Authors: Jennifer Lewis
She’d married Vanu because she had to. That’s what everyone said. What simple village girl—the daughter of a laundress, no less—would turn down a chance to be queen?
She didn’t have a good answer at the time.
“How’s my mom taking it?” AJ’s frown deepened.
“Very hard.” Lani twisted her fingers together. “She cries a lot, and that’s not like her.”
“It’s a terrible thing to lose a child.” AJ rubbed a hand over his mouth. “At least she has you. I know she adores you.”
Lani pushed a smile to her lips. “She’s been so kind to me. Everyone has.”
Well, except Vanu.
“So if I take off back to L.A., I imagine you’ll rule as queen.”
Lani sat bolt upright. “Me? I can’t. I’m not royal.”
“You may not have been born royal, but you’re already queen, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Humor danced in his dark eyes.
“Technically speaking, but not really. I’m just a village girl.”
“I thought you were born in New Jersey.” He raised a brow.
“My parents divorced when I was seven, and my mom moved back to Rahiri.” People tried to make more than they should of her foreign birth and the fact that she was half-American. It gave her unusual features and coloring, nothing more.
“You seem more educated than the average village girl.” His penetrating gaze made her belly tighten.
“We have good schools here. Your father saw to that when he was king. Many of our teachers received scholarships to study abroad, and brought their knowledge back to Rahiri.”
“But your father’s a professor, isn’t he?” AJ leaned closer, until his masculine scent tickled her nostrils.
What was he trying to prove?
“Of geology. He encouraged me in my studies, and I was going to read history at the university, but I left my studies when I became queen.”
Vanu hadn’t liked to see her with her head in a book. He said such a pretty head should be completely empty.
“You should start again. Why not?” He shrugged. “I never had the patience for school. I’m at my best running around on a set.”
“You’re happy in L.A.?”
“Ecstatically so. I can honestly say I don’t miss Rahiri one bit.”
“Your mom misses you.”
“I know. That’s why she comes up with so many excuses for shopping trips to Rodeo Drive.” He grinned. “I enjoy her visits and I think she single-handedly keeps the U.S. economy afloat.”
“Is this your first visit to Rahiri since the wedding?”
“Yes. Maybe I should feel bad, but I’m busy and I don’t fit in here.” He pushed a hand through his thick black hair and leaned back in the woven armchair. The heavy muscling of his body was visible even inside his dark suit.
She was still surprised that he hadn’t visited once. And they expected him to become king?
Not very likely. Which meant she was off the hook as his wife.
She blew out a long, slow, silent breath. The sooner he left, the better.
“It is beautiful here, though.” He stared out at the mist-shrouded horizon, a crevice of gold and blue sky nestled between rainforest-covered hills. A toucan flew up into a nearby baobab tree, its bright beak held aloft. “I’d forgotten how beautiful it is.”
His mom’s quest to convince him to stay continued unrelentingly over the following days and nights.
“Here, sweetheart, have some coconut stars.” Her favorite treat hovered under AJ’s nose on their tooled silver platter.
“No, thanks, Mom, really.” After three days of funerary feasting, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to eat again. “Did I tell you my plane leaves at 6:00 a.m. tomorrow?”
“What?” Her eyes widened with horror. “You can’t. You’ve barely had time to get to know Lani.”
He glanced around, making sure the woman in question was nowhere nearby. “I’ve spent hours and hours with her. She’s sweet.”
“And she’ll be a good queen, with you as her king.” His mom folded her arms. Her gold bangles clinked together.
“Not only is it possible, it is inevitable.” Steel shimmered in his mom’s voice and gleamed in her eyes. “Although it took a tragedy to bring you together, you and Lani are destined to be together.”
“I’m destined to begin post-production on
Hellcat Four: The Aftermath
in three weeks’ time. And after that, if the funding comes together, I’ll be making
His mom waved her hand, jangling her bracelets. “Part four, part five. What will it matter if there are so many already? There is only one Rahiri, and you are our ruler.”
“People are counting on me. There’s a lot at stake.”
“My sentiments exactly.” She leaned in, giving him a whiff of her familiar honeysuckle perfume. “We’re all counting on you. I am counting on you.”
