He’s lived the good life…
Cut off from his finances and ordered get his life together, George Dagmar registers for university in New York. College life, as it turns out, isn’t so bad. He can party, meet lots of girls, and hang out—at least according to professional student and artist, Penny Novak. When they tangle in the sheets, George quickly realizes she is more than an affair…
She lives life on her terms…
Penny enjoys a bohemian lifestyle and plans to live as a poor artist for the rest of her life, answering to no one but her muse. Spoiled George doesn’t impress her, but when her sister asks her to keep an eye on the brat prince, Penny can’t help but tweak his royal nose. When he rises to the occasion and proves he can be funny and charming, they hit the sheets. Reveling in their carefree affair, Penny has no complaints until George slips and declares his love. Galvanized by fear of a set in stone future, this commitment-phobe bolts…
Changing the rules…
He’s never wanted anyone the way he wants her. George will go to any length to prove they were meant to be together. Even grow up…
Read the first chapter now!
Embedded amid a fantastic alpine landscape, Chateau Michel looked like a fairytale castle. All around the massive stone construction—once the winter palace for some forgotten German prince—mountaintops rose majestically toward the sky. A blanket of ice and snow lay at the feet of the chateau—pristine, untouched, and elegant.
Catering to a very exclusive clientele, the property layout and the building itself were easily secured, making it a sought after, exclusive getaway for the elite.
Once upon a time, the view inspired George with thoughts of skiing, snowboarding, and the possibility of play with heiresses, gentry, or rich Americans who made the town their winter retreat. Sadly, his happily for now days were behind him and his brother’s plans for his ‘future’ loomed like a forbidding cloud over the valley.
George Dagmar, third son of the Andraste royal house and so far beyond spare heir, preferred his honorific as prince to Grand Duke. Arriving in the back of a stretch limousine with nothing more to do than gaze at the picturesque landscape, all he could think about was how the location served as a well-ornamented prison. His crime was birth and his sentence was a week with family.
All of them. From princes to paupers, lawyers to farmers—hell, even the military would be represented if one counted his uncle or one of Armand’s brothers-in-law.
His invitation and travel arrangements appeared on his itinerary, along with the exclusive guest list, and a note from Armand ordering his appearance. Unfortunately, Armand would accept no excuses to avoid the gathering—the first of its type since Alyx had rejoined their family and made even more special by the additions of Anna, Armand’s wife; Meredith, Sebastian’s fiancée, and Robert Alexander Voldakov, Alyx’s son.
For better or worse, familial responsibility and duty required his attendance. He’d rather be in Monaco or perhaps somewhere in the south Pacific, sunning on an island. Instead, he’d been consigned to a frozen postcard with family.
Life is hell.
George used the excuse of end of the semester exams to avoid flying with the rest of the Los Angeles based group when they’d left four days prior. In addition to avoiding the crowded plane, he also garnered a few days of personal freedom.
Before the week was out, George suspected his eldest brother would gift the youngest member of the family with a title. They didn’t have much, but they certainly had their pomp, circumstance, and nobility. The boy might be eighth in line and even more spare than George, but he was still the son of a princess, a Grand Duchess of the Andraste family.
The limousine pulled into the portico and a footman opened his door. In addition to the footman, a doorman stood ready to admit him to the chateau. Two fully uniformed and armed guards framed the entrance, and George’s own security team fanned out as he exited the car—proof the security was tight.
Layers upon layers had been the general rule for the last year. He’d matured under the mantle of high security, but even George found all of the extra safety measures suffocating. Once the last of the family arrived, the chateau wouldn’t open its gates or doors for anyone. Security would remain thick, but at a distance. Safe, but boring—especially as a ‘secure family gathering’ would prevent him from seeking his normal entertainments.
Too bad the only women attending were related to him somehow. Sliding out, he nodded politely to each of the help before climbing the stairs to the entrance. Someone would see to his luggage and another someone would unpack for him. He didn’t have a personal valet anymore, having dismissed his last one, but at such a formal gathering? Chances were good that one of the footman would serve the purpose.
Schooling his features to something careless and playful, he strode past the doorman and entered the nearly two-hundred-year-old chateau. He found his brother, Sebastian, and their cousin, Alyx in the doorway to the sitting room. Their backs were to him.
“Daniel Voldakov, you promised no work.” The man facing her ire was her husband, the founder and head of Spherecast Technologies. Across from him sat Dr. Meredith Blake, a professor and PhD in—of all subjects—mathematics. Her guilty expression dissolved into laughter.
