Be My Prince
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"The sensuality between these two characters smoked up the pages and the action packed scenes in between gave the book that much more oomph to follow. The entire piece was masterfully crafted and very well written."Deserie Comfort - Amazon reviewer
"In this game of lies, deceit, and perhaps betrayal, nothing is as it appears and the truth really is more powerful than the two people standing together in a heated embrace. Julianne MacLean writes what romance readers crave, showing her mastery in the craft of the twisted plot."Mary Gramlich - Amazon reviewer
Attention one and all. His Royal Highness, Prince Randolph of Petersbourg, will set sail for London in early June and reside at St. James Palace for one full month . . . Some say the true motive for the prince's visit to our fair country is to seek and marry his future queen. I will therefore pose the question to our devoted and reflective readers: Who among us will be the chosen one? -From the London Ballroom Society Pages
Lady Alexandra Monroe has been told in no uncertain terms that she must set her sights on a proposal from Prince Randolph to better her family's situation. Instead, she finds herself falling for his charming but dangerous younger brother Nicholas, a man whose passionate nature-and irresistible good looks-makes it impossible to remember her duty. But while she is torn between ambition and desire, a wicked scandal brews, shocking secrets are revealed, and soon she begins to wonder: can true love really conquer all?
Release date: August 6, 2020
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 321
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Be My Prince
From the London Ballroom Society Pages
May 12, 1814
ROYAL VISIT CONFIRMED
Attention one and all. The editors of this paper are delighted to report upon a most auspicious event. His Royal Highness Prince Randolph of Petersbourg will set sail for London in early June and reside at St. James’s Palace for one full month.
The handsome heir to the Petersbourg throne will discuss with the regent a political and military alliance that may result in the amalgamation of our two great and powerful naval fleets.
This favorable military alliance is not, however, the fuel that has fired the ambitions of the great matriarchs of the ton—for some say the true motive for the prince’s visit to our fair country is to seek and marry his future queen.
I will therefore pose the question to our devoted and reflective readers: Who among us will be the chosen one?
Carlton House, London June 16, 1814
There were certain days of her life when Lady Alexandra Monroe wished she had been born a man.
This, perhaps, was the most noteworthy of those days, for here she stood in the regent’s overcrowded London reception room, glancing about at all the other impeccably dressed young ladies, each vying for a chance to meet a handsome foreign prince and win from him a proposal of marriage.
It was quite sickening, really, and she was half-tempted to walk out—for surely, she was above all this—but she could not do as she wished, for she had a duty to fulfill. She had been waiting a very long time for this moment.
“Upon my word, look at the jewels on that one,” her stepmother, Lucille, said as she snapped open her ivory-handled fan. “How frightfully vulgar. Just behind me in the blue gown. Do you see?”
Alexandra leaned to the left to peer over her stepmother’s shoulder. “Indeed I do.”
She, too, opened her fan with a smooth flick of her wrist and took note of an older woman by the mantelpiece, studying her with boiling menace. The woman leaned closer to her own charge and whispered something that caused the girl to swing her head around and sneer.
Honestly. This whole evening was nothing short of a bloodthirsty, cutthroat competition. All the ladies were trussed up in their best gowns and jewels, eyeing each other with icy rancor.
If only we had swords and muskets, then the portrait would be complete.
She cheered herself, however, with the notion that it would all be over soon, for she had every intention of charging ahead in the next few minutes and tramping them all down into the dust. Every last one of them. Quickly and without mercy, because no one in this room deserved to sit on the throne of Petersbourg more than she did, and she was not going to surrender without a fight.
* * *
“They say he wishes to marry for love,” the Duchess of Pembroke said as she picked up a glass of champagne from a passing footman. “It’s quite charming, do you not agree?”
“I think it’s a silly bunch of nonsense,” Lord Brimley replied. “The man is a future king. He must choose a bride who will serve some political purpose. He is responsible for the welfare of his kingdom. Such romantic notions are pure folly, and it arouses great doubt in me that we should even desire a naval alliance with Petersbourg, if this is what we will be subjected to in years to come. Kings must be sensible, and sometimes, when necessary, they must be ruthless. Romance and sentimentality have nothing to do with it.”
“Well, that’s the problem, right there,” Baron Westley added. “The man wasn’t born a royal. He has no understanding of such things. They say his grandfather was a blacksmith.”
“Hush,” someone hissed, from outside their circle.
Alexandra glanced over her shoulder at the daring offender—another mother of a marriageable young daughter who, in all honesty, had very little hope of catching the eye of any prince, for she was wide-eyed and fretful, like a mouse trapped in a corner by cats.
