How to Pursue a Princess

By: Karen Hawkins

Chapter Five

From the Diary of the Duchess of Roxburghe I knew I shouldn’t have invited that prince from Oxenburg, polite or no. Lily has been here but two days and already he’s orchestrated a rescue, and the poor girl has yet to meet the Earl of Huntley. How is Huntley to match such an entrance? Damn that prince! If he weren’t so unfashionable and ill-kempt, I would be worried.

“Och, lassie, ye’ve hardly touched yer tea.” Mrs. Cairness shook her head.

“I’m sorry.” Lily allowed the housekeeper to pour her now-cold cup of tea back into the pot and refill her cup with warmer tea.

“Drink that, miss. Ye’ll feel much better.”

“Thank you.” Lily obediently sipped, her gaze drifting to the sun pouring in through the windows. She was sitting in the small salon on a settee, her legs stretched before her, a thick blanket tucked all around. Her ankle was already much better, now that her boot was off and a pillow rested beneath her foot.

She watched the light stream into the room. It was a cozy location, especially as the guests who’d already arrived were off playing pall-mall upon the lawn and she had most of the castle to herself. Normally, she’d enjoy the peace and quiet and might even find a sewing project to busy her hands, but instead, she found herself staring morosely out the window.

Despite the prince’s plans, she didn’t get the chance to see his cottage or meet his babushka, for they’d only walked for a few more moments in blissful silence when his men had met them on the road, a fresh horse ready. She had the impression that Wulf hadn’t been any more pleased at the intrusion than she was, though he hadn’t said much. He’d set her on her feet, climbed upon his horse, and then lifted her before him.

The ride back had been lovely, his arm warmly resting about her waist, his broad back protecting her from the wind as they rode out of the forest. All too soon they were at Floors Castle, and he was carrying her through the huge doors and into the foyer. All bedlam had broken loose then, for the pugs had taken exception to the prince’s swinging cape, while the duchess and Lady Charlotte—called from the sitting room by the loud yapping—exclaimed in dismay and demanded that the prince immediately put Lily on the settee in the small salon.

The duchess had sent the servants scurrying as she rapidly ordered tea, a physician, a pillow for Lily’s foot, and then efficiently herded Wulf from the room.

Lily had been sorry to see him go. Indeed, she felt sadly bereft, as if she’d left something behind . . . something important. She had to shake her head at her own silliness, even as she acknowledged that the prince was the first person she’d met since her arrival at Floors Castle who’d made her feel comfortable. But that doesn’t matter. You’re not here for comfort; you’re here to find a husband.

She sighed and put her teacup back on the tray. “Mrs. Cairness, I think I’ve had enough now. It was delicious.”

“Her grace said ye are to drink it all, miss. If’n I were ye, I’d do as she says. She’s a determined woman, and smart, too. If’n she tol’ me t’ dance, I’d dance. If’n she tol’ me t’ jump upon one foot and toss fairy dust, I’d do it wit’oot askin’ why.” The housekeeper glanced at the door and then bent lower. “Trust me, miss. The duchess ne’er suggests ye t’ do somethin’ wit’oot a reason.”

Lily sighed as the housekeeper poured yet more tea into her cup. “I shall float away, but fine. I’ll drink more tea.”

“Good,” came the duchess’s voice from the doorway. She entered with a rustle of blue silk overlaid with pink lace, her bright blue eyes twinkling. Behind her trotted the six Roxburghe pugs, wheezing and snorting as they tried to keep up. The duchess stopped at the end of the settee, and one of the pugs jumped into Lily’s lap.

She laughed and patted the little dog, who grinned, his tongue hanging out one side. “And who are you?” she asked the dog.

Lady Charlotte, who’d followed the dogs into the room, her knitting basket at her side, smiled. “That’s Feenie. He’s a cuddler.”

Lily patted the dog. “He’s certainly friendly.”

The duchess sank into an empty chair opposite Lily, while Lady Charlotte followed suit, the remaining pugs dropping in various spots on the rug.

“Poor Miss Balfour!” Lady Charlotte shook her head, her lace cap flopping over her ears. “How is your ankle?”

“It’s fine. It barely aches, and I feel silly for taking up the entire settee. I’m sure that if I just walked around, it would feel better immediately.”

