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All of London has been on tenterhooks, desperate for a glimpse of Crown Prince Sebastian of Alucia during his highly anticipated visit. Windsor Castle was the scene of Her Majesty's banquet to welcome him. Sixty-and-one-hundred guests were on hand, feted in St. George's Hall beneath the various crests of the Order of the Garter. Two thousand pieces of silver cutlery were used, one thousand crystal glasses and goblets. The first course and main dish of lamb and potatoes were served on silver-gilded plates, followed by delicate fruits on French porcelain.
Prince Sebastian presented a large urn fashioned of green Alucian malachite to our Queen Victoria as a gift from his father the King of Alucia. The urn was festooned with delicate ropes of gold around the mouth and the neck.
The Alucian women were attired in dresses of heavy silk worn close to the body, the trains quite long and brought up and fastened with buttons to facilitate walking. Their hair was fashioned into elaborate knots worn at the nape. The Alucian gentlemen wore formal frock coats of black superfine wool that came to midcalf, as well as heavily embroidered waistcoats worn to the hip. It was reported that Crown Prince Sebastian is "rather tall and broad, with a square face and neatly trimmed beard, a full head of hair the color of tea, and eyes the color of moss," which the discerning reader might think of as a softer shade of green. It is said he possesses a regal air owing chiefly to the many medallions and ribbons he wore befitting his rank.
Honeycutt's Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies
The Right Honorable Justice William Tricklebank, a widower and justice of the Queen's bench in Her Majesty's service, was very nearly blind, his eyesight having steadily eroded into varying and fuzzy shades of gray with age. He could no longer see so much as his hand, which was why his eldest daughter, Miss Eliza Tricklebank, read his papers to him.
Eliza had enlisted the help of Poppy, their housemaid, who was more family than servant, having come to them as an orphaned girl more than twenty years ago. Together, the two of them had anchored strings and ribbons halfway up the walls of his London townhome, and all the judge had to do was follow them with his hand to move from room to room. Among the hazards he faced was a pair of dogs that were far too enthusiastic in their wish to be of some use to him, and a cat who apparently wished him dead, judging by the number of times he put himself in the judge's path, or leapt into his lap as he sat, or walked across the knitting the judge liked to do while his daughter read to him, or unravelled his ball of yarn without the judge's notice.
The only other potential impediments to his health were his daughters — Eliza, a spinster, and her younger sister, Hollis, otherwise known as the Widow Honeycutt. They were often together in his home, and when they were, it seemed to him there was quite a lot of laughing at this and shrieking at that. His daughters disputed that they shrieked, and accused him of being old and easily startled. But the judge's hearing, unlike his eyesight, was quite acute, and those two shrieked with laughter. Often.
At eight-and-twenty, Eliza was unmarried, a fact that had long baffled the judge. There had been an unfortunate and rather infamous misunderstanding with one Mr. Asher Daughton-Cress, who the judge believed was despicable, but that had been ten years ago. Eliza had once been demure and a politely deferential young lady, but she'd shed any pretense of deference when her heart was broken. In the last few years she had emerged vibrant and carefree. He would think such demeanor would recommend her to gentlemen far and wide, but apparently it did not. She'd had only one suitor since her very public scandal, a gentleman some fifteen years older than Eliza. Mr. Norris had faithfully called every day until one day he did not. When the judge had inquired, Eliza had said, "It was not love that compelled him, Pappa. I prefer my life here with you — the work is more agreeable, and I suspect not as many hours as marriage to him would require."
His youngest, Hollis, had been tragically widowed after only two years of a marriage without issue. While she maintained her own home, she and her delightful wit were a faithful caller to his house at least once a day without fail, and sometimes as much as two or three times per day. He should like to see her remarried, but Hollis insisted she was in no rush to do so. The judge thought she rather preferred her sister's company to that of a man.
His daughters were thick as thieves, as the saying went, and were coconspirators in something that the judge did not altogether approve of. But he was blind, and they were determined to do what they pleased no matter what he said, so he'd given up trying to talk any practical sense into them.
That questionable activity was the publication of a ladies' gazette. Tricklebank didn't think ladies needed a gazette, much less one having to do with frivolous subjects such as fashion, gossip and beauty. But say what he might, his daughters turned a deaf ear to him. They were unfettered in their enthusiasm for this endeavor, and if the two of them could be believed, so was all of London.
The gazette had been established by Hollis's husband, Sir Percival Honeycutt. Except that Sir Percival had published an entirely different sort of gazette, obviously — one devoted to the latest political and financial news. Now that was a useful publication to the judge's way of thinking.
