“I’ll try my best, Queen Lenora. I do aim to please.”
At the stables, the groom brings me a gigantic, angry brown beast of a horse named Hector. I like him immediately. As I swing up into the saddle, he dances with frantic energy that needs to be burned off. I know exactly how he feels.
In the grassy field beyond the castle, I open him up—letting him gallop toward the forest as hard and fast as those brawny legs will go. My cheeks and the tip of my nose go numb with cold and I tuck my chin and enjoy the speed, the blur. The crashing sound of the ocean mixes with the whistle of the wind and it feels like I’m flying . . . like I’m a bird that can go anywhere.
Someplace where there are no duties or schedules or terminal conditions. There is only the sun on my face and wind in my hair.
An hour and miles later, Hector is calmer. I duck my head under a branch as we trot through the canopy of trees, until we come to another clearing. When I glance up at the sky, I see a storm coming in—a great swelling wall of indigo clouds that have already enveloped the sun.
Leaning forward, I stroke Hector’s velvet neck. “What do you say, my boy? Think we can get in one more run before the rain catches us?”
He snorts, pulling at the reins.
“I think so too.”
I tap his hindquarters, and we’re off again. I close my eyes, to better soak up the sensations, and squeeze Hector’s rippling flanks with my thighs and knees.
And then I let go of the reins and hold my arms out, palms forward. Trying to catch the wind in my hands.
It’s the stupidest bloody thing I’ve ever done—but it feels amazing.
It feels like freedom.
For about three seconds.
That’s when Hector lets out a sharp, indignant shriek. He rears up on his back legs and before I can grab the reins, I’m flying—falling—like Alice down her endless rabbit hole. Before landing on my arse in the cold, hard dirt.
The vibration of Hector’s thundering hooves on the ground beneath me gets fainter and fainter. Traitor.
I don’t move at first. I lie on my back breathing, making sure all four limbs are still attached. Then I open my eyes and blink up at the darkening sky. Until something obscures my view.
It’s a man—standing over me, gazing down at me.
His hair is wavy and blond and slightly too long. It falls forward over his forehead, giving him a reckless, rebellious look—like an archangel who came down to earth against orders.
I sit up slowly, my head spinning a bit. He drops his bag on the ground and crouches down, assessing me. His eyes are an unusual green—a very dark shade of emerald—and his jaw is strong, taut, and scattered with more than a day’s worth of rugged, golden stubble. Tingling goose bumps that have nothing to do with the icy air race up my arms.
When he speaks, his voice is deep but refined, like rough silk.
“Are you injured?”
I’ve been educated by the finest minds in the world.
I speak seven languages fluently.
And yet the only response I can muster is, “Huh?”
His brows draw together and his full, wicked mouth quirks—like he can’t decide if he should be worried or entertained.
“Did you hit your head?”
And now he thinks I’m concussed—how lovely.
“Uh . . . no, no, I think I’m all right.”
He nods, standing up, all tall and broad and muscly beneath a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and casual trousers. He holds out his hand and when I take it, his swallows mine whole. But when I get to my feet, a hot pain slices up my ankle.
I take my weight off it, hopping, and the man guides me to sit on a large boulder. Without asking permission, he grasps behind my knee with one hand and slowly slides my boot off with the other. Then he cradles my ankle in his hands, pressing here and there with his thumb, his touch surprisingly gentle.
“Can you wiggle your toes, lass?”
Lass? I look at his face to see if he’s being impertinent, but he just gazes back at me, waiting. Because he has no idea who I am. None. To him I’m just a lost babe in the woods—like in one of those fairy tales I never finished reading.
I’ve never met someone who didn’t already know who I was—how utterly bizarre.
I flinch when I wiggle my toes.
“It’s not broken, but you’ve twisted it good.” He glances up and down the field, then he turns those penetrating green eyes back on me. “Looks like I’ll be carrying you.”
I am not a blusher. Or a giggler. I don’t get flustered.
I fluster everyone else.
Yet the thought of him carrying me with those impressive arms makes my insides go all gooey and my cheeks flush like they’re on fire.
“That won’t be necessary.” My voice is breathless, because I can’t seem to get enough air. “I’ll wait here and you can have them come fetch me with the maintenance buggy.”
On cue, a blast of thunder booms overhead—the kind that shakes the ground and sounds like the sky is cracking.
Thanks, God. Thanks a lot.
“No, this storm’s going to be a nasty one. I won’t leave you out here all alone.”
“That’s very kind, but I’m perfectly—”
It’s a very strange thing to not being listened to. To be overruled. Is this what everyday life is like for everyone else?
I don’t like it at’all.
He lifts me effortlessly in his arms, cradling me against his chest. His shirt is clean, soft cotton and smells like earth and fresh grass. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my hands, so they stay folded in my lap as he walks us into the forest.
“That was a hell of a horse you were riding.” His rich voice has a hint of teasing to it. “You may want to stick to something smaller until you get better at it.”
“I happen to be an excellent rider.”
The fact that he thinks I’m not prickles me more than it should.
“Excellent riders usually know to keep their hands on the reins.” He winks.
“I’ll try to remember that,” I reply dryly.
Another blast of thunder comes and lightning bursts in the sky. He dips his head, leaning in closer.
“Are you staying at Anthorp Castle, then?”
“Yes. The Duke and I are good friends.”
There’s a glint in his eyes as he nods, as though I’ve said something amusing.
“And you?” I ask. “You seem to know the property well.”
“Aye. It’s been some time since I’ve been back, but I was raised here.”
“Oh?” I take in his clothes, his hair, his gruff demeanor. “Were you . . . one of the groundskeeper’s children?”
His lips slide into a devilish grin and he’s definitely laughing at me now.
There isn’t a chance to elaborate—or to tell him he’s being rude. Because the skies open and a torrent of pounding rain begins to drench us both.
AFTER YEARS OF RESEARCH I’ve come to the uncontestable conclusion that no good news ever comes in a telegram. They are bringers of bad. Harbingers of depressing. The equivalent of a call at two in the morning—whoever’s ringing on the other end, you can bet your balls they’re not going to have anything happy to say.
When my mother died, it was a telegram that told me and Thomas. When the six-member team of a river expedition I was set to join was unexpectedly wiped out by a mudslide, the telegram struck again. When my father died, a telegram informed me—though that wasn’t exactly bad news, but . . . that’s a story for another day.