Authors: Jennifer Lewis
“I didn’t want to conceive a child with him.” She hesitated for a moment, wondering how he’d take what she was about to say. “He forced himself on me, said he was my husband and could do whatever he wanted. That it was his right.”
She knew it wasn’t about love, or even pleasure, for Vanu. It was about inflicting pain, abusing his power.
“He raped you.” AJ’s voice was hoarse. “If he was still alive I’d kill him. He was a sociopath. I didn’t realize that until long after I’d gone, of course, and had time to get some distance. He’s given me great inspiration for my movie villains over the years. I always thought it was lucky he didn’t have any real interest in ruling the country, or he might have turned into a dictator.”
“I think he was too lazy for that.” Lani laughed, a weird, high-pitched sound, more a release of tension than anything else. “And he really didn’t like people. I suspect he found it a lot of work pretending to be normal.”
“So why did you cry when you learned he was dead?”
“Relief. I was dreading the awful possibility that he’d come back and make me miserable again. All those mornings of waking up to his angry face and hearing him criticize everything I did.”
AJ let out a long sigh. “How come you didn’t tell anyone Vanu was a sadistic bastard? Were you going to stay married to him forever if he hadn’t died?”
Lani blew out. “I was trying to be brave. I didn’t want to hurt your mom and let down the royal family by causing a scandal. My mom always made a big deal about how a woman should never air her dirty laundry. She never spoke about her own marriage and divorce.” She shoved a hand through her hair. “I knew I was taking on a big responsibility when I married the future king. I guess I figured I’d have to live with my mistake.”
There was a silence. “Just like you would have lived with your duty to marry me, if I hadn’t left.”
Lani didn’t know what to say. It was true. As she’d gotten to know AJ, she’d realized the duty would have been a pleasure. She didn’t want to push her luck by saying that, though. She’d called to tell him how she felt about Vanu, not to put pressure on him to do anything about it.
“Why did you decide to tell me now?” AJ’s voice had an odd sound to it.
Lani swallowed. “I don’t know exactly. I just wanted to tell you the truth.”
“The truth. That’s been an elusive little… Don’t go anywhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t leave the palace.”
“Why not?” She glanced over her shoulder. She felt under siege all the time lately, with press everywhere and people taking photos of her whenever she even looked out the window.
“So I know where to find you.” His voice had a ring of command to it.
Why did he want to find her? Did he plan to come and scold her for keeping the truth hidden all this time? She’d only been trying to protect the family name.
The truth had been her enemy since she’d come to this palace. She’d danced around it, skirted it and fluffed over it so many times since she’d had the misfortune to marry Vanu. And there was one powerful truth she still kept locked tight in her heart.
She’d never told AJ that she loved him.
“Joe, you still got that jet out at Burbank?” AJ marched across the room, picking up items of clothing and tossing them into his bag.
“Do you know what time it is?” His friend’s gruff voice assaulted him down the phone. He and Joe had shared a house when AJ was in film school—two kids with too much money and no sense of direction. They’d seen each other through more than a few scrapes since. Joe was now a successful film agent with a passion for cars and planes.
“Late, yeah. I can wait until dawn to leave, though.” Every moment away from Lani was agonizing right now, but no need to torment other people with his desperation.
“Dawn? What the heck are you talking about? Where do you need to go in such a rush?”
“I thought you’d decided once and for all that L.A. was your home.” Joe’s voice softened a bit.
“It’s complicated. Anyway, I need to get to Rahiri as soon as humanly possible.”
He heard a long sigh. “Let me guess, that gorgeous almost-wife of yours is involved somehow.”
“Lani. Yes, I need to see her.” And touch her, and hold her and kiss her—if she’d let him.
Joe chuckled. “I think everyone in America wants to see her, given the amount of media coverage she’s getting. I doubt most of them had even heard of Rahiri until the two of you became such media darlings.”
“Why am I friends with you?”
“Because I have a plane, apparently. And yes, I’ll take you, but not until first light.”
