The following night, I nervously fumbled with my hair. I wanted it to look just right for my date with Ethan. In the reflection of the bathroom mirror, I saw my mom smile compassionately as her hands took over with my hair.

She was beautiful, with curly light brown hair and creamy white skin. Her smile was the only physical feature I’d inherited. Personality-wise, we were as similar as two peas in a pod. Both creative and bold, stubborn, with fiery tempers.

“I can’t believe how quickly the time’s gone by,” Mom murmured, her voice melancholy and hands gentle on my hair. “It seems like just yesterday when you were running around barefoot, climbing up trees and getting into mischief with Alexander. And now here you are, getting all dolled up for your very first date.” Her hand squeezed my shoulder and our eyes met in the reflection of the mirror as she smiled proudly. “You’ve blossomed into such a beautiful young lady, Madison.”

Pleased by her compliment, I smiled softly and studied my reflection. Deep, chocolate brown eyes were set over high cheekbones, and unruly waves of dark hair reached past my shoulder blades. At nearly five-foot-eleven I seemed to tower over most of the girls at my school, and even some of the boys.

Smiling fondly, my artistic mother generously helped apply my makeup as I rapidly tried to calm my nerves. I had just put on my high-heeled shoes when the phone rang.

A few minutes later, my mom reappeared in the doorway, her expression grim. “It’s Arianna,” Mom said gravely. “She’s in the hospital.”

The drive to the hospital passed by in a blur. Before I knew it, I was standing in a hospital room surrounded by sterile white walls and beeping machines.

Clutching her hand in mine, I stared down at my best friend. She was hooked up to an IV that numbed her pain. Her thick hair seemed to lack its usual luster, and she was unusually pale. When she grimaced slightly, my grip on her hand tightened.

Arianna squeezed back in reassurance. “I’m sorry I ruined your date,” she apologized as Alexander walked into the room.

His worried gaze traveled over his sister before settling on me. He paused mid-stride as he took in the sight of my lavender dress and curled hair. A tendril of warmth curled through my stomach at the brief flicker of interest that sparked in his eyes. For a moment, he had looked at me with the same interest he’d shown in those girls on the beach yesterday.

Alexander blinked and then smiled, showing no emotion other than his usual brotherly affection. He moved to stand at Arianna’s other side, but his words were directed at me. “Don’t you look all dressed up. What’s the occasion?”

“She’s got a hot date,” Arianna purred, winking at me.

Alexander frowned, and the look he turned my way was simmering with dark emotion. Was he just being over-protective as usual, or was he actually jealous?

A moment later, the Royal Family’s private physician walked into the room with the king and queen. He explained the situation in complicated medical terms I barely understood. I caught various words on occasion. A tumor on the liver. Benign. Surgery. The rest was hazy.

I watched nervously as they prepped her for surgery and bit my lip so hard that I tasted blood. Someone grabbed my hand. I glanced up to see Alexander standing next to me.

“Don’t worry, dolcezza. Everything will be fine,” he said with an air of confidence. He slid an arm around my shoulders and pulled me close. We watched them wheel Arianna out of the room, followed by their parents.

I was trying to be brave, but the second she was out of sight, my nerves got the better of me. With tears damp on my cheeks, I turned toward Alexander and clutched desperately at his shirt. “Do you promise, Alex? I can’t lose her. She’s my best friend.”

He looked down at me through intense blue eyes. “She’s going to be fine. The surgery will only take a few hours and after six weeks, she’ll be as good as new.” He kissed my forehead and drew me into his embrace.

Slipping my arms around his waist, I pressed my tear-streaked face against his neck and held on tightly. I thought I felt a tremble go through him, but it could have been caused by my shaking. Alexander held me close in his arms, murmuring softly in Italian, trying to help calm me. Thanks to their Italian-born mother, all three royal children were fluent in Italian, as well as French, Spanish and English. Even though I didn’t understand his words, the soothing tone of his voice was comforting and I felt my worries begin to fade away.

My fear was replaced by a sudden awareness of Alexander and how his body was pressed closely against mine. His chest was wide and firm under my cheek. One arm was wrapped tightly around my waist while he gently stroked the brown curls running down my back with his free hand.

My pulse began to race and I could feel nervous butterflies in my stomach. I knew I should pull away, but I felt a strong desire to stay wrapped up in his arms. What was happening to me? There were new, unexpected feelings swirling through me—very unbrotherly feelings. Slowly, I forced myself to step back out of his embrace and shyly peeked up at his face.

He was watching me. His expression was so serious and intense that it made my heart skip a beat. There was something in his eyes, the way he was looking at me, that was different. For the first time, I wondered if Alexander saw me as more than a friend.

I ran a nervous hand down my dress, which unintentionally drew his gaze away from my face. He slowly took in the sight of my lavender dress again. My cheeks were burning by the time his eyes drifted back up to mine.

“This date you’re supposed to go on,” Alexander said. “Is it with Ethan?”

“Yes,” I murmured, watching in fascination as his eyes darkened infinitesimally.

“I thought Ethan was just a friend?”

I bit my lip, and smiled sheepishly. “Well, he is. But …” My words trailed off. I was unsure of what to say. I had hoped that Ethan might become more than just a friend after our date tonight. But I didn’t exactly want to explain that to Alexander.

“But …?” Alexander prompted, his tone a bit brisk.

I was saved from having to respond by the ringing of my phone. I fumbled through my tiny purse and yanked it out, glancing briefly at the screen before answering. “Hey, Ethan.”

“Hey, Maddy. I got your message. Is the princess going to be okay?”

“She’s in surgery right now. They found a tumor on her liver, but it’s not cancerous. The doctor said she’s going to be fine.” A shiver of fear ran through me, but I brushed it aside. I couldn’t even contemplate the alternative.

“So, do you want to reschedule our date?” Ethan asked.

I sighed regretfully. “Yeah, I think we should. I want to be here when Arianna gets out of surgery.”

“That’s what I figured,” Ethan said with a hint of disappointment. “I’m glad she’s going to be okay. I guess I’ll just see you at school.”

“Yeah, I guess so. See you on Monday.”

When I hung up, my mood sank even lower, intermingled with both worry and disappointment. After taking one look at my sullen face, Alexander slipped an arm around my shoulders and directed me to the waiting room. We sat together in silence, with his arm still wrapped around me in a comforting hug, and my head resting on his shoulder.

The rest of our families slowly trickled into the waiting room. As we waited through the long hours of Arianna’s surgery, my thoughts wandered away in various scenarios of tragedy.

When the door creaked open, I bolted upright, expecting to see Arianna’s surgeon. Instead, I found Ethan standing in the open doorway. Slipping off the chair, I moved to hug him. “What are you doing here?” I asked, undeniably happy to see him.

Ethan smiled ruefully. “It’s not exactly the night I had planned, but I’d still rather spend it here with you.” His expression grew embarrassed. “I hope that’s okay.”

“It’s more than okay.” I hugged him again. “I’m so glad you’re here, Ethan.”

I led him around the room for various introductions, saving Alexander for last. I was ridiculously uncomfortable at the thought of them meeting, and couldn’t figure out if I was more worried about Alexander’s disapproval, or his possible jealousy.

An expert at keeping his emotions in check, Alexander was as polite as ever. I couldn’t detect even a hint of unease in his expression. As he chatted easily with Ethan about surfing, I shook my head slightly and wondered if I’d only imagined the interest and jealously I’d seen earlier. There was clearly nothing more than friendship between us.

For some reason, that realization hurt more than expected.

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