Being a stand-in princess was easy…until she met the Vicomte!
Secret half-sisters Clem and Princess Arrosa have always wanted to walk in each other’s shoes! So when Arrosa needs time out, it’s the perfect chance. Posing as her sister seems simple for Clem…until Vicomte Akil D’Ortiz, Arrosa’s friend and potential convenient suitor, arrives unannounced, immediately recognising she is not the princess. And suddenly the real connection Clem develops with Akil makes life truly complicated…
When a royal escape — leads to off-limits love!
Princess Arrosa is about to become Crown Princess. Facing pressure to marry, she’s escaped to Cornwall courtesy of her half-sister, Clem. Yet Rosy never expected her much-needed getaway to become a summer romance…she certainly never meant to fall for ex bad-boy turned single dad, Jack and his adorable daughters — or he with her! They don’t belong in each other’s world, but can they let each other go?
‘“FOR NEVER WAS a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”’
For one breathless moment the silence seemed overwhelming and then, like one of the waves crashing onto the shore behind her, loud applause rang out. Clemence Beaumont lay perfectly still for one last second as the still-real emotion swirled through her and then, as reality started to return, she raised her head and allowed Ed, her co-star, to pull her to her feet, letting the dagger fall to the floor. Taking his hand, she walked to the front of the curved stage, the rest of the cast falling in behind them, and bowed. Straightening with a grin, she took in the audience for the first time since she’d stepped onto the stage in answer to the nurse’s call.
Semicircular seating rose up away from the stage, the outdoor theatre more amphitheatre than traditional auditorium, respectably full for an amateur fundraising performance. Clem bowed again as the whoops and cheers rang out, the welcome and much-missed post-performance adrenaline flooding her veins. Blinking, she started to make out individuals in the crowd: her best friend, Sally, who must have found a babysitter after all; Mrs Atkins, her favourite primary school teacher, beaming away; Mr Reynolds, her English teacher, nodding at her in approval, he adored Shakespeare and tried to make sure all his pupils did too; her neighbour Trinny, dressed to the nines as always; her sister…
Hang on. Her gaze skittered back. Her sister? Arrosa was here, in Cornwall? How had she managed to get away—not just get away but also seemingly alone? Clem couldn’t see her bodyguard anywhere although she knew Henri couldn’t be far behind. Arrosa hadn’t gone out in public without the special-service-trained protection officer in the last decade.
Her seatmates didn’t seem to have recognised her although her face regularly adorned front pages and gossip sites, probably thanks to the hat pulled low over her sleek, dark curls and the thick-rimmed glasses shading her face, but Clem would have recognised her in twice the disguise. After all, a similar face looked out at her from the mirror every morning. The sisters shared the same cheekbones and nose, the same dimples and long-lashed hazel eyes. But whereas Arrosa was a princess, legitimate daughter of King Zorien of Asturia, Clem was the unplanned result of a gap-year romance, her existence hidden away from half her family and the country her father ruled. A country she had never even visited.
She continued to bow and smile mechanically, but her mind was no longer on the performance and applause. What on earth was her sister doing here? Clem had sent her an invite of course, but she hadn’t actually expected her to come. She never had before. It was hard for Arrosa to get away.
Finally, the applause came to an end and the cast filed backstage, chattering loudly as the post-production euphoria spread through all the crew and actors.
‘Everyone back to ours,’ Ed proclaimed, his arm around Tybalt, normally known as Tom and Ed’s other half. ‘Clem? Ready to party?’
‘It’s not that I don’t want to…’ she started, and his face softened.
‘You were sensational tonight, Clem, and you should celebrate. I know it’s not the same, but she’d want you to.’
