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Authors: Elizabeth Rolls

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BOOK: A Princely Dilemma
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Chapter Ten

Malmesbury was pacing the library when Kester entered.

‘Sir?’

The baron swung around. ‘Severn. I apologise for calling at such an hour—’ His gaze took in Kester’s dishevelled state and something that might have been a smile flickered around his mouth.

Kester cleared his throat. ‘Not at all, sir. I collect it is something urgent.’

‘Urgent enough,’ said Malmesbury. ‘The prince is talking about calling off the marriage! Saying the only woman he will ever love is Mrs Fitzherbert, and—’

‘Did he marry her?’

‘God knows, and it doesn’t matter. If he did, it was invalid according to the law and cannot be upheld, since he had not the king’s permission. Which, given Mrs Fitzherbert is a Catholic, would never have been granted. The point is the embarrassment that will ensue should he now refuse to marry the princess! After all my work instilling a sense of the importance of what was before her into the princess, the prince has undone all that good by his folly.’

He turned again to pace. ‘Her father warned me that she could be intractable, and it appears she has decided to give as good as she gets. Nothing could be more disastrous for her! And now that Lady Jersey is in charge—God help us! She takes every opportunity to aggravate, Severn.’

‘You wish me to see the prince again?’

‘Please. For what good it will do. I fear even if you can bring him around, the princess is now so intransigent that
she
will go out of her way to offend
him
. Her behaviour at dinner tonight!’ He covered his eyes briefly. ‘Flippant, rattling, and she threw out the most vulgar hints about Lady Jersey!’

Kester perceived that he was indeed not the only one to have endured a ghastly family dinner that evening. ‘Is it too much to hope that Lady Jersey wasn’t present?’

Malmesbury groaned. ‘Of course she was present! Not that it would have made any difference—she would have heard everything over her breakfast otherwise. Severn, you
must
see the prince again.’

‘Perhaps I should see the princess instead.’

Malmesbury almost smiled. ‘Perhaps. What I need is a sympathetic woman of high rank who can talk to her without Lady Jersey being able to interfere.’

He halted before Kester. ‘I’ll not keep you from your bed any longer, Severn.’ His mouth twitched. ‘Thank you for seeing me. And pray, give my regards to your wife.’

Kester’s cheeks heated.

‘I shall look forward to meeting her,’ continued Malmesbury. This time he actually smiled. ‘You look happy, Severn. I could wish your example might inspire the prince. Goodnight.’

Kester returned to his private sitting room to find that the bird had flown. Muttering a curse under his breath, he headed across the room for his bedchamber—for God’s sake! What had he been thinking, telling Linnet to just get into bed? Of course she had gone back to her own—

‘My lord? I mean, Kester?’

He stopped dead in the door leading to his very large bedchamber, turned around and wondered if his heart had stopped too.

His wife stood just inside the door that led through to
her
sitting room.

Of course she had gone back to her own bedchamber. He took a deep breath. She had changed for the night and returned. With a book. He supposed if Malmesbury hadn’t left when he did, she might have found a use for it. As it was…

She looked at him, an expression of uncertainty on her face, the slender column of her throat rising from the high-necked nightgown, bare toes peeping from beneath.

‘Yes,’ he said, before she could ask. ‘This is exactly where I want you.’ God help him, that demure nightgown was as erotic as the evening gown. Or perhaps it was just her. And him. No matter. He strode back across the room, swept her up, startled gasp and all, heedless of the book crashing to the floor, and headed for his bed.

Chapter Eleven

Linnet found herself tumbled onto the ducal bed, the duke tumbling after her, rolling over and over with her locked in his arms until they reached the middle of the vast counterpane. She ended beneath him, a willing captive, held by his hard, hot weight and by the surrender of her own heart. He smiled down at her, brushed his mouth over hers and began to unbutton her nightgown. ‘Naked,’ he said softly. ‘Not a stitch between us, and I’m not putting the candle out either.’

She flushed. ‘But I’m not…pretty—’

‘No,’ he said. ‘You’re gorgeous. And you are mine and I want to see you. You’re not going to hide from me any longer, sweetheart.’

