“Why do you want to marry me, Michael?”
She immediately regretted asking the question. She knew she was going to refuse him. Now she would have to appear interested in his answer.
“Prince Michael,” he corrected automatically. “Because, Lady Rosamund, I think you’ll make a perfect princess.”
A perfect princess. The words grated on Rosamund. That’s what they were calling her in the newspapers, ever since Prince Michael of the diminutive principality of Kolnbourg had made her the object of his attentions. And the depressing truth was, she probably would make a perfect princess.
She was the daughter of a duke. She’d led a sheltered existence. From the day of her birth, she’d been trained in all the feminine arts, the ones that were essential for the wife of some gentleman from her own sphere. She’d never been to school like other girls, or had beaux, or been kissed or had adventures.
If only she’d been born a boy, things would have been so different! She had two brothers, Caspar, the elder, and Justin, who was three years younger than she. They’d done exciting things such as having a Grand Tour, and fighting for king and country. They’d also done other exciting things she wasn’t supposed to know about ... La Contessa was what everyone was calling Caspar’s latest mistress, who was haughty, expensive, and had the temper of a tigress.
Rosamund’s smile was fleeting. La Contessa’s temperament would never do for a duke’s daughter, of course. She’d been raised to be polite to everyone from His Majesty down to the lowest menial. She knew the rules of protocol back to front and inside out. She always knew where to sit at the dinner table, or to whom she should curtsy and whom she should not. Small talk was her forte, except when her mind wandered, as it did from time to time, and she forgot where she was. If she had to describe herself in one word, it would be ... bland.Bland.
It was a word that had stuck in her mind ever since Lady Townsend’s ball, where she’d overheard some of the younger women discussing her character. No one could possibly dislike her, someone said, because she was as bland as a blancmange. And everyone laughed.
Her mother had been anything but bland. By all accounts, Elizabeth Devere had been impatient with the constraints her exalted position had placed on her, and saw no reason to follow them slavishly. In the end it was her downfall. She’d gone out riding alone and had taken a tumble while jumping a fence. It wasn’t the accident that killed her, but the fact that she hadn’t been found till the following morning. She’d come down with a fever and had quietly slipped away.
Maybe if her mother had lived, her grief-stricken father wouldn’t have been so strict with his only daughter. And maybe, if her mother had lived, his only daughter wouldn’t be feeling so restless right now.
All that happened twenty years ago, but she still missed her. She wondered what her mother would think of the way her daughter had turned out if she could see her now.
Uh-oh. She’d done it again, forgotten where she was.
She looked at Prince Michael and sighed. There must be something wrong with her, she thought. Prince Michael of Kolnbourg was tall, dark, and handsome. He was also titled and legions of women had tried to lead him to the altar. Then why didn’t he appeal to her?
Perhaps because she, too, was tall, dark, and handsome as well as titled. She was also wealthy in her own right and no fool. It didn’t take much intelligence to deduce that this was why Prince Michael had chosen to court her. Meanwhile, next month, she would turn twenty-seven, and she knew her father was becoming desperate for her to accept one of her suitors.
What she wanted, however, was a beau, not a suitor, someone who would like her for herself. Suitors, in her experience, were bookkeepers — every asset was noted in their mental ledgers before they made an offer.
Michael, Prince Michael, was definitely a suitor. He was only fourth in line to the throne and hadn’t a sou to his name, a tragic circumstance when one considered his expensive tastes. Marriage to her would solve all his problems.
They were in the conservatory of Twickenham House, the ducal mansion in Twickenham, just outside of London, and Rosamund took a moment or two to set the mood by staring at the vista through one of the windows. Autumn was ripe and mellow, and the trees were ablaze with color.
“I’m an English girl,” she said. “I could never be happy transplanted to a foreign shore.”
She looked over her shoulder and caught him in the act of studying his watch. Evidently, she bored him as much as he bored her! It didn’t surprise her: Lady Rosamund Devere was a boring sort of person. As a duke’s daughter she’d been raised to be as bland as a blancmange. Which was exactly the kind of wife Prince Michael wanted.
