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Wrapped in Red

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One more trip. One more story before she can go back to New York and spend the holidays with Arthur—her roommate who hogs the bed and keeps her up all hours of the night. He’s also covered in the softest black fur and has a catnip obsession, but most of the time, people don’t ask any follow-up questions. They just assume he’s some elusive, posh Brit she’s dating. She’s happy to leave it at that. Her single status is hardly front-page news.

But this story . . .

It could be the biggest of her career so far. And she’s determined not to mess it up.

Mystfallia is a bit of a mystery to the world outside its borders. What had centuries ago been a tiny but fierce Italian outpost in the north is now a slightly larger country with a flourishing economy that offers an enviably high quality of life to its citizens. Their national university makes Harvard look like a preschool.

The royal family mostly keeps to themselves, neatly avoiding overexposure. Her task is to gently peel away a few of those layers of secrecy and write a profile worthy of the New York Times’ voracious readership. Particularly when it comes to the country’s future ruler—the king’s eldest son.

As her driver zips through the busy streets, it’s a blur of storefronts, glittering lights, and greenery. There are garlands and wreaths draped in red ribbons, sprigs of holly nestled in fir boughs, sparkles of gold and silver. People are bundled in coats and hats, tugging mittens on the hands of little ones and wrapping scarves tighter against the chill in the air.

The snowflakes collecting on the sidewalks and benches have her longing for her bed. And a blazing fireplace. And a mug of hot cocoa with a dollop of whipped cream floating on top.

Her lids droop, lulled by the rhythm of the traffic and the heat blasting out of the vents. Maybe she can catch a quick nap before they get to the hotel. She snuggles into her seat, listening to the soothing melody of an unfamiliar carol on the radio. The stops become fewer and fewer until they’re cruising along at a decent speed.

Odd.

She jerks out of her half-doze and stares at the trees whipping by. Not a shop or office building in sight. Did she give the driver the wrong directions?

“Excuse me, Sir?” she asks, inching forward on the seat. “I must’ve made a mistake. I think we passed the hotel.”

The man smiles at her in the rearview mirror. “No mistake, Miss. His Majesty has invited you to stay at the family home, as his guest. We will arrive at Gioiello sul Fiume shortly.”

A double shot of panic floods her body, and everything is suddenly too hot. She yanks at her scarf and pops the buttons on her coat. She’s trudged through three airports, her clothes are hopelessly wrinkled, her hair probably looks like she styled it with an egg beater, and she hasn’t brushed her teeth in over twelve hours.

Pawing through her purse, she finds a stick of gum and crams it in her mouth. One problem solved. Chewing with a vengeance, she grabs her tablet and reviews her notes on the royal family. First, Giuseppe Salvatore, king of Mystfallia and father to two sons. A kind man with more salt than pepper in his hair and a face lined by the creases of time, his rule has been one of peace and prosperity. By all accounts, the people adore him.

Giuseppe’s youngest son, Stefan, takes after him. With meticulously styled hair and a warm smile that makes his green eyes brighter, he’s the sort of handsome that Hollywood would trip over themselves to get at. He’s recently engaged to an heiress with a wedding expected in the spring.

The other son is a stark contrast to his brother. Hair black as coal and dark brows frame startlingly pale blue eyes, like rounds of ice that have never been touched by the sun. Attractive, without a doubt—the kind of man who could have anyone he wants. Whip-smart with a degree in human rights law. Deeply private and absorbed in his humanitarian work, Damon is next in line to the throne.

A king and two princes—one a golden boy, the other a Byronic hero. The family isn’t without tragedy, however. Queen Lilliana was killed when Damon and Stefan were young, murdered by rebels in the remote village where she was working to build a school. It seems Damon inherited his mother’s looks and her passion for philanthropy, if not her temperament.

The car rolls to a stop, pulling her from her research. As she glances at the gates of the Salvatore estate, the air evaporates in her lungs. The renovated and modernized castle is a sprawling piece of architecture with a dense forest to its back and a river curling beside it, shimmering in the hazy moonlight.

