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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
With the golden orb and blessed scepter in his hands, he saw the austere ceremony in the cathedral was coming to a close. Prime Minister Rivera had given a speech full of renewed hope for the country, the small set of islands off the coast of Spain that had been ravaged by the now overthrown dictatorship of the Tantaberras. Seventy years of oppression overturned by loyal citizens, who looked to Juan Carlos for the reinstatement of a monarchy that would capture their hearts and minds.
Archbishop Santiago placed the royal robe over Juan Carlos's shoulders. As he took his seat on the throne, the archbishop set the jeweled crown of Alma upon his head. All of the tradition, ritual and protocol of the coronation had been observed, and he was now King Montoro of Alma, the true heir to the throne. He spoke an oath and vowed to be much more than a figurehead as he promised to restore order and hope to the country.
It was a monumental time in Alma's history and he was happy to have the support of his cousins, Gabriel, Rafe and Bella. They were smiling and nodding their approval from their seats, Bella with tears in her eyes. They'd all lived and thrived in the United States before this, and forgive him, but heaven knew Rafe and Gabriel, who were once thought to be first in line to the throne but had been disqualified for separate and unique reasons, were not cut out for the rigors and sacrifice of royal life. They were only too glad to see Juan Carlos accept the position of sovereign.
A woman seated several rows behind his cousins caught his attention. Deep cerulean-blue eyes, clear and large, stood out against her porcelain face and white-blond hair. She reminded him of a snow queen from a fairy tale in his youth. And as he was ushered down the aisle after the coronation their gazes locked for an instant and her one eyelid closed in a wink. Was it for him? His lips immediately quirked up at the notion and he forced the smile from his expression. Still, his heart did a little tumble as it had been doing all day, but this time it was the woman, and not the ceremony, that had caused the commotion.
The next hour passed, again in dreamlike wonder, as he was escorted out of the cathedral by Alma's finest royal guards, to be met with unrestrained jubilation all along the parade route. He sat atop a convertible car and waved with gloved hands, as they made their way toward the palace. And there, on the top steps of Alma's regal old-world palace, Juan Carlos began his first speech as king.
"Citizens of Alma, as your new king, I promise to honor the sovereignty of our nation, to always put the country first and to work alongside our parliament to restore our democracy. It is a vow I take with an open but steady heart and a determination to see that our freedoms are never threatened again."
Cheers went up. "Viva Juan Carlos!"
Juan Carlos waited until the crowd calmed to finish a speech that was interrupted three more times by applause.
He left the palace steps energized, instilled with the very same hope he saw in the eyes of his fellow countrymen. He was a foreigner, by all rights, an American, and yet, they'd accepted him and looked to him to help establish a newer, brighter Alma.
He would not let them down.
As austere as his day was, he took a moment to reflect on the coronation and picture the beautiful woman in the light blue chiffon gown, her eyes as vibrant as deep ocean waters. He'd searched for her during the procession, the parade and the speech that followed, only to be disappointed.
She'd been a diversion from the gravity of the day.
Winking at him had brought a smile to his lips.
Who was she?
And would she have his children?
"Do I need to call you Your Highness?" his cousin Rafe asked as he pumped Juan Carlos's hand. They stood off to the side in the palace's grand ballroom. The coronation gala was well underway and the orchestra played lively tunes. An array of fresh flowers decorated the arched en-tryways, aisles and tables.
"You mean, as opposed to Squirt, Idiot and Bonehead like when we were kids?"
"Hey, I wasn't that bad."
"You were a year older and that gave you bullying rights."
"Okay, guilty as charged. But now you can have me hung by the neck until dead."
"I could've done that to you back then, too."
"Call me Juan Carlos or cuz, just like you do now. Your Highness comes into play only on formal occasions or royal business."
All amusement on his cousin's face disappeared. "Seriously, Juan Carlos, congratulations. The family is proud of you. You're the only one of the lot who was cut out for this. You are honoring our aunt Isabella's final wishes by restoring the monarchy."
