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"Three arranged marriages and not one has made it to the altar. That is unacceptable!" King Alaric of Aliestle's voice thundered through the throne room like a lion's roar. Even the castle's tapestry-covered stone walls appeared to tremble. "If men think something is wrong with you, no amount of dowry will convince one to marry you."
Princess Julianna Louise Marie Von Schneckle didn't allow her father's harsh words to affect her posture. She stood erect with her shoulders back and her chin up, maximizing her five-foot-eight-inch-stature. The way she'd been taught to do by a bevy of governesses and nannies. Her stepmother didn't take a personal interest in her, but was diligent in ensuring she'd received the necessary training to be a perfect princess and queen.
"Father," Jules said evenly, not about to display an ounce of emotion. Tears and histrionics would play into her country's outdated gender stereotypes. They also wouldn't sway her father. "I was willing to marry Prince Niko, but he discovered Princess Isabel was alive and legally his wife. He had no choice but to end our arrangement."
Her father's nostrils flared. "The reason your match ended doesn't matter."
Jules understood why he was upset. He wanted to marry her off to a crown prince in order to put one of his grandchildren on a throne outside of Aliestle. He was willing to pay a king's ransom to make that happen. She'd become the wealthiest royal broodmare around. Unfortunately.
He glared down his patrician nose at her. "The result is the same. Three times now"
"If I may, Father." Indignation made Jules speak up. She rarely interrupted her father. Okay, never. She was a dutiful daughter, but she wasn't going to take the blame for this. "You may have forgotten with all the other important matters on your mind, but you canceled my first match with Prince Christian. And Prince Richard was in love with an American when I arrived on San Montico."
"These failed engagements are still an embarrassment." Her father's frown deepened the lines on his face. The wrinkles reminded Jules of the valley crags in the Alps surrounding their small country. "A stain on our family name and Aliestle."
A lump of guilt lodged in her throat. Jules had been relieved when she found out Niko wouldn't be able to annul his first marriage and marry her. From the start, she'd hoped he would fall in love with his long-lost wife so Jules wouldn't have to get married.
Oh, she'd liked Vernonia with its loyal people and lovely lakes for sailing. The handsome crown prince wanted to modernize his country, not be held back by antiquated customs. She would have had more freedom than she'd ever imagined as his wife and future queen. But she didn't love Niko.
Silly, given her country's tradition of arranged marriages. The realist in her knew the odds of marrying for love were slim to none, but the dream wouldn't die. It grew stronger with the end of each arranged match.
Too bad dreams didn't matter in Aliestle. Only duty.
Alaric shook his head. "If your mother were alive "
Mother. Not stepmother.
Jules felt a pang in her heart. "If my mother were alive, I hope she would understand I tried my best."
She didn't remember her mother, Queen Brigitta, who had brought progressive, almost shocking, ideas to Aliestle when she married King Alaric. Though the match had been arranged, he fell so deeply in love with his young wife that he'd listened to her differing views on gender equality and proposed new laws at her urging, including higher education opportunities for women. He even took trips with her so she could indulge her passion for sailing despite vocal disapproval from the Council of Elders.
But after Brigitta died competing in a sailing race in the South Pacific when Jules was two, a heartbroken Alaric vowed never to go against convention again. He didn't rescind the legislation regarding education opportunities for women, but he placed limitations on the jobs females could hold and did nothing to improve their career prospects. He also remarried, taking as his wife and queen a proper Aliestlian noblewoman, one who knew her role and place in society.
"I'd hope my mother would see I've spent my life doing what was expected of me out of respect and love for you, my family and our country," Jules added.
But she knew a lifetime of pleasing others and doing good works didn't matter. Not in this patriarchal society where daughters, whether royal or commoner, were bartered like chattel. If Jules didn't marry and put at least one of her children on a throne somewhere, she would be considered a total failure. The obligation and pressure dragged Jules down like a steel anchor.
Her father narrowed his eyes. "I concede you're not to blame for the three matches ending. You've always been a good girl and obeyed my orders."
His words made her sound like a favored pet, not the beloved daughter he and her mother had spent ten years trying to conceive. Jules wasn't surprised. Women were treated no differently than lapdogs in Aliestle.
