• Meg Sechrest

The Throne - Preview

Updated: Apr 2


ONE

The night of the King’s annual ball—though presented as a happy and festive occasion—Gwendolyn would remember as a night to change everything. She prepared herself in a beautiful emerald gown and her long hair pinned up with beads placed on each proper curl for dramatic effect, and once she was pleased with herself, she dismissed her maid and went to see her mother and sister.

“Am I presentable enough?” she asked, though in spite of appearances, there was only one man she cared to see and that was her own father. Gwendolyn was never the kind of young woman to be taken in by men or to be entranced by romance or anything of the kind.

“Where is Papa?” Gwen asked as she descended the stairs.

“In the drawing room,” her mother said. “You chose the emerald gown?”

“It happens to be one of my favorites.”

“I do not think it favors you as well as some of your others.”

“Well, I think it suits her just beautifully,” Prince Edward said as he stepped out of the drawing room and into the hallway, his arms extended to wrap around his daughter.

“Papa!”

“Hello, my love. You look exquisite this evening.”

Gwendolyn twirled. “Am I worthy of a husband?”

“You exceed the worthiness of ten husbands, but I know my daughter well enough to know that’s not your purpose in looking so fashionable. Tell me, my daughter, what has you looking so well this evening?”

Gwendolyn clasped her father’s hand as they neared the front stairs and she said, “I don’t even know. Just intuition, I suppose.”

“Intuition?”

“Yes, Papa. I just had the feeling like I should look my best.”

“Gwendolyn,” Prince Edward said, taking her hand in his.

“What is it?”

“Always remember…the heart can play tricks, so we best not listen to it, lest we throw it out of rhythm.”

“Do not worry, Papa. I have no plans on falling in love, at least not yet.”

Prince Edward kissed Gwendolyn’s forehead.

“That’s good enough for me. I shall see you in a little while,” he said and hugged her before he walked to the front entry, waving at her as he walked out.

“Gwendolyn, are you ready?” Duchess Rosalind asked as she escorted Princess Sophia down the long hallway to the front doors.

“This is Sophia’s official coming out. We shan’t be late.”

“Mother, no need to have yourself in a tizzy. I’m ready. I was just telling Papa goodbye,” Gwendolyn said.

“Has your father gone?” Duchess Rosalind asked.

Gwen nodded and moved to exit out the door after her mother.

The carriage ride to her uncle’s palace was dull and long, and held no amusement for her other than trees sprinkled along the roadside, which she made a note of counting how many she could find—every time finding a different amount.

48…49…52…

“Be aware, Madam, there is trouble ahead!” the coachman yelled.

The Duchess, Gwendolyn, and Sophia sprang up to pay attention as the carriage rode faster to whatever was ahead.

After only two minutes or so, they came to a sudden halt, and the servants began bustling about, speaking to others on the outside.

“What is it, Mr. Gannick? What is happening?” Duchess Rosalind asked, peeking her head slightly around the outside of the carriage, being careful not to get herself wet from the rain pouring down.

The coachman approached, looking inside, and said, “There’s been a short delay, Ma’am. No cause for alarm.”

“Oh, well, alright.”

Many minutes passed, and the carriage still hadn’t moved. Duchess Rosalind wanted to know what could be so serious to keep them from continuing and she opened her carriage door and stepped out into the rainy night.

“Mr. Gannick…”

Rosalind’s eyes were surprised and distressed to see a royal carriage rolled into a muddy ditch.

“Might be best to wait in the carriage, Ma’am,” Mr. Gannick said as the Duchess gasped, placing one hand over her mouth and the over her heart, dropping to her knees.

“Dear me!” she cried out. “What has happened?!”

“Prince Edward has been in an accident, Ma’am,” Sir John said.

“Where is he?! she cried out, looking around but seeing him standing. “Where is my Edward?!”

Mr. Gannick was hesitant to reply. “He is…”

“He is right over here, Ma’am,” Sir John Croker replied, taking her hand. “Princesses, please wait inside,” he said, looking in at the two young women, who were peeking their heads out.

“Where is our father?” Gwen asked.

“I will return with news momentarily!” Rosalind shouted as she walked away.

Sir John stopped her as she approached the overturned carriage, turning her to face him.

“Ma’am, you need to know that Prince Edward is in some distress.”

“Distress?”

Duchess Rosalind forced her way past John where she saw Edward’s body bearing the weight of the carriage, and she knelt next to the carriage. At that moment, she knew these would be the last moments she would spend with her husband.

“Edward,” she said, tears filling her eyes as she crawled next to the overturned carriage, trying her best to get closer to his body.

“My Edward,” she cried and laid her face against his cheek. “How will we get on without you?”

“Phillip will… care for you… my darling.”

She laid there a few moments, crying on his shoulder as he brushed his free hand against her arm.

Gwendolyn, obstinate and willful as she was, emerged from the carriage to inspect the wreckage herself.

When she saw her father trapped beneath the carriage, panic surged through her and she hurried to her beloved father’s side.

“Gwendolyn…” he breathed deeply. “You are the throne succession. Choose your husband wisely.”

Edward turned his face to his wife. He took another deep breath and held out his arm to her, struggling to lift it up from the way he was lying under the carriage.

“Rose,” he grunted,“Rose, you need to know…”

“Shh,” she said and held her finger to his lips, quieting him. “Don’t speak.”

He let out a few loud groans of pain and then closed his eyes as his face flopped toward the side.

Rosalind leaned down and kissed him as he slipped away, taking his last breath.

“Oh, Papa!” Gwen cried.

Rosalind hugged her daughter as they cried and Sir John approached with Mr. Gannick.

“Do we continue on to the palace, Ma’am?”

