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Every little girl envisioned a fairy-tale wedding. The long white train, the horse-drawn carriage, like the magical coach from Cinderella of course, and the proverbial tall, dark and handsome prince, chest adorned with medals and a bright blue sash that matched his eye color perfectly.
And while Victoria Dane wasn't living the fairy tale herself, she did have the glorious job of designing the royal wedding dress that would be seen by millions and worn by the next queen of Galini Isle.
Okay, so being the designer wasn't even a close second to becoming a queen.
The familiar, soothing tone of her old friend's voice had Victoria turning from the breathtaking emerald ocean view. With a slight bow as was custom in this country, Victoria greeted the prince.
With his tight-fitting black T-shirt tucked into designer jeans, most people would have a hard time believing Prince Stefan Alexanderowner of the most impressive set of blue eyes and some new ink peeking beneath the sleeve of his shirt on one impressive bicepwas the next in line to reign over this beautiful land.
Those muscles seemed to grow between each of their visits. Muscles he acquired from his passion of rock climbing. Yeah, that would make for a beautiful picture. A golden Greek god, shirtless and dangling high above the ground by his sheer strength .
There was one lucky bride waiting for her prince. Victoria would be lying if she didn't admit, even if only to herself, that at one time she'd envisioned herself as the one who would finally tame the great Prince Alexander, but his friendship had been invaluable and something she'd feared risking.
Strong arms that she had missed for the past few years pulled her into a warm, inviting embrace. Yes, this was the connection, the bond that phone calls and emails couldn't deliver.
"Prince Alexander," she said, returning his embrace.
"Don't 'Prince Alexander' me." His rich laughter enveloped her, making her feel even more excited to see him after so long. "And for God's sake, don't bow. Just because we haven't seen each other in a while doesn't mean I've become some royal snob."
"It's so great to see you, Stefan." She eased back and looked up into those striking blue eyes. "When you called to tell me you were getting married, I was shocked. She must be someone very special."
"The most important woman in my life," he said, lifting one of her hands to his lips.
Prince Charming had nothing on Stefan, and a slight surge of jealousy speared through Victoria at the fact another woman would be entering his life and not just passing through like all the others.
He gestured toward the settee and matching chairs with bright orange plush cushions. "Let's have a seat and discuss my beautiful bride, shall we?"
Stefan dismissed his assistants with a silent nod. A man of his position and power didn't need to use words, but to Victoria he was still that rotten teen who'd tried to get her to go skinny-dipping in the royal pool while a dinner party had been taking place in the grand ballroom.
"I've brought sketches of several dresses for you and your fiancée to review," she told him, laying her thin portfolio of designs on the tile tabletop and flipping it open. "I can also combine styles or come up with something completely different if nothing here catches her eye. They are all classic designs but different in their own way. Any would be flattering for the next queen."
"I've no doubt you'll make the perfect dress." He laid a hand over hers, a wide grin spreading across his devilishly handsome face. "It's so great to have you here, Victoria. I've missed you."
She returned his smile, unable to hide her excitement about not only seeing him again, but also the fact he'd finally found true love something she'd started to have doubts about. And yes, she'd once wished his true love had been her, but their friendship was more important. As his best friend, she was thrilled that he was so happy and in love. She needed that reminder that not all men broke their promises of engagement.
"It's my pleasure to design for you, and it gives us both a reason to set aside our busy lives and get some face time," she told him, sliding her hair over her shoulder. "Phone calls just aren't the same."
"No, they're not," he agreed.
That sexy, sultry smile remained. Heavens, but the man was literally a tall, dark and handsome prince, and that cotton shirt stretched so perfectly over his broad shoulders and chiseled biceps. She wondered what the new tattoo was of, but if she knew Stefan, he'd find a reason to shed his shirt in no time.
Yeah, he'd changed over the years, and definitely in all the right places. Rock climbing does a body good.
"These are remarkable," he told her as he fingered through the drawings. "Did you do these yourself or do you have a team?"
A burst of pride ran through her. She may be one of the most sought-out designers, but each client earned her undivided attention and she loved hearing praise for her hard work especially coming from such a good friend.
