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Day two of palace orientation and Eve's eyes were glazing over.
"Wait for His Royal Highness to address you first. Wait for His Royal Highness to extend his hand first. If you are wearing gloves when greeting His Royal Highness, you need not remove them first. Women need not wear hats before 6:30 p.m.," the elderly male adviser droned on. "Call the prince by Your Royal Highness on first meeting. Thereafter, if the conversation continues, refer to him as 'sir.' Stand whenever a royal enters the room. Never turn one's back on a royal ."
"Oh, Jonathan, give the poor girl a break," a young woman said from behind Eve.
Eve whipped her head around, spotting Princess Bridget, whom she'd met during her previous visit to Chantaine. She remembered the underlying, not-quite-buried impatience she'd sensed when she'd met Princess Bridget, a young woman close to her age.
Eve immediately rose and attempted an awkward curtsy.
Princess Bridget waved the gesture aside and tossed her head of brown, wavy hair. "Please don't. Will you join me for lunch? I need a royal break," she said. "We can discuss American reality shows."
"Your Highness," Eve said, trying to follow the rules she'd just been given.
"Stop, stop," Bridget said, taking Eve's hand and pulling her away. "And if you dare call me ma'am, I'll scream the palace walls down. Please call me Bridget. I'm counting on you to forget everything you've learned today so that you and I can become great friends. Thank God we have an American around now. You're just what we need."
Eve felt a combination of relief at getting away from the interminable orientation session and anxiety at Princess Bridget's plans for her. "I don't really watch a lot of reality TV."
"Well, I'm sure we'll come up with something. You know, ever since Tina got pregnant and left Chantaine, I have to do most of the public appearances." Bridget stopped and met Eve's gaze. "I'm not well suited for this. Tina was born and bred for this job. It drives me crazy."
"What specifically about the job drives you crazy?" Eve asked.
Bridget paused, blinking. Her eyebrows knitted in a frown. "I haven't thought about that. I've just been so resentful to be thrust into this right when I was enjoying my time in Italy."
Eve nodded. "I hated my last job, but it paid very well.
After working in that position, I realized that being able to do something that was my passion every day was a gift, if not a luxury."
Bridget paused again. "How profound. And I was hoping you would be a rebel."
Eve chuckled. "I am a rebel. I just try to be smart about it."
"Hmm," Bridget said. "Maybe I can learn from you. I think we should have champagne for lunch to celebrate your arrival. Dom Perignon. If Stefan finds out, he'll be livid. I do so love to make him livid."
"No champagne for me. I don't want to start my second day on the job making my boss livid."
Bridget gave a pout and sighed. "You have a point. It wouldn't do for him to fire you right off the bat. Chardonnay?"
"And water, please," Eve said, thinking she definitely needed to remain sober around these Devereaux.
Bridget led her to a small table on a balcony that overlooked the east end of the palace grounds. Floral gardens were surrounded by lush, green grounds with trees that transitioned to rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. The ocean was a mouthwatering shade of azure.
"Beautiful view," Eve said, shaking her head in wonder. "Stunning."
Bridget stared out the window and nodded. "Yes, it is, but it can be a bit confining being surrounded by all that water. No easy way out," she said, then shrugged. "Can't change that at the moment." A staff member approached the table with a pitcher of water and filled two glasses. "Thank you, Claire. Could you also bring us a nice bottle of Chardonnay? Is lemon-roasted chicken and a green salad okay with you?" she asked Eve.
"That would be great, thanks," Eve said, swallowing a secret laugh over the fact that she'd probably be eating peanut butter and jelly on the run if she were at the Logan Ranch.
Bridget met her gaze. "What are your interests? Besides horses, of course," she said. "Do you like to shop? Do you like music? Art?"
"Yes to music and art. I'm more fickle when it comes to shopping. With my new position here, I imagine I'll be busy enough in the beginning that I'll be getting most of my music fix from my iPod. What about you? Are there times of the year that are busier than others?"
