Authors: Jennifer Lewis
Their eyes met—locked onto each other—as he asked the question. It wasn’t traditional to ask. He’d done that out of consideration for her.
Or had he? Since she could hardly say no, here amidst the gathered throng of royal admirers.
“I will.” Her voice sounded so quiet, so meek, even in the deadly hush of the ballroom. She wondered if AJ would smile, but he didn’t. His face, like hers, seemed frozen into a kind of noble mask. Two people acting out roles history had determined for them, and in which emotion and personal opinion played no role.
A cheer rose from the crowd, echoing off the high ceiling and bouncing around the room. Glasses lifted and people began to stamp their feet on the floor, a customary display of enthusiasm.
“Both of you, walk around the room.” Priia’s urgent whisper penetrated her consciousness.
AJ’s arm slipped inside Lani’s and drew her down the three stairs to the ballroom floor. The skin of her arm felt hot and feverish against the dark fabric of his jacket. She tried to keep her steps steady, and school her face into an expression of quiet happiness.
AJ’s arm felt rigid, tense. He marched with slow dignity, not his usual relaxed gait. No doubt becoming king would turn him into a different person—it already was. Would he become a hard, cold man like Vanu once the wedding vows were sealed?
Cold terror crept through her, tightening her muscles. The stamping feet and calling voices created a blanket of sound that seemed to suck the air from the room and leave her gasping. So much expectation, so many hopes and dreams, and the nation’s future hidden in the darkness of her own belly. The pressure weighed on her like a thundercloud and she felt her head becoming light. “I think I’m going to faint,” she managed, head tilted toward AJ’s powerful jaw.
Her rasped whisper was lost in the roar of the crowd. AJ marched on, oblivious, his face set in a grim smile. Perhaps he’d forgotten she was even there?
The faces started to swirl together, a hot mix of colors with flashes of blackness. Her ankles wobbled and the floor seemed to tilt. She dug her nails into his arm, looking for purchase, and he glanced down.
“I—I don’t feel well,” she stammered, blinking.
Alarm filled his eyes. “We’ll go outside for some air. There’s a door over here.” He led her past some tables of excited guests, to a side door. Before he left, he turned and bowed. “Please stay and enjoy yourselves.”
Seeing that he and Lani were about to leave the room together, the crowd went wild. Perhaps they assumed some kind of romantic action was about to take place. A wave of nausea rose in Lani’s throat at the thought that she’d soon be all alone with AJ.
Her future husband.
Outside the door, the cool night air hit her face like a welcome slap. She sucked in a breath and pulled her arm from AJ’s, then wondered if she was even allowed to do that.
The lamplight cast AJ’s face into shadow, and for a second he looked menacing, unreadable. She didn’t know this man but was expected to spend her life with him and sleep in his bed, whether she wanted to or not.
Panic flashed through her and spurred her feet into action. The corridor blurred as she found herself running headlong toward the garden. She didn’t know why she was running, only that she had to move—to act on the fierce instinct to flee that reverberated through her whole body.
“Lani, where are you going?” AJ’s voice rang after her, and sped her steps. She heard his heels on the stone, marching at first, then jogging along behind her.
Where am I going?
The question echoed around her mind as she ran, sandals slapping on the smooth tiles.
There’s nowhere to go.
The corridor led down to the manicured part of the garden, with a fishpond and perches for the wild birds that ornamented the trees. But its fringes descended into the thick, dense jungle that cloaked the island in its tight embrace. There was no escape.
The stone tiles gave way to grass, cool and damp in the evening dew. She ran a few steps, then felt a strong arm catch her around the waist, almost knocking the breath from her lungs. The baby! If he knew about it he’d never have grabbed her there. But he couldn’t know.
She wriggled, instinctively trying to free herself, but his grip was too strong. He wrapped his other arm around her, holding her from behind. “Lani, stop running. We need to talk.” Her nerve endings snapped with the desire to run on, but she knew it was hopeless. “I know you’re scared but we’re in this together.”
