Read A Princely Dilemma Online
Authors: Elizabeth Rolls
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Historical Romance, #Series, #Harlequin Historical
A Princely Dilemma
George, Prince of Wales (future Prince Regent/George IV) and Princess Caroline of Brunswick, 1795
George, Prince of Wales, with his mistress in tow, only lays eyes on Princess Caroline of Brunswick three days before their wedding, and his resentment is palpable. Christopher, Duke of Severn, knows all about arranged marriages—his new wife’s fortune is the reason plain Linnet is wearing his ring!
Severn and Linnet must persuade the spoilt princeling and his soon-to-be bride that a paper marriage can become something more. But in trying to convince the royal couple, a tantalizing spark ignites between the duke and his convenient duchess…
Easter Sunday, April 5, 1795, St James’s Palace
‘Severn! A moment, if you will!’
Christopher James Beaulieu, Duke of Severn, turned at the summons to find Lord Malmesbury, his face white, closing the door to Prince Ernest’s private apartments in St James’s Palace.
‘Of course, Malmesbury,’ said Severn, keeping his features blank. ‘Something I can do for you?’
‘Can you turn the clock back nine months?’
Severn blinked…having just seen His Royal Highness, George, Prince of Wales, burst from his brother’s apartments. ‘Nine months?’ His mouth twitched. ‘Has a happy event just occurred in there? Who’s the father?’
Malmesbury cast a harried look around in case any of the bewigged and liveried royal footmen stationed in the corridor had heard, and glared at him. ‘Levity, my lord duke,’ he snapped in an undertone, ‘is out of place!’ He wiped his brow with a handkerchief and, keeping his voice low, said, ‘I have just had the—’ he gulped ‘—honour of presenting Princess Caroline of Brunswick to His Royal Highness.’
Severn could only conclude that to ruffle Malmesbury’s diplomatically serene feathers so badly, the introduction had not gone well. Of course, the fact that the prince had fairly galloped down the corridor…
‘I beg your pardon, Malmesbury,’ he said. ‘I saw the prince. He seemed, er, distracted. Muttered something about being duped and he must see Her Majesty immediately.’
Malmesbury groaned. ‘I have but a moment—the king wishes to see me. Severn, he repulsed her!’
Severn thought it possible his lower jaw might not recover from the shock. He, too, shot a glance at the footmen. Stolid and unblinking, they gave not the least hint that they had any idea of what was going on. He wouldn’t have wagered a groat on that. Not after Prinny’s idiocy. ‘He repulsed the princess?’
‘Yes!’ Malmesbury gripped his arm, drew him away from the footmen. ‘Repulsed her, announced that he felt unwell and demanded a glass of brandy!’
And Severn thought he knew all there was to be known about making a disastrous marriage of convenience. ‘Er, is there something wrong with the princess, or is it just that His Highness is being—’ He hesitated, searching for a diplomatic phrase.
‘—is being a damned fool?’ suggested Malmesbury. ‘A little of both perhaps. The princess is not, I fear, overly acquainted with the use of soap.’
Severn wrinkled his nose in sympathy with his future king as Malmesbury continued. ‘But she
improved vastly, and appears willing and eager to conform, but
if the Prince of Wales continues in this wise! After he left she complained that he was not as handsome as the portrait she was sent, and that he was fat!’
fat,’ said Severn. And it was highly likely that the portrait sent had been flattering in the extreme. At least
hadn’t made the mistake of relying on a portraitist’s fancy; he’d thought he was extremely well-acquainted with his bride before offering, let alone marrying. Which just went to show how mistaken one could be…
Malmesbury didn’t even glare. ‘Lord, what a mess. Severn, if you can, try to see the prince. Represent to him the…the folly of continuing to insult his bride. She is not, I fear, of a governable or tractable temper. This, on top of sending Lady Jersey as lady-in-waiting to meet her at Greenwich.’
