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Melissa Thornsby never got nervous.
She'd been raised in the pretentious and oftentimes eccentric New Orleans high society, where it wasn't all that uncommon to check one's back and occasionally find a knife or two sticking out. But that was par for the course.
After Katrina, she'd started a foundation to rebuild the city, and when she met presidents, past and present, actors, musicians and other celebrities eager to "do the right thing," it was just another day at the office.
Even when she'd learned she was the illegitimate princess of the country of Morgan Isle and made the decision to move there permanently to be with a family that was, to put it mildly, suspicious of her motives, she barely broke a sweat. She took her late mother's advice and viewed it as an adventure.
So, visiting Thomas Isle, the former rival of her native country, and meeting the royal family, really wasn't a big deal.
Until she saw him.
He stood on the tarmac of the small private airstrip in the bright afternoon sunshine, flanked by two very frightening-looking bodyguards and a polished black Bentley at the ready. And he was, for lack of a better word, beautiful. Tall, fit and well put together in a tailored, charcoal-gray pinstriped suit.
Prince Christian James Ernst Alexander, next in line to the throne of Thomas Isle. Confirmed bachelor and shameless playboy. His photos didn't do him justice.
She descended the steps of the Learjet and the prince approached, flashing her a million-watt stunner of a smile. Her heart leapt up into her throat and a curious tickle of nerves coiled in her belly. Was it too much to hope that he was to be her guide for the duration of her two-weekstay? Although in her experience that task was typically left up to the princess since the crown prince was usually busy with slightly more significant tasks, such as preparing to run the entire country.
Flanked by her own equally threatening entourage the security detail her half brother, King Phillip, insisted she have accompany hershe stepped forward to meet him halfway.
When they were face to face, he nodded his head in greeting and said, in a voice as rich and as smooth as her favorite gourmet dark chocolate, "Welcome to Thomas Isle, Your Highness."
"Your Highness." She dipped into a curtsey, turning on the Southern-belle charm. "It's an honor to be here."
"The honor is all ours," he said with a lethal smile. Lethal because she could feel it, like a buzz of pure energy, from the roots of her hair to the balls of her feet.
He watched her intently with eyes a striking shade of green, and behind them she could see very clearly a hint of mischief and sly determination. She couldn't help wondering if he'd spent his previous life as a cat.
He noted her security detail and with one brow slightly raised, asked, "Expecting a revolution, Your Highness?"
Nodding to his own "muscle," she answered, "I was going to ask you the same thing."
If the question had been some sort of test, she could see that she'd passed. He grinned, playful and sexy, and the coil of nerves in her gut twisted into a hopeless knot. This really wasn't like her at all. Heaven knows, she was used to men flirting with her. Young and old, rich and poor, and all of them after the ludicrous trust her great-aunt and uncle had left her. But somehow, she didn't think the prince had money on his mind. He was one of the few men she'd met whose wealth exceeded her own. At least, she was assuming it did.
"The bodyguards were King Phillip's idea," she told him.
"Of course, you're welcome to keep them with you," he said, "but it's certainly not necessary."
Phillip had insisted she take the bodyguards with her, but he never said she had to keep them there. And call her optimistic, but entrusting her welfare to Prince Christian's staff seemed to her a valuable gesture of good faith. In the vast, stormy history of their two countries, the peace they had adopted was for all practical purposes still in its infancy. And her duty, the way she saw it, was to build on that.
"You'll see that they're flown back safely?" she asked.
He nodded. "Of course, Your Highness."
She cringed inwardly. She still hadn't grown used to the royal title. "Please, call me Melissa."
"Melissa," he said, with that sexy British accent. "I like that."
And she liked the way he said it.
"You can call me Chris. I imagine it best we drop the formalities, seeing as we will be spending a considerable amount of time together the next two weeks."
Would they? Another jolt of nerves sizzled inside her stomach. "Are you to be my guide?" she asked.
"If you're agreeable," he said.
