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Prince Alexandros Karedes, second in line to the throne of the Kingdom of Aristo, did not like to be kept waiting.
Indeed, he never was.
Who would be so foolish as to let a man like him cool his heels?
His own father, Alexandros thought with a sigh of resignation as he strode past the marble fireplace outside the throne room for what had to be the tenth time in as many minutes. The hands on the French ormolu clock that graced the mantel stood upright at six. Alexandros had been told the king would see him at five-thirty but Aegeus was not known for promptness, even with his children.
"An unfortunate habit," Queen Tia called it, but Alex was not as kind. He knew his father well; he was certain Aegeus's chronic lateness was yet another subtle way of reminding everyone, family included, that, though he was getting on in years, he was still king.
It was undoubtedly the same reason he'd asked Alex to meet him here, in such formal surroundings, rather than in the privacy of the royal apartments.
That was just the way it was. There was no point in questioning it. Aegeus was a more than competent ruler. He led the people of Aristo well but he had always been distant in his dealings with his wife, sons and daughters.
Alex had no objection. At six or seven, a display of affection, a lessening of formalities might have meant something, but he was thirty-one now, he had created his own eminently successful life by bringing ever-increasing international recognition and resources to the kingdom.
He had no need for signs of affection from his father. Affection was for puppies and kittens, not grown men.
Alexandros glanced at the clock again.
Even though he understood the reasonfor it, being kept waiting was irritating. And inconvenient. The meeting with his father would not take long. He knew that from past experience. He'd just returned from a business trip to the Far East. Aegeus would simply want to know if things had gone well, if new banks and corporations would be joining the impressive list of those already on Aristo, but he would not wish to hear the details.
Results were all that mattered, was Aegeus's motto. How one got to those results was immaterial.
That was okay with Alex. He didn't need pats on the back any more than he needed signs of affection. It was only that if the king kept him waiting much longer, he'd be late getting into town.
Not that it mattered.
His new Ferrari would easily conquer the narrow roads that wound along the cliffs looming above the Mediterranean. And even if he arrived at The Grand Hotel in Ellos past the time he'd told his date he'd pick her up, she would not complain.
A little smile lifted the corners of his lips.
Why be unduly modest? He did well with all the things he most enjoyed. Beautiful women, fast cars, baccarat, the vast business empire he'd created here and in New York.
His smile faded.
Actually, he had not done as well with women lately.
Not that they weren't his for the taking. The woman waiting for him tonight was what the world called a supermodel. Simone had been doing a Vogue cover shoot outside the casino just as Alex had arrived to discuss the casino's expansion with its manager, but that had not kept him from pausing to admire the leggy blonde posing on the wide marble steps, dressed in a silk gown that clung like a second skin.
Their eyes had met. Alex had grinned and without hesitation she'd come down the steps, hips swaying thanks to heels so high they seemed to be made for sin, oblivious to the frenzied 'Hey!' of the photographer.
"Hello," she'd cooed when she had reached him, smiling the smile that was worth ten thousand dollars an hour to an advertiser. "I'm free this evening, Your Highness, and I certainly hope that you are, too."
He'd said he was leaving for Tokyo but he'd be back in three days. "Call me," she'd purred, and he had, first thing this morning. What man wouldn't? She was stunning. Sexy as hell. He knew she'd be in his bed at the apartment he kept in town before the night ended
A crazy thought. But there it was. A gorgeous woman, another hot liaison and all he could think was, So what? He'd have the model and, come morning, she'd be looking for a way to turn a night into an affair.
He'd be looking for a polite way to make it clear he wasn't interested.
Lately, ending an affair before it really had time to start had become a pattern. He liked sex. Liked women. Their feel, their scent, their company. It was just that he couldn't seem to concentrate on any one woman lately. For weeks now, he'd drifted from one to another.
He knew damned well there were men who'd find that exciting.
