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Christmas Cinderella by Annie West

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Christmas Cinderella by Annie West

An exclusive short story from Mills & Boon Modern author Annie West!

Linked to The King’s Bride by Arrangement

The King's Bride by Arrangement

‘I don’t care where you are or what you’re doing. Just get there pronto!’

JoJo winced at Candace’s tone. Her stepmother might be all charm for other people, but when she sounded like that, JoJo knew her patience was at an end. Retribution would follow if she didn’t act quickly.

Sighing, she put her helmet down on the motorbike she’d just straddled and ran her fingers through her hair. One more week. She just had to be patient for one more week…

‘You want me to go to the atelier?’

‘No, you dolt. To the palace.’

JoJo heard the hiss in her voice and knew Candace spoke through gritted teeth.

She reminded herself Candace was in pain. Nothing short of real incapacity would make her turn to JoJo as her stand-in for such an important appointment. Candace was a ruthless businesswoman and inveterate social climber and missing this opportunity would be almost as painful to her as the suspected broken arm that had her waiting in the hospital emergency department.

‘Okay. I’ll head home and—’

‘You’ll go to the palace immediately! They’re waiting.’

‘But I’m not dressed for—’

‘No one cares how you’re dressed. You need to get there as fast as you can.’ Candace sighed gustily. ‘Just as well I had the foresight to leave some supplies at the palace on my last visit, in case of any last-minute alterations. I pride myself on always being prepared.’

Candace spoke in the self-congratulatory tone JoJo knew so well. How often had she been in the atelier’s backroom working, when she heard Candace take the credit for her designs, her work, in response to a client’s eager thanks? 

Soon, she promised herself. At the end of the week she’d be twenty-one and no longer her stepmother’s ward.  

Ward! She felt more like a prisoner.

She’d move out, get a new job and make a new start. Candace would fight her every step of the way, now that the unwanted stepdaughter she’d bullied so long had turned out to be the goose that laid lovely golden eggs. But JoJo’s mind was made up.

‘Well? Are you on your way?’

‘I’ll be there in ten minutes.’

‘Just don’t let me down. Keep your mouth shut and focus on the job and…’

JoJo smiled as the throaty roar of the ignition drowned the rest.

Eight minutes later she pulled up outside the front gates of St Ancilla’s royal palace, decorated for the festive season with huge wreaths of fresh greenery threaded with gold ribbons and baubles. Beyond the gates a massive Christmas tree rose, covered as it was every year, with decorations made by schoolchildren from all across the island nation. The sight always brought joy.

She’d been past the palace multiple times, but had never been invited to venture inside its baroque splendour.

The sight of it, solid and ornate, surrounded by hectares of manicured gardens, dented her confidence. She knew she could do the job. Her work was far better than Candace’s. But she’d never mixed with the high society clients her stepmother kept to herself. Would her gaucheness show?

JoJo swallowed hard and got off the bike, tucking her helmet under her arm. There was one way to find out.

‘Excuse me.’

The uniformed sentry didn’t so much as turn at the sound of her voice. He stared straight out over her head as if he didn’t see her.

JoJo bit her bottom lip. The ornate gates beside him were closed and the sentry on the other side of them gave the same marionette impression. The pair looked like toy soldiers out of a fairy tale. Except they were both powerfully built and the way the December sunlight glinted on their weapons told her they weren’t just there for show.

‘I need to get inside.’ She moved closer but the guard didn’t bat an eyelash. ‘They’re expecting me. The princess is expecting me. For a job.’

‘Ah,’ came a voice from behind her. ‘If it’s a job, then most people use the side entrance.’

JoJo swung around and found herself staring at a firm chin. Then up to a smiling mouth that curled higher at one corner, and beyond that to appraising blue eyes.

She blinked and dragged air into her suddenly starved lungs. He looked…scrumptious!

‘There’s a side entrance?’

Of course there was. She should have thought of that. But she was too busy gawking up into navy eyes that crinkled at the corners to wonder why she hadn’t.

The man was young, probably mid-twenties at most. He wasn’t classically handsome but there was something about his features that caught and held her attention so she couldn’t look away.

