Authors: Jennifer Lewis
He was tempted to say no. Everything was wrong; it was better people should find out. This whole pretense sickened him. And he hated the way Lani’s soft voice tugged at his sympathies and made him want to save her from humiliation.
How could she be so infuriating and still so beautiful at the same time? Her skin glowed in the soft light from the wall sconces, and her hair shimmered like gold thread. “Sure,” he growled.
He did not touch her this time. No need to feel heat flash over his skin where there should be revulsion. He marched down the corridor with Lani hurrying along beside him in her long dress. Lani’s room was on the other side of the palace, past the area where the party was still taking place. Laughter and music spilled into the hallway as they marched on. Groups stood chatting in the hallway outside the ballroom, smiling as they approached.
AJ’s insides contracted. All these people now saw them as the happy couple with a bright future ahead of them.
If they only knew.
“So serious, Arun.” An older man he recognized as one of his father’s ministers smiled at him. “Already the weight of responsibility is carving lines into your face.”
He attempted to soften what must be quite a scowl. “I’m just escorting Lani back to her room. She’s tired.” He didn’t have to make up stories.
“I’m sure she is.” He didn’t wiggle his eyebrows but the implication was there. AJ saw a slight flush rise to Lani’s cheeks.
She should be embarrassed. That’s exactly what she’d wanted. Now everyone thought they’d sealed their pact with wild lovemaking. He cursed the desire that still coursed through his body at the sight of her. All his instincts had told him to stay far, far away from Lani and everything she represented.
They’d been right.
“Your mother is so happy, Arun. What joy you’re bringing to all our people.” The former minister’s wife patted his forearm. “And I’ve never seen a lovelier couple.”
The last remark was addressed to Lani, who replied, “You’re sweet, but I really must get some rest.”
Her smile made her look so innocent and adorable. They had no idea why she needed rest.
AJ’s tension eased slightly as they moved away from the excited guests and down the dimly lit corridor away from the ballroom. He had no intention of returning this way and facing innuendo about exactly what he and Lani had been up to. He’d rather traverse the pitch-dark garden.
Lani now walked ahead of him, shoulders tight under the fall of hair cascading to her waist.
Just a half hour ago he’d run his fingers though that silken mass and imagined them as partners—husband and wife. That idea had evaporated like the dawn mist, and now she again seemed like a semi-hostile stranger.
When she reached her room, Lani turned and fixed wide, worried eyes on him. “Thank you for helping me run the gauntlet.”
“I don’t know why I did.” He cocked his head. “Obviously I’m a soft touch.”
“You’re not. You’re a man of honor and that’s evident in everything you’ve said and done so far.” Her voice was steady and she leveled a clear gaze at him. “You should be king and it’s a terrible shame if I’ve somehow ruined that.”
Her words stopped his negative thoughts in their tracks. No one cared what Lani really wanted. She was expected to do whatever it took to ease the succession and make life easy for other people. None of this was her idea. What did she have to gain from sleeping with him, let alone marrying him? She’d probably rather be curled up with a good book and some saltines.
“Why did you agree to go along with my mom’s plot to trick me into marrying you even though you’re already pregnant with the heir?”
“She didn’t know I was pregnant when you first came. I didn’t, either. I found out that first night, when I was ill and left dinner early.”
Things started to fall into place.
He frowned when he realized that first passionate kiss had come before she knew about the baby. “So the wheels driving us into marriage were already rolling and you figured it was too late to stop them?”
“Your mom was so excited about you staying. And I liked the idea of my child being able to enjoy being a kid, without the pressure of already being a monarch. On some level the idea made sense, until…”
“Until you tried to get naked with me. Then there was nothing to hide behind.”
“I’m not cut out for deception.” She met his gaze with a hard stare of her own. Then it softened. “And you don’t deserve that. You’re a good man.”
Her ridiculously long hair fell about her shoulders. Her oddly shaped traditional dress didn’t hold together well without the sash. Those big eyes still brimmed with tears that glittered in her thick lashes. He fought a powerful urge to take her in his arms and comfort her.
Was he angry with her or at the unfortunate effect she had on him? She was just trying to do what everyone wanted of her. Tradition had shoved her between a rock and a hard place and he couldn’t help wondering which one he was. “I am glad you told me.”
