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Authors: Victoria Alexander

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The Prince's Bride

BOOK: The Prince's Bride
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The Prince’s Bride
Victoria Alexander
Effington Family – Book 4

 

This book is dedicated to
Lucia Macro,
with affection and thanks for your wisdom, your guidance and your great laugh.

Prologue

Autumn, 1811
 

The chill wind blew through the trees, plucking dried leaves from their rest to dance unfettered beneath the harvest moon. It was a night fraught with the promise, the threat, of ghosts and goblins and other creatures that lingered in bad dreams and menacing shadows.
A less determined child would have turned back at the first odd sound, if indeed he or she had had the courage to brave the dark in the first place. Ten-year-old Jocelyn Shelton was made of sterner stuff.

If you bury your wish beneath the light of the full moon it will come true.

Jocelyn knelt on the hard ground and tilted the paper in her hand under the moonlight in an effort to once again read the lines she’d labored over in recent days. Not that she didn’t already know every word by heart. Still, when one’s future was at stake, one shouldn’t leave any detail to chance. If she’d come to a single conclusion in her young life, that was certainly it.

She nodded with satisfaction, carefully refolded the paper and tucked it under her knee to keep it from blowing away. It wouldn’t do to have to chase it with nothing to see by but the light of the moon. Besides, day or night, she’d scarcely be able to see it at all past a stone’s throw, which, until recently, she’d always thought perfectly normal. Who would have ever suspected other people could see much farther than she? Imagine.

This was as good a spot as any. Jocelyn had taken a large, battered spoon from the kitchen. She’d need it now to dig.

Molly, their one remaining house servant and more a family member than anything else, had told her if she buried a wish, forest fairies, wood nymphs, and all manner of magical folk would help make it come true.

Since then, she and her younger sister, Becky, had buried any number of wishes. In truth the grounds of Shelbrooke Manor were littered with tiny burial spots planted with dreams. It was one of many secrets the girls shared. Their older sisters, Emma, who was ten-and-four, and Marianne, a year younger than Emma, probably wouldn’t understand and might well discourage the sowing of wishes in the night. Even if some of those wishes had been for fine husbands with great fortunes for all four of them someday.

Jocelyn and Becky were not so silly as to believe they could wish for everything. Even Molly’s magic couldn’t return their mother to this life. Still it would be pleasant to at least remember her. Jocelyn had been only three when Mama had died, Becky a year younger, and they had nothing to recall of her save a vague scent, faint in the air when old clothes were shaken out in the rooms she’d once occupied.

No, they’d wished for things that they hoped could come true. They’d wished that Papa would stay at home at Shelbrooke Manor instead of spending his days gaming in London. Privately, Jocelyn had wished, at the very least, he could win now and again.

But neither of those wishes had come true. Whenever their father did make an appearance it was brief and more often than not to strip the walls of a painting or divest the rooms of yet another valuable piece he could sell.

They’d wished their older brother, Richard, would come home as well. On those rare visits when he did appear he seemed nice enough, but Aunt Louella said he was little better than Papa and was heading down the very same path to ruin. Aunt Louella said the Shelton men were all alike and not to be trusted. Shelton women had to depend upon themselves.

Precisely what Jocelyn was doing.

The hole was deep enough to fit her hand in, and while that was the standard size she and Becky had agreed on for previous wishes, Jocelyn kept working at the ground with her spoon, ignoring the knowledge that it would be easier with Becky’s help. This was not something she wished to share, even with Becky, and it was far too important to waste on a shallow hole.

This was no mere wish. It was, in fact, a plan for her life carefully considered and laid out on paper. Hopes and dreams mingled with rules and regulations but it was far more than that. Jocelyn called it a
treatise,
which seemed terribly important. She had no idea what a
treatise
was, but the word did have a grand sound to it.

