Book 1 American Royalty series
The limo sent by the Höhenburg Embassy inched along in the line of similar vehicles depositing their passengers at the red carpeted entrance of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The gentle pressure of C.J.’s hand resting upon Kat’s leg assured her heart there was nothing to fear. And yet the part of her brain descended from generations of combat veterans was alert, sensing potential threats ahead. It was silly to feel this way about her first real public appearance with C.J. but she couldn’t help it.
She simply couldn’t silence her insecure inner teenager suggesting that bringing her to this event was his way of giving her something special to remember him by.
No. She had to calm down. She’d been raised to be capable and self confident. She was going to do what she’d been doing for the past two years—following her gut instinct and dealing with situations as they came.
And being hopelessly in love with C.J.
Who happened to be a prince of a small European nation.
Inhaling a slow calming breath, Kat regained her composure and touched the pearl necklace C.J. gave her before they’d left his apartment. It was just a party. She could do this. After all it was just a simple party.
The inner spazz rebounded long enough to remind her a crapton of the crowned heads of Europe would be at this party to celebrate tomorrow’s royal wedding.
C.J. covered her hand with his. “Nervous?”
“Maybe a little.”
Amusement shining in his hazel eyes, he struggled to keep a straight face and she sighed.
“Okay more than a little.” She glanced down. “Do I look okay? I know the dress isn’t one-of-a-kind couture but I thought it would work.”
A slow smile lifted the corners of C.J.’s mouth. To Kat it resembled one of those indulgent smiles you give to a kid when they gift you a bouquet of wilted dandelions or a macaroni encrusted birthday card.
“It’s awful, isn’t it? Is it the way it hugs my boobs? It made my butt look big? Who am I kidding my butt is huge—”
C.J. interrupted.“Your butt is great”
Kat fought the attraction of that bad boy grin. “So it’s definitely the top. My arms are flabby. I knew I should have searched until I found one with sleeves.” She sagged, “I feel like a fashion platypus . No matter what I tried on it accentuated some flaw I didn’t realize I had—”
She stopped the ramble and sucked in a deep breath. He remained silent, his expression passive. Her confidence cracked and she focused her gaze out the window. Cameras flashed, onlookers waved, and she tried to ignore it all and concentrate on their destination. Five stories high, constructed of ornate orange and off-white brickwork, with romantic little balconies on each floor, and thick stone columns supporting the larger balcony just above the entry, it was more old world palace than hotel.
“Katrina. Look at me.”
C.J.’s smooth, accented voice compelled Kat to face him once more.
“You’re beautiful. Beyond beautiful.”
He caressed her cheek and her temperature shot up as it always did when they touched. “I don’t want to embarrass you in front of all those important people.”
“You could never embarrass me. He leaned in for a slow soft kiss. When they parted, he kept his gaze fixed on her. “I love you, Katrina. You’re my world.”
High pitched squeals erupted from the crowd across the street once their car reached the carpet and a valet opened the limo door.
“Look over here!”
“I love you, Christian!”
“Don’t acknowledge them, just smile and keep walking,” C.J. said as he clasped his hand protectively around Kat’s and helped her out.
“Don’t speak. Walk. Smile. Got it.”
“Who’s the girl?
“Where is she from?”
“Give us a picture!”
Kat froze, conscious of the crowd behind her. They were probably judging her, assessing if she was worthy to be with a prince. C.J. squeezed her hand. “Relax.” His soothing tone and crooked grin made her smile. “Turn a bit and let the press have their photo.”
“Are you his girlfriend?”
“Ignore them.” He placed his hand on the small of her back and she calmed enough to be able to move again. “Let’s go in, shall we?”
The few feet of carpet from the curb to the steps leading into the hotel seemed five miles long.
Smile. Walk. Don’t trip.
Ascending the steps with no clumsy accidents, Kat couldn’t resist a quick, backward glance the moment they slipped through the doorway. Women were still calling C.J.’s name. She was glad he shared her couch potato tendencies and hardly ever wanted to attend public events. She didn’t know if she could have done this on a regular basis the past two years.