As though she would say no to two weeks with a gorgeous and charming prince. She smiled and said, "I look forward to it."
He gestured to the waiting car. "Shall we go?"
She turned to her bodyguards, dismissing them with a simple, "Thank you, gentlemen."
They exchanged an uneasy glance, but remained silent. They knew as well as she did that Phillip would not be happy she'd sent them home.
Oh, well. If there was one thing her new family had learned, it was that she had a mind of her own. As deeply as she longed to be accepted as one of them, to have a real family for the first time since losing her parents, there was only so much of herself she was willing to sacrifice. At thirty-three, in many respects she was too set in her ways to change.
The prince touched her elbow to lead her to the car, and despite the layers of silk and linen of her suit jacket, her skin simmered with warmth. When was the last time she'd felt such a sizzling connection to a man? Or perhaps the better question was, when was the last time she'd let herself? This was as much vacation as business, and it wouldn't hurt to let her hair down and have some fun.
He helped her into the back, and she sank into the rich, butter-soft leather seat. He circled the car and climbed in the opposite side, filling the interior with a warm and delicious scent that left her feeling lightheaded. Were she home, she might have blamed it on the Southern heat, but the temperature here hadn't even topped eighty degrees and there was no humidity to speak of. Warm for mid-June on Thomas Isle, but mild by her standards.
As soon as the doors were closed they were off in the direction of the castle, which couldn't be more than a few minutes away, as they had flown past it just before landing. It appeared massive from the airdare she say larger than the much more modern palace on Morgan Isleand seemed to have acres of emerald-green lawns, ornately patterned gardens, and even a shrubbery maze.
A passionate lover of nature, she could hardly wait to explore it all. Her mother had been an avid gardener. Melissa's childhood home on Morgan Isle was renowned for its award-winning gardens, and she'd carried on the tradition at her own estate in New Orleans. Though it had been hard to leave that and move back to Morgan Isle, the U.S. had never really been her home. Since losing her parents, she had never felt as though she truly belonged anywhere.
"My parents, the king and queen, are anxious to meet you," Chris said.
"The feeling is mutual." She turned to him and realized he was studying her, a curious look on his face. "What?"
"Your accent," he said. "I can't quite place it."
"That's because it's a mishmash of different dialects. Little bits of every place I've lived pop out occasionally."
"How many different places have you lived?"
"Let's see " she counted off on her fingers. "I lived on Morgan Isle until I was ten, then I relocated to New Orleans, then it was off to boarding school in France and summers in California, then college on the east coast, then back to New Orleans."
"Sounds exciting," he said.
One would think so, but really all she had ever wanted was to settle down, stay in one place. Of course, when she finally had, it just hadn't felt right. She'd thought that moving back to Morgan Isle would give her the sense of home and family she had been longing for, but she'd been disappointed to find that despite it being her true home, she still felt like an outsider. It left her wondering if she would ever fit in anywhere.
"How about you?" she asked the prince.
"My diplomatic travels have taken me all over the world, but I've never lived anywhere but here, with my family."
She detected a vague note of exasperation in his tone. To her it sounded wonderful. After her parents died, she had been shuttled to the States to live with her great-aunt and uncle, who had little concept of family. Childless by choice, they saw their orphaned great-niece as more of an interloper than a part of the family. They wasted little time shipping her off to boarding school for her education and camp for the summers. Not that she blamed them. They'd done the best they could. Had they chosen not to take her in she would have become a ward of the state, and who knows where she would be today.
Melissa became aware that the car was climbing, and she knew that they were nearly there. Then the trees cleared and there sat the royal castle, like a scene from a child's picture book, high on a cliff overlooking the ocean and hovering like a sentinel above a charming village below. Far less modern than Morgan Isle, she thought with a tug of pride, but magnificent nonetheless.
She felt a little as though she had been thrown back into a past century.
From what she'd learned in her research, where Morgan Isle was modern and forward-thinkinga flourishing and expanding resort communityThomas Isle was traditional and private. Most of their economy was based on export, primarily fishing and organic farming. Some considered it archaic, but she saw it as quaint and charming.
