Cinderella’s Royal Seduction
His until midnight
Will she wear his crown?
Sopi is exhausted! With Prince Rhys Charlemaine staying nearby, the luxury spa she calls home is overflowing with aspiring princesses! It’s frantic…until working all hours leads to a late-night encounter with charismatic Rhys himself…
Untouched Sopi gives herself one chance to feel like a princess in Rhys’s arms. She knows it cannot go further, until Rhys stuns her with his convenient proposal! He promises exquisite pleasure, but Sopi has seen the man behind his royal mask—dare she believe he wants her for more than desire?
Cinderella’s Royal Seduction
“You’re going to parade to his suite with everyone else, all wearing one shoe so he can see you have a decal on your toe?”
— Sopi, Cinderella's Royal Seduction
It was the middle of a snowy winter and my husband and I were planning a big trip the following May. Much as we longed to find some sun, he was saving his vacation days and I had a book to write.
I don’t remember exactly how he wound up with a few days off midweek, but we were so excited, we started looking up flights. Flying from Canada, however, means the flying time to get far enough south to see some sun would take up all the time we had.
We settled on trying a spa about four hours from here. We’d heard of Sparkling Hills in Vernon, BC. Now was our chance. Doug called and booked us in, then said very facetiously, “Any chance you can set a book there so you can write it off?”
I said, “Actually…”
I already knew I would be writing a Cinderella theme and had been trying to think of a business my heroine could run or own that she was trying to rescue from the clutches of her avaricious stepmother. A spa was perfect!
Away we went and had a very relaxing time in the hot pools and saunas. It was very much the quick, warm getaway we’d been craving.
I came home and moved Sopi’s spa into the Rockies Mountains because I thought that was a more picturesque setting and worked better for the story, given Sopi’s mother was a princess in hiding until she died.
I hope you enjoy your visit to Cassiopeia’s and my modern take on this classic fairytale!
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Cinderella’s Royal Seduction
Just once, Cassiopeia Brodeur wished she could be given enough time to sit and think before having to react to whatever catastrophe her stepmother, Maude, had set in motion.
She really wished that when she’d been fifteen and thinking she was welcoming her stepsisters into her family, she hadn’t told them her friends called her Sopi.
“Soapy?” Nanette and Fernanda spoke English as their fourth language, but they’d heard the pun and laughed hysterically.
Seven years later, all of Sopi’s childhood friends, including the ones who’d given her the nickname when they’d been in grade school, had moved on to university and world travel, interesting jobs and serious relationships and cities.
While Sopi was still here in Lonely Lake, scrubbing up after her spoiled stepfamily and the guests of the hotel and spa that bore her name.
Why couldn’t Maude and the girls shove off back to Europe and quit destroying what was left of her life? They certainly made no effort to hide their disdain for this “backwater village” in the remote wilderness of the Canadian Rockies.
Oh, right, they had run through all of Sopi’s father’s money and had nowhere left to turn. Yet they seemed determined to drive this place into ruin, too.
“All the reservations?” Sopi repeated with disbelief. “You canceled all of March?”
“Sopi.” Maude used her most hideously patronizing tone. “We can’t have families with children running around when we’re entertaining royalty, can we? And we’ll need the rooms.”
“Royalty?” Sopi asked with a choke of hysterical laughter. “Is that a figure of speech?” The odd aging pop star turned up—emphasis on odd—but real celebrities with real money went to Banff or Whistler for their spring skiing.
“Rhys Charlemaine is the prince of Verina.”
“Never heard of him,” Sopi said flatly, even though it rang a distant bell. She barely had time to keep up with weather reports and the latest safety regulations, though. She didn’t follow gossip on fading royalty.
“Honestly, Sopi. Your lack of education.” Maude shook her coiffed silver head in despair.
Was she referring to the education that hadn’t been paid for because instead Sopi’s father’s money had been used to keep Nanette and Fernanda in boarding school in Switzerland? The girls’ absence had turned out to be a blessing, so Sopi didn’t complain much about it, but honestly.
“Why on earth would a prince come here?” Sopi asked.
“Because I’ve arranged a week of heli-skiing for him.”
With what money?
Sopi wanted to scream or maybe cry. She glanced longingly beyond the windows where February skies were an intense blue over blinding white slopes across the valley. Last season, she’d skied once on the small commercial hill on the far side of the lake. This year she hadn’t had a single opportunity—too busy trying to keep the spa afloat.
“And as for the accommodation,” Maude continued absently, “the girls will move from the penthouse so he can use it, but they’ll stay on the top floor. His entourage will take the rest of the rooms there.”
“His entourage? Please tell me this isn’t all complimentary.” Sopi knew it would be and felt sick. Sick. Maude never let her peek at the books, but Sopi wasn’t blind or stupid. She knew they were in the red and bleeding more every day.
“Of course we won’t charge him.” Maude’s scoffing tone chided her as Silly Sopi. “This is exceedingly good exposure for us. Everyone will want to come here, especially while he’s in residence. I’ve arranged a decent chef. That’s long overdue.” Her pointed look blamed Sopi for not having made that happen sooner, and Sopi couldn’t even imagine what it was going to cost. “You’ll need to hire more staff for the treatments.”
“Maude.” Sopi tried one more time, even though this argument had never made an impact. “There is no one to hire.”
The occasional adventurous cosmetician or massage therapist joined them for a season, but the isolation of Lonely Lake wasn’t for everyone. Plus, Maude and her daughters were a special kind of hell to work for. Their incessant demands and tantrums over inconveniences like having to wait for deliveries of a desired shade of nail polish impacted the spa’s ability to retain qualified employees.
“You always make things harder than they are,” Maude sighed. “People will beg to work for gratuities if you tell them who will be staying here.”
The spa’s bread-and-butter clientele were retirees soaking their arthritis in the hot mineral pools at an affordable price. Sopi couldn’t deny that a high-profile guest would fill rooms, but, “Seniors on fixed incomes aren’t known for their generous tips. If this prince and his cronies—”
“Cronies?” Maude’s head came up. “Sopi, he’s thirty. Unmarried. And it’s time he changed that.” Maude had been fingering through a collection of fabric swatches. She held up a square of cranberry silk. “Would this clash with Nanette’s hair, do you think?”
As was often the case when Sopi spoke with her stepmother, Sopi’s brain was racing to catch up. Even as she tried to formulate arguments against whatever Maude was demanding, she knew the struggle was futile. Her stepmother had gained control of the spa when Sopi’s father died and kept a firm grasp on it. Sopi didn’t have the resources to fight her for it, and Maude would no doubt clean out what was left of the spa’s available cash to repulse an attack. Sopi would be bankrupt whether she won or lost.
Sopi’s only choice was to try to keep the place solvent until she had enough in her savings account to mount a proper legal challenge. Maybe it was a fool’s dream, but it kept her going.
So she was always mentally planning how to mitigate or adapt to or accomplish whatever ridiculous thing Maude insisted had to happen while doing the math, trying to calculate when she would be able to put her foot down and hold her ground.
