How to Pursue a Princess

By: Karen Hawkins

Chapter Three



From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe The entire castle is being readied for our guests. So far, over one hundred and ten have confirmed their attendance at our little Butterfly Ball, with forty-two staying the entire three weeks for the preceding house party. Charlotte says that Countess MacInnis is beside herself with envy, but I never pay attention to what other people think. I simply plan excellent entertainments and let the world do what they may.

Meanwhile, my goddaughter Miss Lily Balfour arrived yesterday. She’s quite lovely, with gray eyes and bright red-gold hair. We had a lovely talk, and I could tell from what she did not say that funds are tight at Caith Manor and she is, indeed, in dire need of a well-placed husband. I have found the perfect candidate: the wealthy Earl of Huntley, who’s been widowed for over two years and is now in the market for a tractable, wellborn wife, though he’s had lamentable luck in that area—until now.

Judging from the sparkle in her eyes, I don’t believe Miss Balfour is tractable, but she is both lovely and wellborn. In addition, she is not a society miss, like so many others who’ve set their caps at the poor earl. I think Huntley will find her innocence and honesty refreshing.

I must say that if they happen to enter into a marriage, my reputation as a matchmaker extraordinaire will be established once and for all. Not, of course, that I intend to meddle. Such is not my style. I merely present the opportunity, and stand back and allow nature to have its way. . . .

Lily turned her horse down the wide path that led toward the woods. Behind her, Floors Castle sat amid well-manicured lawns filled with flowers. The castle was luxurious and beautifully appointed, but Lily felt nothing but relief as the trees obscured it from view.

For the last two days she’d been a perfectly behaved guest, smiling and nodding, greeting people she didn’t know with the appearance of pleasure. Every minute had been torture. The days had been filled with nonstop introductions, and if she had to remember one more name, she feared her head might explode.

The shade under the trees cooled the air, and she pulled Dahlia’s red cloak tighter. Lily allowed the horse its head, the peacefulness of the forest calming her frayed nerves. She’d had no idea how uncomfortable and lonely it would be, coming to a castle where she knew no one. The duchess had been lovely, although she and Lady Charlotte had quizzed Lily mercilessly when she’d first arrived. She’d let them know in as delicate a manner as possible that she was quite ready to form a suitable marriage, but she’d offered no more than that. No one needed to know about the Balfours’ distressed financial situation, but she had the uncomfortable impression that the duchess’s shrewd blue eyes had seen far more than Lily intended.

The horse’s hooves were muffled on the packed dirt, the trees moving overhead in the breeze. Birds sang, leaves danced, and the scent of pine tickled her nose. Peace settled over Lily as the quiet wood settled about her.

It was so good to get away from the pressing crowd at the castle. This morning the duchess had mentioned that the Earl of Huntley would be arriving tomorrow, and it was obvious from her arch glance that she favored Huntley as a potential suitor for Lily. Apparently the earl was wellborn, fabulously wealthy, handsome, and a perfect gentleman.

Lily should have been excited—here was her chance for a more-than-favorable marriage, one with a carefully selected candidate. Instead, all she felt was deeply and irrevocably sad.

She sighed and tilted her face to the dappled sun streaming through the leaves overhead. If she wished to save her family, she had to come to terms with a marriage of convenience. It wasn’t unusual; in fact, women were judged on the quality of husband they managed to snare. Women groomed themselves and learned genteel arts such as embroidery and watercolors, a smattering of foreign languages, and just a touch of classical history, in order to attract men of wealth and breeding. They learn everything but the art of making a well-cut riding habit. She sniffed derisively. That’s a true art.

She smoothed the navy-blue skirt of her habit with satisfaction. Just this morning, as she was waiting for her mount to be brought around, two of the duchess’s august guests—both ladies dressed in the highest fashion—had stopped to ask which modiste had made her habit. She smiled with pride. If I can’t find a satisfactory husband, I can always support the family. If only my skill with a needle could also save Papa—and Caith Manor—from his folly.

She sighed. It has to be marriage, then. Why, oh why, am I finding this so difficult to accept? She firmed her chin and said aloud, “This is how the world operates.” Men looked for women who would grace their table and manage their homes and present them with heirs, while women looked for men who would provide for them and the ensuing family. It had been this way for centuries. So why did she feel so . . . bereft?

“I’m being silly,” she told her horse.

His ears flickered, but he offered no further comment.

She sighed and patted his neck, glad that no one was about to hear her. Really, it was a simple—

A fox jumped out of the shrubbery and dashed across the path, a streak of red near the horse’s hooves.

The horse reared, whinnying madly as he pawed the air.

Lily hung on for dear life, clutching at the horse’s mane, at the saddle, trying to hold on to anything that might stop her fall. But being perched upon a sidesaddle and weighted with the heavy skirts of her riding habit, she was no match for the frightened horse.

