Prince Johannes Magnusson let out a deep breath of relief and raised a hand to wave to his twin brother, Viggo, who stood on the shore with his new wife, Marcia, and their son. They grew smaller as the royal yacht, where Johan stood, headed out to sea, and Johan couldn’t help but feel like the problems that had been plaguing the royal family all summer were finally shrinking as well.
At last, his mother, Queen Viktoria, was about to wed Dr. William Hayes. After so many attempts to stop the royal couple from marrying—the kidnapping of his brother, Crown Prince Alek, interference at the announcement concert, the sinking of the royal yacht, false claims of Dr. Hayes’s infidelity, and even an attempt on Dr. Hayes’s life that had been foiled only hours ago—everything was done and settled and the wedding could finally take place. Johan had whisked Dr. Hayes—he would never, no matter what the man said, be able to call him “Pops”—aboard the yacht, where his mother, the queen had rushed her fiancé off to get cleaned up so he would be presentable for the ceremony. And now Johan could finally take a breath.
Johan couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so much relief. He waved one last time at his twin on the shore. Thank God Viggo hadn’t come with them on the yacht for the wedding. He and Marcia deserved a break after all they’d been through. They deserved a few seconds of peace and quiet together, even if a few seconds was all they’d get. Viggo deserved all the happiness life could throw at him. Just thinking about it squeezed Johan’s chest with emotion. He cleared his throat, trying to push it away, but it was no use. He’d spent his whole life watching his twin buck the system and struggle, deal with the pain of everything that had happened with Rebecca, and be tagged with the nickname “The Playboy Prince” undeservedly. Every second on the sidelines had hurt Johan in ways he’d kept inside. It was why he toed the line so vigilantly, why he never took any risks. Maybe if he was good and strict enough, he could pass some of the steadiness of his life to his brother through osmosis. If he was perfect, maybe Viggo wouldn’t suffer so much.
Johan shook his head at his overly sentimental thoughts. He needed a nap himself. The previous night had been so crazy and he’d spent so much of it in a state of such heightened worry over Viggo that he’d only been able to catch fifteen-minute snoozes here and there. But there would be time for that later.
Johan turned back toward the happy, chattering people lining the decks, waving at the press and onlookers standing along the shore, waving Aegirian flags and calling out their well-wishes. As soon as the royal yacht reached the point out beyond Solrig Bay in the Baltic Sea, the ceremony would take place. A single, live television stream would be broadcast back to land. Along with everyone watching the ceremony at home, it would be projected on a large screen in the reception hall at the palace, where Aegirian nobility and foreign dignitaries were already assembling. And as soon as the ceremony was done, the yacht would return to shore, and they would all disembark and head up to the palace to join the party.
“You look like you’re in a good mood.”
Johan perked up even more, turning to face Tracy Minhall as she crossed the deck to join him. His smile widened, and a rush of desire hit him. “I have every reason to be in a good mood,” he told her, sliding an arm around her waist as she reached his side, then turning to join her in waving to the people on shore one last time. “Earl Lindqvist was caught, Viggo’s son was returned, and Dr. Hayes made it to the wedding on time.”
“Thank heavens,” Tracy said with a wry laugh. She knew as well as he did what it meant for the royal family to finally have things settled and moving in a positive direction. Her association with Johan’s family had started when Fuchsia came to perform at the announcement concert. Tracy had been Emma Sands’, aka Fuchsia’s, personal assistant before Emma gave up her rock star identity and moved to Aegiria to date Johan’s older brother, Arne. But since diving into what was turning out to be a successful career as a freelance journalist on Aegirian soil, Tracy had endeared herself to the royals. In more ways than one.
“Are you ready for your mom’s wedding?” she asked, leaning one hip against the deck’s railing and sending Johan a flirty smile.
“More than ready,” Johan replied. “I can’t believe it’s finally going to happen.”
“Neither can I,” Tracy agreed, one eyebrow raised teasingly.
Johan studied her, joy filling him at the sight. Tracy was easily the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. She wasn’t a movie star or supermodel type, but her inquisitiveness and intelligence shone through in her large, brown eyes. He loved her vivacity and her open nature. They were what attracted him to her when they first met. Her cheeks were sun-kissed, and her lips a delicate shade of pink. He remembered how they tasted and wanted to sample that sweetness again. But in the chaos of the wedding preparations, he hadn’t yet mentioned to his family how close he and Tracy had gotten over the past few weeks. Smack in the middle of the wedding wasn’t the time to make any sort of announcements of his own, though.
