Girl in the Woods (Part 14, The Journey Begins)

Welcome to The Serial Novel: Girl in the Woods, a regular 2016 Friday feature. For those of you who haven’t been following this story please start from the beginning (Click Here.) I started on this epic adventure when I had a small baby who was up at all hours. This is by no means an edited or polished manuscript. I’m just sharing a story – an epic fairy tale full of magic, technology, romance, adventure, and a lot of sharp twists and turns. So have fun, as the story continues…

Part 14: The Journey Begins

Alexander and Tom left early in the morning. Their first stop was in Meadow Creek. They spent the night at Simon and Ellie’s home. Simon had already gone on to the meeting place, but that didn’t stop them from having a lovely evening visiting with Ellie.

In the morning she told them to take a short cut through the woods, past Annie Hawthorne’s house, and then past Olivia Snowhawk’s estate.

As they finally passed the Snowhawk estate Alexander stopped to look. “This place is amazing. I could live here.”

Tom gave a knowing smile “Just your style. I think you’d like Olivia. You have a lot in common.”

“Justin’s sister. Impressive. I’ve been thinking of building a place in this area, any idea who the architect is?”

“Is this a honeymoon cottage you’re planning?” Asked Tom lifting an eyebrow

“No, it’s not Candi’s taste.” Replied Alex in disgust.

“You’re not completely sold on this match are you?”

“Over the past few months I’ve felt absolutely suffocated. You can’t imagine how glad I’ll be to get on the road and away from everyone and everything I know. I need to figure out how I can bring Candi into my life as a partner, and a friend. It is an almost impossible task, but I shall endure.”

Tom tried to change the subject of Candi. He could hadn’t heard that kind of fear in Alexander’s voice since they were teenagers, facing the wrath of their father’s over yet another one of Simon’s stupid pranks. “Freddie Green designed the house. He does most of Olivia’s buildings.”

“I should have figured. Candi can’t stand Freddie.” Alexander added quietly, going back to his misery.

“I’m sure the feeling is mutual.” Tom started to get back on his horse.

“Should we stop for a visit? You’re friends with Olivia.” Alexander looked at his friend with a glimmer of hope in his eye. A distraction would be welcome.

“Looks like she already has company. Let’s go.” Said Tom, trying pry Alexander away from the view. A dark, luxurious carriage stood in front of the house. It looked like it belonged to the Ambassador of the Crystal Mountain Republic. It made sense he’d be there.

“I think that’s Alaric Shadowford’s carriage.” Exclaimed Alexander, starting towards the gate. Tom was now starting to get annoyed He knew the stop at Olivia’s would be unwise. The less Alexander knew about her the better.

“Then all the more reason not to stop. Let’s keep going Alex. We’ll stop by on the way home.”

 

Jakes

Their first stop would be Jake’s Place, a large entertainment complex at main fork in the highway between Meadow Creek, and the towns of Riverbend and Allegory.

Jake’s consisted of two inns, twos indoor stages, an outdoor stage that could host major musical festivals, a camping area, several pubs, and meeting rooms. Malcolm frequently played there, as well as all of the popular acts. Jakes was a favorite meeting place for business and most of all for pleasure. Jakes’s also hosted three recording studios.

 

 

Alexander and Tom went into the inn. They were familiar with the place. Since they were teens it had been one of their favorite spots. Always a party or entertainment.

They were greeted by Jake the proprietor, a tall skinny guy with a perpetual smile. Men found him friendly, women for some odd reason found him irresistible. Not at all what one would expect in a cross roads such as this. He knew everybody and everything that happened in those parts. He was a little older than Alex and a great friend of Logan’s. Jake had started the place when he was twenty years old and built it into his own small music/entertainment empire.

 

The wind picked up around the inn, and the cold came late that afternoon.

The plan was to meet with Simon Oliver, Annie Hawthorne, and Justin Snowhawk about the trip and general business before the trip.

Alexander said hello to Annie and Simon then went to see Jake. After three days on the road he needed to relax. He left Tom to sort out the details and contracts.

Jake and Alexander visited in the large parlor by a roaring fire.

“So how’s Logan doing?” asked Jake

“He still can’t use his arm very well but all in all better than I imagined. He’s definitely taking advantage of the situation. Every time I see him there’s a different woman waiting on him.”

“It’s sad to see a strong man like him so helpless” said Jake with a grin

“Yes, he’s not up to riding his four legged mare yet, but he’s defiantly being ridden by the two legged variety”.

“That’s the Logan we know and love”.

“You haven’t said anything about Princess Candi.”

“Jake, she’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve never met a woman so sweet and seemingly untouched.”

“Then you’re happy.”

“I suppose I’ll be happy enough. An exquisitely beautiful and willing princess is hopelessly in love with me. What more could I ever ask for?”

“You’re a lucky man Alex.”

“So I’m told.”

Alex saw a rider outside the door on a large black horse. “Is that Justin Snowhawk?”

“No, he never travels alone. That is his darling twin, Olivia. She almost always solo. Come out with me. I’ll introduce you.”

