Exclusive Excerpt: Royally Entitled - Brides of Brevalia Book 1 by Melody Delgado (Chapters 1-3)
When her family's cider business is ruined and other local businesses are vandalized, Anika Pembrie wonders if the recent bout of unrest is merely a result of rivalry between local merchants and noblemen or if something more sinister is at the root of the recent crimes. Along her journey Anika befriends Prince Valdemar, future king of Brevalia but their relationship hits many twists and turns along the way. Lady Winifred Paxel Flemming pursues the prince relentlessly. His grandmother, Queen Marguerite, expects him to wed whoever she thinks is suitable, even if it means marrying a foreign princess he’s never met. Anika’s mother, Lady Sarah, wants Anika to help ease the family’s financial burdens by marrying Erland Riccats, National Chairman of the Merchants’ Guild. Lady Sarah also harbors secrets regarding Prince Valdemar’s mother, Princess Karin, who met an untimely death years before. In the end, will both Anika and Prince Valdemar be forced into loveless mar-riages, or will they be able to outwit their enemies?
ROYALLY ENTITLED has placed in the top four in its category of Christian historical romance in the Readers' Favorite Awards for 2017/
EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT (Chapters 1-3)
Miss Anika Pembrie glanced down from the top of the mulberry tree she’d climbed and stole a glimpse of Prince Valdemar riding past her on his white stallion. She held her breath, hoping he wouldn’t look up and catch her spying on him.
“Anika, we’re leaving,” her father hollered from the back porch.
Botheration! She’d told her parents she wasn’t going to the fair with them.
As Prince Valdemar spurred his horse and dashed back and forth along the palace grounds bordering Anika’s property, she realized she wouldn’t be able to emerge from the tree without being seen by him. But maybe, if she hurried, she could climb halfway down and then scurry off while he rode away in the opposite direction.
She began making her descent from branch to branch while Finn, their ten-year-old stable boy, gazed up at her from the ground below.
“Oh there you are, Miss Pembrie,” he called out to her. His clothing was stained with jam, and his hair was a mass of blond curls that hadn’t seen a brush in days. “Your father’s been searching for you.”
“Tell him to leave without me,” she whispered, putting a finger to her lips. “I’m not going.”
“What’s that?” Finn shouted, just as Prince Valdemar rode by again. “You’ll have to speak up. I can’t hear what you’re saying if you whisper.”
Was the boy thickheaded, or was he purposely trying to thwart her?
“Tell my father not to wait for me,” she said.
“He is waiting for you,” Finn hollered. “But don’t worry. Your mother said she needed another minute or two.” He strode towards the house.
Drat! He’d misunderstood her. “Finn! Wait!”
“We are waiting,” he said, glancing back at her over his shoulder. “But since you’re going, I’ll stay behind to help with the chores.”
Anika opened her mouth to correct him, but he ran off before she could utter another word. Now she’d have to hurry. Her father would just keep sending people to search for her if she tarried.
Waiting until the prince’s horse galloped off towards the palace, she climbed down to the lower branches. When she jumped from the bottom branch to the ground she landed in a large pile of sticky, wet, mulberries. She slipped, tried to keep her footing, but fell face forward right into another huge mound of moist purple fruit.
“Botheration,” she muttered, leaning up on her elbows. Her hands were stained with purple juice, so was her dress. She raked a hand across her face and ripped a gooey purple mulberry from her cheek, as a pair of gleaming black leather boots strode towards her, and a horse whinnied from a few feet away.
No no no!
She maneuvered herself into a sitting position and dared to look up.
A tall, young man with long, straight, copper-colored hair stood over her. Prince Valdemar, trying to stifle a laugh, extended a hand to help her up. “I’ve always found it difficult to climb trees while wearing a gown and silk slippers,” he said with a smirk. “Why don’t you try to stand? Then we can determine whether or not to fetch a doctor.”
Anika remained where she was, sitting in the sludge, staring up at him, unable to speak. Good thing she hadn’t fallen far enough to be badly hurt. It was her pride that was wounded, that was all.
She pushed off the ground while he took hold of her hand and pulled her to a standing position. Staggering forward a few steps, she felt a bit off balance at his touch. Maybe she had injured herself somehow.
He furrowed his brows as he watched her stumbling about. “Perhaps we should get help.”
Once she stepped away from the mulberries, and was on firm, un-littered ground, her walking returned to normal. “No need,” she said. “It was just the berries. They’re slippery when squished.”
A small laugh escaped from him. “Ah, that might be a good thing to keep in mind for future endeavors.” He surveyed the tall branches towering above him. “Do you often climb trees?”
Anika glanced from the top of his blue velvet cap, to his creamy white linen tunic, and down to his polished leather boots. His grooming was impeccable. Several servants had probably helped him dress. He even smelled like limes.
If she were to admit that she did partake of such unfeminine activities as climbing trees, he might be correct in assuming that she liked fishing and hunting as well. These pursuits didn’t leave her smelling anything like fresh fruit. But better to be honest, she decided.
“Well, uh, yes, I’m afraid I’ve not yet outgrown my desire for such pursuits.”
“How old are you?”
“Interesting …” He raised his eyebrows then glanced around at the flowers and plants surrounding them. “Well, it’s certainly a nice day to be out of doors.”
Was he just being kind by staying and chatting with her, or was he always so amiable? Perhaps he wanted to alleviate her embarrassment by making it seem as if falling out of a tree and landing in a pile of mulberries was a normal everyday occurrence.
Squinting at her, he was quiet for a moment. “I don’t believe we’ve met. Allow me to introduce myself. Valdemar Dresden, at your service.” He bowed elegantly. “And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?”
“Oh, uh,” Anika’s hands began smoothing the old brown linen dress she’d worn in order to blend into the tree. But when she realized there was nothing she could do to improve her appearance, she stood tall and curtsied. “Miss Anika Pembrie. Thank you for your kind assistance. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to help you when you fall.”
The prince smirked and choked back another laugh.
Anika folded her arms across her chest. “Do you mock me because, in your ignorance, you think you won’t ever need anyone’s help, or because you assume that someone like me would never be able to assist you with something you might need assistance with?” Her voice grew faster and louder as she spoke.
He stared at her, wide-eyed, as if she were a six-headed dragon.