“I’m afraid that’s my fault,” she said as she thumbed off the tablet in her lap.
“Oh, we’re very aware.” Sebastian sounded more amused than annoyed, but he crossed over to his fiancée and held out his hand for her tablet. “However, no work. No studies. No formulas that need to be solved. You two can change the world next week.”
Alyx followed Sebastian into the room and slid onto her husband’s lap, effectively blocking his view of his laptop. “Exactly. Robert is with his Tetya Marie, and we are free for hours until dinner. Sebastian offered to teach me how to ski. You two have to join us, so I’m not falling down alone.”
Meredith laughed. “I love skiing, and I’ve had plenty of lessons. Bastian is an excellent teacher.”
“I prefer surfing, but if we’re going to ski, I think I’ll use a snowboard.” Daniel’s expression gentled for his wife.
“Brilliant.” Sebastian tugged his fiancée from the chair. “Let’s change and meet down here in, say, thirty minutes?”
“Make it forty-five,” Daniel said. “Especially if Robert is with his Tetya Marie.”
Agreed, the two couples turned. George didn’t know whether to laugh or scowl at the surprise on their faces. Sebastian recovered the swiftest, greeting him with both a handshake and a quick hug. “We’re going to take a run down Betina. Care to join us?”
“I’ve only just arrived. Tomorrow, perhaps.” He’d rather take a shower, followed by a nap, and put off family interrogations for as long as he could.
“Excellent. Armand wants to see you. He and Richard are in the billiards gallery.” Sebastian gave his shoulder a squeeze and leaned close. His voice lowered, and he switched to Norwegian. “He’s in a mood. Don’t let someone else tell him you’ve arrived before you’ve presented yourself.”
“Thank you.” George nodded, grateful for the warning. For over a decade, Armand ruled as titular head of their family. He’d assumed the position when their father died of a heart attack. George had been much younger than either of his brothers when all the changes took place. They’d both already attended University while he’d been shipped to a private school much closer to home.
Since then, Armand oversaw everything, including George’s education. His eldest brother’s most recent directive trapped him in Los Angeles for the past year, attending UCLA while he lived in an apartment at the Tower. It was all quite boring, but when the Grand Duke ordered him to attend college, he’d had no choice in the matter.
Hardly presentable by formal standards, he decided to gamble on the ‘family’ aspect of the holiday vacation. Parting company with his brother, cousin, and their significant others, he took the stairs to the second floor. Only Grady accompanied him. With the heavier security, they needed only their most personal bodyguards rather than their full detail inside the building.
Privacy was a wonderful thing.
Having visited the chateau on previous occasions, he didn’t need a guide. The billiards gallery was one of Armand’s favorite rooms, particularly when Richard joined him. The two men on the door inclined their heads in tacit acknowledgment before knocking once and opening the door for him to enter at Armand’s casual greeting.
Richard leaned over the table, lining up his shot, and he gave George a friendly nod. Armand waved him inside. “Ah, you made it. Well done.” His smile disappeared with a curse as Richard managed a bank shot, which sank two balls in rapid succession.
“Your Highness—Armand,” George said by way of greeting. He paused long enough to incline his head and offer the slightest of bows. Prince or not, third in line or not, protocol demanded his obeisance to his brother’s title. Once observed, he straightened. Letting the two friends continue their play, he crossed to the bar and poured himself a brandy from one of the crystal decanters. In addition to the fine billiards table, the room also offered darts and a table for cards, which comfortably sat eight.
A headache pulsed behind his eyes, but he refused to acknowledge the dull throb. Instead, he self-medicated with a mouthful of smooth brandy and studied the landscape that stretched beyond the bulletproof glass windows. Although treated to prevent long-distance photographers from capturing any money shots, he could still contemplate the valley below.
Postcard perfection offered a dangerous promise of solitude. The problem with seclusion was, for all its impractical charm, it wasn’t safer than immersion in society’s collective dance. His thought didn’t quite match Emerson’s quote on the topic, but Emerson hadn’t been born into the Andraste family.
“How was your flight?” Armand circled the deep burgundy, felt-covered table, his attention seemingly on the spread of solid to stripe-colored balls. George wasn’t fooled. His brother missed very little.
“Comfortable. Thank you for sending the plane back for me.” For not forcing me to fly with everyone else, though he kept the last thought to himself.
“How did your finals go?” Lining up his shot, Armand concentrated on sinking a ball placed so close to the eight as to be risky. Of course, he pulled it off.
