The Prince or the Soldier
By Kylee Woodley
Castle Hill Lodge in Ealing, England. 1809
The moment the soldier spotted her, Adelaide knew returning to Castle Hill Lodge had been a grave error. She peeked around the side of the carriage house again. Though men clad in red coats dotted the lawn and the colonnaded porch of the mansion, only one stood out. Captain Seth Rainsford strode toward her, the slight limp in his gait in no way detracting from his formidable build.
She pushed off the wall, the striped cotton of her gown catching on a splinter. The hiss of fabric did not stop her. She ran across the yard and past the smith’s shop then glanced backward, nearly losing her footing where the ground sloped downward.
Seth gave chase, losing his hat in the process. She ran behind clusters of trees, treading on the few leaves that answered autumn’s pull and emerging on the other side. Adelaide turned in the direction of the lodge, but Seth cut her off. Another soldier laughed and shouted something about his wayward girl.
She avoided his path, but in doing so moved farther away from her destination. I shall never make it, and this is my last chance. The prince was leaving the region this day. If she did not succeed, everything she’d worked for would be wasted—those years in Geneva, saving for the journey to England, the months working at the bakery and the dreadful theater. “Lord, give me wings?”
“Augusta?” Seth called the name she’d given him upon their meeting.
If he caught her, he’d expel her from the grounds.
She padded onto the road and across, her legs heavy and her pink silk shoes slipping when the lawn sloped up a knoll. At the top, a white rotunda overlooked the acres of forested grounds beneath a foamy blue sky. Her heels clicked on the porch when she gained her footing. If she could just hide long enough for Seth to give up.
Adelaide scurried around the porch right into Seth’s arms. She yelped and shoved him. “Libère moi!”
He released her for a moment—his youthful face startled—but Adelaide darted away, so he wrapped his arms around her, binding her against the soft wool of his coat. Being in his arms again was like being too close to a fire, comforting but painful.
Though she knew he would never hurt her, she glared at him. He returned the act with intense brown eyes. “For what do you return? Do you seek more humiliation?”
“Libère moi. Release me.”
“He would see you, I am sure, but then what? He would discard you as quickly as he discards a dinner napkin. And what if the madame catches you again? She would see you tossed off a cliff.”
The hair on her neck raised, and she shook her head. A cool wind swept over the land, pressing her skirts into her back and sending the ribbons in her fitted cap fluttering around her face.
His gaze moved from her eyes to her mouth. Warmth swept through her, like that one time after an eve of dancing when she had permitted him a single, soft kiss.
Shaking his head, Seth let her go yet stood poised for her to run. “You waste yourself on a man you can never have, Augusta. Why not marry the theater owner? Or the baker if you wish for a more modest lifestyle for your children?”
“You said Mr. Lucius was too old. The baker, too fat.”
“As both are younger and thinner than the prince, I think them amiable matches for you.”
“Pray, what changed your mind?”
“I did not know your tastes at the time, but now I am well acquainted with them. Provided both men have sufficient funds to purchase your ribbons, laces, and silk shoes, I daresay either can win your hand.”
She raised her chin against the hardening in her throat. The implications—though often thrown at her from others—still hurt like scalding tea on a bloodied lip. Denying such claims had been fruitless in Geneva when she’d performed on the stage with her aunt. After all, everyone knew that actors were of a carnal nature.
England had offered her a new life—or so she’d thought when she arrived on a ship from Geneva the year before. For months she’d worked at a bakery serving the soldiers that frequented the establishment and, every Sunday, accompanying Seth to church. They’d walked together, slowly, sharing their hopes and dreams for a future. But the stage had offered a way for her to meet the prince after Madame de Saint-Laurent had turned her away when she’d tried to work at the lodge as a maid.
Soon the carriage would leave, taking with it Adelaide’s last hope, and though Seth looked on her with resignation that tore at her heart, she’d play her part long enough to distract him. Once his guard was down, she’d run for it. Or better yet, she’d trick him into taking her closer to the lodge. If she could just get near the prince to tell him who she was, to make a connection. Surely, he still cared for her.
She slipped her arms around Seth’s neck. He tensed then took her waist. “How do you speak so freely of my woman’s heart?”
His eyelids heavy, he drew in a deep breath. “Though once I believed I loved your heart, I know better that you are unlovable, for none can know the true Augusta. Always lies and deceit and for that no man can know you.”
“That’s not true.”
“I see no proof to contradict. Do you?”
She released him and stepped back as tears burned her cheeks. Why had she ever entertained the notion he cared? His affection vanished a fortnight before when Madame de Saint-Laurent caught her near the prince. The woman had declared her a temptress who should be tossed out with the pigs. It was a shame that Seth was one of the guards called to escort her out and that Adelaide—having earned the wrath of Madame de Saint-Laurent—looked the part of a seductress. He stood before her, her last hope for love and a family all ruined because of the secret that shaped her life.
