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Authors: Melissa McClone

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Series, #Harlequin Romance

Not-So-Perfect Princess (3 page)

BOOK: Not-So-Perfect Princess
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“Prince Enrique has done so much for the island,” Ortiz said. “A finer successor to King Dario cannot be found, ma’am.”

If only Jules knew whether the compliments were truthful or propaganda. She knew little about her future husband besides his name. “I’m looking forward to meeting Prince Enrique.”

Ortiz beamed. “He said the same thing about you at lunch-time, ma’am.”

A third good sign? Jules hoped so.

When they reached the palace entry, two arched wooden doors parted as if by magic. Once the heavy doors were fully open, she saw two uniformed attendants standing behind and holding them.

Jules stared at the entrance with a mix of anticipation and apprehension. If all went well—and she hoped it did—this palace would be her new home. She would live with her husband and raise her children here. She fought the urge to cross her fingers.

With a deep breath, she stepped inside. The others followed.

A thirty-foot ceiling gave the large marble tiled foyer an open and airy feel. Stunning paintings, a mix of modern and classical works, hung on the walls. A marble statue of a woman sitting in the middle captured Jules’s attention. “What an amazing sculpture.”

“That is Eos, one of the Greek’s second generation Titan gods,” Ortiz explained. “We are more partial to the Latin name, Aurora. Whichever name you prefer, she’ll always be the Goddess of the Dawn.”

“Beautiful,” Brandt agreed. “Eos had a strong desire for handsome young men. If she looked anything like this statue, I’m sure she had no trouble finding willing lovers.”

“Close the front doors,” a male voice shouted. “Now.”

The attendants pushed the heavy doors. Grunts sounded. Muscles strained.

“Hurry,” the voice urged.

The people behind Jules rushed farther into the foyer so the doors could be shut. The momentum pushed her forward.

A shirtless man wearing shorts ran toward the doors. Something black darted across the floor.

Yvette screamed. “A rat, Your Highnesses.”

“There are no rats in the palace,” Ortiz shouted.

The ball of black fur darted between Jules’s legs. Startled, she stumbled face-first.

“Catch her,” Klaus yelled.

Too late. The marble floor seemed to rise up to meet Jules though she was the one falling.

She stopped abruptly. Not against the floor.

Strong arms embraced Jules. Her face pressed against a hard, bare chest. Her cheek rested against warm skin. Dark hair tickled her nose. The sound of a heartbeat filled her ears. He smelled so good. No fancy colognes. Only soap and water and salty ocean air.

She wanted another sniff.

Ortiz shrieked. “Your Highnesses. Are either of you hurt?”

Highnesses? The man must be a prince. Her father had only spoken of the crown prince. No other brothers had been mentioned. Oh, if this were Enrique…

CHAPTER TWO

“J
ULES?”
B
RANDT
sounded concerned.

“I’m fine,” Jules said quickly, more interested in the man—the prince—who saved her from hitting her face on the floor and still held her with his strong arms. Such wide shoulders, too.

Awareness seeped through her.

“My apologies.” His deep, rich voice and Spanish accent sent her racing pulse into a mad sprint. “The kitten darted out of the room before I could grab him.”

Ortiz raised his chin. “As I said, there are no rats in the palace, Princess.”

The prince inhaled sharply. She found herself being set upon her feet. But he kept hold of her, even after she was standing.

“Stable?” he asked.

She nodded, forcing herself not to stare at his muscular chest and ripped abs.

He let go of her.

A chill shivered through Jules. She wasn’t used to being in such close contact with anyone, but she missed having his nicely muscled arms around her.

She studied him, eager for a better look.

Over six feet tall with an athletic build, he looked more pirate than prince with shoulder-length dark brown hair, an earring in his left ear, khaki shorts and bare feet.

His strong jawline, high cheekbones and straight nose looked almost chiseled and made her think of the Eos sculpture. But his full lips and thick eyelashes softened the harsher features. The result—a gorgeous face she would be happy to stare at for hours. Days. Years.

Jules’s heart thudded. “Thank you.”

Warm brown eyes met hers. Gold specks flickered like flames around his irises. “You’re welcome.”

Everyone else faded into the background. Time seemed to stop. Something unfamiliar unfurled deep inside her.

He swooped up a black ball of fur with one hand. The look of tenderness in his dark eyes as he checked the kitten melted her heart. She would love for a man—this man—to look at her that way.

The kitten meowed. As he rubbed it, he returned his attention to her. “You’re Princess Julianna from Aliestle.”

It wasn’t a question.

“Yes.” Jules had never believed in love at first sight until now. She hoped their children looked exactly like him. A smile spread across her lips and reached all the way to her heart. Her father
had
gotten this right. She would realize her dream of marrying for love. A warm glow flowed through her. “You must be Enrique.”

“No.” His jaw thrust forward. “I am Alejandro.”

Alejandro held on to the kitten as confusion clouded Juliana’s pretty face. He was a little confused by his own reaction to this so-called ice princess. She had practically melted against him, and he’d yet to cool down from the contact. The woman was gorgeous, with a killer body underneath her coral-colored suit, long blond hair and big blue eyes a man could drown in.

