Authors: Vivian Wood
Cover design by Maeve Morrick
Copyright Vivian Veritas Publishing 2016
May not be replicated or reproduced in any manner without express and written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to author and purchase your own copy.
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
ou can do this
. You’re royalty, remember? Distant royalty, disgraced royalty, but you still carry the royal bloodline. You belong here.
I suck in a deep breath as I stand in the massive white marble drive in front of
, the Valencia City residence of the King and Queen of Courtland. The palace is a seemingly endless, sprawling Renaissance masterpiece. Stark white stone rising high into the heavens, set in curved sections to form a giant circle, each piece capped by a dark gabled roof.
It’s meant to be intimidating, I remind myself.
“Katherine,” Charles says, nudging me with an elbow. “You’re standing on your own dress, babe.”
I shoot him a look; he knows I don’t like the word
. It’s one of those shockingly American things he says. Like his oddly mellow accent, his ultra-American vocabulary is something I will get used to.
Once we’re married, surely.
Next to the crisp British-influenced accents of Courtland, American accents often sound downright laughable. Then again, when I’m talking fast or a little drunk, people tease me about my own Courtland accent being incomprehensible.
Here, tonight, I will be surrounded by those accents once more. I will be normal, not the sore thumb I was in the States.
, I think, feeling a little awed.
I raise my foot, kicking out of my glittering, strappy gold Michael Kors heel so that I can free the trailing hem of my red lace Tadashi Shoji gown. I’ve really gone all out tonight, piling my long ash blonde hair high on my head, artfully applying smoky-eye makeup to make my sky gray eyes pop, matching the color of my dress to my lipstick.
There is no question, I am trying to
“Give me your arm,” I say once I’m detangled. Charles tosses back the too-long blonde hair that lies across his forehead and eagerly steps closer to me, offering the crook of his elbow.
I gather up the hem of my dress and we leave the relative safety of our car behind, Charles handing the keys to a palace valet. We hurry up the sweeping white marble stairs to the awe-inspiring set of carved golden doors, etched with the faces of regents who have gone before us. The doors are easily twenty feet wide and half as high, built not just for beauty but for strength against invasion in battles long-past.
Four liveried doormen bow and pull the doors open before us and we step into the antechamber. It’s just as I remembered, shining marble and gold, two stories high with twin staircases curving up each side.
“Welcome, Lady Katherine.”
“Darian!” I say. I glance around, making sure no one else is watching, lest I get Darian in trouble. Then I drop Charles’s arm and fling myself at the under butler. “It’s been too long!”
“You look wonderful, Lady Katherine. Five years is indeed too long.”
I grin at him and pull back.
“Mother misses you at Haverly Place, Darian. I’m sure you’re happier here in the King’s service, though.”
He doesn’t respond directly, but his lips twitch. As the butler at my family home for my whole childhood, Darian is so familiar to me that he can’t hide his amusement.
“Shall I see you and your… guest… upstairs?” Darian asks, giving Charles a once-over.
“Oh! My manners. Darian, this is my almost-fiancé Charles. Charles, this is Darian. He worked in my household when I was growing up.”
“Nice to meet ya,” Charles says, sticking his hand out.
Darian glances at him, glances at me, and then gives Charles a polite bow.
“It’s improper to offer a staff member a handshake,” I remind Charles.
Charles rolls his eyes, but he shrugs. “Whatever. Nice to meet you anyway, Darian.”
“We’ll see ourselves upstairs, Darian,” I tell him. “I’m home for good, though, so I’m certain we will catch up.”
“Yes, Lady Katherine,” he says with a smile, waving us toward the stairs.
Watching my footing every step of the way, I lead Charles up those familiar palace stairs, determined not to embarrass myself on the night of my not-quite-triumphant return to Valencia City. The King and Queen aren’t going to be at this ball, but the Crown Prince will be.
And his son will, too….
Taking a deep breath, I put on my most dazzling smile as Charles and I emerge onto the dais and head down the hall to the right. We stop before a pair of open doors; on the other side is a ballroom full of glimmering, elegant people in gowns and tuxes.
A ball, just like in fairy tales. But there’s no Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty here. Just me, and I’m quaking in my six-inch heels.
