Teardrops fall from the sky as I sit in my room with the window open, watching the dirt road into the castle. Prince Alexander, from a neighboring kingdom, is scheduled to arrive at court today. It’s no secret I made things difficult for the last prince who courted me. I can’t remember his name, only his beady eyes and putrid breath. I have no desire to tie my heart down. The thought terrifies me to no end.
There’s a knock at my door and I shut my window, keeping the mood from seeping inside. Silly superstitions.
“Princess Isabella,” Hannah says, greeting me with a curtsey. Her blonde hair is braided intricately across the top of her head and down her back. I wonder who did her the honor. She’s wearing my favorite color on her too, a deep rich blue that accentuates and compliments her pale blue eyes.
I pull her into my room, slamming the door shut behind her. Hopefully no one saw her entrance. If they did, we can surely think up an excuse for her presence in my room. Unlike a boy, there are no rules being broken having Hannah alone in my chambers. Lucky me.
Without thought, my lips descend onto hers, shoving her forcefully against the door. Hannah is not shy, though she pretends to be, around my parents. I don’t blame her; they are intimidating and also the king and queen of our land.
“You have to tell your father, King William,” Hannah whispers between kisses. Her fingers slip against the back of my neck, moving my dark locks to one side. Hannah’s rosy lips fall against my bare skin, kissing a path up to my ear. “It’s the only way we can be together.”
“He’ll never allow it,” I say and sigh, letting my eyes shut. I worry that confessing my feelings for her might result in her banishment from our kingdom. It’s not only the fact Hannah is a woman and our relationship is forbidden, there’s also the issue that she’s a lady-in-waiting. She’s not of royal blood and I’m to marry a prince and strengthen our alliance. Nothing can ever develop between us more than lust and romance.
“Princess Isabella,” my maid Anne says, knocking on the door. “The carriage is on its way. Are you ready?”
Hannah moves from the door and rushes to the window, trying to appear as innocent as possible. She sits on the cushioned ledge, smoothing her dress. I’m almost certain my maid Anne knows of our tryst, but she’s discreet and I appreciate her more for it.
“Come in,” I say, and she opens the door, glancing from Hannah to me. “Your parents are waiting for you to join them.”
Of course, they’re waiting for me. It’s not as though I’m anxious for this day to come. I turn and glance back at Hannah. There are so many words I want to say, terms of endearment and exchanges of emotion, but that’s not what comes out. “How do I look?” I ask. I must accept my fate with poise.
“Beautiful as always, Princess Isabella.”
I offer her a smile, the only thing I can give her.
Stepping out from my bedroom, my heels clink on the marble floor until I reach the carpeting twenty paces down the hall. I swear my parents had a hand in designing the layout of the corridor just outside my room, making it difficult to sneak out of my bedroom at night or for someone to sneak in. I suppose I’m lucky that Hannah is my lady-in-waiting and no one suspects what we’re up to.
Dressed in a chocolate brown gown, my dark hair is wavy and extends halfway down my back. My outfit leaves my shoulders exposed, accentuating my bust and my perfectly pale complexion. While Hannah is petite in size, I’ve got a slightly curvier figure accenting all my features. The dress was made exclusively for today. The castle maids had three weeks to design and sew a gown for my introduction to Prince Alexander. My mother insisted I look the part of queen, for one day I would be sitting upon the throne.
“Smile, darling,” my mother, Queen Grace, says as I enter the throne room. She wears the crown well; it’s like she was born to be a queen. “You want our guests to feel welcome in our home.”
Actually, I don’t, but I hold my tongue. It’s best not to cause a scene. Two guards open the double doors and the three gentlemen walk into the room to greet me. I’m not certain what I expected but this wasn’t it.
The young man in the center looks to be about my age. He is gorgeous, with a well-built physique and alluring sapphire eyes. I want to run my fingers through his rich dark hair. My father walks over to the men, shaking their hands politely. “Thank you for joining us. It is an honor to have you at court. Please make yourselves at home.”
I step closer, curious to meet Prince Alexander. I gather that the two standing on opposite sides of him are his palace guards, both by their attire, age and stature. I’m sure my family would have done the same if I had traveled to another country.
Slowly, I approach the prince and reach for his hand to shake it. “It’s nice to meet you, Prince Alexander.”
