Reclaiming His Ruined Princess

Book 2 in the Lost Princess Scandal Series
HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

The Spaniard from her past
Is seeking revenge!

When Amalia Montaigne discovers she’s not the Crown Princess everyone thought she was, she craves solitude. The Spanish island where she had an illicit taste of freedom seems perfect. Until she realises billionaire Joaquin Vargas is also in residence…and still devastatingly smouldering!

Joaquin never forgot the princess who left their chemistry behind. As for forgiveness? Impossible! Hardened by his childhood of abandonment, this time he’s determined to claim then leave her. But Joaquin hasn’t reckoned on the passion exploding between them – insatiable, inescapable, and strong enough to ruin them both…

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Amalia Montaigne only realized how much she loved her life when it was taken from her.

She supposed there was a lesson in that, little as she enjoyed learning it. She had been raised as the Crown Princess of Ile d’Montagne, a tiny island country in the Mediterranean, with her every move pored over and scrutinized by friend, foe, and paparazzo alike as she learned how to walk in the footsteps of her formidable mother, Queen Esme.

Her main concern throughout her life so far had been the attempt to carve out a space in that fishbowl existence to be her. Not the princess, bound by duty and convention. Not the public figure, owned by anyone and everyone who looked at her. A woman with a real life of her own, however hidden away from view.

But real life wasn’t easy to come by for a woman in her position. Her single experience with it had ended badly. And as far as she could tell, her mother had abdicated her own real life, such as it was, in service to the crown long ago. All Esme spoke of was her throne, her legacy—not as a mother, but as a queen. If she had private thoughts about anything else, she usually kept them to herself.

Amalia had been determined that she would not do the same. She would live up to the expectations placed upon her as well as create a place, somewhere in the swirl of duty and honor and obligation, where she could be entirely herself.

She hadn’t been succeeding in that objective, but now it no longer mattered. The truth had come out, shocking the world and turning her life—real or otherwise—inside out. Princess Amalia of Ile d’Montagne had been switched at birth. Or, rather, three days after her birth, to be precise—with the daughter of a farmer from Kansas. And the girl who had been raised on that farm, the true blue-blooded heir to the throne Amalia had been training to take over her whole life, had gone and married the head of the rebel faction that had been tormenting the Ile d’Montagne royal family for centuries.

Meaning that not only was Amalia not the crown princess, the future of her country and her mother’s successor, but the true princess had returned to claim what was hers with the Montaigne family’s sworn enemy—a neat little bloodless, slow-moving coup that would change the little island country forever. It already had.

Not that it mattered to the actual, real life Amalia who was still a headline at the moment. She assumed she wouldn’t remain one for long. The fascination with her would pass quickly, she had no doubt, and all that attention would shine on someone else, instead. Probably actual princesses, including the one she had been unwittingly masquerading as all this time. Amalia’s name would be trotted out every decade or so to kick up the scandal anew and sell papers, that was all. Especially once Delaney Clark, the true heir, became queen. And the more obscure Amalia became in the meantime, the more the greedy tabloid consumers would love it.

Can you believe that she was almost a queen? they would tut on their morning commutes, or standing in their checkout lines.

The upshot of all this was, for the first time in her life, Amalia could have been anyone at all.

What she felt most keenly, however, was that she was a newly twenty-five year old woman who had no idea what to do now that her destiny wasn’t mapped out before her, step by step, until death. Now she had nothing to do, for the rest of her life, but be herself.

Whoever that was.

“Are you ready?”

Amalia smiled at the aide who stood with her in the small hall off the entryway to the palace that the royals used for more private entrances and exits. Paparazzi were expressly forbidden. Both Amalia and the impassive woman beside her were pretending. The aide that it was perfectly normal that the once-future-queen was slipping away so ignominiously tonight, with no fanfare and no farewell committee. And Amalia that she was serene about her change in circumstances.

But then, she had no choice but to act serene. It was that or go kicking and screaming, and what would that get her except pity and scorn? Amalia thought she could handle almost anything but pity. She felt lucky, truly, that her mother hadn’t offered her any—as she rather thought it might have killed her.

