As we started in on our dinner, the blue sky overhead merged into vibrant shades of magenta and violet. Only a sliver of sunlight could be seen in the distant horizon as the moon steadily made its way up into the darkening sky. Our parents were dining with the king and queen inside the palace, while we were out on the terrace, enjoying this cool April night with the royal children.
Alexander was at the head of the patio table, seated directly across from his younger brother. His Royal Highness, Ashton Andrew Marciano was just as handsome as his brother. He was almost as tall as Alexander, but leaner, his shoulders not as wide. They had the same black hair, striking blue eyes and strong jaw, although Ashton had dimples when he smiled.
Beside me, my fourteen-year-old sister chattered animatedly with the princess, while her curly brown hair fell in ringlets around her lovely, heart-shaped face. When our entrees were delivered, she finally paused in order to dig in to one of her favorite meals, confit de canard.
It was a fine French dish of slow-cooked duck with roasted potatoes. Growing up in Coradova, we had been introduced to many unusual meals that most people our age wouldn’t dare to try. But life in the royal palace had led us to one new experience after the other.
As we worked our way through the meal, the conversation drifted in and out around the table, comfortable and easy after nine years of friendship. Across from me, Princess Arianna Isabelle Camilla de Coradova was the perfect image of a fairytale princess. She was petite and graceful, with long raven-black hair that hung in waves down her back, and deep blue eyes that were nearly identical to her brothers’.
“How was the opening ceremony today?” Arianna asked as she carefully dipped into her dessert of chocolate soufflé.
“It was just like all the others,” Alexander replied dryly. He shot a smirk at me. “According to Maddy, we have a lot of ribbon cutting ceremonies.”
“I didn’t say it was a lot,” I disagreed, pointing my spoon at him. “Only that it wasn’t my first one.”
“But this was the first one you helped build from the ground up,” Arianna said to her brother. It was impossible to miss the pride that colored her voice. “It wasn’t your typical ribbon cutting. You deserved that honor today.”
“Thanks, Ari … but it was just part of my job description as the crown prince.” Alexander looked almost embarrassed over her praise and continued on. “The aquarium looked great, and there was already a huge crowd waiting to get in. I think it’s going to be a big hit for tourist season.”
“I’m pretty sure they were there to see you, Prince Charming. Not the aquarium,” I teased, making the others chuckle around the table. I’d given him the nickname after he’d turned sixteen and couldn’t go anywhere without drawing the eye of every girl in the vicinity.
Alexander sent me a warning look, which only made my smile widen, and egged on his siblings.
Ashton leaned back in his chair and sent his brother a wicked grin. “Hey, Alex, I hope you didn’t make anyone swoon this time.”
“Oh, that’s right!” Mackenzie chimed in. “Didn’t two girls faint the last time he made an appearance?”
“It was only one,” Alexander muttered in defense.
“But there was another one the time before that,” Arianna put in. “Remember? He just smiled at her and she fainted in his arms.”
Alexander crossed his arms and scowled. “I hate all of you.”
I leaned over to pat his arm. “Poor, Alex. It’s not your fault that your smile is so … swoon-worthy.”
Ashton hooted with laughter while Arianna and Mackenzie attempted to smother their chuckles.
Alexander leveled a glare at me. “When I’m king, you’re the first one I’m going to banish.”
“You could never banish me.” I smiled and rose from my chair. Moving to stand behind him, I bent down to whisper in his ear. “You’d miss me too much.” I gave him a quick peck on the cheek, rumpled his perfectly styled hair and dodged his hand before he could swat me away.
“Hey, don’t do that,” Alexander grumbled, shifting in his chair to frown at me. He attempted to fix his hair. “You’re such a pest.”
“I might be a pest, but I’m still your best friend.” With a grin, I sailed down the terrace steps and out onto the long stretch of lawn.
Alexander called after me. “Where are you going?”
“To look at the stars.”
“Ooh,” Mackenzie cheerily called out. “If you see a shooting star, don’t forget to make a wish!”
I waved in acknowledgement, then wandered far enough away that their voices were only a distant hum in the background. I flopped down onto the grass, white dress and all, and laid back with my hands behind my head and ankles crossed.
The palace provided the best view of the night sky. I’d lost count of all the times I’d spent star-gazing out on the lawn. As the sky overhead grew darker, more specs of brilliant light shone like diamonds. It was so beautiful, and mesmerizing. As I lost myself in the view, I couldn’t imagine my life in Coradova being any better than this.
After a while, I heard footsteps approaching through the grass. Then Alexander’s face appeared as he stood over me, with the radiance of the starlit sky sparkling behind him.
“Are you going to be out here all night?” he asked.
“It’s not a school night, Mom. I can stay up past midnight.”
He chuckled and lowered down onto the grass with his back to me. Then he sprawled out beside me with our bodies parallel but pointing in opposite directions, and his head next to mine. Silently, we studied the sky.
At one point I asked, “Where’s everyone else?”
“They all went to bed. Not everyone wants to stay up past midnight, like you.”
Alexander chuckled and shifted to tuck his opposite arm under his head. “Seen any shooting stars yet?”
“Nope.” I searched the sky and admitted, “Even if I did, I don’t know what I’d wish for. My life is pretty close to perfect.”
“Don’t all the fairytales say you’re supposed to wish for true love and all that nonsense?” Alexander asked. His serious voice held only a hint of teasing. “Don’t you want to find your Prince Charming?”