“I love you, Joe.”
“And I’m not the only one you love, from the sound of things. See you on the tarmac.” Joe hung up the phone.
AJ drew in a deep steadying breath. In only a few hours he’d see Lani again. Hearing her voice had undone all his hard work of trying to move on. Not that he’d been at all successful. He couldn’t even stand to talk to her anymore. The distance between them was too agonizing and he had to see her right away. He didn’t want to exchange one more word with her until they were face-to-face. Too easy for misunderstandings and complications to arise.
It was still dark when he arrived at the airport, but he wasn’t surprised to see the lights on inside his friend’s beloved plane. Joe was outside checking out some piece of machinery and he laughed when he saw AJ. “I knew you’d be here at least an hour early.”
“Lucky thing I came out here right when I hung up the phone—and she’s ready to go.”
“I really do love you.” AJ grinned and heaved his bag inside the tiny cockpit.
By the time dawn came they were already out over the ocean, and the tentative rays of sun illuminated the featureless plain of dark water. They stopped to refuel and grab a late breakfast in Hawaii. Another seven hours or so of empty ocean and they’d be there.
His heart rate increased as they passed the first of the green, sand-fringed islands that dotted the route to Rahiri like giant stepping stones.
Would Lani resent him for ruining all their careful plans and leaving her in the lurch?
Of course she would. She’d borne the brunt of all the insatiable media curiosity that stood his hair on end—while dealing with pregnancy and the organizational and emotional drama of preparing to become Rahiri’s official monarch.
But she’d called him. At a time when no one else would know and—as far as he could tell—with no hidden agenda other than to air the ugly truth she’d kept hidden all along.
She hadn’t asked him to come back, but right now nothing could stop him.
“Is this a round-trip excursion or are you staying for good this time?” Joe’s voice jolted him from his thoughts.
“It all depends.”
“On Lani the lovely.”
“You got it.” He wouldn’t force himself on her. He’d always resolved not to do that. Rahiian or not, every woman deserved to choose her own husband.
“Speaking from personal experience, I’ve learned that women will let you make a mistake once, but they don’t look too kindly on you screwing up the same way a second time. What made you change your mind about her?”
AJ hesitated. He’d probably mentioned his older brother to Joe in passing a few times, but had never revealed the full extent of his malice. In general he preferred to leave Vanu buried in the past. But was that perpetuating the fraud that had driven him and Lani apart? Still, he didn’t want to say anything without asking Lani. If she wanted the ugly details of her first marriage kept secret, he’d oblige.
“Maybe I just came to my senses.”
“Don’t lose ’em again, okay? This is a long flight to make at a moment’s notice.” Joe turned and shoved him.
“I’m living and learning every day, bro. This time I plan to get it right.”
“I did warn you that marriage isn’t for the faint of heart?” Joe had been married three times and, by his account, paid untold amounts of alimony to his three former beloveds.
“Many a time. You’re probably at least fifty percent responsible for scaring me off marriage until now. That and the fact that the divorce rate in L.A. is around seventy percent.”
“What’s the divorce rate like in Rahiri?”
“I have no idea. Haven’t lived there in a decade. Lani’s mom was divorced, though I suppose that took place in the States.”
“You just make sure it doesn’t happen to you.”
“I’d have to be married first.” A possibility that had blossomed in his mind again. Sure, it would be easier if it weren’t for the whole royalty angle, but the prospect of making Lani his wife made his chest swell with excitement.
The sun was climbing across the sky by the time Rahiri came into view, its familiar teardrop-shaped outline beckoning him like an old friend. “Skip the airport and head straight for the palace. There’s a long paved drive with palm trees on each side. You can land right there.”
“And get a royal summons? I’d rather go to the airport.”
“Too far away. It’s almost an hour’s drive from the palace.”
“I thought that was so their royal majesties don’t have to be troubled by the drone of engines.”
“It is, but I’m sure they’ll survive.”
