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Excerpt for Stroke of Midnight by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Stroke of Midnight: A Scifi Fairy Tale BWWM Romance

By Stella Dawn


Text copyright © 2019 by Stella Dawn

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Porete Press LLC at Smashwords.

https://www.poretepress.com

Cover design by Sekhmetrics.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.



Blurb

Cindy isn’t interested in princes and thinks that happily ever after is nothing more than a fairytale. But the other shoe is about to drop, because the only way for her to rescue her stepsisters from their wicked stepmother is to sneak into the ball and outmaneuver the one man she cannot stand — the arrogant, selfish, and sexy-as-sin king. Soon, she’s at risk of becoming a pawn in her own game, for the king is ruthlessly pursuing his own agenda. He’s determined to teach her a lesson before the night is through: at the stroke of midnight, nothing is forbidden.

Turns out their unforgettable tryst is the least of their surprises. Do you know what’s more inconvenient than a misplaced glass slipper?

Unplanned pregnancy.


Petros

The universe is lavish with glinting stars. The Royal space yacht cuts through the velvet night sky, currently circling Delta Ohr. From my spot on the upper deck balcony, I can oversee all the activity on the deck below.

Not that there is much to see. Since this is a royal party, all the guests are pretending to be bored. The aristocracy and diplomats are hard at work playing their perpetual court games: who has more influence than me, and who can I backstab today?

"Your Highness," a sultry voice calls out to me from behind, causing me to turn. "I was hoping I'd find you up here."

She's easily one of the most beautiful women on the ship, so it's surprising I don't recognize her. Most of the girls come from "the best" families and I've known them since childhood, which probably means she's someone's mistress.

Well, whomever she belongs to has good taste. Her fuchsia skin is offset by long, golden curls. My eyes travel along the slick lines of her body, taking my time as I sip my bourbon. It burns against the back of my throat. "It seems you have found me."

She takes a few steps closer until her narcotic perfume fills my nostrils. I'm sure she imagines herself to be an exotic flower, but her attractions are lost on me. I prefer the more tangible scents of brandy and wood.

"I'm surprised you're not with your friends tonight," she says.

I'm surprised too. With all of my royal duties, it was rare for me to be able to get away. That was more my younger brother's style.

My friends think I should let loose once in a while. Bastian is especially insistent. Then again, Bastian is doing enough letting loose for two -- or should I say three? -- people. He's got a scantily-clad woman on each arm. Who would've thought the king's private chef would have an easier time getting lucky than the king?

Maybe that's why I'm up here brooding. When you're running an entire country, you can't afford distractions. Taking time off made me feel guilty, not refreshed.

Taking another sip, I swill around the last contents of my glass and steady my gaze on her. "I suppose I have other things on my mind."

The smile she gives me chills my heart. "What other things, my Majesty?"

She's even closer now, boldly probing my forearms with her long, polished fingernails. How dare she presume to touch me? Something about the way she moves reminds me of a snake. 

I almost remove her hand, but on second thought, take her fingers and bring them to my lips. Her resulting smile tells me this is exactly how she planned this to go. Ah well. I was stuck on this yacht for another three days. Maybe my friends would let me off sooner if I did what they brought me here to do and slept with a beautiful woman.

Just as I lean in to suggest we take our party someplace more private, one of the women with Bastian lets out a squeal. "Awww!"

Both my sexy companion and I glance over to the com screen to see what all the commotion is about. 

There's a leggy blonde pointing to another screen with the words "A RAGS TO RICHES STORY" emblazoned across it in bold letters. Above those words is a picture of my younger brother, the Prince of Delta Ohr holding in his arms a pretty dark-skinned woman. Both of them are wearing matching grins. 

"Turn that up," I demand, pointing to the screen. Completely forgetting my companion. 

"It's a headline from a fairytale, folks. It seems our very own Prince Rupert was opening the intergalactic visitor center and met someone who knocked him out of orbit. She is Dora West from planet Earth, traveling with her recently widowed mother, Gwendolyn, her twin sister, Tori, and stepsisters Cindy and Charlotte Burton. From the looks of things, Prince Rupert seems pretty serious. He has already invited the West family to spend a fortnight  at the royal palace in the Dowager's wing.

"According to Gwendolyn West, Dora's mother, they are very much in love with each other. We can't say whether nuptials are part of this romance but there is more than enough steam between these two to make up for the cold fish King of Delta Ohr. 

"Sorry, but this is one reporter who is willing to speak truth to power.  The King looks like he is dead set upon being a bachelor throughout his reign. Who can blame the citizens of Delta Ohr from wanting at least one royal wedding to occur in their lifetimes? 

"Next up, Delta Ohr's two largest sand and gravel companies plan to merge. My how things seem to be coming together in Delta Ohr. This is Karinga Schultz, so stay tuned for this possible merger after these messages. . . ."

