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Authors: Johanna Lindsey

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BOOK: Once a Princess
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“Dead!?”

The incredulous exclamations came at Dobbs from two different directions at once. He didn't know whether to elaborate on what he'd said or demand some answers of his own. But his hands had begun to sweat, his brow, too, not because he was lying, but because those devil's eyes were trying to see right inside his head. He was sure of it.

He cleared his throat, surreptitiously wiping his palms on his blanket. “What's your interest in that baby? You're all kind of young to be the father, ain't you?” No answer came, which unnerved him even more.

And then the blond one, whom he'd barely noticed because his handsomeness made him seem less dangerous than the others, flung a retort at him. “There was only one grave found, the woman's. A mere pile of stones, guaranteed to crumble.”

The contempt in that voice, making it sound as if
Dobbs had been deliberately inept, got his dander up.

“What was I supposed to do, dump her in the river?” Dobbs demanded. “When you don't have no shovel, you make do in these parts.”

“There was still only the one grave, Mr. Dobbs,” observed the one with blue eyes.

“The baby didn't die the same day. We'd already moved on.”

The questions came at him from all of them then, and he had barely enough time to answer one before the next was shot at him.

“How many days later?”

“A few.”

“Exactly?”

“Two, dammit!”

“What time of day?”

“How the hell should I remember?”

“What time did he die, Mr. Dobbs?”

“He? What he? She's a girl.”

“She is? Or was?”

“Was! Was! What the hell is this? It don't make a peck of difference what she was, or what time she died. She's dead—that's all you need to know!”

“I'm afraid not, Mr. Dobbs. We require proof.”

“Proof that you will have to supply, Mr. Dobbs, since you claim to have buried her.”

“In other words, Mr. Dobbs, you will have to lead us to her grave.”

Dobbs stared at the three who had just spoken as if they were crazy. But they were serious, dead serious. The dark one with the unholy eyes hadn't said
a word during the interrogation, nor did he now. He just watched, and listened, and made Dobbs even more uneasy with his silence.

“I can't lead anyone anywhere,” Dobbs told them, for once glad it was true. “I haven't left this room in six months, not since—”

“The nature of your illness has little bearing,” he was informed with a distinct lack of sympathy. “We will supply you a comfortable conveyance, and pay you for your time.”

“It wouldn't do no good,” Dobbs insisted nervously. “I put that baby in the ground, since she didn't need but a tiny grave, easy enough to scrap out with a sharp rock. But there weren't nothing to leave as a marker, and with twenty years come and gone, even with that other grave to judge the distance by, I'd never find—”

“You needn't explain further,” the dark one cut in. “Thank you for your time.”

As soon as it was said, they all turned and left the room. Dobbs fell back on his pillow, finally wiping his brow. He couldn't imagine what that had been all about, but he hoped never to go through it again.

At the top of the stairs, Stefan paused to state the obvious. “He was lying.”

“Yes,” Lazar agreed. “But why?”

“There can be only one reason,” Serge said.

Their minds traveled the same path and came to the same appalling conclusion. It was Vasili who burst out, “Don't even think it! She's a tavern whore, for God's sake, and ugly—”

“She has the right color eyes,” Lazar pointed out.
He was no longer the least bit amused.

“There are probably a hundred women with green eyes in this town alone,” Vasili insisted. “And besides, that horrid female downstairs cannot possibly be only twenty years of age. She's thirty if she's a day.”

“Hard work can age anyone,” Serge said. “And even her name, Tanya, is—”

“Enough!” Stefan hissed. “We each of us know how proof is to be established. I would suggest we establish it one way or the other, rather than argue the possibility.”

Vasili still protested. “But even to consider her is insane.”

“There is nothing
to
consider if she is the one we seek, Vasili. You know that as well as I.”

“Then I would just as soon not find out,” Vasili replied. “But then I can't believe for a minute that she's the one. Mere circumstance doesn't make it so.”

“But the crescent moon on her left cheek will.”

“Damn you, Stefan! All right, if you insist on looking for it, you will do so without my help. I refuse to go near that foul-tempered wench again.”

“I doubt your assistance will be necessary,” Stefan said tightly. “I believe I can spare a few coins, which is all it should take to get a whore to raise her skirts.”

Vasili flushed crimson at those words. He'd said it himself, called her a whore more than once, but that wasn't the same as hearing it from Stefan. How could his cousin even consider the possibility that a
whore could be the future Queen of Cardinia?

Before the two cousins got physical in their disagreement, Lazar stepped between them. “Why don't I find the girl and just ask her if she has any unusual marks on her person?” he suggested. “If she can describe the damned moon, it won't be necessary to embarrass her or ourselves.”