"I have a small team, but these are all my own. I was selfish when it came to your bride." She moved one thick sheet to the side, eager to display the rest of her designs. "I'm partial to this one. The clean lines, the cut of the neckline and the molding of the bodice. Classy, yet sexy."
Very similar to the one she'd designed for own wedding. Of course that had been six months, a slew of bad press and one shattered heartache ago when her up-and-coming actor/fiance decided to publicly destroy Victoria. But working with Stefan and his fiancée would help her to remember that happily ever afters do exist.
When she'd met him as a teen on the set of one of her mother's films, she'd developed an instant crush. He'd been a very mature eighteen years old, compared to her fifteen, with golden skin and a smile she'd come to appreciate that held just a touch of cockiness.
She'd been smitten to say the least, but they'd soon developed a friendship that had lasted through the years. Fantasies had come and gone and come again where she'd envisioned him proposing to her and professing his hidden, undying passion. But those were little girl dreams. Besides, Stefan always had a companion or two at all times.
"You would look beautiful in that gown."
Victoria shook off her crazy thoughts and jerked her attention to Stefan.
"Sorry. I realize your own engagement is still fairly recent, but"
She straightened her shoulders and stepped back. "No, it's okay. But let's not talk about that. I'd much rather focus on your happiness."
He reached out, cupped her shoulders and gave a reassuring squeeze. "I'm still your friend. I know you didn't open up that much over the phone because of the timing being so close to the passing of my father, but you're here now and I'm offering you my shoulder if you need it."
Warmth spread through her. Other than her brothers, this was the one man she'd always been able to depend on. Even as they'd gotten older, their lives busier, she knew Stefan was always there for her.
"I may take you up on that," she told him with a smile. "But for now let's discuss you."
Because she needed to focus on their friendship and her work instead of her humiliation, her eyes drifted back over the designs. "A dress should make a woman feel beautiful and alluring. I wanted to capture that beauty with a hint of fairy tale thrown into the mix. When I don't know the client personally, it makes designing the dresses a bit harder, so that is why I chose to bring very different designs for her to look at. Do you know when your fiancée will arrive?"
Stefan leaned a hip onto the table and smiled. "Actually, she's already here. I have a proposition for you, Victoria."
Intrigued, Victoria rested one hand on the table and smiled. "And what is that, Your Highness?"
He chuckled. "Now you're mocking me."
"Not at all," she retorted with a grin, loving how they fell back into their easy banter as if no time had passed. "You just sounded so serious. What's your proposition?"
He took her hands in his, looking her in the eyes. "It has to do with my fiancée.sort of."
Oh, no. She recognized that look. It was the same naughty, conniving look he had when he'd wanted her to be his partner in crime in their early twenties like the time when he'd asked her to pose as his girlfriend for a charity ball because he had a somewhat aggressive lady who wouldn't take no for an answer.
God. The sick feeling in her stomach deepened. The man was up to something no good.
"Stefan." She slid her hands from his warm, strong hold and rubbed them together. "Tell me there's a real fiancée and you're actually getting married."
"I am getting married and there is a fiancée." He threw her a wide, beautiful smile. "You."
Stefan waited for her response to his abrupt proposal. Damn, he'd meant to have a bit more finesse, but time was running out and he couldn't afford to tackle this wedding in the traditional sense. Nothing about this situation was traditional.
She placed her hands on either side of her temples as if to rub the stress headache away he'd had a few of those moments himself recently. He'd never pictured himself as a one-woman man. And the thought always sent a shudder straight through him.
"I'm sorry to pull you into this," he told her. "I couldn't trust anyone else right now."
He prayed he chose the right words to make her understand. She was, after all, still recovering from an ugly public breakup, and she had always been such a good friend, no matter the distance between them. They'd shared countless phone calls in the middle of the night, during many of which she'd told him her dreams and he'd listened, hoping one day all those dreams would come true. And perhaps he could help that along.
"Why do you need me all of a sudden?"
