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Dawn broke its soft kiss over the lake, washing the bluegreen water with a dusting of orange and gold. A slight breeze skipped gentle ripples across the water and whispered the scent of pine through the open window. Carrie Santaro curled up on the cushioned window seat, watching the day begin. In the three days since she'd arrived at her rented lakeside cottage in Winter Haven, Indiana, Carrie had spent every spare moment in this window seat, soaking up the tranquility and the quiet peace found in being utterly alone. Her sister Mariabella who lived half the year in a seaside town in Massachusetts had told her that life in the States was different from life in the castle.
She'd been right. Here, in this tiny Midwestern town with all its hokey charm, Carrie felt free. To be herself, to drop the mantle of her princess life and to be just Carrie. To be the person she'd been fighting all her life to be. She hadn't packed a single ball gown, not one pair of high heels. while she was here, she'd be all jeans and Tshirts and sundresses all the time. Just the thought made her smile.
And while she was here, she decided, she'd find out who she really was. Maybe with enough distance between herself and the castle, she could finally get the answers she'd waited a lifetime to hear. After all, hadn't her mother once said that was what had happened to her when she'd visited this town? Perhaps Carrie could get lucky, too.
Her cell phone rang. She sighed before flipping it open and answering the call she'd been dreading. "Hello, Papa."
"Carlita!" Her father's booming voice, calling her by the name her parents used when they wanted to remind her of her royal rootsand royal expectations. To remind her she should be a dutiful daughter, an obedient princess.
Uh, yeah, not.
She'd always been a rebel, and never been much for the suffocating mantle of royal life. She was more at home with dirt under her nails than wearing a starched dress to a state dinner. She'd taken the etiquette lessons, suffered through boarding school and sat quietly through countless events, trying her best to be what everyone expected of a princess.
Most of the time. And now, she was doing the exact opposite, which had displeased her parents to no end. Carrie was tired of caring. She was ready to live her life and be free of all that once and for all.
"When are you coming home?" her father asked in their native, lyrical Uccelli language.
"I just got here," she answered, reverting to her native tongue, too. It felt a little odd after days of speaking only English. "I haven't even started working yet."
He pshawed away that notion. "You have work here. Come home."
"Papa, we talked about this. I'll be home in a few months. The wine shop needs an advocate for Uccelli. If we can get the American sales off the ground"
"We need you here," he said. "Your sisters, everyone, needs you here."
Ever since her middle sister, Allegra, had become queen, her parents had been urging Carrie to be a bigger part of the royal family, to take a more active role in the Santaro family causes and the country's needs. Something Carrie had resisted almost from birth. She wanted nothing to do with any of that. Just the thought of being surrounded by all that pomp and circumstance made her feel like she was being suffocated. "They're fine without me. I'm barely a part of the family activities. The media hardly noticed I left."
There'd been one small piece in the Uccelli papers, a quick mention that Princess Carlita had gone on vacation and nothing more, Mariabella had said. If Allegra had been the one to leave the country, there'd have been newspaper and television coverage for days. not for the first time, Carrie thanked her lucky stars that she would probably never be queen.
"That's because we have worked to keep your 'antics' out of the media, and keep this vacation of yours a secret."
"It's not a vacation, Papa. It's a job." He sighed. "I know you love this work, and think this is what you want to do"
"Think? I know."
"But it is far past time you acknowledged your heritage," her father said. "And stopped playing in the vineyards. And at life. All these years, I have indulged you and let you have your freedom. You, of all the daughters, have had the least to do with the royal family and its duties. But now, you are twentyfour, my dear. Time to start settling down and become a true Santaro."
Settle down? She bristled at the thought of handing her life over to yet another person who would want to tell her where to sit, how to act, what she should do. In the past year, her father had reminded her a hundred times that playtime was over and now she needed to step more fully into her role as princess. "That is the last thing I want to do right now."
"I love you, my daughter, I really do, but you have one fault."
They'd had this discussion a thousand times and Carrie didn't want to have it again now. "Papa"
"You flit from thing to thing like a butterfly. First it was wanting to be a landscaper. Then it was being a champion in dressage. Then it was rock climber, I think. Now, a shop owner." He paused, and she could hear the disappointment in his voice. "When are you going to settle down? It is time to be serious."
"I am, Papa."
He sighed. "I know you are trying, but it would be nice if you found a career you could stick with. A place to really shine."
"I already haveworking in the vineyard." But as she said the words, she knew he had a point. She had darted from job to job, pursued a dozen careers in as many years. She'd never settled down with anything until now. Not a job, not a man, not a thing. "You don't understand. It's hard to find your place in the sun," she said quietly, "when there are so many stars overhead."
"Oh, cara, I understand that," her father said, his voice softer. "I grew up in my father's court, the second of five. If my eldest brother hadn't died, I would have lived a very different life than the one I had. It was a good life, though, and I am not complaining."
Carrie sent up a silent prayer that she was so far removed from the throne that she would probably never have to worry about wearing the crown. "I love working in the vineyards and with the wine, Papa. I want to run the vineyards someday."
"It is not a proper job for a princess," he said. "Go back to college. Become a doctor. A humanitarian. Something that befits royalty."
In other words, not something where she got her hands dirty. When the vineyard's marketing manager announced last month that this year's harvest would be his last because he was retiring, Carrie had seen it as her chance to take a more active role in the company she loved so much. Her father had disagreed. She'd hoped he would come around, but clearly, he wasn't about to. She wanted to prove to him with this trip that she could do bothhave a career she loved and represent the royal family in a dignified way. "Papa, I will be home in a few months," she said again, more firmly this time.
