Excerpt for The Prince's Bride by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Prince’s Bride

The Royal Wedding Invitation series

Sophie Weston

 

 

The Prince’s Bride

Copyright © 2017 Sophie Weston

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

First Publication by Tule Publishing Group 2017

Second Edition

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-43-9

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

The Royal Wedding Invitations series

About the Author

Chapter One

His Serene Highness Prince Jonas of San Michele was not taking calls. He had been in his office since dawn, working on a contract to satisfy the law firm’s most difficult client. And he was not going to stop until all parties had signed up.

His assistants knew the signs. No lunch then. They sent out for sandwiches and told the Palace that they would pass on all messages as soon as he was free.

By the time the contract arrived back in the office with both sets of signatures on it, Jonas had biro stains on his shirt, his hair was all over the place and the afternoon was nearly gone. He didn’t care.

He went into the outer office, incandescent with pleasure. “We did it!”

The collective sigh of relief was more eloquent than a standing ovation. People high-fived one another and someone opened a bottle of San Michele’s answer to French champagne. Jonas, Royal Patron of the San Michele Winemakers’ Association, laughed and applauded.

“Congratulations. You must be pleased,” murmured the senior paralegal, as conversation became general.

“Thank you,” said Jonas. The man had worked for Reval Partners since Jonas’s grandfather’s time. “We did a really good job, I think. Don’t see how we could have done anything better, anyway. And we had just enough luck to swing it.”

“Group hug?” said the paralegal, a cynic.

Several people groaned and someone said, “Rather have a group celebratory dinner.”

Jonas shook his head, sadly. When he first came back from the States, he had gone out with the team several times after they’d closed a big case. This last year, however, more and more royal duties had intervened. He hadn’t even made the Christmas Party. “Sorry, guys. Not tonight. I need to clean up and head off to the Palace for the Crown Princess’s party.”

That reminded them of the messages. A junior unearthed the file and sent it to his phone. He studied it. Between phone calls and emails, there were eleven from assorted officials.

“Ouch,” said Jonas. “What on earth’s going on? I’m not even late, yet. I need further and better particulars here.”

He went back into his office, pondering which of his callers to consult. The obvious candidate was the Crown Princess’s personal assistant. But she would say whatever Crown Princess Anna told her to, and his sister-in-law was a micro-manager of other people’s time. He decided his best bet was an old friend.

The Head of Palace Security answered his phone with a cheery, “Hi there!”

The Head of Palace Security didn’t do cheery, especially when he was on duty.

Jonas blinked. “Hi there? You don’t fool me, evil alien invader. Let me speak to the real Fredrik Jensson.”

“Good to hear from you,” said Count Fredrik, with only the slightest suggestion of gritted teeth.

“You’re not alone, I take it?”

“Not at all. I –” His voice became fainter as he spoke to someone in the room with him. “Please reassure Her Serene Highness. Prince Jonas will be here in time for the sunset cocktails. Yes, I’m certain.”

Jonas had a twinge of conscience. “Sunset cocktails?”

“Have you read any of your briefing notes?” said Count Fredrik in quite a different voice, clearly relieved of his previous inhibiting companion.

“Been rather busy at work. But the party is in the diary and I’m on my way. Well, nearly on my way. Need to tidy up a bit first.” Just as well that the always impeccably tailored Fredrik couldn’t see him, Jonas thought, amused.

“Good of you to let me know.” The Count didn’t sound one little bit grateful.

Jonas grinned. “Don’t mention it, old friend.”

“Where are you?”

“The office. I’ll have a quick shower and –”

“You took your uniform to work, then?”

“Uniform?” Jonas had sudden cold feeling that he’d missed something major. He wore military uniform on state occasions and Forest Ranger uniform when he was volunteering in the San Michele Forest. He didn’t think Fredrik was talking about the Rangers.

“But this isn’t a state occasion. It’s just a cocktail party Anna has arranged for some trade mission, with me filling in for Carlo. Isn’t it?”

“Well, that’s how it started out,” said Count Fredrik fairly. “Been a fair few adjustments along the way.”

Jonas groaned. “I just put it in the diary when Carlo told me he’d be travelling and I’d have to host the thing for Anna. And then forgot about it. What can I do?”

Count Fredrik relented. “Thought so. I’ve borrowed you a uniform from the Hussars. Bring your stuff and change here. Grab a cab now. I’ll meet you by the old stables.”

The old stables currently constituted the Palace recycling centre. They were situated at the back of the kitchen complex.

“By the trash cans? Very cloak and dagger.”

Count Fredrik was patient. “Just get here. Fast as you can.”

But there were no cabs. As the sliding doors of the impressive building swished together behind him, Jonas realized that he was facing a wall of Friday evening traffic. A stationary wall. It was gridlocked all the way to the main drag. And when he looked up, he saw a queue of vehicles along the steep cobbled way that led to the ancient castle gateway. The cars on the hill weren’t moving either.

Jonas stared. This was more than normal Friday night traffic. He began to wonder just how big this bash of Anna’s was. A trade mission didn’t normally bring Liburno to a standstill.

“Hell!”

Of course, it was partly his own fault, he acknowledged. If he had employed a social secretary, as his sister-in-law kept nagging him to do, everything would have been taken care of. Someone would have read all those additional emails, if he’d lobbed them into a pending file for when he had the time to catch up.

But Jonas had been saying no to a social secretary ever since he came back from the States. Just like he said no to an apartment in the Palace and to a regular security detail at official functions. He would fulfil all the tasks that Parliament or his father required of him. He would stand in for his eldest brother, Crown Prince Carlo, when the family asked him to.

But he’d explained his position to the family again and again. He didn’t want a royal lifestyle. He didn’t want footmen bringing him his post on a silver tray every morning. And he hated the idea of paparazzi invading his hobbies and his holidays.

His brothers said that was reasonable, his grandmother declared it to be wholly his own affair and his father just grunted. Only his sister-in-law continued to badger him to change his mind. Worse than that, recently she had started to matchmake.

But Jonas had promised to deputize for his elder brother at this evening’s red carpet event while Carlo was abroad. So he would forget how tired he was and head for the Palace on foot.

