Authors: Jennifer Lewis
She remembered his comment about this being a good place for a kid to grow up. She tried to imagine Vanu as a child, but couldn’t. The innocence and curiosity of childhood seemed totally at odds with Vanu’s harsh cynicism.
“Why did you leave Rahiri?” The question was blunt, but she wanted to know.
AJ looked out at the horizon, frowning. “Too small for me.”
“You wanted to live somewhere with more going on?” She dug her toes into the sand. If he did somehow get suckered into marrying her, he’d be bored within a week.
“Yes. And where I could figure out what I really wanted to do. Here my whole life was mapped out already—brother to the future king. I wanted more.”
“And you found it.” His life in L.A. must be exciting, fun. Rahiri was pleasant, but it was a peaceful place. No doubt he found it dull.
“I did.” He turned to her, his expression oddly determined. “I went to college, discovered film and the rest is history.” A wry grin lifted one corner of his mouth. “Okay, not exactly history, but cult film history, anyway. I enjoy my life.”
How could his mom expect him to give up the life he loved and move back here, where once again his life would be mapped out for him? Cold fear mingled with the guilt trickling through her. She didn’t want to be a party to spoiling AJ’s life.
“Was it hard to leave?”
“Not at all.” He turned a frank expression to her. “Vanu was the future king, and I was just the younger brother. I was a bit of a hell-raiser in my teens, too. I think everyone heaved a sigh of relief when I got on that plane to L.A.”
“I know your mom missed you.”
“And I missed her, but that doesn’t mean it would have been better for me to stay here. Aren’t we supposed to be finding flowers for her?”
“Yes.” Lani glanced back at the green growth at the edge of the beach. “We’re not doing a very good job. Honestly, I hate picking flowers. They look so much prettier and happier attached to their roots.”
“Then we won’t pick any. Let me guess, you think I’d be happier back here attached to my roots.” Lani froze. He asked the question casually, looking up the beach and even walking away from her. He wasn’t putting her on the spot.
Should she say the things her mother-in-law would want? That he’d be happy and content in the bosom of his family and helping the people of Rahiri?
She couldn’t. “I don’t know. If you love the life you have, it seems a shame to give it up.”
The soft lapping of the ocean softened the silence between them. He slowed and she caught up with him. Tension stiffened his broad shoulders, pulling them tight against his collarless pale cotton shirt.
She watched him closely. “Do you feel a sense of duty to Rahiri?”
That question was fair enough. The son of a king was born to a life of duty, even a younger son. It did no harm to remind him of that.
He turned to face her, brows lowered. “I didn’t, before. I was glad to leave all that to Vanu. There wasn’t room for two of us here. Now that he’s gone…” He turned to stare along the beach, where it rounded the corner of the cove and disappeared behind a clump of palm trees. “I don’t know. Maybe I do feel a few stirrings of something. It’s a shame you and Vanu didn’t have a child, then there’d be another heir and I’d be off the hook.”
Lani swallowed. She was glad he wasn’t looking at her, as her face involuntarily tightened. If she told him about the baby… She fought to stop her hand rising to her stomach.
The baby. Again, guilt cascaded through her. She’d hardly given a thought to the new life growing inside her. Terror and misgivings far outweighed any joy she should feel as a new mother.
She’d wanted a baby so badly, but that was before she understood how complicated, difficult and painful life could be, even when on the surface everything was smooth and appeared normal. Vanu had awakened her to a sinister undercurrent that could spoil even the happiest of circumstances.
Although he was gone, she could still feel its dark tides tugging at her, enveloping her in this mess of subterfuge and obligation that threatened to trap AJ into an unwanted marriage.
She did feel a sense of duty, though. There was no denying the obligation—the love—she felt for her mother-in-law. If only there was a solution that would make everyone happy.
A thought occurred to her. “The country needs an heir.” Her voice was low, soft, almost lost in the sound of the ocean and the rustling of leaves. “You could come back and rule…without marrying me.”
AJ turned to her. At first he was frowning, then his brow softened and he looked like he might smile. “I could take that personally.”
“I just want you to know that the two things don’t have to be linked.”
“According to tradition, they do.”
“Traditions can be updated. It’s the twenty-first century.” And perhaps the laws of succession could be adjusted to make AJ and his heirs successors, instead of her unborn baby.
She was grasping at straws and she knew it.
