June 1553, Winchester
Natalya awoke in a dimly lit room, in an over larger bed. Her body was sore and stiff and her throat was parched. Her head was spinning and she felt nauseas. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember what happened the night before. Slowly she tried to sit up, but she didn’t have enough energy. Moaning, she decided just to relax. Linda would be in soon to help her get ready for the day. And maybe Linda could tell her what happened last night at the party. All Natalya could remember was a lot of drinking and dancing. She had so much fun with Robert!
She yawned, stretched and felt the ache in her cheeks. Immediately her hands flew to her face where she felt the tenderness around her cheek bone. She looked at her wrist and forearms and saw they were deeply bruised! What in God’s name had happened to her?
She forced herself to sit up and look around the unfamiliar room. Where was she? This didn’t look like any room in Robert’s home! “Linda! Linda!” Just the simple act of calling for her chaperone pained her and caused her to cough.
“Oh ma’am! Let me fix you a glass of water,” A young girl said, hurrying to her bed side. She was very pretty. Striking brown eyes and curly dark brown hair. She smiled at Natalya as she filled the glass sitting on the bed stand beside the water. “Here. You must be parched.”
Gratefully, Natalya took the water, sipping slowly as she stared at the young girl bewildered. “Who are you?”
“My name is Clara ma’am. Whatever you need just ask.” She continued to smile, pleased that Natalya finally woke up. She’d been sleep for nearly two days!
Natalya forced herself to stay calm. “Where am I?”
“Lord Devall’s castle in Winchester. You’ve been here for a day and a half. I’m so glad to see you awake.”
Now Natalya was panicked. Had Peter drugged her and whisked her away in the middle of the night? What was she doing there? She needed to find Robert. He would know what to do. She attempted to get out of bed, but Clara stopped her.
“Ma’am, please! You are to rest here until Lord Devall returns.”
“No, I have to find Robert.”
“Ma’am, please. Don’t get out of bed!”
“It’s okay,” a strong voice said from behind them.
Both of them looked in the direction of the door to find Gabriel standing there. His hair was loose, hanging free about his shoulders. He looked so familiar to Natalya, yet, she couldn’t place his face with a memory. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. She shook the thought from her head. There were more pressing issues at hand. Like why she was there.
Clara bowed and backed away from the bed as Gabriel approached. He instructed her to get food for Natalya, affectively leaving the two of them alone. She was still bruised and swollen. She didn’t appear to be too afraid of him, which pleased him. He didn’t want to scare her. Especially not after what she’d been through. He wanted to help her and he couldn’t do that if she didn’t trust him.
“What am I doing here?” Natalya asked. Thankfully her voice came out steady and didn’t reveal how panicked she was.
“You don’t remember what happened?” Gabriel asked.
Natalya shook her head. “No. I remember drinking and dancing with Robert. Then waking up here.” She looked down at her arms. “What happened to me?”
“My men found you beaten and unconscious near the woods. I had them bring you here for your protection,” Gabriel explained.
Horrified, Natalya swallowed, thinking about her uncle Peter. What did he do to her? She couldn’t look at Gabriel. He would see her shame if she did. She began to shake; her uncle Peter had raped her. She just knew he had. And if she hadn’t been so ridiculously drunk she would have been able to stop him.
“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked when she grew silent.
Natalya nodded. “Yes, she said quietly.
He wanted to comfort her somehow, but he didn’t know what to do. “Whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.”
She didn’t need his pity and it upset her that he dared to give it. She glared up at him. “You know what happened?”
“It was obvious.”
Again she fell silent and looked away. He expected her to cry, but she didn’t. She got angry instead. She threw the blankets back to find she was wearing nothing but a man’s shirt. The purple bruises on her thighs stood out on her ivory skin. He watched her touch them with trembling fingers.
“Where are my clothes?” she asked.
“You weren’t wearing much when they found you.”
Would the depths of her humiliation cease? Strangers had found her naked! On top of everything else that happened!
“I’ll have clothes brought to you,” Gabriel assured her. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
She covered herself back up. “Where’s Robert?”
Of course she’d ask for her fiancé Gabriel thought. “He doesn’t know you are here. No one but a selected few do. It was the only way I could protect you.”
She looked at him. “Protect me? Why?”
“It appears to me that someone tried to kill you again. I wasn’t sure who could be trusted.”