I stand there, stunned, in the middle of everyone. My first thought is clearly there has been a gross miscommunication. There's no way in hell Rupert would meet a woman and invite her entire family to live on the royal estates without contacting me. I mean, I am the king. He needs my permission. Sometimes he could be clueless, but even Rupert knows the press will have a quartz-field day with all of this!

But then again, I think about Rupert's huge heart, and how much he resembles of our departed father, Vlad, who also was incapable of hiding his feelings. It was possibly the reason why mother fell in love with him. That, and perhaps the fact that Vlad was King of Delta Ohr.  She remained with us a while and then ran off with a lover. They settled in another solar system and both of us have never forgotten the pain she left us with. No child deserves to be abandoned. Rupert just lets it all hang out and I, well, I keep it all tucked in. No woman will get the best of my heart ever again. We were teenagers when she left us. Father died a few years later, while we were still at Preparatory school. I don't know how I would have survived that period if it wasn't for Bastian's friendship.

Still, nothing prepared us for return to the castle and the crush of press and photographers and the endless stories of speculation. The country went into a pall. The sense of doom has been an oddly comforting companion since my early reign. I have never dared to provoke the beast of gossip. 

I can live an entire life quite happily without one whiff of indiscretion and without the press inspecting every suspected dalliance. I have earned the moniker King Cod, due to my being perceived as a cold fish. And, I'm rather fond of that title. 

I slowly close my eyes, trying to pretend as if I didn't just hear the whole sickening story broadcast across the planet without a polite head's up from my brother. He respects me more than that. I just need to contact him as soon as possible.

My cell-com vibrates in my pocket as if on cue, and when I see my brother's text in all caps, "SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK? ISN'T DORA A HOT PIECE OF ASS?"

My mouth goes dry. I almost dropped the phone.It's as though someone has dropped a lead stone in the pit of my stomach.

A hot piece of ass? Did he truly just say that? And was that all it took to betray his brother and make a mockery of our kingdom?

How can this be happening? Anger boils every ounce of alcohol away.  How could he have allowed me to learn of his relationship in this public manner?  And who is this woman he's putting up in the Dowager's wing along with the rest of her family? He knows that I detest surprises.

Bastian lurches over, drunk as sin and eager to save the day. "Hey, look. I know what you gotta be thinking right now . . ." Bastian slurs, slapping his arm around my shoulders. 

"Somehow I highly doubt that," I reply through gritted teeth. 

This doesn't deter my friend at all and he leans in, his booze-soaked breath makes me want to gag. "Prince Rupert is in love, pal. These things happen." He juts his chin over to the blue-eyed beauty sitting on the soft white leather benches. "It's love, Petros."

I roll my eyes at his simplistic interpretation of events. No one understands what I am going through. I half wish never to speak to Rupert again. My other half wants to materialize right in his face before he makes more foolish decisions. 

I look past Bastian who is happy to be surrounded by warm curves and blonde haired beauties. I look right through the female in front of me and suddenly remember that I can be in my brother's face within the hour. On the other side of the space yacht is the landing pad. There, I have a sleek blue and white propelled, metallic beauty all my own.

"I'm going to need the hover craft, Bastian."


Cyndi

When I overhear Dora gushing to Toni in the middle of the night, I'm not eavesdropping. We girls all share the same hotel suite, and Dora is a little loud on a good day. On a good day, she can bring all 30 floors of the hotel down.

Well, today's the best day of her life, and I'm surprised management doesn't call in the Galactic guard. Dora's usually breathy voice veers into screeching territory. She squeaks 'palace,' and 'royalty,' and 'we're getting married,' emitting those words on the sonar frequency of a dolphin. It takes me a moment to process what she is saying. Soon both Dora and Toni are squealing at each other and flopping backwards on their individual queen sized beds.

I sit up on my inflatable mattress near the bathroom and ask, "Okay, Dora, can you please slow down and tell us what is going on?"

"Prince Rupert has asked us to come stay in the Dowager's wing. It's part of the royal palace. I can bring my family . . . and I've just said yes!"

All this noise wakens Char, my ten year old sister. Her cot is further away, tucked head first into a spare closet. "Hey, what's this about a palace and a prince?"

"Don't you dare call him Prince! He's going to be your new brother in law!" She cries out with the strength of the Valkyrie claiming the soul of a hero as she sticks out her hand so we can all see her gigantic diamond.

Char's eyes bulge. "Is that real?" Char asks.

"Of course it's real. I'm gonna be a princess."

"It's so big," Tori whispers. "Isn't it heavy for your hand?"

"Hell yeah it is. I'm gonna have to start doing push-ups or something. But it's worth it, don't you think?"

 With that, she raises both hands and wiggles her fingers. Both of my sisters start dancing around her, squealing.

My jaw hits the floor. Our lives haven't been the same since.

For the next ten hours my step-mother, Gwendolyn, has been issuing out more orders than a sergeant. "Cyndi do our shopping, pack our bags, and make appointments to get our hair done."

