Sofia only saw Laszlo briefly in the receiving line. Her heart nearly exploded and she had to fight to maintain her composure when he gave her gloved hand a firm, lingering squeeze.
His presence here wasn’t personal, she reminded herself. He was doing what was expected by all world leaders and, like many others, had come for the chance to rub shoulders with their peers. No one truly mourned her father.
She couldn’t say she was particularly sorry for the loss herself. Her father’s endless scandals were over, but his death upended her world.
She didn’t make it to the climate change forum the following month, too busy supporting her twin as Luca took up the mantle of ruling Vallia. After they’d endured decades of their father’s neglect, the task was enormous, but that wasn’t Luca’s reason for trying to refuse the crown.
“Sofia is the rightful heir,” Luca insisted heatedly to Vallia’s Privy Council. “She was born first. Our father’s choice in naming me was pure sexism. If Vallia wants to redeem our world standing, our first point of order is to recognize the true monarch.” He pointed at Sofia.
The council refused to accept his abdication. Sofia felt robbed but couldn’t bring herself to throw Vallia into further chaos by making a constitutional challenge. Her country was in good hands with Luca—far better than with their father. She recognized Luca as her king and was once again relegated to delegate roles. Between royal duties at home, she attended a forum on NGOs, an assembly on urban economics and now—was she the only one who saw the irony?—she was at a meeting in Madrid on the international status of women.
It had been six months since Geneva. She’d thought of Laszlo every day, sometimes squeezing her own hand and pretending it was his grip around her fingers, but she’d refused to look him up or ask her assistant for his whereabouts. They had agreed not to see one another again, and aside from his appearance at the service, she hadn’t heard from him.
They were nothing to one another. Forget about him, Sofia.
She tried, but how could she when she left her presentation with her entourage and came face-to-face with him in the wide hall of the conference center?
Her heart lurched and her whole body stung with a self-conscious blush.
He halted, equally taken aback. After an awkward thump of time, he gave her a deferential nod. “Princess.”
Absolutely nothing had changed. His wonderfully deep timbre was a velvety caress down her spine, but that standoffish air radiated around him.
I can’t do this. Of all the things she’d withstood in her life, seeing him and knowing she couldn’t have him was the most agonizing.
“Mr. President.” She didn’t offer her hand, even though she normally would with any other dignitary.
It was taking every ounce of control she possessed to disguise how thoroughly this meeting was shredding her composure. To be near him was to be alive, heart racing, skin hot. She longed to step into his wide-shouldered frame and let him envelope her. She wanted his mouth on hers, wanted to breathe the scent in his throat, wanted his rough voice against her ear while his weight pinned her to the mattress.
She said, “I didn’t see your name on the attendance list.” Or I wouldn’t have come. “It’s nice to see you again.”
“I’m at Economy and the Environment.” He pointed down the hall. If she was having any effect on him, he was even better at hiding it. His expression remained stiffly polite, nothing more.
Which was an even sharper kick in the stomach than their last goodbye.
“I won’t keep you,” she said with her own well-practiced and very bland smile.
There was an incendiary flash in his sharp blue eyes. It could have been a reflection from something outside; nonetheless, it made her feel as though the ground shifted beneath her feet. Her step faltered as they both continued on their way.
She was still trying to make sense of that moment when she left another session, having heard exactly none of it. Her assistant handed her an envelope.
It contained one of the hotel’s folders with a key card and a room number written inside. Her stomach sank, but her heart soared.
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