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Since she had been born into the royal family of Morgan Isle, there had been days when Princess Sophie Renee Agustus Mead felt restrained by her title.
Today was one of those days.
King Phillip sat behind his desk, in the palace office. She loved her brother to death, but there were times when the similarities between him and their late father were uncanny. The same jet-black hair and smoky gray eyes. The same towering height and lean, muscular build. The same stubborn streak.
Sophie on the other hand had inherited their father's quick and sometimes volatile temper. She took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm, because she had learned years ago that blowing hertop and pitching a fit only made Phillip dig his heels in deeper. "When you said I would be involved in the hotel project, Phillip, I had no idea my duties would include babysitting."
"No one knows this island like you do, Sophie. And if the architect is going to design a structure that complements the unique characteristics of our country, he's going to have to see it first."
She had wanted, had hoped that for the first time in her life the family would set aside their archaic traditions and allow her to take on a bit more than the royal responsibilities she sometimes grew so tired of. Something slightly more challenging than planning parties, attending charity functions and playing goodwill ambassador.
Both Phillip and their half brother, Prince Ethan, had assured her that if she stuck to the royal program without complaint, she would be involved in the business of the hotel chain the family had recently purchased. And in light of her current assignment, she couldn't help but feel she was getting, as the Americans liked to say, the raw end of the deal.
But if she refused, she wouldn't put it past Phillip to cut her out of the project completely. What he really wanted was to see Sophie settle down and start squeezing out royal heirs. With the recent birth of his son, Frederick, and the pregnancy of Ethan's wife, Lizzy, suddenly everyone was looking at her as though to say, okay, now it's your turn. But she wasn't ready. She wasn't sure if she ever would be.
"Fine," she said with a smile. "I'll do it. Although I'm not crazy about the idea of spending two weeks with a stranger."
Phillip relaxed back in his chair, satisfied now that he had gotten what he wanted. "Well then, you'll be relieved to know that he's not."
"I don't recall ever meeting any American architect."
"It was years ago, and when you met him, he wasn't an architect yet. He came home with me from university and spent the holidays."
Sophie's heart dropped so hard and fast that she could swear she felt it split in two and hit the balls of her feet. He couldn't possibly mean
"I seem to recall," Phillip continued, "the two of you getting along somewhat famously."
If he was referring to the man she suspected he was, famously didn't begin to describe those two weeks. But there was no way Phillip could have known about that. Only her mother, who unbeknownst to Sophie had been listening in on her phone conversations, knew the extent of Alex's and her "friendship."
Behind her the office door opened and she turned to see her half brother, Prince Ethan, enter the room. Behind him appeared a man who, despite ten years apart, was still strikingly familiar. In fact, he hadn't changed much at all. He wore his pale brown hair in the same short, meticulous style and his deep-set eyes were the same piercing, hypnotizing blue. Eyes she had once hoped to spend an entire lifetime gazing into.
Alexander Rutledge, the only man she had ever loved.
Typically reserved, Phillip rose from his chair to greet his friend with an enthusiastic, "Alex, welcome back to Morgan Isle!"
Alex stepped forward, a smile breaking out across his handsome, chiseled features. He was dressed just like her brothers, in an expensive-looking suit and shoes polished to a gleaming shine. And he was standing so close that Sophie could reach out and touch him, yet he didn't even seem to notice her there. Had he forgotten about her?
Something that felt like a boulder settled in the pit of her stomach. As if it mattered after all this time. He was nothing to her.
Alex gripped the king's hand and gave it a firm shake. "Phillip. It's been far too long. How have you been?"
"Busy. I'm a family man now."
"I've heard. I'm anxious to meet your wife and son."
"You must remember my sister," Phillip said, gesturing her way. "Princess Sophie."
Sophie's heart soared up to lodge in her throat. This was it. The first time they would share words in over ten years. Ten years in which barely a day passed when she hadn't thought of him.
Alex turned in her direction, greeting her with a perfunctory nod, wearing a polite smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Your Highness. It's good to see you again."
That was it? That was all she got? Good to see you again?
She was appalled to feel the beginnings of tears sting the corners of her eyes. She bit down hard on the inside of her cheek and forced herself to smile. "Alex," she said, her voice surprisingly even considering she was trembling from the inside out.
"I understand you're to be my guide for the duration of my stay," he said, and she honestly couldn't tell how he felt about that. Nary a trace of any discernible emotion showed on his face. Had he forgotten about her? About those two amazing weeks?
"Yes, I am. However, I was just now informed, and haven't had time to create an itinerary. You won't mind if the tour doesn't officially begin until tomorrow morning."
"Of course not." He wasn't rude or unpleasant or even cold. Just indifferent. But how had she expected him to react? Did she think he would sweep her up in his arms and declare his undying love for her? As far as she knew, he was a happily married family man, like Phillip.
"Sophie," Phillip said, "could you please show Alex to the guest suite?"
"Of course." As if she had a choice. "The garden suite?" she asked, and Phillip nodded.
"Take some time to settle in," Phillip told Alex. "I'll take you on a tour of the palace later this afternoon. Oh, and, Sophie, I'd like to see the itinerary when you're done."
"Of course. I'll fax it to you later this evening."
"Why don't you just bring it with you to dinner tonight?"
She'd had no idea that she was expected to have dinner at the palace. She usually ate at her own residence on the palace grounds.
