A marriage for the monarch
One last New York night with Sofía Ramirez was all Prince Nikandros Constantinides allowed himself before returning to Akathinia after a dreadful accident took his brother’s life. But before the royal rebel is crowned Nik discovers that he didn’t leave Sofía behind alone!
In a baby’s heartbeat Nik turns Sofía’s world upside down and whisks her away to his Mediterranean kingdom. Dissolving a politically perfect engagement is not what Nik – or his country – had in mind, but this proud Prince will do whatever it takes to legitimise his new rule… with a wife and child!
She followed up the iconic shoe with a slim leg that caused a tuxedo-clad male on the sidewalk to turn and watch, a champagne-colored, beaded cocktail dress that accentuated her voluptuous figure without flaunting it and a Kate Spade clutch a shade deeper than her dress.
Suitably assembled on the sidewalk, she paid the driver, ran a palm over her sleek French twist to make sure it was intact and made her way toward the entrance of the glimmering, stately Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the co-owner of one of Manhattan's trendiest fashion boutiques, she knew the importance of dressing for the occasion. Overdress in this city and you looked as if you were trying too hard. Underdress and you would be talked about all night by the highbrow crowd.
She thought she'd gotten it just right as she swished through the front doors of the museum, where one of her most important clients was hosting a benefit for the arts. But could any outfit ever really prepare a woman for her other, perhaps more important, task of the eveningsaying thanks, but no thanks, to her relationship with one of Manhattan's most powerful men?
Not just a man. A prince. The sexy, charismatic second in line to the throne of his tiny Mediterranean kingdom, Akathinia, Prince Nikandros Constantinides, in attendance tonight. The untamable one, as the women who had dated him were wont to say in quick sound bites to the press, the slight hint of bitterness to their tone the only outward sign they were in any way chastened at being yet another of his castoffs.
For didn't they all know their time with the prince was limited to the length of his attention span? That once his interest wandered, the clock was on?
She had known it. And what had she done? Waited for him to call when he'd come back from Mexico, his much-lauded free trade deal in hand, obsessively checking her phone for a message from him every fifteen minutes only to find nothing until tonight when he'd known they would be at the same party.
Her stomach curled with a fresh burst of nerves as she handed her invitation to the greeters at the door of the Egyptian-themed Temple of Dendur exhibit. Getting herself into a state over a man, even one as gorgeous as Nik, was something she'd sworn she'd never do. Couldn't allow herself to do. So she was going to do what any smart, sensible woman would in her situation.
End it. Cut it off before he broke her heart. Before he made her want things she couldn't have. Things she'd long ago determined weren't attainable for her.
Her attendance verified, she wound her way through the glitzy, bejeweled crowd to look for her hostess, Natalia Graham, a well-respected philanthropist who came from one of Manhattan's historic, moneyed families. Business first, heart-pounding personal matter later.
The Temple of Dendur, a gift to the United States from Egypt in the late 1960s, then bequeathed to the Met, was lit up this evening as the centerpiece of the event. Har-kening back to the age of the pharaohs and the gods they worshipped, it was breathtaking.
Several acquaintances stopped her to talk, all of them clients. She spent a few moments with each, summoning the polite small talk she had studiously taught herself over the years, because when you came from the opposite side of town these people did, where this world had once only been a dream in your daily existence, you weren't equipped with those skills.
"Sofia." Natalia found her moments later, drawing her into a warm embrace. "I'm so glad you made it."
"I'm sorry I'm late. It was a crazy day."
"And you probably want off your feet." Natalia drew her toward the bar. "No Katharine tonight?"
She shook her head at the mention of her partner. "Her father is in town."
"And no gorgeous man to escort you?" Natalia gave her a wry look. "I would have thought the men would be lining up to date you. Unless," her friend said slyly, "the rumors of you and the prince are true?"
"I don't have time to date," she said smoothly, sliding onto a bar stool. "You know I'm always working."
"Mmm." Natalia gave her a speculative look. "Martini?"
"Please." A healthy shot of potent alcohol might go a long way toward the liquid courage she needed at the moment.
She and Natalia caught up, working their way around to the joint endeavor they had been planning, a fashion show in support of one of Natalia's charities. They were discussing the details when the philanthropist's gaze sharpened on the crowd behind them.
"Speaking of the prince," she drawled, "he just sat down behind you."
Her pulse picked up, thrumming a steady beat in her throat. A prickly sensation slid up her back. She didn't need to turn around to know Nik had spotted her. She could feel the heat of his gaze, eating her up as it always did.
"Well, I guess that answers my question," Natalia murmured.
Sofia took a sip of her martini. She and Nik had managed to keep their relationship out of the tabloids after they'd met at a hospital fund-raiser, but rumors had been circulating of late. Since their relationship would be dead after tonight, she saw no reason to confirm it to Natalia.