She told herself she was staring. But how often did you meet a guy like this? The winter sun turned his blond hair to rich gold, the light spilling over beautifully wide, straight shoulders in black leather. Long, solid legs in faded denim made her heart trip to a faster beat.

She’d spent too many hours cooped up working with no time off to enjoy herself. Or to meet delicious guys.

‘I’ll show you if you like.’

‘Would you?’ Finally she stopped gaping long enough for her brain to kick into gear. ‘That would be terrific. Thank you.’

‘This way.’ He nodded and started walking.

She fell into the rhythm of his stride easily. Because she had such long legs, or did he adjust his pace to hers?

‘You know the palace well?’ She shot him a sideways glance and discovered he had a tiny bump on his nose as if it had been broken at some time. Yet the imperfection suited him. Otherwise that strong profile might have been a little too perfect, too intimidating.

‘Well enough not to have got lost for the last couple of months.’ He grinned and gestured for them to turn right around the corner of the perimeter fence.

‘You do know it!’

He shrugged. ‘I’m beginning to. I just started work there this year.’

‘Is it very…?’ JoJo swallowed, gazing through the railings of the metal fence at all the royal magnificence on display.

‘Very…?’

She looked up into eyes that were friendly and warm and pulled herself together.

‘Sorry. I’m a bit nervous.’ A bit? Here she was, about to enter the royal palace wearing bike leathers and heavy boots, carrying her cycle helmet under her arm. ‘Okay, a lot nervous. I’ve never been near important people before.’

‘They’re just like the rest of us, you know.’

JoJo nodded. ‘Of course.’ She’d seen enough film footage of King Paul out and about amongst his people to know that was true. He was charming, friendly. But there was a difference between knowing it and actually meeting royalty in the flesh. ‘I’m here to do a job for his fiancée while she’s visiting. This is my first time here.’

‘And you’re worried she’ll be difficult?’

‘Oh, no. Not at all. I just, well, I suppose you could say I don’t get out much and this’—she waved in the direction of the palace—‘is all a bit beyond my experience.’

He shrugged. ‘She won’t bite. In fact, I hear she’s nice. Completely down to earth, despite being a princess and not a local.’ He winked and JoJo was torn between delight and a frisson of unease at how much she liked his smile.

‘So,’ she said as they walked side by side, ‘is there anything in particular I need to know about palace rules?’

He stopped, his face turning serious. ‘If I’m going to spill palace secrets I need to know your name.’ His eyes glinted with laughter. ‘I’m Marc. And you are?’

‘JoJo. Well, Josephine, but no-one uses that. Everyone calls me JoJo.’ She was pretty sure she was babbling but those dancing navy eyes did the strangest things to her insides, and clearly loosened her tongue.

‘Josephine. It suits you.’

It was on the tip of her tongue to say JoJo suited her better. Josephine sounded romantically feminine, the sort of name you’d read in a book. Only her mother had called her Josephine, but JoJo discovered she enjoyed hearing her full name in that rich, deep voice.

Then he was talking and she didn’t want to interrupt. Not because he actually spilled any secrets, but because his tales of misadventures since arriving at the palace made her laugh. She suspected he exaggerated to put her at ease, but she didn’t mind as the churning in her stomach abated.

JoJo liked a man who could laugh at himself. And as his funny stories weren’t malicious, but revolved around him making hilarious mistakes, she was soon grinning.

She was about to ask what he did when they turned into a massive gate and arrived at an imposing double height door.

Marc spoke to the security guard, who consulted a visitor list. After JoJo signed in they were waved through.

‘Where are you meeting the princess?’

She told Marc and he nodded. ‘I know where that is. I’ll take you.’

‘Oh, but you don’t have to. Surely—’

‘What?’ He bent a little closer and she caught a hint of some cologne that had her leaning towards him, inhaling appreciatively. ‘You don’t think I’d leave you to wait for a footman? Come on.’

He put his hand behind the small of her back and ushered her up a wide staircase.

Was it crazy to think she could feel the heat of his palm through her leather jacket and T-shirt, even though his palm didn’t touch her?

They crossed corridors and staircases, wound past courtyards and with each turn the furnishings became more and more opulent.

JoJo looked down at her heavy boots and motorcycle leathers. Never had she felt so out of place.

‘It’ll be okay.’

