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Chapter One

St. James Keep, Bavia, 1895

"What the deuce is she doing up there?" Rafael St. James, prince of Bavia, demanded, bending as far out his chamber window as he could without plunging headfirst into the empty moat.

A light and drizzling rain was falling, that gloomy evening in late May, but he could see all too clearly. Annie Trevarren, a lithe, barefooted figure clad in a pair of kidskin breeches and a flowing shirt that might have been pinched from his own wardrobe, was embracing the face of a gargoyle on the crumbling parapet of the south tower.

Rafael felt an inward wrench at the sight of her, a tug born of something other than fear for her safety.

Beside him, his eighteen-year-old sister, Phaedra, fidgeted and wrung her hands. "Annie wanted a clear view of the lake," she said, as if that were reason enough to risk life and limb. "You mustn't be angry, Rafael, she can't help her adventurous nature -- boldness runs in the Trevarren family, you know....

He cursed Miss Annie Trevarren and her alleged "adventurous nature" as he whirled away from the window and sprinted across the room toward the yawning doors, which stood a little ajar because of Phaedra's abrupt entrance. The princess scurried along behind him, moving as rapidly as her cumbersome skirts would allow and prattling the whole way. Rafael ran down the hall toward the enclosed staircase in the southern-most corner of the keep.

"Annie occasionally does impulsive things -- but she invariably regrets them later and makes up for her errors quite nicely, and she is extremely practical in most instances..."

Rafael ignored his sister's breathless blatherings in defense of her friend and schoolmate and ran as fast as he could, directing his thoughts to Annie. Hold on, you little fool. Just hold on!

His bodyguard and childhood friend, Edmund Barrett, reached the stairs at the same moment as Rafael. It was plain from the consternation in the other man's normally taciturn face that he had either been advised of Miss Trevarren's predicament or had seen it for himself.

"Let me handle this, Your Highness -- " he began. Barrett tended to address Rafael formally in any emergency.

Rafael shook his head and pushed past Barrett to mount the spiral steps. He was still the master of St. James Keep, however tenuous his hold on the rest of the country might be, and thus responsible for the safety of those within its ancient walls. Not to mention, the young woman's parents, Patrick and Charlotte Trevarren, were among his most valued friends. What would he say to them if Annie fell to her death -- that they still had four daughters left and shouldn't trouble themselves over the loss of the eldest? The little minx was a guest in his house -- had been for a week -- and it was his responsibility to look after her.

The door at the top of the staircase was open, of course, and Rafael stepped cautiously over the threshold. Annie stood several yards away, on the other side of a gap in the parapet, embracing the gargoyle with both arms. Her red-gold hair tumbled down her back and curled in the moist air.

"Don't worry, Annie!" Phaedra called, from just behind the prince's right shoulder. "Rafael will save you!"

"Be quiet and stay back," Rafael hissed, assessing the state of the parapet itself. The rain, smelling of settled dust, cooled his skin. To Annie he said, "Don't move."

Apparently, St. Aspasia's Academy for Young Women of Quality, where both Annie and Phaedra had spent the past few years learning manners and deportment, had served at least some part of its purpose. Even in that dire situation -- and it was dire, for the girl was standing on loose pebbles and very little else -- she smiled bravely and nodded, though she was pale and trembling.

"I won't," she promised, in a stoic tone.

Rafael indulged a perverse desire to look down. The brick floor of the courtyard seemed to spin in the gathering dusk and a number of spectators had congregated, their torches making spots of fire. He closed his eyes for a moment and offered a silent prayer to a God who had long since abandoned him, then eased out onto the ledge.

Some of the stone fell away beneath his feet, and he leaned back against the moss-slickened wall, arms spread wide, breathing deeply. Should the Trevarren chit be fortunate enough to survive this folly, he reflected, he might well murder her himself.

"Do be careful," Annie counseled, as though he were the one who needed rescuing.

