Unveiling His Princess by L.K. Below

Unveiling His Princess
by L.K. Below

Liquid Silver Books

eBook ISBN: 978-1-59578-788-0

When Natalia’s stepsister steals her identity in order to marry Prince Bennett in her place, Natalia nearly gives up hope. Instead, she sets out in disguise, armed with three magical walnuts and all with the purpose of seducing the prince.

Chapter One

Natalia had always known she would marry Prince Bennett; their union had been arranged when she was still in the cradle. But with her father’s remarriage and the arrival of Natalia’s stepsister, the state of her betrothal seemed poised precariously on the brink of a precipice. And her stepsister was determined to see it reduced to tatters.
Antonia first began with cajoling. She wanted Prince Bennett for herself–that much was obvious–but Natalia refused to admit defeat. With the contract arranged and signed, her marriage was a matter of honor. Her feelings for Prince Bennett aside, she would see it through to the letter. Unfortunately, Antonia had other ideas.
When her pretence at sisterly affection did not work, Antonia turned to crueler means. She took to following Natalia around, criticizing her at every point and undermining her self-confidence. Although Natalia valiantly buried her emotions when in Antonia’s presence, she couldn’t stop the tears leaking from her eyes onto the pillow each night. Even worse, she began to wonder which of Antonia’s barbs were true and which were fancied. But even that did not achieve Antonia’s goals. Natalia refused to back down.
Now, Antonia’s desperation was beginning to show in her actions.
Natalia didn’t expect to meet Antonia in the corridor at such an early hour. Her stepsister usually lay abed until noon. However, as soon as Natalia exited her chambers in her least conspicuous dress, bound for her morning tour of the gardens, she came face to face with her horrid stepsister.
Composure, she reminded herself. Antonia might have cut her deeply in past weeks, but Natalia was determined not to let it show. A princess must never show her weaknesses. Therefore, instead of retreating to her chambers as she dearly wished to, she coolly nodded to Antonia and continued past her. “Good morning, Antonia,” she murmured under her breath. She was proud to hear no tremble in her voice.
Continuing down the hall, she frowned at the open door of a linen closet. The maids were usually conscientious enough to shut the doors after they were through with their chores, in order to maintain the overall aesthetic appeal of the castle. Natalia gave an inner shrug. Clearly, someone had been negligent.
As she stepped past the linen closet, Antonia broadsided her. Unprepared for Antonia’s attack, Natalia stumbled into the closet, aided by her stepsister’s rough pushes. She caught herself on the shelves before she fell, but before she could gather her wits and straighten her clothing, Antonia slammed the closet door. As she heard the click of a lock, Natalia’s breath fled. Her hand shot out to grip the handle, though she knew it was no use. She was locked inside.
Although her breath began to tremble, she refrained from banging on the door. Princesses did not bang on doors. They did not scream. They remained calm and poised, and so, too, would she. Clasping her arms around her middle, she struggled to keep her tears at bay.
Antonia’s cold, shrill voice pierced through the wood. “I’m afraid you’ll have to stay in here, Princess Bitch. That’s what they call you, you know. The servants, the knights, even your own father. Luckily for Prince Bennett, he won’t be marrying you.”
At the pronouncement, Natalia held her breath. Her mind counted the seconds as she waited for the speech that was sure to follow. Antonia’s narrow-minded spiel seldom differed.
“He will be marrying me,” Antonia said in a self-satisfied tone. “With his father’s death, he will need to wed in order to claim the throne as king. Instead of having him come here to claim his bride, I will go to him–as you.”
As Natalia gasped, she clasped a hand over her mouth to stifle the sound.
Her tone cutting, Antonia continued, “You won’t interfere, Princess Bitch–unless you want a scandal, that is. By the time you get free of this closet, it will be too late to stop me, anyway. Have fun in the dust and spiders–it’s where you belong!”
As Antonia’s laughing retreat echoed in Natalia’s ears, she bit the inside of her cheek. Still, tears sprang to her eyes. She had expected cruelty, but she had never expected this. At that moment, with Natalia cloistered in the dark, dusty closet, Antonia seemed destined to get her wish. She would wed Prince Bennett, and Natalia would be left to watch.
Sobbing quietly, she sank to the floor.
* * * *
