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Authors: Jennifer Ashley

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Penelope & Prince Charming

BOOK: Penelope & Prince Charming
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A PRINCESS IN TRAINING

“Do you still want me to show you what Nvengarians enjoy in bed?” Damien asked.

Penelope looked at him under her lashes, her cheeks flushed. “Yes.”

He felt a tightening in his groin. “I am pleased to hear you say that.”

She lifted her chin, though her eyes were wary. “I hardly want you to run off to another Nvengarian woman because you believe me too hesitant.”

He traced his fingers along her cheek, turning her to face him. “Ah, Penelope. What I have to teach you will take many years to learn. I am patient enough to spend every day teaching you, if need be.” He touched his mouth to Penelope’s upper lip. She hungrily leaned into the kiss, but he pulled away. She sent him a look of frustrated need.

“We’ll do this slowly,” he said. “But do not worry. I will teach you everything…”

Penelope & Prince Charming
Jennifer Ashley

LEISURE BOOKS      
        NEW YORK CITY

For my own Prince Charming.

Prologue

December 1818

His full name was Prince Damien Augustus Frederic Michel of Nvengaria, a title that always caused mild panic. People were afraid they’d have to remember it.

“Call me Damien,” he’d say. “It will save time.”

Women called him
love
and
cherie
and
oh-please-don’t-stop-doing-that
in whatever language they happened to speak.

He had black hair and the dark blue eyes of the people of Nvengaria, an athletic body and skin slightly darker than that of most Europeans. Nvengarian men were reputed to be devoted to the intense pleasure of the women in their beds, and ladies from Belgrade to Heidelberg to London were willing to find out whether this was true.

The woman in Damien’s bed tonight was a Russian countess with blond hair, blue eyes, and a lush body that his own body was vastly enjoying.

His brain, on the other hand, was preoccupied. He had nearly died again this afternoon. But luckily he’d seen the assassin’s knife a split second before it struck. His bodyguard had taken the would-be killer down, and Damien had walked on, pretending to the crowd on the Paris street that his heart wasn’t screaming in his throat.

Hence, the countess.

Her gaze roved the knotted muscles of his biceps and shoulders in admiration. “My prince. My handsome prince.”

Damien lowered himself to her and put his mouth against hers. “Hush.”

She smiled eagerly and licked her lips, her tongue brushing his. “Make me.”

He did. He slanted his mouth across hers, kissing her in burning strokes. His skin dripped sweat in the overheated room, muscles contracting as he moved on her.

The wide mirror on the wall reflected her slender white body nearly hidden under his own bronzed nakedness, the round of his hips rising and falling. Candles blazed around the bed and throughout the sumptuous room, dozens of them, so that if a few burned out, Damien would not be left in the dark.

One candle guttered and smoked, making him want to sneeze. The countess’s noises grew frantic. She tore her mouth from his.
“Damien.”

She lifted her hips, squeezing him hard. This was what he’d been waiting for—to lose himself in the mindlessness of it, to let her pressure on him erase all thought.

He gave a heartfelt groan, disappointment mixed with ecstasy. The intense, wild feeling boiling through him meant he would come down to earth in a second or two, and then it would be over.

He held on as long as he could. Too long, too long.
Damn.
He climaxed with one last thrust while she shrieked and moaned.

It was done. Damien withdrew and crashed onto the bed beside her. His arousal stood out in a sharp angle from his body, slick and wet from their lovemaking. He was already hardening again, nowhere near sated, but blessed, numbing sleep was coming to take him over.

The countess looked at him, smiling lazily. “Oh, my prince. That was the best I ever had.”

He returned the smile, but didn’t answer. She probably exaggerated. His body grew heavy, seeking sleep. Sweet, oblivious sleep.

Before he succumbed, he politely loosened the silk tethers that bound her wrists to the headboard.

She looked disappointed. He briefly kissed her lips, whispered, “Go to sleep,” and then went there himself.

Damien awoke to a sharp knock on his chamber door. He dragged open his eyes and swore softly. By the bright candlelight, he saw that the clock had moved only an hour, and he was still exhausted.

He did not worry that a jealous lover had come calling for the countess. The only person allowed past the antechamber, the only one allowed to knock on the bedchamber door, was Petri, his valet.

If Petri knocked, he must have good reason. Maybe France had gone to war again, and the French king would once more flee into exile. That would make a good excuse for Damien to leave Paris, and he was looking for one.

