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Authors: Catherine Mann

Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Adult, #Mistresses, #Man Of The Month, #Princes

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BOOK: The Maverick Prince
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Thirteen
S
hock jolted through Shannon, followed closely by fear. “A security breach? Where’s Kolby?”
She shot to her feet and ran across the music room to Tony. The ailing king reached for his cane, his dogs waking instantly, beating her there by a footstep. Enrique steadied himself with a hand against the wall, but he was up and moving. “What happened?”

“Kolby is fine. No one has been hurt, but we have taken another hit in the media.”

Enrique asked, “Have they located the island?”

“No,” Tony said as Alys slid into view behind him. “It happened at the airport when Eloisa and Jonah’s flight landed in South Carolina. The press was waiting, along with crowds of everyday people wanting a picture to sell for an easy buck.”

Shannon’s stomach lurched at another assault in the news. “Could the frenzy have to do with the Landis family connections?”

“No,” Tony said curtly. “The questions were all about their vacation with Eloisa’s father the king.”

Alys angled past Tony with a wheelchair. “Your Majesty, I’ll take you to your office so you can speak to security directly.”

The king dropped into the wheelchair heavily. “Thank you, Alys.” His dogs loped into place alongside him. “I am ready.”

Nerves jangled, Shannon started to follow, but Tony extended a hand to stop her.

“We need to talk.”

His chilly voice stilled her feet faster than any arm across the entranceway. Had he been holding back because of concerns for his father’s health? “What’s wrong? What haven’t you told me?”

She stepped closer for comfort. He crossed his arms over his chest.

“The leak came from this house. There was a call placed from here this afternoon—at just the right time—to an unlisted cell number.”

“Here? But your father’s security has been top notch.” No wonder he was so concerned.

Tony unclipped his iPhone from his waistband. “We have security footage of the call being made.”

Thumbing the controls, he filled the screen with a still image of a woman on the phone, a woman in a white swimsuit cover-up, hood pulled over her head.

A cover-up just like hers? “I don’t understand. You think this is
me?
Why would I tip off the media?”

His mouth stayed tight-lipped and closed, and his eyes…Oh God, she recognized well that condemning look from the days following Nolan’s arrest and then his death.

Steady. Steady.
She reminded herself Tony wasn’t Nolan or the other people who’d betrayed her, and he had good reasons to be wary. She drew in a shuddering breath.

“I understand that Enrique brought you up to be unusually cautious about the people in your life. And he had cause after what happened to your mother.” Thoughts of Tony as a small child watching his mother’s murder brushed sympathy over her own hurt. “But you have to see there’s nothing about me that would hint at this kind of behavior.”

“I know you would do anything to secure your son’s future. Whoever sold this information received a hefty payoff.” He stared back at her with cold eyes and unswerving surety.

In a sense he was right. She would do anything for Kolby. But again, Tony had made a mistake. He’d offered her money before, assuming that would equate security to her. She had deeper values she wanted to relay to her son, like the importance of earning a living honorably. Tony had needed to prove that himself in leaving the island. Why was it so difficult to understand she felt the same way?

Her sympathy for him could only stretch so far.

“You actually believe I betrayed you? That I placed everyone here at risk for a few dollars?” Anger frothed higher and higher inside her. “I never wanted any of this. My son and I can get by just fine without you and your movie theater.” She swatted his arm. “Answer me, damn you.”

“I don’t know what to think.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Tell me it was an accident. You called a friend just to shoot the breeze because you were homesick and that friend sold you out.”

Except as she’d already told him and he must remember, she didn’t have friends, not anymore. Apparently she didn’t even have Tony. “I’m not going to defend myself to you. Either you trust me or you don’t.”

He gripped her shoulders, his touch careful, his eyes more tumultuous. “I want a future with you. God, Shannon, I was going to ask you to marry me later tonight. I planned to take you back to the chapel, go inside this time and propose.”

Her heart squeezed tight at the image he painted. If this security nightmare hadn’t occurred, she would have been swept off her feet. She would have been celebrating her engagement with him tonight, because by God, she would have said yes. Now, that wasn’t possible.