Today, amid that familiar scramble, Sopi’s brain crashed into Maude’s end goal. Maude wanted to marry one of her daughters to a prince. To a man who lived in a kingdom—or was it a principality? Who cared? It was far, far away.
If one left, they all would.
A tentative ray of hope gleamed like a beacon at the end of a long, dark tunnel, breaking a smile across Sopi’s face.
“You know what, Maude? You’re right. This sounds like a tremendous opportunity. I’ll start prepping for it.” Sopi’s pulse pounded so hard, her ears rang.
“Thank you,” Maude said in beleaguered tone that echoed with It’s about time. “Leave moving the girls out of the penthouse until the last moment. They don’t want to be inconvenienced any more than necessary.”
Sopi nearly choked on her tongue, but she bit down on it instead. If she played her cards right, and if she threw her stepsisters in front of this Prince Charlemaine or whoever the heck he was, then maybe, just maybe, she could free herself of her stepfamily forever.
It was such an exciting prospect, she hummed cheerfully as she left Maude’s office and headed upstairs to strip beds and clean toilets.
Rhys Charlemaine woke before the sun was up. Before any of his staff began creeping into his suite with fresh coffee and headlines and messages that required responses.
He didn’t ring for any of them. What privacy he had was precious. Plus, he had withstood enough bustle and fussing yesterday when he and his small army of assistants, bodyguards and companions had arrived. The owner of this place, Maude Brodeur, had insisted on personally welcoming him. She had hung around for nearly two hours, dropping names and reminiscing about her first husband, whom she had cast as a contemporary equal to Rhys’s father—which he wasn’t. He had been a distant cousin to a British earl and largely unknown.
Blue blood was blue blood, however, and she had clearly been using the association to frame her pretty, well-educated daughters as suitable for a man next in line to a throne. Her daughters had perched quietly while she rattled on, but there’d been an opportunistic light in their eyes.
Rhys sighed. If he had a euro for every woman who wanted to search his pockets for a wedding ring, he would have more money than all the world’s tech billionaires combined.
Instead he had a decent fortune built on shrewd investments, some of it in tech, but much of it in real estate development. Half of it belonged to his brother, Henrik. Rhys handled their private interests while Henrik looked after the throne’s finances. They each had their lane, but they drove them side by side, always protecting the other’s flank. Rhys might be the spare, a prince to his brother the king, but they were a solid unit.
Even so, he and Henrik didn’t always agree. This detour to a tiny off-grid village in Canada had had his brother lifting his brows with skepticism. “Sounds too good to be true,” had been Henrik’s assessment.
Rhys’s antennae were up as well. On the surface, the property in a valley reminiscent of Verina’s surrounding Alps appeared ripe for exploitation, especially with its hot spring aquifer. That alone made it a unique energy opportunity. The remote location would be a challenge, of course, but there was a modest ski hill across the lake. It drew locals and guests of this hotel but could also be picked up for a song and further developed.
Maude was claiming she wanted to keep the sale of the spa quiet for “personal reasons,” pretending she didn’t need the money. Normally, Rhys would steer clear of someone attempting to pull the wool over his eyes. He had his own reason for accepting her invitation, however, and it had nothing to do with whether or not this place was a sound investment.
Rhys shifted his pensive gaze across the frozen lake, searching for answers that couldn’t be solved with money and power. He needed a miracle, something he didn’t believe in. He was a man of action who made his own destiny, but the only action available to him at the moment was a path littered with disloyalty to his brother, if not the crown.
He supposed he should be thankful the doctors had finally discovered the reason Henrik and his wife, Elise, were failing to conceive. They’d caught Henrik’s testicular cancer early enough that treatment had a reasonable chance of success. With luck, Rhys would not assume the throne. Not soon, at any rate, but Henrik would almost certainly be sterile.
That meant the task of producing future progeny to inherit the throne had fallen into Rhys’s lap.
Which meant he needed a wife.
He tried not to dwell on how treasonous that felt. Henrik had worked tirelessly to regain their rightful place in Verina. Doing so had nearly cost him the woman he loved. The royalists who had supported their return from exile had expected Henrik to marry an aristocrat, not a philosopher’s daughter. Somehow, Henrik had overcome their objections only to come up against the inability to make an heir.
Henrik and Elise deserved children. They would be excellent parents. Given everything Henrik had gone through, the throne ought to go to his child, not Rhys’s.
None of this felt right to him.
A blue glow came on below his window, dragging Rhys out of his brooding. The lights in the free-form mineral bath illuminated the mist rising off the placid water, beckoning him.
His security detail had reported that the guest register was swollen with female names, many of them bearing titles or related to one. He wasn’t surprised his intention to ski here had been leaked to the press, drawing the usual suspects. He had counted on Maude being canny enough to see the value in a full house. It made the place look successful and ensured she would still have a nice influx of cash even if he turned down her offer to purchase. She might even have thought a bevy of beautiful naked women would sway him to buy.
It wouldn’t, but he appreciated the expediency of having a curated selection of eligible women brought to one place for his consideration.
He had no choice but to marry and was down to his last moments of bachelorhood. He decided to make the most of them. He dropped the pajama pants he’d slipped on when he rose and left them on the floor, mostly to reassure his staff that he hadn’t been kidnapped. He’d learned to pick up after himself during his years in exile with his brother. He was a passable cook and could trim his own beard, not that he did those things for himself anymore.
He was a prince again, one who had believed his primary function was to ensure his family’s economic viability while his brother ruled their country and provided heirs. His responsibilities were expanding, though, and the one duty he would happily perform—taking his brother’s place while he battled his illness—was not open to him.
Heart heavy, he shrugged on his monogrammed robe, stepped into his custom-sewn slippers, searched out the all-access card Maude had given him then took the elevator to the treatment level.
Sopi was so tired, she thought she was hallucinating when the man appeared across the mist rising off the pool. The spa area wasn’t yet open, and the locks were on a timer. The only means of entry was the use of a staff card, and she was the employee on shift. The man’s robe wasn’t hotel issue, either, but that wasn’t too unusual. Frequent guests often brought their own robes so it was easier to track where they’d left them. Even so, she’d never seen anyone show up in anything like that gorgeous crimson with gold trim and embroidered initials.
As she squinted her tired eyes at the man’s stern profile and closely trimmed beard, she recognized—
Oh God. He was completely naked under that robe!
She should have looked away but didn’t. Couldn’t.
Through the steam rising off the pool, she watched him unbelt and open his robe, drop it off his shoulders to catch on his bent arms. The muscled globes of his bare butt appeared as he turned and slid free of the robe, draping it over the glass half wall that formed the rail around the pool. He was sculpted like an Olympic swimmer with broad shoulders, narrow hips and muscular thighs.
He pivoted back to face her across the pool, utterly, completely, gloriously naked. A shadow of hair accented the intriguing contours that sectioned his chest and abdomen streaking out to dark nipples and arrowing down his eight-pack abs to—
He dived into the water, shallow and knife sharp, barely making a ripple.
She pushed her face into the stack of towels she held, no longer breathing as she tried to suppress her shock and abject mortification. She fought to push back a rising blush of hot embarrassment and something she didn’t even recognize.