Rosalind’s tear-soaked eyes looked up at the coachman standing next to Sir John Crocker.

“Would be a good idea, Ma’am,” Sir John said. We need to alert His Majesty of the situation.”

Rosalind nodded. “Yes,” she said and reached her hand out for Sir John to help her stand. “Let us continue on to the palace.”

The last few miles as they rode to the palace were quiet and filled with tears. Neither Gwen, Sophia, nor their mother said a word and they all absorbed the reality that their father and husband was dead. Sir John broke the silence as he leaned to his left and whispered.

“Ma’am,” he said but glanced up with his eyes to be sure the two princesses had their attention fixed elsewhere.

“Yes, Sir John?” Rosalind replied.

“You understand what this means for your daughter now, do you not?”

Duchess Rosalind shifted her body to face Sir John and wiped her soggy eyes. “Of course. We’ve always been prepared for this moment in a way, just not so soon. Gwendolyn is not yet 18 years of age. She is not ready to be queen.”

He nodded. “Now that Gwen is the immediate throne succession, it is of the utmost importance she be kept safe. It would be my recommendation that you now move from into the palace.”

“Is that really necessary?”

Sir John sighed. “Ma’am, King Philip and Duchess Camilla have not been able to produce an heir. With your husband’s death now such a tragic reality, Princess Gwendolyn is who this country will rely on in the event of the death of the King. We need her to secure a proper husband and produce children.”

Rosalind looked over to her oldest daughter who was to be 18 years old in a few weeks and thought how terrible it would be for her to take up such a position so young in life and how it should’ve been her father’s burden to bear.

“I understand.”

A sad silence covered the carriage for the rest of the ride as reality seeped into its passengers.

They arrived at the palace and since word about the tragedy had already been sent ahead, King Philip was waiting there with his wife, Camilla, to greet Edward’s grieving widow and their two daughters.

“Rosalind, girls, we’ve heard the news. Please, come inside. All the guests for this evening have already been sent away… well, except those who have requested to stay. But my brother’s death will not be discussed.”

Rosalind looked at King Philip as he held her arms and escorted her inside.

“Sir John made me aware of the reality about Gwen,” she said to her brother-in-law.

“No need to worry about that just yet. Come, let’s get you settled. We will hold a ball in the fortnight in the Princess’s honor to help distract her mind. She is so young and it is a large reality coming to her. We mustn’t allow her to fret but to only see the good in it.”

“A new ball?” Rosalind asked, confused as to why they would have a ball so soon after Edward’s death.

“Most certainly. On the night of Gwendolyn’s 18th birthday, I will host a grand party. It will be a most festive occasion and we will have guests from all across the kingdom. It will be in honor of the future Queen of Paruda.”


The Ball

Gwendolyn laid on her bed that frosty spring morning just the same as any other. She listened to the birds chirping outside her window and watched the sun as it rose through the trees and cast a shadow onto her bed. Gwen had always been one to wake early, preferring to lie in bed and enjoy the quiet of the morning where no one was there to disturb her.

“What a beautiful morning,” she said as she laid admiring the view. “What say you, little birds? Do you believe it to be a pretty morning?”

The birds sang a melodic song to respond, showing Gwen that life was in fact perfect, almost.

“Gwendolyn!” Her mother banged on the door of her bedroom chambers.

“Ugh… leave it to my mama to ruin the quiet.” After tossing a pillow over her head and taking a deep breath, she replied, “Come in!”

Duchess Rosalind took her time walking into Gwendolyn’s chambers as she glanced around and criticized everything her eyes took in. From the dress that had been laid out to wear for the ball, to the art and paintings Gwendolyn had been working on in her spare time, the Duchess had turned on her internal critic.

“You need to prepare yourself. You know this is the evening your uncle has planned the ball in your honor.”

“Oh, Mama. Please tell me I’m not getting all fancied up just to kiss face with people I don’t even like just because one day I might be their queen.”

Gwendolyn sat up and wiped her face with her hands, her eyes pleading with her mother not to waste her time with such nonsense.

“That is precisely what I am telling you. The Duke of Florence has traveled from the north country and it would be good of the King’s niece to pay him some attention.”

Gwendolyn groaned. “Why? Who is he to me?” She flopped her legs over the side of the bed as her mother rang for a chambermaid.

“Who is he to you? You are a princess! It is time you start acting like one! You are now the immediate throne succession, young lady, and you have a reputation to uphold. If your father was still alive…”

“Well, he’s not.”

“Even without your father around, your reputation is crucial to the future of the throne, and the Duke of Florence is an important part of the Parudan monarchy.”

“Whatever you say,” Gwen replied and reached for her dressing robe. She stood and tied it around herself.

The Duchess grasped Gwendolyn’s hand, looking her in the face, studying everything about her skin, eyes, hair, and lips.

“You are very beautiful, daughter. I don’t know of any man who wouldn’t appreciate any glance or notice of you.” Rosalind stroked her hand across her daughter’s face and said, “You are young and there will be many men who seek your hand not only to abuse your future position, but also to take advantage of your beauty. Do not let your heart guide you; it will lead you down the wrong road. The heart is foolish and confused. Listen to the settled thoughts of your mind.”

She left the chambers without another word.

“The settled thoughts of my mind?” Gwen sat at her mirrored dresser and wondered as she brushed out her long, flowy hair. “What on earth does she mean? I never know what my mother goes on about. I wish my father were here. He would have reasonable advice as I begin to choose a husband.”

“It is Elsie, Your Royal Highness,” the governess knocked at the door.

“Come in.”

“Good morning, miss,” Elsie said, pulling in Hannah, the chambermaid, as she gave instructions for the maid to fix Gwen’s hair.