AJ glanced down at her hand, which had come to rest on her belly. She pulled it away like it burned. He looked at her curiously for a second, then turned and walked back up the beach, still carrying the two empty brass jugs. “Ninety days until the successor must be chosen.” His words carried on the breeze. “I haven’t counted but we can’t be too far off.”
Lani’s stomach clenched. “It’s been fifty-two days so far. Your mom is keeping count on an abacus.” This also meant she was fifty-two days into her pregnancy—soon she’d really start to show.
AJ shoved a hand through his hair. “I don’t know why, but I never thought I’d be in this position.” He turned to face her, squinting against the bright sun. “I’d left Rahiri behind, a collection of memories and familiar faces that I’d visit from time to time but never actually return to.” He blew out hard. “I don’t fit here anymore.”
Lani swallowed. “You have your own life. I understand that.” Though she was certain his mother and the island elders wouldn’t sympathize too readily. He was in a tough spot. At least she had the good luck of having absolutely no choice whatsoever. Her fate was tied to the royal dynasty, no matter what. “Only you can decide what to do.”
“How can I simply decide to marry my brother’s wife?” He finally put the two jugs—still empty—down in the sand and strode toward her. He picked up her hands and held them. “How can I take a woman I’ve barely met, and pledge my life to her?” He looked down at her hands, tiny in his. Already heat snapped between them in the warm morning air. AJ stiffened, perhaps also feeling the unsettling power. “I don’t know you.”
“Does anyone ever really know anyone else?” The cryptic reply rose to her lips. Her body shivered slightly. The proximity to his powerful chest seemed to stir something inside her.
“Perhaps not. We’re all works in progress, after all. Maybe lives can be cast, like a film, and then we take up our roles and see what we can make of them.” His dark eyes fixed on hers in a penetrating stare. “Do you think so, Lani?”
There was an edge to his voice that tightened the tension snapping through her. “Some would say you were cast in the role of royal son the day you were born.” That answer would be approved by her mother-in-law.
She wanted so badly not to say the wrong thing, to ruin everything for the family and for Rahiri. If it was her fate to marry a strange man who didn’t want her, then so be it. She could put up with almost anything after her years with Vanu. At least AJ seemed warm and kind.
And he was very handsome. Sun shone on the stern planes of his face as he looked down at her, confusion roiling in his narrowed eyes. His hands still held hers, tight, and heat was building between their entwined fingertips.
Lani tried to root herself firmly in the soft sand, to stay grounded no matter what might happen. Would he try to kiss her again? This time she must accept the kiss. That’s what everyone would want. Her lips pulsed in anticipation and heat bloomed deep in her belly.
AJ’s mouth, however, was set in a hard line, his brow furrowed. He dropped her hands and pulled back, then wiped his palms on his khaki pants. Lani’s arms fell to her sides, fingertips prickling at their sudden abandonment.
Relief trickled through her, along with the ever-present guilt and a thickening fear of what the future held for all of them.
“You know what? I think we should pick some flowers for the party,” AJ said gruffly. “At least we can manage not to disappoint my mom on that score.”
“Of course.” She tried to sound crisp and sensible. “I know a grove where we can fill both jugs without damaging the growing plants. Follow me.” She marched past him up the sand, then wondered if it was appropriate to command a royal son—a future king, perhaps—to follow her. Life was so confusing once you became entangled with centuries of tradition and expectation. A foolish girl, she’d had no idea what she was getting into. What she was getting her future children into.
She heard AJ’s steady footfalls behind her. He was too confident, too at home with himself to get upset by following a woman. What a refreshing change from Vanu, who would have spent the whole day needling her with the error of her ways. And AJ’s solid presence behind her was reassuring. Since Vanu disappeared she’d become afraid of being alone out here in the jungle. What if he suddenly reappeared, crueler than ever, to take his revenge on her for being happy that he’d vanished?
What would AJ think about that? That she was happy his brother was dead. Yet another secret she had to carry with her to the grave. The burden made her heavy on her feet.
Her hand had strayed to her belly again and she jerked it away. “Not much farther.” If only she could tell him about the baby. If he knew all the facts, they could really talk, and come to some decisions together. But it was her duty—her royal obligation—to remain silent.
They reached a shady grove where lush white lilies clustered around the trunks of trees. “We can cut these. They only bloom for a few days, and they reproduce like crazy.” She pulled the small shears from her pocket and cut a clump of stems. The full, pale blooms looked suddenly bereft, severed from their roots. She shoved them quickly into AJ’s offered jug.
