Edward Cullen III, Prince and Grand Duke, third in the line of succession to the throne, watched the joyous feast held in the honor of his brother Carlisle, the Crown Prince, and his wife, Princess Esme, expecting their second child. Wine flowed generously, the food was exquisitely prepared, and the entertainment had been provided by the best theater company in the land as well as all the ladies-in-waiting of Princess Esme and their sisters, Lady Rosalie and Grand Princess Alice.
The evening was pleasant, and the guests were in high spirits. The only thorn in Edward's side was his father and brother. They barely left him alone for the entirety of the feast.
“There are many fine ladies here tonight, Edward,” Carlisle said, not for the first time. “When are you going to swallow your pride and pick yourself a wife. At this pace, Alice shall be married before you.”
“Forgive me, brother, for not taking a liking to those Father has presented to me. And you know I cannot marry a girl who doesn't share my beliefs or agrees with how I handle my tenants.”
“Cannot, or will not?”
Edward smiled. “What's the difference?”
“You are impossible.”
“You're not the easiest conversationalist either, brother.” Edward took his goblet in hand and stood up from his seat to escape his brother's glare. “It should not trouble you anyhow,” he insisted. “You're the heir to the throne, and Henry will succeed you. I will also bet my finest boar spear you'll have another son.”
Carlisle tried to follow his little brother to continue the argument, but Edward disappeared in the crowds and the nobility and gentry, whom all wanted to congratulate the prince on his virility, effectively blocked him.
“Your Royal Highness, sir,” a solemn voice called for Edward as he passed another table and he turned his head to see the Earl of Whitlock, his younger sister's betrothed, waving him over. “Will you join us for a game of cards?”
“I thank you, Lord Whitlock, but I have to decline," Edward replied. "You know chess is more my game." He turned to continue his path through the dance hall but found himself once again thwarted by his other sister's husband, Marquess Emmett Hale of Harringland. "Your Grace," he greeted politely and tried to move around the man, but it was futile.
“You can walk the hall all night, Your Royal Highness, but you cannot flee us all,” he said with a jolly grin.
“I'm not fleeing, Emmett,” Edward disagreed.
“Of course you are, Edward. You always do during feasts at court, and you believe it will spare you another conversation about how it's high time for you to find a wife.”
Edward clenched his jaw to hold back his annoyance. “I simply can't see the urgency.”
“You've passed your twenty-fourth birthday, and you need to consider taking a bride to secure an heir for that duchy of yours. You know all of this. And the nobility is talking. They're starting to wonder if you're perhaps … "
He grimaced. “You know … a deviant.”
Edward huffed, but his stomach churned. He didn't care for what the nobility said about him, but it could damage his family name and smudge their history, something his father wouldn't stand for. Especially if it had the potential to muddy the bloodline. "I've met all the ladies at court," he said as if that alone explained everything. "I can't say any one of them has caught my eye, so what do you suggest?"
“There are other nobles outside of court. The Duke of Swanselm's youngest daughter is making her debut this season, and so are Lord Westbrooke's oldest.”
To hide his grimace of distaste, Edward took a drink from his goblet. He despised the social season, and he had refused to participate even once, which he had the choice to do as he was part of the royal family. But Emmett saw the downturned corners of his mouth.
“I'm aware of your opinion of the season, Your Royal Highness,” he said with emphasis on his address to remind Edward of the duties he held toward his family and estate. “However, I strongly recommend you at least attend the ball and corresponding hunt the Duke is hosting at Swanselm Castle.”
With those words, Emmett turned on his heel and left Edward by himself.
Edward held out his goblet for the passing servant to fill it back up with wine, and after he had finished it, he bid his father and brother a good night so he could retire to his bedchambers.
He knew Emmett was right, and he decided it was his only chance if he were ever to get his family to leave him alone. He was going to attend the feast hosted by the Duke of Swanselm, even though the entire royal family thought very little of the man, and if he weren't to find a suitable wife there either, he'd at least get to go on a hunt in the forests around the castle, which he always enjoyed greatly.