"It seems as if it's always busy since Tina left, but I'm dragging my other sister and brother to participate in the royal appearances more often. I keep nagging Stefan for a vacation, but I think he's afraid once he lets me off the island, I'll never return," she said with a laugh.
"I apologize for my lack of knowledge, but does Chantaine have museums?"
"Two," Bridget said, not hiding her disapproval. "I've tried to talk Stefan into expanding, but he insists that both parliament and the citizens would balk when so many of our people are struggling economically."
Eve nodded, her mind wandering the way it often seemed to do whenever someone presented her with a problem. "It might go over with everyone better if you could make it a children's museum," she mused, and took a sip of her water.
Bridget stared at her for a moment. "That's a brilliant idea. If you're this brilliant about everything, it's no wonder Stefan was so intent on hiring you. You're right about starting out with a heavy workload, though," she said sympathetically. "I just remembered there's a parade in three weeks. The royal horses are featured, ridden by several top leaders and advisers."
Eve swallowed her water the wrong way and choked. "Three weeks?" she echoed.
Bridget nodded in commiseration. "Yes, and I can't help but believe that the horses are a little green." She shuddered delicately. "I hate the image of Count Christo being thrown. He's eighty-two years old. Sweet man, a little daft. He always insists on bringing a whip with him when he rides in the parade."
Eve felt her heart sink to her feet. "A whip?" she said, appalled, then sucked in a breath of air. "A whip," she said again, her voice rising.
Bridget shot Eve a cautious glance. "He hasn't ever actually used it."
"But he carries it," Eve said, distressed. She'd learned the uselessness of whips a long time ago.
"He's an old man," Bridget whispered. "It gives him a false feeling of control."
Eve took another deep breath and clenched her fists in her lap. More than anything, she wanted to run to the stables and begin her work with the horses. More than ever the rest of this palace protocol and orientation seemed like horse crap. She didn't want to waste one more second. Glancing at Bridget, she saw that dashing away from the princess wouldn't be possible. She clenched her fists again then released them, resolving that she would head for the stables as soon as the meal was done.
Hours later, after Eve had skipped the afternoon orientation session, she worked with a third of the many palace horses. This one was a gentle palomino mare that, like the others, hadn't been ridden often enough. She pushed down her anger that the horses hadn't been exercised. Yet, at the same time, she knew Stefan had been stalling. For her.
A smidge of guilt mixed in with her anger.
The scent of horseflesh reached her on a cellular level as she reined in the palomino. The horse submitted to her, but Eve felt the mare's urge to run. She would need to ride most of the horses once a day, if not twice during the next weeks. And the whipGod help her. How was she going to get the whip away from Count Christo?
Eve returned the mare to her stall and walked to the separate building that housed the stallion. Black was Arabian and quite the handful. She would work with him first thing in the morning, she decided as she leaned against the wall opposite his stall where he paced restlessly. The good news was that he wasn't beating down the walls of the barn.
She felt more than heard footsteps approaching and, even before she turned, her nerve endings went on alert. Turning, she saw Stefan's strong, tall form. Emanating a restless energy and power that reminded her of the stallion, he wore black riding pants and a half-buttoned shirt. His gaze was intent. "I'm the only one who rides Black," he said.
Eve refused to be intimidated. This was her job now. She would own it. "How often do you ride him?"
"Two or three times a week," he said. "Hard."
"He needs a minimum of five times per week," she told him. "Look at how restless he is."
"That's because he's a stallion," Stefan said. "Are you questioning my treatment of the horse?"
"Of course," she said. "That's why you hired me."
His mouth lifted in a half grin. "We'll do Black my way."
"For a week," she said. "If he's still restless, he'll be ridden more often, and I'll be the one riding him."
Stefan chuckled. "You?" He shook his head. "He's too much for you to handle. He was too much for the previous two men to handle."
"We'll see," she said, confident she could handle Black. She was not nearly as confident about Stefan. She watched him as he approached the stallion. The horse seemed to immediately calm. Stefan placed a bridle and saddle on the horse. He led him out of the stall, mounted him and galloped into the distance.