“Lucky flowers to live such a carefree existence. And now they get to attend one of Mom’s royal balls.” His warm grin evaporated some of the gloom that had settled over her. “At least the party will keep her busy for a few days so she won’t be too sad.”
“She does love organizing things.” Lani smiled. “And she’s never happier than when surrounded by a thousand of her closest friends.”
“And I guess you and I can plaster smiles on our faces for an evening. Though you can imagine what they’ll all be thinking.”
Lani bit her lip. “Yes. I think I can.”
“They’ll be whispering—so, is that film-director son going to marry the widow?” He spoke in a funny, Rahiian busybody voice that made Lani laugh, despite the ball of dread that had settled firmly at the bottom of her stomach.
“They will. Most likely they’ll assume it, since you’re still here.”
“We could walk around scowling at each other, just to make things exciting and keep them guessing.” He shot her a wry smile.
Lani managed to smile back. They had every reason to keep guessing. She certainly was. Would AJ agree to marry her? Would he believe her “premature baby” was really his? Or would he take off back to L.A., leaving her to raise her child by herself?
Or was there another outcome, perhaps harsher than she could even imagine, that had not yet presented itself?
iolin music hummed over the murmur of a thousand conversations as the ballroom filled to capacity with Priia’s invited guests. Sweat prickled inside AJ’s stiff collar. He wore a starched black tunic and matching pants, a funerary version of Rahiian party attire. The sleek getup would look downright hip on the streets of Beverley Hills, but the traditional garb made him itch as if he’d stepped into someone else’s skin.
“Arun!” He startled at the sound of his given name—no one ever used it—and glanced up to see a white-haired man approaching. AJ immediately recognized his father’s oldest friend. Despite his stiffened gait and wrinkled visage, the old man’s eyes twinkled as brightly as ever as he gripped AJ in a fierce embrace. “It’s so good to see you back home again. Your return brings both tears and smiles to all our eyes.”
AJ swallowed. “It’s good to be back.” The lie scorched his tongue and he took a quick swig of punch. “How are you these days, sir?”
“Sir? Sir!” The tanned face creased into a million lines. “What way is that for our new king to address one of his subjects. You should call me Niuu like all these other overdressed fools.”
Our new king.
AJ fought the urge to come right out and say “I’m not staying,” but he didn’t want to ruin his mom’s party. “I’ll try. Old habits are hard to break. I feel a bit like a kid again, surrounded by all my parents’ old friends.”
“You are a kid, my boy, at least compared to me, and that’s what Rahiri needs. Fresh energy to take us into the future. You will keep making films, won’t you? My wife and I do enjoy the
“Films, yes, I imagine so.” It was the ruling Rahiri part he didn’t intend on. “I’m surprised people here watch my films.”
“We’re so proud of you, Arun, making a name for yourself and for our island in Hollywood.”
AJ fought a smile. He certainly didn’t think of himself as representing Rahiri with his work. Maybe that is how people here saw it, though. He’d never given the matter much thought.
The old man grasped his upper arm. “Do keep funding the schools, won’t you? They’re our future. So much young talent on this island. And our healthcare system is second to none. Your father put all that in place, and it will take a strong guiding hand to keep the rudder steady as you lead us into the future.” The gnarled fingers tightened around his biceps. “You’re strong, all right. Built like one of the ancient ones! Quite unlike your brother, Vanu.” The man’s expression grew clouded. “We’re all sorry for his loss, of course, but ready to move into the future under your capable leadership.”
“I appreciate your faith in me.” AJ searched his brain for things to say that didn’t disappoint but didn’t actually commit him to anything. Or make his growing guilt any more agonizing.
“Naturally I have faith in you. You’re your father’s son. He raised you to be a man and take responsibility for those in need.” He clapped his other hand on AJ’s bicep, holding him in a kind of armlock. “We need you, Arun, and we’re proud to have you as our new king.”
AJ opened his mouth but no words came out. He glanced over the old man’s shoulder and caught sight of Lani on the other side of the room. Standing dead still amidst the swirling crowds, she looked pale and lost. “Please excuse me.”
He hurried through the crowd, managing nods and waves to faces he hadn’t seen in years. Lani didn’t even see him approach. Her eyes were fixed high on a carved column, her expression vacant, as if trying to forget where she was.
“Lani, you okay?”
She jumped and blinked. “Of course.” Her wide eyes gave her a startled expression.
“You look like a three-toed sloth who’s accidentally fallen out of her tree onto a multilane highway.”
“Funny, since that exactly how I feel.” A tiny smile tugged at the edges of her lovely mouth—then disappeared.
