Authors: Laurie Paige
She broke off abruptly as nausea rushed over her again, causing a sheen of perspiration to break out over her entire body. Gritting her teeth, she led the way to the broad marble steps and ushered the group to the top.
“Here, Gunther—the kings often fought in their own battles in those days—defended his palace from invaders from Drogheda, a neighboring island country. It’s said he slew fifty knights while standing right here, taking them on two at a time. A priest wrote the actual record, which was that he and two of his dukes did take on more than twenty-five foes, and destroyed them, thus saving the kingdom.” She gestured toward Jean-Paul. “The Earl of Silvershire reputedly led the Droghedans that day.”
Jean-Paul executed a perfect little bow in acknowledgment of her gibe. “
ancestor,” he told the group with a charming smile. “We conquer by means other than force nowadays.”
This last was said with a meaningful glance at her, delighting their tour group with the possibility of a romance. The teenager looked at Megan with envy evident in her heavily mascaraed eyes.
Megan managed a lame smile and continued with her duties. She still had afternoon tea to get through. “The offices of the Privy Council, elected advisors to the king, are up here. We also have one of the most modern security departments in the world.”
As she turned to lead the way past the modern offices to a reception room where tea would be served, a sudden case of dizziness caused the palace to whirl. She held on to the railing to prevent a fall, then felt herself going over the balcony to the ballroom below.
Rough hands stopped the downward motion as her dress was grabbed and yanked backward. Then she was lifted off her feet and into a pair of strong arms.
“Take over,” Jean-Paul said to the diplomat who accompanied them. “She’ll be all right,” he assured the concerned Americans. “Just too many activities and too much sun this morning. Excuse us.”
He carried Megan to an elevator and whisked her to the basement of the building. There he hurried
down the underground passage that led to the royal residence. In her chamber, he placed Megan on the bed and tossed the pillow aside so her head was flat.
“I’m okay,” she protested, but her pulse was thready and her breathing shallow.
“Take deep breaths,” he told her while he began on the long row of tiny buttons running the length of her dress.
“Your Highness!” Candy exclaimed, coming into the room and seeing them, shock on her face
“Get out,” he said. “I’ll handle this.”
“But what has happened?” the maid asked, perplexed.
“She had a slight dizzy spell, no doubt from doing too many official duties today.”
“I grew nauseated,” Megan interjected, her voice stronger. “Perhaps it was the fish from lunch.”
“Yes, most likely,” he agreed to keep the young maid from leaping to conclusions. He had no idea if Megan confided in the girl, but doubted it. “Go,” he told the dithering maid. “I’ll take care of her. We have things to discuss. I wish her to plan a garden for me.”
Wide-eyed, Candy nodded and flew from the room, probably to inform the other servants of this strange occurrence. Jean-Paul sighed gustily.
“We must put an end to this,” he told Megan.
“Word is bound to get out. I’d prefer to talk to your father before that happens.”
“Mmm,” Megan said desperately, and clamped a hand over her mouth.
He looked around and spied a wastepaper can. Setting it beside the bed, he held her head while she endured a paroxysm of dry heaves. At last she lay back wearily, her eyes closed, her face pale as mare’s milk.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, guilt cutting all the way to his soul. “I should have been careful with you. I don’t know what happened to my common sense.”
“A strange, wild night,” she murmured, as if that explained everything.
“Aye, wild it was, selky.” He got a damp cloth from the bathroom, noting its precise neatness and lack of clutter. After sponging her face, he folded the cloth and laid it across her forehead and over her eyes. “Sleep. I think you need the rest.”
“Who will awaken me with a magic kiss?”
His heart gave a hitch at the whimsical smile that tugged at the corners of her mouth. He suppressed the need to kiss her into wakefulness.
“I will,” he vowed. “No other.”
Pushing the washcloth aside and opening her eyes a sexy slit, she observed him for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and, in a moment, slipped into sleep.
The turmoil he’d felt upon realizing she was
fainting stirred once more. He admitted the terror he’d experienced when she’d nearly pitched head-first over the balcony. Watching her sleep, other emotions roiled in him.
