The Princess and the Wolf

The Princess and the Wolf

by Karen Kay

“The housekeeper tells that ’ tis well known the prince would divorce her, were he here,” said the kitchen maid.

“Aye, that he would,” replied the housemaid. “And good riddance, says I. It was she that drove him away. That she did.” – Gossip between servants at Prince Alathom’s Castle

“Do you wish anything else before we go ashore?”

“No, Maria,” answered Princess Sierra, watching from her perch high above the dock, as Governor Clark stepped from the carriage, accompanied by an Indian maiden. “I do not require anything else at the moment. You’ve done quite well, my friend, despite the demanding conditions of this vessel.” She gave Maria a brief smile. “Would you please find Mr. Dominic and inform him that I am ready to leave this ship?”

“Yes, Your Highness. At once. Do we go to greet Governor Clark, then?”

“I believe so,” said the princess. “And for this task, I will have need of you both to accompany me.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” Maria said, curtsying before she turned to do as bid.

Sierra smoothed a white-gloved hand over the blue and white muslin of her very full skirt, pulling the lace that bordered her walking dress into place. Straightening her shoulders, she settled her blue and white-lace mantle over the double bouffant of her sleeves, buttoning the mantle’s closure at the neck. Briefly, she touched her wide belt, which was made of the same light blue color as her dress, pulling it a little more tightly around her waist so as to accentuate its most tiny aspect. A white straw bonnet, adorned with ribbons of blue and tied at the neck, completed the image of the fashionable royal that she was.

Opening her blue and white parasol, Sierra narrowed her eyes, placing a hand gently over her forehead as though it were an extra shield from the sun. She frowned.

From her view of it, there seemed to be no sign of the man she had instructed Governor Clark to hire. Had she needlessly tortured herself over this first meeting with High Wolf?

Perhaps he hadn’t yet arrived.

Or maybe, she thought on a grimmer note, he wasn’t coming. Had he mayhap learned that it was she behind the request?

For a moment, she worried over the possibility. As absurd as it might appear, such a thing was possible: He might know of her coming. He’d always seemed to have ways of gleaning information about things—ways that she had never understood. Perhaps he had discovered her scheme well ahead of the fact.

At that thought, Sierra tried to swallow her disappointment.

It wasn’t that she was looking forward to seeing him again. No. It was only that he, and he alone, could lead her to Prince Alathom, and it was Prince Alathom she needed to find and challenge, Prince Alathom whom she would repay in kind…if need be…

Squaring her shoulders and setting her features into as delightful a smile as she could, Princess Sierra pulled unconsciously at her mantle, noticing as she did so that her fingers shook with the effort.

It was then that she caught sight of something in her peripheral vision…something familiar. She turned her head carefully to the left, her eyes colliding with and staring hard at a pair of dark eyes looking directly back at her.

Her stomach flipped over twice before it at last performed a dive toward her toes. She inhaled swiftly to try to quell the reaction.

It was he, High Wolf. He had come, after all.

As impossible as it might seem, she stared back at a face that she had once thought never to see again. Yet, there he was; there, across a very short distance.

And unable to curtail it, she was suddenly awash in nearly palpable relief.

Relief? Nonsense. It was probably more to the point to say that she was glad that her scheme now contained the element of possibility, the possibility of success.

But if he were to be caught looking up at her, she would be staring back down at him as well, almost as though she were hungry for the sight of him…although she corrected herself, this last thought was ridiculous.

Again, she reminded herself that he, as well as the prince, had betrayed her. In different ways, perhaps. But betrayal was certain treachery after all, regardless of the circumstances. And faith, once lost, could never be restored.

Still, despite the intervening years, an all too familiar pain shot through her, and without her conscious will, she found herself scrutinizing the man she had once thought herself to be in love with…a man who had left her for no more than three hundred gold dukaten.

He looked much the same as he had ten years ago, yet different. Whereas High Wolf had been little more than a boy then, he was now very much a man, and he looked bigger somehow, though he was still extraordinarily slim. Perhaps it was because his chest was wider, larger…or perhaps he was more muscular.

He looked…better, more handsome, more virile.

