After a tough year losing her mom and bills mounting, Holly Yates is in for a lonely Christmas. But when she hears a news report that the small principality of Coronia is looking for their lost princess, she recognizes her baby photo on the news and is astounded. Felix – the could-be Prince – is delighted to find her and whips her off to a snow-covered Coronia to meet her real-life ailing father where he persuades her to fall in love with the people and the place.
Holly is so shell shocked by everything that she agrees - as long as they keep her identity secret until she makes up her mind. But can a shy girl from Baltimore really become a fairy tale princess?
Holly picked up the letters before she opened the door to leave her house. Bills. Her heart sank a little more than usual as she shuffled them under the rest of the mail. At least they weren’t final demands. But the truth was, they wouldn’t be far behind.
She flicked the light switch turning the Christmas tree lights off. This would be her last Christmas in this house. A house full of love. A house full of memories.
She wouldn't let tears pool in her eyes. Her mum would hate that. Rex gave a little yap at her feet and she scooped her fluffy white Pomeranian up into her arms, giving him a tight hug. She wouldn’t be alone this Christmas. She wouldn't.
“We’ll be fine, Rex, won’t we?” she said as she pulled her red knitted hat over her curls. Her phone started to sound as she pulled the door closed behind her.
Now both her mum and dad were gone the bills were just too much. The hospital bills had just about finished her. She’d been determined not to let her mum know how much they really were. Her mother’s dying wish was to be buried next to Holly’s father. They’d been true childhood sweethearts. But the funeral costs had been the icing on the cake. It was time to put the house on the market and look for something smaller. Something tiny, probably.
“After Christmas,” she whispered into Rex’s fur before setting him down on the snow covered sidewalk.
Her phone was still ringing. Santa Claus is coming to town echoed around her. “Hi, Kelly? Yes, no problem. We’ve just left. I can pick up Arthur on the way.”
“Morning, Holly!” shouted Mr Banks from across the street.
She waved as she carried along the street. “Morning!”
She loved this street. Loved this neighbourhood. She’d spent most of her life here. She knew just about every person here. From Mr Banks who worked in a glass-making factory, to Lizzie Spence with her four kids, and old Mrs Kingson who owned the shop on the corner of the street. Her heart gave a swell, she’d miss everyone of them when she had to sell up the family home.
Safe. That’s how she’d always felt here. And loved.
She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. Keep it together, girl. Who knows what kind of neighbourhood she’d end up in? Would she have neighbours who would even say hello – or would she end up in one of those places where no one made eye contact with each other?
Rex gave a yap as he spotted another dog at the side of the road and stopped dead, meaning she almost tripped over the white and tan fur ball. “Hey, stop it, tiny. Stop trying to trip me up. We’ll be at the park soon. Behave.”
Rex gave her a look. Who said dogs couldn’t communicate? The message was clear. I’m in charge.
Ten minutes later, a Dalmatian, a spaniel and a terrier in tow, she was ready to hit the park. “Come on guys. This will be fun.”
They strode across the bridge and around the edges of the frozen lake. This was her favourite route. A few kids were shaking snow from the branches of nearby trees. The snow-topped pagoda in the middle of the park looked like a Christmas cake decoration.
The park was always her first stop – even when the wind whistled and the rain was lashing. She loved the green open space just round the corner from the built up streets. A few children were throwing stones into the lake, trying to break through the ice. Remnants of a snow man was next to them, and Holly gave a laugh as she noticed the snow stuck to the back of their jackets. Snow angels. It was years since she’d done anything like that.
Her collection of fellow dog walkers were crowded around a nearby coffee stall. Frank had hers ready as soon as she approached. “Here you go, Holly. Gingerbread latte.”
She switched the leads into one hand, grabbing some dollars from her pocket. “Thanks Frank.” She inhaled deeply. Coffee was her only vice. She’d cut costs everywhere else but here. Her computer had died recently and couldn’t be fixed. Her internet connection had been sacrificed a few months ago. Thank goodness she did some shifts at the library. Free wifi and free computers.
