Read an Excerpt
The Prince's Runaway Lover
The Men Of The Zodiac Series
By Rovin Covington, Alethea Spiridon Hopson
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Robin Covington
All rights reserved.
Six months later
He would give his kingdom for a mountain and a few hours to climb.
Crown Prince Nicholas Alistair Malcolm Lytton of Callanos stared out through the window in the palace's council room wondering how he could feel trapped when everything he looked at belonged to him. In six weeks he would be crowned king and he wondered when he was going to wish he would wake up from this bizarre dream. He'd love to know when he was going to stop looking for his brother, Alec, to step in and take over.
He was the spare to the heir, the one who would never be king. Until a storm took down the plane carrying his brother and his sister-in-law six months ago and everything Nicholas knew had been turned upside down.
He swallowed down the desire to open the floor to ceiling windows and escape. His morning run felt like it was decades ago instead of mere hours. Keeping up with his usual training routine was impossible at the moment, but he'd made a point to rise early to ensure he got his time under the sunrise, relishing the wind on his skin, the burn in his muscles and the thrum of his pulse under his skin. It had been helpful but not quite the balm he sought for the bumps and bruises to his heart not like it used to be.
But this morning had been different. His silent, solitary running partner appeared out of the fog straining and striving alongside him. Dark hair, feet pounding on the path at his side, and finally the hint of a smile. Maybe if they wrapped it up quickly he could take a walk and find her.
The moment of her smile was the first time since that knock on his hotel room door that he'd felt remotely like himself, that maybe he had some aspect of his life that wasn't dictated by tradition, custom, and duty. His interest was visceral and one that compelled him to pursue it. It was also an impulse that would not make his advisors happy.
A discreet clearing of a throat behind him snapped him back from the pre-dawn semi-solitude of the palace grounds to the present. This was where he needed to be right now. Attending to matters of the kingdom and ensuring that the people of Callanos knew their future was safe in spite of the turmoil of the last half year. This was not his area of expertise but it would be, he had to learn to rule like his father and brother and fulfill everyone's expectations. He had no choice because everyone knew he damn well wouldn't have chosen it.
"I have several more items to discuss, Your Royal Highness," said Lord Batton, the chief of the council and his parliamentary chief of staff. "I don't want to make you late for your official engagement later this evening."
Nicholas turned from the window, casting an amused glance at his personal chief of staff, Christopher Wheaton, who sat at the table with a stack of papers in front of him.
"No worries, Lord Batton." Nicholas slid into the large leather chair at the head of the table, fingers finding the entry in his daily itinerary. "I'm opening a new VIP room at the DeRaven Casino tonight and it is scheduled for nine o'clock. We have plenty of time."
It also included an invite to stay and play at a table with high stakes players from around the world and he was looking forward to it. The booze would be top shelf, the women discreet, and not a royal advisor in sight. Christopher was going and it would be a relief to be away from the palace for a while. It offered a chance to be "Nick" again after months of playing the role of "Nicholas."
His mother, the Dowager Queen Beatrice, sat there as well, her gaze blazing as she raised an inquisitive brow at him. Sharp as the blade on one of the royal guards, she never missed a thing and the smile in his tone had not gone unnoticed. His evening activities would not be on the list of things a good king should do and although she would not bring it up here in front of non-family, he would hear of it later. He could wait for that discussion.
Ignoring her, he motioned for the older man to continue.
"Very good, sir." He scanned the papers in front of him, picking one up once he'd decided on a topic. "Your coronation is in six weeks. I received the preliminary list from the palace for guests to be included in the speech to parliament but did not see the Duke of Rushing or his family on the list."
His mother opened her mouth to speak, but Nicholas gestured with his hand for her to let him speak first. This was not her fight.
"As seating for non-parliamentary guests in the Great Hall is limited I saw no reason to invite a distant cousin. With my father's brother and other close royal family members in attendance in the hall, I gave instructions for the duke and his family to receive an invitation to watch the live proceedings at the palace with the other special guests. He'll be in good company with heads of state from other countries as well as family."
His advisor shifted in his chair, his unease settling over his shoulders, which stiffened under the impeccably pressed custom-made suit jacket. They'd been dancing around each other for months, neither one knowing how far the bands of respect and duty would stretch before one of them would break. Nicholas was trying his patience today and he knew it was going to be the beginning of a rocky road.
"I have to advise you to rethink your position," Lord Batton said, raising his eyes to meet his own. Nicholas gave him credit for standing his ground. "The Duke of Rushing would be a powerful ally and I think much could be accomplished if you extended the olive branch to him."
