Authors: Jennifer Lewis
“Doesn’t that mean that you need to take over?”
“You can’t take over from a living god, and I’m not going to walk in his shadow the rest of my life. I’ve got a good life in L.A. and I’m coming back to it.”
“Isn’t there some tradition that you have to marry your brother’s wife?” Jerry’s tone didn’t hide his curiosity—the same kind of prurient interest that had sent the media chasing down to Rahiri to ogle them.
“There was, but I’m breaking with it. Why should she be forced into marrying someone she doesn’t care about?” Not to mention giving her late husband’s baby to him to raise. His chest tightened.
“That is a bit heavy. Still, you two looked good together on
“Jerry, you and I know better than anyone how easy it is to create an illusion with a camera.”
“Too true. Well, if you’re ready, we’ll soon be right back at it. Give me a call when you hit town and we’ll hash through some details.”
AJ put down the phone, a mixture of conviction and regret mingling in his heart. What a vivid fantasy it had been, for a few brief days. King AJ and his lovely family, ruling the island paradise he’d finally come home to.
Way too sappy to put in a movie, so why would he think it could happen in real life?
He jerked open the closet door and grabbed an armful of clothes off the rack. Shoved them right into his suitcase. He didn’t need servants to fold and fluff everything for him. He’d gotten along just fine without them for over a decade and he was damned if he’d turn into a spoiled fop like Vanu.
He went into the bathroom and swiped his toiletries off the marble shelf and into a plastic bag. A scan of the room confirmed that he’d removed all traces of his brief presence.
Now to confront Lani.
His chest ached. He’d so much rather have slipped away without seeing her again. Experience had proved he didn’t have much self-control around her. Getting to know her hadn’t helped, either. Did he really have to find out that she was warm and thoughtful as well as gorgeous? It would have been better if he’d left right after the funeral.
He would have preferred as well not to know how responsive and exciting she was during sex. If that’s how she performed with a man she was being forced to marry while still mourning her husband, imagine what she’d be like if she was really in love?
There was no point in thinking about what-ifs. He was not going to participate in this arranged marriage charade any longer.
He zipped up his suitcase and pulled out the handle. Soon he’d be marching along the corridors at LAX, a free man again.
Finding Lani wasn’t easy. He walked all over the palace, asking everyone he met for almost an hour, tension building in his muscles, before he finally tracked her down on a stone bench by a reflecting pool in the garden.
She glanced up, startled, as he approached.
“Don’t worry. I’m not staying.” He almost growled the words, then regretted his hostile tone. This whole mess wasn’t really her fault. She’d been bullied into it, the same way he had.
He glanced at the round pool, where reflected leaves danced across its shimmering surface, hiding its depths from view. “You’ll be a good queen until the baby comes of age. The elders are wise and thoughtful and really don’t need any help to run the country, though I’m sure they’ll welcome new ideas about education and—”
“You’re not really leaving.” Her eyes widened.
“I really am. Booked on tonight’s flight. Back on the course I should have stuck with from day one.” Before he’d become intrigued, then utterly seduced, by her.
Her face totally still, she stared at him, apparently lost for words. And why should she have to come up with words? They were all tired of saying things they didn’t mean. She that she was thrilled to be marrying a total stranger, he that he was so sad his rotten older brother was dead. Enough with the pretense.
“It’ll be hard on Mom. That’s the one part I really regret.”
Lani blinked. He saw her shoulders stiffen. “Yes. But why are you leaving? Is it because of me?” Her lips tightened.
“It’s not because of you.” He shoved a hand through his hair. He owed her his honesty after all they’d been through over the last few days. “If anything, you’re the reason I almost made the wrong decision to stay. You’re a good person, Lani, as well as a very beautiful one. But you’re my brother’s wife, not mine. I can’t step into his life and walk in his footsteps. I have my own life that I made for myself, and that’s where I need to be.”
“Everyone wants you to stay.” Her voice was oddly hollow.
AJ straightened his back. “Everyone? I doubt it. I don’t think people pay much more attention to who’s in the palace than to who’s on
every Wednesday. I’m going to make an announcement to the media so there won’t be any guessing and suspense.”
“Have you told Priia yet?” Lani twisted her hands into her skirt.
AJ’s stomach clenched. “I’m going to tell her now, and I know it won’t be easy.”
“She’ll be devastated.”
“I know, but it can’t be helped.” Better than entering into a marriage with a woman who hadn’t chosen him, and who’d never stop being his brother’s wife.