And all the time those buttons were coming undone, until her nightgown hung open and he stripped it from her. Moments later he had shed the last of his own clothes and took her in his arms. Naked. Not a stitch between them. Hot skin to hot skin. Firelight and candlelight a dance as sensuous as his fingers at her breast.

Slowly, he rose over her, gazing down, and she trembled at his expression. Hot. Hungry. One hand still fondled her breast.

His mouth, all hot demand at her breast, drawing it deep into the heat of his mouth. Delight shot through her to where his thigh held her legs apart and she felt his hand slide down over her belly and cup her. There. There where she was aching and needy and wet for him. There where emptiness cried out so that her hips lifted, dancing and pleading for more. And he gave her more, teasing and stroking, finding a place where all pleasure was centred, pressing so that she cried out as lightning struck from where he suckled to where he caressed her so tenderly.

‘You like that,’ he murmured against her breast. ‘Say it, sweetheart.’

‘Yes,’ she panted. What did
he
like? ‘But you—I want to please you.’

He drew back a little, lifted his head. ‘Touch me, then,’ he said.

Her breath came in. ‘Touch you?’ Even as she spoke her hands spread over his back, finding and loving the lithe muscles, loving that his body shuddered. No longer did she think it was distaste. She knew that pleasure now.

He still caressed her, but lightly. Watching her. Letting her explore and possess. And she did, discovering his chest, that the small male nipples could tighten, that he liked it as much as she did. Finding the taut curve of his buttock, the length of thigh.

With a groan he caught her hand, brought it to his mouth and kissed it. Then slid it down the front of his body to…

‘Touch you there?’ she whispered.

‘God, yes.’

All velvet heat and steel, he pushed into her hand as she sat up and leaned over him. The firelight danced, lit his eyes, slid over his tautly muscled body in golden shadows. Shamelessly, she explored, discovering all the textures, the sleek, hard shaft, that leapt to her touch, finding that she loved his response, loved that she could please him. That pleasing him made
her
ache even more, there where they would join. And all the while his hands roamed her body, possessing her, loving her. And he watched, his eyes hot, hungry. Hot and hungry for
her
. Plain Linnet Farley, who had never thought a man would look at her like that.

‘Enough,’ he groaned, moving her hand away. ‘My turn,’ he said, and slid his hand back between her thighs, rolling her beneath him again. And this time it was different. Now that she wasn’t trying to hide from her own desire, it was different. Beautifully, splendidly different.

‘Kester, please!’ She pushed up against his hand, fierce, urgent in her need. But he kept the caress light, maddening.

‘You want more?’ His husky voice breathed delight in her ear.

‘Yes!’

‘What? What do you want, Linnet? Open your eyes. Look at me. Tell me.’

She forced her eyelids open. He was there, above her, firelight and shadow gilding the planes of his face, his mouth hard with restraint. She could feel it in him. He was holding back as though leashed. Waiting. Waiting…

Waiting for her.

‘You,’ she sobbed. ‘I want you. Everything.’

The leash snapped, all restraint gone as he came to her on a surge of power and wild possession. Her body leapt to meet him, to welcome him, and then he was there, pushing deep inside where she wanted him. Around her, above her, part of her.

Clinging to the last rags of control, Kester shuddered at the hot, wet clasp of his wife’s body, trying to remain still, to give her time. But she moved under him, all silken fire in his arms, and need raked him.

‘Linnet.’

Unable to help himself, he began to move, the world contracted to the space around them. Contracted to her soft gasps as he loved her, to the feel of her body matching his rhythm, to the silk of her hair spread on the pillow, its fragrance all around him and through him.

Braced on one elbow, he reached down between their bodies, found the taut nub and stroked. Her cry seared him and he circled it, feeling her body tighten around him at each thrust, hearing her desperate sobs as she swirled closer to the edge. He felt her body shatter around him, pulse after pulse as she broke and fell, and he went with her, his consummation a white-hot wave crashing over him.

