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Today was her wedding day. Alyse Barras gazed at her pale, pinched face in the mirror and decided that not all brides were radiant. As it happened, she looked as if she were on the way to the gallows.
No, she amended, not the gallows; a quick and brutal end was not to be hers, but rather a long, drawn-out life sentence: a loveless marriage to a man whom she barely knew, despite their six-year engagement. Yet even so a small kernel of hope was determined to take root in her heart, to unfurl and grow in the shallowest and poorest of soils.
Maybe he'll learn to love me
Prince Leo Diomedi of Maldinia seemed unlikely to learn anything of the sort, yet still she hoped. She had to.
'Miss Barras? Are you ready?'
Alyse turned from her reflection to face one of the wedding coordinator's assistants who stood in the doorway of the room she'd been given in the vast royal palace in Averne, Maldinia's capital city, nestled in the foothills of the Alps.
'As ready as I'll ever be,' she replied, trying to smile, but everything in her felt fragile, breakable, and the curve of her lips seemed as if it could crack her face. Split her apart.
The assistant Marina came forward, looking her over in the assessing and proprietary way Alyse had got used to in the three days since she'd arrived in Maldiniaor, really, the six years since she'd agreed to this engagement. She was a commodity to be bought, shaped, presented. An object of great value, to be sure, but still an object.
She'd learned to live with it, although on today of all daysher wedding day, the day most little girls dreamed aboutshe felt the falseness of her own role more, the sense that her life was simply something to be staged.
Marina twitched Alyse's veil this way and that, until she gave a nod of satisfaction. It billowed gauzily over her shoulders, a gossamer web edged with three-hundred-year-old lace.
'And now the dress,' Marina said, and flicked her fingers to indicate that Alyse should turn around.
Alyse moved slowly in a circle as Marina examined the yards of white satin that billowed out behind her, the lace bodice that hugged her breasts and hips and had taken eight top-secret fittings over the last six months. The dress had been the source of intense media speculation, the subject of hundreds of articles in tabloids, gossip magazines, even respected newspapers, television and radio interviews, celebrity and gossip blogs and websites.
What kind of dress would the world's real-life Cinderellanot a very creative way of typecasting her, but it had stuckwear to marry her very own prince, her one true love?
Well, this. And Alyse had had no say in it at all. It was a beautiful dress, she allowed as she caught a glance of the billowing white satin in the full-length mirror. She could hardly complain. She might have chosen something just like itif she'd been given a choice.
Marina's walkie-talkie crackled and she spoke into it in rapid Italian, too fast for Alyse to understand, even though she'd been learning Italian ever since she'd become engaged to Leo. It was the native language of his country, and Maldinia's queen-in-waiting should be able to speak it. Unfortunately no one spoke slowly enough for her to be able to understand.
'They're ready.' Marina twitched the dress just as she had the veil and then rummaged on the vanity table for some blusher. 'You look a bit pale,' she explained, and brushed Alyse's cheeks with blusher even though the make-up artist had already spent an hour on her face.
'Thank you,' Alyse murmured. She wished her mother were here, but the royal protocol wasand always had been, according to Queen Sophiathat the bride prepare by herself. Alyse wondered whether that was true. Queen Sophia tended to insist on doing things the way they'd 'always been done' when really it was simply the way she wanted them done. And even though Alyse's mother, Natalie, was Queen Sophia's best friend from their days together at a Swiss boarding school, she clearly didn't want Natalie getting in the way on this most important and august of occasions.
Or so Alyse assumed. She was the bride, and she felt as if she were in the way.
She wondered if she would feel so as a wife.
No. She closed her eyes as Marina next dusted her face with loose powder. She couldn't think like that, couldn't give in to the despair, not on today of all days. She had once before, and it had led only to heartache and regret. Today she wanted to hope, to believe, or at least to try to. Today was meant to be a beginning, not an end.
But if Leo hasn't learned to love me in the last six years, why should he now?
Two months ago, with media interest at a frenzied height, her mother had taken her on a weekend to Monaco. They'd sat in deck chairs and sipped frothy drinks and Alyse had felt herselfjust begin to relax when Natalie had said, 'You don't have to do this if you don't want to.'
She'd tensed all over again, her drink halfway to her lips. 'Do what?'
'Marry him, Alyse. I know it's all got completely out of hand with the media, and also with the Diomedis, to be frank. But you are still your own woman and I want to make sure you're sure ' Her mother had trailed off, her eyes clouded with anxiety, and Alyse had wondered what she'd guessed.