Still, I step forward and give the footman at the doorway a respectful nod, though I don’t know this young man; unlike some of the royal family and guests, I always do my best to be friendly and polite to the servants. I hand the footman a card bearing our names and vital information, then wait for him to announce us.
Charles was astounded when I told him that I was having cards made up, just for this purpose.
Yeah, Courtland is a little… old world
After all, we’re almost as old as our western cousin, England.
Welcome to royal life, Charles Ford!
“Lady Katherine Alice Marinn Saville, daughter of Countess Eulah Elizabeth Mariselle Saville,” the footman announces.
Not even a mention of my father. How tactful.
“And her escort, Mr. Charles Evan Ford.”
No elaborate description there. The lack of title has people’s heads turning to look at Charles.
Or maybe I’m the spectacle. After all, this is the first time most of the people in this room have seen me since my graduation from high school.
, I think with a smirk.
I’ve been in the States too long.
Upper forms is the term in Courtland.
There’s a moment of silence as we take our first step into the glitzy ballroom, like the feeling of your ears popping as a plane lands. Then people turn back to their conversations, murmuring, and all is normal again.
There’s a tasteful jazz band playing in the far corner. Glasses clink, waiters circle with polished silver trays. Here, there, and everywhere are stunning custom gowns and bespoke suits.
Each of the two hundred or so people in this room are special, important, and probably famous. At least in Courtland, though some of the princes and princess are infamous all over the globe.
That thought has me glancing around, looking for the one prince I seriously hope isn’t in attendance…
“Kit! Oh my god, is that you?”
I turn and find Lady Marjorie Eleanor Jackson Tumberidge barreling into me, arms wide. She’s almost six feet to my five foot two, and for a moment I worry she will crush me with her exuberance.
“Oof,” I say as she gives me a hard hug. “Marj, nice to see you!”
She pulls back with a grin, giving a toss of her long copper hair. She’s a gorgeous ginger giant, as we used to joke in school.
“And you, sly girl,” she says. Her northern Courtland accent is so thick it’s almost a Scottish brogue.
Damn, I’ve missed that accent!
“You thought you were going to come home and not even tell me?”
“I swear, we’ve barely settled in,” I wave her off. “We’ve a flat full of boxes and a week’s worth of overdue sleep!”
“Liar,” she accuses. “You’ve been here a month. Call that
, do you?”
“I… alright, busted. I’ve been hiding out,” I admit.
Marj laughs, leaning back, and I realize how much I’ve missed her. Of everyone in Courtland, she was the only one who really stuck by my side no matter what happened, through the whole scandal of my father’s downfall.
“Is that a ring on your finger? Marj, did you and Craig get married on the sly?”
“Yeah, hey, we’re not really telling anyone yet, but I think everyone probably already knows. You remember how the gossip is here, right?” She sticks her hand out to Charles, looking curious. “Marjorie. And you are?”
“Charles Ford,” he says as he shakes her hand.
“Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m terrible at this tonight. This is my beau, Charles.”
“An American, hey?” she asks, looking more than a little surprised. “Well, I’ll be gashed.”
I chuckle at her Courtland slang, then nod.
“Yep, got an American. We met our first year at Brown and we haven’t been able to get rid of one another since,” I joke.
“She’s desperately in love with me,” Charles teases.
I flush, but not because I like his ribbing. It’s because I know that’s distinctly not true, and I think Charles knows it, too. We’re more of a practical match, as I prefer to think of it.
Courtland royalty rarely marries for love
, I remind myself.
And… it’s ever so complicated.
Of course Marj smashes the house of little white lies I like to tell myself by taking me by the hand, like we’re still seven year-old best friends, and towing me over to shake hands with her husband Craig. Her husband is bigger than Marj by several inches, and his hair is even redder than hers. They’re quite the matched pair, really.
“Craig, hi,” I say as we clasp hands. Of course we know each other; everyone who marries in Courtland’s noble classes pretty much know one another from birth.
Except me. Apparently I like making myself an outsider.
Marjorie and Craig have been an item for ages, but they always refused to be rushed into anything. I grin at Craig; he is one of the most likeable people on the planet, and I love him and Marj together.
