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"What do you mean she's gone?" Prince Rodriguez Anguiano looked down at Eduardo Santina, King of Santina, and his future father-in-law, and swore he saw sweat beading on the older man's brow.
The king was known for being formidable, tough and unbending. Watching him sweat was unexpected. And more than a little bit interesting.
King Eduardo cleared his throat. "Just that. Sophia is gone. She left with a maharaja."
Rodriguez felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth. "A maharaja? Is marrying a prince not enough for some women? They feel the need to pursue a more exotic title?"
King Eduardo's face darkened, color creeping into his cheeks. "She has done so without my permission."
"I'm assuming, since my intended fiancée has run away with a maharaja, the wedding is off?" The king only looked at him and Rodriguez felt a vague sense of relief wash through him. He had been prepared to do the marriage thing, but truly, he hadn't been looking forward to it. In his estimation it was a ball and chain situation, and he didn't know anyone who would willingly shackle themselves in that manner. Yet people did seem to get married. It was the heir factor, one he couldn't ignore forever, but for a while longer, maybe.
Sophia had been pretty enough, a beautiful brunette with a real classic beauty. But even that would get old after a while. Now he could go back to Santa Christobel and celebrate with a blonde. Maybe a redhead. Maybe both. Not that he usually went in for that sort of thing but he'd had six long, unheard-of months of celibacy so that he could present his future bride with medical proof of his good health. And now that there would be no wedding, it had just been six months of physical torture. "Father?"
Rodriguez turned, his ears always tuned in to sultry, feminine tones. But in this instance, the tone did not match the looks. One of Eduardo's other daughters was standing in the entryway, sleek brown hair hanging just beneath her chin. All no-nonsense and practical, as was the rest of her attire.
Wide-leg beige slacks, a white button-up top and metallic ballet slipper-style shoes. She looked like she'd stepped out of the pages of a business-casual catalog. She was tall, slim, only a couple of inches shorter than he was, and her face was pleasant enough, but with none of the flash and paint he was accustomed to seeing on a woman.
"Sorry," she said, inclining her head. "I didn't realize that you were busy." She turned to go, and for some reason, he was sorry to see it.
She paused and turned back again. This time he noticed how green her eyes were. "Yes, Father?"
"Stay for a moment."
Carlotta gave him a brief icy look before turning her focus back to her father.
"This is Prince Rodriguez Anguiano. Your sister Sophia's fiance."
She looked at him again, her expression blank. She was strange, contained, demure almost, and yet he could sense something beneath it. Something she seemed determined not to reveal.
"Charmed," he said, flashing her a grin. "Though I don't know that I'm Sophia's fiance any longer. As she's run off with the maharaja."
Carlotta blinked owlish green eyes at him before shooting her father a worried look. That's where her emotion was, reserved for the old man. She seemed to fear him, or at least feel nervous around him. Rodriguez couldn't even find the slightest bit of fear in himself. The king posed no threat to him. A lion who was all roar and no maul. He knew the other kind, the kind who wouldn't hesitate to tear out your throat. It made it very hard to take a man like Eduardo Santina seriously.
His daughter, on the other hand, seemed to feel differently.
"She did not 'run off' with the maharwith Ashok," Eduardo said.
"I don't care if she walked, ran or flew in his private jet. The bottom line is the same. I am out a fiancée, and we seem to have no more marriage bargain," Rodriguez countered.
Carlotta shifted on her sensible shoes. "Can I go?"
"No," her father said.
"I don't really care what you do," Rodriguez threw in, mildly amused by the whole situation. What adult woman asked her father for permission to do anything? Obviously not his ex-intended bride, Sophia Santina. But apparently Carlotta Santina was another matter.
Carlotta's eyes narrowed slightly in his direction, before flickering back to her father. "I need to call Luca before "
"It can wait, Carlotta. Do me this one favor," Eduardo bit out roughly, the strain of the situation not well hidden.
