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"She's the perfect choice for you," Gabriel Alessandro's brother joked, nudging his shoulder.
The two princes were standing at the edge of the dance floor watching their father, the king, sweep Gabriel's future bride through a series of elegant turns while their mother concentrated on keeping her toes from beneath the prime minister's clumsy feet.
Gabriel released an audible sigh. With his future bride's father building a high-tech manufacturing plant just outside the capital, Sherdana's economy would receive the boost it badly needed. "Of course she is."
Lady Olivia Darcy, daughter of a wealthy British earl, was just a little too perfect. While she exuded poise and warmth in public, in private she never relaxed, never let down her guard. This hadn't bothered him at all in the days leading up to their engagement. From the moment he'd begun looking for a wife he'd decided to listen to his head and not his heart. Past experience had demonstrated losing himself in passion led to nothing but heartache and disappointment.
"Then why are you looking so grim?"
Why indeed? Even though Gabriel didn't have to pretend to be besotted with his fiancée in front of his brother, he wasn't about to admit his regret that his personal life would have less passion and drama once he was married.
Until the wedding planning had begun in earnest, he'd considered himself well and thoroughly lucky to have found a woman who wouldn't drive him mad with her theatrics and demands. It was in sharp contrast to his affair with Marissa, which had been a tempestuous four-year romance with no future.
Gabriel was not a world-famous musician or a dashing Hollywood actor or even a wealthy playboy. He was the heir apparent of a small European country with strict laws that dictated his wife must be either an aristocrat or a citizen of Sherdana. Marissa had been neither.
"How happy would you be if you were marrying a virtual stranger?" Gabriel kept his voice soft, but there was no hiding his bitterness.
Christian's grin was positively wicked. "The best part about being the youngest is that I don't have to worry about getting married at all."
Gabriel muttered an expletive. He was well aware that neither of his brothers envied him. In many ways that was a relief. In centuries past Sherdana had seen its fair share of plots against the crown both from without and within. It would have been awful if either of his brothers had schemed to keep him off the throne. But that was highly unlikely. Nic lived in the US, building rocket ships that might someday carry regularwealthycitizens into space while Christian was very happy buying and selling companies.
"Hot?" Gabriel caught the final word his brother had spoken. "What's hot?"
"Not what." Christian shot him a wry glance. "Who. Your future bride. I was just remarking that you should spend some time getting to know her. It might be more enjoyable than you think. She's hot."
Lady Olivia Darcy was many things, but Gabriel wouldn't label her as hot. A gorgeous package of stylish sophistication, she had the fashion designers competing to dress her. Her features were delicate and feminine, her skin pale and unblemished. She was slender, but not boyish, with long legs, graceful arms and an elegant neck. There was a serene expression in her keen blue gaze.
And it wasn't as if she was a frivolous socialite, spending her days shopping and her nights in clubs. She worked tirelessly for almost a dozen charities all focused on children's causes. The perfect future queen of Sherdana.
Gabriel shot his brother a narrow look. "You just referred to your future sister-in-law and queen as hot. Do you think Mother would approve?"
"I'm her baby boy." The youngest of the triplets, Christian had played the birthorder card all his life. "She approves of everything I do."
"She doesn't approve of your antics, she simply feels bad for all those times she had to leave you to the nanny because she could only carry Nic and me."
Ignoring his brother's gibe, Christian nodded toward the queen. "She's hot, too, you know. She'd have to be to keep Father interested all these years."
Gabriel had no interest in discussing his parents' love life. "What has you so determined to stir up trouble tonight?"
Christian's expression settled into severe lines. "Now that Mother has you all settled, she going to turn her sights to Nic and me."
"Nic is more interested in fuel systems than women," Gabriel said. "And you've made it clear you have no intention of giving up your bachelor ways."
In the five years since his car accident, Christian had become guarded and pessimistic when it came to his personal life. Although the burn scars that spread down his neck and over his shoulder, chest and upper arm on the right side were hidden beneath the high collar of his formal blue tunic, the worst of Christian's hurts were below the skin, deep in his soul where no healing reached. The damage was visible in those rare moments when he drank too much or thought no one was watching.
Gabriel continued, "I don't think either of our parents hold out any hope that the two of you will settle down anytime soon."
"You know Mother is a romantic," Christian said.
"She's also pragmatic."
But Christian didn't look convinced. "If that was true, she'd accept that you will father all the heirs Sherdana could ever want or need and leave Nic and me alone. That's not the impression she gave me earlier this evening."