Shannon nudged her. “Any news on the job front?”
Holly shook her head. “Carey’s have already hired their Christmas staff. Shaw’s can only give me evening shifts when I’m working at the library. I might have to think about some night shifts at the bakery.”
“Wouldn’t you be better taking the evening shifts at Shaw’s?”
“But then I ‘d need to give up the library.” She shook her head as she knelt down next to the dogs to give them a rub. “There are a few agency shifts too. But they’re only sporadic. Not enough to give up my boys. Anyway, I love this. Who wants to be stuck inside all day?”
“Me,” muttered Jack. “It’s freezing all day.” Holly leaned over and gave him a hug. Jack had been paid off from an IT job in the city a few months ago. He’d started dog walking when all other job applications had failed.
She looked back to Shannon, “I still have the Sunday shift at the football stadium. It pays better than anything else.”
But Shannon had stopped listening. The rest of the dog walkers’ eyes were on the small screen on the coffee cart. Holly straightened up and nudged forward to view the screen.
“People flocked today to Baltimore’s exclusive Memorial Hotel claiming to be the Lost Princess of Coronia.” The local news reporter was more excited than normal.
The camera panned to an enormous queue of women outside the hotel only five minutes from where they were currently standing.
The story then cut to someone else. Now, she understood why the news reporter was excited. The flush around her collar was creeping up around her neck.
A guy with tanned skin, blue eyes and short blond hair. He was a mix between two of the latest characters from the superhero team movie she’d just watched. One with bows and arrows and one with a big hammer. “We are still searching for the girl in the photograph.” His accent sent shivers to places that seriously needed awakening. “It is vital that we find her. We do not even have a name. Only that she was thought to have been taken to the Baltimore area many years ago.”
Shannon threw her hands in the air nearly knocking Holly’s coffee cup. “I’m right here, honey!”
“Hey,” Holly nudged Shannon back out of the way. “Who is that?”
Jack narrowed his gaze. “What do you mean – who is that? Haven’t you been watching the news?”
Holly drew her eyes away for a second. “What news? Some of us have three jobs, Jack.”
Lynn rolled her eyes. “All you need to know is he’s my future husband.” She flicked her hair. “He just doesn’t know it yet. I’m going to get myself down to the Memorial and join that line.”
Holly frowned. “I still don’t get it. What are they talking about?”
Jack laughed. “Well you must be the only girl in Baltimore. They’re looking for a lost princess.” He waved his hand as he juggled his coffee, an apple and three dog leashes.
Holly’s eyes were focused back on the screen. He was talking again. She wanted to listen but everyone was chattering around about her. He ran his hand through his hair as he spoke, there was frustration on his face, little lines around his pale blue eyes. He was wearing a pale blue shirt that was open at the collar and a navy suit jacket. Even though he was sitting she could sense the cut of the jacket and shirt. It probably cost more than she currently earned in a year.
But there was something about him that was mesmerising. She glanced at the faces around her. They were all fixated on the screen. It seemed it wasn’t just her that was affected.
The news reporter shifted in her seat, leaning forward and holding the microphone closer to the guy. Her other hand gave her shirt a little tug.
To the uninitiated in the ways of love, it might look like a simple straightening. To a woman who could recognise a fellow predator at fifty paces Holly realised the reporter was just making her cleavage more visible. She almost laughed out loud. It was like the move of a teenage cheerleader around her favourite player.
The man started speaking again. “Prince Alfred is very sick. He has no official heirs. He has revealed that he once had a daughter. A daughter he has never met or was introduced to.” The last part was added on quickly, as if to make some kind of excuse for the big reveal. “It’s vital we find her. Coronia needs a new heir.”
“But aren’t you the new heir?” The news reporter batted her eyelashes at him.
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair as she leaned a little closer. “Not really. I’m a distant relative. A way, way distant relative.”
“But you’re still the heir of the Coronia throne?”