“Your mom was really pissed off last time.” They’d done it once before, years ago, when AJ returned for a family party with a group of friends.
“I can handle her. I already called and told her we were coming in. Didn’t want to get shot at on approach now that everyone’s so paranoid these days. She wasn’t happy about it, but she’ll survive.” AJ scanned the ground through the small side window. Already he could make out the multilayered rooftops of the palace and the lush grounds. Lani was down there somewhere. How would she react when she saw him?
Joe guided the plane expertly into a straight line with the drive, which was mercifully free of vehicles and pedestrians. “Here goes nothing.”
As they roared to the ground and taxied down the drive, AJ’s pulse went into overdrive. As soon as the plane stopped, people came running out of the palace. He jumped from the plane, scanning the faces.
“AJ!” His mother’s scream rose above the din of voices. “Didn’t I tell you never to land on the drive? It’s dangerous—there could be a pothole, or a fallen tree branch.”
“Palm trees don’t have branches, Mom.” He gave her a hug. “Where’s Lani?”
“She’s being measured for her coronation gown. They’re doing it in the ballroom because of the good light in there. Hey, where are you going?”
AJ had already slipped her grasp and strode into the palace, heading for the ballroom. Staff members stared at him, and hushed whispers buzzed amongst the polite greetings.
He had no idea how Lani would respond to his sudden arrival, but at this point he really didn’t care, he just ached to see her. The palace corridors seemed endless as he marched along them, past the secret passageway he’d sneaked into with Lani, past all the other doorways and hallways where they’d exchanged glances—and more.
“Did you return to claim the throne?” A black-clad reporter, brandishing a tiny video camera, leaped out of a doorway to his left.
“How did you get in?” AJ lunged toward him, responding instinctively to the invasion of privacy.
“Couldn’t stand to see your brother’s wife claim the throne?” A female reporter darted up behind him, holding up a camera phone.
AJ grappled with the first man, getting him in an armlock. “Guards! There’s an intruder.”
People rushed around them, servants hurried along the corridors and reporters poured in through the unsecured and glassless windows that ringed the palace and linked it to the gardens outside.
AJ grappled with a smelly man in a plaid shirt and yelled to the servants to make sure none of the scum got anywhere near Lani. Reporters who’d been hanging around the palace bored out of their skulls for weeks surged in after the others, shutters whirring and microphones thrust in his face.
“Are you back for good?”
Dragon Chaser Five
going to start shooting?”
“Did you fly the plane yourself?”
“Is the baby really yours?”
“Did you miss Lani?”
This last question made him look up, and his eyes met the beady blue ones of a blond reporter he vaguely recognized.
“I did miss Lani.”
The scrum of reporters suddenly hushed.
“Did you come back for her?”
“I came back to see her.” He didn’t want to claim more than that. He wasn’t sure if Lani even would see him, after he’d promised to marry her—in front of the whole world—then welshed on the deal.
“Do you want to marry her?”
“I think that’s a bit premature. I…” Something caught his eye behind the reporter’s head and he looked into the long hall leading to the interior of the palace.
Lani. Flanked by two guards, standing only a few feet away. Her face was blank, expressionless.
Blood rushed to AJ’s muscles and he pushed through the crush of reporters. He’d imagined her so many times, soft honey eyes, long silky hair hiding her slim figure, her hesitant walk and sweet laugh and his vision seemed conjured to life in front of him.
But as he approached her, Lani seemed to shrink from him. She glanced at the reporters behind him—why were they still there? Couldn’t the guards throw them out?
“Let’s go somewhere we can talk.”
He turned to the guards. “Make sure they don’t follow us.” He reached out to take Lani’s arm, then noticed how stiffly she held her body and pulled it back. What did she think of his sudden appearance?
ani marched as fast as she could beside AJ. Her thoughts ran in all directions. Why was he here, and so suddenly? Hope mingled with terror and anticipation as they drew farther away from the crowd of crazy reporters and into the quiet recesses of the palace.
