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Prince Alexius Kristof Rudolph Stefano Valleder Constantinides, Duke of Aurum and second in line to the throne of Hellenica, had been working in his office all morning when he heard a rap on the door. "Yes?" he called out.
"Your Highness? If I might have a word with you?"
"What is it, Hector?" The devoted assistant to the crown poked his head in the door. Hector, who'd been the right hand to Alex's father and grandfather, had been part of the palace administrative staff for over fifty years. He knew better than to disturb Alex unless it was urgent. "I'm reading through some important contracts. Can't this wait until after lunch?"
"The national head of the hospital association is here and most eager to thank you for the unprecedented help you've given them to build four new hospitals our country has needed so badly. Would it be possible for you to give him a little of your time?"
Alex didn't have to think about it. Those facilities should have been built long before now. Better health care for everyone was something he felt strongly about. "Yes. Of course. Show him to the dining room and I'll be there shortly."
"He'll be very pleased. And now, one other matter, Your Highness."
"Then come all the way in, Hector."
The substantial-looking man whose salt-and-pepper hair was thinning on top did Alex's bidding. "The queen instructed me to tell you that Princess Zoe has had another of her moments this morning." In other words, a temper tantrum.
He lifted his dark head. His four-year-old daughter meant more to him than life itself. For this reason he was alarmed by the change in her behavior that was making her more and more difficult to deal with.
Unfortunately the queen wasn't well, and Alex had to shoulder his elder brother Stasio's royal responsibilities while he was out of the country. He knew none of this was helping his daughter.
For the past four months her meltdowns had been growing worse. He'd been through three nannies in that period. At the moment Alex was without one for her. In desperation he'd turned to Queen Desma, his autocratic grandmother, who, since the death of his grandfather, King Kristof, was the titular head of Hellenica, a country made up of a cluster of islands in the Aegean and Thracian seas.
She had a soft spot for her great-granddaughter and had asked one of her personal maids, Sofia, to look after her until a new nanny could be found. What his grandmother really wanted was for Alex to take a new wife. Since by royal decree he could only marry another princess, rather than being able to choose a bride from any background, Alex had made the decision never to marry again. One arranged marriage had been enough.
Lately Zoe had been spending most of her time in the quarters of her great-grandmother, who'd been trying in her unsubtle way to prepare Zoe for a new mother. The queen had been behind the match between Alex and his deceased wife, Teresa. Both women were from the House of Valleder.
Now, with Teresa gone, his grandmother had been negotiating with the House of Helvetia for a marriage between her grandson and the princess Genevieve, but her machinations were wasted on Alex.
"I had breakfast with her earlier this morning and she seemed all right. What happened to set her off with Sofia?"
"Not Sofia," he clarified. "But two new situations have arisen. If I may speak frankly."
Only two? Alex ground his teeth in worry and frustration. He'd had hopes this was a phase that would pass, but the situation was growing worse. "You always do."
"Her new American tutor, Dr. Wyman, just handed in his notice, and her Greek tutor, Kyrie Costas, is threatening to resign. As you know, the two have been at odds with each other over the proper curriculum for the princess. Dr. Wyman is out in the hall. Before he leaves the palace, he requests a brief audience with you."
Alex got to his feet. Two weeks ago he'd been forced to withdraw her from the preschool classes she went to three times a week because her teacher couldn't get her to participate. Fearing something was physically wrong with Zoe, he'd asked his personal physician to give her a thorough examination. But the doctor had found nothing wrong.
Now her English tutor had resigned? Alex's wife, who'd spent a portion of her teenage years in America, had died of a serious heart condition. Before passing away she'd made him promise Zoe would grow up to be fluent in English. He'd done everything in his power to honor her wishes, even hiring an American tutor. Alex himself made an effort to speak English with her every day.
He took a fortifying breath. "Show him in."
The forty-year-old American teacher had come highly recommended after leaving the employ of Alex's second cousin, King Alexandre Philippe of Valleder, a principality bordering the Romanche-speaking canton of Switzerland. No longer needing a tutor for his son, the king, who was best friends with Alex's brother, had recommended Dr. Wyman to come to Hellenica and teach Zoe.
"Your Highness." He bowed.
"Dr. Wyman? Hector tells me you've resigned. Is my daughter truly too difficult for you to handle any longer?"
"Lately it's a case of her running away when she sees me," he answered honestly. "It's my opinion she's frightened about something and hardly speaks at all. What comes out I don't understand. Mr. Costas says it's my method, but I disagree. Something's wrong, but I'm only a teacher."
Since Zoe's medical exam, Alex had considered calling in a child psychiatrist for a consultation. Dr. Wyman said she was frightened. Alex agreed. This behavior wasn't normal. So far he'd thought it was a case of arrested development because Zoe had been born premature. But maybe not having a mother had brought on psychological problems that hadn't been recognizable until now.
"If she were your child, what would you do?"
"Well, I think before I took her to a child psychologist, I'd find out if there's a physiological problem that is preventing her from talking as much as she should. If so, maybe that's what is frightening her."
