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'There must be vengeance, Highness.' The courtier was emphatic and determined as he addressed Max.
The Count no doubt considered him ill fitted for his role of ruler of the island of Fortenegro—the black fort, so named originally because of the sheer dark cliffs that protected the mainland facing side of the island.
'Justice must be seen to be done,' Count Petronius continued forcefully.
The Count, like most of the courtiers, was in his late sixties. Fortenegro's society was fiercely patriarchal, and its laws harsh and even cruel, reflecting its refusal to move with the times. A refusal which Max fully intended to change. The only reason he had not flatly refused to step into his late cousin's shoes and become the new ruler of the principality was because of his determination to do what he knew his late father had longed to do—and that was to bring Fortenegro, and more importantly its people, out of the Dark Ages and into the light of the twenty-first century. That, though, was going to take time and patience, and first he must win the respect of his people and, just as importantly, their trust.
Fortenegrans were constitutionally opposed to change—especially, according to his courtiers, any kind of change that threatened their way of life and the beliefs that went with that way of life: beliefs such as the need to take revenge for insults and slights both real and imagined.
'An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth—that is the law of our people,' the Count continued enthusiastically. 'And they will expect you to uphold it. In their eyes a prince and a ruler who cannot protect his own honour cannot be trusted to protect theirs. That is their wayand the way they live.'
And not just them, Max reflected grimly as he looked one by one at the group of elderly courtiers who had been his late cousin's advisers and who, in many ways, despite the fact that he was now ruler of the island, were still reluctant to cede to him the power they had taken for themselves during his late cousin's reign. But then Cosmo had been a playboy, unashamedly hedonistic and not in the least bit interested in the island he ruled or its people— only the wealth with which it had provided him.
Cosmo, though, was dead—dying at thirty-two of the damage inflicted by the so-called 'recreational' drugs to which he had become addicted. He'd been without a son to succeed him, leaving the title to pass to Max.
Justice must indeed be seen to be done, Max knew, but it would be his justice, not theirs, done in his way and according to his judgement and his beliefs.
The most senior of his late cousin's advisers was speaking again.
'The people will expect you to revenge yourself on the family of your late wife because of her betrayal of you.'
Max knew that the Count and Eloise's grandfather had been sworn enemies, united only by their shared adherence to a moral code that was primitive and arcane. Now, with Eloise and her grandfather dead, he was being urged to take revenge on the sole remaining member of the family—his late wife's sister—for Eloise's betrayal of their marriage and her failure to provide him with the promised heir.
In the eyes of his people it was not merely his right but his duty to them as their ruler to carry out full vengeance according to the ancient laws relating to any damage done to a man's honour. His late wife's family must make full restitution for the shame she had brought on them and on him. Traditionally, that meant that the dishonoured husband could set aside the wife who had betrayed him and take in her place one of her sisters or cousins, who must then provide him with the son his wife's betrayal had denied him.
These were ancient laws, passed down by word of mouth, and Max was appalled at the thought of giving in to them and to those who clung so fiercely to them. But he had no choice. Not if he wanted to win the trust of his people. Without that trust he knew that he could not hope to change things, to bring the island and those who lived there into the modern world. He had already sacrificed his personal beliefs once by marrying Eloise in the first place. Did he really want to do so a second time? Especially when it meant involving someone else? And if so, why?
The status and wealth of being the island's ruler meant little to him. He was already wealthy, and the very idea of one person 'ruling' others went against his strongest beliefs.
But he was the island's ruler, whether he wanted to be or not, and as such he owed its people—his people— a duty of care. He might never succeed in bringing change to the older generation, but for the sake of their children and their children's children he had to win the trust of the leaders and the elders so that those changes could be slowly put in place.
Refusing to accept their way of life and ignoring the laws that meant so much to them would only create hostility. Max knew all these things, but still the whole idea of honour and vengeance was repugnant to him.
A year ago he would have laughed in disbelief at the very idea that he might find himself the ruler of an island in the Aegean off the coast of Croatia.
He had known about the island and its history, of course. His father had spoken often of it, and the older brother with whom he had quarrelled as a young man— because his brother had refused to acknowledge that for the sake of the island's people it was necessary to spend some of his vast fortune on improving the quality of their lives and their education.
Max's father had explained to him that the island was locked in its own past, and that the men who had advised his grandfather and then his own father were hostile to modernisation, fearing for their wealth and status.
His father, with his astute brain and compassion for the human race, had proved that being wealthy and being a philanthropist were far from mutually exclusive, and after the death of his parents Max had continued with their charitable work as head of the foundation his father had started. Under Max's financial guidance both his own personal wealth and that of the foundation had grown, and Max had joined the exclusive ranks of that small and discreet group of billionaires who used their wealth for the benefit of others. Anonymity was a prized virtue of this group of generous benefactors. Max was as different from his late cousin as it was possible to be.
Physically, Max had inherited through his father's genes the tall, broad-shouldered physique of the warrior princes who had coveted and conquered the island many generations ago, along with thick dark hair and a profile that could sometimes look as though it had been hewn from the rock that protected the island from its enemies, so little did his expression give away.
