Authors: Laurie Paige
“This morning’s tabloid said Princess Megan fainted yesterday and that she is, uh, expecting.”
“Did it mention a possible father?” Jean-Paul asked dryly.
“Well, it said you caught her before she fell to her certain death on the ballroom floor below.” Arnie paused again and cleared his throat. “The reporter seemed pretty sure that you were involved.”
The slight question in Arnie’s voice spoke volumes. If the article was definite enough to cause Arnie to question him, the report had been very convincing.
“Well, I suppose I’ll have to confess all. Yes, the royal princess is expecting, and yes, I am the father.”
A choking sound came from the other end of the line.
Jean-Paul had to chuckle at his friend’s shock. As he’d often observed: Arnie was not of this world.
“I’d better call the parents as soon as we hang up,” he continued, “else both will storm the palace here until they find out the truth.”
“Your mother will be delighted at the prospect of a grandchild,” Arnie said in his factual manner. “She has often said so over the past five years.”
“I know. Keep me informed of the progress at the dig and on the artifacts. And the carbon dating.”
“Will do,” Arnie told him, then added, “And, uh, congratulations on the…uh…are you getting married?”
“I’ll let you know as soon as I do,” Jean-Paul promised. After hanging up, he sat in his chamber, deep in thought, then changed into hiking clothes. He needed to get away from the palace so he could think.
Crossing the family garden a couple of minutes later, he heard his name called. The queen was seated on a bench under a bower of roses. Dressed in white slacks and a silk shirt, with her dark hair and blue eyes, she was strikingly beautiful.
“Your Majesty,” he intoned, and bowed before coming forward.
“Please, sit with me for a moment,” she requested.
Jean-Paul joined her on the bench. The mountains along the coast, as well as the sea, seemed to stretch out before them into eternity. “I can see why you choose to sit here. It’s lovely.”
“It’s one of my favorite places on the island,” she said. “Just as the bench hidden by the birch trees has always been one of Megan’s.”
He hoped the heat he felt in his ears didn’t mean he was blushing like a schoolboy in front of Megan’s mother. “I know the one you speak of.”
“Yes,” the queen said.
The devil in him rose to the surface, daring anyone to challenge his right to know all there was to know about the elusive princess.
The thought pleased him. No one else would associate the name with Megan, the Quiet One.
“I appreciate the way you’ve stood by Megan,” Queen Marissa continued easily.
“I’m involved as much as she. More,” he added in a softer tone, “for I knew where the pull of temptation could lead. She didn’t.”
“She’s twenty-seven. A woman grown, at least in her eyes. To a mother, your child is always your child.” She laughed quietly, but with an undertone of sadness.
Jean-Paul studied the queen. He put the question to her directly and simply. “What would you have me do, Majesty?”
“I have thought on it. You must woo her.”
The surprise must have shown on his face.
She smiled, not without a certain amount of sympathy. “However you may feel, I think she would respond to a serious courtship. Megan, I am beginning to understand, has a bit of her father’s stubbornness, but she is also tender at heart.”
“Would you have me lie to her?”
“Would soft words and a caring manner be pretending?”
He considered, then said, “No. I do care about her and her welfare. As well as that of the child.”
“Megan is vulnerable now. She doesn’t want to force you into something she is sure will be against your will. If you want the child, you must convince the mother that the heart is involved.” The queen sighed. “You young people are much more idealistic and demanding of fate than I was. I never expected love. Respect, yes. Kindness, yes. Passion…well, I wasn’t sure about this last part, but yes, that came to my marriage as well.”
“You’re saying your marriage has worked out well?” he asked, not sure if this was true.
She plucked a rosebud and sniffed its fragrance, a sweet smile very like Megan’s on her face. “It has. Sometimes you drift off course, but all will be well if you discuss the issues and what you need and expect from the union.” She gave the rose to him. “Turn to each other with your problems, also with your triumphs. Share your feelings as well as your passion. There, that’s enough. I’ll say no more.” She stood, indicating the session was over.
Jean-Paul kissed her hand and left her to stroll on the trail over the hills. Could he satisfy Megan’s girlish fantasies by pretending to love her? The words were easy enough to say, although he’d never used them falsely.
In college, he’d thought he was in love, but somehow the feeling had faded. Contrary to that
experience, he wanted Megan more as time passed, not less. And he did like her. She was smart, interested in all manner of things and fun to be with even without the passion part of it.
