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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 batch 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 a decade later. 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.
Copyright © 2012 by Julianne MacLean