SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVE NOT READ VOLUMES ONE AND TWO, DO NOT READ THIS YET!
Enjoy . . . .
Maggie bit her tongue to keep from making up some kind of excuse to avoid joining the other ladies in the castle for chatting and needlework. Maggie abhorred needlework. But it was expected that a lady know how to do such things, and she did know how; she simply didn’t like it. Abbi had taught her daughters that while needlework itself was not something she considered terribly important, it did teach a woman a certain amount of discipline and gave them something to occupy themselves when they were forced to entertain ladies who visited Castle Horstberg with their husbands and fathers when they came to conduct business. While politics and matters of echelon were being discussed at the other end of their enormous home, the women would sit with their backs straight, chat politely, and do needlework. There were no visitors at the castle today, but it wasn’t uncommon for the ladies to gather—more to visit than to actually accomplish much sewing—and Maggie was often required to be present. Sonia didn’t seem to mind, nor did Dulsie Dukerk—who were the only other women present of her own generation. But Maggie hated it and had to put great effort into keeping her countenance appropriate while the needle went in and out of the fabric in her hands.
Maggie stopped sewing while she listened to the conversation taking place between her mother and the two women who were at her sides as often as any family member. These women were Abbi’s dearest friends and confidants. Nadine Dukerk was married to the Captain of the Guard, who not only worked closely with the duke but was also one of Cameron du Woernig’s
closest friends. Of course, the other woman in the room was Elsa
Heinrich, whose husband was the duke’s highest advisor as well as a lifelong
friend. Just as the three men were rarely apart in matters of business and friendship, so it was with
their wives. Dulsie was Nadine’s only daughter and was more
than five years older than Maggie. They’d never had any discord between them as
they’d grown up together with the same tutors and nannies. Dulsie was quiet and well refined, and
seemed more suited to enjoying the company of the generation before her. She
had little to say to Maggie or Sonia, even though she was always very kind.
Elsa had no daughters, but she had always been like a second mother to Maggie
and Sonia. And Dulsie, as well. In fact, Maggie considered Elsa and Nadine to
be more like aunts than friends of her mother.
The group of women passively busy at their needlework and chatting casually was comfortable and the situation commonplace. But perhaps that was the very reason Maggie felt so bored. No one had anything to say that she hadn’t heard some version of many times before. It was always the same. The men ran the country, and the women talked about what the men were doing, often joking that it was actually the women who ran the country because their husbands trusted them and relied heavily on their insights and opinions. These women were all heavily involved in ways that no outsider would ever suspect—especially if they could see them now, appearing as if not one of them knew how to do anything except create little pictures in fabric out of tiny little stitches. Maggie wanted to scream!
Now that she’d stitched dutifully for nearly an hour, the probability of graciously escaping became more feasible, and she considered what she might say to her mother in order to be excused. Ironically, she knew her mother wasn’t terribly fond of needlework either; it rather seemed that she wanted her daughters to be privy to these conversations, as if they might learn something. Maggie just felt bored. She considered the possibility of a headache, or perhaps some feminine issue that would necessitate her needing to retire to her room. Then the door came open, which for a split second offered Maggie some relief at the idea of an interruption. But it was Erich and Han who sauntered into the drawing room and made themselves comfortable. She bit her tongue from suggesting that they should be taught how to make tiny little stitches while sitting with their backs straight—as opposed to the way they slouched onto the sofas in a manner that no gentleman ever would. She might expect as much from Han, but Erich had been raised to be a duke. Of course, Han had been raised at his side, so he supposedly did know how to behave like a gentleman. But it seemed that Han brought out the worst in Erich.
“Hello, boys,” Abbi said, lighting up at their appearance. Elsa lit up similarly since Han was her only child—her pride and joy. If she only knew how her son behaved when his mother wasn’t around!
“Hello, Mother,” Erich and Han replied almost simultaneously, each offering their mothers a warm smile.
“What are the two of you up to?” Elsa asked.
