Read The Barefoot Princess Online

Authors: Christina Dodd

Tags: #Romance, #Adult, #Historical

The Barefoot Princess

Prologue

O
nce upon a time, in the small kingdom of Beaumontagne, there lived a young princess who decided that when she grew up, she would battle dragons. Her two older sisters told her that only princes battled dragons, but Princess Amy refused to listen to the naysayers. She wasn’t a girl like the others. She loved to run and shout, to pretend a stick was a sword and fight the suits of armor that lined the broad marble corridors, to climb the aged oaks and tear her silk skirts.

Unfortunately, the only dragon that presented itself to Amy was her grandmother, a formidable old woman with strong opinions on how a princess should behave. Despite frequent attempts to vanquish Grandmamma, Amy always found herself behaving as she ought…or being carried away, kicking and screaming, over a stolid footman’s shoulder while her sisters wept and her father, the king, looked on and worried.

Amy hated her grandmamma the dragon and at night in her ruffled bed, she prayed that Grandmamma would die. Amy knew she was wicked, but she didn’t care. She hated Grandmamma. Hated her, hated her, hated her.

Then one day Poppa sent the little princesses away. Gone were the fluttering flags to carry as Amy marched, gone were the long banisters that tempted a princess to slide, gone were the ponies and the nannies and the games. Amy knew it wasn’t really Poppa who sent them away. It must be wicked old Grandmamma who was to blame, and blame her she did, for Grandmamma sent them to cold, dreary England—for their safety, she said. She separated Crown Princess Sorcha from Amy and her sister Clarice. She made Clarice and Amy stay at a boarding school where no one really cared if Amy fought dragons or behaved like a princess.

Then the news came, the most horrible news in the whole world. Poppa was dead, killed in the war, and Amy realized she was to blame. Somehow her wicked wish had skipped Grandmamma and taken Poppa’s life. Somehow Amy had to make things right.

That was the year Amy was nine. That was the year she stopped pretending to battle dragons, and began to fight them for real.

Chapter 1

 

 

Devon, England
1810

I
f Jermyn Edmondson, the marquess of Northcliff, had known he was about to be kidnapped, he wouldn’t have gone out on a walk.

Or maybe he would have. He needed some excitement in his life.

He stared fiercely toward the gray bank of fog creeping across the cresting green ocean and covering the isle of Summerwind. Far beneath his feet, the waves crashed in foamy malice against the rocks at the base of the cliff. The wind combed his hair and lifted his unbuttoned greatcoat like the wings of a black seabird. The salt stung his nostrils, and a faint beading of spray misted his face. Everything here in this corner of Devon was wild, fresh, and free—except for him.

He was bound here. And he was bored.

With disgust, he turned away from the vista with its constant, tedious, battering waves and limped toward the garden where spring crocuses had begun to poke their greenery up through the barren soil.

Yet he took no pleasure in the small glimpses of gold and purple that shown through winter’s dull, brown blanket. His estate contained nothing to entertain a man of his interests. Only country balls enlivened the nights, peopled with bluff squires, giggling debutantes, and sly mamas on the hunt for a title for their daughters.

True, he had determined that the time had come for him to wed—indeed, he’d demanded Uncle Harrison submit a list of the current crop of debutantes and suggest a proper bride—but he would not take as his life’s mate a girl who considered a hearty walk along a bucolic lane as entertainment.

So unless one could ride or sail—and the carriage accident two months ago he’d suffered had curtailed his activities sharply—the days were interminable, stretching endlessly, quietly, filled with long walks in the fresh air. And reading.

He glanced down at the book in his hand. My God, he was so sick of reading. It wasn’t as if the London papers arrived with any regularity. He’d even begun to read in Latin, and he hadn’t done that for thirteen years. Not since his father had died. Not since he’d left this place forever.

How he wished he’d stayed away!

It was pride that sent him dashing away from London. He hated being an invalid, and he hated more being the center of cloying attention as he recovered. When Uncle Harrison suggested Summerwind Abbey as a retreat, he had considered the idea had merit.