"It's nothing." She shrugged. "You know what he's like."
Natalia lifted a brow. "If that's his it's nothing look, I'd like to see the something one."
She dug her teeth into her lip. Unable to resist, she swiveled on the stool, directing her gaze toward the group of men populating the lounge area behind them. It didn't take her long to locate Nik. Tall, dark and swarthy-skinned in a nod to his Mediterranean heritage, he looked breathtaking.
The jacket of his silver-gray suit lay discarded on the back of his seat as per the jackets of the other men at the table, his white shirt open at the throat, his every physical cue as he lounged, long legs spread out in front of him, that of supreme confidence.
Her stomach twisted, her agitation intensifying. He looked like sex poured into an exquisitely made suit. Le-thally powerful. Dangerous.
She lifted her gaze to his light, magnetic one that contrasted so vividly with his olive skin. Blue, an icy blue, it was focused on her in a not-so-discreet perusal, full of a sensual promise that took her breath away.
A wave of heat consumed her. He was just that virile.
Turning around, she reached for her glass and took a long sip with a hand that trembled ever so slightly. Remember how discarded, how vulnerable you felt waiting for him to call this week. That had to be her armor tonight.
You are going to do this, Sofia. You are not going to back out again. Muster your willpower.
"Bar bill says she will."
Nik pulled his attention away from Sofia and frowned at his two closest friends. "What's the wager for?"
"You." Harry, his best friend since college, flicked him an amused smile. "I bet the bar bill the eye candy over there breaks your self-imposed slump. Jake says she doesn't."
Nik could have told him she already had. That he and Sofia had been seeing each other for a couple of months. But he liked things the way they were. Private. Uncomplicated. Sizzling hot.
He took a sip of his whiskey, savoring the smoky flavor of the spirit before pointing his glass at Harry. "I've spent the past six months negotiating a free trade deal. A landmark free trade deal, I might add. It's not a slump. It's a lack of bandwidth."
Harry gave him a speculative look. "Still, you've been off. Your head isn't here. What gives?"
He wished he knew. Hadn't been sure what had been eating at him for a long time. All he was conscious of was that he wasn't himself, had been consumed by a restless craving for something he couldn't put his finger on.
What should have been the peak of his career, negotiating a free trade deal between his country and Mexico, a deal the critics had said couldn't be done, hadn't brought with it its usual adrenaline rush. Instead it had left him flat. Empty. Uninspired. A bit dead inside if he were to be honest.
But to try to explain that to his high-flying friends, still deeply immersed in the highs of their ultrasuccessful legal and banking careers, seemed pointless. That he, manager of a multibillion-dollar portfolio for his nation, a prince with unquestionable influence who could flick his fingers and have his heart's desire at a moment's notice, was having an identity crisis.
For what else could it be? Surely he was too young to be experiencing a midlife crisis?
He downed the last of his whiskey as their hostess slid off the stool beside Sofia, resisting the urge to delve too deeply into his head, because it never ended well, these ruminations of his. Thinking too much could make a man crazy.
"Maybe I need some inspiration," he murmured, getting to his feet.
"Yesss!" Harry held up a hand in victory. "I knew it."
Nik headed for Sofia, ignoring the group of women who had been sending unsubtle signals to their table for the past half hour. The closer he got, the more spectacular his lover became. Eschewing the rake-thin trend that always seemed de rigueur in Manhattan, Sofia had an hourglass figure that harkened back to the Hollywood starlets of the '50s and '60s. Curves that actually gave a man something to hold on to when he made love to her.
Her dark hair was up tonight, a fact that would have to change. It was the only accessory, he knew, she would need in his bed.
She was twirling a lock of her hair that had escaped her updo around a finger as he dropped down on the stool beside her, an uncharacteristically fidgety move for his ultracomposed lover. Her face was as spectacular as the rest of her as she turned to look at him: lush lips, a delicate nose and those startlingly beautiful long-lashed dark eyes.
"Your Highness," she greeted him huskily.
His mouth twisted at the game they played. "You know," he said, leaning toward her and lowering his voice, "you get punished when you call me that."
Anticipation would usually have sparked in her beautiful eyes at the exchange. Instead they darkened with an emotion he couldn't identify.
He frowned. "What's wrong? Bad sales day?"
She shook her head. "It was great. I" She pushed her martini glass away. "Can we get out of here?"
He'd been on his way to suggesting the same thing, but there was something about her demeanor he didn't like. Those walls he'd broken down were back up.
He took out his wallet, threw some bills on the bar to cover the tab and stood up. "Meet me at the Eightieth Street entrance. Carlos will be waiting."
