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MY MOTHER WAS GOING TO kill me.
I looked out the window into the desolate countryside and I wanted to laugh at myself. How many teenagers had said that through the millennia? It should have been comical in a woman nearly twenty-five.
Except that Contessa Carlotta di Montespan seemed to have every intention of ending the life she’d reluctantly given birth to, presumably with the help of Pedersen, the teacher, the trainer, the guard who had haunted nearly my entire existence. They were going to murder me before my twenty-fifth birthday, and there was no one I could turn to. There never had been.
I pushed away from the window, looking around the lavish bedroom. The large bed was covered with the finest of Egyptian cotton; the rugs were ancient and beautiful, with soft, muted colors; the fresh roses were pale yellow, my favorite color. The walls were painted a soft cream, and the mullioned windows looked out over the mountainous countryside of what apparently was Italy. But the view was spoiled by the iron bars across the windows, and the door to my room was solid, ancient oak—and locked. I was a prisoner in a gilded cage, as I had been for almost my entire life, and now I’d been given a death sentence.
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise. My cold, exquisitely beautiful mother was a woman totally devoid of maternal feeling, or any feelings at all, as far as I could tell. Even Pedersen, who was most likely her bed partner as well as her partner in crime, merited not a sign of warmth.
Pedersen had appeared, an enigma like everything else in my life, when I was about seven. He was a giant, six foot six at least, with heavy muscles, pale blue eyes, and the white-blond hair of his Scandinavian ancestors. I had no idea where he’d come from, and when I asked he wouldn’t tell me. But then, Pedersen wasn’t a man for talk except when he was instructing me. And those instructions had been endless.
My mother hadn’t approved of schools. Even the most selective private academies held bad elements, she’d said, and I could learn everything I needed from Pedersen. She claimed he had a formidable intellect, and he was an expert in the physical training I would require.
The rest of my education came from the movies.
I never bothered to ask why the physical training was necessary. The contessa was even less inclined to answer questions than her henchman, and the time I spent in her presence was growing shorter.
So I learned, and I trained. We started with gymnastics, and I loved it, spinning on the bars, flying through the air to land smoothly on the mats. I was the Karate Kid, I was Bruce Lee. I felt . . . free.
Pedersen had moved on quickly. Tae kwon do, karate, and Shaolin kung fu came next, followed by more arcane forms of martial art. I had been an apt pupil, more for the love of movement than a need for approval. I was fast and strong, healing from Pedersen’s brutal methods of teaching with preternatural speed, and I already knew there was no approval to be found.
Amazingly, they let me go when I was fourteen. I was small for my age, well before my ridiculous growth spurt, and my intense training had kept my period at bay, convincing me I’d never be a woman. The tiny private school in the Alps had been run by nuns, the half dozen students silent and cowed, but it had been human interaction, and I bloomed. For those three years I had no rigorous training, only the exercises I chose to do, and I’d made friends among the other exiles. And there’d been Johann.
The nuns would let me out to train in the meadows surrounding the remote convent, having discovered that my kicks and spins caused too much damage in confined quarters. I would move and swirl and dance in the sunlight, a lethal Maria von Trapp, singing “The Sound of Music” slightly off-key at the top of my lungs where no one could hear me. I would escape in the cold winter weather, in the soft spring air, and it was there that I met Johann.
But I didn’t want to think about him right now. The memory still ripped at my heart seven years later; pain and betrayal still haunted me. When they’d dragged me back to my tower, I put all my rage into the endless training, determined on revenge—and even Pedersen hadn’t realized when I finally became stronger than he was.
I kept that knowledge safe in my heart. I could best him in a fight. I almost had, during our sparring, but at the last minute I’d instinctively pulled back, not wanting him to see my strength. There were few enough weapons that could defeat the people who’d raised me, and Pedersen could be a dangerous man. I intended to guard any advantage I had.
