Read Almost a Princess Online

Authors: Elizabeth Thornton

Tags: #Fiction

Almost a Princess

Lavish praise for the books of ELIZABETH THORNTON

THE PERFECT PRINCESS

“Winning . . . lots of action and a very neat twist . . .”


Booklist

“A joy to read!”


Romantic Times

“Steamy sex scenes, fiery repartee and strong characters set this romantic intrigue apart from the usual Regency fare.”


Publishers Weekly

 

PRINCESS CHARMING

“Delightfully entertaining”


Philadelphia Inquirer

“Ms. Thornton excels at writing a steamy, passionate tale of love and
Princess Charming
gives you all that and more in this fast-paced historical romantic suspense.”


Romantic Times

 

STRANGERS AT DAWN

“An out-of-the-ordinary murder mystery set in the early 1800s with lots of suspects and a lovely romance.”


The Dallas Morning News

“Thornton has been a long-time favorite thanks to her well-told tales of intrigue peppered with sizzling romance and
Strangers at Dawn
is among the best.”


The Oakland Press

“With her talent as a superb storyteller, Elizabeth Thornton skillfully blends suspense, murder, and a powerful love story into a jewel of a book.”


Romantic Times

 

WHISPER HIS NAME

“Thornton creates appealing characters and cleverly weaves in familiar Regency settings and customs.”


Publishers Weekly

“Ms. Thornton has delivered. This is a terrific book from cover to cover. The dynamic plot and characters will thrill and delight. Bravo!”


Rendezvous

“Thornton scribes another terrific tale that sub-genre fans will take immense pleasure reading. The action-packed story line is a thrill a page without scrimping on a warm romance. Very Highly Recommended.”


Harriet Klausner

 

YOU ONLY LOVE TWICE

“This book is an absolute joy to read. I loved every minute of it! We are given humor, a murderer, sensuality, scintillating dialogue, and characters to cheer for. What more could you want?”


Rendezvous

“If you love mystery, murder, and mayhem along with your romance, then
You Only Love Twice
will be your cup of tea.”


Romantic Times

 

THE BRIDE’S BODYGUARD

“Cleverly plotted intrigue.”


Publishers Weekly

“This witty Regency romance/mystery will keep you up all night.”


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A rich, satisfying blend of suspense and passion.”


Brazosport Facts

 

More praise for ELIZABETH THORNTON

 

“Elizabeth gives you delicious stories filled with mystery, sensual romance, and dynamite characters. I have been reading this woman’s wonderful stories for years and years. I hope she never stops writing.”


The Belles and Beaux of Romance

“Fast-paced and full of surprises, Thornton’s latest novel is an exciting story of romance, mystery, and adventure . . . a complex plot that exuberantly carries the reader. Thornton’s firm control of her plot, her graceful prose, and her witty dialogue make
Dangerous to Kiss
a pleasure to read.”


Publishers Weekly
on
Dangerous to Kiss

 

 

He looked into her face, trying to gauge her feelings. “Look at me!” he said fiercely, and he cupped her chin to bring her eyes up to meet his. She seemed fragile, and that surprised him.

Her gloved fingers splayed over his chest. “No,” she whispered.

His lips curved. “What are you saying no to?”

What was in his eyes; the way her heart jarred; the sudden realization that she wasn’t as immune to him as she thought she was.

His hand moved to her neck, his fingers tightened. She knew she should pull back. Instead, she lifted her face to him. His lips were warm, tasting, not taking. She felt her mouth opening to the gentle pressure of his. She couldn’t think, didn’t want to think.

Prologue

London, October 1816

The body was still warm. Officer Rankin turned up his coat collar to protect his neck from the drizzle that was beginning to turn to sleet. Not only was the weather wretched, but Hyde Park at night gave him the shudders.

He went down on his haunches and held his lantern high to get a better look. In his long career, he’d investigated many murders, but he’d never seen anything like this. The victim was roped to the trunk of a tall oak and had fallen forward at the instant of death so that the ropes sagged with his weight. He’d been shot at close range behind his left ear, and his neckcloth was soaked with blood.