He knew better, now.

In the gazebo, he seated himself on a cane chair and rubbed his wretched thigh. He’d suffered a bad break in the accident, and that country physician he’d called to attend him two nights ago had told him, in his ignorant Devon accent, “The best medicine is time and exercise. Walk until yer leg is tired, but don’t ye overdo! Walk where ’tis safe and flat. If ye slip and wrench that newly-mended bone, ye’ll do yerself permanent harm.”

Jermyn had dismissed the man with a snarl. It hadn’t helped that, only the previous day, he’d taken the steep and winding path down the cliffs toward the beach—and fallen because of the weakness in his leg. He had scarcely been able to drag himself back up to the manor. It was that pain which had made him send for the doctor in the first place, and he was not appeased to hear he should stroll on his veranda like a dowager or a child.

Opening his book, he allowed himself to sink into the tale of
Tom Jones
, a tale told when England was green and warm, and youth was a joy to be savored.

The rollicking adventures penned by Fielding captured him against his will, and Jermyn started when someone said, “M’lord?”

A maidservant stood at the entrance, holding a glass on a tray, and at his consenting nod, she approached, the tray outstretched.

He noted three things. He’d never seen her before. Her blue gown was shabby and the silver cross around her neck was exceptionally fine. And she stared into his eyes without deference as she thrust the drink toward him.

He didn’t immediately take it. Instead he noted the girl’s fine-grained skin, so different from the tanned complexions of the local milkmaids. Her eyes were an unusual shade of green, like the sea thrashing under the influence of an oncoming storm. Her hair was black, upswept, and curled tendrils escaped from the ribbon that bound them. He’d wager she was not yet twenty, and pretty, so pretty he was surprised no farmer about had claimed her as his bride. Yet her expression was severe, almost austere.

Perhaps that explained her single state.

Without being given permission, she spoke. “M’lord, you must drink. I brought it all the way out here to you!”

Half annoyed, half amused, he said, “I didn’t command it be brought.”

“It’s wine,” she said.

She was a plucky wench, without the manners imbued in the least of his servants. Yet she was new. Perhaps she feared trouble if he didn’t take the offering sent by the butler. “Very well. I’ll accept it.” Lifting the glass, he paused while she still stared, waiting anxiously for him to take a sip. In a crushing tone, he added, “That will be all.”

She jumped as if startled by his presence, as if she had forgotten he was a real, living lord to be feared and obeyed. She cast him a glance, dropped a graceful curtsy, and backed away, her gaze still on the glass.

He cleared his throat.

She looked into his face, and in her eyes he thought he glimpsed a flash of bitter resentment.

Then, with a toss of her head, she hurried across the garden.

Interestingly enough, she didn’t walk toward the manor, but toward the shore, and she moved with the confident stride of a lady who commanded all around her. Jermyn would have to speak to the butler about her. She needed to be taught to promptly return to her duties…and to treat her master with the respect due him.

When she was out of sight, he took a long drink, then sputtered at the flavor. Lifting the glass, he stared at the ruby color. The wine was bitter! How long had this been in his cellar?

Obviously the butler had grown lax in Jermyn’s absence, hiring impertinent maids and serving inferior wines. Resolving to speak to him, Jermyn went back to his book.

And blinked at the words. The page was growing dim.

He looked up and blinked again. Ah, yes. The sun was setting and fog was encroaching on the land, bringing with it the gloom that seemed to brood endlessly over a Devon winter.

How odd that his boyhood memories of this place were so different. He remembered long days of sunshine, filled with walks accompanied by his father or romps with visiting friends. He remembered wild storms filled with the excitement of howling winds and crashing waves. He remembered the scent of spring flowers and the crushed grass beneath him as he rolled down the hill.

He shook his head. Such memories were evidently the fond recollections of a boyhood long vanished.