“We’re leaving, Anika!” her father called.
Prince Valdemar backed away from her. “I do believe that’s my cue to depart.” He hopped back on his horse, and rode off before she could utter another word.
She chided herself. He’d been kind, for goodness’ sake. But she just had to put her foot in it and let her temper get the best of her.
Botheration! Her father was waiting and there she stood, idle, mulling over her conversation with a stranger.
She rushed to the well in the back yard, buried her hands in a bucket of water, and cleaned up as best she could. Then she grabbed her hat from the ground and raced around the house to the front lawn.
Mr. Pembrie sat atop the box of their carriage, grasping the horses’ reins.
“I’m sorry, Father, but I won’t be able to join you.” Anika donned her felt hat, and adjusted the brim to block out the morning sun.
The beige color of his farmer’s hat and tunic blended into his skin, making him look old and tired. He was in sore need of a day off. “If that’s what you want,” he answered. “But remember, the agricultural fair comes but once a year.”
“Please go enjoy yourself, Father, you’ve earned it. I’ll stay behind and tend to the animals.”
Anika’s mother rushed out of the house wearing a crisp, green, linen dress. Her brown hair had been expertly braided and encircled atop her head, like a crown. “Pray for our cider to win first place at the fair,” she said, hurrying past Anika and climbing into the waiting carriage. When she leaned out the window to wave goodbye, she caught sight of Anika’s stained dress and frowned. “What happened this time? Never mind, I don’t want to know. How on earth can we trust you to stay home alone, if this is how you’ve decided to start the day?”
“Westlowe is just a short distance away. You’ll be back well before supper. What could go wrong before —”
“Lady Sarah! Wait!” Finn dashed down the front steps, clutching a sturdy leather pouch, and handed it to Anika’s mother.
“You found my purse!” Lady Sarah reached inside it, grabbed a copper penning, and handed it to Finn. “Here is your reward.”
Finn beamed, placed the coin in his pocket, and ran off, while Mr. Penning whipped the horses into motion.
A horse-drawn wagon carrying kegs of apple cider rolled slowly behind. The farmhands, Bertram and Victor, sat on the perch, while Una, the housekeeper, and Inga, the cook, sat in the rear amidst the straw, keeping watch over the precious barrels of juice.
“I didn’t have time to gather the eggs, Miss Pembrie.” Una said, picking hay off of her black linen dress with her long thin hands.
“Do not fret,” Anika said. “Finn offered to stay behind and help with the chores. If he doesn’t get to it, I promise, I will.”
“Where is that good-for-nothing, anyway?” Inga scolded. “I doubt you’ll get much help from him!” Her double chin shook and her gray hair tumbled out of her white cap. “We all know he’s eating us out of house and home as we speak. Stable boy my foot, lazy hanger-on more like. He likely snatched Lady Sarah’s purse, and then hid it, so he could look the hero and gain a reward when it was found.”
Anika stifled a laugh. Inga could well have been right.
The wagon picked up speed. “We’ll have everything sorted out by the time you get back,” Anika said, waving.
Once the carriages rolled past the iron gates, Anika rushed to the barn. “Finn!” she shouted. “Time to help with the chores.”
No answer. Botheration! For weeks she’d been waiting for some free time so she could ready her clothes for the ball, and instead, there she was, in a stench-filled barn, trying to maneuver her way through the dung-littered ground.
She hurried to feed the pigs and sheep then rushed to the chicken coop and filled a basket with eggs. She sighed wearily when she discovered heavy udders beneath their white cow, but gathered a pail and a three-legged stool.
As she sat pulling and squeezing Blossom’s heavy underbelly, she was tempted to brood over Finn’s laziness, but she remembered her mother asking her to pray for their cider to win first place at the fair, so she sent up a silent prayer asking God to work on their behalf.
When she finished milking Blossom, she noticed Finn’s shovel resting against a wall of the barn. She trudged over to the nearest horse and checked its stall. Not a bit of work had been done. “Finn!” she hollered.
He took his time strolling out from a stall further down, holding a butter cookie in his grimy hands.
Anika’s blood boiled. “Where have you been? I’ve been calling for you.”
“You’re here.” He bit into his cookie and munched. “What you be needing my help for?”
“Oh no you don’t.” Anika placed her hands on her hips. “I’ve been helping with the chores so Father and the servants can take the day off, but you’ve got to clean out the horses’ stalls like you always do.”
Finn swallowed the last bite of biscuit. “And what will you be doing?”
Insolent child! As if she were accountable to him. “I’ve got more than enough of my own work to do, thank you.”
“Oh of course you do. The ball is but a week away, and rumors be flying that Prince Valdemar himself might go.” Finn made kissing sounds with his lips. “And look at you. Ha! You’re right. It’ll take loads of work to get you ready to be around any man, let alone a prince.” Finn guffawed, pointing at the purple stains all over Anika’s clothing. “Is that why you was spying on him? So you can see what he looks like all grown up and then run up to him and beg him for a dance?” He folded his hands and held them beneath his chin. “Please, Prince Valdemar, dance with me, pick me,” he said in a high-pitched voice.
“Enough already, you’ve made your point.” She grabbed the shovel and handed it to him.
“At your service, Your Royal Highness,” Finn said, bowing and mocking her.
Anika rushed to her bedroom to change. Then she gingerly placed her ball gown atop a basket of dirty clothes, and lugged the gown and all her laundry down the long staircase.
Though the dress was one of her mother’s old castoffs it was made of pink satin, and its creamy white lace panels needed to be treated with the utmost care. It still needed a quick wash to freshen it up. But it had to dry, get altered to fit her, and then pressed to perfection. She didn’t like wearing frilly dresses, but she couldn’t show up for the ball wearing one of her usual faded frocks. Besides, it would be a welcome change to dress up for a special occasion.
Una, their housekeeper, had always done the wash, but Anika had taken to scrubbing her personal items herself, along with her sheets and coverlet. There was something disconcerting about Una touching her lace-trimmed knickers and scratchy petticoats, one moment, and then calling her “Miss Pembrie” a few minutes later.
When Anika reached the kitchen, she placed her laundry in a metal tub, washed everything with goose grease soap then hung it all out to dry on the branches of some shrubs growing behind the barn where they’d not be disturbed.