The perfect princess, the bland blancmange, who could be counted on never to put a foot wrong, say a wrong word, or have an original thought.
Without awkwardness or embarrassment, Prince Michael slipped his watch inside his vest pocket and gave her one of his engaging smiles. “I have no objection to your remaining in England after we are wed,” he said. “In fact, I may decide to make England my home. The climate agrees with me.”
So did the actresses, but she wasn’t supposed to know about them. She gave him one of her own engaging smiles. “I’m almost tempted, but...”
“Well, you can’t play chess, Your Highness. You see, I could never marry a man who cannot play chess.”
Mrs. Calliope Tracey put the teapot down with a thump. “Chess?” she said. “What has chess to do with anything?”
Rosamund gazed at her friend over the rim of her teacup.
Last night, she’d put up at the Clarendon, where she normally stayed whenever she came up to town to do a little shopping or escape her father’s temper. The duke, her father, had not been amused when she’d told him that she and Prince Michael would not suit. There had been a scene, if one person ranting and raving could be called a scene. And her brothers had not got off scot-free either. It seemed that His Grace had raised three thankless children, if persons of their advanced years could possibly be called children. Not one of them was married. At this rate, their line would die out. Then where would they be?
As usual, she and her brothers had listened to Papa in sympathetic silence, then made their escape to do precisely what they wanted to do. With Justin, it would be chasing petticoats, racing his curricle to Brighton, dueling, gaming, or whiling the hours away with friends. With Caspar, it would no doubt be La Contessa. There wasn’t much a duke’s daughter could escape to, but she could always count on her one and only friend to lend a sympathetic ear. So here she was, in the breakfast room of Callie’s house in Manchester Square.
That was another consequence of being a duke’s daughter. She had legions of acquaintances, both male and female, but they were not friends. They were so intimidated by her rank that they treated her with a deference that made her squirm. They never contradicted anything she said. Whatever she suggested was always accepted without argument. It was such a bore.
Callie was the exception. Her late father, a widower, had been the duke’s steward, and he and Callie arrived at Castle Devere, the principal residence of the Duke of Romsey, not long after the tragic death of Rosamund’s mother. She and Callie had known each other from the time they were children. They’d even been educated together, not at school, but by Rosamund’s governess. This arrangement had suited both the duke and his steward, since Callie would have the advantage of a superior education her father could not afford and Rosamund would have the benefit of Callie’s company. Though the idea was that they’d both be treated equally, it hadn’t worked out that way. Callie had always been allowed more freedoms than Rosamund.
And after Callie married and moved away, there had been a succession of chaperons, most of them edging toward their dotage. Over two months ago, her father had relented and had hired a young woman of Rosamund’s age to be her companion, Prudence Dryden, but things hadn’t worked out the way Rosamund had hoped. Miss Dryden was hard to get to know. And since she was hard to get to know as well, they were like polite strangers.
“Roz?” Callie slapped her open palm on the table to get Rosamund’s attention. “Hallo? Hallo?”
Rosamund blinked. “What?”
“Where do you go when that look comes over your face? What are you thinking?”
“I was thinking that ordinary girls have an easy time of it. They have so many choices. They can do what they want or go where they want. Look at you.”
Callie laughed. “Nonsense,” she said. “The sad truth is, no female has an easy time of it. We are tied to some man’s leading strings from birth, first a father’s, then a husband’s or a brother’s. It’s only when a woman becomes a widow that she is truly free. You should follow my example.”
Rosamund obligingly smiled. This was one of Callie’s oft-repeated jests, that life for a female began only when she became a widow, and in Callie’s case, it was true. When her unlamented tyrant of a husband choked to death on his own vomit during a drunken stupor, Callie had come to live with his brother in Manchester Square, and she’d found her true vocation as Charles Tracey’s hostess. She was amusing; she was outrageous. An invitation to one of her parties was highly prized, and she was invited everywhere. Callie had no shortage of beaux, either.