Sierra grimaced at her thoughts and decided to scrutinize something else less potent…his manner of dress, for instance…

Gone were the fashionable trousers and high leather boots that she remembered him wearing in the past; in their place were buckskin leggings, breechcloth and moccasins. Gone also were the carefully stitched linen shirt and cravat so precisely tied, supplanted now with a long buckskin shirt, fringed, with the bottom of it hanging down almost past his breechcloth. An ornament of what looked to be a concatenation of beads and bone, in the shape of a breastplate, hung down over his chest. It was a sight she had never beheld until this moment.

Instead of a hat, however, he now wore feathers on his head—or at least there was one feather sticking straight up behind him. And his hair…

Relegated to the past was the fashionable haircut she recalled so well, displaced now by long, black hair that hung well past his shoulders.

He looked…Indian, alien from all she had ever known and loved. Yet his countenance was, contrarily, as familiar to her as a well-rehearsed play.

And she wondered: Despite their past, would he help her?

Not if he knew her purpose.

Only too well, she recalled that High Wolf considered the prince to be more than a friend. To him, and perhaps rightly so, Prince Alathom was a brother, a brother in fact as well as in deed. Besides, High Wolf would hardly condone her murderous plan…a scheme she fully intended to execute if the prince refused to return to the Continent, whereupon he would take up his responsibilities.

Indeed, she would be satisfied.

Those at home thought she knew nothing of their wagging tongues; they believed their whispered insults were discreet. But Sierra did know. She did care. And he would pay.

Oh, yes, he would pay.

Which meant, she realized, that the real reason for her journey must remain a well-guarded secret; from Governor Clark, from her guides and especially from High Wolf.

She only wondered if she could successfully hide her motives from High Wolf. After all, as she had already surmised, High Wolf was an extremely perceptive man. Might he guess?

Well, it was up to her to keep her secret well hidden. She only hoped she was up to the task.

***

He stared at her as though he had come face-to-face with his worst nightmare—or maybe his best fantasy. Princess Sierra? Here? Now?

His heart skipped a beat, then picked up its pace, pounding onward in triple speed. High Wolf caught his breath before forcing himself to breathe in and out. In a daze, he stared up at her, feeling as though he were caught in an illusion.

Had she come for him? Had she traveled all this distance to reach out to him, realizing after all this time that she could not live without him, as she had once proclaimed?

Or was she a mere mirage, the same sort of image that haunted his dreams?

Without warning, the desire to run to her, to take her in his arms and embrace her, was almost more real than the solidness of the ground beneath him. Of its own will, the memory of the taste of her, the scent of her, the sweetness of her embrace, overwhelmed him.

And he knew he needed, he wanted to kiss her. Now. In truth, so strong was the desire, he had taken a few steps toward her before he became once more fully aware of himself, and stopped.

The prince. How could he have forgotten the prince—as well as her duplicity—so easily? Where was the prince?

Odd, he thought, how the mind could forget the pain, the anguish, the loss. For a moment, all had been gone, replaced by the simple joy of seeing her again. Odd, too, how his body was even now reacting, that most manly part of him pulsing with every pounding of his heart, remembering, anticipating…what could never be.

He groaned. He had to bring himself, his thoughts, his body under control, quickly.

Concentrate on her faithlessness, he cautioned himself. Hers and Prince Alathom’s.

He glanced to the side of her and all around her. Where was the prince?

And then, as though it came through the fog cluttering his mind, a thought came to him. Governor Clark had hired him, had told High Wolf that he was to escort and protect a royal party, one that was coming to the Americas for a wild-game hunt.

It was the prince and princess . It had to be.

Had the two of them asked for him, personally? For old time’s sake? Was that why Clark had sent for him?

Or was this mere coincidence?

Coincidence? He sneered. High Wolf knew there was no such thing.

Had the two of them no compassion? No pity?

Surely they were aware of what the mere act of seeing them again—together—would do to him.

Or did they think that they could renew friendship? That he would have forgotten?

Well, he had not forgotten; he could not.

Breathing in deeply, High Wolf calmed himself. He was letting his emotions take control of his mind, even of his body. It was possible, he conceded, that he was not thinking clearly, putting elements together that did not necessarily go together.