Gwendolyn studied herself in the reflective glass as the chambermaid was fixing her hair, and she thought of her mother’s words about her appearance as they continued to perplex her. “I’ve just considered myself an average girl, not ugly, but certainly nothing men would stand in the corner and talk about.” She sighed.

“Elsie, why does my Mama go on the way she does? I’ll never understand her.”

“I believe, miss, the Duchess speaks of your beauty in ways that only a married woman can understand.”

“Yes, I suppose you are correct. Thank you. What would I do without you?”

“I suppose you will soon find out.”

Gwen grasped Elsie’s hand in hers and said, “I hope not. You are indispensable to me.”

“There will be no need for a governess when you become queen, miss. I’m afraid I will have to take a position elsewhere.”

“Certainly not!” Gwen exclaimed. “You can be the governess of my children, and I will still need a companion…”

“We will discuss this another day. It is not anything to be distressed over today.”

“All finished, Your Highness,” the chambermaid said after several minutes of tugging and pulling on Gwendolyn’s long hair. “Shall we get you into a dress? I say you should wear the royal blue one. It brings out your eyes the best and I heard your mother speaking of a Duke…”

“Yes, the royal blue one suits her very well and she needs to be looking her best,” Elsie said.

Hannah went into the changing room to fetch the dress and a corset.

“I will leave you to get ready now, Gwendolyn. Hannah will see to your dressing as I will see to your sister.”

“Of course.”

Elsie walked out and Hannah returned with a dress and corset.

“Will you tell me about the Duke, miss,” Hannah said as she began working on the laces of Gwen’s corset. “I could only ever dream of a man like that.”

Gwen sighed. “I’m very certain he is nothing as you believe him to be. You might imagine him to be handsome and charming, but none of the men I meet ever are. If they are handsome, they are cads and scoundrels, nothing any woman would want to call her husband. Most royalty is that way anyhow.”

“I would imagine any duke must be better than no duke at all.”

“One would think; however, I can assure you I have seen all the dukes and lords and none is a much better choice.”

Hannah and Gwen laughed in unison as Hannah finished the laces and fluffed the gown. “All finished.”

“I’d better be on my way then before my mother comes and makes a scene.”

Hannah stepped away and curtsied. “You look lovely, Your Royal Highness. I’m certain this duke will find favor in you.”

“No need for that, now. I have no desire in the Duke of whatever.”

“Well, then you’ve dressed the part in making a show of turning him away.”

“Hm,” Gwen said, tapping her finger on her chin, “That idea certainly does bring me satisfaction.”

Gwen made one last look at herself in the reflective glass and was pleased with the sight of the royal blue gown that fell just off her shoulders and had a stunning diamond gem in the center of her breastbone and she felt certain she could make a show of turning away any man her mother wanted to introduce to her. She headed out the door to meet her mother and sister

“You wore one of your best dresses, sister. Preparing to impress?” Princess Sophia asked—Gwen’s younger, sometimes nosy and bratty sister who was only 16 years of age.

“Elsie helped me decide. I just like the royal blue one.”

Sophia looked down at her pale pink one, feeling outdone in her choice and she said, “Your dress is lovely.”

“Come girls,” Duchess Muirfield said, hurrying her two daughters along to the carriage.

“Are we not staying here?” Gwendolyn asked.

“No. Your uncle is at Boris House. He is hosting us there.”

“I want to change,” Sophia said, considering the eye-popping color of Gwen’s dress. “I didn’t know Gwen was wearing blue.”

“You haven’t the time now. Pink will have to do.”

Sophia’s lips turned to a pout and they walked out the front doors of Bexley Palace.

The ride seemed longer than usual, and Gwen stared out the glass, watching the rain fall for many miles. Her mind drifted to the day that her father died and her whole world changed forever.

“Gwen?” her mother said when she saw her tears. “What’s the matter, my dear?”

“Not a thing. I am well.”

“There’s no fooling me,” Sophia said. “You’ve been staring out the carriage window for miles and haven’t said a word the whole ride.

Gwen glanced across the carriage and said, “Father…” and she pointed to the window and the rain coming down.

Duchess Rosalind nodded. “I miss him so much, my dear.”

Gwen’s gaze returned back to the rain outside and she focused on a few droplets that rolled down the window, leaving long trails of water behind them like maps to be able to find their way to where they’d begun. Why did you leave us? Gwen thought as she watched the water make maps on the window. Gwen wished much that she could take the water droplet map and use it to find a way to her father, who’d been her solace her whole life. She watched the water and supposed she could blame those droplets of water, but they weren’t to blame. It was an accident. That’s all it was, and as her mother read a book and Sophia drifted to sleep, Gwen watched the rain fall.

After at least 16 more miles, their carriage ascended to the top of a woodsy forest where the trees opened to a clearing, Gwen’s eyes were caught by Boris House—her uncle’s home away from the palace—which was rested on the opposite side of a small pond, where the road curved and wound around the pond back to the road. It was a large, beautiful, sandstone building, situated in front of a ridge of woodlands and next to a vast and wide gardens. Gwen was pleased at the sight since Boris House had more natural beauty than any other place she had ever visited, and she felt nature had outdone itself and had not been disturbed by the presence of the home there. Her childhood memories of Boris House were etched in the back of her mind and as the carriage continued its ascent to the top of the road, her mind flooded with every good thought and praise of adoration for Boris House and continued until she stepped out of the carriage and into the crowds awaiting her.

“Duchess! Princesses Muirfield, how good it is to see you!” Sir Curtis Newell said as he and his wife exited their carriage along with their spoiled daughter, Margaret, whose jealousy of Gwen was always evident, especially when Viscount Haverly and his sons, Lord Frederick and Lord Robert, were present.