His deep voice reverberated in her ear, oddly soothing. But she didn’t want to say anything. What else could she say but
Yet she’d sworn to keep the baby a secret.
“I didn’t intend to spring the whole thing on you. It took me by surprise as well.” He turned her in his arms until she stood facing him, no longer pressed against him, but with a couple of inches of warm air between them.
She tried to ignore the strange sensations in her breasts and belly, the odd pulses of desire that only worsened the strange situation. “I thought you were going back to L.A.”
That’s what she’d hoped for, though she hadn’t dared admit it to herself until just now—when the possibility was gone.
He frowned, features angular in the cool moonlight. “I did, too.” He drew in a long breath. “But tonight, surrounded by all those people, the air thick with our island’s past and heavy with its future, I knew my place is here. I couldn’t shirk my responsibility and still live with myself.”
Lani nodded. Again that little kernel of pride throbbed inside her. AJ truly was a man of honor. “Rahiri is lucky to have you,” she managed. The words sounded hollow, empty. Shame he wasn’t so lucky to have her, a woman who intended to keep a huge thing secret from him for the rest of her life. If she told him, though, he wouldn’t be king. She’d break Priia’s already suffering heart and put the entire burden of the monarchy’s future on herself and her unborn baby. And she’d still be expected to marry again.
AJ’s frown deepened. “I’ll do my best to be a good husband to you.”
He softened his grasp on her arms. He’d been literally holding her in place—preventing her from running off again—and perhaps he realized the grip was at odds with his soothing words.
Lani wobbled slightly on her feet. “I’ll do my best to be a good wife.” Her words hung in the still night air, the lie echoing off tree trunks and winding itself around them like a vine.
How could she be a good wife if she deceived him about the paternity of the child he’d raise?
Lani’s golden eyes shone with anxiety—and why wouldn’t they? AJ’s chest tightened. This poor girl had no say in her own fate. Of course she could refuse him, but she was far too polite and kind for that. He could have offered to take the crown but refused to marry Lani, but for some reason he knew marrying her was the right thing to do.
Maybe it was that first kiss?
In the kiss all pretense had fallen away. All the tension had evaporated and there was nothing left but…passion. Could that happen again now that they were pledged to each other for life?
Lani’s chin tilted high as she met his gaze. She looked so earnest, determined to meet her fate bravely. Everything seemed so awkward.
His synapses tingled as he contemplated kissing her. Perhaps that would cut through all the layers of ceremony and nerves and anticipation and jump-start the connection he’d felt between them that first night. “I have an idea.”
Dark lashes lowered, she looked coyly away, like a young girl who’d never been kissed. But he knew better. Somewhere beneath that demure surface lurked a smoldering cauldron of passion that he ached to taste again.
“What?” she murmured, daring to glance up.
He replied by lowering his face to hers. He did it slowly, to give her a chance to react and respond in her own time. At first she flinched slightly, as if to dodge him, then she seemed to steel herself and tilted her lips to his.
Their lips met like opposing magnets coming together, pulled by an unseen force. A shock wave of desire crashed through AJ as Lani’s mouth opened to greet his. Her body softened and he wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close. Heat gathered between them and his skin hummed with awareness of her body. His fingers itched to tug at the embroidered fabric of her dress and pull it away to reveal smooth, golden skin.
Her mouth tasted like warm honey, delicious and inviting. He deepened the kiss, trailing his fingers down her spine. Lani kissed him back, tongue reaching for his, her arms wrapped around his waist and her slim body straining against him.
But something was different.
Her actions lacked the sense of raw abandon he remembered from their first kiss. No breathless moans pierced the night air. Her fingertips pressed into the muscles of his back, but with a forced quality, not the fevered intensity he remembered.
He pulled away slowly. Lani’s eyes opened, and he noted their look of curious alarm. Did she wonder if she’d put on a good enough show of passion?
AJ fought the urge to frown. It didn’t help that they were out here in the dark garden, while all the guests still drank and talked inside. “Let’s go somewhere more comfortable.” Then they could talk in private and get more used to their new situation.