She’d tried to use as many big words as possible, not all of which she understood but all of which sounded as delightful as
treatise.
She’d picked them up mostly from Marianne, who usually had her nose in a book, fancied herself quite literary, and used big words all the time.

Jocelyn rather liked the sound of words, the way they filled her mouth and slipped off her tongue even though it scarcely mattered. She was destined to be the prettiest one of the family. Everybody said so, and as such, she would never have to worry about silly things like words.

Still, words were very important when it came to wishes or treatises. She’d considered every one with a great deal of care. She’d left nothing out, nothing to chance.

Jocelyn Shelton wanted a prince, and more, she wanted to be a princess.

The hole was deep enough now for her fist and halfway up her elbow. She nodded with satisfaction. This would do.

She pulled the paper from beneath her knee, held it with both hands against her heart, squeezed her eyes closed tight, and sent a quick prayer heavenward—all the while ignoring a tiny twinge of guilt. It was one thing to ask magical creatures for help for the family, but the vicar frowned on prayer for selfish gain, droning on and on about rewards not in this world but the next. Still, she’d prefer to get hers while still alive, thank you. Besides, if fairies and nymphs couldn’t make her dreams come true, did it really hurt to put in a word with the Almighty?

Jocelyn placed the paper gently in the bottom of the hole and pushed the loose dirt over it, packing down the earth firmly. She sat back on her heels and considered her work. There really wasn’t much more she could do. She’d written down everything she could think of about princes as well as everything that came to mind about the behavior and deportment of princesses. Jocelyn knew full well that was crucial to success.

After all, one couldn’t possibly marry a prince unless one was a true princess. It would certainly be easier to be a princess as the daughter of a king instead of the daughter of a mere earl, but being a real princess had nothing to do with the circumstances of birth. Jocelyn wasn’t sure exactly when she had decided that but the conviction had taken root a long time ago, fueled by her sisters’ books and Molly’s stories and Becky’s dreams.

Jocelyn knew, somewhere deep inside where such things were measured and determined, that she was indeed a princess. A true princess. She was as certain of that as she was of the morning sunrise. She simply had to convince the rest of the world. And grow up, of course. Then someday when a prince happened along she’d be ready. He’d recognize a true princess and they’d be married at once and live in a palace with lots of money and lots of servants and very, very good sweets. And her aunt and sisters would never have to worry about leaky roofs or mending well-worn clothes or making do.

The face of the man in the moon grinned down at her as if amused by her thoughts. She smiled back with confidence.

“I will find a prince and I will be a princess someday!” she said in a firm whisper. “Just you wait. Someday.”

It was entirely possible. No, it was inevitable. It was her fate. She knew it with every fiber of her being.

Lady Jocelyn Shelton was destined to be a prince’s bride.

A Treatise on Princes and Princesses
and Other Related Matters

by Lady Jocelyn Shelton, age 10

Part One: On Princes

In order to marry a prince, one first needs to find a prince. Storybooks are filled with all kinds of princes but it does seem to me, in real life, they are extraordinarily difficult to find. Therefore, one should probably travel to other countries where castles with towers and lovely colored flags sit on the tops of tall mountains. Such countries are surely overrun with princes. There are English princes but they do not seem nearly as interesting as foreign princes nor as handsome.

If one can’t travel far, the best place in England to find a prince is London as it is the grandest city in the whole world according to Aunt Louella. London attracts a lot of princes.

A prince should be handsome and have a great fortune and a wonderful castle. He should be kind to the peasants and give them festivals once a year. He should be willing to give his wife’s sisters very big dowries just to make his wife happy. And he should be able to laugh and tell a good joke.

A prince should rule gently but firmly and only put people in dungeons who really, really deserve it. And even then not for very long. He should take away all their money instead. That would serve them right. Bad people do not deserve money.

A prince should always have new clothes, a sound roof, and very good sweets.

And he should be willing to slay dragons for his princess.