 

Alexander stood by Jake as a woman in a green cape and hood hauled a large pack off the back of a huge black horse. The wind whips strands of brown hair out from under the hood.

 

She turned around with a grim look. Jake ignored the look and gave her a hug, nearly lifting her off of the ground. She gave a slight laugh then got back to business.

“I tried to contact you. Most of the communications, both image and voice have been down for two days.” she told Jake,

“They’ve come back up here about an hour ago. I understand things were fine in The Capital.” He answered passing her horse to a groom.

“I’m none too pleased about it.” She replied angrily “I’ll get to the bottom of whatever or whoever is behind this. It practically shut down operations.”

“Annie, Michael and Simon are inside.”

“Good. Has Prince Alexander arrived?”

She turned and almost ran into Alexander. She stopped and took a step back, then regained her composure.

“Prince Alexander” said Jake, “I’m honored to introduce my dear friend Olivia Snowhawk, President of Universal Technologies”.

“So we finally meet” Alexander said with a smile.

“Yes, we finally meet” Olivia replied almost as if she was taken aback, then she gave a slight bow of her head. “I’m honored that you could make it Prince Alexander”.

 

So this was Olivia Snowhawk, Simon’s long time friend and business partner. Her eyes were hazel; her brown wind tangled hair fell midway down her back. Who would have thought that she was the powerful Olivia Snowhawk? He’d seen her image before in magazines and in the papers, but in person she wasn’t at all what he expected. He had imagined her to be tall like her brother, formal and elegant, not the small, road weary and obviously agitated woman before him. She was about eight inches shorter than his six feet, making her a little below average in height. He might have passed her on the street.

He thought it odd that she was traveling alone without staff, servants and security people. A woman of her status traveling alone on a trip like this was highly unusual.

The voice was what really made him take notice. Underneath her lilting Crystal Mountain accent, it was a smooth sultry voice, the kind that would be welcome for hours in a lecture hall or better yet, hours in the bedroom.

“Miss Snowhawk, this is a pleasure indeed. Simon has spoken so much about you over the years, but sometimes I doubted if you really existed.” Alexander said as he took her gloved hand, not knowing if he should kiss it or not. He decided to forgo the kiss. She smiled slightly and held eye contact with him. He felt as though he’d known her for years, then as soon as the warm feeling appeared she turned away wincing in pain, putting her hand to her forehead. Jake mouthed the words “don’t say anything” to Alexander.

Olivia turned back and as if nothing had happened continued their introduction.

“Yes, Simon has done a wonderful job of keeping us apart. But here we are, finally, face to face.”

The attraction was immediate for Alexander in an odd and unsettling way he couldn’t explain.

“Yes, we finally meet, face to face.” he answered with flirtatious smile.

“Come on let’s go in, the others are waiting”, Jake motioned as he picked up her bag. Alexander noticed the way he put his hand on Olivia’s back, almost a caress.

Jake smiled and practically purred “It’s good to have you back darling.” then he looked at his friend and motioned towards the door “Alexander”.

Alexander looked at Jake and wondered if he was sleeping with her. No, Jake would have said something. He’d ask anyway before they left.

As they entered the lobby she slipped off her heavy cape off and Alex saw a tempting curvy leather clad figure. “Don’t even think about it,” he thought to himself. He worked with women all the time, he reasoned with himself, but sometimes reason flew out the window.

He was amused by the haphazard way her hair fell over her shoulders in windblown tangles. Light freckles scattered over her face, another imperfection, like her dusty windblown hair, the freckles worked to make her even more feminine and vulnerable. Her only adornments were delicate silver hoops in her ears and an elegantly simple moonstone ring on her right hand. But there was certain flamboyance about her. She wore a form fitting black jacket that flared at the hips and fell to her knees. Underneath was a maroon colored shirt with touches of delicate lace at the collar showing just a hint of cleavage and a thin white scar peeking out. The lining of her long cape was a wild black on gray print of twisted ferns and birds. Her black leather boots were up to her thighs with more fern patterned delicately tooled down the sides along her legs. She wears ferns he thought to himself. Under different circumstances he would have been charmed. Now it only brought back unpleasant thoughts of Candi redecorating his home in pastel pink and yellow.

“So, you’re the elusive Olivia Snowhawk of Universal Technologies” he thought to himself making a mental note of her beautiful textured clothing. At least she had good taste.

There was something familiar about her, more than just her images in the press or pictures he’d seen in Simon’s office and home. He knew he hadn’t met her, but it was as if he already knew her. That was common with well known public figures he supposed. Everyone in the country thought they knew him personally.

She took her bag from Jake, something Alexander found odd. “I know you’re busy. I’ll settle in myself.” She kissed him on the cheek.

“I’ll see you both at dinner then.” Jake winked and went back down the hallway.

 

Alexander noticed that Jake hadn’t given her a key. She was obviously a regular here. “Miss Snowhawk?” he said quietly as she walked beside him down the long hallway towards the VIP suites.

“Please, call me Olivia” she said rubbing her left temple again. He took note of how she furrowed her brow in pain.

“Let me take your bag for you.”

“I’ve got it,” she said with the smallest bit of a smile.