“Too many people wanting something from you? I know how that is.” What did Lani want? If he asked, he knew she’d give him the party line from his mom rather than a straight answer. She’d say she wanted to marry him, whether she did or not. And why would she? They’d barely met and weren’t at all suited to each other. He was a hard-partying film director and she was a quiet village girl—albeit a royal one. “You don’t look well.”
“I’m fine.” The words flew from her lips and she lifted her shoulders, like she was trying to convince herself as well as him. “Just a little tired. I haven’t been sleeping well lately.”
Probably still grieving for Vanu. Again he felt that unfamiliar prick of jealousy. Which was ridiculous. How could he begrudge his brother anything now that he was dead? This whole crazy situation was messing with his mind.
“Maybe you should go somewhere and sit down.” He offered his arm, bracing himself against the powerful effect she had on him.
She didn’t move. Her dark lashes lowered, then she looked up at him with those haunting golden eyes. “I’m fine, really. I’ll make more of an effort from now on. Your mom needs me to. And we’ll be stuck sitting down for hours once the speeches start.”
“The speeches. That’s one part of Rahiian culture I really haven’t missed. Has anyone broken a new record for longest speech ever?”
“I think it’s still at five hours.” She smiled. “At least it’s very relaxing for the listeners. And you know you’ll have to make a speech.”
He grimaced. He would, too. What on earth would he say? Usually he was good at speaking off the cuff, but the stakes were a little higher here than at an investors’ meeting. “You’re lucky being a girl, so you’re off the hook. If I do become king I’m going to change that right away so all the ladies get to make speeches, too.”
Lani’s eyes widened, but they sparkled with humor. “Your mom would love that. She’d go on all night.”
“Wouldn’t she?” He laughed. They both knew he was joking about becoming king. Wasn’t he?
Lani watched AJ melt back into the well-dressed throng amidst smiles and exclamations. He stood almost a full head above most people in the room, and moved like a king among them with his broad shoulders and easy, confident manner. Everyone in the region was happy to see him back. Pleased that the Rahiian succession would be a smooth and effortless affair following time-honored methods.
People kept a respectful distance from her. As a widow in mourning, she was not expected to eat and dance and chatter along with the guests.
But they all expected her to marry AJ. They just had no idea he didn’t want to.
She wasn’t sure whether to feel relieved or alarmed. He seemed to have every intention of going back to L.A. He’d said nothing to suggest otherwise and he hadn’t asked her opinion, either. If he had, of course she’d have said she wanted to marry him. What else could she say?
Her fingers had stung with anticipation just now when he reached out to give her his arm. All the tiny hairs on her arm had stood on end, craving his touch. Now she wondered if she’d done the wrong thing in refusing.
The whole situation was so confusing and disturbing. She was expected to entice him to marry her—immediately—but she didn’t want to trap him into a lifetime deception she’d be forced to maintain.
And she didn’t want to be married to a man—another man—who didn’t love her.
“Sweetheart, come sit down next to me. They’re starting the speeches.” Priia glowed with good cheer, as she always did at her festive gatherings. She bloomed and shone with the energy of other people. Naturally gregarious and effortlessly charming, she was born to be a queen. Lani envied her tireless energy and outgoing personality.
She led Lani to a cushioned chair at the high table. “Sit down.” She patted the cushions. “And have some coconut stars. You need to keep your strength up.”
“Thanks, you’re too good to me.” Lani took one of the coconut treats, then wondered what to do with it. Her stomach, hidden beneath the thick sash of her gold-embroidered dress, certainly wasn’t in any condition to handle food.
“Nonsense, dear. You’re the light of my old age.” She leaned in, conspiratorial, eyes shining. “And soon you’ll bring a new bright light to life among us.”
Lani blanched and tried not to glance around. What if someone overheard and guessed what she meant?
A dignified-looking elderly man wrapped in the distinctive clothing of a nearby island walked out into the center of the floor, where the speeches took place. At first Lani sat stiffly in her seat, wondering if her fate would be pronounced or speculated upon. Instead he launched into a semi-poetic history of the region, laden with myth and superstition, and she soon let her mind drift.
Another speaker followed, then another, chanting as much as speaking, celebrating the community of the islands and the long-held peace that united them in this beautiful place. Lulled by the warm atmosphere, Lani relaxed into her cushions and even managed to nibble on her coconut star.
