Heir Untamed
Author:Danielle Bourdon

Chapter One

Chey stared at the pink eviction notice on her apartment door with a heavy heart. Setting the bag containing her camera equipment by her feet, she pushed up her sunglasses to read the fine print: This is your final notice. Pay delinquent rent or face eviction on October First.

“I know, I know. I can't pull money out of thin air.” Chey peeled the paper off her door and fished her keys from a pocket. Letting herself inside, she set the camera case by the wall and put her purse down precisely in line with the edge of the couch.

Exhaling a long breath, she placed the eviction notice on a side table, using her fingers to align it exactly with the edge. Turned down for two jobs and getting threatened with eviction in one day was a little more than she could handle. Three weeks after losing her regular day job, she was still looking for work. The remaining prospects were grim.

Hands on her hips, she scanned the interior of the apartment with a critical eye. The couches, white with a soft floral pattern, had belonged to her parents. Chey inherited them along with the end tables, a hutch and kitchen table when they perished in a car accident eight months past. A coat rack, fake ficus tree and various antique odds and ends she had picked up at the local flea market. It wasn't much, but it was hers.

Where she would move it, she wasn't sure. What landlord would take her in with no job? Never mind she didn't have first and last—she didn't even have this month's rent. Walking to a calendar hanging on the wall just inside the kitchen, she glanced at the date. September Thirteenth. She had roughly two weeks to come up with this month and next month's rent.

Running her fingers over the close up shot of wildflowers on the calendar, Chey appraised her work. When she wasn't employed at a portrait studio, she made calendars and prints to sell through various outlets online. She'd been hoping to pull in supplemental revenue but sales had been disappointingly slow after the last holiday rush.

Flipping the calendar to the next month, she eyed the landscape of poppies. It was a good, clear shot. Somewhat whimsical. The problem was the other million or so photographers trying to make a living the very same way. Getting seen was the hard part. Maybe today someone had purchased a hundred coffee cups with hydrangea or calendars with spectacular sunsets.

Heading into her bedroom, Chey picked her laptop up off her nightstand and sat with her legs folded beneath her on the bed. Opening the cover, the machine sprang to life from sleep mode. Rubbing her palms together, sending up a silent prayer, Chey got her fingers on the keys and accessed her seller account.

She needed sales. Desperately.

With hope in her eyes, she watched the correct screen pop up.

Nothing. Not even one sale.

She checked the account on another site. Just in case.

Nothing there, either.

Bringing up the local newspaper, she surfed to the classifieds and scanned the possibilities. She really wanted to stay within her chosen field—photography—but anything that would pay the bills would suit at this point.

“Day care, fast food, fast food, coffee cafe—all part time.” Part time didn't cover her rent and utilities, much less leave enough for groceries. The rent on her apartment, located in a slightly upscale neighborhood with good security in Seattle, was steep. Before the death of her parents, when she'd worked as an assistant to a prominent, private photographer, things had been much better. Since then, everything had taken a nose dive, including losing her beloved job when the photographer moved out of state.

“Convenience store. Full time, benefits in three months. But the pay...” Chey shuddered. It just wasn't enough.

Propping her elbows on her thighs, she brought her fingers to her temple and rubbed. She could hear her mother now, rattling on about stretching the skin around her eyes. Did she want premature wrinkles?

Chey rubbed anyway. It helped with the massive headache about to obliterate her world.

Maybe alcohol was in order.

A hard series of knocks on her front door startled Chey out of her descent into self pity. The manager of the complex wouldn't send people to kick her out early, would he?

Gripped by sudden anxiety, Chey set the laptop aside and climbed off the bed. Smoothing her hands down the burgundy, long sleeved sweater she wore over black slacks, she made her way to the door. When she peered out the peephole, she had a view of a man in a strict, very expensive looking suit.

Oh no.

Swallowing a knot of worry, she unbolted the lock and swung open the door.

