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Four and a Half Years Later
Three days after the state funeral for His Highness Prince Julian Edward William Santiago and Her Highness Princess Catherine Mary Santiago, Rowan was still trying to accept that his brother and sister-in-law were gone, still struggling to come to terms with their deaths. And now this.
He lifted his gaze from the legal document on the desk to his brother seated across from him. "What were they thinking?"
"Probably that arranging for guardianship of their children was nothing more than a formality," Marcus responded. "They certainly couldn't have expected that they'd die in a freak explosion on their yacht."
The outing had been planned as a family event, with Julian and Catherine's three children scheduled to join them on the water. But Alexandria and Damon had both been in bed with some kind of twenty-four-hour flu bug from which Christian had just recovered, so the nanny had stayed back with the children while the parents decided to take a few hours for a romantic getaway instead.
Rowan stared again at the document giving him legal custody of the children. His brother and sister-in-law wouldn't have filled out the paperwork without his knowledge and consent, though when he'd given it, he'd never anticipated his role as guardian becoming a reality. Now it was, and Julian's childrenthe future of the monarchy and the countrywere in his care.
"I know you never expectedor wantedto be in this position," Marcus said. "But are you okay with it?"
"Someone needs to fulfill the royal duties until Christian is of an age to take the throne. But am I okay with it?" He shook his head. "How can I be when the onlyreason I'm sitting here, in Julian's office, behind Julian's desk, is that Julian and Catherine are dead?"
His gaze shifted to the photo on the corner of the desk. It was a picture of his eldest brother with his arm around his wife, their children around them. They looked so happy togetherstill obviously in love after fifteen years of marriage and completely devoted to their children. Every time Rowan sat behind this desk, his eyes were drawn to that pictureto the heartbreaking image of the beautiful family that had been torn apart by tragedy.
As if sensing the direction of his thoughts, Marcus reached forward and picked up the heavy pewter frame. His youngest brother's eyes were troubled as he stared at the photo. "The whole family's been dealt a tough blowmaybe I should delay my return to Harvard, stay around here to help out in any way I can."
Rowan was adamant in his refusal. "Eric volunteered to extend his leave from the navy, too," he admitted, referring to the middle brother. "And I appreciate your offer as much as his, but there's really no need for anyone to change their plans."
"Nobody but you," Marcus noted.
But Rowan was only doing what needed to be done, as both of his brothers would do if circumstances warranted.
The Santiago family had ruled long and ruled well, and the citizens of Tesoro del Mar trusted in their monarch. As much as they had openly and genuinely mourned the passing of Julian and Catherine, they would accept Rowan's rule. And Rowan, as much as he'd never wanted to rule, understood that it was his duty even more than his right, a duty that had been impressed upon all of them from their early days in the cradle.
"The truth is, I feel more equipped to step into the role of prince regent than guardian of three young children." He stared at the photo Marcus had put back on the edge of the desk and felt the weight of the responsibility heavy in his heart. He was fond of his brother's children, of course, but after living in London for the past dozen years he didn't know them very well. And he didn't know the first thing about parenting.
Christian he could probably handle. The boy was twelveold enough to listen to reason, already conscious of the fact that he would rule the country one day and undoubtedly capable of doing so.
Alexandria was eight, with a rebellious streak that Julian had often lamented was turning his hair prematurely gray, though there had been no disguising the pride his brother felt in his only daughter.
As for Damon, well, the only words Rowan could think of to describe his four-year-old nephew were "hell on wheels."
"The children have a full-time nanny," Marcus reminded him.
Rowan nodded. "The nanny is just one more reason I wonder what they were thinking."
Marcus frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Don't you follow the news?"
"Not if I can help it," his brother admitted. "The stories are more often about sensationalism than journalism."
"And since she moved into the palace, Miss Brennan has given them plenty of splashy headlines."
Marcus shrugged. "She's young and sexy and has a connection to the royal familyit's hardly her fault the press feeds on things like that."
"A royal nanny should be mature and dignified."
"Like Nanny Adele?"
It was with genuine affection that he thought of the woman who had raised not only his brothers and him but his father and his aunt before them. She'd passed away at the age of ninety-three while Catherine was expecting Damon, and his brother and sister-in-law had hired Lara Brennana twenty-year-old redhead who was the opposite of Adele Torres in every way.
