Read an Excerpt
Port of Dinar, Tamrovia
May 3, 1803
The longboat was only a few yards from the dock when Tess caught sight of Sacha’s tall, graceful form. He was leaning indolently against a stack of wooden boxes.
Sacha hadn’t changed a whit, Tess thought with relief. His auburn hair so like her own, blazed in the sunlight. As they drew close to shore, she saw that his slim, muscular body was garbed as it always had been, with faultless elegance. Today, he wore tight cream-colored buckskin trousers and a gold brocade coat. An intricately tied cravat complimented his pristine white shirt.
“Sacha!” Tess waved frantically, leaning perilously far over the side of the longboat. “Sacha, it is I!”
She heard the captain mutter something in the front of the boat, but she ignored him and continued waving. “Sacha!”
He straightened away from the boxes, and a grin lit his face.
“I warn you, if you fall into the sea, I’ll let you drown,” he called. “This is the first time I’ve worn this coat, and I like it over much.”
“You look like a peacock,” she called back. “In Paris they’re dressing with far more simplicity.”
“Brat. How would you know? You’ve been in a convent for six years.”
“I have eyes.” As the longboat drew up to the dock, she took the hand Sacha reached out to her and rose cautiously to her feet. “Besides, Pauline told me.”
“Ah yes, how could I forget Pauline.” Sacha’s hands were on her small waist, lifting her onto the dock. He groaned and staggered back a step. “Merde, you weigh a ton. It must be all that learning and religion they’ve stuffed into you.” His blue eyes gleamed with mischief as he looked her up and down. “Thank God it doesn’t show, or you’d never get a husband.”
Tess’s happiness dimmed at his mention of marriage, then she firmly dismissed the thought. There could be no other reason for her father to send for her, but it was not her way to brood on storm clouds in the distance when the sun was shining and the world close at hand was beautiful. “I don’t weigh a ton.” She had often wished she did weigh more. No matter how much she ate, she remained unimpressively tiny in height and far too slender. She scarcely came to the middle button on Sacha’s fine linen shirt. She lifted her chin, a mock expression of hauteur on her face. “It’s you who have grown weak and puny with dissipation and excess. I wonder my father even puts enough trust in you to escort me to Belajo.”
His smile faded, and he glanced away from her. “I’d better get you to the inn. The carriage is around the corner.”
“One moment.” She turned to the captain, who was getting out of the longboat and held out her hand. “Good-bye, Captain. Thank you for being so kind to me. It’s been a very interesting voyage. You must come to Belajo sometime soon.”
The grizzled captain lifted her gloved hand to his lips. “It’s been interesting for us also, Your Highness,” he said dryly. “Still, I wouldn’t mind sailing with you again.” He paused. “In a year or two.”
She nodded. “I understand.” She turned back to Sacha and slipped her arm through his. “I’m ready now.”
Sacha glanced curiously back over his shoulder at the captain as they strolled toward the street. “The captain doesn’t appear too pleased with you. What did you do to the poor man?”
“Nothing.” She noted his skeptical glance and said defensively, “Well, it was the first time I had been aboard a ship without someone peering over my shoulder and telling me what I must or must not do. When I sailed for France six years ago, Pauline was with me. She wouldn’t allow me a proper exploration of the ship.” Quartered in Paris after she had escorted her charge to France, Pauline had married a young baker when Tess had been in the convent of St. Marguérite only a few months. “Pauline failed to show up at the pier when this ship was about to sail, and the sisters didn’t have time to make other arrangements for my chaperonage.”
“And what portions of the ship did you explore?”
“Have you ever been in the crow’s nest?”
“That little box on top of the mast? Good God, no. I have no head for heights.”
“You can see forever,” Tess said dreamily. “And the wind blows your hair, and the scent of the salt and the sea is like nothing I’ve ever smelled.”
“May I ask how you got up to the crow’s nest?”
“I climbed up the masts. I had to take off my shoes, but it was little different from climbing trees in the forest at home.” She frowned. “The captain’s shouting did distract me, however.”
“I imagine he was a bit concerned,” Sacha said solemnly.
“Well, he should have waited until I reached the top before he shouted.”
“I’m sure you told him that.”
She nodded. “But he was too angry to listen.” She looked intently at Sacha. “Is our escort at the inn?”
“No, our party arrives tomorrow. I came on ahead.” A young groom jumped down from the back of the carriage and opened the door. “I thought you’d appreciate a few days of rest before we started overland. It’s a four-day journey.”
