Natasha s Dream
179 pages
English

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Natasha's Dream

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179 pages
English

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Description

Walking the ocean front near their property, Keeghan and Will find a bottle containing a portrait of a royal family dated in the 19th century. This inspires an ongoing dream. Princess Natasha grew up knowing her parents wanted another boy, not a daughter. Raised in a sheltered environment, her only friends were her brothers and Nanny. An innocent swim brings a chance encounter, where she discovers a different life exists beyond the walls of the castle. Underprivileged children become her salvation and she dreams of a better life, a normal life. Conflicted, Natasha must risking hurting her family to help them. Told the story is important to her, Keeghan is determined to learn why it dominates her subconscious.

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Publié par
Date de parution 29 septembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781771456654
Langue English

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Exrait

Natasha’s Dream
The Natasha Saga, Book 1
By Heather Greenis
 
Digital ISBNs
EPUB 9781771457958
Kindle 978-1-77299-560-2
WEB PDF 9781771456678
 
Amazon Print ISBN 9781771456685
 

 
 
Copyright 2015 by Heather Greenis
Cover art by Michelle Lee
 
All rights reserved. Without limitingthe rights under copyright reserved above, no part of thispublication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into aretrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise)without the prior written permission of both the copyright ownerand the publisher of this book.
 
* * *
 
Dedication
To anyone with the courage to follow adream.
 
Chapter One
 
Present Day
“It’s ridiculous,” she grumbled.The disembodied voice from the radio forecasted a week of rollercoaster temperatures. “I’ve got four seasons’ worth of clothing inthe laundry basket.”
It hadn’t been a typical spring.One week she could wear shorts, and then a cold spell would return,causing her to race around the house in search of a winter coat.Now, nearing the end of April, Keeghan still refused to put awayher parka for the season.
Dressed for the garden in abaggy pink T-shirt, navy hoodie, and black yoga pants, Keeghanpoured hot water from the kettle into a mug. Inhaling the fragranceof her favourite herbal tea, she walked out the sliding door ontothe interlocking stone deck to join her husband. William wassettled at their taupe aluminum patio table with the smoked-glass top. Shyof six feet tall, Will’s firm build and broad shoulders wereconcealed by his long-sleeved grey T-shirt. Normally well-groomed,Keeghan giggled at Will’s ruffled short brown hair. Obviously hehad crawled out of bed and wandered down the hall as she continuedto sleep. Did he even bother to brush his teeth or at the veryleast to use some mouthwash?
Laying at Will’s feet, theirborder collie, Constable, lifted her head and looked at Keeghan.Her husband glanced up to greet her, resting the newspaper on thetable.
“Good morning. I didn’t wakeyou, did I?”
“No. I heard the birdschirping.” After a quick kiss on his cheek, Keeghan sat on thechair to his right. She took a sip of tea, and then placed the mugon the table. With her head back, she closed her eyes, took a deepbreath, and allowed the warm sun to penetrate her face. “I lovethis time of the year,” she whispered, almost to herself. “Thetrees and flowers are coming to life, and it smells so fresh.”
Will placed his coffee mug onthe paper to keep it from blowing in the soft breeze and relaxedback against the chair. Beside him, Keeghan used her fingers tobrush the strands of her shoulder-length light-brown hair from herface.
They’d moved to the oceanfrontproperty in rural Vancouver six months earlier. Will rose beforesunrise most mornings. They both enjoyed sunsets over the water. Heclosed his eyes and let the serenity of the moment envelop her.
The day was planned. Both sheand Will would be busy. Constable required a long walk before theyreturned to plant the vegetable garden. Once their chores werecompleted he’d go golfing with his best friend, Jim. Keeghanplanned to plant the annuals in his absence.
He pushed himself up, handed herthe morning newspaper and kissed the top of her head. Hedisappeared into the house to prepare their breakfast. After a mealof fruit-covered pancakes, Will grabbed a light jacket from thecloset. Keeghan pulled her hair into a ponytail. Holding hands,they headed toward the worn, wooden staircase that led to thebeach.
Constable raced ahead with Willfollowing behind. Keeghan held the steel railing and began the slowprocess of easing down the ancient stairway. The rotten woodcreaked underfoot. Always the optimist, Will had assured Keeghan hewould have a new staircase built within a few weeks when they’dbought their home. That didn’t happen. Instead he became quiteimaginative, procrastinating on the maintenance project hedetested.
“I’ll work on a step or two nextweekend,” he assured her.
“A step or two,” she groaned.“It would be easier to hire someone.”
“I promise. I won’t go golfingagain until I replace a couple of them.”
Constable leapt from the laststep onto the sand, stopped, and looked back at them. Safelynavigating the last piece of decaying wood, Keeghan stepped ontothe hard sand of the beach. The dog ran ahead, jumping over thescattered pieces of seaweed, shells, and small sticks. Husband andwife strolled along, looking for unique seashells the ocean mighthave left at the edge of the eroding wall.
The daily treasure hunt was a highlightwhen the tide was out. Both Will and Keeghan were eager to explorethe flotsam left by the receding tide. They made their way back tothe staircase. Will noticed the neck of a bottle sticking out frombehind an old log. Rubbish infuriated him. Will grumbled, releasedKeeghan’s hand and walked toward the green glass object.
“I hate it when people litter,”he mumbled. “Can’t they throw it into a recycling bin instead ofthe water?”
A typical dog, always curiousand wanting to investigate, their pet darted toward the item.
“Constable, come here,” Keeghancommanded, pointing to her side.
With a firm grip of the dog’scollar, she took a small step toward Will for a better view of theuniquely-shaped object. Her curiosity aroused, the item could besomeone’s trash or something to be treasured.
“This looks really old.”
“Then be careful. It could befragile,” she warned. “The last thing we need is broken glass downhere. A make-work project trying to pick tiny pieces from theshimmering sand.”
“I hear you. I won’t bang itagainst anything.”
Keeghan rolled her eyes. Itwouldn’t be funny if the bottle broke.
Will placed both hands on thelog and pulled it free of their newfound treasure. The bottle waspartially covered with normal ocean debris when he picked it up tobrush off the sand and seaweed. The neck was narrow and thenwidened, similar to a beer bottle but taller. He turned the bottlein his hands and examined it.
“This thing is sealed with acork. Is there something inside?” he questioned. He raised thebottle into the sunlight. His eyes began to sparkle. His lipscurled into a smile. “There is somethinginside. Maybe paper.”
“You’re like a little kid atChristmas time,” Keeghan teased.
Will shifted his attention tohis wife.
“And you’re different? You’rejust as curious as I am.”
“Maybe we should put the bottleon the internet. Sell it,” she continued.
“Right.”
Neither of them had the patienceor inclination to list it just to make a few dollars.
“I’d rather take the chance ofbreaking it to see what’s inside.” He gave it another quick visualexamination. “Curiosity and all that fun kid stuff.”
“Patience, my love. We shouldtake it up to the house before we try to open it, just in case itshatters. Little Miss Snoopy here is bound to get glass in herpaws.” She looked down at the dog and then back at Will. “We’llspend our day at the animal hospital with an atrocious bill. You’llmiss your golf game.”