Not the same without her mother, he meant. Simone Beaumont had produced and directed many of the village plays, been at the forefront of the restoration campaign that had transformed the neglected open-air theatre. If she were still alive she would be spearheading the Save Our Theatre battle against a local developer who wanted to change the beloved community asset into yet another commercial venture catering to tourists. Her mother had loved a cause. Clem had lost count of all her campaigns and passions long ago. It had used to infuriate her, feeling that her own feelings and needs came second to whatever—or whoever—her mother was championing at the time, but now she would give anything to walk into the kitchen and see her mother furiously making a placard—Save the Seals, Save the Birds, Clean up the Sewage, Save our Post Office. Simone Beaumont. Champion of the underdog.
‘We’ll give you a lift,’ Tom added, but Clem shook her head.
‘I’ll try and make it, but I think I saw my cousin in the audience.’
‘Bring them along.’
‘I’ll see what she says. We don’t see each other often so she may want to catch up at home. Enjoy the party. You were both brilliant tonight, thank you.’ She kissed both men on the cheek and headed off to change. She’d been looking forward to the post-show celebration but knew her promise to try and make it wouldn’t be fulfilled. It had been a long time since Arrosa had dared to be seen publicly with her, or even attend a party without prior clearance; her half-sister might have the title, a luxurious lifestyle, more money than Clem could imagine, and a real relationship with their father, but Clem knew she had a freedom Arrosa could never have.
She changed quickly and removed her stage make-up and within fifteen minutes she made her way out of the theatre to walk the short distance home. She’d been born and brought up in the pretty coastal village her mother had moved to after she’d found out that her lover wasn’t just a fellow student at the Sorbonne, but a prince with an arranged marriage due to take place imminently. Three months after moving to Cornwall Simone gave birth alone in a strange town—and six months later the birth of a new princess was celebrated in Asturia. Clem couldn’t imagine how alone her mother must have felt, an orphan, single mother and betrayed lover. But she knew that Simone had loved the curve of the harbour, the pretty fishermen’s cottages that clustered up the cliff, the wide sweep of beach, and Clem did too; she wouldn’t swap her home for any palace. Which was a good thing because here she was, recalled home by her mother’s long, lingering illness.
In the six months since her mother had died Clem had toyed with the idea of returning to London, to keep trying to make it as a professional actress, but making any decision seemed too hard, her grief still paralyzingly raw. In a world where she had no one, leaving the familiarity of home was more than she could manage.
She turned in at the small path that led to the cottage Zorien had bought them all those years ago. Clem hadn’t been able to bring herself to change a thing. Her mother’s clothes still hung in her wardrobe; her wax jacket swung from her peg in the hallway.
Arrosa had her own key and when Clem walked into the sitting room, her sister was curled up on the sofa. She’d discarded the hat and glasses, her long dark curls tumbling free, her expression thoughtful and more than a little wistful as she stared into the unlit fireplace. She looked up as Clem opened the door, jumping to her feet and rushing over to give Clem a warm hug.
‘It’s not that I’m not happy to see you, Rosy, but what on earth are you doing here?’ Clem asked as she accepted a glass of the excellent wine Arrosa had brought with her and inspected the delicious array of goodies spread out on the coffee table, more crammed inside the Fortnum & Mason’s hamper by her feet. She selected a piece of cheese and sat back.
‘Apart from watching my sister play Juliet? Clem, you were brilliant.’ Arrosa’s English was perfect thanks to a British nanny and five years in an English boarding school, with no trace of an accent unless she was emotional or excited. Which was a shame. Clem loved her sister’s accent, a reminder of the country she had never known. The small and much contested independent kingdom was positioned between France and Spain and the dialect was close to French, but the accent owed more to their Spanish neighbour.
‘You’ve never come to see me act before.’
Arrosa curled back up on the sofa. ‘I wish I had. Clem, I’m so sorry I didn’t come to Simone’s funeral. I loved her so much, but…’
‘That’s okay, she would have understood. And you sent such beautiful flowers.’
‘But you’re my sister, I should have been there for you.’
‘It’s hard for you to get away. I know that.’ But Clem had looked for her that long, sad day and her absence had hurt. Clem wasn’t lying, she did understand the restrictions on their relationship, but there were times she was tired of being the skeleton in the family cupboard. Of shouldering life’s burdens alone.
