Never Pursue a Prince, Book 1 in Fortune's Brides: The Wedding Vow series
January 3, 2022 (ISBN 9781005123536, Edwards and Williams)
Sometimes, Prince Charming isn't what you expect.
Lady Larissa, oldest daughter of the Duke of Wey, has one goal: find suitable husbands for her two younger sisters and best friend so they may live happily ever after. Despite their attempts at matchmaking for her, she's all but given up on finding her own groom, a gentleman good enough to meet her late mother's and grandmother's expectations. She has a hard enough time meeting those expectations for poise, propriety, and perfection. But a chance encounter brings the most marvelous gentleman to her attention. A shame he is merely a captain of the Imperial Guard of Batavaria and in no way the suitable husband for the daughter of a duke.Blurb paragraph
Prince Otto Leopold Augustus of Batavaria has one goal: to win back his country from those who ousted his family. But someone seems intent on stopping him, for danger stalks the corridors of their palace in England. So why not trade places with his identical twin brother, the leader of the Imperial Guard? Leo might just uncover their enemies before someone is hurt. And having an ally in the thoroughly proper and pretty duke's daughter can only help. The more Larissa and Leo are thrown together, the more secrets come to light and the more their attraction grows. Would the daughter of a duke dare to throw off propriety, if it means winning the heart of the most princely of men?
"Wonderful! I genuinely enjoyed this story, and it's always fun when twins switch places." -- Blue Jeans and Teacups Review Blog
"I love a good Regency so much, and Scott certainly delivers every time with hers. Not only does she do that well indeed, but she includes a bit of intrigue to the mix, making for a good read! I look forward to the next in the series!" -- Simply Susan Review Blog
Chelsea Palace, outside London, England, May 1825
At times, Lady Larissa Dryden found being the daughter of a duke highly inconvenient.
Take now, for instance. She would have liked nothing better than to herd her younger sisters and dearest friend into the reception hall to meet their illustrious host. But that, alas, was not the gracious act of the daughter of the mighty Duke of Wey. So, she studiously maintained her best smile as she inched along nearly at the end of the receiving line of five hundred of London's finest.
Simple enough to mark her progress. The gallery walls in the mansion the Batavarian court had leased were paneled in gilded medallions. She was fairly sure she'd just passed the eighth. Only a dozen more to go to reach the reception hall.
If only her progress in fulfilling her goal was as easily measured. There, she felt as if she were perpetually stuck on the first step.
"This," Belle said with an approving swish of her white satin skirts, "is what is known as a tremendous crush."
Her youngest sister was right. All up and down the line, ladies smiled, giggled, and attempted to look interesting. Their fans wafted away the warmth of a May evening, made even hotter by the hundreds of candles flickering in the massive crystal chandeliers overhead. Every marriageable miss for miles must be here.
That was not going to help matters.
On their other side, their middle sister, Callie, sighed so deeply she also set her rosy skirts to swinging. "Perhaps we should go."
Over Larissa's dead body.
"Now, what would His Majesty think?" Larissa said with a smile to her sister. "He was so kind to invite us all."
"Even me," their friend, Petunia Bateman, said from just behind. "And that's saying a lot."
"You have every right to be here," Aunt Meredith soothed. A good friend of the family, she was standing in as their chaperone until their family could return from their country seat in Surrey. Though she was not titled, being the wife of a prominent solicitor, she looked as if she outranked every other lady in the line, with her raven hair done up in a sophisticated arrangement on top of her head and her lavender satin evening gown embroidered all along the neck and hem with green vines.
"Yes, you do," Belle agreed. "We all do. We must remember our vow. This is Larissa's night to shine." She nodded to Larissa, golden curls bobbing.
Belle was nothing if not an optimist.
"And what vow would that be?" Aunt Meredith asked, dark brows up in question. Her eyes, the same shade of lavender as her gown, swept from Larissa to the others as they all moved forward again.
Eleven medallions to go now.
Callie sidled closer to Larissa, who slipped her arm about her sister's waist in support. Callie had been wont to blurt out every word ever uttered in her presence, whether by servants murmuring in the corridors or their father practicing one of his speeches for the House of Lords. Her sister had learned to control her tongue as she grew older, but nerves or pressure tended to squeeze the truth out of her. And she was not about to share this secret. Neither was Larissa.
Belle saved the day. "Larissa, Callie, Petunia, and I are resolved to have a marvelous Season this year," she said with her winsome smile that set her jade-colored eyes to glowing.