* * *
 
Back at the house, Keeghanwalked onto the deck with a corkscrew. Will appeared from thegarage with needle-nose pliers peeking from his coat pocket and therecycling bin in his hand. She sat on the cushioned chair. Willtook his place beside her. The dog settled at her feet. Holding thebottle over the recycling bin, he carefully dislodged the cork.Fortunately, the glass didn’t break. Will proceeded to insertneedle-nose pliers into the neck of the bottle and pulled arolled-up piece of thick paper through the narrow opening.
His face lit up as his eyessparkled. He winked and then unravelled the scroll onto the table,his thumbs and forefingers holding the edges to keep the paperflat. They both stared at the portrait of what appeared to be aroyal family. A king and queen sat on their respective thrones,while two young men stood behind the king with their hands grippingthe chair. A young woman posed behind the queen. Her hands were notvisible and her posture was uncomfortably stiff. She appeared a bitout of place, her face expressing a pained reluctance at beingincluded. All five were dressed in formal royal attire.
“Is there anything on the back?”Keeghan asked. “Something to indicate who’s in the portrait?”
Will shrugged and turned theportrait over. The print was faint, but upon peering closer thewords ‘studio’ and ‘Natasha’ were visible.
“Natasha? I wonder who Natashawas?” Will questioned.
“No idea.”
Keeghan turned the portrait backover to study it in more detail.
“I’d like to know how it foundits way into the water. Who would put a portrait like this into abottle? Who would throw this out? This should be in a museumsomewhere. I’m sure the person or persons who removed it from thearchives are in trouble,” she remarked.
“Trouble! That would be anunderstatement.”
“I just wish we knew where itbelonged so we could return it.”
“I’d love to sit and try tosolve this puzzle, but we don’t have the time today. If you wanthelp getting the vegetables planted, we’d better get started.” Heshifted his eyes to the garden and back to Keeghan. “Jim will behere to pick me up for our golf game, and I still need to showerand change.”
Keeghan loved spending hours inthe flower garden, but needed Will’s help with planting theseeds.
“I know. It’s so much easierwith two people. Back to the original schedule. I’ll set theportrait inside the house and put some weight on the corners to seeif I can straighten it out.”
 
* * *
 
An hour later Keeghan and Willstood back to admire their garden masterpiece.
“I hope we’ve seen the end ofthe frost.” Keeghan wiped her forehead with her sleeve and took adeep breath. “I hate the thought of covering the plants atnight.”
She looked toward the nearbymaple tree that provided the deck with afternoon shade. Theirborder collie was lying on her belly, her big brown eyes followingtheir every move. Constable sat up as Will squatted in front ofher. He placed his hands on the dog’s cheeks.
“You’ll be outside with us if wehave to cover the plants to protect them from the frost this year.I don’t want you to get spooked and growl and bark at the sheetswhen you’re supposed to be emptying your little bladder before yousettle for the night. You get sidetracked far too quickly.”
Keeghan giggled. It was a traitWill and Constable shared.
“You’re just like your dad,Constable. You both get sidetracked.”
Will gave her a quick scowl andthen glanced at his watch.
“That’s it for me,” heannounced. “I’m outta here. A quick shower and then I’ll get readyto go.”
Will disappeared in thedirection of the garage. Keeghan removed her jacket and followedhim. The door joining the garage to the house clicked shut. Keeghantossed the garment on the hood of her hatchback .
She sorted her annuals by typeand colour before moving them from the garage to the graveldriveway. The flowers were placed in groups ready for the planters.Will emerged from the patio door in a blue-striped golf shirt andnavy cotton pants. The salty breeze ruffled his dark hair. Hissky-blue eyes twinkled with anticipation of the first game of theseason. Eager to leave, Will stopped by the garage door, pulled thegolf bag strap over his shoulder, and walked toward her. About togive her a goodbye kiss, he pulled back.
“Am I that dirty?”
“Yes,” he admitted. “How did youmanage to get dirt all over your face?”
“For some reason it gets itchywhen my hands are dirty.”
He chuckled. “The only placeleft to kiss is your neck, and that makes you squirm. I don’t havetime for foreplay let alone the main event.”
“Don’t forget about the surprisebirthday party tonight,” she reminded him, changing the topic.“We’re to be there by eight-thirty.”
“Yup. Haven’t forgotten—”
Keeghan turned to see Jim’svehicle pulling into the driveway.
“Speaking of the devil, there’sthe birthday boy,” Will announced.
The car came to a stop twentyfeet from Keeghan. The trunk of the shiny black import popped up.Will placed his clubs into the trunk, shut the lid, and climbedinto the passenger seat. She blew him a kiss.
“Have a great game, and thanksfor the help.”
Both men waved as they droveoff.
 
