With all the wrapping, cooking, and corralling, I thought it might be nice to escape for a few minutes. Here is an all-new, never-before-seen Christmas short story (Exclusive for Dashing Duchesses readers!) that follows after the end of my latest release, Sins of a Wicked Princess.
A Princess’ Christmas Wish
By Anna Randol
If Ian needed proof he was in love, the bundled ham was it. He tried not to wince as he gave the last bit of their carefully packed food away.
“God Bless. God Bless,” the gnarled, elderly woman cried, cradling the meat in her bony arms like a newborn.
At least she treated his carefully chosen food with the respect it deserved.
Princess Juliana–his wife and soon to be queen, he thought with a grin—clasped the old woman’s stooped shoulders with her deceptively dainty hands. “Tell your husband we will definitely be in need of skilled masons in the Spring.”
The woman shifted in the ankle deep snow. “Bless you and welcome home, Your Highness.”
With a quick smile Juliana took the cloak from her own shoulders—her present from Ian that he a procured with great trouble from a Russian Czarina—and placed it on the woman. Juliana hopped in the coach and gave the order to proceed before the woman could protest.
Juliana continued looking out of the frosty windows of the coach until long after the other woman had disappeared from view. She chewed slightly on her lower lip—a bad habit she would never have allowed herself in front of anyone else.
Ian gloried in that. Like he did when she moved to his side of the coach and rested her head on his shoulder.
“Not only did you give away your present, but you ruined my Christmas surprise,” Ian murmured.
She lifted an amused brow. “All without trying. I’m more skilled than I knew.”
“I was going to arrange a fantastical fairy picnic for you in the castle.” Ian had hoped it would soften the blow of seeing her childhood home reduced to a burned out ruin. “But then you gave away the bread, the tarts, the cheese, and the apples, and the ham.”
Of course, she had. Juliana loved her people with a fierce devotion that he intended to see properly comprehended and respected. It appeared his life as a feared spy might hold some value after all.
She snorted softly. “You are the one who suggested we stop and see if those people needed help. And I might remind you that most of our supplies are coming in the other coach tomorrow.”
Along with his former butler—now the Count of Canterbury—and his new bride, Princess Eustace.
He pulled Juliana closer. “I thought you were going to smile and bless them with some of your queenly magnanimity. Or that wave I saw you practicing in front of the mirror last—”
Her elbow found a soft spot in his side. He caught her up onto his lap before she could do more damage, and answered her attack with a more passionate one of his own. Her lips were sweeter than any sugary confection.
Perhaps he didn’t miss the food as much as he thought.
She suddenly pulled away from him, an awed gasp coming from her lips.
“I know that I am a skilled kisser, but—” He stopped his witty banter at the look of wonderment on her face.
They had crested a hill and the city of Concordia lay glistening in the late afternoon sun. Its wide cobbled streets flowing between buildings of sand colored marble. Pearly snow clung to tile roofs.
A fairy tale city.
Until one saw the castle on the hill. The roof was blackened where there weren’t gaping holes. One of the turrets had tumbled into a pile of rubble and charred wood.
And Ian knew, when they drew closer, they’d see the broken windows and the empty shops in the city as well, the wear and strain from the decades long war with Napoleon. But he didn’t need to tell Juliana that, he could see the same knowledge in her eyes.
By the time they had reached the bottom of the hill, the snow was falling thick and fast. Soon the horses were sliding and they were forced to stop at an inn at the edge of the city rather than pressing on to the house they had rented.
The inn was nothing fancy, but it was clean and run by decent folk. And Ian made sure to let all the rooms, leaving no room for anyone that might harm Juliana.
Juliana always saw to her servants before she saw to herself, so by the time they retired it was quite late. She sighed softly as she nestled beside him under the simple homespun quilt. “I will not cry tomorrow.”
She was talking about the castle and the memories of the death of her parents. He pressed a kiss to her brow. “No, you’re strong and—”
She bit him on the shoulder. “I wasn’t looking for pity. I was making a promise. And I never break them.”
The next morning, Ian was up far before the sun. It was a habit he found he couldn’t break. When one grew up falling asleep beside a stolen fire, one had to be gone before the owner awoke.
Ian brushed frost from the window and gazed down at the city below.
Snow had piled high in the night, giving the whole city a—
Snow had piled high.
Ian slipped soundlessly from the room and down the stairs. The innkeeper’s wife gave him a surprised look, pausing in her stirring. “No luck, sir, if you plan to go outside. The snow is nigh up to my waist.”
No. No. No.
Ian hadn’t truly cared about losing his frigid picnic surprise because he knew that what Juliana truly wanted was to set foot in her castle once again.
Now she wouldn’t be able too.
She had promised yesterday that she wasn’t going to cry.
It was his job to see that she never had reason to. He turned to the innkeeper’s wife, “Do you happen to know where I can get embroidery hoops and fishing twine?”
Juliana awakened warm, rested. And alone.
She always knew when Ian wasn’t there. Even before she reached over to feel his empty space on the bed. Off doing his strategizing, no doubt.
Something about the winter air in Lenoria brought back memories she hadn’t thought of in a long time. Selecting a Yule log in the forest. The heavy incense in the church. Carefully wrapped gifts she taken from her mother’s hands.
Juliana heard Ian’s step on the stair and closed her eyes. Ian liked to think that all his plotting happened in secret. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him she knew how he always arranged everything to perfection.
That, and she loved the way the way he woke her up.
His lips feathered kisses across her forehead before wandering their way down to her lips. “Good morning, Jules.”
Now she was fully awake. She sat up so fast she almost crushed Ian’s nose. “The castle.” She jumped from the bed and ran to the window. A heavy weight settled on her chest. There would be no trip to the castle. There was little chance a horse could get through that, let alone a carriage.
But before she could draw a breath to feign disinterest, there was a tap on her shoulder. She glanced back at Ian.
He held two large circles that had been crossed and re-crossed with thin ropes.
A present of some sort. Homemade, obviously. She fumbled for the right thing to say. “How intriguing.”
He grinned his infuriatingly adorable wolfish grin. “I know, aren’t they?”
The beast. He was just going to stand there and force her to ask what exactly they were. But then he surprised her by setting one circle by her foot and then moving her foot on top.
Then she knew what he had done. She’d seen them before in the mountains—or rather something roughly similar. They were snowshoes.
But that meant—“The castle. I can go today.” Her heart pounded wildly, gloriously wild and free. Thanks to her own personal spymaster.
He grinned and swept her up into his arms. “Merry Christmas.”
She blinked back the tears she’d promised not to shed. “You’ve given me a castle. That will be a rather difficult present to top.”
Ian lowered his lips to hers. “Challenge accepted.”
Ian Maddox, aka the Wraith, is happy to leave his life as a spy— as soon as he discovers who’s been trying to kill his friends. All clues lead him to the bedroom of an exiled princess. Yet Princess Juliana isn’t the simpering royal he expects, and this irresistible beauty agrees to give him the information he seeks . . . for a price.
Princess Juliana has never cowered—not even as she fled her burning castle in the midst of a rebellion—so she won’t tremble before the darkly charismatic man who appears in her bedchamber and holds a knife to her throat. Instead, she bargains with the infamous spy to help her retrieve sensitive documents and restore her kingdom. But Juliana quickly finds that Ian is no humble servant, and she never imagines that lessons in thievery will lead to schooling in seduction.
Readers, now it your turn–What was your favorite Christmas surprise? One lucky commenter will receive all three books in the Sinner’s Trio series (Sins of a Virgin, Sins of a Ruthless Rogue, and Sins of a Wicked Princess)! Contest closes December 27, 2013. Void where prohibited.