A Crown Prince gets a second chance at love with the woman who’s always been there - in the next book in the prince duology from Donna Alward!
The Crown Prince of Marazur is suffering from a broken heart. After losing his wife and future queen, he knows he’ll never find love again with a partner as wonderful as her. He’s thrown himself into his duties and is trying to be a better father to his two children, but he’s lonely. Even though falling in love seems impossible, so does spending the rest of his life alone.
Stephani has been Raoul’s assistant for years. Smart, loyal, and discreet, Stephani is fantastic at her job. Except for the fact that she’s been in love with her boss since her first week of employment, not that she would ever act on it. Besides, Raoul is first in line to the throne and she’s his assistant. If Raoul ever marries again, it’ll be with someone who can be a future queen. Not someone like Stephani.
When Raoul’s date for a state dinner is unable to attend, he invites Stephani. She’s well-versed on the issues and castle protocol, and Raoul’s always been comfortable with her. But when Stephani arrives, Raoul hardly recognizes her. Is this stunning woman the same one who’s run his office for years?
The Crown Prince’s Bride is the ultimate fairy tale for readers looking for Cinderella to get her prince—and be able to keep him past midnight.
Release date: January 9, 2018
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 250
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The Crown Prince's Bride
Stephani surveyed the ballroom, ensuring everything wasrunning smoothly and to her satisfaction. As the executive assistant to theCrown Prince of Marazur, it was her job to make sure that Raoul Navarro’sbirthday party went off without a hitch.
So far the dinner had been delicious, the traditional almondcake devoured, and the music and dancing had begun. She started to breathe abit easier now.
“Señorita Savalas? Champagne?”
She turned to the footman who carried several full glasseson his silver tray. “Sí, gracias.” She smiled and took a flute from the tray,then sipped gratefully. The dry, fizzy liquid delighted her tongue. By royalstandards, the party was small, but no expense had been spared. Including thisparticularly fine vintage.
Raoul deserved a wonderful party after the year he’d had.Considering this was the first real event at the palace since his wife,Princess Cecilia, had tragically died, Stephani had pulled out all the stops.
It was her job. And it was more than just a job, too.Because for the last seven years, she’d been in love with her boss.
Her boss, who had been married to her cousin.
Her boss, who was now a widower with two small children.
Right now Raoul was mingling with a group that included thefinance minister and the gentleman’s twenty-something daughter. The girl lookedup at Raoul with something like hero worship, and Stephani smiled to herself.He was at least ten years too old for her, but he was extraordinarily handsomewith his black hair and dark, soulful eyes. New lines had appeared at eitherside of his lips, but Stephani thought they only added to his allure.
She joined the group and smiled at everyone, then spokebriefly before turning her attention to the Italian attaché. There was also arepresentative from the French tourism ministry and she switched languageseffortlessly.
“You’re exceptionally good at that.”
Raoul’s deep voice vibrated at her ear and she suppressed adelighted shiver. She pasted a platonic smile on her face and turned around.“Oh, hello. Having a good time?”
“More than I expected. And what about you? Are you enjoyingyourself? Or just working the room?” He lifted an eyebrow.
“Just making everyone feel welcome.”
“And showing off the fact you can speak . . .” He countedsilently on his fingers. “Five languages? Six?”
“Five,” she confirmed. “My Russian and German are more of adanger than an asset. I could ruin diplomatic relations in two sentences.”
He chuckled, and she let herself enjoy the sound. Raouldidn’t laugh much at all recently, but the wine pairings at dinner and the openbar had loosened him up considerably.
She hadn’t seen him this relaxed since . . .
A confusing wave of grief swept over her. Maybe she’d had asecret thing for Raoul for ages, but she’d also loved her cousin deeply.Everyone had loved Ceci. And Stephani missed her. Ceci would have loved a partylike this. She would have sparkled like the diamond she was. Stephani was farbetter behind the scenes. It had always been that way, even when they werekids.
“It’s good to hear you laugh, Raoul.”
His eyes met hers. “It’s good to laugh again. It’s been awhile.”
“Of course.” She didn’t want to dampen the mood of theevening, so she smiled instead and nodded toward a woman skirting the dancefloor. “Look. Rose has come back. The children were lovely at dinner, don’t youthink?”
