When Krystiana woke the next morning, the first thing she did was reach over and turn off her night-light. It was an automatic thing—something she hardly noticed doing—but today when she did so she stared at it for a moment, wondering if Crown Prince Matteo had one too.
For two years he’d been stuck in a cave. Was he now afraid of the dark?
Throwing off the bedcovers, she got up and threw open the double doors to the sun terrace. The fragrant air poured in and she closed her eyes for a moment as the warm rays from the sun caressed her skin. This was what she loved about living here. The warmth. The colour. The heat. The beauty of this treasured isle.
How fortunate that her aunt lived here. It had been exactly what she had needed after her experience at the hands of her father—to leave such an ugly existence behind and come to a place that only had beauty at its core. There had been a new language to learn, but wonderful, loving, passionate people to support her. New friends. A new life. Isla Tamoura had given her a new beginning, a new hope, and she loved it here so much.
Krystiana took a quick shower and braided her long hair into its usual plait, donned a summery dress and sat down to eat the breakfast that had been brought in on a tray. She was used to eating breakfast alone. She quite enjoyed it. But this time, before her day started, she grabbed her pad and pencils and began sketching the view from her balcony. This afternoon she would be going home again, so there was no time to spare.
Her sketch was vague. Outlines and shapes. She would fill in the colour later, allowing her imagination to take flight. She took a couple of quick photos using her phone.
She almost lost track of time, and when she did glance at her watch she saw there were only a few minutes until nine o clock—her scheduled time to give the Prince his yearly physical. She left her pad and pencil on the bed, finished her orange juice and then pulled the sash to call Sergio. She wasn’t sure exactly where in the palace the examination would take place.
Sergio arrived, looking as perfectly presented as always. ‘Good morning, Dr Szenac. I hope you slept well?’
‘Very well, Sergio, thank you. I have my appointment with His Highness Prince Matteo, to start his physical, but I’m not sure where I have to go.’
He nodded. ‘I believe you are expected in the private gym. Dr Bonetti always carries out the yearly check-ups there.’
‘Thank you.’ She’d had no idea the palace had its own gym—but, then again, why wouldn’t it? Matteo and his family could hardly pop out to the local leisure centre if they wanted to lift a few weights, could they?
Sergio led her through the palace, down long tapestry-filled hallways, past vast vases so big she could have climbed inside and not been seen even standing upright. They passed a coat of arms, a suit of armour, and fireplaces filled with flowers, until he brought her to a set of double doors.
‘The gym, Dr Szenac. All of Dr Bonetti’s equipment has been laid out for you, and the computer has been set up for you to enter the results of each test for the record.’
‘Thank you—that’s very kind.’
‘The computer isn’t likely to be difficult, but if you do have any queries we have an IT expert on hand.’
Sergio smiled and opened the doors.
The gym was filled with all types of equipment—treadmills, stair-masters, weight machines, free-standing weights, workout equipment, yoga mats. Anything and everything seemed to be here, and one wall was made of glass that revealed a room beyond filled with a full-length swimming pool.
But she didn’t have time to linger. The Prince would be here at any moment and she wanted to be prepared.
She was running her eye over what she needed to achieve today, reminding herself of the assessments, when she became aware of a presence behind her.
She turned and bowed slightly. ‘Your Highness.’
‘I’m ready, if you are?’
Smiling, she nodded. ‘Absolutely. Ready to begin with the basics? I’ll need to do blood pressure, pulse and SATs.’
‘All right. Take a seat.’
She began to set up her equipment—the pulse oximeter that she’d place on his finger to measure not only his pulse but the oxygen levels in his blood, and the arm cuff around his upper arm that would measure his blood pressure.
His basic measurements were perfect. Exactly what she’d expected them to be.
‘Okay, now I need to check your height and weight.’
‘I don’t think I’ve shrunk.’
She smiled. ‘Glad to hear it.’
Again, his weight was perfect for his height.
‘Now I’d like to set you up for a treadmill test. I’ll need to attach you to a breathing tube, so we can measure oxygen intake, heart-rate and lung capacity whilst you run up a slight incline for three minutes.’
He nodded. ‘Can I warm up first?’
‘By all means.’
She looked at his previous measurements and typed them into the computer, aware that Matteo was stripping off behind her and beginning to stretch.