“Okay.” She blinked. Quiet and accommodating as usual. Would he ever know what went on in her mind, behind that polite smile?
He took her arm and they walked down the corridor. “We won’t be missed at the party. They’ll have more fun talking about us if we’re not there.” He shot her a smile.
“Yes.” Her arm felt rigid in his.
AJ led her through the lamplit passages of the private quarters of the palace and into his private sitting room. It adjoined the bedroom; no one would come to disturb them here. The guests would stay until dawn, then stumble drunkenly to their chauffeured cars.
Priia had redecorated the room in his absence, in a simple, masculine style that he rather liked. No doubt now he’d be expected to move into the royal bedchamber, but there was no way he’d spend the night in a room where Lani had once slept with Vanu.
He gestured to a low chaise covered in soft leather. Lani perched stiffly on the edge of it.
“Would you like some wine?” He gestured to the stocked bar in one corner.
“No, thanks. I’m fine.” Her rushed response surprised him. He moved to the cabinet and poured a glass for himself. He sat next to Lani on the sofa, each of them upright, formal, painfully separate. Even his favorite vintage tasted slightly bitter on his tongue.
What had he got himself into?
He set his glass down. “You don’t have to marry me, you know.”
Lani’s gaze snapped to meet his. “But of course I want to.” The gleam of panic in her eyes warred with her reassuring words.
“I know my mom has probably put a lot of pressure on you, and now I’ve piled on some more by publicly declaring I’d marry you, but I don’t intend to force you into anything. If you want to call it off, just say the word.”
He braced himself for her response. Her rejection.
The events of tonight had lit a fire inside him—a fire of warm ancient traditions and comforting rituals, and he’d committed to keeping that fire alive. The prospect of spending his life with the beautiful Lani had suddenly seemed to be one of the sweeter benefits of taking up the role his country expected of him.
Even now, her golden gaze sent a charge of electricity snaking through him, and his fingertips ached to roam over her soft skin.
But not if she didn’t want him. He had more than enough women after him back in L.A. There was no reason on earth good enough to force a woman into bed with him if she didn’t want to be there.
“I don’t want to call it off.” Lani’s words came out in a staccato rhythm. “I want to get married as soon as possible.” She wiped her palms on the shimmering fabric of her evening dress.
AJ cocked his head. “Then why do you look so damned unhappy about it?”
“I am happy, really.” She reached out to him and wrapped her arms stiffly around him. The goose bumps on her arms rasped his skin.
“You have a funny way of showing it.” Still, the hopeful gesture warmed his heart. He turned and put his arm around her. Only to find that she was shivering, her whole body tense and rigid.
He raised a thumb to her cheek and stroked it. “You need to relax.”
“I know. I’m just…excited.”
Panicked, more like. Maybe she was afraid he’d want to make love to her tonight? “We don’t have to rush into anything.”
“Oh, but we should. Everyone is expecting it.” Something flashed in her eyes, panic, or calculation, he couldn’t tell which. Curiosity unfurled in him like a flame.
He tilted his head and held her gaze. “You think they expect us to sleep together?”
“Probably, yes.” She nodded.
He lifted a brow. Heat flared in his groin. “Do you think we should?”
Her cheek heated under his thumb. “Yes, I do.” Her voice was low, breathy.
AJ blinked. He’d not expected that answer. In fact he’d had no intention of doing more than kiss her for now. But maybe she wanted to get such a big milestone out of the way? Or to make sure he was a considerate lover before she committed the rest of her life to him? There were many possible explanations, under the bizarre circumstances.
And since he was a healthy male, any one of them would do. He rose from the sofa, and took her hand. “Then I guess we’d better go into the bedroom.”
ani followed AJ, her hand in his. She could do this. It was best for Rahiri, and for the family. AJ would be king, his mom would be happy, and her child would be free to grow to adulthood before taking on the responsibilities and pressures of the monarchy.