* * *
 
Determined to finish her chore,Keeghan ignored the heat of the sun. She continued to mix the soilinto the containers and plant her flowers. The dog had left herside and was sound asleep in the shade of the large maple tree.Time to quit for the day, she stood. Exhausted, the blood rushed toher head. The yard spun slightly out of focus.
“Stupid ass,” she grumbled. “Iknow better. Of course I’m dehydrated. It’s hot. I’ve been in thefull sun without any water. Clean-up will have to wait.”
Keeghan shuffled her way intothe kitchen, yawned, and washed her hands. After splashing water onher face, she pulled a glass from the cupboard and filled it fromthe tap. She took a big drink. With too much to carry, she removeda tray from the lower cupboard and placed her glass of water, adish of red grapes, and the dog’s water dish on it. WithConstable’s rope dangling from her fingers, she went outside. Shepaused as a thought struck her. She returned for the portrait.
“Well, Constable, Will won’t behome for at least an hour. That hammock you’re lying beside looksinviting. I plan to follow your lead and close my eyes.”
She placed Constable’s stainlesssteel dish on the grass. Constable stood, had a drink, and thensettled with her head on her paws. Keeghan swallowed anothermouthful of water from her glass and sat on the free-standing clothhammock. Barefoot, Keeghan relaxed into the soft comfort with ahandful of grapes and studied the portrait. Content and tired, sheplaced the portrait on her chest and closed her tired eyes. Thelast thing she remembered was Constable’s heavy breathing. The dogwas equally exhausted from the heat. Keeghan fell into a deep sleepalmost immediately. She began dreaming.
Crazy, wild dreams were the normfor Keeghan, but this dream was unlike anything she had everexperienced before. It was too realistic. It included Constable,but not Will. The dream began with Constable barking.
Dreaming, Keeghan sat up,swinging her legs over the edge of the hammock. Constable let outanother loud bark, staring in the direction of the ocean. Keeghanscanned the property. Unable to detect anything out of theordinary, she turned her attention back to their dog. Their bordercollie suddenly darted in the direction of the water.
“Constable, come. Comeback!”
Ignoring the command, the dogcontinued running. Having read about a bear in the area, Keeghanjumped off the hammock and ran after her. When she reached the topof the wooden staircase, Constable was already down and leaped ontothe sand.
“Come!” she screamed.
Constable ran full throttle forthe shallow salt water. Keeghan gripped the railing and began herdescent. By the time Keeghan reached the last step, Constable wasup to her belly in the water. Her mind raced frantically throughthe bits of research she could dredge up. Keeghan could not recallany information about border collies’ ability to swim for anextended period. Stepping onto the sand, she bellowed the dog’sname.
“Come!”
Constable never responded.Determined to catch the dog, Keeghan ran toward the water. Tearsblurred her vision. The weakness from the sun exposure dragged ather. The cold spray saturated her lower body, but it barelyregistered in her muddled thoughts.
“Constable, come!”
Keeghan couldn’t keep up to thedog in the deepening water. Within seconds, Constable was out ofsight. She strained her eyes. Nothing. She couldn’t see any sign oflife. Tears raced down her cheeks. Her legs tingled, going numbfrom the cold water. Standing waist-deep in the ocean, desperate,she scanned the glistening surface for her beloved border collie.There was nothing other than the small waves.
She sobbed, devastated, dreadingthe inevitable conversation with Will. Furious at her ownstupidity—how could she have forgotten to tie Constable up underthe tree before her nap? The dog was always tied if they weren’tpaying attention her. Now, she had lost their pet. Constable haddrowned.
Keeghan struggled to breathe.She worked her way back toward the decaying steps. Once she reachedthe staircase she turned for one last look. The waves were gone.The ocean had become dead calm.
The incoming tide reached herthighs. The tide shouldn’t have come in so quickly. How long hadshe been in the water? She must have lost track of the time. Willshould be home. He would be looking for her. She gripped the steelhand railing and shifted her foot in the mucky debris in search ofa step.
She applied her weight to thethird step. The wood buckled. Keeghan pitched forward. The sharpedges of the rotting planks sliced across her knee. Pain stabbedher leg. A cramp shot up to her hip and down to her foot. Keeghanreleased the railing and grasped her throbbing thigh. She lost herbalance and fell sideways into the water. Her head and shouldersmashed on the upper steps.
Excruciating pain. Nauseated,she fought to think straight. As if in slow motion, Keeghan sankdeeper and deeper into the cold water. Her chest sank below thesurface. She panicked, desperate to reclaim her balance on theshifting sand and climb to safety.
She extended her good leg andsearched for solid ground. Her toes touched the sand. Certain shewould be in her home within a few minutes, relief surged briefly.Then, the wet surface tugged on her feet, pulling them under. Herlegs were devoured with the velocity of quicksand. Overcome bypanic, she gathered her strength to scream for help. Will wouldhear her, he had to. With the water level at her shoulders, shebellowed, “Help.” She didn’t hear her own scream. Nothing.
Again, she attempted to scream.She heard nothing. Mute, no words passed her lips. The only soundwas the soft crunch of waves as the water hit the eroding wall andstaircase. It didn’t make any sense. Why can’t Iyell for help? Desperate for anything to support her weight,she turned toward the decaying wall. The railing and staircase weregone. “No-o-o,” she attempted to scream. Her heart pounded. Tearsflowed from her eyes like a torrential rainfall.
Did I driftaway from our home? Where am I? Exasperated, she turned herhead and looked at the water. Constable miraculously appeared byher side. In despair, she reached for the dog. Her hand touched thewet fur. Constable’s nose sank below the surface.
“No-o-o,” she cried.
“Constable! ” It was her worst nightmare. The dogcontinued to sink deeper and deeper into the water. Convinced theywould die, she clenched her eyes shut and covered them with herhands. She began praying. Dear God . Please, allow our bodies to remain close to home.Once Will mourns our death, give him the strength to move on withhis life. To remarry and have the family he wants. To forgive mefor allowing this to happen. Let him know how much I lovehim .
Unable to hold her breath anylonger, she accepted her fate. She exhaled and then gasped. Shewaited stoically for the salt water to enter her mouth and swampher lungs. Instead of choking or gagging, oxygen filled her lungs.Her feet touched cold, solid ground. Mystified, confused, shespread her fingers and peeked.
The small room was dimly lit.She lowered her hands and clenched them into fists against hermouth. Her eyes scanned the gloomy surroundings. To her right wasthe shadow of a man. Panic spiralled in her chest. She struggled tobreathe. Oh my God. Where the hell amI?
Afraid to look at him, she kepther attention straight ahead. The light of a single oil lamprevealed period furniture and two more people. A young man withdark-brown hair, wearing trousers with suspenders and along-sleeved shirt with the sleeves pulled up to his elbows wasslumped on a wing chair. His head was lowered, and a slight sobbingsound came from his direction.
Close beside him, a young womanwith long dark-brown hair and a long but simple dress was sittingupright on the edge of a twin-sized bed. The woman used her fingersto wipe the tears from her cheeks. A quick glance showed a secondsmall bed, two wardrobe dressers, and two secretary-style desks,antique compared to the style Keeghan wasaccustomed to. Where on earth am I?
Constable’s nose touched herthigh. Keeghan lowered her hand to rub her head. The dog’s hairwasn’t wet, but dry. Only moments earlier the dog had been drowningby her side. How was it possible she was dry? She touched her ownyoga pants. Dry. Her ponytail was dry. How is itpossible? What happened to me? Am I deadand in heaven? If so, she didn’t like it. Heaven wassupposed to be a wonderful place.
“Welcome,” the gentleman besideher whispered. “I hoped you would arrive earlier. Pay attention tothe young couple.”
The man spoke as if she were along-lost friend. She had no idea who he was or how she arrived atthis place.
“Earlier? Where am I?” Keeghanscreeched.
My voice! My voice is back!
“Shh,” the gentlemanwhispered.
“I won’t be quiet! Answer me,”Keeghan demanded, fighting back tears.
“Shh, listen,” the gentlemanrepeated.
She turned her attention back tothe young man in front of her who continued to stare at thefloor.
“Stewart,” the woman whispered.“I….”
The young couple seemedoblivious to Keeghan’s presence. The gentleman beside her wasn’t.He must have some answers. He must have the ability to help her andConstable find their way home.
“Who are these people? Who areyou? Where am I? I want to go home!”
“Allow me to escort yououtside,” he whispered. By his tone, he was not pleased.
“Who are you?”
“In a moment. Madam, if youwould be so kind as to follow me.”
Apprehensive, Keeghan didn’thave an option. Constable would protect her. However she might havearrived in this room, there had to be a better, easier way home.She wanted to go home, now. She gripped the dog’s collar, turned,and followed the gentleman to the door. Once outside, he led theway through manicured grounds. The sky was a wonderful shade ofblue, the grass was green, and wildflowers were in full bloom. Theypassed an immaculate flower garden before the gentleman stoppedunder a large oak tree and sat on the grass. Keeghan looked back tosee a three-storey yellow stone building. There were a multitude ofyoung men and a few women gathered around. They were dressed in thesame style of clothing as the young couple she had just seen.Nothing looked at all familiar.
“Where am I? Who are you?Why…?”
“We are in Kassima,” thegentleman replied, his tone still very relaxed. “Neither you noryour dog will be harmed. My apologies, I have forgotten my manners.Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Alexander.” He gave aslight bow.
The name Kassima meant nothingto her. The only thing she wanted was to return to the comforts ofher own home before Will returned from his golf game. Although theman was friendly enough, it was obvious he wasn’t in any hurry toassist her.
“You have to help me. Pleasehelp me find my way home. My husband, my parents. Will’s parents …I’ll be missed.”
“Shh. I’d like you to listen toa story. You have my assurance neither you nor your pet will beharmed or missed. Please allow me the privilege of yourattention.”
“But—”
“Madam, I assure you, yourfamily will not fret. Please, I must ask for your fullattention.”
Keeghan studied the gentleman.His face appeared a bit fuzzy, but his voice was compassionate. Hesounded sincere. To her amazement and shock, Constable didn’t seemdisturbed in the company of this stranger. She had fallen asleep,completely relaxed as this stranger rubbed her back.
“You’re certain Will won’tworry?”
“Indeed. Your concern isunderstandable. Please, I beg of you. Do sit down. I wish tobegin.”
What choice doI have? Keeghan sat beside the dog. Constable rolled ontoher back, exposing her belly. “Let’s get this over with,” shedemanded, stroking the dog’s chest. “I’ll listen, but I want to gohome. I’ll take the short version, please.”
Alexander relaxed on thegrass.
“The young woman you saw wasformally known as Princess Natasha.”
“Natasha? That was the name onthe back of the portrait.”
“Her father, King Harold, was atall, proud man with a solid build, black hair, and eyes so darkthey were cold in appearance. With a striking resemblance to hisown father, he commanded respect every moment of the day. Natasha’smother, Queen Anna, was a very attractive woman, taller thanaverage with sandy-brown hair and hazel eyes. Anna wasconservative. Raised in a formal regime, Anna was informed at ayoung age she was betrothed to Harold. It was her father’s wish,and so it was. The castle celebrated when Anna gave birth to twinboys. Harold’s attention and affection were bestowed upon them,since one would become heir to his throne. A year later, Harold andAnna were deeply grieved when she gave birth to a daughter. Thechildren were left in the care of the castle governess to be raisedand educated. Thus Anna was free to dedicate her life to herhusband and social obligations. The eldest twin, Joshua, haddark-brown hair and soft hazel-coloured eyes, whereas his brotherMarcus’ eyes were brown. Apart from this feature, they wereidentical in appearance and mannerism. Although the boys were awarethey would have responsibilities in the future, they neverthelessenjoyed their childhood and developed a close bond with theirsister, Natasha, and with Nanny, their governess.
“A strict routine of academicswas followed in the late afternoon by play time. All three childrenloved the outdoors, particularly the river. On occasion the boyswere a little rough with their sister, as boys would be, and werereprimanded by Nanny, but the young girl became a strong swimmer.The west wing of the large stone castle housed the chambers for theroyal children. Nanny insisted the rooms be decorated in a stylethat was age appropriate. Natasha looked forward to bedtime. Shewould sneak into the twins’ room to play once Nanny had retired forthe evening. As Natasha grew older she would visit and then returnto her private quarters, lying in bed reading until she was readyto fall asleep.
“When it came to academics, thethree siblings were a challenge for Nanny. Natasha was able tograsp a new concept immediately whereas her brothers required herpatience. The first time Natasha brought a book from the castlelibrary into their study room, she was chastised. On anotheroccasion, she was asked to sit and read in silence. Later that day,she heard her brothers mocking her seclusion as if she had beendisciplined. Natasha glared at Nanny. She did not appreciate beingteased, but feared a reprimand if she retaliated. With the constantchatter from Nanny and her brothers, reading in the study roombecame more of a challenge for Natasha. Unable to concentrate, sheasked to be excused. Although the castle was a massive structure,Natasha couldn’t find a comfortable location where she could readin private. Staff members would enter a room, see Natasha, and bowbefore backing away. No matter where she was, it seemed sheinterrupted their daily routine. It became impossible to find asuitable room indoors where she could remain under Nanny’ssupervision. Unbeknownst to the king and queen and Nanny, Natashabegan to push her independence a little further than expected.”
Alexander stopped speaking.Keeghan assumed she was going home. She was wrong.
“Look.”
Alexander pointed toward a largescreen as it suddenly appeared, like magic, an illusion. It wasabout ten metres high and fifteen metres wide, similar to the typein a cinema. The same girl appeared, only she looked much younger.Keeghan scowled. Why is this girl appearing on ascreen now, as if this were a movie? The previous room was dark …well, it wasn’t well-lit. It’s possible, I suppose, that I waswatching a screen and wasn’t aware of that little detail. Itdoesn’t matter, Keegh. Pay attention and get this over with so thisguy will help me find my way home. Keeghan took a deepbreath and made herself comfortable. The teenager was tucked underthe covers in a four-poster bed. The girl opened her eyes, pushedaway the blankets, and jumped up. Using the dim lighting the nightsky provided to guide her, she dashed toward the window, pushed thethick gold floral brocade curtains apart, and opened the shutters.Then she crawled back into her bed and listened to the birds.
 