Thankfully, this hotel is so large that I can manage those orders without any of us having to leave the hotel. That's a good thing since it turns out Delta Ohr has a serious appetite for gossip. The silver lining is that this ritzy hotel has enough security to keep out the pesky paparazzi.

I send Char to the lobby with a good book. I make appointments and finish packing our bags, and have just enough time to find three new gowns, completing my to do list. Dora, Tori and Gwendolyn emerge from their day at the salon looking like royalty. Thereupon, we take a hover sedan to the palace.

I marvel how Gwendolyn goes through daddy's money and hope that she has some of her own. It might not matter. The rate she spends on her daughters no fortune will outlast her expectations. We are on an intergalactic grand tour, to broaden the Dora and Tori's horizons. Well, I guess my stepmother's ruthless social-climbing paid off because our last stop will be the palace Delta Ohr.

At twenty, I'm old enough to claim independence. The only reason I won't leave is for the sake of my eight year old sister, Char. My mother died giving birth to her and I resolved she would never die in vain. Charlotte is all I have left of my parents and the perfect love that I was lucky enough to share. I will never let Charlotte know a life without love in it. Gwendolyn knows I would never leave Charlotte. She is also in need of a nanny, an organizer and a maid. As long as I have a back to break, my stepmother will never let me have custody of my little sister.

* * *

An hour and a half later, the driver pulls through the high iron gates and on either side of the narrow road sets of urns atop high plinths punctuate the long drive. At the end, the palace glows as sunlight shines on its golden stone walls and colorful flags wave on the turrets. The driver stops ,in front of two rows of guards standing on either side of the steps. As soon as Dora steps out Prince Rupert emerges from the palace doors with two attendants. He takes long strides and reaches our car just as we all get out.

The handsome prince moves to embrace Dora, but Gwendolyn places her right hand out to shake his hand. It looks like she is going to accost the Prince and the guards take defensive stances. Prince Rupert waives them off with an easy laugh. "My guests are unused to our customs. "

Gwendolyn recovers and drops into a deep curtsey. "We are most grateful for your invitation to visit, Prince Rupert. I am Dora's mother, Gwendolyn West. I must introduce you to Dora's twin, Victoria but we all call her Tori. We are so thrilled to visit your fabulous palace."

Tori and Dora rush upon the Prince and he kisses Dora and then Tori on both cheeks. Mother offers him her cheek as well and after the greeting she waves at me and gestures that I handle the luggage. Char stands quietly with her mouth slightly open.

The driver empties the trunk and our bags at the base of the steps. I fumble in my purse for his tip and he drives away. I am about to pick up the first bag when a white gloved hand intervenes. "Let us take them to the Dowager's wing for you, ma'am."

"What do you think you are you doing, Cyndi? Let the butler take the bags." The harshness of Gwendolyn's voice makes me jump back.

"I haven't had the pleasure of being introduced. Are these two your other daughters?" says the Prince.

"Cyndi is my step-daughter," says Gwendolyn with a high pitched musical laugh. "She likes to feel useful and this little one is Charlotte. Don't worry at the presence of a child, you won't even notice she is here."

I roll my eyes and follow them inside. Alright, I know my step mother is crass and a pain, and that Tori will do anything she asks without protest. At the moment I am more amazed that Dora has caught the eye of Prince Rupert. I can't believe we are all going to stay in an honest to goodness palace.

Prince Rupert leads us into the palace, along a wainscoted mahogony corridor littered with family portraits lining the walls. Sunlight pours in through the high windows and the light slants across the black and white marble checkerboard floor.

I nearly laugh when I overhear Gwendolyn telling the Prince in a very confidential tone that his palace might be the finest she has ever seen. The Prince isn't listening. He is walking hand and hand with Dora whose head is bobbling with wonder and seems to be attached on a string. Tori is smiling and cooing but she can't seem to get the Prince to notice she exists.

Tori finally leans over to Dora and speaks loudly into her ear. "Can you believe this? I mean look over there -- they have one of those fancy curving staircases and everything!"

They giggle together, pointing here and there. Gwendolyn tells the girls to hush and smiles brightly at the Prince. "I hope you will forgive us for being in awe of your palace."

"It's just a place where I grew up. It really belongs to my brother, King Petros. I heard he returned last night. I am eager for him to meet all of you."

Tori practically swoons and Gwendolyn gives her a nudge and raises her eyebrows knowingly. I know that look. Mother already has plans for Tori to steal the heart of the King. Really, the man could think for himself but he hasn't met Gwendolyn yet. I am happy just to be here to make sure my little sister, Char, is given all the love and attention she deserves.


Cyndi

Once inside I take a little time to explore the big empty palace on my own. I hear a bang and spin on my foot to see what's up.

Dashing out of the room I nearly crash into one of the most handsome faces I've ever seen in my entire life. Actually, I crash with his chest as he's easily a head taller than me.

