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Rowan Palotay walked down Court Street, her grip tight on two dog leashes in one gloved hand and two more in the other. The wet sidewalk did nothing to slow her four-legged friends. The light falling of snow didn’t either. She should be used to the pace, but while she loved these animals, she didn’t love her situation. And so she maybe dragged her feet every morning.
Her circumstances were of her own making, however, so she shouldn’t take it out on the furry cuteness trying to get to the park sooner rather than later. That was the thought that went through her mind on every walk, and like she always did after the mental reprimand, she quickened her steps.
One of these days, she’d get over her monumental mistake, get a chance to restore her reputation, and prove herself a top-notch news reporter. Maybe.
Things would get better soon. They had to. Rowan kept hope and faith in her pockets, as well as in her heart, and refused to give up. Ever.
She let out a breath, the puff of air floating in front of her face before disappearing. Snowflakes clung to the needles of pine trees, and the smell of the evergreens reached her cold nose. She loved wintertime in Marietta. And come nightfall, holiday lights would glow throughout town in a kaleidoscope of colors. Christmas in her hometown reminded her there was good in the world. That wishes could come true.
“Hey now,” she said as her pooch posse tried to fall out of formation. They may be leading her, but she was in charge of this stroll. If they sniffed even a hint of hesitation on her part, it became a free-for-all. She’d learned that the hard way her first few weeks of dog walking.
She tugged on the leashes and the dogs straightened out. “Good boys.”
Oliver glanced over his shoulder at her, and she’d swear the dog winked. The white Samoyed was the most playful of the bunch. To Oliver’s right was his brother, Twist, named specifically so the dogs’ owners could yell, “Oliver Twist” and get them both to come. Sundance, a happy Chow Chow with a wooly, burnt-red coat strutted alongside Oliver’s left. And on the other side of Sundance was Buddy, a Siberian husky, and Rowan’s favorite. She was a sucker for blue eyes.
But that was the past and her future was all about independence and playing by the rules. Working hard and reminding everyone she was still the same girl people could count on. Sometimes, omitting the truth just accidentally happened. Nothing Rowan did was premeditated. If anything, she flew by the seat of her pants rather than plan. It felt more honest that way.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with that philosophy.
Live and learn, her mom liked to say once she’d realized stubbornness ran deep in her daughter’s veins and Rowan had to find things out for herself. She had professional L&L status now, which still didn’t always translate to making the best decisions.
She liked to consider herself a work in progress.
“Whoa. Where’s the fire hydrant?” All four dogs yanked on their leashes at the same time, the silver bells attached to Sundance’s collar chiming louder. Rowan had no choice but to stumble after them since their combined weight beat hers.
Lifting her gaze, she discovered the reason for their excitement. She’d been so lost in thought she hadn’t noticed the tall, broad-shouldered man walking toward them. He wore a black winter coat, olive-green slacks, and black dress shoes. He carried himself with confidence, so the black beanie on his head only slightly deterred from the polished look. With the gentle snow flurries, she couldn’t see his face clearly yet, but her heart rate sped up nonetheless. It had to be him. She’d heard he arrived yesterday. Had rented the entire Bramble House B&B for the month of December.
What was he doing out for a walk this early in the morning? And didn’t he travel with a bodyguard or something? Not that he had to worry in Marietta. The worst that would happen to him here were a few marriage proposals.
And four dogs eager to jump up and lick his face.
Which was what happened while she was still stuck on studying him rather than trying to veer the dogs out of reach.
“Oliver Twist! Buddy! Sundance! Down!” Her command fell on deaf ears as the dogs’ leashes tangled while they introduced themselves to the stranger. They didn’t jump on the locals. Not usually, anyway. She couldn’t blame them at the moment. Prince Theodore Chenery smelled really good, delicately exotic and deeply enticing.
Now that they were closer, she knew it was indeed him. She’d googled him when she learned he was coming to town.
Only a few people knew of his visit, but his anonymity wouldn’t last long once the town got wind of his presence.
Speaking of wind, a cold gust blew her hair into her face, making it difficult to see for a moment. She lost precious seconds in her effort to get the dogs to heel, giving them time to wrap their long leashes around her legs, then the prince’s. This was not happening. Why, oh why was this happening? Oomph. She bumped into the prince while she tried to untangle herself. The more she tried to undo, however, the more she seemed to make it worse.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, not meeting his eyes. She was sure she’d find them blazing with annoyance. As far as first impressions went, she was failing in spectacular fashion. He’d never want to talk to her again after this. Her first—and most likely only—opportunity to meet royalty, and four dogs slobbered all over him.
She reprimanded the dogs again with a sterner voice.
Come on, guys. Cooperate here!
To his credit, the prince had yet to say a word. Probably because he was so taken aback. Thank goodness there was no one else around to witness this debacle. Not that Rowan embarrassed easily. Nothing much ruffled her. But with her reputation already in the gutter, the last thing she needed was to add further tarnish to her image.
Sure, everyone still loved her because family and friends didn’t turn their backs on each other, but she wanted their respect back.