"What you mean is that I should use my coronation as a way to appease a distant cousin who has publicly and privately expressed his interest in taking the throne from me?"
Lord Batton froze, his rapid blinking the only thing moving on his entire body. He rallied quickly, lowering the paper to the table before taking a deep breath and continuing. "I have to caution you on causing discord where it is likely to inspire other people to join him in his cause."
"You mean that I should play nice with a social-climbing asshole who thinks he'd be a better king than me?"
His mother gasped. Chris chuckled and Lord Batton looked like he was going to vomit all over the royal papers. Very rocky roads ahead it would seem.
"Nicholas —" his mother said, her anger making her voice wobble and she stopped, clearing her throat with the ladylike cough she'd spent decades perfecting. "Your Royal Highness, I think Lord Batton's recommendation of diplomacy over open hostility has proven to be effective in the past."
And there it was in the middle of the room, the unspoken undercurrent of the past six months. This melancholy regret wasn't the often quoted elephant shape. No, this disappointment from all sides looked a lot like the tomb which held his brother's remains and the confused and sometimes violent man inhabiting his father's dementia-riddled body under constant nursing care in the east wing of the palace.
Nicholas knew they didn't wish he were dead. Nobody was that unfeeling. They just wished his brother had lived. He did too.
"If I may speak candidly, Your Royal Highness," Lord Batton asked, casting a glance in his mother's direction. The look that passed between them spoke of meetings where he had been the main topic of discussion, meetings to which he had not been invited. Interesting not surprising, just interesting.
"Say your piece, Lord Batton."
"Your detractors are gaining volume and followers with every day that passes. The Duke of Rushing is gaining support in his bid to unseat you from the throne and if this continues there will be nothing that I can do for you."
Nicholas huffed out at the extremely honest words from his main advisor. "And will you be joining his cause?"
"I was great friends with your father from our childhood. The late King Alec was my godson and I have great loyalty to this family," Lord Batton said, letting the pause linger long enough for Nicholas to know that a "but" was coming. "But if you continue down this current path, I might have no choice but to back him if sticking by you would mean the demise of this monarchy."
"Demise of the monarchy?" Nicholas snapped his eyes to the man's face, then to his mother. She looked down, her lips formed into a tight line that said much of her disapproval of what was being said but not that it was a surprise to her. "What are you talking about?"
"You were voluntarily absent from Callanos for a number of years," Lord Batton said. "You are practically a stranger to your people and you do not hold their love or their loyalty."
"I would have thought that winning gold medals in the name of Callanos would gain some loyalty," he said.
"You won those for yourself, at least that's the impression you've given everyone around you. I understand perhaps more than anyone, other than your mother, the depth of your grief, but you take on each new aspect of duty as if it were a chore. Every facial expression, every movement of your body, every speech or interview you give communicates that you don't want to be here and that you hate your new role. The people see it and they cannot follow someone who so obviously cares nothing for them." Lord Batton pounded lightly on the table to emphasize his words even though he had Nicholas' full attention.
"You refuse to follow any of your council's advice, you openly defy us at every turn, you refuse to find a wife and instead indulge in dalliances with women furnished by the casino owners. This is not the right path if you want to earn the hearts and minds of your people."
"I did not choose this life," Nicholas said, letting the depth of his regret show. "I am here because of fate and duty."
"Well, then the best course of action might be for you to choose another path. There is someone waiting to take your place."
"That's unacceptable," Nicholas found himself saying even though the perfect escape was laid out before him like a gift. A chance to walk away. But he couldn't say the words. He couldn't take that step and walk away from everything his family had built over the years. He was trapped by his sense of duty and obligation and he wondered if it would ever feel like the place he belonged instead of a cage. "I am not my father and I am not Alec."
"I think all we are asking is for you to figure out how to be King Nicholas," Lord Batton said quietly, his soft voice in direct contrast to the hard tension that kept his body rigid. "But let me be clear, your enemies and the people might not give you much more time to figure it out. Embrace your role as future king, engage with your people and show them what you care about. Find a wife and settle down. If you don't change course soon, I fear that you will have your decision made for you."
"I'll consider your suggestions." He tamped down the bitter words that threatened to spill over and lead to absolutely nothing productive. "Next order of business, Lord Batton."
The man had the grace to let it go, nodding slightly before reaching for a piece of paper with a list of names and many handwritten notes and strike-throughs covering its surface. "Have you given any thought to whether you would like an official escort to your coronation ball? We have a preliminary list"
"I think I'm going to be a little busy during the coronation festivities to worry about abandoning a date."