When the housekeeper found her later in the day, Natalia was still huddled on the floor of the closet, no doubt with cobwebs clinging to her hair. Although she tried, she couldn’t keep her composure in front of Mrs. Grimsby. Tears leaked down her cheeks. The steel-haired housekeeper, getting on in years, wore a sympathetic look as she helped Natalia to her feet. After hours of sitting cramped in the closet, her legs screamed in protest. She tried to gather as much composure as she could manage as she looked into Mrs. Grimsby’s kind blue eyes. “An-Antonia,” she hiccupped.
Mrs. Grimsby rested her hand lightly upon Natalia’s arm. “We know, dear. We’ve been searching for you. We feared she had done away with you. Why didn’t you call out, darling?”
As her eyes widened, Natalia admitted, “A princess n-never screams.”
The housekeeper stroked her hair. “I think in this case, she does. But come, the king wishes to speak with you.”
Natalia allowed herself to be led along by Mrs. Grimsby. As she went, she composed herself, though her composure nearly flew out the nearest window as she glimpsed her countenance in one of the palace’s many mirrors.
She looked beastly. Strands of her hair had escaped the plait she had quickly woven her hair into that morning. They gave her a brown halo, sticking up at odd angles from her head. Her usually creamy skin was marred with smudges of dirt and her blue eyes were rimmed with puffy, red skin. She looked nothing at all like the princess she was.
Antonia’s words from a week before resurfaced in her mind: You can never hope to compare to my beauty. I will always be beautiful, and you will always have that scraggly hair. The only things that make you remotely pretty are the clothes you wear. Without them, you would look like the hideous frog you are!
Peering at herself in the mirror, Natalia certainly felt every bit as bedraggled as Antonia claimed, but Mrs. Grimsby ushered her along the corridor to her father’s study, giving her no time to compose herself. Time was of the essence if she was to put a thorn in Antonia’s plans and reclaim Prince Bennett as her own.
But, her mind insisted, did she want to?
She banished such a silly thought from her mind. It was a matter of honor, after all. If Prince Bennett declared that her father had duped him into marrying a false bride, there would be a rift between kingdoms. There might even be war. Straightening her shoulders, she raised her chin and rapped her knuckles once on the door. Despite her beggar-like appearance, she entered the king’s study with all the serenity expected of a princess. Mrs. Grimsby followed in her wake. Her father would know how to rectify the situation.
The deep lines etched around her father’s mouth and eyes eased as he looked at her. He stood, though his grim expression did not alter. “Antonia is gone.”
Natalia’s gaze flittered over his tall, red-garbed form and then retreated to her sturdy shoes. “I know, Father,” she whispered.
“She left a note, stating her intentions. And–Natalia, she took with her your lady’s maids, your jewelry, your clothes, even every last one of your handkerchiefs.”
Natalia let out her breath slowly. She had expected as much. It would not do for Natalia to turn up with some form of proof that she was the rightful princess. She stifled a smile. At least she had one form of revenge; Antonia was much too stork-like in structure to be able to comfortably wear her garments. Although Claudette, her (former) lady’s maid, would be able to make the alterations, it would take at least a day for her to cut Natalia’s dresses down to size.
Lifting her head, she asked, “What would you have me do, Father?”
He stroked his goatee as he studied her, finally nodding to himself as he made a decision. “You must follow her.”
“But, Father, I will have no proof of my identity–”
“You will not need proof.” As Natalia stared, her breath seemed to freeze in her chest. Whatever could he mean? “You will not be going as yourself, Natalia.”
Her mouth dropped open in affront. “Surely you do not expect me to attend as Antonia?”
“Indeed not. You will attend as a common peasant.”
The moments lengthened. Natalia’s ears rung. She could not possibly have heard right. “I beg your pardon?”
“You will attend as a peasant,” he announced. “You will present yourself to Prince Bennett barefoot, in nothing more than a mouse-skin pelt. You will wear no adornments in your hair, on your fingers, or around your neck. You will wear your hair loose, and you will not powder or perfume your skin. You will, by all means, make yourself as ordinary as possible.”
Shaking her head, Natalia protested, “Father, I cannot! It is not befitting of a princess–”
Besides, she would be competing with Antonia’s beauty. If she could not hope to compare while dressed in her finery, how could she aspire to gain Prince Bennett’s interest while dressed in rags?
