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“I suppose you heard I’m getting married.” His Serene Royal Highness Prince Jonas of San Michele paused in his fourth lap of Celina’s small sitting room, then stared out the tall bay window at the December snowfall drifting into the street below. His hands were clasped behind him in that sort of regal posture that spoke of polite detachment and preternatural calm. It would have been more successful if she hadn’t heard his knuckles cracking.
“I have, yes.” Celina watched him warily for a moment from the rocking chair where she sat, then realized that whatever was on Jonas’s mind required sustenance. She went to put on the kettle.
Jonas had gone to Cambridge as an undergraduate, coming away with a law degree and the firm belief that cups of tea kept the body afloat in stressful situations. He also had an English grandmother.
It was his grandmother, Her Serene Highness the Dowager Princess Margaret, who had been, for the past two years, Celina’s employer. She had also been the bearer of tidings about Jonas’s upcoming marriage to Hope Kennard.
Maggie – the Serene Dowager insisted Celina call her that in private – was pleased with the match. “He needs a woman who loves him for himself, not his title,” she said firmly.
It had been easy to see from her first encounter with Jonas’s intended that Hope did exactly that. Celina, who had a soft spot for the serious, self-contained man she’d met five years ago when he’d come to grad school at Iowa State, was delighted that one of her dearest friends had found the woman of his heart.
Two years ago when her life had been in a shambles, Jonas had helped her pick up the pieces, calling his grandmother and suggesting that Celina would make a great personal assistant. Maggie had offered her the job, and between the two of them, that had helped Celina get her life back on track.
She owed him. She wanted him happy. She believed that Hope would make him happy.
Now Celina switched the kettle on, then set mugs out on the counter. When she went back to the sitting room, Jonas had begun pacing again.
“I like Hope tremendously,” she said, making a guess that it was his upcoming nuptials he wanted to talk about, and taking the initiative because they could be here until midnight if she waited for Jonas to do it. “She’s smart and pretty and a good match for you. A very strong woman, in other words,” she added in case he was actually having collywobbles.
She knew he had every right to worry that Hope would not want to deal with all the demands his royal family would make or that his family might decide to make things difficult for her. It had happened before. Crown Princess Anna had done exactly that with the young woman his brother Nico had brought home last year.
Celina prayed that Hope was made of sterner stuff.
“She is strong,” Jonas agreed, giving her a quick smile, and she heard a firmness in his tone that reassured her. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t about Hope.
He stopped by the bookcase this time, rolling his shoulders, as if to ease the tension in them. He stared at the titles on the shelves, but Celina was sure he didn’t see them. What he would find interesting about her collection of bestsellers, mysteries and etiquette and business texts she couldn’t imagine.
“She likes you, too,” he said finally, jerking his thoughts back from wherever they’d been and giving Celina a quick guilty grimace when he noticed that she was regarding him with concern.
“Of course she does,” she said briskly. “What’s not to like?” She grinned at him, then went back into her tiny kitchen, giving Jonas even more space to figure out how to come to the point.
It had been a surprise to find him on her doorstep this evening. She hadn’t even been sure he knew where she lived now that she’d moved out of San Michele’s royal palace and had taken a small ground-floor flat in Liburno’s Old Quarter.
Jonas didn’t live at the palace, either. But his flat was in a modern high-rise a couple of miles away, and unless he dropped by to see his grandmother, Celina rarely saw him these days.
She’d seen Jonas fairly often when she’d first come to San Michele. He’d made it a point to check on her because he’d been worried about her, because he cared. She’d been in a new place with new people in a new job. She would need support, he’d decided.
And all Celina’s assurances that she’d be fine, that if there was one thing she knew how to do, it was to move and move again, fell on deaf ears.
“I was a Navy brat, Joe,” she had reminded him.
“I know. It’s why you went to Iowa State,” he’d reminded her right back. “So you could meet a farmer and settle down, build a home, put down roots.”
At least he had listened to what she’d said. Which was more than some people had done. It had been a stupid idea – she could admit that now. But at the time she’d chosen a landlocked state agricultural school because she’d had the harebrained notion that she could find a solid, respectable man-of-the-land there.
“I should have married you,” she’d told him wistfully and only half-kidding the day he’d packed boxes for her move to San Michele.
“You should have,” he agreed gravely. Then he’d looked up from taping a box and smiled, his expression warm and deep. “You still could.”
