The Prince She Never Knew

By: Kate Hewitt

She’d tensed all over again, her drink halfway to her lips. ‘Do what?’

‘Marry him, Alyse. I know it’s all got completely out of hand with the media, and also with the Diomedis, to be frank. But you are still your own woman and I want to make sure you’re sure...’ Her mother had trailed off, her eyes clouded with anxiety, and Alyse had wondered what she’d guessed.

Did she have even an inkling of how little there was between her and Leo? Few people knew; the world believed they were madly in love, and had done ever since Leo had first kissed her cheek six years ago and the resulting photograph had captured the public’s imagination.

Leo’s mother Sophia knew, of course, as the pretense of their grand romance had been her idea, Alyse suspected, and of course Leo’s father, Alessandro, who had first broached the whole idea to her when she’d been just eighteen years old and starry-eyed over Leo. Perhaps Alexa—Leo’s sister, her fiery nature so different from his own sense of cool containment—had guessed.

And, naturally, Leo knew. Leo knew he didn’t love her. He just didn’t know that for six years she’d been secretly, desperately, loving him.

‘I’m happy, Maman,’ Alyse had said quietly, and had reached over to squeeze her mother’s hand. ‘I admit, the media circus isn’t my favourite part, but...I love Leo.’ She had stumbled only slightly over this unfortunate truth.

‘I want for you what your father and I have had,’ Natalie had said, and Alyse had smiled wanly. Her parents’ romance was something out of a fairy tale: the American heiress who had captured the heart of a wealthy French financier. Alyse had heard the story many times, how her father had seen her mother across a crowded room—they’d both been attending some important dinner—and he had made his way over to her and said, ‘What are you doing with the rest of your life?’

She’d simply smiled and answered, ‘Spending it with you.’

Love at first sight. And not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill love, but of the over-the-top, utterly consuming variety.

Of course her mother wanted that for her. And Alyse would never admit to her how little she actually had, even as she still clung stubbornly to the hope that one day it might become more.

‘I’m happy,’ she’d repeated, and her mother had looked relieved if not entirely convinced.

Marina’s walkie-talkie crackled again, and once again Alyse let the rapid-fire Italian assault her with incomprehension.

‘They’re waiting,’ Marina announced briskly, and Alyse wondered if she imagined that slightly accusing tone. She’d felt it since she’d arrived in Maldinia, mostly from Queen Sophia: you’re not precisely what we’d have chosen for our son and heir, but you’ll have to do. We have no choice, after all.

The media—the whole world—had made sure of that. There had been no going back from that moment captured by a photographer six years ago when Leo had come to her eighteenth birthday party and brushed his lips against her cheek in a congratulatory kiss. Alyse, instinctively and helplessly, had stood on her tiptoes and clasped her hand to his face.

If she could go back in time, would she change that moment? Would she have turned her face away and stopped all the speculation, the frenzy?

No, she wouldn’t have, and the knowledge was galling. At first it had been her love for Leo that had made her agree to their faked fairy tale, but as the years had passed and Leo had shown no interest in loving her—or love at all—she’d considered whether to cut her losses and break off the engagement.

She never had; she’d possessed neither the courage nor conviction to do something that would quite literally have rocked the world. And of course she’d clung to a hope that seemed naïve at best, more likely desperate: that he would learn to love her.

And yet...we get along. We’re friends, of a sort. Surely that’s a good foundation for marriage?

Always the hope.

‘This way, Miss Barras,’ Marina said, and ushered her out of the room she’d been getting dressed in and down a long, ornate corridor with marble walls and chandeliers glittering overhead every few feet.

The stiff satin folds of Alyse’s dress rustled against the parquet as she followed Marina down the hallway and towards the main entrance of the palace where a dozen liveried footmen stood to attention. She would make the walk to the cathedral across the street and then the far more important walk down the aisle by herself, another Maldinian tradition.

‘Wait.’ Marina held up a hand and Alyse paused in front of the gilt-panelled doors that led to the front courtyard of the palace where at least a hundred reporters and photographers, probably more, waited to capture this iconic moment. Alyse had had so many iconic moments in the last six years she felt as if her entire adult life had been catalogued in the glossy pages of gossip magazines.

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