He wondered what she had in there that she wouldn’t let go of. Knowing she was from the Crystal Mountains it could be anything from expensive boots to a severed head. He decided to lighten the mood with small talk then. “You’re from the Crystal Mountains. We don’t see many people from my mother’s homeland.”

“No, we don’t get out much… that is out of the country.”

Over the years he had met a few others from the same region beyond the Crystal Mountains. It was a place of unmatched natural beauty, but with a violent past and guarded present. People who came from there spoke in hushed defensive tones about their homeland and shared little with outsiders aside from the technology they exported. Few visitors made it into the strange land.

“How did you end up so far from home?” he asked, already knowing she’d come to run the largest technology business in the country.

She answered as if reading from a well rehearsed script. “I was already running the international side of business so it seemed natural to relocate on the other side of the mountains so to speak. Next thing I knew Simon had talked me into locating the headquarters in Meadow Creek.” she hesitated, and paused for a second, her tone changed to quiet and personal “I come from a very harsh and violent place. Things are better there now, since the war…but” she stopped and took a deep breath “I don’t choose to live there anymore.”

“You’ve been here twelve years now. That’s a long time to be away from home.” the prince started

“My home is here, not in the Crystal Mountain Republic. Please, let’s not talk about it. Not tonight.” she whispered, her hand briefly went to her right temple as if in pain again. Thunder cracked outside. Alexander felt a chill down his spine.

She continued in totally emotionless voice.” I’m going to freshen up before our first meeting. It’s been a long ride.” Then she paused pulled her gloves off, then took his hand. Her hand was like ice in his. “Funny isn’t it that we’ve never met. That’s what you’re thinking isn’t it?” She said with a slight smile.

“I suppose I was. Why haven’t we met?” he brought her hand to his mouth and lightly kissed it.

She didn’t take the bait to talk more, to open up. She gave his hand a squeeze and let go of it. “It doesn’t matter why our paths have never crossed, what’s important is that we’re both here now. I’ll see you in about 30 minutes.” She bowed her head slightly and turned towards the stairs. He had to smile at her. The mystery was finally over. She was right. They were both here, finally.

“That bag looks heavy. Let me help you at least up those stairs.” He called after her not wanting to let her go yet.

“Thank you but, you aren’t going my direction. I can handle it.” She turned again and headed to her rooms.

“When is Justin arriving?” Alexander asked to her back.

She stopped at the foot of the stairs and turned, heaving her bag up to her shoulder. “Never, or at least not for a while. Not here with us. No today. I’ll be taking his place.”

Alexander might as well be hit with a door. “I don’t think I heard you correctly. When will Justin be arriving?”

“I’m sorry, Justin can’t make it. He’ll meet us at the River Conference in a few weeks.” She answered slowly as if speaking to a small child or an idiot.

“Where is he?” Alexander demanded.

“Who knows at this point. The high mountain passes are still snowed in. The road crews have been blasting but it’s a slow process at 18,000 feet. The risk of avalanche is too high to go any faster. Of course attempt to get out over the mountains was completely out of the question, so he decided to scrap the whole deal and made other plans. Why he didn’t tell me earlier I don’t know, but I’ve barely had two days notice. I’m sure you can imagine how I’ve had to scramble on this. Despite the last minute change of plans I’m looking forward to working with you and Tom. I’ll see you in a bit.” She impatiently heaved the weight of her bag from one shoulder to the other then took a step up the stairs.

“Why wasn’t I told?”

She dropped the heavy bag her feet. “I tried to contact you but as you probably know already, most of my voice communications have been down for the past few days. I sent word to Logan as soon as I found out. Didn’t he tell you?”

“No. he didn’t.” he snapped back at her.

Her expression softened. “I’m sorry, I told him to pass my message on to you. So I guess Simon didn’t tell you either.”

“No he didn’t tell me anything.”

“I see. Have you met with the others yet?”

“Yes, briefly, but they didn’t say anything either.”

“I’m sure they assumed you knew.”

“So it seems, Ms Snowhawk” Alexander all but yelled at her. He was at his wit’s end. This couldn’t be happening. Not to him, not now. He had to put her off of the idea. There was no way she could go with them. “I hope you realize this isn’t exactly a safe or comfortable trip we’re going on.” he told her trying to talk some sense into this woman.

“Your highness”, she said calmly, almost too calmly, “I beg that you forget all generalizations. I’ve made this trip many times by myself. If you stay clear of Allegory, it is safe and exceedingly comfortable. All the arrangements have been made for your comfort and security. Your business is my business, very lucrative business I might add. I have close ties in this region that will make this little adventure well worth your while”. Alexander furrowed his brow. She seemed impervious to his show of disgust. “I am at your service. I promise you won’t be disappointed.” Olivia showed him the first sign of a genuine smile. He could get used to that smile under different circumstances, but not here, not now.

Oh God, he thought, this is going to be a long trip. On top of it all would be explaining to his parent’s and Candi the change in circumstances. This wasn’t going to go over well with any of them.

“This will never work.”

“Never is a word I try to leave out of my vocabulary. I recommend you do the same. I’ll see you in thirty minutes.” She bowed her head slightly and picked up the bag again.

