CECELIA OPENED HER EYES to a loud pounding upon her door. Another second brought her mother barging into the room in an ornate dress of violet satin and silver trimmings. “Why in the world do you sleep in the middle of the afternoon?” She rushed to the bed. “Get up! Get up! Prince Alexander is here to see you.”
When Cecelia stirred and sat up, her mother gasped.
“Are you not feeling well?” She placed a warm palm against her daughter’s flushed cheek. “Well, you are not on fire at least. But good heavens, child, I’ve never seen you look so ill before. What has happened?”
“Nothing has happened worth speaking of.” She groaned and got down from the bed, making her way to the looking glass all the while her mother droned on about how horrid she looked. But it wasn’t until she saw the pathetic girl looking back at her with swollen eyes, red nose, and pale features, that Cecelia realized how truly awful she appeared. In fact, she had never looked worse. Yanking a hand through the frazzled curls escaping her bun, she turned to her mother and said simply, “Good.” It was the perfect complexion for slaying a prince.
“Good? What do you mean by saying such a thing to me?” When her daughter did not answer she continued, “What is good? There can be nothing good about you at the moment, especially when taking your appearance into consideration.”
Ignoring her mother, Cecelia splashed some water on her face from the washbasin on her dresser and pulled the rest of the pins from her hair, letting them cascade down her back in a plethora of riotous curls before plainly stating, “Personally, I do not give a fig for what the prince thinks of my looks at the moment.”
“I beg your pardon?” Her mother’s hand flew to her chest.
Cecelia sighed and crossed the room. While opening the door she asked, “Where is he? In the parlor?”
“Cecelia Josephine Hammerstein-Smythe, if you step one foot out that door, in such disarray, I shall flog you!”
“I’ll get the crop,” was her only answer as she stepped into the hallway.
She was halfway down the stairs before her mother made it to the top of the steps and hissed, “Cecelia, do not do it! Do not let him see you this way! Think of the scandal!”
“Oh, I promise you, I can think of nothing else,” she mumbled under her breath as she took the remainder of the stairs at a faster pace. When she burst into the parlor, the prince wasn’t the only one to jump. Sanford took one look at her countenance and quickly mumbled something about fetching a footman and was gone, the door swinging closed behind him.
They were all alone.
“Miss Hammerstein-Smythe, is there anything wrong?” Alexander asked tentatively, his eyes taking in her long tresses, “You seem out of sorts.”
She walked up to him, choosing not to satisfy him with an answer to that question, she said, “You have one minute to collect your hat and coat and then you will leave.”
“Now.” She refused to look at him, focusing on a point just over her his left shoulder instead.
Alexander’s gaze traced her wan features, carefully searching them for answers. He had never seen her so distressed, so determined, so…so callused. And yet, though she looked wretched—as if betrayed and beaten down by an unthinkable foe—she still was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. “How have I harmed you, my dear? Will you please tell me? It is I who has harmed you, is it not? What can I do to make it better?” he asked quietly.
Startled, her eyes flew to his and she was surprised to see compassion and contrition within their depths. It made her feel a loss of balance within herself, and she wasn’t quite sure what to say. He’d done the most despicable, horrid type of mockery, and yet here he was standing before her looking as though he would die before uttering a false word in her name.
Who was this man standing her? Was he the snobbish