Rankin looked up and beckoned to his assistant, a new recruit to the Bow Street Office, who looked as though he might be sick. This was Willis’s first night on the job, and Rankin was wishing that they’d been called out to a housebreaking and not a murder.

After a slight hesitation, Willis sank down beside his superior and stared fixedly at the murdered man. Behind them, crowding a little closer for a better view, were the night watch and the elegant young gentleman who had raised the alarm.

“Nasty,” said the night watch. He wasn’t squeamish about sudden death. As a veteran of the Spanish Campaign, he had seen much worse than this.

Rankin said nothing. In his mind’s eye, he was trying to see how the murder was done. The victim was on his knees, bound at the ankles, with his hands tied behind his back. There were no obvious signs of a struggle, but it was hard to tell in that Stygian darkness. His chin was sunk on his chest, and it was impossible to see if there were other injuries on his face—bruises, broken bones—without raising his head. Mindful of Willis’s squeamishness, Rankin decided to leave well enough alone until the police doctor arrived.

He couldn’t tell how old the victim was, but he could tell from his garments that he had money to spare. He was well dressed, but not what Rankin would call fashionable, not like Mr. Hastings, the gentleman who had roused them from the warmth of the Watch House to investigate the shot he’d heard coming from the park, just inside the Stanhope Gate.

Rankin got to his feet and turned to speak to Hastings. “After you ’eard the shot, what did you do, sir?”

“I ran to the gate.”

“And it was open?”

“Someone had smashed the lock.” Hastings was looking over Rankin’s shoulder, staring at the victim as he spoke. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like an execution.”

The night watch answered him. “They did that to traitors in Spain, the partisans, I mean. It didn’t matter if you was a man or a woman. And sometimes they did worse, cut out your tongue, or cut off your ears or hands, before they killed you.”

Rankin’s assistant got up. His young face was pale and pinched. Rankin breathed noisily and flashed a warning look at the night watch.
Stow it,
his look said,
or young Willis won’t last the night.

He spoke to Hastings. “Did you enter the park after you ’eard the shot, sir?”

Hastings shook his head. “Well, that is to say, I may have taken a step inside the gates, but I thought better of it.” He laughed nervously. “And I knew the Watch House was just up the road, so I went straight there.”

“Did you ’ear or see anything after the shot was fired?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid.” He gestured to the distant lights of the Oxford Road. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, Officer. I’m having dinner with friends and I’m already late.”

“I’m sorry sir,” said Rankin as inoffensively as possible, “but I must ask you to go with the night watch to Bow Street to make a statement.” Then to the night watch. “ ’Ave them send the wagon and the doctor. Stanhope Gate, mind.”

Hastings’s pleasantly modulated voice suddenly turned fractious. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question. I told you. I’m late for an appointment. I really must be going.”

Rankin let out a long, patient sigh. He hated dealing with the upper classes, West-end gents who would no more think of heeding a humble officer of the law than they would their own servants. There was only one way to make an impression on them.

“If you refuse to go with the night watch,” he said, in the same inoffensive voice, “I shall be forced to arrest you, sir, and you wouldn’t want that. Think how it would look to your friends.”

It was outrageous! Rankin’s superiors would get to hear of it! And so on and so on. Rankin had heard it all before. He nodded sympathetically, but he held his ground, and with no more than a savage curse, Hastings capitulated.

“Now,” said Rankin when he and Willis were alone, “let’s take a closer look.”

In one of the victim’s pockets, they found a bill from a butcher in Bayswater addressed to Mr. John Collier, and a leather purse with a few coins. In the other pocket, they found only a small, round pebble.

Rankin stared at that pebble for a long time. He looked at the body again.

“What d’you think, guv?” asked Willis.

“I think,” said Rankin slowly, “that whoever murdered Mr. Collier, if this is Mr. Collier, is sending a message to someone.”

It seemed to him that this might well be a case for Special Branch.

Not that the magistrates would agree with him. Special Branch was something new, a unit that was set up to combat terrorism and assist local authorities with difficult cases. Trouble was, those glamorous Special Branch agents always thought they knew best and didn’t care whose toes they stepped on. That, as was to be expected, stirred up bad feeling. It was hard to believe sometimes that Bow Street and Special Branch were on the same side.