"This is yet another lark for you, Carlita, my dear." Franco Santaro sighed. "I worry about you."
"You don't need to, Papa."
"I do, cara. You dropped out of college after your first year. Then dropped out of the second one. And barely finished at the third. And now you go to this town" He cut off the sentence, leaving whatever else he intended to say unsaid. "I worry. That's all."
Carrie winced at the reminders. "I just wasn't a good fit for college. I love being outside, being handson." She sighed, then gripped the phone tighter. "Tell Mama I love her. I have to go or I'll be late for work. I love you, Papa."
"I love you, too. I will talk to you soon."
Carrie hung up the phone. She showered and dressed, then drove the two miles from her rental house to the downtown area of Winter Haven. It wasn't until she parked that she realized she was a full half hour early for her first day of work.
She got out of the rental car and stood under the sign of By the Glass, the specialty wine shop where she'd be spending the end of summer and early fall. This was what it had all come down toher years working in the vineyard, working her way up from a vineyard tech job to a viticulturist assistant, and after she'd gotten her degree, assistant to the manager.
She'd loved learning about the science of field blending to create new flavors. Loved seeing the finished product taken from a harvest and bottled for consumption. She'd tried several degree programs before settling on one in sales and marketing, with a heavy concentration in viticultureeven though her father had argued against those courses.
Once she got more handson at the vineyard, she wanted to parlay what she had learned into growth for the company. It had taken nearly a year to convince her father that Uccelli's amazing wines should be sold in the U.S. and that she should be the one to head the venture. When Jake, Mariabella's new husband, had offered backing to open a wine shop in the small tourist town in the Midwest, the former king of Uccelli had finally agreed.
At first, Carrie was content to let the shop run itself while she watched from Uccelli and spent her days helping the vineyard manager run the operation. But
as the first few weeks passed and the sale of Uccelli wines in America remained stagnant, she knew she wanted to take a more active role. Do what made her happiestget involved and get her hands dirty. And finally implement some of what she had learned in college.
She'd spent two weeks at a wine shop in Uccelli, learning the techniques of selling. Still, her father had had his doubts, sure she'd turn around in a day, a week, a month, and embark on something else.
How could she blame him? When she'd come home from her third and final college, her father had been sure she'd never settle into any one career, despite her framed degree. But Carrie had retreated to the vineyards, and as soon as she did, felt at home. She'd known this was where she'd been meant to be all along. Any doubts she might have had disappeared.
Now Carrie was going to prove not just her own worth as a vineyard director, but the worth of the Uccelli wines to foreign markets. And maybe, just maybe, she'd return to Uccelli, and her father would finally see she was committed to this work, and the best next choice to run the vineyard's overseas operations. If not, well, she'd scrimp and save until she had a vineyard of her own.
But the little nagging doubts still crowded on her shoulders. What if you quit this, too? that voice whispered. What if you fail? Where will you be then? She would not fail. Simple.
Carrie unlocked the front door, let herself in, then did the few morning tasks required to open the store. By the time Faith, the regular clerk, came in, the shop was already humming with music and warm incandescent light. "Wow," Faith said as she dropped off her purse behind the counter. "You're in early."
"I was excited about my first day." Carrie slipped onto the other side of the heavy basket display of featured wines and helped Faith carry it out to the sidewalk. The salesclerkwhom Carrie had met when she'd arrived in Winter Haven on Fridaywas a tall, thin blonde with a warm smile and wide green eyes. She'd welcomed Carrie, and quizzed her for a solid hour about the Uccelli wines that first day, clearly excited to meet someone who had direct experience with the vineyards.
"It's nice to work with someone who likes their job," Faith said as they walked back into the shop. "The last girl we had here was late so often I gave her an alarm clock for her birthday."
"Did it work?"
"Nope. She dropped it when she ran to her car that night because she was late for a date." Faith shook her head. "I already think you're going to be a better clerk than she ever was. Plus you know these wines better than anyone."
Carrie brushed away a long lock of dark hair, and tucked it behind her ear. A flush heated her cheeks. "Thank you."
"Hey, I'm having a party a week from this Friday," Faith said as she arranged a display of corks on a small round table by the register. "Just burgers and chips at my lake cottage before the weather gets too cold to do anything. You should come. You'll get to know a lot of the locals." Faith grinned. "Maybe even meet someone sexy for a little end of summer fling."
"A fling? Me?" Carrie laughed. "I'm not the fling type."
"Think about it. You have the perfect situation. You're only here for a few weeks before you go back to the other side of the world. What better time to have a fling?"
"Princesses don't have flings, Faith. My father would have a heart attack." She could just imagine Papa's face if she added a public scandal to her list of mistakes. It would be ten times worse than the time she skidded in a half hour late wearing grapestained jeans to a mediafilled dinner with the Prime Minister of Britain.
Faith leaned in closer to Carrie. "Every woman deserves a fling, Carrie. Otherwise, you'll end up married and surrounded by kids and wondering what the hell you missed out on."
Carrie thought of the prescribed life ahead of her. The people expected it, after all. Her oldest sister was married and already talking about kids, while her middle sister, the queen, had gotten engaged last month. Carrie was expected to go back to Uccelli, find an "acceptable" career, and an "acceptable" spouse, as her older sisters had done, and then fill her calendar with state dinners and ribbon cuttings and uplifting speeches.
Ugh. Just the thought of what lay ahead made Carrie want to run screaming from the room. How had her mother ever stood it? Was that why she'd reminisced about her time in Winter Haven? Because it had been a brief pocket of freedom to be herself?