The Prince’s Bride

Book 2 of the
Hidden Royals Series

. . . . . . . . . .

The Prince’s Bride

Book 2 of the Hidden Royals Series

Lady Marianne “Ryan” Daventry was betrothed to an obscure French prince when she was just a baby. Years later, the young prince entered exile and was never heard from again. Lady Ryan can hardly marry a missing person, and she considers the wedding off. Now another French royal has inherited the princedom and he claims the old betrothal still stands—with himself as the bridegroom. Rather than fight the cruel new prince, Lady Ryan sets out locate the real prince and prove he’s still alive.

Prince Gabriel d’Orleans is still living, but he’s very difficult to find. He goes by the name of Gabriel Reign and lives in the forest, working as a horse trainer for wealthy clients. He’s hardly a pauper, but he’s also not a prince. His life in the woods conceals his true identity and keeps him safe—but also alone.

Using an old childhood letter as her guide, Lady Ryan sets out for Savernake Forest to find the missing prince. When highwaymen descend, Gabriel hears her shouts and he finds her instead. Lady Ryan is shocked at his rustic life and his commitment to his new identity. More shocking is her fierce attraction to the rugged horseman. Meanwhile, Gabriel never planned to be discovered and he certainly never planned on falling in love. But passion has a way of upending the most careful of plans, and even the strictest boundaries are no match for the transcendent power of love.

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The Prince’s Bride

Book 2 of the Hidden Royals Series

The full series reading order is as follows:

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Jump to: Chapter Two
Jump to: Chapter Three

. . . . . .

Chapter One

Savernake Forest
Wiltshire, England
August 1811

The night was pierced by a woman’s scream. The sound, brief and raw, shot above the canopy and scraped down the hillside to bounce against the rock.

Deep in the forest, a man slipped from his saddle and fell into the shadow of a limestone crag and listened.

Gabriel Rein knew the sounds of the forest after dark. He knew nocturnal animals, he knew cave-dwelling smugglers, he knew drunken villagers who’d lost their way home. But a woman? A screaming woman?

Gabriel’s life was so deeply embedded in the trees and rocks of Savernake, he rarely, if ever, encountered others. He employed three men to help him with the horses and an old woman to keep camp; beyond these, Gabriel had very little contact with the outside world. A screaming woman was not only unexpected, it was a moral dilemma.

After ten beats, she screamed again; a shrill rip of sound that grabbed him by the throat and shoved him back.

Gabriel swore and looked at the sky. He’d waited weeks for the threat of a storm without actual rain. His new commission was a young stallion terrified of storms and he meant to expose him bit by bit. No surprise, the horse was also unnerved by screaming. He stamped and huffed behind Gabriel, yanking the lead. They’d been picking their way along a rocky path, acclimating to the smell of rain and the flashes of lightning. They’d not gone far, and the horse had seemed willing to press on—until the screaming. Now the stallion’s ears flicked back and his nostrils flared and he dug in, refusing to proceed.

Gabriel stepped to the horse and stroked his neck, assuring him with low words and the gentle clicking noise he used to calm frightened animals.

“No?” screamed the woman in the distance. A word this time. Her inflection spoke less of a retreat and more of a request? The screaming woman was negotiating.

Gabriel’s grooms had told him that the highwayman Channing Meade was raiding again. Meade

made camp on the edge of Savernake Forest in August because the weather was mild and the deer were fat and the constable was lazy. Perhaps the screaming woman had been swiped from the village for Meade’s pleasure. Perhaps she’d come willingly, only to discover that Meade was a brute and his camp was a pit. Maybe the highwayman had set upon a carriage, and the woman inside objected to being robbed at knifepoint. Long Harry Road was little more than two ruts disappearing into a tunnel of murky green, and travelers should know better.

I don’t care, Gabriel thought, stroking the horse. The forest had been a sanctuary to Gabriel since boyhood. He’d grown up in a constant state of evasion, tracked by spies and bounty hunters and mercenaries. He knew stillness and quiet like other children knew lessons and sport. He was a champion at holding his breath.

Now he was a man, and Gabriel wasn’t sure if the sanctuary was a necessity or simply a preference. He’d been here for so long, it was all he knew. The forest allowed him to owe nothing and rely on no one. His loyalties extended to his staff and his horses and no further. The work he did for clients was negotiated by an emissary; the same man provisioned his camp with supplies. The extreme seclusion had kept him alive for more than a decade. It kept everyone else alive. It was survival.

As to the survival of the screaming woman? He couldn’t say. Except for rare encounters with

women—professionals who kept things quick and anonymous—he knew very little of female companionship. And he didn’t care about this screaming stranger.

I don’t want to care, he thought.

The horse snorted and tossed his mane. Gabriel made the clicking noise and pulled on his lead, reining him around. They would return to camp. The rain wouldn’t hold off forever. The horse shouldn’t be subjected to rain and screaming.

