From New York Times bestselling author Katie MacAlister comes a series about finding your own wonderland—through one roadblock at a time....
Nothing about Alice Wood’s life is normal right now. Her fiancé, Patrick, called off their wedding and relationship only days before their nonrefundable wedding trip. And though a luxurious European river cruise for one is just what she needs, it’s not what she gets....
Due to a horrible misunderstanding, Alice is now cramped in her “romantic” suite with one of Patrick’s friends. Instead of cruising along the Rhine, Main, and Danube rivers sipping champagne with the love of her life, she’s navigating the waters with a strange—yet mysteriously handsome—British aristocrat.
A baron of dubious wealth—and not-so-dubious debt—Elliot Ainslie is just looking forsome alone time to write the books that keep his large family afloat. But his stodgy, serious self is about to be sidetracked by a woman who seems to have jumped out of the pages of a fairy tale, one who is determined to shake up his life...and include him in her own happily ever after.
About the Author
She is also the author of It's All Greek to Me and the Time Thief, Light Dragons, and Dark Ones series.
Read an Excerpt
Item one: ten pounds
Remarks: Brothers are the bane of my existence.
“Oh lord, not that again.”
“El-eeee-uuut. Phone home, El-eeee-uuut.”
“There is nothing else on this earth that you can be doing at this exact moment but that?”
Elliott Edmond Richard Ainslie, eighth Baron Ainslie, and eldest brother to eleven mostly adopted siblings—mostly brothers, due to his mother’s belief that boys were easier to raise than girls—donned a long-suffering expression and leaned back in his office chair. “Very funny, Bertie. Almost as funny as the first one thousand, two hundred and thirty-two times you blighted me with that movie quote, although I feel honor-bound to point out yet again that it was E.T. who wanted to phone home, and not the young lad who found him.”
“Dude, you always say that, and I still don’t see that it matters. I mean, Elliott would have wanted to phone home if he went up in the mother ship with E.T., wouldn’t he?” Bertie, the youngest of his brothers, slumped into the armchair nearest Elliott’s desk with the boneless grace of young men of seventeen.
“You’re getting your alien movies mixed up again; the mother ship was in Close Encounters. What’s set you off on this eighties movie binge anyway? I thought you were studying for your exams.” Elliott eyed his laptop with longing. He really needed to get this book started if he was going to have it finished in time to join the family on their annual trek to visit the orphanage and school his mother endowed in Kenya.
“Really, Bertie? Whatev? You can’t even be bothered to add the last syllable?” Elliott shook his head. “If this is what time in America has done to you, I shall have to speak to Mum about letting you return there in the autumn.”
Bertie clicked his tongue dismissively, swiveling in the chair until his legs hung over one arm. “Mum’ll let me go no matter what you say. My family is there. It’s my crib, you know?”
“Your family is from a small village two hundred miles outside of Nairobi,” Elliott corrected him. “At least that’s what the people at the orphanage told Mum when she adopted you, and I see no reason why they would confuse a small village in Africa with Brooklyn, New York. But never mind all that. Did you want something in particular, or have you just come to blight me on a whim?”
“Elliott!” a voice said sharply from the door.
Elliott sighed to himself. This was all he needed to utterly destroy the morning’s chance at work.
“You will not be cruel to your brother! He is needful of our love and understanding in order to help him integrate into this family. If you abuse him like that, you will end up making him feel that he is a stranger in a strange land.” Lady Ainslie bustled into the room, clutched Bertie to her substantial bosom, and shot a potent glare over his head at her eldest son.
“He’s been a part of the family since he was two months old, Mum. If he feels like a stranger, it’s because he’s cultivating that emotion, and not due to any ill will on my part,” Elliott couldn’t help but point out.
“You must love all your brothers and sisters,” his mother went on, smooshing poor Bertie’s face into the aforementioned bosom. Elliott winced in sympathy when Bertie’s arms flailed, indicating a lack of oxygen. “No matter what their origins, color, or cultural roots.”
“I do love all my siblings, although I will admit to preferring those you and Papa adopted rather than the two related by blood.”
“Yes, well, that’s because your dear papa and I were first cousins,” Lady Ainslie admitted, utterly ignoring the fact that she was smothering one of her beloved sons. “To be honest, we’re lucky that your sister Jane’s webbed toes are the worst that came out of that. But I digress. You must not pick on dear Bertie, or he will get a complex.”
Elliott gave consideration to the fact that Bertie’s wild gestures were now more feeble twitches than anything else. “I don’t think that will be a problem if you continue to asphyxiate him like that.”
“What? Oh.” Lady Ainslie looked down, and with an annoyed click of her tongue released Bertie. He collapsed to the floor, gasping for air, his face, already dark due to his ancestry, now strangely mottled. “Silly boy should have said something. Now, what did I come to see you about?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea. Is it something to do with the builders? They haven’t rescheduled again, have they?”
“No, no, they’re still coming on Monday as planned. It will be terribly inconvenient having them underfoot for the monthly Mothers Without Borders meeting, but I suppose it is necessary to have the work done.”
“If you wish for the walls to remain upright, then yes,” Elliott said mildly.
He’d worked and saved and scrimped until he had, after seven years, managed to accrue enough money to start the restoration of the seventeenth-century house he had inherited. Along with a lot of debts, he thought sourly to himself, not the least of which was a nearly crippling inheritance tax.