“His father has been king for ten years,” the duchess said, “and that will not change. The people of Petersbourg adore Prince Randolph. Make no mistake about it, Lord Westley, we are about to bow and curtsy to the future King of Petersbourg, and I, for one, find his sizable naval fleet immensely desirable.”
The others, most of them red-nosed and brandy-faced, threw their heads back and laughed.
“I do not understand,” the young lady whispered to Alexandra. “I thought Prince Randolph was a real prince.”
Alexandra leaned close to whisper in her ear, “He is, but without royal blood. His father was general of the military and leader of the Petersbourg Revolution. Do you not know of it?”
The girl quickly shook her head.
Alexandra struggled not to let out a weary sigh and instead searched for a way to explain. “Twenty years ago, the true King of Petersbourg was deposed by the military. The general—Randolph’s father—seized power for himself and formed a democratic government. He was such a compelling leader that they crowned him king. They now have a constitutional monarchy.”
Eyes as wide as saucers, the young lady nodded, but Alexandra was quite certain she was more confused than ever. “Do not fret,” Alex whispered. “He’s a real prince and very handsome. That’s all you need to know.”
“But what happened to the old king?” the young woman asked.
Alexandra bent close again, for she did not wish to be overheard speaking of events that were best left in the past—at least while in the company of all these powerful Whigs and Tories. “He was exiled to Switzerland and died there. The official story is that it was a brief illness, but some say he was murdered by the New Regime. The queen, unfortunately, passed away a few months later after giving birth to a stillborn child.”
“My word. How tragic.”
Just then the doors to the reception room flew open. A hush fell over the crowd, which split in two and formed a wide corridor down the center of the red carpet.
“His Royal Highness, Prince Randolph of Petersbourg!” the majordomo announced. “And Her Royal Highness, Princess Rose of Petersbourg!”
The guests curtsied and bowed as the young royals stepped into view and progressed elegantly down the long red carpet to meet the regent, who stood waiting to greet them at the opposite end. With keen eyes, Alexandra took in their appearance—the prince’s especially.
It had been widely reported from many informed sources that he was a handsome man, and Alexandra had no choice but to concur. Only a fool would argue that point, and she was no fool.
Dressed in his impressive royal regalia—a scarlet double-breasted tunic with brass buttons and gold tassled epaulets upon his shoulders, and a jeweled saber sheathed in a shiny black casing—he was a striking figure to be sure. He was tall and dark. His hips were slim, his legs muscular beneath tight knee breeches, his eyes an uncommon shade of blue.
His sister, Rose, the young princess on his arm, was equally handsome in both appearance and stature. She carried herself with confidence and bright, smiling charm. Her hair, styled in the latest fashion, was a shiny golden hue, and she was blessed with a tiny upturned nose, deep green eyes set wide apart, high cheekbones, and full lips.
Alexandra fought to crush the resentment she felt upon seeing the princess’s exquisite white gown and stunning headdress while she herself had been forced to wear rags up until a month ago.
The royal couple approached the regent, who welcomed them with a smile, and the crowd closed the corridor and resumed chattering.
“What do you think?” Lucille asked. “Is he everything you imagined him to be?”
“Handsome, at least.”
Which would remove a certain degree of unpleasantness on the wedding night.
She turned to smile at the Countess of Risley, who approached with her son, a future earl. The gentleman bowed, and Alexandra curtsied.
For the next few moments they exchanged pleasantries and demonstrated the immaculate manners and wit expected of their rank and station. He was a future peer of the realm, she the beautiful eldest daughter of one of the highest-ranking dukes in England.
She, however, like the prince, was the subject of much interest and fascination, for she’d been concealed from society since the death of her father, the Duke of St. George, six years ago and, though impoverished since that day, had recently been dubbed the Hidden Jewel by her generous benefactor, who had come for her at last. According to many, she was the woman most likely to win this race for the prince’s heart.
For that reason, handsome though he may be, she had no interest in this future Earl of Risley. All that mattered was the fulfillment of her duty. To that end she must be true.
As soon as the young man and his mother took their leave, Alex turned her attention back to the prince. By some stroke of luck their eyes met, and she permitted him to look at her for a long, lingering, and very satisfying moment before she gave him a cheeky smile—as if they were secret paramours—then averted her gaze and strolled off in the other direction.
Twenty minutes later, while she stood with her stepmother near a potted tree fern, fanning herself leisurely in the heat of the crowded reception room, His Royal Highness approached her with curious interest.
Just as she suspected he would.
The regent gestured toward Lucille with a white-gloved hand. “Prince Randolph, may I present to you Her Grace, the Dowager Duchess of St. George, and Lady Alexandra Monroe, eldest daughter of the late and greatly beloved Duke of St. George.”
