The Princess Must Marry
Princess Laurentia leads a fairy-tale life, attending glittering balls and wearing beautiful gowns. But after the ball is over, Laurentia finds herself getting into bed...alone. She dutifully agrees to choose a husband, but when she casts her eyes over her sea of suitors, she doesn't see a single man worthy enough to claim her.
But Who Will She Choose?
Then suddenly, she is swept off her feet by Prince Dominick, soldier of fortune, black sheep of his family...and the man hired to protect her. He's brazen enough to steal her kisses, yet tender enough to soothe her with one touch. He makes no promises, speaks no vows of forever...yet Laurentia can't help but hope that her prince has finally arrived.
About the Author
New York Times bestselling author CHRISTINA DODD builds worlds filled with suspense, romance, and adventure, and creates the most distinctive characters in fiction today. Her fifty novels have been translated into twenty-five languages, featured by Doubleday Book Club, recorded on Books on Tape for the Blind, won Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart and RITA Awards, and been called the year's best by Library Journal. Dodd herself has been a clue in the Los Angeles Times crossword puzzle.
Read an Excerpt
Bertinierre May 1829
At the ball celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday, Crown Princess Laurentia scrutinized the leering, timid, swaggering, toe-dragging, eloquent, stuttering sea of black and white evening wear and thought she had never seen such a pitiable pool of suitors in her life.
And they were hers. All hers.
"My dear, that smile looks much like the one you don when you suffer the headache, but you are still required to launch a ship."
She didn't look at her father, as was protocol. Each of their gestures, their glances, their words had been choreographed in advance. She stood at King Jerome's right hand while he sat on the glided, ancient, throne of Bertinierre. Both wore elegant smiles. One by one gentlemen moved forward to the foot of the dais to make their bows to the womanor more accurately, the kingdomthey hoped to win.
Yet King Jerome spoke in a tone that carried no farther than her ears, and he sounded remarkably amused. Moreover she knew his smile was sincere. And why not? She'd made him a promise, and he hoped that promise would lead to the fulfillment of his dearest dream.
Hers, too, she reminded herself. She was the only heir to the tiny Mediterranean kingdom of Bertinierre, and she must produce a child, preferably two, before her fruitful youth vanished.
Too bad the whole thing left her feeling like an unpollinated apple tree.
"And these are the bees." To atone for her uncharitable comment, she rewardedher lady-in-waiting's current presentation, a Mr. Andrew N. Sharparrow, with a slightly warmer smile.
He returned it, and took another bow while Weltrude lifted her smartly-groomed brows in inquiry.
Responding to the prearranged signal, Laurentia blinked twice, and the Englishman was sent on his way, allowing another to take his place.
"Perhaps when you're married you'll stop talking to yourself," said her father.
"Probably not. I enjoy intelligent conversation."
He chuckled, then smothered his mirth behind a regal cough. "You haven't given the poor lads a chance."
She chose to ignore his remark. "Besides, you talk to yourself."
Taking her gloved hand, he patted it between his palms. "I used to talk to your mother. I still do, the best way I know how."
Giving in to temptation, she looked down into his warm brown eyes and wished, not for the first time, that she could be more like himintelligent, yet kind.
Without conceit, she knew she was intelligent, too, but her intelligence contained the sting of acerbity. She had endless patience with children and the feeble of mind, but for those who chose to waste their God-given gifts in idleness and frivolity she felt a vast disdain.
Unfortunately, that included too many of the wealthy, well-born gentlemen milling around the grand cream and gilt ballroom.
A nobleman so ancient he could have been her father's father made his bow before them, and toppled over. Weltrude, large, big-boned, and stern, caught him before his head could make contact with the step.
Jerome indicated that one of his personal guard should assist the aged suitor. "How does he dare to think I would allow my beautiful girl to go to him?"
"Not everyone thinks quite as well of my looks as you do, Papa." Certainly not Beaumont, the English Earl of Burlingame ... and her first husband. "Have you thought you might be influenced by a parent's prejudice?"
"You look exactly like your mother," King Jerome said with finality.
That, in his mind, settled the matter of her beauty. The portrait of Queen Enid and her four-year-old daughter hung in the royal gallery, Laurentia a miniature of the petite, small-boned, regal Welshwoman who had won his heart thirty years ago. But the wavy black hair, fair skin, and melting green eyes which revealed Queen Enid's true serenity were nothing but camouflage on Laurentia.