AJ’s back tightened. No one here had counted on him for anything before. He wasn’t the heir, the chosen one. Now suddenly everything had changed, but he was still the same person inside.
His mom grabbed his arm. “Here comes Lani. Don’t tell her you’re leaving. You’re not leaving.”
AJ jerked his arm back. “I’m leaving. But I’ll be nice to Lani before I go.”
He smiled at the stunning young widow as she walked into the room, her embroidered pale-gold dress gleaming in the candlelight. Gold earrings glittered in her lobes and a ruby hovered at her throat. Decked out for sacrifice.
His stomach turned that she was so willing to go along with his mother’s foolish plot. Did she have no spine? Did she want no say in the choice of her future husband?
“Hello, AJ.” Her head dipped slightly, deferential, which annoyed him all the more. He liked women with some spunk, some fire.
“Come with me.” He threaded his arm though hers and led her from the room. Away from his mother’s anxious ears.
He ignored a flicker of heat from the touch of his skin against hers. He could not possibly be attracted to this shrinking violet barely out of another man’s arms.
They walked through a high doorway and out into a palace courtyard ringed with potted palms. “You’re too nice, you know.”
“I…I…” Her hesitation irked him further.
“Can’t you say anything for yourself, can’t you speak your mind?” His growl startled her.
She glanced up, honey-colored eyes wide. Was she afraid of him?
“I’m sorry.” She bit her full, pink lip. A flash of heat to his groin sent a surge of fury through AJ. Just because she had a pretty face did not mean she’d make a good wife. Maybe she deserved to be married off to some stranger.
A silky lock of gold-hued hair fell forward as she hung her head.
He had no interest in how that hair would feel under his palms, or trailing over his chest as she crouched over him, maybe panting slightly, golden eyes wide with desire.
Because that would never happen.
He scowled and turned away. “I’m flying out tomorrow. You’re on your own, sister.”
“What?” Her voice rang across the room, high and breathless.
He spun around to face her. “You heard me. I’m done playing my part in this charade. You and I have nothing whatsoever in common, and I have no intention of sacrificing both our lives on the altar of Rahiian tradition. I’m going back to my real life.”
She blinked, speechless. Hardly a surprise. She didn’t have much to say for herself at the best of times. But her cheeks reddened. “You dislike me.”
Her words sent a fist of guilt to AJ’s gut. She hadn’t actually done anything wrong, after all. She’d been trying so hard to be a sweet Rahiian maiden.
Shame he couldn’t stand sweet Rahiian maidens.
Her ruby shone bloodred at her throat. Set in an ornate gold setting, the royal jewel had probably been worn by many sacrificial lambs before her. He pitied and despised these women, so ready to give their whole lives to the service of a man. For a country that didn’t care if they lived or died.
He stared down at her—she barely came up to his shoulder—and cocked his head. “You’re too…nice.”
“I’m not nice at all. Really.” The words rushed out. Was she so afraid of failing in her royal duty? “I mean, I try to be, but…”
Words failed her once again. The pink flush of her cheeks gave the inappropriate impression that she was aroused. Her lips, parted in protest, looked full and ripe, ready for kissing. The look in her eyes, glossy with terror, could easily be mistaken for a gaze shimmering with need. Desire crept over him like the tropical heat, uncoiling in his belly, unfurling along with his fury over this crazy situation.
For once he wanted this girl to give him an honest reaction. He was letting her down. Screwing her over. Just once he wanted to hear her words ring harsh in the air, sense her anger pulse on the night breeze, or maybe even feel that small hand slap him hard across the face.
Then maybe he wouldn’t feel so guilty.
Surely she had a dark side. Everyone did.
He took a step forward, pulled her into his arms and crushed his mouth over hers.
For a second Lani froze, and he half braced for her reaction.
Then her arms stretched around his back and her slim body molded to his. Her mouth softened, opened to welcome his kiss. Her fingers dug into the muscles of his back and drew him closer, until her breasts crushed against his chest.
