The Perils of Pursuing a Prince
For some inexplicable reason, the first thing that occurred to Greer Fairchild when three men—robbers, for all she knew—stopped the coach in which she and Mr. Percy were traveling was that the death of Mrs. Smithington, to whom Greer was a traveling companion, was not only tragic, but extremely inconvenient.
They had almost reached the foreboding Llanmair, having lumbered up a rutted road for the better part of an afternoon, yet the day’s gloomy light had not faded so much that Greer couldn’t distinguish the ancient gray castle from the crag on which it sat, rising high above the woods and mountains that surrounded it.
It was an imposing structure, four stories high, built with gray stone, and anchored by four turrets in each corner. They were so close to the castle! They were so close to ending Greer’s ordeal, and now this!
“Stay here,” Mr. Percy said, looking quite grim when the coach rattled and groaned to a halt at the approach of the three riders. “I shall speak with them.” He climbed out of the carriage, shut the door soundly, and strode forward to the three men who now stood between Greer and the man in the castle who held her inheritance.
“This is not to be borne,” she muttered under her breath. Not after all she’d endured in the last year. Not after her guardian aunt’s death and the endless hours she’d spent with Mrs. Smithington in public coaches with people who thought nothing of bringing their chickens and dogs along with them. Not after all the bouncing she’d endured along every pit and rut as they’d traversed empty moors, or losing sight of the sun in forests so thick with trees that no light could filter through. She’d come within a quarter of a mile of the gates to what she hoped was her final destination, only to be stopped.
It was extremely vexing.
Greer peered out the window to where Mr. Percy had confronted the three men with his legs braced wide and his arms akimbo. She groaned with exasperation and laid her head against a torn squab. She supposed she ought to feel frightened of the men, being as far from civilization as she was, but she felt nothing but exhaustion and the grime of hard travel on her body. Not to mention the disgust of having traveled three days in the same gown, for it was bloody cold in Wales and the poor gown was the warmest garment she possessed.
“Astoundingly inconvenient,” she said aloud.
Really, if Mrs. Smithington hadn’t died when and where she did, poor thing, Greer might have made this trip to Wales in the summer, when the sun was bright and warm. Not now, in late autumn, when the weather was dreadfully cold and damp. She might have reached Llanmair, where the Prince of Thieves—as she’d come to think of him—supposedly lived in half the time it had taken them over these ridiculously muddy and pitted roads.
But then poor Mrs. Smithington had lain down for a nap on the very day Greer reached her uncle’s dilapidated and long-sought estate. The elderly woman had just lain down and never awoke. It was a horrible way to die—alone, with no relatives save one distant nephew, her heir, in London. While it was true Mrs. Smithington could be entirely too vexing, Greer had developed a certain exasperated fondness for her, and would not have wished such a lonely death on her.
Mrs. Smithington’s tragic death, on top of everything else, made Greer wish she’d never come back to Wales. If it weren’t for good Mr. Percy, she surely would have turned back for London along with Mrs. Smithington’s effects. But Mr. Percy had encouraged her to continue on her journey.
The journey had begun a year ago, when Greer’s legal guardian, Aunt Cassandra, Lady Downey, had died unexpectedly. Aunt Cassandra’s second husband, Lord Downey, had no desire to support Greer or her cousins, Ava and Phoebe, and had firmly and eagerly stated he was prepared to give them to whoever asked for their hand, regardless of social standing or fortune, or their wishes in the matter.
That was intolerable enough, but as Greer was merely the ward of Lady Downey, she was at the greatest disadvantage. She had no family or fortune left with which to entice a proper suitor, even if Lord Downey were inclined to see her married well. All she had of her past was an old letter, a few minor possessions that had belonged to her mother, whom she could scarcely remember, and fragments of memories that included an elderly uncle, a distant father, and no siblings.
Desperate to keep herself and her cousins from the fate Lord Downey would condemn them to, and knowing that her father had died several years ago without siring an heir, Greer had embarked on this wretched journey to find her uncle and ask after an inheritance she wasn’t even certain existed. She had no knowledge of her father’s fortune, or if he even had one, but she thought certainly there must have been something left of the man’s life. And if there was something left, it surely would have been left to her father’s brother.