Sofia made a discreet exit while Nik bade good-night to his friends. A chill, at odds with the sultry heat, slid through her as she exited the building and walked toward the Bentley Carlos was pulling to a halt at the curb. He got out, greeted her by name and held the door open.
She slid into the car, its sleek leather interior filling her head with the scent of privilege and luxury. Her head swirled in a million directions as she waited for Nik. Should she tell him it was over here in the car? Short and sweet, no big scenes, which Nik would hate, then he could take her home? Or should she wait until they were at his place?
Nik joined her in the car minutes later. Instructing Carlos to take them to his penthouse on Central Park West, he lowered the privacy screen between them and the driver and sat back in his seat, his gaze scouring her face.
"What's wrong, Sofia?"
She swallowed hard. Decided the car was not where she wanted this discussion to take place. "Can it wait until we're at the penthouse?"
He inclined his head. "Kala." Fine.
She breathed an inward sigh of relief and sat back against the seat. Nik sank his hands into her waist, dragged her onto his lap and captured her jaw in his fingers. "You haven't properly said hello."
A wave of heat blanketed her. "We're in the car."
"It's never bothered you before. " He lowered his head, his firm beautiful mouth brushing against hers. "And it's only a kiss."
And yet a kiss from Nik could be disastrous. Her lashes lowered as he captured her mouth in the most persuasive of caresses. Gentle, insistent, he claimed her again and again until her traitorous body responded, lighting up for him as it always did. Her lips clung to his, seeking closer contact.
Gathering her to him, Nik deepened the kiss, his fingers at her jaw holding her captive as he explored the softness of her lips, the recesses of her mouth. All of her.
A soft sound left her throat, her fingers curling in the thick hair at the base of his neck. Nik lifted his mouth from hers, a satisfied glitter in his eyes. "Now you don't look like a cardboard cutout. You look insanely beautiful tonight, Sofia."
"Efharisto." Thank you. A word he had taught her in his language. "And you," she murmured, "had your usual throng of fans."
His eyes glittered. "Jealous? Is that what has you off center for once? If so, I like it."
The taunt knocked some common sense into her head. She pushed a hand against his chest and forced him to let her go. Sliding off his lap, she took her seat back and straightened her hair. Searched desperately for a source of innocuous conversation to fill the space.
"Congratulations on your big deal. The analysts half expected it to fall through."
He inclined his head. "I thought it might at one point. But making the impossible happen is my forte."
She smiled. No ego there. But why wouldn't there be? First in his class at Harvard, a genius with numbers and forging high-stakes deals, the Wizard of Wall Street as he was known, he had turned his tiny Mediterranean island of Akathinia, a glittering former colonial jewel that hosted much of the world's glitterati, into a thriving, modern economy over the past decade, his reckless, some would say suicidal, deal making paying off with deep dividends for his country. It was the envy of the Mediterranean.
She shook her head. "Your need to win is insatiable, Nik."
"Yes," he said deliberately, his gaze trained on her.
A flush heated her cheeks. He had set out to win her after her initial resistance to his invitation to dinner and succeeded. Not a fair game, really, when she'd discovered the reckless, rebel prince had far more layers than anyone thought. Brilliant and deep with a philosophical side few knew about, he was undeniably fascinating.
She leaned her head back against the seat and eyed him. "What happens when winning isn't enough anymore?"
His lashes lowered in that sleepy, half-awake big cat look he did so well, when he was anything but. "I think I'm in the process of finding that out."
She blinked. It was the first deeply personal insight he'd given her. To have it come tonight of all nights was confusing. Tangled her up in a knot.
Carlos dropped them off. They rode the elevator, reserved exclusively for the penthouses, to the fifty-seventh floor and Nik's palatial abode.
Sofia kicked off her shoes while Nik opened a bottle of Prosecco and walked through to the salon with its magnificent views of the park, the floor-to-ceiling windows encasing the luxurious space offering a bird's-eye view of the Empire State Building and the sweep of the city with its breathtaking 360-degree perspective.
A light throb pulsed at her temples as she stood in front of the windows and took in the view. Lights blazed across the smoky, steamy New York skyline, as if a million falling stars had been embraced by the sweeping skyscrapers.
Nik's spicy aftershave filled her senses just before he materialized by her side with two glasses of sparkling wine. Tipping her glass toward him in the European-style version of the toast he preferred, her eyes on his, she drank.
Finding Nik's seeking gaze far too perceptive, she looked back at the view, following a jet as it made its way across the sky, silhouetted against the skyscrapers. It reminded her of what tomorrow was. Had her wondering if that was why she had chosen tonight to end this. Because it had reminded her of her priorities.
"You're thinking about your father."