~ Rolf, the eldest: stern, ambitious, and loyal?
~ Sebastian, the second son: sympathetic, sly, and rebellious?
~ Or Kai, the youngest: bitter, brooding, and proud?
As shy, horrified Megan flees the welcome dinner for her in-laws-to-be, she finds an enchanted mirror that will display how her life unrolls with each man, as if she were living it out in a breath. But there is no smooth “happily ever after” in her choices.
Deaths and honors, joys and agonies, intrigues and escapes await her in a remote, ramshackle keep, where these rough but complex men reveal one side and then another of their jagged characters—and bring forth new aspects of Megan, too. But the decisions of one teenaged marriage-pawn reverberate much farther than any of them have guessed . . .
THROUGH A DARK GLASS
New York Times bestselling author Barb Hendee spins a tale of castles and assassins, ambition and envy, toil and desire, as one woman lives out three very different lives . . .
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I was trapped, and I knew it. Worse, it came as a shock on my seventeenth birthday, the same day my elder sister died.
Daughters of the nobility are mere tools for their families, so in truth, what transpired shouldn't have come as such a surprise, but I'd been trained and honed as a different type of tool than my sister, Helena.
She was beautiful, tall and well figured with ivory skin, green eyes, and a mass of silken red hair. She was quick-witted and skilled in the art of conversation. When she walked into a room, all heads turned. She expected everything in life to come to her just as she wished, and as a result, it usually did. Our father had always intended to profit from her by way of a great marriage to improve our family's fortune.
In contrast, I was small and slight, with light brown eyes and dark blond hair. Although I was much better read than Helena, my prowess in circles of social conversation normally amounted to nodding and appearing attentive to those more proficient than myself.
Helena was the shining star of our family.
Yet, on my seventeenth birthday, I stood over her bed, wringing my hands as she lay dying. Her once ivory face had gone sickly white, and her green eyes were closed as she struggled to breathe, each attempt resulting in a gasp followed by a rattle.
My mother stood beside me, looking down at the bed, her face unreadable.
"She may yet recover," I said by way of attempted comfort. "She has always been strong."
I shouldn't have bothered.
My mother glanced at me in contempt. Like Helena, she was tall with red hair, and she had no patience for offers of false comfort.
Only three days ago, Helena had complained of feeling warm at our midday meal. Shortly after, she'd been helped to her bed by several of the household servants, and within hours, the fever had taken hold. In a panic, my father had called upon our physician, who had done what he could — which in my opinion hadn't been much. The illness settled quickly into Helena's lungs.
Although I had been allowed inside her room, I'd not been allowed to touch her.
As Mother and I stood over her, my sister fought for one last breath. The following rattle was loud, and then all sounds vanished from the room as Helena went still. Looking down, I didn't know what to feel. We had not been close, but she was still my sister.
As if summoned, my father walked in, dressed in a blue silk tunic and black pants. He was of medium height with broad shoulders and a thick head of light brown hair. He shaved his face twice a day.
"Well?" he asked.
"She's gone," my mother answered. "Just now."
Father frowned, but that was all. His initial panic at the prospect of losing a valuable tool like Helena had passed yesterday — for he was ever a realist.
Walking over to the bed, he didn't even look at his eldest daughter. Instead, he looked at me, and I couldn't help noting the disappointment in his eyes. "Megan," he said. "The Volodanes arrive this afternoon. You'll have to take Helena's place."
I blinked several times, not certain I'd heard him correctly.
"Take her place? What does that ...?"
"You know what it means," he said coldly. Then he turned to my mother. "Make sure she's presentable."
I took a step backward as the awful truth set in.
The Volodanes were arriving afternoon.
And I was to take Helena's place.
Less than hour later, I found myself seated at the dressing table in my own room, wearing a muslin dress of sunflower yellow — that had been hanging in my closet for over a year — and staring at my own reflection as my maid, Miriam, tried to do something with my hair.
Her mouth was tightly set, and she was not any happier about the situation. Miriam was pretty with dark hair, and only five years older than myself. She'd been hired by my mother when I was fifteen and Mother had deemed it necessary that I should have a "lady's maid." I'd resisted at first but not for long. Miriam had soon become devoted to me, and I welcomed her friendship.
The turn of events today had taken her by surprise.
"Your father was very clear," she said, holding handfuls of thick hair. While the color might not be enticing, at least it was abundant. "I may have to cut a few pieces in the front."
"Do what you must," I answered quietly.
Normally, I had Miriam weave my hair into a single thick braid, as no one cared too much about my appearance. All my life, I'd been told that I would never marry, that I'd remain here in my family's manor serving as a shadow advisor to my father, for I possessed a unique ... skill that was use of him.
He was the head of our great family, the house of Chaumont, and he held a seat on the Council of Nobles that met four times a year in the capital city of Partheney.
