Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
“His Royal Highness, King Hassan of
, requests the pleasure of your presence at the marriage of his most precious daughter, Princess Zara.”
Rather than read any further, Cleo Wilson fingered the thick paper and rubbed the raised lettering of the royal family’s crest. How often did a woman like her get an invitation to a royal wedding? Attending would be the social event of a lifetime. She should be wildly excited. Thrilled even. And she would be—just as soon as she stopped having a pressing need to throw up several times a day.
Cleo slumped down in a kitchen chair and thought seriously about banging her head against the table. At least a concussion would be a distraction. Then she reminded herself that she had to stay healthy for the sake of her baby. She rested a hand on her slightly rounded stomach, as if offering comfort and an apology.
“No head banging,” she murmured. “I promise to be sensible.”
Unfortunately, being sensible meant she had to fly to
for her foster sister’s wedding. It meant getting fitted for her maid of honor dress, smiling in such a way that Zara didn’t guess there was anything wrong. It also meant keeping her pregnancy from everyone she ran into, most especially the father of her child.
Somehow she didn’t think that all the deep breathing in the world was going to help her stress level.
It wasn’t supposed to have turned out this way, she reminded herself. At twenty-four she was supposed to have her life together. Or at least maintain an illusion of competence and goal setting. She’d even sworn to herself that she wouldn’t make the mistake of getting involved with an incredibly inappropriate man ever again. So much for that promise.
Four months ago she’d done the unthinkably stupid. Really. It was so dumb she should win an award. She pictured a nameless master of ceremonies opening a red-lacquered envelope: “The Golden Burro for most inappropriate and really dumb sexual relationship on the planet goes to Cleo Wilson, night manager of a local copy shop who not only slept with a royal prince. She accidentally got pregnant by him.”
Two weeks later Cleo flew out of the
Spokane airport, en route to
. This trip was very different from the one she’d made nearly six months before with Zara. Then she and her foster sister had been looking into the unbelievable possibility that Zara might be the illegitimate daughter of King Hassan. While Cleo had been the one encouraging Zara to find out the truth, she’d never thought that her sister might actually be a princess. A relative, yes. Royalty, no.
It had taken a few days in the royal palace, followed by someone actually saying the words Princess Zara for Cleo to grasp that the girl she’d once shared a bathroom with was now a member of the
royal family. While Cleo had been happy for Zara’s good fortune, she’d been left feeling as though she was once again on the outside looking in.
They had begun that trip with high hopes, great expectations and cheap, economy-class seats. Now Cleo found herself heading east on a private jet. And not just any private jet. This wasn’t some eight-
, executive-class transportation. Nope, she had an honest-to-goodness Boeing 737 all to herself.
Instead of a couple hundred other passengers, there was her, two flight attendants, a pilot, copilot and enough food to feed
. She knew because she’d checked out the galley on her exploration of the plane before they’d taken off.
In addition to enough supplies to satisfy all her culinary wants, there were two bedrooms, a living room, a dining room, a workout room, three bathrooms—real bathrooms with showers and space to turn around—along with an office area. Cleo settled in the living room and gazed out the window. Later, when her body clock told her it was her bedtime, she would retire to a real bed and, in theory, arrive in
rested and refreshed.
In reality she would toss and turn all night. The lack of sleep would create charming dark circles under her eyes and the on-going morning sickness would make it impossible to enjoy all the desserts the flight attendants had promised to prepare.
Nearly seventeen hours later, after one quick pit stop for gas, they arrived at the
. Cleo collected her overnight case and headed for the ramp. Zara and her fiancé,
, stood waiting at the other end.
Zara threw herself at Cleo and hugged her close. “I’ve missed you.”
Cleo didn’t dare say any more. Unfortunately, her hormones were doing their darnedest to turn her into a babbling, sobbing idiot every time she saw a sappy commercial on television. Who knew what they would do in this circumstance.
Zara hugged her again, then released her and held her at arm’s length. “You look great,” her sister said.
Cleo laughed. “No. I look like something the cat
up. You look great.”
And of course she did. Zara had been blessed with the finest the gene pool had to offer. As if being tall and model slender wasn’t enough, she also had long, dark hair and beautiful brown eyes. Then there was the whole smart-funny-nice thing going on with her. If Cleo didn’t adore her sister, she would have backed the car over her years ago.
As they were technically only foster sisters, Cleo found herself about as far from tall, slender and dark-haired as physically possible. She was short, curvy—okay, plump—with short blond hair that she generally wore sort of spiky.
Her lone claim to beauty was her big blue eyes. Zara would say that her big boobs were an asset, too, but Zara would be wrong.
“Hey, little sister,”
said, moving in for his greeting.
Stryker, American hunk, honorary sheik, rich guy and deeply in love with Zara. Cleo sighed. Some girls had all the luck.
She hugged her brother-in-law to be, then fought back hormonal tears.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” she said, hating herself for wondering if
had bothered to make the journey to the airport, as well. Not that she had to look around to check. If he’d been there he would have muscled his way to the front and monopolized her attention. He was an arrogant, self-centered, generally annoying guy. So why was she disappointed he hadn’t bothered to come say hi?
Zara linked arms with her as they headed out of the royal family’s private terminal. Cleo knew that her suitcases would have already been put in the trunk of the waiting limo. If only real life could be this good.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Zara said. She motioned for Cleo to slide onto the back seat of the limo first. “The last few months have been hectic. I’ve been spending time with my father, getting to know him.” Zara paused and grinned. “My father. I still can’t believe I’m saying that.”
