USA Today bestselling author Jenny Holiday concludes her beloved royal Christmas series with an unforgettable romance about a confident American woman and the strait-laced royal advisor who falls hopelessly in love with her.
Matteo Benz has spent his life serving at the pleasure of the Eldovian crown. His work is his life and his life, well…he doesn’t have much of one. When he is tasked to aid a management consultant who has been flown in to help straighten out the king’s affairs, he is instantly disturbed by her brash American manner—as well by an inconvenient attraction to the brainy beauty.
Cara Delaney is in Eldovia to help clean up the king’s financial affairs, but soon finds herself at odds with the very proper Mr. Benz. As intrigued by his good looks as she is annoyed by his dedication to tradition for its own sake, she slowly begins to see the real man behind the royal throne.
As they work together to return Eldovia to its former glory during the country’s magical Christmas season, Matteo discovers he is falling hopelessly in love with the unconventional American. But a man who has devoted his life to tradition doesn’t change easily. Can he become the man Cara needs, or will their love be another sacrifice to the crown?
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Thirty- one days until Christmas
As usual, the last thing that went in the suitcase was the Post- it.
Change is the essential process of all existence. —Mr. Spock
Cara plucked it off the mirror in her bedroom and set it on top of her toiletry bag. She wasn’t sure why she always just laid it on top of everything when the rest of her stuff was so meticulously packed, clothing and shoes and notebooks nestled together as snugly as a game of Tetris. She supposed it was because she liked opening her suitcase at the other end of her trip, in a hotel room in Milwaukee or Madrid or Miami, and having it be the first thing she saw. But one of these days, an overly aggressive TSA agent was going to select her for a random screening and the Post-it would get lost in the shuffle.
Which would be fine. It was just a thing. A visual representation of a sentiment that existed independently of its depiction. She could write those words on a new Post-it any time. It wasn’t even sticky anymore— it had to be inserted into the mirror’s frame to stay up— and the ink was faded. She’d thought, over the years, about going over it with a Sharpie, but she kind of liked the way the emerald ink she’d used as an eighteen- year- old had faded to a dental- office mint. It reminded her how far she had come. How much she had changed, and therefore by definition that she was still here, not only not dead but thriving. Getting closer and closer to her goals.
A glance at her phone informed her that her Uber was ten minutes away. Time to get the big goodbye over with. She checked her last-minute essentials list against the contents of her shoulder bag: passport, phone, computer, chargers, briefing binder, sudoku book. Steeling herself, she took a quick look at her reflection in the mirror that hung by her bedroom door. She couldn’t look like she’d been crying. And she hadn’t been, really. If a few tears had escaped while she was showering, it was because she was overtired. A mechanical response to exhaustion.
“You’ve never had to travel over Thanksgiving,” her mom said as Cara clattered down the rickety stairs from her attic bedroom to the kitchen. It was four in the morning, and Cara had half hoped her parents would not be up.
But of course they were. They always got up to see her off. Especially today, the day Cara left for a trip that would cause her to miss Thanksgiving. Cara traveled more days than not in any given year, but she always made sure she was home for Thanksgiving, the holiest of holidays in her family, which was funny because they were Catholic. Which meant there were many other, literal holy days—Christmas? Easter?—one would think would be a bigger deal.
One would be wrong.
For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. That was said every day in the Delaney household, and it was meant every day, but never more than on Thanksgiving.
Mom was wearing her sad face. Because her mother loved her, Cara reminded herself, and was disappointed that she’d be away for the holiday. Though maybe disappointed was too anemic a word, judging by the tears that had been shed when she announced two days ago that she’d have to be gone.
“The person who was supposed to go broke a hip,” Cara said for the tenth time, willing her voice to remain even. Cara had a tendency to soak up her mother’s emotions, just like the secondhand smoke she used to inhale back in her mom’s smoking days.
“I know. I’ve been praying for him. I just don’t understand why you have to be the one who takes his place. You’ve given so much to that company for so many years.”
“And ‘that company’ has given so much to me.” To us. She tried to say it without any censure in her tone, in a way that wouldn’t offend her mother’s robust sense of pride.
It didn’t work. “I know. I know,” her mom said quickly, turning away and aggressively stirring the pot of oats she cooked every morning. As usual, her mother could hear what Cara left unsaid: “that company” had put a stable roof over their heads and was the reason her dad was going to be able to retire next year.
