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Crown Prince Nico Cavelli, of the Kingdom of Montebianco, sat at a fourteenth-century antique desk and reviewed a stack of paperwork his assistant had brought him an hour ago. A glance at his watch told him there were several hours yet before he had to dress and attend the State dinner given in honor of his engagement to a neighboring princess.
Nico had a sudden urge to loosen his collar—except it was already loose. Why did the thought of marriage to Princess Antonella make him feel as if a noose were tightening around his neck?
So much had changed in his life recently. A little over two months ago he was the younger son, the dissolute playboy prince. The prince with a new mistress every few weeks, and with nothing more pressing to do than to decide which party to attend each night. It wasn't the whole truth of his existence, though it was the one the media enjoyed writing stories about. He'd been content to let them, to feed their need for scandalous behavior. Anything to keep their attention away from his emotionally fragile brother.
Nico pinched the bridge of his nose.
Gaetano had been the oldest. The delicate one. The legitimate one.
The brother that Nico had spent his childhood protecting when he hadn't been fighting for his own honor as the product of a royal indiscretion. Ultimately, he couldn't protect Gaetano from the ramifications of his choices, or from the fateful decision to aim his Ferarri at a cliff and jam the pedal to the floor.
Per Dio, he missed Gaetano so much. And he was angry with him. Angry that he'd chosen such finality, that he hadn't fought harder against his personal demons, that he hadn't trusted Nico with his secret years ago.Nico would have moved mountains for Gaetano if he'd known.
"Basta!" Nico muttered, focusing again on the paperwork. Nothing would bring Gaetano back, and nothing would change Nico's destiny now. He was the remaining prince, and though he was illegitimate, the Montebiancan constitution allowed him to inherit. In this day and age, with modern medicine being what it was, there was no doubt of his parentage—if, indeed, there could be any doubt in the first place; Cavelli men always looked as if they'd been cast from the same mold.
Only Queen Tiziana disapproved of Nico's new status— but then she'd disapproved of him his whole life. Nothing he ever did had been good enough for her. He'd tried to please her when he'd been a child, but he'd always been shut out. He understood now, as a grown man, why she'd disliked him. His presence reminded her that her husband had been unfaithful.
When he'd moved into the palace after his mother's death, the queen had seen him as a threat, especially because he was stronger and bigger than Gaetano, though he was the younger of the two. That he was now Crown Prince only drove the pain deeper. He was a constant reminder of what she'd lost. It didn't matter that he'd also loved Gaetano, that he would give anything for his brother to still be alive.
Since he couldn't bring Gaetano back, he would do his utmost to fulfill his duty as Crown Prince to the best of his ability. It was the only way to honor his brother's memory.
A knock on the door brought his head up. "Enter."
"The Prefect of Police has sent a messenger, Your Highness," his assistant said.
"I will see him," Nico replied.
A moment later, a uniformed man appeared and bowed deeply. "Your Serene Highness, the Prefect sends his greetings."
Nico tamped down his impatience as the man recited the ritual greetings and wishes for his health and happiness. "What is the message?" he asked, somewhat irritably, once the formalities had been observed.
Though it was indeed the Crown Prince's duty to oversee the police force, it was more a symbolic role than anything else. That the Prefect was actually communicating with him about something filled him with an uncharacteristic sense of foreboding.
Ridiculous. It was merely the awareness of his loss of freedom that pinched at the back of his mind and made him feel uneasy.
The man reached into his inner pocket and pulled out an envelope. "The Prefect has tasked me with informing you that we have recovered some of the ancient statues taken from the museum. And to give you this, Your Highness."
Nico held out his hand. The man stood to attention while Nico ripped into the envelope.
He expected the sheet of paper inside, but it was the photograph of a woman and child that caught Nico's attention first. Their faces filled the frame as if someone had stood very close to snap the picture. He recognized the woman almost instantly—the wheat-blond hair, the green eyes and the smattering of freckles across her nose—and felt a momentary pang of regret their liaison had not lasted longer. His gaze skimmed to the child.
