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Though she had been preparing for this day for eight years, as the limo pulled up to the palace steps and Hannah Renault caught her first glimpse of the princemake that the kingwaiting to welcome her, she trembled in her ecru Gucci pumps.
Wearing his royal dress uniform, King Phillip Lindall Augustus Mead stood at the top of the stairs flanked by what had to be the entire palace staff. A collection of medals and commendations on his jacket glittered in the sun and a gilded sword hung at his hip.
Outside the gates, residents of Morgan Isle crowded to get their first glimpse of their soon-to-be queen.
The limo stopped at the base of a gold-rimmed red carpet. The door swung open and a gloved hand appeared to help her out.
She smoothed the skirt of her dark blue linen suit. This is it, she told herself. This is the day you've been dreaming of. The time to make a good impression on your husband-to-be and, from the looks of it, half the country. So, whatever you do, as you're climbing those stairs, don't trip.
With all the grace and dignity a woman could manage while climbing out of a vehicle, her heart fluttering madly in her chest, Hannah stepped into the balmy sunshine. Beyond the gates a cheer broke out among the onlookers.
Warring with the sudden, intense urge to turn around and dive back into the limo, she took a deep breath, straightened her spine and lifted her chin high. As per the instructions she received from the royal social secretary, she stood her ground and waited for the king's formal greeting. She held her breath as he descended the steps and a deafening hush fell over the crowd, as though they wereholding their breath with her. Don't be nervous, she told herself, but nervous didn't even come close to what she was actually feeling. She bordered more along the lines of terrified.
Just breathe, Hannah. In and out. You can do this.
It had been two long years since she had seen her fiancé face-to-face, and he was more handsome, more heart-stoppingly beautiful than she remembered.
As instructed, the instant the king's foot hit the bottom step, Hannah stepped forward and dipped into a routinely practiced curtsy. With a bow of her head, and in a wobbly voice, she said, "Your Highness."
"My lady," he returned in a deep, rich voice, with proper British inflection, then offered his hand. A small burst of energy arced between their fingers an instant before they actually touched. When she met his eyes, something warm and inviting swam in their smoky-gray depths. Taking her hand gently in his own, he bent at the waist and brushed his lips across her skin. "Welcome home."
Her stomach bottomed out and her legs went weak while thunderous applause rattled her eardrums.
You must appear regal and confident, but never cold, she had been told a million times from her royal-appointed etiquette coach.
But under the circumstances, it was all she could do to stay upright and conscious.
This was really happening. In two weeks she would marry this handsome, powerful man. In two weeks, she would be a queen.
Shaking with excitement and fear, from her toes all the way to the ends of her hair, she allowed him to lead her up the steps, chanting to herself: please don't trip, please don't trip.
Picking up on her abject terror, and in a serious break of royal tradition, he slipped his arm around her waist and drew her close to his side. Then he dipped his head and said in a low whisper, so only she could hear, "Relax. The worst is over."
She was so grateful she nearly dissolved into tears right there on the steps. He felt so solid and sturdy and he radiated self-assurance. If there were only a way she could absorb a bit of that confidence for herself.
They reached the top step, where they would stop and she would formally greet the staff and country. But in another breech of ceremony, the king swept past the receiving lines and led her directly to the enormous, gilded double doors that, seemingly on their own, swung open to welcome her inside.
He led her through the cavernous foyer. Two royal attendants were close behind them, the soles of their shoes clicking against the polished marble floor. He stopped in front of a pair of ceiling-high, carved mahogany doors.
"Give us a minute," he told the two attendants, which Hannah took to mean they were not to be disturbed. Then he ushered her inside and closed the door behind them.
She found herself surrounded on three sides by bookshelves that climbed high to kiss the outer rim of an ornately painted cathedral ceiling. She'd never seen so many books in one room. Not even in the university library back home. Furniture upholstered in a rich, deep red leather formed a sitting area in the center of the room. He led her to a chair and ordered, "Sit."
Her legs were so shaky it was that or fall over, so she sat, and took what was probably her first full breath since the limo pulled up to the wrought iron gates.
"Shall I get the smelling salts?" he asked.
For an instant, she thought he might be angry, and she couldn't really blame him, considering how seriously she had blown it, but, when she looked up, he wore the shadow of an amused grin.
She shook her head. "I think I'm okay now."
He crossed the room to the wet bar, chose a decanter and poured a splash of amber liquid into a glass. She thought it was for him, but then he carried it over and pressed it into her hand. "Sip. Slowly."
She sipped and it burned a path of liquid fire down her throat all the way to her belly, temporarily stealing the air from her lungs. When she could breath again, she wheezed, "I'm sorry."
