Royal bride on the run…into the arms of an enigmatic rescuer
On the way to the Vallemont royal wedding, Will Darcy’s overblown sense of chivalry leads him to rescue a damsel in a muddy wedding dress!
And, yes, it’s the princess-to-be!
While the media furor dies down, they’re holed up in one hotel room where irrepressible Sadie makes buttoned-up Will reconsider his life.
For once work isn’t his priority—resisting the tantalizing royal runaway is!
The day could not be more perfect for a royal wedding, thought Will as his open-topped hire car chewed up miles of undulating Vallemontian roads.
The sky was a cerulean-blue dome. Clusters of puffy white cumuli hovered over snow-dusted mountains and dotted shadows over rolling green hills filling the valley that gave the small European principality its name.
By Will’s calculations, snow should fall on the valley any day. Instead, the delicate bite of a warm sun cut through the washed-clean feeling that came after lashings of rain. It was as if the influential Vallemontian royal family had wished for it to be so, and so it was.
But Will Darcy did not believe in wishes. He believed in the human eye’s ability to find millions of colours in a drop of light; the resultant heat of distantly burning stars; that weather forecasting was an inexact science.
This coming from an astronomer; his field truly a game of extrapolation, using ancient evidence to build current theory, relying on calculations that pushed against the edges of the range of known values. One had to be part cowboy, part explorer, part decoder, idealist and seer to do well in the field—something he’d addressed as the keynote speaker at the Space and Time Forum in London the night before.
It had been a late night too. Hence the fact he’d flown into Vallemont only that morning, and would arrive at the palace just as the ceremony was about to start.
The delayed flight had also given him plenty of opportunity to back out if need be. There was the lecture on worm holes he was due to give at the University of Amsterdam a few days from now, after all. The podcast with newyorker.com. The notes from his editor on the second edition of his graduate-level astronomy textbook due any day. And then there was the virtual-reality game set in the Orion Nebula for which he was both investor and technical advisor.
Reasons enough not to forgo the trip.
But only one reason to get on that plane.
To see his old friend tie the knot.
A day for knots, Will thought, choosing to ignore the one that had formed overnight in his belly at the thought of what this day might bring.
He pressed down on the accelerator on the neat little convertible his assistant had hired for him in the hope he might “realise how damn lucky he was and take a moment to enjoy himself”. The chill wind ruffled his hair as he zoomed through the bucolic countryside until the road narrowed, heralding yet another idyllic Arcadian village.
Around a tight bend and he was in the thick of it—tightly winding cobblestone streets dotted with gaslight-style street lamps, stone houses with thatched roofs tucked tightly together and wedged into the side of a steep hill, their windowsills abundant with brightly coloured flowers; history in crumbling stone walls, mossy pavements and the occasional brass sign telling of times past.
The engine on the low-slung sports model growled as Will changed down a gear. The suspension knocked his teeth together as it struggled against the ancient stone beneath, but it was all he could do to avoid the crowd spilling from the thin footpaths onto the road.
Festive they were. All smiles as they headed to pubs and parks and lounge rooms all over the country to watch the wedding on television. Pink and gold ribbons had been strung across the road. Handmade banners flapped from weathervanes. Pink flower petals covered the footpaths and floated in tiny puddles.
All because Will's oldest friend, Hugo, was getting married to some woman named Mercedes Gray Leonine, no less. Though those who had strung the ribbons and scattered the petals knew the guy as Prince Alessandro Hugo Giordano.
Then the roadway cleared and Will aimed for a stone bridge crossing the rocky river that trapped the village against the hillside and hit open space again.
It was all so very green, rain having brought a lush overabundance, shine and glisten as far as the eye could see.
And on he drove. Until he reached a tunnel of trees running parallel to the river.
Glimpses of fields pushing into the distance sneaked through the dark foliage. The ever-present mountains cast cool shadows through the sunshine. And, if his GPS wasn’t glitching, any moment to the east…
There. Sunlight bounced off arched windows and turned pale sandstone turrets into rose-gold. Pink and gold banners flapped high in the breeze while the Palace of Vallemont sat high and grand on its pretty bluff, like something out of a fairy tale.
And the knot in Will’s stomach grew so that it pressed hard against his lungs.
The first time he’d been invited to the palace had been well over a decade before. Circumstances—by way of a skiing accident—had seen to it that he’d been forced to stay at his grandparents’ mausoleum of a townhouse in London that summer, leaving his sister, Clair, to visit the royal family as Hugo’s special guest on her own.
Only a few weeks later, Will’s life had been irrevocably, tragically altered. The boy who’d already lost so much became a young man who’d lost everything. And Vallemont, this postcard-pretty part of the world, had been a throbbing bruise on his subconscious ever since.
Memories lifted and flurried. He’d handled things less than admirably at the time. This was his chance to put things right. He held the steering wheel tighter and kept moving forward.
The thicket filled out, the view narrowing to the curving tunnel of green and rutting muddy road that hadn’t had the benefit of recent sunshine. A herd of sheep suddenly tripped and tumbled their way across the road.
Will slowed again, this time to a stop. He rested his elbow on the window sill, his chin in his hand, his finger tapping against his bottom lip. If life wasn’t so cruel, random and insensate, he might one day have attended a very different wedding in this storybook place. Not as a ghost from the groom’s past, but as best man and brother, all in one.
He shook his head.
What ifs were not relevant. The world simply kept on turning. Day would dissolve into night. And tomorrow it would start all over again.
The last of the sheep skittered past, followed by a wizened old man in overalls holding a crook. He tipped his hat. Will returned with a salute. And then he and the knot in his belly were off again.
He kept his speed down as rain had dug deep grooves into the ancient mud and stone. The trees hung dangerously low over the road, dappling sunlight over the windscreen, shadow and light dancing across his hands, hindering his vision for a second, then--
Will slammed on the brakes. He gripped the wheel as the car fishtailed, mud spattering every which way, the engine squalling, the small tyres struggling to find purchase.
Then the car skidded to a jarring halt, momentum throwing him forward hard against the seatbelt, knocking his breath from his lungs. At which point the engine sputtered and died.
His chest burned from the impact of the belt. His fingers stung on the wheel. Blood rushed like an ocean behind his ears. Adrenaline poured hotly through his veins. And beneath it all his heart clanged in terror.
He’d heard a noise. He was sure of it. The growl and splutter had been punctuated with a thud.
Expecting carnage, axle damage from a fallen log, or, worse, a lone sheep thrown clear by the impact, Will opened his eyes.
Sunlight streaked through the thicket. Steam rose from the road. Wet leaves fell like confetti from a tree above. But there was no sheep in sight.
Instead, dead centre of his windscreen, stood a woman.