Because she had not only seen their special guest, the prince of Verina, in a private moment. She’d seen the crown jewels.
And of course she was standing on the far side of the pool where the spare caddy of clean towels was tucked beneath an overhang, next to the bar that operated in the summer months.
To escape, she would have to circle the deck, walk over the little bridge that separated the main pool from the portion that jutted out from the cliff and move past the robe he’d thrown over the rail near the glass doors into the building.
There was a small splash of water breaking as he surfaced near her feet.
“Good morning.” His voice was surprised and carried the gravel of early morning.
Oh God. She made herself lift her face and briefly—very briefly—glanced his way.
Okay. Only his head and shoulders were visible. That ought to have made breathing possible, but dear Lord, he was good-looking. His cheekbones were carved marble above his sleek beard. Was he deliberately using the short, dark stubble to accentuate how beautiful his mouth was? Because it framed lips that managed to be both well defined and masculine, swirling wicked thoughts into her middle just looking at them. His hair was slicked back, his eyes laser blue and lazily curious.
“En français?” he tried.
“What? I mean, pardon? I mean, no. I speak English. Good morning,” she managed very belatedly and clumsily.
At least he didn’t know who she was. She had put on her one decent dress last night, planning to form part of the greeting party with Maude and her stepsisters. A last-minute mix-up with a delivery had had her changing into jeans and boots to drive two hours each way so she could fetch high-grade coffee beans and other groceries that Maude had ordered specifically for the prince’s menu.
“I’m restocking towels.” Not staring or tongue-tied or anything. She hurried to shove the stack into the caddy, snatching one back. “I’ll leave this one with your robe. Our…um…European hour is actually…um…ten o’clock. At night.”
“Euro—? Oh.” The corner of his mouth dug in on one side. “Am I supposed to wear a swimsuit?”
“Most of our guests do.” All of them. “Aside from the few who prefer to sauna au naturel. At night,” she repeated.
“The sun hasn’t come up. Technically it’s still night.” He lifted a dark winged brow at the gleam of bright steel along the seam where pearly peaks met charcoal sky.
“Point taken.” She drummed her fingers against her thigh, debated a moment then decided to tease him right back. “But technically the pool isn’t open yet. You’re breaking our rules either way.”
“What’s the penalty? Because I don’t expect anyone here packed a bikini top. Only a few will bother with bottoms. We don’t wear them at the health spas at home. I expect that’s where your ‘European hour’ label came from.”
Pressed against the wall of the pool, he looked exactly like every other guest who might fold his arms against the edge and gaze at the view or strike up a friendly conversation with passing staff.
Except she knew he was naked, and his banter was flipping her heart and fanning the nervous excitement in her stomach. She hugged the single towel to her middle, trying to still those butterflies.
“At least I understand why Maude didn’t want children running around this week. Apparently, we’re hosting a nudist convention.”
He smiled, the light in his eyes so warm she curled her toes in her sandals, unable to stem the shy smile that pulled at her own lips.
“You Americans are so adorably prudish.”
Oh no, he didn’t. She narrowed her eyes. “And you French are so— Oh, I’m sorry. Are you not French?” She batted her lashes as his good humor blanked to affront.
Since Maude’s announcement that he was coming here, she’d taken the time to learn that Verina was a small kingdom in the Alps between Switzerland, Germany and France. Verinians spoke all of those languages and, having overcome an uprising twenty years ago that had had their neighbors sniffing and circling, trying to extend their borders to encompass Verina for the next fifteen years, were fiercely patriotic to the flag they still flew.
“I find people from NorthAmerica to have very conservative views about sex and nudity,” he clarified.
She nodded her forgiveness of his faux pas and explained, “We’re not that prudish in Canada. We keep our clothes on because we’re cold.” She pointed at the lazy drift of tiny flakes hitting the steam off the pool and dissolving. Strangely, she wasn’t feeling the chill nearly as much as she usually would, standing out here in the predawn frost. Heat radiated from her middle. Her joints were melting and growing loose.
“You must be in this pool often, though. You’ve never swum naked in it?”
“Never.” She couldn’t recall when she had last had a chance to swim at all. She vacuumed and scoured and restocked and never enjoyed the luxury she provided to everyone else.
If I can just get Maude and the girls out of here was her mantra. If she could take control of the books and balance them, quit financing trips and clothing for women who brought no value to the spa, only drama, she could relax instead of burning out.
“It’s very freeing. You should try it.”
“I’m sure it is.” He had no idea the constraints she was under, though.
“No time like the present.”
As she met his gaze with a rueful smile, certain he was mocking her for her modesty, something in his gaze made her heart judder to a stop in her chest then kick into a different rhythm.
He was looking at her with consideration, as though he’d suddenly noticed something about her that had snagged one hundred percent of his attention. As though he was serious about wanting her to strip naked and jump in the pool with him.
More insistent tugs and pulls accosted her midsection. A flush of sensual heat streaked up from her tense stomach, warming her chest and throat and cheeks. Her breasts grew heavy and tight.
She neverreacted to men—not like this, all receptive and intrigued. Her last date had been in high school and ended with a wet kiss that hadn’t affected her nearly as strongly as this man’s steady gaze. The dating pool in Lonely Lake was very small unless she wanted to get together with guests, and she didn’t do that because they didn’t stick around.
That’s what this is, she realized, clunking back from a brief, floaty fantasy of a prince taking an interest in a nobody like her. This wasn’t real flirty banter. He wasn’t genuinely interested in her. He was only inviting her to join him in the way male guests occasionally did because she was here, not because he found her particularly attractive. How could he? She looked especially hellish this morning. She was frazzled and exhausted, no makeup, clothes rumpled as though she’d slept in them. Joke was on him. She hadn’t slept.
Maybe this wasn’t even happening. Maybe she would wake after being dragged from the igloo room and defrosted from a hypothermia-induced delirium.
“I’m sure you’ll have plenty of company soon enough,” she said in a strangled voice. She nodded upward at the windows lighting behind curtains as guests began to stir. “I’ll check the saunas. They’re banked at night, but I’ll make sure they’re up to temperature for you.”
As the owner, Sopi could have asked that he wear a towel around the resort, but she didn’t want to introduce herself. She was too embarrassed at thinking, even for a second, that he might genuinely be interested in her.
Besides, if he climbed out to shake her hand, buck naked, she would die.
Rhys watched her walk away with a surprising clench of dismay, even though he knew better than to flirt with the help.
He hadn’t even realized anyone had been on the pool deck until he’d surfaced after swimming the length underwater. But there she was, face buried in a stack of towels like an ostrich, her dark hair gathered into a fraying knot, her uniform mostly shapeless except where it clung lovingly to a really nice ass.
Arrogant as he innately was, he didn’t expect servants to turn their face to the wall as his father had once told him his great-grandmother had demanded of palace staff.
This young woman had obviously recognized him. Nearly every woman of any age reacted to him—which he made a habit of ignoring. His reputation as a playboy was greatly exaggerated. Affairs complicated an already complex life. When he did entangle himself, he stuck with a long-term arrangement with a sophisticated partner, one who had a busy life herself. He kept ties loose until the woman in question began to suggest marriage would improve their relationship, invariably claiming it would “give us more time together” or “draw us closer”—two assumptions he knew would prove false.
