The Accidental Princess

London, 1855

She could feel his eyes watching her from across the room. Like an invisible protector, warning away anyone who would bother her. Lady Hannah Chesterfield smiled at one of the ballroom guests, but she hadn’t heard a word the woman had said. Instead, she was all too aware of Lieutenant Thorpe’s gaze, and the forbidden nature of his thoughts.

Though she’d only met him a few weeks ago, she hadn’t forgotten his intensity. Nor the way he stared at her like a delectable sweet he wanted but couldn’t have.

He’d brushed his lips upon the back of her hand when her brother had introduced them. The unexpected kiss had made her skin flush, awakening the strange desire to move closer to him. He looked as though he wanted to kiss every inch of her, and the thought made her body tremble. His interest had been undeniable.

It was nearing midnight, the hour of secret liaisons. More than a few ladies had disappeared into the garden with a companion, only to return with twigs in their hair and swollen lips.

Hannah wondered what it would be like, to indulge in such wickedness, feeling a man’s mouth against her lips, his hands touching her the way a lover would. There was something about the Lieutenant that was dangerous. Unpredictable. He didn’t belong here, among London’s elite, and yet, he fascinated her.

She risked a glance and saw him leaning against the back wall, a glass of lemonade in one hand. His black tail coat was too snug across his broad shoulders, as though he couldn’t afford one that fit. His matching waistcoat accentuated his lean form, while the white cravat he wore had a careless tilt to it. His dark hair was too long, and he was clean-shaven, unlike the current fashion.
His mouth gave a slight lift, as though daring her to come and speak to him. She couldn’t possibly do such a thing.

Why was he here tonight? It wasn’t as if Lieutenant Thorpe could seek a wife from among the ladies. He might be an officer, but he did not possess a title. Furthermore, if it weren’t for his unlikely friendship with her brother Stephen, the Lieutenant wouldn’t have been allowed inside Rothburne House.

“Hannah!” A hand waved in front of her face, and she forced herself to pay heed to her mother, who had crossed the room to speak with her.

“You’re woolgathering again, my dear. Stand up straight and smile. The Baron of Belgrave is coming to claim his dance with you.” With a slight titter, Christine Chesterfield added, “Oh, I do hope the two of you get on. He would make such a dashing husband for you. He’s so handsome and well-mannered.”

An unsettled feeling rose up in her stomach. “Mother, I don’t want to wed the Baron.”

“Why? Whatever is wrong with Lord Belgrave?” Christine demanded.

“I don’t know. Something. It feels wrong.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “Hannah, you’re imagining things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Baron, and I have little doubt that he would make an excellent husband.”

A sour feeling caught up in her stomach, but Hannah didn’t protest. She’d learned, long ago, that her mother and father had carved-in-stone ideas about the man she would marry. The gentleman had to be well bred, wealthy, and titled. A saint who had never transgressed against anyone, who treated women with the utmost respect.

And likely rescued kittens in his spare time, she thought sourly. Men of that nature didn’t exist. She knew it for a fact, being cursed with two older brothers.

Though she wanted to get married more than anything, she was beginning to wonder if she’d ever find the right man. Having her own home and a husband was her dream, for she could finally have the freedom she wanted.

She craved the moment when she could make her own choices without having to ask permission or worry about whether or not she was behaving like a proper lady. Although she was twenty years old, she might as well have been a girl of five, for all that she’d been sheltered from the world.

“Now, Hannah,” her mother chided. “The Baron been nothing but the soul of kindness this entire week. He’s brought you flowers every day.”

It was true that Lord Belgrave had made his courtship intentions clear. But despite his outward courtesy, Hannah couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was almost too perfect.

“I’m not feeling up to a dance just now,” she said, though she knew the excuse would never hold.

“You are perfectly fine,” her mother insisted. “And you cannot turn down an invitation to dance. It would be rude.”

Hannah pressed her lips together, suppressing the urge to argue. Her mother would never bend when it came to appropriate behavior. With any luck, the dance would be over in three minutes.

“Smile, for the love of Heaven,” her mother repeated. “You look as though you’re about to faint.”

Without waiting for her reply, Lady Rothburne flounced away, just as the Baron of Belgrave arrived to claim his dance. Hannah forced a smile upon her face and prayed that the remaining hours would pass quickly. And as the Baron swept her into the next dance, she caught a glimpse of the Lieutenant watching them, an unreadable darkness upon his face.