And she was immune to scorn. A life in the gimlet crosshairs of the public eye had made certain of that. But who knew—maybe a heaping of scorn as a private citizen would do her in too.

Best to put a good face on it, she’d decided.

Amalia was doing her best not to think about it all too closely while she was still here. Still in the palace where she’d been raised. The palace she considered her home. Instead, she concentrated on waiting gracefully, because she knew her behavior in these final moments would be dissected and retold, no matter how professional the aide was acting while still in her presence. She folded her hands before her and pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth to keep her jaw from tightening around her polite smile. She’d used to think of such tricks, used while forever being in public and watched so closely, as making her mother proud.

Though she had to remind herself—yet again—that Queen Esme of Ile d’Montagne was not her mother. No matter the twenty-five years they’d spent together. It was all washed away as if it had never been. A few blood tests were all it had taken to erase their relationship.

It was stunning, really. Breathtaking. Impossible to fully comprehend.

Because at first, the queen had been defiant. Shall the throne of Ile d’Montagne be toppled by these grubby upstarts? Esme had thundered. Not on my watch.

If it’s a scam, it’s masterfully done, Amalia had hedged. Truly.

She could remember that moment so clearly. She and the queen had been taking their morning meal together, as was their long-held custom. They sat together in the queen’s private salon so that Esme could rage about her enemies—almost always the rebels in the mountains, but sometimes the insufficiently reverent European press—and lecture Amalia on topics ranging from Esme’s strategy for finding suitable marital prospects for her only child to comprehensive critiques of Amalia’s public appearances.

Amalia had learned long ago when to treat these lectures as conversations and when it was better to sit there quietly and listen to Her Majesty deliver a monologue.

‘Masterful’ is not a word I would apply to the likes of Cayetano Arcieri and his obsessive fever dreams of someday taking my throne, Esme had sniffed that day.

But Cayetano, rebel warlord and thorn in the side of the royal family, had played his hand well. He had married his not-quite-a-farm-girl in secret in his stronghold in the hills. Only once the true princess had been bound to him forever had he given that fateful interview to a friendly British paper that had been hanging on his every word since university. And in that one, specifically devastating interview, he had dropped—almost as an afterthought—the news that the woman he’d married was, believe it or not, the long-lost daughter of none other than Esme herself.

Esme, who had suffered the sort of pregnancy complications that had necessitated she fly to America to the only hospital in the world that specialized in that exact syndrome, the better to protect her heir. And because of this, was there at the same time as the other mother—my real mother, Amalia tried to remember to think of her. The nurse who was suspected of having made the mistake and given the real princess to the wrong mother couldn’t defend herself, having died years ago.

Two babies switched in a hospital, Cayetano had said in that interview, with the quiet charm that was a hallmark of his media appearances. In person, Amalia had always found him more off-putting. Much colder and more… warlord-like, which made sense. Who could imagine such a thing?

And since Cayetano had spent the better part of his life building up his media relationships in all the right places, making himself the protagonist in the story of Ile d’Montagne instead of the villain Amalia had always believed him to be, his accusation caught fire.

I can’t imagine what he’s playing at, Esme had seethed the morning after that appearance, slapping her hand on the stack of newspapers before her. An accusation like this is so easily disproven. What a fool.

That night Amalia had stood in her rooms, finally alone after a long day forever surrounded by courtiers and aides, fussy ministers and the occasional subject. And she’d thought it sounded lovely to grow up on a farm in a place like Kansas, which she knew chiefly from The Wizard of Oz—a film she’d watched at least a hundred times on her own. She’d gazed out of her window, looking out over the sparkle of Ile d’Montagne’s royal city with its blue roofs and white buildings by day and gleaming lights by night. And she’d thought, wouldn’t that be funny, if Mother was the wicked witch after all?

But she hadn’t really thought it could be true. How could she be someone else when there had been battalions of tutors and aides and ministers to make sure she was exactly who she was supposed to be? Always and forever?

Then had come the blood tests—then several repeats of the same blood tests. There had been endless speculation in the press. Amalia had tracked the inconceivable truth through Esme’s growing distance. The Queen became too busy in her mornings to break her fast with Amalia. And then, after a while, Amalia had been sent out on a deeply uncomfortable meeting with Delaney Clark, Kansas farm girl turned future queen, to show that the crown accepted reality. And did so with grace and self-deprecating humor, Amalia’s specialty.