"Galini Isle will go back to Greece if I don't marry and gain the title of king. My brother isn't an option because his wife is a divorcee and the damn laws are archaic. I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do everything in my power to keep this country in my family. I won't let my people down." He hated being forced into anything. "I want my title, but I do not want a wife. Unfortunately, I've looked for a loophole and there isn't one."
Victoria sank to the patio chair. "Again, why me?"
"I want a wife in name only. And I can't let my country revert to Greek rule. It's been in my family for generations. I refuse to be a failure to my family's name."
"This is crazy," she muttered, shaking her head.
Stefan stepped closer. "You've recently had scandal in your life. Why not show this fiance who jilted you and the media who exploited your pain that you are stronger, you can rise above this and come out on top? What better way than to marry a prince?"
"You're serious?" she asked, looking back up at him. "How could we pull this off? I mean, we haven't been seen together in public for a couple years."
Stefan came over and took a seat directly beside her in the matching wrought-iron chair with plush cushions. "My people don't know who my bride is. I've made sure they only know there will be a wedding. I've been very secretive about this, which only adds to the mystery of the romance."
Romance. Yeah, that was the dead last thing on his mind right now. Couldn't he just have the crown? He was the prince, for crying out loud. Didn't that give him some clout? Why did he need a marriage to claim it?
"Once they see you, they'll know why I kept the engagement so quiet," he went on, knowing he was rambling, but he had to make her see this was the only way.
Damn, he hated vulnerability and being backed into a corner. Not only that, he hated putting Victoria in an awkward position.
Victoria laughed. "And here all this time I thought you were letting your romantic, protective side show."
"You are one of Hollywood's most famous single ladiesa bachelorette, I believe your country calls itand I will simply explain I was protecting you from even more scandal and we wanted to express our love on our wedding day and not exploit it beforehand. Besides, there are all those articles and pictures from when we were in our teens and twenties. The media practically had us engaged at your twenty-first birthday party when I bought you a diamond necklace. The history is there, and the media will eat it up."
"Oh, Stefan." She sighed. "This is such a big decision. You can't expect me to give you an answer right now."
Leaning back against the chair, Stefan nodded. "I'm asking for only six months, Tori. After my coronation I'll have my title as king and the country will be secured with my family again."
"Then what?" she asked, her eyes searching his.
He shrugged, not really worried about anything beyond getting married and gaining his title. "After that it's up to you. You can stay married to me or you can end the relationship. The control is yours. Who knows, you may like being queen."
True, he may be a playboy, but he could think of multiple circumstances that would be worse than being married to the stunning Victoria Dane.
She stared out across the estate toward the ocean. Victoria's beauty was remarkable and surprisingly natural. She came from the land of perfection brought on by plastic surgeons, yet she looked more stunning than the fake, siliconed women he knew. And he was damn lucky she was in his life.
"This is the craziest thing I've ever heard." With a slight laugh she looked back to him. "You're taking something as serious as a royal wedding, a wedding that will create the new leaders for your country, and turning it into a a lie. My God, Stefan, this is really putting the pressure on our friendship. Do you realize how risky this is? I can't lose you."
He sat forward, dead serious. "You could never lose me as a friend. If I thought that was the case I never would've asked you. Just think of this as a long, overdue reunion. I need someone I can trust not to back out at the last minute or use me for money in the end."
"Why did you wait so long to ask me?"
"Honestly I thought I could find a way around this." God knows he'd exhausted every avenue looking for one. "When I realized I couldn't, I knew I had only one option. You are the one person in my life I'd ever trust with something so personal, so serious."
She laughed. "I'd do anything for you, Stefan, you know that, but this is asking a lot. What about the people of your country? Won't they feel let down if we end the marriage? And how will this work out after your coronation? Will the country still remain yours?"
"No, my people won't feel let down," he assured her. "I will still be their leader. I will still keep control over my country. I just need the title to do so, which is where you fit in."
"You've really thought this through, haven't you?" She crossed her legs and shifted her body toward his. "You can't expect me to put my life on hold for six months. I'm a busy woman, Stefan."
He'd always admired her take-charge attitude and the way she matched him in this volley of wills. Not to mention the fact the woman was classy and beyond sexy.