If only his father hadn’t been such a poor financial planner. If only his mother hadn’t spent her own modest fortune on endowing any number of charities in her late husband’s name. It wasn’t that Elliott was against supporting such worthy causes—he was as charitable as the next man, doing his part to end child hunger and abuse to animals and to provide homes for needy hedgehogs—but he couldn’t help but wish that supporting his large family and money-sucking estate hadn’t fallen so squarely on his shoulders.
He had to get this book done. Hell, he had to get the damned thing started. Without the money the book contracts brought in, he’d be sunk. They all would be in desperate straits, everyone from his spendthrift mother right down to Levar, the second-youngest brother, who was recovering from a very expensive operation to straighten one of his legs. “Is there something in particular you wanted to discuss with me? Because if you’ve just come to chat, I will have to beg off. I really must get this book under way if I’m to meet the deadline. Bertie, for god’s sake, stop with the dramatics. You aren’t dying.”
“I saw spots,” Bertie said, ceasing the fish-out-of-water noises in order to haul himself up to the chair. “I saw a light. I wanted to go into the light.”
Elliott bit back the urge to say it was a shame he hadn’t, because he truly did love all his brothers and sisters. Even impressionable, heedless Bertie, who had recently returned from a two-month visit to see distant family members who had long ago emigrated from the small village in Kenya to the U.S. “Right. What have I told you both about my office door?”
“When the door is shut, Elliott is working,” they parroted in unison.
“And if I don’t work . . . ?”
“We don’t eat,” they answered in unison.
“So why is it you’re both here when this is my working time?”
“I need a tenner,” Bertie said with an endearing grin.
Their mother looked askance. “You just had your allowance. What did you spend that on?”
“Girls,” he answered, his grin growing. “Three of them. Triplets with golden hair, and golden skin, and knockers that would make you drool.”
“Bertie!” Elliott said with a meaningful nod toward their mother.
“Oh, well,” Lady Ainslie said, dismissing this evidence of teenage libido. “Young men should be interested in girls. Unless, of course, they’re interested in boys, which is perfectly all right no matter what the Reverend Charles says, and if he thinks he’s going to make an example of dear Gabrielle simply because she ran off with his poor downtrodden wife, well then, he simply needs to think again. The Ainslies have been a part of Ainston village since the Conqueror came over, and I shan’t have him blackening our name now. That brings to mind the letter I intended on sending Charles after that scathing sermon he read last week, which was quite obviously pointed at me. Elliott, dear, have your secretary send a letter expressing my discontent, and threatening to cease our donations to the church if he doesn’t stop writing sermons about women who raise their daughters to become wife-stealing lesbians.”
Elliott sighed and looked at his watch. “I don’t have a secretary, Mum.”
“No?” She looked vaguely surprised. “You ought to, dear. You are a famous writer, after all. No one can kill off people quite like you do. Now, much as I would like to stay and chat, I really must go write an article for The M’kula Times&Agricultural Review regarding the upcoming celebration at the Lord Ainslie Memorial School of Animal Husbandry. I’ve been invited to speak at the opening of the new manure house next month, and I want to alert all our friends in Kenya to that worthy event. Do give your brother ten pounds. Young men always need ten pounds.”
“And, speaking of that, have you given any thought to my suggestion?”
“What suggestion?” Her face darkened. “You’re not still intending on committing that atrocity?”
“If by ‘atrocity’ you mean requiring that the members of this family find gainful employment elsewhere, then yes.” He held up a hand to forestall the objection that he was certain she would make. “Mum, I have explained it at least three times: I cannot continue to support every single member of this family anymore. All those brothers and sisters are a drain on the estate, one that cannot continue unchecked.”
“You are exaggerating the situation,” she said dismissively. “They are your family. You owe them support.”
“Emotional support, yes. Help where I can give it, of course. But the financial situation has made it quite clear that only those members of the family who actually work for the estate will continue to be employed. Everyone else is going to have to find a job elsewhere. We can’t afford to support them simply because they are family.”
“You are heartless and cruel!” his mother declared, one hand to her substantial bosom. “Your father would turn over in his grave if he knew how you were willing to disown all your siblings without so much as a thought for their welfare.”
“I have had many thoughts for their welfare, but I am also responsible for the estate, and everyone employed by it, as well as the many tenant farmers. Mum, I’m sorry, but there’s no other way. If I don’t cut out the deadweight, we’ll be foreclosed upon, and I don’t think anyone wants to see that happen.”
“But your brothers and sisters! What are they to do? How will they live?”
He smiled grimly. “Just like the rest of us. They’ll have to get real jobs.”
She gasped in horror. “You plan on throwing everyone to the wolves?”
“Hardly that. Dixon’s job as the estate agent is quite secure—I couldn’t do half the work he does. Gunner has employment elsewhere, so he doesn’t come into the equation. Gabrielle is excellent at managing the tour guides and gift shop, so her job is safe. Assuming she comes back from wherever she ran off to. But the others will simply have to find jobs outside of the castle.”
“You are not the man I thought you were,” his mother said, giving him a look filled with righteous indignation. “I would wash my hands of you except I believe that one day your sanity will return to you. I just hope you haven’t destroyed the family before that time.”
With a dramatic flourish, she exited the room.
* * *
“One down,” Elliott said with a sigh. He eyed his brother.
