Fit For a Queen
"An addictive series, full of heart and romance and endings that give a happy sigh."Emily March
New York Times Bestselling Author
She holds the secrets of a queen. He’s been hired to watch her.
Daniela D’Ambrosio is the most trusted employee of Sarcaccia’s Queen Fabrizia, managing the queen’s schedule and ensuring she never makes a misstep in public. But when Fabrizia sends Daniela to organize the belongings of San Rimini’s late queen for a charity auction, Daniela finds a locked closet full of treasure, a suspicious king, and an attractive handyman who seems strangely familiar.
Following a harrowing stint in the military, Royce Dekker now runs his own security firm in San Rimini. When he goes undercover to safeguard the late queen’s possessions, Royce learns that the woman organizing the auction project is none other than Daniela D’Ambrosio, the stunning beauty who’s fueled his late-night fantasies ever since their stolen night under the stars.
When Daniela recognizes Royce, she realizes there is more to the palace job than she was told. But can she trust the sexy man standing guard over her as she works? Or will Royce discover that Daniela also has secrets to uncover?
Release date: February 14, 2020
Print pages: 328
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Fit For a Queen
All in all, it was a beautiful funeral.
The 1750 State Coach, a vehicle so massive and laden with gilt it required six horses to navigate the streets on its journey to the Duomo, had gleamed in defiance of the overcast skies. The bishop had expressed the sentiments of the day beautifully, lending the affair a sense of both reverence and optimism. King
Eduardo’s four adult children, Antony, Federico, Isabella, and Marco, had performed their roles to perfection, expressing gratitude on behalf of the entire diTalora family to all who’d traveled to attend the service.
Antony’s eulogy was eloquent, even for Antony, a natural at charming anyone he wished to charm. It was certain to be replayed on television later that evening, and likely in countless documentaries and news clips in the coming years.
Massive crowds had lined the Strada il Teatro, the streets surrounding the Duomo, and San Rimini’s elegant waterfront before, during, and after the ceremony. They’d even surrounded the palace, all to show their love for the royal family.
Eduardo felt only pain. A giant, aching hole where his soul had been.
Now that he’d made it through the procession and the religious portion of the day’s schedule, Eduardo had only the private reception at the palace to endure. A gathering of family, close friends, and the country’s political and cultural elite, it had been termed a “personal” event by the palace public relations office, hence its location in the music room rather than one of the galleries or ballrooms regularly used for entertaining. Despite the affair’s intimate description, Eduardo knew his every move provided fodder for his social and political foes. Even his facial tics could be secretly recorded and disseminated, drawing speculation from both the tabloids and the mainstream press. So he kept his chin lifted and his demeanor that of a dutiful king rather than that of a husband in mourning for his beloved wife, Aletta, and he forged ahead, offering sympathy as often as he accepted it.
He didn’t miss the irony that Aletta was the one who shone at these events, always knowing the right thing to say and to whom.
Cancer was an insidious beast to have claimed her. It had no right. Yet with all his resources, Eduardo had been powerless to stop it.
The head of San Rimini’s parliament approached to offer his condolences. The man was a good statesman, and an influential one. Eduardo appreciated that they generally saw eye to eye on what was best for the country, and they’d developed a good rapport. Their exchange was followed by conversations with the head of the country’s transportation administration, a top military advisor—not that San Rimini’s military did much beyond the occasional international peacekeeping mission—and several members of the judiciary. Eduardo’s siblings, who hadn’t inherited the throne, but who had been raised in the public eye and negotiated social events with ease, maneuvered each of the dignitaries away after a reasonable amount of time, saving Eduardo from dealing with any one person for too long.
Even so, he felt his pasted-on smile flag as the director of San Rimini’s central hospital approached. He hoped she didn’t notice, as he admired her and would welcome the chance for conversation on another occasion.
Finally, Aletta’s older sister, Helena, emerged from a knot of aristocrats to come to his side. The hospital director offered her condolences to Helena, then took her leave.
Her voice low, Helena asked, “How are you holding up?”
As simple and predictable as the question was, the caring tone nearly broke him, though Eduardo kept his polite expression in place. “As well as can be expected. How long have we been here?”
“Too long. Less than an hour and you can retreat to your residence in peace. It will go faster than you think.”
Helena placed a comforting hand on his arm. Cautious as he was, his first thought was that someone in the room would snap a photo and leak it to the press, who’d then use it to extrapolate an entire article about how Eduardo was dealing with his wife’s death. Helena likely knew it, too, but she’d always had a talent for ignoring opinion in a way that Eduardo could not.
Aside from the three years Helena had been married—a time she referred to as a disaster—she’d lived in the palace since Aletta and Eduardo’s wedding. She kept a private apartment two floors below their own and had served as her younger sister’s closest aide. Over the years, the press had speculated about the arrangement and whether the close relationship between the sisters was a factor in Helena’s failed marriage. In truth, it hadn’t affected it one way or the other. The palace role merely provided Helena a purpose and Aletta a trusted confidante.
