When Lia Costa discovers overnight that she's a princess and is betrothed to a royal duke, it turns her world upside down! Because regal duty means she can never tell her best friend, Toby, how she really feels .
Firefighter Toby Winder has always secretly loved Lia. But, watching her swap her apartment for a palace, he realizes he must now compete with an entire kingdom for her attention!
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The present day
Australia's Newest Royals! Charlie and Lia Costa, the Boy and Girl from Ryde, Ready for Right Royal Marriages
The Swan Lake Princess: From Giselle to Real-life Cinderella. Aussie Ballet Teacher Lia Costa Will Marry the Grand Duke of Falcandis! Date is Set
They're So In Love: Lia and Max Fall at First Sight. Will There Be A Double Wedding With Charlie and Jazmine?
As Toby tried to report for work at the fire station, he was crowded by a hundred eager faces and bodies pushing at him. The usual swarm of microphones was shoved in his face.
"Toby, how do you feel about your friends becoming royalty? Your mother told us that you feel left out."
"Will Charlie marry Princess Jazmine?"
"Is Lia in love with the Grand Duke?"
That's what I want to know. Toby couldn't answer the questions tossed at him, since neither Charlie nor Giulia had called him once, nor even written a note, since they'd disappeared a month ago. He hated thatthough he was family, he wasn't family enough.
He cut the excited questions short with the weary, timeless, "No comment." He pushed past the milling crowd of reporters into the fire station with the grim determination of a man used to the press.
He ought to be by now. Last year, he and Charlie had received more than enough of the star treatment after they'd saved some kids from a burning, collapsing house. But the past few days of intrusions, constant doorbell-ringing and phone calls at all hours had given him a gutful.
Since the story hit had world news four days ago, Toby had found he couldn't even attend a fire without being crowded and asked for his opinion on questions he couldn't answer. How the hell did stars handle this on a daily basis?
How had Charlie managed not to punch someone without his restraining influence? How was Giulia coping with the pressure? Was she eating? And, God help him, did she like that handsome Grand Duke? Had she fallen in love at a glance?
A disembodied voice filled the room via the loudspeaker. "Grizz, report to Leopard's office, stat."
Toby sighed and dropped down from the chin-up bar. Though they used the irreverent nicknames for each other Toby's being "Grizzly Bear" because of his height and buildwhen you were called to the captain's office you didn't prevaricate.
He took the back stairs three at a time, hoping to God Leopard didn't have more questions about Charlie and Giulia, and ridiculous assertions that a fireman and a ballet teacher could be the lost heirs to a kingdom he'd only heard about on quiz shows. When he reached the office, two black-suited, unsmiling men turned to him, and he knew he was about to get answers at last. One said, "We need you to come with us now, sir, no questions asked."
It wasn't a request.
An hour later he landed in Canberra, at a quiet airfield reserved for VIPs.
For the next three hours he endured intense questioning, and instructions on what complete discretion really meant. Then, only then, was he introduced to Lady Eleni, a pretty, dark-haired woman who was personal assistant to Princess JazmineCharlie's fiancée. Then he was taken to a dressing room at the Hellenican Consulate in Canberra, where he changed from gym clothes to jeans and shirt from the suitcase packed for him by the Australian Security Intelligence Office. They'd thought of everything.
Including Lia's puppy, the excitable, scruffy Puck, who barked a series of excited yaps as they boarded the Hellenican royal jet.
She was shaking.
Standing in bright, late-summer sunshine outside the Summer Palace, wearing designer jeans and a lemon linen-shift and shoes that would have cost the same as her ballet school, Lia Costa waited for Toby to arrive.
But I'm not Lia Costa. I'm Giulia Maria Helena Marandis, Princess Royal-to-be, she reminded herself yet again, after a month of living in the Summer Palace in the small Mediterranean nation of Hellenia.
She reminded herself of it every day, almost every hour and still she kept expecting the alarm to go off and to wake up back in her bedroom in Ryde
Despite the day's warmth, her hands and feet were cold. She chewed on her lip as the black Rolls turned smoothly and came through the gates. She winced as the press took hundreds of shots of the car's occupants.
He was here. Toby was here.
The butterflies in her stomach turned to woodpeckers.
"It'll be fine, Lia, you'll see," Charlie muttered as he waited beside her. "Don't worry so much."
