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The Duke (Billionaire Royals Book 3) by Sophia Summers (1)

Chapter 1

Seraphina thought she had prepared herself to see Trane, thought she could walk calmly, speak in a normal voice, and pretend he did not affect her. But as soon as she entered the door to King Nico’s wedding reception, she knew her pretense would never be possible. Her eyes found him right away, and he found her. It didn’t help that he stood up abruptly when she entered. His eyes warmed her wherever his gaze travelled over her body. And he was shocked to see her, that much was obvious.

She smirked. Perfect. She loved to keep people on their toes. The day she became predictable was the day she changed her name and moved to the arctic just to keep things interesting.

No matter how much Seraphina had tried to brace herself, she still almost teetered over in her heels. Curse these high spikes. Surely a man invented such a torturous device. She gripped her camera and concentrated on remaining upright.

       Franco put a hand at the small of her back. “Steady boss.”

       She swallowed and nodded. “Thanks.” She was here to do a job. Proving she was more than just Princess Seraphina, the eldest Rolana daughter meant she could succeed as a reporter, meant that her journalism degree mattered. She held the camera up to her face and started snapping shots of anything. After about twenty or so, she slipped the strap over her arm, took out her notebook and pulled a pencil from behind her ear.

       She had never been able to respond sensibly where Trane was concerned. She dared the quickest flicker of a glance in his direction. Subtlety, never his strength, he still stared at her.

       The room was lavish. White folds of silk hung from the ceiling and draped this way and that, billowing to create the sense of dancing in the clouds. Though the party was many hours in the making, only the diehards were still here and out dancing, Seraphina had wanted to make an appearance, represent her family. None of the other four siblings could attend and her parents were aging and rarely left their summer estate.

She had a second motivation for coming. A shot at a feature in tomorrow’s paper. The wedding was the story of all stories in any of the nearby nations. And she wanted some first-hand shots that others might not have taken.

       A quiet voice inside told her that all this baloney about a feature story and family duty were just elaborate excuses to run into Trane.

       Was she that pathetic? Would she take him back if he came begging? No. She wouldn’t. Ok, maybe she would, if he were serious. She couldn’t help craving the sweet torture of seeing him, even from across the room. Oh brother, her intentions were clear as a foggy day across the Mediterranean.

       Franco cleared his throat. “Weren’t we going to do interviews?”

       They hadn’t moved. Two steps into the room and Trane’s gaze had stopped her cold.

       “Of course.” She looked anywhere but at Franco. Or Trane.

       “You could just go talk to him and get it over with.”

       She looked at Trane again and hissed, “Stop talking about him.” When Franco shared her gaze in Trane’s direction she added, “Don’t look at him!” When he ignored her and looked anyway, she waved her hands, “Franco!”

       And then because they looked ridiculous and because Trane and King Nico Valdez had seen it all, she adjusted her camera strap and said, “Come on.”

       She lifted her head, placed one spiky heel on the floor in front of the other as she walked with a confidence she tried to feel. I am a professional.  She repeated over and over until she at last arrived in front of Trane.

She took a deep breath and held out her hand, and said, “I am a professional.” She bit her lip in dismay and wished to turn around and hide.         

Nico laughed and turned away. Which made her feel more ridiculous.  

“No, I mean, hello, Trane. Congratulations, your majesty.”

But Trane just stood there, dark wavy hair, perfect broad shoulders, tanned skin. His eyes drank her in; he never could hide what he was thinking. It made her want to step into his arms like she used to. But the rest of him seemed frozen. A part of her was thrilled that even if he never called or texted like he used to, he enjoyed her when she was right in front of him.

       Lucan kicked his foot but Trane did not move. This couldn’t get any more awkward. She cleared her throat. “So, I was wondering if I could get a shot with all the brothers?” She smiled and held up her camera.

This seemed to break Trane out of his trance.

       “Seraphina. Good to see you.” He reached for her hand and brought it to his mouth.

       His soft lips, pressing against her knuckles left a tingle on her skin. She felt a ridiculous urge to give her hand back to him for a repeat gesture. His eyes watched her. He hadn’t yet looked away. Not really. Her face heated with a rush of exhilaration at the close attention.

       She cleared her throat. “How about you stay sitting, just as you are and I’ll get a shot of the dance floor behind you and our lovely new queen out there.” She loved Jo. What a wonderful fresh new figurehead. Watching her move, she chuckled, “That woman has more energy…”

       Nico chuckled, “She’s fantastic.” His eyes, following his new wife told Seraphina all she needed to know about the love he felt. The sight made her smile and a wistful sort of butterfly fluttered around in her stomach. Perhaps someday she would find a man to adore her with his eyes. Like Trane was doing. Except, she amended, he would need to do the other things that mattered too.

