Princess (Ascension Trilogy Series #2)by Gaelen Foley
I'm so proud to introduce Gaelen Foley, a captivating new writer who will sweep you away with this unforgettable story of forbidden love and wondrous destiny.
Darius Santiago is the King's most trusted man, a master spy and assassin. He is handsome, charming, ruthless, and he has one weakness--the stunning Princess Serafina. She is all he… See more details below
I'm so proud to introduce Gaelen Foley, a captivating new writer who will sweep you away with this unforgettable story of forbidden love and wondrous destiny.
Darius Santiago is the King's most trusted man, a master spy and assassin. He is handsome, charming, ruthless, and he has one weakness--the stunning Princess Serafina. She is all he has ever wanted and everything he cannot have. Serafina has worshipped Darius from afar her whole life, knowing that deep in the reaches of her soul, where she is not royalty but a flesh and blood woman, she belongs to this dangerous, untouchable man. Unable to suppress their desire any longer, they are swept into a daring dance of passion destined to consume them both until a deadly enemy threatens to destroy their new love.
PRINCESS is historical romance at its best--full of adventure, intrigue, and pageantry--from an amazingly talented new author whose storytelling career is just beginning. . . .
The Ballantine Publishing Group
From the Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
The sound of her rapid, shallow panting filled the narrow space between the box-hedge walls of the garden maze. The hedges towered over her, closing in on her, and the pounding of her pulse was so loud in her head she knew they would hear. She inched down the narrow lane, her bare toes creeping silently over the cool, lush grass, her chest heaving. Constantly she looked over her shoulder. Her whole body was shaking, her hand bleeding, maybe broken from punching Philippe in his smug, sneering face with the sharp edge of her huge diamond ring. But at least she had managed to throw herself out of his iron grasp and had torn into the maze, where she thought she could evade them. She dared not call out for help because only the three men would hear.
No one else was outside on such a night, when the breeze spattered rain from a sky deepest indigo smeared with gold clouds. The cicadas roared in waves, while the wind, as it rose and fell, brought fragments of a tinkling minuet spilling out over the vast gardens and the royal park from the ball in progress--her engagement party. Her fiancé had been unable to attend.
She jerked her face wildly to the left, hearing movement on the other side of the dense hedge.
He was right there. The acid taste of the wine she'd drunk rose in the back of her throat.
She could see the shape of him, tall, bedecked in his finery. She could see the shape of the pistol in his hand and knew her pale silk gown was sure to be visible through the branches. She crouched down and moved silently away.
"Don't be afraid, Your Highness," came Henri's mellifluous voice from several rows away. "We're not going to hurt you. Come out now. There's nothing you can do."
They had split up so they could surround her. She choked back a sob, clawing to keep hold of her fragile control as she tried to decide which way to go. She had run around in this maze since she was a little girl, but she was so frightened she had lost all sense of direction.
She heard the lulling splash of the fountain in the tiny center courtyard of the maze and used the sound to try to orient herself. Clenching her fist so tightly her nails dug into her palm, she huddled against the bush, edging inch by inch down the lane. At the end, she pressed her back flat against the scratchy bushes, too scared to turn the corner. She waited, shaking, praying, trying to gather her nerve, her stomach in knots.
She didn't know what they wanted.
She had been propositioned many times by the gilded, predatory courtiers of the palace, but no one had ever attempted to haul her away before. No one had ever used guns.
She would have cried, but she was too terrified. The breeze rose again. She smelled cut grass, jasmine, man.
"Your Highness, you have nothing to fear. We are your friends."
She bolted, her long, black hair streaming out behind her. Thunder rumbled, the scent of a summer storm on the wind. At the end of the lane, she stopped, again too petrified to turn the corner, lest she find Philippe or the blond one, Henri, standing there waiting to catch her. She kept thinking how her ex-governess always said something like this would happen to her if she didn't mend her wild ways, stop acting so bold.
She vowed she would never be bold again. Never flirt. Never trust.
Her chest lifted and fell, lifted and fell.
They were coming. She knew she could not remain where she was for more than a few seconds longer.
I am trapped. There is no way out of this.