Sometimes they brought up a desire for children, and he had had good reasons for putting that off, too. Until recently.
But until very recently, Rhys hadn’t believed he’d have to marry at all. Staying single had been his greatest luxury and one of the few genuine freedoms available to him. Occasionally, he had thought a wife might be the best way to stave off the fortune hunters who constantly stalked him, but marriage and family were yet more responsibilities on top of an already heavy mantle. He had thought to indefinitely postpone both.
Besides, he didn’t deserve the sort of happily-ever-after his brother was striving for.
A shrieking giggle from a balcony above had him glancing up to see a pair of women in negligees exhibiting all the excitement of children spotting a monkey at the zoo. Their bare legs and cleavage flashed as they posed against the rail and waved.
And so it starts, he thought tiredly.
He looked for the young woman who had seemed so charmingly real, planning to ask her to lock out the masses for another thirty minutes.
He couldn’t see her, and his irritation ratcheted up several notches. It had little to do with the looming interruption of his peaceful swim. She was gone, and he was uncomfortable with how annoyed that made him. He hadn’t even asked her name.
She worked here, he reminded himself. He would see her again, but the knowledge did nothing to ease his impatience.
He shouldn’t want to see her again. He wouldn’t be able to approach her when he did. A guest coming on to an employee was a hard limit. There was an entire hotel brimming with beautiful, available, appropriate women if he wanted to get laid.
His nether regions weren’t twitching for the silk-draped knockouts hurrying to throw on robes and rush down here, though. He was recollecting a face clean of makeup and eyes like melted chocolate framed in thick lashes. She’d had a tiny beauty spot below one corner of her mouth and what had looked like a man’s wedding band on a thin chain in the hollow of her throat. Whose? A father, he imagined. She was too young to be a widow.
She could be married, though. She was very pretty, neither voluptuous nor catwalk slender, but pert with small, firm breasts, narrow shoulders and that valentine of a derriere. He had wondered how tall she would be if he stood beside her. He might get a crick in his neck when he leaned down to taste her pillowy lips—
With a muttered curse, he caught his breath and dived to the bottom of the pool, using the pressure and exertion to work out his animal urges.
It didn’t work. She stayed on his mind all day.
Sopi remained emotionally wired until she heard the prince had left the building. She watched the helicopter veer across the valley, climb above the tree line and wheel to the far side of a peak.
Deflated and depleted, she slipped away to her cabin for a nap. Of the half dozen tiny A-frame guest cottages, this one was farthest from the main building. At some point, probably when the stove conked out, it had become a storage unit for spare mattresses and mini refrigerators. Sopi kept one plugged in for her own use, and the heat still worked, so it was quite livable.
The tiny loft above the storage area was hardly on a par with the rest of the accommodation at Cassiopeia’s, though. Even the employees had proper flats in the staff lodge tucked into the trees. That building was boxy and utilitarian, but they each had their own bedroom, bathroom and kitchenette. It was well tended and cozy.
Until her father had died very suddenly when she was fifteen, Sopi had lived in the manager’s suite across from the kitchen. Somehow that had been given to the manager Maude had hired to run the spa that first year. Maude had taken over the suite when she came back to run things herself, except her version of managing was to delegate everything to Sopi.
Sopi had meanwhile bounced through guest and staff units as they became available. Eventually, she had wound up on the fringe of the property while Maude’s daughters had appropriated the top suite when they returned to complain about having to live here instead of gadding about Europe.
Sopi didn’t love tramping through the snow in the dark, but she did love having her own space. She had managed to warm it up with a few cherished items of her mother’s—a blue velvet reading chair and a faded silk area rug. Her bed, purchased from the buy-and-sell ads, was a child’s bunk bed with a desk beneath. Cartoon princesses adorned it, but they inspired her to dream, so she hadn’t painted over them.
A long time ago, a guest had started the silly rumor that the owner of this hotel was descended from royalty. He had thought Sopi’s mother had been the daughter of an ousted king or something.
Sopi’s mother had already been gone by that point. Her father had only chuckled and shaken his head. It was a nice legend that might bring curiosity seekers to the spa, he’d said, but nothing more.
Sopi sighed and climbed into her bed without eating. The stacked milk crates that formed her pantry were empty. She hadn’t had time to buy a box of cereal or replenish the instant soup she kept on hand to make with the kettle that was her most reliable friend.
Her head hit the pillow, and she plunged into a sleep so deep she wouldn’t have heard a bomb go off.
Yet when the distant rat-a-tat of helicopter blades began to sound in the distance, her eyes snapped open.
Dang. She’d been dreaming something sexy about hot pool waters sliding silkily across her skin while a pair of blue eyes—
Ugh. She was so pathetic.
And wide-awake now that a mixture of self-contempt and guilt had hold of her. She glanced at her phone. It was full of text messages from staff. Some made her laugh. They all got on really well, but it was work, too. She had a quick shower, dressed and hurried back.
After putting out three proverbial fires, she was in the mani-pedi salon listening to a nail technician complain about an order of decals shaped like high-heeled shoes.
“They were supposed to be more bedazzled, but instead they’re this plain black, and when you put clear polish on them, they curl up and fall off.”
Sopi frowned and took polish and decals to a bench at the back of the salon. All the mani-pedi chairs were full of buzzing women hoping to meet the prince later.
From the time she was twelve, Sopi had apprenticed in all the treatments under a multitude of formally trained staff. She didn’t have any certificates on the wall, but she could pinch-hit with nearly any service from foiled streaks to Swedish massage. If there’d been a chair free, she would have pitched in to help with the roster of guests begging for polish, but she had too much to do elsewhere anyway.
At least she’d taken the time last week to give her own toenails a fresh, if unremarkable, coat of pale pink polish. She stuck the decals of high-heeled shoes on each of her big toes and shellacked them in place with clear polish. She bedazzled one with a couple of glinting sequins to see if that would help hold it in place and make it look prettier.
She was curled over, blowing on her toes, distantly listening to a pair of women speculate on what time the prince would appear for dinner and whether he would invite anyone to join his table, when she picked up a call that had her frowning and hurrying barefoot down the hall to the massage therapy rooms.
Karl, their beefy Norwegian masseur, wasn’t on the schedule this week, but Sopi spotted him about to enter a closed door.
“Karl!” she hissed. They strongly discouraged any conversation above a whisper in the spa area to ensure the guests enjoyed a relaxing stay. “It’s your wife.” She offered her phone.
Face blanking with panicked excitement, Karl took the phone and spoke rapidly in Norwegian.
“I have to go,” he said, ending the call and trying to pocket Sopi’s phone. “The midwife is on her way. It’s time.”
“Finally! Hurry home, then.” Sopi couldn’t help grinning as she stole back her phone. “I hope everything goes well.”
“Thank you.” He started away, turned back, clearly in a flummoxed state of mind. “My phone is still in there. He’s on the table!”
“Karl.” Sopi took his arm and spoke calmly and firmly. “Don’t worry about your client. I’ll cover your massage. Get your phone and go home to your wife.”
