Authors: Kathryn Caskie
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
gasped for air, as if it seemed her
tale dream of being a princess had just been torn away from her. “Then... then we could not be those babies.”
“That’s enough, Lilywhite. I shall finish.”
strode back to the settee and slowly, in three attempts, managed to kneel on one bony knee before
stillborn, but your father, even though known as
’s finest physician, was not permitted to examine the babies, even for a moment. He begged for a chance to revive them, but the queen would not hear of it. She proclaimed the children dead. If they were not yet, they soon would be, and that was the way it must be.”
Anne cupped her hand to her mouth. There were tears in her eyes.
“Though she expected
to follow her edict, she took no responsibility for it,”
broke in. “Instead, she tasked
with penning a missive to the prince, informing him that Mrs.
would soon be well and would harbor no traces of her earlier illness.”
“Her... illness? Oh my word, she meant—
’s jewel-green eyes sparkled with unshed tears.
gazed down at the Turkish carpet for several seconds before continuing. “Then, at the queen’s direction, Lady Jersey wrapped the bluish babies in her own shawl and deposited the still bodies in a lidded basket, which she hurriedly pushed into your father’s arms. He was to remove the bodies to the country, bury them, and never tell of their existence.
The future of the Prince of Wales depended on it.”
“But the babies weren’t dead,”
added excitedly. “Not yet.”
“Devil take you,
. You are ruining the drama of the story!” Lilywhite balled his hand into a chubby fist and thumped it on his own knee.
extended his arm backwards toward Lilywhite and snapped his fingers. “Assistance, please.”
“Oh, certainly.” Lilywhite helped
stand. When the tall gentleman sat down in Lilywhite’s chair, Lilywhite was left standing, mouth agape.
“Do stand at the opposite end of the settee, my friend, so I may see the gels’ lovely faces as I put a period to the story of their birth and second chance at life.”
grumbled but did as
, the obvious commander of the Old Rakes, had asked.
was nothing if not loyal to the Crown, and so he left
to do as the queen had commanded. But as the carriage rolled off into the night, he heard a weak mewl coming from inside the basket.”
“The babies!” The tears in Anne’s eyes breached her lashes and spilled down her cheeks.
told her. “
lifted the lid to see three sets of blinking eyes peering up at him. He ripped open his shirt and held the three shivering babes to his bare chest for warmth, then wrapped his coat around them all. They were not dead, but if he returned the infants to
, and the queen, he was certain they would not survive the night.”
clutched his brandy crystal tightly in his hands, as though gathering up his courage, as he usurped the role of historian. “Your father knew what must be done, so he whisked the babies to his family’s cottage, where he immediately engaged two wet nurses.” He smiled at each of the women. “And, well, you know the rest of the story. He raised them as his own into three fine young ladies.”
“In the morning,
—likely after realizing the danger of what he had opened himself and the babies to by sharing the story—recanted everything. Blamed it on the brandy and his penchant for storytelling,” Lilywhite sighed. “But we had only to look in his eyes to know his poignant words the night before had been the truth. So then, when he asked us that if anything were to happen to him, we would see to your future, we vowed we would.”
“And so we shall.”
swallowed the last few drops of his brandy and settled the goblet on the tea table. “So we shall.”
leaned forward, took Mary’s hand in his, and curled his fingers around it. “And there you have it, Miss
story of your birth.”
Mary felt numb.
No, it is impossible. The story cannot be true. It cannot!
It is far too outlandish. Far too grand.
And yet, she had to admit to herself, there was a part of her that did believe.
Wanted to believe.
Oh, not the bit about being daughters of the prince.
From everything she’d heard,
was a spoiled, loathsome oaf, and good heavens, being found to be his child would be naught but an embarrassment to her—even if the same could hardly be said for her sisters.
No, the part Mary longed to believe was her father’s heroic actions—even when it meant refusing to do as the queen commanded. Saving the babies, despite the very real threat of reprisal from the Crown, was in precise keeping with the character of her father. He was exactly the sort who would do whatever he could to save innocent lives.
As Mary sat silently, considering these amazing revelations, she belatedly noticed that her sisters had her pinned with expectant gazes.
“So, what say you, Mary?” Anne seemed very impatient with her for some reason.
Had she missed a bit of conversation while mulling over her thoughts?
“I can see that you are still not fully convinced.” Lord
pressed down on the chair’s wooden arms and hoisted himself up from its seat. “No matter.”
The tall lean gentleman returned to his place beside the hearth and gestured for the other two elderly gentlemen to join him.
For nearly a full minute, the
sisters sat quietly, their ears straining to overhear the low buzz of conversation taking place before the mantel.