“Cheers, Kitty!” he says. His cheeks are flushed and he smells of liquor, but he’s in wonderfully high spirits. Craig’s just…
. I don’t know many people like that.
“Oh, where’s your mum?” Marj asks me.
“Uhh… you’re the only one I’ve talked to tonight, so far,” I admit.
Marj’s eyes widen.
“You’d best move along, then. You’re supposed to start at the top of the social ladder and work down, not the other way around.”
I smile and roll my eyes.
“I haven’t forgotten, for god’s sake,” I tell her. “You just got to me first.”
“Go on, then, see your mum.” Marj gives me a hard sort of look. We slip so easily into our old patterns, her the practical and brash one, me the silly dilettante.
It’s strange, feeling that way about someone whom I haven’t kept up with in any way except Facebook. Still, it’s Marj, and her advice is perfectly sound.
“Right you are,” I tell her. “I’ll be back soon enough for a celebratory glass of… well, not bubbly, but cider or something.”
Marj pats my cheek and smiles. I give her another hug and then turn to find Charles standing behind me, looking annoyed.
“You forgot to introduce me. Again,” he says, his mouth creasing into a frown.
“Oh, damn,” I sigh. “I’m the worst.”
He doesn’t disagree. Instead he turns his head sharply, staring across the room. For a moment, he looks like he’s seen a ghost. He literally goes a little pale, which is unusual for brash, headstrong Charles.
“What is it?” I ask, craning my neck to see what he’s seeing.
Charles doesn’t respond. All I see is ball gowns and tuxes.
“Someone famous or something?” I ask, confused.
“No, nothing. I, uh… I thought I saw someone about to fall over drunk, but he looks fine now.”
I narrow my gaze at Charles, who doesn’t flinch.
“Right…” I say, but really I’m about launch into a full-scale interrogation.
Lucky for him, a footman steps in between us.
“Lady Katherine,” he says, bowing. “Countess Saville awaits your presence.”
I feel my cheeks heat. At twenty four years of age, my mother still knows how to scold me and make it
“Please,” I say, gesturing. “If you’ll show us to where she’s standing…”
The footman is already moving away. I follow him, a nervous knot in the pit of my stomach. So many of these people were so cruel before I left Courtland, when the truth came out about my father. When I was at my lowest, they were deeply unkind.
And now they’re all turning to look at me as I push into the crowd where my mother stands. Judging me, trying to see how much I’ve changed or stayed the same since last they saw me.
Trying to see if I survived, after the scandal.
I put on a big smile, refusing to be cowed. The crowd clears a little path for the footman as he leads me over to mum, who is…
…standing next to HRH Prince Archibald, holding his hand.
What the hell?
Unexpected isn’t even the word for this. My mum finds Prince Archie distasteful, and as far as I know he’s never so much as glanced in her direction.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s changed.
“Um, hi Mum,” I say, glancing back and forth between her and Prince Archie, trying to take it in.
“Katherine, darling,” my mom howls, gleeful. She’s thrilled to see me, like it’s been a lifetime. She’s also a little tipsy. More than a little, maybe. She’s all done up in a clingy white gown, her platinum blonde hair woven into a complex braided updo.
I count backward in my head, calculating. It’s only been four months since she came to visit me in the States.
How long has this been going on, and why am I only finding out now?
She leaves Prince Archie and comes over to hug me, which makes me go stiff; we’re not a hugging family. I can count the number of times my mother has hugged me in public on my fingers.
We’re the Savilles
, I think.
It’s simply not what we do.
Except, of course, there is no Saville family anymore. Dad’s gone, mom’s gone bonkers, and I ran off to the States to get away from my life.
“Oh, Katherine, honey. Now that you’re here…”
Before I can flinch, Mum grabs me by the hand. Beckoning to Prince Archie, she tugs me forward to the small stage that’s set up in the corner.
Oh god. What now?
Someone hands Mum a microphone, and I feel a fine sheen of sweat break out over my body.
“Can we get all the appropriate parties up on the stage, please?” she murmurs into the microphone.
I look down and Charles is standing over to the right, and he looks
. Like I’ve left him out, again. Except I’m not the one in charge right now, not by a long shot.