Carlotta seemed to shrink and Rodriguez felt his stomach turn sour. Dios, but he hated men like that. Men who used their strength, their power, over others like that. Over their own children.
"I'm done here, actually," Rodriguez said. "If you have no bride for me, I have no reason to stay." Unless one of the maids is looking to get lucky.
"Tell me, Rodriguez, did you have feelings for Sophia?" Eduardo asked.
"You know I didn't. I didn't even know her. I won't insult either of us by pretending otherwise."
"Then it was her name you needed? Not her?"
He couldn't care less who he married so long as she could produce heirs and do a nice royal wave from a balcony. "You know that to be true."
"Then I do have a bride for you." Eduardo turned his dark eyes on Carlotta. "You can have Carlotta."
Carlotta blinked hard and looked from Rodriguez back to her father. She was certain her ears couldn't be working right, because she had thought she'd heard her father give her away. Like she was a thing. A parting gift for the visiting prince.
Are you shocked? He already believes you gave yourself away.
She shook the thought off and continued to stare at her father, letting the silence fill the room until it became oppressive.
Finally, Rodriguez laughed, a short, harsh sound. "A trade?"
"A way to keep our bargain, Prince Rodriguez."
Carlotta shook her head, and she knew her eyes were probably comically large in her head. She closed her mouth. She hadn't realized it had dropped open.
She'd been completely floored by her sister, sweet Sophia, running away from her arranged marriage to Rodriguez, especially as it was so important for Santina and Santa Christobel to forge an alliance. She'd been the first to warn her sister about the unflattering headlines. Princess Sophia Joins Mile-High Club.
But she hadn't realized that she would get dragged into the whole debacle. And certainly not to this degree.
Rodriguez flicked her a dismissive glance. "I have no interest in taking a wife who nearly faints at the thought of becoming my bride. I'm certain I can find someone my mere presence does not offend. We have no deal, Eduardo."
He turned and walked out of the room, leaving Carlotta alone with her father. It was a new kind of silence that filled the room now. One bursting with rage, combined with a kind of leaden disappointment that she could feel down in her soul, weighting her, climbing in her throat, threatening to strangle her.
She knew this feeling. Had felt it before. In this very room. In this very spot.
Nearly six years ago she'd been here. In her father's office. Her knees locked, her feet glued to the carpet, hands clasped tightly in front of her. Her entire body shaking, a cold sweat covering her back, her neck.
They had been the two most terrifying words she'd ever spoken in her life. And directly after them had come the most sickening minute of silence she'd ever endured.
"Carlotta, after all I have done for you," he said, his voice thick with disappointment, "you cannot do this for me? For your country? You brought so much shame upon us, all of us. The people of Santina, your family."
"I I only came in to tell you that I have to return tonight." She couldn't deal with her father's words. They hurt too badly. They rang too true. "Luca needs me and and then you throw a prince at me! A marriage proposal. I don't "
She swallowed, trying to suppress the panic that was starting to rise in her. "What do you expect of me?"
Her father looked down at his hands, folded in front of him on his neat, expansive desk. "I had hoped that you would understand how important this was. I had hoped you would understand your duty. After all our family has endured recently in the press, thanks to your brother. After the way they publicized your shame."
Carlotta felt her face grow tense, needles of icy cold rage dotting her cheeks. Luca wasn't her shame. And he never could be. Even if the press had been determined to make him so.
The Sole Santina Bastard. A favored headline at the time of Luca's birth. She could only thank God they didn't know the whole story. That they didn't know the half of the sins she was capable of committing when she let the hold on her control loosen.
And Father is the only reason they don't.
That brought the guilt. Right on time.
"I have always believed that you would do great things, Carlotta," he said, his voice softer now. "This is your chance to prove me right." He looked up at her, his dark eyes shining, and she felt her stomach tighten. "You are my most beloved daughter. I did everything in my power to protect you, to keep the press from finding out the details surrounding Luca's birth. Is it so much to ask for this?"
