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CHAPTER 44

ALONE IN THE spacious restroom of the G550 jet, Ambra Vidal stood at the sink and let warm water run gently over her hands as she stared into the mirror, barely recognizing herself in the reflection.

What have I done?

She took another sip of wine, longing for her old life of only a few months ago—anonymous, single, engrossed in her museum work—but all of that was gone now. It had evaporated the moment Julián proposed.

No, she chided herself. It evaporated the moment you said yes.

The horror of tonight’s assassination had settled in her gut, and now her logical mind was fearfully weighing the implications.

I invited Edmond’s assassin to the museum.

I was tricked by someone in the palace.

And now I know too much.

There was no proof that Prince Julián was behind the bloody killing, nor that he was even aware of the assassination plan. Even so, Ambra had seen enough of the palace’s inner workings to suspect that none of this could have happened without the prince’s knowledge, if not his blessing.

I told Julián too much.

In recent weeks, Ambra had felt the growing need to justify every second she spent away from her jealous fiancé, and so she had privately shared with Julián much of what she knew about Edmond’s upcoming presentation. Ambra now feared her openness might have been reckless.

Ambra turned off the water and dried her hands, reaching for her wine goblet and draining the last few drops. In the mirror before her she saw a stranger—a once confident professional who was now filled with regret and shame.

The mistakes I’ve made in a few short months …

As her mind reeled back in time, she wondered what she could possibly have done differently. Four months ago, on a rainy night in Madrid, Ambra was attending a fund-raiser at the Reina Sofía Museum of Modern Art …

Most of the guests had migrated to room 206.06 to view the museum’s most famous work—El Guernica—a sprawling twenty-five-foot-long Picasso that evoked the horrific bombing of a small Basque town during the Spanish Civil War. Ambra, however, found the painting too painful to view—a vivid reminder of the brutal oppression endured under Spain’s fascistic dictator General Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975.

Instead, she had chosen to slip alone into a quiet gallery to enjoy the work of one of her favorite Spanish artists, Maruja Mallo, a female Surrealist from Galicia whose success in the 1930s had helped shatter the glass ceiling for female artists in Spain.

Ambra was standing alone admiring La Verbena—a political satire filled with complex symbols—when a deep voice spoke behind her.

Es casi tan guapa como tú,” the man declared. It’s almost as beautiful as you are.

Seriously? Ambra stared straight ahead and resisted the urge to roll her eyes. At events like these, the museum sometimes felt more like an awkward pickup bar than a cultural center.

¿Qué crees que significa?” the voice behind her pressed. What do you think it means?

“I have no idea,” she lied, hoping that speaking English might make the man move on. “I just like it.”

“I like it too,” the man replied in almost accentless English. “Mallo was ahead of her time. Sadly, for the untrained eye, this painting’s superficial beauty can camouflage the deeper substance within.” He paused. “I imagine a woman like you must face that problem all the time.”

Ambra groaned. Do lines like this really work on women? Affixing a polite smile to her face, she spun around to dispatch the man. “Sir, that’s very kind of you to say, but—”

Ambra Vidal froze midsentence.

The man facing her was someone she had seen on television and in magazines for her entire life.

“Oh,” Ambra stammered. “You’re …”

“Presumptuous?” the handsome man ventured. “Clumsily bold? I’m sorry, I live a sheltered life, and I’m not very good at this sort of thing.” He smiled and extended a polite hand. “My name is Julián.”

“I think I know your name,” Ambra told him, blushing as she shook hands with Prince Julián, the future king of Spain. He was far taller than she had imagined, with soft eyes and a confident smile. “I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight,” she continued, quickly regaining her composure. “I imagined you as more of a Prado man—you know, Goya, Velázquez … the classics.”

“You mean conservative and old-fashioned?” He laughed warmly. “I think you have me confused with my father. Mallo and Miró have always been favorites of mine.”

Ambra and the prince talked for several minutes, and she was impressed by his knowledge of art. Then again, the man grew up in Madrid’s Royal Palace, which possessed one of Spain’s finest collections; he’d probably had an original El Greco hanging in his nursery.

“I realize this will seem forward,” the prince said, presenting her with a gold-embossed business card, “but I would love for you to join me at a dinner party tomorrow night. My direct number is on the card. Just let me know.”

