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Carrying the King's Pride

By:Jennifer Hayward

CHAPTER ONE

SOFÍA RAMIREZ PUT a Manolo Blahnik–clad toe out of the classic yellow Manhattan taxi, her shoe meeting pavement still radiating heat from a sultry, steamy New York summer day.

She followed up the iconic shoe with a slim leg that caused a tuxedo-clad male on the sidewalk to turn and watch, a champagne-colored, beaded cocktail dress that accentuated her voluptuous figure without flaunting it and a Kate Spade clutch a shade deeper than her dress.

Suitably assembled on the sidewalk, she paid the driver, ran a palm over her sleek French twist to make sure it was intact and made her way toward the entrance of the glimmering, stately Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As the co-owner of one of Manhattan’s trendiest fashion boutiques, she knew the importance of dressing for the occasion. Overdress in this city and you looked as if you were trying too hard. Underdress and you would be talked about all night by the highbrow crowd.

She thought she’d gotten it just right as she swished through the front doors of the museum, where one of her most important clients was hosting a benefit for the arts. But could any outfit ever really prepare a woman for her other, perhaps more important, task of the evening—saying thanks, but no thanks, to her relationship with one of Manhattan’s most powerful men?

Not just a man. A prince. The sexy, charismatic second in line to the throne of his tiny Mediterranean kingdom, Akathinia, Prince Nikandros Constantinides, in attendance tonight. The untamable one, as the women who had dated him were wont to say in quick sound bites to the press, the slight hint of bitterness to their tone the only outward sign they were in any way chastened at being yet another of his castoffs.

For didn’t they all know their time with the prince was limited to the length of his attention span? That once his interest wandered, the clock was on?

She had known it. And what had she done? Waited for him to call when he’d come back from Mexico, his much-lauded free trade deal in hand, obsessively checking her phone for a message from him every fifteen minutes only to find nothing until tonight when he’d known they would be at the same party.

Her stomach curled with a fresh burst of nerves as she handed her invitation to the greeters at the door of the Egyptian-themed Temple of Dendur exhibit. Getting herself into a state over a man, even one as gorgeous as Nik, was something she’d sworn she’d never do. Couldn’t allow herself to do. So she was going to do what any smart, sensible woman would in her situation.

End it. Cut it off before he broke her heart. Before he made her want things she couldn’t have. Things she’d long ago determined weren’t attainable for her.

Her attendance verified, she wound her way through the glitzy, bejeweled crowd to look for her hostess, Natalia Graham, a well-respected philanthropist who came from one of Manhattan’s historic, moneyed families. Business first, heart-pounding personal matter later.

The Temple of Dendur, a gift to the United States from Egypt in the late 1960s, then bequeathed to the Met, was lit up this evening as the centerpiece of the event. Harkening back to the age of the pharaohs and the gods they worshipped, it was breathtaking.

Several acquaintances stopped her to talk, all of them clients. She spent a few moments with each, summoning the polite small talk she had studiously taught herself over the years, because when you came from the opposite side of town these people did, where this world had once only been a dream in your daily existence, you weren’t equipped with those skills.

“Sofía.” Natalia found her moments later, drawing her into a warm embrace. “I’m so glad you made it.”

“I’m sorry I’m late. It was a crazy day.”

“And you probably want off your feet.” Natalia drew her toward the bar. “No Katharine tonight?”

She shook her head at the mention of her partner. “Her father is in town.”

“And no gorgeous man to escort you?” Natalia gave her a wry look. “I would have thought the men would be lining up to date you. Unless,” her friend said slyly, “the rumors of you and the prince are true?”

“I don’t have time to date,” she said smoothly, sliding onto a bar stool. “You know I’m always working.”

“Mmm.” Natalia gave her a speculative look. “Martini?”

“Please.” A healthy shot of potent alcohol might go a long way toward the liquid courage she needed at the moment.

She and Natalia caught up, working their way around to the joint endeavor they had been planning, a fashion show in support of one of Natalia’s charities. They were discussing the details when the philanthropist’s gaze sharpened on the crowd behind them.

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