I look up. His dark brows are drawn tightly together Steely gray eyes flashing at me. He's wearing the kind of tailored suit that tells me money is no object for him. The cut fits his athletic body in all the right places. For a moment he looks completely surprised to see me here. Then his face drops into the smooth mask I recognize from the coins of the realm. His chiseled jaw is clenched tight. "Who might you be?"

Yes, his eyes look exactly like the King's, for that matter so does his entire face. I know for a fact that Kings are very fussy about their person and it is decidedly uncustomary to overstep personal and physical boundaries. In truth, I don't belong here. I am only a guest and an unannounced one at that. I have no excuse for running inside a royal palace. I'm not expected to answer the door. They probably have butlers for that. Yet, in my haste to find out the cause of all that commotion I bound through the doors and literally ran into the King. As his nostrils flare, I wonder if this constitutes assault and battery.

How can I reverse this horrible first impression?

Feeling like a complete idiot, I lift both hands away from his royal chest and take a lunging step back with my right foot and bend my knee to bow. Then I pop back up and stammer with most of my hair covering my face, "Your Royal Highness. I am Cyndi Burton. Half-sister to Dora West who is newly engaged to Prince Rupert. He invited her family here for a visit."

"Yes, I am aware of my brother's impertinence. Meeting you is an experience. I hope the others in your family are less forward and more traditional. Would you mind telling me where I might find my brother, Prince Rupert?" Something passes across his mouth, it seems to wobble. He pauses for me to answer, lifting one eyebrow while his eyes pierce me through.

His voice is carefully modulated but I can tell he is filled with impatience. He just called Prince Rupert impertinent. I guess the prince isn't allowed much autonomy in his life. Suddenly I have more sympathy for Prince Rupert.

"Prince Rupert is outside with my mother and sisters. He said something about taking them for a walk in the gardens. Is everything all right?"

I'm surprised to see the amount of disdain he's failing to hide from me. The King clears his throat but his voice comes out strained. "Oh, it's nothing to worry about at all. I simply need to speak with Prince Rupert about this whole, well, you know."

This sets me on edge. What exactly is he saying? "This whole what?"

Obviously I should have held my tongue and remembered that Kings are never spoken to in this way. I doubt any woman speaks to him directly much less likely anyone else, besides. The color of his eyes goes from gray to granite and the edges of his eyes crinkle. Is that amusement? Does he think I am just an overgrown child?

"Surely you must understand this from my perspective. Your sister intends to marry up. Our kingdom, though not as prominent so some, is well established. How can they possibly know each other in such short time? Of her beauty I can be assured. I am equally sure that she is scheming and cold. My brother is no prize that she can claim like winning the lottery. I have a kingdom to protect."

I could feel my body grow face hotter by the second. I needed to vent so that I wouldn't combust. "My sister may be many things but never scheming and cold. You think Dora tricked or calculated to get the Prince to propose to her?"

The King is thoroughly unaffected. He raises an eyebrow with smug disinterest. "Do you have a more plausible theory?"

"Yes. They are in love."

The King shuts his eyes slowly. "You are either naive, or you think I am."

"I might call you many things, your Highness, but naive is not one of them."

"Then you admit that you are thoroughly unqualified to pass judgments?"

"That's not what I said. It only appears to you that I made such an admission because you have such limited perspective."

"Limited perspective? You do understand that I run an entire kingdom, don't you? And that my, as you put it, 'limited perspective,' has not only saved my kingdom from economic collapse, but has allowed it to thrive?"

"I do not doubt your business acumen, your Highness. It is your understanding of interpersonal relationships that I question."

"Says the co-conspirator to the gold digger," he murmurs.

That's it. I balled my hands into fists. This King has gone too far. "Say what you will about me, but what I hate most is people who misinterpret my family. I know their short comings but I will not have them slandered by others."

King Petros' eyes go wide for a moment and he licks his lips, careful to choose his next words as he looks around the room. His gray eyes dart from one place to the next. "I don't know what you would want me to call it, but believe me, your sister isn't the first woman who's tried to seduce my brother. He's had dozens of lovers, so I'm not exactly sure how your sister has made it this far."

I bristle at the very thought of Dora being 'the one who's gotten this far.' Who the hell does he think he's talking to, exactly? "Well, when you say it like that it sounds so utterly romantic," I drawl sarcastically.

"That's funny, because I don't find scheming and taking advantage of others particularly romantic."

"Listen, I don't claim to be overjoyed by this engagement, but at least I'm there for my sister and want to see her happy," I hiss at him, feeling like I'm ready to throw down.

Say something about Dora one more time, I think to myself. I dare you.


Petros

I'm about to say something that I'm sure to regret when my brother walks into the study with a curvaceous beautiful woman proudly linked by his arm. That same dark haired beauty I'd seen on the gossip news segment last night. I immediately shift my focus to him, somewhat surprised to see a genuine smile on his face.

"Petros, what a wonderful surprise! I didn't realize we were to be expecting you." My brother's jovial, hearty tone throws me off. When was the last time he sounded so... upbeat?