Lord Batton kept the paper hovering in the air between them. Nicholas looked at the sheet of names and then back at him until the other man lowered it back to the table and visibly bit back a sigh of frustration.
"It's never too early for you to start thinking about finding a queen." His mother spoke quietly, her manners barely hiding her own irritation. "Lady Charlotte von Reuuse would understand your duties in regards to the coronation."
Chris sank lower in his chair, all of his body language declaring that he wanted to be anywhere but here right now. Join the club.
"I think a mere six months after the loss of Alec and Sophia is too early. We've barely taken off the black."
"Everyone understands why we had to reduce the official mourning period." His mother waved off the concern like it was nothing. "And you've not let it keep you from taking women to your bed."
He let that comment go.
"I'm not in the market for a queen right now." Especially not Lady Charlotte. She was a nice enough woman, perfectly polished, lovely as a painting, and with as much personality as the burned bits you scraped off your toast.
She hadn't even been on his radar of women he was eager to spend a night with getting sweaty. No, she had all the earmarks of a clingy female who would equate a couple of orgasms with the tiara she so desperately wanted. Not the kind of woman he'd ever wanted. Not in this lifetime and not when he'd had his choice at any given time. Being the prince had some definite perks and he'd indulged often with as many women as he could manage, but there were some things you did not do when you were the heir apparent like fucking the daughter of a royal duke unless you were discreet. And being discreet did not suit women like Lady Charlotte. She would no sooner let him get the condom off before she'd call the press and announce the wedding.
"Next." He motioned toward Lord Batton whose pile of papers had dwindled down to one.
"The refugees, sir." He closed his mouth, just the utterance of those words enough to bring them all to attention.
The thousands of people orphaned due to a religious war in a neighboring country were congregated on a strip of land on the northwest side of Callanos. The Red Cross and other aid organizations were there to help with their needs but they needed more. His country was small, its main industry tourism, casinos, and catering to the high-end jet-setters who also frequented Monaco and Lake Como. An eyesore and a constant reminder that everything was not Cristabel champagne and Harry Winston, many in parliament and the local industry wanted them gone.
He wanted to know how to help. It was not a popular political position with his council.
"I hope you have the report I requested on the situation with a recommended course of action," he said, the look on his advisor's face telling him all he needed to know. Lord Batton did not have the report. "What possibly can be taking so long? I have the reports from the humanitarian organizations and they are working on a third of the budget."
"Sir." Lord Batton cleared his throat, his neck flushing red with his unease. "I don't think"
Nicholas was done. He was tired of the stone wall and the excuses.
"Lord Batton, don't think." He met his shocked gaze and refused to back down. "Get me the report so I can make a decision. You said that you want me to be engaged, but the one issue I care about is met with stubborn refusal from my council. We're done for today."
He stood, turning back to the window as his advisor scrambled to his feet behind him. Lord Batton and his mother murmured behind him, the censure and concern in their tones grating on his nerves like a file against a stone. The door closed behind him and he felt his mother approach from behind, the whisper-soft swoosh of her expensive dress growing louder as she drew near.
"Pushing back on every suggestion is not the way to go forward, Nicholas."
He turned slightly, looking down at her over his shoulder. Her cheeks were flushed, the only thing indicating that his discussion upset her. His mother was warm, she cared for him, but when she was angry or frustrated, her mask came down and almost nothing cracked the armor.
"You sound as if you think I'm doing it for spite's sake."
"I'm not convinced you have a good reason to refuse to follow Lord Batton's advice other than your continued refusal to accept your responsibilities."
Oh, that was really too much. He turned to fully face her. "I've done nothing but accept my responsibility, but I refuse to be pushed into action or inaction before I've decided how I want to act."
"You need to decide more quickly. Your entire life I've had to caution you on making decisions too quickly, of becoming an immovable force in a hasty manner, and now it's like you're frozen in place."
She wasn't wrong. He'd always been the one to look before he leaped, but the man she was talking about was the one who knew his terrain, knew his body, and could quickly survey a mountainside or the most challenging opponents in a triathlon. That was his comfort zone and this was not.
"Alec had thirty-two years to make his choices."
"You don't." She paused and he regretted the motherly pain that flitted across her eyes at the mention of his brother, her son. "It's not fair and I recognize that fact, but you have advisors and you should heed their guidance."
"If I want dating advice I am not asking Lord Batton. He's on the third Lady Batton if I'm correct and this one is my age."
Excerpted from The Prince's Runaway Lover by Rovin Covington, Alethea Spiridon Hopson. Copyright © 2015 Robin Covington. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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