C.J. kissed Kat’s hand as they strolled along the marble floored entry toward the broad staircase leading up to the hotel’s next level. “I’m so glad you’re here. I can’t wait for you to meet everyone.”
His love, and remembering what he’d said earlier about her being his world, put Kat back in a happy daze. Which was probably a good thing, otherwise she’d embarrass them both by gawking.
The ballroom opened up before her like a like a glimpse into another world. Gilt trim. Sparkling chandeliers, their light reflecting off an endless sea of colored jewels and diamonds and highlighting a rainbow of ball gowns in every color.
Kat put her lips to CJ’s ear. “If this is a ‘small’ royal event, I’d hate to see a big one.”
He laughed and led her towards a tall, bearded man in a tux and a serious looking blond woman in a stunning orange gown.
“Let me introduce you to two of my godparents.Crown Prince Henri and Crown Princess Nathalie of Belgium.”
Her godparents were a drill sergeant and a kindergarten teacher. Wait. Belgium had a king. This was the future king and queen. Was she meant to curtsey, or shake hands, or simply nod her head? Which countries preferred that double kiss on the cheek thing. She couldn’t remember, so she did a weird sort-of-a-curtsey that almost made her boobs tumble out of her top. The older woman’s eyes twitched.
Kat could almost see tomorrow’s Washington Post.
American Girl Screws Up. The Cold War Returns. This time With Belgium!
Thankfully C.J. kept the small talk to a bare minimum and led her around to mingle a bit more. Kat did her best to observe which of the older people the younger ones bowed and curtseyed to and make a mental note that they were the top brass in this world.
Although she tried not to notice, there was no escaping the way a lot of the women both old and young appraised her. The men didn’t seem to care if her evening dress was a custom made original or not. Having hit puberty before her father retired from the military, she’d spent enough time around guys of all ages to gauge their looks. Her boobs were showing just enough to make it all good in their eyes.
Mostly. The tall, portly guy with the salt and pepper hair straight ahead being the obvious exception.
C.J. offered the older man a respectful bow of the head. “Katrina, allow me to introduce, my father’s dearest friend, The Grand Duke of Orach. Ernst, Miss Katrina Williamson.”
Although he did the courtly kiss of the hand thing, the Grand Duke hit her with the same disregard he’d shown the maids passing out refreshments. The reason for that became clear when he nodded to the girl making her way toward them.
Kat feared she’d be drenched by the waves of adoration the girl gushed in C.J.’s direction.
“Miss Williamson, my daughter, Princess Marguretta.”
“It’s exciting to meet you, Katrina,” she said with a minimum of enthusiam.. “Christian has told me so much about you.”
“Nothing too embarrassing I hope.”
Dead silence. Great.
Princess Marguretta really had it in the cleavage department, the hip and butt department, and the movie star glamour hair and makeup departments. Of course her assets were perfectly defined by her form-fitting white couture gown. The sparkle of her understated diamonds was nothing compared to the gleam in her eyes when she spotted the pearl necklace.
“What a lovely necklace, Katrina.”
“Thank you. C.J. gave it to me earlier today.”
“He is such a dear.” She turned to him. “I have one very much like it. Surely you remember.”
Kat practically snatched the glass of champagne a passing waiter offered.
“I suppose it is similar to the one your brother gave you.” C.J. touched Kat’s arm and looked towards the door to the hall. “If you will excuse us. I see someone else I’d like Kat to meet.”
“Ex girlfriend?” she asked quietly as he led her away.
“Not really.” C.J.’s smile was cute but slightly guilty. “She’s like a sister to me.”
A sister. Yeah. “I was just mildly curious. It’s not a problem.”
But it could be.
Kat’s fear of more ex-girlfriends descending became the least of her worries as they approached the ballroom door and heard the first notes of the British national anthem.
C.J. signaled a maid to take their champagne glasses then shifted closer to Kat. “Relax,” he whispered. “It’s no different than meeting my father for the first time. Remember, I’m right beside you.” He paused. “Since you’re American, you aren’t expected to curtsey. “
She knew it. She totally botched it with the Belgians.
