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Hollyn Elise Phillipa Saldani always did what was expected of her. As next in line for the throne of the tiny Mediterranean principality of Morenci, she'd known from an early age what her duties entailed and she'd followed them to the letter. Which was why her driver looked at her as if she were speaking a language other than the four in which she was fluent when she said, "Take me to the airport, please."
"The airport, Your Highness?" Henry asked.
She settled back in the plush leather seat of the limousine and fussed with the folds of her full skirt. Even though her heart was hammering, Hollyn said with characteristic calm, "Yes. The airport."
Henry wasn't mollified. He lifted one bushy eyebrow and inquired, "Are we picking up a passenger, then, on our way to the annual garden party? The queen didn't mention it."
No, indeed. Her mother hadn't mentioned it, because Olivia Saldani wasn't privy to Hollyn's last-minute change in plans.
"We are not picking up a passenger." Hollyn moistened her lips. This was it. There would be no turning back once she said the words. once she gave the edict, her will would be done. "You are dropping one off. Me."
Henry cleared his throat. "I beg your pardon. I must not have heard you correctly."
"Yes, you did." Despite her nerves, she smiled. "Your hearing is as good now as it was when you caught me trying to take out the Bentley with cousin Amelia when I was sixteen."
"Your giggles gave you away, Your Highness."
She sighed. "It's just Hollyn."
But she hadn't been "just Hollyn" in too many years to count. Not to Henry or the other people who staffed the royal palace. Or the citizens of the small kingdom that she would one day rule. To them she was Princess Hollyn, daughter of King Franco and Queen Olivia, next in line to the Morenci throne and rumored to be soon engaged to the son of one of the country's most celebrated and dashing young businessmen.
Duty. She understood it and accepted it. But that didn't mean she liked it. Or that she didn't wish, sometimes, that she could be an ordinary young woman, living a simpler life.
The nickname whispered from her past, beckoning from across the Atlantic. She allowed herself the luxury of recalling the boy who'd called her that. In her memory, a pair of wide-set brown eyes crinkled with a smile that also caused his cheeks to dent.
At fifteen, Nathaniel Matthews had been surprisingly self-assured and determined to break free of the small community the past two generations of his family had so eagerly embraced. She'd found the tiny island tucked between Canada and America in Lake Huron a paradise.
She'd spent five summers on Heart Island, so named because of its shape, living in anonymity and loving every minute of her unregimented life. No teas or cotillions to attend. No fussy state dinners. And no boring garden parties where more eyes would be focused on her than the blooms.
"The airport," she said again. "A plane is waiting for me."
Not the royal jet, but a private one she'd chartered for this trip. In the rearview mirror, she saw Henry's brows draw together. His perplexed expression was endearing and nostalgic. She remembered that look of concern from the days when he'd taught her to drive on the palace grounds. Afterward, she and Henry had laughed like a pair of loons at her exploits, which included an encounter with a bee-infested log. It was doubtful this day would end with much mirth.
"I'm leaving, Henry."
"Your mother never spoke of it."
Hollyn fussed with the folds of her skirt again. She couldn't wait to take it off and change into something less formal. "She doesn't know."
Those bushy brows drew together a second time. "But, Your Highness "
She closed her eyes briefly, feeling swallowed up by a life that so many other young women in her kingdom considered a dream. For her, lately at least, it had become a nightmare.
"It's Hollyn. Please, Henry, just call me Hollyn."
When he stopped the car at a light, he turned with a tentative smile. "Hollyn."
Despite her best efforts to remain firm, her eyes filled with tears.
"I need a holiday, Henry. Just a few days, a week at the most, to be by myself. My life has been decided since before my birth, and now, with all of the pressure to accept Phillip's proposal please." Her voice faltered.
Perhaps it was that more than her words that caused Henry to nod. After all, she was known for her stoicism.
"The airport," he said.
"My pleasure." He sounded only marginally concerned when he asked, "And what am I to tell Her
Hollyn took a moment, drawing in a breath and working up the nerve to go against her mother's wishes. No one crossed Olivia without expecting retribution.
"You are to tell her that, at my command, you dropped me off at the airport. I have a letter for you to give to her that will explain my decision and my whereabouts. It also instructs her not to censure you in any way for carrying out my orders."
He smiled as he shook his head. "I'd do it anyway, you know."
Their gazes caught in the rearview mirror. "Thank you, Henry. I know this is an imposition."
He shrugged and pushed his trademark black cap back on his forehead. "I've never considered you an imposition, Hollyn."
Her eyes pooled with tears upon hearing her given name, uttered this time without any prompting. But there was no time to give in to sentiment, even if Henry would have allowed it. They had arrived at the small country's only airport. Henry brought the limo around to a private entrance reserved for VIPs and royalty. They were shielded from prying eyes, although an industrious paparazzo or two had managed to breach security in the past. She held her breath, silently chanting, "Not today. Please, not today," as Henry unloaded the luggage she'd stowed, unbeknownst to him, in the limousine's trunk. He added to the trolley the three sleek designer bags whose contents she could barely remember packing, she'd done it so quickly. But then, where she was going, she wouldn't need much. No ball gowns, no ostentatious jewels or tiaras. As she recalled, shoes had been optional.
"I hope you find what it is you seek," he said softly once they were inside. Then he wrapped her in the kind of hug a father might, though her own wasn't one for displays of affection, whether in public or private.
