Truth about LeoKatie MacAlister
Copyright © 2014 by Katie MacAlister
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Cover art by Alan Ayers
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From Noble Intentions
From Noble Destiny
From The Trouble with Harry
Leopold Ernst George Mortimer, seventh Earl of March, defender of the crown, spy in the service of the (occasionally insane) king, and sometime rescuer of kittens stuck in trees, was not a happy man.
“I am not a happy man,” he informed the kitten as he reached out to pluck it from its leafy bower and received a branch to the mouth for his efforts.
For one extremely disconcerting moment, Leo thought the kitten had spoken. But since the question originated some distance below him, he quickly discarded that idea. “Why not what?” he asked, removing the branch so he could speak. Barely discernible through the foliage was the slight figure of a girl child, aged about eight and perched with apparent ease on the back of Galahad, his large bay gelding.
“Why aren’t you happy? Is it because you’re English? My grandmamma was English. Mama says all English are unhappy because they don’t live in Denmark. Are you sad because you don’t live in Denmark?”
“I’m not sad at all.”
“You said you were.”
He edged forward along the branch. The kitten, a small hissing bundle of gray-striped fur, appeared to share his general dissatisfaction with life, for not only was it trying to make itself look as large and menacing as possible, but it also appeared to suddenly realize that the sharp things in its mouth and on the ends of its feet might have a use in dissuading its removal from the tree. “I said I was not happy.”
“That’s the same thing,” the girl pointed out, then winced when the kitten took defensive action.
“Damn you!” Leo growled, snatching back his hand from where he had the cat cornered.
“You said a bad thing!” gasped the girl.
“Yes, I did.” He made another lunge for the cat and got his hand scratched a second time.
“Mama says that people who say bad words are godless heathens. Are you a godless heathen?”
Leo bit back the urge to expound on what he thought of her mother’s teachings and concentrated on capturing the hell-spawn beast without any further damage to life or limb.
“Mama says that people who say the bad thing you said are ignorant because they can’t think of anything else to say.”
“I can think of a thing or two to say to your mother right now. How is it you speak English so well?” He feigned a move to the left, attempting to catch the kitten off guard, but young though it was, it had a feline wisdom that kept it just beyond his reach.
“Mama taught me. She says that someday, when my brothers are older, we will go to England and see Grandmamma. Don’t hurt Francis!” This last was in reaction to the sight of Leo removing his jacket, waistcoat, and one of his braces.
“Tempting though that thought is, I draw the line at abusing small animals.” The kitten spat at him. “No matter how much they might deserve such treatment. I’m simply going to try to snare the beast.”
“His name is Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who loved all the animals and beasts in the field. He sleeps with me and keeps me warm at night.”
Blinking once or twice at the inadvertent imagery, Leo made a rough loop with his brace and attempted to toss it over the cat’s head. It fell short by several feet. “You need to watch your pronouns when you make statements like that.”
“Do you have family here, like my grandmamma?”
“No. I’m just passing through.” He grunted as he slid on his belly along the branch, refusing to think about what the movement was costing his clothing.
The girl’s brow wrinkled. “Are you here because of the war?”
“War? What war?” He slid along another foot. He was almost within reach of the monster.
“Papa says the English attacked our ships two days ago. Papa says there are no more ships in the harbor and that the English killed hundreds of sailors. Did you kill any sailors?”
“Not to my knowledge. I’m on my way to Copenhagen from St. Petersburg, and I hope to heaven your father is wrong about the ships.” He paused for a moment and thought about what the girl had said, eventually shaking his head. No, he hadn’t heard any word of a war intended against the Danish. True, he’d been incommunicado these last three weeks while he traveled from the depths of Russia out to the Danish coast, but surely he would have heard at least a whisper of such a thing had the Admiralty intended on attacking.
Then again, given how unhappy the prime minister and his advisers were with the Scandinavians on the whole—what with their lenient trade attitudes toward that blighter Napoleon—a war wasn’t entirely out of the question. But realistically? He shook his head again. The navy would have to be crazy to launch an attack against the Danes. Their navy and army combined were a minute force compared to that of Britain and her allies. “Now then, let’s see if we can’t end this debacle.”
A quick flick of his wrist later and the cat was snared. Gently he held the bucking kitten steady while attempting to wrap a handkerchief around his (now bleeding) hand.
“You caught him!” the child squealed in delight, clapping her hands.
