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The Small Central European Kingdom of Hartz-Coburg, Spring 1880
"You wake her."
"No," said the royal exchequer. "It is your turn to wake her."
"You are to wake her," repeated Montillion, the princess's factotum. "Once she has had breakfast, I will speak to her about the pressing matters at hand."
The exchequer's ruddy face screwed up into a terrible frown, and he vigorously shook his head. "I implore you, Montillion, do not make me go into the lioness's cage this morning.
I've a weak heart, and any undue stress is likely to—"
"Enough of this squabbling." On hearing the familiar argument, the lord chamberlain, head of the royal household, had emerged from his study. "Montillion, either send a servant or else kindly go up yourself and wake Her Royal Highness."
"Very well," Montillion said irritably, surrendering to the inevitable.
There was, he well knew, no one he could call on to awaken Her Royal Highness, the fiery princess Marlena. All the palace servants staunchly refused. Even an aging lady's maid had begged off, some years ago, after being struck one morning with a piece of marble statuary thrown by the irate princess.
The poor old dear hadn't been badly hurt—a small superficial cut on her forearm followed by purplish bruising and soreness—but she had marched straight into the old king's chambers, showed him the wound, and announced that she would never again awaken his spoiled royal offspring. Sympathizing, the king had assured the distraught lady's maid that she would not be called on to perform such hazardous duty again, and furthermore she could rest assured he would harshly reprimand his misbehaving daughter, the spoiled princess.
Now resignedly climbing the palace stairs on this sunny May morning, Montillion shook his silver head sorrowfully. The old king was gone. That patient, caring, good-natured sovereign who had reigned over this small central European kingdom had passed away six short months ago at the ripe old age of eighty-one. His wife, the queen, had preceded him in death by more than a decade.
And so it was that the sleeping twenty-eight-year-old widowed princess Marlena was to ascend to the throne. Her crowning had been delayed for two reasons—a lack of funds and a royal request from her Dutch cousin William the Third to wait until after his own coronation.
Unless—Montillion reminded her daily—the crown princess accepted a marriage proposal from a wealthy, titled suitor, she would be sent to America on an extended bond tour, long arranged by the house of Rothschild, to raise money for her nearbankrupt kingdom. It was up to her. Marry immediately—or go to America.
A spirited, bossy young woman with a temper to match her flashing green eyes and ginger-red hair, the princess had no wish to sail to America, tin cup in hand.
A gala ball that very evening at the cliffside castle would afford her an opportunity to choose a proper husband from any one of several invited prospects.
Sheltered all her life from any and all unpleasantness, the pampered princess favored neither option open to her. She would have much preferred spending the season in exciting London, attending balls and parties with the smart set, including her dear cousins, England's royals.
But even though the widowed redhead concerned herself mainly with the pursuit of personal pleasure, she was—to the bone—a blood royal, and as such, would do her duty. In fact, it had been to please her late father that Princess Marlena had, at age seventeen, married a middle-aged British duke. The distinguished duke, being old enough himself to have been her father, indulged and coddled the princess, catering to her girlish whims, demanding little, allowing his beautiful child bride to order him about as if he were a smitten school boy. Cedric Primrose, duke of Hernden, had been constantly careful not to annoy his tempestuous young bride and risk exposing himself to one of her terrible temper tantrums.
The widowed king, the kingdom, the princess, and her adoring prince consort might well have all lived happily ever after if not for the prince consort's untimely death. The first son and heir to a vast fortune that would have saved Hartz-Coburg, Cedric fell quite suddenly ill and expired two days later. Rather unfortunately for Hartz-Coburg, he preceded his wealthy, aged father in death, thus leaving his young widow and her kingdom without a farthing.
Pondering what might have been, Montillion reached the castle's second floor landing.
Mentally girding himself for the unpleasant task before him, the faithful factotum threw back his shoulders and walked briskly down the long carpeted corridor beneath gilt-framed portraits of the departed royal line who had once dwelled in the old cliffside castle and ruled over the tiny Hartz-Coburg kingdom.
The last of the royal line was very much alive and sound asleep inside her chambers.
Standing before the princess's closed door, Montillion fished his gold-cased watch out of his dark vest pocket and noted the time: 10:32. He had ordered the princess's breakfast to be brought upstairs at precisely 10:35 A.M. Montillion drew a deep breath, raised a gloved hand, and rapped lightly on the solid mahogany door. He did not wait for an answer from within but went quickly inside and crossed the silk-walled salon to the open double doors of the royal bedchamber.
