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Authors: Johanna Lindsey

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BOOK: Once a Princess
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It wasn't until nearly the end of that long voyage that Tanya remembered to ask again about Stefan's scars. She was on the deck with Vasili and Serge this time, and the men were explaining that there was no easy way to reach Cardinia from the sea. It was situated at more or less an equal distance from the Adriatic Sea in the south, the Black Sea in the east, and the Baltic Sea in the north. The only reason they had sailed north was the possibility of being delayed by pirates in the Mediterranean or by the capricious Ottomans, who controlled the entrance to the Black Sea.

It made no difference to Tanya, who didn't know enough about Europe, anyway, to care which route they took. She had already been told that once they docked in Danzig harbor on the Prussian coast, it would still take another two or three weeks, depending on the weather, to reach Cardinia by land. The only thing she might have preferred was the warmer climate of the southern seas, for the end of October in the North Sea, particularly when they rounded
Denmark, was colder than anything she was used to.

Seeing the coasts of France and the Netherlands had been interesting, though, especially when the ship stopped to take on supplies and she got a much closer look at the foreign ports. The smooth, sandy beaches along the Prussian coastline were almost boring in comparison. But the conversation wasn't. Of course, it never was with these companions of hers. She was either learning something about where she was going, being taught, clumsily at best, court etiquette by two counts and a baron who didn't give a damn about court etiquette themselves, or putting up with Vasili's diabolical wit—or steering the topic to Stefan, which she did more often than she realized.

When she broached the subject of Stefan's scars now, Vasili didn't object. He merely watched Tanya carefully, which should have warned her she wouldn't like what she was going to hear. And Serge didn't elaborate this time either.

Briefly, he recounted, “The royal family was traveling to their hunting lodge in the north woods, where they spent several weeks every year—Sandor, Stefan, his younger brother, Peter, and only about fifteen attendants. It was spring, the winter had been especially harsh that year, and there were reports of villagers being attacked by wolves in the area they were passing. Peter was warned not to venture from the camp alone, but at ten years of age, he rarely did as he was told. Stefan heard his screams and reached him first.”

“That's enough,” Tanya whispered, but with the wind on the deck, Serge didn't hear her.

“I was there. So were Vasili and several of the guards. But we were all too far behind Stefan to stop him from charging into that pack of wolves to save his brother. He kicked, he slashed, he threw them off Peter, but they kept coming back. By the time we were close enough to shoot, Stefan had already killed four of the beasts. One had gone for his face. There was another still clamped to his leg that he was stabbing, and stabbing…and stabbing.”

“For God's sake, Serge!” Vasili snapped, startling Tanya. “You're not entertaining a roomful of drunken louts who would appreciate all that blood and gore. A few simple words would have sufficed.”

Serge glanced at Tanya's white face and his own pinkened. “I'm sorry, Princess. I am afraid I was seeing it all happen again…”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” she assured him, while she tried to remind herself that it had happened so long ago, she had no business feeling sick to her stomach. “I asked to hear it, didn't I?”

“But can you now see beyond the scars?” Vasili wanted to know.

Tanya sighed. “If anyone has a problem with Stefan's scars, it's you. When I first saw him, those glowing eyes of his had me so fanciful, I thought I was meeting the very devil. It took me a while to even notice the devil was scarred, and when I did, I felt—”

“Revulsion?”

That he was back in form assuming the worst from her made her realize that a moment ago he'd actually got huffy with Serge on her behalf. And that so sur
prised her, she couldn't manage to get angry with Vasili right now.

“I was going to say I felt empathy for the pain he must have suffered, because I understand pain.”

He looked at her skeptically. “Princess, we
all
saw you reject his touch.”

“The devil you did. When?”

“In the common room of your tavern, when he was questioning you about the mark Sandor gave you. He was merely reaching for your face to regain your attention, but you jerked away from him. What was that if not revulsion?”

“That was protection, you idiot!” So much for not getting angry at him. “He would have smeared the powder on my face if he'd touched it. No one was ever allowed to touch my face. And just for the record, the only time Stefan disgusts me is when he acts like you.”

Something she'd said had surprised Vasili too much for him to even react to her insult. Serge, however, latched onto the last thing she had said, and thought to defend his king to her.