She smelled sweet, like a bouquet of wildflowers. He wondered if her glossed lips tasted…

Not sweet.

He forced his gaze off her mouth. Julianna’s marriage to Enrique and the children she conceived would remove Alejandro from the line of succession. She was his ticket out of his obligation to the monarchy. He couldn’t think of her as anything other than his future sister-in-law.

That shouldn’t be difficult since she wasn’t his type.

Beautiful, yes, if you liked the kind of woman who knew how to apply makeup perfectly and could give any supermodel a run for her money. But he wanted a woman who didn’t care about the trappings of wealth and royalty. A woman who was down-to-earth and didn’t mind the spray of salt water in her face.

“Alejandro,” Julianna repeated as if he didn’t know his own name.

He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had mistaken him for Enrique. Polar opposites didn’t begin to describe their differences. But the fact Julianna didn’t know what her future husband looked like surprised Alejandro more. Arranged marriages were still a part of royal life in some countries, but agreeing to marry someone without seeing their photograph struck him as odd. “Yes.”

She stiffened. The warmth in her eyes disappeared. The expression on her face turned downright chilly. Ice princess?

He saw now why she’d been called that. The change in her demeanor startled him, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. Alejandro had dated enough spoiled and pampered royals and wealthy girls to last a lifetime. This one, with a rich-as-Midas father, would most likely rank up there with the worst. He almost pitied Enrique. Emphasis on almost.

She drew her finely arched brows together, looking haughty not curious. “That makes you…?”

The kitten chirped, sounding more bird than cat. Alejandro used his thumb to rub under the cat’s chin.

Impatience flashed in Julianna’s eyes.

He took his time answering. “Enrique’s younger brother.”

Alejandro waited for her look of disdain. No one cared about the second in line for the throne, especially a woman meant to be queen.

“Oh.” Her face remained expressionless. But royals were trained to turn off emotion with the flick of a switch and not display their true feelings. “I didn’t realize Enrique had a younger brother.”

That Alejandro believed. “My family prefers not to talk about me.”

Ortiz cleared his throat.

“The princess will be family soon enough, Ortiz.” Alejandro would be counting the days as soon as the official wedding date was set. He couldn’t wait to live his own life without interference from his family. Of course, an heir or two would need to be born until he would be totally free. He shifted his gaze to the princess. “She’ll hear the stories. Whispers over tea. Innuendos over cocktails. Nudges during dessert. No sense hiding the truth.”

Tilting her chin, she gave him a cool look. “What truth might that be?”

“I’m the black sheep of the family.”

Julianna pursed her lips. “A black cat for the black sheep.”

“Not by choice,” he admitted. “The cat chose me.”

She stared at the kitten, but didn’t pet him. Definitely ice running through her veins. “Such a lucky kitty to be able to choose for itself.”

“It’s too bad royalty doesn’t get the same choices,” Alejandro said.

He waited for her to reply. She didn’t.

“Eat, sleep, play.” A man in his early twenties with dark, curly brown hair stepped forward. He had rugged features, but his refined demeanor matched his designer suit and Italian leather shoes. “The life of a cat seems perfect to me. Much better than that of a prince.”

“Well, the kitten is a stray,” Alejandro said. “Caviar isn’t part of his diet.”

The man grinned. “It’s only part of mine on occasion.”

Julianna sighed. “Prince Alejandro, this is—”

“Alejandro,” he corrected. “I don’t use my title.”

“Wish I could get away with that,” the other man said. “Though the title does come in handy when it comes to women.”

“That is the one benefit I have found,” Alejandro agreed.

Julianna rolled her eyes. “The two of you can compare dating notes later. Now it’s time for a formal introduction.”

The princess’s words told Alejandro she was cut from the same cloth as Enrique. Both seemed to hold an appreciation for royal protocol and etiquette. Something Alejandro saw as a complete waste of time. The two stuffy royals might live happily ever after.

“Alejandro,” she continued. “This is His Royal Highness Crown Prince Brandt. One of my four younger brothers.”

Brother? Alejandro studied the two. He couldn’t believe they were so closely related. Brandt was as dark as his sister was fair.

“Half brother,” Julianna clarified, as if reading Alejandro’s thoughts.

That explained it. But nothing explained why his gaze drifted to the curve of her hips. A nice body would never make up for an unpleasant personality that was the female version of his older brother. Maybe he’d been spending too much time working at the boatyard and not enough time out partying with the ladies. Perhaps later…

Right now he wanted to return to his room. Being surrounded by royalty was suffocating.

“It’s been nice meeting you.” His obligation to be here when the princess arrived had been met. He cradled the now napping kitten in the crook of his arm. “I’ll see…”

Julianna stroked the kitten. The move took him by surprise. The soft smile on her face reached all the way to her eyes and made him do a double-take. His pulse rate shot up a few notches.

He’d always been a sucker for a pair of big baby blues. “Would you like to hold him?”

She drew back her hand. Her French manicured nails had no cracks or chips. “No, thank you.”

