An Excellent Woman

Magdeburg, July 1635

 

Dylan Pence breathed hard and sweated profusely as he staggered up the last flight of stairs in pursuit of the faster runners. Once on the seventh-floor landing of the still incomplete Karickhoff's Hotel, Dylan ran across to the other flight of stairs before heading down again. He was just about dying when he ran past the instructress at Karickhoff's Gym and had his time called out.

"How'd you do?" Gerlach Alemann asked.

"Seven minutes five," Dylan said as he struggled for breath. "You?"

"Six thirty-two, but I got held up going up the stairs."

Dylan looked at Gerlach. Fortunately for his ego, even though his friend was breathing a lot easier than him, he was, like Dylan, sweating like a pig.

"Come on, you bunch of slugs. Now you're nicely warmed up, we can do some stretching," the inhuman slave driver of an instructress called.

Dylan and Gerlach dutifully grabbed a towel each and followed the other poor misguided fools who paid good money to be tortured into the training room where they found somewhere to spread out their towels.

****

The class was something called Body Mechanics, and the only good thing about having Ursula Sprug teach the class was that she wasn't Bitty Matowski, the maîtresse de ballet of the Magdeburg Ballet. Ursula was merely an inhuman monster. Bitty was much worse. Fifty minutes later, Ursula quietly called a halt and two dozen weary—but significantly more flexible than they'd been—guys got to their feet and filed out.

"I don't know why I do this," Paul Lückemann moaned as he collapsed on a bench in the men's showers.

"For the same reason the rest of us do it. The exercise is good for us. Isn't that right, Dylan?" Gerlach asked.

Dylan's reason for coming to the gym had very little to do with the exercise being good for him, even if it had done him a world of good. He attended the gym because a lot of people he wanted to do business with attended the gym. Still, he wasn't going to admit that. "And we exercise together at the gym because misery loves company."

****

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan joined the poor misguided fools in the gym cafeteria. He selected a vegetable juice and sat down to glare at it while he contemplated actually drinking it. He would have preferred to drink coffee, but not at the price places like the gym cafeteria charged. The vegetable juice was a tenth of the price, and ordering it rather than plain water suggested one was on a health kick rather than pinching pennies. After no more than a minute's contemplation, he picked up the glass and swallowed the contents. He lowered the glass with a gentle thud before shuddering and making hideous faces to show just how bad it tasted.

His performance got a smattering of applause from the others at his table. "I don't know how you can drink that stuff," Paul said as he sipped his coffee.

"The idea's to not let it touch your tongue," Gerlach said as he picked up his glass. He too got a smattering of applause for drinking it in one swallow.

Wendel Schrader lowered his coffee cup, licked the milky mustache left behind, and turned to Paul. "Are you and Anna going to be at the Wredes tomorrow night?"

"Anna's had it marked on the calendar for a month," Paul confirmed.

"Gerlach?" Wendel asked.

"Veronica and I will be there," Gerlach said.

Wendel turned his gaze to Dylan and shrugged. "Sorry, Dylan. You shouldn't have dropped Anastasia."

Dylan knew why he hadn't been invited. After a particularly outrageous private dinner where Fabian Westfahl took his then-mistress as his partner, a rule of "family, betrothed, and married couples only" was laid down. His companions knew he'd been thinking about asking Anastasia to marry him.

"What happened with Anastasia?" Wendel asked. "Gertraud was surprised when you stopped going out with her."

Dylan glanced around. Seeing nobody too close, he leaned forward and in a soft voice said, "She overheard me discussing a project with Peter Lehmann and passed the information onto her brother."

"That can't be right," Paul said. "You're too smart to be caught out in a bad deal like the one Melchior got burned on just before you dropped his sister."

The smile on Dylan's face turned evil as he remembered what he'd done to the traitorous Anastasia.

Gerlach raised his brows as he read the look on Dylan's face. "No! You didn't? You did?" he corrected when Dylan nodded.

"He did what?" Welden demanded. Then, he whistled and turned an admiring gaze onto Dylan. "You gave her false information for her to pass onto Melchior?"

Dylan put on a horrified face. "Gave? Nothing of the kind. Anastasia apparently misunderstood a private discussion she overheard me having with Peter and passed the information on."

"You mean you set her up. Thereby not only damning her as the source of the original leak, but also punishing her and her brother?" Paul suggested.

Dylan nodded. "There's no way I'm going to marry someone whose loyalty I can't trust." Which was a bit of a problem, because the Wrede's private dinner wasn't the only private event he wasn't invited to, and every one he missed represented valuable business opportunities he was missing, all for the lack of a suitable wife. "But I do need a wife, even if only for business reasons."

"There are other reasons for getting married?" Welden asked, poker-faced.

"You wouldn't want Gertraud to hear you saying things like that," Gerlach said.

"Probably not," Welden agreed. "So, Dylan, would you like me to tell Gertraud that you need her help to find a suitable wife?"