Heat gathered low in his body. But of course, there was the passion, a sweet, driving need that merely added spice to all the reasons they should marry.
Hmm, perhaps the queen was right. He would woo her and win her. Having made this decision, he felt lighter of spirit and turned back toward the palace.
A thundercloud rolled in, accompanying him on the return trip. He paused at the gate and observed the lightning play over the sea. Was the stormy weather an omen of things to come?
With a laugh that thumbed his nose at nature and whatever the Fates had in store, he continued through the garden.
The queen watched the storm approach and wondered if it was an omen of things to come.
Surely life was turbulent enough in the small kingdom without further strife. She sighed and wished for peace in her heart and in her family.
“My dear,” a masculine voice said.
It was the king. Surprised, she stood and curtsied. “Morgan, how delightful to see you.”
She wondered if that was true. Her smile wavered and disappeared as he came close.
“Please, be seated,” he requested. “We have no need of formality between us, do we?”
A hint of wistful longing colored the question, causing her heart to contract. “Of course not.”
Aware of his heat as he joined her on the bench, of the arm he rested casually behind her and of the sensuous smile that curved the corners of his mouth, she tried to figure out what was different about him…about them.
It was almost as if he courted her again.
An electric tingle charged through her nerves. It had been weeks since he’d been to her bed. She’d thought there must be another, but the way he looked at her now belied that idea.
“Do you seek me out to talk about Megan?” she asked, then went on quickly. “She was afraid you’d be angry.”
“How else would I be?” he asked rather autocratically. “Has she no sense?” The question was rhetorical.
“Sometimes love happens like that.” She heard the wistful need in her tone and hoped he didn’t. His face hardened, so Marissa hastily took another path. “Yet you laughed when you first heard the news. Why was that?”
He hesitated, then smiled blandly. “Shock, I suppose. I came expecting a tryst with my wife, but ended up having to behave the outraged father. Did I play the part well?”
Whatever she’d expected, it wasn’t this cool cynicism regarding their daughter. “Ah, perhaps too much so,” she said, managing a tiny smile.
“What would you have me do?”
He leaned close so that she smelled the brandy on his breath. With one hand, he traced a line down her cheek to her lips and lingered at the corner of her mouth.
“Give them your blessing to do that which they think is best. They aren’t children to be ordered about.” She turned her head from his touch. “I think there is true feeling between them, but neither has realized it yet.”
He frowned impatiently. “Then tell them they have my permission to carry on.”
His harsh chuckle bothered Marissa. She studied her husband and noted again the almost feverish quality in his eyes. Worry ate at her. “You’ve been working too hard,” she scolded gently, lifting her hand to his face.
Taking her wrist, he brought her fingers to his lips and kissed each one. “You’re right,” he agreed huskily. “Perhaps it’s time for play…”
The electricity flowed through her again as his deep voice faded off suggestively. It suddenly angered her that he seemed so cavalier about their relationship, obviously expecting to be welcomed back with open arms when he’d hardly spoken to her in weeks and spared not a second for their family.
Pulling her hand from his grip, she stared out at the sea. “Sometimes I wish we could leave here and have a new life, one that’s different,” she murmured, an odd sadness tangling with other mixed emotions that she hadn’t the energy to define.
“Leave?” He laughed as if this were a preposterous idea. “You would miss being queen.”
“I would like a simpler life.” She rose. “But as that is impossible, I must dress for the theater tonight. Do you join Gwendolyn and me?”
He looked regretful. “Nothing would please me better, my lovely queen, but I have other commitments.”
She couldn’t help it, but she wondered what they were. What had happened to the love she and Morgan had discovered early in their marriage? How did people grow apart?
Duty, she decided. They each had so many official responsibilities, not to mention those of family. She felt they had somehow failed their middle daughter. Megan, the Quiet One, the one who asked for so little, made so few demands, had always been easy to ignore because of her sweet nature. Megan, who at last had done something unexpected.
Gazing far out at sea, she understood what drove Jean-Paul to be something of a rebel. To be free, to roam the world and find adventure and excitement…
An idea came to her as she stared at the tiny
island in the bay. The storm was pushing the waves higher and higher. Soon it would cut the island retreat off from the mainland, isolating it until after the storm passed.
Which might be days.
Smiling with wicked intent, she hurried into the palace before the storm struck and lifted the telephone. “Selywyn, do you have a moment?” the queen asked.
“For you, my queen, I have all the time in the world,” he replied gallantly.
