Authors: Jennifer Lewis
“You’re torturing me.” AJ’s whispered words tickled her ear.
“Maybe you deserve it.” She trailed a light fingernail along his spine.
“I do.” He nipped at her ear. “But you could encourage me to be a bad boy more often with this kind of punishment.”
Lani pressed her breasts into his chest, enjoying the sting of pleasure in her nipples. “Maybe I will. It seems I enjoy inflicting torment.” She shifted her weight slightly, and felt him move inside her.
“I should have known there was more to you than meets the eye.”
She opened her eyes and met his dark gaze. “I warned you when we first met.”
“You did.” He narrowed his eyes and raked them down her body, causing her skin to tingle. “Maybe that’s what intrigued me. Then the way you kissed me…”
“You could tell I had a dark side.”
“Or a delicious side. Either one worked for me.” AJ licked her mouth and she shuddered in response.
She pressed her mouth to his ear. “Do you think it’s possible we bring out the worst in each other?”
“Absolutely.” He lifted her chin with his thumb so he was looking into her eyes again. “Why else would we be making love on our nation’s ancient throne?”
Lani gasped and looked down. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes. What did you think we were sitting on?”
“I don’t know.” She frowned. “I didn’t think.”
AJ’s mischievous chuckle rocked them both. “I never would have imagined it could be so…comfortable. I can’t help wondering if anyone’s done this before.”
Lani let a wry smile lift her mouth. “We really don’t know that much about the customs and culture of the Old Ones. Maybe this is exactly what they did on it.”
“Very wise of them, in my opinion. Perhaps we could revive the custom.”
“Apparently we already have.”
AJ shifted his weight and moved deeper inside her. Lani arched her back and shuddered, again dancing just microseconds from release. Could this really be a new beginning? If AJ stayed and became king, almost anything was possible, for Rahiri as well as for her.
Are you staying?
The words hovered just behind her lips, but she swallowed them back, afraid to spoil everything. He’d come back, and that was enough.
She leaned into him and started to move again, letting the delicious sensations pulse through her until she started to lose control. This time she didn’t stop, but pushed them both over the edge of pleasure into the strange, dark, powerful, empty space beyond, where thoughts and feelings collapsed and their bodies became one.
When she finally opened her eyes again, they were both lying back on the polished basalt. She’d never realized how big the great stone was. Side by side, holding hands, they lay under the skylight, the surface oddly soft beneath their totally relaxed limbs.
Lani turned to look at AJ. “What if we’ve just broken an ancient taboo?”
AJ’s mouth swept into a naughty grin. “I’d say ancient taboos are pretty much made to be broken.”
A volley of sharp knocks on the carved wooden door jerked her into a sitting position. “Someone’s coming.”
AJ didn’t move. “Not surprising. We did kind of disappear on them.”
She jumped off the stone and scrambled back into her dress. “Come on! We don’t want them to know what we were doing.”
“Why not? It’s not a crime.”
“It might be if the throne is involved.”
“If I become king I can grant us absolution.” He eased his pants over his powerful thighs. “Same if you become queen. Though we’d have to decide if we deserve the pardon.”
Lani ran fingers through her tangled hair. Now he was just messing with her mind. Unless he didn’t entirely know what was on his own mind—which was more than likely. Everything had happened so fast. It was less than twenty-four hours ago that she’d phoned him with her revelation.
More banging on the door made her jump.
“Don’t worry, it’s locked.” AJ winked at her.
She pulled her sandals on. “What shall we say we were doing in here?”
“Hmm.” AJ buttoned up his shirt very slowly. “Maybe we could tell them that we couldn’t decide who should take the throne, so we both decided to try it out and see how it felt.”
“Trust me, I know that. It’s the truth, though, isn’t it?”
“We haven’t discussed who should take the throne.” She peered at him.
“Do you want to be queen?” He stopped buttoning and stared at her.
Only if you’re king.
“Not really. I’ve been rather railroaded into it.”
“Well, that’s how it happens, isn’t it?” He smiled and went back to buttoning. “In some societies people are stabbing each other in the back trying to seize the throne. In others, we’re all keen to dodge the crown that’s being thrust upon us.” He tucked in his shirt, then stared straight ahead. “I admit I’ve felt bad about that, too.”
“You regretted giving up the crown.”
“The crown I could care less about. It’s Rahiri I regretted losing. This is a great little nation and it could be even better. Sure, the elders have the people’s best interests in their hearts, but they don’t have the energy and vision of a younger person who’s lived in another culture and been exposed to new ideas.”