       Franco nudged her, and she got to work. She snapped shot after shot of the incredibly photogenic group. And then took quotes from each brother. Then, because she wanted more time with Trane, she said, “Let’s get a quick shot of the Duke and Tripp.” Tripp jumped up. He was not often featured anywhere, but she appreciated his quiet way with people. And she had a personal interest in his efforts to save the oceanic wildlife. She stood them together, Tripp in front of Trane. “We’ll call this, The Duke’s Brother.” She smirked. Tripp shrugged, “It’s as good a title as I’m going to get.”

       Lucan snorted, “As if Prince isn’t enough of one.”

       “Well, besides that.”

       Trane rested a hand on his shoulder. “Being next in line isn’t always a sail around the Mediterranean. No one calls me the Duke. They call me—”

       “The King’s brother.” Nico smirked.

Tripp held up a hand. “I’m not complaining. I’ve never wanted to be the Duke.” His grin, wide and easy, showed just how happy he was to do his own thing right in the middle of a group of powerful men.

       She finished as the DJ announced one last song.

Nico stood, eyes for only his wife.

Suddenly shy, Seraphina looked down at the floor and then at the wall. All her days at middle school dances rushed back to haunt her. You would think all those years of finishing school, gala training, royal governesses, and she would be able to shake the scars of middle school.

       Franco nudged her “Should we leave? I think we’ve got everything here. Might be able to get a good position to watch their car drive away.”

       Her eyes flew to Trane’s. “Oh sure.” Was she really going to stand there, stalling, hoping he asked her to dance?

       Then his eyes sparkled and he straightened. “Seraphina, someone’s got to show Nico he’s not all that. Would you care to dance?” His outstretched hand beckoned, promising to hold her close, to move about the floor. A flush of warmth spread through her.

       “I’d love to. Someone has to put them in their place.” She amended. “Though I love Jo. She’s great right where she is.”

       He winked. “Everyone loves Jo. Best thing to happen to my brother.”

       As soon as her hand rested in his, she forgot everything else. A repeated tugging at her arm pulled her from her faraway place of bliss to hand the camera equipment off to Franco. Then she followed Trane out onto the floor.

       Truth told, she would follow him anywhere. He had always been her weakness and she had spent much of her late teen years, pining away for him, jumping every time he dropped a bit of attention her way. She knew he liked her, but he just never had time for a relationship and she was left feeling needy and demanding. So she had allowed some space between them and that space had grown until they rarely saw each other now and he never called.

       But here he was. He pulled her into his arms, closer than was necessary. She fit so comfortably in them. He held her. His hands weren’t merely resting on the small of her back or holding her other hand. His dance was an embrace and she felt wrapped in the security of his strength.

His eyes sparkled warmly. “This is nice. I like you right here.”

The honey baritone voice washed over her. But she couldn’t let herself get used to his attention. She knew it was-out of sight, out of mind-with him, and the thought brought a sigh.

       “Why the sigh?” Trane raised his eyebrow. His eyes still holding that look of fascination, that complete attention to her every detail. She knew if she swallowed he took note.

       She hedged. “Oh, I don’t know. Just tired I guess.” Maybe this dance was a bad idea.

       He waited. “I know you better than that.”

       She allowed a bit of her anguish to show. “Do you?” She looked down. It wasn’t really the time to get into such a conversation. “Cause you haven’t called in months.” She bit her tongue right after she said it, but she couldn’t keep the words from flowing out. They showed the hurt she had been burying when she realized that if she didn’t put herself in front of him, he didn’t think of her.

       She straightened. It was time to return from the few moments of fantasy in his arms and face life as she knew it. She and Trane could never be.

       “Seraphina, you know what’s been going on around here.” His head indicated Nico and Jo who danced near them. “We’ve got to get Nico fully transitioned and then things should calm down enough. But then there’s the work with the summit—”

       She shook her head. “I know Trane. It’s always the same. I’m fine, really. It’s just when I see you, I can’t help but wish there was time for us.”

       The guilty expression on his face reminded her why she had put distance between them. Here she was again, the needy person in his life who he never made time for. She stopped their dance. “You know what, it’s fine. Trane. You are married to the crown.” Even though, ironically, he would never wear it. She knew Torren was everything to him. She backed up and felt the lonely coldness of her life surround her. “Perhaps I’ll see you at the new ocean facility ribbon cutting?”

       He nodded. But his pained expression cut to her center. “Stay, Phina. Come to the palace. Just for tonight.” He took her hand back in his own. And she almost couldn’t concentrate. “Like old times. We’re swimming, movies, music…”

       “Trane, I can’t. As good as it sounds right now, it will only make tomorrow harder.” She shook her head and backed away from him. Franco came up behind her. “Everything ok, boss?”

       She turned to him, gratefully. His kind brown eyes comforting. He held up her equipment. “The front walk?”

       She wiped one lone rebellious tear off her cheek, took a last look at Trane and then hurried from the room, with Franco following after.

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