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"Do your duty," her father ordered her only moments before the organ burst into life—his version of an encouraging speech. He frowned at her. "Make me proud."
That was the entirety of his fatherly pre-wedding advice.
The words swam in Princess Gabrielle's head even as the heavy weight of her silk taffeta wedding gown tugged at her and slowed her down. The long train swept back from her dress, extending almost ten feet behind her as befitted a royal princess on her wedding day. Gabrielle only knew that it was hard to walk with ten feet of fabric to pull along with her, though she kept her spine erect and her head high—as always.
Thank God for the veil that covered her face, hiding the expression she was afraid she couldn't control for the first time in her twenty-five years—to say nothing of the prickly heat flooding her eyes.
She could not cry. Not here. Not now.
Not as she walked down the aisle of her kingdom's holiest of cathedrals, holding fast to her father's arm. Her father— King Josef of Miravakia. The man she had spent her life trying—and failing—to please.
Even at university she had been too determined to win her father's elusive approval to do anything but study hard. While her peers had partied and explored all that London had to offer, Gabrielle had lost herself in her books and her research. After university, despite the degree she'd obtained in Economics, she had dedicated herself to charity work, according to her father's expectations of the Crown Princess of Miravakia.
Anything and everything to curry her father's favor. It was the mantra of Gabrielle's life.
Even this. Marriage to a perfect stranger of his choosing.
Why was she going through with this? Hers was not some ancient feudal kingdom—and she was no chattel. But if there was a way to go against her father's wishes without incurring his wrath she did not know what it was. She knew that she could have said no. Couldn't she? Or was she simply too desperate to prove to her father that she was worthy of his approval—even when the stakes were so high?
"I have accepted a marriage proposal," King Josef had told her one morning, barely three months ago, jolting Gabrielle from her contemplation of the day's schedule. He had not glanced up from his breakfast as he spoke. It had surprised Gabrielle that he'd spoken at all—he generally preferred to breakfast in silence, with only his newspapers spread around him, though he insisted that she join him every morning.
"A marriage proposal?" Gabrielle had been amazed—her father had shown no interest in remarrying, not in all the long years since Gabrielle's mother had died of cancer when Gabrielle was barely five.
"I found the combination of a royal bloodline and near-limitless wealth sufficiently attractive," the King had said, almost thoughtfully. "And it will certainly bolster the standing of the Miravakian throne."
It had been as if he was discussing the purchase of a vehicle. But Gabrielle's thoughts had raced ahead anyway. Was she really to have a stepmother? She rather thought it might be fun to have someone else around thepalazzo. Much as she loved her father and tried to please him, he was not an easy man.
"There will be no tedious long engagement," he had continued, touching his thin, disapproving lips with his linen napkin and signaling one of the hovering footmen for more coffee. Finally, he'd looked at her. "I've no patience for such things."
"No, of course not," Gabrielle had agreed. Her mind had been racing wildly. Who on earth could possibly meet her father's high standards? He had a universally low opinion of almost every woman he'd ever encountered, as far as she knew—and then again, as King of Miravakia, he would only consider a bride from a select class of royals. And how like him to keep his intentions a secret, she'd thought, almost amused.
"I expect you to conduct yourself well," he'd said, sipping at his coffee. "None of the hysterics that seem to afflict your sex when they come into contact with a wedding ceremony, thank you."
Gabrielle had known better than to respond to that.
He'd sniffed. "I have confidence that you can put everything together quickly and efficiently, with as little disruption as possible."
"Of course, Father," Gabrielle had said at once. She had never planned a wedding before, but how different could it be from the state events she'd put together in the past? She had a marvelous staff whom she already knew could perform miracles. And who knew? Perhaps a new wife would bring out the softer side of her stern father. She'd give quite a bit to see that.
Lost in her reverie, she had been startled when her father had pushed back his chair and stood. He'd moved toward the door without another word—the subject closed. Gabrielle had almost laughed. How typical of him. She'd felt a surge of affection for his brusque ways—because clearly something romantic lurked beneath the cold exterior.
