Karen Jameson pedaled her bicycle past the Hotel de Paris, coasting down the long hill onto the busy Avenue de Monte Carlo with the yellow scarf covering her auburn hair fluttering in the April sea breeze. To her left, between two gleaming white office buildings with red and white Monacan flags dancing above them, she glimpsed yachts riding at anchor in the harbor. Would she ever have the chance to go aboard one of them? Her friend Ginny kept insisting anything was possible in Monte Carlo...
"Arretez!" a man's voice shouted. "Stop!"
Belatedly, Karen looked back toward the road in time to see a dark-haired man dressed in white fling up his hands to try to ward off her bicycle. She squeezed the two brake handles. Her bike skidded, brakes squealing. Too late.
She gasped as the front wheel struck the stranger's leg. Crying out, Karen closed her eyes as she hurtled up and over the handlebars and into his outstretched arms. He staggered backwards, tripping over the low curb and they fell to the grass in a tangle of arms, legs, and bicycle wheels. Karen's eyes flew open.
"If you keep driving so recklessly," an amused male voice said in English, "you'll never qualify for Le Grand Prix."
What was he talking about? "The Grand Prix?" she echoed, her face flushing as she became aware of how closely she and the man in the white suit were entwined. "I didn't see you," she sputtered defensively, hurriedly pulling away to sit up. "Where did you come from?"
He didn't answer.
She got her first really good look at him and caught her breath. "I--I--" she stammered.
What was the matter with her? Anyone would think she'd never seen a good-looking man before. And he really wasn't the handsomest one she'd ever met, either. Maybe his hair was a shade darker and glossier than any other black-haired man, perhaps his eyes were a more brilliant blue. Certainly his tan was deeper than most Monesgasques, contrasting fantastically well with the whiteness of his teeth as he smiled at her.
He wasn't perfect. His left upper incisor was slightly crooked and she noticed the pale slash of a scar on his right cheek. What had caused it?
Karen shook her head, annoyed at herself. She was staring at him and his amused grin told her he knew it. Had she lost her wits? She was twenty-five, not sixteen.
"I'm sorry," she managed to say. "It really was my fault. I was looking at the harbor instead of where I was going."
"The important question is--are you all right?" He had the slightest of accents. Not American, then. Was he English?
Karen moved her arms and legs experimentally. Everything worked. "I'm not hurt," she assured him. "How about you?"
"No problems." The dark stranger disentangled himself from the bicycle and helped Karen to her feet. She gazed up at him. He was at least several inches taller than six feet. She became aware he was still holding her hand as though he never intended to let it go. Which suited her just fine, his touch was not only comforting but seemed in some strange way to spread warmth throughout her body.
What was she thinking? Karen pulled away, conscious now of her disheveled appearance. She found his blue eyes appraising her but couldn't quite read their expression. Interest? Or merely amusement?
"Oh dear, I'm afraid I've ruined your suit," she said quickly. Grease and grass had left black and green stains on both legs of what she could tell were expensive white trousers.
He shrugged off the ruined suit with a smile. An indulgent smile, she decided ruefully. As though he considered her an amusing child.
Picking up her bike, he spun the wheels. "Your cycle survived the collision in excellent condition."
A horn blared behind them, loud and imperative. Karen turned and saw a low red sports car drawn up to the curb. Behind the wheel sat a beautiful honey blonde with her hair elaborately fluffed into a carefully casual arrangement. Her pale, flawless face was highlighted by lavender tinted eyelids colored to match her low vee-necked blouse. Even the exaggeratedly long dark lashes, so obviously false, added to the impression of cool and sophisticated elegance. Karen felt all the more disheveled.
"I'm afraid I must leave you." As he spoke the stranger in white retrieved her guidebook and room key from the grass, dropped them into Karen's bag and, flashing another of those dazzling smiles, handed the bag to her. "For now." He nodded and strode to the car.
The blonde shifted to the passenger side. As the dark stranger was about to slide behind the wheel, he glanced back at Karen and gave her a mock military salute. A moment later the sports car, purring expensively, merged into the traffic on the Avenue. Karen watched the car until it was out of sight.
After replacing her bag in the basket on the handlebars, she coasted slowly and carefully down the hill to the Boulevard Albert. Those two, the man in white and the exquisite blonde, lived in a very different world from hers. She'd never met anyone like them in Marquette, the small city on Michigan's Lake Superior where she worked as an RN. They lived in a fairy tale realm, a place of wishes and make-believe. Already the bicycle accident seemed like a daydream, the dark stranger a fantasy.
With Monte Carlo's harbor to her left and the La Condamine, the industrial district, to her right, Karen pedaled past a building rising more than ten stories above the street. The Administration Center, she decided, picturing the map in her guidebook.
She knew from reading the text that the entire principality of Monaco clung to the foothills of the Maritime Alps, which dropped off sharply here into the Mediterranean. Except for one massive rock jutting out of the water, atop which was the third and oldest of the three towns of the principality--Monacoville. It surrounded the castle fortress of the Grimaldi Palace. Actually there was no dividing line between Monte Carlo, La Comandine and Monacoville--they flowed together.
"You're forever studying that guidebook," Ginny had complained when they arrived in Monaco the night before. "If you're not careful you'll become just like it, full of facts and information but as dull as a zombie."
"Knowing what to look for makes traveling more fun," Karen protested.
Ginny had shaken her head. "I prefer being surprised. Pleasant surprises are what traveling's all about."
Maybe so, but getting lost could be most unpleasant, Karen thought as she stopped her bike to take a closer look at the yachts anchored on the glittering waters of the harbor. She liked to know where she was headed and what she'd find when she got there.