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The Princess and the Peer

By´╝ÜTracy Anne Warren

Prologue





The Scottish Highlands

September 1815





Her Royal Highness Princess Emma of Rosewald stared at the letter held within her eighteen-year-old grasp, her fingers grown icy against the elegant cream-colored vellum. It was a lucky happenstance, she realized, that she’d seated herself in one of the school chairs in her small tower bedchamber before she’d broken open the thick red wax seal that bore her brother’s royal crest. Otherwise, she feared her knees would have given way and she’d presently be sprawled in an ignominious heap on the castle’s unforgiving stone floor.

“Well? What does it say?” her friend Mercedes asked from where she sat opposite, the words coming to Emma’s ears as if from a great distance.

“Obviously nothing good,” her friend Ariadne declared. “Can you not see she’s gone pale as a ghost?” Reaching across from where she too sat among their cozy group of three, Ariadne began chaffing Emma’s hands. The letter crinkled slightly beneath their joint touch. “Fetch the smelling salts, Mercedes. It won’t do to have her faint.”

Mercedes stood, the skirts of her pink silk day dress falling into neat folds around her trim ankles. Emma had always secretly envied Mercedes’s pleasingly curvaceous figure, as Emma’s own frame was on the willowy side of slender. Mercedes’s rich sable hair was beautiful as well, a deep shade that provided a stark contrast to Ariadne’s reddish blond locks and Emma’s own shining golden tresses.

But Emma reached out to stop Mercedes. “No, stay where you are,” she said. “I am not an old woman. And I have no need of a restorative.”

Ariadne’s strawberry blond brows drew tight in obvious disagreement, her green eyes fierce behind the rectangular lenses of her spectacles. “No need? You look nearly ready to expire on the floor. Get the salts, Mercedes!”

“No!” Emma stated in a voice that rang with the authority of four centuries of royal command. “Do not fetch the salts.”

“But—” Mercedes sputtered.

“You know how I detest that foul-smelling brew,” Emma said, wrinkling her pert nose at the idea. “Truly, it is unnecessary. I was overset for a moment, I admit, but I have recovered now.”

She lifted her chin and met the concerned gazes of the two young women who were her closest friends at Countess Hortensia’s Academy for Elegant Young Ladies of Royal and Noble Birth. As princesses themselves living in a country far from their homelands, Mercedes and Ariadne had always understood her better than anyone else.

Emma gave them what she hoped was a reassuring smile.

“So,” Mercedes pressed in a quiet tone, her chocolate brown eyes wide with worry, “what does the letter say?”

Emma opened her mouth to respond, but there were no words. Instead, she thrust the missive toward them.

Their two heads, one light and one dark, bent close to read.

“Oh, he cannot have done!” Mercedes exclaimed.

“It would appear that he has,” Ariadne stated condemningly, her bow-shaped lips pursed as she looked up once more. “Try as I might, Emma, I have never much cared for your brother. This”—she shook the letter between two fingers as though it reeked of the refuse bin—“has in no way improved my opinion. Of all the cold, arrogant—”

“You know Rupert is under a great deal of strain these days,” Emma defended loyally, “what with the Congress of Vienna redrawing half the territorial boundaries of Europe. The countries with the most power are busy carving up weaker ones for their own benefit and eliminating scores of others. I am sure he has agreed to this only as a way of preserving the sovereignty of Rosewald.”

The moment the words left her mouth, Emma wished she could retract them, seeing the stricken expression on Ariadne’s face. Of all people, Ariadne had the most reason to know about the reapportionment of lands in Europe. First had come the tragic death of her family during the war. Then, only a few weeks ago, she had learned the dreadful news that her nation was being dissolved, its lands annexed by another country. As Ariadne had remarked at the time, she was a princess now in name only, left without a country or a home.

“I can well understand the prince’s desire to defend and maintain his kingdom,” Ariadne said in a deliberately calm voice. “But that doesn’t mean he has to do so by marrying you off to a man three times your age.”

“Twice,” Mercedes piped up in a helpful tone. “I believe King Otto is in his late thirties.”

Ariadne gave an indelicate snort that would have earned her a scold from the headmistress had she heard it. “Twice? Three times? He is far too old for a girl of eighteen. Surely your brother could have come up with a solution other than forcing you into a cold, dynastic marriage.”

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