Besides, he didn’t have to take the job at hand. He had not pledged his word.

And it wouldn’t be as if he were deserting the prince and princess, either. After all, there were these two disreputable trappers that Clark had hired as well.

Wearily, High Wolf glanced at the two shabbily dressed men. Yes, let them have the assignment…while he, High Wolf, quietly disappeared…

Surely, that would be best. For indeed, if this were his initial reaction to the princess—and at this great a distance from her—what would be his fate if he were to witness her beauty closer to hand?

At that thought, a rush of desire swept through him that was as uncontrollable as it was unwelcome. In truth, so swift was his reaction, he rocked back on his feet.

The response shocked him as much as it excited him. And High Wolf knew he had best renew his intention to leave—quickly…

Yet he didn’t budge so much as an inch. In faith, he could not have turned away from her now had he been a saint. Not yet.

Contrarily, another part of him reasoned that little harm could come from feasting his sights upon her for a while longer. Perhaps the image gained could serve to fuel the fiber of his imagination in the lonely nights ahead of him.

Make no mistake, Princess Sierra had always been the most beautiful creature he had ever seen, and it appeared she had changed little, except to have blossomed. More curves, more womanly features.

As he stared, his heart warmed to his subject. Dark curls bounced around her face while her bonnet hid the rest of her coiffure. Oval face, high cheekbones, eyes that he knew were as green as a prairie in spring. Even from this distance, he could attest that her skin still glowed with health and vitality. It was one of the features he remembered most about her. Her skin had been luminous, clear; had shone with a radiance even under cover of darkness, as though she might be lit by a fire within.

How he had loved to run his hands over her face, her neck, those curves…

Cease this, he cautioned himself, letting out his breath.

Yet the mind was often a mysterious thing, and despite himself, his thoughts rambled on. At five foot four, she had always been a slender little thing. He recalled that he had once spanned her waist within the outstretched grip of both his hands. They had laughed about it. All three of them. Himself, Prince Alathom and the princess.

Odd, how close the three of them had once been, so close they had shared most everything.

High Wolf sighed.

Perhaps it was the way of the world that some things—even good things—were destined to end. Maybe that was why one should reach out for all the happiness he could have, while it still lay within his grasp.

Taking a few steps away, High Wolf at last turned his back on the sight of her. Best to disappear now, as quickly as possible. For of one matter he was entirely certain: He would not escort the princess and the prince. Not now. Not ever.

He took a few steps away.

“High Wolf!”

His insides plummeted at the sound of her voice. Yet he remained steadfast in his decision and kept walking, ignoring the call.

“High Wolf, don’t go!”

Don’t listen to her, he counseled himself. Go now, before she has a chance to weave her spell around you. Go at once .

But even as he thought it, an odd music, a rhythm perchance, began to pound through his mind, reminding him of other places, other times…

Chapter 5

Step, sweep, sweep; up, up, back. Hands locked together, step apart, meet. Smile at her, she at him; step, sweep, sweep. Hands held, turn; up to the toes; down again. Shoulder to shoulder, change position. Step, sweep, sweep. Hands touching; smile…

High Wolf could practically hear the strains of the violins and cello in three-quarter beat. It had been a different time and place; a different environment. In truth, it had been like a different life.

A hand clapped him on the shoulder. “High Wolf?” It was a male voice.

Sighing deeply, High Wolf put the memory from him, while at the same time he glanced around behind him, casting a look over his shoulder, espying the well-dressed, yet massive gentleman who stood behind him. Pivoting slowly, he came to stare at the man, who was, perhaps, the tallest human being High Wolf had ever seen.

Silence reigned until at last the other man said, “Princess Sierra Morena requests that you await an audience with her.”

High Wolf squinted at this giant, rendering him with as condescending a look as he could muster, though inwardly an ugly emotion ripped at his innards. Aloud he asked, “Does she?”

“Yes, sir. If you will wait a moment.”

High Wolf turned aside. “But I won’t wait,” he said, feigning a foreign accent that was all too natural, at least for his own peace of mind. “Please give my regards to the princess.” He bowed slightly, more out of a long-ago habit than in deference, a habit, he realized, he hadn’t used in ten long years.