“You could have trusted Robert. He’d never hurt me.”
“I was airing on the side of safety. You should understand.”
Natalya frowned. “Should I? You don’t know me. Why would you want to protect me?”
“Because I was there eight years ago when your parents were murdered. You were poisoned but survived the attempt on your life.” Then he added, “And you called for me.”
His words knocked the air out of her. She sunk back into the pillows and sighed. “You were there.” Then she thought; I called for him?
It was more of a statement than a question so Gabriel didn’t respond to it. She looked exhausted. “Rest now. Your food will be brought up shortly.”
Resting was easier said than done. There were too many thoughts going through her head. Given everything Lord Devall said, suspecting her parents killer attempting to kill her, she had to rule Uncle Peter out. He was a lot of things, but she couldn’t imagine he was a murderer. He had treated her kindly after he married her aunt Estelle. It was his love of spirits that was making him such a wretch.
Which meant there was someone else out there that wanted to hurt her.
“What am I supposed to do now?” she asked. She didn’t look at him. She couldn’t. There were too many emotions churning inside of her and she didn’t want them showing on her face.
Gabriel crossed his arms in front of his chest, wondering why she wouldn’t look at him. She wasn’t going to let him in easily and he couldn’t blame her. She didn’t remember their last meeting. Her courage was to be applauded. She was working hard to control her emotions.
“I plan to find out who tried to do you harm. Your father was a good man. The least I can do is protect his daughter.”
Nodding, Natalya understood. He was helping out of a sense of duty.
“Only the men who found you know exactly who you are. They’ve been instructed not to divulge this information for any reason. Until I find out who is behind this you are to remain here.”
Natalya shot him a glance, not even trying to disguise her annoyance with that decision. She hated it when people made decisions for her, but she understood why he was doing it.
“Something you want to say?” he asked. The look in her eyes was lethal. She definitely didn’t like to be told what to do. As inappropriate as it was, the corner of his mouth lifted into a grin. He was pleased to see the fight in her eyes.
“For now I will stay. But I think it’s wrong not to tell Robert that I’m alright.”
“As I said before, I was airing on the side of safety. And you called for me, so I didn’t know if it was safe to involve him.”
“Why did I call for you?” Natalya asked confused. “I don’t even know you.”
“I had helped you earlier that night. You were feeling ill and were alone. So I escorted you back to your room. I thought you’d be safe there…” He sighed.
“Oh,” Natalya said softly. He’d helped her because she was too drunk to help herself. “Lord Devall,”
She didn’t want him to think she was ungrateful. Because she really did appreciate what he was doing for her. “Thank you for helping me.”
“So is she okay?” Eleanor asked.
When Gabriel arrived at the table that evening his mother was there waiting eagerly of news about their recent house guest. She had been in and out of consciousness since she got there and Eleanor was concerned. And it wasn’t until today that her son returned home. Explaining very little about the situation that brought the young woman there. And when she quizzed him about her, he simply told her that any explanations would have to wait until later.
Well, it was later and she’d been patient with her son. She wanted to know everything now.
Sighing, Gabriel sat down at the head of the table, meeting his mother’s gaze. Just as green as his own. According to those closest to him, the only trait he inherited from his mother were her eyes. Upon her head sat a mass of golden curls, sprinkled lightly with gray flecks. She was still very lovely, but after bearing and raising five children, two sons and three daughters, she was slightly touched with age as well. It could be seen around her eyes that were gently framed with fine lines. She was pushy, sometimes overbearing with a scrutinizing mind. And he knew she wanted to know everything there was to know about Natalya.
“Are you going to tell me or do I have to as the girl myself?” Eleanor asked, resting her chin on her hand as she leaned forward with her elbow on the table.
The servant brought in a plate for Gabriel, accompanied with a glass of freshly squeezed juice.
“She’s just a girl in trouble. I’ve decided to help her.” Gabriel didn’t want to give her too much information. Just enough to quench her thirst.
Eleanor narrowed her eyes. Gabriel was the third born of her children and the most like her father; stubborn and secretive, but fiercely protective. What was it about this troubled girl that invoked her son’s protection? “What’s her name?”
“What trouble is she in?” Eleanor wasn’t about to accept the simple answers her son was giving. There was more to this story.
