It was a beautiful day.
Natalya lay in a fresh bed of flowers. She stared up at a clear blue sky, while listening to the birds make joyful noises. The warm sun kissed her face. The breeze lightly caressed loose strands of her hair. It was a moment of peace that had eluded her ever since her ordeal began. This moment is what she needed. A reminder that every day wouldn’t be difficult. That she could weather the next storm she knew was coming.
A week after Gabriel left, a woman by the name Maria Mendoza arrived with a rather large entourage. To claim the heart of the owner of the castle. She was a vibrant beauty! Golden locks dangled in spirals down her back. Framing a perfectly tanned, oval face. Sparkling brown eyes sat above a dainty nose and delicate mouth. She stated boldly for Lady Devall that she had met Gabriel abroad and he had stolen her heart. Natalya was certain he’d stolen more than that. Maria went on to explain how she had come from a prominent family in Oviedo Spain. That she had travelled without a chaperone. Her father was unable to accompany her, but trusted Gabriel would take care of her while she was there.
“You are the daughter of Antonio Mendoza?” Eleanor inquired. She knew the family from dealings her husband had with him.
“Si, senora. You know my father?” Maria asked.
“We have made acquaintances.”
“Sorry to have come… unannounced. I assure you I will explain everything to Lord Devall as soon as he arrives,” Maria offered.
“Come now. You’re more than welcome.”
And that was how the storm known as Maria Mendoza came to Castle Devall. Now when Natalya met senorita Mendoza, passing casually in the hall, the golden haired beauty inquired about who she was. Taken by surprise, Natalya lied.
“I’m Lasha Saporzhnikov. I’m from Russia.”
“Oh,” Maria smiled. “How do you like England?”
“It’s… very rainy. But beautiful.”
“What are you doing here at Castle Devall?” Maria asked.
Hiding from a murderer, Natalya thought.
“Working off my debt to Lord Devall. He’s allowed me lodging while I’m here. So, I help the servants tend to the castle. Is there anything you need?” Natalya raised one eyebrow.
Amused, Maria was by this woman’s poise and beauty. She was clearly no servant. The dominance of her personality came through her voice. What was she really doing there? Now wasn’t the time to inquire, however. That would come later. “No. I have my own servants to tend to my needs.”
“If you’ll excuse me then.” Natalya quickly made her way to her room.
And now she was enjoying the early morn, wondering what Senorita Mendoza’s presence would mean for her when Gabriel returned home. Wondered if her needs would be over looked for the Spanish beauty’s needs. It wasn’t so unlikely that he’d forget about the promises he made to her. Maria could be his lover and maybe even more than that. What if he was planning to marry Maria before he stumbled upon her problems?
She seems more his liking anyway, Natalya thought sighing. Sweet, pleasant, easy to be around. Unlike me. No! I’m demanding, cynical at times, untrusting and sometimes rude. She would be better matched for him.
Rolling over on her stomach, Natalya played with the petals on the flowers. Why do I even care if she’s better suited for him? she wondered. I have Robert and he’s more of a man than Gabriel would ever be.
Even as she thought it, she didn’t believe it.
“What are you doing out here? Clara asked.
Natalya didn’t even hear her approach. She sat up, stretched. “What are you doing out here?”
Sitting down beside her, Clara smiled. “I came to see you… Lasha. I really can’t get use to calling you that.”
“It’s been over a month now. You should be use to it.” Natalya grinned. It was quite a chore getting everyone to call her that. Clara had called her Nat twice in front of Maria. Both times Natalya ignored her until she realized her mistake.
Laughing, Clara shook her head. “Where did you come up with that name?”
“It’s a family name. Why do I have to keep telling you that?”
“I’m forgetful.” Clara stopped laughing. “Now here’s what I found out and it wasn’t easy. Her people are extremely tight lipped.”
“Apparently. I asked you to get information on her weeks ago.”
“Well, after some good old fashion eavesdropping I found out some things,” Clara said proudly.
Natalya leaned closer, almost desperate to hear the gossip. “Tell me.”
“Her father Antonio Mendoza is in trouble with some rather large debts. He was unable to pay his debtors so they were going to take her for ransom until his debts were paid in full.”
“I thought my situation was bad,” Natalya said shocked.
Clara tilted her head to the side. “What exactly is your situation? You still haven’t told me.”
“I’ll tell you later. Finish telling me what else you heard.”
“It is true that Lord Gabriel and Senor Maria…”
“Senorita Maria,” Natalya corrected.