 
 
Chapter Two
 
Natasha crawled out of bed andwandered to the window. The sun peeked through the trees. It wouldbe a beautiful day. Taking a deep breath, she savoured thesensation of the fresh air as it entered her lungs. Natasha wasstill daydreaming at the window when a knock startled her. Nannyopened the door.
“Good morning. Breakfast will beserved momentarily,” Nanny informed her. The door closed behindher.
Natasha smoothed the skirt of her plain yellow dress. She patted her wavydark-brown hair, which was pulled back from her oval face. Her eyessparkled with anticipation. Stepping into the formal dining area,she gave her rounded nose a rub. Marcus, her older brother, lookedher way. His attention shifted to his twin, Joshua.
“Nanny says those freckles arebeauty marks,” Marcus reminded their brother.
Both boys chuckled.
Natasha sat in her designatedseat across from her brothers. Cook appeared from the kitchen witha steaming bowl of oatmeal for Natasha. The empty bowls in front ofthe boys were removed and replaced with a plate of hot bread.Natasha was halfway through her meal when Marcus and Joshua excusedthemselves and left. She finished her meal in solitude. Natashathanked Cook, and went outside. Her brothers were thirty feet fromthe door, croquet mallets in hand. To the right, her parents weresitting at opposite ends of a cast iron table. Her mother wassitting up straight, her back parallel to the high-backed chair.She was watching the boys. Her father was oblivious to hissurroundings, reading the newspaper.
“Good morning Father,Mother.”
“Good morning Natasha,” hermother responded without emotion.
Her father placed his coffee mugon the table and put the newspaper beside it. He pulled his watchfrom his pocket, glanced at the time.
“Joshua, Marcus. Shall we take astroll by the gardens?”
Although Natasha’s name wasn’tmentioned, her father had waited for her to finish breakfast beforetheir daily walk. As his daughter, she was expected to join them.The walk was short and brisk, as usual. The children wereinstructed to breathe deeply to allow oxygen to enter their lungs.Conversation did not include Natasha. Her view on any topic was notexpected or appreciated. She remained silent, even when herbrothers conversed with their father. Natasha discovered early inlife her existence was of less consequence than her brothers. Thatwould never change. Over the years she’d developed a thick skin,learning to accept this.
She took advantage of hersolitude to consider the conversation she wished to have withNanny. They had a wonderful relationship. Natashacouldn’t remember a time in her life without Nanny. A mentor, shewould scold and lecture, but she was also their friend. Her motherand father weren’t aware of the fact, but she and the twins held aspecial place for Nanny in their hearts. She was their momma andtheir poppa, the woman who read bedtime stories and tucked them inwhen they were young. As the young princess grew older, theydiscussed novels at length — aspects theyenjoyed, the writer’s intent. Natasha enjoyed her time withNanny.
Once they returned, she followedher brothers into the castle study. The room’s décor was plain,with a large window which overlooked the grounds, and a desk foreach of the children. A large desk for Nanny’s use and a wing chairsat beside a large bookcase. The moment Natasha saw Nanny at herdesk her face brightened, determined to get her wish. Alwaysimpeccably dressed, Nanny’s hair was tied back in a tightschoolteacher’s bun. Her plain ivory-coloured dress was without asingle crease.
“Pardon my intrusion.”
Nanny tilted her head, her warmbrown eyes peering over her spectacles.
“You must allow me the privilegeof studying outdoors today,” Natasha requested.
Nanny placed the pen in theblotter.
“I am ahead of my studies andpromise to complete all my assignments.” Natasha eyed Nanny,pleading for approval.
“Good heavens, child. Yourrequest is quite shocking. I regret I do not feel your brothers arecapable of studying with such diversions. They will not concentrateoutdoors.”
Natasha’s gaze shifted to thefloor. Her mind raced for a rational reason which would allow a dayof freedom. For solitude.
“I would prefer time on my own,as a reward. I have excelled in all my assignments.”
Nanny’s eyebrows rose.
“Child, that does present aproblem.”
Discouraged, the notion ofanother day inside was more than Natasha could bear. She claspedher hands in front of her chest.
“Please, dear Nanny. I beg ofyou.”
Nanny took a deep breath, placedher palms together and brought her fingers to her chin.
“I will not toleratedisobedience,” she conceded, emphasizing each word in warning. Shecrossed her arms on her chest. “You must keep to the garden, nearthe castle, and stay within sight. I expect you to returnimmediately when you are called upon. I trust you will notdisappoint me, nor betray my trust.”
Ecstatic, Natasha wanted to runinto Nanny’s arms and hug her, but decorum dictated she keep herdistance.
“Never,” she assured her. “Youare most kind.”
Natasha accepted two books fromNanny along with the instructions on which chapters she wasexpected to read. With the blanket from the wing chair under herarm, she dashed toward the door. Her brothers watched, less thanpleased.
 
