Claimed: Secret Royal Son
For just one night, sensible Lily McLachlan had thrown caution to the wind and fallen into Prince Alexandros's arms.
A year later, Alex wants to claim his secret royal son, and Lily's hand. Lily is faced with becoming Alex's convenient bride when all she really wants is her prince's heart..
Wake up, Lily.'
There were two doctors and four nurses gathered by the bed. This had been groundbreaking surgery. Heroic stuff. If Lily hadn't been close to death already, they'd never have tried it.
After the operation she'd been kept in an induced coma to give her damaged brain time to recover. They'd saved her life, but would she wake up…whole?
The junior nurse—the gofer in this small, exclusive French hospital—had nothing to do right now and she was free to think about the patient. She'd seen this girl come in a month ago, deeply unconscious, drifting towards death. Rumour said she was related to royalty, but no one came near her.
A nurse was supposed to be objective. She wasn't supposed to care.
There wasn't one person around this bed who didn't care.
'Wake up, Lily,' the surgeon said again, pressing his patient's hand. 'The operation's over. It was a huge success. You're going to be okay.'
And finally Lily's eyelids fluttered open.
She had dark eyes. Brown. Too big for her face.
'Hey,' the surgeon said and smiled. 'Hello, Lily.'
'H… Hello.' It was a faint whisper, as if she'd forgotten how to speak.
'How many fingers am I holding up?'
'Three,' she said, not interested.
'That's great,' the surgeon said, jubilant. 'You've been ill— really ill—but we've operated and the tumour's been completely removed. You're going to live.'
Lily's gaze was moving around the room, taking in each person. The medical uniforms. The eager, interested faces.
And then, as if she'd remembered something really important, her eyes widened. Fearful.
'Are you in pain?' the surgeon asked. 'What hurts, Lily?'
'Nothing hurts. But…' Her hand shifted, slow from disuse, and her fingers spread over her abdomen.
'Where's my baby?'
I, Alexandros Kostantinos Mykonis, do swear to govern the peoples of the United Isles of Diamas—the Diamond Isles— on behalf of my infant cousin Michales, until such time as he reaches twenty-five years of age.'
Alex's black uniform was slashed with inserts of crimson and richly adorned with braid, tassels and medals. A lethal-looking sword hung by his side, its golden grip emblazoned with the royal coat of arms. His snug black-as-night trousers looked sexy-as-hell, and his leather boots were so shiny a girl could see her face in them.
If she got close enough. As once she'd been close.
Lily could barely see Alex's face from where she watched in the further-most corner of the cathedral, but she knew every inch of his hawk-like features. His brown-black eyes were sometimes creased with laughter, yet sometimes seemed so severe she'd think he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
It had been wonderful to make him smile. He'd made her smile, too.
He'd melted her heart—or she thought he had. Love was all about trust, and trust was stupid. She'd learned that now, but what a way to learn.
She watched on, numbed by the day's events. Shocked. Bewildered. Trying desperately to focus on what was happening.
The ring, the glove, the royal stole, the rod with the dove, were bestowed on Alex with gravity, and with gravity he accepted them. This coronation ceremony was as it had been for generations. Alex looked calm, assured and regal.
The last time she'd seen him he'd been in her bed, leaning over her in the aftermath of loving. His eyes had been wicked with laughter. His jeans and shirt had been crumpled on the floor.
Alexandros Mykonis. Successful landscape architect, internationally acclaimed. Her one-time lover.
The new Prince Regent of the Diamond Isles.
The father of her baby.
'Doesn't he look fabulous?' The woman sitting next to her— a reporter, according to the press pass round her neck—was sighing mistily as Alex knelt to receive the blessing.
'He does,' Lily whispered back.
They watched on. He was well worth watching.
The blessing over, Alex rose and proceeded to sign the royal deeds of office. Trumpeters, organist and choir filled the church with triumphant chorus, but there was room within the music's shadow for talk.
'There's not a single woman here who doesn't think he's hot,' the reporter whispered.
Lily hesitated. She should keep quiet, but she was here with a purpose. If she were to get her baby back she needed all the information she could gather. 'It's a wonder he's not married,' she ventured.
'He's not the marrying kind,' the reporter told her, sighing again with the waste of it. 'Though not for want of interest. There's always been some woman or other. My guess is he's disillusioned. His father, King Giorgos's brother, disobeyed royal orders and married for love, but the marriage caused nothing but grief.'