Tenderness, vast and perplexing because it made him feel unknown emotions someplace deep inside and he didn’t know why. Need, its nature unknown to him because it wasn’t physical, yet desire was part of it. And last was the hunger, part of the need, yet a separate thing, that made him want to sweep her up and ride off to a secret place in an enchanted forest, there to stay with her, make love with her…and to laugh and explore and delight in each other and their secret world.
It was damned odd, this mixture of joy and torture one slight female caused in him.
Love? Huh, it was nothing like the feelings that songs and poems led one to expect. Laying the damp cloth aside when she moved restlessly, Jean-Paul studied the face of the fair selky. He quite seriously thought she was beautiful with her candid green eyes and the auburn highlights in her hair hinting at fires kept mostly hidden.
But not from him.
Together they both exploded into passionate caresses and a hunger too raw to deny. Satisfaction spread through him as he recalled the desire neither could control. A most interesting creature, this sweet, elusive changeling who longed to return to the sea.
“But you shall not,” he whispered. “You are mine now and must accept the fate the gods have in store for us.”
He smiled wryly at the idea. Megan of Penwyck would obey no mere mortal. No, the fair selky must stay with him of her own free will. If she didn’t choose to do so, then he would help her in whatever way he could, with whatever she wanted.
Stretching out beside her, he kicked off his shoes and cupped his body around hers. She shifted until she was snug against him. He sighed in relief. Her body knew, just as his did, that their fates were intertwined from here on out.
Queen Marissa paused on the threshold of her middle daughter’s bedroom. Instead of one figure lying there, she saw two. Jean-Paul lay with an arm thrown protectively across Megan. A fluttery ache speared through the queen.
She was sure Megan was in love with the handsome earl. Even if she didn’t admit it, the princess wasn’t one to give herself lightly to a man. But what of him?
That he was honorable she had no doubt. That he intended to do the right thing by his child was evident. That he harbored some tender feelings for Megan was revealed in his protective manner. Was that enough?
It had to be. She had bad news.
“Wake up,” she called softly as she approached
the sleeping couple. “Megan, Jean-Paul, you must awake now.”
Jean-Paul sat up, the confusion leaving his face as he glanced at Megan, who still slept. He bowed formally to the queen. “Your Majesty,” he said.
“You must speak to the king at once,” the queen informed him. “I fear the news is out.”
Marissa smiled in resignation. “That one of the royal princesses expects a child. A London tabloid announced it today. Reporters are arriving with each plane and demanding an audience.”
“Do they know it’s Megan?”
“Then there is time.”
By now, Megan’s eyes were open. “Time for what?”
Jean-Paul touched her shoulder, so gently it almost brought tears to the queen’s eyes. “To face the music, Your Royal Highness,” he said, a smile lighting his face.
A daredevil, Marissa thought as he helped her daughter to her feet. He defies the press or anyone to challenge him. Arrogant male. He thinks he can handle anything, but he has not seen the king’s wrath.
“The king won’t appreciate a scandal,” she warned the couple, who cast each other a questioning glance.
“I won’t allow Father to force a marriage,” Megan stated.
Her daughter was showing signs of stubbornness that the queen hadn’t realized the child possessed. And now was not the time for it, she feared.
“I have requested an audience. The king will meet with us in my chambers at five.” Marissa glanced at the bedside clock. “That is less than an hour from now.”
“We’ll be ready,” Jean-Paul assured her.
For a second, the queen saw a surprised but pleased gratitude dart over Megan’s face, then it was gone. In its place was the composure of a woman who would not be coerced and the dignity of a royal princess trained from birth to handle any situation.
“You do not have to attend,” Megan told him.
“Yes, I do.” He gazed into her eyes for a moment, then turned to the queen. “We’ll be ready,” he repeated.
Megan hesitated, then nodded agreement.
Love and pride warred within Marissa’s breast. She contented herself with a kiss on Megan’s cheek. “I will stand by whatever you two decide.”
Megan hugged her. “Thank you,” she whispered.
Jean-Paul bowed crisply as she left them. “We must act,” she heard him say as she closed the door behind her.