Christmas miracles still happened, right?
“Oh, hey!” she admonished. Oliver, the little dickens, somehow got between her legs and her balance teetered. With her hands still firmly clutching the crisscrossed leashes, she couldn’t put her arms out or grab onto the prince’s coat for purchase. She swayed backward, but the prince wrapped his arm around her waist, saving her from falling on her butt.
Their eyes met. His were ocean blue. The light falling of snow had stopped, and she could see them crystal clear.
She quickly looked away. “Thanks.”
He didn’t reply. Was he sick and lost his voice or something? She didn’t like silence. Much preferred someone yell or rant or talk her ear off. Tell her in no uncertain terms that she had no business walking dogs.
The dog leashes were in such a jumble she had no idea how to extricate herself from the mess. Then she remembered the one and only command that never seemed to fail her.
All four dogs stopped loving on the prince and sat. Relief washed over her. “Staaaay,” she added, and kept repeating it as she performed several acrobatic moves in order to untangle the leashes and free herself and the prince.
Once she had them sorted, she let out a breath. “Sorry about that,” she said again, this time meeting the prince’s eyes as she spoke the apology. She sincerely meant it and hoped he saw that.
His amazing blue eyes were filled with amusement.
Was she supposed to curtsy and address him formally or something? He didn’t know she knew who he was, although given his movie-star good looks and international reputation with women, most females young and old knew who he was. And with the recent passing of his mother, he’d been thrust into the limelight even more.
Since he remained quiet with his lips in a tight line, but slightly curved at the corners, she racked her brain for the right words to say. “Are you laughing at me?”
She bit down on her lower lip. Those weren’t exactly the words she’d planned to say. They’d just spilled out without thought. Story of her life. “I mean…”
His mouth curled up a little higher. Yep, he was definitely amused by her. And would he say something already? It took a lot to frustrate her, but this man was doing a great job of it.
“Your Royal Highness,” someone said from Rowan’s left.
Rowan turned her head to find her boss, Emmaline, stepping out of her car. Ro hadn’t even heard her pull up to the curb.
“I’m sorry I was late picking you up,” Emmaline said.
“No worries,” the prince said. “I’ve enjoyed the fresh air this morning.”
“I’m happy to hear that.” Relief sounded in Emmaline’s voice as she glanced from the prince to Rowan with worry evident in the creases on her forehead.
Rowan was still on Emmaline’s shit list. As the owner and editor of the Copper Mountain Courier, her reporters’ actions reflected on her. Several months ago, Ro had been given a piece that was supposed to set her career on fire. Instead, she’d crashed and burned. She was lucky Emmaline kept her employed with The Pet Corner column. There’s not much that can go wrong with animals, Emmaline had told her.
Emmaline, looking professional and poised, her hair in its usual French twist with a few gray hairs at the root, joined them on the sidewalk. The dogs sniffed around her, but nothing more.
“Good morning,” Ro said.
“Good morning. I see you’ve met His Royal Highness, Prince Theodore Chenery of Montanique.”
“That depends on your definition. These guys”—Rowan glanced down at the dogs—“were very excited to introduce themselves, so we really hadn’t gotten a chance ourselves yet.”
“Your Royal Highness, this is Rowan Palotay. She writes a small weekly column in the newspaper.”
The description really tanned Rowan’s hide. She was better than a small column and especially unhappy that the story the paper had planned on the prince had gone to her coworker, Marly, instead of her.
Rowan gave a small nod of her head. “It’s nice to meet you, Your Highness.”
“You as well,” he answered cordially.
“I hope you enjoy your time here in Marietta, and I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s passing.”
“Thank you.” His attention never wavered from hers, sending a little shiver through her.
“Okay, well, I should get these guys to the park. Have a nice day,” she said to the prince and Emmaline. “Let’s go boys.” She didn’t like being around Prince Theo knowing the newspaper story wasn’t hers. If she never ran into him again, that would be fine by her.
Twist, Sundance, and Buddy were ready with tails wagging. Oliver, however, had one more gift for the prince. He lifted his leg and peed right on the prince’s pant leg and fancy black shoe.
“Oliver, no!” Rowan pulled on his leash but the damage was already done.
The prince looked up from the dog, his shocked gaze colliding with hers. She darted her eyes to Emmaline. Big mistake. If looks could kill, Ro would be dead.
“I’m super sorry. I don’t know what came over him. I’ll come by the B&B later and pick up the pants to have them dry cleaned, and then do whatever needs to be done with your shoes.”
Buddy barked. Then Sundance. The dogs were beyond ready to hightail it out of there. So was she. Mortification no doubt had her cheeks redder than Rudolph’s nose, not to mention sweat trickling down her sides beneath her layers of clothing.
“Apologies again. For everything,” Ro added. Then she took off down the sidewalk before any other disasters struck. Or worse, Emmaline fired her.
The start to the day could not be any worse. “Oliver, you are a very bad boy.” He looked over his shoulder and gave her the look. The sometimes-I-screw-up look. “Yeah, yeah, I know the feeling.”
