…I’m posting Chapter 1 in excerpts. Part 1 is HERE
Now for Part 2:
Here is Excerpt #2:
Violetta was trying to make me feel at home, but I fretted like a mermaid caught with her tail in a net. I wasn’t a royal or even a Monterran. I didn’t fit into their fairy tale, but I appreciated her trying. I just wanted to fade into the background in this exquisite ballroom and marvel at the crystal chandeliers and too many marble columns to count.
“May I have this dance, signorina?” he said, smiling. Thank God he put away his phone, but I don’t think he even looked at me. Through me was more like it. As if I were a pesky ghost who crashed the party. I must have been mistaken earlier when I thought he noticed me. More likely, he was calculating how to make a quick exit.
“You don’t have to dance with me,” I said, rubbing my clammy palms on my dress. Why did I do that? Nerves. Too late now. I’d never forgive myself if I stained the gown. “Honest. I’m happy to watch.”
He seemed surprised. As if he wasn’t used to being turned down by anyone. Goosebumps popped up on my arms the closer he got to me. “You’re a guest here in my country. We shall dance.”
It wasn’t a question. More like an order. Something I wasn’t used to, no matter how handsome he was.
“No really, I—”
Before I could protest, he led me out to the dance floor where the teens whooped it up with their wild gyrations, flailing around in their tuxes and ball gowns, the girls kicking off their high heels and the guys swinging their black ties around like lassoes.
I wondered what my dance partner would do, but he seemed oblivious to the bodies grinding around us. He held me in his arms like we were players in a historical drama. You know, where the dashing military officer makes every girl sigh with envy when he dances with the plain Jane?
I pulled in a deep breath and tried to feel pretty for once. Maybe it was the swish of the satin in my ears or the red lipstick that made me feel sexy, but hey, it worked. You’d think I was a real royal by the way he paid attention to me. He looked down at me with eyes deep and brown, eyes that swirled like a tempest of dark moods when he held me close. I tensed when I felt his breath hot on the back of my neck, his strong arm holding me around the waist. My heart thumped against my ribs, but I couldn’t move. His presence was too disturbing. So, too, were the other thoughts that crept into my mind, teasing me.
Thoughts of forbidden kisses with a man I didn’t know but wanted to. And, since I existed in a dreamlike state, I didn’t fight it.
I did what came naturally.
“Don’t be afraid, signorina,” he said in a low, sexy voice that gave my goosebumps goosebumps. “I don’t bite.”
“Neither do I,” I said with a straight face.
He lowered his chin and glared at me as if he’d lost something in translation. I grinned like a kid with her hand caught in the royal cookie jar, but he laughed and held me tighter. Which did nothing to make me relax. Just the opposite. Never before had I met the acquaintance of such a cavalier, a man so charming I wanted to draw nearer to him . . . and see what happened next.
I’d soon find out. The music slowed to a dreamy ballad and we danced. And danced.
To my surprise, I followed his lead easily.
You’d think the kids would snicker and stare at us. Just the opposite. They gave us space and my handsome partner showed off his dance moves in a grand style, twirling me around and dipping me back so far my head almost touched the dance floor.
Never once did I think he’d drop me. His strong arms held me tight and I was gripped by the stunning sense of how dangerously close I was to going limp in his arms, my whole being suspended in this moment of unreality.
I thought I’d pass out from the sheer joy of it.
“You’re making me dizzy,” I said, laughing.
“I apologize, signorina.”
“No, it’s a good thing,” I said, trying to make myself heard over the loud music. “I’ve never danced with anyone like this before. You’re amazing.” The truth was I hadn’t danced with anyone since high school, but I’d never tell him that.
“My objective, signorina, is to make certain you enjoy yourself.”
He twirled me around so fast, I couldn’t catch my breath. Round and round we went until I swore my feet didn’t touch the ground. It was the most exhilarating feeling I’d ever known. Like being free, really free from everyone and everything that had ever hurt me.
“I’ll . . . never . . . forget tonight,” I said, breathless, half-closing my eyes and seeing a rainbow of light streaming around me in a never-ending loop.
“Neither will I, signorina,” I heard him whisper, his lips close to my ear as he bent down to dip me again. I peeked through my half-closed lids and saw him smiling at me with a tenderness in his eyes I hadn’t seen before.
I did, didn’t I?
Or was I only seeing what I wanted to see?
Before I could react, say anything, even take a breath, he led me across the dance floor in a wide arc. A sudden rush of excitement filled me, sending a pleasant feeling down to the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t help but wonder who he was. He was built like a bodyguard and kept his eye on everyone as we danced. And get that authoritative voice and attitude of his. Had to be castle security.
