It's great to be back after a year spent reworking, rewriting, and editing A Forbidden Love for publication. Innocence, A Forbidden Love – Book One, is now available on Amazon and through The Writer's Coffee Shop, which is very exciting. The sequel, Protection, comes out next May, and the first book in my Hearts of Honour series, Passion and Propriety, comes out in August 2014. All the details are on my profile page if you'd like to know more.
Thank you to Katmom for prereading this story for me – and helping me survive this crazy year.
I hope you enjoy my new story.
The sound of galloping hooves jolted Bella from her daydreaming, and she took cover in the frost-covered shrubbery. She didn't normally venture into the forest this late in the season, but her step-sisters were in need of new gowns for the Coronation Ball . . . or so they insisted. Their tastes far exceeded the funds available in the family's coffers, so Bella had been ordered to make another trip to forage for black truffles while the valuable fungus were still fruiting.
She didn't mind. While the trapper's hut she had made her own was primitive to say the least, the chance to escape her step-mother's ire for a few days was worth the lonely nights and uncomfortable days spent digging in the half-frozen mud . . . but not falling prey to bandits or enemy soldiers.
From her hiding place on a ridge, she saw a lone rider racing at breakneck speed along the path below, a half dozen soldiers on his tail. The leader of the pack raised his bow, and Bella's hand rose to her mouth. Stifling a cry, she watched his arrow fly through the air, striking the fleeing man in the back and sending him tumbling to the ground. The man's horse galloped on without him, his pursuers reining their mounts to a halt in time to see their prey go tumbling down the steep, brush-covered bank that led to the river.
"Do we go after him, Captain?" one of the soldiers shouted, the blue insignia on their cloaks confirming their identities . . . Prince Caius's men.
"No, he was probably just a decoy. We'll return to make sure he's dead once the prince has been captured."
Riding back the way they had come, the soldiers sprayed mud in their wake, oblivious to Bella huddled in the undergrowth. Collecting the truffles she'd already unearthed in one of the pockets of her skirt, she contemplated her options. Being in the vicinity when the soldiers returned was not one of them, but leaving without checking on the man didn't sit well with her conscience.
He was as good as dead. If being shot by an arrow and the fall hadn't killed him, he'd probably drowned and been swept away in the fast flowing current. The odds of him surviving were negligible . . . but not non-existent, she conceded with a slump of her shoulders.
In the ten minutes it took her to clamber down the steep embankment, Bella second-guessed her decision to see if he had survived several times. The village was abuzz with talk that Prince Edward was returning to the Kingdom for his father's coronation now that his uncle, the much hated King Aro, was dead. If the man was one of the prince's guards or companions, he might be trustworthy, but she'd do well to be cautious.
A clap of thunder sounded almost directly overhead, and Bella increased her pace down the slippery embankment. A storm was coming. She'd been about to head back to her tiny cabin hidden deep in the forest when the attack had occurred. She should leave . . . now. The man wasn't her responsibility, and a rescue party would surely come searching for him. Then again, if he'd been used as a decoy, his life might not be considered valuable enough to waste precious resources searching the dense forest, not with Caius's men on the warpath.
Life was cheap in the Kingdom of Volterra, at least, it had been under Aro's brutal reign. There was talk that the new king would usher in a more humane era, along with an end to the border wars that had cost so many lives. Her father had admired Prince Carlisle before his banishment, and Bella hoped, for the sake of her fellow Volterrans, that his reign would be different to his brother's. With her life and future held in the hands of the heartless woman her father had so unwisely wed not long before his death, she doubted a change in monarch would have much impact on her own situation.
Slipping the last few yards down the muddy bank, she spotted the man's red trimmed cloak caught on some bushes near the river's edge. It seemed the prickly shrubs, normally to be avoided at all costs, were all that had stood between the rider and certain death in the icy river . . . that's if he wasn't dead already.
Wary of meeting the fate the man had avoided, and of the man himself, Bella inched closer. A maiden alone in the forest was vulnerable to all sorts of predators, and she hadn't survived the years since her father's death by taking foolish risks.
Pulling back the branch that blocked the fallen man's body from view, she startled at the sight of his green eyes peering out of the shadows and the knife he held poised to throw.
"A girl?" He blinked twice. "You're not one of Caius's men come to finish me off. Are you?"
Not expecting him to be immediately armed and dangerous, Bella was tempted to let go of the branch and make a run for it, but she could hardly blame him for being cautious.
"I'm not here to hurt you," she said, and he lowered the knife. "I saw you get shot and came to see if you had survived."
"Came to see if there was anything valuable on my person you could pinch, you mean."
It was Bella's turn to blink. "Are you calling me a thief?"
"Well, aren't you?" He reached over his shoulder to tug at the arrow she assumed must still be embedded in his flesh. To her surprise, he didn't even wince, seeming more annoyed than anything.
"No, I'm not a thief." Tempted to release the branch and let it smack him in the face, she hesitated for a moment before snapping it back so it would stay out of the way. "I just happened to witness the attack and came to see if you needed my help, but if you'd rather I left you to it . . ."
