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His Dark Beauty

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Emma Shepherd coughs as yet another carriage rolls along the king’s road, kicking up dirt and dead leaves. When she’d set out from her cottage well before dawn, her cloak had been a bright blue and her hair freshly washed; now both are likely to end the day liberally powdered with fine dust, and she thanks her stars that she remembered a covering cloth for her basket. The nearest village boasts a decent sized market, and Emma has needed to go and fetch fresh staples for a week.

Ever since her parents passed away several years ago, she’s managed to keep her small farm running and her even smaller herd of sheep fed—a fact that fills her with a great deal of pride. Emma had not only been reeling from her loss, but had been forced to endure proposal after proposal from every witless farmer and goatherd from miles around. Some wanted her lands, some wanted her herd, and almost all of them wanted to get them by marrying her.

The thought that she didn’t need a single one of them had never crossed their minds, and her flat refusals had shocked more than a few. So, it’s with an extra little bounce in her step that she walks straight through the narrowing road and crowding houses to either side, head held high and face bearing a smile. Among the many lessons passed down to her by her father, it’s that there’s no shame in feeling pride so long as it has been well earned. Nearing the first of the stalls, she slips the carry-sack out of her basket, currently filled with fresh eggs, and begins her shopping day at the miller’s for flour.

As the sun climbs higher, her pack starts to get a little heavier and her basket a little lighter. Those items she can trade for, she does, and those she can’t, she pays in coin. Close to noon time, Emma’s purchases nearly complete, she wanders nearer to the actual shops and notices a girl prancing exuberantly ahead of a more sedately moving older woman. Not much older than six or so, the dark-haired child chatters excitedly about first one thing and then another—her attention obviously as distracted as transfixed by the various luxuries on display.

The woman is far too old to be the child’s mother, so perhaps a grandmother or a maiden aunt helping to care for her young relative. In either case, there’s no mistaking the genuine affection between them. Emma sees the granny smile and hears her answer each question fondly, and it reminds her of how she was as a child and how Snow would always gently and patiently respond. Her heart aches for her mother, as it always will, but she soon forgets the girl in her haste to finish her shopping.

It’s when she leaves the apothecary after having purchased some soaps and oils that it happens. She squints her eyes and holds her hand up to block the sun as she comes out into the noon-time light. In the middle of the street, raven curls twist and bob on the breeze as the child dances in a circle. She’s caught up in some nursery-song she’s humming to herself, her fine woolen skirt held daintily between thumb and index finger while she twirls. Emma hears the nearby scream of a horse and the clatter of hooves as a man is thrown and his mount frees himself. The stallion bucks once and lunges, swiftly galloping down the street, directly toward the young girl.

Emma doesn’t think—she just reacts, dropping her carry-sack and basket. She has one second to pray that she isn’t too late before the soft, small body is wrapped in her arms, and together they tumble into the small stoop of the baker’s shop. She does her best to turn her body and take the brunt of the fall, arse landing painfully on the stones and back colliding with the wall. She dimly hears a woman shrieking when she sets the little girl on her feet. Wide, bright blue eyes stare at her in shocked awe, and tiny hands touch her face and hair. “You’re the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen! And you saved me! Are you a fairy godmother?”

Everyone catches up to them then; the girl is bundled up in the arms of her sobbing granny and a well-dressed townsman helps Emma to her feet. He also managed to retrieve her sack and basket, both of which look much worse for wear, but she thanks him for coming to her aid. She brushes her dress and cloak off as best she can, noting sadly that the latter is torn and that now she’ll need to make stop at the spinner’s to purchase a patch and some thread to mend it.

Emma makes to leave when the man who helped her shushes the granny and points to her. The older woman, clearly flustered and upset, presses a hand to her mouth and then sweeps Emma into a bone-crunching hug. “Oh, bless you, my dear! I swear I only looked away for a second! You saved our precious Sophia! Bless you!”

