Authors: Jane Feather
out and picked up the pawn. “If you must cheat, why don’t you do it properly,” he said. “You insult my intelligence to imagine that I wouldn’t notice. Do you think I’m blind?”
Cordelia shook her head. “It’s not really possible to cheat at chess, but I do so hate to lose. I can’t seem to help it.”
“Well, I have news for you. You are going to learn to help it.” He replaced her rooks in their previous positions. “We are going to play this game to the bitter end and you are going to lose it.”
Cordelia stared furiously at the pieces. She couldn’t bring herself to make the only move she had. She would be acknowledging she’d lost, once she gave up her queen. “Oh, very well,” she said crossly. She shot out her hand, half rising on her stool. Her knees caught the edge of the table, toppling it, and the entire game disintegrated, half the pieces tumbling to the carpet.
“Why, of all the graceless, brattish, mean-spirited things to do!” Leo, furious, leaped up. He grabbed her shoulders, half shaking, half hauling her toward him.
“But I didn’t do it on purpose!” Cordelia exclaimed. Then matters became very confused. He was shaking her, she was yelling, his mouth was on hers. His hands were hard on her arms and her body was pressed against his. An overpowering tidal wave of desire raced through her blood. Everything she had felt before was but a faint shadow of this wild abandoned hunger ….
BY JANE FEATHER
The Diamond Slipper
The Silver Rose
The Emerald Swan
A Valentine Wedding
The Hostage Bride
The Accidental Bride
The Least Likely Bride
The Widows Kiss
To Kiss a Spy
AND DON’T MISS THE THIRD BOOK OF THE “KISS” TRILOGY
Kissed by Shadows
COMING SOON FROM
more.” The words emerged as barely a breath through the woman’s dry, cracked lips. Feebly she tried to push aside the silver chalice held to her mouth.
“You must take it, my dear. It will make you well.” The man held her head in the crook of his elbow. Her eyes were closed and she was too weak to resist as he tipped the contents of the chalice down her throat. At the familiar bittersweet taste, the woman groaned faintly. Her head fell back against his arm, and gently he lowered her head to the pillow. He hung over her, staring down at her beautiful white face, the skin so translucent he could almost see through to the bones of her skull. Then her eyes opened. For a moment they were as clear and brilliant as they had ever been.
For a long moment, her dying gaze held his. Then her eyelids dropped, her lips parted on a struggling sob of a breath.
The man stepped back into the shadows of the bedcurtains. He took up a glass of wine from the bedside table and sipped, his cold brown gaze never leaving the woman’s face. It wouldn’t be long now.
A whimpering snuffle came from beyond the bedcurtains. He moved them aside and stepped into the warm, firelit chamber. A nurse sat beside the fire, rocking a double cradle with her foot.
“Should I bring the babes to her, Your Highness?”
The man went over to the cradle. He looked down into two matching pairs of bright blue eyes, two sets of rosy cheeks, four dimpled fists clutched on top of the pale pink blankets.
Were they his?
He would never know. And it didn’t matter now. “Yes,” he said. “They will bring the princess comfort, but don’t let them tire her.”
“No, of course not, sir.” The nurse bent to scoop up the two snuffling bundles. She smiled and kissed them. “There, my pretties, your mama is waiting to see you.” She carried her burden to the bed.
The prince sipped his wine and stared into the fire. The nurse returned the infants to their cradle in a very few minutes. “Her highness is so weak. I don’t believe she’ll last the night,” she said sadly.
The prince didn’t reply. He returned to his deathwatch in the shadows of the bedcurtains, listening to the rattle of his wife’s labored breathing. He was still there when the sound stopped.
He approached the bedside, leaned over, pressed his lips to hers, felt their cold deadness, the total absence of spirit in her body. He straightened slowly and lifted the woman’s fragile right wrist. He unclasped the charm bracelet she wore, holding it up to the dim light of the lamp burning at the bedside. The dainty charms glittered and glowed, shockingly frivolous in this dark chamber of death. He slipped the bracelet into his pocket and called for the nurse.
HE PROCESSION OF
gilded coaches, plumed, gaily caparisoned horses, and officers resplendent in the blue and gold uniforms of Versailles wound through the great gold gates of the palace, coming to a halt in the center of the massive square.
