In her first life, no matter how much Jeord hurt or humiliated her, Katarina had never dared to speak out against him.
She had never once dared to raise her voice to the man that she had desperately loved.
Instead – and Katarina realized this now with a mixture of self-disgust and appalled amusement – she had displaced all the rage and fear she experienced over his misbehavior onto other women.
After all – as Miss Maria Campbell would surely soon learn if she hadn't already – being Prince Jeord Stuart's fiancé was no stroll in the park. There were always a cloud of beautiful young women floating around him – women who were fixated in equal parts by his handsome appearance, his lofty station, and the ever-so-suggestive words he used to incite their interest without crossing any actual lines.
And as his fiancé – and a girl all too aware of how easily infidelity could break apart even the most loving of families – Katarina had endured many a sleepless night afraid that one of these vixens would come and tear him from her, no matter how much love and devotion she had already given.
After all, her own mother had been nothing but the best possible wife to her father – and look at how he had ended up humiliating her with a bastard!
Yet, Katarina lived so deeply in the twin lands of love and delusion that she could not bring herself to admit that the women who hovered around Jeord did so with his subtle encouragement. Perhaps something in him even enjoyed Katarina's pain and hurt – just as he had enjoyed soothing her in his arms later on, pressing kisses to her swollen eyes and wet cheeks as he promised her that the other women meant nothing to him, not a thing, that she was the only one that he could ever be with—
Fool that she was, she had been so very grateful for his comfort that she could not bear to admit the role he had played in orchestrating her pain. So instead, she'd turned her rage on the women who flocked around him – using every bit of social grace and standing available to her to make their lives a living hell on earth until they finally fled from what was hers.
And every time, Jeord had simply sat back and smile, his pupils blown wide as he watched her scheme and connive, his caresses ever more deliberate and tender in the aftermath of every one of her fights.
Or at least – such had been Jeord's pattern until the perfect Miss Maria Campbell came along. And suddenly, it was though Jeord had rediscovered his sense of chivalry, delighting as he did in riding in like Miss Campbell's knight-in-shining armor every time Katarina had so much as glared at the pathetic little girl.
But that was the result of Katarina's foolishness in her first life.
In her second one, Katarina realized that it was finally time to turn the full measure of her rage and scorn on the one who had incited it all along.
"—I intend to live my life without any guilt where you are concerned."
In a perfect world, Katarina could have cheerfully pirouetted away from her stubborn still-fiancé after that declaration, ending their mercifully brief confrontation by going back to her mansion and slamming the door in his face.
And in that same world, Jeord would finally have realized how serious she was about ending their engagement and slunk away shame-faced, leading her to a happy – or at least reasonably content – single life where she would no longer have any menfolk around to bedevil her.
But sadly, that was not the world Katarina currently lived in – even in her second life.
And in this world, Prince Jeord Stuart – the possible future ruler of the kingdom Katarina currently resided in – managed to stop her with a polished smile and a single sentence.
"Does that mean you are confessing to copulating with someone other than myself?"
And suddenly, the glorious exit that had briefly existed in Katarina's head came crashing down.
It really didn't help when her erstwhile fiancé used her shock as an excuse to come uncomfortably close, his hands coming to caress her shoulders in a loose embrace while his lips met the delicate lobe of her ear.
"Or is there a reason other than infidelity that explains why you left me… high and dry during a moment of otherwise exquisite intimacy?"
That at least got Katarina to rouse a bit from her stupor, though her brain somehow felt simultaneously sluggish and hyperactive from the feel of his arms surrounding her – her skin somehow both craving and crawling at his touch.
"I didn't think dry would be the best way to describe the state I left you in, your highness," Katarina finally managed, even as she tried to shift away from him.
But of course, Jeord held her tight, trapping her in his arms for the moment. "No," he said at last, after one endless moment in which he buried his face in her hair. "No, it wasn't. Honestly, Katarina—" and no doubt he was smiling now into the curve of her neck, that same smile he always wielded against her like a weapon, "you have no idea how difficult it is to sneak into the bath at the midnight to wash off all that you left behind."
And she could almost picture his eyes turning colder as he nipped her neck and added: "Especially given the little injury you dealt me right before you left. Though I'm sure you also have an excellent explanation for that."
That sent enough of a shiver down her spine that Katarina found the strength to break free of his embrace, before turning around to glare at him.
And then, knowing she had no way to properly explain why she had decided to kick her fiancé right in his delicates on the very night she'd tried to seduce him, Katarina drew upon all of the grace she had learned through many hours of palace bridal training – and lied shamelessly.
"Your highness," she said, her voice practically dropping to a syrupy drip that would have made her mother proud, "I have no idea what you mean. Of what injury do you speak?"
Katarina had the distinct pleasure of seeing Jeord's perfect smile freeze on his face as she once again took him by surprise. The very sight of it encouraged perhaps more boldness in her than was healthy.
"After all," she continued, lowering her lashes demurely as though she hadn't assaulted him with her half-naked front and then her foot three nights ago, "all I can remember from that… ill-favored night was my reconsidering my wanton desires, you getting on your knees in – astonishment at my audacity, and then my leaving before I disgraced us thoroughly."
And now Jeord was developing a slight twitch in his left eye.