He glanced across the spacious room to the big white-and-gold hung bed. And, despite himself, he began to smile. A head of sleep-tangled bright ginger-red hair was swirled about on a satin-cased pillow, and an unseen face, a fair, youthful-looking face of great beauty was burrowed deeply into the pillow's feathery softness.
Montillion crossed the shadowy bedroom thinking how sweet, how youthful she looked in slumber. More like a fourteen-year-old girl than a twenty-eight-year-old monarch. But she wasn't fourteen. She wasn't a child. She was a grown woman who was, by common consent, one of the great beauties of Europe. She was the heir apparent. A princess of the blood. And it was up to her to save her kingdom.
Montillion moved to the front windows. He drew apart a set of heavy velvet drapes, instantly flooding the room with brilliant sunshine. A sound came from the bed—muffled, unintelligible—and the princess burrowed deeper into the pillow.
"Your Highness—" Montillion's voice was soft, modulated as he neared the bed, "it is past ten in the morning. Time for you to rise."
No reply. No indication she had heard him.
"Princess Marlena, I have ordered your breakfast and—ah, yes, here it is now," he said, turning to smile at the anxious servant bearing the tray and motioning her forward.
Without glancing at the princess, the uniformed servant placed the silver tray—as indicated by Montillion—at the foot of the huge bed, turned, and scurried out of the room. When she was gone, Montillion said in a slightly louder voice, "Please, won't you wake up, Your Highness." And then louder still, "Princess Marlena, it is time to get up."
Roused at last, the highly annoyed princess hissed, "I am not getting up! You get out!" "I'm going nowhere until you are up and we've had a talk," said Montillion, clasping his gloved hands before him. A satin-cased pillow, aimed in his direction, came flying from the bed. He nimbly sidestepped it. The tossed pillow was followed by dire threats and vicious scoldings, to which Montillion paid no mind. He began pouring hot black coffee into a gold-trimmed china cup.
The angry Princess Marlena, struggling up and onto her elbows, her wild red hair spilling forward and covering her frowning face, yawned and muttered, "Coffee! Where's my coffee? If you must wake me in the middle of the night, might I at least have a cup of coffee!" She groaned then, flopped over onto her back, sat up, pushed her tangled hair off her face, and looked at her factotum through narrowed emerald eyes.
He said simply, "Good morning, Your Royal Highness."
She did not respond to his greeting. She began to make little mewling sounds that meant her pillows were to be fluffed up and arranged against the tall headboard. Montillion lost no time in doing her bidding. Soon the princess was comfortably propped against the pillows and sipping her coffee.
Montillion drew up a lyre-backed chair, sat down, and, without preamble, reminded her—again—that unless she accepted a marriage proposal from a wealthy, titled suitor right away, she must go to America on the extended bond tour.
Shaking her head no to the offer of a piece of buttered toast, Princess Marlena made a sour face. "I have no desire to marry again," she said, as much to herself as to Montillion.
"Very well. We shall go to America and—"
"No," she interrupted. "As distasteful as the prospect of matrimony is, it is not as abhorrent as the thought of going to America to beg."
"I couldn't agree more, Your Highness."
"I will choose a proper suitor and rush him to the altar." A touch of wistfulness in the depths of vivid green eyes, she said resolutely, "It is the least I can do for crown and country."
"Spoken like a true princess," said Montillion, smiling for the first time all morning.
"Perhaps at this evening's ball you will find your Prince Charming."
It was Princess Marlena's turn to smile. "As long as he is very, very wealthy, he doesn't have to be all that charming."
The princess had made up her mind.
She would marry again.
At this evening's ball, she would choose from several prospects. With matrimony her motive, the princess decided to dress for the occasion with males in mind. She chose from her immense wardrobe a gown of shimmering lavender satin with a bodice that was cut as low as a proper princess could dare wear out in public. She would have the royal hairdresser sweep her long, ginger hair up off her neck and arrange the luxurious locks into neat curls atop her head.
The princess was entirely confident in her ability to make the gentleman of her choice propose before the evening ended. She was used to reducing men to nervous adoration by her mere presence. Besides, she knew how to treat men. Badly.
They couldn't get enough of it.
As twilight descended over the huge stone castle atop the highest peak of the mountain kingdom of Hartz-Coburg, the princess dressed for the ball, then examined herself in a standing, gold-framed mirror. She was pleased with her reflection and certain of her lethal feminine charms.
But she was more than a little melancholy that picking a new prince was necessary. How she wished it could have been different, that her kingdom had no need of such a sacrifice. She wished it were as it had been in the old days. She had been a child of immense privilege, raised in a lovely isolated world that had shielded her from harsh realities.