'Why?' she asked, but before the reporter could answer they were distracted.
The Archbishop, magnificent in his gold and white ecclesiastical gowns, had handed newly signed documents to an elderly priest.
The priest, a bit doddery and clearly nervous, took the documents with fumbling fingers—and dropped them.
'That's Father Antonio,' the reporter whispered as the old priest stared down at the scattered papers in dismay. 'He's been the island's priest for as long as I can remember. The Archbishop didn't want him to be part of this ceremony, but Prince Alexandros insisted.'
The old priest was on his knees, trying to gather the scattered documents, clearly distressed. Instead of helping, the Archbishop looked on with distaste. Following his lead, the other officials did nothing.
It was Alex who came to his rescue. As if this pomp and ceremony was an everyday occurrence, he stooped to help gather the papers, then helped the old man to his feet.
Then, as the old priest's face worked, trying desperately to contain his distress at his clumsiness, Alex set his hands on his shoulders and he kissed him. Once on each cheek, in the age-old way of the men of this island.
It was a gesture of affection and of respect.
It was a gesture to restore dignity.
'Thank you, Father,' Alex said simply, his deep voice resonating throughout the church. 'You've looked after the islanders well during my whole life. You baptised me, you buried my parents, and now you do me honour by being here. You have my gratitude.'
He smiled, and almost every woman in the cathedral sighed and smiled in unison.
'See, that's why the islanders love him,' the reporter whispered, smiling mistily herself. 'That's why the islanders would have loved him to take the throne himself. If only this baby hadn't been born. Who'd have expected the old King to get himself a son at his age? He only did it to block Alex from the succession. His marriage to Mia was a farce.'
But Lily was no longer listening. That smile…that gentleness…
She'd forgotten, she thought, blinking back involuntary tears. She'd forgotten why she'd lost her heart.
She was being dumb. Emotional. She needed to gather information and move on. She needed to stay detached.
Impossible, but she had to try.
'What happened with his parents' marriage?' she managed.
The reporter was gazing adoringly at Alex but she was still willing to talk, and she hadn't lost the thread of their conversation.
'Horrid story,' she said absently. 'Alex was their only child. Because his father was Giorgos's brother and Giorgos was childless, until this baby was born Alex was heir to his uncle's throne. When Alex was five his father drowned, and Giorgos banished his mother from the island. But because Alex was his heir, he kept him. He didn't care for him, though. Alex was brought up in isolation at the castle. When he was fifteen rumour has it that he stood up to his uncle— I have no idea what he threatened him with but it worked. His mother was allowed back. She and Alex went to live in their old home but she died soon after. They say Alex hated his uncle for it—they say he hated everything to do with royalty. But now he's stuck, minding the throne for this baby but with no real power himself.'
Suddenly the reporter's focus was distracted. Some angle of light—something—had redirected her attention to Lily. A glance become a stare. 'Do I know you?' she demanded. 'You look familiar.'
Uh-oh. She shouldn't have talked. Not here, not at such close quarters where she could be studied. 'I don't think so.' She tugged her scarf further down over her tight-cropped curls and pretended to be absorbed in the proceedings again.
'I'm sure I know you.' The girl was still staring.
'You don't,' she said bluntly. 'I only arrived this morning.' To shock, to heartache and to confusion.
'You're a relative? A friend? An official?' The girl was looking at her clothes. They were hardly suitable for such an event. She'd done her best, but her best was shabby. She'd gone for a plain and simple black skirt and jacket, a bit loose now on her too-thin frame. Her only indulgence was her scarf. It was tie-dyed silk, like a Monet landscape, a lovely confection of rose and blue and palest lemon.
She knew she didn't fit in with these glamorous people from all around the world. How anyone could link her with her older sister…
'You look like the Queen,' the girl said, and it took all her control to stop herself flinching.
'I'm sure I don't.'
'You're not related?'
She made herself smile. 'How could you think that?' she managed. 'Queen Mia is so glamorous.'
'But she's abandoned her baby,' the reporter whispered, distracted from Alex's romantic background and filled with indignation for a more recent scandal. 'Can you imagine? The King dies and Mia walks away with one of the world's richest men. Leaving her baby.'
Her baby. Her baby!
But still the girl was staring. She had to deflect the attention somehow. 'I'm here in an official capacity,' she told the reporter bluntly, in a voice that said no more questions.