Rafael felt color surge up his neck and pulse along his jawline as he moved closer to her, ever so slowly, progressing by inches, and fractions of inches. "I wasn't planning to hang by my feet or do handstands, Miss Trevarren," he replied reasonably. This was no time, or place, after all, to lose his temper. If they were both lucky, he would have that luxury later.

Once Rafael got her inside, he vowed to himself, he'd deliver a lecture this little hellion would never forget. After that, he might just throw her into the dungeon or hang her up by her thumbs.

He reached Annie's side on the strength of these fantasies and slipped one arm around her waist. "All right, Miss Trevarren," he said quietly, with a calmness he didn't feel. "Release your hold on the masonry, if you will, and we'll start back. It's going to be a slow process, though -- no sudden moves, or we'll both be splattered on the stones of the courtyard. Understood?"

Remarkably, he felt her bristle, ever so slightly, against his rib cage. "Believe me, Your Highness," she said with stiff dignity, "your instructions were quite clear."

Rafael risked a step, holding his breath, rejoicing inwardly when the parapet held. He muttered something meaningless, even to himself, and they progressed another step. Tiny bits of rock clattered down the tower wall, then tumbled soundlessly through space. The mist had turned to hard rain, soaking Annie's clothes and hair, extinguishing the torches below, and making the stones of the narrow walkway slippery as well as unstable.

Rafael stole a sidelong glance at Annie and saw that she was holding back tears, and that knowledge stung him out of all proportion to good sense. Miss Trevarren might have been foolhardy, but he secretly admired her boldness and courage.

"You'll be all right," Rafael said, in a gentler tone than he'd used before.

Annie snuffled. Like him, she pressed her back to the wall of the tower, one arm out wide for balance. They were a few inches nearer the door. "I was just thinking of my new yellow dress," she told him seriously. "It will be a shame if I never get to wear it. One must take joy in small things, you know."

For one rash moment, Rafael considered pushing her over the edge and being through with the matter. "That would be among my lesser concerns," he said tautly. Out of the comer of his eye, he saw that Barrett was in the doorway, holding a coiled rope.

"Only because you probably don't own a yellow dress," Annie replied, in a tone that somehow made the nonsensical sound rational.

Rafael felt a muscle twitch in his right cheek. The rope snaked out toward him, and he caught the end in his free hand, nearly losing his balance in the endeavor. "Yellow has never been my color," he answered dryly, and at great length. "Here. We'll tie this around your waist. If you fall while stepping across that chasm in the parapet, and you well might, don't panic and start screaming and flailing about. Barrett is more than capable of holding on and hauling you to safety."

Annie's eyes widened in her pale face, and for the first time, Rafael noticed that they were a very dark blue, the color of india ink. "What about you?"

He permitted himself a heartfelt sigh. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing if he fell; it would save the rebels the trouble of capturing, trying and finally hanging him, not to mention sparing the people of Bavia a long and costly civil war.

Tightening the rope around her middle and testing the knot as best he could, Rafael replied, "Indeed, Miss Trevarren -- what about me?"

"Ready?" Barrett called, through the thickening twilight.

"Yes," Rafael replied, looking down into Annie's upturned, rain-beaded face. In the next instant, before he could think about it too much, he maneuvered her around him.

She shrieked as a chunk of the parapet gave way and she fell, kicking wildly and clinging to the rope with both hands as she swayed, like a human pendulum, high above the main courtyard.

Rafael's breath burned in his throat and scalded his chest as he watched her. His own purchase was slipping; he could feel the walkway all but dissolving under the soles of his boots. Horrific images flooded his mind -- he saw the rope breaking, saw the Trevarren girl plummeting through space, heard her strike the stones below with such vivid clarity that bile surged into the back of his throat.

After that, the pictures became more confused; in an instant, he was back in the palace in Morovia, standing in the receiving line again, with his beloved Georgiana at his side, reliving the events of that night eighteen months before. His father, the last prince of Bavia, had been dead only a few weeks, and Rafael had just returned to the country after some twelve years of exile in England.

