Ten years ago Ruby Wetherspoon shared a stolen New Year's kiss with enigmatic stranger Alex. A kiss she has never forgotten…
Now a renowned language therapist, Ruby is stunned when her Alex—Crown Prince Alexander of Euronia to the rest of the world!—shows up to ask for her help.
Ruby has never been far from Alex's thoughts, but duty to his country has kept him away. Now he has a chance to make both their dreams come true…
This book was a 2016 RITA® Award Finalist
Ten years earlier
She could feel the electricity in the air, feel the excitement. It seemed like everyone in the world had decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Paris.
She jostled along with the crowd, being practically carried off her feet on the route from the Champs-Élysées towards the Eiffel Tower. “Aren’t you glad you came?” her friend Polly screamed in her ear, sloshing wine over her sleeve. “This is the best place in the world right now.”
“Yes, it is,” murmured Ruby. It certainly beat sitting at home in her flat brooding over the job that wasn’t to be, or the boyfriend who never should have been.
Polly gave a squeal. “The fireworks will be starting in an hour. Let’s try and get near the front!”
Ruby nodded as she was shouldered from behind. There were ten in their group but it was getting harder and harder to stick together. “I need to find a bathroom before we head to the fireworks,” she whispered to Polly. “Give me five minutes.”
There were cafes and bars open all the way along the Champs-Élysées, unfortunately for her, just about every female in the City seemed to have the same idea that she had. She waved to Polly, “Go on without me. I’ll meet you at the sign we saw earlier.”
The group had already planned their night with precision. Dinner on a riverboat. Drinks in the hotel. A walk along the Champs-Élysées and rendezvous at the Eiffel Tower for the fireworks. They’d already picked the spot they planned to stand at in case anyone got lost, which on a night like tonight, was a certainty.
She stood in the queue for an eternity before finally heading back out to the thronging crowds. In the thirty minutes it had taken to get access to a bathroom it seemed the whole of Paris had started to congregate in the streets.
The crowds were sweeping along the Avenue George V, carrying anyone along who happened to be standing close enough. It was one part terrifying, one part exhilarating.
The crowd was even thicker at the Rue de l’Université. The street was packed, everyone heading directly to the base of the Eiffel Tower. She glanced at her watch. Visiting the bathroom hadn’t been such a good idea. There was no way she was going to be able to find her friends in this crowd.
But she wasn’t too worried. The mood of the crowd was jubilant. People were drinking wine and singing. The atmosphere and heavy police presence made her feel safe – even if she was alone.
Around her were dozens of different accents, snatches of English, Italian and Japanese all mixed in with French. The streets were lit with multi-coloured lights and a variety of decorations and garlands left over from Christmas. She unfastened the buttons on her red wool coat. She’d expected Paris to be cold in December, but the heat from the people around her meant the temperature was rising.
She clutched tightly onto the bag strung diagonally in front of her, keeping her hand clasped over the zipper. Pick-pockets were rife in Paris at New Years. They’d all been warned to keep a close hold of their belongings.
Her phone beeped just as she was in sight of the Eiffel Tower and she struggled to move out of the thronging crowd. It had practically ground to a halt with people from behind still pressing ahead. The streets were packed. There was no way forward.
She moved sideways, unzipping her bag and pulling out her phone. Where are you? It was from Polly. Her friends were obviously waiting at their designated meeting point.
She typed quickly. Not sure if I can get to you, but I’ll try. She pressed send just as someone bumped her from behind and the phone skittered from her hand.
“Oh no.” It was kicked one way, then another, quickly going out of sight. She tried to push her way through the crowd sideways, but that quickly proved impossible. It was a sea of people. And she was heading in the wrong direction.
“Hey, watch out. Ouch!” Her feet were trampled, her ribs elbowed and the wind knocked from her. It was impossible, looking up for a few seconds to try and make her way through the crowd, then looking down again amongst the stampeding feet trying to track her phone.