“Dinner?” Ambra joked. “You don’t even know my name.”

“Ambra Vidal,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You’re thirty-nine years old. You hold a degree in art history from the Universidad de Salamanca. You’re the director of our Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You recently spoke out on the controversy surrounding Luis Quiles, whose artwork, I agree, graphically mirrors the horrors of modern life and may not be appropriate for young children, but I’m not sure I agree with you that his work resembles that of Banksy. You’ve never been married. You have no children. And you look fantastic in black.”

Ambra’s jaw dropped. “My goodness. Does this approach really work?”

“I have no idea,” he said with a smile. “I guess we’ll find out.”

As if on cue, two Guardia Real agents materialized and ushered the prince off to mingle with some VIPs.

Ambra clutched the business card in her hand and felt something she had not felt in years. Butterflies. Did a prince just ask me for a date?

Ambra had been a gangly teenager, and the boys who asked her out had always felt themselves to be on an equal footing with her. Later in life, though, when her beauty had blossomed, Ambra suddenly found men to be intimidated in her presence, fumbling and self-conscious and entirely too deferential. Tonight, however, a powerful man had boldly strode up to her and taken total control. It made her feel feminine. And young.

The very next night, a driver collected Ambra at her hotel and took her to the Royal Palace, where she found herself seated next to the prince in the company of two dozen other guests, many of whom she recognized from the society pages or politics. The prince introduced her as his “lovely new friend” and deftly launched a conversation about art in which Ambra could participate fully. She had the sensation that she was being auditioned somehow, but strangely, she didn’t really mind. She felt flattered.

At the evening’s end, Julián took her aside and whispered, “I hope you had fun. I’d love to see you again.” He smiled. “How about Thursday night?”

“Thank you,” Ambra replied, “but I’m afraid I’m flying back to Bilbao in the morning.”

“Then I’ll fly up as well,” he said. “Have you been to the restaurant Etxanobe?”

Ambra had to laugh. Etxanobe was one of Bilbao’s most coveted dining experiences. A favorite of art aficionados from around the world, the restaurant boasted an avant-garde decor and colorful cuisine that made diners feel as if they were seated in a landscape painted by Marc Chagall.

“That would be lovely,” she heard herself say.

At Etxanobe, over stylishy presented plates of sumac-seared tuna and truffled asparagus, Julián opened up about the political challenges he faced as he attempted to emerge from the shadow of his ailing father, and also about the personal pressure he felt to continue the royal line. Ambra recognized in him the innocence of a cloistered little boy but also saw the makings of a leader with a fervent passion for his country. She found it an alluring combination.

That night, when Julián’s security guards whisked him back to his private plane, Ambra knew she was smitten.

You barely know him, she reminded herself. Take it slow.

The next several months seemed to pass in an instant as Ambra and Julián saw each other constantly—dinners at the palace, picnics on the grounds of his country estate, even a movie matinee. Their rapport was unforced, and Ambra couldn’t remember ever being happier. Julián was endearingly old-fashioned, often holding her hand or stealing a polite kiss, but never crossing the conventional boundaries, and Ambra appreciated his fine manners.

One sunny morning, three weeks ago, Ambra was in Madrid, where she was scheduled to appear in a segment of a morning TV show about the Guggenheim’s upcoming exhibits. RTVE’s Telediario was watched by millions live around the country, and Ambra was a little apprehensive about doing live television, but she knew the spot would provide superb national coverage for the museum.

The night before the show, she and Julián met for a deliciously casual dinner at Trattoria Malatesta and then slipped quietly through El Parque del Retiro. Watching the families out strolling and the scores of children laughing and running about, Ambra felt totally at peace, lost in the moment.

“Do you like children?” Julián asked.

“I adore them,” she replied honestly. “In fact, sometimes I feel like children are the only thing missing in my life.”

Julián smiled broadly. “I know the feeling.”

In that instant, the way he looked at her felt different somehow, and Ambra suddenly realized why Julián was asking the question. A surge of fear gripped her, and a voice in her head screamed out, Tell him! TELL HIM NOW!

She tried to speak, but she couldn’t make a sound.

“Are you okay?” he asked, looking concerned.

Ambra smiled. “It’s the Telediario show. I’m just a little nervous.”