Again, her conscience nagged, did she want to? The prince might be a hideous, hunchbacked hog. From what she could recall from the one portrait he had sent along, he was handsome enough, but it could have been a false likeness.
“A princess,” her father boomed, “is more than the clothes you wear, Natalia, more than the jewels which adorn your fingers. It is an attitude, a manner of speech and of bearing. Antonia will never understand that. You will present yourself to Prince Bennett in nothing more than a mouse-skin, and he will know you for who you truly are.”
As she struggled to maintain her composure, Natalia began to quiver. “But, Father,” she whispered. “Prince Bennett has never even seen me. How is he to know who I am?”
He wouldn’t. And once he saw Antonia, how could she hope to compare? Natalia was comely, but she didn’t approach Antonia’s cold beauty. If not for her stepsister’s cruel heart, Natalia might have been willing to concede that Antonia was more a princess than she was. The king had always said Natalia’s kindness was her crowning glory–but how was she to show it without her usual raiment? Prince Bennett would glance once at Antonia, see her beauty, and wed her before Natalia had any say in the matter at all.
“He will know,” the king said sternly. He used his command voice; she couldn’t argue with him further. “Antonia does not have a significant head start. Packing up your belongings delayed her, and the chests will weigh down the carriage. Not to mention she will wish to travel in the best of comfort. She will stop for the night at an inn, but you, Natalia, you must press on. With luck and a sturdy horse, you should be able to make the palace by midday tomorrow. Mrs. Grimsby will fetch you the mouse-skin. Sell the horse in the city and enter the palace on foot. You must make all possible haste, Natalia, and you must not tell the prince of your true status. Do you understand?”
Natalia swallowed, but covered up the motion with a firm nod. “Yes, Father,” she answered. “I understand what I must do.” If only she were as confident as he that the scheme would succeed.
A broad smile enveloped his features. He rounded his desk with open arms. As she embraced him, he planted a fatherly kiss on the top of her head. “Godspeed, child,” he whispered.
She retreated from the study, crossing into the hall through the door Mrs. Grimsby held open for her. As soon as she shut it tight, the housekeeper turned to her. “We don’t have much time, dear. Come with me. I’ll fetch the pelt.”
Trotting along behind Mrs. Grimsby, Natalia asked, “Why is this pelt so special? Wouldn’t any pelt do?”
The housekeeper paused before the ornate doors leading into the treasury. She darted a glance at Natalia as she fished out the key. “Indeed not, child. The pelt he speaks of is enchanted. I made it myself.”
Rooted in place, Natalia nearly laughed at the housekeeper’s statement. As Mrs. Grimsby unlocked and opened the doors, Natalia said, “You’re jesting, right? I do believe I just heard you admit to being an enchantress, Mrs. Grimsby.”
Briskly stepping inside, the woman backtracked when she saw Natalia wasn’t behind her. “That you did, dear. Now come along.”
Stepping into the dimly lit treasury, Natalia said, “But, Mrs. Grimsby–you’re a housekeeper.”
Stopping, the woman arched an eyebrow. “I am not.” At Natalia’s shocked face, she amended, “I do manage the palace affairs, but I chose this position only because it is the easiest way for me to keep an eye on you. I am your fairy godmother, Natalia, and you seem to need my services now more than ever.”
“My fairy–”
“Godmother,” Mrs. Grimsby completed. She pushed up her sleeves, raising her hands, then paused. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” Natalia answered quickly. She still felt as though the world spun around her. Had Antonia knocked her on the head when she’d delivered her into the closet? Was she still there, dreaming these events?
Mrs. Grimsby swished her hands. The chests and crates cluttered in the corner groaned as they rose into the air. The housekeeper moved briskly to the one magnificent chest that still lay upon the ground. Taking a tentative step forward, Natalia shot a leery glance toward the floating crates.
“Oh, it’s perfectly safe, darling,” Mrs. Grimsby called. “You can come closer.”
Natalia inched to her side. Looking at the chests above her head, she swallowed, wondering what riches they held, and if they would be terribly heavy if they were to come crashing down upon her head. Glancing again at the housekeeper, she said, “But if you’re my fairy godmother, why haven’t you revealed yourself to me before now? I’ve never seen you use magic on my behalf.”