“This one will cost you a tenner,” the little blighter had the nerve to say.
Elliott fought the urge to sigh again, and gave in to the roguish charm that won Bertie so much admiration from the local teenage female population. He dug a ten-pound note out of his wallet. “Mind this lasts longer than the last one I gave you. I’m not made—”
“—of money. I know, I know,” Bertie said with a laugh. He tucked the cash away and gave Elliott a friendly buffet on the shoulder, saying, in a bizarre mix of British and American slang, “But you’re the only one of us that has any dosh. Thanks, bro. You da man.”
The door closed behind Bertie with a satisfying thud.
“Elliott, I remember now what it was I came to tell you before you began speaking so cruelly of all your helpless siblings,” Lady Ainslie said, her head popping around the door just as Bertie left the room. “The man wishes to speak with you.”
“Man?” Elliott ran over the mental list of men he knew who might show up at the castle and demand an audience. “What man? One of the builders?”
“No, no, the Irishman. The one you went to school with. He’s on the phone for you.”
“Patrick?” Elliott patted his pockets, realized that he didn’t have his mobile phone, and followed after his mother as she disappeared down the dark corridor. “Mum, how often have I asked you not to answer my mobile phone?”
“But it was ringing, dear. And it might have been someone important.”
When his mother turned right at the long galley, Elliott turned left and raced down the back stairs to the small room on the east side of the house that used to be known as the ladies’ withdrawing room. In it was a comfortable, if eclectic, collection of furniture retrieved from the attics, and which made up the family’s sitting room.
“Hullo?” He expected to see the phone turned off, but it was still active, and he could hear voices emitting from it. Picking it up, he said, “Patrick?”
“—and don’t forget t’make an appointment with the agent. I want the condo sold no later than March. What? Elliott, is that you? Had t’send t’the back forty for you, did they?”
“Back forty what?” Elliott asked, confused.
“It’s an American expression.”
“Ah. To what do I owe the honor of this call? Oh, hell, that sounded rude. Ignore me—I’m in a foul mood. It’s been a nightmare around here gearing up for some renovations, and I’m late getting started on a new book. Let me start again. Nice to hear from you, Patrick. How are you doing?”
Patrick laughed, and said something under his breath to his secretary about moving a meeting to the following week. “No need t’apologize. Your foul mood is why I’m calling. Your sister was talking about you the other day, and she suggested you be the one t’take the tickets, rather than my secretary trying to flog them on Craigslist.”
Elliott sat in his favorite armchair, the one that was stained with decades of ink spilled by some long-dead literary ancestor. “My sister? Tickets? Craigslist? Christ, now I sound like a deranged parrot. Which sister, and what tickets are you talking about?”
“The tickets for my prewedding trip down a couple of rivers in Europe t’that city in Czechoslovakia. You know the place.”
“No, no, the other place. The one with that big bridge that gets all the attention.”
Elliott thought. “Budapest?”
“Yes, that’s the place. The river tour goes from Amsterdam t’Budapest.”
“Budapest is Hungary, not the Czech Republic.”
“Same difference,” Patrick said with an airy lack of concern. “I’ve parted ways with Alice, so I don’t need the tickets, and since your delicious sister swore it was bad juju for her t’take the place of an ex, she thought that you could do with the trip. Since I hear all hell is about t’break out at Ainslie Castle, that is, and of course, your straitened circumstances.”
There was a tinge of satisfaction in Patrick’s voice that Elliott ignored. Before he could respond, he heard someone yelling for him. No doubt it was yet another minor crisis. He sank down farther into the chair, asking, “Who’s Alice?”
“My ex. It was past time t’let her go. You know my rule.”
“Two years with any given woman, and not a single day more,” Elliott said, making a face at nothing in particular. He’d always thought Patrick’s method of conducting his romantic affairs particularly coldhearted.
“That’s right. As a matter of fact, I broke that rule by sticking with Alice for three extra months, but where did that get me? She called me a bastard. She said that half the condo was hers. She claimed I misled her. Me! It would have been laughable if it wasn’t so damned unpleasant. It was a sign, I tell you, Elliott, a sign that it doesn’t do t’go against the rule. If you don’t move on when you’re supposed to, nothing good will come of it.”
“I’ll be sure to remind my sister of that,” Elliott said smoothly. “Which sister will I be informing of your intentions two years hence? You’ve met all three of them over the years, although one wouldn’t give a fig for you. At least not romantically speaking.”
Patrick laughed again. “Don’t be such a wet blanket. Who knows, Jane could be the one that breaks the rule. Regardless, I’ll e-mail you the ticket information. Alice said she wouldn’t go on the trip if I paid her to, so you’ll have the cabin all t’yourself. Boat leaves next Monday. Don’t worry about paying—it’s no hardship to me, and I know you’ll appreciate the largesse. You’ll have a fortnight floating around rivers, which your sister says will give you peace and quiet you won’t have at home. Regards t’Lady Ainslie. She sounds as distracted as ever. What’s that? Yes, yes, I’ll take that call. I’m done here. Elliott, must ring off. Your sister Jane and I are off t’Paris in the morning, and I have an important vendor from Australia on the line.”
“Wait a moment, what—”
The connection ended, leaving Elliott to stare in confusion at his phone.
“Mum says the builder needs you. Something to do with wanting more money.” Gunner paused and stared at Elliott. “You all right? You look even more harassed than usual.”