A hand came up to clasp his shoulder. “The princess wishes to speak to you now.”

High Wolf paused as he considered his options. He could leave. It was probably what he should do. After all, there was no man alive who could keep him here; not if High Wolf desired to walk away.

He cast another glance at his opponent. No, not even this big, brawny man could keep him if he truly wished to flee.

But did he?

Would she look different up close; would she be different? Would her marriage to the prince have matured her? Or would she still be the sweet, young girl he had once loved so very, very well?

High Wolf rocked back on his feet. He was caught. Truly caught. Not by his own honor, but by his curiosity.

Later, he would take his leave of this party, and in particular, of the princess. But not now.

No, for now he would wait. He would observe. And then he would go, quickly, and as silently as he had done ten years ago.

Inured to his fate, he gazed upward, watching the princess depart the steamship, scrutinizing her progress down the ramp as closely as if he were reading a track marked upon the earth. He caught her smile as she grinned at Governor Clark, saw her speak a few words to that gentleman, scolded himself for wishing he might be the man on the receiving end of her smile.

And then gradually, so very, very slowly, she turned toward him, raising her sights to meet his.

And High Wolf stared back, his gaze, for all that he was aware of her faults, still hungry for the sight of her. And for a moment, time distorted. There was no past, no present, no future. There was only she… and he, the rest of the world diminished, as though it were no more than their own personal backdrop.

He sighed, recalling too well his loss. And the magic of the moment faded.

In vain he awaited the shy downturn of her eyelashes as she stared at him, the flirtatious one he remembered so very well.

It never came.

No, the princess gazed back at him boldly, brazenly, and try as he might to find it, there was nothing coquettish about the look she gave him. In faith, if he were to examine her appearance at this moment, he would have to conclude that she was beautiful. Yes. Beautiful, but hard—as though time had extracted all the softness from her.

So, he thought, the princess, too, had changed in many more ways than those of a physical nature.

As he took note of her approach, time passed quickly, and yet in a way it seemed to drag. Leisurely, he watched her, knowing that hidden deep within him, there was an impossible hope that perhaps this was all a mistake, a horrible ten-year-old mistake.

It was remarkable, he thought as his gaze drank in her beauty, how the princess could appear so severe, yet still innocent in countenance. As though she bore no shame, no regret; as though she had never been the cause of an injustice.

Saaaa. He used the Cheyenne expression which stood for many things, including astonishment. It was as though she might be the wounded party from all those years ago…not he.

High Wolf nodded a silent acknowledgment, even if the movement of his head was a slight one. Then, leaning his weight upon his rifle, he awaited the “angel in blue” as she approached.

***

“Ho’neoxhaa’eho’ese,” she pronounced his name in Cheyenne as soon as she stepped within a few feet of him. “It has been a long time.”

She did not offer her hand, and her words, softly spoken, cut through him, as though the sound of her voice were blazed in steel. Yet High Wolf simply nodded, trying to shake off the feeling of being ill-at-ease.

In contrast, she seemed all poise and assurance; she even smiled. However, he took careful note, no happiness reached those green eyes before she asked, “How have you been?”

“I am well,” he replied, his voice, usually full-bodied, no more than a dull monotone.

She seemed unaware of any problem with him, however, and replied, “That is good. That is good, indeed.”

“And you?” he inquired politely.

Again, she grinned up at him, before saying, “I am well, as you can see.”

High Wolf inclined his head toward her, catching her eye before he said, “And your husband?”

She flinched as though he might have dealt her a blow, and oddly, her face drained of color, her eyes becoming suddenly dull. Hurriedly, she glanced away.

Strange.

Frowning, High Wolf ventured further, “Is he in company with you?”

However, the princess did not deign to answer; her gaze looked instead out upon the dock as though it were of great interest—a dock that was streaming with people. “Mr. High Wolf,” she said at last, “over there, due west of us”—she nodded toward the spot—“there is a patch of level ground that looks fairly well deserted of people. I would very much like to take a turn in it, if you would be so kind as to accompany me.”

Take a turn. He hadn’t heard that phrase, hadn’t spoken that phrase in well over ten years. Hearing it again, unfortunately for him, had the effect of turning back time.

