Authors: Jennifer Lewis
“What are you laughing about?” Her voice tinkled in his ear. She sounded happy, which filled him with joy.
“At how my life is filled with surprises. In a good way.” He stroked her hair.
Who’d have ever imagined him planning to settle back in Rahiri? In truth, Vanu had been the reason he’d left. The future king, Vanu had been cherished and encouraged and adored. Intelligent and charming when he wanted to be, he’d wrapped his parents around his long and surprisingly strong fingers.
AJ could remember the cruel grip of those fingers all too well, though often as not Vanu used words with more brutal force. He employed his considerable genius in coming up with ways to make AJ look guilty of something, meaning that AJ was nearly always in trouble, even when he did manage to keep a lid on his admittedly rambunctious nature.
But now Vanu was gone. And with the happy result that he’d left a lovely wife in dire need of a new husband. Vanu must have turned on the charm with Lani. She had probably never gotten a glimpse of his dark side. Why spoil her memories? He decided to keep his to himself.
“Only seven months until our baby arrives.” He spoke softly, stroking Lani’s cheek.
She started slightly. “It seems so soon.”
“Tell me about it.” He was still trying to wrap his mind around the idea of being a father. He’d decided that the baby would be his in every way. Well, every way that mattered, and that’s how he intended to approach the situation. “Do you have a nickname for him or her already? One of my producers used to call hers Jellybean while she was pregnant.”
Lani laughed. “I don’t. I guess I should come up with something.” She gazed skyward for a minute, her golden eyes thoughtful. “Puaiti.”
“Little flower. But what if it’s a boy?”
“Why can’t a boy be a flower, too?” She raised a slim brow.
“Good point. Why should girls get all the nice-smelling pretty stuff? How’s little Puaiti feeling?”
Lani closed her eyes for a minute and rested her fingers on her stomach, as if listening. “I’m not hearing any complaints.”
“Do you feel any kicking yet?”
“No. I don’t think that happens for a few more weeks. I don’t really feel different at all. Well, except when I feel ill.” She paused and looked right at him. “You know something? Ever since I told you about the baby, I haven’t felt ill at all.”
“Maybe Puaiti realized she’d have to make you sick or you wouldn’t realize she was there.”
“Quite possible. And she’d have been right.” She frowned. “But why are you calling Puaiti a she? She could be a he.”
He shrugged. “We’ll just have to use both.”
“Would you like to find out the gender before the birth?”
AJ stroked Lani’s cheek. “I don’t know that I would. I’m getting used to being surprised, and I find I like it. Do you have a preference for a girl or boy?”
Lani shook her head. A sweet smile played about her lips. “Either will be wonderful. I’ve wanted a child for so long, and your mom is going to love having a grandchild to spoil.”
A crashing sound in the undergrowth nearby made them sit up. “What was that?” AJ peered through the leaves. He’d been gone a long time, but he didn’t remember any forest animals big enough to make that much sound.
“I don’t know.” Lani grabbed her dress. “We’d better get dressed.”
AJ tugged his shirt and pants on, then helped rewind Lani’s rather wrinkled sash around her still-slim waist. He continued to hear a rustling sound in the distance.
“Was that a voice?” whispered Lani, eyes wide with alarm.
AJ strained his ears. It was hard to distinguish sounds above the low hum of the jungle, all the insects and birds and the rustling leaves. Then again, he did hear a voice. “It’s a man. Speaking English.” Why would someone be way out here? “Maybe the journalists have started wandering about looking for scandal.”
“If they find us they might well have it.” Lani smoothed her dress with anxious fingers. “We’re not married yet.”
“We’d better head back to the passageway.” He took Lani’s hand and led her back up toward the waterfall. He didn’t want her being harassed by some bozo out for a picture and quick buck.
They set off up a steep hill. At the top, he heard the voice again, and turned to peer through the trees. It was impossible to see anyone through the dense leaf canopy, but then he heard quite clearly: “They say he went out late at night on a boat.”
AJ froze. The were talking about Vanu. Could they be looking for the body?
Lani didn’t seem to have heard. She was distracted, adjusting her sandal.
“But what if he didn’t get on a boat? What if he came out here and got lost?”