Alex and Lucille each performed a deep curtsy. “It is an honor, Your Royal Highness,” Alex said as she rose to her full height.
The prince took in the details of her gown while she took note of the large emerald ring upon his right forefinger— one of the many crown jewels she knew he was entitled to as heir to the throne.
He smiled, displaying fine white teeth. “The honor is all mine.”
Many eyes watched them, curious ears listened, and Alex felt more determined than ever to beguile him straightaway.
“I trust your journey was smooth and uneventful?” she said. “Not too arduous, I hope.”
He inclined his head politely. “Not in the least. It was a smooth and pleasant voyage. You hail from Yorkshire, I understand? It’s beautiful country there, from what I hear of it. I was also told that your father’s palace is an architectural masterpiece, one of the greatest estates in England.”
“How kind of you to say so,” Alexandra replied. “Perhaps you might travel to the north while you are visiting our fair country and see it for yourself?”
He narrowed his gaze flirtatiously. “Is that an invitation, Lady Alexandra?”
She gave him a warm smile mixed with a hint of desire that went no deeper than the powder upon her skin. But he would not know that. He would see only what she wished him to see. “If it would please you, sir, you would be most welcome.”
Though she had no right to extend such an invitation, for she’d not set foot in St. George Palace for seven years. Others resided there now.
The dinner gong rang out, and he bowed to her. “It has been a pleasure, Lady Alexandra. I trust you will honor me with a dance later this evening?”
He bowed to her stepmother as well. Then he turned to offer his arm to his sister, Rose, who waited a distance away.
Together with the regent, they led the guests into the large banqueting hall.
“If he only knew,” Lucille sighed with casual triumph as she watched him disappear.
Alexandra exhaled sharply and fought to steady her breathing. “I am relieved he does not.”
For if he or anyone else in the room knew that she was the true blood heir to the throne of Petersbourg, she might very well end up dead.
After dinner was served and speeches were delivered, the guests filed into the ballroom, where the orchestra had already begun to play.
Alexandra glanced about at the lavishness of the room, adorned with sheets of white muslin draped across the walls. Fragrant batches of white roses were set out in every direction, while hundreds of flickering candles provided a brilliant illumination for the regent and his regal guests to mingle through the crowd.
Part of her wondered if this was all a dream and she would soon wake to find herself back in her tiny cottage in Wales with her sisters, arguing over how to scrape together enough coin to pay the butcher.
Her gaze fell upon a liveried footman. He was moving slowly through the crowd and carrying a tray of champagne. The crystal glasses sparkled almost blindingly in the candlelight, and for some reason it made her heart beat uncomfortably fast. A heavy shadow of apprehension settled over her, and she felt terribly displaced as memory transported her back to the cold chill of winter when there was not enough coal in the grate. And the dreadful fear that came at night when a sound outside the cottage woke her from her slumber. Who was it? Friend or assassin?
She had been forced to keep secrets from her sisters, who were not really her true sisters. Not by blood. She cared for them deeply and would do anything for them, but she had never been able to confide in them. She had been able to confide in no one.
A cheerful waltz began, and the prince escorted his sister onto the floor, set his hand at the small of her back, and began to dance around the room.
It was the first time Alexandra had ever seen a waltz performed, for it was very new.
How happy and carefree the young royals looked. Did they ever think of the ancient bloodline they had toppled? Of the family they’d destroyed? Did they ever feel guilty for the wealth and luxury that was now theirs to enjoy while the true king and queen lay rotting in their graves?
Alexandra shut her eyes for a moment to purge such thoughts from her head. This was not the time for morbid reflection. She must smile and be merry.
She turned to her stepmother. “I apologize, but I require a moment to myself.” Lucille frowned at her, but she would not be daunted. “I must take some air and gather my wits about me, or I will never make it through this night.”
Lucille tried to stop her, but Alexandra turned away and passed through the open French doors that led onto the stone terrace, which was dimly lit by two flaming torches, one at each corner.
She rushed to the balustrade and sucked in the cool, fresh scents of the night. A light breeze blew across her cheeks, but nothing seemed to ease the knot of anxiety in her belly. She had not imagined it would be this difficult. So much depended upon this one night and the performance she must deliver.
At last, the chaos in her mind began to subside. She sat down on the balustrade and looked up at the stars in the sky. “That’s better. Breathe, Alex. He’s only a prince, and not even a real one.”
A throat cleared unexpectedly from somewhere in the shadows, and she quickly stood. “Who’s there?”
No one replied, so she took an unflinching step away from the balustrade. “This is highly improper, whoever you are. Reveal yourself to me now, sir, if you please.”