"Ah," Aunt Meredith said, but by the way she cocked her head, ostrich plumes in her hair waving, she saw right through the half-truth.
Callie's gaze dropped to her pink satin slippers, and she clamped her mouth shut.
"Yes," Larissa said, keeping her voice serene, as her late grandmother had taught her. A lady had no need to raise her voice, particularly when she was protesting her innocence. "We intend to make a difference this Season. That's why Callie and Tuny are supporting the new Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."
Callie lifted her head and nodded.
"Commendable," their chaperone said. "And what is your goal, Larissa?"
"Larissa's going to marry a prince," Belle announced.
Heads turned; frowns aimed their way.
A lady also quelled any unpleasant rumors about herself. "It was a silly thing I said when I was a child," Larissa explained, pitching her voice to carry. "Doesn't every girl grow up hoping to marry a prince?"
That statement at least made the gossips turn the other way. She did not like thinking how they would react if they knew the whole.
The vow had been Belle's idea, and none of them had been proof against her will. But then, no one ever was.
"Larissa has always helped us," Belle had said when she'd announced it. "Now it's our turn to help her."
They had all been gathered in Larissa's bedchamber, as they often did after an evening out. With her brother and sister-in-law's permission, this Season Petunia was staying at Weyfarer House, the duke's home in London. Her family hoped she might have a better opportunity to meet a suitable gentleman. Larissa intended to make certain of it.
"I'm game," Tuny had said, leaning back against the carved headboard on Larissa's four-poster bed, her straight blond hair hanging down onto her lawn nightgown. "What do you suggest?"
Belle held out her hand. "We all vow to see each other married, and married well, before harvest arrives in September."
Tuny met Larissa's gaze. They both knew the excitement, and the disappointment, of a London Season. It was easy for the eighteen-year-old Belle to make such a vow when she was lovely, talented, animated, and on her first Season. Callie, Larissa, and Tuny were on their third. It would have been longer for Larissa, if she hadn't insisted on waiting to come out until Callie was old enough to join her. At the distinguished age of three and twenty, Larissa and Tuny were beginning to hear whispers about being on the shelf. So was Callie at one and twenty.
Then again, Belle's vow matched with Larissa's personal goal to see them all happily settled, so she said nothing. A lady knew when to speak and when silence was the most beneficial for achieving her aims.
Callie was watching Belle. "Do you really think we can manage that?"
"I do," Belle said with a determined nod. She wiggled her fingers. "Come on, hold hands."
Callie stuck out her hand and took her sister's. She offered the other to Tuny, who took it and held out her left hand. They'd all looked to Larissa.
She'd grasped Tuny's hand with her right and Belle's with her left, completing the ring. "Very well, Belle. Let's try."
Which is why they were now standing ten medallions away from where King Frederick of Batavaria and his two unmarried sons, Crown Prince Otto and Frederick Archambault, were holding a reception on their first week in England. As of yet, few had so much as caught a glimpse of the Royal Court.
Still, no matter what her sister remembered from their childhood, Larissa had no intention of marrying a prince or anyone else until she knew the others were well on their way to a happy future. Squiring them about might have been easier if she had been married, but she no longer had the luxury of waiting for the perfect suitor to appear. If they all worked together, this Season would see all their goals achieved. Perhaps one of her sisters or Tuny would catch the prince's eye this very night. Rumor had it that Crown Prince Otto was dashing, handsome, and well spoken. He might even be good enough to meet her mother's and late grandmother's expectations.
Even if none of the gentlemen she'd met had been able to meet those expectations.
For some reason, that thought caused her smile to slip. Unacceptable. She was the oldest daughter of a duke and the granddaughter of two. Noble blood ran through her veins. If she decided on a course, she would not be stopped. Her mother and grandmother had instilled that knowledge in her from the day she had been born, and her stepmother, Jane, had only reinforced it. Belle had said they would all find excellent matches this year. She was not going to allow a momentary melancholy to make her lose sight of their vow.
What she needed now was time away from prying eyes and listening ears to regain her composure. Other guests had broken from the line to promenade up and down the gallery or greet friends. Her absence would not be remarked upon, if she made it brief.
"Excuse me," she murmured to the others before slipping into a corridor that opened to the left.
