A Prince to be Feared: the love story of Vlad Dracula is now available in ebook, $2.99 from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and i-Books. Paperback $12.99/£7.99 from Amazon.com, Amazon UK etc

Here's a long excerpt from Chapter One, followed by a short, romantic one!

 

Chapter One

Visegrád, Hungary, 1474



He made a perfect villain. Even after years of imprisonment and the loss of all he’d once won, even with the prospect of regaining his country and his crown being dangled before him like a carrot, Vlad Dracula still looked fierce, arrogant, and utterly unrepentant.

From his shadowy position in the gallery above the exercise chamber, Stephen, Prince of Moldavia, watched the long, hard fight reach its inevitable conclusion. Both men wielded their swords with skill and with such force that without the protective padding they wore, and the presumably blunted blades of their swords, there would have been blood everywhere. But although his opponent was younger and this was sword play rather than battle, Vlad, the one-time Prince of Wallachia, always fought to win.

Stephen would have been disappointed if defeat and hardship had dimmed the ferocious gleam in his cousin’s eye, if the humiliation of his long imprisonment had managed to bow him. If it ever had, and Stephen couldn’t really doubt it, he was back with a vengeance, and the knowledge made Stephen smile involuntarily as the pleasure of memory overcame the dull pain of loss.

At heart, surely, he and Vlad were still the same men who’d set out together as youths, shoulder to shoulder, to win the world for themselves and each other. Young and invincible.

The swords, flashing in the streaming sunlight, clashed together, screeched painfully, and suddenly the younger man staggered backwards, his sword falling to the floor.

At the same time, the door into the exercise chamber flew open, and a crowd of young men strode in. They stopped in their tracks, staring, as Vlad dropped his padded jacket on the floor and said something to his erstwhile opponent. It might have been gracious or taunting. Stephen couldn’t tell, and neither could the noisy youths at the door who exchanged low-voiced comments in an excited sort of way as Vlad walked across the room.

He still moved like a large cat, quick and dangerous yet peculiarly graceful, sure in the knowledge that whoever was in his path would swiftly get out of it. But the youths, clearly, had never met Vlad Dracula, only heard of him, and they were looking for easy glory.

Behind him, on his feet once more, the man he’d just defeated watched in silence. Vlad himself, finding his way blocked, stood very still. Stephen, his heart beating unaccountably fast, eased backwards to observe better as the prince looked around the four bristling youths.

“If you wish to address me,” he said haughtily, his voice sending shivers down Stephen’s spine, “you must stand at least a foot away from my person.”

“I was here first,” the largest blustered with unforgivable rudeness. Vlad’s age as well as his rank entitled him to far greater courtesy. But with a flash of rueful insight, Stephen saw what his old friend was up against: boys who imagined it was safe to bait the monster of Wallachia because he was a helpless prisoner. And he would be a magnet for the young glory hunters. Stephen’s guilty heart wrenched as if the humiliation was his own rather than Vlad’s.

But Vlad appeared to be used to it. Without warning, he seized the young man by the throat and hurled him across the room. Before the others could react, he rattled his sword between the heads of the two on either side, knocking them apart.

“Let me help you with your manners,” Vlad said contemptuously and strolled out of the room.
His recent fencing partner grinned, somewhat to Stephen’s surprise since the half-strangled youth on the floor was choking and clutching his throat, and blood oozed down the faces of the two who’d come in contact with Vlad’s sword. Clearly it wasn’t so very blunt after all.

Vlad’s fencing partner sauntered across the floor, tutting. “That’s no way to pick a fight with His Highness,” he observed. “I’m sure your parents taught you better.”

Stephen didn’t wait to hear more. Judging it was now safe to descend from the gallery without encountering Vlad, he made his way to the stairs just as a servant appeared at the top with the news that the king awaited him in the garden.

“Well, did you see him?” the King of Hungary demanded almost as soon as Stephen stepped into the fresh air. Slightly disoriented as much by his own churning emotions as by the sight of the royal retinue spreading around the terrace, Stephen took a moment to focus on King Matthias Corvinus. The king beckoned him away from the rest of his following, and Stephen obediently fell into step beside him. They appeared to be walking alone in the direction of the king’s formal garden.

“Yes, I saw him.”

“Did he look pleased with himself?”

A breath of laughter escaped Stephen. “No more than usual.”

“Well, Ilona’s here, so our plan is almost complete.”

Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. With the Ottomans threatening the borders of Moldavia, he needed the Hungarian alliance. And the Wallachian one.

“Have you told him which marriage you intend for him?” Stephen asked.

“Of course.”

“What did he say?” Stephen asked curiously.

The king shrugged. “Nothing.”

