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 an iconic hotel near Hyde Park. 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. It was silly to feel this way about her first major public appearance with C.J. but she couldn’t help it.
And yet, Kat 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.
Or, more precisely, His Serene Highness Christian Josef Nikolaus Alexander von und zu Hohenburg. Second in line to the throne of a small European nation.
Inhaling a slow calming breath, Kat touched the pearl necklace C.J. gave her before they’d left his apartment. They were going to a party. She could do this. After all it was just a party.
A large, swanky party with a crapton of the crowned heads of Europe here to celebrate tomorrow’s royal wedding for the second in line to the British throne..
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 and glitter 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 look 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 be nervous, just smile and keep walking,” C.J. said as he clasped his hand protectively around Kat’s and helped her out.
“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 to the right and we’ll let the press have their photo.”
“Are you his new girlfriend?”
“They like to shout outrageous things to provoke a reaction.” C.J. 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 smoothly despite the nervousness, 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.”
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.
Kat could almost see tomorrow’s Washington Post.
American Girl Screws Up. World War III Looms!
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 civilian equivalent of top brass in this world.
Although Kat 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 expressions She looked fine to them.
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 young woman her age making her way toward them.
Kat feared she’d be drenched by the waves of adoration the blonde 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 enthusiasm.”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 Kat’s 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.
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 the Duke of Edinburgh 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 in the limo 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 said. And with that they moved on. Before Kat could catch her breath their eldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife appeared before them.
From the way the prince chuckled as C.J. did the introductions. Kat knew she must have a deer in the headlights expression but she couldn’t stop it.
“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 three years ago. 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 might be talking about her in less than kind terms.
Would any of them be calling his father back in Höhenburg and asking what his son saw in a common girl like her?
Even if they did, would it really matter? She’d been around Prince 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?
Could reservations about his son’s relationship with a regular American girl be the reason he had C.J. represent their family and country at this wedding?
That was silly. He, himself had married an American. Of course, before they’d met, she was famous and wealthy in her own right…
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 accidentally offend. Ugh.. 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 Kat 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 its 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.”