“It was what anyone would have done. Is she truly alright?” Emma winces slightly when the other woman finally releases her, not used to physical contact or having anyone make a fuss over her. Not to mention that the recent painful encounter with the ground and a solid wall has caused her quite a lot of discomfort.

“Not a scratch on her, thanks to you!” More townspeople have gathered around by this point, so Emma seizes the chance to slip away quietly into and around the crowd. Because now, a second trip to the apothecary is in order—this time for some herbs and a healing salve for the bruises she’ll be sporting come tonight—and she’d rather see her cottage before nightfall if at all possible. She doesn’t notice that the townsman who set her on her feet was actually a servant wearing his master’s livery, nor does she hear him ask the folk in the crowd who the little girl’s savior was and where she could be found later on.


 

"Papa! Papa! You’ll never guess what I saw today! Papa!"

Killian marks his spot in the ledger with a ribbon, sighing in exasperation and relief. Having Francine take Sophia out to the village had been a besotted father’s desperate attempt to get some of the estate business finished so that he could devote a whole evening to some needed reading and relaxation. Yet he would far rather spend time with his rambunctious child instead of poring over dull accounts; so when his daughter stumbles into the library, launching herself into his arms, he catches her easily and envelops her in a fierce embrace. A tightness around his chest eases, one that he hadn’t realized was there until she’d bounded into view. It’s been over three years since he lost his beloved wife, Milah, but the bittersweet ache has not dulled, nor has his consuming love for their child diminished by one iota.

“What did you see, my little love? Were there trolls and goblins planning to gobble such a sweet morsel up?” Sophia giggles when he tickles his beard against her chin and pretends to nibble on her shoulder. Lately, she’s taken to asking for bedtime stories about daring knights and their heroic quests as opposed to the tamer stories of her earlier years.

“Noooo, silly Papa! Trolls live under bridges, and goblins can’t come out with the sunshine!” She crooks her finger, beckoning him closer. Telling secrets in not-precisely-whispers has also become a new favorite pastime. “I saw a fairy godmother!”

"You did?" He tries to hide his smile when Sophia nods enthusiastically, patting his cheek with her little hand. The gesture reminds him emphatically of his departed wife and it grieves him all the more knowing that his daughter never had the chance to learn that touch by example; Sophia had been all of nine months when the sea had taken her mother, so the memory of that touch must be buried so deep as to be instinctual, a primal and unconscious thing.

"She was the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen, Papa. Her hair was sunshiny and glowy, and her eyes looked like the willow leaves by the pond. Her wings were blue, and she flew in and scooped me up so fast! She threw me into the baker’s shop, but then I landed on her."

He stiffens, his eyes immediately searching for Francine, but the nanny waiting by the library door only shakes her head. Either Sophia hasn’t given him the whole story, or Francine has no desire to be the one to share the tale with her employer. Or quite probably both. "Let’s go play with your new doll. What do you say, Sophie?"

The little girl groans a bit at the nickname, but dutifully and loudly kisses Killian’s cheek before squirming to be put down. “For the last time, Francie, it’s Sophia. So-Fee-Uh. Not So-Fee. That’s not as pretty as my name.”

He stares at the door, shaking his head with a smile on his face. Only a child who has never wanted for love could so casually dismiss a traumatic event, belief in the happy serendipity of a benign universe still intact. The footman he had sent with Sophia and Francine stands in the doorway just outside the library waiting to catch his attention. Killian beckons him forward and returns to his seat at his desk. "James, what happened? Precisely."

"Sophia was dancing in the street completely oblivious to everything around her, Sir. You know how she is. She’d started in after seeing the young miss she mentioned, talking about going to see a fairy ring or up to firefly hill." A smile tugs at the corner of James’ mouth, the servant clearly as beguiled by Sophia’s playful antics as everyone else in his household. "A rider, what had no business riding the animal he was on, lost control of his horse. The stallion bucked him off and started running, and it would have run Sophia right over if this fairy woman hadn’t gotten her out of the way. She dashed across the street to catch the child in her arms, and kept her safe as you please from a nasty tumble against the baker’s shop."