Two men, hands clasped before them, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, stood waiting. One looked like he could have walked off a runway: dark hair, square jaw, straight nose. He wore a fine layer of short whiskers trimmed just so. His shoulders filled out the black suit perfectly. He held a briefcase in one hand.

The other...was frightening. Lighter haired, face craggy with a long scar slanting across one cheek, mouth a hard line. He was an inch or two taller than his companion, with broader shoulders and a thicker frame. Not fat, she could easily see, just more muscle mass.

These men had nothing to do with the apartment complex. Their clothes were too fine, their demeanor too strict.

“You're not the angels of death, are you? Because that would really round out my day,” she said.

The dark haired man laughed while the one with the scar cut a vicious looking smile.

“Madam, no. We're not the angels of death. I'm Allar and this is Hendrik,” the dark haired man said.

He had a smooth accent Chey found difficult to place. Instead of giving her name, she said, “Yes? What can I do for you.”

Just because they looked like a million bucks didn't mean they were on the up and up.

“We are here on behalf of the Ahtissari family,” he replied with an expectant pause, as if Chey should know who they were.

She arched her brows, searching her memory for the name. Had these been former clients? It didn't sound familiar. “I don't think I know anyone with that last name. I'm sorry—is this to do with a former shoot?”

“Not a former shoot,” Allar said. “New clients, should you agree to come photograph the family and their estate. Is there a coffee shop or somewhere we might sit and discuss business, Miss Sinclair?”

Chey, surprised that he knew her last name, held up a hand. “Excuse me a moment. How do you know who I am?”

Allar opened the briefcase and pulled out one of her latest calendars. The one of old structures at sunrise around Seattle.

“You are the Chey Sinclair who shot the photos for this, yes?” Allar asked.

“I'm...well yes, that's my calendar. Who did you say you're working for again?” Chey glanced between men. She wished she could see their eyes behind the shades.

“The Ahtissari family, Madam.” Allar slid the calendar into the case and withdrew a business card that he extended between two fingers.

Chey accepted it and glanced down. The royal blue card sported a family crest—two rearing lions back to back surrounded by ivy—and neat silver script: Allar Kusta. Security.

Security?

Hendrik also produced a card from an inner coat pocket. He handed it over.

Chey accepted it, noting it was the same crisp color and design. Hendrik Vello. Security. Both cards had nothing on the back. They also had no phone numbers or other identifying marks.

“Let me grab my purse and we'll go down to the clubhouse here. It should suit for discussing business. All right?” Chey slid both cards together and glanced at the men. She couldn't afford not to at least listen to their proposal.

“At your leisure, Madam.” Allar bowed his head.

Chey eased the door closed, pushed the cards into the slim pocket on her slacks, and bent down to pick her purse up off the floor. Slinging the strap over her shoulder, she plucked her keys off the table and stepped out. Locking the door behind her, she led the men down a flight of stairs and across a cobbled courtyard to a set of french double doors. Here she depressed a code into the keypad specifically issued to residents. Hendrik opened one door before she could reach for it.

Murmuring her thanks, she led them into the main part of the clubhouse. A stone fireplace took up half of one wall, while a kitchen and several conference rooms took up another. Under a vaulted ceiling with heavy beams meeting in the middle sat an array of couches, four overstuffed chairs and a coffee table.

Perching on a chair, she set her purse at her feet and addressed the men as they smoothed their ties and sat down.

“All right then. What are the details of the job?” Chey wasn't surprised when neither man removed his glasses. Allar was the one who replied after balancing the briefcase next to his polished shoe.

“A liaison for the Ahtissari's discovered your work during a search, presented it to the family, and they narrowed down their choice to you. It's a rather intensive offer, Miss Sinclair. They will request your presence at their estate for the next four months. You will photograph the family in various settings, at various times, along with an extensive portfolio of the house and grounds. They're looking for fine detail, unique perspective and imagination.”

Chey twitched in surprise. “Four months? Why so long?”

“They would like snaps of the seasons, Miss Sinclair, and the family engaged in activities suitable to fall and winter. You will need to be there as the foliage turns and the snows set in. I daresay, after viewing your work, that it's right up your alley.” Allar smiled.