“I just had an odd call from Patrick.”
“Daft Irish bastard Patrick?” Gunner asked, coming into the room and setting down a duffel bag that had been slung over one shoulder.
“Yes, although he’d bloody your nose again if he heard you calling him that.”
Gunner grinned. The first child adopted by the baron and baroness, he was a self-defined mutt of a man, with a mix of ethnicities that ranged from African to South Pacific, and even some Slavic. “He could try. I haven’t seen him in . . . hell, eight years? Nine? What’s he done now? Don’t tell me he’s found some new way to flaunt his wealth in front of you.”
Elliott shook his head, then changed it to a nod. “He can’t help it; he’s got an inferiority complex when it comes to me. Actually, he’s doing me a favor. I think.” He explained about the cruise.
“Nice,” Gunner said with a low whistle. “I wish I had mates who’d give me trips to the Continent like that.”
Elliott eyed the scruffy duffel bag. “Aren’t you leaving today for Spain?”
“Yes, but that’s work. I’ll be baking in the hot Spanish sun taking pictures of abandoned factories while you’re swanning around on some cruise ship. The life of an industrial photographer is not a posh one. Not like that of writers.”
“You know exactly how un-posh my life is,” Elliott answered. “Did you know Jane was in the States? The last I heard she was in Ottawa working for an Internet firm.”
“No, but it doesn’t surprise me that Patrick managed to find and acquire her. He’s been dying to hold a relationship with one of the girls over you ever since his balls dropped.”
“I don’t give a damn who he dates,” Elliott protested.
“You and I know that, but Patrick clearly views it as a way of scoring against you. You have a title and an aristocratic family that I can’t ever have, so I’ll bang your sister. That sort of thing.”
“A title that’s bound by debts, and a family that’s driving me insane before my time.”
Gunner glanced at his watch. “Patrick will never see that. You going to take the tickets?”
“I don’t know. It does make me feel a bit beholden to him—”
“Elliott! Come quick, Mum says the renovation man wants another check. Something about the cost of stone going up.” Bertie appeared briefly in the doorway, jamming a motorcycle helmet on his head, clearly on his way out to spend the ten pounds. “Oh, and one of the hothouses is on fire, but it’s the one with the aubergines, so no loss there. Later, brothers!”
“I like aubergines,” Elliott started to say, but stopped when Gunner laughed aloud.
“Sounds like you’d best take Patrick’s offer, El. You’ll go mad if you have to stay here for the next few weeks.”
“There are times when I wish a portal would open up right here at my feet, one that would transport me to another place, one without demands for money I don’t have, and time I can’t waste. But reality persists in being unhelpful, and I always remain right where I am.”
Gunner scooped up the duffel and slung the strap across his chest. “Two weeks, El. No phones, no distractions and endless interruptions, no demands for more checks . . . just the blissful lapping of water against the side of the ship, and the quiet of a cabin all to yourself.”
“It does sound like heaven.”
The distant sound of a fire truck reached their ears. Gunner gave his brother a friendly punch in the arm, and left, saying, “I’m off to Spain, followed by a jaunt to Portugal to photograph the inside of a partially collapsed mine. And possibly Bulgaria, if my employers can smuggle me into an old radium factory.”
“That doesn’t sound healthy.”
Gunner shrugged. “There is an interested bidder on the property, but the Bulgarian government isn’t too wild about letting people photograph it. If I can sneak in, then I’ll get some shots. Otherwise, I will be home in a week.”
Elliott waved absently, making a decision right then and there. He’d take the trip that Patrick offered. A cruise down Europe’s most famous rivers couldn’t be any more disruptive than home, after all.
Diary of Alice Wood
New Diary Begins: Day One
“Tell me that you’re not going to give in to the douche-canoe and let him ruin what will be a perfectly fabulous vacation. Tell me you’re not going to do that, Alice.”
I kicked at an empty cardboard box as I wandered from a minuscule kitchen to an equally minuscule bedroom, hopping and swearing when it turned out the box wasn’t empty after all. “Son of a sea biscuit!”
“Chill, babe,” came the slightly offended voice of one of my oldest friends. I jostled the phone in order to apologize and rub my hurting toes. “I was just expressing my opinion. You’re a big girl. If you want to save up for a dream vacation for more than four years and then not take it, then that’s your business.”
“Sorry, Helen, I wasn’t sea biscuiting you. I stubbed my toes on a box full of books.”
“I thought you’d unpacked already?”
“I did some unpacking. Most of the stuff is in storage because this place is so tiny.” I sank down on a worn futon, my spirits as flabby as the futon’s stuffing. “Moving is hell.”
“Yeah, well, I told you to fight the douche-canoe’s dictates. You guys moved into that condo together, so it’s just as much yours as it is his. He had no right to demand you vacate the premises just because he went mental and broke up with you.”
I smiled sadly at my toes. It was really nice that Helen automatically took my side in the breakup of a two-year relationship, but I had a terrible feeling that the fault didn’t totally lie at Patrick’s door. “Unfortunately, he was the legal owner of the condo, and he was the one who made the payments on it, so I really don’t have grounds to make any demands. Besides, I couldn’t live there with him in a roommate capacity. That would be too awkward.”
“I hear you. And I’m not saying you should; I’m simply saying you shouldn’t be a doormat to his stupid whims. And that includes giving up your dream vacation. You said he isn’t going on the trip, right?”
