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It was a chilly, star-filled December night in the kingdom of Cornetta, a cluster of four small islands floating precariously in the windswept Bay of Biscay, just off the coast of France.
Below the palace veranda, where the royal wedding reception for Prince Ronan Vicenza and his American bride, Brenna Tinsley, was in full swing, white-capped winter waves lashed at the rocky cliff, unseen and mostly unheard over the orchestra and the laughter.
Cornettan winters were cold but rarely brutal. Even if the guests had noticed the wind picking up, it wouldn’t have mattered. This party was the social event of the year. The decade. The century.
Tomorrow’s news reports would have trouble doing it justice. Five hundred champagne glasses sparkled like topazes under the starlight. Diamonds glittered from every wrist, earlobe, and décolletage.
But for Willow Arden, the bride’s best friend, former business partner, and maid of honor, the spell had long since worn off.
She’d never been much of a party girl. To tell the truth, she was dog tired. Brenna and Rowan had funneled a constant stream of eligible bachelors over to dance with her. She appreciated the gesture, but the men knew nothing about her, except that she was Brenna’s American friend. They had no idea what to talk to her about.
A few had clearly heard the rumor—the fact—that she was an unwed mother. Her last partner, a well-known soccer player, had let his hands investigate her rear end while he discussed “liberated American women.” Afterward, she’d retreated to her table quickly, her cheeks flushed with anger.
It was ridiculous how many people seemed to think having a child out of wedlock meant a woman was prepared to hop into any man’s bed.
A little common sense should have told them it meant exactly the opposite.
She surreptitiously checked the tower bell clock. Was it really only nine-thirty? Willow bit back a groan. She was ecstatic for Brenna, but she did so want to go home. She was hungry to see Maisie.
Maisie would be sleeping, but that didn’t matter. Willow would sit beside the crib and listen to her daughter’s soft burbles and the rustle of her diaper as she kicked her feet. Watching Maisie sleep was as good for Willow’s mental health as any pill.
But the maid of honor couldn’t leave until the bride and groom did.
Wearily, she let her eyes close. In that instant, the orchestra suddenly stopped playing. For a few seconds, she heard only the wind snapping the pennants along the balustrade.
Out of the silence, a single trumpet sounded a bright, fanfare flourish. Attention, please!
She opened her eyes, realizing in surprise that she and Queen Esme, the groom’s mother, were the only females left at their table. The bridesmaid next to Willow had abandoned her glass of wine—the golden liquid was still sloshing—and was sprinting away in a green blur across the marble terrace as if responding to a Pavlovian bell.
She wasn’t the only one. Women rushed in from all corners of the terrace, jostling each other and laughing. They crowded in front of a small, elevated platform like goldfish at feeding time.
The bride stood on the platform, radiant in her velvet-edged white satin gown. Brenna seemed to sparkle as if she’d been showered with fairy dust. Willow had seen the wedding dress up close, and she knew diamonds and pearls had been sewn into the velvet by delicate hands at a convent on the Isle of Green.
“Ready?” With her easy American charm, Brenna lifted her bouquet of cascading lilacs and baby’s breath high into the air. “Set…”
The bouquet toss. Willow braided her fingers in her lap, mangling her napkin. She had zero interest in catching those flowers, and even less desire to be trampled by the stampede of hungry females.
For a few seconds, Brenna hesitated, teasing her audience. The orchestra began to play a new song. This one was sweet and familiar.
Someday my prince will come.
A chuckle rolled through the spectators. A few of the shrewder guests winked at each other. They knew which prince the orchestra was referring to.
“Poor Emory,” a man called from the back.
“Poor Emory, my ass,” another voice responded wryly.
Willow slanted a quick look toward the queen. If Esme found the jokes disrespectful, her lovely profile didn’t reveal it.
Brenna twirled, turning her back on the waiting women. She lifted her bouquet even higher.
A heavy, expectant silence descended. This wasn’t just any bridal bouquet. This was the fairy-tale lottery. Now that Brenna Tinley had become Mrs. Ronan Vicenza, Princess of the Unified Isles of Cornetta, there was only one prince left.
Emory Augustin Vicenza. Ronan’s darkly gorgeous, intense, and mysterious older brother. The heir to the throne.
Willow’s gaze skimmed the crowd. She found him easily; he was a head taller than any other man. He stood by the cake station, haloed by an arch of twinkling fairy lights.
To her surprise, he was alone, though for most of the night he had been cheek to cheek with one lovely female or another. Like everyone else, he watched the bouquet activity intently. But he was, paradoxically, the only one not smiling.
Willow frowned. Displeasure radiated from his somber profile—as clearly as if he’d spoken.
