Knight of Love
The German Confederation
The first lash robbed her of breath.
The second granted her freedom.
If he’d go so far as to have her publicly flogged, she owed him no further loyalty. Any obligation remaining from their betrothal contact ended here, in this moment, with this lash.
Morally, she was free.
Now all she had to do was escape the bastard and make him pay.
As the second stroke landed, fire replaced the shock, and a hot slick of pain bloomed across her back. The coarse linen shift that a spying maid had forced her into provided no protection. It offered little modesty, either, from the uneasy crowd Kurt had gathered inside the castle gates to witness her punishment. She gritted her teeth and refused to cry out. A rough rope bound her wrists above her head to the flogging post. As her knees buckled, the binding made her perversely glad; she doubted she could stand upright on her own.
Before arriving at this godforsaken pile of German stone, she—Lady Lenora Trevelyan, eldest child to the Duke and Duchess of Sherbrooke, third cousin to Queen Victoria’s German consort, His Royal Highness Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha—had never been struck in her life. Now, in her three months at Schloss Rotenburg, she’d lost count of her bruises.
At first, before her parents had returned home to England, Kurt hadn’t hit her—or “corrected her,” as it pleased that smug worm to call his slaps and blows. He claimed it was for her own good, of course, to teach and prepare her for her life as his Prinzessin and mistress of Rotenburg. She must carry out her duties perfectly, he’d hiss, tightening a grip on her arm until she knew she’d wear a band of purple bruises for a week. Or he’d strike out in sudden fury at some perceived failure of hers—she’d forgotten the name of one of his sainted ancestors in the castle’s gloomy portrait gallery, or made a minor grammatical mistake in her German, or not shown proper courtesy to a visiting Bürgermeister.
Tied now to the flogging post, she lost count after the third blow. She’d seen the long leather strap when the stable master, shamefaced, had bound her with muttered apologies and handed the lash to a muscled groom more accustomed to cracking it around stubborn horses than using it to beat highborn ladies. Now she could barely feel the individual strokes as they landed, only the waves of hot agony clenching her back and shoulders in a vise grip of pain.
Through the red haze blurring her vision, she saw Kurt standing nearby. Next to him, his sanctimonious toady minister prattled the Bible proverb of the virtuous wife whose price was far above rubies. The gleeful, twisted pleasure Kurt took in her pain radiated off his stork-like form like a sickening stench. She bit down on her lip and gathered her hatred of her fiancé like a babe to her breast.
It was all she had left to get her out of this hell.
When Kurt finally held up a hand to signal the groom to cease, her labored breath echoed in the silent crowd. She knew the townspeople didn’t approve of the public beating their prince had commanded for his foreign betrothed. No more than they believed his story that she’d agreed to a religious flagellation in humble preparation for becoming his pious and obedient wife. But Prince Kurt von Rotenburg-Gruselstadt ruled the castle and town with an iron fist. None would risk their lord’s wrath to stand up for her.
Kurt stepped to the front of the dais. “Lady Lenora bears her trial most nobly,” he announced to the crowd. “Her embrace of her suffering does honor to a bloodline that unites the highest noble houses of England and Germany.”
That bloodline, she knew well, was why he’d chosen her. The prig made no secret of his disdain for any born below the upper aristocracy. The Holy Roman emperor himself, Kurt often delighted to inform her, had conferred the title of Prinz upon the House of Rotenburg-Gruselstadt in the previous century. Her own background had led the matchmakers to judge them a perfect pair: her father’s ancient ducal title intermingled, like that of so many English peers these days, with noble blood from her Prussian princess mother.
No one had thought to mention that her fiancé had the temperament of a petulant demon on a bad day in hell.
As Kurt stalked toward her, she forced her knees to straighten. She was done being afraid of this man. He pulled back the torn linen shift to inspect her back. Despite her resolve not to cry out, she gasped as the frayed edges stuck to her skin.
“Beautiful work,” he murmured into her ear. “This is what a woman should look like. Chastised to a man’s authority, marked to her proper place.”
Her stomach heaved as he brushed deliberately against her hip, to let her feel his hard arousal.
He laughed. “You will look stunning on our wedding night, my dear bride.”