It was dark in the far corner of the terrace, but not so murky that she could not make out a pair of long booted legs swinging down from a horizontal position on a bench.
Evidently, a gentleman—completely unknown to her— had been using it to take a nap.
She should have darted inside straightaway, but something held her fixed to the flagstone upon which she stood. Perhaps it was the sight of the man’s upper body coming into view as he leaned into the torchlight. Or maybe it was the finer details of his face—for it was a beautiful one, with strong, masculine lines and flawless proportions, capped off with an unfashionably wild mane of wavy black hair.
He held a silver flask in a leather-gloved hand, and Alexandra surmised that he could not possibly be a guest at the ball, for he wore a black riding coat and one did not wear muddy boots to a banquet.
His voice was deep and low and strangely exotic as he began to chuckle in the dark. “Not a real prince, you say. That’s not very polite, Miss Whoever You Are. I ought to report you to someone.”
“Like whom?” she countered, fearing suddenly that her identity and treasonous plot were about to be discovered.
“Like . . . Oh, I don’t know. I can’t think straight. All that music and laughter is clouding my brain. What about you? Why are you out here when all the other ladies are inside scrambling for a chance to dance with the distinguished guest of honor?” He raised the flask to his lips and took a long, slow swig as he awaited her reply.
“I don’t need to scramble for anything,” she said. “All I need to do is wait patiently, for His Royal Highness has already invited me to join him in a dance. I simply required a bit of air, that is all.”
“Air?” The stranger stood and approached. He was an imposing figure to be sure, and she was strangely spellbound by each step he took across the terrace. “We have something in common, then.”
The torchlight danced in a sudden gust of wind. “And what, pray tell, is that?”
He halted before her. “We both like to breathe.”
Alexandra watched him for a moment, then narrowed her guarded, suspicious gaze. “You smell like a distillery. Are you drunk?”
“Only a little, but let us keep that to ourselves, shall we?” As it happened, she was very good at keeping secrets. Nevertheless, there were rules of etiquette to consider.
“If you are drunk, sir, then a royal ball is no place for you. You ought to go home. I have no doubt you’ll feel much better in the morning.”
He chuckled. “I doubt that.”
She glanced down at his boots, then let her eyes wander with interest up the impressive length of his body. He was strong and well proportioned and possessed the firm, muscled thighs of an active horseman.
“I suppose I wouldn’t know about such things,” she replied. “I’ve never had more than a few sips of anything. Not that it’s any business of yours.” She gave a quick curtsy. “Good evening, sir.”
She tried to leave, but he blocked her way.
“Don’t go yet.” He leaned close to speak softly in her ear—so close that she could smell the brandy on his breath and feel the moist heat of his words on her lobe. “I need someone to talk to, and I like the sound of your voice. It reminds me of . . .”
He paused, and her breath caught in her throat.
He was unbelievably attractive.
“Of what?” she cautiously asked.
Those dark eyebrows pulled together. “I’m afraid I can’t quite recall, but I am certain it will come to me.”
Alexandra felt a heated stirring of arousal in her core. She worked hard to quell it, however, for she was here on a mission, and this was not it.
Thankfully, he backed away and gave her some space to collect herself—though it was not easy to do.
“This is not appropriate,” she said, realizing with more than a little displeasure that she was stalling, for this mysterious horseman from the shadows was an overwhelming distraction—and heaven knew she needed one. “We have not been properly introduced.”
“You are quite correct,” he replied. “Where is your chaperone? Shall I call for her?”
“No!” She looked inside, then spoke in a quieter tone. “Please do not.”
For she knew exactly what her stepmother would say. Lucille would demand to know why Alex had taken her eyes off the prize.
The horseman glanced toward the open doors. “Fine, then. We’ll take care of the introductions ourselves. I’ll tell you my name if you promise to tell me yours.”
“Agreed,” she replied, “but then you must let me pass.”
He bowed to indicate his agreement. “Very well then. And your name is . . . ?”
“I am Lady Alexandra Monroe, honored to make your acquaintance. Good evening, sir.”
She curtsied again, made another attempt to return to the ballroom, but he stopped her again—this time with a gloved fingertip upon the bare skin of her upper arm, just below her puffed sleeve, which caused a flash of heat to rush from the point of contact straight down to her toes.
His blue eyes narrowed. “Lady Alexandra . . . Are you the daughter of the Duke of St. George?”
So he knew of her.
“Yes, but not the current duke. My father died six years ago.”
Though my real father was put to death by greedy insurgents before I was born.
“Ah, yes.” He lowered his hand to his side and removed his gloves. “I have heard of you. You are quite notorious in fact. They say you have been living in Wales with your sisters, and that you have been . . .” He paused. “Unjustly impoverished.”