Jonas took off his jacket, stuffed it into his backpack, shouldered the bag and set off. He texted Count Fredrik: Traffic solid. Walking.

The reply winged back immediately: Running would be better.

After three hours’ sleep last night? He’d been working for fifteen hours already.

A second ping: On parade on the battlements at sunset, remember.

He broke into a jog, texting as he went. When’s sunset?

Soon.

Jonas took stock. After all, he was young, fit and he was supposed to be a problem solver. To get to the old stables, he would normally head up the hill and slip into the park by one of the side gates, where the officer on duty would recognize him. But that would entail running past all those stationary cars and limousines, with all the great photo opportunities for bored passengers to snap the fifth in the princely succession panting up late to the evening’s royal event. He could just imagine what the Crown Princess would say to publicity like that.

The alternative was to head into the public park. It was separated from the Palace grounds by a stone curtain wall and some serious locked gates but there was a small entrance that the tree surgeons used, which was usually unlocked during daylight hours.

Jonas broke into a run.

Of course, when he got there, the tree surgeons’ entrance was locked and bolted. But by now the adrenaline had kicked in. There was a big oak tree by that gate. He had climbed it many times as a boy.

He flung his backpack over the wall and started to climb.

Jonas arrived at the rendezvous with scuffed shoes, a three-cornered rent in his trousers and hands and face so grubby that any schoolboy tearaway would have accorded him instant respect. He was grinning from ear to ear.

Count Fredrik was pacing impatiently in front of the portico of the old stables. “What happened?” he demanded, turning towards the Palace and urging Jonas into a near-run.

“Had to climb over the fence. Somebody had locked the gate.”

The Head of Security grunted but didn’t slacken his pace. He shot them round the corner of the eighteenth-century kitchen wing to an anonymous door, and fished out a key.

“Back stairs?” said Jonas knowledgeably.

“Naturally.”

The Count urged him through the door, then locked and bolted it behind them. He checked his watch. “First you change. Then you hit the battlements for the sunset cocktails. You’ve got less than half an hour.”

“Change? What am I? Spider-Man?”

The Reval brothers and Fredrik had taken Jonas’s young nephew to an all-day Spider-Man marathon just before Christmas. A faint smile twitched the corner of Count Fredrik’s firm mouth at last. “Full military uniform.”

What?

“With sword.”

“You’re joking.”

“I never joke on duty,” said the Count and hustled him into the old tack room.

Jonas saw that it had been set up with long trestle tables. People sat at them, studying screens. Nobody took any notice of the new arrivals. Jonas peered over one woman’s shoulder and saw that she was watching glamorous guests at the foot of the Palace’s grandest staircase. She was wearing an earpiece with a tiny microphone attached.

“Wow,” he said, genuinely startled. “Real-time surveillance. Who’s here?”

“Hollywood A-listers and money,” the Count told him crisply. “You can change through there.”

And no, he hadn’t been joking. The white dress uniform of the San Michele Hussars, with epaulettes, gleaming buttons, row of medals and a ceremonial scarlet sash hung on the back of the door of what must once have been a broom cupboard. Someone had added gold-braid aiguillettes.

Jonas stared at it. “Aiguillettes?

“Special request of Crown Princess Anna.” In spite of not joking on duty Count Fredrik was having difficulty keeping a straight face. “Look, I found you a uniform, OK? Thank you, Fredrik, for your foresight and efficiency. Not at all, Your Serene Highness, all in a day’s work.”

Jonas was contrite. “I’m really very grateful, Fredrik. Honest. You’ve saved my bacon.”

“Let’s say, I’ve given your bacon a sporting chance.”

The former broom cupboard, though cold, had a businesslike-looking shower and a plentiful supply of towels. Jonas began to wrestle with his stained shirt.

A button shot across the room like a bullet. Count Fredrik sidestepped.

Jonas gave up on buttons and started to haul the shirt over his head. “Pass me my pack?”

He kicked off his office shoes, then tried to remove one sock with the other foot, failed, and staggered painfully into the wall. He swore under his breath.

“Pack’s on the bench,” said his friend helpfully. “I draw the line at excavating for your underwear.”

Jonas, still muffled, was absorbed in his own struggles.

“You’re hopping,” said Count Fredrik dispassionately. “We have no time for you to hop.”

“How long have we got?”

“Twenty minutes, give or take. Try undoing the shirt cuffs.”

“I know. I forgot. Can you please turn on the damn shower? This will only take a minute.”

Count Fredrik trod round him, reached into the shower and swung a dial before stepping smartly away from the water.

“AAARGH,” yelled Jonas, finally dragging the shirt over his head and lobbing it away from him.

Count Fredrik caught it on the fly, bundled it up and tossed it onto the growing pile of Jonas’s discarded garments.

His Serene Highness flung himself under the spray, muttering. He reached for the shower gel and raised his voice in challenge. “Has it occurred to you that I could stay here until someone brings me a sensible change of clothing?”

“Define sensible.”

Jonas had no trouble doing that. “No gold aiguillettes. No medals. What would Anna do then, eh?”

Count Fredrik was unmoved. “Remind you that you’re also two hours late. You haven’t done your duty on the receiving line. And you missed the English tea and speeches entirely.”

Jonas gasped, swallowed water, coughed until his eyes watered and opened the shower door, towelling hard. “English tea? I don’t remember that.”

“It entered the programme about ten days ago.”

“That would account for it. But why?”

“You’d have to ask Princess Anna. I just do what I’m told.”

Conscience struck again. “Oh Lord yes. You should be out there securing something, shouldn’t you? Leave me. I can finish up and head for the battlements.”

“My team will alert me if there’s anything that needs my attention.”

“But –”

“I’ll see you to the starting gate. We’re both in enough hot water already.”

“Greater love hath no man than he will stand up to a Crown Princess for his friend,” said Jonas, moved.

“You’d better believe it.”

Jonas rummaged through his pack for socks and underwear. When he found them, Fredrik stuffed the clutch of discarded clothes into it and zipped it up.

“Thanks. I suppose Anna is really mad at me?”

