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Authors: A Return Engagement

Stephanie Laurens

BOOK: Stephanie Laurens
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A
R
ETU
RN
E
NGAGEMENT

(Previously appeared in the e-book anthology
Royal Bridesmaids
)

S
TEPHANIE
L
AURENS

 

 

J
UNE 7, 1826

T
HE
D
OCKS,
K
REMUNZ,
C
APITAL OF THE 
P
RIN
CIPALITY OF
L
AUTENBERG

“T
here she is!” Hereditary Prince Frederick of Lautenberg, heir apparent to the principality, beamed as he watched his princess-to-be emerge onto the deck of the royal barge as it angled to approach the dock.

Standing beside Frederick, Robert Knightley, second son of the Earl of Rockingham, smiled as Frances Daughtry, a sweet, slender, fair-haired English rose, raised a hesitant hand in response to the crowd’s cheers. Frances would, in Robert’s estimation, be the perfect Princess. Aside from her excellent pedigree and the inbred manners that went with that, her refined and elegant beauty, and her experience in the socially demanding arena of the ton, she was English, and as the British envoy to the Court of Lautenberg as well as the Prince’s closest friend, confidant, and personal advisor, Robert definitely approved of that.

Installing Frances, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Pemberton, as the Hereditary Princess of Lautenberg was a coup with which the British government and Robert’s masters in the Foreign Office were openly thrilled. And while Robert hadn’t played Cupid—Frederick had met Frances in London during a short visit the previous year and had been instantly smitten—he nevertheless felt that in facilitating the budding romance and steering it to a successful conclusion he’d discharged his duties on all fronts in exemplary fashion.

Frances turned her head, apparently listening to someone behind her, then faced forward, walked to the railing, and smiled and waved more definitely.

Delighted, the crowd roared, waved, and cheered back. Huzzahs filled the air; a faint breeze whisked over the water, making the flags strung up all around snap and flutter. Frederick, Robert noted, could not have been more pleased. Good. Everything was progressing smoothly.

Returning his gaze to the deck of the barge, sent to ferry the princess-to-be from the mouth of the Rhine, he surveyed the others in the bridal party as they emerged on deck. They’d traveled from London by ship to the Rhine mouth, then transferred to the barge for the trip upriver to Koblenz, before turning southward on the Mosel. The Mosel formed the eastern border of Lautenberg, and the principality’s capital, Kremunz, stood on its western shore.

Robert recognized the tall figure of the Duke of Pemberton, with his duchess, Valeria, in her signature gauzy draperies, on his arm. Beside them, directly behind Frances’s right shoulder, stood . . .

The person to whom Frances had listened. Robert blinked and looked again, but the tall, willowy, dark-haired lady, a few inches taller than Frances, did not transmogrify into either of her shorter, fair-haired sisters. “What the devil . . . ?”

Frederick—beneath his delighted veneer the prospective groom was distinctly nervous—cast him a sharp glance. “What is it?”

Schooling his features, Robert shook his head dismissively. “Just someone in the party I hadn’t realized would be coming.” Someone he certainly hadn’t expected.

Someone he hadn’t expected to see, not up close, not to speak with, much less to organize and oversee a wedding with . . . As he scanned the remainder of the bridal party, that last became all too clear. Frances’s other two sisters, Felicity and Esme, weren’t there. For some godforsaken reason, Lady Cornelia Daughtry had stepped into the shoes he’d been told her other sisters would fill.

“S
ee?” Lady Cornelia Daughtry, Nell to those close to her, murmured soothingly, reassuringly, just loudly enough for her sister to hear. “I told you they’d be delighted. Just listen to those cheers. And as for your Frederick, if he smiles any more widely his face will crack . . .”

Nell’s gaze had traveled beyond Frederick; her eyes widened, her lungs seized.

At her sudden silence, Frances, still facing the cheering hordes, nervously murmured, “What is it?”

Thanking the stars Frances couldn’t turn around and see her face, Nell continued to stare at the man standing beside Prince Frederick. “Nothing. Just keep smiling and waving and looking delighted. That’s all you need to do.”

Finally dragging in a decent breath, Nell looked sideways and caught their mother’s eye. Lowering her voice even further, she whispered, “Were you expecting Robert Knightley to be here?”

