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His sister's hand crept into his and held tight. 'I think he's serious, Charlie.'
At the fear smothered beneath the shock in Lia's voice, Charlie's protective instincts roared up. Lia was pale; he could feel the tremors running through her.
He couldn't blame her. If this was on the level, this news could destroy his sister. After all these years of progress, she could slide back to anorexic behaviour to cope with the stress of what this stranger was telling them.
No way would he risk that. 'Come on, Mr Damianakis. Tell us why we're here. You're scaring my sister.'
The lawyer smiled at Lia in apology, but his words didn't give Charlie any relief. 'I'm aware this must be a massive shock for you both. It was a surprise to us, too. The consulate contacted us after the story of your rescue of the children in the house fire.' Now the apologetic look was aimed at Charlie. 'They'd sent photos of your grandparents to every consulate around the world. You really are the image of your grandfather. The photo of you getting the medal for bravery led to an investigation which showed your grandfather's entry papers into Australia weren't on the level. The Greek records showed that the real Kyriacou Charles Konstantinos, who shared your grandfather's birth date, died in Cyprus in the second year of the Second World War, eight months before your grandfather arrived in Sydney in 1941 using the same certificate.'
'That doesn't prove anything but that Papou was an illegal alien,' Charlie argued. It wassomething he'd always suspected. Papou had always worked for himself, and worked for cash whenever he could.
Charlie frowned, realizing for the first time that Papou had built and paid for the house and everything in it with cash— a man who'd claimed to be the son of a humble bricklayer, and who had only ever worked as a carpenter. Where had the money come from?
'No, in itself it proves nothing—but it was a start.' Mr Damianakis shifted again in his seat, reacting to Charlie and Lia's obvious discomfort with the situation. 'Your father's name is the Marandis family name—Athanasius, like your greatgrandfather, the twelfth Grand Duke. Your grandfather's medical records showed some family anomalies, such as the crooked little finger on the right hand, and the AB-negative blood type, which is usual in the male Hellenican line, but rare among Cypriots, and is not at all in the Konstantinos family.'
Lia's grip tightened on Charlie's hand, and he could think of nothing to say to comfort her. Damn, he wished Toby was here!
'And your grandmother's Italian heritage clinched it. When we contacted her family in Milan, got pictures of her at a young age and saw her resemblance to you, Miss Costa, we knew we had the right people.'
Charlie rubbed the healing skin on his neck, where the heat of the fire had gone right through the flame-retardant suit to melt the flesh. The fallout from that fire had done more damage than even he had anticipated. The media had followed him for days, trying to make him a hero. They'd followed him and Toby as they'd visited the kids in hospital, and had awkwardly tried to console the grieving father who'd lost his wife. If he hadn't been instructed by the service to do it, for the sake of donations and good political mileage
Damn the entire brigade! Those kids had lost their mother because he hadn't been able to save her. If it weren't for the press turning him into something he wasn't, he'd still be living in happy obscurity.
Whatever happened now, he had a feeling that much was at an end.
Charlie jerked to his feet, bringing Lia with him. 'This has to be a joke. You have thirty seconds to tell us why we're really here before we walk out the door.'
'I am one hundred percent on the level, sir.' Mr Damianakis handed Charlie a document and a photograph. 'Here's the late Grand Duke's birth certificate, and his photo taken when he came of age, sir.'
Charlie looked down, fighting a spurt of irritation. No one had ever called him 'sir' in his life, and never like he was a grand 'what' of where.
It was a young Papou in the photo, no doubt of it; Charlie saw the likeness. He'd always been the image of his grandfather. His Papou, who'd always hated war and had only fought over the backgammon table, was dressed in full military getup, covered in ribbons and medals, and the legend said:
1939. The 18-year-old Marquis of Junoar at his graduation from the Hellenican Military Academy, with his parents the Grand Duke and Duchess of Malascos.
The birth certificate gave no reprieve: Kyriacou Charles Marandis, son of His Grace, Athanasius, The Grand Duke of Malascos, and Grand Duchess Helena Marandis, née Lady Helena Doughtry, daughter of the Earl of
The words blurred in front of him as his head began spinning. The birth date was right; the face was exact. And he couldn't deny the name—Kyriacou Charles. It was his name as well as his paternal grandfather's name, in the old tradition, just as Lia was Giulia Maria, named for their grandmother, their beloved Yiayia.
