The Wedding Series Book 5
A Princess for a few weeks…
The coming Christmas season isn’t looking great for April Gareaux. Her job is uninspiring, her engagement is off, and she has nowhere to live. Certainly her family would take her in, especially Leslie and Grady Roberts and their circle of friends who have become her extended family. But it’s time she stops relying on them.
Then comes an extraordinary offer – spend the holidays in Washington, D.C., with King Jozef of Bariavak as his possible long-lost granddaughter. Even more extraordinary is the man behind the offer and the one who will be beside her through the coming weeks, Hunter Pierce.
This is the last assignment Hunter would pick. Determination and grit have moved him beyond his past in Bariavak. Yet, here it is standing in front of him again, refusing to be ignored. … Just like his reactions to April. How can he fight what he’s feeling when they’re together all the time.
King Jozef has known tragedy in his life. Now, comes this lovely young woman bringing joy to his holidays. How can he resist dabbling in some royal matchmaking. Wouldn’t it be delightful if he could give April a Christmas gift she will never forget …
… Her Prince for a Lifetime
“He won’t fall for it.” Hunter Pierce zeroed in on the gaping flaw in his boss’s plan. “King Jozef might still be searching for the granddaughter everybody — including him — knows died decades ago, but he’s not a complete fool.”
From behind her utilitarian government-issue desk, Sharon Johnson sighed. “For someone working for the Department of State, you haven’t learned much tact.”
He grunted. “The point is, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security isn’t in the business of making up fairytales.”
“We’re not making up a fairytale. We’re simply saying we’ve found someone we think might be his granddaughter.”
“We know she’s not.”READ MORE
“Do we?” she asked in that There-Are-Mysteries-Greater-Than-Us voice. He hated when she did that. Almost made him wish she hadn’t taken an interest in his career.
“You know as well as I do, she was spotted years ago and—”
“Spotted because of her uncanny resemblance to King Jozef’s family, not to mention having the family characteristic.”
“—researched again when she surfaced in connection with that science fiction author.”
“Gerard Littrell. Yes, that was interesting.”
He ignored her musing tone. “She’s the only child of Melanie and Jeffrey Gareaux, both deceased. Not of Princess Sofia and Prince Leopold of Bariavak.” The hand thing was a fluke.
“There are gaps in the record,” Sharon said serenely. “That’s why I’m adding you to surveillance now that you’re back from New York.”
“Most of the gaps don’t matter. The ones from around the uprising are because her parents moved a lot, not because she’s a long-lost princess.”
“Maybe, and maybe not. The gaps are enough to open the door. That’s all we need. Possibility.” The dark skin at the corners of her eyes creased with her smile. “It’s for Christmas, just until he has the surgery.”
“It’s a cheap effort to curry favor with a strategic ally.”
That was a low blow. Maybe higher-ups approved this hare-brained scheme with an eye only to extending the overflight treaty before the elderly King of Bariavak’s surgery in January, but Sharon also liked the man. You’d think she had enough to do with her job, husband, three kids, two dogs, and a rabbit without taking an aged and ailing monarch under her wing.
“It’s humanitarian, it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’ll give him happier holidays, and, yes, it might get overflight renewed, which would help our military,” Sharon retorted. “So work your magic when you talk to her today, Special Agent Pierce, and get this rolling.”
“What happens when he spots her as a phony.”
“We’d let it drop. No harm, no foul. But he won’t. Not with you in charge.” Sharon sat back, a slow smile spreading. “Even you can’t begrudge an elderly man a happier Christmas.”
“The king of Bariavak.”
“Still a man.”
April Gareaux emerged from the Washington, D.C., Metro station into a gloomy Thursday morning rush, and experienced a sinking feeling.
That was strange. She had no cause for a sinking feeling.
Unless it stemmed from the notion she was being watched.
No, no, she’d decided that was simply her imagination working overtime. There was nothing in it. Nothing at all.
She was engaged to a wonderful man. A wonderful, wonderful man. She lived with him in his gorgeous house.
Well, his mother’s house, actually. And more of a complex than a house. A gorgeous, gorgeous complex.
This Christmas wouldn’t be like the ones she’d come to love over the past fifteen years. Of course that made her sad, and she was sorry to disappoint Leslie, Grady, and the rest. But she’d be with Reese. And his mother.