He nodded, knocked gently and led Sopi into the room.
“Sir, I’m very sorry,” he said as he entered. “My wife has gone into labor, but I’m leaving you in good hands. Literally. Ah, there it is.” Karl retrieved his phone from the small shelf above the essential oils. He turned to Sopi. “And she did text me, but I missed it because I silence it out of habit when I’m consulting with a client. The prince felt a twist in his lower back while skiing. He wants to be sure it doesn’t turn into anything serious.”
Sopi nodded dumbly, throat jammed as she avoided staring at the muscled back on the massage table, a sheet draped loosely across his hips and legs.
“Thank you,” Karl said to her as he hurried from the room.
Sopi drew a breath and choked on a speck of spit. She turned her cough into a cleared throat, managing to croak, “I apologize for the switch. Karl was on call this week. I don’t think he would have come in for anyone else but you.”
The prince’s shoulders tensed as though the sound of her voice surprised him.
She moved to tug the sheet over his exposed foot and straightened the rest of it as she moved up the far side of the table. When she started to tuck the edge of the sheet under the band of his underwear, she realized he wasn’t wearing any. Big hairy surprise. How was this her life?
“I’m not formally trained, but I’ve apprenticed under all of our registered therapists. I have over four hundred hours of treatments.”
It was her. She had a touch as light as her footsteps moving quietly around the table. The room held a vague scent of citrus and sage, but he detected a scent beneath it. The sharp bite of nail polish and something more subtle, like sun-warmed peaches.
“Is your injury serious enough I should arrange a doctor or physiotherapist to come in? I don’t want to exacerbate anything.”
“You can’t hurt me.” He nearly laughed at the idea, but there was already an uncomfortable compression in his groin that might become a serious ache if he didn’t keep a firm grip on his straying thoughts. “I typically ask for a man because women usually aren’t aggressive enough. It’s only a small twinge. I should have warmed up properly with my swim this morning, but the pool became too busy for laps.” Too busy period. He’d left when the first women arrived and had had to swim up a stream of crestfallen faces on his way to the elevator.
She set a hand on the back of his calf and squeezed, then moved it down to his ankle and squeezed again. It was a silent communication to let him know where she was, but it was surprisingly firm. Confident.
“I’ll use our unscented oil. If there’s significant inflammation, I can add geranium or yarrow.”
He almost suggested she could dress him like a salad, but bit it back. He didn’t usually have to filter himself quite so carefully when he was alone with a woman. He was the one naked and facedown, pretty much at her mercy, but an urge to pursue gripped him. He had to be careful.
“Whatever you think is best.”
“How was the snow?” She was on his left side.
“Good.” Amazing, actually. The sun had come out and the powder had been chest-deep, but he barely recalled it now as he heard the click of a cap and the quiet friction of her palms rubbing together. He discovered he was holding his breath with anticipation.
Her fingertips settled in his middle back, light as a leaf coming to rest on the ground. Slowly she applied pressure until she was leaning into him, prompting him to exhale until there was nothing left in his lungs.
As he drew in his next breath, the warmth in her hands stayed firm, penetrating his skin. She began to move in sweeping strokes, spreading the oil before her touch slowed and grew more exploratory.
Rhys had a massage at least once a month. He was as athletic as possible given his busy life of travel and meetings. He worked out regularly and ran marathons on treadmills, but he had a knack for storing tension in his shoulders and neck.
She found it, squeezing his trapezius muscle on either side, not working it, but acknowledging it. It wasn’t supposed to be erotic, but he found her greeting of that tension both teasing and soothing. A comforting warning that she would be back.
It fostered a sense of connection that he instinctively knew would make for both heaven and hell. He probably should have called this massage off right here and now, but the temptation to feel her hands on him was too strong. Even though he doubted he’d be able to relax when—
He grunted with shock as she set her thumb into a spot next to his spine and sent a white-hot blade between his ribs.
“Sorry.” Her touch lifted away. “Trigger point. I’ll come back to it.”
“No.” It was as if she’d found something in him no one else had ever discovered. “Do it again.”
“I just felt all this tightness here.” Her hand got into the crook of his neck and shoulder while she pressed into the trigger point again with the point of—
“Is that your elbow?”
“Too hard?” She lifted away.
The pressure came back, the pain intense for the space of three breaths before it faded into a release of tingles like fairy dust, so profound he groaned in relief.
“There we go,” she murmured, hands sweeping to soothe before she moved to the other side.
For the next ten minutes, she worked his shoulders, alternately persecuting and appeasing before she moved into his lower back. She even nudged aside the sheet to get her elbows into the tops of his glutes. It was another pressure point, hurting like hell before the cords in his lower back relaxed and his muscles turned to pudding.
He had never considered himself kinky, but this was bordering on erotic. The whole time he was blinded by intense sensations, he was equally aware of the sensual brush of her breast against his hip and what might have been the tickle of her hair falling against his spine. When he lifted his hips slightly, trying to give himself room to grow, she straightened away and drew the sheet up over his tailbone.
“I’ll try going after that area with reflexology.” She uncovered his feet. “Tell me if this pressure is too much?”
Her thumbs dug against his instep. He nearly levitated, but the endorphin rush was worth it. By the time she’d gone up his calves and into his hamstrings, he was hers. He’d never been in such a state of sublime arousal. She could have tied him to the bed and shown him a riding crop and he’d have begged, “Yes, please.”
She worked his arms, and it took everything in him to keep them lax rather than flexing to drag her close. He ached to touch her as intimately as she was touching him, but he had to stay motionless and let her drive him mad.
This was torture. Genuine torture.
“Would you like to turn ov—?”
“No,” he growled. He was fully hard. If she looked him in the eye, she would know how badly he wanted to drag her atop him and see how much abuse this table could take.
A surprised pause. “I’ll finish with your neck and scalp, then?”
She moved to stand above his head. All he could see through the face cradle was her bare feet.
Each of her big toes wore a silhouette of a woman’s shoe against a background of pink. The plain one was peeling up. The other was bedecked with jewels and winked at him as she curled her toes and set gentle fingertips against the back of his neck.
“If I’ve been too rough—”
“You haven’t.” He closed his eyes in pleasure-pain. “This is the best massage of my life. I have to cut it short before it turns into something else.”
He thought he heard a small “Eep.” He definitely heard her swallow.
“Stay mean,” he growled.
Her laugh was garbled and semihysterical, but she obeyed. She did cruel things to his trapezius muscles, turning snarling pit bulls into docile golden retrievers.
The final act was a merciless grip of all four fingertips of both hands into the muscles at the base of his skull. She held him in a dull headache for what felt like ten minutes before the pain evaporated into a sensation of sunshine dawning after a long, harsh winter.
She speared her fingers into his hair and erased his memory of pain, leaving the tranquil buzz he’d only previously experienced postcoital.
“Take your time rising and dressing.” Her voice sounded throaty and laden with desire, causing a fresh rush of heat into his groin. “Drink some water.”
He couldn’t move. Wait. He picked up his head, but the door was already closing behind her.
