Authors: Jennifer Lewis
This time he turned around to see if there really was anything to look at. Nothing but stars winking through the carved openings in the corridor wall.
“There’s no one here. We’re alone, though I’m not sure how much comfort that is to you.” He smiled, trying to be reassuring. He had a weird feeling that she did want to say something.
Her lips twitched in an agonizingly sensual motion, and she blinked rapidly. “It was nice of you to come check on me. I’ll be fine.” Her tears had dried and her eyes shone again. Sad, but beautiful. “It’s been a long day.” She tilted her head slightly and looked at him though her lashes. “And I apologize for my role in the kiss. I don’t know what came over me.”
“No apology needed. And whatever came over you, it was rather lovely.” He flashed a smile, then an odd feeling swept through him. Another powerful urge to kiss her. Her skin looked so soft, shining in the lamplight, and he could smell her soft scent in the narrow space of the doorway. Her dark gaze seemed to call to him: Help me.
His lips met hers, hard and fast, but this time she pulled back and slammed the door. The wood bumped his forehead and sent him staggering back into the corridor, lips still buzzing from that lightning fast but incredibly powerful touch.
“Idiot.” He said the word aloud and smacked his head. What was he thinking? Still, did she have to slam the door like that?
He glanced around, relieved the corridor was still empty. What was it about this woman that made him act so crazy?
Lani ran back into the bathroom, where she closed and locked the door. It had been the one safe place where she could hide from Vanu—discounting the many hours they spent safely in public spaces—where she could lock the door and shut out his cruelty.
How odd—how awful—to now be hiding from his brother.
Or was she?
Her belly tingled with stray sensation—awareness of the swift touch of his fingers as he leaned in to kiss her. His lips had brushed hers for a split second, but seemed to have branded her with fire. If she hadn’t slammed the door so fast she’d have rushed into his arms.
Which meant that yes, she was hiding from him.
And she was hiding from her mother-in-law. She’d have to tell her about the pregnancy immediately, before it became any more obvious.
Just now she’d fought a strange, almost insane urge to tell AJ everything when he asked her if she wanted to talk. What wouldn’t she give to be able to confide in someone? To seek comfort in a pair of strong arms that wanted to soothe and comfort her rather than to hurt her.
Lani shivered. She’d been through so much in the past few years. Even though Vanu had rarely touched her, his tongue could bite hard as a lash. His brother was so different. Famous as a playboy, AJ seemed laid-back and warm, easy going and nonjudgmental. What would it be like to have a relationship with someone who genuinely liked people?
Not that she’d ever find out. Of course he wouldn’t stay. He had a life—a big, famous life—to get back to. Rahiri was a little speck of forested land in the middle of the wide Pacific to him. It wasn’t his home anymore.
For a split second she envied him his freedom. It must take some confidence to walk away from the royal family he’d been born into.
For the last few weeks she’d entertained thoughts of having a normal life, maybe even going back to New Jersey to visit her father and her two stepsisters who were now in high school. It would be fun to just, say, go to a mall and giggle over some shoes.
A long sigh slid from her mouth. After tonight’s news, that would never happen.
She reached down and pulled the stick out of its hiding place amongst the fresh towels. Yes, the little pink cross was still there, sealing her fate as the mother of the newest member of the royal Rahiian dynasty.
The next morning, after an almost completely sleepless night, Lani approached her mother-in-law at breakfast and asked if they could meet privately.
“Lani, you look terrible!” Priia Rahia took her daughter-in-law’s face in her hands. “We all loved Vanu, but you must take care of yourself. Eat some eggs, and some papaya.” She loaded the ripe fruit onto Lani’s plate. “And of course I’ll talk to you.” She gave a bright smile.
Much as Lani loved her mother-in-law, she could often hear the wheels turning behind Priia’s composed expression. She probably imagined this would be a private chat about her future relationship with AJ—a million miles away from her intended purpose.
Maybe something in her expression made Priia realize the situation was serious. “Come with me right now. Bring your breakfast and eat in my study.”
The older woman hooked her arm through Lani’s and guided her out past the stone-faced waiters. “Bring fresh tea,” she called behind her.
Marching down the hallway, her mother-in-law looked crisp and efficient as always, her black hair short and glossy, her traditional dress perfectly arranged over her neat, plump body. She projected an aura of calm and warmth that Lani had appreciated so much over the last few years, though that had been shaken by Vanu’s disappearance and presumed death.
