She's No Princess
A royal pain...
The illegitimate daughter of a prince and a notorious courtesan, Lucia has been confined to schools and convents for most of her life, but that hasn't stopped her from causing one scandal after another. Exasperated, her royal father decides his hellion of a daughter must be married immediately. And Sir Ian Moore, Britain's most proper diplomat, is the perfect man to choose her a groom.
Diplomacy, not matchmaking, is Ian's forte, and he vows to find a husband for Lucia as soon as possible so that he may return to important duties. Yet despite an abundance of eager, worthwhile candidates, none is a match for Lucia's spirit and fire. The more time Ian spends with the Italian beauty, the more reluctant he becomes to find her a groom. Could it be that Lucia's perfect husband is the man assigned to find her one?
Lucia and Grace had barely sat down to their coffee in the drawing room when an interruption occurred. Isabel's nanny came in and informed Grace that the child was refusing to go to sleep.
"She wants the next chapter of her story, ma'am," Miss Knight said. "She's not closing her eyes without it, she says."
"Heavens, with Miss Valenti's arrival, I forgot." Grace set down her cup and saucer, giving Lucia an apologetic look. "Dylan and I always tuck Isabel into bed at night and read with her before she goes to sleep. We are in the midst of Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame . Do you mind if I leave you for a short while?"
"Of course not."
Grace departed with the nanny, and Lucia was alone in the drawing room. She sat back in her chair with her tea, thinking over her new situation.
Despite the fact that Sir Ian had maneuvered her into this house, she did have to admit she liked his family. Dylan Moore was as wickedly charming as his reputation would suggest, his wife was as nice as she was beautiful, and Isabel's impatience with proprieties rather reminded her of herself, especially at that age. Isabel was a fortunate girl, she reflected, to have two parents there to tuck her in and read with her every night.
Suddenly restless, Lucia set her cup aside, rose from her chair, and took a turn about the drawing room, shoving aside any feelings of self-pity about her own upbringing before they could surface. Instead, she turned her mind to a much more intriguing occupation: how to get around Ian Moore.
All her efforts yesterday had been wasted. She might have a permissive chaperone, but she was also stuck with him, and she had the feeling he would be anything but permissive. He'd be worse than Cesare, given half a chance.
Lucia came to a halt beside a chess table, staring down at the black-and-white marble game pieces, thinking of their conversation the day before. He had been devilishly ingenious, maneuvering her around like a chess piece, all the while letting her think she was in control of the situation. She could not afford to underestimate him again.
She was determined to have control over her own destiny, and Sir Ian was the key to achieving that goal. Cesare respected him and trusted him enough to put him in charge of her future. Lucia knew her mother was right. She had to get Sir Ian on her side, persuade him to let her choose her own mate. But how?
Idly, she picked up a knight from the table and ran her thumb along the intricate carving of the piece, thinking out her own next move. Use your charm and your magnetism , Francesca had said. That was all very well, she thought with a hint of exasperation, but Ian Moore was proving rather impervious to both, a most frustrating circumstance and one she'd not often encountered in her life. Without being unduly conceited, Lucia had known from the time she was sixteen that she had a potent effect on the opposite sex, but her feminine appeal had been useless with Sir Ian so far. On the other hand, it was early days yet and she refused to be discouraged. Ian Moore might be haughty and proper and terribly stuffy, but he was still just a man, with all a man's vulnerabilities.
"Do you play chess?"
Lucia turned her head to find the subject of her thoughts beside her. She gave him her prettiest smile. Smiling at a man went a long way and cost a woman nothing. "I do. I like the game."
His eyes narrowed a bit in assessment as he studied her. "I daresay, but-to quote my niece-are you any good?"
"I am very good," she answered at once. "I am a chess player most excellent."
One corner of his mouth curved upward in what might have been a hint of a smile. "You certainly don't hide any of your lights under a bushel, do you?"
"A bushel?" she repeated in bewilderment. "What a strange question! I do not understand this hiding of lights."
"It's an idiom, an expression," he explained. "I was really commenting that you make no effort to downplay your talents and abilities."
"Of course not." She was astonished. "Why should I?"
"Some would consider modesty about one's accomplishments a virtue."
"The English are extraordinary." She shook her head, confounded by these Anglo-Saxon notions of modesty. "It is no virtue to hide one's abilities. If one has been blessed by God with a certain talent and can do a thing well, why not be proud of it? Besides, a woman has little enough power in the world." With deliberate intent, she ran her fingertips along her bare collarbone. Her move succeeded in drawing his attention downward, and any hint of a smile on his face vanished.
