Prince William and Princess Olivia are on their way to the ducal palace on Gaunner, where the new Duchess of Gaunner awaits their arrival.
For the second time in just a few days, the staff was arrayed at the entrance to the ducal palace. Only those performing truly vital tasks—such as guarding my collection of high-ranking prisoners—weren’t standing in silent ranks facing the driveway, tiny clouds of expelled breath giving mute testimony to the morning cold. This time, though, only one person stood front and center, ready to welcome the royal couple of the palace.
I was still considering replacements for the imprisoned senior staff, meaning there was no one to stand with me. Some of the section heads had quietly offered to represent their people by standing with me. I appreciated the gesture, but refused each one. Olivia was coming to confront me and I’ll be damned if I’m going to drag anyone else into her line of fire.
The small convoy swung onto the drive and swept around the long, curving drive. When the car came to stop before me, I opened the door myself before stepping back and dropping into a deep curtsy. I heard the rustle of clothing as the staff followed my lead.
Prince William climbed from the car and then extended a hand to aid Princess Olivia. As they walked toward me, Drake stood and shut the car’s door. It pulled away as the couple reached me. William, as handsome as a finely-wrought statue, offered a bright smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Olivia, as beautiful as an ice sculpture glistening in the sun, gazed around her with…what? Fondness? Cold contempt? I couldn’t read any emotion in her.
William gave a vague wave of his hand. “Rise, please, do rise.”
“Welcome, Your Royal Highnesses, to my home away from home.” If Olivia caught the subtle emphasis I placed on ‘my’—and I’m certain she did—she hid it well. “You honor us with your visit.”
“Just as you honored us by sending your husband to meet us,” Olivia said.
Apparently, the knives were coming out early. Well, two could play at that game.
“I do so apologize not being there, myself. This is my first visit to Gaunner and you can’t imagine how much there is for me to do, what with my rather sudden Recognition as the duchess. When you add in the unexpected removal of the palace’s entire senior staff, I’m so busy that I barely have time to eat and sleep.”
“Of course.” Olivia made no further comment about it and I thought that meant she was willing to let this skirmish end in a tie. Then she called, “Staff dismissed.”
No one moved.
“Old habits die hard, don’t they, Your Highness?” I smiled brightly at Olivia before turning toward the waiting staff. “Thank you. Please go about your business.”
At once, the staff turned away and, in the typical disorder you get when a crowd disperses, returned to the palace. Some of the younger staff members waved shyly at me. I returned the waves with vigor and a grin.
Olivia watched their departure without expression. Once the steps were clear, she sniffed, “That’s not how things are done in Gaunner.”
“No, Olivia, that’s not how things were done in Gaunner.”
She gave me a brittle smile. “Quite.”
Extending an arm toward the palace in invitation, I said, “Shall we go inside where it’s warm?”
William immediately offered his arm to Olivia and they ascended the stairs. Drake did the same for me, giving me a concerned look as we followed the royal couple.
“Is it wise to taunt her like this, babe?” he hissed.
“Do you think she’s going to try to kill us in retaliation, darling?” I widened my eyes as if I’d had a sudden realization. “Oh, that’s right, she’s already done that!”
Drake shook his head in frustration. “Why am I so attracted to smartass women?”
I patted his arm. “Because you’d get bored with a dumbass woman.”
As I’d hoped, he gave a soft laugh. “You’ve got me there, babe. Just promise me you’ll tread carefully around Olivia.”
I shrugged, “I will if she will.”
Once we were inside, I said, “I’ve scheduled a reception and luncheon in your honor. Perhaps you’d like to retire to your suite and freshen up before Gaunner’s nobility arrive?”
William was just inclining his head in acknowledgment, when Olivia said, “You go on without me, William. Jeanine and I have some things to discuss.”
I felt Drake tense before he said, “Perhaps I should join you, since I bear some responsibility for the duchy, as well.”
“And as the prince of the realm, I should—”
“Thank you, both,” Olivia said, gently pulling free of William’s arm and kissing him on the cheek. “This should just be between the duchess and the…former…duchess. You know, girl talk.”