The scene unfolded quickly in his mind.

The stranger approached Rafael, the new and untested ruler and, before anyone could stop him, drew a small pistol from the pocket of his evening coat and aimed it at the prince's chest.

Georgiana had apparently seen what was happening, for she stepped between them at exactly the wrong moment, and took the bullet meant for her husband.

Rafael heard the shot echoing in his head and closed his eyes, too dizzy to move, but after a few seconds, he collected himself and looked toward the tower window just in time to see Barrett dragging Annie inside.

Relief swept through Rafael with such force that his knees went weak and again he pondered the attributes of death. If there was an afterlife, he might see Georgiana again, and Barrett's father. More of the parapet crumbled away into space, and he pressed his back hard against the wall, fingers clutching the time-beaten, porous stones.

"She's safe inside now, sir," Barrett said, raising his voice to be heard over the rising wind and the slashing patter of the rain. "Heads up, then. Here comes the rope."

It undulated toward him, that length of woven hemp, and Rafael caught it in both hands and held on with a ferocity that belied his earlier reflections on the advantages of dying. The last of the walkway collapsed while he was knotting the rope around his chest, and he felt its roughness bum into his hands as he slid, the knot giving way, almost to its end.

He slammed hard against the wall of the castle, blinded now by the downpour, focusing all his energy, all the strength of his being, on the simple process of holding on. Barrett pulled him upward, one lurching wrench at a time, while Rafael dangled, his palms raw where he grasped the slick rope.

At last, he felt hands, half a dozen of them, gripping him under the arms, by the wrists, by the back of his coat. They hauled him inside, Barrett, one of his lieutenants, and Lucian, Rafael's young half brother.

He crouched on the landing for several moments, soaked and bruised, his hands bleeding, his heart hammering against his breastbone, his breath grating like coarse sand in his lungs.

Barrett dragged him unceremoniously to his feet. "Are you all right?" he asked, with genuine concern. The affection between them was old, and it was deep.

Rafael managed a bitter, choked laugh, swayed slightly. When he spoke, it was in a furious rasp.

"Where is she?"

Annie had been waiting on the top step of the tower staircase, shivering with cold and residual terror, offering fervent, if silent, prayers that Rafael would be saved. Had she loved him, devotedly if from a distance, all these years, she'd asked herself, only to be the cause of his death?

At the sound of his voice, a low rumbling like summer thunder, however, both she and Phaedra stiffened in alarm.

The princess clutched Annie's hand and pulled. "Quickly!" Phaedra hissed, dragging her friend down the smooth steps toward the hallway. "If Rafael catches up to us now, there's no guessing what he'll do!"

Annie considered a couple of the possibilities and suddenly all the strength came back into her legs. Unencumbered by skirts, she bolted ahead of Phaedra and dashed blindly along the passage, having no earthly idea where to hide. Such was her unbridled agitation, alas, that she tripped on the comer of a rug and went sprawling onto the floor.

Before she could rise again, a pair of hard male hands hoisted her to her feet. She looked into the coldly furious face of the prince himself.

"Rafael -- " Phaedra pleaded, grasping her brother's arm.

He pulled free of his sister's hold, his storm gray eyes locked on Annie's face. He spoke to the soldier without looking away. "Take Miss Trevarren to her room and bolt the door. I'll deal with her in the morning. At the moment, I do not trust myself with the task."

Annie was cold and wet and full of remorse for giving in to the more daring side of her nature, but she felt a flush of indignation at his words and took umbrage at the tone in which they were delivered. "Why don't you just chain me to the dungeon wall and be finished with it?" she asked, with dignity.

"A delightful suggestion," Rafael bit out, still glaring at her. "And don't think I haven't considered it. Have you any others, Miss Trevarren? More drastic ones, I hope?"