“You honestly thought we could get married when you have so little faith in me?” The betrayal burned deep. And hadn’t she sworn she’d never again put herself in a position to feel that sting from someone she cared about? “You should have included some azaleas in the bouquet you chose for us. I hear they mean fragile passion.”

She shrugged free of his too tempting touch. The hole inside her widened, ached.

“Damn it all, Shannon, we’re talking.” He started toward her.

“Stop.” She held up a hand. “Don’t come near me. Not now. Not ever.”

“Where are you going?” He kept his distance this time. “I need to know you’re safe.”

“Has the new security system been installed at my apartment?”

His mouth tight, he nodded. “But we’re still working on the restraining orders. Given the renewed frenzy because of Eloisa’s identity—”

“The new locks and alarms will do for now.”

“Damn it, Shannon—”

“I have to find Alys so she can make the arrangements.” She held her chin high. Pride and her child were all she had left now that her heart was shattered to pieces. “Kolby and I are returning to Texas.”

“Where are Shannon and her son?”

His father’s question hammered Tony’s already pounding head. In his father’s study, he poured himself three fingers of cognac, bypassing the Basque wine and the memories it evoked. Shannon wrapped around him, the scent of lilies in her hair. “You know full well where she is. Nothing slips past you here.”

They’d spent the past two hours assessing the repercussions of the leak. The media feeding frenzy had been rekindled with fresh fuel about Eloisa’s connection to the family. Inevitable, yet still frustrating. It gnawed at his gut to think Shannon had something to do with this, although he reassured himself it must have been an accident.

And if she’d simply slipped up and made a mistake, he could forgive her. She hadn’t lived the Medina way since the cradle. Remembering all the intricacies involved in maintaining such a high level of security was difficult. If she would just admit what happened, they could move on.

His father rolled back from the computer desk, his large dogs tracking his every move from in front of the fireplace. “Apparently I do not know everything happening under my roof, because somebody placed a call putting Eloisa’s flight at risk. I trusted someone I shouldn’t have.”

“You trusted me and my judgment.” He scratched his tightening rib cage.

His father snorted with impatience. “Do not be an impulsive jackass. Think with your brain and not your heart.”

“Like you’ve always done?” Tony snapped, his patience for his father’s cryptic games growing short. “No thank you.”

Once he finished his one-month obligation, he wouldn’t set foot on this godforsaken island again. If memories of his life here before were unhappy, now they were gut-wrenching. His father should come to the mainland anyway for medical treatment. Even Enrique’s deep coffers couldn’t outfit the island with unlimited hospital options.

Enrique poured himself a drink and downed it swiftly. “I let my heart guide me when I left San Rinaldo. I was so terrified something would happen to my wife and sons that I did not think through our escape plan properly.”

Invincible Enrique was admitting a mistake? Tony let that settle inside him for a second before speaking.

“You set yourself up as a diversion. Sounds pretty selfless to me.” He’d never doubted his father’s bravery or cool head.

“I did not think it through.” He refilled his glass and stared into the amber liquid, signs of regret etched deep in his forehead. Illness had never made the king appear weak, but at this moment, the ghosts of an old past showed a vulnerability Tony had never seen before. “If I had, I would have taken into account the way Carlos would react if things went to hell. I arrogantly considered my plan foolproof. Again, I thought with my emotions and those assassins knew exactly how to target my weakness.”

Tony set aside his glass without touching a drop. Empathy for his father seared him more fully than alcohol. Understanding how it felt to have his feelings ripped up through his throat because of a woman gave him insights to his father he’d never expected. “You did your best at the time.”

Could he say the same when it came to Shannon?

“I tried to make that right with this island. I did everything in my power to create a safe haven for my sons.”

“But we all three left the protection of this place.”

“That doesn’t matter to me. My only goal was keeping you safe until adulthood. By the time you departed, you took with you the skills to protect yourself, to make your way in the world. That never would have been possible if you’d grown up with obligations to a kingdom. For that, I’m proud.”

Enrique’s simply spoken words enveloped him. Even though his father wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know, something different took root in him. An understanding. Just as his mother had made the silver security blanket as a “shield,” to make him feel protected, his father had been doing the same. His methods may not have been perfect, but their situation had been far from normal. They’d all been scrambling to patch together their lives.

