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This party was lame. And it was his party. How could his own party be lame?
Normally parties were Gabriel Montoro's thing. Much to the chagrin of his family, he'd earned quite the reputation as "Good Time Gabriel." Music, alcohol, dim lighting, superficial conversation
He was the king of the party domain. But now that Gabriel had been tapped as the new king of Alma, everything had changed.
Gabriel gripped his flute of champagne and looked around the ballroom at his family's Coral Gables estate. Their tropical retreat seemed incredibly stuffy tonight. There wasn't a single flip-flop in the room, much less one of the feral parrots that lived on their property and flew in the occasional open door. His family had always had money, but they hadn't been pretentious.
But things had changed for the Montoro family since the tiny European island nation of Alma decided to restore their monarchy. Suddenly he was Prince Gabriel, third in line to the throne. And before he could adjust to the idea of that, his father and his older brother were taken out of the running. His parents had divorced without an annulment, making his father ineligible. Then, his ever-responsible brother abdicated and ran off with a bartender. Suddenly he was on the verge of being King Gabriel, and everyone expected him to change with the title.
This suffocating soiree was just the beginning and he knew it. Next, he'd have to trade in his South Beach penthouse for a foreign palace and his one-night stands for a queen with a pedigree. Everything from his clothes to his speech would be up for public critique by "his people." People he'd never seen, living on an island he'd only visited once. But his coronation was only a month or two away. He left for Alma in a week.
That was why they were having this party, if you could even call it that. The music was classical, the drinks were elegant and the women were wearing far too much clothing. He got a sinking feeling in his stomach when he realized this was how it was going to be from now on. Boring parties with boring people he didn't even know kissing his ass.
There were two hundred people in the room, but there were more strangers than anything else. He found that terribly ironic. People had come out of the woodwork since his brother, Rafe, abdicated and Gabriel was thrust into the spotlight. Suddenly he wasn't just the vice president of South American Operations, cast into the Southern Hemisphere where he couldn't embarrass the family; he was the hot ticket in town.
Him! Gabrielthe middle child whom no one paid any attention to, the one dismissed by his family's society friends as the bad boy, the spare heir and nothing more. Now that he was about to be king, he had strangers at every turn fighting to be his new best friends.
He hated to break it to them, but Gabriel didn't have friends. Not real ones. That required a level of trust in other people that he just didn't have. He'd learned far too young that you can't trust anyone. Even family could let you down when you need them the most.
Speak of the devil.
From across the room, his cousin Juan Carlos spied him and started in his direction. He was frowning. Nothing new there. Ever serious, Juan Carlos never seemed to have any fun. He was always having business discussions, working, being responsible. He was the kind of man who should be the king of Almanot Gabriel. After hundreds of years, why hadn't people figured out that bloodlines were not the best indicator of leadership potential?
"You're not talking to anyone," Juan Carlos noted with a disapproving scowl as he loomed over his cousin. At several inches over six feet, he had a bad habit of hovering over people. Gabriel was never quite sure if his cousin deliberately tried to intimidate with his size or if he was unaware how much it bothered people when he did that.
Gabriel wasn't about to let his cousin's posture or his frown get to him. He tended not to worry too much about what his cousin thought, or what anyone thought, really. When it came down to it, Juan Carlos was serious enough for them both. "No one is talking to me," he corrected.
"That's because you're hiding in the corner sulking."
Gabriel scoffed at his blunt observation. "I am not sulking."
His cousin sighed and crossed his arms over his chest. "Then what would you call it?"
"Surveying my domain. That sounds kingly, right?"
Juan Carlos groaned and rolled his eyes. "Quit it. Don't even pretend you care about any of this, because I know you don't. You and I both know you'd much rather be in South Beach tonight chasing tail. Pretending otherwise is insulting to your family and insulting to your country."
Gabriel would be lying if he said the neon lights weren't beckoning him. There was nothing like the surge of alcohol through his veins and the thumping bass of music as he pressed against a woman on the dance floor. It was the only thing that could help him forget what a mess he was in, but after the drama with Rafe, he'd been on a short leash. The family couldn't take another scandal.
That didn't mean he felt like apologizing for who he was. He wasn't raised to be king. The Alman dictatorship had held strong for nearly seventy years. Who would've thought that when democracy was restored, they'd want their old royal family back? They hadn't anticipated this summons and he certainly hadn't anticipated his brother, the rightful king, would run off with a Key West bartender and send Gabriel's life into a tailspin. "I'm sorry if that offends your sensibilities, J.C., but I didn't ask to be king."
