A smart, independent woman with a gorgeous four-year-old son, Mia Marcelli lost her one true love. Four years ago, while working undercover for the CIA, she watched Diego, the father of her unborn child, perish before her very eyes—crumbling the world around her. But one morning she awakens to find Diego lying next to her, alive and well with an unbelievable confession: he is really Rafael, Prince of Calandria, and he had been working covertly on the same mission when they met—his death had been staged. Utterly stunned, Mia is wary and delighted—she may have suffered a broken heart, but her breathtakingly handsome lover is back to reignite the passion that existed between them. Little does she know that Rafael has returned to give his newfound son a proper upbringing back in Calandria—even if it means seducing Mia into marriage. But when Rafael finds himself truly falling for this luscious beauty, he must decide between his royal duties and the woman who has claimed his heart.
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Mia Marcelli was used to sleeping alone so it came as something of a shock to wake up with a strange man in her bed. She did what any other self-actualized, self-defense-trained woman would do -- she screamed and jumped to her feet.
"Big mistake," she yelled as she backed toward the door. "You shouldn't have broken in here. I have access to weapons, and grandmothers who don't like this sort of thing. My brother's a former Navy SEAL."
The man sat up and smiled at her. "I see you still talk too much, Mia. When an unknown man appears in your bed, you should run."
He knew her name. That startled her nearly as much as the fact that he was giving her advice. It didn't seem like normal behavior for a guy intent on raping and pillaging. Assuming anyone really pillaged these days.
She paused by the door and pushed her bangs out of her face. There was something familiar about the man. The hair and eye color were all wrong, but the shape of his face reminded her of someone. And that mouth -- she would remember it until she died.
"Diego?" she breathed, knowing this stranger couldn't be him. Diego was dead. She'd seen the bullets hit his body, had watched him fall to the ground. There'd been so much blood.
"Am I that different?" the man asked as he stood and smiled at her. "Has so much changed?"
It was him, she thought, too stunned to do much more than gasp. "H-how is this possible? Why aren't you dead? I saw you die. Dead people don't have conversations."
"It is a long story. Perhaps one I could tell you over breakfast."
That voice. She would know it anywhere. It had haunted her dreams for the past five years.
Dead people also don't eat. "Get back," she said, feeling both shocked and angry. When in doubt, get pissed off.
It was a philosophy she'd learned worked for her. "I don't know what this game is, but I'm not playing it."
"Mia, it is I. You must recognize me."
Right now she didn't have to do anything but keep from having a heart attack from the shock, and wish she kept a weapon in her room. Something big and scary.
The bedroom door flew open and her two grandmothers burst inside. Grandma Tessa had a fire poker in one hand, and Grammy M threatened Diego with a rolling pin.
"Call Joe," Tessa ordered Mia. "He'll take care of this scumbag."
Scumbag? Someone had been watching just a little too many police dramas.
"I'm not sure he's a scumbag," Mia said, still finding it difficult to believe her own eyes. "I might know this guy."
"You do know me," he said, his voice washing over her like a familiar and welcome memory. "Mia, it is I."
Diego? Was it possible? Conflicting emotions raced through her. She wanted to run into his arms and have him hold her forever. At the same time she wanted to grab the poker and beat him over the head with it.
"You're supposed to be dead," she said, still confused and angry, and maybe just a little scared. Because if this guy really was Diego, she was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
"So you keep saying," he told her, sounding more amused than anything else. "Would you be more happy if I were?"
"It would make more sense. I don't believe in ghosts...or vampires."
He actually smiled. "Good, because I am neither. Mia," -- he took a step toward her -- "trust your eyes and your heart. I am the man you knew as Diego."
"We don't trust people who pretend to be someone else," Grandma Tessa said with surprising force despite her small stature and advanced years. "Who do you think you are now?"
"I know I am Rafael, Crown Prince of Calandria."
Mia rolled her eyes. Great -- a crazy man in her bedroom, and she hadn't even had coffee yet. "Right, and I'm the Sleeping Beauty."
This had gone on long enough. Mia took the poker from her grandmother and held it out in front of her. "That's it. I don't know who you are or what you want, but you're in big trouble. Grammy M, call Joe." She shook the poker at the intruder. "As for you, big guy, you stay right there or I'll take you out. Don't think I can't. I've had professional training."