Gabriel looked at her. “It‘s nothing I can’t handle. Is there no other subject you wish to discuss?”
Smiling, Eleanor began to eat once more. “I was hoping you’d be more hospital to your mother. It’s not often that I get to visit. You should treat me better,” she teased.
“I have never treated you badly,” Gabriel frowned.
Eleanor shook her head. “I’m sorry. You know how curious I get when you bring home strange women with foreign names. I don’t like secrets.”
“How were you able to tolerate father for so long then?”
“Silly child, your father could never keep a secret from me.”
“Well, it’s a good thing I’m not my father. But please don’t bother her. Promise me. She’s been through a lot.”
Biting her lower lip, Eleanor looked down at her plate of food. She hated making promises she had no intentions of keeping, but sometimes you just had to. “Fine. I won’t pry.”
It was late.
Outside the window lightning lit up the sky and the rain fell heavily to the earth. Natalya lay restless in the bed that didn’t belong to Robert, but to another man; Lord Gabriel Devall. She had fallen into a light sleep over an hour ago and her dreams had turned into nightmares.
The sky was clear, the air was cool. Natalya sat at her parents’ grave the way she did every year on the anniversary of their deaths. Linda was sitting beneath a nearby tree reading a book.
“Mother, father, I wish you were here. I’m all alone.” Natalya looked back at the tree. Linda was gone.
Clouds began to fill the sky. The air grew chilled.
“What’s going on?” Natalya rose to her feet and began running back toward her house. The darkness quickly followed, swarming around her until she was completely over taken by it.
She sat up in the bed screaming.
Gabriel had been sitting in the chair on the opposite side of the room. He wanted to be near just in case she needed him. He’d been to battle. Spent time with the English army fighting the Scots at Pinke Cleugh and saw firsthand how the mind could react to extreme trauma. She’d been raped and beaten. It didn’t get much more extreme than that for women.
He crossed the room quickly, sitting beside her. “Natalya,”
Without thinking, Natalya swung out with her fist and struck him in the jaw. She kept swinging. She wouldn’t be killed like her parents or raped again!
Gabriel grabbed a hold of her wrist. “Natalya! Natalya it’s me!”
“I’ll kill you!” she yelled in Russian.
Gabriel let her go. “I’m not going to hurt you Natalya.” He rose from the bed, walked to the vanity and retrieved the lit candle. Then brought it over to the bed. “It’s me, Gabriel.”
Natalya slowly opened her eyes. Her chest rose and fell with each heavy breath. Indeed it was Gabriel. “Sorry,” she whispered.
“Don’t be. I heard you scream and I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Gabriel was expecting to see tears but her eyes were dry. He placed the candle on the night stand. “Are you okay?”
Natalya looked around the room, noticing how masculine it was. Her eyes settled on the fire place for a moment. Then the wardrobe that was still open and saw the men’s shirt hanging in them. She looked at Gabriel. “Yes.”
“Good. Are you ready to go back to sleep?”
“Would you like to talk?” It was a small opening, Gabriel had to try.
Gabriel sat down on the edge of the bed. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Is this your chambers?”
“Yes.” He wanted to keep her in his room so she would be closer to him.
Natalya looked at round the room again. “This isn’t very proper. I should have my own chambers.”
“I just wanted to make sure you were close in case there was a problem. I didn’t want you to feel alone here.”
“What were you dreaming about?”
Looking down at her lap, Natalya shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Do you remember anything about that night?” As he stared at her, he felt captivated by her beauty. Even in turmoil she radiated. He reached out and caressed her cheek. Her skin was warm and soft. She closed her eyes, her lips parted slightly.
For a moment Natalya felt safer than she had ever felt before. When he touched her she forgot to be afraid. “I don’t remember anything.” She looked up at him enthralled by his eyes.
If the situation had been different, Gabriel would have swept her into his arms and taken her right then. She felt the attraction. He knew she did. The memory of her womanly form came back to him. He had to get away from her before he disregarded his better senses. He stood up, walking to the foot of the bed.
When he rose and went to the foot of the bed, Natalya felt a sense of loss. Which shouldn’t since he wasn’t hers to begin with. Besides, she was engaged to Robert. When all this was over they would be reunited and married at once.
