Philippa Stanley stifled a yawn as His Serene Highness, Prince Dominik-I-have-so-many-names-no-one-could-possibly-be-expected-to-remember-them-all, prattled on about some royal banquet or another the House of Liechtenstein would host in the fall. It sounded dreadfully stuffy, although, to be fair, she had zero interest in anything related to the prince. And who could blame her? He’d spoken of nothing but himself for the last thirty minutes.
On the bright side, the conversation required little effort on her part.
Pippa sat perched on the edge of the stone fountain, a polished gem basking in the summer sun. That was the purpose of a crown jewel, was it not? To be lovely, precious, and utterly useless.
The knowledge heated her blood.
She was so over being the perfect royal. Frankly, it was exhausting. And after spending a year abroad—fine, a year and a half—she’d realized the world had bigger problems than the color of her nail polish. Honestly, who gave a damn if she wore Royal Rose or Fuchsia Fever?
The world would not end if she wore—gasp—an unnatural color.
High society, on the other hand…
A bead of sweat trickled down her hairline, and she resisted the urge to swipe it away, the words of her decorum instructor, Miss Cartwright, echoing in her head.
A princess doesn’t sweat; she shines.
Bollocks. It was so hot even the cool rush of the fountain couldn’t take the edge off the stifling humidity.
“Philippa, are you feeling alright?” Dominik asked, worry creasing his brow as he tilted his head to study her.
Pippa straightened, surprise washing over her. Perhaps Dominik wasn’t as self-absorbed as she’d imagined. It was rather sweet of him to be concerned about her imminent heat stroke, even if he was the one who’d dragged her out here.
Not that she blamed him. No, she knew exactly where to lay blame for the parade of royal suitors descending on Valeria.
After all, Their Majesties’ plans to marry her off had been splashed all over the populars.
Which was why she hadn’t felt the least bit guilty for declining Dominik’s prior invitations. She’d put him off for nearly a week—practically a record—but her luck had run out this morning. He’d cornered her outside her suite, suggesting they take a walk in the gardens.
“I’m quite well, thank you.”
Aside from the tedious task of hosting every unmatched toff in the eastern hemisphere.
“Are you certain?” Dominik asked, lowering his voice. “You look a bit… peaked.”
Sweet Jesus. The country was in the midst of a heat wave. Had he never seen a grown woman sweat before?
“Just a little flush.” She offered him a serene smile, one she’d practiced in the mirror a thousand times at the behest of Miss Cartwright. It was fake as hell, but that was kind of the point. “No need for concern.”
Unless, of course, he continued to tell her how terrible she looked. In which case, perhaps she could have Sarah zap him with her taser. She exchanged a look with the bodyguard, who watched them from a respectful distance at the edge of the garden.
Sarah gave a nearly imperceptible shake of the head.
“Splendid.” Relief softened Dominik’s features, and he scooted closer so their knees were touching. He was handsome, if you were into tall, dark, and royal—which she wasn’t. The last thing she needed was another self-important aristocrat in her life, telling her how to think and behave. “I’m having such a lovely time getting to know you,” he said. “I’d hate for our time to be cut short.”
Yes, God forbid she get sick and ruin his good time.
“Really?” She forced herself to meet his eye. The old Pippa would have let it go, but she wasn’t that girl anymore. At least, she didn’t want to be. She was tired of being the proper, pliant princess, always quietly conceding. After all, what was the point of being royal if you couldn’t put your titles and privilege to good use? Forget state dinners and royal balls. She wanted to help people. Real people. People who deserved access to clean water, sanitation, education. But first she needed to extricate herself from this situation. “You haven’t asked me a single question about myself.”
Dominik’s smile faltered, but he recovered quickly. “Please forgive me. You must think my manners sorely lacking.”
Among other things.
Before she could respond, he rushed on. “I suppose I feel like I know you already. Their Majesties have told me so many wonderful things about you.”
Brilliant. She could only imagine what tales her parents had spun in their haste to see their only daughter married off. Chances were, a great deal of it was inaccurate, but she could hardly fault this man for her current situation. The second son of the ruling prince, Dominik was probably also under tremendous pressure to make a favorable match.
