Sofia wanted to tell her brother before they made any moves in public.
“Have we not done away with those antiquities?” Laszlo asked with genuine irritation. He’d be damned if he’d ask anyone’s permission to court her except hers.
“Things are still very delicate at home,” she insisted, but she stayed the night.
Waking beside her, stretching out his arm to drag her sleepy, sighing body into the spoon of his, was the best way to wake. Even better was their lovemaking—lazy and without the usual cloud of “shouldn’t” and “hurry” hanging over them.
“My brother owns a castle,” Sofia said as she put on a hotel robe after they showered the next morning. “We could use it this summer, if we can find a shared week?”
“I’ll tell Igor—” There was a firm knock on the suite’s front door.
They locked gazes.
“One minute,” Laszlo called and pulled on the other robe, then left the bedroom to answer the door.
Igor stood in the hallway with Sofia’s assistant. The young woman wore a shoulder bag and an expression of extreme agitation.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your breakfast meeting, sir,” she said. “I wonder if the princess has checked her messages?”
“Are we in the news?” Laszlo asked Igor, waving for the assistants to come inside.
“The king of Vallia has been caught in a compromising photo.” Igor clicked his phone to show King Luca caught backlit by the sunset on a palace balcony, naked as the day he was born. Judging by the blurred section of the image, he was intensely aroused by the very beautiful and curvaceous blonde he was embracing.
“This might be a good time for you to be seen downstairs?” Igor suggested. “Alone?”
Laszlo mentally dug in his heels. Igor’s advice was sound. It was one thing for Laszlo to appear at galas with a woman whose family scandals were behind her. It was another thing to be caught with her while a fresh one made headlines.
Still, it felt disloyal to even think of abandoning Sofia in her moment of vulnerability.
She came out of the bedroom and faltered, probably because he wore such a thunderous expression. What was wrong with the men in her family that they couldn’t keep it in their pants? Or at least keep their affairs private like he and Sofia managed to do.
Her clothes were different from last night’s. Her damp hair was twisted up, and she wore enough makeup that if she was spotted leaving his room, this could be passed off as the breakfast meeting her assistant had labeled it.
Even so, Laszlo could tell she was shaken beneath her veneer. His heart lurched.
“I need a moment with the president.” Gone was the smoky-voiced languorous lover he’d awoken to. She was Princess Sofia, collected and regal.
Their assistants stepped outside and Sofia nervously licked her lips.
“This changes things,” she began.
Her hands were clasped so tightly he wanted to pry them apart and hold them. Soothe her and tell her no, it didn’t. But he had to be honest.
“A little,” he agreed. “It would be better to wait for this to blow over before we—”
“It won’t,” she cut in. “I think…” Her mouth trembled and she pressed her lips flat, searching his eyes. “Laszlo, I don’t think this photo was an accident. I think Luca meant for it to happen.”
“I was born first,” she said with a shrug of simplicity. “When our father learned my mother was pregnant with twins, he named the boy his successor and never allowed anyone to question it. When he died, Luca tried to refuse the crown so I could have it, but the Privy Council wouldn’t permit it. I didn’t have a legitimate reason to challenge him. He was trained for the role, of sound mind and, well, without blemish.”
“You think he’s giving you a reason?”
“I can hardly believe it, either. I knew he hadn’t given up, but this…”
“You knew your taking the crown was likely and didn’t tell me?” he asked, astounded.
“I didn’t know. But I…alluded to it yesterday when I said anything could happen.” Her chin came up. There were flags of red standing on her cheekbones. “I told you to think about how you would feel if it did.”
He snorted, feeling lied to. “I said I wanted there to be no secrets between us, and you withheld the most important one you have.”
“This isn’t something I can talk about with just anyone!”
He wasn’t as angry about that as he was about the fact that she immediately felt far beyond his reach. What had he imagined? That after they dated for a time, she would renounce her title, put on an apron and stand in his shadow?
“You’re going to do it? Challenge him?” he demanded.
“Luca has sacrificed himself to give me this chance. I have to.” Tears stood on her lashes.
She wouldn’t want their on-and-off affair muddying the waters while she did.
Why did this feel like such a rejection? They weren’t even properly dating. They had talked about seeing where this relationship would go. Like middle graders asking to go steady.
Even so, he felt as though his heart was being carved out as he said “good luck” and nodded stiffly.
Her head went back and she gusted out, “Thank you.” She might have sniffed as she turned away.
He opened his mouth to call her back, but the door was already closed.
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