She wondered what her daughter would decide. Only the couple could work that out, but she did have some advice for the handsome young man who shared this conundrum.
egan was ready when Jean-Paul knocked on her door at two minutes before five. She’d changed from her wrinkled clothing to a summer dinner dress of moss-green with a matching jacket that twinkled with sequins. Her escort wore a white jacket with a blue shirt and tie and dark pants.
Her heart started its acrobatic act.
“Beautiful, as usual,” he murmured. He pinned a pink rose to her lapel, one that matched the rose on his.
“Old Pierre will set the hounds on you should he see you plucking his flowers.”
“I stole them from the queen’s bower.”
He gave his wickedly charming grin that made
her want to run madly across the moors and leap from a cliff and fly with the wind like a fairy set free—
Behind her, the mantel clock struck five.
“We must go.”
“Aye,” he said, and tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Courage, comrade,” he whispered.
Although she kept an outward composure, frantic thoughts ran through Megan’s mind as they approached the queen’s chambers. How could she explain a moment’s rash madness to her father? What would he say…or do?
As they paused outside the queen’s door, Jean-Paul squeezed her hand, then knocked. The door was opened at once by a footman. “Her Royal Highness, Princess Megan,” he informed the queen. “The Earl of Silvershire.”
“See them in.”
The footman bowed the couple into the room. Megan’s relief was short-lived when she didn’t see her father.
“The king will be here shortly,” Queen Marissa said. “Stay at the door,” she told the footman.
“Your Majesty,” the footman said, bowing deeply.
The king entered the queen’s parlor. Pride filled Megan as she hastily studied her parent. He was splendid in a uniform of state, his figure still trim
and manly, the white in his hair adding to his authority.
The queen rose. Together she and Megan executed perfect curtsies while Jean-Paul bowed. “Your Majesty,” they murmured as one.
“Come, give me a kiss,” the king commanded, opening his arms to the two women. He was smiling.
Megan kissed his cheek after her mother had done so. She realized he hadn’t heard of the news in the tabloid and wasn’t sure if that made the coming confession easier or not. A hand clasped her arm, warm and strong and supportive.
“Well, my queen, you called and I am at your disposal. Your wish is my command,” he proclaimed effusively.
Megan wondered if the king, who had been rather solemn of late, had been imbibing too much from the royal cellars.
“Please be seated,” Queen Marissa requested formally.
She served tea and small fruit tarts Megan knew her father was fond of. She relaxed somewhat. Her mother was preparing the way.
Glancing to her side after they were seated, she saw the amusement in Jean-Paul’s eyes.
A vision came to her—of them in love, of his proposal being real. Then they lived happily ever after? Longing raced over her before she could con
trol it, then she sighed quietly. She’d given up on foolish dreams long ago.
He touched her arm lightly, then withdrew his hand, a world of comfort in the simple gesture. It was odd, having someone at her side ready to come to her defense.
“To what do I owe the honor of this momentous occasion?” the king continued in a jovial manner underlined with a certain cynicism.
Megan studied her father, trying to ascertain his mood. She’d seen him but briefly during the past few months. He’d been serious, almost introspective, during that time.
Perhaps things were now going well with the country. The alliance with Majorco had been worked out. A public ceremony had been planned for the following month when the official signing would take place here at the palace.
“We have some news,” her mother began. “That is, Jean-Paul and Megan have information you need to know.”
“About the international trade conference?” King Morgan asked, his hazel eyes flicking over the couple, then returning to his queen.
“No,” Jean-Paul said. “Our news is personal. While at the conference, Megan and I entered a liaison.”
Megan would have laughed had the moment not been so serious.
sounded official, as if
planned, for something that had been impulsive and wild and so very, very wonderful.
The king looked confused. Megan knew the feeling.
“I am with child, Father,” she announced stoically, and waited for his wrath.
There was a moment’s silence, then the king laughed. And laughed. He laughed so hard he had to set his cup aside and cover his mouth with a napkin.
Megan felt Jean-Paul stiffen at her side. Her mother looked as astonished as she herself felt.