“Stefan's emotions were more scarred than his face by that incident with the wolves. He is still bitter that it was all for nothing. His brother died anyway. And that bitterness sometimes guides his thoughts and actions.”

That profound statement coming from Serge had both Tanya and Vasili staring at him in amazement. Tanya forgot her anger for the moment. Vasili shook his head, made a face, then pinned his gaze on Tanya.
It was only half as menacing as Stefan's, but discerning.

“Protection?” he demanded. “You were protecting that hideous disguise of yours? You really
didn't
want to be bothered by men, did you?”

Lazar chuckled at Tanya's back, having come up behind them. “Careful, Vasili, or you may have to apologize before you even see the wedding sheets.”

She turned to raise her brow at Lazar, but was caught by the sight of Stefan appearing on the quarterdeck at the other end of the ship. Her eyes followed him as he approached the captain and they began talking. She avidly took in everything, the way he bent his head to hear the other man because he was taller, the movement of his hand as he pointed toward the coast, then whipped back a lock of black hair the wind tossed in his face. His hair was longer, though not as long as that of some of the sailors, so he must have had it cut at some point during the voyage. And he was wearing the strange-looking coat edged with fur and wrapped and belted, rather than buttoned. She was just getting used to seeing that style of coat on the others, but on Stefan it no longer looked strange, it looked right.

Behind her, Vasili was demanding of Lazar, “Did you hear what she said?”

“Certainly. She was implying she managed to keep her virtue because of that ‘hideous' disguise even we couldn't see through.”

“They said she could be had for a few coins, Lazar,” Vasili reminded him.

That gave Tanya back the breath she had been
holding, and brought her whipping around to face Vasili again. “
Who
said that?”

“The patrons in your common room. Two of them, as a matter of fact.”

He had to be making that up. “They said Tanya Dobbs could be had?”

“Yes—no, they said the dancer could be had, and Stefan assured us you were the dancer.”

Lord help her, all this contempt dumped on her because April had broken her foot. She ought to laugh. It was actually funny. No, it wasn't.

“Imagine that,” she said, meeting Vasili's eyes and holding them with the ire in hers that contradicted her sudden smile. “And they were right. The dancer could be had for a few coins. Everyone knew it, except Dobbs, of course, because he didn't allow fornication under his roof and would have given her the boot if he found out, despite the fact that her performance was the only thing making money for The Seraglio.”

“So you don't deny it?”

“How can I? I'd even caught her once myself out back with her skirts up.”

“Her?”

“April!” she snapped, her anger in full bloom now. “The regular dancer. The girl who carelessly broke her foot that day, leaving me high and dry with an empty common room if I didn't perform in her place that night. I hadn't been on that stage myself since I was thirteen—fourteen…how the hell old am I, anyway?”

“Oh, God,” Vasili groaned.

“Twenty this past June, your Highness,” Serge supplied. “June first was the day of your birth.”

“The first day of June,” she whispered, but refused to be sidetracked even by something she'd waited a lifetime to hear. “So I was fourteen the last time I'd danced. I had to stop when some of the regulars started figuring out that it was me up there on the stage instead of our original dancer, who'd run off, because Dobbs didn't want them getting ideas that I might be talented at other things, and neither did I. So he found me girls to teach the dance to, only he was too cheap to ever have more than one on hand at a time. But that's all I've done for the last six years—train the girls who come and go, and take care of every other job that needed to be done.” And then she couldn't help herself from adding, “But don't take my word for it. Whores are notorious liars, aren't they?”

The goad didn't work that time. Vasili looked like hell warmed over. “Tanya—”

“Don't!” she hissed.

“Tanya, please—”

“Don't you
dare!
I wouldn't accept a saving hand from you if I was sliding into oblivion.”

“I love him!” Vasili said passionately. “I couldn't stand that he was being forced to wed a woman who would play him false by her very nature!”

“All right. I'll accept that. I'll probably even understand that kind of motive after I give it some thought. But don't ask another thing of me, not now.”

“Stefan will have to be told,” Lazar said very quietly behind her.

She turned back toward him, but it was toward the quarterdeck she looked. Only Stefan wasn't there any longer, nor anywhere else on deck that she could see. He'd gone back to his cabin, or wherever it was he went when she was on deck. Had he even noticed her? Dammit, that glimpse of him had been too brief. But the voyage was almost over. He couldn't hide from her much longer. Could he?