"Whatever appealing qualities she has," Lucia went on, "she should make certain men are aware of them and appreciate them. That way, your sex never takes mine for granted."
"Any man who takes you for granted," he said, lifting his impassive gaze to her face, "is a fool."
Encouraged by the tenseness of his voice, if not his countenance, she moved closer to him. "Are you a fool, Sir Ian?"
He remained rigidly still beside her, hands clasped behind his back, his expression implacable. "No, Miss Valenti, I am not. So whatever schemes you are hatching in that clever brain of yours, set them aside and stop flirting with me."
She made a face at him and moved a step away. "I do not know why I make the effort. You do not flirt back, so flirting with you is not amusing. Not fun."
"I am devastated to hear it." He made an open-handed gesture to the chessboard in front of them. "Are we going to play or not?"
She hesitated, looking at him as she pretended to think it over. "I am not certain I wish to play chess with you," she said after a moment. Setting the knight back on the board, she turned the predominant question of the evening back on him. "Are you any good?"
That got a full and genuine grin from him. "Deuce take it, you're a saucy creature, aren't you?"
Despite the fact that she had succeeded in making him smile, Lucia felt compelled to protest his words. "I am no creature. What an extraordinary thing to say. Creature? You speak as if I am a dragon or a...a sea monster."
"Again, it is an expression. It is not meant to be taken literally." He pulled out the chair in front of the white chessmen and gave her an inquiring glance.
She hesitated a moment longer, then took the offered chair. He circled the table to the opposite side, pulled off his evening coat, and draped it over the back of his chair. "I never meant to imply anything insulting toward you," he said as he sat down.
"I should hope not. Being a diplomat, you should choose your words with more care." She paused with her hand poised over her queen's pawn. "Compliments, for example," she said with a pointed glance at him, "are always appreciated."
"Indeed?" he murmured and lowered his gaze to the board. "I shall keep that in mind next time I meet with the Turks."
Lucia gave a heavy sigh and slid the pawn two spaces forward in the opening move of the game. "Your lack of skill at flirtation is a thing to make pity."
He moved his knight. "Is it?"
"Yes." Lucia did not look at him. Instead, she kept her gaze on the game. "A handsome man should always know how to flirt with women. If he does not, it is a waste of his looks."
"So I am handsome now, am I?" He sounded amused. "And to think a few hours ago, I was a clever, manipulating bastard."
"You are still that," she assured him and moved another pawn, "so do not get conceited just because I find you handsome." She stuck her nose in the air and turned her face away. "Besides, I am still angry at the way you tricked me."
"Were you not attempting to trick me?"
Lucia returned her gaze to his. "That is different."
"Ah, one set of rules for me and a different one for you. Not very fair." He slid his bishop across the board, the exact move she had expected. He was good player, she concluded, but not very imaginative.
She slid her own bishop into place. "I am fighting for my happiness, my life, my future. I do not care about what is fair."
"And I am doing my duty," he countered, taking her pawn just as she had expected him to do. "My duty is just as important to me as your happiness is to you."
"Nothing is more important than love."
"I know women always think love and happiness are inevitably tied together, but that is not true."
"It is true, and it compels me to warn you. In the choosing of my husband, I will do whatever I have to do to ensure my happiness. Your duty is your own affair."
"I am warned, then." With those words, he seemed inclined to settle into the game rather than converse, and she followed his lead. They each concentrated on their strategies, Lucia forming hers on his conservative, rather predictable style of play. The game slowed to a crawl, for he took far longer to make his moves than she did hers. That might or might not be an indication he was in over his head, but sometimes, he made haphazard moves that seemed without purpose, indicating that he could be floundering. She was quick to take advantage of those moments to further her own bold plan of attack.
She lounged back in her chair between moves, studying him. The lamplight caught the glints of lighter brown in his dark hair as he studied the board between them. His nose had been broken at some point in his life, she noted. There was a faint white scar at the edge of his jaw and another over his brow. Given this man's smooth, polished demeanor, she could not see him engaging in fisticuffs with anyone. Her gaze lowered to roam over what she could see of his body above the table, and her mind imagined the muscle and sinew beneath his immaculate white linen and moss green waistcoat. If he ever had engaged in fighting to gain those scars and that broken nose, he had probably won. It was tragic beyond belief that a man so finely made was such a dry stick.
As they played, the music of Dylan Moore's piano floated to them from the music room across the foyer, along with the sound of his wife's violin in accompaniment, but after a few hours, the music stopped, and the house became silent. Servants turned down lamps and blew out candles, leaving Lucia and Sir Ian the only ones still awake in the quiet house.
