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Glancing at her watch, Lexie Wyndham Jones hurried from the stables and through a back entrance of her family's Massachusetts home. The ride had taken longer than she'd intended, but she still had time to prepare herself.
Dropping onto the seat just inside the door, she began wrestling one of her riding boots off. At the sound of someone clearing his throat, she looked up to see their butler standing close, watching her. "May I be of assistance, miss?"
He had his stoic expression on, all droopy gray eyebrows and even droopier jowls. "No. I'm fine. Thank you, Stanley." He always offered. She always refused. It had been their routine since Lexie had first learned to
ride. The boot came free in her hands and she dropped it to the floor.
When Stanley altered the routine by not then moving away, she glanced up.
"Your mother has been looking for you."
Sighing, Lexie turned her attention to her unyielding second boot. "What have I done now?"
"Your…prince has come."
For a second, Lexie froze. And Stanley, against every fiber of his butler being, allowed his disapproval to show. He hadn't said, he never would, but he thought she and her mother were making a mistake. She redoubled her efforts on her boot, hiding her surge of elation. The boot came free in her hands and she dropped it beside the first and stood. "He's early." Perhaps he had been so eager to see her that—
"I believe with the changeover of your mother's secretary there has been some confusion about the times. The prince was of the impression that you would be accompanying him back to San Philippe this afternoon."
"But the dinner?"
"Mother has explained?"
"Of course. You'll be leaving in the morning as planned."
"Oh, dear." She didn't suppose it was good practice to thwart a prince's expectations, but it couldn't be any worse than thwarting her mother's.
"Precisely." The merest twinkle glinted in Stanley's gray eyes, and she got the feeling there was something he wasn't telling her. No doubt she'd find out soon enough.
"Where are they now?"
"The croquet lawn."
"I'd better get out there." She turned, but stopped at the sound of Stanley again clearing his throat.
"Perhaps you would like to freshen up first?"
Lexie scanned her mud-splattered jodhpurs and laughed. "Holy—" She stopped herself in time and winked. "Good heavens, yes." She mimicked her mother's cultured tones. "Thank you, Stanley."
He inclined his head.
Thirty minutes later, Lexie, now wearing a demure—and clean—sundress, lowered herself into the chair in the arbor. A dark jacket lay draped over the arm of the chair next to her. Drawn to touch it, Lexie trailed her fingers over the sun-warmed leather and the exquisitely soft silk of the lining.
Pulling her hand to her lap, she took in the croquet game that looked close to ending. There were only two people on the lawn: broad-shouldered Adam, his back to her, lining up a shot, and her fiercely slender mother. It was easy to tell from the rigid set to her mother's shoulders and the too-bright society laugh that drifted across the lawn that Antonia was losing. A result that didn't bode well. Her mother didn't quite have the power of the Queen of Hearts—no one would lose their head. Not literally. But…
Lexie watched with surprise as Adam swung his mallet and played a merciless shot, sending her mother's ball careening miles from where she'd want it. While she wouldn't expect him to throw a game, she would have thought he'd be more tactful. He was renowned as a master diplomat, and he usually managed to charm her mother. The tinkling laughter that followed his shot was anything but charmed, and Lexie cringed.
Adam straightened and turned, and her heart beat a little faster in anticipation. Then she caught his profile, and her breath stalled in her chest as she looked and, disbelieving, looked again.
Not Adam Marconi, crown prince of San Philippe.
But his brother, Rafe.
A heated flush swept up her face.
As if sensing her scrutiny, Rafe turned fully. Across half the lawn his gaze caught hers. Slowly, he inclined his head, almost as Stanley did, but with Stanley the gesture, though it could convey a dozen nuanced mean ings, was usually genial or at least respectful. Rafe's nod, the stiff little bow, even from this distance, communicated displeasure.
Which made two of them. She did not want to see Rafe.
Fighting for composure, Lexie had to remind herself, as her mother so often did, that she, too, had royal bloodlines, her ancestors having once ruled the small European principality that Rafe's father was sovereign of. A Wyndham Jones was cool and self-possessed at all times. Supposedly.