Alexandra detected a hint of compassion in his voice and had to work hard not to immerse herself in it. She had learned a long time ago that one cannot wallow in self-pity and stand strong and mighty at the same time. “Evidently I am quite the spectacle this evening,” she said.
“Indeed. This is your first Season, correct?”
He leaned close and spoke in a husky voice that feathered across her skin. “At least the gentlemen at White’s were right about one thing.”
Alexandra quirked a brow. “And what was that?”
“They said you were the most beautiful woman in England, hidden away and guarded like a priceless jewel.” He drew back and regarded her intently for a moment. “Beautiful to be certain, but why have they kept you hidden away, may I ask? You are the daughter of a duke. Why have you been residing in Wales? Why not at the estate where you were raised?”
She wet her lips and concealed the more pertinent question: Why not with my real family, in the country where my ancestors had been born, and where they had ruled for centuries?
“I am surprised you don’t know the answer to that question,” she said, “when you seem to know everything else about me.”
The blue of his eyes shone in the torchlight. “Indulge me.”
“Why should I?”
Again he leaned close. “Because you want to.”
An intoxicating shiver of arousal ran through her as she comprehended the truth in his words, spoken so provocatively.
She had never met a man quite like this one before. He was very confident and exuded a distinguishable air of sexuality. All the little hairs on the back of her neck were standing on end. Her heart was beating wildly with exhilaration, and she could not deny that she wanted to revel a little longer in this feeling of excitement.
“My father the duke died without an heir,” she explained, “so the title passed to his estranged younger brother, who arrived at the palace with four daughters of his own, roughly the same age as my sisters and me. He took one look at us and decided that we would be an obstacle to the marriage prospects of his own daughters, so he sent us away, banished us to a place well beyond the reaches of polite society.”
The gentleman frowned. “Because the four of you were prettier?”
“I suppose that would be an accurate conclusion to derive from the circumstances.”
He inclined his head with curiosity. “Tell me more.”
“His Grace provided us with a very meager allowance, barely enough to live on and certainly not enough to provide a dowry or even gowns for a proper Season. That is why we have never been to London.”
He studied her with some concern. “That is most unfortunate. It sounds as if you and your sisters were greatly wronged.”
Alexandra swallowed uneasily. There it was again— the compassion. But she had not told him of her situation to seek his pity and wished for a moment that she had not revealed any of it.
Another part of her, however—the deeper, more honest place that had been profoundly hurt and wounded by all the lies and betrayals from those she trusted most— cracked just a little, and she found herself opening up even further to this stranger before she realized what she was saying.
“Indeed, and here I am, dressed in a borrowed gown and jewels, hoping to win a proposal from a prince, along with dozens of other young women, each with her own story, I suppose.” She paused and looked up at the stars, listened to the crickets chirping in the grass. “It’s strange. There was once a time, long ago, when I imagined I would marry for love. I would have settled quite happily for a simple life with a mere clerk or merchant for a husband, but others insist that such a common existence is beneath me.”
She dragged her gaze down from the stars and spoke in more practical terms. “More importantly, my stepmother controls our allowance from my uncle, so it seems I must choose a husband in a more mercenary fashion if I am to help my sisters improve their situation. I am the eldest. It falls upon me to lift us out of the trenches. That is the world we live in, I suppose. Duty must come first.”
The gentleman said nothing. He seemed rather taken aback, and Alexandra wanted to sink through the ground. What had she been thinking? It was unseemly to reveal such intimate details to a complete stranger in the dark when she was duty bound to be inside seducing a prince— not only to secure a better future for herself and her sisters but also to avenge her true family and embrace her destiny as the rightful sovereign of Petersbourg.
“What happened to your real mother?” the man asked, proving himself to be a very bad influence, continuing to ask such personal questions.
My real mother died tragically in exile, shortly after giving birth to me.
“The duchess died when my youngest sister was born. Our father remarried my stepmother a year later, but there were no children from that union. I am sorry, but I must go. Good night, sir.” She hurried past him to return to the ballroom.
“Wait.” He turned to follow. “Will you dance with me?”
She glanced down at his muddy boots. “You’re not dressed.”
“I can be,” he replied. “Just say yes and I will arrange a proper introduction.”
Alexandra hesitated. “I am here to dance with the prince.”
“So you’ve already said.”
A spark of heady anticipation seeped into her blood as she imagined waltzing with this man . . . setting her gloved hand upon his shoulder . . . following his movements across the floor. . . .
“You’re going to get in my way, aren’t you?” she asked.
“In the way of your mercenary ambitions to marry a royal?” His eyes burned into hers. “I thought you said you’d settle for a clerk or a merchant if it meant you could marry for love.”
