Read Princess Ever After (Royal Wedding Series) Online

Authors: Rachel Hauck

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BOOK: Princess Ever After (Royal Wedding Series)
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“I mean it,” he said, stroking her jaw gently with the tips of his fingers.

“Mark,”—she lowered his hand away from her face—“you are one of my best friends—”

“Stop.” He flashed his palm past her gaze. “I’m hungry. Let’s eat. My mouth’s been watering for some of that fish since before we got here.” He grabbed her hand. “Let’s say hello to McCandless.”

“Not letting me say it doesn’t change anything, you know.”

He stopped midstride and faced her. “We’re alike . . . you and me. Wounded in some way by life. Me with my dad walking out and Mom working two, three jobs to keep food on the table. You with your mom being killed when you were twelve. Yet we’ve made something of ourselves. At least you did for a while. Until this car business. I count it as some kind of young life crisis—”

“I’m not in a crisis. Mark, you don’t listen. This is the life I want. I followed Daddy’s advice for my education and training, but that season is over. Now I’m following my heart.”

“Old cars? Are you kidding me?” He reached for her. “We’d be a power couple, Reg. Your knack for numbers and dealing with people, my gift for sniffing out good investments and deals.”

“Does love factor into your equation at all?” She brushed past him, heading for the food table. He could greet McCandless on his own. Not with her in tow as part of his future power couple.

She was right earlier this evening. She’d found bliss, even a bit of love, behind the wheel of a ’71 Dodge Challenger. And for now, that’s where she’d keep her heart.

March 2, 1914

Meadowbluff Palace

It’s been a year since Father’s untimely and sad death. Mamá, Esmé, and I are still lost without his large, comforting presence, but we have some joy and laughter again.

Mamá keeps busy with her duties as does Uncle Francis, the reluctant duke, as Mamá calls him.

He is rather fond of me as I am his heir apparent. Mamá worries his affection and desire for me to be Grand Duchess has kept him from choosing a bride and siring children. But I believe he never married because he still loves Lady Rosamond.

Uncle never speaks of it, but I believe she crushed his heart, turning down his marriage proposal the way she did, then dying so soon after. Poor Uncle!

So he dotes on me, as well as Esmé. He’s done so ever since I can remember, long before he was the Grand Duke of Hessenberg.

I do believe he’s missing Papá and Grandfather as of late. He seems quite troubled after his goodwill tour to Russia and Germany to visit Cousin Nicholas and Cousin Wilhelm. Since his return, I sense his heavy heart. He walks the halls with his head down, his hands locked behind his back. He used to be so merry, full of gaiety, coming around for Esmé and me to listen to his beloved ragtime on the Victrola.

He’s retained a new scribe, a young university chap, Otto Pritchard.
Not being able to read and write troubles Uncle more than Lady Rosamond’s rebuff, I do believe. Though he never speaks of either.

This morning he sailed to Brighton to meet Cousin Nathaniel, then on to London to see Cousin George.

Mamá whispered to me over tea that Lord Chamberlain believes war is brewing. She’s been rising early and taking a carriage to St. John’s Chapel. In the afternoons, before tea, she sits by the parlor fire with her Bible in her lap, rocking, her lips moving in silent prayer. Uncle believes faith is for the weak. Mamá says faith is for the strong because it takes a hearty heart to believe what is unseen. The eyes of our hearts tell our minds what the Spirit is saying.

As for me, I’m burdened by the load Uncle and Mamá carry, but I continue in my studies at Scarborough. Uncle insists Esmé and I have our education so we can “run with the lads,” as he likes to say. Mamá thinks him too progressive, but I rather like scholastics and am doing quite well in Mathematics.

I suppose I’ll end writing in my journal here. The aroma of Berta’s fresh cakes reaches my room, and now I’m famished. After all, it is teatime
.

Then I must study. French is giving me such a bother!

Alice

TWO

T
anner Burkhardt rather enjoyed when September’s white-gray clouds and soft drizzling rain descended upon Strauberg, Hessenberg’s capital city. And this rainy Wednesday was no exception.

With a small box under his arm, he walked from his car toward the side entrance of Wettin Manor, the former city home of what had been Hessenberg’s royal family. Now it was the capital’s government center.

The chill in the wet air reminded him of his boyhood. Of dashing through the parish front door into the aroma of Mum’s simmering beef stew and baking biscuits.

But those days were long gone, and he only allowed himself an occasional reminiscent journey into the past when fall first rolled round. Otherwise, he avoided looking back. The days and years were too painful, littered with the debris of his foolishness.

Tanner entered the manor, his heels tapping on the sparkling marble floors, and bounded up the stairs to his fourth-floor office. Navigating the ancient and hallowed halls, passing under the lancet arches, he shook the rain from his overcoat and brushed the drops from his long hair.

He considered again that perhaps his dad was right—as much
as it pained him to admit it—the time for his long locks ended when he played his last rugby match.

But the look fared well for him when he was a young barrister, and Tanner’s style became a symbol of his success, rather than a reminder of his failure.

Long hair was one luxury he could afford after the incident with Trude. After leaving seminary.

And now, as Hessenberg’s Minister of Culture, he’d succeeded in putting all of his failures behind him. Had he not?

Tanner caught his thin reflection in the glass of a corridor picture frame.

Perhaps someday he’d cut his hair. But not today. Or tomorrow. His hair reminded him to be diligent and focused lest he forget the depths of his depravity.

Back to his external tasks . . .