"Father," she had called, stopping him before he quit the room. He'd turned back to face her, a slight frown between his eyebrows.
"What is it?" he had asked impatiently.
"Am I to know the bride's name?" she had asked, biting back an indulgent smile.
He'd stared at her. "You need to pay closer attention, Gabrielle, if you are to succeed me without running this country into the ground," he'd snapped, his arctic tone making her wince. His frown had deepened as he'd glared at her. "You, obviously, are the bride."
And then he'd turned on his heel and strode from the room, without a backward glance.
In the cathedral, Gabrielle felt her breath catch in her throat as the memory of that morning washed over her, while her pulse fluttered wildly. Panic was setting in, as heavy around her as the veil she wore and the train she trailed behind her. She fought to pull air into her lungs—ordered herself to stay calm.
Her father would never forgive her if she made a scene. If she showed anything but docile acceptance—even gratitude— for the way he'd chosen to manage her affairs. Her life.
Gabrielle felt the crisp, heavy sleeve of her father's ornamental coat beneath her trembling fingers as he led her down the long aisle, his measured steps bringing her closer and closer to her fate.
She couldn't think of it. Couldn't think of him—her groom. Soon to be her husband. A man she had never even met, and yet he would be her spouse. Her mate. King of her people when she became their queen. Gabrielle's lips parted on a sound that was far too close to a sob—though it was thankfully hidden in the swirl of music that surrounded her.
She could not. Not here. Not now. It was too late.
The cathedral was packed to capacity on all sides, filled with Europe's royals and assorted nobles. Political allies and strategic partners of her father's. The music soared toward the stained glass heights, filling the space and caressing the carved marble statues. Outside, she knew, the people of Miravakia were celebrating their princess's wedding day as a national holiday. There would be rejoicing in the streets, the papers claimed, now that their Gabrielle had found her husband. Their future king.
A man she did not know and had never seen—not in person. Not face-to-face.
Her husband-to-be was a man who had won his wife through contracts—meetings with her father, bargains struck and approved without her knowledge or consent. Her father had not asked Gabrielle for her input—he had not considered her feelings at all. He had decided that it was time she married, and he had produced the bridegroom of his choice.
And Gabrielle never argued with her father. Never rebelled, never contradicted. Gabrielle was good. Obedient. Respectful to a fault. In the hope that her father would one day respect her back. Love her, maybe—just a little.
Instead, he'd sold her off to the highest bidder.
Luc felt triumph surge through him as he watched the woman—soon to be his wife—walk toward him down the long ceremonial aisle. He barely noticed the arching stained glass above him as he stood at the altar, or the hunched statues of gargoyles peering down at him—his attention was focused entirely on her.
Luc's mouth pressed into a thin line as he thought of his reckless, thoughtless mother and the destruction she had wrought with her rebellions. Her "passions." But Luc was not his temperamental, easily manipulated father. He would not stand for such behavior—not from his wife.
She must be above reproach. She must be practical—as this was to be a marriage on paper first and flesh afterward. But most of all she must be trustworthy. Because Luc, unlike many of his station, would not tolerate disloyalty. There would be no discreet affairs in this marriage. He would accept nothing less than one hundred percent obedience. There would be no tabloid speculation, no scandals for the voyeurs to pick over. Never again.
He'd searched for years. He'd rejected untold numbers of women before arriving at near misses like Lady Emma. As with everything in his life, from his business to the personal life he guarded ferociously, Luc's refusal to compromise had first isolated, then rewarded him.
Because he had not compromised, because he did not know the meaning of the word, he had exactly what he wanted. The perfect princess. At last.
Princess Gabrielle was biddable. Docile—as evidenced by her presence in the cathedral today, calmly walking down the aisle into an arranged marriage because her father had ordered her to do so. So far, so good, he thought with deep satisfaction as he watched her slow, sure approach.
