Now, years on, Marianne Chambers is visiting Andovaria.Seb has been given the second chance he's always longedfor. But can he fight tradition and crown Marianne as hisvery own princess?
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"You're reading Chekhov. Have you read any Tolstoy?"
Dr Marianne Chambers hesitated midway through the second paragraph of the paper she was proofreading. A small frown pulled at the centre of her forehead as she recognised the uncanny echo of a long-ago conversation.
It had to be impossible. Why would he be at the Cowper Hotel during an academic conference? She was being completely ridiculous.
The memory of that sunny afternoon tugged at her and her frown deepened. It was the same upper-class English accent, with the same hint of something indefinably "foreign'about it.
And exactly the same words.
Marianne remembered them verbatim. In fact, she remembered every single blasted thing Seb Rodier had ever said to her"from the first moment he'd seen her reading Chekhov on the steps of Amiens Cathedral.
A shadow fell across her page and the voice behind her continued. "Or Thomas Hardy? Now, he can be really depressing, but if you like that kind of thing."
Dear God, no.
Marianne's head whipped round to look directly up into a calmly smiling face. Older, more determined maybe, but still the face of the man who'd completely derailed her life.
Back then he'd worn old jeans and a comfortable T-shirt, seemingly an exchange student like herself. Now he stood there in a designer suit and smelt of seriously old money.
There was no surprise in that. She must have seen several hundred newspaper photographs of Prince Sebastian II over the years, but not one of them had prepared her for the overwhelming sense ofyearning she felt as she met his dark eyes.
"Hello, Marianne," he said softly.
His name imploded in her head, while every single moment she'd spent with him all those summers before came whizzing back into high-definition clarity.
In the space of a millisecond she felt as though she'd been sucked back in time. Just eighteen years old. A long way from home and living with a family she barely knew. She'd been so scared, so very scared. Waiting for him. Hoping for a telephone call.
Wanting to understand what was happening. Wanting him. Desperately wanting him.
She'd wondered how this moment might feel. Not that she'd ever anticipated she'd find out. He'd leftand their paths had never crossed again.
And why would they? Lowly paid academics didn't often run into members of the aristocracy, let alone an honest-togoodness blue blooded royal.
"Seb?" It was difficult to force the words past the blockage in her throat. "Sh-should I call you that? Or is it Your Highness? OrYour Royal Highness? I don't know what Marianne reached up a hand to brush at the sharp pain stabbing in her forehead.
He moved closer and spoke quietly. "Your Serene Highness, but Seb will do. It's good to see you. How have you been?"
Somewhere in the background Marianne could hear the sound of laughter and the clink of teaspoons on china. Incongruous sounds of normality as everything around her started to spin.
"Fine. I've been fine," she lied. "And you?" "Fine." Seb moved round to stand in front of her. "It's been a very long time."
He paused, his brown eyes seeming to melt her body from the toes up. "You look amazing. Really amazing."
"Th-thank you. So do you." Damn! "I meanyou look." She trailed off, uncertain of anything"except that she really couldn't do this. Whatever this was.
"May I sit beside you?"
What was he doing? They weren't merely friends who'd happened to bump into each other. Far from it. She might not have much experience of meeting "old' lovers, but surely you didn't sit there making conversation as though you didn't know exactly what the other looked like naked?
Marianne shuffled the typed sheets back into her file. "Can I stop you?" Her eyes flicked to the two grey-suited men standing a respectful distance away in the otherwise deserted foyer. Bodyguards, she supposed. "I imagine Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee make it their business to see you get what you want."
"Georg and Karl." "You give them names?"
His mouth quirked into a smile. "Actually, no. In Andovaria we still consider the naming of children to be entirely the prerogative of the respective parents."
He sat beside her as blithely as if the last ten years hadn't happened. "Unlike Denmark, where the queen needs to give permission for the use of any name not on the approved list."
"How forward-thinking of you." "We like to think so."