“I’d been thinking about that. We need more female doctors, and why can’t the elders be women, too?”
“You are prepared to take on the role of queen.” AJ looked at her, a hint of surprise in his eyes.
Had she said the wrong thing? Would he think she didn’t want him there because she’d been ready to rule the nation? She shrugged. “I had to prepare. I didn’t really have a choice.”
He frowned. “You’re the one person who’s never really had a choice in any of this. What do you want, Lani?”
Why couldn’t she say it? It was just one word, but it ducked and hid behind her tongue. What was she so afraid of? That she’d scare him away?
“You don’t like giving away anything about yourself.” He cocked his head and surveyed her through narrowed eyes. “You figure your secrets are safer if you keep them locked away inside.”
“I told you the truth about my marriage to Vanu.”
“That was a good start, but I want to know about you. What you think, and what you really want.”
Another thunderous knock on the door was accompanied by a shout. “Is anyone in there? We’re going to break the door down.”
“Oh, no.” Lani scuttled behind the stone.
“Don’t break it down.” AJ’s voice boomed off the high walls. “I’m in here with Lani and we’re both fine.”
The warm glow of lust had dimmed, leaving Lani anxious and apprehensive. All this talking seemed to be tying them up in knots. She’d never been good with words. She certainly couldn’t talk easily about herself.
“You didn’t answer my question, Lani.” AJ ignored the commotion outside, looking only at her. “What do you want?”
What if she told him she wanted him to stay, and he did but was unhappy? Would it be her fault?
“Stop hiding your thoughts from me.” AJ stepped toward her. “You’re just complicating everything further.”
“I want you to stay and become king.” She pushed the words out with great effort. Relief mingled with terror formed a fog in her brain.
AJ’s expression didn’t soften. “That’s about me. What about
I want to be your wife.
No. There was absolutely no way on this ocean-covered earth she could say that. It would amount to asking him to marry her. She’d never do that.
“Why can’t you say it?” AJ put his hand on her shoulder. His dark gaze seemed to pierce her skin, making her even more uncomfortable.
“Because I don’t know what I want. I only know I don’t want you to go.” The words burst from her on a sob. “Maybe I really am too shallow, or too silly for you. You expect me to have all these grand thoughts about my destiny and lots of big dreams or something.” She shoved a tear aside. “But I don’t. Maybe I am just a simple village girl. I only want to raise my baby and be happy.”
AJ stared at her. Tears ran down her cheeks and she didn’t try to stop them. That really was the truth about her and if he hoped for more he was doomed to disappointment.
Maybe that’s what she’d been trying to hide all along. “I’m not educated or even particularly intelligent.” Lord knows Vanu had made a point of that often enough. “I just do my best to help the people around me and try to do the right thing. And sometimes the right thing doesn’t feel right at all…” A violent sob racked her body.
“Don’t put yourself down, Lani. You’re brave and strong—look at all you’ve endured—and I firmly believe you’re capable of anything. Whatever you do, don’t let Vanu’s opinion of you shape your view of yourself. I’d be nowhere if I’d done that.”
“And you’re an award-winning director.” Another tear dripped off her chin. “That’s a big accomplishment.” No wonder he didn’t want to abandon the career he’d worked so hard to build.
“Being a director is a lot like being a king, really.” He thumbed a tear off her cheek. “You have to keep a lot of different people happy while guiding them all in the direction of your vision. I’m beginning to realize that my film career has been the perfect preparation for the job I’m truly intended to do.”
“Wouldn’t you miss Hollywood and all the excitement of the industry?”
“Not the way I missed you and Rahiri while I was back there.” His soft voice tugged at something deep inside her. There was something different in his eyes now, too. A reflective look she didn’t remember seeing before.
“I truly think I was meant to live there for a while, and I did enjoy myself—almost as much as the media claimed—but now it’s my time to come home.”
The last word hung in the air and reverberated off the stone floor.
Then the powerful moment was interrupted by more fevered banging on the door. “AJ Rahia, come here right now!”
“Your mom.” Lani couldn’t help laughing. “She’s probably run out of spin for the reporters.”
“Is that any way to talk to the king?” AJ raised a brow. Humor twinkled in his eyes.
Lani drew in a breath. “Are you really going to stay and become king?”
“Only if you’ll be my queen.” He took her hands in his and held her gaze while he dropped to one knee. “Lani, will you marry me?”
held his breath while two more fat crystal tears slid down Lani’s cheeks.