Suddenly filled with almost suicidal courage, Katarina found herself gazing up at him with an actual smile. "Indeed, your highness, even if my memory that night remains… at odds with your own, both of us must agree how poorly we fared during my terrible attempt at… bringing us together. So truly, we should petition your father for an end to our engagement after all – even if you must do so by citing our general incompatibility and my terrible misbehavior."
And casting her eyes down again, lest he see the hopeful spark lit within them, Katarina tried for a heart-broken sigh. "I shall miss you dearly, your highness. But truly, my wanton self is not suited for someone in a position as lofty as your own. I can only hope that you will soon find a better woman to step into my role."
After all, her father had said that: "such an engagement is nearly impossible to dissolve absent evidence of crime or adultery" – and didn't her attempted seduction count for a thankfully mild version of the first?
And once Katarina stepped aside, with some minor punishment from the king for being lewder than society openly allowed – cases like hers happened every other year, and they were always scandalous but rarely deadly – Maria Campbell would be ripe for Jeord's plucking. Honestly, the golden-haired slattern couldn't be more ready for Jeord's side if Katarina had bribed her to be.
(That was plan B – though Katarina was hoping with all her heart that she needn't resort to that eventuality. Not to even mention the nigh-suicidal plan C…)
But before the desperate little hope blooming in Katarina's heart could further flower – because yes, she would rather be known as a wanton woman thrown away by a prince than remain as a doomed fiancé… perhaps she could go into a well-financed self-exile abroad, she bet that foreign kingdom three deserts over was lovely this time of year –
Jeord stopped her by grabbing both her shoulders, his grip far stronger than any touch he had ever given her out of their boudoir.
And his icy blue eyes – when they stared daggers into her own – sent another chill down her spine.
"Who was it?" he asked, his voice sliding into a whisper. "Who seduced you away from me? What bastard dared to think –"
Startled, Katarina found herself interrupting. "What in the world do you mean?"
His fingers stung as they curled around her shoulders, as though determined to leave a mark.
"You wouldn't leave me otherwise," he said, his voice almost too even. "You love me – you've always loved me – ever since you met me. You would not change your mind arbitrarily. It must have been someone who enticed you to – someone who inveigled you – someone who convinced you to leave –"
Eyes wide, Katarina reflexively shook her head. "How could you possibly – why would you even –"
And then, still shocked, she had to wonder: "Who on earth do you think I could have cuckolded you with?"
Jerald answered her with a tight smile that seemed to conceal sharp teeth. "That's what I'd like you to tell me. Because once I know who that bastard is—"
His tight grip on her shoulders eased but Katarina barely had any time to feel relief before she found herself pressed to him again, his lips brushing against her marred brow in a parody of affection.
"I am going to skin him for his audacity."
All the nerves in her body seemed to be alight at once, as her fear and disbelief warred for supremacy.
"Let me remind you," Jeord went on lightly, as though they were discussing something other than death-threats aimed at her imaginary lover, "of several unalterable truths. You are my fiancé. You belong to me. And I will not share you with anybody."
And if Katarina had been a more well-behaved or strategic woman, she wouldn't have chosen this moment to push her fiancé off of her – shoving him off of her so hard he almost ended up falling on his derriere.
Wonderful idea, a hysterical little voice inside Katarina's mind cried. You assaulted his royal jewels a few nights ago – and now you're shoving him about! It's as though you're trying to die even earlier in this lifetime!
But that voice was small indeed, considering the ocean of rage and grief that had been building in Katarina over the last few hellish days – indeed, over the last few years – and that finally found the courage to speak.
"Let me enlighten you about something, Jeord," Katarina said, her tone frostier than any she had ever deployed before with the third prince. "I don't give a damn about any threats you make about whatever imaginary man you think I cuckolded you with because he does not even exist. If I left you a few nights ago, it was because I realized you were not good enough for me. And as far as I am concerned, any arrangement we ever had is already null and void – in my heart, if not yet in reality."
Her fiery blue eyes met his icy ones – and Katarina unleashed her vicious smile again.
"Thank you for your visit, your highness. It was most enlightening as to where our relationship stands. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to bathe and pretend you never touched me. And since you managed to sneak your way in here, I'm sure you can show yourself out as well."
And when she turned from him and ran as quickly as she could to her mansion's back-door, Jeord seemed incapable of blinking or even breathing – as though her words had finally broken through to him.
But when she turned to look at him just before she went back into her safe haven, she could see that ever-so-sweet smile blossom across his perfect face again.
"This isn't over, Katarina," he told her, his voice barely carrying over to her in the distance. "In fact, our little game has just begun."
She slammed the door in his face and tried to pretend it heralded victory.
Much love goes to the amazing With Cannons in the Concert Hall, who beta-read this tricky chapter for me. She kept me away from my typical over-reliance on flowery language and italics, and gave me the courage to post this. Thank you again, dear heart!
Damn. Even as I'm writing him, I sometimes can't *believe* what an *asshole* Jeord is. But I must reluctantly admit that it is so much *fun* to write him clashing with Katarina - and finally having her lash back at him. And I believe their war has officially begun. May the most vicious and conniving villain(ess) win!
Anyway, thank you all again for your amazing and supportive comments and suggestions... I love and am inspired by every one of them. (How else could I write 5 bloody chapters in just 4 days?!) I'd love to hear whether this Jeord is working for you... I was really hoping he'd live up to his "sadistic prince" title yet not be too over-the-top about things. Is he a good antagonist for this Katarina? And how would you suggest she break free from him?