Juan Carlos came to the throne quite by accident, after Bella discovered a secret cache of letters that revealed Rafe, Gabriel and Bella's late grandfather, Raphael Mon-toro II, was illegitimate and not the true heir to the throne. As such, neither of Juan Carlos's cousins would have been the rightful king. The former queen's indiscretion had been kept hidden all these years until her great-grandchildren had uncovered it.
"Thank you, cousin. I've thought about my grandmother these past few weeks and I think she would approve. It means a great deal to me." He sighed. "I hope to make a diff" He caught a glimpse of a woman in blue and craned his neck to get a better look.
It was her. She was attending the gala. Only dignitaries, friends and family members along with the royal photographers and journalists had been invited to the party, two hundred strong.
"Hey," Rafe asked. "What are you stretching your neck to see?"
"She's here," he muttered, without shifting his gaze. She was standing near an archway leading to the foyer, looking to make an escape.
"Oh, uh, I saw a woman at the coronation and I haven't stopped thinking about her."
"This I've got to see. Any woman who can take your mind off a day as big as this has got to be something special. Where is she?"
"I'm not going to point. Just look for the most beautiful woman in the room and you'll find her."
"Emily is right there, talking to Bella."
"Spoken like a besotted newlywed. Okay, yes, Emily is gorgeous, now find a woman in blue who is not your wife."
"If you'd agreed to a formal receiving line, you'd have met her already."
He hadn't wanted a stiff, awkward line of people congratulating him. He'd make his way over to his guests and speak with them during the course of the evening. He'd vowed to be a king of the people and for the people and that started right now. "Do you see her?"
"Ah, I do see her now. Very blonde, nice body, great eyes."
"That's her. Do you know who she is?"
"No, but apparently she knows Alex and Maria Ramon. They just walked up to her and they appear friendly."
"Well, then, I think it's time I spoke with Alma's deputy prime minister of commerce and his wife, don't you?"
Juan Carlos moved swiftly across the ballroom and as he approached, Alex spotted him and smiled. "Your Highness." Juan Carlos nodded. It would take some time getting used to that greeting.
Maria, not one to stand on ceremony, hugged his neck. She and Alex had just married and postponed their honeymoon to attend the coronation. "I'm happy to see this day, Your Highness. You are just what Alma needs."
"Thank you, Maria."
As he made eye contact with the blonde woman, it felt as if something quick and sharp had pierced his body. Her eyes were large, shaped like perfect twin almonds, the sparkle in them as bright as any star. Mesmerized, he couldn't look away.
"And please, let me introduce you to Portia Lindstrom, Princess of Samforstand." Princess?
She could have his children.
Juan Carlos offered her his hand and at the touch of her delicate palm, he once again felt that quick, sharp sensation. "Nice to meet you, Princess. I'm glad you could make the coronation. It's a good day for Alma, I hope."
"I'm sure it will be, Your Majesty. And please, call me Portia."
"I will," he said. "If you call me Juan Carlos."
A pink cast tinged her porcelain skin. "I couldn't."
"Because, you're the king."
"I'll let you in on a secret. Up until a few months ago, I was living in Miami and running a rather large business conglomerate. I'm afraid I still have American ties and king is not in their vocabulary, unless we're talking about Elvis."
She smiled. "I live in America, too. I'm on the west coast right now. My family was from a tiny country near Scandinavia."
"Well, then, we have a lot in common. As you can see, Alma is not a large country, either."
Maria and Alex exchanged looks and excused themselves. He'd forgotten they were there. It was rude of him. But now, he was alone with Portia.
"You are a curiosity. You won't call me Juan Carlos, but yet you wink at me just as I am crowned king."
Portia froze. Surely the king didn't believe she'd actually winked at him. It was that darn nervous twitch of hers. It would have to happen at the exact moment she'd first made eye contact with him. She should be immune to royaltyshe'd met enough princes and princesses in her twenty-eight yearsbut Juan Carlos Salazar seemed different, strikingly handsome and down to earth. Before she could explain about the wink, the orchestra began playing a lovely Latin waltz.
