Excerpt: The Best Man's Bride

Excerpt: The Best Man's Bride

Book 4: Royal Wedding Invitations Series

She wasn’t spying.

Really. She wasn’t!

Celina had merely tucked herself down into the bottomless lumpy velvet sofa in a small alcove off to the side of Westonbury Court’s spacious entry hall, intending to stay out of the way because Maggie was taking a nap and in the carpenter’s shop below her own room in the stable block there was such hammering and sawing going on that it was impossible to think.

They’d arrived two days ago at the Elizabethan manor house one of Jonas’s university chums had provided for the royal family’s use before the wedding.

“Simon’s the earl of something or other,” Jonas had said offhandedly. “It’s the ancestral pile, but he doesn’t live there. He’s single and has a flat in London. He’ll be down for the wedding, but in the meantime, except for the carpenters working on restorations, it’s ours for the week.”

So Celina had arrived with Maggie and several of Jonas’s cousins on the third Thursday in June in anticipation of the following Wednesday’s wedding.

Maggie and the cousins had been whisked off to the west wing at once. Celina had been shown to a room in the old stables, which had been converted a couple of decades ago to living quarters above workshops needed to keep the five-hundred-year-old manor house from falling down.

“The stables?” Maggie had been aghast.

“Only for the staff.” Mrs. Hargrove, the housekeeper had tried to pacify her. “We don’t have enough rooms in the main house, I’m afraid. Not with part of the west wing being renovated. I’m afraid Lord Weston didn’t give us much notice,” she’d added for Celina’s ears only after Maggie and the cousins had departed. Her lowered tone suggested that the portraits on the walls would report her disloyalty. “He gave us a list of guests, and he didn’t mention staff at all. No one except Count Fredrik. We’ve seen a lot of Count Fredrik.”

Celina bet they had. As head of security faced with a wedding in Combe St Philip, the bride’s family at her home at Hasebury Hall and the groom’s family four miles away in Westonbury Court, Fredrik Jensson was everywhere these days.

“Nightmare,” he’d admitted to Celina after his first visit to the picturesque Wiltshire village where Hope had grown up. “What’s wrong with getting married at the palace?”

Celina had patted his arm, sympathetically. “You like a challenge.”

What Fredrik liked was to be in control, and Jonas and Hope’s wedding didn’t offer much opportunity for that.

The manor housing the royal family for the event was a sprawling stone pile, three stories high with turrets scattered here and there at the whimsy of generations of previous Westons. It was everything Celina had ever dreamed of in terms of roots, stability and the sense of an ancestral home. She’d wallowed in it for the past two days, relishing the whole experience.

Until five minutes ago when a commotion in the reception hall had jolted her out of reading a pamphlet about the history of the manor and the Westons themselves.

Well, not the commotion, exactly.

The squeal.

Squeals, she corrected herself. There had been at least three. Possibly four. Or more.

They’d sent a shiver of recognition right down Celina’s spine – she recognized those squeals. There had been times when she had heard them by the thousands. Eventually they had made the hair on the back of her neck rise and her shoulders shiver.

Now, she couldn’t stop herself from rising up onto her knees to peek over the back of the sofa. And, yes, there he was – the reason for the squealing, the reason so many hyperventilating women all over the world lost their common sense.

Jack.

And despite her determined moving on, despite her resolution to steel her heart and mind and girly bits against him, damned if the mere sight of Jack Masterson didn’t make her heart kick over in her chest.

No! No. No. No.

But even as her brain protested, her blood pressure hiked, her mouth went dry and her palms grew damp. And the stubborn assurance she had given Jonas back in December proved to be exactly what she’d been determined it would not be – so much hot air.

The squeals were turning to delighted feminine laughter now. And giggles. Simpering, infatuated giggles, as it seemed every female over the age of ten – princesses and cousins and temporary staff alike – had suddenly appeared to crowd around him.

Next thing you knew they’d be fanning themselves. Undoing their buttons. Taking off their clothes.

Women did that around Jack.

“It’s just so hot in here!” Giggle. Simper. Tee-hee. Celina was sure she actually heard one of them saying that. She’d heard enough of them say it in the past.