He brushed his fingers across Tracy’s cheek, tucking a stray hair that had come loose in the breeze behind her ear. “Enjoy this moment of peace now,” he said. “As soon as we get back to the reception on shore, it’s going to be pandemonium.”
She laughed. “I’m ready for it. I’m the only journalist allowed to cover the ceremony itself, remember? I have a feeling my colleagues will be swamping me at the first chance they get.”
Johan straightened. “Do you need to get ready? Prep the camera and all?”
“Probably,” she sighed. “Though I wish I could stay here with you.”
“No you don’t.” He pushed away from the rail and headed slowly into the cabin and the stairs that would take him to the upper deck. “I’m the one who has to break the news to Mother that Viggo isn’t going to be here for the wedding.”
Tracy made a sympathetic face. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
They reached the stairs as more people headed inside from the decks. Johan craned his neck for a quick look around to see if they were being watched. When he determined they weren’t, he planted a quick peck on Tracy’s lips. Then, like a schoolboy who had just stolen a kiss, he dashed up the stairs in search of his mother.
But when he found the queen—looking beautiful in her sea-foam green pant-suit, accessorized with just a few royal jewels to give the outfit a more formal flare—she wasn’t waving to the crowds on shore or fawning over Dr. Hayes, like he expected. Instead, she seemed downright agitated.
“Is something wrong, Mother?” he asked, picking up his pace to reach her.
“No,” she answered slowly, glancing every which way. “Have you seen your Aunt Marina?”
“I haven’t,” Johan confessed. He hadn’t seen her since the night before, when she’d been pulled aside and questioned about William and Stefan’s whereabouts when they’d gone missing, but he wasn’t about to tell his mother that. Instead, he rested a hand on the small of his mother’s back and led her to one side of the upper deck. “But speaking of people who aren’t here, Viggo didn’t come aboard with the rest of us.”
His mother stopped her searching and focused on him. “He didn’t?”
“No,” Johan said in as reassuring a way as he could.
She let out a breath. “William told me briefly what happened and Viggo’s part in rescuing him.”
“I think he and Marcia could use a break,” Johan finished the thought.
“True.” She gave him a weak smile. “I will forever be in your brother’s debt. And yours as well, Johan. I just wish….” Her words trailed off, and she resumed searching. “Where is Marina?”
“She’s got to be here somewhere,” Johan said, following his mother as she headed for the stairs. It seemed odd that she was only slightly concerned about Viggo, but apparently worrying about her sister came first in her mind. “I’ll help you find her.”
“Thank you, darling.”
They made it two more steps toward the stairs before Dr. Hayes marched in from the stern deck and said, “She’s not out there. Not on any of the decks below this one either.”
His mother changed direction to intercept Dr. Hayes. “Where could she be?”
“If she’s on the yacht, it’ll only take a few minutes to find her,” Johan said.
It would only take a few minutes to determine that she wasn’t there as well. After a quick sweep of all decks, a visit to the bridge, and knocking on the door of every head, they came up empty-handed. Under normal circumstances, Johan would have shrugged it off, but Marina had more to do with the trouble the wedding had had than anyone other than Earl Lindqvist.
As a last resort, Johan pulled out his cell phone and dialed Viggo.
“Hey,” Viggo answered in a surprised voice. “Everything all right?”
“Maybe,” Johan said. He ran a hand through his hair, glancing out over the side of the yacht toward the shore as if he could make eye contact with his brother across the distance. “I hate to bother you guys when you’re getting rest, but have you seen Aunt Marina on shore?”
“No,” Viggo answered. Johan could practically see his frown. “She’s not on the yacht?”
“That’s odd. We’ll look for her here.”
“You don’t have to do that, bro,” Johan stopped him. “You guys rest. We’ll handle this.”
“I’ll keep my eyes peeled,” Viggo said. “And I’ll call you if I see her.”
“Thanks.” Johan ended the call, slipped his phone into his pocket, and stood where he was, frowning. An uneasy feeling crept up his spine. He needed to get moving, to do something to solve the problem.
“What’s that look for?” Tracy asked as Johan made his way back to the main deck, where the wedding was soon to take place.
“My Aunt Marina isn’t here,” he said, running a hand through his hair.
Tracy blinked. “She isn’t?” Her expression quickly turned suspicious. “She’s not still trying to stop the wedding, is she?”