If all this rigmarole was true, their shy, retiring Yiayia had been a count's granddaughter, an untitled royal nanny for whom Papou had given up his position to run off and marry, if Mr Damianakis could be believed.
He was descended from dukes and earls? He was a lost heir?
'So when do the man in the iron mask and the three musketeers show up?' he asked, with a world of irony in his voice.
The lawyer gave him a wry smile in return. 'It must seem unbelievable: the runaway duke, the lost prince and princess— a massive fortune.'
Lia had read the words on the photo over Charlie's shoulder and stammered, 'It can't be Papou. You have the wrong people. Our last name is Costa. We're Greek.'
'Your grandfather took the surname and nationality he was given by the man who created his false identity, and changed Konstantinos to the simpler version—Costa,' Mr Damianakis said gravely. 'Probably to avoid media scrutiny and being followed around the world. But there is no doubt. He became the Grand Duke of Malascos at his father's death, and you became the Marquis of Junoar when your father died. Due to the tragedies in the nation in the past decade, you are no longer merely the Marquis of Junoar or Grand Duke of Malascos.'
Merely? Charlie heard his mind shout in disbelief.
'But by Hellenican law, as the last male in the direct line, you are Crown Prince, heir to the throne. And you—' he smiled at Lia '—are Her Highness Giulia Marandis, Princess Royal of Hellenia. Your great-grandfather left a massive private fortune to his lost descendants, totalling over five hundred million euros in land, gold and in bank accounts. I think he wanted his son to know he'd forgiven him.' He rushed around to Lia, who'd turned alarmingly pale. 'Please sit, my lady.'
Lia released Charlie's hand and fell into the chair, her breathing erratic. 'Don't call me that,' she said, her voice horrified.
The room swung around Charlie in slow ovals: around and up and down, like he was in a crazy ride he couldn't get off. But he was a fireman, damn it, and he didn't fall down under shock. He strode to the window, saw the limousine with diplomatic flags on it, and clenched his fists. The fairy story he wanted to laugh at was crystallising into horrifying reality. 'You said the king and my great-grandfather disinherited Papou when he married Yiayia. So what do they want with us?'
'When your grandfather was disinherited, he was ninth in line to the throne, but there were another twenty direct members of the Marandis family to inherit,' Mr Damianakis said, in the tone of respectful gravity that killed Charlie's urge to laugh this all off. 'The past thirty years has been a tragic time in Hellenia. An attempted coup killed several members of your family. Twelve years ago rebel forces created civil war on behalf of the heir of a man in direct rivalry to the throne, named Orakis, in an attempt to reclaim it. The war lasted a decade. Thousands died, towns and villages were destroyed.'
Good God, now he'd gone from romantic legend to an item on the news networks. 'So if this Orakis guy wants the throne so much, let him have it,' he snapped. 'Then nobody else has to die.'
'Charlie,' Lia said in gentle rebuke. 'This isn't Mr Damianakis' fault.'
'Sorry,' he muttered with distinctly unroyal grace. He waved. 'Go on.'
'Not quite two years ago, the Prince Royal and his son contracted meningococcal disease and died within a day of each other, leaving only the Princess Jazmine in line for the throne. The laws of Hellenia do not allow for female inheritance if there is a direct male Marandis to take the throne. The Grand Duke of Falcandis is a descendant, but through the female line. King Angelis began a search for his first cousin, the Grand Duke of Malascos, and his descendants.'
Had they fallen down the rabbit hole? Charlie kept waiting for someone to jump out of a cupboard, yelling 'Surprise!'. 'Just call me 'Charming',' he muttered.
Lia chuckled. 'Yeah, like that's ever going to happen.'
He grinned at her.
Mr Damianakis spoke again. 'If you require further proof, sir, there's a limousine waiting outside to take you to the private jet waiting at Kingsford-Smith airport. It will fly you both to the Hellenican Embassy in Canberra. A representative of the royal family is waiting to answer any questions you have, and give you the papers you need for an immediate flight to Hellenia. His Majesty the King of Hellenia, as well as Her Royal Highness Jazmine, and the Grand Duke of Falcandis, await your arrival.'
