How to Pursue a Princess

By: Karen Hawkins

Chapter Four



From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe Huntley arrived early and I spoke to him at length, delicately suggesting that it was time for him to wed again. He nodded thoughtfully, and I believe he has already come to this conclusion himself. I’m sure that all it will take is one look, and the deal will be done. All I have to do is find Lily.

We seem to have somehow misplaced her.

Lily slowly awoke, her mind creeping back to consciousness. She shifted and then moaned as every bone in her body groaned in protest.

A warm hand cupped her face. “Easy” came a deep, heavily accented voice.

Lily opened her eyes to find herself staring into the deep green eyes of the most handsome man she’d ever seen.

The man was huge, with broad shoulders that blocked the light and hands so large that the one cupping her face practically covered one side of it. His face was perfectly formed, his cheekbones high above a scruff of a beard that her fingers itched to touch.

“The brush broke your fall, but you will still be bruised.”

He looked almost too perfect to be real. She placed her hand on his where it rested on her cheek, his warmth stealing into her cold fingers. He’s not a dream.

She gulped a bit and tried to sit up, but was instantly pressed back to the ground.

“Nyet,” the giant said, his voice rumbling over her like waves over a rocky beach. “You will not rise.”

She blinked. “Nyet?”

He grimaced. “I should not say ‘nyet’ but ‘no.’ ”

“I understood you perfectly. I am just astonished that you are telling me what to do.” His expression darkened and she had the distinct impression that he wasn’t used to being told no. “Who are you?”

“It matters not. What matters is that you are injured and wish to stand. That is foolish.”

She pushed herself up on one elbow. As she did so, her hat, which had been pinned upon her neatly braided hair, came loose and fell to the ground.

The man’s gaze locked on her hair, his eyes widening as he muttered something under his breath in a foreign tongue.

“What’s wrong?”

“Your hair. It is red and gold.”

“My hair’s not red. It’s blond and when the sun—” She frowned. “Why am I even talking to you about this? I don’t even know your name.”

“You haven’t told me yours, either,” he said in a reasonable tone.

She hadn’t, and for some reason she was loath to do so. She reached for her hat, wincing as she moved.

Instantly he pressed her back to the ground. “Do not move. I shall call for my men and—”

“No, I don’t need any help.”

“You should have had a groom with you,” he said, disapproval in his rich voice. “Beautiful women should not wander the woods alone.”

Beautiful? Me? She flushed. It was odd, but the thought pleased her far more than it should have. Perhaps because she thought he was beautiful as well.

“In my country you would not be riding about the woods without protection.”

“A groom wouldn’t have kept my horse from becoming startled.”

“No, but it would have kept you from being importuned by a stranger.”

She had to smile at the irony of his words. “A stranger like you?”

The stranger’s brows rose. “Ah. You think I am being—what is the word? Forward?”

“Yes.”

“But you are injured—”

“No, I’m not.”

“You were thrown from a horse and are upon the ground. I call that ‘injured.’ ” His brows locked together. “Am I using the word ‘injured’ correctly?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then do not argue. You are injured and I will help you.”

Do not argue? Goodness, he was high-handed. She sat upright, even though it brought her closer to this huge boulder of a man. “I don’t suppose you have a name?”

“I am Piotr Romanovin of Oxenburg. It is a small country beside Prussia.”

The country’s name seemed familiar. “There was a mention of Oxenburg in The Morning Post just a few days ago.”

“My cousin Nikki, he is in London. Perhaps he is in the papers.” The stranger rubbed a hand over his bearded chin, the golden light filtering from the trees dancing over his black hair. “You can sit up, but not stand. Not until we know you are not broken.”

“I’m not broken,” she said sharply. “I’m just embarrassed that I fell off my horse.”

A glimmer of humor shone in the green eyes. “You fell asleep, eh?”

She fought the urge to return the smile. “No, I did not fall asleep. A fox frightened my horse, which caused it to rear. And then it ran off.”

His gaze flickered to her boots and he frowned. “No wonder you fell. Those are not good riding boots.”

“These? They’re perfectly good boots.”

“Not if a horse bolts. Then you need some like these.” He slapped the side of his own boots, which had a thicker and taller heel.

“I’ve never seen boots like those.”

“That is because you English do not really ride, you with your small boots. You just perch on top of the horse like a sack of grain and—”

“I’m not English; I’m a Scot,” she said sharply. “Can’t you tell from my accent?”

“English or Scot.” He shrugged. “Is there so much difference?”

“Oh! Of course there’s a difference! I—”

He threw up a hand. “I don’t know if it’s because you are a woman or because you are a Scot, but thus far, you’ve argued with everything I’ve said. This, I do not like.”

She frowned. “As a Scot, I dislike being ordered about, and as a woman, I can’t imagine that you know more about my state of well-being than I do.”

His eyes lit with humor. “Fair enough. You cannot be much injured, to argue with such vigor.” He stood and held out his hand. “Come. Let us see if you can stand.”