"A fairy woman? Surely you know better than to believe such tales, James."

"Aye, but it was just as curious as Sophia painted it. Just a slip of a young miss, really, but she made certain that the child was safe. I asked, but couldn’t get her name from her, Sir. I pointed her out to Francine, who was weeping away and ever so grateful. But then once I looked away, she’d given us the slip, Highness. I asked around, you know, the folks what had seen the accident. They say, if it’s who they think, it’s the lass what’s been running her father and mother’s farm all by her lonesome. Don’t live too far from here."

Killian listens to his footman’s account, feeling his curiosity begin to stir. What manner of person performs such a momentous service to the royal family, and then vanishes into thin air? "Confirm your suspicions, and if they are wrong, find the right girl. I want to show her my gratitude for saving my daughter."


 

 The next day begins as usual, opening the barn doors to let the sheep out into the pasture and the chicken into the yard to scrounge for scraps and worms. Only then does she allow her hands to dig into the rich soil, carefully clearing her garden patch of troublesome weeds and planting late summer seed. The earth feels cool and moist, while the air is warmed by the sun. Peaceful moments like these help her feel connected to life, like she’s a part of some grander whole than she could ever imagine; remembering these precious minutes and hours helps to keep the dark and loneliness at bay every night. But her normal solitude is too swiftly broken by the clatter of a horse’s hooves and the scared bleating of the flock at the noise.

She manages to rise with little difficulty, although her still sore back protests the change in position, and begins to walk toward the fence that surrounds the plot and keeps the animals out. She wipes her hands on her skirt before lifting them to her face to shade her eyes. She can’t see the rider yet, but she can hardly imagine just what errand would bring anyone out here—it’s been well over a year since she sent the last idiot suitor packing, and at the point of a blade no less.

Yet the small track that leads from the king’s road to her farm seldom sees use from anyone other than herself, so Emma makes it her business to know about every person who passes through the lane. By the time she reaches the gate, a dappled gray stallion comes into view carrying a man in livery, clearly displaying a special courier’s badge. She frowns and bites her lower lip, for she has not seen the like since the king’s messenger came informing her father David that he had been called to serve in the army, so many years ago. In her experience, such heralds only appear with bad news, demanding more taxes or a greater share of her herd and crops—all for the glory and prosperity of the kingdom, no doubt.

The horse slows and halts in front of her, yet the rider does not dismount. He reaches into his satchel and draws out a rolled bit of parchment. “Are you Emma Shepherd?”

“I am. How can I help you?”

The courier hands the scroll down to her, eyes never once leaving her face. “I’ve a message from his royal highness, Prince Killian. I have been instructed to ensure that you read it, and then return to my master with your answer.”

Emma takes the parchment, but looks at the rider confusedly. Prince Killian? Last she heard or cared to listen to the gossips in the village, their king was named William and had no children. And what would a prince want with her anyway? Lips set in a firm line, she removes the ribbon and unfurls the paper.

Dear Miss Shepherd,

You do not know me, but I am afraid I find myself deeply in your debt. Yesterday, you rescued a young child from a spooked horse in the market, by all accounts vanishing into thin air after seeing her safe and reunited with her nanny and servants. That little girl was my beloved daughter and only child, Sophia. I simply must meet the person who so carelessly risked her own health and safety for that of a perfect stranger and then thought nothing of a reward or recognition of the deed, for such a kind and heroic soul truly must be worth knowing. I ask that you come tomorrow to my manor so that I and my daughter may thank you properly. My courier awaits your reply and will inform me of it upon his return to me.

Your humblest servant,

Killian Regis F.