“His actual words were, ‘I’d rather have my scrotum tattooed than spend a single day on vacation with you,’ so that seems pretty clear that he’s not going to use his tickets.”
“There you go, then!” Helen’s voice, normally warm and empathetic, took on a slightly tetchy quality when she covered the receiver and yelled a demand that her daughter be home in time for dinner. “Sorry, Edison is being unusually difficult. Where were we? Oh, yes, if Patrick stays home, then why shouldn’t you go spend two glorious weeks on a fancy river cruise boat allowing the staff to bend over backward to make you feel like a princess?”
I shrugged even though no one was there to see it. “It just feels kind of callous. I mean, I’m devastated by Patrick’s betrayal. One day we were fine, happy as little clams, and the next day he’s insisting that we both need to move on—and, in my case, to take that literally.”
“There’s devastated, and then there’s devastated,” Helen said. “You paid for your share of the trip, Patrick isn’t going, and you don’t have a job to hold you back from taking two weeks off.”
“That’s another thing.” I slumped back into the futon, wishing it would swallow me up. “I should be looking for a job. One that does not come with a handsome boss who will two years later kick you out of your home.”
“Mmm, well, we can debate the wisdom of dating an employer later. Right now you need to pull yourself out of the self-pity pool, and pack up your swimsuit, a fancy dress, and some comfortable walking shoes, because Europe beckons. That’s what your therapist said, yes?”
“Not really. She said I should keep a diary of all my emotions and thoughts and feelings about . . . well, basically everything, and then use that as discussion points in our sessions. I have to say, Helen, it’s weird talking to a stranger about all that inner stuff going on.”
“Weird good, or weird weird?”
“Weird good, I suppose. I’m going to start the diary today. She said it was very important to pick a day and make that your first day, so that all the emotional baggage crap is behind you, and you get a fresh start. So I thought I’d start today.”
“Good for you. It’s especially pertinent if you decide to take the trip you paid for, and which you’d be an idiot to throw away just because an asshat loses what few bits of intelligence he had.”
Using my abused toes, I nudged aside a collection of mail that I had picked up from my former home, until the glossy brochure advertising a glorious two-week trip down the Danube, Main, and Rhine rivers lay exposed. I had to admit, the temptation to take the trip regardless of my unemployed state was great. “You don’t think it looks like I’m desperate or anything, do you?”
“Yeah, you know, all single ladies go to Europe hoping to meet some handsome James Bond–cool European man who will sweep her off her feet with his delicious accent and expensive Italian shoes. And courtly old-world manners. The kind that holds chairs for women at casinos, and offers them lifts in tiny little sports cars that cost as much as a nice house. Although, I have to admit that would make for some great diary entries.”
Helen’s laugh rippled out of the phone. “Honey, you haven’t been to Europe lately if you think that’s what the men there are like. I hate to disabuse your idea of old-world courtliness, but your average European guy isn’t going to have expensive Italian shoes or a fancy sports car. So no, I don’t think you will look desperate by taking the trip. On the contrary, I think it sends quite a firm statement to He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
“You named him a minute ago,” I couldn’t help but point out.
“Stop harshing my mellow. Take the trip, enjoy having a fancy cabin all to yourself, meet a James Bond if you can—although usually his women don’t end up well as I recall, so maybe go for someone whose job isn’t quite so dangerous. Write all about it in your diary, and let Patrick suck on the idea that you’re not in the least bit bothered by the fact that he’s an idiot to let you go.”
“Patrick was James Bondian when I first met him,” I said forlornly. “It was at the benefit for the library, and all the women were gaga about him because he has that sexy Irish accent, and those blue eyes and black hair and, oh hell.” Anger, never slow to start when I thought of my recent ex, fired up with an intensity that had me sitting up straight. “He really is a bastard through and through.”
“He used me.”
“Like a wet paper towel!”
I shoved aside some books until I dug out a small laptop. I would start the diary right then and there. “He charmed me and swept me off my feet and made me quit my nice job with the library to become his private secretary, and then he seduced me into moving in with him!”
“Man deserves to be hung up by his balls for that.”
I stood up, shaking the laptop at nothing. “He made me think we were going to get married at the end of this trip! He had me look up the laws for Americans getting married in Budapest!”
“Ball-hanging is too good for him. He deserves something worse. Off with his head!”
“I will take that trip!” I yelled at the small living room filled with boxes that I had yet to unpack. “And I will enjoy myself! A lot! So much that he’ll gnash his teeth and tear out that lovely black hair, and will crawl back begging me to forgive him.”
“Which you won’t do because you are a smart woman and won’t throw yourself into yet another disastrous relationship without first thinking about whether the man is the one for you, right?”
Helen’s voice was filled with caution, but my spirits were soaring, and I wasn’t going to let anyone ground them again. I looked at the clock on the laptop, and made the decision. “Oh, how I will enjoy his crawling. Gotta run, babe. The plane leaves tomorrow morning, and I have no idea where my clothes are.”
“You’re not naked, are you?”
I smiled and put the laptop on the mound of books. “No, but I’ve been wearing the same pair of sweatpants and tee since I moved three days ago, and I think they could be technically classified as a new life-form. Love to the kiddo. I’ll post pictures of the boat and things.”
“Enjoy yourself, lovey. Have fun with cathartic writing and suchlike. But be careful, OK?”