And then there came another voice, barely audible, a ghostly whisper.
The single word seemed to rise from the earth, or to slip out of the very air.
She nearly sobbed aloud to hear it, wanting with all her heart to believe it was not her panicked brain playing tricks on her. Only one person called her by that name, the Spanish version of her proper Italian title, Principessa.
If ever she'd had need of him, it was now.
Beautiful, blackhearted Santiago.
He alone could have saved her from this nightmarish game, but he was far away on the king's business, intelligence-gathering and protecting the ambassador in Moscow, where the new alliance against Napoleon was being formed.
Darius Santiago was an insolent, arrogant heathen, of course, but he did not know the meaning of fear and she quite believed he could do anything. She had not seen him in nearly a year, but he was always lingering near the outskirts of her heart, with his arrogant smirk and his coal-black eyes, as though watching her from across the miles by some occult vision.
"I grow weary of this chase, ma belle," Henri warned. She saw movement through the rows, made out tousled blond curls. She saw the Frenchman stop and cock his head, listening.
Wide-eyed, both hands pressed to her mouth to silence her ragged panting, Serafina began backing away. At a tug on her hair, she almost screamed, whirling to find that one of her long black curls had merely snagged on the grasping bushes.
She knew she heard it that time! But how could it be? She froze, her gaze darting wildly.
Could he know somehow that she was in danger? Could the bond between them still be so strong?
And then she realized she felt him there, felt his strange, silent power all around her in the night like the imminent storm.
"Make your way to the center courtyard," the dark, airy murmur instructed her.
"Oh, my God," she whispered, closing her eyes, almost sick with relief. He had come.
Of course he had come.
Even though he did not want her, even though he would never love her, she was of the royal blood and he was honor-bound to protect her.
Darius Santiago was the king's most trusted man, a master spy and assassin. His loyalty to her father was absolute. If ever there was dark work to be done protecting the kingdom and the royal family of the small Italian island kingdom Ascencion, Darius was there to shoulder it without complaint. His presence here now made her realize there was even more to Philippe's attempt to abduct her than she had guessed.
She lowered both hands from her mouth to her sides. Her chest still heaved with each breath, but she lifted her chin, awaiting Darius's instructions.
"Go to the courtyard, Your Highness. Hurry."
"Where are you?" she breathed, trembling. "Help me."
"I am near, but I cannot get to you."
"Please help me," she choked, stifling a sob.
"Shh," he whispered. "Go to the inner courtyard."
"I'm lost, Darius, I forget." Blinded now by the tears she had been staving off since Philippe had first seized her, she stared through the dense green lace of the hedge trying to see him.
"Stay calm, be brave," he softly instructed. "Two right turns. You're very close. I'll meet you there."
"A-all right," she choked out.
"Go now." His whisper faded away.
For a moment, Serafina could not seem to move. Then she pierced the cold fog of fear, forcing herself. She set out for the tiny, brick-laid courtyard, legs shaking beneath her, her scraped knee still burning from before, when she had slipped on the grass. The mist-hued gown of gossamer silk she had been so delighted to wear now had a tear at the knee. Each movement was torturous with her effort to be silent, slowed by her tremors of fear, but she painstakingly followed the lullaby of the fountain splashing in its carved stone basin.
With every inch gained, her mind chanted his name as if she could conjure him, Darius, Darius, Darius. She came to the first corner.
Steeled herself. Peeked around.
She moved on, gathering confidence. Images flashed through her mind of Darius watching over her all through her childhood, calming her with a look, her stern, beloved knight who would always protect her. But when she had finally grown up, nothing had gone according to plan.
Darius, don't let them get me.
Ahead she saw she'd have to slip past a break in the left wall of the lane where it intersected another path. She prayed her pursuers weren't down there to see her pass. At the break in the hedge, she hesitated, her courage faltering.
A bead of perspiration ran down her cheek.
Let them put that in the newspapers, she thought madly, brushing it away with the back of her hand. Shocking news--the Princess Royal sweats!