She smiled and pressed her brother's hand, knowing Charlie didn't believe it any more than she did. Though he'd insisted on the King bringing Toby here, to talk everything out with their best friend, there was nothing anyone could say or do to fix the crisis she and Charlie found themselves in, unless they could find a way to turn back time. Charlie would be the next king of Hellenia, and Lia would be Princess Royal, with all its luxuryand its duty. Including creating much-needed royal heirs.
Charlie might be between a rock and a hard place, but at least he and Jazmine were deeply attracted. They had a chance at happiness.
She, Lia, had the choice of the devil and the stormy, blue sea.
The Rolls pulled up in front of them. The chauffeur opened the door for him and Toby, big, strong and dependable, emerged from the car. Joy surged through her at the sight of him.
Then she saw his face, let go of Charlie's hand and gasped. Something awful ran through her body, like she'd stuck her finger in an electrical socket.
Toby was her gentle giant, her quiet tower of strength, who knew and loved her just as she was despite her inadequacies. For more than a decade she'd counted on seeing the tenderness in his summer-sky eyes, the sweet curve of his slow, sunlit smile, and the flash of his deep-grooved dimples when he looked at her.
Now, as he took in the changes to her hair, the obvious designer touches to her clothes, the look on his facecold and unemotionalhurt her. It had been so stupid to indulge in the small, pitiful hope that in these clothes, with her hair cut and some subtle make-up applied, he'd find her pretty at last
Until this moment she'd never seen the blackness Charlie claimed was inside him. She had only one single memory where Toby had looked at her without a smilethe day she'd discovered his family was exploding, and she'd brought him home to live with the family. Even when she'd woken up in the clinic after her collapse four years later, he'd smiled, held her tight and thanked God she was still with him.
But today there was no smile. She saw his soul from the mirror of his eyes, turning the bright summer day to night. Until now she hadn't thought of his reaction to crossing the world for her, losing career, home and freedom of choice.
Lia fiddled with her hands. Her toes did the squirmy thing she hated. "T-Toby?"
His eyes met hers, in a searching that felt like a winter's night and then, like a miracle unfolding before her, they softened and lightened.
"Toby," she whispered, and took a hesitant step. Her arms, of their own accord, reached for him. When his opened in return, and he smiled that slow, sunlit smile so uniquely his, she couldn't hold in the sob of relief.
"Toby, oh, Toby, I've missed you!" she choked, and ran slam into his arms.
"Giulia, beloved," he murmured into her hair as he held on fast.
And after a month of weathering storms of right royal proportions, the world felt right at last. Toby was here, her one-of-a-kind, wonderful friend who knew her, good and bad, weak or strongand just loved her. She loved the endearments he used for her alone. Most women loved the way he spokeor maybe they just loved his striking looks. But he'd never called the girls he'd dated "beloved," only her. She loved itso different from "babe" or "doll" or "sweetheart", or the other normal nicknames guys called their women.
But she wasn't his womanshe never had beenand that made the difference. Friendly love took away demands, emotional confrontations and expectation.
She ought to know. After enduring the world's most stupid crush on her best friend all through her teen years, she'd finally given up hoping he'd look her way. Only then had the world shifted onto its right axis, and the best-friend love they were always meant to share had been theirs. They could hold each other without any silliness.
Only, the funny thing now was Was hearoused? No, that was ridiculous; he'd never wanted her that way. She tried to dismiss it from her mind as a guy thing, an involuntary reaction of some kind, and held tight to him anywaybest friends could do that. She whispered, "Toby, Toby," as if he was a phantom that might disappear at any moment.
He smiled down at her, tender and loving. "Miss me, beautiful girl?"
"Like half of me was gone," she choked. Like the sunshine had disappeared.
"So I gather I need not bow and say Your Highness, as instructed?"
The tone of his deep, rumbling voice, rich with teasing, made her gasp with relief. "You do and I'll hit you."
As he chuckled and caressed her hair, she kissed his cheekand felt the old urge to taste his skin with her tongue.
Okay, so she'd never quite conquered thisthis idiotic feeling of being turned on by her best friend. She'd accepted it couldn't happen. It was just a physical thingprobably because she'd never met another man who made her feel dainty, feminine and aroused with a touch. But she'd sworn long ago she'd never embarrass him, or herself, by burdening him with her desires again. She'd done that eleven years ago, at that wretched New Year's party, and had almost destroyed their friendship.
