Welcome to Lenvia, where the young prince has been given a year to choose a wife or have one chosen for him. Hoping for a desperate family to send an innocent into the fray, Edward arranges a series of Bride Balls--outrageous sexual events--and a willing decoy in his bid to find someone who loves him for himself and not his crown.
Enter Amber, daughter of a dead lord on his beloved mistress, a servant in her own household. When her irrepressible grandmother pushes her to find a husband or lover to protect her from the wrath of her step-mother, Amber loses more than her virginity...but it’s not a glass slipper that the prince has to track her with.
The race is on. Before these two are through, more than one couple may find their way through the traps of poison, lies, and no-win choices forged at a long ago Bride Ball and left to fester through two generations of the royal family.
Amber turned from the table, wiping flour dust from her hands onto her apron as she marched smartly to the door. The knock came again, just as she reached for the handle, an impatient demand for attention. She opened it, staring at the man standing outside.
He was impeccably presented, a dark suit that suggested a professional man or a mid-level noble. He offered a slight bow of his dark head to her. “Lady Reanne of Oakmarch?” he asked.
“My grandmother,” she offered with a similar bow for courtesy.
“Is she about? I must speak with her.”
“Mr...?” Did he honestly believe she would admit him that simply, without even a name to explain himself?
“Lewis Elmstead.” He pulled a fold of parchment from his inner coat pocket, bearing the prince’s seal. “If you please?”
Amber nodded, all but stumbling out of his way and waving him inside. It wasn’t often that someone bearing a royal seal graced their home; for her Nana’s sake, Amber had to be perfect in her service. She closed the door behind him, then led the way up the stairs and toward her grandmother’s rooms with a whispered word of welcome for him.
Nana’s parlor was open, as it nearly always was. Amber motioned to the prince’s emissary to wait and strode inside.
“Nana? Have you time for company?” she inquired, hoping it was appropriate to ask such a thing when it was a guest of this importance.
Nana’s beautiful blue eyes met hers, her smile making the creases in her ancient face deeper. “Ah, my Amber. Is it time for tea already?”
“Not quite, Nana. A royal representative needs to see you.” Her mind spun. How did one see to the comforts of someone of this status? It had been so long, and Mora had been hovering the last time... Tea! Of course. “But I will bring tea and fresh bread with jam.”
Nana looked up at last, glanced toward the open doorway, then nodded with a grim smile. “Show him in on your way, dear.”
“Yes, Nana. As you wish.” It was a relief to know she’d offered the right response.
She went back to the hall, offering a smile that felt strained to the emissary. “Lemon or milk, sir?” she asked.
“Milk.” He motioned to the parlor. “If I may,” he hinted.
Her face burned in embarrassment. “Of course.” Amber stepped back into the room. “Nana, may I present Mr. Lewis Elmstead?” She hurried away to the kitchen before further pleasantries were exchanged.
Heating the water and steeping the tea didn’t take long. In short order, she had Nana’s finest stoneware set on a tray and headed up the stairs with it.
The murmur of voices announced that the two were in earnest discussion about something. Amber breezed into the room and set the tray on the serving table as quietly as she could. A servant should always be inconspicuous.
“So, there are three young ladies in the household?” Elmstead asked, making note of it in a small leather-bound book.
“Indeed, there are,” Nana replied.
“Sugar, sir?” Amber asked, seizing what seemed the ideal moment to interrupt.
He didn’t look up from his work, ignoring her as most of the higher classes would. “No, thank you. Just milk, if you please.”
“Marmalade or elderberry?”
His pen stopped moving. “Pardon?”
“On your bread, sir? Do you prefer marmalade or elderberry?”
“Elderberry, thank you.” He went back to his work, addressing Nana. “And all three will attend?”
Amber spread elderberry jam on two thick slices of warm bread and mixed sugar into Nana’s cup of tea.
“I should say so,” Nana replied, as if it was an offense that the man had asked her such a question.
