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This story will probably appeal most to readers who've enjoyed my Ascension Trilogy. It's been a long time since I got to write about fictional European kingdoms, and I had forgotten how much fun it is!
In this story, I crystallized various cultures of northern Europe into Rydalburg, and southern ones into Saardova. The fierce Rydalburg warrior folk of the mountains are a blend of Vikings, Russians, Austrians, and Germans, while the sultry Saardovans were inspired by the Italian, Spanish, and Moorish cultures, with a little of the South of France thrown in for good measure. What fun!
I hope you enjoy it. I think you'll find it intriguing - and romantic! - to see what happens when "north" and "south" meet, their biases about each other clash, and long-nursed mistrust must be overcome. At heart, this is a heart-of-the-genre style romance about two very different people from different backgrounds discovering mutual understanding, trust - and true love.
Stephanie Laurens: RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Lady Nell Daughtry has her hands full getting her sister safely married to the Prince of Lautenberg. And things aren't made easier when she discovers she's paired with Robert Knightley…her would-be husband who walked away.
Gaelen Foley: THE IMPOSTER BRIDE: To secure peace for her country, Lady Minerva must ensure its princess is wed to handsome Prince Tor of Rydalburg. But when the bride bolts, Minerva decides on a daring deception and bridesmaid becomes - bride! Read an excerpt below!
Loretta Chase: LORD LOVEDON'S DUEL: Chloe Sharp will to anything to show the world her sister's marriage to a prince is a success. So when she hears the handsome Earl of Lovedon insinuating it was a match made in money, she challenges him to a duel - only to learn that what's really at stake isn't honor, but her own heart.
Opening Excerpt from The Imposter Bride by Gaelen Foley
Prince Tor of Rydalburg threw down his sword, chest heaving, his face streaked with dried blood and black powder. The din of battle still rang in his ears. The smell of cannon fire clung to his sweat-drenched uniform, and his shoulder ached from wielding the weapon for countless hours. But he had fulfilled his task. Another war won.
“What are you waiting for? Call the attack!” cried King Hakon. “Don’t just stand there. Finish them!”
“They are finished, Father. What more do you want me to do? I’ve already cut off their general’s bloody leg. Trust me. I know this foe. They are defeated,” he said wearily. “They just need a moment to let that fact sink in.” He couldn’t even remember the cause of this particular episode of the long-standing conflict between the neighboring kingdoms of Rydalburg and Saardova.
But his father was, predictably, unsatisfied. The older man, slightly shorter and much stouter than he, sent Tor a glare, then marched over to the artillery captain and pointed past the groaning southern army spread out across the plain below them. “Aim for the city,” he instructed. “I want nothing left of their capital but rubble—”
“Belay that order,” Tor clipped out sharply.
His father turned to him in shock. “What did you say?”
“There is no need for this. There are women and children in that city, Father.”
“You lack the killer instinct of your ancestors, son. Let me show you how it’s done.”
“Sire, hear me out! Saving face is everything to the Saardovans. If we humiliate them with destruction of their city on top of defeat, they will opt for a proud but senseless death over surrender.” Then he snorted. “They likely would’ve quit all this by now if it weren’t for their stupid hothead, Prince Orsino.”
“So?” His father scoffed. “Let them fight. We will pound them into dust. Now, give the order to the gun-crews.”
“I will not, sir.”
“How dare you defy me?” His father stepped closer, fixing him with a pugnacious glare despite the fact that he was half a foot shorter than Tor. “I gave you an order! I am your father and your King!”
“And I am your successor, and when you’re dead, I would like there to be something left for me to rule. Besides,” he added calmly, “why would I break a vase I’m about to own?”
“What?” Hakon furrowed his brow, turning as Tor moved past him to gaze out across the bloodied plain.
“Be happy, Sire,” he murmured. “I’m about to double the size of our holdings.”
“How do you intend to do that?”
“By marrying the Princess of Saardova.” He beckoned for the messenger, then put together a small contingent to ride out for a parley. "The price of my mercy."
# # #
All that had been three months ago, and now, here they were, on the morning the wedding caravan was to set out from the lush, exotic capital of sensual Saardova, a place full of mystery and whimsy, kissed by ocean breezes.
So he’d heard. His bride was expected to arrive by tonight. Tor wanted the marriage treaty sealed up by tomorrow. Not the most romantic way of looking at his pending nuptials, perhaps, but then, unseemly emotionalism was the domain of the Saardovans.
Sentimentality was promptly beaten out of young Rydalburg children before they reached puberty. They were a warrior people of Viking origin, long since settled in their little corner of the Alps. Disciplined, hard, matter-of-fact. This practical nature had allowed King Hakon to come around to Tor’s plan once the old chieftain’s rage had puttered out.
He still fumed a little now and then about it. “A mistress, yes, but I can’t believe you’re willing to marry some sleazy southern belly dancer.”
“Now, Sire, that is no way to speak about my future wife. They say the Princess Giulietta is a great beauty.”
And a great pain in the arse, Tor admitted to himself, but he did not say it aloud.
No need to bait his father.
Besides, he was not surprised in the least by what his spies had reported. All Saardovans were famously temperamental, as fiery as they liked their food. With her royal blood, Princess Giulietta had apparently got a larger-than-usual dose of lowland spice in her nature. She was rumored to be notoriously difficult, manageable only by her chief lady-in-waiting, Minerva de Messina, the daughter of the very general whose leg he had cut off in the heat of battle.
Tor winced slightly. No doubt he had made a sworn enemy of this young woman, who was universally respected in her city as a model of womanly dignity and virtue. Or at least, what passed for virtue among that race of seducers.