Marianne gave her head a little shake as though it would somehow bring the planets back into alignment. He said the name of his country as easily as if he'd never lied to her. He seemed to take it for granted she'd know it now and there was nothing to be gained by pretending she didn't.
His photograph was beamed all over the world. Every hairdresser in the country probably had a magazine with his picture in it. She'd seen him skiing, mountain walking, standing on the steps of Poltenbrunn Castle, at assorted royal weddingsincluding his own.
She even remembered the name of the girl he'd married" and divorced, although they'd called it an annulment. Amelie. Amelie of Saxe-Broden. Everything about that wedding seemed to have attracted the attention of the world's media and she'd not been able to shut it out.
If she'd needed any other impetus to get on with her life, that had been it.
Marianne drew a deep breath. "So, what brings you to England? Is there some royal event I missed hearing about?"
He shook his head. "No, this is an entirely private visit." "How lovely." The sarcastic edge to her voice shocked her. What was happening? She felt like a piece of fabric that had started to fray. Marianne bent to put her file into her briefcase as sudden hot tears"part anger, part sadness"stung the back of her eyes.
She mustn't cry. Damn it! She'd done more than enough of that. It was as though seeing him again had pierced a hole in the dam she'd built to protect her from all the emotions of that time.
Marianne pulled her briefcase onto her knee and concentrated on fastening the clasp. "Are you travelling incognito this time?" She spared him a glance. "I suppose the men in grey," she said, looking at Georg and Karl, "might curb the possibilities a bit."
Seb's already dark eyes took on a deeper hue. "You're still angry with me."
Something inside her snapped. "Just what exactly did you think I'd be?"
"I suppose." Seb twisted the ring on his right hand and glanced over his shoulder as though to make sure the foyer was still empty of anyone who might be listening. "I suppose I hoped"
"You hoped. What? That I'd somehow have forgotten you walked off into the night and didn't bother to contact me? Ththat you lied to me? Funnily enough, Seb, that kind of thing tends to stay with you."
She cut him off. "Lovely though this has been, I'm afraid I've got to go. I've got an incredibly busy morning and" she stood up and Seb stood with her "I need to gather my thoughts."
"Marianne, I" "Don't!' She adjusted her grip on the handle of her briefcase. "D-don't you dare. It's a full decade since I've been remotely interested in anything you have to say."
"I didn't lie to you."
About to walk away, Marianne froze. How dared he? How dared he stand there and say that"to her? For a moment she was too dumbfounded to answer.
Then, on a burst of anger, "Really? Somehow I must have misheard you telling me you were Andovarian royalty. How can I have got it that muddled? Stupid, stupid me!'
His face reacted as though she'd slapped him. Strangely that didn't feel as fantastic as she'd thought it would, but she continued relentlessly, "And to think I've just spent years of my life thinking what a complete waster you are."
Seb stood a little straighter. "I admit I didn't tell you I was the crown prince"
"No, you didn't!' "but there were reasons for that."
Marianne almost snorted with contempt. It hadn't taken much introspection, even at eighteen, for her to work that out for herself. Faced with the discovery her Seb Rodier was about to be enthroned as his country's ruler, she'd made a good guess at what those reasons might be.
Only she didn't share his belief they were justifiable. Ever. No one had the right to treat someone as he had her. Crown prince or not.
"Rodier is my family name. I didn't lie to you about that and I"
"Of course, that makes all the difference," she said silkily, still keeping her voice low. "You knew I'd no idea who you were and you deliberately omitted telling me. I didn't even know you weren't Austrian. I'd never even heard of Andovaria. You certainly never mentioned it and I dare say you made sure Nick didn't either."
"I never told you I was Austrian." "You said you lived a short drive from Vienna." "Which is true. I."
Marianne closed her eyes. This was a childish and pointless conversation"and she'd reached the end of what she could cope with. She held up her free hand as though it had the power to ward off anything else he might say. "Honestly, I don't care any more if your real name is Ambrose Bucket and you live in the vicinity of Saturn. It wouldn't change anything. You did lie to me"and I don't forgive you." She would never forgive him as long as she had breath in her body.