How strange! Born with an acute sense of his duty, Prince Emory never let his emotions show. So she couldn’t actually be reading his vibes. This was more like…intuition.
But intuition was even more unlikely. As best man and maid of honor, they’d naturally been thrown together this week, but she and the crown prince weren’t close otherwise.
In truth, they didn’t much like each other. She was a working-class commoner from America, a boring nonentity he would never have noticed if she hadn’t been his new sister-in-law’s dearest friend.
And she thought he was a stuffy chauvinist. The one faux pas the perfect prince had ever committed—letting a disparaging comment about unwed mothers slip when his microphone was unexpectedly live—might have been uniquely designed to offend Willow in particular.
It was hardly as if they shared some secret wavelength. She studied him, trying to decide if she was imagining the whole thing.
Maybe so. He didn’t look upset. If possible, he looked even more perfect than usual. His classically handsome profile was set in its usual unruffled confidence. His tuxedo had been impeccably tailored to his athletic body. It was without a single wrinkle despite hours of dancing. His hair was the kind of dark springy waves that should have been hard to tame, but that never dared to misbehave on his regal head.
Though she was clearly staring, he didn’t seem to be aware of it. Or didn’t care. He didn’t move a muscle. He might have been his own statue, a flattering marble version of himself set on a pedestal in the center of town.
As the bouquet flew into the air, the crowd oohed. Willow turned, curious to see who caught it.
The contestants lunged forward. Two women tripped in their eagerness, and another spilled champagne all over her bright blue designer gown.
When the chaos settled, the woman holding the bouquet was a blonde beauty with a swan’s neck and the body of a goddess.
“Well, of course.” A female voice nearby spoke sotto voce, but the words were uncomfortably clear. “Virginia St. Stephen. Who else?”
Willow inconspicuously peeked, wondering who would dare take such a nasty tone. Most Cornettans loved Virginia St. Stephen, Emory’s former fiancée. In fact, the royal Twitter feed was still peppered with people who wanted a reunion of that magical pair. Hashtag Virgemory.
She spotted two women sitting at the next table, heads bent together. They were younger than the bitter voice had sounded, but undoubtedly older than they wanted to be. Probably barely north of forty, they’d already had a lot of cosmetic surgery, wore too much makeup, and irritably fingered their wedding rings as if the bands were too tight.
They also had notebooks in their laps. The press, maybe? Vicki Jardin, who used to work for the main Cornettan TV network, was that type. But Willow recognized most of the journalists in Cornetta. Five years in PR ensured that.
“Surely she doesn’t believe she can get him back now. Emory’s not the type to return for leftovers.”
Willow was startled and instinctively offended—but for whom? For Virginia? Absurd. There had never been anyone less in need of a protector. Still, Willow jerked forward, rising to stand, though she had no idea what she intended to do.
Halfway to her feet, she bumped into a waiter. Starched and attentive, he’d clearly been hovering at her side, his tray of champagne flutes extended for heaven only knew how long.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” She sank back onto her chair. “I didn’t see—I…”
She held up a palm. “No thank you.” She’d already had two…or was it three? She didn’t dare have another. She wasn’t like the other guests. A single mother with a teething one-year-old and a nine-AM clock to punch, she didn’t have the luxury of drifting in at dawn and sleeping it off until noon.
“Is everything all right, Willow?” Queen Esme observed her from across the table with a mildly unnerving placidity.
It was the same neutral expression she’d turned on Willow when she first arrived to take her assigned place at the “family” table.
Family? the glance had seemed to say. Neither frowning nor smiling. Just watching and, behind the eyes, evaluating and appraising. Emory must have inherited his cool composure from his mother.
“Yes, ma’am,” Willow responded with a polite smile. “Everything is fine. It’s just that…I’m driving tonight, and I—”
“If you’d like, we could arrange a car for you.” The queen’s voice was beautifully modulated, but monotone. Only a slight eyebrow lift made the statement a question. It was impossible to tell whether she expected Willow to gratefully accept or humbly decline.
What was the protocol? Willow instinctively decided to decline because agreeing might seem pushy, too eager to milk the royal acquaintance.
In the six months since Brenna and Ronan became engaged, Willow had seen the queen several times, but she still didn’t feel comfortable around her. Brenna insisted her new mother-in-law was warmhearted and wonderful, but Willow saw no signs of it. She always got the feeling Queen Esme distrusted her.
What she didn’t know was why.
“That’s kind. But I’ll need my car in the morning. I think I’d better drive.”
Esme inclined her head gracefully. A half smile played at her lips. “You know, Willow…I understand a public-relations professional must always keep an ear to the ground in order to learn what the people are thinking.”
