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Princess of Fortune
By Miranda Jarrett Mills & Boon
Copyright © 2006 Miranda Jarrett
All right reserved.
Kingdom of Monteverde, 1796
Who would have dreamed that London - wicked, wealthy, barbarous London - would become her only sanctuary?
London. Oh, dearest saints in heaven, whatever were her parents thinking?
Isabella forced herself to take another deep breath as she stared out the window of her bedchamber, striving to master the panic and fear knotting in her chest. She still could not quite believe she was leaving this view, this room, this house, and this life, with no guarantee that she'd ever return. Usually so full of activity, the palace now seemed forlornly silent, her father and brother already gone and most of the servants fled to the hills.
Next - last - to go would be Isabella. Earlier her trunks had been taken away, and as her lady's maid fastened the rows of buttons along the sleeves of her jacket, she felt these last minutes here in her home slipping away more relentlessly than the grains of sand in an hourglass. Inside her kidskin gloves her palms were already moist with anxiety, and her heart raced with dread for what lay before her.
But she was the only daughter of the King of Monteverde, and a Fortunaro princess must be strong as a lioness, full of courage and pride like the fierce, noble beasts that graced the family's arms. Yes, yes, a lioness of gold: that waswhat she was, and with fresh determination Isabella drew in her breath and raised her head to what she hoped was a more regal angle.
"Isabella, hold still," scolded her mother with her usual impatience. No one would ever guess that Mama, too, would be fleeing tonight - which was, of course, the point. Mama was as exquisitely dressed and coiffed as she was every evening, her favorite rubies around her throat and her still-beautiful face with the heavy-lidded eyes so artfully painted that, by candlelight, she could pass for Isabella's sister instead of her mother.
"If you continue to fidget, daughter," she continued, looking down her famous nose at Isabella, "and do not let Anna dress you properly, I shall turn you over to the French and that vile little Corsican instead of to the English."
At once Isabella went still, letting the maid finish dressing her in her traveling clothes. Mama was right: she was eighteen, far too old for such childish restlessness. If it weren't for General Buonaparte and his ridiculous war turning all the royal houses upside down, a suitable marriage would have been arranged for her long ago.
"That it should come to this, Your Highness," said the Marchese di Romano grimly, the last of her father's advisers left in the palace, and one of her mother's closest friends. He was an older man whose eyes now seemed to wander in opposite directions and who relied weightily upon his gold-headed walking stick, but no one at court had ever doubted that his mind remained as sharp and clever as any fox's. "That a Fortunaro princess should be forced to scurry away like a low skulking thief, to snivel and beg for mercy from those heathen English -"
"Oh, hush, Romano," said Mama mildly. "She is going to England because it is the only country that Buonaparte cannot capture. There is no other place where she will be as safe."
Idly the marchese tapped his stick on the polished floor. "The English will adore our dear princess, you know," he said, studying Isabella with a connoisseur's eye. "They are all penny-gallants for a pretty face in distress."
"She is more than simply a pretty face, Romano," said her mother sternly. "She is my daughter, and a great beauty."
"Of course, of course," said Romano softly, soothing.
"She will have no equal among those milk-fed English ladies."
Though Isabella kept her head proudly raised, as if already confronting those English ladies, her unhappiness was mushrooming. Didn't Mama plot and plan as expertly as any general? Hadn't she already explained every detail to Isabella, how it was her duty to be the one Fortunaro to go into exile in London? Isabella wasn't a fool, and she didn't need Romano to tell her how to behave. The Monteverdian army had already been pounded and swept by the French in battle after battle, the few remaining troops now poised at the gates of the city for the same surrender that had humbled Florence, Naples, Venice, even great Rome herself. How could Isabella not fail to understand her role as the last proud symbol of her family's defiance, there under the protection of the King of England?
But why must it be her duty - her fate! - to be the only one sent so far, far away for safekeeping? Why was she standing here in this near-empty palace, her clothes weighed down by the gold coins and jewels sewn into the seams and her heart made even heavier at the thought of the dangerous, lonely voyage before her?
As if to answer, the rumbling roar of the guns began again, closer now than ever before.
"It is time," said Mama briskly, arranging her cashmere shawl more elegantly around her arms. She took Isabella by the shoulders, her face so close that Isabella could see how the powder settled into the lines around her mouth.
"You must go, my brave little lioness. We cannot let the English change their mind, can we? You will go, and you will always remember who you are, what you are, and bring nothing but honor to our name."
Isabella gave a quick jerk of a nod, not trusting her voice to answer. She must be brave and daring like Mama, and she must not weep and wail like a baby who'd not gotten her way. She turned each cheek for Mama to kiss, then kissed her in return, the quick brush that Mama had always preferred.
"I - I'll miss you, Mama," she said with a gulp, blinking back her tears. "God be with you, and with Father and Giancarlo, too."
"Of course He will, my darling," said Mama, her smile brilliant as she patted Isabella's cheek. "He always watches over us Fortunari, doesn't He? Now Romano and I must go, and so must you. Farewell, Isabella. Farewell!"
And as quickly as that, Mama was gone, leaving only the fading scent of her perfume and the click of her lacquered heels on the marble floors, followed by the fainter tapping of Romano's stick. Swiftly Isabella turned away. She did not weep, of course, because Mama wouldn't want that, but inside she felt as empty and abandoned as the palace itself.
She wished that when they'd said farewell, Mama had spoken less of duty and honor, and more of love. She wished that same farewell had been longer, warmer, sweeter, something for Isabella to remember on the perilous voyage to England, instead of the quick, formal parting before Romano. She wished she could admit her fears, instead of always having to be brave as a lioness. She wished - she wished for many things that couldn't be, things that even a Monteverdian princess had no right to desire.
Excerpted from Princess of Fortune by Miranda Jarrett Copyright © 2006 by Miranda Jarrett. Excerpted by permission.
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