“Yes, my late husband bore the title. In the House of Lords, you know.”
No, I did not know. I needed to fan myself a bit with my hand. “You’re royalty? Do you know Kate and William?”
“Yes, I have had the pleasure of meeting the Duchess of Cambridge. She’s lovely.”
“You’ve met her!”
“On a few occasions. And Princess Charlotte.”
“You’ve met their baby girl!” Now I knew my voice was reaching an unnaturally high octave as I clutched the arm of my chair. Declan placed a hand at the middle of my back, maybe recognizing he might need to hold me back from leaping up into the air. “She’s so cute!”
“That she is. And I know you’re going to have one just as sweet.”
“I can’t believe it!” I’d joked with Declan about him being related to royalty, but he was. He actually was. I turned to him, my hands clasped together at my heart. “Maybe we can have play dates with the princess!”
“Hold on, now. Settle down.” Declan spoke to me the way I’d heard him speak to skittish horses, talking them down, soothing them so they didn’t go so wild they broke their leg.
“You are a peach,” Margaret declared with a smile on her face.
“And here I thought the most exciting thing about this family was Ash Black! A real live rock star!”
“Oh, Asher is terribly exciting,” Margaret agreed, taking another sip of her water. “He never fails to entertain.”
“Will he? On Saturday night?” I didn’t think my heart could take much more of this. Was I about to see Ash Black perform?
“Would you like to see him sing a song?”
“Keep it calm, now, honey.” Declan rubbed my shoulder.
“Then I’ll see to it that he does. Perhaps some Frank Sinatra.”
I had no words. I might actually explode from glee. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, a gorgeous young woman floated into the room with a welcoming smile on her face.
“Gigi!” Margaret exclaimed, rising to greet Declan’s half-sister.
“Oh, no, don’t get up!” Gigi hurried to her side, greeting her warmly with a kiss on each cheek. “I’m so sorry I’m late. I hope there’s still time for me to say a quick hello!”
She was as friendly as you could imagine. Only about 20 years old, but she spoke just like her grandmother. Minus the British accent, but more vocabulary words than a dictionary. Neither of them sounded stuck up, though. They really put me right at ease.
Declan, he didn’t seem as at home, but he wasn’t what you’d call a relaxed man in general. Only I got to see that side of him. It made me smile, seeing him so gruff and stiff. He was a good man, as protective of me as a bear.
“And so you live in Montana? I’ve heard it’s absolutely gorgeous there.” Gigi turned her charming attention to Declan and even he warmed up a bit. He invited her up to one of the ranching properties he owned.
“The one in Bozeman is my favorite,” I told her.
“Maybe during my summer break,” Gigi agreed. “Thank you for the invitation.” She explained that she was studying at Vanderbilt University, which apparently was down in Tennessee. She was in a sorority there and had declared her major as English. No wonder she had a way with words.
“You’re going to have a lovely time Saturday night,” Gigi assured me as we made our way to the door. Lunch had been so pleasant, but I knew Declan wanted to get out of there. I wanted to be alone with him, too.
“And you’re sure Ash Black will be there?” I had to ask. I knew I was sounding starstruck, but that’s because I was.
“Yes,” Gigi assured me with a laugh.
“Everyone will be there.” Margaret joined in. The way she said it made it sound like there was no alternative for family members. Again, I wanted to ask her her secret. She was so pleasant but I also had the feeling that absolutely nobody crossed her. How cool was that?
“Not everyone,” Gigi added in a quiet voice I wasn’t sure anyone else could hear.
“No?” I asked, suddenly wanting to give her a hug. She looked sad. Maybe she was thinking about her father.
“He’s received an invitation, dear.” Margaret murmured to her. Apparently she had heard her. “But you know his work takes him overseas.”
“Yes, of course.” Gigi recovered herself, giving her shoulders a small shake as if to rouse herself from her momentary slump.
Naturally, I was full of questions, but even exuberant me knew when to hold my tongue. It was hard, though. I figured I’d get it out of Gigi at the holiday party. I couldn’t drink anyway with a baby on the way. What better way to dig up a few family secrets than stay sober at a party with a free, open bar. At least I figured it would be a free, open bar. This family didn’t seem to stint on anything.
A servant of some kind brought us our coats. Over the past six months with Declan he’d taken me to some awfully nice places, but I still wasn’t used to having people paid to wait on me. Even waiters and waitresses still seemed more like my kinfolk than my underlings. Declan seemed to have grown accustomed to it all, without ever seeming dismissive or spoiled. I guessed maybe I’d work my way there, but maybe not.
In the car back to our hotel I took the opportunity to snuggle into Declan. The heater was on, but the seat still felt chilly. He radiated heat, though, my big man.
“How’d that go?” I asked him, admiring his handsome profile.
“You tell me.”
“Oh, you know I had fun. I can’t believe your grandmother has met the baby princess.”
“Yes, because what’s better than a princess?”
“A baby princess!” I elbowed him in the ribs because I knew he was trying to get a rise out of me. He didn’t go gaga over celebrities or royalty, but I was a mere mortal and, yes, I got excited over all those kinds of things.
“Do you think I can ask for Ash Black’s autograph Saturday night?”
“Just don’t ask for it on your boob.”
> “Declan!” That earned him another elbow to the rib. “I know I’m sort of hyper over all of this. But honestly, it’s like this extra bonus gift.”
“You sound like he’s a prize at the bottom of your Cracker Jack box.”
“Yes! That’s exactly it!” Declan hadn’t actually meant it, but that’s really how I felt.
“OK, but let me just ask you this.” He sounded serious. I turned to him, looking into his eyes. “Are you or are you not going to sew the family tree onto a pillowcase?”
I burst out laughing. “Don’t be ridiculous. The family tree is clearly a needlepoint project! And you wouldn’t put it on something you’d sleep on. You’d want to frame it.”
We teased and laughed as the city blocks passed, but as we drew closer I had to ask.
“You’re sure you’re OK? Was that strange for you?”
“Sure, it was strange. I’d never have been there if not for you. And none of it feels like it’s my life.”
“I know, I mean, how crazy nice was her place?”
“They’re, like, billionaires.”
“I mean…” I didn’t really have words. I’d certainly never rubbed shoulders with the likes of the baroness.
“But I’m glad we did it.” Declan clasped my hand and brought it to his lips for a gentle kiss. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“You’ve done everything.”
He ushered me upstairs to our hotel suite. He’d booked us at a boutique place that had such charm. Having grown up around rough-hewn wooden planks, all the lavish detail wowed me, the crown moldings and ornate carvings along the fireplace mantle.
“What do you think these are?” I asked, tracing the carved decorations with my finger. To me, they looked like dancers but I couldn’t decide if they were supposed to be people or some kind of mystical creatures like fairies. “Aren’t they beautiful?”