The horse threw itself upon its back legs and, with a scream, Lily tumbled to the ground.

? ? ?

Twenty minutes earlier, on the other side of the river, a carriage had creaked to a stop beneath a towering oak. An old woman pushed back the curtains with a hand heavy with jewels and looked out the window, disbelief on her deeply wrinkled face. “This is it?”

“What? You do not like it?” Piotr Romanovin, Prince Wulfinski of Oxenburg, threw open the carriage door and called to the coachman to tie off the horses. “It is charming, nyet?” Flashing a smile, the prince reached up to help his grandmother to the ground.

His Tata Natasha, a grand duchess more aware of her title than any king or queen he knew, gathered her velvet cloak as if it were a shield and stared at the cottage that sat in a small clearing. In silence, she noted the broken shutters, the half-missing thatch roof, the front door hanging from one hinge, and a profusion of flowering vines growing across the windows. “Nyet,” she said bluntly. “This is not charming. Come.” She turned back to the carriage. “We will go back to the big house, where we belong, and leave this foolishness to the wilds.”

“It’s not a big house, but a manor. And this”—he gestured to the cottage—“is to be my home. It is here I shall live.”

“You are a prince of Oxenburg. You cannot live in a hovel.”

“I’m a grown man who will live where and how he wishes.”

Tata Natasha scowled. “This is all your father’s fault. You are the youngest and he could never tell you nyet.”

“Oh, he’s said it quite often.”

“Pah! You are spoiled and don’t even know it.”

He arched a brow. “Do you or do you not wish to see my new home?”

She scowled at the cottage. “Just look at this place! The roof—”

“Can be fixed. As can the shutters and the door and the chimney.”

“What’s wrong with the chimney?”

“It needs to be cleaned, but the craftsmanship is superb. It just needs some care.”

She eyed her grandson sourly. The prince was larger than all of his brothers, and they were not small men. At almost six feet five, he towered over her and all nine of their guards.

But large as Wulf was, he was her youngest grandson and the most difficult to understand, given to fits and starts that were incomprehensible to all and left his parents in agonies.

Take the simple matter of marriage. His brothers seemed to understand their responsibilities and were scouring the courts of Europe for suitable brides. But not Wulf. He’d refused every princess that came his way, be they short or tall, thin or fat, fair or not—it didn’t matter. With only the most cursory of glances, he’d refused them one by one.

Tata Natasha shook her head. “Wulf, your cousin Nikki, he was right; you have gone mad. You purchased a beautiful house—” At Wulf’s lifted brows, she sighed. “Fine, a manor, then. One with twenty-six bedrooms, thirty-five fireplaces, a salon, a dining room, a great hall, and a ballroom. It is beautiful and fitting for a prince of your stature. This”—she waved a hand—“is a hovel.”

“It will be my home. At least until I’ve found a bride who will love me for this, and not because I can afford a manor with more chimneys than there are days in a month.” He tucked his grandmother’s hand in the crook of his arm and pulled her to the cottage door. “Come and see my new home.”

“But—”

He stopped. “Tata, it was your idea for me to meet the world without the trappings of wealth.”

“No, it was your idea, not mine.” When his gaze narrowed, her wrinkled cheeks heated. “I might have suggested that it would do you good to discover what it was like to be a normal man and not one wrapped in privilege, but I never suggested this.” She waved at the cottage.

“But you were right; I must find out for myself. Now come. See my new home.” He pushed the crooked door to one side.

“Such a waste of time.” She tugged her arm free so that she could hold her skirts out of the dirt. “Why not marry a princess?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see one that I liked.”

Tata Natasha turned to face him, her chin pushed forward. “What do you like, Wulf? What sort of a woman do you wish to meet?”

He raked a hand through his black hair, his gaze distant. “I want one who will treat me as a man and not as a bag of gold. One with passion and fire. One who will marry me because of me—not my title or wealth.”

“You cannot deny your birthright. Your father would have an apoplexy if he found out, and his health is not good.”

“I know.” Wulf’s jaw tightened. “For that reason, I will not hide that I am a prince. But I will not admit to my wealth.”

Tata sighed. “I wish your father had never passed that ill-thought law allowing his children to marry as they wished.”

“He married for love and he wished us all to have the same luxury.”

“He married my daughter, a crown princess!”

“Of the Romani.”

Tata’s black eyes flashed. “The Romani blood is purer and older than any other royal bloodline!”

“I know,” the prince said simply. “But it was against the laws of Oxenburg, which only recognized traditional kingdoms—”

“Foolishness!”

“—so he changed those laws. Thus he was able to marry his bride and make her the queen he always thought her.”

“Humph. He could have just written a law acknowledging the Romani.”