“Yes, Mom,” I said with another smile, touched by Helen’s concern. She was always telling me to stop being quite so heedless when it came to life, but hard experience had proved more than once that you have to grab what you can because you never know when it will be taken away from you.
I shoved down that thought and allowed the burst of adrenaline to carry me through the next twenty-four hours, from the hassle of digging out appropriate clothing to wear, to borrowing a suitcase to stuff said clothing into, getting myself and my gigantic bag onto an airplane to Amsterdam, and, finally, starting this diary.
“My boat cruise goes through Holland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary,” I told my seatmate as the occupants of the plane settled down to the long ten-hour trip from Portland, Oregon, to Amsterdam. “On three different rivers. See? Castles!”
The woman next to me, obviously on summer break from college, admired the glossy brochure. “Manny van Bris: Tour Guide to the Nearly Famous. Well, now. That looks like a lot of fun.”
“The staterooms,” I read to her from the brochure, “are equipped with every modern convenience, and are designed to delight the traveler in a home-away-from home atmosphere. And I’ll have a cabin all to myself since . . . since my friend can’t make it.”
“It sounds lovely,” the woman said, giving me a look that told me I was on the verge of becoming That Person on a plane, the one you didn’t want to get stuck sitting next to. I gave her a big smile, and settled back into my seat, my fingers sliding over the glossy paper.
Helen was right—I was due a vacation after the dramafest my life had suddenly become. I just hoped Patrick would realize that I had taken the trip after all. I had contemplated leaving him a message in case he was unaware of how easily I had moved on, but decided that a policy of pretending he didn’t exist was better.
Besides, if I posted lots of pictures on Facebook of all the fabulous fun I was having on my glamorous boat trip, mutual friends would be sure to point them out to him. I smiled at the thought and made a mental note to include lots of photos of whatever handsome men came within the range of my camera.
Those were my thoughts as I dragged my by now jet-lagged self through the Amsterdam airport, found a cab, and made my way out to where the river cruise boats were lined up, waiting to take that day’s flock of passengers on board. The ships—long and sleek and elegant—were stacked two and three deep, with long lines of people streaming on board. I hauled my wheeled bag past a couple of especially elegant ships, mentally hugging myself with delight. I’d made the right choice to come on this trip. It would definitely show Patrick that I was so over him.
The delight of that thought faded to nothing the second I spotted my boat.
“Excuse me,” I said, staring in horror as I snagged a uniformed person bearing a clipboard. “I’m looking for the Manny van Bris River Tours section of the pier. Can you tell me where that is?”
The man turned and pointed at the boat that I was still staring at. “That would be your ship, madam.”
“No.” I shook my head. “It can’t be. See, I have a brochure. It shows the ship right here, and this is clearly not the same boat as that . . . that . . . heap.”
The man gave me a sympathetic look, murmured something about hoping I enjoyed my holiday, and hurried off to tend his shiny new ship.
My gaze drifted along the narrow boat moored alongside the dock. A small gangway stretched across the few feet of water to the dockside, rusted chains hanging morosely off the flimsy walkway. The ship itself had once been painted red and white, but now was mostly rust and white, with large bare patches where the paint had peeled off. At the front of the upper deck—there were three decks on the ship, according to the brochure, although I now viewed that source of information with much skepticism—a handful of plastic white lawn chairs sat.
“This is not the same ship,” I said, looking at the brochure one more time. “This can’t be right. I can’t have spent four grand on that. It looks like it would sink if I so much as sneezed on it!”
“Alice Wood?” I looked up at the person who had called my name. A shiny-faced woman of indeterminate years, but with poufy blond hair that bespoke someone in her sixties, bustled carefully across the gangway and over to me. In a voice with a BBC America sort of English accent, she said, “You are Alice Wood of Portland, Oregon, United States?”
“Yes, I’m Alice, but that is not the same ship as shown here.” I held out the brochure and tapped it.
“The ship pictured in the advertisement is just a depiction, as is noted in the fine print,” she said dismissively, grabbing the handle of my suitcase and wheeling it away from me, toward the gangway. “This is our flagship, the Manny B. It needs a few cosmetic touches, but I assure you that once you’re on board, you’ll find it very comfortable, very comfortable indeed. I haven’t introduced myself, have I? I’m Tiffany Jones, the cruise concierge, and your friend away from home. Call on me for whatever you need. Come along, now, you are the last of our guests to arrive, and Captain Manny is most adamant about leaving before the other ships.”
“Really?” I said, looking upward at the rusted side of the ship as I carefully walked across the gangway. The latter didn’t feel any too sturdy underfoot, but at least I made it across without falling into the water, or chunks of the ship hurling themselves onto my head. “Why is that?”
“He likes to get the best position on shore, of course.”
I looked at the ship. “Position? Aren’t they all along the banks?”
