Home > The Princess Stakes(6)

The Princess Stakes(6)
Author: Amalie Howard

   His fingers convulsed on her ankle. “Sarani?”

   The low rasp of his voice murmuring her name was too much to bear. Shock and stunned recognition flared in his gaze, emotions swiftly followed by such a fulminating hatred that she recoiled from the blast of it. He had every reason to loathe her, after all.

   Breaking from her own horrified trance, Sarani wrenched her leg from his gasp and scrambled over him. She dove for the door handle, yanking it open. But he was faster, moving like the wind for such a large man. The door slammed shut, and he caged her between his arms, all burning rage and brimstone.

   Trembling, Sarani turned to face him, her throat working. “Hullo, Rhystan.”

 

 

Three


   The first time he saw her, Rhystan couldn’t breathe.

   Rising like a water sprite from a wide bend in the river, she was the most gorgeous girl he’d ever beheld in his life. And he’d seen a few. With his lineage and his looks, he’d never lacked for female company, not at Eton, at Cambridge, or as a naval officer. But no girl had ever made him feel like he’d run face-first into a wall.

   “Who is that?” he asked, almost toppling from his horse in an effort to keep her in view.

   The former commodore of his ship, Sir Edward Blankley, peered at him. “No one for the likes of you, Huntley,” Edward said. “That girl’s father, if I’m right, is the Maharaja of Joor.”

   Rhystan blinked, the knowledge that she was royalty and clearly out of his reach doing little to deter his interest or the sudden heated rise of his body. Though that could be because he hadn’t been with a woman in months. He and Edward were on leave from the Royal Navy, having spent the last eleven months in the Baltic and Black Seas detaining smugglers, then ferrying them back to port in St. Helena for criminal sentencing. He should have gone back to England, but he wasn’t finished seeing the world.

   Or avoiding his tyrant of a father.

   He felt a spurt of guilt at the stack of letters in his saddlebags. His eldest brother and the duke’s heir, Roland, had recently written about the birth of his daughter. Even so, Rhystan had no intention of returning to England. It had taken him two years to earn his rank and to carve his own path without the Huntley name looming over him. Going back was tantamount to telling his father he’d won. And Rhystan would be damned if he ever gave the duke the satisfaction.

   Tinkling laughter reached him again as the now heavily veiled young woman made her way up the hill surrounded by a bevy of handmaidens and guards. From what he’d seen before, the girl’s hair was jet black, a sleek inky rope that reached her waist, and her skin, covered now, had been a glistening rosy-gold from her swim. He couldn’t determine the color of her eyes from the distance, but he guessed they might be dark like that silken braid his fingers itched to deconstruct. He wondered what she would look like up close.

   “She’s beautiful,” he murmured.

   “I told you. She’s not for you.”

   Rhystan scowled at his tone, but he was too mesmerized to care. “Why not? Too good for me?”

   “The opposite. You’re a duke’s son,” Edward said. “You’ll be expected to marry according to your station. Which means an Englishwoman with an English pedigree. You toffs have to breed the next generation of blue bloods.”

   “Trust me, the Duke of Embry has two other sons to provide him with the bluest-blooded little ducal heirs. Roland is well on his way.”

   Edward sent him a dry look. “I’m certain if any of Embry’s sons took up with a chit like that and brought her into the family fold, he’d care. So would the Dragon Duchess and all her toadies, I imagine.”

   “A chit like that? Like what exactly? Do you speak of all women like this?”

   “I’m being honest.”

   “No, you’re just being a prick.”

   “Heed me and set your sights elsewhere, lad,” Edward said, turning his horse and steering it toward the village. “By all accounts of the local gossip, Princess Sarani is a handful and a half, and her father is in the middle of negotiations with the British East India Company. Find a diversion somewhere else.”

   Rhystan drew a breath. Sarani. Even the lyrical sound of her name made his chest clench. He would meet her, he vowed, no matter what he had to do.

   As it happened, a few short weeks later, when Edward mentioned the ongoing treaty negotiations with the resident maharaja, Rhystan saw his opening. He would offer to transfer under Vice Admiral Markham, the Crown’s representative overseeing discussions.

   “You’re not thinking, Huntley,” Edward had warned. “And besides, the East India Company has a reputation. Their practices are corrupt.”

   Rhystan had shrugged. “I’ll handle the Company.”

   “Don’t do this. You’re forgetting who your father is.”

   “I never forget who he is.”

   A disapproving Edward had left, and Rhystan had stayed on. It was at the next state dinner and ball celebrating the end of the treaty negotiations that he came face-to-face with her.

   A goddess in opalescent silk.

   Nothing in his wildest imaginings could have prepared him for the reality of her.

   Like most of the attending nobility, the princess was dressed in European clothing—in her case, a becoming gown that made her sun-kissed complexion glow. She shone, pure and simple. Rhystan held his breath when he was presented to her, the proximity making him feel like his feet weren’t firmly planted on the ground.

   “Commander Rhystan Huntley,” his reporting officer, Vice Admiral Markham, intoned. “Maharaja Devindar Rao, and his daughter, Princess Sarani.”

   From a distance, she had been beautiful. Close up, Rhystan was struck speechless. Other names were said, he was sure of it. He heard none of them. Somehow, he managed to bow and mumble a tongue-tied greeting, though he felt his neck heat with embarrassment.

   A hint of deviltry curled the corner of the princess’s lip, but it was gone before he could take stock of its appearance. She nodded regally, and then it was over, thankfully.

   Disgusted with himself, Rhystan held up a pillar after the dinner concluded and the dancing began. The princess swirled past in a froth of silky skirts, her gaze touching him for a moment in what felt like a tangible caress.

   God, those eyes.

   He’d been lucky not to have seen them before. On the surface, she might have been the perfect royal jewel—pristine demeanor, elegant features, graceful bearing. But those expressive eyes of hers had told a different story. Something fierce had spun in their green-flecked brown depths, reminiscent of a free, defiant spirit undaunted by the trappings of nobility. It called to something equally untamed in him.

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