Chapter Twelve

Somewhere in the middle of the night she awoke to warm darkness lit only by the dying glow of the fire and realised that she had fallen asleep in his bed, that she was—a furious blush heated her cheeks—nestled in his arms, her lower limbs shamelessly entangled with his.

Heavens! What must he have thought of her? Carefully she began to extricate herself, only for the arms holding her to tighten to steel, and the powerful thigh wedged between hers to shift possessively.

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ he murmured in her ear.

‘I fell asleep,’ she said.

‘You certainly did.’

A gentle nip at her ear scattered her thoughts. Determinedly she attempted to order them again. ‘So, shouldn’t I be going back to my own bed?’

‘Definitely not,’ he said, and, rolling her beneath him, showed her exactly
why
not.

She awoke finally in soft grey light to find her husband sitting up in bed looking at the volume of Goethe she had dropped the previous night. His long fingers were carefully smoothing a page which had become creased.

She watched him for a moment. He did not appear to be reading; in fact, she was reasonably certain that he didn’t read German. But he was staring at the book, deep in thought. She ought to be embarrassed. Here she was at dawn,
still
in her husband’s bed, and stark naked. He was naked too. Beautifully and utterly naked. And he apparently thought
she
was beautiful. He had spent a good portion of the night making her feel beautiful too. And wanted. And wanton. He hadn’t minded at all. Quite the opposite.

He looked across at her, and smiled. A tender, intimate sort of smile that had her snuggling closer against his body.

His reaction shuddered through him, and he slid an arm around her. ‘You said you read German, Linnet.’

She blinked, slightly surprised. ‘Yes.’

‘Do you also speak it?’

She nodded. ‘Fairly well. I had an Austrian governess for a few years. Why?’

‘Just something you might be able to help me with later.’ He put the book aside, slid down in the bed and reached for her. ‘For now, I have something much more important to do.’

‘Kester, are you sure about this?’ asked Linnet as he handed her out of the carriage in the courtyard of St James’s Palace. ‘It seems mad to me. Why would a princess want to talk to me?’

Kester led her across the courtyard. ‘Because you speak her language. Because you’ll listen. And you won’t make nasty little digs at her expense.’ His hand tightened on hers where it lay on his arm. ‘And perhaps because you’re
you
.’

‘But what if she refuses to receive me?’

‘Then I’ll send you home in the carriage,’ he said. ‘But she won’t. I sent a message via Malmesbury. Apparently she trusts him. He is your devoted friend for life, by the way.’

‘And what about Lady Jersey?’

His grin was wicked. ‘You outrank her,’ he said simply. ‘Just remember that. By the way, she is known as That—’ He leaned down and murmured the rest in her ear.

Her jaw felt positively dislocated. ‘She isn’t!’

‘Oh, yes, she is,’ he assured her. ‘An appellation more fitting for the kennel than a bishop’s daughter, I agree, but believe me, it suits her. Remember that too, and don’t trust her any further than you can spit!’

‘A lady,’ she informed him, ‘does
not
spit.’

‘There are quite a number of things a lady isn’t supposed to do.’ And his lazy grin sent curls of delight along her spine. He bent down to speak softly in her ear. ‘You did quite a few of them last night, and I’m looking forward to the rest.’

Chapter Thirteen

Princess Caroline Amelia Elizabeth of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel eyed her visitor with patent disfavour. Bright blue eyes were narrowed between white lashes.

‘I haf dis note from Malmesbury.’ She held up the note. ‘Vy should he t’ink I vish to meet
another
English?’ Her blue eyes narrowed.
‘Hein?’

On the other side of the room, Lady Jersey tittered, and murmured something to another lady.

‘Perhaps he thought you might like someone to speak with privately,
madame
,’ said Linnet in perfect, if careful, German.

The princess’s remarkably delicate mouth went from pout to smiles in an instant. She clapped her hands. ‘He’s not such a fool after all!’ she said in the same language. ‘That one—’ she made a dismissive gesture at Lady Jersey ‘—interferes with everything I say or do, but she can’t if she doesn’t know what I’m saying.’

‘You think not?’ murmured Linnet. Lady Jersey was bearing down upon them, her expression haughty.