The queen drew herself up regally. “I don’t see that it is a laughing matter,” she said in a frigid voice. “The London tabloids have spread the word throughout the world. We asked your attendance so that we might form a plan.”
The king underwent a transformation, the laughter abruptly disappearing. Now the expected anger surfaced. He perused Jean-Paul with open contempt. “What are your intentions, sir?”
“I have offered for her.”
Again Megan discerned confusion in the king’s manner, then he stiffened. “And?”
“She refuses,” Jean-Paul finished.
Her father’s gaze swung to her. “What?” he roared, rising to his feet. “What foolishness is this?”
Megan cast a frown at her lover. She would have
broken the news more diplomatically. “I will not have a…a marriage of convenience.”
“Convenient or not,” said the king, “it appears to me there must be a royal wedding. And soon.”
“Your father is right in this,” the queen agreed. “There is no need for scandal. Think of the child.”
Megan nodded. “I am. I’ve seen the results of royal marriages beginning without love and ending in hate.”
“There have also been failures that started out with a grand love proclaimed by all sides,” Jean-Paul reminded her.
His tone made her feel childish for her insistence on a marriage based on something as elusive as love and mutual devotion between the couple.
“Yes,” she agreed sadly. She dredged up a smile. “But I would have the illusion to begin with.”
Jean-Paul became the distant, arrogant man she’d often met at public functions in the past. “You are a romantic. We must deal with reality.”
“Yes,” said the king coldly. “The reality is that we now face a scandal while we are in delicate negotiations with other nations. I have no time for foolishness. You will be married forthwith. How soon can it be arranged?
This last was asked of the queen. “A month, I suppose, would allow for the arrangements.”
“No!” said Megan.
“Absolutely not!” Jean-Paul spoke at the same time.
“If it is against your wishes, you should have thought of that two months ago. Is that the correct time?” His eyes, flecks of brown mixed with the green, speared into Megan.
She nodded, then found her voice. “Yes.”
The king raised his hand autocratically. “Then it is decided.”
“We are not children to be ordered about,” Jean-Paul informed her father, just as arrogant as the other man.
Megan groaned inwardly. If they would but shut up and pretend to agree, then later the queen could speak up for them to the king in a quieter moment.
“You dare gainsay me?” her father demanded, his face flushing with the full force of his fury.
“Not at all,” Jean-Paul denied smoothly. “We must be practical. In this day and age, females don’t feel the need of a man’s name or his protection for their children. The princess is twenty-seven—with a mind of her own, I might add. She will not be coerced. Nor will I allow it.”
Megan wanted to kick Jean-Paul to tell him to be silent. Queen Marissa, Megan noted, watched the king with her lovely blue eyes narrowed in thought. When she caught Megan’s gaze, she smiled encouragingly.
Realizing nothing was to be gained by the meet
ing, Megan spoke up. “I will, of course, leave the country—”
“You will do your duty and marry,” the king declared in frigid fury. “I order it!”
Silence followed this proclamation. Megan felt a cage close around her, trapping both her and Jean-Paul. A cage built by her own foolishness, she admitted. Remorse ate at her. She had also trapped the earl.
“We will speak more on this later,” the queen interjected as Jean-Paul leaped to his feet and faced the king. “When we are calmer.”
“I am quite calm,” her husband informed her. “I have spoken all I intend to say on the subject.”
“Of course,” Marissa said calmly.
Megan knew her mother didn’t mean it. She also knew this wasn’t the time to pursue the topic. She, too, rose, and curtsied deeply to the king and queen. “By your leave,” she murmured, requesting permission to depart.
The queen nodded. “You may go.”
Megan grabbed Jean-Paul’s hand and literally dragged him outside the queen’s chambers with her. She didn’t stop until they were safely in her sitting room, the door firmly closed behind them. She sighed as weariness replaced what little courage she’d had during the ordeal.
“My father is furious,” she said, thinking over
the past minutes, which had only been twenty by the clock but felt closer to a lifetime.
“He laughed at first.” Jean-Paul shrugged as if this strange behavior was normal.
“Yes, that was…unusual. I wonder if Father hasn’t been working too hard. We’ve hardly spoken with him in ages, and he always used to make time for the family.”