That voice nearly stopped Amber cold. It was haughty, something Nana was not known to be. It was as if she’d suddenly taken lessons from Mora.
She moved on, delivering the cups and plates wordlessly. Not wanting to intrude further, Amber headed for the door.
“Amber, dear,” Nana called out. “Sit. This concerns you.”
She came to stand before them.
“Sit,” Nana ordered again.
“But my dress is covered in flour.”
“And it will brush off. Sit.”
Amber nodded, settling in her father’s old chair.
“Their names?” Elmstead requested.
“This is my granddaughter, Amber of Oakmarch. The others are Ladies Marquita and Kambry Montberry.”
“Daughters of the Duke, I presume,” he intoned.
“On his first wife, Lady Mora. My son married her shortly after the Duke’s mistress presented him with his son, and he took her to wife to secure the child.”
“Your son was Lady Amber’s father?” he pressed.
Amber darkened. She wasn’t a titled lady, a fact that Mora never let her forget. Still, it would be rude to correct the gentleman.
“He was. My late husband was of the old leanings, though.”
Elmstead scratched at something in the book, most likely the title he’d assigned her in error. She knew her face was crimson and she ached to escape the conversation before the emissary announced she wasn’t welcome at whatever function they were discussing. But Nana had ordered her to stay. She had to sit quietly and hear his condemnation, no matter how much it galled her to do so.
“Your son had no heirs?”
“No. Xandra, Amber’s mother, died trying to bring forth his son. It is a shame that my husband still lived, then.”
He looked up, his expression curious. “You would have sanctioned the match?”
“Of course. Xandra was a lovely and gracious woman. She and Marcus were quite in love. But she was lowborn, and Nathaniel wouldn’t allow Marcus to marry her, unless Xandra produced a son for him.”
“But he did allow his son’s illegitimate child to stay,” he noted.
Amber bristled at that, clenching her teeth to silence her protest that a mistress’s child is not illegitimate. She wasn’t heir, but no woman truly was. She had no title, nor did she want one. She was hardly the result of some tavern fling. Her father had always declared her openly and with pride.
“Marcus had the right to any offspring he’d openly claimed. Even Nathaniel couldn’t argue that.”
“Of course.” Elmstead dismissed the discussion that quickly.
He’s dismissed me.
He continued, oblivious to her anger. “The three, then. They must bring an escort, as you know.”
Nana sighed. “I fear I am far too old for such amusements. I imagine Lady Mora will accompany them.”
He added a note to the book and snapped it shut. “Very well, Lady Reanne. I should be on my way.”
Almost as a matter of form, the emissary took a sip of the tea, then lifted the bread and took a dainty bite. His chewing slowed, and he took a second...a larger one. When he’d swallowed it, he smiled.
“This jam is excellent, Lady Reanne.”
“My granddaughter makes it,” she offered, puffing up in pride that he took notice.
Elmstead focused on Amber fully, and she fought the urge to wiggle in embarrassment. His gaze panned from her face to her chest, and Amber wished, not for the first time, that she had something less revealing than Kambry’s reworked, discarded dresses to wear. They were well within the laws for modesty, but those were lax.
“Does she?” he asked, his smile widening.
Amber cleared her throat. “I would be happy to gift you an assortment from the pantry,” she offered, peeking at Nana out of the corner of her eye, relaxing at the old woman’s nod of encouragement.
“I would like that.”
“Very well,” Nana said brusquely. “You can take care of that while you show Lord Elmstead out. Have a good day, sir.”
Elmstead took her hand without looking away from Amber. “A pleasure, Lady Reanne. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Always offered,” Nana replied.
He rose, and Amber did likewise. She hurried ahead of him, wanting to be rid of him though she wasn’t certain why that was.
At the pantry, Elmstead crowded close to her, fingering Amber’s hair. Warning bells went off at that, and she turned, jams in hand.
