Cover Reveal for Virtuous Trickery!
Here it is and an excerpt as a bonus!
The stable master called after her, “Your Highness, please wait for your escorts!”
She ignored him and raced down the road toward the palace gates. Soon she was galloping through the forest headed toward her favorite glen. The trail ended in a small grassy field lined with large cork oak trees. The glen was a bed of tall grass speckled with wildflowers.
Heading for a large oak tree decorated with white strips of cloth tied around the branches, she urged her horse into a slow walk and fired arrows at the targets. She hit every mark allowing her frustration to flow through her into the arrow, but no solution came to save her sister from an icy death.
She urged the horse into a canter and fired off another series of arrows emptying her quiver. Again, she hit the targets without fail. Bringing the horse to a halt, Gabrielle jumped off, and tucked the front of her skirt into her belt as she approached the tree. The cork oak was nearly forty feet tall with long stout branches reaching up toward the sky like an open hand.
Scooting out onto the branches she pried the arrows from the tree and tossed them to the ground. The last two arrows were close together on a high crooked branch. She pried the first arrow free and bit down on it until the branches below thinned out and she could toss it. The last arrow was near the outside end of the branch beyond a V-shape crook in the limb. Carefully, Gabrielle slipped past the crook and strained to reach the arrow not wanting to move further out onto the narrowing branch.
Her fingers brushed the feathered end just as the branch creaked and cracked. Gabrielle gasped and lost her grip as the limb dipped slightly and began to sway. She took hold with her free hand as her feet slipped. Gabrielle’s heart pounded as she dangled from the branch. She didn’t dare look down. She knew the fall would kill her.
She swung her legs up to try to reach the branch but failed. She spat out the arrow and tried again. She could not hook the branch with her foot. She tried to climb hand over hand toward the trunk but the branch dipped lower and she heard a cracking sound. “No!” She cried and glanced around for the nearest branch. It was too far! She swung her feet wildly and kicked for the branch again but still could not catch hold with her foot. This time when her legs dropped back down she swung them wide beneath her and tried again. Her foot hooked around the branch! She grunted and tried to pull her body up onto the branch. She hooked her arm over the branch. Snap! The branch gave way!
Gabrielle screamed and plunged toward the ground. She heard a shout. Suddenly a man on a horse appeared beneath her. She crashed into his open arms, knocking him off his horse. They hit the ground as one. Everything went dark.
When Gabrielle woke she was laying on top of the stranger with her head on his chest. She bolted upright and stared at the man. He was a large muscular fellow with strange clothes made of linen and trimmed in fur. Everything was trimmed in fur, right down to his fur lined boots. He was unconscious and wasn’t moving.
“Oh please, don’t be dead.” She whispered kneeling down beside him. She shook his shoulder. He gasped and sat up so suddenly Gabrielle fell backward onto the grass.
His eyes opened wide in surprise and tried to catch his breath. Gabrielle’s heart skipped a beat as his dark green eyes turned to gaze at her. His long brown tunic was bound with a broad gold chain belt. His fur cape was lined in satin. He was no pauper. His braided gold hair was longer than her ebony curls. He was the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
He reached out to touch her and asked in a deep sultry voice with a strange accent, “Are you injured?”
His voice sent a shiver down Gabrielle’s spine. She flinched from his touch and scrambled to her feet, “I am unharmed, sir. Thank you for saving my life.” She answered quickly glancing around for her bow.
The stranger moaned and clutched his head then fell backward onto the grass. Gabrielle gasped and dropped to the ground beside him. “Oh no!” She cried, “Don’t die! Please! Don’t die because of me!”
She lay her head on his chest and sighed in relief. His heart was still beating. She glanced up at his face. “Sir?” She asked, “Sir, are you injured? Please wake up. How can I help you?”
His arms slipped around her waist as his eyes opened, “I need…” He whispered,
She leaned closer, “Sir, what do you need? Water?”
In one swift movement, he instantly pinned her on the grass beneath him. He smiled down at her and said, “I need a kiss.”
His lips were on hers before she could respond. She pushed against him with all her might and flinched in pain. He instantly released her. He pulled her with up with him as he rose and moved to push the fabric of her sleeve further up her arm.
She slapped his smug face.
He chuckled and said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’d never been kissed before.”
“I haven’t!” She snapped and raised her hand to slap him again.
This time he intercepted it and added, “Then you should know, one slap is sufficient for an unwanted kiss. Especially when the recipient is the man who just saved your life.” He pulled her closer and reached for her other arm adding, “You’re bleeding. Please let me examine the wound. Your arm could be broken.”
The sincerity in his eyes caught her off guard. She allowed him to cut the fabric of her sleeve with the large ivory handled hunting knife from his belt. He smiled at her, “It’s a flesh wound. You probably caught it on the branch as you fell.”
He released her and tossed his fun cloak to the ground. She watched in fascination as he ripped off one of his sleeves exposing a sinewy arm. He tore the sleeve in half and dabbed at the long cut that ran from in inside of her elbow to her wrist. Producing a wineskin from his saddle bag, his voice softened, once again causing her pulse to race. “This is brandy, it will cleanse the wound then we can bandage it and you can be on your way.” He smiled and added, “I’ll be happy to explain to your father why you smell of liquor.”