Sir Percival's death was the most tragic of accidents, the result of his carriage sliding off the road into a swollen river during a rain, which also saw the loss of a fine pair of grays. It was a great shock to them all, and the judge had worried about Hollis and her ability to cope with such a loss. But Hollis proved herself an indomitable spirit, and she had turned her grief into efforts to preserve her husband's name. But as she was a young woman without a man's education, and could not possibly comprehend the intricacies of politics or financial matters, she had turned the gazette on its head and dedicated it solely to topics that interested women, which naturally would be limited to the latest fashions and the most tantalizing on dits swirling about London's high society. It was the judge's impression that women had very little interest in the important matters of the world.
And yet, interestingly, the judge could not deny that Hollis's version of the gazette was more actively sought than her husband's had ever been. So much so that Eliza had been pressed into the service of helping her sister prepare her gazette each week. It was curious to Tricklebank that so many members of the Quality were rather desperate to be mentioned among the gazette's pages.
Today, his daughters were in an unusually high state of excitement, for they had secured the highly sought-after invitations to the Duke of Marlborough's masquerade ball in honor of the crown prince of Alucia. One would think the world had stopped spinning on its axis and that the heavens had parted and the seas had receded and this veritable God of All Royal Princes had shined his countenance upon London and blessed them all with his presence.
Everyone knew the prince was here to strike an important trade deal with the English government in the name of King Karl. Alucia was a small European nation with impressive wealth for her size. It was perhaps best known for an ongoing dispute with the neighboring country of Wesloria — the two had a history of war and distrust as fraught as that between England and France.
The judge had read that it was the crown prince who was pushing for modernization in Alucia, and who was the impetus behind the proposed trade agreement. Prince Sebastian envisioned increasing the prosperity of Alucia by trading cotton and ore for manufactured goods. But according to the judge's daughters, that was not the most important part of the trade negotiations. The important part was that the prince was also in search of a marriage bargain.
"It's what everyone says," Hollis had insisted to her father over supper recently.
"And how is it, my dear, that everyone knows what the prince intends?" the judge asked as he stroked the cat, Pris, on his lap. The cat had been named Princess when the family believed it a female. When the houseman Ben discovered that Princess was, in fact, a male, Eliza said it was too late to change the name. So they'd shortened it to Pris. "Did the prince send a letter? Announce it in the Times?"
"Caro says," Hollis countered, as if that were quite obvious to anyone with half a brain where she got her information. "She knows everything about everyone, Pappa."
"Aha. If Caro says it, then by all means, it must be true."
"You must yourself admit she is rarely wrong," Hollis had said with an indignant sniff.
Caro, or Lady Caroline Hawke, had been a lifelong friend to his daughters, and had been so often underfoot in the Tricklebank house that for many years, it seemed to the judge that he had three daughters.
Caroline was the only sibling of Lord Beckett Hawke and was also his ward. Long ago, a cholera outbreak had swept through London, and both Caro's mother and his children's mother had succumbed. Amelia, his wife, and Lady Hawke had been dear friends. They'd sent their children to the Hawke summer estate when Amelia had taken ill. Lady Hawke had insisted on caring for her friend and, well, in the end, they were both lost.
Lord Hawke was an up-and-coming young lord and politician, known for his progressive ideas in the House of Lords. He was rather handsome, Hollis said, a popular figure, and socially in high demand. Which meant that, by association, so was his sister. She, too, was quite comely, which made her presence all the easier to her brother's many friends, the judge suspected.
But Caroline did seem to know everyone in London, and was constantly calling on the Tricklebank household to spout the gossip she'd gleaned in homes across Mayfair. Here was an industrious young lady — she called on three salons a day if she called on one. The judge supposed her brother scarcely need worry about putting food in their cupboards, for the two of them were dining with this four-and-twenty or that ten-and-six almost every night. It was a wonder Caroline wasn't a plump little peach.
Perhaps she was. In truth, she was merely another shadow to the judge these days.
"And she was at Windsor and dined with the queen," Hollis added with superiority.
"You mean Caro was in the same room but one hundred persons away from the queen," the judge suggested. He knew how these fancy suppers went.
"Well, she was there, Pappa, and she met the Alucians, and she knows a great deal about them now. I am quite determined to discover who the prince intends to offer for and announce it in the gazette before anyone else. Can you imagine? I shall be the talk of London!"
