an excerpt

Chapter One

Beaming widely, the court physician approached Benoit as he paced up and down the hallway.

He bowed low. "Her Majesty has given birth to a daughter, Highness."

A sigh of relief escaped Benoit before he could censor it, although the physician would understand the relief he felt. His wife, Ninon, was a fragile woman. Their second child had been long years in coming and had been a strain on her health.

He was certain the physician would warn them that there would not be a third child in the royal household. Not that it mattered, they already had their son and heir, Lucien, and now they had the daughter that Ninon had longed for.

Putting that thought aside for another time, Benoit returned the doctor's smile. "Wonderful, marvellous news. My wife?" He dropped his voice, leaning closer to the physician.

"Well, your highness--" The doctor nodded. "She is sleeping and the babe is being cared for by the nurse. She will recover, Majesty. But it will take some time. This took much of her strength. It was a difficult birth."

"Ninon may rest all she needs." Benoit patted the physician's shoulder. "I will return once I have shared the news with King Finlay and Queen Eithne. Now we can betroth our daughter to their son just as they betrothed Princess Evania to our Prince Lucien. I'm not sure a seven-year-old boy will have much interest in a newborn baby, although he does seem happy enough to care for Prince Teige when the children come to visit."

"Prince Teige is three now?" The doctor frowned as he sought to remember.

"He is." Benoit nodded. "And apparently prone to the tantrums that come with that age, so Finlay tells me. Evania is protective when at home but here, Teige seeks out Lucien. Eithne says she can scarcely believe Lucien's patience. He's a good boy and will be a fine young man." Benoit puffed out his chest. "Permit me a quick glimpse and I'll return shortly." The doctor bowed low once more as Benoit peered into the bedchamber.

His wife lay pale-faced but composed, her chest rising and falling strongly and rhythmically. In a chair by the bed, the nurse sat with the swaddled baby in her arms. The child was early and small. He gave a silent prayer that she would thrive.

"Please inform my wife I will return soon, but only when she wakes. I want her to regain her strength." Benoit strode away, eager to share the news with Finlay and Eithne.

Although the people in his drawing room were his closest friends and immediate family, Benoit still took a moment to compose himself and hesitated at the doorway.

Finlay and Eithne sat conversing in quiet tones; the redheaded man and golden-haired woman made a striking couple. He felt truly blessed that his nearest neighbour had proven to be both a good friend and staunch ally.

Their oldest child, Princess Evania, betrothed at birth to his son Lucien, sat bickering with his nephew, Dashiell. The quiet, serious, auburn-haired boy had been orphaned when Benoit's only sister and husband were killed in a tragic accident. He and the flame-haired girl were the same age and seemed to always be squabbling over one thing or another--and yet there was never a real falling out.

Then he gazed with affection and pride at his oldest child and heir, Prince Lucien.

Like himself, Lucien had raven-hued locks which reached Lucien's slim shoulders in a straight, glossy curtain. Even though he was still only a boy, Benoit often saw the ladies of his court sigh as he passed. He would be a handsome man when he became an adult. Yet here and now, he sat in a large chair, feet dangling, with a small, sleeping boy in his arms. Prince Teige slept soundly, thumb in mouth, his golden curls giving him a cherubic appearance.

As he stepped into the room, everyone turned to him, their expressions a mix of curiosity and concern. He smiled and nodded. "Ninon has given birth to a girl. Mother and daughter are both well." He continued into the room, heading first to his friends.

"Oh, Benoit, how marvellous." Eithne stood as he approached and pecked a kiss to each of his cheeks.

"Marvellous, indeed." Finlay grinned and gave Benoit a powerful hug.

"We had already decided that if Ninon gave me a girl, she would be betrothed to Teige. I now make that a royal pronouncement and will have the paperwork completed as soon as I am able." Benoit turned toward his son and took a few steps, Finlay and Eithne in his wake. "You have a sister, Lucien. She will grow up to marry Teige just as you will marry Evania and our kingdoms will grow and prosper together."

"Yes, Papa." Lucien nodded.

"You would like another girl to play with instead of just three boys, wouldn't you Evania?" Eithne smiled at her daughter who, along with Dashiell, had quietened at their approach.

"Yes, Mamma." Evania gave a quick curtsied bob just as she'd been taught when addressing her parents.

Benoit nodded and smiled. Obedient and intelligent, Evania would make a good wife for his son.

"Is Mama well, Papa?" Lucien asked.

Only an intimate few knew how hard the pregnancy had been of late for his wife, but Benoit had only told his son that his mother was ailing. He'd avoided explaining to his boy what the problem was, believing him too young. However, looking into Lucien's dark eyes, Benoit wondered if he had underestimated his son.

"She is, my son, but she is resting now. You may see her tomorrow." Benoit smiled at the nod of agreement.

"If we are no longer needed, may we retire, Papa?" Lucien asked.

Normally Lucien and Dashiell slept alone, each in their own spacious bedrooms. However, when Evania and Teige stayed, the three boys were permitted to share a room and Evania had one that adjoined theirs. It was a long-standing arrangement the children liked.

"It's late and Teige should be in bed." Lucien added when Benoit hesitated.

In truth there was no reason to keep the children up. Plus the adults could relax more if the children were in bed.

He nodded. "Of course."

His smile widened as Lucien carefully arose from the chair, mindful of his sleeping bundle. The children bade the adults goodnight, but even as they left the room Evania and Dashiell resumed their bickering.

"If you two wake Teige then I will sleep in my own room and you will have to care for him." Lucien's threat was in a loud whisper that even the adults heard.

However, the effect was instantaneous. The bickering ceased, neither of the two younger children wanted to wake the sleeping boy and incur the three-year-old's wrath.

As the door closed behind the children, Benoit laughed along with his friends. Lucien had the magic touch to calm Teige's tantrums but others struggled.

Crossing the room, Benoit tugged on the bell rope to summon a servant who appeared within seconds.

"Two clarets and a sweet sherry." Benoit sat, indicating for his friends to join him. When the drinks arrived he raised his silver cup in a salute. "To Ninon, to my new daughter, to the marriages of our children, and to the health and prosperity of everyone in both our kingdoms."

The toast was echoed and Benoit swallowed a large mouthful of the vintage wine. He had never been happier.