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Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince
 

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Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince


  Cover image: Young Woman Hiding behind A Venetian Mask © mammuth. Image courtesy of istockphoto.com

  Cover design copyright © 2015 by Covenant Communications, Inc.

  Published by Covenant Communications, Inc.

  American Fork, Utah

  Copyright © 2015 by Jennifer Moore

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any format or in any medium without the written permission of the publisher, Covenant Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 416, American Fork, UT 84003. The views expressed within this work are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Covenant Communications, Inc., or any other entity.

  This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are either products of the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real, or are used fictitiously.

  First Printing: April 2015

  ISBN: 978-1-68047-203-5

  For James, Ben, Andrew, and Joey—

  Yes, this is a kissing book.

  No, you don’t have to read it.

  Acknowledgments

  Anytime a mom undertakes a big project, it requires sacrifice from everyone around her.

  Of course, first of all, I want to say thanks to my super-supportive, wonderful husband, who picked up pizza numerous times and understood when date night meant working on my computer next to him on the couch.

  Thanks to my kids, who had to fend for themselves at dinnertime more than once and have learned that when I’m writing, they have to remind me of things—a lot.

  I’m so grateful for the great ward I’m in, my kids’ friends’ parents, other sports moms, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, and others I probably don’t even know about. Thank you for having my back and for supporting me and my busy family so I could do this.

  Thanks to my groupies: Josi, Nancy, Becki, Ronda, and Jody. You rein me in and keep me from making a serious fool of myself and at the same time challenge me to be better. I want to be you guys when I grow up.

  To my writing friends, I love this community and the support and love I get from all of you. Thank you for cheering with me when things went well; and when they didn’t, thanks for picking me up, dusting me off, and setting me back on my feet again.

  To my readers: Amanda Kimball, Melissa Fugazza, Josi Kilpack, Nancy Allen, Becki Clayson, Cindy Hogan, and Angela Woiwode. Thank you for your honest feedback, even though sometimes it’s not fun to hear it. I know you want me to succeed, and I’m so grateful for you.

  I cannot thank Covenant Communications enough, especially Stacey Owen and Kathy Gordon. You make me look good and are the most delightful people I can imagine working with.

  And last of all, I want to thank my Heavenly Father for putting me where He did, with people who I love surrounding me, and for teaching me to believe I can do hard things because I am His daughter.

  Chapter 1

  Unfortunately, Thornshire Castle was not haunted. No weeping prisoner languished in the dungeon; no ravenous wolves prowled the surrounding woods. There was not even a menacing highwayman lying in wait on the road from Portsmouth. These unfortunate discoveries made Meg Burton’s first trip to England an abysmal disappointment.

  Meg wrapped a warm cloak around her shoulders as she stepped into the early morning air, clutching her book in the crook of her elbow. She glanced behind her once as she rounded the corner of the garden wall, glad to see she’d not been followed. Her lady’s maid, Bessie, would surely wish her to remain inside on such a cold day, and the ensuing argument would no doubt end with Meg’s compliance.

  Looking up, she sighed. Did the sun ever shine in England? Everyone had assured her that spring was on the way, but Meg had yet to see any blue sky since her arrival two days earlier.

  She looked about to get her bearings and turned toward the forest, judging the structure with the domed roof she’d seen from the window of her bedchamber to be in that direction. Walking down a garden pathway with the gravel crunching beneath her slippers, she saw that the gardens, even in the dead of winter, were immaculately tended. Not a bit of overgrown brambles or thorny stems to lend an air of foreboding to the grounds. Everything was tidy. And beautiful. And uninteresting.

  Her mother had approached her six weeks ago with the news that Meg was to take a sea voyage with her elder brother, Daniel, and that their distant cousin, the Duke of Southampton, had agreed to sponsor Meg for a London Season. She had imagined a grand adventure filled with romance, excitement, and danger—a far cry from the limited society of Charleston, South Carolina.

