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The Wedding Series Book 6

Katie Davis is a perfectly ordinary young woman living a perfectly ordinary life in small-town Wisconsin … isn’t she?

The most interesting thing about her is that she works for the men’s basketball office at Ashton University.  If she considers the biggest perk of the job being around assistant basketball coach Brad Spencer, that also makes her ordinary, because what woman wouldn’t feel that way? So these people coming around saying she could be the long-missing granddaughter of the King of Bariavak have to be wrong … don’t they?

Brad has a real soft spot for Katie. She stirs his protectiveness, his penchant for the underdog, and, possibly, certain other reactions he’s not about to indulge. So he’s going to do his damnedest to make sure Katie gets all that she deserves, including the crown that might be her right … even though it means Her Royal Highness will never again look at a basketball coach from Wisconsin like he’s the king of her heart.

Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

Ashton, Wisconsin

Katie Davis stared into the old suitcase that her father had never known her mother kept hidden in this attic niche.

Her mother had spanked her for trying to open it. She had never tried again. At first for fear of another spanking from the woman who never before had raised a hand to her. Later because Katie had recognized her mother’s reaction as deep fear.

At times she’d wondered why Anna didn’t throw out the suitcase if it frightened her so much. But there had never been that kind of communication between them.

Her mother was gone now, eight years ago when Katie was in college. Her father had died when she was a child.

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And here she sat in the attic, looking into the suitcase. Driven by a magazine article about a young woman who looked so much like her, right down to having a left little finger as long as her ring finger. The Bariavak Hand, the article called it.

The magazine said the king of Bariavak had been struck by the resemblance of this young woman to his daughter at the same age. They had formed a bond and shared the holidays. The king was going to walk the commoner down the aisle when she married.

But then the article-writer added a final paragraph:

King Jozef still searches for his lost granddaughter. And somewhere out there could be a young woman who doesn’t know she has a grandfather and a kingdom.

Why that had driven her to the attic Katie was not prepared to examine.

Better, far better, to explore the suitcase’s contents.

At first she saw only yellowed, tattered paper. But as she lifted the paper out she saw it had been protecting other items.

She found a piece of embroidered fabric first. Her heart raced as she examined it, but it gave no answers, only raised more questions.

She set it aside to draw out documents.

And realized that what Anna Davis had feared from the past had just become what Katie Davis needed to fear in the future.

CHAPTER ONE

“Katie!”

She stopped at the familiar voice behind her, but didn’t turn. Looking at Brad Spencer was a luxury not to be indulged too frequently. Like with a rich dessert, limit the portions or pay the consequences.

She heard him jogging up the path from Ashton University’s main campus to the Sports Center, which sat astride a small ridge. The sun had melted most of the snow deposited earlier by a brief, spirited squall. But that was a small victory considering snow piles edged the paths in lumps and ice held Lake Ashton tight.

“I was looking for you.” Brad was not the least bit winded.

To save time, she said, “Your expense report’s been submitted.”

As executive assistant to Ashton’s head basketball coach, Katie wasn’t expected to submit expense reports for the assistant coaches and she didn’t for the other assistants. But if she didn’t for Brad, he’d never get them in, the budget would always be out of sync, and she’d take the heat from the financial people. That’s what she told herself.

“That’s not why I was looking for you. Though, thanks.” She didn’t need to look at him to know he was grinning. “Got a couple trips to Chicago coming up and I won’t mind the money.”

“You won’t have it for at least two weeks.”

“That’s okay.” Brad put a hand on her arm. She stuttered a step. He didn’t notice. Thank heavens. “Reason I came after you is there’s a guy waiting in the office. Wants to talk to you and C.J.”

His explanation made a heck of a lot less sense than coming after her to ask if his expense report was done.

There were always guys waiting for her in the office. Or on the phone. Or sending emails or texts. Well, not really for her. They wanted the information or help or problem-solving she provided. Not her.

Besides, she was walking toward the office, so why had Brad come from the direction of main campus?

“Thanks. But, why?”

“I thought you should have some warning before you went in there.” Before she could repeat, “why?” he continued, “I guessed wrong about which path you’d take. I’ve been trying to catch up ever since. Boy, you’ve been on the move.”

“Needed final authorizations for the contract with the company handling arrangements for the trip this summer.”

