The Accidental Princess

By: Michelle Willingham
Chapter One

London, 1855

She could feel his eyes watching her from across the room. Like an invisible protector, warning away anyone who would bother her. Lady Hannah Chesterfield smiled at one of the ballroom guests, but she hadn’t heard a word the woman had said. Instead, she was all too aware of Lieutenant Thorpe’s gaze and the forbidden nature of his thoughts.

Though she’d only met him a few weeks ago, she hadn’t forgotten his intensity. Nor the way he’d stared at her like a delectable sweet he wanted but couldn’t have.

He’d brushed his lips upon the back of her hand when her brother had introduced them. The unexpected kiss had made her skin flush, awakening the strange desire to move closer to him. He looked as though he wanted to kiss every inch of her, and the thought made her body tremble. His interest had been undeniable.

It was nearing midnight, the hour of secret liaisons. More than a few ladies had disappeared into the garden with a companion, only to return with twigs in their hair and swollen lips.

Hannah wondered what it would be like to indulge in such wickedness, feeling a man’s mouth against her lips, his hands touching her the way a lover would. There was something about the Lieutenant that was dangerous. Unpredictable. He didn’t belong here among London’s elite, and yet he fascinated her.

She risked a glance and saw him leaning against the back wall, a glass of lemonade in one hand. His black tailcoat was too snug across his broad shoulders, as though he couldn’t afford one that fit. His matching waistcoat accentuated his lean form, while the white cravat he wore had a careless tilt to it. His dark hair was too long, and he was clean-shaven, unlike the current fashion.

His mouth gave a slight lift, as though daring her to come and speak to him. She couldn’t possibly do such a thing.

Why was he here tonight? It wasn’t as if Lieutenant Thorpe could seek a wife from among the ladies. He might be an officer, but he did not possess a title. Furthermore, if it weren’t for his unlikely friendship with her brother Stephen, the Lieutenant wouldn’t have been allowed inside Rothburne House.

‘Hannah!’ A hand waved in front of her face, and she forced herself to pay heed to her mother, who had crossed the room to speak with her.

‘You’re woolgathering again, my dear. Stand up straight and smile. The Baron of Belgrave is coming to claim his dance with you.’ With a slight titter, Christine Chesterfield added, ‘Oh, I do hope the two of you get on. He would make such a dashing husband for you. He’s so handsome and well-mannered.’

An unsettled feeling rose up in her stomach. ‘Mother, I don’t want to wed the baron.’

‘Why? Whatever is wrong with Lord Belgrave?’ Christine demanded.

‘I don’t know. Something. It feels wrong.’

‘Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ Her mother rolled her eyes. ‘Hannah, you’re imagining things. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the baron, and I have little doubt that he would make an excellent husband.’

A sour feeling caught up in her stomach, but Hannah didn’t protest. She’d learned, long ago, that her mother and father had carved-in-stone ideas about the man she would marry. The gentleman had to be well-bred, wealthy and titled. A saint who had never transgressed against anyone, who treated women with the utmost respect.

And likely rescued kittens in his spare time, she thought sourly. Men of that nature didn’t exist. She knew it for a fact, being cursed with two older brothers.

Though she wanted to get married more than anything, Hannah was beginning to wonder if she’d ever find the right man. Having her own home and a husband was her dream, for she could finally have the freedom she wanted.

She craved the moment when she could make her own choices without having to ask permission or worry about whether or not she was behaving like a proper lady. Although she was twenty years old, she might as well have been a girl of five, for all that she’d been sheltered from the world.

‘Now, Hannah,’ her mother chided. ‘The baron has been nothing but the soul of kindness this entire week. He’s brought you flowers every day.’

It was true that Lord Belgrave had made his courtship intentions clear. But despite his outward courtesy, Hannah couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was almost too perfect.

‘I’m not feeling up to a dance just now,’ she said, though she knew the excuse would never hold.

‘You are perfectly well,’ her mother insisted. ‘And you cannot turn down an invitation to dance. It would be rude.’

Hannah clamped her lips together, suppressing the urge to argue. Her mother would never bend when it came to appropriate behaviour. With any luck, the dance would be over in three minutes.