How to Pursue a Princess

By: Karen Hawkins

Chapter Two



From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe I sent out a lure to Lily Balfour, and it seems that she has finally—to use one of Roxburghe’s horrid fishing terms—“taken the bait.” Now I’ve but to plan a house party and cajole certain eligible young men to exchange the entertainments of London for a few weeks of amusements at my country estate here in Scotland.

Such a feat might be difficult for other hostesses, but I have the ultimate enticement to lure handsome bachelors from the madness of the London season—fields teeming with foxes and pheasant, and a stable filled with the finest hunters imaginable.

Bless Roxburghe. He is an excellent husband.

Floors Castle

May 7, 1813

A young footman ran lightly down the back steps into the servants’ quarters, hurried around the corner, then knocked on the washroom door. A muffled voice bade him enter, and he hurried inside, only to stop in astonishment. Three tubs of warm water had been placed in a line, where six housemaids—working two together—scrubbed roly-poly pugs. More maids and the housekeeper, Mrs. Cairness, worked at another table, where they dried additional balls of fur with large towels.

One of the pugs barked and then attacked the towel as the housekeeper tried to dry him. She chuckled and played tug-of-war with him for a moment before she wrapped the other side of the towel about his round body and rubbed him dry. Finished, she kissed the pug’s head before she handed him to a waiting footman, who carried him to the next table.

There, two maids and the butler, Mr. MacDougal, stood in wait. The maids held a pug between them as the butler carefully combed its hair, trimmed its nails, then tied a kerchief about its thick neck.

The footman, belatedly remembering his purpose, stepped forward. “Mr. MacDougal, I—”

The butler held up a gloved hand.

The footman gulped back his words.

MacDougal squinted at the dog in front of him, then picked up a silver-backed comb and carefully ran it over the dog’s left ear. It was an older dog, his muzzle well grayed as he sat panting, his tongue hanging to one side of his wide mouth as he stared at the footman through milky eyes.

The footman shifted from foot to foot, waiting. Finally, the butler tilted the little pug’s face up and said with a note of approval, “There’s a guid lad, Randolph. Now ye look quite the gentleman. I believe her grace will approve.”

The pug’s little tail twirled as he barked in agreement.

The butler placed the silver comb back on the table and said to the maid, “Take Randolph to the kitchen fer his dinner. Cook was preparing their dishes when I left a half hour ago. Once ye’ve finished, return here. Her grace will be home soon and they must all be bathed by the time she arrives.”

“Yes, Mr. MacDougal.” The maid curtsied, then carefully gathered Randolph and hurried from the room, careful to close the door behind her.

The butler turned to the footman. “Now, John. What did ye need?”

John blinked. Lord, but he’d almost forgotten why he’d come in search of the butler. It wouldn’t do to be so slack in his duties before Mr. MacDougal. The butler was a fixture at magnificent Floors Castle, having served her grace since he’d been a young lad of seventeen, the only servant who could claim such longevity. As such, MacDougal had unprecedented power. “Yes, sir. I came to tell ye that—”

“Here, Moira.” Mrs. Cairness was toweling dry another of the pugs. “Take puir wee Teenie to Mr. MacDougal to comb. He’s as dry as we can make him.”

The housemaid bundled the dog in his towel and carried him to MacDougal, who eyed the damp hair with a critical eye. As the butler began to comb the dog, he asked, “Well, John? Out wit’ it.”

“Yes, sir! I’m sorry, I was distracted by the dogs. Her grace just returned from the vicar’s and wishes to—”

“Her grace has returned? Why dinna ye say so?” MacDougal put down the comb and peeled off his gloves. “She wasna due back fer two more hours! Mrs. Cairness, would ye finish here?”

The housekeeper handed a towel to a waiting chambermaid and then crossed to the butler’s side. “O’ course. Ye go ahead and welcome her grace. I’ll have the dogs brought to her once’t they are all dried, combed, and fed.”

“Thank ye, Mrs. Cairness.” The butler picked up a stiff brush from a shelf beside the door and brushed his clothes. “Well, John, where is her grace?”

“She went to her bedchamber to change, but she asked tha’ ye meet her in the sitting room as she’s a grand project fer ye.”

MacDougal swallowed a sigh. Wha’ are ye a’doin’ now, yer grace? He replaced the brush on the shelf and then made certain his cuffs were in order. “John, tell Cook that her grace will wish fer dinner after all, fer she dinna stay at the vicar’s as planned.”

The footman bowed smartly. “Yes, sir!” He dashed off.

Several minutes later, MacDougal arrived in the sitting room just as her ladyship settled into a chair opposite Lady Charlotte, who was tucked into the corner of the gold silk settee. Both ladies appeared agitated, their faces flushed, their chins lifted.

While it wasn’t unusual to see her grace in a taking—her being a woman of passion, as it were—it was odd to see her companion so overcome. The youngest daughter of the late Earl of Argyll, Lady Charlotte was a spinster who’d made her home with her grace and was now an indispensable part of the household. She was the duchess’s constant companion and was known for her calm, soothing presence.

