Chapter Four Heart of Mine

My debut novel is HEART OF MINE, a royal romance with a touch of mystery and suspense. It is set in the small fictional kingdom of Coradova, a breathtaking Mediterranean paradise near France.

They were never supposed to fall in love.

He was the Crown Prince of Coradova, and she was the one girl he shouldn't want. Can they overcome a centuries-old prejudice, or will they both have to make the ultimate sacrifice for their one true love?

If you missed it, you can read Chapter One of HEART OF MINE right here! Read Chapter Two here! And read Chapter Three here!

Read on for Chapter Four!

CHAPTER FOUR:
JUNE 2014

I never knew that my heart could so easily be torn into two. Or imagined that my life in the Mediterranean paradise that I called home might someday become nothing more than a memory. When my parents had told me six months ago that we were moving back to America the following summer, I was shocked. Even now, surrounded by packing boxes in my half-empty bedroom, it still seemed unfathomable.

We were leaving Coradova. Moving back to Montana in order to take care of my ailing, beloved grandfather. In two weeks, we would leave the home I had known and loved for the past ten years. In a mere fourteen days, I would have to say goodbye to everyone that I loved … including the prince that I loved the most.

The Royal Family was hosting a ball in honor of Her Serene Highness Princess Arianna’s nineteenth birthday. It was only one of the many royal events I had attended at the palace over the years, but tonight, it was going to be my last. A million depressing thoughts tumbled through my mind as I searched my closet for my favorite dress; the shimmering emerald one that hugged my hips and flared at the calves. As I donned my dress for probably the last time, my thoughts wandered to Alexander.

Of course, he would be dressed in his very best. Always impeccable and flawless, Crown Prince Alexander James Demario de Coradova. He would shake hands with every gentleman, kiss the hand of every lady. He would be a kind and gracious host, full of love and pride for his country. As crown prince, he would perform his duty with honor befitting the future king. When he saw me, he would smile that dazzling smile that made my heart race, sweetly kiss my hand, and make sure to save one dance especially for me. Then never again.

I felt a sharp pain stab my heart. A single tear fell down my cheek and I quickly wiped it away with my hand, feeling pathetic. It wasn’t the end of the world. It was just the end of my time here in this beautiful country, with the friends and family that I had loved for most of my life. It was just a broken heart, no big deal.

I sighed, once again wishing that I didn’t have to choose between two halves of my heart. I was turning eighteen next month, so technically I wasn’t required by law to move with my family back to America. But my grandfather, Papa, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago and the disease had recently struck with a vengeance. As an only child, my dad felt honor bound to return home to Montana to take care of his ailing father and help run the successful family cattle ranch. Knowing that time was suddenly short, I felt a desperate desire to return to Montana with them. I wanted to spend whatever time was left with my Papa before he forgot about me and the wonderful memories we shared.

Still, my heart was torn. I was committed to my decision to move back to Montana, but that didn’t make the pain any easier to bear. Leaving Coradova meant leaving behind the one person I cared about the most: Alexander.

After the events of last summer, I had found myself drawn to him more and more, the feelings in my heart growing and deepening. When I thought back on it, I realized that everything had changed on the day of Arianna’s liver operation. It was as if Alexander had looked at me with a new awareness. Each touch and word exchanged seemed to hold a more intimate meaning, and over the last year I’d watched as the brotherly affection in his eyes changed. My heart began to leap at the sight of him, filled with an unexpected longing, and as the days blended into months, I realized that I was irrevocably in love with him.


With one final glance in the mirror, I turned and walked out the door. From our house at the center of town, it took us ten minutes to reach the palace where it towered at the outskirts of the capitol. Bold, imposing, protective. The colossal, glistening white palace rested on the top of a hill, overlooking town and sea. It was made of stone and brick, with long clean lines surrounded by marble columns and gilded wrought-iron balconies. It was as beautiful as any fairytale palace come to life straight out of a storybook, it’s history thick with centuries of triumph and tragedy, glamour and intrigue. War had once ravaged the small kingdom of Coradova, but for the last ninety years the House of Markham had ruled in peace.