Not that he believed in long-term affairs. A month. Two. Three, that was about it and then he'd do the right thing, send an incredibly expensive gift and move on.
The past couple of months, the only part of that familiar plan he seemed to get right was the part about moving on.
His brothers had noticed. They'd taken to teasing him about what they called his wanderlust. With the emphasis on 'lust,' Sebastian said, while Andreas grinned. Even his sisters got in on the act, Lissa long-distance from Paris, Kitty sighing dramatically and saying, Poor Alex. He just can't find a woman to love.
Well, no. He wasn't about to explain the difference between love and lust to either of them but, of course, love had nothing to do with it. Why would it? Love was one of those things people talked about that didn't really exist.
Myths. Myths as creative as any of the tall tales his long-ago Greek and Roman ancestors had believed.
What people called 'love' was hormonal nonsensethough he couldn't call what had drawn his parents together hormonal. They had come together because it was necessary. Carrying on a name, a bloodline that had existed for centuries was in the destiny of royals.
It would surely be the same for Sebastian, heir to the throne, when the time came. Sebastian would get to choose his own wife this was the twenty-first century, after allbut he would make that choice from a carefully vetted list of acceptable young women.
Alex, second in line, would be under somewhat less pressure but he knew the responsibility of marriage to an appropriate bride, then children to bear his name, was in his future. It was all part of his duty to the house of Karedes.
He would demand only that his future wife be attractive. Beyond that, he had no expectations. Companionship, passion those things he would find in a mistress. He would be discreet; he would never deliberately do anything to insult the woman he married but a royal wife would understand that her role was to bear him children.
Neither of them would be foolish enough to look for love. Discretion in their extra-marital affairs would be enough.
Alex stopped pacing, jammed his hands into his trouser pockets and stared at the coat of arms on the wall over the enormous fireplace.
There had been a woman once, years ago. A girl, really. He'd thoughtnever mind what he'd thought. What mattered was what she had thought, that she could use her kisses, her touch, her soft whispers to bewitch him. He'd been a boy then, led around by a part of his anatomy that had nothing to do with his brain, but he'd learned the truth about her in time and had been wiser for it.
Since then, he had not let a woman lure him into complacency. Into forgetting that a man always had to look beyond a beautiful face to see a woman's true agenda
Until that night two months ago.
A night when a stranger had stepped into his arms, her face radiant with seeming innocence. She'd lifted her mouth to his, parted her lips to the whisper of his breath, the thrust of his tongue and the world had blurreduntil the next morning, when he'd learned it had all been a lie.
Not just a lie. Alex's jaw tightened. A scam. A fraud. A swindle of the first magnitude, and he had fallen for it.
"Sir? The king and queen ask that you join them."
But she hadn't gotten away with it. Instead, he'd pretended he knew nothing of her deception. She had played a part; in the harsh light of day, it had been his turn to play one, too.
He'd taken her back to bed. Had sex with her again. And that time, when it was over and she lay sated beneath him, he'd watched her eyes fill with shock as he told her he knew who she was, what she was, and promised her that all that would come of her despicable game was defeat.
Then he'd sent her packing.
The incident had meant so little to him that he could not even remember her name. Despite her wiles, he'd been the victor. He'd had hours of sex that had seemed incredible, though he knew now it had only been, well, sex. And the moment of sweet revenge that followed had made everything right.
"Your Highness? Their majesties will see you now."
Or had it?
It wasn't just women he'd had a lot of these past weeks; it was everything. He'd put endless miles on the royal private jets with business trips from his offices in New York and Aristo to Bermuda. To the Bahamas. To the Virgin Islands, to Florida, to Mexico and, most recently, Japan. Successful trips, all of them, but he'd set one hell of a pace. Meetings by day; by night, the baccarat tables, high-stakes poker
Was it possible he'd spent the last weeks going from country to country, bed to bed, trying to wipe away the ugly memories of a night when he'd come as close as a man could to letting a woman use him?
