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Prince albert, p.1
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       Prince Albert, p.1

         Part #4 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige  



  CHAPTER ONE

  Belle

  “You,” I say. I blink my eyes several times in quick succession, silently offering up a prayer that I’m not seeing what I’m seeing. Or, more accurately, who I’m seeing. Maybe I’m having a mental breakdown and this is actually just some type of stress-induced hallucination.

  Losing my mind would be preferable to this. Hell, pretty much anything would be preferable to this.

  “You,” he says. He stares at me, unblinking. I swear, time stops completely. The rotation of the earth comes to a grinding halt as he stands there, no more than ten feet away, looking at me. Then, the corners of his mouth turn up -- just a hair. The movement is most likely imperceptible to anyone else, but I definitely notice.

  That asshole. It’s like he’s pleased with this development. It’s as if he expected this.

  You’d have to be a fucking lunatic to be happy about this.

  “I wasn’t aware that the two of you had met before.” My mother looks back and forth between us, her expression unwavering. If there’s one thing Sofia Kensington excels at, it’s revealing absolutely nothing when confronted with something potentially scandalous. She’s entirely unflappable, standing there motionless in her sage green silk shift and heels, her chestnut-colored hair pulled up in a chignon, perfectly-manicured hands folded neatly in front of her.

  She’s always looked regal. Becoming the Queen of a small European country is a perfect fit. I know, without even asking, that it’s the culmination of her life’s ambitions. It's everything in the world she's hoped for.

  And now, I'm standing here harboring a secret that could jeopardize all of that.

  If my mother knew the whole truth about me and the boy standing not more than ten feet away from me…

  Let’s just say the scandal would be one of epic proportions.

  A scandal of royal proportions is probably more accurate, given the particular circumstances.

  “I –“ I start, then stop. My mouth suddenly feels like I swallowed twenty cotton balls, and my heart is thumping so wildly I think it might actually beat right out of my chest.

  “I recall bumping into Isabella in Las Vegas last week,” he says, his voice light, teasing, the hint of an accent on his lips. Everything he says, even the raunchiest of things, comes out sounding like it’s spoken by a person who’s well-bred, well-educated, pedigreed.

  Of course, that’s because he is the ultimate in well-bred.

  “I didn’t realize who she was," he says.

  And I definitely remember the way he speaks the raunchiest of things.

  "Yes," I murmur, the word barely audible. "I believe we bumped into each other."

  That much is true.

  "Oh my God. Why don’t you watch where you're going!" I don’t even bother to look up at the asshole who just ran into me. I’m too focused on the fact that there’s a wet spot spreading across the front of my dress, gin and tonic seeping through the fabric and causing my nipples to harden under the amped-up air conditioning in the casino.

  "My apologies for your dress, although I'm not sorry I bumped into you," he says. And a handkerchief appears in front of my face. Who the hell carries a fabric handkerchief nowadays? "I'd be happy to pat that dry for you, if you’d like."

  The accent is what throws me – European or something I can’t quite place, but definitely out of the ordinary here in a Vegas casino – and I look up at him, ready to give him a piece of my mind. The combination of alcohol and the fact that this is the worst day of my entire life has made me edgy and beyond irritable.

  Holy shit.

  Even in my drunken haze, this guy is spectacular, gazing down at me with blue eyes filled with mischief. Literally, spectacular is the only word for it.

  He’s the most beautiful man I've ever laid eyes on, with eyes a periwinkle color that’s nearly purple under the lights in the casino, and lips so lush that I can't think about anything except what it would be like to feel them against my skin…

  Of course, that’s the image that immediately pops into my head, sending a shiver down my spine as I picture his head close to me, his lips trailing across my stomach, then down farther.

  There’s something familiar about him, but my booze-addled brain can’t quite place it. For a second, I think I might have seen him before, but I tell myself that’s stupid. It’s just my brain playing tricks on me.

  This is not the kind of man you’d ever forget seeing.

  "Is that your shtick?” I ask, the waver in my voice betraying my sudden nervousness. “Spilling drinks on girls and then patting them down?"

  He laughs. "I don't need a shtick, luv," he says, leaning close to me to whisper softly. "Unless you mean the one between my legs."

  "You're crude," I say, wrinkling my nose. But I can’t help but glance down, exactly where he wanted me to look.

  "You're…" His voice fades away for a moment as his gaze trails down the length of my body, making me flush. "Like a drunken disheveled Cinderella."