"At the moment, Henry, all I seek is peace."
"Then that, my dear, is what I wish for you." He kissed her cheek and stepped away. "Write?"
The corners of her mouth turned up in a smile. "I won't be gone that long. As I said, a week at most."
He remained serious. "Be in touch when you can."
An hour later, as she settled into one of the plush seats of the private jet she'd chartered, she thought of her request.
She might as well have been asking for the moon. But with most of the paparazzi tied up at the annual garden party, and no one but Henry privy to her travel plans at this point, perhaps she would be able to make a clean getaway. She'd worry about a "clean arrival" once she got to where she was going.
Nate was seated on the deck of his home. He was finishing up a burger that he'd picked up from a local pub before heading home, and enjoying a cold beer when he spied the Cessna riding low on the horizon over Lake Huron.
Hell of an evening to land a seaplane, given the wind.
Even on the relatively protected waters of Heart Island's Pettibone Bay, whitecaps sent waves crashing on the beach with unrelenting precision. Forecasters were calling for a doozy of a storm, likely to hit sometime before midnight. The islanders, especially those along the coastline, were battened down, ready. Storms such as these weren't uncommon in summer, which was why people with any sense were already in for the night, their planes and boats secured to wait out the worst of the weather.
What in the hell was Hank Whitey thinking?
Sure, the pilot had a penchant for taking risks. Last week, he'd bluffed his way through their weekly poker game with a pathetic hand of cards. But Hank generally wasn't one to take risks with his plane; the aircraft was his livelihood.
Nate went inside, set his unfinished beer on the counter and headed out. Not only was he curious about Hank's explanation, but the man was also going to need a hand.
By the time Nate jogged down to the sand, Hank had already bypassed the dock at the Haven Marina, which was part of the resort Nate owned. On a really calm day, Hank might have moored there. Today, not a chance. The waves tossed the small plane around as if it weighed no more than a fishing bobber.
Nate would give Hank this. The guy was a capable pilot, even if his judgment was a bit questionable. Just beyond the plane, a jagged outcropping of rocks lined a slim finger of land that jutted to where a lighthouse stood. With the wind pushing toward those rocks, it took experience and skill to guide the Cessna toward the sandy beach instead.
Nate waited until the single engine was cut and the plane's propeller finally stopped chopping the air before he kicked off his shoes and waded out into the thigh-deep water. The waves made keeping his balance difficult and the cuffs of his shorts were wet in no time. Hank's door opened and the man let out a whoop of joy, which was entirely appropriate given the circumstances.
"You're damned lucky to be in one piece!" Nate shouted to be heard over the wind.
"Hey, Nate. Can't tell you how glad I am to see you."
"Glad to see you, too, Hank. Alive. What in the hell were you thinking?"
The passenger door opened then. A woman, beautiful and amazingly composed under the circumstances, smiled at Nate. "I'm to blame, I'm afraid. I was so eager to get here that I offered Mr. Whitey triple his normal fee."
Her crisp accent had Nate's brows tugging together. He knew that voice. He blinked. He knew that face.
Despite all of the years that had passed, he knew it in an instant. Heart-shaped, with a delicate nose, a pair of perfect lips and eyes as blue as Huron's deepest waters.
His gut clenched as time reeled backward. He was a teenager again, carefree, happy, experiencing his first love.before having his heart brutally ripped from his chest.
"It's been a long time."
She had the nerve to smile, which caused his teeth to clench. After all these years, he still felt betrayed, even if he also understood why she'd misled him. She hadn't owed him the truth.
That didn't stop him from wanting an explanation now. "Why are you here?"
Her smile disappeared. Her composure slipped. "I needed to get away. I needed.a holiday."
He could read between both the lines in her words and the one now denting the flesh between her eyes. She wanted normalcy. Anonymity.
That's what her American grandmother had been after, too, when she'd insisted Holly spend her summers on the island when she was a girl. From ages ten through fifteen, Holly and the older woman had shown up faithfully the second week in June and then stayed through the second week in August, renting the largest and most secluded of the resort's cottages.
He and Holly had become fast friends when she was ten and he was twelve. When she'd been fifteen to his seventeen, they'd had more on their minds than seeing who could swim the fastest to the floating dock out in front of his parents' house.
"So, you nearly killed Hank here? Well, I guess your wish is his command."
"I coulda said no, Nate," Hank argued, no doubt perplexed by the irritation in Nate's tone.
Nate was a little perplexed, too. This anger, these emotions, they belonged to the past. Yet he couldn't stop himself from adding, "No one says no to a princess, Hank"
The other man looked confused. Holly looked desperate. "I'm just an ordinary woman, Nate."
The wind gusted, and the waves slapped higher on his thighs. He decided to allow the distinction for now, even though he knew firsthand that nothing about her was ordinary. Hell, he'd known that to be the case even when he hadn't been privy to her true identity and royal lineage.
He waded the rest of the way to the plane's float. "Put your arms around my neck." "Excuse me?"
Perversely, he enjoyed the fact that her eyes widened. Nervous, Princess? he wanted to ask. It would make him feel better to know that she was as shaken by this unexpected reunion as he was. Instead, Nate nodded in the direction of the shore. "Unless you'd rather walk to the beach, I'll carry you. I'm guessing those pretty shoes of yours probably aren't meant to get wet."