How to Marry a Princess
On the first Wednesday in September, temptation came looking for Alice Bravo-Calabretti.
And she’d been doing so well, too. For more than two weeks, she’d kept her promise to herself. She’d maintained a low profile and carried herself with dignity. She’d accepted no dares and avoided situations where she might be tempted to go too far.
It hadn’t been all that difficult. She’d spent her days with her beloved horses and her nights at home. Temptation, it seemed, presented no problem when she made sure there was none.
And then came that fateful Wednesday.
It happened in the stables well before dawn. Alice was tacking up one of the mares, Yasmine, for an early-morning ride. She’d just placed the saddle well forward on the mare’s sleek back when she heard a rustling sound in the deserted stable behind her.
Yasmine twitched her tail and whickered softly, her distinctive iridescent coat shimmering even in the dim light provided by the single caged bulb suspended over the stall. A glance into the shadows and Alice registered the source of the unexpected noise.
Over near the arched door that led into the courtyard, a stable hand was pushing a broom. He was no one she recognized, which she found somewhat odd. The palace stables were a second home to her. Alice knew every groom by name. He must be new.
Gilbert, the head groom, came in from the dark yard. He said something to the man with the broom. The man laughed low. Gilbert chuckled, too. Apparently, the head groom liked the new man.
With a shrug, Alice gave the beautiful mare a comforting pat and finished tacking up. She was leading Yazzy out of the stall when she saw that Gilbert had gone. The stable hand remained. He’d set his broom aside and lounged against the wall by the door to the courtyard.
As she approached, the man straightened from the wall and gave her a slow nod. “Your Highness.” His voice was deep and rather stirring, his attitude both ironic and confident. She recognized his accent instantly: American.
Alice had nothing against Americans. Her father used to be one, after all. And yet…
As a rule, the grooms were Montedoran by birth—and diffident by nature. This fellow was simply not the sort Gilbert usually hired.
The groom raised his golden head. Blue eyes met hers. She saw mischief in those eyes and her heart beat faster.
Temptation. Oh, yes.
Down, girl. Get a grip.
So what if the new groom was hot? So what if just a glance from him had her thinking of how boring her life had become lately, had her imagining all kinds of inappropriate activities she might indulge in with him.
Nothing inappropriate is happening here, she reminded herself staunchly.
And then, in an attempt to appear stern and formidable, she drew her shoulders back and gave the man a slow once-over. He wore a disreputable sweatshirt with the sleeves ripped off, old jeans and older Western boots.
Hot. Definitely. Tall and fit, with a scruff of bronze beard on his lean cheeks. She wondered briefly why Gilbert hadn’t required him to dress in the brown trousers, collared shirt and paddock boots worn by the rest of the stable staff.
He stepped forward and her thoughts flew off in all directions. “Such a beautiful girl,” he said in a tender tone—to the mare. Alice stared, bemused, as he stroked Yazzy’s long, sleek face.
Like most of her ancient, hotblood breed, Yasmine was a fiercely loyal, sensitive animal. She gave her trust and affection to very few. But the bold and handsome American worked a certain magic on the golden mare. Yazzy nuzzled him and nickered fondly as he petted her.
Alice permitted his attentions to the horse. If Yazzy didn’t mind, neither did she. And watching him with the mare, she began to understand why Gilbert had hired him. He had a way with horses. Plus, judging by his tattered clothing, the fellow probably needed the work. The kind-hearted head groom must have taken pity on him.
Finally, the new man stepped back. “Have a nice ride, ma’am.” The words were perfectly mundane, the tone pleasant and deferential. Ma’am was the proper form of address.
The look in his eyes, though?
Anything but proper. Far from deferential.
“Thank you. I shall.” She led the mare out into the gray light of coming dawn.
The new groom had disappeared when Alice returned from her morning ride. That didn’t surprise her. The grooms were often needed outside the stables.
Her country, the principality of Montedoro, was a tiny slice of paradise overlooking the Mediterranean on the Côte d’Azur. The French border lay less than two kilometers from the stables and her family owned a chain of paddocks and pastures in the nearby French countryside. A stable hand might be required to exercise the horses in some far pasture, or help with cleanup or fence repair at one of the paddocks.