“Fine.” More interested in Armand’s successful aim than the question, George shrugged it off.
“Really?” Straightening, his brother chalked the tip of his pool cue.
Glancing at the brandy in his glass, George considered how many he could drink before Armand would comment. Two perhaps, no more than three.“Yes. They were fine.”
Not that he could even recall which classes he’d taken the last term. He’d had every intention of taking his finals, but he’d overslept one and arrived after the doors locked to the last. Neither were that important, so why did he need to give a report?
“Well, I must say, I am intrigued.” The clipped formality in his brother’s tone wasn’t lost on George.
Dare he ask? “By?”
“How one can describe their finals as fine when one did not take them. Do you recall taking your finals, Richard?” Including his oldest friend and the family attorney in the discussion didn’t bode well for George. He finished his drink and set the tumbler down.
Pouring another might inflame Armand’s temper further.
“Very well. Exhausting. Aggravating. Usually time-consuming.” Of course Richard agreed with his best friend. Holding his silence, however, remained George’s best course of action. “Though, I understand if you don’t actually show up, you wouldn’t know.”
Fantastic. He’d been summoned to a lecture. Schooling his features to bury his resentment, he waited for Armand’s temper to ignite. Chances were, he’d been on a slow burn since someone informed him of George’s actions. Not his security force, they wouldn’t, but the professors? The teaching assistants? The coffee cart lady? Yeah, they would all sell him out in a heartbeat.
“There are three folders on the table. Take a look at them.” Armand turned his attention back to the billiards table.
Obeying was easier than arguing. George crossed over to the card table. Sure enough, three navy colored folders awaited him. Each bore the gold insignia of a different college. “I’m already enrolled in university, per your instructions.” His eldest brother had been adamant about restricting his social schedule, enrolling in university and settling down. He’d done exactly as instructed.
“Performing to the exact letter of the agreement while failing to honor the spirit of it is not good business.”
Richard’s reply only incensed George. “If you want me to make an appointment with your lawyer, Armand, I will do so. But I won’t stand here and let you both disparage me for sport.”
“For sport?” He had his brother’s attention now. Armand set his pool cue aside and favored him with a cool glare. “If you believe failing spectacularly through utter disinterest provides entertainment, your education is far more lacking than I feared.” Before George could utter a response, Armand raised his hand. “No, you do not need to say another word. Your behavior speaks for you. It speaks of your disregard for responsibility and disrespect for your family. With your failure to appear at your finals, you have managed to complete your semester with two incomplete classes and one failing. Your grade point average is 1.75 and, since you were already on academic probation, you will not be allowed to enroll next semester.”
Shame flushed through him—not at the grades, but at Armand’s knowledge of them and the university’s decision. Why didn’t they tell him? Of course, he had a number of unopened correspondences on his desk at the Tower. Perhaps they’d tried.
Armand, however, was not done. “Those folders contain information about the only three schools willing to take you with your current GPA and academic record in addition to a sizeable donation from the Dagmar Foundation. You may read their materials and make your decision. Make no mistake, you will choose one or I will. You will be relocating to the chosen school on January tenth. You will maintain a full course load and you will excel in each class. You will have an apartment and your security force—”
“And if I don’t want to do these things?” Interrupting his brother breached every type of protocol, but George was not a child. He did not deserve to be spoken to in such a manner, especially in front of Richard. Best friend or not, the man was not family.
“I don’t care what you want.” Well, at least Armand answered honestly. “You do not care about your life or your choices, which you have made abundantly clear. However, I care about our image as well as our successes, both personally and professionally. I also care about your future—one you will not have, beyond being gossip fodder, if you do not grow up. To that end, you will have an apartment and the family will continue to supply your personal security. Your access to your trust fund, your credit cards and your bank accounts has been revoked.”
What…? The world bottomed out beneath him.
“You will have a five hundred dollar allowance each week to cover your meal expenses…”
“You can’t do this.” He tried to argue.
“I can, and I will. Now you have four hundred dollars a week.”
“This is insane. I have no interest in going to school.”
Unflinchingly, Armand met his anger with cool impartiality. “Three hundred per week. Continue at this rate, and you will need to find a part time job in order to eat.”
“You can’t force me to do this.”
“Two hundred.” No. Armand refused to bend and, from the look on Richard’s face, all of the earlier threats had already come to fruition. George would check his accounts, but he already knew what he would find.
