Authors: Alice Gaines
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
Always a Princess
By Alice Gaines
Eve Stanhope masquerades as a foreign princess at
parties, stealing jewels from the nobility she despises and returning to her London slum at the end of the night. She’s carefully plotting revenge on her former employer—a society cad who’s ruined her reputation. Now it’s
turn to ruin
What she doesn’t expect is to encounter the criminally handsome Orchid Thief on one of her heists…
Philip Rosemont, Viscount Wesley, is also in disguise. Bored and stifled by society, he steals jewels for fun and leaves orchids as his calling cards. He knows the woman he’s cornered at the ball is no aristocrat, much less the Princess of Valdastock. But something tells him she’s not exactly common, either. Now he must uncover her motives while he enjoys her illicit kisses. Can these two become partners in crime even as they give in to their mutual seduction?
Previously published, newly revised by author
I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.
But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.
So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.
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Executive Editor, Carina Press
Thanks to my wonderful editor, Jessica. You made me work for this one.
The woman was a fraud if Philip had ever seen one. A very lovely fraud, no doubt, but not difficult for a discerning eye to spot. Of course, most people in London society had eyes that discerned no more than what lay at the end of their noses, so it seemed hardly likely anyone had spotted her as such. But Philip Rosemont, Viscount Wesley, had, and the imposture made her fascinating—the only item of interest in a hopelessly stuffy and entirely predictable ball…aside from the fact that Lady Bainbridge wasn’t wearing her star ruby tonight. With any luck, he might make off with both the ruby and the beautiful impostor before the night had ended.
He circled the stranger’s knot of admirers as he watched her bat her eyelashes and toss her head, setting waves of ebony curls against the pale skin of her cheeks and throat.
“So kind it was of Lady Bainbridge to have me,” she said in an accent Philip couldn’t place.
“Nonsense,” Neville Ormsby declared earnestly, rather like an overeager puppy dog. “No one would dream of having a ball as grand as this one without inviting London’s latest sensation.”
The woman placed a delicate hand over the pale skin of her bosom and laughed prettily. “I am now a sensation?”
“Indeed you are, Princess,” said another of the men—Charles Someone, third in line to the Dukedom of Somewhere if Philip remembered correctly. “Aside from that ghastly Orchid Thief, you’re the only excitement we’ve had all season. And no one wants to see any more of the likes of him.”
The woman cocked her head. “But he is romantic, no? To take the jewel and leave the orchid in its place.”
“Not so romantic when it’s your own diamond studs being pilfered,” Ormsby said.
Not likely. Philip happened to know for a fact that the Orchid Thief had no interest in something as pedestrian as Ormsby’s studs.
“But why discuss this dreadful business,” Ormsby continued, “when we have a jewel of a lady in our princess here?”
Princess, eh? Philip had been watching her for the entire evening, and she was no more a princess than he was. She had impostor written all over her. Her eyes shone just a bit too brightly, given the overall insipid character of the men around her. She laughed just a bit too loudly—Ormsby’s jokes were never that funny—and when she did, she threw back her head, emphasizing the long column of her throat and the gentle slope of her shoulders. No doubt she’d chosen her gown with its daringly low-cut bodice to distract every male at the ball from this patently dishonest impersonation. Only, who or what was she pretending to be?
“Ah, sir,” she said in an accent that was neither French nor German, neither Eastern nor Western—just a polyglot, generic European, as contrived as her dark eyelashes were long. “My dear Lord Neville, you tease me, no?”
“My dear Princess Eugenia.” Ormsby looked quite ready to drop to his knee before her. “If I were to tease you, you should certainly know that you’d been teased.”
She laughed again, bringing a flush of color to her cheeks. It took quite an accomplished actress to blush on command, and she managed it nicely. Just as she had managed to capture the undivided adoration of every bland, aristocratic dolt in the vicinity with her display. She might have fooled Philip, too, if he hadn’t seen a bit of the world and known a few tricks of his own. He could detect a fraud when he saw one—even one in such a beautiful package as this.
He approached her where she sat on a settee, surrounded by several young men of the best society had to offer. They must have numbered at least half a dozen, two perched on the seat, as close to her as they could get, and several standing in front and behind.
Philip walked up next to the crowd and gave them the insincere smile he knew from experience they all hated. “Well, well, the usual chaps doing the usual things. How utterly usual.”
“And your usual insolence,” said Viscount Aldensham, the shrewdest of the lot of them—which didn’t make him very shrewd at all. “How perfectly insouciant.”