  How could it be otherwise? Her cousin’s new wife, Serena, was a princesa from Spain, who had escaped a French prison and had been secretly smuggled from the country by a band of Spanish guerillas and British officers. Meg sighed as she thought of how thrilling the adventure must have been.

  It was while they were at sea that Daniel had told Meg the real reason for their journey. Their father’s business had fallen upon hard times. With the rumors of war in the North and the British seizing American vessels in the Atlantic, it was no wonder the merchant trade suffered.

  “Meg,” Daniel had told her while they had leaned upon the rail of the gunwale, watching Charleston become a small speck upon the horizon, “It’s up to you to save the family. You and your pretty face.” He’d winked as if it was all a joke, and she was privy to it. “You must find a husband in London. And not merely any husband but a rich one to raise our fortunes. Mother and Father are depending upon you.”

  The truth of it had settled like a stone in her belly as the boat carried her toward a marriage that would benefit everyone, it seemed, besides her. She felt betrayed. She was to be used, like a voucher in a business transaction. Her parents hadn’t even had the courage to tell her themselves. And she felt trapped. No doubt Daniel had accompanied her in order to make sure she did not fail. However as the voyage continued, the sting of the situation abated, and Meg reassured herself that romance and adventure still awaited. How could they not when she would be attending royal balls and living in an ancient castle?

  A voyage to London in 1812 was no small feat, with tensions rising between America and England. The British naval blockades had concerned the captain, but a fair amount of luck and the good name of the Duke of Southampton had made the journey uneventful—aside from Bessie’s constant seasickness. Without her maid to attend to her, Meg was forced to remain in her cabin or the passenger dining room unless her brother agreed to accompany her above decks. Daniel, however, was quite taken with some of the young ladies on the ship, and he himself remained in the dining room for the majority of the voyage.

  Meg kicked at a pebble, watching it skitter across the path and into the mud. She pulled the cloak closer as she stepped into the shadow of the trees and then into the forest. The duke had explained that the forest was newly planted during the time of his grandfather and there was no dense underbrush or vicious beasts to fear. It was well appointed with lovely, nicely spaced trees and clear paths for riding or walking. Meg wondered what her cousin would think if he should see the untamed forests of Appalachia and the hazards that lurked within: bears, thieves, even Indian tribes still lived deep in the hills.

  As soon as they arrived at the castle and she first laid eyes upon the stone turrets and weathered battlements, she had hoped her luck would turn. With a name such as Thornshire, how could it not be filled with secrets, hidden rooms, or discontented phantoms?

  But it was not the case. The castle was welcoming and well lit and warmly decorated. Upon their arrival, they learned that, while the castle was not occupied by malevolent spirits, it did contain one Spanish prince. An unwed Spanish prince: Princi
pe Rodrigo Fernando de Talavera—Serena’s brother. The news had seized Daniel’s interest immediately and set him planning ways for Meg to win the prince’s favor.

  Meg had learned from casually questioning the housekeeper that the prince rode a white stallion. But even the fantasy of a handsome prince galloping on his noble steed was squelched when Meg perused the periodicals in the duke’s library. The House of Bourbon, Spain’s ruling family, was famous for their overindulgences and indiscretions, and a picture of King Ferdinand VII was all it took for Meg to realize that the prince was undoubtedly selfish and lazy like his uncle. The idea of the flaccid man riding a horse at all was comical.

  In the days since their arrival, they’d not seen one glint from the prince’s golden crown, which was perfectly fine with Meg.

  She emerged from the trees into a clearing. In the center, beneath early morning wisps of fog, was a large pond, the ice thin and melting. Directly in front of her, a Greek-columned gazebo stood on the banks. Interspersed between the columns were classical statuary and wrought iron benches. In the summer, it must be an ideal place for a garden luncheon, she suspected, but now it was muddy and colorless, just like the rest of England. Hidden among the shadows of the leafless trees—with the occasional squawk of a crow and a cold, howling wind—the gazebo was the perfect location to lose oneself in a Gothic novel. Meg shivered in anticipation.