From the moment approval came through for the men’s basketball team to play in Europe in July she’d been caught in a whirlwind of activity. Hiring this company would knock a thousand details off her to-do list.

“Make sure they line up fun stuff for us,” Brad said. “By the way, you didn’t stop at the travel office. They said to remind you they still need your passport number.”

Perhaps because she was looking for a distraction, motion caught her gaze. Brad was clapping his hands against well-muscled arms in an apparent effort to warm up.

“You’re not wearing a coat.”

He agreed with her brilliant assessment with his usual cheer. “Nope. Good thing I had to run to catch up with you or I’d be frozen.”

“You’re already frozen. Your lips are turning blue.” Which made his eyes look even bluer. How did he do that?

“C’mon, then. Let’s get inside.” He slung an arm around her shoulders with ease. By basketball-playing standards he was short, which meant he was mere inches over six-foot instead of a foot or two. He had enough advantage over her five-eight to huddle her close and hurry her toward the doors.

Katie enjoyed that Ashton had preserved the original Physical Education Building’s classic facade when the expansive Sports Center was built around it several years ago. But at the moment she simply wanted to be inside so she could escape his hold.

Too much closeness. Too much movement. Too much … “Brad.”

“Keep going,” he urged, holding on when she would have slipped loose. “Before I turn into an icicle. You not only have a coat on, you’re wearing the infamous Katie sweater.”

“Quit making fun of my sweater.”

“Quit wearing it and I will.”

“It’s warm and practical and has—”

“Pockets. I know. You’ve said that before. They sag you know. From all the stuff you put in them.”

“Which proves I need them to carry things.”

“To carry things or to disappear? That thing’s like a gray shroud. Blends right in to your desk and that tweedy stuff on the chairs. Gray on gray on gray.”

“It would serve you right to turn into an icicle.” She tried to shrug off his arm. “You — oh!” Her right boot heel caught a patch of ice, taking the express route forward.

His arm tightened around her shoulder, the other arm clasped around her waist, turning her motion into an almost graceful pirouette. “Got you.”

Despite herself, she looked up into his smiling face, into those dangerous blue eyes. Oh, yeah, he had her, all right. If only he — No. She wasn’t going down that road.

They were friendly colleagues. That was enough.

Just like one spoonful of a decadent dessert was enough. It was.

Inside the men’s basketball offices, she slid off her coat and shook it.

“Hey!” Brad protested. “You sprayed me with ice water.”

“If you’d worn a jacket like a normal person, you wouldn’t have felt it.”

“Sure I would,” he said, “because I’d have taken mine off the same time you took yours off and I’d still have gotten the ice shower.”

“That’s—” Katie bit off her rejoinder because she’d spotted the man waiting for her. He was attractive, conservatively dressed, and — despite a small grin — more serious-looking than most people who came in the office.

No, not serious, that wasn’t quite right. Players or others often came in with matters that weighed heavily on them. Yet she had the sense that this man’s serious was weightier.

She was certain she hadn’t met him before, yet he looked familiar. She smiled as she extended a hand.

“Hi, I’m Katie Davis. I understand you want to see Coach Draper?”

“Yes. Coach Draper and you, Ms. Davis. My name is Pierce.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Pierce—” She left a pause to let him correct her if Pierce was his first name. Instead he gave a slight nod. “—Coach Draper is in a meeting. You’ll have to be satisfied with me for now in discussing…”

He ignored the opportunity to fill that in. Most visitors would have jumped on it to introduce their objective — selling something, angling for tickets, or—

“I’m sorry, Mr. Pierce, I should have said, if this is about an interview, the media office—”

“No. Not an interview. Perhaps Coach Draper can join us later. Or you can relay to him what you think he needs to know. If we could find a private space, Ms. Davis?”

“Of course. We can—”

“No.”

She and the man turned toward Brad, who stepped up from behind her, looking at Mr. Pierce.

“She doesn’t talk to you alone,” he said. “Something’s going on, and you’re not talking to Katie without somebody else being there to back her up.”

She shook off her surprise. “Of course I can talk to him until C.J. comes. I do it all the time.” She turned to the stranger. “Unless … Brad is an assistant coach. Perhaps he would be better—”

“No. I want to talk to you. Coach Draper, too, if he were available. But since he’s not…”

“Since he’s not, you can wait to talk to them together.” What had gotten into Brad?