Of course, she'd done nothing to dispel the image. She was as guilty as her father and the Council of Elders for allowing the stereotyping and treatment of women to continue. As a child, she'd learned Aliestle didn't want her to be as independent and outspoken as her mother had been. They wanted Jules to be exactly what she wasa dutiful princess who didn't rock the boat. But she hoped to change that once she married and lived outside of Aliestle. She would then be free to help her brother Brandt, the crown prince, so he could modernize their country and improve women's rights when he became king.
Her father eyed her speculatively. "I suppose it would be premature to marry you off to the heir of an Elder."
A protest formed in the back of her throat, but Jules pressed her lips together to keep from speaking out. She'd said more than she intended. She had to maintain a cool and calm image even if her insides trembled.
Marrying a royal from Aliestle would keep her stuck in this repressive country forever. Her children, most especially daughters, would face the same obstacles she faced now.
Jules fought a rising panic. "Please, Father, give me another chance. The next match will be successful. I'll do whatever it takes to marry."
He raised a brow. "Such enthusiasm."
More like desperation. She forced the corners of her mouth into a practiced smile. "Well, I'm twenty-eight, father. My biological clock is ticking."
"Ah, grandchildren." He beamed, as if another rare natural resource had been discovered in the mountains of Aliestle. "They are the only thing missing in my life. I shall secure you a fourth match right away. Given your track record, I had a backup candidate in mind when you left for Vernonia."
A backup? His lack of confidence stabbed at her heart.
"All I need to do is negotiate the marriage contract," he continued.
That would take about five minutes given her dowry.
"Who am I to marry, Father?" Jules asked, as if she wanted to know the person joining them for dinner, not the man she would spend the rest of her life with in a loveless marriage negotiated for the benefit of two countries. But anyone would be better than marrying an Aliestlian.
"Crown Prince Enrique of La Isla de la Aurora."
"The Island of the Dawn," she translated.
"It's a small island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain ruled by King Dario."
Memories of San Montico, another island in the Mediterranean where Crown Prince Richard de Thierry ruled, surfaced. All citizens had equal rights. Arranged marriages were rare though the country had a few old-fashioned customs. She hadn't been allowed to sail there, but the water and wind had been perfect. Longing stirred deep inside Jules.
Sailing was her inheritance from her mother and the one place she felt connected to the woman she didn't remember. It was the only thing Jules did for herself. No matter what life handed out, no matter what tradition she was forced to abide by, she could escape her fate for a few hours when she was on the water.
But only on lakes and rivers.
After Jules learned to sail on the Black Sea while visiting her maternal grandparents, her father had forbidden her to sail on the ocean out of fear she would suffer the same fate as her mother. Two decades later, he still treated Jules like a little girl. Perhaps now he would finally see her as an adult, even though she was female, and change his mind about the restrictions.
"Am I allowed to sail when I'm on the island?" she asked.
"Sailing on the sea is forbidden during your engagement."
Hope blossomed at his words. He'd never left her an opening before. "After I'm married.?"
"Your husband can decide the fate of your hobby."
Not hobby. Passion.
When she was on a boat, only the moment mattered. The wind against her face. The salt in the air. The tiller or a sheet in her hand. She could forget she was Her Royal Highness Princess Julianna and be Jules. Nothing but sailing had ever made her feel so.free.
If La Isla de la Aurora were a progressive island like San Montico, she would have freedom, choice and be allowed to sail on the ocean. Her heart swelled with anticipation. That would be enough to make up for not marrying for love.
"Understand, Julianna, this is your final match outside of Aliestle," he said firmly. "If Prince Enrique decides he doesn't want to marry you, you'll marry one of the Elder's heirs upon your return home."
A shiver shot down her spine. "I understand, Father."
"You may want to push for a short engagement," he added.
A very short one.
Jules couldn't afford to have Prince Enrique change his mind about marrying her. She had to convince him she was the only woman for him. The perfect princess for him. And maybe she would find the love she dreamed about on the island. Her parents had fallen in love through an arranged marriage. It could happen to her, too.
She'd avoided thinking about tomorrow. Now she looked forward to the future. "When do I leave for the island, sir?"
"If I complete negotiations with King Dario and Prince Enrique tonight, you may leave tomorrow." Alaric said. "Your brother Brandt, a maid and a bodyguard will accompany you."