His gaze followed the new nanny. “You helped with her dressfor the evening?”
“My brother can’t take his eyes off of her.”
“I think Diego has finally met his match. Do you approve?”
“Yes and no?” He shrugged. “My first priority is thechildren, and they seem to adore her.”
“But she is also a lovely person.” He sent her a sidewayssmile. “Better than Diego deserves.”
She laughed a little. “You don’t really believe that.”
“No, I don’t. He’s been . . . different. Especially the lastfew months. Since . . .”
His voice trailed off, but she knew what he’d meant. SinceCeci died.
Everything was different since Ceci had died.
He nudged her elbow. “I don’t want to drag down the party.Do you want to dance, Steph?”
Did she? She’d only imagined it a million times.Particularly at every palace function when she’d stood on the sidelines withher clipboard while Ceci held Raoul in her arms. The perfect couple, a princeand princess, utterly in love.
She hesitated long enough that he stepped back. “Lo siento.I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“You didn’t,” she hurried to assure him. “I’d love todance.” It might be her one and only chance. She put her champagne down on anearby table and smiled up at him. “Shall we?”
The band had switched to a slower song, and he led her tothe polished parquet and took her in his arms. She swallowed tightly . . . ohmy. He was smooth, effortless, and his hand was warm against the hollow of herback. His fingers tightened over hers and she bit down on her lip. Raoul, shethought, wondering why on earth she insisted on torturing herself day in andday out. Why couldn’t she manage to shake this silly attraction? Besides, heonly ever saw her as his assistant. If he had any idea of her feelings . . .Ugh. Work would be unbearably awkward.
“You look lovely tonight,” he said, his lips only inchesfrom her ear. “The little black dress was a good choice.”
“It’s Versace.” She strangled out the words.
Their feet kept moving, and their bodies seemed to driftcloser, until the lapels of his jacket brushed against her breasts. She couldfeel his heat, smell his cologne.
She should resign. Find another position somewhere, awayfrom the longing for what she could never have. Except this was the perfectjob. Wonderful pay, wonderful perks, and . . . well, the family relied on her.She knew that. It was more than a job, and more than just Raoul. She caredabout them all. King Alexander, Diego, the children . . . they were her familynow that Ceci was gone. She had no immediate family of her own. What remainedof the Savalas family was spread out over Greece and Spain. She didn’t evenknow half of them. Ceci had been her anchor, and in her absence, the Navarroshad become her surrogate family.
The song ended and Raoul stood back, but his face had lostthe relaxed easiness of before, and a small furrow had appeared between hisbrows. “Is everything okay?” she asked, suddenly panicked that maybe she’d beenthe one to drift closer and inadvertently created an awkward moment betweenthem.
“Diego danced with Rose, and she’s just left him standing inthe middle of the floor,” he said quietly.
“Maybe there’s trouble in paradise.”
“You should talk to him.”
“I know. It’s never been easy, though. We’re so different.We always seem to cross swords.”
“That’s because you’re more alike than you think. You haveto start giving him a chance. He’s more reliable than you give him credit for.”
Back to business. She felt on solid ground when she couldfocus on business.
She patted his arm. “I’m going to check on the kitchenstaff. Señora Ortiz is planning a smaller buffet close to midnight.”
She went to leave and he reached for her hand. “Stephani?”
She focused on his face, because the fact that he washolding her hand was doing funny things to her insides. “Yes?”
“Thank you, for all this. I know I’ve been difficult thelast few months. Tonight, having people and music in the house again . . .”
The butterflies in her belly grew heavy. “It must bedifficult.”
“Yes. No. I mean, it’s been good. I can’t live my life beinggloomy and unhappy all the time. This wouldn’t have happened without you.”
She smiled. “The people need to see that you’re still okay.”
He squeezed her fingers. “I need to know I’m okay. Thishelped. Thank you.”
And he leaned forward and kissed her cheek.
His breath was warm against her skin, and she might bemistaken but she would swear his mouth lingered there just a moment longer thannecessary. Heat rushed to her face and she muttered a hasty “you’re welcome”before darting away. She didn’t want him to see her blush. Or the fact that hiscasual touch had the power to make her normal unflappable reserve desert hercompletely.