Seth looked away from her, the slight bend in the bridge of his otherwise perfect nose highlighting his profile. A nearly faded scar ran down into his cravat. He’d suffered wounds in battle that resulted in his limp. His ability to rise in the ranks was paramount to success in the military, yet those old wounds had already cost him a promotion. He had confided much to her in the days when they were close. The days when he trusted her but she’d not been brave enough to trust him in return. If he knew the truth, could he forgive her?
Gripping courage, she settled her hand atop his, her voice soft when she spoke. “Seth…”
The rumble of horses’ hooves and the royal carriage sounded on the road below. The prince was leaving. Adelaide dashed toward the edge of the porch, but Seth caught her. She kicked his shins and clawed at his arms, trying to gain her freedom.
“You will only make a fool of yourself, Augusta. Pray, cease your fighting.” His rock-hard arms surrounded her, his voice near her ear.
“You don’t understand. You must let me go. Please,” she cried, switching to the language she’d grown up speaking. The back of her head collided with his nose, slamming his own against the wall of the rotunda. He let her go.
Adelaide flew down the hillside, the skirts she’d looped up into two puffs in the back coming loose and flouncing behind her. “Wait! Please stop!”
The entourage kicked up dust from the road, though she could see some of the horses. The ground was rough, and her high-heeled shoes caught every rut and bump. One loosened and came off, and her heel slammed down hard, sending pain through her ankle. The horses and carriage disappeared around a treed corner.
Adelaide covered her face with her hands and sobbed. She’d lost her chance of ever meeting the man who sired her.
Seth’s footfalls sounded on the road behind her, drawing nearer until he stopped at her side. “Come, Augusta. I will escort you to town.”
“That is not my name.” She pulled her hands down, only to gasp when she saw him.
He pressed a handkerchief to his bleeding nose, that incredibly curly hair of his having come undone from precisely combed lines to allow a ringlet to hang over his forehead.
He held her shoe in his other hand. “Not your name?”
“No. My name is Adelaide Victoria Augusta Dubus, and I am the prince’s daughter.”
“You said your name was Augusta Du Londel. You gave me a false name?”
“I tell you the prince is my father, who is lost to me because of you, and those are all the words you can muster?”
“My mother was an actress who kept company with the prince when he was in Geneva. I was born in 1789. My grandfather told me the truth of my birth on his deathbed. I came to England to find my father, and now…” She extended her arm down the way, her chin trembling. “He is gone.”
Seth blinked. His gaze traveled from her face, to the road, and back. He stepped to her and turned one arm around her back. “I apologize. Here is your shoe. Come sit on the grass.” He guided her to the lawn and laid down his coat for her to sit on, leaving him in a white linen shirt.
Adelaide stared in the direction the coach had disappeared, tears coming quickly. All was lost. None of the remaining regiment would allow her near the horses even if she managed to get away from Seth.
His hand, large and warm, dusted off her stocking covered foot. Adelaide closed her eyes and prayed—the way she’d prayed for the past year, yet her every attempt to connect with Prince Edward had made her life worse. God, if there is some way… I cannot live like this any longer. Not my will but thine.
“Adelaide?” Seth’s deep voice speaking her real name settled a calm around her.
She opened her eyes to a man who had been her friend when she had no one else.
He slipped her shoe onto her foot then tucked her foot beneath the hem of her skirt. “I heard the babe conceived in Geneva died.”
Of course. He didn’t believe her. For precisely this reason, she had not wanted to share her secret with anyone.
As though sensing her withdrawal, he softened that harsh brow of his. “Your connection would shed light on the things that have kept us apart.”
“Yet you think I lie.”
“I do not.” He shifted to block the sunlight settling across them. “I only want to know the tale. Will you trust me?”
Already, she had told him more than she’d ever told any other living being, and she wanted to trust him with more. Adelaide inclined her head. “When my mother died in childbed, I was given into the care of my aunt Victoire. Prince Edward arranged a pension to be given to her and my grandfather, Mr. Denis Dubus. Fifty guineas a year for the remainder of their lives because my mother, as the star of the show, was the main source of income. The pension came with conditions, one of which included that I never become an actress. My mother was exquisite, and they believed I was born for the stage when I showed an aptitude at an early age, and so…”
“They conspired to trick the prince?”
“Yes. When I was two, the prince commanded to see his daughter. My aunt took another child, an orphan off the streets with my likeness. Unfortunately, the child was not healthy and when she died on the voyage, my aunt reported to the prince that I had died. We lived in Geneva under the pretense that I was my aunt’s daughter. I did not learn of my true parentage until last year.”
“Was Victoire good to you?”