She shut her eyes briefly and said a prayer, then darted past, stealing a fleeting glance down the lane as she went. Some twenty feet away, Philippe's thuggish driver lay sprawled on his face, unmoving. A length of wire glinted in the moonlight. He had been garroted, she realized, sickened. Darius had passed this way.
She marched on with stiff, jerky strides while cold horror spiraled down to her belly. The cicadas' song stretched to one flat, vibrating note she thought would snap her nerves. When she reached the end of the lane, she grimaced, fighting a silent, mighty battle for the courage to look around the corner. She forced herself.
The entrance to the courtyard was in sight at the far end of the corridor. She was almost there. All she had to do was pass yet another gap in the bushes halfway down the lane.
She turned the corner and ran for it.
Her breath raked over her teeth, her bare feet bore her swiftly over the silken grass. The break was coming, while straight ahead lay the entrance to the courtyard. The sky flung a handful of rain on the breeze into her face. Clouds covered the gold half-moon.
"Get back here, you little bitch!" a deep voice roared.
She shrieked and looked over her shoulder as Philippe tore around the corner behind her.
As she passed the gap, running full force, Henri exploded out of the intersecting path. He caught her in both arms and she screamed. Philippe was bearing down fast, and then Darius was there, death gliding out of the shadows, attacking with the leap of the wolf.
Henri shouted, lost his hold on her trying to ward off Darius. She tore free, tackled her way clear of him, heard ripping silk as she pulled, wrenching forward. She sprinted toward the courtyard, sobbing now. She stubbed her toe on the bricks, stumbling into the small enclosure. She passed the leering, stone grotesque of the Pan fountain, with its mossy mouth trickling water, and flung herself into the shadowed corner.
She crouched down, praying Philippe would choose to stay and help his friend fight Darius rather than coming straightaway after her, but the prayer was no sooner through her mind than the Frenchman loomed in the entrance between the neatly trimmed hedges.
Panting hard, he saw her at once, and his sneer turned his handsome face ugly. He strode to her and hauled her up from her crouched position. She cried out. He hurled her about face and put a knife to her throat just as Darius came running up to the entrance.
She sobbed his name.
Philippe wrenched her. "Shut up!"
Darius drew himself up short, breathing hard as he took in the scene before him. His fiery onyx eyes pierced the night with hellfire intensity. Heat lightning flashed across the sky with a brilliancy that illuminated his dark, exotic beauty for an instant--then darkness.
Serafina fixed her stare and all her faith on him as she clung with both hands to the steely arm around her throat.
"Stand aside, Santiago," Philippe warned. "You come any closer, she dies."
"Don't be an ass, Saint-Laurent. We both know he doesn't want her harmed." His tone was coolly scornful, his stance relaxed, but danger emanated from him as he sauntered into the courtyard, his body sleek and lean, gold moonlight glancing off his broad shoulders. Impeccably attired in black, he moved with predatory grace.
He had a high brow under a glossy, raven forelock. Inky, brooding eyes reflected all the tumult and fire of his passionate, secretive nature. The austere angles of his high-boned cheeks and haughty, aquiline nose warred with the sensuality of his rich, sulky mouth. A small scar like a crescent moon marred the sculpted sweetness of his lips with a bitter twist.
Serafina stared, mesmerized, but Darius did not even look at her, as if she were of no consequence. Instead, he spiked Philippe with a sharp glance, a half-smile on his lips.
"I thought you were a professional, Saint-Laurent," he said, his soft, lulling voice tinged with a Spanish accent. "Is this how you conduct business? Putting knives to young girls' throats?" He gestured toward them with idle elegance. "I often wonder how you people stomach it," he remarked. "Serving a man who is without honor."
"I didn't come here to philosophize with you, Santiago," Philippe ground out, as tense and heated as Darius was cool. "I'm going now, and she's coming with me."
"If you believe I shall let you pass," he said gently, "you are deceiving yourself."
"I'll cut her!" Philippe warned.
Darius gave him a chilling smile. "Your master wouldn't like that."
The silence sharpened to a razor's edge as the two men stared at each other, both trained to kill, each waiting for the other to strike, until Serafina couldn't bear it any longer.
"Please," she choked out, "let me go."