“In here.” AJ opened a door into the darkened throne room. She stepped past him, agonizingly conscious of his big, broad physique and the energy that always crackled in the air between them.
None of the hundred sconces or the incongruously high-tech video conferencing equipment was turned on, and the only light came through a small skylight in the ceiling. The massive “throne”—a squarish chunk of black basalt etched with symbols so ancient that no one could actually read them—hulked in the middle of the room.
AJ closed the door quietly behind them. The shaft of light from overhead threw his strong features into high relief, including the frown etched in his brow. “I had to come right away, to apologize.”
“For what?” He had much to apologize for, but she didn’t want to jump to any conclusions.
That, and she didn’t know what else to say.
“I feel like such an ass. Why couldn’t I see it?” AJ turned and paced across the room, disappearing into the semi-darkness. “Why didn’t I realize that Vanu had made your life hell, too?”
“I kept it secret.” Her voice was almost a whisper in the vast chamber. “Until I couldn’t keep it secret any longer.”
“Before your middle-of-the-night phone call, I didn’t even realize what I’d done.” He strode back across the darkened room. “That I’d let my own fears and insecurities get the better of me. I didn’t want to live a life being second-best, the backup, the understudy after the tragic loss of my glorious brother who was loved and missed by all.”
His eyes gleamed in the half light, and he let out a snort of disbelief. “But that brother never existed at all—except in my own mind, as my tormentor. The man who died was a small and petty individual who lived for his own amusement. That man can’t keep me from Rahiri—or from you.”
He drew her into his arms, and she rested her head against his broad chest, feeling protected and comforted for the first time since Vanu’s boat was found. Desire flared inside her like a spark under an encouraging breath.
“I missed your smile.” AJ brushed his thumb over her mouth—her smile appeared magically beneath his touch.
Lani leaned into him. “I missed your laugh.” The palace had seemed so empty, so dull and lifeless despite all the staff bustling to and fro.
“I missed laughing. I haven’t done much lately.” He stroked her back, and his fingers stirred up rivers of sensation. She’d tried so hard to forget the feelings he aroused in her, and she couldn’t keep them from flooding back.
His lips hovered just over hers, close enough so she could feel their heat. Excitement buzzed in the air and made her skin tingle. Was it real? Could AJ really be back? Was everything going to be okay?
It seemed too much to hope for. Still, he was here, with his arms wrapped around her. Something she’d dreamed of in spite of herself the whole time he was gone.
“I missed your kisses,” she whispered.
“I missed yours.” He swiped a kiss close to her lips, but not quite on them. Her lips stung at the sudden and unexpected denial. “But maybe I don’t deserve to have any more.”
“You may not, but I do.” She narrowed her eyes at him.
“So true.” He lowered his lips gently over hers, slid his tongue provocatively between her lips and gave her a kiss that made her toes curl.
Her nipples tightened against his chest and she ran her hands over the ridged muscle of his back, enjoying his strength. It made her feel safe, though it shouldn’t really, he hadn’t made her any promises.
She’d learned not to count on anything for sure except the sweetness of the present moment. “I’m glad you came back,” she whispered. Even if he didn’t stay, she’d always have this moment to remember, when she felt safe and whole and loved, for a while.
AJ nuzzled her ear. “I missed you like crazy. I tried to put you out of my mind and to distract myself with the films and parties and all those things I used to enjoy, but I found I didn’t want any of it any more. Not without you.”
Her heart contracted painfully. “I missed you, too.” She’d ached for him, night and day. “But you’d left me, and there was nothing I could do about it.”
“Except phone me.” He stroked her cheek.
“I was scared to tell the truth. I wasn’t sure if you’d be angry, or think I was nuts.”
“I am, and I do. I don’t think you should have put up with any of that nonsense from Vanu.” He lifted her chin until their eyes met. His gaze was filled with concern. “You should have told him he was a jerk and dumped him.”
Lani swallowed. Left in her heart was the one truth she’d never told anyone. “I did.”