  "So that would make you, what, the not-so-charming prince?" I ask, glancing down at my shoe on the ground. I lost my shoe. So what? I was running from her -- my best friend. My maid-of-honor.

  The traitorous bitch.

  The corners of his mouth turn up as he looks at me like he's pleased. His smile is superior, patronizing almost, as if I'm a child who's amused him. "Something like that."

  Something like that.

  The bastard. He had conveniently failed to mention that it was exactly like that.

  "I apologize for the secrecy," my mother says. "Whisking you off to Protrovia on a private plane was designed to make things…efficient. Less messy.”

  "Less messy," I repeat, the irony of the words apparent only to me. She hasn't spoken the words aloud yet, but if she's about to say what I think she is, this is going to be beyond messy.

  It’s going to be positively nuclear.

  "Isabella," she snaps, then clears her throat. "It's ill-mannered to simply repeat what I'm saying."

  The man beside her – King Leopold IV of Protrovia, who’s already introduced himself in the most bizarrely casual way (“Call me Leo”, like he’s a regular guy and not royalty – as if we’re not standing here in the middle of a palace) places his hand on her arm. "Sofia, please," he says quietly.

  My mother takes a deep breath, as if my very presence here is trying her patience. "The secrecy was all for your benefit," she says. "I didn't want this to overshadow your bachelorette party, or your wedding plans.”

  My wedding, I realize, a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. My engagement.

  In the midst all of this ridiculousness – being flown on a private jet without being told where I was going (I'd like to say the intrigue was unusual but I'm used to my mother's antics), taken straight to a palace -- I'd forgotten to tell her.

  Oh, God.

  "I'm not getting married," I say, my voice soft. I swear the air goes out of the room, and everything becomes perfectly still.

  "Excuse me?" My mother's normal reserve cracks again. Usually that would give me some small sense of delight, except that this time it doesn't. This time, it just makes me feel worse.

  "I. Am. Not. Getting. Married," I repeat, this time more slowly, emphasizing each word clearly. My head is spinning.

  I’m not getting married.

  I don't say the rest of the words. But I think them in my head, panic rising in my throat.

  I am not getting married -- because I already am. The thought makes me want to vomit.

  I’m already married.

  To my brand-spanking-new stepbrother.

  Prince Albert, the Crown Prince of Protrovia.

  This is a royal fucking nightmare.

  CHAPTER TWO

  Belle

  “Isabella Kensington,” my mother hisses. “This is not the time nor place.”

  If she only knew how badly this was not the time nor place.

  “Oh, juicy.” King Leopold’s daughter stands on the other side of the room, leaning against an ornate carved wooden statue that's trimmed in gold and glittering with precious gems, her torn jeans and faded t-shirt emblazoned with the name of an indie rock band from the United States. She is a stark contrast to the formality of this room in the palace.

  I look around the room with a clinical kind of detachment that means I’m probably in shock. I haven’t even had a chance for a tour of the palace. I wonder if this room is the place where they announce bad news. Do royal palaces have designated bad news rooms? They should.

  I suppose my mother and the king – Leo – only think their nuptials are good news.

  The girl – I can’t even remember her name; it’s like my mind has gone completely empty -- pops her gum loudly. “Sweet. A broken engagement? At least I’m not the only one causing drama for once.”

  Leopold gives her a disapproving look. “Yes, Alexandra,” he says, scowling at her. “That’s certainly a silver lining.”

  “So the two of you are getting married,” Alexandra says, crossing her arms over her chest. “I think we’re all pretty clear on that. You’ve been seeing each other all summer. It’s not exactly a big secret, okay? We’re one big happy family. Smile for the press and all that. Are we done now?”

  “Alexandra!” Leopold bellows, his deep baritone thundering through the room. The sound makes me jump, and it seems to surprise him, like he’s not used to losing his temper, because he clears his throat immediately. “Yes. Sofia and I are getting married.”

  Am I the only one in the world who didn’t know?

  Even isolated in a rural village in Africa before I came back to the States – to Vegas, because of my engagement -- I got mail. My mother could have told me before this.

  She could have sent a postcard or something:

  Wish you were here. P.S. I’m marrying a European monarch. You’re going to be a princess!

  The King continues, saying something – using words like decorum and public eye and propriety – but I don’t hear what he says. It’s like he’s speaking in a tunnel, his words coming from someplace in the distance, and my head is swimming. I know I’m standing still, but it feels as if I’m on a boat, the floor rocking back and forth. Someone asks me if I’m okay, but I can’t seem to muster up a response.

