Annie's visit to the castle of Bavia's royal family is supposed to be idyllic and romantic, but instead Annie finds a slightly tarnished Prince, a peasant rebellion, an arranged wedding--and a chance to lose her heart.
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Linda Lael Miller began her writing career in 1983 with Fletcher's Woman. Named "The Most Outstanding Writer of Sensual Romance" by Romantic Times, Ms. Miller was nominated by the Romance Writers of America for an award for her thrilling Wanton Angel. The bestselling author's delightful novels include the exciting Corbin series, Banner O'Brien, Corbin's Fancy, Memory's Embrace, and My Darling Melissa; plus two romances set amidst the lush, rugged beauty of New Zealand and Australia, Angelfire and Moonfire. A heart-stirring trilogy features the adventures of the Chalmers sisters, Lily and the Major, Emma and the Outlaw, and Caroline and the Raider -- and a wonderful homespun romance, Daniel's Bride, once again skyrocketed her onto the bestsellers list. Another series about the magnificent Quade family began with Yankee Wife, and continued with the intriguing Taming Charlotte. Now, Princess Annie adds to the fun with more high spirits and sparkling sensuality. Ms. Miller has also penned an enchanting contemporary romance, The Legacy. Linda Lael Miller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her family.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
St. James Keep, Bavia, 1895
"What the deuce is she doing up there?" Rafael St. James, prince of Bavia, demanded, bending as far out his chamber window as he could without plunging headfirst into the empty moat.
A light and drizzling rain was falling, that gloomy evening in late May, but he could see all too clearly. Annie Trevarren, a lithe, barefooted figure clad in a pair of kidskin breeches and a flowing shirt that might have been pinched from his own wardrobe, was embracing the face of a gargoyle on the crumbling parapet of the south tower.
Rafael felt an inward wrench at the sight of her, a tug born of something other than fear for her safety.
Beside him, his eighteen-year-old sister, Phaedra, fidgeted and wrung her hands. "Annie wanted a clear view of the lake," she said, as if that were reason enough to risk life and limb. "You mustn't be angry, Rafael, she can't help her adventurous nature -- boldness runs in the Trevarren family, you know....
He cursed Miss Annie Trevarren and her alleged "adventurous nature" as he whirled away from the window and sprinted across the room toward the yawning doors, which stood a little ajar because of Phaedra's abrupt entrance. The princess scurried along behind him, moving as rapidly as her cumbersome skirts would allow and prattling the whole way. Rafael ran down the hall toward the enclosed staircase in the southern-most corner of the keep.
"Annie occasionally does impulsive things -- but she invariably regrets them later and makes up for her errors quite nicely, and she is extremely practical in most instances..."
Rafael ignored his sister's breathless blatherings in defense of her friend and schoolmate and ran as fast as he could, directing his thoughts to Annie. Hold on, you little fool. Just hold on!
His bodyguard and childhood friend, Edmund Barrett, reached the stairs at the same moment as Rafael. It was plain from the consternation in the other man's normally taciturn face that he had either been advised of Miss Trevarren's predicament or had seen it for himself.
"Let me handle this, Your Highness -- " he began. Barrett tended to address Rafael formally in any emergency.
Rafael shook his head and pushed past Barrett to mount the spiral steps. He was still the master of St. James Keep, however tenuous his hold on the rest of the country might be, and thus responsible for the safety of those within its ancient walls. Not to mention, the young woman's parents, Patrick and Charlotte Trevarren, were among his most valued friends. What would he say to them if Annie fell to her death -- that they still had four daughters left and shouldn't trouble themselves over the loss of the eldest? The little minx was a guest in his house -- had been for a week -- and it was his responsibility to look after her.
The door at the top of the staircase was open, of course, and Rafael stepped cautiously over the threshold. Annie stood several yards away, on the other side of a gap in the parapet, embracing the gargoyle with both arms. Her red-gold hair tumbled down her back and curled in the moist air.
"Don't worry, Annie!" Phaedra called, from just behind the prince's right shoulder. "Rafael will save you!"
"Be quiet and stay back," Rafael hissed, assessing the state of the parapet itself. The rain, smelling of settled dust, cooled his skin. To Annie he said, "Don't move."
Apparently, St. Aspasia's Academy for Young Women of Quality, where both Annie and Phaedra had spent the past few years learning manners and deportment, had served at least some part of its purpose. Even in that dire situation -- and it was dire, for the girl was standing on loose pebbles and very little else -- she smiled bravely and nodded, though she was pale and trembling.
"I won't," she promised, in a stoic tone.
Rafael indulged a perverse desire to look down. The brick floor of the courtyard seemed to spin in the gathering dusk and a number of spectators had congregated, their torches making spots of fire. He closed his eyes for a moment and offered a silent prayer to a God who had long since abandoned him, then eased out onto the ledge.