Who did this woman think she was? Alexander kept calm, trying not to show his temper at her infuriating attitude. “Stop. Who’s idea is it that you take Justin’s place?”

Olivia answered calmly “Logan suggested it after talking with my brother. Simon and Tom agreed. They insisted I drop everything and join you. There was no other choice, other than cancel the mission.” She bowed her head and said “Prince Alexander, I am truly glad we finally have met and I’m looking forward to traveling with you. I will see you in half an hour.” then headed up the stairs.

“We’re going to talk about this now.”

“We’ll talk later. I’m tired, I’ve got a headache and I’m sure a million tangles in my hair, so let me have a few minutes to myself, please.” She continued up the stairs leaving Alexander to watch her vanish up the dark hallway.

“Miss Snowhawk, your tangles can wait.”

She took a deep breath and gripped the stair rail. “At the moment.” She paused for a few seconds. “At the moment, Your Highness, I am in a great deal of pain and must take care of myself before we discuss anything. I promise you, later, we’ll come up with a plan that you and your associates will agree with…that you’ll be able to live with. Alright? Please?”

“I’ll see you in thirty minutes Miss Snowhawk.”

“Prince Alexander.” She turned without another word or change in expression and climbed the stairs.

 

He’d expected Justin and found himself about to embark on the trip with a stranger who was not only ill, but had a bad attitude to match. In his wildest dreams or nightmares, this wasn’t what he expected, not at all. Still trying to digest the information she’d just given him he went to look for Tom. Apparently nobody from his party was available. He found Jake in his office going over paperwork. Alexander asked him about business and upcoming concerts. He wondered again about Jake’s relationship with Olivia Snowhawk.

“Has Olivia Snowhawk discussed my trip with you?”

“Olivia? No, she hasn’t. I didn’t know she’d be here until this morning. I haven’t spoken to her in maybe three or four months.”

“You seemed pretty cozy with her. Is she one of your girlfriends?”

“You know I never kiss and tell.”

“You always kiss and tell. Is she one of your weekend girlfriends?” Alexander was digging himself a hole, something he rarely did, but the news of traveling Olivia had thrown him completely off.

“No, unfortunately there’s never been anything with Olivia and me except a lot of hot and heavy flirting. The last thing she needs is a pervert like me to complicate her life.”

Alexander had to smile at that comment, then he was back on his mission. “Olivia said Justin won’t be in the country until the River Conference.”

“What a shame. I was looking forward to seeing him again too. The man has an amazing voice. Too bad he couldn’t make it. I’d hoped to talk him into getting up on stage tonight.”

“Does she sing? Olivia?”

“God no, at least not in front of an audience.”

Alexander decided not to let Jake see his agitation. “Justin isn’t much like his sister, is he?”

“Olivia is all fire and ice, no in betweens with that one. Justin is like nice warm comfortable bath water.” Jake pulled open a folder with his busy calendar. Talk of Olivia was now over. “Hey, when are you going to get Princess Candi out here on my stage?”

“For you Jake, I’ll make it happen. We’ll have Malcolm and Addie set up show while I’m traveling. It will keep Candi busy and give you the kind of publicity you’ve only dreamed.”

“That would be fantastic.”

“Don’t advertise Candi but bill her with someone popular who will bring in a full house. Make it a surprise to the audience. Book it with Addie. I’ll take care of the extra security. Don’t spare any costs. Whatever you need to get the job done and bill me for it. That goes for Candi’s personal comfort and security and whatever Malcolm and Addie need.”

“This will give your pretty little princess a distraction while you’re off traveling with Simon and Olivia.”

“Simon isn’t going with me. Ms Snowhawk just told me will be traveling in Justin’s place. This was supposed to be a male only party and now I’ll have to explain why a girl just popped out of the cake.”

“Ahhh Olivia. Don’t worry about her. She’s a workaholic the same as yourself only worse. She’s as sexy as they come but she won’t be thinking about you a bit.”

“The press will have a field day with this one.”

“Olivia and Simon can manage the press. They’ve helped me out a time or two or three. You’ve got Charles along don’t you.”

“The voice of reason”

“There you are. Nothing to worry about.”

Alex imagined that most of their talk that evening would be about business. That was fine with him. He felt his personal side had been drained by the shallow courting of Candi. It was another half hour before their meeting. He went to his room to change out of his traveling clothes.

On the way down to the meeting room he stopped in the hall. He could hear Simon’s voice in one of the side parlors. Simon was angry, but his voice was controlled, like a parent scolding an errant teenager. Alexander hesitated and listened.

“Alaric Shadowford was in your house. What were you thinking? But of course, you never think when it comes to him, do you?”

”It is official business of the Crystal Mountain Republic.”

“Bull shit. I know what he wanted.”

“It has nothing to do with you.” Snapped Olivia.

“It has everything to do with me. I don’t want you alone with him again, ever.”

“Fine, then you tell him to stay away from me.”

“Don’t even go there…”

“No Simon, let’s go there. It’s none of your fucking business who I spend my time with.”

“Like hell it isn’t.”