He remembered the sun-drenched days when he'd followed her in Nice, her seemingly effortless poise, no matter how many clamored for her attention. She had never caused a single scandal in her life. She was known for her serenity and her complete lack of tabloid presence. When she made the papers it was in recognition of her charity work. Never for her exploits. Compared to the other royals who debauched themselves all over Europe, she might be a saint. Which suited Luc just fine.
Luc Garnier had built an empire based on his perfectionist streak. If it was not perfect, it would not carry his name.
His wife would be no different.
He had left nothing to chance. He had had others collect the initial information, but then he had made the final decision—as he always did, no matter the acquisition in question. He had followed her personally, because he knew that he could not trust anyone's opinion but his own. Not when it came to a matter of such importance. Others might make mistakes, or overlook seemingly small details that would later prove to be of importance—but not Luc. He would never have approached her father if he had not been absolutely satisfied that Princess Gabrielle was not just the best choice, but the only choice for his bride.
Luc had met with King Josef to settle the final contracts in the King's sumptuous suite at the Hotel le Bristol in Paris, with its stunning view of the great Sacré-Coeur basilica that rose, gleaming white, and towered above the city from Montmartre.
"You do not wish to meet her?" the older man had asked when the business was done, settling back in his chair to enjoy his port.
"It is not necessary," Luc had replied. He had inclined his head. "Unless you wish it?"
"What is it to me?" the King had asked, letting out a puff of air through his nose. "She will marry you whether you meet her or not."
"You are certain?" Luc had asked lightly, though he had not in truth been concerned. Arrangements would never have reached this stage if the King had not been sure of his daughter's obedience. "Ours is an unusual settlement in this day and age. A princess and a kingdom in exchange for wealth and business interests—I am told this sounds like something out of a history book."
The King had made a dismissive noise. "My daughter was raised to do the right thing regarding her country. I have always insisted that Gabrielle understands her position necessitates a certain dignity." The King had swirled his port in its tumbler. He had frowned. "And great responsibility."
"She appears to have taken it to heart," Luc had said, looking at his own drink. "I have never heard her mentioned without reference to her grace and composure."
"Of course." The King had seemed almost taken aback. "She has known all her life that her role as princess would come before any more personal considerations. She will be a good queen one day—though she requires a firm hand to guide her." He'd sniffed. "You will have no trouble with her."
No trouble, Luc had thought with deep satisfaction, would suit him perfectly.
The King had waved his hand, seeming perturbed that they had spoken so long about something he found far beneath his notice. "But enough of that. Let us drink to the future of Miravakia." He had raised his glass.
"To the future of Miravakia," Luc had murmured in response. She would be his wife, and finally, finally, he would prove to himself and to the world that he was not cut from the same histrionic cloth as his late parents. Finally he would prove that he, Luc Garnier, was above reproach as well.
"Yes, yes," King Josef had said, and then raised a brow at Luc, as if sharing a confidence. "And to women who know their place."
As she moved closer now, down the cathedral's long aisle, Luc let himself smile, though he did not relax.
She was perfect. He had made sure of it. And now she was his.
Gabrielle could see him now, from beneath her veil, as she finally approached the altar. He stood straight and tall at the front of the cathedral, his gaze seeming to command her even as she walked toward him. Toward their future.
Luc Garnier. Her groom. Gabrielle had never met him— but she had researched him in the months since her father had announced his name. He was descended from centuries of Italian royalty on his mother's side, with a French billionaire father whose fortunes he had doubled before he turned twenty-five. His parents' tumultuous love affair had made headlines while Luc was still young. They had perished in a boating accident when Luc was still in his early twenties, which many claimed was the reason he was so driven, so determined. She fancied she could see his ruthlessness in the line of his jaw, the gleam of his dark eyes.
I can't do this—
But she was doing it.
She had no choice—she had given herself no choice—but she didn't have to watch it happen. She kept her eyes lowered. She didn't want to look at this man—this stranger who would soon be her husband—but she could feel him next to her, above her, as her father handed her off. Luc's large hands took her trembling fingers between his, and guided her the final few steps toward the bishop.