Prince Nicholas Savron has traveled from Russia to New Orleans to track down Dominic Delaney, the man he holds responsible for his cousin’s death. Nicholas thinks it will be easy enough to wrest his whereabouts from Dominic’s niece, Silver, but he greatly underestimates her loyalty. Determined to satisfy his lust for vengeance, he abducts her instead, hoping to draw her uncle out from hiding.
Silver Delaney may be enrolled in a school for young ladies, but she’s no wilting flower. Despite her fierce attraction to the arrogant prince holding her hostage, she vows never betray her uncle. But when powerful enemies threaten them both, Nicholas and Silver must work together to survive—igniting a passion from which neither wants to escape.
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The Kuban, Russia
November 18, 1863
Nicholas first saw the bird when he crested the hill. The great bird hovered like a phantom against the sullen red glare of the winter sunset, seeming to hang between heaven and earth, belonging to neither, scornful of both.
Nicholas stopped at the summit of the hill, his breath coming in harsh gasps, his heart beating painfully in his breast. The wind was sharp, cutting through his ragged tunic and striking the open wounds on his back as viciously as Igor’s knout had. He would rest for just a moment before descending to the steppe.
He eased the rawhide straps of the harness off his shoulders where they were cutting into his flesh. What difference did it make anyway? It would be a miracle if they didn’t die before they reached the other side of the desolate steppe ahead. The lowering blue-gray clouds on the horizon could mean only snow and chilling cold within a matter of hours, and they had not even the protection of boots. It was insanity to keep trying to ward off the death Igor had decreed for them.
Nicholas turned to look at the man on the makeshift stretcher he had fashioned of pine branches bound together with strips of rawhide. “No.”
Mikhail slowly shook his head, his wild mop of hair shining bloodred under the rays of the setting sun. “You will die. I am too big for you to pull like this. Without me you might make it to shelter before the snows.”
“I’m to walk away from you?” Nicholas asked savagely. “Simply to leave you lying here with two broken legs and a storm coming?”
Mikhail shrugged his massive shoulders. “The cold death is not so bad. I will just go to sleep and not wake up. You saved me from a much worse death. It is enough.”
Suffocating darkness. Nicholas drew a deep breath and quickly suppressed the memory. He didn’t want to remember those moments before Igor had granted them mercy. Mercy? The irony caused his lips to curve in a mirthless smile. Yet Igor had actually thought he was being merciful to set them out in the wilderness with no boots, no food or water, and a storm sweeping toward the steppes. Cossack mercy. Cossack justice. Survive and triumph or die. It was a lesson Nicholas had learned well in his years with Igor.
And he would survive. He would not give up the battle. He smiled down at Mikhail. “We won’t die, my friend. We’ve gone through too much to let Igor kill us now.” Again he tightened the leather straps of the harness across his shoulders. “We have only a little farther to go.”
“You don’t even know where we are. Our only chance is to reach the Sea of Azov and take shelter. If we go in any other direction, we will die in the hills or on the steppes.” Mikhail paused, then said once more, softly, “Leave me, Nicholas.”
Nicholas didn’t look at him. “Don’t be foolish. I may need the heat from that big body of yours to keep me warm if the storm does come. I’m only being selfish.”
Nicholas shook his head. “No, Mikhail, we go together.” A sudden reckless smile appeared on his face. “As for which direction, suppose we leave it up to the firebird.” He pointed to the bird still silhouetted against the horizon. “We’ll let her lead us to the Sea of Azov.”
“That is not a firebird; it is a hawk.”
“How can you tell from this distance? It could be a firebird sent to lead us to a land of milk and honey.”
“You are mad, Nicholas,” Mikhail murmured, his voice full of affection.
“Why?” For an instant, bitterness, pain, and sadness turned the boy’s expression bleak. “It’s as reasonable as anything else in our lives at the moment. We’ll watch our pretty firebird to see which direction she flies and follow her benign guidance.”
“It is a hawk, Nicholas.” Still, Mikhail’s gaze compulsively followed Nicholas’s to the horizon. “Only a hawk.”
The bird suddenly spread its great dark wings and soared proudly, gracefully, a wild monarch of the heavens it ruled. Against the crimson sky the silhouette took on the aura of the sunset itself, and for a moment its wings looked as though they were outlined in tongues of flame. The two men watched in fascination as the bird swooped and tumbled on the air currents in an ecstasy of flight and then turned and swooped off toward the east.
Nicholas laughed softly. “You’re wrong, my friend. We go east.”
He lurched forward, dragging the heavy stretcher behind him, the lacerated flesh of his back throbbing as the muscles beneath it strained with his herculean effort to save himself and Mikhail … and to follow the firebird.
May 5, 1874
“I’d like to see his highness, Prince Nicholas Savron.” Simon Bentsen strode up the gangplank of the Mississippi Rose, his gaze fixed distastefully on the sandy-haired young man in rumpled denim trousers and shirt-sleeves who was half sitting, half leaning on the wooden rail of the boiler deck. A coarse stubble darkened the riverman’s lean cheeks and the scent of perfume and brandy emanated from his unkempt clothing. “I was told at the Hotel Royal that his highness had left there four days ago and taken up residence here.”