But that doesn't deter me from being put off guard by the coterie of females who come with them. I remember hearing there were other daughters and a mother. What had my brother been thinking to invite them all to stay on palace grounds. I needed to talk with my brother. Instead, I was surrounded by the very problem I needed to discuss with him.

And their gazes were zeroing in on me.

Rupert finally acknowledges me. "I'd like to introduce you to Dora West, my fiancée. Dora, this is my brother, King Petros."

The beautiful outspoken lady in his arms detaches herself from my brother and comes at me like a heat seeking missile.

"Brother!" The woman I've never met before lets out a shriek that causes all of the palace hounds to howl and hurls herself into my arms.

"Oh," she cries, rubbing her nose into the Lithuanian silk of my shirt. "I've heard so much about you. It's as if I've known you all my life."

That's funny, because I've never heard of you and I quite prefer it that way. I wanted to call the palace guards, but there were so many women present. And a child.

"There, there." I pat her back. She doesn't take the hint. I gently start to push her away but she growls and attaches herself with even more force, locking her hands around my torso and squeezing with an octopus-like vigor.

"Oh, Petie!" she wails.

Petie? Who the hell is Petie?

She continues her mournful song. "I've always wanted a brother."

That's funny, because I've never wanted a sister.

"That's quite enough," I mutter, looking up to find Cyndi staring at me with an irritating I told you so manner. Her arms are crossed and one delicate brow lifts as if to say 'What now?'

"Rupert," I say in the most even tone I can manage. "Can you call off your...woman?" Just barely, I repress my urge to say dog.

"Down girl!" Rupert laughs halfheartedly. I think my brother is enjoying this farce even more than she is.

The woman jumps up and down, but does not let go. "But I'm saying hello! I want to leave a good impression on my new brother!"

"You've left quite the impression already," I tell her.

She looks up at me with rabid eyes. "Really?"

"Rest assured you have," I tell her. "Now, go back to your spot."

"Yes. I might get jealous, you know! I want some attention too!" Rupert sings.

With a cry that gets the hounds back to barking, she dislodges herself and flies into my brother's arms. He twirls her around, lopsided, completely oblivious to the priceless heirlooms surrounding them.

"Where are your manners. Show him your curtsey, dear."

"Dora, shame on you for monopolizing the King." Gwendolyn says with a high pitched laugh. "You haven't met my other daughter, Victoria, Tori among her friends. She's not spoken for." Gwendolyn thrusts the girl forward by the small of her back, launching the poor girl into my chest.

"Look how well you are getting along and you've just been introduced." Gwendolyn gives me a wide smile and a wink. With all that mascara it looks like a grimace.

"Where are your manners, Tori? Show him how I taught you to curtsey, dear." Tori falters and then drops into a curtsey so deep she disappears into her skirts. When she rises, it's like a sturdy Venus emerges out of a pool of water. She stands stock still before the me until I reach for her hand and bring it to my lips.

"A pleasure to meet you, Victoria."

"The pleasure is ours, your Highness," says Gwendolyn who steps forward and takes such a deep curtsey that she grabs Tori's elbow to stand back up. This yanks Tori's hand out of mine.

"What an arresting family. And who might you be?" I ask dreading that she is going to launch herself into my chest.

She giggles, puts her hand over their chest, "No, I'm not their sister." Answering a question i did not ask or would not have asked.

"I'm their mother, silly." She gives me a wink. Her heavy mascara makes it look more like a grimace. "You must call me Gwendolyn." Her high pitched laughter meant to mimic crystal chimes but pierces my ears like broken glass.

It's as if Rupert completely overlooks the strange menagerie he has invited into the palace He's utterly transfixed by the beautiful female on his arm. He fails to see the avid delight of Gwendolyn and the wide eyed expression of Tori, who looks like a child given the keys to the candy store. The actual child who brings up the rear appears to be the most appealing one of the lot. No doubt in time she will follow in the footsteps of that mother.

Prince Rupert gives Dora a deep kiss and then says, "Dora has captured my heart most completely. "

"I gathered that."

Rupert cannot manage to lift his gaze from his future bride's eyes while he speaks to me. "Yes, it has been quite a whirlwind for everyone involved, dare I say. But I wouldn't have it any other way."

"My my. That is quite a recommendation. My dear brother usually makes a habit to fall in love once a season, but perhaps never so instantaneously before.

"Welcome to Delta Ohr."

Gwendolyn looks around at all her daughters and realizes that she has missed an introduction.

"Last and perhaps least is my step daughter, dear Charlotte. Her mother died giving birth to her and I'm afraid she hasn't expected much out of life since then. But I am nothing if not generous. Both she and Cyndi are also a part of our little family."

I am shocked to hear such words come from a mother and lean forward to give Charlotte a careful perusal. She seems sound and fit, her candid dark brown eyes look directly back at me.

"Do you like to swim or read, child?"

"Oh yes, more than anything."

"You will enjoy your stay. We have an outdoor pool, a garden and a library with books from all over the universe."

