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Empty champagne glasses were all that remained of the wedding celebration. The guests had long ago faded into the mist that rose up around the castle walls. Ghosts of drunken best wishes echoed through the great hall, blending with the thunder that rumbled through the mountains outside. A gust of wind spiraled down the chimney, causing even the roaring fire in the mammoth hearth to pause and take heed. Wind and rain battered the tiny bedroom upstairs, howling between the turrets, and hammering at the stone exterior. Lightning sizzled the skies, far overpowering the solitary candle.
"Of all the nights to have a storm," Kirsten muttered grimly, setting aside the beaded gown of ivory silk, and searching for her cloak, "why did it have to be my wedding night?"
Inga, her governess, told her wedding rain promised good luck. But it seemed instead that the skies cried with her, as she made preparations to leave her father's home forever.
"Kirsten!" Her father's fist shook the door. "Valdemar is waiting."
"I'm coming," she shouted over the storm. She'd dawdled as long as possible. Checking her reflection in the mirror, she saw only pale hair and gray haunted eyes. She didn't look like a woman, more like a frightened child.
Her father hustled her down the sweeping staircase. And, with a perfunctory kiss, she was bundled into the waiting carriage.
Traded like a horse, from one man to another.
The carriage leapt into motion, throwing her against the dark figure beside her. With strong arms, he caught her and settled her back against the velvet cushions. A bolt of lightning cast him in silhouette against the brilliantsky.
Swallowing nervously, she studied the stranger beside her. They'd met only once before the wedding. With her father standing guard, he'd presented her with an intricately carved gold cross with a flaming ruby at its center to mark their betrothal. Eyes black as onyx had lingered on her every move, making her feel both desirable and vulnerable. At twenty-nine, he seemed terribly serious, and impossibly ancient.
Rumors clung to the young aristocrat. Servants whispered he was cursed. Local folklore spoke of a string of fiancées who perished under mysterious circumstances. The kitchen staff lay wagers she'd be dead within a week like his last wife.
Her father dismissed her fears as superstitious nonsense. He was anxious to marry off the last of his seven daughters. With her mother long dead, Kirsten had no choice but to obey his wishes.
Through the carriage's black curtains she could see only drifting columns of mist. The teaming rain absorbed all sound except for the rattle of the carriage's wheels. Now and then, shrubby trees thrust their glistening, leafless branches through the fog like questing hands.
A meager few feet beyond the narrow wheels of the carriage, the ground fell sharply away. Mercifully, the view was obscured by mist and rain. Kirsten crossed herself, praying the driver was sure of his grip on the reins.
After what seemed an eternity of bouncing and jostling, they rounded a corner and she gazed at last upon the crumbling battlements of Castle Berthold. Fog clung to the upper storeys like ghosts of past occupants. The stone was gray, rough from the wear of countless years. Yet, the stately oak door was richly lacquered and its brass hinges polished to a dull gleam.
The carriage clattered to a halt before the stone steps. Kirsten swallowed hard and uttered another prayer as Valdemar stepped down and offered her his hand. She was now mistress of that crumbling castle.
It was only six days since her seventeenth birthday.
Valdemar slipped a proprietary arm about her waist to guide her up the slick, stone stairs, past gargoyles whose vacant eyes seemed to follow her every move.
The pressure of Valdemar's palm against her back urged her forward. As they approached, the door swung open, dwarfing the thin figure whose lantern cast swaying shadows out over the steps. The gaunt, gray-haired man bowed deeply as she passed, then hurried off to oversee the unloading of her luggage.
Above the grand entranceway an iron chandelier blazed with a multitude of candles. The sheer size of the hall made her feel insignificant. Yet, Valdemar strode across the cavernous room with the confidence of a man well accustomed to wealth and vast rooms. He was at home, she realized of a sudden.
And so, God help me, am I.
"Let me show to your rooms," Valdemar said, ushering her forward. "I trust everything will be to your satisfaction."
"I'm certain it will be, My Lord," she whispered, with another glance at the high, vaulted ceiling that disappeared into shadow above the chandelier. His hand touched her shoulder, turning her back to him.
"Now that we are wed, Kirsten, you must call me by my given name."
"As you wish, Valdemar," she said, trying it out. It felt odd to address a virtual stranger with familiarity.
Valdemar smiled, and she caught a glimpse of the handsomeness which attracted so many women. He stroked her cheek lightly. "My name has never sounded so sweet as it does upon your lips."
His compliment embarrassed her, and she looked away. This was the first of many rites of courtship to come.
Merciful God, guide me through this night.
Seeming to sense her discomfort, Valdemar motioned to the sweeping, stone staircase leading to the balconies of the upper floors. "You will no doubt want a few moments to settle in and refresh yourself after your journey."