"It's magnificent," she told him, gazing up from the car window.
"Do you know the history between our two countries?"
"Only that they've been rivals for many years."
"It's a fascinating story. Were you aware that both islands used to be ruled by one family? A king and queen with two sons. Twins, born only minutes apart."
"Their names wouldn't have been Thomas and Morgan, would they?"
He smiled. "In fact, they were. When the king died, the princes became ensnared in a battle over who would be become the next ruler. They each felt they deserved the title. When an accord couldn't be reached, one challenged the other to a duel." He paused for dramatic effect. "To the death.
"The survivor would reign as king. But their mother couldn't bear the thought of losing either one of them, and begged them not to fight. She suggested a compromise. They could split the kingdom by each taking one of the islands. They agreed, but their discord was so bitter, they never spoke again."
"That's so sad."
"To spite the other, each chose his own name for his island. Their subjects, as a show of loyalty to their respective kings, were banned from visiting the island on which they didn't reside, or even communicating with its people. Many families were broken and businesses ruined."
"What about the queen? Which island did she choose?"
"She refused to choose between her sons and was banished from both islands."
She pressed a hand to her heart. "Oh, my goodness, how awful!" How could they banish their own mother?
"It took hundreds of years to put our history behind us," he said. "That's why it's so important that we maintain accord between our two countries. Joining our resources could benefit both our islands. Both of our societies. Both of our families."
"King Phillip feels the same way," she assured him. "That's why I'm here."
"I'm relieved to hear that. Matters such as these have the potential to be very awkward."
"I'm a go-with-the-flow princess," she said, which was true, for the most part. "However, I take my new role very seriously. Anything for the good of the country."
He flashed her another one of those sizzling smiles. "Then I'm sure we'll get along quite well."
The car pulled up the drive to the gates, where a mob of press waited with microphones poised and cameras at the ready.
The gates swung open and guards in formal uniform stepped forward to control the crowd. The car continued on past a stone wall that seemed to extend miles in each direction, and what she saw on the other side took her breath away. Everything looked green and vibrant, and the castle itself was a towering edifice of stone and mortar and ornate stained-glass windows, all meticulously maintained and preserved.
"Welcome to Sparrowfax Castle," Chris said.
It was clear, as they rounded the drive and she saw the royal family and what appeared to be the entire staff lined up awaiting their arrival, that they were pulling out all of the royal stops. That annoying knot of nerves coiled even tighter in her belly.
This sure seemed liked a lot of trouble to go to for a simple diplomatic visit. Yet she couldn't let herself forget how important this was to her family and country, which would mean watching her behavior. Particularly biting her sharp Southern tongue that sometimes had a mind of its own.
As the car slowed to a halt, footmen in royal dress approached to open the doors. Melissa took the proffered hand thrust her way and rose from the back seat, feeling underdressed in her basic linen suit. The family was dressed and poised to receive royaltywhich she had to remind herself, she wasand for the first time in her adult life she felt apprehensive about her suitability.
Chris's parents, the king and queen, stepped forward to greet her. Though getting up in years, they appeared healthy and vibrant. Their other children, Chris's brother and twin sisters, were as breathtakingly attractive as their sibling. What a privilege it would be, Melissa mused, to belong to such a beautiful family. It was a wonder that all of them had yet to marry.
Good looks, however, were only a fraction of a much larger picture. For all she knew they could be rude and unfriendly.
Chris appeared at her side, and though it was silly, his presence seemed to have a calming effect on her.
"All this for me?" she asked.
Her question seemed to perplex him. "Of course. You're an honored guest. Your visit marks a new era for both of our kingdoms."
Little ol'me? She hadn't realized her visit would be seen as quite that big of a deal. Her own family hadn't put up close to this much fuss when she'd come home to her native land. In fact, there hadn't been any fuss at all. Her return to Morgan Isle had been very hush-hush, to avoid a media frenzy.