The bitter wine had stimulated his thirst, and reluctantly he took another swallow. The texture was almost gritty, the flavor foul, and with disgust he tossed the remnants into the rhododendrons around the gazebo.

He found himself sweating. Had a wave of heat struck the garden, like a sudden, early spring? Digging his handkerchief out of his pocket, he blotted his face, then shed his greatcoat in a graceless act that left it bunched beneath him on the chair.

Looking back at the open book, he discovered the letters moving erratically. The light was going faster than he had realized, or the words wouldn’t behave so badly.

He tried to slap the book shut. The book flipped out of his suddenly clumsy fingers. His tongue grew large in his mouth. He lifted his head so he could stare across the garden, but the motion took a long time. The fog was creeping up from the ground, blurring his vision.

Or was it wine that made everything fuzzy?

The wine…

A startling conviction struck him. He staggered to his feet and stood swaying.
The wine had been poisoned.

He was dying.

When his carriage had lost its wheel and he’d careened off the road between London and Brighton, he had thought he was going to die. But this…this was more insidious, more…

The floor wavered and rose defiantly beneath his feet. He toppled over, landing with a crash that reverberated the boards and made him distantly aware of the impact on his injured leg. “Help,” he tried to shout. He heard people calling, running…

Aid was on its way.

High above him, a man’s Devon-accented voice proclaimed, “It worked, Miss Rosabel. Worked fine.”

Jermyn pried open his eyes. A huge pair of battered boots stood planted in front of his nose. With a mighty effort, he turned his head and looked past the thighs, past the belt, and far, far up toward the blunt, heavy face. A behemoth stood over him, a rough man with huge hands and a grim expression.

This wasn’t help. This was danger.

What did the giant want?

Then Jermyn saw the girl standing beside the huge man. A pretty girl. A girl with a direct green gaze that seemed to scorch him down to his soul. She wore a blue, tattered gown. He’d seen her once before.

“He’s looking at us,” the giant’s voice rumbled. “Why isn’t he knocked fer kindlin’?”

“He probably didn’t drink it all,” the girl answered. “That’s all right. He’ll do as is. Wrap him up. Let’s finish this before someone comes to check on him.”

She was the servant who had brought him the drink. She had tricked him. She had poisoned him.

She pulled out a knife with a blade so bright and sharp he could see nothing but the point.

She was going to kill him

Jermyn wanted to fight, but he couldn’t lift his heavy limbs. He tried to curse, but his mouth would not speak.

Taking a sheet of white paper from her bosom, she placed it on the table beside his book and affixed it to the flat surface with a swift, downward slash.

The giant shook out a white canvas shroud.

These people, these murderers were speaking, yet Jermyn could no longer pluck words from the gibberish of sound. His heart beat sluggishly. His blood slowed in his veins.

Death was approaching.

He closed his eyes one last time.

He had been murdered in his own garden.

Chapter 2

T
he next time Princess Amy Rosabel kidnapped an English nobleman, she intended to make sure he weighed less.

From a distance, Lord Northcliff hadn’t appeared large or impressive, but up close he was disconcertingly muscular, and when she had served him his wine she had been able to tell he topped her by at least six inches.

Now, as she stood in the gazebo and stared down at his limp body, she whispered, “He’s as big as a beached whale.”

Pomeroy Nodder, as taciturn a man as Amy had ever met, said, “Not a whale, miss. No blubber. But he’s a big un. Always was, even as a lad.”

The setting sun peeked through the gathering wisps of fog, casting a golden light on His Lordship. His hair was a deep, rich red like burnished mahogany. His eyebrows were dark and slanted upward in devilish mockery. Even unconscious, Lord Northcliff managed to look scornful.

Fie on his scorn. For luck, she touched the silver cross of Beaumontagne that hung on a chain around her neck. He was in her power now, and she would make him pay for his treachery.

Pom grunted as he rolled Lord Northcliff into the sail. “Give me a hand, would ye, miss?”