True, the holidays were something special with her family. Well, not actually family, as Reese pointed out when he’d said her idea to divide time between her family and his wouldn’t work. But she was related to Leslie, and since Leslie was married to Grady he was family. The others, too. Just not the way Reese was used to.
Reese had always had a home. The one he still lived in. He was secure, grounded. Yes, that came with age, though, really, the twenty years between them didn’t matter.
And they were going to have a fabulous Christmas. Their first together.
So she had absolutely no cause for a sinking feeling.
Except that she was early for work.
That would give Jason more time to barrage her with unfunny jokes and Zoe more time to deliver sure-fire rules for success. At least Zoe’s intentions were good, unlike Jason’s. Like his pointing out — loudly — when she skipped the Brussels sprouts at Tuesday night’s Vegetable Consortium reception at the Willard Hotel.
April passed a shoe store, then crossed the side street to a drug store with battered yellow and orange fake autumn leaves plastered on its window.
The reception at the Willard Hotel had been the start of this feeling that she was being watched.
Could Reese…? No. But possibly his Evil Ex.
Zoe, who was rarely wrong about such things, had told her Tuesday morning that Roberta Warrington was back in D.C. But even so, why would Roberta, who’d walked out on Reese a year ago, be tracking her?
April stopped in front of a jewelry store. Though there had been that odd sensation, as if her skin attracted rays of attention that condensed into a thread of awareness like … Like the shiver gathering at the base of her skull now. Next it would—
April whipped around.
Nobody was behind her.
Nobody was staring at her.
Nobody was paying the least attention to her.
She turned back to the shop window.
Then, forgetting the sense of being watched, forgetting the Willard reception, forgetting Reese’s Evil Ex and mother, even forgetting Reese, April Gareaux smiled.
The jewelry store’s window held a gleaming Santa sleigh filled with tiny beribboned boxes behind reindeer positioned for liftoff. A hand-lettered sign read: “Dear Kris Kringle, if Cupid and Blitzen are in the wrong spot, let us know — we aim to please!”
Spotting a white-haired man inside, she pointed at the sign referencing the opening of the original — the real — Miracle on 34th Street, and waved. He waved back and smiled.
She snapped a photo to send to Grady Roberts, Leslie’s husband. He’d introduced her to that movie and so many others, just as he and Leslie had taught her to love Christmas.
The red of cinnamon and green of firs. The sweetness of cookies and tartness of cranberries. The prickle of mistletoe and the crackle of wrapping paper.
It would be different this year, but Christmas was still Christmas. They would have a terrific time, she and Reese. And his mother.
At that moment, gray skies opened, gushing cold rain on her head.
“April, you’ve got to do something with that mop.” Zoe Holland opened April’s top desk drawer, fished out her brush with one immaculately manicured hand, and thunked the handle into her palm. “Here, brush.”
“Why?” It was nearly quitting time, and her hair had looked like this since this morning.
Still, discussing hair was a relief. When Zoe marched toward her desk, April had feared the topic would be Brussels sprouts.
Despite the thinnest resume on the planet for a twenty-eight-year-old woman, April knew she was good at some things. And maybe nobody would be great at lobbying for Brussels sprouts, but not one of April’s cold contacts had produced a nibble — no pun intended. And then there’d been Jason’s announcement at the reception for all to hear that she’d skipped the Brussels sprouts.
Tuesday. What a rotten day. It started with Zoe telling April about Reese’s Evil Ex being back in town. Then Reese called her at work and said they needed to talk.
She’d reminded him about the important reception. Reese, who once called her plucky for working when he could take care of her every whim, had curtly ordered, “Skip it.”
“Why brush your hair?” Zoe repeated her question. “Because there is an absolutely delicious man waiting for you in the conference room.”
April stopped brushing. “For me?”
Zoe flapped her hand as an order to keep brushing and rooted in the drawer where April kept her minimal makeup.
“He’s from State.” Using D.C. shorthand, like “State” for the Department of State — and knowing that was its official name, rather than the State Department — was a Zoe Rule. “They’re looking for an expert on Brussels sprouts. God knows why. Here, put on some lipstick. Don’t you have any blush?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, Zoe.”
