Ever since raiders from the north began attacking villages, Lady Nicole Montagna has known that defending her people would come at a cost. The betrothal of her sister Chloe to a neighboring lord seems the perfect solution, forging a powerful alliance. But shortly before the wedding, Nicole is shocked to discover that her sister is with child—and not by her husband-to-be. Now she must make a choice. She has just hours to decide . . .
Should she tell her soldier brother—who will take swift, ruthless action to ensure the family’s safety?
Should she hold her tongue, let her sister deceive her husband into believing the child is his—and then hope Chloe can get away with the lie?
Should she tell her family, hoping they will know the right thing to do?
With the help of a magic mirror, Nicole lives out each path, fighting to protect herself and those she loves with the weapons she has: wits, herbs, and fortitude. But no matter her cleverness, neither she nor her family can escape unscathed—for there are repercussions she could never have foreseen, involving her own heart . . .
A Choice Of Secrets
New York Times bestselling author Barb Hendee spins a tale of intrigue, integrity, and the bonds of love and loyalty as one young woman finds her place in a turbulent world...
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At the age of seventeen, I had no real understanding of the danger of secrets ... of keeping them, of sharing them, of telling the wrong person for the right reasons.
But I was soon to learn the depths of my own ignorance.
One afternoon, in mid-summer, I was in the vast kitchen of my family home, with six other women, rolling dough for both peach and strawberry tarts. One of our housemaids, Jenny, stuck her head in the back door.
"Lady Nicole," she said to me. "Lord Erik and Lord Christophe have arrived. They're in the hunting hall."
This news made me smile. "Does Lady Chloe know? Or my mother and father?"
"Not yet. I'll go and find them."
Not bothering to even take off my apron or shake the flour from my hair, I hurried out the door and into the open-air center of what was known as White Deer Lodge. All around me, ten large log buildings had been constructed in a circle. Small paths connected each building to the next. Two of the constructions functioned as our family's residence. Others housed guests or servants or our guards. One was designated for storage. The largest construction was called the gathering hall for communal events. On the outside of this circle, a village thrived, with dwellings, shops, stables, and a smithy.
A stone wall surrounded the village, and heavy forests surrounded three sides of the wall, but not far beyond the west side, the ocean stretched down the coast of the nation of Samourè. This lodge was my home and my father, Gideon Montagna, was lord of these lands.
In that moment, though, I gave little thought to my home or my father, and instead, I continued in my quick pace to the smallest of the log buildings — known as the hunting hall. I'd never cared much for this hall, as it was decorated with spears, longbows, and the heads of animals. But nonetheless, once inside the front door, I looked toward the unlit great hearth with a flood of happiness rising inside me.
My elder brother, Erik, and Lord Christophe de Fiore stood in conversation. Both men wore chain armor and swords. Several servants bustled about, pouring mugs of ale.
As I came through the door, Erik's face broke into a smile and he called out, "Nicole!"
I ran to him. Well over a head taller, he swept me up in both arms, lifting my feet off the ground. Our father was a tall man with solid bones, straight red-blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. Our mother was tiny, like a bird, with light brown eyes and a mass of wavy brown hair. Erik looked like my father. I looked like my mother. We had a sister between us in age, Chloe, who resembled a mix of both our parents.
I let Erik hold me for a while.
Then I struggled. "Put me down." Once he'd set me back on my feet, I grasped both his hands, inspecting his fingers and wrists. "You are all right, not injured?"
He and Christophe had been on patrol for nearly three weeks.
"No, I'm fine," Erik answered, "but look at you. What have you been doing? You're covered in flour."
"Making tarts, strawberry for you and peach for Christophe."
With that, I turned to Christophe, grasping his hands in turn for inspection. "And you? You're not injured? You're well."
He did not embrace me, but his eyes moved over my face. "I am well."
Though both men were tall, Christophe de Fiore was a sharp contrast to my brother. While Erik's nature overflowed with laughter and affection, Christophe was stoic and kept his thoughts to himself. He wore his dark hair cut short. His eyes were gray and his skin was tan. I'd heard once that he had to shave twice a day to keep his jawline from becoming stubbled. He and Erik were the same age, both having turned twenty-six the previous winter, but I'd known Christophe my whole life. The de Fiore lands bordered ours on the north. They were our closest noble neighbors and good friends to my family.
Turning back to Erik, I said, "We received your message that you'd be back today. Mother and I are planning a buffet banquet tonight, with dancing. While you were away, she made you a new tunic of red silk with gold thread, and I made Christophe a blue one, with silver thread. Do either of you want a bath ordered?"
"I do," Erik answered. "And something stronger to drink than ale. We rode hard to get home today."
"For goodness sake," I said. "Don't start drinking spirits until after dinner. You know Mother doesn't approve."
Flashing a grin, he was about to answer when the door opened again, held by one of our guards, and our sister, Chloe, walked in with the regal grace of a princess. I smiled at her, but she merely nodded in return — which is what I expected.