Lani was shivering slightly by the time they reached the shell-pink sanctuary on the east side of the house. Morning sun streamed through the windows, illuminating her mother-in-law’s collection of bird statues and the traditional embroideries she made into cushions and wall hangings.
“Take a seat.” Priia pointed to a plush pink armchair. “Be sure to eat. You’ve looked pale lately. Are you feeling better?”
She swallowed. “A little.” She looked down at her plate; the contents looked inedible. “I’m not really sick.” Her heart started to pound. “I’ve just been feeling ill because…”
Priia tilted her head, expectant. Her lips pursed into a familiar smile. “What, dear?”
“I’m pregnant.” The words fell out on a sigh.
Priia’s eyes snapped open. “Did I hear you right? You’re expecting?”
Lani nodded, unable to push words past the lump in her throat. “I think so.” No need to mention that she’d taken a test. She had all the usual symptoms, anyway. “At first I thought it was stress over Vanu’s disappearance, but now I’m pretty sure it’s…” She glanced down at her stomach, which appeared flat beneath the green and blue pattern of her dress.
“A baby.” Priia clapped her hands together and a broad smile lit her face. “How marvelous!”
“Yes,” whispered Lani.
“A ray of light in our darkest hour.” Priia sprang to her feet and strode across the room. “A miracle.”
It didn’t really feel that way to Lani, which only added to her crippling burden of guilt. She should be happy. A baby was always a reason to celebrate in Rahiri.
Unless it was the child of your unloved and evil late husband.
“We must celebrate. We’ll plan a big party. What a marvelous way to move forward after the sad days of the funeral.” Priia was almost dancing around the room. “A baby! Our Vanu’s child will carry on his legacy here in the palace.”
Lani bit her lip. That’s what she was worried about. Which wasn’t fair. The innocent child might be nothing like Vanu at all. Everyone else in the royal family was warm and kind, including the father-in-law who’d died before she came.
“Oh, sweet little baby clothes. I must start embroidering right away.” Priia patted Lani’s cheek affectionately. “I wonder if he will have your lovely golden coloring. Or it could be a she.” She frowned. “Of course we won’t know for—” She grasped Lani’s arms. “How far along are you?”
“I’m not really sure.” She didn’t want to pinpoint the night Vanu disappeared, though that was certainly the date of conception. “A few weeks, at least. I’m just starting to show.”
“Oh, do let me look at you.” Priia snatched Lani’s untouched plate from her lap and tugged her to her feet. She patted the rumpled fabric over her belly. “I can’t feel much yet, but I took a while to show with my boys. We Rahias don’t have large babies, but they grow up to be big strong men.” Her beaming grin was almost infectious.
Almost. Lani struggled to look at least slightly happy about the circumstance, but instead her lip wanted to tremble.
“You’re worried, aren’t you? Scared.” Priia took Lani in her soft arms. Her expensive scent enveloped her for a moment. “I know it’s not easy having a baby when you’re a widow. The child reminds you of the man you’ve lost.”
Lani looked down. Her words were painfully true.
“But look on it as a wonderful chance to let him live again through his child.”
Please, no! Lani blinked rapidly, trying to keep her emotions in check.
Priia pressed a finger to her lips. “Though this does rather complicate things with AJ. It’s not easy for a man to raise another man’s child, even if it is his brother’s.”
“I don’t think AJ wants to marry me.” Lani said the words quickly.
“Don’t take it personally. He’s just gotten off track with this Hollywood business. He’ll realize that his duty lies with us in Rahiri.” Her mother-in-law’s face grew serious. “Oh, my goodness.”
“What?” Lani’s chest grew tight at the look of alarm in Priia’s dark eyes.
“According to our laws of succession, the baby is next in line to the throne.” She stared at Lani, her face growing pale.
Thoughts clicked into place. “So AJ doesn’t inherit the throne.”
“Not if Vanu has a child.” Priia bustled across the room and stared out the window toward the forest. Then she spun around. “Oh, I do so want AJ back home with us. He was so unsettled as a child, always jealous of Vanu and in a rush to get away. I’m sure things would be different now that he’s grown and matured. Now that my husband and oldest son are gone, it would warm my heart to have my youngest son here with us. And I do believe he’d be a very good husband to you.”
Lani remained silent. A stray memory of his lips on hers assaulted her and caused color to rise to her cheeks. She had no idea what kind of husband AJ would be, and she’d rather not find out—kiss or no kiss. Vanu was enough husband for one lifetime.
Priia’s expression hardened. “Don’t say anything. Don’t mention the baby.”
