Dickerson fans will enjoy this latest medieval fairy tale that includes the return of Jorgen and Odette as they aid Reinhart and Avelina in seeking God’s help in sparing all from war.
After inheriting his title from his brother, the margrave has two weeks to find a noble bride. What will happen when he learns he has fallen for a lovely servant girl in disguise?
The Margrave of Thornbeck has to find a bride, fast. He invites ten noble born ladies who meet the king’s approval to be his guests at Thornbeck Castle for two weeks, a time to test these ladies and reveal their true character.
Avelina has only two instructions: keep her true identity a secret and make sure the margrave doesn’t select her as his bride. Since the latter seems unlikely, she concentrates on not getting caught. No one must know she is merely a maidservant, sent by the Earl of Plimmwald to stand in for his daughter, Dorothea.
Despite Avelina’s best attempts at diverting attention from herself, the margrave has taken notice. And try as she might, she can’t deny her own growing feelings. But something else is afoot in the castle. Something sinister that could have far worse—far deadlier—consequences
4 stars. 'Readers of The Huntress of Thornback Forest will be pleased to see Odette and Jorgen happily married and working together to help Reinhart overcome his insecurities. Avelina and Reinhart’s devotion to each other in spite of gossip and social expectations reminds readers that we are never too old for fairy tales, and romantic dreams can come true.'
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The Beautiful Pretender
A Medieval Fairy Tale
By Melanie Dickerson
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2016 Melanie Dickerson
All rights reserved.
The year 1363, Thornbeck Forest, The Holy Roman Empire
Reinhart Stolten, Margrave of Thornbeck, spotted the pack of wolves devouring their fresh kill at the bottom of the ravine. He nudged his horse in their direction as he let go of the reins and readied his bow and arrow. He was still too far away for a good shot, but he urged him closer, until his horse brought him into range of the bloodthirsty killers.
Reinhart took aim and let the arrow fly, striking one of the wolves in the neck. It let out a shriek, causing the other animals to look up. Two of them kept their teeth in their meal even as they snarled and searched for the source of the danger.
Reinhart quickly nocked another arrow and shot, striking another wolf in the shoulder instead of the intended kill shot to the head.
The wolves had spotted him and started to run. Only one of them was more interested in his food than in the danger pursuing him. He kept hold of the carcass as he ran away with the others. Reinhart aimed and shot at the one lagging behind, dragging the dead animal, but the arrow missed him.
The wolf let go of his kill and ran harder.
Reinhart urged his horse after them. The wolf with the arrow in his shoulder ran along with the other six wolves.
Reinhart and his horse chased them up the ravine, through the heavily wooded hills of Thornbeck Forest, and eventually the injured wolf grew tired and fell behind. Reinhart was able to finish it off, but there was no use going after the others. They were too far ahead now.
He put his longbow away and turned his horse back in the direction of Thornbeck Castle. The sun was just coming up, sending a glow through the trees as he neared the castle mount.
His castle mount. He was in charge of Thornbeck — the town, the region, and the castle. He was responsible for all of it, and he did not want this pack of wolves roaming the forest, which would lead to tragedy when they ended up attacking and killing someone.
He arrived in front of the stable and dismounted, holding on to the saddle with one hand while he waited for the stable boy to retrieve his walking stick.
Where was that boy? Reinhart growled at having to wait, at the humiliation of needing a cane to walk.
Finally, the boy came around the horse with his cane. Reinhart took it and limped toward the castle.
He had been a powerful knight who could sword fight, joust, and anything any other soldier could do, and better. Now he had to depend on a cane, walking with a limp, with even the servants staring at him in pity.
He held on to the railing with one hand and his cane with the other as he very slowly made his way up the steps to the castle door. The pain in his ankle and lower leg was as bad as ever, and his scowl became a growl.
No one could pity him if he was growling at them.
"Lord Thornbeck." Jorgen Hartman, his young chancellor, met him at the door.
"What is it, Jorgen?"
"My lord, a letter from the king has just arrived. His courier awaits your reply."
"Well, where is this letter?"
"It's in your library, my lord."
Reinhart made it to the top of the steps and stumped down the long passageway that led to several rooms on the lowest floor of the castle.
"My lord," Jorgen said, walking beside him, "were you out hunting wolves this morning? Alone?"
"Should you not take someone with you? A pack of wolves can pull a grown man off his horse."
"Are you suggesting that because I'm now a cripple, I am unable to hunt alone?"
"No, my lord." Jorgen did not look intimidated by Reinhart's angry tone and scowl. "Any man would be in danger against a wolf pack. I also mention it because I think Odette — who you know is an excellent shot with a bow — misses hunting, and she and I could help you kill twice as many."
Reinhart frowned at him. "I am surprised you are so quick to allude to your new wife's lawbreaking activities."
"She would not be breaking any laws by accompanying you on your wolf hunts, my lord."
Finally, with his slow, halting limp, they arrived at his desk in the library. There lay the missive from the king, wax seal, ribbon, and all.
Reinhart broke it open and read it. He threw it down on his desk and walked a few steps. He leaned his shoulder against the wall, staring out the window.
