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The Man Behind The Mask
Chapter OneFor me, it was love at first sight.
Okay, okay. Nobody believes in love at first sight anymore. It's like disco. Or the dickey. Went out decades ago, isn't coming back, no matter how many brave fools try to resurrect it.
And, you may ask, how would I, Dulcinea Samples, a semi dewy-eyed young thing of twenty-four, even know about a dickey?
My mom used to wear them. She's wearing one, in fact, in the family portrait that sits on our mantel back home in Bakersfield. The outline of it is just visible beneath her V-neck sweater.
My mom's a true romantic. She's always claimed she fell in love with Dad at first sight.
As I said, like the dickey. People don't do that anymore.
But my mom did. And there's more. Witness my name. How many people get named after the purer-than-pure alter ego of the barmaid whore heroine in Man of La Mancha? With a last name like Samples? Hello?
Just call me Dulcie. Please.
And back to my mom. Yeah. Romantic. Capital R. And I know some of it rubbed off on me, though I swear I always tried my best to keep my romantic impulses strictly under control. They're about as useful as a dickey if you're a single girl living in East Hollywood. Not to mention a lot more dangerous. Get too romantic in East Hollywood - really, in any part of L.A. - and there's no telling what could happen to you. Did you see Mulholland Drive? Enough said.
And maybe that was part of it - why I fell in love with this certain guy at first sight. Because that first sight didn't happen in L.A., where I understood the hazards and would have had my guard up. Not in L.A. but in a ballroom in a palace in a tiny island country called Gullandria.
He was a prince - did I mention that?
And not just as in "a prince of a guy." No. I mean a real, bona fide, son-of-a-king type of prince. A Gullandrian prince. That's right, Gullandria. Remember? That island country I mentioned?
Gullandria is a story in itself. Picture the Shetland Islands. Get an image of Norway. And then, midway between the two, a little to the north, put a heart-shaped island maybe a hundred and fifty miles across at the widest part - you know, ventricle to ventricle? Lots of dramatic, jewel-blue fjords. Mountains to the north and rolling lowlands in the south. A capital city named Lysgard. "Lys" means light. And the king's palace, which stands on a hilltop just outside the capital? Isenhalla: Ice-hall. Oh, I love that.
Now, the deal about Gullandria is the people there never completely gave up their Norse heritage. That would be Norse as in Vikings. Dragon-prowed long-ships; Odin and Thor and the gang? You're following, I hope.
Because I truly am getting to the part about the prince and me.
On the evening in question, there I stood in the aforementioned ballroom. I was wearing one of the two dresses I owned that was even marginally suited to such a strictly white-tie event - a midnight-blue strapless ankle-length A-line Jessica McClintock, a dress I bought in a moment of wild spending abandon. At Nordstrom. Yes, on sale. After-Christmas, if you just have to know. At the time of the purchase, I felt positively giddy about wasting money I didn't really have, a giddiness compounded by a burning awareness of my own foolishness. I knew I'd never find a place to actually wear such a dress, proms and senior balls and the like being pretty much a thing of the past for me by then.
But see? Wild spending abandon and utter foolishness are good things - now and then. You might get invited to a palace ball in some fascinating northern island state. I did.
So you understand. The dress was fine. It showed off my best features: breasts. And skimmed forgivingly over my worst: a not-concave stomach and hips I liked to think of as generous on days when I wasn't consumed with body-image issues. I'd been in Gullandria since the day before when the royal jet flew me in from L.A. Picture it. Just the pilot, a flight attendant and me, the passenger-of-honor, on my way to attend the wedding of my best friend, Brit Thorson.
That night I stood a little off to the side in my pretty blue Jessica McClintock, heart beating too fast with nerves and excitement, hoping I wouldn't end up doing something really gauche that would remind everyone of the basic truth that I was, after all, a bright but ordinary girl from Bakersfield who dreamt of someday actually selling one of the novels she'd written; a girl who, until the day before, had never set foot in a royal palace in her life.
I'd had an escort when the evening started, a dapper prince who appeared at the door to my room and brought me to the ballroom. I'd lost track of him early on.
That was okay with me. It wasn't like I even knew the guy. And I wasn't left dangling. Brit kept dropping by to check on me, to whisper funny comments in my ear on the whole Norse-based culture thing - Gullandrians, remember, were Vikings at heart - and to introduce me to a stunning array of friends and relatives whose names I forgot as soon as they were told to me.
Brit was not your average best friend. For starters, she was a princess. A princess born in Gullandria, one of three fraternal-triplet princesses. When Brit was still a baby, her mom the queen left her dad the king, and took the girls to Sacramento, where they grew up blond and beautiful and rich - and about as American as anybody can get.
And beyond the princess angle, Brit was not a person you messed with. She had a high pain threshold and a scary kind of fearlessness. Once, two years before the night in the ballroom, I watched her go after a guy who'd displayed the bad judgment to try to stick up a coffee shop while Brit and I were standing at the register, waiting to pay after a little serious pigging out on chili dogs and fries. The guy ordered us - and everyone else in the place - to hit the floor. We all did as we were told. Except for Brit. She dived for the guy's knees. Took him down, too - though he put a couple of rounds in the ceiling before the cooks lurched to life and gave her a hand.
As I said, fearless. A fearless tall, blond California-girl princess. And my best friend in the world.
About the fifth time she came by, she edged good and close and murmured in my ear, "Note the redhead." I noted. Drop-dead gorgeous, in petal-pink satin - which I would never dare to wear - the redhead whirled by in the arms of some prince or other.
We were up to the ears in princes at that palace. From what I understood, every male noble, or jarl as they called themselves, was a prince. And they were all eligible to someday become king.
But I wasn't really thinking about the rules of Gullandrian succession at that moment. Right then, I was wondering why I couldn't be that kind of redhead - the kind like the woman waltzing past Brit and me. The sleek kind, you know? The kind with a waterfall of red silk for hair, with porcelain skin, a cameo-perfect face and a Halle Berry body.
"The Lady Kaarin Karlsmon," Brit whispered, as I reminded myself to get a grip and be at peace with being me. "So very well-bred. And nice, I guess - in her own oh-so-aristocratic way. Always laughs at the right places. But just a little too cagey, if you know what I mean."
I gave my friend a look. "So and?" Grinning, blue eyes agleam, Brit wiggled her eyebrows. I leaned a little closer. "Tell."
"Tell what?" asked a male voice behind us.
It was Prince Eric Greyfell, Brit's fiancé. He wrapped his arms loosely around his bride-to-be and nuzzled her hair.
Excerpted from The Man Behind The Mask by Christine Rimmer Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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