As for Pedersen’s impressive intellect, I’d outstripped that years ago, and no one even made the pretense that he could keep up with me. The library was endless, and they put no restrictions on my reading or the movies I watched. Unfortunately, there was no useful guidebook to tell me how to get away from my incomprehensible imprisonment, and escape movies didn’t cover my situation. I could hardly tunnel my way out as they did in The Great Escape—I was surrounded by stone walls. I couldn’t rappel down the outside of the building like Bruce Willis—I had no ropes and not enough sheets to make one. The only situations that even came close to mine were those of fairy-tale princesses locked in towers, and for me there would be no magic spell or handsome prince to rescue me.
This imprisoned princess had to rescue herself.
And I’d tried. For a few years I tried constantly, only to be hauled back by Pedersen before I got more than a few miles away. I knew better than to enlist help, after Johann.
He’d betrayed me—promised to love me forever—but all Pedersen had to do was flash money in front of him and he’d given me up like a bad habit, and I was once more a prisoner.
Now I had the strong conviction I was about to be disposed of by the woman who should have loved me. It sounded like a bad made-for-TV movie. I had no proof, of course, which made me seem even crazier. But I had learned early on that my instincts were infallible, and I’d always known she hated me, that she was just biding her time. That time was coming, and unless I got out of there I was going to be in deep shit. But I was locked in. All I could do was wait for them to come to me, and I wouldn’t go down easily.
It wasn’t until six o’clock that I heard the knock on my door. I started, calming the icy dread that rushed into my stomach. I could do this.
I rose, fluid though I’d been sitting for three hours, and went to the door.
The maid stood there with her usual stolid expression. This time she wasn’t carrying a tray of food—evidently I wasn’t going to be poisoned.
“The contessa says you are to dress in your finest clothes and come to the drawing room.”
I stared at her blankly. I wasn’t given free run of this house, and I had no idea where to find the contessa’s drawing room.
“I will show you,” she said, closing the door behind her. I didn’t make the mistake of underestimating her. She would be child’s play, but the two hulking men in the hallway were a different matter.
So I would have to use stealth and cunning. I could do that. I headed for my closet, withdrawing the shapeless gray dress I wore on the rare occasions I dined en famille, but the maid shook her head. “The contessa said you are to wear the black. And I will dress your hair.”
I looked at her with surprise. I’d never worn the black dress, though I’d tried it on when it appeared in my closet one day. It was short and tight, sleeveless and cut low across the bosom. I usually counted on baggy clothes to disguise the tensile strength of my body, and that dress would reveal everything.
But I knew how useless it would be to argue. “May I shower first?”
The maid nodded.
There was nothing in the bathroom I could use as a weapon. The mechanism of the toilet was concealed, so I couldn’t turn any of the working parts into a stiletto. I hadn’t watched enough prison movies to figure out how they fashioned weapons from bars of soap and the like. And besides, my soap was in the form of geranium-scented gel. I hated geraniums.
I washed and dressed quickly, my nerves coming back, though I knew I covered them well. I sat still as the maid brushed my long black hair and fashioned it into six braids, wrapping them around my head in a style that made me look like an ancient Roman goddess. I stared back at my reflection bemusedly. For some reason they wanted me trussed and plucked before they killed me. Maybe I was going to be some kind of virgin sacrifice.
Too late, I thought with dark humor. Johann had seen to that.
The only pair of shoes that matched put me close to six feet, towering over the tiny maid. Could I take out one small female and two large, probably armed males? It was possible, but there were no guarantees. It would be easier if it were only Pedersen and my mother.
The moment I stepped into the hall, I was flanked by the guards. Four of them, not two. Good thing I hadn’t attacked. They force-marched me through the stone corridors of the old castello, and for a moment I wondered if they were going to march me right off the cliff. I would take at least one of them with me if they did.
But they took me to a room I hadn’t visited before, knocking before my mother’s voice floated out. I felt a meaty hand in the middle of my back propel me forward, and I stumbled into the room, graceless.
“Darling,” my mother greeted me with a warm smile that didn’t reach her cold, dark eyes. “What took you so long? We have a visitor.”
She didn’t need to tell me that—my mother never smiled at me without an audience. Pedersen was watching me, an unsettling expression on his face, and I turned slowly to face whatever had inspired the contessa to suddenly appear like a normal mother.
And I felt my heart slam to a stop.