“To anyone.” She gripped Lani’s wrists. “Let no one find out until you’re safely married to AJ. Then they can think it’s his.”
Revulsion at the proposed deception coiled in Lani’s already queasy gut. “But I’m weeks along, almost two months.”
Priia loosened her grip and rubbed Lani’s arm—which didn’t feel all that soothing over the goose bumps that had formed there. “You can say it’s premature. We really do have small babies. Even big, strapping AJ was barely six pounds at birth. No one will ever find out.”
“You wouldn’t even tell AJ?”
“Why? Better to let him think the baby is his.” She tilted her head and looked right into Lani’s eyes. “Sometimes men are happier if we keep some secrets from them. It’s part of our work as women to keep the world running smoothly.”
Lani could feel a cold sweat breaking out on her back. “I don’t like deception. And what if AJ doesn’t want to marry me?”
Priia’s lips formed a tight smile. “He will.”
’s plane left for L.A. at six o’clock the following morning. He was not on it.
“Thank you, sweetheart.” His mom’s expression alternated between tears and smiles. “You don’t know how much it means to me to have you here. I couldn’t survive the loss of one son if I didn’t have another.”
AJ didn’t really follow her logic—or like it one bit—but he nodded. Apparently he had no resistance to female pleading and weeping. Hopefully in a few days his mom would calm down and he could make his escape.
“Have some papaya, sweetheart.” She pushed a platter laden with the shiny golden fruit toward him.
His stomach recoiled. “I’m not hungry.” The bright sunlight flooding the breakfast room contrasted strongly with his mood. Lani picked at her own breakfast on the other side of the big, polished table. He kept his eyes firmly off her. She had a very unsettling effect on him, and he didn’t need any more crazy things happening. Getting a door slammed in his kisser was quite enough.
His mom clapped her hands together, bracelets jangling. “We’re going to plan a party.”
Lani’s head shot up. He sneaked a glance at her, and saw her eyes wide with alarm.
“Isn’t this an odd time for a party?” AJ leaned back in his chair. “Especially after all the funeral events. Lani’s probably exhausted.”
Lani didn’t meet his gaze, just stared at her teacup.
“I think it’s important to show people that this is not an end for the Rahias, it’s a new beginning.” His mom’s crisp smile had firmly replaced her tears.
A sense of foreboding hummed in AJ’s gut. He strongly suspected that he played a key role in that “new beginning.” “I really can’t stay long, Mom. I have script meetings for my new movie.”
“You could do them via teleconferencing. We have it set up in the throne room.”
“It’s not the same.” He didn’t want to go anywhere near the blasted throne room. There really was a throne in there—an impossibly ancient piece of volcanic rock carved with mysterious markings—and he had a nasty feeling he’d end up on top of it if he wasn’t careful.
“Of course it is. And Lani and I can be your assistants, can’t we dear?” She shone her megawatt smile on Lani.
Who gulped, visibly. “Oh yes. I do enjoy your films.” Her voice was as flat as her expression.
“What do you like better, the violence or the sex?”
“There isn’t really that much of either.” She tilted her elegant head and her long mane of brown hair swung in front of one shoulder. “What makes your movies so good is that you use suspense and anticipation to keep the audience on their toes. Teenage boys probably think they saw all that stuff when they leave the theater, but really you kept their hearts pounding by making them think it was going to happen, or had just happened. It’s very clever.”
AJ’s mouth hung open for a second. “You really have watched them.”
“That’s why we installed the theater, dear.” His mother patted her lips with a napkin.
Lani’s eyes sparkled. She was clearly delighted to defy his expectations. Her bright gaze sent a shimmer of—something straight to his core.
Great. Just what he needed.
“We’re your biggest fans.” His mother patted his hand. “And we’ll have the party this Saturday.”
“How can you plan it so quickly?”
She smiled. “Easy, dear. No one turns down an invitation to the palace, and we have the most talented and creative staff in the Pacific.”
“There is that.” AJ winked at her. “You really are something, Mom. If a party will make you feel better, you go ahead and have one.”
“You will be there.”
“I’ll be there.” He didn’t hide the sigh of resignation in his voice. How could you argue with your own grieving mother? “Just don’t ask me to make any speeches.”
“Why don’t you two go pick some flowers? We’ll use them to decorate the ballroom.”
AJ raised an eyebrow. A flower-picking expedition? Clearly his mom had not given up on the idea of getting them together. “I’m sure the flowers are happier in the ground.”
“Nonsense. They bloom better if you pluck them from time to time. Don’t they, Lani?”
