Erika’s teeth clattered together as the sleigh hit hard at the bottom of the dip. Tears sprang to her eyes. She loosened her grip on the top rail and attempted to wipe them away. The sleigh bounced again. She fell forward, arms flailing. A strong arm reached across her body and pushed her firmly back. “Stop messing about and hold on. The next one is going to be even harder.” She glanced over at Prince Christian, hoping to show him that she was not the least bit impressed with his driving, but his gaze was fixed firmly on the horses and the icy edge of the lake which lay ahead of them. If the next bump was going to be worse than what they had just hit, there was every chance they were going to crash. “Jag vinner!” came a cry from behind them. Her head turned and she gasped as a second sleigh sped into view and passed them at a ridiculous speed. She caught sight of the driver. It was Christian’s older brother Gustav. He looked back and gave a taunting laugh.
What the devil is he doing? I thought Christian was the only madman out here on the ice. Christian yelled, “Dra åt helvete!” He cracked his whip over the top of the horses. Erika tightened her grip on the side of the sleigh and began to pray. O Lord God. Rule and govern our hearts and minds by your Holy Spirit. The high-speed run over the ice had now turned into a fearsome race. Brother against brother. From the hard set of his jaw, it was patently clear that Christian was not going to spare either the horses, or the sleigh’s occupants. He would never back down when it came to a challenge from Gustav. We are going to die.
The sleigh flew up a short rise. A blur of elm trees rose as a towering wall in front of them. Prince Gustav swerved left. Erika held her breath and braced against the seat. This was going to be a tight turn. Her heart was pounding at a furious rate in her chest. Fear and adrenaline coursed through her body. They hit a second deadly patch of black ice and the back of the sleigh suddenly slid wildly out to the left. Christian gave a worried glance over his shoulder and Erika’s heart sunk. If he was concerned about how things were going, they were in serious trouble.
Perhaps now was the time for her to leap over the side and take her chances. As he turned his head back toward the front, he grinned at her—manic excitement was plastered all over his face. “Having fun?” he asked. The horses pulled the sleigh back into line, and they both zigzagged violently in their seats. Erika mustered a painful smile. No. This could not in any way be construed as entertaining or amusing. What had happened to his offer of a nice, slow ride over the ice and snow? And of her secret hopes of being alone with Christian and having time for them to talk, and perhaps share a private moment? His impetuous nature is what happened. Of course, something like this was bound to occur. What was I thinking? “Oh yes.
This is great fun. In fact, I haven’t had this much excitement since I broke my arm when I was thirteen, and had to have it reset without laudanum,” she replied. A scowl appeared on his brow. Trust Christian to think that a highly dangerous and possibly deadly race across the frozen tundra would be something high on Erika’s list of pleasant pursuits. “You did agree to take a ride with me,” he said. “Yes! A pleasant ride along the side of a frozen lake—not a mad dash to my death,” she bit back. “I promise you won’t come to any harm. And once I have rid us of Gustav, we can take the sleigh down to the water’s edge and rest the horses. I would like to talk to you in private before we head back to the palace.” She nodded.
“Alright, but in the meantime could you try to be careful and not kill us both?” Prince Gustav was still ahead of them, but the back of his sleigh was now sliding about on the ice. From the way he was wielding his whip, it was clear he was doing his utmost to regain control. Erika chanced another look in Christian’s direction. The hint of a smile threatened on his lips. Any moment now they were going to crash, but the lunatic was still looking for a way to overtake his brother. With the wind whipping through his fair hair, he looked every inch the wild, untamed Viking. His strong arms held the reins under his command. “Hold on tight. I am going to make this next turn at speed,” said Christian. “Oh, sweet lord,” she muttered.
So much for him being careful. Erika would have made the sign of the holy cross if it hadn’t meant letting go of the sleigh’s top rail. She sent another silent prayer to heaven. “Ya!” he cried, urging the horses on. A large elm tree loomed into view and Christian turned the horses’ heads to the left. They were going to go around it. She hoped. Up ahead of them, Prince Gustav appeared to have brought his sleigh back under his control and had slowed into the turn. Tracking wide of the trees, he successfully avoided a ridge of sharp rock which jutted out of the ice. Christian pulled hard on the reins and a loud thwack cracked through the air.
One of the reins had broken and it flew out of his hand. “Herrejävlar!” cursed Christian. They were headed straight for the rock. The sleigh raced at a punishing speed. At the exact moment Erika realized that they were going to crash, time slowed to a crawl. She saw everything in slow, sickening detail as the disaster unfurled around her. She pushed her boots hard against the bottom of the front piece of the sleigh, while one hand gripped hard to the top rail. Her other hand searched for purchase on the edge of the seat. “Erika!” Christian cried. The horses leaped over the stone, but the front bar of the sleigh smashed headlong into it.
When they hit, they went in hard. Erika’s world descended into chaos. She was thrown clear—her body cartwheeled through the air. There was a momentary glimpse of sky before her field of vision was flipped and filled with the white of ice and snow. The ground came at her in a furious rush. This is going to hurt. She landed with a sickening thud on the ice, her breath whooshing out of her lungs. Pain tore through her body. Ooh, my god. If she could have sucked in enough air, Erika would have screamed.
Instead she lay on her back, stunned and winded on the hard ground. Every inch of her body was on fire. Even breathing was agony. When she opened her eyes, her sight was filled with the grey snow clouds which hung overhead. The dark sky gave her a moment’s pause. Am I dead? There was a scuffle of boots on the snow. “Erika, dear lord, are you alright?” A familiar face swam into view. Blue eyes full of concern stared down at her. Christian. He was such a divinely handsome man.
