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.
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?
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.
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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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?”
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.”
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.
End of Excerpt