I notice that Cyndi makes an inadvertent murmur which she covers up with a quick remark. "That's sure to make at least two of us happy."

Prince Rupert announces, "I think we should convene at the dining room within the hour. I have spoken with the chef and he promises to make us all a celebratory meal to remember. I hope this suits your schedule, Petros?"

Although their proposed marriage date is not far off, I may as well play along at least for a few days. Nothing will persuade me this disaster of a wedding must not happen in the first place.

I barely notice he's asked me a question and after a long pause I nod. Yes, sitting around the table I may find out many things. Good food and excellent wine bring out so much more than anyone suspects. I will watch how Rupert and Dora behave. I shudder at spending so much time in the company of Gwendolyn but my duty is bound to my brother and my country. If I have to dine with swine, so be it.

The females all start to make their way outside the study. Prince Rupert has an attendant show them to the Dowager's wing where they may all refresh themselves and get ready for dinner. I want to cover my ears at the noise of them all talking at once. I notice Cyndi takes Char by the hand and quietly talks with her. It gives me the impression that Cyndi is more the mother to Char than Gwendolyn, despite what the step mother suggests.


Cyndi

After getting settled into the Dowager's wing at the far end of the palace, Char and I take off to go find the pool. I'm dressed for swimming but I need to take my mind off of everything and dive into a beloved book. I'm reading the last chapter of Pride and Prejudice while Char is happily floating on a pool chaise and drinking lemonade. I've never seen her so happy.

I turn a page and notice a little old woman coming towards the pool. I stand and say hello and she gives me the most charming smile. Her blue eyes crinkle into crescents and her face folds back like curtains opening up to the morning sun.

"You don't need to get up. I've come to get to know two of our new guests. You can call me Maggie. I'm Petros and Rupert's fraternal grandmother."

"Oh, you must have had to vacate your wing to make room for all of us! We are so sorry to put you out." I am suddenly consumed by shame and confusion.

"I have never lived in that wing. King Petros' father built the extension to the palace so I might have a place that was truly my own. He thought I would want peace and quiet at times. I pretended to be thrilled but really, I have never spent the night there. It is a lovely place to have teas and ladies' luncheons however. Dear me, now I've interrupted your reading."

I can't help but smile at her thoughtfulness. The sound of her voice is musical and soft with a little quaver, probably from age. "I'm relieved to hear that. No, I'm happy for your intrusion. I must have read this book fifty times, it's an old favorite."

"You enjoy reading the same things over and over?" she notes, sitting up. "Don't you itch to to read anything new? With all the multitude of books in the world, you read something again for the umpteenth time. If you ask me, that's a waste."

I'm surprised by her frank response so I respond in the same manner. "Books cost too much."

She clucks her tongue and stands up with her little hand outstretched. "May I show you something?"

She's already walking away and I call out to Char, "Just stay on that float, I'll be back soon." I hurry to catch up with her. "Where are you taking me?"

The little dowager says nothing but I follow her up a small flight of stairs. We turn and make our way along a circular landing with half a dozen doors coming off of it. For a moment I almost feel like we are about to enter a labyrinth. She selects the door on the right hand. "I think you might appreciate this."

I step into a room shaped like an upside down ice cream cone. The room is round with a circlet of small windows at the top of the walls. Above those windows is a dome that is more skylight than ceiling. The light pours into this majestic space but it's amazing structure is not what I find the most intriguing. Not at all.

It's the way the walls are lined with shelves, from the floor to sixteen feet up, stuffed with hundreds of books. I've entered an exquisite jam-packed library.

The white and gold veined marble floor is mesmerizing and intricate. In the middle of the room is a plush circular rug with just enough space for high backed armchair and a long necked reading lamp.

Any book lover would find this room fascinating. "Oh my gosh," I say in a hushed voice that would be suitable for church. I wander like a lost soul, staring all around me, unable to decide whether to look up or down or stop and study the shelves. I simply walk and touch the spines of these books, giving my fingers, eyes and feet a chance to absorb this miracle of a room.

"I can't believe you have shown me this. Is it possible for me to stay here for awhile?"

The little woman smiles and giggles. "I had a feeling you would enjoy this room."

"Mm-hmm. And does this little room belong to a man who wears a crown?" I ask, unable to keep the smile off my face.

"Yes. It's one of them anyway. I just thought you deserved to read a new book and now you have no excuse."

I laugh. "How delightful. But it may be hard to chose one from all of these. Are you sure this is alright? For me to be in here?"

"Of course. The room was built for the book lover. Let me leave you to enjoy yourself. I'll go back and stay with Char at the pool. Don't worry about her. I have only raised boys but I always longed to watch after a young girl. Just remember you have only a couple of hours before dinner."

She gives me another warm smile and shuts the door, leaving me alone in this magnificent library.

I circle the wall of books and discover they are not in alphabetical order. I try to find some rhyme or reason to the cataloging. I'm on tiptoe trying to read the titles in a shelf just above my head when I hear someone clear their throat behind me. I spin around, startled.