A thud to the shoulder sent her flying into a group of rowdy Germans. “Sorry, sorry.” They were laughing and joking and smelling of beer. She tried to find her way through but it was virtually impossible. There seemed to be nowhere to go. Her chest started to tighten. They didn’t do or say anything untoward, but the sheer amount of people meant they started to crowd around her, closing in. She tried to take a deep breath and lifted her elbows up, trying to edge her way to the side. But the only place they seemed to be moving was closer and closer.
There was a waft of beer-soaked breath on her cheek. Too close. Too invasive. A hand at her back, someone pressing against her hip. “Let me out. Let me through. Move, please!”
A hand reached down between her shoulders, grabbing her coat and pulling her upwards. The air left her lungs momentarily as her feet were still stuck amongst the crowd. This time, a strong arm wound around her waist and pulled her clear, her feet stopping unsteadily on a wall at shoulder height with the throng.
“Are you okay?”
She was teetering on the wall. The hand and arm that had steadied her had pulled away the instant she was free. She reached and grabbed hold of a dark sleeve in front of her, trying to regain her balance.
The voice sounded again. “Are you okay? Are you drunk?” There was a slight edge of disappointment to the voice.
She steadied herself on the wall, taking a deep breath of relief before turning around to speak to her rescuer. How dare he accuse her of being drunk?
But the words died in her throat. Bright blue eyes and a broad chest obstructed her view.
Even on a dark Paris night those blue eyes would have attracted her attention. He was tall, dark-haired, with a broad chest, wearing a simple white t-shirt and jeans with a dark wool coat on top. Trust her to find the best looking guy in Paris and have no reliable witnesses. No-one would believe her.
She automatically lifted her hands. “No. No, I’m not drunk. Just stuck in a crowd all going in the opposite direction from me.”
His demeanour changed. The skin around his eyes creasing as he smiled. “What? You’re going home already? You don’t want to see the fireworks?” His accent sent tingles across her skin. He sounded French, with a little something else.
He was teasing her, and now she could actually breathe, she could take a little teasing.
She sighed. “No. I’m not going home. Not tonight anyway. Of course I want to see the fireworks.” She held out her hands to the bodies pressed below. “Just not like this.” The crowd had ground to a halt. She stared across at the sea of people. “I was supposed to be meeting my friends.”
“You are lost?” He sounded concerned.
“Not exactly,” she turned back around to face him, getting a whiff of his woody aftershave. “We were meeting at a sign near the Eiffel Tower.” She shook her head. “I have absolutely no chance of getting there now.” She had no intention of leaving the safety of this wall anytime soon. She only hoped his friends weren’t all about to join them and they’d be no room for her to stay up here.
He smiled as he looked down at all the people below. “You could be right. I’m sorry if I startled you. But you looked frightened. I thought you were beginning to panic in the crowd.”
Her heart had stopped fluttering in her chest and her breathing was settling down. It was an odd feeling, and so not like her. Ruby Wetherspoon didn’t tend to panic. “I was. Thank you. I’ve never really been in a crowd like that before. It was definitely a bit claustrophobic.” She shook her coat free, letting some air circulate around her and pulled her red hat from her hair. “There, that’s much better.”
“It certainly is.” He was smiling appreciatively at her and for a second she was unnerved. But, no. There was nothing predatory about her rescuer. He had kind eyes. The man exuded sex appeal from twenty paces. If her up close and personal alarm was going off it wasn’t because she was scared – it was because it had been jolted back into life. About time too.
“Crowds can be… difficult.” He nodded slowly. It was an odd choice of words, but then again, her hesitant French would sound much poorer than his English.
“And you’d know?” She was curious.
His face crinkled, her half-inquisitive, half-sarcastic question lost on him.
She held out her hand towards him. “Ruby. Ruby Wetherspoon from England.”
His warm hand closed around hers. “Alex,” he said simply.
