The Prince She Never KnewBy: Kate Hewitt
TODAY WAS HER wedding day. Alyse Barras gazed at her pale, pinched face in the mirror and decided that not all brides were radiant. As it happened, she looked as if she were on the way to the gallows.
No, she amended, not the gallows; a quick and brutal end was not to be hers, but rather a long, drawn-out life sentence: a loveless marriage to a man whom she barely knew, despite their six-year engagement. Yet even so a small kernel of hope was determined to take root in her heart, to unfurl and grow in the shallowest and poorest of soils.
Maybe he’ll learn to love me...
Prince Leo Diomedi of Maldinia seemed unlikely to learn anything of the sort, yet still she hoped. She had to.
‘Miss Barras? Are you ready?’
Alyse turned from her reflection to face one of the wedding coordinator’s assistants who stood in the doorway of the room she’d been given in the vast royal palace in Averne, Maldinia’s capital city, nestled in the foothills of the Alps.
‘As ready as I’ll ever be,’ she replied, trying to smile, but everything in her felt fragile, breakable, and the curve of her lips seemed as if it could crack her face. Split her apart.
The assistant Marina came forward, looking her over in the assessing and proprietary way Alyse had got used to in the three days since she’d arrived in Maldinia—or, really, the six years since she’d agreed to this engagement. She was a commodity to be bought, shaped, presented. An object of great value, to be sure, but still an object.
She’d learned to live with it, although on today of all days—her wedding day, the day most little girls dreamed about—she felt the falseness of her own role more, the sense that her life was simply something to be staged.
Marina twitched Alyse’s veil this way and that, until she gave a nod of satisfaction. It billowed gauzily over her shoulders, a gossamer web edged with three-hundred-year-old lace.
‘And now the dress,’ Marina said, and flicked her fingers to indicate that Alyse should turn around.
Alyse moved slowly in a circle as Marina examined the yards of white satin that billowed out behind her, the lace bodice that hugged her breasts and hips and had taken eight top-secret fittings over the last six months. The dress had been the source of intense media speculation, the subject of hundreds of articles in tabloids, gossip magazines, even respected newspapers, television and radio interviews, celebrity and gossip blogs and websites.
What kind of dress would the world’s real-life Cinderella—not a very creative way of typecasting her, but it had stuck—wear to marry her very own prince, her one true love?
Well, this. And Alyse had had no say in it at all. It was a beautiful dress, she allowed as she caught a glance of the billowing white satin in the full-length mirror. She could hardly complain. She might have chosen something just like it—if she’d been given a choice.
Marina’s walkie-talkie crackled and she spoke into it in rapid Italian, too fast for Alyse to understand, even though she’d been learning Italian ever since she’d become engaged to Leo. It was the native language of his country, and Maldinia’s queen-in-waiting should be able to speak it. Unfortunately no one spoke slowly enough for her to be able to understand.
‘They’re ready.’ Marina twitched the dress just as she had the veil and then rummaged on the vanity table for some blusher. ‘You look a bit pale,’ she explained, and brushed Alyse’s cheeks with blusher even though the make-up artist had already spent an hour on her face.
‘Thank you,’ Alyse murmured. She wished her mother were here, but the royal protocol was—and always had been, according to Queen Sophia—that the bride prepare by herself. Alyse wondered whether that was true. Queen Sophia tended to insist on doing things the way they’d ‘always been done’ when really it was simply the way she wanted them done. And even though Alyse’s mother, Natalie, was Queen Sophia’s best friend from their days together at a Swiss boarding school, she clearly didn’t want Natalie getting in the way on this most important and august of occasions.
Or so Alyse assumed. She was the bride, and she felt as if she were in the way.
She wondered if she would feel so as a wife.
No. She closed her eyes as Marina next dusted her face with loose powder. She couldn’t think like that, couldn’t give in to the despair, not on today of all days. She had once before, and it had led only to heartache and regret. Today she wanted to hope, to believe, or at least to try to. Today was meant to be a beginning, not an end.
But if Leo hasn’t learned to love me in the last six years, why should he now?
Two months ago, with media interest at a frenzied height, her mother had taken her on a weekend to Monaco. They’d sat in deck chairs and sipped frothy drinks and Alyse had felt herself just begin to relax when Natalie had said, ‘You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.’
She’d tensed all over again, her drink halfway to her lips. ‘Do what?’
‘Marry him, Alyse. I know it’s all got completely out of hand with the media, and also with the Diomedis, to be frank. But you are still your own woman and I want to make sure you’re sure...’ Her mother had trailed off, her eyes clouded with anxiety, and Alyse had wondered what she’d guessed.
Did she have even an inkling of how little there was between her and Leo? Few people knew; the world believed they were madly in love, and had done ever since Leo had first kissed her cheek six years ago and the resulting photograph had captured the public’s imagination.
Leo’s mother Sophia knew, of course, as the pretense of their grand romance had been her idea, Alyse suspected, and of course Leo’s father, Alessandro, who had first broached the whole idea to her when she’d been just eighteen years old and starry-eyed over Leo. Perhaps Alexa—Leo’s sister, her fiery nature so different from his own sense of cool containment—had guessed.
And, naturally, Leo knew. Leo knew he didn’t love her. He just didn’t know that for six years she’d been secretly, desperately, loving him.
‘I’m happy, Maman,’ Alyse had said quietly, and had reached over to squeeze her mother’s hand. ‘I admit, the media circus isn’t my favourite part, but...I love Leo.’ She had stumbled only slightly over this unfortunate truth.
‘I want for you what your father and I have had,’ Natalie had said, and Alyse had smiled wanly. Her parents’ romance was something out of a fairy tale: the American heiress who had captured the heart of a wealthy French financier. Alyse had heard the story many times, how her father had seen her mother across a crowded room—they’d both been attending some important dinner—and he had made his way over to her and said, ‘What are you doing with the rest of your life?’
She’d simply smiled and answered, ‘Spending it with you.’
Love at first sight. And not just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill love, but of the over-the-top, utterly consuming variety.