Lexie wasn't a particularly good example of the name, but she tried. As the shock of seeing Rafe ebbed, it was replaced by disappointment and chagrin. Adam, her prince, hadn't come himself, but rather his profligate brother. The Playboy Prince, as the press called him. Or, as Lexie secretly thought of him, the Frog Prince. Nothing to do with his looks—he was Adonis personified. Even on the croquet lawn his fluid athleticism was obvious. Michelangelo's David come to life. The confidence that came from the unique com bination of his position in the world and his looks pervaded everything about him.
Her mother, following Rafe's gaze, saw Lexie and abandoned the game to glide across the lawn, probably convincing herself she'd been about to win. Rafe strolled in her wake. And though he appeared relaxed, she couldn't help but feel he was zeroing in on her like an Armani-clad, heat-seeking missile. She watched him through narrowed eyes. Her mother crossed into her line of vision and scanned Lexie critically from head to toe, her expression a dire warning to behave herself.
Lexie's jaw clenched tighter, but as they neared her she forced her lips into a smile and extended her hand. Rafe reached for it, closed strong fingers around hers and then lifted her knuckles to his lips and pressed the gentlest of kisses there.
For as long as his touch lasted, confusion reigned. And in her surprise, Lexie forgot her anger, forgot her plans for her future, forgot her mother, even. She was aware only of being simultaneously swamped and stilled by sensation, warm lips and gentle fingers and the strange shiver of heat that coursed through her. Rafe lifted his head and she felt at close range the burning connection of his gaze from dark, honey-colored eyes.
As he released her fingers, her presence of mind returned and she remembered everything, recognized his tactic as some kind of power play. "It's a pleasure to meet you again, Your Highness," she said through her most practiced smile.
He returned a smile that hid the irritation she'd glimpsed earlier. "Rafe will do. Unless you'd also prefer me to call you Miss Wyndham Jones."
"No." Lexie shook her head.
"In that case, Alexia, the pleasure is all mine. It's been too long."
She bit down on the word liar that wanted to escape her lips, partly because it would be so terribly impolite, but mainly because she, too, had lied. Nothing about this meeting was the pleasure it should have been. "And such a surprise, too. I must confess, I was expecting Adam." Thoughtful, gentlemanly, mature Adam.
One corner of Rafe's lips lifted in a mocking smile. "You usually are, as I recall."
Lexie felt her face pale. How dare he? One mistake. Four years ago. A mistake she'd fervently hoped he'd forgotten. After all, to a man like him it was an event that could barely have registered. It should have been nothing to him. It was nothing, she reminded herself. An accident, a misunderstanding.
At a glittering masquerade ball, if you had just turned eighteen, it was easy to confuse one masked prince's identity with another's, particularly when their hair and builds were so similar. And if that prince waltzed you to a quiet corner behind a fluted marble column and kissed you, gently at first and then as though you were ambrosia itself, coaxing an unguarded response in return, then when he unmasked you and realized who you were, staggered backward, cursing under his breath…
"I'm afraid I must apologize on my brother's behalf." Rafe's tone, though still formal, had softened, and he sounded almost sincere. Of course, he, too, would regret that it wasn't Adam here instead of him. "Royal duties prevented him coming to escort you back to San Philippe. He is, however, greatly looking forward to your arrival."
It took an effort of will not to roll her eyes. Greatly looking forward to? Could he be any more formal? And still the word liar simmered in her consciousness. Because despite the fact that she'd had a crush on Adam for almost as long as she could remember, and that she knew Adam liked her, and that for years the possibility of a match between them had been promoted by their respective parents, their correspondence was hardly much more than friendly.
But things were about to change. Adam hadn't seen her in four years. He was about to meet the new, improved, grown-up Alexia Wyndham Jones.
"In the meantime, unfortunately," Rafe said, "you'll have to make do with me."
