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A genuine believer in fate and fairy tale romances, Princess Louisa Josephine Elisabeth Alexander knew that if she was patient, the man of her dreams would eventually come along. And as their eyes met across the crowded ballroom, beneath a canopy of red and white twinkling lights, shimmering silver tulle and pink, white and red heart-shaped balloons, she could swear she felt the earth move.
She just knew he was the one.
Her family would probably remind her that she'd felt that way about men before. Aaron would tease her and call her a hopeless romantic. Chris, the oldest, would just sigh and shake his head, as if to say, "Here we go again." Her twin sister Anne would probably sneer and call her naive. But this time it was different. Louisa was sure of it. She could feel it, like a cosmic tug at her soul.
He was the most intriguing, handsome and tallest man—by several inches—at the charity event, which was what drew her attention to him in the first place. With raven hair, a warm olive complexion and striking features, he was impossible to miss.
Was he an Italian businessman, or a Mediterranean prince? Whoever he was, he was rich and powerful. She could tell by the quality of his clothing and the way he carried himself. Most people knew better than to openly stare at a member of the royal family, but this man gazed intently at her with dark, deep-set eyes, as though they already knew one another. Which she was sure they didn't. She definitely would have remembered him. Maybe he didn't realize she was royalty, although she would imagine the diamond encrusted tiara tucked within her upswept hair would be a dead giveaway.
Another woman might have waited for him to make the first move, or manufactured a scenario in which their paths accidentally crossed, but Louisa didn't believe in playing games. Much to the chagrin of her overly protective siblings. The youngest member of the royal family by a mere five minutes, and labeled as too trusting, Louisa was treated like a child. But contrary to what her family believed, not everyone was interested in her money and title, and those who were, were fairly easy to recognize.
She set her empty champagne glass on a passing server's tray and headed in his direction, the full skirt of her gown—in her customary shade of pink—swishing soundlessly as she crossed the floor. Never once did his eyes leave hers. As she approached, he finally lowered his gaze and bowed his head, saying in a voice as deep as it was smooth, "Her Highness is enchanting tonight."
Not a half-bad opening line, and he spoke with a dialect not unlike her own. Almost definitely from Thomas Isle, so why didn't she recognize him? "You seem to have me at a disadvantage," she said. "You obviously know me, but I don't recall ever meeting you."
Most people, especially a stranger, would have at least offered an apology for staring, but this man didn't look like the type who apologized for anything. "That's because we've never met," he answered.
"I suppose that would explain it," she said with a smile.
Face-to-face, he was a little older than she'd guessed. Mid-thirties maybe—ten years or so her senior—but she preferred men who were older and more experienced. He was also much larger than she thought. The top of her head barely reached his chin. It wasn't just his height that was so imposing, either. He was big all over, and she would bet that not an ounce of it was fat. Even through his attire, he seemed to have the chiseled physique of a gladiator. She couldn't help noticing that he wasn't wearing a wedding ring.
This was, without a doubt, fate.
She offered a hand to shake. "Princess Louisa Josephine Elisabeth Alexander."
"That's quite a mouthful," he said, but she could see by the playful grin that he was teasing her.
He took her hand, cradled it within his ridiculously large palm, lifted it to his mouth and brushed a very gentle kiss across her skin. Did the ground beneath her feet just give a vigorous jolt, or was that her heart?
"And you are…?" she asked.
"Honored to meet you, Your Highness."
Either he had no grasp of etiquette, or he was being deliberately obtuse. "You have a name?"
His wry smile said he was teasing her again and she felt her heart flutter. "Garrett Sutherland," he said.
Sutherland? Why did that sound so familiar? Then it hit her. She had heard her brother speak of him from time to time, a landowner with holdings so vast they nearly matched those of the royal family. Mr. Sutherland was not only one of the richest men in the country, but also the most mysterious and elusive. He never attended social gatherings, and other than an occasional business meeting, kept largely to himself.
Definitely not the kind of man who would need her money.
"Mr. Sutherland," she said. "Your reputation precedes you. It's a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is all mine, Your Highness. As you probably know, I don't normally attend events such as these, but when I heard the proceeds would benefit cardiac research, for your father's sake at the very least, I knew I had to make an appearance."
A testament to what a kind and caring man he must be, she thought. Someone she would very much like to get to know better.
His gaze left hers briefly to search the room. "I haven't seen the King tonight. Is he well?"
"Very well, under the circumstances. He wanted to make an appearance but he has strict orders from his doctor not to appear in public."
Louisa's father, the King of Thomas Isle, suffered from heart disease and had spent the past nine months on a portable bypass machine designed to give his heart an opportunity to heal and eventually work on its own again. Louisa took pride in the fact that it had been her idea to hold a charity ball in his honor. Usually her family wrote off her ideas as silly and idealistic, but for the first time in her life, they seemed to take her seriously. Although, when she had asked to be given the responsibility of planning the affair, they had hired a team of professionals instead. Baby steps, she figured. One of these days they would see that she wasn't the frail flower they made her out to be.
Across the ballroom the orchestra began playing her favorite waltz. "Would you care to dance, Mr. Sutherland?"
He arched one dark brow curiously. Most women would wait for the man to make the first move, but she wasn't most women. Besides, this was destiny. What could be the harm in moving things along a bit?
"I would be honored, Your Highness."
He held out his arm, and she slipped hers through it. As he led her through clusters of guests toward the dance floor, she half expected one of her overprotective siblings to cut them off at the pass, but Chris and his wife Melissa, enormously pregnant with triplets, were acting as host and hostess in their parents' absence. Aaron was glued to the side of his new wife, Olivia, a scientist who, when she wasn't in her lab buried in research, felt like a fish out of water.