Alexandra lifted her chin. “I did say that, but I must think of my sisters. As much as I would like to, I cannot settle for less, so please do not upset things.”
He spread his arms wide as if to profess his innocence. “A dance. That is all I ask.”
She should have taken more time to weigh the particulars, but an answer spilled past her lips before she could think it through. “Fine, but please say nothing to anyone about our conversation here. I’ve stayed too long as it is.”
The instant she reentered the ballroom, her stepmother came quickly to her side.
“Where were you, Alexandra? The Duke of Wentworth has been engaging me in conversation. I could not break away, and I was consumed with worry that you had been abducted by some imperial spy in the garden.”
“Oh, don’t be silly. I only required a bit of fresh air. That is all.”
But in all honesty she had been abducted—in the proverbial sense at least—by a handsome horseman in the shadows with a quiet, husky voice and a very dangerous sensual appeal.
It was not until that moment that she realized he had not told her his name.
She hoped he would not come to the ball. It would not be wise to see him again.
Later that evening, Alexandra watched the prince lead another young lady through a country dance. Dressed in his striking scarlet regalia, he was a stunningly handsome man. A skilled dancer as well. There was no denying it.
The lady upon his arm at present, moving with him through the steps of the dance, appeared to be foolish with awe and infatuation. Clearly, the prince knew it. He was aware of his effect on women. He had a way of teasing them with his eyes. Alexandra would be next, she supposed.
Though in her case there was no danger of becoming infatuated, for her wounds ran deep, as did her scorn for this seditious family of usurpers.
Alexandra watched him escort his partner off the floor and prepared herself for her own encounter with him. She would not giggle and gape at him as all the others had. She knew the part she had to play, and she would play it well.
“Who is that man?” her stepmother asked the Duchess of Pembroke, who had been very kind to them that night while many of the other women had given Alexandra cold looks of disdain for daring to enter the race on such short notice.
“That is Prince Nicholas, Randolph’s younger brother,” the duchess replied.
Like a force of magic, Alex’s gaze swept to the door at the precise instant the name passed the duchess’s lips. It was him.
He was dressed differently now, no longer windblown from a ride in the park, no longer muddied or in need of a shave. He was now elegantly attired in a dark green silk coat, cream knee breeches, and polished shoes, and his hair was combed and styled fashionably.
Alex watched him approach his brother and speak in a manner that revealed an intimate familiarity between them. The duchess leaned a little closer. “He is Randolph’s private secretary as well, but I’ve heard rumors that he is a terrible royal.”
“How do you mean?” Lucille asked.
“He has a reputation with the ladies. And no wonder. With that face, not to mention everything else from the neck down, a woman could mislay her virtue simply by looking at him.”
Alexandra felt as if her breath had been cut off. The mysterious stranger from the terrace was Prince Randolph’s younger brother and private secretary? And a scoundrel on top of it all?
Good God! She had stood in the shadows and carried on an intimate conversation with him. She had allowed him to flirt with her—surely that’s what he was doing when he touched her arm and told her he liked the sound of her voice.
Had he been testing her or attempting to weed out the women who only wished to better their circumstances? A woman such as she, who believed Randolph was “not a real prince.” A woman who had sisters to think of . . .
How could he not have revealed his status and position? What sort of bad character would entrap a lady in such a devious manner?
This was all a game to them, she realized. Nothing more. The very thought of it infuriated her.
At that precise moment, Randolph and Nicholas turned in her direction.
Randolph laid a hand on his brother’s shoulder and squeezed, as if to thank him for something, and together they moved through the crowd.
“My word, they are coming this way,” Lucille whispered. “And what a pair they make.”
Lucille was referring of course to their extraordinary good looks. Together, side by side, they were a breathtaking force of elegance and charisma no other men in the room could rival.
Though she was anything but, Alex strove to maintain an appearance of calm as they came to stand before her. Prince Randolph was the first to speak.
“Duchess.” He bowed to the Duchess of Pembroke, then addressed Lucille. “Your Grace, if you would permit me to formally present my brother, Nicholas.”
There it was. The proper introduction, as promised.
Alex’s stepmother curtsied and turned to the other royal. “We are delighted to make your acquaintance, Your Royal Highness. This is my eldest stepdaughter, Lady Alexandra Monroe.”
He bowed to her. “It is an honor, my lady.”
Alexandra curtsied as well and felt a spark of furious heat flare through her. What was he playing at? Had the brothers already discussed and deciphered every word she had spoken on the terrace? Had Nicholas repeated everything?
The orchestra began a new piece, and Randolph held out a white-gloved hand. “If I do recall, Lady Alexandra, you were kind enough to promise me a dance. Shall we proceed to the floor?”
