Once Again a Princess
Click on image to enlarge.
by Jane Bierce
Description: Once Again a Princess is a modern fairy tale with its roots in the decentralization of Eastern Europe. Jo, a princess in exile, is more comfortable in blue jeans tramping through a jungle than in a business suit addressing politicians, but when the call to assume her rightful place comes, she doesn't hesitate. Max, a former mercenary soldier and now head of security, sees himself as the general of the tiny country's new army. He and Jo's other advisors, who have all had their plans laid for this event for years, soon learn Jo has no intention of being the pretty figurehead they expect. As she rises to the challenge of modernizing her repressed nation, Jo learns to compromise with Max's security measures, and Max begins to respect and admire the woman he protects. Their constant proximity leads to mutual attraction, but a major obstacle looms over their growing love: Max is not of noble lineage.
eBook Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory, 1998
eBookwise Release Date: August 2004
25 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [514 KB]
Reading time: 328-459 min.
"Jane Bierce's latest is interesting and intriguing ... centering great characters in wonderful situations! Karen Ellington"--The Literary Times
"A romance that combines adventure, danger, royalty, and intrigue, ONCE AGAIN A PRINCESS is, above all else, a great read. ONCE AGAIN A PRINCESS is a delight from beginning to end. The characters are engaging, the setting adds a sense of reality, and the writing is done with a masterly hand. Ms. Bierce, you and your creativity have given me a very enjoyable glimpse into a world that just might be true. Thank you! Highly Recommended."--Under the Covers Book Reviews
"Ms. Bierce has a talent for plot and backstory. She has created an entire country, with all its inherent problems and unique characteristics, and peopled it with interesting inhabitants. I liked and admired Jo--I love strong women in fiction. She was everything one would want from the ruler of a brand new country."--Romance Communications
There were times when Jo thought her life could have been -- would have been -- should have been different. This was one of them.
"I don't care if you do feel safe there," Pardeau ranted, taking on his unofficial-grandfather tone. "Other news are in -- country can cover -- coup. Get out of there and get -- now!"
Her boss Julian Pardeau continued yelling at her over the static of a terrible telephone connection. Bits and pieces of every fourth word vanished between London and this third-world outpost of civilization. Nonetheless, she heard the anger and authority in his voice.
The phone went dead. Jo hoped it was because Pardeau had hung up, not that the phone service to this godforsaken hellhole had been interrupted deliberately.
She replaced the receiver of the payphone and turned to absorb a final impression of the seedy hotel lobby. Once it had probably held a certain primitive grace, she was sure. Now the walls were smudged and the brocades threadbare, the fringes limp, the brass dull.
Thick tobacco smoke swirled through slanting shafts of light toward the vaulted ceiling. Natives and tourists alike, in their colorful garb, clustered around the armchairs and arches, discussing what transpired beyond the walls. There was a sense of impending change -- and not for the better.
She'd almost expected this to happen, and had lived out of her canvas flight bag and oversized purse for the last few days, knowing the coup was imminent. Normally, Jo tried to be friendly with everyone, but it became all too likely someone would figure out she wasn't the dumb blonde travel writer she claimed to be. Then she'd be in more trouble than Pardeau could possibly foist on her. The choice before her was no choice at all.
Scooping up her bags from the cracked black marble floor beside the ancient telephone booth, she waved to the doorman.
"Is my taxi out there?" Jo asked the gaunt man in a baggy uniform, her voice imitating a ditzy girl she'd grown to abhor in college, but whose mannerisms were getting her through this experience by raising as few suspicions as possible.
"Yes, ma'am," the doorman responded, his gap-toothed grin evidence of sizable tips she had given him in the last few days.
"Tell him I'll need him as soon as I check out," she said, struggling to pull her credit card from her purse. "It will just take a moment."
Outside in the unforgiving sunshine, she waved to her favorite taxi driver, one who spoke English fairly well -- at least better than the first few she'd run across. She had endured the horrendous condition of his cab, reasonably certain she'd get to the destination she wanted. He nodded deferentially when she got into his rattletrap vehicle.
"Airport!" Jo told him, balancing her purse in her lap and resting her elbow on her flight bag.