Valeria, Duchess of Pemberton, blinked her large violet eyes. “Why, yes, dear, of course. Robert is Prince Frederick’s closest friend and diplomatic right arm, as it were.” Looking past Frances to where Robert stood on the docks with Frederick and the rest of the official welcoming party, Valeria smiled. “As the British envoy to Lautenberg, dear Robert is in charge of all the arrangements. Should we require any assistance, it is to him we should appeal.”

With a wordless “ah,” Nell turned back to the prospect before her. One she hadn’t until that moment realized lay before her.

A long-ago would-be husband who, while he’d never actually come up to the mark, had effectively spoiled her for all others.

That was how she saw Robert Knightley.

He looked well. She could admit that. Could let her gaze sweep over his broad shoulders, down the long length of his leanly muscled frame, before returning to the chiseled, patrician planes of his face with some small degree of detachment.

At least while several feet of river and rather more of planking separated them.

How would she manage when they were closer? A lot closer? When she was forced to interact with him on a daily, even hourly basis in the frantic days before the wedding?

How would she fare when she and he—if he was as close to Frederick as it seemed—perforce walked down the aisle together?

Oh, God.

She didn’t dare voice the words, and in the end her feelings didn’t matter.

She was there and so was he, and she would simply have to manage.

A
n hour later, standing in the castle’s drawing room with a cup of calming tea in her hand, Nell decided the most appropriate strategy was to take the bull by the horns.

Some angel had consented to watch over her on the docks; in the joy and rapture of Frederick formally greeting Frances, then welcoming their parents, she’d managed to avoid exchanging more than a polite nod with Robert. The entire party had then piled into open carriages for the trip up a long, winding, stone-paved road to the castle, a sizeable structure in pale gray stone sporting towers and turrets with conical roofs, crenellated battlements, and countless pennants flying regally in the breeze. Perched above the red roofs of the town and the sparkling blue ribbon of the river, in the bright summer sunshine the castle possessed a fairy-tale radiance. Although Nell had been in the same carriage as Robert, indeed, although they’d sat on the same bench seat, they’d both been facing back along the cavalcade; she hadn’t had to meet his eye and had taken care not to.

Their progression through the huge gates of the castle had been accompanied by a sudden drop in the surrounding noise, but almost immediately the carriages had drawn up before the steps leading into the castle keep; the extended and clearly modernized building filled much of the space within the battlemented walls. Frederick had descended first, then had handed Frances down to enthusiastic applause from the assembled courtiers. Nell had quickly followed Frances, allowing a liveried footman to assist her to the flags.

As she’d followed Frances and Frederick up the stairs and into the great hall beyond the massive double doors, she’d been intensely aware of Robert walking alongside her, but there’d been so many others to smile at and exchange polite nods with she felt sure no one had noticed that she’d kept her gaze studiously from him.

Frederick had led Frances triumphantly into a magnificent formal drawing room, and had swept her sister up to a pair of ornate thrones. This part of the proceedings Nell and her mother had known about and had drilled Frances in thoroughly; her sister had made a very nice show of curtsying and greeting her future parents-in-law, Frederick’s parents, the ageing Prince and Princess of Lautenberg. Both monarchs had been disposed to be delighted; standing behind Frances, Nell had seen her sister’s tense shoulders ease.

Then Frederick had led Frances to one side, and Robert had stepped forward to introduce Nell. She had duly smiled, curtsied, risen, and had exchanged the regulation greetings and observations before stepping aside to allow her parents to come forward. She would have loved to have simply melted into the crowd, but she’d known her duty. She’d unobtrusively slipped into position behind Frances, ready to lend support when next it was needed.

But Frances had taken heart from the sincerely warm reception; as the tea service had commenced, Nell had watched her sister smile and chat with commendable spontaneity. Noting that her mother, too, was keeping a surreptitious eye on her soon-to-be-royal sibling, Nell accepted that, while she’d succeeded in avoiding Robert to that point, she couldn’t avoid him for much longer.

Cup and saucer in hand, he’d retreated to stand by the wall a little way down the room. While he sipped, he constantly scanned the crowd, as any good organizer would. Balancing her own cup and saucer, she girded her loins and glided across to join him. Without meeting his eyes, she turned to stand beside him, to sip and survey the assembled courtiers, too.