At her plea, Darius's coal-black eyes flicked to hers. For one disastrous instant, she read the truth there--the fury, the desperation behind his cool control. The fleeting look vanished at once and his scarred lips curved again in that mocking half-smile, but it was too late.
Philippe had seen it, too. "What's this?" he asked with a taunting laugh. "Have I stumbled upon a weakness? Is it possible the great Santiago has an Achilles' heel?"
Darius's finely chiseled face hardened as he cast the facade aside. His long-lashed eyes narrowed on Philippe, glittering in the dark.
"Ah, of course," Philippe went on, heedless of the danger, "I recall someone telling me you were her bodyguard when she was just a wee thing."
Darius's voice softened to a terrifying murmur. "Lower your weapon."
"Get out of my path."
"Release the princess. Surrender is your sole option. Your men are dead, and you know full well I want you alive."
"Hmm, he grows angry," Philippe mused aloud. "He must be rather attached to you, my dear."
The words pained her more than he could ever know.
"You are making things worse for yourself, Saint-Laurent. I'll remember how you annoyed me when you and I have a talk later about your associates and your orders."
"Ah, but my orders don't exist, Santiago. I don't exist. I cannot go back empty-handed, so you see, you'll get nothing from me," Philippe snarled.
Darius started toward them with slow, wary strides.
He paused. "Move away from the princess," he said very softly, his stare unwavering, relentless.
Serafina was saying a fragment of a prayer over and over again in her mind. Against her body, she could feel Philippe's heart pounding in his chest. He tightened his hold on her neck. She felt his increasing desperation as he cast about for some means of escape. She glanced at the knife poised so near her throat, then shut her eyes, praying more desperately.
"Tell me, Santiago ... between colleagues," Philippe barked suddenly. "Now that your little charge is so, shall we say, grown up, haven't you ever wondered? I mean, look at her. Some say she is the most beautiful woman alive--in the top three, at least. Certainly my patron agrees. Helen of Troy, he says. Men fight wars to possess such beauty. Shall we have a look?"
Her eyes flew open wide as Philippe laid hold of her dress where Henri had already torn it. She gasped with shocked horror as he ripped it open down her back with one lightning-like movement.
"There, there, ma belle," Philippe crooned, "don't fret."
She sobbed once, cringing where she stood. She lowered her head, powerless to stop him as he pushed the ripped ends of her dress down to her waist, baring her upper body.
This could not be happening, she thought. Not in her beautiful garden, the very heart of her safe, pretty, insulated world. Cheeks aflame, she bit her lower lip, fighting tears of rage. She tried to pull her waist-length hair forward to cover her breasts, but Philippe protested.
"Non, non, chérie. Let us see what beauty God hath wrought." With his left hand, he brushed her hair softly back again behind her shoulders.
"You bastard," Darius whispered.
She could not bear to meet his eyes.
Hands at her sides, she stood there shaking with humiliation and rage, exposed before the only man she had ever wanted. The only one who did not want her.
Not so very long ago, she had loved Darius Santiago with a painful, adolescent ardor. She had tried to show him three years ago, the night of her debut ball, that she had grown up for him at last, was no longer a child; she had tried to show him that none of his women could love him as she did. But he had fled her and left the island, hurrying off on some new mission. Now he was witness to her humiliation, forced to view her body, the gift she had tried to give him--now, when it meant nothing.
Just then the night sky flung down another swift cloudburst of cold rain. She flinched, then shuddered when the first drops struck her bare skin.
She could feel a volcanic force of pure rage building from where Darius stood, but somehow the only thing she could focus on was her pride, her last defense. She held fast to it as if it were a tangible weapon. She lifted her head high against the crushing shame. Tears in her eyes, she stared straight ahead at nothing.
Philippe laughed at her. "Haughty thing. Yes, you know you are stunning, don't you?" he murmured, running one finger from the curve of her shoulder down her arm. She fought not to shudder with revulsion. "Skin like silk. Come and touch her, Santiago. She is exquisite. I don't blame you--any man would have a weakness for such a creature. We can share her if you like."