"Sorry to scare you." It's King Petros. His mouth is twisted into what looks like a sneer on his handsome face. Lord, now I have stepped in it twice today. Give me direction and courage, I tell myself.

"Hello again." I purposefully avoid using his formal title and make no curtsey either. I am acutely aware that making a curtsey in a bikini would look absurd. I imagine, given how I am dressed, that he will take the hint that I obviously wish to browse to my heart's content--alone.

"I see you found my library. I didn't realize the extent of your interests and how closely they intersect with your young sister's. What did she say, swimming and reading?"

I breathe evenly in and out of my nose, reminding myself that it's actually illegal to assault a member of the royal family. Particularly the head of that royal family. I look around the room and suddenly wish that not only books lined the walls. I wish for a long curtain right about now that I can roll myself up in and stand like some roman style attendant before the king. Being at a severe disadvantage I have only one recourse. Summoning all of my imagined dignity, I lift my chin and take a deep breath and attack. "Are you telling me that your library has a dress code? Or are you going to contradict your grandmother and tell me that I am unwelcome here?"

That wipes the smirk right off his handsome face. "As to the dress code, it hasn't been formalized but I must say this is the first time I have encountered a woman lovingly caressing my books dressed in next to nothing at all. I am unused to having guests in this library. This is where I go to get away from..." His voice trails off. I see that his eyes are heated and bright, their stone color is shot through with blue highlights. His intentions are clear.

I can't help but roll my eyes. I have never met a man so irritating. I guess that's what happens when you grow up royal and meant to become King. You have no sense of who real people are. You simply give orders and are obeyed. There are no surprises.

"I'm sure your grandmother had no idea you were here either. She only knew I love books and invited me up here. I assure you, had I known you were here I wouldn't be dressed like this. I also wouldn't have followed her." Part of me wants to flee the room, anything to get away from his all seeing piercing blue eyes. But another part of me demands that I stay. He has no right to tell me where I can and can't be. I mean, how can he disregard his own grandmother's opinion?

King Petros lifts one eyebrow and rises from the high backed chair. Why, oh why, had I not seen or suspected he was seated there in the middle of this room? His languid movement across the room drives me insane. He reeks of entitlement which makes his swagger just ridiculous. It's enough to make me sick.

"Well, then, you are here to select a book, let me make some suggestions for you." He walks around the room, knowing exactly where to go and pulls out a paperback, tossing it to me. "Dressed to Impress by Heather Brand.”

"That's a cut-out book."

We also have Female Invasion, The Guide for Marrying Up, or, my favorite Who Took My Ladder? Hints For A Dejected Social Climber.

I will rise above this, I will rise above this, I will... I say over and over again in my head, not wanting to let King Petros get to me.

"I have a suggestion for you, perhaps you have it in your library. The Prince of Pricks. You might be able to relate."

"Or perhaps this one?" He pulls out a much thinner paperback from the shelf in front of me, holding it up with a grim smile.

"Animal Farm?"

"It's the perfect length--nice and short so you'll have just enough time to read it before you leave."

I grit my teeth, not liking where this is going. "Excuse me? I'm not going anywhere."

King Petros takes an easy step toward me. "You will be soon enough."

It occurs to me that he has something up his sleeve, and since he obviously thinks I'm idiotic enough to not see right through him, I play this to my advantage. "Is this the part where you tell me your evil plan?"

Something flickers in his eyes and he leans in and whispers into my ear. "There's nothing evil in protecting your brother."

Whatever I am expecting to hear, this isn't it. King Petros is a product of his upbringing--an entitled grown brat who's infuriating behavior knows no bounds. But the way he fiercely speaks about Prince Rupert sounds genuine enough.

With that he turns to go, but not before I follow closely behind. My bare feet are soundless on the cool polished floors. Heat rushes to my extremities. "He doesn't need protecting from my sister, well, half-sister."

"He certainly does. I've already got investigators on it since. They are tracing your family from before you were born. I will soon have their report." He turns on his heel and veers left, sending me scrambling to catch up. What is he, an Olympic speed walker? I swallow hard, trying not to let on how out of breath I am.

Investigators? This King thinks he can rifle through our lives, sift and sort through details that only make sense to us. How could I expect any sympathy or understanding to come from any of this? How would he feel if I demanded to know the same about his family? That would make no sense. He is King of an entire country. We are just a blended family without a father who's only fault was he died and unintentionally brought a great deal of care and worries upon his eldest daughter. He could not have foreseen how Gwendolyn would turn all Mommy Dearest on his two children. I don't think I could live with the shame of having King Petros know all the tawdry parts of my life. I only know I have to stop him at all costs.

He glides into another room, and I slam the heavy door. That gets his attention. He pauses before the window and turns to face me but he looks to the side. Why won't he look at me?

"Don't act surprised. I investigate everyone who steps foot on this property."

I want to scream and shout at him, to see his pale blue face flush with the same anger that's boiling inside of me. But I don't. I doubt I would even be able to tell if his color changed by his mood. He seemed to be made of granite.

