Authors: Jennifer Lewis
He let his fingers roam lower, to cup her firm backside and caress her long, elegant thighs. Fantasies of having those thighs wrapped around him heated his blood. Lani’s fingers dived into his hair and slid under his collar, making his skin hum with arousal. He could feel her nipples tighten under her dress, and he knew she was aroused, too.
His fingers prickled with the desire to peel off her silk gown and bare her golden skin, but a powerful instinct deep in his gut told him to wait. He pulled back a few inches and smoothed her dress. Her belly quivered slightly beneath his touch.
Lani was recently widowed, pregnant and obviously alarmed and confused by the strange dilemma she’d found herself in. This evening’s events were enough to give anyone whiplash, and he didn’t want to rush headlong into steamy sex— Well, he did, but that would only make the situation even more explosive and unpredictable.
He needed to be strong for both of them. “I’ll sleep here in your bed tonight.” She blinked at him, those golden eyes still wary. “But we won’t make love.”
Her cheeks flushed. Relief or disappointment? It didn’t matter. Or maybe it was the word
—so strange and inappropriate under the forced circumstances that pushed them together.
When he made love to Lani for the first time it would be right. He had the rest of his life to enjoy his bride, and for tonight he’d put her needs before his own.
“You sleep on this side.” He pulled back the covers. She climbed in, still in her dress. “And I’ll sleep on the other.”
ani managed a few hours of fitful sleep. It was hard to relax when your life kept changing so drastically from minute to minute, let alone next to a man who stirred your senses and scrambled your thoughts. AJ had gone to the gym early, as usual, and she showered and changed in her own room, with growing anxiety. Her mother-in-law had no idea she’d told AJ about the baby, or that the revelation had almost sent him packing and she didn’t relish telling her.
At the breakfast table, Priia beamed, half-hidden behind a stack of newspapers from around the region. “Front-page story in every one!”
Lani glanced at the
. The story directly beneath the announcement of Rahiri’s new king declared that a newborn goat on a neighboring island had shown evidence of magic powers. “Are we on the front of the
New York Times?
Priia waved her hand dismissively, which caused her gold bracelets to jangle. “They probably haven’t even woken up yet. Besides, those big papers prefer bad news to happy news like ours.” She leaned in, eyes wide. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine.” Lani spooned some pineapple onto her plate.
“Not too exhausted after last night?” She winked her mascara-encrusted lashes.
Lani gulped and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I told AJ about the baby.”
“What?” Priia’s shriek pierced the air. She spun around and looked relieved that no servants were nearby. She grasped Lani’s hand. “Why?”
“It was too big a thing to lie to my future husband about.” She sat close to Priia. “He was shocked at first, but glad that I’d told him.”
Manicured fingernails dug into her skin. “He’s still willing to go ahead with the marriage?”
Lani nodded. “He seemed okay with it after we talked.”
Priia let out a huge sigh and released her grip on Lani’s wrist. “Thank heavens! Oh, my goodness. You were brave. Or crazy, I’m not sure which.” She fluffed her hair. “Of course, I’m not surprised that he was still willing to do the right thing.”
Tension cramped Lani’s muscles. Everything was so complicated. “He’s agreed to keep the baby’s parentage quiet so that he can become king.”
“Perfect.” Priia rose to her feet. “Better than I could have hoped for. You truly are a gift, my dear.” She kissed Lani’s cheeks and swept from the room.
Lani was eating a piece of melon when AJ walked in, a guarded expression on his face. “I’m not sure if I had a night of violent and colorful dreams or if I made a lot of very bold promises last night.”
“The evidence is in the papers.” She pointed to the stack. “If it’s on the covers of
The Napau Inquirer
, then it must be true.” The cover photo of them both, snapped right after his announcement, showed the look of surprise and terror on her face. Hopefully people would take it for delight.
AJ raised a brow, then frowned. “
It doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?”
She laughed. “I don’t know why not. Half the names in Rahiri are barely pronounceable. And as king, you get to make the rules, anyway.”
“There’s a comforting thought.”
A waiter whisked in with AJ’s favorite breakfast—two slices of French toast with crispy bacon—and another stack of papers.
AJ grabbed a magazine off the top. “Made
The Hollywood Reporter
. ‘Dragon Chaser Helmer Catches a Crown.’ Makes it sound a bit like a Frisbee, doesn’t it?” he said as he sank into a chair. “Oddly enough, the crown’s sitting pretty easy on my head this morning.” He tilted his head and peered at her with those seductive dark eyes. “That may have to do with the lovely lady that comes along with it.”
