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12 Years Ago

Jennifer Shule’s stomach gave a happy lurch as Prince Tristan’s blue gaze met hers across the crowded ballroom. He was the crown prince, a serious heartthrob and the greatest catch of the century, according to her friends and the entertainment news writers. She couldn’t claim she disagreed.

He’d flirted with and teased Jennifer since they were young teens. At first she’d been annoyed at being just another target of the crown prince’s famed charm and tried not to get caught up in his allure and hype. As they spent more time together through their parents’ close association, she had seen past his veneer to the real Tristan. There was something in his eyes that only she saw. A depth and vulnerability that tugged at her heart.

Jennifer pretended not to notice as he made his way to her side, but her palms were sweating against the crystal glass of water in her grip. His brothers hadn’t been forced to come to the fancy party tonight. Jennifer looked forward to this fall when she’d be away at college and the humanitarian missions she had planned for every break; then she’d have an excuse to miss these stuffy parties as well. She was finally eighteen and ready to make her way in the world. Her parents were great, and she adored them, but being the prime minister’s only daughter was demanding. She couldn’t imagine the demands on the crown prince.

“Seeing as you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever laid eyes on,” Tristan said as his elbow brushed hers. “I think it is absolutely necessary for us to escape this ballroom and spend the rest of our lives together.”

“The rest of our lives?” She let herself look at him, lost for a moment in those blue eyes. “Oh my, Mr. Crown Prince, what big plans you have.” For years she’d worn a well-loved, bright-red hooded sweatshirt. He loved to tease that she was Red Riding Hood and he was the Big Bad Wolf.

He chuckled. “All the better to secure your heart with, my dear.”

“Do you …” She swallowed against her dry throat. “Want to secure my heart?”

“Oh yes. As the Big Bad Wolf of Augustine, I think it’s imperative that I teach you all about true love.”

True love? He was still teasing. Right? Tristan was a charming flirt, but he was so much more than that to her. The depth of their conversations, the significant and understanding looks they shared, the way he made her quiver from a simple touch, the way she felt like she was the only one who saw the real Prince Tristan. In her mind, it was certainly true love, but she couldn’t reveal that to him. Not yet.

He tilted his head. “Escape to the forest with the wolf, or stay here pretending to enjoy this party?”

“I think I’ll take my chances with the wolf.”

His face broke into an irresistible grin.

They made their way through the party. She didn’t dare touch him. Their mums were already trying to arrange a marriage. Not that she’d be opposed—after she obtained her master’s degree in speech pathology and helped children throughout the world.

Finally, they escaped the ballroom, grinning as they hurried down the hallway, the stairs, and burst outside. Tristan had to charm the guards into letting them take the trail to the forest. Thankfully, the kingdom of Augustine was safe. Jennifer had nothing to fear, especially with Tristan by her side.

He took her hand as they walked along the forest trail. His warm, strong palm against hers and their fingers interlaced warmed her in the cool forest air.

“Jenn,” he said. “Thank you for escaping with me.”

“Gladly.” She risked a glance at him in the dim light of the forest. The sun had gone down, and a full moon filtered through the trees. “It gets a bit stuffy as the prime minister’s daughter. I can’t even imagine being the crown prince.”

“I’ve been prepared for it my entire life, so it usually feels like a second skin, but sometimes it does get overwhelming.” He squeezed her hand. “Few people know or care who I am under that skin. Except my family and Chad and … you. I feel like you know me so well. Like you see past the title and the handsome face and charming façade to the real me.”

Jennifer wanted to tease him about calling himself handsome and charming, but she imagined it did get old. He couldn’t escape to third world countries to help children like she was planning to.

“I know you so well?” she asked, only a little teasing in her voice.

“You do.” His voice went deep and husky. “But I’d love to know you even better.”

A thrill raced through her. Was this happening? Her and Tristan. He was so much more than the crown prince to her.

They walked out into a clearing, where a beautiful waterfall cascaded down a rock wall and into a deep pool below. Jennifer had been here before with him and his brothers, swimming and jumping off the rocks.

“Let’s see how well I know you.” She cocked her head to the side and studied his handsome face. Almost too perfect, but she wouldn’t complain. “If we were playing truth or dare, let’s see if I guess correctly what questions or dares you’d ask of me.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Interesting. Let’s do it.”

“Truth or dare,” she said.


“Okay. You’d ask me if I could only love one man my entire life, who it would be.”

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