She'd never risk losing him again.
He'd given her so much during the past ten years. He'd just proved his devotion by crossing the world for her. Why ruin something so perfect and wonderful for something only one of them had ever wanted?
"Hey, Grizz, don't I even get a hello?"
Toby smiled at Charlie, but didn't let go of her. Possibly because he could tell she'd refuse to release him an inch. "Rip, my old friendor must I call you Your Royal Highness now?"
"Oh, shut up, you dumb jerk," Charlie growled with a grin, and thumped him on the back. "Man, it's good to see you."
Lia pulled back to look into his eyes, the anxiety not quite dissipated. "You understand why we couldn't tell you anything or call you, don't you, Toby?"
"No, I don't understand in the least. I shall demand at least four home-made moussakas and two chocolate cakes in recompense for weeks of terror and loneliness without you, being followed by the press for my opinion on your status that I couldn't answernot to mention feeding and being dragged on a leash down city streets and into trees and electrical poles by the abominable Puck. And let's not forget the 'no questions asked' abduction by ASIO, the interrogation and being whipped onto a jet without so much as a by-your-leave. You are permanently in my debt, beautiful girland I will demand adequate recompense at the appropriate time." He smiled down at her.
Stupid, stupid body Why did she always quiver when he smiled like that? Why did a simple curve of his lips always make her feel as if the world had stopped and they were the only people in the universe? "I've been in your debt for years, and you've never once collected."
"Perhaps what I want needs a debt this massive, my Giulia," he said softly, with an intensity in his eyes she couldn't quite fathom. "Perhaps I always felt as deeply in your debt by your magnificent care for the tag-along in the family."
"Don't be silly, you are family. So where is Puck now?" she asked, hoping she didn't sound as breathless as she felt. If Toby knew what the sweet intimacy in his voice did to her, he'd Well, no, he wouldn't laugh at her. Not again. But he'd be ashamed and embarrassed, and all the things he'd been before, making for months of unbearable awkwardness between them.
Toby cocked his head to the car with a long-suffering grin. "He wouldn't stop yapping and chasing his tail, even when they brought him to me. ASIO called in a veterinarian for clearance papers for himand also, against my protests, for sedation. He should wake up any time now."
"Oh, my poor Puck!" She raced to the car, dragging Toby with her, and yanked the door open, her face splitting with a smile she hadn't felt inside herself since they'd walked into the lawyer's office in Sydney. Being Hellenia's Princess Royal was a privilege and honour; she knew that. But it was still alien to her. She felt as if she was stumbling though each long day of lessons and duties, working out ways to help the people of Hellenia, and brokering peace between Charlie and the King.
But now Toby was here, and all was right with the world.
"I can't believe you brought that mangy mongrel," Charlie grumbled good-naturedly as he followed them.
"Yes, a distinctly unroyal muttdefinitely not princess material. I dread seeing what antics he'll get up to in the palace. Giulia, perhaps it might be best to leave him in the travelling cage."
Lia ignored them both. They'd been mock-complaining about Puck since she'd brought him home as a puppy a year ago, a gift from one of her dance pupils. She'd originally called him Boofhead, but Toby had named him Puckbecause, like the Shakespearean character, he annoyed everybodyand the name had stuck. She opened the travelling cage and pulled her sleepy dog out, half Miniature German Schnauzer and half heaven knew what. She lifted him against her chest and hugged him one-armed, because, even cuddling her pet, she couldn't let go of Toby, could hardly believe he was here. The nightmare felt more bearable with him beside her.
"Remember, you owe me four moussakas," he whispered in her ear. "Among other debts I choose to collect at the right time and place."
Oh, how she loved and hated the warm, shivering excitement that streaked through her at the intimacy. Hated the sense of cheated unfairness that, of all the men in the world, only her dearest friend made her feel as if she was melting inside with a simple whisper.
Stop it. He's your best friend, almost a brother. You're a woman now, and a princess. You're practically engagedto a rich, handsome, kind stranger.
"Does your silence indicate that you're too grand these days to enter a kitchen to make me moussaka, Giulia?"
It took a mammoth effort to grin up at Toby as if nothing was wrong, but she'd been practising the skill for years, and she had the hang of it now. "No, the kitchen's too grand for me. You should see the one here. I went in one night, took one look and bolted back to my rooms."
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