Bride by Royal Decree
Part of the Exiled Santa Dominis Series
His lost princess bride!
King Reza abandoned the search for his childhood betrothed, Princess Magdalena, years ago. Until the shocking appearance of a photograph of the elusive princess reignites the legend that gripped his nation. Now Reza must return to the hunt and claim his queen!
Waitress Maggy’s family history is a mystery, and even though she often dreamed of Prince Charming, he was never as devastatingly handsome as Reza! Fiercely independent, she won’t accept her birthright on any terms but her own, so if Reza can’t use legal bindings, he’ll use sensual ones that Maggy will be helpless to resist!
Conveniently wedded, passionately bedded!
Bride by Royal Decree
THERE WERE FEW things Maggy Strafford liked less than scrubbing the coffee shop floor—or really any floor, for that matter. Dental surgery. The stomach flu. Any and all memories of her unfortunate childhood in foster care. Still, there she was on her hands and knees, dutifully attacking an unidentifiable sticky patch on the hardwood floors of The Coffee Queen in the tiny, tourist-rich hamlet of Deanville, Vermont, just down the road from one of the state’s most famous resorts. Because it was her job as the most recently hired barista on this, the first night the owners had trusted her enough to close up shop.
And for once in the bumpy carnival ride that had been her life since she’d been found by the side of the road as a feral child with no memory of where she’d come from, Maggy was determined to keep her job. Even if it involved scrubbing unidentified sticky things off the floor of a coffee shop in almost the middle of nowhere, Vermont.
She scowled when the bell on the door rang, announcing the arrival of one more coffee-obsessed tourist who couldn’t, apparently, read the closed sign she’d flipped over on the glass. Or spare a glance inside to see all the chairs flipped up on the tables, clearly indicating the shop was closed for business. Or notice Maggy herself, there on her hands and knees on the floor, obviously not manning the espresso machine.
“We’re closed,” she called out as a blast of chilly winter air rushed in, swirling around her and making her wish she hadn’t stripped off her thick sweater to do the end of day wipe down. She did not say, which you can see right there on the door, assuming you can read, because that kind of knee-jerk, snotty response was the Old Maggy. New Maggy was kinder and gentler. And had thus been steadily and gainfully employed for the past five months.
With that in mind, she summoned a smile as she tossed her sponge back into her bucket with enough force to make the brown water slosh alarmingly. She hated smiling on command. She wasn’t exactly made for customer service and never had been, as her spotty employment record attested. But New Maggy knew better than to share her real feelings with anyone, especially not the customers, and who cared how rich and correspondingly annoying they were. Her real and inevitably prickly feelings were her personal business and best kept hidden away if she wanted to keep her current, surprisingly okay, situation. Which she did. So she aimed all her teeth at the door when she looked up.
And her half-assed smile toppled straight off her face.
Two heavily muscled and stern-faced men in dark suits that strained over their physiques strode inside, muttering into earpieces in a language that was definitely not English. They paid Maggy no mind whatsoever as she gaped up at them, moving swiftly past her where she knelt on the floor with a certain brisk efficiency that made her stomach flip over. In warning and a little bit of panic. She knew she needed to jump up and deal with them somehow, which her ingrained fight-or-flight monitor suggested meant running the hell away rather than confronting either one of them.
She braced herself to do just that.
But then another man walked in, flanked by two more muscle-bound goons with earpieces and cold, grim eyes. And giant, ugly handguns on their hips. Guns. The obvious security detail peeled off, each one taking a position at one of the front windows, all dark suits, hard gazes, and grim, bulging arms.
The man in the center took another step or two inside the coffee shop and then simply stood there, gazing down at Maggy as if he’d anointed himself the new messiah.
Maggy was no particular fan of arrogant men. Or men at all, if she was honest, given the less than stellar examples she’d encountered over the years, particularly in the foster care system. But she found her usual defense mechanisms—those being her smart mouth and her willingness to wield it first and ask questions later—seemed to have fled her completely.