Did she have even an inkling of how little there was between her and Leo? Few people knew; the world believed they were madly in love, and had done ever since Leo had first kissed her cheek six years ago and the resulting photograph had captured the public's imagination.
Leo's mother Sophia knew, of course, as the pretense of their grand romance had been her idea, Alyse suspected, and of course Leo's father, Alessandro, who had first broached the whole idea to her when she'd been just eighteen years old and starry-eyed over Leo. Perhaps Alexa Leo's sister, her fiery nature so different from his own sense of cool containmenthad guessed.
And, naturally, Leo knew. Leo knew he didn't love her. He just didn't know that for six years she'd been secretly, desperately, loving him.
'I'm happy, Maman,' Alyse had said quietly, and had reached over to squeeze her mother's hand. 'I admit, the media circus isn't my favourite part, but I love Leo.' She had stumbled only slightly over this unfortunate truth.
'I want for you what your father and I have had,' Natalie had said, and Alyse had smiled wanly. Her parents' romance was something out of a fairy tale: the American heiress who had captured the heart of a wealthy French financier. Alyse had heard the story many times, how her father had seen her mother across a crowded roomthey'd both been attending some important dinnerand he had made his way over to her and said, 'What are you doing with the rest of your life?'
She'd simply smiled and answered, 'Spending it with you.'
Love at first sight. And not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill love, but of the over-the-top, utterly consuming variety.
Of course her mother wanted that for her. And Alyse would never admit to her how little she actually had, even as she still clung stubbornly to the hope that one day it might become more.
'I'm happy,' she'd repeated, and her mother had looked relieved if not entirely convinced.
Marina's walkie-talkie crackled again, and once again Alyse let the rapid-fire Italian assault her with incomprehension.
'They're waiting,' Marina announced briskly, and Alyse wondered if she imagined that slightly accusing tone. She'd felt it since she'd arrived in Maldinia, mostly from Queen Sophia: you 're not precisely what we 'd have chosen for our son and heir, but you'll have to do. We have no choice, after all.
The mediathe whole worldhad made sure of that. There had been no going back from that moment captured by a photographer six years ago when Leo had come to her eighteenth birthday party and brushed his lips against her cheek in a congratulatory kiss. Alyse, instinctively and helplessly, had stood on her tiptoes and clasped her hand to his face.
If she could go back in time, would she change that moment? Would she have turned her face away and stopped all the speculation, the frenzy?
No, she wouldn't have, and the knowledge was galling. At first it had been her love for Leo that had made her agree to their faked fairy tale, but as the years had passed and Leo had shown no interest in loving heror love at allshe'd considered whether to cut her losses and break off the engagement.
She never had; she'd possessed neither the courage nor conviction to do something that would quite literally have rocked the world. And of course she'd clung to a hope that seemed naive at best, more likely desperate: that he would learn to love her.
And yet we get along. We 're friends, of a sort. Surely that's a good foundation for marriage?
Always the hope.
'This way, Miss Barras,' Marina said, and ushered her out of the room she'd been getting dressed in and down a long, ornate corridor with marble walls and chandeliers glittering overhead every few feet.
The stiff satin folds of Alyse's dress rustled against the parquet as she followed Marina down the hallway and towards the main entrance of the palace where a dozen liveried footmen stood to attention. She would make the walk to the cathedral across the street and then the far more important walk down the aisle by herself, another Maldinian tradition.
'Wait.' Marina held up a hand and Alyse paused in front of the gilt-panelled doors that led to the front courtyard of the palace where at least a hundred reporters and photographers, probably more, waited to capture this iconic moment. Alyse had had so many iconic moments in the last six years she felt as if her entire adult life had been catalogued in the glossy pages of gossip magazines.
Marina circled her the way Alyse imagined a lion or tiger circled its prey. She was being fanciful, she knew, but her nerves were stretched to breaking point. She'd been in Maldinia for three days and she hadn't seen Leo outside of state functions once. Hadn't spoken to him alone in over a year.
And she was marrying him in approximately three minutes.
Paula, the royal family's press secretary, approached with a brisk click of heels. 'Alyse? You're ready?' she asked in accented English.
She nodded back, not trusting herself to speak.
