Gazing out across the lawn with my forearms braced on the terrace railing, I lost myself in the sight of the glistening sea. A soft breeze ruffled the hair around my face and fluttered against the long floral skirt I was wearing. I sighed, and reached up to tuck my windblown hair behind an ear.

At the same moment, I noticed movement in the hallway to my left and turned to find Alexander standing in the doorway. His dark blue gaze was fixed on me, his expression serious and thoughtful. When our eyes met, he smiled crookedly, but I could still sense the emotion lurking behind his carefully guarded expression. He’d been acting strange all month—ever since the day of Arianna’s liver operation.

Before either of us could speak, King Mathis suddenly appeared behind the prince’s shoulder. Confident, regal, and exuding a quiet power, King Mathis was tall, dark and handsome, just like his sons. His dark brown hair was peppered with gray at the temples, and his shortly-cropped beard added to his distinguished appearance. Since he had been crowned at only thirty-eight years old, he was the youngest king to rule Coradova in over a century and had peacefully ruled for eight years so far.

“Alexander,” King Mathis ordered quietly. “A word, please.”

Alexander tensed briefly. “Yes, sir.” He held my gaze for a moment longer, then winked covertly before turning to follow his father into the palace.

When I found him a few hours later, he was standing at the scenic lookout at the back of the palace grounds. The tension in his shoulders was noticeable even from a distance. When I caught sight of his dark expression, I knew the discussion with his father had not been a good one.

“Are you okay, Alex?” I ventured quietly.

He let out a heavy sigh, his scowl deepening. “Not really.” He didn’t elaborate, and stared stonily out across the horizon.

I watched his hands clench and unclench repeatedly on the railing, and examined the angry lines in his tightly set jaw. He was definitely upset. I gave him another minute to brood, then asked, “What’s wrong, Alex? Does this have something to do with your dad?”

He chuckled bitterly. “I guess you could say that.” He squeezed the railing again, then shifted to look at me. “You know how I’ve been meeting with him every week to learn more about my future role as king? Well, today he told me about certain … expectations … that I’m not exactly thrilled about.”

“Like what?” I prodded.

Alexander sighed again. “Like having to sacrifice who I am, for the man I must become—as if I didn’t already know that who I am must come second to my royal title.” He shook his head in irritation. “All he kept talking about was making sacrifices, and learning how to put my duty before my—desire.” His eyes darted to my face as the tips of his ears turned red.

I bit my lip, trying to hide a smile. “Your desire, huh?” He looked away from me, clearly embarrassed. I bumped him with my hip and teased, “Is there some girl you like who isn’t suitable to be the future queen?”

Although my words were only in jest, the look he turned on me was oddly serious. He stared directly into my eyes for a long moment, then cleared his throat and averted his gaze once again. “Something like that,” Alexander said under his breath.

We lapsed into a slightly tensed silence. It lengthened until I finally asked, “Is it all worth it?”

“What do you mean?” He shot a confused glance at me.

“The sacrifices,” I explained. “Is it all worth it for you to become king?”

Alexander studied me for several heartbeats before answering. “I honestly don’t know.” Then he forced his emotions down behind a carefully guarded mask and offered me a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “But it doesn’t matter. It’s not like I can renounce my claim to the throne just because I don’t like the sacrifices I’m expected to make.”

I gently touched his arm, my expression softening. “You’ve always wanted to be the king. Maybe the sacrifices won’t be as bad as you think.”

He smiled ruefully in response and drew me in for a hug. “Maybe you’re right, dolcezza,” he whispered into my hair. “I hope you’re right.”

I felt his lips press against my forehead. The soft kiss was so sweet that I couldn’t stop my eyes from closing on a sigh. Held close in his arms, my heart rate suddenly picked up speed, stuttering and flip-flopping, as a swirl of unexpected emotion coursed through me. His hugs never used to affect me like this—I felt terrified by this sudden change in my heart.

Was I starting to fall for my best friend? And if I did, was there any chance he might someday feel the same way?

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