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New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Shirley Jump spends her days writing women’s fiction and romantic comedies (The Princess Test,September 2011) to feed her shoe addiction and avoid cleaning the toilets. As AJ Whitten (www.ajwhitten.com), she also writes horror young adult novels for Houghton Mifflin’s Graphia imprint with her daughter (The Cellar, May 2011). She says she finds writing time by feeding her kids junk food, allowing them to dress in the clothes they find on the floor and encouraging the dogs to double as vacuum cleaners. But don't let her kid you, she is one of the best cooks around. Visit her website at http://www.shirleyjump.com/ or read her recipes and life adventures at http://www.shirleyjump.blogspot.com/. She is also one of the best teachers of writing around, running workshops, maintaining a blog and yahoo group to help writers better their craft. It is my pleasure to welcome Shirley back with her newest book.
Back Cover Copy...
Carlita Santaro has never felt like a "proper" princess, and she's finally escaped the palace for the small town of Winter Haven.
She’d been right. Here, in this tiny Midwestern town, with all its hokey charm, Carrie felt free. To be herself, to drop the mantle of her princess life and to be just… Carrie. To be the person she’d been fighting all her life to be. She hadn’t packed a single ball gown, not one pair of high heels. While she was here, she’d be all jeans and T-shirts and sundresses, all the time. Just the thought made her smile.
And while she was here, she decided, she’d find out who she really was. Maybe with enough distance between herself and the castle, she could finally get the answers she’d waited a lifetime to hear. After all, hadn’t her mother once said that was what had happened to her when she’d visited this town? Perhaps Carrie could get lucky, too.
Her cell phone rang. She sighed before flipping it out and answering the call she’d been dreading. “Hello, Papa.”
“Carlita!” Her father’s booming voice, calling her by the name her parents used when they wanted to remind her of her royal roots—and royal expectations. To remind her she should be a dutiful daughter, an obedient princess.
Uh, yeah, not.
She’d always been a rebel, and never been much for the suffocating mantle of royal life. She was more at home with dirt under her nails than wearing a starched dress to a state dinner. She’d taken the etiquette lessons, suffered through boarding school and sat quietly through countless events, trying her best to be what everyone expected of a princess.
Most of the time. And now, she was doing the exact opposite, which had displeased her parents to no end. Carrie was tired of caring. She was ready to live her life, and be free of all that once and for all.
“When are you coming home?” her father asked, in their native, lyrical Uccelli language.
“I just got here,” she answered, reverting to her native tongue, too. It felt a little odd after days of speaking only English. “I haven’t even started working yet.”
He pshawed away that notion. “You have work here. Come home.”
“Papa, we talked about this. I’ll be home in a few months. The wine shop needs an advocate for Uccelli. If we can get the American sales off the ground—“
“We need you here,” he said. “Your sisters, everyone, needs you here.”
Ever since her middle sister Allegra had become queen, her parents had been urging Carrie to be a bigger part of the royal family, to take a more active role in the Santaro family causes and the country’s needs. Something Carrie had resisted almost from birth. She wanted nothing to do with any of that. Just the thought of being surrounded by all that pomp and circumstance made her feel like she was being suffocated. “They’re fine without me. I’m barely a part of the family activities. The media hardly noticed I left.”
There’d been one small piece in the Uccelli papers, a quick mention that Princess Carlita had gone on vacation, and nothing more, her sister Mariabella had said. If Allegra had been the one to leave the country, there’d have been newspaper and television coverage for days. Not for the first time, Carrie thanked her lucky stars that she would probably never be queen.
“That’s because we have worked to keep your ‘antics’ out of the media, and keep this vacation of yours a secret.”
“It’s not a vacation, Papa. It’s a job.”
He sighed. “I know you love this work, and think this is what you want to do—“
“Think? I know.”
“But it is far past time you acknowledged your heritage,” her father said. “And stopped playing in the vineyards. And at life. All these years, I have indulged you and let you have your freedom. You, of all the daughters, have had the least to do with the royal family and its duties. But now, you are twenty-four, my dear. Time to start settling down and become a true Santaro.”
