One of the photographer’s assistants came to fetch them for more pictures, putting an end to the conversation for the moment. Christian endured another tedious hour of being posed with his brothers, his sister, the king and queen, and various members of the wedding party. By the time the session was finished, he was ready to get drunker than he’d been in the five years since the accident that left him with a disfigured body to match his tarnished soul.
What stopped him from making a beeline for the bar was Noelle.
It seemed perfectly right to walk up behind her and slip his arm around her waist. Christian dropped a kiss on her cheek the way he had a hundred times, a habit from the old days that used to speak to his strong affection for her. For a microsecond Noelle relaxed against him, accepting his touch as if no time or hurt had passed between them. Then she tensed.
“You look beautiful,” he murmured in her ear.
She didn’t quite jerk away from him, but she lacked her usual grace in her quick sideways step. “Thank you, Your Royal Highness.”
“Walk with me.” It was more a command than an invitation
“I really shouldn’t leave the party.” She glanced toward the bride and groom as if hoping to spot someone who needed her.
“The photos are done. The bride has no further need of her designer. I’d like to catch up with you. It’s been a long time.”
“As you wish, Your Highness.” To his annoyance, she curtsied, gaze averted.
The gardens behind the palace were extensive and scrupulously maintained under the queen’s watchful eye. The plantings closest to the I-shaped structure that housed Sherdana’s royal family were arranged in terms of design and color that changed with the seasons. This was the most photographed section of the garden with its formal walkways and dramatic fountains.
Toward the back of the extensive acreage that surrounded the palace, the garden gave way to a wooded area. Christian guided her to a small grove of trees that offered plenty of shade. There would be more privacy there.
“You’ve done very well for yourself as a designer.”
Christian hated small talk, and it seemed idiotic to attempt any with Noelle. But how did you begin a cordial conversation with an ex-lover who you’d once deliberately hurt even as you told yourself it was for her own good?
“I’ve been fortunate.” Her polite demeanor contrasted with the impatience running through her tone. “Luck and timing.”
“You neglected to mention talent. I always knew you’d be successful.”
“That’s very kind.”
“I’ve missed you.” The words came out of nowhere and shocked him. He’d intended to ply her with flirtatious compliments and make her smile at him the way she used to, not pour his heart out.
For the first time she met his gaze directly. His heart gave a familiar bump as he took in the striking uniqueness of her eyes. From a distance they merely looked hazel, but up close the greenish brown around the edges gave way to a bright chestnut near the pupil. In the past, he’d spent long hours studying these colors and reveling in the soft affection in her gaze as they lingered over dinner or spent a morning in bed.
She gave her head a shake. “I’m sure that’s not true.”
“I might not have been the man for you, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t care,” he told her, fingertips itching to touch her warm skin.
“Don’t try to flatter me.” The words held no heat. “I was a convenient bed for you to fall into after you were done partying. You came to me when you grew tired of your superficial crowd and their thoughtless behavior. And in the end, you pushed me out of your life as if two years together meant nothing.”
For your own good.
“And look how you thrived. You moved to Paris and became an internationally famous designer.” He sounded defensive, and that wasn’t the tone he wanted to take with her.
“Is that what you think I wanted?” Her breath huffed out in a short burst that he might have taken for laughter if she hadn’t been frowning. “Fame and fortune?”
No, it’s what he’d wanted for her. “Talent like yours shouldn’t go to waste.”
“Do you want me to thank you?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
During the time they were together, he’d been more honest with her than anyone else before or since. Not even his brothers had known of the demons that drove him. Maybe he trusted Noelle because they’d been friends before they became lovers. Her openness and gentle spirit had offered him a safe place to unload all his fears and doubts. And because of that, she’d gotten the full weight of his darkness.
“Then why are we having this conversation after five years of silence?”
Because once again he needed her solace and support. The pressure of fathering the future heir to Sherdana’s throne was dredging up his worst qualities. She’d talked him through bouts of melancholy in the past.
“I need you.”
Her expression reflected dismay. “I’m no longer that girl.” Her tone heated as she continued. “And even if I was, I have other things in my life that will always take priority over aâ€¦” As if realizing what she’d been about to say to her prince, Noelle sucked in a giant breath and pulled her lips between her teeth. Her next words were polite, her tone tempered. “I am no longer in a position to be your friend.”
She twisted the word friend into something ugly. Christian read her message loud and clear. She wanted nothing more to do with him. Not as his confidante, his champion or as his lover.
Before he could argue, she dropped another one of those annoying curtsies. “Excuse me, Your Highness, but I should get back to the party.”
Christian watched her vanish back along the path and marveled how thoroughly he’d mucked up his most important act of selflessness. She was right to shut him down. He’d repeatedly demonstrated that he was nothing but trouble for her.
But after talking to her, he knew if he was going to get through the next few months of finding a wife and settling down to the job of producing the next heir to the throne, he was going to need a friend in his corner. And once upon a time, Noelle had been the only one he talked to about his problems.
He desperately wanted her support. And although she might not be on board with the idea at the moment, he was going to persuade her to give it.