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The howl of pure pain sent icicles down Prince Kiernan of Chatam's spine. He shot through the door of the palace infirmary, and came to a halt when he saw his cousin, Prince Adrian, lying on a cot, holding his knee and squirming in obvious agony.
"I told you that horse was too much for you!" Kiernan growled.
"Nice to see you, too," Adrian gasped. "Naturally, the moment you told me the horse was too much for me, my fate was sealed."
Kiernan shook his head, knowing it was all too true. His cousin, seven years his junior, was twenty-one, reckless, but usually easily able to deflect the consequences of his recklessness with his abundance of charm.
A fact Adrian proved by smiling bravely at a young nurse. Satisfied that the girl was close to swooning, he turned his attention back to Kiernan.
"Look, if you could spare me the lecture," Adrian said, "I am in desperate need of a favor. I'm supposed to be somewhere."
First of all, his cousin was never desperate. Secondly, Adrian rarely worried about where he was supposed to be.
"DHthat's short for Dragon-heartis going to kill me if I'm not there. Honestly, Kiernan, I've met the most fearsome woman who ever walked."
And thirdly, as far as Kiernan knew his cousin had never met a woman, fearsome or not, he could not slay with his devil-may-care grin.
"Do you think you could stand in for me?" Adrian pleaded. "Just this once?" The nurse probed his alarmingly swollen knee, and Adrian howled again.
What Kiernan was having trouble fathoming was how Adrian, who would be the first to admit he was entirely self-focused, was managing to think about anything at this particular moment besides his injury.
"Just cancel," Kiernan suggested.
"She'll think I did it on purpose," Adrian said through clenched teeth.
"Nobody would think you had an accident on purpose to inconvenience them."
"She would. DH, aka Meredith Whitmore. She snorts fire." An almost dreamy look pierced Adrian's pain. "Though her breath is actually more like mint."
Kiernan was beginning to wonder what his cousin had been given for pain.
"The fact is," Adrian said sadly, " DH eats adorable little princes like me for her lunch. Barbecued. She must have the mint after."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"You remember Sergeant Major Henderson?"
"Hard to forget," Kiernan said dryly of the man in charge of taking youthful princes and turning them into disciplined, rock-hard warriors, capable of taking commands as well as giving them.
"Meredith Whitmore is him. The Sergeant Major. Times ten," Adrian said, and then whimpered when his knee was probed again.
"You're exaggerating. You must be."
"Would you just stand in for me? Please?"
"What would make me agree to stand in for you with a woman who likes her princes barbecued and who makes Sergeant Major Henderson look like a Girl Scout leader? I don't even know what I'm standing in for."
"It was a mistake," Adrian admitted sadly. "I thought it was going to be a lark. It sounded like so much more fun than some of the other official lesser prince options for Chatam Blossom Week."
Blossom Week was the Isle of Chatam's annual celebration of spring. Dating back to medieval times, it was a week-long festival that started with a fund-raising gala and ended with a royal ball. Opening night was a little over a week away.
Adrian continued, "I could have given out awards to the preschool percussion band, given the Blossom Week rah-rah speech or done a little dance. Which would you have picked?"
"Probably the speech," Kiernan said. "Have you given him something?"
"Not yet," the nurse said pleasantly, "but I'm about to."
"Lucky you," Adrian said, batting his eyes at her, "because I have the cutest little royal backsideouch! Was that unnecessarily rough?"
"Don't be a baby, Your Highness."
Adrian watched her walk away. "Anyway, I said I'd learn a dance. I was going to perform with an up-and-coming troupe at the fund-raising evening. It's a talent show this year. My suggestion to call the fund-raiser Raise a Little Hell was vetoed. Naturally. It's going to be called An Evening to Remember, which I think is totally forgettable."
"I'm not taking your place for a dance number! We both know I can't dance. Prince of Heartaches causes Foot Aches, Too." It was a direct quote from a newspaper headline, with a very unflattering picture of Kiernan crushing some poor girl's foot at her debutante ball.
"Ah, the press is hard on you, Kiernan. They never nickname me. But in the past ten years you've been the Playboy Prince"
That had been when Kiernan was eighteen, fresh out of an all-boys private school, one summer of freedom before his military training. He had been, unfortunately, like a kid let out in a candy shop!
"Then, the Prince of Heartaches."