She placed her hand in his. As her rescuer pulled her to her feet, one of her curls came free from her braid and fell to her shoulder.

She started to tuck it away, but his hand closed over the curl first. Slowly, he threaded her hair through his fingers, his gaze locking with hers. “Your hair is like the sunrise.”

And his eyes were like the green found at the heart of the forest, among the tallest trees.

He brushed her curl behind her ear, his fingers grazing her cheek. Her heart thudded as if she’d just run up a flight of stairs.

Cheeks hot, she repinned her hair with hands that seemed oddly unwieldy. “That’s— You shouldn’t touch my hair.”

“Why not?”

He looked so astounded that she explained. “I don’t know the rules of your country, but here men do not touch a woman’s hair merely because they can.”

“It is not permitted?”

“No.”

He sighed regretfully. “It should be.”

She didn’t know what to say. A part of her—obviously still shaken from her fall—wanted to tell him that he could touch her hair if he wished. Her hair, her cheek, or any other part of her that he wished to. Good God, what’s come over me?

“Come. I will take you to your home.”

She brushed the leaves from her skirts and then stepped forward. “Ow!” She jerked her foot up from the ground.

He grasped her elbow and steadied her. “Your ankle?”

“Yes.” She gingerly wiggled it, grimacing a little. “I must have sprained it, though it’s only a slight sprain, for I can move it fairly well.”

“I shall carry you.”

“What? Oh no, no, no. I’m sure walking will relieve the stiffness—”

He bent, slipped her arm about his neck, and scooped her up as if she were a blade of grass.

“Mr. Roma—Romi— Oh, whatever your name is, please don’t—”

He turned and strode down the path.

“Put me down!”

“Nyet.” He continued on his way, his long legs eating up the distance.

Lily had little choice but to hang on, uncomfortably aware of the deliciously spicy cologne that tickled her nose and made her wonder what it would be like to burrow her face against him. It was the oddest thing, to wish to be set free and—at the same time—enjoy the strength of his arms. To her surprise, she liked how he held her so securely, which was ridiculous. She didn’t even know this man. “You can’t just carry me off like this.”

“But I have.” His voice held no rancor, no sense of correcting her. Instead his tone was that of someone patiently trying to explain something. “I have carried you off, and carried off you will be.”

She scowled up at him. “Look here, Mr. Romanoffski—”

“Call me Wulf. It is what I am called.” He said the word with a faint “v” instead of a “w.”

“Wulf is hardly a reassuring name.”

He grinned, his teeth white in the black beard. “It is my name, reassuring or not.” He shot her a glance. “What is your name, little one?”

“Lily Balfour.” She hardly knew this man at all, yet she’d just blurted out her name and was allowing him to carry her through the woods. She should be screaming for help, but instead she found herself resting her head against his shoulder as, for the first time in two days, she found herself feeling something other than sheer loneliness.

“Lily. That’s a beautiful name. It suits you.”

Lily’s face heated and she stole a look at him from under her lashes. He was exotic, overbearing, and strong, but somehow she knew that he wouldn’t harm her. Her instincts and common sense both agreed on that. “Where are you taking me?”

“To safety.”

“That’s a rather vague location.”

He chuckled, the sound reverberating in his chest where it pressed against her side. “If you must know, I’m taking you to my new home. From there, my men and my—how do you say babushka?” His brow furrowed a moment before it cleared. “Ah yes, grandmother.”

“Your grandmother? She’s here, in the woods?”

“I brought her to see the new house I just purchased. You and I will go there and meet with my men and my grandmother. I have a carriage, so we can ride the rest of the way to your home.”

I was right to trust him. No man would involve his grandmother in a ravishment.

He slanted a look her way. “You will like my grandmother.”

It sounded like an order. She managed a faint smile. “I’m sure we’ll adore one another. However, you and your grandmother won’t be escorting me home, but to Floors Castle. I am a guest of the Duchess of Roxburghe.”

His amazing eyes locked on her, and she noted that his thick, black lashes gave him a faintly sleepy air. “I met the duchess last week and she invited us to her house party. I was not going to attend, but now I will go.” His gaze flicked over her, leaving a heated path.

Her breath caught in her throat. If the duchess has invited Wulf to the castle, then perhaps he is an eligible parti. Suddenly, the day didn’t seem so dreary. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wulf—or whatever your name is—but who are you, exactly?”

He shrugged, his chest rubbing her side in a pleasant way. “Does it matter?”

“Yes. You mentioned your men. Are you a military leader of some sort?” That would explain his boldness and overassuredness.

“You could say that.”

“Ah. Are you a corporal, then? A sergeant?”

“I am in charge.” A faint note of surprise colored his voice, as if he couldn’t believe that she would think anything else.

“You’re in charge of what? A battalion?”

He definitely looked insulted now. “I am in charge of it all.”

She blinked. “Of an entire army?”

“Yes.” He hesitated, then said in a firm voice, “I shall tell you because you will know eventually since I plan on joining the duchess’s party. I am not a general. I am a prince.”

