Penelope and Prince Charming – Jennifer Ashley

December 1818 His full name was Prince Damien Augustus Frederic Michel of Nvengaria, which often caused mild panic. “Call me Damien,” he’d say with a warm smile. “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. Damien had black hair and the dark blue eyes of the people of Nvengaria, a body honed by riding, walking, and sword fighting, and skin more tanned than that of many 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 proved true. The woman in Damien’s bed tonight was a Russian countess with blue eyes and a lush body that Damien’s own body was vastly enjoying. His thoughts, on the other hand, were elsewhere. Damien had nearly been killed today … again. Luckily he’d seen the assassin’s knife a split second before it had struck. His bodyguard had taken the man down, and Damien had walked on, pretending to the crowd on the cold Paris street that his heart hadn’t been banging in his throat. He’d relieved his tension by ordering a large bottle of champagne in the hotel’s dining room and smiling at the blond countess who’d smiled readily in return. Later, Damien had led her upstairs to relieve the rest of his tension. “My prince,” she said from the pillows. “My so handsome prince.

” Damien put his mouth to hers. “Hush.” She gave him a sly look and licked his lips. “Make me.” Damien growled as he silenced her with a deep kiss. His body dripped sweat in the overheated room, his muscles tightening as he slid himself inside her. The wide mirror on the wall reflected the woman’s pale body amid red coverlets, her arms stretched over her head, and Damien’s bronzed nakedness on top of her, 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 in the dark. One candle guttered and smoked, making Damien want to sneeze. The countess’s noises grew frantic, and she tore her mouth from his.

“Damien.” She lifted her hips, her thrusts meeting his. This was what Damien had been waiting for—to lose his worries in the mindlessness of coupling, to bury himself inside the countess and erase all other thought. He gave a heartfelt groan, which was half release, half disappointment. The intense, wild feeling of the moment meant he’d come down to earth in a second or two, and then it would be over. Damien held on as long as he could. Too soon, too soon. Damn. He finished with one last thrust, while the countess moaned and squirmed beneath him. It was done.

Damien withdrew and crashed onto the bed beside her, his breath coming fast. He was already hardening again, nowhere near sated, but blessed, numbing sleep rushed at him. The countess gave him a languid smile. “Oh, my prince. It’s never been like that before.” Damien returned the smile but didn’t answer. She likely told this to every man whose bed she went to. Damien’s body grew heavy, everything in him seeking sleep—sweet, oblivious, sleep … Before he succumbed, Damien politely loosened the silk tethers that bound the countess’s wrists to the headboard. When she expressed her disappointment, Damien briefly kissed her lips. “Go to sleep,” he whispered, and then went there himself.

A sharp knock on his chamber door made Damien drag open his eyes. By the bright candlelight, he saw that the clock had moved only an hour, and he was still exhausted. Damien didn’t worry that a jealous lover or husband had come for the countess, because the only person allowed past the antechamber without Damien’s invitation was Petri, his valet. No one but Petri was even allowed to knock. And Petri never, ever disturbed Damien unless the need was dire. Maybe France had gone to war again, Damien thought as he pried himself out of bed and reached for his dressing gown. A war would give Damien a good excuse to leave Paris, and he was looking for one. Spain was beautiful this time of year. The Spanish court always welcomed him, and he could commission another painting from that retired painter—Goya; that was his name. Damien liked Goya’s art.

The man had a gift for seeing what was really there. Or London … No. Damien stopped the thought. In London, he would have to visit the Prince Regent, and their last parting had been cool. During his previous visit, the Regent had overheard someone say of Damien, “Now he’s what a prince should be,” and had been highly insulted. Damien had nearly fought a duel with one of the prince’s sycophants over it and had avoided the appointment only by smooth flattery and practiced charm. No, he’d not go to London and become sucked into that tedium again. Damien brushed dried patches of whipped cream from his skin as he shrugged on his dressing gown. The countess slept on, her head pillowed on her arm, lost in the blissful sleep of a woman with no conscience. Petri waited for him in the antechamber 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 Prince of Nvengaria—dark blue coats with gold epaulettes, dark blue breeches and black boots, polished brass buttons, and rows of medals. Many medals, because the Imperial Princes of Nvengaria enjoyed bestowing them. Damien doubted that rulers of other countries cut medals for the rescue of an Imperial Prince’s cat from a tree, but Damien’s father did. Damien’s father handed out medals for anything—he thought it made him look like a benevolent man, though no one was foolish enough to believe this. Damien recognized the leader of the pack, a hardened soldier called Misk. Misk was the man Damien’s father sent whenever he had an important message, quite often a death threat. Damien’s father sent his son many death threats, and likely had been responsible for the assassin’s attempt on Damien today. Misk wore more medals than the others, and Damien absently wondered how the man could stand upright with all the metal hanging from his chest. “Your Highness.” Misk bowed low.