"Oh, not unfortunate at all," her mother interjected before Lexie could respond. Under Rafe's questioning gaze, Lexie swallowed her retort. Probably for the best. This man, as well as potentially being her brother-in-law, was apparently her pathway to her future, and she would do what needed to be done to ensure nothing went wrong now. Not when she was this close to setting her life on its proper course.
Rafe was no more than a temporary inconvenience.
"Alexia was reminiscing just yesterday about her last visit to San Philippe," said her mother. "I don't believe you were there at the time."
"I was gone for most of it, but I did arrive back in time for her final evening and the masquerade ball." A hint of amusement and challenge laced his voice.
One stupid, mistaken kiss. Why did he have to be so intent on reminding her of it?
"The ball. I'd almost forgotten about that." Lexie smiled sweetly. "It was so overshadowed by everything else I saw and did while I was there."
Rafe's lips stretched into a grin, and a roguish gleam lit those dark eyes. "I shall have to see if I can remind you, seeing as it's all we shared of that visit. I recall your gown in particular, a deep burgundy, and it had—"
Lexie laughed, sounding scarily like her mother, but at least cutting short anything further Rafe might have said. The gown had featured a daringly low back. When they'd danced, his fingertips had caressed her skin, trailing sparks of heat. "I can scarcely remember what I wore yesterday, let alone four years ago. As for reminding me of that last visit, there's no need. I'm sure I'll make enough new memories in the future." She looked pointedly at him.
Her words, or her glance, seemed to recall Rafe to his purpose here. Not to discomfit her by reminding her of a kiss that was best forgotten because it should never have happened, but to escort her to his country so she could get to know his brother better and more important, for Adam to get to know her better. Courtship was the word her mother had used—but only once, because apparently Lexie had found it "inappropriately amusing."
Rafe straightened and took a step back. The gleam in his eyes disappeared, his expression hardening into regal arrogance.
"Dinner will be served at eight," her mother said, oblivious to the tension and displeasure arcing between them. "I've invited a few close friends, and some of your countrymen."
It promised to be a tedious, stuffy affair. Lexie could almost have pitied him if she hadn't been so annoyed and if he weren't so far above needing that sentiment from her. He was the one who would be on display tonight, not only for his countrymen but for friends of her mother's eager to be able to boast of their dinner with European royalty. Lexie, on the other hand, would be able to slip away relatively early.
"I look forward to it," Rafe said, sounding as though he meant it.
Rafe tossed his dinner jacket over the back of the arm chair in his room. He'd attended more boring din ners in his life than he could possibly count, but tonight's ranked among the worst. If it hadn't been for the presence of Tony, an old school friend, now a high-powered Boston attorney, the evening would have been unbearable.
Out of curiosity, he'd closely watched the woman who hoped to snare herself a prince—his brother's would-be bride—throughout the evening. She had shown scarcely any reaction as her mother, none too subtly, toasted her success in her forthcoming travels. His observation of her served only to confirm that she was a perfect match for Adam. Demure, respectable, quiet and a gracious hostess. In a word, boring.
Even the dress she'd worn, a silvery high-necked thing that she'd teamed with pearls, had been boring. She had a passable figure, curves where they should be, yet she did nothing to accentuate her assets. She wore her glossy auburn hair swept back from her face into a sleek—boring—knot. He had seen no trace of the spark he'd imagined in her moss-green eyes this afternoon as she'd tried to challenge him.
She'd clearly been irritated that it was he who'd come for her. Tough luck. If she wanted to be Adam's wife, she'd have to learn to hide that flash of her eyes that revealed those emotions. And if she wanted to marry into his family, she'd do well to learn that more often than not royal considerations overrode personal ones. His presence here was a case in point. If it had been up to him, he would have spent the day playing polo and the evening dancing with the charming divorcée he'd met at a charity gala last week.
But Rafe's father, Prince Henri Augustus Marconi, claiming failing health and impatient to secure the family line, had, in a fit of regal autocracy, decreed that it was Adam's duty to marry—and marry well and soon—and that the heiress Alexia Wyndham Jones was the perfect candidate.