Amalia had seen Esme alone only once more. The queen had called her in to her formal rooms, where heads of state came to pay their respects and underlings were dressed down for all manner of slights and missteps. Amalia was treated as a member of the latter group and made to stand some distance away. As if they had never been anything to each other.

And the woman she still thought of as her mother had not made the slightest attempt to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. Then again, Esme had not been big on reaching out or offering comfort the past twenty-five years, either. That was not one of her strengths.

You will always be cared for, Esme had told her, stiffly. Maybe that was her version of comfort. You need have no worries in this life, Amalia. I will guarantee you that. I am deeply cognizant that nothing that has occurred is any way your fault.

That would be a long game indeed, Amalia had said quietly, her gaze respectfully lowered in the presence of the sovereign, no matter the churn of emotions within her. Especially if I started said game at three days old.

Once, Esme would have pounced on a comment like that. That day, when Amalia snuck a look, the queen’s eyes had been cool and she had only smiled that tight smile she mainly used to stop courtiers at ten paces.

It wasn’t that Amalia had expected a hug. Esme was not tactile, as she liked to tell dignitaries from effusive countries when they attempted to get too close. Amalia knew better than to hope that might change… but she did anyway.

Nonetheless, Esme had told her frostily, clearly not in any kind of hugging mood, it has been decided that it would be best if you took a step back.

Of course, Amalia had said, because what else could she say? I serve your pleasure. Or do not.

It was the last time she saw her mother. Because Her Majesty, the Queen, was always too busy for anyone not deemed essential. And wasn’t that a bit of a shock? To discover that after all these years, all she’d given—and more, had given up—she could be hustled away and thrust out of sight so easily?

It wasn’t only Esme. When Amalia was feeling charitable, she rather thought that the queen didn’t know quite what to do. What was there to say or do, after all? The reality of those blood tests had to have shaken the proud queen to the core. Because Esme hadn’t noticed that her baby had been replaced. She hadn’t noticed that she was raising an imposter. Surely that said more about her than the daughter she was now distancing herself from.

The newspapers certainly thought so.

Amalia went from having two extra mobiles manned entirely by staff—so they could handle the endless influx of calls—to barely needing her own, private mobile at all. Since no one called her. Because no one knew who she was. They only knew she wasn’t the princess.

She was used to having parades of men circling around her, jockeying for position because one of them would be chosen—eventually— by the queen to become the crown princess’s husband. And would therefore one day be king. Amalia had always found these men irritating, so it was a surprise to discover that she noticed their absence so keenly. Even though Esme had finally narrowed it down to two acceptable suitors in the past year. And while Amalia had really never cared much for those two, both of vague royal blood in one way or another, they had been so solicitous. So generous and thoughtful.

Yet neither one of them had bothered to reach out once the news broke.

It was clarifying.

And perhaps this was a gift, she tried to tell herself as she waited, stuck in limbo until the queen decided it was time for her to exit quietly. One she would look back on someday with gratitude. Because she had always wondered how much she truly mattered to anyone, taken apart from her bloodline. And now she knew.

Like it or not, she knew.

“Just a few more moments,” the aide beside her said now, her fingers on the earpiece she wore. “Then you can be on your way at last.”

As if Amalia was setting off on a pleasant holiday. And not being shuffled out the back door in disgrace. That it was none of her own making was neither here nor there.

The palace had planned her exit carefully. The Queen was welcoming Cayetano Arcieri and the new Crown Princess of Ile d’Montagne—his wife, Delaney—with a grand reception now that the two of them had returned to the island after an extended honeymoon. It was the first time an Arcieri had set foot in the ancient palace since the famous feud between his people and Esme’s had begun.

No one would pay the slightest attention to Amalia she faded off into the night. Which was precisely how everyone wanted it.

Amalia was to simply… disappear.