Dropping to her knees, she helped wrap Lord Northcliff, and the effort made her sweat in a most un-ladylike manner. Her royal grandmamma would not approve of such improper perspiration—but then, her grandmamma was a thousand miles away in the kingdom of Beaumontagne in the PyreneesMountains, and with any luck, that was where she would stay. Just the thought of the forbidding old woman made Amy sweat even more.

As Pom hoisted Lord Northcliff onto his shoulder, she snatched Lord Northcliff’s greatcoat off his chair. Lugging it after Pom, she followed as he carried His Heavy Lordship down the steep path to the shore.

The coat was hefty, and she hurried as she tried to keep up with Pom’s long steps. He was a big man, a fisherman who made his living by lifting heavy nets filled with sardines, and even he was panting by the time their footsteps crunched through the gravel on the beach.

From the boat hidden in the thickening fog, Miss Victorine Sprott’s fearful voice cried, “Who…who goes there?”

“It’s us. We got him,” Amy called. “We’re bringing him aboard.”

“What took you so long? I’ve been sitting here imagining dreadful things.” The elderly woman sounded both relieved and fretful.

Amy steadied the boat while Pom stepped over the bow, then hurried to help lower Lord Northcliff onto the boards. “Everything went as planned,” she assured Miss Victorine.

Miss Victorine had been in doubt about the whole scheme, and had needed reassurance every step of the way.

In truth, Amy found the execution of the plan to be more nerve-wracking than she had anticipated—and it was
her
plan.

“Gently. Set His Lordship down gently!” Miss Victorine commanded.

Amy’s aching arms couldn’t hold the weight any longer, and she dropped him the last few inches. Or perhaps it was more like a yard. Whatever the distance, she refused to be sorry, even when he roused from the depths of his unconsciousness to groan.

“Do be careful!” Miss Victorine rebuked. “He is our liege lord.”

Amy rotated her shoulders. “A liege lord who has behaved abominably to his people.”

“Not so dreadfully,” Miss Victorine said.

“Abominably,” Amy insisted.

“But our liege lord nevertheless.” Miss Victorine’s voice took on a anxious tone.

“Not mine,” Amy said grimly.

Pom groaned as he straightened his back. “Sit on that coil o’ rope, Miss Rosabel. We’d best get him back t’ the isle afore he wakes, or we’ll find out exactly how he shows his displeasure.”

“The arrogant blackguard would probably upset the boat and drown us all.” Placing the greatcoat onto the coil of rope, Amy seated herself for the two-mile trip.

“He’s not daft,” Miss Victorine said. “He won’t drown
himself
. But he does have a dreadful temper. What if he had shot you? What if his servants caught you and shot you? What if—”

“Yet here we are, as planned,” Amy reassured the aged gentlewoman. “All will be well, Miss Victorine, I vow it will. Don’t lose your nerve now!”

Stepping out of the boat into the water, Pom pushed it off the beach. Leaping in, he expertly took up the oars. “We’ll be home in a flit.”

Home was the isle of Summerwind, another of Lord Northcliff’s possessions. Another of Lord Northcliff’s neglected duties.

The boat cut through the waves, then out into the open water. Amy listened to the slap of waves against the boat and Lord Northcliff’s stentorian breathing. An escalating sense of urgency dogged her. She hoped Pom could find his way home, and quickly. It was too dreadful to think Lord Northcliff might awaken before she had him irrevocably bound. She had already been pinned by the direct gaze of his odd, light brown eyes, and she didn’t relish any further experience. She thought him exceedingly like the tiger she’d seen as a child. Big, beautiful, wild, and dangerous, all teeth and cruelty, uncaring of the carnage left in his wake as he fed and played.

The sun had set and left only a fading, silvery light behind. The fog thickened around them. And something cool and soft touched her cheek.

She jumped and swatted at it—and caught Miss Victorine’s hand.

Miss Victorine clutched Amy’s fingers and whispered, “Lord Northcliff is so still. You don’t suppose he’s dead?”

“If His Lordship was dead, it would be no more than he deserved,” Amy answered rather too loudly.

