The Surrender of a Lady
This book is dedicated to Ely, my dearest friend and sister in all things but blood.
Without the love and support of my husband and children, I never would have found the time to write this book. “I love you” doesn’t even cover it.
A heartfelt thank you to my critique partners, Elyssa Papa, Kristina Coi and Maggie Robinson, who have cheered me on since the crazy idea of a sad, heart-torn slave woman with her jangling kuchi bells first appeared in my mind’s eye.
Anna Campbell, you pushed me to the next step and your words of wisdom will always stay with me. There is no pussyfooting around between us! Trisha Catton, Marnee, Seton, Tessa—you all offered me great insight and were part of the shaping of this book; never forget I couldn’t have done it without you.
Helen, I can’t thank you enough for taking a chance on the unknown and for believing in me. Thank you to my editor, Monique, for stating up front that you are my biggest fan, and Holly for answering my million-and-one questions. A very special thank you goes to the art department for the most beautiful cover I have ever laid eyes upon!
“What do you mean, you’ll work this out? You’ve gambled me away! I’m your wife, for heaven’s sake!”
“Elena, please. Calm yourself. I’ll think of something.”
Did he really think to placate her after such a proclamation? She was entitled to more than a fit of rage right now. She was livid. “It’s a little late for alternatives.”
With her hand clutched over her chest, Elena felt the frantic beating of her heart beneath her thin nightgown. She was desperate to calm it and her nerves; otherwise she’d never think this through rationally. What he said couldn’t be true. It was outrageous and too despicable to contemplate. A sickening sense of fear had her itching to crawl through the floor.
Two eunuchs flanked her husband. One was pure ebony, with a wide, firm frame common to the palace eunuchs, and a severe, menacing posture that terrified the wits out of her. The bitter fear made her want to retreat to the other side of the room. Out of his reach. The other was shorter and fatter, with a round, pockmarked face and a red sash about his waist that accentuated his girth. Whenever he spoke to her husband, she caught a glimpse of gold teeth behind his anger-thinned lips. The sight made her quiver in disgust.
Both projected an air of command. They wore traditional caftans, and their forearms bore large gold cuffs, their fists were loose at their sides. One couldn’t mistake their intent. Nor did their poised outward appearance fool her; they would not be stopped from collecting payment. It was just a matter of sorting out what that payment was.
“Tell them to leave, Robert. We will think of something.” They would leave Constantinople to escape what her husband had done. Start afresh, just as they’d done last year. This place was supposed to have been their refuge. A place where their son could grow up without being looked down upon by society because of his father’s recklessness.
Foolish of her to think Robert had changed. He never did the decent thing by his family. How had she been duped into believing he’d mend his bad habits after all these years?
“I’m afraid it’s not so easy as that.”
She knew he played at being calm with those men hovering around. They were almost enough to frighten her into silence. But she knew her husband wouldn’t defend her, he never had. Not from the first moment he’d set his sights on her.
She swallowed back the fear closing in around her and stilled her shaking hands by clasping them together. She needed to remain strong, to remember that Robert was a betraying swine. If she focused on that thought, she might be able to talk her way out of this.
She would not be the bargaining chip for his gambling debts.
Tilting her chin up, she looked down her nose at her husband. “I refuse to go.”
Yet she knew in her heart that payment had been made in the form of one young, nubile wife, not yet six months from the birthing bed. She began to believe these men wouldn’t leave without her, but what did they plan to do with her, a woman still showing the signs of childbearing? Did they fancy such sport as she? She was no pale-skinned odalisque.
There had to be a solution, something to stall them. She just didn’t know what would work.
The back of her knees hit the worn damask settee. She sat with a thump, fingers worrying a small tear on the edge of the seat. If one looked around the room it was more than obvious money was not abundant in this household. The floral printed paper on the walls was peeling in many places, the carpets underfoot pitiable, threadbare. The furniture, scratched and dented over the years, looked as worn out as she felt. Even the china didn’t match. Anyone who came into their home knew immediately the impoverished state they lived in.