Her eyes glanced up and down his body. White t-shirt, blue jeans and black boots. But the dark wool coat seemed a little strange for a young guy – a little formal.
“Are you from here?”
The corners of his lips turned upwards. “Close enough.”
Mystery. She liked it. Perfect for New Years Eve.
Under normal circumstances she might even have felt a little nervous, a little wary around a mysterious stranger. But Alex didn’t give her those kind of vibes.
Trust your instincts. That’s what her gran had always told her. And she should have. Because if she had – she probably wouldn’t have found her boyfriend in bed with her ex-best friend. Truth was she couldn’t wait to see the end of this stinker of a year.
She glanced around. For the moment, they were the only two people perched on this precarious wall. “Well, Alex from ‘close enough’. Where are your friends? Am I about to get trampled and thrown back to the crowd when they all want a place on this wall?”
She sent a silent prayer upwards. What’s the bet they were all gorgeous and female?
He shrugged. “I lost them too. I’d climbed up here to look for them. Then I decided I liked the view.”
She turned to face where he was looking. Of course. A perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. For now, it had a row of white lights running up the outside of its edges. The sun had set a few hours ago and it stood out like a beacon in the dark sky.
She’d been so busy fighting her way through the crowd that she hadn’t really had time to stop and take in the sight.
“Wow. I just remembered why I came here,” she breathed.
A few people shouldered past beneath them, knocking into her feet and she wobbled again. His arm rested around her waist to steady her, but he didn’t move it once she’d regained her balance.
“So, why is an English girl in Paris for New Years Eve?”
Why indeed. She was still asking herself that question. And Mr. Gorgeous Mysterious stranger didn’t really need the whole truth about this. Maybe just a tiny part.
“Visiting a boyfriend?” he added. It was a loaded question. Was he really testing to see if was taken?
She sucked in a deep breath and tried not to let the idiot smile that was whooping and dancing around in her brain appear. “My flat mate Polly. She persuaded me it was time to try something new. We usually spend every New Years in London. We did try a Scottish lodge once, but that was a disaster. Snowed in with no power and no booze.” He was laughing at her now. She held out her hands. “What girl would say no to Paris on New Years? This place is just amazing,” her voice tailed off, “And to be honest, I’m not sorry to see this year go.”
“You’ve had a bad year?”
“Somewhere between a wrecking ball and a demolition derby.”
She could almost see his brain trying to make sense of her words.
“Ahh. You sound sad. But surely not everything about this year can be bad?”
Perfect. Her own Pollyanna.
He was right. Of course he was right. She just needed someone to remind her.
She gave a little nod. “Of course not. There have been a few good things. I qualified this year.”
“A speech and language therapist.”
“Well that sounds great. Congratulations.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.” Three years doing a course she’d absolutely loved. The placements had been fabulous, letting her practice all her skills and making her realize exactly what she wanted to do.
“So, why aren’t you jumping for joy? You get to do the job that you want. Some people would give anything for that.” His voice sounded a little wistful.
Wow. She must sound an ungrateful misery guts. But there was something easy about talking to a perfect stranger. Someone who didn’t know all the people or personalities involved. Someone completely independent.
“I should be. I know. It’s just. I really, really wanted to work in one area. I did two training stints there, but by the time I’d qualified there was only one job and they gave it to someone with more experience.” She shrugged. It still stung. She’d had her heart set on working there.
“Where was it?”
“In London. A specialist speech and language unit attached to the biggest children’s hospital. I loved it there. The staff were really special and the kids…they just made my heart melt.”
“What kind of things did you do there?” He seemed genuinely interested.
“I worked with kids with specific language impairments and language disorders. These kids made progress every day.” She held up her finger and thumb, “Even if it was just in the tiniest way.” She smiled again, caught up in the memories, “I even worked with children with hearing problems. Seeing the look on their face when they got a cochlear implant and heard for the first time.” She shook her head. “It was magical. It was exactly what I wanted to do.” She lifted her eyes to meet his. “These things stay with you forever.”