She was suddenly tired. All that expended emotion, she supposed, that had nearly choked her. God, pride was a horrible thing. And it was still sitting in her pocket, though a bit worn out, too.

She glanced at Lazar and said calmly, “If you tell him what I've said, I'll deny it.”

He didn't appear to believe her and said as much. “You can't be serious.”

“I am.”

“But why?”

“Because he has to want me despite what he thinks.”

“He already does,” Lazar said softly.

She shook her head. “Then he wouldn't have stayed away from me for so long.”

“Don't do this to him, Tanya,” Vasili beseeched her. “Stefan doesn't deal well with guilt.”

She glanced over her shoulder and for the first time gave Vasili a genuine smile. “He won't be guilty, he'll be angry. You said so yourself. But I don't happen to mind his anger. Now, am I going to be your queen?”

“Yes,” all three of them replied.

“Then respect my wishes.”

“But he is already our king, and our friend besides,” Lazar pointed out.

“So? I told you I'll deny it. Then he'll just be furious with you for misleading him.”

And she walked away before she let them convince her that she was being unreasonable, prideful, and very likely foolish.

Tanya hadn't expected Stefan to come for her when the ship docked in Danzig the next day. She had hoped he would and had dressed accordingly, but she hadn't expected it.

She had so many beautiful clothes to choose from now, it was actually a dilemma to decide what to wear that might impress him. She'd settled on a dark emerald skirt with a matching short-waisted jacket that buttoned primly to the throat, revealing only the delicate white lace on the high collar of the blouse beneath. Sasha had even supplied her with two choices for outer wraps. One was a long, thick cloak in pearl gray with a darker gray fur trim and a hood lined in the fur inside and out. The other was a coat very similar to the men's, black velvet with brown sable along every edge and in a wide, capelike collar. Hers fell to the ankles, while theirs cut off at the knees. What Sasha must have found amusing was having it made in the same material and colors as the one Stefan was wearing right now. Fortunately, she'd
chosen the gray cloak to wear today.

He appeared stiff. The bow he offered, slight as it was, was formal. And she could read nothing in his expression as he looked her over, though his eyes were more amber than brown. But she had done nothing that could have made him angry, so that softly glowing color had to come from some other emotion, though she couldn't imagine which one.

“It is our hope the voyage was not too tedious for you.”

Definitely
stiff, and she didn't know what to make of it, if he was merely reluctant to have to deal with her again, or…Lord help her, had the others gone against her wishes and told him what she'd said yesterday? No, she wouldn't assume that. He'd have come straight to her to demand to hear it from her, wouldn't he? And be furious besides. Right now he was only—dammit, she couldn't tell what he was. But if she'd got anything out of his friends' revelations about him, it was that Stefan was even more complicated than she had thought.

She decided to behave just as she'd planned, casual, a little bit goading, a little bit friendly, maybe even a little provocative, whatever it took to keep him off balance until she could figure out where she stood. After all, his total indifference to her on this voyage was telling. If he could stay away from her on the confines of a ship, would she ever see him after they were married and he had a whole country to disappear in? If they were married. Maybe
he'd
find some way to get out of the betrothal. He was king, after all.

The smile she had planned to give him wasn't quite so dazzling now, but she still managed to speak in a friendly tone. “The voyage was quite pleasant, but of course it would be, with such charming companions to keep me entertained.”

He obviously couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic or not, for he hesitated before saying, “My men are a lot of things, Tanya. But charming?”

“When they try to be, yes. I even found—to my amazement, of course—that I could like Lazar and Serge. And I have grown quite found of Sasha.”

“You don't mention Vasili.”

“Let's just say I've learned to tolerate your cousin, even when he's at his obnoxious best. No, I can't even say that. I have discovered, only recently, that I actually have a horrid temper. So I guess I haven't been very understanding of the close bond between you and Vasili that has more or less influenced his behavior toward me.”

She smiled again, this time with satisfaction, for his new expression was a priceless combination of bafflement, irritation, and wariness. He really didn't know what to make of her now, and that was just what she wanted for the time being.