It was a fragile hope, but a hope nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the only way she could possibly afford to travel to Wales was as the companion of the ancient and constantly complaining Mrs. Smithington, who wanted to see the “wild bits of England.”
After traveling for months in the company of Mrs. Smithington, Greer had finally reached Bredwardine, an English village on the border of Wales, where she found her uncle’s estate shockingly dilapidated. The vague memory she held of a grand home with lush lawns and fountains was a fantasy. The house was little more than a manor, not a mansion, and there was no lawn surrounding it, just a small yard with an old pig wandering aimlessly about.
The only inhabitants of the house were an aging caretaker and his wife. Moreover, most of the rooms had been emptied of furniture long ago—there was no place to sit, no place to rest, save two rooms at the very top of the stairs, which, for reasons Greer did not want to contemplate, still boasted two old and lumpy featherbeds. And as Greer had wandered about that afternoon pondering what on earth she would do now, Mrs. Smithington had begun to complain of feeling poorly.
Greer thought nothing of it at the time. Mrs. Smithington had complained endlessly since they’d left London. They’d no sooner left the outer limits of the city when she’d begun to carp about the weather (too rainy), the condition of the roads (too rutted), and the fact that there really wasn’t very much to see once one traveled through so many miles of rolling countryside (too many trees and too far from London).
At first, Greer had found the woman’s complaining amusing in an odd sort of way, but it quickly grew tiresome, especially when Greer was the one forced to hold hatboxes or small trunks in her lap while they traveled in tight public coaches.
But then Mr. Percy had boarded their coach in Ledbury and had proceeded to compliment Mrs. Smithington’s youthful smile and claimed to be shocked by her advanced age. Dear Mr. Percy, tall and handsome with brown locks and shining hazel eyes, could have charmed the gray right from Mrs. Smithington’s head if he’d so desired.
By the time they reached Herefordshire, Mrs. Smithington had persuaded Mr. Percy to accompany them to Wales with the excuse that “in the company of a gentleman, no one will prey on two poor unmarried females.”
Greer imagined that even the most depraved of villains would be deterred by Mrs. Smithington’s constant complaining, but Mr. Percy’s attention to Mrs. Smithington had been a welcome relief for her. Not only was he exceedingly charming, he was also a very good escort. He was very solicitous of their needs.
Actually, it was in the course of Mr. Percy’s particular attention to her that Greer learned what had happened to her uncle. On occasion, when Mrs. Smithington would retire early, Greer and Mr. Percy would sit by the fire in whatever inn they happened to be residing in and chat. He would invariably compliment her—her eyes as blue as the deep sea, her hair as black as India ink. Greer found his compliments lovely, but having been out two Seasons in London, she was hardly diverted by such talk.
Eventually, he felt comfortable enough to explain how a gentleman of his obvious standing had come to be riding the public coach. As it happened, he was returning to Wales to try and reason with a ruthless relative who had stolen his rightful inheritance and cast him out of his family home, all for the crime of having an English father. It was a sinister tale, and while Mr. Percy put a very brave face on it, Greer thought his relative criminally deplorable.
The story was so deplorable that she felt compelled to likewise confess that she was looking for her paternal uncle, the last known male relative on her father’s side, who had hailed from Bredwardine. But when she mentioned her uncle’s name to Mr. Percy, a strange look came over his face. “Randolph Vaughan?” he’d repeated incredulously, and suddenly leaned forward, took Greer’s hand in his, looked at her with eyes full of sympathy, and said, “Miss Fairchild, it is my sad duty to inform you that Mr. Randolph Vaughan has…died.”
Greer gasped. “Died?”
“Kicked by a horse he was gelding. The poor man lingered for days but never recovered.”
“Oh,” Greer had said, quite at a loss upon hearing the unexpected news. “Oh my.”
“Ah, but you mustn’t fret,” Mr. Percy had said with a confident squeeze of his hand. “I know there are more of your kin in Wales.”
“More?” she’d asked, confused. “But I thought my Uncle Vaughan was the last one.”
“Of your family, perhaps. But his wife’s family was rather prominent.”
