Selina’s Wish: A Pryor Cousins Prequel

England, 1725

Widowhood suited Selina Pryor. While she had enjoyed having a husband who was handsome, wealthy, and the son of a duke, she hadn’t enjoyed the marriage bed, she hadn’t enjoyed being pregnant, and she most definitely had not enjoyed giving birth. When her husband, Henry, had died two months after their child was born she’d been greatly relieved. Being a widow was much better than being a wife. She was pampered and spoiled and doted upon as much as she ever had been, cocooned in luxury within a duke’s household, her every wish anticipated, her every whim indulged, but she didn’t have to share her bed with anyone and she would never become pregnant again.

Unfortunately her child was a boy—which had delighted Henry but had not delighted Selina. There was no escaping it: she had a duty. Not to Henry’s family, but to her own. She needed to pass on her legacy. Which meant that she either had to keep having children until she produced a daughter—or she needed to use her ingenuity.

Selina had always thought that ingenuity was underappreciated. It was the gift she’d been intending to on bestow her daughter, just as her mother had bestowed the gift of unsurpassed beauty on her. For a female who possessed beauty and ingenuity, nothing was impossible. Her daughters and granddaughters wouldn’t just marry noblemen, they’d marry royalty. They would be princesses and queens.

And then she’d discovered just how much she disliked the marriage bed, and how much she loathed being pregnant, and how very much she hated childbirth, and her plans had changed.

Fortunately there was a simple solution, and it rested on her son: Maximus Adolphus Pryor.

Selina had never loved anyone in her life—not her mother, not her father, not her husband, and most certainly not her son. She had pretended to love the child when he was born, even though he was a horrid, red, wrinkly creature. She had pretended to love him while he was a mindless, swaddled little slug and a squalling, teething monster, but then, once he was walking and talking, to her great surprise, she grew tolerably fond him.

His smile was rather enchanting, his laughter was infectious, his childish conversation was unexpectedly diverting, and his dimpled cheeks and little hands were actually quite adorable. He was—in other words—as perfect as one might expect of a child whose ancestors had requested attractive qualities for their offspring. Which made his perfection quite extraordinary, because he was male and gifts such as good looks, charm, intelligence, and charisma had only ever been bestowed on the female line.

But charm, intelligence, charisma, and good looks, he most definitely had. The servants all adored little Maximus, his grandfather the duke doted on him, and even Selina felt some affection for him. Which was why, on her twenty-fifth birthday, while she was waiting for her Faerie godmother to come, she had gone up to the nursery to watch her son take his afternoon nap.

“I wish you were a duke,” she said under her breath, leaning over the cot in which he slept and gazing down upon him. “You deserve to be.”

For a moment, she was quite angry that he would never be a duke. It was so unfair. A child this perfect deserved to be a duke. But Henry had only been a second son, with a brother and two nephews in line ahead of him. She’d known when she married him that no child of theirs could ever be a duke. It hadn’t bothered her—she’d been thinking about her daughters, not her sons—but she hadn’t expected Maximus to be quite so worthy of being a duke.

“I’m just going to fetch some hot milk for when he wakes up, ma’am,” the nurserymaid said.

Selina gave the girl a brief, dismissive nod.

The door closed behind the servant. Selina leaned over the cot and whispered more loudly, “It’s so unfair. You should be a duke. You should be one right now. Today.”

“Is that what you wish for?” a voice said behind her.

Selina spun around.

A woman stood by the fireplace. Selina knew instantly that it was her Faerie godmother.

A Faerie. A thing of myth and legend. A creature no one believed existed.

A Faerie, of her very own. Bound to grant her a wish.

Not only was Selina the most beautiful woman in England, but at this moment she was its most powerful. The only person in all the world to have a Faerie godmother.

Selina savored the sense of power for a several seconds. It was even better than walking into a ballroom, that wonderful moment when heads turned and a low murmur sprang up and she saw envy and admiration in hundreds of eyes.

The Faerie was as petite as Selina was, but her hair was black where Selina’s was golden, and her eyes were black, too. Pitch black. Ink black. And if her otherworldly eyes hadn’t given her away, her clothing most definitely would have: she was wearing something that was centuries out of date, practically medieval.

Selina’s upper lip wanted to curl in a sneer. She managed to hold it back. It wouldn’t do to antagonize the creature unnecessarily. “No,” she said coolly. “That is not what I wish for.”

The Faerie said nothing, merely waited, and it occurred to Selina that the expression on her face was one of disdain mingled with boredom.

Selina had never been stared at so insolently. How dared the creature? No one looked at her like that, Faerie or not. She bristled. “I want to transfer my family’s legacy to the male line. From now on, the wishes go to the sons.”

The Faerie’s eyes narrowed. “No.”