“It surprises you that I figured that out?” she continued. “Well, don't be. Vasili made the confession himself only yesterday. So I guess the most I can say is that I will
try
to tolerate him in future—your Majesty.”

He raised a brow at the title, something he could at last deal with directly. “Was it the credentials?”

“Not at all. I thought they were faked.”

“Then what convinced you?”

“Sasha, actually. He has an amazing way of getting his point across without even trying. He just kept going on and on about you, me, Cardinia—and the wedding.” And then she pinned him with a direct gaze that had just enough angry sparks in it to indicate what was coming. “Why the hell did you tell me Vasili was king?”

He turned toward the door on the pretext of holding it open for her, but the question obviously disconcerted him so much that he couldn't hold her gaze. “You were being troublesome at the time. I thought you would be less so with him named as the prospective bridegroom.”

She wasn't letting him off the hook that easily. “Why?”

“Because women become utter fools around him, and that is before he even sets out to seduce them. If he had made an effort to win you over, you would have succumbed.”

Tanya snorted. “If you believe that, you are deluded.”

He finally glanced at her and his look said she was deluding herself. “You say you know that Vasili's loyalty to me influenced his behavior toward you, so haven't you realized yet that some of his behavior was a deliberate effort to make you despise him? I merely wanted you to come along with us willingly, but Vasili saw the consequence of the lie. He didn't want you falling in love with him when you would have to marry me in the end.”

“How thoughtful of him,” she sneered. “But you
and he both put too much stock in his looks, for some reason thinking that's all that matters to a woman. And maybe that is all that matters to a woman with no sense. But most women aren't foolish enough to fall in love with a man without knowing what he's made of. Vasili is incredibly handsome, yes. There's no denying that. But he's also the most arrogant, condescending man God ever put breath into, and you aren't going to tell me that his obnoxious attitude was a pretense just for my benefit.”

He didn't like what he was hearing, probably because he knew he was arrogant and condescending, too, in no way as bad as Vasili, but Tanya was counting on his not making that distinction. The object here was not to let Stefan know that she was one of those foolish women she had just ranted about. Not that she had fallen in love. Lord help her, she hoped she wasn't
that
foolish. But she knew very well that she had succumbed to a purely physical attraction, one so powerful that she could want this man even when she was so furious with him that she could shoot him. And time hadn't made that feeling go away. She wanted him, enough to marry him, enough to ignore all his faults. But he had to want her just as much…he had to love her, whether she loved him or not. That was the only way she could willingly give herself over to the control of one man for life. And she didn't have much time to find out if it was even possible.

Before he could dwell too deeply on what she'd said, she asked, “When you saw that the pretense wasn't working, why didn't you tell me the truth,
that you were Cardinia's new king?”

“You already doubted everything. It was not the time to admit to a falsehood that you could hold up as a reason to justify your continued skepticism.”

“I see your point,” she said, her brows knitted thoughtfully for his benefit. “Of course, you never saw mine, did you? It didn't matter who was being offered as my husband, I didn't want one.”

He didn't notice the past tense, he merely replied adamantly, “You have no more choice than I do.”

“Ah, that's right. How did you put it before, when Vasili admitted he didn't want to marry me? That the king will marry me whether he wishes to or not, because his duty demands it? But you know, Stefan, I've been giving that some thought, especially after being assured how all-powerful you are, so powerful, I'm told, that you can have us married no matter what I say about it. It strikes me that if you're that powerful, how can anyone make you do something you don't want to do? You could just break the betroth—”

“I happen to honor my father,” he cut in stiffly, his eyes suddenly glowing with serious anger.


Sandor
wants you sitting on the throne, so you will damn well sit on the throne! And if you ever try coaxing me out of my duty again…. I
will
marry you, Tanya. Nothing will prevent that, do you understand? Nothing!”

It was amazing how wonderful that promise made her feel, shouted or not. And she had her answer.
He
wasn't going to do anything to get out of the betrothal. Neither was she, but he didn't know that.
Nor was it part of her plan to let him know that. She'd keep him guessing, which would keep her constantly on his mind. But long before they reached Cardinia she'd have him in her bed, too. There was no help for that.
She
just couldn't wait anymore.

BOOK: Once a Princess
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