Four months sounded like an eternity. That was an enormous commitment she wasn't sure she could make. Living on site would prevent her from finding another job in the meantime. As if he read her mind by watching her expression, Allar spoke up before she could.

“They are willing to pay you thirty-five thousand dollars, Miss Sinclair. Half now, and half when you're through. They expect all rights to the photos, as well, just so you're aware.”

Chey's mouth fell open. Thirty-five thousand dollars? Stunned into silence, she stared at the two men. That would easily salvage her apartment and allow her to sock a good sized chunk away for savings. She could return in four months and have the luxury of finding a job at will rather than rush to take whatever she had to.

Maybe fast food wasn't in her immediate future after all.

“I'm—wow. That's a very generous offer. I have no problem giving them the rights to the photos.” It wasn't standard practice, but for that price, Chey was more than willing to make an exception.

“So you're considering it, then? They're also paying for all travel expenses and any new equipment you might need.”

“Travel expenses. I see. Where, exactly are we traveling to?” Chey wondered if the family lived in an exclusive neighboring city. They had money, there was no doubt about that.

“To Latvala, Miss Sinclair. You will be photographing the Royal Family.”

“...excuse me?” Chey wasn't at all familiar with the country. She knew it was small and in Europe. That was about it. And what was this about Royals?

Allar's lips ticked like he was fighting off a smile. “The King and Queen? You will be staying at the castle, in your own quarters. Very nice accommodation, I might add. Not every guest is allowed to actually stay in residence with the Royalty.”

It all felt like a surreal dream. The Royal family wanted her to take their pictures? What might that do for her career?

Light it on fire, an inner voice insisted. What an incredible addition to her resume. She might even be able to go into business for herself when she returned with that kind of experience in her background.

Four months suddenly sounded terribly exciting. “Yes. I accept.”

Allar smiled. Reaching down into the briefcase, he withdrew a packet and extended it to her. “This is the contract and confidentiality agreement. All it really says is that you agree to give up rights to the photos and that you will not discuss anything you see or hear with outsiders regarding the family. Obviously, taking 'extra' photos to sell to anyone else, such as a rag, is off limits.”

“A rag?”

“Tabloids, Miss Sinclair.”

Chey took the envelope. “Oh, of course. No, I wouldn't dream of it. When do we leave? I have a few affairs to get in order.”

“As soon as possible. The family is offering a five thousand dollar bonus if we depart within twenty-four hours. When you've signed the contract, I'll issue you your first check. If you need a passport, we'll expedite one. The private jet is waiting at a local airstrip.” Allar and Hendrik stood at the same time.

Chey, clutching the packet and her purse, rose as well. When Allar extended his hand for a shake, Chey slipped hers into his and sealed the deal. For an extra five thousand dollars, she would have had everything ready to go by dinner if she had to.

“It shouldn't take me longer than twenty-four hours to get everything in order,” she said, releasing his hand. Hendrik didn't offer his, and she didn't push it. Chey had the idea he was the actual security rather than security-negotiator.

“We have your cell phone number, Miss Sinclair. We'll be in touch in the morning.” Allar, briefcase secure in his grip, departed the clubhouse with Hendrik on his heels.

Chey bid them farewell, watching until they were gone.

Excited, nervous, and still shocked, she left the clubhouse for her apartment. Royalty, castles, foreign countries oh my.

She hoped her life had just taken an abrupt turn for the better.



. . .



The private jet was the most luxurious thing Chey had seen in a long time. White leather seats and sofas trimmed in gold sat in a spacious layout which included a television, a wet bar and a kitchen further back near the bathroom. Opulence reigned, from the fine carpet to the sleek color scheme to the little luxuries such as fine chocolate, wine and the plush make of the furniture.

They had been in the air for eight hours already, the plane cutting through a dark sky with impressive speed. Before leaving Seattle, she had deposited the first check in the bank, pre-paid her rent for six months, and arranged for her neighbor to collect her mail.