“I can wait,” the other man said mildly, but with steel behind it, like he’d wait until hell froze over.

“There’s no need for that. We can talk now—”

Brad cut her off, looking at her for the first time. “I know you don’t want me, Katie. But if I can’t get Coach out of his meeting, I’ll get Carolyn over here. You—” Back to the other man. “—are not talking to her alone.”

“That’s—” she started.

“This is between Ms. Davis and—”

“No,” Brad repeated. It was a tone she’d heard him use with players, though not frequently. He wasn’t budging.

“C.J.’s in a meeting at the president’s office. So there’s no—”

“Fine.” Brad hit a speed dial number on his phone. “Carolyn? Brad. There’s a man here who wants to talk to Katie and Coach. Together. He won’t say about what, except it doesn’t seem to be basketball, and there’s something weird. … No, he’s in a meeting with the president. She needs you to come be with her. … Right now. The basketball office. … Yeah. Conference room. … I won’t.” That sounded grim. “Okay.”

“Brad, you shouldn’t have bothered Carolyn,” Katie started.

“She’ll be right here.”

The man named Pierce ignored Brad. “Ms. Davis. If you don’t want this professor or anyone else—” That held an edge. “—in this discussion, we can set up an appointment in private.”

“Oh, I don’t mind Carolyn — I just didn’t want to bother her.” Which was moot now. She released a breath. Okay, to be honest, she’d be glad to have Carolyn. This whole thing was feeling … well, weird, as Brad had said. It was almost as if this had become about her, instead of the man wanting to see C.J.

Considering the man’s stone face and Brad’s uncharacteristic unfriendliness, it was up to her to smooth the way. She fell into the familiar routine of welcoming someone to the office. “Let’s go into the conference room and I’ll get coffee. Or would you prefer tea? Something else?”

Mr. Pierce said he’d appreciate black coffee.

When she turned in pursuit of coffee, she ran right into Brad. Her hands came up reflexively, pushing off to regain space. She felt the power beneath the softness of his sweatshirt. His hands rose, too, but she’d already removed hers, so he didn’t need to fend her off.

“Sorry,” she said automatically. “Brad, you don’t need to—”

“He’s not talking to you until Carolyn’s here.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. Fine, you two stay here—” Staring at each other like junk yard dogs, she thought, but didn’t say. “—while I get the coffee.”

She had deposited a tray holding a carafe of coffee, cups, and various additives on the table between the two men, and returned to the main office for a basket of snacks when Carolyn swept in.

“Katie, what’s going on? What does this man want?”

Katie recognized a subtle easing in her muscles. Carolyn, cool and competent, was a good person to have in your corner. “I have no idea beyond what Brad said on the phone. I could have handled this, but Brad got weird about it.”

“Brad did?” Carolyn removed a teal scarf that set off her taupe coat. Katie didn’t look that polished with only herself to take care of, while Carolyn had two kids, a dog, a house, and a career … not to mention C.J.

Katie almost smiled at that thought. C.J. wasn’t helpless by any means, but he didn’t let much interfere with his priorities — Carolyn and the kids, then basketball and the family dog. As far as he was concerned all the rest were distracting details.

Carolyn was good at details. Noticing them, then handling them.

Like the day she’d called Katie, then a senior, into her office after an Eighteenth Century British Literature class and demanded to know what was wrong.

Katie’s mother had died four months earlier, leaving no insurance. Anna Davis hadn’t been able to contribute much from her pay at a dry cleaner’s, yet without it, the loans, scholarships, and two campus jobs Katie had cobbled together were falling short of keeping her in school.

Carolyn got all that and more out of Katie. She’d suggested C.J. hire Katie as part-time administrative assistant at a rate that let her drop the other two jobs.

That was October. In January, C.J. asked Katie to work full-time. Carolyn declared there would be no full-time position until Katie graduated. The week after receiving her degree, Katie’s status became permanent full-time. Three years later, C.J. had made her executive assistant, with a healthy raise.

“So where is this sinister stranger?” Carolyn asked now.

“He’s not sinister. He’s perfectly nice. Even though he’s attractive.”

