Gloria Swann gazed out over the startlingly blue expanse of the Baltic Sea from the cockpit of her Cessna Skycatcher. Sunlight dazzled off the rippling waves below, making the sea look like it had been touched by diamonds. Fishing boats bobbed along, looking like toys in a vast bathtub. The shoreline of southern Sweden, where she’d taken off, made a thin line on her right, while the scenic island kingdom of Aegiria was just visible to her left.
She checked the plane’s display, monitoring her altitude, remaining fuel, and coordinates. The plane was as simple as they came. Most people scoffed at Skycatchers as little more than learning planes, and while she had taught a few flying lessons since leaving the Royal Air Force, that wasn’t why she’d bought it. No, the Skycatcher was hers for one simple reason. It’d been cheap. Her family might have had more money than they knew what to do with. Her father and half her brothers were powerful, London lawyers, and her mother was an executive with an international trading firm. So money had never been an issue. Except for her. She was the odd one out, the one who had chosen a military life over a commercial one.
Except that life was over now.
She took a deep breath, eyes on the horizon, heart sinking. The way the sky met the sea, stretching out in all directions without variation or definition, was a visual representation of her life. The land and ships, as well as the windmills of offshore wind farms and the few, old oil rigs dotting the blue below, were like the pieces of her life as it had been and all the things it was never going to be now.
She deserved that promotion. She had fought for it, clawed her way up through the ranks of the RAF and achieved heights that women rarely reached. She’d co-piloted a C-130J Hercules during the evacuations in the Libyan Civil War. She’d kept her cool under fire in the Middle East as well. Her commanding officers knew she had nerves of steel. But when it came time to seek out a transfer from combat support to flying fast-jets, she’d been denied.
Her Cessna shuddered, which yanked her attention back to the moment. The sky was still bright and sunny, and the sea was as pristine blue as ever. She tightened her grip on the plane’s controls, checking the display for clues about what had caused the blip. Everything seemed to be in order. She figured she must have hit a bird, but as long as it didn’t get caught in the propeller or engine, she was good.
She took a deep breath and settled back into her seat and her thoughts, banking left to fly closer to Aegiria. The feeling of being pressed back into her seat as the force of the turn increased was thrilling. The rush of wind around her—which she imagined more than heard with her bulky headset on—was like home. She loved flying, loved being in the sky, free as a bird. She had since she was a teen taking her first flying lesson. It was why she had joined the RAF in the first place. From that first taste of the sky, all she’d wanted to do was go faster.
Which was why being turned down for transfer to Group One had broken her heart. She had the mental acuity, the record of service, and the support of her commanding officers, but she’d failed when it came to physical requirements. She just wasn’t strong enough. Getting the results had crushed her, defeated her, and ultimately been behind her decision to quit the military altogether. She left with a string of commendations and the well-wishes of her entire military family, and then…nothing.
She’d been out of the Air Force for six months and had yet to find a job or a purpose. Nothing held a candle to the adrenaline of flight or the challenge of reaching for something she thought would make her life complete. Nothing compared to the disappointment of failure either. And the more time that passed, the harder that truth had her in its grip.
What am I going to do next? What am I going to do? The question hadn’t left her thoughts for more than five minutes since stepping off her former base as a civilian. It had been driving her family crazy as much as it’d been bothering her. No one had the patience for her anymore. No one—
Her Cessna jerked again, and Gloria’s heart dropped to her stomach. The engine sputtered. Something definitely wasn’t right, and it wasn’t a bird. She gripped the controls, drew in a focusing breath, and pointed the nose of the plane toward Aegiria.
“Aegiria airport, this is G-10RA,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm.
“G-10RA,” a slightly accented voice came back to her. “This is Solrighavn International.”
“I might have a mayday situation on my hands,” Gloria called back, cutting through the protocol. “Request permission to land—”
She didn’t get any further. Her plane gave another shuddering jerk, and the engines died. Silence filled the tiny cockpit, and the whole thing began to drop.
“Mayday, mayday,” she said with much more urgency. “I’m not going to make it to the airport.”
The controller in Solrighavn said something, but Gloria’s focus was elsewhere. She tore off her headset, then gripped the controls for all she was worth, eyes glued to the sea as it sped toward her. She’d trained for situations like this, done simulations. Water was as solid as earth when it was approached at a fast enough speed, but if she kept her cool, slowed down as much as she could, and changed her trajectory, what was about to happen wouldn’t be so bad. Or so she told herself.
She toggled a few switches, worked the pedals, and tried to restart the plane’s engine, but nothing happened. The sea grew ever closer. Her breathing turned shallow, and she had to fight the fear that rose up in her gut. She could handle this. She’d flown under fire. All the same, she checked the door beside her, calculated how much time she’d have to bail if she needed to, and prepared for the worst.
The whine of speed and air and danger screamed in her ears. She pulled up as much as she could, hoping to skim the water to slow down rather than smashing into it. The moment grew closer and closer. Her heart pounded in her chest. Her eyes widened, and she held her breath.