“It’s pretty great,” Cleo said, and meant it. She was happy that Zara had found her father after a lifetime of wondering who he was. If a part of her was envious, she supposed she would learn to live with it. Unfortunately, she happened to know that her father had died before she’d been born. There wasn’t going to be the same happy ending in her future.
“Then there is all the wedding stuff.” Zara shook her head. “It’s been a planning nightmare.”
sat in the seat opposite. “I told her we should elope, but would she listen?”
Zara dismissed him with a wave. “He says that now, but he’s pretty excited about the wedding.”
Cleo gave her future brother-in-law a doubtful glance. “He doesn’t look excited.
looks like he’s going to bolt.”
“He might want to, but he wouldn’t leave me.”
Zara’s confidence sent a little ping of envy bouncing through Cleo’s chest. It was intensified when
gave his fiancée a look of such love and devotion that Cleo had to turn away. The moment was too personal and intimate to be shared.
“That’s right,” he said easily. “Zara’s stuck with me for the rest of her life.”
That sounded pretty good to Cleo. Oh, not with
. She thought he was nice and all, but he’d never made her heart beat faster. But with someone. All she’d ever wanted was to be the most important person in someone’s life. As if that was ever going to happen.
“Tell me about the wedding,” Cleo said to change the subject. Her hormones were on overdrive, and she was about three seconds from bursting into tears.
“People are coming from all over the world,” Zara said, shaking her head in bewilderment. “It’s crazy, and scary. I like my dress, but the flowers aren’t anything I would have picked. Way too big and ornate. But there are certain flowers we have to use and others we can’t.”
“Tell her about the cake,”
said with a wink that promised a fun story.
Zara launched into a convoluted explanation about flavors, colors and size. Cleo tried to pay attention, but part of her had already skipped ahead to arriving at the palace. While she’d been a little disappointed that
hadn’t come to the airport, she didn’t mind putting off that first meeting. One would think that in the nearly four months they’d been apart she would have been able to recover from a brief two-week affair, but one would be wrong.
She hadn’t been able to forget him. Not for a second. So in addition to keeping everyone from finding out she was pregnant, she had to make sure she was cool and indifferent in his presence. She wasn’t convinced that was even possible, but she had to try. Not so much for the sake of her pride, but because of the baby.
She didn’t know much about
law, but she suspected everyone would be cranky if they found out she carried Prince
baby. After all, she was pregnant with a half-royal offspring. Her worst fear was that they would take the child from her.
So she would act completely normal. And in control. With any luck her morning sickness—which did not confine itself to morning—would continue to fade. In two short weeks she would be leaving
. She would return home to her regularly scheduled life. Just her and her baby. No one the wiser. Probably not even her.
The American Federal Reserve chairman had adjusted the Federal Reserve interest rate. Prince
had known the adjustment was coming, but that didn’t make him like it. The international banking community always became unsettled after such an event.
He tapped a few keys on his computer keyboard, transferring fourteen billion dollars from one account to another, then waited for the confirmation. He would not play in the currency market today. Perhaps not tomorrow either—
only played when he could win.
The confirmation flashed on his screen. He hit the key to send it to the printer, then leaned back in his chair. As much as he hated to admit it, his mind was not on his work. Handling the royal family’s private fortune along with consulting with the
government’s finance minister generally kept him well occupied, but not today. Today his mind was on a night of passion that, after four months, should have faded. Unfortunately, it had not.
Even after all this time apart, he could recall every moment he had spent with Cleo.
rose and crossed to the window overlooking the formal garden that filled the central courtyard of the business wing of the palace. The English roses and hedgerows were as out of place in the desert country as Cleo had been. In a land of dark-haired beauties, Cleo had shimmered like an oasis. Blond to their brunette, fair-skinned to their golden limbs, blue-eyed to their brown. Worse, she was short and far too curvy for his sensibilities. Yes, Cleo was an oasis—lush, tempting and nearly impossible to resist.
Now she had returned. Not to him but for her sister’s wedding. He told himself
he didn’t care, that seeing her again wouldn’t bother him. After all, she had walked away from his bed, which made him question her intelligence. He was Prince
and she was a mere woman. She should not have been able to leave him. After all no woman dared to abandon his bed until ordered to do so. Except for Cleo.
No matter, he told himself. Her presence in the palace was slightly less than interesting. When she arrived, he would treat her as he would a fly on the wall.
As a small annoyance, nothing more. She would be invisible to him. He would not want her. Not ever again.
He returned to his desk and focused his considerable attention on his computer screen. But instead of numbers he saw the body of a woman, and in the deepest part of him he burned.
Cleo walked into the football-field-size foyer of the palace. Everything was as she remembered—huge, luxurious and filled with cats. Parts of the structure dated back nearly a thousand years, and while most of the rooms had been modernized, she still had the sense of stepping into history.
Several of the king’s cats stretched out in front of the large window facing the main entrance. Sunlight illuminated the tiled floor.
Zara paused as Cleo looked around. “How does it feel to be back?” she asked her sister.
Cleo studied the floor. It was decorated with a map of the known world…according to fourteenth-century cartographers…detailed in tiny tiles. She rubbed her toe against the boot of
“There’s a dreamlike quality to all this,” she admitted. “I can’t reconcile standing in a palace in
to my normal life at home.”
Zara laughed. “Tell me about it. I have the same feeling, and I’ve been a permanent resident for nearly four months. Come on. Let’s get you settled. I’m in the suite of rooms I was in before. I hope you still want to share space.”
Zara’s expression turned wistful. “I’ve missed having you around, Cleo.”