Princess of Convenience
Raoul needs a bride, fast, if he's to be Prince Regent of Alp'Azuri. He'd rather carry on his work as a doctor with a medical aid agency, but his country's future is at stake - and so is his nephew's life.
Beautiful yet vulnerable Jessica agrees to marry Raoul, but she will return home to Australia the next day. She could all too easily risk her heart in a place like this, married to a man like Raoul. Except Raoul is a man with a heart big enough not only to save a country, but to heal her broken heart, too.
SHE should be driving on this side of the road. Surely?
This was the most fabulous autoroute in Alp'Azuri. The road spiralled around snow-capped mountains, with the sea crashing hundreds of feet below. Every twist in the road seemed to reveal postcard magic. Medieval castles, ancient fishing villages, lush pastures dotted with long-haired goats and alpacas — every sight was seemingly designed to take the breath away.
The twist she'd just taken had given her a fleeting glimpse of the home of the Alp'Azuri royal family. Made of glistening white stone, with turrets, towers and battlements and set high on the crags overlooking the sea, the castle looked as if it had been taken straight out of a fairy tale.
Two years ago Jessica Devlin would have been entranced. But now she was concentrating on reaching the next of her suppliers — concentrating on not thinking about the empty passenger seat — concentrating simply on staying on the right side of the road.
She was sure she was on the right side of the road. The autoroute consisted of blind bends winding around the mountain. As she drove, Jess caught sight of the road looping above and below.
The road above was the worry. Was she imagining it?
She drove cautiously around the next bend and caught a glimpse of a blue, open-topped sports car. The car was two curves above. Coming fast.
Driving against the cliff edge.
Her side. Surely it should be on the other side? She braked hard, turning her car onto a slight verge between cliff and road. The bend ahead was blind. If the car ahead came round on the wrong side...
It had to be her imagination. She was basing this fear on a flash of blue, now out of sight.
Maybe the driver ahead had better vision of the road than she did. She was being too cautious.
But she still felt the first claws of fear. Too much had happened in her life to trust that the worst wouldn't happen now. Thus Jess was almost stopped when the blue car swept around the bend. Travelling far, far too fast.
On her side of the road.
She was as far onto the verge as she could be without melting into the cliff. There was nowhere she could go.
"No." She put her hands out, blindly. "No." No one heard.
Today was meant to have been his wedding day. Instead...it made a great day for a funeral. "Do you suppose she meant to do it?" Lionel, Archduke of Alp'Azuri, looked at the flag-draped coffin with distaste. He was supposed to be supporting his great-nephew in his grief, but neither man could summon much energy for strong emotion.
There'd been too much grief in the past few weeks for another death to destroy them.
"What, kill herself?" Raoul, Lionel's great-nephew, didn't even try to sound devastated. He sounded furious, which was exactly how he felt. "Sarah? You have to be kidding."
This was crazy, he decided. What on earth was he doing here, playing the wounded lover at the funeral of his fiancée?
But he knew his duty. Raoul, Prince Regent of Alp'Azuri for at least another six days, stood at rigid attention while his fiancée was committed for burial, but all he felt was distaste.
"She had what she wanted," he told his uncle, and there was no way he could disguise his anger. "She was drunk, Lionel, and it was only because the woman she hit was an incredibly careful driver that she didn't manage to take someone else with her."
"But why?" Lionel was clearly at a loss. "She had her girlfriends here for a pre-bridal lunch. Then she decided to drive down to Vesey to meet her lover. Her lover! Six days before the wedding, with every camera in the country trained on her. Do you know what her blood alcohol content was?"
"Raoul, look distraught," his uncle hissed. "The cameras are on you." 'I'm suffering in stoic agony," Raoul said grimly. "All the papers say so. Just as well she crashed before she met her latest interest."
"Hell, Raoul..." 'You want me to be sympathetic?" Raoul demanded. "Oh, you know I didn't want her dead but I never wanted to marry her. She might have been a distant cousin but I hardly knew her. This was your idea. Of all the stupid..."
"I thought she'd be OK," Lionel said, and if the cameras were on his face now they would certainly see distress. "Sarah was brought up to royalty. She knew what was expected of her. She could handle the media."
"So well that she managed to disguise the fact that she had a lover she intended keeping. How long would the marriage have lasted before the media found out?"
Lionel hesitated. "I suspect that Sarah didn't think you'd care."
"You know I wouldn't. But the media is a different matter."
"They understood. It was a marriage of convenience. Such things have been happening in royal families forever, and every person in this country wants you to marry." Lionel grimaced. "Except your cousin, Marcel. Why you've held out for so long before marrying... Hell, Raoul, it puts us in an appalling position."