Leo quickly rearranged his hold to avoid all of the kitten’s sharp, stabby bits. “Here, you, Anna or whatever your name is—”
“No, really? Your mother must be quite inventive. Here’s your blasted kitten.” He clung to the tree with one arm while leaning down as far as possible, the kitten still hissing and spitting at him. The girl was a brave little thing, for without the slightest hesitation she reached up and accepted the monstrous kitten, removing the loop from around his neck in order to snuggle him. Dewy tracks down her cheeks bore testament to her distress previous to his arrival, but all was forgotten as she beamed up at Leo.
“I’d suggest you keep the vicious brute out of trees in the future,” he told her sternly, trying to harden his heart against the look of hero worship that she was bending upo
n him. Don’t get involved with the locals, that had always been his motto, and it had stood him in good stead for the many campaigns he had undertaken across the breadth of Europe. He wasn’t about to let a fresh-faced young chit make him break his vow of disinterest, no matter how heroic she made him feel. “You can’t count on having a handy rescuer to be lost on the way to Copenhagen, and thus available for service to you, both of which I was.”
“Thank you,” she cried, her happiness complete. Clutching the hell-spawn cat in one hand, she slid down from the not insubstantial height of Galahad’s broad back with an air that bespoke much practice in the art of horse sliding. She continued to beam up at Leo…for about three seconds, after which time shrieking and arm waving commenced, propitiated by the cat’s leap from her arms, directly onto Galahad’s neck.
His horse was many things—brave, stalwart, and at times, downright stubborn—but when faced with four sets of claws digging into his neck, he protested the offense in the only way he knew: he bolted.
“Francis, no!” the child screamed and dashed after the cat, which had leaped off the horse and turned into a feline streak of gray and white, headed straight for a barn, the roof of which was visible over a copse of leafy trees.
“Galahad!” Leo thundered, but it did no good. The horse leaped over the stone fence that bounded the pasture, and was off down the dirt road before he could do so much as shake his fist and threaten the horse with heinous retribution.
In the short space of three seconds, Leo found himself alone, up a tree, and bleeding from several scratches on both his face and hands.
“There are times,” he said, looking upward in case some deity or other might be interested in bending an interested ear his way, “when I firmly believe that I’m the victim of a dread curse. That time in Berlin when I was caught in the countess’s bedchamber was one. The recent happenings in St. Petersburg was another. This time, however—stranded in a tree, horseless, and most likely too late to catch the ship sailing for Germany—has to take the top honors.” He sighed, considered continuing his self-pity for a bit longer, but decided that wouldn’t help him out of his present circumstances. “At the very least, we’re having decent weather.”
As if on cue, a group of pregnant gray clouds that he would have sworn weren’t there five minutes earlier drifted across the sun. The gentle pat, pat, pat sounds on the leaves around him made him sigh again.
“Of course. How silly of me to tempt fate.” It took him a good twenty minutes to figure a way out of the tree; without the handy stepping stool that was Galahad or the presence of lower tree limbs, he had a hard time negotiating his descent, but in the end, after much swearing and a little more blood loss thanks to some jagged broken branches, he fell the last few yards to the ground, landing with a heavy thump.
The bones in his left leg, broken a few years past after a leap out of the German countess’s bedchamber window, protested but didn’t buckle, and for that he was profoundly grateful. He straightened up, made an attempt to brush off the worst of the tree from his clothing, and turned to limp toward the road in hopes of seeing Galahad grazing on the verge.
Three men clad in Danish uniforms, all armed with rifles and sabers, faced him. One of the soldiers held his own sword, which he’d removed to climb the tree.
His shoulders slumped as the men moved forward. “Cursed,” he said. “Definitely cursed.”
A princess strives for modality of both voice and being. Discordant events, such as the refusal by a groom to allow one to ride one’s father’s stallion, are to be greeted with a slightly elevated eyebrow (no more than one quarter of an inch; anything else is considered mannish), and a slightly aggrieved expression. Under no circumstances should carbolic powder be placed in the groom’s underthings so as to ensure unsightly and ceaseless itching of an Unspeakable Body Part.
—Princess Christian of Sonderburg-Beck’s Guide for Her Daughter’s Illumination and Betterment
Dagmar tapped the end of the quill against her lips and considered best how to answer this latest demand from her cousin.
My very dear cousin Frederick, she wrote, then decided that given the tone in her cousin’s letter, the rotter didn’t deserve such niceties.
I have received your missive dated today and have to say that I’m shocked that a man who Dearest Papa always insisted had so much potential would use words like “blot on the existence of my life” and “irreverent, mouthy, and in essence, painful to be near” to a lady like me, let alone one of royal blood, but as the good book—and I refer here to my sainted mother’s detailed journal—always says, breeding will tell.