Dylan sighed. He was probably just asking for trouble, but . . . "If you don't think she'd mind."

"Mind? Playing matchmaker is a natural pastime for married women," Gerlach said. "There's nothing she'll enjoy more than finding you a suitable wife."

"Unless it's shopping," Paul inserted. "Mind, I'm sure Anna will also be happy to help."

Dylan understood about women and shopping. It'd been about the only thing Anastasia had talked about while they were going out together. "Just remind your wives that I have standards."

"Female," Gerlach said to the nodding agreement of the others.

"Still breathing," Paul said to more nodding of heads

"Loyal," Welden added. Again the three nodded their heads in mutual agreement.

They were having fun at his expense, but Dylan could only laugh. "You forgot intelligent."

"Ooooooh! Now you're getting picky. Looks?" Welden prompted.

"Nice to have, but not as important as intelligence and loyalty," Dylan said.

"That makes it so much easier," Gerlach said. "We'll pass your selection criteria on to the womenfolk."

"You do that," Dylan said. It would be interesting to see what they turned up.

 

Two days later

 

Dylan, in one of the club rooms at Karickhoff's Gym, played penny-ante poker with his friends. The discussion had touched on local news, but most of the interest had been about finding Dylan a suitable wife. His friends were enjoying themselves as they ran through some of the candidates their wives had suggested.

Welden had just extolled the virtues of a particularly unsuitable candidate when another voice butted in.

"Still looking for a suitable wife, Pence?" Melchior Djuis asked.

Dylan laid his cards face down on the table and looked over his shoulder. "Yep. You know anyone suitable?"

Melchior's face took on a red tinge, made worse when some of the others twittered at Dylan's sally. Just to add fuel to the flames Dylan asked how Anastasia was doing.

"Well enough," Melchoir said before turning his gaze to the pile of coins in front of Dylan. "You seem lucky at cards. Such a pity your luck won't extend to the brick contract for the Viechelnsche Fahrt canal."

Dylan knew Melchior was trying to score against him, but being brought up in a violent home had taught him two useful skills—how to hide his emotions and how to read other people's. So he smiled, knowing that would rile Melchior, and explained that his contacts were looking for a suitable location for a brickworks near the Schwerin See even as he spoke.

"Ha! You're too late. I already have the perfect site."

Dylan kept smiling, not revealing how badly that news affected him. Instead he went onto the attack. He looked Melchior straight in the eye. "But is your perfect site going to be as good as the site my people find?"

Melchior looked away first, increasing his anger. He cast Dylan and his friends one last searing glare before storming out.

With Melchior gone, Dylan gathered up his cards again and, as if nothing untoward had happened asked, "Where were we?"

****

The next morning Dylan dropped into the offices of Lehmann Brothers, Inc. to discuss business with Peter Lehmann. He found him entertaining his brother, Markus. "You're back," he said unnecessarily.

"With good tidings," Peter said. "Markus and his team have excelled."

"Pray tell," Dylan prompted as he pulled one of the comfortable armchairs around to face the brothers and collapsed into it.

Markus leaned back in his chair and stretched before composing himself to make his report. "We found a perfect site on the Schweriner See. Not only is there suitable clay and peat aplenty, there is also a source of lime for mortar close by."

"Last night Melchior Djuis was bragging that he's found the perfect site," Dylan said.

"Not as good as ours," Markus said.

"Maybe it's the same site," Dylan suggested.

"Then we make sure we secure it first," Peter said.

"Nice idea, but how are you going to do that?" Dylan asked. "Djuis seemed pretty sure he had his site sown up."

"Then it can't be our site," Markus said. "Our site is under the control of the widow of a minor Mecklenburg noble, a very recently widowed young woman."

"So?" Dylan asked. Then he saw the smile on Markus' face and started to worry. "What are you thinking?"

"That you marry the widow. It would kill several birds with one stone."

Dylan glared at Markus. The various birds were obvious. Firstly, the widow of a Mecklenburg noble, no matter how minor, would be of sufficiently high birth to be useful. Secondly, it would give them the land they wanted for the brickworks, and thirdly, if they were both after the same land, getting that land would put a satisfying spanner in the works of Djuis' plans. "What do you know about her?"

Markus referred to his notes. "Sophia Emilia Bacmeister was born June 23, 1613 and married Johann von Hagen on July 4, 1630. He was forty-five to her seventeen."

"That sounds a lot like Ron and Christine Chapman," Dylan said, naming a couple he knew of with a similar story.

"The difference being Johann von Hagen had a record of violence."

That made Dylan wince. He knew all about living in a violent household. "Continue!"

"She has a single living child—Michael Petrus von Hagen, born February 7, 1635."

That son explained why she had control of the land. Dylan knew there had probably been other children, so he asked.

