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Ally Parker glanced at the clock and sighed. Jennifer Harmon, the landlady of the Three Bells and her temporary boss, never failed to find a last-minute job that would take her over her basic hours. Extra minutes for which she would not be paid.
Mostly, because she needed a job – even one that involved scrubbing the floors of a busy gastropub – she gritted her teeth and got on with it, but not today.
She had to get away promptly for the first test in the once-in-a-lifetime PR gig handed her by her BFF, Hope Kennard. Not that she could tell Jennifer the reason she had to leave on time.
Much as she’d enjoy wiping the superior look off Jennifer’s face by explaining that she was meeting Count Fredrik Jensson, Head of Security for the San Michele royal family, this morning at Hasebury Hall, Hope’s marriage to His Serene Highness Prince Jonas Reval was very much on a need-to-know basis. Family, bridesmaids …
“Ally!” The second summons was sung out so sweetly that she knew Pete must have joined his wife in the bar to set up for the lunchtime rush. That would make things easier, at least for today. Jennifer would dissect any excuse she offered with her scalpel of a tongue but Pete would wave her out of the door. It would give his wife even more reason to give her a hard time when he wasn’t around but right now she’d take it.
She gave the range of stainless steel sinks one last wipe down but kept on her pink rubber gloves when she walked into the bar so that she couldn’t be accused of not working every second she was being paid for.
“Oh, there you are, Ally. I was beginning to think you’d slipped away early.”
Jennifer looked her up and down, clearly enjoying the fact that, having lost her “glamorous” job in London, her working wardrobe now consisted of a wrap-around pinny that had belonged to her grandmother and the scarf she wrapped around her hair to protect it from the scent of cooking and ale that lingered in the air.
“No, still here –” she looked up as the bar clock clicked onto the hour, setting her free “– although I do have to leave promptly today,” she reminded her, pulling off one of the gloves to emphasize the point.
“Of course, my dear. I wouldn’t dream of keeping you a minute over your hours.” Her smile might have convinced anyone who didn’t have the misfortune to work for her. “The only reason I called is because you have a visitor.”
She turned as Jennifer gestured in the direction of a tall figure standing with his back to her in front of the fire.
He turned as if she’d spoken the word out loud and any number of words skittered through her brain – mostly of the what-the-hell variety – but her over-riding thought was that Count Fredrik Jensson looked a lot more dangerous in person than he had in the photographs she’d found online.
His thick, light brown hair, cut almost brutally short, looked as if it had been touched by the hard frost riming the hedges as she set out for work at dawn. His eyes were a matching icy grey and he had the hard-boned good looks that turned strong women to jelly.
Jennifer, gossip antennae twitching like the whiskers of a mouse scenting cheese, was simpering in expectation of an introduction.
The man might be dangerously sexy but he was also dangerously stupid. Fortunately, her three years working for a gossip magazine had given her plenty of practice in diversionary tactics.
Before he could speak she flung her arms wide and exclaimed, “Fredrik!” hoping he’d have the sense to follow her lead. “How wonderful! I wasn’t expecting to see you until later.”
The last, at least, was true. Plan A had been to present herself at Hasebury Hall on the dot of ten o’clock, city-smart and thoroughly professional in her “serious” suit and the Manolos she’d bought with a bonus when she’d been flavour of the month at Celebrity magazine.
She hadn’t anticipated the need for a Plan B but no one could accuse her of being slow on her feet.
Jennifer, agog at the arrival of a drop-dead gorgeous male, needed distracting. If she thought they had history, she wouldn’t be wondering what he was doing in Combe St Philip; her imagination would already be filling in the blanks.
Peeling off her other glove and stuffing them both in her apron pocket, Ally placed her hands on the sleeves of his coat and, leaning forward to brush her lips against his cold cheek, murmured, “Just play along.”
For a heartbeat nothing happened, but Count Fredrik Jensson was not slow on his feet, either. While she was distracted by the enticing scent of cold skin, tingly fresh air, leaves mouldering beneath the bare canopy of winter woods, his hands encircled her waist and before she could blink he was crushing her against the soft cashmere of his coat and the hard body it concealed.