Laurentia well remembered the torture of standing for the portrait, of shouting that she wanted to run outside, not dress in scratchy lace. She remembered the bribes of candy King Jerome offered to keep her still, and the way the artist glared at her when she cried. She knew her protruding lower lip drawn into the portrait aptly represented a sulky princess.
She didn't sulk anymoremuchand she never stomped her foot, but the devil's own temper lurked not far beneath her civilized demeanor, and always she kept a firm rein on it. Always ... except for those moments when the day had been long, and people had been aggravating, and she sat alone in her chamber. Then an impassive Weltrude shut the door on Laurentia's fury.
Tonight could very well be such a night.
King Jerome spoke. "If none of the rest of them please you, Laurentia ... I suppose you can have Francis."
Francis? He would allow her to take Francis, Comte de Radcote, her former playmate? Bertinierre's home minister, the man she had concluded she should wedthe man King Jerome himself had refused to consider? Exasperated beyond coherence, she sputtered, "But ... you said ... Then what ... then why are we doing this?"
"You know why."
Her gaze sought Francis toward the end of the line that wound, seemingly for leagues, across the glossy black-and-white checked marble floor. She located him by his height and distinguished bearing, and barely took note of the excessively handsome Sicilian duke making his bow. "Papa, Francis is a good man. He would give his life for me."
"I know. I know." King Jerome lifted his hand when she would have continued to remonstrate him. "But he is proper."
"So he is. That's what I like about him."
"Like." King Jerome imbued the word with scorn.
"Yes. Like. We have everything in common. He's from one of the oldest families in Bertinierre. He understands my duties as few do. He's knowledgeable and responsible."
"And proper." If anything, King Jerome sounded even more annoyed.
"Papa, I won't ever fall in love again like the first time."
"You won't let yourself."
"Of course not." She would have to be insane herself to fall for a man with the violence and passion she had felt for Beaumont.
"You were a young girl infatuated with a handsome older man. I should have known better."
"How? Who could have ever known Beaumont would be" She hesitated to put a word to it. Especially here. Especially now. They were saying too much already in too public a venue.
King Jerome, too, must have thought the subject too sensitive to broach, for he said, "You stare out over the crowd, too proud to condemn Beaumont and through him, me and my carelessness. But I know you, Laurentia, and I know you still bear the scars."
"That's quite dramatic." Her gaze flicked impatiently over Prince von Fulda, bowing with a flutter of his white-gloved hand. "Beaumont never laid an unkind hand on me. I'm more resilient than you give me credit for."
"And more armored against love than any woman should be."
"Love." She invested that word with as much scorn as he had given the detested "like." "You brought all these men here. Did you think I would see one across the crowded ballroom, a shaft of lightning would strike us both, the violins would sing, and I'd fly to the arms of my dearest beloved?"
He shifted uncomfortably on the throne.
"Oh, Papa." Confound his fanciful soul! "I don't want a dearest beloved, I just need a husband in my bed."
"A functioning husband, King Jerome insisted.
"Francis would be that." And if she suspected lovemaking with Francis would be less than passionate, well, even a little passion would be a new experience for her.
Catching Francis's gaze, she smiled at him, a quirk of the lips. A man like that would be good to have at her side. He would be a tower of strength in the forthcoming years, when her father must inevitably die and she would become queen.
She faced that reality without flinching, as she'd been taught to face all the harsh facts of her life.
The line had dwindled, Francis had been presented, when Weltrude said, "Your Highness?" Her black silk dress was orderly and discreet. Her flawlessly styled brown wig covered the traces of gray in her hair. Although Laurentia suspected Weltrude had been born around the turn of the century, her creamy complexion was almost completely unclined. She was the perfect lady-in-waiting for an imperfect princess, and Laurentia sometimes wondered if the strain would someday prove too much. Thus far it never had, and now as Weltrude stood on the bottom step of the dais, her smile curved her rouged lips just the proper amount and no more. "Is there a gentleman you would like to have as an escort for the first dance?"
Laurentia thought to take Francis, but King Jerome stood. "I would like the first dance."
"Papa." She smiled, charmed by his old-fashioned gallantry.