An icy finger of dread slid down AJ’s back. He didn’t want Lani to get wind of their idle speculation. “Are you okay?”
“Great.” She smiled brightly. He led her farther up the hill until the roar of water cloaked out all other sounds. Still, an odd sense of unease nagged at him. Suddenly all these curious strangers were trudging through their jungles and making footprints on the beaches. What if they did find something?
And what if it was something none of them expected at all?
hank heavens you’re back!” Priia stood up from the plush armchair surrounded by her embroidery tools. Servants had whisked AJ and Lani to her study as soon as they’d been spotted back in the palace hallways. The servants slipped out, closing the door behind them.
AJ’s heart thumped. Something was wrong but no one would tell him what. “What’s going on?”
“We just got a phone call that a reporter found Vanu’s boat.”
Lani froze. “Where is it?”
Priia dabbed at her eyes with an already moist handkerchief. “On the tiny atoll to the northwest. The one they call Egg Island.”
AJ shoved a hand through his hair. “Did they find Vanu?”
His mom shook her head. “So far there’s been no sign of him.”
AJ shot a glance at Lani. Her hands were trembling and one of them flew to her mouth.
“So he could be alive.” AJ managed to force out the words.
“Yes. It’s possible.” Priia sniffed. “The atoll is small but very densely wooded. There’s plenty of food there for someone to survive.”
Dread crawled over AJ like a poisonous spider. Could Vanu be hidden somewhere in the forest?
Lani had begun to weep. Probably with joy that her once-dead husband might still be alive. AJ sucked in a ragged breath as a bitter taste filled his mouth. “We need to send out a search party.”
“They’re getting ready to leave. The fire department and the lifeboat service are all involved. And of course the journalists.” She pressed her handkerchief to her face. “It seems too much to hope for, but maybe he’s about to come back to us.”
Lani approached Priia and put her arms around her. AJ’s heart swelled at her generous gesture. Caring and thoughtful as well as lovely, Lani was far too good to be wasted on Vanu. Anger roiled in his chest along with savage jealously. Could Vanu return from the grave and snatch Lani from his arms?
Yes. That was exactly the kind of party trick Vanu would take great pleasure in.
“Didn’t they search Egg Island when he disappeared?” He couldn’t understand how Vanu’s boat could appear like a horrible vision after all this time.
Priia looked up. “It’s a dense forest, with many natural caves. The boat had drifted into a cavern that’s hidden at high tide.” She let out a sob. “It will be hard to find him if he’s still alive, but we must keep positive.”
A knock on the door startled them all. “Come in,” said Priia, shakily.
The head footman entered, head slightly bowed. “The reporters, they’re anxious for a statement.”
“Oh, goodness.” Priia waved her handkerchief. “AJ, could you go tell them something?”
“Like what? We don’t know any more than they do. Less, probably.”
The head footman seemed to shrink a bit, and stared at the floor. “They want to know how this affects the wedding plans.”
Lani let out a little gasp, then hid her face.
The dark reality of the situation settled over AJ like an executioner’s hood. “It’s off. Lani can’t consider remarrying while her husband might be alive.” His words came out cold and hard.
And what about the baby he’d grown to think of as his? Vanu would claim the child as well. It was his, after all, just like Lani.
AJ suppressed a curse. Only a brief while ago he and Lani had lain, wrapped in each other, surrounded by the warm embrace of the jungle, looking forward to a joyous future together with their new family.
Now he saw that future evaporating like a jungle mist.
“Did they find any signs that he survived?” AJ questioned the footman.
“They found footprints leading up out of the cave. So it seems he did walk away from it.”
Lani whimpered and tears rolled down her cheeks. AJ tried to suppress the ugly surge of anger that rose in him at the sight. She was obviously distressed and hopeful that Vanu was still alive.
Yes, it hurt. Especially since he’d felt a deep connection with her during their lovemaking. Of course that was probably his body talking rather than his brain. “I’ll go join the search party. Just stay away from the press until we know more.” He turned and marched from the room, unable to even look at Lani.
AJ cursed himself for being drawn into this nightmare. How had he gone from wanting to leave at the earliest opportunity to hating the fact that he’d
He returned late at night, sticky and tired from combing through the jungle. It probably hadn’t done his soul much good that he was hoping against hope that they’d find a body, not a live Vanu with an ugly smirk on his face. As it turned out, they’d found nothing at all and the search was scheduled to resume the following morning.