“Unless they find Prince Alfred’s daughter. She is the true heir to the throne.” He shifted his position towards the camera, pointedly ignoring the reporter. “Can you show the picture again please? If anyone recognises the toddler in the photo, can you get in touch with me please? She’d be around twenty-seven now. We know her birth name but we’re sure her name was changed. We have no idea what her name is now. Get in touch with the press office at Coronia. Please.”
Holly jerked back a little at the intensity of his gaze, the emphasis on his words. This guy really did want to find this missing princess.
But why? Didn’t he want to be Prince?
A red manicured hand tugged at his sleeve. “But you’ve already had hundreds of women get in touch,” she gave a little laugh, “Haven’t any of them met your requirements?”
“Did she actually just say that? Did she?” Shelley shook her head in disgust and turned away.
Holly pulled her gaze away and took a sip of her coffee. “I’ve missed all this. How could I miss all this?” The screen shot back to the line of women. “Are all those women pretending to be the missing baby?”
She burst out laughing. “Some of them look at least sixty? How can they pretend to be twenty-seven?”
Jack nudged her. “Give me another day and I’ll be joining the queue. How bad can Coronia be? How do you think I’d look in a dress? I could pretend to be a girl – I’m the right age at least.”
The rest of the dog walkers laughed. Holly took another sip of her coffee as the dogs tugged at their leashes. “I have to go, these guys are getting fed up with my loitering.” A few flakes of snow started to fall around them.
Shannon pulled up her hood. “Uh oh, blizzard time.”
Holly flung her coffee cup in the trash can and went to tug up her hood too but something caught her eye.
The screen was filled with a picture of a baby. A baby with a mass of dark curls and a cheeky grin. She was sitting on the floor and wearing a white lace dress.
She froze as every single breath of air left her body.
Jack and Shannon had started talking next to her. But their voices had muted to just a buzzing noise. The picture wasn’t ancient – it wasn’t black and white. But you could tell it was older. The colour had faded. The quality wasn’t as sharp as digital cameras these days.
Every single hair on her body stood on end.
She recognised that picture. It had stood on the dresser in the sitting room for years in a silver frame.
She squeezed her eyes closed for a second and then opened them again. This must all be in her head. Everyone of her age must have a picture like that. That had been the trend. The sit-on-the-floor with a big dress photo. That’s all it was. It must be.
She opened them again. The photo was still there.
It was the dress. The dress. It wasn’t the usual fluffy styled dress of white cotton, trimmed with something, and a few layers of sticky-out net underneath.
This dress was made of lace. Heavy duty intricate lace. You didn’t really notice unless you looked closely. Most of the lace had a fine white lining under it. But the fair skin of the baby’s arms could be seen through the unlined cap sleeves.
She was going to be sick – right now, all over her winter boots.
Jack looked over his shoulder. “Holly, you okay?”
Frank from the coffee cart leaned towards her. “You’ve gone kinda pale. Do you need to sit down?”
She shook her head and spoke automatically. “I’m fine, Frank.”
Her legs started walking in the most familiar direction. Through the trees, and along the other side of the lake. She normally enjoyed the walk – no matter what the weather – but today was different. She was hardly conscious of the large flakes of snow landing on her skin, or the bite of the air around her.
There were too many thoughts swirling around in her brain. Her stomach kept lurching, threatening to re-introduce her gingerbread latte to the world. All of a sudden the morning coffee didn’t seem like such a good idea.
She pulled out her phone from her pocket and cursed when she realised she had no internet. The library – her second home – she could use the internet there.
Her steps lengthened, the dogs yapping happily at her heels. How, how could some complete stranger have a picture of her?
Or maybe it wasn’t her. Maybe it was just a weird coincidence of another little girl with dark curly hair, green eyes and a dress that she’d always thought was a one off.
Her feet stopped dead in the snow. The pull from the dogs on the leashes nearly catapulted her forward. But her body was a dead weight.