Chapter 1

Late Spring, 1819
 

It was generally acknowledged, in the circles of polite society, that staring was not permissible—
never
permissible, regardless of the circumstances. Yet each and every guest in the too crowded ballroom—from jaded rakes to overdressed matrons, from sweet young things in the first flower of youth to elderly lords on their last legs, from the envious to the curious to the vastly amused—did indeed stare... or at least observed carefully, which was much the very same thing.

Oh, discretion was in order, of course. There were no open mouths or overly wide eyes. No pointed fingers or upraised brows. Besides, regardless of the rules of proper behavior, no one who was anyone would ever admit he was not already privy to the liaison unveiling itself before the very eyes of the ton. And everyone in attendance at the gala reception given by the Marquess of Throubridge for the crown prince of Avalonia was indeed someone, or at least believed himself to be someone, which was nearly as important.

Still, even the illusion of good breeding and fine manners could not prevent a fair amount of discreet tittering behind fans, an inordinate number of speculative smiles, and more than a little nudging of elbows.

And why not? It wasn’t every day London had a foreign prince in its midst. That he was handsome and wealthy and unmarried made his every move of utmost interest to the mothers of eligible daughters as well as to the daughters themselves. That he was showing particular attention to one young lady made him the subject of intense curiosity for everyone else. And that the young woman in question was the incomparable Lady Jocelyn Shelton made him the envy of the majority of men, married or otherwise.

Whatever their circumstances, each and every guest in the room watched Prince Alexei Frederick Berthold Ruprecht Pruzinsky escort the lady from the dance floor. Jocelyn herself was well aware of the scrutiny. Indeed, she could feel it almost as if the gazes directed toward her had a physical presence: long, probing fingers of curiosity. She lifted her chin the tiniest notch and tried to maintain as natural a smile as possible.

Not that she was uncomfortable at the attention. On the contrary. She reveled in it. She simply didn’t want to appear too smug, too satisfied, and too, too triumphant.

At this particular moment, Lady Jocelyn Shelton, sister of the Earl of Shelbrooke and relation by marriage to the Duke of Roxborough and the wealthy Effington family, believed, regardless of the differences in their stations, that she would soon be the bride of the heir of the House of Pruzinsky, the crown prince of the Kingdom of Greater Avalonia.

The prince bent closer to speak low into her ear. “I had quite forgotten the English tendency to stare.”

“Had you, Your Highness?” Jocelyn said lightly. “I was under the impression that you rarely forgot anything. Or that you were especially bothered by being the subject of observation.”

“Quite right.” He smiled that particular smile worn only by men who have no question as to their standing in the world. “When one knows one’s own worth, one expects such attention. But then I need not tell you that.” He studied her in a satisfied manner. “You are as aware of your worth as I am of mine.”

She ignored his comment as she could not deny it and raised a brow. “Are all royal princes as arrogant as you, Your Highness?”

His eyes widened with surprise and she feared she’d gone too far. Then he laughed, the kind of unfettered, rather personal laugh that ensured the continued attention of onlookers and upped the stakes of any number of wagers made in recent days in the betting books of London.

“Indeed we are, my dear. Arrogance is a privilege of rank and the higher the station, the easier it is accepted. Besides, I see no need for false humility.” He shrugged. “Surely my attitude does not surprise you?”

“Not at all. Since our first meeting, nearly everyone of my acquaintance has made it a point to tell me all they know of you. About your arrogance and your reputation and”—she paused for effect—“your women.”

“You are extremely impertinent, my lady.” A wicked gleam danced in his eye. “I have always enjoyed impertinence.”

“I have heard that as well, Your Highness.”

He laughed again, the intimate nature of the sound increasing her confidence. They reached the edge of the dance floor and he turned toward her. “You have not told me if you liked the flowers I sent today.”

