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Sleeping With Beauty
By Laura Wright
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePrincess Catherine Olivia Ann Thorne sat pole straight between her father and her aunt Fara at the head table, watching the people of Llandaron eat, drink, dance and be merry. Tonight, missing only the eldest brother, Alex, they celebrated the return of her younger brother Maxim and his wife, Fran, from their month-long honeymoon. The family celebrated the couple's fantastic news of their pregnancy.
And they celebrated love.
Music drifted up from the twelve-piece orchestra, encircling the brightly lit room. Scents of roast lamb and summer heather joined in the dreamy rotation, creating a blithe, warm atmosphere in the ballroom.
But inside Cathy a cold heaviness dwelled.
Her gaze moved over her brother and new sister-in-law as they danced, so close, eyes locked, mouths turned up into intimate smiles.
Anyone could see how desperately in love they were. And it wasn't that Cathy begrudged them such happiness. Not in the least. She loved her brother with all her heart, and thought the world of Fran. She just wanted to feel a little of that happiness - a little of that love - for herself.
"Your tour of Eastern Europe has been extended another month, Catherine."
Cathy's stomach clenched at her father's words. She'd only returned from Australia three days ago, yet her social secretary had her scheduled to leave for Russia at the beginning of next week.
And now, another month was being tacked on.
"You look pale, Cathy dear," Fara remarked, the beautiful old woman's violet eyes narrowed with concern.
The big, white-haired bear of a man touched his daughter's gloved hand. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, Father." Actually, no, Father. The mask of composed princess fought the restive, reckless woman who resided deep in Cathy's heart. Over the last several months something inside her, in her mind and soul and blood, had started to wilt. Frustration built day by day, tour after tour. Granted, she loved the visits, and especially her charity work, but she was exhausted.
Cathy stood up, dropped her silk napkin beside her untouched plate. "I'm very tired. If you'll excuse me, Father, Fara."
She barely waited for them to nod. With a grace she was born and bred to, she glided out of the room, into the empty hall and up the stairs, her lavender ball gown swishing against her unsteady legs. Months of supervised, heavily guarded travels, dictated protocol, and hounding press made her need for privacy akin to her need for air. The quiet, albeit temporary, sanctuary of her bedroom sounded like heaven.
But the way to her room was blocked.
"That mane of amber curls and those wide amethyst eyes." Perched on the landing stood a portly woman, gnarled with age and garbed in a long tank dress of red and purple, ropes of tangerine beads hanging from her neck. Cathy didn't recognize her. "You are every bit as beautiful as I told your mother you'd be, lass."
Cathy gripped the banister. "You knew my mother?"
"Aye. I knew the late queen." The woman's thin lips twisted into a cynical smile. "When you were just a speck in your mother's belly, I asked Her Royal Highness to allow me to read your future. But she refused my gift. Laughed at me, she did."
The woman's anger sat like a spoiled child between them, immobile unless appeased. A strange surge of unease coursed through Cathy. "Who are you?"
The old woman ignored the query. "I gave the king and queen my gift regardless. Aye, I told them that you would be beautiful and kind and clever. I told them that you would be spirited and brave." Her large brown eyes darkened. "I told them that if they did not take great care of you ..."
Cold fingers inched up Cathy's spine as the woman's voice trailed off. But she refused to show her fear. She forced on her finest royal countenance and said, "I think you should finish the story."
The old woman's yellow smile widened. "I told your father and mother that if they did not take great care, they would lose ye."
"Lose me?" she exclaimed.
Deportment all but dropped away. "What are you talking about?"
"Cathy, you up there?" The call shot between Cathy and the woman, breaking the trance that seemed to hold them both captive. Whirling around, her heart pounding in her chest, Cathy saw Fran coming up the steps, her blond hair bouncing about her shoulders.
"What's wrong, Cath?" Her sister-in-law's deep brown eyes were filled with apprehension.
"This woman. She's -"
Fran cocked her head, glanced past her. "What woman?"
Cathy stilled, her pulse pounding a feverish rhythm in her blood. Slowly, she turned. The woman was gone.
On legs that had gone from unsteady to leaden, Cathy lumbered up the stairs, saying nothing, Fran following closely behind her. Cathy tried not to wonder where the old woman had disappeared to, or if there had been a woman at all. She tried not to think that perhaps she'd gone crazy.
As they entered the bedroom, Fran asked softly, "Are you all right, Cath?"
Cathy sat on her bed, shoulders falling forward. No, she wasn't all right. She was completely and totally overwhelmed. She turned to Fran and explained, "I'm a twenty-five-year-old woman who's rarely been alone, rarely known happiness and never known love. I'm so bloody tired of living on other people's terms." She searched her new sister's eyes. "Do you understand what that's like, Fran?"
Fran sat down beside her, took her hand. "Yes, actually I do. Until I met your brother, I hadn't lived at all."
"Why is that, do you think? Were you afraid to live or -"
"I think I was afraid to believe that love existed for me." A soft smile graced Fran's mouth, the smile of a woman who now knew differently. "I'd been hurt pretty badly, and I didn't want to feel that kind of pain again. But your brother offered me a second chance."
Cathy sighed. "I'd like a first chance to live. I think I deserve one."
"Of course you do."
Seven years of thoughts, plans, midnight fantasies and heartfelt hopes danced through Cathy's brain. Was she brave enough? Weary enough? Desperate enough to grab hold, to take what she wanted?
Excerpted from Sleeping With Beauty by Laura Wright Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
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