Isabella sighed with deep sorrow as she passed her sisters' chambers, longingly casting glances toward the fine garments they were wearing while their lady's maids put up their hair.
They were being readied for a ball hosted by their father to present them to the nobility and gentry before the social season began. It was expected both of them would receive several prospects from suitors, but the duke was particular in whom he'd give his daughters' hands to.
At least his recognized daughters. Isabella Sinclair was as much sired by Duke Charles Swan of Swanselm as her sisters, but she was born out of wedlock to a woman who wasn't the Duchess and was, therefore, nothing but a natural child; a bastard.
Lady Catherine Sinclair, Countess of Sunfield and Isabella's mother, had been betrothed to the duke's brother, Lord James Swan of the Dewford Park earldom, but when she became with child without having shared a bed with her fiance, he broke the engagement. She claimed the duke had forced himself upon her, but the duke said she'd seduced him with her womanly wiles, and he didn't stand a chance.
It became a war of words, a war which Lady Catherine lost, yet she was allowed to remain at Swanselm Castle until the child had been born. Regrettably, Lady Catherine died in childbirth and it had broken James' heart as he still loved her.
He took care of Isabella the first years of her life, however she was but six years old when he succumbed to yellow fever. She still remembered him fondly, though, and she often visited the family's burial chamber to speak to her uncle. Her mother was also buried in there, but the only explanation she'd ever received as for why was that James had insisted upon it.
Isabella entered her room, much too small to be called a bedchamber, and started to get herself ready. Her father had demanded she attend the ball as well, but it would still be made clear she wasn't a true member of the family. Her dress wasn't sewn in french silk, her stockings were made of sturdy cotton, and her hair wouldn't be perfectly curled as she had to style it herself. She would stand out in the dance hall, but not in a favorable way.
A miniature portrait of her mother was sitting on her dressing table, and Isabella touched it reverently. Lady Catherine had been an exceptionally beautiful woman, and it pained Isabella greatly she never got to know her.
Isabella slipped the portrait into her reticule to keep with her during the night's ball. She doubted she'd be asked to dance as it were and the weight of the portrait would comfort her.
When she was ready, she went downstairs and met the Dowager Duchess in the parlor. Lady Mariella Swan was the matriarch of Swanselm Castle—a role the Duchess had yet to be bestowed with—and was the Swans' direct link to the royal family. She was first cousins with the late King Edward II and her father had been the first Duke of Swanselm.
“Lady Grandmother,” Isabella greeted demurely and curtsied before she sat down in the farthest corner of the parlor.
The Dowager Duchess had insisted Isabella addressed her as “grandmother” more out of spite for her eldest son's indiscretions with his brother's betrothed than out of affection for the girl. She was neither polite nor horrible toward Isabella. Mostly, she ignored her.
A short moment later, Maria and Eleanor swept into the parlor, chatting excitedly about the night's ball and the guests who would attend.
“I have heard His Royal Highness, the Grand Duke of Spensley will attend,” Eleanor said with a giggle.
“What if he's searching for a bride?” Maria said and gasped. “Couldn't you just imagine me as the Grand Duchess of Spensley? And he's third in line for the throne.”
“Girls, you're acting frivolously,” the Dowager Duchess reprimanded. “You will never receive any prospects unless you behave as the noble ladies you are.”
“Sorry, Lady Grandmother,” they said as one and then sat down as well. They didn't even acknowledge Isabella in the corner.
A few early guests started arriving, and soon after, the duke himself made his appearance and said they'd move the party to the hall as more and more guests arrived. When Isabella started to pass him, he grabbed a tight hold of her upper arm and hissed in her ear.
“This ball is for your sisters. I forbid you to embarrass me in any way tonight, or you will pay."
“Yes, Your Grace,” she replied softly. She had never been allowed to call him father in his presence.
He let her go without another word and replaced his scowl with a wide smile as he welcomed more of his guests.
All night, she sat by herself and watched everyone enjoy themselves. No one invited her to dance or so much as approached to speak with her. When the Grand Duke's arrival had been announced, she had been too far back to get a good view of him. Once she felt it appropriate to retire, she did so without saying a word to anyone.
No one would miss her anyway.