He spoke first. “I had no idea you were coming.”

“I had no idea you would be here.”

He hesitated, then asked, “Would you have come if you’d known?”

She thought before truthfully stating, “I don’t know.”

From the corner of her eyes, she saw his lips twist, then he set his cup on his saucer and lightly shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter, does it? Water under the bridge, so to speak.”

She felt his gaze on her face, but didn’t meet it, just nodded. “Indeed. My role here is to ensure that this wedding goes off without a hitch—at least from the bride’s side.”

He inclined his head. “And my role is the complementary one and my purpose the same, but . . . there is a wider consideration, and that not only for me, but for us both.”

She frowned, glanced at him. “What wider consideration?”

Finally
. Robert caught her dark violet eyes, several shades darker than her mother’s, and felt the same jolt he had years ago—nine years ago to be precise. They’d seen each other over the intervening years, in passing in the ballrooms and drawing rooms of the ton, but not since they’d parted had they been this close, or looked so directly into each other’s eyes.

And it was all still there—that indefinable connection, the spark of an attraction that was more than just physical, that welled from deep inside, then spread beneath their skins. Nothing had changed . . . or rather, if anything, the link had grown stronger, harder, more refined, more definite, the flash of connection more compelling.

She sensed it, too; of that he had not a single doubt. The slight hitch in her breathing, and her widening eyes, gave her away.

Those fabulous, rich pansy eyes searched his, then she blinked, and a frown started to form, drawing down her perfectly arched dark brows, setting a faint wrinkle in the unblemished expanse of her forehead; her straight nose, delicately curved lush lips, and decidedly determined feminine chin hadn’t changed in the least.

What had he been saying? He denied the impulse to clear his throat. “This wedding has wider political and strategic implications for our country.” He glanced briefly at the crowd in the room; no one was near enough to overhear. Although several courtiers had their eyes on Nell, eager to make her acquaintance, everyone knew he and she needed to consult about the details of the bride and groom’s days, let alone the wedding, so were politely giving them some time. He returned his gaze to her. “Lautenberg is small, largely rural, and has no particular commercial significance, but strategically it’s vital to our government’s wider peacekeeping aims.”

Her eyes on his, she nodded. “I see.”

He was fairly certain she did; she was one of the most quick-witted females he’d ever encountered. “Indeed. So the government and our country have a vested interest in seeing this wedding goes off without a hitch. If you get so much as a whiff of anything not just going wrong, but not being perfectly right, let me know.”

She studied him for a long moment, then inclined her head. “Very well.”

He couldn’t read her expression; he’d forgotten she had a particularly good, blank but alert, poker face.

Tipping her head, she continued to regard him for an instant more, then said, “I’ll do that, and in return perhaps you will alert me should Frederick have any . . . concerns, or questions, of whatever sort.”

He blinked.

She met his gaze for only a second more, then turned away. “As I said, do let me know.”

He watched her glide into the crowd, saw several courtiers descend on her, surrounding her with smiles and offering introductions; he debated stepping in and assisting with the latter, but she was assured and experienced, and in such tame company needed no help in conquering them all.

“But what the devil did you mean, my long-ago love?” He might not be sure of much when it came to her, but from her manner, her tone, and not least her words, he was absolutely certain she knew of at least one potential source of trouble.

“I
just don’t know.” Frances turned this way and that before the cheval glass, critically viewing her turquoise silk gown. “Oh, Nell—what do you think? Will I do?”

“You’ll do, and that magnificently. Stop fretting. You know this panic’s only to be expected, and that’s why I’m here—to assure you it’s all just nerves and will pass, and soon all will be well.” Nell lifted a delicate necklace of aquamarines and diamonds, their parents’ wedding gift to Frances, from its velvet bed. “Here—let me settle this.”

She did, examining Frances’s face in the mirror while she smoothed the fine links of the necklace; thus far, her sister was holding up reasonably well. “Now don’t worry—I’ll be beside or just behind you while we’re in the drawing room, and Mama will be nearby, too. And as Robert will have overseen the seating for the dinner, I’ll be placed opposite. Although I won’t be able to converse directly, I will be there should you have any problems. And I will be listening, no matter that I won’t appear to be.”

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