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"What do you mean I have to marry her?" AJ Rahia tried to keep his voice down. Waiters passed out champagne, and the polite hum of conversation buzzed in his ears. The woman in question stood only a few yards away, in the well-dressed crowd of mourners at the wake.
His mother took his hand between her two soft ones. "It's your duty. If the king dies, one of his brothers must marry the royal widow."
The carved walls of the old palace seemed to close in on him. "That's ridiculous. It's the twenty-first century. And I'm sure she doesn't want to marry me any more than I want to marry her." He resisted the urge to turn and glance at the petite young widow he hadn't even seen since her wedding five years earlier.
His mother tilted her head and spoke softly. "She's as sweet as she is beautiful."
"And I have no other sons."
AJ stiffened. Something had happened during his own birth that left his mom unable to have more children. Just another burden of guilt that settled uncomfortably back on his shoulders each time he returned to Rahiri.
He'd just arrived for his brother's funeralor whatever you called it when there was no bodyand already his ticket back to L.A. was burning a hole in his pocket.
"I'm sure she'll want to mourn for at least a year before she thinks about marrying again." He rested his hand on his mom's shoulder. She was so tiny. Or he was so huge. He resisted a powerful urge to hug this very demanding but fiercely loving woman. "Then you'll find the perfect husband for her."
"You can't choose a king." His mother looked up, her eyes imploring. "A king is born."
"And I wasn't born to be king. Most people are convinced I was born to direct big-budget action movies, which is why they give me so much money for it."
His mom waved her hand, dismissive. "Child's play and you know it." She took his hand and squeezed it between her palms. "Come home. You belong here, and we need you."
He ignored the tightening in his chest. "To rule the country? I don't think so. How about Cousin Ainu? He's always trying to run everything. He'd be thrilled."
His mom narrowed her eyes, which caused her mascaraed lashes to clump together. "The Rahia family has ruled Rahiri for as long as anyone can remember. That chain of tradition cannot be broken."
"Change can be good." He didn't sound as convincing as he'd hoped. "Out with the old, in with the " He stopped in horror as his mom's usually sharp black eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, that was insensitive of me. I didn't mean that Vanu's death was was "
A good thing?
Though it had been his first thought when he'd heard the news.
On the other hand, if he was suddenly expected to fill his brother's narrow designer shoes, it was a very bad thing.
"I know, sweetheart. You can't help speaking your thoughts. You were always like that, wild, free-spirited"
"And totally unsuitable to be a monarch."
He wasn't quite such a wild child as his reputation suggested, but the image could work in his favor now.
"Come talk to Lani." His mom's lipsticked smile did nothing to mask the steely determination in her eyes. AJ glanced around. Hopefully none of the gathered mourners had any idea of her intentions. Especially his brother's widow.
She pulled him across the room with a pincer grip on his hand, pink nails digging into his flesh. "Lani, dear, you remember AJ? Vanu's younger brother."
Panic flashed in the young woman's eyes. "Y-yes," she stammered. "Yes, of course I do. Pleased to meet you again." A forced smile quivered on her lips.
And was horrified.
AJ extended his hand and shook hers. Her fingers trembled against his palm. Small and slight, she was wrapped in a traditional blue mourning dress, partially covered by her long, loose hair. He'd remembered her unusual eyesgold-brown, like polished tortoise-shellbut not the haunted look in them.
"I'm so sorry for your loss." He glanced away from her face, which was polite in Rahiian tradition. And good advice in any case because Lani Rahia was an extraordinary beauty.
Clear, fine features mingled her Rahiian and American heritage. Her skin glowed like the proverbial milk and honey. Her thick, lustrous hair looked brown in ordinary light, but if touched by sunshine it shone brilliantly as pure, twenty-four carat gold.
He could see why his brotheror was it his mother who had truly chosen her?had picked Lani as queen despite her humble background.
But he had no intention of being her king.
Lani pulled her hand back fast and wiped it on her dress before she could stop herself. That handshake was supposed to preface intimacies that made her stomach turn.
She was expected to marry this man simply because he was her husband's younger brother.
