I Married the Duke The Prince Catchers Online - Katharine Ashe

Prologue

The Orphans

A Fair Somewhere in Cornwall

April 1804

Three young sisters of no rank and even less fortune sat in the glow of lamplight before a table draped in black velvet.

Upon that table was a ring fit for Prince Charming.

Veiled in ebony, the soothsayer studied not her clients’ palms or brows or even their eyes, but the ring, a glimmering spot of gold and ruby amidst the shadows of everything else in the tent.

“You are motherless.” The Gypsy’s voice was rich but as English as the girls’.

“We are orphans.” Arabella, the middle sister, leaned forward, tucking a lock of spun copper behind an ear formed as delicate as a seashell. Only twelve years old and already she was a beauty—lips pink as berries, cheeks blooming, eyes sparkling. In appearance she was a maiden of fairy tales, and just as winsome of temper, though any storyteller would be obliged to admit that she was not in the least bit meek.

“Everybody in the village knows we are motherless.” Her elder sister Eleanor’s brow creased beneath a golden braid tucked snugly into a knot. Bookish as she was, Eleanor’s brow often creased.

“Our ship wrecked and Papa adopted us from the foundling home so that we would not be sent to the workhouse.” With the simple candor of the young, Ravenna explained the history she did not remember yet had often been told. She was but eight, after all. Restlessly, she shifted her behind on the soft rug, and the fabric of her skirts tangled beneath her slippers. A tiny black canine face peeked out from the muslin folds.

Arabella leaned forward. “Why do you stare at the ring, Grandmother? What does it tell you?”

“She is not our grandmother,” Ravenna whispered quite loudly to Eleanor, her dark ringlets bouncing. “We don’t know who our grandmother is. We don’t even know who our real mama and papa are.”

“It is a title of respect,” Eleanor whispered back, but her eyes were troubled as she looked between Arabella and the fortune-teller.

“This ring is the key to your destinies,” the woman said, passing her hand over the table, her lashes closing.

Eleanor’s brow scrunched tighter.

Arabella sat forward eagerly. “The key to our true identity? Does it belong to our real father?”

The Gypsy woman swayed from side to side, gently, like barley stalks in a light breeze. Arabella waited with some impatience. She had in fact waited for this answer for nine years. Each additional moment seemed a punishment.

From without, the sounds of the fair came through the tent walls—music, song, laughter, the calls of food sellers, whinnies of horses at the trading corral, bleats of goats for sale. The fair had passed through this remote corner of Cornwall every year since forever, when the Gypsies came to spend the warm seasons on the flank of the local squire’s land not far from the village. Until now, the sisters had never sought a fortune. The Reverend always warned against it. A scholar and a churchman, he told them such things were superstition and must not be encouraged. But he gave freely of his charity to the travelers. He was poor, he said, but what little a man had, God demanded that he share with those in even greater need—like the three girls he had saved from destitution five years earlier.

“Will the ring tell us who we truly are?” Arabella asked.

The soothsayer’s face was harsh and stunning at once, pockmarked across her cheeks but regal in the height of her brow and handsome in its strong nose and dark eyes.

“This ring . . .” the Gypsy intoned, “belongs to a prince.”

“A prince!” Ravenna gaped.

“A prince?” Eleanor frowned.

“Our . . . father?” Arabella held her breath.

The bracelets on the woman’s wrist jingled as she ticked a finger from side to side. “The rightful master of this ring,” she said soberly, “is not of your blood.”

Arabella’s shoulders drooped, but her dainty chin ticked up. “Mama gave it to Eleanor to keep before she put us aboard ship to England. If it belongs to a prince, why did Mama have it? She was not a princess.” Far from it, if the Reverend’s suspicions were correct.

The fortune-teller’s lashes dipped again. “I do not speak of the past, child, but of the future.”

Eleanor cast Arabella an exasperated glance.

Arabella ignored it and chewed the inside of her lip. “Then what does this prince have to do with us?”

“One of you . . .” The woman’s voice faded away, her hand spreading wide above the ring again, fingers splayed. Her black eyes