Prince Simon had never liked his personal study; the narrow, paneled room with its high ceilings and imposing desk had seemed confining to his restless young energy. Today, however, he was glad of it, glad for its formality and richness. It would serve his purpose.
He was seated behind that desk when one of the long doors opened and a bewigged footman advanced two feet and announced, "Esther, Lady Chesney, your royal highness." A fashionably dressed woman swept in, and he bowed, backed out of the room.
Simon felt surprise at first; he had not expected her to appear so young and beautiful. A second look as she came closer showed that she was not so young after all, and there was a hardness in her eyes and around her mouth that he did not like; so different from Ella.
Lady Chesney walked to the center of the room and sank into a deep curtsy. "This is a most unexpected honor, your highness," she purred, without rising.
He had deliberately remained seated and now, instead of answering, he looked back at his desk and began studying the papers in front of him. They were nothing, really, but he perused them with close and deliberate attention, after which he picked up his pen, dipped it fastidiously in the ink well, and drew it across the page as if he was writing something; he trusted she was not close enough to tell that they weren't real words. He then replaced the pen, sanded the sheet, studied it, set it aside, and spent ten or fifteen seconds arranging the objects on his desk. His father had always taught him that the surest way to disconcert an adversary was to appear to ignore him--or her.
When he finally deigned to direct his attention back to the woman in the room he saw that she had risen from her curtsy, and was standing stiffly, with two spots of color in her cheeks.
"Where is your step-daughter?" he asked abruptly.
Lady Chesney startled a little at this direct attack. "Your highness?"
"The Lady Elisabeth Travers. Where is she?"
Her composure returned almost instantly. "She has returned to her grandmother in the north, your highness. I deeply regretted the necessity of sending her back, but I am afraid time has not corrected her--"
"Do not, I beg of you, say more. I have no interest in your lies." He leaned back in his chair and fixed her with a cold stare. "She has never lived with her grandmother."
"It is true." She sighed. "I attempted to conceal the truth, but your royal highness has discovered it. She was not with her grandmother--she was in a home for fallen women."
His mouth drew into a grim line. "There are penalties in this country, Lady Chesney, for those who lie to the royal family. And there are penalties for those who abuse their charges."
He saw that she understood him; she knew that he knew the truth. But it did not rattle her much; the pleasant look disappeared from her face, but she lifted her chin a little, and narrowed her eyes. "It is no crime for a child's guardian to discipline her when she grows unmanageable."
It wasn't, and he knew it would be difficult to prove a case in a court of law, but he was not interested in pursuing that route anyway. "The penalties I had in mind are of a different sort. I have not yet brought this to the attention of my royal father, but if you do not think that he would hold you in the utmost despise for what you have done, you are a fool. You are the daughter of a common wool trader," he injected as much contempt into his voice as he could, "while Lady Elisabeth is the daughter and granddaughter of peers. Your own daughters have nothing at all to recommend them but their dowries, which I understand may not be as impressive as they once were." An ugly color ran up her neck, and he knew he had scored a hit. "You are not liked, Lady Chesney, and I do not think that there would be anyone in good society who would even greet you on the street, if the truth of what you have done were to be known."
"They would despise her too," she said quickly.
He cocked an eyebrow coolly. "If she were their future queen? I do not think they would dare."
That at last shocked her into silence. He could see the rage she battled to contain, and inwardly shuddered. The thought of Ella, as a young girl, at the mercy of all that spite and hatred, hardened his will to continue through the end. Casually, he picked up another sheaf of papers, as if ready to dismiss her from his mind. "I should not like the Lady Elisabeth to be distressed by your presence, should she chose to return to town," he said. "So I suggest you find a country house and retire to it. Perhaps you will find suitable matches for your daughters among your own kind."
Several moments went by, then--"What if I refuse?"
"Then I will take everything." He made it sound very matter-of-fact. "I have made inquiries, your ladyship. You have debts all throughout town--dress makers, carriage makers, jewelers, even, I believe, some gambling debts? I am sure they would all be happy to curry favor with the crown by demanding payment. Defy me, and you will find yourself stripped of everything you possess and in a debtor's prison. To be quite frank, the only reason you are not there already is because of your daughters, who should not have to suffer for their mothers' sins." And because he truly didn't want any scandal surrounding Ella or her family, but he would not tell her that. He rang the bell for the footman.
She was perfectly white now, so that he could see the bright rouge on her cheeks. Slowly, as if by sheer force of will, she curtsied and began to turn away, but he stopped her.
"And, Lady Chesney?" He leaned forward. "If it should ever happen that there surface unpleasant rumors impugning Lady Elisabeth's good character, she will have myself, my father the king, my mother the queen, and my brother the prince to testify to her virtue. You, on the other hand, will have the displeasure of the entire royal family… for the rest of your life. You will have ruined yourself, and harmed her not one jot. In fact, I almost hope you do attempt it, because it would give me great satisfaction to see you behind bars where you belong."
She swallowed, her hands clinching tightly. "You said you would not hurt my daughters."
"No, I said I preferred not to--but believe me, my concern for them is very slight compared with my concern for the lady I intend to marry. I will do whatever it takes to protect her--from you or anyone else." With that he nodded the footman, who was now holding the door open, and returned to his papers. He did not even watch her walk out.
When she was gone he slumped down in his chair, closed his eyes, let out his breath and rubbed his temples. He hated this sort of thing. It was easier, in some ways, to face a man in battle than a woman over a desk like this. And would it be enough? That woman hated Ella--hated her with an astonishing malice, and he had the uneasy feeling that Ella would never be entirely safe as long as she was free, but he couldn't just have her thrown in prison without attempting something less scandalous first.
And Ella--what would he do, if in end she didn't want him, if the trials and pressures of being a queen were more than she wished to take on? He had practically thrown himself at her, and that did not sit well with his pride, but every time he remembered her scent and her laugh, and the way it felt to hold her… he sighed. She was complicated--a complicated, proud, wounded girl with a past, and dark eyes full of things he didn't understand but wished to. He was sure his mother would tell him that it was his love for playing the hero that made him want to rescue her, and his father would simply say he'd been entangled by her beauty. They wouldn't be entirely wrong--and what man wouldn't want to be entangled, particularly in that hair of hers, he found himself thinking--but they wouldn't be entirely right either. Their connection had existed right from the beginning, before he knew her situation, before he had even seen her entire face. It was her conversation, her laughter and her mind that had captured his attention first.
Pushing his chair back, Simon stood quickly to his feet. No, he did not want to marry one of the demure and proper young ladies his mother introduced him to, and he did not want to marry some foreign princess such as his father might like. He wanted Ella, and if--he smiled suddenly and, picking up a gold coin on the desk, flipped it in the air before pocketing it--if she required a little wooing and pursuing, then that would just make it more fun.
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