She wilted slightly, for bravado will carry one just so far. Then, swallowing, she returned Rafael's icy stare, wondering what she'd ever seen in him and knowing, at the same time, exactly what. He was strong, he was handsome, he was good, and she couldn't so much as think about him without feeling a tug in her heart and a less prosaic response somewhere else.

"No," she conceded. "I haven't."

Only then did the prince unwrap his fingers from around Annie's arm. Mr. Barrett proceeded down the hall, with Lucian following at a reluctant pace and casting backward glances over one shoulder, but Rafael remained, towering there in that chilly passage like some dark specter.

Phaedra, loyal friend that she was, lingered stubbornly.

"Do not delude yourself into thinking that I will forget this incident, Miss Trevarren," Rafael said, bending until his aristocratic nose was almost touching Annie's impertinent, faintly freckled and upturned one. "We shall, as I said, take the matter up again in the morning."

The prince had plainly meant to intimidate Annie, and he'd succeeded, but she was too proud to let him see her trepidation. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and refused to lower her eyes. Annie had learned long since, that one must, in the words of the Bard, assume a virtue if one has it not.

Rafael shook his dark head, murmured something blessedly incomprehensible and walked on with a brisk stride.

Phaedra immediately linked her arm with Annie's and demanded in a whisper, "Are you mad?"

Annie didn't know whether her friend was referring to the ill-advised episode on the parapet of the tower or the more recent exchange with Rafael. She was completely deflated, and now that the prince wasn't there to see, her shoulders sagged and her eyes brimmed with remorseful tears. What had she been thinking, to risk so much for a mere view of the landscape?

The two girls were headed toward their adjoining bedchambers, which were in the west end of the keep, before she replied. "I don't know what gets into me sometimes," she despaired. "I just get ideas -- these incredible urges to climb things. The inspiration seemed harmless at the time, I assure you, and the lake was unbearably beautiful, blue as lapis, even with the rain coming on." Annie paused to emit a violent sneeze, and Phaedra muttered something and stepped up her pace, forcing Annie to hurry, too. "Trees, drainpipes, trellises, the rigging of my father's ship -- " the errant houseguest went on, "I've scaled them all. There are times when I simply must see the world from a new perspective."

Annie had been nine years old when she'd decided to get a look at her surroundings from the crow's nest of the Enchantress, and she'd gotten the one and only spanking of her life after her father brought her down from that lofty perch. Her mother, Charlotte, usually her most ardent supporter, had offered no protest whatsoever, which meant it must have been a very foolish thing to do in the first place. For reasons of pride, Annie did not recount the experience to Phaedra.

The princess, a hoyden of some repute in her own right, was shaking her head in an irritatingly superior way. "What will become of you, Annie Trevarren?" she fussed, with a lofty sniff. "Just look at you -- dressed like a boy, climbing out of windows like a monkey! How do you expect to find a man and get married when you behave like a barbarian?"

To Annie's vast relief, they had gained the doorway of her room. She longed for dry clothes, a fire to warm herself by and a nip of sherry, though not necessarily in that order. Her desire to avoid a lecture she'd heard a hundred times before from the nuns at St. Aspasia's, among others, was even greater.

She put her hands on her hips and stared back at Phaedra, who now wore a familiar expression of baffled concern.

"There are other things in life besides finding a man and getting married, you know," Annie said, though, at the moment, she couldn't have named those things with any real exactitude. There weren't many other things to do, after all, if one's sex was female, and besides, she'd thought of little else from the time she'd first laid eyes on Rafael. He'd visited her parents' home on the coast of France when Annie was just twelve, and changed the whole course of her life.

"Like what?" Phaedra challenged. She and Annie had come to Bavia, barely a week before, after leaving school in Switzerland, to plan a royal wedding -- Phaedra's own -- and the celebration was to be a fairy-tale affair, suitable for a princess. Naturally, given her current occupation with matrimonial matters, Phaedra was an outspoken proponent of wedded bliss. Which didn't keep Annie from thinking, on occasion, that her dearest friend was whistling at shadows.

