Lindsay Bergman writes wholesome, contemporary romance. She is the author of the YA romance series, The Royals of Coradova. Book 1, Heart of Mine, is now available.
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The charming storybook country of Coradova was nestled on an island in the Mediterranean Sea near France. After living here since I was seven-years-old, I had fallen in love with this small, peaceful kingdom. It was a Mediterranean paradise; the perfect vacation spot that I was fortunate enough to call home. Now at sixteen, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
The early morning sunshine glistened off an endless expanse of brilliant blue sea and spilled golden rays over the terra-cotta rooftops of nearby cottages. As we drove down from the heights of the capitol, I watched as the water rose and buckled in shimmering waves and listened to the roaring sound of the sea crashing upon the rocky cliffs down below.
The shiny red convertible sped around a curve. I laughed with reckless delight and glanced at the handsome nineteen-year-old behind the steering wheel. His raven black hair fluttered in the wind, and his blue eyes were bright with excitement. He shot me a heart-stopping grin as we raced along the twisting turns of the scenic seaside road.
We passed by tall waving palms and vibrant wildflowers, with the smell of the sea strong on the wind. As we drove closer to the harbor I could see the distant silhouettes of gulls wheeling through the cloudless sky and the tiny pinpoints of sails.
Alexander maneuvered flawlessly through the small, narrow roads of Les Arès, one of the finest ports of call in the Mediterranean. Clusters of small, colorful houses and shops lined the cobblestone roads of this favorite tourist destination. There were rows of sailboats bobbing in the water, and fishermen returning from the sea with brimming nets full of fish and lobster. The docks expanded through the port town to accommodate cargo liners and warehouses, and further beyond I could see the military buildings of Coradova’s naval base.
We drove through a set of security gates and parked in the backlot of the brand new marine life aquarium, where a line of men and women were waiting for us.
Alexander patted down his wind-ruffled hair, then winked at me before hopping out of the car. He strode around to open my door with a charming smile. I stepped out and smoothed a hand down my navy and white dress, wondering briefly if my brown, wind-blown hair looked presentable.
“Are you ready?” Alexander asked, buttoning the jacket of his gray business suit. “I’m afraid there’s going to be hours of pomp and circumstance.”
“It’s not my first ribbon cutting, Alex,” I reminded him.
Alexander smiled. “Well, thanks for coming to yet another one, Maddy.”
We turned toward the waiting group. I watched as the handsome boy I’d known for nine years transformed into the dashing Crown Prince of Coradova. The mantle of his birthright settled around his shoulders in an invisible, yet tangible cloak, and his stride was undeniably regal.
We exchanged greetings and introductions with the Board of Directors before receiving a private tour of the top-notch research and education facility. It was a non-profit organization that Prince Alexander had helped to establish for the rescue, rehabilitation and release of local marine life.
When we stepped out in front of the building, cheers arose from the excited crowd huddled together behind the security barricades. Each person here was eager to catch a glimpse of their beloved crown prince.
Accustomed to this level of attention since birth, Alexander smiled and waved as he approached the podium to give his speech. Behind him, two royal guards hovered within arms-length at all times. I would feel suffocated by their presence, but for Alexander it was yet another aspect of royal life that he merely considered normal—not that he didn’t occasionally rebel against it now and again.
After Alexander had cut the blue ribbon and posed for countless photos, we passed back through the aquarium to meet the staff. Based on prior experience, I knew it was going to be at least another two hours before we were free. I was bored already, but Alexander appeared thoroughly engaged. His greetings were warm, with a genuine welcome that left broad smiles on the faces of every staff member he met.
I was standing beside Alexander while he spoke with the director when I noticed a gaggle of female staff members pause nearby. Their eyes were centered on Alexander. Biting my lip to hide my amusement, I watched as they shamelessly shot him flirtatious smiles and batted eyelashes in an attempt to catch his eye.
I peeked at Alexander. He had noticed the girls as well and acknowledged their efforts with a dazzling white smile. They nearly swooned in response.
“Be careful not to make anyone faint this time,” I whispered.
Alexander struggled to cover his laugh. His amused blue eyes met mine briefly before he returned his attention to the director, a grin still tugging at his lips.
We were both familiar with the outrageous lengths some girls would go to in order to attract his attention. On one occasion his reciprocation had even caused a few girls to actually swoon. An embarrassed Alexander claimed it was caused by the heat. It had happened over a year ago, but I still loved ribbing him about his swoon-worthy charm.