It was her one saving grace, that he enjoyed the anticipation of taking her virginity too much to attempt it before their nuptials. She’d been spared that, although the sick games he played with increasing frequency were bad enough.
He trailed a gloved hand down her back. His dark eyes gleamed as he paced in front of her and held up a finger, his white cotton stained with her blood. He leaned in closer and stroked the glove down her cheek. “Ah, yes, very beautiful, meine Liebe.”
She drew a shaky breath, about to spit in the devil’s face, but he read her intention and grabbed her jaw in a punishing grip.
“Now, now, Lenora!” he mocked. “Remember, you are to be an obedient and submissive wife. You wouldn’t want another lad like young Franz to suffer for your disrespect, would you?”
The sweet-tempered lad who helped in the stables had been an early favorite of hers—a dangerous mistake. If the past three months had taught her anything, it was surely the lesson that defiance and her damnable pride would get her nowhere.
She needed a new strategy, starting now. “You win, Kurt.” She cast down her eyes and shuttered her hate deep inside. “I will fight you no more.”
His self-satisfied chuckle spilled like acid over her wounds. “I knew I’d bend you to my will.” He turned away to address the crowd again, motioning for the stable master to release her bonds. “My lady has passed her trial and proven herself worthy. When she becomes Prinzessin of Rotenburg-Gruselstadt on Midsummer’s Eve, all will rejoice.”
The gathered townspeople and servants shifted, and unhappy mutterings rippled through the crowd.
Kurt snatched the lash from the groomsman and cracked it heavily against the raised wooden floor around the lashing post. “Silence!” he commanded. He jumped down into the crowd, which backed up hastily to part for him. “You, blacksmith!” he roared, pointing the lash at a giant of a man at the back of the crowd near the castle wall, not far from the smithy shed. “Come here!”
As the stable master worked at the knots binding her aching arms, Lenora lifted her head to see what fresh hell Kurt had in mind. The huge man approached slowly at his lord’s command. A heavy leather apron wrapped his front, and longish dark hair fell across his face. Massive coiled muscles roped his arms.
The smith stopped in front of Kurt. “Excellency?”
His address was polite enough, but he neither bowed nor cast down his eyes. The two men were of a height, which Lenora knew would annoy Kurt. Her fiancé preferred to look down on those around him. And the smith’s trade gave him a strength and physique that far outweighed his master’s.
“Are you new here?” Kurt demanded, frowning. “I haven’t seen you before. Where is Dieter?”
“Home for his mother’s funeral, Excellency. I arrived yesterday to help in his absence.”
Kurt’s eyes narrowed. “See that you do prove helpful and keep to your place. We tolerate no shoddy work at Rotenburg.” With that, he tossed the lash into the dust of the courtyard and strode away. “Smith, carry my lady up to her quarters in the castle,” Kurt ordered over his shoulder. “We’re done here.”
Lenora knew Kurt intended this order as a final humiliation to her: flogged in public and then made to suffer the sweaty embrace of a lowly servant carrying her through the castle courtyard and chambers. To one of Kurt’s mind, that shame would be as bad as the flogging itself.
But Lenora had grown up as much in the stables as in the drawing rooms of the Sherbrooke estates. Her parents had taught her to value their laborers. She respected many of Kurt’s “peasants” more than she did her fiancé, although she knew enough to fear them as well. Many of them associated her, the bride-elect, with their lord and his wickedness. She’d seen their fear and hatred of him in the looks they cast at her as well. And the few servants he’d drafted into playing his games of punishment and humiliation made her fear anyone with any allegiance to this twisted man.
The huge blacksmith reached her side as the stable master stepped back from releasing the last bindings. Her shoulders screamed in protest as her hands dropped heavily to her sides. She tried to grab onto the post to steady herself but couldn’t seem to get her arms to move. She would have fallen had not the smith reached out to steady her. His large callused hands were gentle around her upper arms. Her vision filled with corded neck and massive shoulders, a dusting of dark chest hair through the open collar of a rough work shirt, and—when she looked up—a scruffy dark beard and piercing blue eyes.
“I’m fine,” she managed to gasp.
He raised one dark eyebrow. “Meine Dame is far from fine. Pray allow me to assist as Prince Kurt bids.”