Her back ached from her efforts but since her chores were completed, she went for a leisurely stroll through the rows of sweet-smelling apple trees, which grew in the orchard. A warm breeze swept through the deep green leaves, while puffy white clouds floated along the powder blue sky. Bees buzzed near the fruit that had fallen onto the leaf-covered ground below, and birds whistled overhead. It was a perfect September day.
Listening to the sounds of nature made Anika’s fingers ache for a few rounds of target practice with her crossbow. She grabbed some rotten apples from the ground, ran around to the other side of the house, and lined them up along the top of a wooden fence. Then she rushed inside and up the stairs, snatched the weapon from beneath her bed, and wandered back outside.
Anika loaded a bolt, raised her bow, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The bolt pierced the center of the apple, sending it sailing several feet before it fell to the ground. All but three of the remaining apples met the same fate. Even with little time to practice, she hadn’t lost her touch.
The errant bolts rested near the edge of the fence. She wandered over to collect them, but froze when she bent to pick them up. Suddenly, the air began to smell like a cake that had been left in the oven too long and had become charred and blackened. Something was burning.
She threw down her weapon and ran around the perimeter of the house, searching frantically for the source of the smell. When she reached the orchard, she held her hand to her mouth, and gasped. The trees were engulfed in bright red flames!
For a brief moment, it seemed as if every noise went silent. The sounds of the chickens clucking, the horses neighing, the geese honking in the pond … Only the crackling pops of the blaze echoed in her ears.
No. This cannot be happening.
Anika’s breath caught in her throat. She stared at the fire in disbelief until the putrid scent of burning leaves caused her to gather her wits.
She rushed to the barn and grabbed a milking pail. “Finn! Help me!” she shouted. No sign of him. Where was the dratted boy now?
Running to the pond in front of the house, she filled her pail. Back and forth from the water to the fire she trudged, with bucket after bucket, as fast as her arms and weighty petticoat would let her. The banks of the pond became so muddy she lost her balance, almost falling headlong into the murky waters. Growing tired, she mustered all her strength, filled another bucket, and lumbered back to the spiraling flames. But it was no use. The fire had spread too far for one person to manage.
How she wished the entire household hadn’t left for the day. If the orchard were destroyed … But no, she wouldn’t think of that now. Instead, she sent up a short silent prayer for help.
“Finn!” she shouted once more to no avail.
A moment later hooves pounded behind her. Half a dozen men had ridden up on horses. At the sight of them, relief washed over her like the bucket of water she’d just tossed on the flames. Help at last.
She hurried towards the men as they dismounted, recognizing Lord Karlsyn and several other noblemen she knew only by name. Then her eyes rested on the tallest gentleman. Prince Valdemar.
“More milking pails are in the barn!” she shouted.
The men ran to get the buckets then filled them in the pond and rushed to the orchard to douse the trees. They scrambled to and fro from the fire to the water for several minutes, almost bumping into each other in their efforts.
Though everyone worked like oxen, they all rushed about frenzied and haphazard. “Let us surround the fire and come at it from different directions,” Anika hollered out to them. “We must contain it before it spreads any further.”
Sir Ian jumped back from a burning leaf that was falling to the ground. “The fire isn’t dying down fast enough,” he shouted. “Do you have any rags or cloths to pound out the flames?”
“There are tablecloths in the dining room,” Anika said, trying to keep her balance amidst the mud forming at her feet.
Before she could rush off to the house to grab the linens, Finn ran towards them holding up her wet laundry for all to see. “Would these help?”
“Good work, lad.” Sir Ian grabbed a wet sheet, rolled it up, and began beating at the flames.
Lord Lindholm dropped his pail and reverted to attacking the blaze with one of Anika’s frilly nightgowns. Sir Fritzer began beating down the fire with her yellow bed coverlet.
Lord Karlsyn attempted to pour another bucket of water over the flames but slid on some mud, splashing most of the precious liquid over his boots. As he fell into the mire, a branch that had ignited fell towards him. Anika rushed up, placed a wet sheet over him then flicked the branch into the mud surrounding them. Once he was on firm footing again, he grabbed an item from the pile of wet laundry and began whacking at the flames.
The article of clothing he was using caught Anika’s attention. Her dress for the ball! Anika’s heart felt heavy as she glanced at her ruined gown, but it was too late to do anything about her loss.
Prince Valdemar, still dousing the fire with buckets of water, worked close to the remaining flames. Sir Ian snatched the last piece of wet laundry and draped it over the prince’s shoulders. The prince wrenched the item off then used it to help the others pound out what was left of the fire, since only a few flames remained.
When the blaze was extinguished Anika seized the opportunity to rest for a moment, stepping away from the gray smoke and placing her foot atop an overturned pail.
The men were so hot and exhausted, they dunked her laundry back into the pails of water, and used the wet items to cool themselves and wipe away the soot from their faces and hands.
As Anika stood near them, she noticed the item of laundry Prince Valdemar was using. It was edged with lace and pink ribbon. Goodness gracious, he was cooling himself with her freshly washed knickers!
Prince Valdemar caught Anika staring at them. He let out a laugh, before immersing the garment in a bucket of water and continuing to use it to wipe the soot off his hands.
Drat! If she thought having Una wash her personal items was uncomfortable, having a stranger touch them was mortifying. It was just her luck that none of the older married men with daughters had gotten stuck using them. No, an unmarried prince had to be the one to view her knickers up close.
Perhaps she could try to distract him. She grabbed her pail, and rushed over to him. “Thank you so much for all your help. Everything seems to be under control now. ”
“Not quite.” Prince Valdemar strode closer to some burning embers that still littered the ground. He tossed her knickers over them and poured the remaining water in his bucket right on top of her most private piece of clothing. Then he swept his blue velvet cap from his head and bowed. “Happy to be of service.” He stifled a giggle as he stole one last look at her charred and muddied knickers.
His lighthearted, and perhaps flippant, behavior surprised her and would normally have irked her but, under the circumstances, it served to calm her instead.
Prince Valdemar was friendly enough and she’d interacted with his warm and welcoming cousin, Lord Karlsyn, on previous occasions, but the rest of the men might not treat her in a civil manner now that they were no longer in a state of emergency. Their expensive silk tunics and polished leather boots made one thing quite clear: They were all noblemen.