As promised, Allar had a passport waiting when they arrived in a sedan to pick her up. Contracts signed, the only thing left to do was travel.

After an hour layover to refuel, they were back in the air. The stewardess, attired in a neat, dark blue suit, served her an early breakfast of fruit and toast at her request. Chey didn't want anything heavy sitting on her stomach when they landed. While she ate, she lamented that she hadn't had any time in Seattle to do research on the Royals. She wondered what they were like, and how many of them there were. Just how big was the castle?

Despite herself, intrigue crept in. She was going to be photographing Royalty. Rulers of a kingdom. Would they speak to her, or would they simply pose as she instructed and ignore her?

What a surreal turn of events.

Out the small oval window next to her seat, Chey watched the sun breech the horizon. At least they would be landing in daylight. She didn't want to arrive in the dark, when the impact of the country and the castle would be diminished.

An hour later, the captain announced their imminent arrival. Handing over her empty bottle and her plate to the stewardess, she buckled up and awaited landing. She caught glimpses of Latvala bathed in colors of the sunrise. It was difficult to tell any detail from this height, but she made out patches of farmland and a snaking river with ease.

The smooth transition from air to ground happened in a matter of minutes. After landing, taxiing and disembarking, Allar and Hendrik showed her to a waiting limousine. Painted a deep, royal blue, the vehicle sported silver accents which carried over to the plush interior.

Luggage stowed in the back, Chey watched the private landing strip fall away in favor of pristine, wild landscape that stretched as far as the eye could see. Chey likened the view to something primordial, lost to time, something one might find if they'd inhabited Earth a half million years ago. Broad meadows, mist clinging to the tops of the grass, were flanked by the distant outline of trees. The forest sprawled for miles, promising abundant wildlife and more importantly, privacy.

To her right, after a stand of Spruce fell away that had been choking the side of the road, the terrain gave way to the sea. Waves crashed hard on a shore with stretches of creamy looking sand interrupted by collections of boulders thrusting up from the ground. It was primal, beautiful, undisturbed by the advance of man.

Chey wanted to get out and start photographing immediately.

“We're here,” Allar said from the seat across. He gestured to the left.

Chey switched her attention from one window to another, gasping in shock as the Ahtissari family seat came into view.

Nestled in broad swathes of open land sat a castle worthy of fairy tales. It had everything a castle should: incredible architecture, turrets with spires, an iron toothed gate and the family standard flying high.

The only thing missing was a moat.

After passing through an initial checkpoint, they approached the iron gate. It cranked up a foot at a time as a guard, dressed in a dove gray uniform with silver trim, stepped out of the guardhouse to greet them. Exchanging brief words with the guard, the driver cruised through a fifty foot long tunnel that emerged into an immense courtyard. A fountain stood in the middle, carved of back-to-back lions standing on their hind legs, front claws raking the air.

Supported by eight columns, a porch ran the length of the main entrance, offset by enormous archways and broad, flat steps leading to a set of carved double doors.

The effect was imposing, stunning.

Chey could only gawk at the grandeur and the sense of history that emanated from every stone. She hadn't been able to appreciate the sheer enormity of what she was getting into until now.

When the car came to a stop, the driver got out and opened her door. Allar and Hendrik disembarked, standing aside to wait.

Following them out of the limousine, she shielded her eyes and swept a look all the way up the facade of the castle, awed by the size and scope. It was one thing to look at it out the tinted window of a car, and another to actually stand before it, feeling as impotent as a speck of dust on the pavement.

Relieved that she'd had the foresight to wear a business suit instead of something more casual, she smoothed a palm down the pale pink pencil skirt and straightened her matching short coat with a tug. The collar of a crisp white shirt showed beneath. On her feet, a pair of taupe heels added a modest three inches to her five-nine height.

More guards in military uniforms flanked the front doors.

“We'll be meeting with the liaison first thing,” Allar said, escorting her to the steps. Someone else obtained her luggage from the trunk and toted it behind.