He bowed in old world fashion. "Princess Portia, I'd be honored if you danced with me."
"I'm afraid I don't waltz."
"Neither do I," he replied. "We can wing it and set a new trend."
She chuckled. He didn't act like the stuffed-shirt royals she'd met in the past, and when he took her hand and led her to the unoccupied dance floor, she didn't protest. He was a better dancer than he let on, and she glided across the floor with him, fully aware every set of eyes in the room were on them.
"We're the only ones out here," she whispered.
He grinned, flashing white teeth against golden-brown skin. He was tall and dashing and at the moment, charming her silly by staring into her eyes as if she was the only person who existed in the world. It was quite flattering.
"Don't worry. Other guests will join in after the king's first dance. It's tradition."
"Then I should be honored you picked me."
"After that wink, how could I not pick you?" He held her possessively and spoke with authority, as if he'd been king all of his life.
"It was a twitch. I had something in my eye."
"I choose to believe it was a wink."
"Yes, Your Highness."
He smiled again and moved her across the dance floor as if she were light as air.
When the dance ended, he didn't release her hand. "Will you take a walk with me?"
"You want to leave your own gala?"
He shrugged and didn't appear worried. "It's been a long, monumental day. I could use a little break."
Portia couldn't very well say no. And getting some fresh air did sound good. Because of her title, she'd been invited to the gala, and to refuse such a high honor would've been unheard of. Her mother and father's greatest wish, as her grandmother told it, was for her to remain true to her royal bloodlines, even while having a career and life of her own. So she juggled her time accordingly, to honor her deceased parents' wishes. She hadn't had enough time with them, but she'd hoped to make them proud. "Well, then, yes. I'll walk with you."
They strode off the dance floor in silence. His hand pressed to her back, he guided her toward a small back door and they ducked out to a deserted foyer. "There are private gardens just outside where we can sit."
He opened a door she was sure only royals were privy to, and a gust of cool autumn air hit her. Without a second's hesitation, Juan Carlos removed his tuxedo jacket and placed it around her shoulders. "Better?"
"Yes, thank you." She tugged the lapels closed and kept her hands there, away from the king's tempting grasp. His dark eyes were on her every move, and when he touched her, her pulse raced in a way it hadn't in a very long time.
He led her to grounds surrounded by lattices covered with vines. "Would you like to sit down?"
She sat on a delicately woven rattan love seat and he lowered down beside her, his six-foot presence looming large next to her. Aware of the solid breadth of his shoulders and the scent of his skin, she found the new king of Alma a little too appealing. "It's nice here. Quiet," she said. "You must be exhausted."
"Yes, but invigorated, too. If that makes any sense to you."
"It does. When I'm researching a piece of art for a client, I might work sixteen-hour days, but I always get excited when I locate it." His brows came together as if he were puzzled. "I'm an art advisor," she explained. "I help collectors build their collections."
"Impressive. And do you work in your country?"
"I'm based out of Los Angeles and New York. I don't spend any time in Samforstand."
"That's how it was for me. I worked out of Miami and New York, but now, Alma will be my permanent home. My duty is here and I will adjust. The country is beautiful, so it won't be a hardship."
"Excuse me, Your Highness," said a voice from behind the bench.
"Yes?" Juan Carlos turned around.
"I'm sorry to interrupt, but Chancellor Benoit has been called away and insists on saying his farewells to you personally. He is waiting in the antechamber."
"All right, thank you. Please tell the chancellor I will be in to see him shortly."
The man gave a curt nod and walked off.
"Well, looks like duty calls. I'm sorry." He rose and extended his hand. "Please save another dance for me tonight, Portia. There's more I want to learn about art advising!" He smiled.
Her heart hammered. She didn't know what to make of the cocoon-like hold he had on her. She'd only just met him and already he was wrapping himself around her thoughts with his silent compliments and easy ways. "I will."
She rose and he walked her back to the ballroom, depositing her exactly where he'd found her, beside Maria and Alex.
"I will be back," he said.
Portia's throat hitched and she nodded.