“She's not going to answer a personal question like that without knowing why she's being asked,” Serge said. “And if she's told why, she'd carve the crescent on her backside herself to have a chance at the life we're offering.”

“We're not going to tell her what we're looking for, Serge,” Lazar said patiently. “She'd have to tell us—”

“You're still here?” the female in question demanded from the bottom of the stairs, a tray of food in her hands. “Well, there's the door, and hurry up, will you? Dobbs is waiting for his breakfast.”

“So we heard,” Stefan said, coming down the stairs. “Take it to him, by all means.”

“But, Stefan—”

A hand waved Lazar to silence.

Tanya had to wait until they'd all come down, the stairs were so narrow. She did so nervously, because her hands were encumbered with the tray, leaving her defenseless for the moment. That devil's eyes weren't glowing now, but she'd been mistaken last night in her relief. They really did glow, or seemed to, they brightened so much, and it had nothing to do with candlelight, for there'd been none this morning.

The handsome one's eyes were glowing, though…Lord help her, they burned as brightly as the other one's, they just didn't seem as satanic or frightening in an angel's face. But they were burning at her. That man despised her for some reason. She'd been slapped with his contempt last night. This morning he looked as if he'd like to erase her from the face of the earth. Well, the feeling was entirely mutual. She'd spent the night choking with the hurt he'd caused her to feel, the kind that went so deep it cut and bled tears. She'd rather feel Dobbs' stick across her back any day than suffer that kind of contempt again. At least physical pain went away, but she didn't think she'd ever forget last night's shame.

The other two men weren't nearly as intimidating as the two she'd already met. One was tall and slim of build, with dark brown hair and blue eyes that raked her from head to toe, as if he knew she hid something and was determined to find it. She wasn't accustomed to such curiosity. The other man was an inch or so shorter and stocky, with black hair and eyes, but a fair complexion. Tanya could have sworn there was sympathy in his dark eyes, and that more than anything kept her back straight and her lips tightly compressed, despite her nervousness.

But as soon as the last one reached the bottom of the stairs, she rushed up them, praying that was the last she'd see of any of them. She didn't know that four pairs of eyes turned to watch her ascent, or that one of the men was signaled to follow her. She simply rushed into Dobbs' room and kicked the door shut behind her with a great deal of relief.

“When she asked, he told her our business was none of hers,” Lazar said when he came back downstairs from eavesdropping outside Wilbert Dobbs' room. “But he warned her to stay away from us if we return here.”

“What else?”

“Nothing that pertains to us. He spent most of the time complaining, in particular that his breakfast was late, but about a goodly number of other things, too. Apparently she really does run this place as she claimed, and without help.”

“A good reason why he wouldn't want to part with her,” Serge commented.

“Perhaps, though he had no way of knowing what we wanted with her,” Stefan said, then asked Lazar, “Will she be long, do you think?”

“I doubt it. With the way he talks to her, berating her for every little thing, if I were her I wouldn't stay in that room any longer than I had to.”

Even as he said it, they heard the sound of a door
closing. And then the girl was running down the stairs, once again belying the exhaustion in her face. She tripped to a stop at the bottom upon seeing them, and without caring that the gesture gave away her apprehension, she put her hand on the hilt of her knife.

Stefan stifled a laugh that would have told her plainly what little deterrent that weapon was to men trained to war with other men. He didn't want to take away whatever security it provided her, but it really was amusing, seeing a woman trying to give the impression she was prepared to do battle.

“Couldn't you find the door?” she asked, looking pointedly at Stefan.

He ignored her attempt to goad him. “We need to talk to you, mistress.”

“You claimed your business was only with Dobbs and you've concluded that.”

“Not to our satisfaction.”

One flaring feminine brow arched. “I hope you don't think I care whether you're satisfied.”

Lazar hooted with laughter. Vasili made a sound of disgust, but fortunately kept his mouth shut otherwise. Stefan cringed inwardly, seeing a double meaning there whether it was intended or not. Outwardly, he frowned.

“We have a few questions—”

“I don't have time—”

“—for you to answer.”

“I said—” she started to reiterate, only to be drowned out by sheer volume.

“Enough, mistress! We apologize for last night.
We also apologize for our sharpness with you earlier. But now we must insist that you cooperate.”

A shouted apology wasn't worth a lick of salt as far as she was concerned. And while this apology was being forced on her by the one called Stefan, the other men were moving restlessly about the room, clearly not the least bit interested in what was supposedly a joint offering. But in that she was mistaken. What she'd taken as restlessness was a deliberate maneuver to block every exit from the room. Even the stocky one now stood close enough to her and the stairs to prevent a retreat in that direction.