If she had died, then at least she had gone to heaven. “Please say something. Anything. Tell me where it hurts. What can I do?” he pleaded. She sucked in a short breath, then took in another deeper one. Tears sprang to her eyes. “I hurt everywhere. I think you might already have killed me, so I would suggest you have done more than enough,” she replied. Fingers raced all over her body.
Touching, prodding, poking. She was peppered with a constant stream of “Does it hurt here?”, followed by “Please don’t die on me.” She suffered his attentions. “No. No. Ow!” she cried, batting his hand away. He stopped. His gloved hand settled back gently on her left knee. “I think you might have broken something.” She winced in pain.
“I think you are the one who did that—I was just the passenger. Well, I was until the moment I became a bird.” He mumbled something that might have been an apology, but she didn’t quite catch it. He went back to touching and asking her where else things hurt. “I can’t see any other obvious injuries,” he said finally. As the shock began to subside, and only the pain in her left knee remained, Erika’s head cleared. Her breathing slowly returned to something close to normal. Christian kept running his hands up and down her arms. He pulled off her gloves and squeezed each of her fingers. “None of them are broken,” she reassured him.
Of all the many times I have wished for you to touch me, why did you have to wait until you had smashed me onto the ice? He sat back on his haunches, shaking his head and muttering words indecipherable. “Do you think you might be able to stand?” he finally asked. He gave her the gloves, and she slipped them onto her fingers before moving to sitting upright. Christian held out his hands, and Erika slowly, gingerly got to her feet. As soon as she stood, he put his arms around her waist and held her. “Can you put any weight on that leg?” he asked. “I am not sure,” she replied. The second Erika put pressure on her left leg, pain shot up her thigh and into her hip. She cried out. “Ow!” “It’s definitely badly damaged it,” he said.
The rumble of a sleigh over the ice and snow had them both looking back toward the trees. Prince Gustav rounded the turn and his sleigh drew to a halt a dozen or so feet away. He leapt down and came to them. “What happened?” he demanded. Christian shrugged. “I was trying to take my ride tight and close to the rocks before sliding up to the tree and gaining pace by using the sleigh as a sling stone, but one of my reins broke. Poor Erika here got thrown clear and landed heavily on the ice.” Gustav’s face turned ashen. “Are you alright, Countess Erika?” Erika managed a meek nod. She had known both princes since she was a child.
They had climbed trees, skated over the frozen lakes, and eaten more sweet cinnamon rolls together than she could possibly count. But for some unknown reason Prince Gustav had always addressed her by her official title. “I shall live. Thank you for asking, Gustav. I think I have badly damaged my knee. It is painful to stand and place any pressure on it,” she replied. Gustav shot his brother a look of great displeasure which Erika pretended not to see. “Christian, you are an outrageous fool. You could have seriously injured Countess Erika—even killed her. Though I notice you seem to have managed to walk away unscathed.
” Christian’s shoulders slumped. Erika couldn’t help the twinge of sympathy which panged in her heart. It was as if the two years in age which separated the siblings was an eon when it came to who was the sensible and reliable one. It was Gustav the wise, versus Christian the reckless. “Well, you were the one who started the race. We were just out enjoying one last ride together,” replied Christian. His brother growled. “You were going too fast long before I caught up with you. Besides which, you shouldn’t be alone with the countess. It isn’t proper.
” “It wasn’t entirely his fault. The reins broke,” said Erika. Gustav huffed loudly. “Please don’t make excuses for him.” His eyes narrowed and he gifted her with a look which could only be described as pained annoyance. “Countess Erika, I must voice my disappointment at you having agreed to be alone with my brother and ride in his sleigh. I thought you, of all people, would know better.” He had no right to be telling her who she should be spending her time with, or where. The nerve of the man. “Thank you, Gustav, but I am a grown woman.
I can make my own decisions.” She wished that for once Christian would stand up to his overbearing brother—Gustav had a thing about lecturing people. His younger sibling most of all. Gustav stepped forward and, pushing Christian aside, he came and lifted Erika up. She winced as he held her firmly in his arms while he carried her away to his sleigh. “I shall save you from my buffoon of a brother. The sooner we get you back to the palace and have a physician examine you, the better.” Heaven help me. Erika gritted her teeth. Prince Gustav had decided to take on the role of knight in shining armor and there was little she could do about it.
He was an annoying man, but he was also right. She did need to get urgent medical attention and his was the only sleigh still in one piece. “Thank you, Gustav. A physician would be most useful.” Christian stood beside the remains of his vehicle, looking for all the world like a puppy which had just been kicked. “I am sorry, Erika. Gustav is right. I was being irresponsible. I hurt you.” She winced once more as Gustav placed her onto the bench of his sleigh.
The pain in her knee as she bent her leg was excruciating. “It was an accident, Christian. Let’s not linger out here debating the whys and wherefores. I need to get this leg looked at.” The throbbing agony of her left knee was steadily growing worse and as much as she wished it was, otherwise, there was every chance that it was badly damaged. She had to get back to Stockholm Palace and have it seen to before her father found out what had happened. Because while Prince Gustav might well be angry with his brother, his calm rebuke would be nothing compared to what her father would likely say when he discovered his daughter had been injured. Prince or not, Count Magnus Jansson would tear strips off Christian.