* * *

Situated on two hundred acres,the castle boasted a multitude of manicured flower gardens. Treesand bushes surrounded the gated property. A ten-foot stone wallmarked the property line, keeping intruders out. The river and thecleared entrance offered the only passage to the outside world.
With her blanket spread under alarge oak tree, Natasha sat down, leaned against the trunk, andglanced around. The grass was green and soft. Flowers perfumed theair. Birds, squirrels, and chipmunks chattered happily.
The morning progressed. Natashasaw Nanny appear at the window on a few occasions. This didn’tbother her. With her attention on her studies, she enjoyed thepeace of the day, proud of her brilliant idea. By mid-morning herstomach began to gurgle. Not wishing to wait until the noon mealwas served, Natasha wandered into the kitchen to request asnack.
That evening Nanny joinedNatasha in her chamber for a review of her work and a visit.Natasha informed Nanny she was honoured to have receivedpreferential treatment. When Nanny departed for the evening,Natasha retrieved one of her new thick notebooks, and opened thefirst page.
Dear Diary,
I had the most enjoyable day ofmy entire life….
 
* * *
 
The next day, Nanny sent Natashaoutside with snacks and new assignments. She joined her brothersfor lunch, then returned outdoors. That evening, Natasha wanderedinto the boys’ room for a visit. Joshua and Marcus informed herthat, to their mutual dismay, Nanny had become more relentless withtheir studies. The twins were envious of the privacy their scholarof a sister had been granted.
Days became weeks. Nanny spentless time at the window checking on Natasha. Enjoying the freedom, Natasha wandered the massivegrounds . She thanked Nanny on numerousoccasions for the privilege of self-study, admitting that she tookshort strolls around the property.
 
* * *
 
Natasha sat on the grass,mesmerized as the sunlight glistened on the surface of the river.Although tempted to remove her shoes and stockings and wade in, herpink dress would not dry in reasonable time. She could not riskNanny’s lecture or the possibility of her lost freedom.
The following morning Natashapulled her beige dress over her bathing attire. After eating herbreakfast, she joined her father and brothers for a walk. Returningindoors, Natasha took the prepared picnic lunch and snack fromNanny’s desk and ventured outside. After completing the day’slesson, she tucked her books, dress, and shoes under a bush, tiedher hair back with old ribbons, and waded into the river.
Refreshed, Natasha stretched outon her back, closed her eyes, and floated, allowing her mind todrift. An unrecognizable sound broke her tranquility. Startled, sherolled onto her stomach, and looked about. The surroundings weredifferent. The castle was nowhere in sight. Looking down at thecurrent, the water moved with a steady pace.
“My gosh,” she whispered toherself. “I have floated past the castle grounds. How foolish Iam.” The river was nearly four hundred feet wide. She should neverhave taken a lengthy swim while alone. She looked toward the sun,thankful to discover she was still on the proper side of thewaterway.
The playful sound of youngvoices brought her back to reality. Giggling and laughter. People.She worked her way to the edge.
Curious, she looked up thegrass-covered slope. School-aged children played with a ball. Tothe right, a young man sat under a large oak tree, reading a book.A dog nestled by his side. Envious of their freedom, she relaxed onthe grass and watched as they played. Uncertain of the hour, andnot wanting to be tardy, she stood and slipped away to follow theriver back toward the castle.
 
 
 
Chapter Three

Stewart’s parents, Elizabeth andWillard, met in their one-room schoolhouse and married weeks afterhis momma graduated. A carpenter by trade, his poppa was devoted toboth his profession and family. Stewart’s parents were pleased todiscover she was with child a year after their marriage. His mommadedicated her life to her husband and infant son. Eight years laterthey were thrilled to discover she was carrying the couple’s secondchild. Baby Victoria was welcomed into their family.
Stewart attended class in aone-room schoolhouse and dedicated most of his spare time to hisstudies. Today he was settled under an oak tree, his back againstthe trunk as he worked on an assignment. His sister was content,playing a short distance from him with a school chum.
His dog let out a soft whimper.Scanning the area for the cause, he noticed a young woman on thegrass by the water. Attractive, she appeared to be his age. Is she new to the area? Perhaps she will beattending my school? The dog whimpered again.
“I see her.” He rubbed the dog’sback. “I need to finish my paragraph.” He turned his attention backto his textbook, but his mind remained on the stranger by thewater. Curious, he glanced toward the river. Whyis she alone? What is she waiting for? Who is she waitingfor? “Perhaps I should go down and introduce myself. It’spossible she may be lost,” he informed the dog. He closed his book,stood up, and looked toward his sister. Vicki and her friend wereturning somersaults on the grass. “Stay,” he informed his pet. Heturned in the direction of the water. The stranger was gone,disappeared. “I procrastinated. I should’ve gone when you alertedme that we had company. From a distance, she had a pleasantappearance.”
He settled back on the grass,picked up his book, and continued reading.
 
* * *
 
It took Natasha almost a halfhour to reach the castle. She picked up the books, dress, and shoesshe had left under one of the shrubs at the edge of the castlegrounds. Breathing deeply, it was imperative she regain hercomposure, tired as she was from the fast-paced journey. If Nannysuspected she had left the castle grounds Natasha would bechastised and forced to remain indoors with her brothers.
She entered the study room asNanny closed the textbooks for the day. The twins were chatting asthey left the room, impatient for their promised swim in the river.Natasha followed her brothers to the wing where their chambers werelocated. Leaving them, she entered her room. Growing up, herparents’ nonchalant attitude toward her existence bothered her.Nanny was the only adult that showed any empathy and concern forher well-being. She cherished the rapport they shared as she grew.Now, for the first time in her life, she was pleased Nanny had notmissed her. Instead, the woman was completely dedicated to herbrothers, which pleased their father.
“I’m confident I was not missed.I enjoyed my day immensely, especially watching the children play.I will return to the neighbouring property.” A few minutes later,she stepped from her chamber door in her bathing attire and spentthe next hour in the water with her brothers.
 