“Yes.”

“Blast.”

The Count passed him a pile of neatly folded undergarments. “Standard Hussars issue, sourced from the regiment. We’re both going to owe those guys.”

The first was not much more than a silk T-shirt. “At least there are no buttons on this to fly off and take someone’s eye out,” said Jonas with satisfaction. “How’s the time going?”

“Fifteen minutes and counting.”

Jonas pulled up the dress trousers, flexed the white braces and pulled them up onto his shoulders. “Nearly there. No patent leather shoes?” he asked mischievously.

“Gentlemen,” said the Count with dignity, “do not wear patent leather shoes with San Michele Hussar formal dress uniform. Mess boots are correct, ideally well polished.”

They both looked at Jonas’s scuffed footwear. Jonas hauled his torn shirt back out of his pack and rubbed the worst of the soil and twiggery off them.

They both considered the result.

“No,” Jonas agreed sadly.

Fredrik produced a pair of pull-on ankle boots in soft black leather, polished so you could see your face in them. “They may be a little big.”

“Don’t worry. I can wade, if I have to.”

“Which is why I’ve spared you the spurs. Exceptionally.”

“Did I say you’re a lifesaver, Fredrik?”

Fredrik gave a mock bow, acknowledging the compliment, and handed him the white jacket. Jonas shrugged into it, flexing his arms under the heavy material. The cuffs were stiff with navy blue frogging and gold braid. He pulled them down, smoothed each sleeve and began to do up the brightly polished buttons, fumbling with haste.

The Count picked up Jonas’s watch and signet ring and observed him critically. “Do you want a hand?”

Jonas waved him away. The medals danced and twisted as he wrestled with tight buttonholes and missed. “Dammit. Why are there so many bloody buttons?”

“Sure you don’t want help?”

“Maybe just the top button and the collar.” And, as the Count complied, “God, this jacket is uncomfortable. Where’s my watch? Ring?”

Count Fredrik handed them over silently.

“Oh Lord, have you seen the time? Give me that blasted sash and let’s get going.”

“Hair?”

Jonas ducked to look in the spotted mirror and ran his fingers through his super-clean hair. It flopped forward, giving him a rakish bartender look that would drive the Crown Princess crazy. Oh well, she’d have to make do with the rest of the pantomime get-up, he thought. He cast a look of loathing at the shining black leather boots. “Someone really worked to get those sparkling, didn’t they?” And before Count Fredrik could reply: “OK, OK, no more complaining.” He flicked the medals into place, straightened and threw a mock salute at the image in the mirror. “Let’s go.”

“Good choice. Seven minutes and counting.”

Jonas started to run up the spiral stairs, then slowed. Count Fredrik had been badly wounded on his last tour of duty with the San Michele Army. The injury to his leg had stopped their climbing expeditions. Fredrik had never discussed it and Jonas had never asked. But now he wondered whether pelting up four flights of a spiral staircase in the old tower would cause him pain.

“Shift,” said his friend, crisply. Which seemed to answer the question.

Jonas settled the scarlet sash over his head and across his jacket with practised fingers. As they went, Count Fredrik’s cell phone beeped. He glanced at the screen.

“The Crown Princess’s PA,” he said briefly.

“Wanting to know where I am.”

“That’s the – er – gist of it, yes.”

Jonas laughed but he shook his head too. “The woman never gives up.” He stopped and turned, holding out an imperative hand. “Give.”

Count Fredrik did.

Jonas called the number back and said, “Please tell her Serene Highness that I understood that she wanted me on the battlements. That’s where I’m headed right now. Has there been a change of plan?”

The flustered PA said no, she didn’t think so.

“Thank you,” said Jonas with gentle courtesy and ended the call. He gave the phone back to the Count. “And now, for the last time this evening, I’m gonna run.”

He powered up the rest of the stairs and made it onto the battlements a good five minutes before the Crown Princess arrived. Fredrik was not far behind.

Crown Princess Anna came hurrying along the walkway from the eighteenth-century wing. Her floaty dress flattened itself against her legs in the spring breeze but her blonde hair was as rigid as a soldier on sentry duty. So was her jaw.

Observing that, Jonas felt his heart sink. He took refuge in determined bonhomie. “Hi there, Anna. You see – I made it at last.”

She showed her teeth. Even her dearest friend couldn’t have called it a smile. “Lucky me.”

Ah. More contrition needed. “Really sorry I’m late. Major job in the office that needed closing tonight. Really.”

She pursed her lips, unappeased.

“And I had to clear the desk before my vacation,” Jonas said with just a hint of self-righteousness.

Count Fredrik began, “The traffic –”

Crown Princess Anna silenced them both with a viciously upraised forefinger.

Count Fredrik’s face became a mask. He stepped back.

She ignored him. Indeed, she hardly seemed to be aware that he was there at all. Horrified at the discourtesy, Jonas half turned to him but the Princess seized him by the princely sash and rapped out, “Have you memorized the guests you need to talk to?”

Jonas abandoned bonhomie and contrition alike. Time for some straight talking, he thought. “No.”

For a startled moment he thought she might even hit him.

She ground her teeth. “Did you even read your briefing? Don’t bother to answer that.” She was already calling up someone on speed dial. “Celina? Will you be good enough to ask the Grand Duchess if she can spare you, please? Join me on the south battlements as soon as you can.”

She ended the call and turned a basilisk stare on Jonas, inspecting him from head to toe. “At least you’re here now. And dressed. We shall just have to –” She broke off, her eyes narrowing sharply. “Sword!

Jonas chuckled. “It’s a party, Anna. Not the state opening of Parliament. I’m not going to be spearing prawn canapés at sword point. Why not just forget it? No one will notice, not with all the buttons and braid.”

She rounded on Count Fredrik. “Where did he leave it?”

The Head of Security stayed inscrutable. “I will organize a search.”

“No. You,” said Crown Princess Anna, shaking with temper and not inscrutable at all, “will go and get it. Now.”

There was a dangerous silence. Then Count Fredrik, expressionless, clicked his heels and went without a word.