“Look at those two carriages!” a fair-headed girl hanging perilously far out of an upstairs window exclaimed to her companion leaning out beside her. “They are both to carry me into France. Which do you prefer, Cordelia? The crimson one or the blue one?”
“I can’t see it makes much difference,” Lady Cordelia Brandenburg responded. “Of all the ridiculous things. There’s the Marquis de Durfort riding into the city as if he’d traveled all the way from France, when instead he only left Vienna an hour ago.”
“But it’s protocol,” the archduchess Maria Antonia said in shocked reproof. “It’s how it has to be done. The French ambassador must enter Vienna as if he’s come all the way from Versailles. He must formally ask my mother for my hand in marriage on behalf of the dauphin of France. Then I will be married by proxy before I go into France.”
“Anyone would think you hadn’t been promised to the dauphin for the last three years,” Cordelia stated. “What a stir it would cause if the empress refused the ambassador’s request.” She chuckled mischievously, but her companion didn’t see the joke.
“Don’t be absurd, Cordelia. I shan’t allow you to be so impertinent when I am queen of France.” She wrinkled her pert nose.
“Considering your bridegroom is only sixteen, I imagine
you’ll have to wait awhile before becoming queen,” Cordelia retorted, not in the least affected by her royal friend’s scolding.
“Oh, pshaw! You’re such a wet blanket! When I’m dauphine, I shall be the most popular and important lady at Versailles.” Toinette twirled in a crimson swirl of silk as her hoop swung out around her. With an exuberant gesture, she began to dance around the room, her dainty slippered feet faultlessly executing the steps of a minuet.
Cordelia cast a glance over her shoulder and then turned back to the considerably more interesting scene in the court below. Toinette was a gifted dancer and never lost an opportunity to show off.
“Now, I wonder who that is,” Cordelia mused, her voice suddenly sharp with interest.
“Who? Where?” Toinette came back to the window, pushing Cordelia to one side, her fair head a startling contrast to her companion’s raven black curls.
“There. Dismounting from the white stallion. A Lippizaner, I think.”
“Yes, it must be. Look at those lines.” Both girls were passionate horsewomen, and for a moment the horse interested them more than its rider.
The man drew off his riding gloves and looked around the court. He was tall, slim, dressed in dark riding clothes, a short, scarlet-lined riding cape swinging from his shoulders. As if aware of the observers, he looked up at the creamy ocher facade of the palace. He stepped back and looked up again, shading his eyes with his hand.
“Come in,” the archduchess said. “He’s seen us.”
“So what?” Lady Cordelia responded. “We’re only looking. Don’t you think he’s handsome?”
“I don’t know,” Toinette said with a touch of petulance. “Come away. It’s shockingly bad etiquette to stare like that. What would Mama say?”
Cordelia had little difficulty imagining what the empress Maria Theresa would say if she found her daughter and her
daughter’s friend staring out of the window like a pair of oglers at the opera. However, something kept her at the window, even as Toinette tugged at her arm.
The man continued to look up at her. Mischievously, Cordelia waved and blew him a kiss. For a moment he looked thoroughly taken aback, then he laughed and touched his fingers to his lips.
“Cordelia!” The archduchess was scandalized. “I’m not going to stay in here if you’re going to behave like that. You don’t even know who he is.”
“Oh, some equerry, I expect,” Cordeila said airily. “I doubt we’ll come across him in all the palaver.” She plucked half a dozen yellow roses from a bowl on the deep window-sill. Leaning as far out as she could, she tossed them down. They fell in a cloud around the horseman, one of them landing on his shoulder, caught in the folds of his cloak. He extricated it and carefully inserted it in the buttonhole of his coat. Then he doffed his plumed hat and bowed with a magnificent flourish, before moving out of sight as he entered the palace below the window.
Cordelia laughed and drew back from the window. “That was amusing,” she said. “It is fun when people enter the spirit of the game.” A contemplative little frown drew her thin arched eyebrows together. “An ordinary equerry wouldn’t be riding a Lippizaner, would he?”
“No, of course not.” The archduchess was still annoyed. “You’ve probably been flirting with a senior official from Versailles. He must assume you’re a kitchen maid or something.”
Cordelia shrugged. “I don’t suppose he’s important. Anyway, I’m sure he won’t recognize me close to.”
“Of course he will,” Toinette scoffed. “No one else has such black hair.”