She recognized Baron Vicksburg by his full, red, beard and Sir Fritzer by his muscular build and long blond locks. Sir Ian and Lord Lindholm were older men, well known in the community.
Though Anika’s Grandfather was an earl and her mother a Lady, titles were not passed from mother to daughter. And since Anika’s father held no title, neither did Anika. Everyone just called her “miss”.
“How did the fire start?” Sir Ian asked, wiping his face with a handkerchief.
“The wench was probably doing something careless like burning leaves,” Baron Vicksburg spat, rounding on her. His flushed face was almost as red as his thick, wavy, tresses. “What did you do, leave the fire unattended while you ran upstairs to comb your hair? Those lush green trees did not burst into flames on their own.”
Startled by his accusation, she took a moment to find her voice. “I don’t know how the fire started.”
“Must have been a wildfire then,” said Lord Karlsyn. His deep brown hair had been tied back with a ribbon earlier, but his thick locks had come loose, and now cascaded about his handsome face.
Anika nodded. “Yes. That must have been the cause. Lord Karlsyn, may I offer you and your friends some cider?”
Prince Valdemar stepped forward, reached for Anika’s hair, and pulled a large piece of ash out of it. “Will you be serving it with or without ashes?” he asked, with a smirk.
She blushed, glancing away from him, and she caught sight of Baron Vicksburg scowling at her again.
He flicked some ashes from his now ruined sleeve. “Shouldn’t we be going, Val? If we want to get back to our hunt, we’ll need to change out of these wretched clothes.”
“Oh yes. Right,” Prince Valdemar said. “Good day, Miss Pembrie.”
The rest of the men bade Anika farewell, and followed the prince as he strolled across the grass in search of his horse.
She felt a heavy weight lift from her shoulders as she watched them ride off. Her family stayed afloat financially because of the tasty cider they made from the apples growing in their orchard. Mr. Pembrie entered it in various contests throughout the year, which provided the family with a bit of prize money now and again. Since they could then make the claim that their cider was “prize-winning”, they sold every last drop of it each season. The fact that all of the trees were still standing was something to be grateful for.
Every muscle in her body ached, but there was no time to rest, for as soon as the men had left, her parent’s carriage careened into the yard, scattering dust and pebbles.
Mr. Pembrie jumped out of the coach before it slowed to a stop. He stumbled towards the smoky orchard, his hand covering his mouth. His slow movements and hunched shoulders made him look much older than his forty-five years.
Her mother’s response was no better. As she alighted from the carriage, her hand went to her chest. When she trudged towards the charred trees, she held a handkerchief to her brow as though she might faint dead away at any moment.
Anika ran to her mother and was greeted with a tight embrace. “Oh my precious daughter. Thank goodness you are all right. But how did this happen?”
Finn ran up to Anika’s parents, and hopped up and down beside them. “Mr. Pembrie, Lady Sarah, you should have seen it! The fire burned for hours and hours. We’re so worn out, we’ll need an extra large feast at suppertime. It was so horrible, several noblemen and the prince himself had to help us put it out. And he almost got burned to a crisp!”
Lady Sarah froze. “Prince Valdemar was here? My word, the situation must have been dire indeed. How can we repay those brave men for their kindness?”
The servants arrived in the horse-drawn cart. Inga and Una surveyed the damage then fussed over Anika’s mother like two clucking hens.
“We must get you some coffee, Lady Sarah,” Inga said.
“You must let us fix your hair,” said Una, at the sight of Lady Sarah’s braid, which had been wrapped around her head earlier but had now begun to come loose.
Lady Sarah heeded their words and bustled through the heavy front door, while Inga and Una trailed behind, chattering away.
Mr. Pembrie stood staring at the orchard as if in a trance. “How did this happen? Did you light a fire to make soap, or some such thing?”
Why was she being accused of negligence, when she’d done nothing wrong? “No, Father, I promise, you I don’t know how the fire started, and I haven’t yet had a moment to think about how it did.”
“Well, someone was obviously careless! Perhaps someone was smoking a pipe, and dropped burning tobacco near the fence as they were riding by.”
“It’s a long way from the road to the orchard,” Anika said, glancing towards the iron gates.
“But it could have lit the grass, which in turn set fire to the trees.”
They trudged over to the fence and examined the grass but found nothing charred or burned.
“Was it thundering earlier? Perhaps lightning hit one of the trees.”
Anika shook her head. “Not a drop of rain fell.”
“There has to be some explanation,” her father said, crossing his arms.
A dozen thoughts flowed through Anika’s mind. It was harvest time in early autumn. The downpours during the summer months had come and gone. A wildfire caused by dry vegetation could be ruled out. A blaze occurring right after the heavy rains meant just one thing.
“Arson,” she said.
Her father glanced around and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Are you mad? Do you know how dangerous it is to utter those kinds of thoughts out loud?”
“But Father, I smelled a strange odor before I saw the flames,” she whispered back. “The smell reminded me of burnt cake. What if someone doused the trees with oil before setting them ablaze?”
He clicked his tongue. “Please. You’re grasping at straws.”
“But what other explanation is there? What if someone wanted to keep us from winning the cider competition at the fair?”
“The cider contest was held first thing this morning. We won first place.” Her father breathed out heavily. “If someone had intended to harm us they’d have done it weeks ago, long before the cider was pressed.”
“You took the blue ribbon? That is good news.”
His shoulders slumped. “How so? The orchard cannot be salvaged. If those trees aren’t already dead, they soon will be. All we have left are the barrels of cider in the root cellar. There’ll be nothing to sell come next summer.”
“Oh … ” Anika felt foolish and naïve. She’d thought the damage was minor because they’d managed to save the trees from burning to the ground. “But what if an arsonist did do the damage,” she whispered. “We can find out who did it and make them pay. I’m going to have a look around, see if anything turns up.”
They were both silent as they gathered the buckets and the charred remains of Anika’s belongings, then checked the area for soiled rags or a jar of oil that might have been left behind.
“Nothing,” said Mr. Pembrie.
“I’m going to keep looking,” Anika said, with a sigh.