* * *

Michael Thorpe had a sixth sense for trouble. He often perceived it before it struck, which had served him well on the battlefield.
It was happening again. Intuition pricked at his conscience, when he saw Lady Hannah about to dance with the Baron of Belgrave. Whether she knew it or not, the suitors were circling her like sharks. There wasn’t a man among them who didn’t want to claim her.
Including himself.

She was an untouched angel. Innocent of the world, and yet, he recognized the weariness in her green eyes. Her caramel brown hair had been artfully arranged with sprigs of jasmine, while her gown was purest white. It irritated him that her parents treated like a marital offering to be served out to debauched males.

Like the dog that he was, he’d wanted to snarl at her suitors, warning them to stay the hell away. But what good would come of it, except to embarrass her among her family and friends?

No. Better to remain in the shadows and keep watch over her. He’d seen so much death and war in the past few months, he felt the need to protect something fragile and good. Soon enough, he’d have to go back to the Crimean Peninsula. He’d have to face the demons and ghosts he’d left behind, and more than likely, a bullet would end his life.

But for now, he would savor this last taste of freedom before the Army ordered him back to the battleground. He glared at Belgrave, watching the pair of them on the dance floor. And for a brief moment, he imagined himself, holding a woman like Hannah in his arms.
His good friend, the Earl of Whitmore, approached with an intent glare upon his face. A moment later, Whitmore’s younger brother Lord Quentin Chesterfield, joined them.

“I hope, for your sake, Thorpe, that you weren’t eyeing my sister.” The Earl spoke the words in a calm, deliberate fashion. “Otherwise, I’ll have to kill you.”

Lord Quentin leaned in, a mischievous smile on his face. “I’ll help.”

Michael ignored their threats, though he didn’t doubt that they meant them. “Your sister shouldn’t be dancing with Belgrave. I don’t trust him.”

“He might be a Baron, but he looks a bit too polished, doesn’t he?” Lord Quentin agreed. “Like he’s trying too hard to impress the women.”

“You could try a bit harder with your own attire.” Whitmore grimaced at his younger brother’s dark purple jacket and yellow waistcoat.

“I like colorful clothing.” Lord Quentin shrugged and turned his attention back to the dancing couple. “I suppose we shouldn’t worry. Our father isn’t going to allow Hannah to wed a man like Belgrave, even if he does propose.”

Glancing at the ceiling as if calculating a vast number, Lord Quentin thought to himself. “Now how many proposals does that make for her this Season . . . seventeen? Or was it twenty-seven?”

“Five,” Whitmore replied. “Thankfully, from no one appropriate. But I’ll agree with you that Belgrave wouldn’t be my first choice.” Crossing his arms, the Earl added, “I’ll be glad when she finds a husband. One less matter to worry about.”

From the tension in Whitmore’s face, Michael suspected that impending fatherhood was his greater fear. “How is the Countess?” he asked.

“One more month of confinement, and then, pray God, we’ll have this child. Emily begged me to take her to Falkirk for the birth. We’re leaving at dawn. Still, I’m not certain I want her to travel in her condition. Our last baby arrived weeks earlier than we’d expected.”

“Emily is approaching the size of a small carriage,” Lord Quentin interjected.

Whitmore sent his brother a blistering look, and Michael offered, “I’ll hold him down while you break his nose.”

A smile cracked over the Earl’s face. “Excellent idea, Thorpe.”

Changing the subject, Michael studied Lady Hannah once more. “Do you think the Marquess will choose a husband for her this Season?”

“It’s doubtful,” Whitmore replied. “Hannah might as well have a note upon her forehead, telling the unmarried gentleman: ‘Don’t Even Bother Asking.'”

“Or, ‘The Marquess Will Kill You if You Ogle His Daughter,'” Quentin added.

The brothers continued to joke about their sister, but Michael ignored their banter. Beneath it all, he understood their fierce desire to protect her. In that, they held common ground.

But regardless of what he might desire, he knew the truth. A Marquess’s daughter could never be with a soldier.
No matter how badly he might want her.

From the book The Accidental Princess
Copyright © 2009 by Michelle Willingham
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The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
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