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Dr Elsa Langham disappeared after a car accident four years ago. Mrs Elsa Murdoch took her place.
The invitation had been sitting on the table all day, a taunting reminder of her past.
The International Coral Society invites Dr Elsa Langham, foremost authority on Coral: Alcyonacea, to submit a paper at this year's symposium in Hawaii.
The ICS hadn't kept up with her change in direction. Eight-year-old Zoe was asleep in the next room, totally dependent on her, and Dr Elsa Langham was no longer an acclaimed authority on anything.
She read the invitation one last time, sighed and finally dumped it in the bin.
'I don't know why they're still sending me invitations,' she told the skinny black cat slinking out from under her chair. 'I'm Mrs Elsa Murdoch, a mother to Zoe, an occasional student of starfish to keep my scientific hand in, and my cats need feeding.'
She rose and took a bowl of cat food to the back garden. The little cat followed, deeply suspicious but seduced by the smell of supper.
Four more cats were waiting. Elsa explained the terms of their tenancy as she did every night, fed them, then ignored five feline glares as she locked them up for the night. They knew the deal, but they didn't have to like it.
'At least you guys go free every morning,' she told them. 'You can do what you want during the day.'
And so could she, she told herself. She could take Zoe to the beach. She could study starfish. She could be Mrs Elsa Murdoch.
Until a miracle happens, she thought to herself, pausing to look up at the night sky. Not that I need a miracle. I really love Zoe, I don't mind starfish and I'm incredibly lucky to be alive. It's just… I wouldn't mind a bit of magic. Like a rainbow of coral to appear in our cove. Or Prince Charming to wave his wand and take away my debts and Zoe's scars.
Enough. The cats weren't interested in wishes, and neither was anyone else. She smiled ruefully into the night, turned her back on her disgruntled cats and went inside. She needed to fix a blocked sink.
Where was Prince Charming when you needed him?
The little boy would live.
Prince Stefanos Antoniadis—Dr Steve to his patients— walked out of Theatre savouring a combination of triumph and exhaustion. He'd won.
The boy's mother—a worn-looking woman with no English, but with a smile wide enough to cut through any language barrier—hugged him and cried, and Stefanos hugged her back and felt his exhaustion disappear.
He felt fantastic.
He walked into the scrub room, sorely tempted to punch the air in triumph—and then stopped dead.
This wasn't fantastic. This was trouble.
Two months ago, King Giorgos of the Diamond Isles had died without an heir. Next in line to the throne of the Mediterranean island of Khryseis was Stefanos's cousin, Christos. The only problem was, no one could find Christos. Worse, if Christos couldn't be found, the throne belonged to Stefanos—who wanted the crown like a hole in the head.
In desperation he'd employed a friend who moved in diplomatic circles and whose discretion he trusted absolutely to search internationally for Christos. That his friend was here to tell him the news in person meant there must be a major problem.
'They told me you've been opening a kid's skull, chopping bits out and sticking it back together,' his friend said with easy good humour. 'How hard's that? Seven hours…'
'I get paid by the hour,' Stefanos said, grasping his friend's hand. But he couldn't make himself smile. 'What news?'
'From your point of view?' As an investigator this man was the best, and he knew the issues involved. 'You're not Crown Prince of Khryseis.'
'Not!' He closed his eyes. The relief was almost overwhelming.
It hadn't always been like this. As a boy, Stefanos had even dreamed of inheriting the throne that his almost pathologically shy cousin swore he didn't want.
But that was in the past. King Giorgos was bound to have sons, and if not… Christos would just have to wear it. Almost twenty years ago, Stefanos had moved to the States to pursue a medical career. His dream since then had been to perfect and teach surgical techniques, so wounds such as the ones he'd treated today could be repaired in hospitals less specialised than this one, anywhere in the world. 'So you've finally found Christos?' he asked, feeling the weight of the world lift from his shoulders.
'Sort of,' his friend said, but there was something in his face which made Stefanos's jubilation fade. His expression said that whatever was coming wasn't good.
'Christos is dead, Steve,' the man said gently. 'In a car accident in Australia, four years ago. That's why you haven't been able to find him.'
'Dead.' He stared at his friend in horror. 'Christos? My cousin. Why? How?'
'You know he left the island soon after you? Apparently he and his mother emigrated to Australia. Neither of them kept in touch. It seems his mother held his funeral with no fuss, and contacted no one back on Khryseis. Three months after he died, so did she.'