Surprise and sharp lust flashed through AJ. Lani was kissing him back—hard. Her breath came in unsteady gasps. Heat pulsed between them, urging their heartbeats into a fevered dance. A tiny moan quivered in Lani’s throat as he thickened against her, his desire provoking a fierce arousal. This was
the response he’d expected.
e pulled away first. Lani’s hand flew to her lips, left suddenly cold and bare. She didn’t want to open her eyes but she forced herself. AJ’s dark gaze fixed on hers, wide with—shock.
What just happened?
He’d initiated the kiss, his action deliberate, forceful even. But she couldn’t shake the impression that he hadn’t wanted to kiss her.
Her lips still stung and tingled with stray pulses of energy. Her nipples pressed against the crisp fabric of her dress, above her pounding heart. The hand now pressed against her mouth—hot with her own unsteady breaths—had just a moment ago been fisted into his shirt, clutching at his thick muscles.
Shame flushed through her in a hot wave. He must have kissed her out of a sense of responsibility, to prove he could step into the role everyone expected of him, whether he liked it or not.
And she’d responded in a way that was anything but dutiful.
Was she going mad? She gulped. Her body felt hot, thick with unfamiliar sensation. She couldn’t bring herself to glance at AJ again. He hadn’t moved an inch since he’d pushed her away.
He’d had to push her away, to stop her clinging closer and tighter, pressing his body to hers with a fierce grip. At her own husband’s funeral.
Or whatever you called a funeral without a body.
She must be mad. There was no other explanation. Should she apologize? Anger flashed inside her. He’d taken the kiss—stolen it—so anything it led to was his fault.
Still, no one would have expected her to respond with…desperation.
He’d thought she was too nice. Now he knew she was anything but.
Her face heated and she glanced up. AJ shoved a hand through his thick, black hair. His lips parted, but he didn’t speak.
The words hovered on her tongue for a single instant—automatic, a learned response—before she swallowed them, bitter and tasteless. She didn’t owe him an apology. She didn’t owe her late husband one, either, for that matter. These powerful men took what they wanted, without a thought for those they took them from. Which is why she didn’t want to marry again—especially not another Rahia.
Her treacherous thoughts pounded in her brain like a headache. If he knew what she was thinking he’d…
Lani gathered her skirt and rushed for the door.
AJ stared after Lani as her gold dress disappeared through the carved archway. He hadn’t said anything to stop her, since he couldn’t think of what to say. He had no idea what to even think. If his mom knew they’d shared such a steamy kiss, she’d probably be over the moon. Or would she be scandalized that it had happened before the funeral feasts were even finished?
He blew out a hard blast of air. He’d expected her to squeal and slap him. To defend her virtue and hurl angry words in his face. To hate him.
Which was his intention. Then she wouldn’t want him to do his duty and marry her. He’d be off the hook.
Instead she’d seemed to…enjoy the kiss.
He shook his head, trying to shake loose a sensible thought. Maybe she’d faked it. As a royal wife—especially his brother’s wife—she must have had plenty of practice faking pleasure when she didn’t feel it.
The way her fingers had clawed at his back. How her mouth had opened to welcome his, her sweet breath hot on his tongue. He'd even heard a tiny moan, like the cry of a bird, newly uncaged, escape her throat before he came to his senses and pulled back.
His stiff suit barely hid the reaction she'd provoked in his body. His blood seemed ten degrees hotter and his fingertips prickled with stray urges. Probably the urge to rip off that expensive gold dress and sink into the soft flesh beneath.
He hurled a curse. How could he think such a thing about his brother's wife? He hadn't wanted to come back here, and this was a perfect example of why. He lived a nice, sensible life in L.A.—well, by L.A. standards—where things like this just didn't happen.
Still…he'd dated more than his fair share of women and he'd never been kissed like that before. Curiosity mingled with the lust thickening in his blood. There was clearly a lot more to Lani Rahia than he'd expected.
That night, AJ sat three seats away from Lani at an official state banquet observing his brother’s passing. Dressed in mourning blue, with an elaborate gold necklace that probably weighed more than she did, she looked every bit the royal widow.