Chill bumps rose on her arms at the sight of man and horse flying into the moonlight. There was a mystic connection between the two of them that she couldn't deny. She felt a rush of excitement and tried to temper it with resolve. Stefan was a powerful man, but he had distractions. He wouldn't be able to ride the stallion every day. He had other demands. It wouldn't take long before she would step in as a substitute to help Black release some of his energy. Less than a week, she suspected, and she would be ready..
Exactly one week later, Stefan stared into the empty stall of his prized stallion and felt a stab of alarm. Where is Black? Has someone let him out? Escaped? He walked into the stall and stared at the walls. What had
Realization hit him and his alarm shifted to anger. Eve had taken Black for a ride. She'd told Stefan her plans, but since he'd stated that he would be the only one to ride the stallion, he'd dismissed her statements. He'd assumed she would follow his orders. Frustration rushed through him as he glanced at his watch. He'd left his office later than usual for his ride this evening, but she still shouldn't have defied his orders.
He paced from one end of the barn to the other, his temper rising with each step. Hearing the sound of hoof-beats outside, he immediately strode to the barn door. He watched in shock as Eve swung off the stallion and led him around the corral for a cooldown. Black loped alongside her as docile as a lamb. He heard her voice, low and somehow seductive, as if she were making small talk with the stallion.
As she turned around, Black glanced upward. The horse must have caught his scent. His ears prickled and he gave a soft whinney before pulling away from Eve and trotting toward him. Stefan felt a measure of satisfaction that Black had left her behind so easily.
"There you go," Stefan said to the horse, rubbing Black's sleek throat. "I've missed you, too."
Eve, her hair escaping the long braid that hung down her back, stepped toward Black and Stefan. Her hands rested on her hips, her lips were firm and unsmiling.
"You were told not to ride him," Stefan said, deliberately keeping his voice mild as he patted the horse.
"And I told you that he needs to be ridden more frequently. If you don't do it, then I will," she said. "You've only shown up twice this week. He's been so restless it's a wonder he didn't kick down the walls of his stall."
"It seems you don't understand. What I say goes about Black," he said, turning toward her.
She met his gaze. "But you still expect me to be in charge of his health, well-being, diet, etc ."
"Yes," he said, relieved the impertinent woman was beginning to understand.
She nodded. "Okay. I quit," she said and turned to walk away.
Stefan stared at her in shock, again. "Bloody hell," he muttered under his breath. "You can't quit."
She glanced over her shoulder at him. "Sure I can. You and I agreed that you would let me be in charge of running the stables. That includes Black. If you're going to interfere with me performing my job"
"Interfere," he repeated, nearly speechless at her lack of respect. "As your employer, it's my right to agree or disagree with how you conduct your duties. Particularly in regards to Black"
"Not if your plan isn't in the best interest of the horse," she interrupted, surprising him yet again. With the exception of his siblings, very few people interrupted him. "And as far as Black is concerned, you're not rational about him. Your insistence that you be the only one to ride him is ridiculous. You're a busy man, leader of a country for Pete's sake. You have obligations and responsibilities that are more important than making sure your favorite horse is getting enough exercise."
"I don't need you to inform me about my position. I make time to ride Black. It's as much for me as it is for him," he said, revealing more than he'd intended.
She stared at him for a long moment. "So is this about your ego, or about how going for a midnight ride saves you from the craziness of your position?" she asked softly.
He felt as if she'd stabbed him. What right did she have to judge him? His rides with Black were the only time he felt truly free.
"I'm not trying to step on your toes or prevent you from the pleasure of riding Black. I'm just being realistic. He's a prize of an animal, smart, powerful and fast," she said, glancing toward the horse. "But he's full of energy and if he isn't exercised more frequently he's going to be miserable. I don't think you want that."
He clenched his teeth then sucked in a quick breath. "How did you do it? No one has been able to ride him except for me."
She lifted her lips in a smile that made his gut twist. "That's my secret," she said. "I'm a horse whisperer," she said in a self-mocking tone. "That's why you hired me."
"For the others," he said.