“Elderberry, marmalade, blackberry, and currant,” she informed him.
“And are you as sweet?”
His hand settled at her hip. “I could use another mistress.”
Her breathing went ragged in panic. What was the proper way to rebuff him without causing offense? “My grandmother expects—”
“She offered hospitality.”
Surely, that didn’t mean Amber was required to bed with him. Nana wouldn’t do such a thing to her.
Elmstead smiled, but the smile made her heart pound in fear.
“We could have a taste. If I am pleased, the opening—”
“I have a lot of work,” she offered, realizing how lame it sounded, even as the words issued forth.
“I take it you’re not willing?” he asked. To her relief, there was no snap of annoyance.
“I’m afraid not. It’s not that you are displeasing, sir,” she hastened to add.
“But you are not of the heart to be my mistress.” He didn’t question it.
“I’m afraid not.”
He nodded. “Very well, but keep me in mind. When Lady Reanne passes, Lady Mora is not likely to tolerate your presence.”
She nodded, her heart aching. Elmstead knew her greatest fear; she only wished his mention of it didn’t sound so much like a threat.
“I am kind to my mistresses,” he assured her.
“I will bear it in mind.” But selling herself into such a situation with a man she found no attraction to wasn’t to Amber’s tastes. She’d rather live in squalor with someone that made her heart pound in excitement than in luxury with one that made it pound in fear.
Elmstead smiled in a way that Amber was sure some women would find devastating. “Another time, then.” He collected the jars and turned toward the door.
Amber hurried ahead of him again, opening the door and bidding him a polite “good day.” He stepped through and made for his vehicle without a backward glance. She forced herself to shut the door slowly, then rushed to the window to make certain that he left promptly.
Elmstead handed the jars to a guard, who stored them in a large pack on the front seat of the vehicle. Then the lord slid into the rear seat and smoothed his suit jacket.
“That was an extended stay,” the guard noted. “Did you find a diversion inside?” It was obvious that he was teasing the lord.
Elmstead glanced toward the house, his eyes locking on the window she was peeking through. She shut the drape with a gasp, hoping she hadn’t encouraged him.
“Nearly, William. Nearly.”
Doors closed; the vehicle roared to life and then rumbled away toward town.
Amber took a calming breath. She looked toward the floor above, seething at her grandmother’s plans for her. Without a thought to the dinner that needed roasting, she launched up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
“Nana!” Amber burst through the doorway into the parlor, stopping in military form as her father often had, planting her fists on her hips. “How could you?” she demanded.
Nana sipped her tea, unperturbed by the show of temper. “He offered you a place. Didn’t he?”
“As his mistress.” She swallowed a wave of disgust.
“I was Nathaniel’s mistress.”
How many times had she repeated that? As if her positive experience negates all other possible outcomes.
“He’s twice my age, at least. And my mother was a mistress, if you care to recall. Had she lived, all would be well, but she didn’t.” And where had that left Amber?
“Yours was an extreme case. Your father trusted too much. He left too much in Mora’s control, believing she would be good to you.”
Amber snorted in an unladylike manner.
For once, Nana didn’t offer correction. “Why did you turn him down?” she asked, jumping topic to topic as she always did when they came to this impasse.
“Why should I accept him?” Amber countered.
“Lord Elmstead did nothing for you, then?”
“No,” she admitted. “He was nice enough, in his own way, but...” How did one qualify what she wanted? A man that made her heart sing?
Nana considered that. “You need a younger man, one that excites you.”
Amber pressed the heel of her hand to her forehead, feeling the first twinges of pain that would soon be pounding. “Nana,” she began patiently. “I do not need a man, at all.”
“Yet, but someday soon, you will.”
She nodded miserably. Nana wouldn’t live forever. When she died, “Lady” Mora would set Amber out, even if a blizzard blew.
“A young man then.” She waved a folded piece of parchment with a broken seal. “And this is the perfect place to find one.”