Only his slate-blue eyes came from his English mother; the rest of him was, as his father had often said, 'pure Fortenegro and its royal house.' The evidence of the truth of that statement could be seen in the profile stamped into the island's ancient coinage, but whilst outwardly he might resemble his ancestors, inwardly Max was his own man—a man who fully intended to remove from the people of the island the heavy yoke of custom and oppression under which they lived.
When he had first come to the island to take up the reins of ruling he had promised himself that he would bring the people out of the darkness of poverty and lack of opportunity into the light. But it was proving a far harder task than he had anticipated.
The men who formed his 'court', instead of supporting him, were completely antagonistic towards any kind of modernisation, and continually warned him of the risk of riots and worse from the people if their way of life were to be challenged.
In an attempt to do the right thing Max had married the granddaughter of one of his nobles—a marriage of mutual convenience, which Eloise had assured him she wanted, saying that she would be proud to provide the island with its next ruler. What she had not told him was that whilst she was happy to become his Princess, she had no intention of giving up her regular pasttime of taking a lover whenever she felt like it—foreigners, normally, who had come to the island for one reason or another.
Within hours of the deaths of Eloise and her current lover, when their car had plunged over one of Fortenegro's steep cliffs, gossip about her relationship with the man she had been with had begun. A maid at the castle had seen Eloise in bed in her grandfather's apartment with her lover, and before too long the whole island had known.
Now, six months after her death and following the death of her grandfather, his barons were pressing him to exact revenge on her family for her betrayal.
'It is your duty,' his courtiers had insisted. 'Your late wife's sister must make restitution. She must provide you with the son your wife denied you. That is the way of our people. Your wife shamed you. Only by taking her sister can that shame be expunged and both your honour and the honour of her family be restored.'
'I doubt that Eloise's sister would agree with you.'
Neither his wife nor her grandfather had ever spoken much about Eloise's sister. All Max knew about her, other than the fact that she existed, was that, having trained as an economist, she now lived and worked in Europe.
'She no longer lives here,' Max had pointed out. 'And if she is as intelligent as she seems she will not return, knowing what awaits her.'
'She is already on her way back,' Max had been told by Count Petronius, who had continued smoothly, 'I have taken it upon myself to summon her on your behalf.'
Max had been furious.
'So that she can be threatened into paying her family's supposed debt of honour?' he had demanded angrily.
The Count had shrugged his shoulders. 'I have told her that the apartment in the palace occupied by her late grandfather must be cleared of his possessions. Since he occupied the apartment for many years she will naturally wish to remove from it those things that may be of value.'
Max hadn't been able to conceal his loathing for the Count's underhanded behaviour.
'You have tricked and trapped her.'
'It is your own fate you should be considering, not hers,' the Count had pointed out. 'The people will not tolerate being shamed by a ruler who allows his wife to cuckold him. They will expect you to demand a blood payment.'
And if I do not? Max had wanted to demand. But he had known the answer.
'We live in troubled times,' the Count had told him. 'There are those on the mainland who look at this island and covet it for their own reasons. If the islanders were to rise up against you because they felt you had let them down then such people would be pleased. They would be quick to seize the advantage you will have given them.'
Max had frowned. The Count might have spoken theatrically, but Max knew that there was indeed a cadre of very very rich and unscrupulous businessmen who would like very much indeed to take over the island and use it for their own purposes. The island was rich in minerals, and it would be a perfect tax haven. And so much more than that. With its natural scenic beauty— its snow in winter on the high ridge of its mountains, and its sea facing beaches that basked in summer sunshine—it would make a perfect tourist destination, providing year-round enjoyment.
Max was already aware of the benefits that tourism could bring to the people of the island—handled properly—but he was equally aware of the billions it could make for the unscrupulous, and the destruction and damage they would cause if they were allowed to gain control of the island. He had a duty to ensure that did not happen.
'Your late wife's sister is on her way here, and once she is here you must show the people the power of your vengeance. Only then will you have their respect and their trust,' the Count had continued.
And now he must wait for the woman standing opposite him to give him her answer—and he must hope, for her sake and the sake of his people, that she gave him the right one, even whilst he abhorred the way she had been tricked into coming to the island, and the nature of the threats against her personal safety.
If nothing else, he told himself grimly, when she married him he would at least be able to protect her from the appalling situation the Count had outlined to him— even if that protection did come at the cost of her personal freedom.
Certain aspects of his current position were never going to sit comfortably with his personal moral code, Max acknowledged grimly. It was all very well for him. He was making the decision to sacrifice his freedom of choice for the sake of his people. Ionanthe did not have that choice. She was being forced to sacrifice hers.
The sun was sinking swiftly into the Aegean sea whilst the man who had been her sister's husband—who now wanted her to take Eloise's place—stood in silence by the window. The evening breeze ruffled the thick darkness of his hair. With that carved, hawkish over-proud profile he could easily have belonged to another age. He did belong to another age—one that should no longer be allowed to exist. An age in which some men were born to grind others beneath their heels and impose their will on them without mercy or restraint.
Well, she wasn't going to give in—no matter how much he threatened her. She had been a fool to let herself be tricked into coming here, especially when she knew what the old guard of the island were like. That was why she had left in the first place. Was it really only a handful of hours ago that she had been promising herself that finally, with her grandfather's death and the money she would inherit, she would be free to do what she had wanted to do for so long.