Wulf wisely refrained from pointing out the political imbroglio that would have caused and said in a soothing tone, “Father did what he thought best. He married Mother because he loved her and she loved him. He knew he was fortunate in that, and he wishes for all of us to have the same.”

Tata threw up a hand. “Love, love, love! That is all you and your father talk of! What about duty? Responsibility? What about that?”

Wulf smiled indulgently as he pushed open one of the shutters, letting light stream into the cottage, illuminating a stream of golden dust motes that danced in the air. “Rest assured that I will marry a strong woman, one who will give me many brave and intelligent sons. Surely that is responsible of me?”

Tata wished she could smack her son-in-law. What had he been thinking to free his sons to marry commoners? It was ridiculous. And look what it had led to. Here was her favorite grandson, looking for a wife among the heathens that populated this wild and desolate land. “If you will not believe in the purity of bloodlines, then how will you know which woman is right for you?”

“I’ll know her when I see her.”

Tata ground her teeth. “Why did we have to come to this godforsaken part of the world to find your bride? Scotland isn’t even civilized.”

He sent her a humorous glance. “You sound like Papa.”

“He’s right, for once.” She scowled.

“Tata, everyone knows me in Europe. But here . . . here I can be unnoticed.” He took her hand and led her to the center of the cottage. “My little house is more spacious than you thought, nyet?” He could even stand upright, provided he didn’t walk toward the fireplace. There the roof swooped down to meet it and he’d have to bend almost in half to sit before it.

Still, he looked about with satisfaction. The front room held a broken table and two chairs without legs. A wide plank set upon two barrels had served as a bench before a huge fire, where iron hooks made him imagine fragrant, bubbling stew.

Tata walked toward the fireplace, coughing as her feet stirred up dust. “Where will you sleep?”

“Here.” He went to the back of the room, where a tattered curtain hung over a small alcove. A bed frame remained, leather straps crisscrossed to provide support for a long-gone straw mattress. “I will have a feather mattress brought down from the manor. This frame is well made and I will sleep like a baby.” He placed a hand upon the low bedpost and gave it a shake. The structure barely moved.

Tata grunted her reluctant approval and looked around. “I suppose it will make a good hunting lodge once this madness of yours is gone.”

“So it will. I’ll have some of my men begin work on it at once. I need it cleaned, fixed, and well stocked with firewood.”

She shot him a reluctantly amused glance. “A poor man of no wealth does not have men to help with such things.”

“I am not playing this part because I wish to, Tata. I am playing it because I must.”

“Humph.”

“I will help as I can, but I’ve no experience with thatching. I’d be foolish to try now when the rainy season is about to begin.”

“At least you are keeping some of your good sense about you.”

“I’m keeping all of it.” He smiled at her fondly and held out his arm. “Thank you for coming to see my new home. Come, I’ll take you back for tea.”

She took his arm, wishing he weren’t so blasted charming. It was hard to argue with a grandson who smiled at her as if she were the best grandmother in the world. “Not the English kind of tea. It’s so weak it tastes like hot water.”

He gave her a look of mock horror. “Of course not! I will get you good tea from our homeland. We brought enough for a year, though we will only be a month or so.”

Tata paused before she walked out of the doorway. “Do you not think a month is too little time to persuade a woman to marry you? One who thinks that a title and this cottage is all you possess?”

He looked surprised. “Do you think we should stay longer?”

Ah, the certainty of this one is as endearing as it is surprising. She reached up to pat his cheek. “Wulf, think a bit. I know that the women have always come to you, but what you propose to do now will change that. You wish to win a woman’s heart and not just her interest. You must get to know her, and reveal yourself so that she falls in love with you. Even then, it may not be enough. Love cannot be commanded to appear merely because you have decided it.”

He cast her a glinting smile. “You have so little faith in me. I should be insulted.”

She shook her head, wondering what the next few weeks held for her grandson. Life had always smiled upon this one. He was a handsome man—handsomer than any she knew—and he was a wealthy prince, as well. “You do not yet know the world, and so your plan is as arrogant as it is foolish. You expect to meet a woman and POOF!—both of you will fall madly in love, but it does not happen that way.”

His smile faded, his green eyes darkening. “Tata, I told you of my dream. That is why we are here.”

“Yes, yes. Your dream of Scotland, of a woman with hair of red—”

“Not red. Red and gold, with eyes the color of a summer rain. And don’t tell me you don’t believe in dreams, for I know you and the Romani too well.”

She scowled. “The dreams of our family have always had meaning, but it is rare that they are as clear in meaning as the one you claim to have had.”

“I’ve had this exact dream four times now, Tata. And every time, it is the same woman who—”

A woman’s scream tore the air.

Wulf spun toward the door.

Tata grabbed his sleeve. “Let the guards—”

“No. Stay here.”

Then he was gone, shouting to his men to protect his grandmother as he ran from the cottage.

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