No. The magistrates wouldn’t rush to call in Special Branch.

Sighing, he slipped the pebble into his pocket.

Chapter 1

November 1816

It was moving day for the members of the Ladies’ Library in Soho Square. Their lease had run out, and one of their staunchest supporters, Lady Mary Gerrard, had offered her mansion in the Strand. The house was buzzing as an army of ladies and their helpers set to work to transform their new quarters, room by room, from a palatial residence to a library with lecture rooms, reading rooms, and a bright and airy tearoom.

Caspar Devere, Lord Castleton, better known to his friends as Case, stood just inside the marble entrance hall, taking it all in. He was a harshly handsome man, thirtyish, well above average height, with dark hair and gray, gray eyes that, for the moment, were distinctly amused.

He left his hat and gloves on a hall table and wandered into the main salon. Some of the men who were helping the ladies were known to him, and that made him smile. Not many gentlemen wanted it known that their wives or sisters were members here.

As the Viscount Latham passed close by carrying a chair, Case called out, “Freddie, where can I find Lady Octavia?”

On seeing the earl, Latham registered surprise, quickly followed by amusement. In a stage whisper, he replied, “I won’t tell anyone I saw you here, Case, if you don’t tell anyone about me.” Then in a normal voice, “Try next door. That’s where she has set up her headquarters.”

Case wandered into another salon, and there she was, the library’s founder and driving force, Lady Octavia Burrel. Dressed all in white in something that closely resembled a toga, with matching turban, she directed her small army as they came to her for their orders. Though there was much coming and going, there was very little confusion.

Case was not here to help but for information, and when the crush around Lady Octavia thinned, he quickly crossed to her. He was sure of his welcome because he’d known her for as long as he could remember. She and his great-aunt were close friends.

When she saw him, her chubby face lit up with pleasure. “Lord Castleton,” she said. “This is a surprise! I had no idea you were interested in our cause.”

As Case well knew, there was a lot more to the Ladies’ Library than its innocent name implied. The cause to which Lady Octavia referred was to improve the lot of women by changing the antiquated marriage and property laws of England. It was also involved, so rumor went, in helping runaway wives evade their husbands. In some circles, Lady Octavia and her volunteers were seen as subversives. In the clubs he attended, they were frequently the butt of masculine laughter. But there were others who supported the aims of Lady Octavia and her League of Ladies. His aunt was one of them. He had never given the matter much thought.

“I suppose,” said Lady Octavia, “I have your aunt to thank for sending you to help us?”

He avoided a direct answer. “I left her in Soho Square, directing things there. I’m looking for Miss Mayberry. My aunt told me she might be here.”

“She’s in the pantry. Turn left and take the green baize door at the end of the hall.”

As Case walked away, Lady Octavia’s gaze trailed him. He was easy to look upon, she reflected, this young man who appeared to have everything. As heir to his father, the Duke of Romsey, wealth, privilege, and position were already his, and it showed, not in arrogance exactly, but in something close to it. But it wasn’t unattractive, just the opposite, especially to women. And now that he’d turned thirty and had finally taken up the courtesy title of earl, as befitted a duke’s heir, he was even more attractive to women.

There wasn’t the woman born, his aunt had told her, who could resist Caspar, more’s the pity. It would do him the world of good to taste rejection. Lady Octavia wondered how Lord Castleton had come to meet Jane Mayberry. Jane didn’t go into society much. When she was in town, she went to lectures and concerts and the opera, especially the opera. Jane was very fond of music. Maybe that was where she had met the earl.

She frowned when another thought occurred to her. Lord Castleton and his volatile mistress, La Contessa, had recently parted company.

She dithered, debating with herself whether she should go after him, to chaperon Jane, when Mrs. Bradley came up and said that she was wanted in the old earl’s library.

This request cleared Lady Octavia’s brain. She was letting her imagination run away with her. The poor man was just trying to help.