She sighed. She was being prickly because being prickly was easier than being disappointed. She had a tendency to lash out when she was feeling vulnerable. She started over. “I have to go because this is a big, important project that we’ve already put four months of work into, and I’m the one who knows it best, after the guy with the broken hip.” She was his boss, and that’s what you did when you were the boss. At least that’s what you did when you were a senior associate who was someone’s boss. She reminded herself that she loved her job. She loved the travel that came with it, too. It gave her a feeling of freedom, of expansiveness, of amazement, honestly, that she had carved out such a life for herself. Or at least it used to.
She’d been on the road so much lately; she’d only gotten back yesterday from a two- week stint in San Diego. She was tired—like, in-her-bones tired. She just needed some sleep, and she’d be done with this weird maudlin mood. Honestly. She’d missed holidays before, if not Thanksgiving, and she could do it again. Her annual performance reviews always made mention of her reliability. She was a team player. A respected leader. Those adjectives accreted. She had worked hard for those adjectives. Someday, she would make partner because of those adjectives.
“I just . . .”
Argh! Cara wanted to scream at the way her mother trailed off performatively, her back still turned as she tended her oats. “You just what?” Which refrain was Mom going to pull out? I just don’t know how you’ll ever have time to meet someone when you’re working so hard. I just don’t know how they can expect people to work that hard and also have families. I just, I just, I just . . .
“Honestly, I’d never even heard of Eldovia before last week,” her dad said good- naturedly, setting down his copy of the Post. As was his endearing way, he was oblivious to the undercurrents swirling around Cara and her mother—or maybe he chose to ignore them. Either way, she was grateful for the reset. “I don’t think a lot of people have.” And that included the partners at CZT, aka “that company,” before they’d been invited to bid on the job. Cara had heard of Eldovia, but only because she had memorized every country and its capital for the seventh-grade geography bee, back when she was in a particularly aggressive education-is-the-way-out-of-poverty phase. “It’s tiny. It doesn’t do much.” Except make luxury watches, and her parents were not luxury watch–type people. The small Alpine nation didn’t even make that many watches anymore. Hence the big, lucrative contract. And the Thanksgiving trip.
Cara’s mom set a bowl of oatmeal in front of her dad, her eyes shiny. Damn it. Cara didn’t want to miss Thanksgiving any more than her mother wanted her to. She didn’t want to spend her flight cramming—though she knew this file, she hadn’t been heavily involved in the day-to-day details of the project in the last couple weeks because Brad had been ramping up for the trip.
Cara told herself Thanksgiving was just a day. Like the Post-it was just a piece of paper. The sentiment attached to Thanksgiving wasn’t unique to the fourth Thursday in November.
A tear escaped the corner of her mom’s eye. Fucking Brad. On her good days, Cara thought of Brad as a management challenge. He existed, she told herself, to remind her of her Mr. Spock maxim. Change is the essential process of all existence.
Cara had no role in hiring Brad, even though he reported to her. He’d been parachuted in to Cara’s manufacturing operations team by one of the partners, who was friends with Brad’s dad. Cara was forever having to adapt to Brad’s low- key bullshittery. But that was okay, because that meant she was forever adapting. The summer intern complains about Brad aggressively complimenting her outfits all the time? Have a conversation with Brad about it and rewrite the team’s sexual harassment policy. Brad breaks his goddamn hip at age twenty- eight because he drunkenly falls off a rooftop patio in the Hamptons? Cara’s off to Eldovia for Thanksgiving.
“We’ll FaceTime on Thursday,” she told her parents. “We’ll FaceTime constantly. And I’ll be back for Christmas.” Barely, but she would make it. She was scheduled to fly out of Eldovia the morning of Christmas Eve, and with the time change working in her favor, she’d be home in time to cook dinner.
“I’m gonna miss you, lassie,” her dad said as he stood and wrapped her in his arms. She let him hold her for longer than she normally would have, thanking her lucky stars that Patrick Delaney had chosen to claim her as his own. When she broke the hug, she avoided eye contact with both parents. “When I make partner, I won’t have to travel so much.” Partnership. The brass ring. The dream she’d had since her first day of work at CZT as a twenty- year- old intern. Once that happened, she would stop having to do Thanksgiving duty when someone fell off a freaking roof. She could be more selective about which projects she got personally involved in, and choose where, when, and how much she traveled. You paid enough dues, you stopped having to prove yourself.
That was the plan anyway, and she’d come too far not to stick to the plan.
“And when do you think you’re going to make partner?” her mom asked.