"You're leaving, miss?" he asked as the conveyance lurched forward.
"Yes. My work here is finished."
It was a lie. Jo wanted to stay and see how the coup turned out. She suspected the man she'd sought out in the interior the day before would emerge in control of the rebel faction and the country itself before long.
But for once she was frightened. She'd never seen such hostility. The rage lurked in the littered streets and ragged awnings over the stucco storefronts. Pardeau was right, she concluded grudgingly. She had to get out.
The highway to the airport had been constructed decades earlier by a regime which flaunted what wealth it had. Palm trees stood as tall sentinels the full length of the road, from the edge of the city across the plain to the air field. She had heard the palms were originally of a height to hide the squalor of native huts. Now they were tall enough to allow the traveler a disturbing view of abject poverty.
But Jo saw a more jarring scene as the taxi careened along the pot-holed highway. It seemed that every jeep, half-track and personnel carrier in the country was on the move. They bristled with weapons in the hands of young men whose loyalties were suspect.
When Jo saw the long line of dull sand-colored vehicles approaching, she dug a wide-brimmed cloth hat from the side pocket of her flight bag and clamped it on her head, frantically tucking every strand of her blond hair up into it. Then she ratcheted the window up as far as it would go, hoping the dusty glass would further obscure her from observers.
At the entrance of the airport's shabby terminal, she gave the driver the last of her native money. It was too much for the fare and the most generous of tips, but on the other hand, she didn't want to be bothered exchanging it. She was disturbed by the thought that tomorrow, or yet today, it would be worthless.
The building was small, with one ticket desk. As she approached it, the customer ahead of her gathered up his satchel and headed for the gate.
"I need a ticket for this flight," she said, waving her credit card at the clerk.
"The flight to Rome is leaving in four minutes, miss," the man said, taking her credit card.
"That's fine," she assured him, trying to mislead him with her confidence.
"Let me see if I have a seat left, Miss -- Mathias -- " he said, nonchalantly adjusting a gold watch which seemed too large for his wrist. "Ah! One seat is available, but it's too late to check luggage. I can't ticket you through to any other destination."
"This bag is all I have," Jo said urgently, holding her flight bag aloft. "I can book another flight when I get to Rome."
She gritted her teeth, willing the clerk to write the ticket more quickly. No one ever did anything quickly in Africa; how could she expect -- He would write much faster if he wasn't hampered by a wristwatch that looked more expensive than a mere ticket clerk could afford.
Funny what you think about to avoid being scared out of your wits! Jo thought, swallowing to calm herself.
Finally the clerk thrust the pass at her. She grabbed it and broke into a run toward the customs desk. The inspector hurriedly stamped her passport without so much as glancing at her bag or purse. As Jo stuffed her passport back into her purse, from the corner of her eye, she saw him close the cover of his stamp pad.
Despite the hot and muggy breeze coming in from the runway, Jo felt a chill of apprehension. Taking a deep breath, she got a better grip on her bag and started toward the door leading to the gate.
A man standing there seemed to be waiting for someone, or perhaps just taking one last smoke before the long flight. As she passed him, he ground his cigarette butt into the pavement with the toe of his boot.
Jo was winded when she reached the top of the loading stairs, her feet thudding on the treads. She was always afraid she'd fall through the space between the top step and the plane. It wasn't a civilized a way to board a plane. But this wasn't civilization. * * * FOR ONCE 'Little Sister' was following orders!
Max checked his immediate perimeter to be certain he hadn't uttered the words aloud. He'd given his last decent cigar to Shamal when the rebel leader had promised to hold his men at bay until the plane to Rome was airborne. But Max could already see the ragtag vehicles encircling the airstrip.
He glanced at where his watch should have been before remembering he'd used it to bribe the ticket clerk to hold the seat beside him for Josephina Mathias. The pilot had already started to run up the engines and the clerk was writing the ticket while the object of this frantic exercise drummed her fingers on the counter.
Obviously Julian Pardeau had been more persuasive than usual when he'd ordered her out of Africa. She usually took her own sweet time. It had been a stroke of good luck that there was a plane to Rome today, and that Shamal had been impressed favorably with Josephina's interviewing style. Once she was in Rome, she'd be as secure as the crown jewels.