Maintaining a cool expression of confidence, she slipped her gloved hand into his. “Indeed we shall.”
Without a single glance back at his brother, she brushed past him and focused all her attention on the man who held the key to her future. The one who would wear the crown.
“Nicholas tells me this is your first London Season,” the prince said as they moved through the steps of a country dance.
“That is correct, and it has been a marvelous experience thus far. Tonight especially.”
He studied her with knowing eyes. “How so? Is it the food that has met with your approval? Or the music? The adornments perhaps.”
She took three steps toward him, keeping her eyes trained intensely on his the entire time. “It is the company that has held me captivated, sir, for I have lived too long away from society.”
“Ah. You are enjoying the conversation and the pleasure of meeting new people.”
“Yes, you have captured it exactly. New people.”
They performed a number of steps to and fro as they moved through the dance.
“Anyone in particular?”
He watched her steadily. His eyes were no longer playful but serious.
“Why you, of course,” she flirtatiously replied.
The prince took three steps back. “What a perfect answer. You flatter me.”
She studied his expression and realized that she had gone too far. This man had women throwing themselves at him from all angles, all night long, and here she was, doing the very same thing and not feeling the slightest bit genuine about it.
They moved around each other, and she took a moment to reorganize her line of attack, for she could not blunder this, or retreat in failure.
“I apologize,” she finally said. “That is what I was instructed to say to you. You must find this very difficult. There are many women here, behaving just so, competing for your attention.”
He took her hand and supported her in a turn. “Yes, there are, but apparently none quite as honest as you. They are either falling over themselves with giddiness or blatantly seducing me with their eyes. No one has yet confessed to having been told what to say.”
“Would you prefer that I seduce you?”
“No. I would prefer that you be yourself.”
“Honesty is always best,” she said.
“My sentiments exactly.”
They began another set of steps that repeated the opening.
“Since we are being honest . . . ,” he said with a curious look in his eye, “tell me something.”
He supported her through a turn. “What did you think of my brother, Nicholas? Now, now, let there be no secrets between us. He mentioned he met you on the terrace earlier and neglected to reveal his identity, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.”
Alexandra chose her words carefully. “That is true. I confess I felt somewhat . . . deceived just now when I saw him at your side.”
The prince spoke candidly. “Do not fault him, Lady Alexandra. He is my most trusted ally. And it wasn’t his intention to deceive you. He was only acting on my behalf, attempting to learn something about one of the ladies with whom I was to dance this evening.”
“Are you implying it was a test?”
He chuckled. “I suppose you could call it that.”
She took his hand and allowed him to lead her through another turn. “Did I pass?”
“With flying colors.”
Alexandra shot him a flirtatious glance. “I can’t imagine why.”
He smiled. “I’d wager it was your honesty.”
Though it was meant as a compliment, it cut her to the quick, for honest was the very last thing she was tonight. She resolved, however, to feel no shame. Her true family had had far worse things done to them by others. It was her turn now to begin her own private revolution, and in doing so she would take no prisoners.
The dance came to an end, and the prince escorted her back to her stepmother. “Thank you,” he said to Lucille, “for the honor of the young lady’s company. Good evening to you all.”
With that, he turned and whispered something to his brother, then strode across the room to escort another partner onto the floor.
Evidently, Alex was a mere spark in a very bright line of would-be queens, which knocked her confidence down a notch.
Then suddenly that quiet, husky voice spoke close in her ear. “You look flushed, my lady,” Prince Nicholas said. “Is there anything I can do to relieve your distress? A glass of champagne perhaps?”
A flash of heat flared in her blood while Lucille gestured frantically behind his back to remind Alex that this incredibly desirable man was the future king’s key advisor in his pursuit of a wife, and she could not afford to refuse.
He is not the one I want, she reminded herself over and over as she crossed the crowded ballroom on Prince Nicholas’s arm. It did little good, however, for no amount of rationalizing seemed powerful enough to douse the flames of agitation in her blood, kindled by the mere act of touching him.
Everything about him—his looks, his voice, the intensity of his presence—ignited a full-blown battle between her frustration with him and her true purpose here.
As soon as they arrived at the dessert table, he reached for a small plate. “What may I offer you, my lady? There is much to choose from. Cherries, nuts, apples, cream . . .”
Alex cleared her throat. “A glass of punch please.”
He moved to pick up two crystal glasses from a shiny silver tray and handed her one.
“You do realize,” he said, watching her carefully as she sipped, “that I am Randolph’s closest advisor. His first line of defense, if you will. His protector in all ways. He trusts me with every detail of his life.”
“What is your point, sir?”