Cara huffed a short, frustrated sigh. They had talked about this many times, and the answer hadn’t changed. “Hopefully by the time I’m forty.” No one had ever made partner younger than that. Her mother knew that, which meant her question had been a loaded one, a windup to what she really wanted to say.
“Do you ever . . .”
There it was. A spark of annoyance ignited in Cara’s chest. Which was fine, actually. It would make it easier to leave. “Do I ever what?” She steeled herself for a conversation about the condition of her uterus.
Do you ever think about freezing your eggs? Do you think you’d be open to adoption later, if it ends up being too late for you?
“Nothing, nothing,” her mother said, coming over and wrapping Cara in a hug.
That was a twist. Usually, Mom would not have hesitated to finish her thought. Cara was careful not to squeeze as hard as she wanted to, for fear of aggravating any joints. Her mom’s rheumatoid arthritis had been flaring up the last few days. She inhaled the familiar baby- powder scent that was her mother and felt it physically relax her. She associated that smell with being tucked into bed at night, which long ago had meant books and lullabies, and, as Cara had grown older, the sharing of confidences. Her mom didn’t tuck her in anymore, but when Cara was home, they often had a cup of tea together in the evenings before Cara climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
“I’m sorry,” her mom whispered in her ear. “I’m being terrible. I’m so proud of you. You travel safe, okay?”
Damn it. Now Cara was actually going to cry. “I love you, Mom,” she croaked.
“I love you, too, my girl, my greatest thing,” her mom said, her voice back to its usual lilting warmth as she pulled away. My girl, my greatest thing. Her mother had appended that refrain to every good night and goodbye that had passed between them for as long as Cara could remember, whether Cara was leaving for a day at school or for a month in the Eldovian Alps. “We’ll light a candle for you on Thanksgiving.”
As much as he didn’t want to, Matteo decided at the last minute to go to the airport himself. He could have sent a car. There was no reason he personally had to make the trek to Zurich and hold up a sign that said “Ms. Cara Delaney” in order to welcome the woman who would be Eldovia’s undoing. He did it anyway.
When the king charged you with making sure that the hotshot American management consultant was properly welcomed, you didn’t send a staff member; you went to the airport yourself. Matteo would freely admit that he was the sort of person for whom duty mattered. No, that wasn’t it. That made him sound like a protocol droid. It was more that traditionmattered. And since Americans were so woefully underprovisioned when it came to tradition, Ms. Delaney was going to be welcomed by a representative of the Eldovian Crown whether she cared or not. He cared, was the point.
He scanned the arrivals terminal, his gaze snagging on a child standing alone crying. He hurried over to the boy. “Is everything all right, my friend?”
“I’m lost!” the boy, who looked to be about five or six, wailed.
“Well, let’s get you un- lost, shall we?” Matteo offered his hand, the boy took it, and together they made their way to an information desk.
Within minutes, the boy’s parents, who had been paged, were descending on them. Matteo smiled at their thanks and nearly tripped over a suitcase. “I’m sorry!” a teenager girl exclaimed. “The zipper broke!”
He bent down to help her repack the bag, and it turned out the zipper wasn’t broken, just malfunctioning because the bag had been overstuffed. What chaos there was at the airport today. Matteo helped the girl shuffle some items to a backpack.
He had only just sent her on her way when, speaking of the forces of chaos, a woman burst into his field of vision, suddenly there when she had not been before. She was wearing a black pantsuit and the highest heels he had ever seen on a woman in Eldovia in the winter, or perhaps ever. He saw her catch sight of his sign, and she headed toward him at an impressive speed, given those shoes, pulling a small rolling suitcase behind her. The staccato clacking of her heels joined the steady buzzing made by the bag’s wheels to create an ominous, crescendoing symphony. Her dark, almost black, hair was pulled into a severe chignon, and along with the black suit, provided a stark contrast to her skin, which was nearly as pale as the snow falling outside and seemed almost aglow, like a pile of that snow had accumulated and was glinting under the moonlight. She looked like an angel.
He huffed a self- disgusted exhalation. Honestly. He needed to take the hyperbole down a notch or several. Cara Delaney was not bringing good tidings of great joy. If she was an angel, she wasn’t a good one. He arranged his mouth into the shape of a smile but took care that his eyes did not convey any warmth. “Ms. Delaney?”
“Yes.” She stuck out her hand in that aggressive way Americans had. Her nails were varnished in a red so dark it was almost black.
“I am Matteo Benz.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” she said in a tone that suggested there was in fact nothing whatsoever pleasurable about making his acquaintance as she attempted to break his fingers.