'It's the worst of news,' his friend said. He hesitated. 'But there's more.'
Stefanos knew it. He was replaying their conversation in his head. His friend's first words had been, 'You're not Crown Prince of Khryseis.'
Christos had been first in line to the throne, followed by Stefanos. But Christos was dead. Therefore it had to be Stefanos. Unless…
'There's a child,' his friend told him.
'A child,' he said numbly.
A little girl. Christos married, but his wife was killed in the same accident. Their child survived. She was four when her parents were killed. She's now eight.'
Stefanos didn't respond. He was staring at his friend, but he was seeing nothing.
He was working on groundbreaking surgical techniques. His work here was vital.
'Her name's Zoe,' his friend said. 'She's still living in Australia with a woman called Mrs Elsa Murdoch, who seems to be employed as her nanny. But, Steve…'
'Yes?' But he already knew what was coming.
'Christos's death means the child takes the Crown,' he said gently. 'Zoe's now the Crown Princess of Khryseis. That means you're Prince Regent.'
Stefanos still didn't answer. There was a chasm opening before him—a gaping void where his career used to be. He could only listen while his friend told him what he'd learned.
'I've done some preliminary checks. From what I gather of the island's constitution, you'll be in charge until Zoe's twenty-five. The island's rule, and the consequent care of your cousin as Crown Princess, lies squarely on your shoulders. Now…do you want me to find an address for this woman called Elsa?'
Royalty was standing on Elsa's beach.
Sunlight was shimmering from the surface of a turquoise sea. The tide was at its lowest for months. Their beach was a mass of rock pools and there were specimens everywhere.
They'd swum far out to the buoy marking the end of shallow water and a pod of dolphins had nosed in to check them out. They'd dived for starfish. They'd floated lazily in the shallows; floating eased the nagging ache in Elsa's hip as nothing else could. Finally they'd made each other crowns out of seaweed pods, and now Queen Elsa and her consort, Princess Zoe, were marching back to the house for lunch and a nap.
To find royalty waiting for them. Royalty without seaweed.
For a moment Elsa thought she'd been out in the sun too long. The man was dressed like a prince from one of Zoe's picture books. His uniform was black as night, tailored to perfection. His slick-fitting suit was adorned with crimson epaulettes, tassels, braid and medals. His jacket and the top collar of his shirt were unbuttoned, but for some reason that made him look even more princely.
A prince trying to look casual?
Uh-oh. Her hand flew to her seaweed crown and she tugged it off as icy tendrils of fear crept round her heart.
Royalty was fantasy. Not real. Zoe's father had always been afraid of it, but his stories had seemed so far-fetched that Elsa had deemed them ludicrous.
'Look,' Zoe said, puzzled, and the eight-year-old's hand clutched hers. Zoe had only been four when her parents died, but maybe she remembered enough of her father's paranoia to worry.
Or maybe the sight of someone dressed as a prince on a Queensland beach was enough to worry anyone.
'I can see him,' Elsa said. 'Wow. Do you think he's escaped from your Sleeping Beauty book?'
'He's gorgeous,' Zoe said, relaxing a little as Elsa deliberately made light of it.
'He must be hot,' Elsa said cautiously.
'Do you think he came in a carriage like in Cinderella?'
'If he did, I hope it has air-conditioning,' Elsa retorted and Zoe giggled.
Good. Great. Zoe giggling was far more important than any prince watching them from the sand dunes.
She would not let anything interfere with that giggle.
'Maybe he's looking for us,' Zoe said, worry returning. 'Maybe he's from Khryseis.'
'Maybe he is.' Neither of them had ever been to Khryseis, but the fabulous Mediterranean island was part of Zoe's heritage—home to the father who'd been killed when she was four. According to the Internet, Khryseis was an island paradise in the Mediterranean, ruled up until now by a King who was as corrupt as he was vindictive. Zoe's father, Christos, had spoken occasionally of the old King's malice. Now those stories came flooding back, and Elsa's fears increased accordingly.
The man—the prince?—was walking down the sandy track towards them, tall, tanned and drop-dead gorgeous. Elsa stopped and put down her pail. She held Zoe's hand tighter.
A lesser mortal might look ridiculous in this situation but, despite his uniform, this man looked to be in charge of his world. Strongly built, aquiline features, dark hooded eyes. Cool, authoritative and calm.