“I don’t think so,” Johan answered slowly, rubbing the back of his neck. “She and Mother patched things up last week. She’s been on her best behavior since then. And now that we know Earl Lindqvist was behind the kidnappings and the rest….” He let his sentence fade off. In fact, the more he thought about it, the less he was sure that everything had been wrapped up with a bow just because Lindqvist had been caught. Things still didn’t sit right. The fact that Marina wasn’t there reignited the embers of concern that had just about died down.
“She’s not here,” his mother lamented from where she and Dr. Hayes stood, near the spot where the ceremony was to take place. Dr. Hayes had his arm around her and wore a sympathetic expression, but his mother didn’t look like she would be easily comforted. “My sister isn’t here. I can’t get married without my sister by my side. Especially not now.”
“She wasn’t upstairs talking to the captain?” the cameraman who would be filming the wedding said as he popped up from behind his equipment.
“No,” Johan answered. He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’m sorry, Mother. The rest of us are here, though.”
“Are we ready to begin?” The cameraman asked, glancing from the queen to Johan to Alek and the rest of the family as they made their way onto the main deck, as if looking for who was in charge.
Marina was the wedding planner. Without her, Johan didn’t know who was in charge either.
“Where do you want us, Mother?” Arne asked, letting go of Emma’s hand and heading toward the canopy that had been set up for the ceremony.
“I want you looking for your Aunt Marina,” the queen said. Dr. Hayes held her hand with what looked like his version of reassuring firmness, but her expression only grew more worried. “I’m not getting married without my sister by my side.”
“Mother,” Alek said with an impatient frown, moving to stand by her side. “Do you really want to delay marrying the man of your dreams because your sister isn’t here?”
“Yes,” the queen snapped back, an incredulous look in her eyes.
“Why don’t we go sit down somewhere quiet for a minute to think about this,” Dr. Hayes said, gently ushering the queen to a bench in the shade of the open cabin.
Johan watched them until they were seated, then gestured to his brothers. They gathered on the deck outside, Tracy following.
“Do you know something we don’t?” Alek asked him as soon as they all had their heads together.
“You all know why Dr. Hayes was so late getting here, right?” Johan began, glancing anxiously over his shoulder to his mother. She was distressed enough over Marina. He didn’t want to make it worse by blabbing all the details of Dr. Hayes’s ordeal. Those details were his to share with her if and when he chose.
His brothers nodded.
“Lindqvist was arrested,” Arne said. “And that he confessed to trying to stop the wedding.”
“But Aunt Marina also confessed to trying to stop the wedding,” Mack pointed out.
“Aunt Marina confessed to setting Gloria and Dr. Hayes up,” Johan said, “and to cutting the power during the concert, but not the rest of it.”
“So was she lying about what she admitted to or lying about the kidnappings and the sinking?” Mack asked.
“She didn’t sound like she was lying when she confessed,” Tracy said. “I don’t know the woman very well, but could she be in cahoots with Lindqvist somehow?”
Johan shook his head, as did the rest of his brothers. “Aunt Marina hates Lindqvist,” Johan said. “They were romantically involved a while back, and apparently they had a bad break-up.”
“I don’t think she’d give him the time of day now,” Arne said. “You saw the look on her face a few hours ago when we told her he’d been arrested.”
“Then it doesn’t make sense,” Tracy said. She wrinkled her brow in frustration. “Why would she cover for a man she can’t stand?”
“Why would she claim she wants her sister to be happy, then not show up to her wedding?” Alek asked.
“Do you think she really is just off sulking somewhere?” Kristoff asked.
“Or is there more going on with Aunt Marina and Lindqvist than we know about?” Mack followed.
Johan shrugged. “I’ve got as many questions as you do. But if she’s still involved in trying to stop the wedding, it would explain why she isn’t here.”
“Do you really think it could be as simple as sour grapes?” Tracy asked. “That she doesn’t want to be a part of a wedding that she couldn’t stop?”
“She and Mother made up, though,” Arne argued. “They’re on good terms. Why would she suddenly decide to stay home and pout if everything between her and Mother has been sorted?”
Johan clenched his jaw and frowned at his brother. Arne and Marina had always been closer than the rest of them, but it grated on him that Arne would stick up for her when the evidence kept pointing back to her.
“Mother isn’t going to go through with the wedding if Aunt Marina isn’t here,” Johan said.
“Maybe if I talked to her,” Alek began warily.
“Have you ever known Mother to change her mind once she puts her foot down?” Johan asked.
“No,” the other four answered in unison.