At least they had that much in common.
The difference was, Pippa had no intention of allowing herself to be matched. She was finished letting her royal bloodline—and all the ridiculous rules that came with it—dictate her life. For twenty-three years, she’d been sheltered and coddled, but she was done. Travelling abroad had opened her eyes to her naivety, and she would not shut them again just to make life easier for everyone else.
The need to do better—to be better—burned like a torch deep in her chest.
While they lounged next to a water source that was purely aesthetic, twenty-five percent of the world’s population lacked safe drinking water. Pippa sighed, the splashing of the fountain matching the rhythmic pounding in her head. It was time to put an end to this courtship business once and for all. Valerian law forbid her from actively participating in royal affairs until she married, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t branch out on her own. She had a trust fund, a plan to start her own charitable organization—one that focused on helping women—and more than enough passion to see it through.
She just needed the right opportunity to bring it up to Their Majesties.
Preferably one when they weren’t shoving single men at her.
Honestly, how could anyone think strolling through the gardens was more important than opening schools and providing basic water services?
“Philippa, darling,” Dominik said, taking her hands in his. His palms were sweaty, but who was she to judge when she herself was suffocating from the oppressive heat? “I know we’re just getting to know one another, but I must admit I’m quite taken by you.”
Poppycock. The only thing he was taken by was her crown.
“I’d like to kiss you now.”
What? No. Was he serious? She had no desire to kiss him, and she was pretty sure she wasn’t giving off come hither vibes.
Before she could get the words out, he closed his eyes and leaned toward her.
Oh, no. Instinct kicked in at the sight of his puckered lips. Pippa jerked her hands from his grasp and leapt to her feet. Which probably would’ve been fine if she hadn’t used so much force. Or if he had a better sense of balance. Or, really, any combination of the two.
Unfortunately, gravity wasn’t #TeamDominik.
Pippa watched in horror as he tumbled into the fountain, arse over elbow. He landed with a splash, and a wall of water pelted her dress, soaking her midsection and trickling down her bare legs. Thank God she’d skipped the pantyhose this morning, because despite feeling like a half-drowned rat, she was finally cooling off.
Fountain diving for the win!
Dominik floundered in the fountain, staggering to his feet and shaking water from his summer suit. He was soaked from head to toe, and his dark hair hung limp across his forehead, dripping rivulets of glistening water down his face. His eyes locked on Pippa, narrowing in accusation.
“What on earth did you do that for?” he demanded.
“Seriously?” Indignation flared in her chest. This was so not her fault. He was the one getting all up in her personal space. “Newsflash, Your Serene Highness. You can’t just go around kissing whoever you want without permission.”
He stared at her, mouth agape.
Pippa crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to back down. She couldn’t possibly be the first woman to reject his advances. And so what if she was? Her body, her choice.
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” she said, lifting her chin, “I have to go change for my afternoon appointment.”
There was no appointment, but he didn’t know that. Prince Dominik could flail around in the fountain all day for all she cared. She wasn’t hanging around for another minute of it. Not when her time would be better spent researching the legal aspects of humanitarian aid.
Pippa turned on her heel and marched out of the garden with as much dignity as she could muster. It wasn’t much. Her feet slid around in her soggy ballet flats, making her movements as stilted and jerky as a newborn fawn.
Sarah gave her a wide berth, which was just as well. The last thing she needed was a lecture from her bodyguard. Lord knew she’d probably get one from Their Majesties once they caught wind of Dominik’s swim in the fountain.
Which never would have happened if they hadn’t declared “open season” on their only daughter.
Pippa stalked through the topiary garden, shoes squishing with every step. She stayed close to the hedgerow to avoid drawing attention. If she could just make it back to her suite without seeing anyone…it would be a miracle.
Damn it all to hell.
The palace was overflowing with courtiers, all of whom would be too happy to gossip about the outcome of her walk with Dominik. Pippa turned the corner, mind occupied by court politics, and crashed into a solid wall of muscle.
The air punched out of her lungs and she stumbled back, slipping and sliding in her sodden shoes. Powerful hands shot out and grasped her arms, holding her upright as she scrambled for balance. When her feet were solidly under her again, she took a step back, pulling out of the stranger’s firm grip.