The warmth of the gallery cooled to something more refreshing as the conversations of the other guests faded behind her. Larissa drew in a breath. Now, this was more like it-elegance, order. Chelsea Palace had been built by a wealthy family some years ago, but the current generation saw little use for it, according to the London papers, so they had been persuaded to lease it to the visiting court. Shaped like an H, it held public rooms along one wing and private rooms along the other. This corridor must link the two.
Like the gallery, it was suitably impressive, with marble statues in the Greek style interspersed with massive paintings in gilded frames. For a few moments, she might forget Belle's vow, her own childish preoccupation with marrying a prince, and her concerns for Callie and Tuny. She wandered farther, footsteps muffled by the ruby-red carpet running down the center of the polished wood floor.
The largest picture in the group was positioned high on the wall opposite double glass doors that must lead out into the garden. She stopped in front of it, mindful of her party in the gallery behind her, and gazed up at the man standing with head high, shoulders back, and meaty arms akimbo. His sandy hair streamed out around a strong-boned face, and he glared at the world as if determined to conquer it.
"They say it doesn't do him justice."
Larissa whirled to find that a gentleman had joined her. No, not a mere gentleman, for gold cording crossed the black uniform on his chest, where it wasn't covered in medals. She'd seen similar guardsmen flanking the front entrance of the palace, gazes alert for any mischief. They had seemed stalwart, seasoned. He could not be much older than her, perhaps by five years or so, yet he'd managed to earn a gold sunburst of a star, a silver cross embedded with a ruby, and a host of other ribbons and gems.
But their sparkle was nothing to the gleam in his silvery-blue eyes, as if she were gazing into the depths of a diamond.
"Forgive me," she said. "I didn't mean to intrude."
"No intrusion," he assured her with a nod of his head that caused the candlelight to dance along the gold in his curly hair. "His Majesty would hardly hang a picture if not to have someone admire it."
His voice held a curious accent, not unlike that of the French ambassador, who had spoken to her and her father at a recent Society event, but there were harder notes as well. German, perhaps? Batavaria had borders with both countries, as well as Switzerland. A shame she could not question him. A lady did not linger with a fellow to whom she hadn't been introduced. Besides, he had his duty, and she should not keep him from it.
Tilting her head, she saw Callie watching her. Tuny, Belle, and Meredith were already out of sight. In another few moments, she would be alone with this man. But she could not seem to convince her feet to move. Could she not, just for a moment, pretend she had nothing more to do than to converse with a handsome gentleman?
"So, this is the king?" she asked, forcing herself to look at the painting instead of him.
"King Frederick Otto Leopold the Fourth of Batavaria," he agreed. "Just before he became a father. They called him the Lion of the Alps."
Larissa smiled. With that defiant look, it was easy to imagine him roaring at his enemies.
"Of course, that was before the Congress of Vienna," he continued. "In their great wisdom, the leaders felt it best to entrust the wellbeing of the citizens of Batavaria to a greater power. The lands are part of Württemberg now."
Though he had spoken as if telling a story, she heard the bitterness beneath the words.
"But they allowed the king and his sons to keep their titles," she said. "And their wealth." She turned to look at him.
His smile was tight, his posture equally so. "There is a blessing in that."
Beyond him, Callie waved a hand before disappearing from Larissa's view. Disappointing, but there was nothing for it. Her own duty called.
"I should go," she said, starting to edge around him.
"Wait," he said, smile turning up. She was certain someone had added more candles to the chandeliers. "May I have your name, to tell the king?"
Something in his look told her it wasn't just the king who might be interested in the answer to that question. A shame a guardsman was in no way the fit consort for the daughter of a duke. She need only state her name, and he would know it too. How sad it would be to see the light of interest fade.
She inclined her head. "Lady Larissa, daughter of the Duke of Wey."
"An honor, your ladyship." His smile didn't waiver, nor did he bow.
Her position didn't trouble him? Well, of course not. As a member of the Imperial Guard, he would be accustomed to dealing with royalty.
Suddenly, his smile winked out, and he grabbed her arm. Really! That was entirely too familiar. She tried to pull away, but he dragged her behind the closest statue, then put a finger to his lips, eyes begging her to be silent.
To her credit, the lovely Lady Larissa did not protest further. She scowled fiercely enough to frighten off the French army, but she nodded agreement to his silent plea. He tipped his head to the corridor, and she squeezed closer to him behind the statue to peer out. Her dark blond hair, crimped in curls around her long face, glittered in the candlelight. Was that the scent of orange blossoms?