Now, though, Lady Charlotte’s cheeks were stained with color. “Of all the nerve!” she said, her button-bow mouth pressed into a disapproving line. “I’ve never been so insulted!”

“Nor I! I’d like to—” The duchess snapped her mouth closed, her brilliant blue eyes flashing over her prominent nose.

MacDougal bowed before the duchess. “Ye’re home early, yer grace. I’ve asked Cook to prepare ye and Lady Charlotte a nice light supper.”

“Thank you,” her grace said impatiently. “As you’ve guessed, we didn’t stay at the vicar’s.”

“No,” said Lady Charlotte, her lace mobcap askew. “Not after that woman arrived.”

MacDougal waited, but Lady Charlotte and her grace merely sat stewing in silence, apparently reliving some horrible memory. He gently cleared his throat. “I dinna suppose tha’ Lady MacInnis was at the vicar’s?”

Her grace’s newest rival, Countess MacInnis, had recently moved into a large estate only a short distance from Floors Castle. The duchess and the much younger countess had rapidly begun competing for guests for their many social events, so MacDougal was surprised when the duchess shook her head. “It has nothing to do with Lady MacInnis. Not this time, anyway.”

Lady Charlotte blew out her cheeks in exasperation. “Lady MacInnis is a saint compared to the Grand Duchess Natasha Nikolaevna.”

“Ye met a grand duchess?” MacDougal couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice. “At the vicar’s?”

“She’s visiting with her grandson.” Her grace shoved her red wig back into place from where it had slipped to one side.

“He’s a prince.” Lady Charlotte picked up her knitting, her movements agitated. “What was his name again?”

“Piotr Romanovin, the Prince Wulfinski,” the duchess said with a dismissive sniff. “They are royalty from some tiny country near Prussia, where I’ve no doubt they wear atrocious full red skirts made of coarse material, dance like whirligigs, and embroider every tablecloth and napkin with horrid red-and-green borders.”

“I believe Oxenburg is quite beautiful.” Lady Charlotte put her cap back into order. “The Duke of Richmond has been there and said it was breathtaking, but dreadfully cold.”

“Richmond thinks the Pavilion at Brighton is quite the thing, too. The man has no taste whatsoever. And neither did that prince. His boots were dull, his cravat merely knotted, and his coat fit far too loosely. He looked disheveled.”

“But despite his lack of fashion, he was very handsome.” Lady Charlotte pulled her knitting basket toward her and settled her newest project into her lap.

“He might have been handsome,” her grace said grudgingly.

“He was polite, too,” Lady Charlotte added. “But she wasn’t.”

“She was a harridan.” The duchess’s blue eyes blazed.

“I was never more insulted!” Lady Charlotte’s knitting needles clacked with every word as she turned to MacDougal. “The vicar introduced us—”

“Obviously not realizing how rude she could be,” the duchess interjected, “or he’d have never put us in such an awkward situation.”

MacDougal nodded sympathetically. “She sounds horrid, yer grace, grand duchess or no’.”

The duchess pressed her mouth into a flat line. “She acted as if she thought we were nobodies.”

Lady Charlotte nodded, her needles clacking faster. “The woman ignored her grace!”

MacDougal couldn’t contain his shock.

Lady Charlotte looked vindicated. “Exactly. The grand duchess refused to even look at us until the vicar insisted she at least greet us. He was astonished at her rudeness as well.”

The duchess sniffed. “He might have been surprised, but I was not. I expect such things of foreigners. It’s a wonder we allow any of them into the country, for they ruin everything.”

“Yes,” Lady Charlotte agreed, completely ignoring the fact that her own mother had been an Italian woman of genteel birth. “Her grandson, the prince, tried to apologize—”

“—which is the only reason I invited them to our coming house party.”

MacDougal blinked. “Pardon me, yer grace, but did ye say ‘house party’?”

“Yes, yes. We’re to have a house party. I decided just this morning only an hour before I met the prince and that woman.”

Lady Charlotte eyed the duchess with appreciation. “Margaret, it was very generous of you to invite them.”

“Yes, it was, although we do need more men and, as you say, he was quite handsome. Even if he attends, we’re still short three.” The duchess leaned back in her seat. “Which reminds me why I sent for you, MacDougal. We’re having a house party in a week’s time and I need you to add the grand duchess and her grandson, the prince, to the invitation list.”

“There’s already a list?”

“Of course there’s already a list. How else would I know we’re short three men?”

“Aye, yer grace. I’m sorry I wasna thinkin’ properly.”

“You’ll need that list, too, so you know who to send invitations to.”

He bowed, trying to stifle a sigh as he thought of the work that needed to be done.

Lady Charlotte nodded to the small rosewood secretary that sat nearby. “You’ll find the list on the left-hand corner. The invitations are to go out in tomorrow’s post.”

