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The Once And Future Prince
By Olivia Gates
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
"Castaldini's future depends on you."
The slightly slurred words hit Phoebe Alexander like a sledgehammer.
She gaped at the man who'd spoken them before she'd even cleared the towering doors to his state room. He was approaching her like a slow-motion, head-on collision.
She watched King Benedetto limp across the gigantic Cas-taldini crest that bulls-eyed the carpet sprawling over acres of mosaic hardwood floor. Each shuffle transmitted its struggle to her muscles. His cane thumped the ground to the rhythm of her haywire heartbeats.
If she hoped she'd misheard what he'd said, he said it again as if to underline the acuteness of her hearing.
"It all depends on you, figlia mia."
Every word from his mouth tugged on a rawness inside her.
She'd come to love him like the father she'd never had, her own having walked out when she was two and her mother was pregnant with her sister, Julia. But she still couldn't handle him calling her daughter. She sure didn't belong in the same place in his heart where his grandchildren and their motherher sisterreigned supreme. She never knew what to do with the reflected affection, but tried to be of as much use as she could to feel entitled to it. She still wasn't close to feeling that.
How could Castaldini's future depend on her when it was facing dangers only a king coulddivert?
She searched his steel-blue eyes for a qualification. They had that look she'd seen during too many crises. It always meant his mind was made up, his decree final. And in her experience, he had yet to be proven wrong.
King Benedetto hadn't become the longest-reigning and most beloved king since King Antonio for nothing. In her opinion, he was the shrewdest, most effective ruler of the twentieth century. He was also the most controversial, as his politics had practically segregated Castaldini from the rest of the world during his forty-year reign. But his policies had protected the kingdom from the upheavals that had swept the world during those decades. What's more, this detachment from the global political scene had boosted Castaldini's allure, translating into a booming tourist industry.
That had lasted until the end of the twentieth century. The twenty-first century hadn't proven to be his domain so far, and everything seemed to be falling apart. To compound problems, he also held another record. He had ruled the longest without choosing a crown prince.
He'd been a gracefully aging Olympian who everyone believed would live and rule for forty more years, would turn things around in time. Until he'd been struck down by a stroke four months ago. And the lack of a crown prince was now taking on potentially catastrophic meaning.
King Benedetto stopped a dozen steps from her and leaned on his cane, the asymmetry of his injury exaggerating the spasm of suffering and agitation on his face. "I will never recover enough to continue to rule Castaldini."
She couldn't even blurt out reassurances. His stroke had sheared his life force in half. It hurt her to see him now, his face emaciated, his ornate regal uniform flapping emptily around a once formidable physique. But she could say one thing and mean it. "Your Majesty, you are improving."
"No, figlia mia." He cut across her attempt at qualification. "I'm barely walking, my left side is all but useless and the least illness leaves me bedridden, barely able to breathe."
"But it's not like you need to be in peak physical fitness."
Half of his face softened, appreciating her efforts, pointing out their foolishness. "Yes, I do. You know it's the Castaldin-ian law. And it goes beyond that. My mental faculties "
This she could contest. Vehemently. "Are as sharp as ever!"
His sigh carried such finality she felt her heart plummet. "That's not true, no matter how much I or you or my council want to believe it. I forget. I drift. But even if a miracle happens and I'm back in peak health one day, Castaldini can't afford to wait in hope anymore. The circling vultures are becoming more daring with each passing day, and finding a successor has become an emergency. I cannot afford to dawdle anymore. I'm guilty of doing that for far too long."
She couldn't listen to him piling guilt on top of desperation and regret that way. "You did no such thing. According to the law, you couldn't have picked any of the candidates."
He shook his head as he limped to the nearest sitting area and slumped into a gilded Aubusson armchair. "But I could have. At least a decade ago. There's always been not one worthy candidate, but three. Each can take Castaldini forward into this century, which is proving to be even more turbulent than the last, to keep it safe against the dangers hammering down its doors. Yet they are the only three men who will not come forward to be recognized for their eligibility for the crown."