Politely, out of a habit from long ago, he bowed at the waist. “I would be happy to join you, Your Highness,” he said, “at some other time. But I am afraid that I have…other business that calls my attention at the moment.”

She acknowledged him with a delicate dip of her head. “I understand,” she said. “I am assuming this business relates to Governor Clark and his hiring you as a guide?”

High Wolf said nothing in reply.

“And I am sure you have already surmised that I am to be the party you are to accompany into the interior.”

He blinked at her, his only acknowledgement.

“And you are considering declining, now that you know more of the facts?” She might have asked it as such, but he knew her words were no question.

He shrugged, saying, “As you say.”

“Very well,” she acknowledged, “although I find it monstrous ill that you can turn so easily away from a promise.”

He raised an eyebrow.

“For you see,” she continued, “I am calling in a favor you once granted me. A favor, you had once said, that would send you to me in a moment of distress. If I remember correctly”—she gave him a sly look—“you vowed to come to my aid if I did no more than call upon you.”

He didn’t blink—not even a single eyelash—as he countered, “All such promises came to nothing, Your Highness, on the day you became Prince Alathom’s wife, by the very nature of that act.”

When she frowned, he went on to observe, “Did you not vow to forsake all others? That would include me, would it not?”

“Perhaps,” she said, then grinned up at him, while High Wolf suddenly found himself at odds, disliking her, while all the while longing to take her in his arms. Instead of doing either, however, he stepped back, away from her.

But she continued, “If I remember correctly, there were no restraints upon your favor when you made the vow, although I do admit it was a long time ago. You merely said, ‘Ask, and I will come.’” She smiled at him flirtatiously. “Perhaps your favors expire with time if not used?”

He shrugged off the insult. “It was the heartfelt promise of a boy from long ago. You have a husband now to attend to your needs.”

“But that is precisely the reason for my visit, Mr. High Wolf,” she said, her expression suddenly modest. “For you see, to all the world, I no longer have a husband.”

High Wolf went very still, his outward demeanor showing little of his agitation. Instead he watched her watching him; saw her scrutinize him, her glance perhaps hoping to find some weakness in him. But High Wolf was too well versed in the ways of a scout, and much too observant to be affected by such an overt contemplation, and with ease, he carefully hid the sudden quickening of his heart.

But she was continuing to speak, and said, “Now, please, Mr. High Wolf, let us take that turn.” And sweeping her skirts with a grand gesture, she stepped toward the place she had earlier indicated, though shortly she turned back. “Mr. Dominic,” she called over her shoulder, “please inform Governor Clark that I will join him soon. I shall be only a moment.”

“Yes, Your Highness,” said Mr. Dominic, and bowing, turned away.

Slowly, Princess Sierra pivoted around, her gaze capturing his . “Now, Mr. High Wolf,” she said, “shall we?”

And High Wolf, bound by an imprudent oath from his past, had no other option—at least none at the moment—but to hear her out. And though he wished himself somewhere else—anywhere else—he followed her lead.

***

Oh, how she wished the past were different. Oh, how she longed to turn back time. But events were as they were, and not even God in His heaven could change the history of what had come to be.

Princess Sierra sighed and, as she stepped lightly toward the spot she had earlier indicated, she wondered what she could say to this man that would sway him to her cause, trying to recall her well-rehearsed speech.

It was one thing to determine and practice such words of favor in the privacy of one’s quarters, quite another to confront the actual man. Plus she hadn’t counted on the increased rate of her heartbeat, or on the weakness which came over her limbs. And despite herself, Princess Sierra was experiencing a desire to throw herself into High Wolf’s arms and beg for his mercy.

She snorted instead. She? Beg this man?

Never.

Still, she must do something to solicit his help, and all without allowing him to perceive her real purpose. Could she do it? Could she fool this very insightful man?

Oh, if only life could be different. For within her, and increasing with every minute, was a sensation of old, a desire to purge herself of her troubles—as she had often done with this man in their not-too-distant past.

But she could hardly afford such a luxury and remain true to herself. Indeed, not only must she continue to be steadfast, she daren’t forget that this was the same man whose treachery had broken her heart…

Sierra inhaled deeply once again. There were some actions, that once were done, could never be taken back. And make no mistake, this man’s offense had been such a one.