“Here’s to a long night of talking to people I despise,” Gwen whispered as she stepped out of the carriage and noticed Margaret approaching the Haverly’s carriage where it was stopped in front of Boris House.

“What are you jabbering on about back there?” Sophia asked as they walked up the long entry staircase of about 25 steps to enter the house’s tall double doors.

“Nothing. Thinking about how exhausted I am.”

“This is your birthday party! No one gets this excited over my birthday.”

“You’re not being forced to run an entire country.”

Sophia rolled her eyes and said, “Well, there are worse things in life, I’m sure. They could be forcing you to marry a haughty prince who thinks higher of himself than he does of you!” She grinned with a curtsey and a tilt of her head before hurrying her feet and catching up to her mother as she walked through the doors.

“At least not yet.”

The large doors opened and they entered the beautiful home and were greeted by the head footman, Mr. Gage, and soon joined everyone else in the ballroom.

“Welcome!” Duchess Camilla, their aunt, called out as she saw them approach.

“How are my favorite young ladies?” Duchess Camilla said, taking each one in her arms. “Girls, it’s been too long! You must come to see us more often.”

“We are well, Aunt Camilla. I would come more, but Gwen dreads the long carriage rides and you know I hate traveling alone,” Sophia said.

“Yes, Gwendolyn. What are we to do with you, my dearest?”

“You could send me to my chambers and forbid me from ever leaving.”

Sophia rolled her eyes.

“Now Gwen, I know you too well to know that wouldn’t be a punishment for you!” Camilla said as she laughed. “Rosalind, your daughter reminds me so much of the men in this family. Maybe she should smoke and drink and talk politics with them after we dine!”

“Maybe I should. For that would be the much better choice than the proper things of ladies. Corsets and stockings, teas and biscuits. Women are always tasked with such boredom. I fear I shall fall asleep right here.” Gwendolyn gave a dramatic yawn, opening her mouth wide while stretching her arms high over her head.

“Gwendolyn Violette! Stop this nonsense!” her mother scolded, yanking her arms down.

“Or what? You’ll demand I go put my stockings on?” Gwendolyn asked while lifting her dress just enough to let her leg show out from underneath to reveal that she, in fact, wasn’t wearing any stockings.

Sophia laughed and Duchess Rosalind whispered for Gwen to mind herself.

“My goodness! You truly are obstinate,” said Camilla.

“Being obstinate is a matter that is judged solely by society alone, and if I chose not to take my standards from society, then how can I be obstinate?”

“Gwendolyn, what are we going to do with you, child?” Camilla asked with a playful wink, linking their arms together as they began walking away together.

“I suppose you could send me to the gallows to be hanged with all the rest of society’s unmentionables.”

Camilla laughed once more as she shook her head and motioned with her hand to the door on the right.

“We won’t take those drastic measures just yet, my dear.”

“Where is Uncle Phillip? Sophia asked.

“He is in the ballroom with the guest of honor, Lord Bramwall. Right where we are headed.”

Duchess Rosalind followed after the two princesses when Camilla saw the sight of Lord Bramwall and his nephew, Lord Doltham, and insisted on an introduction.

“Duchess Muirfield, how good it is to see you. Let me introduce you to my nephew, the Duke of Florence, Peter Doltham.”

Peter gave a slight tilt of his head to the Duchess, “It is a pleasure, Your Royal Highness.”

“Indeed, it is, Your Grace,” she replied, noticing his handsome face, certain his green eyes and dark brown hair would catch the attention of one of her daughters.

“How is life at Brumbage Hall?”

“We are well, sir. As you know, the death of Prince Edward has left us in some distress these weeks, but we manage with the help of His Majesty. We are currently living very comfortably at Bexley Palace.”

“You are very well indeed, then.”

“Yes. Let me introduce to you my daughters, Her Royal Highness, Princess Angeline Sophia Margaret Mayweather Muirfield,” she pointed to the younger of her two daughters.

“My oldest daughter, Princess Gwendolyn Anne Violette Kostantopoulos Mayweather Muirfield.”

A smirk appeared on Peter’s face as he bowed his head to Gwendolyn. “Honored, Your Royal Highness. May I wish you a happy birthday as well.”

“Thank you.”

The Duchess noticed his smile and decided to give the two some space. “There is no room for an old woman where young people are present. I take my leave.” She grabbed Sophia’s arm and yanked her along away from them.

Gwendolyn watched her mother walk away and she said to Peter, “You laugh at me.”

“You have quite the name.”

“You are the kind of man who finds humor in things a person cannot control?”

“Not at all. Your name is beautiful. I do, however, find humor in everyday pleasantries. You would deny someone the happiness of finding pleasures in an everyday situation?”

Gwen smiled. “No. I admit I cannot deny you that. I also admit that my given name is ridiculous. Royals aren’t known for being precise in our introductions.”

“Indeed, you are not. So, Princess…”

“Call me Gwen, please. I find it hard to have a pleasant conversation when people are feeling the constraint of my position rather than getting to know me.”

“It seems so informal for the niece of His Majesty.”

“Please, call me Gwen. I insist.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.”

“As you wish, Your Roy…”

After a stern look from Gwen, Peter bowed and conceded.

“May I escort you to get a drink?” He pointed to the wine tables.

“Please do.”

Gwen stood across from Peter at the wine table, staring into his eyes as he spoke and felt very entranced by the sight of his green eyes, strong cheekbones, and the way his dark hair fell just across his eyebrow to brush the corner of his eye, giving her the urge to want to brush it away. She hadn’t anticipated finding delight in meeting the Viscount’s nephew; she wasn’t even expecting to want to hold a conversation with him. Yet, she’d never felt so enraptured by listening to someone speak as she was in this moment right now.