At one time this tiny mountain kingdom, located high on the Swiss frontier, had boasted the natural resources of diamond veins, coal mines, and marble quarries. Money had been plentiful. Life in the kingdom had been marvelous. A constant stream of well-heeled visitors arrived daily at the old castle. It was said that the king, her dear father, hosted the most exciting soirées on the Continent. Those glittering affairs had been attended by European and British royals, sheiks and maharajahs, pashas, and wealthy Americans.
But, alas, those golden days and silver nights had ended. The vast marble quarries had been flooded, and the rich veins of coal and diamonds had finally been exhausted. The great sums of money they had produced, spent. Times were hard. Her monarchy was unquestionably in desperate straits.
She would, the princess privately pledged, do her duty. Save the kingdom. Choose for herself a rich husband at that evening's ball, which had been planned for just that purpose.
That was the princess's noble resolve.
But as the evening wore on and the suitors wore on her, the princess knew she could not bring herself to marry any one of them. The viscount of Bailey—one of the wealthiest aristocrats in all Europe—was practically drooling to win her hand. But the middle-aged, rotund royal was boring and lazy, and servants at his country castle whispered that the viscount sat around his chambers with his trousers undone over his protruding belly, belching loudly and scratching unselfconsciously.
After only one agonizingly long and awkward dance with the portly perspiring viscount, Princess Marlena marked his name off the list.
The young, blondly handsome Lord Willingham was a graceful dancer, had impeccable manners, and was definitely easy on the eye. But gazing up at the winsome lord's classically handsome face as they danced beneath the sparkling chandeliers, the princess knew she would never be comfortable married to a man whose fair fragile beauty surpassed even her own.
Clamoring for dances were other wealthy marquesses, earls, and barons from which to choose a prince consort, but they were all too similar. Richly dressed sophisticated gentlemen of grace, breeding, and polish.
But not so much as a hint of fire, passion, or virile masculinity in the lot of them. To spend the next forty to fifty years married to one of these pale, blue-blooded fops seemed tiresome indeed to the lively princess.
At seventeen she had been such a child, she had thought nothing of marrying a man she hardly knew. It had been her father's strong wish that she wed the duke, and she had agreed without entertaining any doubts. But she was no longer a child. And the king was no longer alive.
When finally the tedious evening ended and the last of the crested carriages transported lingering guests down the steep winding road from the castle, a tired, disheartened princess Marlena summoned her factor, Montillion.
Meeting his hopeful gaze, she shook her head and admitted she hadn't accepted a single proposal, of which there had been many.
His face gone pale with disappointment, he said anxiously, "But Your Highness, you know there is but one alternative."
"Well, fetch me the royal tin cup," she said resolutely. "We will go to America!"CHAPTER 2
It was morning when Her Highness, Princess Marlena of Hartz-Coburg, and her entourage boarded the royal yacht for the long voyage across the ocean.
But it was nighttime in America.
At just past midnight in the wild gambling town of Las Cruces, New Mexico, a pretty young woman stepped onto the foot-lighted stage of Main Street's rowdy, smoke-filled Silver Dollar Saloon.
The woman was a pale-skinned beauty with large emerald eyes and ginger-red hair and a voluptuous body. Her ample curves were daringly accentuated by the revealing green satin costume she wore. She carried a white ostrich feather, which she used, skillfully, to tickle and toy with those lucky enough to be seated ringside.
She sang with a distinct accent as she smiled and strutted about the stage, teasing and flirting, to the delight of the crowd-packed saloon. Billed as the Queen of the Silver Dollar, she was, in every way, quite the crowd pleaser. Warbling a song with risqué lyrics, she played coyly to her enthusiastic audience, which was made up mainly of shouting, whistling, applauding men.
One man in the noisy saloon neither shouted nor whistled nor applauded.
Seated alone at a table against the far back wall, the silent, unsmiling man sat drinking his whiskey, his hooded eyes fixed on the red-haired woman on the stage. The man was a tall, lanky, black-haired native Texan with squint lines around his piercing blue eyes; a straight, prominent nose; and a hard mouth, around which often flickered the merest shadow of mockery.
His name was Virgil Black.
Black was a thirty-four-year-old loner who took his women like he took his whiskey: straight, with no buildup and no chaser. A hard-as-nails veteran Texas Ranger with a gun on his hip and a star on his chest, Captain Virgil Black had earned a reputation for his many feats of derring-do. Tales of his numerous exploits had been told and retold until his name was recognized by almost everyone in the vast deserts of the Southwest.
Excerpted from The Princess Goes West by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1998 Nan Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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