“Anyway, they did meet in Spain when he was there and according to her they grew very fond of each other.”
“Meaning he took her to bed,” Natalya said annoyed.
Clara frowned, puzzled by Natalya’s jealousy. “No. She said he refused to defile her. That he cared too much about her to use her that way.”
“Green are we?”
“Of course not,” Natalya lied. “Why should I be? Gabriel is just helping me with a problem.”
“And he’ll be helping her with her problem too when he returns home.” Clara grinned. “You are so green. It’s all over your face.”
Embarrassed, Natalya folded her arms.”I am not. Gabriel’s love interests are none of my concern.”
“Okay… Lasha. So it won’t bother you to know that Gabriel is back and he’s with senorita Maria right now?”
Natalya chuckled. Then realized her friend was serious. “Gabriel’s back?”
Natalya shrugged. “Good for him. When he’s finished with Maria then he can come to me.”
“Okay. If you say so, but this servant needs some help setting up for lunch. Lasha.”
They rose to their feet and hand in hand made their way back to the castle. It was a live with chatter and excitement now that Lord Devall was home. Tiffany had ordered a fine feast to be made upon his safe arrival. Men were sent to retrieve dancers, singers and musicians from neighboring towns!
Maria Mendoza was an honored guest in Castle Devall. And apparently he was more than elated to come home and find her there.
Natalya went about her task of helping Clara and the other servants prepare the hall for the night’s festivities. She hadn’t seen Gabriel yet and she was growing anxious to lay eyes on him.
She told herself it was only because she wanted to know if he found out anything about Linda’s killer. She wanted to go home to Robert. The only way that could happen was if the mystery of her attacker was solved. She didn’t care if he’s been home for hours and had yet to seek her out. That didn’t bother her at all!
Clara instructed her on how to set the plates and silverware. Natalya had no idea how much work went into these large dinners! Suddenly she had a new appreciation of the work the servants did! She would be more mindful to thank the people who served her.
Since her duties as a servant began a month ago, she had helped cook, clean bedrooms, done laundry and even scrubbed floors. Her body ached like it never had before! She was amazed at how well they handled it all!
If your attacker is never found and brought to justice you can always spend the rest of your life as Gabriel’s servant, she thought sighing.
An hour before the feast was to start, Natalya retired to her bed chambers, worn out and exhausted. Tiffany told her that there was no need for her to serve at the dinner. That she should rest. Natalya was thankful for the reprieve. Had she known being a servant was so much work she would have told Maria she was a distant family member!
Much to her liking there was a steaming tub waiting for her on the far side of the room, facing the open window. She planned to soak and gaze out at the night sky. She shed her clothes at the door. Then began to unbraid her hair. It took her no time to sink into the hot water.
It was dusk. The sky was a beautiful display of warm tones cooling into indigo shades. She bent her knees and dunked her hair in the water. To the right of the tub was a table where the soap and towel had been placed.
The people here at Castle Devall had been gracious to go along with her charade. There were only a handful of people who knew her name wasn’t Lasha. Gabriel had made sure she was a mystery to most of his servants. And the ones he trusted only knew her first name. So when she started doing servant’s work no one questioned it.
Her secret was well protected here. Her… rapist… would never find her.
Emotions swelled in her chest. Her eyes burned with tears that wouldn’t fall. Her hands moved through the water and touched the tender flesh between her legs. Who had violated her? Stealing the gift she meant to offer her husband on her wedding night.
Closing her eyes, she tried to push down the shame that lived inside of her. She thought about Robert, how he faired and if he thought of her.
There was a knock at the door. Tiffany said she would have dinner sent up to her. Since Natalya wouldn’t be attending the feast. Which was fine. She didn’t care to attend a feast where Gabriel did nothing but fuss over his honored guest.
“Come in,” she called. “Please place the tray next to the bed. I’ll eat once I finished soaking my tired body.”
The door closed. Footsteps came just a few feet from the tub. Odd. Natalya opened her eyes and slowly turned to see Gabriel staring at her intensely. The muscles in his jaw were tight. Strained even. And his eyes feasted on the sight of her. She flushed, turning crimson and lowered her eyes.
She looked at him. Drawn to his green gaze. She moistened her lips nervously. “Where have you been?”
Gabriel didn’t want to get any closer, for fear he would see more of her naked body. She was a wet temptress and he was a virile man. He shouldn’t want her… but he did. He wanted her to be excited to see him. Instead of cool and detached.
“I have been getting reacquainted with Miss Mendoza. I wasn’t expecting her to be here.”
