Ally Parker glanced at the
clock and sighed. Jennifer Harmon, the landlady of The Three Bells and
her temporary boss, never failed to find a last-minute job that would
take her over her basic hours. Extra minutes for which she would not be
Mostly, because she needed a
job — even one that involved scrubbing the floors of a busy gastro-pub —
she gritted her teeth and got on with it, but not today.
She had to get away promptly
for the first test in the once-in-a-lifetime PR gig handed her by her
bff, Hope Kennard. Not that she could tell Jennifer the reason she had
to leave on time.
Much as she’d enjoy wiping
the superior look off Jennifer’s face by explaining that she was meeting
Count Fredrik Jensson, Head of Security for the San Michele royal
family, this morning at Hasebury Hall, Hope’s marriage to His Serene
Highness Prince Jonas Reval was very much on a need-to-know basis.
“Ally!” The second summons
was sung out so sweetly that she knew Pete must have joined his wife in
the bar to set up for the lunchtime rush. That would make things easier,
at least for today. Jennifer would dissect any excuse she offered with
her scalpel of a tongue but Pete would wave her out of the door. It
would give his wife even more reason to give her a hard time when he
wasn’t around but right now she’d take it.
She gave the range of
stainless steel sinks one last wipe down but kept on her pink rubber
gloves when she walked into the bar so that she couldn’t be accused of
not working every second she was being paid for.
“Oh, there you are, Ally. I
was beginning to think you’d slipped away early.”
Jennifer looked her up and
down, clearly enjoying the fact that, having lost her “glamorous” job in
London, her working wardrobe now consisted of a wrap-around pinny that
had belonged to her grandmother and the scarf she wrapped around her
hair to protect it from the scent of cooking and ale that lingered in
“No, still here—” she looked
up as the bar clock clicked onto the hour, setting her free “—although I
do have to leave promptly today,” she reminded her, pulling off one of
the gloves to emphasize the point.
“Of course, my dear. I
wouldn’t dream of keeping you a minute over your hours.” Her smile might
have convinced anyone who didn’t have the misfortune to work for her.
“The only reason I called is because you have a visitor.”
She turned as Jennifer
gestured in the direction of a tall figure standing with his back to her
in front of the fire.
He turned as if she’d spoken
the word out loud and any number of words skittered through her brain –
mostly of the what-the-hell variety – but her over-riding thought was
that Count Fredrik Jensson looked a lot more dangerous in person than he
had in the photographs she’d found online.
His thick, light brown hair,
cut almost brutally short, looked as if it had been touched by the hard
frost riming the hedges as she set out for work at dawn. His eyes were a
matching icy grey and he had the hard-boned good looks that turned
strong women to jelly.
Jennifer, gossip antennae
twitching like the whiskers of a mouse scenting cheese, was simpering in
expectation of an introduction.
The man might be dangerously
sexy but he was also dangerously stupid. Fortunately, her three years
working for a gossip magazine had given her plenty of practice in
Before he could speak she
flung her arms wide and exclaimed, “Fredrik!” hoping he’d have the
sense to follow her lead. “How wonderful! I wasn’t expecting to see you
The last, at least, was true.
Plan A had been to present herself at Hasebury Hall on the dot of ten
o’clock, city-smart and thoroughly professional in her “serious” suit
and the Manolos she’d bought with a bonus when she’d been flavor of the
month at Celebrity magazine.
She hadn’t anticipated the
need for a Plan B but no one could accuse her of being slow on her feet.
Jennifer, agog at the arrival
of a drop-dead gorgeous male, needed distracting. If she thought they
had history, she wouldn’t be wondering what he was doing in Combe
St Philip; her imagination would already be filling in the blanks.
Peeling off her other glove
and stuffing them in her apron pocket, Ally placed her hands on the
sleeves of his coat and, leaning forward to brush her lips against his
cold cheek, murmured, “Just play along.”
For a heartbeat nothing
happened, but Count Fredrik Jensson was not slow on his feet, either.
While she was distracted by the enticing scent of cold skin, tingly
fresh air, leaves moldering beneath the bare canopy of winter woods, his
hands encircled her waist and before she could blink he was crushing her
against the soft cashmere of his coat and the hard body it concealed.