  Instead, I turn and run headlong through the room. My palms slam against the heavy, ornately-carved wooden door, pushing it open without waiting for the assistance of the man standing beside it. Is he a butler? Do palaces have butlers, or is there a fancier term for them?

  When I burst out the door, a bulky, imposing man in a suit with an earpiece in his ear catches my elbow. “Are you okay, Miss Kensington?”

  I shake my head, mute. The fact that he knows my name is fucking creepy. But of course he knows my name. I’m sure they know everything about me.

  Oh God. What if they know about what happened in Vegas?

  The thought brings a fresh wave of nausea to the surface, and I barely choke out the word “bathroom.” The bodyguard points me in the direction of a room ten feet down the hall, attempting to escort me, but I shake his hand off my arm and shut myself inside, barely making it to a velvet-covered bench that must be several hundred years old before my legs give way.

  My breath comes in short gasps, and I feel lightheaded, on the verge of hyperventilating. I try to slow my breath, reminding myself that I can't freak out.

  Not here. Not now.

  Closing my eyes, I think of other things -- things that don't involve being the center of what's potentially the biggest scandal in the entire world.

  Or, if not the entire world, at least the Western one. Or Europe.

  Any way I think about it, it's a scandal involving several countries. It's the worst possible scenario for someone whose idea of a nightmare is being in the public eye at all.

  I've successfully avoided any public attention for the last two years. That’s not easy to do when your mother craves the public eye the way mine does, a whirlwind of charity functions and testifying before Congress and trips as a United Nations ambassador. In fact, escaping all of that meant I had to flee to another continent entirely.

  I've been so disconnected from the outside world that I had no idea who he was.

  And now, I feel like a complete and total idiot for not recognizing Prince Albert. He’s only one of the most famous princes on earth. Notorious would probably be a better word for it, known more for his antics in the bedroom than any kind of political activity.

  The door swings open and there he is, as if simply thinking about him was enough to conjure him up out of nothing, summoned here by the universe. I silently curse my luck. "Get out of here," I hiss, the words barely coming out, my breath still short.

  "Are you having a panic attack or a total mental breakdown?" he asks.

  "Neither," I lie. In fact, I might very well be having a breakdown. Maybe I’m hallucinating this entire scenario.

  "Good," he says. "I'd hate to think I over-estimated you."

  “I just needed a second," I say, my voice defensive. I don't know where this guy gets off talking about over-estimating me. "Leave me alone."

  "Not a chance," he says, still standing by the doorway. "Count to ten after I walk out this door before you follow me. When you leave here, turn right and go down the hallway. There's a Monet -- it's the third painting on the right side of the wall. Push on the panel beside it. It's a secret passageway."

  A secret passageway? Of course there's a secret passageway. It's a palace. I’ve practically walked right onto the set of a James Bond film. "You’re nuts if you think I'm about to follow you into a secret passageway," I say, my panic turning into disbelief.

  He gives me a cocky grin and shrugs. "Don't pretend you have anything better to do, luv," he says. "Unless you're planning to get on a plane and head back to Africa?"

  "How do you know I was in -- " Africa, I start to say, but he's already turned around. Damn it.

  I sit there in the bathroom, my heart no longer racing the way it was, no longer panicked and anxious. Instead, my heart pounds wildly in my chest for different reasons as I look at the closed door, where he just left. The thought of the way he looks at me, his gaze traveling the length of my body, sends warmth radiating through my body.

  We spent one night together – and not even that way. I haven’t been with him. It was one random night in Vegas, driving around in a limo.

  And getting married.

  It seems like a lifetime ago.

  I thought I would never see him again. I shouldn’t have ever seen him again. And how in the world was I supposed to know he was a prince? Or my future stepbrother?

  We spent one night together. One kiss. So what?

  It was one kiss that I’ve thought about it every day for the past two weeks, unable to shake the way his lips felt pressed against mine.

  I should be devastated by my broken engagement. When your maid of honor confesses her affair with your fiancé, it should crush you. It’s supposed to crush you, right?

  Except that I’ve been thinking of him instead.

  I'm certainly not going to chase Prince Albert – he was Albie to me then, and definitely not a prince -- down a secret passageway.

  I count in my head -- ten, then twenty, and thirty before I stand up and walk to the door and do exactly what he told me to do.

 
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