‘It was easier when we were children. Especially when I was at school and could spend my exeat weekends here as well as some of the holidays.’
Some people might have found it strange that Simone had agreed to Zorien’s request that Arrosa spend time with them anonymously, posing as Clem’s cousin so that she could get to know her sister, but Simone, with her trick of embracing lost causes, had taken one look at Arrosa and enfolded her into the family. ‘A palace is no place to raise a child,’ she would say. ‘She needs some fun, to be allowed to run wild.’ And run wild they had, long halcyon beach days drenched in sun and sea.
Halcyon days that had ended as they’d left their teens and Arrosa had had to take on state duties. Now they barely got the chance to meet, their long weekly phone calls their sole communication.
And Arrosa hadn’t mentioned anything about a visit the last time they spoke just a few days ago.
‘Fess up, why are you here apart from coming to see me as Juliet? Don’t think I’m not pleased to see you, but I know you and impulsive isn’t in your schedule. Is everything okay?’
Arrosa took a swig of wine, a shadow passing over her face. ‘I’m not sure. I think I just asked someone to marry me.’
‘You think or you did? Are congratulations in order?’ Clem tried to keep the surprise off her face. She was sure there was no one special in Arrosa’s life. No one not special either. Asturia was a small patriarchal society with old-fashioned values and their Crown Princess was supposed to embody those values. ‘Who is the lucky man?’
‘Akil. He’s the Vicomte d’Ortiz, a rising star of the opposition. His father, the Duc d’Ortiz, was one of Papa’s most vocal critics. Our families have been enemies for generations, you know how Asturians can be, but Akil and I are friends of a sort. We have a lot in common. Family honour and expectations and that kind of thing.’
‘Friends? You’re not even dating? Is this a friends-to-lovers thing? Rosy, marriage is a big first step. Why not start off with dinner and a film? Besides…’ Clem topped up their wine glasses before turning to face her sister ‘…what do you mean you think you asked him to marry you?’
Arrosa reddened. ‘Akil has been instrumental into getting the opposition parties to agree to the change in law that will allow me to inherit the throne. You know, it’s really important that there’s consensus, it’s such a change. Asturia is so traditional that any hint of controversy, even a politician voting against the change, could make it harder for the people to accept me.’
Arrosa had told Clem more than once how relieved she was that the Asturian primogeniture laws meant she would never have to become Queen, but when it had become clear that no son would succeed him, her father—their father—had thrown himself into changing the law. Now, eight years later they were just weeks away from the law being ratified and Arrosa becoming the official heir to the throne. Whatever Arrosa’s personal feelings about her new destiny, she had shouldered the change with her usual, intelligent grace.
‘Oh, now I get it, in return for his help he gets half the kingdom and the Princess’s hand in marriage. That still is the going rate?’
But Arrosa didn’t answer her teasing smile, taking another sip of her wine as she stared pensively into the empty fireplace. ‘Clem, everyone—my parents, my advisers, the newspapers—has been pushing me to marry. To start thinking about an heir of my own. And the country will see me as more settled, more mature, if I am married. I don’t like being rushed, but I see the sense in it. The problem is, not only am I single, but I don’t see that changing. On the rare occasion I meet someone I like the whole princess thing scares them off. Queen-to-be is going to make that a hundred times worse. I like Akil, and he understands the court and my world, and we have similar ambitions for Asturia… We were talking about what I wanted to achieve as the heir and realised how aligned our goals were, and I suddenly thought, well, he’s the right age, single, understands my world. I could do a lot worse.’
‘So you asked him if he’d do you the honour?’ She knew the situation wasn’t funny, but humour was all that Clem had right now. Pity wouldn’t help anyone, least of all her sister.
‘Not exactly. I just said maybe he’d achieve more as Prince Consort and then fled the scene in mortification. What if he says yes?’
‘Do you want him to say yes?’
‘It’s not what I dreamed of as a little girl. But it would make things easier.’