Some of the stone fell away beneath his feet, and he leaned back against the moss-slickened wall, arms spread wide, breathing deeply. Should the Trevarren chit be fortunate enough to survive this folly, he reflected, he might well murder her himself.
"Do be careful," Annie counseled, as though he were the one who needed rescuing.
Rafael felt color surge up his neck and pulse along his jawline as he moved closer to her, ever so slowly, progressing by inches, and fractions of inches. "I wasn't planning to hang by my feet or do handstands, Miss Trevarren," he replied reasonably. This was no time, or place, after all, to lose his temper. If they were both lucky, he would have that luxury later.
Once Rafael got her inside, he vowed to himself, he'd deliver a lecture this little hellion would never forget. After that, he might just throw her into the dungeon or hang her up by her thumbs.
He reached Annie's side on the strength of these fantasies and slipped one arm around her waist. "All right, Miss Trevarren," he said quietly, with a calmness he didn't feel. "Release your hold on the masonry, if you will, and we'll start back. It's going to be a slow process, though -- no sudden moves, or we'll both be splattered on the stones of the courtyard. Understood?"
Remarkably, he felt her bristle, ever so slightly, against his rib cage. "Believe me, Your Highness," she said with stiff dignity, "your instructions were quite clear."
Rafael risked a step, holding his breath, rejoicing inwardly when the parapet held. He muttered something meaningless, even to himself, and they progressed another step. Tiny bits of rock clattered down the tower wall, then tumbled soundlessly through space. The mist had turned to hard rain, soaking Annie's clothes and hair, extinguishing the torches below, and making the stones of the narrow walkway slippery as well as unstable.
Rafael stole a sidelong glance at Annie and saw that she was holding back tears, and that knowledge stung him out of all proportion to good sense. Miss Trevarren might have been foolhardy, but he secretly admired her boldness and courage.
"You'll be all right," Rafael said, in a gentler tone than he'd used before.
Annie snuffled. Like him, she pressed her back to the wall of the tower, one arm out wide for balance. They were a few inches nearer the door. "I was just thinking of my new yellow dress," she told him seriously. "It will be a shame if I never get to wear it. One must take joy in small things, you know."
For one rash moment, Rafael considered pushing her over the edge and being through with the matter. "That would be among my lesser concerns," he said tautly. Out of the comer of his eye, he saw that Barrett was in the doorway, holding a coiled rope.
"Only because you probably don't own a yellow dress," Annie replied, in a tone that somehow made the nonsensical sound rational.
Rafael felt a muscle twitch in his right cheek. The rope snaked out toward him, and he caught the end in his free hand, nearly losing his balance in the endeavor. "Yellow has never been my color," he answered dryly, and at great length. "Here. We'll tie this around your waist. If you fall while stepping across that chasm in the parapet, and you well might, don't panic and start screaming and flailing about. Barrett is more than capable of holding on and hauling you to safety."
Annie's eyes widened in her pale face, and for the first time, Rafael noticed that they were a very dark blue, the color of india ink. "What about you?"
He permitted himself a heartfelt sigh. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad thing if he fell; it would save the rebels the trouble of capturing, trying and finally hanging him, not to mention sparing the people of Bavia a long and costly civil war.
Tightening the rope around her middle and testing the knot as best he could, Rafael replied, "Indeed, Miss Trevarren -- what about me?"
"Ready?" Barrett called, through the thickening twilight.
"Yes," Rafael replied, looking down into Annie's upturned, rain-beaded face. In the next instant, before he could think about it too much, he maneuvered her around him.
She shrieked as a chunk of the parapet gave way and she fell, kicking wildly and clinging to the rope with both hands as she swayed, like a human pendulum, high above the main courtyard.
Rafael's breath burned in his throat and scalded his chest as he watched her. His own purchase was slipping; he could feel the walkway all but dissolving under the soles of his boots. Horrific images flooded his mind -- he saw the rope breaking, saw the Trevarren girl plummeting through space, heard her strike the stones below with such vivid clarity that bile surged into the back of his throat.
After that, the pictures became more confused; in an instant, he was back in the palace in Morovia, standing in the receiving line again, with his beloved Georgiana at his side, reliving the events of that night eighteen months before. His father, the last prince of Bavia, had been dead only a few weeks, and Rafael had just returned to the country after some twelve years of exile in England.
The scene unfolded quickly in his mind.
The stranger approached Rafael, the new and untested ruler and, before anyone could stop him, drew a small pistol from the pocket of his evening coat and aimed it at the prince's chest.
