“Miriam, who is that boy?”

Gossip is petty, but in the world of politics it’s also essential. I try to keep up, but Miriam’s knowledge puts mine to shame. Hell, she’d put an MI6 spy’s to shame.

“He’s the new Duke of Anthorp,” she whispers back.

The Duke of Anthorp is the title of the Rourke family—a name that’s as old and prestigious in Wessco as Pembrook.

“He’s so young.”

“Just a year older than you.” She nods. “Father had to give him a special dispensation so he could take his family’s seat in the House of Lords. Didn’t he tell you?”

I shake my head.

And Miriam tells all. “Oh, it’s the juiciest bit! The new Duke is actually the second Rourke son. His brother—older by eight years—had a falling-out with the old Duke when he joined up for the war against his father’s wishes. When the war ended, the older son came back home and the Duke offered to reinstate him. But he wanted nothing to do with it! He left!”

“Left?” I can’t imagine it—walking away from your home, your family . . . your duty. It’s as inconceivable to me as walking down the middle of the street without your clothes on.

“Where did he go?”

“Anywhere he wanted.” Miriam sighs. “They say he’s traveled all over the world climbing mountains, exploring jungles, and holds a record for deep-sea diving. He finds treasure.”

“Treasure? The Rourkes have as much money as we do.”

“But that’s why it’s so dreamy! He doesn’t find the treasure because he needs to—he does it just because he can. He gives it to charities—they say he once gave a rare diamond to an orphan boy begging on the street. Changed his life.”

Oh . . . that is rather dreamy.

“The old Duke kicked it a few months ago.” Miriam snaps her fingers. “They say the older one didn’t come home for the service, but the two brothers are supposedly very close. And now the younger brother is the Duke of Anthorp.”

I watch the boy for a moment as he smiles and chats with the old men crowding around him—like they’re trying to siphon off his youth through proximity. There’s an openness in his expression, an unguardedness in his stance that’s rare around here. He seems . . . kind. And genuine.

Parliament is going to eat him alive.

“What’s his name?” I ask.

“Thomas.”

My birthday ball is turning out to be a huge improvement from the luncheon. I feel luminous in my silver gown with my hair piled in shiny curls on my head, encircled by a flawless diamond tiara. And I haven’t heard the word warts once.

It’s an extravagant affair—long tables laden with caviar and sparkling Champagne in crystal flutes. The gilded mirrors on the ballroom walls reflect the rainbow blur of dancing gowns, glittery jewels, top hats and tails, and the lilting music of a twenty-piece orchestra is in fine form. The guests include a former American president, royals from every country in Europe and all the noble families of Wessco.

I stand to the side, along the wall, beside a marble column—my feet tapping in time to the music I won’t be dancing to.

Occasionally a well-wisher stops to chat—like Mr. Elvin Busey, a middle-aged, well-connected entrepreneur who wanted to tell me all about his new upholstery business, in case I wanted to invest. Once in a while, an upper-class boy passes by—the son of a Duke or an Earl or one of the several foreign Princes—each with expressions of greedy lust or squirrelly unease on their faces when they glance my way.

“That dress is the tops, Lenora!” My cousin Calliope gives me two thumbs up as she whisks past with her entourage.

Calliope’s hobby is writing detailed horror stories about the grisly death of every member of the royal family who stands between her and the throne. Including me.

These interactions aren’t genuine. They’re not real or sincere.

The rest of the guests tend to watch me from across the room, while trying to look like they’re not. But attention is tangible and weighted—something you can feel. As if by reflex, I stand stiffer, straighter, and my features slip into that unreadable mask of indifference.

“Are you having a good time, darling?” my mother asks.

She looks like a jewel tonight. Her gown is red velvet and there are winking rubies pinned all through her dark hair.

“Yes, I’m enjoying myself.”

The same way a Fabergé egg must enjoy itself while it’s admired, in its guarded museum glass case.

Laughter and chatter come from the group of young nobles behind us. Mother hears it too.

She wraps her arm around my lower back, squeezing with a gentle strength. “Your time will come, Lenora.”

“I know.” I shrug.

“I don’t mean when you become queen. I mean your time for laughter . . . for love. Joy and excitement—that will come for you too. I’m sure of it.”

“How can you be sure?”

There are old, shushed stories about my mother’s great-aunt Portia. They say she was a strange bird who sometimes had dreams that had a funny way of coming true.

She cups my jaw in her hands. “Because you, dear girl, are extraordinary in every way. It only makes sense that every part of your life will be extraordinary too.” She kisses my forehead. “I’m so proud of you . . . so proud to be your mother.”

I don’t spend a lot of time with Mother, not as much as I’d like. But when I do, she’s always able to do this—chase away the melancholy as easily as a fairy waving her wand.

“Thanks, Mum.”

She looks over my shoulder and her smile drops like a bomb. “Oh hell . . . the Marquis of Munster has the Queen Mother of Spain cornered. If he flashes that damn warty foot, we’ll end up in a bloody war.”

As my mother scurries away to prevent an international incident, I spot the young Duke of Anthorp again. He’s two columns down, leaning against the wall, his position almost a mirror image of my own. And because he can most likely feel me looking, his head turns my way—and he squints, like he still can’t see me well, despite the thick glasses on his face.

And then he’s strolling this way, hands folded behind his back. When he reaches me, he leans on the wall beside me, bowing his head, giving a start of a smile.

“Happy birthday, Princess Lenora.”

“Thank you, Duke Anthorp.”

He flinches. “Please, call me Thomas. Or Rourke. Every time I hear the title I look around for my father. He was a miserable old bastard when he was alive and I don’t expect two months of being dead would’ve improved his disposition, so the thought of him being close by is . . . disturbing.”

A chuckle swirls up my throat. What an oddly honest thing to say!

I nod. “How are you finding Parliament, Thomas?”

“Challenging. I’ve heard there are no friends in politics—only enemies and men you don’t yet know are your enemies. I’m beginning to see how accurate that is.” He shakes his head. “I just have to figure it out. I’m the youngest member of Parliament—it’s important that I be good at it.”

“Yes, I know the feeling.”

A swell of sympathy rises inside me for him. Like spotting a doe in the woods, when you know the wolves are near.

“The trick is to guard your opinions,” I tell him. “To not let anyone know what you’re thinking. You should work on your poker face.” And because he seems so young and alone, I offer, “I could help you with that. Show you the ropes, so to speak. Give you some pointers.”


Tags: Emma Chase Royally Erotic
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