It was as close as Jonas had ever come to admitting that he’d had feelings for her. He’d kept his counsel because Celina already had a boyfriend: Jonas’s flatmate. And while Celina had always loved the man she’d teasingly called “my Prince Charming,” she hadn’t loved him like that.
That afternoon, though, she’d been more than a little tempted. Thank God she’d had the sense to hug her arms across her chest and shake her head. “I love you too much to saddle you with me.”
A corner of Jonas’s mouth had twisted. “Let me know if you change your mind.”
She never had.
And when he’d met Hope, she was sure Jonas thanked his lucky stars he hadn’t settled for second best, that he’d been free to fall in love – really deeply in love – with the right woman.
Now Celina made the tea, added milk to both the tea mugs and turned to find that Jonas had followed her into the kitchen. Fine. He could come to the point right here.
She handed him one of the mugs and nodded toward the chairs at her tiny kitchen table. “Have a seat.”
He sat. But as soon as she sat across from him, he jumped back up again.
“For goodness’ sake, Joe, what’s the matter? If it’s not Hope, what is it?”
He looked down at her, startled. “What’s what?”
“The reason you’re pacing.”
He grimaced. “That obvious?”
Just a little. “It’s not like you.” She took a sip of tea. “Is Anna causing trouble?” she ventured. It seemed possible.
Jonas shook his head. “I wouldn’t let her.”
She smiled at the truth of that. Jonas was quiet and self-effacing, a man who listened, but didn’t often talk. But when it mattered, he made sure he got his point across.
Celina didn’t envy Anna, whom Maggie referred to as “the mistress of protocol,” if she got on the wrong side of her husband’s youngest brother.
“So who is causing trouble?”
Jonas took a careful swallow of tea, then wrapped his fingers around the mug and settled his hips against the counter, before saying ruefully, “Me.”
Celina’s brows went up. “You?”
“The wedding.” He grimaced, pausing as if that said it all. But when Celina just waited expectantly, he went on. “Hope picked her bridesmaids. She asked a couple of girls from her village, Combe St Philip, where we’re getting married. Close friends, you know?”
Celina nodded. “Lucky her. We moved so often I didn’t have close friends. No one I grew up with. No one I was close to.”
Jonas nodded. “Yes, well, she said I should do the same.”
“So you asked a couple of girls from her village?” Celina teased.
Jonas gave her a wry smile, then shook his head. The silence went on. And on. Finally he swallowed, lifted his gaze and met hers. “I asked Jack.”
The single word was like a punch to the gut.
Once when they were about twelve, Celina’s twin brother, Edward, had thrown a football at her when she wasn’t expecting it, hitting her right in the stomach. Hard. It had taken her a full minute to get her breath and even then she couldn’t talk, only gasp.
Pretty much as she was doing now.
“I should have checked with you,” Jonas hurried on apologetically. “But Hope asked me if I was going to ask Carlo or Nico to be my best man, and –” he shook his head at the thought of having his brothers stand up for him “– I just couldn’t. Carlo thinks he runs everything anyway. I didn’t want him running my wedding. And Nico …” He shrugged. “Well, he’ll be a groomsman under protest. But Nico isn’t big on weddings these days.”
No, not after last year’s debacle.
But … “Jack?” She managed his name, but in barely more than a whisper.
Jonas grimaced. “It was a perfect storm.” He took a long swallow of tea, then squared his shoulders and pressed on. “Hope knew that Jack and I were mates.” He shrugged, acknowledging that it was out of character. “I’d mentioned it once when she told me South Face was one of her favorite bands.”
Of which Jack – who had been Jonas’s flatmate at Iowa State – had been the singer, songwriter and lead guitarist. When Celina had met Jack, South Face had been a staple of frat house parties and Friday night funky bar music. Now it was one of the world’s most popular rock-rhythm-blues bands.
“I got tickets to take her to their concert in London last weekend,” he went on. “It was the last one on their tour before Christmas. And we met them after – Jack and the band. I asked for a backstage pass. I thought it would make Hope happy. It did make her happy,” he admitted. “But then, when we were talking to him, she told Jack we were getting married.” Jonas grimaced and rolled his shoulders as if trying to shrug off a hundred-pound weight. “And, you know Jack. He got this big grin on his face and said, ‘And you want me to be your best man!’”
Because Jonas had been best man at their wedding – hers and Jack’s.