At least he had the good grace not to stare her in the eyes the way most Americans thought normal. He wasn't American, of course, but she felt too fragile to meet anyone's gaze for long. He'd lived in L.A. the entire time she'd been at the palace.
Taller than his brother, she noticed. And broader, too. In the glimpse she'd caught of his face he looked kind.
But she knew only too well that appearances could be deceptive.
"Vanu's disappearance must have been a terrible shock." The deep voice hung in the air, since it took a
moment for Lani to emerge from her frenzied thoughts to realize he'd spoken.
"Oh, yes. Terrible. He went out late one nightto think, he saidand he never came back."
She'd lain in bed, shaking with terror, waiting for him to return and "finish the job." He'd said he would, with that cruel hiss in his voice and a cold gleam in his eyes. The hours had ticked by as she awaited her doom.
Then the sun rose, and the birds started to sing.
"It must be so hard not knowing what happened." She heard compassion in AJ's voice. What kind of name was AJ? She didn't even know his real Rahiian name. No one ever called him by it.
"We still don't know what happened." Lani's mother-in-law dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "But after ninety days" She pressed a muffled sob into the linen. "A successor must be chosen."
Lani stiffened. According to Rahiian tradition, the successor would take her as his wife. Presumably the tradition existed to provide protection for the children of royal widows and avoid jostling for succession between children and siblings of the late king. But she didn't have any children.
"Ninety days that's still at least a month away. Who would normally succeed, if the king had no siblings?" AJ asked his mother.
She dabbed at her eyes. "Impossible. The king always has siblings. The ability to bear many children is a Rahiian blessing." She coughed a sob into her handkerchief.
Lani glanced at AJ, whose brow furrowed with distress. "Mom, don't upset yourself. Please. We'll get it all figured out. Don't you worry."
He slid his big arm around his mother's back and rubbed her shoulder. Lani felt a flush of warmth at the kind gesture.
"Thank you, sweetheart." His mother smiled at AJ. "Why don't you take Lani out on the veranda for a rest? I'm sure she's exhausted after the funeral and having to talk with all these people."
The big man glanced at Lani. She swallowed. She'd rather be here in this frying pan of semi-strangers than alone, in private, with her future husband.
Surely they wouldn't make her go through with it?
"Would you like to, er " He extended his arm, inviting her to take it.
Lani fought the urge to recoil and reached her fingers up to his. His forearm was thickly muscled, not hard and wiry like her husband'sher late husband's. Her skin tingled with awarenessor was it terror?as she slid her arm into his.
He cleared his throat. "Please excuse us." He nodded to her mother.
"Of course." His mother's smile broadened as she no doubt saw her plans moving one step closer to completion.
Lani tried to maintain a neutral expression as they walked slowly across the room together. Did all these people expect her to marry this man? Were they eagerly looking for signs of fresh commitment when her husband was barely cold in his grave?
Technically he wasn't in a grave at all, since they'd never found a body. Or his boat.
"Sorry about my mother," AJ murmured as they stepped out into a cool, empty hallway. His voice echoed slightly off the white stone floor. AJ pulled back his arm, and hers fell to her side. A small blue parrot stared at them from his perch in the latticework.
"She's just doing what she thinks is best." She glanced at him, trying to gauge his feelings.
"Do you think it's for the best?" He frowned, and peered at her. His eyes were a warm dark brown, like polished teak.
"I don't know." Her voice came out a choked whisper. "I'm inexperienced in these matters." And not about to defy a thousand years of royal tradition in the face of a Rahiian prince. If he was anything like his brother, he'd let her know his disapproval in the harshest terms possible.
"You're a grown woman. Do you think it's natural to marry a total stranger?"
His question embarrassed her. "I only met Vanu three times before I married him."
"Let me guess, my mom fixed up the whole thing." He raised a straight black brow.
Lani nodded. Her long hair felt hot on the back of her neck and she wished she could run to her room for a good cry.
And not over the deathor supposed deathof her husband. For herself, and the no-win situation she faced: another unhappy royal marriage, or disgrace and dishonor for refusing it. Tears pricked her eyes and she raised a hand to cover them.
"Please don't cry." AJ's gruff plea rang off the wood-beamed ceiling. "Come on, let's go sit on the veranda. Some fresh air will do us both good."