“Even though—? Never mind. Brad doesn’t think he’s perfectly nice, and he’s not prone to histrionics. Though he can be protective of those he cares about.”

Katie ignored that. “Mr. Pierce is in the conference room. They both are.”

“Then let’s see what this is all about.” Carolyn stepped ahead of her to hold the door.

Inside, Katie set the basket in front of the visitor, who rose as she made the introductions.

Something flickered across Carolyn’s face as she extended her hand. “I’m also Katie’s long-time friend.”

“Mentor,” Katie said.

Brad shot her a look, but allowed no time for interpretation as he stood. “Now that Carolyn’s here, I’ll go. But I’ll be out in the office if you need anything. I’ll send C.J. in when he gets here.”

“He won’t be back for quite a while,” Katie objected.

Brad said grimly, “He will be when I let him know about this.”

“There is absolutely no need to inter—”

“Yes, please do, Brad,” Carolyn said.

He gave Katie a hard look, then closed the door behind him.

Carolyn draped her coat over a chair and gestured for Mr. Pierce to resume his seat and for Katie to take the chair at right angles to him. Carolyn sat beside Katie.

“Ms. Davis, as I said, my name is Pierce. Hunter Pierce.” He extracted a holder from his jacket pocket and showed an ID with the ease of practice. “I am a special agent with the Department of State’s Security Division. Perhaps you have an idea why I am here?”

“No.” She shook her head for emphasis. It had started spinning and the shake didn’t help. Department of State? Hunter Pierce? “Some business with Coach Draper, of course, but—”

“No. My business is with you, Ms. Davis. I asked for Coach Draper in an effort to protect your privacy.”

Her breath wouldn’t come out. “M-my…?”

“Let’s cover the formalities first. That might eliminate any need to … extend the conversation.”

Breath whooshed out audibly. “Yes. I’m sure we can clear this up and all get back to work.” She tried to smile.

It must not have been her best effort, because he looked even more solemn. But all he said was, “Your parents were Bob and Anna Davis. Your full name is Katharine Mary Davis.”

“Yes, but—”

“Where were you born?”

“Portland, Oregon. I have my birth certificate. It’s all in order.” Why had she said that? A memory flashed, standing at a counter as a child, looking up, her mother handing over a paper to someone unseen. Her mother’s hands shaking as she said, Here is our Katie’s birth certificate. It is in order.

And then a more recent memory. In the attic. No … no. She’d decided. There was too much at stake.

“Your family moved here to Ashton when you were two?”

“Yes. How did you kn—?”

“And both your parents are now deceased.”

“Yes. But—”

He held up a hand, stopping her words. He looked from her to Carolyn and back. “Before we go any further, I must ask you each to sign a non-disclosure agreement.”

He took out crisp documents from his pocket, spread one open in front of each of them and placed a pen on the table.

Katie skimmed the language once and was going back over it. “This is — This is serious.”

To her surprise, Hunter Pierce’s eyes lightened and she could swear he almost grinned. “Yes, Ms. Davis, it is.”

“I will not pledge not to tell my husband,” Carolyn said. “Not if Katie’s interests are involved.”

“If he will also sign a copy, I think we can accommodate that, since both of you appear to serve in the capacity of advisers to Ms. Davis.”

Carolyn added a phrase to the document then signed. Hunter Pierce didn’t look pleased about Carolyn’s insertion, but said nothing as he folded the paper and waited for her.

Katie had a notion of saying she wouldn’t sign. But now that Carolyn had signed, what reason could she give other than a voice in her head shouting Run, run, run away and hide?

She signed.

The man from the Department of State folded her sheet and slid both into his pocket.

“Now, what is this about?” Carolyn asked calmly.

“With all the coverage in recent months about King Jozef and his long-missing granddaughter reports to our offices and other interested parties have flooded in. Reports we’ve received about a young woman in Ashton, Wisconsin have particularly interested us. Not only because of a match with certain descriptors, but also because this young woman had stayed almost entirely under the radar. Remarkably so.”

He looked at her as if expecting a response. She was also aware of Carolyn’s eyes on her. She licked her lips. “Reports? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Don’t you?” he asked mildly. Then his face and tone became completely serious. “Tell me, Ms. Davis, have you ever had reason to think you might be Princess Josephine-Augusta of Bariavak?”

COLLAPSE
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