“I understand you are moving to Damperance on a more permanent basis. Is this because of family or…”

“Word travels fast around here. I see the royal family keeps no secrets.”

“I assure you there is no secret safe with the royals,” Gwen replied with a playful smile.

“Well, since my secret is out, I’m planning on moving to Rochester House for some time as I have acquired the position as Foreign Secretary…”

“Oh, you will work under my uncle?”

“Yes.”

“Good luck.”

Peter chuckled. “Good luck?”

“I only mean that he is my family and I know how difficult he can be at times.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard.”

“Your Grace, tell me about your own family,” Gwen asked as they walked from the table, sipping their wine.

“Since I am using your Christian name, please, use mine.”

“Alright. Peter, tell me about your family.”

“I have an older brother who is married with two children. I never fancied myself one for children, but I dearly love being an uncle. My niece and nephew are delightful. You are welcome to meet them sometime if you wish.”

Gwen smiled and nodded. “I think I will take you up on that offer. I dearly love children.”

“I also have a sister who is younger than I.”

“What are their names?”

“You might know my brother. He also has a position for your uncle in the House of Lords.”

“And what is his name and position?”

“Technically, he is only my half-brother. When his mother became a widow, my father married his mother and had my sister, Lady Caroline, and I.”

Feeling impatient, Gwen widened her eyes and pursed her lips, waiting for a response.

“His name! Of course. He is the Chief Privy Council to His Majesty the King.

“Sir John Croker is your brother?!”

“As he lives and breathes, unfortunately. As I said, it’s only by our mother.”

Knowing that John Croker was with her father the day he died and still feeling bitter about all the details surrounding his death, she needed to digest that information and began walking away to the refreshments table to take a few of the almond biscuits.

“Princess!” he hollered and hurried to catch up, also attracting the notice of a few onlookers, including Gwen’s mother.

“Gwen,” he said again a little softer now as he approached the table. “I’m sorry if I said or did something to have offended you. Please, give me the opportunity to make amends.”

Gwen took a bite from the biscuit, thinking about what to tell him because she certainly couldn’t tell him she suspected his brother to be the one responsible for her father’s death or at least be closely linked to it. Surely not. Gwen took her time chewing as Peter stared at her awaiting a response.

“I am sorry,” he said again.

Gwen swallowed and said, “It’s not you. I apologize. I was reminded of a terrible tragedy in my life.”

“A tragedy?”

“My father’s death.”

“Prince Edward’s accident. My brother was there. I should’ve known.” He reached for Gwen’s hand and held it in both of his.

“I apologize… my judgment was skewed.” He withdrew his hands from hers.

Looking down to where his hand was now rested on his hip, she reached hers out. “Apology unnecessary.”

“I’m so very sorry about your father.”

A small smile appeared on Gwen’s face when she realized that Peter wasn’t at all what she had expected him to be. He was turning out to be nothing like the other dukes she’d met previously, and now that she’d met him and talked to him, she thought he might actually become someone she could appreciate having around.

“Tell me more about your family, Peter,” Gwen said as she reached for another almond biscuit.

“Well, you have the displeasure of knowing my brother.”

“I take it you two are not on happy terms?”

“There aren’t too many people who are on happy terms with my brother.”

Gwen glanced around Peter’s shoulder to notice that the one person she was trying to avoid this evening was headed her way and she needed to act quickly.

“Ask me to dance,” she said and pointed to Lord Nicholas, who was almost to them.”

“Well, I’m not much of a dancer.”

Gwendolyn took his hand in hers and a playful smile appeared on her face. “It works in your favor that I am and I happen to be a very good instructor as well.”

Gwen grasped his hand and led him to the row of dancers. As they began playing a Scottish reel, she said, “I suppose it would be considered improper for a princess to dance with a man who hasn’t even asked her, but…” She pointed to her legs and glanced around to be sure no one was looking before she lifted her gown and showed Peter she was wearing no stockings and said, “I’ve never been one for anything proper.”

His eyes widened and he chuckled.

As they danced, his mind and eyes were hypnotized by this beauty that was dancing with enthusiasm across from him and a smile wider than any woman he’d danced with before. The way her face lit up as they moved past one another and every time she whispered in his ear as they got close gave him every reason possible he would see her after this night. However, given Gwen’s rank in life and the fact that she could very well be the next queen, Peter was unsure if it would truly be possible. His desperation for Gwen’s beauty—more specifically her lips and the curvature and delicacy of them and how the rosiness gave a burst of color against her pale skin but also her sparkling blue eyes— grew with every moment he watched and gave him hope even in the smallest essence as they followed his every move.

“I always enjoy that dance,” Gwen said as they finished and moved to the side of the room.

“It was very… stimulating.”

Gwen giggled at Peter’s response.

Sir Bartholomew approached and asked the princess for the next dance and though she did not want to leave Peter, she extended her hand and complied, fulfilling her obligation.

“You didn’t think she’d stay with you all night now, did you?” John Croker said as he approached Peter while the Princess was enjoying a dance.

“Hello, brother,” Peter replied.

“I know what you’re doing, Peter. It won’t work.”

“What, John? What am I doing?”

John turned and poked his finger into Peter’s sternum, giving a threatening tone to his voice, anger in his eyes.

“My job as His Majesty’s Chief Council is to…”

“Advise the King,” Peter replied.

“To care for the well-being of the King!”

“What’s that to do with me, Croker?”

“That princess is his niece, who could very well be the next queen!”

“What’s your point?”

“My business is to be sure…”

“I come nowhere near the throne. I hear you perfectly well, Croker.”