“This . . . this is . . .” she sputters, gesturing to the grand stone structure, but the driver is already out of the car, fetching her bags.

He opens her door and she crawls out, too busy staring at the turrets and the stained glass windows to notice the other man patiently waiting for them at the castle’s entrance.

“This way, Miss,” the driver calls, lugging her suitcase behind him. She scurries to catch up.

Once inside, he doffs his cap and waves, leaving her with the doorman, whom he introduces as Radish, or Haggis, or . . . Paris? After studying her passport and press credentials for several minutes, during which she wonders if a place like this has a dungeon and if she might be tossed in it if her papers don’t pass muster, he summons someone by the name of Geoff.

A butler in a pristine uniform with a cloud of white hair hovering above his wrinkled head appears out of nowhere and gathers her things, moving with a grace that belies his years.

“Thank you, Artis.” Artis, that’s it! “Please follow me, if you would, Ms. Gilbert.”

Geoff leads her down the hall and through another set of double doors to a Great Room with a fire snapping in its massive hearth. Paintings line the walls—Rembrandt, Monet, Modigliani, da Vinci—and the polished marble floor is covered with Persian rugs. There are hints of the season here as well. An enormous wreath hangs above the fireplace, filling the room with the scent of fresh pine. Standing amongst the priceless art and decorations, at the base of a beautifully carved mahogany staircase, is the king.

“His Highness, King Giuseppe Salvatore of Mystfallia,” Geoff announces, bowing in the direction of the family patriarch.

Heart thundering against her ribcage, Elena wipes her sweaty palms on her coat, smooths her hair, and stumbles into a clumsy curtsy, thanks to her pencil skirt.

“It’s an honor, Your Majesty,” she says, her trembling voice an octave too high. “Thank you for inviting me to your lovely home.”

“Giuseppe, please,” he requests in lightly accented English, striding forward to clasp her hand in a gentle grip. “Welcome to Gioiello sul Fiume, Ms. Gilbert.”

“E-elena is fine,” she stutters. Maybe if she’s lucky, the floor will open up and swallow her whole.

He smiles. “Of course. Elena, the shining light. It suits you.”

A blush burns in her cheeks at the compliment. “You’re very generous to let me stay here. I don’t want to intrude.”

Giuseppe waves a dismissive hand. “Nonsense. It would be rude to leave you to fend for yourself,” he says, as if she were planning to sleep in a hovel in the woods instead of a Marriott.

“Well, thank you for your hospitality.”

“It is my pleasure.” He nods to the butler, who has been hovering silently at Elena’s right elbow. “You must be exhausted from your trip. Geoff, please show Elena to her room and bring her some tea, a hot meal, whatever she needs. Casa mia è casa tua.”

Her Italian is spotty, but she gets the gist. “Thank you very much,” she says, for what feels like the thousandth time.

“My sons will join us tomorrow for breakfast. We can discuss the specifics of your assignment then, once you are rested.” He raises her hand to his lips and brushes them across her knuckles in a chaste kiss. “Buonanotte, Elena.”

Buonanotte, Giuseppe.”

*****

Her room is fit for a queen. Or a princess, at the very least.

The four-poster bed is hand carved from rich, dark wood with velvet drapery to shut out whatever light escapes past the heavy curtains. She has her own fireplace, which was already lit and crackling merrily when she entered. The en-suite bathroom boasts both a glass-walled shower and a huge, claw-footed tub. Beyond the curtains is a set of doors leading to a shared balcony.

It’s like being dropped into the middle of a fairytale. She has to keep reminding herself she’s here for work, not a vacation.

She was too jittery to eat, but Geoff still left her a plate of cookies to go with her hot chocolate. As she nibbles on the corner of the softest, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookie she’s ever tasted, she tries to imagine what breakfast will be like. Stefan seems friendly enough, but Damon . . .