Ears pricked, he listened for her voice. She barely spoke, though, only offering polite morsels of conversation when necessary. When he glanced her way, her lips were pressed together, as if trying to keep something in—or perhaps, after this afternoon, to keep something out.
He attempted to hold up his end of the conversation with an elderly member of the royal guard who shamelessly checked international cricket scores on his phone in between courses. By the time dessert was served, AJ had resolved to corner Lani and ask her what happened this afternoon.
His plan was thwarted when Lani vanished halfway through the fish course. There was some commotion, and a footman went to help her to her room.
He turned to his mother, seated diagonally across the table. “What’s going on? Where’s Lani gone?”
She patted her lips with a napkin. “Not feeling well. Poor Lani’s taken Vanu’s death so badly. She’s been in and out of bed since he disappeared.” She reached over and patted his arm. “I’m glad you care. She’s a sweet girl.”
AJ cleared his throat. “I’m sure she is.”
“Perhaps you could go look in on her after dinner.” A thoughtful smile crossed her lips. “Just to see if she’s comfortable.”
“I’ll do that.” Had grief caused her unexpected response earlier? He shuddered with revulsion at the sudden idea that she’d mistake him for his dead brother. Did her disappearance from dinner have anything to do with their unexpectedly passionate kiss?
Either way, he wanted to know more.
Lani slammed her bedroom door closed and leaned against it. Alone. It wasn’t easy to get even one minute by yourself in a royal palace. Nausea rose inside her like a wave, and she planted her feet on the floor to ride it out. Was it guilt that drove this sickness to surge and torment her day and night?
Or something else?
She listened for footsteps. No sound except the evening song of insects in the gardens outside. Now was the perfect time. Everyone in the palace was either eating at the banquet, or waiting on the diners. Even her mother-in-law, who hovered over her day and night, wouldn’t leave her guests until the meal was done.
Lani crept across the room and switched on the light in the adjoining bathroom. It gleamed with the rich gold-veined marble and the solid-gold taps Vanu had installed. He’d loved to luxuriate in the bath while she massaged the knotted sinews of his arms and back. It was still hard to believe he’d never glare at her from across the room and hurl an unreasonable demand again.
Guilt snaked through her. She shouldn’t think such thoughts about the dead. It was bad luck, if nothing else.
She crept into the small private changing room where she kept her personal items. Buried among the tampons she knew no one would disturb was a prize she’d gone to great lengths to obtain.
She held her breath as she fished inside the box and felt for the packet. Her fingers stung with fear as they rested on its plastic cover. She glanced over her shoulder before she pulled it out, then she ripped open the packet and reached for the printed instructions inside.
Another wave of nausea blurred her eyes and made her clutch at the nearby wall, fingernails scraping on the hard, carved stone. Then she drew a deep breath. Better get it over with.
Hold stick in stream of urine. Place on level surface for thirty seconds. Plus sign indicates a positive result. Minus sign indicates a negative result, she read from the package.
Stomach clenched and hands shaking, she followed the instructions, then paced the large bathroom while she waited for the results. How odd that she’d wanted a child so much when they first married. Dreamed of holding her son or daughter in her arms and lavishing him or her with kisses and smiles.
Then when Vanu had revealed himself to be heartless, soulless, she’d prayed to remain empty so no child would have to grow up with a father like him.
It was easy; Vanu rarely touched her. If anything, he seemed repulsed by her body, by her very femininity. They hadn’t been intimate for at least two years until that last night, when she’d told him exactly what she thought of him, and he’d taken her by force.
Tears sprang to her eyes and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. The pink stick must have revealed its answer by now, but she didn’t dare look. If the result was negative, then she’d done her duty as a royal wife and could maybe even slide back into the realm of ordinary people. If not, she could be the mother of a future king, a duty that would bind her for the rest of her life.
At first it hadn’t occurred to her that she could be pregnant. Vanu had taken to berating her for her infertility and inability to produce an heir. He took pleasure in taunting her with this, even when conception was technically impossible because they never had sex. She’d almost started to believe his lies.
When he went missing she suffered bouts of sickness. At first she’d assumed them to be guilt-related. If she hadn’t confronted him, he wouldn’t have stalked off into the night. She’d told no one she was responsible for his disappearance.