She sat up abruptly when the master of ceremonies called AJ—or rather Arun Jahir—to the floor. She glanced over at him, and watched him rise, face expressionless, and walk out into the center of the room. His crisp black garb emphasized the strength and dignity of his movements. Head held high and back straight, he moved like a monarch, even if he didn’t want to be one.
A little flash of pride surprised Lani. She liked AJ and sympathized with the awkward situation he was in. She still didn’t really understand why he’d kissed her—twice—but under the circumstances it was excusable, even if her initial response wasn’t. He obviously wanted to do the right thing, but like her, he wasn’t sure what that was, and he wisely knew that the wrong choice would have lasting, painful consequences.
Lani shifted in her chair, remembering the tiny consequence she carried inside her. Her fear and anxiety about the situation she found herself in now warred with stray sparks of excitement and eager anticipation of her baby’s arrival. How could she not look forward to holding that tiny, warm body and feeling the grip of a plump hand on her finger?
AJ studied the crowd in silence for a few moments. When he began to speak, his voice was deeper than she remembered. Like the others, he spoke of the long history of the royal line, the legend of how their people had first arrived on long boats from a far-off land, how they’d fought and made peace.
Lani watched, heart pounding. How did AJ manage to sound so perfectly like one of the wise men of the region? You’d never guess he’d been gone for more than a decade. He seemed to carry the cadence and rhythm of the ancient stories in his blood—his royal blood—and why wouldn’t he, descended as he was from a long line of kings?
The fierce nut of pride inside her grew and she found herself pressing hot palms together in her lap. Any woman should be proud to have a man like AJ as her husband, even if he wasn’t royal. She could feel a hum of excitement, almost like a wave of heat, rising in the room. Everyone could feel it. She glanced around and saw eyes glowing, cheeks brightening, as AJ carried them all on a tide of emotion. His words echoed like drumbeats around the room, their meaning less important than the man who spoke them and the spell he wove with his powerful voice.
He paused, looked up at the high-beamed ceiling, then started to walk. At first Lani thought he was simply returning to his seat. Disappointment that his performance was over warred with relief that no permanent commitments had been made or broken.
But then he stopped. He turned to his mother—seated only about two feet from Lani—and bowed deeply. Feeling something about to happen, Lani stiffened.
“I am proud—” AJ’s voice boomed through the packed ballroom “—to take up the staff of tradition, and assume the role of king as my father and brother have done before me.”
Lani gasped. Everything dimmed a bit and she grasped the arm of her chair to keep a grip on reality.
“And I am pleased to take Lani Rahia as my wife, according to royal custom.” His eyes fixed on hers as the last breath fled her lungs. Unable to govern her features into anything but terror-stricken panic, she sat frozen as every eye in the room turned to her.
The faces blurred and she found herself gasping for breath. She felt Priia’s soft hand on her arm. “I’m so happy, my daughter.” Priia’s tear-filled voice penetrated her foggy consciousness. “What a great day this is for Rahiri and for all of us.”
Lani tried to say something, but her mouth wouldn’t move. How could AJ do this without even consulting her?
Because he was the king, and she was no one. A royal widow, rather like a recently vacated crown, free for the taking and passing on.
Anger prickled through her, battling with the fear. The New Jersey upbringing and the freedoms she’d learned to take for granted challenged the quiet acceptance she’d tried so hard to school in herself.
And AJ had no idea she was pregnant. She felt angry that he hadn’t even asked her opinion about the marriage. How would he feel if he knew she carried his brother’s child?
If she went along with Priia’s plan, he’d never find out. He might suspect something, might wonder at the “premature” baby in such perfect health. He might notice features or traits that fitted his brother better than himself—but he’d never know for sure.
This was one small but deadly advantage women had always had over men. They didn’t really know if they were the father of a child. Only the woman held that secret.
“Lani, are you okay?” Priia’s voice penetrated the thick fog of her thoughts. “Have some water.” She felt a glass pressed to her lips, and she struggled to swallow the cool fluid.
“I…I think so” was all she could manage. She brushed a droplet from her lips, glad that at least she’d managed not to cry. Alarm snapped through her as she saw AJ, climbing the stairs on the dais, moving toward her.
“Stand up, dear,” whispered her mother-in-law. She rose shakily to her feet, patting her dress and hoping its creases didn’t show any hint of a belly. Every eye in the room felt like a laser searchlight ready to reveal all her fears and misgivings—or were they hopes and dreams?
Majestic in his carriage and bearing, AJ stood in front of her and took her hand. Her fingers trembled in his and heat flushed over her. “Will you take me as your husband?”