Authors: Ella Slade
“Wow,” she managed to say at last.
Élise laughed. “Merci, I suppose it defies cultural boundaries that girls love clothes, yes? But where is the dress I am looking for… ah, here! This ought to fit you quite well.” She pulled a dress off a hanger and held it up for Katherine to see. It was that lovely shade of rich emerald-teal that the princess had promised, sleeveless with just a hint of a plunging V-neck. Not too much, since it had originally been for an under-aged girl, but enough not to be so exceedingly modest on Kat. The material was soft and lightly flowing without being that ridiculous chiffon, with a ribbon of satin hemmed into the neckline.
“Yeah, I think that should do it,” Katherine said with a laugh, smiling up at the younger girl gratefully. Élise beamed back at her.
“I can help you do your hair, and you can borrow my makeup as well, if you would like.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
Katherine fidgeted nervously where she stared out the garden’s glass door at Eric and the people he was conversing with. She was out of sight for the moment, hiding in an alcove after Élise had shown her where the brunch was being held. Even with the five-star restaurant nearby, the royal wing of course had its own private kitchen and cooking staff, which weren’t too far away. She could smell the food, and it reminded her that she had barely eaten anything at dinner the night before.
Élise and Eric’s parents spared no any expense to make sure that they were seen in the best light possible, especially around important guests. But then there was her, the party girl who went around getting into clubs for free by pretending to be a stupid American bimbo. Yeah, she deserved to be here, of all places, trapped in this situation. She still hadn’t figured out why Eric had chosen her as the center of this hair-brained scheme to get out of his arranged marriage. Even if they weren’t
types, they were probably a lot of girls who would be better than her.
But she couldn’t just stand here all day after Élise had helped her out so much, as much as she wanted to. Katherine was still wearing her own shoes, after they had discovered that the princess’s heels were too big for her, and her shoes didn’t really match the dark emerald dress. She hoped no one would notice, though. She hoped they would notice the elegant bun that Élise had somehow coiffed her hair into, and the elegant, understated makeup that she had tried to replicate.
Well, here goes nothing.
Katherine took a deep breath and forced a smile on her face as she stepped toward the door. She reached for the handle and opened it. Several of the men outside—well, three men and one woman, now that she was close enough to tell, all of them older than Eric—glanced up, probably expecting the servants bringing their food. Two of them openly stared at her, and she forced her smile not to falter. Eric only belatedly noticed his guests’ stares as he talked about something in French. He turned to look at her, something unreadable flaring in his eyes along with very noticeable surprise to see her there at all, never mind in the dress she was wearing.
“Excuse my lateness,” she greeted, in the most upbeat manner she could manage while still seeming calm and poised. “I’m still getting over a bit of jet lag from flying in, I hope I haven’t kept you all waiting too long. I am Katherine Saunders, a guest of Prince Eric.”
Please let them understand English, please let them understand English.
In a way that defined upper class politeness, all of the men—including Eric, who had recovered his poise without anyone noticing—stood up, and one of them moved to pull out a chair for her.
“We have not been waiting long at all, Miss Saunders,” one of them greeted in turn, and she let out a slight sigh of relief that he spoke with a British accent. He was in his late-forties, she guessed, with that sort of older-guy charm and a pair of brown eyes that examined all of her quite intently. He reached for her hand and kissed the back of it with a smile. “Allow me to introduce the table. I am Jacob Lowery, a pleasure to meet you. This is Leopold Baume, Hugo Côté, Alphonse Moreau, and Michelle Delcroix.” He gestured around the table as he listed everyone off, and she smiled at them, hoping there wouldn’t be a test later. Each of them, as they were introduced, smiled at her with an edge of genuine politeness, the meaning of which probably went right over her head.
“Indeed, a pleasure, mademoiselle,” Michelle, the only woman at the table, spoke next, brushing back a few strands of her noticeably-dyed but still attractive brown hair. “Eric, I cannot believe you did not tell us that you had such a charming guest joining us this morning. Where did you fly in from?”
