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. It had been two weeks since I’d convinced him to ride a horse out to the cliffs after midnight. I was more than ready for another reckless adventure.

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.

Ethan Deimos.

I’d had a crush on him since the beginning of the 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 and Kenzie want to go to the beach tomorrow. What about you?”

We moved around the corner. The crowd thinned 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 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 purposefully 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 occasionally searched 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 super excited.”

“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’d been talking about Ethan for months, but hadn’t found a chance to introduce them yet. 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 overreacted 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. Because he was like my brother, I’d never been particularly comfortable talking with Alexander about dating.

“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 overprotective 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 wickedly. “Or I’ll throw him in the palace dungeon.”

I raised a brow. “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 bodyboarder.

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 was my best friend, 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.

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 reached 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, with our arms just barely brushing. I nudged him with my elbow. 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.

“It looks like it’s time for me to take advantage of my swoon-worthy smile.” With a wink, Alexander 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 best  guy friend. My protective big brother. I couldn’t possibly be having feelings for him.

That would be … unthinkable.

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