Across the room he throws open of a pair of double doors and walks to a large oak desk. I don't bother asking for permission. I follow him and stand at his side to see what it is he thinks he's going to find.

The amused smirk on his stupidly handsome face is enough for me to want to throttle him. But judging by his size and the way his clothes fit, he looks trained in self defense. Or perhaps he spends half his time at a gym. He'd overpower me in a second, and I don't think I want to know what that looks or feels like. His infuriating grin that close to my face, the smell of his warm breath blowing feathery touches upon my cheeks and chest. Damn, why had I come up here in a bikini? I shake my head and lift my chin.

I try not to notice that this well built, superiorly attractive masculine physique belongs to someone who is the reigning King of all the land. Right now he is just a jerk who is playing god with all the information available about my family. It isn't fair. Don't we have rights?

If things had been different, maybe I'd find it sexy being in the King's private office wearing only a bikini. Perhaps, if it isn't for the fact that he's trying to look into our history and sabotage Dora's happiness...

"Hmm." The frown on his face makes me hold my breath.

I lean in closer and crane my neck to see what is on his holo screen. I don't care if I'm snooping in his business.

Your Royal Highness -

As requested, I share the results of my last twenty-four hours of investigation. Dora West, twenty-three years of age. Graduate of University of Santa Barbara with a B. A. Her senior year she was elected Social Secretary of Delta Delta Delta, a sorority. Mediocre grades. Passport shows travel to Mexico and Jamaica during spring and winter breaks her junior and senior years. Before her mother remarries, she went to a Community College in Fresno, California along with her twin sister, Antonia.

Mother, Gwendolyn West was married for the first sixteen years of her girl's lives to a Mason West who died suddenly at home. She remarried a widower, Winston Burton, a junior partner of Pan-World Travels. They were married three years until Mr. Burton's sudden death. She is step-mother to Mr. Burton's daughters, Cyndi and Charlotte Burton.

Following college, Dora West worked as a model at Living in Style for two years. She resigned her position when Winston Burton died and Gwendolyn received an open ended family voyage to Proxima Centuri System as a death benefit. This brings us to the present, after vitrification, all parties disembarked upon reaching Kepler 425b, Delta Ohr.

Assets and property were liquidated for the purposes of this travel. Upon your direction this firm will continue to investigate whatever you determine is required.

See attached hours and expenditures.

Discretionally yours,

Ian Sandersby

It's hard not to stand back and smile as King Petros rubs at his temples, his narrowed eyes burn holes in the monitor.

"This can't be."

"Seriously? You find it that hard to believe that we're not spies or belong to a crime syndicate? Or do you simply believe we are a pack of conniving thieves?" I say. What did the King expect to find out about us? Intergalactic travel isn't for the faint of heart and everyone must undergo thorough scrutiny.

"She's only after his money. I know it," he mutters to himself, just loud enough for me to hear.

My nostrils flare as I slam my hand down on the desk. King Petros meets my eyes. "Dora loves Prince Rupert! She is simple, fun loving and I have never known her to be half-hearted."

The King's eyebrows slide down to rest in a flat line, his mouth grows slack and his gray eyes look away, making him look years younger. "It doesn't matter. She's going to destroy him."

I spread my fingers out over the patterned woodgrain of the desk, letting out a sigh. "No. She won't. My sister is well meaning. She is honest too. Listen," I say, suddenly wishing I could make him understand. I don't agree with what he is doing, but the sadness in his voice echoes in my ears. "I get it, okay? I want my sister to be happy. They are old enough to know their own hearts and minds. Its their decision, not ours. So we need to support them, however awkward it feels right now."

He's silent, looking out the window to the gloomy overcast day outside. "My brother doesn't have a very good track record with making smart personal decisions."

I scoff, unable to help myself. "So your idea of helping him is to undermine the decision he just made? If you run your kingdom like you handle your personal affairs, I don't hold out much hope for your subjects. Prince Rupert will hate you if you drive away his true love."

King Petros rises from his chair and towers over me. His cold demeanor and granite face perfectly match his dismissive voice. "You presume to know my relations with my brother and my duties to my people? These are my affairs and you have no knowledge of my kingdom."

The quiet intensity in his eyes freezes me on the spot. Instead of withering, I stare back fiercely. "I don't have to know you well. Any King should know that governing and being family are altogether different. So he turned out different than you. He knows how to charm and to smile and he is a really nice guy. You could learn something from your younger brother. You are so rigid someone would need a chisel to soften your sharp edges."

He shifts to the side, and I'm terribly aware of just how close he's come to me. "I've never met anyone so outspoken and sure of herself. Maybe you should go into law or politics. You certainly have a outsized desire for justice."

His tone is now lilting, playful even, and it catches me off guard. The way he regards me, looking down at me with those sweeping dark lashes, sets off so many alarms in my head. Is it just me, or are his lips getting closer to mine...?


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