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Once Upon 2021 - Rumpled Rhett - Sneak Peek

Disclaimer: Everything in the passage below is copyrighted (©2021 Rachel Rossano) and the property of Rachel Rossano. This is a rough, unedited, unfinished version of the first chapter of Rumpled Rhett (Once Upon a Duchy #3). Anything in it can be changed at any point and the book is still in development and being written. Please refrain from commenting on typos, grammatical mistakes, etc. because they are going to be addressed later.


Chapter One


Rhett


I am the Huntsman, a lone survivor of an ancient family, and the remnant of a mythos almost lost to the history of the seven duchies. Lost things, missing people, and misplaced information—I find them for a price. Roaming the length and breadth of the duchies in the service of my chosen masters, the dukes, their kin, and the security of their joint realms, I keep moving for my own safety as much as practicality. The enemies of my allies would gladly end me.

Each year as the winter frosts melt, I seek work. In the guise of a warrior, a gypsy, a wanderer, I travel the less trodden paths of the duchies and beyond into Rhynan. Seeking and fulfilling contracts, I earn my keep. Only as the winter snows begin to linger and the world burrows in for the deepest part of winter do I come to rest in one place.

For many years I sought out the closest habitable place where I could settle for a few months without risking someone stabbing me in the back for my blanket or slitting my throat for my food. However, of late I have grown weary of constant vigilance. For the past few years, I have returned to the same place every fall. A small village in the far north, nestled between Areyuthian and Everly, it is just far away from each duchies’ capital to be overlooked by both. I had no fear of an army descending on my retreat, or an emissary appearing at my door in the dead of winter.

I embrace silence, stillness, and solitude. My days filled with little beyond the basics of living and enough drilling to keep my skills sharp for the spring. This was my dream.

The price was my reputation and the fear of my anger. An exclusive contract on my skills to defend their small hamlet for two to three months bought me access to little more than a shed and the isolation I craved.

The arrangement worked for a few years, until my sixth return. That fall, I came home to a pile of damp, cold ashes. Counting myself fortunate that I carried my most treasured possessions with me, I surveyed the heap of debris that was all that remained of the building I had called home.

As I assessed the damage, I gradually became aware of movement behind me. Senses heightening, I listened.

Rustling. A bit of uneven breathing that wasn’t my own flitted on the breeze. Distantly a bird took to the air with a stirring of feathers and brittle leaves rattling on the branch. I eased my pack from my back, slipping the straps from my shoulders. It settled at my feet with barely a crunch of dried leaves.

Shifting my right hand to my hip under the guise of settling it there as I surveyed what remained of my house, I flicked the catch of my knife sheath free.

The lurker shifted, stirring, shivering, and then running.

I whipped around. My knife hilt met my palm with familiarity. Within a heartbeat, I had drawn it, flipped it, and dropped my hand back and down in preparation for throwing it as I turned. But the sight of a small person running off, cloak whipping behind him stayed my knife. Not the enemy, he was just a spy, an inept spy.

Returning the knife to its place, I scooped up my bag from the ground. The best response to a poorly hidden spy is a reversal of tactics. On silent feet, I set off in the direction the lad had run. At worst, I would lose him and at best he would lead me back to the man I wanted to see. The village reeve had much to answer for.

My pursuit led to the village center and a building that had grown since the previous spring. The tavern had never been a place of solace for me, but I knew many others in the village considered it their second home, including the village reeve. As I entered the new, widened entry way, I couldn’t help noting the improved lighting and glazed windows overlooking the town square. Business must’ve been very good to justify such expense when a late night brawl could ruin it all again.

“Ah, the nomad returns!” The village reeve raised a half-filled beer mug to me as he struggled to his feet. A rotund man, his belly sagged over his belt as he lifted a toast to me.

The few other patrons warily quaffed the last of their drinks and made their way to the door. All of them avoided even glancing my way. I didn’t care. I had business with the man before me, not them.

“My house burned down.” Crossing my arms over my chest, I narrowed my gaze on the reeve’s flushed features.

“It went up in flames one night.” The village reeve huffed out a dramatic sigh before draining the last of his beer. “We tried to stop the blaze, but—” He shrugged one of his plump shoulders beneath his fur-lined robe.

“We had an agreement. I protect the village, and in exchange I get land and its tending while I am away.” I let the facts and my glowering silence sink through his thick skull.

