The Prince She Never Knew

By: Kate Hewitt

Suppressing his own annoyance, he gently wrapped his hands around hers—they were still icy—and pried them from his shoulders. ‘All right?’ he murmured.

She nodded, managed a rather sickly smile and turned towards the congregation for their recession down the aisle.

And now it begins, Leo thought. The rest of his life enacting this endless charade, started by a single moment six years ago.

Who could ever have known how a paparazzi photographer would catch that kiss? And not just his lips on her cheek but her hand clasped against his cheek, her face uplifted, eyes shining like silver stars.

That photo had been on the cover of every major publication in the western world. It had been named the third most influential photograph of the century, a fact which made Leo want to bark in cynical laughter. A single, stupid kiss influential? Important?

But it had become important, because the sight of the happiness shining from Alyse’s eyes had ignited a generation, fired their hearts with faith in love and hope for the future. Some economists credited the photograph with helping to kick-start Europe’s economy, a fact Leo thought entirely absurd.

Yet when the monarchy’s public relations department had realised the power of that photograph, they had harnessed it for themselves. For him, his father King Alessandro and all the future Diomedis that would reign over Maldinia.

Which had led, inevitably, to this engagement and now marriage, he all the while pretending to live up to what that photograph had promised—because for the public to realise it was nothing more than a fake would be a disaster.

Hand in hand with his bride, he walked down the aisle and into a lifetime of pretending.

* * *

She was breaking up, splitting apart, all the fragile, barely held parts of her shattering into pieces. She’d held herself together for so long and now...?

She wasn’t sure she could do it any more. And it was too late not to.

Somehow Alyse made it down the aisle, although everything around her—the people, the colours, the noise and light—was a blur. Everything but the look that had flashed in Leo’s eyes after he’d kissed her, something bordering on impatient annoyance at her obvious unease. Her panic.

She felt Leo’s arm like a band of iron beneath her hand. ‘Smile as we come out of the cathedral,’ he murmured, and then the crowds were upon them, their roar loud in their ears and, still feeling sick inside, she smiled for all she was worth.

The wordless roar turned into a rhythmic chant: bacialo! Bacialo!

The crowd wanted them to kiss. Wordlessly, Alyse turned to Leo, tilted her head up at him as he gazed down at her and stroked her cheek with a single fingertip and then, once again, brushed his lips against her in another emotionless kiss.

Even so that cool kiss touched Alyse’s soul, whispered its impossible hopes into her heart. She kept her lips mostly slack beneath his, knowing after six years of such kisses he didn’t want her to respond, never had. No hot, open-mouthed kisses of passion for them. Just these chaste displays of their mutual love and devotion.

He lifted his head and she smiled and waved to the crowd. It was done.

Still smiling, Leo led her to the waiting carriage, all gilt and scrollwork, like something out of a fairy tale. A Cinderella carriage for a Cinderella bride.

He helped her in and then sat next to her on the narrow leather seat, his thigh pressing against her hip, her dress billowing over his lap. The liveried coachman closed the door and they were off for a celebratory ride through the city, then back to the palace for the reception.

As soon as the door had closed, Leo’s smile, his mask, dropped. There was no need for it now; no one was watching. He turned to her, a frown appearing between his brows.

‘You’re too pale.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘I’m tired.’

Leo’s frown deepened, and then it ironed out and he sighed and raked his hands through his hair. ‘It’s no wonder. The last few days have been exhausting. I expect it will be good to get away.’

They were leaving tomorrow for a ten-day honeymoon: first a week on a private Caribbean island and then a whistle-stop tour through London, Paris and Rome.

Alyse’s insides quaked as she thought of that first week. An entire week alone, without cameras or crowds, no one to perform for, no audience to entertain. A week completely by themselves.

She lived in both hope and fear of that week.

‘Yes,’ she said now, and thankfully her voice remained steady, strong. ‘I expect it will.’

Leo turned to the window and waved at the crowds lining the ancient cobbled streets of Averne, and Alyse turned to her own window and waved as well. Each flutter of her fingers drained her, as if she were lifting a huge weight. Her engagement ring, an enormous emerald surrounded by pearls and diamonds, sparkled in the sun.

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