So there were three D'Agostino men around who had what it took to be the next king? That was news to her. Another bombshell. One that had her mind veering off on a tangent
No. Not the one man who'd once answered all the criteria. He had once come forward to be recognized for his eligibility. So the king couldn't be counting him among those three men. Could he?
Her feet started moving again under the influence of curiosity and foreboding. "So, what's their problem?"
The king let out an uneven exhalation as she came to stand beside him. "Each has one. Each fulfills all criteria but one. A different one in each man's case, something that makes him unsuitable for the position by Castaldinian law."
"Then it isn't your fault you didn't settle on any of them."
"Oh, I tried to tell myself that for as long as I could afford to. Now I no longer can. Neither can Castaldini. I brought matters to a head with the Council. They argued that defying the laws Castaldini was built around for any reason would lead to the very loss of identity we guard against. I argued that overlooking the ancient laws this once has become a matter of survival, lest the monarchy crumble and Castaldini be absorbed by one of the neighboring nations vying to assimilate our history and resources into their boundaries. Then, yesterday, I had a ten-minute mental blackout during a council session."
She gasped. He reached for her hand, squeezed it. He was soothing her? His next words proved that he was. "I couldn't have asked for a better thing to happen. It seems the reality of my condition was jarring enough that when I regained my senses, my council were singing a different tune. They now unanimously concede that the only way to protect Castaldini is to choose one of the only three men capable of maintaining our sovereignty."
She pulled her hand back. She didn't want him to feel it shake. "Whoa, that's huge. For them to agree to waive the laws. That's problem solved, isn't it?"
He grimaced with what looked like self-deprecation. Loathing, even. "Not at all. Each of those men has reason enough to turn his back on me and on Castaldini. They'd be fully justified to leave both to our fate without their intervention."
"But you're their king. I know there hasn't been a precedent for it, but you can draft them into service."
His eyes widened as if she'd told him he could pole-vault. Then he barked a gravelly laugh, his face growing more asymmetric with the contortion of mirth. "You have no idea how outside my or anyone's jurisdiction they are. I not only can't draft them, I can't afford to antagonize them any more than I already have, or we'll lose any chance of having a deserving monarch wear the crown, and with it any hope of saving Castaldini."
"A man who has that much power and doesn't want to use it to save his kingdomfor whatever reasonisn't worthy of any crown, let alone Castaldini's. Whatever happened to the merit part?"
The king's face settled back into its grimness. "Oh, make no mistake, they all merit it. More than I ever did."
"I refuse to believe that."
"Thank you for your faith, figlia mia, but I had forty years to build the history you're judging me by, thankfully doing more right than wrong. But I did do a lot of wrong. Those three, what disqualified them, how I compounded everything when I alienated them, are among my major mistakes. Another sentimental mistake I've been guilty of was that I couldn't choose between them, leading to this point, where Castaldini is effectively leaderless. But my blessed blackout finally forced the council to choose for me. They recommended going after the one they consider the least of the three evils."
Though it made no sense, she knew the name he'd say.
She wanted to turn and run out, to outrace her suspicion and the moment he'd turn it into fact. Then it was too late.
"You know him well. My late cousin Osvaldo's son. Prince ex-Prince Leandro D'Agostino."
Her nails dug in her palms. She thought she'd braced herself. Had been bracing herself for eight years. Spending her waking hours doing anything that demanded total focus so she wouldn't hear that name reverberating through her mind. Going to bed depleted in hope of not having it ignite her unconscious aches and struggles. She'd succeeded. When she hadn't had relapses and sought mention of his name like an addict would a drug.
Leandro. The man she'd loved beyond reason's dictates, and those of pride and self-preservation. The man to whom she'd been nothing but a convenience. As she was sure so many others had been. He went through life like a one-man invasion, leveling everything in his path so he could erect his own version of perfection.
And he was the least of the three evils? What were the other two? Demons?
The one thing ameliorating her upheaval at hearing his name again was confusion. At hearing it on the lips of the man who'd banished him from Castaldini, laced with such regret and affection?
When King Benedetto spoke again, no doubt remained in her mind. It had been both. And more. Far more. The pining and pride of a father speaking of his estranged son. "There was nothing that boy couldn't do. A true jack-of-all-trades. He built a financial empire and was the best ambassador to the States Castaldini ever had by the time he was just twenty-eight."