AJ turned to her on the threshold and took both her hands in his. “Are you sure?”
She hesitated. He was truly a thoughtful man, one who deserved a better woman than she. But if Priia’s plan was to succeed she must…do the deed with him at the earliest opportunity.
Do the deed.
Even the phrase suggested a crime, but she couldn’t really call it “making love” under circumstances like this.
Making love. She’d never done that with Vanu, either. No love had existed between them, though she’d certainly tried hard to find some in the first few months—before she’d realized Vanu had no love lurking anywhere inside him.
AJ stroked her cheek again, which made her shiver slightly. A warm shiver of pleasure. His touch was gentle, encouraging, his big hands sensitive. Lani lifted her own fingers and gingerly caressed his shirtfront. Thick muscle rose to greet her fingertips through the crisp, black surface.
He had a sensational body. She’d seen him swimming in the lagoon one morning while she was on her way to breakfast. Her heart had almost stopped beating at the sight of his broad shoulders gleaming in the morning sun while water licked over his sturdy, bronzed physique.
Desire rose inside her, trickling up from her core. She could do this. And enjoy it.
AJ’s hands reached for the sash at her waist and pulled carefully at the elaborate knot. She helped him get it undone and the thick strip of silk fell to the floor at her feet. He stroked her back, then put his hands on either side of her waist, caressing her through her dress.
Her breath caught. What if he felt her belly and noticed it was no longer flat? It wasn’t very round, but in the last couple of days there was a noticeable bump.
Guilt forked through her and she plucked at the buttons of his shirt. Better to get on with things and get him so wrapped up in the act that he didn’t notice anything strange about her body.
And he thought she was so
Her heart hammered wildly as she pulled his black tunic away from his skin, revealing his smooth, strong chest. Her nipples tightened, straining against her bra, and her insides seemed to twist into a knot. Was this excitement okay for the baby? She knew sex was supposed to be fine during pregnancy, but somehow it seemed wrong to feel pleasure under the circumstances.
AJ’s dark eyes met hers as she glanced up at his face. He smiled. “I think I might be the luckiest man alive.”
Lani swallowed. No, the luckiest man alive would have a wife who was honest and open, not one who needed to have sex with him as soon as possible so it would look like her child was his.
She dropped her gaze to the button on his pants, and worked at it. Her fingers sprang away as if stung when she noticed the thick, hard arousal hiding beneath the zipper.
AJ laughed. “As you can see, I’m quite attracted to you.”
She managed to smile. “And I to you.” An understatement. Her insides pulsed with arousal and somewhere deep inside her ached in a way she’d never felt before.
AJ unfastened her dress—a single hook held the whole thing together—and pulled it carefully away from her skin.
The warm night air caressed her, but as she stood there, naked before him, an ache of longing opened inside her. A deep, cold loneliness that craved something—sex, love, companionship—all the things that had never come together in her life before.
Now this kind and handsome man offered her all those things and more.
Tears sprang to her eyes and a sob tore from her throat.
“What’s the matter?” AJ moved his hands from her waist to her shoulders, where he held her steady. He frowned, no doubt getting irritated by her hot-and-cold behavior. “Is being my wife such an awful fate?”
Another sob shook her from head to toe. “I can’t do this.” Tears fell from her cheeks and dripped onto her bare breasts.
“Then you won’t. We’ll get dressed. I’m not going to push you into anything.”
Lani froze. “But we have to.” The shrill sound of her own voice startled her.
AJ frowned and shoved a hand through his hair. “Why?”
“Because I’m already pregnant.”
Her words rang in the air like the clash of a ceremonial gong. AJ frowned, trying to process the information. “You’re carrying Vanu’s baby.” His gaze dropped to her stomach, then her hands flew to cover it.
She nodded, eyes filled with tears.
A horrible, cold sensation settled over AJ. Just when he’d finally committed himself to this new life, when he’d chosen to marry Lani, and was looking forward to sharing his life with her…his brother’s long, strong and deadly arm reached out to him from beyond the grave.