"Is that an invitation?" she asked her brother, smiling sweetly, because she knew, Phillip didn't invite. He demanded.
"I thought it would be nice that we all be here to welcome our guest." He worded it as a suggestion, but what he really meant was be there or else.
"The usual time?" she asked.
"Fine, I'll see you then." She turned to their guest. "If you'll follow me, I'll show you to your suite."
He gestured to the door. "After you. Your Highness."
She wasn't a self-conscious person. Not even when it came to her physical appearance. She had been blessed with good genes, and at thirty was still tall and very slim and nothing had yet begun to sag. But for some reason knowing that Alex was behind her was making her incredibly self-conscious. And as they walked to the stairs the lack of conversation stretched like a mile-wide void between them. But if there was one thing she had learned in all of her years as goodwill ambassador, it was the art of small talk.
"How was your trip?" she asked him as they climbed the stairs to the second floor, where the guest suites were located.
"Tiring," he said. "I'd forgotten what a long flight it is from the U.S. to Morgan Isle."
He stayed to the side and one step behind her. Which was proper, but it still annoyed her. She wanted to see his face. Relearn his features. Not that she'd ever really forgotten. In fact, it was probably better that she not let herself get caught up in what they used to have. That was a long time ago. Although it was a wonder he wasn't bitter for the way things had ended. Of course, for all she knew, the instant they were alone he might read her the riot act. And could she blame him? It was she who had ended things without an explanation. She who refused his calls and sent his letters back unopened.
But what choice did she have? The decision had been taken out of her hands.
"The palace hasn't changed much since I was here last," Alex noted.
"Nothing much around here ever changes."
"I see that," he said, and something in his tone made the surface of her skin tingle. "You're still as beautiful as you were ten years ago."
She waited for the qualifier to that statement, something like, and still as coldhearted. But when she realized he was sincere, her stubborn heart jumped back up in her throat.
"You look the same, too," she conceded, disconcerted by how vulnerable it made her feel. Uncomfortable. And she rarely felt uncomfortable around anyone.
As they passed the doorway to the residence she nodded to the guard on duty, then took Alex in the opposite direction, into the guest wing to the first door on the left.
"I believe this is the same suite you stayed in the last time you were here." In fact, she knew it was. She'd spent enough time there with him in those two weeks to remember quite precisely.
She opened the door and gestured him inside, following a few steps behind. "As you probably remember, this is the sitting room, and there's also a sleeping chamber and bath."
"I remember," he said, sounding almost wistful. Was he thinking the same thing that she was? Was he remembering the way they stood on the balcony overlooking the gardens and talked for hours? The first time he drew her to him and kissed her.
Did he remember the first time they made love?
Never before or since had another man made her feel more loved and accepted. More special. But that was a long time ago and so much had changed since then. She had changed.
"I remember this," he said, gazing around the room. "You know what else I remember?"
He turned to her, reached out to touch her arm. "This "
It happened so quickly that she barely had a chance to process it. One second she was standing beside Alex, and the next she was in his arms, the only place in the world that she'd ever felt she truly belonged. Her first instinct was to push him away, but instead she went weak all over. Then his lips were touching hers, as naturally as if they had never spent a day apart.
She knew this was wrong in more ways than she could count, not the least of which that he was married, but as the kiss deepened, as she tasted the familiar flavor of his mouth, breathed in the scent of his skin and hair, there wasn't a thing she could do, or would even want to do, to stop him.
Well, that was easy, Alex mused as Sophie all but dissolved in his arms. He tunneled his fingers through the soft black ribbons of hair that fell loose around her face. She tasted sweet and exciting and sexy. He nibbled her lower lip lightly wondering if that still drove her nuts, and was answered with a shiver and a soft moan of pleasure.
And here he thought seducing her was going to be a time-consuming, tedious task. And why wouldn't he? After she vowed her eternal love for him, then dumped him with no explanation.
As though reading his mind, she tensed. He felt her hands flatten against his chest. And because he didn't want to push too far to soon, he didn't try to stop her when she backed away from him.
She stared at him with eyes the color of a storm blowing inland off the Atlantic Ocean. Deep, turbulent gray. Her cheeks were pink and he could see the flutter of her pulse at the base of her long, graceful throat. And to be honest he was feeling a bit breathless himself. Despite everything that had happened, the way she had used him, she still turned him on.
Which would make using her that much more satisfying.
"Why did you do that?" she asked, her voice shaky.
"Sophie, I've been wanting to do that for ten years."
She took another step away, pressing the backs of her fingers to her lips, as though his touch had seared her. "I could call a guard and have you detained for assault."
He just smiled, because he knew she would never do that. She may have been self-centered, spoiled and manipulative, but she wasn't vindictive. At least, not back then. "But you won't, because that would be a lie. You wanted it as much as I did."
He could see from her reaction that he was right, but he also knew that she wouldn't let him off the hook that easily.
"I'm not sure what kind of woman you think I am, but I don't involve myself with married men."
Is that why she looked so scandalized? Not that she was in any position to be questioning his character. Or morals.
He folded his arms across his chest. "I guess you haven't heard. I've just been through the nastiest divorce in recorded history."
That information seemed to sober her. "No, I hadn't. I'm sorry to hear that."
The odd thing was that she looked truly sorry.