* * *
Raoul downed his fourth—or was it fifth?—Scotch and put thecut crystal glass down on a table. The midnight buffet had been set out, alight meal for those partygoers working up an appetite on the dance floor.Diego had disappeared ages ago, chasing after Rose.
His brother was in love. The real thing. And Raoul hadcongratulated him and wished him well, when all he could think of was howhorrible it felt to have his heart ripped out of his chest in the actions of amoment. That perhaps love wasn’t worth it. He might actually believe that if itweren’t for Emilia and Max. The children were all he had left of Ceci, and hewouldn’t trade his marriage with her for anything.
Not even the pain of losing her.
They hadn’t let him go to the scene of the accident, but hedidn’t have to. The news had shown the mangled wreck in full detail. A leakedphone video had shown the paramedics taking Emilia and Max from the car, andtheir driver, Marco, sitting with a white bandage on his uncommonly pale face.And there’d been a glimpse of the body bags, too—Ceci’s, and Mariana’s, theroyal family’s nanny.
He went to the bar and got another Scotch. He was a yearolder, and life did go on. He even had moments of happiness. Tonight had beenfun, but now that the evening was winding down, he was missing Ceci more thanever.
Would it be very bad form for him to leave the party beforehis guests? He suspected it would.
As he took a drink of his Scotch, he spotted Stephani acrossthe room. She didn’t look tired at all, even though he knew she’d been heresince about seven this morning and hadn’t stopped all day. He wasn’t sure whereshe got her stamina, but she was the best assistant he’d ever had. She’d beenworking for him long enough that she anticipated his needs. Hiring Ceci’scousin had started out as a favor to his wife. Stephani had graduated fromuniversity but was working as an event server at a resort in Barcelona to makeends meet. She hadn’t had the resources Ceci did—she’d been the poor cousinwho’d had to work her way through. Ceci had known Stephani wouldn’t take ahandout, and Raoul had reluctantly agreed to give her a chance. It turned outto be a brilliant business decision.
He sipped again. Didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous, either.Her silky hair was the same inky color as her black dress and she wore heelsthat showed off her very fine legs. Stephani worked the room like the greatestof ambassadors and hostesses rolled into one. She was so like Ceci in that regard,warm and generous. But different, too. Focused, sharp. Ceci’s biggest qualityhad been her capacity for love and kindness. Stephani’s was to take that warmthand use it to its best advantage—while staying out of the spotlight.
She laughed and he swore he heard it across the room, abovethe music and the chatter. His body tightened in response, an uncomfortable andyet somehow welcome experience. He was thirty-seven, for God’s sake, and heirto the throne. Unlike his brother, he didn’t have the luxury—or theinclination—to play the field. But he was still a man. A young man, really.What was he going to do, stay a widower for the rest of his life? Staycelibate? It was utterly unrealistic.
Maybe he shouldn’t have had so much Scotch. He should go. Noone would miss him now, would they? Particularly not Steph. He’d thanked herand kissed her cheek, and she’d literally run off. What had he been thinking?
He left the ballroom and headed for the stairs, thenreconsidered. He’d rather get some fresh air and clear his head after all thealcohol.
The hall to the back entrance of the castle was narrow andonce he descended the steps, he reached a stone-encased alcove. Fresh airfiltered in, moist and balmy in the summer heat, and he shrugged off his jacketand dropped it in a corner. It would be dusty but he didn’t care. Instead heleaned back against the cool stone and closed his eyes. His head swam instantlyand he opened them again, seeking equilibrium.
And there she was.
“I brought you a bottle of water,” Stephani said softly. Sheuncapped it and held it out. “You need to rehydrate.”
He took it and drank deeply. “How did you know I was here?”
She met his gaze evenly. “Your Highness, it’s my job to knowwhere you are at all times. Even more than your security.”
“Thass right. You’re my right hand.” He heard the slur andwas mortified. He never got drunk. Never. But he had tonight. It was definitelya good thing he’d left the party.
She smiled at him. “Oh my. You did hit the Scotch ratherhard, didn’t you?”
He didn’t answer. Didn’t know how to answer.
“Slurring in front of the finance minister wouldn’t be asmart move.”