He might have read her mind. She jerked her head up and read reassurance in his face.

‘Are you good at your job?’ he asked.

‘Very.’

He laughed. ‘Then you’ve absolutely nothing to fear.’ He stopped before a tall door and rapped with his knuckle.

A female voice called ‘Come in’ and Marc reached out and took her helmet. ‘I’ll mind it till you come out. Good luck.’

For a second JoJo stood, rooted to the spot. Because the princess was just on the other side of the door? Or because her arm tingled from the fleeting brush of Marc’s fingers against hers?

‘Thank you. I don’t know how long I’ll be. Just leave the helmet.’ She nodded to a chair by the wall then pushed her shoulders back and turned the door handle.

*

Marc was right. Princess Eva was lovely. Elegant and sophisticated but friendly and surprisingly down to earth. She hadn’t batted an eyelash on discovering the seamstress sent by the posh boutique was a leather-clad biker.

She began by apologising for the last-minute rush, explaining that the dress she’d planned to wear to this evening’s official dinner needed adjustment.

‘I only arrived back in St Ancilla this morning and found the finished dress waiting for me. I’ve lost a little weight since I was measured for it and I don’t want it to look obvious.’

Fortunately it wasn’t a big job.The princess modelled the violet silk while JoJo pinned the alterations.

‘If I can use this room, I’ll have it ready for you within half an hour.’

‘Wonderful.’ Princess Eva paused. ‘Was it you who did the embroidery on this dress?’

JoJo nodded. ‘Yes, that’s my work.’

Candace never gave credit for her design work, especially to the important clients she guarded so jealously. But she’d think it below her status to claim to do the intricate beading and hand stitching that were JoJo’s speciality. 

‘Then you’re just the person I need.’ The princess smoothed a hand over the delicate stitchery. ‘I have another dress I’d like you to look at, too, if you wouldn’t mind. It’s not one from your boutique but one I brought with me from Tarentia. I’d like a second opinion from someone who has an eye for such things.’

JoJo’s eyes widened. Her give the princess an expert opinion? She didn’t know if she felt more intrigued, excited or nervous.

‘Well, if you think I can help.’

‘I’m sure you can. I love your artistry.’ Warmth fizzed through JoJo at the praise. ‘Your work is beautiful. It enhances the dress, without overpowering it. I’ll just change so you can see what I have in mind.’

A few minutes later the princess reappeared, wearing a full-skirted ball gown in ruby red that swished as she moved. JoJo had an instant image of her in a grand ballroom, dancing with her handsome husband-to-be under the lights of glittering chandeliers.

‘You like it?’

‘I love it!’ JoJo clasped her hands in front of her rather than reach out to touch the beautiful dress. She’d once had a romantic streak a mile wide. That was before the deaths of her parents and the dour life she lived as Candace’s apprentice-cum-slave turned her focus to the practicalities of survival. ‘You look like a princess in a fairy tale!’

The other woman laughed. ‘I’m glad you said that. That’s exactly the effect I want. It’s for the grand Christmas ball next week and I want to look…’ The princess shrugged and her smile slowly faded.

Surprisingly, JoJo thought she recognised uncertainty in the other woman’s features. She recognised it because it was how she’d felt so often herself since her father’s death. Unsure of herself and worried about making a wrong choice

Maybe she’d been around Candace too long. The woman was adept at undermining her confidence.

JoJo looked again at the princess and the fleeting expression was gone. She must have imagined it.

‘You look fabulous. It truly is a wonderful dress.’

The princess smiled. ‘So maybe it’s better left as it is? I’d wondered about adding a little embellishment. After all, it’s for the Christmas ball and I wanted something to fit with the seasonal theme. But perhaps the colour is enough?’

JoJo narrowed her eyes as she surveyed the spill of rich fabric. Her nerves had disappeared now she was in her area of expertise.

‘What jewellery will you wear?’

The princess brought out a flat velvet case. Inside glittered a diamond pendant and matching earrings, simple but utterly dazzling.

It struck JoJo again that she’d entered another world. Here she was, a mere apprentice, being asked fashion advice at the palace. Unofficially she’d been Candace’s unpaid apprentice since she was twelve, but her stepmother had a habit of hearing JoJo’s views then squashing them. It was only lately she’d realised Candace used her input more and more, disguising the end product just enough to make it seem that the original idea came from her, not her stepdaughter.