Alejandro didn’t know whether to be intrigued or annoyed by the princess. Before he could decide which, a cloud of strong aftershave hit him. He recognized the toxic scent, otherwise known as the expensive designer brand of cologne his brother wore.

Enrique turned the corner. He strode across the floor with quick steps and his head held high. Whereas Brandt looked regal, Enrique came across as pompous.

He stared at Julianna as if she were a red diamond, a rare gem meant only for him. Dollar signs shone in his eyes. Enrique’s priority had always been La Isla de la Aurora. Women were secondary, which was why an arranged marriage had been necessary.

After an uncomfortable moment of silence, Enrique glared at Ortiz, who introduced everyone with lofty titles and more middle names than Alejandro could count.

Enrique struck a ridiculous pose, as if he were at a photo shoot not standing in the foyer. “I hope you had a pleasant journey from Aliestle.”

“Thank you. I did.” Julianna’s polite smile gave nothing away as to her first impression of her groom. “The palace is lovely.”

Leave it to Enrique to turn meeting his future wife into such a formal event. Alejandro couldn’t believe his brother. Didn’t he remember their charm lessons with Mrs. Delgado? If Enrique had a clue about women, about Julianna, he would kiss her hand and compliment her on her shoes. He would make her feel as if she’d arrived home, not treat her like a temporary houseguest. But Enrique only did what he wanted, no matter how that affected anyone else.

“Alejandro.” Irritation filled Enrique’s eyes. “What are you doing with that animal?”

“He’s a kitten. And I’m only following your instructions, brother,” Alejandro explained. “I’m here, as requested, to meet your lovely bride.”

Enrique’s face reddened. “You could at least have taken the time to dress.”

“He escaped while I was changing.” Alejandro petted the sleeping cat. “I assumed Father wouldn’t want a kitten tearing through the palace unattended.”

Enrique started to speak then stopped himself. Their guests must be keeping his temper in check. At least the princess and her entourage were good for something around here.

“I’ll take him to my room,” Alejandro added. “See you at dinner.”

“Formal attire,” Enrique reminded, his voice tight. “In case you’ve forgotten, that includes shirt and shoes.”

Alejandro rocked back on his heels. “I know how to dress for dinner, bro, but thanks for the reminder.”

The air crackled with tension.

Twenty years ago, they would have been fighting while Ortiz called for the palace guards to separate them. Ten years ago, the same thing might have happened. But Enrique would never lower himself, or his station, to that level now. Even if his hard gaze told Alejandro he wanted to fight.

“At least your younger brother knows how to dress, Enrique. Not all of mine do.” Julianna sounded empathetic. “I don’t know about you, but sometimes it’s hard being the oldest.”

Her words may have been calculated, but they did the trick. Enrique’s jaw relaxed. He focused his attention on Julianna.

Alejandro was impressed. Diffusing the situation so deftly took skill. And practice.

“It can be difficult.” The corners of Enrique’s mouth lifted into a half smile. “Younger siblings don’t take things as seriously or have the same sense of duty.”

Idiot. Alejandro wondered if his brother realized he was also slamming Brandt, another crown prince, with his words.

“Some don’t,” Julianna agreed. “But others just need to understand their responsibilities a little better. Isn’t that right, dear brother?”

Brandt nodded, looking more amused than offended. Alejandro liked the guy already.

Enrique’s mouth twisted, as if he finally understood how his words could be construed. “I was talking about Alejandro.”

Julianna smiled at Enrique. “Of course, you were.”

The woman was smooth. Alejandro had no idea if her skills came from dealing with her brothers or boyfriends, but he’d never seen anyone handle Enrique so well. Not even their mother who had separated from their father years ago. Maybe Julianna could rein in the future ruler’s ego and temper. If she had a brain in that pretty head of hers, as she seemed to, she could stop him from making bad decisions, like focusing on projects that aggrandized himself, but did nothing to help the island.

The ice princess might be exactly what Enrique needed.

Alejandro would have to make sure his brother didn’t blow this engagement.

For both their sakes. And the island’s.

“Thank you for escorting me to my room.” Standing with Enrique, Jules glanced around. The pastel pink and yellow decor was bright and cheery. Maybe some of it would rub off on her because right now she was feeling a little…down. She forced a smile anyway. Replacing Enrique’s aftershave and teaching him a few manners wouldn’t be difficult. It could be much worse. “The suite is lovely.”

“I asked Ortiz to put you in this room.” Enrique pulled back a curtain. “I thought you might like the view.”

She stared out the window at rows of colorful flowers below. A burst of hot pink. A swatch of bright yellow. A patch of purple.

Another wave of disappointment washed over her. The same way it had when she’d discovered her hottie rescuer wasn’t going to be her husband, but her brother-in-law.

Don’t think about that. About him. Otherwise she might find herself back in Aliestle.

“A garden.” She hoped she sounded more enthusiastic than she felt. A bush of red roses captured her attention until she noticed the large thorns on the thick stems. Ouch, that would hurt. “How nice.”

BOOK: Not-So-Perfect Princess
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