His morning at the museum had gone well. He was rather pleased with the Saxon Museum curator’s organization of the Augustine-Saxon royals in the main hall. As the newly appointed Minister of Culture, Tanner lent the exhibit his seal of approval. Save one: the Renoir of Princess Alice.

Tanner requested that her painting be hung at Meadowbluff Palace. After all, the palace was the princess’s last home before her uncle, the Grand Duke, surrendered Hessenberg to Brighton at the beginning of World War I without a shot being fired, then fled the country with his family members in the dark of night.

It felt right, returning the princess, the last heir to the throne, to her palace.

And with the end of Hessenberg’s entailment with Brighton approaching, the hunt for Princess Alice’s heir would produce a living, breathing person and return the House of Augustine-Saxon to the palace’s hallowed grounds.

Rounding the corner toward his office, Tanner met his assistant, Louis, in the corridor.

“There you are.” Louis fell in step with Tanner, his ever-present mini e-tablet in hand. “I’ve been ringing you.”

“I left my phone in the car while in the museum.” Tanner reached inside his breast pocket for his mobile as he crossed into his office, slipping from his overcoat and draping it and his suit jacket over the coatrack, and set down the box. “What’s so urgent?”

Tanner lifted the lid of the box, taking out one half of a torn photo. Princess Alice, young, smiling, emanating her classic beauty, her left arm—or what Tanner could make of her arm—linked to another. By the edge of the sleeve, he guessed the princess’s partner to be a young man.

He flipped the image over. The writing was faded. And also torn.

—edrich

—14

—alace

“Are you listening to me?” Louis bent over the desk. “What have you there?”

“Nothing. A box I found in one of the palace suites.”

“Rather boring box, don’t you think?” Louis angled for a closer look at the smooth brown wood.

“Yes, rather boring.” Lonely, actually. Tanner felt sorry for the old box, abandoned at the palace. He thought it belonged to one of the cleaning crew until he opened it.

Then he knew. It belonged to the princess.

“Are you ready to go over your diary?” Louis said, holding up his iPad calendar for Tanner to see.

“Go on.” Sitting at his desk, with one eye on Louis and one on his computer screen, Tanner listened to his daily schedule—as read by Louis Batten.

Meeting with the university cultural department.

Review of the art festival sponsors and vendors.

Assign speechwriter for his address to the Center of European Art Preservation.

As Tanner listened, a disturbance rumbled in his soul, rocking his sense of harmony and balance. But what? So far, all seemed well. Perfectly typical.

Maybe it was the box. Maybe it was his fixation the last few months on the former royal family of Hessenberg.

Six months ago, the newly crowned His Majesty, King Nathaniel II of Brighton, appointed Tanner Minister of Culture with the primary goal of preparing the Grand Duchy of Hessenberg to be an independent, sovereign nation again as the one-hundred-year entail between Brighton and Hessenberg was coming to an end.

The king was determined to find a solution to the entail’s ardent, ironclad stipulation. There must be an heir to Hessenberg’s Augustine-Saxon throne for the island duchy to be free from Brighton.

If not, the Grand Duchy of Hessenberg would become a permanent province of Brighton and cease to be its own nation.

Just thinking of it gave Tanner heart palpitations—a yearning to see his country remain . . . a country. He wanted his beloved Hessenberg to go on for another thousand years. A sapphire gem in the North Sea.

“—and I pushed off the meeting with the Young Artists until next week.” With that, Louis perched on the side of Tanner’s desk, smiling, pleased with himself. “Tally ho, as my old uncle would say. On with the day.”

“Right, tally ho.”

“So what did the curator do with the Renoir of Princess Alice?” The aide had fallen in love with the painting of the last Princess of Hessenberg every bit as much as Tanner.

No more than sixteen at the time of the painting, the princess posed in a spring meadow, wearing a white summer gown.

Wisps of her brilliant red hair feathered across her cheeks
and her blue eyes were eager and innocent,
hopeful.
Most likely she had no knowledge that war loomed or that her uncle, Prince Francis, was ill prepared to fight.

Tanner liked the painting because it touched him in the hidden place of his heart. It made him . . .
feel.

“I sent it to the palace. Where it belongs.”

Louis let out a low whistle. “I bet the curator didn’t care for that decision. The only bright and beautiful painting of someone in the royal family sent off, leaving him with dark, somber ancient dukes and duchesses whose expressions have all the merriment of sitting on a straight pin or drinking bitter dregs.”

Tanner laughed. “He said much the same, but the princess’s portrait is not big enough for a museum wall. The others are eight to ten feet. Hers is no more than five. She belongs in the palace. Maybe in the suite we’ve set up for the coming princess.”

Tanner sat back and began to roll up his shirtsleeves, his heart’s eye still viewing the painting of Alice stored in his memory.

Feel
. Like he must protect her. Like he must protect Hessenberg.

He’d failed miserably at his last call to be a protector, when it mattered most. Now that he had a chance to do something for his country, perhaps even for the memory of Princess Alice and her scattered generation, he’d do it. And with his whole heart.

“Speaking of the palace,”—Louis tapped on the tablet’s screen—“the house manager you hired, Jarvis, made his recommendations for the rest of the staff. Shall I set up interviews?”

“Let’s wait. We’ve no idea where we are in the search for Princess Alice’s heir.” The king kept him apprised since he’d launched an investigation, but so far all they knew was that the heir was most likely an American. All other avenues and leads had been dead ends.

BOOK: Princess Ever After (Royal Wedding Series)
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