This was precisely what Mr. Tricklebank didn't like about the gazette. He did not want his daughters to be the talk of London.
But it was not the day for him to make this point, for his daughters were restless, moving about the house with an urgency he was not accustomed to. Today was the day of the royal masquerade ball, and the sound of crisp petticoats and silk rustled around him, and the scent of perfume wafted into his nose when they passed. His daughters were waiting impatiently for Lord Hawke's brougham to come round and fetch them. Their masks, he was given to understand, had already arrived at the Hawke house, commissioned, Eliza had breathlessly reported, from "Mrs. Cubison herself."
He did not know who Mrs. Cubison was.
And frankly, he didn't know how Caro had managed to finagle the invitations to a ball at Kensington Palace for his two daughters — for the good Lord knew the Tricklebanks did not have the necessary connections to achieve such a feat.
He could feel their eagerness, their anxiety in the nervous pitch of their giggling when they spoke to each other. Even Poppy seemed nervous. He supposed this was to be the ball by which all other balls in the history of mankind would forever be judged, but he was quite thankful he was too blind to attend.
When the knock at the door came, he was startled by such squealing and furious activity rushing by him that he could only surmise that the brougham had arrived and the time had come to go to the ball.CHAPTER 2
Kensington Palace was the site of a masquerade ball held in honor of the Alucian Court, Thursday past, at seven o'clock in the evening. The Duke of Marlborough hosted in Her Majesty's stead. The Alucians wore black masks, indistinguishable from one to the next, so that the identity of the crown prince would not be readily apparent, a ploy that might very well have succeeded had it not been for the long line of young Englishwomen who desired an introduction to the prince.
A certain English Kitty, much admired for her Wednesday salons, was so enthralled with the punch cups that a notable fox was on hand to help in any way he might, and thereby took unfair advantage of her in the King's Cloakroom. When the kitten realized what the fox was about, she demanded satisfaction, and was awarded the assistance of three liveried footmen to escort her out to a waiting carriage, which required such maneuvering around her gown and her ample person as to have knocked the peruke from the unfortunate head of one of the lads.
Honeycutt's Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies
When one lived as simply as Eliza Tricklebank, one did not expect to gain an invitation to a ball, much less meet a prince. And yet, she had somehow managed to put herself in the receiving line to be introduced to a prince, without the slightest bit of assistance other than a wee bit of rum punch.
She couldn't even say which prince she was waiting to meet, or how many of them there were in total. She'd heard there were at least two of them presently in England, but for all she knew, there could be scores of them roaming about.
It seemed amusing now to think that this evening, and this moment, and the idea that Eliza might make the acquaintance of an actual prince, had all begun only days ago when Caroline had called at Bedford Square where Eliza lived with her father.
Caroline had news about the ball, gleaned from the revered Mrs. Cubison, the modiste from whom she'd commissioned masks for the three of them. "Mrs. Cubison offered that she'd been retained a month ago to provide masks for the Alucians, and that she and her ladies had worked for days to fulfill their wishes." She'd spoken quickly, with much excitement, even as she lazed on Eliza's bed.
Hollis had gasped and reached for paper. "Not another word until I have my pencil —"
"You won't believe what I tell you," Caroline had said.
"The truth will be known soon enough, I suppose —"
"Caro, by all that is holy, if you don't tell us, I will squeeze it from you with my bare hands," Hollis had warned.
Caroline had laughed gaily. She enjoyed provoking Hollis, which Eliza had pointed out to her sister more than once. Hollis stubbornly refused to accept it.
"All right, here it is. Every single mask is black and identical."
Hollis and Eliza had stared at their best friend, who very calmly pillowed her hands behind her head and crossed her feet at the ankles.
"Why?" Eliza had asked, only slightly curious about this mask detail.
"So you can't tell the crown prince from the others!" Caroline had cried triumphantly.
Looking around her now, Eliza thought that was very forward thinking by the Alucians because it had worked — she could hardly tell one Alucian from the other. There were scores of tall men dressed in black and identical plain black masks — just like the one she'd encountered in that narrow passageway a quarter of an hour ago.
What a strange encounter that had been. Gentlemen were such odd creatures to her, now that she was at a remove from them by a spinster's arm length. They could be so presumptuous. She realized now she wouldn't be able to pick out that man in this crowd of identically dressed men even if she wanted to encounter him again. Which she did not. And while the Alucian women were distinguishable by their beautiful gowns, even they wore the same black mask.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Princess Plan"
Copyright © 2019 Dinah Dinwiddie.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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