And honestly, what did it matter to her where the handsome American had got off to? He was nothing to her. She resisted the urge to ask Gilbert about him and reminded herself that becoming overly curious about one of the grooms was exactly the sort of self-indulgence she couldn’t permit herself anymore.
Not after the Glasgow episode.
Her face flamed just thinking about it.
And she needed to think about it. She needed to keep her humiliation firmly in mind in order never to allow herself to indulge in such unacceptable behavior again.
Like most of her escapades, it had begun so innocently.
On a whim, she’d decided to visit Blair Castle for the International Horse Trials and Country Fair. She’d flown to Perth the week before the trials thinking she would spend a few days touring Scotland.
She’d never made it to Blair Castle. She’d met up with some friends in Perth and driven with them down to Glasgow. Such fun, a little pub-hopping. They’d found this one lovely, rowdy pub and it was karaoke night. Alice had enjoyed a pint or two more than she should have. Her bodyguard, huge, sweet old Altus, had caught her eye more than once and given her the look—the one meant to warn her that she was going too far, the one that rarely did any good.
As usual, she’d ignored the look. Repeatedly. And then, somehow, there she was up on the stage singing that Katy Perry song, “I Kissed a Girl.” At the time, it had seemed like harmless fun. She’d thrown herself into her performance and acted out the lyrics.
Pictures of her soul-kissing that cute Glaswegian barmaid with her skirt hiked up and her top halfway off had been all over the scandal sheets. The paparazzi had had a field day. Her mother, the sovereign princess, had not been amused.
And after that, Alice had sworn to herself that she would do better from now on—which definitely meant steering clear of brash, scruffy American stable hands who made her pulse race.
The next morning, Thursday, the new groom appeared again. He was there, busy with his broom, when she entered the stables at five. The sight of him, in the same disreputable jeans and torn sweatshirt as the day before, caused a thoroughly annoying flutter in her solar plexus as well as a definite feeling of breathlessness.
To cover her absurd excitement over seeing him again, she said, “Excuse me,” in a snooty above-stairs-at-Downton-Abbey tone that she instantly regretted, a tone that had her wondering if she might be trying too hard to behave. “I didn’t catch your name.”
He stopped sweeping. “Noah. Ma’am.”
“Ah. Well. Noah…” She was suddenly as tongue-tied as a preteen shaking hands with Justin Bieber. Ridiculous. Completely ridiculous. “Would you saddle Kajar for me, please?” She gave a vague wave of her hand toward the stall where the gray gelding waited. As a rule, she personally tacked up any horse she rode. It helped her read the horse’s mood and condition and built on the bond she established with each of the animals in her care.
But once she’d opened her mouth, she’d had to come up with a logical excuse for talking to him.
And she was curious. Would he work the same magic, establish the same instant, comfortable rapport with Kajar as he had with Yazzy?
The groom—Noah—set aside his broom and went to work. Kajar stood patiently under his firm, calm hands. Noah praised the horse as he worked, calling him fine and handsome and good. The gelding gave no trouble through the process. On the contrary. Twice, Kajar turned his long, graceful neck to whicker at Noah as though in approval and affection.
Once the job was done, the groom led the horse from the stall and passed Alice the reins. His long fingers whispered across her gloved palm and were gone. For a moment she caught the scent of his clean, healthy skin. He wore a light aftershave. It smelled of citrus, of sun and cedar trees.
She should have said “Thank you,” and led the horse out to ride. But he drew her so strongly. She found herself instigating an actual conversation. “You’re not Montedoran.”
“How did you guess?” Softly. With humor and a nice touch of irony.
“That’s right.” He looked at her steadily, those eyes of his so blue they seemed almost otherworldly. “I grew up in California, in Los Angeles. In Silver Lake and East L. A.” He was watching her in that way he had: with total concentration. A wry smile stretched the corners of his mouth. “You have no idea where Silver Lake is, or East L.A., do you? Ma’am.” He was teasing her.
She felt a prickle of annoyance, which only increased her interest in him. “I have a basic understanding, yes. I’ve been to Southern California. I have a second cousin there. He and his family live in Bel Air.”
“Bel Air is a long way from East L.A.”