He was looking at her with such an intensity, such sincerity that it took her breath away. Here, in a city with over two million people, he was looking only at her.
She couldn’t imagine how she’d done it, but she seemed to have completely captured his attention – just like he’d captured hers.
His voice was low and deep. “So, you don’t have a job now?” Even the timbre of his voice sent butterflies along her skin. Those two glasses of wine earlier seemed to have finally hit her system. Any minute now she was going to have to find some food before her brain was truly addled. No guy could have this kind of effect on a girl? Not in real life anyway.
She shook her head, in an attempt to find some clear thoughts. “No, I do. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I’ve got a job at a stroke unit, working with patients who’ve suffered a stroke and have trouble with speech and swallowing.”
He kept smiling at her, one minute looking serious, the next as if she amused him. Those teeth were perfect. Too perfect. He must be a model. He probably advertised toothpaste.
He raised his eyebrows. “But that sounds just as important as the other job.”
Clear, rational thought. Easy to do when you didn’t dream about the place you wanted to work every night.
She cringed. “I know. I know. I don’t mean to sound like that. I’m lucky to have a job. Not everyone on my course got one. And once I get there, I know that’ll love it.” She gave a sad smile. “It’s just not what I’d hoped for, that’s all.”
She heard him suck in a deep breath. “We don’t always get what we hope for, Ruby.” His voice was serious. It made her curious.
He couldn’t possibly have any idea the kind of thoughts that were circulating around in her head right now. Her imagination was running riot. Handsome mysterious French man. Gorgeous, smelling good enough to eat. Polly wouldn’t believe a word of this. Any minute now someone would pinch her and she’d wake up.
Time to get back to reality. Time to get a little nosey.
“So, Alex. What do you do? Do you work around here?”
He shook his head. “I’m like you, just visiting for New Year. I’m in business. Boring things. Investment banking.”
Smash. The first dream broken. No model. But what interested her most was how he’d described his job. This guy gave very little away.
“Why do you do it if it’s boring?”
“Because I’m expected to. It’s a job.” Another tell-nothing answer. The less he said, the more she was curious.
His phone buzzed and he pulled it from his pocket and frowned.
“Is it your friends? Are they looking for you?” She looked through the crowd, expecting to see a bunch of Amazonian-style blondes charging to steal their prize back.
He shook his head. “Nothing like that.” He stuffed the phone back in his pocket.
Ruby bent forward and peered into the crowd below. “I dropped my phone. It’s probably smashed to smithereens.”
“Smithereens? What is that? He wrinkled his nose. It made him even cuter if that was humanly possible.
“You know broken into lots and lots of tiny pieces. Irreparable.”
He nodded. “Aha. Can’t be fixed?”
She smiled. “You got it.” His hand tightened on her waist, edging her a little closer and she didn’t react. She liked his hand there. She was happy standing next to his shoulder with his arm anchored around her.
“So, your friends. The ones you’re here with. Will they be looking for you?”
He gazed across the crowd. “I’m quite sure they are.” He shrugged. “But I don’t always want to be found.”
Hmmm. More mystery. He was so good at deflecting questions. It was almost an art form. He turned towards her, pulling her so they were face to face. “Are you comfortable without your friends, Ruby Wetherspoon? Are you happy to watch the Paris fireworks with some strange man who pulled you from the crowd?”
It was the way he said it. The way he looked at her. The gentle smile on his face and the twinkle in his eyes. For a second she didn’t want to breathe. The wind caught her curls and blew them across his face. He laughed and caught her hair in his hand, smoothing it down and tucking it behind her ear. She lifted her hand and put it on his chest. She could feel his warm skin on her palm through his thin t-shirt. She could feel the curling hairs on his chest. The man just oozed sex appeal. If anyone had told her this time last year, she would be standing here, now, like this she would have shook her head in disbelief.