“To the contrary,” Mrs. Grimsby answered. “Do you recall falling out of the willow tree in the garden when you were eight?”
“The willow fronds caught me.”
“At my direction, but yes.” She fitted a tiny key to the lock, and whispered a string of words too softly for Natalia to hear. “I have never revealed myself to you, child, because until now you have not had need of my services. Now you will be venturing someplace where I will not be able to aid you. It is my duty to ensure that you are prepared.”
She heaved open the chest lid, red inlaid with gold, and pulled out a heavy brown pelt. “This is more than a simple pelt,” she confessed to Natalia. “It was made with the pelts of many mice. Mice are quick, they are cunning, and they are able to hide, sometimes even in plain view. I infused this pelt with those qualities when I made it.”
Running her hands over the sleek fur, Natalia murmured, “But it is seamless. I cannot see where one pelt ends and another begins.”
“Of course.” Mrs. Grimsby snorted. “I am very good at my craft, girl. This pelt will hide you from sight.”
“What?” Natalia squeaked, stumbling back. “I can’t have that! Prince Bennett must be able to see me if he is to choose me over Antonia.”
“Hush, child. I have not finished. This pelt will hide you in plain sight. People will still be able to see you, but they will see only a ragged peasant. They will not be able to recognize you as a princess.”
Unfortunately, Natalia wasn’t any more encouraged than if she were invisible. “But, Mrs. Grimsby–”
“Hold your tongue!” the housekeeper snapped. Natalia tried to continue, but found she was unable to speak. Her eyes widened, but Mrs. Grimsby did not seem to note her distress. She continued, “Those who are familiar with you will still be able to recognize you. Therefore, you would do best to avoid Antonia and your lady’s maids.” She sighed, watching as Natalia clawed desperately at her throat. “What is it, Natalia? You may speak.”
“The prince,” she croaked. “He has never met me. He will not be able to see through the enchantment.”
“Precisely. He must not only see through Antonia’s deceit, but he must also see through my enchantment in order to claim you as his rightful bride. It isn’t impossible. An astute mind–and heart–might discern as much. As the king said, it is not the clothes which make the princess. If Prince Bennett is able to see through this guise, then he is worthy of becoming your husband. If he is not…” The woman trailed off and lifted her hand to Natalia’s cheek. “Perhaps it is best you leave him to Antonia, then. Don’t forget, most princes are accustomed to undergoing some sort of challenge in order to claim their brides. Prince Bennett will likely be suspicious at being handed his wife on a platter. I have faith in him.
“Nonetheless,” she continued, rummaging through the chest once more. “I do not agree with your father that the mouse-skin will be enough. I would like to give you something else as well.” She pulled out three walnut shells. One was gold, one was silver, and the last, bronze. She tucked them into Natalia’s hand one at a time. “With this, my dear, you will become as radiant as the sun. With this, you will become as serene as the moon, and with this–” She closed her hand around Natalia’s, curling her fingers inward. “You will become as splendid as the stars. Use them wisely. Only open them under the utmost urgency.” She pulled out a jar of balm and set it before her. “Because I worry for you, and because you can never be too careful, take this as well. A dollop the size of a pea will heal even the gravest of wounds.” She stood, closing and locking the chest once more. “Now come, Princess. Put on the mouse-skin. You must be on your way at once.”
Despite her qualms, Natalia hurried to do as she said. She shucked her gown and put on the pelt in its stead. She left off her shoes and let loose her hair. Discovering inner pockets in the pelt’s voluminous sleeves, she tucked her gifts inside. Lifting the hood onto her head, she trotted behind Mrs. Grimsby to the stables. With every footstep she felt more and more wary, as though she was about to battle a dragon. Such quests, she had always thought, were for princes to embark on. She would much rather play the damsel in distress. But in this case, she didn’t have a choice.
A ratty horse stood ready for her to mount. Natalia turned to Mrs. Grimsby, searching her lined face. Smiling, the housekeeper embraced her. “I will be at the palace for the wedding,” she promised. “See to it he marries you, will you, dear?”
Blinking to rid the tears from her eyes, Natalia nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak, so instead she mounted the nag and dug in her heels. She needed to reach the palace before Antonia did.

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