She felt like she was choking, as if her throat was getting tighter with each word her father spoke. Yet another reason she avoided Santina. Her family. The obligations of being a princess. The horrible, crushing guilt.
Not for the first time, she felt like coming home had been a mistake. She didn't know where she fit anymore. She'd been on the fringes of the glamorous engagement party, not entirely able to join in with her family. Not able to join in with her brother Alessandro's new in-laws, the Jacksons, and their carefree, crass style of behavior. In a way she almost envied the Jacksons. They didn't have to worry about how they were perceived. They didn't seem to worry about anything.
Yes, but you do.
It was easier when she was in her home on the Amalfi Coast. When she was just Carlotta, Luca's mum.
But that was a dream. A dream she'd escaped to when she'd been pregnant, alone and scared. Heartbroken. Hounded by the press.
She'd been weak then. But she could never have come out of it remaining weak. It was either grow a spine or melt into a puddle and die. And for Luca's sake, melting had never been a viable option. She'd had to find inner strength, and she'd found it quickly.
Still, facing down her father brought back the girl she'd been. The one who had wanted to please him so badly. Who had only wanted to do right. With everything that was going on, Sophia's very public fall from grace, Alex's marriage maybe it was her chance to grab a little redemption. To be the daughter her father seemed to believe she still could be.
"What is the precise nature of your agreement with with Prince Rodriguez?" she asked, licking her suddenly dry lips.
"Anguiano needs an heir," said Eduardo. "His father is dying. As good as dead. Incapacitated and in hospital. It's time for Rodriguez to take the throne of Santa Christobel, and that means he needs a wife."
"And what's in it for us? For Santina. I mean, I understand it in a general sense. But if I'm actually going to marry Prince Rodriguez, then I need to know exactly what we stand to gain."
"Can you imagine it, Carlotta? What such an alliance could bring? Ease for educational programs between the nations. Trade. A valuable ally to stand with should conflict ever arise. All cemented by marriage. Children. It is unfathomable in its value."
"Gems," she said softly, a realization washing over her. "They have diamonds. Ruby mines too. A host of other natural resources."
"It cannot be overlooked. They are a wealthy nation. And that makes them even more valuable. Sophia knew her duty. She has abandoned it. But I trust you, Carlotta. I trust that you will do what is right."
What was right? She had tried to do what was right for most of her life. Barring one giant mistake, she always had. It had always been her goal. To be the kind of daughter her parents deserved and desired. She didn't know if she could take it this far though.
She closed her eyes for a moment, pictured her house on the beach. The quiet. Her son running through the halls with his arms full of stuffed animals that had most definitely seen better days. Things were simpler there. She didn't have to work so hard to be the Carlotta that she was expected to be. The one she feared deep inside she never truly could be.
But while she had left palace life behind, she hadn't left her title. She hadn't truly shed her duty.
That was bred into her. A part of her. Even if she tried to ignore it.
And then, there was her father. Who had never given up on her. Not even when she'd let him down, dragged the Santina name through the mud. Put them on par with the kind of tabloid fodder he despised.
For all the cruel words her family had bandied around about her older brother Alessandro's future in-laws, the very same could be said about her. It had been said about her, in bold print, on newsstands all around Santina.
Her family, her father, had never thrown those words at her, but she knew it had been thought. How could they not think it? She had. Worse, she knew it was true. A lifetime of keeping her passionate, exuberant nature on a tight leash, and in one great fall from grace, all her efforts had been reduced to nothing. She had tainted her family name, had brought them ridicule, the disgust of a nation who saw her as a clear sign of the degeneration of the royal family.
The question was, how badly did she want redemption? Enough to marry a total stranger? The prince of a country she'd never been to? The man her sister had been engaged to, until she'd broken it by hooking up with Ash on his private plane.
She looked at her father. He had aged in the past few years. She hadn't been around to see it. She wondered how much of it was her fault. How many lines on his face were from dealing with her transgressions.
It made her sick to think of it.