When she turned around she noted that he was in excellent physical shape. Clearly he used the gym often to keep fit. His muscle tone was almost beautiful. His figure was sculpted, without being overly worked. It seemed almost wrong to look at him and admire him like that. Not least because he was a prince.
‘Right, I need to attach these electrodes, if that’s okay?’
Does my voice sound weird?
He stood still whilst she attached the electrodes to his chest and body, trying her hardest not to make eye contact, then attached the wires that hooked him up to the machine for a reading. She fastened a breathing mask around his nose and mouth, and suddenly there was that eye contact thing.
She could feel herself blushing. ‘Okay… For the first minute I want you just to walk at a steady pace and then, when I tell you, I’m going to increase the speed and I want you to jog.’
He gave her a thumbs-up and she started the treadmill and the EKG monitor that would read his heart’s electrical activity. The machine began printing out on a paper roll and she watched it steadily, keeping a careful eye out for any issues, but it all looked fine.
She glanced up at him as he ran with a steady pace, his body like a well-oiled machine as he tackled the jog easily. His oxygen intake was perfect; his heart-rate was elevated, but not too much.
When the three minutes were over she switched everything off and then laid a hand on his wrist to check his pulse. She felt it pounding away beneath her fingertips and kept count, then made a note of the result.
‘You’re doing brilliantly.’
He pulled off the mask. ‘Good to know.’
‘You work out a lot?’
‘Can’t you tell?’ He raised an eyebrow.
‘Well, I…er…yes… You look very…er…’
He laughed. ‘I meant can’t you tell from my results?’
She flushed even redder and laughed with him. ‘Oh, I see.’ She nodded. ‘Yes!’
‘I try to do thirty minutes every other day, alternating with the pool. Lifting weights. Half an hour of cardio… ‘
‘You do more than me.’
‘It’s easier for me. My life is scheduled to the minute, so I know when I can fit things in to get everything done.’
She was curious. ‘Is that a perk or a drawback?’ she asked. She wasn’t sure she’d want to be so regimentally scheduled each day. What about free time? What about spontaneity?
‘It depends on the day.’ He laughed again, wiping his face with a towel.
He shrugged. ‘Well, I have this, and then I get to spend some time with my daughter.’
‘Princess Alexandra? She’s beautiful. How old is she now?’
‘You must be very proud of her.’
‘I am. But I don’t get to spoil her as often as I would like.’
Of course not. She didn’t live with him. The Princess lived with her mother, at her family’s private estate.
‘That must be hard for you?’
He stared into her eyes. ‘You have no idea.’
Oh, but I do, she thought. I know how hard it is being away from those you love.I know only too well.
She blinked rapidly and turned away, forcing her mind back to the assessment. ‘Next test.’
‘I’m all yours.’ He did a mock bow.
Krystiana smiled and then indicated that he should move to the next machine.
They were just about finished with their testing when the doors to the gym opened and in walked Sergio, looking grave. It was the most solemn Matteo had ever seen him.
He finished towelling himself down and raised an eyebrow. ‘Sergio? What is it?’
‘I have some unfortunate news for Dr Szenac, sir.’
She looked up from her notes and frowned. Was it about Dr Bonetti’s wife?
‘I’m afraid there’s been an accident at your villa. A drunk driver tried to take the corner near your abode too fast and ploughed into your home. I’m afraid your living area and bedroom have been almost destroyed, and the property is not safe for you to reside in just yet.’
Matteo was shocked and looked to Dr Szenac. ‘I’m so sorry!’
Her face was almost white. ‘Is the driver all right?’
He was impressed at how her concern was immediately for the driver.
‘I believe he got away quite lightly, all things considered. He’s being treated by the medics now.’
‘Okay. Good. That’s good.’ She turned away, her thoughts in a distant place. ‘Oh, my God. What about Bruno?’
‘My dog. He’s a rescue.’
‘I believe your neighbour was out on a walk with him at the time,’ Sergio replied.
‘Oh, thank goodness!’
She sank down into a chair, her legs obviously trembling, and put her head in her hands. Matteo felt for her. Was her home ruined?
‘You must stay here with us. Until everything is fixed.’