He had been weighing the possible cost in girlish tantrums that he might pay if he forbade Giulietta from bringing her best friend to Rydalburg, but then his spies had told him there was no need for concern.
Lady Minerva would not be accompanying the princess to her new home. Oddly enough, she had been accepted as the first female ever allowed to enroll in the University of Saardova. Tor shrugged off this bizarre notion.
All that mattered to him was that the lady scholar was staying behind. He did not need a sworn enemy in the palace undermining him with his new bride.
Rumor had it that Lady Minerva was the only one who could keep a rein on the rebellious princess, her junior by a couple of years, but no matter. Giulietta would quickly learn how to behave herself properly once she got here.
His sister, Princess Katarina, a maiden as pure as the winter snows, would help to make a lady of her. Tor himself was also prepared to be a good, calm influence on his spoiled Saardovan bride, for nothing ever really moved him.
His own nature was cool and controlled. Let her rail away; tears; yelling; it did not signify. She might come to hate him. In fact, from what he heard, she already did. But he did not particularly care.
What mattered was that the war was over. He had expanded his territory and ended the strain it put on his people. As for this marriage, why, it was only a tool of political expediency.
No doubt it was not what Giulietta’s girlish heart and overemotional southern nature would have hoped for, but too bad. All that unseemly romantic rot was the purview of slimy Saardovans like her brother, Prince Orsino.
Falling in love? Rydalburg warriors like Tor scoffed at the notion.
It was as absurd as a female attending university.
# # #
“I know, daughter, this was not what you had envisioned for your life. But the House of Messina will always do its duty.”
“Yes, Papa,” Minerva quietly agreed.
Her father laid his hands tenderly on her shoulders and gazed down into her soulful brown eyes.
General Farouk de Messina, commander of Saardova’s beaten army, had lost a leg to Rydalburg along with the battle. But the keenest loss of all was at hand. They both knew disaster was the likely result if she did not go with her flighty royal friend.
A rare tear glistened in the general’s one good eye. (The other was covered by the eye patch.) “Defeat is bitter enough without also having to say farewell to my little girl,” he said abruptly, lurching forward on his peg leg to embrace her.
Minerva hugged him back, squeezing her eyes shut against her tears. “All will be well, Papa," she tried to comfort him, knowing how much he blamed himself for everything. “No one could have led our forces better against those barbarians. We were outnumbered, and besides, they had the high ground. Wave after wave of those terrible cavalry charges …” She shuddered. “What infantry could withstand them? But at least now our people will have peace.”
“As long as Her Highness can bear to do her duty.”
Pulling back, Minerva smiled fondly at the old, sun-weathered soldier. “Don’t worry, Papa. If I have to drag Giulietta up to the altar myself, I will not let anything disrupt your treaty with the Horse Danes. Not even the tantrums of the most spoiled princess in the Mediterranean,” she added in a confidential whisper.
“Go. Before I refuse to part with you.”
“I love you, Papa.”
“And I you.” With tears in his eyes, he kissed her on the forehead then released her and sent her on her way.
Minerva drew her silken scarlet veil across the lower half of her face and headed for the door.
She paused in the doorway, however, glancing back uncertainly. For a moment, facing the prospect of being an exile, forced to dwell in enemy territory far from home, she feared her heart might break.
“What is it?” her father asked. “Did you forget to pack something?”
“Oh, Papa,” she whispered, fairly quivering with her hidden rage. “How am I to stomach being in the same room with the man who did this to you?” she burst out. “It’s bad enough poor, silly Giulietta has to marry this barbarian, but after what he did to you—”
“Now, now,” he chided, glancing down ruefully at the sturdy wooden peg below his left knee. “It was a fair blow, and neatly executed.”
“Papa! What a dense, perfectly male thing to say. You could have died!”
He gave her a hard look. “Prince Tor had the chance to kill me when I was on the ground; he did not. Remember that.”
She let out a disgruntled sigh.
“None of us likes the terms of his treaty, Minerva, but if King Hakon had had his way, trust me, it would have been much worse. Because of the prince, we finally have a chance at lasting peace. Provided Her Highness doesn’t ruin it for the rest of us.”
“I won’t let her,” Minerva grumbled. “That’s the only reason I’m doing this.”
“I know,” he answered softly, pride shining in his leathery face. “Farewell, my dear. Now go.”
Minerva tore her gaze away from him and obeyed him, going out to where the royal guards waited to escort her back to Giulietta and the palazzo.
As she climbed down into the waiting gondola, she looked her last upon the sunny villa and committed it to memory: the brightly colored tiles of the fountain lilting in the central courtyard; the shady grape arbor where she had spent endless hours studying her books; the mounds of bright bougainvillea burgeoning against the whitewashed walls: and the swaying palm trees peeking above the red-tiled roof.
As the royal guards poled her gondola through the lazy waters of the canal, she imprinted the sights of buildings and bridges on her mind, saying a particularly woeful farewell in her heart to the great University as they floated past. She was to have begun her classes in the autumn, but it seemed her country needed her to serve another role. She hung her head with a pang.
But if Papa was willing to give up a leg and an eye for Saardova, this was the least that she could do.
When her gondola drifted up to the restricted landing behind the royal palazzo, she found the entire wedding caravan gathered there. Everyone who would be traveling to Rydalburg had assembled. The camels were laden with luggage. The royal guards’ Arabian horses pranced in place and tossed their long manes, as if the morning air made them eager to be under way.
At least today they wouldn’t be charging into a battle, she thought wryly.
Near the brightly adorned royal elephant she saw Giulietta surrounded by ambassadors and dignitaries, her royal mother weeping by her side.
Minerva braced herself to join the fray.