The conversations trailed off into a whisper.

Alexander headed to the meeting room. Tom, Michael and Annie were already there at the large table. His young assistants Andrew and Charles sat together looking serious and somewhat overwhelmed. No sooner had he greeted the others when Simon and Olivia made a grand entrance through the door. They smiled and greeted everyone, relaxed and slightly amused as if they had an inside joke they weren’t going to share. Nobody would have guessed that this was the couple Alexander had heard arguing just a few minutes ago.

Olivia had cleaned up quite well, having brushed her straight brown hair to a glossy shine and changed into a pretty black lace blouse.

 

Annie stood to greet them, giving Olivia a quick embrace.

“Olivia, I thought we’d lost you. Did you speak with Logan?”

Olivia gave a wicked smile, “Yes, finally. When I explained the situation he laughed and asks me if I’d brought along the dress I had worn to the opera.”

“It will be interesting when you finally meet him in person.”

“Yes, it will indeed be interesting.”

“You’ll like him.” Annie added suggestively.

“I’m sure I will Annie. I’m sure I will, unfortunately not in the way he’d like.”

“As always Olivia, you are right.” Annie said with a grin and a slight laugh to herself.

Olivia turned towards Tom “It’s always good to see your friendly face. I saw you and Prince Alexander ride by my house. You should have stopped. We could have ridden in together.”

He took her hands and kissed her cheek. “You had company.” He whispered in her ear.

“It’s not what you think.” She whispered back.

Tom made introductions with Andrew and Charles. Olivia charmed them with comments about how proud their families must be of them and how their skills would be an asset to their mission.

Alexander took note of how Olivia had changed from the cold to hot on a moment’s notice. So like Simon he thought.

She turned towards Alexander and took his hands in hers. “We’re honored to be here, joining you on this journey of goodwill and discovery. Alexander smiled and bowed his head slightly to her. She gave him a warm smile but her eyes were cold like her hands.

“Shall we get started?” she asked Simon with a genuine smile. Simon smiled back and took her hand, giving it a quick squeeze.

This was Alexander’s first real look at Simon at work and the true inner workings of Universal Technologies. The chemistry between Olivia and Simon was unmistakable.

Olivia stood and gave a brief introduction “On behalf of everyone at Universal Technologies International, I welcome you.” She started.

She continued on to say how she appreciates the last minute changes, Alexander taking Logan’s place, Tom putting his schedule on hold to come as well. She acknowledged Annie’s role of public relations and how Michael would help Annie in dealing with the press. Then she said a few words about Logan and what a shame it was he couldn’t join them until the River Conference. She was delighted at the prospect of a lasting partnership which will benefit all of them. Then she mentioned that the people of this territory are looking forward to seeing Alexander again.

“So much has been planned in your honor” she told him. “There will be some elegant formal receptions, but most will be more humble. Everything from children’s singing recitals and amateur theatricals to factory tours and town hall meetings.”

She continued to describe the first part of the trip that Logan and Justin had planned, up until they would part ways with Tom and arrive in Riverbend. She commanded the room with grace and elegance. Her voice showed excitement and infectious enthusiasm.

When Olivia finished, Alexander noticed the thick white scar across the palm of her right hand. It couldn’t have been comfortable. She caught his eye and closed her hand in a loose fist, palm side down to the table.

A lavish spread was brought in for dinner. Jake joined them.

They talked about business. Stories were traded. Two hours pass by. Alexander noticed that Olivia had hardly said a word, but listened intently to every word said by the others. When they are finally through, Annie, Michael and the boys headed off to see a hot local band in the other side of the resort, Tom and Simon head for the private club. Olivia requests a few minutes alone with Alexander.

 

After they were alone Olivia stood up and drew a dagger out from under her coat and put it on the table. Another old Crystal Mountain tradition. It showed she expected his trust.

She leaned against the edge of the table. “We discussed the first leg of the trip with the others. We now need to discuss our eight weeks in Riverbend.”

Alexander replied, glancing at the dagger. “Logan said all the arrangements had been made.”

She ignored him. “I have an office with Universal Technologies in Riverbend, plus I’m scheduled to lecture at the University. I know you’d planned on working with my brother, Michael and my cousin Marigold Snowhawk. Now you’ll work with Marigold and me. Since I’ll be busy with my classes and students, I won’t be able to spend that much time with you during the day. Honestly, Marigold and Michael have control over everything so I doubt if you’ll really need me. That shouldn’t be too much off the original agenda.”

“I understand Marigold has been in the country for almost 15 years.”

“She came to set up the Riverbend Universal Technologies sales and support office and fell in love with the country, and a man. Marigold is a Northwest Kingdom citizen now. Did you know that?”

“No, but I’m honored.”

“Of course, Michael is my right hand man, more like my shadow really. I’d be lost without him. He may just seem like another trendy 20 something young man, but underneath that trendy exterior he is absolutely brilliant.”

“Where is the rest of your staff?”

“My staff?”

“You arrived here alone. Where is your staff?”