“I thought he’d be pleased.” Stephen couldn’t help his pique. He’d done Vlad a rather selfless favour promoting this marriage, considering he’d once coveted Ilona Szilágyi himself—even before her cousin Matthias had become King of Hungary. And in Stephen’s eyes, the existence of his own beautiful wife did not detract from this generosity.

“The alliance is good, and he knows it,” Matthias said comfortably. “Let’s go and find her. A private, informal meeting will be kinder.”



****

 

She moved among the bright spring flowers like a wraith, grey and dull against the carpets of yellow and orange and white spread out before her. Although her steps were quick and light, almost gliding, she made slow progress, stopping frequently to bend and examine the blooms in minute detail. As she crouched down, her grey veil, which was the only head covering she wore, fell forward over her face. One slender, elegant hand pushed it back absently, revealing a tired, almost emaciated face, the skin stretched taut across the high, broad bones of her cheeks and the narrow, almost pointed chin below. With a little more animation, she might have resembled a peasant child’s idea of a witch. As it was, she just looked worn-out, vague, and very badly dressed.

Stephen blurted, “That is Ilona Szilágyi?”

“You are shocked by my cousin’s appearance?” The king sounded amused. “You can’t have laid eyes on her in ten years!”

“More,” said Prince Stephen. “The Ilona I remember was not afraid to speak her mind to anybody. This one looks terrified of her own shadow.”

“All to the good,” said the king, just as the woman caught sight of the two men approaching along the path and rose to her feet.

Suddenly uncertain, Stephen touched the king’s velvet-clad arm. “Are you sure about this?”

The king lifted one interrogative eyebrow at him. The rest of his attention and the gracious smile beginning to form on his lips were for the woman in grey.

“You would truly give your cousin to him?” Stephen felt obliged to check now that he’d seen her.
“In all her…frailty?”

“Well, damn it, man,” said the king through his smile, “what else is she good for? Cousin Ilona!”
The grey lady extended one ungloved hand, and the king, who had clearly meant to embrace her, deftly clasped it between both of his instead while she dropped a faint bob of a courtesy. “Are you enjoying my gardens?”

She mumbled something in return, drawing her hand free and casting a glance up at Stephen before returning her patient gaze to the king.

“You do not recognise an old friend?” the king said jovially. “Prince Stephen of Moldavia.”

Her eyes came back to him with curious reluctance. “What a surprise,” she said vaguely, “to find you here. Now.”

Stephen blinked. Was that sarcasm in the calm, indifferent voice? Did she actually understand why he was here at Visegrád, on such obviously friendly terms with his one-time enemy, the king? The doubt kept him from noticing till later that it was the only greeting she gave him.

Her eyes moved on to the newly planted trees at the far end of the walled garden. She said distantly, “What is it you want, Matthias?”

Clearly unused to being so addressed these days, the King of Hungary frowned, as if searching for a suitable reply. His ageing cousin dragged her eyes back to him. “I want to go home,” she explained. “I don’t care to live in palaces anymore. Tell me what you brought me here for so that I can do it and leave. Please,” she added by way of an afterthought.

King Matthias beamed at her. “I brought you here because I have found you a husband.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I don’t want one.” She might have been refusing an apple or a sweetmeat.

“Nonsense,” the king said robustly. “Every woman wants a husband, and you have been widowed, what, nine years? Ten?”

“I have grown comfortable as I am. I don’t need your favour in this.” After a pause, her wandering eyes came back to his, and she added with some difficulty, like a forgotten rhyme or prayer, “Though I thank you for thinking of me.”

“To be frank,” said the king, “I am thinking of myself too.”

A hint of amusement flitted through her dark brown eyes, like an echo of the youthful beauty Stephen remembered. She was still only, what, thirty-six or thirty-seven years old? She didn’t need to look such a damned fright.

She said, “Matthias, I am no prize—a mere cousin, widowed and ageing. Surely we have better relatives with whom to buy allegiance. Unless you wish to appease with a well-born prize of no value?”

She must have seen the truth in her royal cousin’s face, for a breath of ghostly laughter escaped her pale lips. “Give him a castle instead,” she advised, reaching down for a yellow daffodil, whose head was drooping much like her own.

“I’ll give him a castle—lots of castles—as well,” Matthias said with the first hint of impatience.
“Don’t you want to know which bridegroom I have chosen for you?”

“No.” Frowning over the impossibility of the task; she was trying and failing to stiffen the flower’s neck.

“It’s an old friend of yours—the Prince of Wallachia.”