* * *
 
The next day Natasha read the assignedchapters for her studies and then walked alongside the water. Itwas a wonderful journey. The river was straight where she and herbrothers swam, but once she was beyond the bushes it becamewinding, only allowing her to see a few hundred feet at a time.Trees grew on the other side of the flowing water. Long grass pokedthrough the water on either side, the tips blowing in the warmbreeze. Small fish swam just below the surface. There was anabundance of multi-coloured wildflowers growing amongst the grassshimmering in the sunlight. Mother Nature provided a spectaculardisplay.
Natasha stopped, picked a few blossoms,and then continued her walk. A tall bush blocked her path. Shestepped into the clearing to avoid it and noticed a young man. Itwas the same person who sat beneath the oak tree in the middle ofthe clearing the previous day. He was skipping pebbles across thesurface of the water. Terrified she’d be seen, she turned, droppingthe blossoms. “It was a mistake leaving the comfort and familiarityof the castle grounds. A foolish mistake,” she groaned.
“Hello. Hello.”
She heard a male voice, hisvoice, but ignored him.
“Hello,” he repeated. “I haveadmired you as I sat under the tree and studied.”
Heat penetrated Natasha’s body. Stupid. Stupid. I hadn’t attempted to hide, butsat out in the open . Her cheeks burned. Itwould be rude to ignore him. She turned toward him, but kepther head tilted down.
“My humble apologies. I haveembarrassed you. Allow me to introduce myself. Stewart, StewartDonovan.”
Planning toshow appropriate manner to acknowledge his presence and then leavein haste, she raised her head. Looking at him, she prayed hewouldn’t recognize her. Extraordinary blue eyes met herglance. The colour was unlike anything she had ever seen before.Mesmerizing. Then he smiled. Her heart began to pound. She shiftedher attention away from his face but his features remained embeddedin her memory. That handsome face. He was her brothers’ height,five feet eleven inches, with dark-brown hair, a medium complexion,and a slight build. He appeared to be her age. She reached underher dark, wavy ponytail to scratch the nervous twitch on the backof her neck. When she looked up, their eyes locked.
“Natasha,” she responded. Panicrose. Bile formed in her throat. I used my realname. Foolish. Foolish . Her mind raced for a fictitiousname. Something he wouldn’t question. She could return to thecastle and never see him again. But, for the first time in herlife, her mind was blank.
Think,Natasha. Think. Names. I need names. Think of your studies. Only two came to mind: William Shakespeare and his wife, AnneHathaway. Terrified of using the surname Shakespeare, she prayedStewart would not make the connection.
“Natasha Hathaway,” shestammered.
“It’s a pleasure to make youracquaintance, Miss Hathaway.”
“Please. Call me Natasha,” sheinsisted, heat burning in her cheeks. “My apologies. I’ve intrudedon your privacy long enough.”
“Not at all. I am so pleasedyou’re here.” He tossed the remainder of the pebbles into the waterand then pointed to the grass on the edge of the river. “I washoping, perhaps, you might join me.”
“I would like that verymuch.”
The moment the words were out ofher mouth, she regretted them. Natasha was not accustomed tospeaking to anyone her father hadn’t approved of. Uncomfortable inthe company of such a handsome young man, Natasha’s heart continuedto pound. Every beat urged her to return to the comfort of thecastle. But she’d already agreed to join him. Iwill converse a few minutes, excusemyself, and then depart. He would never see her again.Natasha stepped out of the long grass and wildflowers and sat onthe shorter grass. Stewart joined her. When their eyes met, hesmiled again.
Natasha’s attention bolted tothe water. In an effort to slow her pounding heart, she took a deepbreath and leaned back. Closing her eyes, the sun’s heat warmed herface. She prayed the sounds of nature would help her relax. Shelistened to the birds sing in the trees, the leaves rustling fromthe slight breeze, and the water as it hit the stones and formedsmall white caps by the grassy bank. After a second deep breath shepersuaded herself to settle. Stewart had not questioned heridentity.
“I attend school a mile down theroad, but am yet to see you there. Do you attend elsewhere?” heasked.
Natasha sat up straight andregarded her new friend.
“My brothers and I arehome-schooled by Nanny.”
“Nanny?” he repeated.
His reaction embarrassedNatasha. Her mind filled with questions. Growing up she assumedevery family had a nanny. Perhaps that was not the case. Sheconsidered his family’s place in society. She was expected toassociate with families of the upper class. The people who wereinvited to socialize at the castle. It was doubtful Stewart’sfamily would be deemed appropriate by her father. She pushed herown upbringing from her mind. The previous day entered herthoughts. The young voices she heard playing. Natasha looked up thehill. She could not see or hear the children.
“Where are youracquaintances?”
“Ah, you must mean my sister,Vicki. After seeing you by the river yesterday, I had hoped for theopportunity to speak with you. I made alternate arrangements for mysister. She remained at home.”
“You saw me?” Natasha’s faceburned. Her hands went to her cheeks.
“I am terribly sorry. I haveembarrassed you again.”
Natasha folded her hands andplaced them on her lap. Composed, she looked at her new friend.“You have me intrigued. You must tell me about your experiences atschool.”
Stewart smiled and began tospeak. To Natasha’s delight, she found herself enthralled by thesound of his voice. Captivated as his eyes sparkled. Witty andblunt, Natasha chuckled as she listened to his stories, arefreshing change from the conversations with her parents andbrothers, or even Nanny. Unable to recall a more enjoyable time,she laughed to the point of tears, breathless and almostembarrassed by some of his comments. Not only was Stewart handsome,he was intelligent. As he spoke of yet another event at school, herstomach rumbled. There was no question, it was a loud rumble. Shegiggled. “Oh, dear.”
“Dear, oh dear, indeed,” heresponded, raising an eyebrow.
“Obviously I’ve lost track ofthe hour. I must return home this minute.”
“Will I see you tomorrow?” heasked, his tone suddenly serious. “We could meet here.”
“I shall try.”
“I shall look forward toit.”
Natasha stood and walked towardher home. Certain Stewart could not see her, she began to jog,frantic Nanny might have missed her.
That night, after Nanny reviewedher assignments, Natasha removed her personal notebook from herwardrobe. After writing the date below the previous entry, shebegan:
Dear Diary,
I met a handsome, intelligentman today with remarkable blue eyes….
 
 
 
Chapter Four
 
With a novel clutched in herhand, Natasha walked along the edge of the river. She passed thelarge shrub at the edge of the clearing. Sitting, she removed hershoes, and let her feet dangle in the water. She began to read. Adistant voice captured her attention. Glancing up, Stewart rusheddown the slope toward her, a book in his hand.
“Mr. Donovan. Please, do sitdown.”
“Stewart,” he insisted. He sethis book behind him and settled to her right. “Would you mind if Ifollow your lead?” he asked, pointing at her feet.
Natasha smiled. “Please.” Shewatched as Stewart removed his shoes and socks and placed his feetin the water.
“You’re fond of reading?”Stewart inquired.
Both her brothers detestedliterature. She did not expect Stewart to enjoy the written word.To her knowledge, only she and Nanny read for pleasure.
“Indeed. Very fond.”
“Utopia , by Sir Thomas More.”
“You know of it?” shequestioned, both shocked and pleased.
“I read it, some time ago. Iread most evenings once my studies are complete. I just started A Tale of Two Cities .”
This was indeed pleasing news.She and Nanny discussed novels, but Stewart would give a differentperspective.
“Charles Dickens. An exceptionalauthor. Nanny ensures I’m supplied with reading material,encouraging my admiration of the written word.”
The two continued to converse.Relaxing in Stewart’s company, they spent the remainder of theafternoon discussing novels they had read. Thesun was lower in the sky.
“I must depart for home.”
Stewart jumped up and extendedhis hand to assist her to her feet. She stared at it, unsure how toreact. Given her royal status, it wasn’t proper to allow any youngman, especially a commoner, to touch her.
“Natasha,” he pleaded. “Allow meto assist you.”
Natasha looked into thecompassionate glow of his eyes. She debated on the wisdom ofallowing a commoner to touch her. It would be far more civilized torise with his assistance. She moved her hand, allowing it to restin his, and rose to her feet. Stewart crouched and retrieved hisschool book.
“I’ve intruded upon yourstudies,” she groaned, ashamed of herself. “I’ve been inconsiderateof your time.”
“Not at all. I welcome thecompany when it is accompanied by such a beautiful face andpleasant conversation. No regrets. I’ll complete my reading thisevening. Will I see you tomorrow?”
Natasha looked up, glad to see afew random white fluffy clouds. It would be difficult to justify aday outdoors if it rained or became nasty.
“Unless the weather becomesinclement.”
He tilted his head upward. “Mindyour manners,” he ordered.
She chuckled.
“I will be praying for adrought,” he admitted, and then winked. “Allow me the privilege ofwalking you home.”
Sighing, that was one requestshe could never allow. It was impossible to divulge her trueidentity. If she did, if her father were to discover the truth ofhow she spent her time, she would be confined to the castle.Nothing could be more dreadful.
“I regret, I must decline. Ienjoy the solitude of the walk. You could use the time on yourstudies.”
She turned and began her journeyback to the castle.
 
