The Trouble with Princesses

By: Tracy Anne Warren

Chapter One





London, England

May 1820

Princess Ariadne of Nordenbourg—a nation that now existed only in memory and history books—took a sip of lemonade as she surveyed the crowded ballroom. Couples whirled past on the dance floor, the waltz being all the rage, especially since it had earned the approval of the powerful Almack’s patronesses half a decade earlier.

But Ariadne wasn’t interested in dancing—at least not unless it furthered her objectives. She had far more important matters on her mind. She was on the hunt, but not for the usual matrimonial prize that most unmarried young ladies pursued during the Season. No, Princess Ariadne prided herself on being anything but ordinary, and for her, the usual social expectations and restrictions held little sway.

After six fruitless Seasons she had decided to give up the notion of searching for a husband. What she sought now was a lover.

Since he would be her first, she needed to be selective. But not just any man would do. And thus, the reason for her hunt.

She remembered her friend Emma’s reaction when she had confided her plans.

Her Highness, Archduchess Emmaline of Wiessenschloss, née Princess Emmaline of Rosewald, had tossed back her head on a rippling laugh, grinning at Ariadne from her place on the sofa in the Lyndhurst House family drawing room. “Arie, you say the most outrageous things. You must lie awake at night trying to dream up ways to surpass your last bon mot.”

But when Ariadne did not join in the laughter, Emma’s smile began to fade. “You are jesting, surely?”

Ariadne calmly gazed at her friend. “No. I am completely serious.”

Emma’s mouth fell open briefly before she snapped it closed again. She laid a hand against her bosom, still ample since the birth of her second child three months earlier. “But you cannot take a lover! You aren’t even married.”

“Nor do I plan to be.”

“Arie—”

“Oh, don’t act so shocked. It’s not as if I’ve made a secret of my opinions on marriage and men over the years. I am four-and-twenty and only a few months from coming into my full inheritance. I’ve decided it’s high time I enjoyed myself and found a suitable cher ami.”

“Arie, as much as I sympathize with you about the freedom and rights of women, you cannot pursue this insanity. You will be ruined, utterly and forever. There will be no going back. The scandal alone will rock the very foundations of Society. You will end up becoming notorious.”

“I should certainly hope so,” she told her friend as she studied her elegantly manicured nails with a nonchalant air. “I not only plan to be notorious but the most notorious woman in all of the modern world. Madame de Pompadour will become but a mere cipher when compared to me.”

“Madame de Pompadour was a common harlot who wormed her way into a king’s bed and thus into a position of power. She wasn’t royal. She was not born a princess like you.”

Ariadne waved a dismissive hand. “Have you not yet learned, Emma, that it is not who we are born, but what we make of ourselves that matters most? Everyone remembers and admires Madame de Pompadour, regardless of her origins. I plan to be remembered as well.”

Remembered as my family is now forgotten. Valued for who I am as an individual and not for what I can provide as yet one more lonely pawn in men’s eternal games for wealth and power.

Emma frowned and leaned forward, reaching out a hand. “I do not mean to seem a prude nor a slave to social convention. I understand that you are an intelligent, strong-willed woman who does not wish to be forced into an unwanted relationship. It is only that I do not wish to see you hurt. I know you will find someone to love if only you will keep trying—a man who will respect and cherish you, someone you will want to marry.”

Ariadne met her friend’s blue-eyed gaze and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. They had been over this subject innumerable times before. But after so many fruitless years of waiting for her soul mate to arrive, Ariadne was done looking. Her perfect mate simply did not exist.

Of course, Ariadne knew that Emma had only the best of intentions, as did her other joyfully wedded friend Mercedes. The pair of them were forever extolling the virtues of wedded bliss. But they were the exceptions rather than the rule, and she had come to accept that a happy marriage was just not in the cards for her.

From what she had seen of the world, a happy marriage wasn’t in the cards for most people. For every successful union   there were dozens more that were nothing short of ritualized torment, miserable traps designed to enslave women and turn reasonable men into callous brutes.

She’d spent her entire childhood knowing precisely how bad marriage could be, as she witnessed her parents’ constant fights and manipulations, each of them wounding the other to the quick with their never-ending schemes and myriad infidelities.

When she’d been sent to school in Scotland in her teen years, it had been a relief to be away from her family. Little did she know that she would never see her parents again, that war and death would put an end to their acrimony and bitterness once and for all.

As for her cousin Teodor, well, she had stopped dwelling on his betrayal long ago.

Emma wanted her to be sensible and continue trying to make a good match. But the only match she had any interest in making was the kind that promised heated passions and the illicit pleasures of the flesh.