Polishing off her cocoa with another cookie, she sets the tray aside and washes her face, brushes her teeth, and hops into bed, sinking into the luxurious mattress. With visions of dazzling smiles and frosty blue eyes flitting through her mind, she gives in to sleep.

*****

After a long shower, three outfit changes, two hairstyles, and several laps of nervous pacing to calm the butterflies in her belly, Elena follows Geoff to the dining room. Giuseppe and Stefan are already there, waiting for her. Once she’s been introduced to the youngest prince, who is every bit as charming as his father, the kitchen staff appear with enough silver platters and covered dishes to feed an army.

One member of their group is conspicuously absent. Elena glances at the empty chair to the king’s right.

“Should we wait for Prince Damon?” she asks, nodding her thanks at the godsend who just topped off her coffee.

“His flight was delayed, but he should be here any minute,” Giuseppe explains. “Eat, please.”

Reminding herself not to stuff half a waffle in her mouth in front of her royal hosts, she focuses instead on cutting it into neat, polite squares. Stefan asks her what it’s like, living in New York. It’s one of his favorite cities, and he’s enamored with the people, the food, the nonstop energy. He tells her he once spent an entire afternoon in a cab just chatting with the driver.

“It’s so full of life,” he muses, scooping up a forkful of eggs. “You must love it.”

“I do.” Some days more than others.

Stefan can carry on a conversation about anything, which would make him an interviewer’s dream if only he could stay on topic—namely, himself. He’ll answer a question then fire a dozen back: what school did she attend, what made her pursue journalism, what’s her ideal vacation spot, does she have any pets because he adores dogs and horses, and does she want to go riding some afternoon?

Horses, presumably, unless they have freakishly large dogs in Mystfallia.

Giuseppe scolds him for keeping her from her meal, but Stefan is oblivious to his father’s fretting. He gushes about his fiancée, a bubbly woman by the name of Caroline Forbes, and he’s eager for them to meet when she arrives in a few days. His enthusiasm is infectious and Elena can’t help being swept up in it. She’s mostly stayed at the shallow end of the dating pool, but it’s reassuring to find that that sort of affection and commitment still exists.

When he launches into a discussion of the foundation they’re developing to eradicate hunger and provide other life-saving services in war-torn countries, she knows she’s struck gold. If all her interviews go this smoothly, the story will write itself.

“I hate to interrupt, but would you mind if I grab my pad and jot down some notes?” she asks. “I don’t want to miss any of the details.”

“Not at all,” Stefan says, beaming.

When she returns, pen and paper in hand, there’s a third voice on the other side of the door.

An unfamiliar one.

Hand on the knob, she waits and listens.

This is the urgent matter you needed me for?” a man seethes. “So some nosy gossip columnist can pry into our lives and publish a lie-riddled piece of garbage that sullies the Salvatore name and everything we’ve worked for? I won’t have it.”

Hang on a second. The king assured her everyone was on board with the assignment. Also, ouch.

“Damon!” Giuseppe thunders. “Basta! She is a professional journalist and an accomplished young woman, and you will treat her with respect.”

“I owe her nothing. And you’re letting her stay here, a stranger in our home?”

Elena’s heart sinks to the pit of her stomach, but she can’t seem to make herself move.

“Brother—”

“Stay out of this, Stefan.”

“Be reasonable—”

“I want her gone. Immediately.”

Damon.”

There’s a burst of vicious-sounding Italian, then footsteps rush toward the door. Elena scurries away before she’s caught eavesdropping, but it’s too late. The slab of wood flies open, banging into the wall hard enough to leave a mark.

The cold, desolate eyes she’s studied in photographs settle on her, freezing her in place with a glare so fierce it raises goosebumps on her arms. They flare briefly, and she braces herself for a barrage of shouting and the very real possibility that he’ll drag her to the door and toss her out into the snow.

His mouth opens then snaps shut and he turns on his heel, disappearing up the stairs. Sinking onto a bench before her knees give out, her brain struggling to process what the hell just happened, Elena blinks back the ridiculous sting of tears.