“As you wish, Your Highness.” Bile burned in his throat, and fury curdled his stomach. Humiliated didn’t begin to cover his emotional state.
“Excellent. Read, review, choose.” Unforgiving and unyielding, Armand motioned to the folders. “Alert me to your decision before supper is served tomorrow evening or I will make it for you. When you leave after the holiday, you will be flown to your selected destination. Security will make the necessary arrangements. We’re finished. You may leave.”
Not trusting himself to speak, George nodded and left, folders in hand. What little pride he still possessed demanded he keep his temper in check until he reached the privacy of his suite.
His pride, apparently, was all he had left.
Penny Novak had to pee and not a dignified little tinkle. No, instead she suffered a thighs glued together, awkward dance of desperation to avoid wetting herself kind of need. Frustrated and uncomfortable, he hunted for a bathroom in the oversized museum her brother-in-law invited her to for the holidays. In her effort to explore, she’d gotten turned around and, so far, none of the doors she’d opened possessed a fundamental necessity of civilized existence—namely, a toilet. Who built a house like a maze, and why didn’t they have signs? Wasn’t it a hotel when some royal family wasn’t renting it out? Did they have an app for it? Maybe a downloadable you are here, run to here if you need to urinate guide?
I am going to piss myself, and won’t that impress the blue-bloods? She hobbled down the hall and opened another ornate wooden door. A sitting room—oh, but a pair of double doors inside opened into a bedroom. Bedroom meant bathroom.
Practically hop-running, she weaved around the furniture, through the darkened bedroom and into the—thank God—open and utterly unoccupied bathroom. It only took her a couple of minutes to finish her business then she sagged in relief. While she washed her hands, she studied the crown moldings.
Marble countertops and porcelain fixtures decorated the room, all tasteful, yet artfully crafted—she could admire the construction. The sculpting on the wall sconces were particularly attractive. French influences showed in the almost fleur-de-lis pattern of the ivy, but harder lines suggested a German sculptor. Dark paint accented the column work—almost Viking with iconography reminiscent of the Urnes Church portal, clearly representing a doe in the swirling knot work—all of which combined to create a striking effect. Architecture wasn’t her thing, normally, but she could admire the—
A door slammed in the outer room. Then glass shattered on a far wall. Vocal cursing followed the break. After drying her hands on a towel, Penny stuck her head out of the bathroom. The bedroom remained empty.
Was the chateau haunted? Another curse—this one distinctly masculine, vaguely European and somewhat familiar—verified no, not haunted. A light next to the sofa had been turned on, casting deep yellow glow across the furniture. Arms folded, she continued to the double doors splitting the bedroom from the sitting room. One of the Dagmar men stood with his back toward her, suit jacket stripped off and tossed over the back of a sofa.
Not her brother-in-law or Sebastian. That left only George, but she hadn’t seen him in months. Another curse—at least she thought it was a curse, since he wasn’t speaking English. The young Dagmar glared at three folders, which lay on the table in front of the room’s bar, as he downed a tumbler full of amber colored liquid.
“The urge to ask if something vexes thee is really strong,” she said after he finished his drink. He let out an oath and spun to face her.
“What are you doing in my suite?” Apparently, no one hit the youngest Dagmar with a charm stick on his way out. “I know I didn’t enter the wrong rooms.” Or the polite one for that matter.
“I had to pee. Someone forgot to include a Marauder’s Map in my check in materials.” One of the dark blue folders lay open. She recognized the brochure and welcome letter from New York University. Hadn’t she read he was going to school in California in one of the tabloids? Maybe Anna told her, but Penny couldn’t recall which.
“I would appreciate it if you would show yourself out. I’m not fit to receive guests at the moment.”
Okay, so maybe he missed the charm stick and the polite stick, but they’d still managed to shove one up his ass. Raising her hands in mock surrender, she retreated. “Showing myself out.” The attitude lasted her as far as the door, where she stole a glance back to find him once again staring at the folders, shoulders rigid. “Or I could have a drink with you, and you can curse the folders some more. I can get pretty creative with the language.”
Glaciers were warmer than the stare he favored her with. “Miss Novak—”
“Penny.” Damn, stiff and slow. Poor boy missed all the family jewels.
“Miss. Novak.” Apparently he had no interest in being friendlier. “This matter doesn’t concern you. Have you no concept of privacy?”