The man who looked amazingly like Diego had the balls to smile at her again. "I'm not going anywhere, Mia. I came to see you. I've waited five years to be with you again. I can certainly wait until you're willing to listen to reason."
Reason? "Not my strong suit. I'm more into react now, say 'Oops' later. If you're who you say you are, you should know that."
"I know many things, including the fact that you once wore a silver ring bought in a market. It was a foolish trinket, yet oddly valuable to us both."
Mia's gaze involuntarily darted to the bottom drawer of her dresser. She remembered the ring and the man who bought it for her.
He took a step closer. "I know other things," he said, his voice low and seductive. "I know how you like to be kissed and touched and where you like to -- "
"Hey," she said loudly, doing her best to both shut him up and break the spell he attempted to weave. "Grandmothers present. Let's avoid too much information."
Slowly she lowered the poker and looked at him. He was the right height and physical type. His voice was the same, as was his arrogance. His smile made her thighs go up in flames, which hadn't happened even once in the past five years. She wanted to believe because once she'd loved him so much, she'd thought knowing he was dead was going to kill her, too.
But what about the other changes? The color of his eyes, the hair, the scar? Then she remembered her brief time in a world of deception and secrecy, where people could easily be made to look different. Contact lenses, a quick dye job, and little glue -- voilá, a new man.
"I assume you have some ID on you," she said, trying to hold on to her anger, because it was safe. Only she was feeling more confused than anything else. Shouldn't she get coffee before an event like this? And maybe a cinnamon roll?
"Walk to the window," he said.
She raised the poker again and shook it at him. "You walk to the window."
He sighed. "I see you are still stubborn. Very well, Mia, we will walk together."
She eyed him warily as he moved to the window and pulled open the drapes. Keeping him at arm's-plus-poker length, she glanced down and saw a very shiny black car complete with what looked like flags flying from the front. Flags amazingly similar to the royal coat of arms of Calandria.
"So you have access to a limo, and an active imagination. That proves nothing." Actually, it kind of proved something, but she wasn't going to admit that.
He raised both hands. "As you wish. May I show you my passport?"
Her throat tightened and her mouth went dry. Man, she really wanted to brush her teeth and take a shower and get some coffee. Because after all those normal activities, none of this would be real anymore.
"Sure," she muttered. "Whatever."
But her heart began to beat faster. She didn't know if she accepted the premise that he was Diego, back from the dead, but she was halfway to being convinced. Which made no sense and gave her a stomachache.
If Diego wasn't dead, then where the hell had he been for the past five years and why hadn't he found her and told her the truth? She'd mourned him and ached for him, and what, he'd been off being some prince?
Because that's what scared her the most. That he really was Diego and Diego was in fact the prince of Calandria. The knowledge would rock her world and she didn't know how she was going to recover. Because having the child of a bad boy turned art thief was one thing, but having the child of an heir to a throne was quite another.
He pulled his passport out of his suit jacket and handed it to her. She glanced at the cover, then nodded at Grandma Tessa. "Let her read it."
Mia told herself she didn't want to look at it because she needed to keep her attention on Diego...or possibly Prince Rafael of Calandria. But in truth, she didn't want to see the words printed there.
Tessa opened the passport. Grammy M moved in close and stared over her shoulder.
"A very flattering picture," Grammy M said, smiling at him.
He was all graciousness and confidence, and he didn't seem the least bit intimidated by the poker in Mia's hand, which made her want to bonk him with it.
Grandma Tessa stared at the print on the page, then looked at Mia. "It says he's the prince. Crown Prince Rafael of Calandria. Prince is even listed as his occupation."
Oh God. This couldn't be good.
"Of course it could be a fake," Tessa said cheerfully. "People do it all the time. A couple of hundred bucks and you have a new passport."
Definitely too much TV, Mia thought.
"A prince," Grammy M said, eyeing Rafael. "There'll be a castle, then, with the title?"
He nodded. "Of course. We're also very rich."
Grammy M beamed at Mia. "So, maybe you'll be inviting your friend the prince to breakfast?"
Mia wanted to scream. "He broke in to my bedroom. We don't know who he really is. The last time I saw him, he was dead, and you want to invite him to breakfast?"