"A girl, born April 7, 1631, died of smallpox on June 18, 1634, and there was at least one other pregnancy resulting in a stillbirth in November 1633."

That record was consistent with what Dylan would have expected. "When did the husband die?"

"Last week," Markus said. "He was a casualty of Operation Krystalnacht."

"How did she escape?" Dylan asked. He'd heard stories of entire families being murdered in Mecklenburg during the nationwide purge of anti-Semites led by the Committees of Correspondence. The operation was only supposed to purge known anti-Semites, but in Mecklenburg the aristocracy had taken up arms against the CoC columns and the fighting had turned nasty, with no quarter asked or given.

"The whole attack on the family is suspicious," Markus said. "The husband didn't try to interfere with the CoC, but instead of ignoring him they attacked his house. I suspect that someone had a grudge to settle."

"That still doesn't explain why they didn't kill the woman and her son too," Dylan said.

"But it does explain why, having survived the attack, she might make a run for Magdeburg rather than hang around," Peter said.

"Why do you say she's headed for Magdeburg?" Dylan asked. "Surely she has family closer."

"She has family living close by, but Jason has been following her, and his reports indicate she is heading for Magdeburg. Her son has a clubbed foot, and it is possible she is heading for Magdeburg in the hope that up-time medicine can fix it." Markus looked questioning at Dylan. "Can they fix it?"

"I'll check with Daria."

"Do that," Peter said. "If the widow knows her son can be healed, she'll be more amenable to marrying you."

 

Late August

 

Markus handed Dylan a photograph he'd arranged to be taken soon after Sophia entered Magdeburg. "She is, as you say, not entirely hideous."

Dylan studied the woman in the photo. With Markus' man Jason in the background to give scale, he knew she probably wasn't more than five feet tall, and slim with it. She wasn't a great beauty, but marrying her wouldn't be a hardship. "Okay, so what happens now?"

Markus took back the photograph. "Peter and I enter negotiations with the fair Sophia while you prepare yourself for the joys of matrimony."

"How long is that going to take?" Dylan asked.

"Give us a week. By then she will be happy to marry you, or my name isn't Markus Lehmann."

****

Sophia Bacmeister had set out for Magdeburg a month ago, full of fear, but also with a sense of freedom she couldn't remember ever previously feeling. She could still hear the sound of the candlestick striking her husband's head, and then the sight of him crumpled on the floor. Fear of how Johann would punish her when he woke had driven her to grab Michael and what valuables and money she could find and run.

She'd been as frugal as possible on the long journey, keeping the few pieces of jewelry she owned to pay for medical treatment for Michael when she got to Magdeburg. But barely had she entered the gates of the city than she'd been robbed. She didn't realize her jewels were gone until she felt for them in the jewelry shop where she hoped to sell them. That was five days ago.

She was in a strange city with little money and no references. She tried to find work, but who would employ an unknown female with a young baby? She tried to make her money last, but Magdeburg was more expensive than Schwerin, and her money had bought little. She was hungry and her milk hadn't been enough for Michael. She hadn't intended to take anything, but the loaf of bread had been in her hand when the watchman's hand landed on her shoulder. She didn't remember taking it, but there were witnesses who'd seen her take the bread and bite into it.

She sat in the cell, wrapped up in misery at her failure to provide for Michael as, one by one, the other prisoners were taken before the bailiff for their cases to be heard and punishments given out. She was a poor widow with a baby to care for, so they would treat her gently. However, she was a foreigner and not entitled to poor relief from the city. That meant she was going to be banished from Magdeburg, and that meant Michael wouldn't get the medical attention he needed. Eventually, it was her turn and she didn't resist when the warders hauled her to her feet and started her walking.

"Herr Lehmann, this is the prisoner you asked to see," one of her warders announced.

"Thank you. We'll call you when we've finished with her," Peter Lehmann said.

Sophia looked up in surprise. This was no courtroom, but an office. What was happening? She clutched Michael tightly to her chest and studied the two men and two women seated across a table.

"Please be seated, Frau Sophia Emilia Bacmeister," Peter said.

Sophia froze. "How do you know my name?" Nobody in Magdeburg should know who she was.

"We have been interested in you since before you left your home. Tracking you down has been extremely inconvenient."

She hugged Michael tightly against her chest. "Who are you and what do you want?"

"Sit down!"

Sophia almost fell into a chair in response to the command.

"Thank you. My name is Peter Lehmann, this is my wife, Magdalena, my brother Markus, and his wife, Catharina. We would like to offer you a deal which will allow you to stay in Magdeburg and provide your son with the medical attention he needs."

Sophia felt hope for the first time in weeks. "You can do that?"

Catharina nodded. "All you have to do is agree to marry a man."

"Quite a nice young man," Magdalena added.

What faint hope of salvation Sophia had was lost when she heard that. "I'm already married!"