He was especially watchful of Princess Heather, laughing and sharing chocolate cake with a good-looking young man. A pretty girl with fair hair and freckles and even fairer skin, she had the air of an aristocrat in the way she moved, but I didn’t get any uppity attitude vibe from her. Instead, I detected a sadness in her eyes when she thought no one was looking, giving her a vulnerable quality.
I knew that look. I’d seen it on the faces of so many kids in rehab who lost their way. A subtle warmth settled on the princess’s cheeks when she saw us, as if something had upset her.
Which surprised me.
Why wasn’t she as happy as she pretended to be?
I had no more time to think about it as the song ended. Too soon for me. The band announced they were taking a break, giving Violetta the opportunity to show up right on cue. My dance partner acknowledged her with a slight bow.
“Sorry I had to disappear,” she said, her fingers wrapped around her phone, “but that was a call from Paris about a couture fashion show I’m putting together.”
“Anything wrong?” I asked, concerned.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she said in a casual voice, but the way she furrowed her brow told me something was amiss. “So, how are you two getting along?”
“Max is a fabulous dancer.” His name rolled off my tongue before I could stop myself. I felt rather bold using his first name since we hadn’t been formally introduced, but what else could I do? Anyway, that special moment we’d had was over. I smiled at him and he nodded. He said nothing about my dance ability, in fact, he said nothing at all. I don’t know if it was because I was a terrible dancer or it wasn’t in his job description.
I breathed out easier. Must be why he was so stoic. I imagined his duties called for him to twirl royal spinster aunts or dreamy-eyed female tourists around the dance floor.
And that look in his eyes? Was it really for me?
I’d never know, would I?
“I had no idea you could dance like you were on a reality TV show, Max,” Violetta teased, poking him in the ribs. “It’s not exactly a family trait, though Nico’s pretty good with his dance moves.”
“What do you mean, family trait?” I asked, my skin prickling on my arms. I had a funny feeling she was about to turn me into a pumpkin after all.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t finish introducing you.” Violetta winked at me. “Zoey, I’d like you to meet Prince Maximiliano Risconti di Montevecchio.”
End of Chapter 1
Dreamy dancer, our prince.
What other secrets is he hiding?
more coming up in Chapter 2…
…I’m posting Chapter 1 in excerpts.
Here is Excerpt #1:
Before the ball…
I must warn you, this is not your ordinary storybook romance and I’m not your ordinary Cinderella. I’m not young or beautiful or blonde. I’m the last person you’d expect to show up at a fancy royal ball. An evening where dreams come true and nobody goes home without cake and one girl snagged the glass slipper.
How it all happened still mystifies me. I’ve walked down life’s path in my sensible shoes through heartbreak and despair. Then hope and redemption, but never, never did I think I’d end up a royal bride.
Until I took a chance and left my cynical self in an old, broken-down shoebox and traveled to Monterra, where my fairy godmother changed my life forever…
“Are you sure I won’t turn into a pumpkin at midnight?” I said, fidgeting with my wide blue satin belt. My palms started sweating like they always did when I was nervous. The belt fit tight around my waist since I wasn’t as thin as the elegant young woman smiling at me. A tall, pretty brunette whom I’d watched turn from a girl with a drug problem into a lovely princess.
Violetta had insisted on loaning me the dress with the Paris designer label from her personal collection. Full, bouncy skirt with a long train, cap sleeves, and a sparkly belt studded with jewels. Oh, it was a dream! I twirled round and round, making her laugh.
“You look beautiful, Zoey, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.” She bit her lip and tilted her head toward the corner. “That gorgeous man over there is dying to dance with you.”
“I doubt he even noticed me,” I said, wondering why he was hovering in the shadows, texting. He was a total turn-on in that black tux. Stubble beard. Square jaw. And dark, wavy hair that brushed his white collar. Just looking at him turned back the clock to when I was a teenager. Then I’d melt like sweet, golden honey every time I got close to a guy like that. A time when I was still innocent enough to believe in a happily ever after, that Prince Charming wouldn’t bail when times got tough. Before I made wrong choices.
I wish I could be that girl again. I can’t. She’s long gone.
I’m not that kid anymore. I’m a thirty-six-old redhead who’s lived through more turmoil and pain in my years than most people will ever know.
But I paid my dues. I’ve changed. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here in the royal palace in Monterra. At a royal ball.
Staring at a man so way out of my league, I may as well be invisible. Now, I adore Violetta, but her ever-hopeful quest to hook me up with a man just took a wrong turn. Tall, good-looking men like him don’t notice women like me. I’ve been a plain burger on a bun for so long, I feel overdressed in this elegant outfit. Even if she did glam me up, it’s not the real me.