She leaned into Kajar, cupping her hand to his far cheek, resting her head against his long, fine neck. The gelding didn’t object, only made a soft snuffling sound. “A long distance, you mean?”
One strong shoulder lifted in a shrug. “It’s not so far in miles. However, Bel Air has some of the priciest real estate in the world—kind of like here in Montedoro. East L.A.? Not so much.”
She didn’t want to talk about real estate. Or class differences. And she needed to be on her way. She went as far as to stop leaning on the horse—but then, what do you know? She opened her mouth and another question popped out. “Do your parents still live there?”
“No. My father was killed working construction when I was twelve. My mother died of the flu when I was twenty-one.”
Sympathy for him moved within her, twining with the excitement she felt at his nearness. Kajar tossed his head. She turned to the gelding, reaching up to stroke his elegant face, settling him. And then she said to Noah, “That is too sad.”
“It is what it is.”
She faced the groom fully again. “It must have been horrible for you.”
“I learned to depend on myself.”
“Do you have brothers and sisters?”
“A younger sister. Lucy is twenty-three.”
She wanted to ask his age—but somehow that seemed such an intimate question. There were fine lines at the corners of his eyes. He had to be at least thirty. “What brings you to Montedoro?”
He seemed faintly amused. “You’re full of questions, Your Highness.”
She answered honestly. “It’s true. I’m being very nosy.” And it’s time for me to go. But she didn’t go. She kept right on being as nosy as before. “How long have you been here, in my country?”
“Not long at all.”
“Do you plan to stay on?”
He didn’t answer, only held her gaze.
She felt the loveliest, most effervescent sensation. Like champagne sliding, cool and fizzy, down her throat. “You love horses.”
“Yes, I do. And you’re wondering how a guy from East L.A. learned to handle horses…”
Tell him that you really do have to go. “I have been wondering exactly that.”
“When I was eighteen, I went to work for a man who owned a horse ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains. He taught me a lot. And I learned fast. He kept warm bloods. Hanoverians and Morgans, mostly.”
“Excellent breeds.” She nodded in approval. “Strong, steady and handsome. Not nearly so testy and sensitive as an Akhal-Teke.” All her horses were Tekes. Akhal-Tekes were called the heavenly horses, the oldest breed on earth. Originating in the rugged deserts of Turkmenistan and northern Iran, the Teke was swift and temperamental and very tough. Both Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great chose Akhal-Tekes to carry them into battle.
“There is nothing like an Akhal-Teke,” he said. “I hope to own one someday.”
“An admirable goal.”
He chuckled and the sound seemed to slide like a sweet caress across her skin. “Aren’t you going to tell me that I’ll never be able to afford one?”
“That would be rude. And besides, you seem a very determined sort of person. I would imagine that if you want something strongly enough, you’ll find a way to have it.” He said nothing, only regarded her steadily through those beautiful eyes. She was struck with the sense that there was much more going on here than she understood. “What is it?” she asked finally, when the silence had stretched thin.
“I am determined.”
She found herself staring at his mouth. The shape of it—the slight bow of his top lip, the fullness below—was so intriguing. She wondered what it might feel like, that mouth of his touching hers. It would be so very easy, to step in close, go on tiptoe and claim a kiss….
Stop. No. Wrong. Exactly the sort of foolish, bold, unprincesslike behavior she was supposed to be avoiding at all costs.
“I…” She was still staring at his lips.
“Yeah?” He moved an inch closer.
She clutched the reins tighter. “….really must be on my way.”
He instantly stepped back and she wished that he hadn’t—which was not only contrary, but completely unacceptable. “Ride safe, ma’am.”
She nodded, pressing her lips together to keep them from trembling. Then she clucked her tongue at Kajar and turned for the wide-open stable door.
Once again he was gone when she returned from her ride. That day, she worked with a couple of the yearlings and put one of the show jumpers through his paces. Later she went home to shower and change.
In the afternoon she met with the planning committee for next year’s Grand Champions Tour. Montedoro would host the sixth leg of the tour down at the harbor showgrounds in June. Through the endless meeting, she tried very hard not to think of blue eyes, not to remember the deep, stirring sound of a certain voice.