Grammy M slipped her arm through Diego's...or Rafael's...and walked him to the door. "So, how will you be taking your coffee?"
Mia watched them go, then dropped the poker to the floor. "Somebody shoot me now. I know matchmaking is a time-honored Marcelli tradition, but could we please first find out the man in question isn't an ax murderer?"
Grandma Tessa handed her the passport. "You're the one who'd know that. Is he who he says he is?"
Mia stared at the picture. So much the same and yet so much different, she thought. Was it possible Diego hadn't died that night? That he was really the Crown Prince of Calandria?
"I don't know," she admitted. "I don't know anything."
Grandma Tessa moved to the door. "He was supposed to have been killed five years ago?"
"So he's Danny's father."
She nodded again.
"Then this is going to be interesting."
Twenty minutes later Mia walked into the kitchen. She'd showered and dressed in record time. She would have been down sooner, but she'd debated both putting on makeup and blow-drying her hair. On a normal summer morning she wouldn't have bothered with either, but this was hardly normal. Besides, if Rafael was really who he said he was, a little mascara and lip gloss were probably a good thing.
She found the man who claimed to be Diego sitting at the kitchen table, being force-fed coffee and toast. Judging from the yummy smell coming from both ovens, fresh scones and cinnamon rolls were already on the way.
"Morning," she said as she approached the table.
Rafael immediately stood and smiled. "Mia."
He sounded so pleased to see her, as if he'd been waiting for this moment forever. But he couldn't have been. They'd been apart for years, and he hadn't once gotten in touch with her. She had a feeling she was only a simple Google away from being found, so why hadn't he looked before? And why was he here now?
"Your prince is very charming," Grandma Tessa said as she held out a cup of coffee. "Too charming, if you ask me."
"No one did," Grammy M said tartly. "You're always looking for the bruise on the apple. Sometimes there isn't one."
Grandma Tessa sniffed. "How can you be as old as you are and still so foolish about the world?" She narrowed her gaze as she looked at Rafael. "Crown prince or not, what do we really know about him?"
At that moment, Rafael's lineage was the least of Mia's problems.
"This has been fun," she said, and grabbed Rafael's coffee cup along with one for herself. "Let's go for a walk."
"Stay close to the house," Grandma Tessa told her. "I've called Joe. He'll be keeping an eye on you."
"Joe?" Rafael asked as they left the kitchen and stepped into the sunny late June morning. There was still dew on the flowers, and the scent of grapes from the acres of vineyards filled the air.
"The ex-Navy SEAL brother I mentioned before."
"He lives nearby?"
She handed him his coffee and nodded toward a large house on a hill, less than a quarter mile away. "He lives there."
"A very close family," Rafael said.
"You have no idea." She clutched her coffee in both hands and turned to the man walking next to her. "Who are you and why are you here?"
"I told you. I am the man you knew as Diego."
"As simple as that?" She tried to laugh, but the effort fell flat. Her mind wouldn't accept what was happening. She didn't know what to think, what to feel. Her anger had faded, leaving behind confusion and a sense of loss. As if seeing Diego after so long made her miss him all over again. "Nothing makes sense. You're supposed to be dead."
"You have mentioned that before. Are you disappointed to find otherwise?"
"I haven't decided." A lie. There were a thousand emotions swirling through her right now, but disappointment wasn't one of them. "I saw you die."
"You saw me shot and fall to the ground. There is a difference."
Not to her. That night was forever etched in her brain. The roar of the helicopter, the way the wind whipped up by the blades slapped her. She'd been crying, screaming, afraid. And then the gunshots. Diego had staggered back before falling. The world had slowed to just that moment, as he hit the ground and the blood poured out of him.
She'd yelled for the pilot to take her back. She'd tried to jump out of the helicopter, but someone had held her in place. She'd strained and clawed but hadn't been able to break free. They'd flown over Calandria. She remembered staring down at the bright lights, blurry through her tears, knowing that the hole his death had left in her heart would never heal.
"Mia?" He touched her arm.
His voice jerked her back to the present. She pressed her hand on his shoulder and shoved him back. "Dammit, Diego, you lied about dying? You lied and let me suffer all this time and never once thought maybe you should drop me a note saying 'Hey, not as dead as you'd think'? I mourned you. I didn't think I was ever going to recover."