This was Jules's last chance for a life of freedom. Not only for herself, but her children and her country. She couldn't make any mistakes. "I'll be ready to depart in the morning, Father."
Lying in bed, Alejandro Cierzo de Amanecer heard a noise outside his room at the beachfront villa. The stray kitten he'd found at the boatyard must want something. He opened his eyes to see sunlight streaming in through the brand-new floor-to-ceiling windows. Most likely breakfast.
The bedroom door burst wide-open. Heavy boots sounded against the recently replaced terra-cotta tile floor.
Alejandro grimaced, but didn't move. He knew the routine.
A squad of royal guards dressed in blue and gold uniforms surrounded his bed. At least they hadn't drawn their weapons this time. Not that he would call another intrusion progress.
"What does he want now?" Alejandro asked.
The captain of the guard, Sergio Mendoza, looked as stoic as ever, but older with gray hair at his temples. "King Dario requests your presence at the palace, Your Highness."
Alejandro raked his hand through his hair in frustration. "My father never requests anything."
Sergio's facial expression didn't change. He'd only shown emotion once, when Alejandro had been late bringing Sergio's youngest daughter home from a date when they were teenagers.
In spite of the security detail accompanying them, Alejandro had feared for his life due to the anger in the captain's eyes.
"The king orders you to come with us now, sir," Sergio said.
Alejandro didn't understand why his father wanted to see him. No one at the palace listened to what Alejandro said. He might not want to be part of the monarchy, but he wasn't about to abandon his country. He'd founded his business here and suggested economic innovations, including developing their tourist trade. But his ideas clashed with those of his father and brother who were more old-fashioned and traditional in their thinking.
A high-pitched squeak sounded. The scraggly black kitten with four white paws clawed his way up the sheet onto the bed. The thing had been a nuisance these past two weeks with the work at the boatyard and renovations here at the villa.
"I need to get dressed before I go anywhere," Alejandro said.
"We'll wait while you dress, sir." Sergio's words did nothing to loosen Alejandro's tense shoulder muscles. "The king wants no delay in your arrival."
Alejandro clenched his teeth. He wanted to tell the loyal captain to leave, but the guards would use force to get him to do what they wanted. He was tired of fighting that battle. "I need privacy."
Sergio ordered the soldiers out of the room, but he remained standing by the bed. "I'll wait on the other side of the door, sir. Guards are stationed beneath each window."
Alejandro rolled his eyes. His father still saw him as a rebellious teenager. "I'm thirty years old, not seventeen."
Sergio didn't say anything. No doubt the captain remembered some of Alejandro's earlier.escapades.
"Tell me where you think I would run to, Captain?" Alejandro lay in bed covered with a sheet. "My business is here. I own properties. My father's lackeys follow me wherever I go."
"They are your security detail, sir," Sergio said. "You must be protected. You're the second in line for the throne."
"Don't remind me," Alejandro muttered.
"Many would give everything to be in your position."
Not if they knew what being the "spare" entailed. No one cared what he thought. Even when he tried to help the island, no one supported him. He'd had to do everything on his own.
Alejandro hated being a prince. He'd been educated in the United States. He didn't want to participate in an outdated form of government where too much power rested with one individual. But he wanted to see his country prosper.
"Guard the door if you must." Alejandro gave the kitten a pat. "I won't make your job any more difficult for you than it is."
As soon as Sergio left, Alejandro slid out of bed and showered. His father hadn't requested formal dress so khaki shorts, a navy T-shirt and a pair of boat shoes would do.
Twenty minutes later, Alejandro entered the palace's reception room. His older brother rose from the damask-covered settee. Enrique looked like a younger version of their father with his short hairstyle, tailored designer suit, starched dress shirt, silk tie and polished leather shoes. It was too bad his brother acted like their father, also.
"This had better be important, Enrique," Alejandro said.
"It is." His brother's lips curved into a smug smile. "I'm getting married."
About time. Enrique's wedding would be the first step toward Alejandro's freedom from the monarchy. The birth of a nephew or niece to take his place as second in line for the throne would be the next big step. "Congratulations, bro. I hope it's a short engagement. Don't waste any time getting your bride pregnant."
Enrique smirked. "That's the plan."
"Why wait until the wedding? Start now."
He laughed. "King Alaric would demand my head if I did that. He's old-fashioned about certain things. Especially his daughter's virginity."