Never had her name sounded so desirable and, held by his penetrating grey stare, she only realized his intention a split second before he lowered his mouth to hers.
Her tiny mew of protest was obliterated by the touch of cold lips that sent a shiver to her toes. Her brain, seeking an appropriate response to the shocking experience of being kissed senseless by a man she’d only moments before set eyes on, floundered as the ice of his mouth combined with the heat of hers in an explosion of pleasure.
Her last coherent thought as she closed her eyes and kissed him back was more …
“Hey, get a room, you two!”
Shamefully, it was the Count who responded first, his eyes giving nothing away as he lifted his head. In an attempt to retrieve a little self-respect Ally staggered back and would have stumbled if he hadn’t been holding her.
Her breath hitched in her throat as, still reeling from her response, she clung to him. Her cheeks were on fire; his, in contrast, were pale, his eyes glacier cold but she wasn’t fooled by the surface ice; beneath the frozen exterior there lay a hidden volcano.
“Hi,” she finally managed, when the silence had gone on too long. “What a wonderful surprise. I d-didn’t expect to see you –” her voice was shaky but under the circumstances any woman’s voice would shake “– until later.”
He laid his hand against her cheek as if to cool it. “I’m an impatient man,” he murmured softly in a seductively accented voice and her knees sent up a plea for reinforcement. “I couldn’t wait.” He rescued a wayward strand of hair that had escaped as her scarf slipped back and tucked it behind her ear, holding it there, his fingers chill against her neck. “I apologize if my arrival is ill-timed.”
Ill-timed was putting it mildly. She grabbed at the thought, anything to distract from the tingle of awareness lit by his kiss. The let’s-do-it-again dance of hormones straining at the leash like an excited puppy.
The San Michele royal family weren’t exactly thrilled by their youngest son’s choice of bride and even less happy that she’d insisted on being married from her family home. It certainly wasn’t going to do Hope’s cause any good if they discovered that the woman she’d chosen to handle her personal PR was moonlighting as a cleaner in the village pub.
But Fredrik wasn’t apologizing to her. He was looking at Jennifer.
“Not at all,” she replied, with the satisfied smile of a woman whose currency was gossip. Taking in every detail of this unexpected gift. “Can I get you a cup of coffee while you’re waiting, Mr …?” She paused expectantly – she had his first name but wanted more.
Ally, snapping out of a lustful haze, cut in before he could fill the gap and, finally getting her knees under control, stepped away.
“Thank you, Jennifer, but we’ll have one at home.”
She shrugged. “Another time.” Then, almost as an afterthought: “Is there any chance you could come in an hour earlier tomorrow, Ally? We’ve a coach party booked for lunch and we’re short-handed so I need someone to set up the dining room.”
Jennifer would rather have done it herself than give her extra hours but no doubt it amused the wretched woman to think she would be dragging her out of the warm arms of a lover and into a cold dawn.
Let her think it. An extra hour, even at minimum wages, would be very welcome.
“Happy to help,” she said, absently, looking up at the Count with what she hoped was a suitably sappy expression but there was nothing faked about the huskiness in her voice as she added, right on cue. “It’s quicker if we go out the back way.”
“Goodbye, Fredrik,” Jennifer called as they made their way to the rear of the pub. “I hope to see you again.”
He stopped in the doorway, turned, forcing her to wait while he acknowledged Jennifer with a formal nod of his head. “Madam.”
Polite, noncommittal, very foreign.
She swallowed a groan. News of his arrival would be the talk of the village by teatime but at least no one would be speculating on his reason for being in Combe St Philip.
The wedding was tightly under wraps and her entire future depended on keeping it that way. The first hint of it in the gossip mags before the official announcement from the royal palace and everyone would be looking at her.
“Not a word until we’re outside,” she hissed, using the excuse of grabbing her coat to let go of his arm.
She didn’t stop to put it on but once they were outside in the car park he took it from her and held it so that she could slip her arms in the sleeves, holding it in place for a moment, his hands on her shoulders.
It would have looked good to anyone watching from the pub but a shiver went through her at the memory of other hands on her shoulders in this car park. She knew it wasn’t the same. The sun was shining, Fredrik Jensson was merely playing along with the charade she’d begun, but she stepped away and turned on him.
