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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Heart's Demand
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“The gossips insist they’re buried in the woods behind the palace. There are stories circulating about a contingent of guards riding out in the middle of the night. Supposedly they were pulling a covered cart that was surrounded by gravediggers.”

“Who is saying it?” Kristof bellowed. “Who? Who?”

“It’s being whispered in every tavern and shop.”

“And who is the purported killer of the Morovskys?”

“You,” Dmitri responded without hesitation.

At the reply, Kristof was so incensed that little red dots formed on the edge of his vision, and he wondered if he was about to suffer an apoplexy.

“Name the lying miscreants who have disseminated this tale, and I will cut out their tongues while the rest of this disloyal court observes how my wrath rains down.”

For emphasis, he pounded his fist on the table, and Dmitri rolled his eyes.

“We’re not cutting out any tongues. Stop acting like a maniac. It will only increase the discontent. If your subjects think you’re a lunatic, and you constantly behave like one, you’ll simply confirm their low opinion.”

They were in his private chambers, having just fled a raucous, rancorous meeting of elder statesmen. It had been a lengthy griping session that had left Kristof exhausted.

Kat’s father had been a competent ruler, but lazy and backward. Kristof intended to modernize so Parthenia could stand tall among the other small countries of Europe. Because they were tiny and had no army, they weren’t respected. It was the reason he’d seized control from Nicholas.

Nicholas was a child who would never have been able to implement a single improvement that needed to be made. He was too young to have exuded any authority and couldn’t have led the country forward as Kristof could.

Kristof understood that people liked things as they were, that they’d be resistant to his ideas, but he hadn’t expected such outright defiance. He was
king
, and if they failed to remember that he was, heads would roll—and he didn’t care what Dmitri thought. The citizenry would revere him or else!

“Sit down, would you?” Dmitri said. “I’m dizzy from all your pacing.”

Kristof was nearing thirty and Dmitri was fifty. He was older than Kristof, smarter, wiser. Calmer. They were cousins to Katarina and her family, but Dmitri had always hated Kat’s father, and he’d helped Kristof plan and execute his coup.

Now he possessed an enormous amount of authority, but he tried to be pragmatic and shrewd when Kristof didn’t value either trait. He was more concerned with slyness and devious dealing that would ensure he got his way.

Still though, he plopped into a chair.

“What is it? Speak your piece while I have the patience to listen.”

“You must write to Katarina and beg her to come home.”

“I’d hang myself first. When she sneaked away, it was the perfect solution to our problem with Nicholas. You said so yourself. It was best to have all three of them gone.”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

“So?”

“You have no notion of the agitation that’s festering. With you being denounced as a murderer, matters could quickly escalate.”

“And I told you I’d cut out the tongue of any idiot who repeats such rancid gossip.”

“Will you maim the entire kingdom?”

Kristof gasped. “The rumors are that prevalent?”

“Yes.”

He fumed with rage.

He’d been a plump, homely boy, who’d grown to be a plump, homely man. He was never taken seriously, never praised for his accomplishments or hailed for his successes. But he was cunning and crafty, demonstrating his mental agility by how swiftly he’d seized the throne and pushed Nicholas off it.

Not a single person had protested or complained—except Katarina. His assertiveness had galvanized the populace.

Yet he wasn’t handsome or regal as Katarina’s father had been. He hadn’t the effortless charm Nicholas exuded without trying. No, Kristof didn’t look like a king or radiate the correct sort of royal deportment. Would he ever receive the admiration that should be his due? Would the crown ever rest easily on his head?

“What would I do with Katarina when she arrived?” he asked.

“I was thinking you could marry her.”

“Marry her! We had her declared illegitimate. We yanked away her title and rank. I can’t suddenly say it was all a mistake.”

“Of course you can. You’re the king. People are grumbling that you stole the throne by deceit and treachery, that perhaps spells or witchcraft were involved.”

“Witchcraft! Oh, my Lord. This is a nation of imbeciles.”

“You could lure her back, show everyone she’s alive, then make her your wife. The whole kingdom would breathe a sigh of relief.”