“If it’ll give you peace of mind …”
The areas near the front and sides of the house were searched before they wandered around to the back porch.
“What’s this? Why is the door to the root cellar open?” Mr. Pembrie said, striding closer to it. “The barrels were loaded onto the wagon last evening. I can’t imagine Victor or Bertram failing to shut the door all the way.”
They wandered down to the cellar, and gasped. The barrels of cider stored inside had been hacked opened and pushed over so that the contents spilled out.
Anika rushed inside to see if any barrels had been spared. “Empty, every last one. Oh, Father, I’m so sorry!”
Mr. Pembrie stared at the empty barrels, breathing heavily and gritting his teeth. “Who have I wronged or harmed? I must have a vile enemy unknown to me. Someone who wants us good and truly ruined.”
“Ruined? No, Father, surely not! There are still barrels of cider left in the wagon.”
“That will keep us for a time. Then after that …” He shook his head.
She began to feel faint. “We have to report this to the authorities!”
Mr. Pembrie gazed down at the ground. “I’ll send Victor to speak with the palace guards.” He trudged back towards the house, looking old and worn.
Anika stumbled onto a stone bench and let the tears flow. If they were ruined financially she would be forced to marry or to find some sort of employment, more than likely, as a servant. Then what would happen to the servants at Pembrie Manor?
Their village of Glendynn was not free from poverty … or beggars. The few apples remaining on the trees had been left there for the poor.
Her goal had been to expand the farm and orchard into a thriving business once she inherited it, one that produced enough income to hire more laborers and feed hungry mouths in the surrounding community. There would be little left to help the poor with now. Was her family destined to join the ranks of those they’d been trying to help?
She bowed her head, and prayed that would not be the case.
That night, sleep eluded Anika. Images of burning trees, damaged cider barrels, and her father’s resulting despair, filled her mind. Someone obviously had a reason for harming them, but who? And why?
In the early morning hours, sleep finally claimed her, but with it came the most awful nightmares. In one dream the same noblemen who’d helped douse the flames, surrounded her, but instead of assisting her they all laughed and yelled, “Fool! Fool!”
Before dawn, she awoke to find herself tangled in a mass of twisted sheets. When she climbed out of bed, a thought struck her. Only the areas near the house had been searched. Perhaps other clues might be hidden elsewhere on the property. She dressed in a rush then raced downstairs and wandered out the front door.
An older man in ragged clothes trudged along the road in front of their house, carrying a large sack. That was odd. Most people’s day had not yet begun. As she crept towards the front gate to try and see who it was, a branch cracked beneath her feet.
Gerdie Hagen, the town drunk, peered at her with small, piggy eyes. “Mornin’, miss.”
“Oh, uh, good morning, Mr. Hagen. What brings you out this early?” Anika edged closer to him to see if she could get a look at what was in that sack.
As if reading her thoughts, he held it up and pulled out a large salmon. “You gots to get up early to catch ‘em this size.” His graying hair stood out at all angles, and his voice sounded deep and raspy, as if he had a perpetual cough. “There’s a nice bend in the river this part of town. The big ones like to feed and frolic in that little inlet not far from here.”
“Is that right?” Anika leaned against the front gate. So he was only out fishing. That was innocent enough.
Mr. Hagen put the fish back in his bag and pulled out a metal flask. He took a drink, wiped his mouth across his sleeve, and started laughing for no reason at all.
“Are you all right, Mr. Hagen?” Anika’s eyes narrowed.
“I will be, after cooking up this fish over a nice big … fire!” He wiggled his fingers in the air as he said the last word.
Anika’s heart lurched. He had a reputation as a troublemaker. Perhaps he was not so innocent after all. “What do you know about the fire in our orchard?”
He glared at her. “Only what’s been spread about. But even though I’ve got to cook the fish somehow, I’ll never start another fire in the comfort of me own home for as long as I live, seein’ as your orchard was ruined.”
There she went running her mouth off again. By now the whole village knew what had happened to the orchard, and she could not let her suspicion of arson be known to anyone. She calmed herself. Gerdie Hagen was just behaving in his usual, gruff manner.
“Oh yes, how silly of me to be overset by a wildfire. Please, don’t let me keep you,” she said, wandering off towards the barn.
She saddled her horse, Morning Glory, then rode off to look for unfamiliar footprints, or anything that might have been left behind by a stranger. She searched the grounds for an hour or so, but found nothing of consequence.
Amidst the chaos of the previous day, she’d forgotten to ask Finn if he’d seen anyone strange lurking about the property. After leading Morning Glory to her stall, she searched for Finn in the barn, but couldn’t find him. Perhaps he was somewhere in the manor. He sometimes took to hiding in the oddest places when he was trying to avoid doing his chores.
She strolled to her father’s study and bent to examine the space beneath the large, oak desk. No sign of him there. The parlor, with its large over-stuffed sofa and basket of warm woolen blankets, yielded no results. Her worn brown leather boots echoed on the marble tiles as she searched the dining room, library, and guest rooms.
When she entered the kitchen, she found Finn sitting at the large wooden table, stuffing himself with a strawberry tart instead of tending to the horses.
“Did you see a stranger near the property yesterday?” she said, taking a seat across from him.
He shook his head.
“Where were you, then? Once I saw the fire, I shouted and shouted for help.”
“Hum mee orr,” Finn answered, spitting bits of pastry all over himself and the worn, wooden chair he sat upon.
“What was that?”
He drank a long swig of milk. “Doing my chores.”
Anika shook her head. “I completed most of your chores myself, and if you were still in the barn you would have heard me calling.”
Avoiding her gaze, he stared down at his half-eaten sweet. “You probably wasn’t shouting loud enough to be heard down by the river.”
Anika gasped. “The river! And what, pray tell, were you doing down there? You know better than to go off fishing alone. You could have fallen in and gotten swept away by the current.”
“I weren’t alone, miss. Gerdie Hagen was with me. And we wasn’t fishing. He got himself one of those new calivers and was showing me how to work it. He wanted to have a go at the geese in our pond, but I told him we should leave you in peace and go shoot it off somewhere else.”
Anika’s mind was in a whirl. “Gerdie Hagen was here yesterday?”
Before the fire started.
