Authors: Lillian Marek
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Copyright Â© 2016 by Lillian Marek
Cover and internal design Â© 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Anna Kmet
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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In homage to Anthony Hope, whose
Prisoner of Zenda
gave me so much pleasure
Baden, October 1863
Lady Susannah Tremaine sank into the chair in the coffee room of the Grand Hotel with a sigh of pleasure mixed with relief. The pleasure was because the chairs were actual upholstered armchairs, not the spindly little things so often encountered in tea shops, and the pastries on display looked absolutely gorgeous. Every one of them was festooned with whipped creamâ
The relief was because she had finally managed to get her traveling companions here without any disasters. That was cause for no little satisfaction. Her mother had sent her along on this trip with instructions to look out for the other two, and Susannah took her responsibilities seriously.
At first she had assumed that Lady Augusta Whyte would be the one who needed the most care. She was, after all, seventy years old, more or less. Aunt Augusta never actually mentioned her age, but Susannah had figured it out, at least approximately, from bits of information the elderly woman had let drop about things she had seen. At such a great age, Aunt Augusta might be expected to need assistance making her way onto and off of a train, or even just walking down the street.
However, it wasn't the frailty of old age that was a problem. Instead, it was Aunt Augusta's willingness to try anything once. Or twice. That cafÃ© in Montmartre she had insisted on having them all visit was definitely not the sort of place a proper young ladyâor a respectable old ladyâshould be seen. At least they had avoided any real trouble that time. Susannah had been able to get them out the side door as soon as the brawl began.
What had surprised her was that Olivia could be a problem. Olivia had been living with the Tremaines for years, ever since her brother had married Susannah's sister, so it wasn't as if Olivia and Susannah were mere acquaintances. They were almost the same age and had shared a governess and attended the same parties and gossiped over cups of cocoa. But she had never realized just how naive Olivia could be. When that artist asked her to come up to his studio and pose for him, Olivia had actually considered it. “But he needs a model and he can't afford to pay one,” she had said.
But now they were all safe at Baden, the spa that had become wildly fashionable in recent years. Of course, it was a bit late in the year for fashion, but Susannah had been looking forward to it. Now she finally had a chance to look around the coffee room at their fellow visitors.
It might be just this hotel, but on the whole, the group seemed rather elderly. Or ailing. Or both. She probably should have expected that. Baden was, after all, a spa, and people came here to be cured by the waters. She just hadn't expected everyone to be an invalid. Susannah felt almost embarrassed by her own blooming health.
It looked as if the most exciting part of the visit here was going to be the pastries.
* * *
Count Maximillian von Staufer, captain in the Royal Guard of Sigmaringen, grunted. Someone was pounding on the door, and that was making the pounding in his head even worse. He tried to say “Go away,” but it came out as just another grunt.
Making an effort, he opened an eye. A misty gray light was sneaking around the curtains. He managed to sit up and get his feet on the floor, but then he had to pause. He rested his head in his hands with his elbows on his knees. What was wrong with him? His head was throbbing as if he had been on a three-day debauch, but he hadn't been drinking last night. The last thing he remembered was drinking coffee after dinner.
“Captain Staufer! You must come!” The pounding on the door continued.
He lifted his head enough to croak, “What is it?”
The door opened and in tumbled a young soldierâa boy, really, disheveled and with his uniform askew. “Captain, she is gone. Princess Mila has run away.”
Staufer winced at the shrill note of the boy's voice. “What do you mean, run away? Where could she go?”
“I don't know, sir. But she is not in her room, and you and the general are asleepâ¦” The boy's voice trailed off miserably.
Staufer rubbed a hand across his face. He realized that he was still wearing his uniform, though the tunic was unbuttoned. He even had his boots on. Never in his life had he fallen into bed with his clothes on. What had happened to him? Nothing good, obviously, and it could not be overindulgence that was afflicting him. Not on coffee. He straightened up but had to close his eyes until the pain caused by the movement subsided. Stifling a groan, he asked, “What's your name, soldier?”
The boy straightened up and stood at attention. “Mueller, sir.”
“Very well, Mueller. Suppose you take me to see what you are talking about,” Staufer said as he buttoned up his tunic and ran a hand through his hair.
Moments later he was standing in the doorway of Princess Mila's room. Her empty room. Some garments were scattered around, but Staufer had no idea if this indicated a hasty flight or if the princess was always this messy. “Her maid?” he asked.
“She is missing too,” said Mueller.
“And her guards?”
Staufer started to nod but remembered nodding did not help the pain in his head. The young soldier was doing his best to stand tall, but he looked terrified. “Don't worry, Mueller. This is not your fault.” Staufer tried to think. “You must answer me truthfully. Who else knows about this?”
“No one, sir. I came to relieve her guard, and when I couldn't find anyone here and couldn't wake anyone in the general's quarters, I went to you.”