Because the man standing there above her as if there was a sound track playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” as he did so was...something else.
He stood as if it was commonplace for him to find all sorts of people on their knees before him. As if, in fact, he was faintly bored that there was one more person at his feet. She should have loathed him on sight.
Instead, Maggy’s heart slammed against her ribs—and didn’t stop. She told herself he was nothing special. Just another man, and an evidently pompous one at that. Obviously, ridiculously, eye-rollingly wealthy like so many of the people who descended on this little après ski town in the winters. They were a dime a dozen here, leaping in and out of their gleaming four-wheel-drive monstrosities and blinding people with their lazy, too-white smiles. They draped themselves over all the best tables in the town’s restaurants, jacked up the prices in all the village’s boutiques with their willingness to purchase T-shirts for upwards of a hundred dollars, and cluttered up the coffee shops with their paragraph-long orders of joyless fake drinks.
This guy is nothing special at all, Maggy assured herself, still gazing up at him as if this was a church and she’d taken to her knees to do a few decades of a very specific sort of rich man rosary on a dark winter evening. This guy is interchangeable with all the rest out there.
But that was a lie.
He was extraordinary.
Something seemed to hum from him, some intense power or perhaps that sheer certainty that seemed stamped into his very bones. It was more than simple arrogance. It was more than the tanned faces, white teeth, and high-end vehicles idling by the curb that the others in this town assumed made them demigods. It made it hard to look away from him, as if he claimed all the light in the shop—in the town, in the whole of New England—for himself. And he wasn’t exactly hard to look at, she was forced to concede. He wore dark trousers and boots that Maggy could tell at a glance cost more than the fancy SUVs the usual tony ski bums drove. He wore one of those expensively flattering winter coats that exuded upper-class elegance and deep masculinity at once. He was tall, and not just because she was still kneeling. He had wide shoulders and the kind of rangy, offhandedly athletic physique that suggested he spent a lot of very hard, very physical time catering to his own strength and agility—a notion that made her stomach flip again, and this time, definitely not in warning.
But it was his face that was the real problem.
He was not a blandly attractive, run of the mill rich guy, like all the rest packed into Deanville at this time of year in their designer ski togs and indistinguishable store-bought tans. Not this man. His face was too relentlessly and uncompromisingly masculine. Too harshly male. He had a nose like an old coin and a hard, stern, unsmiling mouth that made a shocking, impossible heat uncurl, low and insistent, deep in Maggy’s belly. If she was honest, lower than that. His gaze was the color of a hard rain and much too shrewd besides. It seemed to kick up some kind of electricity as he aimed it at her, as arrogant and aloof as it was ruthless.
And he stood there with that gray gaze trained on her as if he was used to nothing less than adoration from all he surveyed. As if he expected nothing less from Maggy.
“That is perfect, of course,” the man said, in a dry tone that made it clear that it was no such thing. “Crude and disrespectful at once. My ancestors turn in their graves as we speak.” His voice was rich and deeply cultured, his English spiced by the hint of something else entirely. Maggy loathed the part of her that wanted to know what that something else was. Needed to know it, even. The man only gazed down at her, a faint frown marring the granite perfection of his dark, arrogant brow. “Why are you blonde?”
Maggy blinked. Then, worse, lifted a hand to the hair she’d dyed blonde three days ago because she’d decided blonde made her look more approachable than her natural dark chestnut color.
Then she went a little cold as his implication settled deep in her gut.
“Why are you watching me?” she demanded. Not in any sort of approachable manner, because there was friendly and then there was freaked out, and she was already a little too close to the latter. “Are you a stalker?”
There was a slight noise from the goons behind her at the counter, as if they’d reacted to that, but the man before her merely moved one of his index fingers. That was all. He was wearing the sort of buttery soft leather gloves she’d be afraid to touch with her rough hands and he merely lifted one finger. And that was that. Instant silence.
