The royals of coradova, BOok 1

Heart of Mine

We were never supposed to fall in love. He’s the Crown Prince of Coradova, and I’ve been his best friend since childhood. One kiss changed everything.

My name is Madison Kavanaugh and I grew up in a small, modern-day kingdom in the Mediterranean Sea. My life in Coradova was better than any fairytale — until I fell in love with my best friend, and the one person I couldn’t have. Crown Prince Alexander.

Now I’m forced to fight a love I can’t give into. But with every look, every touch, I fall deeper for the prince who holds my heart.

Amid a political storm of intrigue and mystery, I will risk everything for Alexander.

Even my life.

FROM THE AUTHOR

This book is very near and dear to my heart. It’s a story I spent years thinking about, before finally putting pen to paper. And it all started with the notion of meeting someone’s eyes from across a crowded room.

When I first wrote about Crown Prince Alexander, I instantly fell in love. He was charming and passionate, and loved his country as every good king should. He was the perfect Prince Charming. The problem was, what sort of woman could possibly capture his heart?

As the heir apparent of a Mediterranean kingdom, Alexander was highly sought after. It was a struggle to determine who wanted him because of his title, or the man beneath it. As I began to write the scene where he meets a woman’s eyes from across the ballroom, I knew I wanted them to have a connection, a history. This was not love at first sight. The emotions between them had been brewing for a long time.

Alexander needed someone who could challenge him, support him, and love him through his weakest moments. Someone who could see the man behind the title, and love him for all that he was. Who better than Madison, his best friend from childhood? The only woman he had ever allowed to see behind the royal mask.

Alex and Maddy’s royal romance is more than just a modern-day Cinderella story. It’s a deep, passionate, and abiding love that stays with you and never lets go.

EXCERPT FROM HEART OF MINE

PROLOGUE:

Sometimes love requires sacrifice.

A life for a life. The ultimate price of loving someone more than your own heartbeat.

Speaking of heartbeats . . .

I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of my heart, thumping laboriously, each beat more frantic than the last. Numbness was spreading through my broken body. My thoughts felt sluggish and scattered.

How much time did I have left? Hours? Minutes? My eyes fluttered open, searching for the one person I wanted to see when I took my last breath.

Alexander. This heart of mine. The love I’d risked my life for.

My breathing slowed as darkness encroached. Each beat seemed slower than the last. Th-thump. Th-thump. Th . . . thump.

I heard him whisper my name. Caught a final glimpse of eyes as blue as the sea. His lips pressed softly against my forehead, and I let myself fall into oblivion.

If I died for that love . . . it was all worth it.

CHAPTER ONE:

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.

CHAPTER TWO:

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.”

“Party poopers.”

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.”

CHAPTER THREE:

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.

CHAPTER FOUR:

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.

CHAPTER FIVE:

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?

END OF SAMPLE

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