“Terrible, grievous news I bring.” Misk always had terrible, grievous news. Unworried, Damien gave him a nod. Misk reached into his pocket, removed a velvet drawstring bag, and took from this a small wooden box with the Nvengarian imperial family crest inlaid in rosewood and teak. The box was very old, polished with time until the inlay was worn. Misk opened the box and handed it to Damien. Inside, on a bed of velvet, lay a silver ring, thick and heavy, bearing the signet of the Imperial Princes of Nvengaria. Damien’s alarm at last stirred. He pinned Misk with a sharp stare. “This ring belongs to my father.

” “No, Imperial Highness,” Misk said, a mixture of grief and anger in his eyes. “It is yours. Your father is dead.” Damien remained still, the strange shock that rippled through him not letting him react. The Imperial Prince, the man who’d imprisoned Damien then thrown him into exile, who’d threatened his own son with execution if he so much as looked in Nvengaria’s direction again—dead and gone. Damien was now the Imperial Prince of Nvengaria. He drew a sharp breath and lifted the ring from the box. The ring’s silver, eight hundred years old, gleamed softly in the candlelight. Every man in the room, including Misk, dropped to their knees. Damien gazed across their bowed heads to the gilded vines lining the walls of the Parisian antechamber.

So far from home was this modern city of Damien’s exile, so different from the ancient one of his ancestors. Here were his two choices: Accept the ring and rule Nvengaria as was his birthright, or throw the ring at Misk and tell him to find some other fool to take over the pocket-sized principality. The men remained motionless, waiting for Damien to tell them what to do. To command them, to rule them. Damien stood 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.” E C H A P T E R 2 ngland, May 1819 Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened in Little Marching, Oxfordshire.

Ever. May the twenty-third, 1819, Penelope’s friend Meagan sighed when it was all over. I will never forget that day as long as I live. The morning dawned as an ordinary one, spring in rural England, with wildflowers pushing up through green grasses, an arch of blue sky, soft air and sunshine. Meagan and her father had come to visit and were now staying in Ashborn Manor, the Trask country home. “Where are you off to, darlings?” Penelope’s mother, Lady Trask, asked as Penelope and Meagan donned cloaks and gloves in the high-ceilinged hall. Lady Trask stood at the large oval table in the center of the hall, arranging flowers of varying shapes and clashing colors in a huge oriental vase. She was good at arranging flowers, hostessing at-homes, pouring tea, and generally being decorative. Penelope went to her mother and kissed her cheek. “We are walking to the village to buy ribbons for our new summer gowns.

Shall I bring you something?” Lady Trask returned the kiss, a long-stemmed, early rose in her hand. “Very sweet of you to ask, dear. I need only yourself.” She turned back to the flowers, then called over her shoulder, “Oh, be sure to take one of your books to Mrs. Swanson. She enjoys your little stories.” Penelope had already put one of her collections of fairy tales into her basket. “I will, Mama.” Lady Trask frowned at the rose and attempted to fit it into the vase. “You will not get white ribbons, will you, Penelope, dear? You are too old for white.

” “Of course not,” Penelope said, unoffended as she tied the very brown ribbons of her bonnet. “I have not worn white in three seasons.” Lady Trask heaved a sigh, not looking away from her task. “A pity your father died. He could have found you a rich husband in a trice, my poor darling.” Penelope drew on her gloves, carefully fitting them over each finger to hide the sudden tightness in her chest. “You know I have decided not to marry, Mama.” Penelope’s two betrothals had been disasters. Reuben White, a handsome man-abouttown, had desired a pliable wife who’d look the other way at his blatant affairs. Magnus Grady, whom Penelope had thought older, wiser, and safer, had simply wanted a pretty young girl to chase around the drawing room.