Settle down? She bristled at the thought of handing her life over to yet another person who would want to tell her where to sit, how to act, what she should do. In the last year, her father had also been pressing her to be a bigger part of the royal family. He’d reminded her a hundred times that play time was over and now she needed to step more fully into her role as princess. “That is the last thing I want to do right now.”
“I love you my daughter, I really do, but you have one fault.”
They’d had this discussion a thousand times and Carrie didn’t want to have it again now. “Papa—“
“You flit from thing to thing like a butterfly. First it was wanting to be a landscaper. Then it was being a champion in dressage. Then it was rock climber, I think. Now, a shop owner.” He paused, and she could hear the disappointment in his voice. “When are you going to settle down? It is time to be serious.”
“I am, Papa.”
He sighed. “I know you are trying but it would be nice if you found a career you could stick with. A place to really shine.”
“I already have—working in the vineyard.” But as she said the words, she knew he had a point. She had darted from job to job, pursued a dozen careers in as many years. She’d never settled down with anything until now. Not a job, not a man, not a thing. “You don’t understand. It’s hard to find your place in the sun,” she said quietly, “when there are so many stars overhead.”
“Oh, cara, I understand that,” her father said, his voice softer. “I grew up in my father’s court, the second of five. If my eldest brother hadn’t died, I would have lived a very different life than the one I had. It was a good life, though, and I am not complaining.”
Carrie sent up a silent prayer that she was so far removed from the throne that she would probably never have to worry about wearing the crown. “I love working in the vineyards and with the wine, Papa. I want to run the vineyards some day.”
“It is not a proper job for a princess,” he said. “Go back to college. Become a doctor. A humanitarian. Something that befits royalty.”
In other words, not something where she got her hands dirty. When the vineyard’s marketing manager announced last month that this year’s harvest would be his last because he was retiring, Carrie had seen it as her chance to take a more active role in the company she loved so much. Her father had disagreed. She’d hoped he would come around, but clearly, he wasn’t about to. She wanted to prove to him with this trip that she could do both—have a career she loved and represent the royal family in a dignified way. “Papa, I will be home in a few months,” she said again, more firmly this time.
“This is yet another lark for you, Carlita, my dear.” Franco Santaro sighed. “I worry about you.”
“You don’t need to, Papa.”
“I do, cara. You dropped out of college after your first year. Then dropped out of the second one. And barely finished at the third. And now you go to this town--” He cut off the sentence, leaving whatever else he intended to say unsaid. “I worry. That’s all.”
Carrie winced at the reminders. “I just wasn’t a good fit for college. I love being outside, being hands-on.” She sighed, then gripped the phone tighter. “Tell Mama I love her. I have to go or I’ll be late for work. I love you, Papa.”
“I love you too. I will talk to you soon.”
Carrie hung up the phone. She showered and dressed, then drove the two miles from her rental house to the downtown area of Winter Haven. It wasn’t until she parked that she realized she was a full half hour early for her first day of work.
She got out of the rental car and stood under the sign of By the Glass, the specialty wine shop where she’d be spending the end of summer and early fall. This was what it had all come down to—her years working in the vineyard, working her way up from a vineyard tech job to a viticulturalist assistant, and after she’d gotten her degree, assistant to the manager.
She’d loved learning about the science of field blending to create new flavors. Loved seeing the finished product taken from a harvest and bottled for consumption. She’d tried several degree programs before settling on one in sales and marketing, with a heavy concentration in viticulture—even though her father had argued against those courses.
Once she got more hands-on at the vineyard, she wanted to parlay what she had learned into growth for the company. It had taken nearly a year to convince her father that Uccelli’s amazing wines should be sold in the US and that she should be the one to head the venture. When Jake, Mariabella’s new husband, had offered backing to open a wine shop in the small tourist town in the Midwest, the former king of Uccelli had finally agreed.
At first, Carrie was content to let the shop run itself while she watched from Uccelli and spent her days helping the vineyard manager run the operation. But as the first few weeks passed and the sale of Uccelli wines in America remained stagnant, she knew she wanted to take a more active role. Do what made her happiest— get involved and get her hands dirty. And finally implement some of what she had learned in college.
She’d spent two weeks at a wine shop in Uccelli, learning the techniques of selling. Still, her father had had his doubts, sure she’d turn around in a day, a week, a month, and embark on something else.