If the information the old Vegran operative Reynard had relayed to Julian was accurate, all hell was breaking loose in Bulkania.
Max Gotschack lowered his head when the woman hurried past. The business of smashing his cigarette into the littered tarmac merely camouflaged his acute interest in her. For the moment that he covertly watched after her, he tasted the rough Turkish tobacco smoke in his mouth then expelled it. He much preferred the decadently expensive cigars his father stocked in his Roman villa to the rope he'd used as a prop. It reminded him of a problem he had to face -- if the rumors were true.
The moment Josephina Mathias's foot touched the first step of the ramp, he broke into a brisk march toward the plane. Max took the steps two at a time, reaching the hatch only a scant moment after she disappeared past the flight attendant.
Max had assessed everyone as they boarded and hadn't found a threatening or suspicious person among them. At least, not for his purposes. He knew who the players were and where the danger lay -- and so far none had put in an appearance. * * * "WINDOW OR AISLE?" the man in safari garb asked agreeably, about to drop his gunny sack.
"Window, if you don't mind," Jo said, not wanting to have to scramble out into the cramped aisle while he situated himself.
"I certainly don't mind not seeing any more of this place," he growled, bending to slide his sack into position.
Over a tan shirt, he wore a tan vest with several pockets, and tan slacks that followed the same motif of being sturdy and giving him about as much storage space as her flat back in London. His tan canvas campaign hat looked as though the heat had taken some of the starch out of its brim. It shaded his face so she couldn't be sure what color his eyes were. But blond hair wisped out under the hat, as though barbers were few and far between on his itinerary.
All in all, Jo was tired of seeing tan. It seemed the landscape, her hotel room, the interior of the taxi, even the food was all tan.
She snapped her seatbelt across her lap and leaned back, wanting to relax but too tense to close her eyes for more than an instant.
"Chewing gum?" the man offered, his voice deep and rich, its linguistic pedigree a fascinating mixture of boarding school English and European sophistication. Something in the deep, throaty timbre resonated within her, but she fought to resist its spell.
"What? No, I don't think I have any left," Jo refused, having used hers to keep from being hungry when the hotel cuisine was too unfamiliar to be comfortably edible.
Then she saw a pack of gum being thrust at her, with one stick jutting toward her.
"No, thank you," she said, although tempted.
He nonchalantly tucked the pack into one of the pockets on the front of his vest and planted his feet firmly on the floor, tapping his heels, eager for the plane to begin moving. He seemed to study everything around them, the foreign businessmen, some well-dressed natives of the area, the location of the safety equipment. Jo tried not to pay attention to him, but it was unavoidable.
Almost immediately, the plane began to taxi. The attendant braced herself and ran through the usual instructions, first in heavily-accented English and then in some other language Jo could only guess at.
Something drew Jo's attention out the window as the plane turned onto the runway. She stifled a gasp. Several menacing dull-green trucks drew onto the tarmac surrounding the terminal.
Her finger trembled as she pointed wordlessly to the awesome spectacle, and the man beside her leaned slightly toward the window to see what was happening.
The plane shuddered as it gained speed and took a leap into the void above the earth.
"Can't say I'm not glad to get out of here," the man said with a heavy sigh as he righted himself. Then he waved to the attendant. "Might you have anything to wet a man's parched throat?"
"Just a moment," the attendant promised with a smile.
Jo wished she had the nerve to drink something strong enough to send her into an oblivion that would make this flight go more quickly, more painlessly. But she had work to do. She needed to file her story from Rome. It was too important to wait until she reached London.
She turned back to the window, trying to get a last look at what was happening below before she dug her laptop computer from her purse and began to compose her column.
Her seatmate didn't disturb her while she composed her article. He didn't pay much attention to her after the attendant brought his drink. Once, while Jo was considering a word choice, she looked up at him and their eyes met.
Shaded by the brim of his hat, his eyes had an absorbing quality, as though not much got past their intelligent inspection. They were the blue of a cloudless sky, yet she saw in them that he kept secrets; he'd seen more than he'd wanted to.
