Duty At What Cost?

By: Michelle Conder
CHAPTER ONE

AVA GLANCED OUT of the car window at the sparkling summer sunshine bouncing off the exquisite French countryside and wished herself a thousand miles away. Maybe a million. That would land her on another planet where no one knew her name. Where no one knew the man her father had expected her to marry was about to marry another woman, and felt sorry for her in the process.

‘It’s time you stopped messing around in Paris, my girl, and came home to Anders.’

That particularly supportive comment had come only this morning, making her blood boil. His condescending words filled her head, drowning out the singer on the car radio who was warbling about wanting to go home. Home was the last place Ava wanted to go.

Not that her father’s anger was entirely unexpected. Of course he was disappointed that the man she had been pledged to marry since she was a child had fallen in love with someone else. The way he’d spoken to her—‘A woman your age doesn’t have time to waste!’—as if turning thirty in a year meant that she was over the hill—made it seem as if it was her fault.

But Ava wanted to fall in love! She wanted to get married! She just hadn’t wanted to marry Gilles—a childhood friend who was more like a brother to her than her own—and he hadn’t wanted to marry her. The problem was they had played along with their fathers’ archaic pledge for a little too long, sometimes using each other for a fill-in date when the need arose.

Oh, how her father would love to hear that... Somehow, after her mother’s death fifteen years ago, her relationship with him had disintegrated to the point where they barely spoke, let alone saw each other. Of course if she had been born a boy things would have been different.

Very different.

She would have had different choices. She would have been Crown Prince, for one—and, while she had no wish at all to rule their small European nation, she would at least have had her father’s respect. His affection. Something.

Ava gripped the steering wheel of her hatchback more tightly as she turned onto the narrow country lane that ran alongside Château Verne, Gilles’s fifteenth-century estate.

For eight years she had lived a happy, relatively low-key existence in Paris; finishing university and building her business, stepping in at royal functions when her brother Frédéric had been absent. Now that Gilles, Marquis de Bassonne, was set to marry a friend of hers, she had a bad feeling that was all about to change.

Ava crinkled her nose at her uncharacteristically gloomy mood. Gilles and Anne had fallen in love at first sight two months ago and were happier than she’d ever seen either one of them before. They completed each other in a way that would inspire songwriters and she wasn’t jealous.

Not at all.

Her life was rolling along just fine. Her art gallery, Gallery Nouveau, had just been reviewed in a prestigious art magazine and she was busier than ever. It was true that her love-life was a little on the nonexistent side, but her break-up three years ago with Colyn—the man she had believed she would eventually marry—had left her emotionally drained and a little wary.

At nearly twenty years her senior he had seemed to her to be the epitome of bourgeois intellectualism: a man who didn’t care about her heritage and loved her for herself. It had taken a couple of years to figure out that his subtle criticisms of her status and his desire to ‘teach’ her all that he knew made him as egotistical and controlling as her father.

And she really wished he hadn’t popped into her mind, because now she felt truly terrible.

The only other times she’d felt this miserable had been during gorgeous evenings wandering by herself along the Seine, when she was unable to avoid watching couples so helplessly in love with each other they couldn’t walk two paces without stopping to steal another kiss.

She had never felt that. Not once.

She frowned, wondering if she ever would.

After Colyn she had been determined only to date nice men with solid family values. Men who were in touch with their feelings. But they hadn’t inspired much more than friendship in her. Thankfully her business kept her too busy to dwell on what she lacked, and if she was getting older...

Pah!

Stamping on even more mood-altering thoughts, she adjusted the volume dial on the radio and wasn’t at all prepared when she put her foot on the brake to slow down for a bend in the road and nothing happened. Imagining that she had put her foot on the accelerator instead, she’d moved to correct the oversight when the car hit a patch of gravel and started to slide.

Panicking, she yanked on the steering wheel to keep the car straight, but the car had gathered momentum and in the blink of an eye it fishtailed and rammed into some sort of small tree.

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