“If you look behind you, you’ll see that the latecomers have to anchor alongside other ships rather than the shore. Captain Manny prefers to claim the premium spot since the other captains are such beasts about our company. Petty, quite petty, and so very cutting with their comments about our fleet. Now, this is my concierge desk. Do you have your passport? I’ll just hold on to it for you so you won’t be bothered by all the trivialities of border crossings. Here is your room key.” She handed a small key to me as she continued rushing ahead. “Through here is the lower lounge. It’s a bar, really, and although it’s empty now, you’ll find it’s quite the jumping nightspot, as you Americans like to say. Your cabin is just up the stairs here, and down the corridor. Mind your step. To the left is the upper lounge, and a wee little library to the right, just there. Around the corner we go. You have the veranda cabin, so you’ll be able to enjoy the pleasure of a firsthand view from your own deck chair while cruising down the rivers. We just ask that you not sit outside when the wind is from the north due to noxious fumes from the engines. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be so unpleasant, can it not? And here we are! Your deluxe veranda cabin awaits you. Do take your time unpacking. There will be an informal drinks and nibblies party promptly at four p.m. in the upper lounge. Dinner is at seven. You needn’t dress for the first night out. Do feel free to tell me if you need anything.”
* * *
My head was spinning by the time she hustled off down the narrow hallway.
“Alice, my dear,” I said softly. “You are in Wonderland, which means that has to be the White Rabbit.”
I watched until she disappeared, feeling like I’d been deposited in a whirlwind. I turned to consider the doors before me. There were three cabins on this level of the ship, but the blank doors told me nothing about what the next two weeks held for me.
“It may be Wonderland, but it’s also on a river,” I said to myself under my breath, using the key in the door, “so even if the ship does sink, you can swim to shore. Just relax and enjoy two blissful weeks of Europe unblighted by the presence of any egotistical, narcissistic, backstabbing men.”
I entered the cabin, coming to an abrupt halt at the sight of a chestnut-haired man who was seated at a minuscule table, hunched over a laptop. The man looked up with a start and stared at me with an expression of surprise that was probably identical to the one plastered all over my face.
“Um . . . ,” I said.
“Um?” he asked, a little frown pulling down his eyebrows. “Really? That’s how you greet people? The laxity of customer service these days. Well, it’s of no matter; as I told that chatty concierge, I do not need anything, and don’t wish to be disturbed. I have a book to write, and I need quiet to do so.”
What on earth was this arrogant man doing in my cabin? Judging by his comments, he had probably snuck in thinking it was empty and thus available to be used as his personal office.
He had one of those rich British accents that made me think of Stephen Fry at his most pompous, and although he certainly wasn’t hard at all on the eyes, he was most definitely not what I wanted in the form of cabin accoutrements. “You can blame the ‘um’ on jet lag. I’ve been awake for over twenty-four hours, and frankly, I don’t give a damn whether or not you wish to be disturbed. You’re in my cabin, and I would appreciate you writing your book elsewhere.”
“Your cabin?” he said, frowning even more.
I went out to the hallway and pulled my suitcase in, noticing then that there were two small bags stacked against the wall next to one of the two twin beds that dominated the small room.
“I beg to differ,” the man said, observing me with what might have been alarm. “This is my cabin.”
I held up my key. “Beta deck, room four. That’s what it says on the door, and it’s where Tiffany left me, so would you please mind finding yourself another place to write?”
He stood up slowly, his eyes—which I noticed were a particularly clear gray—roaming over me in a speculative, wholly impersonal way. I will admit that the woman in me was a bit annoyed about that. I might not be seeking male attention or appreciation, but dammit, he didn’t have to look me over like I was a particularly uninspiring view. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Anise, would it?”
“Alice,” I corrected. “Who are you?”
He started to answer, checked himself, then said hesitantly, “Elliott Ainslie.” I was about to tell him that I was tired and would appreciate him vamoosing when he added, “You’re Patrick’s ex.”
A chill ran down my back, curled around my side, and settled in my stomach with a sick feeling. “You know Patrick?”
He nodded. “We were at school together. It would appear that there has been a gross miscommunication. Patrick gave me his travel tickets saying that his ex-girlfriend had decided not to take the trip, and since he had more important things to do, he’d let me have his cabin.”
“Our cabin,” I said, righteously indignant about many things, but mostly that Patrick felt so little about a vacation that I had long anticipated that he had tossed it away on a pal. “We went in halfsies on the cabin.”
“I see. No doubt you will wish to take that matter up with Patrick. I’m sure he will see the justice in having to reimburse you for the cost of a different cabin.”
“Different cabin?” I plopped down on one of the beds, the one nearest the tiny bathroom. “I have a cabin. There’s no reason for me to get another one.”
“But I am already in possession of this one—”
“Yeah, and you didn’t pay for it, did you? You said Patrick gave you the tickets. Well, I did pay, a lot of money, four grand to be exact, so if anyone is finding a new cabin, it’s you, not me.”
Oh, he didn’t like that. “Now, see here, Miss . . . Miss . . .”
“See here, Miss Wood.” He strode the three steps over to where I sat like a limp bit of broccoli on the bed. “I recognize that the situation is not of your making—although Patrick was quite adamant that you had made clear your intention to not take the trip as planned—but neither is it of mine, and since I was in possession of the cabin first, it only makes sense for you to be the one to relocate. You haven’t even unpacked.”
I lay down on the bed, wincing a little at both the mattress’s lumpiness and the fact that it was inclined at a slight angle. “My cabin. I paid for it, I’m staying. Besides, if you were a gentleman, you’d offer to find a new room.”
He swore under his breath for a moment, stomped up and down the cabin (all five steps’ worth of it), then marched out of the cabin muttering things that I felt it better not to strain to overhear.