He looked over at her. “Really? I doubt he’d notice.”
“Oh, he’d notice. Rumor has it he addressed his own alcoholissues a few months ago and has been dry ever since. I watched. He didn’t takeany wine at dinner.”
And this was one of the reasons Steph was so valuable. Shealways had her ear to the ground. Always seemed to know what was going on andwith whom.
Which made him look at her a little more closely. “So, MissObservant, how long did you know about Diego and Rose?”
She laughed. “Almost from day one.”
“I like it when you laugh.”
Her smile faded. “Sir?”
“Don’t ‘sir’ me, Steph. We’ve been past that for years.You’re family.”
A strange look passed over her face and he wondered what itmeant, but then she was smiling again and he thought he might have imagined it.“I’m Ceci’s cousin, that’s all. We’re not blood relatives.”
“No,” he said quietly. “We’re not.”
And the strange feeling he’d had while dancing with herreturned. Like his skin was somehow shrinking, taut with . . . damn, hecouldn’t be feeling attraction. That would just be wrong.
And yet . . . he dropped his gaze to her lips. They wereplump and red, fuller than Ceci’s had been, and right now they opened just alittle as Stephani inhaled sharply.
“Raoul,” she cautioned.
He dragged his gaze back up to her eyes, expecting to seedisapproval, but instead they were wide with what he could only figure wasequal awareness. He stepped closer, testing her, and watched as her pupilsdilated.
“Raoul,” she repeated, an edge of desperation in her voice.But not fear. He was clear-headed enough to recognize that wistful sound oflonging, and when he lifted his hand and placed it along her cheek, her breathcame out in a rush against the pad of his thumb.
And then he kissed her.
She tasted like dry champagne and a trace of almonds andcitrus from the cake earlier, plus a darker flavor that was sultry, sexy woman.The little dress she wore was utterly appropriate, even conservative, but thewoman inside it was so very alive and responsive. Her tongue met his as hedeepened the kiss, and with a sigh of surrender she curled her arms around hisshoulders and melted into him.
His body responded, and he was just man enough—just drunkenough—to be grateful. For the first time since Ceci’s death, he was happy hehadn’t died with her.
He stepped back from Stephani, breaking the kiss and puttinga few feet between them. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, her lips wereslightly swollen and parted. It would be so easy to step forward and take her inhis arms. Press her against the stone wall, feel her body beneath his.
But she was Ceci’s cousin.
And she was too valuable . . . no, too important for him totreat her in such a cavalier, self-indulgent way. She was Stephani. The personhe counted on most.
“I’m so sorry,” he murmured, shoving his hands into hispockets. “Steph, I . . . I have no excuse. That was so wrong of me.”
Her lips closed and she lifted her chin, though he thought,for just a fleeting second, that her lower lip quivered a bit. “Think nothingof it, sir,” she said firmly. “It was the Scotch talking, that’s all.”
“Yes, the Scotch . . .” His voice trailed off for a moment.“Forgive me, Steph.”
“There’s nothing to forgive.” Her voice sounded oddly thick,but he thought maybe it was because they were still ensconced within the stonewalls of the alcove.
“You put together this wonderful party. You always have myback. You must know how I appreciate all you do.”
She met his gaze and smiled a little. Was she sad? Whywasn’t she angry? He took a breath, then remembered the little sound ofacquiescence she’d made as she wrapped her arms around his neck and the wordshe had been going to say stuck in his throat.
She had welcomed the contact. Wholeheartedly. What the helldid this mean?
He wasn’t sure how to ask, and after too long of ahesitation, she put her hand on his arm and gave a little squeeze. “It’s myjob,” she said softly. “Try to sober up. I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.”
Then she slipped away, her footsteps echoing on the stone steps.
Raoul had no desire to go back to the party. Instead hepicked up his dusty jacket, made his way into the garden—Ceci’s garden—andfound a vacant bench.
Then he took the little silver flask from his jacket pocket,unscrewed the cap, and took a big swig.
Stephani was off-limits. Tomorrow he’d reset the boundariesand they’d go back to normal. And if he ever did decide to . . . have a romanceagain, it wouldn’t be with his assistant.
No matter how alluring she’d turned out to be.
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