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Authors: Loretta Chase

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance, #General, #Regency

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BOOK: The Lion's Daughter
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On
the pallet opposite, the priest snored raucously. The irregular
series of snorts, growls, and wheezes was symptomatic, Percival
thought, of the nasal obstruction Mr. Fitherspine, his last tutor,
had suffered. The sound was so normal that one might almost believe
the last few days were just a dream. Only they weren't, and wishing
otherwise wouldn't solve anything.

The
priest had cried when he told Percival that Uncle Jason and Cousin
Esme were dead. Percival hadn't. It had all been too strange: the
young priest telling the awful news in Latin

for they had no other language in
common

while
tears trickled down the sides of his bumpy nose. Percival would not
cry now, either. If he gave way to tears, he'd give way altogether.
He needed to think.

Drawing
his leather pouch close, he took out the object he'd dared do no more
than touch while the priest was awake and resolutely unwrapped it.
There. The black queen. Proof he hadn't dreamed. The bandit
had
put it in his bag
...
after an angry conversation with
the others, of which Percival had understood only one word: Ismal. He
was sure, because he'd heard it several times.

He
crept toward the hearth and unscrewed the chess piece. And stared
...
because the slip of paper was
still there. Bewildered, he took it out and, in the faint light of
the embers, studied his father's message.

The
code was ludicrously simple. It merely turned the alphabet around,
substituting “Z” for “A” and so on. Then the
words turned into Latin. Ungrammatical, but clear enough. The ship
was the Queen of Midnight, delivery in Prevesa, early November.

That
was about all Percival understood. He didn't know why his papa had
put anything so incriminating in writing. Or why Ismal hadn't
destroyed the note

unless
he'd never got it. Above all, Percival wondered why on earth the
bandit had stuck the queen in his leather pouch.

As
though it mattered. Whatever the explanation, it must be ugly because
those men were ugly, and other ugly men had killed his uncle and
cousin.

Percival
dropped the paper onto the embers, then hastily snatched it back,
brushing off the sparks. Angrily he rubbed away the tears welling in
his eyes. Uncle Jason would never do such a cowardly thing. He'd been
killed trying to save Albania from the man to whom this message had
been sent. Someone needed this information, and that someone would
never believe a twelve-year-old boy without proof. It was Percival's
duty to pass on all the evidence
...
and let the world know his father
was a base smuggler, a criminal

oh,
heavens, perhaps even responsible, albeit unwittingly, for his own
brother's murder?

“Oh,
Mama,” Percival whispered, gazing down unhappily at the black
queen. “What on earth am I to do?”

Chapter
5

NEITHER
MALIQ NOR HIS COMPANY SIGHED OR salivated over the English lord at
supper. After all, they were not dissolute denizens of a corrupt
court. Though gracious and hospitable, they had too much pride to
fawn all over him.

Which
wasn't to say they weren't curious. While Rro-gozhina saw many
visitors in the course of a year, a foreigner was a rare species, and
this exotic newcomer was, in addition, tall, graceful, and handsome.
They found his physiognomy, attire, and behavior thoroughly
fascinating, though they had the dignity not to show this in any
blatant way.

At
least the men didn't, Esme corrected herself as she followed him to
his chamber and saw two plump, pretty girls peeping out at him from a
doorway, their mouths hanging open. When he turned to bid them good
night, they giggled and retreated. Fools, Esme thought disdainfully.
If only they knew what a depraved, idle piece of worthlessness he
was.

At
supper, Esme had been obliged to introduce him properly to the
company. When they had first arrived in the village, he appeared so
tired and ill that formalities were left for later;

first,
the English lord must be made comfortable. Not until supper did she
realize
she 'd
never
been honored with a formal introduction. Three nights she'd slept
beside him, and she didn't even know his name.
The
English baron, the lord.
That's all
she'd heard from Petro and the captain

as
though the man's true name was too holy to be spoken aloud.

“Tell
them your name,” she'd whispered harshly as the women carried
in the food. “I don't know it.”

In
quick, clipped syllables, he'd tossed out a long, ridiculous set of
names: Varian Edward Harcourt St. George, Baron Edenmont of
Buckinghamshire, England. Then he'd given her the most obnoxiously
smug smile, as though defying her to remember it all. Though she'd
wanted to slap him, Esme had turned to her host and gleefully
supplied a translation, at the end of which she heard several
smothered chuckles in the audience.

“What
the devil did you tell them?” he'd whispered, making her ear
tickle.

“St.
George is
Shenjt Gjergj,
a
saint they all recognize,” she said. “I told him a baron
was something like a
bej,
and
a shire was one of England's
pashaliks”

“What's
so hilarious about that?”

She
shrugged. “Perhaps it was your Christian name. I said it was
from Latin. Varian,” she said, pronouncing it with the wide
vowels and burr of Albanian. “Fickle, it means.”

“Later,”
he warned, “I shall
spank
you.”

Nonetheless,
he'd laughed, and the company with him, and someone had said his
laughter was like music.

Though
she much doubted his lordship had the temerity to spank her, Esme was
not eager to be alone with him. She trailed him into the chamber and
pulled the door hanging closed behind her. She'd only make sure he
had all he needed, she decided. Then she'd be quit of him for the
night.

The
room was small. All the same, by country village standards, it was
luxurious. Few houses had more than two rooms. Maliq's encompassed
six, and this must have been fitted up to accommodate visiting
dignitaries. Instead of
sofas

the
boards built against the walls to serve as couches and beds

the tidy space boasted one large
bunk and a substantial hearth.

