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Though she had always considered her reserved nature one of her best qualities, there were times when Princess Anne Charlotte Amalia Alexander wished she could be more like her twin sister.
She sipped her champagne and watched from across the ballroom as Louisa approached one of the guests: a tall, dark and handsome gentleman who had been eyeing Louisa all evening. She smiled, said a few words, and he kissed her proffered hand.
It was so easy for her. Men were naturally drawn to her delicate beauty and enthralled by her childlike innocence.
But Anne? Men considered her cold and critical. It was no secret that people in society, men in particular, often referred to her as The Shrew. Usually she didn't let that bother her. She liked to believe that they felt threatened by her strength and independence. However, that was little consolation on a night like this one. Everyone around her was dancing and drinking and socializing, while she stood by herself, alone in her principles. But with her father's failing health, was it so hard to fathom that she just didn't feel like celebrating?
A waiter carrying a tray of champagne passed by and she snagged a fresh glass. Her fourth for that night, which was precisely three more than she normally drank.
Her father, the king of Thomas Isle, who should at least be able to attend the charity event they were holding in his honor, was too weakened by heart disease to even make an appearance. Her mother refused to leave his side. It was up to Anne, Louisa and their brothers, Chris and Aaron, to act as hosts in the king's absence.
Getting hammered probably wasn't in her or the rest of the family's best interest. But didn't Anne always do as she was told? Wasn't she always the rational, responsible twin?
Well, almost always.
She knocked back the champagne in two swallows, deposited her empty glass on another passing tray and grabbed a fresh one. She would drink this one slower, she promised herself, but already she could feel the alcohol warming her belly and she began to get a soft, fuzzy feeling in her head. It was…nice.
She downed glass number five in one long swallow.
"You're looking lovely, Your Highness," someone said from behind her.
She turned to the voice, surprised to find Samuel Baldwin, son of the prime minister of Thomas Isle, greeting her. Sam was the sort of man a women looked at and instantly went weak in the knees. At thirty he was more cute than handsome—at least she thought so—with naturally curly, dark blond hair that never seemed to behave and deep dimples in both cheeks when he smiled. He was several inches taller than her own five foot eight, with a lean, muscular build. She had spoken to him a time or two, but nothing more than a casual hello. The gossip mill pegged him as one of the island's most eligible bachelors, and he had been groomed since birth to take over his father's position.
He bowed in greeting, and as he did, a lock of that unruly hair fell across his forehead. Anne resisted the urge to reach up and brush it back, but couldn't help wondering what it would feel like to run her fingers through it.
She would normally greet him with cool indifference, but the alcohol was doing funny things to her head because she could feel herself smiling. "How nice to see you again, Mr. Baldwin."
"Please," he said, "call me Sam."
Out of the corner of her eye Anne saw Louisa on the dance floor, her mystery man holding her scandalously close, gazing into her eyes. A pang of jealousy soured Anne's stomach. She wanted a man to hold her close and look at her as though she were the only one in the room, as if he couldn't wait to get her alone so he could ravage her. Just this once she wanted to feel…wanted. Was that really too much to ask for?
She finished her champagne in one gulp and asked, "Would you care to dance, Sam?"
She wasn't sure if his look of surprise was due to her barbaric behavior, or the actual invitation. For a dreadfully long and horrifying instant, she thought he might turn her down. Wouldn't that be ironic considering all the dance invitations she had declined over the years? So many, in fact, that men had stopped asking altogether.
Then a grin curled his mouth, his dimples a prominent dent in each cheek, and he said, "I would be honored, Your Highness."
He offered his arm and she slipped hers through it. Then he led her out onto the crowded dance floor. It had been so long since she'd danced that when he took her in his arms and began to waltz, what used to be second nature suddenly felt clumsy and awkward. Or maybe that was the champagne making her knees soft…or the spicy scent of his aftershave making her light-headed. He smelled so delicious, she wanted to bury her face in the crook of his neck and breathe him in. She tried to recall the last time she'd been this close to a man she found so sexually appealing.
Maybe a little too long.
"Black suits you," Sam said, and it took her several seconds to realize he was talking about her gown, a floor-length, sequined number she had purchased off the rack in Paris. She didn't know if the color suited her so much as it had suited her mood when she'd picked it out. Now she wished she had worn something brighter and more cheerful. Like Louisa in her trademark pink, who, come to think of it, looked a bit like the Good Witch of the North. Which Anne supposed would make her the Wicked Witch of the West.
"Yes," she told Sam. "All that's missing is the pointy black hat."
It was the sort of remark that might put a man off. Instead Sam laughed. A deep, throaty laugh that seemed to vibrate through her, causing delicious friction that warmed her insides. "Actually, I was thinking that it brings out your milky complexion."
"Oh, well, thank you."
A slow song began, and Anne couldn't help noticing how Louisa's mystery man drew her in even closer. A little too close.
"Do you know that man dancing with my sister?" she asked Sam, gesturing with her chin.
"Garrett Sutherland. He's the richest landowner on the island. I'm surprised you don't know him."
The name was definitely familiar. "I know of him. I've heard my brothers mention him."
"It looks as though he and your sister are quite… friendly."
"I noticed that, too."
He watched Anne watching her sister. "You look out for her?"
She nodded and looked up at him. "Someone has to. She can be very naive, and far too trusting."
He grinned, his dimples so adorable she wanted to rise up and press a kiss to each one. "Then who looks after you?"
"No one needs to. I'm entirely capable of looking out for myself."
He tightened the arm around her back, tucking her closer to his chest, and his smile went from teasing to sizzling. "Are you sure about that, Highness?"