‘The last of the true romantics. What’s he like? Is he good-looking?’ Other words hovered unsaid—is he kind, will he respect you, can you fall in love with him?
‘I think so. He’s pleasant enough to look at.’
Arrosa handed over her phone to Clem, who sucked in a breath. Pleasant enough to look at? Understatement of the century. With cheekbones sharp enough to slice through ice, a determined chin, sensuous mouth and a knowing glint in dark eyes, the Vicomte was film-star handsome. And if Arrosa couldn’t see that then she really shouldn’t marry him.
‘Yes, pleasant enough,’ she said wryly.
‘He’s a good man.’ Was Arrosa trying to convince Clem—or herself?
Arrosa rubbed her eyes. ‘Queens make sacrifices for the common good. I know that. But I’m giving up any last hope of privacy, of choosing my own path. Is marrying someone I don’t love one sacrifice too many? Being the monarch is lonely enough. It would be easier with a real partner by my side. Someone who wants to marry me because of me, not my title. But I’m not sure that person is out there. Akil is a sensible choice. Maybe that should be enough.’
‘Rosy, I think this is something you need to take some time and think about. Really think about.’ In fact, she shouldn’t be making any decisions while she was clearly overwhelmed. Clem had never seen her sister so pale, never seen such huge shadows under her eyes or her usually laughter-filled face so solemn. ‘You need a break.’
Arrosa sighed. ‘I know. It’s been intense. But don’t worry, I’m slowing down for the summer, I’ve cleared my diary for the next few weeks leading up to the ratification as things will get really busy once I’m confirmed. Papa wants me to take on some decision-making duties straight away. There’s a lot to learn. He’s still young, but of course he inherited the throne long before he thought he would. He wants me to be ready.’
‘A break? So you’ll go on holiday?’
Her smile was wan. ‘I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a lot to do, to organise, but at least I’ve got no engagements or formal meetings.’
‘Then organise it from here.’ Clem turned to her sister eagerly. ‘Stay here for a few weeks, Rosy. You know the Cornish air does you good.’ And then they could spend some real time together. Maybe for the last time.
‘I’d love to,’ Arrosa said wistfully. ‘But I’m heading back tonight.’
‘Tonight? Oh, Rosy.’ Disappointment hit Clem hard. She hadn’t realised how lonely she was until she had seen her sister sitting high up in the amphitheatre. She had friends, lots of them, but nobody who was hers alone.
How she wished she and Arrosa could actually be sisters properly. Have more than a weekly phone call and a few snatched hours here and there.
‘I know, but I’ll be missed if I’m gone too long.’
‘You said yourself that you have no meetings.’
‘I don’t, but the speculation if I’m not seen even from the distance could be damaging this close to the ratification. I didn’t go anywhere for a couple of weeks when I had flu last year and according to the tabloids I was having a facelift, had joined a cult and eloped with a soldier. I know it’s silly and I shouldn’t care but it’s not just that I don’t want any rumours circulating at home—eventually the press would find me and then they’d start wondering who you are and that’s the last thing you need. It’s safest for you if we’re not seen together, Clem.’
‘If they find you. After all, why would they look for you here?’ But Clem knew all too well that Arrosa was always tracked down eventually. Once Arrosa had turned eighteen the press had turned their lenses on her and she had become a front-page staple. There weren’t many beautiful, young single princesses around and what she wore and ate, who she spoke to and where she went were all put under intense scrutiny.
But no one in Cornwall had ever realised that the child and teenager who spent so many holidays with the Beaumonts was the Asturian Princess. In fact, some of Clem’s friends and neighbours still asked after her cousin. People saw what they expected to see, and nobody expected to see a European princess eating ice cream on a Cornish beach. And look at her! Worryingly pale and thin. She obviously needed a proper holiday. One here in the Cornish air. Time away from politics and diplomacy and Court. Time to decide if marrying someone because he had done her a good turn and understood her world was really what she wanted.
Maybe there was a way to make it happen.
‘I could go back to Asturia in your place,’ Clem said slowly, trying the words on for size.