Maggie noted that Dulsie didn’t even glance up from her sewing, as if she hadn’t noticed that anyone else had come into the room. Nadine gave each of the boys a smile, which they returned fondly.
Erich looked toward Han as if he expected him to answer the question—perhaps because it was his mother who had asked it.
“Erich was just going down to his laboratory,” Han said dramatically, “to try a new experiment.”
“How very exciting,” Abbi said with a hint of dubious sarcasm. Her son’s interest in chemistry was one thing she could have lived without, and she’d never pretended that she felt otherwise. However, she also respected her children’s inclinations—as long as they were reasonable—therefore, she tolerated Erich’s hobby. Maggie shared her mother’s views. She thought it was silly. But Erich took it very seriously. And their father had often said that if he wasn’t going to be the duke, he would have made an excellent chemist. According to opinions of experts who had helped teach him the science of chemistry, he was actually very good at it.
“Would you like to come along?” Erich asked.
“Who, me?” Sonia replied eagerly, and Maggie knew her sister was far more bored than she’d been letting on.
“Yes, you,” Erich said.
“You mean you’ll let me into your dungeon?” Sonia asked with an astonishment that was only a little bit wry.
“Of course.” Erich chuckled.
“I’d love to,” Sonia said, obviously glad to put the needlework aside.
“How about you, Mags?” Erich asked.
“I’d rather not,” she said with distaste.
“Ah, come on,” Erich urged. “It’ll be fun.”
“Forget it, Erich,” Han piped in. “She doesn’t like to have fun.”
Maggie saw her mother smile slightly, and she wondered why Abbi might find this amusing. She knew that bringing attention to it would only make her look foolish, so instead she tossed Han an indignant glare as she said with forced nonchalance, “Going down to the cold, dark recesses of this castle to watch bottles of liquid bubble is not my idea of fun.”
“But today we’re doing something very interesting,” Erich said. “We’re going to try a new experiment. And you can be a witness.”
“Oh, go along, darling,” Abbi urged. “It would be good for you to do something different.”
“Come along, little sister.” Erich took her hand and pulled her right off the chair. She didn’t want to admit her relief at tossing her needlework aside, but this wasn’t the escape she’d had in mind.
“Apparently I have no say in this,” Maggie said as she was dragged toward the door.
“What about you, Dulsie?” Erich asked, pausing deliberately to wait until she lifted her eyes to look at him. “Surely this must be tedious.”
Abbi gave her son a comical scowl that made him laugh before he focused again on Dulsie. “Come along,” he said. More to her mother, he added, “We’ll take very good care of her; I promise.”
“Go with them,” Nadine urged her daughter with a smile.
But Dulsie said with perfect politeness and apparent sincerity, “No, but thank you, Erich. I’ll join you another time.”
“If you’re sure,” Erich said, and Maggie wondered why Erich always went to so much trouble to coax her when she rarely if ever joined them for anything.
“Yes, thank you,” Dulsie smiled at him and turned her attention back to her needlework.
Maggie was rushed from the room, her arm held firmly in her brother’s grasp. “So, Dulsie can choose to stay?” she asked. “But I’m bodily forced to go along?”
“Don’t be such a ninny,” Erich said as if they were still young children in the nursery. “Dulsie likes sitting around sewing useless things. You were bored out of your mind, and I know it. If you weren’t so stubborn . . .” He laughed and left the sentence unfinished as he hurried to catch up with Sonia and Han, still holding to Maggie’s arm.
They quickly traversed a typically lengthy hallway before Erich pushed open a squeaky-hinged oak door and led the way down the stairs with Sonia behind him, then Maggie, and finally, Han, bringing up the rear.
“I hate these stairs,” Maggie said in reference to the winding stone steps with a wall on one side and only a rope banister on the other. They seemed to go on and on, and she could almost get light-headed if she wasn’t careful.
“Oh, they’re fun,” Han remarked.
“They’re scary,” she retorted.