“What on earth were you thinking?”
His eyebrows rose the merest fraction but it was enough to warn her that she was over-reacting.
The sensible response would be amusement, maybe mixed with a little embarrassment at the situation they’d found themselves in but there had been a rawness about that kiss, an intensity about Fredrik Jensson that unnerved her, making her unusually jumpy.
Unlike Fredrik Jensson.
If he felt any remorse or embarrassment for the scene he’d caused, there was no indication of it. His mouth might be made for sin but his face was made for poker.
“My time is limited. I don’t have time to waste waiting for you.”
The way he said “you”, told her everything she needed to know. The San Michele royal family might be unhappy with Prince Jonas’s choice of bride, but nowhere near as unhappy as Count Fredrik Jensson was with her own involvement in the wedding.
He’d undoubtedly checked her out – it was his job and she didn’t blame him for that – but he couldn’t have made it plainer that he hadn’t liked what he’d found. Well, he wasn’t her idea of Prince Charming either but they had to work together like it or not. Not, however, before she put him straight.
“I wasn’t keeping you waiting to be annoying. I was working. I’m thrilled to help Hope with the local PR for her wedding but I have bills to pay.”
“I’m sure your consultancy fee is more than generous.”
“When a friend needs help, you don’t produce a price list.” She had no doubt that her connection to the royal wedding would bring in job offers but she was done with the “gossip” business. “How did you find me?”
In the bright sunshine, the ice grey of his eyes had the sparkle of granite. There was the same hardness about him and yet his mouth had softened as he’d kissed her, evoking a response that had left her wanting more.
As if he had the same thought he turned abruptly away. “I asked Max Kennard where you lived. Your mother invited me to wait for you but …” Another shrug, this time leaving her to draw her own conclusions.
“You escaped?” She had no doubt her mother had tempted him with offers of coffee and home-made cake in order to give him the third degree and without warning she was struggling to keep a straight face. Hysteria … She cleared her throat. “Impressive.”
The bad news was that while he had escaped a grilling from her mother, she had nowhere to hide and would have to come up with something convincing by the time she reached home. News of that scene in the Three Bells would be all around the village by teatime and it would be cruel to leave her mother hanging out to dry when the phone calls started.
“I assumed your first security concern would be the grounds of Hasebury Hall,” she said, when he didn’t answer.
“They are,” he replied. “I walked them at first light.”
Of course he had. He was an impatient man, not given to wasting time hanging around for the likes of her. It accounted for the rich, peaty scent of leaf mould …
“Good decision,” she said quickly. The last thing she should be thinking about was the woodland scent that clung to him. “The gardens are magical with everything frosted over. The whole world seems to turn pink as the sun rises.”
“I was more concerned with the lack of secure boundaries,” he replied.
“It would have been a lot tougher before most of the estate was sold off.” She glanced up at him. “The royal family aren’t under threat, are they?” She paused as they reached the Market Cross where their ways diverged. “I thought San Michele was peaceful.”
He shrugged. “No country is immune from hotheads. Those who want to make the front page for whatever cause they’re espousing. And it isn’t just Hasebury Hall, or Combe St Philip. The royal family and their staff will be staying at Westonbury Court when they are here for the wedding.”
“The family have connections there.”
“Well that’s handy,” she said, making a mental note of this unexpected nugget of information. Her mother knew the housekeeper and with luck she could blag a tour of the house. Not that she was going to tell him that. “You’ll be liaising with the Chief Constable about security, I imagine.”
“I’ll make contact, let him know that the royal party will be at Westonbury this summer. The reason for their stay will keep until the palace makes the official announcement. This visit is simply to reconnoitre the area, uncover potential problems and prepare a security plan.”
It was like talking to wood, she thought. She was doing her best but apart from that kiss, not much was coming back, which was probably a Good Thing. The kiss had been more than enough …
“I’ve prepared a file for you with the contact details of everyone who will be involved locally and I’ve included a large scale map of the village and the surrounding area.” She didn’t wait for his thanks. “I’ll, um, dash home for a shower and change and meet you back at the Hall.”