But right now there wasn’t any place else she’d rather be. “But you’re not a stranger,” she said simply. “You’re Alex.”
The countdown started around about them. Ten, nine, eight, seven…
“Yes,” he murmured. “Tonight I’m just Alex.”
The world around them exploded. Multi-coloured lights flickered up and down the outside of the Eiffel Tower. And Alex bent to kiss her.
The fireworks around her were nothing to the ones exploding in her brain. She didn’t do this. She didn’t do any of this. But everything about it felt right.
This was the kind of thing she could tell her grandkids about when she was an old woman. I once kissed a gorgeous Frenchman in Paris on New Years Eve.
Because this was a fairytale. This wasn’t real life.
Except Alex’s kiss was more than a fairytale. It was right up there with an Oscar-winning movie. Tingles were going places that tingles hadn’t gone in long time. One of his hands was resting gently on her lower back, the other holding the back of her head. Except, it wasn’tholding the back of her head, it was caressing the back of her head. His fingers were tangled through her hair, gently moving with tantalising softness to the side of her face.
If she could capture this moment and stuff it in a jar she would keep it forever.
His lips finally pulled free and she had to stop herself for reaching out for more. When her eyes finally flickered open his blue gaze was on her, his fingers on her cheek. She’d thought the moment would be gone. But it wasn’t.
It was still exploding in the stars all around.
He smiled at her. People were still shouting in the street beneath their feet, jumping up and down, a million mobile phones held aloft to capture the last few seconds of the firework display.
“Happy New Year,” he whispered.
“Happy New Year,” she murmured. She couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. It would probably last for eternity.
They stood for a little while as the firework display came to an end and flickering lights on the Eiffel Tower finally finished.
He grabbed her hand in his. “What say we get away from all this? Do you want to find something to eat, to drink?”
Her eyes flickered over to the far-off sign where she was to meet her friends. People were still tightly packed around it. There was no way she would be able to find her friends, then fight her way back through the crowd to Alex. The choice was simple.
“Food sounds good.”
The crowd around their feet had dispersed a little. The excitement of the countdown and the end of the fireworks display had sent people dispersing into the surrounding streets. He jumped down and reached his arms up to catch her around her waist as she sat on the top of the wall, placing her gently on the ground.
Getting through the crowd was much easier with Alex in charge. No-one seemed to argue with a broad-shouldered, six foot four man. He swept along easily, pulling her behind until most of the crowd was behind them.
For a few seconds she thought there was a strange group of men behind her – all in black, with earpieces. But seconds later they vanished and she forgot about them.
By the time they reached Avenue George V, the street was still busy but the crowd was gradually beginning to thin out. There were a number of open restaurants and cafes still serving customers. Alex hesitated a second outside of the door of the Four Seasons, then pulled her over to one of the nearby restaurants with tables on the street.
He pulled out a chair and gestured for her to sit down. She rubbed her hands together and smiled at his good manners. It’d been a while since she’d met anyone who’d pull out a chair for her.
“Are you cold? We can sit inside.” He pointed at her fingers.
“No, it’s fine.” The restaurant looked claustrophobic, packed with people. It was strange, but outside seemed more private.
A waiter appeared quickly and nodded to Alex. “What would you like, Ruby? Wine, coffee?” He picked up a menu. “Food?”
She smiled. “I’ll have a cocktail.” Her eyes scanned the menu. “I’ll have the Royal Pink Circus, and the biggest piece of cake they’ve got.”
Alex grinned and reached forward and grabbed the menu. “What is that? Hmm, vodka, champagne, raspberries and violet syrup. Interesting choice.” He turned and spoke rapid French to the waiter.
Under the warm lights from the restaurant she got a clear view of the man she’d just kissed. Under dim lights he was gorgeous. Under street lights…wow.
