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Shana Abe

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T
HE RELUCTANT BRIDE

“I shall never marry,” Avalon said in a perfectly normal voice, as if she were saying a wheel was round.

“That might be difficult,” Marcus said. “Since I have over a thousand people and a family prophecy that say you will.”

“I don’t see how you’re going to do it, my lord.” Her look was amused. “You cannot force a bride if she does not wish it.”

He leaned over on his hands and came up close to her face in one quick movement. Her eyes widened; she pulled back.

“I think you wish it,” he said.

A hot blush was stealing up her cheeks. “I do not!”

“I think so.” He let his gaze linger on her lips, deep pink, erotic curves. “I know what you feel, Avalon. I know what happened to you today, when you kissed me back. I know”—he came even closer, not touching her—“what you want. Because I want it too.”

Her breath was quickening, her eyes tinged to match her amethysts in the afternoon light. He bent down even lower, letting his lips hover over hers, so close they took in the same air.

“It is inevitable.”

THE TRUELOVE BRIDE
A Bantam Book / June 1999

All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Shana Abé.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.

eISBN: 978-0-307-83392-1
Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, New York, New York.

v3.1

Prologue
 
LONDON, ENGLAND AUGUST 1159


M
adness.”

The courtier standing in the royal great room said the word with relish, drawing out the syllables. “It’s from her mother’s side, I heard. Some Scottish thing.”

Lady Avalon d’Farouche brushed by the hushed conversation, which ceased altogether as she approached. She threw a languid smile at the trio of young men who bowed in return to her, not meeting her eyes. Deliberately she paused by them, pretending to flick a speck of something from her gown. The faces of all three grew heated as she stayed, looking to each other and then finally at her.

Again she granted them a slow smile, letting them see the coldness of it, the gathering ice in her eyes. She hardly ever did this—it would only serve to feed the rumors—but the temptation was impossible to resist.

Though the third man was unfamiliar, two of this trio had been stalking her since her debut at court a year and a half ago. They had publicly hounded her in spite of the well-known fact of her betrothal, had at first tried to woo her, and then, when she continued to politely rebuff them, they had lashed out against her, banding
together to nurse the seed of gossip until it was in full flower.…

Avalon d’Farouche of Trayleigh was cold, she was inhuman. She thought herself better than everyone else. She was tainted with dark Scottish blood and barbaric rituals. Her heart was nothing but black shards of ice.

How little they knew her at all.

But the rumors had not needed very much prodding to blossom. They were hurtful and ridiculous, but people had listened, as people always did when scandal was the topic. And beneath it all lay the real root of her problem: Avalon did not fit in here at King Henry’s court, and she knew it full well. So did everyone else.

Now she looked directly into the eyes of the man who had spoken, watching him redden even further under her scrutiny.

“Nicholas Latimer. How do you fare, good lord?”

“Very well, my lady,” he replied. A small, thin line of sweat was beading up over his upper lip. Avalon let her gaze drift down to it, considering.

Fear. Nightmare
, whispered a voice in her head, a thing only she could hear.

“How relieved I am to hear it.” Her words were sweet and smooth, giving no hint of her objective. “I had heard such unhappy stories, my lord, about your rest.”

“My rest?”

“Oh, yes. Some of the ladies are quite concerned.” She took in the other two men, both of them staring at her avidly, then gave Latimer a gentle smile. “We have heard that you … dream, my lord.”

Now Latimer blanched. “What?” he asked, a whisper.

Nightmare slave
, suggested the sly voice.

“Do you not dream, my lord?”

“How did …”

He seemed unable to complete the sentence, overcome with the loss of blood from his face, the flicker of something unmentionable in his eyes.

Avalon examined the man who was almost trembling before her—
darkness, lips, taste, want, afraid
—and decided abruptly to take pity on him. “It is nothing, I am sure,” she said now. “I wish you well, all of you.”

They watched her walk away, a lone figure in the middle of a crowded room. An invisible barrier seemed to surround her.

“How could she
know
?” she heard Nicholas ask behind her.

“A witch,” said his friend.