"I regret to inform you that you are, in fact, a widow," Markus said. He slid a piece of paper across the table. She recognized the hand of her pastor. It was a death certificate for Johann von Hagen. "But he was still . . ." She froze with the words unspoken. "How did it happen?"

"You don't know? Then why did you run away?" Peter asked

"It's obvious, Peter, she ran away before they attacked. You're a runaway wife, aren't you?" Magdalena asked.

Sophia nodded. It was true, even if the reason for running away might not be what the woman meant.

"It was fortunate that you got away before the CoC column attacked your home. Too often those ruffians killed the wives and children too," Catharina said.

Sophia gulped and nodded. She'd heard stories about the atrocities committed by various groups of CoC-affiliated men and women as she made her way to Magdeburg. "Johann's really dead?"

"Your husband is really dead," Magdalena confirmed. "His brother identified the body."

Sophia slumped in her chair as tension left her body. She was free at last from the monster she'd been forced to marry. It was just her and Michael now. There would be an inheritance. "If my husband is dead, then my son inherits his property."

"Ah, yes, your late husband's property. I must let you know we are interested in doing business with you over that land, but that will probably have to await probate. Meanwhile, we would still like you to marry Dylan Pence," Peter said.

Sophia had forgotten about probate. She wasn't sure, but surely the estate should make funds for her support available. She said as much.

"You should be able to get funds," Peter agreed. "However, first you have to make contact with your late husband's lawyers, and then they have to respond. You don't have that much time. In fact, you have already run out of time. It is only because we wished to talk to you that you have not already been taken before the bailiff."

A sudden thought brought new hope to Sophia. "But you know. You know that Michael will inherit the land. Couldn't you loan me the . . ." She saw the shaking heads. "Why not?"

"Because we want that you marry Dylan," Peter said.

"And if I refuse?" she asked, although she was sure she knew the answer.

"If you refuse, then we leave you to your day in court," Markus said.

Sophia shuddered. It seemed she had no hope. "Very well, I'll marry your Dylan."

"Good. If you'll just sign these documents, we'll be on our way." Peter shoved some documents across the table to Sophia.

Sophia quickly read the documents. They were several copies of a fairly standard betrothal agreement, similar to the one she'd signed when she became betrothed to Johann. She experimented with the fancy pen Herr Lehmann gave her before signing the several copies of her betrothal contract.

"Very good. Markus, get the warden and let's get this over with," Peter said.

Sophia panicked. "But you can't leave me . . ."

"You and your son will be leaving with us," Peter said.

Sophia struggled to steady her breathing. For a moment there she'd feared they were intent on leaving her behind. "When do I meet this man I have to marry?"

"Soon. He's waiting for you across the street," Catharina said.

****

The man they would have her marry came as a surprise to Sophia. He was well-formed, young, and dressed as if he had plenty of money. Why would such a man want to marry her? She adjusted Michael in her arms and waited for him to say something.

"Sit down. Can I get you something to eat or drink?" Dylan asked.

That wasn't what she'd expected, but it sounded attractive. She asked for some soup and bread and sat down.

Dylan passed on her order to a waitress and approached her. "Let me take Michael while you eat."

Before she knew what was happening the man had taken Michael and was walking around to the chair across the table, "He doesn't like . . ." she began to say before she realized that her son, who usually raised a fuss if anybody else picked him up, was happily giggling in his arms. "How did you do that?" she demanded.

"I've got two nephews and two nieces under five, with another due in December," Dylan said.

That probably explained his ease with young children, but it didn't explain Michael's easy acceptance of him. "Do you like children?" she asked. Her wait for an answer was interrupted by the waitress laying a bowl of soup thick with vegetables and even a bit of meat in front of her. The smell alone had her mouth watering.

"I like them best when I can give them back to their parents."

Sophia stopped mid-slurp to think about that answer. "If you marry me, you will be one of Michael's parents."

"I know. I just hope I don't mess it up." Dylan glanced at a heavy bracelet around his left wrist. "You've got ten minutes to finish eating if we're going to make our two o'clock appointment with Doctor Rostow."

 

Magdeburg Hospital

 

The first thing that struck Sophia about Doctor Rostow was that she was a woman. The second was the affection between the doctor and her prospective husband.

"So this is the young woman who's agreed to marry you," Doctor Daria Rostow said as she broke the hug she'd been giving Dylan and turned to look at Sophia.

"That's right," Dylan said.

"Right, you've introduced her, now wait outside." Daria smiled at Sophia as the door shut behind Dylan. "He's a good boy, is Dylan. You could do a lot worse. Now, a few questions to begin."

Sophia spent the next half-hour answering questions as the doctor poked and prodded her, and then did the same to Michael. Eventually the doctor returned to her chair behind a table and wrote on some papers. "Well, Frau Bacmeister, you can rest easy. You are not pregnant by your late husband, and other than being a bit underweight, there is nothing wrong with you."