“Then it looks like there won’t be a royal wedding today,” Kristoff said with a disappointed shrug.
“The press is going to have a field day with this,” Mack sighed, rubbing his face.
“And ultimately, Lindqvist or Marina or whoever else is involved will get everything they’ve been after from the start,” Alek grumbled.
“Not necessarily,” Tracy said. The princes all looked at her. She shifted her stance and explained. “Somebody—Lindqvist, Marina, whoever—has been going to extreme lengths to stop this wedding. Either Marina is missing because she’s in a huff somewhere—which I agree isn’t likely—or because she thinks this will be the final straw, the way the wedding is finally stopped.”
“So what do we do about it?” Johan asked. He itched to find a solution and put the whole thing to rest once and for all.
Tracy glanced around at them. “If everyone thinks the wedding has taken place, then Marina will come out of hiding, either to pretend nothing was wrong or to make another dramatic apology, like last week.”
“What do you mean ‘if everyone thinks the wedding has taken place?’” Alek asked.
“I mean, we wait out here for as long as it would have taken for a wedding to be officiated, then we go back to land and have a reception.”
“What good would that to?” Kristoff asked.
Johan crossed his arms and studied Tracy, eager to know himself.
“It would make Marina think she’d lost, if her aim in disappearing is still to stop the wedding,” Tracy explained.
“And if that isn’t her aim?” Arne asked. “If she’s not here for another reason, like being in trouble?”
“Then at least the people of Aegiria will be calm and relaxed, thinking that nothing is out of the ordinary, while the rest of us get to the bottom of things.”
“So let me just get this straight,” Johan said, facing Tracy squarely. “Since Mother won’t go through with the wedding unless Aunt Marina is here, you propose we fake the wedding and go straight to the reception.”
“Yes. So that we buy ourselves time to figure out what’s really going on behind the scenes instead of whipping the whole country into a frenzy by announcing the wedding is called off,” Tracy answered.
Johan stared at her, debating whether it was a good plan. Something was wrong, that was certain. He’d let his guard down too much where his aunt was concerned since she’d been quiet in the last week, and he was beginning to regret it. She was missing, yes, but he didn’t think for a second that she was in trouble. Since he didn’t have any better ideas, maybe pretending everything had gone smoothly really was the best way to flush her out.
“I’m game for it if Mother is,” he said at last.
He glanced to his brothers. They shared looks that ranged from doubtful to enthusiastic.
Alek opened his mouth, but it was their mother, standing behind them, who said, “I’ll do it.” They all turned to stare at her. Dr. Hayes stood by her side, still holding her hand. She shrugged. “I won’t be married without my sister by my side, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to pretend everything has happened just as it should. Especially if that will convince Marina to stop whatever childish game she’s playing and come to terms with the fact that this wedding will happen.”
“Ah, Poopsy,” Dr. Hayes said, clearly touched by her words and deeply in love. “Then we could have our own private ceremony later, just like we wanted in the first place.”
“You see, my dearest,” the queen smiled at him. “I told you we’d have our way in the end.”
The two melded together as if they had magnets in their lips, humming and making sounds that left Johan feeling green around the gills as he glanced in the other direction. Oddly enough, though, the display made him feel as though things might finally get back to normal.
“All right,” Alek said, then cleared his throat. “Let’s get our story straight and then head back to shore.”
“I’ll call the broadcast team back on land and tell them there’s a serious problem with the feed and that we won’t be able to broadcast live or get any video of the wedding after all,” Tracy volunteered.
“Good idea,” Johan said. “Mother, would you be willing to stage a few still pics to help with proof that the ceremony happened?”
“Yes, dear,” she answered, still gazing adoringly at Dr. Hayes.
“Then let’s get moving,” Alek said.
The cluster broke up. Alek moved to speak to the queen, and the rest of Johan’s brothers went off in search of their girlfriends. Johan stayed right where he was with Tracy.
“Good luck making that call to tell all of Aegiria they don’t get to watch their monarch get married,” he said with a smirk.
“I can handle it,” Tracy said with a sassy look in return. She pulled her phone from her pocket. “I’m good at handling a crisis and getting to the bottom of things, remember?”
“Of course I do.” Johan slid closer to her, wrapping his arms around her waist. “That’s what drew me to you in the first place.”
“Is that what it was?” She flashed him a smile that sent his heart soaring. More than anything, he wanted to kiss her. But there were things to do first.
He settled for giving her a squeeze then letting her go. “Make that call, and then we’ll get to the bottom of this.”