“I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t.” She held her neat chin high.
“Why would you put up with marrying a stranger in the first place?”
She looked away for a moment. “For Rahiri.” She looked back at him, expression serious. “And for your mom. You can see how happy everyone is to have you back.”
He shoved a hand through his hair and let out a bitter laugh. “So you have every reason to marry me except…me.”
Her cheeks darkened. “I’d have been proud to have you as my husband.”
AJ shook his head. “Proud. I’m not sure that’s entirely the sentiment I’d hope for in my wife, but it’s an interesting one.”
Lani swallowed, obviously embarrassed by her unsatisfactory response. “I am attracted to you.” Her shy whisper made a chuckle rise in his throat, and sent a jolt of lust to his groin.
“I’m grateful for that, at least.” He cocked his head. “I wouldn’t want to marry a woman who finds me repugnant.” He crossed his arms, trying to not be seduced by the rather dazed expression on her too-beautiful face. “So you were prepared to put up with me for the sake of Rahiri.”
She shrugged, and for the first time a sparkle of humor lit her eyes. “I figured I could handle it.”
“Your willingness to do your patriotic duty is impressive.” He couldn’t stop a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth. Then he remembered she’d intended to pretend her child was his. Her traditional dress concealed her shape. “How far along are you?”
Her face tightened. “Almost two months.”
“You conceived right before Vanu disappeared?”
She nodded. “That’s why I didn’t know I was pregnant. When I felt ill, or tired, I just thought it was stress.”
“Vanu never knew about the baby.”
“No.” She held his gaze a little too boldly, as if she expected him to read something into that.
He wasn’t sure what to think. They’d been married for nearly five years, so why did she only become pregnant now? It was odd, unsettling. Too…convenient, somehow. “No one would have ever known it wasn’t my baby if you hadn’t told me.”
“I would have known.” Something glittered in her eyes. Determination, perhaps, or some of that steely strength hidden under her pretty exterior. Desire rose again inside him, a simmering flash of heat that warred with his anger at the deception.
“I appreciate your honesty.” He hesitated, thoughts weaving themselves in his brain even as warmth rose through his body. When he’d stated his intent to become king, he’d meant it. Tradition and honor now pumped through his heart along with his red blood cells. Suddenly it had seemed as if his whole life had led up to this night, when he assumed the responsibilities of leadership. He’d marshaled casts of hundreds, managed budgets and planned for contingencies. He knew how to deal with crises and manage difficult people and situations. The result, so far, had been about ninety minutes of entertainment for anyone who cared to watch, but as king of Rahiri he’d have the power to shape lives through investment in education and infrastructure.
Lani wasn’t the only reason he’d decided to stay. And now she wouldn’t be the reason he’d leave. “Maybe your little revelation doesn’t have to ruin everything.”
She blinked. “No?”
“Don’t play the innocent, now.” He laughed. “You know what I mean. We could still get married.”
Her cheeks reddened. “Even now that you know?”
“It’s a baby.” He shrugged. He could raise a child. What did it matter if it was his biological child or not? He’d never given much thought to family life, but the prospect held some appeal.
And he couldn’t deny that Lani held considerable appeal, too. Brave as well as beautiful, she’d risked everything to tell him the truth. Surely he could take a risk on a woman like that if it meant fulfilling the role everyone seemed so desperate for him to take on.
“I’m excited about having a baby.” Her face brightened. “I’ve been longing for one for years. It’s like a dream come true…” Her lips faltered. “Just at the wrong time.”
He wanted to ask why it had taken so long to conceive, but he held his tongue. Instead he said, “I’m not afraid of raising my brother’s baby.”
A dark shard of worry sliced into his mind. What if Vanu’s baby was like Vanu? He fought off the nasty thought.
AJ flexed the muscles in his back. They suddenly felt tight, maybe under the weight of so many expectations. “So the child would never know?”
“Things could get complicated because of royal succession.”
“I suppose we could tell him when he came of age, but I can see how it makes more sense to keep it quiet. When we decide it’s time for him to become king, I can quietly step aside.”