“She is the guest of honor tonight. Sounds like you’re happy she’s here.” Natalya didn’t want to come off jealous, but she sounded that way. “I mean, servants talk.”
Gabriel raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Really? What are they saying?”
His grin made her grin. Despite her inappropriate appearance she felt playful, when just a moment ago she felt despair. “That you are completely smitten with her.”
Gabriel laughed. “Fond of her, not smitten. She’s a sweet girl.”
“She doesn’t look like a girl to me.”
“No. She’s a woman. A year older than you, but I remember a sweet girl.”
Sighing, Natalya nodded. “She seems sweet to me too.”
“And you to her. She told me she met my other guest Lasha.”
“I had to think of something on the spot!” Natalya laughed. “And I’ve been a servant every since!”
Gabriel’s smile faded. “I will seek you out tonight and we will talk.”
Natalya felt her heart ache at the thought of him leaving. She turned her back to him and sunk deeper into the water. “I’ll be waiting.”
Gabriel enjoyed the feast.
It was a rainbow of dancers, singers and musicians. The table was a collage of colorful fruits, meats, bread and wine! Tiffany had done a magnificent feat in such a short time! Everyone was in a celebratory mood. Maria’s entourage and his soldiers dined together in merriment. As the wine flowed, so did the flirtation! James held conversation with a Spanish, buxom beauty. She was completely taken with the English man.
Gabriel found himself engaged with both Eleanor and Maria. Both women sat on either side of him. Eleanor politely observing and Maria eagerly receptive. They toasted to good health and joy.
The music changed to an upbeat tempo. Maria placed her hand on Gabriel’s forearm. Her eyes glowed and her smile was radiant. He admired her beauty. The way she seemed to glow as if a light constantly shown behind her. Golden spirals were styled neatly on top of her head. Even the wayward strands that fell looked remarkably like it was intentionally placed that way!
To say she beautiful was an understatement. She was angelic.
“Take me out on the dance floor,” she said in her native tongue.
Gabriel answered her the same. “I would be honored.” He took her hand and they rose from the table. He remembered from the last time they met how light on her feet she was. She moved with the music effortlessly.
She looked up at him, smiling. “You must help my father. I fear his debt is too much for even him to handle.”
She still spoke in Spanish. Gabriel assumed that was for secrecy. So he did the same. “What has Antonio wagered now?”
Maria’s smile faltered, just a little. She loved her father, but what he had done to her was awful. “His debt holders are ruthless Gabriel. They mean to harm him anyway they can. So my father offered them any of his prize processions to hold until his debt to them was paid and they chose me.”
“I see,” Gabriel said carefully.
“My father and fiancé decided they couldn’t let that happen. So they planned to send me abroad with my fiancé Jorge. We were to be married before the debtors came to claim me. But Jorge grew ill with fever while we were on the ship…” Her smile faded completely now. “He was always good to me.”
“Oh Maria. I am sorry for your loss. What can I do?”
Maria smiled weakly. “I can’t go home without a husband. I thought we would make a good union. If you are not betrothed to another, would you have me?”
Staring at her fondly, Gabriel wished he could have her. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them though. He couldn’t give her what she needed; love and romance. Maria imagined herself rescued by a great knight. Swept away into a haven of love and bliss. And he couldn’t give her that. So he wouldn’t lie to her.
“You would make a beautiful wife, but I cannot marry you. It would be unfair of me to take you into my bed and deny you the dreams of your heart.”
Nodding, Maria did her best to focus on the dance. When it was over they made their way back to the table. There were full wine glasses and pitchers of ale waiting for them.
“To Lord Devall!” someone yelled and a thunderous cheer went up.
Gabriel grabbed a mug of ale and raised it high. “Aye! Drink and eat well tonight for tomorrow is promised to no one!”
Again they cheered the toast.
Eleanor held conversation with someone sitting next to her, not paying attention to her son at the moment. Maria bit into a piece of fruit, eyeing Gabriel suspiciously. He noticed and grinned.
“Who is she?” Maria asked, in English.
“Who is who?” Gabriel bit into the hunk of cooked bore’s meat.
“The Russian woman who you are letting stay here. Is she the reason why we cannot be married?”
Eleanor’s ears tuned into her son’s conversation.
Chewing, Gabriel thought it over. Natalya wasn’t the reason. She was just another woman he was helping. “Who do you think she is?”
Maria tapped her finger against her lips, thoughtfully. “I believe she is your mistress.”
Gabriel laughed, nodding his head. “I like the way that sounds!”