* * *
 
The following afternoon, Natashawas reading when Stewart appeared, rushing down the slope towardher. Eager to see him, she placed her novel at her side.
“That isn’t necessary,” heprotested. He joined her. “I’m aware you’re capable ofreading.”
Challenged by his wit, Natashastruggled for a response.
“What are you studying?” shemanaged.
“Geometry.” He showed her histextbook. “Do your studies include geometry?”
Natasha nodded, reached for thebook, and scanned his assignment. “I’ve been taught the basics.Once you graduate, what are your plans?”
“My father is a carpenter. As ayoung boy, I enjoyed watching him work, but I have no desire for acareer of physical labour. My heart yearns to design. I plan tocontinue my education and study both architecture and engineering.As a combined course, I’ll have to attend university for fouryears, followed by two years to get my master’s degree. I’m certainI’ll be rewarded with a respectable job.”
“I’m certain you will. Yourfamily must be proud.” She turned her attention back to his text.“If you plan a career, you must complete your assignments.”
She handed the school book backand picked up the novel she brought with her. With a sense of beingwatched, her eyes shifted toward him. His eyes were focused on her.Uncomfortable, she pointed toward his text. Not interested inrereading a favourite novel, Natasha watched Stewart as he worked.When he glanced toward her, her eyes darted to the page in front ofher. Her face and torso heated.
A short time later, curious asto his progress, Natasha looked at Stewart’s figures. Confused bythe formula, she leaned over to study his textbook. Even moreperplexed, she re-examined his work.
“Forgive the intrusion, but Ifeel obliged to ask you to review your notes.”
Stewart looked at Natasha andthen focused on his assignment. “Hmm. I see I owe great gratitude.Were you deceiving me when stating you only studied thebasics?”
“No,” she assured him.
“Then I am certain with yourcapabilities, I could use your assistance as a study partner.”
Not at all comfortable with theeye contact, she turned her attention back to her novel. Her lipscurled into a smile.
“I’d like that,” she admitted ina barely audible voice.
 
* * *
 
Stewart was unable to take hiseyes off Natasha. She was unlike any girl he had courted.Intrigued, Natasha Hathaway was as intelligent as she wasattractive. He was even more determined to spend more time withthis shy woman.
Natasha tapped her finger on hisformula, a reminder to continue working. After being distractedonly a minute or two, he rolled his eyes and refocused on hisstudies.
With his assignment wascompleted, he pushed his book toward Natasha.
“Review it carefully. I hope tobenefit from your good opinion.”
“Are you mocking me? I’m not ageometry major.”
“Nay, quite the opposite. Ivalue the opinion and attention to detail of my study partner.”
 
 
 
Chapter Five
 
That night, while the twins atetheir dinner, their father quizzed them about their day andstudies. With Natasha excelling at self-study, Nanny was able tofocus all her time and energy on the boys’ academics. He expectedto see improvements. Never questioned regarding her daily activity,Natasha’s time was of no concern unless a detail inconveniencedanother member of the family or a servant. Natasha used the time tothink and reminisce about Stewart.
She became even more impressedby Stewart’s intelligence as time passed. Although she had spenther entire life sheltered by Nanny and her parents, she wasn’tblind to the fact a world existed beyond the secluded walls of thecastle. She was determined to learn about that world and the eventstaking place around her. Her father had advisors, but he also readthe newspaper. They were kept in the library. She could retrieverecent copies and educate herself about current events. It wouldmake her sound more intelligent while speaking with Stewart. OnceNatasha was excused from the table, Nanny conducted a review beforeshe allowed Natasha to join her brothers for their eveningactivities.
When the siblings had retired totheir private quarters, Natasha snuck down the hallway to thecastle library in search of the newspapers. With two in hand, shetucked them under her sweater, returned to her chambers and beganto scan headlines. She found an article of interest on the thirdpage. The British colonies of Canada were looking to become theirown country. A meeting of the representatives of the regions was tobe held in a place called Prince Edward Island.
 
* * *
 
“Canada’s Confederation?”Keeghan asked Alexander.
He looked her way but neverresponded.
“It must be.”
Alexander turned his attentionback to the screen and the newspaper. Keeghan could read the boldheadline, but even with her twenty-twenty vision, she couldn’t readthe smaller print.
 
* * *
 
Natasha read the article, putthe paper under her bed, and returned to the library to find theworld map. Back in her chamber, with the door closed, she looked atthe globe and located British North America. It sounded like awonderful place. After rereading the article, she retrieved hernotebook from the bottom of her wardrobe.
Dear Diary,
I read an article today about adistant land. The land of the free! If only dreams could becomereality, I would run away with him tomorrow….
 
* * *
 
Weeks passed and Natasha andStewart’s friendship deepened. When he inquired, she fabricatedstories about her family. She said her father owned a largebusiness in the city, and her brothers were expected to join thecompany upon graduation. She elaborated, stating her parents kept asmall apartment near the business where they reside throughout theweek. They insisted, she told Stewart, that she and her brotherswere raised in the country. She added that her mother spent herfree time with charitable organizations. When Stewart inquiredabout her brothers, Natasha spoke the truth of how they spent theday under the heavy scrutiny of Nanny. With Nanny thus occupied,Natasha had some freedom during the day. Fortunately, shecontinued, Nanny was pleased with her self-study.
Natasha cherished her time withStewart. They sat by the river, took short strolls, and relaxed onthe grass, reading poetry or discussing novels. She especiallyenjoyed intellectual conversations that included politics, currentaffairs, philosophy, and sports, finding Stewart’s opinionsinsightful. Natasha was able to forget about her stifling lifewithin the walls of the castle. Listening to Stewart speak, she wasenvious of the warm and loving environment in which he wasraised.
 
* * *
 
Natasha’s nonchalant attitudewith regards to her parents amazed Stewart. He sympathized with herbrothers, but was grateful for Natasha’s freedom. It enabled themto meet. Proud of his own family, Stewart’s eyes sparkled when hediscussed his parents, younger sister, and their life together.
Stewart watched Natashadisappear around the shrub, and headed home. He informed his mommahe needed to speak with one of his schoolmates regarding anassignment.
With his book tucked under hisarm, Stewart began walking, hoping by chance he would happen to seeNatasha or a person resembling a family member. He hadn’t travelledfar before he gave serious thought to his mission. Living in thecountry, the houses were scattered. There was a slim possibility ofsuccess. Frustrated, he sat by the river. He would not meet membersof Natasha’s family unless it was her wish. He returned home.Inside, he passed the stone staircase leading to the second floorand walked into the large sitting room. As always, the stone floorswere swept clean. He stood looking out the east-facing window andthen placed his school books on the table. His stomach gurgled. Hewandered into the kitchen. His momma stood by the cast iron stove.She looked at him, her affectionate green eyes locking onto hisface.
“Were you able to speak withyour friend?”
“Nay, he was not home.”
“Perhaps your poppa is able toassist.”
Stewart walked to his momma andbrushed strands of blonde hair away from her face.
“You’re not only the image ofyour poppa, but have inherited his mannerisms as well.”
Stewart smiled. He pouredhimself a glass of milk, removed two cookies from the jar on thewooden counter, and entered the parlour. His sister was seated,humming a song, working on her needlepoint. Stewart picked up histextbook and sat on the sofa to read until his poppa returned fromwork.
As the family ate their meal,his momma spoke of his apparent lack of interest in socializing.Stewart did not wish to discuss the topic. He had declinedinvitations to attend social gatherings since the day he metNatasha. Although it would please his momma to hear of his newfriend, he did not speak of her. Instead, he reminded his parentsthat his focus was on his studies. With Stewart’s final examsapproaching, his poppa was content with his response. The man hadno interest in social events after dealing with people every day atwork.
 