He found her in the first room past the green baize door. She hadn’t heard him enter, so he took a moment to study her. She was perched on a chair, on tiptoe, fiddling with crockery on the top shelf of a cupboard. The first thing he noticed were a pair of nicely turned ankles. Unfortunately, they were encased in blue woolen stockings. He should have guessed. He’d made a few inquiries about Jane Mayberry and had learned, among other things, that she was a very clever young woman. Clever women, Lady Octavia and his Aunt Sophy among them, wore blue stockings as a badge of honor, a kind of declaration that their minds were set on higher things.
Bluestocking
was a derogatory term that had been coined to describe such women, and they wore that like a badge of honor, too.

Her fine woolen gown was a muddy green, “olive” his mistress would have called it, but it was not a color he particularly liked. All the same, it suited the honey-gold hair streaked blond by the sun. The gown was well cut and revealed a slender waist and the long, graceful line of her spine.

He coughed to warn her of his presence, then shifted his gaze when a tawny, bristling mass rose from the floor and positioned itself in front of him with bared fangs.

As she turned from the cupboard, Case said softly, “Call off your dog or I shall be forced to shoot it.”

“If you do,” she said coolly, “it will be the last thing you do.” Then to the dog, “Lance, down.”

The dog, of indeterminate pedigree with perhaps a touch of wolf thrown in—and that didn’t seem right to Case because there hadn’t been wolves in England for three hundred years—sank to the floor and rested its jowls on its immense paws. Its gaze never wavered from Case.

“He doesn’t like men,” said Miss Mayberry, stepping down from her chair. “Lady Octavia should have warned you. I’m Jane Mayberry, by the way.”

It sounded as if Jane Mayberry didn’t like men either—a pity, because he found her direct manner and unfaltering stare oddly appealing. She wasn’t beautiful but she was anything but plain. She had a strong face, with straight dark brows and large, intelligent brown eyes.

“I’m Castleton,” he said. He would have bowed, except that Miss Mayberry turned away without bothering to curtsy.

“Yes, I recognized you,” she said. “You’re tall, that’s what matters. At least you won’t have to teeter on the chair.”

She had the kind of voice a man could listen to day in, day out, and long into the night. But he’d ruffled her feathers by threatening her dog. If he wanted information, he’d have to tread carefully now.

“You recognized me? Have we met?”

“No. But Viscount Latham almost introduced us once, at the opera. You were late for an appointment, and rushed away.”

Another black mark against him, he supposed. He had no recollection of her at all, but then, he wouldn’t if she was dressed as she was now. His taste ran to something more flamboyant.

He took the stack of plates she offered him and set them on the top shelf. When he turned back to her, she had another stack waiting for him. He gave her the smile that never failed to make a lady’s heart beat just a little faster. He spoke to put her at her ease, but he was interested in how she would answer all the same.

“How did you come to be involved with Lady Octavia’s library? I mean, you’re not married. You can’t have an interest in changing the marriage and property laws of England.”

“Your aunt isn’t married either,” she said. “Why don’t you ask her?”

“So you know my aunt?”

“Everyone at the library knows Lady Sophy. She’s a dear. Would you mind?” She shoved the stack of plates into his arms. “You can talk and work at the same time.”

Case took the plates and turned away to hide a smile. This was a new experience for him—being ordered about by a young, unmarried woman. Young women usually tried to flirt with him, or fawned over him. He could be charming, but he could be cruel when he wanted to be, as any overambitious young woman who had marriage on her mind could testify.

Obviously, this wasn’t going to be a problem with Miss Mayberry.

He said, “Lady Octavia is my aunt’s closest friend. That’s how she became converted to the cause. And you?”

She could avoid questions as well as he. “Last stack,” she said, “then we can start polishing the silver.”

He was taken aback. “I can’t believe the silver in Lady Mary’s house is tarnished. She wouldn’t allow it.”

“Then it won’t take us long, will it?”

When she opened a drawer and began to assemble her materials, he decided it was time to come to the point. “Miss Mayberry,” he said, “I didn’t come here to help you move into your new quarters. There’s something I want to ask you.”

The change in her was almost imperceptible. He might have dismissed it as a quirk of his imagination if her dog had not lifted its head and whined low in its throat, as though uneasy with some implied threat to its mistress.

She said, “Lady Octavia didn’t send you to help me?”

He smiled. “That was a misunderstanding. I don’t mind stacking dishes, but I’m hopeless with silver.”