Obviously, Tanya wasn't going anywhere until she “cooperated.” That she was being denied any choice in the matter infuriated her. Of course, she could just sit down and stubbornly wait them out. They couldn't force words out of her mouth, could they? But she'd rather get rid of them, the sooner the better, and that meant answering their damn questions. Only she wasn't going to pretend she liked it. And if she could exact a little retribution, she would. To her delight, an opportunity came her way immediately.

She'd hesitated in replying just long enough for Stefan to offer, “If all you are worried about is your time, then consider it paid for,” and he tossed a coin at her.

Tanya caught it by reflex, but just as swiftly tossed it back. “Keep your money. You want information from me, it'll cost an apology from
him
.”

The “him” she dared to try bringing down a peg was the golden-haired Adonis. The others looked at him and waited, as if it were a foregone conclusion
that he would comply. But he'd turned several shades of red, and was staring back at Tanya with murder in his eyes.

Well, it had been worth a try, to see that one humbled, but she hadn't really expected it to work, not when the other one had more or less spit out his apology as if she should be honored to receive it. And now she'd backed herself into a corner by putting a price on her cooperation. She'd have to attempt to leave. Her pride demanded it. She just hoped they weren't too rough in stopping her.

She waited another long moment before turning toward the door that led out back. The brown-haired man moved to block her way, as she had expected he would, but she didn't stop. She drew her knife instead, surprising him and herself, for she hadn't intended to go that far to protect her pride. Damned self-defeating emotion it was, too, having earned her a lot of extra beatings over the years. Today it just might get her killed, for the man wasn't backing down either. The very reason she hadn't insisted those other two leave last night, after she'd drawn her knife, was because she'd sensed they wouldn't. And this man was cut from the same cloth.

“Vasili!”

Tanya didn't know who had prodded him, the voice was so angry, but she heard Vasili grumble in response, “Oh, all right,” then louder, imperiously, he added. “Attend me, mistress, and consider yourself apologized to for whatever it is I am supposed to have done or said that you found offensive to your so-called tender sensibilities.”

He even apologized with contempt, and managed to insult her again by implying he didn't know what he'd done wrong to begin with. But Tanya knew she wouldn't get any better from the likes of him. He'd at least given her the out she needed to sheath her knife, which she did. The blue eyes in front of her were clearly relieved. She hoped her own relief was more concealed.

To that end, she swung about and gave Vasili a brilliant smile. “Thank you, kind sir. It does my heart good to know I wasn't mistaken about you.”

Vasili frowned, aware that she was no more sincere in her thanks than he'd been in his apology. But he was unable to figure out if she'd just returned the insult, so he said no more.

Stefan cleared his throat, drawing her eyes to him. “Are you satisfied, mistress?”

Her smile didn't waver. “Oh, certainly. I'm just a tavern wench, after all, so ignorant I couldn't possibly know what he just wrapped up in that crock of eloquence. So why shouldn't I be satisfied? No, don't bother to answer that.” The smile was gone, along with the sarcastic tone. Her voice and her expression were now quite frigid. “Just ask me your questions and leave.”

Vasili was flushing red again, but warning looks from the other three men kept him silent for the moment.

“You put that rather eloquently yourself, mistress,” Stefan remarked as he moved to the nearest table and took down the chairs from it. “Who taught you to mimic your betters?”

“My betters?” she repeated, her eyes narrowing. “I don't have any—”

He cut in quickly, “Let me rephrase that. Your speech improves when you choose. Did your father have you educated?”

“My father? If you mean Dobbs, he doesn't believe in schooling or anything else that takes away from good work time. But Iris Dobbs was an educated woman. What I know I learned from her.”

He held out a chair for her. “Will you sit, mistress?”

“No, thank you.”

“Do you mind if I do?”

Her lips quirked slightly. “By all means. I'm used to looking down on men.”

He almost didn't take the other chair after that, particularly with Lazar chuckling in the background. Stefan assumed she referred to serving men who were usually sitting down, but that other meaning…He sat down, only to get right back up and pace in front of her instead.

“Is Wilbert Dobbs not your father, then?”

“No, thank God.”

He was curious enough about her to want to know why she was thankful, but that wasn't what they'd just gone through that unpleasant scene to discover. “Then you only work here?”

“I've lived here for as long as I can remember.”

“Ah, then Mr. Dobbs' wife must have been your mother.”

Tanya frowned. “What is your interest in the Dobbses? Iris is dead, and Dobbs almost is.”

“Just bear with me, mistress, and we will be finished the sooner. Now,
was
Iris Dobbs your mother?”

“No, she wasn't. Iris said my mother died when I was just a baby.”