“You may walk once the doctor has seen it,” the duchess said serenely. She glanced at the housekeeper. “Pray pour Miss Balfour more tea. It will flush the bad humors from her system.”

Lily managed to swallow her protest as she caught the housekeeper’s knowing gaze. The teacup was refilled yet again and Lily took it with a murmur of thanks.

“Mrs. Cairness, could you bring another tea tray?” her grace asked. “Lady Charlotte and I haven’t had time to take tea, what with all of the other guests arriving, and then our concern when Miss Balfour went missing, and, oh dear, all manner of things.”

“Yes, yer grace.” The housekeeper dipped a curtsy and bustled out.

The duchess regarded Lily with a smile. “I daresay a young woman of high spirits like yourself is tired of being coddled, eh, Miss Balfour?”

“Yes. I’m not comfortable just sitting about.” She eyed Lady Charlotte’s knitting with a feeling akin to jealousy. Maybe Lily could send home for some cloth, or perhaps the housekeeper might have some odds and ends she’d be willing to part with. If I had a project, even a small, simple one, it would make me feel much more at home.

The duchess tsked. “I am so sorry you were given such an unruly mount. It is unconscionable, and I had a word with my head groom about it.”

“Oh no! Truly, it was not the groom’s fault, nor the horse’s. I’m not a confident rider and I allowed myself to get distracted. The fault is all mine.”

“It’s the groom’s duty to ascertain your skill and then to choose a mount within those parameters. The groom did not do so. It will not happen again.”

Lily wished to protest yet more, but the duchess’s sharp tone effectively closed the conversation. Lily forced a smile. She should never have gone on that ride. All it had accomplished was to get her tossed to the ground, cause a groom to receive an ill-deserved dressing-down from the duchess, and place Lily directly in the arms of an arrogantly sure-of-himself prince, whose absence was making her feel even more bereft and lonely.

Her grace picked up a particularly fat, graying pug and placed it in her lap, where it grunted happily. “I hope the prince treated you courteously.”

“Of course he did.” Lily was certain her face was as red as the pillow under her ankle. “He was very gentlemanly.” Except for plying her with enough compliments to make her feel oddly light-headed, and carrying her with such ease that she’d almost wished he’d never reached Floors.

The duchess sniffed. “I had some reservations about inviting Prince Wulfinski to my house party, but I can do little about it now, especially since we owe him some courtesies for assisting you.”

“I’m sorry my accident has caused you such distress,” Lily said sharply.

The duchess didn’t seem to notice Lily’s irritation. “It’s regrettable. And while you say the prince behaved himself, I can’t help but think that his attitude in striding into the house as if he’d saved the world from an invasion—well, I won’t stand for such theatrics.”

Lily blinked. “But all he did was carry me into the house.”

“Now, now.” The duchess patted Lily’s hand where it was fisted on her knee. “I’m sure you wish to speak in defense of your rescuer, but I cannot feel that his attitude was totally appropriate. Sadly, the prince isn’t staying under my roof, so I have no control over his actions when he’s not here. But when he is here, I shall expect his behavior to be exemplary.”

“I’m sure it will be,” Lily said stiffly. “And once again, let me assure you that the prince was everything kind.”

“Yes, dear,” Lady Charlotte said, her knitting needles clicking quietly while her bright gaze locked with Lily’s. “Our of curiosity, what did you and the prince find to converse about?”

“He told me about his grandmother—”

“A horrid woman,” Lady Charlotte interjected.

“I didn’t get the opportunity to meet her. We were on our way to his cottage when his men caught up with us.”

“Cottage?” The duchess smiled indulgently. “As his highness has seen Floors Castle, I’m sure his estate seems smallish to him, although I wouldn’t use the term ‘cottage.’ ”

Lily wondered how much land had come with the prince’s cottage. Perhaps it consisted of several acres. “The prince said he was the po—” She caught the suddenly intent gazes of both women and she bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but that’s not for me to repeat.”

The duchess leaned forward, her red wig slightly askew. “Of course it is! What did he say?”

Lily wasn’t sure why she felt she needed to protect the scant information she possessed about the prince. After all, she barely knew him. Furthermore, she didn’t suppose he’d told her anything that wasn’t easily discovered. “I don’t suppose it matters. He said he was the poorest of his brothers.”