She wanted to hurt him the way she'd been hurt. She could handle anything but betrayal and being played for a fool. She wanted to demand to know why he hadn't come after her, but she couldn't seem to ask that. Maybe because his sudden return from the dead illustrated the possibility that he hadn't loved her as much as she'd loved him.
Or maybe he hadn't loved her at all.
"Was this just a game?" she demanded. "Let's jerk around the American girl. It will be so much fun."
"It wasn't like that," he said, staring into her eyes. "I swear. I wanted to tell you the truth. I left Calandria to find you. It took me some time to learn your real name and then to convince your government to give me any information about you."
Right. Because he wasn't the only one keeping secrets.
She hadn't been the ditzy American tourist she'd led him to believe when they'd met. She'd been a newly trained operative, working for the United States government on her first assignment. In the words of James Bond, she had been a spy.
Not a very good one, she could admit now. She'd botched the assignment from the beginning. Fortunately, the only items of value on the line had been Calandrian artifacts, not lives. Not until she'd thought she'd seen her lover die.
"Allow me to start at the beginning," he said, his voice low and slightly accented.
She was willing to admit she remembered that voice. If she closed her eyes and simply listened to the words, it would be easy to believe, to get lost in a confusing mist of past and present. She almost wanted to -- because back then her choices had been the relatively simple right and wrong. Now everything was complicated.
"My cousin Diego never accepted the fact that due to an ancient rule and a quirk of birth order, he would not rule Calandria. As he grew older, he vowed his revenge, on whom I do not know. Perhaps on the country herself. No one could reason with him, not even me, but we were, until our early twenties, close."
"But if you're the heir" -- a fact she wanted confirmed by a reliable outside source, because thinking about it was just too crazy -- "wouldn't he have resented you the most?"
"In a way he did. Yet we were friends. No matter how I tried to make Diego feel welcome, to give him something to do in our government, he remained bitter. He turned his energy to researching our ancient past and discovered a treasure trove of antiquities just beyond the waves. That discovery itself could have made him a very famous and wealthy man, but for Diego, it wasn't enough. Instead of announcing his find, he kept the knowledge secret and sold the jewels and artifacts on the black market."
"I know that part," Mia said. "That's why I was sent there -- to help uncover the ring of thieves." She'd been thrilled to get an undercover assignment so quickly after finishing her training. "But you were Diego."
"Not at first. After he was killed, the director of intelligence came to see me."
Tiny Calandria had a director of intelligence? The island was barely the size of Manhattan.
"He and his men had decided the best way to trap all the would-be thieves was for me to go in and pretend to be Diego. We told no one. Not even the Americans who were assisting us. As no one knew Diego had died in a car accident outside of Paris, it was easy for me to step into his place."
She walked to the wooden railing at the edge of the vegetable garden and rested her arms on top. Her head hurt from trying to get all this straight. "You were a plant?"
"Then you were never the bad guy."
"Not in the traditional sense."
Mia would deal with that later. When she was alone, she would pick apart his story, piece by piece, and try to get her mind around the fact that Diego hadn't been bad at all.
She looked at him, then wished she hadn't. Listening was safe, but seeing the differences in his appearance startled her. Not that he wasn't good-looking now, but everything was wrong.
"You set me up. You wanted me to see you die so I would report that little tidbit back to my government. You used me."
"I didn't want to, but there wasn't another way. Per the plan, the authorities arrived to arrest everyone. You escaped, Diego's people watched Diego die, and the heritage of my country was restored."
All very tidy, Mia thought, except for the fact that she'd been in love with Diego. She'd gone against all her training and her beliefs when she'd found herself falling for the man she thought was the enemy. Torn between what her head told her was right and what her heart begged her to claim, she'd barely been able to function.
Anger returned. She glared at him. "You must have been so delighted that I conveniently fell in with your plans. Imagine how difficult things would have been if I hadn't fallen for you."
"Mia, no. I never meant to hurt you or use you. I wanted to tell you the truth."
"I know, but you were just so busy. There wasn't any time." She took a step back. "I suppose the moment you were pushing me onto the helicopter wasn't convenient enough? Or what about afterward, when I was falling apart? I thought I loved you. I thought you were special, and you walked away and let me think you were dead for five years?"