Well, so be it. Squaring her shoulders, the princess turned to face him and said, “The prince is dead.”

High Wolf frowned. “Dead?”

“Yes, apparently so.”

“Apparently?” As High Wolf’s frown deepened, his stare became piercing.

Ignoring the look, she continued, “Prince Alathom was not home when the event which took his life happened, as you might already know.”

High Wolf raised one single eyebrow. He repeated, “Already know?”

“Yes,” she stated it as though it were a certainty. “It was a hunting accident—here in the Americas. We received word of the incident only a few months ago.”

“We?”

“Our families.” Sierra swallowed, and inhaling a deep breath, took a plunge, when perhaps it might have been more prudent to tread water. However, she continued, “Come now, High Wolf, I’m certain that I’m not telling you anything of which you are not already aware.”

If he detected the note of censure in her voice, he overlooked it, for all he said was, “Why would you think that?”

How dare he pretend to be innocent? Did he mean to insult her intelligence? Did he honestly think she would not be able to piece together the facts?

Well, perhaps it was time to show him that she could play any game that he chose to play. And, determined to put him in his place, she began, “I would think that, because the accident that took his life happened here…in the West, you would be well versed in it.”

High Wolf narrowed a glance at her. “Meaning that you think he and I were together when it happened?”

“If the shoe fits… ”

“And you think I was responsible for his death? Is this what you’re insinuating?”

“No,” she denied, momentarily thrown off guard by his question. In vain, she tried to ignore the confusion his question brought her, for despite her anger at him, she never would have thought this man responsible for the prince’s accident. He and Alathom were simply too close.

No, the truth was that she simply did not believe such an accident had taken place. If she were correct—and there was no reason to assume she was not—the prince and High Wolf had conceived the deceit together, had planned it as deceptively as they had once planned another escape.

But she could not very well tell him that.

However, he was frowning at her, staring at her in a way that brought her to understand that he was reading every nuance of her reaction…something he was quite adept at, and a little too breathlessly, she continued, “I… I would not accuse you of having caused his death. I know you would never do anything to intentionally harm the prince. It’s only that…”

“You think I should have died in his place?”

“No.”

“Then what?”

Then why, when you had a reason to do so , didn’t you come back to me?

No, that wasn’t right. She couldn’t have actually thought that—not about this man.

High Wolf, however, as though ill-at-ease, crossed his arms over his chest before repeating, “Then what? What are you accusing me of?”

“I’m not accusing you of anything except perhaps being more friendly toward the prince than you have been to me.”

This last appeared to baffle High Wolf, and even he could not subdue the look of bewilderment that settled across his features. In truth, so honest was his perplexity, had she not known better, she would almost have believed in his innocence—almost…

And she said, “Come now, High Wolf, we were always friends, weren’t we? You, the prince and myself?”

High Wolf visibly stiffened, though all he said was, “We were—once.”

“And so all I am asking of you is that you give me as much deference as you would, or more correctly, as you have, the prince. I would like to go into the interior for a hunt, perhaps to ease my mind from my ‘loss.’” She emphasized the word. “I would request that you guide me there.”

Sierra glanced up to see, not the countenance of a man who had been caught out in a lie and was quietly ready to admit it, but rather she was met with indisputable contempt.

Oddly, it was this look that gave her courage. For it was she, not he, who had a right to indignation.

He stirred, moving away from her, and said, “I will not lead you into the interior of this country.”

Instantly, a feeling of disdain swept over her, returning to her a presence of mind. And she said, “Stay where you are. I have not yet given you permission to leave.”

He stilled. “No, you haven’t, Your Highness,” he said, pivoting around and coming face-to-face with her once more. However, with a leer on his countenance, he added, “But perhaps you should look around you.”

In defiance, she kept her glance glued to him.

“And maybe, if you did so, you might examine your environment even more carefully.”

Sierra stared straight ahead, still training her gaze on him and him alone.

He continued, “For, Your Highness, if you were to do this simple act, you might discover that you are no longer in Europe. Now look at me closely.”

“I already am.”

“More closely than even this.”