As the lawyer said something else, Charlie's mind wandered. He shook his head, trying to clear it, to wake up and find he'd been knocked on the head. Half the time he barely felt qualified to be a fireman, and now he was was
Maybe he'd taken a hit by a supporting beam at that Christmas fire, or suffered brain damage with the smoke inhalation, and kept relapsing into delusions?
He turned on his heel to see his sister's cheeks holding the dreaded greenish hue. 'Lia?' He ran to her and knelt at her chair, checking her pulse automatically. 'What did you say to her?'
Damianakis licked his lips, distinctly nervous. 'You didn't hear me?'
'Would I need to ask if I had?' He heard the lash of impatient anger in his tone, felt Lia's hand press his, and tightened his lips. How many times did he have to shoot the messenger because he couldn't keep his temper under check? 'This isn't your fault. Just tell me what upset Lia.'
Damianakis shifted in his seat. 'I said you need to prepare yourselves. The ambassador thought it best that I tell you here, in a quiet environment.' As if gathering his courage, he looked up at Charlie. 'His Majesty, King Angelis, has arranged royal marriages for you both, to take place as soon as possible.'
Orakidis City, Hellenia
The next morning
The beautiful old black Rolls pulled up outside the front of the sprawling, four-winged mansion that was the royal family's summer palace, where the king was keeping residence until the main palace was fully repaired from a fire attack a few years before.
There were too many repairs still yet to make to the nation's towns, cities and homes for the royal family to think of repairing a palace as a priority.
Jazmine's heart beat hard as she stood beside Max at the foot of the stairs, four feet behind the king, as adherence to royal protocol demanded. As Princess Royal and the Grand Duke of Falcandis, they held positions the world would envy; yet here they were again, the king's dolls to rearrange as he wished. Old friends, they'd been engaged to each other until a month ago; now they were both engaged to strangers.
Was this a case of a magnificent escape for them, or being tossed from the king's frying pan into his fire?
'Courage,' the Grand Duke murmured in her ear.
She stiffened. A princess to the core, she'd had correct deportment and proper distance drilled into her since birth. 'This is my duty. I don't need courage to face what I can't change.'
His deep, smooth voice was rich with amusement. 'You're right—resignation would be more useful in our case.' He waited, but she didn't answer. 'Talk to me, Jazmine. Surely, as the most recent object of your duty, I can intrude on your pride and share our changed circumstances with someone who understands?'
She felt a tinge of heat touch her cheeks. Her grandfather, the king, had dissolved their engagement when the news of Prince Kyriacou's existence had been confirmed. His press secretary had hinted that childhood friendship made the engagement awkward: a truth His Majesty used when he found it convenient.
Jazmine smiled up at the fair, handsome face, so like his English mother. She'd been so embarrassed by her grandfather's dictum, she hadn't been able to look at him until now. 'You're right, Max. Thank you.'
'Here come our respective futures,' he murmured, smiling at her with the sibling-like affection they'd shared since she was thirteen. 'Our third or fourth cousins, or something. Almost not related at all, apart from the name.'
Thank goodness, Jazmine almost said aloud. She'd found the thought of marrying any relative revolting, but, with Prince Kyriacou's grandfather marrying an Italian count's grandchild, and his father marrying a Greek woman—a real commoner!—the lines had blurred. Jazmine's mother had been of the Spanish nobility—more line-blurring still. The more the better, in her opinion.
She started as the trumpets of Grandfather's private band blared the national anthem of Hellenia—In Our Courage We Stand—in acknowledgement of royalty's arrival. It was odd, considering that no one else was there but family and royal staff.
A young woman emerged first, wearing the tailored skirt and silk blouse Jazmine had chosen. This was Giulia, no doubt.
No doubt at all, from the moment she looked up. Though she resembled her Italian grandmother, Giulia was a complete Marandis. She had willowy curves, thick dark curls tumbling down her back, the heavy-lashed, slumberous eyes, the deliciously curved top lip. On the Marandis women, it looked like a hidden smile waiting to burst out, a wonderful secret they wouldn't tell. Tall and graceful and golden-skinned, Giulia was beautiful in the quiet, understated, Marandis way.
Then her brother emerged from the car, and Jazmine heard the death knell of her plans before she'd even been introduced to the prince.
Oh, he was handsome—dark, lean and oozed hot sensuality. But he was no story-book prince come to win the princess's heart, and—her heart sank—she doubted he ever would be.