"What does it say, my lord, if I may ask?"
"Read it for yourself."
There was a rustle of parchment behind him, then Jorgen said, "My lord, the king is asking you to marry."
Reinhart's new role as margrave certainly came with a price.
"Do you know any of these ladies he's suggesting you marry?"
"Do you have one in mind you would like to ask?"
When he was the captain of the guard for the Duke of Pomerania, he could take all the time he wanted to choose a wife.
But everything was different now.
"I do not believe I shall choose anyone ... for now."
"But, my lord." Jorgen came to stand beside him and held out his hand to him, palm up. "You cannot ignore a command from the king."
"I would not call it a command. It's more of a ... suggestion."
"A suggestion from most people is a suggestion, but a suggestion from the king is a command. No, my lord, I believe you must choose a wife, and you must choose one from among the noble ladies in his letter. He particularly mentions the daughters of the Duke of Geitbart and the Earl of Plimmwald."
He was expected to choose a wife based on who her father was, and the king had suggested the ladies whose fathers had feuded the most with the margraves of Thornbeck before him — his brother and father. The king wanted peace and unity among his noblemen, and there had been more contention than peace in the last thirty or forty years.
The Duke of Geitbart had once controlled both Thornbeck and Plimmwald, but when Geitbart's father defied the king's wishes and married a woman the king did not approve, the king had taken Thornbeck away from him and given it to the Margrave of Thornbeck, Reinhart's father, and he gave Plimmwald to the present Earl of Plimmwald. And now Geitbart wanted them back.
Reinhart would be expected to purchase peace and unity for the people of his country by marrying a lady without ever seeing her or knowing anything of her character or temperament. This wife would be thrust upon him, for as long as they both lived, for his personal good or for ill.
"You should choose a wife as soon as possible," Jorgen said.
"And how do you propose I do that?"
"Perhaps ..." He turned to pace in a short path from the window to the middle of the floor and back. "So you could meet these ladies and choose which of them you deem worthiest, we could arrange to have them all come to Thornbeck Castle. It could be a ball, or better yet, a party lasting many days. Odette could help plan it. We could invite every lady on the king's list and even put them through a series of tests, based on what you want in a wife."
Jorgen stopped his pacing and turned to him, his brows raised.
"What do you think of this plan, my lord?"
"I think ... I hate it."
"But is it not better than choosing without knowing anything about them?"
Of course it was better. But how did he know how to choose a wife? He knew nothing of women. His own parents' marriage had been arranged for them, and they had hated each other. They rarely spoke more than two words to each other, and both of them had lovers. Reinhart certainly had no desire for that kind of marriage. But neither did he believe that husbands and wives "fell in love" before they married.
Believing there was one woman among many with whom he could fall in love was a naive concept invented by traveling minstrels and addled youths. And yet, Jorgen and his wife had chosen each other. Though neither of them had anything of material value to gain from the marriage, they had chosen each other solely because of a fondness for each other. And even Reinhart had to admit, they seemed very content.
Perhaps he should trust Jorgen's judgment. But at the same time ...
"I shall feel a fool, holding a party to choose my own wife."
"You shall not feel a fool, my lord, and the ladies will feel very flattered that you invited them. Odette and I can arrange it so the ladies do not know you are putting them through tests. And Odette, as a woman, can give you her thoughts and can help you discern — that is, if you wish it. The ladies will enjoy the party, and you can observe them and see who would make the most ideal wife."
But would they consider him an ideal husband? A man who couldn't even walk without a cane? Reinhart stared down at the floor, at his maimed ankle. His blood went cold at the thought of appearing pitiable to the woman he would marry, of her scorning his weakness. But he had little choice but to try and choose wisely from among the ten.
"When should we plan it? Next summer?"
"Oh no, my lord. That's nearly a year away. I believe the king will expect you to marry much sooner than that."
"There is no knowing what the king expects. But even though I have more important things I should be doing with my time ... you may begin the process now. I am leaving it in your hands." Reinhart turned away from the window.
"Of course, my lord."
* * *
Two weeks later, Plimmwald Castle, The Holy Roman Empire
Avelina stood behind Lady Dorothea, brushing her long golden hair.
What were Jacob and Brigitta doing today? Had they found the breakfast of bread and pea porridge she'd left for them? Would they remember to tend the vegetable garden and milk the goat? She would have to ask them if they had washed —
"Ow! What are you doing?" Dorothea spun around and snatched the brush out of Avelina's hand. "Are you trying to tear out my hair?"
"No, of course not." Avelina knew from experience that it was better not to cower but to look Dorothea in the eye when she was in a passion.
Dorothea frowned and handed her back the brush. "My ride this afternoon has my hair in a snarl. See that you don't tear it out of my head."
Dorothea turned back around on her stool, and Avelina continued brushing her thick, honey- colored hair, Dorothea's fairest feature.
A knock sounded at the door, and Hildegard, one of the older maidservants, entered the room carrying a tray. "Lady Dorothea, Cook sent this up for you." She smiled, flashing all her teeth. "She made it from the last of the cherries. A perfect tart for my lady."