I sat up, glancing over at his laptop, but before I could do more than wonder if he was in contact with Patrick, he reappeared, snatched up his laptop, and exited again, trailing dark looks at me.
At that point, exhaustion claimed me, making it hard to get my body moving. But my curiosity trumped jet lag, and had me opening the drawers of the low dresser that lined one wall. Shirts, pants, and assorted undergarments were folded with precision.
“The man who folded those socks,” I said aloud, kneeling to pull open the bottom drawer, “is borderline anal. I’ve never seen clothing so tidy. Good lord, he even has a travel iron.”
Voices outside the door heralded the return of the gray-eyed intruder. I knee-walked the two steps over to the door and opened it to find him arguing with Tiffany.
“—very sorry, sir, but as I’ve told you three times now, there simply are no other free cabins. We are sailing at capacity, and I should like to point out that Manny van Bris Tours cannot be held responsible for errors of this sort. It is simply not feasible for us to maintain unoccupied cabins on the off chance that one of our customers should suddenly break up with his partner and require separate accommodations. Or in your case, give his ticket to you. Your friend purchased shared occupancy of this cabin, and I’m afraid that you will simply have to deal with the situation as best you can.”
Tiffany’s head swiveled as she considered me for a brief moment. On my knees looking back at her, I felt every single minute of the twenty-four-plus hours I’d been traveling—wrinkled, unwashed, and so tired that most of my inhibitions had fallen asleep.
“This ship isn’t at all like the pictures in the brochure,” I told her. “The mattress is lumpy, too.”
She was about to answer me, but Elliott interrupted. “There’s got to be somewhere else I can sleep on the ship. I don’t require much room, just somewhere to sit with my laptop, and a bed to stretch out on at night.”
“You have a cabin, sir,” she said, with a hard glance at me. “There are no other options.”
“You could go stay in a hotel,” I suggested.
“If you wish to disembark, you will need to do so in the next three minutes,” Tiffany said curtly, snapping closed the portfolio she held in her hands. “We will be leaving immediately.”
Elliott looked like he really wanted to let loose with a blue cloud of profanity, but I had to give it to him—he just flexed his jaw a couple of times, and swallowed his frustration down. He turned to me. “I don’t suppose you would consider a hotel—”
“Nope. I don’t have enough money for one, even if I did want to consider it. What about you?” I gave him the once-over. He was dressed casually, in a pair of dark pants and a plain white shirt. He didn’t look like his financial status matched his upper-class accent.
A quick grimace passed over his face. “I prefer not to spend my resources on something as trivial as a vacation.”
“Broke, too, huh?” I gave a little half shrug. “I hear ya on that. Had to max out my credit card in order to have some spending money, not that I have a lot of that, but you can’t go to Europe without buying at least a few postcards and stuff, right? So, what are you going to do? Sleep in the lounge at night? I suppose I could let you use this room during the day when I’m not here, if you wanted to write—”
He brushed past me into the cabin. “Such thoughtfulness isn’t necessary. As you heard, I am the rightful possessor of a ticket that entitles me to the use of one-half of this cabin, which means exactly one-half of the table, and one of the beds, are at my disposal. I opt to use them.”
“You can’t do that! We don’t know each other!” I was scandalized at the thought of sharing so confined a space, so intimate a space, with a complete stranger. What was worse was the fact that a tiny little bit of me was also intrigued. Elliott was an unknown, a conundrum just waiting for me to figure him out. And if there was anything I loved, it was a deep, intricate puzzle.
“I’m sure we can work out a rota for usage of the cabin during the day.” He eyed me coolly as he set his laptop back onto the tiny round table, taking care, I noted, not to use more than half of the available space.
“But you’re a man! We’ll have to sleep together, and despite whatever horrible things Patrick has told you about me, I am not a ho.”
He just stared at me.
I sighed and slapped one hand on my thigh in irritation. “Woman of loose moral values.”
“Ah. I have no doubt your morals are of the highest quality.” He sat back down at his laptop and tapped a few keys.
I waited for a minute, then said, “Aren’t you going to reassure me that Patrick didn’t say bad things to you about me?”
“Why should I do that?” He spoke without even looking up from the screen.
I thigh-slapped again. “Because it’s the polite thing to do! Here am I, all angsty and fragile emotionally speaking, and it’s your duty as a gentleman and decent human being who cares about his fellow humans to make me feel better.”
“Technically, I’m a nobleman, not a gentleman.”
That wasn’t at all what I was expecting him to say. I stood, my body wearily protesting activity after such a long day, and stared down at where he sat. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Hmm?” He looked up at last, the slight frown back between his eyebrows. “It means that I have a title. Noblemen are usually considered gentlemen, but the reverse cannot be said.”
I outright stared at him. Mouth slightly ajar, hands on hips, eyes bugging out slightly . . . the whole nine yards. “You’re a prince or something? Like British royalty?”
“I am not a member of the British royal family, no. But I am the eighth Baron Ainslie.”
“Quite.” He looked back at his computer and commenced typing.
I sat down on the edge of his bed, looking at him with amazement. He frowned at me until I moved over to the chair at the table. I couldn’t seem to stop staring at him, my brain turning around and around the fact that a real live British aristocrat was sitting in front of me, in my cabin, a space that evidently would be occupied by us both for the next two weeks.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Novels of Katie MacAlister
“A brilliant writer, funny, fast, silly, and completely irreverent.”—Bitten by Books
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