From New York Times bestselling author Tracy Anne Warren comes the second novel in an enchanting new trilogy about three princesses brought together by friendship and fate. This is Princess Mercedes’s story…
While journeying home from Scotland, Princess Mercedes of Alden’s coach is set upon and her cousin and personal guard are killed. Barely escaping with her life, she seeks help at a nearby inn. But with no money and looking little better than a beggar, the townsfolk think her claims of being a princess to be nothing more than a far-fetched tale. Utterly forsaken, Mercedes wonders what is to become of her.
After years of soldiering, dispossessed Laird Daniel MacKinnon is finally coming home. At an inn he is confronted by a bedraggled young woman claiming to be of royal blood. Daniel doesn’t believe her wild tale, but when she asks for his protection, he agrees to serve as her bodyguard and escort her to London.
But Mercedes is still being pursued by ruthless hunters whose motivations remain unclear. As the danger increases, so does the desire she and Daniel feel for each other, until the two of them must face the greatest danger of all—falling in love.
2012 Romantic Times Award Nominee for Best Historical Love and Laughter Novel.
4½ Stars TOP PICK! “Irresistible.” — RT Book Reviews
“On my Scottish heroes to die for list! Recommend[ed] big time.” —Goodreads
“An utterly delightful historical romance. Too delicious for any respectable fan of Scottish heroes to resist.” — Affaire de Coeur
The Scottish Highlands
The inn’s door opened on a gust of rain and wind, the most curious tumble of skirts and water blowing in over the threshold.
A young woman––if that was indeed what she was. It was nearly impossible to accurately determine her age beneath the wet tangle of long dark hair plastered to her head and face; she resembled nothing so much as a drowned cat.
And a none-too-clean one at that.
Her dress was a tatter of rags, the ruined fabric hanging in limp folds that were stained an indiscernible color somewhere between moss and muck. She was covered in grime as well, bits of twigs and pine needles caught in her hair, although it looked as though she had made an attempt at some point to comb them free. As for her feet, they were encased in a pair of thin, muddy slippers that were clearly inadequate for the terrain, the edge of her little toe showing through a rent torn along one seam.
Major Daniel MacKinnon saw every head in the taproom turn her way, as every pair of eyes fixed on the sorry creature who had wandered into their midst. A few whispers floated on the air.
The innkeeper adjusted the apron over his substantial girth and strode around the long wooden counter that bisected his domain. “Och now, an’ what do ye think ye’re aboot, drippin’ all oer me floors? ‘Tis a quality establishment, this is, an’ we don’t take yer kind in ‘ere. I’m afraid ye’ll have tae go.”
The woman stood unmoving, a shiver chasing visibly over her drenched form. “Go?” she repeated in weak disbelief. “But I just arrived. I have been walking for miles.”
Curious, Daniel thought as he listened to her reply. For a beggar woman, her speech was remarkably refined and not the least bit Scottish. English, clearly, he decided, and yet her words held a kind of precise perfection that did not sound completely natural. It was almost as if she had been taught the language rather than been born to it. Could she be foreign?
He was still puzzling over the possibility when the innkeeper continued.
“Miles, is it?” The man scowled. “Weel, unless ye’ve coin tae pay yer way, I canna help ye. ‘Ave ye any coin?”
She stared for a long moment then shook her head. “No. I never carry money.”
The innkeeper rocked back on his heels, while a couple of patrons laughed at what was clearly the oddest way of saying she was poor that any of them had ever heard.
“Sorry then lass, but ye’ll ‘ave tae be off.”
“But I need to speak to a magistrate. My coach was set upon by highwaymen.” She trembled and wrapped her arms around herself. “I n-need to report the crime. I n-need shelter and s-somewhere to rest until my friends can be contacted.”
Her teeth began chattering, though whether from cold or fright, Daniel could not tell.
The innkeeper goggled. “Highwaymen, is it you say? In these parts? Where? On what road?”
She shook her head. “I do not know. I told you I’ve been walking through the storm. It was on the main road south––or at least I think it was the main road…I don’t know any longer.”
“And where is the rest of yer party? What became of them?”
A shudder went through her and she swayed on her feet. “Might I have a seat, if you would be so good?”
She waited, making no move to seek a chair on her own; it was, Daniel realized after a moment, as if she expected someone to bring the chair to her.
No one did.
Daniel saw her tremble and sway slightly again. Was she going to faint? Given her condition, it was entirely possible.
Used to making quick decisions, he stood and picked up the mate to the straight-backed wooden chair in which he’d been sitting. His boots echoed against the wide-planked pine floors as he carried it across to her and set it down. When she didn’t immediately react, he took a gentle hold of her elbow and steered her onto the seat.
Only then did she look up, her gaze meeting his.
Her eyes were like a pair of dark luminous pools, deep and soulful and unspeakably beautiful. Their color was brown but not an ordinary brown. Instead their hue was an intriguing mixture of ripe earth and night sky with hints of black and gold woven through to create a shade quite unlike any he had ever glimpsed. The closest comparison he could make would be to a cup of intensely rich, fine Belgian chocolate he’d once had occasion to drink––warm and sensual and indescribably sweet. Even so, the color of that chocolate did not do her eyes justice.
As for the rest of her, it was difficult to tell. Her pale visage was obscured by a layer of dirt and fear––very definitely fear––but not, he sensed, of himself.
“Thank you,” she murmured softly, so softly he nearly missed the words.
“So ye were set upon?” the innkeeper continued brusquely.
“That’s right,” she answered, turning her head to look at the older man.
“Robbed ye, did they?”
“N-No, not exactly, they––“ Her words trailed off, the small bit of color that had come into her face leeching away so that she looked pale as death.