Never had her name sounded so
desirable and, held by his penetrating grey stare, she only realised his
intention a split second before he lowered his mouth to hers.
Her tiny mew of protest was
obliterated by the touch of cold lips that sent a shiver to her toes.
Her brain, seeking an appropriate response to the shocking experience of
being kissed senseless by a man she’d only moments before set eyes on,
floundered as the ice of his mouth combined with the heat of hers in an
explosion of pleasure.
Her last coherent thought as
she closed her eyes and kissed him back was more…
“Hey, get a room you two!”
Shamefully, it was the Count
who responded first, his eyes giving nothing away as he lifted his head.
In an attempt to retrieve a little self-respect Ally staggered back and
would have stumbled if he hadn’t been holding her.
Her breath hitched in her
throat as, still reeling from her response, she clung to him. Her cheeks
were on fire; his, in contrast, were pale, his eyes glacier cold but she
wasn’t fooled by the surface ice; beneath the frozen exterior there lay
a hidden volcano.
“Hi,” she finally managed,
when the silence had gone on too long. “What a wonderful surprise. I
d-didn’t expect to see you” — her voice was shaky but under the
circumstances any woman’s voice would shake — “until later.”
He laid his hand against her
cheek as if to cool it. “I’m an impatient man,” he murmured softly in a
seductively accented voice and her knees sent up a plea for
reinforcement. “I couldn’t wait.” He rescued a wayward strand of hair
that had escaped as her scarf slipped back and tucked it behind her ear,
holding it there, his fingers chill against her neck. “I apologise if my
arrival is ill-timed.”
Ill-timed was putting it
mildly. She grabbed at the thought, anything to distract from the tingle
of awareness lit by his kiss. The let’s-do-it-again dance of hormones
straining at the leash like an excited puppy.
The San Michele royal family
weren’t exactly thrilled by their youngest son’s choice of bride and
even less happy that she’d insisted on being married from her family
home. It certainly wasn’t going to do Hope’s cause any good if they
discovered that the woman she’d chosen to handle her personal PR was
moonlighting as a cleaner in the village pub.
But Fredrik wasn’t
apologising to her. He was looking at at Jennifer.
“Not at all,” she replied,
with the satisfied smile of a woman whose currency was gossip. Taking in
every detail of this unexpected gift. “Can I get you a cup of coffee
while you’re waiting, Mr….?” She paused expectantly — she had his first
name but wanted more.
Ally, snapping out of a
lustful haze, cut in before he could fill the gap and, finally getting
her knees under control, stepped away.
“Thank you, Jennifer, but
we’ll have one at home.”
She shrugged. “Another time.”
Then, almost as an afterthought, “Is there any chance you could come in
an hour earlier tomorrow, Ally? We’ve a coach party booked for lunch and
we’re short-handed so I need someone to set up the dining room.”
Jennifer would rather have
done it herself than give her extra hours but no doubt it amused the
wretched woman to think she would be dragging her out of the warm arms
of a lover and into a cold dawn.
Let her think it. An extra
hour, even at minimum wages, would be very welcome.
“Happy to help,” she said,
absently, looking up at the Count with what she hoped was a suitably
sappy expression but there was nothing faked about the huskiness in her
voice as she added, Right on cue. “It’s quicker if we go out the back
“Goodbye, Fredrik,” Jennifer
called as they made their way to the rear of the pub. “I hope to see you
He stopped in the doorway,
turned, forcing her to wait while he acknowledged Jennifer with a formal
nod of his head. “Madam.”
noncommittal, very foreign.
She swallowed a groan. News
of his arrival would be the talk of the village by teatime but at least
no one would be speculating on his reason for being in Combe St Philip.
The wedding was tightly under
wraps and her entire future depended on keeping it that way. The first
hint of it in the gossip mags before the official announcement from the
royal palace and everyone would be looking at her.
“Not a word until we’re
outside,” she hissed, using the excuse of grabbing her coat to let go of
She didn’t stop to put it on
but once they were outside in the car park he took it from her and held
so that she could slip her arms in the sleeves, holding it in place for
a moment, his hands on her shoulders.
It would have looked good to
anyone watching from the pub but a shiver went through her at the memory
of other hands on her shoulders in this car park. She knew it wasn’t the
same. The sun was shining, Fredrik Jensson was merely playing along with
the charade she’d begun, but she stepped away and turned on him.