Annie sneezed again, with spirit, just in time to evade the question. "I'm freezing," she said, then fled into her bedchamber and closed the door behind her. Fortunately, the fire was still burning on the hearth, and she hurried toward it.

Once she was certain Phaedra wouldn't follow, determined to make her point, Annie tore off her wet clothes and undergarments. Her legs and arms were badly scraped and bruised where she'd bounced off the castle walls during the rescue, but remembering that Rafael's hands had been bleeding, she couldn't summon up a lot of self-pity.

Trembling with cold, Annie fetched a towel from the wash stand and dried goose-pimpled flesh, then pulled a nightgown over her head. She had just finished doing that, in fact, when a soft rap sounded at the door.

Expecting a maid bearing brandy, which would have been most welcome, or a repentant Phaedra, which alas would not, Annie called out, "Come in!" without a moment's hesitation.

Her heart stopped, missing several beats -- she was to swear to it, forever after -- when Rafael stepped over the threshold. His clothes, the same ones he'd worn to bring her in off the parapet, were sodden, his dark hair was beaded with rain and showed evidence that he'd raked his fingers through it a number of times in the few minutes since they'd parted. The undersides of his hands were streaked crimson with dried blood, the backs already swelling visibly.

The firelight cast a sinister, flickering glow over his countenance and, to Annie's fanciful eyes, at least, Rafael St. James looked more like the devil than the reigning prince of a small, doomed country.

She felt his gaze sweep over her, with a certain grand dispatch, leaving a peculiar, achy heat in its wake, and realized that the glow of the fire was probably shining through her nightgown and thus outlining the shape of her body. She stepped away from the hearth, taking refuge behind a high-backed chair.

The silence lengthened.

Finally, Annie could bear the thunderous tension no longer. "If you've truly come to carry me off to the dungeon," she said, in a small and shaky voice, "as you threatened before -- I warn you, I shall resist."

St. James stared at her for a long moment, as if confounded, and then, suddenly, he laughed. The sound was purely masculine, deep and rich and intoxicating, and it spawned feelings in Annie that were at once delicious and terrifying.

She looked around for some better shelter than that velvet-upholstered chair and, finding none, stood her ground. "I think you should leave," she said, with polite belligerence.

Rafael's amusement had distilled from a husky laugh, from low in his throat, to a rather demonic smile. He arched one dark eyebrow and studied her at his leisure before responding. "No doubt you're right," he conceded. "I should leave. However, I am the master of St. James Keep, as well as the ruler of this godforsaken country. As such, I go where I please."

Annie swallowed hard to keep herself from pointing out that he was about to be overthrown. It would have been cruel and disrespectful and, anyway, she owed Rafael St. James some degree of civility for saving her life. She felt churning despair, as well as fear, just looking at Rafael, for she had loved him so deeply, and for so long, that it was a part of her nature. If he was taken by the rebels and executed, she too would die. Of a broken heart.

"Thank you," she said. "For saving me, I mean."

The prince looked down at his hands, seemed to notice for the first time that his palms had been rubbed raw by the rope, and that they were blood-smeared. When he met her eyes again, his expression was at once weary and wry.

Rafael inclined his head in a courtly way. "You're quite welcome, Miss Trevarren," he allowed. "However, if you ever do such a stupid thing again, while living under my roof at least, I swear by every stone and timber in this keep that I'll personally carry you aboard the first ship that drops anchor off the coast, to be used as fish bait."

Annie blushed. This wasn't exactly the kind of vow she'd dreamed of hearing from Rafael these past six years. "My father would be very angry. I have no doubt, in fact, that he'd horsewhip you for such an offense."

"I'm willing to take that risk, Miss Trevarren." His gaze was steady, unrelenting. He drew a deep breath and forced it out in a noisy sigh. "You're all right, then? You won't need a doctor?"