"Anyone else you choose will be viewed as your favorite." Her father's gaze swept the ballroom, and in disappointed tones he muttered, "Bloodless worms." Taking her hand, he led her to the center of the empty floor.
As all eyes focused on them, she experienced a chill, like the cold creep of unfamiliar fingers up her spine. How odd to be uneasy in her-own ballroom. This disquiet must be the result of so many desperate, hopeful, needy suitors piling their hopes on her slender, shoulders.
King Jerome made his bow, and as she curtsied, she determinedly shook off her caprice. "Papa, you are quite the handsomest man in the ballroom."
"I can scarcely deny that." His eyes twinkled at her as the orchestra struck up a waltzher father was fond of waltzes, having performed them in his youth when they were not respectableand they whirled around the floor.
A distinguished man of sixty, his face bore the marks of forty years of ruling, of the struggles of war and the constant difficulties of diplomacy. Yet he was handsome, as many eager ladies had noted, with a beak of a nose over gray mustache and trimmed and pointed beard. Bushy gray eyebrows encroached on his receding hairline, and his pristine white uniform was decorated with the insignia of the highest commander of the cavalry.
The scent of his favorite cigars transported Laurentia back to a time when she sat on his knee and he made everything all better. In his arms, she relaxed and enjoyed the impetuous flight around the floor, a petite princess in a rose taffeta gown with her hair upswept in an ethereal creation, dancing with a still-vigorous king who performed his duty with energy and ease.
As the dance neared its end, other couples flooded the floor, allowed on by Weltrude's nod. When the next dance began, Laurentia found herself faced with a suitor chosen at random. Prince Germain of Bavaria was charming and charmed, especially when he realized she remembered him from the Congress of Vienna fourteen years before. He failed to comprehend that she remembered everyone; it was her duty as princess.
The brief dance ended, and another man took his place. He was shy, with little conversation; Laurentia had to draw him out. Another followed, and another, until Laurentia's feet hurt and her cheeks ached from holding her smile in place.
It was Francis who gave her a lull, putting his hand on her waist and pulling her closebut not too close. "You don't have to look pleasant for me," he said easily.
"Thank you." She allowed her face to settle into its at-rest expression. "Although I feel as if I'm scowling at you."
"Not at all. Your dimples appear to have created permanent creases in your cheeks."
She laughed, her smile returning for a natural appearance. "That sounds attractive!"
"It is, perhaps, the sign of things to come. As one grows older, one must face the reality of a less than perfect complexion."
He hadn't been joking about the creases in her cheeks, nor did he see a problem with reminding her of her approaching middle age.
Now only half-laughing, she retorted, "I am not so conceited as to worry about that!"
"Like an women, you have your little vanities."
As he had his. He enjoyed training the little wave of brown hair above his forehead. He rode horses every day because gentlemen exercised their horses. It gave him, he had once told her earnestly, a strong physique.
Yes, he had his vanities, and his drawbacks. He lacked a sense of humor, and stared uncomprehending at her jokes.
But he compensated for his shortcomings with his sincerity. With him, she would never have to portray herself as regal or lofty. They knew each other too well for pretense, which explained why she couldn't imagine him naked, panting, lost in passion. Francis would never give way to any uncontrollable emotion, and just the thought of intercourse with him made her want to giggle.
"You are smiling again." He meticulously kept their bodies apart at the prescribed distance. "Don't grace me with that gracious, royal smirk, Your Highness. Just say you'll be my wife."
She wanted to, so badly, but she couldn't hurt her father by scorning the celebrations he had planned with such enthusiasm. Even if he agreed to this match, he wanted her to have this night.
Intent on evading Francis's gaze, she stared toward the long row of glass-paned doors that led to the terrace.
"I have waited all through your first marriage, your bereavement, and this inexplicable foot-dragging." He spoke vehemently, but quietly, never forgetting that couples swirled around them and the eyes of the kingdom judged them. "I have waited. Who can say as much?"
"No one," she admitted. "But you make me feel as if I owe you for what you elected to do."
He frowned. "That is not my intent."
It wasn't. Only Francis had decided on the right thing, and he didn't understand why she wouldn't allow him to guide her. She had been taught to think for herself, and Francis had been taught that a man should think for his wife. She foresaw trouble ahead, yet what man believed any differently than Francis?