A disturbing thought suddenly came to mind. Would Robert still want her? Once he found out about the rape would he still be receptive to her? She’d heard stories about the way men treated women who were raped. They were treated as if it were their fault. Would Robert treat her that way?
“What are you thinking about?” Gabriel asked.
Natalya lay down. “Robert.”
Gabriel felt envious. After that obvious spark between them, she was thinking about the fiancé that couldn’t even protect her. Insulting. “Goodnight then.” He blew out the candle and went back to the chair.
The dresses Gabriel left for her were beautiful! Natalya found them on the chair when she woke up the next morning. She had expected him to be sleeping in the chair still, but he wasn’t. Trying not to be disappointed, she got out of bed, ready to explore this castle he’d brought her to and noticed the gowns. It was a thoughtful gesture. A smile touched her lips softly as she ran her fingers over the smooth violet fabric. She held the dress up to her body, hoping it would fit.
Clara entered the room. A warm smile on her face. “Good morning ma’am! I’m happy to see you up!”
Looking at the young servant, Natalya wondered how old she was. They looked about the same age. It would be nice to have someone to talk to. She knew Gabriel was trying to get her to open up, but she couldn’t. Not to him. Not yet. Clara had an amiable disposition that was far easier to be around. “It feels good to be up. The dresses are beautiful.”
“Ah yes. Lord Devall had them sent for. Would you like me to help you dress?”
Natalya nodded. “Da. Thank you.”
With Clara’s help, Natalya slipped into the gown. It fit perfectly around her hips and waist, but was just a little snug around her breast. Causing them to bulge slightly. Clara smiled at her. Pleased at how beautiful she looked.
“Sit. I’ll fix your hair pretty for you.”
Natalya sat down in front of the vanity and looked at herself in the mirror. Her face was still bruised and she could see the faint purple marks on her neck. She looked horrible! Is this the way Gabriel had seen her? Looking like a wretch? She felt embarrassed. She was a woman of respectable status and here she was in such a deplorable situation. Because she was too drunk to stop it.
“Ma’am?” Clara said softly. Natalya’s face had gone pale and her eyes seemed void of life. “Are you okay?”
Natalya slowly shook her head. “I look horrible. I don’t want Gabriel to see me this way.”
“Oh ma’am, you’re very beautiful!” Clara knelt beside her and looked up at her. “I know you’ve gone through something horrible, but that hasn’t taken away from your beauty at all!”
Natalya looked at her. “You don’t have to call me ma’am.”
Clara smiled. “What would you like me to call you?”
“When I was a little girl I lived in Russia and my friends called me Nat.”
Clara giggled. “I’ll call you Nat then.”
Natalya looked back at the mirror. “Can you make me pretty again?”
Rising to her full height, which wasn’t very tall, Clara nodded. “It won’t take much.”
Sitting there. Natalya wondered what Gabriel would think when he saw her. It was so silly of her to have such thoughts. He probably thought she was tainted by what happened to her. She couldn’t blame him. She had nothing to offer a man now.
Stop thinking that way, she thought quickly. Gabriel is not the man you need to be concerned about.
Her thoughts drifted to Robert. He must be worried about her. He was her friend! He was willing to marry her just to protect her from her uncle’s lust. It was wrong not to let him know she was okay.
“There,” Clara said, obviously pleased with her work.
It was a remarkable job! The back of her hair was out and flowing while the rest of her hair sat in a perfect bun on top of her head.
“It’s lovely,” Natalya smiled.
“What would you like to do now?”
Looking at the younger girl. Natalya answered. “Can you show me around the castle?”
“Of course I can!”
Before Natalya knew it they were out of the room walking through the halls. Gabriel’s home was definitely beautiful, but in a very masculine way. The portraits that hung on the wall were of beautiful exotic women, scantily clad. There were sculptures of knights, shields and swords; it was almost like walking through a museum! Natalya listen to Clara explain the artifacts that decorated Gabriel’s magnificent home. Apparently he had a love for antiques. Whenever he came home from being abroad, he brought antiques from with him.
“Lord Devall loves his possessions,” Clara said, stopping at a shield from France.
“Does he?” Natalya wondered if Gabriel thought of her as a procession. “Where is Lord Gabriel?”
Clara looked at Natalya, ready to answer her when she noticed Gabriel standing at the end of the hall. “Behind you actually.”
