Once a Princess


Johanna Lindsey

Chapter 1

Cardinia, 1835

The Crown Prince of Cardinia drew to a halt upon entering the anteroom outside the royal bedchamber. Maximilian Daneff awaited him there alone, a portentous reminder of the prince's youth and the punishments he'd received, deservedly and sometimes not. Whenever he had been called to account for his misdeeds, it had been in these chambers, with no attendants to bear witness — other than Count Daneff, who had always served as a buffer between two hot tempers. Daneff was Prime Minister now, but even before he had risen to that exalted position, he had been a friend and advisor to the king.

He spoke now in the soothing accents bequeathed him by a Romanian mother. "Your expediency is appreciated, your Majesty. I feared we would have to scour the countryside in search of gypsy camps to find you."

The censure was there, unrestrained as usual. Max disapproved, even more than the king did, of the way the prince sometimes took his leisure. But the words didn't affect him in the usual way, neither heightening his color nor producing anger. It was the address, Majesty rather than Highness, that arrested the prince's attention, draining color from his features.

"My God, he's dead?"

"No— no!" Maximilian shouted, horrified that he had given that impression. "But—" He paused, aware that the Crown Prince had had no forewarning of what he was about to impart. "Sandor has abdicated, formally, with the Turkish Grand Vezir as witness."

Color furiously returned to the prince's cheeks. "And why was I not invited to this momentous occasion?"

"It was thought that you might be moved to protest—"

"As well I would! Why, Max? His physicians claim he has improved. Were they lying for my benefit?"

"He has improved, but... it will not last if he returns to his duties, and even so, you knew — were told — that the time he has left is limited. Your father has reached his sixty fifth year. This condition that has affected his heart has taken his strength from him. A few more months is the most we can hope for. "

No expression crossed the prince's features to tell of the pain those words caused, other than the closing of his eyes. He had been told what Max had just reminded him of, but as any child might do when faced with losing his only remaining parent, he had ignored the warnings and clung to hope. And the physicians had given him that hope, a false hope, he now realized.

"Is this why I was summoned," he asked bitterly, "to be told I am to be crowned before the old king is even in his grave?"

"I know you feel it is wrong, but it cannot be helped. It is what your father wants."

"You could assume the reins, as you do whenever he leaves the country. He need not have relinquished the honor before death took it from him."

Maximilian smiled sadly. "Do you truly believe he would not involve himself in the rigors of office when he is here and kept well informed? The only way he will have the peace necessary to survive a while longer is to remove his right to rule. He knew this, and this is what he has done. And it is only one of the reasons you were summoned, not the most important."

"What can be more so?"

"Sandor will tell you. He awaits you now, so go in to him. But a word of caution, if you will. Do not remonstrate with him for what has already been done and cannot now be changed. He abdicated willingly and even with happiness, because you are and have always been the pride of his life. As for the rest, restrain your temper and arguments, and bring them to me when you leave him. I am prepared to deal with both, your Majesty."

The address was said deliberately this time, and meant to tell him that even though he was now king, Max would treat him no differently than he ever had, with love and calm reasoning in the face of his royal rage. Speculation over what was going to cause that rage filled him with dread as he entered the royal bedchamber. Max knew that he rarely lost his temper anymore. Certainly he would argue with anyone regardless of rank, but since he had become a man, he prided himself on having developed more control of his temper.

The abdicated King of Cardinia lay propped up in his bed, a huge monstrosity that required steps to reach the dais it sat upon, then more to reach the top mattress, which was draped in fine velvet and silks and was attached to a solid gold headboard displaying the royal crest at its head. The rest of the room was just as opulent. Marble floors reflected the candlelight; walls draped in the finest silk were adorned with artwork from the masters of Europe, some paintings spreading from floor to ceiling, all in solid gold frames. But the king's bedchamber was no different from the rest of the palace, where gold and silver abounded and assured any visitor that Cardinia, although relatively small in comparison to her neighbors, contained within her borders innumerable gold mines that made her one of the richest countries in Eastern Europe.