Arrosa started to laugh but the sound died away as her eyes grew big with shock. ‘You’re serious? Clem, no one would ever think you were me.’
‘Up close, no, but in the back of a car, hair all neat like you, in your clothes, with those big sunglasses you wear… Why wouldn’t they? People see what they expect to see.’ She repeated the words she’d just thought, the truth of them becoming clearer with every second. ‘We’re the same build and height, the same colouring. And I’m an actress, I can walk like you, hold myself like you. You could have the summer here and I’ll spend it in Asturia making sure the press get enough glimpses to think you’re busy preparing for the ratification, leaving you free to get some serious relaxation. I talk about my cousin all the time. No one here will think anything of it if we say I’ve got a job and you’re cat-sitting. The only unbelievable part will be that I’ve been cast in anything. I’ll have to claim I ended up on the cutting-room floor.’
‘That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. We’d never get away with it.’
A tendril of hope in Arrosa’s voice made Clem push away her own doubts.
‘If you lived in the main castle or had dozens of servants then I agree, it would be impossible…’
‘But I have my own cottage in the grounds of the Palais d’Artega,’ Arrosa said slowly. ‘I make my own meals when I’m there, people do come in to clean but not when I’m around. Only Marie is there regularly, but of course she and Henri would need to know if there was any chance of this succeeding… But it would be lonely, Clem. You’d have to be careful that no maids, no gardeners, no staff at all saw you. Some are new but some have been at the palais since I was a baby. What would you do with yourself?’
Lonely. That was a state Clem had got all too used to over the last year and a half. ‘I’ll make sure the press see Henri drive me around, dressed as you, of course, but in between I’ll wear my own clothes, let my hair go back to natural wildness and explore Asturia incognito. I’ve always wanted to go but somehow I never have.’ She’d always hoped that Zorien would find a way to invite her over, but of course he had always said it was too risky. ‘It would be a chance for me to see our father too. It’d be easier for him to spend time with me if I’m living at yours. No one would question him visiting you.’ She tried to keep the bitterness from her voice. She knew Zorien was a distant father to Arrosa in many ways too, but at least they had a real relationship, not just an awkward meeting every few years. She was grateful for the cottage and for the money he’d settled on her but would gladly swap both for a real father.
‘But what’s the point of me being here if you aren’t?’
‘Well, Gus needs feeding, for a start.’ Clem pointed at the slim black cat occupying the window seat. ‘The sea needs swimming in, scones need eating, beaches need walking on and you need time to be you, not the Crown Princess and future Queen. This gives you that time. And I need a change of scene too. I’ve been putting off making plans for my future, just existing for too long. Maybe some time away will give me some much-needed perspective. You’d be doing me a favour.’
‘Sure, I’d be doing you the favour.’ Arrosa shook her head affectionately at Clem.
‘We’ll do each other a favour. We both need some time away from our lives, so why not swap for a while? Your mother’s not at home, is she?’ She knew that Iara Artega rarely spent much time in the Artega country estate, preferring to spend her time socialising in the small capital or journeying abroad.
‘No, she’s spending the summer on Ischia on a retreat.’
‘Then we’re safe.’ Arrosa’s mother knew about Clem, but the two had never met and Clem sensed the Queen would prefer to keep it that way. ‘We could do this. Your call, Rosy. What will it be? Six weeks of avoiding Akil, ducking away from the press and worrying yourself into a shadow or all the cream teas you can eat and a summer lazing on the beach?’
‘We must be mad to even consider this would work.’ But there was a hint of the old fire in Arrosa’s eyes and Clem knew she was close to agreeing.
‘It’s easy enough to swap back if we need to,’ she pointed out and Arrosa nodded then laughed.
‘You’re right. Let’s give it a week and see where we are. Thank you, Clem. Cornwall is just what I need, and I think maybe Asturia is where you need to be as well. To a change of scenery.’ She held up her glass and Clem clinked it with hers.
‘To the princess swap.’