All desire to laugh had left. Jonas was cold with anger. He said crisply, “May I remind you that Fredrik is not only a national hero, he is also the Head of Palace Security and paid by the state? You can’t send him on your damn errands, like a pageboy. One: it’s discourteous. Two: you’re exceeding your authority.”

The Crown Princess blinked and spluttered as if someone had thrown water over her. “How dare you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I dare. What’s more, you know perfectly well I’m right.”

She could barely speak. “You. You. You. No, you’re not right. You’re not right about anything. You’re no use at all. Not to San Michele. Not to the family. You’re a parasite and a passenger.” The venom was unmistakable.

Jonas flung up a hand to stop her. But Anna had clearly been working on her sense of grievance for a long time. She launched into a diatribe, part of which she could hardly get out, her words tumbling over each other. But far too much of it had clearly been well rehearsed.

He listened, expressionless.

He was irresponsible, selfish and arrogant, she said. He did exactly what he wanted to do, and the hell with anyone else. He had no sense of duty. No appreciation of how lucky he was. Oh, he might have joined the family firm but he never pretended that he enjoyed it or tried to hide his indifference to practising law.

“Carlo says your heart isn’t in it,” she threw at him. She was clearly quoting the Crown Prince verbatim.

Jonas winced. Carlo was not only his much loved older brother, he was also head of their legal practice.

“I think you’ll find you’ve said enough.”

But, having brooded on her brother-in-law’s iniquities for the best part of a busy day, the Crown Princess was on a roll. She continued in the same vein, shaking her head so violently that her iron-steady hair started to fly with the force of her invective.

“… I’ve been doing my best to interest the international film industry makers in San Michele ever since your father made me head of the Film Council and …”

Jonas had had enough. “You’re not head of the Film Council,” he said very quietly. “You’re the Royal Patron.”

“… you do nothing to support me. Nothing.” She stopped dead, staring. “What do you mean?”

“You know no more about the film industry than I do.” His voice was even but very clear. “You’re just a bossy busybody who likes giving parties that film stars come to. You don’t run anything – except everybody else ragged.”

Her mouth moved silently as if she were still yelling at him, though no sound came out.

“You should apologize to Count Fredrik when he returns. And then, for God’s sake, get a grip. San Michele doesn’t need you running round like a charging heifer, scaring the life out of anyone who might get in your way.”

Before she could find an answer there was the clip of high heels on the walkway and his grandmother’s assistant hurried round the corner. She was carrying a leather belt with an ornate buckle that he ought already to be wearing. And the sword.

Oh hell and damnation, thought Jonas. He was already beginning to regret letting himself be carried away. Yes, the way Anna had treated Count Fredrik was outrageous. But all he’d needed to do was point that out and let her common sense do the rest. What on earth had possessed him to get into a slanging match with the woman?

And then to have Celina find them glaring at each other like a couple of drunken sailors brawling on the waterfront! Celina! One of the few people in San Michele he felt close to these days. The woman who, if his best friend Jack hadn’t seen her first, he would have wined and dined and dated and maybe even married, with a fair wind behind him and a little luck on his side.

He felt ashamed. And that made him even angrier.

“Thank you,” he said savagely, almost wrenching the sword out of Celina’s hand. He refused all help, flinging the sword belt round the waist of his jacket and jerking the complicated clasp together with a ferocity that brooked no resistance from mere metal. He settled the red sash ruthlessly back into place and glared round. “So what do I have to do?”

Celina had brought a list. She looked uncertainly at the Crown Princess, but when Anna stayed silent, she consulted it and read, “Cocktails at sunset on the battlements.” She looked up. “Actually the stewards are already herding – I mean directing – the guests this way.”

Herding was just fine,” said Jonas darkly.

Anna’s look flamed him. He ignored it.

Celina said diplomatically, “I passed them on the stairs. Siri Fair is the actress to look out for. I’ll send drinks over and then you and she are going to have to stand and chat by the turret wall, so you can be photographed against the setting sun.”

Jonas was speechless.

Celina consulted her briefing notes again. “Her production company is considering making part of her next movie here in Liburno.”

Jonas found his voice. It was deceptively affable. “So I’m here as a prop in a photo shoot, am I? That explains the sword.”

That broke the Crown Princess out of her marble calm. “For God’s sake don’t make a fuss, Jonas.” She sounded really alarmed. “We needed a Prince Charming tonight. You were the best available.”

There was moment of total disbelief.

And then Jonas dropped his head in his hands and laughed helplessly.

Chapter Two

Life is full of new experiences, thought Hope Kennard.

Three weeks ago she had been on top of the world, managing a ski chalet in the French Alps, working for people she liked and trusted, doing a job she was good at, busy, responsible and competent. Two weeks ago she had been unemployed and homeless and, what was worse, with her capacity for trust in tatters. Again.

And now here she was in the Republic of San Michele, which she had never heard of a week ago, notionally house sitting but in practice running therapy sessions for a one-girl dog. The (mainly) German shepherd had gone into mourning when his owner, eleven-year-old Poppy Anton, had been swept off on a family sailing holiday. The other family pets had happily gone along too but Moby (named for Moby Dick, an animal he resembled only in his massive size) was seasick. Hope’s role was to exercise him frequently and try to keep his mind off his broken heart.

Moby had melting brown eyes and an unerring sense of direction when it came to the biscuit tin. The family, sailing down the Dalmatian coast, tied up in a different port every evening. And every morning Poppy got up before anyone else in the party, took herself to a café with Wi-Fi, and chatted to Moby over her breakfast.

This morning was no exception. The kitchen laptop thrummed into life. Moby stopped looking at the biscuit tin and jumped onto one of the long kitchen benches in front of it and sat to attention.

Hope leaned across him and tapped the green telephone icon on the screen. At once Moby shoved her aside and barked twice. The screen swirled a bit and then Hope, peering past Moby’s massive shoulders, saw freckles, braces on teeth and the unmistakable plaits tilted at an impossible angle.

“Good morning, my lamb,” crooned Poppy.

Moby made crooning noises back.

They talked in their private language until Moby was satisfied. Then he shifted enough to allow Hope to slide onto the bench beside him and see the screen properly.