“What on earth were you
His eyebrows rose the merest
fraction but it was enough to warn her that she was over-reacting.
The sensible response would
be amusement, maybe mixed with a little embarrassment at the situation
they’d found themselves in but there had been a rawness about that kiss,
an intensity about Fredrik Jensson that unnerved her, making her
Unlike Fredrik Jensson.
If he felt any remorse or
embarrassment for the scene he’d caused, there was no indication of it.
His mouth might be made for sin but his face was made for poker.
“My time is limited. I don’t
have time to waste waiting for you. ”
The way he said “you”, told
her everything she needed to know. The San Michele royal family might be
unhappy with Prince Jonas’s choice of bride, but nowhere near as unhappy
as Count Fredrik Jensson was with her own involvement in the wedding.
He’d undoubtedly checked her
out — it was his job and she didn’t blame him for that — but he couldn’t
have made it plainer that he hadn’t liked what he’d found. Well, he
wasn’t her idea of Prince Charming either but they had to work together
like it or not. Not, however, before she put him straight.
“I wasn’t keeping you waiting
to be annoying. I was working. I’m thrilled to help Hope with the local
PR for her wedding but I have bills to pay.”
“I’m sure your consultancy
fee is more than generous.”
“When a friend asks for help,
you don’t produce a price list.” She had no doubt that her connection to
the royal wedding would bring in job offers but she was done with the
“gossip” business. “How did you find me?”
In the bright sunshine, the
ice grey of his eyes had the sparkle of granite. There was the same
hardness about him and yet his mouth had softened as he’d kissed her,
evoking a response that had left her wanting more.
As if he had the same thought
he turned abruptly away. “I asked Max Kennard where you lived. Your
mother invited me to wait for you but…” Another shrug, this time leaving
her to draw her own conclusions.
“You escaped?” She had no
doubt her mother had tempted him with offers of coffee and home-made
cake, hoping to give him the third degree and she struggled to keep a
straight face. Hysteria… She cleared her throat. “Impressive.”
The bad news was that while
he had escaped a grilling from her mother, she had nowhere to hide and
would have to come up with something convincing by the time she reached
home. News of that scene in The Three Bells would be all around the
village by teatime and it would be cruel to leave her mother hanging out
to dry when the phone calls started.
“I assumed your first
security concern would be the grounds of Hasebury Hall,” she said, when
he didn’t answer.
“They are,” he replied. “I
walked them at first light.”
Of course he had. He was an
impatient man, not given to wasting time hanging around for the likes of
her. It accounted for the rich, peaty scent of leaf mold…
“Good decision,” she said
quickly. The last thing she should be thinking about was the woodland
scent that clung to him. “The gardens are magical with everything
frosted over. The whole world seems to turn pink as the sun rises.”
“I was more concerned with
the lack of secure boundaries,” he replied.
“It would have been a lot
tougher before most of the estate was sold off.” She glanced up at him.
“The royal family aren’t under threat, are they?” She paused as they
reached the Market Cross where their ways diverged. “I thought San
Michele was peaceful.”
He shrugged. “No country is
immune from hotheads. Those who want to make the front page for whatever
cause they’re espousing. And it isn’t just Hasebury Hall, or Combe St
Philip. The royal family and their staff will be staying at Westonbury
Court when they are here for the wedding.”
“The family have connections
“Well that’s handy,” she
said, making a mental note of this unexpected nugget of information. Her
mother knew the housekeeper and with luck she could blag a tour of the
house. Not that she was going to tell him that. “You’ll be liaising with
the Chief Constable about security, I imagine.”
“I’ll make contact, let him
know that the royal party will be at Westonbury this summer. The reason
for their stay will keep until the palace makes the official
announcement. This visit is simply to reconnoitre the area, uncover
potential problems and prepare a security plan.”
It was like talking to wood,
she thought. She was doing her best but apart from that kiss, not much
was coming back which was probably a Good Thing. The kiss had been more
“I’ve prepared a file for you
with the contact details of everyone who will be involved locally and
I’ve included a large scale map of the village and the surrounding
area.” She didn’t wait for his thanks. “I’ll, um, dash home for a shower
and change and meet you back at the Hall.”