"I have been thinking of your words from earlier this evening," he said as he reached out to move one of his remaining pawns. "The dictates of my conscience cannot ignore how important happiness in marriage is to you."
Startled, she looked up, searching his face as he leaned back in his chair. Was the marble statue beginning to soften already? Surely not. She returned her attention to the game.
"I can only hope," he went on as she reached out to make her next move, "that of the men on my list, one will satisfy your need for that happiness."
Lucia caught her breath and paused, her hand poised over the board. "You have an actual list? Already?"
"Of course. I told you time is short, and your situation requires an alliance, not a courtship. I shall be contacting each of the gentlemen during the next few days, and arrange for them to meet you. Lady Kettering's concert might be a good start in that regard."
He said nothing more. Impatient, Lucia pulled her hand back and stirred in her chair. "Who is on this list?" she asked. "What are these men like?"
"I cannot discuss them with you until I have determined which ones are amenable to alliance with your father's house. It wouldn't be right." He gestured to the board. "Your move," he reminded her.
"You are the most provoking man!" Lucia accused and shoved her knight into a new position, taking his. "First you bring up the subject of my future husband, then refuse to discuss the possible candidates. You tease me cruelly."
He lifted his gaze from the board, looking affronted. "I do not tease, Miss Valenti," he said with mild reproof. "It is not in my nature."
Sir Ian returned his attention to the game without another word. They played chess in silence for some minutes, but Lucia's mind was on another game. Between moves, she watched him, trying to determine how she could get around this man's impossible, bewildering sense of ethics. She wanted to know about these men, and damn it all, she deserved to know. It was her future he was toying with.
Lucia smoothed her hair, bit her lips to deepen their color, and straightened in her chair, leaning forward to present herself in the way most favorable to a man. "Sir Ian?"
He didn't even look up. "Hmm?"
His arm was stretched out along the side of the board, and she touched his hand to gain his attention. "Your sense of honor and fair play are admirable," she said, letting the tip of her finger linger on his hand for a moment before she pulled back.
His lips twisted in that hint of a smile. "Pouring the butter on me again, I see," he murmured and reached out to take her bishop with his knight. "Your turn."
She moved a pawn, uninterested. Very few of his moves so far had surprised her, her strategy was unaltered, and she was reasonably confident of victory. The chess game was not as challenging to her as the other game they were playing at this moment. "It is no wonder my father admires you so. You are a most excellent diplomat. So discreet."
He looked up. "What do you want, Miss Valenti?"
"Your discretion does you much credit, but my feminine curiosity overwhelms me. Could you not tell me something about these men? Not their names, of course," she added at once, "for I would not dream of asking you to violate your sense of propriety." She gave him a wicked little smile. "Although I'd love it if you would."
"No doubt." He studied her for a moment, then he said, "I have several peers in mind. Your father, I am sure, would prefer the gentleman of highest rank."
That information told her absolutely nothing. "But what are they like?"
He frowned, uncomprehending. "Like?"
"Yes. Are they young? Handsome?"
He lifted a fist to his mouth and gave an uncomfortable little cough. "I am no judge of what women find attractive, Miss Valenti. You will have to meet them and see for yourself."
"But are they tall? Strong like you?" She paused to give Sir Ian's shoulders and chest another glance, and she had no need to feign her show of appreciation. "That is important. I like men who are strong and tall because I am so tall myself, you see."
Sir Ian cast a doubtful look at her in return, not even appearing to notice the obvious admiration she had just given his own physique. "Do you not want to know about their character?"
She dismissed character with a wave of her hand. "I have no need to fear about that. You would never choose for me a man who was not of good character."
Sir Ian shook his head. "Miss Valenti, I am confused. You have insisted to me that happiness in marriage is what you seek."
He returned his attention to the board. "Since happiness in marriage is not determined by physical appearance, there is no reason to discuss how these men look."
Mother of God . She stared at Sir Ian in horror. All of them were ugly.
As the man opposite her concentrated on the chess game, Lucia began envisioning a lifetime of being chained to a husband who came up to her chin. What if he was old? Or had a big belly? Or bad teeth? It didn't bear thinking about such awful possibilities, especially in regard to the physical side of marriage. She wanted lots of babies, and she didn't want to make them with a man who had bad teeth. She had to be allowed to choose her own mate.
It was time, she decided with renewed resolve, to pull out the heavy guns.
As they played chess, she managed to remove some of her hairpins without his notice. She stuck them in her pocket. After he made his next move, she stood up with a delicate, ladylike yawn.