It was unlikely the eunuchs could be convinced with promise for payment. But there must be a way to bribe them.
The maidservant had heard the commotion and came in looking askance at her.
Elena knew she wasn’t here for her sake, though. Everyone in the household would want to know if their wages would be paid, as her husband kept promising. Now they would all know Robert had gambled away what little money remained. It was no secret that the servants had been collecting bets on the span of her husband’s life. Robert played a dangerous game. He was a foreigner here and easily swindled out of their pittance. This wasn’t calm and proper England but a hostile land with hostile natives.
The smaller man said something in Turkish to her husband. She wasn’t used to the language and only recognized smatterings. None of what they said made sense.
Robert ran a hand through his hair, his words careful as he asked them in his most authoritative voice—sorely lacking a tone of command since the devolution of their old life—to leave his home.
The one who had spoken shook his head and placed his hand on his hip, perilously close to the bloodred handle of his scimitar. An ominous sign.
Elena swallowed what little saliva she had and watched her husband’s Adam’s apple bob. The eunuchs weren’t moving. Robert’s only reaction was to clench his jaw and take a step away from them—clearly done arguing on her behalf. Giving up on her so easily.
It shouldn’t surprise her. Still, she fought tears of sadness for how little she meant to the man who had shared the last five years with her. It didn’t matter any longer that he’d secured their marriage through deception, cornering her in Lady Aberney’s study, approaching her with a wicked gleam in his eye. She had been won, so fun in the chase was lost after that night.
The silent guard looked to her. Elena stared him in the eye, unwilling to cower before eunuchs who on further assessment could only be slave traders, not palace guards.
She was safe in her own home. She had to be. She would not leave. She made that resolve clear as she looked at him. But it was lost. The eunuch’s eyes held no expression.
No pity, no sympathy for what her husband had done. Those were the empty, soulless eyes of a man who had seen and lived a hard mercenary life in a world with too many cruelties to keep a compassionate heart for those less fortunate—she being the less fortunate.
She was a noblewoman. They couldn’t possibly mean to take her! How could they take her away from her baby?
Forcing her gaze away from the eunuch, she glared at her husband. “What of the silver, Robert?” There were candlesticks that could be melted down, some cutlery, too.
Was that enough to send these ruffians on their way?
Robert stepped toward her. Looking to the maidservant, he jerked his head in a violent fashion that had the woman leaving the room posthaste. Elena could imagine the maid’s whispered words to the rest of the serving staff. Would they stay on after this?
She really didn’t care. She needed to sort all this nonsense out so she could hold her son.
She would fix this. She always fixed her husband’s blunders.
He stood before her, looking down but not meeting her gaze. One hand grasped her shoulder; he gave it the smallest squeeze in reassurance. It was lost in the gravity of the situation. “Listen to me, Elena. I’ve had a bad turn of luck—”
She snapped her head to the side as though struck by his words and glowered. He found some courage to look her in the eye when she let out a hiss of air between her teeth.
“You’ve always had a bad turn, Robert! You promised me you wouldn’t fall into old habits!” She pounded her palm against the seat. “You promised me a new life when our son was born.” Her fingers clutched the edge of the settee, grasping for any sort of balance to her lopsided, unfair life.
“I know. And I did keep that promise, Elena. I restricted my outings to a gentleman’s establishment. Ali Admen came in for a round of loo with a mutual friend, so I agreed to sit for a hand. I was doing well and stayed on at the table. A little blunt would have not been remiss.” He shook his head as though recalling the exact moment of his downfall. “Before I knew it, luck wasn’t about me.”
She took a deep breath. She must remain calm. Even though the voice in her mind screamed for her to get out of here. As fast as possible. A dread was building in her blood that she would be taken away from her son. God knew what else they’d do to her. Bile rose in her throat. She closed her eyes, breathed in deeply through her nose and out through her mouth. She clenched her hands so tightly into the seat she thought she’d tear right through the material.
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