Shortening the I in the word privacy didn’t dilute the formality of his response, but it did crack her up. Fighting to keep her lips from twitching, she shrugged and took a couple steps toward him. “Sure. I also know when someone is pissed. Privacy…” Short ‘i’ and pinkies up, bitches. “…doesn’t help when you’re angry. It merely makes you lonely and leaves you with no one to vent to. I, on the other hand, am a terrific listener, just ask Anna. I also have absolutely no vested interest in the outcome, unless it has to do with my sister. It doesn’t, right?” Probably a good thing to check first.
Frowning, George shook his head in a quick negative. “Not at all.”
“Brilliant! Then you can tell me all about the crime committed by your blue folders. Do a girl a solid, and pour me a drink first?”
“Why?” Blunt and so completely without tact, but very real. Better.
“Because I have to go back out there and figure out where I took a wrong turn then find my family. Once I do, I get to listen to a recitation of how the brothers Novak continue to excel in the world while I, as pampered baby of the family, failed to develop the responsibility gene.” Mocking herself, she made a gagging noise then grinned. “So you would actually be helping me out with the diversion and drink. And it is, after all, all about me.”
Still staring, his frown eased into something akin to bewilderment. “Who are you?”
He probably meant it as a rhetorical question, but she decided to answer anyway. “Penny Novak, artist, student extraordinaire and desperately thirsty. Drink?” Because really, she understood why royalty spent most of their days blitzed. She’d only had three days with her family in the lap of luxury, and she was ready to kill herself.
Shaking his head, he retrieved a fresh tumbler from the bar and filled it with amber liquid before passing the drink to her. “Miss—Penny. Would you care to have a seat?”
Smiling, she cradled the drink to her chest and nodded. Much better. “Join me.” The sitting room included two love seats and two armchairs, all deeply cushioned, arranged in a circle for conversation. Choosing a love seat within view of a suit of arms—who had armor in their bedroom?—she slid off her shoes and curled up in the corner, bare feet tucked beneath her. George studied her and, for a moment, she feared he would continue to brood by the high arched stone window frame. Finally, he settled on the love seat opposite her with a sigh.
“Thank you.” She winked then took swallow of the amber alcohol. No idea what he’d given her, but it whatever it was tasted smooth. Too smooth. She took a longer drink, not at all displeased at the warm, fuzzy feeling spreading through her belly. “Damn. Royalty does have its privileges.”
“So I’ve heard.” The dryness in his voice didn’t diminish her good mood.
“All right, you made me my drink and invited me to stay so graciously. I’m all yours. Hit me with your problems.”
His eyebrows raised fractionally. “Why would I do that?”
“Because,” she said, raising one finger. “I’m a terrific listener.” She raised a second finger. “I’ve got no horse in this race.” With the addition of a third finger, she grinned. “You need to vent. So spill. Tell Penny all your problems.”
“You’re an unusual woman.”
Royal speak for pain in the ass. Good thing she spoke the language and excelled in her chosen profession. “Thank you.”
He paused with his drink halfway to his mouth, surprise in his expression. “You’re welcome?”
“Deflecting and delaying means you’ll end up pouring me a second drink.” Shaking her sweater sleeve up some, she glanced at her watch. “Since supper will be served promptly at seven, we have a few hours.”
“Miss Novak.” Damn, two steps forward, three steps back. “I spent the last fourteen hours on a flight from Los Angeles. I need to shower and rest if I am to be presentable for supper.”
Seriously? Penny snorted. “You flew here on a private jet, one that I happen to know has a bedroom. Chances are good you slept on your flight, took a shower, then ate a gourmet meal before they ushered your pampered butt into a limo and drove you to this museum. If you really want to shower and pretend you’re so exhausted, no skin off my nose.” But I don’t think so. You look too damn lonely.
Strays. She had a bad habit of picking them up. Pedigree’d or mutt, didn’t matter. Need was need. Another long drink of the alcohol increased the heat in her middle. Definitely fine liquor, whatever it was. George, however, didn’t respond. Instead he finished his drink before he rose and walked over to a pair of double doors that opened to the outside. Unlocking them, he swung them inward and allowed a wash of frigid air to flood the room.
“Holy hell on a cracker.” She folded her arms against the abrasive chill. “What are you doing?”
“Clearing my head,” he said, and walked out onto the glittering veranda. Someone had swept the stone balcony clear of snow. Despite his lack of jacket, however, he didn’t shiver. If anything, he seemed a little less rigid.