Always the perfect gentleman, Sir Ian rose as well. "Do you wish to retire for the night and continue our game another time?"
"Oh, no," she assured him. "I just wish to take a turn about the room and stretch a bit."
In furtherance of that seemingly innocent endeavor, Lucia spread her arms wide and arched her back, drawing out that stretch as long as she could, then she gave a little moan of relief and lowered her arms. With another yawn, she shook her head, and thanks to those missing hairpins, she succeeded in bringing down a few locks of her hair. Pushing them out of her face, she gave him a sleepy smile, then turned and walked away.
Sure he was watching, she put a subtle but deliberate sway in her hips as she walked to the flagon of wine and glasses on a table at the opposite end of the room. "Would you like a glass of porto ?" she asked.
"Yes, thank you."
She poured for both of them. Glasses in hand, she turned around, only to find he had left the table as well and had moved to the opposite side of the room. He was standing with his back to her, studying one of the paintings on the wall. She had given him her best walk, and he was looking at a painting?
With a sigh, she brought both glasses to where he stood. He glanced at her just long enough to take his glass from her hand, then he returned his attention to the painting before him. Lucia looked at it as well. Much to her aggravation, she found that the picture in which he displayed such interest was a dark, rather dreary portrait of a wizened old woman in a black dress and a hideous cap.
Accidenti ! He was looking at that when he ought to be looking at her? Lucia lifted her eyes heavenward, shook her head, and turned away. What could a woman do with such a man?
She strolled about the drawing room for several minutes, watching him out of the corner of her eye, but he kept his back to her the entire time and never even glanced in her direction. Finally, she gave it up and resumed her seat at the chess table. "Sir Ian?"
"Yes, Miss Valenti?" he said without turning around.
"Are you ready to continue?" she asked and took her seat.
There was a long pause. Then he took a sip of wine, gave a brisk tug to the hem of his waistcoat with his free hand, and turned around. "Yes, I believe I am."
They resumed the game. Lucia refused to be daunted by his lack of appreciation for her physical attributes, and after considering the situation for several minutes, she changed tactics. "Sir Ian," she began, "I have been thinking."
"Uh-oh," he murmured. "That's dangerous."
She ignored that. "If I recall our first conversation on the topic of my marriage, you said my father had very strict requirements for my future husband, but you did not outline them in any sort of detail. May I ask what those requirements are?"
He moved his rook right into the path of her bishop, and looked up. "Prince Cesare requires a British gentleman. He offers a sizable dowry, but only to a man already possessed of considerable wealth, for he has no desire to support some impecunious, debt-ridden fellow with his treasury."
She nodded with approval, for she wanted no fortune hunter for a husband. "So he must be rich. What else?"
"He must be a Catholic, of course. In addition, he must be landed aristocracy with substantial estates. In other words, a titled peer or his eldest son, the higher the better."
"Understandable. My father has much pride." She paused long enough to capture Sir Ian's rook. Setting the chess piece at the side of the board, she said, "I confess, I like what I hear. Titled, many estates, and rich. Magnifico! I do love to shop."
"I believe there was also some mention of a man of strong will who would make you behave yourself. If you overspend, such a man won't blindly give you more."
She laughed, causing him to raise an eyebrow. "You find that amusing, Miss Valenti?"
"I find it delightful. I told you, I love strong men. I should walk all over a weak one."
He raked a glance over her, but she could read nothing in his face, and when he spoke, his voice was bland. "I have no doubt of that whatsoever."
"You are a strong man," she murmured with a dreamy sigh. "Such a great pity I cannot marry you."
That implacable expression did not falter. "Miss Valenti, marrying me would be out of the question. I have no title, only a knighthood. I have but one estate, and though it is prosperous, it is hardly worthy of mention. Your father would never consent to such a match."
Mamma mia , she thought, almost at the point of despair, the man is hopeless .
"I know. You are right, of course." She reached out, put her hand over his. "It is so reassuring to know I have a man such as yourself to guide me, a man on whom I can rely."
He turned his head, his attention diverted from the chessboard to her hand over his, then he looked up and met her gaze. His eyes were like polished steel. With deliberate slowness, he pulled his hand away. "Quite."
Lucia knew a forthright approach was all she had left. Explained in the most effective way possible, of course. "Sir Ian, I shall be frank with you."
"That would be a refreshing change." He moved a chess piece.
"I wish to choose my own husband."
"That goes against your father's specific orders. I am to choose."
"All right, then. I should like to choose my own suitors. Make my own list from the men I meet. You can then approach them."