Selina was pleased to note that the creature no longer looked either bored or disdainful. She allowed herself a small, haughty smile. “You are bound to grant me my wish,” she said. “You are bound to obey me.”

“Wishes go to the female line only,” the Faerie said. Her voice held a sibilant hiss, raising the fine hairs on the back of Selina’s neck.

Selina refused to be intimidated. “And from now they will go to the male line.”

“No,” the Faerie said again. “I shall grant your first wish. The boy will be duke before sundown.”

“I don’t wish for that!” Selina said sharply. “What kind of monster are you? Four people would have to die for that to happen!”

The Faerie shrugged. “So?”

“So, I don’t want that.”

“No? Then choose a new wish, or I shall grant your first wish.”

Selina lifted her chin and stared the Faerie directly in her black eyes. Eyes that no longer seemed merely otherworldly, but in fact rather dangerous. “I forbid you to do that.”

The Faerie said nothing, merely smiled, showing her teeth for the first time. They were predator’s teeth, razor-sharp.

For a moment Selina found herself unable to breathe. It wasn’t just the hairs on the back of her neck that were standing on end; every hair on her body was, too. And then she gave herself a sharp mental shake. She was afraid? She? Selina Pryor? The most beautiful woman in England? “Obey me, creature. Transfer my family’s legacy to the male line. From now on, the wishes go to the sons.”

The Faerie’s nostrils flared slightly. Her eyes seemed to grow even blacker, her teeth even sharper. Then she inclined her head. “Done.”

Selina smiled triumphantly.

“I grant both your wishes.”

“What? No, I forbid—”

But the Faerie was gone.

Selina stood, her mouth open in shock. How dared the creature disobey her? And then her gaze flicked to the mantelpiece. A pretty ormolu clock stood there, its hands telling her that it was six minutes to two.

The Faerie’s final words had to have been a bluff, a hoax, a spiteful joke.

But Selina had an uncomfortable feeling that Faeries didn’t joke.

She watched the minute hand travel around the clock face. Surely the Faerie hadn’t granted that first wish?

It wouldn’t hurt to check on her father-in-law.

Selina hurried from the nursery. Linwood Castle was rather large. The nursery was in one wing, the duke’s rooms in another. Selina was slightly out of breath by the time she reached the vast entrance hall, but her luck was in, because there was her father-in-law, His Grace the Duke of Linwood, descending the main stairs, followed by his personal footman.

Selina was unaccountably relieved to see him alive. “Papa Duke,” she said.

The duke was one of the most powerful men in England. Some people called him stern, others said he was formidable, but Selina had never found him either stern or formidable. She could wrap him around her little finger with a flutter of her eyelashes.

“My dear girl.” The duke smiled down at her, the benevolently doting smile he reserved for her and little Maximus, took another step—and lost his balance.

Under Selina’s horrified gaze, the Duke of Linwood fell down his long marble staircase. The tall clock struck two o’clock at exactly the moment he hit the polished flagstone floor.

The duke’s footman ran down the stairs and crouched over his employer. “Sir?” he cried frantically. “Sir!”

Selina shoved the man aside and knelt. “Papa Duke? Are you all right?” She touched her father-in-law’s shoulder gingerly. “Papa Duke?”

The duke made no reply. His neck was bent at a most unnatural angle and Selina knew, with utter certainty, that he was dead.

* * *

Over one hundred miles away, in London, Edward Pryor, eldest son of the newly deceased Duke of Linwood, was at his club, discussing horses and drinking claret with his cronies. At two minutes to three, he choked on a mouthful of wine. He coughed. And coughed again.

The third time he coughed, a blood vessel burst in his brain.

By three o’clock, to his friends’ horror, Edward Pryor was dead.

* * *

Twenty-five miles outside London, at a school named Eton, a cricket match was in progress. At four o’clock, just as the last wicket fell, a bolt of lightning forked down from a cloudless sky. The flash was blinding. The earth trembled. A deafening boom rolled across the school grounds. In its wake came screams, as players and spectators fled.

The only casualties were two students: William and Arthur Pryor.

* * *

Selina Pryor lay in bed on the night of her twenty-fifth birthday. It was a sumptuous bed in a sumptuous bedroom, a confection of velvet and silk and lace.

Her maid had long since departed, gone to weep herself to sleep, as all the family’s loyal servants were weeping tonight.

Selina wasn’t weeping. She was thinking, and what she was thinking was . . . My son, the duke.

Her son, her perfect little son, was Duke of Linwood.

She hugged herself gleefully, cocooned amid the soft quilts and bounteous pillows, and whispered the words aloud: “My son, the duke.” And then a second time, more loudly. “My son, the duke.”

Selina was smiling as she fell asleep.