His words were supposed to be funny, since the hall they walked along was open to the gardens, like nearly every room in the sprawling palace. Carved wood cast shade and the high roof kept out tropical rain, but birds and pretty lizards darted freely amongst the ornate columns.
Yet the air itself seemed oppressive, thick with expectation.
AJ Rahia was tall, well over six feet, and her head barely reached his shoulders. Her small steps, bound by the long wrap of her skirt, made her scurry to keep up with his bold strides. He noticed, and stopped to wait for her.
He wore a dark suit, American-style, and must have been hot in the tropical humidity. "Would you like a cool drink?" She lowered her eyes, not wanting him to hear any hint of suggestion beyond mere politeness.
"No, thanks. Listen, it's not personal. I'm sure you're a very nice girl. I've just got a life in the States. I direct movies"
"I know," she rushed. "Your mother is very proud. She watches the whole Dragon Chaser series at least once a month."
He stopped dead. "You're kidding."
"Not at all. She installed a complete home theater system in the old feasting chamber last year for better stereo sound."
AJ's eyes widened. "She's never said a word."
"She's a big fan." Lani couldn't help the tiny smile that sneaked across her mouth. He looked so totally astonished. "She loves the lead actor, too. She thinks he's cute."
"Devi Anderson? Cute!" AJ burst out into a loud guffaw. "I swear, nothing could surprise me more. Well " His brows lowered. "Except that I'm expected to marry you."
Lani swallowed. She lifted her hair off her neck and rearranged it down her back, her eyes glued to the floor.
Should she apologize for being a burden? It was hardly her fault.
And he might take it the wrong way.
He didn't look anything like his brother, but that didn't mean he didn't share the same twisted soul. That he wouldn't lash out when she least expected it.
"Sorry, I shouldn't keep bringing it up." He frowned and turned away. "It's just so ridiculous. And I have a big investor meeting on Tuesday I must get back for."
A tiny flame of hope lit in Lani's chest. He really didn't plan to stay and marry her. He obviously didn't want to. She should be offended, but instead she felt relief.
Even if she didn't believe in true love any more, she'd had enough of marriage for one lifetime.
They'd reached the veranda, where big armchairs nestled under palm fronds with a view over the forested Haialia valley. They sat in two chairs separated by a carved-wood table.
"What do you think happened to Vanu?" AJ turned to look at her.
She shrank from his inquisitive gaze. "One of the boats went missing from the palace dock. A small yacht he used to sail sometimes. Some say he might have taken it out. There was a storm that night." She swallowed. Images of Vanu disappearing into the dark sea crowded her brain.
"If there was a storm the boat could have broken free by itself. They do that quite often. The palace dock isn't well protected." AJ wove his long fingers together and looked out over the valley.
"I know, but the island isn't that big and everyone's been searching for him for weeks. He must have left."
She bit her lip. "And he didn't take a plane. They're all accounted for."
"Why did he go out in a storm?" AJ's eyes rested on her cheek.
Which heated. No one could know the truth. Her marriage was over now and there was no reason for anyone to know that it had been hell on earth.
She owed that much to her mother-in-law, who'd done everything to welcome her as a daughter and who worshipped and loved her eldest son.
"I think he was restless. Couldn't sleep." She fixed her eyes on the horizon, where rainforest haze hung just above the treetops. "He often walked in the gardens late at night. He didn't sleep much."
"Yeah. He was like that as a boy, too. It sometimes seemed like he never slept."
An odd tone in AJ's voice made her glance at him. His brow was furrowed in a frown. He must miss Vanu, the older brother he'd never see again.
AJ's face was undeniably handsome, with broad, well-cut cheekbones and a slightly cleft chin. His mouth was wide and friendly. So different from his brother's pinched, bony countenance.
She'd married Vanu because she had to. That's what everyone said. What simple village girlthe daughter of a laundress, no lesswould turn down a chance to be queen?
She didn't have a good answer at the time.
"How's my mom taking it?" AJ's frown deepened.
"Very hard." Lani twisted her fingers together. "She cries a lot, and that's not like her."
"It's a terrible thing to lose a child." AJ rubbed a hand over his mouth. "At least she has you. I know she adores you."