Miss Victorine gave one of her birdlike chirps of dismay.

“Lord Northcliff most certainly is not dead. Marcophilia doesn’t kill one, it knocks one out,” Amy said in a gentler voice.

“But Lord Northcliff is all wrapped up in that sail as if it were his shroud.” Miss Victorine had been uneasy about Amy’s plan from the beginning, and now that it was in motion, she was sure the noose swung close behind her neck.

“He’s no good to us dead,” Amy explained for perhaps the hundredth time. “We can only ransom him if he’s alive. Besides—can’t you hear him snoring?”

Miss Victorine giggled nervously. “Is that him? I thought it was Pom huffing as he rowed.” Lowering her voice as if someone could hear her, she asked, “Did you leave the letter?”

“I did.” Amy thought with satisfaction of the sharp knife stabbed into her carefully worded ransom letter. She wondered when the servants would find it. She estimated it would take only a day to make its way into Mr. Harrison Edmondson’s hands. And two more days for the money to make its way to the point of deposit—the crumbling castle on the isle of Summerwind.

Amy liked the irony of having the cash come there, to the ancient home of the proud Edmondson family. She liked even better the tunnels that combed the castle and made it possible for her to retrieve the notes without detection.

Waves caught the boat and lifted it onto the island, and as the boards scraped the sandy beach, Amy caught her breath. Almost there.

Pom leaped into the water and dragged the boat ashore, then stepped back. With Amy’s help, he slung the canvas-wrapped body over his shoulder.

Miss Victorine whimpered as Lord Northcliff groaned again. “He sounds like he’s in pain, the poor dear.”

“Steady as she goes, Miss Sprott.” The fisherman stepped surefootedly over to the bow of the boat and onto shore. “Secure me boat, please, Miss Rosabel,” he said over his shoulder.

Amy leaped onto shore and, grabbing the bow, heaved the vessel above the tide line. As she assisted Miss Victorine from the boat, the old woman said, “I do hope Lord Northcliff isn’t angry with us.”

Amy thought he was going to be more than angry. She thought he would be livid. A man of wealth and influence wouldn’t take his helplessness with any amount of grace. And a man so obsessed with riches that he would steal an invention from an old woman would positively froth at the idea of being forced to give up a trifling part of his obscenely large fortune.

Amy grinned. Actually, not so trifling at all.

But she didn’t say that to Miss Victorine. Instead she declared, “You must admit that there’s justice to demanding a ransom for the return of the man who stole your idea in the first place.”

“Yes. Yes, I know, dear, you’re right. Quite right. But the Sprotts have lived in my house for generations, and always with the permission of the marquess of Northcliff. And it’s not as if what we’re doing is exactly legal—stealing Lord Northcliff, I mean.”

Not exactly legal?
A polite way of putting it. “The marquess is nothing but an overgrown bully who commands that we pay him rent on a poor, battered house the cows would be ashamed to call home.”

“I rather like my house.”

“The roof leaks.”

“It has atmosphere.”

“Miss Victorine, that’s not atmosphere, that’s rain.”

Pom interrupted. “If you’ve secured the boat, Miss Rosabel, His Lordship isn’t getting any lighter.” He set off through the darkness toward their maligned cottage.

Miss Victorine walked after him.

Amy scooped the greatcoat into her arms and followed them along the path, onto the bare, grassy hills that made up the isle of Summerwind.

It was a pretty, bucolic island in the daylight, dotted with trees and cows. The village was set in a cove on the shore. Sprott Hall stood in a hollow surrounded by an apple orchard. And the crumbling castle, a brooding mass of tumbled gray stones, commanded the highest point on the island.

Sprott Hall had once been a handsome home constructed of white-painted plaster. During the daytime it was possible to admire the roses that climbed the trellis around the door—and see the faded green paint on the shutters. The thatching had fallen into disrepair, and two of the glass windows had been broken in a winter gale and were patched with nothing better than rags.