On our way out of the aquarium two hours later, I paused near a massive fish tank as a memory from our childhood flashed through my mind. I tried to suppress a smile, but Alexander noticed my side-long glance.
His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What does that look mean?”
I couldn’t contain my mischievous grin any longer. “Oh, I was just thinking about that day you put fish in the palace swimming pool. You were such a trouble maker, Your Highness.”
One of the guards behind us snorted with mirth. It was probably Pierre—the prince’s Head of Security. He’d held the honor of guarding Alexander for over a decade and was very familiar with the prince’s childhood antics.
Alexander ignored the various chuckles coming from his trailing entourage and laughed, the sound echoing through the long hallway. “I did it because you said you wanted to swim with the fishes. I blame it all on you, Madison.” He nudged me playfully with an elbow as we continued walking. “You were always the mastermind.”
Twenty minutes later we were speeding back down the winding road along the coast with his personal security flanking us in black sedans.
Alexander had tossed his suit jacket into the narrow backseat, along with the invisible crown of his birthright. When he was alone with me he could leave behind the burden of royal duty and obligation that came with his title. For the moment, he was merely Alexander. Young and carefree, with the wind whipping across his face as we raced recklessly down the twisting road that would lead us home.
As we passed through the outer edges of the capitol, the towering silhouette of the royal palace came into view. It rested on the top of a hill overlooking town and sea. In that colossal, elegant white palace lived the Royal Family of the House of Markham. While most would be awed by the sight of fairytale turrets and red uniformed guards, to me it was more than just a royal palace. It was my home away from home, and the Royal Family who resided there were like my family.
We had moved to Coradova nine years ago from America. My little sister, Mackenzie, was two years younger and still in middle school. My dad, Sam, was a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Montana. My mom, Claire, was an exceptionally talented artist.
After commissioning several pieces for the Royal Family, visiting nobles and members of the Coradovan aristocracy, my mom had decided to open an art gallery in this lovely storybook country. Because he loved her with a deep devotion that I often found inspiring, my dad had encouraged her to follow her dreams … which led us to our new life in Coradova.
Two weeks after our move I attended a royal ball in the palace where I’d met the young princess and two young princes for the first time. After that night, my life changed forever.
It was one thing to live in a Mediterranean paradise, but to live in a real-life fairytale with castles and princes had been a dream come true.
It didn’t take long for me to grow close with the royal children—after repeatedly being thrown together by our mothers. My mom had been friends with the Queen of Coradova for nearly thirty years. They’d met in college while my mom was studying abroad in Italy. At the time, nineteen-year-old Lady Gabriella was just the daughter of an Italian diplomat. A year later she met twenty-year-old Prince Mathis on a tour of Italy with his father, King Henri.
Now King Mathis and Queen Gabriella were the reigning monarchs of Coradova. Their daughter, Princess Arianna, was my best friend. Their youngest son, Prince Ashton, was my energetic little brother. And their eldest, Prince Alexander, was my friend and protective big brother.
* * *
The minutes were dragging on, ticking away so slowly that my body practically trembled with impatience. The entire school day had moved along at a sluggish pace and these final ten minutes of class had been beyond brutal. I tried to focus on the algebra equation on the chalkboard, but math held absolutely no interest right now. Not when I had received a text message from the prince early this morning telling me to pack a swimsuit for a mysterious outing after school. By his cryptic message, I knew that Alexander was up to something and I was anxious to find out what he had planned.
Although he was the Crown Prince of Coradova, he occasionally tried to rebel against the confines of his royal obligations by dragging me off on some wild, hare-brained adventure. Not that I ever complained. The escapades we often got into were usually my idea.
In an attempt to distract myself during the final three minutes of school, my gaze strayed over the aisle to the dark-haired boy sitting across from me. I watched his long fingers drum hypnotically along the top of his desk, then allowed my eyes to drift over the tanned skin of his arm and shoulder, until I was lost in the sight of his handsome profile.
I’d had a crush on him since the beginning of the school year. He was one of the cutest guys in school—and unless my radar was off—he actually seemed interested in me. I kept waiting for him to ask me out, but no luck yet.
As my mind wandered away with images of Ethan holding me close in his arms, he shifted in his seat and glanced at me over his shoulder. In the moment that our eyes met I blushed, embarrassed that he had caught me watching him. He shot me a crooked grin—as if he was pleased to find me staring at him. My heart flip-flopped within my chest just as the final bell rang.