He owed me. The village owed me. My reputation as the Huntsman kept most thieves and bandits from targeting the village. Only the foolish and foolhardy occasionally attempted to harass me, but I swiftly enlightened them.

In return I had only requested two things. I wished to live at peace for a few months every winter, and I needed someone to guard my home when I was gone the rest of the year.

“We tried to save it,” he protested mildly.

“And didn’t bother to rebuild it,” I pointed out. Frost tipped grass peeked through the ash heaps. Months had passed since the fire by the looks of things.

“We considered it.” His voice was even and calm, but he continued to avoid looking at me. “But we needed the wood to expand the mill and—”

“—the tavern.”

“We had none left to rebuild your house as well. So, we decided to work out a better situation.”

I let my silence speak for me. I had been content with my situation. It suited me well.

True, I hadn’t been particularly fond of the hovel I had been allotted, but it had been enough. I valued its attributes, warmth, isolation on the edge of the village, and comfort enough for my winterly retreat from my reputation.

“Come, let me show you.” He motioned toward the square outside.

“No.” For all I knew, he had planned this and the joint muscle of the village awaited me beyond the expensive new tavern windows. “First you explain.”

The reeve pursed his mouth like a spoiled child who had just been reprimanded by his mother.

“Explain.”

“We all discussed it…asked ourselves what a man needs…decided there were a few ways to improve things…”

I cleared my throat.

“So, we took it upon ourselves to—”

“The point?” My voice lowered and warned of my wanning temper.

“We have chosen to give you land, a house, and a wife.” The reeve turned and banged his mug on the bar top. “Another!” he bellowed.

“A wife?” I stared at him in complete confusion. “How in tarnation did you come to the conclusion that I needed a wife?”

“A house without a wife is empty.”

Exactly how I like it, I thought. But the Reeve continued.

“She can cook for you, clean for you, and fill the house with comforts that make it a home. There is nothing like coming home to a warm meal on the table, hot mulled wine in one’s cup, and the pleasures of a woman’s company to keep one content.”

The image in my head was much less appealing, chatter, demands for expensive accoutrements, expectations of me being home on time, and…children. My mind caught on the last thought. I did need children to carry on my family name and the traditions of the Huntsman. Distant memories of my mother’s stories impressing upon me the importance of my father’s lineage. The bloodline I carried pressed in on me. Shaking free from their hold, I grimaced. That didn’t mean I had to do it now or even ever.

“Don’t discount it until you have tried it, Huntsman. A woman’s touch is what you need.”

“No. I need a secure place to rest.”

The reeve shouted his approval. “A house, a wife, some land, it is about time you settled down.”

“I have no intention of…”

The reeve was already out the tavern door and yelling to someone across the village square. “Master Billier! The Huntsman has returned. Bring your daughter to the meeting house.”

My lip curled of its own accord. Billier was the town miller and fat thanks to the fact he owned and ran the only mill for miles around. That didn’t stop the man from being despicable. I avoided him when I could and wrestled my temper and conscience every time I couldn’t. I wanted nothing to do with any scheme in which he was involved. I wouldn’t entrust any living thing into his care, not even a cat, and I cherished no love for the furry creatures thanks to their effect on my eyes and nose.

The reeve beckoned from outside. “Come Huntsman. Billier fetches his daughter to the meeting house. She’s as fair and biddable lass as any other.”

A woman is far less deserving of Billier’s care than a cat. I decided to allow the farce to continue a bit longer. The better to understand their intentions. Surreptitiously checking my access to my weapons, I followed the reeve in the direction of the dark meeting hall.

As the reeve rushed about lighting a fire in the hearth and a few of the lanterns against the walls, I staked out the corner farthest from the door. The reeve had only lit the corner nearest the door before it opened to admit the greasy-haired miller and his daughter.

She was small. Petite and barely a handful of feet high, she could fit beneath one of my arms, and I could carry her off without much effort. Not that I would. However, there was a dignity, a solidness to her tiny frame that made her father keep his distance despite his obvious eagerness to sell her assets.

“She cooks, cleans, and keeps house well enough for a girl. Has a fair enough figure, so I am told. Come on girl, show off your wares.” Billier shoved his daughter forward so that she stumbled.

Only a brief glare in her father’s direction betrayed her anger. Still, she obeyed. Back straight and shoulders tight, she walked with confidence despite a slight limp. Perhaps she had an injured hip, knee…no. I watch for a few more steps. Something was wrong with her foot and walking on it pained her causing a slight hitch in her breathing. Her betrayal of the weakness was so minute that I had almost missed it.