As if she couldn’t help it, her gaze flew up to the king’s. But, straightening, she only said sardonically, “Which Prince of Wallachia?” Her eyes alighted on Stephen, some of their vagueness falling away like petals in a breeze. “You can’t be trying to buy Radu. He already has a wife. And Besarab…”

Abruptly, she broke off. Her eyes fixed on a point beyond his head, and, turning, he saw that it was on the lowering building known as Saloman’s Tower. Some distance downhill from the main castle, almost on the bank of the Danube, only the top of the tower was visible from where they stood. It was where the king imprisoned rebellious nobles and other high-ranking enemies. She knew he was here; she had always known.

She said, “No.” The word came out no more than a strangled whisper. Backing away from them, she clutched at her veil with trembling fingers, tugging until it sat askew on her head. Beneath it, her hair was still burnished red-gold, though Stephen could glimpse traces of grey streaking through it. And suddenly she was speaking again, with an intensity she hadn’t looked capable of seconds before. “No, Matthias, not that. Please… ! Don’t put me back on that sleigh ride, not with him…!”

“You’re not making any sense,” Matthias said coldly.

A sneaking compassion entered Stephen’s guilty soul, drowning whatever brief suspicion had arisen about her pretending this ridiculous new character Perhaps these were not the amends he should be making to his cousin. He had been right when he first saw her—she wasn’t capable of dealing with Vlad now; time had not been kind to her. Nor fate, he acknowledged, remembering belatedly the awful execution of her father at Ottoman hands, then the sudden death of her mother and the suicide of her closest friend barely a year later—almost at the same time, surely, as she’d fled Wallachia before the invading Ottomans. No wonder she looked like a ghost of her own past.

Matthias said sternly, “I need Wallachia on my side. It’s unstable. Neither Radu nor Besarab can be trusted, either to hold out against the Ottomans or to remain loyal to me. I need him back there. And his price is you.”

“His price?” she exclaimed. “His? He doesn’t have one for freedom after twelve years! He doesn’t have a price for taking back his own country! Just send him there, and he’ll hold it at your back as he always did, as he always would if you hadn’t—”

Breathless, she broke off, whirling away from them as if trying to hide the agitation she had already betrayed. Matthias and Stephen exchanged glances.

The king said, “It’s your duty, Ilona. And the man has a fondness for you; he won’t hurt you. He asked for you before, remember?”

Her hand flapped helplessly. She mumbled something that might have been, “Fourteen years ago.” And ruefully, Stephen had to agree that the bridegroom might well be a little shocked by the changes those fourteen years had wrought in his old friend.

 

*
 

(And now the romantic excerpt, which takes place in 1457, 17 years before the  events above...)

 

Stepping out, with her hand still in his, Ilona inhaled the scents of the night, delicate spring flowers, a hint of herbs drifting over from the kitchen garden, the fading remains of the splendid dinner. She lifted her face into the cooling breeze and breathed deeply as they walked toward the formal flower beds.

As if making a discovery, she said, “That’s the first time I’ve danced with you.”

“I hope it won’t be the last.”

“I can’t remember ever having so much fun.” The words spilled out because they were in her head. Once said, she realised they were probably unwise, but she couldn’t and wouldn’t take them back.

“Even among all those fine young suitors in Buda?”

“Some of them were old,” Ilona confided.

“Who found the most favour?”

“With me? None of them.” She was already spoiled, because her heart had been given long ago to a strange, driven man with a hard face and profound green eyes you could drown in. Those heavy-lidded eyes that seemed to leap now at her flippant comment. A smile played around his full lips.

“You are a difficult woman to catch. Elusive…You slip through my fingers like…” He broke off, pausing in midstride to lift a lock of her hair, letting it trickle over his palm and between his fingers. “Like that.”

Though she’d recovered her breath, her heart still beat like a drum. She said, “I don’t know what you mean.”

The smile tugged his lips higher and faded. “I know you don’t.” Gently, he pushed the captured lock of hair behind her head and rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. The butterflies in her stomach fluttered so hard it was almost painful. He bent toward her until his hair fell across her neck and she forgot to breathe.

His lips touched hers, brushed once, and sank into her mouth. Ilona closed her eyes, let the happiness consume her. It was a brief embrace, yet one so longed for and never imagined that it shook her utterly. When he released her lips, she opened her eyes and gazed up at him. In wonder, she lifted her hand and touched his rough cheek with her fingertips, pleading, though for what she barely knew.

“Again?” he asked huskily.

“Again,” she whispered, and he took her mouth once more, this time in a longer, much more thorough kiss. She felt his tongue slide along her parted lips and delve into her mouth, exploring, caressing. Shattered, she pushed one arm up around his neck and kissed him back while her free hand clung to his velvet mantle like a drowning woman to a rope.

He drew back at last, staring at her from eyes so dark they looked opaque. “Now it’s changed,” he whispered. “Whatever happens, it’s all changed.”
 



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