Greer had felt quite confused, and remembered asking, “If I may, sir…how do you know so much about the Vaughan family?”
“Oh, that’s quite simple, really,” he’d said with a charming smile that instantly put her at ease. “Wales is rather like a small village—Welshmen are well known to one another.”
Greer turned her attention outside the carriage and saw one of the men suddenly swing off his horse and put a hand on his waist, revealing a gun. She gasped as Mr. Percy swept off his hat and pushed a hand through his thick brown hair, then replaced his hat. He did not seem to be terribly frightened of the gun.
But then again, Mr. Percy was not the sort to be easily rattled. The day Greer had found Mrs. Smithington cold and stiff in that bed on the upper floor at Bredwardine, she’d given in to despair. After the shock of finding her companion dead, Greer had realized she had very little money, was far from any semblance of proper civilization, and was no closer to having what she’d come for than when she’d left London. But Mr. Percy was instantly at her side, soothing her and helping her to decide what must be done, and thankfully, making all the proper arrangements.
And when Mrs. Smithington was buried in the church cemetery, and arrangements had been made to have her effects sent back to London, Mr. Percy had asked, “You mean to go on, don’t you?”
“Go on?” Greer had cried. “Where might I go? My companion is dead, my uncle is dead, and his estate is falling down. I have no place to go but back to London, and I’ve scarcely the money for that.”
“I shall of course escort you wherever you choose,” Mr. Percy had said at once. “I am at your service, Miss Fairchild.”
“I couldn’t possibly impose.” Nor could she possibly risk the scandal of traveling with a man who was not her kin. She was walking on precarious ground as it was with Lord Downey, and besides, Ava and Phoebe would be positively apoplectic if they knew Mrs. Smithington had died and that she was traveling with a man she scarcely knew.
But once again, Mr. Percy had been very persuasive. “It is no imposition, I assure you! I’ve no fixed schedule. Furthermore, I know of a solicitor who might be able to direct you to the person who has taken over your uncle’s affairs.” At Greer’s curious look, he said, “Your uncle has died, but you may yet be entitled to an inheritance.”
When Greer demurred, he’d said with great authority, “Here now, Miss Fairchild! You’ve come all this way on your quest. You cannot abandon it without at least speaking to the gentleman. If he has no news for you, then I shall help you catch the first coach for London. There is little harm in asking, is there?”
She couldn’t argue that point.
The solicitor, Mr. Davies, was an elderly man whose office was in a very old building with sagging wood floors. After Mr. Percy had gallantly used his kerchief to dust off a chair for her, Greer explained her situation to the diminutive man: that she suspected she was her father’s only heir, but wasn’t certain, given her estrangement from her father at an early age.
Mr. Davies said nothing as she spoke. When she finished, he donned a pair of spectacles, ran his hands through a shock of stiff gray hair, then searched through a stack of papers and binders. He finally found a large leather binder, from which he pulled a sheaf of papers. He laid them out on his crowded desk and proceeded to study them, muttering to himself while Greer sat impatiently across the desk from him, Mr. Percy standing attentively behind her.
After a time, Mr. Davies removed his spectacles and peered closely at Greer. “Indeed, you are your father’s only living heir,” he said flatly.
Greer gasped with surprise and elation; Mr. Percy put a steadying hand on her shoulder.
“Unfortunately, as no provision was made to find you, and your whereabouts were unknown, the estate of your father, Mr. Yorath Vaughan, passed to his brother, Mr. Randolph Vaughan, who is your late uncle. Mr. Randolph Vaughan likewise had no surviving heirs, and upon his death, the whole of his estate—which included your father’s portion, naturally—was passed to the husband of his deceased wife’s deceased sister, his lordship Rhodrick Glendower.”
Greer blinked, trying to follow. Mr. Davies returned his spectacles to his face and folded his hands on top of his desk. “He is known in England, indeed in Bredwardine, as the Earl of Radnor. But not three miles from here, in Wales, he is known by another name.”
Mr. Percy’s hand tightened on Greer’s shoulder. “I beg your pardon, but you can hardly mean—”
“I do indeed, Mr. Percy!” the solicitor said grandly, obviously quite pleased with himself. “Miss Fairchild’s inheritance—if indeed it does exist—has passed along with your uncle’s estate to none other than the prince of Powys!”