For the most part, the arrangement had worked, though it had caused friction between Aletta and Eduardo on occasion when Eduardo felt Helena used her position to manipulate Aletta. Helena was able to say things to Aletta that a typical assistant could not, both for better and for worse. And, unlike the regular palace staff, Helena had her own public profile, which meant her appearances and Aletta’s had to be carefully coordinated. Fortunately, those difficulties were always ironed out, and any hint they’d occurred was kept behind closed doors.
Eduardo also knew that Helena had loved her sister.
“Thank you,” he told her. This wasn’t the place for such conversation, but after ensuring no one was within earshot, he angled his head to keep anyone from guessing his words and added, “I know you are having a difficult day, but if I may lift one worry—”
“So long as I am on the throne, you have a home here. You are, of course, under no obligation to stay. But I wish for you to have the choice.”
Her fingers tightened on his arm. Only for a moment, however, before her hand returned to her side. “That is deeply appreciated.”
“As is your presence here. You’ve done a great deal for Aletta over the years, and your niece and nephews are quite fond of you. Now that they are at an age to marry and have children, you could offer the feminine viewpoint they will lack with their mother’s passing.”
She smiled at that. “Federico did fine on his own.”
The king resisted the urge to glance at his second son, who had already married and would soon be a father. He and Aletta hadn’t been certain about the match when Federico began seeing Lucrezia, a wealthy socialite. She seemed too rigid, even for Federico, who’d always been a rule follower. But their relationship had stood the test of time and the pair seemed happy.
“Yes,” he agreed, “but it is good to have someone to whom they can turn with their challenges, someone who understands life in the public eye. Someone they can trust.” He aimed a meaningful look at his sister-in-law, one he hoped would provide her a glimpse of light on a dark day. “Whether or not you choose to remain in the palace, I hope you’ll consider fulfilling that role, should they need it.”
She dipped her chin, acknowledging both the compliment and the peace established between them. “It would be my honor and my pleasure.”
The ache in Eduardo’s chest eased as Helena stepped away to circulate. He needed to meet with dozens of individuals and organizations in the coming weeks, both to let them know the esteem in which Aletta held them and to assure them of their continued good standing with the royal family. Helena was the most important of those. He was glad to have that particular conversation behind him.
“One minute at a time, one day at a time,” came a gentle voice from his left. He shifted to see Queen Fabrizia, whose husband King Carlo ruled the Mediterranean island of Sarcaccia.
“Not at all.”
He’d greeted the couple briefly at the Duomo. They’d been seated at the front, as befitted both their station and their longtime friendship with the diTalora family, but he hadn’t had the chance to speak with them at any length since Aletta’s death.
Fabrizia and Carlo had just enough years on Aletta and Eduardo to act as mentors while still being good friends. Their presence provided even more relief than settling the situation with Helena.
He gave her a warm kiss on each cheek. “It’s good to see you, Fabrizia.”
“I wish the circumstances were different.” She stood with her shoulders back and brow lifted, every inch the public-facing royal, but her tone was personal. “Aletta would have been pleased with the service. It was both tasteful and appropriate. However, the outpouring of love…Eduardo, it would have touched her deeply. To witness such a turnout in her honor would have meant more to her than any of the speeches or fanfare.”
He waited as Fabrizia considered her next words. When she spoke again, it was for his ears only.
“We are leaders, Eduardo. Our countrymen expect us to remain calm and clear-headed, even at the worst of times. Especially so at the worst of times. We may express our sorrow or disappointment, but the manner in which we do so matters. I will admit this only to you, but I had to keep my eyes off the people lining the streets in order to maintain an appropriate demeanor today.” She dropped her voice to a near whisper and added, “I mentally named gelato flavors in order to keep my emotions in check this morning. I tallied thirty-eight before I started over with pasta shapes.”
A knot rose in Eduardo’s throat. As he and his children had walked to the Duomo behind the empty carriage—a traditional, symbolic nod to the loss of royalty—he’d used a similar tactic to maintain his composure. To hear Fabrizia describe it now resurrected the emotion he’d battled since Aletta drew her last breath.
“She’d be proud of how you are handling the day,” Fabrizia continued, her facial expression the perfect mix of sympathy and calm understanding, should anyone be watching them—which, of course, people were—though her voice was firm, as if bracing him to stand resolute for the remainder of the hour. “Once the public aspects are complete, once the necessary ceremonies and memorials of the coming weeks and months slow, take some time away. You once told Carlo you hoped to see the glaciers of the Antarctic. Go. Or come to Sarcaccia, if you prefer. We shall ensure you have time to be a man, rather than a king. To be completely alone, should you wish, or to relax in the company of friends.”
He thanked her and meant it. Fabrizia knew that even in private, a monarch was rarely alone. He had security staff, political advisors, and an assistant who accompanied him on trips and remained near at hand even when he and Aletta were on palace grounds. Then there was Samuel Barden, the palace chef who prided himself on making the royal couple happy with his creations, and Olena and Tetyana Roscha, the Ukrainian sisters who’d been responsible for cleaning their private residence for over a decade now. Aletta spoke with each of them daily. They had known and loved his wife, and their access meant they were privy to many of the queen’s personal moments, and now looked to him as an example of how to handle their grief, even if they did it subconsciously.
