Authors: Teresa Medeiros
Tags: #Man-Woman Relationships, #England, #Nobility - England, #General, #Romance, #Historical, #Fiction, #Love Stories
Charming the Prince
PUBLISHING HISTORY A Bantam Book / April 1999
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1999 by Teresa Medeiros.
Front jacket art copyright © 1999 by Alan Ayers.
Back jacket art copyright © 1999 by Lynne Sanders/Fortin-Sanders.
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For Irwyn Applebaum, for his unwavering faith in his writers and his continuing dedication to women's fiction.
For Ms. Meriweather, Ms. Silvey, Ms. Truitt, Ms. Warren, Ms. Brown, Ms. Sharon, Mr. Wade Holder, Miss Alma Ferguson, Mr. Fielder, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Jent, Ms. Brenda Watson, Ms. Pat Mickel, Mr. Darvis Snod-grass, Mr. Ted Parrish, Miss Mary Hart Finley, Ms. Amanda White, Mr. Robert Adkins, Ms. Lisa DiPasquale, Ms. Becky Griffin, Mr. David Schuermer, Ms. Patricia Ramsden, Melissa Bregenzer and for all the teachers who strive to give their students a love of learning and reading, especially Mr. Ernie Davis, who once gave me a B in trigonometry when I deserved a C only because I promised never to take trigonometry again, and who spoke those immortal words—"There's no such thing as a bad book. Some books are just better than others."
For Michael. God has blessed me richly in this life, but never so much as when you fell in love with me.
Lady Willow of Bedlington had been waiting for this moment her entire life. She clutched her papa's hand and shifted from one foot to the other, so excited she feared she might wet herself.
At long last, after six years of wishing and praying, she was finally going to have a mama of her very own.
She stole a furtive look at her papa. He looked as handsome as King Edward himself, standing there so straight and tall in the courtyard of their castle, his undertunic draped with a belted scarlet surcoat. His surcoat might be threadbare and his scabbard tarnished, but Willow had scrambled into his lap and combed his reddish-gold beard for him only seconds before a blast from a herald's trumpet had signaled the approach of his betrothed's chariot.
"Papa?" she whispered out of the corner of her mouth as they waited for the chariot and its retinue of knights to wend its way up the hill.
"Aye, princess?" he replied, inclining his head.
"Will you love the lady Blanche as you loved my mama?"
"I shall never love any woman as I loved your mama."
Stirred by the bittersweet yearning in his expression, Willow squeezed his hand.
He gave her a halfhearted wink. "But 'twill please the king to see me wed to a noble widow such as Blanche. Her lord was killed in the same battle that cost me the use of my sword arm. So she has need of a titled husband and I have need of the generous dowry the king will provide." He swung her hand back and forth. "Think how wonderful 'twill be to enjoy the king's favor once again, Willow! Your little belly won't be growling like a bear anymore. There'll be fresh game on the table every night. We won't have to sell off any more of your mother's treasures. Why, the profit from the timber yield of Blanche's forests alone will overflow our coffers for years to come!"
Willow pretended excitement, but she wasn't the least bit concerned with timber yields or overflowing coffers. She simply hoped the lady Blanche needed a little girl as much as she needed a mama. She wouldn't have been able to endure her papa's prolonged absences from the castle during the recent months had he not been wooing her a new mother.
Her yearning for a mother was the only secret she'd ever kept from him. In truth, most of the time she was perfectly content to be Papa's little girl. Content to
mend the rips in his shabby hose with her clumsy stitches. Content to scold him when he went out without his cloak on a snowy winter day and to thaw his icy beard with her kisses when he returned. Content to chortle with delight when he called her "his princess" and rumpled her dark curls. She never even minded that their beans and pottage was more pottage than beans as long as she could fall asleep in the crook of his arm after he'd regaled her with a story from the hand-lettered Bible that had belonged to her mama. 'Twas the only book her papa had refused to sell.
It wasn't until after Willow was settled into the straw tick before the fire with the castle hounds nestled around her that her thoughts would stray to how nice it would be to have a mama to stroke her hair and sing her a lullaby as she drifted off to sleep.
She tugged at her father's hand again. "Will the lady Blanche love me?"
"Of course, pet. How could anyone not love Papa's little princess?"
But this time Papa didn't glance down at her. His grip on her hand tightened until it was almost painful.
Pricked by doubt, Willow smoothed the woolen skirt of her kirtle with her free hand. She had made the kirtle herself from scraps of fabric cut from one of her mother's gowns, working by candlelight until her eyes burned and her cramped fingers cracked and bled. Hoping to impress her new mama with her needlework skills, she'd even stitched a chain of roses along the square neckline. Although the wind whipping down from the north smelled like snow, Willow chose to shiver rather than hide her handiwork beneath her faded cloak.