Peter pushed past John and walked away and out of the ballroom to cool off and settle his thoughts. He began walking back and forth in the hallway outside the ballroom.

“Lord Doltham?”

“Lady Bellingside?”

“It’s been a long time.”

“It has. How are you? How is your family?”

Peter was surprised at seeing the woman he’d loved so long in the past, especially on a night when he was trying to win the heart of another. To have Colette Bellingside show up this night was of the highest inconvenience.

“My family is well. I am well. Thank you for asking. And you? Are you well?”

“I’m…”

“I know it’s been so long, Peter, but I thought perhaps…”

“You thought you would show up after 10 years and begin again?”

“No, Peter, nothing like that. I’ve missed you so much, and I just wanted to apologize for everything that went on between us before.”

Staring at her brown eyes and black curly hair brought back all the good memories of when he’d loved Colette, but it also brought back the memory of when she’d broken his heart.

“It is good to see you, Colette, but I cannot.”

Just then, the hallway doors opened.

“Peter… I apologize for my prolonged absence. I couldn’t escape my mother,” Gwen said, approaching the two in the hallway. “Oh, hello,” Gwen said, realizing Peter was with someone.

“Your Royal Highness, let me introduce you to Lady Colette Bellingside,” he replied.

Lady Colette curtsied and said, “It is lovely to make your acquaintance, Your Royal Highness.”

“Why don’t you make your introductions and I will get some wine.”

Gwen held up her glass. “None for me, thank you.”

“I’ll have a glass,” Colette said.

Peter walked away and into the ballroom.

“How long have you known Lord Doltham?” Colette asked when she noticed Gwen’s eyes follow Peter away.

“Oh, we have only just met this evening.”

“And you like him?”

“What isn’t there to enjoy about his company? He is very accommodating, and he is certainly polite and charming. He has been stimulating for the mind as well. I find he is just the right kind of company.”

“Of course.’

“Do you not enjoy Peter’s company?” Gwen asked when she saw the look on Colette’s face.

“No, Your Highness. That isn’t it in the slightest sense.”

“A wine, Lady Bellingside. Anything you need at all, Princess?”

“No, thank you.”

The amount of disdain searing out of Lady Colette’s eyes as they walked and Peter held out his arms for only Gwen was so sharp it could’ve pierced Gwen’s skin.

“Lord Doltham,” Lady Colette said as she eyed Princess Gwen and walked side by side with Peter. “How is your sister? It’s been so long since I’ve received a letter from her and I do very much enjoy her correspondence.”

“Caroline is very well. I thank you for asking. She keeps busy with her drawing and piano playing and of course, still loves to take her rides about the countryside on her many horses.”

“Yes, I do so enjoy the time I’ve spent at Gladwell House. I long for the time when I will have the pleasure of doing so again.”

“Princess Gwendolyn, you and your mother and sister will have to come to the north country soon and take a tour of Gladwell House and see our vast gardens, and if you care for riding, you could visit the stables with my sister. She is always longing for a riding companion.”

“Thank you for the invitation. I do enjoy a ride through the country and would very much love to meet your sister.”

The three walked side by side down the hallway until Gwen decided she could handle Colette’s piercing eyes no longer and took her leave, rejoining the ballroom.

“It has been lovely, but I fear I have been absent from the ballroom far too long. I’m certain my mother will wonder where I have gone and shall send a search party very soon.”

Peter chuckled. “Yes, no one wants that. I have enjoyed your company immensely, and I hope you will honor me with another dance yet this evening.”

“Most certainly, if that is your wish.”

“It is.”

“I shall await your return then.” Gwen walked away and back into the ballroom.

As soon as Gwen was out of earshot, Colette said to Peter, “I know you have your eye set on that princess, and I myself admit she is very lovely, Peter, but you should know His Majesty wants her wed to His Serene Highness, Dimitri Petrovic, the Prince of Kiev.”

“Russia?! You are not serious, Colette.”

“So I hear,” Lady Colette said, hoping her plan to turn Peter’s attention away from the Princess was working.

“From whom?”

“My brother says so himself.”

“Our would-be queen to be married to a Russian?! The crime!”

“She isn’t going to be queen, Peter. Her uncle is still alive and relatively young and has the opportunity to produce an heir yet. Gwendolyn will be nothing more than…”

“Nothing more than what?” Peter asked, feeling defensive of Gwen. “Even if she doesn’t become queen, she is still a princess, and you will address her as so.”

“Why are you so defensive of her?”

“My position and views are in defense of my country and its constitution.”

Lady Colette scoffed as Peter opened the door and walked into the ballroom, hoping to escape Lady Colette.

Colette hurried behind as she said, “I’ve not had a personal invitation to Gladwell House, Peter.”

“You live in the north country, Colette.”

Peter approached where Gwen was standing at the wine table and he said, “I would like to request my second dance now, Your Royal Highness.”

Gwen turned around, a smile on her face as his eyes moved to Colette, giving hint that he was trying to find his way away from her.

Gwen replied, “Certainly,” taking his hand in hers, pulling him against her side, widening Colette’s eyes.

“Colette, there you are,” Sir Bartholomew said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere.”

Sir Bartholomew snatched her hand and led her away from Gwen and Peter and over to the refreshment tables. Gwen let out a small giggle as she covered her mouth and they walked away.

“That was interesting,” she whispered to Peter and they took their place to dance.

“Sir Bartholomew is.”

“What is their relationship?” Gwen asked.

“That’s Colette’s mother’s business advisor, who also thinks he controls Colette.”

“I see. Why is he so protective?”

“It isn’t him. It’s her brother, Lord Chalston.”

“Oh. My uncle’s Prime Minister. I was unaware he had a sister.”