“Four days,” the young man repeated dazedly. “Lordy, has it really been four days?”
The fellow was obviously tipsy and Bentsen’s disapproval deepened. If a man in his employ were in this condition in the middle of the day, he would reprimand him severely at the least; more likely, he would dismiss him. “I’m Simon Bentsen of the Randall Investigative Agency. I have a report for his highness. If you’ll tell me where to find him, I won’t trouble you further.”
“No trouble.” The young man straightened away from the rail, swaying unsteadily for a moment before giving Bentsen a half bow. “My name’s Robert Danfold, pilot of the Mississippi Rose. Glad to make your acquaintance. I think Nicky is in his cabin.”
“Nicky?” Bentsen inquired. “You’re a friend of his highness?”
“I guess so,” Danfold said vaguely as he carefully negotiated the wide staircase leading to the next deck. “I never met him until he took me over four days ago.”
“Took you over?”
“When he won the Rose from Mr. Bassinger.” Danfold gazed blearily but proudly around the deck.
It was a craft worthy of pride, Bentsen thought. Indeed, he’d admired it from the riverbank: it was long and white and impressive; two tall plumed smokestacks towered over its three decks and a flag on the jackstaff whipped lazily in the breeze. An ornate golden rose was emblazoned on the huge white paddlebox above the name of the riverboat.
“Where the Rose goes, I go,” Danfold declared.
“I doubt his highness will entrust this boat to you if you continue to overindulge in this fashion.”
Danfold glanced at him over his shoulder, his hazel eyes no longer vague but sharp with annoyance. “We’re docked, dammit. I don’t touch a drop when I’m on the job. I not only just got my captain’s papers, but I’m the best damn pilot on the river and don’t you forget it.”
“It’s none of my concern,” Bentsen said. He wouldn’t have wasted time talking to this fellow if his nerves hadn’t been frayed by worry over his client’s reaction to the report he was about to give. The information his agents had acquired was flimsy at best; still, he probably could bluff his way through the interview, for any man who would permit drunkenness in his employees couldn’t be too difficult to handle. “And I’ll hardly bother to remember anything that concerns either the Mississippi Rose or yourself. I merely thought it best to issue a warning. Prince Savron is a very rich and powerful man and accustomed to instant obedience and decorum from his employees.”
“Decorum?” Danfold blinked. “Nicky?”
“And I’m sure he’d prefer you to be more formal in your address. Russian nobility is very finicky about etiquette.”
“Formal.” Danfold nodded solemnly, his lids veiling his eyes. “Yessiree, Mr. Bentsen. I’ll try to remember that.” He opened a handsome mahogany door. “This leads to the saloon. The master stateroom can be reached by either the saloon or the hurricane deck, but this is quicker. By the way, when did you meet Prince Nicholas?”
“We’ve communicated only by letter but—” Bentsen broke off as he stepped through the entrance of a saloon stretching an astounding three hundred feet in length, its wall ringing with the music of a lively waltz. “Good Lord, what’s going on?”
“A party,” Danfold said blandly as he closed the door of the saloon behind him. “To celebrate his highness’s acquisition of the Mississippi Rose. Nicky—I mean, his highness—likes parties.”
Party? Orgy more accurately described the goings-on in the saloon, Bentsen thought sourly. A four-piece orchestra was playing with enthusiasm at the far end of the long room, and the scent of cigar smoke, perfume, and alcohol permeated the air. The saloon was crowded with a motley collection of well-dressed New Orleans bucks, rivermen in denim trousers and coarse cotton shirts, and pretty ladies in satin gowns in all the hues of the rainbow. Then, as he saw one of the gentlemen who was dancing with a particularly buxom beauty pull down her bodice and bare her naked breasts, he mentally substituted the term women for ladies. Orgy, indeed!
He averted his gaze from the man who was now nuzzling the blond woman’s nipple. “A party at one o’clock in the afternoon?”
“Well, it started at night.” Danfold crossed the saloon to the door of a stateroom with a beautifully executed painting of a peaceful river scene. “Four nights ago when Nicky won the Rose in a poker game in the cardroom at Madam LaRue’s place, he invited all the customers and Madam’s girls to come down for a celebration.” He nodded at the man who was occupied with the mammary attractions of the blonde. “Even Mr. Bassinger.” He knocked on the door. “I guess he thought Mr. Bassinger needed a little cheering up after losing the Rose. It’s a damn fine boat.”
Fine was an understatement, Bentsen thought, looking around the enormous saloon. The high white and gold ceiling was divided into large diamond shapes by the crossing of Gothic arches. Above were large stained-glass skylights through which streamed a rainbow of colored light that ignited a fiery glitter on the sparkling crystal of the twelve large chandeliers. A plush crimson carpet ran the entire length of the saloon, and the doors of the innumerable staterooms lining the main cabin on either side were embellished with beautifully painted landscapes similar to the one on the door in front of him.
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erotica for the housewife