"Sir. The king and queen are waiting for you."
Alex blinked. Galen, his father's major-domo, stood at stiff attention before him. From the expression on his face, he'd been there a while.
"Thank you, Galen. Efcharisto."
"Are you well, sir?"
"Yes, yes, I'm fine. A little distracted." Alex forced a grin. "There's a lady waiting for me in town. You know how that is."
Galen permitted himself a small smile. "I am sure the lady is happy to wait, sir," he said, and stepped aside with a deep bow as Alex walked past him into the throne room.
His parents were not alone.
A handful of aides hovered around his father, who was seated at an antique desk liberally strewn with sheets of paper. His mother stood on the throne platform, encircled by several of her ladies-in-waiting who held lengths of silk brocade against her while a seamstress sat on the floor, pinning and tucking and doing whatever in heaven's name women did with all those yards and yards of fabric.
Alex's lips twitched.
Despite its elegance, the frescoes, the ceiling painted by a sixteenth-century master and a wall hung with exquisite Byzantine icons, right now the room looked more like someone's slightly messy sitting room than a place in which the kingdom's most formal ceremonies were held.
His father looked up. "There you are," he said in a tone that suggested it was he who'd been kept waiting. "Well, what do you think?"
Alex raised his eyebrows. "About what?"
"About these plans, of course." Aegeus slapped a hand on the papers spread over his desk. "Do we want a theme, or do we not?"
No, Alex thought, this was not someone's sitting room, this was more like the Mad Hatter's tea party.
"A theme for what?" he said carefully.
Aegeus shot to his feet, scattering the aides crowded around him.
"For your mother's sixtieth birthday celebration, of course! If you hadn't spent the last month doing God knows what, you'd know what was going on here!"
"Now, Aegeus." Husband and son looked at the queen, who smiled at them both. "You know Alexandros has been busy convincing foreigners that our kingdom is the perfect place for them to invest in the future. And I'm sure we can assume he's been successful. Haven't you, Alex?"
Alex smiled and went to his mother. She bent toward him and he took her hand and brought it to his lips.
"Mother. I've missed you."
"How was your trip?"
"It was fine." Alex smiled. "We snared a lot of foreigners who look forward to a happy future."
His mother laughed. "You see, Aegeus? It's just as I said." Tia waved the women away and came gracefully down the steps. "It's good to have you home again, Alexandros."
"It's good to be here." Alex nodded at the women gathering up the fabrics. "What's all this?"
"I just told you what it is," Aegeus said with impatience. "Preparation for your mother's birthday celebration. I thought we should make the final selections of décor, color and fabric here in the throne room, where the most formal part of the ceremony will take place. Isn't that right, gentlemen?"
The aides nodded.
"We want to be certain everything comes together properly."
Aegeus looked at his aides, who nodded again. Alex thought of turkeys pecking for grain at the feet of the farmer who owned them and repressed a smile.
"So, what do you think, Alexandros? What theme shall we use? Our history as part of the ancient world? A link to the days of the Crusades? The time of the Ottoman Empire? All those things, as you well know, are in our bloodline."
Who gave a damn? What mattered was the celebration of his mother's sixtieth birthday, not his father's lineage.
"Any of those would be fine," Alex said smoothly, with a quick glance at his mother. "Something big and splashy. After all, we don't want it said that only the Calistans can do parties that are showy."
He saw his mother bite back a smile. Any mention of Calista, which had once been part of the Adamas empire along with Aristo, was enough to make his father's hackles rise.
"Showy," Aegeus said, frowning.
"Exactly." Alex shook his head. "I've never understood why there was so much coverage of the Queen of England's birthday celebration a couple of years ago when it was all so low-key. Have you, Mother?"
"No," Tia said with perfect innocence, "I've never understood it, either. All those reporters and television people, the worldwide interest in Elizabeth and the British royals
and all of it done, as you say, Alexandros, with such quiet elegance."