There was little point going ahead with her plan to impress her first official contact with San Michele. He’d seen her at her worst and glamming it up with her London career-girl image would just make those expressive eyebrows lift at her attempt to impress him.
About to head off up the lane she was struck by a terrible thought and turned back to face him.
“You didn’t mention your reason for being in Combe St Philip when you spoke to my mother? She doesn’t know about the wedding.”
“You haven’t told her that you are going to be a royal bridesmaid?” He sounded surprised.
“The news will keep until after the official announcement,” she said, parroting him. A crease appeared at the corner of his mouth. The first suggestion of a smile? Or was it just an irritated twitch that someone who had worked for a gossip magazine could keep a secret.
“I asked for you,” he said. “Nothing more.”
“And she told you where I was? Just like that?” she persisted. “She didn’t grill you for every detail about who you were, where you’d come from, why you were looking for me?”
“She may have asked. I didn’t feel the need to answer,” he replied with the look of a man who never had to explain himself.
“Again, impressive!” she said, unable to resist a grin.
Fredric Jensson did not appear to think it was amusing and actually it wasn’t. Her mother would have had time to fine-tune the third degree by now and wouldn’t be so easily put off. Fortunately, she had anticipated the need for a story to cover her meetings with the Count but it was going to need a few tweaks.
“Since we needed a story to cover your presence in Combe St Philip,” she said, “I thought we could say that Hope and I met you at a party in London. You were planning to visit the Cotswolds on business and Hope invited you to stay at the Hall. She’s in London, up to her eyes in work right now, so you get me as your local guide.”
He frowned. “Who will be interested?”
“Are you kidding? Any stranger staying at the Hall will give the village something to talk about. By tomorrow there would have been speculation about you and Hope. Walking into the Three Bells looking for me scuppered that line of gossip. Instead of marrying Hope you’ll be sleeping with me.”
“An interesting distinction,” he said, “but hardly surprising in view of your enthusiastic welcome.”
A smile – even half a smile – would have taken the edge off that.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, getting a little tired of his attitude. “Should I have bobbed a curtsey and said, ‘Count Fredrik Jensson, what an honour to meet you?’” The crease made another appearance but she’d given up on the smile. He was doubtless clenching his jaw, irritated that a common village wench was prepared to speak her mind. “I thought this was supposed to be a low-profile visit. You were the one who turned it into something else.”
There was an endless moment of silence. The only movement was his breath misting the frozen air and Ally, afraid that she’d gone too far, held her own breath.
“I only use the title on ceremonial occasions –” his icy control was unnerving “– and save your curtsies for their serene highnesses. They will expect it.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied, “I’ve been practising.” A rare attack of nerves meant that had come out rather more flippantly than she’d intended.
Count Fredrik’s jaw tightened noticeably.
“You may think it’s an antiquated formality, Miss Parker, but the San Michele court is governed by strict protocol. When your mother told me that you had a job at the Three Bells, it didn’t occur to me that you would be scrubbing the kitchen floor. You’d better hope their highnesses don’t find out.”
Her own jaw tightened in response. It wasn’t a glamorous job. She was no longer visiting celebrities in their homes, persuading them to open their hearts and closets for the weekly gratification of Celebrity’s readers, but it was honest work and she wasn’t ashamed of it.
“What did you think I’d be doing?” she asked. “The Three Bells doesn’t serve breakfast and I don’t usually start on the gin until the sun is over the yard arm.” She gave him back the glacial stare. “Today might yet prove an exception.”
“Your mother did try very hard to persuade me to wait for you,” he admitted, running a hand over his hair and looking a touch discomforted, “but I misunderstood her motives.”
She doubted that. A good-looking man turning up out of the blue and asking for her would have given her mother all kinds of ideas. The big white dress, grandchildren …
He was fortunate that she hadn’t dragged him in over the threshold by his expensive lapels.
“When she finally explained that you were working at the Three Bells, I assumed it was as a PR consultant. I had planned to have a cup of coffee while waiting for you.”
“It is what you do?” he pressed.
“When I’m not scrubbing floors?”
Stop it …
She forced herself to relax, smile.
“I’m a journalist, not a PR consultant. I’m doing it this once for Hope,” she said. “No one else.”
End of Excerpt