“Of course he noticed you,” Violetta insisted, nudging me. “He’s the strong, silent type.”
“He’s a dream, but he seems more interested in his phone than me.”
Who was he texting? I wondered. Did he have a secret rendezvous with a princess?
I had a fairy tale girl moment and pretended that princess was me.
A girl can wish, can’t she?
I fussed with the long train on my gown while I turned around to get a better look at him. I admit he fascinated me. No amount of expert tailoring could hide those wide shoulders and what I imagined was a muscular body underneath. And yes, he was tall. Six four at least. An ancient god couldn’t have broader shoulders, but then again I couldn’t imagine Zeus texting at a dance filled with giggling teenagers.
A birthday party.
Pink and white balloons hanging from the oval ceiling. An eight-tiered chocolate cake with swirled icing. And sweet raspberry punch.
I had no idea who the party was for, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I’d arrived in Monterra just in time to freshen up and change into this lovely ball gown. I didn’t pack any fancy dresses. The truth was, I didn’t own any, so the princess insisted I wear “a little something” out of her closet.
I’d nearly died when Violetta helped me into a long, blue satin gown the color of a summer Irish sea with cap sleeves and a fitted bodice embroidered with needlework. Her personal hair stylist did up my hair and before I could say once upon a time, she fastened a diamond and sapphire necklace around my neck. I’d looked into the gilt-framed, full length mirror, stunned. Was it really me, an addiction counselor from a little town in Northern California, dressed up like a fairy princess?
Yep. And now I was here. Drooling over a guy who was so mouthwateringly handsome, I let myself dream.
My stomach clenched and I forgot how to breathe. I was afraid if I did, the picture of the best looking man I’d ever seen would pop like the balloons overhead. When I finally exhaled and he was still there, I was only more convinced this was a special night.
The driving beat of techno music echoed in my head, pumping me up to let go. I swayed my shoulders and pretended to be interested in the music, but this new me got daring enough to stare openly back at him. He was around forty, I guessed, with a square jaw and straight nose and incredibly dark eyes that my romantic soul swore held many secrets. A hint of gray at his temples sparkled like magic dust in his dark hair. Not surprising, he was the only male in the ballroom with a stubble beard. A few adults wandered in and out, but he towered over the young men flirting with the girls, none of whom looked older than high school.
What was this magnificent man doing here?
I must have been too daring with my wandering gaze. I saw him direct an overt stare in my direction, thrilling Violetta.
“There, I told you, Zoey. He’s looking this way. Smile at him.”
“Smile? I’ll be lucky if I can breathe in this dress.” I managed a half-moon grin, hoping I didn’t get lipstick on my teeth when Violetta convinced me to smear a royal red over my lips. She insisted the color was all the rage in Paris. She’d just gotten back from the City of Light, her suitcase filled with goodies. She was putting together a big fashion show for her charity, but she came back to Monterra to spend time with me.
Hard to believe she was a scared, snippy teen when I first met her back at the drug rehabilitation center in the States. Even then everyone called her “Princess” because of her nose-up-in-the-air ‘tude. No one knew then she really was a princess since her family had concealed her identity to protect her from unwanted publicity. I’ll never forget how she tried so hard to convince me to send her home after I confiscated her eyelash curler. And later when she was assigned bathroom duty, she got into a catfight with another girl.
Violetta had faced a long, tough road to sobriety, learning how to deal with her feelings and why she used, and it was that spunk that got her through the program.
And back home to Monterra.
I never imagined then I’d be here with this royal princess as my fairy godmother.
My hands shook as I snapped the gold-plated case shut. Most days I never wore lipstick, seeing how I was constantly downing coffee, trying to be everywhere at once to keep the facility running smoothly. My days and nights dealt with paperwork and feeding hope to the lost souls trying to find their way back home on a road riddled with potholes.
Big ones, little ones.
All dangerous where a false step could mean the end of the road. How well I knew that. But Violetta insisted I put my work behind me when I got here and enjoy myself. So here I was, all dressed up like a princess when most women my age had a husband and kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. Something not in my datebook. Not now or ever. At times, it made me sad, but I believed in my work and my team had become my family. That didn’t mean I wasn’t lonely, fueling my need for a cuddly night by the fire with a big, strong man. I often got misty-eyed when I’d hear the soft rain tapping on my window. Nights when I sat in my office at midnight going over the day’s ups and downs. I’d make a pot of green tea and hold the warm cup in my hands. Drawing in its healing power to soothe my empty soul.
But I wasn’t fooling myself.