“If they didn’t rob ye, what dae’d they want? McCrawber’ll want ter know. He’s no magistrate but he does fer the law around these parts. Surprised he’s not ‘ere this evenin’. Comes in most nights. Must be the rain.”
“Yes. The rain is very cold and unpleasant,” she said, another tremor rippling over her skin.
She must be in shock, Daniel decided. He had seen it often on the battlefield, men who could walk and talk and function yet who didn’t seem quite right for all that. Men who’d seen too much, more than they could handle. What, he wondered, had she seen?
“Weel, so what was it the highwaymen was after, if not yer purse?” the innkeeper persisted.
She said nothing at first, then seemed to rally, drawing herself upright. “I would prefer to discuss the incident with this…Mr. McCrawber…once he can be summoned. In the meantime, I should like a room with a warm fire, a hot bath, and a meal, if you please. You will be recompensed in full for your services once my family and friends can be notified.”
“Is that so?” The innkeeper folded his arms over his chest. “And just who is yer family? And these friends oer yers? Where dae they live?”
Daniel stilled so as not to miss her answer. The rest of the patrons did as well, the unusual woman in their midst proving to be as entertaining as a play.
“My friends are the Earl of Lyndhurst––although he was recently made an archduke as well––and his wife, Her Highness Princess Emmaline of Rosewald,” she explained. “They are presently in residence at their London townhouse for the Season. Another of my friends, Princess Ariadne, is staying with them for the summer. As for my family, my parents are Crown Prince Frederick and Princess Marie-Louise of Alden.”
Silence hummed through the room like a living being.
“Alden is on the Continent in case you are unfamiliar with my country,” she added, as if she believed that to be the cause of all their wide-eyed stares. “It is small and not as well known as others, such as Prussia or Austria-Hungary. Many people are only vaguely aware of it.”
Once again no one said a word.
“Now, if you will bring me a pen and paper, I shall write to my friends with all necessary haste,” she continued. “You do have a rider, I trust, who can relay a message for me?”
The innkeeper thrust out an arm and pointed toward the door. “Get oot!” he bellowed.
“What?” Her eyes widened in surprise.
“I saed tae get oot o’ me place.”
“I’ll nae have more o’ yer lies. Yer father’s a prince, is he?”
“Yes, he is.”
“Och aye,” the man mocked. “And me own cousin is Bonnie Prince Charlie and me mither’s the Queen.”
The room exploded with laughter––everyone roaring as they pounded fists on tables and wiped tears of mirth from their eyes. The only exception was Daniel, who studied her as she surveyed the others, her brows drawing tight with obvious confusion and dismay.
Until that moment he hadn’t known if she was simply telling tall tales and was indeed the liar the innkeeper assumed her to be. But Daniel could clearly see that she believed what she was saying. He had worried before that she was in shock and now he knew it for certain.
What had happened to her out on that road? he wondered. What had frightened her so much that she would feel the need to take refuge in such an elaborate and unbelievable fantasy?
A princess from a small European nation.
Well, he had to give her credit for being inventive because as far as stories went, hers was a corker.
“’Ere now,” the innkeeper shouted above the crowd, puffing out his chest and strutting around with his thumbs tucked into his apron. “Look at me. I’m a bluidy prince. Who’s gonna bring me mae crown?”
“Don’t know aboot yer crown, Angus,” one of the patrons called. “But I’ve got yer throne right ‘ere.” With that, the man thrust an empty chamber pot into the air and waved it around by the handle.
A fresh explosion of laughter burst forth, so loud this time that it seemed to shake the smoke-blackened ceiling timbers and scarred wooden floors.
The young woman looked lost, as if the world around her had suddenly gone mad.
The innkeeper, as though just then remembering the cause of all this frivolity, turned toward her again. “Are ye still ‘ere, ye lying wee vagrant? Or do ye not have the sense God gave a goose and know when ter be gone? Now get oot oer I’ll ‘ave me loyal subjects ‘ere dae the bootin’ fer me.”
She blinked, her skin paling alarmingly again, clearly sensing the potentially dangerous change in the air.
Daniel moved forward and took up a protective stance at her side. “There’ll be no need for that,” he stated with calm authority. “I shall take responsibility for this young woman since she is obviously in need of aid. Now, if you would ask one of your serving maids to come over, she can show this lady upstairs to a room.”
The innkeeper gave a snort at the term lady, then shot him a challenging look. “Yer payin’ her keep, is that right?”
“Aye,” Daniel retorted firmly. “I’m paying.”
The man opened his mouth as if to debate the matter further, then shut it again and shrugged. “Weel, it’s yer coin ter waste.”
“That’s right, it is. Now, go get the maid.”
The innkeeper thrust out his lower lip and glared. Daniel glared back, knowing full well that he had the upper hand. If there were two things in this world that always won an argument, it was strength and money; Daniel was the innkeeper’s match on both counts.
With a muffled curse, the older man spun and stalked off to do as he was told.
Once he’d gone, Daniel looked back at the woman and found her watching him.
“Thank you, whoever you are,” she murmured in her soft voice. “I am sure you quite literally saved my life.”
Before he could respond, she swayed again. But instead of recovering her balance this time, she pitched over in a dead faint.
Dashing forward, Daniel caught her with only inches to spare before she would have hit the floor. Carefully he stood, her limp form cradled securely in his arms. Even wet and muddy she was a pleasant armful. He studied her for a moment, idly wondering what she looked like under her tangled hair and dirt smudged face. Pretty, he suspected. But even if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t matter. She had needed help and it wouldn’t have been right to stand aside and let her be cast out to an uncertain fate. He remembered the words she’d spoken just before she’d fainted and the relieved gratitude in her satiny brown eyes.
“You’re welcome, Your Highness,” he whispered in spite of the fact that she would not hear him. “Whoever you might really be.”
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