"No," she said, feeling fathomless guilt for the pain she'd caused Rafael that night, and the danger she'd put him in. Especially now that she realized he'd come to her chamber to make sure she wasn't injured. "But I think you probably need a doctor."

"Yes," he said wearily still looking at his hands. "I'd better have these attended to. Good night, Miss Trevarren." With that, he turned to leave.

"Rafael?"

He stopped and waited, but did not look back at her.

"I'm sorry."

At last, Rafael turned. His gray eyes were snapping with renewed irritation. "Yes," he said. "And you'll be sorrier still tomorrow."

And then he was gone.

Ten minutes after his encounter with Miss Trevarren, in the privacy of his study, Rafael winced and spat a curse as Barrett poured straight whiskey over his wounded palms. The prince was seated in a chair next to the fire while his friend, bodyguard and most trusted advisor stood beside him.

Because they'd practically grown up together -- Barrett's father had been the gamekeeper on the Northumberland estate where Rafael had been fostered -- the two were closer than most brothers. After the last prince of Bavia had been killed in a duel -- William St. James had been a drunken tyrant, justly despised by his family as well as his people -- Rafael had been brought home to take up the reins of government. Barrett, a highly trained and experienced soldier, had made the journey with him.

"That's what you get for rescuing damsels in distress," Barrett remarked, with a half smile, as he dabbed at Rafael's injuries with a clean towel. "But then, you've always been too chivalrous for your own good. One of these days, it's going to mean the end of you."

"What should I have done?" Rafael snapped. "Left a mere schoolgirl, the daughter of cherished friends, out there on the parapet to meet her fate?"

"You could have let me bring Miss Trevarren in," Barrett replied, unruffled. He was winding bandages around Rafael's right hand by then.

"That isn't your duty."

"My duty," Barrett countered smoothly, "is to protect you."

"And you did," Rafael said, "when you threw me the rope and hauled me back inside. Thank you for that, by the way."

Barrett smiled again and began wrapping Rafael's other hand. "She's a spirited little minx, your American Miss."

Rafael felt a flash of irritation, and it only compounded his annoyance to realize that he gave a damn what other men thought of Annie Trevarren, be it good or ill. Even this one, the most loyal of all his companions, would need to tread lightly. "It's an inherited trait," he said evenly. "You would have to know her parents to understand."

Finishing his work, Barrett tied up the bandage neatly, then crossed the room to the liquor cabinet, where he poured brandy into two snifters. He offered the first to Rafael, who lifted it awkwardly to his lips and took a restorative sip.

The bodyguard generally kept his thoughts and opinions to himself, which was the way Rafael preferred matters to be handled, but that night the Englishman seemed unusually talkative. "It's dangerous here," he remarked, raising his own glass to drink. He paused for a few moments after doing so, perhaps savoring the brandy, perhaps sorting his thoughts. Most likely, it was both, for he was an intelligent man, and he appreciated good liquor. "Frankly, I'm surprised you would allow your sister to return to the country, given the current state of political affairs."

Rafael sighed again and closed his eyes. His hands throbbed and so did both his knees and his right shoulder; appendages that had been slammed or abraded against the hallowed walls of St. James Keep while he'd been dangling at the end of Barrett's rope like a wriggling trout on a line. He was in no mood to frame answers to questions he had yet to settle within his own mind.

"No doubt you're also wondering why I allowed Phaedra to bring a guest, as well, when times are so troubled. You've become quite curious in your old age, Barrett."

The bodyguard smiled; like Rafael, he was in his early thirties. Both men had lost their mothers at an early age. John Barrett, Edmund's father, had been kind to the young exile, patiently teaching him to ride and fish and hunt and fight, just as if the boy were his own. Times without number, Rafael had wished that were true.

"Some would call me meddlesome," Barrett confessed, at some length.