She pushed back, separating herself from AJ inch by inch. “I told him, that night, after he…forced himself on me…that he could kill me if he wanted but that I wouldn’t stay married to him for another day. I told him I hated him.” The memory of her own voice, shrill and serious in the night, made her shiver.
AJ stared at her. “And that’s why he left. Why he went out on the boat.”
“And why he died.” Her words, spoken softly, rang like a tolling bell off the stone walls. “How did he die? No one’s ever told me. Trying to spare my feelings or something.”
He rubbed a hand over his mouth and looked away. “Anyone’s guess, really. There wasn’t much left. Just the skeleton. A lot of animals and birds on that island.”
She let the ghastly image sink in.
“It was definitely him, though. They checked the teeth against his dental records. He won’t be back again.”
She didn’t know what to say or do. How could she be pleased to hear such grim news?
AJ reached for her hand. “It’s not your fault he’s dead.”
She clenched her fist inside his grasp. “I wanted him dead.” The words flew from her mouth. “It’s ugly but it’s the truth and I can’t change that.”
“It’s his fault that you felt like that, and I could kill him again myself for putting that sadness and guilt into your heart. You need to let go of it.”
“I want to. Maybe that’s why I had to tell you the truth. I had to tell someone.”
“Were you worried I wouldn’t believe you?”
“A little.” She hesitated and watched his expression. “And I was a little afraid that you wouldn’t care.”
“Because I ran out on you?”
“But now you know that I did that because of my own past with Vanu. I gave up telling people about it a long time ago. I wanted to leave him in my past.” He reached toward her and stroked her shoulder. “I think we should both do that.”
Lani swallowed. “We can’t.”
“Because I’m still carrying his baby.”
AJ’s eyes dropped to her belly, which was still barely more than flat. “It’s hard to believe there’s a whole person in there, getting ready for life.”
Lani swallowed. Did he now intend to be a father to that tiny person, or simply an uncle? She didn’t dare ask.
He frowned, thoughtful. “Your baby won’t be raised by Vanu. All of his or her genes come from my mother and father, just like mine, and from you. There’s no reason why Vanu should cast a shadow over the child’s life. We’ll raise it with affection and love.”
“And if he or she does have any problems or issues, we won’t pretend they don’t exist. We’ll do our best to help. I’ve had enough of trying to pretend things are perfect when they aren’t. I’ve spent way too much time trying to be nice and make everything go smoothly, and all my efforts nearly ruined everything. Trying to make everything perfect by glossing over the truth is at the root of all of our problems.”
“You’re right.” He tilted his head. “And I’ve spent my adult life creating and maintaining elaborate fantasies for the screen. I guess my childhood prepared me really well for that.”
Lani filled her lungs with air. “From now on we’ll face problems head-on, and talk to each other honestly about them.”
“That’s a promise.” AJ stared at her, his expression unreadable. “I love you, Lani.”
She froze. The words entered her brain, but it didn’t know what to make of them. What did love even mean? She’d tried to love Vanu, and failed miserably. She had strong feelings for AJ, but she’d told herself time and time again since he left that they were most definitely not love.
It wasn’t until he’d gone and left her alone again that she’d realized she loved him.
He reached for her hand and she let him take it. He must have noticed it was trembling slightly.
She didn’t know what to say. She wanted to say, “I love you, too,” but it seemed too much, too soon, when she didn’t even know what his intentions were.
And despite all her exhortations to get real, she was afraid to ask.
Words failing her, she stepped forward and kissed him hard on the mouth. Too much emotion. She couldn’t process all the strange feelings roiling in her mind and body.
AJ’s arms around her waist sent heat flooding to her core. She clutched him closer, winding her fingers into the fabric of his shirt, then plucking and tugging at it until she pulled it loose from his pants.
Their kisses grew more frantic as she struggled with his buttons and clawed the fabric away from his chest. She yanked at his belt buckle, hating that she had to pull back even a few inches to get her hands on it. She just wanted to bury herself in AJ’s large body, to lose herself in him and revel in the sheer fact that he was right here, right now.