“My staff. At home, doing their jobs. Michael and I travel light. It gives us more flexibility. Our own private communications technology affords us that luxury. Aside from that, I already have staff at the Lockwood Mill and my offices in Riverbend. We also have a warehouse and distribution center in Ravenswood I’ll be stopping at. Universal Technologies International have a huge delegation at the River Conference of course, at least 120 people, if not more, plus about 20 people are coming in from the Crystal Mountains.”

“What about your maid?”

“I don’t need a maid. I can do my own hair.”

“You don’t have any security.”

“I figured you’d have a zillion guards with us so there wasn’t any need for me to bring anybody else along. You and Tom are light on staff as well. I was glad to see that. It will help us be more flexible in our schedule.”

“Exactly when will Justin be joining us?”

“I already told you, we won’t see him until the River Conference. It’s not just the weather. When he couldn’t get though the pass he went home to take care of other issues he needs to deal with – medical issues and family. He sends his apologies and will be contacting you in a few weeks.”

“Medical? Nothing serious I hope.”

“He’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it. I know you and Justin had planned on doing some fishing and exploring before the River Conference, but rest assured you’ll still have opportunities for, well, a little adventure.”

“So I won’t see Justin until the River Conference?”

“No, you won’t, but when we do see him, I’ll personally make sure you’ll have as much time as you want with him. He’s staying on for another month which will give you ample time to take care of whatever business the two of you had. He’d even suggested a side trip to Aurora Lake if you’re up for it.” She ignored his look of disgust and continued. “I contacted your cousin Graham Oliver about the stop in Riverbend. As you know he’ll be joining us there.” she threw the dagger at the map on the wall and it impaled the town of Riverbend. “Graham said he is looking forward to…”

“You know Graham?” He unintentionally looked her up and down wondering if she’d be the type Graham would try to seduce.

“I’ve known Graham for years. Don’t look at me like that. I’m not one of his sluts.”

“You know about his indiscretions?”

“Indiscretions is a polite way to put it. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, or any concern of mine. I spend 3 or 4 months a year in Riverbend. I know everyone there, including that particular branch of your family.”

“You seem to know everyone in my circle.”

“Yes, and you know just about everyone in mine.” there was an uncomfortable pause in the conversation. Olivia glanced out of the window at the storm, then back at Alexander. “Any questions about the agenda?”

“Annie Hawthorne is working with Logan as Universal Technology’s liaison in government relations. I usually work with Simon when I have business with Universal. Where do you come in?”

“I own the company.”

He crossed his arms and took a long look at her. “Why haven’t I ever met you before?”

She closed her eyes for just a second too long and started to put her hand to her temple then put it down. “I don’t know Alexander, it really isn’t something I’ve had much time to think about.” She paused again. “Justin and Logan had planned on using my Riverbend cottage when it was just a trip for the boys. The cottage is small and intimate, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to stay, well, alone with me. There are also security concerns. George wants you to stay with him but…”

“My cousin George is the most annoying person in the world. There is no way I’ll stay with him.”

“I thought of that already. Poor George. He really does mean well, but anyway, your staff has arranged for you to stay with your cousin Roxanna because she has more security and privacy at her home, and unlike Graham’s place, her house is in the center of town near the regional government offices. You could also stay with your Aunt, but Roxanna begged for you to stay with her. I know you’re especially close to her. There is also room and privacy at Roxanna’s if you plan on inviting Princess Candi or other friends to join you.”

“So it’s settled.” He ended her sentence for her.

“Yes, it’s settled, as well as it can be on such short notice. Michael and I will be in Riverbend for our business. You’ll have an official state visit, and the people of Riverbend will be absolutely overjoyed to see you. The opera season is opening so we’ll be well entertained. And best of all you’ll still get to do some fishing. There’s a great spot my friend Don showed me last time along the river just south of town. Nobody goes there and the fish are real fighters. It’s all catch and release of course, but I hear that’s your preference anyway. It’s absolutely beautiful. I’ll take you there if you like.”

“Sure.” Alexander answered flatly, folding his arms.

“Fantastic. Oh, and I just found out some exciting news, the new dig site on the old castle site has been opened and they’re quite excited to have you up to see it. I hear you’re quite involved in archeological sites. On the way, in Ravenswood we can take a hike up in the hills to the ruins where your great Uncle Alexander fell in love with the Baroness Starfire. I’m sure you’ve seen them already but I have some new information about some of the stone carvings. It’s such a magical place. I can’t wait to share…” she trailed out seeing a disgusted look on his face. ”What’s wrong?”

Alex sat back in his seat and shook his head. “You have this all planned out don’t you?”

“All of the details have been taken care of for you. You don’t have to do anything but relax and enjoy the ride.”

“Not all of the details”.

“Is there a problem? If there is you need to tell me.”

“Yes, there is a problem. This is not what I expected.”

“Aside from my brother what were you expecting?”

“That’s it. I was expecting Justin. No offense, but not Justin’s twin sister, not you. I have confidential matters I need to discuss with your brother.” He fingered the earring in his pocket.

“Justin and I don’t keep secrets in our business.”

“This is personal.”

She said nothing. For the first time that night she didn’t know what to say.

He added under his breath. “I wasn’t expecting anything remotely like this.”