Penelope had cried off both engagements. She’d been labeled a jilt, then a double-jilt. No gentleman would trust her now, Lady Trask’s friends predicted. When Penelope’s father died from his long illness, his title and money had passed to his distant cousin, leaving Penelope’s mother only a small jointure and permission to live on the estate for her lifetime. The cousin, a modern young man who loved travel, had no intention of rusticating in the family seat, and so generously said that Penelope and her mother might as well have use of the main house, where they continued to live. Lady Trask turned from the flowers to regard Penelope in surprise. “Nonsense. All girls wish to marry rich husbands.” Penelope flashed her mother a sudden smile. Lady Trask had not been gifted with a great intellect, though she could be astonishingly shrewd at times.

You must watch over her, Penelope’s father had instructed. She’s a pretty creature and always will be, but she needs care. Penelope had promised her father, four years ago as he lay dying, that she’d take up the burden of making certain Lady Trask was looked after. “If I married, Mama, who would take care of you?” Penelope asked in a bright voice. “Yes, that is a point.” Lady Trask’s face softened. “Though Meagan’s dear papa has been such a comfort.” Penelope exchanged a glance with Meagan. Meagan’s expression was too merry, and Penelope shunted her out of the house before the two of them could collapse into laughter. “They’ll marry in a six-month, I’ll wager,” Meagan said, gasping in mirth as they hastened down the drive.

“I put it quicker than that,” Penelope said. They glanced at the house behind them. Meagan’s father had been strolling the garden while they 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 keeping up the ruse that they are only dear friends, when everyone knows differently.” “It will be a relief when they marry, certainly,” Penelope said. “Though I believe they enjoy pretending to be illicit lovers.” “Fancy that, at their age.

” Meagan shook her head with the wisdom of her nineteen years. “It gives them some excitement, 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 rolled her eyes. “Restful, you say. I say dull.

Dull, dull, dull. No balls, no soirees, no museums, just Little Marching and home.” Penelope couldn’t help her smile. “What you mean is, no gentlemen to flirt with.” “Well, no.” Meagan swept her hands to the green hills that rolled to the hazy horizon. “Do you see any gentlemen about? None to dance with, to smile at. Ah, Penelope, they are fine creatures, gentlemen. 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, Penelope, even you cannot be immune. Tell me that a room full of tight trousers does not make you melt.” Penelope let out a laugh. One reason she adored Meagan was her ability to pull her out of the doldrums. “Trousers with gentlemen in them, I suppose you mean?” “Of course I do. Fine coats on broad shoulders. Hair a bit tousled, a handsome face, a wicked smile. Eyes that make you shivery and warm at the same time.” Penelope shook her head.

“I vow, Meagan, your papa had better get you married off quickly. You will burn into a pile of ashes, and all will wonder at the sad end of poor Meagan Tavistock.” “Piffle. I shall marry, but only to a very handsome gentleman who is madly in love with me.” “Such a man does not exist, Meagan,” Penelope said, her exuberance dimming. “Young ladies like us marry for money and property and to keep families together. When a gentleman wants love, he goes elsewhere.” Meagan’s amusement faded. “Forgive me, Pen, I didn’t mean to remind you. Your fiancés were horrid, and I shall never forgive them for treating you so.

” Penelope’s heart gave a quick, painful beat. “You are very kind, but you should learn from my experience. Ladies of our station do not marry for love. We marry for convenience, no matter what pretty words a gentleman might whisper into our ears.” Charming phrases. Seductive murmurs. False, all of it. Marry me, love, so that you can put an heir in my nursery while I run about with my mistresses and ignore you. Thank heavens Penelope had found out the truth before she’d had a wedding ring on her finger. “Not all gentlemen are like Mr.

White and Mr. Grady,” Meagan said quickly. “You were unlucky.”

.

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