She smiled for the first time and said, “You are a bold man, but I can assure you, my father will not be amused.”
He chuckled, “I have some experience with displeased fathers and I am still breathing. I think I can handle yours.”
She gasped as he poured the brandy on the wound and wiped the blood away. Ripping his sleeve into several long strips, he wrapped her arm and added, “The bleeding appears to have stopped. Change the binding again once you are safely home and you should be fine.”
“Thank you,” She managed and glanced around for her horse.
He released her and stretched his back. “You’re a lucky girl. I wasn’t sure I’d reach you in time.” He glanced around; “Horse!” he called to the black stallion standing a few yards away. “Come here, horse.” He said as he turned back to her. “If I hadn’t stopped to rest my horse a short distance from here. I wouldn’t have seen you at all. I caught a glimpse of you through the trees. I was drawn close by your skill with the bow.” He grabbed his horse’s reins as it neared and patted its neck. “If your hair wasn’t the color of a starless night sky, I would swear you have Viking blood running through your veins. Either way, I couldn’t let you die such a sorrowful death. As it is, either I or my horse took the brunt of the impact. I pray that it was I for my horse is stupid and had no idea he was racing into danger.”
She couldn’t help but smile again at his remark and said, “Not all horses are stupid, some can be trained quite well.”
The stranger examined his horse quickly. He turned back to Gabrielle and countered, “The same can be said of a good woman. Given your prowess with a bow and having tasted your full luscious lips; I am curious as to discover what other sweet skills you have to offer?”
She caught sight of her bow out of the corner of her eye and stepped towards it. “I apologize, sir. I mistook you for a gentleman. I shan’t make that mistake again. A gentleman would never speak to a lady in such a manner.”
He feigned surprise and asked, “Have I offended you?”
Gabrielle snatched up her bow and grabbed a nearby arrow. She spun and aimed the arrow at him explaining, “You kiss me without asking, and now you dare to question my virtue? I sir, am a lady and yes you have offended me. I thank you for breaking my fall and rendering first aid. I sincerely hope you suffered no ill in your valiant efforts to rescue me. But we are finished here.”
Amusement filled his handsome face. He took a step toward her, “I apologize for my indiscretion. I meant no harm. Allow me to make amends. I’ll escort you home.”
Gabrielle said, “Thank you, sir, for your kind offer, but your actions and suggestive conversation have left me uneasy. Now please continue on your way.”
He raised his hands in feigned dismay, “I cannot, in good consciousness leave a damsel in distress alone in the forest; even if she is a spitfire that climbs trees like a raccoon. I must see you home safely.”
She whistled and her horse walked up to her. Gabrielle lowered the bow and arrow just long enough to climb onto her horse. “I sir, am no damsel in distress. I’m warning you, if you try to approach me I’ll put an arrow in your eye.”
She didn’t think it possible, but his smile broadened. He chuckled and lowered his hands. “I’d rather you didn’t. I’m partial to both of my eyes. I prefer to keep them intact.”
Gabrielle stared at him, “Leave now if you wish to stay alive. This is my last warning.”
He laughed boldly, “Who is your master woman? I’d like to make him a rich man.”
“How dare you!” She gasped, “I am not an indentured servant to be bought on the whim of a madman!”
His hearty laughter filled the glen. He mounted his horse. “Ride on woman. I shall keep a safe distance behind you until you are home. But I cannot promise I won’t offer your father a bag of gold for your hand in marriage.”
She spun her mount and bolted back through the trees toward the castle slipping the bow string across her chest and shoving the arrow back into her quiver as she went. Pushing Pokey to his highest speed, she raced recklessly to the castle. Pokey always won any race she managed to talk the palace guards into, but the stranger had no trouble keeping up with her. Suddenly two guards sprang from the trees as she passed. She smiled in triumph and glanced back at the stranger.
The stranger dodged them easily and kept coming. The guards were in hard pursuit. Gabrielle urged Pokey on. Finally, she dashed through the palace gates. A row of guards waited for her with swords drawn. She galloped past them then stopped and turned to watch the stranger receive his just rewards.
The stranger slid to a stop in front of the guards. He stared past them at Gabrielle with a puzzled expression. The guards surrounded him. He raised his hands in surrender and flashed Gabrielle a dazzling smile.
Sir Gye helped Gabrielle from her horse, calling her by name. “Princess Gabrielle, are you all right? Did this man hurt you?”
Before she could answer the king appeared at the top of the palace steps and shouted, “What in God’s name are you doing? Drop your weapons at once!”
Gabrielle moved quickly to stand by her father. She waited patiently until the stranger was brought to them, and then boldly asked him, “I believe you wanted to speak to my father about a bag of gold?”
The king snapped, “Has everyone lost their senses this day? Gabrielle, mind your manners. This is Prince Eirik of Norway.”
Prince Eirik's smile vanished as he answered her, “I have already paid your father many times that price for your sister’s hand. If she is even a shadow of her twin, I shall be most pleased.”
He took hold of her hand and brushed his lips lightly against it. Gabrielle yanked her hand away and headed back into the palace leaving her father to deal with the heathen.