She said “the people” with a capital P. It was clearly a synonym for “commoners.”
“But remember,” Esme went on, “that you aren’t here in a public-relations capacity tonight. It would be far better, I’d think, to do as we do. As Brenna is learning to do. Far better to cultivate…” She smiled. “A certain selective deafness.”
Willow flushed again, nodding mutely. She felt schooled, instructed to remember she’d been elevated above “working” status tonight. The problem was she didn’t believe in that kind of social strata…and she didn’t much admire the people who did.
She happened to think there was nothing more “important” than people who worked. The harder the better.
Awkward beneath the queen’s appraisal, she tried to concoct a reason to leave the table, but her tired brain was too slow. If only one of Ronan’s social soldiers, even a handsy one, would ask her to dance…
But when salvation finally arrived, it was Brenna who brought it. She and Ronan arrived at the table arm in arm, surrounded by the invisible cloud of happiness they’d been floating in all night.
Ronan claimed the empty seat next to his mother, and immediately began chatting, demanding her entire attention. As if it had been choreographed, Brenna rushed to Willow. Her gown sparkled in the moonlight, making her seem slightly on fire.
She grabbed Willow’s hand and tugged her up. “Come with me. We need to talk.”
“Here?” Willow followed, perplexed. “Now?”
When Brenna found a relatively quiet nook, between a fairy-light-wrapped pillar and the balustrade overlooking the water, she stopped. “I just found out this is really going to happen, and I’ll pop if I can’t tell you.”
Willow felt her eyes widen. What news could be so important? Brenna’s gaze was bright, and her hands gripped Willow’s tightly.
“Oh, Brenna! You’re pregnant?”
Brenna frowned, blankly bewildered. Then she tossed back her head and laughed. “No. Be patient, for heaven’s sake. Ronan and I will start working on that tonight.”
Willow laughed, too, but a tiny, envious part of her, one she kept buried so deeply it could never be glimpsed, thought how blissful it must be to create a baby that way, with a plan, a promise, and an adored husband.
Brenna leaned forward. “I have to ask you something first. I need you to tell me the truth, even if you don’t want to. The thing is… You’re thinking about selling Tinley-Arden, aren’t you? I mean…now that I’ve left…”
Willow blinked, trying to decide how to handle the question. She hadn’t intended to discuss this yet.
“Sell the whole business just because you’ve decided to quit?” She tried to sound lightly sardonic. “Honey, I’m afraid becoming a princess may have already gone to your head.”
Brenna rolled her eyes. “No, it hasn’t. Don’t play games with me right now. This is important, and Ronan is waiting.”
Willow smiled. “Well, I’m pretty sure I didn’t call this meeting…”
“Come on, Willow, be honest. I know you. You think you’re so mysterious, but I always know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’ll hate it, handling the public part of public relations. And I agree. You’ll hate it.”
Willow let her fake smile slowly drop. What was the point of pretending? She and Brenna had been best friends since they were kids. They’d helped each other through death and desertion, through new countries and ventures, through thick and thin.
Brenna was right. Willow was toying with the idea of selling out and doing something else. What that “something else” might be, she had no idea. But almost anything would be better suited to her temperament.
She might limp on a while, holding the business together without Brenna, but why even try? Brenna had always been the sunshine of Tinley-Arden Public Relations, the one who enjoyed networking and generating business.
Willow was happier behind the scenes. By nature, she was analytical, methodical, sensible, and disciplined. She did the market research, ran the numbers, organized the events, and balanced the books. She was excellent at managing campaigns, but without Brenna to charm clients to their door, she soon wouldn’t have any to manage.
“I knew it.” To Willow’s surprise, Brenna didn’t look disappointed. “I’m glad, because…” She tightened her grip on Willow’s hand. “The thing is…we have something better to offer you. Something we honestly believe you’ll love.”
Willow frowned. “We?”
“Yes. Well, mostly Ronan’s family. Esme, of course. And Emory, too.”
Emory? Impossible. He was one royal whose feelings about Willow weren’t in the least inscrutable.
Everyone knew he didn’t like her. He didn’t like unwed mothers in general. He thought they were fools, women too reckless to think ahead, who brought their problems down on themselves with their sexual transgressions.
Okay, he hadn’t ever said anything that harsh, not quite. But he’d come pretty close last year with that hot mic moment.
It had taken Tinley-Arden’s best PR campaign to restore him to public favor. The campaign had worked, and it had even brought Brenna and Ronan together.
But the wall between Emory and Willow was never going to come down.
“Brenna, stop being cryptic. Tell me what on earth you’re talking about.”