“Why didn’t you say anything before?”
Lani shuddered. “I didn’t know until a few days ago. Then I took a test, and…” She looked down, apparently unable to meet his gaze.
AJ stared at her. He couldn’t understand the secrecy. His mom was so anxious for them to marry, to keep the family together in the traditional way. Maybe they’d decided he’d be less likely to marry her if he knew she was carrying Vanu’s baby.
“So you thought you’d marry me and pretend the child is mine?”
“I didn’t want to…” She swallowed. Lani looked like she wanted to say more, but couldn’t.
“But my mom put you up to it.”
She nodded. “She said it would be better because then you would be the next in line to the throne, and not the baby.”
AJ spun away and blew out a curse. “I can’t believe you women cooked this up. I’ve never been hungry for the throne. I’d have been quite happy to leave and let your child rule Rahiri.”
“I think that’s what your mom was afraid of. She wants you here.”
He knew. Her obvious happiness at having him back home had been a source of guilt and torment to him—until he’d decided to stay.
“What about you?” He peered at her through narrowed eyes. “You don’t need to marry me. Either way your child will inherit the throne.”
“My child's not even born yet.”
“Your child's not even showing yet.” AJ’s eyes raked over her belly. “And at this point I’m not even sure whether to believe you now. Get dressed.”
The command startled her into action and she picked her dress up off the floor and pulled it back on. AJ buttoned his pants and turned away. If she really was pregnant and wanted to pretend it was his, no wonder she’d been so anxious to have sex right away. Desire had nothing to do with it.
Revulsion and anger flashed through him. She’d seemed so sweet and innocent—now he knew she was anything but. Lovely Lani had schemed to lure him into a lifetime of deception.
He’d never wanted to come back here. His gut instincts had told him to leave as soon as possible. If anything the instinct had become even stronger after his explosive kiss with Lani. He should have known her pretty facade hid a dangerous and deceptive core. What kind of woman would kiss another man when her husband was barely gone?
He peered at her, hating her beauty and the mix of fear and alarm in her wide, golden eyes.
He turned from her and strode across the room. He should never have promised to stay. It went against everything he wanted from his own life. He loved his film career and his group of friends in L.A. He had no interest in getting married and settling down into some routine existence.
But the ancient ceremonial drumbeats had stirred something lying dormant in his blood. They’d kicked his heart into a primal rhythm and drawn him back into the mysterious and powerful pull these islands exerted over anyone who’d lived here. The magic of the lush jungle and the bright, clear ocean formed a paradise of beauty that could entice any man, much like a stunning woman.
Seductive—and dangerous, in that you never knew what hit you until it was too late. Until you were trapped, bound by tradition and the expectations of people you didn’t even know.
Well, no more. He’d weakened for a moment and taken up the mantle they all wanted to thrust on him, but he could throw it off just as easily.
He turned to Lani, who stood just to the side of the wide bed, already rumpled by their almost-lovemaking. She’d said she was so happy, that she wanted to climb in that bed with him. All lies.
“You disgust me.”
She flinched slightly, as if his words stung her. “I’m sorry.”
“More lies. You’re not sorry, or you wouldn’t have done it.”
“I did tell you the truth.”
“I’m sure you have your own motives for that choice, too.” Perhaps the prospect of bedding a man she didn’t love—or even like—had proved too much for even her hardened sensibilities? “No doubt you’ve decided that marriage to your husband’s brother is too much to stomach—tradition be damned.”
She blinked. “I’m willing to marry you.”
AJ let out a growl. “Willing? How kind of you to be so generous with your life. With your body. Allow me to throw your sacrifice back at you. Please leave.” He gestured to the door, hand shaking with fury. Her wide-eyed desire of only a few minutes ago was so obviously fake, and it disgusted him that she’d tried to trap him into sex with her when she viewed the entire arrangement as a chore.
But she didn’t move.
“Leave.” His command echoed off the walls, and no doubt out into the night since the windows were open.