“Whatever the king’s state of being, we must come to some decision about us. Do you wish the marriage?”
“I…not at the king’s command.”
Jean-Paul studied her for a tense moment, then frowned. His tone was impatient when he spoke. “Then what would persuade you?”
“Laughter,” she promptly told him, a challenge in the toss of her head and jut of her chin.
“You are being frivolous,” he reprimanded.
“No. I will not be pushed by my father nor by you into an ill-advised marriage. That path leads to disaster.”
He moved closer. “How do you know?”
“Intuition, I suppose.” She stepped back.
With a single stride, he placed his hands on either side of her, pinning her to the bedroom door. “It may be bliss. Perhaps you don’t recall our private moments. Shall I remind you?”
His eyes issued a hot challenge. Something surged, wild and unhampered in her, struggling to
answer. She fought the impulse until it was subdued.
“No, Jean-Paul, I have not forgotten,” she said softly, “but we must not give in to that madness again.”
“Sweet madness,” he murmured.
He bent and kissed the side of her neck, sending tingles of electricity all over her skin. By dint of will, she remained still and unresponsive.
“What do you hope to gain by an alliance between us?” she asked, putting them firmly on diplomatic footing.
Tension invaded every line of his lithe, masculine body. Fury blazed in his eyes while his tone chilled her to the marrow. “You sell your charms short if you think I want you only for state purposes.”
She laid her hands against his chest to hold him at bay. “I know you’re concerned for the child,” she began, then stopped as he slid a hand into her hair, freeing it from a golden clasp.
“There is that. And there is this.”
Holding her captive with both hands, he took her mouth in a dazzling kiss that spoke of fires carefully controlled, of hunger that was insatiable.
“I don’t like the position we find ourselves in any more than you, Princess, but it is one of our own making. I would pay the piper. Once married, we can do as we please.”
A shudder of pain ripped through her. “I don’t
think I am that modern-minded. I wouldn’t pretend not to see if you entered another liaison,” she said, using his word for their intimate interlude. “I wouldn’t permit it.”
A chuckle escaped him. “You sound like the king.”
“Yes. We Penwycks are imperious and demanding.”
“And fascinating,” he added with a hint of other emotions besides amusement in his eyes. “Very, very fascinating.”
When he kissed her, she didn’t protest for a moment, then she shoved him aside, slipped into her bedroom and closed the door, leaning against it, her heart pounding.
After another few seconds, she heard his footsteps, then the closing of the outer door. The tension dissolved from her. Without ringing for the maid, she changed into a gown and robe, then ordered dinner brought to her quarters, too weary to face more of her family.
she ordered after the meal, but she sat by the window, her mind lost in a mist of its own. When she spotted a lone male figure strolling the beach, she grasped the arms of the chair until common sense prevailed so that she didn’t rush to him…
Jean-Paul spoke to Arnie Stanhope that evening. His friend was delighted with the burial chamber they’d found.
“Not one, but five chambers,” Arnie exulted, “perhaps covering several hundred years, all with artifacts of daily life, plus—” here Arnie paused for dramatic effect “—totems and other evidence of a rich spiritual heritage.”
“Sounds great,” Jean-Paul said.
“It is. I thought of you every time we opened another section. You could feel the excitement with the first one, then the surprise when we found another chamber behind it. After that, it was just too awesome for words, and we worked in almost total silence on the last.”
“Are you sure you’ve found them all?”
“Pretty much. The site appears to have been abandoned after the fifth chamber was sealed.”
“Any trace of a village?”
“Not a bit. I suspect they brought their dead up to the mountains in a funeral ritual, but lived closer to shore.”
“They were fishermen?”
“Yes. We’ve found hooks made from bones with every adult male and some of the females, even some of the older children, so it was a major occupation.”
“What about farming?”
“We’ve found grains, but no instruments associated with farming, such as we know it.”
“They may have simply used sticks the way the American Indians did.”
“Yes. Uh, speaking of children—”
Jean-Paul sighed in resignation as his friend hesitated. “Yes? What have you heard?”