What if that little girl really was her? Her whole life had been a lie. Did that mean her father wasn’t really her father? But was her mother still her mother?
Her mother had always told her she was one in that picture. Capable of sitting unsupported, and, her mother had told her, pulling herself up and walking around the furniture at that stage.
It had never even occurred to her to ask who had taken that picture. She’d just assumed it was her father.
Rex barked louder, causing her feet to move again. It was only a few blocks to the library. She would be there in a few minutes.
She glanced over her shoulder and saw a man in a dark coat. Her heart jumped. Who was that? Was he watching her? Did he know something about all this?
Her heart rate quickened even more. Her breathing getting shallower and panic starting to grip her.
Thirty seconds later a little girl in a red coat jumped out from behind a nearby bush and the man faked surprised and scooped her up into his arms.
Relief flooded through her, quickly followed by tears as she watched the obvious love in the father’s eyes for his daughter. She was squealing with delight as he swung her around.
She had an almost identical memory in her head. She’d built snowmen in this park, been skating on the pond and thrown a million twigs from the bridge with her father. Her bedtime stories used to be about the large pagoda in the park.
One night it would be witches castle. The next, it would a hideout for pirates. Some nights it would belong to a Japanese warrior or a crazy inventor. But her favourite stories were the space age kind, the ones that said the observatory showed the way to other planets.
It didn’t matter how tired her father was, or how unwell he was, he was never too tired to tell her a bedtime story. His chest condition had taken him from their lives far too soon.
Her heart squeezed. She missed him. Fifteen years on, and in moments like this, she still missed him.
She wiped away the tear that slid down her cheek and hurried out of the park and down the street towards the library. It was only when she got to the door that she realised the fundamental flaw in her plan.
Only guide dogs were allowed in public buildings. And it was probably just as well, because there was no way her pack would behave themselves.
Thankfully Martha, one of the other staff, had a bad habit that she fulfilled every few hours. She was just coming out the door as Holly realised she couldn’t go inside.
“Hey Holly,” her brow furrowed, “I didn’t think you were working until later today.”
“I’m not,” she said quickly, “but I need to go inside for a couple of minutes and download something from the internet. Could you hold the dogs please?”
Martha had already pulled out her cigarettes. The frown was still on her face. She obviously didn’t relish her five minutes of peace being interrupted by four dogs.
“Please Martha. I’ll only be a few minutes, honestly.”
Martha glanced at her watch. “I’ll give you three – tops.” She held out her hand for the leads.
“Thank you.” Holly thrust the leashes at her and rushed inside, pulling her hat off on the way. She gave a quick nod to another member of staff and thudded down in front of a computer, pulling off her wet gloves.
Her hands poised above the keyboard. What on earth did she search for?
She typed quickly and pulled up the first item on the search list.
Coronia. Officially the Principality of Coronia. A microstate in Western Europe, bordered by France and Italy with a coast on the Mediterranean Sea. It has an area of just over 320 square kilometres and a population of 79000. It is a constitutional monarchy with the rank of principality, headed by the Prince of Coronia, Alfred Granvier.
She scanned further. Mountains. Money. Tax haven.
No apparent heirs.
So why was some guy searching Baltimore for a lost princess?
The guy. She didn’t even know what his name was. Or who he really was. She’d only heard part of the interview.
She wracked her brain, opened another window and typed Coronia Lost Princess and pressed return.
Her mind boggled. She clicked on the first. It was a news report about Prince Alfred and how sick he was and the search for his lost daughter.
The picture of Prince Alfred made her suck in a breath.
He looked old. He looked ancient. He looked like a man who’d suffered numerous bouts of cancer and constant rounds of treatment. His skin was almost withered away. His cheeks sunken.
“Hey!” came the shout from the door. It was Martha. She was looking impatient and gesturing towards the dogs.
“One second,” shouted Holly as she clicked for both pages to print and pulled up one other. Alfred thirty years ago. Images.
The first picture took her breath away.