A knot of discomfort formed in Gabriel's chest as he thought of his future bride. Once again his gaze slid to Olivia, who was now dancing with the prime minister. Although her smile was lovely, the reserve in her blue eyes made her seem untouchable.
His days with Marissa had been sensual, wild and all-consuming. They'd awaken before dawn in her Paris apartment and make love in the quiet hush of the early morning. After which they'd sit by the window, gorge themselves with pastries washed down with strong coffee and watch the sun paint the rooftops with golden light.
"Your Royal Highness."
Gabriel turned to his private secretary, who'd appeared out of nowhere. Usually Stewart Barnes was the calm eye in the middle of the hurricane. At the moment, sweat shone on his forehead.
The hairs on the back of Gabriel's neck rose. "Problem?"
Stewart's approach had caught Christian's attention, as well. "I'll deal with it," he said, stepping away from his brother's side.
"No, sir." The private secretary moved to block Christian. He gave a small shake of his head and met Gabriel's hard gaze with a look that conveyed the seriousness of the issue. "I know the timing is bad, but a lawyer has arrived with an urgent message for you."
"How did he get into the palace?" Christian snapped, eyes blazing.
Gabriel barely registered Christian's words. "What could possibly be so important?"
"Did Captain Poulin give you a reason for granting this man entrance at such an inappropriate hour?"
"Can't it wait until after the party?"
Stewart's attention bounced between the two men as they fired questions at him. "He wouldn't tell me what it's about, Highness, only the name of his client." Stewart's tone was low and urgent. "I think you'd better speak to him."
Unable to imagine what could have rattled his unflappable private secretary, Gabriel shared a glance with Christian. "Who is his client?"
Hearing his former lover's name aroused a hundred emotions Gabriel would have preferred not to feel. He was a little surprised that Marissa had waited so long to contact him. He'd expected her to pull a stunt five months ago when he'd announced his engagement. To say she had a flare for the dramatic was like describing the Himalayas as tall hills.
"What mischief is she up to?" Gabriel demanded.
Christian cursed beneath his breath. "Something newsworthy, no doubt."
"I can't afford anything to interfere with the wedding." Sherdana's future was riding on the deal he'd struck with Lord Darcy. A deal that wouldn't be sealed until Olivia became a princess.
Gabriel glanced around to see if anyone had noticed their exchange and met Olivia's level gaze. She was beautiful, his future wife. But he'd chosen her for more than her appearance. She had a purity of spirit he knew would charm the Sherdanian people and her efficient, calm way of handling problems would see her through the hectic days ahead.
Beside her his father was laughing at whatever story she was telling him, looking years younger. Recent economic difficulties had taken their toll on the king. Once vibrant and strong, he'd begun to tire faster in recent months. It was why Gabriel had taken on more and more of the day-to-day running of the country.
Although she returned her attention to the king, the slightest lift of her delicate eyebrows let Gabriel know her curiosity had been aroused by his exchange with Christian and Stewart. Awareness surged through him. It was the first time that they'd connected at a level deeper than politeness. Anticipation sparked. Perhaps they would be able to share something more than a bed.
"Please, Your Highness."
Glancing toward Christian, he said, "Will you go entertain my fiancée while I discover what's going on?"
"Don't you mean distract?" Christian countered, his expression sour.
"Just make excuses for me until I can get back."
And then he was slipping through the multitude attending the ball honoring Sherdana's independence from France back in 1664, smiling and greeting the guests as if nothing in the world was wrong. All the while two words pounded in his head: Marissa Somme. What could this be about?
Since it first declared itself a principality, Sherdana had survived as an agrarian economy. But Gabriel wanted his country to do more than survive, he wanted it to thrive.
Tucked between France and Italy on a verdant plane resplendent with grapevines and fertile fields, Sherdana needed an active technological culture to move the economy into the twenty-first century and beyond. Olivia's father, Lord Edwin Darcy, held the match that would light the fuse. Nothing must interfere with that.
Entering the green salon, Gabriel strode over to greet the man who'd barged in unannounced. The lawyer wore his gray hair short, making no attempt to hide the bald patch that caught the light from the wall sconces behind him. His clear gray eyes had few lines at the corners. This was not a man who smiled often. Dressed in a navy suit and black overcoat, the only spark of color about him was a thin line of yellow in his striped tie.
"Good evening, Your Royal Highness," the gentleman said, bowing respectfully. "Forgive me for interrupting, but I'm afraid the matter is quite urgent."
"What mischief is Marissa up to now?"
"Mischief?" The man looked dismayed at Gabriel's harshness. "You misunderstand the reason I'm here."