There was little point going
ahead with her plan to impress her first official contact with San
Michele. He’d seen her at her worst and glamming it up with her London
career-girl image would just make those expressive eyebrows lift at her
attempt to impress him.
About to head off up the lane
she was struck by a terrible thought and turned back to face him.
“You didn’t mention your
reason for being in Combe St Philip when you spoke to my mother? She
doesn’t know about the wedding.”
“You haven’t told her that
you are going to be a royal bridesmaid?” He sounded surprised.
“The news will keep until
after the official announcement,” she said, parroting him. A crease
appeared at the corner of his mouth. The first suggestion of a smile? Or
was it just an irritated twitch that someone who worked for a gossip
magazine could keep a secret.
“I asked for you,” he said.
“And she told you where I
was? Just like that?” she persisted. “She didn’t grill you for every
detail about who you were, where you’d come from, why you were looking
“She may have asked. I didn’t
feel the need to answer,” he replied with the look of a man who never
had to explain himself.
“Again, impressive!” she
said, unable to resist a grin.
Fredric Jensson did not
appear to think it was amusing and actually it wasn’t. Her mother would
have had time to fine-hone the third degree by now and wouldn’t be so
easily put off. Fortunately, she had anticipated the need for a story to
cover her meetings with the Count but it was going to need a few tweaks.
“Since we needed a story to
cover your presence in Combe St Philip,’ she said, “I thought we could
say that Hope and I met you at a party in London. You were planning to
visit the Cotswolds on business and HopeH
invited you to stay at the Hall. She’s in London, up to her eyes in work
right now, so you get me as your local guide.”
He frowned. “Who will be
“Are you kidding? Any
stranger staying at the Hall will give the village something to talk
about. By tomorrow there would have been speculation about you and Hope.
Walking into The Three Bells looking for me scuppered that line of
gossip. Instead of marrying Hope you’ll be sleeping with me.”
“An interesting distinction,”
he said, “but hardly surprising in view of your enthusiastic welcome.”
A smile — even half a smile —
would have taken the edge off that.
“I’m so sorry,” she said,
getting a little tired of his attitude. “Should I have bobbed a curtsey
and said, ‘Count Fredrik Jensson, what an honor to meet you?’” The
crease made another appearance but she’d given up on the smile. He was
doubtless clenching his jaw, irritated that a common village wench was
prepared to speak her mind. “I thought this was supposed to be a low
profile visit. You were the one who turned it into something else.”
There was an endless moment
of silence, the only movement was his breath misting the frozen air and
Ally, afraid that she’d gone too far, held her own breath.
“I only use the title on
ceremonial occasions—” his icy control was unnerving “—and save your
curtsies for their serene highnesses. They will expect it.”
“Don’t worry,” she replied,
“I’ve been practising.” A rare attack of nerves meant that had come out
rather more flippantly than she’d intended.
Count Fredrik’s jaw tightened
“You may think it’s an
antiquated formality, Miss Parker, but the San Michele court is governed
by strict protocol. When your mother told me that you had a job at The
Three Bells, it didn’t occur to me that you would be scrubbing the
kitchen floor. You’d better hope their highnesses don’t find out.”
Her own jaw tightened in
response. It wasn’t a glamorous job, she was no longer visiting
celebrities in their homes, persuading them to open their hearts and
closets for the weekly gratification of Celebrity’s readers, but
it was honest work and she wasn’t ashamed of it.
“What did you think I’d be
doing?” she asked. “The Three Bells doesn’t serve breakfast and I don’t
usually start on the gin until the sun is over the yard arm.” She gave
him back the glacial stare. “Today might yet prove an exception.”
“Your mother did try very
hard to persuade me to wait for you,” he admitted, running a hand over
his hair and looking a touch discomforted, “but I misunderstood her
She doubted that. A good
looking man turning up out of the blue and asking for her would have
given her mother all kinds of ideas. The big white dress, grandchildren…
He was fortunate that she
hadn’t dragged him in over the threshold by his expensive lapels.
“When she finally explained
that you were working at The Three Bells, I assumed it was as a PR
consultant. I had planned to have a cup of coffee while waiting for
“It is what you do?” he
“When I’m not scrubbing
She forced herself to relax,
“I’m a journalist, not a PR
consultant. I’m doing it this once for Hope,” she said. “No one else.”