The Prince's Cinderella Bride
Maximilian Bravo-Calabretti, heir to the Montedoran throne, stepped out from behind a low cluster of fan palms and directly into the path of the woman who’d hardly spoken to him since New Year’s.
Lani Vasquez let out a small squeak of surprise and jumped back. She almost dropped the book she was carrying. “Your Highness.” She shot him a glare. “You scared me.”
The high garden path that wove along the cliffside was deserted. It was just the two of them at the moment. But anyone might come wandering toward them—one of the gardeners looking for a hedge to trim, or a palace guest out for a brisk early-morning stroll. Max wanted privacy for this. He grabbed her hand, which caused her to let out another sharp cry.
“Come with me,” he commanded and pulled her forward on the path. “This way.”
She dug in her heels. “No, Max. Really.”
He turned to face her. She flashed him a look of defiance. Still, he refused to let go of her soft little hand. Her sweet face was flushed, her thick midnight hair loose on her shoulders, tangled by the wind off the sea far below. He wanted to haul her close and kiss her. But he needed to get her to talk to him first. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
Her mouth quivered in the most tempting way. “Yes, I have. Let go of my hand.”
“We have to talk.”
“No, we don’t.”
“It was a mistake,” she insisted in a ragged little whisper.
“Don’t say that.”
“But it’s the truth. It was a mistake and there’s no point in going into it. I don’t want to talk about it.”
And he didn’t want to hear that. “Just come with me, that’s all I’m asking.”
“I’m expected at the villa.” She worked as a nanny for his brother Rule and his wife. They owned a villa in the nearby ward of Fontebleu. “I have to go now.”
“This won’t take long.” He turned and started forward again.
She let out a low, unhappy sound, and for a moment, he was certain she would simply refuse to budge.
But then she gave in and followed. He kept hold of her hand and pulled her along. Not glancing back, he cut off the overlook path and onto the rocky hillside, finding a second path that twisted up and around, through a copse of olive trees and on to where the land flattened out to a more cultivated formal garden.
High, green hedges surrounded them, and they walked on thick grass. The grass gave way to a rose garden. Now, in February, the buds were only just forming on the thorny stems. Beyond the budding roses, he took a curving stone path beneath a series of trellises. Still she followed, saying nothing, occasionally dragging her feet a little to let him know she was far from willing.
They came to a gate in a stone wall. He pushed through the gate and held it for her, with his free hand, going through after her and then closing it behind them.
Across another swath of lawn, between a pair of silk floss trees, the stone cottage waited. He led her on, across the grass, along the stepping stones that stopped at the rough wood trellis twined with bare, twisted grape vines. The trellis shaded the rough wood door.
He pushed the door open, let go of her hand and ushered her in first. With a quick, suspicious glance at him, she went.
Two windows let in enough light to see by. Sheets covered the plain furniture. It took him only a moment to whip off the coverings and drop them to the rough wooden floor, revealing a scarred table with four chairs, a sofa, a couple of side tables and two floral-patterned wing chairs. The rudimentary kitchen took up one wall. Stairs climbed another wall to the sleeping area above.
“Have a seat,” he offered.
She pressed her lips together, shook her head and remained standing by the door, clutching her book tightly between her two hands. “What is this place?”
“It’s just a gardener’s cottage. No one’s using it now. Sit down.”
She still refused to budge. “What are you doing, Your High—?”
“Certainly we’re past that.”
For a moment, she said nothing, only stared at him, her dark eyes huge in the soft oval of her face. He wanted to reach out and gather her close and soothe all her troubles away. But everything about her warned, Don’t touch me.
She let out a breath and her slim shoulders drooped. “Max. Really. Can’t you just admit it? We both know it was a mistake.”
“Wrong.” He moved a step closer. She stiffened a little, but she didn’t back away. He whispered, “It was beautiful. Perfect. At the time, you thought so, too—or so you said.”
“Oh, Max. Why can’t I get through to you?” She turned from him and went to one of the windows.
He stared at her back, at her hair curling, black as a crow’s wing, on her shoulders. And he remembered…
It was New Year’s Eve. At the Sovereign’s New Year’s Ball.
He asked her to dance and as soon as he had her in his arms, he only wanted to keep her there. So he did. When the first dance ended, he held her lightly until the music started up again. He kept her with him through five dances. Each dance went by in the blink of an eye. He would have gone on dancing with her, every dance, until the band stopped playing. But people noticed and she didn’t like it.
By the fifth dance she was gazing up at him much too solemnly. And when that dance ended, she said, “I think it’s time for me to say good-night.”