Miss Victorine had lived here her whole life, growing up and growing old in the same house, watching it deteriorate around her as her family died and Lord Northcliff paid no attention to maintaining his properties.

Yet the old woman was the heart of the village, a kind soul who had readily given Amy a home when she’d washed up on shore, barely conscious and half frozen. Although she had told Miss Victorine she recalled nothing of why she wore a seaman’s uniform, that was a lie. She well remembered her dive over the edge of the ship when the captain and his crew had discovered their new cabin boy was actually a girl.

Men, Amy had concluded, were all swine, and it had taken most of her year on the island before she grudgingly admitted that Pom was a kind man, and that a few of the other fishermen deserved accolades, too.

But it was Miss Victorine who had given Amy a lesson in graciousness and compassion—and sent her along this crooked path to justice.

Miss Victorine rushed to open the door. A large black cat coiled around her ankles, and she leaned over to pick him up. “Coal, my darling boy, how are you?”

He meowed and rubbed his head against her chin, then flung himself over her shoulder and hung there like a fur wrap.

Miss Victorine scratched his rump. “Make sure you don’t bump His Lordship’s head, Pom. We don’t want to make him angry.”

“Nay, ma’am, we wouldn’t want to do that.” Pom carried the sail-draped Lord Northcliff inside, and stood waiting while Amy discarded the greatcoat onto the floor and lit a lantern. The sitting room opened off the foyer, and a dark corridor led to the bedrooms. It was to the kitchen at the back that Amy made her way, followed closely by Pom and Miss Victorine. Pom bent to descend the steps to the wine cellar, the sail flapping against his thighs, Lord Northcliff unmoving.

In the small room carved out of the rock beneath the house, Amy and Miss Victorine had created a living area for His Lordship. Not so grand a living area as existed in Lord Northcliff’s manor, but it would suffice for his needs for the three or four days he would remain here. In the small room was a bed, a table, a pitcher and basin, and a case full of dusty books. The cot had been placed under the high window where he could receive what light came in. Beneath it sat a chamber pot. A rocking chair was placed against the wall.

And bolted to the stone wall beside the bed was an iron manacle, rescued from EdmondsonCastle.

Amy herself had ventured into the dungeons to get that manacle. She had frowned at the rust on the various implements of imprisonment. She had decided on this particular manacle, and a scrubbing with oil had proved her decision to be a good one. The manacle and the chain connected to it were not as good as she might have hoped, but—it had a key. A key that worked in the lock. Because heaven knew she didn’t want to keep Northcliff longer than necessary.

The straw mattress crackled as Pom placed Lord Northcliff on the narrow, iron cot and unwrapped him from the canvas.

Amy handed Miss Victorine the lantern. Not without trepidation, Amy pressed her fingers to the vein in Lord Northcliff’s throat. His heart beat strongly, and he gave off such a heat that she wondered if, on some unconscious level, he was aware of the indignity done to him and raged against it.

Hastily she pulled her hand back. “He’s very much alive.”

“Thank heavens!” Miss Victorine had insisted on dressing up to fetch Lord Northcliff back to her home, just as if he were a guest rather than a victim, and now she wore her finest purple cloak trimmed with a collar of aged ermine. The drooping, purring cat added an element of living elegance. She had styled her mass of white hair into a coiffure fashionable fifty years ago, and with Amy’s expert help, she had dabbed rose on her wrinkled cheeks and faded lips. A velvet beauty patch adorned her upper lip, and her gray brows had been tweezed to a thin, arching line. Now she bustled about like a hostess caught unawares. She lit the stub of a cheap candle and added coal to the fire in the small iron stove.

Pom pulled off His Lordship’s boots, leaving his white stockinged feet dangling off the edge of the bed.

Then, with careful precision, Amy placed the manacle around His Lordship’s ankle and snapped it into place. The crack of metal against metal made her step away and rub the goose bumps that rose on her arms. “There,” she said bracingly. “He can’t free himself.”

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