My attention swung to her father. Had he injured her? It would fit his malicious personality. What he could not bully, he humiliated. One look at his daughter’s tightly wound body, and it was easy to imagine him pressuring her to do something solely for his benefit. But what was he getting out of her marrying me?

“Leave,” I demanded.

“What? If she doesn’t please you—” Billier sputtered.

“You two.” I jerked my chin at the two men. “Leave.”

“Come.” The reeve caught Billier’s arm. “Best let him talk to her.”

Billier’s glare at his daughter intensified as the reeve guided him toward the door outside. “You mess this up, girl, and—” Whatever he intended went unsaid as the reeve closed the door behind the two of them with a sharp tug.

The girl relaxed infinitesimally. However, she also eyed me warily and oriented herself so she could duck behind a table should I become more clearly dangerous.

“What is your name?” I asked. I hadn’t seen her about the village before, but then I rarely spent any time in the village.

“Catherine, but everyone calls me Cat.”

I laughed. It came out as a rusty sound as though I didn’t do it often, which I didn’t.

Her eyes narrowed. “My name isn’t funny.”

“No, but the irony is.” Then realizing by her blank expression that I would need to explain, I did. “Cats make me sick, the four-legged variety that is.”

She didn’t smile. Instead, she simply nodded. “Then it is good I am not that kind of cat.”

“It is.”

Silence descended between us. Faintly through the door behind her, we could hear her father raging. My concern for Cat’s safety grew. I didn’t think Billier was capable of murder, but one never could tell by looking at a person. Also, accidental murders happened like beating someone to death in a fit of rage.

“What is your name?” Her question caught me by surprise.

“Pardon?”

“What should I call you? Huntsman doesn’t seem appropriate unless it is your real name.”

“It is my profession.”

“Ah, then what should I call you?”

“Huntsman.”

“Oh.” She frowned, studying me for a few moments. “Will your wife call you Huntsman?”

“I don’t see why she wouldn’t.”

“But it isn’t your name.”

“Correct. Are you sure about this…marrying me, a stranger?” I asked.

She didn’t flinch, but her left shoulder hunched slightly as though she was guarding her jaw from a blow. From her wary glance at my face to the way her gaze fell to my hands before moving on, I suspected she was assessing what threat I posed.

“I don’t have much of a choice.” Her tone remained flat, hiding any emotion, but her mouth twitched betrayed a bit of displeasure. “Father will kill me if I ruin this for him. I don’t have a choice.”

“Neither do I.” I was quickly realizing that I didn’t. If I was choosing between my convenience and her life, I was morally bound to choose her life.

She frowned in earnest this time. But instead of asking for clarification, she just met my gaze with furrowed brows.

“I want the land and apparently you are the price.” Better not to give her too much power. Besides, I did need land at the bare minimum.

“Why would you want abandoned land? You aren’t a farmer.” She assessed me again with a measured glance. “Are you?”

“I have other skills.”

She hugged herself but met my gaze. “My father says you are an assassin. My brother says you threaten people.”

“What do you think I am?”

“Someone that people fear.”

The truth hurt, but I supposed that was the most accurate description of them all. “I am a Huntsman. I serve the dukes and seek out lost things. Misplaced items and people are my specialty, but I deal in information upon occasion as well.”

“So, you don’t kill people?” Something in her face hinted that she didn’t believe me.

“I have killed in the past, but I avoid it when I can.”

“Do you hurt people?”

“If I must.” My personal code was much more detailed that that, but I wasn’t inclined to disclose it all, especially if I ended up not having to marry her. “Does that disqualify me?”

“Do you threaten children?”

“Never.” The usual anger at how I had been raised rose in my chest. Children were not targets.

“Women?”

“It depends.”

“On?” Her frown focused intently on my face.

“Whether or not they intend me harm.”

“Hmm…” She turned away.