He looked like an Italian model. Tall, tanned, lean, standing on the bow of white expensive looking boat. He was wearing what could only be described as white trunks. His body was toned. His face laughing. But it was the hair and eyes that caught her attention.
She zoomed in.
“Holly. I’ve had enough of these dogs!” Rex was yapping loudly at the door.
She expanded the screen as she stood up and pressed print again.
Alfred had green eyes and dark hair with curling edges. It wasn’t long enough to look truly curly, but there was a definite kink in the hair. Two things that were achingly familiar.
She closed the pages and walked over to the printer, grabbing the pages and stuffing them in her jacket pocket.
“You know how to take advantage of people,” snapped Martha as she thrust the dog leashes at her. “It’s freezing out there and I don’t have a jacket on.” She semi shoulder-barged Holly on the way past but Holly didn’t care.
She was back out into the street. The papers felt as if they were burning a hole in her pocket. She wanted to sit down and read everything. But she had three dogs to return to their homes. Dogs that might not have had the walk they normally would. She winced. She’d make it up later. She’d walk them solidly for an hour.
By then, she’d have put all of this out of her mind. There would be a perfectly rational reason for all this. It could even be camera trickery. Maybe she was going to be on one of those hidden camera shows and this was all a set up – all her dog walking were secretly in on the joke.
Her stomach twisted. She didn’t really believe that. But it was the only place her head would let her go right now. Everywhere else just seemed too dangerous.
The walk to her house had never seemed so long. It didn’t matter that her legs were on overtime and she dropped the other three dogs off with as little fuss as possible – a rub dry, a water bowl top up, and a check on their food bowls.
By the time she lifted her hand to put the key in the lock her hand was trembling. Rex seemed to have picked up on her jitters and was skittering between her feet. Any second now she would face plant on the floor.
By the time she got through the door, angry tears had started to spill. She pulled the papers from her jacket then threw it, her hat and gloves on the sofa. She flicked on the TV and scanned the local news channels, desperately looking for the female reporter again.
After a few minutes she threw the remote down. Her hand poised over the papers. They were currently face down, then she took a deep breath and walked over and flicked the switch on the kettle.
She pressed her hands on the counter top as she closed her eyes and heard the kettle boil. Her mind was still spinning. She needed to sit down and take a deep breath.
This was ridiculous. A complete over-reaction from nothing more than a glance at an old photograph.
She poured the water and made tea, sitting down, taking the deep breath she needed and turned the papers over.
Coronia. She read more. Mountains and a coast. Depending on the weather people could ski or surf. She scanned for more about Alfred, then blinked when she saw his age. 52? Really?
She pulled the recent photograph out. He looked much older than that. Nearly twenty years older. Her first thoughts of him being ill and cancer stricken seemed crystal clear. Of course he was ill, why else would they search frantically for an heir?
She tried to find out more about the man she’d seen on the TV. But there was nothing on the pages. Nothing at all.
She flicked channels again. Finally. The flash of a red coat. The reporter. It was exactly the same report that had been shown earlier, only this time she could hear everything.
Felix de Luca. An almost Prince. Or he would be – if they didn’t find another heir before Prince Alfred died. He some distant relative.
She watched mesmerised as he spoke about his country with such passion that she found herself leaning closer and closer to the screen – much like the reporter.
Then the photo came up again. This time she had a much better view. Her tea crashed to the floor.
It was something other people wouldn’t notice. Something she’d joked about with her parents. Right on the left hand side of the photo was a tiny glimpse of something poking in to the photo – the rounded toe of a pale blue shoe. Her mother’s.
She didn’t even bother with the spilled tea. She had to find that photo.
The trouble with planning on selling a home meant that she’d already started the hard job of packing things up. She’d lived in this home with her parents. It was hard to pick through a lifetimes worth of items and make the emotional decision of deciding what to keep and what to give or throw away.
But she couldn’t remember reaching that photo yet. It must be under the stairs. She hadn’t even started to tackle in there.