She breathes deeply, desperately attempting to calm the panic and fear racing through her body. Even one day spent away from her home remains a prospect fraught with risks, for with no servants to stand guard and no lock that cannot be broken Emma can lose all she has in the world in just a few short hours. A woman who refuses to marry and chooses to stay independent attracts enough trouble and ridicule as it is, but one who prospers and whose farm thrives becomes an object of fear and a magnet for enemies. Should it be discovered by those who wish her ill that she will be away, she might find nothing worth coming back home to when she returns.

Yet no matter the polite words or the courteous phrases, the letter is a summons—one she cannot afford to ignore. She cannot disobey the implied order, compelling her to go and await this prince’s pleasure. She may be comfortable and independent, harming none out here on her land, yet the strange caprice and fleeting favor of princes cannot be denied or lightly brushed aside. But she lets none of these thoughts show on her face as she dips a small curtsy. “Please inform his highness that I will be honored to go and speak with him on the morrow.”


 

She leaves at dawn so that she will arrive well before the noon hour, grateful once again to her father’s careful education that she remembered the location of the local manor which must now serve as the prince’s home. Before her mother’s death, the large estate had been run only by servants and the prince’s tenants while the family had lived at court in the capitol, no doubt. Since then, Emma hasn’t exactly had the time or desire to keep up to date on the local happenings and so missed the news and attendant drama of the lord of the manor’s return.

She also has never had any use for fancy gowns before today, so last night she had carefully opened the cedar wardrobe where her mother’s nicer dresses were kept as mementos. Despite the sharp, yet clean smell of the wood, Emma had caught the ghost of the lavender oil that Snow had loved to wear and had proceeded to cry for the first time in almost seven years. Her mother hadn’t wanted to live, not after losing her beloved David to a vicious battle of the Ogres’ Wars. The light and joy that had brightened and gilded all of Emma’s childhood memories began to fade slowly out of the woman who gave her life with each passing season. When the god of Death had finally come for Snow four years after the news of her husband’s death, it had been a tender mercy.

Emma tries to clear the lingering fog of grief and maudlin thoughts from her mind, so contrary to the warm, spring sunshine and mellow breeze of the present morning. She looks down at the dress she chose, wishing once more that she either had greater need for the fine silks and velvets locked in the cedar wardrobe or that no such occasion had occurred to make her open the damn thing in the first place. While her parents had adored her and always said that she was more beautiful than Snow had ever been, Emma had been more realistic about her form and face. She was pretty, certainly, but hardly fairest in all the land.

Yet wearing the bright, mossy color and feeling the slip of the luxurious fabric against her skin makes her feel confident in an entirely unexpected way. If she had the time and money and disposition to be idle, she knows that she could make others believe that she was beautiful—she has known the apothecary long enough to know all about the creams, oils, lotions, and cosmetics that the gentry and the doxies use to make their outsides more appealing. If she were so inclined, she could marry a rich, handsome man who would take care of the farm and all her trouble, and who would be more than happy to watch her spend his money on cosmetics and silks and assorted baubles that would drive him mad with lust for her. Although, to be sure, the world being the cruel and spiteful place that it is, she imagines all handsome men to be poor and ugly men to be rich.

Her own mother had taken the pains to teach her about the medicinal as well as the beautifying properties of the herbs and flowers to be found in their garden or out in the wild, uncultivated areas of their farm, and indeed, Emma misses the days where they distilled more than just the lavender and rosemary oils used in everyday bathing; but with all the work to be done and only herself to accomplish it, anything not strictly functional had mostly fallen to the way side. Shaking her head, Emma laughs at herself, once again carefully lifting her silken skirts in both hands to keep the hemline free of as much mud and dirt as possible. She’s never truly been tempted to trade her life of honest, hard work for one of useless, indolent pleasure, and she highly doubts that she’ll ever be so inclined to spend idle days devoted solely to the gratification of a man’s senses and needs. Marriage to anyone would mean a loss of freedom, regardless of the gilding or strict utility of the bars of her cage; she would rather beg for her bread that sign over the rights to her father’s lands in exchange for the fragile security of a husband’s ring.