"Yes," Rafael agreed. "Still, you've risked your own life to save mine on several occasions, and that entitles you to pry a little." He swallowed a sip of brandy before going on. "For seven hundred years, the women of our family have offered their marriage vows in our own chapel, within the walls of this keep." A memory of his own grand wedding, to his beloved English rose, Georgiana, held in London because of the antipathy between Rafael and his father, filled his mind with color and pain.

He pushed the recollection aside, along with the unprofitable bitterness he held against his own forebears. "I could not deny that tradition to Phaedra, danger or no danger. As for Annie's -- Miss Trevarren's -- presence here, she's come to assist the princess with the myriad and no doubt tedious details of a royal ceremony. Besides, the young lady springs from very audacious stock, as you saw for yourself, this very night."

Barrett chuckled and shook his head, but something vaguely troubling flickered in his light brown eyes. His gaze, usually so direct, skirted Rafael's. "The bridegroom seems in no particular hurry to put in an appearance."

Rafael frowned and leaned forward in his chair, nearly spilling the brandy onto his late mother's priceless Persian rug. It was one of the few articles of value he had kept after returning to Bavia less than two years before, and in that time, he had given centuries worth of plundered artifacts, treasures and jewels over to the national coffers. Although the fact was not widely known, the St. James family now lived on private money, well-invested.

Rafael never forgot, waking or sleeping, that his efforts had come too late, for him and, very likely, for Bavia.

"What are you looking at?" Barrett asked, in a rather testy fashion, when he realized that Rafael was studying him closely.

"You just made a rather odd remark, it seems to me. What do you care whether the princess's future husband arrives tomorrow or next month or a week after doomsday?"

Barrett's neck turned a dull shade of crimson, a phenomenon Rafael had not witnessed since their shared youth. He started to speak, then tossed back the remains of his brandy, drowning the words before they could pass his lips.

Rafael's nape was taut with tension; he wished he could lie down in a dark room somewhere and sleep until it was all over -- Phaedra's wedding, the coming revolution, the utter and final collapse of a family, however self-serving, that had ruled over that small European nation for seven centuries. Rafael yearned for peace and yet he knew full well that he would probably never live to see it.

He settled back in his leather chair and closed his eyes for a moment.

"You've fallen in love with the princess," he said. "When did it happen? Last year, when she was home for summer holiday?"

Barrett was silent for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was gruff and a little defiant. "Yes."

"You know, of course, that it's hopeless. Phaedra's marriage to Chandler Haslett was arranged within days of her christening. He is actually a distant cousin." Rafael opened his eyes, met Barrett's steady gaze, and made an effort to mask the sympathy he felt. "It is a matter of honor, this union. The bargain cannot be undone. Not even for you, my friend."

"She doesn't love him." The certainty with which Barrett spoke worried Rafael.

"That doesn't matter," Rafael replied. "Arranged marriages are seldom, if ever, founded on love. They have more to do with property and political alliance."

Barrett did not argue, for he knew the weight of such customs as well as anyone, and it was tacitly understood that the subject was closed. He nodded and crossed the room to the massive double doors. "I'll post a guard outside your chamber tonight, as usual."

"Fine," Rafael answered, rising from his chair and frowning at the bulky dressings on his hands. How the devil was he supposed to accomplish anything, bound up that way? "Have someone watch Miss Trevarren's room as well. For all I know, she climbs towers and walks on parapets in her sleep."

The bodyguard smiled, though the expression in his eyes was still somber. "As you wish," he said, and went out.

Rafael immediately rose from his chair, pulled off his bandages and tossed them into the fire. He flexed his fingers, grimacing at the pain even as he courted, endured, and finally forced it into a dark corner of his mind. That done, he poured himself more brandy and turned his thoughts to the problem of Annie.

The prince smiled. He couldn't very well have her thrown into the dungeon -- Patrick Trevarren would horsewhip him for that, and be justified in doing so. Still, he'd promised that her foolishness would not go unpunished, and he intended to keep his word. He owed himself that much, at least, after such a harrowing night.

Copyright ©1994 by Linda Lael Miller

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