Lani seemed to shrink a little. She gathered her dress about her. “The guests are probably still here.”
“Then what are you worried about? That they’ll see you in a state of undress and assume you’ve been in my bed? I thought that was what you wanted.” He narrowed his eyes. “Or was that only when you intended to trick them into thinking your baby was mine. It doesn’t look so good if you sleep with me when you’re pregnant with my brother’s baby, does it?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t want any of this.” Tears welled in her eyes.
“Me, either, but you at least chose your role by marrying my brother. I got shoved into this dog-and-pony show from the moment I was born. It took me years to work my way out of it and I almost made the biggest mistake of my life letting you and my mom suck me back into it with trickery and deception. With a face like that I’d imagine you’re used to getting your own way.”
Her tear-filled gaze only fueled the indignation pricking his muscles. “I told you to go.”
If she didn’t get out of here, he might get suckered in by some sob story she’d cook up. She still clutched her dress awkwardly about her. He grabbed her sash off the floor and thrust it at her, his fingers instinctively flinching back from hers as she took it. Her touch was deadly and her wanted her out of sight and mind before anything else could happen.
Less than an hour ago he’d promised to stay and take his place as king here. Filled with ancestral pride and hope for the future, he’d enjoyed the sense of comradeship and even destiny as people welcomed him home.
Under false pretenses. There was already a new king or queen waiting to take the throne, hidden beneath the rumpled folds of Lani’s dress.
She struggled with the sash, wrapping its length about her still-slim waist. He wondered if there really was a baby. Perhaps this was her last-ditch effort to send him running? He didn’t know what to believe anymore. Confusion and anger warred inside him. He was used to being the director, setting up the action, telling people what to do. If something didn’t work out he could fix it in post-production—ruthlessly cutting and even reshooting if needed.
There were no retakes in real life.
Her sash now retied, Lani slipped on her sandals. Her fingers shook—and that stirred a trace of pity in his heart.
He crushed it quickly and moved to open the door. From down the corridor he could hear voices, the sound of feet on the stone. Revelers leaving the party. What kind of scandal would it cause for Lani to run past them, eyes filled with tears?
Surely they’d expect no less from a grieving widow forced into marriage with a man she barely knew. Nothing about this situation was pretty.
Lani hesitated in the doorway, plucking nervously at her silk dress.
“Can’t face them?” His voice was cold. “Maybe you could just tell them the truth, like you did with me.”
She hadn’t said a word for some time and her silence was starting to rub him raw. Who was she to stand there looking so innocent and hard-done-by? Suddenly he was the bad guy, the one who threatened to ruin everyone’s careful plans.
Lani’s lips quivered before she finally spoke. “Your mom wants to keep it a secret.”
“Do you do everything she tells you?”
Her silence answered his question.
Irritation flashed over him. “She needs to learn that you can’t manipulate people like puppets.” Maybe that’s where Vanu got it from. He’d certainly pulled the strings in their world from behind the scenes. It was time for someone to snap the strings right off. He grabbed her arm, hating the way his skin heated when he touched her. “Come on, let’s get this charade over with.”
Lani pulled her arm back. Not wanting to get into a wrestling match, he let it go. “It was such a happy evening for your mother.”
AJ frowned. He could still hear the hypnotic drumbeats somewhere in the distance. People were dancing and laughing and enjoying the vision of the future they’d all conjured together such a short time earlier.
“Your mom’s been so sad lately. Can’t we let her enjoy her party?” She didn’t meet his gaze.
“Let the happy charade continue and ignore reality for another day?” His muscles tightened. “Why not? But I don’t think that should extend to keeping you in my room all night.” He shot her a harsh look. “It’s a little too crowded in here with you and your baby.”
Not to mention your dead husband.
He didn’t say that, though. He wasn’t totally insensitive.
“Would you mind escorting me along the corridor?” She said it softly, still not lifting her eyes to his. Very Rahiian and traditional. “Everyone will know something’s wrong if they see me by myself.”