“I missed you so much, AJ. I almost couldn’t stand it when you left. I wanted to be mad at you for abandoning me, but I couldn’t. You’re the most caring and tender man I’ve ever met and…” She drew in a shaky breath. “I love you.”
His heart squeezed. She hadn’t answered his question, though. Did she still worry that he felt forced into marrying her?
“I love you, too, Lani. And I want to marry you because I’d like to be your husband, not because a nation expects it of me. Your beauty seduced me from the first moment I met you, but your generous and giving spirit stole my heart. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
AJ reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of tissue paper. It wasn’t easy unwrapping it while keeping a tight hold on her with one hand. He was still half-afraid she’d run off, or just evaporate into the humid air. His good fortune at winning her back seemed too sweet to be real.
At last he managed to free the sparkly gem he’d had to twist arms to obtain in the middle of the night.
Lani gasped when she saw it. “Oh, my goodness, that’s beautiful.”
“It had better be. It’s from L.A.’s finest jeweler.”
“You had this planned?”
He hesitated. Did he want her to think he’d been planning this proposal since the day he left and spent days agonizing over ring designs?
No. The truth was what brought them together and what would hold them together into the future.
“Only since 2:00 a.m. I had to drag my friend Niall out of bed. He’s a jewelry designer and I knew he’d have something fabulous enough to be fit for a queen.” The enormous cushion-cut rock had made even AJ’s jaded eyes pop. “Shall we see if it fits?”
Lani nodded, eyes wide. He held her hand gently and pushed the delicate gold band onto her ring finger. The ring slid on easily, then the heavy gem tilted to one side. “It’s a bit big.”
“We’ll get it fixed. It’s beautiful and I love it.” Her eyes glistened with tears again. “And yes, I will marry you.”
AJ picked her up and twirled her around. He must have had the biggest grin in the world on his face.
“AJ, sweetheart—” The voice was not Lani’s but his mom’s, coming from the other side of the door.
“Do you think she’s been listening at the door?” he whispered.
Lani smiled. “Probably. I forgot she was there.”
“Me, too. I forget about everything when you’re around.” He gave her a squeeze. “You think we should let her in on the good news?”
Lani tensed a little in his arms.
“Or are you not quite ready to face the mayhem again?”
She shrugged. “We’ll have to sooner or later. Might as well get it over with.” She rubbed at her cheeks, and he smoothed away any last telltale signs of her tears. He took her hand and they marched toward the door, which locked from the inside with a massive iron bolt. He pulled the bolt, then caught Lani’s hand again as he opened the door and light flooded into the dim chamber.
As expected, a large crowd had gathered outside, flanking his mom, who had those bright spots of color high on her cheeks that let him know she was really agitated.
“What were you doing in there?” His mom glanced at Lani, who blushed.
“That’s between me and Lani and the throne.” He cocked his head and gave Lani a sly wink.
Her flush deepened.
He felt strangely calm. “I’ve come back for good, and Lani has kindly agreed to marry me.”
His mom’s mouth fell open and she gasped. Then she grasped Lani in her arms and hugged her. “What wonderful news!”
Photographic flashes half blinded him.
“Who’s going to rule Rahiri?” A British accent.
AJ held Lani close. “Both of us. We’ll rule together until our child comes of age.”
“But isn’t the baby your brother Vanu’s?” An American woman shoved a microphone under his nose.
“Vanu’s gone.” He glanced at Lani. “I’ll raise the child as a father and love him or her as my own until they’re old enough to rule.”
“Will you keep making films?” a young man shouted from near the back.
“I will. I already have some ideas for films set in Rahiri.”
He looked at Lani, whose eyes widened. Then she smiled. “It would be a shame for AJ to waste his creative talents. And there’s a wealth of talent on this island that will enjoy working on the films.”
AJ put his arm around her. “Rahiri’s changed a lot since I was a boy. We have better schools and hospitals. We have cell phones and satellite TV. But the important things have stayed the same. People care about each other and about the land and water they live on. We have customs and culture totally unique to Rahiri that we celebrate and enjoy just as our ancestors did. Lani and I look forward to continuing the legacies of both progress and tradition that my father set in motion.”
Cameras flashed and AJ smiled. Already he felt rather relaxed in the new role. Different aspects of their lives seemed to be slotting into place in a neat yet interesting pattern, much like the colorful woven fabrics of Lani’s dresses, or the ornate teak carvings on the veranda around them.
They answered more questions together, Lani growing more confident and talkative, her beauty radiant as the noon sunshine.