And why should she not indulge? Just because she had given up on marriage didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy men.

Soon she would be a young woman of independent means, free to go where she pleased and to dally with whomever took her fancy. All she needed to do was choose the man, then take care to be discreet.

She sipped more lemonade from her glass and resumed her perusal of the current selection of prospects scattered throughout the ballroom.

Which gentleman, she mused, shall I invite to my bed?

Just then a large, masculine shoulder garbed in stark black impeded her view of the dance floor. She looked up into a pair of piercing midnight blue eyes.

Vexingly familiar eyes.

Devil take it, what does he want?

She repressed a sigh.

Most women would have been quivering with delight to find themselves singled out by none other than Rupert Karl Octavian Whyte, Prince Regent of Rosewald, but Ariadne wasn’t among them. High titles didn’t impress her—not even kingly ones.

As for the man himself, she could not deny that he was physically appealing. He had the chiseled features, tall, leanly muscled body, and golden-haired countenance of a sun god—and the born arrogance to match. His entrance into a room alone had been known to induce swoons in young ladies, who would stare as if blinded by Apollo himself before falling into a dead faint at his feet.

For his part, he hardly seemed to notice them. He gave even the daughters of dukes and marquesses no more thought than he would a fly that had buzzed through a window and needed shooing.

But his aloof demeanor did nothing to discourage his admirers—quite the opposite, in fact. He was a monarch, after all, and monarchs were supposed to be beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. That, combined with his keen intellect, easy sophistication, and natural charisma, made Prince Rupert the most sought-after man in London. His mere presence inspired whispered speculation about which royal princess he would eventually take to wife and who his next mistress might be.

Rumor had it that George IV, newly ascended to England’s throne after the death of his father in January, had been rather put out by all the attention lavished on “The Bachelor Prince,” as Rupert was sometimes called.

Emma had relayed to her that a private meeting had been arranged between the two rulers, and although Emma had not been privy to all the details, Ariadne gathered that Rupert had thoroughly charmed King George. The two men had parted on the most amiable of terms, with firm promises of mutual support and alliance—and an invitation from George for Rupert to hunt on any royal lands to which he might take a fancy.

But as affable as Rupert could be when he chose, Ariadne knew him as Emma’s arrogant, dictatorial, prideful older brother, who never seemed to tire of needling her.

He’d been even worse since Emma’s marriage to Dominic Gregory, Earl of Lyndhurst, now the Archduke of Wiessenschloss. Ariadne had championed the match, going so far as to secretly conspire to thwart Rupert’s plans to make a dynastic marriage for Emma. In this matter, Rupert had not prevailed, and he had laid all the blame squarely at Ariadne’s door, where it had stayed ever since.

Really, it wasn’t fair at all considering that Mercedes had been in on the plan as well, not to mention Nick and Emma herself.

But that was another one of the many annoying things about Rupert Whyte—he had a mind as sharp as a steel trap—he never forgot anything.

And he knew how to hold a grudge.

Then again, so did she.

“Princess Ariadne,” Rupert said in a mellow baritone that was as golden as his hair. “Not dancing, I see.”

“No. I decided to catch my breath for a set. My next partner will be along shortly.”

Any second, if God has mercy.

Although for the life of her she couldn’t remember whom she had agreed to partner, and she wasn’t about to peek at her dance card to find out, not with Rupert looking on.

She sipped more lemonade. “And what brings you here to the ballroom? I assumed you would be tucked away with our host, elbow-deep in billiards and brandy by now. Either that or debating politics and military strategies and deciding Rosewald’s next move on the great global chessboard.”

“I prefer to leave such weighty matters for the daylight hours. Evening ought to be devoted to more pleasurable pursuits. This is a party, after all.”

“Well, only fancy, you are right. I had no idea you took notice of such trifling occasions as parties, Your Royal Highness.”

His lips twitched slightly, but he didn’t rise to her bait. Instead, his eyes narrowed with one of his serious looks. “Oh, you will find that I notice a great many things, Princess.”

Then without warning, he smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners in a way that would have caused more than one tittering debutante to reach for her smelling salts.

Despite her immunity to such provocation, an odd little shiver chased over Ariadne’s skin.

She looked away.

“Actually,” he continued, “I was looking for Emma. Do you know where she might have gone?”

“The last I saw she was dancing with Nick. Since they do not appear to be in the ballroom any longer, I presume they’ve wandered off somewhere together.”

Rupert frowned.