Her Majesty has seen fit to provide you with a most generous situation, her mother’s most fearsome minister had told her. He was the one who did the talking, though he’d come into the meeting with a phalanx of palace attorneys to back him up. As if, Amalia had thought, she had been attempting blackmail instead of just… reeling. The expectation is that you will handle these unforeseen developments with grace.

My mistake, Amalia had murmured. I thought the queen was taking care of me because I have trained my whole life to be a person that I am not. I didn’t realize it was a bribe for future good behavior.

The minister had gazed at her with a certain amount of steely forbearance. Her Majesty is cognizant of the fact that you might have a number of feelings concerning recent events, Amalia.So do we all.

Amalia had spent the previous few weeks overseeing the packing up of her things. Which had involved a great deal of thinking about what was actually hers. Because so much of what she considered her own was in fact her mother’s. Or the palace’s. Or, more properly, belonged to the people of Ile d’Montagne.

People who were not hers.

She tried, very hard, to be fair.

But she also had to bear in mind that she was not… moving house, as regular people did all the time, or so she was informed. She was taking what was reasonably hers—and what the queen, through surrogates, wished to bestow upon her— and shipping it off to storage facility outside Paris. Because outside Paris seemed as good a center of operation as any, because wasn’t that what people needed? A home base of some kind? Having never thought beyond Ile d’Montagne, she hardly knew how she was expected to figure out where she ought to live.

Much less how.

Amalia felt certain that she could learn how to do all those things that were considered normal. Like pay bills. Or… have bills in the first place. And a place for those bills to find her. One thing she had gathered from watching television over the years was that most people were preoccupied with bills. She imagined that she would be too, then.

But she was going to have to figure that out on her own. It was that or have someone teach her, and how could she tell if such a person would have her best interests at heart? She was a suddenly-ex-princess with zero street smarts. No one had to tell her that she was ripe for the picking. She imagined there would be all sorts of people lining up to take advantage of her.

Anyway, she found herself less than sympathetic to the notion that the palace staff might have found any of this as difficult as she did.

If I’m understanding you correctly, she’d said dryly, the concern is that I will fling myself into the sort of antics that I was always expressly forbidden. And in so doing, bring shame upon the house of Montaigne. The only concern of the queen, as I think we both know.

That you are not the blood relation of Her Majesty may be well known, the minister had replied. But I think you know that doesn’t matter.You will be scrutinized for the rest of your life. You will be compared to the new crown princess. And then, one day, to the new queen. That may not be fair, but it is reality. There is no virtue in pretending otherwise.

Wonderful, Amalia had said, with her practiced smile. At least all these years of training won’t be entirely useless. I’ll be able to act as appropriately as ever, forever in service to this country which, it turns out, has nothing to do with me at all.

The minister had surprised her then. He had looked at her with what she very much thought was genuine compassion.

You have always impressed us all with your grace and character, he said quietly, knocking her smile off her face. I have every reason to believe that no matter what you do, you’ll never change such an essential part of who you are. If I were you, my lady, I would look at this not as a punishment at all. But as freedom.

That was the word that echoed inside of Amalia tonight. Freedom.

Whatever that was.

She nodded at the aide beside her when she was finally given the go-ahead. She smiled the way she always had, serene and easy—a smile she’d practiced for years in the mirror. Then she walked out of the palace and climbed into the waiting car that would sneak her away from everything she knew, down to the docks where a boat waited to take her off of this island and far from Ile d’Montagne. Likely forever.

Amalia couldn’t think of a single reason she would ever return. Not when she could only be a sad shadow lurking about the island she had loved, a reminder of so many years of unwitting deception.

But that was all right, she told herself stoutly as she boarded the small yacht that waited for her, far from the royal docks and staffed with the most trustworthy of the queen’s men. Because she was setting sail for freedom.

Not that she’d had a great lot of experience with the concept. Freedom, her tutors had told her sternly when she was growing up and needed to be more like a queen and less like the bored child she was, is for others, far less privileged. It is not for you.

And aside from one golden summer, that had been true.

Amalia didn’t stand out on the yacht’s deck. She didn’t want to be seen—it would disappoint the queen and she still cared about that. More than she should. And besides, she didn’t want to look back at the island. At the life that had never been hers.

At everything she was losing tonight.