The music slowed. Francis bowed as formally as if she had never, on the occasion of her ninth birthday, given way to fury and broken a thousand-year-old Ming vase over his head.
She wanted to do it again right now.
If only he would sweep her into an alcove, take her in his arms, and declare his love, or even just his resolve to have her. In one dreadful moment of wavering, she wondereddid she dare wed a man she'd never even kissed?
Francis stepped away. Weltrude waved another candidate forward. The orchestra played the opening chords of a formal minuet.
Laurentia's rebellion abruptly rushed forth. "No," she mouthed to Weltrude.
Weltrude slashed the air with her hand, and the music ceased so abruptly that all chatter died, too.
Using her gracious princess smile, Laurentia indicated that the festivities should continue. Conversation rose again as if that awkward pause had never occurred, and she made her way toward the one chamber where she could be alone.
The water closet. Inside, she leaned against the door and closed her eyes. Why had her father insisted on this farce? It had been difficult to resign herself to wanting only what she could have. Now, she wished to or not, she searched among the endless countenances for one special face that could make her love again.
Her palms slid along the painted wood. Love. As if her wretched heart could continue to beat after another infection of love.
Running away from the party seemed a good idea. Running away from herself seemed even better. If she were alone to think, she felt certain she could drive these inconsistent doubts from her mind.
Opening the door, she glanced up and down the hallway. Empty. Her first instinct was to tiptoe away. Her good sense forced her to walk easily, as if slipping away from her own party was appropriate behavior. She strode through the study, the handle to the French doors opened smoothly, and she stepped onto the empty terrace where squares of light alternated with night's shadows.
Placing her palms against the wide, low, cool marble railing, she took gulps of fresh air. Gradually the scents of perfume and warm, nervous bodies faded from her consciousness, to be replaced by the fragrance of lilac from the garden, the salt-tang of the Mediterranean harbor below, the earthy odor of the vineyards clustered around the palace, and from somewhere, the faint scent of tobacco. Her brief rebellion against fate faded, too, as she concentrated On the palace that enveloped her, the mountains behind, the city spread out like a cloth spangled with lights.
She loved this palace of hers. Her crusading ancestors had planted the original sandstone castle into the rocky soil. Succeeding generations had grafted on wings of pale, copper-streaked marble and towers of granite and tile. Now the whole edifice grew like a gnarled and protective tree above the ancient city of Omnia. Garden terraces descended in floral steps down the cliff, each blushing with pleasure in daylight, each steeped in fragrance at night. The lights of Omnia glowed, and faintly Laurentia could hear the sounds of celebration as the inhabitants took a day from the rigors of fishing and trading to rejoice on her birthday. God bless them; she knew many of the merchants and shopkeepers personally. She knew the farmers and vintners of the countryside, too, and the harvesters who lived deep in the Pyrenees, growing that rarest of herbs in their well-tended fields. These people were the ones who kept her kingdom alive. The common folk never knew that every day she and her father balanced on the tightrope of statesmanship to allow them their ways of life.
Automatically her gaze traveled to the far end of the bay. The border of Pollardine began at the sea and nestled against Bertinierre all the way into the Pyrenees. The countries had once been allies. Now ... they were not.
She heard doors opening around the far corner, and the music from the ballroom spilled out. Perhaps it was getting warm inside, or perhaps lovers sought the darkness, there to perform the rituals of courtship. She had no way of knowing what occurred in those brief moments, yet she'd observed the woman's feline smile of satisfaction, the man's concentration on his mate. It would be pleasant, Laurentia thought, if any man ever concentrated on her instead of on her kingdom.
She wishedquite ferventlythat such a man would come forward. The door behind her opened. For one moment, she thought her prayer had been answered. She felt a small thrill go through her body. Then her wits rescued her, and she realized she had simply been found, as was inevitable. Found by Weltrude, by one of the suitors, by her worried father. Turning, she faced the lone man silhouetted against the glass doors.
"Your Highness?" A faint, foreign twang accented his voice, and he wore a uniform. No, a livery. The royal livery.
Puzzled, she studied him. She had never met him. "Yes?"
Steadily, he walked toward her, a beefy man whose bulk strained his jacket and smelled of sweat. His beefy hands reached out for her; she tried to sidestep as she sputtered, "What do you think you're doing?"
Without a word, he grabbed her around the waist and hefted her onto his shoulder.