Natalya turned to see Gabriel standing there naked from the waist up. She couldn’t turn her eyes away from the tight abdominal muscles that sat beneath his sculpted chest. She felt herself blush all over; knowing she was probably beat red and should look away.
Gabriel couldn’t do much better. When he came around the corner he didn’t expect her to be standing there looking so damn beautiful! The gown he sent to her complimented her complexion and brought out her eyes. Her hips curved seductively and the swell of her breast was enticing. She stared at him with her lips slightly parted. Her throat and cheeks were flushed red. It was clear he had the same affect on her that she had on him. God he wanted her! Wanted to take her to his chambers and fill her with his manhood!
Finally, he blinked, breaking the spell she had on him. He walked over to them, willing the desire that flared in him back down. He was suppose to be protecting her, finding out who tried to kill her, not lusting over her. “Natalya, I see you’re wearing one of the gowns I brought you.”
Natalya moved her lips to speak, but nothing came out. She couldn’t believe she’d gone dumb! She looked at Clara, begging the younger girl for help with her eyes. Unfortunately Clara only shrugged, making the silence that much more awkward. Forcing herself to swallow, Natalya looked at Gabriel again. “Da. It’s lovely.”
Gabriel nodded. “Have you taken a complete tour of the castle?”
“No. Clara was just showing me your many artifacts.”
Gabriel turned his gaze to Clara. “Have a tub brought up to my room please.”
Bowing, Clara left to complete her task.
They were alone.
Natalya suddenly felt overwhelmed by his presence. Why couldn’t she focus around him? She had plenty of suitors before Robert. None of them made her feel off balanced or left her speechless.
None of them were Gabriel. None of them made her feel conflicted inside the way he did. Which was why she had to be careful around him. She couldn’t let her guard down. The only man she could trust was Robert. He was the only one she could be herself with and he didn’t force his will on her.
Gabriel noticed her jaw tighten and her eyes grow stern. Her guard was up again. What had he done in such a short time to make her leery of him?
“Would you like to see the rest of my home?” he asked.
Natalya was expecting him to extend his arm out to her and when he didn’t, she felt disappointed. “What are you doing to find out who’s trying to kill me?”
Her forwardness took him back. He thought she’d want to get away from London and the chaos that was there. Apparently he was wrong. She was eager to get away from him and back to her fiancé. He felt a sting a jealousy.
“I’ve sent two of my men to London to learn what the authorities have found out,” Gabriel explained. “I was hoping that in time you’d remember something that would help me solve this mystery. Have you remembered anything?”
Natalya shook her head, feeling useless all over again. “I told you what I remember. I was so… “She stopped herself, looking away.
“What is it?” Gabriel asked. He softened his tone.
What was she supposed to say? That all this was her fault? That if she hadn’t been drinking so heavily she would have never been raped? There were so many consequences she hadn’t even allowed herself to think about. And she should think about them. What if she became pregnant because of this? Robert would never have her then!
Feeling faint, Natalya reached out for the wall, but found Gabriel instead.
He carried her back to his chambers and laid her down on his bed. “What do you need? Tell me.”
Natalya began to hyperventilate. What would she do with a baby conceived in rape? She couldn’t love it! She couldn’t!
“I can’t… I can’t do this…” Natalya said gasping. “I can’t do this!”
Gabriel cupped her face with his hands. “Take a deep breath. Exhale slowly. You’re okay.” She gripped his wrist, staring desperately into his eyes. “What can’t you do?”
Shaking her head, Natalya began to tremble. She closed her eyes. “Please… Please Gabriel…”
She was having a panic attack. Gabriel felt his heart ache for her. All she had to do was tell him what she needed and he would do it for her. “I’ll do it Natalya. Whatever it is I’ll take care of it.”
He said that with so much conviction that Natalya believed him. She opened her eyes. “Do you promise?”
Staring into his eyes, Natalya took a deep breath. “I’m afraid I’ll become pregnant,” she whispered.
There was the possibility. Clara’s mother was raped and that’s how the child came to be. How was he supposed to fix that?”
Think Gabriel! You promised her you would take care of it!
His silence told Natalya everything. She pulled away from him and rolled over on her side. “It’s alright,” she said softly. “This isn’t your problem.”
Gabriel wanted to assure her that he could help her. “Don’t worry Natalya. I’ll find a solution.” He had no idea what he was going to do.