“I have a favor to ask. This isn’t official,” she hastened to add.
“Anything,” he said.
When they hung up, the royal secretary laughed softly, shook his head, laughed again, then went to a secure telephone and dialed a coded number.
Selywyn explained what he wanted.
Silence answered him, then, “Now?” Logan asked.
“Yes. Don’t forget food and bedding.”
The king’s top bodyguard gave a snort of laughter. “Are you sure this is part of our official duty?”
“The order comes from a high source,” Selywyn assured his friend. “Be careful. The earl is strong and quite practiced in the martial arts, I understand.”
“All will be as you wish,” Logan replied dryly.
“Good. Call me when it’s finished.” Selywyn hung up, then picked up the palace phone and rang another number. “All is arranged.”
“Thank you, Selywyn,” the queen said softly. “You are a jewel.”
After they said good-night, Selywyn stood in the dark of his silent chamber, his thoughts on affairs of the heart rather than affairs of state.
“Something must be done about the king,” he at last murmured. “But not tonight,” he assuaged his conscience.
here is he?” Megan asked, her glance flying around the hunting lodge built by her great-grandfather and remodeled by subsequent generations until, in addition to the huge log room, there was also a modern kitchen in one corner and bunk beds in a loft above the great room.
“You said Jean-Paul was here and needed me. Is this some kind of joke?”
Logan’s smile was thin. “All I know is what I was told. I’m sure all will be clear soon.” He straightened from where he peered outside the lodge window. “Ah, here they are.”
Megan heard the
of an approaching helicopter. A minute later, a masculine voice
she at once recognized, demanded, “Where is she?”
Jean-Paul appeared out of the storm, his tone worried.
“Here,” Logan called into the growing dark, opening the door and walking out.
Megan stared in confusion as Jean-Paul appeared at the lodge door. “You’re not ill,” she said, beginning to feel like a fool.
“No,” he agreed. An arrogant grin spread over his handsome face. “Why are we meeting like this?”
Megan strode forward. “Move,” she snapped at him and pushed out the door. “Logan, come back here,” she yelled at the royal bodyguard and his two minions, already in the helicopter, which had delivered her moments before Jean-Paul arrived.
Logan waved as he started to climb aboard. “Sorry, Your Royal Highness, but when duty demands, I but obey.” His smile flashed in the growing darkness of the twilight and the storm.
Megan stared in disbelief as the machine lifted off and the three guards disappeared into the mist. “They’ve left.”
“So it would seem.”
She turned on her companion. “Did you plot this?”
“Are you out of your mind?” he asked equably, but hardly seemed interested in the answer. He flicked a switch. Lamps on tables at each end of a
huge leather sofa came on. With that, he began exploring the lodge quite thoroughly.
Stepping inside and slamming the door when a gust of storm wind brought a heavy mist swirling about her, Megan studied Jean-Paul, who was on his haunches as he searched through a cabinet. She decided he was as innocent as she in this escapade.
With a sigh, she sank into a rocker set before the massive fireplace. Logs were already stacked for a fire.
“Who would have ordered us brought here?” she said.
“And in a storm. Ouch,” he added, bumping his head on a cabinet door as he stood. He closed the door, then gazed at her as if worried.
“We’re safe enough. The storm won’t harm the lodge. It has stood on this mountain for over a hundred years.”
Jean-Paul tapped the solid wall. “It’s well constructed, but I don’t relish spending the night. Do you know where we are and how to get back to the palace?”
She nodded. “But the path is too dangerous in the dark and with a storm nearly on us.”
He looked her over lazily. “Then I suggest we settle in and play lord and lady of the manor. There seems to be enough food to get us through the next twenty-four hours.” Bending, he examined a propane cooking stove.
“The storm may last for more than a day,” she told him with a catch in her voice.
Giving her an enigmatic glance, he continued with his search. “Hmm,” he murmured, standing on the stairs to the loft, eyes narrowed on the several bunk beds stacked along the walls. Under the stairs, he found the bathroom, which wasn’t luxurious but contained all the necessities.
“This was built for all-male hunting parties, but my family started using it when Meredith and I were small.”
“Huh,” was all he said.
He unrolled sleeping bags, found two pillows, then blew up two air mattresses. In a few minutes, their beds were ready for the night. He’d put the covers on a lower bunk and the upper one that went with it. A shiver ran over her.