“I always count them,” Sonia said. “There are seventy-eight steps.”
“Really?” Han laughed. “Seems like more.”
Maggie began to feel dizzy and stopped briefly until she felt Han’s hand on her arm.
“Are you all right?” he whispered close behind her ear.
“I’m fine.” She pulled away quickly and proceeded down.
They came at last to the bottom, and Erich pushed open another squeaky door of iron.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Maggie said.
“It’s a dungeon.” Han smirked. “What do you expect? Just think of all the ancient tortures and all the people who died down here in the—”
“Oh hush!” Maggie cut off his dramatic speech, and he grinned at her as they followed Erich into his laboratory.
Mother had insisted that if Erich was going to do this, it had to be here
so she wouldn’t have to put up with the odd smells or
worry about fire. Erich came here almost every day without fail. Maggie thought
it was all very strange. ,
“Now, let’s see,” Erich said as he lit a few lamps from the one he’d been carrying. He began picking up different bottles and looking at the labels. “Ah yes, here we go. First some of this and—”
“Don’t use that!” Han said. “We decided it would need this if it was going to work.” They proceeded to work intently on their project in silence while Maggie and Sonia looked on, occasionally exchanging a glance of astonishment over their antics. Except that while Sonia seemed more amused, Maggie felt mostly disgusted.
Maggie noticed, as she often did, the unique contrast in Han and Erich. They were both slender and muscular, above average height, but they looked nothing alike. Erich had red curls and blue eyes, a stark contrast to Han’s fluffy, blond hair and green eyes. Maggie recalled often hearing her mother say that the two of them looked and acted very much like their fathers used to. And though the years showed in her father’s face—and Han’s father as well—she could see the resemblances and had to admit it was true.
“What are you going to make?” Sonia asked with interest.
“A love potion,” Han said as if it were nothing out of the ordinary.
“Really?” Sonia asked with a little laugh.
“And just what is this love potion supposed to do?” Maggie asked skeptically.
“It makes people fall in love, of course,” Erich said as he busily poured a number of different liquids into a vial.
“Baggage!” Maggie said, and Han chuckled.
“All right, Han,” Erich said, “you know what to do now.”
“Are you sure you got everything in there?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
Han picked up a small vial and poured a drop of something into the mixture. Immediately it began to bubble and smoke.
“Good heavens,” Maggie said, but Han only rubbed his hands together. Erich looked positively satisfied, and Sonia was quite amused.
“That should do it,” Erich said, then he poured the liquid into a drinking glass and it gradually stopped bubbling. “Maggie would you hand me that . . . that rag over there?”
“What, this?” she asked, turning to pick up a little piece of cloth, which distracted her and Sonia for just a moment.
“Yes, thank you.” Erich took it from her and wrapped it around the glass. “This stuff is kind of hot.”
“Well,” Han said with his hands on his hips, “let’s see if it works.”
“Here goes,” Erich said. He took a deep breath and lifted the glass to his lips.
“Wait!” Maggie cried. “You can’t drink that!”
“It’s probably . . . poison!”
“Oh, let him drink it.” Sonia smirked. “It would do him good.”
Grinning, Erich glanced toward Han and took a deep swallow of the drink. His face went into several exaggerated contortions. He shivered visibly from head to toe. Then he squeezed his eyes shut, opened them dramatically and coughed. When the initial effect seemed complete, Erich held his breath and the other three stared with wide eyes.
“Whew!” Erich said. “That stuff is potent.”
“How do you feel?” Han asked with expectation.
Erich gazed quite obviously toward Maggie and then Sonia, as if he expected something to happen. “Nothing!” he nearly shouted. “What could have gone wrong? We did all the right things. It should have—”
“Give me that!” Han said, abruptly taking the glass from Erich. “They’re your sisters. You can’t expect to fall in love with one of your sisters.”
“What is he talking about?” Maggie asked her brother.