As Ariadne well knew, Rupert might have come to accept the fact that his younger sister was now the married mother of two, but he never liked anything that reminded him how such a circumstance had come to pass. His mouth tightened whenever Nick and Emma were openly affectionate with each other, especially in public, and he positively loathed any comment that emphasized the fact that his sister and her English husband not only shared a bed but put it to active use.

For her part, Ariadne found Rupert’s reactions highly amusing.

“They’re probably outside in the garden, passionately embracing behind some well-placed shrubbery,” she said. “The doctor stopped by the town house yesterday to check on Emma and baby Peter. He pronounced her in excellent health and said she can resume marital relations anytime she likes now.”

Rupert frowned.

“I’m sure she’ll be along soon,” Ariadne said, “but if it’s anything important, you might want to wait until morning when she’ll be less—how should I say?—distracted.”

Rupert’s frown turned into a scowl. “And what would you know about such matters?”

“Not a great deal firsthand, at least not when it comes to garden trysts,” she admitted, “but I do keep my ears and eyes open. Plus, I love to read. It’s amazing the things a person can learn from a book.”

“Yes, I know all about your unsuitable reading habits,” he said in a severe tone. “Were it up to me you would be forbidden to open half the books you somehow manage to get your hands on. Such works do nothing but give you dangerous ideas.”

“Oh, I come up with plenty of dangerous ideas all on my own. I don’t need books for that.”

His eyes flashed blue fire, then narrowed again. “On that point, we are agreed.”

She hid a smile. “So what is it you wished to speak to Emma about? Last-minute details concerning your return home to Rosewald next week?”

Raising her glass, she took an idle sip.

“Actually, I was going to tell her that I’ve decided to stay in London a while longer, through the Season at least.”

Ariadne choked on her lemonade. Her eyes streamed as a series of wracking coughs squeezed her lungs.

“Are you all right?” Reaching over, he laid a hand against her back and gave her a pair of bracing thumps.

She gasped again but nodded to signal that she would recover, even as she continued gasping for breath.

He offered her a silk handkerchief from his coat pocket. She accepted it gratefully and let him take the drink from her hand and set it aside.

She mopped her eyes and fought to collect herself, even as Rupert took hold of her elbow and steered her gently toward a private spot behind a nearby pillar.

“Better?” he inquired after a minute.

“Yes,” she whispered, finally able to find her voice again.

A slow smile curved his mouth. “That is a relief. I would hate to have to inform my sister that one of her dearest friends had expired, and that I was at least in part to blame. Had I known the news of my continued residence in the city would elicit such a dramatic response I would have made certain to keep all beverages well out of reach.”

“You caught me off guard is all. I breathed in when I ought to have swallowed.”

“Again, I shall have to take better care in future.”

She became aware of his hand on her arm, his fingers warm against the narrow area of exposed skin between her long gloves and her sleeve. She met his eyes, which were so deeply blue, and felt her pulse quicken.

A reaction to nearly choking to death, of course. She drew her arm away.

So, he is remaining in London for the next several weeks.

But what did such news really matter to her? Emma’s brother he might be, but that did not mean she need spend a great deal of time in his company. She would find ways to make sure she did not. Her little project would ensure that she was otherwise occupied.

The music had stopped and guests now stood in small groups, talking while they waited for the next dance to begin. No one was looking at her and Rupert; her small incident had apparently gone unnoticed.

A tall man with coal black hair and a long, narrow face appeared at her side. He sketched a bow, then inclined his head toward Rupert before turning back to her. “Your Highness, the next dance is mine, I believe.”

Ariadne smiled as she appraised him, racking her brain to remember his title. She was sure she would recall if he was a duke, considering how few of them there were, so “my lord” ought to suffice for the time being.

“Of course, my lord,” she said brightly. “I have been awaiting your arrival these many minutes past.”

He smiled, displaying a set of even, white teeth, a twinkle in his cool gray eyes. “I am flattered by your kind attention, Princess.”

She studied him anew, finding him not unattractive. In fact, he was rather appealing in a very dark, English sort of way. Perhaps she ought to take the time to actually learn the man’s name. If she decided to add him to her list of prospective lovers, she would need to know what to call him, after all.

Smiling more broadly, she accepted the arm he offered. Only then did she turn to Rupert. “If you will excuse us, Your Royal Highness?”

“But of course.” Rupert took a step back, his eyes meeting hers once more.

Her pulse raced in the most perplexing way. She was anticipating the dance to come and the man in whose arms she would enjoy it, she told herself. Perhaps, if all went well, she would eventually enjoy a great deal more than just dancing with him.

Angling her head closer, the better to hear what he had to say, she let him lead her toward the dance floor.

Top Books