Sudden fury corroded his insides. It was not possible. He had never been that careless. He would never do to a child what had been done to him. He would never father a baby and walk away. It had to be a trick, a stunt to embarrass him on the eve of his engagement, a ploy to get money. There was no way this child was his.
His mind reeled. He'd spent only a short time with her, had made love to her only once—much to his regret. Wouldn't he have remembered if something had gone wrong? Of course he would—but the child had the distinct look of a Cavelli. Nico couldn't tear his gaze away from eyes that were a mirror to his own as he unfolded the paper. Finally, he succeeded in wrenching his attention to the Prefect's scrawled words.
Nico dropped the paper and shoved back from the desk. "You will take me to the prison. Now."
Lily Morgan was desperate. She was only supposed to be in Montebianco for two days. She'd been here for three. Her heart beat so loud and hard in her ears that she'd half expected to have a heart attack hours ago. She had to get home, had to get back to her baby. But the authorities showed no signs of letting her leave, and her pleas to speak with the American Consulate were ignored. She hadn't seen a soul in over four hours now. She knew because she still had her watch, though they'd taken her cell phone and laptop away when they'd brought her down here.
"Hey!" she yelled. "Hey! Is anyone there?"
No one answered. There was nothing but the echo of her voice against the ancient stone interior of the old fortress.
Lily sank onto the lumpy mattress in the dank cell and scraped her hand beneath her nose. She would not cry. Not again. She had to be strong for her boy. Would he miss her by now? She'd never left him before. She would not have done so now had her boss not given her little choice.
"Julie's sick," he'd said about the paper's only travel writer just a few days ago. "We need you to go to Montebianco and research that piece she was working on for the anniversary edition."
Lily had blinked, dumbfounded. "But I've never written a travel article!" In fact, she'd never written anything more exciting than an obituary in the three months she'd been at the paper. She wasn't even a journalist, though she'd hoped to become one someday. She'd been hired to work in the advertising department, but since the paper was small, she often did double duty when there was a shortage.
The only reason the Port Pierre Register had a travel writer was because Julie was not only the publisher's niece, but her parents also owned the town's single travel agency. If she was writing about Montebianco, there was probably a special package deal coming up.
But the mere thought of traveling to Montebianco had turned Lily's legs to jelly. How could she enter the Mediterranean kingdom knowing that Nico Cavelli lived there?
Her boss was oblivious. "You don't need to write it, sweetheart. Julie's done most of the work already. Just go take some pictures, write down how it feels to be there, that kind of thing. Experience the country for two days, then come back and work with her on the write-up."
When she demurred, he refused to take no for an answer. "Times are getting tough, Lily. If I can't count on you to do the job when I need you, I may have to find someone who's more willing. This is your chance to prove yourself."
Lily couldn't afford to lose her position at the paper. Jobs weren't exactly thick on the ground in Port Pierre; without this one, she couldn't pay her rent or keep up with her medical insurance premiums. She could search for other employment, but there was no guarantee she'd find anything quickly. Once she'd gotten pregnant, she'd had to drop out of college. She'd spent the last couple of years bouncing from one low-paying position to another, doing anything to take care of her baby.
The job at the paper was a major break and a huge step up for her. She might even be able to return to school part-time and finish her studies someday.
She simply could not endanger Danny's future by refusing. She'd gone without many things as a child when her mother had been out of work or, worse, had dropped everything to run off with her womanizing father again. Lily would not do that to her own baby. She'd learned the hard way never to rely on anyone but herself.
She had no choice but to accept the assignment, though she'd comforted herself with the knowledge that her chances of actually crossing paths with a prince were pretty slim. She would leave Danny with her best friend, spend two days touring Castello del Bianco, and then she would be on a plane home. Simple, right?
But she'd never bargained on winding up in a prison cell. Would someone call the authorities when she didn't return? Had they already done so? It was her only hope—that someone would report her missing and the American Consulate would insist upon an accounting of her movements within the kingdom.