Philip clapped Aldensham on the shoulder. “And you’ve learned a new word, old man. Don’t tax yourself on my account.”
“Fine,” that Charles person said. “Now that the two of you have traded insults, you can leave the rest of us with the princess, Wesley.”
“Princess?” Philip asked. “You lads managed to find a princess all on your own? I’ve underestimated you.”
“Now, see here, Wesley,” Aldensham said.
The woman raised a hand to signal an end to the hostilities. She looked up and studied Philip with clear green eyes. “I’ve not yet had the pleasure, have I, my lord?”
He bowed. “Philip Rosemont, Viscount Wesley, at your service, ma’am.”
“Wesley here’s the son of the Earl of Farnham and imagines himself quite the world traveler,” Ormsby added, ever ready to meddle in things. “This lovely lady is Princess Eugenia d’Armand of Valdastok. And she’s quite taken up with the rest of us at present, so you can carry on with whatever dull thing you were doing when you came in, dear chap.”
Valdastok? Whoever the woman was, she’d decided to pretend to come from there? How amusing. That little duchy in the Balkans currently had one duke and one duchess but no princess whatsoever. None of the other fellows would know that, of course, their minds sufficiently closed to people and things outside their social circle.
Philip had actually visited Valdastok, though, and now he clicked his heels together in the traditional Valdastok greeting and bowed to the pretend princess again.
“Für Gott und Heimat,”
he said. For God and Homeland.
If she knew the first thing about Valdastok, she ought to stand and respond, but instead she simply sat and smiled at him, squirming ever so slightly in her seat. She’d probably never met anyone who’d ever heard of Valdastok before, let alone knew that the national language was German, rather than something Slavic. She had no way of knowing that Philip’s great-great-great-great-any number of greats-uncle had conquered the place some centuries ago.
Most likely, she didn’t even speak her own native tongue. He answered her hesitant smile with a broad one of his own.
“Ihr Frosch ist plötzlich gestorben.”
She laughed lightly, lifting her hand to her throat in a very elegant gesture. “Yes, certainly. Just so.”
She obviously had no idea he’d just told her that her frog had died suddenly. She really ought to have done her research.
“Now, see here, Wesley,” Ormsby said. “There’s no need to use language like that.”
“It’s only German.”
“Quite,” Aldensham said. “And far too harsh for the princess’s delicate hearing.”
“But, I understand that in Valdas…” Philip began.
“Ah, but we are now in England, no?” the woman said quickly, cutting him off midword. “And I do so love your mother tongue. Please to speak English.”
“Of course,” Philip said. “Please forgive me. Perhaps you’d like to dance.”
“With you, Wesley?” Aldensham’s eyebrow went up. “Perhaps the princess would care to hear a tedious geography lesson, too.”
“I’m sure the princess still has room in her head for some intelligent conversation,” Philip said. “Even after spending an evening listening to all of you.”
“Yes, and I’m sure she’d be interested in your recreation of the Dance of the Seven Veils, too,” Aldensham said, as he placed his hand over his mouth where a veil would go and bobbed his head in a schoolboy’s parody of an Eastern dance. The rest of them laughed.
“Very well.” Philip put his hands behind his back and took a wide stance that would make it difficult for any of the party to get past him. “I didn’t want to include the rest of you, but I have a few questions to put to Her Highness about her homeland.”
The woman’s eyes grew wide, and her skin grew quite pale, making a striking contrast with the ebony of her hair. After a moment, she smiled. Or perhaps she only bared her teeth. It was hard to tell.
“Valdastok is such a small, insignificant place,” she said. “Not of interest at all to an English gentleman.”
“To the contrary,” he said. “At the confluence of two major rivers, Valdastok has proven a strategic area for every conqueror moving through. Huns, Goths, Germans, Slavs—any number of nasty hordes.”
“Now, why would the princess want to talk about nasty hordes?” Ormsby demanded.
“Some of them would be her ancestors, I’d imagine.”
She laughed again, only this time the sound bordered on hysterical.
“Now, you’ve done it, you fool,” Aldensham said from between clenched teeth. “You’ve insulted the princess.”
“I had no intention to do so.”
“The devil take you and your intentions,” Aldensham said. “You have all the charm of a fishwife, Wesley, all the delicacy of a beer wagon.”
“I was only trying to make the princess feel at home. No true daughter of Valdastok can bear to leave the soil of her native land for long.” Which was entirely hogwash. Anyone with any sense whatsoever abandoned the cold, dreary place at the first opportunity.