Lani looked down at her lap, avoiding his glance. Maybe she resented the fact that he’d decided to put emotion before duty. After all, she’d demonstrated her readiness to sacrifice everything for the good of Rahiri.
He wasn’t made of such stern stuff.
And he really did want her to be happy. “I hope the rest of your pregnancy goes smoothly.” His voice softened. “And that the birth is uneventful. You’ll be able to tell everyone that it’s Vanu’s baby now. No more living a lie.”
Lani swallowed. “Yes. I suppose that’s good.” Her voice sounded flat. “Things did get awfully complicated.”
“Which should have been the first clue we were heading in the wrong direction.” His fingers itched to touch her, just one last time. To feel her soft skin beneath his palm and inhale her delicate floral scent.
But he resisted. “Goodbye, Lani.”
“Goodbye, AJ.” She looked up at last, wide eyes brimming with tears. “Good luck to you. I hope everything works out the way you want it to.”
He frowned. “Thanks. And for you and the baby, too. I’m sure I’ll be in touch after things settle down a bit.”
She nodded, lips pressed together. She hadn’t risen from the bench. Just sat there like a lovely statue, fingers twisted into the silk of her dress.
He spun on his heel and marched away before he could do anything stupid.
Lani slumped on the bench as he walked away. She didn’t even have the urge to run after him. It seemed normal, natural, that she should be left here alone and loveless while he went back to his life in L.A. Isn’t that just what she’d expected, after all?
He’d been swept along on the tide of excitement that they’d mistaken for destiny—all the pomp of the funeral and Priia’s festive gathering—and he’d gotten temporarily sidetracked into thinking he’d like to return to Rahiri.
Vanu’s unwitting intervention had woken him up.
Trust Vanu to ruin everything.
The reappearance of his boat and the resulting hitch in their plans had given AJ time to realize he didn’t want the life Priia had plotted out for him—or her.
It hurt—really hurt.
She pressed her fingers gently into her belly and tried to ignore the hollow space that seemed to be opening up inside her. At least she had the baby to look forward to, and AJ was right, the elders could rule the country without any help from the palace. They’d certainly been doing it while Vanu was king, as he’d taken zero interest in the country’s affairs. Rahiri would be fine.
But would she?
It didn’t seem fair to taste happiness like that, then have it rudely snatched away.
At first she’d been wary of AJ, and hoped he’d leave. But now that she’d gotten to know him, she wanted desperately for him to stay. He’d looked genuinely excited about raising the baby with her. She’d been so sure that—at last—everything was going to work out for the best. That she’d finally get to be happy.
But that had been too much to hope for.
A few weeks ago she’d have been pleased to be left quietly alone. She hadn’t known about the baby then, but she’d at least been relieved to be rid of Vanu. Now she craved the family she’d always wanted as a child. A mother and father together, as hers had been when she was little, before their marriage broke up and she and her mother came back to Rahiri.
She let out a deep sigh, picked up a small stone and tossed it into the pool. A splash radiated out into huge ripples that filled the round surface and lapped against the walls. AJ’s arrival had changed everything, even her dreams.
She no longer wanted to be left quietly alone, merely to live out her days without having to endure cruel treatment from a man she despised. Now she wanted so much more: affection, conversation, humor and, of course, the dangerous and delicious passion that AJ had awakened in her.
But AJ didn’t want to share it with her. He’d chosen to return to his life in L.A. and the freedom that came with it. He wouldn’t be tied down by responsibilities to a nation, or a woman.
Sadness soaked through her. Probably right now AJ was telling the reporters who never left the palace of his plans to abandon Rahiri—and her. In a short while she’d be paraded in front of them to embrace her new, solitary role as queen, and to announce the pregnancy.
And she’d do it all alone. Not physically alone, with her doting mother-in-law and the palace staff all around her, but in the ways that were important, the empty, hungry places in her heart, she’d be alone.
“We must stop him!” Priia’s voice rang out into the garden from the nearby sitting room. “I told him he can’t go. It’s impossible!”
“We can’t stop him,” Lani mouthed back in barely a whisper.
Her mother-in-law ran out into the garden and grabbed her arms. “AJ’s heading for the airport.” Her long nails cut into Lani’s skin. “He can’t leave us. We need him.”
“I know we want him here.” Lani rose and spoke softly. “But he needs to leave and we have to let him.”
Priia’s eyes were still wide with shock. “I could call the airport and tell them to ground the plane.”
Lani shook her head. “You can’t keep him here by force. It has to be his choice.”