“Ah! So he has no funds.” Lady Charlotte’s needles clacked along. “I’m not surprised. Europe is crawling with supposed princes, and not a farthing to be had between them.”

The duchess sniffed. “There would be more wealthy princes if foreigners didn’t breed like rabbits.”

Lady Charlotte agreed. “They should take after the English Crown; we have only one, perhaps two heirs to the throne at a time. It makes things so simple. Otherwise, what would one do with all of them? I suppose that’s why Prince Wulfinski is here; his family simply felt there were too many princes wandering about, and so they sent him off.”

“Perhaps.” The duchess shrugged, then glanced at the open doorway. Once she was satisfied that none of her guests were lingering in the foyer, she scooted her chair closer to Lily and said in a low tone, “My dear Miss Balfour, as we have a few moments, I should mention that your father wrote me a most interesting letter. I received it just this morning.”

Lily’s stomach sank. What has Papa done? “Papa wrote you?” Why would he do such a thing, unless—

“There’s no reason to look upset. He merely wished to thank me for attempting to help your family out of your predicament.”

Lily wished she could sink into the ground. “He told you everything?”

Her grace nodded.

“So tragic,” Lady Charlotte said. “Lord Kirk always seemed like such a gentleman, too. Or he was before his accident. I hear he’s horridly changed since then, and not just physically.”

“He’s a cold and calculating man,” Lily said. “Poor Papa didn’t have a chance.”

The duchess nodded in apparent sympathy. “I’ve had commerce with Lord Kirk before. A land purchase, I think it was. Your father is quite right in thinking that Kirk would never give him a respite on a debt owed. The man can be inflexible.”

Lady Charlotte tugged more yarn from her basket, frowning when she saw that it was tangled beneath a sleeping pug. She put out a slippered foot and nudged the dog out of the way. Its eyes opened slightly, but otherwise it gave no indication of moving. “It’s good that your father explained the depth of your predicament. Her grace and I suspected it, but now we know that you must marry a wealthy man and quickly.”

Face heated, Lily nodded. “I hate these circumstances.”

“Nonsense,” her grace said in a bracing tone. “It’s unladylike to pursue a career or even obtain a decent education, so what else is left us?”

“I—I cannot imagine marrying without love, but I suppose I must.”

“My dear, I’ve married no fewer than five times, all of them to men of great wealth, and all of my marriages have been for love. There’s no reason you couldn’t do the same.”

Lily didn’t want to marry five times. She wasn’t even sure she wanted to be married once. The pug at Lily’s side snuggled against her and she absently patted it. “I had no idea you’d been married so many times, your grace.”

“The first four passed away of natural causes; they were much older than I.” The duchess’s face softened. “They were great men, all of them, although I believe Roxburghe to be my true love. At least thus far.”

Lily wasn’t quite sure how to answer this, so she merely nodded.

“My point is this: you can indeed have a very passionate relationship with a wealthy man. All you have to do is give yourself the opportunity to fall in love with the right man.”

“It’s a shame there aren’t other opportunities available to women,” Lady Charlotte said, her round face folded in thought. “I do think I would have made an excellent butcher.”

Her grace turned a surprised look on her friend. “A butcher?”

“Oh yes. I saw pigs being butchered many times when I was a child.”

“But you were raised at Highclere Castle. I can scarcely believe they’d allow the daughter of the house to witness such a thing.”

Lady Charlotte knitted on serenely. “My father believed in the old ways. We cured our own ham, bacon—we were quite self-sufficient.”

“We do the same here, but not in full view of the daughter of the castle. Surely you weren’t encouraged to attend such bloody events?”

“Oh no, but I went anyway. It was quite interesting. First, they— Here, let me show you.” Lady Charlotte set her knitting aside and bent over to scoop up a pug. She settled it into her lap, then took a loop of yarn in one hand. “First, they’d throw a heavy rope about the pig’s back feet like so. And then they’d bash him in the head with a large wooden mallet right here.” She placed her finger between the pug’s eyes. “And then, once they were certain he was dead, they’d slash his throat right here—”

“Goodness!” The duchess snatched the pug from Lady Charlotte’s lap. “Meenie doesn’t like to hear about pigs and their slaughter.” The duchess hugged the dog, who yawned and then closed its eyes once again. “As I was saying, Miss Balfour, Lady Charlotte and I fully intend on helping you reach a satisfactory arrangement as soon as possible.” With that, the duchess began expounding upon the benefits of marriage in a way that made Lily almost ill to her stomach.