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
“I am.” He opened a bag of cookies, ate two, then sipped from a carton of milk found in a well-stocked refrigerator. “Ah, all the comforts of home,” he murmured with wicked amusement as he sat on a stool and leaned against the wall.
“This isn’t funny,” she informed him. “I can’t imagine Duke Logan would do this on his own.”
“I’d hardly think so,” Jean-Paul agreed.
“The twins aren’t here, so it couldn’t be one of their pranks. Meredith and Anastasia wouldn’t think
of it. My father was furious with us, so I don’t think…”
She was aware of Jean-Paul’s light blue gaze on her as she ran through the list of possible culprits.
“So who does that leave?” he asked, a smile hovering at the corners of his mouth.
Dragging her gaze from his tempting lips, she folded her hands in her lap and, sounding as miserable as she felt, said, “My mother.”
“Yes,” he said simply.
Megan realized he’d come to this conclusion long before she had. “But…why?”
“To give us time to sort things through?”
“She’s a romantic,” Megan explained as if he’d taken offense at the queen’s action.
“And you, fair selky? Are you a romantic, too?”
Meeting his gaze, she saw the fire he didn’t bother to conceal. Wild thoughts of another night, another storm, raced through her mind. Longing gathered inside her like a collapsing sun, fiery hot and dangerous with the potential to burn them both to cinders.
She tried to suppress it, to ignore it when that proved impossible, but she was aware of Jean-Paul and their isolation with every fiber of her being. A slight tremor darted through her muscles, causing her to tense.
“Don’t worry,” he said in a husky near whisper. “All will be well. I can control my baser instincts.”
“But can I?” she blurted, then flushed painfully as she realized exactly how she sounded.
Instead of laughing, his expression changed to one that she could only describe as incredibly gentle. “Tell me what you want, and that’s the way it shall be.”
She sighed, then smiled wearily. “I don’t know what I want. I don’t know what to do about our situation. I don’t know what’s best for anyone.”
“We can discuss it in the morning,” he said.
The mournful whistle of the wind increased as the storm swept over the sturdy lodge. Waves crashed against the rocky side of the island, visible from the windows along the western wall. Inside their snug haven, she and her guest sat in silence and listened to the tempest roar. Cold seeped slowly into the great room.
“Go to bed,” he suggested softly when she shivered, then yawned and pulled her sweater tighter around her. “There’s a pink fleece outfit in the duffel beside the door. I assume it’s yours. There’s a blue one for me.”
She went into the bathroom and undressed, then pulled on the warm sweatsuit. After brushing her teeth and washing her face, she climbed the steps and crept into the lower bed. Jean-Paul stayed downstairs.
Her eyes grew heavy. After he turned out the lamps, she heard him come upstairs, then felt him step on her bed and settle into the top bunk. She
heard a faint thud just before he muttered a curse. The rafters were close up there.
She smiled in the dark, feeling safe and content for the moment. She would face tomorrow when the sun came up.
The sky was still dark with storm clouds the next morning. Megan was at once aware of where she was. Looking over the rail, she spied Jean-Paul standing at one of the front windows, his hands on the sill to brace his weight as he watched the rain pour down in heavy sheets.
Pushing the sleeping bag aside, she swung her feet off the bed, slipped into loafers and went downstairs. A fire crackled in the massive hearth of the great room.
“Good morning,” he said. “Ready for breakfast?”
“Not quite.” She stretched. “I’d like a shower first.”
“I found soap, shampoo and toothbrushes in our supplies. Remind me to thank Logan for thinking of everything.”
She smiled at his wry tone as she headed for the bathroom. As children, they had never noticed the lack of amenities in the lodge, but now she was aware that Jean-Paul had taken a shower before her. She noted the razor on the sink, two toothbrushes in the holder and caught the scent of soap and shampoo. She hurried through her routine, donned
the pink sweats and returned to the main room as quickly as possible.
“Cold, huh?” he said when she paused beside a window and shivered as the chill penetrated the glass.
“Yes.” She sniffed appreciatively.
He handed her a cup of coffee, then turned the bacon in the skillet. “Scrambled or fried eggs?”
“You got it. Sit.”
She sat at the long table that could accommodate ten people easily. “Thanks,” she mumbled when he gave her a plate filled with bacon, eggs and toast, a fork on the edge.
He gazed at her with a thoughtful frown, then poured a glass of milk and placed it beside her plate. “Eat. I’ll join you in a minute.”