She turned away, and he lunged forward, grabbing hold of the hem of her skirt.
Bella cursed her stupidity. She shouldn't have come close enough to be caught, but he'd moved with far greater agility than she would have expected for a man with an arrow in his back.
"There's a storm coming." She raised her chin in a show of defiance, but there was nothing she could do about the tremor in her voice. "If you hurt me, I won't help you climb out of here, and you'll die . . . from exposure or when Caius's men return to finish you off."
"I'm not going to hurt you," he said, sounding affronted. "I'm a gentleman."
Bella would have laughed if she hadn't been so frightened. The title didn't mean much in these parts, not like it had when her father was a knight in the King's court before Aro had become corrupted by power and greed.
If appearance was a measure of character, she might have been reassured, as the young man certainly looked presentable. Even hidden in the shadows, she could tell his clothes were of the finest quality, and his features were both handsome and regal. With his high, wide brow, chiselled jaw, and slightly reddish tinge to his hair—a common trait amongst royalty—she wouldn't have been surprised to find out he was the prince. Of course, that would make him a fool for leaving his escorts and riding off alone.
"You have my word of honour that no harm will come to you for assisting me." He let go of her skirt, and Bella released the breath she was holding. "But if what you say about a storm is true, we need to get moving."
"It's true, all right." She shrugged. It wasn't hard to read the signs, and she wondered if he'd been addled in the fall. Quite aside from the occasional clap of thunder, the wind had picked up, and heavy black clouds darkened the sky. Once the floodgates opened, which could happen any moment, they would both be soaked to the skin. Well, Bella would be. Her thin, woollen cloak had long since lost any water repelling effects of the lanolin in its fibres. The gentleman's cloak, on the other hand, would offer far more protection from the elements . . . if they could get it free from the briars holding him fast.
"How badly are you hurt?" she asked, kneeling down beside him. "You're a little pale, but don't appear weak from blood loss. Did the arrow not go deep? I'm assuming the shaft snapped off when you rolled down the hill."
"It did." Sitting up as far as he could without getting further caught in the prickly branches, he reached behind him to tug a leather satchel over his head. "The arrow lodged itself in my bag, not me. I don't think it even pierced the skin, though the force knocked me from my horse."
"Lucky." Bella studied the arrowhead where it had penetrated several layers of leather and two thirds of a thick journal. "Were you winded in the fall? Is that why you haven't tried to crawl out?"
"No, it's these accursed thorns . . . and I've hurt my ankle." He tried to move his left leg before wincing and falling back. "I don't think it's broken, at least, I hope not."
"So do I." Bella glanced back the way she had come—the way they had bothcome—down the steep bank. This was going to be harder than she'd thought, her hopes plummeting further when the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Stuck, as he was, and with time running out, she had no choice but to untie the man's cloak, leaving it behind when she dragged him out of the thicket.
"Bloody hell," he muttered when he was finally free of the spiky thorns snagging his clothing and scratching at his skin. "You damned near skewered me, woman."
"Watch your language, and I'm a lady," she said automatically before checking his reaction to the mild rebuke. He seemed surprised, not overly offended, but she silently cautioned herself to try and avoid provocation. Holding her tongue wasn't Bella's strong suit, her somewhat acerbic wit earning her many a slap from her step-mother and sisters.
Helping the gentleman to stand, she slung his arm over her shoulders, steadying him when he swayed on his one good foot. Out of the shadows, he was even more handsome than she'd first thought, paler too, a gash in his hairline that she hadn't spotted sending blood trickling down the side of his face. The sooner she got him back to the cabin and tended to his wounds the better, a feat easier described than accomplished.
"What do you mean you're a lady?" he asked when they paused halfway up the bank to catch their breaths. "Where are your chaperones, your protectors? You shouldn't be wandering in the forest alone. It's far too dangerous."
"You won't hear any argument from me." Bella wrapped her calloused, nail-torn fingers around a tree root and resumed the difficult task of dragging them both up the muddy incline. "Let's just say I used to be a lady," she added between panted breaths. "And despite my rather drastic change in circumstances, I've not yet developed a fondness for crude speech."
To her surprise, a flush of colour appeared in his cheeks, making him appear younger . . . harmless. Then they reached a section where they could stand, and he let his weight rest on Bella's shoulders while he steadied himself, reminding her of his far greater height and strength.
The prince's man might be pretty to look at, but she was taking a risk helping him, one she hoped she didn't come to regret.
Just a short first chapter, but the next one is longer and will be up for Christmas. I'd love to hear what you think. If you have any questions, about the story or for me, pop them in a review, and I'll do my best to answer them at the end of next chapter.
If you'd like to win a paperback or ebook copy of Innocence, check out my web page at elisedesallier dot com and click on the Rafflecopter link. Competition closes on January 3rd 2014. The link is also on my Facebook author page – Elise de Sallier Author - under Giveaways, and is very easy to enter. You could also 'like' my page while there, if you're so inclined. :)