Chloe was the loveliest young woman I'd ever seen. She'd inherited our father's height and coloring, but our mother's small features and slender bone structure. Her long, blond hair hung down her back, and she tended to dress in narrow silk gowns of green or amber.
Erik did not call out to her, and she did not run to him.
Instead, she walked slowly, with her head high, to join us, nodding first to Erik, "Brother," and to Christophe, "My lord."
"My lady," Christophe answered, but his voice held no warmth and I wanted to sigh.
Though he and Chloe had been betrothed for several months, they hardly behaved like two people on the verge of marriage.
When she looked down at me, Chloe's features shifted to an expression of affection. "Look at the state of you. Have you been baking? You realize we do employ perfectly capable kitchen maids? You'll need to wash your hair before dressing for the banquet."
I drew in a quick breath and gripped her hand. "The banquet? Has Father — ?" She nodded. "Yes. I've spoken to him, and he's agreed to let you attend. I'll help you choose a gown."
At this news, Christophe's eyes moved over my face again, and a flicker of relief crossed his features. Was he glad for me? How kind of him.
"You're certain?" Erik asked in surprise. "Father agreed?"
"Yes," Chloe answered. "But it did take a little convincing. The way he treats her is absurd. Nicole is hardly a child."
"I'm well aware of that," Erik said.
Both happiness and nervousness rose up in my chest. This would be my first buffet banquet with dancing. As I was the youngest of my father's children, and I looked like a copy of my mother, my father had not bothered to hide his favor of me. Unfortunately, this favor had also caused him to perpetually view me as a little girl — and to treat me as one. I was included at formal sit-down dinners, but he'd never allowed me to attend more potentially raucous events.
Looking up at Chloe in gratitude, I said, "Thank you. But I do need to finish the tarts. You know Cook always makes too many of the strawberry this time of year, and Christophe prefers peach. Afterwards, I'll come to our rooms to dress. Please see what you can find for me to wear."
She and I had slept in adjoining rooms all our lives, and as a result, we had little sense of privacy when it came to each other.
After nodding regally to both Erik and Christophe, she said, "I am glad to see you both returned to us safely. Now, if you will excuse me, I must go and choose my own gown for this evening."
With that, she turned and walked toward the door. The same guard who had opened it for her still stood inside. Once she passed through, he followed after her and closed it from the outside. Chloe rarely had to touch a door.
When Erik glanced at Christophe, I couldn't help noting a flash of concern ... as Christophe seemed to hardly even notice Chloe had left the room. However would those two navigate a marriage?
"How long will you be staying with us?" I asked Christophe.
"Only until tomorrow." His voice was low and quiet. "Then I need to get home to Whale's Keep. My sister, Lady Mildreth, has been managing in my absence."
"All right, then." I headed for the door. "I'll see you this evening. Mother has you in your usual guest room, and you'll find the new tunic on your bed. I'll order baths for you both."
"You'd best order one for yourself," Erik called after me. "And don't forget to wash all that flour from your hair." He was always teasing me, but I liked it.
Stepping out into the warm afternoon air, I looked around at the great circle of log buildings. Along with connecting paths, the grounds between each construction sported a mix of rose, herb, and kitchen gardens. Though I could not see the ocean, over the west side of the wall, I could hear waves crashing into the shore. We were safe here, protected. This place was a haven, and I wondered how Chloe could bear the thought of leaving it and going to live with Christophe. Was this the reason for her coolness to him? Perhaps I could ask her? In this regard, I wasn't sure. Even between sisters as close as us, some things were private.
But her betrothal was of great importance to our family, and she knew it.
Our property spread inland and down the coast for miles, and the people in the villages under my father's protection, who lived outside our wall, had come under a new threat over the past few years — one of which none of us could have foreseen.
The nation of Samourè was bordered on the south by the kingdom of Partheney, named for its capital city. The western coastline of the continent ran all along both nations. Under the rule of Queen Ashton de Blaise, Partheney enjoyed a strong border patrol. Few who were unwelcome would dare attempt a landing on their coastline.
My father's lands, Montagna lands, were at the southwestern point of Samourè, reaching the border between nations. King Amandine, who ruled Samourè, lived in the northwest, but our standing army was small and soldiers could not be spared to patrol the Montagna coastline.
Until recently, this had never been an issue. My grandfather, followed by my father, had no argument with the few smugglers who landed now and then, so long as they went about their business and troubled none of our own people.
For the most part, our shores were safe.
My family retained only enough trained guards to protect White Deer Lodge and to accompany my father or Erik when they went to check on harvests or collect taxes. We had never needed more. My father invested our money back into our lands, into improving our crops, the upkeep of villages, and the replanting of trees for future timber.
Christophe's family, the de Fiores, lived on their estate on an island called Whale's Keep, just off the coast. But their lands spread inland a good distance and along the coast to the north. Partly because of the geographical separation of the estate and partly because of his nature, Christophe's father had long invested in a good-sized, well-trained retinue of guards ... soldiers. This was where a good deal of the family money went — for the payment, housing, and training of a standing private military. Christophe's mother had long been dead, and his father had died three years ago, leaving him in charge of the family.