"Already he scowls," Sandor grumbled as his son drew near. "My last mistress confessed you frightened her to death when you looked just so."

"With a countenance to send children screaming for their mothers, I am not surprised."

Sandor grew uncomfortable with a subject that, by unspoken agreement, was never to be broached. He quickly changed it with the promise, "If Max has overstepped his bounds, I will have his tongue cut out. "

"He told me only that I am king."

"Ah." Sandor ignored the sharp tone and relaxed back into his pillows, patting the mattress beside him. "Come, join me as you used to do."

The prince didn't hesitate, but bounded up the dais and stretched out his long frame on the foot of the mattress. He rested on one elbow, staring at his father with the patience he was becoming renowned for. Sandor knew in that moment that his abdication wouldn't be questioned, no matter how much his son might abhor his decision. He sighed in relief. That had been the only contention as he saw it. The rest was a matter of record that merely needed to be recalled.

"Yes, you are king, to be crowned within the week, before the Grand Vezir ends his visit."

"What, no golden graved invitations to the crowned heads of Europe?"

Sandor grinned despite his son's sarcasm. "At present we have guests representing eight of those monarchs, three princes, an archduchess, several counts, our esteemed friend from Turkey, and even an English earl who has tracked Abdul Mustafa across our borders. We will make use of them all to witness the occasion. No one will doubt that you are my heir not only by right but also by choice and favor, well loved by your people — only lacking a queen at your side."

The prince stiffened. Deep inside he had known what it was he dreaded hearing, and he had been right.

"You survived without a queen these past fifteen years since my mother died."

Those words told Sandor how upset the prince really was. Instead of shouting and raving, he had made an absurd statement like that that didn't warrant an answer, much less acknowledgment. Yet because his son was managing to restrain his rage, Sandor did answer.

"I had my Crown Prince, so what need had I of another wife — other than for a political reason, which never arose. You cannot say the same."

"Then let me choose."

The words were whispered, as close to pleading as the prince would ever come. Sandor had heard them before, the last time this subject had been brought up, when his son returned from his European tour claiming he had found the woman he wished to make his own. Of course, that time he had not been so quiet in his protests when he was denied. This time, Sandor didn't think he could withstand such protests.

To avoid them, he said, "It is my last wish, my death wish if you will, that you will honor the betrothal made the day Tatiana Janacek was born. Her father was our king, and it was his wish and decree that you rule as her consort. He could have chosen from any of the royal houses of Europe, but he chose my son. The honor was overwhelming—"

"The honor would have been negated with the birth of another Janacek son."

"When the Stamboloffs swore to wipe out his whole line? And within months they did so, everyone except for the girl child, whom I secreted out of the country. All that amazes me is that no one has ever whispered that I had more to gain than the Stamboloffs. With the Janaceks' deaths, I gained the throne."

"Their feud was legendary. You had no part in it.

"Be that as it may, the last Stamboloff has finally been found and eliminated. At long last it is safe for the princess to return to her homeland and sit on the throne that is her right by birth."

"She lost that right, Father. No one wanted an infant queen, especially one whose chances of surviving an assassin's bullet were next to nothing. Though she still lived, you were declared king. Even if she returns now, she no longer has a claim to the crown. "

"Except through you," Sandor reminded him softly. "Circumstances have made you king instead of consort. You no longer must rule through her. But hers is the true royal line, and your children can only benefit from it."

"Ours is as royal—"

"Certainly, but indirectly descended. My God, eleven Janaceks had to die before I became next in line to the throne. Eleven! The crown should never have been mine, nor did I covet it, cursed as it was. But it came to me, and now to you, and you, my boy, are the end of the royal line — you and this one surviving Janacek. So whatever maggoty reason you have in your head for not wanting her, you will ignore it and honor my last wish. You will go to the Americas, where Baroness Tomilova has raised her.. You will bring her home and wed her with all the pomp and circumstance a royal wedding decrees. And, God willing, I will live long enough to see it done."