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You Belong to Me
Ukraine Province, Russia, 1836
Constantin Rubliov stood at the window in his drawing room, his hands clasped behind his back, watching the dust cloud in the distance slowly approaching. The window, located at the front of his house, looked out on the road that wound past his country estate and led to the Dnieper River in the east. From the second floor of the house, you could just make out the river on a clear day. From his vantage point in the drawing room, the road to the west was visible as far as the eye could see, and that was where the dust cloud was approaching from.
If he hadn′t known that there was going to be a horse race today, the sight of all the people crowding both sides of the road just beyond his house would have told him. His Cossacks loved a good race as much as they loved a good fight. They were a tough, volatile, high-spirited people, always laughing, singing, or fighting--and fiercely loyal.
But they weren′t exactly his, although he had always thought of them that way because they had been so long associated with his, family. And they, too, thought of him and his as theirs. But Cossack meant "free warrior," and these Cossacks were certainly that. Since his great-great-grandfather had given them permission to settle on his land and raise their families in peace, they had worked for the Rubliovs, in whatever capacity was required. They staffed Constantin′s house, they bred his horses, they guarded him and his family ′in their travels.
The settlement they had started all those years ago was now a thriving town less than a quarter mile to the west of his estate. The Razins, who had supplied the town with its leaders for all these years as well as populated three-fourths of the town with the many branches of their family, had grown as prosperous as the Rubliovs.
With their help, Constantin now supplied horses to the Czar′s army, and thoroughbreds to aristocrats who could afford them. His sugar beet crops filled the markets of Kiev and the settlements along the Dnieper, and his wheat brought fine prices along the Black Sea coast. He was growing richer by the year since he had taken an active interest in his horses and fields. Ever since his wife had died ten years ago, he had stopped being an absentee landlord, as most of the Russian nobles were. Only his sister still made use of their town house in Moscow and the Rubliov palace in St. Petersburg.
"You aren′t going to like this, darling."
Constantin didn′t glance at the woman who had spoken. Anna Veriovka stood only several feet away at the next window, watching the same scene in front of the house. Anna was one of those rare women who never seemed to age. To look at her with her dark brown hair always perfectly coiffed and her even darker brown eyes, the fine bone structure that was going to make her an eternal beauty, no one could guess she had seen thirty-five years.
Right now it was her tone, rather than her words, that made Constantin brace his hands on the window ledge and stare more intently at the oncoming horses.
Deep in his gut, he knew what he would see. It wouldn′t be the first time, or, he feared, the last. But for a moment all he could see was that dust cloud, nearly reaching the house now, and in its midst the vague shape of six thoroughbreds crowding one another on the narrow road. Fur hats, long coats flapping, sleek legs stretching for the finish line at the nearby village, and the large white wolfhound racing along beside the road, barking, urging the animals to a little more speed. And wherever that dog was ...
"Alex will win," Anna said in a smug voice.
"Of course Alex will win," Constantin grumbled, watching the lead rider crawl up on the saddle, squat there, slowly rise to standing, then toss off a fur cap, laughing, with the other riders following suit.
His eyes were squeezed shut as he added, "She always wins--and I wish you wouldn′t call her that. It only encourages her to act the hoyden."
His longtime mistress merely clucked her tongue, but after a few more moments he felt her breasts press against his back and her arms circle his waist. "You can look now, darling. She didn′t break her neck."
"Thank God," he whispered, and then the anger came, for the scare he′d just had was no less severe than it always was. "I′m going to beat her this time, I swear I am."
Anna chuckled. "So you always say, but you never do. Besides, the Razin boys wouldn′t let you."
"Then I′ll get their father to do it. Ermak will do anything I ask of him."
"Except hurt a hair on that sweet child′s head. He adores Alex as much as you do."
Constantin sighed as he turned around to do some hugging of his own. "Anna, my love, that ′sweet child′ is twenty-five years old, too old for the foolishness we just witnessed. You know it as well as I do. She should be married and nursing babies. Her two sisters had no difficulty in that respect. Lydia has given me five granddaughters. Elizaveta had three before she was widowed. Why has it been so impossible to get my youngest daughter married?"
Anna thought it prudent not to mention Alexandra′s outrageous frankness that had caused such a stir and had made Czar Nicholas unofficially ban her from St. Petersburg. If Anna reminded Constantin of that, she was afraid she would laugh, which she did every time she recalled that scene at the Romanovsky dinner, when Princess Olga had lamented to the twenty or so guests sitting near her that, however much she tried, she couldn′t keep from gaining weight that season.
Alexandra, hearing her, had suggested quite helpfully and with complete sincerity, "Why, ma′am, if you would just stop stuffing your mouth with blinis and sour cream, you might lose a pound or two." You Belong to Me
. Copyright © by Johanna Lindsey. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.