A distant clanging brought Lily to her feet. Her heart thumped harder if it were possible. Was someone coming to see her, to let her go? Or was it simply a new prisoner being brought into the depths of this musty old fortress?
Lily gripped the bars and peered down the darkened hall. Footsteps echoed in the ancient corridor. A voice spoke until another silenced it with a sharp command. She swallowed, waiting. A lifetime later, a man came into view, his form too dark beneath the shadows to distinguish features. He stopped just short of the pale light knifing down from a slit in the fortress wall several feet above his head. He didn't speak.
Lily's heart dropped to her toes as a fresh wave of tears threatened. Oh God, he couldn't be here. He simply couldn't. Fate could not be so cruel.
She couldn't say a word as the prince—for so she had to think of him—moved into the light. And—oh my—he was every bit as handsome as the pictures in the magazines made him out to be. As her memory insisted he was. His black hair was shorter than she remembered, as if he'd cropped it closer in an effort to look more serious. He wore dark trousers and a casual silk shirt unbuttoned over a fitted T-shirt. Ice-blue eyes stared back at her from a face so fine it appeared as if an artist had molded it.
My God, had she really thought he was just a graduate student at Tulane when she'd met him at Mardi Gras? Could she have been any more naive? There was no way this man could ever be mistaken for anything other than what he was: a wealthy, privileged person who moved in circles so far above her that she got altitude sickness just thinking about it.
"Leave us," he said to the man at his side.
"But Your Highness, I do not think—"
"Si, Mio Principe," the man answered in the Italian dialect commonly spoken in Montebianco. He gave a short bow and scurried up the passageway. Lily held her breath.
"You are accused of trying to smuggle Montebiancan antiquities out of the country," he said coolly, once the echoes from the man's footsteps faded away.
Lily blinked. "I'm sorry?" Of all the things she'd expected him to say, this had not been even a remote possibility.
"Two figurines, signorina. A wolf and a lady. They were found in your luggage."
"Souvenirs," she sputtered in disbelief. "I bought them from a street vendor."
"They are priceless treasures of my country's heritage, stolen from the state museum three months ago."
Lily's knees went weak. Oh, God. "I know nothing about that! I just want to go home."
Her pulse hammered in her ears. It was all so strange. Both the accusation and the fact he didn't appear to recognize her. But of course he wouldn't! Had she really expected it? She gave her head a tiny shake. No, she hadn't, but after all she'd been through the last two years, it hurt nonetheless. How could he not look at her and know? How could he not be aware of her the way she was of him?
Prince Nico drew closer. His hands were thrust in his pockets as he gazed down at her, his cool eyes giving nothing away. No hint of recognition, no sliver of kindness, nothing. Just supreme arrogance and a sense of entitlement so complete it astonished her. Had she really spent hours talking with this man? About what?
Without meaning to, she remembered lying beneath him, feeling his body moving inside hers. It had all been so new to her, and yet he'd been tender and reassuring. He'd made her feel special, cherished.
Now, the memory seemed like a distant illusion, made all the more so by his lack of awareness of it.
She dropped her gaze, unable to maintain the contact. His eyes were unusual in their coloring, pale and striking, but that wasn't the precise reason she couldn't look at him.
No, she couldn't look because it made her heartsick for her child. She hadn't realized it until she was face-to-face with the prince again, but Danny was the exact image of his father.
"I am afraid that is impossible."
Her head snapped up, her eyes beginning to tear again. No. She had to be strong. "I—I have to get home. I have responsibilities. People need me."
Prince Nico's gaze sharpened. "What people, signorina?"
Lily's stomach hollowed with fear. She couldn't tell him about Danny, not now. Not like this. "My family needs me. My mother depends on me." She hadn't seen her mother in over a year, but he didn't know that.
He studied her, his quick gaze sweeping over her with interest. And something more. Her nerve endings prickled.
"No husband, Lily?"