Amber groaned, plodding to the chair she’d used earlier and dropping into it, her head aching. At the very least, it already needed dusting. She couldn’t do much more damage, could she? She consigned herself to some torture of the old woman’s devious mind. “What now?”
“The prince is throwing a ball.”
“I don’t know how to dance, Nana. What would I do at a ball?” She’d be hopeless, a laughingstock. A ball would hurt her chances, not help them. Besides that, she wasn’t a noble. Last she checked, balls were for the nobility and royalty.
“How convenient that it is not that sort of ball.”
Amber screwed up her face in confusion. “What other sort of ball is there?”
Nana handed the parchment over, and Amber spread it flat on her lap.
To the ladies of Lenvia, I send greetings,
Be it known that His Highness, Prince Edward, seeks consorts, mistresses, and/or a bride. To that end, there will be a series of evening events in the four quarters of the Kingdom. The next Bride Ball will be held the 20th of Lunn at the estate of Lord Lewis Elmstead, to begin at dusk. All ladies, high and low, are urged to attend. In addition to His Highness, all noblemen of a want will be welcome to...
Amber scanned the rest, including the rather extensive list of rules for the event. “All young ladies must have a female escort, who will be responsible for their actions. No weapons or aphrodisiacs are permitted on the premises, under the harshest penalties allowed by law. Aphrodi... A sexual ball?” she asked.
“There is dancing there,” Nana mused, “but not those tiresome court dances. A woman need merely be swept away at a Bride Ball.”
“I have heard they are—”
Hardly the word Amber would have used for it.
“Oh, I wish I was young enough to escort you,” Nana sighed, her eyes glittering at some far-off memory.
“You cannot be serious. Being pawed by noblemen?” The thought sickened her.
“Only if you invite it. A simple refusal will end any unwanted attention.”
Amber picked that apart, looking for something to attack. Nana was making that difficult.
Not to mention, Lord Elmstead had taken her refusal well enough. Of course, he believed she’d be forced to call on him someday; he’d made that clear enough.
But she’d heard about Bride Balls. Women did the most shocking things there: sexual displays with men and other women, bared bodies for sale...
“What would I wear?” Amber asked, seizing at one thing Nana couldn’t have an answer to. Nothing she owned was appropriate for a Bride Ball. Thank the Goddess Mother! She couldn’t go in her work dresses, and it was a safe wager that Marquita and Kambry were not going to lend her something suitable.
Nana chuckled. “I have the very thing. It may not be the height of fashion, but it will showcase your attributes nicely.” Her gaze fell, rather pointedly, on Amber’s chest.
Amber felt her face burn, and she found it hard to breathe, let alone speak. “Showcase? You don’t mean...” She crossed her arms over her chest at that thought.
“You won’t be walking around with your wares on display...unless you wish to.”
“That’s quite all right, thank you.”
“Then, it’s decided,” Nana stated.
“What?” Amber hadn’t decided anything. “I don’t know what to do.”
“It’s simple. Meet the noblemen. If any among them stokes the flame within you, give him leave to seduce you. If anything disturbs you, refuse. If not, pursue pleasure. If it pleases you both enough, accept a position...or a trial position.”
“And...if it doesn’t please us both enough?”
Nana raked her gaze up and down Amber’s body. “Your first time may not be, though it is for some. We could...”
“Nana! You are joking, I hope.” Amber forced her legs to relax, abruptly aware that she was clenching her thighs together in rebellion at the suggestion.
“A sensible choice. The nobles like educating a virgin. You are more likely to make a coveted arrangement, if they know you’ve never experienced—”
“I may have a headache coming on,” Amber moaned. May? It was pounding behind her eyes with sickening intensity.
“If you do, have it now. On the night of the Bride Ball, you will want to enjoy yourself fully.”
“Nana,” she pleaded.
“Trust me. If some young buck makes you hunger, be willing to play.”