“He is a good deal older than Colette. If she seemed unfriendly with you…”

“You owe me no explanation for your life, Peter.”

They finished the waltz and before Colette approached again or anyone else could ask Gwen for a dance, he said, “Come for a walk outside with me.”

“A walk outside?”

“Yes. I feel in need of some air.”

Gwen nodded and held his hand as he led her to the closest door to the back gardens and away from scrutinizing eyes, continuing the hold on her hand as they walked all the way into the gardens.

“I must say, Gwen, that I never imagined the King’s niece could be so…”

“Tolerable?”

Peter smiled. “Yes. I would’ve said enjoyable, but you understand my point.”

“My uncle is certainly not known for his hospitality as King.”

“No. Certainly not. You are categorically opposite of what your uncle gives the impression to be.” Peter tightened his grasp on Gwen’s hand, pulling her closer to his side, staring into her eyes as the blush on her face increased.

“I have to admit to you, Peter, that I was dreading meeting you and wasn’t even expecting to even want to talk to you let alone like you at all.”

He brushed his hand up and down her arm and against her cheek. “Have I made all the difference?”

She nodded. “All the difference. I’ve never met a man who has made my stomach feel so…”

“Your Royal Highness! Lord Dotham!” they heard when footsteps emerged from around the corner. “Forgive me. I did not know anyone was in the garden.”

“Lord Nicholas,” Peter said, stepping away from Gwen.

“Pardon me,” Gwen said, “I must return to the assembly.”

Gwen hurried past the men and through the gardens to the back doors where she saw Sir John standing at the entrance to the ballroom.

“Your Royal Highness,” he said, looking around her. “Returning from the gardens?”

“I just needed some air. Please excuse me.” She hurried past and into the crowds once more.

“Gwendolyn! Where have you been? To disappear like you have on your own birthday celebration is shameful,” Duchess Muirfield said when she saw Gwen enter.

“I was taking a walk. I needed some air.”

“Come. Your uncle is ready for you now.”

Gwen looked around the room at the eyes staring at her and the whispering happening all around her, and she internally prepared herself for the life ahead of her.


TWO

For the weeks following the ball, the three Muirfield women continued to grieve the loss of Edward in Bexley Palace. Princess Gwen longed for the day when she would see Lord Doltham again. Focusing her mind on those thoughts, about three weeks after the night of the ball, she wrote him a letter.

Dear Lord Doltham,

I hope this letter will find you well. Having been weeks since the night of the ball, I was hoping to take you up on your offer soon and visit you and your dear sister at Gladwell House. Do you know when you are next to find yourself there? Perhaps, in the meantime, you could come for a visit here at Bexley. I do so find myself longing for stimulating conversation. My governess, Elsie, has since been sent to help with the other housemaids and Sophia has been distracted by the many servants and people bustling about the palace on a daily basis. Company by someone I enjoy would be most delightful at your earliest convenience.

Your loving friend,

Princess Gwendolyn Murifield of Bexley Palace, the House of Boris and Ghent

Gwen folded up the paper and waxed it close, hoping to get a quick reply.

Meanwhile, Princess Sophia fixed herself on distracting herself from her own grief with the handsome footman, Andrew, and each time he brought a letter, she would notice his sandy hair and blue eyes, and though she knew he would hold no long-term engagement for her, she found great amusement in his handsome face in the moment.

“Letter for you, Your Royal Highness,” he said to her one morning.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the letter from the silver tray but leaning in to whisper, “I will be in the back garden at noon if you’re interested.”

His smile curled up and he replied. “I am very.”

Princess Gwen laid a letter on his tray and said, “Could you be sure this letter gets sent to Rochester House straight away?”

“Yes, of course, Your Royal Highness.” He bowed to Gwen and smiled at Sophia, then Andrew walked away, glancing back at Princess Sophia, knowing he could be hanged for such an interlude also knowing how worth it she was.

Princess Sophia joined her sister where she sat penning letters in the parlor, and Gwen’s eyes glanced up for a moment, noticing the spark of happiness on Sophia’s face.

“Sister, what has you so pleased?”

“Whyever would you say such a thing?”

“I’ve spent every day with you for the past 16 years, Soph. I know you.”

“Gwen, you can be so absurd at times.”

“Can I?”

Sophia stood and walked to the wall of books. “Yes, dear sister, you can.”

***

The only solace Rosalind found was the news of a Prince of Kiev to be visiting the palace in the very near future.

“Philip, is it true the Prince of Kiev is to visit sometime soon?”

“Actually, yes. I invited the three siblings hoping to distract Gwen and Sophia from their sadness. That is alright with you?”

“Perfectly. There are three princes?”

“No. There are two brothers and a younger sister just about Sophia’s age. Sixteen or so.

“I see, and these young princes are eligible?”

Philip smiled. “Yes. Very. Their uncle, King Viktor, wants the young men wed immediately and was part of our plan in having them come.”

“Are either young men Gwendolyn’s age? It would be nice to see her settled to the right man before she succeeds the throne.”

“I agree wholeheartedly,” he replied and opened the doors to step into the hallway, looking at the pictures of all the kings and queens who’d ruled before him. “I chose their invitation precisely because the younger prince is only a little older than Gwendolyn. He is 20 years of age. His name is Dimitri.”

“And the older one?”

“He is a bit older than Gwen…”

“Edward was ten years my senior when we were married.”

“Yes. Nicholai is 28. He might bring some maturity to the match.”

“Gwen is 18. I suppose that is a large age difference. What is his name?”

“Their surname?”

“If you are asking because of Gwen, she would have to take only his and her royal name,” Philip replied.

“So...”

“The House of Penze-Boris…”

“And Ghent.”

“Lovely. Let’s have them meet at once.”