As we drove through the high iron gates, I surveyed the red uniformed guards surrounding the palace, grateful for their diligent protection of the Royal Family I had come to love as my own. Stepping out of the car, I followed my parents and sister up the steps, through the heavy double doors and into the palace. It was pristine, white and wide. A curling staircase swept up one side of the main hall across from a parlor crowded with guests. Heading for the ballroom, we passed golden candelabras with flickering candles and crystal vases brimming with roses.

I could hear Arianna’s laughter as we entered the ballroom and spotted her immediately amidst a group of handsome young gentlemen. Her silk dress was a deep burgundy with a tapered waist and full, billowing skirt. Diamonds glittered from around her neck, radiant against her olive-toned skin. Her gorgeous blue eyes sparkled when she saw me.

“Happy birthday, Ari!”

Arianna grinned and pulled me close for a hug. “Thank you, Maddy. You look beautiful.”

“So do you. Are you enjoying your guests?” I pointedly eyed the handsome boys surrounding us and Arianna laughed in delight.

“It’s been wonderful, but it’s even better now that my best friend is here.”

I turned my gaze away, trying to fight back sudden tears. I would miss her so much. Arianna had been my best friend since I’d first moved to Coradova and we’d rarely been apart since. She squeezed my hand and smiled softly in understanding.

A tall young man with dark hair drew her attention with a charming comment about the magnificence of her eyes. I smirked in amusement as the young men surrounding us eagerly vied for her attention. Half-listening to their conversations, I surreptitiously scanned the ballroom.

It was filled with the hustle and bustle of guests. Laughter and chattering voices could be heard over the Classical French music playing from the orchestra in the corner. There were men and women of all ages, some gathered in groups or couples, others dancing in the center of the room. Everyone was dressed in their finest, the women adorned with sparkling jewelry. Everywhere I looked I saw glitz and glamour; a common feature I had grown accustomed to seeing at these palace events. My eyes kept scanning the room, searching.

At last I spotted him, Prince Alexander, talking to a blond young noblewoman across the room. As always, he looked dashing in a tux with his black hair perfectly styled and blue eyes gleaming. I watched him for a moment, admiring his strong jaw and firm mouth, his broad shoulders and tall, lean figure. His skin was a tanned, golden olive, and his smile a dazzling white. When he laughed, his handsome face transformed, making my heart skip a beat.

How could I leave him?

The spark between us had developed into something deeper than the close friendship we’d shared over the past ten years. He was more than just my friend or protective big brother. He was the handsome and charming boy who held my heart. The only problem was, I didn’t know for sure if he felt the same way. As a prince, Alexander had learned from a young age how to hide his emotions and sometimes it was very difficult to discern what he was feeling.

Suddenly, Alexander looked my way and our eyes met across the sea of faces standing between us. His expression brightened, then he flashed me a dashing smile that made my heart thump erratically. Everyone in the room seemed to disappear until I was aware only of Alexander and the warm look in his eyes.

Our connection was broken by the boy who unexpectedly grabbed my hand. He was tall, with black hair and brown eyes, and a familiar crooked smile. Ethan Deimos.

Bonjour, Maddy,” he said, speaking in French. The primary languages in Coradova were English and French, and I had become fluent over the years.

Bonjour, Ethan,” I replied, smiling at my friend.

“You look gorgeous tonight.” With a charming smile, he brought my hand up to his lips.

Blushing, I looked away and found Alexander’s gaze fixed on us. His eyes held mine for a long moment, and when he started moving in our direction, my pulse fluttered. Tearing my eyes away from the prince, I abruptly turned back toward Ethan, trying to remember to be polite. I might have been in love with Alexander, but Ethan was still my friend and I’d hurt him too many times already.

“So Ethan, when does first semester start?”

“In September. You’re going to that university in Montana, right?”

I nodded, smiling sadly. “Yeah. I wish we didn’t have to move.”

“Me, too.” Ethan softly rubbed his thumb across the back of my hand. I suddenly felt uncomfortable, though I didn’t know how to inconspicuously pull my hand away without hurting his feelings. “I’m going to miss you—” His words cut off abruptly as the prince suddenly appeared beside us.

Pardon,” Alexander said, though he didn’t sound apologetic. He smiled at me and I grinned radiantly in return.