No one spoke much at dinner, and Priia retired early, begging a headache.
Lani seemed very tense, avoiding his gaze. No doubt she felt guilty that she’d made love to another man while her husband might still be alive.
“It’s not your fault,” he murmured. “You had no idea he might still be out there.”
“I know.” She didn’t meet his gaze. “No one could have known.”
“The fire chief thinks he’s alive.” He studied her face. A muscle spasmed in her cheek. “They found traces of a fire in another natural cave. Looks like someone stayed there.”
“That’s wonderful.” Lani’s voice sounded oddly hollow. “It would be such a miracle for him to survive for so long by himself.”
“He never was the rugged, outdoors type.” AJ frowned. It was hard to imagine Vanu picking a berry to feed himself, let alone lighting a fire. He’d required a large staff just to get dressed in the morning. “But I suppose anything is possible. People can act differently in a life-or-death situation.”
“Yes.” Lani sat ramrod straight. Unapproachable. Not that he’d even think of trying to touch her now. How odd, when he’d enjoyed touching almost every inch of her luscious body only hours earlier.
His life seemed to be spinning like a weather vane in the wind lately. He’d had calls from L.A. this afternoon asking if—due to the shift in circumstance—he’d be back to oversee the edits for
. He’d replied honestly: that he had no idea.
The dim light in the dining room picked out the gold threaded through Lani’s lustrous hair. Soon, perhaps Vanu would be running his bony fingers through it again. AJ fought a wave of revulsion. “How are you feeling? I’m sure the stress must be hard on you when you’re pregnant.”
“I’m okay.” She shot him a wary glance with those wide, honey-colored eyes.
He cursed the surge of lust that jolted through him. “Must be a little odd to be dangling between two men like this.” His words sounded cruel, and maybe that’s what he intended. Pain tightened his muscles and hardened his heart.
Lani shuddered and a small sob escaped her mouth. “It’s terrible.”
AJ’s hands itched to reach out and touch hers. But that would only deepen his torment. “No one will ever know what happened between us today. It’ll be yet another secret we’ll keep forever.”
Lani nodded. Tears glittered in her eyes. “Yes. I won’t tell anyone. Especially Vanu.”
AJ’s flesh crawled at the thought of her talking to Vanu again, sharing intimacies. In such a short time he’d developed powerful feelings for Lani. He’d never felt anything like them before in all his years of adventures with the fairer sex.
And the child. His initial revulsion at the deception had quickly transformed into a firm conviction that he could raise this child and love it as his own. He’d been prepared to lie and pretend and carry out a charade to everyone else’s fantasy of the perfect royal family come true.
He glanced up and saw Lani’s delicate profile turned to look out the window. Just yesterday his bold and tender new feelings had been convenient rather than crazy. Now they were disastrous. He had to comfort and support the woman he craved as she hoped and prayed for the safe return of her husband.
Pain crashed over him in an untidy wave. He staggered to his feet and sucked in a breath of moist night air.
He’d spent his childhood in his brother’s shadow, and now it stretched out from the grave to cast him into darkness once again.
Lani didn’t love him. Didn’t have any feelings for him other than a sense of duty and some rather unexpected lust. He’d been fool enough to mistake that for far more.
He’d never let himself make that mistake again.
Lani paced back and forth in her room all morning. The crews were out for the second day, combing through the jungle on the uninhabited atoll.
She hated the way they described it as “searching for Vanu,” as if they’d find him there, perhaps lazing on a sandy beach, waiting for them to take him home. No one said anything as grim as “hoping to recover a body.” Priia wouldn’t hear any of that. As far as she was concerned, he was alive and well and on his way home.
And Lani knew she was probably cursed to eternal damnation for hoping otherwise.
How could she wish someone dead? Only a truly evil person would have a thought like that. Obviously she wasn’t the “nice” girl AJ had originally mistaken her for. She’d certainly jumped on him with reckless abandon, and she couldn’t even blame it on “duty” anymore. She’d made no effort to hide her lusty enjoyment of AJ’s body.