She was the kind of woman, Rosamund thought, that would appeal to men. She had expressive brown eyes, and dark brown hair that curled naturally to frame her face in tiny ringlets. And she was as dainty and as finely sculpted as a porcelain figurine. God forbid that she should alight from a carriage without some male rushing to her assistance or that she should carry a hatbox or drop a handkerchief. It wasn’t that Callie expected these courtesies. It was simply that men thought she was fragile. And nothing could be further from the truth.
It was true that men showed her, Rosamund, the same courtesy, but that was because they wanted to curry favor with her father. The only time she felt tiny was when she was flanked by her father and brothers. That was one thing she particularly liked about her companion.
Prudence was as tall as she.
“Why are you smiling?” asked Callie.
“I was thinking of Prince Michael. At least he’s taller than I am.”
“You still haven’t explained what chess has to do with anything. What did the prince say after you told him that you could never marry a man who did not play chess?”
“Not ‘did not play chess’ but ‘could not play chess.’ There is a difference. What could he say? I’d beaten him at chess, you see. If he hadn’t looked at his watch, I would have let him down gently. But after he slighted me like that, I didn’t care how brutal I was.” To Callie’s blank stare, Rosamund elaborated, “He’s a chess player. He fancies himself an expert. But I let him know he was no match for me.”
“Then what happened?”
“He clicked his heels and took off like one of Congreve’s rockets.”
Callie stared, then hooted with laughter. At length, she said, “You chess players are a breed apart. I never had the patience for it.”
“No. I remember.”
There was an interval of silence as Callie replenished their teacups. Without looking up, Callie said, “All this talk of ordinary girls makes me think that you’re finally thinking of establishing your own home.”
“I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know what good it would do. I’d no sooner move in than so would my father and brothers. Or, if they didn’t move in, they’d visit me so often, I wouldn’t know the difference.”
Callie sighed. “I’m sure you’re right. Your father and brothers are too protective of you. If they were my relations, I think I’d shoot them or shoot myself. Thank God my male relations know enough to keep their distance, except for Charles, of course, and he’s a dear. I never regretted my decision to come and live with him.”
Rosamund did not doubt it. Though there was an unmarried aunt, Frances, who lived with them as well, Callie had the run of the house. She also seemed to have the run of Charles, who, according to the duke, should put his foot down more often.
Callie said suddenly, “Where is your chaperon, Miss What’s-Her-Name?”
“Miss Dryden,” said Rosamund, slightly irritated because, in two months, Callie had never taken the trouble to learn the girl’s name. “She came down with a bad cold, and is confined to her bed.”
“I’m surprised at your father. I’ve never known him allow you to travel alone.” Callie finished her tea, and put down her cup and saucer. “Not that Miss Dryden is much of a chaperon. She’s so insipid.”
“Reserved,” said Rosamund, bristling. “Miss Dryden is reserved, not insipid. And I didn’t travel alone. I came in the ducal carriage, with a full complement of coachmen and postilions, all of them armed to the teeth. And now that I’m here, you can be my chaperon.”
Callie rested her chin on her linked fingers. “You know, Roz,” she said, “if I were you, I would get married. No, no, hear me out. It could be the ideal solution. Maybe you were too hasty in refusing Prince Michael. From what I hear of him, he’d make an ideal husband.” Her eyes danced. “He’d marry you and forget about you. You’d be free to come and go as you please. No more leading strings. What more could a woman want?”
“What about the right man?” responded Rosamund dryly.
“The right man?” Callie laughed. “Roz, he doesn’t exist. If he did, you would have met him by now.”
“Now, just a minute! I’m not exactly in my dotage.”
Callie sat back in her chair and studied Rosamund’s lowered brows. Finally, she said, “I’m all ears. Describe this romantic figure who can do what no other man has done and lead you to the altar.”
Rosamund gazed down at the dregs in her teacup as though she were a fortune-teller reading the tea leaves. A solitary tea-leaf bobbed on the surface. With an index finger, she pushed it under. A moment later, it bobbed right up again.
Excerpted from The Perfect Princess by Elizabeth Thornton. Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.