As it had that morning on his sailboat, the atmosphere seemed intimate as they ate breakfast together. Each time she looked up, his eyes were on her.
“What?” she finally said. “Have I got egg on my chin?”
He shook his head. “Are you always quiet in the mornings?” he asked.
“I suppose,” she began. “Well, I don’t really know. I’m usually alone when I first wake up. That is…”
A grin broke over his face. “I understand,” he murmured with a wicked light in his eyes.
He let her finish in peace, but he insisted on helping with their few dishes. She washed. He dried.
In ten minutes, they were done.
“Now what?” she said, not expecting an answer.
“Rummy. I found some cards. A warning, though. I’m a demon rummy player.”
“So am I,” she informed him.
“Let the games begin,” he intoned as if they were the opening act of the International Olympics.
The morning passed quickly into afternoon. After lunch, they each found a book to read. Megan went to sleep on one end of the sofa.
Jean-Paul watched Megan sleep, looking pink and delectable in the fleecy suit. His body stirred. No surprise there. He tended to stay tense around her. The semi-erection went to a full one when she stretched like a cat awakening, then sat up.
“Still raining?” she asked.
“Are you grouchy?”
“No.” He groaned internally when she struck a pose and studied him. By keeping a sports magazine over his lap, he managed to evade detection.
“Huh,” was all she said, then she wandered about the room, peering out each window, until she came to the entertainment center.
“I’ve checked the TV,” he told her. “All we get is static.”
“We’ve never had good reception up here.” She
stacked some records on a player. A pop tune with a lively beat filled the lodge. “Want to dance?”
“No.” He regretted not putting on underwear upon rising that morning. “Excuse me.”
Grabbing the duffel that had been prepared for him, he went into the bathroom, found briefs and put them on. With them and the navy sweats, he was decent once more. He returned to the great room.
Megan was moving about the wooden floor to the beat of the music. She changed steps frequently, obviously making them up as she danced. Her lithe form was sexy, all woman, although she didn’t make any of those overtly suggestive movements frequently seen nowadays.
Desire increased to a maelstrom of hunger.
“Come on,” she called, spotting him lurking in the shadows. She gestured with both hands.
Reluctantly he went to her. If she but knew where his thoughts dwelt, she’d hide in the bathroom and bolt the flimsy lock. Which wouldn’t keep a determined flea out.
“This is good exercise and more fun than push-ups, huh?” she asked, her eyes alight with good humor.
“There’s some that I like better,” he told her, sounding like a disgruntled bear.
Taking one good look at him, she smothered a giggle, spun away, then spun back. He took both her hands and turned them in a disco move, shuf
fling her in and out of his arms, a matter of pure torture for him, but which she seemed to enjoy quite well.
He found he wanted to please her, that it was more important than his own bodily discomfort and general moodiness. Then he wondered about that.
“What?” she wanted to know when he grimaced at his odd musings.
But since she laughed as she said it, he was pretty sure there was no sympathy behind the words. He spun her around so that she was tucked under his arm and grinned wickedly. “Got you now,” he murmured, and kissed her.
She went still beside him. Her chest lifted in rapid breaths, and he felt her swallow once before her lips trembled, then opened to his seeking.
He traced his tongue over her mouth, then dipped inside the sweet interior. His lungs stopped working properly.
“You really do take my breath away,” he told her, grumpy again because of things he couldn’t name or control and somehow feeling it was all her fault.
Which it was.
No other female that he’d ever met had confused the issues between man and woman as much as this one did. “I like things simple,” he told her, glaring into her green-as-grass eyes, which seemed to hold
laughter as she gazed up at him. He pulled her closer, wanting to feel the beat of life in her, to experience every breath she took…
He muttered an expletive. “What the hell is this?” he demanded huskily, at a loss to understand.
“I asked first.”
Her eyes grew rounder at his tone. “I don’t know.” Pulling away, she went to the kitchen and peered into the refrigerator. “There’s chicken. Do you like it baked?”
“Yeah.” Fists on hips, he watched her prepare their evening meal as if she knew her way around the kitchen. Soon, delicious odors were coming from the oven. Drawn like a moth, he went closer so he could observe her. “Where did a royal princess learn to cook?”
Megan grinned and wrinkled her nose at him. “When Meredith and I were little, we saw a movie where the family cooked a meal. We thought that looked like fun, so we nagged until Mother agreed that we should all make something. The palace chef nearly had a coronary when we invaded the kitchen and announced our intentions.”