“I don’t care if they’re relieved. I wouldn’t have that shrew in my bed if you promised me the keys to Heaven.”

Katarina was very beautiful, as beautiful as her glamorous American mother had been, but she was also snooty and rude and horrid.

She’d never been kind to Kristof, had never appreciated him. He’d proposed to her once when she was sixteen, and she’d thought he was jesting, so it had given him particular pleasure to get even with her. If she’d accepted his proposal all those years ago, she’d be his queen now.

He could wed any bride he wanted, could find a princess from a smaller European royal house. He didn’t have to settle for a vain, patronizing, half-blood like Katarina, and he wouldn’t settle for her.

“Write the letter, Kristof,” Dmitri urged.

“I won’t,” he petulantly replied.

“Then I will, and you shall sign it. We’re not playing games. We’re bringing her home.”

“Why are you so sure she’ll come?”

“We’ll force her.”

“If you assume you can, then you don’t know Katarina very well.”

“She’s a female, so she doesn’t have a man’s intellect, and she was much too sheltered. She doesn’t understand dishonesty or pretense. We’ll cajole her. We’ll trick her.”

“How?”

“We’ll let her believe—if she returns with Nicholas—we’ll put him in the line of succession.”

“We never would. My own sons will go in that line.”

“Yes, they will, but she’s a gullible fool. She’ll never realize the truth until it’s much too late. Now write the damn letter!”

CHAPTER FIVE

Michael Blair rode through the gates of Radcliffe Castle. His twin brother, Matthew, trotted with him.

Radcliffe was just across the English border, on the Scottish side. It was an ancient edifice, so parts of it were in ruins, but much of it had been remodeled with modern amenities. There was a market in progress in the courtyard, so the place was buzzing with activity. Vendors were selling food, clothing, and other items.

As they entered the grounds, they created quite a stir. They were strangers on horseback, and some people took nervous, furtive glances while others brazenly stared, worried as to their purpose, if they were innocent visitors or if they’d come to cause trouble.

He grinned. They’d come to cause trouble.

His father, Julian Blair, had grown up at Radcliffe, had played in this very spot. He’d been a viscount, and as the eldest son, he’d been first in line to be the next earl. The previous despicable, malicious
earl
had been Michael’s grandfather.

Supposedly the tyrant was deceased, and Michael’s only regret over the ogre’s demise was that it meant Michael would have no chance to spit in his face. Perhaps after matters were settled, he’d find out where the fiend was buried and dig up his body. He’d throw his corpse in the woods and let the scavengers pick away at his bones. It would serve him right.

A boy rushed from the stables to tend their horses, and they grudgingly handed them over. They were wondering whether they should keep the animals saddled and ready to depart. There would be no warm welcome from the castle’s inhabitants so they might need a quick escape.

“Who is lord here?” Michael asked the boy.

“Lord Radcliffe,” the boy replied.

“What’s his Christian name?”

“George Blair.”

“Is he at home today?”

“Of course, sir. He doesn’t travel anymore. Everyone knows that.”

“And now I do too,” Michael agreed. “What is the countess’s name? Susan?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Is she here too?”

“She doesn’t travel either, sir. She’s too ill.”

“Good.”

Michael was a vindictive, vengeful fellow, and he wished every plague on George Blair and his wife.

People had sidled nearer, studying Michael and Matthew with a combination of fear and alarm, and their trepidation was understandable.

He and his brother were possessed of all their deceased father’s best attributes, his tall height and handsome features, his large stature and cunning bravery. They were armed to the hilt too, pistols dangling from their hips, knives in their boots, swords on their belts. They were definitely a sight, looking to be the dangerous intruders they were.

The locals might call George and Susan Blair their lord and lady, but they wouldn’t be earl and countess for long.

An older man stepped up and asked, “May I help you gentlemen?”

“We’re here to speak with Lord Radcliffe.”

“He doesn’t keep public hours on Wednesday.”

Matthew’s glower was malicious. “I’m guessing he’ll see us.”

There was a woman behind the man, and she peeked around him and shrieked with dismay. “No, no! It can’t be! It can’t be!”