She couldn’t help but smile. No phone. No camera to record the moment. Typical. Her friends would never believe this. His blue eyes stood out even from across the table, complemented by the lightly-tanned skin she hadn’t noticed and a shadow along his chin.
“So, what plans do you have?”
She shrugged. “I don’t have my phone so I can’t contact my friends.” She waved her arm. “But it’s fine. I know where I am from here. I can find my way back to my hotel.” She gestured towards the Four Seasons, “For a second I thought you were going to take me in there.” She glanced down at her red wool coat, jeans and boots. “Somehow I don’t think I would have got inside.”
He gave a little shake of his head. “Oh, you would have got inside.” He reached over and took her hand. “But I wasn’t talking about right now. How long are you in Paris?”
Mysterious Alex was getting better by the second. He actually wanted to know if she was staying. “Just another two days. We go home on Friday. What about you?”
“I don’t really have a fixed timetable. I can go home anytime. Do you want to do some sightseeing for the next few days? See a little more of Paris before you go home?”
Her heart gave a little leap. She was here with a group of friends. Polly wouldn’t mind if she spent sometime with a sexy French guy, in fact, after last year she’d probably encourage her.
She nodded as the waiter appeared. “That sounds fun.” He sat down her raspberry cocktail in a sugar frosted glass. She took a tiny sip. The alcohol was stronger than she’d expected and the bubbles from the champagne flew up her nose. She choked and laughed. “Wow. The Royal Pink Circus is a doozy.”
“What does that mean?” asked Alex as he took a sip of his beer.
“You know, extraordinary, spectacular. Doozy.”
Next, came the cake. If it could even be described as that. This was no delicate petit four. This was an honest-to-goodness biggest piece of cake in the universe. Seven layers of sponge, cream, raspberries and sauce. She picked up her fork and took a bite. “Oh, wow.” She leaned back in the chair. It had been hours since she’d had dinner. Alex was smiling at her again, with a twinkle in his eye. “Would you like a piece? This is to die for.”
He shook his head. “Don’t let me deprive you. I’m getting enough pleasure seeing the look on your face.”
“Didn’t you order anything?” She waved at the empty space in front of him, poising her fork above the cake again.
“I did, but I asked the waiter to bring your cake first.”
She swallowed another heavenly spoonful, “I could get used to this kind of consideration, you know.”
Something flickered across his face that made her wonder if she’d made some kind of dreadful faux pas. But Alex just nodded in agreement, “I think I could get used to Ruby Wetherspoon, who knows how to eat a piece of cake.”
She licked her fork. “What? Do the people around you not eat?”
He lifted his eyebrows as the waiter appeared and put a plate down in front of him with the biggest BLT and portion of French fries she’d seen in a long time. She reached over and grabbed a fry.
“Not like you,” came his amused reply.
She shrugged, “They certainly don’t skimp on portions here. I’ll need to remember this place. What’s it called?”
She looked at the name and screwed up her face. “Too difficult. I’ll just need to remember it’s next to the fairytale hotel.”
“The fairytale hotel?” He’d started to eat and was making short work of the fries.
She nodded her head sideways. “Yeah, next door. Isn’t that the hotel every little girl wants to stay in when she comes to Paris?”
“I thought that was Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland?”
“Yeah, well. I’m older now. Tastes change.” She eyed her cocktail again. “You know, you’re going to hate me. But that’s going straight to my head. Do you think I could order a coffee instead?”
He gave a wave of his hand and ordered her a coffee as he started eating his food.
The cocktail might be a little strong but the cake was perfect. The restaurant was perfect. The ambiance in the street was perfect. And Alex? Even more perfect.
“Have you been up the Eiffel Tower yet?” he asked.
She nodded and leaned across the table and whispered, “Don’t tell anyone but I thought I was going to be sick. It was okay looking into the distance, but when I looked down,” she made a swaying motion in her seat and shook her head. “Bad idea.”
He laughed. “And have you been to Versailles and the Louvre?”