“A job at the palace,” Brenna said triumphantly. “Second in command in the strategic-planning department. There’s a title, though I forget exactly what they call it. Strategic planning is where all the family’s public events are handled. Balls, charity events, speeches…even Emory’s coronation next year. It calls for someone detail oriented, with fabulous organizational skills, a head for numbers… In short, someone just like you.”
But Willow’s brain had frozen several words back. Emory’s coronation? They wanted her to work on the single most solemn ceremony in the kingdom? The investiture of a new king, which hadn’t happened for fifty years and might not happen again in their lifetimes? How could an interloper, a young American nobody, be trusted with any part of that?
Yet, another young American, Brenna Tinley, had just become a Cornettan princess…
Willow didn’t speak. She couldn’t quite make her vocal cords work.
“Surely you can see it’s tailor made for you, Willow. You would be fabulous. And you’d love it. You know you would.”
She would. Yes. She would. It would be terrifying and difficult, but she would dig in and work hard. In the end, she would master it. It was exactly the kind of professional challenge she thrived on.
“Plus, the strategic planning offices are right in the palace. Just think! We could see each other all the time. And there’s Nanny Potts…she cares for the staff babies in a nursery upstairs, so you could see Maisie whenever you wanted. And Willow…the best part…. The salary.”
Brenna’s eyes were wide. She bent and whispered the number in Willow’s ear. Brenna had to say it twice before Willow could believe she’d heard it properly.
And when she did hear, her heart stopped for at least two beats. That kind of money would change her life.
She wasn’t in love with material things. She’d never tried to keep up with any of the very rich Joneses around her, either in America or Cornetta.
But ever since she’d seen the little pink line on the pregnancy stick, she’d understood her focus must be on making enough money to protect her child from the dangers of being fatherless.
Since that day, she’d spent hardly anything on herself, or on Maisie, either, for that matter. Every possible cent went into the bank. Into the rainy-day fund, the disaster-prevention account.
Any single mother would understand. Like it or not, money mattered.
“Darn it…” Brenna glanced toward the terrace. “Here comes Luke. I think he’s going to ask you to dance.”
Willow leaned forward urgently. “Brenna, this is…it’s crazy. I don’t know what to say. I’m not even sure I plan to stay in Cornetta. I’d been considering taking Maisie home…”
But suddenly, North Carolina seemed a million miles away. What made it home? That she’d been born there? She hadn’t lived there in a decade, and she hadn’t been happy there…ever. Her only remaining relative in the state, her aunt, had disowned her the minute she learned Willow had a baby but no wedding ring.
And yet… She scanned the five hundred beautiful people around her. This wasn’t “home,” either. She’d never been so uncomfortably aware of not belonging as she’d felt tonight. What on earth did she know about the abstruse and archaic rules of planning a royal coronation?
“I’d have to interview, surely,” she said. “And shouldn’t someone more…official…be the one to offer this? I can’t possibly decide right now, anyway. I don’t know enough about it.”
“They’ll make the offer when we get back from our honeymoon,” Brenna said, brushing that off. “That’s when coronation planning begins in earnest. I know you’ll have to research and make charts and graphs and pro-con lists, and a hundred other things. That’s why I wanted to tell you now. While we’re gone, you do all that.”
Willow shook her head nervously. The way she was reacting to this half-baked idea frightened her. It wasn’t like her to act impulsively. But she already felt tempted. She wanted to stay here in her tiny portside cottage, where Maisie could collect seashells and learn French. She wanted to stay close to Brenna, who was more like a sister than a friend.
And, yes, she wanted that cushy salary. She wanted to be successful. She wanted not to have to crawl back to North Carolina and admit she’d failed in her grand European adventure.
“As to interviewing, I assume you’ll just talk to George Glasser,” Brenna added. “He’s run that department for decades. He’s excited about hiring you. His knees are going, poor guy, and he’s ready to hand off the day-to-day details. But he’ll be around to teach you all the sacred rules.”
Luke Hardaway was almost upon them…gorgeous in his tuxedo, though his rugged good looks were somber, as always. He was the head of security for the palace, and clearly a friend of the family if he’d been drafted to dance with Willow. He didn’t look exactly thrilled about it—he rarely looked anything but serious—but his sharp, smart eyes were pleasant and polite.
“We’ll be gone a month,” Brenna whispered as she backed away, allowing Luke to step in. “Esme will make the formal offer when we get back. All I want now is your promise to think it over.”
Willow nodded numbly, turning an autopilot smile toward Luke when he asked her to dance.
Of course she’d think about it.
She had a feeling that, for the next four weeks, she’d think about little else.
End of Excerpt