She knew that. That had been when she'd met him, almost ten years ago. A month after she'd set foot on Castaldini, in the fairytale setting of her sister's wedding.
"You must remember how he walked out on the ambassador's position over irreconcilable differences in policies, how he escalated his antagonism until I could no longer defend him to the Council, was forced by his actions and their unanimity to declare him renegade and strip him of his Castaldinian nationality."
Oh, how she remembered that. And what it had led to.
"He is now a tycoon of global power, dividing his time between business and humanitarian endeavors."
She didn't want to hear this. But short of walking away, or yelling at the king to quit shoving Leandro's achievements down her throat, there was nothing she could do but stand there and listen to how he'd moved on, and so spectacularly, with his life.
Focused on his purpose, the king went on. "We approached him to come back, to be given full pardon and become crown prince and regent. He scoffed at our messengers and our offers."
"Surely that was anger talking." She started at the croaked protest. It had issued from her. It seemed nothing could silence the negotiator inside her. "Nothing some determined cajoling and ego-boosting concessions won't alleviate."
"Oh, yes, that's what the Council thought, too. I told them they knew nothing about Leandro. But they were confident they could negotiate with him. He told us what we could do with our attempts at pride-salving and our middle grounds."
Phoebe felt every word pushing her to the edge of an abyss. She couldn't bear to look down, tried again to inch away. "If he so adamantly refuses, why not turn to the other choices?"
"Because the objection against the second is weightier, and he hates me even more. As for the third, the objection against him is the weightiest of all. And I suspect he hates both me and Castaldini. Leandro, as impossible as it seems, is actually the least problematic of all, the one I project will be easiest to reach. And that is where you come in."
Her heart launched against her ribs. She rocked on her feet with the force of the collision. Don't say it. Don't
He said it. "I'm sending you, the one person I believe can reach Leandro, can convince him to negotiate, or to at least hold down the fort until a more permanent solution is found, if he remains adamant about not accepting the succession."
Phoebe's mind emptied. Her tongue fired blanks. "II'm not "
"You're Castaldini's most potent negotiator. You've bailed us out of situations where my old guard and I were ineffectual, detrimental even. And this is our darkest hour. I am counting on your ability, your infallible diplomatic techniques and your own charms, to lure Leandro back when all else has failed." Her own charms? Now wait a minute here Before she could choke out her alarm, the king hurled another declaration at her.
"You're myand Castaldini'slast card."
"We're landing, Signorina Alexander."
Phoebe mirrored the flight attendant's smile, patted her fastened seatbelt. She waited until the radiant brunette had removed her untouched dinner and hurried away before she let her head thunk against her window. The bonfire of lights that was New York City at night was zooming up at her, an organized maze of the gothic and the postmodern that seemed to be unfurling to engulf Castaldini's equivalent of Air Force One.
She closed her eyes over the sand that seemed to fill her lids.
She hated flying. She'd come to equate it with upheaval.
The journey that started it all had been ten years ago. Her little sister, Julia, had accepted Paolo's marriage proposal only to discover he was the King of Castaldini's son.
Phoebe couldn't let her eighteen-year-old, special-needs sister go alone to a foreign country and an unknown future. She'd dropped out of law school to accompany Julia. She'd boarded that jet to Castaldini with anxieties and regrets preying on her. The first over the unimaginable future she and her sister were heading to, the second over the life she'd relinquished.
Not that she'd had second thoughts since then. Although she was only two and a half years older than Julia, she'd been more of a mother than a sister to her since their single mother had died just days after Phoebe's thirteenth birthday. When Julia had become afflicted with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegiaa rare form of partial paralysisPhoebe's protectiveness had mushroomed. At fourteen, Julia had started suffering from weakness, stiffness and partial loss of sensation in her lower limbs. By the time she was seventeen, she'd been in a wheelchair. Then she'd met Paolo.
Excerpted from The Once And Future Prince by Olivia Gates Copyright © 2009 by Olivia Gates. Excerpted by permission.
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