She blew out hard. Everything had been so perfect for those few brief hours. Now she was back, snared in the web of pretense and pain that had been her marriage to Vanu. Pretending to be happy—or at least content—while inside she was longing for freedom.
A knock on the door startled her.
“Dinner is ready.” The shy girl servant darted in and out like a lizard. No one would look her in the eye since Vanu’s boat was found. They’d all been so thrilled about the plans for the wedding and AJ’s return to Rahiri, and now they were supposed to be overjoyed about Vanu’s possible survival.
No one knew what to think or how to behave. Least of all Lani. AJ was giving her the cold shoulder, too. She understood that he was in an awkward situation, but it was upsetting to suddenly feel as if she couldn’t talk to him.
She wandered along the hallway slowly, not looking forward to the meal. Terrified of any further news of Vanu’s miraculous survival.
When she arrived in the dining room, she saw Priia sitting in her usual chair, sobbing, while AJ wrapped his arms around her.
All the servants hung their heads and ducked their gazes as she passed.
“They found his body.” AJ looked up and mouthed the words softly, then tugged his gaze away immediately.
Relief welled inside her like a flood. “Oh, no,” she managed, trying to sound upset. Her hands started shaking and her heart pounded. She wanted to jump up and down or shout because she’d been so afraid of being Vanu’s plaything again. Happy tears sprang to her eyes and she let them roll down her cheeks.
She resisted a sharp urge to ask for details to make his death real, but managed to restrain herself. What did it matter how he died, as long as he was really gone for good.
AJ looked up at her tears, then glanced away. Priia’s sobbing was merciless, inconsolable, as it had been in those first days and nights after Vanu disappeared.
“I’m so sorry, Mama,” whispered Lani. She stroked Priia’s hand. “It was too much of a miracle to hope for.” Her own tears splashed into her mother-in-law’s lap and mingled with Priia’s, despite their very different motivations.
“At least we’ll have his child,” rasped Priia. Lani’s eyes widened. Apparently in her grief she was forgetting that no one knew about the pregnancy. She glanced around. The servants had tactfully left the room. Still…
AJ’s brow was lowered and his expression dark. He wouldn’t meet her gaze.
“The child will give us something to live for,” continued Priia, through her sobs. “It does seem cruel that we have to go through mourning him again. I was finally coming to terms with his loss, and now…” Her shoulders shook.
Lani squeezed her hand. “We’ll just have to go on as best we can.”
“I’ve got some phone calls to make.” AJ’s voice was gruff. Lani looked up, startled, as he strode from the room. She wanted to run after him, to ask him for details about Vanu’s death—perhaps to reassure herself that this time he really was dead.
She also wanted reassurance that everything was still okay between them.
Her stomach contracted and a wave of nausea rose through her. Her first in several days. She had a grim feeling that everything had changed between her and AJ. That Vanu’s unexpected reappearance, even in death, had somehow ruined everything.
AJ stormed along the palace corridor, blood pounding in his brain. How had he ever thought this could work? Had he really believed he could step into Vanu’s shoes—precious Vanu, the beloved eldest son who could do no wrong—and take over?
Ridiculous. He must have been totally addled by lust. It was hard to blame himself because, after all, Lani was undeniably one of the most beautiful women on earth. He’d let desire interfere with his common sense and even convinced himself that she had feelings for him.
But of course she hadn’t fallen madly in love with him right after her husband’s death. She was still in shock, especially with the pregnancy messing up her hormones. He’d come on way too strong and she’d reacted as she felt she was supposed to. Just trying to be a “nice Rahiian maiden,” when all along she was carrying a torch for Vanu.
He shoved into his room. The room he’d spent his childhood in and been glad to leave. Which seemed ungrateful, since not many people would complain about spacious chambers in a royal palace. But they’d felt like a prison to him once, and now the decorative carvings started to look like bars again. He’d almost—almost—been trapped into living someone else’s life.
He picked up the phone and pushed the third button on his speed dial. His producer, Jerry. When Jerry answered he didn’t mince words. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Sooner if I can get a flight.”
“But I thought your brother turned up dead.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that so crudely. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I know. It’s okay.” Being honest that you were glad someone was dead was one of the last taboos left.