A knot began forming in her stomach. Gerdie Hagen had used the word “fire” in a dramatic fashion when she’d seen him earlier. Perhaps she shouldn’t have dismissed his antics so quickly.
“Is that all he wanted? To show you his caliver?”
Finn took another bite of his strawberry tart. “Yes, miss.”
“When did he get here?”
“I’m not one to keep good track o’ time, miss,” he said with a shrug.
That was the understatement of the century. There was much more she wanted to ask him, but it would be unwise to say too much to a foolhardy ten-year-old. Her words might get back to Gerdie Hagen himself.
“You shouldn’t be cavorting with the likes of such a scoundrel. If Lady Sarah hears of it …” Anika thought of something else that had made her furious at Finn’s laziness. “Once you saw the flames, why did you not think to grab a bucket and help put them out?”
He crossed his arms. “It was I that brought the wet laundry!”
Yes, her personal items. How could she forget?
“And I that brought m’lords horses to the barn.” His chin quivered as he spoke. “So as they wouldn’t get spooked and run off. I watered and calmed ‘em down a bit too.”
His huge blue eyes seemed ready to spill a lake full of tears. A moment ago, she’d wanted to slap his bottom with a switch, now she longed to pull him into her arms and comfort him as one would a younger brother. Her heart felt heavy when she remembered he was but an orphan with no family, destined to work despite his young age.
She rose from her chair, knelt down next to him, and rumpled his mass of blond curls. “All right then, Finn Lambert, you are forgiven. But today, I want your chores done before luncheon.”
“Yes, miss.” Finn lowered his head.
Inga wandered into the kitchen, her eyes seething. “Did you gather the eggs?” she asked him.
“What about Blossom, have you milked her yet?”
Finn avoided her stern gaze and said nothing.
Inga’s hands went to her hips. “There’ll be no milk come midday!”
He swirled a bit of strawberry filling around on his plate with his finger, as if he were the master of the house and Inga was the one who should be doing his bidding.
“You always get a large glass of milk with your midday meal, laddie. Would you like some this afternoon, or not?”
Finn licked his lips. “Will you be needing a full bucket?”
Inga stomped her foot. “Of course I want a full bucket, you lazy …”
But Finn had already scampered off.
Anika went in search of her father to tell him about Gerdie Hagen’s presence at the farm the day before. When she found Mr. Pembrie, he was removing charred branches that had fallen to the orchard floor. His shoulders were hunched, and dark circles framed his eyes.
“You had a hard time sleeping, also?” She bent down to help him pick up scattered twigs.
“I did not sleep at all. How could I? Someone will need to keep watch at night from now on.” He threw a scorched branch onto a pile of rubble. “The root cellar was vandalized when we were all sleeping. The soldiers warned me to keep my eyes and ears open at all times.”
“The soldiers were here?”
“Yes, early this morning. They searched for evidence, just as we did.”
She must have missed them while she’d been out riding Morning Glory. “And? Did they find anything?”
Her father sighed heavily. “Not a thing. But we cannot be naïve. Destroying the orchard may not have been the vandal’s only goal. They may try to damage the barn or the manor. But next time when they strike, I will be waiting for them like I was last night, crossbow in hand. Whoever dared to put my family in danger will pay.”
A knot of fear formed in Anika’s stomach. Yesterday he’d been in shock. Now he’d had enough time to think everything over and become angry. She had planned to tell him about Gerdie Hagen’s presence but if her father went after him and harmed him when there was no proof of malice, her father would hang. And if the fire wasn’t Gerdie Hagen’s doing, an innocent man would have paid the price. No. She couldn’t share her suspicions with him yet. Not until he got his temper under control.
“The authorities will find out who did this,” she said, rushing through her words. “What we need is proof. Let us focus on that for now and not do anything rash, or be quick to seek revenge. Have you asked the farmhands to take turns guarding the property? They will not mind. In fact, why don’t you let me keep watch tonight so you can rest?”
Her father glanced around. “Don’t let your mother hear you say that,” he whispered. “You know the use of weapons by women is frowned upon.”
“But who will know it’s me at that hour of the night? I’m no longer a child, Father. I’m a grown woman of seventeen.”
He grit his teeth. “I’ve taken you hunting with me so you’d know how to provide for yourself and protect your mother should anything happen to me. Your crossbow is to be used for emergencies only. You know that.”
“And what do you call our current predicament? Business as usual?”
“I will not have you placing yourself in harm’s way!”
The argument was over. “Yes, Father.”
Tears welled in Anika’s eyes. She couldn’t bear to see her father in such a state when he was usually so full of joy. As she left him, she sent up a silent prayer that Pastor Bendtson’s message the next day would minister to her father’s needs.
They all arrived on time for church the next morning, but sat in a pew in the back. Anika’s father barely sang a note during the song service, but he sat up straighter when Pastor Bendtson started preaching from the book of Job. “In verse 16 of the first chapter we read that fire fell from the sky and burned up Job’s sheep and his servants. And in verse 21 and 22 we see Job’s response. Job said he came into the world with nothing and he would leave the world with nothing so he would continue to praise the name of the Lord. He did not sin, or charge God with wrongdoing.
“In Romans 8:35 the apostle Paul tells us that hardship, distress, and peril cannot separate us from the love of Christ. Brothers and sisters, all of us will go through difficult times in our lives. Just like our savior before us, we will suffer. But God is in control. We must not only trust him but continue to praise him, because nothing external can separate us from his love.”
At the end of service, Mr. Pembrie engaged the pastor in conversation. Anika couldn’t hear what was being said, but at least her father was talking to someone and getting counsel.
“Up up up!” Lady Sarah said the next morning, as she stood in Anika’s bedroom and ripped the covers off Anika as she slept soundly.
Finn stood beside the bed, bucket in hand, flicking Anika’s face with tiny droplets of water.
Anika scrunched her face into a frown, then sat up. “What in heaven’s name?”
“Goodness gracious, it’s about time you woke up. We’re in need of bread for luncheon, and it’s getting late,” said her mother.
“Late?” Anika caught sight of the oil lamp in her mother’s hand. “It’s still dark outside. The rooster isn’t even up yet.”
“Come come. You go to the emporium first thing every Monday morning.”
“Why can’t he go?” Anika pointed to Finn.