Maria laughed too. For this night she wouldn’t think about the mess her father had made of her life. She would enjoy Gabriel’s company and drink his wine. She would dance and be merry until the dawn came to bring her back to reality. One of Gabriel’s soldiers asked for her hand to dance and she gladly took it.
Eleanor leaned over to her son. “Marriage Gabriel? Does Natalya know?”
Looking at his mother, Gabriel frowned. “Must you eavesdrop? I’ll send you home unescorted if you don’t behave.”
“Oh Gabriel, I don’t need an escort. I just don’t want you to do something you’ll regret,” Eleanor smiled sweetly. “I don’t think she’s suited for you.”
Gabriel shook his head. “Who is suited for me then?”
The festivities went well into the morning. Both soldiers and guest went to bed with full bellies and warm with drinks. Some of them didn’t make it out of the hall! And others made it out with lustful urges to be satiated.
Gabriel made his way to his bed chambers too, with lustful urges he knew he couldn’t satiate. The beautiful Natalya lay in his bed. His sweet temptress, waiting for him to touch her tenderly. Erasing the memories of what had been done to her.
Stop it Gabriel, he told himself. She’s not yours for the taking.
Oh, but if she was he would take her, lay claim to her so that no other man would dare touch her. He imagined her body writhing beneath his as he kissed every inch of her. Then slowly entering her, savoring the heat from her most intimate sheath.
He stopped on his way up the stairs, shaking the thoughts from his head. Such thoughts would lead to him taking a dip in the cold lake. It was easy to look at her and see a strong, passionate woman. But he had to remind himself that she hadn’t begun to deal with what had happened to her. And until she did, he could never truly claim her.
And the more he thought about it, the more he admitted to himself that he wanted her.
He continued his walk up the stairs to his chambers. When he opened the door he saw her asleep on his large bed, but something was wrong. Closing the door behind him he went to her. She was moaning, painfully in her sleep. She had kicked the blanket away, her head tossed back and forth. Her eyes remained forcefully shut. He climbed on the bed and touched her shoulder.
And she screamed.
“No! Oh God no!”
Then she spoke frantically in her native tongue.
He shook her gently. “Natalya! Natalya wake from this awful dream!”
But she didn’t. Instead she pushed at his chest and fought. “No! Please, don’t do this!”
Hearing her pleas of mercy wrenched his heart and knotted his stomach. “Natalya,” he whispered tenderly in her ear. “It is I, Gabriel. I promised to protect you and I will. I have you and nothing can hurt you while I’m here.”
Her fighting began to cease, but her moan’s persisted. “Please,” she whispered. “Please…”
“Beg no more. You’ll never know a harmful touch again. I swear of it.” He kissed her ear lightly. She flinched, ready to fight. “No my sweetness. Fight no more. I will fight this battle for you.”
She went completely still. Silence fell upon the room. Then she spoke. “Will I always have these faceless dreams?” her voice was steady, controlled.
Gabriel didn’t know. “I cannot answer that.”
“He’s taken away the gift of my virtue.”
“Nay. He has not. You still have much to give a man of your choosing.”
Natalya swallowed. Her fears rose within her and she spoke them freely to him. “What man will have me now? How can I ask Robert to accept what is damaged?”
Gabriel inhaled the soapy fragrance of her hair. Claim her! Claim her now!, his mind screamed. “I would have you Natalya. What you see as damaged I see as misused. I would show you the proper way a man is supposed to touch a woman and you would feel pleasures you never dreamed of.”
The words fell upon her ears and stirred something deep inside of her. They were in an intimate setting as they had been many times before and she felt safe. It’s where she wanted to be! Shameful as it was to admit, it was true. Gabriel made her feel safer that anyone ever had before!
But she was promised to Robert and unless he refused her, she couldn’t betray her betrothed.
“Thank you for those words, but please say no more. I speak out of fear and I owe Robert the chance to decide what he will and will not accept.”
“And if he chooses not to accept you?”
“Then I’ll trust no man to touch me. Not even you Gabriel Devall.”
She set the challenge and he was ready to meet it. Robert would just have to live with the disappointment of losing her. Gabriel knew he wanted her when he laid eyes upon her again at her engagement party. Maybe it was the wine and ale that was making him throw away his reservations about her. He finally met a woman that captivated him and he didn’t want to let her go.
His fingers lightly caressed her cheek. There were no tears. She trembled at his touch and he smiled, pleased. Yes, he would have Natalya Huntington for his own. He would seduce her out of her fears and conquer her heart.