Lani smiled. “Some of them do. I’ll go get the shears and some jugs for them.” She didn’t look at AJ.
His mom’s lips curved into a smile. “Take good care of Lani, won’t you? Don’t let her strain herself.”
AJ glanced at Lani, who once again was looking away. No doubt she was quite capable of deciding just how much strain she could handle. His mom probably had visions of him carrying her up hills or lifting her delicately over puddles. Hopefully Lani wouldn’t expect him to, as he had no intention of going within five feet of her. She was dangerous.
They set off into the gardens, AJ carrying two metal jugs. Lani tucked a pair of shears into the pocket of her dress. It had rained overnight—as it usually did—and the leaves glistened with raindrops. A swallow darted around them as they headed toward the orchid forest down a narrow path of carved stones. Lani had removed her sandals and walked barefoot, Rahiian style. AJ kept his Skechers on, though he regretted it as they became increasingly sodden. “I’d forgotten how wet it is here.”
“That’s why they call it the rainforest.” Lani shot him a cheeky look. The unusual golden color of her eyes struck him and he snatched his gaze away.
“Soggy, is what I call it. Now, L.A. has my kind of climate. A nice dry desert.”
“With a decorative haze of smog.” Lani marched straight ahead, her pretty toes splayed on the mossy stones.
“Exactly. Who needs to see all those mountains anyway? Hey, there’s a flower.” A delicate bloom peeked its head around the trunk of a tree.
“Lovely.” Lani stopped and walked up to it. “But it’s rather a rare orchid that only blooms every four years. I think we should leave it to enjoy its moment of glory here in this beautiful place. I’m not sure it would be happy in the ballroom.”
AJ snorted. “I’m not sure anyone’s ever happy in that ballroom, but they darn sure pretend to be. Why is Mom so good at getting what she wants?”
“She puts a lot of energy into everything she does. And she’s a very loving person.”
“Yes, she loves it when things go her way.”
“She’s always treated me like a daughter.”
“You are her daughter. In law, at least.”
“My mom runs a laundry and my dad is American. I’m hardly Rahiian aristocracy. She could have treated me quite differently.”
AJ shrugged. “So? Snobbery is not really a Rahiian thing. You’re probably more aware of it because of your years in America. Was it odd moving here from New Jersey? It must have been quite the lifestyle change.”
She laughed. “I missed my bike. And my friend Kathy. I loved the beaches and all the colorful birds.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. “And of course I missed my dad.”
“They got divorced?”
“Yup. My mom never really became Americanized. She refused to learn to drive, and she hated being out in crowded shops, so she tended to buy everything at the corner store.”
“If corner stores in New Jersey are anything like the ones in L.A., she was getting ripped off.”
“I’m sure. She didn’t like American clothes and wouldn’t cut her hair. At first my dad thought all those things were cute, but after a few years he got tired of her traditional attitudes and began pushing her to adapt.”
“But she didn’t.”
“She couldn’t. She’s very shy. She probably only married him in the first place because she was too timid to say no.” Lani bent down to smell a pretty white lily at the base of a tree.
“Or he swept her off her feet.”
“Probably some of that, too.” She walked ahead, veering from the path into a little tunnel through the undergrowth. “But after eight years he called it quits and packed her off back home.”
AJ ducked to avoid wet leaves brushing his hair. “Did Vanu sweep you off your feet?”
She flinched slightly, just a slight tic of her shoulders.
“It must be painful to think about him.”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t really like that. Vanu saw me in the marketplace one day. He liked the look of me, and your mom found out who I was and invited me to the palace. It was all very formal. The marriage proposal was delivered to our house—behind the laundry, of course—by his footman.”
“Not very romantic.” AJ watched her slender form, clad in its delicate floral pattern, stepping daintily through the forest.
“Not at all. I didn’t even know him at that point. We’d had about five minutes of conversation.”
“So why did you agree to marry him?”
She shrugged. “Everyone said I had to. There really wasn’t any question of not marrying him. My mom would never have forgiven me, for one thing, so I’d have spent the rest of my life in the laundry with her glaring at me.” She made a face.
“I see what you mean. Well, rest assured this time. Even my mom can’t force you and I to get married.”
She froze, then kept walking. For a second she wrapped her arms around herself like she was cold—impossible since it was already at least eighty-five degrees, even in the lush shade.
“Have I offended you?” He snatched a leaf from a nearby shrub, then wondered why he’d done it. He pressed the plump, succulent leaf between his fingers.
“Not at all. I admire your independent attitude.”