Finally AJ decided it was time for some peace and quiet. “Now I must ask you to all leave the palace. The family needs some privacy.”
Lani’s nose tickled a bit as Priia dusted the traditional pollen on her cheeks with a fat makeup brush.
“It makes you glow so nicely! We should all wear it every day.” Her mother-in-law beamed.
“I’m not sure the bees would appreciate that, but it does feel soft.” Just like her silk dress, an intricate weave of delicate colors and real gold thread. She’d worn a similar dress for her wedding to Vanu, but this time everything felt different, maybe because it wasn’t all strange and alarming like the first time. She knew everyone at the palace and it was already her home. The ceremony marked the happy change of welcoming AJ into her life.
The population of Rahiri swelled to almost double its usual numbers for the joint wedding and coronation. She rarely watched TV but now she made a special effort to avoid it. It was too bizarre to see herself cast in the “rags to riches to happiness” drama they all turned her life into. At least they were right about the last part.
“Where’s AJ?” All the fussing made her restless.
“He’s getting ready as well, sweetheart. You won’t see him again until the ceremony. It’s bad luck.”
Lani sighed. A hug from AJ would really calm her nerves right now. She wasn’t anxious about the marriage itself, or even becoming an official monarch, just ready to get all the official drama out of the way. Although the king usually did the speaking during the ceremony, AJ had suggested that she should say the words, too, to symbolize their equality as monarchs. Of course he was right and it was for the best, but what if she froze and forgot her words in front of all those people?
The sound of her phone made her jump. It took her a while to find it on the dressing table amongst all the lotions and potions. Even her own hand—nails and fingertips decorated with red berry juice—startled her as she reached for it. “Hello?”
“How’s my beautiful bride?” AJ’s low voice, relaxed as always, made warmth flood her tense muscles.
“Nervous but okay. How’s my handsome husband-to-be?”
“I’ll be better when we’re alone tonight.” His suggestive tone made desire and anticipation trickle through her. Which was funny, really, since they’d slept together every night since he came back. “And the crowns are off our heads again.”
“I know just how you feel.” What a relief to have a partner she could really talk to. “I feel like we’re participating in a costume party of some kind, not a real coronation.”
AJ chuckled. “It is a costume party, complete with crowns woven from rare orchids and real gold. All we really have to do is smile and look regal. You’ve had more practice than I have.”
“I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve always felt like a milkmaid who’d stumbled into the palace and been mistaken for a princess.”
“Easy to see how that could happen, with your looks.”
Lani laughed. “How do you always manage to make me smile?”
“Because you love me, so you laugh, even at my worst jokes.”
“I guess that must be it.” She sighed. Her chest felt so full. “I do love you. I never thought I’d know real love, especially after I realized I wouldn’t find it in my first marriage. What a surprise.”
“There’s really nothing better than a surprise when you least expect it—at least that was always my chief theory as a director.”
“I’m not sure the citizens of Rahiri will feel the same way.” She lifted a brow, then realized he couldn’t see it over the phone. “They might prefer easy predictability.”
“Then we’ll try not to declare too many wars or set off too many loud explosions. Your gentle spirit will be a moderating influence on me.”
“Maybe it will.” She smiled. It was so easy and fun to tease AJ. “Though some might say my spirit is less gentle now it has you encouraging it into mischief.”
“Mmm. I’m thinking about last night.” AJ’s throaty voice stirred heat deep inside her.
“We really should have saved our energy for today.” Lani glanced at her glamorously made-up and gold-pollen-dusted visage in the mirror.
“Then we’d be more nervous. Much better to burn off some adrenaline first.” AJ’s voice slid into her ear, soft and seductive. “And even fresh pollen can’t compete with the natural glow of a sexually satisfied woman.”
“You’re sending my thoughts in the wrong directions.” Her pupils were dilating and her cheeks flushing an embarrassed pink. “Perhaps we need to turn our discussion to Rahiri’s gross national product.”
He laughed. “And how much it’s growing due to the sale of souvenirs and tchotchkes associated with our nuptials. Speaking of which, it’s almost time to head for the throne room. Try not to think about what we got up to in there when there weren’t any crowds around.”
Lani sucked in a breath. Would she be able to keep her mind focused on the age-old ceremony when she knew what they’d done on the surface of that ancient stone? “See you there, if I don’t pass out from nerves on my way.”
“You’ll do just fine, your majesty.”
Lani smiled as she ended the call. With AJ at her side, anything was possible.