“How did she die?”

“The yellow fever.”

“Do you know her name?”

“My mother's name?” Her frown was back, not just because he was getting personal, but because she sensed an urgency in him now that hadn't been there before. “What has that got to do with anything? Either stick to the questions about Dobbs that you so
politely
asked me to answer, or I'm not answering any more.”

“Everything that I ask you is related, mistress,” he said sternly. “If my questions become personal, that is because you have lived with Wilbert Dobbs all your life. Now, your mother's name?”

“I don't know,” she answered stiffly, dissatisfied with his explanation and not caring that he was frowning at her now.

“What of your own name? Tanya, isn't it? Was that the name you were born with, or was it given to you by Iris Dobbs when she took you in?”

“Both, I guess you could say. Iris was told my name, but she said it was too unusual-sounding for her to remember all of it, so I ended up with just a portion of it, or what sounded like it, which is better than nothing, I suppose.”

He stopped in front of her then, staring at her for a long nerve-racking moment before he asked,
“Would you like to know all of it?”

“Stefan.” The warning came from behind Tanya. “It is still only circumstance.”

He looked over her head to the man behind her. “It is much more than circumstance, Lazar. What more do you need to hear?” Silence was his answer. Stefan's eyes dropped back to Tanya. “Were both Dobbses with your mother when she died?”

“Yes,” she replied, still confused over the last question he'd asked her.

“Why is that?”

“They were traveling together at the time.”

“From where?”

“New Orleans.”

“By riverboat?”

“No, wagon.” He was looking at Lazar again, triumphantly. Tanya couldn't hold back the incredulous thought any longer. “Do—do you know who my parents are?”

“It is possible—if you carry a certain—birthmark that is—hereditary.”

She didn't even notice his hesitation over those pertinent words. She was trying to tamp down her excitement, because what he was suggesting was just too unlikely to be true. And yet—ever since she'd found out that she was unrelated to Dobbs and Iris, she'd wondered about her real parents, where they came from, what they were like,
who
they were.

It had been frustrating beyond belief that Iris couldn't tell her more than she had, couldn't recall her mother's name though she'd been told it, couldn't recall her name either, not all of it. But then Iris had
been upset at the time with her own problems as well as those of the dying woman she'd agreed to help. So Tanya couldn't blame her for not retaining those memories. But that left Tanya with a burning curiosity, unsatisfied.

Other girls had backgrounds, rich in detail and color. Her life was a blank page begun in a tavern. Now here were four strangers hinting at knowledge she craved as much as, if not more than, her independence. To finally have a real identity, a family history, possibly even relatives still living—a birth date! It was just too wonderful to be true, and if she allowed her hopes to be raised, she'd be doomed to disappointment. And to have it all hinge on a birthmark?

Tanya had been staring blankly at the wide chest in front of her while her thoughts whirled. But years of self-preservation enabled her to catch sight of the hand raising to lift her chin to reclaim her attention, and she jerked back instinctively, before the carefully applied makeup on her face could be disturbed. Stefan took her movement personally, however.

As accustomed as he was to rejection, he still felt bitterly disappointed that this girl couldn't bear his touch, even impersonally, for unlike the others, he found that he was fiercely glad that she could be the one they sought. Of course, he kept forgetting that she was a whore and utterly unsuitable to be a queen. He wouldn't forget again.

He turned away from her and changed places with Lazar, giving him a curt order. “You ask her.”

Lazar was convinced by now that it was unnec
essary to go any further in their questioning. The others obviously felt the same, for Vasili was leaning back against the wall, his eyes closed, slowly pounding his head against the wood. Serge was sitting at the bottom of the stairs, his head lowered in his hands, his shoulders slumped. Stefan was merely furious. But no wonder. If the girl could scorn him now, as they'd all just seen her do, imagine her degree of disdain when she knew who she was.

Lazar certainly was no happier about it than the others. It was unfortunate that she wasn't the beauty they'd been led to expect, but that was nothing compared to
what
she was, a common performer, a barmaid—a whore. Jesus, the knowledge would probably kill Sandor, that this was what had become of the child he himself had sent away and would now force his son to marry.

No, Lazar needed no further answers or visual proof for himself, but just for the record. Accordingly, he afforded Tanya the first respect she'd had from any of them. Standing before her, he bowed formally and introduced himself, though he left off his title. He would have taken her hand and brought it to his lips, but she crossed her arms over her chest and gave him a narrow-eyed look which warned him off. It took him only a moment to realize that she thought he was making sport of her. Vasili's derisive laughter in the background did nothing to disabuse her of it. Lazar decided not to try.

BOOK: Once a Princess
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