“Pennsylvania,” Katherine answered, trying to keep her poise as she hoped there wouldn’t be too many questions about her absolute train wreck of a college career. “I’m studying at the university there.”
Eric spoke before anyone else could question her; “I must beg all of your forgiveness for not telling you of Katherine, but truth be told she was a bit nervous about meeting all of you, which I hope she does not mind me saying.” He lifted a brow at her with a deceptively kind smile on his face, and she shook her head slightly. “I had not thought I’d managed to talk her into joining us, but I’m certainly glad I did. Scarce could there be a lovelier guest at a table, I do think.”
The man she was pretty sure was Alphonse Moreau—the youngest of Eric’s guests, Katherine thought—laughed and reached for his cup of coffee on the table. “Are we truly so intimidating then, my dear, that you feel the need to hide from us?”
“Oh, no,” she said quickly, still making herself smile even as she felt the Prince’s hand brush discreetly against her side beneath the edge of the table. It made a shiver run down her spine. “I am just unused to sharing a meal with those of your caliber and prestige. My life in Pennsylvania isn’t terribly exciting.” Why had she brought up Pennsylvania again?
“What is it that you study at university, Miss Katherine?” The last of the men at the table asked. With her heart racing—she had already forgotten his name, and her smile faltered slightly—she forced herself not to otherwise react outwardly.
“Oh, this and that… dipping my toes in a variety of subjects so that I can be certain I am doing something that I love.”
“Ah, always a good strategy,” Jacob told her with a smile. “In my experience, students who select fields of study based solely on what is deemed a strategic career move always end up unhappy. It is far better to be doing something you enjoy than only making money.”
“Not that money hurts, mind you,” Michelle said with a laugh. “But you are certainly right, Jacob, that it isn’t everything.” Not that anyone at this table would know that, Katherine thought as she glanced at them. No, they were all obscenely wealthy people who had probably never had any sort of choice whatsoever in what they would end up doing in their lives, having inherited it from generations of their family all doing the same thing. That was certainly true for Eric, although it didn’t seem like he actually minded the ruling aspect at all; from what little she knew of monarchs, he would be damn good at it once he actually ascended the throne. He was just against the idea of marrying for advantage.
She didn’t really want to talk about herself anymore, however, and so she looked around the table. “I must ask, what is it that you all do? Prince Eric told me that you were landowners discussing trade agreements, but I really have no idea what that entails…”
Much to her delight, the question immediately set the four of them off into conversation, most of which flew over her head but that she tried to pay attention to anyway. She was almost painfully aware of Eric only paying attention to her. He hid it well, but the way she felt his gaze on her every so often made it really clear that he was trying to figure out why she had actually come. Maybe he wondered where she had gotten the dress, but mostly just why she had come after she’d been so proud of herself for chopping up that other dress. Well, if it made him feel any better, she didn’t really know the answer to that herself. Mostly she had just felt bad, when something in his explanation had seemed genuine. Maybe it was Élise’s explanation about her brother. Katherine didn’t know. But she was here now.
After several long minutes of the others talking, with her interjecting a question now and again when she actually thought she understood the general context, the palace doors opened. Everyone looked over and murmured gratefully to see that several servants approached carrying banquet-style trays, as well as individual plates. They bowed to Eric before setting out the meal.
One of the servants stood back, watching the others work. He was older than everyone else, even older than the guest dignitaries, and wore a very formal black suit. He stepped forward once everyone had their plates and silverware. Katherine decided he was probably the butler.
“Your Highness,” he greeted with a bow, speaking in English probably for Katherine’s benefit. “As per usual, you need only inform me if something is not satisfactory, however I wished to inform you that you had another guest.”
Eric lifted a brow. “Do I, Henri? Please, see them in, there is more than enough room here for another.”