“Good morning, Hope,” said Poppy, beaming like sunlight.

She’d soon dropped the polite and proper “Ms Kennard”. These days Poppy and Hope were acknowledged allies.

And they worked well together, Hope thought now. She reached for the biscuit tin, ready for their morning ritual.

Poppy waved her croissant in front of her smartphone. Moby’s tail began to wag furiously. He put his front paws on the table and gave an imperious short bark. Poppy broke off a corner of the pastry as Hope slid a biscuit out of the tin. Poppy looked off screen right, raised her arm and mimed a throw. Moby leaped off the bench jumping and giving little barks in his excitement. Hope immediately tossed the biscuit so that it sailed over Moby’s head.

He turned and raced after it, his claws clicking as he skidded on the polished floor.

Poppy laughed in delight. “Gets him every time,” she said fondly.

“Very rewarding,” said Hope. She was not just talking about the dog. More and more Poppy was reminding her of herself as a schoolgirl – too quiet, a little lost, only truly at ease with her beloved animal friend.

In Hope’s case it had been a pony: fat, contrary and stubborn. He never came when she called but when he eventually deigned to trot over and accept his bridle, he would nuzzle her hair and blow down her T-shirt and she’d loved him. Until one day her father decided she had outgrown him and he was sold.

Hope hadn’t even had time to say goodbye. Her father, infuriated by her grief when he was so excited to give her his wonderful present, had refused to discuss that matter. So seven-year-old Hope refused to have anything to do with the larger pony he wanted to buy her. He called it “the next step”. She called it treachery and went into mourning.

Poor Daddy, he’d never understood about love, not even at the end, she thought now. At least Poppy’s father, initially dismissive of Poppy’s despair at the thought of a bereft Moby, now showed signs of learning.

But neither of her companions noticed the undercurrent. Moby made short work of the biscuit and pounded back to the bench, ears pricked, quivering with anticipation.

Poppy and Hope repeated the trick three more times. Only the last time Hope threw his rubber bone instead and Moby settled down to chew it contentedly in the corner. He never took his eyes off the screen though.

“Still missing me,” said Poppy, her joy dimming.

“He could do with a longer run,” said Hope. She had never been responsible for a dog before but her brother Max had two and had sent her a reading list on German shepherds. “I take him into the woods every day but it’s a bit of a routine. He may be getting bored. A whole day among some new trees would be even better.”

Poppy looked wistful. “If we were home, Mother would take us into the old forest.”

“Then I can take him into the old forest,” Hope said stoutly. She might not know much about dogs but she was learning fast and, unlike her fat pony, Moby came when she called.

The little face on the screen was instantly anxious. “You need a permit. Dad has a family one because he’s a volunteer fire ranger but –”

“Moby is family. And I’m in loco parentis, so I’ll count too.”

“Are you sure?”

Hope didn’t know about the forest by-laws but, in five years of working her way round the world, she had talked herself out of tighter spots than taking a dog into a forest on a slightly dodgy permit. “Yes.”

She saw Poppy allowing herself to believe. “That would be so great.”

Hope smiled at her. “Consider it done, then.”

The Antons had good maps. Hope found the forest road without difficulty and Moby barked excitedly as she turned into the parking place. The air tasted as sweet and cold as champagne on ice as they set off, Moby tearing ahead and then racing back to her, almost dancing.

But they came to a small clearing and the dog’s mood changed. He ran round, peering behind trees and following small animal tracks, getting more and more frantic. It took Hope a while but eventually she worked out that he was looking for Poppy and couldn’t find her. Her eyes prickled. Ridiculous!

“She’ll be back,” she said, knowing it was to comfort herself as much as the dog.

He continued to search for ages. Hope sat down on an old tree stump and waited until he gave up. Eventually he came back, legs dragging, head down, the picture of misery.

“Oh, Moby,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

The dog slumped down onto his haunches, put back his head and howled at the sky.

Jonas pushed his motorbike into the barn behind the Forest Rangers’ Centre. He had ridden out of Liburno last night in the small hours, in a cold rage at Hollywood, San Michele and most of all himself.

It was not at all what he’d intended. But when he got back to his apartment he was so restless that he knew he’d never sleep, even though he should be exhausted. So he’d flung a few essentials into the canvas bag that he always took on the bike and set out for the forest. Two weeks of volunteering on forest conservation and a refresher course on fire watching should be enough to restore his equilibrium. Or at least he hoped so. He felt as if he were in a cage and if he didn’t stretch his wings in the air he’d die.

He locked the bike and headed for the Rangers’ Building where he would be staying for the next two weeks. It was a simple structure: four Spartan bedrooms, a common room for socializing, a command centre for planning and training, and a big display space for educating everyone from tourists to schoolchildren in all aspects of the Great European Birch Forest.

Jonas wondered whether he’d be staying there alone this time. Most of the Rangers and nearly all volunteers lived locally. Jonas himself was welcome because, after all his legal qualifications, he’d done a Masters Degree in wilderness conservation in the States. That meant he’d got practical experience too. Besides, his beloved godfather had been a lifelong Ranger. So he had a sort of family ticket, by proxy. But basically the Rangers were a close-knit group who regarded the capital as a foreign country and the thirty-seven miles of road between Liburno and the forest as a welcome obstacle to interspecies contamination.

Jonas loved them. Remembering that, he gave a long, grateful sigh.

“Free at last,” he said aloud.

There was nobody in the Centre when Jonas let himself in. He saw from the new page on the desk diary that the Team Captain had signed in around dawn. Jonas chuckled. Taking his state-of-the-art devices to record the dawn chorus, no doubt!

Jonas chose a room in the Spartan living quarters and flung his kit bag onto the single bed. The forest beyond the window was alive with movement. Time to go outside and breathe again, he thought.

He divested himself of his leathers and dug into the bag for a fleece. The forest would be cooler than Liburno. He pulled it on, grimacing as he accidentally brushed the grated scar at his waist.

That damned belt! He had to take a chisel and a tin opener to the buckle to unlock it, in the end. He’d have to write a letter of apology to the Hussars, whose property it was. And also find some way of making reparation for the insult to the Regiment. Noblesse oblige, damn it.