How could she blame him? When she’d come home from her third and final college, her father had been sure she’d never settle into any one career, despite her framed degree. But Carrie had retreated to the vineyards, and as soon as she did, felt at home. She’d known this was where she’d been meant to be, all along. Any doubts she might have had disappeared.
Now Carrie was going to prove not just her own worth as a vineyard director, but the worth of the Uccelli wines to foreign markets. And maybe, just maybe, she’d return to Uccelli and her father would finally see she was committed to this work, and the best next choice to run the vineyard’s overseas operations. If not, well, she’d scrimp and save until she had one of her own.
But the little nagging doubts still crowded on her shoulders. What if you quit this too, that voice whispered, What if you fail? Where will you be then?
She would not fail. Simple.
Carrie unlocked the front door, let herself in, then did the few morning tasks required to open the store. By the time Faith, the regular clerk, came in, the shop was already humming with music and warm incandescent light. “Wow,” Faith said as she dropped off her purse behind the counter. “You’re in early.”
“I was excited about my first day.” Carrie slipped onto the other side of the heavy basket display of featured wines and helped Faith carry it out to the sidewalk. The sales clerk—whom Carrie had met when she’d arrived in Winter Haven on Friday—was a tall, thin blonde with a warm smile and wide green eyes. She’d welcomed Carrie, and quizzed her for a solid hour about the Uccelli wines that first day, clearly excited to meet someone who had direct experience with the vineyards.
“It’s nice to work with someone who likes their job,” Faith said as they walked back into the shop. “The last girl we had here was late so often, I gave her an alarm clock for her birthday.”
“Did it work?”
“Nope. She dropped it when she ran to her car that night because she was late for a date.” Faith shook her head. “I already think you’re going to be a better clerk than she ever was. Plus you know these wines better than anyone.”
Carrie brushed away a long lock of dark hair, and tucked it behind her ear. A flush heated her cheeks. “Thank you.”
“Hey, I’m having a party a week from this Friday,” Faith said as she arranged a display of corks on a small round table by the register. “Just burgers and chips at my lake cottage, before the weather gets too cold to do anything. You should come. You’ll get to know a lot of the locals.” Faith grinned. “Maybe even meet someone sexy, for a little end of summer fling.”
“A fling? Me?” Carrie laughed. “I’m not the fling type.”
“Think about it. You have the perfect situation. You’re only here for a few weeks before you go back to the other side of the world. What better time to have a fling?”
“Princesses don’t have flings, Faith. My father would have a heart attack.” She could just imagine Papa’s face if she added a public scandal to her list of mistakes. It would be ten times worse than the time she skidded in a half hour late, wearing grape-stained jeans to a media-filled dinner with the Prime Minister of Britain.
Faith leaned in closer to Carrie. “Every woman deserves a fling, Carrie. Otherwise, you’ll end up married and surrounded by kids and wondering what the hell you missed out on.”
Carrie thought of the prescribed life ahead of her. The people expected it, after all. Her oldest sister was married and already talking about kids, while her middle sister, the queen, had gotten engaged last month. Carrie was expected to go back to Uccelli, find an “acceptable” career, and an “acceptable” spouse, as her older sisters had done, and then fill her calendar with state dinners and ribbon cuttings and uplifting speeches.
Ugh. Just the thought of what lay ahead made Carrie want to run screaming from the room. How had her mother ever stood it? Was that why she’d reminisced about her time in Winter Haven? Because it had been a brief pocket of freedom to be herself?
“I’ll be there,” Carrie said, deciding that while she was here, she was going to experience everything she could. She might not have a fling, but she intended to have a damned good time. It might be her last opportunity for a while, and she intended to take advantage of the break from expectations.
Mama had told her dozens of times about this little Indiana town, a place she’d visited once when she’d been younger, before Carrie had come along. Mama had lived here for a summer under an assumed name, as a person, not as a queen. In those days, the media hadn’t been as ravenous to uncover every detail, nor did they have the resources of the Internet, so Bianca had been allowed a rare window of obscurity. Mama had raved about this town to Carrie so often that when Carrie was brainstorming with Jake about a test location in the U.S., Winter Haven had been the first one to come to mind. In the few days that she had been here, she had seen firsthand why her mother loved the little town so much. It was charming, quiet and filled with warm, welcoming residents.