She grabbed a torch and opened the door under the stairs. Boxes were practically coming out to meet her. Both her mum and dad had been secret hoarders. She started pulling them out. The first few were household items. So were the next few. Then, there was some paperwork and lots and lots of books. She pulled out box after box. A thin film of dust covered most things.
Over the course of the years she ‘d seen many of these boxes. Time and time again she’d hinted to her parents to have a clear out. On certain occasions they’d agreed. This was actually ten times better than it had been before. Trouble was, as a young woman, she’d always gotten a little bored of the cleaning out. She’d never really made it to the back of this cupboard.
The more she kept pulling, dragging the boxes out into the hallway, the more the small clouds of dust caught her nose.
The flashlight fell from her hand, the yellow band reaching into the back corner of the cupboard. Once she’d grabbed a tissue to wipe her nose and hands she peered up into the corner. There was something she didn’t recognise.
She scrambled over the other boxes and reached out with her fingertips making a grab for the unfamiliar object.
It was heavier than expected. She had to use both hands to pull it forward, pushing other boxes aside to make room for it.
When she finally got it out she wrinkled her brow. A small dark wooden trunk. She’d never seen it before. It was like an old fashioned treasure chest from a children’s story book, only around a tenth of the size.
She opened the curved lid. The trunk wasn’t as full as the weight implied. What kind of wood was it made from anyway? She shook her head, she’d no idea about things like this.
The trunk had some papers and a few strange items. She shuffled through the papers.
There it was. The photo. Her photo.
She ran back over to the TV and froze it. Her tongue was practically sticking to the roof of her mouth as she held up her photo next to the TV screen.
It was a perfect match in everyway.
This had to be a mistake. It had to be.
Somewhere, somehow, there had been a mix up.
She shook her head and walked through to the kitchen, opening her fridge and grabbing some water. In less than ten seconds she’d finished the bottle.
She hated this. Hated it. Hated that every few minutes her heart started to race, her palms itched and uncomfortable patches of sweat were building.
She would speak to them. The Milleinium wasn’t that far away. She could walk there and talk to someone – sort all this out. Hopefully then, they’d stop putting that photograph of her up on the TV.
She walked back over to the little trunk. Strange she’d never seen it before. She thought she’d seen everything in this house.
There were a few heavy envelopes. Something in tissue paper. A little box and a drawstring bag. That was it
She lifted out the tissue paper and unwrapped it. Her heart gave a little lurch as she recognised it instantly. The dress. Her mother had kept the dress.
It wasn’t as white as it once had been. Time had aged it. But it was still beautiful. The heavy weight in her hand reminded her of the quality. Maybe it had been a family heirloom? A gift from the grandparents that had all died before she was born? She’d never asked any questions about the dress because she’d only ever saw it in the photo. She’d been far too young to have recollection of wearing it. She laid it down gently on the tissue paper. The drawstring bag held the black paton shoes. They were tiny, with a few little scuffs at the toes. Clearly walking along the furniture had caused some wear and tear.
She slid the paperwork out of the first envelope. It was heavy duty paper. She unfolded it and took a few moments to see what she was staring at.
She could swear a cold breeze swept around the apartment. The chills went straight down her spine. It didn’t matter that she was wearing a jumper, every little hair on her arms was currently standing on end.
Adoption records. These were adoption records.
The child Holly Elizabeth Johnson.
The adoptive parents, Marcie Ann Yates and Edgar John Yates.
The chill had reached ice like proportions. The date of birth was the same as hers. The date of the adoption was around 14 months later.
She kept reading. Birth mother Elizabeth Grace Johnson.
There was something else. A photograph.
It was a woman she’d never seen before. Holding a baby on her lap.
A baby that looked a lot like her.
The girl was young. Either in her late teens or early twenties. She scanned the document again for Elizabeth’s date of birth. Yip. She’d be twenty. She was thin. She was painfully thin with lank blonde hair and skinny arms.