‘I think silver embroidery, just a touch here’—she pointed to the cinched in waist—‘and at the hem. Little silver holly berries and leaves. What do you think?’

‘I think it sounds marvellous.’ The princess grinned. ‘Can you do it in time? I know your embroidery must take a while.’

JoJo thought of her current workload. She was on top of it, almost finished the other commission for the ball. For once Candace didn’t have a pile of new orders waiting for her. The boutique would close for the holidays in a couple of days.

‘Yes. Yes, I’d love to.’

*

By the time JoJo left, her head was in a spin. She’d made the alterations to the dress for tonight and the princess had tried it on again, delighted at its perfect fit.

Somehow, during the fitting, the other woman’s gentle questioning had led JoJo to admit her plan to strike out on her own, find a new job and eventually, if she was lucky, start her own design business.

Princess Eva said she’d like to see her designs when she did and asked if, in the meantime, she’d consider a commission for an embroidered silk evening purse. The princess was looking for a unique gift for her mother.

Grinning from ear to ear, JoJo was halfway down the hall when she remembered her helmet and turned back.

She almost walked into Marc, tall and even more attractive than before. He’d looked wonderful in jeans and leather but in dark trousers and a crisp white shirt that emphasised his lean masculinity, he was spectacular. His quizzical smile made her pulse throb faster.

‘Yours, I believe.’ He held out her helmet.

‘Thank you. I…’ She was about to blurt out something about him waiting all this time for her, but realised he couldn’t have. It must be coincidence that he’d turned up again just as she was leaving.

‘How did it go?’ He looked genuinely interested.

‘Wonderfully!’ JoJo grinned. ‘You were right. The princess is lovely. I’m going to do some more work for her.’

‘So you’ll be coming back?’

JoJo told herself she imagined he sounded eager. He was just showing friendly interest.

‘Yes, I’ll work here a couple of hours a day for the next few days.’

‘Excellent.’ His smile widened. ‘So I’ll get to see you. Now’—he gestured for her to walk with him—‘the boss has given me an hour off and I know a great place for coffee. What do you say?’

Of course she said yes.

And she said yes the next day when Marc appeared as she got ready to leave. Instead of leading her to a café across the square, he’d snagged a tray from the palace kitchens and took her to a secret garden deep in the grounds. There was a cosy summerhouse looking out over lawns and a small lake, and they picnicked indoors where it was warm.

At first JoJo had been nervous about trespassing but he reassured her that King Paul allowed his staff to use this part of the gardens. Eventually she relaxed, especially after a gardener appeared, lifting a hand in greeting at the pair of them, then trundled off with his wheelbarrow.

They spent a companionable hour, talking about their days, her with her needle and sketch pad, and he at a desk, paper shuffling he called it. They discovered shared tastes in music and food and a friendly rivalry over favourite football teams.

On the third day she missed Marc. She half-expected him to appear but there was no sign of him. Disappointment flooded her.

Marc was such a good listener. More, JoJo realised, with a frisson of awareness, she valued his opinion. He made her feel good about herself but he was also grounded, sensible and capable. She relaxed easily with him.

Now she had news she wanted to share. An opinion to seek. The gilt-edged invitation in her hand burned her palm.

She’d been busy with her needle, forming delicate holly leaves on the lush red satin of the royal ball gown, when there’d been a knock at the door and one of the footmen brought her an envelope. Inside was the single most amazing thing she’d seen in her life.

An invitation to attend the royal Christmas ball. Not just any invitation, but one addressed to her!

Wondering, she traced the calligraphy of her name on the embossed card.

Her attend a ball?

Her see all those wondrous gowns? See firsthand the haute couture dresses imported from the world’s most exclusive fashion houses?

JoJo had no illusions that she’d actually participate, dance or chat with the exalted guests, but just to be there, to see it all, would be wonderful.

She even had a dress she could wear. The deep rose-pink piece that she’d begun to make last year for a commission that had fallen through. The client had changed her mind about the colour, opting for silver tissue instead, and Candace had said JoJo could do what she wanted with it, since she couldn’t pass second-hand goods onto a client.