Sophia released a pent-up breath. She had been afraid that Johann's last assault might have left her with child. "And Michael?"

"He's a bit underweight and anemic. I'm putting him on a special diet that should see him back to full health in a few days," she said, as she wrote something down. "As for his foot, there's no need to worry. It is clubfoot, but we can treat it. I'd rather wait until Dylan rejoins us before describing the procedure."

That was the best news Sophia had heard in a long time. She took Michael back into her arms and sat down to await her betrothed.

"Frau Bacmeister is in good health, but a little rundown," Doctor Rostow told Dylan when he entered.

He smiled. "What about Michael? Will you need to operate?"

"No. We use a method Doctor Shipley was interested in up-time. It is called the Ponseti method, and instead of correcting the deformity surgically, we manipulate the foot into a proper alignment over a period of time."

"How much time?" Dylan asked.

"At least six months. And with each gradual manipulation of the foot we have to apply a cast to keep the foot in the new position. Then when the foot is back where we want it, the poor thing is going to have to wear a Denis Browne bar whenever he sleeps for the next three or so years."

"So it's not a quick fix?" Dylan asked.

"No, but the procedure is highly successful, especially in cases such as Michael's, with a lot fewer complications than you can get with surgical intervention. If you'll come with me now, I'll introduce you to the specialist Ponseti nurse and she can arrange an appointment for the first manipulation and cast."

****

While Dylan paid the cashier, Sophia cuddled Michael. If the doctor and nurse were to be believed, Michael would be able to live a normal life, free of any deformity. All it needed was someone to pay the bills. She stared at the back of the person who had agreed to pay those bills. She resented the need to marry, but she didn't have any choice. At least Dylan was living up to his promises, so far.

She lowered her head and kissed Michael's brow. Her baby was precious, and the man she was committed to marrying seemed to be comfortable around children. Certainly Johann had never picked up Michael, or even little Maria. She wiped away a tear at the memory of her daughter who'd died of smallpox soon after her third birthday. Still, just because she accepted that she had to marry Dylan it didn't mean she had to make things easy for him.

She waited until they were back on the street before launching her campaign. "Why am I being forced to marry you?"

"Forced? There was no force involved. You agreed to marry me of your own free will."

Dylan was looking at her as if he didn't know what pressure had been brought to bear. Maybe he didn't know. She changed tack. "Why do you want to marry me?"

"Because you're available."

"Available?" Sophia was outraged, and she kicked her fiancé in the shin. Her heavy wooden clogs made a satisfactory contact, and elicited an even more satisfactory yelp of pain.

"That hurt!"

Immediately Sophia tried to cower away. For a moment she'd forgotten that men were violent. She glanced up at her fiancé, but instead of the anger and ready fist Johann would have shown, Dylan was smiling. He reached out an arm and pulled her closer.

"Don't do that again!"

It was an order, but there was no threat in it, and Sophia felt confident enough to continue talking. "Then give me a proper answer."

"I'm a businessman. I bring people together to their mutual benefit, but in order to do that, I have to know what deals are available. Unfortunately, a lot of those deals are discussed at private dinner parties, and no matter how much the hostesses might want to invite me, they won't do it if I don't have a suitable partner."

"Why would hostesses want to invite you?"

Dylan thumped his chest. "Because I'm a presentable young man with a good income."

Sophia shook her head. That couldn't be the reason. "Those attributes are only of any interest to a hostess if you don't already have a suitable partner."

"You caught me." The smile Dylan sent her way was friendly and full of humor. "My real attraction is that I'm an up-timer, and there aren't that many of us in Magdeburg."

"And before they'll invite you, you need to have a suitable partner? I would have thought they'd be happy to introduce you to suitable young women."

"That's a different kind of party," Dylan said. "There are two kinds of private parties, those where they try to pair people off, and those where the main topic of discussion is business. It's the second kind of party I'm not being invited to, and getting the kind of inside information discussed at those parties is critical to my business."

Sophia had been to plenty of the first type of party. It was how she'd met Johann. But she'd never heard of the second type. Of course, with Johann's lack of interest in business, it wasn't surprising. "So what's stopping you finding a suitable partner?"

"We thought we'd found someone suitable quite recently, but she took some information she overheard and passed it onto her brother," Dylan said. "No doubt she would have continued to do so after we wed, and we can't afford that."

"We?"

"Yes, we. My business associates would also be hurt if my business plans were to be passed on to the wrong people."

"The woman who betrayed you can't be the only suitable woman in Magdeburg," Sophia said.

"There are probably plenty of suitable women, but none I know of are as suitable as you."

"What makes me so suitable?" Sophia asked.

"You're an intelligent and presentable young woman of suitably good birth, and you have no family to compete for your loyalty. You're a woman whose price is far beyond rubies, and I'd be a fool not to marry you."

Sophia recognized the biblical reference and blushed. It seemed her husband-to-be had high expectations of her. "I do have family," she said.