He’d watched her leave the ballroom and couldn’t bear to see her go. So he followed her. They’d shared their first kiss in the shadows of the long gallery outside the ballroom, beneath the frescoes depicting martyred saints and muscular angels. She’d pulled away sharply, dark fire in her eyes.
So he kissed her again.
And a third time, as well. By some heady miracle, with those kisses, he’d secured her surrender. Lani led him up to her small room in the deserted apartment of his brother Rule’s family. When he left her hours later, she was smiling and tender and she’d kissed him good-night.
But ever since then, for five endless weeks, she’d barely spoken to him.
“Lani. Look at me.…”
She whirled and faced him again. Her mouth had softened and so had her eyes. Had she been remembering that night, too? For a moment, he almost dared to hope she would melt into his arms.
But then she drew herself up again. “It was a mistake,” she insisted for the fourth time. “And this is impossible. I have to go.” She headed for the door.
He accused, “Coward.”
The single word seemed to hit her between the shoulder blades. She let go of the doorknob, dropped her book to the rough entry table and turned once more to meet his waiting eyes. “Please. It was just one of those things that happen even though it shouldn’t have. We got carried away.…”
Carried away? Maybe. “I have no regrets. Not a one.” He was glad it had happened, and on New Year’s Eve, too. To him it had seemed the ideal way to ring in a whole new year—and right then, a dangerous thought occurred to him. God. Was there a baby? If so, he needed to know. “We should have been more careful, though. You’re right. Is that why you keep running away from me? Are you—?”
“No,” she cut in before he could even get the question out. “We were lucky. You can stop worrying.”
“I miss you,” he said, before she could start in again about how she had to go. “I miss our discussions, our talks in the library. Lani, we have so much in common. We’ve been good friends.”
“Oh, please,” she scoffed. But there was real pain in her eyes, in the tightness of her mouth. “You and I were never friends.” All at once, her eyes were too bright. She blinked away tears.
He wanted only to comfort her. “Lani…” He took a step toward her.
But she put up a hand and he stopped in midstride. “We’ve been friendly,” she corrected. “But to be more is beyond inappropriate. I work for your brother and sister-in-law. I’m the nanny. I’m supposed to set an example and show good judgment.” She swallowed. Hard. “I never should have let it happen.”
“Will you stop saying that it shouldn’t have happened?”
“But it shouldn’t have.”
“Excuse me. We are two single adults and we have every right to—”
“Stop.” She backed a step toward the door. “I want you to listen, Max. It can’t happen again. I won’t let it.” Her eyes were dry now. And way too determined.
He opened his mouth to insist that it most certainly would happen again. But where would such insistence get him? Except to send her whirling, flinging the door wide, racing off down the walk and out the gate.
He didn’t want that. And arguing with her over whether that unforgettable night should or should not have happened was getting him nowhere, anyway. They didn’t need arguing. They needed to reestablish their earlier ease with each other.
So in the end he answered mildly, “Of course you’re right. It won’t happen again.”
She blinked in surprise. “I don’t…What are you saying?”
“I’ll make an agreement with you.”
She narrowed her eyes and peered at him sideways. “I don’t want to bargain about this.”
“How can you know that? You haven’t heard my offer yet.”
“Offer?” She sneered the word. He held his silence as she nibbled her lower lip in indecision. Finally, she threw up both hands. “Oh, all right. What, then? What is your offer?”
“I’ll promise not to try and seduce you,” he suggested with what he hoped was just the right touch of wry humor, “and you’ll stop avoiding me. We can be…” He hesitated, remembering how she’d scoffed when he’d called them friends. “…what we used to be.”
She aimed a put-upon look at the single beam in the rough-textured ceiling. “Oh, come on. Seriously? That never works.”
“I disagree.” Light. Reasonable. Yes, just the right tone. “And it’s unfair to generalize. I think it can work. We can make it work.” Until she admitted that being what they used to be wasn’t nearly enough. Then they could make it work in much more satisfying ways.
She hovered there in front of the door, staring at him, unblinking. He stared right back, trying to look calm and reasonable and completely relaxed when in reality his gut was clenched tight and he’d begun to lose hope he would ever get through to her.
But then, at last, she dropped her gaze. She went to the rustic dinner table, where she ran her finger along the back of one of the plain straight chairs. He watched her, remembering the cool, thrilling wonder of her fingers on his naked skin.
Finally, she slanted him a look. “I love Montedoro. I came here with Sydney thinking I would stay for six months or a year, just for the life experience.” Sydney was his brother Rule’s wife and Lani’s closest friend. “Two years later, I’m still here. I have this feeling, and it’s such a powerful feeling, that Montedoro is my real home and I was only waiting to come here, to find the place I was meant to be. I want to write a hundred novels, all of them set right here. I never want to leave.”