He felt drugged as he sat up, peeved that he hadn’t asked her name. Probably for the best. He looked down at his lap, as ready for sex as he’d ever been.
If she could put him through his paces with a massage, what would sex with her be like?
The strong tug between his thighs told him thoughts like that were unhelpful.
As he pulled on his robe, he resented the hell out of his position. Curse tradition and snobbery and an illness that had put the future on his doorstep. Ten years ago, he could have had an affair with a spa worker and no one would have known or cared.
Once he’d moved back into the palace, he’d had to become more circumspect in his choices, but he still could have managed a fling with someone whose connections were less prestigious than his own. There would have been blowback, but an affair wasn’t marriage.
That’s what Rhys had to court now, though. Any relationship he started would have to be taken to the finish line. Was he really going to go against the grain with a pool-girl masseuse? Refuse to do his duty to his brother and the crown in favor of appeasing his libido?
He cursed, annoyed. One dinner was all he was after, before he made the rounds through the more expected choices of potential brides. Was that so much to ask? One evening to get to know her before he was forced to settle?
It was a selfish rationalization he shouldn’t even contemplate.
He poured a cup of water from the cistern and threw it back like a shot of scotch. As he kicked into his sandals by the door, he almost mistook the speck on the tiles for a spider, but no.
He bent and touched his fingertip to it, picking up the silhouette of a woman’s shoe, just like the one that had been coming off her toe. Huh.
Pinching it between his finger and thumb, he tucked it deep into the pocket of his robe, considering.
Flushed and confused, Sopi hurried to get as far away from the prince as possible, all the way to the other end of the building, where the service entrance to the kitchen was located. She stood on the back stoop in the cold dusk, trying to bring herself back under control.
She had provided a lot of massages, usually to women, but many to men, and had never once felt so affected by the experience. It hadn’t been lascivious, either. It had been…elemental. She’d never become so entranced by a deep and genuine yearning to ease and soothe and heal. Yet touching him had been stimulating, too, keeping her in a state of alert readiness. Like petting a giant cat.
Or a man in peak condition who appealed to her on a primitive level.
She could have stroked her hands over him for hours, like a sculptor lovingly sanding her creation to a fine polish. In those last seconds before she’d asked him to roll over, she had felt a strong urge to splay herself atop him. Blanket him with her body while soaking in his essence.
Truthfully, she’d been lost in her world at that point and had been shocked back to reality when he declined to turn faceup.
I have to cut it short before it turns into something else.
She’d been stunned. Embarrassed that she’d aroused him, but shaken and inflamed by the idea. All the banked sexual energy she’d been suppressing as she administered the massage had suddenly engulfed her in a rush of carnal hunger.
If he hadn’t told her to “stay mean,” she didn’t know what she might have done, but she’d found the concrete knots at the base of his skull. Heavy is the crown, she’d thought, wondering what his life was like back in Verina.
She would never know.
A sudden shiver had her realizing she had cooled past comfortable. She went inside, where the kitchen staff was scrambling to prepare for the dinner rush.
Without being asked, she slipped into the change room and put on her prep cook garb, then spent an hour peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots.
She was at her sweaty, sticky worst when she headed back to her cabin for a shower. The sound of squabbling as she approached through the trees almost had her turning back.
“Sopi!” Fernanda said when she spotted her. “Where have you been? I’ve been texting you.”
“Oh?” Sopi pretended to scan her phone.
“She blocks us, you stooge,” Nanette said pithily.
“Only when I’m working,” Sopi said sweetly as she slid between the two towering beauties to unlock her door. “The paying guests are my priority, seeing as they support us.” Hint, hint.
“Well, this has to do with the prince, so you ought to have been paying attention.” As she entered uninvited, Fernanda wrinkled her nose at the clutter.
“She wants to make a fool of herself and wants you to help,” Nanette informed Sopi with an eye roll.
“Why are you here?” Fernanda charged. “The same reason.”
“To shower with me?” Sopi asked facetiously. “I don’t usually entertain there.”
“Shocker,” Nanette muttered with an examination of her nails.
Always a joy spending time with family. Sopi bit back a sigh.
“The dining room could use you both to hostess this evening,” Sopi said, mainly to Nanette. She never lifted a finger unless Maude pressed her. “We have a full house. Tables will turn over three or four times at least.”
“Unavailable. Sorry,” Nanette said with a saccharine smile.
“Not even for the chance to seat the prince?”
“He’s not eating downstairs,” Fernanda jumped in to say. “That’s why I’m here. Women are lined up out the door at the salon to get one of these.” Fernanda handed Sopi a sheet of toe decals.
Sopi frowned. “They’re defective. I was in the salon earlier. They fall off.”
“Yes, I know that. That’s why you have to put it on. To make sure it stays.”
Sopi shook her head, almost thinking there was a compliment in there, but definitely a backhanded one.
“If you’re not going to help in the dining room, I have to shower and hurry back. Stick it on yourself. It’s not rocket science.”
“Forget the dining room,” Fernanda said with a stamp of her foot. “No one will even show up there. The prince is dining privately. With a woman who has one of these stuck to her toe.”
“What?” When she had pushed her feet into her closed-toe kitchen clogs, Sopi had noticed that she’d lost her plain shoe decal during the massage. She had only managed to keep the bedazzled one. She removed her snow boots now but self-consciously kept her socks on.
Nanette straightened from leaning against the decommissioned stove, wiping her hands across her backside as she did. “It seems the prince met someone who interests him, but he doesn’t know her name. His assistant put the word out that this woman only has one shoe.” She flipped her hair. “Apparently, she knows who she is, and he wants her to come to his suite this evening if she would like to dine with him.”
“He— That’s silly,” Sopi said, hyperaware of the hot blush that flooded into her cheeks. It was a tremendous long shot that he could be talking about her. “Fernanda, he’s going to know right away whether you’re the woman he is trying to meet. If you don’t already have a decal, you’re not her.”
“Well, his bodyguard doesn’t know that, does he? If I can get in to see him, the prince can decide if I’m the right woman or not.”
Sopi opened her mouth but couldn’t find words. Fernanda wasn’t the brightest candle on the cake and tended to be very self-involved. She came across as selfish, but she wasn’t mean, just firmly stuck between thoughtless and clueless.
“I tried to tell her.” Nanette grew more alert, like a jackal that scented something on the air. She was definitely the brains in the family, calculating and sharp.
“Yet here you are. Wanting the same thing,” Fernanda hissed at her sister. “So it’s not such a stupid idea, is it?”
“Wait.” Sopi held up a hand. “Did you say there’s some sort of run on at the salon?”
“Yes! Everyone is trying to get one. The girls tried to tell me to come back later, but there’s no time. Can you just…” Fernanda unzipped her knee-high spiked-heel boot and dragged off her sock. “Hurry.” She wiggled her toes. “I need to dress.”
“Fernanda—” Sopi looked to Nanette for backup, but Nanette was also removing her ankle-high snakeskin boot. “I don’t even have polish— Oh.”
Fernanda had absconded with a handful of bottles from the salon. Nanette had brought a tiny tube of fast acting superadhesive. She handed that over with a pointed look. Shewouldn’t lose her decal, come hell or high water.