“Who?” Greer asked as Mr. Percy’s hand slid away from her shoulder.
“The Prince of Powys,” Mr. Davies articulated carefully. “A hereditary title in the eyes of the English, perhaps, but in Wales, madam, he is known simply as ‘The Prince.’ He is not a man to be trifled with.”
Honestly, she didn’t care if he was the bloody king of England—he had her inheritance. “How do I find him?”
Mr. Davies slammed shut the leather binder, from which arose a cloud of dust so thick that Greer had to wave it from her face. “At Llanmair, of course, where all the princes of Powys have resided before him and shall continue to reside long after he is gone.”
“And where, precisely, is Llanmair?” she pressed.
The solicitor chuckled low, pointed at the small dingy window. “West. At the base of the Cambrians, in a wood thick with game.”
Greer squinted at the old man. He held her gaze, daring her to challenge his poetic yet impractical directions. As he seemed the intractable sort, Greer stood, fished in her reticule for a crown, and held it out to Mr. Davies. “Thank you, sir. You’ve been very helpful.”
Mr. Davies extended his bony hand and snatched the coin. “Good luck, Miss Fairchild,” he’d said, chuckling in a manner that sent a shiver down Greer’s spine.
Naturally, Mr. Percy persuaded her to continue on and to hire a private coach. Greer was rather reluctant to do so, given her dwindling funds, but Mr. Percy thought it absolutely necessary for traveling so deeply into Wales, which, naturally, he convinced her she must do. “There was something left of your father’s estate, Miss Fairchild, just as you’ve hoped! Of course you must go on! But it is a hard journey, and in the privacy of a hired coach, I should think there would be less speculation as to who you are.”
That was his very polite way of reminding her there was a way to avoid scandal. Still, she debated it—she had just enough money to go back to London, or, with a little luck, to claim her inheritance. At the time, she believed Mr. Percy was right. She had come a long way and she might as well finish her journey. So against her better judgment, her sense of propriety, and every blessed thing she had learned at Aunt Cassandra’s knee, Greer set out with Mr. Percy in the direction of Llanmair.
In a private coach.
That she had hired.
It wasn’t until they were far from any village or sign of civilization that Mr. Percy confessed that the prince of Powys was none other than his wretched uncle, the man who had ruined him.
“You can’t mean it!” Greer had cried, shocked.
“You shouldn’t be surprised, really,” he’d said cavalierly. “The man wields considerable influence in these parts. How else could he have…?” His voice trailed off, and with a sidelong glance at Greer, he clenched his jaw and shifted his gaze out the window.
“I beg your pardon—how could he have what?”
“I cannot say, Miss Fairchild. You are too…too pure to hear of the vile nature of that man.”
Greer had snorted at that. As she was traveling into Wales with a man who was not her husband or otherwise related to her, she rather thought goodness was no longer a consideration. “I have made my decision and I am quite determined, sir. You must tell me what you know of this man, for now he has my inheritance as well as yours.”
“Yes, of course, you must stand up for what is rightfully yours,” he’d agreed instantly. “You are to be commended for your bravery, Miss Fairchild.”
She wasn’t the least bit brave, she was desperate. “Then please do tell me what I must know.”
With a sigh, he’d looked at the broad palms of his hand. “In addition to seizing my lands, the details of which you are well aware, the blackguard also compromised the daughter of a solicitor in Rhayader, and then steadfastly refused to do the honorable thing by her.”
Greer blinked; Mr. Percy suddenly surged forward, put his hand on her knee, and said low, “But that was not the worst of it. Soon after his refusal, the young woman went missing. The entire county looked for her high and low…but she was nowhere to be found.”
“Oh dear God,” Greer exclaimed, her mind racing with all the horrible things that could befall a woman in a land as remote as Wales.
“But then, by some miracle, in the middle of a vast forest comprising thousands of acres, he found her.” He leaned back, removed his hand from her knee. “She was dead, of course. Broken neck.”
“Oh God, no!”