“After a man drinks that stuff, he’s supposed to fall in love with the first woman he sees.”
“Baggage!” Maggie uttered.
They all became silent as Han took a big swallow of the golden liquid and did an exact imitation of the reactions Erich had performed. When he opened his eyes they were set on Maggie. He seemed quite stunned and overwrought with emotion.
“What do you feel?” Erich asked with intense anticipation.
“Erich,” Han whispered, “I never realized your sister was so beautiful.” Erich chuckled with satisfaction as Maggie’s eyes widened and she backed away. “She’s like an angel. I feel all tingly . . . and oh, Maggie!”
Han deftly swept her into his arms, and despite her efforts to get away, he held her to his advantage.
“Let go of me!” Maggie shrieked, barely aware that Erich and Sonia were laughing intolerably. She didn’t find it funny at all!
“Don’t speak to me that way, my love. Oh, Maggie . . . say you’ll be mine. I need you in my life.”
“You are mad! This is baggage!”
“How can you say such things?” Han looked genuinely hurt. “Can’t you see how much I love you?”
“Erich! Get him away from me!”
“But he’s in love,” Erich laughed. “You can’t blame a man for being in love.”
“Ooh!” Maggie hissed, but Han pressed his mouth over hers with a kiss that forced her into momentary silence.
“Let go of me!” she shouted louder when he set her lips free.
“One more kiss, my love,” he whispered, then overcame her with a kiss more passionate than the first.
Maggie forced back the memories stirred by his kiss and finally managed to turn her face away. Han chuckled, but she briefly caught something severe in his eyes that left her uneasy. “You’d better give her some of that stuff, Erich,” he said. “She could really use some. She’ll be betrothed soon and needs a little romance before the dreaded thing takes place and it’s too late.”
Maggie wanted to retort that she was in love and there would be no betrothal. But she bit her tongue, remembering her father’s admonition to keep it a secret.
Sonia laughed and said, “I’ll try some.”
Erich handed her the glass without hesitation while Han continued to hold Maggie close, ignoring her continued effort to free herself. Sonia took a careful sip and chuckled. “That’s nothing more than scotch whiskey. You switched glasses!”
Erich and Han laughed boisterously while Maggie finally managed to squirm out of Han’s arms.
“And how do you know?” Erich asked. “Has my little sister been thieving from the duke’s liquor cabinet?”
“Just a little taste here and there,” she admitted with a smile.
“Well, at least you get some adventure.” Han chuckled while Maggie brushed the front of her dress with exasperation. “That kiss is the most adventure Maggie’s had since—”
“Han!” she stopped him.
“Sorry,” he whispered and briefly put his hand over his mouth. “I won’t tell. I promise.”
Erich’s brows went up, and Han added, “Don’t ask, Erich. I won’t tell a soul—not even you.”
“If he does,” Maggie said, starting up the stairs, “I’m certain that Georg Heinrich would be interested to know what his son has been doing in the dungeon.”
“Threats?” Han called after her, but she ignored him. “Do be careful on those stairs, my love. Oh, and if you hear any serenading outside your window, it’s me. I’ll never forget that kiss. I could live on it for the rest of my life. But I may get desperate and come searching for more and—”
“I don’t think she can hear you anymore,” Erich cut him off. “If she can, she’s not listening.”
“Too bad,” Han said. “I had so much more to say.”
“Give me some more of that,” Sonia said, taking the glass again from Erich. She took another sip and did her best to imitate the required reaction. Then she opened her eyes and jumped comically into Han’s arms.
“Oh, Han, my love,” she said, batting her eyelashes. “Let’s run away together and get married.”
“I think I looked at the wrong girl.” Han grinned.
“Kiss me, Han. Kiss me!”
“If you insist.” Han smiled and kissed her every bit as passionately as he had Maggie. But when he pulled away and Sonia started twirling around the room, he glanced toward the stairs where Maggie had gone. There was no question about it. Maggie was a better kisser—even if they were both sorely out of practice.