The last of the cherries. Avelina tried to keep her eyes off the tart, but the smell of warm fruit made her take a deep breath through her nose. Her mouth watered. She could almost taste it.
"It does look good." Dorothea picked it up and took a bite.
She waved her hand. Did she want Hildegard to leave? Avelina continued brushing.
Dorothea turned and snatched the brush out of her hand again, glaring at her while her mouth was full. Hildegard glared at her too.
Avelina shrugged, smiling apologetically.
Another knock sounded on the door. Dorothea swallowed the bite of cherry tart and called, "Enter."
One of her father's guards opened the door and bowed. "The earl wishes to speak with you."
Dorothea's face turned pale. She put the tart back on the tray, brushed her hands off with a cloth, then preceded the guard out the door.
Was Dorothea worried her father had found out about her trysts with his knight Sir Dietric? The earl never punished her, so why did she look so afraid?
Hildegard followed her out, leaving Avelina alone.
Cherries were Avelina's favorite fruit. The tart drew her closer. It was rather small, but if she took a tiny bite, no one would notice.
She leaned over it. Did she dare? Another whiff of the warm, tangy cherries filled her head. She reached down and pinched off a small piece, making sure to cradle a whole cherry on the bit of pastry crust. She placed it in her mouth and closed her eyes.
Tart and sweet melded together and spread over her tongue.
Hildegard burst back into the bedchamber. Narrowing her eyes at Avelina, as if she knew she was contemplating eating the rest of the tart in two bites, Hildegard snatched the tray up and carried it back out, her leather shoes making shushing sounds on the flagstones.
Avelina swallowed, sighed, and went to work putting away Dorothea's sewing materials that she had been searching through, as well as the hair ribbons she had strewn everywhere before finding the one she wanted. Avelina put away the tightly fitted bliaud Dorothea had discarded in favor of a looser cotehardie, and finding nothing else to do, sat on the cushioned bench by the tall, narrow window clutching her gray mantle around her shoulders, staring out at the foggy night.
The light of the moon cast a pale glow on the fog that was rolling up to the castle walls. She hoped Brigitta would be able to heat the frumenty she had left for them without burning herself, and Jacob would be able to keep the fire going. Father's back always pained him more on foggy and rainy days.
Footsteps sounded on the stone floor in the corridor. Avelina turned her head just as Dorothea rushed into the room — and burst into tears. She bent forward at the waist, her hands covering her face.
Avelina stood and waited for her mistress's orders. Should she go to her and try to comfort her? Dorothea rarely welcomed any sort of affection from Avelina, though she had been her maidservant and confidant for the last eight years — since Dorothea was ten and Avelina was twelve.
"Whatever is the matter?" Avelina asked.
Dorothea continued to cry, but the sobbing sounded more angry than sad. She suddenly straightened and glared. "My father is sending me to Thornbeck Castle. He wants me to marry the margrave. But precisely what do you think the Margrave of Thornbeck will say if he were to suspect ...?" A defiant look came over her face. "I won't go. I won't." She raised a fist, tossing her head and sending her blonde hair over her shoulders and cascading down her back, the ends dancing at her waist.
Avelina almost said, "But if you don't go, they will suspect something is amiss." She bit her lip and refrained, not wanting to risk a tongue- lashing. Dorothea's green eyes were ablaze, even as they swam with tears.
"What did your father say?"
"He says I must go, that I can simply wear looser clothing." She scrunched her nose and curled her lip. "Father says I can give the child to someone far away and forget about it after it's born." She folded her arms across her chest and stomped her foot. "But I want to marry Dietric."
Avelina's breath stilled. Would she defy her father?
"Get my things packed into some traveling bags." Dorothea smeared the tears over her face with her fingers and hurried to one of her trunks. She started throwing clothing on the bed. "Pack these."
"Will you leave right away? Should you not wait until morning, at the least?"
"I must go now. My father plans to send me to Thornbeck in the morning." She set her jaw, closing her eyes for a moment. "If Dietric refuses to take me away, I'll kill myself."
She said those last words so calmly, a chill went through Avelina.
"Make haste, Ava! Don't just stand there."
Avelina ran and grabbed a traveling bag from another trunk and began rolling her mistress's clothing into tight bundles to keep them from wrinkling, then stuffing them into the leather bag. But her heart was in her throat. If she helped Dorothea run away with Sir Dietric, what would the earl do to her? But if she didn't help Dorothea, she might do violence to herself.
Avelina continued stuffing clothing into the bag until it was full and she had to retrieve another bag.
"Put that down for a moment," Dorothea said suddenly, striding to the trunk against the far wall and opening it. "I need you to open a lock for me." She bent and drew out two ornate ivory boxes that contained all of the family jewelry. Her father said he would give her the key when she got married. But Dorothea could never accept being locked out of anything. Consequently she had forced Avelina to learn a new skill.
Avelina retrieved her metal tool out of her woolen bag. She picked up the first box and went to work with the hooked end of the long, slim piece of metal she had gotten from the castle blacksmith. In a few moments she had opened the box, and a few moments after that, the second box lay open.
Excerpted from The Beautiful Pretender by Melanie Dickerson. Copyright © 2016 Melanie Dickerson. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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