As if she could even remember how to curtsey at a moment like this. The Queen of England was bearing down upon them. The woman who had represented all things British throughout Kat’s entire life. She wasn’t simply entering the room, she was coming straight at them, a grandmotherly smile on her regal face.
C.J. offered a courtly bow to Her Majesty and her husband before making the introductions.
Kat hoped her smile didn’t look as strained as it felt from inside. “It’s an honor to meet you, Ma’am. Sir.” Were Ma’am and Sir even right? C.J. told her all this before but she should have Googled again to be sure.
“You look well, Christian. Are your father and brother well?”
“They are, Your Majesty.”
“Be certain to give them our regards,” the Duke of Edinburgh said. And with that they moved on. Before Kat could catch her breath the Prince of Wales and his wife appeared before them. Kat knew she must have a deer in the headlights expression but she couldn’t stop it.
The prince chuckled as C.J. did the introductions. “It was a pleasure to meet you, my dear.”
C.J. gave Kat’s wrist a little pinch and she released the breath she’d been holding. He laughed softly. “Good. I thought for a moment you were going to faint.”
A maid stopped before them. “More champagne?” C.J. asked.
“Works for me.”
She noted that he took the same long swig she did.
Dinner was soon served, the most senior British royals left, and Kat’s nervousness finally eased once they began the second round of mingling. Of course the champagne and wine with dinner went a long way to easing some of that nervousness.
As the evening wore on, it struck Kat that this wasn’t really that far removed from her own extended family gatherings. Yes, the bling was blingier and the attitudes a bit more We are the shit. And yet it bore a similarity to the parties held for her own cousin’s wedding before she came to England. Most of these people were connected by blood or marriage ties and like any other big family there was a lot of “catching up” chit-chat to do.
However, C.J. was fluent in a number of languages and the subtle shifting in his expression and posture at times made her think they were talking about her in less than kind terms.
Would any of them be calling his father Prince Gerhard back in Höhenburg and asking what his son saw in a common girl like her?
Even if they did, did it really matter? She’d met Gerhard a number of times and had never gotten any sense of disproval from him. But if he’d had reservations, would he have even shown it?
C.J.’s soft grumble ended Kat’s speculation. She followed his gaze to see a somewhat familiar face. Where had she seen that guy? Right. Royal family portrait at the Höhenburg Embassy. “Isn’t that one of your cousins?”
“Karl,” he said flatly. “And his bed partner of the week. Actually I think she’s lasted an entire month.”
“Must be true love then.”
C.J. grinned and squeezed Kat’s hand. “I suppose I should introduce you to him. It will only take a moment. He’s sure to be as rude as ever, but if we ignore him he’ll undoubtedly try to provoke a scene..”
C.J. made no move to cross the room towards Karl and Kat didn’t either. “Who’s the girl? Your cousin is, okay, but, she’s gorgeous. Really.”
“It is an odd pairing, but we’ve known her family forever, so there’s that.” C.J. exhaled a small sigh. “I suppose we should get this over with.”
Kat hesitated. “But who is she?”
“Princess Elisabeth of Belgium, a cousin of my godfather.”
Another Belgian to offend. Sweet. Reluctantly, Kat let C.J. place her arm through is and lead the way.
Karl noticed them. His sour expression grew even harder. His date gave her a snooty raised eyebrow kind of look.
Kat, squeezed C.J.’s arm. “I need to run to the ladies room. I’ll join you guys in a minute.”
“I’ll order Karl to be on his best behavior.”
Procrastinating by fiddling with her earring in front of the mirror, Kat’s inner military brat issued it’s own marching orders. Suck it up and carry on. She took a deep breath, straightened up and returned to the ballroom.
C.J. had moved a short distance away from his cousin and was having a conversation with the Queen’s granddaughters. Nearby Karl was accepting another glass of vodka or gin or something clear while his girlfriend sipped her champagne. She caught Kat’s eye and said something to Karl that elicited a smirk.
With C.J. facing away, Kat decided to get it over with and introduce herself to Karl. She came within earshot in time to form her first and last impression of her boyfriend’s cousin.
“It should be obvious. He seeks a mother substitute in an American while she wants our fortune.”