She curled herself up in her stateroom and settled in for the night. Because there, in private, she could indulge herself the way she’d tried so hard not to all these years.

Oh, how she’d tried—and failed.

But tonight there was no one to scold her. No one to remind her of her duty—because she had no more duties. She had the queen’s request to avoid scandals that might reflect badly on Ile d’Montagne, though she was no longer required to honor the queen’s request. She wasn’t the queen’s subject. Oh, and she had freedom, whatever that was.

What was that song that suggested it was nothing more than nothing left to lose?

So—for once without the usual guilt—Amalia thought about that summer.

And better yet, him.

Joaquin Vargas.

Even his name made her shiver, across space and time.

She had been twenty and sheltered. Guarded her whole life.

The crown princess was always supervised. Never left to her own devices, for fear that any decisions she might make on her own would lead to embarrassment for the palace.

Far too many European royals work out their adolescent drama on the front pages of the tabloids, the palace media manager had told her severely when she was still a girl. Her Majesty, the Queen, does not intend for Ile d’Montagne to join these ranks. Do you understand, Your Highness? 

Amalia had understood. How could she not? The contours of the glass bowl she lived in had always been clear to her. And it only took a few unflattering turns on a tabloid cover to understand that there was very little benefit to smashing her face up against that glass. It could leave unsightly marks. It might even cause a commotion. But what it didn’t do, ever, was change her circumstances.

The summer of her twentieth year, the rebel faction in the mountains had been louder than usual. And the warlord, Cayetano, was entirely too good at whipping up international sympathy for his cause. It had driven her mother mad.

Maybe that was why it was agreed that the crown princess could have a holiday, instead of following her mother around from engagement to engagement as usual.

As long as I do not hear of any yachting about the Côte d’Azur, the queen had said gravely. Like some common Hollywood tart.

And looking back now, Amalia couldn’t remember how she’d found Cap Morat. Once thought to have been connected to the Spanish mainland, the island had been a fortress for many ages, then had fallen into disrepair. It had been bought at some point before that summer and transformed into a luxurious hotel experience boasting the height of privacy there in the Balearic Sea.

The palace had rented the whole of the island for the summer, so that her guards could keep themselves to the perimeter—meaning mostly on boats and the odd beach—and Amalia could wander about and pretend she was normal.

As the only guest on the island, she’d made friends with the staff immediately.

But it had been the owner who had captivated her.

Joaquin Vargas. She couldn’t remember, now, what she had known about him at the time and what she had learned in the five years since. That he was self-made. That he had come from nothing and only by sheer force of will had he made himself into a myth. A legend. Capable of transforming a rock in the sea and a crumbling old fortress into an opulent retreat for the wealthiest and most famous—and that was but one of the tricks he’d used to cement his position as the darling of the financial world.

Though what she remembered chiefly about him from that very first meeting was the green of his eyes, gleaming with intent and too much fire from a face that seemed cut from stone. And polished to shine.

It was not too sentimental to admit that she had fallen at first sight. It was a fact. One moment she had been who she always was, eating a breakfast out on the patio overlooking the sea. She had been enjoying the touch of the breeze against her face. The song of birds in the trees. She had been trying her best to fully inhabit this freedom she knew would not come again. Amalia had been thinking about her mother’s insistence in choosing husband for her only daughter. And how little interest she had in any of the candidates her mother favored.

Same old, same old.

Then she looked up and Joaquin was there. And nothing that summer was ever the same.

She was never the same.

She shivered again, now, in her comfortable berth in the boat that took her across the water, heading for that same rock set down in the sea. She drew her soft cashmere wrap tighter around her and tried to take the sort of deep, cleansing breaths that one of the personal trainers she’d worked with over the years always claimed held near-magical properties.

Amalia could admit, privately, here in the privacy of her own head, that there was a part of her that wished that she was running to Joaquin after all this time.

When she knew that if she tried such a thing, he would likely set her on fire as soon as look at her.

That was the choice she’d made. The only choice she could have made, she told herself now as she had then, but that didn’t make it any less harsh. Because summer had ended. There had been no possibility Queen Esme would ever accept a self-made Spanish businessman as an appropriate mate for her only heir. No possible way that she would even entertain the conversation.

