Winter Wedding for the Prince

By: Barbara Wallace

CHAPTER ONE

“THEN, AFTER THE children finish their sing-along, Babbo Natale will arrive to distribute presents. We were lucky enough this year to get each child something from their wish lists, even the girl who asked for a dragon and one thousand chocolate cookies. The internet is a wonderful thing.” Rosa Lamberti looked up from her paperwork. “Are you even listening?” she asked the man in front of her.

Armando Santoro, crown prince of Corinthia, paused midstep to give her a narrow-eyed look. “Of course I did. Babbo Natale. Dragons. Cookies. Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know, maybe because you have been wearing a path in the carpet for the past thirty minutes.” Pacing like a caged panther was more like it. He had been crossing the hand-woven Oushak with long, heavy-footed strides that took advantage of his extra-tall frame. Between that and the scowl plastered on his face, she half expected him to start growling. “I have a feeling I could have announced a coup and you wouldn’t have heard me.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, running a hand through his dark curls. “I’m a bit distracted this morning.”

Clearly. Setting her paperwork aside, Rosa helped herself to a fresh cup of coffee. On good days, being the prince’s personal assistant was a three-cup job. When he was distracted, the number increased to four or five.

“Don’t tell me you’re upset about your sister,” she said. Only that morning, Princess Arianna had announced her engagement to an American businessman named Max Brown whom she had met in New York City. The details of the courtship were sketchy. According to Armando, the princess had taken off for America without a word why. A few days after her return, Max Brown forced his way into the castle demanding to see her. The pair had been inseparable ever since.

“No,” he said. It was more a sigh than reply. “If Arianna is happy, then I am happy for her.”

Happy was too mild a term. Rosa would go with delirious or ecstatic. The princess had lit up like Corinthia City on San Paolo Day when Max burst through the door.

Rosa suppressed a sigh of her own. Wild, passionate declarations of love and sudden engagements. It was all quite romantic. She couldn’t remember the last time a man declared anything to her, unless you counted her ex-husband and his many declarations of disinterest.

Fredo had been very good at telling her she wasn’t worth his time.

She returned to the question at hand. “If it is not your sister, then what is it?” she asked over the rim of her coffee cup. “And don’t say nothing, because I know you.” One didn’t spend seven years of life attached to someone—four as a sister-in-law—without learning a person’s tics.

An olive-skinned hand reached over her shoulder and took the cup before her lips had a chance to make contact. “Hey!”

Turning, she saw Armando already drinking. “You forgot the sugar,” he said with a frown.

“I forgot nothing.” What little was left of the warm liquid splashed against the rim as she snatched the cup free. “I’m on a diet.”

“You’re always on a diet. A teaspoon or two of sugar will not kill you.”

Said the god of athleticism. He wasn’t in danger of finishing out the year a dress size larger. Even sitting perfectly straight, she swore she could feel the button on her waistband threatening to pop.

Sucking in her belly, she said, “Stop trying to change the subject. I asked you a question.”

“Did you just demand I answer you? I’m sorry, I was under the impression that you worked for me.”

“Yes, but I’m family. That gives me special privileges.”

“Like bossiness?”

“I’m not the one ruining a one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old rug.” Reaching for the coffeepot, she poured him a fresh coffee of his own, making sure to add the two sugars before refilling her cup. “Seriously, Armando. What’s wrong?”

This sigh was the loudest of the three. Taking the coffee, he came around to the front of the love seat and sat down beside her. Rosa did her best to squeeze into the corner to accommodate him. She didn’t know if her brother-in-law kept forgetting she wasn’t as petite as his late wife or what, but he always insisted on invading her personal space rather than taking a seat across the way. As a result, they sat wedged together, their thighs pressed tight. Rosa gave a silent thank-you for long jackets. It provided another layer between their bodies.

Oblivious, as usual, to the close quarters, Armando stared at the coffee she’d handed him. “Arianna’s pregnant,” he said in a dull voice.

No wonder they were rushing the engagement. “But that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” she asked. “Your father finally has another heir to the throne.” It was no secret the king was eager to establish a third generation of Santoros to protect his family’s legacy.

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