Then, two years ago, the first wave of savage raiders landed upon de Fiore shores. We still had no idea from where they came, but they were large men, dressed in furs and plate armor. They would land in groups of about forty men and then raid villages; burning, looting, killing, and taking people as slaves. After one or two raids, they would return to their boats and leave as suddenly as they'd arrived.
Christophe responded swiftly and with force, ordering his men along the de Fiore coastline, where they were able to kill or send back any of these raiders before they ever reached the tree line.
All too soon, the raiders began landing on the unprotected Montagna shoreline, burning our villages, killing and taking our people. My family was safe inside our stone wall, but our people were suffering. We did not employ anything like the de Fiores' well-trained private military, and to create one of our own would take years and far more wealth than was available. My father had good connections at court and he was respected among the nobles, so he appealed to the king, but not enough soldiers could be spared to indefinitely guard our coastline.
Christophe sent help during the worst of the raids, but only after the fact, to try to chase down escaping raiders and recover any stolen people. Even so, due to distance, the soldiers rarely made it in time, and sending these men was clearly a favor on his part. My father did not care to be indebted, even to Christophe.
Over the previous spring, a solution occurred to my father, and he approached Christophe with a proposal to join our families in marriage. My father offered a thousand acres of prime timberland as dowry for Chloe, along with a yearly stipend. In exchange, right after the wedding, Christophe would send two hundred men to permanently reside near White Deer Lodge. These soldiers would patrol our shoreline and expel any raiders attempting to land.
The de Fiores needed good timber.
Even more, Father knew that Christophe cared a great deal for bloodlines, and he would accept a bride only from an ancient noble family. Ours was such a bloodline. The deal was struck.
Over the past weeks, Erik and Christophe had been riding from one Montagna village to the next, with a de Fiore contingent, assessing any damage, hunting for raiders, and promising our people they would soon be safe.
Soon, Chloe and Christophe would be wed, and our lands would be protected. This seemed a perfect solution but for the fact that the impending bride and groom barely seemed to notice the other's existence.
I hoped that perhaps at tonight's banquet, they might have the chance to dance with each other. This thought filled me with both hope and excitement ... as I would be there to witness such an event.
A part of me still couldn't believe Father had agreed to let me attend. What gown would Chloe choose for me? She knew best in such matters. But first, I hurried back to the kitchen, as I needed to finish making Christophe's peach tarts.
He had never cared for strawberries.
* * *
That night, the banquet started off well enough.
I was somewhat late in arriving, as it took longer than expected for my hair to dry, and I sent Chloe on ahead, not wishing to make her wait. There was nothing she loved more than a party with dancing. She loved to be admired and who could blame her? She was so graceful and beautiful.
Still, as I hurried down the path toward the gathering hall, I felt rather pretty tonight myself. Chloe had gifted me with a gown of lavender muslin. All her talk of "choosing a gown" had been a ruse. This gown had once been hers and she'd had it hemmed as a surprise. The color brought out my light brown eyes and set off my darker brown hair. Jenny, our maid, had used her hands to scrunch my hair as it dried, so that it fell all around my shoulders in even more waves than usual. I wore silver earrings and a small diamond pendant.
Tonight, my father would see that I was a woman now — and not a child. I knew for a fact that some noblewomen my age were married and running their own households — not that I had any desire to marry. I loved my home and my family and never wished to leave White Deer Lodge. But I did wish to be seen as a grown woman.
Though darkness had fallen, I knew these paths by heart.
Finally, I arrived at the door of the gathering hall and slipped inside ... where the sights and sounds almost overwhelmed me. A loud mix of voices and music filled the crowded hall. Guests had been arriving all afternoon, mainly merchants and their wives who lived close enough to make the journey. But there were also a few military officers in Christophe's employ and a few nobles who were currently in residence at the lodge.
The walls of the hall had been strung with garlands, and the sconces above them glowed with light provided by fat candles. The tables were laden with food, and musicians played a lively tune.
My eyes scanned the room until I spotted my parents, and my mother smiled while holding out one hand toward me. I hurried over to her. She wore a red velvet gown that accented her small waist. In her late forties, her face was nearly unlined and her hair still a shade of rich brown.
"How lovely you are," she said to me.
My father stood beside her, staring down at me with a frown. "Where did you get that dress?"
"Chloe had it hemmed for me. Do you like it?" I asked, worried. The square neckline was a bit low, and I hoped he would not tell me to go and change. I had nothing so pretty in my own closet.
My mother glanced up at him with a challenging gaze.
"Of course I like it," he answered quickly. "It's fine ... for tonight."
With that, I turned my attention to the festivities. Erik was out dancing with a merchant's daughter. I hoped to see Chloe dancing with Christophe, but she was not. When I saw her partner, mild distaste rose in my mouth.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Choice of Secrets"
Copyright © 2018 Barb Hendee.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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