"I know you didn't ask to be king. It is plainly obvious to every person in this room that you don't want the honor. But guess what? The crown has landed in your lap and you've got to step up and grow up." Juan Carlos sipped his wine and glared at Gabriel over the rim. "And what have I told you about calling me that?" he added.
That made Gabriel smile. Annoying his cousin was one of his favorite pastimes since childhood. The smile was short-lived, though.
It wasn't the first time he'd been told to grow up. What his family failed to realize was that Gabriel had grown up a long time ago. They all liked to pretend it didn't happen, but in a dark room with thick rope cutting into his wrists, he'd left his childhood and innocence behind with his captors. If his family had wanted him to act responsibly, they should've done more to rescue him. He'd survived because of his own quick thinking and his first choice as an adult was to live the life he wanted and not care what anyone else thought about it.
Grow up, indeed. Gabriel took a large swallow of his champagne and sighed. The days of living his life as he chose were numbered. He could feel it. Soon it wouldn't just be his father and cousin trying to tell him what to do.
"Always good talking with you, cuz. Don't you have someone to schmooze?"
Juan Carlos didn't respond. Instead he turned on his heel and walked over to the dessert table. Within seconds, he was chatting with someone influential, whose name Gabriel had forgotten, over silver platters of chocolate truffles and cream puffs.
Gabriel turned away, noticing the side door that led out to the patio and garden pavilion. Hopefully he could make it out there before someone noticed.
Glancing around quickly, he spied his father with his back to him. His sister was chatting with a group of ladies in the corner. This was his chance. He moved toward the door and surged through it as fast as he could.
Gabriel was immediately rewarded with the oppressive wave of heat that July in Miami was known for. The humid blast hit him like a tsunami after the air-conditioned comfort of the ballroom, but he didn't care. He moved away from the door and out into the dark recesses of the patio.
There were some tables and chairs set up outside in case guests wanted to come out. They were draped with linens and topped with centerpieces of candles and roses. All the seats were empty. Gabriel was certain none of the ladies were interested in getting overheated in their fancy clothes with their meticulously styled hair and makeup.
Glancing over at the far end of the semicircular patio, he spied someone looking out into the gardens. The figure was tall, but slender, with the moonlight casting a silver silhouette that highlighted the bare shoulders and silk-hugging curves. She turned her head to watch a bird fly through the trees and he was rewarded with a glimpse of the cheekbones that had made her famous.
The realization sent a hot spike of need down his spine and the blood sped through his veins as his heart beat double-time. Serafia Espina was his childhood crush and the fantasy woman of every red-blooded man who had ever achieved puberty. Eight years ago, Serafia had been one of the biggest supermodels in the industry. Like all the greats, she'd been known by only her first name, strutting down catwalks in Paris, New York and Milan wearing all the finest designers' clothes.
And she'd looked damn good in them, too.
Gabriel didn't know much about what had happened, but for health reasons, Serafia had suddenly given up modeling and started her own business of some kind. But judging by the way that red dress clung to her curves, the years hadn't dulled her appeal. She could walk the catwalk right now and not miss a beat.
He hadn't spoken to Serafia in years. When his family was overthrown by the Tantaberras, they had fled to the United States and the Espinas moved to Switzerland. In the 1980s, they'd moved to Spain and their families renewed their friendship. When Gabriel and Serafia were children, their families vacationed together on the Spanish Riviera. Back then, he'd been a shy, quiet little boy of ten or eleven and she was the beautiful, unobtainable older woman. She was sixteen and he was invisible.
This was a fortunate encounter. They weren't children anymore and as the future king of their home country, he was anything but invisible. As Mel Brooks famously said, "It's good to be the king."
Serafia felt the familiar, niggling sensation of someone's eyes on her. It was something she'd become keenly attuned to working in the modeling business. Like a sixth sense, she could feel a gaze like a touch raking over her skin. Judging. Critiquing.
She turned to look behind her and found the man of the evening standing a few feet away. Gabriel had certainly grown up a lot since she saw him last. He was looking at her the way most men didwith unmasked desire. She supposed she should be flattered to catch the eye of the future king, but he was in his twenties, just a baby. He didn't need to get involved with an older, has-been model with enough baggage to pack for a long vacation.