“Haven’t I? Do forgive me. They were lovely.” She tilted her head to gaze up at him, allowing the slight enigmatic smile men had likened to those seen on Renaissance portraits to graze her lips. A smile well practiced and always well received. “As were those delivered yesterday and the day before and the day before that. In truth though, we are inundated in blossoms. Your generosity is appreciated yet it seems a bit excessive.”

“Only a bit? I shall have to do better then.” He caught her hand and raised it to his lips.

“Better, Your Highness?”

“Alexei. Perhaps it is too soon for such familiarity but...” His gaze never left hers. “I am an impatient man, my dear. And my position permits me to be. I feel no need for subtlety when I see something I want.”

Anticipation shivered in her blood. “And what is that?”

“I want precisely what I wanted when I first danced with you last week. And again each and every time I have seen you since then. And now.” He brushed his lips across the back of her gloved hand. “You, my dear Jocelyn, are what I want.”

A wave of triumph swept through her. It was all she could do to keep from grinning like a lunatic. A genuine, wealthy, handsome prince wanted to marry her. Prince Alexei Frederick Berthold and so forth and so on wanted her to be his bride. His princess. And one day... his queen.

“Am I?” she murmured with a collected air she didn’t feel but which suited a future princess nonetheless. Would he ask her here? Now? In front of everyone? It would be scandalous, yet also terribly romantic and wonderfully satisfying.

“You are indeed.” He lowered her hand yet did not release it. “But this is far too public a place to discuss such matters.”

She brushed aside a stab of disappointment. He was right, of course; this was not the place for a proposal. By rights, the prince—no, Alexei. She should start thinking of him now as Alexei if she was to marry him.
Alexei
should ask her brother for her hand.

But Richard was still in America with his pregnant wife and her parents, the Duke and Duchess of Roxborough. This left only her Aunt Louella to grant permission for her to wed—or perhaps Thomas Effington, the Marquess of Helmsley and son of the duke and duchess, could officially approve of the match.

Jocelyn and her sisters were staying at Effington House for the season and Thomas was to wed her sister Marianne next week at his family’s country estate. Of course, at eighteen, Jocelyn was of age and well able to make such decisions on her own. After all, hadn’t she already refused two proposals thus far this season without anyone’s opinion but her own? Besides, Alexei was a prince and ordinary rules really didn’t apply to him.

Alexei leaned closer. “There is a music room here. Far enough from the crowd for private discussion of... delicate matters. I shall be there, alone, in an hour. Join me.”

“Without a chaperone?” She cast him a teasing smile. “Surely you don’t wish me to indulge in something so improper?”

“There is no need for chaperones between us. Between Alexei and Jocelyn.” His tone was light but his brown eyes simmered. His fingers tightened around hers. “An hour then.”

She gently pulled her hand away. It would not do to seem too eager. “We shall see, Your Highness. Alexei.”

“Will we?” His eyes narrowed slightly. “I warn you, I am not accustomed to refusal.”

Jocelyn met his gaze firmly. “And I am not accustomed to orders.”

He considered her for a long moment, and again she wondered if she’d pushed him too far. Still, prince or not, if he was to be her husband he should understand she would not be treated as a mere servant subject to his demands. She would certainly do her duty as a wife, and a princess, but she was neither wife nor princess yet. At last he smiled and nodded with approval. “You shall do, my dear. You shall do very well.”

He escorted her to the spot where Marianne stood with Thomas and her younger sister, Becky, bowed slightly, and took his leave. But not before his gaze met hers, and she knew he had no doubt that she would indeed meet him.

If Aunt Louella were here it would be impossible to slip away but she had fallen earlier in the day, injuring her ankle, and was forced to stay at home tonight. Jocelyn watched Alexei’s tall figure stride off into the crowd that parted at his passage, and realized he was right. She would keep their appointment.

“Well, that was certainly interesting,” Marianne murmured.

“To nearly everyone in the room,” Becky said dryly.

Marianne studied Jocelyn carefully. “What on earth did he say to you?”