She felt her face heat as a smile crept across her face. At least they hadn’t actually made love last night. That would have definitely been too much too soon. Her attraction to him was alarming under the circumstances.
AJ’s phone rang. “Ugh, not again. I’ve been besieged by phone calls since before dawn. Mostly from people who work with me. They’re all afraid they’ll be out of a job.”
He took the call, reassuring someone that he had every intention of completing his next movie, but he couldn’t talk details right now.
Lani poured him some tea and waited until he put the phone away. “Tell them they’ll just have to move to Rahiri.”
“Yeah. Maybe I’ll open a studio here, get all those bigwig execs to fly to me rather than the other way around.”
“Your mom’s always trying to pump the tourism industry here.”
“What tourism industry?”
“True, but maybe this is Rahiri’s big chance to finally land on the world map. Direct flights from London and Paris, five-star hotels, celebrity guests.” She winked.
“Don’t get her started, I beg you.” AJ leaned back in his chair. “One thing at a time. The possibilities do seem pretty limitless right now, though, don’t they?”
Media swarmed the palace, first the local TV stations and then the entertainment shows from L.A. and beyond, all intrigued by the Hollywood playboy about to become king.
At first Priia tried to fob them off with bright announcements of her own and warnings that the happy couple were “busy,” but by the afternoon, it was obvious that a press conference was in order and they scheduled it for the following morning. Priia suggested Lani wear a pretty, pale-yellow dress with shimmering embroidery. She attempted to deck AJ out in a colorful ceremonial tunic, but he managed to mollify her by wearing an Armani suit.
“What a stunning couple!” she exclaimed. “Of course they all want pictures, and they must have them.”
“I’ll bet they’re also looking for some dirt to dish,” murmured AJ. Lani had tried to ignore the same dark thought. Happy news didn’t sell nearly as well as disaster.
“Just hold your chin high and remember the proud history of our island.” Priia stroked her tall son’s cheek.
“Thanks for the advice, Mom.” AJ shot Lani a mischievous glance. Lani had noticed that AJ usually gave his mom lip service, then did whatever he wanted.
“And Lani, if they ask you too much, tell them you’re still mourning. Don’t let them upset you.”
Lani gulped. Hopefully AJ would do most of the talking.
Priia’s main assistant put her head around the door. “They’re waiting for you on the veranda. I served them tea and coconut stars just as you suggested.”
“Wonderful.” Priia clapped her hands. “Then they’ll all be in a good mood. Come on, my dears. Let’s give them a glimpse of Rahiri’s gorgeous new royal family.”
They stepped out on the veranda, and Lani froze when she saw how many people had gathered. At least fifty, many of them with cameras pressed to their faces. Voices began chattering, reporters reeling off live commentary, as she and AJ took their seats under some very hot, rapidly erected lights.
Microphones thrust toward them. “AJ, how does it feel to marry your brother’s wife?”
Lani blanched. AJ leaned back in his chair, confident and relaxed. “I don’t know. We’re not married yet.”
“You’re leaving a lot of broken-hearted women behind in L.A.,” quipped one rather flamboyant reporter. “Do you feel you’re ready to settle down?”
“I can see why,” declared a bold female reporter. “Your fiancée is stunning.” She pointed her mike right at Lani. “How do you feel about taking a new husband when you’ve barely had a chance to mourn the first one?”
Lani cleared her throat. “It’s traditional.”
“But surely, in the twenty-first century, some traditions seem a little barbaric.”
AJ grasped her hand firmly. “No one is forcing Lani and me into this marriage. We’re both pleased to hold our family together in the way chosen by our ancestors.”
“Give us a kiss, then!” coaxed an older male reporter with a British accent.
Lani shrank into her chair. Could they really expect them to put on a show for the cameras?
“Please don’t offend my bride’s royal dignity.” AJ managed a tone that was both formal and jesting. “And give us a chance to get the relationship off the ground at our own speed.”
“There must be pressure on you to produce an heir to the throne, since your brother didn’t.”
Lani gulped. It was hard to resist pointing out there was one on the way already.
“None whatsoever. We’re young and strong and will be here for a long time to come.” His cheery retort soothed her.
“Lani, is it disturbing to you that Vanu’s body has never been found?” A young female reporter thrust a microphone at her.
She stiffened. “I’ve accepted the fact that it may never be found. We all searched long and hard for his boat, but found no sign of it. The ocean is deep and keeps many secrets.”
She could never let
know the deadly secret that she was relieved Vanu was gone.