"Your Majesty," she replied with a polite bow of her head.
Gabriel narrowed his gaze at her. "Are you being sarcastic?" he asked.
Serafia's mouth dropped open with surprise, her response momentarily stolen. That wasn't what she was expecting him to say. "Not at all. Did it come out that way? If it did, I sincerely apologize."
Gabriel shook his head dismissively and walked toward her. He didn't look like any king she'd ever seen before. He exuded a combination of beauty and danger, like a great white shark, gliding gracefully across the stone patio in a tailored black suit and dress shirt. His tie was bloodred and his gaze was fixed on her as if she were prey.
She felt her chest tighten as he came closer and she breathed in the scent of his cologne mingling with the warm smell of the garden's exotic flowers. Her fightor-flight instincts were at the ready, even as she felt herself get drawn closer to him.
He didn't pounce. Instead he leaned down, rested his elbows on the concrete railing and looked out into the dark recesses of the tropical foliage. "It's not you, it's me," he said. "I still haven't quite adjusted to the idea of all this royalty nonsense."
Royalty nonsense. Wow. Serafia's libido was doused with cold water at his thoughtless words. That wasn't exactly what the people of Alma wanted to hear from their new king. After the collapse of the dictatorship, restoring the monarchy seemed like the best way to stabilize the country. The wealthy Alma elite would get a little more than they bargained for with Gabriel Montoro wearing the crown. He didn't really seem to care about Alma or the monarchy. He hadn't grown up there, but neither had she. Her parents had raised her to value her heritage and her homeland, regardless.
Perhaps it was just his youth. Serafia knew how hard it was to have the spotlight on you at such a young age. She'd been discovered by a modeling agency when she was only sixteen. Whisked away from her family, she was making six figures a year when most teenagers were just getting their driver's licenses. By the time she was old enough to drink, she was a household name. The pressure was suffocating, pushing her to her personal limits and very nearly destroying her. She couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be the ruler of a country and have over a million people depending on her.
"I think you'll get used to it pretty quickly," she said, leaning her hip against the stone railing. She picked up her glass of wine and took a sip. "All that power will go to your head in no time."
Gabriel's bitter laugh was unexpected. "I doubt that. While I may be king, my family will ensure that I'm not an embarrassment to them."
"I thought a king can do what he likes."
"If that was true, my father or my brother would still be in line for the crown. In the end, even a king has a mama to answer to." Gabriel looked at her with a charming smile, running his fingers through his too-long light brown hair.
It was shaggy and unkempt, a style popular with men his age, but decidedly unkingly. The moonlight highlighted the streaks of blond that he'd probably earned on the beach. She couldn't tell here in the dark, but from the pictures she'd seen of him in the papers and online, he had the tanned skin to match. Even in his immaculate and well-tailored suit, he looked more like a famous soccer player than a king.
"And I know your mama," she noted. Señora Adela was a beautiful and fierce woman who lived and loved with passion. She'd also been one to give the lecture of a lifetime while she pulled you down the hallway by your ear. "I'd behave if I were you."
"I'll try. So, how have you been?" he asked, shifting the conversation away from his situation. "I haven't seen you since you became a famous supermodel and forgot about all of us little people."
Serafia smiled, looking for the right answer. She knew people didn't really want to know how she was doing; they were just being polite. "I've been well. I started my own consulting business since I left modeling and the work has kept me fairly busy."
"What kind of consulting?"
"Image and etiquette, mostly. I traveled so extensively as a model that I found I could help companies branch out into unfamiliar foreign markets by teaching them the customs and societal norms of the new country. Other times I help wealthy families groom their daughters into elegant ladies."
Although families mostly paid her to teach etiquette and poise and give makeovers, she also spent a lot of time trying to teach those same girls that being pretty wasn't all they had to offer the world. It was an uphill battle and one that had earned her the label "hypocrite" more than a time or two. Sure, it was easy for a supermodel to say that beauty wasn't everything.
"Do me a favor and don't mention your consulting business around my father or Juan Carlos," Gabriel said.
Serafia's dark eyebrows knit together in confusion. "Why is that? Do they have daughters in need of a makeover?" Bella certainly didn't need any help from her. The youngest Montoro was looking lovely tonight in a beaded blue gown with her golden hair in elegantly twisted curls.