And, to be perfectly honest, she’d wanted to know what the appeal had been for her mother. Whenever Mama talked about Winter Haven, her features softened, and she got this dreamy look. Carrie had to wonder what had made this place so unforgettable.
The morning passed quickly, with several customers coming into the little shop. Every bottle of Uccelli wine that left By the Glass gave Carrie a little thrill. It was like handing over a part of her heritage, herself, and she was delighted to share the beautiful bounty of her country with others. She belonged in this field, she just knew it.
By eleven, business had slowed. “You certainly have the magic touch,” Faith said. “I don’t think we’ve ever sold that much wine in the first two hours of being open.”
“People must be in a wine buying mood.”
“Or they’re so dazzled by meeting a real-life princess that they buy every bottle they can.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Carrie had mentioned her royal heritage when people asked her about her accent, which wasn’t all that pronounced, given the years she’d spent in British boarding schools—one of many attempts by her parents to curb their wild child. And even then, she’d released the information reluctantly, and only when pressed.
“I’m telling you, we should capitalize on the princess angle. Put up a sign and everything.”
“Put up a sign?”
“Something small. No billboards or anything. This is a tourist town, and a little brush with a royal, that’s the kind of thing tourists love.”
She hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“Might as well flaunt it if you got it, sister.” Faith grinned.
Advertise her royal heritage? Use it as a marketing tool? The idea grated. Her princess status had always been a chokehold on her freedom. “I just think it’d be better not to advertise that whole thing.”
“It could sell a whole lot of wine,” Faith said. “And isn’t that your goal? To make this store a success?”
Confronted with that truth, Carrie really didn’t have grounds to refuse. And wouldn’t it be ironic if the thing she hated most about her life became the thing that helped her get what she wanted? Plus, if she handled it right, she could show her parents that Carlita Santaro was the perfect representative for the kingdom’s wines.
Carrie glanced down at her faded jeans and the store logo T-shirt she was wearing. “I know one thing for sure.”
“What’s that?” Faith asked.
“I won’t be the princess they’re expecting.”
Faith smiled. “And that’s part of your charm.”
Carrie reached over and plucked the chalkboard advertising today’s specials out of the window. “So…where’s the chalk?”
# # #
The sign worked wonders. As word spread about Carrie’s presence in the shop, business began to triple, then quadruple. Carrie’s naturally outgoing personality was a perfect fit for the curious tourists. Faith was over the moon ecstatic about the uptick in business, and started talking about bringing in some temps to help with the additional influx of customers. Every day, Carrie went home to her rented cottage by the lake, feeling satisfied and proud of the job she was doing.
Maybe now, after seeing how she had helped spur sales of Uccelli’s prize-winning wines in America, her father would see that she was made for this business. That her heart was there, not in the palace or in some stuffy office.
“Hey, do you mind if I run out for lunch today?” Faith asked when business had ebbed a bit mid Thursday morning. “I know we’ve been crazy busy, and I hate even asking, but my mom and sister are in town today and they want my input on planning my youngest sister’s baby shower.”
“Go right ahead,” Carrie said. “I’ve got this under control.” She cast a glance at the cash register that had been the bane of her existence ever since she’d started working here. She’d been able to do everything in the shop, except get the recalcitrant machine to do what she wanted. It seemed no matter which button she pushed, it was the wrong choice. “More or less.”
Faith laughed. “Well, if it gets too crazy, just write down the sales and we’ll run them through later. And remember, this button here,” she pushed a big green one, “will open the cash drawer.”
Carrie nodded. “Okay. Got it.”
After Faith left, Carrie got to work dusting the shelves and giving the display bottles an extra bit of polish while a few customers milled about the shop. On the center shelf, she picked up the signature wine from Uccelli—a graceful Pinot Grigio with notes of citrus and almond. Carrie knew it had a crisp, dry taste, one that seemed to dance on your tongue. Of all the wines manufactured on the castle grounds, this one was her favorite.