“But he chose to stay. He announced to all of us at the banquet that he…” The first tear rolled from Priia’s dark eyes.
You pressured him into it,
Lani wanted to say. But she held her tongue. No need to pour salt on Priia’s already sore wounds. But this was exactly why it was a bad idea to go after him now. Trying to force the issue hadn’t helped at all. He was still leaving, and they were right back where they started.
Which wasn’t such a bad place after all.
She drew in a steadying breath. “We’ll be fine. The baby will be our next king or queen.”
Priia looked up. “The baby, yes! Oh, sweetheart.” She drew in a steadying breath. “And now I suppose we can tell people it’s Vanu’s child.”
Lani looked down. “Yes, there’s no reason not to.”
Her mother-in-law dabbed at her eyes with one of her embroidered handkerchiefs. “It is a blessing having his baby to remember him by. And you can rule in the meantime. It’s been a long time since Rahiri had a queen, because usually our people have so many boys ready to…”
Her voice trailed off, then she cleared her throat. “You’re right, of course, my dear. We must meet every challenge life throws at us with our heads held high. Thank the heavens for bringing you into our lives, sweet Lani. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
They hugged and Lani did indeed feel a tiny bit reassured. She’d gotten along just fine without AJ around before, and she’d be a-okay without him again.
At least she hoped so.
had hoped that media coverage of Rahiri would cease now there was no longer a Hollywood director involved. Apparently, though, he was not the main attraction. He’d been back in L.A. two months and stories continued daily on the splashy entertainment shows and in the celebrity press, and blogs buzzed with the latest tidbits and speculations from the palace.
He’d underestimated the hold Lani’s beauty would have on the popular imagination. People couldn’t seem to get enough of her stunning face, which could not take a bad photo. Her slightly exotic features and unique coloring entranced and intrigued people and made them want to know more about her and her fabulous royal existence.
Which didn’t help, because AJ couldn’t stop thinking about her, either.
He strode across his foyer and grabbed the newest pile of mail off the hall table. He’d arranged for his clipping service to send him everything related to the palace, not because he felt personally involved, but so he’d at least know what was going on if someone asked.
He flipped through a thick file of fresh clippings, forcing himself not to linger on any pictures. There was one in particular they seemed to latch on to, a half profile shot that perfectly captured the adorable tilt of her nose and the sparkle in her golden eyes.
He knew what they’d cut out of the photo—him. She’d been gazing at him with that bright look on her face. Now he was the villain of the piece, the one who had let her down to pursue his big-deal career and go back to chasing designer miniskirts in L.A.
They were half-right, really.
But his dropping out of the picture had only seemed to intensify their interest in Lani and her predicament: the lovely princess, so recently widowed and now jilted by her presumed fiancé. Her pregnancy had hit the media like a neutron bomb. Poor lonely Lani, left to raise a child with no one to care for her.
Of course he knew better. She had a staff of nearly fifty and a mother-in-law who rarely gave her a moment’s peace.
One story told of the hordes of men who’d submitted details and photos in the hope that she’d choose one of them to be her husband. He was pretty confident the applications were being shredded on arrival at the palace, but he couldn’t help feeling a sting of envy.
Which was ridiculous, because eventually Lani would marry someone else.
He turned and strode back into the kitchen. His home used to seem so calm and uncluttered. Lately it just looked bleak. All the black and white furnishings looked garish and pretentious after the soft natural hues and hand-carved woods of the palace.
At least he was busy. Editing sessions on
stretched late into the night and he was already deep in pre-production on the next
That meant he wouldn’t have time to read all the blogs and websites his Google Alerts were picking up about Lani’s upcoming coronation. Already he knew exactly what kind of dress she’d be wearing, and the ancient hammered-gold jewelry she’d put on and how her palms would be painted with berry juice and her skin brushed with golden pollen. He didn’t know this because he’d grown up in the palace. He’d learned it all on
along with everyone else.
An enterprising retailer in Beverly Hills had come out with a line of Rahiian dresses, woven from the rich silk of the island but cut to reveal a bit more gym-toned leg than the originals.
Twice he’d seen Lani paraded before the cameras with a tight smile on her lips. He could imagine his mom behind the scenes, urging her out there and telling her to put on her best face. But he could see past it. Her mouth might be forced into a cheerful grin, but the light in her eyes had dimmed noticeably.