“You listen to me, April. For this man, you’re going to be an expert. Don’t tell him what you don’t know — dazzle him with what you do know. You’re a talented woman. Look what you did for Gerard Littrell, but—”
“That had nothing to do with talent.”
“—when it comes to men — Reese Warrington for God’s sake! But never mind that now. How about mascara?”
“I’m wearing mascara.”
“The stuff isn’t rationed. Put it on like you mean it. C’mon, I’ve got emergency supplies in the ladies’ room.”
April took a quick breath then opened the conference room door. On the far side of the table stood a man in a dark suit, straight and still, allowing her a three-quarters view of his face. He appeared to study a photo of an avalanche of green peas as if he didn’t quite trust them.
She saw men like him in D.C. Most often in the background at special events, infrequently during everyday errands, never at bars. Especially not the bars Mandy had dragged her to when April had still lived across the hall. The men at those bars talked loud and long about how important they were. And they smiled. Oh, how they smiled.
No. Where on earth did that come from? Reese was nothing like that.
Nor, to be accurate, was he like these other men, either. These other men — the ones like this dark-suited man — seldom spoke and rarely smiled. But their eyes took in all that was around them. They saw things, yes, they definitely saw things.
Oh, and they had the jaw.
She’d tried to explain it, but Mandy had wanted to distill the jaw to size and angles and that wasn’t the point. Leslie, on the other hand, had gotten it immediately. The jaw would never cave in. The jaw was something to rely on, something to believe in.
Reese had nothing like the jaw. But that was okay. He was very attractive. And surely living with the jaw would be uncomfortable.
This man, she saw as he turned, had one of the finest examples of the jaw she had ever—
With two strides he closed much of the gap, though far from cozy.
Automatically, she catalogued a description as she’d learned to do for Gerard. High, sharp cheekbones balanced the jaw. Neatly trimmed medium brown hair. Penetrating eyes, narrowed so much she couldn’t tell their color.
What had she been thinking about men with the jaw seeing things? He sure did. He was cataloging right back. It felt like a beam of light, like—
A vibration started at the base of her skull and zinged down her spine. “You’ve been watching me.”
His eyelids lowered and rose once. That was it. One blink. Otherwise, he could have been a lump of granite — albeit a nicely shaped lump.
Oh, God, had it been her imagination? All the times she’d looked around these past days, she’d never spotted anything or anyone out of place. And why on earth would this man with the jaw be following her?
“Ms. Gareaux, please sit down.”
He pulled out a chair. She sat.
“My name is Hunter Pierce.” He flipped open a passport-sized leather folder for a flash of a two-part ID with the top part including the Department of State logo and the words “Special Agent” and the bottom part showing a signature and photo ID. It was definitely the same man. He returned it to his inside suit jacket pocket. “I’m here on a confidential matter on behalf of the Department of State. This matter—”
“About Brussels sprouts?”
“No. About you.”
“Me? Oh.” Her stomach flipped. “Oh, my God. Leslie, Grady—.”
“Nobody’s hurt? Reese or—”
“No.” He waited a breath as if to be sure his certainty had stopped her. It had. “For the sake of our country, you must never discuss with anyone what I’m about to tell you, whether you agree to cooperate or not. I need your pledge to that.”
Her mind raced, trying to make sense of this. “Cooperate with what?”
“First, your pledge.”
That was dirty pool. Dangle the sake of her country, make it all mysterious and 007ish — what was the chance of saying no after that?
“I pledge not to discuss whatever this is — unless it’s going to get somebody hurt or something,” she added.
He’d pulled out a paper with closely printed type beneath the United States seal, and placed it on the corner of the nearby table. He held out a pen. “Sign here, please.”
She took the pen, but tugged the paper from under his fingers and brought it in front of her to read the legalese. “Hey! This says I can go to jail.”
“Only if you divulge what you just promised not to divulge without permission. The appeals process—” He tapped a figure to the last paragraph. “—is spelled out if you feel permission would be or has been withheld without sufficient cause.”
She read the words again. This was not a Monopoly “Do Not Pass Go, Go Directly to Jail” card, this was the real thing. On the other hand, if she didn’t find out what this was about she’d be lined up right behind the cat under “Cause of Death: Curiosity.” In which case going to jail would be moot.