“Your Royal Highness.” Ethan gave a respectful bow.

I followed with a deep curtsy and teasing smile, while Alexander watched me with an amused expression. In Coradova, we were expected to follow formal protocol in the presence of royalty, but the Markhams had always insisted that it was an unnecessary formality for me since I was a friend of the family. It was always a running joke between Alexander and his siblings.

“How are you enjoying the party, Ethan?” Alexander asked politely.

“It’s been great so far. Maddy is always the best company.”

“Yes, she is.” Alexander’s face softened into a tender expression as he offered me his hand. “Maddy, may I have this dance?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” I answered softly, placing my hand in his. He grinned and kissed my fingers, keeping his eyes on mine, his lips lingering longer than necessary.

“Please excuse us, Ethan.”

Alexander twirled me away without waiting for a response. We whirled out onto the dance floor, effortlessly keeping pace with the couples around us. I was a clumsy dancer, but with Alexander leading, I felt graceful.

He held me close, our bodies not quite touching. His attention to propriety was flawless, as always.

“You look beautiful, dolcezza.

“Thank you, Alex.”

He smiled in amusement. “So I’m finally Alex again, instead of Your Highness?” I rolled my eyes at him, and he laughed in response. Then his expression grew serious. “I can’t believe you’re moving in two weeks. What will I do without my stunning dance partner?”

“You’ll find a new stunning dance partner,” I muttered, frowning at the beautiful girls watching us from the crowd. “You are a prince, after all.”

At only twenty-years-old, Prince Alexander was the most desired bachelor in Coradova. Not only because he was the heir, but also because he was devastatingly handsome and charming. He literally had his pick of any girl in the room.

As the song drew to an end, Alexander gently clasped my chin in one hand and turned my face back to his. He waited until our eyes met, then smiled softly.

“None as stunning as you. I’m going to miss you, Maddy.”

Though we were surrounded by hundreds of people, he was looking at me like I was the only person in the room. My heart melted inside my chest.

“I’m going to miss you too, Alex.”

Our eyes held for a moment longer before we moved apart. Alexander squeezed my fingers briefly and released my hand, though his blue eyes stayed fixed on my face.

“Will you take a walk with me?” he asked, offering his arm.

I nodded, smiling with pleasure as I tucked my hand through his elbow. He led me through the crowd, passing various young noblewomen who glared at me with envy, and out the French doors into the exotic palace garden. There were bright flowers everywhere, with twinkling lights in the bushes and trees that added to the romantic ambience. Several couples were walking along the gravel pathways or sitting on benches, more focused on each other than the scenery.

We were silent as we walked farther into the garden. Alexander eventually stopped next to the lilacs blossoming in various shades of purple. My favorite flower. I peeked at him, wondering if he had picked this spot for that very reason, and caught his eyes on my face.

Alexander watched me for a long, quiet moment. I wondered what he was thinking, and not for the first time. Ever since last summer, he would sometimes watch me with blue eyes so intense that it felt like he could see through to my soul. Then he would smile and make a joke to lighten the mood, though I always felt like there was something more that he had wanted to say.

I heard the sound of music drifting softly along the wind and latched on to the opportunity for a distraction.

“I like this song,” I commented. “It’s always been one of my favorites.”

Alexander smiled and silently held out his hand, his invitation clear. I hesitated for a single heartbeat, then placed my hand in his and let him draw me into his arms for another dance. He held me closer than he had in the ballroom, so close that I could feel his heartbeat thundering in sync with mine. With no other guests nearby, there was no need to worry about propriety. We kept dancing even after the music ended. But when the next familiar song started playing, Alexander paused, and the expression on his handsome face took my breath away.

It was our song. The Last Waltz.

The first song we had danced to when I was seven-years-old, attending my first royal event in the palace. It was a lovely classical song, perfect for a slow waltz and uncoordinated dancers like myself, and it had become our song by simple coincidence. During my first few years in Coradova, The Last Waltz always seemed to play while we were dancing together, and after the fifth time, Alexander had joked that it was meant to be our song. From then on, it was.

With the familiar melody swirling around us, I watched as Alexander’s eyes changed into a dark, smoldering blue.