“He alone led the authorities to her body, miles from Llanmair.”
But Mr. Percy narrowed his gaze and suddenly surged forward again. “I think you do not fully take my meaning, Miss Fairchild. Twenty-five thousand acres of virgin land and forest surround Llanmair. It is impossible to traverse them all. Yet somehow, he managed to find her in a very remote ravine.”
His implication sank in, and Greer blinked. “You mean…murder?” she whispered.
Mr. Percy shrugged and sat back again. “There are many who believe it is so. There is no end to the man’s depravity.”
Now, several days later, as Greer looked out the coach’s window at that huge foreboding castle and the three mysterious men, a shiver ran down her spine. Suddenly, she needed to be near Mr. Percy and opened the coach door and stepped out just as she caught sight of a rider coming toward them. Mr. Percy saw him, too, for he instantly turned and held up a hand. “Stay in the coach, Miss Fairchild!”
But Greer did not move—she was transfixed by the approaching rider.
He was thundering toward them at a dangerous speed. His greatcoat billowed out behind him like the wings of an enormous bird and he leaned tightly over the neck of a large black steed that sent up thick clods of earth from his hooves. It seemed almost as if the man didn’t see them standing there, as if he intended to ride right through them. Greer cried out, darting behind Mr. Percy just as the rider reined to a hard stop, causing the horse to rear. The steed’s enormous legs churned the air as he came down, and the man reined the horse again, hard to the right, away from the other horses.
With a tight hold on the agitated horse, he glared at them all, and as Greer stepped out from behind Mr. Percy, he turned his glacial green eyes to her.
She’d never felt such a shiver in all her life.
The rider was older than she, perhaps by ten years or more. A scar traversed one side of his face, from the corner of his eye to the middle of his cheek, disappearing into the shadow of his beard. His jaw was clenched tightly shut, and beneath his hat, she glimpsed the distinctive black hair of the Welsh with a bit of gray at the temples. He was not a handsome man and not even the least bit agreeable—in fact, he looked quite fierce.
Mr. Percy instantly stepped in front of Greer and spoke in Welsh. Whatever he said, the man spurred his horse forward a few steps so that he could look at Greer again with those frightfully cold green eyes.
At the same moment, a fat raindrop hit the top of Greer’s bonnet, startling her. It was followed by another, and then several more, and she impulsively said to the man, from whom she had not been able to take her gaze, “If you please, we should like to pass. We mean to reach—”
Mr. Percy clamped down on her forearm and spoke in Welsh, and again the man did not respond, but looked at Greer.
“I beg your pardon,” she whispered to Mr. Percy, “but I think we should explain who we are.”
“What do you think I have been attempting to do this last quarter of an hour?” he responded curtly under his breath. “If you will just allow me—”
“But it is beginning to rain,” Greer said, noting the hint of despair in her own voice, and looked at the man in black again. “I don’t mean to be untoward, sir, but I fear we shall be caught in the rain.”
The man said nothing. Greer was getting wetter by the moment and stepped forward. “We have important business with the earl of Radnor…the, ah…the prince…so please do kindly allow us to pass.”
Once again, her plea was met with cold silence. Greer glanced anxiously at Mr. Percy. “Do you think he understands me?” she whispered.
“Oh…I am quite certain that he does,” Mr. Percy said assuredly.
If the man did or did not, he refused to make any indication, and her fear began to melt into anger at his rudeness. She lifted her chin as she stared at his rugged face, her eyes steady on his.
He surprised her by saying something in Welsh to the three men who stood between them. He then reined his horse about and rode off just as quickly as he’d arrived.
“What did he say?” Greer asked, surprised by his abrupt departure.
Mr. Percy sighed and gestured for her to step into the carriage. “He gave us leave to pass,” he muttered, and taking her arm firmly, handed her up to the coach. He glanced up at the driver. “Carry on,” he barked, and followed Greer inside.
When the coach began to move, Greer wearily brushed rainwater from her cloak and said, “His lordship may very well be a murderer, but I intend to let him know how unbearably rude his man is.”
Mr. Percy sighed irritably. “Miss Fairchild, that unbearably rude man was the prince of Powys!”
Oh dear God.