Crowned: An Ordinary Girl

By: Natasha Oakley

CHAPTER ONE




‘YOU’RE reading Chekhov. Have you read any Tolstoy?’

Dr Marianne Chambers hesitated midway through the second paragraph of the paper she was proofreading. A small frown pulled at the centre of her forehead as she recognised the uncanny echo of a long-ago conversation.

It had to be impossible. Why would he be at the Cowper Hotel during an academic conference? She was being completely ridiculous.

But…

The memory of that sunny afternoon tugged at her and her frown deepened. It was the same upper-class English accent, with the same hint of something indefinably ‘foreign’ about it.

And exactly the same words.

Marianne remembered them verbatim. In fact, she remembered every single blasted thing Seb Rodier had ever said to her—from the first moment he’d seen her reading Chekhov on the steps of Amiens Cathedral.

A shadow fell across her page and the voice behind her continued. ‘Or Thomas Hardy? Now, he can be really depressing, but if you like that kind of thing…’

Dear God, no.

Marianne’s head whipped round to look directly up into a calmly smiling face. Older, more determined maybe, but still the face of the man who’d completely derailed her life.

Back then he’d worn old jeans and a comfortable T-shirt, seemingly an exchange student like herself. Now he stood there in a designer suit and smelt of seriously old money.

There was no surprise in that. She must have seen several hundred newspaper photographs of Prince Sebastian II over the years, but not one of them had prepared her for the overwhelming sense of…yearning she felt as she met his dark eyes.

‘Hello, Marianne,’ he said softly.

Seb!

His name imploded in her head, while every single moment she’d spent with him all those summers before came whizzing back into high-definition clarity.

Every dream.

Every heartbreak.

In the space of a millisecond she felt as though she’d been sucked back in time. Just eighteen years old. A long way from home and living with a family she barely knew. She’d been so scared, so very scared. Waiting for him. Hoping for a telephone call…

Anything.

Wanting to understand what was happening. Wanting him. Desperately wanting him.

She’d wondered how this moment might feel. Not that she’d ever anticipated she’d find out. He’d left…and their paths had never crossed again.

And why would they? Lowly paid academics didn’t often run into members of the aristocracy, let alone an honest-to-goodness blue blooded royal.

‘Seb?’ It was difficult to force the words past the blockage in her throat. ‘Sh-should I call you that? Or is it Your Highness? Or…Your Royal Highness? I don’t know what I—’ Marianne reached up a hand to brush at the sharp pain stabbing in her forehead.

He moved closer and spoke quietly. ‘Your Serene Highness, but Seb will do. It’s good to see you. How have you been?’

Somewhere in the background Marianne could hear the sound of laughter and the clink of teaspoons on china. Incongruous sounds of normality as everything around her started to spin.

‘Fine. I’ve been fine,’ she lied. ‘And you?’

‘Fine.’ Seb moved round to stand in front of her. ‘It’s been a very long time.’

‘Yes.’

He paused, his brown eyes seeming to melt her body from the toes up. ‘You look amazing. Really amazing.’

‘Th-thank you. So do you.’ Damn! ‘I mean…you look…’ She trailed off, uncertain of anything—except that she really couldn’t do this. Whatever this was.

‘May I sit beside you?’

No!

What was he doing? They weren’t merely friends who’d happened to bump into each other. Far from it. She might not have much experience of meeting ‘old’ lovers, but surely you didn’t sit there making conversation as though you didn’t know exactly what the other looked like naked?

Marianne shuffled the typed sheets back into her file. ‘Can I stop you?’ Her eyes flicked to the two grey-suited men standing a respectful distance away in the otherwise deserted foyer. Bodyguards, she supposed. ‘I imagine Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee make it their business to see you get what you want.’

‘Georg and Karl.’

‘You give them names?’

His mouth quirked into a smile. ‘Actually, no. In Andovaria we still consider the naming of children to be entirely the prerogative of the respective parents.’

He sat beside her as blithely as if the last ten years hadn’t happened. ‘Unlike Denmark, where the queen needs to give permission for the use of any name not on the approved list.’

‘How forward-thinking of you.’

‘We like to think so.’

Marianne gave her head a little shake as though it would somehow bring the planets back into alignment. He said the name of his country as easily as if he’d never lied to her. He seemed to take it for granted she’d know it now and there was nothing to be gained by pretending she didn’t.

His photograph was beamed all over the world. Every hairdresser in the country probably had a magazine with his picture in it. She’d seen him skiing, mountain walking, standing on the steps of Poltenbrunn Castle, at assorted royal weddings…including his own.

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