She gave him the sweet, saintly smile of a melancholy compatriot. “The gentleman understands.”
“Then, tell us of your homeland, Princess,” Philip said.
“Yes, do,” Ormsby entreated. “We’d all love to hear.”
The others murmured their agreement, and the woman’s eyes widened as she looked around at them. Her smile turned perfectly desperate—until it was more grimace than grin. Finally, she settled her gaze on Philip. “I think I would like to dance, after all. You would honor me, sir?”
Well, damn him for an idiot. The last thing he’d expected was for her to accept—to walk very literally into the arms of the man who could prove her an impostor. She might not know much about what she was doing, but she didn’t lack for courage, he’d give her that. He bowed. “You honor me, Your Highness.”
“But you promised
the next waltz,” Aldensham protested.
“And you shall have it,” she said. “But the next, next one. Not this next one that came after the last one, but the next one that comes after this next one. This is clear, no?”
Aldensham didn’t look as though it was clear to him at all. His brow furrowed, and he glared at Philip with more than a little outrage in his eyes. “If you say so, Princess. But best to watch yourself with this fellow. He’s not entirely to be trusted.”
“High praise coming from you, old chap.” Philip extended his arm to the princess. “I’ll do my best not to bore you, ma’am.”
She rose and took his arm. “And I could not ask for more.”
Aldensham made a strangled sound in his throat as Philip turned and guided the woman toward the dance floor. She was a tiny thing, with her head barely clearing his shoulder. At his rather considerable height, he’d grown used to accommodating women’s smaller statures, but this one’s size made her appear fragile and in need of tender handling. No doubt it urged all sorts of protective feelings from men, and no doubt she knew how to use those feelings to her advantage. He’d do well to remember that.
“Those gentlemen were rude to you, no?” she asked.
“I was rude to them first. I make it a point to offend people like that with barbs before they can offend me with their tediousness.”
She cocked her head to one side and studied him out of the corner of her eye. “But they say that you are the boring one.”
“Only to the sort whose heart never wanders outside his own sphere of influence. The great mysteries of the East, different peoples, different languages—all that confounds a small mind that can’t see past puddings and corsets and next week’s party. Lord, how they tire me.”
“I would hate to tire you so,” she said. “You should go home, and I’ll go back to my friends.”
She turned to go back to that clutch of fawning males, but he caught her hand and held it. “Those aren’t your friends. They don’t even know who you are. Do they?”
“I am the Princess Eugenia d’Armand of Valdastok,” she said, glaring up at him.
“So you say,” he replied as he gazed into her enormous green eyes. He ought to tell her that he knew her to be a fake. He ought to threaten to expose her as a fraud right then and see how far she’d go to persuade him to keep her little secret. But if he did that, the game would be over, except for the denouement. He could play along for a while—dance with her and watch her delightful, if not very effective, charade and still collect his winnings at the end of the evening.
She tried to pull her hand away, but he held on.
“How stupid of me,” he said. “I have offended you. Please forgive me.”
“I go back to the others now, I think.”
“But you promised me this dance. If you go back, then I shall go back with you, and we can all discuss your homeland together.”
She glanced quickly back toward the others and then him, as if measuring her choices. Neither option pleased her, if he could read her expression correctly. Then she smiled her dishonest smile and batted her eyelashes at him. “The dance, if you please.”
He curled her hand around his arm and started them toward the dance floor again, with its throng of starched men leading bejeweled women in satins and laces of every imaginable color through the dips and swirls of a lilting rhythm. For the life of him, he still couldn’t fathom why she’d agreed to dance—even if she did want to get him away from the others. He’d told her outright he meant to ask her about a place she couldn’t possibly know. She ought to feel frightened that he planned to expose her as a fraud, but instead she walked alongside him with an even tread, her gaze straight ahead at the dancers they would soon join.
She did all that—until they had nearly made it to the parquet floor. Then she stopped suddenly, almost stumbling against him. He reached out an arm to steady her as she raised her hand to her forehead and swayed into his chest.
“Princess?” he asked.
“Oh, my,” she cried softly. “I am so sorry.”
“Are you ill?”
“No, that is yes.” She looked up at him, and her face had gone quite ashen. How did she
that? “That is, it will be nothing. I must only close my eyes for a bit and then take my carriage to home.”
“Allow me to escort you.”
She placed her hand on his arm and took a breath. “Thank you, but no. I cannot abide for a gentleman to see me when I have one of my spells.”