“Yes, then there’s no real need for him or anyone else to know.”
“And he won’t be traumatized by finding out as an adult. It does make more sense.” AJ rubbed his temples, which throbbed slightly. In one evening he’d decided to change his whole life and embrace a new one—now suddenly he’d taken on fatherhood, too. A curse fell from his lips.
“What?” Lani looked alarmed.
“I’m suddenly on the brink of being a father, and I never even got to enjoy your naked body. That seems a real shame.”
Lani blushed. “Sorry I ruined everything.”
“You did the right thing. There’ll be plenty of time to catch up later—with no tears, I hope.” He paused and studied her face. “If we do get married, that is.”
Doubt still swirled in his mind and heart. Everything had happened so quickly, and with such deadly finality. Each decision he made seemed a matter of life and death.
“I’m not going to pressure you into anything.” Lani spoke softly, gazing off to one side. “I never wanted to. It’s your decision, and now you have all the facts.”
AJ took in a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “I committed myself to Rahiri tonight, and to you, and I stand by my decision.” Conviction filled his heart. “Your courage in choosing to tell the truth gives me every reason to trust you as my wife.”
Lani blinked, obviously embarrassed by his words. Her cheeks still shone like roses.
“But you really are far too beautiful for your own good.” He managed a snarl as he said it.
Lani shrugged and shot him a wry smile. “That’s what my aunt Freda used to say. She said girls like me end up in trouble.”
“And you did.” She looked startled, eyes suddenly wider. “By joining the Rahiian royal family, I mean. Life in the palace isn’t all eating bonbons and being fanned by faithful servants.”
“No, there are the big parties, the long banquets. It’s exhausting.” A smile brightened her eyes for the first time since her revelation.
“Lucky thing we’re both young and strong enough to handle it.” AJ found his hands once again itching to reach out to her. “Maybe we can make a go of this marriage thing. Heck, we might even enjoy it.”
Her eyes shone in the dim light of the bedroom. AJ picked up one of the hands dangling at her side, and pressed its softness between his palms. “The more I get to know you, the more I like you.”
She bit her lip. “And I like you, too. That’s why I couldn’t lie to you.”
He frowned. “The big question is whether we can lie to everyone else.”
“For some reason that doesn’t bother me.” Lani’s smooth brow furrowed slightly. “It’s no one else’s business where our child comes from. It’s between you and me that the truth is important.”
AJ stared at her. “You know, that makes perfect sense. If we’re married, it’s
child. Vanu’s gone and he’s not coming back, so he’s not being cheated out of anything. We’ll raise the baby as ours, with all the love and affection we’d shower on any child we have.”
Lani’s hand stiffened. She bit her lip, then peered into his eyes. “I just had a thought. What if we do have more children and you find yourself wanting the oldest child that really is yours to inherit the throne instead? Things could get complicated.”
AJ stared at her for a moment, trying to understand her dilemma, then he laughed. “I’m not an Egyptian pharoah with a desire to dominate the world. I will certainly not start interfering in matters of succession other than by bowing out for the next person to take over.”
Lani’s smile returned. “I had to ask, but I believe you. You don’t seem like that type.”
Though Vanu would have been.
The unpleasant thought pierced the warm mist of happiness that had drifted back into the room.
AJ picked up Lani’s hand and kissed it, trying to dispel the image of Vanu that hovered suddenly in his consciousness. Would his cruel older brother haunt him for the rest of his days as he raised his child?
Lani’s hands, so soft and scented like lilies, filled his senses. She sighed as he pressed his lips to them.
No. Vanu could not cast darkness over his life from beyond the grave. He was dead and gone, in the past, and AJ would let him stay there. He and Lani would make a bright future for themselves and their child.
He lowered her hands and looked into her eyes. Mysteries glistened in their golden depths. He didn’t know where this marriage would lead them, but the adventure invited him to climb aboard. He kissed her softly, his lips just brushing hers.
Lani tilted her chin, pressing her mouth to his as her lashes lowered. AJ wound his arms around her slim back, holding her close. Tension fled his muscles as he let himself sink into her softness. She sighed and writhed gently against him, her passion natural and soft, not like earlier when she’d seemed—desperate.