The power and prestige of our name reached back over eight hundred years, and every family for five hundred leagues envied us our name, our bloodlines, and our political power. Unfortunately, noble bloodlines don't always correlate into wise financial management, and my grandfather had nearly run our reserves of wealth into the ground. He drank. He gambled. To pay debts, he'd sold off our more lucrative investments such as the family's silver mines, which decreased our income.
Though my father possessed greater wisdom, upon inheriting the family title, he'd fought to make a good show of things, to try and prove we were not paupers. This had meant quietly borrowing large sums of money, and now several of those debts were being called in.
To his great relief, Helena had proven herself everything he'd hoped for, and in recent months, he'd made an arrangement to solve all his immediate financial woes.
Another family, the Volodanes — of noble birth so low they were scorned by the better families — had made my father an unprecedented offer.
When a young woman married, a part of her worth was determined by the size of her dowry. Lord Jarrod, the head of the house of Volodane, had offered a small fortune in exchange for Helena marrying one of his three sons. For while the Volodanes might suffer snubs for their painfully low birth, in recent years, they'd become one of the wealthiest families in the nation. They had money in silver, in cattle, in wheat, and in wine. They also ruled their own territories in the north without mercy and taxed their peasants nearly dry. Now, they wanted to use this wealth to link their name to the name of a great family.
Jarrod offered to forgo a cash dowry and pay my father a great deal of money for Helena. She in turn would bring certain furnishings from Chaumont Manor to make it appear as a dowry. In this way, the secret could be kept.
My father had jumped at the bargain.
At first, my mother and Helena had not. They'd both been appalled at the thought of regal Helena tied forever to some brute who most likely had no idea how to dine at a proper table. But instead of ordering Helena to obey, our father had cajoled her, and then he'd promised that of the three brothers, she would be allowed to meet them and choose one for herself. Then he'd appealed to her sense of family honor and obligation.
In the end, he got his way ... and this afternoon, the Volodanes would arrive so that Helena might spend time in conversation with the young men, allowing her to make her choice.
But my sister was dead.
Staring at myself in the small mirror of my dressing table, I wondered what a slap in the eye I was going to be.
Miriam continued twisting my thick hair and piled it on top my head. She left several strands in the front loose, and before I could follow what she was doing, she took up a pair of scissors and snipped those strands at about the length of my jaw. The strands instantly curled up to frame my face. The result was astonishing. I did look a bit more like a lady than I had a few moments before.
She put small silver earrings in my earlobes and then drew something from her pocket. I blanched. It was a diamond pendant.
"That's Helena's," I said.
She glanced away. "You mother wants you to wear it."
Without another word, I let her fasten it around my neck. This was only the beginning. Miriam wasn't even dressing me for dinner yet — but rather to help greet the Volodanes when they rode into the courtyard.
I rose from the dressing table.
"You look lovely, miss," she said. "You should go down."
I didn't feel lovely. I felt a knot growing in my stomach, and I wanted to reach out and grip her hand. In the entire manor, Miriam was the only one who cared for me, and she had no power.
So, I left my room and made my way down the stairs, past the great dining hall, and down the passage to the main front doors. The guard there opened the doors for me, and I stepped outside into the open courtyard.
My father, my mother, and six other manor guards stood waiting.
Turning, my father looked me up and down. Instead of looking at me, my mother looked at him. His eyes focused on my sunflower-yellow gown and my hair. Then he nodded once at my mother in approval. She returned to her vigil of waiting for the Volodanes.
I held back, near the doors. We didn't wait long.
I heard several of our guards down at the front gates calling to each other before I saw anything. Then I heard the grinding of the gates being opened ... followed by the sounds of hoof beats.
Within moments, an entire retinue pounded into our courtyard, led by four men — one out front and three riding behind. This quartet was followed by at least thirty guards. I wondered where we were going to house them all.
Then my attention focused entirely on the four men at the front.
Although I had never met any of them myself, and neither had Helena, she'd been provided with a good deal of information, and before falling ill, she'd spoken of little else in the last weeks of her life.
It wasn't difficult to note Jarrod, the father, riding at the lead. As he drew closer, my trepidation began to grow. He appeared in his late forties, tall and hawkish. His head was shaved. He wore chain armor over a faded black wool shirt that had seen many washings. My eyes dropped to the sword sheathed on his hip.
My own father never wore a sword.
As Jarrod pulled his frothing horse to a stop, I turned my gaze to the three men behind him. Again, it wasn't difficult for me to name them by gauging their age.
Rolf was the eldest, in his late twenties. Like his father, he wore his head shaved and he wore chain armor, but there the resemblance stopped. There was nothing hawkish about Rolf. He was muscular and wide-shouldered with broad features and a bump at the bridge of his nose. Every inch of him exuded hardness and strength.
I shivered in the summer air.