She looked up, tears in her eyes. ‘I couldn’t possibly do that.’
‘Nonsense! It’s done. Sergio, could you arrange for Dr Szenac’s clothes and anything she needs to be brought to her quarters here in the palace? Including her dog, who I’m sure will bring her great comfort. We’re going to have a guest for a while.’
‘I don’t know what to say…’ she said, beginning to cry.
He smiled. ‘Say yes.’
She looked at him for a long moment and he saw gratitude. ‘Then, yes. Thank you. Yes.’
He nodded. ‘Sergio? Make it happen.’
‘I’m so lucky I was here when it happened, she said later. Otherwise I might have been injured!’
‘Well, you were here, and that’s all that matters.’
‘No buts. There’s no point in wondering about what mighthave happened. You just need to worry about what ishappening.’ He smiled. ‘I learned that in therapy. Look at me—spreading the knowledge.’
She smiled as she stroked Bruno’s fur. They’d had a joyous reunion when Sergio had returned with her dog, her clothes, her computer and some rather startling photographs of the damage to her villa.
‘That’s going to take weeks to repair,’ she’d said.
‘Let me take care of that,’ Matteo had offered.
‘I couldn’t possibly let you do that! It will cost a fortune!’
‘Are you insured?’
‘Then don’t worry about it. Let me do something good for you. You were kind enough to step in at the last minute and help me out when I needed a doctor—let me step in and help you out when you need a…’
‘A builder?’ She’d laughed.
He’d smiled back. ‘A knight in shining armour. Didn’t you see my suit of armour downstairs? It’s very polished.’
So of course she’d thanked him profusely, feeling so terribly grateful for all that he was doing to help her out.
‘I appreciate that. I really do.’
‘Nonsense. It’s what friends do.’
And she’d smiled. Were they friends?‘Thank you.’
Matteo had invited her to dine with him that evening.
‘You can bring Bruno. If he’s lucky we might be able to feed him titbits under the table.’
‘He’ll never want to leave this place if you do that.’
And now they sat on his sun terrace, awaiting their meal, staring out across the gardens below and watching the sun slowly set.
‘By the way, I don’t know if you’ve heard but Dr Bonetti’s wife has pulled through. She’s in a stable condition and expected to go home soon. He phoned from the hospital. Let my secretary know.’
‘That’s excellent news! Wow. So good to have such great news after earlier. And the driver who hit my home? Do we know about him?’
‘Already home. And already charged by the police for drink driving. He’s to attend court in a few days’ time.’
‘If it was an accident I’m sure he’s very sorry.’
Matteo sipped his water. ‘Unfortunately, from what I’ve discovered, the man is a known drunk. He’s already had his licence taken from him and the car wasn’t even his. It was his son’s and he’d “borrowed” it.’
‘We’ll get him into a programme.’
‘We?’ She raised an eyebrow.
‘My pack of royal enforcers,’ he said with a straight face, knowing there was no such pack at all.
He laughed. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t really have enforcers. I was just… Look, he needs help. Someone will go and visit him and make sure he enrols into a programme that will get him the help he needs. Before he kills someone next time.’
‘Maybe I could go and see him myself?’
‘Is that wise? You’re emotionally involved.’
‘Which is why he might listen to me. Meeting the actual victim of his crime might make more of an impact.’
‘Was hitting your wall not enough?’ He cocked his head to one side. ‘How do you know so much about crime and victimology?’
She looked down and away from him then, and he realised there was a story there. Something she wasn’t willing to share.
‘I’m sorry—you don’t have to answer that.’
She laughed. ‘Don’t therapists suggest that talking is good for the soul?’
He nodded. ‘They do. But only when you’re ready. Areyou ready?’
‘I don’t know.’
He sipped his drink. ‘You’ll know when it’s the right time. And, more importantly, if it’s the right person to talk to. You don’t really know me, so I quite understand.’
She stared back at him. Consideringly. Her eyes were cool. ‘I think you’d understand more than most.’
He considered this. Intrigued. ‘Oh?’
She paused. Looked uncertain. And then he saw it in her face. The determination to push forward and just say it.
‘I was six years old. And I was taken.’
‘Taken?’ His blood almost froze, despite the warmth of the sun.
‘My father buried me in a hole in the ground.’