“Excuse me,” Pippa said, tucking a damp strand of hair behind her ear as she looked him over. He was tall. That was the first thing she noticed. She was five-nine, and he had at least four inches on her. In fact, he was tall, dark, and, okay, maybe not royal, but definitely a suitor. She was sure of it. The man oozed wealth and power from the tips of his tousled brown hair to the toes of his polished Italian loafers. He wore a crisp linen suit, and although it was only mid-morning, a five o’clock shadow dusted his high cheekbones, giving him a rebellious edge.
Their eyes met, and she was struck by déjà vu. Which was silly, because a guy like that? She’d definitely remember if they’d met before. No way she’d forget those intense umber eyes. “I— I didn’t see you there.”
“You don’t say?” He flashed a crooked smile, and sweet Jesus, her knees trembled. Probably just a chill from her wet clothes. She was definitely not melting for one of the toffs. “No need for apologies, Your Highness. The fault is entirely mine.” He dipped his chin, but his eyes remained locked on hers. “To be honest, I’d hoped our paths might cross. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Well, she’d called that, hadn’t she?
The smile that had definitely not made her knees tremble edged over the line to a smirk, and she saw red. How many more men would come calling for her crown? This whole situation was getting out of control and she was bloody over it.
“Just perfect. Another suitor come to win my hand?” Pippa clenched her fists. Was it so hard for her parents to accept that she aspired to more than a favorable marriage? That she had goals and ambitions that didn’t involve extending the royal blood line? “I am not some prize to be won. And, as you can see,” she said, gesturing to her sopping dress, “I’ve already been sufficiently wooed, so I suggest you pack your bags and get the hell out of Valeria.”
So much for rolling out the red carpet. Heinrich von der Recke gave the princess a slow once-over. He’d expected his time in Valeria to be challenging, but he hadn’t anticipated such a hostile reception. Certainly not from The Princess Royal.
After all, he had nothing to do with her farce of a courtship.
It doesn’t matter.
It couldn’t. Not with the future of von der Recke International hanging in the balance. Henry had dedicated his life to serving others, to building an organization that empowered the world’s youth to face the most pressing global crises head-on, and now, thanks to one poor decision, he was poised to lose everything.
No. He couldn’t allow that to happen. Too many people were counting on him, and he would not let them down. He’d made promises. Promises he intended to keep. If dealing with cosseted royals was the price of meeting with the Royal Foundation of Valeria, he’d pay it.
Because without an influx of cash—the kind only the RFV could provide—von der Recke International would crumble. And every commitment he’d made to expand VDRI programs would crumble with it.
“You know,” he said, a smile curving his lips. “Where I come from, it’s considered poor manners to throw a guest out of the country before they’ve even unpacked.”
Philippa’s nostrils flared ever so slightly, and she narrowed her eyes. “Then I suppose it’s fortunate we’re not in your country, isn’t it?”
Henry chuckled, the low rumble vibrating deep in his gut. “Sure, if you’re into Scheisse manners and inhospitable royals.”
Which he wasn’t, but he’d make an exception for The Princess Royal.
He had no interest in securing a royal match, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate a beautiful woman when he saw one. And Philippa was lovely. Oh, she’d changed her hair, lightening her long chestnut locks to a honeyed blonde, but he’d recognize her anywhere. After all, how many times had he seen her luminous smile splashed in the populars at some royal affair or another?
Not that the grainy tabloid photos did her justice.
Philippa was tall and curvy, with soft brown eyes and a wide smile that—on the rare occasion she shared it—showed all her brilliant white teeth. From the looks of things, he wouldn’t be seeing that smile today. Not with the way she was glaring at him, lips pinched in disapproval.
“You have some nerve,” she snapped, planting a manicured hand on her hip.
Goading the princess was a terrible idea, but he couldn’t resist. The youngest of five boys, he’d learned early that when someone came at you, you responded in kind. And, the truth was, this sharp-tongued side of the pampered royal was delightfully unexpected.
Who’d have thought she had that kind of fire in her belly?