“The liaison?” Chey parroted, falling in at Allar's flank. Hendrik, she noted, hovered in periphery.

“Yes. He is who you will report to, work through. When the family wants pictures, he is the one that will relay all pertinent information.” Allar preceded her through the front doors that one of the guards opened.

Chey sucked in a breath as she crossed the threshold in his wake. A foyer with a domed ceiling opened off the entrance, stunning with its arching beams and sparkling chandelier the size of a small car. Gray stone blended into cream walls and gold gilded baroque molding. A round table in the center held a floral display so colorful and striking that it nearly dominated the entire room. Shafts of sunlight spilling in tall windows illuminated two Great Halls that stretched to either side of the foyer, the décor a study in antiques and rich fabrics that probably cost more than she made in a year.

It was the most striking interior Chey had ever seen. Paintings from the hand of masters lined the walls and statuettes in marble stood near potted plants that added a touch of greenery to the austere décor. A double set of stairs swerved from the foyer to the first of several floors, ending in a long landing that seemed perfect for a Royal family to stand and look down at visitors from behind a banister carved in white.

“Miss Sinclair?”

Chey realized she was standing there gawking like a schoolgirl. “Yes?”

“This way, please.” Allar waited between the staircase in another hallway leading deeper into the castle.

“Of course.” Chey fell into step behind Allar. He led her past smaller rooms set off that main artery in the castle toward a smaller archway to the left. Here, doors to libraries, parlors and other formal gathering places opened off each side. So many that Chey wasn't sure how anyone didn't get lost on a regular basis.

Allar took a sharp turn through an open doorway toward the end of the hall.

Chey discovered a great room—great by her standards, at least—with a high ceiling, ancestral paintings in gilt frames and lavishly appointed furniture situated near a fireplace a grown man could walk into. Persian rugs decorated the floor and floor to ceiling windows at one end threw early morning light through the entire space.

“This is where the first photos will take place,” Allar explained, gesturing to the collection of divans and settees gathered at one end.

“It's certainly a beautiful room.” Chey had a difficult time dragging her attention off the splendor long enough to concentrated on work related things.

A man, perhaps six foot in height, with salt and pepper hair combed carefully away from his face swept into the room. He wore a strict suit in navy with a white shirt and tie.

“Miss Sinclair, I imagine,” he said, approaching with an appraising once over.

“Hello, yes.” She glanced away from Allar to the man she suspected to be the liaison.

He extended a well manicured hand once he reached her, a vague smile on his lips. “I'm Mister Urmas, your liaison to the Royal family.”

Chey shook his hand and released. “Allar mentioned that. My pleasure, Mister Urmas.”

“Likewise. I realize you have just arrived, but the first photos are scheduled for just after lunch in this room. That leaves you roughly three to four hours to set up your equipment and plan your poses. I'll have your regular luggage taken to your room and have the rest brought here, if that suits you?” He arched a brow, one hand smoothing down the front of his tie.

“I...yes. Of course.” This was what she'd come here to do, after all. Work. If she could just ignore her surroundings, it would make things a lot easier. “How many family members will I be photographing this afternoon?”

“The King, the Queen, two of their four sons and their significant others, along with their daughter. Seven altogether. A few things,” Urmas said, meeting her eyes as if to indicate the importance of what he was about to say. “There is standard protocol when dealing with the Royal family. Do not speak unless spoken to, try not to gawk and fawn, hm? They expect professionalism. Certainly do not ask if you can take your photograph with them, and should you need to pose a hand or a body, it will be done with suggestion and not touch, understood?”

Chey listened to the instruction with a hundred questions crowding the end of her tongue. She wasn't sure if she was surprised at the sudden way Urmas put her in her place or not. The easiest thing to do, was agree. So she did.

“Of course.”