It didn’t take the place of snuggling up close to that special someone, smelling his pleasant, manly scent and sighing when he squeezed me around the waist. It’s true what they say about human touch. It’s magical and wonderful and makes you feel good. What woman doesn’t love the spark that hits you low in the belly and makes your toes curl when your man touches you?
God knows, I hadn’t been to the wishing well for a long time.
So the thought of dancing with this macho male holding me in his arms, his broad chest pressed up against my breasts, his hand caressing the small of my back, well, it was too tempting to resist.
I pulled in my stomach, shoulders back. Ready to tango. Violetta was right. This was my night to live the fairy tale and it had to last me a lifetime. So I put my prim self into that old shoebox and slipped on the blue satin, pointy high heels that somehow fit like a dream. I was determined to make every second count. My feet had barely touched the ground since I landed in Paris from San Francisco and then took the train here. A ruddy-faced chauffeur met me at the station, holding a sign with my name on it like you see in the films. I turned left then right to see if anyone was watching as I said in a low voice, “I’m Zoey St. John.”
With a wink and a nod, he’d whisked me away in the black royal town car with the family crest to a luxurious castle that looked like a medieval painting come to life. A haunting, silvery mist hung over the tall towers and grand buildings and, if you used even the teeniest bit of imagination, you could see knights in polished armor riding up on horseback to the castle gates.
The tall, sexy man standing next to the marble column fit that bill perfectly.
A knight in a tux.
I coaxed my eyeballs to take another look at him, see if he’d noticed me. A sad note pinged my heart. No, Violetta was wrong about him wanting to dance with me. It must have been wishful thinking on her part. He never once acknowledged me with a smile or even a curious look. He just kept texting.
I tried not to feel let down.
“I’ve never been to a royal ball, Violetta,” I said, changing the conversation. I wasn’t used to anyone trying to hook me up, especially with a man who looked like he came straight out of a spy movie. Outrageously handsome and dangerous. A small, jagged scar cut into his right cheek made him mortal after all. A duel? Somehow that suited him, but I’d given up long ago on romance. It was part of the deal I made with Him. Let me do my penance, I promised, help others, and I’d never ask for anything else. “Whose birthday are you celebrating?”
I shouldn’t have, but I sneaked another peek over at my film star lookalike. Was it his special day?
“Princess Heather,” she said, pointing to a pretty girl out on the dance floor, waving her arms around and giggling with her friends. “She’s my distant cousin, but her family has been in Monterra forever.”
Violetta went on to explain that the young princess’s ancestors had settled here back in the Roman days even before the Fiorelli family. They were very private, she said, but well respected. Their vast lands were a little kingdom unto themselves where they grew their own food and their tenants created the artistic pottery and other cottage industries that were a big part of Monterra’s thriving economy.
“It’s her sixteenth birthday,” Violetta continued. “It’s an old tradition going back over a hundred years for the Fiorelli family to give a ball when a young princess in their realm reaches that age.”
“What a charming idea, and very kind of the royal family,” I said, desperately wishing I could redo my teenage years. I felt a ping of sadness when I remembered my sixteenth birthday. I ran away from the umpteenth foster home where they put me after my mom left. I met up with another runaway and we hitchhiked to the beach and hung out there all night. A full moon watched over us while we waded in the surf and talked about how we wished we had a family to love us.
Then we used.
It was the first time I got involved with bad people and did things I would later regret. I paid the price for my choices, but I’d cleaned up my act years ago and got a new life helping others find the path to recovery, including Violetta.
I couldn’t believe it when she invited me to spend my holiday in Monterra. I’d never taken time off since I’d been at Summerville House, but this was amazing. It was like a story out of a fairy book.
And Violetta was about to turn the page. She was determined to hook me up with the man in the black tux and white tie.
“Don’t be shy, Zoey,” she said, taking me by the elbow and dragging over to him. I couldn’t stop drooling over this guy with shoulders so broad, he filled the doorway next to the white column where he was standing.
“He’s busy, Violetta,” I said, gushing like a teenager. I felt all eyes on me. My worse fear was that I’d show up on a social media site making a fool out of myself. So why was I putting myself in this situation? This was dumb, stupid. I wasn’t a kid. Then why was I acting like one? “Why don’t we forget the whole thing and have some punch?”
“Nonsense. Let me introduce you to—”
Before she could finish, a footman, yes, a footman in full livery, handed her a phone. Not surprising. Her red satin gown fit her like a second skin, leaving no room to hide her cell. “Thank you, Elmo,” she said, and then she turned back to the handsome man still texting. “Well, Max, what are you waiting for? Ask Signorina St. John to dance.”
I almost died.
Does this hottie in a tux ask Zoey to dance?
Who is he?
And is he a good dancer? (hint: dreamy and he holds her tight!)