JoJo lingered in the hallway now, head turning one way then the other. But Marc didn’t show. She waited as long as she could, till another footman strode down the corridor.

‘Ms Josephine?’

‘Yes?’

‘This is for you.’

It was a note. A short note that made her pulse leap when she saw Marc’s name at the bottom.

He’d had to leave the city and wouldn’t be back till the weekend. Would she be free to spend time with him then?

Disappointment turned to delight. She’d only met him two days ago but they’d connected in a way she’d never felt before.

JoJo thanked the footman and followed him out of the palace. It felt like she was walking on a cloud, all the way to her motorbike. Till she realised she wouldn’t see Marc till after the royal celebration.

But you couldn’t have everything. Besides, it meant that when she saw him next, on Saturday, she’d be twenty-one and totally free. It felt like a portent of good things to come.

*

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ Candace’s voice was like nails scratching a blackboard, making JoJo’s nape prickle.

She swung round, rose chiffon over rose satin shushing around her legs.

‘Well?’ Her stepmother stood in the doorway, arms folded and mouth tight. ‘What do you think you’re doing in one of my couture gowns?’

Your gown?’ JoJo struggled to keep her voice even. ‘I made it last year, remember? When the client changed her mind you said I could have it.’

‘Yes, I did. To work on it and turn it into something I could sell in the boutique.’ Avaricious eyes glinted as she surveyed the delicate ruching on the bodice, the tiny flight of bronze beaded butterflies that fluttered across the filmy skirt. ‘Now get out of it immediately and put plastic over it before you damage it. It goes in the shop window tomorrow.’

It was one of the best things JoJo had made. No wonder Candace wanted it for her boutique. And what Candace wanted she always got.

Not this time.

JoJo straightened her spine and stared straight back at that discontented face, watching as the older woman gradually took in not just the dress but that JoJo was wearing makeup and had her tawny hair up, a fine ribbon of plaited bronze and rose woven through her locks.

‘You surely don’t think you’re wearing it out?’

JoJo nodded, taking her time about replying. Years of forced obedience to this woman made it second nature to agree and meekly do what she was told. But no more.

‘I am. I’m going out to celebrate my birthday.’

That made Candace frown. Clearly she’d forgotten the date. Not surprising as they hadn’t celebrated JoJo’s birthday since her father’s death.

‘I’m twenty-one today, which means I’m legally able to make my own choices.’ A pity that under St Ancillan law she’d had to wait so long.

She turned and reached for her small purse and the velvet cloak she’d made to cover her strapless dress. Her hand was shaking, for she wasn’t used to open rebellion, but she tried not to let it show.

When she turned back, Candace’s frown had become a scowl and she barred the doorway with her plastered arm.

‘And what’s that supposed to mean?’

JoJo shrugged in a show of insouciance she was far from feeling. ‘I’m moving out tomorrow. And I’m leaving the boutique.’ She’d found a tiny, tiny apartment and an offer of work, albeit part-time to start with. She’d need more work but if she didn’t make the break now, she was in danger of falling into old habits and letting her stepmother walk all over her.

‘Like hell you are!’ Candace’s mouth stretched in a thin, ugly line. ‘You won’t—’

The buzz of the doorbell cut her off.

It was late, too late for casual visits. Not that Candace had friends who’d drop by and JoJo’s never came here where the atmosphere was so tense.

It buzzed again, this time more insistently. With a muffled oath Candace spun around and marched to the front door.

JoJo followed, reading the shock in her stepmother’s frame as she opened it to see a uniformed chauffeur wearing the royal colours on his lapel. He looked past Candace to JoJo and inclined his head. ‘Are you ready, madam?’

She goggled at him, stunned. She’d been going to get a taxi. Surely it was some sort of mistake that he’d come here, but she wasn’t foolish enough to look a gift horse in the mouth.

JoJo swung the cloak round her shoulders, its softness brushing her chilled skin, and strode forward.

‘Thank you. I am.’

For a second it looked like her stepmother wouldn’t budge. Her mouth opened and closed and she stood rigid in the doorway. Then, at the last moment, she stepped back, allowing JoJo just enough space to pass.

‘Goodnight, Candace. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ They had things to sort out and JoJo was determined everything would be finalised between them so she could move on with her life.