‘Oh, yes, he did,’ said Malmesbury. ‘Apparently the queen was behind it.
the blasted woman was late! Lady Jersey, that is—not Her Majesty.’ His teeth actually ground. ‘Furthermore she had the temerity to attempt to sit beside the princess in the carriage. Claimed the motion made her unwell if she sat facing backwards!’
‘Well, quite apart from Prinny’s rudeness in sending his mistress to receive his bride,’ said Severn, ‘why the devil did Lady Jersey accept the appointment if she can’t sit in a carriage backwards?’
Malmesbury’s smile was pure acid. ‘I asked her that myself. Anyway, look, Severn, if you can talk with the prince, try if you can to get him to see reason. He likes you. And haven’t you recently married?’
‘I returned from my honeymoon yesterday.’ And he didn’t want to talk about it to anyone, least of all Prinny. ‘I’m surprised you knew anything about it.’
The baron nodded. ‘Oh, yes. Someone mentioned it in a letter. The thing is, he might listen to you. Voice of experience and so forth.’ Malmesbury looked apologetic. ‘After all, there are parallels, if you will forgive my bluntness.’
Severn forcibly relaxed his hands. ‘At least His Highness is marrying to settle his
debts,’ he said coldly. Then, at Malmesbury’s steady regard, he sighed. ‘Oh, very well. I’ll try what I can do, but I’m not making any promises.’ Prinny, when he had a bee in his bonnet about a woman, was deaf to anything remotely resembling reason. And if Lady Jersey was pulling his strings about the princess… Nor was the queen happy about the match, having wanted her son to marry her own niece, not the king’s.
Malmesbury gripped his hand. ‘Thank you. I promised her father, the duke, that I’d do my best for her, but it’s rapidly turning into a disaster.’ He strode off down the corridor towards the king’s apartments, with a final injunction cast over his shoulder. ‘Just do your best, Severn.’
His best. Severn contemplated that as he entered his Grosvenor Square mansion three hours later, and handed his hat, gloves and cane to the butler. ‘Thank you, Blythe. Have brandy sent to the library, if you please.’
After his meeting with the prince he needed it. His best had not been anywhere near good enough. His Royal Highness showed absolutely no sign of being capable of listening to reason where the Princess Caroline was concerned—it was the king’s fault in pressing for a marriage, Malmesbury’s fault for not realising how unsuitable the woman was and getting him out of the match gracefully but instead bringing her to England, the princess’s fault for being so utterly repellent!
‘She reeked, Severn! Simply reeked. And all Malmesbury—blast his impudence!—could do when I positively begged for brandy—I felt faint, Severn, faint!—was bleat that I’d better have a glass of water!’
In the library Severn stared at the portrait of his father, resplendent in the silks and lace of his generation, an angel of ill-fortune, looming over the chimneypiece. ‘What a mess,’ he said. ‘Why the hell do fathers have to interfere in the marital decisions of their sons?’ He sank into the chair at his desk and buried his face in his hands.
His head snapped up again as a throat cleared in a very pointed sort of way.
His wife, having clearly just arisen from the wing chair facing the window, stood, book in hand, her expression unreadable, but her chin tilted just a little higher than normal. His heart kicked at the sight of her, but he kept his expression indifferent. Perhaps she hadn’t quite heard. It wasn’t as if he’d been speaking loudly.
‘I beg your pardon, my lord duke. I did not hear you enter. I hope you do not mind if I borrow your book?’ Her voice was quite even, not the least sign that she realised she had just heard herself comprehensively insulted.
‘They are your books now too.’ He looked at the one she was holding. ‘What are you reading?’
‘Of course not! I just didn’t know you could read German.’
‘And French, and Italian.’
She was better educated in that respect than he was. ‘An accomplished wife.’
‘As you wished. Or so I thought.’
Oh, damn. She had heard.
‘You will excuse me?’ She started for the door, her deportment perfect, correct in every particular.