Of all the questions he could point at her, this one surprised Adelaide the most. “Oui. Except that she lied to me about who I was for all my life.”
“I’m sorry.” He held her gloved hand. “That night at the theater, what happened?”
Her stomach rolled, and Adelaide closed her eyes for a moment remembering the night that had brought even more loss to her life. “My intention in approaching the prince was only to see if he still wanted to know me. He invited me to sit with him, but I hadn’t the courage to reveal my identity. When Madame de Saint-Laurent saw, she assumed the worst and became angry. She slapped me and pulled my hair. I lost my handkerchief to her rough handling as well. That is why I was so exposed and looked as though I’d done something untoward. While actresses are viewed by society as scandalous, I’ve never—” Face painfully hot, she shook her head as her humiliation returned.
Seth shifted closer to her and wrapped one arm around her, pressing her cheek to his chest. “I’m sorry. You could have told me then.”
“I didn’t think anyone would believe me, and I’m used to having people assume the worst about me. When you believed I was everything the madame said, I lost all hope of becoming someone better in England.”
“I shouldn’t have believed the worst of you. Can you forgive me?”
“Me forgive you?”
He drew her hand to his lips and gently kissed her fingers. “For not knowing your heart better. For not loving you better.”
His jaw tensed, and he cleared his throat. “We must speak to your father, though I don’t know how successful you’ll be at convincing him. Edward is rumored to have other illegitimate children, and none are accepted by the royal family. If anything, their lives are more difficult in polite society because of their parentage.”
Shoulders lowering, she nodded, looking down the road that ran away from Castle Hill Lodge. “Oui, it’s true, but he is my father. N’est pas?”
Seth stood, pulling her up with him and retrieving his jacket. “Come quickly. We must hurry if we are to catch him before his ship sets sail.”
“Pardon? I don’t know if he even will believe me. He may think you have been deceived or that you are a fraud, and the madame will tell him it is a lie.”
Still, he led her across the grass toward the barracks.
“Seth, wait please?” She pulled him to a stop. “If the prince is displeased, you put your position in danger.”
“I care not.”
“I will not have you risk your career because of me.”
“I would risk all to see your heart mended.” He caught her gently by the arms. “I cannot bear to hear you cry again or see the misery in your eyes because you’ve lost another person you love. Especially when I am the one to blame.”
“You are not. I blame my aunt and grandfather for keeping this secret, and the prince is at fault for not fulfilling his fatherly duty properly.” And there it was—the truth. Neither Seth nor God had failed her, only those who from birth should have loved her.
“You won’t be happy until you’ve had your chance.” He started away again, but this time she pulled herself completely from his grasp and folded her hands before her linen underskirt.
“I will not go.”
“This is all you’ve wanted since coming here. Do not be stubborn, Adelaide.”
How well her name fit on his lips. Seth waited, most fierce with his hard brow and squared shoulders where he stood beside a dogwood tree. He’d go to battle for her if she asked, but she needed something else, something different. Something she hadn’t known she wanted until he spoke her true name.
Adelaide stepped nearer, placing her pink silk shoes between his leather riding boots, her gaze lingering in his then dropping to his lips. She softly kissed him. His gentle breath fanned her cheek, and his rough hands cradled her face. Though they’d kissed before, this was different—full of promise and hope.
His eyes slowly opened at the end of the contact. “Adelaide, what would you have me do?”
The way to town, to the ship that would sail and a prince who had abandoned her as a babe—all of it was behind her as she fastened her hands behind his neck. “I would have you stay with me, like we planned before that dreadful night at the theater.”
“You were willing to abandon our future for the prince then. What has changed your mind?” Emotions softened his voice.
What indeed? Why, after chasing the father she’d always needed, would she stop? Her prayer returned to mind—not my will but thine. Before her stood a courageous man who would risk his future and career to see her joined to a father who had failed her.
“Adelaide, say the word, and I will take you to him.” He cupped each of his large hands around her forearms, having not returned her embrace.
She’d hurt him far worse than ever she’d imagined. “I erred, sorely. Forgive me. I choose you, a future with you, over the prince.”
“Yes, though I may feel the need to connect with him later, once your future is secure. I would not have you risk falling into bad rapport with him now for my sake.”
“I would find a way. No matter the cost.”
A smile turned her mouth, warming her insides as she breathed a sigh of relief. “There is no need. I would rather start a life with you than continue this fruitless trail.”
He tucked a curl that had come loose from her ruffled cap behind her ear. “I hear there is a theater owner in town who is smitten with you.”
“He is too old.”
“There is also a baker. He may make a better husband than a soldier would.”
Laughter in her throat, she shrugged. “He is too fat. I want only you.”
His features softened, the affection in his eyes like warm dark honey. “A soldier it is then.” And then he kissed her.