And she waited in fatalistic expectation for Jack to reply. “Hot? You bet it is.” then follow it with a conspiratorial wink and a grin. She’d heard him do that before, too.

But his dark head was bent as he was focused on one of the women. Celina couldn’t see if his lips moved, and the feminine babble was too loud for her to hear anything he said.

Suddenly, though, he straightened, lifting his head like a wolf sensing prey. Celina shrank down, so only her eyes remained above the back of the sofa, watching as he scanned the room. His gaze moved right over where she peered above the sofa back, never stopping. But only when he turned to answer someone’s question did she let out a breath.

But she didn’t look away. She couldn’t. Not if she wanted dispassion and indifference when she finally encountered him face-to-face.

It was hard to be dispassionate and indifferent to Jack.

He had always seemed larger and more vital than life. That hadn’t changed. He was still lean, still rangy. When she’d met him during her junior year of university and his first year of grad school, she had thought him wiry. She’d been amazed when she got a feel of the hard muscles beneath his long-sleeved shirts.

 

“I haven’t spent all my life in grad school,” he’d told her with a grin. “Spent most of it riding horses and punching cows.”

“Punching cows?” Celina’s eyes had widened at that. She hadn’t even met a cowboy.

 

“Fourth generation Montana rancher, for my sins. And I climb a little, too.”

That had explained not just the muscles, but the name of his band. He and Dex Carpenter had named it after the south face of Shoshone Spire, which they had climbed together.

She’d wondered what he was doing at Iowa State and he’d laughed. “My dad’s idea. No mountains to distract me, he said. He wants me to get a masters degree in crop and livestock management, then come home and take over the ranch.”

That had been the idea, but not the reality. He’d taken some classes, but his heart hadn’t been in it. He’d stayed because he found a good classical guitar teacher along with Dex, Mark and Peter, the guys with whom he’d climbed the south face and formed the band.

Musicians, it seemed, had muscles, too, though Jack hadn’t been advertising his in those days. Now a plain black T-shirt accentuated his broad shoulders, and one of the local girls who’d been hired on as temporary help for the week was looking at him adoringly while stroking his biceps and appreciating the sinewy strength of his arms.

Celina hadn’t seen Jack in two and a half years, and she’d spent the last six months convincing herself she couldn’t imagine what she’d seen in him. She had no trouble imagining now.

Jack had sex appeal in spades. He was one hundred percent drop-dead gorgeous, the sort of guy Celina used to think belonged on a poster. Then he was on posters, and they still didn’t do him justice.

When Jack had been on stage performing it had been impossible to look away. But even when he wasn’t – when he did no more than stand still in the middle of a room – he drew every eye. Including hers, damn it.

His famously shaggy sun-tipped brown hair was shorter now. Trimmed. Neater.

Had Jonas told him to cut it for the wedding? Not likely. Jack’s thick mop of hair was a part of his image.

And when had he ever done anything Jonas told him to, anyway?

Or anything anyone else had ever told him to do?

The shorter haircut looked good, Celina conceded grudgingly. Jack looked good.

He always had. Even on his roughest, most battered and exhausted days, when fame and fortune were smiling on the band and South Face was touring 24/7, Jack Masterson had always been able to give a Greek god a run for his money.

His lean face, hard jaw, sharp cheekbones and killer smile combined to make him an even bigger attraction than the music he wrote and the band performed. Celina didn’t know a woman between the ages of seven and ninety-seven who didn’t respond to his appeal. That hadn’t changed, either.

He’d just turned thirty-one last month, and the years – she would never call it maturity – looked good on him. Annoyingly good.

And he was still managing to turn not shaving into an art form.

His signature stubbled jaw glinted bronze and gold in the overhead glow of the manor’s crystal chandelier, just as it had in the high-powered lights of some of the world’s biggest concert venues. It made women everywhere want to reach out and run their fingers over his cheeks. Celina sucked in a breath as her own fingers knotted into fists.

As if he’d heard her, Jack turned his head suddenly, his gaze once more scanning the room as if he were looking for someone.

Not her, of course.