Prince Mikael “Mack” Magnusson cut the engine of his Marex 310 motorboat far out into the sea, well away from Solrighavn Harbor, and let out a breath. With it, all the tension he’d been holding in his back and shoulders eased. The last six weeks had been crazy and bizarre in his world, the world of the Aegirian royal family. He never would have imagined when his mother, Queen Viktoria II, announced her engagement to his former tutor, Dr. William Hayes, that everything could have gone so haywire. But between kidnappings, concerts gone awry, and boats sinking, Mack was beginning to think the whole wedding was cursed.
Not that it was really his problem, much to his regret. He stepped away from the captain’s seat and headed to the stern of the boat. The silence of the sea was a balm to his soul after the constant activity of his family. He reached for the bottle of sunscreen that he kept under one of the seats at the back of his boat—along with his fishing tackle, spare towels, a radio, and a cooler with lunch—and rubbed it over his face, arms, and chest. His brother Alek was the crown prince, and therefore had been the target of the kidnapping, which was designed to get him to stop the wedding. His brother Arne was Aegiria’s Minister of Culture and had been responsible for the concert. Kristoff, Johannes, and Viggo, his other brothers, were each charming or driven or fun in their own way, and had been given things to do in relation to the wedding, no matter how small, since their Aunt Marina had taken over as wedding planner. But Mack? Most of the time he wasn’t sure the rest of the family remembered he existed.
Freshly slathered in sunscreen, he stepped to the stern and dove into the water. The Baltic Sea was cold, even in summer, but the water was like medicine to him. He relished the way it encased him in silence, the way it made him feel light and buoyant. He stayed under as long as he could before kicking his way to the surface. The taste of salt as he took a breath was comforting, even though it stung his eyes. He wiped them clear, then shifted to his back to float with the rolling current of light waves.
It wasn’t that he resented his mother’s wedding. If she was happy, he was happy. And he’d always liked Dr. Hayes. Unlike some of his other brothers, Mack had been riveted during his science lessons growing up. Anything and everything having to do with the sea fascinated him. He’d scored top marks while studying Marine Biology and Maritime Studies at university. All credit for that came down to Dr. Hayes’s influence and guidance. So for those reasons, he was happy that his old tutor and friend was marrying into the family.
If only William had been able to find a way to convince Mack’s mom to let him make a career out of fishing and the sea.
Mack rolled to his stomach and did a few quick laps around his boat. Every time he spotted one of the commercial fishing vessels near the horizon, his heart ached in his chest. During his final year of college, he’d done an internship on a fishing vessel. It was the happiest year of his life. He’d learned more about the state of the fishing industry and the sea itself in that year than during any of his classes. But when he’d declared his intention to keep working as part of a fishing crew, he’d been told no. Princes don’t become fishermen. He had a duty to his country to pursue something nobler. But what they’d really meant was something cleaner and more high-profile.
Mack tried not to grind his teeth too hard as he rounded the back of his boat and pulled himself to sit on the swim platform, legs still dangling in the water. Pretty much everyone thought being a prince was the best possible life a guy could aspire to. And he wasn’t going to insult anyone by denying the perks were sweet. He was sitting on a state-of-the art boat, after all, and he hadn’t had to work a day for it. But that in itself irritated the hell out of him. He wanted to work. He wanted to earn things, not have them given to him. Which was why hanging around the edges of the wedding preparations without his Aunt Marina giving him anything to do was unbearable.
He leaned back, feeling depressed and left out, while also burning with guilt for being depressed when so many others had it much worse than him. A flash of movement caught his eye. Immediately, his senses snapped to alert. He squinted and raised a hand to his brow to shield the sun. The movement was from a small plane, but where there should have been a droning buzz from its engine, there was nothing. Worse still, the plane was coming down fast.
Mack leapt up, rushing to the boat’s controls and turning the engine on. He kept his eyes glued to the plane as he turned the bow in the direction the plane was heading. Between the speed and trajectory, it was clear the plane was in trouble, but also that the pilot was keeping it as steady as possible. The fleeting thought that whoever was flying the thing had to have serious skills passed through Mack’s mind before it sank dangerously close to the water.
He opened the throttle and pushed his boat forward. The plane zipped past him, about a hundred yards to his right. Mack’s heart was in his throat as the plane’s wheels finally skimmed the water. For one heart-stopping second, Mack had the impression that the plane would perform some sort of miracle and land on the water as if it were tarmac. That fantasy was crushed as it made a final dip, smashing into the water. The nose dug into a wave and to his horror, the entire plane flipped over, end to end, slamming upside down into the water.
Mack swore out loud, racing toward the wreck. The spray that shot up around his boat kept him from seeing any further movement from the overturned plane. At least it hadn’t burst into flames…yet. He grabbed the steering wheel tightly, making a wide arc as he approached the wreck. As soon as he deemed himself close enough, he cut the throttle, bringing the boat to a stop.