She nodded. “I queued forever to see the Mona Lisa.”
He raised his eyebrows. “What did you think?”
She wrinkled her nose. “Honestly? Smaller than I expected, and a bit dark. But do you know the strangest thing – I still wanted to reach out and touch it.”
“She mesmerised you. Just like she did Leonardo. What about Notre Dame, have you been there yet?”
She nodded again.
He held up his knife and fork. “How long have you been here?”
“Just a few days. We’ve tried to cram in as much as possible.”
“Is there anywhere you’d still like to see?”
“Of course! This is Paris.” She counted off on her fingers, “I still want to visit Sacre Coeur and Montmartre, oh and the Père Lachaise Cemetery.”
He took a drink of his beer. “So, I offer to take you sightseeing and you want to visit dead people?” He slid down his chair a little, he seemed to be relaxing more and more as their conversation continued. “Well, I guess I bring out the best in you.”
She laughed. “It’s supposed to be beautiful - enchanting. Haven’t you ever walked around a cemetery before? In the summer it can be so peaceful. I actually quite like wandering around and looking at the inscriptions in the gravestones. There’s a few in our local church that have a skull and crossbones on them showing that people had the plague. It’s fascinating.”
His smile spread from ear to ear. “Ruby, every time I think I might know you a little, you say something else that surprises me.”
“Is that bad?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s good. Very good.” He reached over and took her hand. “I’m sure I can find some things in the next few days for us to visit.”
“But today’s New Years Day. Every where will be closed.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll work something out.”
She was so wrapped up in him, in the way he was smiling at her, the way he was flirting with her, that she almost didn’t notice the guys in the long black coats until they were almost on top of them.
One of the men put a black-gloved hand sternly on Alex’s shoulder, bent down and spoke quietly in his ear. She couldn’t make out a word.
“Alex? What’s wrong? Who is this?”
The expression on his face had changed instantly. First, it was a flare of anger, then it was a pure panic. He stood up, sending his chair flying.
The black-coated man barely even acknowledged her presence. “Ruby, I’m sorry I have to go.” He fumbled in his coat for his phone. “Give me your number, I’ll call you.”
Her hands went automatically to her bag. No phone. She’d lost it. “I don’t have my phone, and I can’t remember what my number is.” She felt like an idiot. Everyone should know their mobile number. And she did – she had it written down at home, but right now she couldn’t tell him if her life depended on it.
“What’s wrong, Alex?”
He shook his head. He wasn’t focused on her anymore. He looked shocked. “It’s family. Tell me where you’re staying. I’ll send you a message.”
She rattled off the name of the low-budget hotel they were staying. He mumbled something to the man behind him. “I’m sorry. I need to go. I’ll send you a message later.”
He walked around to her side of the table and bent to kiss her. It was the briefest moment, but his lips came into contact with hers in the lightest of kisses. A brush – like a butterfly’s wings. And then he was gone.
Surrounded by black coats, disappearing down the street.
The fairytale was over.
Ruby crashed through the door with her shopping bags, work folders and uniform over her arm.
Polly was sitting cross-legged on the sofa eating a plate of noodles. She nodded towards the kitchen. “Come and sit down Ms Misery. Noodles in the pot and wine in the fridge.”
She was knackered. Honestly and truly exhausted. Between the long hours and the killer commute every day, this job was proving tougher than she’d ever thought. But today had been a win. Today she’d finally thought that her work had helped a patient regain a little part of his speech. ‘No’ had been the finest word she’d heard in a while.
She poured the wine and tipped the rest of the noodles into a bowl, kicking off her shoes and thudding down sofa next to Polly. “What you watching?”
“Just the news. How was your day?”
She just put the first spoonful of noodles into the mouth. It was like a chilli explosion. Polly had a penchant for her favourite spicy foods and as she was the cook in the house, Ruby was getting used to it. She took a few quick gulps of wine to try and quell the burn.
