King Aristedes was standing in his formal office in the palace. He’d showered and changed and allowed himself to feel a sense of satisfaction to have finally tracked his errant fiancée down.
But…something about that niggled at him. It had been a little bit too…easy. His mouth thinned. If you discounted the fact that he’d had to fly to a remote desert to find her.
He went over to his french doors and opened them, the view of Santanger laid out below him never failing to make his blood surge with pride. He put his hands on the stone wall of the terrace and breathed in the familiar scents of his home – wild herbs, native flowers and the very distinctive salty tang of the sea.
He didn’t take a moment of his inheritance for granted. Unlike his father who had seen it as some sort of god – given right.
Maybe if his father hadn’t displayed such feet of clay, Ari might have been the same. But, from an early age he’d known that his father was much closer to the earth, than to God.
He’d witnessed the tawdry reality of his father’s very earthly desires – namely that of other women. So he’d always had a sense that he didn’t want to insult the people of Santanger by being a hypocrite – presenting a facade of a happy royal family when in reality it had been anything but.
Ari wasn’t perfect by any means but when it came to him marrying for the sake of his country, he would do so with the utmost integrity. He would not be unfaithful. He would not do that to his queen, he’d witnessed his own mother crumble and become a shell of a person. Belittled and made insecure.
She’d married for love and she’d never got over the betrayal of that dream. Ari could only be grateful that he’d learnt his lesson early in life that such a fantasy didn’t exist.
Maybe for normal people. But not for people like him. Or Princess Laia. Something caught the corner of his eye and he looked down to his left. As if conjured up by thinking about her, Princess Laia was walking around a courtyard, stopping to sniff flowers.
She’d changed into a shirt and loose trousers and she was…Ari squinted, barefoot? A flash of heat went through him before he could stop it. She’d pulled her hair up into a loose knot and tendrils fell down around her face.
She’d always seemed neater to him. Somehow fastidious. Here, with her shirt tied around her slim waist, she looked like a student who’d wandered in from outside the palace. As he watched, one of the palace dogs came into the courtyard, big and shaggy, of indeterminate breed.
He tensed. He knew Princess Laia had an aversion to dogs because her father had been attacked by one as a small child. Ari had never noticed dogs in or around the castle on Isla’Rosa – understandably, if a little regrettable because he himself loved dogs.
The dog ambled along behind an unsuspecting Princess Laia. Ari’s hands gripped the wall. He didn’t fear for her safety only that she might get a fright. But as if sensing the dog, she turned around and immediately dropped to her knees to greet him with smiles and soft words. Like any other dog lover. Except Princess Laia was not a dog lover, unless she’d had some kind of immersion therapy since he’d last seen her.
Ari frowned. He could distinctly remember her visiting Santanger when she’d been younger, with her father, and how they’d both tensed when the palace dogs had appeared. He’d had to have them put in the palace kennels until the visit was over. But Laia was crooning over this dog now and scratching behind his ears.
A cold finger traced down Ari’s spine as a suspicion started to form in his head. A suspicion that he couldn’t even fully name yet. Just a feeling. He turned away from the view and went back to his desk which was covered with newspapers and grainy paparazzi photos. He’d been about to throw it all in the bin – part of his efforts to track down Princess Laia that he no longer required, except…maybe he did.
He pushed the papers and photos aside, growing more frustrated as he couldn’t find what he was looking for – he wasn’t even sure what he was looking for – but suddenly there it was.
A picture of Princess Laia in Central Park in Manhattan with another girl. Named under the photo as merely, ‘friend’. They were arm in arm, heads close together. Clearly close. And also…far more intrguingly very physically similar. In fact…they could almost be twins.
Similar height, build. Except the ‘friend’ was a little curvier. Both had long wavy dark hair. They were wearing sunglasses, but Ari sat down now and searched online for a better image of Princess Laia. A formal photo popped up, showing very clearly that her eyes were a striking shade of green. To his shame, he couldn’t have said for certain what colour her eyes were. But now he could.
The woman he’d just brought to Santanger did not have green eyes. They weren’t far off – a kind of hazel – but they weren’t this very distinctive green.
The cold finger tracing down his spine became a burning sensation. Anger. When she’d been in Manhattan that time, he’d flown in at short notice to try and meet her, interrupting a trip to South America. But when he’d arrived she’d already departed, leaving a paltry message of apology that something had come up. Once again slipping through his fingers like mercury.
Another picture caught his eye. It was the grainy paparazzi photo of Princess Laia in the desert that had pinpointed her location for the first time in months. When Ari had read the caption under the photo his patience had snapped: Is Party Princess Laia ever going to settle down?
What he hadn’t noticed until now was the same ‘friend’ with her in the picture. Arm in arm again.
Ari knew it now with cold certainty. The woman currently in his palace, wearing clothes from the trousseau he’d bought for his fiancée, was not Princess Laia. So, if she wasn’t the princess, then who the hell was she? And where on earth – literally – was Princess Laia?