Amalia had gotten one perfect summer. And that was more than she had ever dared hope she would get. But she and Joaquin had loved each other so well, so deeply, and with such earth shattering intensity that she had known there was no way he would ever accept the idea that she would choose to leave him.

Because she wouldn’t—if she had been anyone else. If she had been anything but a crown princess to a throne and subject to her mother’s decrees in all things. She had ended it abruptly, and unkindly. And had fled back to her duties, her responsibilities, her plotted-out life and suitors she hadn’t wanted even before she’d met a man like Joaquin.

She sighed as she closed her eyes and remembered. And she could pretend, as she lay in her bunk, that she was returning to those syrupy gold, endlessly sweet days five years ago. She’d pretended exactly that on more occasions than she could count. Joaquin was her secret and she’d kept him tucked away inside her like a precious jewel too dear to expose to the light.

When instead, the truth was that she had rented herself a little villa on the island under a false name, because that might keep the tabloids at bay. And she expected no syrupy sweetness, because she did not expect that she would run into the island’s owner at all. Not after the way she’d left him five years ago. This time she merely intended to hide away from the other guests and the whole of the world, until she felt strong enough to face what happened to her. And perhaps, somewhere in there, able to come up with some kind of plan for future.

Because hers was no longer plotted out for her, step by step, until her death. Maybe, at some point, she would find such a freedom exhilarating. Until then, she intended to stare at the sea, hide herself away from the intrusion of press and idle speculation, and heal in the only place she’d ever let herself imagine… what if?

She might even consider seeking out her real mother at some point, she supposed. A woman with a farm in Kansas, which was as fanciful a location as another planet to Amalia. But first, she supposed, she needed to let go of the mother she’d had in Queen Esme all these years. Distant, difficult. Often demanding. Always formidable.

But still, her mother for a quarter of a century. And Amalia loved her, for all the good it had done her. She still felt too brittle and taken back to process any of that, but she knew it was coming. Along with a healthy dollop of grief, she imagined.

Because it was one thing to complain about your life. And another thing to have it snatched away from you with no possibility of ever getting it back. At some point, she expected she would need to mourn what was lost.

But not tonight.

Tonight, she drifted off into sleep and only woke when the boat docked at Cap Morat.

She made herself presentable and then climbed up onto the deck, sighing a bit as the island gleamed there before her, golden and glorious, just as she remembered it. The old fortress rose imposingly, burnished to shine. It was a small island, easily walkable, and she already itched to wander its paths and sit on its rocky cliffs to look out to the endless, beckoning sea. Surely she would find herself here. Surely she would encounter the woman she was meant to be as she left the princess behind.

A shiver of foreboding worked its way down her neck. Amalia told herself it was the breeze.

It seemed particularly quiet, she thought as she stepped off the boat. She smiled vaguely around her, looking for the hotel staff that she remembered being effortlessly ubiquitous when she’d been here before. Perhaps it was different when there were other guests about.

She walked along the stone path that led from the docks straight toward the grand front entrance of the hotel. Each step was like walking through her memories. She longed to kick off her shoes and led the warm stones kiss her bare feet. She couldn’t wait let down her hair from the ruthless chignon she always wore as Princess Amalia. She wanted to swim in the sea and dry herself on sunbaked stones, letting the salt stay on her skin. She wanted to bask in the sunshine, letting it tan her skin without a single thought as to how that might make her look in endless rounds of photos that her mother had always decreed ought to look timeless.

This place was timeless, so she need not be.

That was what she was thinking when she walked in the grand, open arches that served as doors, yet were always open to the elements, inviting her in. Inside, the hotel lobby was empty. She stopped then, confused. For surely there ought to be staff here, if not down at the docks. There ought to be someone. She turned in a circle, taking in the ornate architecture, the high ceilings. The fireplace that seemed to hover in one wall. The fountain that splashed in the center. The sense that somehow, though she stood in an ancient fortress that had been built to keep everything out, it somehow invited in the sun, the sky, the sea.

It was only when she turned the second time that she saw a shadow detach itself from the far wall.