That night, alone in her bed, she dreamed she went riding with Noah. She was on Yasmine and he rode the bay stallion, Orion. They stopped in a meadow of wildflowers and talked, though when she woke she couldn’t remember a thing they had said.
It was a very tame dream. Not once did they touch and there was none of the heated tension she had felt when she’d actually been near him. In the dream, they laughed together. They were like longtime companions who knew each other well.
She woke Friday morning as usual, long before dawn, feeling edgy and dissatisfied, her mind on the American.
Why? She hardly knew this man. She didn’t know him. She’d seen him twice and shared one brief conversation with him. He should not have affected her so profoundly.
Then again, there was probably nothing profound about it. He was hot and mysterious, untamed and somehow slightly dangerous. He called to her wild side. She found him madly attractive.
Plus, well, maybe she’d been keeping too much to herself. She wanted to avoid getting wild in the streets, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t have a life. She’d been sticking too close to home. This obsession with Noah was clear proof that she needed to get out more.
And she would get out, starting that very evening, with a gala party at the palace, a celebration of her sister Rhiannon’s recent marriage to Commandant Marcus Desmarais. It would be lovely. She would enjoy herself. She would dance all night.
She rose and dressed and went to the stables, expecting to see Noah again, unsure whether she wanted to see him—or wished that he wouldn’t be there.
He wasn’t there.
And her uncertainty vanished. She did want to see him, to hear his voice again, to find out if her response to him was as strong as it had seemed yesterday. As she tacked up the black mare, Prizma, she was alert every moment for the telltale sound of someone entering the stables behind her. But no one came.
She went for her ride, returning to find that he still wasn’t there. She almost asked Gilbert about him.
But she felt too foolish and confused—which wasn’t like her at all. She was a confident person, always had been. She spoke her mind and had few fears. Yes, she was making a definite effort not to get into situations that might attract the attention of the tabloids and embarrass her family. But that didn’t mean she was all tied up in emotional knots. She liked to live expansively, to take chances, to have fun.
She was no shy little virgin afraid to ask a few questions about a man who interested her.
The problem was…
Wait a minute. There was no problem. She’d met a man and found him attractive. She might or might not see him again. If she ever did get something going with him, well, it could be a bit awkward. She was a princess of Montedoro and he was a penniless American from a place called East Los Angeles.
They didn’t exactly have a whole lot in common.
Except that they did. She was half-American, after all. And they both loved horses. And she had so enjoyed talking with him. Plus, he was very easy on the eyes….
She’d made way too much of this and she was stopping that right now. He was only a man she’d found intriguing. She might see him again.
And she might not. The world would go on turning however things worked out.
At six Alice returned to her villa on a steep street in the ward of Monagalla, not far from the palace. Her housekeeper, Michelle Thierry, met her at the front door.
“I thought you’d never get back,” the housekeeper chided. “Have you forgotten your sister’s party?”
“Of course not. Relax. There’s plenty of time.”
“You’re to be there at eight, you said,” Michelle accused.
“Oh, come on. It’s definitely doable.”
Michelle wrinkled her nose. “What have you stepped in?”
“I work all day with horses. Take a guess.”
The housekeeper waved her hands. “Don’t just stand there. Get out of those boots and come inside. We’ll have to hurry. There’s so much to do….”
“You are way too bossy.”
Michelle granted her a smug smile. “But you couldn’t get along without me.”
It was only the truth.
In her late forties, Michelle was a wonder. She not only took excellent care of the villa, but also cooked beautiful meals and played lady’s maid with skill and flair. Michelle loved her work and had impeccable taste. Alice knew she was lucky to have her.
Laughing, she perched on the step and took off her boots, which the housekeeper instantly whisked from her hands.
“The bath,” Michelle commanded, waving a soiled boot. “Immediately.”
Alice had her bath, did her hair and makeup, put on the red silk-taffeta Oscar de la Renta that Michelle had chosen for her and then sat impatiently, fully dressed except for her shoes, while Michelle repaired her manicure and pedicure and clucked over her for not taking proper care of her hands.
The car was waiting outside when she left the villa at ten of eight. The drive up to Cap Royale, the bluff overlooking the Mediterranean on which the Prince’s Palace sprawled in all its white stone glory, should have taken only a few minutes. But the streets were packed with limousines on their way to the party. Alice could have walked it faster—and at one time, she would have simply told the driver to pull over and let her out.