"That would not be wise," he said, his attention still fixed on the game. "You have a predilection for blacksmiths."
"You would not choose for me a blacksmith, nor would Cesare allow me to marry him. Once I am in your English society for a bit, I shall meet young men and begin to have preferences. What would be the harm in allowing me to make my own list? Men you would find suitable, of course. Men of whom my father would approve. But also men I find attractive."
"As I said, it would not be wise."
Lucia made a sound of thorough exasperation and raked her fingers through her hair, scattering her remaining hairpins. The rest of her hair came tumbling down around her face and shoulders. How, she wondered, shoving hair out her face, could she make him understand?
"Sir Ian, I am Italian," she said in a low, sultry voice. "I am young, and I am passionate."
That did the trick. He looked up.
She gazed at him without blinking and chose her words with deliberate care, words that defied all his British proprieties. "I want a strong, handsome, virile husband who can love me with a passion equal to my own."
She shook back her hair, smoldering at this man's unreasonable refusal to compromise with her. "That man," she said, "will never have need of courtesans. That man will sleep in no bed but mine. That man I will treat like a king, and I will be the light that brightens his day. That man will give me many children. That man will wake up in my arms every morning with a smile on his face, and he will be in love with me every single day of his life until they put him in the ground. It cannot be left to you or my father to decide who that man is."
Sir Ian said nothing. He simply looked at her, and she could read nothing in his face. Absolutely nothing.
After a long moment of silence, she said, "I want to make my own list."
"No." His features might have been carved in granite.
"No." He made a gesture to the board. "It's your move."
She wanted to scream with frustration. This man was impossible to reason with, and he must truly have no heart at all. There was no fire in him. No understanding of passion. Damn all the English. If she ever married a man as cold as this one, she would go mad.
Telling him all that, however, would not help her get her way. Nor would pushing the matter any further at this moment. Forever the optimist, Lucia decided it would be best to make a strategic retreat and hope for better opportunities later. She looked down at the board and tried to return her attention to chess.
He had moved his knight. Lucia knew she had maneuvered him into a corner some time ago, and his play since then had not extricated him. Only one more move to make before she had him hopelessly trapped.
She started to reach out her hand, then hesitated and drew back. The thought crossed her mind that it was not too late to lose on purpose. It might help her cause. On the other hand, letting a man win at games had never been an appealing tactic to her. Besides, his curt, peremptory manner and the futility of all her efforts to make him see reason aggravated her beyond bearing. She made her move. "Check."
He leaned forward at once and made a move of his own. "Checkmate."
Her lips parted in astonishment. She studied the chessmen that remained on the board and realized that he had, indeed, checkmated her, and she had never seen it coming.
Lucia's mind flashed back over the past few hours, and only now could she comprehend the strategy behind his seemingly predictable play and the genius of his occasional haphazard moves. Once again, he had laid a trap for her, and she had fallen into it. A brilliant trap, she had to admit. In hindsight, it was crystal clear. Why had she not seen it sooner?
"No one defeats me at chess," she murmured, still unable to quite believe it. "No one."
"Don't frown so fiercely. I first learned to play chess when I was a boy of eight. I've been playing this game longer than you have been alive."
She did not find that comforting, and he must have sensed it. "You are an excellent player," he told her, "and you have the imagination to defeat anyone, even players of greater skill than yourself. But, if I might be so bold as to venture advice, do not become overconfident and take your victory for granted too soon."
"You distracted me in the midst of the game by bringing up that damnable list of yours."
He smiled, shaking his head. "Excuses, excuses."
"It is the truth." But there was another truth, and she was fair enough to admit it. "Still, I have only myself to blame. My mind became preoccupied with trying to beguile you into seeing things my way, and I stopped concentrating on the chess."
"So you did."
Lucia slumped in her chair, discouraged all around. Resting her elbow on the table and her cheek in her hand, she stared at the board and watched his hands as he began putting chessmen back in their places. "And it did not even work," she added dismally, her feminine pride stung. "My charms are wasted on you."
His hands stilled. "I would not say that."
The sudden intensity in his voice startled her, and she looked up to find him watching her. In the lamplight, his face was as smooth and unreadable as ever, yet there was something in those gray eyes, something more of hot molten silver than of cool, polished steel, and she caught her breath. "You are human after all," she whispered in amazement.
"Flesh and blood, like any other man." He resumed sorting chess pieces. "And just as susceptible, it seems, to the charms of a beautiful woman."
Her spirits brightened at those words. She leaned forward in her chair, quick to take advantage of the moment. "So, does that mean I can make my own list?"
He didn't even hesitate. "Not a chance."