Her nipples stung and tingled with intense arousal as they brushed against his bare chest through the thin fabric of her dress. AJ’s hands roamed over her as she kissed his face and his neck and pushed his shirt off over his muscled arms and back.
His eyes gleamed with passion as he undid the fastening on her dress and let it fall to the floor.
Impatient with his stiff jeans, Lani pushed and shoved at them until they fell past his powerful thighs and he stepped out of them and stood, clothed only in the pale light drifting through the skylight above.
Lani shivered in anticipation at the sight of his arousal. AJ pulled her to him, his chest heaving. He lowered his mouth over hers and took her in a kiss that sucked the breath from her lungs. Lani kissed him back with all the emotion she’d locked away deep inside her after he left. All the pain and hurt mingled with affection and passion and exploded over them both, locking them together in a powerful embrace that shut out the world.
Lani felt AJ lifting her off the floor, carrying her in his strong arms. She didn’t open her eyes, just let him take her wherever he wanted. It felt good to stop planning and worrying and scheming and simply go with him.
He set her down in a sitting position on a smooth, stone surface that contrasted intriguingly with the hot, yielding strength of his body. The sensation made her wriggle against him, as he stood in front of her, his erection level with her very aroused sex.
“Now,” she pleaded, gripping him gently with her fingers. She needed to feel him inside her. She wanted him to fill the gap he’d left when he went away.
AJ entered her slowly, pulling her to the edge of the stone and wrapping her legs around his waist. She groaned as he sank deep inside her and a sensation of relief and joy filled her from the inside out. She pressed her body against his and hugged him tight as he moved slowly inside her.
I love him.
The words filled her brain as the notion filled her heart. Again. Was that enough? It should be. Love—and whatever those other sensations were called—filled her to overflowing and made her gasp as AJ moved over her.
He kissed her gently, then firmer, and lifted her up so she was in his arms, still moving with him. She felt light as a feather, supported by his powerful frame. Her arms and legs still wrapped around him, AJ eased himself into position on the stone surface so she was sitting on top of him, her feet resting on the throne.
AJ sucked her neck and she arched her back, taking him deeper still. She found she was able to move over him easily, keeping a tight hold around his neck and back, and moving up and down with her feet. Moving faster, and then slower, she let emotions and sensations cascade over her.
Pure pleasure trickled through her body and she wanted to enjoy it to the fullest. She’d known so little pleasure in the last few years that it was like a precious jewel she wanted to hold and admire for as long as she could.
Judging from the sounds he was making—earthy groans and whispered endearments—AJ was enjoying it, too. His hands moved tirelessly over her skin, stroking and supporting at the same time.
She kissed him, thrusting her tongue into his mouth in time with her movements. The sensation was cheeky and delicious. With AJ she could take risks and do silly, fun things without worrying about being judged or scolded.
She peppered kisses all over his face and ran her hands through his thick, silky hair, drinking in the masculine scent of his warm, sweaty skin. She loved the rough feel of his cheek against hers, the firm pressure of his fingers on her skin.
Although her climax hovered so close she could almost feel the convulsions, she delayed it. She slowed the pace, pulled back just as she was about to burst. Part of her wanted to forge ahead and taste the sweetness of their joint explosion, but the rest of her wanted to prolong this blissful experience as long as she could.
She still didn’t know why AJ had come back, or for how long. He’d said he loved her, but she knew love wasn’t always enough. Right now that didn’t matter. What she shared with AJ was already so much more wonderful than anything she’d experienced in her years of marriage, and if it was all she got, she could live with that.
She kissed him, drinking in his scent and tasting the sweetness of his kiss as if this was the last time she’d touch him. Savored each precious millisecond of his hands on her skin and his hard belly pressed to her soft one. She moved so slowly, as if she could alter the passage of time and prolong the present moment infinitely.