Two Years Ago
“Out all night drinking? For pity’s sake, Leopold, I thought you were there to study physics, not drink and screw around. And what happened to keeping a low profile?”
Prince Stephan Leopold of Avelle-am-see, Duke of Fluszbein, and heir to the throne, pressed his hands to his head as he sat up, groaning as the pounding headache rolled through him. He glanced at the clock and groaned again, regretting that he’d punched the speaker button and answered the phone. “Christ, Gisele, it’s not even six here. And it was just a couple of drinks in a bar.”
“Quatersh!” His sister spat out the word in their native Avellian tongue, a derivation of German and Danish that was as old as their tiny European country.
“It’s not nonsense,” Leopold protested. “I went out to a local bar with a friend. We drank. We ate. We hung out. And it wasn’t all night. Besides it’s not like I’m prancing around Austin with a stein of beer in my hand.”
“So the girl is no one special? Just another of your admirers ready to help you accelerate a few particles of your own?”
Leopold winced at the harsh tone and bad physics joke, though he should have expected them. He’d spent too many years partying with too many girls. But that was because he’d been trapped. Born into a role he didn’t want, and he’d been acting out in the time-honored tradition of many a royal before him. With alcohol and sex.
Now was different. He’d begged his father to allow him to come to the States to study under Professor Malkin. And now that he was here, he not only wanted to keep a low profile so that his father didn’t decide to call him home, but he had no interest in meaningless flings to dull the pain of his future. Not when he was so deeply invested in his present.
So far, it seemed to have worked. He was incognito in the States, going by Leo instead of his given name, and adding a surname though he didn’t formally have one at home. He was using Stahl, the name of one branch of his mother’s family.
His goal had been to avoid the public eye that so enjoyed focusing on the supposed glamour of royal life. And since his country was small, Leopold had actually managed to stay off the radar these last few months, something his British cousins never seemed to manage.
He grimaced. “Do not call me that. I do not sit on the throne.” Yet.
“I was asking about the girl. Who is she?”
A vision of her quick smile and thoughtful brown eyes came into his head. Her chin-length honey-brown hair tucked behind one ear. Her soft skin. And the way her lips had tasted when he’d so gently kissed her.
“Leopold. Who is she?”
He jumped. “Just a girl.” Lie. “A law student.” Truth.
Gisele stayed silent.
Leopold cleared his throat and continued. “We were hanging with a group of friends.” Also truth. “And how did you know, anyway? I—”
He cut himself off. “Jürgen.” Leopold snapped out the name of his personal bodyguard, the man who headed the small security detail that had come with him from Avelle-am-see to the University of Texas and who was expected to serve and protect the heir. “I swear, I’m docking that man’s pay.”
“Then it’s fortunate for Jürgen that you’re not the Chancellor of the Exchequer. And this isn’t the point. Do you really think that Father will let you stay in Texas if he learns of this behavior?”
“There was no behavior. As I said, she is only a friend.”
The first statement was sadly true. Despite the intense and surprising connection he’d felt to the woman he’d first caught sight of in the local bar, theirs wasn’t a relationship that could go anywhere. He was the heir to the throne. Destined to marry a citizen of his country or another royal. A wife he didn’t want, to go with the job he didn’t want.
Was it any wonder he sometimes escaped to find solace in a round of drinks and a bevy of gorgeous women?
But that wasn’t Skye. She could never be his, and yet he craved and respected her in a way he’d never felt before. And, he feared, would never feel again.
“Just be careful, little brother. Father only agreed to let you go in the first place because of the opportunity to do some graduate work under Professor Malkin. Father knows how much it means to you.”
“Don’t be like that. He conceded a lot. He recognizes that the sciences are important to the realm, and that your reign will impact the direction our country goes.”
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