At the age of twenty-three, Prince Kiernan had become engaged to one of his oldest and dearest friends, Francine Lacourte. Not even Adrian knew the full truth behind their split and her total disappearance from public life. But, given a history that the press was eager not to let him shake, it was assumed Prince Kiernan was to blame.
"Now," Adrian continued, "since Tiff, you've graduated to Prince Heartbreaker. Tut-tut. It would all lead one to believe you are so much more exciting than you are."
Kiernan scowled warningly at his cousin.
"Don't give me that look," Adrian said, whatever the nurse had given him relaxing the grimace on his face to a decidedly goofy grin. "Your tiff with Tiff."
While the press loved the high-spirited high jinks of Adrian, Kiernan was seen as too stern, and too serious. Particularly since two broken engagements to two very popular women he was seen as coldly remote.
He knew the title Prince Heartbreaker was probably going to be his mantle to bear forever, even if he lived out the rest of his days as a monk, which, after what he'd been through, didn't seem entirely unappealing!
After all, the future of his island nation rested solidly and solely on Kiernan's shoulders, as he was the immediate successor to his mother, Queen Aleda's, throne. That kind of responsibility was enough for one man to bear without throwing in the caprice of romance.
Adrian was fourth in line, a position he found deliciously relaxing.
"You should have thrown that Tiffany Wells under a bus," Adrian said with a sigh. "She deserved it. Imagine tricking you into thinking she was pregnant. And then do you let the world know the true reason for the broken engagement? Oh, no, a man of honor"
"We're not talking about this," Kiernan said fiercely. Then, hoping to get back on one topic and off the other, "Look, Adrian, about the dancing thing, I don't see how I could help"
"I don't ask much of you, Kiern."
That was true. The whole world came to Kiernan, asking, begging, requesting, pleading causes. Adrian never did.
"Do this, okay?" Adrian said, his words beginning to slur around the edges. "It'll be good for you. Even if you make a fool of yourself, it'll make you seem human."
"I don't seem human?" He pretended to be affronted.
His cousin ignored him. "A little soft shoe, charm the crowd, get a little good press for a change. It bugs the hell out of me that you're constantly portrayed as a coldhearted snob."
"Coldhearted? A snob?" He pretended to be wounded.
Again, he was ignored. "That's if you can survive the fire-breather. Who, by the way, doesn't like tardiness.
And you.." his unfocused eyes shifted to the clock, and he squinted thoughtfully at it " are twenty-two minutes late. She's waiting in the Ballroom."
The smart thing to do, Kiernan knew, as he left his cousin, would be to send someone to tell the fire-breather Adrian was hurt.
But the truth was he had yet to see a woman who had managed to intimidate Adrian. Because if Kiernan was legendary for his remoteness, his cousin was just as legendary for his charm.
The press loved Prince Adrian. He played Prince Charming to his darker cousin's Prince Heartbreaker. And, oh, how women loved Prince Adrian.
Kiernan just had to see the one who did not.
Kiernan decided to go have a look at Adrian's nemesis before giving Adrian's excuses and dismissing her. In his most warmhearted and non-snobby fashion.
Meredith glared at the clock.
"He's late," she muttered to herself. The truth? She couldn't believe it! It was the second time Prince Adrian had been tardy!
She'd been intimidated by the young prince and his status for all of about ten seconds at their first meeting at her upscale downtown Chatam dance and fitness studio.
And then she'd seen he was like a puppyusing the fact he was totally adorable to have his way! Including being late. Meredith was so beyond being charmed by a man, even one as cute as him.
So, she'd laid down the law with him. And she'd been certain he wouldn't dare be late again, especially since she had conceded to changing their meeting place to the Chatam Palace Great Ballroom as a convenience to him.
Which just showed how wrong she could be when it came to men, even while she thought she was totally immune to sexy good looks and impossible charm!
Meredith glanced around the grandeur of the room and tried not to be overly awed at finding herself here.
She breathed in the familiar scents of her childhood. Her mother, a single woman, had been a cleaning lady. Meredith recognized the aromas of freshly shined floors, furniture wax, glass cleaners, silver polish.
Her mother would have been as awed by this room as Meredith was. Her mother had dreamed such big dreams for her daughter.
Ballet will open doors to worlds we can hardly imagine, Merry.
Worlds just like this one, Meredith thought gazing around the room. Wouldn't her mother be thrilled to know she was here?