Gaunt would be the best word to describe her. Had she been sick?
The chills were getting worse.
She leaned back against the door. Everything didn’t seem like a mistake anymore. But why on earth didn’t she know anything about this? Her mum and dad weren’t really her mum and dad?
Anger swept through her. The TV had unfrozen and the man with pale blue eyes was on the screen again. Mr Movie Star with his far-too-good-looks, suntan and perfect teeth. Pleading with people to get in touch to save a country she’d never heard of.
She needed answers. And she needed them now. She snapped the lead back on Rex.
She grabbed some of the contents of the box in her arms, her eyes darting back to the TV. The reporter was laughing again – flirting with the guy – talking about the size of the queue.
She wasn’t going to wait in any queue. She wanted to know exactly what was happening. And she wanted to know now.
Felix was having a nightmare day. Alfred was getting worse. When he’d phoned this morning and the head butler had dodged around his questions he’d known that the rapid progression of Alfred’s illness was exactly what the doctors predicted.
Things were getting desperate. And so was he.
If they couldn’t find the lost heir of Coronia then he would inherit the title. Something he’d never, ever wanted.
Coronia was a beautiful country. But for Felix, it was claustrophobic. He worked in New York – had done for the last five years. And he intended to continue his career there in the near future. Taking over the title in Coronia was never on his list.
Trying to dress the story up had proved a little difficult. Alfred had been a handsome young man. He’d dated movie stars and models the world over. He’d never been short of a date. But there had always been quiet undercurrents about flings and cast aside lovers.
In the end Felix had been surprised that only one secret baby had been declared. The truth was Alfred had probably expected to go on and have other children. But even though he’d been married twice, no legitimate children had appeared.
The mother had been a young American woman who’d worked at the castle for a short season. Rumour had it she’d just up and left. Now he knew why. Private investigators had located Elizabeth Grace Johnson after only a few months of searching – unfortunately, they’d found her death certificate.
As for the baby? A birth certificate had been found but not another trace. Numerous adoptions agencies had opened and closed in that time. Because her death had been registered in Baltimore they’d assumed the baby had been adopted there too. But the truth was, the baby could have been adopted anywhere. People moved – all the time. He was proof of that.
The heir of Coronia could live anywhere in the world right now.
Finding her was like looking for a needle in a haystack, which was why he’d agreed to the interviews with the predatory reporter. Cassie Carmen was his new best friend. She’d appeared at his hotel room door last night with a few ‘queries’. He’d answered them quickly and then cut her short saying he had business to attend to.
Now, he was getting beyond frustrated. He hated seeing Alfred so frail and ill. He hated the fact it had taken an almost death bed confession for Alfred to reveal his regrets about his daughter. But most of all he hated the fact he couldn’t find the words to tell Alfred that he didn’t want to inherit the title or the kingdom.
Seventeen hundred women. That was how many had turned up at the hotel today with hokum stories about how they could be the missing princess. It didn’t matter that they were sure the princess was twenty-eight. The oldest woman today had been seventy-two and the youngest twelve – all with ridiculous reasons for the difference in age.
In amongst these had been a few that had almost given him hope. But most of their stories fell short at some point. There was information they hadn’t released to the press – and none of the women interviewed could fill in the gaps. A few had given vague enough stories to actually warrant DNA tests. But the results would take a few days.
He had a huge team with him. Twenty people to interview all the women, with a few finally making it through to him. At that point, he’d actually been glad of the presence of Cassie Carmen, predatory reporter. The women that had made it through to speak to him had more than a kingdom on their minds.
Felix let out a deep sigh and ran his fingers through his hair. He’d been wearing this shirt for twelve hours. He needed to get out of it. He needed to get out of these trousers and shoes too. All he wanted to do right now was hit the shower then hit the deck. Somehow he knew by the time he woke up there would be another seventeen hundred women queued outside the hotel again.
He pushed away the files in front of him as his phone rang again. He answered. It was Alfred. “Have you found her?” The voice was strained, croaky.