Folding her arms and wishing the mohair sweater was a little thicker, Penny chewed the inside of her lip. She’d met George on a handful of occasions—mostly formal events like Armand proposing to Anna, their wedding, and a couple of New York events she’d crashed. Okay being on the invitation list precludes crashing, but so not my scene. George was a charmer, usually fun and funny.
“Of what? Too much fine living?” Okay, that was bitchy even for her. But, really, George should be her ticket to having fun on this trip. Dark and broody did not equal fun in her opinion.
Pivoting sideways, he gave her a long look. “You are particularly insulting.”
“No, I’m bored.” She rubbed her arms. “And freezing.”
“You do not have to stay.” He nodded toward the door. “Take a right when you exit and head to the staircase. From there, you can descend to the main level and portrait galleries. I’m sure you will find your way from there.”
“Wow.” Penny pursed her lips. After setting her drink aside, she bounced up from her seat to retrieve the three folders.
“What are you doing?”
“I have four older brothers, an older sister, and parents who all believe I don’t know my ass from a tea kettle.” She flipped the first folder open. The North Carolina school offered degrees in business and more. “I thought you were attending UCLA?”
Glancing up from the papers, she raised her brows. “You need me to translate I thought you were attending UCLA? Are you slow? Is that why you’re transferring schools?”
The corner of his mouth curved upward. Aha. The man did remember how to smile. “No, I’m not slow. The first part of your statement about not knowing your ass from a tea kettle.”
“Oh, that.” She waved her hand and ditched the North Carolina school to check the next one. “I’m the baby of the family. I’m not dependable, but I’m reckless, and cavalier. My opinion holds no value.” The second school was in Minnesota. Ugh. Too close to Kansas. Dismissing it, she flipped to the last one.
“Your family says that to you?” Mild outrage colored his tone as he came in from the frigid tundra and closed the doors.
“Of course not. They’re too polite but, trust me—when your opinion is dismissed and you get blown off enough, you recognize it for what it is. Not that I care.” She preferred the freedom her family’s lack of faith provided. “You need to go to this school.” She waved the folder. “It’s perfect. Great population, access to the arts, awesome alumni clubs and you can find a party every night on the rows. Perfect. It’s also about three thousand miles from your brother. What more could you ask for?”
She held the folder out to him and nodded when he accepted it. “Okay, so there’s your major crisis of the afternoon resolved. Now, what do you do around here for fun? I’m bored.”
“Ski, typically, though I’m sure there will be some grand parties in the valley this week. We’re not to attend, however.”
“Why not?” Seriously, she was supposed to spend her whole week confined to the Castle Hell hearing about how fabulously her brothers were doing and how Anna was her mother’s dream come true—albeit ten years late, but whatever. If she had to sit through another stuffy, formal meal where the servants did everything except actually spoon feed her, she would scream. What she wanted was a burger and a beer—not necessarily in that order.
“Because we’re here for a family holiday. The gates are closed. We will not admit guests and we will not attend parties.”
“Not even one?” Just kill me now.
“No.” He gave her a faint smile and closed the folder. “If you attend one, then you must attend all of them or it will be seen as a snub. Armand wanted a family gathering. What he wants, he gets.” George shrugged.
“Well, you know what?” Penny stretched and slid her shoes back on. “That doesn’t work for me. I’m a grown ass woman who wants to go find a party. If I can find a car, I’ll sneak you out in my trunk.”
Crossing the room to the door, she paused to glance at him. “You know, if you can unwind enough to get the stick out of your ass. See you later, Georgie.”
Escaping doom and gloom central, she considered his directions to go right and down the stairs and went left. She’d rather explore and find her escape routes than get trapped into a baby discussion or a so, Penny, when are you going to stop playing at your education and settle on a degree chat.
Shuddering, she almost ran down the hall.
Anything was preferable to that. Even sad, lonely, and stuffy Prince George.
By four, George showered and dressed in his evening suit. He descended the stairs to meet his family for drinks preceding supper. As expected, Sebastian and his fiancée, Meredith, held court right alongside Armand and Anna. Pausing at his mother’s side, he pressed a dutiful kiss to her cheek before accepting a glass of wine from the footman attending the proceedings. It seemed they were limited to immediate family.
His mother smiled at him and patted the sofa next to her. Taking a seat, he let her place a hand on his arm. “Hello, Mother.”
“I’ve missed you, my darling boy. I wanted you to join me in London last month for the opening of a new show, but Armand insisted you had to remain in school.” Perfectly aged and graceful, Marie Dagmar embodied everything elegant about her position as Grand Duchess and matriarch of their family.