‘Madam…’ He rose, went towards her, hands held out. ‘Linette, I did not mean—’
She changed course, quickening her step and skirting his outstretched hands. The slight hint of panic in her step, the sharply indrawn breath, halted him as nothing else could have. ‘No matter, sir. Fathers can be inconvenient creatures, I am sure. Good day.’ She reached the door and was through it in a froth of muslin skirts.
Returning to his chair, he dropped his head back into his hands and swore. He hadn’t even thought that she might be in here. Women were supposed to prefer drawing rooms to libraries, weren’t they? But his new duchess loved books, judging by the pile she kept beside her bed, and he had politely made her free of the library when he brought her home yesterday. At least it had been his wife, rather than a maid dusting. Although he wasn’t entirely sure which would be worse—the servants’ inevitable gossip, or his bride’s stony face over the dinner table.
It was Easter Sunday; they’d invited his immediate family, and her grandmother, for dinner. It might have been possible to speak with her, apologise, over dinner if it were just the two of them. He would have no hesitation in dismissing the footmen and dining alone with her. Impossible with guests. He’d have to speak with her before dinner.
Linnet, Duchess of Severn, having ordered a bath in front of the fire, wondered in what way her undoubtedly bourgeois behaviour had disgusted her aristocratic husband. Grandmère had made it all perfectly clear, instructing her on how to conduct herself in such a grand marriage. Clear enough until one tried to actually
it. It didn’t help that he called her Lin
, rather than
net; Grandmère had been very clear that being named after a bird was not at all proper.
Leaning back in the bath, she closed her eyes, listening to her maid, Bolt, moving about beyond the screen, laying out her evening clothes. She was never, or rarely, alone and yet she had never been so lonely in her life.
She had never thought that she would have no one to talk to. Really talk to. She certainly couldn’t talk to Bolt, who had been her mother-in-law’s maid and clearly disapproved of her new mistress. She had thought that she would be able to talk to Severn, that they could be friends, even though he had not married her for love. But it seemed that Grandmère had been right.…
‘No demonstrations of affection… You must use his title always… Any display of vulgar enthusiasm will betray ill-breeding, and give him a disgust of you… A lady of consequence lies still and accepts her duty; she submits to her husband’s attentions quietly.’
She hadn’t realised how difficult it would be to don the cloak of formal decorum. It didn’t feel at all like the gracious ease of manner that her grandmother told her was necessary; it felt stiff, and cold. Papa had always encouraged her to be affectionate, open in her manners. Not vulgar, of course, but relaxed. But she supposed Grandmère must know more about the aristocracy than Papa had. In fact, Papa had never intended such a grand match for her at all.
Marry a fellow you can trust to be honest with you
She swallowed. Severn had been completely honest with her about his reasons for offering for her hand—debts. His father’s crippling debts which, without her fortune, would have sunk the dukedom. He had been open about it all, not paying her flowery compliments, nor pretending that he had fallen head over heels in love. She shivered; he had not behaved at all like her cousin, Joseph. Joseph had fooled her completely. Courting her, paying compliments, buying her extravagant gifts, which it turned out had put him even further into debt. He had been all tender consideration, with the false light in his eyes a beacon to lure her to disaster. She had been so lonely with Papa gone, had wanted someone to love so desperately. Apparently Joseph didn’t even much like her.…
‘But, Father, she’s so plain! And she reads too much, dull as ditchwater!’
‘She’s worth a fortune, boy. Enough and more to pull you out of the River Tick. That makes her a beauty, especially if you blow out the lamp. And there’ll be time enough to school her out of annoying habits once you’re safely married, and the money’s tied up. She’ll have to obey you then.’
Plain. Very well, she knew she was plain. Without the curling iron, which she hated, her hair was dead straight. And, with or without the iron, it was an unremarkable mousy colour. Not unlike the plumage of her namesake. Her eyes were a dull brown, and although her complexion was good, it was marred by those horrible freckles. As for her breasts, well, it was a good thing her stays pushed up what little there was. And Severn… She closed her eyes. Severn was beautiful, if you could call a man beautiful—those gorgeous eyes, the deep burnished gold hair and a face like…like a Greek god! And he was strong, but so gentle with it.