Dolcezza, I …” He paused, his expression torn. His body trembled as if he were fighting for control.

My breath hitched in my throat when I caught a glimpse of desire in his eyes. Longing for him swept through me, strong enough that I was certain he could see it on my face. Without thinking, I moved infinitesimally closer and prayed that he would kiss me. His hold on me tightened and his gaze suddenly filled with firm resolve.

“Maddy,” he whispered, framing my face with one hand.

Then he smiled tenderly and lowered his head. Alexander brushed his lips softly against mine at first, and I melted into him with a sigh. Reveling in his warm kiss, I wrapped my arms around his neck and twined my fingers through his dark hair. Alexander pulled me tighter against him, deepening the kiss. The sensations swirling through me were overpowering and my heart was pounding so fiercely that I thought it might beat right out of my chest. When our song was over, Alexander tried to move back, but I held him firmly in place.

“No. Wait,” I murmured against his lips, not ready to let him go. I had waited over a year for this moment, for our first kiss. He laughed quietly, then gathered me closer into his arms and kissed me with a passion that matched mine. When I finally loosened my grip, Alexander shot me an amused smile and took a step back, keeping hold of my hand. Our gazes locked, searing emotion burning just beneath the surface.

Standing together in this beautiful garden reminded me of many past moments from our childhood. One particular memory flashed through my head of the night we had talked about kissing frogs before finding Prince Charming. Well, I’d found my prince, and I hadn’t even kissed any frogs first. Alexander was my first kiss and my first love. After the way he’d just kissed me, I was certain that he felt the same.

Feeling emboldened by his passionate kiss and the warm look in his eyes, I told him, “I’m in love with you, Alex.”

Alexander froze. I was mortified by his sudden withdrawal. My face burned as I waited impatiently for his reply.

“Madison …” Alexander hesitated, his eyes wary. Then he let go of my hand and took a step back. I watched as his face settled into an expressionless mask that I recognized all too well.

It was the blank mask that he used to hide his emotions, usually whenever he wore the invisible crown of his birthright. I was one of the few people that Alexander allowed to see past that mask, to the heart of the person underneath, and I hated that he was using it on me right now. The distance that was suddenly between us hurt almost as much as his rejection.

“Stop looking at me like that, Alexander,” I snapped. “Don’t shut me out and pretend like you don’t care when we both know that you do. You might not love me, but I know that you care about me.”

Emotion flickered in his eyes as his distant façade cracked.

“Of course I care about you, Madison. Don’t be ridiculous,” he muttered, roughly loosening his bowtie and collar with a frustrated sigh. “That’s the problem. I care too much about you and I’m afraid of hurting you.”

I blinked at him. “How can caring too much hurt me?”

“Because I care much more than I should, and it’s not nearly enough,” he said cryptically, with a stubborn set to his jaw.

“What does that mean?” I demanded, but Alexander shook his head and refused to explain further.

“Alexander—”

“Maddy,” he interrupted. “We can’t do this. I shouldn't have kissed you, and I'm sorry. I care about you, but it’s just not enough. This was a mistake.”

I stiffened and felt an indignant fury sweep through me. My words were hard and clipped. “I’m just a mistake?”

Alexander flinched. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean, Alexander?” My anger mingled with heartache, making the pain of his rejection much more acute. “You just kissed me and then told me that I was a mistake because I’m not good enough for you.”

“Madison, I never said that.” He frowned, then cursed in Italian and dragged a hand through his black hair, glaring daggers at me.

As a prince, Alexander had spent his life learning how to control his emotions and it was rare for him to completely lose his temper. I recognized the warning signs of his growing anger and should have known better than to bait him when he was this upset, but my bruised heart wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Then why else would it be a mistake to kiss me?” I demanded, stepping closer. “I know you feel something for me.”

“Maddy, don’t,” Alexander warned, but I ignored him.

I crossed the last few inches that were separating us and searched his face for some sign of his true feelings, but he was very carefully hiding behind his mask. Alexander stared at me with his arms crossed and blue eyes blazing, and though I could sense the whirlwind of emotion beneath the surface, I saw no sign of his usual warmth.