“Please!” came another cry from the woman. “Help!”

Gabriel paused. There was a note of demand in her voice. An earnestness, a reasoning. This wasn’t uncontrolled wailing, she was expectant. She summoned. The sound slid under his skin and burned.

Behind him, the stallion threw his head, yanking the lead. The horse was now properly agitated, dancing backward, snorting and hoofing the ground.

Help!” the woman cried again.

Gabriel swore under his breath, keeping his hand steady on the horse’s neck.

I don’t care, he repeated in his head.

The stallion pulled backward, seventy stone of frightened animal straining against the lead. Swearing again, Gabriel allowed the horse to reverse from the path.

I don’t care.

There was a circle of grass where the terrain leveled off, and Gabriel ripped up a handful of the fragrant sweet reed and held it out, inviting the animal to graze.

I don’t care.

He looked around. A giant oak loomed nearby, and Gabriel tethered the horse to a low limb, his flank shielded from the wind by the trunk.

I don’t care.

He’d fitted the stallion’s bridle with blinders, and now he pressed the leather patches against Zeus’s eyes, obscuring his sight. Each precaution was made with ease and gentleness, his movements rote. Soothing a frightened horse came as naturally to Gabriel as breathing, but he knew almost nothing about frightened women. And yet, his ears were acutely tuned to the sound of—

“Please help me!” came another terrified cry.

Gabriel—who really, truly did not care—pulled the ax from his belt and slipped into the trees.

. . . . . .

Chapter Two

Lady Marianne “Ryan” Daventry was not, by nature, a screamer.

Ryan was a suggester. A stater of simple truths. A calm voice of reason when emotions were high and tempers lost. Her middle sister Diana had the flash temper and a very hearty scream. Their youngest sister, Charlotte, with her girlish fear of mice and bugs and branches scraping windowpanes, was also a known screamer. But not Ryan. Ryan, in fact, could only remember ever having screamed once or twice in her entire life.

But she screamed now. She was well and truly terrified, and she screamed the raw and desperate scream of a survivor.

At least she’d come into the forest alone. Her one consolation. Ryan was defenseless, yes, but her maid, Agnes, was safe back at the inn. Agnes had wanted to accompany her and Ryan had refused. Even without the threat of ambush, Agnes was unsuited for forest trespass. The maid was afraid of nice men in polite settings; she would never survive a snarling man with no life behind his eyes.

“Cry all you like,” hissed the man with his hand clamped to Ryan’s jaw. “There’s no one within fifty miles to hear you scream.” With his other hand, he pinned her against his chest, her body dangling half a foot from the road.

Ryan couldn’t really say how she’d gone from mounted on horseback to the painful grasp of this

fetid, sneering man. She’d been plodding carefully through the forest, nudging the frightened mare onward, when she came upon a row of men on horseback just over the crest of a hill. They sat so heavily, their ranks so impenetrable, she’d mistaken them for a line of statues blocking the road. But they weren’t statues: they were highwaymen and the brute who now held her was their leader. He’d emerged from the blockade like a cannon ball rolling into the chamber of a cannon.

Despite her fear, she’d kept control of her mount and reined around. But he’d been deceptively fast for his size and managed to swipe the reins before she could bolt. Then his hands were on her and he dragged her from the saddle like a basket of wash.

“Believe me when I say I’ve got nothing,” she now whimpered to the man. “No money. No jewelry. Not even food. I rode from the inn in Pewsey to have a look at the forest’s edge and lost my way.”

“Of course that’s your claim,” the man said, releasing her chin with a teeth-rattling shove. Ryan tried to scuttle away, but his hand returned, this time with a dagger. He pressed the flat side of the dull blade against her cheek. “You’ve a horse, haven’t you?”

“On loan from the inn,” she insisted. “Please do not harm the mare. She is not valuable. They loaned her to me for no fee, but they’ll want her back. They’ll come looking for her.”

“What of your cloak?” suggested the man, fingering the wool.

“My cloak?” she repeated. “But I cannot believe my cloak will fit you, sir, it—”

He pulled the knife from her cheek and dug his hand into her hair, yanking her head back with a snap. The pain and helplessness of being steered by her hair took Ryan’s breath away.

“Answer me with sass, will you?” the man mocked.

“See how far that gets you.”

“I’m telling you plainly,” she insisted, “if it’s valuables you seek, you’ll be disappointed. I’m sorry, I simply don’t—”

“Your body then,” the man announced, wrenching her head back. “Easier to divvy up. A turn for every man. We’ll make a game of it. Find anything you may have hidden in the process.”

Without hesitation, Ryan screamed again.

. . . . . .

Chapter Three

While he ran, Gabriel told himself all the things he would not do when he reached the source of the screams.

He would not insert himself into the conflict, whatever it was.

He would observe it from a concealed location. Downwind. With a clear path to retreat.

