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.

As 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 as he buttoned 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 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.

Standing beside Alexander while he spoke with the director, I noticed a gaggle of female staff members pause nearby. Their eyes were centered on the prince. 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 briefly met mine 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 month 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 sidelong glance.

His eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What does that look mean?”

I couldn’t contain my grin. “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 echoed 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 are 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, and my mom, Claire, was an exceptionally talented artist.

After commissioning several pieces for the Royal Family, as well as 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.

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