A lump of panic grew in Lily’s throat. Surely I won’t need to marry that quickly. I really only need to get engaged. Once I accept an offer, I will just inform my newly intended of Papa’s dilemma, and once that obligation to Lord Kirk is paid, we can take our time getting to know each other before actually marching down the aisle. Yes. That’s what we’ll do.

Lily suddenly realized that both the duchess and Lady Charlotte were looking at her as if awaiting an answer. Not sure what they’d been saying, she nodded and murmured, “Of course.”

The duchess beamed. “I think you’ll find we’re right. Huntley is an excellent choice.”

They are very determined that I like this earl. I hope I do. She managed a smile.

“If, of course, he appeals to you,” Lady Charlotte said kindly.

“And if I appeal to him, too,” Lily said.

“Oh, we’ve no fear on that score.” The duchess patted the pugs in her lap while she beamed at Lily. “Your biddable nature alone will recommend you to him.”

“Biddable nature”? Good God.

Lady Charlotte smiled. “If only we can get him to come to the point before the Butterfly Ball. Then he could announce it right then. Oh, it would make the event so memorable.”

“Charlotte, what a delightful thought!” The duchess couldn’t have looked happier. “That settles it: Lily, Huntley will make you an offer and he will do it before the ball.”

The duchess spoke with such firmness that Lily began to feel sorry for the unknown earl. This is getting out of hand. “Your grace, I can’t—”

Mrs. Cairness entered carrying a tea tray.

“Ah, tea!” The duchess peered at the tray. “I’m famished.”

Lily was left to wait as the housekeeper filled the teacups and handed out tea cakes. Finally, she left.

As soon as the housekeeper was gone, Lily said, “I am very grateful for your help, your grace, but what if Huntley isn’t the one for me?”

“He will be, if you’ll let him.” The duchess sipped her tea. “He’s a lovely man.”

“Oh yes,” Lady Charlotte added, her soft blue-gray eyes shining with enthusiasm. “So distinguished.”

“Very handsome, too,” the duchess added. “One of the handsomest earls I’ve yet to meet.” The two pugs in her lap were now wide-awake and staring intently at her tea cake. “In addition, I’ve been grooming Huntley for you.”

“We both have.” Lady Charlotte licked butter off her fingers, looking like a plump fairy. “He’s looking forward to meeting you.”

Lily wondered if the pigs on Lady Charlotte’s home farm had seen what was coming their way. She tried to look appreciative, though it took quite a bit of effort. “It was quite kind of you to mention me.”

“It was my pleasure,” the duchess assured her. “Huntley’s been a bit of a recluse since his wife died, but—”

“Wife? Pardon me, but . . . he’s a widower?”

“Oh yes. He was quite attached to his first wife and refused to enter company for several years after her death.”

“But now he’s back in society.” Lady Charlotte dipped a spoon into a jar of marmalade and spread it over her tea cake. “But you needn’t fear that he developed a new interest in that time, for he hasn’t. We asked him.”

“You asked him?”

“Of course.” The duchess set down her teacup. “How else would we discover his situation? He was a bit reluctant at first to discuss his private life, but Charlotte quite won him over.”

“Yes, first I told him that it was obvious that he was once again joining the ranks of the eligible, and I would hate to waste his time introducing him to every female the duchess and I know. We know quite a few, too.”

“Many.” The duchess chuckled. “You should have seen his face! But it did the trick, for he revealed what he was looking for in the way of a wife. And what he told us made us very hopeful for you, my dear!”

Lily looked down at her teacup. A wealthy, handsome earl looking for a wife . . . what more could she ask for? Yet in her mind’s eye arose a vision of a large man, his shock of black hair framing brilliant green eyes, his dark, accented voice rumbling through her.

But that was not to be. Lily pushed the memory aside and met the gaze of her expectant hostesses. Steeling her heart, she swallowed her misgivings and firmly faced her future. “That’s lovely. I look forward to meeting the earl. I’m sure we’ll suit very well.”

The duchess and Lady Charlotte beamed and began to discuss the various events they’d planned for the coming few weeks.

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