At first she thought she was imagining it. That she was too dizzy from the sunlight that poured down from the ramparts, memory like magic, making her silly.

But he kept coming.

And her body knew him before his name fully formed in her head.

She felt that betraying flush, rolling over her, making her pink… everywhere. Between her legs, there was a kind of keening, an ache so intense it seemed to bloom and spread. It rolled to her breasts, making them feel heavy and tender. It wrapped itself around her, pulling taught.

Still he kept coming.

And she knew this dream. She’d had this dream thousand times and always woke up, gasping for air and shattered to discover herself alone. Always alone.

She knew this dream, but today it was different.

Because as he drew closer, she drank him in, greedily. It was still him. Still the Joaquin she remembered. It was gloriously, unquestionably him. He was still breathtakingly tall. His body was a symphony of lean muscle, from mouthwateringly wide shoulders to narrow, athletic hips. He wore an obviously exquisitely bespoke dark suit, yet still managed to look vaguely disreputable. It was the dark hair. Or his jaw, like that of a boxer. It was the way he carried himself, perhaps, as if he was ready and able to handle whatever might come his way. Whether it be bandits or wayward princesses.

She had poured over pictures of him in these last five years. She knew the possessive way his hands splayed on the back of any woman he squired about to this event or that. And could remember how it had felt when it was her. She’d wept over such things in the privacy of her bed in the palace. She’d studied his face in every picture, looking for hints of the Joaquin she’d known. How she’d loved the sculpted lines of him, the angelic cheekbones, the sensual mouth.

But what she had never seen before was the way those green eyes of his blazed a cold fire as he approached.

In her dreams, he never looked at her like that. In her dreams, there was only ever heat. Love. Understanding.

Forgiveness.

He kept coming until he was standing before her, and even then, he did not pause. He reached out and he was touching her again, taking her chin with his fingers and holding her still.

She could feel the bluntness of his grip. The strength in him as he moved her head one way, then another, as if inspecting her. As if she was a horse he was considering purchasing.

Amalia found herself trembling as if she was exactly that much of a thoroughbred, when she knew—when the entire world knew, for that matter—that she was no such thing.

“Not so high and mighty today, are you, princess?” came his voice. Just as she remembered it. Rough. Low and intent. She’d heard that voice in her ears as he’d danced with her in empty ballrooms here. As he’d moved above her in the bed they’d shared that summer, taking her innocence and giving her so much more in return. Lust. Longing. Love. A whole life. “Did I not tell you what would happen if you dared return?”

“Joaquin…” she whispered.

“Allow me to remind you.” His green eyes glittered with a fury she had seen once before, on the day she’d left him. And this was no homecoming. Not the kind she’d imagined all these years. This was vengeance. “You destroyed me, Amalia. I promised you that if you ever gave me the opportunity, I would return the favor. And here you are. Humbled. Cast out. Slinking back to my island, tail between your legs, as I told you that you would.”

“Joaquin,” she tried again, though it seemed that every time she spoke his name, his grip on her tightened. Just enough to remind her. Of how commanding he was. How… bossy. How he had set the terms of their trysts and then executed them and she had melted, and burned, and happily done as he pleased.

Because it was what she pleased, too.

She pulled in a breath and fought for calm. And she wasn’t sure she managed to get there—but the fact that she was capable of trying showed her how different things were now. How different she was from the girl she’d been five years ago, because she’d spent that time training to become a queen. And queens could not allow anything to rattle them

Not even Joaquin Vargas.

Amalia found herself grateful for all those years she’d thought wasted.

Because it was the best—and only—defense she could imagine having against this man.

“I had no expectation that you would be here,” she managed to say now, because a defense might protect her but it also seemed critical that he know she hadn’t come here for… this. “I intended to be a guest at this hotel, nothing more. Just a regular guest. Not like last time.”

“I see the years have made you a liar.” He tipped her chin up, his eyes a green fire. And yet even if he hated her now, her body couldn’t tell the difference. This fire was still a fire, and she burned for him the way she always had. His mouth was merciless as he brought it closer to hers and that, too, burned bright and hot inside her. “But don’t worry, Amalia. I will deal with that, too.”

And then he slammed his mouth to hers.

End of excerpt

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