“They are to arrive later this day. As for me, I am to leave to Boris House to welcome the Duke of Colflex. I shall return within the week.”

The Duchess kissed King Philip’s cheek as he departed.

***

After turning to her favorite Chopin and playing through a few stanzas, Gwen was interrupted.

“Princess, I must say, you play Chopin unlike anyone I’ve ever heard.”

“You are?” she asked, looking up from the piano.

“Nicholai of Kiev. It’s a pleasure.”

Gwen stood from the piano, walking over to where he stood eyeing the paintings on the far wall.

“Well, Nicholai of Kiev, since my playing is such a degradation to the world of Chopin, please,” she said and pointed to the piano, “Delight me with your own Chopin artistry.”

Nicholai turned to face her with a smile. “Is that the impression I gave you? On the contrary, you were delighting me very much. Please, continue.”

With a tilt of her head as she turned to return to the piano, she asked, “Without risk of offense, may I ask your business here at the palace?”

“Most certainly. I’m here by a royal invitation from His Majesty, King Philip.”

Immediately, Gwen stopped and spun to face him.

“You have?”

“My brother, Prince Dimitri, and I are guests of your uncle, Princess.”

“Oh...”

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Yes,” she replied, nodding and also feeling embarrassed of her behavior to the Prince of Kiev.

Prince Nicholai sat next to her at the piano and began turning pages for her, watching as she played her favorite piece, and she couldn’t help but turn her eyes in his direction several times, which caused her fingers to stumble as she came to hard sections.

“You are faltering,” he said after she’d stumbled over the music a few times.

“I fear I’m not playing my best today,” she said.

“I hope I am not to blame,” he replied.

She glanced his way. “You may be partly to blame but not the entire cause.”

“Would you like to take a walk in the gardens with me?” she asked as she gathered her music and stood.

“I would rather like that very much,” he said. “I find the gardens of your country vastly differ from mine and I’ve always enjoyed my walks when I visit here.”

Nicholai held out his arm to escort her outside, but they were interrupted by a messenger with a black armband on his left arm.

“Pardon my interruption,” the messenger said from the doorway.

Gwen’s eyes glanced up. Seeing the messenger from Boris House with a black band on his arm sent chills over her body and she covered her heart, taking in a deep breath of air.

“Tell me what it is at once,” she said.

“King Philip’s been shot on his way to Boris House. He was fatally wounded, Your Majesty,” the messenger said, bowing to Gwen.

Looking at Prince Nicholai, unsure what to do with this shocking news, her face went pale.

“Has the Prime Minister been informed?” Nicholai asked.

“No, sir.”

“And what of the King’s wife?” he asked.

“She was there, sir. Her carriage has continued on to Boris House.”

Nicholai nodded and replied, “Please send word to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. Let them know the new Queen is safe in Bexley Palace.”

“Of course, sir. Right away.”

The messenger kneeled, kissed Gwen’s hand, and walked away.

Nicholai turned to Gwen, bowed, grasping her hand in his as he said, “Your Majesty.”

When he looked up to her face and noticed her tears, he suggested going for their walk in the gardens to settle their thoughts.

“Might I suggest we take that walk through the gardens? You’ve had some shocking news. I’m certain you will be bombarded soon by the Prime Minister and more orders of business. It would be good for you to have a few moments to clear your head.”

“Yes,” she said, “Thank you for being so kind and level headed.”

Prince Nicholai held out his arm for Gwen and they exited the parlor, walking down the main corridor to the side doors that led to the back gardens.

“It is my pleasure, Ma’am. While I’m not the immediate succession to our throne, I do know of the pressures these things hold.”

Gwen inhaled as she closed her eyes, just imagining what this news meant for her life.

News of King Philip’s death had reached most people in the palace, and as she walked arm-in-arm with Nicholai, servants and other people of the house bowed, acknowledging her new status.

“Your Majesty,” one person after another said, bowing to her as she passed.

When they reached the doors and made it outside, Gwen breathed a sigh of relief.

“Are you well?” Nicholai asked.

“I hardly know,” she said, wiping her tear-saturated eyes.

Nicholai pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and said, “I am sorry for your loss.”

Sniffling, Gwen walked side-by-side with the handsome, sandy-haired, tall-statured prince, and her thoughts turned to Lord Doltham, feeling in some sense that she was betraying him by being attracted to the handsome young prince, and she wasn’t even sure why.

“I must say, Nicholai, your English is far better than any Russian I’ve met before.”

“Well, my mother was from the Parudan Isles.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, which would favor me greatly if I were to marry a Parudan Royal,” he said, the side of his mouth turned up as he looked down at Gwen.

“Yes. I suppose it would.”

“Pardon me, Your Majesty,” Clara, one of the housemaids said, approaching them and curtseying.

“Yes, Clara, what is it?”

“Majesty, the Prime Minister is here to see you. I’ve shown him to King… I mean your chambers.”

“Thank you. Please inform them I will be in momentarily.”

Gwen turned to Nicholai and said, “Please excuse me. My new business calls, but I hope we can continue this walk at a later time.”





***


Princess Sophia was sitting under the gardenia trellis, waiting for Andrew to join her in the garden when she saw someone she did not recognize approach her.

“Excuse me,” Prince Nicholai said. “I did not know anyone else was walking out here.”

Sophia stood, glancing around to be sure Andrew wasn’t in sight, and she replied, “There is no need to apologize. The palace gardens are for everyone’s use.”

He extended his hand. Nicholai Petrovic, Prince of Kiev. You must be the Queen’s younger sister.”

“Queen?” she asked, taking his hand.

“You have not heard.”

Sophia shook her head.

“Perhaps someone more familiar with you should break the news. News?”