“Yes, you don’t need to tell me again. I wasn’t expecting anything like this either, but I’m not going to sit around and pout about it”. She suddenly felt sorry for him. A man forced into too many unpleasant situations. Sooner or later something was bound to snap. “I hear the past few months have been rough for you” she said quietly.

He stared at her without a comment.

“Simon told me you would welcome a break from the pressures of your impending engagement”.

“My love life is none of your business”.

”It is if you let it interfere with my business.”

“You are out of hand Miss Snowhawk.”

She leaned against the table. “I have your best interests in mind. That is NOT being out of hand Prince Alexander.”

“What is it with you? Don’t you give a damn how this looks? I’m traveling with you, while Princess Candi waits for me at home.”

“Is that what this is about? I would never do anything to compromise your honor.”

“You don’t have to do anything. Just look at yourself in the mirror. People will talk. People will assume…”

“What? Assume that we’re going to …oh don’t even say it. I can’t even start to express how offended I am by your assumptions about my character or my physical attributes.”

She had him cornered. He tried to explain. “Candi, is young and doesn’t understand the world of business. She’ll see you as a threat.”

“She’s got a lifetime ahead of her seeing you working with other women. Tell her to grow up and get over it.“

“The press will be even less kind at seeing us together 24/7.”

“I can handle the press. I’ll leave you to handle Princess Candi and her insecurities.” Olivia took a deep breath and shook her head in frustration. “I understand the delicate nature of your situation, but let me assure you that this is business, not a pleasure trip.”

“Is that all you think about? Business?”

“Universal Technologies employs 4000 people. 1200 are outside of the Crystal Mountain Republic. It is my responsibility to all of those 1200 people to make sure they have jobs to go to each Monday morning. It is my responsibility to make sure their families are safe and taken care of. It is my responsibility to make sure that our technology is used for the good of all people, not just the privileged few. I take that very personally.”

“Nice speech, but step back off of your lofty mountain and imagine my position. I have not 1200, but 10 million people to think about.”

“Would you like to call this off?” she asked defiantly.

He glared at her. The thought of going back to The Capitol would only accelerate things with Candi. He decided to turn things back on Olivia.

“No, I’m not letting you out of this.” he said pushing his hand through his hair.

“Are you sure that is what you want?” she folded her arms across her chest and narrowed her eyes.

He took it as a challenge. “Too much has gone into the planning of this trip. People are expecting me. As their prince and servant, I need to be there. I want to be there.”

The corners of her mouth turned up slightly. “Yes, they are expecting both of us. You’re not the only one who draws a crowd in these parts.”

“I’m sure you draw quite the crowd.” He answered in a slightly condescending tone.

Olivia’s hands fisted then relaxed. “My influence extends far beyond Meadow Creek. You’ll find that I can take you places you’d never be able to get to on your own, even as a prince.”

“Don’t be so sure of that.” His tone grew cold. She saw the anger in his green eyes saying “don’t go there”.

She wasn’t going to back down. She’d be damned if she let him off easy. “I know these people. Unlike you, I spend time with them, on their level.”

“You have no idea what I do. No prince has ever been more in touch with his subjects than I am.”

“You spend your days surrounded by pretty faces and pleasantries. You don’t know your people. You haven’t taken the time to know them. Do you even comprehend or appreciate the loyalty and the love they feel for you?”

“You’re out of bounds Miss Snowhawk.”

“Am I, Prince Alexander? Am I really? Aside from Simon’s interest and the rare visits from Thomas or Graham, most of this region is blatantly ignored by the diplomats and higher ups in The Capitol. The local officials feel cut off and rejected. The people who live between the rivers couldn’t give a rat’s ass if you marry a Real Princess or a whore. They want to know what is being done about their children’s education and their unique economy. They want to know what’s going to be done about the cults living in Allegory and Hammers Woods. They want to know their voices are being heard. ”

They stood looking at each other in silence. Neither wanting to back down. Alexander wasn’t about to let her get the best of him. He wasn’t about to let her win this one.

“Are you finished?” he asked looking down at her.

“No, but you seem to have heard all you want to hear.” She snapped back.

He took a deep breath to calm himself. “Before we start on our journey of goodwill, together, we need to get a few things straight.” He told her as calmly as he could. “If you plan to travel with me you’ll go by my rules.”

“Your rules?”

“You will go by my rules or this show is over. That’s it. No compromise. No negotiations. What I say is final.”

She just looked at him. At least he got her to shut up for more than 5 seconds.

“Sit down. Please. Sit, NOW.”

Olivia hesitated then sat with her hands in her lap. Alexander continued as he stood in front of her. “Rule number one. Respect.”

“Respect?” she asked.

“Rule number one. You will show respect for my position. I understand that you are not a citizen of my country and owe me no allegiance. However, no matter how powerful you might be as a business leader and social butterfly, you will show me respect. I’m not asking you to do this, I am ordering you to do it.”

She narrowed her eyes again, but didn’t say a thing.