"I wanted to come after you," he said. "I needed to tell you the truth. You must believe me."
"Not a chance. How hard would I have been to find?"
He set his coffee on the fence post. "Your government was not exactly forthcoming. You were an operative and they insisted on protecting your identity. In desperation,
I went through diplomatic channels. I used every power of my office to find you. At last I received word from a source I trusted that you had been killed only a few weeks after you had left Calandria."
He reached for her again, but this time she stayed back.
"I'm not lying," he said. "I was devastated. I could not imagine a world without your laughter." He shook his head, then looked away. "I know what I felt and I will not explain myself further."
If he'd tried to convince her, she wouldn't have believed him, but the arrogant tilt of his head, the lack of concern for her feelings, sort of made her wonder if he was telling the truth.
Rafael was right -- the United States government didn't give out personal information on intelligence personnel to foreign governments. Even intelligence personnel who quit after their first job.
He stared at the vineyard. "If they hadn't told me you'd died, I never would have stopped looking. I believe that's why they made up the story. The source was someone
I trusted. I had no reason to question the information."
"So you knew who I was," she said.
"I knew you were with the American intelligence community. I knew you were there to get information on the thefts. I knew we were both on the same side."
"Wish I'd had that information," she murmured. "So what happened next? You returned to your life?" She shook her head. "Are you really the crown prince?"
He smiled. "You have seen my identification. Speaking of which, I will need my passport returned to me."
"Sure thing." She glanced at the driveway and saw the front of the large, long limo with flags fluttering. "You'd better not be lying about that being your car. Even as we speak, my brother is running the plates."
"Then he will be able to confirm the truth of my statement." His smile deepened. "Would I really lie about being a prince? Something so easy to prove or disprove?"
He had a point. She sipped her coffee and wished she could take a couple of days to absorb all this.
"Why now?" she asked. "Why did you come back?"
"I found out you were still alive. I came right away, Mia. I came for you."
Not quite as good as Kyle Reese coming across time for Sarah Connor in the first Terminator movie, but when spoken in Rafael's soft accented voice, it was a close second.
"There was a picture in the newspaper," he said. "President Jensen's sixtieth birthday, I believe. You know the president of the United States?"
Mia knew exactly what picture he was talking about. It had been taken at a private party for the president. President Jensen had picked up Mia's son and tossed the boy in the air. The photo showed him as he caught the boy. They were both laughing, with Mia standing just behind them, clapping at their fun.
The picture had been on the front page of USA Today, with a line about the president enjoying a family outing on his birthday. Who knew the newspaper's distribution went all the way to Calandria?
"Yes, well, that just sort of happened. The president's daughter was threatened and she came here to hide out. She and Joe fell in love. When they got married, we all became relatives."
She shook her head. If Rafael had seen that picture, he'd also seen Danny.
"What have you been doing?" he asked. "I know you left the agency. You would not have had your picture in the paper if you had not."
"What? Oh, right. No press photos of operatives. I quit as soon as I got back to the States. After you died, after I thought you died, I couldn't do it anymore. I came home and tried to make peace with everything."
No. She'd fallen apart -- a new experience for her. She'd grown up confident and ready to rule the world. But something had happened in the short weeks she'd spent pretending to be an American looking for adventure.
"I thought you were the bad guy," she told him, still furious that she'd been lied to. "I thought I was betraying my country by falling for you."
He stepped toward her. "Mia, do not distress yourself."
What was she supposed to do? Be happy? "If I can't believe who you were, how can I believe who you are?"
"Perhaps you don't have to. Perhaps we could start at the beginning. Meet now." He held out his right hand. "Good morning. I am Rafael, Crown Prince of Calandria. And you are?"
She sighed. "Sorry, no. That isn't going to work. We can't just start over. There's too much messy past between us. Too many years."
"So I should not have come? You are not happy to see me?"
"I'm..." Annoyed, confused, furious, shocked. "I'm not really a morning person."
"Of course. You want me to leave."
He turned, as if prepared to walk to his limo and disappear from her life. Only she wasn't ready for that. Not yet.
"Wait," she said. "I...What do I call you? Prince Rafael? Your highness?"