“Why does your father want to get rid of you?”

~~~

Cat

The Huntsman stood in the darkest corner of the room, a solid, inky shadow in the growing darkness. Despite the malevolent impression created by hiding himself from me, he didn’t make me feel threatened. If anything, I had the opposite impression. Perhaps it was because he was being so bluntly honest with me. It made a refreshing change from Father’s lies.

“Father wishes to be rid of me because I am useless for his purposes.”

“Oh?” His voice, rugged and husky, betrayed mild interest and nothing else.

“I talk back, argue, and refuse to comply with his orders. To make matters worse, I am lame.”

He frowned. “I see no cane.”

“I rarely need one.” I adjusted my weight to rest on my good leg and give my right foot a bit of a rest.

“May I see?”

“What?” I peered at him in alarm. “See what?”

“Your foot.” He stepped forward so that he was partially out of the shadows. My gaze first went to his hair. Gold-streaked brown, it curled a bit about his forehead and ears despite the short crop. His dark eyes, almost black in the dim light, studied my face, waiting for a response. “That is what is injured, right?”

I nodded but didn’t offer it for his inspection. “I have not shown it to anyone since the accident.”

His lips pressed tightly in what might have been disapproval. Of me?

“How did the accident happen?” he asked. Again, he studied my features.

When had someone last asked that? Never. No one ever asked. Before I had recovered, my father had seen to it that everyone had heard his version of the story. Unless I wished to call him a liar and risk a confrontation that would end up with me nursing more than a mangled foot, I had been constrained to silence. “My father crushed it in a door.” I blinked back the burning in my eyes. “Though he will deny it.” I swallowed carefully.

“When?”

I almost smiled. The man had a way of using as few words as possible. “I was seven.”

“And you are now?”

“Twenty-four.” I cleared my throat of the lump of gathering tears. “How old are you?”

“Thirty.”

I nodded.

“You approve?” Amusement tinged his voice, but when I glanced at him, there was no hint of humor about his expression.

“Not too old and not too young,” I explained.

“Just right.”

I nodded again, this time with a small smile.

“I am going to look.”

He knelt at my feet. Before I was ready, he was lifting my lame foot. Off-balance, my hands went to his head, fingers sinking into a mess of soft curls, as I struggled to stay upright. Despite his evident care, the sudden pressure of leaning on my twisted foot to compensate for my shifting balance, the constant ache of my foot ramped up to pain. Tears sprang to my eyes.

“Inspecting the merchandise?” I asked sharply.

“No.” He adjusted his grip, so he held my ankle instead of my foot. The impression of strong, warm fingers seemed to burn through my stockings as he removed my shoe. “Has it healed? Is it infected?”

“No and no.” Angry tears burned my eyes. Heat flushed my cheeks.

“Does this hurt?” He pressed my toes.

“Yes.”

“And this?”

A few more rounds of the same question and more pain, he finally replaced my shoe. Setting my foot back on the floor with far more care than he had picked it up, he waited until I had regained my balance before rising to his full height. Blinking away the tears, I waited for him to move, but he didn’t step away.

“Your father will do worse if I reject you?”

“Don’t worry about me. I will survive.” I studied his tunic front. The coarse wool was dyed a brown so dark it was almost black. Not exactly the clothing of a rich man. My father’s claims as to the mysteries surrounding the man before me ranged from his great riches to his right to a lost title. I didn’t believe a word of any of them.

“What did you do to earn the foot crushing, according to him.” His gruff voice resonated through me from such close proximity that I could feel his breath stir my hair.

“I was disrespectful. Girls who disrespect their parents deserve what they get.”

He settled his large hands on my shoulders. “Look at me, Cat.”

I lifted my face to meet his gaze. He studied my face intently before locking gazes with me. “No amount of disrespect ever deserves what your father did to your foot.”

My nose burned with unshed tears. I willed them back. I wasn’t a weeper in general. No use crying. It just exposed a weakness that others could exploit. I had hardened myself against cruelty, but I realized as I looked up into this stranger’s face, I hadn’t guarded my heart against kindness.

“Why do you need the land?” I asked—anything to break up the strange tension growing between us.

As I hoped, he broke eye contact and moved away. Suddenly I felt cold and strange.

“I suppose you are aware of my traveling habits.” He paced out the length of the room, pausing to glance through the window at the waning light on his return toward me.

“Yes.” The whole village breathed a sigh of relief every spring when he left and tensed when he returned in the fall.

“I need a place to lay low in the winter.” He stopped before me, farther than when he had declared his judgment of my father, but still close. “I had an agreement with the Reeve, but then my hovel burned down.”

“My father sent my brothers out to burn it as soon as the news came that you had left last spring.”

