looked mussed, as if long fingers had run through it. The disarray gave him a certain rakish charm that made her breath quicken and her cheeks grow warm.

It struck Juliana, disturbingly, that he had not yet been to bed—unless it was with one of the wenches he had so pointedly mentioned last night.

She silenced the jangle of alarm in her mind. If it was his habit to carouse each night away, that was his affair. She’d be a fool to let herself be hurt by it.

“My dear,” he said in a gravelly voice, “you’ve not answered my question.”

“A carter arrived with goods from London. I received them and sent the carter round to the kitchen for a meal. My lo—Stephen,” she corrected, boldly using his familiar name. She took an ivory whistle from a box and blew a high note. “What is this? For a shepherd, perhaps?” Before he could answer, she drew a light shroud from a dome-shaped cage to reveal a bright yellow canary perched inside. “And this…an addition to your dovecote?” She flipped through the stiff pages of a small, fat book, noting a few block-printed illustrations. “I do not read English well. Perhaps you could tell me what this says. And this—” She reached for a wooden box made of interlocking pieces.

A large male hand snatched the box away. “Are you quite finished?” Stephen demanded in a low, lethal whisper.

“These are children’s playthings,” she said, refusing to flinch. “I just wondered—”

He paced the length of the solar, his booted feet kicking up dust from the rushes. “I’ve a fondness for invention. My own, and those created by others. You need not read any further meaning into it.”

Perhaps the toys were gifts for the children of the nearby village. Perhaps Stephen de Lacey concealed a heart of gold behind a facade of stone.

Prodded by a devil of mischief, she picked up a tiny reed pipe and blew, her fingers covering the holes to vary the pitch.

“Stop that.” He stood inches away, glaring down at her.

Juliana continued to play. She would rather suffer the heat of his anger than the chill of his indifference. She picked out the first few notes of an old Russian song about a cherry tree. There was something compelling about his nearness.

“Damn it, Juliana!” He took her wrist, bringing her hand up between their bodies.

Never had she stood so close to her new husband—close enough to hear the labored rasp of his breathing and feel it warm on her cheek. Close enough to catch his scent of leather and lye. Close enough to study the faint lines that fanned out from his exquisite pale eyes.

She stood riveted, staring up at him, feeling her pulse leap wildly beneath the firm grip of his fingers. And suddenly she knew. He, too, had felt the shock, the heat, the awareness. The recognition.

Of what? she wondered crazily.

Of desire.

The answer came to her like an arrow shot out of the dark, hitting home with stinging accuracy.

“Stephen?” she whispered.

For a moment, he seemed to waver, caught up in the same unbearable tension that held her breathless. His sculpted, unsmiling mouth twitched and he bent his head, golden hair falling forward, almost brushing her brow.

Closer and closer, until a mere whisper of distance separated their hungry lips, until anticipation thundered in her blood.

And, just as suddenly, Stephen plucked the reed pipe from her hand and stepped back.

“I’ll see to the parcels,” he snapped. “You need not trouble yourself with them. And in the future, Baroness, I shall receive all goods and dispatches.”

He withdrew quickly, his footsteps ringing on the flagged floor outside, then stopping.

Juliana hurried to the solar door and peeked out.

He stood in the narrow, dim passageway, his big hands pressed against the stone wall. His head was thrown back to reveal a taut brown throat. His teeth were clenched, his eyes tightly shut. It was a posture of such anguished frustration that Juliana felt like an intruder.

She slipped back into the solar. She had learned something about her husband this morning. He wanted her. That was one secret he could not keep from her.

Faintly, through a thick blanket of sleep, the sounds came to Stephen. A cry in the dark. A ragged sob of terror and depthless despair.

His awareness weighted by the quantity of sack he had drunk the previous evening to forget the startled hurt in Juliana’s eyes, he barely acknowledged the sounds. And then, slowly, like a stalking sneak thief, realization crept over him.

The moment had come. For years, he had dreaded this night. And yet a small dark part of him had craved it. This was the end of the waiting, the uncertainty. At last, he would be free—

“No!” Denial broke from him, loud and fierce and anguished. He leaped from his bed, tearing back the covers, bare feet slapping the chilly flagged floor.

No, please God, no…With jerky movements he groped for his leather leggings, his billowy cambric shirt, and in seconds he flew out the door of his chamber and into the night-black passageway.

He expected to find Nance Harbutt, come to impart the long-dreaded tidings, but no one waited in the gloom.

Still the weeping sound that had awakened him reached out, drew him along the passageway….

To his wife’s room.

The fog of sleep and wine blew away on a cold, knife-sharp wind.

Juliana. It was his gypsy wife, with her weeping and strange mutterings, who had roused him.

Both relief and annoyance eddied through him as he stepped into her chamber.

A low, throaty growl greeted him. Her lethal weapon of a dog stood stiff-legged in the middle of the room, glaring with malevolent eyes.

Stephen glared back.

The dog looked away first and crouched down, warily letting him pass.

For a moment Stephen stood still, uncertain. Watery moonlight, faint as fairy’s breath, streamed through the open window and fell upon the imposing draped bed.

Juliana had been at Lynacre Hall only a week, yet already her presence pervaded what had once been Meg’s domain. The fragrance of lavender haunted the air; gowns and shifts made a cheerful disarray on the stools and chests; an old lute stood propped in a corner.

Stephen noticed this only in passing. He stood spellbound by the soft, terrible sounds coming from the figure on the bed.

Though she spoke in a foreign tongue, his heart constricted, for he knew the meaning well. In her sleep, she uttered the words of a soul that knew the icy black depths of despair and hopelessness, the supplication of a heart yearning to be healed.