Dylan nodded. "So Markus said. But they aren't the kind of people you'll pass on my secrets to, are they?"

"They probably wouldn't know what to do with them if I did," Sophia admitted. "So I'm suitable. Lucky me." She looked sourly at Dylan. "What now?"

"You are lucky. Right now you and Michael could be sitting in a prison cell waiting to be kicked out of Magdeburg. Instead, you're about to help me spend a fortune in that shop over there."

Sophia looked at the shop he had indicated. "A baby emporium?"

"That shop stocks everything known to man or woman that could possibly be desired by parents with a child under the age of two."

****

At the baby emporium, they got a baby carriage for Michael. Suddenly Sophia was fifteen pounds lighter and had both hands free. An additional advantage of the carriage was the wire shelf under the bassinet where the other purchases at the baby boutique could be stashed. The next stop had been a bridal boutique, where once again the baby carriage came into its own—allowing Sophia to be measured without disturbing Michael. Arrangements were also made for a small—on account of her recent loss—wedding in a month's time, after the banns had been called. Then they did some shopping for basics.

She was conscious of the feel of the new shoes on her feet as she walked, and the swish of the new skirt around her legs. A girl shouldn't feel different just because she had new clothes, but Sophia was aware of a lightening of her mood and a brightening of her spirits. For the first time in ages it felt good to be alive.

"Stop thinking about him!"

"What?" Sophia stopped and looked at Dylan.

"There's a look in your eyes whenever you think about your husband. Just remember, he can't hurt you anymore."

Sophia kept silent until they stopped in front of an imposing building. She looked up, counting the rows of windows, then down at Michael's baby carriage. "What floor do you live on?" she asked, hoping he would say the first or at worst, the second floor.

"We live on the fifth floor. Don't worry, there's an elevator."

She discovered that an elevator meant they didn't have to drag Michael's baby carriage up five flights of stairs. They weren't even breathing heavily when the elevator attendant stopped the vehicle at the fifth floor and let them out. Dylan set off, pushing Michael's baby carriage, forcing Sophia to run after him. She caught up outside a door.

"Welcome to your new home. I hope you'll enjoy staying here," Dylan said as he unlocked the door. "Please ignore the lack of furniture. I haven't wanted to spend money on anything I didn't need since I've been living alone."

Sophia's jaw dropped the moment she stepped into the apartment. There were windows, big windows, and the view was amazing. She ran over to the windows for a better look.

"There'll be plenty of time to look at the view later. Right now, I want to show you the rest of the apartment and check you out on the hot water system so you can have a bath."

Sophia reluctantly left the view behind and joined Dylan as he guided her around the apartment. She quickly learned what he meant about being checked out on the hot water system when almost scaldingly hot water cascaded out of the spout over the bath.

"Cold tap on first, then gently open the hot tap," Dylan told her.

Then he showed her the flush toilet. It was similar to the garderobes she'd used previously, but without the smell. One just had to remember to pull the chain beside the toilet bowl to flush it. The tour continued through the kitchen and on to the bedrooms—two of which were bare. Sophia looked at the only bed in the apartment and back at Dylan. The existence of just the one bed scared her.

"You and Michael will sleep in here. I'll sleep on the sofa until we get some more furniture."

She stared at her fiancé in surprise. "What? You mean I don't have to . . ."

Dylan met her eyes and slowly unbuttoned and took off his shirt. He pointed to a scar on his shoulder. "Cigarette burn. I was three when my father did that." He turned to show her his back. There were more scars. As if someone had whipped him with a belt. Then he pointed out a scar on his forearm. "That one happened when my father twisted my arm until it broke and the bone pierced the skin.

"My father was a violent thug. His family blamed his drinking, but I know he just enjoyed hurting people. I'll never hurt you or Michael like that, and you don't have to worry about me making any demands until you're ready."

Sophia stood in stunned silence as Dylan pulled his shirt back on and almost ran out of the bedroom. The man she was committed to marrying had suffered as she had, but instead of a husband, he'd been abused by his father. A tear threatened to drop, and she quickly wiped her eyes. She didn't know what her future was going to be like, but maybe it wouldn't be as bad as she feared.

****

Dylan was shaking as he made his way into the kitchen. He could remember the pain and the terror he'd felt as a child. He leaned against the kitchen bench and tried to stop thinking about the abuse he'd experienced. He needed a distraction, something to take his mind off his past. He left a note and headed for the gym.

****

He sprinted the last hundred yards to the finish of the run. Ursula Sprug called out his time as he passed her.

"How'd you do?" Gerlach Alemann asked. "You were running as if Cerberus himself was chasing you."

"Six thirty-five," Dylan said as he struggled for breath.

"That's a twenty-second improvement on last week. What's up?"

"I got engaged today," he managed to say between breaths.

"That bad, is she?"