They got to the empty park, and Ro took them off leash so they could chase down the tennis ball she’d brought in her pocket. The treats in her other pocket were the sure way to get them back on leash.
Should she tell Oliver’s owners what had happened? No. It reflected poorly on her skills as a dog walker, didn’t it? And she needed this gig to help pay her bills. Lawyer fees had wiped out her savings, and she refused to take any more money from her parents. Her brother, Nick, had already been more than generous as well, and she planned to pay him back every cent.
Rowan, you are keeping your mouth shut.
If only she remembered that more often.
Later that day, Rowan dodged a snowball with a big grin on her face. Even two against one, she’d yet to be hit. Granted the boys were ten and eleven, but they were athletic. And had told her with smug little faces that they’d win this fight easy-peasy. That had sealed their fate. Didn’t they know she had an older brother who’d taught her to throw a ball—all kinds of balls—from the time she could chase after him?
She hid behind the big pine tree in front of the Bramble House B&B. She’d be sure to let the boys get one good shot in before they were finished, but until then, she gathered some snow into her gloved hands and made another ball. The sun had broken through this morning’s dark sky and only a few clouds lingered above. Sunlight slanted through the tree branches, the glare making it difficult to see until she blinked a few times.
Her focus immediately landed on the person she’d been waiting for. She dropped the snowball, jumped out from behind the tree, and hurried to catch Prince Theodore on his way up the shoveled walkway to the bed and breakfast.
He turned his head at her approach, his gaze darting around as if he were looking to see if she had company of the four-legged variety with her.
“Hello, Your Highness. No worries. It’s just me this time.” She stepped beside him and looked up. He stood at least half a foot taller than her five feet six inches. He’d changed his pants and ditched the beanie. His dirty-blond hair was neatly combed.
A little thrill raced down her spine that he’d remembered her name. “I’m here for your pants and shoes.”
His eyebrows arched up.
“From earlier, sir.” It felt weird calling him ‘sir’ when she knew they were the same age, but she’d read that was one of the appropriate ways to address him. “I promised to stop by so I could take them to be cleaned?”
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the two boys, side by side, wind their arms to launch snowballs at her. She turned and waved her arms in a crisscross formation. Hang on. Don’t throw those yet.
Too late. Big, round, well-packed snowballs—the boys were great at making them—came hurling toward her. Or rather, they came hurling toward the prince. Rowan had a split second to react. She spun around and jumped in front of him, taking one snowball to the middle of her back and the other to her shoulder. The double impact caused her to lean forward.
The prince reached out, but Rowan righted herself before he made contact.
“Gotcha!” the boys called before running across the street to Bramble Park.
She’d been gotten all right. Even though she wore her quilted down parka, she winced at the direct hits. This definitely called for some hot chocolate from the Scott’s Christmas tree farm later today.
“You okay?” the prince asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, pressing her shoulders back and raising her chin. “I’ve been hit with hundreds of snowballs.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“You strike me as good target practice.”
Rowan had no idea what to make of that comment. What a rude thing to say to someone who’d—“I just saved you from getting nailed by two snowballs and that’s what you say to me? Kind of insulting, don’t you think?”
“You don’t even know me.”
“And for your information”—she almost said “bucko” but caught herself—“it’s an honor to have been hit by so many snowballs growing up here. You don’t get snow where you’re from, so you wouldn’t know.” He came from a small state along the Mediterranean coastline known for its beaches and yacht-lined harbor, and where the sun reigned supreme year round.
“May I speak now?”
“If you must.”
That earned her another arch of his brows. She’d probably be arrested for speaking so disrespectfully to him if they were in Montanique. But this was her home turf and he didn’t get to say whatever he pleased. Manners went both ways no matter who you were.
“I meant it would be fun aiming for you.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. That still sounded kind of harsh. Even though she was fun. “As opposed to aiming for…?”
“I’m still not sure what—”
“It was a compliment, Miss Palotay.”
She shifted her feet. Okay, so maybe this meant he wasn’t holding this morning’s incident against her. “Call me Rowan.”
“Call me Theo.”
“Really?” She’d called him that in her head, but out loud was something entirely different.
“It’s what my friends call me.”
“Are we friends?”
“You are wanting in my pants.”
She threw her arms up in the air. He wasn’t serious. “What? I do not.”
“You don’t want to take my pants to be cleaned?” His calm, casual tone irked her. Rowan bet nothing ruffled this man, or gave him pause. Confidence and poise rolled off him like a summer breeze in the middle of winter.
“That’s not what you said. You said I wanted in your pants.”
“You must have misheard me.” The small, entirely too charming, curve of his lips told her she had not misheard him at all, and he enjoyed teasing her.
Two could play that game. “That’s too bad. I’m very good inside men’s pants.” She gave him a flirty smile before twisting around and starting up the walkway to the entrance of the B&B. “Let’s hurry and grab your trousers, please,” she said over her shoulder. “I’ve got a date I need to get ready for.”
She absolutely considered the bathtub and her book a date.
And under no circumstances would she allow herself to think about what it would be like to go on a date with a visiting prince.
End of Excerpt