Her eyes flickered to the screen and she inhaled quickly, coughing and spluttering as her noodles went down the wrong way. Polly turned and laughed, leaning over and slapping her hand on Ruby’s back. “Was the chilli kick that strong?”
But Ruby couldn’t answer. Her eyes were streaming and she swallowed as best she could. “Turn that up,” she said, pointing at the screen.
“What?” Polly mumbled, her mouth still full of food.
“Turn it up!” She started throwing cushions and newspapers around, searching for the TV remote, which seemed to have an innate ability to hide whenever she left the house. Finally, she spied it hiding part way under the sofa. She pointed it at the TV and pressed the volume button hard. Polly just started at her open-mouthed.
There are unconfirmed reports that King Leopold of Euronia has taken seriously unwell. The normally quiet principality has seen a flurry of activity in the last few days as private jets have been seen landing at the state airport. Crown Prince Alexander has returned home after a recent sojourn in the US where he was apparently working with MIT and Harvard University. Prince Alexander, the only child of widowed King Leopold is rarely seen. He is an astute businessman who is passionate about his country. Rumours have circulated in the last few years about King Leopold’s declining health and his lessening public engagements. Crown Prince Alexander was seen returning in a private jet in the early hours of New Year’s morning quickly followed by dignitaries from the surrounding area. We’ve been told to expect a statement in the next few minutes.
“It’s him,” Ruby croaked, pointing at the screen. “It’s Alex.”
It was almost as if an elephant had sat on her chest, stopping her breathing.
Polly dropped her fork and bowl on the table. “What?” she glanced from Ruby to the TV and back again. “Him? He’s your Alex? Crown Prince…whatever?”
“Apparently.” Her throat had dried like an arid desert. She picked up the wine and gulped it down as if it were a glass of water, grimacing as it hit her taste buds.
Her brain was in overdrive. Tiny words, tiny phrases, looks that had fleeted across his face and disappeared in an instant. Tiny pieces of a jigsaw puzzle she’d no idea even existed.
A close up picture of Alex emerging from a plane appeared on the screen and she gasped. He looked awful. He was still handsome, but his tanned skin was pale with lines around his eyes - even their blueness had dimmed.
He hadn’t called. He hadn’t left a message at all. At first she’d been irritated. Then, she’d been angry. Finally, she’d admitted to herself she was devastated.
But this was something else entirely. Her fairytale in Paris had never included a real live Prince.
Polly started chattering in her ear. “No wonder you were miserable. What a catch. Ruby – you kissed a Prince!” She stared back at the screen, “I wonder what’s going on.”
A yellow ticker-tape scrolled along the bottom of the screen and the newsreader interrupted a report mid-story. “We’re going to cross live now Euronia for their announcement.”
A sombre faced grey-haired, black suited man stood on a podium. A sign appeared beneath him Palace Principale.
“What does that mean?” asked Polly.
“I have no idea,” Ruby shook her head.
The man started speaking, “After consultation with our Crown Council, the principality of Euronia would like to announce that, with immediate effect, Crown Prince Alexander de Castellane will be taking over as regent of Euronia as his Majesty King Leopold is no longer able to exercise his royal functions.
Crown Prince Alexander will now be known as Prince Regent.”
The picture cut back to the newsreader as he glanced up from reading a piece of paper in his hands. “There are unconfirmed reports that King Leopold has suffered a catastrophic stroke, but no one at the Palace is willing to comment on his medical condition. We’ll bring you an update whenever we get it.”
Polly turned to face Ruby. “Wow. Just wow.”
Ruby felt sick. Her heart had squeezed when she’d seen the expression on Alex’s face. How on earth must he be feeling? She wanted to be angry with him – she really did. Why couldn’t he have told her who he really was?
But deep down she knew the answer to that.
A real live Prince wouldn’t be looking for a girl like her.
Not in this lifetime anyway.
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