Some of his understanding must have shown on his face, because his father smiled approvingly.

“Now, son, think about Shannon logically rather than acting like a love-sick boy.”

Love-sick boy? Now that stung more than a little. And the reason? Because it was true. He did love her, and that had clouded his thinking.

He loved her. And he’d let his gut drive his conclusions rather than logic. He forced his slugging heart to slow and collected what he knew about Shannon. “She’s a naturally cautious woman who wouldn’t do anything to place her son at risk. If she had a call to make, she would check with you or I to make sure the call was safe. She wouldn’t have relied on anyone else’s word when it comes to Kolby.”

“What conclusion does that lead you to?”

“We never saw the caller’s face. I made an assumption based on a female in a bathing suit cover-up. The caller must have been someone with detailed knowledge of our security systems in order to keep her face shielded. A woman of similar build. A person with something to gain and little loyalty to the Medinas…” His brain settled on…“Alys?”

“I would bet money on it.” The thunderous anger Enrique now revealed didn’t bode well for the assistant who’d used her family connections to take advantage of an ailing king with an aging staff. “She was even the one to order Shannon’s clothes. It would be easy to make sure she had the right garb….”

Shannon had done nothing wrong.

“God, I wonder if Alys could have even been responsible for tipping off the Global Intruder about that photo of Duarte when it first ran, before he was identified.” The magnitude of how badly he’d screwed up threatened to kick his knees out from under him. He braced a hand on his father’s shoulder, touching his dad for the first time in fourteen years. “Where the hell is Alys?”

Enrique swallowed hard. He clapped his hand over Tony’s for a charged second before clearing his throat.

“Leave Alys to me.” His royal roots showed through again as he assumed command. “Don’t you have a more pressing engagement?”

Tony checked his watch. He had five minutes until the ferry pulled away for the airstrip. No doubt his father would secure the proof of Alys’s deception soon, but Shannon needed—hell, she deserved—to know that he’d trusted in her innocence without evidence.

He had a narrow, five-minute window to prove just how much he loved and trusted her.

The ferry horn wailed, signaling they were disconnecting from the dock. The crew was stationed at their posts, lost in the ritual of work.

Kolby on her hip, Shannon looked at the exotic island for the last time. This was hard, so much harder than she’d expected. How would she ever survive going back to Galveston where even more memories of Tony waited? She couldn’t. She would have to start over somewhere new and totally different.

Except there was no place she could run now that would be free of Medina reminders. The grocery store aisles would sport gossip rags. Channel surfing could prove hazardous. And she didn’t even want to think of how often she would be confronted with Tony’s face peering back at her from an internet headline, reminding her of how little faith he’d had in her. As much as she wanted to say to hell with it all and accept whatever he offered, she wouldn’t settle for half measures ever again.

Tears blurred the exotic shoreline, sea oats dotting the last bit of sand as they pulled away. She squeezed her eyes closed, tears cool on her heated cheeks.

“Mommy?” Kolby patted her face.

She scavenged a wobbly smile and focused on his precious face. “I’m okay, sweetie. Everything’s going to be fine. Let’s look for a dolphin.”

“Nu-uh,” he said. “Why’s Tony running? Can he come wif us, pretty pwease?”

What? She followed the path of her son’s pointing finger….

Tony sprinted down the dock, his mouth moving but his words swallowed up by the roar of the engines and churning water behind the ferry. Her heart pumped in time with his long-legged strides. She almost didn’t dare hope, but then Tony had always delivered the unexpected.

Lowering Kolby to the deck with one arm, she leaned over the rail, straining to hear what he said. Still, the wind whipped his words as the ferry inched away. Disappointment pinched as she realized she would have to wait for the ferry to travel back again to speak to him. So silly to be impatient, but her heart had broken a lifetime’s worth in one day.

Just as she’d resigned herself to waiting, Tony didn’t stop running. Oh my God, he couldn’t actually be planning to—

Jump
.

Her heart lodged in her throat for an expanded second as he was airborne. Then he landed on deck with the surefooted ease of an experienced boater. Tony strode toward her with even, determined steps, the crew parting to make way.