"Then enlighten me. I have guests waiting. If you have a message from Marissa, then deliver it."
The man straightened his shoulders and tugged at his coat lapel. "It's a little more complicated than a message."
"My patience is wearing thin."
"Marissa Somme is dead."
Dead? Gabriel felt as if he'd been clobbered with a poker. For a second he couldn't process the man's words. Brilliant, beautiful, vivacious Marissa dead? His gut twisted.
The older gentleman nodded in sympathy. "Cancer."
Even though he hadn't spoken with her in a very long time, the news rocked him. Marissa had been the first woman he'd ever loved. The only one. Their breakup three years before had been one of the most painful experiences of his life. But nothing compared to knowing she was gone for good. Wounds he'd thought healed were reopened, the pain as fresh as it had ever been. Never would he see her again. Hear her laugh.
Why hadn't she called him? He would have helped her out.
"You came all this way to deliver the news of her death to me?" Had she still cared about him? Despite her final angry words? Impossible. She'd never once tried to contact him.
"And to bring you something she said you should have."
"What?" Gabriel demanded. Had she returned the diamond heart pendant he'd given her for their first anniversary? He'd been a romantic fool in those days. Young. Rebellious. Caught up in a passionate affair that had no future. And a fool. "What did you bring me?"
"Daughters?" As in more than one? Gabriel wondered if he'd heard the man properly.
"Marissa and I had no children together."
"I'm afraid that's not true."
The man pulled out two birth certificates and extended them. Gabriel gestured to Stewart to take them and watched as his private secretary scanned the documents. Stewart's blue eyes were awash with concern as he glanced up and met Gabriel's gaze.
"They bear Marissa's last name, but she listed you as the father," Stewart said.
"They can't be mine," Gabriel insisted. "We were careful." Perhaps not careful enough. "How old are they?"
"They will turn two in a month."
Gabriel quickly did the math. They'd been conceived in the week he'd been in Venice shortly after their breakup.
Marissa had come and thrown herself at him in one last attempt to make him abandon his duty. They'd made love all night, their kisses frantic, embraces feverish. When she'd awakened to find him departing the room before dawn, she'd lashed out, claiming that he'd led her on, accusing him of indifference. Despite her antagonism, regret had stuck with him for months afterward.
They'd had no future. His duty was to his country. She couldn't accept that and he'd let the relationship go on too long. She'd begun to hope he would give up everything for her and he'd enjoyed shirking his responsibilities. But it couldn't last. Sherdana always came first.
What would he have done if he'd known she was pregnant? Set her up in a villa nearby where he could visit? She would never have put up with that. She'd have demanded his complete and total devotion. It was what had torn them apart. He belonged to the people of Sherdana.
"This could all be a huge hoax," Stewart said.
"Marissa might have loved drama, but pulling a stunt like this goes beyond anything she'd do."
"We'll know for sure after a DNA test," Stewart said.
"And in the meantime? What am I to do with the girls?" the lawyer asked impertinently.
"Where are they?" Gabriel demanded. He crackled with impatience to see them.
"Back at my hotel with their nanny."
He didn't hesitate to ponder the consequences. "Get them."
"Think of your upcoming wedding, Highness," Stewart cautioned. "You can't have them brought here. The palace is crawling with media."
Gabriel aimed a disgusted look at his secretary. "Are you telling me you're not clever enough to transport two toddlers here without being seen?"
Stewart's spine snapped straight as Gabriel knew it would. "I will see that they are brought to the palace immediately."
"In the meantime," Stewart said, "I suggest you return to the gala before you're missed. I'm sure the king and queen will wish to discuss the best way to handle things."
Gabriel hated every bit of Stewart's sensible advice and the need to play host when his attention was shackled to reckless urges. He didn't want to wait to see the girls. His instinct demanded he go to the lawyer's hotel immediately. As if by taking one look at the toddlers he could tell if they were his. Ridiculous.
"Find me as soon as they're settled," he told Stewart.
And with those parting words, he exited the room.
Knowing he should return immediately to the party but with his mind racing, Gabriel strode into the library. He needed a few minutes to catch his breath and calm his thoughts.
Twins. His heart jerked. Did they have their mother's clear green eyes and luxurious brown hair? Had she told them about him? Was he insane to bring them into the palace?
A scandal could jeopardize his plans for stabilizing Sherdana's economy. Would the earl still allow Olivia to marry him if word got out that Gabriel had illegitimate twin daughters? And what if Olivia wasn't willing to accept that her children wouldn't be his only ones?
Gabriel left the library, burdened by a whole new set of worries, determined to make sure his future bride found him irresistible.