Staufer rubbed his temples and forced himself to remain calm. From the moment they'd left Hechingen, Princess Mila had been nothing but trouble with her whining and her tantrums and her pouts. Her behavior would have disgraced a two-year-old. In an adult it was inexcusable. And now this disaster. Was the insufferable brat
to cause a scandal?
“You did very well, Mueller. Now you must stay here on guard. If anyone wants to enter, tell them that the princess is indisposed and cannot be disturbed. I will go inform the general.”
Mueller saluted smartly, looking both relieved and proud.
Staufer returned the salute, trying to look confident, and headed for the general's quarters. Everything was much too silent. Was everyone sound asleep? Given the way his head feltâand his stomach was also making protestsâhe did not think it had been an enchantment. More likely, they had all been drugged.
Blast Princess Mila. He had been sent to escort her to Nymburg, where she was to marry Prince Conrad, and he would do so if he had to put her in chains.
As soon as he got his hands on her.
Captain Staufer couldn't believe it. They had been frantically searching for Princess Mila for the past three daysâracing around the countryside, interrogating people along every road, river, and railwayâand here she was, strolling through the formal gardens of the spa as if she hadn't a care in the world. Of all the arrogant, selfish brats, Princess Mila took the prize.
He ignored the neat gravel paths and charged across the flower beds, crushing scarlet geraniums and blue lobelia beneath his cyclopeanâbut beautifully polishedâboots. Rage extinguished every consideration of courtesy in his breast. Coming up behind the princess, he seized her by the shoulder and spun her around.
“Begging Your Royal Highness's pardon,” he began softly but couldn't keep his voice from rising to a roar. “What the devil do you think you are doing?”
Big, brown eyes looked up at him and were immediately filled with terror. The blond ringlets dangling by her ears shook as if she trembled, and the lower lip of her Cupid's bow mouth quivered. “Whoâ¦? Whatâ¦?” she stammered.
He snorted in exasperationâhe'd had more than enough of her dramaticsâand then stumbled slightly as something landed on his back. He turned to find himself facing a young woman who was battering away at him with a parasol. What on earth did she think she was doing?
“Don't be ridiculous,” he snapped. “You will break your parasol if you continue that way.” Then he looked more closely at his attacker, and his glare slowly changed into a smile. She was an exceedingly pretty young woman, wielding a completely frivolous parasolâall ruffles and laceâwhich he caught with one hand and tossed aside.
Her eyes widenedâvery lovely blue eyes, he notedâand she drew in a furious breath and began to berate him. “You cad! You boor! You villain! You brute! You blackguard!”
Having been deprived of her weapon, she began to kick him. He started to laugh. Did the little wasp think she could possibly cause any damage by battering his stout boots with those dainty shoes? Well, perhaps she was not so little as all that. She came up to his shoulder, but she didn't seem to realize how futile her attack was. This was becoming more and more amusing. He was almost light-headed with relief at finding the princess, but he still had to get her back to the escort. Unfortunately, that meant he did not have time to give the little wasp the attention she deserved.
“You are going to hurt yourself if you keep this up,” he told her. To make sure she didn't, he wrapped an arm around her waist and picked her up, hoisting her onto his hip. Her head now dangled down in front of him while her legs flailed futilely behind.
He turned back to the princess, who had by now acquired some courage of her own and begun to swing her parasol at him. “Let go of Susannah, you big bully!” she demanded.
Susannah? Was that the little wasp's name? “Susannah?” He looked down at her and shook his head. “No. Susannah is not the right name for her. Too formal. Too tame. Suse. I will call her Suse. It fits her better.”
“Aargh!” The little wasp gave a frustrated cry and tried to land a punch.
He laughed as it bounced off his leg.
Then the princess tried to hit his head with her parasol, but she couldn't quite reach and the blow landed harmlessly on his shoulder. He roared with laughter. They were utterly preposterous, these two.
“Unhand that lady at once, you dastard.”
A new entry into the fray. This one was an elderly lady, quite elderly, and swathed in black. She carried a cane with a heavy knob. He knew it was heavy because she caught him on the knee with it, a blow that caused enough pain to make him stagger. It also knocked some awareness into him, and he paused to think for a moment.
The old lady, the young one, the princessâthey were all speaking English.
He had not known that the princess spoke English. It had never occurred to him that she could speak anything but her native German. To be honest, he had not thought her sufficiently intelligent to learn another language.
Although he understood it easily enough, his spoken English was a bit rusty. He dredged up what he could from memory. “My apologies, gracious lady. I wish only toâ¦to conduct the princess back to her party. She has somehowâ¦become separated from herâ¦escort.”
“Princess, my eye,” said the little wasp, as he set her on her feet again. Her hat had fallen off, and she picked it up and plopped it on her dark curls. It was rather dented, but he doubted she would appreciate his commenting on that. Then she jabbed her finger into his chest and said accusingly, “You were trying to assault Olivia.”
“Olivia?” He blinked. “Who is Olivia?”
“My dear, are you all right?” The old lady had an arm around the princess's shoulder. The princess herself was looking at him with terror in her eyes.