“Exhale. You’ll be great.”

Julián flashed her a broad smile and then leaned forward and gave her a quick soft kiss on the lips.

The next morning, at seven thirty, Ambra found herself on a television soundstage, engaged in a surprisingly comfortable on-air chat with the three charming Telediario hosts. She was so caught up in her enthusiasm for the Guggenheim that she barely noticed the television cameras and the live studio audience, or remembered that five million people were watching at home.

Gracias, Ambra, y muy interesante,” said the female host as the segment concluded. “Un gran placer conocerte.

Ambra nodded her thanks and waited for the interview to end.

Strangely, the female host gave her a coy smile and continued the segment by turning to address the home audience directly. “This morning,” she began in Spanish, “a very special guest has made a surprise visit to the Telediario studio, and we’d like to bring him out.”

All three hosts stood up, clapping as a tall, elegant man strode onto the set. When the audience saw him, they jumped to their feet, cheering wildly.

Ambra stood too, staring in shock.

Julián?

Prince Julián waved to the crowd and politely shook the hands of the three hosts. Then he walked over and stood beside Ambra, placing an arm around her.

“My father has always been a romantic,” he said, speaking Spanish and looking directly into the camera to address the viewers. “When my mother died, he never stopped loving her. I inherited his romanticism, and I believe when a man finds love, he knows in an instant.” He looked at Ambra and smiled warmly. “And so …” Julián stepped back and faced her.

When Ambra realized what was about to happen, she felt paralyzed with disbelief. NO! Julián! What are you doing?

Without warning, the crown prince of Spain was suddenly kneeling down before her. “Ambra Vidal, I am asking you not as a prince, but simply as a man in love.” He looked up at her with misty eyes, and the cameras wheeled around to get a close-up of his face. “I love you. Will you marry me?”

The audience and the show’s hosts all gasped in joy, and Ambra could feel millions of eyes around the country focusing intently on her. Blood rushed to her face, and the lights felt suddenly scalding hot on her skin. Her heart began to pound wildly as she stared down at Julián, a thousand thoughts racing through her head.

How could you put me in this position?! We’ve only recently met! There are things I haven’t told you about myself … things that could change everything!

Ambra had no idea how long she had stood in silent panic, but finally one of the hosts gave an awkward laugh and said, “I believe Ms. Vidal is in a trance! Ms. Vidal? A handsome prince is kneeling before you and professing his love before the entire world!”

Ambra searched her mind for some graceful way out. All she heard was silence, and she knew she was trapped. There was only one way this public moment could end. “I’m hesitating because I can’t believe this fairy tale has a happy ending.” She relaxed her shoulders and smiled warmly down at Julián. “Of course I will marry you, Prince Julián.”

The studio erupted in wild applause.

Julián stood up and took Ambra in his arms. As they embraced, she realized that they had never shared a long hug before this moment.

Ten minutes later, the two were sitting in the back of his limousine.

“I can see I startled you,” Julián said. “I’m sorry. I was trying to be romantic. I have strong feelings for you, and—”

“Julián,” Ambra interrupted forcefully, “I have strong feelings for you too, but you put me in an impossible position back there! I never imagined you would propose so quickly! You and I barely know each other. There are so many things I need to tell you—important things about my past.”

“Nothing in your past matters.”

“This might matter. A lot.

He smiled and shook his head. “I love you. It won’t matter. Try me.”

Ambra studied the man before her. Okay, then. This was most certainly not how she had wanted this conversation to go, but he had given her no choice. “Well, here it is, Julián. When I was a little girl, I had a terrible infection that almost killed me.”

“Okay.”

As Ambra spoke, she felt a deep emptiness welling up inside her. “And the result was that my life’s dream of having children … well, it can only be a dream.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Julián,” she said flatly. “I can’t have children. My childhood health problems left me infertile. I’ve always wanted children, but I am unable to have any of my own. I’m sorry. I know how important that is to you, but you’ve just proposed to a woman who cannot give you an heir.”

Julián went white.

Ambra locked eyes with him, willing him to speak. Julián, this is the moment when you hold me close and tell me everything’s okay. This is the moment you tell me it doesn’t matter, and that you love me anyway.

And then it happened.

Julián shifted away from her ever so slightly.

In that instant, Ambra knew it was over.

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