“Likewise,” he murmured, squeezing her hand equally hard. It was ridiculous, these displays of dominance, when everyone, except perhaps American management consultants, knew that when it came to getting what you wanted, soft power was a great deal more effective than brute force. Bone- crushing handshakes and shoes that should be subject to EU weapons regulations were not only empty signifiers, they suggested an underlying lack of confidence that could be exploited.
He made a mental note.
“I know you’d been working closely with Bradley Wiener to prepare for his arrival,” she said. “I hope getting me instead isn’t too much of a disappointment.”
He was supposed to rush to assure her that she could never be a disappointment. Instead, he kept his face expressionless. “I do hope Mr. Wiener’s recovery is continuing apace?”
Ms. Delaney did not address Matteo’s inquiry about her colleague’s condition. “I can assure you that Brad has oriented me to the file.”
The file. As if an entire nation, its well- being and prosperity, could be reduced to something so pedestrian as a file. But he needed to remember that in her mind, it could. It already had been.
“I didn’t realize you would be meeting me,” she said.
He did not know if she was remarking on the fact that he hadn’t merely sent a driver— as he should have— or if she was complaining that the king himself was not on hand to roll out the red carpet. “The king regrets that he could not be on hand this evening to personally welcome you. He had some last-minute business to attend to in Riems, which you may or may not know is on the other side of the country. He is— ”
“Yes. There’s a secondary Morneau factory in Riems,” she said, interrupting him.
Though why should he expect anything less from someone like her? He practiced his breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Just once, though, so he didn’t look a fool. It helped. He picked up where he’d left off, not acknowledging the substance of the interruption. “He is, however, looking forward to meeting you tomorrow. In the meantime, I am equerry to His Majesty. Are you familiar with the role?” He asked because many people weren’t. Americans in particular often thought he was a butler. Not that there was anything wrong with being a butler. It was an honorable way to make a living performing an important service.
“Yes. I’ve seen The Crown.”
God preserve him. His impassive facade almost slipped. In through the nose, out through the mouth.
“As far as I can tell,” she went on, “being an equerry is like being an executive assistant. Everyone thinks you’re a secretary, but really, you make the entire ship go.”
“The ship? I beg your pardon?”
“It’s a Star Trek metaphor. The captain can talk a good talk, but the person who actually makes the ship go is the engineer. If the engineer can’t make the ship go— or doesn’t want to— it’s not going, no matter what the captain says.”
Hmm. What a curious, and unexpected, analogy.
“But choose your metaphor,” she went on. “The wind beneath your boss’s wings. The man behind the throne.” She cracked a smile, which she held for a beat, clearly trying not to laugh. She lost the battle and let loose a high, musical, delighted laugh that seemed at odds with her crushing-handshake, rudely-interrupting, corporate-goth persona. “Which I guess is not a metaphor in this case, because you literally are that.”
“Well, not literally.”
“I don’t literally stand behind the throne.” There wasn’t even a literal throne, at least not in the way she imagined.
She rolled her eyes ever so slightly. He would have expected “Don’t roll one’s eyes at the client” to be a basic principle. “You may not be aware,” she said, “that many English- language dictionaries have revised the definition of literally to include in effect, or virtually.”
He tried not to bristle overtly. He spoke English as well as or better than your average educated American, thank you very much. “I am aware, but that doesn’t mean I approve. A word cannot also mean the opposite of itself simply because enough people agree.” Another fact of which he was aware: he shouldn’t be speaking to her like this, not when the king had expressly asked him to see her comfortably settled.
She stared at him for a beat too long before saying, “I see how this is going to be.”
“Do you?” He was still doing it. He couldn’t seem to stop.
“I do.” Her voice had taken on a tone— probably to match his— and her eyes, which were the deep, dark blue of a mountain lake, flashed.
All right. Enough. He had one task here, one simple task, and that was to welcome Ms. Delaney. He had other, more important work to do, so he was anxious to tick her off his list. “Shall we go collect your bags?”
She nodded at the small suitcase of doom she’d been pulling behind her. “This is it.”
“That is all you have for such a long stay?”
“I travel a lot. I have packing down to a science.”
She probably had everything reduced to “a science,” including how she planned to strip Eldovia of its identity and traditions. She was likely a card- carrying member of some efficiency cult or other that had a lot of Greek letters in its name but really did nothing more than teach you how to write a to- do list and drill into you the discipline to carry it out. “Well then, shall we?”
In through the nose, out through the mouth.