He’d do it today. But not yet. The forest was calling too alluringly.

It was mid-morning and the sun was striking through leaves still wet with melting frost. Sunbeams fractured. The forest floor crackled under foot. Birds flittered and chirruped. He knew the smell of the place, like he knew his own skin: new plants pushing up through old leaves; dead wood decaying; the damp richness of ferns and moss and lichen.

He wandered in gentle meanders, circling the Centre. He felt too pleasantly spaced out either to set out on a serious hike or to go back indoors and rest. Weeks of tension unspooled. He stretched his arms out wide, wide, and felt his lungs expand with good forest air.

And then he heard it. A noise he’d never heard in the forest before. A single animal, howling at the sky.

A wolf!

He had to be dreaming. There hadn’t been wolves in the San Michele Forest for five hundred years.

But then it came again and Jonas shook off his abstraction and snapped into action. There was something – or someone – real out there making that spine-chilling sound. Possibly hurt. One for Jonas, Forest Ranger!

He strode back into the Centre and shouldered one of the rescue backpacks and went looking. He crossed and recrossed the trails systematically, as he’d been taught, but saw no animal tracks that could account for it.

Then he came to a clearing he recognized. And stopped dead.

There was someone there. It was a secluded place. He’d never seen anyone here before except a fellow Ranger. And she was no Ranger. She was sitting on a fallen tree trunk, maybe twenty yards away. Turned away from him. Unaware.

The hand holding his hunter’s knife fell to his side. Jonas drew a long breath.

She shimmered in the silvery spring sunshine. Hair a swirl of rainbows. Still as a dryad on a Greek frieze, yet somehow vibrantly alive. A creature of myth, at one with trees and the sparkling air.

Jonas shook his head hard and shut his eyes to clear his vision. But when he opened them, she was still there. Underneath those dancing rainbows, her hair was red. Her shoulders drooped. She was motionless.

Unnaturally so, he thought now, as his Ranger awareness kicked into Danger mode. Was she lost? Hurt? Was it her voice he’d heard, then? Not an animal at all but a person? It had sounded so lonely. His heart turned over at the thought of a fellow human being so bereft.

He started forward, treading softly so as not to alarm her, but not trying to hide his approach either. She still didn’t move. When he got within five yards of her he stopped, as advised in the Rangers’ guidance on search and rescue. Panic, they always said, was the killer. You had to keep the subject calm and that meant not creeping up behind them and spooking them.

He pitched his voice carefully, aiming for relaxed but reassuring. “Hi there. Are you OK?”

The woman jumped and leaped off her tree trunk. She looked round wildly. So at least her limbs were all working, he thought. That was a good sign.

“I’m over here,” he said, not moving because you mustn’t crowd a disoriented victim.

She pivoted, still searching. The dappled shadow of the trees must be camouflaging him, because it took her a while. He took a small step forward and she found him at last. She looked wary. Or was it borderline alarmed?

Maybe she hadn’t recognized the uniform. He said reassuringly, “I’m a Ranger.”

She frowned, seeming to concentrate hard, and eventually dredged up, “I understand. No. Not. I not understand.”

So she was a visitor. Well, San Michele had more foreign residents than native-born citizens, though not many of them made it out this deep into the countryside.

He switched to English, the language of the city’s most important economic activity. “I’m a Forest Ranger. Do you need assistance, ma’am?” The last was pure Iowa State Uni, not San Michele Forest Rangers’ style at all, but it seemed a good idea in the circumstances.

She understood him then. Their eyes met. With a jolt. Jonas’s head went back in shock. The redhead looked stunned.

And then a big dog-like animal moved out of the shadows into the sunlight, put back its head and howled like a soul in torment.

It had to be hurt. In pure instinct, Jonas flung himself forward, ready to wrestle the animal to the ground before it could attack her.

The woman’s eyes widened. They stayed fixed on him. She backed away. She looked terrified.

“Stand very still,” he told her.

She stopped dead.

The dog looked at her, then him. Its lip curled back in a snarl. Jonas eased himself between the woman and the beast, no sharp movements, no haste.

“Back away now,” he said over his shoulder, maintaining eye contact with the animal. “Calmly. Don’t run.”

He could hear her agitated breathing. She was poised for flight. He knew it. But still she stayed rooted to the spot. Meanwhile the creature quivered, its hackles raised, jaws slavering.

Why didn’t she move?

And then, to his astonishment, she spoke. Her voice was shaky but she said, “It’s all right, boy.”

Boy? Was she crazy?

He heard her swallow. Her voice strengthened. “Good dog.”

The dog stayed where it was, eyeing Jonas. It looked ready to spring.

At last she was beginning to move. But not away, fleeing out of harm’s way like he’d told her. Instead she was edging round the clearing in a wide arc. To his horror she approached the dog from behind.

“Don’t.” He held up his hand in the international halt signal.

But she kept creeping up until she was standing beside the dog. She even put her hand on the creature’s head. Jonas felt his heart squeeze tight with dread.

But the dog didn’t turn and attack. It accepted her hand but it didn’t make any other sign that it knew she was there. It watched Jonas, alert, quivering in every muscle.

He thought: it looks like a guard dog.

He said, “Does this animal belong to you?”

At exactly the same second, she said, “Will you please stop brandishing that machete? It worries him and, frankly, you’re making me nervous.” The words were strong enough but her voice was distinctly wobbly.

Jonas was taken aback. He glanced down at his hunting knife. It was sharp enough to cut back undergrowth and looked it. And he supposed it was big if you weren’t used to such things. He sheathed it carefully and looked up.

“Better?”

The woman nodded. She looked very pale.

In quick sympathy he said, “Is the dog injured? Do you know?”

She stared. “No. Why?”

“That howling to raise the dead.” Jonas was rueful. “I thought it was wolves.”

“Wolves?” Her voice rose.

He’d obviously really scared her. And who could blame her? Strange man bursting out of the undergrowth waving a knife and telling her to run! How could he have been such an idiot?

He hastened to stop making bad worse. “No, no. A mistake. No need to worry. Honestly. If a wolf showed up here today it would make the record books.”