"I guarantee there were never any front-page pictures of our nanny shaking her booty in a dance club," he told his brother.
Marcus laughed at the image. "I would think notat least not if they wanted to sell any papers."
Rowan had no doubt the pictures of the royal nanny had sold lots of papers, and that was what concerned him. "What kind of example do you think that sets for Christian and Alexandria and Damon?"
"I didn't realize she took the kids with her when she went clubbing."
Rowan should have expected such a flippant response from his brother. Marcus was another favorite subject of the pressnot just locally but internationally. "You're deliberately missing my point."
"I wasn't sure you had one."
"She works for the royal family, therefore, her behavior reflects on the royal family."
"You're not honestly worried about a silly tabloid photo that faded from the news more than six months ago?"
"That picture wasn't the only one," Rowan reminded his brother.
"It's not a crime to have a good time," Marcus pointed out. "Besides, she's great with the kids."
Rowan couldn't deny that fact, especially not in that moment when childish giggles floated through the open window. Drawn by the sound, he pushed away from his desk and crossed the room to look down to the gardens below.
As he'd expected, Lara was there with Alexandria and Damon, on her hands and knees on the ground. He watched as Damon tried to climb over her back, then tumbled off in another fit of giggles. Alexandria, though four years older than her brother, was clearly enjoying the game, too, and her giggles joined his as they rolled on the grass.
But it was Lara who captured and held his attention, as she'd done from the first with her sparkling eyes and easy smile, and his fascination with the children's nanny continued to baffle and frustrate him.
"It's good to hear them laugh," Marcus said. "It's good to know that they can still find joy after everything they've been through."
Rowan moved back to the desk. "Dr. Marotta has assured me that children are amazingly resilient. I'm relieved to see that it's trueat least with respect to the younger ones. I can't get a read on anything Christian is thinking or feeling these days."
Marcus frowned as he, too, turned away from the window. "Where is the heir to the throne?"
"In the library working on lessons he missed while he was absent from school."
"He's still a child, too."
"It was his choice to get back to his studies." He glanced up at his brother, forced a smile. "As you must get back to yours."
"I will. Soon. I want to spend some more time with the kids before I go." Marcus smiled as fresh peals of laughter sounded from outside. "And maybe with Lara, too."
Rowan deliberately returned to his seat behind the desk, refusing to let himself be drawn into further discussion about the nanny. As far as he was concerned, Lara Brennan was just one more problem he'd inherited when his brother's yacht blew up, and a problem that he needed some time to consider how to deal with.
It took less time than he expected.
Only a few days after his brother had left to return to university, a new picture of the royal nanny was on the front page of the paper. This time she was on the beach, wearing nothing more than three tiny scraps of material that might have been a bikini.
She'd obviously been in the water, and her puckered nipples were clearly outlined by the clingy fabric. Her glossy lips were curved in a smile of mischief as her outstretched arms beckoned to someone beyond the frame of the picture.
The punch of lust came firsta deep ache that throbbed low in his belly and heated his blood. Mi Dios. She was so stunning, sensual, sexy. And he was a man, as weak and susceptible to temptation as any other.
But as a man who was also a prince, he had to hold himself to a higher standard. He had to be both selective and discreet in his personal relationships, and he especially had to rein in the primal instincts to claim and take that churned in his blood when he looked at that picture.
He shoved the paper aside.
He could curse himself for wanting her, but he couldn't deny that he did. As he couldn't deny that the obvious solution to his dilemma was to remove the source of his temptation.
While Lexi and Damon were playing in the garden, Lara was gathering their buckets and shovels for a promised trip down to the beach. Lexi hadn't been thrilled with the plan, but she hadn't protested too vehemently. Lara took that as a good sign. The little girl had been terrified of the water since learning that her parents had drowned, and she knew it would take time and patience to help her get beyond that fear.
On Saturday, before he'd had to leave to go back to law school, Marcus had gone down to the sea with them.Whether he was more in tune with the needs of his niece and nephews than the prince regent or just had more time on his hands, she appreciated his efforts to interact with the children.