Everything he’d seen and heard in the media suggested she was meek and mild-mannered. Oh, she’d had her share of bad press, which until recently had consisted of ridiculous breaches of royal protocol. Hell, just last week the news had been speculating about her lack of virtue because she’d been photographed in public with bare legs.
Talk about some sexist Kuhscheiße.
“Tell me, princess, do you have a problem with all visitors, or is there something about me in particular that offends your delicate sensibilities?”
She lifted her chin in silent challenge, drawing his attention to the delicate curve of her neck. “What I have a problem with is being paraded around like a bloody thoroughbred for self-important arses who are more interested in getting their hands on my crown than on me.”
Was it possible the princess was an unwilling participant in this summer of love?
The populars would have a field day with that information. Lucky for her, there was no one around to overhear their conversation. He sure as hell wouldn’t be talking to the paparazzi. The only thing he valued more than von der Recke International was his privacy.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t toy with her a bit.
Henry’s grin widened. “So you’re saying you’d prefer a more hands-on approach to courtship?”
“What? No.” Her eyes grew round, and a slow blush spread over her cheeks. “That’s not what I meant, and you know it.”
True, but he rather enjoyed seeing her like this, flushed and alive. It was so contrary to his initial perception of her.
“Rest assured, princess, I have no interest in courting you.” He smoothed his jacket, the picture of disinterest, despite the thrumming in his veins. “I’m in Valeria for business, not pleasure.”
A fact he’d do well to remember.
“Right,” she said, rolling her eyes. A bead of water dropped from her hair and trickled down her chest. It disappeared into the neckline of her yellow sundress, which clung to her curves, the wet fabric highlighting every luscious dip and swell. “And I’m supposed to believe you just happen to have business here at the same time Their Majesties are hosting The Bachelorette: Royal Edition? Not bloody likely.”
Henry lifted a brow. Was it really so hard for her to believe that not every male on the planet wanted to wed and bed her?
“Believe what you will,” he said, tucking his hands in the pockets of his trousers. It was hot as balls, and he couldn’t wait to ditch the stifling suit. “It makes no difference to me, princess.”
“I very much doubt that,” she said, the corners of her full lips twisting in disapproval.
She had him there. He hadn’t come to Valeria to court her, but he couldn’t afford to be exiled from the palace before he convinced Prince William and the RFV to partner with von der Recke International.
“What happened to your dress, if you don’t mind me asking?” It wasn’t every day The Princess Royal paraded through the gardens, looking like she’d been blasted with a firehose. Not that he was complaining.
“Just a little misunderstanding between His Serene Highness Prince Dominik and myself.” She shot him a pointed look, and it piqued his curiosity. What the hell had Prince Dominik done to earn her ire? “The situation has been resolved.”
Her tone suggested she wouldn’t be sharing the details. Not that it mattered. He had his own sources, and he’d get to the truth of it.
“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she said, “I need to go change.”
Without another word, she stepped around him and continued down the path.
Henry considered letting her go—a dose of karma might do her some good—but his conscience got the better of him. After all, despite what she thought, he wasn’t a complete Arschloch.
He turned and called out, “Word of advice?”
Philippa froze, and for an instant, he thought she’d continue without responding. Then she turned slowly, meeting his gaze.
“I suggest you take the long route and bypass the rose garden,” he said.
Philippa arched a slender brow. “I grew up in the palace. I think I can find my way back without directions from a”—she cut herself off abruptly and waved in his direction—“guest.”
Henry grinned. He really needed to find out what had happened with Prince Dominik to make her so damn prickly toward visitors.
“I never said you couldn’t find your way.” Hell, he knew better than to offer unsolicited directions. He rubbed the back of his sweat-slicked neck. “I just thought you might want to avoid the rose garden.” He cut his eyes at her ruined dress. “Her Majesty is hosting a tea party with what appeared to be thirty of her closest friends.”
Thirty of her most judgmental, gossip-mongering friends.
Surprise flickered across her face, but it was quickly replaced with well-practiced indifference. “Thank you. I’ll take your suggestion under advisement.”
Spoken like a true royal.
Henry shook his head and laughed quietly as Philippa retreated the same way she’d come without so much as a backward glance.
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