At this, her stricken gaze flew to Darius, but then a cold shaft of horror spiked down her spine, for he was feasting his eyes on her bare breasts, his gaze devouring her nakedness.
"Darius?" she asked in a pleading whisper.
Philippe's fingers flicked in eager agitation over the knife's hilt, but his smooth, sure voice held a note of triumph. "Come and taste her. No one needs to know. Really, after all you've done for your king, isn't she the least you deserve?"
Finally, Darius looked up from his intimate perusal of her body. She caught the flash of white teeth in his cold, wicked smile. He began sauntering slowly toward them, and directed his question to Philippe. "What do you suggest?"
Her very mind choked. Images exploded in her memory of the last time she had seen Darius, six months ago. As usual he had ignored her from the moment he set foot in the palace, but that day, she had opened the door to the music room in the middle of the afternoon to find him ravishing one of his many lovers against the wall. His loose white shirt had been hanging from his shoulders, brown chest bared, his black breeches clinging upon his lean hips as the woman with her skirts hitched up fumbled to undress him. When Serafina had opened the door, he had looked over and held her shocked gaze for a second.
She still remembered the smoldering look in his eyes as she stood in the doorway, mouth agape, eyes wide. She remembered the mocking smile of seduction he had sent her before she slammed the door and fled. It was quite the same as the one on his scarred lips now.
"I'll hold her for you," Philippe said.
"Oh, she wouldn't fight me," he murmured. "Would you, angel?"
Her cheeks turned crimson. She lowered her head, heart pounding madly. Trembling violently, she could not bear to look at him as he stalked toward them.
She swore to herself this was part of a ruse. She was the Princess Royal! Darius would never--never.
But he was unlike any man she knew, this Spaniard with his terrible beauty. She could neither predict nor manage him as she did the others. She only knew that he feared nothing and that, for all his loyalty to her father, he obeyed no law but his own.
One slow, relentless stride after another, he came to stand perhaps three inches away from her, so close his chest nearly brushed her breasts. She could feel him breathing against her.
She was trapped between the two tall, ruthless men, her breath jagged, her exposed skin racing with shivers, hot and cold. He was going to touch her at any moment, she knew. Cheeks blazing, she wanted to die for shame of the perverse desire he wove into her fear. Usually she was quick-witted, but at the moment she was mute, staring brokenly at a silver button on his coat right at her eye level.
She could not think of a single thing to say to try to save herself, could not find her voice to invoke her father's name, nor her fiancé's--in this moment, she could not even picture Anatole's face. Terror wiped her mind blank, and Darius filled her senses--fierce, elemental.
His nearness, the sheer male force of him, overwhelmed her. Her nostrils were filled with the clean, musky scent of him, mingled with the smell of horses and leather, the exotic spice of the cheroots he was always smoking, and the coppery taint of blood. She could feel the heat radiating from his powerful body, feel the thrumming tension coiled in his hard, sinewy form.
Then it all happened at once. He seized Philippe by the throat and knocked her out of his grasp. Philippe's blade flashed, stabbing at him. He ducked back, grasping Philippe's right wrist while Serafina went stumbling, landing on her hands and knees near the edge of the courtyard. Pulling the remnants of her bodice up over her shoulders with shaking hands, she immediately scrambled about face to see if Darius was hurt. The fountain partly blocked her view. There was a clatter of metal.
Philippe cursed as his weapon went skittering across the bricks. He lunged after it. Darius kicked it away and laid hold of him. Flailing wildly, Philippe tore free and bolted.
Darius was upon him. He grabbed Philippe by the back of the collar and hurled him around, throwing him down onto the flagstone, blocking the exit.
She looked up in dread when she heard the whisper of metal, and saw Darius's ebony-handled dagger, the slim elegance of the blade kissed by moonlight.
When Philippe threw up both hands to ward off the first blow, Darius's dagger slashed across both his open palms.
Serafina turned her face away, but she heard every dragging second of their fight, every gasp and choke and low curse as Darius savaged him.
The cicadas screamed. She longed to run. When Darius swore in some unknown language, she opened her eyes and saw him lift his dagger in both hands for the final cut, saw his beautiful face alight with savagery.