And with her uncle's encouragement, Lexi had ventured close enough to the water to dip her bucket and fill the moat around her sand castle. Just the first step, but an important one. When Lara waded into the shallows and got soaked by an unexpected wave, the sound of Damon's and Lexi's exuberant giggles joining with Marcus's hearty laughter was like beautiful music to her ears.
Her only regret was that Christian hadn't been there, but maybe she could entice him to join them today. He'd shown little enjoyment in anything since his parents had been killed, and she thought it would be good for all of them to spend a few hours on the beach together.
The request to attend the prince regent's office threatened to put a crimp in Lara's plans, as well as unleashing a swarm of hyperactive butterflies in her tummy.
His Highness had never summoned her to his office before. Then again, he'd never had any reason to deal directly with her before. In fact, whenever he'd visited from London, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid her. Though he was too well-bred to express his disapproval in her presence, she knew Rowan had questioned his brother's decision to hire her to care for his children.
Four and a half years later, she had no reason to believe that his attitude toward her had changed, and though she hadn't worried about his opinion too much when Julian and Catherine were alive, their deaths changed everything. Rowan was in charge nowof the country that she'd grown so fond of, the palace that had become her home and the children whom she loved more than she'd ever imagined possible.
And because he was in charge, she worried what this summons to his office could mean.
She rubbed suddenly damp palms down the front of her shorts. Lionel, Rowan's personal secretary, turned on his heel and disappeared, obviously trusting that she understood the import of his message.
She did, of course, but the children were a different matter.
"Where are you going?" Damon demanded, wrapping his arms around one of her legs in a desperate attempt to keep her from leaving.
She brushed a hand over his soft, unruly curls and responded, "I'm going to see the prince regent."
His little brow furrowed. "Who's that?"
She smiled. "Your uncle Rowan."
"Oh." He still didn't relinquish his hold on her leg.
"But you said we were going to the beach," Lexi said.
"And hopefully we'll still have time to do that when I get back."
"I want to go now," Damon said, somehow making the statement sound like a royal command.
She had to smile. It was unlikely that Julian and Catherine's youngest son would ever have the responsibility of ruling his country, but she didn't doubt that he would be able to do so. The arrogance and charm he already exhibited were as much a part of his Santiago heritage as his blue blood and dark curls.
"Unfortunately, Prince Damon, it's the prince regent who makes the rules now and I really can't keep him waiting."
Damon's eyes filled. "I liked it better when Daddy made the rules, when Daddy and Mommy were here."
She dropped to her knees on the ground beside the little boy and took him in her arms. "I know you did, honey. And I know you miss them both so much."
"I miss them, too," Lexi said, and threw her arms around Lara's neck.
She had to blink away the tears that filled her own eyes as she hugged the young prince and princess. "You need to remember that though your daddy and mommy are gone, they will live forever in your hearts."
"I don't want them to live in my heart," Lexi said stubbornly.
"Me, neither," Damon agreed. "I want them to live in the palace."
It was easier for her to ignore a royal summons than the children's grief, and more than half an hour had passed by the time she got them settled in the nursery with some books and puzzles and knocked on the door of the prince regent's office.
He was annoyed. That much was obvious to Lara by the cool, clipped "Enter" that answered her knock before she even stepped foot inside the room. Her impression was confirmed by the grim set of his mouth and the hard stare of his dark brown eyes.
She immediately dropped into a curtsya ridiculous and archaic formality, she thought, made even more ridiculous by the fact that she was still wearing the old shorts and faded T-shirt she'd put on to play with the children. Julian and Catherine had both insisted that she abandon such formalities when they were behind closed doors, but Rowan had given no indication that he would tolerate bending the rules. More likely, he'd see it as a breach of protocol and reprimand her for it.
"You wished to see me, Your Highness?"
"A while ago." His gaze raked over her. "Obviously, you weren't using the time to make yourself more presentable."
She forced herself to remain silent and ignore the flutters deep in her belly. From their very first meeting, she'd been nervous around Prince Rowanmuch more so than she was around any of his brothers. Part of it, she knew, was self-consciousness because of his evident disapproval. Another part, though she'd never admit it to anyone else, was that she'd fallen head over heels in lust with the solemn, scowling prince the first time she'd laid eyes on him.