Because every door that ballet could have opened for Meredithand her motherhad slammed shut when Meredith had found herself pregnant at sixteen.
Morning sunshine streamed in the twelve floor-to-ceiling arched windows that were so clean they looked like they contained no glass. The light glinted across the Italian marble of the floors, and sparked in the thousands of Swarovski crystals of the three huge chandeliers that dangled from the frescoed ceiling.
Meredith glanced again at the clock.
Prince Adrian was half an hour late. He wasn't coming. Meredith had had her doubts about this whole scheme, but been persuaded by the wild enthusiasm of the girls.
Crazy to let the teenage girls, the ones she mentored and loved and taught to dance, younger versions of herself, believe in fairy-tale dreams.
She, of all people, should know better.
Still, looking around this room, something stirred in her. She was going to dance here, prince or no prince.
In fact, that would be very in keeping with the charity she had founded, that gave her reason to go on, when all of her life had crashed down around her.
Meredith taught upbeat modern dancing as part of the program No Princes, which targeted the needs of underprivileged inner city female adolescents.
"You don't need a prince to dance," Meredith said firmly. In fact, that would make a good motto for the group. Perhaps she should consider adding it to their letterhead.
She closed her eyes. In her imagination, she could hear music begin to play. She had broken with ballet years ago, not just because her scholarship had been canceled. When she finally returned to dance, the only place that could ease the hurt of a heart snapped in two, she had found she could not handle the rigidity of ballet. She needed a place where her emotion could come out.
But even so, Meredith found herself doing the famous entree of Princess Aurora in the Petipa/Tchaikovsky ballet, The Sleeping Beauty.
But then, she let the music take her, and she seamlessly joined the allegro movements of ballet with the modern dance that had become her specialty. She melded different styles of dance together, creating something brand new, feeling herself being taken to the only place where she was not haunted by memories.
Meredith covered the floor on increasingly light feet, twirling, twisting, leaping, part controlled, part wild, wholly uninhibited.
She became aware that dancing in this great room felt like a final gift to the mother she had managed to disappoint so terribly.
The music that played in her head stopped and she became still, but for a moment she did not open her eyes, just savored the feeling of having been with her mother for a moment, embraced by her, all that had gone sour between them made right.
And then Meredith could have sworn she heard a baby laugh.
She spun around just as the complete silence of the room was broken by a single pair of hands clapping.
"How dare you?" she said, feeling as if Prince Adrian had spied on her in a very private moment.
And then Meredith realized it was the wrong prince!
It was not Adrian, eager and clumsily enthusiastic, like a playful St. Bernard, but the man who would be king.
Prince Kiernan of Chatam had slipped inside the door, and stood with his back braced lazily against the richness of the walnut. The crinkle of amusement around the deep azure of his eyes disappeared at her reprimand.
"How dare I? Excuse me. I thought I was in my own home." He looked astonished, rather than annoyed, by her reprimand.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness," she stammered. "I was taken off guard. That dance was never intended for anyone to see."
"More's the pity," he said mildly.
Meredith saw, instantly, that the many pictures of him printed by papers and tabloids did not begin to do him justice. And she saw why he was called Prince Heartbreaker.
Such astonishing good looks should be illegal. Paired with his station in life, it seemed quite possible he could break hearts with a glance!
Prince Kiernan was more than gorgeous, he was stunning. Tall and exquisitely fit, his perfectly groomed hair was crisp and dark, his face chiseled masculine perfection, from the cut of high cheekbones to the jut of a perfectly clefted chin.
Though he was dressed casuallyit looked like he had been riding, the tan-colored jodhpurs hugging the cut of the muscle of his thighnothing could hide the supreme confidence of his bearing.
He was a man who had been born to great wealth and privilege and it showed in every single thing about him. But an underlying strengtharound the stern line of his mouth, the way he held his broad shouldersalso showed.
And Meredith Whitmore was, suddenly, not an accomplished dancer and a successful businesswoman, but the cleaning lady's daughter, who had been trained to be invisible in front of her "betters," who had stupidly thrown her life away on a dream that had ended more badly than she ever could have imagined.
She thought of the unleashed sensuousness of that dance, and felt a fire burn up her cheeks. She prayeddesperatelyfor the floor to open up and swallow her.
But she, of all people, should know by now that the desperation of a prayer in no way led to its answer.