‘I am sure you mean it for the best, Your Grace, but if Her Highness is to learn our language and ways, it is best for her to hear and speak only English!’

You outrank her… Remember that.

Linnet looked the countess up and down, just as Grandmère would have done. She frowned, as if puzzled. ‘Oh, yes. Lady Jersey, is it not? I am sure Her Highness is learning a great deal of English, and most…
interesting
ways from you.’

Lady Jersey drew in a sharp breath. ‘Impudence!’ she snapped.

Linnet raised her eyes. ‘She is learning that from you too? How very dreadful. Please excuse—’

‘Go.’ The princess accompanied this command with a flip of her hand at the countess.

Lady Jersey retreated.

The princess’s bright blue eyes sparkled. ‘That was fun,’ she announced, reverting to German with a broad smile that unfortunately revealed less than perfect teeth. ‘She won’t like you now. You know that, don’t you?’

Linnet smiled back. ‘What a shame. Did you enjoy your journey, Your Highness?’

Apparently not. Princess Caroline related everything that had gone wrong, from the weather—frightful—to avoiding French troops—annoying—and finally having a tooth drawn in Osnabrück—painful. ‘My page took it down to Malmesbury,’ she said cheerfully, ‘but I think he did not much like it.’

Probably not.

The princess changed the subject. ‘Tell me—there is a place called Richmond, is there not?’

‘Two,’ said Linnet. ‘One in the north, but I think you must mean the village just outside London on the river.’

‘Yes, that is the one. My mama spoke of it often. She was very fond of it. My papa had built for her the little pavilion quite away from the court in the country by the River Oker. Such a pretty place.’ Her expression turned wistful. ‘She called it Little Richmond. I should like to see the real one.’

‘I am sure you could. It is not very far, perhaps ten miles. You could order a carriage.’

The princess shook her head. ‘Later. I have to be fitted for my wedding gown. Tell me—have you met the prince?’

‘Er, no. I…I believe my husband is upon terms of friendship with him.’

This was greeted with a snort. ‘Then I pity you! Such a one cannot have pleasant friends!’ She jerked her head at Lady Jersey. ‘That one! Do you know what she
is
?’

Linnet drew a breath. ‘Yes.’

‘Then your husband is friends with a man who offers such an insult to his bride! Is he of the same sort?’

‘No,’ said Linnet. She knew beyond all doubt that she spoke the truth. ‘He would never treat me like that.’ He had made that very clear to her last night.

‘I have my linne to sing for me, so there will be no birds of paradise.’

The princess frowned. ‘You are quite young. How long have you been married?’

‘A month.’

‘A month! And did he take you for love?’

Honesty was all that could help here. ‘No. It was for money. But he is…all that is kind, and honourable. And I am happy.’

The princess leant forward and took Linnet’s hands in hers. ‘Then I am happy for you. I think perhaps it will not be thus for me and I shall like to think that there is one Englishman who treats his bride rightly.’

‘Ma’am,’ said Linnet, ‘I am sure that once His Royal Highness comes to know you… We—my husband and I—have both had to adjust.’

‘He dislikes me,’ said the princess simply, releasing Linnet’s hands. ‘But we will be married in two days and one day I will be queen. It is enough. You will come to my wedding?’

‘I… Yes. I believe we are invited.’

‘Good. Then it shall not be just Malmesbury who is my friend. Tell me, have you met this Maria Fitzherbert?’

For a woman who spoke little English, the princess had certainly made herself familiar with all the pertinent facts of the case very quickly. But then, her own mother-in-law had gone out of her way to put certain facts, and fictions, in her way.

The princess scowled. ‘His Royal Highness may have a mistress and two wives, but should
I
stray, why then I may be executed!’ She thumbed her nose and made a rude noise. ‘
That
for their rules. My Lady Jersey wishes me to learn English customs. Well, I shall—from her example!’

‘But, ma’am, if you were to behave perfectly, then everyone would see that it was not
your
fault—’ She broke off, realising that she had come within a whisker of criticising the Prince of Wales directly to a woman, who, however wronged she might be, Linnet was not certain she could trust.