“He was correct.”
Marie Dagmar raised her eyebrows a fraction. George wasn’t certain who was more surprised by his automatic support of Armand’s position, his mother or himself. “I see. You’ve decided to take on the task of discovering a career, then?”
Apparently, but he decided against examining his change of heart too closely. “I believe Armand was correct. My life has lacked a certain focus. While I am not as accomplished at business as he, nor in diplomacy as Sebastian, I believe it is high time I determine where my place will be.” Though stating the idea aloud didn’t necessarily make it true, he discovered a new liking for the concept. “I’ve decided to transfer to New York University and take a General Studies tract while I research my area of focus.”
“Excellent.” She cupped his cheek. “You will be brilliant at whatever you set your mind to. I’ve always known you possessed the capability, and now you have the determination.” The absolute pleasure and pride in her tone was a first for him. Unfortunately, the sound of feminine, lyrical laughter announced the arrival of his cousins. Rising before his mother could tap his thigh in reminder, he was on his feet as the sisters Grace sailed into the room. Ella and Rose were arm in arm, Frankie a half-step behind them, and all three preceded their parents—his aunt, Princess Sofia, and her husband, Major Grace.
A round of kisses pressed to cheeks and firm handshakes began and George ceded his seat on the sofa to Aunt Sofia. No sooner had the Graces settled in than Tetyas Irena and Svetlana entered. The dowager aunts were nearing ninety and, though both were of delicate health, possessed spines of steel.
For the first time in what seemed like a decade, the whole of the Dagmar dynasty occupied one room—new and old members mingling. Settling into a quiet spot, he watched the dowagers corner Armand with a series of requests while quietly, but effectively, snubbing Anna. Though they were unfailingly polite in their petty cruelty, they did not approve of the family head marrying a commoner. If the behavior bothered Anna, she didn’t say a word. Instead, she settled with Meredith to chat with George’s mother and aunt.
Sebastian adeptly disengaged from Armand’s conversation and ignored their brother’s dark look as he crossed the room to join George. “They’ll be excusing themselves to dine in their rooms after we’ve had drinks.”
“Where are the Novaks?” Wasn’t Anna’s whole family also in residence for the holidays?
“They’ll join us at five. Armand and Anna decided the first hour of drinks would be the immediate family, then our guests will come in later. Richard and Kate will be joining us then, as well.” Until Sebastian mentioned them, George had failed to notice Armand’s best friend and his wife were also not present.
“Wonderful.” Taking a sip of his wine, he spared Sebastian a lingering study. “You look happy.”
“I am. Meredith and I have another six months before we can have the official wedding, but…”
“You haven’t told anyone?” George knew Sebastian would observe all the official protocol, including a one year engagement followed by an official wedding in front of the masses. He also knew the couple had slipped away for a weekend in Las Vegas over the summer.
“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” Sebastian said, but he did so with a grin. “We would certainly not upset tradition with any rumors of elopement.”
“Oh, let’s not. Simply bring up my abysmal record at university if you want to change the subject.” For Sebastian, he would be a whipping boy. His brother glanced over at Meredith and wore the smile of a man most content. George was happy for him.
“You don’t want to be there.” Sebastian’s candor surprised him. “Of course you don’t do well.”
“I didn’t particularly see a point to it all.” Or, rather, he hadn’t. “I have no desire to run the corporation or even to work for it.” Especially not with Armand. His older brother was involved in every aspect of his life already. He would prefer Armand behave as his brother, not his liege and employer.
“So don’t. Find a field you enjoy and work there.” Sebastian gestured toward Alyx and her husband. “You told Alyx you were interested in filmmaking.”
“Do you really think Armand would allow me to pursue so bourgeois a profession?” Not that he possessed any lasting interest in filmmaking. His earlier curiosity about Hollywood had more to do with it allowing a passing excuse to chat with his charming cousin than it being a calling.
“I think Armand would support your actual interest in anything,” Sebastian said with a sigh. He lowered his voice further as he turned his back to the room and faced George directly. “He has borne tremendous pressure for both of us. He wants us to be happy and successful.”
“If he wanted me to be happy, he wouldn’t be cutting me off.”
“Wouldn’t he?” His middle brother had always been more like Armand than George. Both older, both invested in the family and both always too busy for more than a quick conversation here or there. “George, you’re not happy. Only a blind man would miss it. You are enormously dissatisfied with your life. You take reckless chances without a thought in your head for the consequences.”
