Will checked his phone; Frank had sent him a text telling him to listen to his voicemail message. Will turned back toward the gift shop, more determined than ever to take a date to dinner, but Tish was nowhere to be seen. A customer stood before the register, holding a cluster of postcards and looking around the room. Will slid behind the counter and the young man handed him the postcards. As he scanned them, Will tried not to stare; something about the man was familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Strong round jaw, rosy cheeks, blue eyes. If the man’s hair and beard were auburn instead of dark brown, Will would have thought he looked just like….
“The postcards are on the house, Your Highness.” Will said quietly.
The young man looked up sharply, saw that they were alone, and grinned. “You’re bold.”
“If I was wrong, I’d only be out two quid.”
“Am I that obvious?”
Will shook his head. “Lucky guess. I can’t believe they let you come in alone.”
The young man chuckled. “I didn’t ask permission.” He pointed through the window at the row of houseboats bobbing along the edge of the water. “See the blue one with the green stripe? My pals and I sailed down from Birmingham. Fun times, but I’ve been on that boat for four days. You’ve seen how small they are. I thought the hair dye would help.”
With a wave, His Highness was out the door. A moment later, Tish came out of the hallway leading to the bathrooms. “Did we have a customer?”
“Why are you smiling like that?”
Will hesitated. He would love to brag, but he was pretty sure Tish would swim out to the prince’s boat and ignore Will completely if she knew she had the option. Besides, the poor guy was just trying to have a breath of fresh air. Horses for courses, as his mother used to say. Tish was as discreet as a neon sign. If he breathed a word to her, the royal vacation would be cut short by paparazzi.
“Was she pretty or something?” Tish was staring at him.
“Yes, she was.” Will smiled. “Not as pretty as you, though. Do you think I could take you to-”
“I’m dating James now, sorry. I think the buses are here.”
She hadn’t even let him finish the question. His emotional roller coaster plunged from Prince Peak down to Reject Valley. He turned to look where Tish pointed and Stephen waved to him from the office doorway. It was time to prepare the crafts for the children.
Will took his time climbing the steps. He was dateless and carless with nothing to show for his efforts. He should have asked the prince for an autograph or a photo. His father would never believe him without proof. Will didn’t notice a large blond man slip out from behind a banner in the lobby and follow him up the stairs.
* * *
Will stopped in the doorway of the craft room. His phone was trilling again. Normally he silenced it before work started, but this morning had been filled with one distraction after another. It was another text from Frank. Angie already had the crayon cups on the tables and was pouring glue into shallow dishes. Will decided to be a slacker employee for once. He punched in the code to retrieve his messages and pressed the phone to his ear.
“Hello, Will. I was wondering if we could have dinner tonight instead of next week. Say six o’clock? Faythe has a thing back home this weekend and asked me to go with her, so I’ll be leaving town for a bit. Give us a ring.”
Time’s up. He’d failed. Depression and anger fought for control of his facial muscles.
“You look glum, Will.”
Will thought about forcing a smile, but it was too much effort. His equity was scraped up, he was alone in life, and he was out of time. Last time his father had left town “for a bit”, he’d stayed away for ten years. “Itchy feet” his mother had called it. Will called it selfishness. He stuffed his phone into his back pocket. “I am glum.”
“Was it the phone message?”
Will nodded. “My father is going to Greece this weekend with his girlfriend.”
“It’s a nice time of year to go to Greece.”
Angie pushed her glasses up onto her nose. “You’re only twenty, you’ve finished school and you’re employed. How much does he expect from you?”
Will shrugged. “To aspire to more, be more, have more. I take after my mother. She was content to wait tables in a pub all her life. Frank thought he was better than that.”
“Frank’s your father?”
Will nodded and pulled open another bag of craft sticks. Half of the sticks spilled out onto the floor. Will bent to pick them up and Angie crossed over to a table to get a cup to put them in.
“Sounds like you really –“
Angie dropped the cup and leaped over Will’s head. He heard her grunt and then she was flying back over his head and landed roughly on the floor. She rolled and crouched. Powerful hands grabbed Will’s shoulders and pulled him to his feet. The hands spun him around and gripped his throat. Will’s eyes grew large with surprise. It wasn’t just the unexpectedness of being choked, but also that he recognized his assailant. Will was looking at the meaty white cheeks, blond hair, and crooked nose of the copper he’d talked to that morning.