“You’re going to parade to his suite with everyone else, all wearing one shoe so he can see you have a decal on your toe?” Sopi asked with bemusement.
“I’ll wear proper open-toed evening shoes, won’t I? Honestly, Sopi.” Fernanda rolled her eyes.
Right. Sopi was the one being ridiculous.
Since it was the fastest way to get these two women to leave her private space, Sopi sat on the stairs to her loft. She motioned for Fernanda to set her foot beside her thigh.
“I put a pair of these on earlier,” Sopi mused as she very carefully placed the shoe on Fernanda’s toe. “I guess I should dress up and come with you. Maybe it’s me he’s looking for.” It was a deliberate effort to provoke a reaction, so she shouldn’t have been stung by Fernanda’s dismissive snort.
“Oh, right. Have you even spoken to him for one second?”
“I have, actually.” Sopi was always annoyed when these two put on that tone that disparaged her as a backwoods hick who lacked their refinement.
“What did you talk about?” Nanette asked, gaze narrowed.
“Nothing much.” She shook the bottle of polish. “He didn’t even ask my name.” It was another dig.
She swiped the brush across the decal, varnishing the shoe into place. When she looked up, Fernanda was scowling with suspicion.
“Have you given any thought to how you’ll walk back with wet polish on your toe?” Sopi asked.
“That’s why I brought the glue,” Nanette said, nudging her sister aside and eyeing Sopi shrewdly. “What would you wear?” she asked.
“Hmm?” Sopi glanced up from trying to break the seal on the glue nozzle.
“To dine with the prince.”
“Oh.” She hadn’t given one iota of thought to actually doing it, but she’d come this far into needling them. She let bravado take her a few more steps. “I have some things of my mother’s. There’s a vintage Chanel I’ve always wanted an excuse to wear.”
“How am I only hearing about this now? Show me.” Nanette sounded genuinely impressed, but maybe Sopi was that desperate to finally take her by surprise.
She finished gluing the shoe to Nanette’s toe then trotted up the stairs to her loft.
In the chest beneath the window, she kept a handful of keepsakes—her parents’ wedding album, the Christmas ornaments that hadn’t broken over the years and her audition tape to a televised singing contest that might have been her big break if her father hadn’t passed away the week she was supposed to appear.
Moving all of that aside, she drew out a zipped fabric box that also stored her summer wear. She dumped her clothes onto the floor and drew out the tissue-wrapped dress.
Sopi bit her lip as she noticed the moths had been into it. Voraciously.
Nanette arrived at the top of the stairs and said, “Oh my God. I thought Ilived in a hovel.”
“Don’t you dare,” Sopi said, voice sharpened by the strike of painful knowledge that she had lost a prized possession. This rag only proved she was nowhere near the prince’s league. “You live here for free. Who do you think pays for that?”
“You just said it. It’s free. No one is making you live like this. You’re the one who plays the martyr all the time. ‘Oh, woe. If you don’t play hostess, I have to.’”
“Oh, woe.” Sopi shot back. “I can’t put a sticker on my own toe.”
“Exactly,” Nanette said with a hair flip and a complete absence of apology. “Set standards for yourself and refuse to compromise them.” Her scathing glance dismissed Sopi’s handful of possessions and the dress that was definitely not living up to her claims.
Such a cow. If Sopi was the cretin they thought, she would push Nanette down the stairs, taking out Fernanda, who had come up behind her to make a face of amused disgust as she looked around. God, she hated both of them.
“Oh, Sopi, no,” Fernanda said when she saw the dress. Her tone held the depth of sympathy one saved for muddy dogs found starving in ditches. “You have to store vintage pieces properly. Otherwise they fall apart when you wear them. Everyone knows that. What a shame.”
“Clearly your standards aren’t being met here,” Sopi said through her teeth. “Kindly leave my hovel and never come back.”
“Does this mean you won’t do my hair?”
“Seriously, Fernanda?” Sopi glared.
“You don’t have to be so sensitive! I don’t understand why she treats us like this,” Fernanda complained as the two women went down the stairs.
They left, and Sopi hurried to lock the door so they couldn’t return. Then she went into the shower and wept over old dresses and lost parents and foolish fantasies about unattainable men.
When she turned off the water, she stared at the bedazzled shoe on her one toe. Stupid. She picked it off so her nail was an ugly, chipped mess, and she left it that way as a reminder to stay grounded.
Then she wished even harder that the prince would marry one of her stepsisters and get them all out of her life for good.
“Say that again,” Rhys growled at his assistant.
Gerard shifted uncomfortably. “I did as you asked. I put the word out that you were trying to locate the woman with the little shoe on her toe.”
“You said I had met her already. That I knew who I was looking for?”
“Perhaps I wasn’t clear on that?” His assistant’s shoulders hunched up to his ears. “It seemed self-explanatory, but…” He trailed off, miserable.
“And now there’s…how many women in the hall?”
“All with one shoe on her toe.”
“I’m afraid so, sir.” Gerard swallowed.
“What am I supposed to do? Walk the line as though inspecting the troops, looking for her among them?” He’d been trying to be discreet. Rather than make it clear he was looking for someone on staff, he had thought he would get word to her through the grapevine. She could then quietly appear in his room if she was interested.
“How did they even get up here in the elevator?”
“The one shoe, sir. The bodyguards—”
Rhys pinched the bridge of his nose. “Suggestions on how to get rid of them?”
“Perhaps if you simply ate in the dining room? Mingled? Gave them a chance to say hello?”
Rhys had no appetite. “That never works. It only encourages them to approach me later.” But he had to find himself a wife, and what was he going to do? Put a staff member in the unnerving position of having to walk a gauntlet to reach him for a single date that would go nowhere?
If she was out there and wanted to see him, she would already have knocked on his door. No, she was either too self-conscious or wasn’t interested.
What a galling thought. Deep down, however, he knew it was for the best.
It still infuriated him.
“Fine,” he growled. “Tell them I’ll dine downstairs after all.”
When the news came that the prince would in fact need a table, Sopi experienced a rush of panic. She definitely, positively didn’t want to see him. After brooding for a solid hour, she had decided that what he must have meant when he cut short her massage was that he thought shewas turning it into something it wasn’t.
Unsurprisingly, her stepsisters both appeared within minutes of the announcement, eager to martial rivals to terrible tables and have an excuse to brush past the prince’s table while he ate. He would sit with the handful of upper-crust bachelors who had accompanied him onto the slopes and were providing further red meat for the marriage-minded women hungry for a good match.
Sopi gladly relinquished the reservation desk and slipped into the laundry room to help fold sheets and towels.
With nearly every guest now rubbing elbows in the dining room, the rest of the building was quiet. She stuck with her friends in housekeeping, joking and exchanging light gossip about the guests as they restocked the linen cupboards and performed the turn-down service in the top-floor rooms.
She did the prince’s room herself and, as she plumped the pillow, noticed the tiny black shoe on the night table. It sat atop one of the burgundy portfolios Maude liked to use for special event meetings. She would make a note from a bride or other VIP guest then snap it shut and hand it off to Sopi with instructions to make things happen.