But no. The goal was to be more dignified, less of a wild child. She stayed in her limo like everyone else. The car finally reached the palace at 8:28. Hardly late at all, the way Alice saw it. But her mother would think otherwise. Her Sovereign Highness Adrienne expected the members of her family to arrive promptly at important events.
The guests in their gala finery were still streaming in the red-carpeted main entrance. Alice had the driver take her around to a side door where two stern-faced palace guards waited to let in intimate friends and members of the princely family. She gave her light wrap and bag to a servant.
Then she took a series of marble hallways to another exit—the one that led out to the colonnade above the palace gardens. Alice paused at the top of the white stone stairs leading down to the garden.
Below, a giant white silk tent had been erected. Golden light glowed from within the tent where dinner for three hundred would be served. The palace, the tent, the gardens, the whole of Montedoro—everything seemed ablaze with golden light.
“There you are.” Her sister, Rhiannon, five months pregnant and glowing with happiness, clutched the frothy tiered skirts of her strapless ivory gown and sailed up the stairs to Alice’s side, her growing baby bump leading the way.
Alice adored all four of her sisters, but she and Rhia shared a special bond. They were best friends. “Sorry, I’m a little late. The streets are awash in limousines.”
The sisters shared a quick hug and kissed the air by each other’s cheeks. Rhia whispered, “I’m just glad you’re here. I’ve missed you….” Flashes went off. There were always photographers lurking around, way too many of them at an event like this.
Alice hooked her arm through Rhia’s. They turned as one to face the cameras. “Smile,” Alice advised softly, trying not to move her lips. “Show no weakness.”
Rhia braced her free hand proudly on the bulge of her tummy and smiled for the cameras. She had a lot to be happy about. For almost a decade, she’d struggled to deny her love for Marcus Desmarais. Now, at last, she and her lifetime love were together in the most complete way. Rhia and Marcus had married in a small private ceremony three weeks ago. They’d flown off for a honeymoon in the Caribbean on the same day Alice had made that fateful trip to Scotland.
The party tonight was in lieu of the usual big wedding. The world needed to see how the Bravo-Calabretti family welcomed the new husband of one of their own.
Rhia’s groom had been orphaned soon after his birth. He’d started with nothing—and become a fine man, one who’d gone far in spite of his humble beginnings. The party wasn’t just for show. The Bravo-Calabrettis did welcome him.
Alice loved that about her family. They judged a man—or a woman—by his or her behavior and accomplishments. Not by an accident of birth or a string of inherited titles. If Alice were to choose a man with nothing, her family would support her in her choice.
Not that she was anywhere close to choosing anyone. Certainly not a bold blue-eyed American she’d only just met and would likely not see again.
She banished the stable hand from her mind—yet again—as Rhia grabbed her hand and pulled her down the curving staircase. They wove their way through the crowd toward the wide-open entrance to the big white tent. Alice spotted her brother Damien, the youngest of the four Bravo-Calabretti princes, entering the tent, his dark head thrown back as he laughed at something the tall golden-haired man beside him had said….
“Allie?” Rhia turned back to her with a puzzled frown.
Alice realized she’d stopped in mid-step at the base of the stairs and was staring with her mouth hanging open. Her brother and the other man disappeared inside the tent. She’d only caught the briefest glimpse of the other man from the back. And then from the side, for that split second when he’d turned his head. “It can’t be…”
“Allie?” her sister asked again.
“I could have sworn…”
“Are you all right?” A worried frown creased the space between Rhia’s smooth brows.
Alice blinked and shook her head. Lovely. Not only was she obsessing over a near-stranger, she was also hallucinating that she saw the same man, perfectly turned out in white tie and tails, chatting up her brother. “Did you see that tall blond man with Dami? They just went inside the tent.”
“Dami? I didn’t notice.”
“You didn’t notice Dami, or the man with him?”
“Either. Allie, really. Are you all right?”
“I’m beginning to wonder about that,” she muttered.
“You’re mumbling. Say again?”