Louisa searched out her sister Anne, surprised to find her talking to the Prime Minister's son, Samuel Baldwin, who Louisa knew for a fact was not on Anne's list of favorite people.
Not a single member of her family was paying attention to her. Louisa could hardly fathom that she was about to dance with a man without someone grilling him beforehand. He took her in his arms and twirled her across the floor, and they were blissfully alone—save for the hundred or so other couples dancing. But as he drew her close and gazed into her eyes, there was no one but them.
He held her scandalously close for a first dance—by royal standards anyhow—but it was like magic, the way their bodies fit and how they moved in perfect sync. The way he never stopped gazing into her eyes, as though they were a window into her soul. His were black and bottomless and as mysterious as the man. He smelled delicious, too. Spicy and clean. His hair looked so soft she wanted to run her fingers through it and she was dying to know how his lips would taste, even though she felt instinctively they would be as delicious as the rest of him.
When the song ended and a slower number began, he pulled her closer, until she was tucked firmly against the warmth of his body. Two songs turned to three, then four.
Neither spoke. Words seemed unnecessary. His eyes and the curve of his smile told her exactly what he was thinking and feeling. Only when the orchestra stopped to take a break did he reluctantly let go. He led her from the dance floor, and she was only vaguely aware that people were staring at her. At them. They probably wondered who this dark mysterious man was dancing with the Princess. Were they an item? She would bet that people could tell just by looking at them that they were destined to be together.
"Would you care to take a stroll on the patio?" she asked.
He gestured to the French doors leading out into the garden. "After you, Your Highness."
The air had chilled with the setting sun and a cool, salty ocean breeze blew in from the bluff. With the exception of the guards positioned at either side of the garden entrance, they were alone.
"Beautiful night," Garrett said, gazing up at the star-filled sky.
"It is," she agreed. June had always been her favorite month, when the world was alive with color and new life. What better time to meet the man of her dreams? Her soul mate.
"Tell me about yourself, Mr. Sutherland."
He turned to her and smiled. "What would you like to know?"
Anything. Everything. "You live on Thomas Isle?"
"Since the day I was born. I was raised just outside the village of Varie on the other side of the island."
The village to which he referred could only be described as quaint. Definitely not where you would expect to find a family of excessive means. Not that it mattered to her where he came from. Only that he was here now, with her. "What do your parents do?"
"My father was a farmer, my mother a seamstress. They're both retired now and living in England with my brother and his family."
It was difficult to fathom that such a wealthy and shrewd businessman was raised with such modest means. He had obviously done quite well for himself.
"How many siblings do you have?" she asked.
"I'm the eldest."
She wished, if only for a day or two, she could know what that felt like. To not be coddled and treated like a child. To be the person everyone turned to for guidance and advice.
A chilly breeze blew in from the bluff and Louisa shivered, rubbing warmth into her bare arms. They should go back inside before she caught a cold—with her father's condition it was important that everyone in the family stay healthy—but she relished this time alone with him.
"You're cold," he said.
"A little," she admitted, sure that he would suggest they head back in, but instead he removed his tux jacket and draped it over her shoulders, surrounding her in the toasty warmth of his body and the spicy sent of his cologne. What she really wanted, what she longed for, was for him to pull her into his arms and kiss her. She already knew that his lips would be firm but gentle, his mouth delicious. Heaven knows she had played the scene over in her mind a million times since adolescence, what the perfect kiss would be like, yet no man had ever measured up to the fantasy. Garrett would, she was sure of it. Even if she had to make the first move.
She was contemplating doing just that when a figure appeared in the open doorway. She turned to find that, watching them, with a stern look on his face, was her oldest brother, Chris.
"Mr. Sutherland," he said. "I'm so pleased to see that you've finally accepted an invitation to celebrate with us."
Garrett bowed his head and said, "Your Highness."
Chris stepped forward and shook his hand, but there was an undertone of tension in his voice, in his stance.
Did he dislike Garrett? Mistrust him? Or maybe he was just being his usual protective self.
"I see you've met the Princess," he said.
"She's a lovely woman," Garrett replied. "Although I fear I may have monopolized her time."
Chris shot her a sharp look. "She does have duties."
As princess it was her responsibility to socialize with all the guests, especially in her parents' absence, and duty was duty.
Another time and place. Definitely.
"Give me a minute, please," she asked her brother.
He grudgingly nodded and told Mr. Sutherland, "Enjoy your evening." Then he walked away.
Louisa smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry if he seemed rude. He's a little protective of me. My entire family is."
His smile was understanding. "If I had a sister so lovely, I would be, too."
"I suppose I should go back inside and mingle with the other guests."
His look said he shared her disappointment. "I understand, Your Highness."
She took off his jacket and handed it back to him. "I was wondering if you might like to be my guest for dinner at the castle."
A smile spread across his beautiful mouth. "I would like that very much."
"Are you free this coming Friday?"
"If not, I'll clear my schedule."
"We dine at seven sharp, but you can come a little early. Say, six-thirty?"
"I'll be there." He reached for her hand, brushing another gentle kiss across her bare skin. "Good night, Your Highness."
He flashed her one last sizzling grin, then turned and walked back inside. She watched him go until he was swallowed up by the crowd, knowing that the next six days, until she saw him again, when she could gaze into the dark and hypnotizing depths of his eyes, would be the longest in her life.