'Excellent. Now, all you need to remember is to smile. You're Cinderella and this is your glass slipper moment, yes?' She twitched Alyse's veil just as Sophia had done, and Alyse wondered how much more pointless primping she would have to endure. As soon as she stepped outside the veil would probably blow across her face anyway. At least she had enough hair spray in her hair to prevent a single strand from so much as stirring. She felt positively shellacked.
'Cinderella,' she repeated. 'Right.' She'd been acting like Cinderella for six years. She didn't really need the reminder.
'Everyone wants to be you,' Paula continued. 'Every girl, every woman, is dreaming of walking in your shoes right now. And every man wants to be the prince. Don't forget to wavethis is about them as much as you. Include everyone in the fantasy, yes?'
'Right. Yes.' She knew that, had learned it over the years of public attention. And, truthfully, she didn't mind the attention of the crowds, of people who rather incredibly took encouragement and hope from her and her alleged fairy tale of a life. All they wanted from her was friendliness, a smile, a word. All she needed to be was herself.
It was the paparazzi she had trouble with, the constant scrutiny and sense of invasion as rabid journalists and photographers looked for cracks in the fairy-tale image, ways to shatter it completely.
'I'd better get out there before the clock strikes twelve,' she joked, trying to smile, but her mouth was so dry her lips stuck to her teeth. Paula frowned, whipping a tissue from her pocket to blot Alyse's lipstick.
'We're at thirty seconds,' Marina intoned, and Paula positioned Alyse in front of the doors. 'Twenty '
Alyse knew she was supposed to emerge when the huge, ornate clock on one of the palace's towers chimed the first of its eleven sonorous notes. She would walk sedately, head held high, towards the cathedral as the clock continued chiming and arrive at its doors when the last chime fell into silence.
It had all been choreographed and rehearsed several times, down to the last second. Everything arranged, orchestrated, managed.
Alyse took a deep breath, or as deep a breath as the tightly fitted bodice of her dress would allow. She felt dizzy, spots dancing before her eyes, although whether from lack of air or sheer nerves she didn't know.
Two footmen opened the doors to the courtyard with a flourish, and Alyse blinked in the sudden brilliance of the sun. The open doorway framed a dazzling blue sky, the two Gothic towers of the cathedral opposite and a huge throng of people.
'Go,' Paula whispered, and gave her a firm nudge in the small of her back.
Pushed by Paula, she moved forward, her dress snagging on her heel so she stumbled ever so slightly. Still it was enough for the paparazzi to notice, and dozens of cameras snapped frantically to capture the moment. Another iconic moment; Alyse could already picture the headlines: First Stumble on The Road to Happiness?
She steadied herself, lifted her head and gave the entire viewing world a brilliant smile. The answering cheer roared through the courtyard. Alyse could feel the sound reverberate through her chest, felt her spirits lift at their obvious excitement and approbation.
This was why she was marrying Leo, why the royal family of Maldinia had agreed to his engagement to a mere commoner: because everyone loved her.
Everyone but Leo.
Still smiling, raising one hand in a not-so-regal wave, Alyse started walking towards the cathedral. She heard a few snatched voices amidst the crowd, shouting her name, asking her to turn for a photo. She smiled, leaving the white carpet that had been laid from the palace to the cathedral to shake people's hands, accept posies of flowers.
She was deviating from the remote, regal script she'd been given, but then she always did. She couldn't help but respond to people's warmth and friendliness; all too often it was what strengthened her to maintain this charade that wasn't a charade at allfor her. For Leo, of course, it was.
But maybe, please God, it won't always be
'Good luck, Alyse,' one starry-eyed teen gushed, clasping her hands tightly. 'You look so beautifulyou really are a princess!'
Alyse squeezed the girl's hands. 'Thank you,' she murmured. 'You look beautiful too, you know. You're glowing more than I am!'
She realised the clock had stopped chiming; she was late. Queen Sophia would be furious, yet it was because of moments like these she was here at all. She didn't stick to the royal family's formalised script; she wrote her own lines without even meaning to and the public loved them.
Except she didn't know what her lines would be once she was married. She had no idea what she would say to Leo when she finally faced him as his wife.
I love you.
Those were words she was afraid he'd never want to hear.
The cathedral doors loomed in front of her, the interior of the building dim and hushed. Alyse turned one last time towards the crowd and another roar went up, echoing through the ancient streets of Averne. She waved and blew them a kiss, and she heard another cheer. Perhaps the kiss was a bit over the top, but she felt in that moment strangely reckless, almost defiant. There was no going back now.
And then she turned back to the cathedral and her waiting groom.