No, in San Rimini it was difficult to be a man. He was a king in all but the rarest of moments. Queen Fabrizia’s offer was enough to fortify him.
“There will be a number of unpleasant tasks in the days ahead,” she continued.
“All of the usual duties that fall to next-of-kin. They are never easy, but in your case, the difficulty will be magnified. There will be paperwork only you can complete, of course, personal effects that need to be sorted. She was the patron of many organizations, and they will expect you to bring them closure. Not an aide, you. That, however, is the short term.”
The queen exhaled, though it would have been imperceptible to anyone watching their exchange. “She is going to become an icon, Eduardo. Both for who she was as an individual and because your relationship was viewed around the world as a storybook example of true love. Vultures will circle, hoping to exploit her legacy. Be ready. And know that Carlo and I will do whatever is in our power to assist, should you wish. You need only make the request.”
Fabrizia and Carlo had been through this, he remembered. When Carlo’s father had passed away after spending decades on the throne, many in the news and entertainment business twisted the late king’s life story into a drama that never existed. Others used his death to draw customers to their stores or products. To them, it was a means to profit. But to Carlo and Fabrizia, it had been personal.
Eduardo wondered if any of the vultures they’d encountered had come from under their palace’s own roof. If they’d attempted to steal more than stories.
“I can handle the public opportunists, but there have been other incidents. Violations involving personal property.” He hated to be blunt, but their ability to speak privately was limited. In this matter, he valued Queen Fabrizia and King Carlo’s input above all others.
After a moment’s contemplation, she murmured, “I see.”
“I have only suspicions at this point. I’ve taken steps to improve security in the private residence and hold the status quo until I am ready to address the situation.” Dropping his voice, he added, “When that time comes, there are tasks with which I will need assistance. I will need to go outside the country.”
He could see in her countenance that she understood what he required. A candidate with no personal ties to the diTalora family, but who could effectively handle private matters and keep them that way.
King Carlo detached himself from a nearby group of dignitaries to come to his wife’s side. After the king expressed his sorrow over Aletta’s passing, he told Eduardo, “Fabrizia and I couldn’t help but admire the stained-glass windows at the Duomo today. I understand Aletta was spearheading an effort to restore them?”
“It was one of her pet projects,” Eduardo confirmed, happy to discuss a topic other than death and loss. “They are stunning, even in their current state, but over the centuries, pollution and salt air have taken their toll. Restoring them to their original glory will require artisans of the highest caliber, people who appreciate both the history of the cathedral and the craftsmanship of the glass. A professor from the University of San Rimini who specializes in medieval stained glass plans to study the windows as they’re removed. There’s much to be learned from the narrative, of course, but also from the minute details in their manufacture. Glass layering techniques and even the applied paint could offer clues about the construction of the Duomo. It would be interesting to know if any of the glass was imported, and if so, from where.”
When he had to take a breath before continuing, he realized he was using stained glass as a means of burning the clock to hasten his escape. Carlo and Fabrizia likely realized it as well, given that they appeared more interested than they could possibly be. And that, he concluded, made him the object of pity. It was to be expected after a funeral, but he didn’t like it.
He allowed himself a slight smile. “A little more than half the necessary funds have been raised. I anticipate that one of my children will pick up the project once the current crisis is behind us.”
Carlo glanced at his wife, then told Eduardo, “Fabrizia and I would be honored to match your current funds.”
For a beat, his tongue refused to work. It was an outrageous sum, even for the Barrali family. “Carlo, I couldn’t—”
“Consider it a gift to the people of San Rimini, in memory of their queen.”
“It would mean a great deal to us to see Aletta’s wishes fulfilled,” Fabrizia added, her tone rendering the decision final.
Eduardo couldn’t imagine a gesture more befitting his wife’s memory. Or more generous. “That is extremely thoughtful of you. Thank you.”
Fabrizia smiled. “Carlo’s assistant will contact yours to arrange the transfer once we return home. And regarding the other matter, you’ll know when the time is right to move forward. Next month, a year from now, five years from now. I’ll be here when you’re ready. I’m certain I can find the right person for the job.”
One would have thought that, as the hereditary monarch, Carlo held all the power in Sarcaccia. To believe that was to underestimate Fabrizia’s intelligence and resources. Carlo had married for love, but he’d also married a woman who thrived in her role as queen. A woman who understood his nature both in public and in private. A woman he could trust to support him in both roles.
Eduardo had also been fortunate in that regard. Though he’d once believed he’d grow old with Aletta, the years they’d shared had been glorious. He hoped his children—and perhaps even Aletta’s sister—would find that depth of love in their lives.
“It will be some time in the future,” Eduardo finally told Fabrizia. “But when I am ready, I will take you up on the offer.”
The queen smiled, but it had a cryptic quality. “I’ll be waiting.”
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