He would ascertain who and how and why—all for his own information. It was pertinent to the peace and quiet of the forest and his solitude. This was reconnaissance, not a rescue; prevention, not preservation.

For a long, hopeful moment, the screams had paused, but now they rang on. Sometimes words,

sometimes only sound. Always resonant fear. As long as she cried out, he knew she lived. The more she cried, the easier she was to locate. The sounds came from Pike Hill on Long Harry Road. He’d suspected this. The rise would conceal an ambush; the ledge would restrict escape. Gabriel kicked into a sprint.

The undergrowth was thickest between the trail and the road; serpent vines and spiked saplings, thorns thick and waist high. It was a nuisance in the dark, but Gabriel knew the land. He slipped easily through unseen gaps in brush, sidestepping bog holes and leaping over logs. He pushed deftly over, around, through, a silent piece of the night.

When he reached the last stand of trees before the roadside, he paused, allowing his breathing to slow, searching the undergrowth for stragglers or a watch. He saw no one. Channing Meade was sloppy. Not that it mattered. Gabriel had only come to look. He crept forward. Before he could see the road, he heard them.

“Cry all you like; there’s no one within fifty miles to hear you scream,” growled the man’s voice. So it was Channing Mead. Gabriel had never met the man, but he’d observed him from various lookouts.

Gabriel shuttled from one tree to the next, moving silently closer. He heard horses—four, possibly five—their hooves stamping, the creaks of their tack. He squinted, trying to distinguish shadow from figure. There was a line of mounted riders, their backs to him. The men sat alert in their saddles, intently focused on the business in the road. The animals appeared sleepy, bored.

Gabriel inched closer, spinning the handle of the ax in his hand. He wouldn’t need the weapon, he reminded himself. He meant only to be ready. It was easier to throw if it was in his hand.

A fallen tree stretched parallel to the road and Gabriel slunk to it, flattening himself against the damp, spongy floor of the forest. From here, he could see beyond the mounted riders to Channing Meade, unmistakable for his size, pacing before the men on horseback. Against his swollen belly swung the helpless figure of a woman in a cloak. Meade would dwarf most women, and this one was no exception. He clutched her back to his front and pressed a dagger to her cheek.

Gabriel closed his eyes. He exhaled. And now he’d seen her. A woman restrained. A knife. Five men looking on.

What did you expect? he asked himself. You followed the sound of distress. She was literally crying out for help. You knew. He swore in his head. His gut constricted like a taut rope, the fibers snapping under the weight of indecision. His own safety versus hers. Weakness versus might. The unprotected at the hands of the merciless. Lust and greed unchecked, and no one else for miles. His sanctuary disrupted.

When he opened his eyes, Meade was pacing back and forth, parading the terrified woman before his men. Gabriel squinted, trying to see. Her profile was partly obscured by hood, then her hair, finally Meade’s round shoulder. The highwayman turned in the same moment clouds slid from the moon. He saw her. She had pale skin and big eyes; her expression was taut with fear. She was young but not a child. She was afraid but not hysterical. Meade wrenched her face upward and her delicate profile looked as out of place in the forest as a teacup.

Gabriel swallowed back something bitter and hot. He felt suddenly winded, his body coiled, eager to pounce. He forced himself to exhale and look away. He studied the five men on horseback, inventorying their weapons. He examined the mounts, trying to assess their age and fitness. He looked down the road to the east and up to the west and checked the position of the moon. He looked at everything and saw nothing so clearly than a woman in need of help.

“Please, sir,” she said, her voice terrified but steady. “Believe me when I say I’ve got nothing. No money. No jewelry. No food. I rode from the inn in Pewsey to have a look at the forest’s edge and lost my way.”

“Of course that’s your claim,” Channing Meade snarled. “You’ve a horse, haven’t you.”

“Please do not harm the mare,” she begged. “She is not valuable. They loaned her to me for no fee, but they’ll want her back. They’ll come looking for her.”

“Your cloak,” Meade suggested.

“My cloak?” she repeated—and here again was the earnest note of reason. “I cannot believe it will fit you, sir, it—”

Meade shut her up by grabbing her hair and snapping her head back. Gabriel flinched. A hatch on his chest swung open. Cold, fresh air stung whatever was inside.

“You’ll pay your toll in sass, will you?” Meade growled. “See how far that gets you.”

“Please,” the woman cried, “I’m telling you plainly. If it’s valuables you seek, you’ll be disappointed. I’m sorry, I simply don’t—”

“Your body then,” Channing Meade said, yanking back her head with a snap. “Easier to divvy up. A turn for every man. We’ll make a game of it. Find anything you may have hidden away in the process.”

Gabriel was off the ground before Meade finished the threat. He pressed his hat low on his head, gripped the ax, and darted to the road.

~ End of Excerpt ~

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May 21, 2024


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