She'd seen eyes like his before, in the hidden camps Pardeau had sent her to on assignments to interview rebels and insurgents. They were the eyes of a merc -- a mercenary, a soldier of fortune -- a man whose loyalty was to his own survival.
He broke the intensity of his gaze with a chuckle. Then he drained what was left of his drink, placed the clear plastic cup on the tray in front of him and gave his gum a few chews. Raising his chin, he lay his head back against the seat and tilted his hat down over his eyes.
"Wake me when we get to Rome," he said.
"Pleased and honored, sir," she responded, once more assuming the fatuous manner that had gotten her through this ordeal in one piece.
By then she'd decided what word to use. And she had opened another mental file of descriptive adjectives which applied to her companion. * * * FINALLY, WITH the taste of tobacco in his mouth surrendering to the cleansing of the alcohol and the sweetness of the chewing gum, Maximillian relaxed. He fought the urge to look at his wrist, knowing full well that his watch was no longer there. Like many a traveler to strange places, he habitually wore a watch that was showy enough to bribe him out of a tight spot, and getting Jo Mathias onto a plane with a minimum of fuss was a worthy investment.
Having to beg a cigarette and match to insure he was the last passenger to board almost put his two years of smoke-free life in jeopardy. After one drag to light the obnoxious middle-eastern fag, he just held it in his hand and took a few puffs to keep it going.
He closed his eyes. Max could pretend to be asleep well enough to win an Oscar at it. From what he'd seen of Josephina Mathias over the years, he doubted she could carry on a conversation that would engage him. She might be interested to know he'd flown into the country on Pardeau's orders to get her out as expeditiously as possible. He was glad she'd taken the initiative and he hadn't needed to resort to any plan, subtle or otherwise.
When he'd seen her dash into the terminal, he almost hadn't recognized her. Then some of her blond hair had tumbled to her shoulders as she adjusted her hat.
When she'd looked up at him in the close quarters of the cabin, he'd seen the unmistakable resemblance to Princess Margit of Vegra in her delicate features and flawless complexion. All the tales his parents and grandparents told him of the Mathias family hadn't prepared him for that wide-eyed look of innocence she'd given him. The ditzy-blonde persona she'd portrayed the last few days he'd trailed her had done nothing to prepare him for the wrench in the gut that had stunned him.
He wondered what she knew of events in the rest of the world, especially the monumental situations unfolding back in Vegra. So much had changed so quickly, his own head was swimming with the prospects, too.
Pardeau was just a part of it. As editor on an international news magazine, the old guy was able to keep his finger on the pulse of the entire world without raising suspicions. Maximillian's own father had been the last Prime Minister of Vegra and had ambitions -- even at his advanced age -- to resume his post.
Max was privy to inside information, being the son of the Prime Minister of the government in exile. He had discounted the faint surge of hope the Vegran nationals had clung to with the early political shifts in Poland, but when the Berlin Wall collapsed, he'd begun to nurture a tiny expectation of his own.
His father had given Max opportunities to study for the military life. He'd been welcomed into an ancient fraternity of soldiers-of-fortune through Sandhurst and other sometimes clandestine training venues around the world. The expectation that he'd be the strong-man of Vegra -- should the government-in-exile ever return to power -- was clear in the late night planning sessions in the Roman villa.
Sometimes there would be a mention of the woman who sat beside him. Her grandfather Friedrich, the last ruling prince, was in his eighties and in frail health. Her father Stanislas, the crown prince, was a professor at an Ivy League university in the United States, more accustomed to ivory towers than houses of parliament. She was third in line for the throne -- should it ever be re-established. It had been a remote possibility -- until Reynard's dispatch to Pardeau the night before.
Julian Pardeau claimed he'd groomed the Princess Josephina for her role since he'd hired her after she'd finished Columbia University to work on the magazine owned secretly by Vegran Royalists.
The drone of the airplane motors made him drowsy, but he fought against the urge to sleep. He'd sleep when he got to Rome, and not before. He wouldn't rest until he was in his villa with twenty men guarding her.
Hell, he had another wristwatch.
Copyright © 1998 by Jane Bierce