Celina was well aware he’d moved beyond his interest in her. But she didn’t want to have him spot her now. The last thing she wanted was a public confrontation with her ex-husband. So she slipped down behind the back of the sofa.

She wished desperately that she hadn’t had to come. But Maggie had been adamant that she’d needed Celina with her that week.

“Anna will drive everyone insane,” the dowager said, knowing her granddaughter-in-law’s propensity for trying to control everyone and everything. “I don’t deal with that well.”

An understatement, to be sure. Maggie had been known to tell Celina that Anna just “needs a good slap.” It was possible that, if Celina weren’t there to run interference, Maggie might consider delivering one.

So Celina had spent the last few months preparing herself to be cool and polite whenever she came face-to-face with Jack. She didn’t know if Jack knew she would be here or not. She didn’t know if he knew she was working for Jonas’s grandmother. She had asked Jonas not to tell him. She was sure he hadn’t. But it wasn’t a secret if Jack had really wanted to find out.

Obviously he hadn’t.

And really, why should he? He, too, must have recognized their marriage for what it had been – an impulsive mistake.

But as she settled back down into the velvet sofa to wait til he was gone, Celina felt her phone vibrate in the pocket of her linen trousers. She tugged it out to find that Maggie was texting her.

Dinner when? Work. Now.

The last two words were orders. The Serene Dowager had never been the official ruler of San Michele. But after the death of her late husband, when Jonas’s father, Benedict, the current ruler, was little more than a teenager, Maggie had become the power behind the throne.

When Benedict was grown, she’d had a bit of a respite. But the death of Benedict’s wife when Jonas, their youngest child, was only four, had forced the dowager to step up again.

Now she was ‘retired’ again.

“But not ‘retiring,’” she had said firmly when she’d hired Celina as her personal assistant. “Never retiring.”

Two years later Celina knew how true that was. In the two days since their arrival at Westonbury Court, Maggie had kept a full schedule. Only a late night on Friday, when some old classmates had come down from London to visit, had persuaded her to take a rest this afternoon.

Now the ‘rest’ was obviously over. If Celina didn’t turn up at Maggie’s door in the next five minutes, there would be mutterings and grumblings.

Worse, Maggie would wonder if she’d been with Jack.

The phone vibrated again. Where are U?

Hastily Celina texted back, Coming.

But just as she was about to stand up, she heard Jack say, “Great. Lead on.”

She turned to peer around the edge of the sofa and saw the housekeeper leading the way toward the staircase with Jack following. Behind him the multitude of admirers breathed a collective sigh of appreciation and regret as his perfect masculine ass went up the stairs.

Celina jerked her own gaze away, waited until he’d disappeared, then stuck her tablet into her tote bag and emerged from her shelter on the sofa.

“Did you see him?” One of the local girls was wide-eyed and hyperventilating.

“He’s so gorgeous!” exclaimed another. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

Celina contrived to look blank.

“She doesn’t even know who he is.” One of the teenage princesses dismissed Celina with a mere glance. “She’s too old.”

“Everyone knows Jack Masterson,” a university-aged princess argued. “Don’t you?” she demanded of Celina.

“The one and only,” Celina said dryly.

“See?” the princess said to the others triumphantly. “Everyone one knows him! Even her!”

Celina rolled her eyes and turned to the woman staff member who looked to be the least likely to swoon over Jack.

“Could you ask someone to escort the Serene Dowager down to dinner this evening?” She had done it the last two nights. She wasn’t doing it tonight. Fredrik had called a meeting of the staff to discuss security issues now that most of the wedding party had arrived. Bless his heart.

Of course Maggie could find her own way to the dining room, but she wouldn’t. She would say It Wasn’t Done. There would be protocol involved. In that respect, the dowager could give Anna a run for her money. And while Maggie flew in the face of it regularly herself, she was a stickler for other people knowing enough to observe it.

If Celina didn’t arrange for someone to accompany her, Maggie would insist that Celina miss the meeting and come with her. Or worse, tell Celina to fetch Jack.

That wasn’t going to happen.

She would have to see Jack eventually. But just a glimpse this afternoon told her she hadn’t moved on as far as she’d hoped.

So she wasn’t going looking for him. Not for Maggie or for anyone else.