Reporters clustered around the palace all day, hoping to snap a candid shot of the couple. AJ’s celebrity status had turned the story into a hot property, and the internet buzzed with speculation and innuendo about the arranged marriage. Once pictures of Lani hit the media, revealing that she was not only royal but also strikingly beautiful, interest only grew.
Lani peeped out behind the closed wooden shutters. “Do you think we’ll ever be able to go outside again without being photographed?”
“They’ll lose interest eventually.” AJ spoke while thumbing a message on his BlackBerry. “Something more dramatic will happen.”
“What are you going to do about the movie you’re supposed to edit in a couple of weeks?” There were so many things they still hadn’t talked about. Did AJ think he could continue his Hollywood career and rule Rahiri at the same time?
“The editor can start work without me. He has the script and storyboard with my notes, and of course we can videoconference. As things progress we’ll make new plans. I signed up for the job and I don’t shirk a commitment.”
“Which is why you’re still here.” She looked up, suddenly shy. AJ appeared so strong, invincible, even. But how much of this whole experience had he not thought through yet? He was obviously trying hard to do the right thing. But what if he wasn’t ready to give up the thrills and excitement of his life in L.A.?
She couldn’t help thinking about those “broken-hearted” beauties he’d left behind. Who was he texting? Already a little thread of jealousy twisted inside her. She rose to her feet and paced along the wall of shuttered windows.
AJ looked up. “I’m restless, too. Let’s go out for a walk.”
“With the entire press corps following us?”
He rose to his feet, tall and handsome in a white shirt and loose linen pants. “We’ll ditch ’em.” He winked at her. “Follow me.”
He took her hand and led her along the corridors toward the east wing. “Aren’t we heading right for them?”
“Yes, but they won’t see us.” He opened a door that she’d always assumed was some kind of closet, and stepped into the darkness. Her hand tingled in his as she stepped in after him. “Look out, there are some stairs.” She followed him down, her heart pounding louder as they went farther down the strange staircase.
“Is there a light?” she whispered, wondering when the staircase would end.
“I don’t think so.” He squeezed her hand. “But we’re nearly there.”
AJ chuckled. “Nowhere.”
The stairs ended, and stone clapped against the bottoms of her sandals. “What is this place?” Tiny points of light overhead—like cracks in the ceiling—illuminated a large room. The temperature was cool, a good twenty degrees lower than the midday warmth of the palace.
“Your guess is as good as mine. No one’s used it in years. Vanu and I used to sneak out of the palace this way.”
Cold fear trickled through her and she glanced over her shoulder. She could easily picture Vanu haunting a dim, subterranean space like this.
If he was even dead. The reporter’s question from earlier nagged at her brain. Yes, it did unsettle her that they hadn’t found a body. How could it not? Sometimes it seemed he was everywhere, his cold, wheedling voice in her head, criticizing everything she did.
She squeezed AJ’s strong, warm hand. “Where does it bring you out?”
“You won’t believe me if I tell you.” Their shoes clicked along over the stone tiles as they headed farther and farther from the palace. The room narrowed again into a passageway, and Lani was alarmed by a roaring sound that grew louder as they walked.
She glanced up at AJ and saw his amused grin in the scant light from above. The thin strands of light became fainter until the corridor was almost pitch-black and the roar overhead boomed like the New York City subway. If AJ wasn’t boldly leading the way, she’d have turned and run back to the palace long ago. They rounded a corner and a shaft of golden light broke through the chink between two doors. AJ pushed the doors open and led them out into blinding sun.
As her eyes adjusted, Lani realized the roar of sound was the crashing of a waterfall. They now stood directly behind the flow of water as it cascaded down the hillside.
Lani stared at the wall of water. Tiny droplets splashed her face and arms. “It’s beautiful.” She had to shout to make herself heard. “I’ve only ever seen it from above.”
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” murmured AJ in her ear. His hot breath on her skin made her shiver. Still holding her hand, he led her along a ledge of rock only a foot wide, then down a vine-covered hillside. The quiet rustle of the forest gradually replaced the rush of water over rock.
“Now I can breathe.” AJ stretched and turned his face to the sun, which shone down through the trees. “I don’t like living in a fishbowl.”
“I’d think you’d be used to it, living in L.A.”
“There you expect it when you’re out and about, but they don’t follow me home. I’m not that interesting.” He grinned.
“You’re apparently interesting enough to justify big travel budgets for all those journalists.”
“It’s not every day a B-movie director becomes king.” He lifted his hand and stroked her cheek. The soft touch of his thumb made her shiver with pleasure. “And marries his brother’s wife.”