Thankfully, the manor is not far, and Emma is well acquainted enough with the land to not require all of her attention in order to make her journey. She spares a thought for her borrowed finery and decides upon taking a short-cut across the park and lawn, so that she need not walk along the harsh gravel avenue leading up to the house. She also will not be compelled to hop over any ditches or hedges that might damage her mother’s beautiful dress. On account of her low station, she assumed that she would not expected to wear fine silken slippers such as her mother once wore, though for a fleeting moment she wishes that her footwear matched her clothing; however, sturdy boots of soft leather have always served her just fine, and in any case Snow’s feet had been far daintier than Emma’s have been in years.

As she’s crossing the lawn and the house finally comes into view, Emma realizes that in all the years of seeing her mother’s fancy finery in the wardrobe she’s never questioned just why a simple farmer’s wife would ever own such things. Nothing about their life had ever required such fripperies as far as she can remember and no one to appreciate them save her father and herself. But once her path connects with the gravel avenue and she gets her first full sight of the manor, the long-forgotten mysteries of her parents slip from her thoughts once more.

While others would see dark grey stone teeming with growing moss and ivy vines needing to be cleared, Emma sees a vast abode, weighed down by its lofty inhabitants and a sense of ancient splendor. While clearly no castle, two towers rise up on the corners that she can see, making her feel both small and observed. Indeed, the manor is practically crumbling from years of neglect, yet to plain, honest eyes it nonetheless appears grand and palatial.

Emma carefully navigates the steps, slightly intrigued at the likely magnificence of a home that requires so many stairs just to reach the front door. She’s just about to reach up and knock when she hears hooves clattering on the gravel drive behind her and fleetingly thinks that perhaps the attendant noise of horses might somehow be the gods’ way of alerting her to prophetic and monumental tidings. She turns toward the sound instinctively—always alert to potential danger—and sees the most astoundingly matched rider and steed.

The horse’s coat is a glossy, coal black that is practically the same as the gentleman’s hair. Indeed, this must be the Prince, for she recognizes the same raven locks and piercingly blue eyes that belong to the little girl from the market. Despite the dark beard, she also recognizes the child’s chin in the father’s face, yet those are all that Prince Killian seems to have passed down to his daughter.

After a startled moment spent openly staring at one another, Emma remembers her manners and dips into a low curtsy. “Your highness.”

She hears him dismount from his horse and have a quick word with the servant who takes the animal away, but she does not look up or allow herself to rise. She waits patiently while dusty black boots take the stairs two at a time before halting just within her line of sight. “Miss Shepherd, I presume.”

His voice is that rare, magical combination—melodic, low, and soft—a distinctly masculine tone that hints at an enjoyment of music and song. For some reason, the sound of her name coming from his throat and past his lips causes her to shiver uncontrollably. “Indeed, your highness.”

A gloved hand reaches out and touches her chin, lifting so that she must look up. She sees full, sensual lips that are reddened from the wind and from the occasional swipe of his tongue. His angular jaw is softened by a black beard and stubble, and across one of his high cheekbones is an old scar. His nose fits his face—neither too large, nor hooked enough to be considered aquiline. But it is the eyes that capture, that beguile and bewitch; Emma has never seen the ocean, yet his eyes are the color of the vast stretches of water she’s only seen in stories and her imagination. She could drown herself in those eyes and count everything else well lost.

He grins, not unkindly, but with a sense that he has heard her thoughts directly from her mind or read them in her eyes. Emma straightens up, flicking her head to the side firmly so that he is no longer touching her. She takes a step back and looks back down at his boots. “You summoned me, your highness, and so, here I am.”

“Indeed, I did. Please, come in, and be welcome to Thistledown Hall.”