Praying the dog would behave, he swiftly crossed the room to the bed. He of all people knew not how to comfort an unquiet soul, yet he could not stand to watch her suffer.

He sat on the edge of the bed, the heavy frame creaking under his weight. His large hands came to rest on the one shoulder that protruded from the twisted bedclothes.

She held herself curled up like a child shivering from cold. Her arms were hugged tightly around her torso. The trembling that emanated from her tore at Stephen. With a low, helpless curse, he pulled her against him. He felt her warmth, the wild tattoo of her racing heart, the hot dampness of her tears seeping into his shirt.

“Hush,” he whispered into her hair. His lips brushed the silky strands. He breathed in the faint herbal fragrance. “Hush, Juliana, please. ’Tis a night fright, no more. You are safe.”

She came awake with a loud, air-swallowing gasp. “Stephen?”

Feeling awkward and ungainly, he held her away from him and peered at her face. Her eyes were wide and staring, her cheeks wet.

“I heard you cry out,” he explained, gruff-voiced and struggling to sound matter-of-fact. “I thought to quiet you before you awakened the whole household.”

“Oh.” She scrubbed the voluminous sleeve of her nightrail over her face. “Didn’t Pavlo try to stop you?”

“He understands I mean you no harm.”

She nodded. “I—I am sorry I awakened you.”

“Are you all right now?” It was too dangerous to be alone with her like this—in the darkened bed, with her all warm and soft and tumbled from sleep. And vulnerable.

“Yes,” she said. But her voice was hoarse, her eyes tearful.

He knew he should make haste away, but it was contrary to his nature to leave a creature in pain. “It’s over, Juliana. You’re safe. ’Twas only a nightmare.”

“But the nightmare is real,” she whispered. “I see things that happened to my family, hear things—”

“What things?”

“Fire,” she said, starting to tremble again. “Hoofbeats and screaming, flames shooting from the windows—”

“The windows?”

“The house at Novgorod. My father’s house.” She tipped up her head, for a moment looking almost haughty. “It was a place that makes Lynacre Hall look like a peasant’s dwelling.”

Stephen felt a sinking sense of disappointment. This was yet another part of the fiction she had created to support her wild pretenses. Another thread in the web of lies.

“In the dream, I am looking at the snow,” she went on, oblivious to his skeptical thoughts and seemingly immune to his touch, to the hand that moved from her chin to her shoulder, his thumb tracing whorls in the hollow of her throat.

“The fire casts bloody shadows on the snow. And then I see my family gathered in front of the steps. The blades of the attackers flash. Alexei, my betrothed, is fighting.”

Her betrothed? Stephen opened his mouth to ask her about this Alexei, but she gave him no chance.

“The steel blades are red in the firelight. My brother shrieks in pain. They do not cut him cleanly but—”

Her voice broke. She buried her face in her hands. “They have to hack and hack, and his cries become gurgles, and I can hear no more. And then, at the last, while Laszlo is holding me back…” She swallowed, seemed to force herself to go on. “I see Alexei fall. The leader is about to order his men to search for me. And Pavlo leaps out of nowhere.”


She nodded. “He had gotten free from the kennels. He is a very protective dog.”

Stephen lifted a strand of hair from the nape of her neck. How soft it was, how fragrant. “I noticed.”

“The rest, in my dream, is confusion. I see Pavlo leap, I hear muffled words. A curse. I cannot make it out over the roar of the fire, the sound of horses blowing, the other dogs baying. Pavlo yelps, and the man turns. He cannot see me, but the fire flares suddenly, and I wait, knowing I will see the face of a murderer.”

Stephen held his breath. In spite of himself, he had gotten caught up in her tale of horror. Dream or not, it had an immediacy that seized him.

“And?” he prompted.

She sighed and pressed her brow to his shoulder. “And nothing. It always ends the same. A flash, as if a firearm is being discharged. And then I awaken.”

“Without seeing the villain’s face?”


He almost smiled, half enjoying the light pressure of her head against his shoulder. “The murderer.”

“I always awaken before I see his face.”

“You have this dream often?”

“At first, just after the massacre that forced me to flee Novgorod, I had this dream every night. Now, not so often. But it is like opening a wound. I feel it all again. The grief, the rage. The helplessness. The loss of everything.” Her hand closed around his. Her palm was cool and damp with sweat. “The terror.”

“Ah, Juliana.” He smoothed his free hand over her head, tucking it more securely against his shoulder. He did not know what to believe.

“I’m frightened, Stephen. Always, Laszlo has been nearby to quiet my fears. Now I am alone. So alone.”

“No, you’re not,” he heard himself say. “I’m here, Juliana.”

The tension flowed out of her at his words, and for a moment he was struck by the wonder of it. That mere words and a soothing touch could bring comfort was a foreign notion to him.

“Stay with me,” she whispered. “Stay with me and hold me while I sleep.”

He was so stunned by her request that he forgot to be cautious. Before he knew what was happening, he stretched out beside her. He pulled the coverlet over her and held her tightly, her cheek against his chest, his chin resting lightly on her head.

He told himself this was only for a moment, only until she was calm and able to sleep again.

But an hour later he was still there.

Juliana slept peacefully, her breath soft against his throat, her small hand resting in the curve of his waist. Her slim leg draped over his thigh.

Stephen tried not to think about the fact that he was in bed with a beautiful woman. His wife. He had every right to kiss her, to touch her, to slide his hands beneath her nightrail and—He cut the fantasy short, and the effort made him ache. It had been so long since he had felt the softness of a woman’s breasts loose beneath thin lawn fabric. So long since he had listened to the breathing of someone slumbering nearby. So long since desire had stirred within him and then, lancelike, had stricken him with sharp arousal.


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