“You could always develop one yourself, you know.” He was tempted to reach out and prod her in the ribs, but pulled his hand back at the last second. Even the thought of touching her made his fingertips prickle with awareness.
She was silent for a moment. “No. I couldn’t let your mother down. She’s been too good to me. She’s lonely, you know, since your father died. She misses him very much. And now, losing Vanu…” She rubbed her arm, as if soothing goose bumps.
“She’s lucky to have you, Lani.”
“She’s expecting us to find some flowers. We’d better get to work.” Her wry glance made heat flash in his core. Didn’t mean anything really. She was stunning—anyone would be attracted to her. Seductive, almond-shaped eyes fringed with dark lashes, her perfect small nose, her finely cut, sensual mouth…then all that sleek, golden brown hair falling about her slim shoulders. If she weren’t his sister-in-law he’d want to put her in a movie.
“I guess we’d better find some it’s okay to cut. You lead the way.”
He followed her across a wide lawn surrounded by yellow hibiscus in full bloom, then down a little hill toward the nearby beach. He could smell the ocean in the air, crisp and salty and slightly fishy.
“These are my favorites.” She pointed to white petunias, scattered like confetti at their feet where the jungle faded into the beach.
AJ glanced at the Rahiian ocean for the first time in years. Bright turquoise, it stretched forever, the horizon punctuated only by the nearby island of Naluua—an emerald dot fringed with white, floating in the clear blue bowl of sea and sky. “Damn.”
Lani glanced up. “What?”
“I forgot the power of the sea.”
Humor sparkled in her golden eyes. “They say the ocean in California is stunning.”
“Not like this.” He kicked off his shoes and strode out onto the fine white sand. The silky texture wrapped around his toes like a familiar embrace. “And ours is always warm.” The beach wasn’t wide. He reached the water in less than twenty strides, then stood while a small wave swept in sea foam to cover his toes. “Ahhh, now that feels good.”
Lani laughed. A sweet, high, golden sound. It echoed and thrilled somewhere deep in his chest. He glanced at her, and basked in the warmth of her smile. It felt good to see her look happy, even if only for a moment. “Come on in.” He extended his hand.
He regretted the gesture instantly. Touching her was definitely a bad idea. His skin tingled and the hairs on his arm stood on end even at the prospect.
It was likely she felt the same way, as she walked gingerly across the sand and dipped her toes into the water a good ten feet away. She sighed as the water swept around her delicate ankles. “I haven’t done this in a long time. You take the water for granted when you live here.”
“I guess you have to be gone a while to appreciate it.” The sun warmed his face while the water lapped over his toes and his heels sank deeper into the soft sand. “Vanu and I used to spend hours down here, hunting for different shells and insects. It certainly is a good place for a kid to grow up.”
Lani’s smile vanished. AJ frowned. He shouldn’t have mentioned Vanu. She obviously missed him. Maybe her Vanu was very different from the one he remembered? Brothers often had adversarial relationships.
He tried to ignore the recoil in his gut as he thought of her in Vanu’s arms. Which was insane, since she was Vanu’s wife. And how could he feel jealous over a woman he didn’t have or even want?
The wind whipped Lani’s hair to one side, revealing her striking profile. Okay, maybe he did want her. But not in any way that was appropriate under the circumstances. She wasn’t some bubbly production assistant looking for a spot on the casting couch, or a cheeky starlet hoping for a bit part as well as some action.
Maybe that was part of the appeal. At least with Lani he knew she had absolutely no interest in scoring a part in one of his movies. Lately he’d found himself suspecting even the most seemingly sensible women of having ulterior motives for dating him. That’s just how it was in L.A. Everyone seemed to have an agenda.
Then again, maybe Lani had an agenda, too, but he hadn’t sniffed it out yet.
Lani snuck a sideways look at AJ. Proud head tilted to the horizon, he looked every bit like one of the ancient Rahiian carvings of The Old Ones. Which was funny, because until now, she’d have described him as a classic Hollywood bad boy. With his slicked-back dark hair, mischievous grin and wide, highly kissable mouth, he must have women chasing him through Beverly Hills. But now, in the strong light of the sun reflected off the ocean, she could see nothing but the classic planes of his face and the powerful body of an ancient warrior-god.
She blew out a breath. Was this really a useful line of thought?
Perhaps it was, since Priia was counting on her to convince AJ to marry her. She might as well find him attractive in that case. Guilt rippled over her like the seawater at her feet. She was supposed to trick him into marrying her so she could pass off her baby as his. Could she even live with herself if she did that?