"Marianne" "No!' No more. Her one coherent thought was that she needed to escape. Anywhere"as long as it put enough distance between herself and His Serene bloody Highness.
She kept her back straight and one foot moving in front of the other. She needed air and she needed it now. Marianne headed straight for the wide double doors and practically ran down the shallow steps.
Seb. Seb Rodier. Even though she knew he was the ruling prince of a wealthy alpine principality she couldn't think of him that way. To her this Seb was merely an older version of the nineteen-year-old language student she'd met in Amiens. The one she'd eaten crêpes with, walked beside the River Seine with and, damn it, loved.
Marianne bit down so hard on her bottom lip she drew blood. Oh, God. Not swearing, praying. She just wanted the memories to stop flooding through her.
Her feet slowed because they had no choice. London traffic blocked her way and the coffee shop she wanted was on the other side of the road.
And why was she running anyway? Experience had taught her that there was nowhere to go that would stop the pain from jogging alongside. More slowly she crossed the road, dodging between the stationary taxis that were banked up at the junction.
Coffee. That was all she wanted right now. Coffee and a moment to gather herself together. She smiled grimly. Just enough time to place the mask firmly back in place.
Seb let out his breath in one slow, steady stream, resisting the temptation to swear long and hard, as he watched Marianne walk away.
That could have gone better. It had been a long, long time since anyone had made him look, or feel, quite so foolish. How many sentences had he managed to complete at the end there? Two? Maybe three?
For a man who was famed for his ability to say the right thing in any social situation, that was unprecedented. As unprecedented as it was for anyone to speak to him without the due deference his position demanded. Thank heaven the foyer was deserted of everyone but his own people.
Seb looked over his shoulder at his two bodyguards. "How much of that did you hear?"
He saw Karl's lips twitch. In any other man the expression would have counted as impassive, but in Karl it was laughter.
Seb ran an exasperated hand through his closely cropped dark hair. "Try and forget it," he said, walking past them and further into the narrow reception area.
It was an unnecessary instruction. Karl and Georg would never divulge anything about his personal life"not to the Press, not even to other members of their team. He'd do better to direct that selfsame instruction at himself"try and forget it. Concentrate on what had brought him here.
But forget her?
He pulled a wry smile. Now, that was easier said than done. If merely reading the name Marianne Chambers in print had pulled him up short, it was nothing compared to how it had felt to actually see her.
Until that moment he hadn't truly believed Professor Blackwell's protégée would turn out to be the language student he'd met in France"but she'd been instantly recognisable. Casually dressed in blue jeans and white T-shirt she'd reminded him so much of the eighteen-year-old he'd known. He could never have expected that.
And she'd been reading. Something had snapped inside him when he'd seen the flash of white as she'd flicked over the page. She'd always been reading. Anything and everything. Even that first time"when Nick had tried so hard to stop him going to speak to her.
It was the only excuse he'd had for approaching her. If there'd been anyone within earshot Seb pulled a hand through his hair. God only knew what the headlines would have looked like then.
"Your Serene Highness"
Seb turned to see an agitated man scurrying towards him across the acres of rather dated carpet in the company of his private secretary.
"we'd no idea you'd arrived yet. I'd intended to have someone on watch for you and"
"It's of no consequence. Mr?" "Baverstock. Anthony Baverstock. I'm the manager here, Your Serene Highness."
"Baverstock,"Seb repeated, extending his hand. "I sincerely appreciate the thought."He watched the pleased way Anthony Baverstock puffed out his cheeks and resigned himself to what experience had taught him would follow.
"N-not at all, Your Serene Highness. At the Cowper Hotel we pride ourselves on our service. Professor Blackwell," the hotel manager continued with every indication that he would bore his friends and neighbours with his account of meeting royalty for the next thirty years, "is in the Balcony Room. If, Your Serene Highness, would be so good as to follow me."