Was he flirting with her? Men never teased and flirted with her. Not unless they wanted their head handed back to them on a platter. Samuel Baldwin was a brave man. And she realized, she liked it. She liked the weight of his hand on her back and the way it felt when her breasts skimmed the wall of his chest. She'd never been what anyone could call a sexual woman—not that she didn't enjoy a quick, meaningless roll in the hay now and then—but being close to Sam awakened feelings in her she never knew were there. Or was it more the champagne than the man?
No. No amount of alcohol had ever given her this warm, shivery, feverish ache. This primitive longing to be taken and…possessed. To rip Sam's clothes off and put her hands all over him. She wondered what he would do if she wrapped her arms around his neck, tugged his head down and kissed him. His lips looked so soft and sensual and she was dying to know what they would feel like, how they would taste.
She wished she possessed the courage to do it, right here, right now, in front of all these people. She wished she could be more like Louisa, who was now walking arm in arm with her dance partner, out the doors and onto the patio, seemingly oblivious to the hundred or so pairs of eyes following their every move.
Maybe it was about time Louisa learned to fend for herself. For tonight at least. From this moment forward, she was on her own.
Anne turned her attention to Sam and smiled. "I'm so pleased you could attend our benefit. Are you having a good time?"
"I am. I was sorry to hear that the king wasn't well enough to attend."
"He has to have a procedure done and adjustments made to his heart pump so he must stay in tip-top shape. Being in a large crowd could expose him to infection. His system is very vulnerable."
Her siblings all seemed to think he was going to be fine, and the heart pump he had been attached to for the past nine months was going to give his damaged heart the time it needed to heal, but Anne had a bad feeling it was a waste of time. Lately he'd begun to look so pale and he had so little energy. She worried that he was losing his will to live.
Though the rest of the family was hopeful, deep down Anne knew he was going to die and her instincts were telling her that it would be soon.
A sudden feeling of intense grief welled up inside her, and hard as she tried to push it back down, tears sprang to the corners of her eyes and a sob began to build in her throat. She never got upset, at least not when other people were around to see it, but the champagne must have compromised her emotions because she was on the verge of a meltdown and she couldn't do a single thing to stop it.
Not here, she begged. Please not in front of all these people.
"Anne, are you okay?" Sam was gazing down at her, his eyes so full of concern and compassion, it was almost too much.
She bit down hard on her lip and shook her head, and he seemed to know exactly what to do.
He swiftly whisked her off the dance floor, while she struggled to maintain her composure. "Where to?" he whispered, as they exited the ballroom, into a foyer full of people socializing and sipping drinks. She needed to be somewhere private, where no one would see the inevitable breakdown. A place where, when she finally pulled herself together, she could fix her makeup and return to the party as though nothing were out of the ordinary.
"My room," she managed.
"Upstairs?" he asked, and she nodded. She was biting her lip so hard now she tasted blood.
The staircase was roped off and two security officers stood guard, but as they approached one unhooked the rope to let them pass.
"Her Highness was kind enough to offer me a tour of the castle," Sam told them, which really wasn't necessary. Then she realized he'd said it not for the guards' sake, but for the guests who were watching them. She would have to remember to thank him. But the fact that he cared about her reputation, that he would be so kind as to help her avoid embarrassment, brought the tears even closer to the surface. They were halfway up to the second floor when her eyes started to leak rivers of warm tears down her cheeks, and when they reached her door and he ushered her inside, the floodgates burst.
She thought for sure he would leave her alone, but after she heard the door close Sam's arms went around her, pulling her tight against him. The idea that he cared enough to stay, when normally she felt so isolated in her grief, made her cry even harder.
Anne clung to him, sobbing her heart out against his chest, both mortified and desperately grateful that he was there.
"Let it out, Annie," he whispered, rubbing her back and stroking her hair. No one but Louisa had called her Annie, and it made her feel close to him somehow, which made no sense because she barely knew him. Still it felt as if they had shared something special. Something intimate.
As spontaneous and intense as the emotional outburst had been, it was surprisingly short-lived. As the sobs subsided, Sam handed her his handkerchief and she dabbed her eyes.
"She cries," he said, sounding amazed.
"Please don't tell anyone," she whispered against his jacket.
"They wouldn't believe me if I did."
Of course they wouldn't. She was the ice princess, The Shrew. She didn't have feelings. But the truth was she felt just as deeply as anyone else, she was just damned good at hiding it. But she didn't want to be the ice princess anymore. At least, not tonight. Tonight she wanted someone to know the woman underneath.
Sam cradled her face in his palms and gently tipped it up to his, wiping the last of her tears away with his thumbs. She gazed up into eyes as clear blue as the ocean, and she could swear she felt something shift deep inside her.
She wasn't sure if he made the first move, or she did, or they met halfway, but suddenly their lips were locked, and in that instant she had never wanted a man more than she wanted him.
Any man who accused Princess Anne of being cold and unfeeling had obviously never kissed her. She tasted sweet and salty, like champagne and tears, and she put her heart and soul, her entire being into it.
Though Sam wasn't quite sure who kissed whom first, he had the feeling he might have just unleashed some sort of wild animal. She clawed at his clothes, yanking his jacket off his shoulders and down his arms, tugging his bow tie loose. She fumbled with his belt, unfastened his pants, and before he could manage to catch his breath, slid her hand inside his boxers and wrapped it around him. Sam cursed under his breath, a word that under normal circumstances he would never dare utter in the presence of royalty, but he was having one hell of a tough time reconciling the princess he knew with the wild woman who was now walking backward toward her bed, unzipping her dress and letting it fall to the floor. She plucked a jewel-encrusted comb from her hair and he watched as it spilled down over her shoulders like black silk. She grinned wickedly, tempting him with eyes the color of the sky just before a storm—smoky gray and turbulent.