They'd
given the Englishman not only the softest cushions and thickest
blankets, but privacy, a rare commodity.

Two
large pitchers filled with steaming water stood by the hearth, and a
kettle hung from a chain over the fire. A twinge of envy pricked her.
She'd washed her face and hands earlier, all the while acutely
conscious he'd hardly consider that sufficient. Petro hadn't needed
to tell her how fastidious the master was. She had a nose and eyes,
didn't she? She'd seen how clean his shirt was, and could not
remember when her own had gleamed so dazzlingly white.

Still,
Esme would never dream of imposing on strangers. She knew what it was
to haul buckets home from the village well or nearest stream and heat
kettle after kettle of water. Since she was supposed to be a
boy

Petro's
nephew

at
present, she must leave that work to the women, and she hadn't wanted
to add to their burdens.

“You'll
have peace and comfort now,” Esme said, glancing about the
room. Her gaze lingered one yearning moment upon the pitchers of hot
water and the precious cake of scented soap adorning an embroidered
towel. “They're all going to bed. No one will trouble you until
daybreak, and I'll be back then to interpret.”

He
sat down on the edge of the bunk, brought one lean, muscular calf up
to rest on his knee, and tugged at his boot. “You won't be
back,
since
you're not leaving,” he said. “I won't have you sleeping
with Petro and all those men, and you can't go with the women.”

“I
had thought you would prefer your privacy.” She watched
uneasily as he tossed away the boot and yanked at the other one.

“I
prefer to have you nearby,” he said. “When you're out of
sight, I find myself imagining every sort of disaster. I would rather
not lie awake all night in that state. It's no reflection on your
gender. I assure you. If you were Percival, I'd feel exactly the
same. Recollect what happened when
he
took off on his own.”

“It
is not the same,” she answered. “For one, my cousin and I
are not at all alike, except outwardly. For another
—”

“Esme,
you can argue until Doomsday if you like, but the
long
and
the
short
of
it is, I shall not sleep a wink tonight if you leave.”

Which
meant that tomorrow he'd be tired and cross, and she would be to
blame. Esme set her mouth, strode to the bunk, snatched a blanket,
and threw it onto the floor near the hearth.

“I
didn't mean you had to sleep on the floor.” He rose from the
bunk. “Naturally, you may have the bed.”

“I
shall sleep on the floor,” she said firmly. “My bones are
not so tender as yours.”

He
smiled. “Perhaps not, but yours aren't very well padded.”

“They
are
younger
and
more flexible,” she answered with-eringly.

“You
find me decrepit?”

Esme
flicked one resentful glance up and down the length of his perfectly
proportioned body. 'That is not what I meant. Just because you are a
grown man, and strong, does not mean your endurance is greater. I
should sleep contentedly upon the floor, whereas you will surely lie
awake half the night in great cold and discomfort. I advise you to
enjoy the soft bed while you might.”

“But
I'm determined
you
should
enjoy it,” he said. “I've fully made up my mind to be
chivalrous.” His smile broadened into a teasing grin. “Shall
we commence a war of wills, madam? Shall we see who is the more
obstinate?”

“I
am not
—”

The
rest came out in a choked oath, as Esme found herself swiftly caught
up in his arms and deposited upon the bed. She instantly bolted to
her feet, but his hands clamped down on her shoulders. Instinctively,
she retreated from the hard column of his body and felt the edge of
the bed press against her thighs. “Do not think you can
vanquish me so easily,
efendi,”
she declared. “If you do not
release me and move out of the way, you shall feel the weight of my
boot on your noble foot.”

Defiant
words, it turned out, were no match for two firm hands. Scarcely had
she finished speaking when her bottom landed on the bunk. Before she
could bounce up again, he got hold of her foot. Esme tumbled
backward, and while she
struggled
to regain her balance, he pulled off first one boot, then the other.

“Stomp
on my feet now, if you like,” he said, still holding her ankle
prisoner, “but you shall not spoil my lovely stockings, little
wildcat.”

“Silk,”
she sneered, despite the unnerving awareness of the long fingers
clasping her ankle. “Only a concubine would wear silk upon her
feet.”

He
studied the thickly hosed foot he held. “Much pleasan-ter than
scratchy wool, I assure you. If you're a good girl, perhaps I'll send
you silk stockings from Italy for your trousseau. Your stockings are
still damp,” he added. 'That's unhealthy.”

She
tried to jerk free, but both wool socks came off with the same swift
ease as the boots. Her heart pounding, Esme concluded that he must
have had a great deal of experience relieving women of their
clothing. And why the devil would he not release her? You'd think
he'd never seen feet before, the way he stared.

Her
cheeks burned with embarrassment. Her feet were not so very dirty,
but then, not so very clean, either. Not like the clean, soapy smell
of his head. In the glow of candle and hearth, his black hair
glistened like jet beads.

“Your
feet are so tiny,” he said in soft surprise. “Small, fine
bones, like a bird's.” His finger lightly traced a muscle to
her ankle, and the thread of warmth he drew there spread upward to
her knee and made her tremble.

He
looked up, and it seemed for a moment as though the air between them
vibrated, like the strings of a mandolin. In the room's amber light,
his clean-shaven face gleamed smooth as polished marble, but his gray
eyes had darkened, grown strangely intent. A lock of black hair
tumbled to his eyebrow, and she wanted to brush it back. The wish
made her feel weak, and wistful.

BOOK: The Lion's Daughter
3.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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