Dylan grinned, but before he could reply Ursula called everyone into the studio for the Body Mechanics class.

****

An hour later he caught up with Gerlach, Paul Lückemann, and Wendel Schrader in the gym cafeteria.

"We hear you got engaged recently," Paul said

"That's right. At about one o'clock this afternoon."

"So you haven't been holding out on us? That's good. Do we know her?" Wendel asked.

Dylan shook his head. "I doubt it. She's from near Schwerin. Her name's Sophia Emilia Bacmeister, and she has a six-month-old son."

"A widow? How old?" Paul asked.

"Twenty-two. Her husband was killed during Operation Krystalnacht."

"So she's a couple of years younger than you. I bet she's a looker too, you lucky dog," Gerlach said. "How did you meet her?"

"Peter and Markus found her for me."

"So it's a business deal?" Paul asked.

"There's some of that, but she's an attractive woman too."

"Veronica's going to want to meet her," Gerlach said.

"And I want her to meet Veronica. Can you arrange a shopping trip? Sophia walked all the way from her home on the Schwerin See, so she literally doesn't have a thing to wear." Dylan matched the grins of his friends. That was a common refrain of their spouses. "We picked up some ready-to-wear stuff so she has a couple of changes of clothes, but you know how badly those things fit."

"I'm sure Veronica will be happy to help remedy that situation," Gerlach said.

"Anna will also want to help," Paul said.

"And Gertraud," Wendel said.

"Thanks, guys. I hope your wives will become her friends."

"I'm sure they will be. Where's she staying?" Gerlach asked.

"At the apartment. It's silly to pay for a hotel room when I have all those spare rooms."

"As if she's going to be using one of the spare rooms," Paul joked.

"I'll have you know that I'm a gentleman," Dylan said, playing it for everything he had. They didn't need to know about his promise not to share Sophia's bed until she was ready to welcome him into it.

"What rot," Wendel said. "Do you have time for a few hands of poker?"

****

Unseen and unheard, Melchior swore under his breath when Dylan named the woman he was engaged to marry. What was the probability that there were two twenty-two-year-old Sophia Emilia Bacmeisters from the Schwerin See with six-month-old sons? He'd been searching for her for a month, and suddenly she appears . . . in the clutches of Dylan Pence. Melchior was not happy.

He slipped out of the gym and headed for the family home where he found his sister. Together they hurried over to Magdeburg Towers.

****

After Dylan left, Sophia enjoyed a leisurely hot bath before dressing in clean clothes and heading for the kitchen where she did as Dylan's note suggested and scrounged up a feast from the pantry. She was still eating when there was a knock at the door.

Dylan had shown her how to operate the security chain, so she fitted that before opening the door to reveal the building concierge.

"Frau Bacmeister, there is a Herr Djuis and his sister downstairs who would like to talk to you," Wilhelm Doehren said.

Sophia didn't know anyone in Magdeburg other than the people Dylan had introduced her to, and she was sure none of them had been called Djuis. "Who are they and what do they want?" she asked.

"They didn't say why they wished to talk to you, Frau Bacmeister, but Herr Pence used to go out with Frau Djuis."

Sophia blinked as she processed the information. She remembered something about a woman Dylan had been thinking of marrying, and that she'd betrayed him by passing information on to her brother. Could this be the same brother and sister, she asked herself. If they were, Dylan definitely wouldn't want them in his apartment. "I'll come down and see them."

"Very well, Frau Bacmeister. I'll hold the elevator while you get your son."

****

Melchior and Anastasia Djuis were waiting for her in one of the ground floor meeting rooms. Sophia left Michael in his baby carriage with the concierge before joining them.

"Frau Bacmeister, we're so sorry to hear about your recent loss," Anastasia Djuis said as soon as Sophia entered the room.

"You wanted to speak to me," she said as she sat opposite Melchior.

"One doesn't wish to intrude at such a distressing time, but I need to talk to you about a matter of business."

Sophia gave Melchior an encouraging nod.

"On your husband's death, your son inherited a prime location for the production of bricks on the Schwerin See."

"I believe they produced bricks for the Schweriner Dom there in the thirteenth century," Sophia said.

"Yes, that's right," Melchior agreed. "And now your son's land can be used to produce bricks for the new and improved Viechelnsche Fahrt canal."

"And?" Sophia prompted.

Twenty-five minutes later she was regretting agreeing to meet the brother and sister. They had spent the whole time trying to browbeat her into signing a contract in her role as administrator of her son's property. A contract that she didn't really understand and which she was sure Dylan wouldn't want her to sign.

The sound of the door opening interrupted Melchior as he rabbited on about how good his offer was. "This is a private room and you are disturbing us," he called out, without looking.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, but Michael wants his mother . . ."

Melchior shot upright and turned to stare at the man who'd just entered carrying Michael. "You! But how? You should still be playing your silly card game."