He crouched down beside her chair, leaning on the arm. "For what?"
"I really blew it out there."
"I was supposed to greet the staff."
He shrugged. "So, you'll greet them later."
"And we were supposed to turn and wave to the people outside the gates."
Again with the shrug. "What they don't know won't hurt them."
She worried her lower lip with her teeth. "But I don't want people to think I'm a snob."
His question threw her. "Well no. Of course not. But"
"Then don't worry about it."
"Isn't it kind of important that the people of the country like me?"
"They will," he assured her, as if he had no doubt.
"What about the press?" Reporters in the States were sometimes brutal, but she'd been warned the media in Europe could be downright vicious.
Phillip didn't look the least bit concerned. "See this?" he asked, indicating his left jacket pocket. "This is where I keep the press. In other words, you have nothing to worry about."
Oh, well, that was good to know. It seemed as though he had all his bases covered. And why wouldn't he? He was the richest, most powerful man in the country.
She took another sip of her drink, felt the knots in her belly begin to unravel. "My coach insisted I was prepared for this. You can bet she's going to hear from me."
"You did fine. You will grow accustomed to it."
She sure hoped so.
A moment of awkward silence followed and she racked her brain for something to say. Since turning sixteen, everything she had done, all that she had learned, had been in preparation for this day. Now that she was finally here, she was at a total loss.
It wasn't helping that, technically, she was supposed to be marrying a prince. She should have had an indeterminate number of years as a princess, time to adjust to the lifestyle. But the queen's death had unexpectedly moved plans forward.
Phillip, now as king, needed a queen to stand by his side. Even more important, he needed an heir. So, instead of a courtship, in which they would have six months to get to know one another before they took the plunge, they had two very short weeks before they said their I do's.
She downed the contents of her glass, the sting of the alcohol sucking the air from her lungs and making her eyes well up.
His expression somewhere between amusement and curiosity, he took the glass from her and set it on a nearby table. "Feeling better?"
She nodded, but it was pretty obvious from the crooked, wry smile he wore that he didn't believe her. And it dawned on her, as she glanced around the quiet, empty room, that for the first time since this marriage had been arranged, she and Phillip were alone.
In the past, to keep things proper and by the book, on the rare occasions they visited each other, there had always been a chaperone present. Though Han-nah's experience with the queen had been limited to a few obligatory and brief meetings, she'd heard the rumors. She'd heard that the queen was cold, heartless and ruthlessly demanding.
It was her way or the highway.
But the queen was gone now, and right here, in this empty room, there was no one to stop them from whatever.
Suddenly she felt ultra aware of his presence. The clean, crisp scent of his aftershave. The weight of his gaze as he studied her. He was just so there.
And so close.
It would take little more than a fraction of movement and she could touch his sleeve. With a lift of her hand she could brush her fingertip across his smooth cheek. And the idea of touching him made her legs feel all wobbly again.
"If you keep chewing your lip that way, there'll be nothing left for me," he teased, and something playfully wicked flashed behind his eyes.
In all of the years she'd studied in preparation for this marriage, she had learned about things like etiquette and social graces, bloodlines and royal custom, but no one ever taught her about this kind of stuff. Sure, it had been drilled in her head that she would be expected to produce at least one heir, preferably more, but all advice stopped outside the bedroom door.
And to say she was a novice was a gross understatement.
Though her high school girlfriends and college sorority sisters often questioned her sanity, she had made the decision a long time ago, even before the arranged marriage, that she would save herself for her husband on their wedding night.
She and Phillip had never kissed. Never so much as held hands. Not that she hadn't wanted to. But it wouldn't have been proper. Right now, here in this room, there wasn't a single thing to stop them.
The idea made her both excited and terrified at the same time. The truth of the matter was, she barely knew him, and that had never been more evident to her than at this very moment.
He leaned forward a fraction and she just about jumped out of her skin. With an amused grin, he asked, "Do I make you nervous, Hannah?"
She took a deep breath, fighting the urge to gnaw her lip. "You're a king. It is a tad intimidating."
"I'm just a man."
Yeah, kind of like The Beatles were just a rock-and-roll band or the Mona Lisa is just a painting.
"I've been anticipating this day for a really long time," she said, hoping her voice didn't sound as wobbly to his ears as it did to her own.
"Well then, I'll do my best not to disappoint you." His eyes searched her face and she wondered what he was looking for. What did he see when he looked at her? Did he know deep in his heart, just as she did, that they were perfectly suited? Was he as excited about the future as she was?
Though her parents insisted she wait until she was eighteen before making the decision to marry Phillip, from the day she met him, she knew that she would someday be his wife. Had he felt it, too?