Four years into the future…
‘And then the big scary dragon and the clever little princess became the best of friends and lived happily ever after in their castle in the clouds.’
King Leonardo DeLessi Severo of the Kingdom of Severene closed the picture book and watched his three-year-old daughter Alice stretch her cupid’s bow mouth in an enormous yawn.
‘The End,’ he added, planting a kiss on his daughter’s nose.
‘No, Daddy.’ She gazed up at him from her position on his lap, pinning him with those wide emerald eyes just like her mother’s, and blinked. ‘Read it more, Daddy,’ she demanded, her pleading expression one she knew full well could turn him to putty in her tiny little hands. ‘Ple-ee-ase, Daddy.’
‘No, sweetheart. It’s bedtime.’
In fact it was almost half an hour past her bedtime—but what else was new? The child pulled that deadly puppy dog pout on him pretty much every night, and even though he swore he wouldn’t, pretty much every night he fell for it. Because—well, because she was the brightest, cutest, most adorable child who had ever lived. And he loved reading to her. He loved holding her small body in her favourite Frozen pyjamas on his lap, smelling the comforting scent of strawberry shampoo as her dark head nestled under his chin and she followed her favourite story with avid interest, while asking him a ton of increasingly ridiculous questions which he had to come up with equally ridiculous answers to so he could hear her throaty baby chuckle and feel his heart expand with love.
Unfortunately, though, tonight he was going to be forced to cut the night-time ritual they both enjoyed shorter than usual—and resist the deadly puppy dog pout. Because tonight was the Severene Christmas Ball, which he and Juno hosted every year the week before Christmas, and they were already overdue downstairs in the palace ballroom.
His advisors and Juno’s advisors would be having a fit.
‘Pretty ple-eease, Daddy,’ his daughter said.
Was she actually fluttering her eyelashes right now? Good God. He’d created a monster.
‘Not tonight, baby. Mummy and I have to go to the ball,’ he said, lifting her off his lap and standing her in front of him. ‘And we’re already late.’
Funny to think that once upon a time his life had been all about duty. And the prospect of being even a nanosecond late for such an event would have been unthinkable.
Not any more, he thought, with no small degree of joy and wry amusement…
Alice planted her fists on her hips in a stance that also reminded him of her mother.
‘But, Daddy…please. I love the dragon and the princess story so, so much.’
He smiled at the mutinous expression which only made her look even more utterly adorable. How on earth had he survived the dullness of his life before having Juno and Alice in it? And how on earth had he ended up with two females who paid no attention to his authority whatsoever?
For a moment he debated reading the story to her once more. After all, they would both enjoy it. And Juno had already told him that their guests of honour—her twin sister Queen Jade and her husband Alvaro Byrne—were running late, thanks to the snowstorm that had blanketed their neighbouring countries in six feet of snow that afternoon.
‘Leo, don’t you dare give in to her…’
He glanced up to find his wife standing at the entrance to their private sitting room, dressed in a shimmering green and gold dress that hugged every one of her curves. Heat shot through him, swiftly followed by a deep sense of gratitude for all the gifts this woman had given him since dropping into his life four Christmases ago.
Not just the gift of the child he adored, but also spontaneity and heat and fun and laughter and fierce, furious, unconditional love… All things which had been missing in his life before Juno.
‘Mommy…Mommy…’ Alice shot across the room, surprisingly fast for a child who had almost dislocated her jaw by yawning a moment ago, and flung out her arms.
Her mother scooped her up and perched her on her hip. ‘Hello, Princess Trouble,’ she said. ‘I see you’re wrapping your father round your little pinkie again.’
Alice giggled, delighted with the analogy.
‘I want the dragon and the princess story again,’ she said, gripping her mother’s cheeks to get all her attention.
‘Nope, it’s bedtime. Did you know it’s Christmas in a week’s time?’ her mother added, deftly changing the subject.
Alice nodded furiously, her face a picture of excitement. ‘Yes, Mommy. Santa’s coming.’
‘Do you want to be on Santa’s naughty list?’
Alice’s face became comical with concern, then she shook her head vigorously. ‘No, Mommy.’
‘Then do you think you should go to bed now, without any more arguments?’
The puppy dog pout appeared, but then Alice rested her head against her mother’s bosom and sighed. ‘Yes, Mommy.’
‘Good girl,’ Leo said as he approached his wife, smiling at the picture they made together. And then another errant thought occurred to him.
How on earth had it come to pass that Juno—the former Rebel Princess—was so much better at disciplining their daughter than he was?
He lifted his now yawning baby girl out of her mother’s arms. ‘I’ll tuck Princess Trouble in and be right back,’ he said, as Alice clutched the hair at his nape with one hand, while sticking the thumb of her other hand into her mouth to suck.
‘I’ll see you in a minute, Daddy,’ Juno whispered. She stroked Alice’s back and touched his cheek before pressing a kiss to his lips.
The sultry smell of citrus and musk filled his nostrils and heat eddied through him, as it always did whenever he got a lungful of his wife’s scent. He bit back a groan and headed for his daughter’s bedchamber, only too aware that it would be hours yet before he could follow through on that kiss.
As much as he adored dancing with his Queen and showing her off, and as much as he was looking forward to seeing her face light up when her twin sister the Queen of Monrova arrived, and perhaps sharing a glass of whisky with his brother-in-law, the billionaire businessman Alvaro Byrne later in the evening, he was also already anticipating the moment when tonight’s Royal Severene Christmas Ball would be over.
And then he could take his wife to bed—to celebrate the approaching Christmas season and a whole ten days free of official duties.
Santa would be putting them both firmly on his naughty list tonight. He planned to make sure of it and he could not wait.
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