“What is this about, Mr. Pierce?”
He refolded the paper and tucked it away before saying, “Your country needs your assistance. This is not dangerous or hazardous duty. Quality accommodations and meals would be provided. All expenses would be covered. However, it would require a commitment until January second. That means—”
“January? That’s weeks from now. I haven’t worked here long enough for that kind of vacation—”
“An official request for your assistance would be made. A lobbying organization such as this would not refuse such a request.”
“But you said this doesn’t have anything to do with Brussels sprouts.”
“What does it have to do with?”
“It has to do with you being a princess for the month of December, Ms. Gareaux.”
It had made more sense when it was about Brussels sprouts.
“A princess?” she repeated.
“Yes. Until the first of the year. After that—”
“I’m not a princess.”
“We know that. However, you bear a strong resemblance—”
April shook her head, trying to get things back in order. “Wait, back up. I’m not a princess and you know it? So people who know this princess would also know I’m not her. Uh, she.” Wouldn’t a princess get the pronoun right the first time? “Plus, people who know me will know I’m, uh, me.”
So not a princess.
“No need to worry about people who know the princess. And you wouldn’t be around people you know. As I started to say, you will step away from your usual life. We would provide housing, any necessary wardrobe, transportation—”
“Transportation? So you’re like the dog and horse who became the footman and coachman.” She chuckled. “Although, actually the mice provided the transportation when they were turned into horses.”
He didn’t react.
“Cinderella?” she prompted. “ ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’?”
Come to think of it, if he provided the wardrobe that also made him the Fairy Godmother. Before she could swallow that image, he gave a single shake of his head. “I am not at liberty to further discuss arrangements until you have agreed to this, Ms. Gareaux.”
He spread another form before her, but she didn’t look at it. “Did Zoe hire you?”
She wouldn’t put this past her boss, who’d hired a male stripper dressed — briefly — as a doctor for nine-months pregnant Lorene’s baby shower and was forever saying April needed to get a little wild.
April eyed Mr. Jaw. He would look even better with his attire reduced to a single stretch of spandex than Mr. Stethoscope had. Though she’d never heard of a stripper impersonating a member of State’s security. Not even in Washington.
But it had to be something like that, because otherwise it was real.
“Are you a friend of Jason’s?” she demanded.
“If this is one of his so-called jokes, it’s even less funny than the others.”
“I assure you Ms. Gareaux, this is not a joke.”
She stood. “If it’s not a joke, I’m the absolutely last person you want.”
He stood, too, picking up the form. Two of his fingers brushed across the back of her left hand.
It was a tiny fraction of the contact experienced each morning and evening with any number of strangers in standing-room only Metro cars. Yet the warmth of this contact against her nerve-chilled hands was like a close encounter with a defibrillator paddle. It certainly changed the rhythm of her heartbeat.
Ah. His hand jerked the tiniest bit too … didn’t it?
Hunter Pierce’s voice snapped her back with a thud. “You’re the only possibility, Ms. Gareaux.”
In that instant she knew it wasn’t a joke.
“No,” she said, retreating. “I’m sorry … No. I have, uh, a fiancé.” Why hadn’t she said that from the start? She couldn’t possibly disappear for the month of December to pretend to be a princess.
She hadn’t quite reached the door when he said, “April.”
Reluctantly, she halted and faced him.
“Remember, you have sworn to tell no one about this.” He tapped his jacket where he’d put the first form, over his heart.
His eyes were green.COLLAPSE
A USA Today Must-Read romance!
In its “Recommended Romance” column, USA Today says:
“Patricia McLinn writes a delightful, romantic tale with book four in the Wedding Series, The Christmas Princess, which holds all the coziness of the holiday spirit. The Wedding Series continues with April and Hunter and the unusual assignment — pretending to be a princess — that stands between them. While the request may seem straightforward and doable, especially from Hunter’s perspective, the exercise of turning April into this fantasy ignites emotions and feelings that can render him speechless.
McLinn is an expert at revealing the layers enveloping her characters. With each reveal, sometimes exquisitely subtle, we are pulled in deeper to be active participants in the emotionally charged, yet heart-melting romance. This is Happy Holidays with a grateful sigh.”