He stood up and started walking down the hall. “Not yet,” he admitted.
The disappointment was evident. “Oh.” There was silence. He could hear the laboured breathing at the end of the phone.
It was too much for him. He couldn’t bear to listen. “Give me a bit more time. We’re waiting on a few tests results. We could find her in the next few days.”
“I might not have a few days.”
It made him feel sick because he knew it could be true.
Alfred didn’t stop. “You need to promise me, promise me that you can’t find her, you’ll come back and do the job you need to. Coronia needs you, Felix. It needs someone to lead it into the next century. Things are good. But someone needs to keep on top of the business deals. Someone needs to ensure our treaties are adhered to. We need the publicity. We need a face for Coronia. Promise me, Felix.”
His footsteps faltered. Every part of his brain was screaming no right now. This just wasn’t what he wanted to do. Coronia wasn’t where he wanted to be. But loyalties ran deep. And he wasn’t only loyal to Alfred. He loved him too. He’d taken him under his wing when his father had been killed in action. His father had been a doctor on a humanitarian mission. The earthquake had wiped out his whole battalion. His mother – Alfred’s second cousin – had fallen apart. She’d been hospitalised for months. But instead of feeling lonely and isolated in the strange castle, he’d felt welcomed and loved.
He couldn’t stop the words coming from his mouth no matter how much they twisted his heart. “I promise you, Alfred.”
He hung up the phone and started walking again. Sleep could wait. Showers could wait. He had to get back on this. He had to try and find the mystery daughter in the photograph. Someone had to know who she was.
He turned on his heel and headed back down the corridor to the conference room. He was so busy thinking he wasn’t watching where he was going.
He was walking so quickly he didn’t even have time to slow down. But the young woman was distracted too. She was walking with her head down, a bundle of papers clutched to her chest that catapulted into the air and rained down on them like confetti. Her red knit hat flew off her head too, letting loose her long dark curls. The little dog trotting alongside her gave a yelp.
His actions were automatic. He bent down to help her up and to help retrieve her belongings. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
A pair of green eyes met his under long dark lashes. Her cheeks were flushed pink and her loose curls framed her face. A red jumper stuck out from under her black coat, the shoulders still glistening with flakes of snow.
He’d looked into hundreds of pairs of eyes. None had stopped him in his tracks like this.
His breath was stuck someway in his throat. He’d never really seen eyes on a woman so green before. Like a tropical rain forest. The kind that could draw you right in and hold you there. There was something so achingly familiar.
She blinked and it jerked his brain.
He looked down at the papers in front of him. A photograph. She had a copy of the photograph that was currently plastered across the front page of every local Baltimore paper. He made a grab for it. “Where on earth did you get this?”
She was startled by his tone and sat forward, making a grab for her papers. His hand knocked something else. A little box that had sprung open.
A box that held a ring. A gold ring with ruby stones.
Her hand closed over it just as he made a snatch for it. The white fluffy dog growled at him.
“And where on earth did you get this? Did you steal it?”
She gave his hand a strong, sharp shove as she pulled herself to her feet, swooping her papers from the floor.
His head was spinning. The thing that was private. The thing that nobody knew about.
“Tell me exactly what’s going on. Tell me exactly who you are and what you’re doing here?”
He didn’t mean it to sound like an order, even though that was the way it clearly came out. He’d spent the last few days ordering people around all in a desperate attempt to try and find the person Alfred was looking for. It was becoming too easy, too familiar, particularly when he was irritated and tired.
She drew herself up to her whole five feet five inches. From the tilt of her chin he could tell she was annoyed.
He’d missed something else. The pinkness of her cheeks wasn’t just from the cold outside. The tiny red spots were something else entirely. She was clearly annoyed.
Her voice was trembling as she spoke. She met his gaze with a steady green glare as she thrust her host of papers clean into his chest. “I didn't steal anything. I think I’m your lost princess. And I want some answers now.”
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