She fingered the gilt invitation in her jacket pocket. When she'd arrived—in those first few dreadful minutes when she'd realised what Mia had done—she'd half expected to be turned away. But Mia had invited her and apparently she was still on the official guest list. Alex had probably long forgotten her existence. Her papers were in order. Her invitation was real. There was no problem.
Ha! There were problems everywhere. Where to go from here?
A trumpet was sounding alone now, a glorious blaze of sound that had the congregation on their feet, applauding the new Prince Regent. Prince Alexandros of the Diamond Isles swept down the aisle, looking every inch a monarch, every inch a royal. Looking worlds away from the Alex she'd fallen in love with.
He was smiling, glancing from side to side as he passed, making eye contact with everyone.
He'd be a much better ruler than the old King, Lily thought, feeling dazed. He'd be a man of the people. Others were clapping and so did she.
His gaze swept past her—and stopped. There was a flicker of recognition.
His smile faded.
She closed her eyes.
When she opened them he'd passed, but once again the reporter looked at her, her face alive with curiosity.
'He knew you,' she breathed.
'I've met him… once.'
'Excuse me, but he looked like he hated you,' the girl said.
'Well, that would be a nonsense,' Lily managed. 'He hardly knows me and I hardly know him. Now, if you'll excuse me…'
She turned her back on the girl and joined the slow procession out into the morning sunshine. Only she knew how hard it was to walk. Only she knew her knees had turned to jelly.
She was here for her baby, but all she wanted was to run.
What the hell was she doing here?
Alex shook one hand after another, so many hands his arms ached. His smile stayed pinned in place by sheer willpower. Would this day never end?
And what was Lily doing here?
He'd met her once, for two days only. For a short, sweet time he'd thought it could be different. It could be…something. But then she'd left without goodbyes, slipping away in the pre-dawn light and catching the ferry to Athens before he'd woken.
It hadn't stopped him looking for her—up and down the Eastern seaboard of the United States, searching for the sister of the Queen, who he'd been told was a boat-builder.
He hardly believed the boat-builder bit. When he'd asked Mia she'd simply shrugged. 'My parents separated. I went with my mother, but Lily chose to stay with my father, so I've barely seen her since childhood. Her whereabouts and what she does is therefore not my concern. I don't see why it should be yours.'
Undeterred, he'd kept searching. He'd finally found her employer—an elderly Greek boat-builder based in Maine, who'd eyed him up and down and decided to be honest.
'Yes, I employ Lily, but she won't thank me for admitting she's the Queen's sister. No one here knows the connection except my family. And, as for telling you where she is… In honesty, my friend, I don't know. She left here a month ago, pleading ill health. She gets headaches—bad ones—and they're getting worse. We told her to take a break, get healthy and come back to us. My wife is worried about her. We're keeping her apartment over our yard because we value her, but for now… she's gone and we don't know where.'
So he'd been left—again—with the searing sense of loss that was grief. He'd lost his father when he was five and the old King had torn him from his mother. When finally he'd been old enough to make choices for himself, he'd been reunited with his mother, only to have her die as well.
He'd been gutted. The old King's cruelty cut deep. He'd sworn at his mother's graveside not to get attached again. He'd sworn to have as little as possible to do with royalty.
But somehow the Queen's sister had slipped under his defences.
While they'd made love…while they'd talked and laughed into the night…while he'd held her close and listened to her heartbeat… while he'd felt the wonder of their bodies merging as if they were one… it had seemed then as if she was falling for him as hard as he was falling for her. But in the end, for Lily, it must have been a mere one-night stand. Like her sister, was she just after scalps?
The memory of his useless vow had slammed back, mocking him.
Then she'd phoned.
He'd been back in Manhattan, getting on with his life. It had been mid-morning. He'd just fielded a stressful call. He'd still been feeling irritated that Lily so obviously hadn't wanted to be found. He'd been caught off guard and he'd made a stupid joke.
Okay, it had been the wrong thing to joke about. It had been crude, but she hadn't given him a chance to apologise. She'd cut the connection. That had been that.
He'd never wanted to fall for her in the first place. Dammit, he did not want to get emotionally involved, especially with someone connected to Mia.
Somehow she'd breached his defences, but that was a mistake. His defences had to get stronger.
So now, for her to turn up here, today…