When the dog made a movement to rise, she pointed to the floor, and it sank back again.
She’s
afraid,
thought Caspar, amazed.
What on earth have I
said to frighten her?
Not that he could tell by looking at her that anything was wrong. It was the dog that was on edge.

She pushed back a stray tendril of hair. “This is the wrong time to ask me questions, Lord Castleton. As you see, some of us are busy. Why don’t you come back later? Thank you for stacking the dishes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a silver paste to make.”

He didn’t know whether to be amused or annoyed. He wasn’t in the habit of being dismissed like this. “One question, Miss Mayberry, then I’ll leave you to your—ah—labors. Where can I find Letitia Gray?”

Her back was to him and he could see the tension across her shoulder blades gradually relax. “Letty?” she said, turning to face him. “You came here to ask me about Letty?”

He nodded. “I was told that you and she were friends.”

“Who told you?”

“Does it matter? All I want from you is Mrs. Gray’s direction.”

She stared at him reflectively for a long interval. “What do you want with Mrs. Gray?” she asked finally.

“That’s between Mrs. Gray and me.”

He saw at once it was the wrong thing to say. Before he could soften his answer, she said, as abrupt as he, “I’m sorry I can’t help you.”

“You can’t help me or you won’t?”

“I won’t help you.”

Now his patience was wafer thin. “Do you mind telling me why?”

“Because it’s against the library’s rules. What I
can
do is ask Mrs. Gray if she wants to see you, or you can write a letter and I’ll see that she gets it.”

“That could take days! If it’s character references you want, ask Lady Octavia or my aunt. They’ll vouch for me.”

“They’d give you the same answer as I. It’s against the library’s policy to tell strangers where members live.”

“I’m not a stranger!”

“You are to my friend.”

“How do you know?”

Her brows rose fractionally. “Because she would have told me, of course. Your name has been in all the newspapers. Your brother-in-law is Col. Richard Maitland, the head of Special Branch, isn’t he? You and he brought a murderer to justice. The papers called you a hero.”

“An exaggeration!” he declared.

Her lashes lowered, veiling her expression. “I don’t doubt it, but I’m sure my friend would have told me if she’d met the hero of the Maitland affair.”

He didn’t know how to take her. Was she poking fun at him or was she serious? Both, he decided and grinned.

“You’re right. I don’t know Mrs. Gray, but I know her brother, Gideon Piers.”

“You
know
him? That’s odd. Gideon died in Spain a long time ago.”

“I mean I
knew
him. We served together in Spain.” He realized that his voice had developed an edge and he made a considerable effort to soften it. “This really is urgent, Miss Mayberry, or I wouldn’t be badgering you like this.”

She seemed to soften a little as well. At any rate, in spite of the rising temperature of their conversation, her dog seemed satisfied that nothing was wrong. Its head was resting on its paws again, and its alert eyes were shifting from Miss Mayberry to him, as if it were a spectator at some play in Drury Lane.

“And I don’t mean to be difficult,” she said. “I’ll tell you what I
will
do, though. If you write a letter right now, I’ll see that it’s hand delivered, and that I have a reply, oh, shall we say by four o’clock? That’s only a few hours away. Surely you can wait that long?”

Stubborn
was too mild a word to describe Miss Jane Mayberry, but at least she was gracious with it. She’d learn soon enough that he could be just as stubborn.

“Thank you,” he said. “I can’t ask for more than that. Now, where can I find pen and paper?”

“Ask Lady Octavia. She knows where everything is.” He was almost through the door when she stopped him by saying his name.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said. “Who told you that I was Mrs. Gray’s friend?”

“I remembered that Piers had a sister who was a teacher at St. Bede’s Charity School. I went there yesterday and met the woman in charge.” This was the shortened version of events and he saw no reason to enlarge on it. “Miss Hepburn—that was her name. She said that when Miss Piers married and moved away, that was the last they saw of her. But you continued to visit the school from time to time.” He grinned. “I got the impression that you were the apple of Miss Hepburn’s eye. She told me that any letter addressed to the Ladies’ Library would reach you.”

“But you decided to come in person.”

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