I felt a twinge of uncertainty. Maybe I was wrong about everything and had been misreading him for the last year. Maybe he really did feel nothing more than friendship. But if that were true, then why had he kissed me?

“Please tell me that I’m not just like all the other girls you’ve kissed behind the hedges,” I whispered, feeling my chest tighten at the thought.

Alexander winced, but didn’t bother to deny it.

“Maddy,” he said, his voice ragged. He reached out a hand as if to touch me, then paused as indecision flashed in his eyes. A second later, he dropped his hand and the regret on his face was unmistakable.

I guess I really was just like all the other girls he’d kissed, I thought sadly. Dispensable. A single tear slipped down my cheek. Alexander saw it before I could wipe it away.

With a curse, he yanked me into his arms and crushed me against his chest.

Dolcezza, I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I know you don’t understand, but I can’t—”

His words cut off when we heard the sound of footsteps only seconds before a girl spoke from behind us.

“There you are, mon chéri.”

Alexander tensed, and I jumped out of his embrace as if I’d been electrocuted. The girl moving toward us was stunning, with golden hair and a crimson dress that showed off her long legs. She was more woman than girl, really, with a flirtatious smile and seductive hazel eyes that were fixed on Alexander. I recognized her at once.

Marie Delacroix. The gorgeous and curvy future Duchess that every guy in Coradova drooled over. I was more than aware that Alexander had dated different girls since he’d turned sixteen, but I’d never seen him with Marie. By the intimate way she touched his arm and the flush I could see on his face, I knew that something was going on between them.

Suddenly, all the pieces clicked together. Alexander had kissed me, but it was clear that I was nothing special compared with the stunning young noblewoman who was plastered to his side. It was no wonder kissing me had been a mistake.

“You promised me a dance, Alexander,” Marie purred, trailing her fingers down his arm suggestively.

He must have seen the betrayal on my face because he pulled out of Marie’s grasp.

“We need a minute, Marie.” Before I could protest, Alexander grabbed my elbow and steered me a few feet away. “It’s not what you think, Maddy.”

“Isn’t it?” I snarled, tugging my arm loose. “You kissed me but then realized it was a mistake because I’m not good enough for a prince. Not like the gorgeous Lady Marie Delacroix.”

“Stop saying that,” Alexander growled. His temper was threatening to explode, and he towered over me with controlled fury radiating from his body. “This has nothing to do with you being good enough for me. You don’t understand—”

We were interrupted yet again, but this time by the youngest prince of Coradova.

Pardon.” He was standing on the pathway beside Marie, his expression apologetic. His Royal Highness Ashton Andrew Marciano de Coradova was just as handsome as his older brother. He was almost as tall as Alexander, but leaner, his shoulders not as wide. They had the same black hair, striking blue eyes and strong jaw, although Ashton had dimples when he smiled. His gaze flickered over me, intuitively recognizing the situation he had walked in on, before coming to rest on his brother.

“I apologize for the interruption,” Ashton said smoothly. He strolled closer, surreptitiously moving between us before coming to a stop at my side. “Lord Rousseau has arrived, and Father wanted you to greet him. I’m sorry if this is bad timing.”

Alexander glowered at Ashton. His voice was clipped with impatience. “I’ll be there shortly. Please give us a moment alone.”

“That’s not necessary, Your Highness,” I interrupted. “There’s nothing left for us to say. Please excuse me.”

I brushed past them and refused to look at Marie as I stormed down the pathway. A hand firmly gripped my elbow and spun me around. I looked up into Alexander’s dark blue glare. Drawn up to his full height, he was incredibly tall, and the powerful frame of his body was intimidating.

Undaunted, I glared back with a defiant tilt of my chin.

“Let me go, Alex.”

“Not until we're done with our conversation.” His tone was commanding and the look he sent me brooked no argument. As a prince, he was used to getting his way. Unfortunately for Alexander, I was one of the few people in Coradova who would ever dare to defy him.

“We are done,” I replied.

There was a ruckus behind the nearby trees, accompanied by snorts of laughter. A group of young men wandered into view. Their eyes flickered over us and one of them shot me a come-hither smile. Alexander stiffened as he glared at them, his expression darkening. They seemed deterred by the prince’s scowl and continued on their way. The look Alexander turned back on me was fierce and protective.