“Of course.” Henri bowed again, and then turned and opened the door leading back inside. From within emerged a tall, statuesque red-head with sparkling green eyes and an infectious smile. She wore a pink dress that looked quite a bit like the one Katherine had mutilated, well, before the severe cutting. This one actually suited the other woman’s complexion and looked fashionable with the way she held herself. Katherine frowned a little bit, and then quickly looked at Eric when he rushed to his feet, something uneasy passing in eyes.
“Ah, I see… lovely to see you again,” he murmured to the other young woman, reaching for her hand when she approached and kissing the back of it. The Prince turned back to the table with a slightly strained smile. “My friends, allow me to introduce Lady Brigitte… my fiancé.”
Katherine’s heart plummeted into her stomach, and her hazel eyes bulged as she stared up at the gorgeous Brigitte who had suddenly made an appearance.
“Ah, Eric, no need to be so formal,” she said with a soft laugh, and then her green eyes noticed Kat staring at her. “Oh, you invited an American girl! How quaint.”
Katherine didn’t care that it was before noon on a weekday—or that it was even earlier in Pennsylvania, way too early to even be considering this. But as the brunch with Eric’s high-class guests and his fiancé ended, she quickly excused herself and bolted back inside. She hadn’t been able to sit there any longer, staring at Brigitte out of the corner of her eye and marveling at how damn tall and pretty the girl was. It was painfully unfair, actually. Brigitte was already rich and titled and engaged to a prince, she also had to be excessively beautiful?
Yes, it was petty. Katherine was in a particularly petty mood. That was much of the reason why she maneuvered around the servants who were clearing the tables in the garden to get to the kitchen. They cast confused looks as she went by them, but she forced herself not to pay any attention. Nope, she was only after one thing, then she would get out of their hair and end this nightmare.
Eric had to be kidding if he would prefer marrying
The one thing that she needed, though, was probably pretty obvious considering what she’d been through the past few days. There had to be a stash of liquor somewhere.
She made it as far as the empty, massive kitchen. Tara’s mother worked in a restaurant in Pennsylvania, so she’d been in a restaurant kitchen before—but this was even bigger. And it wasn’t just one of those kitchens defined by endless stainless steel, it had marble and a glittering backsplash on the wall and real wood cabinets. It would probably be a fun place to raid in the middle of the night, but she was really hoping that she wouldn’t be spending another night in the palace.
Right, right, right, liquor… A quick glance around the room proved fruitless, and she started opening up cabinets to see if she was getting closer. They had to have a large selection, right? She just had no idea where it was.
It wasn’t that Katherine didn’t think she was pretty. But she was not classy or sophisticated or any of the things that Brigitte was. All of brunch today had just been lying out of her ass, pretending her life was more interesting than it was. Never before had her life bothered her as much as it did right now, but never had a guy like Eric ever shown the slightest bit of interest—not that she wanted him to show interest in her. He
a sophisticated, high-class, elegant guy. He was a freaking prince, after all. It was flattering that he would even look at her, right? It’s just that after seeing Brigitte in the flesh, there was no way she could compete on any level that mattered.
And Eric was interested in her because of that.
Because she was fun-loving and impulsive and not really educated all that well. She offered him no challenge at all. God damnit, this was not how she had wanted this trip to go. She had just wanted to go off and have fun in a couple of clubs, not wind up entangled in court politics. Katherine clearly didn’t belong here.
“Ah! Rum!” She’d opened another cabinet and been met with a wide variety of different alcohols—schnapps and vodka and the like—but if she was just drinking straight, she’d always preferred rum. After making sure that it wasn’t cooking rum or something, which she wasn’t even sure existed but she could never be too careful about those things, she untwisted the lid and took a long drink straight from the bottle. It was over half-way empty anyway, and she was feeling not particularly in control at this particular moment. Nope, she was perfectly content with getting absolutely wasted and—
“It’s a bit early, isn’t it?” Eric’s voice, for once, did not startle her, and she turned around with the rum still lifted to her lips as she peered up at him. Only after another ten seconds of drinking did she lower it, gasping for breath, and shooting him a tense grin.