Georgiana had apparently seen what was happening, for she stepped between them at exactly the wrong moment, and took the bullet meant for her husband.
Rafael heard the shot echoing in his head and closed his eyes, too dizzy to move, but after a few seconds, he collected himself and looked toward the tower window just in time to see Barrett dragging Annie inside.
Relief swept through Rafael with such force that his knees went weak and again he pondered the attributes of death. If there was an afterlife, he might see Georgiana again, and Barrett's father. More of the parapet crumbled away into space, and he pressed his back hard against the wall, fingers clutching the time-beaten, porous stones.
"She's safe inside now, sir," Barrett said, raising his voice to be heard over the rising wind and the slashing patter of the rain. "Heads up, then. Here comes the rope."
It undulated toward him, that length of woven hemp, and Rafael caught it in both hands and held on with a ferocity that belied his earlier reflections on the advantages of dying. The last of the walkway collapsed while he was knotting the rope around his chest, and he felt its roughness bum into his hands as he slid, the knot giving way, almost to its end.
He slammed hard against the wall of the castle, blinded now by the downpour, focusing all his energy, all the strength of his being, on the simple process of holding on. Barrett pulled him upward, one lurching wrench at a time, while Rafael dangled, his palms raw where he grasped the slick rope.
At last, he felt hands, half a dozen of them, gripping him under the arms, by the wrists, by the back of his coat. They hauled him inside, Barrett, one of his lieutenants, and Lucian, Rafael's young half brother.
He crouched on the landing for several moments, soaked and bruised, his hands bleeding, his heart hammering against his breastbone, his breath grating like coarse sand in his lungs.
Barrett dragged him unceremoniously to his feet. "Are you all right?" he asked, with genuine concern. The affection between them was old, and it was deep.
Rafael managed a bitter, choked laugh, swayed slightly. When he spoke, it was in a furious rasp.
"Where is she?"
Annie had been waiting on the top step of the tower staircase, shivering with cold and residual terror, offering fervent, if silent, prayers that Rafael would be saved. Had she loved him, devotedly if from a distance, all these years, she'd asked herself, only to be the cause of his death?
At the sound of his voice, a low rumbling like summer thunder, however, both she and Phaedra stiffened in alarm.
The princess clutched Annie's hand and pulled. "Quickly!" Phaedra hissed, dragging her friend down the smooth steps toward the hallway. "If Rafael catches up to us now, there's no guessing what he'll do!"
Annie considered a couple of the possibilities and suddenly all the strength came back into her legs. Unencumbered by skirts, she bolted ahead of Phaedra and dashed blindly along the passage, having no earthly idea where to hide. Such was her unbridled agitation, alas, that she tripped on the comer of a rug and went sprawling onto the floor.
Before she could rise again, a pair of hard male hands hoisted her to her feet. She looked into the coldly furious face of the prince himself.
"Rafael -- " Phaedra pleaded, grasping her brother's arm.
He pulled free of his sister's hold, his storm gray eyes locked on Annie's face. He spoke to the soldier without looking away. "Take Miss Trevarren to her room and bolt the door. I'll deal with her in the morning. At the moment, I do not trust myself with the task."
Annie was cold and wet and full of remorse for giving in to the more daring side of her nature, but she felt a flush of indignation at his words and took umbrage at the tone in which they were delivered. "Why don't you just chain me to the dungeon wall and be finished with it?" she asked, with dignity.
"A delightful suggestion," Rafael bit out, still glaring at her. "And don't think I haven't considered it. Have you any others, Miss Trevarren? More drastic ones, I hope?"
She wilted slightly, for bravado will carry one just so far. Then, swallowing, she returned Rafael's icy stare, wondering what she'd ever seen in him and knowing, at the same time, exactly what. He was strong, he was handsome, he was good, and she couldn't so much as think about him without feeling a tug in her heart and a less prosaic response somewhere else.
"No," she conceded. "I haven't."
Only then did the prince unwrap his fingers from around Annie's arm. Mr. Barrett proceeded down the hall, with Lucian following at a reluctant pace and casting backward glances over one shoulder, but Rafael remained, towering there in that chilly passage like some dark specter.
Phaedra, loyal friend that she was, lingered stubbornly.
"Do not delude yourself into thinking that I will forget this incident, Miss Trevarren," Rafael said, bending until his aristocratic nose was almost touching Annie's impertinent, faintly freckled and upturned one. "We shall, as I said, take the matter up again in the morning."
The prince had plainly meant to intimidate Annie, and he'd succeeded, but she was too proud to let him see her trepidation. She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin, and refused to lower her eyes. Annie had learned long since, that one must, in the words of the Bard, assume a virtue if one has it not.
Rafael shook his dark head, murmured something blessedly incomprehensible...
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