“I did nothing but rest on board the ship. I tried to help the sailors, but they wouldn’t let me.” If the fate she suspected did await her at Belajo, she was not eager to make haste on the journey. “May we have supper at that café?” She tilted her head to indicate a café bearing a sign with a painting of a mermaid curled up on a rock. “I’ve never eaten in a café, Sacha. Could we please?”
He nodded indulgently. “A café, yes. But not one on the waterfront.”
Her face fell in disappointment. “Why not? Sailors are most interesting. They tell such grand and glorious tales.”
Sacha handed her into the carriage. “More glorious than truthful.”
“I’d like to see for myself.” She leaned forward, her face glowing with eagerness. “Someday I’d like to take a journey to the east and follow the route of Marco Polo. Wouldn’t that be a great adventure?”
Sacha’s expression softened as he looked at her. “A very great adventure.” He followed her into the carriage and seated himself across from her. “But you won’t find any Marco Polos at the Mermaid Café, and sailors’ haunts are notoriously disreputable.”
“What difference does that make? You’d be with me.” She wrinkled her nose ruefully. “If you fear for my virtue, I assure you no one will pay the least notice of me. I’m too small. The sailors on the ship treated me as if I were a demented infant.” She leaned back on the cushioned seats as the carriage started the bouncing journey over the cobblestones. “When the man my father has chosen as my bridegroom sees me, he will very likely back out of the arrangement.” She grinned as a sudden thought came to her. “What a splendid idea. If I make myself even uglier, it may be years before he can make another match.”
Sacha’s lids half veiled his eyes. “You have no desire for marriage?”
“Why should I?” she said. “The convent was bad enough, but at least the sisters were kind. A husband …” She abruptly looked out the window. “I do not like the thought of it.”
“Not every man is like your father,” he said gently.
“No, but they all seek to use women for their own purposes.” She straightened her shoulders and smiled with an effort. “I do not wish to speak of it. Tell me what you have been doing this long time I’ve been away. I received only a few letters from my mother since I left Tamrovia, and each was heavy with lectures on learning meekness and obedience. You’ve not wed?”
“Sweet Mary, no,” Sacha said in horror.
“How have you escaped that fate? You must be all of thirty.”
“By staying away from court and letting every woman there forget I exist.” He frowned. “And thirty is far from ancient.”
She chuckled, her eyes sparkling with mirth. “But we’ve already discussed how puny you are.”
“And how impudent you are.” He smiled. “I’m glad the nuns didn’t crush the spirit out of you.”
His narrowed gaze on her face held surprising keenness, and Tess realized that her first impression had been wrong. Sacha had changed.
When she had left Tamrovia, he had been softer, lazier, even a bit foppish. Now, in spite of the languid airs he assumed, she could sense an undefinable toughness, a greater confidence, as if the softness had been honed away by the experiences of the last years. “You didn’t answer me. What have you been doing?”
The sharpness of his regard was hooded again as his lids veiled his eyes. “Oh, this and that. Traveling. Acquiring new skills.”
“What new skills?”
He leaned back on the cushions. “You’re a curious puss. Perhaps I should ask the same of you. What did you learn in your convent?”
“That I never wanted to return to one.”
He chuckled. “What else?”
“Sewing, weaving, candlemaking. Nothing of real importance. Well, except scripture, of course.” She tilted her head and studied him shrewdly. “Why don’t you want to answer me?”
“All in good time.” He glanced out the window. “We’re about to reach the inn. I’ve arranged for the innkeeper’s daughter to act as your maid, and your boxes should arrive—”
“Why did you arrange for a servant? You didn’t know Pauline wouldn’t be with me.”
He hesitated before he smiled teasingly. “Perhaps I thought you needed the help of a younger, more vigorous woman. Our winsome Pauline must be all of two and thirty by now.” He sighed morosely. “Even more ancient than my humble self.”
She laughed. “Her husband wishes she were a little less vigorous. Married a little over five years to her and he appears worn and weary.”
“Pauline was never one to accept anything but the most enthusiastic cooperation … even if she had to force the pace.”
The carriage came to a stop, and instantly the footman opened the door. Sacha sprang to the ground and helped Tess out. “Go into the inn. The innkeeper will show you to your chamber. I’ll stay here until the second coach arrives and send up your boxes.”
“Surely, the innkeeper could—”
But Sacha was already striding across the flagstones toward the stable, and after hesitating a moment, Tess turned and entered the inn.