“I don’t need to when I’ve got you and your swoon-worthy smile,” I quipped, angling my head to see his face.
Alexander rolled his eyes.
Studying his profile, I asked, “Would you wish for your own Cinderella? It’s not like Coradova is full of eligible princesses.”
Alexander frowned in contemplation. “I just want to find someone who will care more about me, than my title.”
I shifted up onto my elbow and peered down at his face. “Alex, people love you because you’re the future of Coradova. But all those girls swoon over you because you’re ridiculously handsome.” He rolled his eyes again, but I pressed on. “If any of those girls ever got to know the real you, they’d fall in love with the guy behind the title. I’ve known you since I was seven, and I like Alex more than I like the crown prince.” I reached over to rumple his hair again.
“Why do you always do that?” he grumbled, sitting up to scowl at me.
I shifted up to sitting, then shrugged and sent him a grin. “I like it when your hair is messed up. It makes you look more like Alex, instead of a prince.”
“But I am a prince.”
“You don’t have to be a prince all the time.” I gestured at the emptiness surrounding us. “There are no pretty girls here for you to impress. It’s just me—the little sister you never wanted. Relax, Your Highness.”
“Why do you think I’m star-gazing in the grass?” Alexander answered with a smirk. “I don’t do that with just anyone—only the little sister I never wanted.” He winked and nudged me with his arm before resuming his place in the grass.
Laying back down directly beside him, I questioned, “If you could be anything you wanted, what would it be?”
“Does a Greek god count?” Alexander joked.
“Wow, all that attention is really going to your head.”
Alexander chuckled then lapsed into silence for a long moment before answering. “If I could be anything, I’d still want to be king. I love helping people, and as the king I will actually have the power to make a difference.” His voice grew almost embarrassed, and he shrugged. “That’s probably stupid.”
“That’s not stupid, Alex,” I disagreed softly. “You’ll make a great king one day. The people of Coradova are really lucky to have you.”
“Thanks, dolcezza,” Alexander murmured, reaching over to briefly squeeze my hand. While he often enjoyed teasing me, Alexander called me by my childhood nickname whenever he was feeling affectionate.
Dolcezza meant sweetness. Alexander had called me that since our first meeting over nine years ago, when we’d discovered a mutual fondness for sweets. While I loved our playful banter, I also loved those moments with him when I felt a true connection. Those moments where he allowed me to see the person behind the title; my friend hiding behind the royal mask.
After another minute, Alexander redirected the conversation. “So what would you be, Maddy?”
I grinned. “I’d be a horse jockey.”
“But you’re too tall,” Alexander said with a smile in his voice.
“I know,” I grumbled. “Stupid height limits.”
Alexander laughed and shook his head.
A moment later, I sat up and shifted to look down at him. “Hey, Alex. Are you up for a little reckless behavior?”
He sat up with a sigh. “What trouble are you trying to get me into now?”
My grin widened. “Come on, let me show you.”
* * *
Twenty minutes later, I had a palace horse saddled and ready to go. Turning to face a frowning Alexander, I smiled mischievously. “Let’s take a midnight ride.”
“Madison—,” Alexander began to argue, although only half-heartedly. He was used to my harebrained schemes and it never took much convincing to get him to go along. As responsible as he was, Alexander occasionally tried to rebel against the confines of his royal obligations, and my escapades were usually a harmless way to do exactly that.
“Come on, Alex! Once you’re the king, you won’t get to do crazy stuff like this anymore.” I sent him a pleading look.
His frown deepened, but I could detect the smile that played around his lips. “If we get caught, I’m blaming it all on you.” Alexander climbed swiftly up into the saddle and leaned down to offer me a hand up.
I slipped into place behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist. “Lead on, Alex.”
“You’re the mastermind behind this,” Alexander said as he steered the horse out of the stables. “You tell me where we’re going.”
I grinned and held on tighter as excitement curled through me. “To the cliffs.”
“How did I know?” Alexander laughed, the sound exuberant, and urged our horse into a racing gallop.
We passed through the outer pastures of tall grass, with our horse’s hooves pounding out a fast beat beneath us. Alexander skillfully maneuvered us along the dark, winding path that led up the steep incline of cliffs. When we reached the top, he dismounted and reached up to help me down.
Standing close together beside the horse, I gripped his arms and bounced up and down. “That was amazing!” I exclaimed, and hugged him fiercely. “Thanks for doing this, Alex.”
He laughed quietly and squeezed me tight before releasing his hold. “You’re welcome, dolcezza.” With a smile, he playfully rumpled my hair. “It’s not like I can ever say no to you.”
We moved to sit side by side at the edge of the cliff, letting our legs dangle precariously over the edge. We talked on and off while admiring the breathtaking view of endless, dark sea and star-studded sky. Alexander and I had been close since the first time we met, but over the last few years, our friendship had strengthened into something special.
Now, he was my best guy friend.
Hooking my hand through Alexander’s arm, I shifted to lay my head against his shoulder. “Hey, Alex?”
“Hey, Maddy,” he teased softly.
“You’re a really good prince, but you’re an even better friend.”
Alexander kissed the top of my head, then murmured, “You’re only saying that so I won’t banish you when I’m king.”
I smiled against his shoulder. “You’ll never banish me. Your life would be too boring without me.”
He laughed softly. “Yes, it would be.”