“I don’t need your help.” She pushed away from him, swaying on her feet. She wasn’t bothered by Kurt’s snobbery. But this smith was a man, and a giant and powerful one at that. She couldn’t stomach another male touching her, thinking to control and direct her, even if at another’s command. His scent was already all around her. Strangely, it wasn’t the acrid sweat of a man who worked with fire and bellows, but a clean and musky smell.
“I can walk,” she insisted. “But I will take your arm. You may escort me.”
Dear Lord! Truth be told, even speech was almost beyond her. Her breath came in short pants as she focused hard on staying upright. She managed to give the smith a careful nod, worthy of her duchess mother, she thought fleetingly, as she reached out a shaky hand to lay on his forearm. She noted that the arm was as thick around as a heavy tree branch; she easily imagined him lifting the forger’s hammer and bending metal with limbs like these.
He met her gaze with a hard stare that was long and bold for a village blacksmith. “As meine Dame wishes.”
Stepping down off the wooden dais into the courtyard almost undid her. The motion jarred her back into spasms of misery. A sickening wave of nausea and vertigo threatened to drown her. She clenched the smith’s arm and waited for the spasm to subside into something like a low molten boil. The long forecourt stretched ahead of her, bustling with blacksmith shed, stables, dovecote, armory, storehouses, and a dozen other active outbuildings. And then there were the castle reception chambers, main hall, and two flights of stairs to traverse before arriving at the guest wing where she was housed at the end of a long corridor in the chambers of honor.
She tried to put one foot in front of the other, but it seemed stuck, as if in mud.
A gripping cold began to spread through her limbs. Blackness gathered from the edges of her vision. “Smith, don’t let me fall,” she whispered. Her voice sounded far away, even to her own ears. “I don’t want them to see me fall.”
“Meine Dame has no need to worry.” The words came back to her, soft as a cloud. “She is safe with me.”
Lenora regained blurry awareness as they entered rooms she recognized as her own—the gilt and crimson reception chambers and private bedroom suite where her life had become an increasing hell these past three months. She lay cradled in the arms of the smith, who was walking very boldly and issuing commands to the nervous, scuttling maids. Some soft bunched fabric cushioned her in his embrace, but the fire in her back roared to life again as fuller consciousness returned. She drew a deep gasping breath just as his eyes snapped to her face.
She fixed on them as to a lifeline through the nauseating pain swamping her. Eyes a clear piercing blue like the brightest summer sky, but somehow so cold. And weren’t they far too knowing for a simple blacksmith?
“Who are you?” She breathed out the question.
“A friend,” he answered shortly, stopping out of earshot of the servants as a maid hurried to remove the coverlet from the tall bedstead.
A friend? But why, then, that cold fury in your eyes? “I have no friends here.”
“Do you have a dagger?” he asked. “That makes a fine friend. Or has that despot taken all such things from you?”
“Long ago.” She’d mourned her throwing knives—fine old friends, indeed—but Kurt even cut her meat at meals now and took care not to allow her anywhere near the dinner knives.
As a pair of maids scurried to lay down extra sheets and bring over a basin of water, the smith turned her in his arms toward the wall and pulled from his deep apron pocket a silver-handled dagger in a scrolled leather sheath. “Let this be your new friend. And may it provide you some protection.” He slid it surreptitiously behind a row of poetry volumes on her bookshelf.
She frowned, struggling to think past the pain. Who was this blacksmith who offered weaponry and took such liberties of address when no one else could hear?
Before she could form a question, he brought her to the bed the maids had readied and laid her gently on it.
“God keep you, meine Dame.” He did bow then, deeply, as he hadn’t before to Kurt. “And may we meet again, under more pleasant circumstances.”
He turned and left. She felt a deep cold grip her again and realized it had been held at bay while she was in his arms.
Her lady’s maid Frieda approached, the older one who spied for Kurt. Lenora had tried in vain for weeks to have her replaced. The woman bore scissors and a self-satisfied smirk. She lifted the blades. “To cut away the shift, Dame Lenora. I’ll try not to cause you too much more distress.”
Hard shivers began to rack Lenora’s frame, ripping further trails of pain down her back. But the blood of a Prussian princess and a British duke ran in her veins. She would survive.
And, by God, she would find a way out of here, back home to England.
She closed her eyes and thought of bright blue summer skies.