“Excellent. I'll show you to your quarters once the first session is over. There are certain floors and rooms you are not allowed into, despite that you're here to capture the essence of the Royal family. I'll let you know which those are. Otherwise, the guards are aware you're here to photograph the castle, the gardens and the grounds. You may come and go as you wish in between sessions with the family. I should like to see daily updates and photos,” he said, taking a sleek, black phone from his pocket. “Also. This is yours to use while here. It is a secure phone that I'll be contacting you on. My number, as well as Allar's and Hendrik's, are already in there. If you find yourself in trouble, or with questions, use this.”

“I understand. Thank you.” She accepted the phone, noting it was a make and model she'd never heard of.

“I'll leave you to your planning, Miss Sinclair. If you have need of anything, Allar will be close by.” Urmas smiled, pivoted on a polished shoe, and departed the room.

Chey set the phone on a small round table just as several men carrying her equipment came in.

Time to get busy.



. . .



Once she delved into work, Chey became distracted with the details. It took her a half hour to set up her camera and tripod to best use the available light spilling in the windows. She knew this room had been chosen for the diffused glow casting it into shades of gold and meant to use it to her advantage.

Men and women came and went the entire time. Allar hovered near a wall, at the doorway itself, and back near a corner as she worked. Maids flitted in and out, taking care of last minute cleaning errands. They did not wear traditional little skirt uniforms, but athletic type pants in dove gray and white shirts with three quarter sleeves. Their pristine white tennis shoes squeaked on the floor where ever the Persian carpets gave way to marble or stone.

Once she was ready to go, Chey nudged the sofas and chairs into exactly the formation she wanted. She might change the arrangement at the last second depending on the people involved, but for now, this suited.

A half hour before the appointed time, Urmas made another appearance, thoroughly inspecting her equipment, the angle of the lighting and the furniture. He seemed pleased. Informing her time was short, he swept back out, shoes clicking smartly with his brisk stride.

Ten minutes before the arrival of the Royals, Chey checked her appearance in one of the overlarge, framed mirrors. She didn't want to present as scattered and harried. Chey preferred to look professional, in control and confident. The pink suit, a subdued color instead of a brash one, complimented her olive complexion. She also thought it went well with her dark hair. Worn half up and half down, the mass fell past her shoulders in soft, wavy layers. The make up she'd applied so many hours ago made her high cheekbones look sharper and accentuated the blue of her eyes. A dusky rose lip color had, alas, begun to wear off.

Smoothing her palms over the narrow indent of her waist, she turned away from the mirror just as eight men swarmed into the room. Imposing, dressed in black on black business suits, eyes covered by sunglasses, they could only be the next stage in security.

Four broke away from the group; two split off to check her equipment and two more approached her without smiles.

“Excuse us. We'll need to make sure you're not carrying anything, Madam,” one said.

Chey, taken by surprise at the abrupt way they entered her personal space, had no time to protest. One man simply began patting her down while the other picked the phone Urmas had given her up off the table.

For the first time since her arrival, Chey wanted to scowl and slap at hands. The security guard never touched her inappropriately, yet he also did not miss any pertinent places she might be hiding camera phones, microphones or weapons. He was exceedingly thorough and seemingly indifferent to basically feeling her up.

It was over before she really got steamed, the phone returned to the table while the men retreated to stand at different points in the room.

Was this how it always was for Royalty, even in their private residence?

Or was it her presence among them that upped the security level?

Chey returned to her camera and equipment to double check that none of the security guards had accidentally messed with the settings. Everything was in place, exactly as she'd left it.

A flurry of movement outside the doors preceded the prowling entrance of a man with dark hair combed away from his face. Unlike the guards, this man wore a regal mantle like some men wore cologne, effortlessly and with devastating effect. He commanded attention by the sheer force of his magnetism, which filled the room to overflowing.

It was impossible, Chey thought, not to follow him with her eyes.

Allar appeared at her shoulder, head bent to murmur near her ear. “I know it's difficult, but try not to stare to the point of his discomfort, hm?”

Before Chey could think to shape an answer, the unnamed man pinned a look directly on her. He had eyes the color of coffee grounds, so dark she couldn't tell where the brown ended and the black of his pupil began. The way he assessed her felt like a shredding; her character, her morals, her soul. He cocked his chin a fraction and arched a brow.