“A pr—” She couldn’t even say the word.

“I am a prince,” he repeated firmly, though he looked far from happy about it. “That is why her grace finds it acceptable that my grandmother and I attend her events. I had not thought to accept her invitation, for I do not like dances and such, and you English—”

She raised her brows.

“I’m sorry, you Scots are much too formal for me.”

“Wait. I’m still trying to grasp that you’re a prince. A real prince?”

He shrugged, his broad shoulders making his cape swing. “We have many princes in Oxenburg, for I have three brothers.”

She couldn’t wrap her mind around the thought of a roomful of princes who looked like the one carrying her: huge, broad shouldered, bulging with muscles and grinning lopsided smiles, their dark hair falling over their brows and into their green eyes. . . . I fell off my horse and into a fairy tale.

Hope washed over her and she found herself saying in a breathless tone, “If you’re a prince, then you must be fabulously wealthy.”

He looked down at her, a question in his eyes. “Not every prince has money.”

“Some do.”

“And some do not. Sadly, I am the poorest of all my brothers.”

Her disappointment must have shown on her face, for he regarded her with a narrow gaze. “You do not like this, Miss Lily Balfour?”

She sighed. “No, no, I don’t.”

One dark brow arched. “Why not?”

“Sadly, some of us must marry for money.” Whether it was because she was being held in his arms or because she was struggling to deal with a surprising flood of regret, it felt right to tell him the truth.

“I see.” He continued to carry her, his brow lowered. “And this is you, then? You must marry for money?”

“Yes.”

He was silent a moment more. “But what if you fall in love?”

“I have no choice.” She heard the sadness in her voice and resolutely forced herself to say in a light tone, “It’s the way of the world, isn’t it? But to be honest, I wouldn’t be looking for a wealthy husband except that I must. Our house is entailed, and my father hasn’t been very good about— Oh, it’s complicated.”

He didn’t reply, but she could tell from his grim expression that he disliked her answer. She didn’t like it much herself, for it made her sound like the veriest moneygrubbing society miss, but that’s what she’d become.

She sighed and rested her cheek against his shoulder.

He looked down at her, and to her surprise, his chin came to rest on her head.

They continued on thus for a few moments, comfort seeping through her, the first since she’d left her home.

“Moya, I must tell you—”

She looked up. “My name is not Moya, but Lily.”

His eyes glinted with humor. “I like Moya better.”

“What does it mean?”

His gaze flickered to her hair and she grimaced. “It means ‘red,’ doesn’t it? I hate that!”

He chuckled, the sound warm in his chest. “You dislike being called Red? Why? It is what you are. Just as what I am is a prince with no fortune.” His gaze met hers. “We must accept who we are.”

She was silent a moment. “You’re dreadfully poor? You said you’d just bought a house.”

“A cottage. It has a thatched roof and one large room, but with a good fireplace. I will make stew for you. I make good stew.”

It sounded delightful; far more fun than the rides, picnics, dinner parties, and other activities the duchess had promised. “I like stew, but I’m afraid that I can’t visit your cottage. It would be improper.” Furthermore, she didn’t dare prolong her time with such a devastatingly handsome, but poor, prince. She had to save all of her feelings so that she could fall in love with the man who would save Papa.

Wulf’s brows had lowered. “But you would come to my cottage if I had a fortune, nyet?”

Regret flooded her and she tightened her hold about his neck. “I have no choice; I must marry for money. I don’t know why I admitted that to you, but it is a sad fact of my life and I cannot pretend otherwise. My family is depending on me.”

He seemed to consider this, some of the sternness leaving his gaze. After a moment he nodded. “It is noble that you are willing to sacrifice yourself for your family.”

“Sacrifice? I was hoping it wouldn’t feel so . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s possible that I might find someone I could care for.”

“You wish to fall in love with a rich man. As my babushka likes to tell me, life is not always so accommodating.”

“Yes, but it’s possible. I’ve never been in love before, so I’m a blank slate. The duchess is helping me, too, and she’s excellent at making just such matches. She’s invited several gentlemen for me to meet—”

“All wealthy.”

“Of course. She is especially hopeful of the Earl of Huntley, and so am I.” Lily looked away, not wishing to see the disappointment in his gaze yet again.

Silence reigned and she savored the warmth of his arms about her. At one time, a wealthy gentleman had seemed enough. Now, she wished she could ask for a not-wealthy prince. One like this, who carried her so gently and whose eyes gleamed with humor beneath the fall of his black hair. But it was not to be.

She bit back a strong desire to explain things to him, to tell him exactly why she needed to marry a wealthy man, but she knew it wouldn’t make any difference. As he’d said, he was who he was, and she was who she was. There was no way for either of them to change things, even if they wished to, so it would be better for them both if they accepted those facts and continued on.

For now, though, she had these few moments. With that thought in mind, she sighed and rested her head against his broad shoulder. This will have to be enough.

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