She blew out her breath, refusing to do as he bid, and glanced away from him instead.

But if her reaction bothered him, he seemed not to show it. Indeed, he said, “Do you see that I am not one of your subjects?”

Even as he uttered the words, the sneer in his tone, the curtness of his very manner, could not have been mistaken for anything other than what it was: disrespect. In response, her chin lifted high into the air, and she declared, “One does not need to be a subject of a particular country in order to exhibit proper manners,” she scolded. “And there is nothing that I have said that gives you leave to mock me. Indeed, I ask a simple thing.”

If she had hoped to make him more propitious, she had certainly failed, for within his glance was pure defiance, and he said, “True, the request is simple, but I suspect that the entreaty which is so sweetly given is yet filled with venom.”

She sucked in her breath.

He continued, “I am not for hire by you.” He spun about, ready to leave.

Goodness! The man hated her.

For an instant, the realization caused her to sway from where she stood. And for another heartfelt moment, she felt as though every single drop of blood in her body had become frozen.

She had certainly not anticipated this man’s hatred. After all, by what right did he dare show her ridicule? She, and she alone , possessed leave to seek revenge.

Yet he was retreating from her, without her leave, without her approval and with as much ill-will as she had ever witnessed. Worse, his departure was not something she would or could permit.

Reaching forward, she grabbed hold of his sleeve, the rough leather of his shirt feeling oddly soft against her fingers, a softness, she noted, that was not reflected in his countenance, or in any other part of him. She said, “What did I ever do to you that you feel compelled to treat me like this?”

He stopped, he stiffened, he inhaled slowly before he at last rocked back on his feet. Then swallowing hard, as though he were not as confident as he might like her to believe, he shut his eyes, letting go of his breath.

It was a show of minor weakness, but it was also the advantage she wanted, and she said, “You, sir, deserted me. It was not the other way around.”

“Was it not?”

“What do you mean?”

He let out his breath. “Try to understand, Your Highness, I am a different man now than I was when you once knew me. Ten years can bring about a great deal of change in a person.”

“I see,” she said dumbly, as yet another thought struck her. Aloud, she asked, “Are you married?”

She held her breath. It was a reasonable question, given their situation. It was also one she should have asked herself before now, if only to soften any surprise. After all, High Wolf was nothing if not a handsome and virile man. And being such, he was probably much sought after as a husband.

Her stomach dropped, and unreasonably, she felt defeated.

He questioned, “Does it matter if I am?”

“Of course not. Not to me.”

“Then why would you ask, I wonder?”

She shrugged. “Curiosity. Is this, then—your marriage—the reason why you will not guide me?”

“Could be.”

“I see.” She gulped in air. “You could bring her with you. I would not mind.”

It was a lie; even as she spoke the words, Sierra knew she would rather die than meet this man’s wife. It was an odd thought to become aware of, and she trembled with realization: Did she still care about this man? Impossible. It simply could not be.

She glanced up to catch him grinning at her. But his good humor was far from a pretty sight. In truth, his grin was simply a movement of his lips, with no inclination to mirth whatsoever, a mere shadow of what she remembered.

However, he was speaking, and he said, “Well, I, for one, if I did have a wife, would mind bringing her along, although I realize you might not share my scruples on that.”

If he had a wife…?

“No, Princess,” he continued, “you are wasting your precious time on me. Go home. Leave me to my own thoughts, and let me grieve for my friend in private, for I meant what I said. I will not lead you anywhere in this country.”

The words had no more left his mouth than he had spun about and was doing exactly as he had threatened: He left, without so much as a by-your-leave, and with no deference to her whatsoever.

But this time Princess Sierra barely noticed. In truth, she was frowning, thinking…

Had High Wolf always harbored such antagonism? And if he had, how had she missed seeing it until now?

Sierra closed her eyes, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Well, this was a fine mess. Should she have confided her own doubts about the prince? That he might still be alive? And if he were, that she wanted nothing more than to have a council with him? Would that have persuaded High Wolf to her cause?

No, she had already made up her mind on this account, and she was certain: High Wolf and the prince were in one another’s confidence, as they had always been. And little good would come from her pleading. But, dear Lord, what was she to do now?

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