His striking blue eyes narrowed. “I only wish to inform you that if you desire access to the future king, you will have to work very hard to win my favor.”
“And how should I accomplish that?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Struggling not to appear scandalized by his suggestive tone of voice, Alex asked, “Is it true then? Is he here to seek a wife? Why not someone from his own country?”
Nicholas plucked a grape from the fruit bowl and popped it into his mouth. “He attempted such a thing in the past but was ultimately disappointed. As you can see, he has a way with women. His rank and political power attract them like moths to a flame. There was a time he was easily swayed by romanticism and believed in it with all his heart, but unfortunately, he chose the wrong woman.”
She considered how best to reply. “I did hear something about that. He was engaged once before, was he not?”
“Correct. For a full year he believed himself to be in love, but a week before the wedding he found his future bride in the arms of another man. It turned out she was in love with him, but her parents pushed her to marry Randolph regardless, in order to better their own prospects. It was nothing but a game of power to them, and she was a pawn in many ways. Not that it mattered. Randolph was deceived, and he has not yet recovered from it. I am not certain he ever will recover.”
She turned her attention to Randolph, who was waltzing around the room. In her eyes, he looked quite adequately recovered, but she was not about to say so.
“Then why does he wish to wed again so soon?”
“He requires an heir. Or rather, the country requires one. There are still far too many Royalists in Petersbourg who long for that sort of tradition.”
It had occurred to her more than once to simply reveal herself to Randolph and suggest a political marriage to restore her family’s bloodline to the throne—alongside of his—but her benefactor had warned against it, for Randolph wanted to marry for love.
Besides, her safety could not be assured. Not while Randolph’s father still lived. King Frederick was the one who had led the revolution against her family’s rule in the first place. Her identity must, at all costs, remain secret until her place on the throne was secure.
Nicholas picked up a glass of champagne from a passing footman and downed it in a single gulp.
“I thought the people of Petersbourg adored the new royal family,” she said cynically, then spoke under her breath: “They must have, or they wouldn’t have stuck a crown on the head of a soldier.”
Nicholas caught her remark and chuckled. “Randolph was right. You are daring, aren’t you?”
Oh, heaven help her. She really needed to learn how to control her tongue. Yet she found it a challenge in this man’s presence. “My apologies. I spoke out of turn.”
“Not at all. I find it refreshing, as does Randolph. You see, we meet so many young women who fumble to say all the right things. They are like shallow pools of rainwater that will disappear when the sun comes out. You, however, seem to have some depth and spirit. At least that’s what Randolph thinks after a very brief first impression. Which was why he asked me to escort you to the dessert table.”
“To interrogate me further?” she demanded.
“Yes. Later, he will ask my opinion of you.”
“And what will you tell him?”
“I’m not sure. I have not yet made up my mind.”
She breathed deeply. “Will you interrogate many other women this evening?”
Alex resisted the urge to look up at him, for she was experiencing a heated flash of displeasure at the idea of him escorting other ladies to the dessert table and doing what he must to draw them out of their shells. Would he whisper close in their ears and make them think they stood a chance with his brother if they behaved a certain way?
Not that it mattered. It did not. She would not let it. He could do whatever he damn well pleased with those other women.
“Only a few,” he replied. “Though I haven’t spotted any other potential queens yet. None have caught Randolph’s eye as you have.”
She should have felt triumphant in that moment but felt something else entirely. She wasn’t quite sure what it was, but it resembled anger, which made no sense.
Perhaps it was frustration. She felt rather powerless at the moment and did not like the sensation. “I am flattered, sir.” And her heart was thrashing about like a wild thing in her chest. “I must admit, however, that I was concerned after our encounter on the terrace. I feared you might strike me off his list.”
“Because I told you about my unfortunate circumstances—that I was here to improve upon them, which is exactly what the prince does not want in a wife. He desires true love, is that not correct?”
Nicholas faced her squarely. “Isn’t that what you want, too, Lady Alexandra?”
His voice was soft and intimate, and his eyes burned into hers.
“Perhaps,” she replied, “but there were other things I revealed to you as well—things I would not have said if I had known you were Randolph’s guardian. Now I am completely at your mercy. I hope you will not use any of that against me, as you could easily do.”
His blue eyes narrowed. “I suppose I do have you at a disadvantage, but neither you, nor I, can do anything about it now, so we must make the best of it.”
“And how do you propose we do that?”
He held out a gloved hand. “Prove that your word can be trusted by honoring me with a dance, as you promised on the terrace.”
Alexandra hesitated briefly, then set down her glass, for she had no choice in the matter. If she wanted access to the future King of Petersbourg, she was going to have to dance with the devil.
And his name was Prince Nicholas.
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