He grew suddenly so still that I was compelled to study his face to read his reaction. His expression didn’t even twitch. “Was this because the reeve told him to or of his own volition?”

“I can’t say for certain.”

“Do you know what land they intend to give me?” His dark eyes glared at the far wall beyond which my father’s voice could still be heard.

“No.” I frowned at him. “My father shares nothing with me. He barely speaks to me most of the time. I hope you are not planning on using me as a pawn in a conflict with him. You will find I have little to no value in his eyes.”

That grabbed his attention. Suddenly he turned. The intensity of his gaze making me want to squirm. “Let me be clear.” His voice roughened even more with what I could only guess was emotion. “I don’t use people as pawns, ever. No matter what happens between us, I will never manipulate you that way. I prefer a more direct approach.”

I nodded because he seemed to be expecting it.

A pounding on the outer door made me jump. The Huntsman, however, didn’t even flinch.

“Are you finished in there? We have business to discuss,” my father demanded from the other side of the closed door.

The Huntsman turned to me with a question in his eyes.

I nodded. He had answered far more questions than I had hoped.

He opened the door as my father raised his fist to pound again. “Finally!” Father pushed past the Huntsman and grabbed my upper arm.

The reeve followed through the door and grinned at the Huntsman. “She good enough?”

The Huntsman noted the way my father was holding my arm but didn’t move to interfere. Instead he turned his full attention on the reeve. “Where is this land you are supposedly offering?”

“North of here. There is an old castle with a gatehouse and such. We fixed up the gatehouse with all the necessities you will need for the winter.”

“And next winter?”

“You can use it then too.”

“I want to own the land.”

“What?” The reeve frowned. “This is a rental arrangement.”

“Am I renting the wife also?” The stranger glared at the reeve.

“No.”

“And where will I leave her while I am away? It isn’t as though I would be returning her for the duration. I will purchase the land.”

“Well…” The reeve turned an interesting shade of pink as he blustered and bellowed.

“Then you don’t hold the deed?”

“He doesn’t.” My father’s eyes glinted maliciously. “The estate was abandoned decades ago.”

“So, you were wagering on the owner never showing up?”

“You could always deal with him should he do so.”

The Huntsman’s mouth tightened. “I will take it with the terms all written out and signed by us both. Original agreement stands save for one addendum. The original property is mine all year round, and I receive compensation should anyone damage the original estate in any way. I want insurance that I will not return to find my home gone and my wife in the cold come next fall.”

“You will not pay?” The reeve appeared on the verge of bursting into a rage.

The Huntsman drew a knife from a hidden place and tossed it nonchalantly into the air, catching it again with a deft snatch. “No. My protection is compensation enough.” Planting the knife in the wooden floor inches from the reeve’s toes, the Huntsman cleared his throat. “Consider yourself fortunate I am in a generous mood or I would collect reparations for the wanton destruction of my property.”

“You have no grounds! There was nothing inside when it burned!” My father blustered. “The reeve ordered me to check especially before…”

The Huntsman’s eyebrows rose.

The reeve’s face suddenly drained of color when he realized had just been admitted.

“You owe me.” The Huntsman took a solid step toward the reeve. Almost a foot taller and clearly the more physically capable man, the stranger glared down the reeve. “I will have our agreement in writing and signed or I leave, spreading the word that this village is no longer under my protection.”

“Fine, I will draw up the contract for the arrangement.” The reeve straightened the pleats of his cloak with apparent disinterest, but he couldn’t hide the shaking of his hand completely.

“And a marriage contract.”

“Surely you don’t want the girl after—”

“I have accepted the arrangement.” The stranger pulled the knife from the floor in a single smooth lunge that had the reeve scrambling backward into the wall before attempting to recover the appearance of calm once again. The Huntsman examined the tip of his knife. “We will marry upon the morrow.”

“Excellent!” The reeve smiled.

My father glared at me, and the Huntsman sheathed his weapon.

“Come!” The reeve gestured for the Huntsman to follow him out the door into the night. He called over his shoulder as he strode off toward the village center. “Tonight, we will celebrate our agreement, and tomorrow you wed.”

I moved too slowly toward the door. My father grabbed my arm, tugging hard on it so that I lost my balance and fell hard on my knees. His fingers dug into my skin and he hauled me up so he could hiss in my ear. “Fool him for insisting on you.”

“Is it worth the risk?” The Huntsman hadn’t moved to follow the reeve. He stood just inside the door, glowering at my father. “You hurt her, and I might change my mind.”

Father straightened. He threw my arm away. “Fine. Take her. You will regret it.” He stalked out the door, slamming it behind him.

~~~

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