“You do not know who I am.”
It wasn’t a question. If anything, it seemed like an indictment.
“You do realize,” Maggy said slowly, sitting back on her heels and wondering if she could use her bucket and sponge as some kind of weapon if things got serious here, “that anyone who asks that question is basically outing themselves as a giant, irredeemable douche.”
His brow rose as if he had never heard the term. But there was no question, as his gray eyes glittered, that he recognized it as the insult it was.
Maggy had the strangest notion he was unused to insults altogether. And perhaps astonished that she dared change that. It meant he was even more of an untouchable rich guy than she’d already imagined—but she couldn’t figure out why recognizing that made her a little breathless.
“I beg your pardon.” His voice was dark. It rolled through her, making that breathless feeling worse and her chest feel tight besides. “A douche? Is that what you called me?”
She tipped her chin up in that way a battalion of counselors and former employers had told her was aggressive, and pretended not to notice the emphasis he put on that last word.
“The coffee shop is closed,” she said flatly. “Please gather your goon squad and go and in future? Maybe take a moment or two to consider the fact that marching around with a pack of armed men with potential steroid problems isn’t necessary when you’re after a cup of coffee.”
The man did nothing for a moment but gaze down at her, his dark eyes assessing in a way that washed over her and left strange goose bumps in their wake. Then he thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers, widening his stance, in a manner that should have looked more casual. But didn’t.
“Tell me,” he said in that same commanding voice that seemed to resonate deep inside of her. “Do you have a small birthmark behind your left ear? Shaped like a lopsided heart?”
Maggy felt cold. As frigid as the winter air that had rushed inside when they’d arrived.
“No,” she said. Though she did. And it took every bit of self-possession she had not to reach up and run her fingers over it.
He only studied her, his austere mouth flat. “You are lying.”
“And you’re creeping me out,” she retorted. She clambered up and onto her feet then, aware again of an instant reaction from the goons—and, again, the way the man in the center stopped them with the faintest wave of one finger. “What is this? What do you want? I’m guessing it’s not a Mexi-mocha soy latte with an extra shot.”
“Is your name Magdalena, by any chance?”
Maggy understood then that this man already knew the answers to the questions he was asking. And it hit her like a kick to the belly that he was asking at all. It made the hardwood floors seem to creak and slide beneath her feet.
“No,” she lied again. She couldn’t have said why she was halfway to panicked, only that she was. “My name is Maggy. It’s not short for anything.” She pulled her phone from the back pocket of her jeans and clenched it tight in her hand. Maybe she even brandished it at him a little. “And if you don’t leave right now, I’m calling the police.”
The man didn’t smile. His mouth looked as if perhaps he never had. Still, there was a silver gleam to those hard rain eyes of his, and her breath got tangled somewhere in her throat.
“That will be an exercise in frustration for you, I am afraid,” he said as if he wasn’t the least bit threatened by the notion of the police. Almost as if he welcomed it instead. “If you wish to contact the local authorities, I will not stop you. But it would be remiss of me if I did not warn you that doing so will not achieve the results you imagine.”
Maggy couldn’t have said why she believed him. But she did. It was something about the way he stood there, as if he was used to being mistaken for a very well-dressed and granite-hewn statue, and was about as soft himself.
“Then how about you just leave?” she asked, aware that her lips felt numb and that her stomach felt...weird, the way it kept flipping and knotting and then twisting some more. And meanwhile that place behind her ear where her birthmark sat seemed to be much too hot. As if it was lit on fire. But she didn’t dare touch it. Not in front of this man. “I want you to leave.”
But this man in all his haughty, brooding ruthlessness wasn’t listening to her. She’d stood up and he was clearly intrigued by that. He let those shrewd gray eyes travel all over her, and the worst part was that she had the childish urge to cover herself while he did it. When really, what did she care if some weird guy stared at her? She didn’t wear skinny jeans and tight thermal long-sleeved T-shirts that fit her like a second skin to admire her own figure.