Spain was nice this time of year. The Spanish court liked him. He could commission another painting from that retired court painter; Goya, that was his name. Damien liked his art. The man had a gift for seeing what was really there.

Or London. He grimaced. No, in London he’d have to visit the Prince Regent, and their last parting had been cool. During Damien’s previous visit, the Regent had overheard someone say of Damien, “Now
he’s
what a prince should be.”

Damien rose from the bed. He absently brushed dried patches of cream from his skin and shrugged on his dressing gown. The countess slept on, her head pillowed on her arm, the blissful sleep of a woman with no conscience.

Damien silently opened the door and slipped into the antechamber.

Petri waited for him with six other men who’d crammed themselves into the little jewel box of a room. All except Petri were dressed in the full livery of the imperial princes of Nvengaria—bright blue coats, blue trousers, black boots, gold epaulettes, polished brass buttons, and medals.

Nvengaria liked to bestow medals. Damien doubted that rulers of other countries cut medals for rescuing the Imperial Prince’s cat from a tree, but Damien’s father had. Damien’s father handed out medals for anything, pretending to be a benevolent man, though no one was foolish enough to believe he was.

Damien recognized the leader of the pack as Misk, the man the Imperial Prince sent to Damien when he had an important message for him, usually a death threat. Misk wore more medals than the other lackeys. Damien wondered how the man could stand up straight with all the metal hanging from his chest.

“Your Highness.” Misk bowed low, medals clanking. “Terrible, grievous news I have.”

Damien waited without alarm. Misk always had terrible, grievous news.

Misk removed a velvet drawstring bag from his pocket. Inside was a small box, inlaid in rosewood and teak in the designs of the imperial family crest.

The box was very old; the sides had been polished with time until the inlay was smooth, the lines of the design blurred.

Misk opened the box and handed it to Damien.

Inside lay a ring. A silver ring, thick and heavy, the flat head bearing the signet of the Imperial Prince of Nvengaria.

“That is my father’s,” Damien said.

“No, Imperial Highness. It is yours. Your father is dead.”

Damien’s heart missed a beat. The father who had imprisoned him, then thrown him into exile, threatening him with death if he so much as looked in Nvengaria’s direction again. Dead and gone.

Damien drew out the ring, held it up to the candlelight. The silver, eight hundred years old, gleamed softly.

The men in the room dropped to their knees.

Damien looked over their bowed heads to the gilded vines lining the walls of the antechamber. He was now the Imperial Prince of Nvengaria.

For one moment, he said nothing. The men waited. He poised on the knife-edge of change—whatever decision he made here would seal his fate forever. No going back.

He closed his fist around the ring. “Petri,” he said softly. “Pack my things.”

Chapter One

England, May 23, 1819

Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened in Little Marching, Oxfordshire.

Ever.

“Where are you off to, darling?” Penelope’s mother, Lady Trask, asked as Penelope and her friend Meagan donned bonnets in the high-ceiling hall of Ashborn Manor, the Trask country home.

Lady Trask stood at the large oval table in the middle of the hall, arranging flowers of varying shapes and clashing colors in a huge oriental vase. Lady Trask often arranged flowers. She also painted with watercolors. She did little else.

Penelope gave her mother a kiss. “To the village. To buy ribbons.”

Lady Trask returned the kiss with a tiny one on Penelope’s cheek, a long-stemmed, early rose in her hand.
“Take one of your books to Mrs. Swanson, dear. She likes your little stories.”

Penelope had already put one of the collections of fairy tales into her basket. “Yes, Mama.”

Lady Trask frowned at the rose. “You will not get white ribbons, will you? You are too old for white.”

“Of course not, Mama,” she said, tying the very brown ribbons of her small, flat bonnet. “I have not worn white in three seasons.”

Lady Trask sighed. “A pity your father died. He could have found you such a rich husband, Penny, dear.”

Penelope drew on her gloves, carefully fitting them over each finger. “You know I have decided not to marry, Mama.”

Penelope’s two betrothals had been disasters. Reuben White, a handsome man about town, had wanted a pliable wife who’d look the other way at his blatant affairs. Magnus Grady, whom she’d thought older, wiser, and safer, had turned out to want a pretty young girl to chase around the drawing room.