"The guys called it quits early because they thought I might want to hurry back to my brand-new fiancée," Dylan said. "You can imagine my surprise when the concierge told me she was in one of the meeting rooms with my old friends Melchior and Anastasia Djuis."

Sophia tried to read Dylan's mood, but his expression gave nothing away. If she didn't know better she'd have thought he and Melchior were the best of friends. But she did know better, and she knew that she had to prove to her fiancé that she hadn't betrayed him. "Herr Djuis is interested in building a brickworks on my late husband's land on the Schwerin See."

"But do you want him to build a brickworks on that land?" Dylan asked.

"Herr Djuis has made a most attractive offer," she countered. "As administrator for my son, I would be foolish not to consider it."

"Would you like to hear my counteroffer?" Dylan asked her.

"Don't listen to him, Frau Bacmeister," Anastasia said. "He only intends to enrich himself."

Sophia turned on the woman. As if you and your brother don't intend enriching yourselves! "Dylan is my promised husband. Anything that enriches him will also enrich me and my son." She cast a glance at Melchior. He looked apoplectic while his sister appeared merely furious. "I want to go home," she told Dylan.

Dylan opened the door to let Sophia out and paused before closing the door behind him to call, "Nice to see you, Melchior, Anastasia. Sorry about the brickworks deal, but you know how it is—family comes first."

Melchior's roar of anger and the vulgar obscenities that he spewed forth were fortunately cut off as the door closed.

"Let's get out of here before he really explodes," Dylan said as he grabbed Michael's carriage and started pushing it toward the lobby.

Sophia hastened to catch up. "You deliberately taunted him so he would lose his temper. What were you trying to do? Get him to fight you?"

"Me? Fight Melchior? Didn't you notice the size of the guy? I'll have you know, I'm not completely stupid," Dylan said as they headed for the elevator.

Sophia had noticed Melchior's size. He was easily as big as Johann, which was considerably bigger than Dylan. "Was that the woman you were going to marry?"

"Was thinking about marrying," Dylan corrected.

"And you still think you aren't stupid?" Sophia knew she was playing with fire, but she was starting to know the man she was engaged to marry. Certainly she'd never have risked playing this game with Johann. "What did you ever see in that woman?"

Dylan blushed. It was one of the first really spontaneous expressions of emotion she'd seen from her fiancé, and she knew what it meant. She'd seen men show an interest in women before and she knew what attracted them, and Frau Djuis had it in spades. "Men!"

"I only claimed I wasn't completely stupid," Dylan said as he entered the elevator.

She smiled at the implication that he felt some degree of stupid for even thinking about marrying Anastasia. The presence of the elevator attendant killed the conversation until they were let out on the fifth floor.

"It was completely stupid to taunt Herr Djuis. Why did you do it?" she asked the moment the elevator doors closed behind them.

"It was fun."

Sophia raised her brows. "Your idea of fun is taunting Herr Djuis?"

"It'll do until I find an alternative." Dylan smiled suggestively at Sophia. "How about it?"

She glared at Dylan. It was half-hearted because she knew what "it" was, and she knew he wasn't serious. Maybe after they were married she'd have to share his bed, but until then she was as safe as she wanted to be. Certainly the man who'd bared his soul and shown her his scars wasn't going to force himself upon her.

"I guess that means I have to stick to taunting Melchior." He sighed dramatically. "You know what'd really rile him?"

"Me selling you the digging rights?" Sophia suggested.

"Nah! He already knows he's lost those. No, what'd really rile him would be receiving an invitation to our wedding."

"You are not inviting that man or that woman to my wedding." She put on her best glare as she said it.

Dylan sighed. "You're no fun," he said as he guided her into the apartment.

****

Sophia lay in bed thinking of her day. Her world had changed from being prisoner facing banishment in the morning to promised wife of a successful businessman in a matter of hours. She could barely believe it, but her full stomach and the sweet smell of the clean sheets on her bed were enough to convince her that it really had happened. In the bassinet beside her bed, Michael was sleeping like a baby. He too had a full stomach for the first time in weeks. 

Naturally, there would be a price to pay. But she'd survived being bedded by Johann, so being bedded by Dylan didn't hold any terrors. Well, not many terrors. Certainly he didn't appear violent, even if he did enjoy taunting Melchior Djuis.

Another way he was different from Johann was his willingness for her to have her own friends. He'd even arranged for the wives of his friends to take her shopping tomorrow. She hoped they'd like her.

She rolled over to the edge of the bed and looked down on Michael. She reached out a hand and gently stroked her son's cheek. She'd endure a lot for the sake of her son.

She pulled up the covers and snuggled into them. As the evening grew quieter, she could hear Dylan rolling around on the sofa. The first order of business tomorrow would be buying furniture for at least one of the spare bedrooms. Her last thought before she slipped off to sleep was that Dylan would appreciate not having to spend a second night on the sofa.

****

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