The Duke’s Brother
Tripp Valdez, Prince of Torren, a small Mediterranean island, told the driver to pull over to the curb on the busiest street of Grevena, the village outside of the Valdez palace. The limo door opened and the familiar smells of sausages in the street carts, the candied nuts from Torren Chocolatier, and the many flowers from the florist filled him with a sense of home. Grevena was his favorite place. Tripp drank in the charm of his home village in great breaths of happiness.
“Prince Tripp!” A young boy shouted down the street, waving his hands around.
He waved back, feeling the familiarity of his home settle around him. Rarely did he take the time to visit Grevena, something he planned to change. He started walking up the cobblestone sidewalks, smiling and waving every now and then. He stepped out in the street to avoid the tables of the street café. Julliano owned it and made the best Italian food of any he had had.
The kids lined up outside the gelato counter.
Tripp called to the girl working the counter, “What’s the new flavor?”
“Coconut,” she called back with a warm blush.
The town protected the Valdez family from the press. They never called in when the brothers made an appearance on the streets and therefore the family could be out and associate with the shop owners and residents of Grevena. Tripp, of all the brothers, spent the most time in town; but today he realized it wasn’t nearly enough.
He turned the corner, his stomach rumbling for the cannolis in Stefano’s bakery. The bell jingled as he stepped into the small space, cinnamon tickled his nose and made him think of their famous cinnamon rolls. “Making the rolls today?”
The girl at the counter wiped flour on the front of her apron. “The first batch is just—” She met his eyes and stopped. “Oh. Your highness. It’s just coming out now.” She looked down at herself and then took off her apron. She brought a hand to her face, wiping flour there as well.
Tripp smiled. “Here, let me.” He reached forward over the counter and used a napkin to wipe the flour off her cheek. When she raised her eyes to his, he was charmed. Her deep browns held flecks of amber. They twinkled up in the corners and he found her delightful. “And who might you be?”
He smiled and nodded. “Fitting.”
She cleared her throat. “And you are Tripp Valdez?”
“Yes I am.” He held out his hand to shake hers. When she placed her small cool fingers in his palm, he covered them with his other hand. “Happy to meet you. I haven’t seen you before, have I?”
She shook her head. “Not since we were children. I’ve been away.”
“But you’re back?” He hoped she was back. He wanted to get to know her. She was the first intriguing woman he had met in a long time.
She looked down. “Well, no, my mother fell. I’m just here to help with things until she’s up and around again.”
Tripp was again charmed by this alluring woman. Without a hint of bitterness in her tone she spoke matter-of-factly of leaving her life to help her mother.
Her pert nose twitched when the flour at its tip must have itched her. He resisted wiping it too from her face.
She wiped the counter again, in slow circles. “So, what can I get for you today?”
“Oh, yes.” He ordered his favorites and then some extras just because he wanted to linger. Something about her made him want to get to know little things, like her favorite ice cream. A bandana, wrapped around her head tried to contain brown curls which escaped in all directions. He smiled at the rebellious ringlets that hung down almost to her forehead.
She gathered all his items and placed them in a box. Then she pulled an extra cookie from the top of the counter. “Here’s one I made.” She grinned, shyly eyeing him through her lowered lashes. “Just an extra.” She shrugged. “If you’d like.”
He stopped her hand as it went to nervously flip hair off her forehead and held it in his own. “Thank you.” Then he winked, grabbed his things and turned to leave the store. As the door shut, he heard her happy voice, “You’re welcome!”
Grinning, he called for the car to come get him. He couldn’t think of another time he had been so charmed by a lady.
She opened up her shop door and called, “You overpaid, by a lot.” Her deep blush made him smile.
“I think I paid just the right amount. Seems worth it to support my favorite bakery and the lovely shop assistant who dropped everything to help her mom.”
Her face pinched with emotion and he felt an inappropriate desire to pull her into his arms. “Everything ok?”
She nodded, looked as if she was about to say something, and then re-entered the shop without a word.
Perhaps he could come calling at the bakery a few times this week just to see if she was ok. And to see if his fascination continued. He really couldn’t be pursuing a woman right now. With things calming down around the palace, a quiet, hidden place inside yearned to be back on the slopes. The flare of hope ignited. Perhaps he could even work his way back onto the pre-Olympic trials world team.