My classmates jumped to their feet in a whirl of excitement. I lost sight of Ethan in the horde, but he was waiting for me out in the hallway with a wide smile.
“What are you doing this weekend?” he asked as we maneuvered through the crowd.
“Nothing much,” I answered with a shrug. “Arianna wants to go to the beach tomorrow. What about you?”
We moved around the corner, the crowd thinning as we passed through the gated front entrance of the school. From here I could see the stretch of white beach in the distance, enticing and welcoming. It was as if the sea in the background beckoned me. Hopefully Alexander’s secret adventure involved a trip to the beach.
We stopped near the front curb, surrounded by other students waiting for their rides home. I glanced over at Ethan, still waiting for his reply.
“Well, that sort of depends on you,” Ethan finally said. He sounded slightly nervous. “Maddy …” He stepped closer, until we were almost touching, and gazed down at me with brown eyes like warm butterscotch. “… will you go on a date with me tomorrow night?”
My stomach fluttered with eager butterflies. “I’d love to, Ethan.” A smile stretched wide across my face and I wanted to do a happy dance. Ethan Deimos had finally asked me out!
Ethan grinned in response, no longer looking nervous. “Great. I’ll pick you up at six.” He reached out to take my hand as a black jeep drew to a stop at the curb in front of us. “Is dinner and a movie okay?”
“It’s perfect.” Anything that he wanted to do was fine with me, as long as it involved being together.
“Who is that hottie?” The girl next to me suddenly questioned, interrupting my thoughts. I followed her gaze to the black jeep and immediately recognized the dark-haired boy leaning across the seat.
Peering at us through the open passenger window was Alexander. He was dressed casually in a plain gray t-shirt with his dark hair covered by a faded ball cap. I knew it was in an effort to blend-in, just as I knew that the sunglasses on his face purposely hid his striking blue eyes.
Since I didn’t see any sign of a black sedan nearby, I guessed that the prince had ditched his security—yet again. He was constantly searching for opportunities to escape the palace, needing just a few hours of freedom so he could pretend to be a normal teenager.
“Hey, Maddy,” Alexander called out, shooting me a grin.
The girl next to me giggled when she caught sight of Alexander’s smile and waved at him, hoping to coax him into conversation. I rolled my eyes. Even when he wasn’t trying, Prince Alexander was incredibly charming and often seemed to dazzle any girl who looked his way.
“Just give me a minute,” I responded, then turned back toward a frowning Ethan. “I’m sorry, Ethan. I need to go. But I’ll see you tomorrow night for our date. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Yeah, me too.” Ethan studied the boy in the black jeep, then leaned in to whisper, “Is that Prince Alexander?”
I nodded. “Please don’t tell anyone you saw him. It’ll create a mob scene.”
“Sure, Maddy.” Ethan’s brown eyes focused back on me. I thought I saw a hint of jealousy before his expression softened. Stepping closer, Ethan smiled and lowered his head to kiss my cheek. “Have fun with you-know-who. I’ll see you tomorrow night.” He nudged me toward the jeep.
I moved away in a daze and climbed into the passenger seat. I could still feel the warmth of his kiss on my cheek.
“Is that Ethan?” Alexander asked, bringing me back into reality. He eyed the boy in question, then shifted gears and hit the gas pedal without bothering to wait for my response.
I looked out the window as we started to drive away. Ethan was still standing at the curb, watching me with his familiar crooked smile. He sent me a slow wink before disappearing from view. “Yeah, that was Ethan.”
“He was very … hands-on,” Alexander muttered.
I sighed at the protective tone in his voice and shifted around to stuff my backpack onto the backseat, noticing the two surfboards for the first time. Yes, we were definitely heading to the beach! I could hardly wait. I tucked my backpack behind the boards and turned back to my scowling friend.
Since he was three years older, Alexander had a tendency to act like my big brother and occasionally over-reacted when any guy showed interest in me. I wondered what he would say if I told him about my date, then disregarded the thought almost immediately. I didn’t know why, but I’d never been particularly comfortable talking with Alexander about our personal relationships.
“Don’t worry about Ethan,” I told him. “He’s just a friend.”
At least until tomorrow, I thought, as a spiral of anticipation curled through me.
We drove in silence for the next few minutes while I watched the sea draw closer.
“Has he tried to kiss you?” Alexander asked suddenly.
“Alexander!” I gasped and swatted at his arm. “That is none of your business.”
