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Crowns And A Cradle
By Valerie Parv
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePrince Josquin de Marigny had been careful not to let a look or gesture betray how restless he felt. But his close friend, Peter Dassel, who chaired the Carramer Business Consortium of which Josquin was patron, leaned closer and murmured into his ear, "Now you've shown the flag and presented the awards, you're wondering how soon you can get away, aren't you?"
The reception for outstanding Carramer business people had already run over its allotted time in the prince's schedule, thanks to the lengthy acceptance speeches the winners had chosen to give. Now they milled around Château de Valmont's beautiful East Salon, enjoying coffee, delicious pastries and the opportunity to network with one another. No wonder they weren't anxious to depart.
Josquin restrained a sigh. "I didn't mean to let it show."
Peter shook his head. "It doesn't except to me, Josh. I've known you a long time."
Since they had attended the same school, Josquin thought. They had met within months of their eighth birthdays. As the son of the Australian ambassador to Carramer, Peter had refused to be intimidated by Josquin's title or his close relationship to the ruling family of Carramer. Peter had challenged Josquin to a running race to prove that the Australian was the prince'sequal. Not accustomed to being challenged by a commoner, Josquin had accepted. Over a distance twice as long as Peter had originally proposed, they had raced to a hard-fought draw, and afterward had become firm friends. Josquin had been delighted when Peter had taken out Carramer citizenship, and their friendship had grown stronger over the years since then.
Now Peter gave an understanding grin and said in a lowered voice, "I hope she's beautiful."
Josquin's coffee cup stilled in midair and he frowned. "Who?"
"The woman you're so anxious to get away to meet."
Josquin lowered the cup and deposited it on the tray of a passing waiter. "How do you know there's a woman involved?"
"I don't, but I live in hope. Good grief, Josh, you're thirty next month. Isn't it time you settled down?"
"Maybe I like playing the field."
"And maybe you're too fussy for your own good."
"You realize it's high treason to talk to a member of the royal family this way?"
Peter made an unconvincing attempt to look alarmed. "Somebody has to talk to you this way. Your quest to restore your family's lands and fortune is commendable. But at the rate you're going, you'll be a venerable forty before you let any woman get past your guard, far less anywhere near the altar."
Josquin nodded pleasantly to one of the award recipients, but was thinking of his self-imposed timetable. Until he had more to offer a woman, he didn't plan on getting romantically involved with anyone. "Forty isn't too old for marriage these days."
"Depends whether you want to have the stamina to keep up with the little princes and princesses when they come along. Personally I prefer having my children while I'm still young enough to enjoy them."
As godfather to Peter's three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter, Josquin was inclined to agree. He felt a wintry expression settle on his face. "We can't all be as lucky as you."
"Lucky, nothing. The day I set eyes on Alyce, I knew she was the one for me. I mapped out a campaign to win her, and the rest was history."
"Did she know how calculating you are?"
Peter laughed. "She knew. I found out later that she had the same idea." His expression sobered. "Jokes aside, Josh, when you finally meet the woman for you, I hope you won't let pride stand in your way."
His friend turned to speak to another guest, leaving his words hanging around Josquin like a cloud. It was easy for Peter to talk. His parents hadn't squandered everything they had as if there was no tomorrow. Fleur, his mother, a former lady-in-waiting at the court of Prince Henry, ruler of Valmont Province, had taken to her role as a princess like a duck to water. Indulged by Josquin's father, Leon, who could refuse her nothing, Fleur had run up accounts everywhere as if the royal coffers had no limits, until Leon was forced to sell most of the family's land holdings to pay their way.
But for the patronage of Prince Henry, who had treated Josquin like a son, Josquin would have had a struggle to complete his education. Whenever he thought of the difference the elderly ruler had made to his life, he felt a debt of gratitude. Prince Henry had had no obligation to nurture Josquin. He had a father, however improvident, and Josquin wasn't related to Henry. But Henry's own son had died in his twenties, leaving a breach in the ruler's life that Josquin knew he had helped to fill. It was little enough repayment for all Henry had done for him over the years, helping to compensate for the benign neglect Josquin's parents had shown their only son.
Josquin hadn't learned the full extent of their fecklessness until he was twenty-three, when his father suffered a fatal heart attack, leaving almost nothing except the remnants of the family estate on the outskirts of the capital city of Solano. Josquin quickly realized that his mother couldn't cope on her own, and expected him to manage her life for her.
He had put in years of hard work and careful management before they could breathe easily again. Even now his mother's lifestyle could hardly be called frugal although she complained about what she called her reduced circumstances. She had no idea what it cost Josquin even to keep her in clothes, far less maintain her household in Solano. Money seemed to flow through her hands like water. She was hardly an ideal advertisement for married life.
All the same, he found his thoughts turning to the woman Peter had accurately guessed Josquin was anxious to meet as soon as his work here was done. He knew the woman well enough to be able to pick her out of a crowd, knew her history, her habits and lifestyle, her tastes in clothing and food, as well as if they had been married for years. Odd to think that he was about to meet her face-to-face for the first time.
Sarah McInnes was the name she was known by in America. Her name conjured in Josquin's mind the image of a startlingly beautiful woman in her mid-twenties. She had long hair the color of nutmeg, curling softly onto her shoulders, and dark brown eyes that reminded him of the rare and beautiful sun deer running wild in the forests of Carramer.
By now Josquin had seen enough photographs of her to guess that if she stood alongside him, she would come up to his chin in her stocking feet. The reports said she had trained as a dancer in her early teens until she grew too tall to become a ballerina, and had entered the art world as an assistant curator after leaving college. He had little trouble imagining how she would move, with a dancer's easy grace.
Two years ago, she had moved out of the apartment she had occupied in her parents' home, and now lived alone. Not quite alone. Josquin frowned as he thought of the baby Sarah had given birth to almost a year ago. There was no sign of the child's father, and Josquin's investigators had been unable to identify him. The prince felt himself tense involuntarily as he thought of Sarah managing entirely alone since her child's birth. He had spent too much of his childhood fending for himself while his parents were wrapped up in their own lives, not to empathize with her struggle.
Excerpted from Crowns And A Cradle by Valerie Parv Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.