  She’d not bothered to pin up her hair or to wear a bonnet as she was sure she’d meet nobody this early in the morning, and in truth, what was the point of sneaking away to a wild setting to read a contraband book if one did not allow her hair to flow freely over her shoulders? The feel of the wind lifting her loose curls gave her a little thrill, as she imagined how very scandalous she must look.

  While Prince Rodrigo had been conspicuously absent, the duke’s sister, Lady Vernon, had been more than obviously present and had wasted no time getting Meg outfitted for the Season. Lady Vernon had no daughters of her own, and her enthusiasm for Meg’s debut was exhausting. She had arrived at the castle with piles of gowns, fabric scraps, lace, ribbons, bonnets, slippers, and various other fripperies Meg didn’t even recognize. Lady Vernon had insisted that Meg’s auburn hair and large brown eyes, combined with her own fashion sense and French seamstress, would make Meg one of the most sought after debutantes in town. Meg was overwhelmed to say the least. She’d had no idea that a Season would require such excessive planning.

  When the modiste had asked Meg’s opinion about the colors or styles of the gowns, she had attempted to answer, but Lady Vernon had hushed her, treating her like a child, and Meg finally just nodded and allowed the two women to make the decisions for her wardrobe. She ground her teeth, remembering that on top of everything else, she had not even been allowed to choose the script upon her own calling cards.

  Meg set her book carefully upon a rock near the shoreline of the pond; then she bent over and picked up a smooth pebble about the size of an egg. She measured the weight in her hand for a moment before stretching her arm back and throwing it as hard as she could at the frozen pond. The stone made a satisfying crunch as it broke through the melting ice. Meg stepped off the gravel path, placing her feet as carefully as possible upon the muddy ground as she made her way to a group of rocks at the water’s edge. She picked up another stone, slightly larger than the first.

  “I do not wish to wear an apricot-colored gown,” she said, her voice echoing strangely in the quiet of the clearing. She threw the rock as forcefully as she could, not waiting for it to hit the ice before she picked up another.

  “I wish I had never come to England.” Crack.

  “I will not spend my days embroidering screens or practicing on the pianoforte.” Her voice was growing louder, but with each stone, she felt as if she were casting away her frustrations.

  “Thornshire Castle is the dullest place upon the earth. It could use an ancient curse or a decent ghost.” Crack.

  She spotted a large stone, partly buried. As she dug the mud away from it, she slipped, falling to her knees, but continued to wrench the stone free. Once she’d lifted it, she stood and turned back to the pond, heaving it over her head with both hands.

  “I do not care for the favor of an earl, a baron, a Spanish prince, or any other rich man!” she cried, hurling the stone with all her might toward an unbroken section of the ice she expected to shatter quite dramatically.

  But the feeling of relief did not come, as the instant the rock left her hands, she saw that it was soaring toward a man holding the reins of a horse, who must have just emerged from the forest. The large stone hit the ice in front of him with a crash, breaking through and launching muddy water over the man’s breeches.

  Meg gasped.

  The horse startled.

  The man quieted the animal and then turned. His expression was one of disbelief as he looked down at his wet clothing and then lifted his gaze to Meg.

  For an uncomfortably long moment, they stared at one another until Meg collected her wits.

  “I beg your pardon, sir. I did not see you.” She turned toward him, slipping again in the mud and tripping over her skirts. She scrambled to her feet and, looking up, saw the man’s gloved hand extended toward her.

  Meg held up her hands to show her muddy palms, but the man did not withdraw his offer. He simply curled his fingers toward his palm twice, reopened his hand, and waited.

  She brushed off the mud as well as she could, wishing she had remembered to wear gloves herself this morning. Didn’t Lady Vernon tell her a young lady should never leave the house with her hands uncovered? Why had she chosen today of all days to rebel against propriety?