Or did he imagine that? Maybe he just wanted her to be pale and pining since he’d gone. He’d already told them he wouldn’t be there for the coronation. Let them sing Vanu’s praises and exclaim over how AJ would never have made a good king, with his Hollywood decadence and fickle attitudes.
He didn’t want to see Lani, either. Not so soon. He couldn’t guarantee his immunity to her vibrant smile. Just a whiff of her scent might send him into a tailspin. The taste of her was still too fresh on his lips, the pain of leaving her too raw in his heart.
It was for the best though. He wasn’t Vanu and sure as heck didn’t want to play second fiddle to his brother’s memory for the rest of his life. Much better to move on and strike out for new frontiers.
Speaking of which, an old flame of his had left a message on his machine. A Danish beauty who’d had a small part in one of his early movies was back in town for a couple of weeks and wanted to get together. Probably just what he needed to pry his mind off Lani.
He reached for the phone and listened to the bubbly message again. Why not take her to the premiere of the new Spielberg movie that Friday? She was good company. Loved to dance, too. They could have some dinner, then go out to that new club everyone kept raving about.
But something kept his fingers from dialing her number.
He found himself wandering back into the kitchen, where the stack of clippings lay sprawled on the stone counter, that now-famous picture on the top. Lani’s wide eyes, sparkling with what anyone might mistake for happiness, seemed to look right at him, just as they had when the picture was taken.
AJ drew in a deep breath. He’d get over her. Eventually. But until then it wasn’t really fair to take out another girl. He’d only be looking at her and wishing he was with Lani.
Better to wait until time took the edge off a bit. Until he started to forget the soft touch of her fingers on his skin, and the sweet song of her laugh.
Of course, it would help if he could stop thinking about her for five solid minutes.
Lani lay awake in her bedroom, staring at the dark ceiling. Counting imaginary sheep didn’t help. Counting live lizards didn’t help, either. Even the baby seemed restless and unsettled. It was hard to sleep when something was eating at you.
She’d promised herself that she’d never tell anyone the truth about Vanu. That she’d keep up the pretense of a happy marriage and allow her mother-in-law to remember her eldest son as a paragon of virtue.
But something AJ had said made her think it was her silence on the subject that had driven him away. That he thought of her as Vanu’s wife, and that he couldn’t step into his brother’s life and walk in his footsteps.
She hadn’t really made the connection at the time, but lately the thought pestered her night and day: Would he feel differently if he knew that she hated Vanu and was secretly glad he was gone?
Such a blunt declaration would definitely bare the darkness in her soul, even if Vanu had put it there. AJ might despise her for her disloyalty, and if Priia ever found out—which she might, since AJ was not one to mince words—she’d be shocked and deeply hurt, as much by Lani’s betrayal of Vanu as by the idea that her son was not the sweet boy she chose to remember.
Then there was the baby. Vanu’s child. If she told people that Vanu was harsh and cold and unloving, would her child learn this about his or her own father?
Still…if she never told anyone, these thoughts might torment her and keep her awake at night for the rest of her life.
AJ had been gone for nearly a month—twenty-three days, to be precise—and she still ached for him. She hadn’t seen or heard anything of him in all that time, except the secondhand report that he would not be coming to the coronation. But she could remember the feel of his body against hers as if he’d just left the room. Alone at night, she imagined his hot breath on her skin and heard his voice soft in her ear.
If she phoned him, she really could hear his voice in her ear. She could air her thoughts and get the truth about Vanu off her chest. Yes, she’d have to live with the consequences of that decision, but could that be any worse that sitting in this prickly nest of lies and half truths?
She sat up and eased her feet down onto the cool tile floor. Pressed her hand to her belly for a moment for strength, even though she wasn’t sure whether her sudden plan would be good or bad for her baby.
She crept across the dark room and found her phone where it lay on top of the dresser. She rarely used it, since she usually went to see her friends and her mom in person for a chat, like most people in Rahiri.
But L.A. was too far away for a drop-in visit.
She picked up the phone with a steady hand. It was after 2:00 a.m., so past midnight in L.A. Not a great time for a call.
Her heart pumped faster. She should really put the phone down and go back to bed.
Instead she opened the top drawer and pulled out a folded piece of paper. She didn’t have AJ’s address and phone number in L.A.—why would she?—but she’d found them in the old leather-bound address book Priia kept on her study desk. She wasn’t sure at the time why she wanted them, just that she did. She’d already mapped AJ’s address on the computer and peeped at the “bird’s-eye view” of his sleek apartment building, like a spy on a covert mission.