‘She’s bran-faced, Father, not to mention as flat as a board!’
‘Take a mistress, then, once you’ve got a brat on the chit. Just marry her and secure the money.’
She grabbed the washcloth, soaping it vigorously. Eavesdropping was shameful, of course, not at all the behaviour expected of a lady. She had known it then, and if that hadn’t been enough to prove to her that eavesdroppers rarely heard any good of themselves, then this evening had proved it. Not that she had meant to eavesdrop on either occasion. Still, sometimes it was better to know the truth even when it hurt. She had refused Joseph’s offer the following morning, accompanied by a few pithy quotes from the conversation she’d overheard, and removed from her uncle Bartholomew’s house to her grandmother’s within the hour.
There had been nowhere else to go. Her father’s will stipulated that until she married, or turned thirty, she must reside with either her uncle Bartholomew or her French
Madame la Marquise de la Marchèrand had received her willingly, if coldly. Even her enduring disgust at her daughter’s elopement twenty-three years earlier with a wealthy English merchant did not blind her to the advantages of chaperoning a young lady worth two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.
. So be it. We will contrive. Bad blood,
Her Gallic shrug said it all.
Et pas de beauté.
You are no beauty. But with such a fortune, here in England—a land of shopkeepers!—it will suffice for many.’
The old lady had sniffed disdainfully.
France it would not be so. Such a
connection, it would be
. Unthinkable! But while there may be none in this nation fit to ride in a carriage with the French king, there will of a certainty be many suitors for such a fortune.’
As opposed to suitors for plain, bourgeois Linnet Farley.
Instead of pointing out that the last French king and his queen had lost their heads two years before and their young son remained imprisoned in the Temple, she had submitted to Grandmère’s decrees, preferring brutal candour to lying sweetness. If all she could expect was to be married for her money, then she would do it with her eyes open and choose for herself.
And she had. She had chosen Severn, almost from the minute of meeting him. Severn, whose smiling blue eyes had offered friendship…or so she had thought.
She blinked away the hotness behind her own eyes, grabbed the washcloth and soaped it. It would all be perfectly fine, if only she had not permitted herself to believe that Severn felt something for her. That beyond his pressing need for her money to pay off his father’s debts and save his family, there had been a genuine liking for her. There had been something in his smile, something affectionate, almost a caressing, that had always left her warm, tingly and slightly breathless. She still felt that way, only now there was that cool reserve in his voice, a certain distance when he spoke to her.
Ignoring the lump in her throat, she washed herself. She had hoped it was just discretion after that dreadful time Grandmère had caught them together and she had been in his arms, about, she had thought, to be kissed. And very willingly too. After that he had been all that was polite and proper, keeping a decent distance at all times.
Even on their wedding night. Oh, he had bedded her. Gentle, careful and considerate, he had made her his wife. With the lights out. Just as Uncle Bartholomew had suggested to Joseph. And left her room as soon as he had assured himself that he had not hurt her too much in taking her virginity. It was the same each time he came to her, and each time she found it harder and harder to just lie still and silent beneath him, her heart pounding, her body shivering with the need to move against him, with him. It was even harder not to ask him to stay afterwards, to hold her for just a little while. She dared not. Apparently Grandmère had been right; it was folly for a lady to wear her heart on her sleeve. It was better off kept safely away from sight, if not intact.
She could no longer hear her maid, which suggested that it was probably time for her to be out of the bath, ready for the hated curling iron. Sitting up, she braced to stand; the outer door opened, and she froze.
‘Your mistress is here?’ That deep, quiet voice that brushed every nerve.
‘Yes, Your Grace.’
The door closed, and he spoke again. ‘Madam?’
Madam wondered that the bath didn’t evaporate in steam, she was blushing so hotly. ‘I’m…I’m here, sir. In the bath.’