A sense of ownership and pride filled Carrie. She had tended these vines. She had picked these grapes. She had worked the machinery that took the grapes from fruit to liquid. For years, she’d been the rebel—the girl skidding in late to dinner, the one who’d ducked ribbon cuttings, the one who’d done whatever she could to avoid her identity and its expectations.
Funny how all that bucking tradition could result in something so sweet, so beautiful.
The label was decorated with an artist’s rendering of the castle, its elaborate stone façade a dramatic contrast to the rustic landscape and the rocky shoreline. She traced the outline of the castle, ran her finger along the images of the four turrets, the bright purple and gold pennants.
The bell over the door tinkled. Carrie put the bottle back, then turned toward the door. A tall man stood just inside the entrance, his athletic frame nearly filling the doorway. The slight wave in his short dark hair accented the strong angles of his jaw. Sunglasses hid the rest of his features, yet gave him an edge of mystery. He had on jeans and a lightly rumpled button-down shirt, which made him look sexy and messy all at once.
Oh my. Something in Carrie’s chest tightened and she had to force herself to focus on her job, not on him. “Welcome to By the Glass,” she said. “What can I help you find?”
He pointed toward the chalked sign in the window. “I’m looking for the princess.”
Carrie smiled. She put out her arms and figured if this guy was disappointed to find out she wasn’t a diamond-clad diva, that wasn’t her problem. “That would be me.”
He arched a brow. “You?”
“Yes.” She put out a hand. She’d gotten used to introducing herself as a princess in the last few days, but this time, she hesitated for a second before speaking the words. Because she wondered what this handsome man’s reaction would be? “I’m Carlita Santaro, third daughter of the king and queen of Uccelli. Which is where the grapes are harvested and the wines are bottled.”
He removed the sunglasses, revealing eyes so blue, they reminded her of the ocean edging her home country. When he shook her hand with a strong, firm grip, Carrie thought about what Faith had said about having a fling. This guy was everything a woman looking for a little adventure could want. Tall, dark, handsome, and with a deep voice that seemed to tingle inside her. And best of all, no wedding ring on his left hand.
“I’m sorry, but I was expecting someone more…formal.”
She glanced down at the dark wash jeans and T-shirt she was wearing, her bright pink shirt sporting a logo for the store, and laughed. “Princesses don’t go around in long dresses and tiaras every day, you know.”
“True.” He released her hand, then fished in his breast pocket for a business card and handed it to her. “Daniel Reynolds. I work as a producer/reporter for Inside Scoop. I’d like to do a story on you and the shop.”
“A…” She stared at the card, then at the man. “A story? For the news?”
“Well, the show I produce isn’t news. Exactly.” He let out a little cough. “We like to call it ‘infotainment.’”
She shook her head. And here she’d actually been thinking of asking this man out. Clearly, her jerk radar was down, because this was just another vulture. “Paparazzi. Why am I not surprised?” She turned away from him, ignoring the business card. “Thanks, but no thanks.” She crossed to a short, older woman who had entered the shop while they were talking, and started telling her about the shop’s special on whites.
“I’m not a member of the paparazzi,” he said, coming up behind her.
“This Riesling is one of our top sellers,” Carrie said to the woman, ignoring him. He could spin it however he wanted, but she’d seen his type before. All they wanted was the scoop, another headline to blast across the airwaves. “If you like a sweeter wine, it’s a great choice.”
The woman tapped her lip, thinking. “I don’t know. My tastes run in the middle, between dry and sweet.”
“Then let me suggest—“
“This is the kind of story that could really put your shop on the map.”
“—this Pinot Grigio. A little dryer than the Riesling but not as dry as the Chardonnay you were considering.” She reached for the bottle, but before she could make contact, Daniel had inserted his business card into her hand. She wheeled around to face him. “I’m trying to do my job here.”
“And I’m trying to do mine.” He pressed the card against her palm. “Please at least consider my offer.”
“I don’t think so.” She took the card, tore it in half, and let the pieces flutter to the floor. “I have no interest in anything you have to say to me. Not now, not ever. Go find someone else to torment.” Then she turned back to her customer, exhaling only when she heard the shop’s door close again.
Shirley is excited to offer the first princess book—A Princess for Christmas—so readers can read Carrie’s sister’s story.
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