She lifted her chin, buoyed by a stubborn rush of pride. Papa was right, of course. How could anyone not love her?
But as the splendid white chariot came rumbling across the drawbridge and into the outer bailey, accompanied by a dozen standard-bearing knights, panic seized her. What if all of her efforts weren't enough? What if
The covered chariot glided to a halt. Willow gaped, awed by the magnificence of its embroidered damaskcurtains and cream-and-gilt wheels. Six snowy white steeds stamped their hooves and tossed their heads, flaunting their braided manes. The bells threaded through their leather bridles jingled a crisp fanfare.
Papa leaned down and whispered, "Lady Blanche has a marvelous surprise for you."
The chariot door creaked open. Willow held her breath, dazzled by glimpses of a graceful ankle; a flared sleeve trimmed in sable; icy blond hair gathered into a silver crispinette.
As the lady Blanche emerged fully from her silken cocoon, Willow's heart leapt. Her new mama was even more beautiful than she had imagined.
Her head danced with images of all the things they would do together—sing rounds and recite rondels for her papa on snowy winter nights, spin flax on the spinning wheel that had sat motionless and silent in the solar since her mother's death, gather cowslips and sweet william in the aprons of their gowns when the tender green mist of spring came creeping over the meadows.
As the lady inclined her head and favored Papa with a regal smile, the anticipation of being crushed to her sweet-smelling bosom made Willow feel almost faint. She took a step forward without realizing it, but froze when something came tumbling out of the chariot behind her new mama. At first she thought it was a dog—one of the furry, pug-nosed creatures so favored by noble ladies. But as it straightened and shook a mane of white-blond hair out of its eyes to give her a challenging gaze, she realized it was a child.
Willow recoiled. It seemed the lady Blanche would have no need of her. She already had a little girl. Her eyes widened as a second plump little body scrambled out after the first—a boy this time, with rosy cheeks and legs like sausages.
Her confusion mounted as he was followed by another child, then another. She struggled to count them. Three. Four. Five. Every one of them as blond and robust as Lady Blanche, but lacking in any hint of her grace. They scampered around their mother like a litter of white wolf cubs, whining and yelping and tripping over her train.
"I'm firsty, Mama!"
"I gots to piss!"
"Why did we have to come to this horrid old ruin? I want to go home!"
Their pleas and demands were interrupted by a cry that struck dread in Willow's heart.
Untangling his fists from his mother's skirt, the largest boy came barreling toward her papa. His cry was a trumpet sounding battle, launching a wild charge across the courtyard.
Willow planted her feet, but the children simply shoved her aside as they surrounded her father, bouncing up and down and clamoring "Papa Wufus! Papa Wufus!"
He was forced to sweep three of them up into his arms or risk being trampled himself. The oldest boy and girl, who appeared to be around the same age as Willow, clung to his neck, while the others attached themselves to his arms and legs.
Their mother swept after them, holding a fur-wrapped bundle in her arms and smiling indulgently. "They've missed you, Rufus. They grew quite fond of you while you were courting me. As did I."
The lady's voice was rich and sweet, like cream that needed stirring. It made Willow's heart contract with yearning. She stood on tiptoe and tried to steal a peek at her stepmother's burden. Perhaps it was the marvelous surprise Papa had mentioned.
Struggling to juggle his own burdens between his strong and weak arms so he wouldn't inadvertently drop one, Papa leaned down to brush Blanche's cheek with a kiss. "I trust you had a pleasant journey, my lady."
"Not nearly so pleasant as the anticipation of what awaited me at its end."
Willow waited for her new mama to notice her, but the woman's hungry gaze remained riveted on her father. It was Papa who finally turned a pained smile her way. "Willow, I told you your stepmother had a surprise for you. You'll never again have to squander your time talking to those imaginary friends of yours. Now you'll have real brothers and sisters to play with."
The children ceased their jabbering, lapsing into a sullen silence broken only by the greedy smacking of a toddler nursing on its thumb.
Five pairs of icy blue eyes surveyed her. None of the lady Blanche's children wore childish kirtles. They were all dressed like miniature adults in cream wool trimmed in cloth-of-gold brocade. The oldest boy even wore a small sword in a scabbard studded with rubies and emeralds. Their silky blond hair hung perfectly straight without a hint of the troublesome curl that had always plagued Willow.
Her stomach sank as she saw herself through those pale, appraising eyes—a gawky child garbed in a dead woman's rags, her neckline hemmed by knots that looked more like nettles than roses.
The oldest girl rested her head on Papa's chest and batted her white-gold eyelashes. "I've never seen hair so black, Mama. Does she roll in the cinders?"