“Miss Sinclair,” Allar said, this time with more urgency.

Chey looked away from the dark haired man and fumbled with her camera. But she felt the lingering stare from across the room. He had to be Royalty.

Two women strode in next, both blonde, one natural and one born of a bottle. They were of a similar height and wore upscale, demure clothing that complimented their coloring. Neither so much as glanced Chey's way. The taller of the two paced her way toward the dark haired, dark eyed man like she owned him.

Indeed, perhaps she did. When she arrived at his side, she slithered a long fingered hand through the crook of his elbow and tilted a sleek hip against his. Whatever endearment rolled off her tongue was in a language Chey didn't understand.

The man smirked and looked out the window instead of at the blonde, replying in a voice too low to make out his words. The sound nevertheless resonated, a pleasant burr on the skin.

A third woman stalked in, heels clacking on the floor. Right off the bat, she had a petulant demand. “How long is this going to take?”

Beautiful by anyone's standards, the brown haired, blue eyed woman flounced herself into a lean against the side of a chair, exhaling in a very obvious display of being put upon. She caught sight of Chey and looked her up and down in a way that might have stripped other women to their core. Then, just as fast, she dismissed her.

“Only as long as it takes for everyone to arrive. I shouldn't imagine the actual picture taking will be an extended affair,” Urmas replied as he entered from the hall.

On his heels, another man strode in, hair black as pitch, green eyes sweeping the room before landing on the natural blonde. He went straight to her and murmured in her ear.

Chey decided the dark haired men were the brothers Urmas mentioned, the women their wives or intended. The pairings made sense and the men weren't security, which left Royals.

The petulant woman must be the sister.

“Those two there by the window are Mattias and the woman he dates, Viia. Mattias is second in line to the throne behind his eldest brother, Dare,” Allar murmured.

Chey now had a name to go with the man who exuded so much primal magnetism: Mattias. It suited him.

“The other male, with the green eyes, is Paavo. Third in line to the throne. His fiance there is Aurora. And the little beauty who is impatient to start is Natalia. All we await now are the King and Queen, then we may begin.” Allar straightened after he completed filling Chey in on who was who.

“Thank you,” Chey said under her breath.

Mollified to know she'd at least guessed the status, if not the rank, Chey fixed her attention on the equipment. Although it was already set and ready, she went over it again. Just to keep her fingers and mind occupied. She wondered if this was the way it would be for every shoot, with the security heavy and the Royals staggering in at intervals.

“Oh, and because you're American, you're not expected to curtsy to Royalty, but it would be a mark in your favor if you learned and displayed your lesser rank at some point,” Allar added.

Chey noted the men in the room had all at least bowed their heads in deference. She wasn't sure how she felt about curtsying to anyone, especially people who were not of her home country. Curtsying wasn't a custom anyway in America—why should she do it here?

When in Rome, do as the Romans do, she reminded herself. It sat ill with her, as well, hearing of her lesser rank. Mildly irked, she hid it behind a professional veneer.

“I'll take that into consideration.” Chey kept her voice low, like she worried she might disturb the waiting Royals.

“Excellent.” Clearly, Allar approved.

A disturbance in the hallway alerted Chey to the arrival of the King and Queen. They entered with a surprising air of normalcy. The King, a tall man with salt and pepper hair and a neat mustache-goatee combination, held himself with importance but also nonchalance. Dressed in a sharp suit of navy pinstripes, he wore a draping mantle of fur around his shoulders, denoting his status and title. His wife appeared almost bored, but not rudely so, dark hair swept up into an intricate coif held with tiny pearl pins. Her eyes were the exact same color as Mattias's. She wore a dress in gray so light it was almost white. The beaded lapels matched the three inch cuffs.

Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing to either bow or curtsy.