She squeezed her eyes shut tight as the knife plunged straight down like a bird of prey. Philippe's scream was short, followed by a silence.
Then she heard only the breeze blowing through the junipers. She became aware of the sound of a man's fierce panting. She felt like she was going to throw up.
It dawned on her with sudden hysteria that she had to run. She had to escape from here, get away from him at once before he came to sate the lust she'd read in his stare. He was the deadliest man in the kingdom and he was out of control, reduced by rage to the law of his boyhood--the law of the streets.
Never taking her eyes off him, she shoved to her feet in one jerky motion as Darius raked a hand through his hair, pushing his forelock out of his eyes, a black, demonic shape against the lesser dark of night. A second later, he wrenched his knife out of Philippe's breast.
She watched him, wild-eyed, clutching the silk remnants of her bodice together as she inched sideways along the perimeter of the courtyard. She ignored the prickly branches raking the tender skin of her back. He was blocking the only exit, but she would claw her way through the thick hedge if she had to.
Darius rose from Philippe's lifeless body. He took a handkerchief from the pocket of his impeccable coat, the cotton pearl-white in the dark. Wiping the blood off his hands, he paused and suddenly turned, giving the body a vicious kick in the ribs.
Serafina let out a small scream, taken off guard by his swift, tempestuous movement.
Darius looked over at her, staring harshly at her for a second, as if he were only just remembering she was there.
Then he stood very still, panting, a tall, silent figure looming in the darkness.
"What are you doing?" His voice was unnervingly quiet.
Trapped in his steady, piercing gaze, she froze.
"Jesus," he muttered, closing his eyes for a second.
She said nothing, gathering her torn dress tighter against her in both sweating palms as she calculated the odds of successfully running past him.
He heaved a sigh, shook his head to himself, then went and splashed his face under the cold bubbling fountain. A moment later, he walked toward her, slipping off his black jacket.
She shrank back against the bushes from him.
He held out the coat, offering it to her.
She didn't dare move even to take it, didn't dare take her eyes off him.
He had killed three men all in a night's work, he was known to do indecent things to women in the middle of the day, he had stared at her breasts, and then there was the other matter, more troubling still, that eight years ago she had been marked with this man's blood.
It had happened in the city square on her twelfth birthday, when someone tried to shoot the king. She had been standing there smiling at her birthday festivities, holding her papa's hand, when the would-be assassin attacked. And Santiago, this beautiful madman, she thought, dove into the path of the bullet, his hot, scarlet blood splashing her cheek and her new white frock.
Since that day, deep down in a primal, illogical place inside of her that responded to things like the warmth of fire and the smell of cooking food, deep down in her blood and bones where she was not princess, not political pawn, but simply woman, she knew she belonged to this man.
And the most terrifying thing of all was that she sensed he knew it, too.
His intense, fiery gaze softened slightly under his long lashes.
She couldn't stop shaking.
Again, he offered the coat.
"Take it, Princesa," he said softly.
Without warning, her eyes brimmed at his gentle tone.
His long lashes flicked downward, as if he had no idea what to do with her.
"I'll help you," he said reluctantly, holding out the coat so she would only have to slip her arms inside the sleeves.
Hesitantly, she let him put it on her like a child.
"I thought ..." she began. She bit down on her lower lip, unable to finish.
"I know what you thought." His voice was low, fierce. "I would never hurt you."
Their stares locked, clashed, both wary.
She was the first to drop her gaze, astounded by her own unfamiliar meekness. Her ex-governess would never have believed it. "Didn't--didn't you need him alive?"
"Well, he's dead now, isn't he?" he said in weary disgust. "I'll manage." One fist propped on his hip, for a moment he rubbed his forehead.
"Thank you," she whispered shakily.
He shrugged and walked away, returning to the fountain.
Finally, now that she saw the danger truly was past, all the strength drained from her. Tears overtook her, blinding her. She sank down where she was, collapsing slowly in a heap on the bricks. Wrapping his jacket tighter around her, she sat, braced her elbows on her bent knees, and held her head in both hands, fighting tears for all she was worth.