Yet somehow, she got the impression he wasn’t staring at her ass like all the other rich guys had when she’d worked down the street in one of the village’s bars and they’d been after a little bit of local flavor in between ski runs and highly public divorces.
“It is uncanny,” the man said, his voice lower now and something like gruff. “You could be her twin, save the brazenly appalling hair.”
“I don’t have a twin,” Maggy snapped, and she could hear that there was too much stuff in her voice then. The way there always was anytime some stranger claimed she looked just like their niece or friend or cousin. When she’d been a kid, she’d gotten her hopes up every time. But she was a lot older and whole lot wiser now and she recognized these moments for what they were—throwaway comments from people who had no idea what it was like to have been thrown away themselves. “I don’t have anyone, as a matter of fact. I was found by the side of the road when I was eight and I can’t remember a single thing from before then. The end.”
“Ah, but that only proves my theory,” the man said, something hard, like satisfaction, gleaming like silver in those eyes of his.
He pulled off his leather gloves as if it was part of an ancient ceremony. Maggy couldn’t have said how he managed it, to somehow exude all of that brooding masculinity and yet be standing there doing nothing but removing a pair of gloves. He wasn’t sacking the walls of a city or performing some athletic feat, no matter how it echoed around inside of her. When he was done—and when she was busy asking herself what on earth was wrong with her that she should find a man’s strong, bare hands illicit—he pulled out a smartphone from his pocket, much larger and clearly more high-tech than the one she’d gotten recently when she’d felt so flush after her first month of regular paychecks here. Her fingers clenched hard on hers, as if she was embarrassed by her own phone, and she shoved it in her back pocket again. He swiped his screen a few times and then offered it to her, his face impassive. Though through it all, his gray eyes gleamed.
Maggy stared at his shiny, top-of-the-line smartphone as if it was a wasp’s nest, buzzing a warning straight at her.
“I don’t want to look at that,” she told him. Because he was overwhelming and he didn’t make sense and he was too much. And she was being smart not to let him reel her into anything, the way she’d always had to be smart, because it was that or be a victim. But that didn’t explain the sudden, hollow sensation deep inside her. “I want you to go. Now.”
“Look at the picture, please.”
He didn’t sound as if he was really asking. He didn’t sound as if he ever asked, come to that. And she noticed he didn’t promise that he would leave her alone if she looked as ordered, either.
So Maggy had no idea why she reached out and took the damned smartphone from him, making absolutely certain not to touch him. Or why the faint glint of approval in his stern gray gaze...did something to her. She swallowed hard and looked down at the smartphone in her hand, still warm from its close contact with his skin. Which should absolutely not have made her fight back a shudder.
Maggy focused on the screen in her hand. And then froze.
It was a picture of a woman.
She was standing somewhere beautiful, all gleaming lights and old stone, and she was looking back over one bared shoulder with a wide smile. Her dark chestnut hair was swept back into some kind of complicated bun and she was wearing the sort of dress real people never wore, long and sleek and seemingly threaded through with diamonds to match the bright strands draped around her neck.
If Maggy didn’t know better, she’d have said it was a picture of her.
“What is this?” she whispered, aware as she did that her heart was pounding at her. That her stomach knotted so hard it hurt. That her head ached, hard and strange at her temples. “Who is this?”
The man before her didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t lift one of his powerful fingers. He didn’t do anything, and yet there was something about the way he watched her then that took over the whole world.
“That is Serena Santa Domini.” His voice was cool, and yet she was sure there was something like satisfaction in his voice, threaded in deep, like stone. “Better known as Her Majesty, the queen of Santa Domini, who died twenty years ago in a car crash in Montenegro.” His gray eyes flashed with something Maggy didn’t understand, dark and sure, but it hit her like a wallop all the same. “I believe she was your mother.”
End of excerpt
Bride by Royal Decree
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