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Taken and Seduced
Lady Florence Becket stood in the lady's garden of her father's castle, enjoying the oasis of privacy in the middle of the bustling center of the marquess of Martindale's small empire. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms, staring out at the mountains beyond the walls, wondering if she'd ever again be permitted to ride those paths. On a horse she became one with the animal, flying on the wind, as if she weren't deformed, as if she could walk without a limp like other people.
Her future home was out there, too. Was the convent nestled near woods and streams? Would she be able to walk as she communed with God, or would they keep her locked up, as if praying required four stone walls?
Florrie had watched as her three older sisters married, had known for many long years that there would be no husband for her. Her father had been brutally honest when he'd told her there would be dowry money for her sisters, but only a little saved for her entrance into the convent—when her sisters no longer needed her.
She took a deep breath, and her usual optimism prevailed. There was education to be had for nuns. She would serve a purpose—and not just as her sisters' servant. Perhaps someday if she worked hard, she could even become the prioress.
Her view of the mountains was suddenly disturbed; a horse-drawn cart was riding beside the half wall of the lady's garden. Straw had been mounded high in the back. As the cart pulled to a stop, blocking the garden from the rest of the ward, she frowned up at the driver. He was hunched within a cloak and didn't glance her way.
She only managed to call "I think—" when suddenly two large men emerged from the side of the cart, barely disturbing the straw. They vaulted over the wall, and before she could even take a step backward, they were upon her, stifling her scream with a gag. Terror stunned her, melting her bones, washing through her with a sick feeling of futility. Though she struggled, they tied her hands with ease, and when she tried to kick, one lifted her off the ground while the other bound her ankles. As she wriggled futilely, she saw that they didn't hide their faces from her, and that frightened her more than anything else. They were two grim men, both black-haired and tall, and they maneuvered her as if she weighed nothing at all.
To her horror, they suddenly dropped her feet-first into a sack and pulled it up over her head. Her world narrowed to shadows that smelled of grain and must, and she felt as if she soon wouldn't be able to breathe. They lifted her again, and her lungs emptied in a rush as she was flung across a broad shoulder. Everything around her jostled and upended as they shoved her onto the cart. The man holding her didn't ease his grip, so she was unable to roll away. Instead she was shockingly aware that he wrapped himself around her to hold her still. His muscular arms were as strong as the ropes that bound her hands and feet. The light dimmed even further as another gradual weight pressed her down, and she realized that the other men were covering them both with straw.
God above, they were going to succeed with this audacious plan!
She used every bit of her strength to squirm and push, even butting her head, but the man held her too firmly.
"Be still, my lady," he said at last in a low, gravelly voice. "Cease struggling and 'twill be easier to breathe."
He was right—her panicked struggles were only making her more and more aware that she couldn't take enough air into her lungs. She moaned, but went still just the same.
He said nothing more, and the cart began to move, jostling her in an uneven rhythm. She kept waiting for someone to notice the strange man driving the cart and stop him, but no one did. She heard the blacksmith's hammer meeting his anvil and the call of a goose girl herding her flock. The crash of metal and the grunts of men practicing their weaponry in the tiltyard strengthened as they drove into the outer ward, then faded as they reached the main gatehouse.
No one was going to stop a man hauling straw, she thought with despair, and her prediction came true as they left behind the sounds of the soldiers in the gatehouse. At last she sagged in her captor's arms. She would have to see what fate had in store for her, or perhaps even rescue herself—unless these foolish men planned to demand a ransom for her return. She almost gave a tired laugh. As if her father would part with a large sum of money on her behalf. But she could never let her captors know that, of course. She would have to stall until . . . until what? Did she think she would somehow escape their notice and limp away through the unfamiliar countryside alone? If they only wanted a woman for base needs, surely for a penny or two they could have had someone willing.
Nay, the kidnapping had happened because she was the daughter of the marquess of Martindale, the only one unmarried, the easiest target.
In that terrible moment, tears of futility and fear stung her eyes, but didn't fall, because Florrie was not a woman who let circumstances dictate her emotions.
"Not long now, my lady," murmured the man's voice.
He did not sound angry or triumphant; she did not understand what he was feeling. The only way to discover the weaknesses of her captors was to study them, look at their faces, and judge them by their actions.Taken and Seduced. Copyright (c) by Julia Latham . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.