To her surprise, Mary caught her name mentioned, twice, but she could not understand any other part of what seemed to her to be a most serious conversation. At last the three old rakes rejoined the sisters.
smiled at each young lady in turn, then fixed his eyes upon Mary. “We shall begin with you, my dear, if that is acceptable.”
What is this?
... begin what with me, my lord?”
“Why, see to your future, gel. Promised
, I did, and despite my reputation... in other areas, I assure you, I always keep my word.”
My future? No, no, no—
took Mary’s gloved hand and drew her up from the settee. “Mrs.
has seen to the preparations. Everything should have been delivered to your lodgings by now.”
His eyes twinkled excitedly, making Mary wonder exactly what sort of readying Mrs.
“My town carriage will fetch you and your sisters from
this eve for Lady Brower’s rout—where you and your sisters will be launched into
Mary’s tongue felt thick in her mouth, but she somehow managed to lace together a few words of protest. “My lords, you are very kind, but we are not acquainted with Lady Brower.”
waved his free hand dismissively. “My darling, you know no one in
. So you must trust my guidance.”
He gestured to her sisters, then patted Mary’s hand and led her to the turning bookcase. “Your father bequeathed each of you a reasonable portion and sizeable dowry. You have the gentlemen of the Old Rakes of Marylebone to see to the rest. Yes, Miss
, by season’s end, as your guardian I vow to see you properly matched to a gentleman of supreme standing. Then Lilywhite and
shall do the same for each of your sisters. Such a diverting challenge this will be for us all.”
“Are you referring to finding matches for the gels,
busied himself by making minute adjustments in the position of his wig.
To Mary, he seemed more than a little ill at ease at the moment.
“Or... perhaps you are referring to proving the gels’ lineage?”
asked. “For you have yet to mention the latter, and I daresay that task will be far more of a challenge to accomplish.”
For the briefest instant, worry cinched
ample brows, but in the next, his expression relaxed and his characteristic rakish grin made its appearance on his lips.
, my man! For the only way to secure the
sisters’ futures is to secure their past as well.”
“Did you hear, sisters? They mean to help us—in
, unable to restrain her excitement, let forth a high-pitched giggle before stifling it by clapping her hand to her mouth.
chuckled softly, then set himself to the task of turning the bookcase, opening it wider.
Taking this as a cue to leave, Mary made to step into the secret passage, but the ancient rake held her firmly in place for a moment more.
“I do not jest, Miss
,” he told her with all seriousness. “There will be no settling for a simple mister or even a sir for you.”
Once again, Mary did not know how to respond.
Certainly, she didn’t need anyone’s help selecting a husband. She was more than capable of managing her own life. Why, she had already set her cap for a very worthy man—and a titled war hero at that.
She was about to admit as much when she happened to glance at her two sisters.
If there was even a chance that the Old Rakes of Marylebone could see to her sisters’
futures, well, she would have to go along with the plan, at least for a while.
It was true that Anne’s and Elizabeth’s charms were many, but they were completely distracted by this tale of the blue-blooded babes.
Unlike she herself, they lacked the focus needed to set their futures on the proper path—by finding husbands.
Because of this, Lady
guidance and direction in making proper matches was truly a godsend.
Why, with Lady
as their sponsor, surely their minds would be too occupied with the hunt for husbands to allow them to waste their time and meager resources investigating the farcical tale of their supposed royal birth.
raised a brow. “Do you doubt my connections, miss?”
“Oh, no, my lord,” Mary blurted.
“Very well then. We shall focus our matchmaking attentions on dukes, marquises and earls... though we might consider a viscount or even a baron—but only if the family is very old and prominent.”
Mary squinted at him. “Why is a title so important?”
“Why indeed,” he said, winking at her playfully as he released her to follow her sisters into the hollow blackness behind the bookcase, “because, my dear, you are the daughter of the future king of
and Quinn were soaked to the skin, but this was no great surprise. They should not have raced like mindless schoolboys to
when the rain was so clearly poised to fall.
Still, Rogan had never been able to turn his back on a challenge, especially one from his brother, Quinn.
Just as he’d known all along, Quinn’s mystery chit was nowhere to be seen when they finally arrived at the park.
At least, Rogan mused,
had been wise enough to stay at home on a wet day like this. Showed she had a brain in her pretty little head. That was something to recommend her.
Not wishing to slosh water up the stair treads to their chambers, Rogan and Quinn headed straight for the glowing hearth in the
and began to shed their clothing there.
Rogan dried his thick hair, then handed his valet the wet towel in exchange for a warm dressing gown. “All I am saying, Quinn, is do not marry in haste.”
“Why not, if she is the one for me?”
“This gel who’s got your blood heated may well be your perfect match,” Rogan exhaled, passing his hand through his damp hair. “Only promise me you’ll get to know her, truly know her, and her family, before speaking of a ring...
, for God’s sake.”