“Silence yourself!” the man commanded. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s a ghost! A ghost! He’s haunting us from the grave!”

“What are you blathering about?”

“It’s Julian Blair! Can’t you tell? He’s returned from the dead, and there are two of him. Send him away, Angus. Send him away!”

She pulled a crucifix from under the bodice of her dress and held it out as if Michael and Matthew were demons and she could ward off their evil spirits. Others blanched and backed away.

“I’ll be damned,” Angus muttered, and tentatively he inquired, “Julian?”

Michael and Matthew resembled their father in every way, right down to his penchant for brawling and fights. It didn’t surprise Michael that these rural Scots would think he was Julian’s ghost. He hoped the image disturbed them for the rest of their miserable lives.

“We’re not Julian,” Michael said.

“Who are you then?”

“We’re his sons.” Michael asked Matthew, “Are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be. Let’s say hello to the almighty
earl
.”

A bigger crowd had gathered, all attention fixed on them as they hurried across the courtyard to the centermost building. The doors were open, people coming and going as part of the market. They entered a spacious receiving hall. There were more booths set along the walls, dining tables arranged in rows with a meal being prepared. Servants were bringing out dishes and cups.

A man and woman—obviously George and Susan Blair—sat on the dais at the front, watching the proceedings as if they were a decrepit king and queen surveying their subjects. They were in their fifties, but they seemed much older, more aged and beaten down. Despair and gloom wafted off them.

George was their uncle, but he bore them no resemblance. He was small and shrunken, and if he’d ever possessed any of his brother’s dash and verve, it had faded. Michael suspected it had never been there in the first place. No man could have equaled his dynamic father in looks or temperament.

George appeared feeble, his hair thin and graying, and while his eyes were blue, they weren’t the magnificent sapphire shade Michael’s father had passed onto his four children. His face was marked by frown lines as if he’d never had a moment’s happiness in his life, and Michael was certain he hadn’t.

He’d betrayed his brother, stolen his brother’s heritage, probably murdered his brother. He’d destroyed his brother’s wife, had cast his niece and nephews to the winds of fate.

And he’d done it all simply because Michael’s father had married
down
. Michael’s mother hadn’t been an aristocrat. She’d been a talented actress and singer, and for that paltry sin, Michael’s family had paid and paid dearly. They were still paying, with their brother, Bryce, off in Egypt and too weary to seize what was his.

George and Susan Blair could pay now.

Bastard!
Michael thought in his mind.

He’s as sleazy a character as I could have predicted he’d be,
Matthew responded in his own mind. They were completely attuned and didn’t need to talk aloud.

Let’s introduce ourselves
.

I can’t wait
.

They marched down the middle of the large room, their boots tromping across the stone floor. People observed them—it was impossible not to stop and stare—and noises gradually waned until the hall was silent. A servant dropped a spoon and it echoed off the rafters. It was the only sound.

George Blair was whispering to a priest seated beside him and hadn’t noticed Michael’s approach, but Susan Blair eased forward in her chair.

As the boy had mentioned in the yard, she was very ill. Her skin was an odd orange color, and she was so thin, she was practically skeletal. Most of her hair had fallen out, and there was an air of disease about her that made Michael suppose she didn’t have long to live.

“You there!” she snapped at Michael. “Who are you? Tell me who you are this instant!”

Her sharp tone caused George to whip around and glare at them. He gasped as Susan Blair repeated, “Who are you? Who?”

“Hello, Mrs. Blair,” Michael rudely said. “I’d call you countess but you really aren’t one, are you?”

“How dare you, sir!” George Blair huffed. “You can’t come into my home and insult my wife.”

“He already has,” Matthew replied, “and we take great issue with you pretending this is your home. It was never yours, and we’re here to see that you return it to the rightful owners. That would be us.”

“You’re mad,” George scoffed, but he glanced about anxiously, as if worried over who might be listening.

He waved to a few servants as if they’d run over and accost Michael and Matthew, but none of them moved. They recognized, as George Blair didn’t yet, that Michael and Matthew couldn’t be intimidated.

BOOK: Heart's Demand
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