Sopi’s pulse tripped at the sight of the tiny shoe, but a bodyguard stood by observing her, so she closed the drapes, set wrapped chocolates on the pillow and left.
Eventually the guests retired from the dining room to hit the hot pools. Most of them were drunk and she resigned herself to a lot of cleanup later but helped the kitchen recover first.
While she was there, Maude pulled her aside with another list of to-dos. By the time they were done, it was time to close the pool and saunas. As Sopi marshaled the stragglers out, fully eight people tried to bribe her into calling them if the prince showed up after hours.
She bundled the last naked nymph into a robe and onto an elevator then switched everything to service. That locked off the treatment level to all but the staff cards. She sighed in relief, facing miles to go before she slept, but the closing chores were ones she almost enjoyed. She could do them at her own pace and no one ever interrupted her.
Humming, she wheeled the mop from the closet and got started.
Midnight and Rhys was wide-awake, standing at the window, wired.
Swearing at himself. At his brother. At life.
For two hours, he’d been surrounded by beautiful, eligible, well-bred women, none of whom had been the one he wanted to see. It wasn’t like him to be so fixated. He didn’t like it. He’d seen the dark side of humans who became obsessed.
The darkest night of his life replayed uninvited. His well-practiced ability to block it didn’t work this time, and his head filled with the shouts and crashing and what he thought had been fireworks inside the palace.
He’d been ten, old enough to take in the full horror of being invaded by soldiers in military garb and the gravity of their holding his parents at gunpoint below. He’d been too young to make a difference, though. In fact, he’d made things worse. He had screamed and rushed to the top of the stairs, where Henrik was being held off by a soldier.
If he had halted beside Henrik, his parents might still be alive. He had gone for the soldier’s gun, though, and the soldier had crashed him in the face with the butt of his rifle, splitting his cheek and knocking him onto his ass.
Rhys had heard his mother scream. She had started to race up the stairs to him. A soldier below grabbed her arm and yanked her back. His father intervened, and the tension below erupted into four shots that left his parents crumpled on the floor.
Rhys could still feel the unnatural strength in Henrik as he’d gripped the shoulders of Rhys’s pajamas and dragged him backward, behind the half wall of the upper gallery. Rhys had been limp with shock, gaze held by the cold stare of the soldier who had shot his parents so remorselessly.
He would never forget the ugly lack of humanity in that pair of eyes. He would forever carry the weight of guilt that if he hadn’t given in to his own impulses, his parents might be alive today.
Distantly, he’d been aware of Henrik stammering out pleas. Promises they would never come back if they were allowed to leave. He’d somehow got Rhys onto his feet and pulled him down the service stairs and out of the palace.
Shock had set in and Rhys didn’t recall much of the days after that, but guilt remained a heavy cloak on him. Guilt and loss and failure. He was grateful to Henrik for getting them out, but a day never went by where he didn’t feel sick for escaping. For surviving when his parents had died because of his rash actions.
A day never went by when he didn’t feel their loss as though pieces had been carved out of his heart. His chest throbbed even more acutely with apprehension over Henrik’s diagnosis.
Why Henrik? It should be him staring into the muzzle of a life-threatening diagnosis, not his brother. If he lost Henrik—
He couldn’t let himself think it.
This was why he hadn’t wanted to marry and have children. This agonizing fear and inability to control the future were intolerable.
He swore under his breath.
If grim introspection was the only mood he could conjure, he needed a serious distraction. He walked across to the folio Maude had given him, the one he had said he wanted to review when he had made his abrupt exit from the dining room earlier this evening.
Maude’s eldest daughter, a lithe beauty, had fallen into step alongside him as he departed, offering an excuse about fetching something from her room. Her purpose had been obvious, though. She had deliberately created the impression she was the one he’d been seeking as his dinner companion. In the elevator, she had set her pretty silver shoe next to his, not quite nudging, but definitely inviting him to notice her toe.
This constant circling was exhausting. In the space of a day, he’d come around from thinking he shouldmarry to impatience for task completion. Maude’s eldest was exactly what was expected of the royal family—well-bred, smoothly sophisticated and picture-perfect beautiful. She struck him as the possessive type, too. Overtures from other women would no longer be a problem. She would make damned sure of it.
“Please allow me to arrange a more peaceful dining experience for you tomorrow,” she had offered with the silky sweetness of a white chocolate mousse. “We often close the solarium for honeymoon couples.”
Honeymoon was a deliberate choice of word, he was sure. So exhausting.
“I’ll let you know.” He had cut away to his own room, not the least bit compelled to spend another minute with her, let alone a lifetime.
As he flipped open the folio, interest in purchasing this property nonexistent, the tiny black shoe fluttered to the carpet. All the darkness in him folded in on itself, becoming a burst of light with a single focus. Her.
He tried to shake it off. He had no business obsessing over anyone, let alone the least suitable woman here. How did he even have the energy to experience a rush of masculine interest? He ought to be physically exhausted from his day of skiing, but he couldn’t shake this buzz of sexual hunger. This sense of something being unfinished.
Maybe he could work it out in the pool.
He stripped where he stood and pulled on his robe. This time he had the sense to bring one of his bodyguards and ordered him to stand at the door to ensure he wouldn’t be stalked.
The lights were dimmed in the change room, the mirror and taps polished, the floor dry. The music and water feature were both turned off, along with the jets in the tub. It was blessedly silent as he walked past the still water of the indoor pool and hot tub. Through the fogged windows, he saw steam rising off the mineral pool in gentle wafts against the black sky.
Just as he was about to walk outside and dive in, however, he heard a noise down the short hallway that led to the sauna area. A woman was singing.
The scent of eucalyptus carried with her voice on the humid air. A bucket of cleaning supplies stood outside a door to a steam room. The sound of spraying water cut off, and he clearly heard her crooning a modern ballad that reverberated beautifully off the tiled walls.
He stood transfixed as sheemerged to drop a long-handled scrubbing brush into the bucket. Her hair was in a messy ball atop her head, but tendrils stuck to her damp neck. She wore light cotton pants and a baggy smock, both heavily soaked at the cuffs. Without looking his way, she quit singing and sighed. She picked up the bucket and carried it down the hall and around a corner where an Authorized Personnel Only sign hung.
What was she doing cleaning the sauna at midnight? She was a goddess who possessed a healing touch and a siren’s voice, not a scullery maid.
He crossed his arms, scowling as he listened to a door open and close. He waited for her to reappear.
Had she locked herself in a utility closet? He followed to the end of the hall, where he found two doors. One opened to a closet that was empty of all but fresh linens and cleaning supplies. Her bucket sat on the floor inside it.
The other door read Emergency Exit Only. Door Locks Automatically.
It hadn’t set off an alarm when she went through, so he pushed it open. The night was clear, the air bracing. A narrow footpath had been stamped into the snow. He glimpsed a maintenance building in the trees.
Don’t, his rational head warned.
He felt for his key card, tried it against the mechanism on the outside and saw it turn green. He stepped into the cold and let the door lock behind him.