The third man spoke in hushed tones, almost reverent.

“She is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Avalon nodded thoughtfully to those who greeted her, reflecting.

A witch.

Surely not. Surely not, though she knew that most people at this polished, useless court were secretly convinced otherwise. But it wouldn’t take a witch to notice the constant circles under Nicholas Latimer’s beady eyes. It wouldn’t take a witch to catch the haunted look he wore, the rabid visions that danced in his pupils even while he was awake. He had nightmares, it was so plain. Anyone could see that. Not just a witch.

She was not a witch. In fact, she didn’t even believe in them. Witches were a convenient evil thought up by
fearful men to describe the unknown. Witches did not really exist. They were just poor, lonely women with no protectors, and certainly Avalon was not one of them.

Because witches were publicly killed. It happened all the time.

Avalon was not poor, not lonely, and she had the most reliable of protectors with her at all times: herself.

It was not the normal way of a noblewoman, and she felt her difference sharply here in the royal court of King Henry. When she first arrived in London, she had thought the separateness she sensed was because of her rather unusual history, which was very much on the tongues of the gossips.

Well, there was nothing she could do about that. Her history was what it was.

That the peculiarity in her—this difference—had been with her all her life, Avalon tried not to consider. It had taken the rude shock of her seventh year to understand that not everyone was like her. Not everyone could see the things she saw, could hear the things she heard. Not everyone could tap into the moods of animals, could be dragged into the groundswell of any strong emotion around them.

Only her. Only Avalon.

It wasn’t all the time; there were long stretches of days, weeks, even a few glorious months when it seemed this
awareness
in her, this awful beast, would just go to sleep, and she was able to slip completely into the role of a normal girl. Avalon had treasured those times, yearned for them. But eventually it always woke up again, opened the ruthless eye in her that let her see all that she didn’t want to see.

As soon as she realized this, she had worked hard to change it, both in body and mind. Over time she’d almost convinced herself that these incidents were mostly her imagination, fueled by the constant and relentless superstition that had saturated her childhood.

In her darkest moments, in her waking dreams, the voice took on a vaporous form in her mind, that of a fabulous monster, a legendary thing her nursemaid once told her about that had stuck in her memory. It coalesced into a hybrid of shapes: the head of a lion, the body of a goat, a serpent’s tail.

A chimera. It breathed misty fire only through her, it had eyes and a voice that lived only in her. It was her terrible secret, and when the darkness would turn to daylight again, Avalon would banish the image with all her might.

Chimeras, like witches, were not real. These things that happened to her were curious, yes, even inexplicable at times. But they were
anything
but supernatural. To succumb to that would be to admit belief in all she disdained: the irrational folklore that had sustained Hanoch Kincardine and his kin in Scotland, their abiding faith in an arcane fairy tale of which they thought she was an intrinsic part.

Avalon was not just the manifestation of the Kincardines’ bizarre family legend. She would not believe in that.

But for all her rationalization, nothing ever fully stopped the strange moments that took her, nothing ever totally succeeded in killing the chimera. And so, for most of her life, Avalon had simply acted as if it wasn’t there.

Hanoch had laughed at her efforts.

“Ye belong to the curse,” he had so often told her. “Don’t think different, lass. Don’t hide it. It’s the only strength ye have.”

But she had denied it, had fought him bitterly to prove that she had many strengths, that she was not weak or frail, that his jeers did not hurt her. She had fought him almost every day in large and small ways. She’d refused to submit to his clan’s foolish fable, she’d refused to believe the nonsense they told her—that she would be the one, that she would break the curse that had been laid upon them.

Deep inside her, coiled around her heart, the chimera would echo Hanoch’s laughter, mocking.

Now, at King Henry’s crowded court party, the madrigalists began a slow song, strumming softly on their lutes as the tenor sang something about lost love. Avalon accepted a goblet of mead from a servant and sipped it pensively. To her left was a group of young women about her age, close and closed in a circle. They tossed her haughty looks.

Hatred
, sighed the chimera, that whispering voice.
Envy.

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