Next came Sebastian, in his mid twenties. He was smaller than either of his brothers, with neatly cut black hair. Noticing my attention, he flashed me a smile. He was handsome, and the only one not wearing armor. Instead, he wore a sleeveless tunic over a white wool shirt. I had a feeling Sebastian cared about his appearance.
Last came Kai — wearing armor and weapons. He looked only a few years older than me. In many ways, he resembled his father, tall and slender with sharp features. But he wore his brown hair down past his shoulders. His gaze moved to the front of the manor, which was constructed of expensive light-toned stone.
As Kai took in the latticed windows, whitewashed shutters, and climbing ivy vines, his features twisted into what I could only call an expression of resentful anger. If hardness rolled off Rolf and vanity rolled off Sebastian, it was anger that rolled off Kai.
Jarrod jumped down from his horse and strode up to my father.
"Chaumont," he said shortly, not bothering with my father's title or given name.
Both men gauged each other in mild discomfort, and it occurred to me that this was their first meeting. All marriage negotiations had transpired in writing or by proxy. Under normal circumstances, a family as lowborn as the Volodanes would never be invited to Chaumont Manor — and they knew it.
My father nodded and responded in kind. "Volodane."
Then Jarrod's dark eyes swept the courtyard, stopping briefly on me before moving onward, and he frowned.
My father leaned forward, speaking softly. I watched Jarrod's expression flicker in surprise, and to his credit he said, "Oh ... my condolences."
A few more quiet words were exchanged, and I heard my father say, "daughter, Megan." Jarrod's eyes turned to me again, this time in cold assessment. After all, he had never seen Helena and only heard the tales of her beauty. He had nothing with which to compare her. I struggled to look back and hold his gaze. After a moment, he nodded his assent.
"Good, then," my father agreed, sounding relieved. "You must be tired from your journey. We'll all meet again at dinner." He seemed equally relieved this initial meeting was over and he was now able to extract himself.
But the knot in my stomach tightened at the thought of leaving my home and going with these men, with a warrior for a father and one of his sons for my husband.
Trapped or not, I couldn't do this.
I would refuse.
My father and mother both went to the room he used as his study, and without asking permission, I followed them in and closed the door. They were both taken aback by my boldness. This was certainly something Helena might have done, but not me.
"I can't do it," I said instantly. "And I cannot believe you would force me."
Mother's eyes narrowed in caution. I had never spoken to either of them like this. My father's face turned red in anger, but my mother held up one hand to stop his tongue.
"Megan," she began slowly. "Of course I understand your reticence. It is beneath us to even have them in the house, but this must be done, and the middle son ... Sebastian? He looks less savage than the others. Could you not consider him?"
I stared at her. "Less savage? You would have me in his bed merely because he seems less savage than his brothers?" She flinched at the indelicacy of my question and then drew herself to full height. "And would you have our situation exposed? Our debts known publicly? Would you have bailiffs in the manor taking our paintings and tapestries and furniture? Would you have your father disgraced from his seat on the Council of Nobles?"
Feeling myself begin to deflate, I shook my head. "Of course not."
The anger left my father's face, and he stepped toward me. "Jarrod has already agreed to my provision that Helena choose from among his sons. He doesn't care which of them marries into the house of Chaumont. He wants only the prestige of the connection and grandsons who carry our blood. You'll have the same provision as your sister. You can choose."
"And if I don't?"
His eyes hardened. "Then I will pick one myself, drag you to the magistrate, and use my power as your father to answer and sign for you."
Breathing grew difficult as I realized he meant it. He would sell me off like a brood mare rather than face public humiliation and lose his seat on the council.
In desperation, I played one last card. "But, Father, what will you do without me? In meetings with the other nobles, how will you know who's honest and who is not?"
This was something we rarely spoke of openly. I could do something no one else could, something that made me of great use to my father. Would he throw it away so easily?
His expression flickered once and then steeled again.
"Do you choose one for yourself, or do I?" he challenged.
The room was silent for a long moment.
I somehow managed to answer. "I'll choose for myself."
What else could I do?
A scant few hours later, I found myself seated at our table in the dining hall.
Miriam put a great deal of effort into dressing me for dinner. The result was both awkward for me and a triumph for my parents.
I looked nothing like myself. Miriam had arranged my hair even more elaborately and used a small round iron on the curls around my face. Then she'd put touches of black kohl at the corners of my eyes. I wore an amber silk gown with a low, square-cut neckline that showed the tops of my breasts.
I don't know where she'd found the gown. It wasn't mine, and it was much too small to have fit Helena. I supposed my mother must have had it made at some point while anticipating its need.
However, at the sight of me, my father beamed. I couldn't meet his eyes.
Seating at dinner was equally awkward with my father at the head of the table, my mother and I seated on one side, and all four of the Volodanes seated on the other — so I had no choice but to look at one of them when I raised my eyes from my plate of roasted pheasant.
Excerpted from "Through a Dark Glass"
Copyright © 2018 Barb Hendee.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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