She murmured his phone number like a mantra, knowing that at any time she could invoke him—live and in person—with a few pressed buttons. She knew from watching him that AJ answered nearly every call he got, which was a lot, so she was fairly sure he’d pick up at any time of the day or night.
And after midnight he’d be home alone.
At least she hoped he would. Fear flashed through her. What if he’d forgotten her already and was lost in the arms of a lascivious starlet?
She inhaled a deep breath and pressed the cool phone to her mouth for a moment. Didn’t matter. She wasn’t calling to beg him to come back, or tell him she loved him and couldn’t live without him. Her only goal was to tell him the truth about Vanu, just because it felt right.
And to hear his voice one last time.
Her trembling fingertips had trouble hitting the right buttons on the tiny phone and she misdialed twice before she finally got the number right.
It rang. Why had she decided to call so late at night? It was rude. He’d probably be annoyed. Her thumb hovered over the disconnect button while her breath caught in her lungs.
Then he answered. “Hello.” The sound of his voice sent a shock wave of emotion through her. She didn’t know what to say.
“Lani.” He sounded shocked. He could probably tell from the number that the call was from Rahiri, but he obviously didn’t know it was her. They’d never talked on the phone before.
“Yes, it’s me.” Her head swam with such a tangle of thoughts that her mind went completely blank. “How are you?”
“Getting along. Keeping busy. How are you?”
Lani paced her bedroom. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. Phony pleasantries exchanged like strangers. “I’m fine.” She wanted to say so much more, to shout it. To pour out her feelings and tell him how much she missed him.
“And the baby?”
“Good. At least I think so. I have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, but I’ve been feeling pretty good.” Except for the nausea, but that probably was stress this time. “I’m sorry to call so late.”
“Is Mom okay?” His voice filled with concern. He must be wondering exactly why she would call in the middle of the night.
“Yes. She’s really busy with the coronation plans. She misses you, of course.” She then regretted saying that, like she was trying to prod him to guilt. She really should get to the point before she lost her nerve and kept the truth to herself forever. “I called to tell you something.”
“Oh?” He sounded reserved. What did he think she would say? That she loved him and wanted him to come back? Her face heated. If only her thoughts would stop running away with her.
“It’s that…” she hesitated. How did you tell someone that you hated their brother? “Vanu and me… We didn’t…we weren’t…” Words hovered just out of reach. AJ was totally silent at the other end. “I didn’t love him.”
AJ said nothing. She could imagine him frowning. Thinking.
“I didn’t like him.” Emboldened by his silence, she went on. “He was cold to me, cruel, even.” She swallowed, and walked back across the dark bedroom. “I hated him.”
The harsh words fell from her lips easily, then hung in the air like a judgment. Cold dread trickled through her. She couldn’t take the truth back now.
“What did you say?” AJ’s voice was low, almost a whisper.
Lani froze. Was he horrified by her blunt confession? Disgusted by her lack of compassion for his dead brother? “I’m sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have said it. I know he’s your brother and even if he wasn’t I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. Now you know what I’m really like. See? I’m not nice at all like you thought and I have evil thoughts inside my head and—”
“I hated him, too.” AJ’s words rang bold and clear through the phone.
“What?” She spun around, startled.
“I hated him.
him. What did he do to you?” Sudden concern tightened his voice. “Did he hurt you?”
“Not physically, at least not that much. But he was cruel. He’d taunt me and belittle me, then be all smiles if there was anyone around.”
“I don’t believe it.” AJ sounded incredulous.
Her shoulders stiffened. “It’s true.”
He laughed. “I don’t mean that I don’t believe
. I believe you completely, because that’s exactly what he used to do to me.”
“You never said anything.”
“Nor did you.”
“I didn’t want to offend you.”
“Same here.” He let out a loud guffaw. “I can’t believe we were dancing carefully around Vanu’s memory when neither of us could stand him.”
“Your mom has no idea he was like that.” Lani drew in a deep breath. “I didn’t want her to find out, either.”
“I used to tell her, back when I was a kid, and she never believed me, anyway. He was always her sweet little princeling. He really knew how to turn it on when he wanted to.”
“I know. It was like living with two completely different people. The public Vanu and the private one.” Relief rolled through Lani, warm and soothing. “I tried to make him happy, but after a while I realized it was hurting me that made him happy.” She stiffened when she remembered their last encounter, the one that had left her pregnant. Why shouldn’t AJ know about that, too? She didn’t want him to think she’d lain willingly in Vanu’s arms after all he’d done to her over the years.