Not-So-Perfect Princess

By: Melissa McClone

CHAPTER ONE

“THREE ARRANGED marriages and not one has made it to the altar. That is unacceptable!” King Alaric of Aliestle’s voice thundered through the throne room like a lion’s roar. Even the castle’s tapestry-covered stone walls appeared to tremble. “If men think something is wrong with you, no amount of dowry will convince one to marry you.”

Princess Julianna Louise Marie Von Schneckle didn’t allow her father’s harsh words to affect her posture. She stood erect with her shoulders back and her chin up, maximizing her five-foot-eight-inch-stature. The way she’d been taught to do by a bevy of governesses and nannies. Her stepmother didn’t take a personal interest in her, but was diligent in ensuring she’d received the necessary training to be a perfect princess and queen.

“Father,” Jules said evenly, not about to display an ounce of emotion. Tears and histrionics would play into her country’s outdated gender stereotypes. They also wouldn’t sway her father. “I was willing to marry Prince Niko, but he discovered Princess Isabel was alive and legally his wife. He had no choice but to end our arrangement.”

Her father’s nostrils flared. “The reason your match ended doesn’t matter.”

Jules understood why he was upset. He wanted to marry her off to a crown prince in order to put one of his grandchildren on a throne outside of Aliestle. He was willing to pay a king’s ransom to make that happen. She’d become the wealthiest royal broodmare around. Unfortunately.

He glared down his patrician nose at her. “The result is the same. Three times now—”

“If I may, Father.” Indignation made Jules speak up. She rarely interrupted her father. Okay, never. She was a dutiful daughter, but she wasn’t going to take the blame for this. “You may have forgotten with all the other important matters on your mind, but you canceled my first match with Prince Christian. And Prince Richard was in love with an American when I arrived on San Montico.”

“These failed engagements are still an embarrassment.” Her father’s frown deepened the lines on his face. The wrinkles reminded Jules of the valley crags in the Alps surrounding their small country. “A stain on our family name and Aliestle.”

A lump of guilt lodged in her throat. Jules had been relieved when she found out Niko wouldn’t be able to annul his first marriage and marry her. From the start, she’d hoped he would fall in love with his long-lost wife so Jules wouldn’t have to get married.

Oh, she’d liked Vernonia with its loyal people and lovely lakes for sailing. The handsome crown prince wanted to modernize his country, not be held back by antiquated customs. She would have had more freedom than she’d ever imagined as his wife and future queen. But she didn’t love Niko.

Silly, given her country’s tradition of arranged marriages. The realist in her knew the odds of marrying for love were slim to none, but the dream wouldn’t die. It grew stronger with the end of each arranged match.

Too bad dreams didn’t matter in Aliestle. Only duty.

Alaric shook his head. “If your mother were alive…”

Mother. Not stepmother.

Jules felt a pang in her heart. “If my mother were alive, I hope she would understand I tried my best.”

She didn’t remember her mother, Queen Brigitta, who had brought progressive, almost shocking, ideas to Aliestle when she married King Alaric. Though the match had been arranged, he fell so deeply in love with his young wife that he’d listened to her differing views on gender equality and proposed new laws at her urging, including higher education opportunities for women. He even took trips with her so she could indulge her passion for sailing despite vocal disapproval from the Council of Elders.

But after Brigitta died competing in a sailing race in the South Pacific when Jules was two, a heartbroken Alaric vowed never to go against convention again. He didn’t rescind the legislation regarding education opportunities for women, but he placed limitations on the jobs females could hold and did nothing to improve their career prospects. He also remarried, taking as his wife and queen a proper Aliestlian noblewoman, one who knew her role and place in society.

“I’d hope my mother would see I’ve spent my life doing what was expected of me out of respect and love for you, my family and our country,” Jules added.

But she knew a lifetime of pleasing others and doing good works didn’t matter. Not in this patriarchal society where daughters, whether royal or commoner, were bartered like chattel. If Jules didn’t marry and put at least one of her children on a throne somewhere, she would be considered a total failure. The obligation and pressure dragged Jules down like a steel anchor.

Her father narrowed his eyes. “I concede you’re not to blame for the three matches ending. You’ve always been a good girl and obeyed my orders.”

His words made her sound like a favored pet, not the beloved daughter he and her mother had spent ten years trying to conceive. Jules wasn’t surprised. Women were treated no differently than lapdogs in Aliestle.

Of course, she’d done nothing to dispel the image. She was as guilty as her father and the Council of Elders for allowing the stereotyping and treatment of women to continue. As a child, she’d learned Aliestle didn’t want her to be as independent and outspoken as her mother had been. They wanted Jules to be exactly what she was—a dutiful princess who didn’t rock the boat. But she hoped to change that once she married and lived outside of Aliestle. She would then be free to help her brother Brandt, the crown prince, so he could modernize their country and improve women’s rights when he became king.

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