Chey felt out of place and diverted her attention back to her camera. She didn't want to stare and be reprimanded nor did she feel comfortable attempting an awkward curtsy. She had trouble getting past the notion that these people ruled an entire country, had ruled it for generations. It was incomprehensible that someone had so much power and influence, even though the rational part of her mind understood that this was the way it had been in many countries for centuries.

The moment passed as quickly as it had arrived, much to her relief. She watched the pomp and circumstance, all the people coming and going that had some sort of duty to the Royals, with no small amount of subdued awe. One staff member approached the Queen carrying a pillow with a gilded staff nestled on top. The Queen picked it up with care and tucked it regally into the crook of her arm like a mother with a newborn baby.

“And that, of course, is King Aksel and Queen Helina. You will be doing several sittings with just them in the coming days,” Allar explained in a low voice at her ear.

“I imagine so, considering their status,” Chey whispered. After all, she was here to capture their likeness for the history books and future generations.

“How would you like your first pose?” Allar asked.

Chey didn't need to stop and contemplate. She pointed to chairs and sofas and added names to go along with them. Women in the front, Queen in the center, the men standing behind.

Allar stepped away and approached Urmas, relaying the information. Urmas, in turn, began gently suggesting seating, brisk and businesslike.

Chey stepped behind the camera to size up the scene. Maids hurried in to arrange the clothing just so, brush off shoulders and fix pieces of hair at the last second.

Queen Helina suddenly glanced to her left when Viia left Mattias's side and strode out into the hallway.

“What is she doing?” Helina inquired.

“Mother, she is not family--” Mattias began to explain, but Helina cut him off.

“She will be shortly. Bring her back in,” she insisted.

“Nothing is set in stone. You should have asked me before you invited her,” Mattias said, a muscle flexing in his jaw.

“Aurora is not technically family and she's in the photo,” Paavo said. “Or is this your subtle way of saying she should go, too?”

“Try not to tax your brain too much, little brother. I care not if your fiance is in this picture. A woman I'm dating is much different.” Mattias exchanged a dark look with Paavo.

After a glance between the Queen and the King, Aksel lifted a hand to gesture. “Bring Viia back in.”

Mattias hissed and stared forward.

Viia re-entered the room with a haughty set to her shoulders. She acted as if this was her due, something she had already rightfully earned.

Chey paused, using the view finder of the camera to stare at the Royals in a way she could not otherwise. The tension in the room rose by leaps instead of fractions. She re-issued instructions to Urmas to fix the seating arrangements and prepared to get the session under way.

Soon, the Royals were situated, spines stiff, shoulders square. Chey wanted to tell them to relax a little, to smile. They wanted to come off as more human, unless she missed her guess, and this wasn't exactly fitting the bill.

Taking the remote shutter in one hand, she straightened to view the group with the naked eye over the top of the camera. Right away her gaze locked onto Mattias's. Ensnared, Chey traded a look with him that left her a little light headed. Tearing her eyes from his face, she got back to business.

“Ready?” she asked the group. There was no way she was going to try and coordinate this part through third parties. The Royals would just have to deal with her personally. “On three, two, one...”

She squeezed the bulb in her palm. Not one of the Royals smiled. They wore stern expressions, thin mouths and an overall tense mantle that would carry over into the photo.

“Once more, please.” Chey repeated the countdown, studiously refusing to meet Mattias's eyes again. She could feel him staring. Was he unhappy with her for putting Viia next to the Queen?

Settling into a routine, Chey organized—via Allar and Urmas—to take singles of the King and Queen, of the King with his two sons, and the Queen with her daughter.

The entire time she avoided making eye contact with Mattias, though she felt the weight of his attention often.

When she'd taken upwards of thirty photos, she knew the Royals were at the limit of their patience and she was thoroughly done with organizing poses through Allar and Urmas.

She took down her equipment as the Royals filed out of the room, busying herself with her task. The security detail followed them out, leaving just a handful of liaisons and staff in their wake.

Relieved to have session one out of the way, Chey carried one bag while Allar carried the rest with Urmas in the lead for her private suite.

She couldn't wait to change, relax and investigate more of the castle on her own.