“Princ—oh, there you are.” A slight form appeared in the open doorway, bobbing a little curtsy before entering the room. “I’ve been hunting all over for you. There’s a drunkard in the garden.”
I shouldn’t have thought it necessary to point out that the other good book—the Bible—mentions it as a sin to turn one’s back on one’s destitute and orphaned cousins—
Dagmar paused, glancing over to where her companion stood patiently waiting to be acknowledged. “Oh, hello, Julia. Do you know what the Bible says about cousins?”
The slight, blonde woman of forty-some years looked puzzled. “No. What does it say?”
“That’s what I was asking you.” Dagmar tapped the quill on her lips again. “Is it a sin to claim that the Bible says something if it really doesn’t?”
“I think it is, yes.” Julia sat, clasping her hands in a pious gesture that just made Dagmar sigh. It wasn’t that she was especially intolerant, or even irreligious, but the truth was that she was forever being taxed with being sinful by her cousin Frederick, who had long claimed that Dearest Papa had let her run wild and had not in the least tiny bit drummed into her how a proper lady should behave.
“Which is ridiculous, because there’s no way anyone could mistake me for a man,” she muttered, glancing down to where her front was quite obviously not that of a male. “I think they’re getting bigger.”
Julia considered the offending bosom. “I don’t think so, dear. They look just the same to me.”
“That’s because you’re around them all the time.” Dagmar gave her front one last dark look. “But my green gown is going to have to be let out again, else I’ll pop out of the bodice. Where was I? Oh, yes, the Bible. Well, it may not be in there, but it should be.”
“I’m sure you’re correct. Did you not hear me mention that there was a drunkard in the garden?”
“Yes, I heard you.”
A slight pause followed, ending when Julia said, in a flustered, breathless manner, “Do you not think anything of this?”
“Not particularly. Well, to be honest my first thought was to answer ‘When wasn’t there a drunkard in the garden’ but I realized that we haven’t been blighted with over-many garden drunkards in years past, so I decided to keep it to myself.”
“But…but…” Julia waved a hand in one of her vague gestures of mild distress.
Dagmar took pity on her. “Is this man doing any harm?”
“No, but he’s lying right out in the open, where anyone who ventures into the garden might see him.”
Dagmar dismissed him from her thoughts. It wasn’t as if she didn’t have more pressing concerns than some silly man who had imbibed too much and stumbled into their garden. “Don’t let it distress you. He’s probably sleeping off a night at the tavern and will leave once he wakes up.”
“But he might be injured or worse!”
“What’s worse than injured?” Dagmar asked absently, wondering how best to put her situation before her blighter of a cousin.
“Ah. Excellent point. Why don’t you go check and see if he’s dead while I finish this?”
nbsp; A blissful silence followed Julia’s departure. Dagmar dipped her quill and continued.
—destitute and orphaned cousins who are due your protection, but if you want to spurn God right to his face and damn your eternal soul, then that’s your choice. I, as an innocent and did I mention destitute and orphaned young princess of your own blood, albeit one that is somewhat distant relationship-wise if Dearest Papa’s genealogical chart is correct, will simply have to throw myself on the mercy of the king, your father, our beloved monarch and supreme ruler. I’m sure he will not turn his back on his own family and throw me out of the only home I’ve ever known, especially since I am still in mourning for Dearest Papa.
All too quickly, Julia was back. “He’s not dead.”
“He refuses to wake up, however.”
Julia wrung her hands for a few seconds. “Oughtn’t you to come see him for yourself?”
“I’ve never really found high entertainment value in gazing upon insensible drunkards, so I believe I will stay here and finish this. How do you spell ‘misanthrope’?”
“I would feel better if you did assess the situation for yourself.”
“Why?” Dagmar looked up from where she had been adding a word or two to the letter.
More vague hand gestures followed. “Well…he might not meet with your satisfaction.”
Dagmar tried very hard not to laugh. “I assure you most sincerely that I will have no undue expectations of this poor soul.”
“And then there’s the fact that he’s just lying out in the garden. He might hurt himself in his stupor. Or someone might trip over him. Or wolves might devour him while he is without his senses. I would feel much better if you were to view the situation.”
Dagmar set down the quill. “You’re not going to let me finish until I do, are you?”
“I would never presume—”
Dagmar stood, knowing the sooner she went out and viewed the man, the sooner she could return to pleading with her cousin. “Very well, let us view this new addition to the garden.”