Penelope had cried off and been labeled a jilt, then a double-jilt. When her father died, his title and money had passed to her cousins, leaving her and her mother only a small jointure and allowance. Penelope’s dowry had been drained to repay debt, rendering Penelope no longer a catch.

Lady Trask regarded her sorrowfully. “All girls wish to marry rich husbands.”

“If I married, Mama, who would look after you?”

She considered. “Yes, that is a point. But Meagan’s dear papa has been such a comfort.”

That was an understatement. The two girls left the house before they could burst into giggles.

“They’ll marry in a sixmonth, I’ll have a wager on it,” Meagan said as they strolled down the curving drive.

“I put it quicker than that.” Penelope smiled.

They glanced back at the house. Meagan and her father, Michael Tavistock, had come from their home in the north of Oxfordshire to stay a time with the Trasks. Michael Tavistock had been strolling the garden while the two girls readied themselves to go to the village, “Waiting for us to clear out,” Meagan had whispered.

“They’ve worn out one bedstead already,” Meagan observed as they turned to the road that descended to the village. “I do wish they’d get on with it. I am tired of pretending to everyone that they are friends only because you and I are friends.”

“It will be a rest, certainly,” Penelope agreed. “But I believe they enjoy pretending to be illicit lovers.”

“At their age.” Meagan sighed with the wisdom of her nineteen years. “It gives them something to do, I suppose. Little Marching is so dull in the summer. Nothing ever happens here.”

“I like nothing happening,” Penelope replied with conviction. “It is restful. You know that each day will be quiet and slow, just like the one before.”

Meagan snorted. “You say restful. I say dull. Dull, dull, dull. No balls, no soirees, no museums, just Little Marching and home.”

“What you mean is, no men to flirt with.”

“Well, no.” Meagan opened her arms, gesturing to the rolling green hills that stretched to the hazy horizon. “Do you see any men here? None to dance with, to flirt with, to entice into corners—Ah, Penelope, they are fine creatures, men. A little patience, a little coaxing, and they can become quite civilized.”

Penelope studied the white and yellow flowers by the side of the road. “So you say.”

“Oh, come, come, Pen, even you cannot be immune. Tell me that a room full of trousers does not make you melt.”

“Trousers with men in them, I suppose you mean?” She smiled.

Meagan looked dreamy. “Tight trousers. Tight coats on broad shoulders. Hair that makes you want to run wanton fingers through it. A handsome face, a wicked smile. Eyes that make you all shivery and warm at the same time.”

Penelope came out of her doldrums to laugh. “I vow, Meagan, your papa had better get you married off quickly. You are going to burn into a little pile of ashes, and all will wonder at the sad end of poor man-mad Meagan Tavistock.”

“Oh, piffle. I shall marry, but I shall only marry a very handsome gentleman who is madly in love with me.”

“They do not exist, Meagan,” Penelope said quietly. “We marry for money and property and to keep families together. When a gentleman wants love, he goes elsewhere.”

Meagan looked remorseful. “Sorry, Pen. I forgot.”

Penelope’s heart gave a quick, painful beat. “You see, you should learn from my experience. Ladies of our station do not marry for love. It is convenience, that is all, no matter what pretty words they whisper into our ears.”

Pretty words. Seductive murmurs. False, all of it.
Come to me, love, so that I can put an heir in my nursery, then run about with my favorite mistress and ignore you.
Thank heavens she’d found out the truth before the ring had been on her finger.

“Not all men are like Mr. White,” Meagan said. “You were unlucky.”

“But they are, my dear,” Penelope answered. “Admire them all you want, but be aware of the truth. They want to marry for money and connections, nothing more. Handsome princes do not sweep in and take ordinary girls to their faraway kingdoms, except in stories. Real princes have double chins and marry for politics.”

She closed her mouth, her tongue having flapped too long.

Meagan pursed her lips. She knew the story of Penelope’s troubles, but Meagan insisted that both events had been aberrations. Young, pretty, red-haired Meagan had much to learn. Gentlemen just could not be trusted.

And so, Penelope was perfectly content to live out her life in Little Marching in the middle of Oxfordshire, where nothing remotely interesting ever happened.

Ever.

“Is this the village?”

His Imperial Highness, Prince Damien Augustus Frederic Michel of Nvengaria lifted the coach’s curtain with a weary hand.

“Little Marching, Oxfordshire,” the small, bearded man next to him said. “I am afraid it is, Your Highness.”

BOOK: Penelope & Prince Charming
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