She followed the chauffeur out onto the street then stood, rooted to the spot, as he opened the back door of a gleaming grey, vintage Rolls Royce.

Until the piercing heat between her shoulder blades told her Candace was watching. That made JoJo pick up her skirts and get into the vehicle. It smelt like polished leather and citrus and it was the most comfortable car she’d been in.

The driver informed her he’d let her off at the palace entrance where she’d join the line of guests being received by the king and his fiancée. He kept chatting, relaying the rumour that this was to be one of the most spectacular winter balls ever.

Then, suddenly they were there and he was opening the door for her and wishing her a good evening.

The place looked spectacular. All around were ornate lanterns wreathed in greenery and festive decorations. A group of singers in traditional St Ancillan dress filled the still night air with beautiful carols, and the line of gorgeously dressed guests carried an air of hushed expectation.

An usher bowed, greeting her and viewing her invitation, then gestured her towards the grand main entrance.

Nerves jangled and her palms grew damp as she joined the elegant crowd heading up the red-carpeted steps. JoJo didn’t belong here. She felt like an imposter.

Her saving grace was that at least she had a dress fine enough to wear to the ball. She saw a number of women covertly admiring it and the velvet cloak.

Lifting her chin, she decided that, if anyone asked, she’d refer them to Couture by Josephine. That was the name of the business she hoped to establish.

As soon as she left here, she’d set up a basic website and social media presence so potential customers could contact her. She mightn’t have premises except for a one room apartment, but she could visit clients, couldn’t she?

The thought buoyed her as the crowd moved forward and she passed staff again checking invitations. Soon she was right inside the palace, in a grand room, gilt and crystal and hushed as the people before her greeted their royal hosts.

JoJo’s hands were clammy as she stepped forward, curtseying deep to King Paul, hoping she didn’t wobble and fall flat on her face.

Then she heard a familiar voice. ‘Welcome, Josephine. I’m so glad you could attend.’

She lifted her head and there was Princess Eva, gorgeous in deep red trimmed with dainty holly leaves. She looked regal and sophisticated yet her eyes shone warmly.

‘Your Majesty,’ the princess said, ‘this is Josephine, who came to my rescue this week.’

‘You assisted my fiancée? Then I’m indebted to you, Ms Josephine.’

The King’s eyes twinkled warmly and JoJo felt some of her stiffness ease. Reports said he was a man of the people, far nicer than the previous king. She was glad, especially as she saw the way Princess Eva’s gaze clung to him. It was whispered theirs was an arranged match, but she guessed, in that moment that the princess, at least, felt more for her prospective groom than duty.

‘I hope you enjoy the ball,’ the King added and she nodded, curtseying again.

‘Thank you, Your Majesty.’

The line moved and she turned to the third person in the receiving line. And stopped dead in her tracks.

‘Marc!’

Heads turned at her exclamation but she was barely aware, too busy staring up at his familiar face and his utterly unfamiliar dress uniform. Like the King’s, it was stylish and accentuated his leanly muscled form. There was even gold braid and what looked like military decorations on his chest.

‘Josephine.’ His voice sent a familiar thrill through her, then he took her hand and bent his head over it in a quaint, old-fashioned gesture that made her heart all but stop. ‘I’m so glad you accepted my invitation.’

Your invitation?’ She’d assumed Princess Eva had organised it as a thankyou for her work, and because she knew JoJo would revel in seeing the fashions at tonight’s formal event.

He leaned close, his breath warm on her cheek. ‘I’ll tell you soon. Wait for me at the entrance to the ballroom.’

Then the line moved and she was forced to go with it, looking back over her shoulder at Marc, dressed, not as a junior office assistant but as…what? A VIP of some sort.

Her head whirled and, as the crowd took her forward, she entered another large room, brilliant with the light of the most enormous chandelier she’d ever seen. All around were people in gorgeous clothes. Couture dresses she should be appreciating and taking note of.

Yet all she could do was stand there, head whirling, as hundreds of excited voices chattered around her. She was too shocked even to feel nervous, still stunned by the sight of Marc there, greeting her as if he wasn’t an employee but someone—

‘There you are.’ A familiar deep voice curled around her. It dropped to a low-pitched whisper, ‘I thought I’d never get away.’