Instead, he brings my hand to his lips, placing a kiss over my soft skin. I shift anxiously on my feet, drawing my hand back to my side. I’ve never courted a young man before, except for the one prince, and I don’t think he counts. Is this what it’s supposed to be like? Warm and strange tingles stir in my stomach. I’m twenty-three, well beyond the age of marrying. My parents waited until they felt I would be ready to take this courting business seriously. Or maybe they’d given up after repeated efforts that had failed. I’m lost in his eyes and his long, thick eyelashes make me jealous.
“The pleasure is mine,” he says and bows before me.
It feels weird to watch a prince bow before a princess. We’re equals in many ways and yet he’s here, trying to vie for my affection. I’m not sure whether I love it or hate it.
“Would you mind touring me around the palace?” Alexander asks.
“Sure.” I smile, gesturing for the door that he just came in through.
Alexander links his hand through my arm as we head into the hallway. I don’t have to turn around to know his guards, along with mine, are following. Until I’m married, there’s no chance of us being alone together at court.
“Tell me about your kingdom,” I say, leading him through the long corridor and showing him the inside of the palace, excluding the bedrooms.
“My father, King Charles, has taken ill and we believe he’s on his death bed. As you may know, I’m in need of a queen by my side when I assume the throne.”
I don’t dare ask how long his father has left or if the rumors are true that the Plague swept through their village months ago. That would be rude. The prospect of becoming a queen so young has me intrigued. “How soon do you propose this marriage will occur?”
Alexander stops walking and his gaze latches onto mine. “Tonight.”
That is far sooner than I would like, but if he’s under pressure to marry and I turn him down, I may not be given another chance. I’m silent for a moment, considering all my options. “I will marry you on a few conditions,” I say, needing to stand my ground.
“I’m listening.” Alexander’s face shows no hint of emotion and I’m certain I won’t get a final say anyhow. King William, my father, will decide if I shall marry Alexander. I make my demands heard, at the very least, as a shot in the dark. What’s the worst that will happen?
“My maids and lady-in-waiting will accompany me to your court. I will feel most comfortable with the ladies I’ve grown up with.”
“Is that all?” Alexander asks. I’m not sure if I could allow more or he’s fed up with my demands already.
“Yes,” I say. It is absolutely what I require, Hannah to accompany me to a new court.
“You shall have your maids and lady-in-waiting if they wish to join you. Tell them at once to pack your bags. We will leave before sundown.”
“Are you really going to marry Prince Alexander?” Hannah asks for the umpteenth time. “You’ve known him for ten minutes.”
My maids are packing my dresses into a wooden trunk. I don’t know when I’ll be back to visit. Anne is carefully folding each exquisite gown, before placing it into the container. Magdalene gathers the trinkets from my room, placing them between gowns for safekeeping.
“I’ll be a queen soon,” I say, knowing I probably shouldn’t be happy that Alexander’s father is dying, but it’s a huge part of the reason I agreed to marry the prince. Not that I honestly had a say in who I wish to marry. My father, the king, makes the final decision.
“That’s not really a reason to marry him, Ella,” Hannah says, calling me by the nickname she’s given me.
I know she’d rather I stand up to my father and tell him I love her, but it would never work. Quickly, I change the subject. “Besides, you girls all get to accompany me if you’d like.” I hope they will join me. I know Anne and Magdalene don’t have families of their own, so there should be very little holding them back.
“Did the prince say we could join you, Isabella? Or are you deciding this on your own?” Anne asks, skeptical. I don’t blame her for not believing me. I’m attracted to trouble.
“Prince Alexander already agreed that you may join me at his court. Please, don’t make me beg.”
Hannah grabs a seat beside me on the bed. “You don’t have to ask twice. I’ll be there.”
A huge smile lands on my face. Without her accompanying me to a foreign country, I wouldn’t want to go.
The carriages are packed, and my maids are spending the rest of the evening on my hair and helping me into my wedding gown. The ceremony will be at Alexander’s castle, along with the consummation afterward. I’m nervous. The most we’ve done is hold hands, and I’m expected to give myself completely to Alexander tonight.
There are several carriages waiting outside. One for Prince Alexander, another two for my ladies. My parents are taking a carriage of their own to attend the wedding. Alexander approaches me and takes my hand. “Will you ride with me, Princess Isabella?”