He sighed. She was going to be difficult. He switched back to German. “Princess Mila, there is no need to distress yourself. I will take you back to the escort, and we will forget all about this little episode.”
The princess shrank back and half whispered to the old lady, “Do you suppose he is a madman?”
He sighed again and tried English once more. “Gracious ladies, what stories Princess Mila has told you, I do not know, but allow me to present myself. I am Count Maximillian von Staufer, captain in the Royal Guard of Sigmaringen, a member of the princess's official escort. Now, you must excuse us. The rest of the guard awaits.”
“What utter rot!” said Susannah scornfully. “You cannot seriously believe that we will let you kidnap Lady Olivia.”
He tried to be patient, but he was growing frustrated. The little wasp was pretty, and at any other time he would be more than delighted to further their acquaintance. It was not every day that he encountered a womanâor anyoneâwho was not intimidated by his size. However, today he did not have time for explorations. Duty demanded that he get the princess back on the road to Nymburg as quickly as possible. “I assure you,
, this young woman is Princess Mila of Hechingen. I have for the past week been traveling with her. If she claims something else, well, I fear she has not been telling the truth.”
He reached out to take hold of the princess's arm, but Susannah jumped in front of him and pushed his arm aside. Glaring up at him, she said, “And I assure you that this lady you are trying to assault is Lady Olivia de Vaux, and her brother happens to be married to my sister. Don't claim to have known her for a week. I have known her for seven years!”
“What nonsense is this?” He glared down as he loomed over her.
The old lady's cane suddenly reappeared, swinging back and forth to force them apart.
“Really, children, there is no need for you to make a public display of yourselves,” she said. “Stop and think, all of you.”
They all did stop. He could not say precisely what it wasâher tone of voice, perhapsâbut it did not occur to him to disobey. She suddenly sounded very much like his Aunt Magda. No one disobeyed Aunt Magda.
“This seems to be a case of mistaken identity,” the elderly lady continued, “and I believe, Captain, that you are the one making a mistake.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she raised a hand imperiously. She may have been old, but she stood firm and straight, as assured as any queen. He closed his mouth.
“Allow me to continue. I am Lady Augusta Whyte. My young companions are Lady Olivia de Vaux and Lady Susannah Tremaine. I have known them for many years. Indeed, I have known Lady Susannah all her life. Her mother is my goddaughter. They accompanied me here to Baden two weeks ago. It is quite impossible that Lady Olivia could be your princess. If you have misplaced one, as it appears from what you say that you have, I suggest that you continue your search elsewhere.”
“Butâ¦but this is not possible!” He stared at her in disbelief. “Two weeks?”
Lady Augusta nodded decisively. “Two weeks. We have been staying at the Grand Hotel. If you doubt my word, feel free to make inquiries of the staff there.”
With that she swept off, followed by the two young women, all of them with their noses up in the air.
Max realized that his mouth was hanging open and he snapped it shut. This was beyond belief. What sort of game did the princess think she was playing? Well, he wasn't about to let her just vanish again. He marched after them, keeping them in sight without getting too close so they would think he had believed their nonsense.
Not that it would have been easy to keep out of sight if they had bothered to turn around. Even without the white-plumed shako on his head, his heightâall six feet four inches of himâguaranteed that he stood a head above the invalids tottering along the paths of the spa gardens. He growled impatiently as a nurse pushed her patient in a wheeled chair through the intersection in front of him. His scowl frightened a hobbling man back onto the bench from which he had been attempting to rise.
Unlike many of those in the gardens, the women moved quickly and gracefully, even the old oneâthe one who called herself Lady Augusta. They soon left the open expanse of the gardens, but the wide streets of the town made it easy to keep them in view. They walked past the colonnaded facade of the Kurhaus, where the hot-spring baths were located, but did not enter. He was grateful for that, since he would be unable to follow them into the women's section.
In no time at all, they arrived at the Grand Hotel, a yellow building so festooned with white columns and cornices and balconies that it looked like a pastry confection. As they entered, they were greeted with bows and smiles by the uniformed concierge and porters. So this “Lady Augusta” had not been lying when she said she was staying there, but had there been a “Lady Olivia” staying there as well? And for how long?
He gave them a chance to get well inside the building before he approached one of the porters. “Excuse me, but those ladies who just enteredâwas that not Baroness Lengenfeld and her daughters?”
“No, no.” The fellow smiled. “They are English, those ladies.”
“Really? Have they been here long? I could have sworn I saw them in Linz only a few days ago.”
“Not these ladies. They have been here for more than two weeks now.”
“Two weeks, you say? All three of them?”
“Indeed.” The fellow began to look at him distrustfully. “Why do you ask?”
Max shook his head. “I thoughtâ¦ I must have been mistaken.”
He turned and walked in a daze toward his own, more secluded hotel. This was impossible. Impossible. Unbelievable. Was Princess MilaâLady Olivia, whoever she wasâright? Was he going mad?
He needed to talk to the general.