She gave a little puff of relief and her shoulders came down. And then reaction set in. Anger. “Then why think it?”

“Because it gave me a shock,” he said honestly. And I’m running on empty after the week’s work and last night. My judgement is shot. But none of that was her fault. “Look. Let’s start again. This is your dog, right?”

She bristled visibly. “And how is that your business?”

Jonas gestured to the badge on his all-weather jacket. “I’m a Forest Ranger. Volunteer, here on a training programme. We have a code for dog walkers in the forest.”

“Oh.” That caught her on the wrong foot but now that she had come out of panic mode, she was fighting her corner with a will. Her tone bit. “Sorry Moby made too much noise. But he isn’t injured. He’s sad.” She bent to rub the dog’s head.

The creature butted her thigh in response, then flung itself on its back with its paws in the air and panted invitingly.

So not a wolf, thought Jonas. He was aware of an almost irresistible urge to laugh. “Sad?” He couldn’t quite keep the incredulity out of his voice.

She didn’t laugh. Didn’t even smile. Not even at the dog.

“His people have gone away on holiday. He misses them. I’m dog-sitting while they’re away.”

“And you thought you’d bring him into the forest for a run?”

It wasn’t an accusation, but she flushed and said defensively, “The family do. They told me so. And the father is a lawyer and the permit is in the car. I checked.”

She looked adorable, unsure of her ground and hating it. The dappled sunlight was making those rainbows dance around her hair again, too. Jonas felt as if he had known her forever and understood her to her bones. Or was his judgement still off?

He wrestled his thoughts back into order. “They probably didn’t tell you we have a dog walking code?”

She winced.

“Don’t worry. It’s not complicated. Just good sense. But it’s important to stick to the main paths at this time of year because we have ground-nesting birds. If a dog disturbs them, the birds can panic and leave their eggs.”

Oh!” She looked mortified.

No otherworldly dryad now, he thought. This was a wholly twenty-first century woman in jeans and a utilitarian fleece. She had mud on those jeans and twigs caught up in her wild red hair.

He wanted to gather her up in his arms, smooth the worry lines from her forehead and tell her there was no harm done yet.

Get a grip. That’s completely out of order, and you know it. Well, you do when you’re in your right mind.

“Look,” he said. “It’s no big deal. You’ll be fine, now that you know. I can give you another copy of the forest Code for dog walkers if you drop by the Rangers’ Centre. You and Moby are very welcome to San Michele Forest.”

And he held out his hand.

She didn’t seem to notice it. “Really?”

He let his hand fall but he was not deterred. “Really. Just learn a bit about the lie of the land before you start playing in the trees with Moby. You’re a long way off any of the regular paths here, you know. In fact, are you sure you can find your way back to your vehicle?”

She stiffened. “I did make made notes of the way we came. I didn’t think about birds, I admit, but I did do that.”

He’d heard that from other footsore walkers whom the Rangers had turned out to rescue and return home. He didn’t say so. Instead he asked, “OK. Where did you leave your car?”

She described the place as best she could. Jonas didn’t ask questions or prompt her in any way and he saw her slowly realize that she had no real idea of where she’d left the car at all. She fell silent mid-sentence.

When he was certain she wasn’t going to say any more, he said carefully, “I think I know the place. I can guide you back there, if you like.”

Even aware that she might be lost in the forest, she wasn’t giving an inch. She shook her head. “I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

Aha, thought Jonas, who had qualified as a lawyer in London. “British, right?”

“What?”

I couldn’t ask you to do that is British English for sod off.”

She stiffened. “It’s English for I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

“But you’re not asking. I’m offering,” he pointed out, amused.

“You have your own stuff to do,” she said between her teeth.

Jonas was beginning to enjoy himself. “This is my own stuff. Rescuing people lost in the forest is what Rangers do.”

For a moment he thought she would scream with frustration. He waited hopefully.

But she regrouped well. After a moment she said with icy dignity, “Thank you but I’ve got my notes. I just have to trust them.”

“And the odds are that you’ll get lost again. Then one or more of us will have to come out looking for you.”

“I wouldn’t ask –”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t. But I have to report that I’ve seen you and then, if you don’t come out of the forest in a couple of hours, we’d have to set up a search and rescue operation.”

She didn’t like that. “How would you know that I hadn’t come out of the forest?”

“If your car was still where you left it. I know where it is.” He didn’t have to add, unlike you.

She went down fighting. “Moby can probably find the way.”

Jonas just looked at the dog, still wriggling on the fallen leaves with paws flying and eyes closed in ecstasy. Even the spiky dryad seemed to take the point. She gave a snort, quickly cut off, but he thought there was just a faint possibility that she was starting to see the funny side of this encounter, too.

Encouraged, he said, “Look, if I’m right, your car is maybe ten minutes from here.”

That startled her, he saw. She must have been walking in a wide circle from the Crossways Clearing.

“Ten minutes,” he said persuasively. “Then, if you really want to be helpful, you can drive me back to the Rangers’ Centre.”

He watched with appreciation as deep dudgeon warred with British courtesy. In the end courtesy won. But it cost her. Interesting. Did she hate having been in the wrong that much? Or was there something else going on here?

“Very well,” she said stiffly.

“Thank you.”

She nodded, called the dog and went with Jonas. He led the way back. She wasn’t obvious about it, but he noticed that she made sure the dog was between them at all times. It needled him but he took himself to task. It was a sensible precaution for a lone woman in an unfamiliar place to take with any stranger, even one in a Ranger’s uniform. She was obviously used to taking care of herself. Maybe she hadn’t needed his assistance, after all.

But when they got back to her car, she stopped dead and looked around.

“I set off from over there,” she said in a wondering voice. She pointed to a small animal track on the other side of the clearing. “How did I manage to get here?”

“If you come into the Centre, I’ll show you on the big map,” Jonas said, tempting her.

She looked at him for a long moment. He couldn’t read her expression but he felt the tension shift. He waited for her to make up her mind.

She said slowly, “I’ve been making a complete prat of myself, haven’t I?”