I will not cry in front of him, she thought fiercely, but a moment or two later, she succumbed. She couldn't help it.
When she sobbed aloud, he looked over in surprise. Frown-
ing, he came back to her, standing tall above her. She could not summon any sense of pride, she just cried, sniffled furiously, and brushed a tear off her cheek with the back of her
hand, unable to look up beyond his shiny black boots with their cruel, silver spurs.
He crouched down, searching her eyes. "Hey, Princess. What's this? You trying to ruin my night?"
She stared at him in amazement. Ruin his night?
She jumped when he reached out toward her, but he merely offered her a neatly folded handkerchief, producing it out of nowhere with a bit of Gypsy sleight of hand.
After a moment's hesitation, she accepted it, remembering as she dried her eyes how she used to think he was magic when she was a little girl, for he could pull a gold coin out of her ear and make it vanish again.
He studied her, the arrogant smirk on his lips at odds with the troubled look in his eyes. "What's the matter? You scared of me now, like everyone else?"
Her answer was a single, shaking sob that came all the way up from her lungs.
The smirk faded. "Hey, come on, little Cricket. This is me," he said more gently. He looked almost shaken. "You know me. You've always known me. Since you were this big, yes?" He held up thumb and forefinger about an inch apart.
She glanced at his hand, then met his eyes uncertainly.
It was a half-truth. All her life he had been there, in the shadows, but no one really knew Darius Santiago. He would not allow it. Indeed, he saved his most scathing mockery for those who tried to love him, as she had learned.
Twenty years ago, just before she was born, her parents had taken Darius off the streets, a feral boy-thief who, by an act of valor, had saved her mother's life. In thanks, Papa had made him a royal ward, raised him as his own son--insofar as Darius's magnificent pride would permit him to accept what he viewed as charity. From the time she was old enough to realize that she was something of a disappointment to her parents, a firstborn daughter rather than the hoped-for son and royal heir, she had found an ally and protector in her fellow outsider, the half-Gypsy boy whose only friends, it seemed, were the horses of the royal stable.
He lowered his long, thick lashes, and his voice was softer. "Well, it's all right if you're scared of me now. I don't blame you. Sometimes I even scare myself."
"You killed them," she whispered. "It was horrible."
"That's my job, and yes, sometimes it is horrible," he replied. "I am sorry you saw it. You should have closed your eyes, Your Highness."
"I did. I could still hear."
He bristled. "The man insulted your honor. He got what he deserved." He rose and walked away.
Holding her head in one hand, her elbow braced on her knee, Serafina watched him stalk off across the courtyard, his broad back and narrow waist snugly fitted in his black waistcoat, his enormous arms draped in full, white sleeves.
Now I have offended him. He was an acutely sensitive being, she well knew.
"Come, Your Highness," he said, remote. "It's going to be a long night. The French have a few more spies planted in the palace. I don't know who they are yet and I've got to catch them. Until I do, we've got to get you out of here immediately."
She heaved a sigh and climbed to her feet, her legs still shaky from her ordeal.
Darius waited for her by the fountain but he still would not look at her, closed within himself. Hands on his hips, he lifted his finely sculpted face and assessed the brooding night sky. The watery moonlight slid down his high-boned cheeks, kissed his bittersweet, beautiful mouth with its golden glow.
When she joined him, he turned from her to lead the way. "First we'll have to go see your father. He'll assign someone to take you into hiding--"
"Darius, wait." She laid a hand on the broad curve of his arm. "I didn't mean--"
"Time is of the essence, Your Highness." He pulled away.
As he stepped beyond her reach, her hand slid off his arm. Glancing off his shoulder blade, her fingertips trailed through an invisible patch of warm, slick wetness on his black waistcoat.
She froze. Slowly, she turned her palm upward.
"Darius," she breathed, staring down at her bloodied hand.
She heard his low, cynical laugh as he struck a sulfur match on the stone grotesque of Pan, lighting a cheroot.
"Who gives a damn, Serafina?" he said bitterly under his breath. "Who gives a damn?"
With careless grace, he flicked the still-burning match into the fountain and walked away as its bright flame winked out.
From the Paperback edition.
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