I had hoped to sneak a little time in with Hannah, but that doesn’t look to be a possibility. The last thing I want to do is cast suspicion on her. We’ve made it this far together; she must accompany me to his palace. “Of course,” I say to Alexander and smile, reassuring him that I’m pleased to be leaving my home.
I bid my goodbyes to those staying behind and slip inside the carriage. Alexander is outside another minute, speaking with his guards before he joins me and shuts the door behind him. “I wanted to spend a little more time getting to know you. I hope that’s okay.”
We have the rest of our lives to get to know one another. However, I don’t object. “Is there anything in particular you were hoping to find out?” I ask.
The carriage jolts forward, and I know we’re leaving my kingdom. I will be back one day, as queen of both lands, when my parents perish. As an only heir, my responsibility is to my land as well. It’s not something I wish to think about right now.
“It’s surprising to me that at twenty-three you’re still unwed,” Alexander says and stares at me, awaiting an explanation. Girls as young as twelve and boys at fourteen get married.
“Do you want to know a secret?”
Alexander nods eagerly and leans forward. Our knees brush slightly, and I feel a spark of electricity burn between us. He is attractive; I won’t deny myself that little truth.
“At fourteen, my father arranged for seven royals and nobles to come to court. They were supposed to woo me, convince me to choose them, and then my father was to speak with their guardian to make the final arrangement.”
Alexander’s eyes narrow. “What happened?”
“I’m a vixen.”
“I need more details that that, Princess Isabella.” His eyes are hooked on me, and I can tell I’ve got him right in my grasp. It’s arousing to feel such power. Will he think less of me when I divulge the truth? I wait a beat before answering his question.
“Thomas and Christopher went home crying. They were nice boys but couldn’t handle the competition.” I leave out the part where I told them we were cousins and it would be a sin to marry one another. “Edmund tried to kiss me without asking. Needless to say, I punched him in the nose. The physician had to set his nose and then my father asked him to return home. He didn’t want any young man who was not a gentleman to marry his daughter.”
“That makes three. What happened to the other four, Isabella?”
“Triston and Richard were caught with their breeches down, literally. They weren’t too interested in marrying a woman. My father asked them to leave. Imagine the surprise when he spoke with their fathers about why they were unsuitable for marriage. The last two, Nicholl and Piers, made it through the entire month. When it was over, they begged my father to release them from our kingdom and the prospect of marrying me.” I laugh and reach out for Alexander’s hand. “Having second thoughts?”
“No,” Alexander says, “I just wonder what you did to scare them all away, and why?”
“Why? I was fourteen, Alexander. The thought of leaving my home was terrifying! So, I made up stories about ghosts that followed me around and hallucinations that made the boys beg to be released from my clutches. They thought I was crazy.”
Alexander grins. “Yes, but a sane person doesn’t know they’re crazy. So, I guess I don’t need to worry.” He rests his hands behind his head. The carriage bounces along the dirt path. “How did King William react to the news?”
“Father was angry, but I assured him I would marry. However, he promised not to bring any more competitions into the castle.”
“Good,” Alexander says. “Because I would hate to think what you might have tried on me. A roach sandwich? Maybe some hot peppers mixed into my soap?”
I’m startled by his suggestions. “I’m not that mean!” I laugh and cross my arms. “I was standing my ground as a rebellious fourteen-year-old girl.”
Alexander nods. “What about now?”
I’m certainly no longer a child. I’m twenty-three and my prospects for marrying have significantly dwindled. “I’ve grown up,” I say. “I’m looking forward to a fresh start.”
“As am I.” Alexander shifts around in the carriage, coming to sit beside me. “I assure you, Isabella, that although we may get married tonight, we can take our time getting to know one another. I don’t expect you to love me. I’m not even sure that you’ll like me for some time.” Alexander grins and it’s the first time I see his dimples. They’re cute, and with his long eyelashes, I do want to kiss him, to discover what those lips feel like against mine. I refrain from doing so.
“You don’t need to worry, Prince Alexander. I do like you. If I didn’t, I’d have scared you from court hours ago with a tale of how I love another woman.”
Alexander’s eyes twinkle in the moonlight. “Then I’d have suggested we invite her into our bed.”