Jonas shrugged. “You’re quite safe with me. But then I’d say that anyway, wouldn’t I?”

“Yes.”

He nodded, accepting her tacit decision. “Well, I’m glad you and Moby have found your vehicle, at least. Take my advice. Don’t go wandering in the forest again without a map of the trails. And get a copy of the Code. It’s not just ground-nesting birds. There are wild pigs and even cattle in some places. You need to be prepared. You can download everything from our website, if you don’t want to pick one up at the Centre.” He turned away. “Safe journey.”

But she surprised him.

“Wait!”

Jonas turned back. Their eyes locked. Her gaze flickered, became intent. He straightened involuntarily. Suddenly his pulse was racing.

“Thank you for rescuing me,” she said gruffly. “I mean us, Moby and me.”

Well, that was unexpected. He brought his voice under control and tipped an imaginary hat. “Code of the Rangers, ma’am.”

Her eyes lit with instant, grateful amusement and she smiled at him for the first time. It took his breath away.

Was it his irregular pulse or were they remarkable eyes? Clear. Candid. Warm hazel with flickers of witch green. Was that even possible? Eyes that seemed to look right through to the core of him. Jonas felt as if he was smiling right back into her as if they were already …

… already …

Friends?

Yes. And?

Allies. Each other’s confidant. Companions in forest exploration.

Oh, come on, Jonas. Witch-green eyes and you just want to go hiking with her? Get real.

Lovers, then. The moment the word occurred to him it seemed to whisper through his whole being, mind, blood and bone. Right. Inevitable.

He came back, with an effort, to what she was saying.

“I’m truly sorry. We were lucky you came along.”

“You’re welcome.”

She laughed aloud at that. “Very generous and more than I deserve. I promise I’ll take your advice from now on.”

Jonas seized his chance. He patted the side of the 4X4 as if it were a horse. “Back to the Centre then?”

She shook back her tumble of red curls and their attendant rainbows and laughed again. “Whatever you say, Ranger.”

He found he couldn’t speak.

So this time it was she who held out her hand. “I’m Hope Kennard. New to San Michele, the forest and apologies. Glad to have made all three. Good to meet you.”

He took her hand. It was cool and firm. The blood in his fingertips tingled as if he’d touched a live electric connection.

“Jonas,” he said, distracted.

She shook his hand firmly. “Jonas what?”

He hesitated for a millisecond. But her eyes were dancing now and she’d called him Ranger. There were no Serene Highnesses in the forest. So the die was already cast.

“Jonas Reval,” he said firmly.

Chapter Three

Hope couldn’t help it. She thought: he’s lying. And was instantly ashamed of herself.

The man had been nothing but kind. Tried to protect her from a wolf and then brought her back to find her car, instead of leaving her to get on with it, which would have taken hours. He hadn’t taken offence when she ranted at him. He’d got her back to the clearing in just a few minutes without saying, “I told you so.” That would earn him high marks in anybody’s book. He’d been tolerant, helpful and funny. He deserved better than groundless suspicion.

Except that it wasn’t – quite – groundless. Hope knew how people behaved when they were lying. Her father had done it all the time.

But Jonas Reval was nothing like her father, she told herself now. Maybe the Ranger was a bit too sexy for his own good. Even over the uneven forest floor he moved beautifully, as if his joints were oiled and he couldn’t wait to break into a run, just for the pleasure of springing from foot to foot.

But it was hardly his fault that she was attracted to lithe men. He’d showed no sign of noticing her reaction, anyway. And just now he had even made her laugh.

If she mistrusted him, it was all in her own head. She was letting her old wariness get out of hand. It was about time she got over it.

So she waved the Ranger to get into the vehicle, while Moby scrambled into the back. When she swung into the driving seat, their shoulders touched and she jumped.

Stop it, she told herself silently. Aloud she said, “You’ll need to navigate.”

“Of course.” He gave her directions.

And Hope, who had driven everything from a stretch limousine to stock cars in mud, crashed the gears for the first time in her life.

She found it strangely awkward driving the Ranger back to his Centre. He gave her a prickly, restless feeling. She felt as if he never took his eyes off her. Yet when she managed to glance casually sideways, he was leaning forward checking the track ahead, not looking at her at all.

“Ah, thought so. Big pothole here,” he said helpfully.

Hope wrenched the vehicle round it just in time. Even so they bumped hard and poor Moby, in the back, gave a hiccupping bark of protest.

Jonas laughed. “Back-seat driver,” he said and reached behind to let the dog sniff his hand. But he kept his eyes on the rough terrain ahead, Hope saw.

Eventually he directed her off the vestigial track. At his direction she threaded her way between substantial trees. The off-roader lurched sickeningly a couple of times. But Hope gritted her teeth and kept it steady. He seemed impressed.

“You’ve done this before?”

“I was brought up in the country. I was driving through my family’s woods before I was old enough to get a driving licence.”

“It shows,” he said approvingly. “One last heave over the next rise and we’re onto the main track again.”

The nose lifted like the prow of a boat in a rough sea, but Hope was prepared for it this time. “Thar she blows,” she crowed, as they breasted the summit with a bone-shaking thump.

Concentrating, she turned the steering wheel gently so that they descended the far side at an optimal trajectory to the rate of decline.

“Very cool.”

She was just bouncing off the forest floor and onto a visibly beaten track, when he said that, so she didn’t have any spare attention to reply. But she had the impression that she had surprised him. It was comforting after all that amateur gear crashing she’d done when they started.

The Rangers’ Centre proved to be a huddle of single-storey buildings that looked as if it had grown organically, rather than been designed and constructed by hand. Hope said so, then wondered too late if he would count it as an insult.

But he just laughed and said, “About right. It started off as a woodman’s cottage a couple of hundred years ago. Bits got added. Now it’s part Rangers’ HQ, part Education Centre. Come and see.”

He jumped down from the vehicle and went in. Hope paused to put Moby on his lead before she followed more slowly.

Inside were two men, one white-haired holding a massive walking stick, and one middle-aged, both watching Jonas write on a whiteboard. There was also a delicious smell of coffee. Hope stopped dead, her nose twitching with lust.


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