“I’ll go for ten copper pennings,” Finn said, holding out his hand.
Both Anika and her mother glared at him.
Finn put down the bucket of water, and scampered from the room.
“Make haste.” Lady Sarah poured the remaining water into a large ceramic bowl on Anika’s dresser.
“Please, Mother. Can’t it wait until the afternoon? The kitchen is stocked with perfectly good food.” Anika put her head back down on her pillow.
Lady Sarah marched to the end of the bed and placed her hands on her hips. Her stance reminded Anika of a kettle filled with boiling water ready to emit a long hiss of steam. “Erland works at the emporium in the morning!”
Anika sat up, hugging her knees. Well, at least now Mother is finally admitting the truth. It isn’t bread she pines for, but a son in law! “Mother, you’ve got to quit trying to force me and Erland together.”
“Now now. Wait until you’ve heard the latest news, before dismissing him.” She grabbed Anika’s hands, and squeezed them. “He’s just been named the new National Chairman of the Merchant’s Guild! Isn’t that wonderful!”
“How can that be?” Anika furrowed her brows in confusion. “His father is National Chairman.”
“His father was National Chairman, but he’s too busy opening shops in the surrounding cities to continue his duties. The Merchant’s Guild held their annual meeting in Mordigan last week, and Erland was voted in to replace him.”
“But Erland is so —”
“Responsible? Yes, they wouldn’t have granted him the position otherwise.”
Anika was about to say, “Young and inexperienced” since he was only a few years older than her, but held her tongue.
“Don’t forget. The ball is only a few days away.” Lady Sarah wet a washcloth, then squeezed out the excess water. “It won’t hurt to remind Erland of your existence so you have a dance partner secured in advance.”
“I’ll not be dancing with anyone,” Anika said, toying with the sleeve of her nightdress. “My gown was ruined, remember?”
Lady Sarah clicked her tongue. “Erland will not care how you look. He’ll just be happy to see you. But you may use my pink silk and alter it to fit you.”
It was plain and boring; nothing like the elegant gown Anika had been longing to wear.
“There will be others at the ball besides Erland, Mother.” Anika crossed her arms.
“But with all the eligible maidens present, there is no guarantee anyone else will ask you to dance.”
“Would that be so terrible?”
“As a matter of fact it would.” Lady Sarah frowned. “With our current financial situation, you need to make a good match, and quickly.”
“With someone I don’t love? Mother please, things can’t possibly be that bad. Father said we’d be fine for a time.”
“For a short while but, then what? Who knows how much time we have left before we’re forced to eat the scraps we feed the animals?”
Anika grit her teeth. “Even if I must marry, why can’t it be to someone of my own choosing? Why must you constantly interfere?”
Her mother’s eyes seethed. “If I don’t take you in hand you’ll run off and take care of everyone else’s needs and forget your own! Don’t think I haven’t noticed how you’ve taken on more of the servants’ duties lately.”
“I want to help people, Mother.”
“Good. Then we are both of the same mind. You will be helping this entire household by going to the emporium and buying bread.” She handed Anika her blue linen dress, making it clear the discussion was over.
Anika realized that trying to stop her mother from meddling would be like trying to stop the sun from rising. And if she told her mother she wanted more from life than what her mother was offering, it would only lead to hurt feelings. Her mother was a devout Christian woman and lived a fine life helping here and there, wherever she could. But Anika wanted more. She wanted to be able to help many people, not just a few. She didn’t know where the desire had come from, but it had always burned strongly in her heart. For now, she would allow her mother to win this one small battle, but she vowed to win the war and choose her own path in life.
The wind blew gently as Anika strolled along the road that bordered the Sturgen River, and the tall, white, birch trees that grew beside it. She breathed in the crisp, clean, air that held the mild scent of late blooming wildflowers and realized how quiet and peaceful her small village of Glendynn was in the morning. Her spirits slowly began to lift, as she passed the brightly colored terracotta-colored homes and the tiny white cottages that sat nestled along the banks of the river.
Soon, the creamy white walls of Hjorns Inn sprang into view. Horses whinnied as carriages rolled into the courtyard and their passengers embarked with their belongings. Further down the lane, a fishmonger called out from his stall, and a chandler sold candles of various shapes and sizes. When she reached the center of town, dozens of servants, clad in black linen, bustled along the narrow cobblestone streets, buying cheese, oil, and honey from street vendors selling their wares.
As Anika rounded a bend in the road, the wooden sign for Riccats’ Emporium greeted her, but she hesitated before entering. A treat of some kind was what she longed for, especially after her recent ordeal.
Though it wasn’t much to speak of, she did earn a small amount of money for her work around the farm. Several brass pennings sat in her purse. She ventured a few steps further to the door of Nyland’s Haberdashery. Her mother’s errand, and Erland Riccats, could wait.
She entered the immaculately kept store that held row after row of colorful cloth, ribbons, thread, and lace. No one seemed to be about, so she wandered further inside to where the ribbon was kept, and started searching through a row of brightly colored spools.
A moment later, the full-figured owner of the establishment, Brit Nyland, made her way towards the front of the store, wearing her usual heavily embroidered gown, which she wore in order to show clients her skill with a needle. Though she was only a few years older than Anika, she’d taken on the responsibility of running the shop when her father passed on and her mother became ill.
Lady Winifred Paxel Flemming, a maiden of twenty years, strutted along beside Brit. Though Lady Winifred’s hair was the color of mud, it was elegantly braided, and her frock was made of the finest emerald green silk.
Callie, Lady Winifred’s maid, scurried awkwardly behind, holding a purple velvet gown, which she desperately tried to keep from touching the floor. Her gray garb and tightly knit cap made her look like a nervous squirrel waiting to cross the street amidst a rush of carriages.
Brit’s plump hands shook, as she picked up a spool of lavender thread, and held it against Lady Winifred’s purple gown. “Peonies would look lovely embroidered across the front of the bodice.”
“Yes,” Lady Winifred nodded. “Some sort of flower would be lovely. You are quite right, dear. But lavender thread? Let me see …” She placed her forefinger on her chin, as if thinking hard. “What about gold? I do admit to being partial to it.”
“Gold flowers?” Brit asked.