“I know. And no one wants you to leave.”
“Oh, Max. What I’m trying to say is, as much as I love it here, as much as I want to stay forever, if you or any of your family wanted me gone, my visa would be revoked in a heartbeat.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? No one wants you to go.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t get it. Love affairs end. And when they end, things can get awkward. You’re a good man, a kind man. But you’re also the heir to the throne. I’m the help. It’s…well, it’s hardly a relationship of equals.”
Why did she insist on seeing trouble where there was none? “You’re wrong. We are equals in all the ways that really matter.”
She made a humphing sound. “Thanks for that, Your Highness.”
He wanted to grab her and shake her. But somehow he managed to remain still, to speak with calm reproach. “You know me better than that.”
She shook her head. “Don’t you get it? We went too far. We need to back off and let it go.”
Let it go—let her go? Never. “Listen. I’m going to say it again. This time I’m hopeful you’ll actually hear me. I would never expect you to leave Montedoro, no matter what happened. You have my sworn word on that. The last thing I would ever want is to make things difficult for you.”
Heat flared in her eyes again. “But that’s exactly what you’ve done—what you are doing right now.”
“Forgive me.” He said it evenly, holding her dark gaze.
Another silence ensued. An endless one.
And then, at last, she spoke again, her head drooping, her shining, softly curling hair swinging out to hide her flushed cheeks. “I hate this.”
“So do I.”
She lifted her head and stared at him, emotions chasing themselves across her sweet face: misery, exasperation, frustration, sorrow. After a moment she confessed, “All right. It’s true that I miss…having you to talk to.”
Progress. His heart slammed against his ribcage.
She added, “And I adore Nick and Constance.” His son, Nicholas, was eight. Connie was six. Lani was good friends with Gerta, Nick and Connie’s nanny. Rule’s children and his often played together. “I…” She peered at him so closely, her expression disbelieving. “Do you honestly think we could do that, be…friendly again?”
“I know we could.”
“Just that and only that.” Doubt shadowed her eyes. “Friendly. Nothing more.”
“Only that,” he vowed, silently adding, Until you realize you want more as much as I do.
She sighed. “I…Well, I would like to be on good terms with you.”
Light, he reminded himself as his pulse ratcheted higher. Keep it light. “All right, then. We are…as we were.” He dared to hold out his hand to her.
She frowned. He waited, arm outstretched, arching a brow, trying to appear hopeful and harmless. Her gaze darted from his face to his offered hand, and back to his face again. Just when he was certain he would have to drop his hand, she left the table and came and took it. His fingers closed over hers. He reveled in the thrill that shivered up his arm at her touch.
Too soon, she eased her hand free and snatched up her book. “Now, will you let me go?”
No. He cast about for a way to keep her there. If she wouldn’t let him kiss her or hold her or smooth her shining hair, all right. He accepted that. But couldn’t they at least talk for a while the way they used to do?
“Max?” A slight frown creased her brow.
He was fresh out of new tactics and had no clue how to get her to let down her guard. Plus he had a very strong feeling that he’d pushed her as far as she would go for now. This was looking to be an extended campaign. He didn’t like that, but if it was the only way to finally reach her, so be it. “I’ll be seeing you in the library—where you will no longer scuttle away every time I get near you.”
A hint of the old humor flashed in her eyes. “I never scuttle.”
“Scamper? Dart? Dash?”
“Stop it.” Her mouth twitched. A good sign, he told himself.
“Promise me you won’t run off the next time we meet.”
The spark of humor winked out. “I just don’t like this.”
“You’ve already said that. I’m going to show you there’s nothing to be afraid of. Do we have an understanding?”
And finally, she gave in and said the words he needed to hear. “Yes. I’ll, um, look forward to seeing you.”
He didn’t believe her. How could he believe her when she sounded so grim, when that mouth he wanted beneath his own was twisted with resignation? He didn’t believe her, and he almost wished he could give her what she said she wanted, let her go, say goodbye. He almost wished he could not care.
But he’d had years of not caring, long, empty years when he’d told himself that not caring was for the best.
And then the small, dark-haired woman in front of him changed everything.
She turned for the door.
He was out of ways to keep her there, and he needed to accept that. “Lani, wait…”
She stopped, shoulders tensing, head slightly bowed. “What now?” But she didn’t turn back to him.
“Let me.” He eased around her and pulled the door wide. She nodded, barely glancing at him, and went through, passing beneath the rough-hewn trellis into the cool winter sunlight. He lingered in the open doorway, watching her as she walked away from him.
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