He pushed away from the controls and, without hesitation, ran to the back of the boat and dove into the water. The far-off sound of a helicopter was the last thing he heard before going under. He kicked with all his might, racing toward the wreck.
When he surfaced, he spotted movement near the center of the quickly-sinking plane. Someone was kicking, struggling to get away from the smoking pile of twisted metal. Mack picked up his pace, every lesson about sea rescues he’d learned on the fishing boat kicking in.
“I’ve got you,” he said as he reached the struggling figure. She was a woman with ebony skin and black hair caught in a ponytail at the back of her head. Her eyes were wide as she tried to swim, and it looked as though something was keeping her from swimming freely.
“My arm,” she called out, gulping for breath. “And my knee.”
That was all Mack needed to know. He glanced briefly to the wreck, trying to judge how much time they had before it went under and sucked anything nearby down with it. “I’ve got you,” he repeated, reaching the woman at last.
She cried out as he wedged his shoulder under her arm.
“Other arm?” he suggested.
She nodded. Mack pivoted through the water and grabbed her from the other side. Then, with all the power he could muster, he kicked away from the sinking plane.
“Anyone else with you?” he asked as he tugged the woman toward his boat.
“No,” she panted. He could tell she was upset, but at least she was keeping still, letting him rescue her instead of fighting him.
“It’s okay,” he told her in as steady a voice as he could manage. “You’re safe. No worries.”
They had almost made it to the boat when the plane finally went under. The water bubbled and churned, but they were far enough away that they didn’t feel a pull. Above, two helicopters were closing in. One had the emblem of the Aegirian police on the side, and the other had a red cross on the bottom. Mack spared them only a brief look as they reached his boat.
“Can you climb aboard on your own?” he asked the woman.
She winced, but said, “Yes.”
Her accent was British. Mack’s lips twitched to a quick grin over that as he helped her heave herself up onto the swim platform. Once she was safe, he hopped up, then stood and helped her onto the deck. The woman’s jeans were ripped around her knee, and once she was out of the water, blood began to ooze, but she muscled herself over the divider before sitting hard on one of the padded benches behind the driver’s seat.
“Take a second to breathe,” Mack told her. “You’re going to be okay, but you’re injured.”
“Yeah, I see,” she panted.
“I’ve got a first aid kit aboard, and if I’m not mistaken, those guys up there knew you were coming.” He glanced up to the helicopters, which were hovering above them.
“I radioed for help,” the woman said, leaning back and shifting herself to sit so that she could raise her leg.
Mack was even more impressed. Whoever this woman was, she knew what to do in an emergency, and she was able to do it without panicking. He fetched the first aid kit, then went to work stopping her bleeding.
“What’s your name?” he asked, eyes focused on his work.
“Gloria,” she panted, though her breathing was starting to come easier. “Gloria Swann.”
“I’m Mack,” he told her with a smile. “You’re going to be fine, Gloria. I’ll make sure.”
She nodded. Underneath her stoic exterior, Mack caught a hint of panic. He could feel her shaking just a bit as he ripped through her jeans enough to secure his rudimentary bandage. It was as if, now that she was out of immediate danger, she was letting her fear bubble to the surface.
“You’re okay,” Mack assured her, a warm, confident feeling spreading through him. He met her eyes and made sure she was looking at him before repeating, “You’re okay, I promise. I’ve got you.”
She nodded. Their eyes stayed locked. She had the most beautiful, deep, brown eyes. They were filled with fear now, but behind that he saw intelligence and experience. And beauty. The more he looked at her, the more he could see it. She had a perfect, oval face—even if it was covered in scratches—with high cheekbones, and sensuous lips. Her eyes had just a slight tilt to them too, making her look exotic and mysterious. They stirred something within him, something he hadn’t felt for a long, long time.
“Prince Mikael.” His name suddenly blasted from a loudspeaker on one of the circling helicopters. “Do you have the situation under control?”
“Prince?” Gloria gasped. The fear left her eyes for a moment, replaced by shock.
“Yeah, that too.” Mack grinned, then stepped away from her, heading toward the console in the center of the boat to grab the radio. “This is Mack,” he said, hoping he still had the radio set to police frequency.
“What is the status of the pilot?” a voice answered him.
“She’s injured,” he reported, “but not badly. There were no passengers. We’re heading to shore.”
“Do you need an ambulance to meet you there?”
“Absolutely,” he answered. “I’ll stay with the pilot until then. Her name is Gloria Swann, and she appears to be British.”
“Understood,” the voice answered.
A moment later, the helicopters backed off, heading for the shore. Mack twisted to address Gloria through the open window behind the captain’s chair.
“Hold on,” he told her. “We’re heading back to shore. And don’t worry, I’ll stay with you.”
He didn’t know what compelled him to make the promise, but he meant it. He wasn’t sure why, but he needed to stay with Gloria for as long as possible.