“That’s right, gold,” Callie answered, rushing through her words. “Royal colors will match the attire of the prince, so m’lady won’t clash with him when they dance together, and it will remind him of a princess, and he’ll choose her to be his —”
“My heavens, what an imagination,” Lady Winifred interrupted, placing her gloved hand across her chest. “I merely prefer gold over lavender. Where do you get such notions?”
“Did you not say as much on the way here, m’lady?” Callie asked, with a look of confusion on her milky white face. “You said Prince Valdemar would be choosing a bride soon, and you wanted to make sure you fit the part.”
“La, Callie, you are such a dear.” Lady Winifred hugged her maid and trilled a laugh. “Prince Valdemar would never pay someone like me even the slightest bit of attention. So many eligible young men will be present at the ball, I simply want to look my best for all of them.”
“Yes, well, the gold thread is right over here,” Brit said, rolling her eyes as she led the way.
Anika’s back stiffened when Lady Winifred, with her porcelain skin and tall, thin, frame, ambled towards her, but Anika kept searching through the large array of ribbons. She wasn’t about to take business away from Brit, who so desperately needed it. And Anika also wanted her hair ribbons, thank you.
When they were but a few feet away, Brit held up a spool of thread for Lady Winifred to view. “Would this shade work?”
Lady Winifred squinted. “That looks to be more mustard than gold, but don’t you worry your pretty little head. I’ll keep looking.”
After waiting a few moments for Lady Winifred’s decision, Brit dared to glance in Anika’s direction. “Are you looking for a hair ribbon, or some trim for one of your gowns, Miss Pembrie?”
“A hair ribbon is what I had in mind,” Anika said, fingering her bland lifeless tresses.
Brit began searching through the spools. “What about purple or green?”
“Maybe,” Anika said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Something in a pale pink or baby blue would work nicely.” Lady Winifred wandered over to the ribbons, holding up a spool of each color.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Anika said.
“Now now now. Let us not give way to vanity, Miss Pembrie.” Lady Winifred held them up against Anika’s hair, while Anika took a glimpse of herself in the mirror. “See? I was merely suggesting colors that won’t make those white-blonde locks of yours look completely washed out.”
“You are right, Lady Winifred.” Anika nodded politely. “Stronger colors would overpower my hair. It’s so thin, that no matter how many pins I use, it never stays in place. When it rains, it sticks to my head like paste, making me look like a drowned, white mouse. These ribbons will merely bring me up to the level of being presentable.”
Brit held her hand to her mouth, like she was about to burst out laughing from Anika’s honest admission, but Anika had no problem stating the truth about herself. Especially if it kept Lady Winifred from lecturing her further.
Lady Winifred stood tall, looking almost regal as she nodded her approval, seemingly glad Anika was humble enough to admit to one of her many shortcomings. Then she handed Brit a spool of sparkling gold-colored thread. “Thank you for your brilliant suggestion of flowers. You may embroider roses.”
“Excellent choice, Lady Winifred.” Brit almost bowed.
“Callie will pick up the dress the day before the ball. Come, Callie.” Callie handed the dress to Brit, then followed her mistress out the door.
Anika and Brit waited until the door closed firmly behind Callie before breaking into a fit of giggles.
“Oh my. Someone has set her sights on becoming the next queen.” Brit hung Lady Winifred’s dress on a peg behind the counter. Strands of light brown hair had come loose from her long braid, so she tucked them back into place. “Do you think she’ll succeed in her quest?”
“Not if Prince Valdemar sees right through that veneer of simpering sweetness.” Anika placed spools of pink and blue ribbon on the countertop. “Is Callie dimwitted, or was she trying to embarrass her mistress?”
Brit snipped a long piece of ribbon from both spools. “I’m not sure. She may just be exceedingly honest, or she might be paying Lady Winifred back for being so demanding.”
“Whatever the reason, I hope Callie doesn’t find herself out on the street as a result of her loose tongue,” Anika said with a sigh.
“I doubt that will happen.” Brit smirked. “Who else would want to work that hard, running hither, thither, and yon, for such meager wages? But it does lend a bit of truth to the rumors, doesn’t it? About Prince Valdemar attending the ball.” Brit handed Anika the long strands of ribbon.
Anika’s heart raced at the realization that Prince Valdemar might indeed grace the county ball with his presence. “Yes, I’ve heard that rumor also, but it doesn’t make any sense. He’s never been to a local dance before.”
“That’s because he’s been away at boarding school.”
“Yes, but since the queen tends to keep her distance from mere mortals like us it seems strange that she’d allow him to go.”
“Ah, but the queen may not know. She is out of town …”
“And he’s all grown up and can do whatever he likes …” Anika handed Brit four pennings, and placed the ribbons inside her leather pouch.
“I’ve also heard rumors that he’s much more approachable than the queen, and well, normal, like a regular person. I wonder what he looks like now.” Brit rested her plump arms on top of the counter. “I haven’t seen him since he rode in a parade with his parents, but that was years ago, before they died.”
If Anika admitted to having met him she’d only be inundated with questions. “Perhaps he looks the same, but taller. He used to have that vibrant auburn hair, did he not? Well, I must be off. Mother sent me on an errand.” She held up her basket. “Bread.”
Brit drummed her fingers on the counter. “Don’t be so quick to write Erland off. He’s a fine catch. Your mother could be throwing you at someone twice your age, with warts, not someone masculine and handsome.”
“I’d rather she threw me to no one at all and allowed me to get a job, like you’ve got,” Anika said, making for the door and wandering outside to the shop next door.
As soon as she entered Riccat’s Emporium, the luscious smell of freshly baked rolls wafted through the air to greet her. Steaming fresh strudels and pies sat in the window display near the entrance.
The shop was already bustling with customers clamoring around the large wooden bins, located in the center of the store. They reached for items ranging from cinnamon sticks to soap. In the front corner of the shop, a well-fed pig roasted on a spit.
Erland Riccats stood behind the marble slab counter at the far end of the shop, where baked goods were made and sold. Mr. Riccats, Erland’s father, scurried past him and glanced at Anika. As Anika strode over to him Erland straightened his apron, which was a bit too snug around his large muscular chest.
Melody Delgado holds a bachelor’s degree from Florida State University. She is also a public speaker and has addressed spiritual issues for women and topics pertaining to writers.