 
 
Chapter Six
 
Stewart relayed a story of acomical incident at school. Natasha laughed so hard her stomachhurt. She wiped the tears from her eyes. Her body heated. The riverlooked too tempting. Stewart reached for his textbook to study.Natasha rose, pulled up the skirt of her dress to reveal herankles, and waded into the water.
“You were swimming earliertoday, were you not?” he asked. “Your hair is damp.”
“Indeed. I was in the watershortly before you arrived. Do you enjoy swimming?”
“Very much. Momma believes mysister and I are as fish in the water. If the weather is agreeable,I shall wear proper attire and join you tomorrow. Please continue.I’m yet to have the pleasure of seeing you swim.”
Intending to remove her dress,she stepped onto the grass and walked past Stewart. Glancing overher shoulder, he had shifted his body, watching her. She loweredthe hem of her dress.
“Stewart,” she pleaded.
He didn’t move.
“Please turn around.”
“Am I to keep my back to you theentire time you are in the water? I have no intention of keeping myeyes closed when I join you tomorrow,” he informed her.
“I admit this appears foolish,but I cannot contemplate removing my dress in front of a man. Myhusband will be the one and only man who witnesses such a display.Please,” she begged. “It is not appropriate.”
“Natasha. I am not suggestinganything that is inappropriate. You are about to reveal yourswimwear. Nothing more.”
“Stewart. Please,” she demanded,her voice more forceful.
“You’re being foolish,” hegrumbled. “But, as you wish.”
Natasha pulled her dress off,ran past Stewart, and splashed into the water. Immersed, she turnedand watched as he removed his shoes and socks and sat on a largerock, allowing his feet to dangle in the river. She was enjoyingthe water, but he was hot sitting in the sun.
“I’m sorry. I’m overcome withregret. With guilt. I’ll return to the shore and sit by yourside.”
“Nonsense. Enjoy the river. Ishall be by your side tomorrow.”
Refreshed, Natasha swam to theedge and settled on the grass beside Stewart. With her palms behindher, she leaned back and closed her eyes, allowing the warm sun todry her.
“Natasha.”
She sat upright and looked atStewart.
“I would be honoured if youwould agree to dine with my family. I would like the opportunity tointroduce you to my parents and sister.”
She shifted her attention to thewater. Her mind scrambled for an acceptable reason to decline.Natasha Hathaway would have accepted the invitation forthwith, butPrincess Natasha could not consider the request. Her father forbadeany association with commoners. She would lose her freedom if thistopic were mentioned within the walls of the castle.
“My humble apologies, Stewart,but I’m expected to dine with my family,” she replied, avoiding eyecontact.
“I would be honoured to acceptan invitation to dine with your family. I would love to meet yourbrothers, your governess, as well as your parents.”
Natasha’s heart broke. She wouldrather die a thousand deaths than subject Stewart to her father’sridicule. That was, assuming he would even allow Stewart throughthe gates and into the building she called her home.
“I beg of you. Please don’t askagain. My family assumes I spend my days on my assignments. If theyknew how my time was spent, I’d lose what little freedom Ihave.”
That night, once alone in herchambers, she wrote:
Dear Diary,
He asked me to meet his familytoday….
 
* * *
 
So absorbed in her novel,Natasha didn’t hear anyone approach.
“I was expecting to find you inthe water.”
Natasha jumped, terrified shehad been found by one of her father’s men.
“My apologies. I assumed youheard me. I’ll make more noise as I approach in the future.”
She placed her hand on herchest. “Stewart. You’re early,” she responded, trying to justifyher reaction.
“Nay. I couldn’t find my bathingattire. If Vicki or Momma knew I’d be in the water, my sister wouldbe by my side at this moment.”
Stewart began to undo his shirt.Natasha turned her head and covered her eyes. She heard himchuckle.
“My dear, you will not seeanything inappropriate.”
Stewart was mocking her. Sheremoved her hands and opened her eyes.
“I assure you,” he continued,his eyebrows raised. “I’m properly attired.”
He began to unfasten histrousers. Natasha closed her eyes again.
“You have yet to begin removingyour dress. I’ll be in the river and you’ll be standing in thegrass watching me. The intent was to swim together. Vicki has beenby my side when I prepare to go in the water.”
Natasha did not appreciate thecomparison. This situation was different. “Your sister. Yoursibling.”
“As you wish. Once refreshed, Iwill wait patiently for you to join me.”
With her eyes still closed,Natasha considered the situation. Stewart would be able to watchher from the water. She regretted her decision to sit on the grassuntil he arrived that afternoon. She opened her eyes. Stewartkicked his trousers off.
“Nanny would be appalled.”
Within a minute, Stewart ranpast her, splashing into the river. She continued to remove herdress. When she joined him in the water, he clapped his hands withdelight.
“The first race between Stewartand Natasha, and the victory with an indisputable lead goes toStewart,” he boasted.
“A race? You could have warnedme.”
“Would you have changed anyquicker?”
Natasha attempted to glare athim, but the humour of the situation curled her lips. She couldn’targue. It was true. They were in the river almost an hour beforeNatasha worked her way back to the bank.
“If you desire acceptance intouniversity, you must complete your studies. As your study partner,I will not tolerate tardy assignments.”
“You are worse than my parents,”he grumbled with mock resentment. “Such attitude.”
“You are yet to meet Nanny.”
“If that is an invitation, Iwould be honoured to accept,” he responded. His tone was filledwith sincerity.
Natasha ignored him, walked outof the water, sat on the grass and picked up her novel.
“And your assignments?” hequestioned, joining her on the grass.
“I’m pleased to state myassignments were completed earlier today.”
“Aren’t you proud,” heteased.
Unsure how to respond to hiswit, she continued reading, allowing her swimwear to dry.
 
 
 
Chapter Seven
 
Natasha dreaded mealtimes at thecastle. When her parents were present, her father didn’t care tohear her view on any topic. Instead he seemed content to listen tothe twins speak nonstop about their day. Her mother wouldoccasionally look her way with a slight smile. Natasha knew herpresence would not be missed if she did not appear at the table. Once the meal was over, Nanny joinedNatasha in her chamber for an academic review. Nanny expressed herpleasure with Natasha’s progress. She remained well ahead of herbrothers. In her diary, Natasha wrote of her friend by the river.How she cherished their time together. She also wrote of how shedreaded her future responsibility, to marry a man chosen by herfather.
 
* * *
 
Stewart sat on the grass,leaning against a tree, reciting poetry. Natasha relaxed on herback with her hands resting on her stomach and listened to hiscalm, soothing voice. Staring into the clear blue sky, she thoughtof their relationship. It was based on a lie. She contemplatedtelling Stewart the truth, but her mind spun with ramifications.Speaking with his momma and poppa, he could inadvertently mentionher. Word could get back to the castle. Back to her father andmother. She would be chastised. Forced to remain indoors, undertight scrutiny. What harm could deceiving Stewart cause? Theirrelationship would end when he leaves to further his education.
Stewart rolled onto his side andpropped his head up with his palm, bringing her back to reality.Neither heard the rustling sound of an intruder.
“Thank goodness I found you,” ayoung female voice blurted out.
Natasha’s heart pounded. Shejolted upright turning in the direction of the voice. A goldenLabrador charged in their direction. A young girl raced behind.Terrified of the animal, she shifted her body back towardStewart.
“Goldie, stop,” Stewartcommanded.
The lab slowed her momentum,lowered herself to her belly, and crawled toward Stewart, her tailmotionless.
“Good girl,” heacknowledged.
Stewart rubbed the dog’s headand looked up. A young girl ran toward them in her swimwear.
“Vicki,” he lectured. “You mustbe more careful. Goldie should be better mannered than to run at astranger like that.”
Goldie licked his hand andwagged her tail. She crawled in Natasha’s direction.
“She won’t hurt you,” he assuredNatasha. “Goldie is under a year in age and an incredibly gentleanimal. A wonderful family pet since the day Poppa brought herhome.”
Goldie’s sniff of Natasha’sclothing quickly turned into a lick of affection on her hand. Hertail began to wag. The lick moved to her cheek. Natasha closed hereyes and mouth, lacking the ability or knowledge to stop theanimal.
“That is a bad dog,” Stewartscolded, but with a chuckle to his tone. “Stop that.”
Goldie’s tail stopped wagging.She backed up and returned to Vicki’s side. Natasha wiped her facewith her hand. Stewart reached into his pocket for hishandkerchief.
“Thank you,” she whispered,grateful for the cloth.

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