His driver dropped him off in front of the palace and he went in search of his brothers. The Valdez family had just finished the summit for environmental reform on the Mediterranean. His brother, Trane, and Nico’s wife, Jo, had headed up the summit and all the countries had agreed on important changes. Tripp was proud of his part. But now that it was finished, he didn’t have any work to rush back to. Thoughts of the girl in the bakery kept making him smile. Jenneca. With amber flecks in her eyes. He winced. If Lucan could hear him now, Tripp’d never hear the end of it.
“Why are you grinning like a love sick puppy?” Lucan joined him on his walk down the hallway.
“I’m not. And the purpose of my smoldering smiles is strictly confidential. Even you don’t need to know.” As head of security for the family and their palace, Lucan sometimes forgot he was just a brother and there were some things he didn’t need to know.
“Nothing is strictly confidential, but we can all be relieved your grimaces are not matters of national security, so I’ll let it go.”
Tripp shook his head. But he was grateful Lucan took his job so seriously. “Brother. We need a vacation.” He had avoided the slopes since he had to step away from his position on a world slalom team. When his father died, and Nico was adjusting, then the bomb at the salt water facility and other typical issues for his family, Tripp quietly let his opportunities slip away. And he hadn’t plugged into that world since. It was still too painful. But now, suddenly, he wanted to return.
Lucan raised his eyebrows. “Somewhere ice cold and I’m in.”
He said just what Tripp was hoping he would say. They were having an unusually hot summer. The palace sat on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Even with their constant breezes and their higher altitude, the palace was sweltering. But Dachstein, in Austria. That sounded perfect.
“Helicopter terrain skiing.” Tripp raised his eyebrows.
Lucan’s eyes lit. “Dachstein? I’m so in. I think Hacher and the others will be training now; maybe we can pull them away.”
The Olympic and world skiers often used the facilities at one of Austria’s best resorts to train year round because the snow almost always boasted a fine texture and fell reliably, even in late July.
Lucan liked to come if anything extreme was involved.
“I’ll tell the staff to ready everything. We leave this afternoon.”
Nico joined them. “We leave where?”
He groaned. “Today? I can’t go today.”
“Come later this week. Come for a day. Get out of this oven and hit some runs with us.” Lucan knew everyone’s schedule. So Nico must have some time later on.
Tripp encouraged him. “Yes, Nico, and bring Jo. She’d love it.”
His frown turned hopeful. “Ok! I’ll see what I can arrange.” He shook his head. “I used to just ask Trane to take over, but now that he’s gone and found himself a woman, he doesn’t have any more time than I do.”
Trane and Seraphina approached. “That’s right brother. What do we need time for?”
Tripp grinned. “Dachstein.”
Seraphina’s eyes widened and she turned to Trane. “Oh yes!” They laughed and then Trane said, “When do we leave?”
“No, you are killing me.” Nico used to be the biggest partier of everyone, dodging his responsibilities all the time. Once their father had passed away leaving the crown to Nico, he had taken everything more seriously and with his new wife, Jo’s, help, had become one of the best monarchs Torren had seen in decades.
But Tripp knew Nico was dying inside at the thought of everyone having fun but him. “Just come, Nico. The Summit is over. Surely you can get away for a couple days.”
Nico’s face relaxed into a smile. “I think you’re right. I think we all need a break. Text your assistants, alter the schedules. We are heading to Austria. Dates invited.”
Tripp shrugged. He didn’t have anyone he would invite. And he preferred the steep helicopter drops. He didn’t usually do those when girls came along.
They boarded their jet; the staff loaded all the luggage and equipment. The noise of everyone made Tripp smile some more. The brothers relived every epic run they’d ever taken.
Thad called over to Tripp. “But Tripp there, he’s the one who will really slay.”
“You know it, brother. I’m doing strictly helicopter drops the first two days.” He couldn’t wait. The speed, the jumps, the unknown, the freakin’ adrenaline. His blood raced just thinking about it. And if he was being introspective, which he was for some reason, he loved the peace. Skiing in the quiet, through thick snow at the top of a mountain with only God and sky above you—it was the peace he craved even more than the thrill. He sat back and closed his eyes thinking about it.
A pair of brown eyes sparkled back at him in his thoughts, Jenneca from the bakery in town. Maybe he’d have to stop in there more often. He made a mental note to buy some Austrian chocolate for her and drop it by when he returned.