JoJo swung around, her skirts flaring wide.

One look at her expression and he frowned. ‘You’re angry.’

‘Wouldn’t you be? You lied to me. Pretended you work here!’

‘I do work here.’ Marc took her elbow and guided her to a relatively deserted corner decorated with a delicate mural of lifelike flowers. ‘I’ve just left the army and I’m working for my cousin.’

‘Your cousin?’

‘Paul. The King.’

JoJo’s mouth opened then shut. ‘Your cousin is the King?’ She paused to swallow, trying to moisten her dry throat. ‘Does that make you a prince?’ She’d thought the only princes were the King’s younger brothers, both studying overseas.

‘Nothing so flash.’ He grinned. ‘Merely a grand duke.’ His smile died as she stared up at him, speechless. ‘Don’t look at me like that, Josephine.’ Even now, the sound of her name on his lips made her feel shivery inside. ‘I didn’t tell you when we met because you were so nervous about coming to the palace. About meeting anyone here.’

She glared at him. ‘What about the next time we met? Why not tell me then?’

‘You really want to know?’

‘Of course.’

Slowly he nodded. ‘Because I was attracted to you. Very attracted. I wanted to know you better but I was scared you didn’t trust me enough to give me a chance. But then Paul sent me off to the other side of St Ancilla on business and I didn’t have an opportunity to explain. I wanted to tell you in person.’

It made sense. JoJo realised she wanted to believe him.

‘And tonight? Why invite me to a grand ball? Surely you could have told me over lunch or coffee or something.’

The frown creasing his brow eased and his lips curved into a smile that loosened the ribbon knotted tight around her insides. ‘Ah, that’s easy. Because I want to hold you in my arms.’

The devilish glint in those navy eyes ignited something inside her that felt like it had been waiting for just this moment, just this man, to fire into life.

She huffed a breath that might sound like disapproval but was actually a sigh of delight.

‘You’re still angry?’

JoJo lifted her shoulders and couldn’t stop the tiny smile lifting her mouth. ‘Possibly.’

‘What can I do so you’ll forgive me?’

JoJo breathed deep and wondered for a moment if she was dreaming.

Could she really be here with this lovely man she’d been dreaming about all week? The man she wanted to know so much better, who was looking at her with such warmth in his eyes?

‘You can do two things.’ She breathed deep. ‘Promise you’ll be upfront with me from now on. No lies. No half-truths.’

‘That’s easy. I promise.’ The way he said it, grave as a solemn vow, sent a shiver through her, as if she heard an echo of future vows. ‘And the second thing?’

JoJo slid her palm across the fragile fabric of her ball gown, feeling the tremor in her fingers. She felt poised on the brink of something exciting and marvellous.

She looked up at him under veiling eyelashes and saw the moment he read her expression. It was like looking at the sun rise, glorious and beautiful.

‘Dance with me?’ she asked.

His arm curled round her and he pulled her close, turning her towards the ballroom. ‘This dance and every one after, my darling Josephine.’


Annie West

Annie has devoted her life to an intensive study of charismatic heroes who cause the best kind of trouble in the lives of their heroines. As a sideline she researches locations for romance, from vibrant cities to desert encampments and fairytale castles. Annie lives in eastern Australia with her hero husband, between sandy beaches and gorgeous wine country. She finds writing the perfect excuse to postpone housework. To contact her or join her newsletter, visit www.annie-west.com 

Catch up on Annie’s upcoming book The King’s Bride By Arrangement

The King's Bride by Arrangement

His promised queen’s secret: he’s the only man she’s ever loved!

In this enchanting royal romance from USA TODAY bestselling author Annie West, a hidden passion is soon to be revealed…

Princess Eva’s always known her long-standing betrothal to King Paul of St. Ancilla is a political match. That doesn’t mean she hasn’t privately craved more! Paul ending their engagement is heartbreaking confirmation he’ll never feel the same.

Paul’s rebuilt his country after his father’s destruction. His ultimate act of kingship is releasing Eva from their convenient arrangement. Until a scandalous photo requires them to continue their betrothal…and an explosive kiss has Paul questioning everything he thought he knew about his royal bride!Mills & Boon Modern — Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.

FIND IT HERE

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