I admit, my curiosity was piqued. Following Olivia’s lead, I gave Drake a quick peck and said, “Why don’t you show Prince William around the palace. Her Highness and I will be in my office.”
The men were obviously reluctant, but neither of them said anything as Olivia and I walked away. For several minutes, the only sound was the clicking of our heels on the marble floor. Only when we neared my office did Olivia break the silence.
“Thank you for agreeing to the private meeting.”
“Does a mere duchess have the choice of refusing a royal princess?”
“You know she does, Jeanine.”
“I was just making sure you knew, also, Olivia.”
Edward, the receptionist whose name I’d finally learned, leapt to his feet and bowed when Olivia and I entered. Behind us, our guards stationed themselves outside the door.
“I’ll be here for several days, Edward,” Olivia said. “You may dispense with the formalities.”
“As you command, Your Highness,” he replied as he opened the door into my capacious office.
“Thank you, Edward,” I said as we swept past. “When Mary arrives with the tea, send her in. Otherwise, Princess Olivia and I are not to be disturbed for anything short of an actual emergency.”
“As you command, my lady.”
Olivia automatically headed for the seat behind the desk. With a start, she realized her error and swerved for one of the seats before the desk. I pretended I hadn’t seen that and went to the more comfortable and casual sitting area on the opposite side of the room. Olivia raised an eyebrow, but followed me.
“I think the desk would form a barrier to ‘girl talk’, Olivia. Besides, we’ll be more comfortable over here.”
As we settled in our seats, Olivia said, “I heard you say Mary will be bringing tea. How is the girl doing?”
That was an unexpected question, especially since I could have sworn Olivia was actually interested in the answer. Giving her a level stare, I said, “She’s doing fine now that she doesn’t have to fend off inappropriate advances from the head of housekeeping.”
Olivia’s eyes darkened. “That bastard! He knows the members of the palace staff are off limits for advances—appropriate or not. By God, I’ll have Fenton’s balls on a platter for this!”
“No, Olivia, Fenton’s punishment is up to me.”
Her anger subsided just a bit. “Yes, of course. It’s just… I had that girl and her sister assigned to the palace to protect them from things like that.”
Before I could stop myself, I blurted, “You actually care about those girls?”
Hot anger ignited in her eyes. “Of course, I care. For God’s sake, those girls are—were—my subjects. They aren’t to blame for their father’s stupidity.”
“Really? Then why didn’t you intervene in the sentencing? Or, better yet, change the stupid law so it doesn’t affect children?”
“Do you know the history behind the law you so blithely call stupid?” When I shook my head, Olivia said, “My great grandfather was a foolish and imprudent ruler. He supported his extravagant lifestyle by plunging deeply into debt. The rest of the duchy followed his lead, both on a personal and a corporate level. Loan defaults were so prevalent they nearly destroyed the duchy’s economy. When my grandfather took over, he instituted draconian financial regulations aimed at bringing everything under control. They helped, but there were still so many people walking away from loans that more stringent enforcement was needed. He created the debtor’s prison and made entire families liable for one person’s irresponsible debts.”
“It’s still barbaric.”
“Perhaps, but it worked. Mary’s father was one of only four cases during my three years as duchess.”
“If that’s so, why was the law still on the books?”
“It was on my list of things to do, but I got…distracted…by a certain development.”
“Sir Philip found me and you turned all of your attention toward killing me.”
“You weren’t the only distraction, but—”
We heard the click of a door opening. We fell silent and turned toward the door, expecting to see Mary pushing a cart into the room. To our surprise, the office door was still shut.
A sigh sounded from my left, the side away from the office door. “I am very sorry to see you here, Your Highness.”
Silhouetted in a hidden door stood Colin. Beside him stood one of my palace guards, a strange gun held in his hand.
“Tranq both of them,” Colin said.
Before we could rise or even cry for help, the gun gave a pop, shifted from me to Olivia, and popped a second time. I felt a sharp sting on my neck and then everything faded to black.
How did Colin get loose and what will he do with the two women? Find out in Chapter 29, coming Wednesday.