"Not me," Raoul said grimly. "I've done enough. I'm out of here."
"Which leaves your nephew — and your country — where?" Lionel cast a nervous glance at Sarah's family, who seemed to be arguing over whose flower arrangement would take precedence. "In the hands of yet another like your brother — another government puppet. The only thing that could have saved us was this marriage." His grimace grew more pronounced. "Look at that. Her family are like vultures."
"They are vultures. They wanted this marriage because of the money." Raoul glanced at his once prospective in-laws with the air of a man who'd seen his destiny and escaped by a hair's breadth. "That was all Sarah wanted. Money and power and prestige. She would have screwed this principality."
"But not as much as our prime minister and Marcel." Lionel sounded morose. "So it was a mistake. But now..."
Raoul stared grimly at the coffin. "I've done as much as I can. You'll have to take over. Exert some influence over Marcel."
His uncle forgot about looking bereft and just looked appalled. "Me? You have to be joking. I'm seventy-seven, Raoul, and Marcel hasn't listened to me for forty years. You know he and his wife don't want the boy. Sure, anyone who takes on the prince regent role has to be married, but married or not, Marcel and Marguerite are no more fit to be parents than...well, than your brother and his wife. Begging your pardon, Raoul."
"You don't have to beg my pardon. Jean-Paul was a dissolute fool, just like my father."
"Your father was my nephew." 'Then you knew how inexcusable his conduct was," Raoul said savagely. "And what he left of the royal family were exactly the same. Jean-Paul, Cherie and Sarah. My brother, his wife and my cousin. Now they're all dead, two from taking pure heroin instead of the normal dope they've been living on for years, and one from drunken speeding on her way to meet a lover. And now Sarah's death means that Marcel takes control. God help this country and God help the crown prince. But there's nothing more I can do now, Lionel. I want out."
"Your mother —" 'My mother is the reason I agreed to marry Sarah. She wants the child." He hesitated. "But there's nothing more I can do. She can't have him."
"No," Lionel said reflectively and turned to where the dignitaries were attempting to reason with Sarah's family. "It looks like Marcel will take him, and you know Marcel is a government puppet. They'll never let your mother have access."
"I can't help that," Raoul said roughly. "I've done my best."
"Choosing Sarah wasn't your best." 'Lionel..." 'OK, I helped choose. I concede she wasn't a great choice but you hardly gave us time. Now we've got six days."
"To find a bride so I can stay on as Prince Regent? You have to be kidding."
"If she'd just waited to kill herself until the week after the wedding rather than the week before..." Lionel sighed. "But she didn't. We're in a mess, boy."
"We are at that." Raoul grimaced and then put a hand on his uncle's shoulder, as if gaining support and strength from his elder. He almost visibly braced himself.
"Enough. I'm going to put my flowers on Sarah's coffin."
"Because you want to?" 'Because her mother and her father and her ex-husband and two of her lovers are all out there threatening to kill each other if I don't," he said grimly. "It's time for a man to take a stand. I'll put flowers on Sarah's grave, I'll do the best I can to see my mother has access to her grandson and then I'm going back to my medicine in Africa. Where I belong. This royalty business is for someone else. I resign."
For the first two days after the accident Jessica was asked no questions. Concussion, shock and the anaesthetic she was given for a dislocated shoulder were enough to send her drifting into a space no one could reach.
After that she was aware of questions being softly asked. Not too many, but essentials for all that. The questions were asked first in English, and then as those around her realised she spoke their language, in the soft and lilting mix of French and Italian used throughout Alp'Azuri.
Who was she?
That was easy. "Jessica Devlin."
Where was she from? Her passport said Australia. Was that right?
"Yes. I'm Australian."
Who did she want them to contact? "No one. Unless I'm dead, in which case my cousin, Cordelia, but don't you dare let her know where I am if there's the slightest chance that I might live. Please."
After that they backed off a bit — these gentle people who nursed her. Who were they? She didn't ask.
There was a woman with elegant clothes and silver hair and a worried look that seemed to be more worried every time she saw her. There was a silver-haired old gentleman who deferred to the lady. He called her ma'am and carried in trays and he also looked worried.
Who else? Two nurses — one at night, one during the day, and a doctor who patted her hand and said, "You'll be fine, my dear. You're young and you're strong."
Of course. She was young and strong.
The doctor asked the hardest question and that was the only one that she had real trouble making herself answer. When the nurses and the others were gone the doctor touched her gently on the hand and asked, "Girl, your child. Your family. I have to know. There was no sign of anyone else in the car. There's no wedding ring on your finger, but there are signs on your body that tell me you've had a child. There wasn't a little one in the car, was there?" His face stilled as he prepared for the worst. "No one else went over the cliff?"