“And he said, ‘Great, man. Yes! I’ll definitely do it.’” Jonas rubbed a hand against the back of his neck. “I didn’t actually ask. Jack just … assumed.”
Yes. That was Jack.
She could hear Jonas’s teeth grind together. “I should have told him no. I should have squelched it right then.” Jonas dragged in a deep breath and shoved a hand through his hair. “But Hope was so excited. She kept saying how nice it was of him, how it was such a great honor.”
To anyone else it would be. Celina could see that. Having world-renowned singer-guitarist Jack Masterson be your husband’s best man – especially if you were a fan – would be exciting.
Jonas rubbed a hand against the back of his neck. “She would never have wanted it if she’d known,” he said apologetically. “She doesn’t know about you … and Jack.”
Didn’t know they knew each other? Didn’t know they’d been married? Didn’t know they were divorced?
Given that it would have been Jonas imparting the information, most likely all of the above.
He was not the most garrulous of men. He ran his life on a need-to-know basis, and he wouldn’t have thought Hope needed to know about Celina’s past with Jack.
“Ah,” Celina said, clutching her mug of tea in both hands as if it were a lifeline, as if it would steady her, keep her afloat.
If Jonas had hoped for absolution, he didn’t get it. Not yet. She needed time to assimilate the news. And Jonas was already moving on.
“She’ll understand,” he said firmly. “And I don’t care if Jack doesn’t,” he added fiercely. “I’ll get hold of him. Tell him no.”
But by that time Celina had assimilated. She shook her head.
It was the initial shock that had jolted her. For the past two and a half years, she’d done her best not to think about Jack. She’d moved halfway round the world, taken a new job, made a new life – one that in no way included Jack. Every time her thoughts drifted his way, she redirected them. Every time she thought about the past, she carefully elided the Jack bits. He had no part in her present.
And he would have no part in her future. Of that she was certain.
So, while Jonas had been pacing and explaining, she had been processing matters in her head, forcing herself to be logical, sensible. Calm, cool and collected. Now she took a sip of tea, made herself concentrate on its fortifying effects, then looked up and met Jonas’s gaze. “It’s okay.”
Jonas stared at her. “Okay?” Doubt dripped from the word.
Celina was conscious of how tightly her fingers were clenching the handle of the mug, and deliberately she eased her grip, wiggled her fingers slightly, drew a steadying breath. “Yes, really. It is. Don’t worry about it. It’s perfectly fine that Jack will be your best man. He is your friend.”
Jonas still looked conflicted. “So are you.”
“Yes, but this isn’t about me. It’s about you – and Hope. It’s your wedding. Besides, it’s been two years,” she reminded him. And herself. “I’m over him.”
Jonas cocked his head, considering her doubtfully.
Celina made herself smile. “Over. Him,” she repeated firmly. “I’m dating again.”
At her assertion, Jonas’s brows hiked into the fringe of dark hair that drifted across his forehead. “Dating who?” The voice of scepticism.
“I went out with Fredrik,” she told him haughtily. Fredrik Jensson, she meant. San Michele’s head of palace security. Lovely guy. No spark.
Jonas grunted. “Past tense.”
“Twice.” Which was protesting a bit too much. “And there was a Swiss banker. Maggie introduced me to him.”
“Do you even remember his name?” He knew her too well.
“Of course I know his name. But you wouldn’t. Anyway, I’m not pining away. I’m not sad. I’m not lonely. I have a life. I have a dog.”
She didn’t need to remind him about Roscoe. An eighty-pound golden retriever was hard to miss, especially sleeping as he was in front of the little fireplace that made San Michele’s damp winters in the coastal capital of Liburno bearable.
“A dog.” Jonas’s mouth twitched. A hint of a smile lurked in his eyes.
Celina determinedly ignored it. “Yes. Reliable. Friendly. Trustworthy. Constant.”
Though – her heart twisted just a little bit – Jack had given her the dog.
“Celina –” Jonas began. “Seriously, I can tell him –”
“No.” Celina let out a shaky breath, then set her tea mug down on the table and drew herself together. “No, Jonas. Leave it alone. Don’t change a thing. It’s all right,” she said firmly. “It’s good, in fact.”
Jonas still looked uncertain. “He hurt you.”
Gutted her, more like.
In the end, he was too much for her.
And she wasn’t enough for him.
End of Excerpt