  Meg placed her hand into the man’s, and his fingers tightened around hers as he slid his other palm beneath her elbow and pulled her onto the path.

  “Are you injured?” he asked, releasing his grip, and pulling a handkerchief from his jacket pocket.

  She took the offered handkerchief and wiped her hands on it, wincing as the dark mud stained the white fabric. “I am not injured.”

  “What is your name, miss?” The man stood unnaturally straight as he looked down at her.

  Meg was startled. It was the very essence of impropriety for a gentleman to presume that she should wish to begin an acquaintance. They should be properly introduced. But, a quick estimation of his lack of social proficiency, unshaven face, wrinkled clothing, and care of the horse told her that he was no gentleman: a servant perhaps. And as such, it would do no harm to treat him kindly. Besides, he spoke with a foreign accent, which would explain his unfamiliarity with the British rules of decorum.

  “Margaret Burton,” she said. “But everybody calls me Meg.”

  “Margarita. It is a lovely name.”

  Meg’s cheeks heated, and she lowered her face to hide the redness she knew was spreading in splotches over her fair skin. She had never considered her name lovely, but to be honest, it had never been spoken in a deep, accented voice by a handsome stranger in a mysterious forest. In fact, had a man who was not her relative ever used her Christian name? She shook her head at her preposterous thoughts and, in an effort to transfer the attention from herself, changed the subject.

  “What are you doing here? I had expected to be the only one wandering the grounds at this time of morning,” she said more bluntly than she’d intended. She looked past him at the horse that had stepped closer to the pond. A white stallion. A pure-bread Andalusian, if she wasn’t mistaken. “Is this the prince’s horse?” she asked, admiring the beautiful animal.

  The man regarded her flatly. His eyes squinted the slightest bit before he answered. “Yes, this is the prince’s horse—Patito—and he is thirsty. If you will move aside, Margarita.” He led the horse to the edge of the water and allowed Patito to drink. “How timely that we arrived just as you created a nicely sized hole in the ice.”

  Meg stepped closer, running her hand along the stallion’s long neck. “Hello, Patito,” she said softly then turned to the man. “You surp
rised me as I was . . . uh . . .” She should have thought before she began to speak.

  He raised an eyebrow. “You were . . . ?”

  Meg looked back toward the pond. “I suppose I was relieving my frustration.”

  “Is that what you call it in America? In Spain, it is known as throwing rocks.” When Meg did not answer, he continued, all traces of humor gone from his voice. “It appears we are both far from home. And longing to return, if I interpreted your ‘frustrations’ correctly.” He let out a breath and lifted his gaze to the sky, squinting and wrinkling his nose. “I have not seen the sun in months.”

  The look on his face was so miserable that Meg’s heart went out to him, but she also felt a sense of relief and camaraderie. Here was someone she could relate to. In a matter of minutes, this Spanish servant understood her better than anyone she had encountered in England so far. “I imagine Spain is much warmer—and sunnier.”

  He nodded his head once, and she noticed just how deep brown his eyes were. His dark hair was pulled back in a queue at the base of his neck but was not tidy.

  She again directed her attention to the animal beside her, running her fingers over the raised bosses behind the stallion’s ears, characteristic of his breed. Patito regarded her with intelligent eyes as she continued to make conversation with his handler. “Do you tend His Majesty’s horses?”

  The man’s eyes narrowed and an expression of annoyance crossed his face, but it passed so quickly Meg wondered if it had even been there in the first place. He studied her for a moment before answering. “Sí. Yes. I tend His Majesty’s horses.”

  “And you did not tell me your name, sir.” Meg hoped to put him at ease; evidently, speaking about his employer was uncomfortable for him. The prince must be a cruel master, a tyrant. Further proof that he was someone whose acquaintance she did not seek. Americans had no tolerance for tyrants.

  “Carlo.” He inclined his head. “Now, what could possibly upset a young woman to the point that she must relieve her frustration in such a violent manner?” His lips quirked as if he were repressing a smile.

 
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