He extended his hand, his fist closed around a clump of sea oats, still dripping from where he’d yanked them up. “You’ll have to use your imagination here because I didn’t have much time.” He passed her one stalk. “Imagine this is a purple hyacinth, the ‘forgive me’ flower. I hope you will accept it, along with my apology.”

“Go ahead. I’m listening.” Although she didn’t take his pretend hyacinth. He had a bit more talking to do after what he’d put her through.

Kolby patted his leg for attention. Winking down at the boy, Tony passed him one of the sea oats, which her son promptly waved like a flag. With Kolby settled, Tony shifted his attention back to Shannon.

“I’ve been an idiot,” he said. Sea spray dampened his hair, increasing the rebellious curls. “I should have known you wouldn’t do anything to put Kolby or my family at risk. And if you’d done so inadvertently, you would have been upfront about it.” He told her all the things she’d hoped to hear earlier.

While she appreciated the romanticism of his gesture, a part of her still ached that he’d needed proof. Trust was such a fragile thing, but crucial in any relationship.

“What brought about this sudden insight to my character? Did you find some new surveillance tape that proves my innocence?”

“I spoke to my father. He challenged me, made me think with my head instead of my scared-as-hell heart. And thank God he did, because once I looked deeper I realized Alys must have made the call. I can’t help but wonder if she’s the one who made the initial leak to the press. We don’t have proof yet, but we’ll find it.”

Alys? Shannon mulled over that possibility, remembering the way the assistant had stared at Tony with such hunger. She’d sensed the woman wanted to be a Medina. Perhaps Alys had also wanted all the public princess perks to go with it rather than a life spent in hiding.

Tony extended his hand with the sea oats again, tickling them across Kolby’s chin lightly before locking eyes with Shannon. “But none of that matters if you don’t trust me.”

Touching the cottony white tops of the sea oats, she weighed her words carefully. This moment could define the rest of her life. “I realize the way you’ve grown up has left marks on you…what happened with your mother…living in seclusion here. But I can’t always worry when that’s going to make you push me away again just because you’re afraid I’ll betray you.”

Her fingers closed around his. “I’ve had so many people turn away from me. I can’t—I won’t—spend my life proving myself to you.”

“And I don’t expect you to.” He clasped both hands around hers, his skin callused and tough, a little rough around the edges like her impetuous lover. “You’re absolutely right. I was wrong. What I feel for you, it’s scary stuff. But the thought of losing you is a helluva lot scarier than any alternative.”

“What exactly are you saying?” She needed him to spell it out, every word, every promise.

“My life is complicated and comes with a lot more cons than pros. There’s nothing to stop Alys from spilling everything she knows, and if so, it’s really going to hit the fan. A life with me won’t be easy. To the world, I am a Medina. And I hope you will consent to be a Medina, too.”

He knelt in front of her with those sea oats—officially now her favorite plant.

“Shannon, will you be my bride? Let me be your husband and a father to Kolby.” He paused to ruffle the boy’s hair, eliciting a giant smile from her son. “As well as any other children we may have together. I can’t promise I won’t be a jackass again. I can almost guarantee that I will. But I vow to stick with it, stick with us, because you mean too much to me for me to ever mess this up again.”

Sinking to her knees, she fell into his arms, her son enclosed in the circle. “Yes, I’ll marry you and build a family and future with you. Tony Castillo, Antonio Medina, and any other name you go by, I love you, too. You’ve stolen my heart for life.”

“Thank God.” He gathered her closer, his arms trembling just a hint.

She lost track of how long they knelt that way until Kolby squirmed between them, and she heard the crew applauding and cheering. Together, she and Tony stood as the ferry captain shouted orders to turn the boat around.

Standing at the deck with Tony, she stared at the approaching island, a place she knew they would visit over the years. She clasped his arm, her cheek against his compass tattoo. Tony rested his chin on her head.

His breath caressed her hair. “The legend about the compass is true. I’ve found my way home.”

Surprised, she glanced up at him. “Back to the island?”

Shaking his head, he tucked a knuckle under her chin and brushed a kiss across her mouth. “Ah, Shanny,
you
are my home.”

BOOK: The Maverick Prince
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