He maneuvered through the parking lot, slipped into a vacant spot and turned to face me. His dark sunglasses hid his eyes, making it difficult for me to read his expression. But based on the stubborn set of his jaw and his tightly compressed lips, he was in full over-protective brother mode.
“You’re right, Maddy. Your relationship with Ethan is none of my business. But will you promise me something?” He continued at my nod, his expression serious. “Don’t let him pressure you into anything you’re not ready for.” Alexander smirked as a wicked twinkle entered in his eyes. “Or I’ll throw him in the palace dungeon.”
I raised a brow and said wryly, “You mean, the dungeon that doesn’t exist?”
“Ethan doesn’t know that.” Alexander grinned and climbed out of the jeep. He unloaded our surfboards while I grabbed the towels out of the backseat and scouted the beach for a vacant spot.
Since tourists didn’t usually flock to Coradova until May, the seaport village wasn’t particularly crowded this afternoon. Tiny restaurants and tourist shops were packed closely together within easy reach of the beach, their doors propped open in welcome. The locals milled about along the cobblestone streets or lounged on towels spread wide over pristine white sand. Out on the water I could see sailboats and surfers, even the occasional body boarder.
I found the hum-drum of this daily life in paradise to be peaceful. But for Alexander, relaxing moments like these didn’t happen very often. His role as crown prince was a full-time, never-ending job. As the future King of Coradova, he didn’t have the luxury of freedom.
We found a mostly deserted section of beach, then stripped down to our bathing suits. The girls nearby shot interested looks at Alexander as he removed his shirt to reveal a perfectly sculpted torso. Honestly, I couldn’t blame them. Alexander might have been like my older brother, but I could admit that he was ridiculously good-looking. The muscles of his golden olive-toned skin rippled with his every movement, and the charming smile he sent their way was dazzling. The girls giggled in response.
Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, I grabbed my board and shot off toward the water, calling out to him over my shoulder, “Last one to catch a wave buys dinner!”
“Hey!” Alexander shouted, scrambling after me.
I reached the water first but Alexander was only seconds behind me. We waded out into the surf and worked our way past the breaking point. Sitting on our boards with the sun warm on our faces, we waited for a good swell.
With a smirk, Alexander reached down to splash a handful of water at me. I retaliated in kind. We were soaked and laughing by the time a wave arrived moments later. Turning our boards around, we started paddling in earnest. I felt the swell rising and jumped to my feet, wobbling only slightly before gaining my balance. In front of me, Alexander glanced back with a wide grin as we surfed down the curling wave. I lost my balance at the last minute and tumbled into the knee deep water.
Laughing, Alexander splashed over and reached down to help me to my feet. With his board tucked under one arm, he grinned. “It looks like you’re buying dinner, Maddy.”
“We caught the same wave, Alex,” I argued, reaching down to grab my board.
“But I didn’t fall off,” Alexander pointed out. His lips twitched into a smug grin.
I took a step toward him and shook out my sopping wet hair, sending droplets flying everywhere and washing the smirk right off his face.
“Hey!” Alexander protested, trying not to laugh.
I slicked the long, wet hair away from my face and said in a dare, “Rematch?”
His smile was full of challenge. “You’re on.”
We spent the next two hours trying to best each other on the waves. I wiped out several times and so did Alexander, but the prince eventually claimed the victory with an arrogant grin. We decided to take a break and strolled back along the beach, tossing our boards down onto the sand near our clothes. The girls from earlier returned as we were spreading out our towels, but Alexander hadn’t noticed them yet.
He was kneeling in the sand next to me, our arms just barely brushing. I nudged him with my elbow, trying to let him know that his admirers were back. Alexander glanced up at me, and the smile he sent my way caused an unexpected flutter in my stomach. His wet black hair was mussed, making him appear roguish, and his handsome face was lit by golden sunlight. He had tossed aside his sunglasses, so his striking blue eyes looked straight into mine. They were filled with the warmth and affection I had grown accustomed to over the years. Brotherly and friendly, intermingled with a platonic love for the girl he thought of as a sister.
When he caught sight of the pretty girls over my shoulder, I noticed the spark of interest that flashed across his face. He tossed on his sunglasses, then rose to his feet and strolled over to the group of girls with his charming smile in place. They grinned in delight, clearly pleased with his undivided attention.
An angry bitterness surged through me. I rocked back onto my heels in utter surprise. Was I … jealous? No, that couldn’t be right. Alexander was my friend. My protective big brother. I couldn’t possibly be having feelings for him.
That would be … unthinkable.