"Where could I go for that kind of expertise?"
"The Stillman Institute in New York City. Their clinic has some of the best speech therapists in the United States. I'd take my child there for an evaluation."
"I'll look into it. Thank you for your suggestion and your help with Princess Zoe, Dr. Wyman. I appreciate your honesty. You leave the palace with my highest recommendation."
"Thank you, Your Highness. I hope you get answers soon. I'm very fond of her."
So am I.
After Dr. Wyman left, Alex checked his watch. By the time he'd had lunch with the head of the hospital association, the clinic in New York would be open. Alex would call and speak to the director.
Dottie Richards had never ridden in a helicopter before. After her jet had touched down in Athens, Greece, she was told it was just a short journey to Hellenica.
The head of the Stillman Speech Institute had picked her to handle an emergency that had arisen. Apparently there was an important little four-year-old girl who needed diagnostic testing done ASAP. A temporary visa had been issued for Dottie to leave the country without having to wait the normal time for a passport.
For security reasons, she hadn't learned the identity of the little girl until she was met at the helicopter pad in Athens by a palace spokesman named Hector. Apparently the child was Princess Zoe, the only daughter of Prince Alexius Constantinides, a widower who was acting ruler of Hellenica. "Acting ruler, you say?"
"Yes, madame. The heir apparent to the throne, Crown Prince Stasio, is out of the country on business. When he returns, he will be marrying Princess Beatriz. Their wedding is scheduled for July the fifth. At that time the dowager queen Desma, Princess Zoe's great-grandmother, will relinquish the crown and Prince Stasio will become king of Hellenica.
"In the meantime Prince Alexius is handling the daily affairs of state. He has provided his private helicopter so you can be given a sightseeing trip to the palace, located on the biggest island, also called Hellenica."
Dottie realized this was a privilege not many people were granted. "That's very kind of him." She climbed aboard and the helicopter took off, but the second it left the ground she grew dizzy and tried to fight it off. "Could you tell me what exactly is wrong with Princess Zoe?"
"That's a subject for you to discuss with the prince himself."
Uh-oh. "Of course."
Dottie was entering a royal world where silence was the better part of discretion. No doubt that was why Hector had been chosen for this duty. She wouldn't guess the older man was the type to leave the royal household and write a book revealing the dark secrets of the centuries-old Constantinides family. Dottie admired his loyalty and would have told him so, but by then she was starting to experience motion sickness from the helicopter and was too nauseated to talk any more.
Several years earlier, Dottie had seen pictures of the Constantinides brothers on various television news broadcasts. Both had playboy reputations, like so many royal sons. They'd been dark and attractive enough, but seen in the inside of a limo or aboard a royal yacht, it was difficult to get a real sense of their looks.
Dottie had never been anywhere near a royal and knew nothing about their world except for their exposure in the media, which didn't always reflect positively. But for an accident of birth, she could have been born a princess. Anyone could be. Royals were human beings after all. They entered the world, ate, slept, married and died like the rest of humanity. It was what they did, where they did it and how they did it that separated them from the masses.
Raised by a single aunt, now deceased, who'd never married and had been a practical thinker, Dottie's world hadn't included many fairy tales. Though there'd been moments growing up when Dottie had been curious about being a queen or a princess. Now an unprecedented opportunity had arisen for her to find out what that was like.
Dottie had seen and heard enough about royals involved in escapades and scandals to feel sorry for them. The trials of being an open target to the world had to be worse than those of a celebrity, whose popularity waxed strong for a time in the eyes of public adulation and curiosity, then waned out of sight.
A royal stayed a royal forever and was scrutinized ad nauseum. A prince or princess couldn't even be born or die without a crowd in attendance. But as Dottie had learned during an early period in her life, the trials of an ordinary human were sometimes so bad they drew unwanted attention from the public, too. Like with King George VI of England, her own severe stuttering problem had been an agony to endure. However, to be human and a royal at the same time placed one in double jeopardy.
At the age of twenty-nine and long since free of her former speech problem, Dottie loved her anonymity. In that sense she felt compassion for the little princess she hadn't even met yet. The poor thing was already under a microscope and would remain there for all the days of life she was granted. Whether she had a speech problem or something that went deeper, word would get out.
One day when the motherless princess was old enough to understand, she'd learn the world was talking about her and would never leave her alone. If she had a physical or a noticeable psychological problem, the press would be merciless. Dottie vowed in her heart she'd do whatever possible to help the little girl, if it were in her power.
But at the moment the helicopter trip was playing havoc with her stomach and the lovely sightseeing trip had been wasted on her. The second they landed and she was shown to her quarters in the glistening white royal palace, she lost any food she'd eaten and went straight to bed.
It was embarrassing, but when she was green around the gills and unable to rally, nothing except a good night's sleep would help her to recover. When her business was finished here and she left the country to go back to the States, she would take a flight from Hellenica's airport to Athens before boarding a flight to New York. No more helicopter rides.