As the weeks went on, her illness had been accompanied by other disturbing symptoms—moodiness, sensitive nipples and a slight thickening at her waist. No one else had noticed, but she could no longer pass these things off as “guilt” and she knew for sure they weren’t from grief, as others might have suspected.
She grabbed the stick and pulled it close, willing herself to be strong. A tiny pink cross filled the circle on the handle.
She was pregnant—with Vanu’s child.
She sank against the wall, breath coming in shallow gasps. What now?
A loud knock on the door made her jump. She shoved the stick into a pile of towels and rubbed the tear tracks from her eyes. “Who is it?”
“AJ.” His gruff voice penetrated the heavy wood.
“I’m, er, unwell.”
“I know. That’s why I came.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
“Let me in. Please. Just for a moment.”
Lani hesitated. AJ might be a hard-partying Hollywood director, but he was also next in line to the Rahiian throne. She couldn’t ignore him.
She glanced in the mirror and attempted to compose the stricken face that greeted her. She slapped her cheeks to bring back some color, tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear then hurried to the door.
AJ tapped his foot on the polished stone tile outside the door. Lani probably didn’t want visitors if she wasn’t feeling well, especially him. Bad enough that he was supposedly her unwilling future husband, but the events of earlier made the situation even more awkward. If she’d slapped his face and told him to get lost, everything would be going smoothly, but now…
Still, he needed to see her or he’d never sleep tonight.
The door creaked open, revealing a tiny sliver of Lani’s famously beautiful face.
“Have you been crying?” The question burst from his lips. She shook her head, lips pressed together. “You’re allowed to, you know. You are recently widowed.”
“I know.” Already fresh tears sprang up behind her dark lashes. “Sorry, it’s just been such a busy week with all the ceremonies.”
“You must be exhausted.” Though that didn’t explain the kiss. “I came to apologize for kissing you out of the blue like that.” He straightened his shoulders. Funny, he hadn’t come here to apologize, but the sight of her lovely face stained with tears had an uncomfortable effect on him. Even now, she was breathtaking, her long, golden brown hair streaming behind her shoulders and her lips soft and pink.
He cursed his physical reaction. Was this any way to behave with a grieving widow, even if you were supposed to marry her?
“I appreciate the apology.” She almost whispered it. “I know that technically you have nothing to apologize for, since I’m supposed to marry you, but it took me by surprise.”
“Took me by surprise, too.” A smile tried to spread across his lips but he fought it back. “I wasn’t expecting such an enthusiastic response.”
Her cheeks flushed. “I don’t know what happened. I’ve been through a lot lately. Too many emotions…” She trailed off, dropping her lashes to cover her eyes.
“And there I was taking it personally.” He reached out and touched her arm, which wasn’t easy since the door was barely open a foot. “Listen, no hard feelings. I meant what I said about leaving, so you don’t have to worry about me trying to jump into Vanu’s bed. I think I actually wanted to get you angry at me. I regret that.”
“No hard feelings.”
“You really are a sweet Rahiian maiden.”
“Sometimes I wonder.” She glanced up at him, and for a second he thought he saw a twinkle of mischief in her eye. Desire snapped through him and he fought a sudden urge to lean in and kiss her again.
“Are you sick?” He struggled to remember the reason he’d supposedly come here. Maybe he’d unwittingly hoped for another intoxicating kiss.
“Not really.” An odd expression flashed across her features—panic, almost. She glanced over his shoulder, as if expecting something frightening in the corridor. “I’ll be fine. I should get some sleep.” She grasped the door with her fingers, ready to close it.
“Would you like something from the kitchens?” He wasn’t ready to leave yet.
She shook her head. “I’m not hungry. I ate most of the meal.”
“A glass of wine, or something to help you unwind?”
Her eyes widened. “No, thanks.”
“Do you want to talk? I know it’s rough sometimes being a member of the royal family. You have to be on your best behavior all the time and can’t let your hair down.” He glanced at her impressive tresses. “And you have a lot of hair.”
For a second she looked like she might smile—or even invite him in—then she glanced over his shoulder again.