‘Not my fault he has two wives and a mistress?’ The princess shrugged. ‘Perhaps. I can try. That is what Malmesbury wants, but I doubt it will change anything. And if I am to try, then he must also.’

‘I tell you, Severn, I’ll not marry the woman! The thing is impossible!’ The prince took another swig of brandy. Kester sipped his own and maintained his patience. ‘She’s not even pretty!
Nothing
like her portrait, and she smells, Severn. Smells!’ The prince sank onto a chair, eyes closed, nearly weeping. ‘How they can ask it of me, when I have already taken to my bosom the most dear, the most exquisite, flower of womanhood!
She
is the only woman I shall ever love.’

The question remained—had the prince actually taken Mrs Fitzherbert to wife, however illegally, or merely to bed? At least, he assumed the prince was not referring to Lady Jersey. One would have to be a great deal more foxed than His Highness to refer to the countess as an exquisite flower of womanhood.

‘Sir, you must see that to refuse to marry Princess Caroline now would constitute an intolerable insult. Although she is the king’s niece, infamy must attach to her name, and whatever your personal…reserves…she has done nothing to deserve that.’

The prince opened his eyes and gazed piteously at his friend. ‘Severn, I thought you would understand. You! Who have been forced into the same appalling situation by your father!’

Kester let that pass. Now was not the moment to explain that his marriage of necessitous convenience was becoming something rather more. Especially when he had not said as much to his bride. ‘Precisely, sir. So I know that such a marriage can work if both parties to it are willing to try.’

And it would have worked, he realised. Because he would have remained loyal to his wife under any circumstances, and she was too true and honest to do anything but her best.

‘Both parties, you say, Severn? Yet I have no such confidence that the princess intends anything of the sort! Her behaviour—it passes all bounds! At dinner last night— I blushed for her, Severn. Positively blushed!’

‘And could she perhaps have had some provocation?’

‘Provocation?’ The prince bridled. ‘Certainly not!’

Kester stripped off the verbal kid gloves. ‘Sir, you repulsed her when you met, and demanded a glass of brandy.’

‘Damn Malmesbury’s wagging tongue!’ the prince replied sharply.

‘You told me so yourself, sir.’

‘I was in shock, Severn! Shock! And I blame Malmesbury entirely. He should have seen at a glance that the woman was unsuitable and avoided the match! Besides, she could not possibly have heard me ask for brandy—Malmesbury and I were on the far side of the room!’

‘Nor was sending Lady Jersey to meet the princess necessarily the wisest choice,’ persisted Kester.

The prince glared. ‘Her Majesty the Queen approved the appointment!’

Which only went to confirm, as if he needed confirmation, that royalty could be as foolish as the next human.

‘And speaking of Lady Jersey,’ went on the prince, ‘the princess actually informed me today that she knew
all
about the intimacy of my friendship with Lady Jersey. Slanderous, Severn. Even if she
had
been sent anonymous letters on the subject, a lady should affect not to know such things!’

‘That makes it very convenient for us gentlemen, does it not, sir?’ said Kester, not bothering to mask the sarcasm.

The prince drew himself up. ‘I believe this interview is at an end, Severn,’ he said.

‘As you wish, sir,’ said Kester, bowing.

‘You will, of course, present my compliments to your bride, Severn,’ said the prince in frigid accents.

‘Of course, sir. She will be gratified.’ A lie if ever there was one, but necessary under the circumstances.

‘I shall look forward to meeting her, of course,’ said the prince sweetly. ‘I understand from Lady Jersey that she was an extremely wealthy young lady, but nonetheless passably pretty. I daresay she will attract a great deal of attention as she goes about in society.’

Kester stiffened slightly at the malicious glint in his future sovereign’s eye. He knew a threat when he saw one. Somehow he reined in the urge to violence, and spoke in the laziest tone he could muster. ‘As you say, sir. I fear though that I shall be one of the most unpopular husbands in London.’ The prince blinked, and Kester let his tone harden slightly. ‘I have a feudal, positively feudal, dislike of sharing.’

‘Er, quite, Severn. Quite. Good day to you!’

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