"Rafael is fine."
"All right. Rafael. This is happening so quickly. I don't know what to think or believe. I need a little time. We have to talk. I'm still not clear on why you're here."
"To see you."
Was that all? "If you saw the picture, then you saw Danny."
He frowned slightly. "The boy? The child of one of your sisters."
Mia clutched her coffee. It was true that the caption hadn't identified the child in the picture, or her for that matter.
She didn't know if Rafael was telling the truth. She'd long since learned to be wary of the men she brought into her life. They were usually snakes. Diego had been no exception, but was Rafael different?
Did it matter? Either way, she had to tell him. He deserved to know.
"Danny is my son," she said, doing her best to keep her voice even. "And yours."
Rafael timed his reaction carefully. To show too much shock would be to put Mia on her guard. To show not enough would mark him as an indifferent father.
"My son?" he asked as he took a step back. "What are you saying?"
"I was pregnant when I left Calandria. Only a week or so along. I didn't know, obviously. When I came home, I was pretty broken up about everything. Finding out I was pregnant saved me."
He saw the pain in her eyes as she spoke and knew he had no reason not to believe her. Besides, he and Mia hadn't been lovers for more than a couple of weeks before the sting had ended.
"I had no idea," he said, willing his expression toward disbelief. "You had a child? Your government kept that from me as well?"
"I'm not sure they knew," she told him. "I quit and came home. That was the end of my relationship with the agency. Unlike in the movies, they didn't spend a lot of time begging me to return to my old job."
"Someone should have told me," he growled, not having to fake the anger he felt. What Mia didn't know was that it was directed at himself. He'd been the one who hadn't bothered to follow up with her. To make sure there were no consequences of their time together. For the past four years his son, his heir, had existed and he hadn't known.
"I would have, except I thought you were dead," she said sharply, then sighed. "Sorry. I don't mean to be crabby. This is all so much. Too much. I don't know what Danny's going to think. All his life, I told him his father died before he was born." She looked at him. "You're not questioning your paternity. I'm not lying, but you'll probably want to check this all out. It would be a big deal for any guy, but I'm guessing an even bigger one for a prince."
She was telling the truth. Before sneaking into Mia's room, he'd visited the boy. The child had slept soundly and it had been easy to check the small of his back. There, just to the left of his spine, was the small star-shaped birthmark all the men in his family possessed. The child was his, but better to play along and pretend to not be sure.
"I have never doubted your integrity," he said. "But under the circumstances proof will be necessary. I'm sure we can arrange for a DNA test of some kind."
"Circumstances?" she repeated. "You mean the one where you're a prince and heir to a throne and I'm just some commoner from California?"
"I would not describe you thus," he said, moving close and taking her hand in his. Her skin was warm and he enjoyed the contact.
Five years ago he'd claimed Mia as his own because it had pleased him to do so. Now he would claim her for other reasons, but the task would still be most pleasant.
"Great," she murmured, then took a sip of her coffee as she carefully pulled free of his touch. "Let me recap. You might be Diego, and hey, an heir to the Calandria throne. You're also not dead. In the short time we were together five years ago, I managed to get pregnant, because that's just how my luck goes. Now you're back and we're parents together. Did I miss anything?"
He remembered the first time he'd met her. Even then he'd been unable to decide which he admired more -- her spirit or her beauty. His dilemma had not changed.
"Those seem to be the salient points," he said.
"Great. I need more coffee."
She took a step and stumbled on the uneven ground. He reached for her, grabbing her arm and holding her upright. She reached for him with her free hand -- to steady herself, he was sure -- which left them standing very close.
He found himself staring into her brown eyes. He could feel the warmth and enticing curves of her body. Her mouth called to him. Whatever else might or might not have happened with Mia, he had always wanted her. Apparently time apart hadn't changed that fact. How convenient.
"Mia," he whispered.
"Don't even think about it," she told him, but she didn't move away.
"Why would I think when action is so much more pleasurable?" he asked as he lowered his mouth to hers.
Her breath caught. She stiffened but stayed in his arms.
Then a loud voice cut through the morning and broke the mood completely.
"Step away from my sister. Do it slowly and I probably won't shoot you in the back."
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Macias Redmond