The following scene takes place at a castle in Sweden, along the Baltic Sea, where the beautiful peasant Brigitta Lind has been summoned to serve the reclusive Princess Thora-Lisa. Her world is upended when the bold stranger Devon Covington arrives, determined to uncover the secrets from his past--and to uncover Brigitta's as well....
The sky was a stretch of blue overhead, the air not so bitter cold, and the bright sunlight glinted off the domed towers of Vardighet. Brigitta enjoyed the activity surrounding her as she made her way through the inner eastern courtyard and then the outer ward and lastly to the stable yard beyond. The sounds of runners and carts moving over snow and the squawks of chickens filled her ears, as did a swell of voices as people milled about, all caught up in various tasks.
The stable yard was no less busy. Grooms led horses in and out of the huge stables as hands cleared out the stalls and others prepared for the arrival of the general and the many horses of his soldiers.
Brigitta caught the attention of one young lad. “I’m looking for John, Marta’s nephew,” she said, realizing she should have asked Marta for the man’s full name.
Surprisingly, though, the boy seemed to know who she meant. “You’ll find him at the coach house. There,” he said, nodding at a path that wound over a footbridge, through a thin grove of beech trees, and then to a timbered, two-storied building in the distance. A group of people were gathered around a wagon near the huge double doors of the building.
Brigitta would have headed in that direction, but a beefy young man with a yoke of filled water pails over his shoulders stepped into her path.
“Where’s the pretty lady headed, and does she need any help?”
Startled, Brigitta backed up a step. “No, I don’t need any help. I’m just going to the coach house.”
“Ludde can lead the pretty lady to the coach house.”
Brigitta frowned. He stood too close. And he was blocking her path with that yoke of pails, which must have weighed a great deal.
She stepped to the left. He did the same.
She stepped to the right. He did, too.
Irritated and more than a little afraid she might have found trouble, Brigitta lifted her skirts just a tad and then darted around the giant of a young man, running fast as she used to do at home when her brothers chased after her.
Only when she crossed the footbridge and headed into the line of beech trees did she dare to look behind her as she ran. The brawny lad hadn’t followed her. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen.
Brigitta slowed, turning her attention back to the path—but not soon enough. She caught the tip of her shoe in a rut and then stumbled forward, her momentum throwing her body off balance. In another second, she would be face-first in the cold snow and dirt.
That’s when a man, as solid as a house it seemed, swooped in and saved her from a nasty fall.
Strong hands gently caught hold of her while that solid body of his absorbed the energy of her mad dash. “Ho, there. Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine. I—I was frightened for a moment is all.” Brigitta, trying to catch her breath, looked up—and found herself gazing into a familiar face. “You again!”
The roguish stranger she’d met in the princess’s private apartments stood before her, looking more handsome than frightening in the bright light of day.
“Afraid so,” he said, “though I can’t say that’s a very warm greeting to offer the man who just dashed a good length to save you from falling on that pretty face of yours.”
Brigitta frowned, pulling back and away from him. “I’ve heard enough of pretty for one day, thank you very much.”
“Ah, so you met Ludde, did you? Was he the reason you were in a dead run away from the stables?”
“Yes,” she admitted, finally catching her breath. “He blocked my way.”
“And probably kept insisting that he could ‘help the pretty lady.’”
“That’s Ludde all right. He rarely goes beyond the stable yard. He’s strong as an ox, though slow to understand things. I doubt he would ever harm you. Still, it’s good to keep a distance.”
Why was it this man always caught her at a disadvantage? And why did her heart have to pound so blistering fast when he was near?
While she’d thought him handsome in the candle- and fire-lit chambers of her princess, he was devastatingly so in the telling light of day. His eyes were the color of amber washed up from the depths of the Baltic, his hair a rich dark sheen and tied at his nape. He wore his leathers like a warrior and the sword at his hip as if he’d been born with it in hand.
“I’d fare better to keep my distance from you as well, no doubt,” Brigitta said, voicing her thoughts aloud. “I’m here only to deliver a set of keys to Marta’s nephew.”
Brigitta started off for the coach house again. He moved with her, though he walked backwards
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m walking. With you. Wouldn’t want you to get waylaid again.”
He had a jaunty air about him; carefree, as though he was glad of the day and the place and the company.
“Turn and watch where you’re going, lest you fall,” she scolded.
“But I like this view better,” he said—and then he smiled, his teeth bright against his dark coloring.
For Brigitta, the sight was more stunning than the blue of the sky. She felt her world tip.
“Turn,” she insisted again, wishing she had the power to turn her own thoughts from the man to the moment at hand. It wouldn’t do to allow herself to be star-eyed by him.
His smile deepened, but he did as she instructed and then fell into step alongside her. “So, tell me, how was your audience with our princess?”
“I’m surprised you’re asking, considering you were in her chambers without leave.”
“A secret you clearly didn’t share as here I am, unmolested by the castle guard.”
Recalling how she’d met him caused Brigitta to bristle. She didn’t like being reminded that she’d kept such a thing from her princess. “I’ll have you know that I admitted to touching her pearls, so you haven’t that to hold over me.”
“Good. I am glad to hear it. And what did our gentle princess have to say?”
“She—she asked me what I thought of them.”
He nodded, smiling, as if remembering other moments of kindness by the princess. “No doubt because she intended to gift them to you.” He glanced over at her. “There is no one more generous than our princess.”
“More the reason that I should have told her of your presence in her private chambers.”
“Relax, sweet Brigitta. She knows I am at Vardighet and why. Believe me when I say I pose no threat to our princess.”
They’d reached the coach house. He nodded to the group around the wagon near the doors. “That’s Marta’s nephew, John. The tall one, strapping casks together.”
Brigitta would have grudgingly thanked him, but the man moved on, leaving her as swiftly and as silently as he’d done the first time they met.
But even after she delivered the keys to John and made her way back to the princess’s apartments, she felt as if the dark-haired stranger had followed her from a distance, keeping watch until she arrived safely at her destination.