“You are not going to wander through this garden all alone.”

“I can take care of myself, Alexander.”

“Don’t you remember what happened with William? What are you going to do if you get cornered by a bunch of overeager boys who want to steal more than just a kiss?”

“I doubt it will hurt worse than the kiss you just stole before telling me that I was a mistake!” My voice was thick with bitterness and Alexander frowned at me in response. I watched the anger raging in his eyes as he struggled to control his temper, then his mask suddenly slammed down into place.

His grip on my arm tightened and he turned toward his brother. “Ashton, will you take Maddy back to the ballroom? I don’t want her to get into trouble.” He shot me a dark look, then handed me off to Ashton.

The youngest prince tucked my hand through his arm and carefully held me in place when I would have been more than happy to bolt.

“Of course, Alex,” Ashton said with a nod, before murmuring to me, “Let’s go, Maddy.” He led me away, but not before I saw Marie slip her arm through Alexander’s as they turned to head in the opposite direction. Alexander met my gaze briefly, then they disappeared from view.

Ashton glanced down at me as we were walking but said nothing. Before we reached a set of French doors leading into the ballroom he pulled me aside into a private nook of the garden and looked down at me for a moment, contemplating.
Finally, he said, “What happened, Maddy?”

I wanted to tell him that Alexander had kissed me and that it was a life-altering kiss—though it had meant nothing to Alexander. I was just another one of the many girls he had kissed behind the hedges, I thought bitterly.

“Nothing happened,” I muttered instead.

Ashton frowned, and I knew that he wasn’t convinced. He studied me for a moment longer, before sighing reluctantly and leading me into the ballroom without pressing for an answer.

Over the years, Ashton and I had become very close. His friendly, charismatic and playful personality had drawn me to him instantly. He was like my brother, and tonight, I was grateful for his understanding and silent support.

Ashton stayed with me as we sought out Arianna, and between the two of them, they helped to keep my churning thoughts away from Alexander. The rest of the night passed by without incident, but I felt numb, lacking the excitement I’d had at the start of the party. Hoping to keep my mind off the prince, I let Arianna talk me into dancing with a few guys, including Ethan, though my heart wasn’t in it. I saw Alexander watching me throughout the night, but he kept his distance and I was grateful for the reprieve.

As the party started to wind down, Alexander cornered me near the outside entrance to the ballroom. He gently gripped my arm, holding me in place near an alcove that blocked us from view.

“Maddy, I need to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry, Your Highness. I was just leaving.” I tugged my arm out of his grasp and dipped down into an exaggerated curtsy.  Alexander’s eyes narrowed at my formality.

It had always bothered him whenever I refused to call him by name. He’d once told me that it made him feel more like a position than a person. But I was angry and hurt, and wanted to use the distance as a shield.

He moved closer before I could escape, effectively blocking me between his body and the wall. “Please, dolcezza?”

My eyes closed briefly at the sound of my nickname. He used the Italian endearment constantly, and the familiar use of it now made my heart twist painfully. I responded without looking at him.

“No, Your Highness. I’m sorry.”

“Will you stop calling me Your Highness already and talk to me?” Alexander demanded, grabbing hold of my shoulders and staring down at me.

“I can’t!” I boldly stood toe-to-toe with him, bristling with an anger that matched his. “Everything is confusing with us right now and I don’t know where we stand.”

He glared at me, his blue eyes intense. “I’m still Alex. Just Alex.”

“I’m sorry.” I jerked away from him, trying to put some distance between us. “But that’s not possible right now.”

I turned and fled before he could catch me again. I was so confused. I didn't know where our friendship stood. It was too embarrassing to look him in the eye, knowing that I had confessed my feelings and that he had rejected them. It was too painful to look at him, knowing that no matter how much I loved him, he didn’t feel the same way.

I finally made it outside and climbed into our waiting car, sitting next to my sister, Mackenzie. As we drove away, I scowled bitterly. Why was it that I had been able to tell all of the Markhams that I loved them except the one that I loved the most? And why, when I had finally told him, did he have to break my heart.


Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the free chapters from HEART OF MINE, Book 1 in the Royals of Coradova series.

Comments

Popular Posts