Alice would have loved to have dragged her favorite sister off somewhere private, where she could tell her all about the scruffy, sexy, unforgettable stable hand—whom she could have sworn she’d just seen wearing a perfectly cut designer tailcoat and evening trousers and sharing a joke with their brother. She wanted a comforting hug and some solid, down-to-earth advice. But now was not the time. She tugged on Rhia’s hand. “It doesn’t matter. Come on. Let’s go in. Marcus will be wondering where you’ve gone.”
The family table was a long one, set up on a dais at the far end of the tent. All their brothers and sisters were there. The married ones had come with their spouses. Even dear Belle, who lived in America now with her horse rancher husband, Preston McCade, had come all the way from Montana to celebrate with Rhia and Marcus. Only the little nieces and nephews were missing tonight. This was a grownup party, after all.
Rhia whispered, “We never have time to talk anymore.”
“I know. I miss you, too.”
“Come to our villa at seven Sunday night. We’ll have dinner, catch up. Just the two of us.”
“What about Marcus?”
“He’s dining at the palace with Alex. Something about the CCU.” Alexander, Damien’s twin, was third-born of their brothers. Alex had created the elite fighting force, the Covert Command Unit, in which Marcus served.
“I’ll be there,” Alice promised.
With a last hug, Rhia left her to join her groom in her seat of honor at the center of the table.
Alice went to greet her parents. Her mother, looking amazing as always in beaded black Chanel, gave her a kiss and a fond “Hello, my darling,” and didn’t say a word about her tardiness. Her mother was like that. HSH Adrienne had high expectations, but she’d never been one to nag.
In the past, Alice had crashed a motorcycle in the marketplace, run off with a sheikh for a week in Marrakech, been photographed for Vanity Fair wearing only a cleverly draped silk scarf, and been arrested in Beijing for participating in a protest march. Among other things.
Until Glasgow her mother had never done more than gently remind her that she was a princess of Montedoro and expected to behave like one. But after Glasgow, for the first time, Alice had been summoned to her mother’s office. HSH Adrienne had asked her to shut the door and then coolly informed her that she’d finally gone too far.
“Alice,” her mother had said much too sadly, too gently, “it’s one thing to be spirited and adventurous. It’s another to be an embarrassment to yourself and our family. In future, I am counting on you to exercise better judgment and to avoid situations that will lead to revealing, provocative pictures of you splashed across the front pages of the Sun and the Daily Star.”
It had been awful. Just thinking about it made her feel a little sick to her stomach.
And sad, too. A bit wilted and grim.
Shake it off, she commanded herself. Let it go.
Alice looked for her place card and found it between her older sister Belle’s husband, Preston McCade, and her younger sister Genevra. Genny wore shimmering teal blue satin and was giggling over something with another sister, the youngest, Rory, who was seated on Genny’s other side.
Damien sat at the opposite end of the table. No sign of the man who looked like Noah. Alice considered hustling down there and asking Dami…what?
Who was that man with the dark blond hair, the one you came in with?
And what if he stared at her blankly and demanded, Allie darling, what man?
She waffled just long enough that she missed her chance. Her mother rose and greeted the guests. A hush fell over the tent. Then her father stood as well. He picked up his champagne glass to propose the first toast.
Allie reached for her glass, raised it high and drank on cue. Then she took her seat. She greeted her sisters and Preston, whom she liked a lot. He was charming and a little shy, with a great sense of humor. He bred and trained quarter horses, so they had plenty to talk about.
There were more toasts. Alice paced herself, taking very small sips of champagne, practicing being low-key and composed for all she was worth. By the time the appetizer was served, she felt glad she hadn’t asked Dami about the broad-shouldered stranger with the dark-gold hair and perfectly cut evening clothes.
It was nothing. It didn’t matter. She would have a fine evening celebrating her dearest sister’s hard-earned happiness. And no one else would know that she’d imagined she saw someone who wasn’t really there. She accepted a second glass of champagne from a passing servant and picked up a spear of prosciutto-wrapped asparagus—and then almost dropped the hors d'oeuvre in her lap when she glanced over and saw Noah.
He wore that same perfect evening attire she’d glimpsed earlier. And he sat between a stunning blonde and a gorgeous redhead several tables away, staring right at her.
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