“Yes, me lady.” He went to fetch the list written in Lady Charlotte’s delicate handwriting. Some fifty or so guests were listed on the neatly written sheet. Beside each man’s name were a series of marks. After looking at it for some moments, he carried it to Lady Charlotte. “I beg yer pardon, me lady, but these marks here . . .” He pointed to them.

“Oh, that! Ignore it. It’s just our code.”

“Code?”

“Yes. We place a tick beside each bachelor. Then we give each man with a title a small circle. If they have a fortune, then we draw a pound symbol.”

“And what’s this symbol, me lady?” He pointed to what appeared to be a drawing of a sprout of grass springing from the ground.

“That’s what I drew if the bachelor in question had all of his own hair.” Lady Charlotte glanced at the duchess. Satisfied her grace was busy murmuring endearments to Randolph, her ladyship leaned toward MacDougal and said in a low tone, “Her grace didn’t deem it important, but I do like a man with a full head of hair.”

“Yes, me lady, although this symbol looks a bit like a sprout o’ grass than a head o’ hair.”

“I suppose it does.” She shook her head sadly. “It’s quite disappointing how many gentlemen did not earn that mark. It is perhaps the most important of all.”

Unable to think of anything more to say, MacDougal merely nodded. “Aye, me lady.”

The duchess gave Randolph a hug and placed him back on the floor, where he waddled to the fire and plopped onto the rug. “MacDougal, her ladyship and I shall be planning some activities to amuse our guests. We want them to mingle, of course.”

The duchess was indeed up to her old tricks, so he’d best ready the castle. As he folded the list, his mind was already racing ahead to which footmen would need to be pressed into service in the front hall and during dinners, and the outcry Mrs. Cairness would make on discovering that bedchambers must be prepared, and quickly.

“It’s a simple three-week affair. My goddaughter Miss Lily Balfour will be attending.”

Lady Charlotte beamed before saying in a confidential tone, “It’s because of Miss Balfour that we’re having the house party at all, although she thinks we’ve had it planned for months.”

MacDougal remembered Miss Lily Balfour’s sister Rose quite well, and how determined the duchess had been to match the young lady to Lord Sinclair. “I take it there are to be several outings fer the guests?”

“Small ones. A picnic, a visit to the folly, perhaps a boat ride on the lake . . .” The duchess waved her hands. “Those sorts of things.”

“But no archery,” Lady Charlotte said, shuddering. “Not after our last house party.”

“Och, no!” MacDougal said, remembering the mayhem from their last attempt.

Both ladies stared at him and MacDougal hurried to add, “The weather is so chancy in the spring.”

“Very true,” her grace said. “Although it is appealing to think of an arrow accidentally hitting the grand duchess.”

Lady Charlotte instantly agreed, telling MacDougal, “That woman had the temerity to suggest that our king was too fat to serve as the head of state.”

“Actually, I must agree with that comment,” her grace stated. “It was the only thing she said that made any sense. If the king gets any fatter, they’ll have to exchange his steed for a draft horse similar to those used in the fields.”

“That wouldn’t be very kingly,” Lady Charlotte said.

The two continued to discuss the king’s weight as MacDougal considered the planning that needed to be done. The floors and silver must be polished, bedchambers cleaned and readied, and the grand ballroom opened and prepared, the furnishings uncovered and dusted. It would take every servant available, as well as some hired from the village, to get the house ready. He looked at the list once again and noted a small scribble in one corner.

As soon as there was a slight pause in the conversation, he asked, “Yer grace? I beg yer pardon, but ye wrote somethin’ upon the bottom o’ yer list.” He squinted. “It says ‘Butterfly Ball.’ ”

“Oh yes! I almost forgot. We’re to have a ball, too. A small one, but a ball nonetheless.”

Lady Charlotte added eagerly, “It will be quite a feat for her grace if she can entice enough people from the London season to attend a ball in the middle of the country.” Her knitting needles ticked along. “Everyone will want to come, for her grace will offer the gentlemen something they will be longing for—hunting!”

MacDougal managed to look sufficiently impressed, though he secretly thought that Lord Roxburghe wouldn’t be pleased to hear that his carefully selected stables were about to be invaded by a pack of potential suitors. Sadly, his grace was in London, attending to business, and was not to return until a week after the scheduled party.

The duchess looked like the cat who’d swallowed the cream. “No man will be able to resist the lure of my invitation, especially after weeks of being forced to toe the line of society. We shall have plenty of eligible bachelors for Miss Lily to choose from.”

Well, there was no more to be said. Every moment he stood here was a moment wasted. With a graceful bow, he said, “Yes, yer grace. I’ll see to it that the invitations are sent and the house readied immediately.” At her pleased nod, he left the sitting room, pulling the door closed behind him.

Out in the hallway he called to the young footman who hovered in the hallway, “Come, John. It’s time to batten down the hatches. Her grace is on the warpath again, and it’s all men to stations!”

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