“Oh, nothing of any significance.” Jocelyn lifted a shoulder in a casual shrug.

Becky snorted in a most unladylike way. “Not one of us believes that. Tell us—”

“I don’t like him,” Thomas cut in. He took a sip from the glass in his hand, his gaze fixed firmly on the prince.

“You’re being overprotective again, Thomas,” Marianne chided. “The man is really charming.”

“And he’s a prince. A real prince with his own country and castle and ... and a crown I would imagine.” Becky directed her question to Jocelyn. “Does he have a crown? With jewels and gold and whatever else?”

“I have no idea,” Jocelyn said loftily. “I would think so.”

“I would hope so. It would scarcely be worth the effort of being a prince without a crown.” Becky’s gaze shifted back to Alexei. “Of course, even without a crown he is rather dashing.”

“Quite handsome really.” Marianne too studied the prince.

“And very wealthy,” Jocelyn said softly. He was, in fact, all she had ever wanted.

“I don’t like him,” Thomas repeated.

“Thomas, we heard you the first time.” Marianne’s tone was gentle. “And as much as I hate to point this out to you,
you
don’t have to like him.”

“Good.” Thomas huffed. “Because I don’t and I am an excellent judge of character.”

The sister exchanged long-suffering glances. It was not necessary to mention it aloud. Even Marianne, who loved Thomas with all her heart, was well aware that his assessment of the character of other men, particularly when it came to those men who showed any interest in the Shelton sisters, was scarcely accurate.

“I don’t trust him either.” Thomas’s eyes narrowed. “All those flowers. A man who goes to such extremes is up to no good.”

“Come now. You’ve been known to go to extremes on occasion.” Marianne paused thoughtfully. “However, I can certainly see your point.”

“You can?” Suspicion sounded in his voice.

“Most definitely.” A teasing spark showed in Marianne’s eye. “I know from personal experience that a man willing to go to such lengths is usually up to no good.”

Thomas stared at Marianne for a moment, then a grin spread across his face. “That was entirely different, my love. My intentions have always been honorable.”

Jocelyn coughed. Becky choked. Marianne laughed. It was amusing to hear Thomas’s declaration of his honorable intentions, given the merry chase Marianne had led him on before agreeing to marriage. A chase where
farcical
might well be a more appropriate term than
honorable.

Thomas cast the sisters a quelling glance. “Say what you will, you cannot deny my interest has always been in marriage.”

He took Marianne’s hand and drew it to his lips. Only a fool would fail to see the love they shared. Jocelyn’s heart tightened at the sight and she pushed away the disturbing thought that the gleam in Alexei’s eye when he looked at her bore little resemblance to the look in Thomas’s. But love was not what she was seeking.

Marianne turned her attention back to her younger sister. “Come now, Jocelyn. We are all dying to know. What did he say to you?”

“Not a thing.” Jocelyn struggled to maintain her reserved composure. “Really.”

“Do tell, Jocelyn,” Becky said impatiently. “Does he wish to marry you?”

The grin Jocelyn could no longer contain broke on her face.

Becky’s eyes widened. “He does, doesn’t he? Has he asked you yet?”

“I’m the one he should ask,” Thomas said firmly. The sisters ignored him.

“We cannot bear this another moment.” Marianne took Jocelyn’s hands. “Has he asked you to marry him?”

“Not yet.” Jocelyn shook her head. “But he has indicated he will.” Tonight.

“Are you certain?” Marianne’s voice was cautious. “Don’t princes tend to marry, well, princesses?”

“I
will
be a princess when we marry.” Jocelyn couldn’t help sounding a bit smug. “And it’s precisely because he is a prince that he can marry whomever he chooses.”

“How wonderful.” Excitement rang in Becky’s voice. “Do I get to be a princess too?”

“No,” Thomas said wryly.

Becky wrinkled her nose.

“Is this truly what you want?” Marianne stared at her sister. “Do you love him then?”

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