He leaned on the edge of the table, still looking down at her. “Rule number two, don’t do anything behind my back. Everything is up front with us. No secret conversations with third parties, no back room deals along the way. There is to be no discussing my private life with others, including Simon. If you want to do or say anything concerning me, you are to bring it to me first. If I ask you about anything you are to tell me everything. And I do mean everything. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.” Olivia answered quietly.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I am sure.” Her voice was calm but her eyes burned with rage.

“Rule number three, anything said between you and me is confidential. Do you understand?”

“Yes, of course I’ll keep all our conversations confidential.”

“Good. Rule number four, don’t change the agenda without my approval.”

Olivia leaned forward in her chair “Meaning?”

“I will approve who I will be traveling with and where we are going and what we are doing, in advance.”

“Anything else?” She asked. He could hear the impatience in her voice.

“No more knife throwing. I don’t need the dramatic displays. Will you agree to those terms?” Alexander locked his eyes on hers. She answered his stare.

“Yes, I will agree to those terms.”

“Good.”

“I have a request of my own.” She stood up and stepped towards him.

He stood his ground. “Yes?”

“You need to trust me and respect my position.”

“I have great respect for your position. Give me reason to trust or respect you personally and I will.”

She looked at him with slight disgust. He stared back with an angry fire in his green eyes and brushed his hair back with his right hand. He couldn’t believe this woman.

“We have an early start ahead of us and I still have another meeting ahead of me tonight.” she said quietly. “Good night.” and with a bow of her head she left for her room, then she turned at the door and locked on his eyes “Your highness, I apologize for my bluntness and any perception of disrespect towards you. I assure you none was meant.”

“Apologies accepted. Goodnight Olivia. I will see you in the morning”. He said grimly.

“See you when the sun comes up.” She said in the old language and left him alone.

 

 

“What a self-centered bastard.” she said aloud to no one as she made her way to her room. “He was supposed to be charming but no he had to be a total and complete power-hungry asshole shit-head, damn it all to hell.” By the time she reached her room, she was furious. To top it off a monster of a headache was pressing on the front of her skull. From the minute she laid eyes on Alexander her head felt as if it was in a vice.

She pulled off her boots and lay down on her bed with her palms pressing her throbbing temples. She stifled back a scream. There was a tap on the door. Instinctively she grabbed for the handle of her dagger then remembered it was still in the map. “It better not be him” she thought as she jumped up and threw open the door. Jake stood outside holding her dagger in his hand with an all-knowing smile on his face.

“Jake” her blood pressure dropped. The headache vanished.

“How goes it darling?” he asked as he made his way into the room giving her a quick kiss on the cheek.

“The guy may be a prince, but, oh Jake, this is going to be painful.”

“You seem as if you’ll explode little one.”

“If you could have heard his condescending tone. I don’t think he has any concept of who I am.”

“He knows exactly who you are.”

“He has no appreciation of what I’m going to do for him”.

“You aren’t used to somebody else being in charge. You’ll snap if you don’t relax Livy. Now sit. Let me do my magic on you before you explode.”

Jake led her to the bed and began to massage her temples then moved down to her shoulders. Olivia felt as though she would melt. Sensuous chills then calm replaced the tension.

He pulled her hair to one side and kissed her on the neck. She gave a little gasp.

“I thought you’d like that” he said as he continued up to her mouth.

“You are pure magic” she purred and pulled him down on the bed and started to undo the buttons on his shirt. She moved her mouth on his and gave him a long sensuous kiss. “Stay with me tonight.” She whispered in his ear.

“I’ve been waiting years for you to ask me that, but you deserve better than a womanizing scoundrel like me.” He answered tenderly as he sat up and untangled himself from her. “I’ve known Alex since we were children. He can be a tad bit overwhelming…”

Olivia was annoyed that he changed the subject back to Alexander. “That’s an understatement. I saw what an arrogant controlling bastard he is.”

“Get to know him and he’ll be a true and loyal friend, unlike any you’ve ever had. ”

“Alexander couldn’t care less if I extend an offer of friendship. I’m just a pair of tits to him.” She sighed. Jake could tell she was physically and emotionally exhausted. “When you came to the door I thought it was him. If Alexander is the type who would use sex to get what he wants then I’m calling this trip off right now. I’ve had enough shit from men lately to last a lifetime. I’m not going to put up with it from him.”

“You’ll be safe with him. And if you’re worried about anything less than professional, Alexander would never cross those lines, unless of course, you wanted him to.”

“No I don’t want him to.”

“He’ll be married soon to Candi of Lavender Forest. He’ll be dreaming of her tonight and forget all about you.”

“Are you sure? I hear he’s not sold on that deal yet.”

“Your fragile heart and your business interests will be safe with our prince. Now get some sleep little one. I’ll see you when the sun comes up.”

“See you before the sun comes up.”

Jake gave her a hug. In return she kissed him with a deep passionate response. “Thank you for being here for me Jake”.

He laughed “Don’t tempt me like that or you’ll end losing all respect for me.” He gave her another long kiss and left her alone.

If he had stayed she knew they would have both regretted it in the morning. Dear sweet Jake. The encounter with Alexander now seemed so strange. She lit a blue light in the lantern and waited for her next visitor.

 

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