Leo didn't dare shake his head to clear it. It was hard enough to concentrate knowing what might be at stake. His future. The king's life. No one had believed him when he'd suggested the reception might be a perfect time for their enemies to infiltrate the palace. Perhaps that's why his brother had insisted that he roam the corridors.
It had been a way of humoring Leo while keeping him safe. Now he had the satisfaction, and the thrill, of knowing that he must be ready to lay down his life for his liege.
But the fellow strolling toward them didn't look particularly dangerous. He wasn't well built, and his tight-fitting evening tailcoat offered few places to hide a weapon. He might have been one of their guests, stepping away from the line for a breath of air. But, unlike the lady beside Leo, the stranger did not seem disposed to admire the paintings or statuary. With a single glance over his shoulder, he lowered his dark head and strode for the opposite end of the gallery, which gave into the rooms reserved for family.
No one was there at the moment. The king and his court were in the reception hall, and all servants were tending to the festivities. What was this fellow seeking?
The stranger slipped through the glass doors at the end of the corridor and disappeared.
Leo straightened. "I must follow him. Go back to the reception, Lady Larissa. Tell the first Imperial Guardsman you see that his captain requires his attention in the king's rooms. He will summon others."
Her eyes, a potent mixture of dusky green and warm brown, like the fir trees of his beloved country, blinked before she nodded again. "Of course. Please, be careful." She squeezed out from their hiding space, lifted her blue skirts, and hurried down the corridor.
A grin escaped him. A redoubtable lady. A rarity among the women who generally pursued the prince. Squaring his shoulders, he followed the intruder.
At least this manor house was more easily navigated than some the king had chosen to lease from aristocrats with too many properties to care. The one in Italy the first five years after Batavaria's dissolution had had corridors that twisted and turned as much as their enemy's strategy. The one in the German confederation the last few years had been dark and drafty, with far too many rooms for the guards to protect the king and his sons easily. This house had straight lines, which allowed Leo to catch sight of a black tailcoat disappearing around the corner the moment he entered the private apartments.
Making for the Thames' end of the palace. If the intruder was intent on theft, why not stop along the way and pillage the salon or the crown prince's suite? Was he planning to hide in the king's bedchamber and catch him unawares?
Cold seeped through the black wool uniform he'd been proud to don. He'd been trained to fight since the age of ten, eighteen years ago now. He'd devised strategies to fend off French cavalry and Russian raiders alike. It was only since the kingdom had been taken from them that he'd had to determine how to thwart spies and assassins instead. Some of their enemies, like King William of Württemberg, his ministers, and his favorite spy, Mercutio, feared the king or the crown prince would attempt to retake the monarchy and their ancestral lands.
And they would be right. Leo had been working since the Congress of Vienna to see it done. No stranger would take that from him.
Keeping his back to the wall, he drew his sword and advanced down the corridor. A shame the blade was more ornamental than purposeful. The king insisted on pomp and ceremony for these affairs. Still, it was sharp enough, and he was skilled enough, that he should be able to stop one man.
If he could find the fellow!
He passed the study the king used more as a retreat than a room of business. The lamp was out, and moonlight trickled into the space from the window. No sound, no movement. He edged his way forward, past the smaller dining room, the bedchambers where the off-duty guards slept at night, and the antechamber to the king's suite. A glimmer of light showed under the door leading to His Majesty's bedchamber.
His other hand was on the latch, breath coming fast, when footsteps thundered down the corridor behind him. Stealth had no more use. He threw open the door and barreled through, just as the other members of the Imperial Guard burst into the antechamber.
At the sight of him, they clattered to a stop, brows and swords up in question.
Leo stared at the open glass-paned doors to the terrace overlooking the garden, where curtains blew in the breeze. "Search the grounds. Bring anyone you find to me."
They did not question his right to order them about. The six of them streamed past him into the night. Two would have remained at the doors, and two would be guarding the king.
Ten men against, what? A battalion from Württemberg could be hiding in the shadows. But surely their plunderers would not send so many. With Charles soon to be crowned king of France, the monarchists had the upper hand on the Continent. Their enemies would have to send someone secretly to stop King Frederick from petitioning England's King George to see his lands restored. They might even enlist powers in England to help.
The delightful daughter of a duke, perhaps? She had been in the right place at the right time to distract him from his duty. Was she even who she claimed?
Perhaps he should learn more about this Lady Larissa, after he explained to the king that danger had indeed crawled closer.