And then he smiled. The combination of uniform, body and smile was enough to knock a girl's socks off. If she had any socks that was, she thought, humour reasserting itself as she decided it was ridiculous to be afraid. She wiggled her toes deep into the sand, feeling the need to ground herself.
Oh, but that smile…
Down, she told herself fiercely. Hormonal response was exactly what wasn't wanted right now. Act cool.
She met the man's gaze and deliberately made herself match his smile. Or almost match it. Her smile was carefully that of someone passing a stranger. His smile, on the other hand, was friendly. His gaze dropped to Zoe—and his smile died. That always happened. No one could stop that initial reaction.
Instinctively Elsa tugged Zoe closer but Zoe was already there. They braced together, waiting for the usual response. Try as she might, she couldn't protect Zoe from strangers. Her own scars were more easily hidden, but Zoe's were still all too obvious.
But this wasn't a normal response. 'Zoe,' the man said softly, on a long drawn-out note of discovery. And pleasure. 'You surely must be Zoe. You look just like your father.'
Neither of them knew what to say to that. They stood in the brilliant sunlight while Elsa tried to think straight.
She felt foolish, and that was dumb. She was wearing shorts and an old shirt, and she'd swum in what she was wearing. Her sun-bleached hair had been tied in a ponytail this morning, but her curls had escaped while she swam. She was coated in sand and salt, and her nose was starting to peel.
Ditto for Zoe.
They were at the beach in Australia. They were appropriately dressed, she thought, struggling for defiance. Whereas this man…
'I'm sorry I'm in uniform,' he said, as if guessing her thoughts. 'I know it looks crazy, but I've pulled in some favours trying to find you. Those favours had to be repaid in the form of attending a civic reception as soon as I landed. I left as soon as I could, but the media's staked out my hotel. If I'd stopped to change they might well have followed me here. I don't want Zoe to be inundated by the press yet.'
Whoa. There was way too much in that last statement to take in. First of all… Was he really royal? What was she supposed to do? Bow?
Not on your life.
'So… who are you?' she managed, and Zoe said nothing.
'I'm Stefanos. Prince Regent of Khryseis. Zoe, your grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. Your father and I were cousins. I guess that makes us cousins of sorts too.'
Cousins. That was almost enough to make her knees give way. Zoe had relations?
This man's voice had the resonance of a Greek accent, not strong but unmistakable. That wasn't enough to confirm anything.
'Christos didn't have any cousins,' she said, which was maybe dumb—what would she know? 'Or…he always said there was no one. So did his mother.'
'And I didn't know they'd died,' he said gently. 'Zoe, I'm so sorry. I knew your father and I knew your grandmother, and I loved them both. I'm very sorry I didn't keep in touch. I'm so sorry I wasn't here when you so obviously needed me.'
Elsa was starting to shake. She so didn't want to be shaking when Zoe was holding her hand, but it was happening regardless.
She was all Zoe had. And—she might as well admit it— for the last four years Zoe was all she'd had.
'You can't have her.' It was said before she had a chance to think, before her head even engaged. It was pure panic and it was infectious. Zoe froze.
'I'm not going with you,' she whispered, and then her voice rose in panic to match Elsa's. 'I'm not, I'm not.' And she buried her face against Elsa and sobbed her terror. Elsa swung her up into her arms and held. The little girl was clutching her as if she were drowning.
And Stefanos…or whoever he was…was staring at them both in bemusement. She looked at him over Zoe's head and found his expression was almost quizzical.
'Good one,' he said dryly. 'You don't think you might be overreacting just a little?'
She probably was, she conceded, hugging Zoe tighter, but there was no room for humour here.
'You think we might be a bit over the top?' she managed. 'Prince Charming on a Queensland beach.' She looked past him and saw a limousine—a Bentley, no less, with a chauffeur to boot. Overreaction? She didn't think so. 'You're frightening Zoe. You're frightening me.'
'I didn't come to frighten you.'
'So why did you come?' She heard herself then, realising she was sounding hysterical. She knew Zoe's father had come from Khryseis. She knew he'd been part of the royal family. What could be more natural than a distant relative, here on official business, dropping in to see Zoe?
But then there was his statement… I've pulled in some favours trying to find you. He'd deliberately come searching for Zoe.
Prince Regent… That made him Prince in charge while someone was incapacitated. The old King?
Or when someone was a child.