The accuracy of his criticism stung. Rather than argue with a biting remark, George drained his wine glass.
“Little brother, go to school. Take every class. Throw yourself at them. Figure out what you want to do. I guarantee, if you find your passion, I will take your cause up with Armand.” Sebastian gripped his shoulder. “I know what it is like to give up and nearly lose what you love. Don’t cheat yourself out of finding a passion that consumes you. Trust me, it’s so much better than trying to be what you think everyone else wants you to be.”
Despite the formality of the event and his discomfort with personal confidences, he exhaled a long breath. “How do you know? How do you know what that passion is?”
“You don’t.” An unhelpful answer, if ever there was one. “No one knows what their passion will be—or whom.” He glanced at Meredith and, as if she knew he looked, she met his gaze. They both smiled, small, nearly imperceptible, and the moment became terribly intimate. “Passion drives us. It may not be what you do for a career, but you need something more than parties and appearances to fulfill you.”
“The last time I became involved in something, it nearly got us all killed.” He’d traveled to Belaria and been enchanted by the royalist party—their deep convictions, desperate thirst for something more, and the unflinching desire for change. He’d been seduced by their cause because he’d never felt deeply about anything before.
“Well, let’s avoid politics this time.” No judgment, only fraternal amusement.
Accepting the humor at face value, George nodded. “I’ll take it under advisement.” Further conversation halted at the arrival of the Novaks. Anna rose to greet her parents and brothers. Only three of them were present, the fourth brother remained on deployment, apparently.
Oddly, Penny was not with her family. Sebastian excused himself to join Meredith. Conversation in the room escalated as another round of drinks were served and a second footman began a round with a tray of hors d'oeuvres. Exchanging his empty glass for a fresh glass—sherry, this time—he paced toward the still open doorway.
“Looking to escape?” Anna’s soft voice washed over him and he spun to face his sister-in-law. Her position as Armand’s wife gave her a rank nearly equivalent to that of his brother, so he inclined his head to the princess,
“Not at all. I thought your sister might have gotten lost again.” The words slipped out before he could think better of them.
“Again?” She paused to look at the hors d’oeuvres, her expression tightening. “No, thank you.”
George waved the man off with two fingers and frowned. “Are you ill?” Should he get Armand’s attention?
“No.” Her discomfort seemed fleeting because she smiled and seemed to recover. “Just not particularly hungry at the moment. You said Penny got lost earlier?”
“Ran into her in the wrong hallway. She seemed a bit turned around.” No reason to mention her presence in his suite or their conversation.
“That’s Penny. She was probably exploring.”
Maybe another exploration delayed her arrival for dinner. “Should I go offer her an escort to supper?”
Her mother called her from across the room, but Anna paused and said, “No, she won’t be joining us, I’m afraid. She wrangled one of the drivers into taking her into the city.” Then she was off.
Curiously, disappointment threaded through him. Sighing, he considered his options. Stay and make polite conversation or excuse himself and return to his suite. Chances were, no one would notice his absence.
“George.” Kate’s greeting drew him out of his internal rumination. Richard Prentiss’ wife and a retired bodyguard, Kate was one of the few ‘family’ members who didn’t look at him as if he were a disappointment.
“Katherine.” He smiled and kissed her hand by way of greeting before shaking Richard’s offered palm. “Do you mind if I borrow your husband for a moment?”
“Not at all. Just be sure and return him in the same condition you got him in.” She strolled away and Anna greeted her with a quick hug.
“Made a decision, have you?” Richard’s frankness was one of his more admirable qualities.
“I have. Will you be making the arrangements?” Confirming his plans didn’t sound so dire after all, and his mood lifted.
“Absolutely. Where to?”
His response was immediate. “New York.”
“Do you want to choose your classes?”
“I thought Armand had already dictated what I need to take.”
Richard accepted a glass of wine from the footman and waited for the man to move away before responding. “He did, but so long as you willingly take a full course load, he’s persuadable regarding the classes.”
“Let me check the catalog. I’ll have my preferred list to you tomorrow.” Worth an attempt, wasn’t it?
“Well, well.” Richard’s slow deliberate tone lacked rancor. “Maybe the brat prince has decided to grow up.”
“Debatable, Mr. Prentiss. However, I am open to…further explorations.”
Chuckling, the attorney nodded. “I have faith in you, kid.”
Odd. The nickname gave his confidence a boost that sustained him throughout the rest of the cocktail hour and nearly made up for Penny’s absence.