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A Royal Proposition
By Marion Lennox
Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Copyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Alastair, I know you and Belle are planning to marry, but you must marry Penny-Rose first."
Silence. Marguerite de Castaliae looked as unruffled as if she'd just talked of the weather, but Alastair and Belle were staring at her as if she'd dropped a bomb.
"What are you saying?" It was Alastair who first found his voice. His Serene Highness, Alastair, Prince de Castaliae dug his hands deep into the pockets of his faded jeans. His dark eyes closed. What now? He didn't need his mother making crazy propositions. Not when he had so much else to think of ...
If this inheritance didn't go through, the village faced ruin. After months of effort, he'd found no way to save it. His own fortune couldn't save this place. Nothing could.
Today he'd reached a final, joyless decision. He'd been up since dawn inspecting the cattle with stock agents, working out how much they'd make at market. He'd come in to make a final bleak phone call to his accountants. They'd given him their verdict and it was all looking futile.
The banks would never finance such a venture. The estate would have to be sold.
So Alastair was exhausted, and he didn't need this. "Marry someone else? That's ridiculous."
"It's not ridiculous." His mother was wearing her I'm-about-to-solve-all-your-problems smile. "My dear, you do want to be a prince?" She was probing, fishing for a reaction.
She found it. "No!" Alastair turned to stare out the window, over the castle's lush gardens to the river beyond. "No," he said again. His voice was surer still, and there was revulsion in his tone. "It was Louis who was supposed to inherit all this. Not me."
"But Louis is dead, dear," Marguerite reminded him. "And I won't even pretend I'm sorry, because he would have made a very bad prince. If he'd inherited ..."
"It was his right to inherit."
"He drank that right away," his mother retorted. "He was a wastrel and a fool, and now he's dead. So now the title is yours. And the responsibilities."
"I never wanted it."
"But it's yours for the taking." Marguerite's gaze shifted from her son to her future daughter-in-law, and her probing eyes were thoughtful. "If you want it badly enough," she said gently. "And if Belle wants it." Her voice became questioning again. "I'd imagine Belle would rather like to own this castle and be your princess?"
"Belle doesn't care about titles," Alastair said shortly. "Just as I don't."
Marguerite wasn't as sure of that as her son was, but she kept her face deliberately expressionless. This tiny Castaliae principality, tucked between France and the rest of Europe, might be a very small player on the world stage, but it was a lovely place to live-and maybe a wonderful place to rule?
Wealth and position might very well appeal to Belle, she thought, but she'd have to use other ways to persuade her son.
"Alastair, the people here need you," she told him. "The country is depending on you."
"We've been over this."
"Yes, dear, but you're not listening. If you don't inherit, there's no one else to take it on." These were hard facts to be faced, and the sooner her son faced them the better.
"If you don't accept it, the estate will be carved up and the title will disappear," she told him. "Most of the people who've lived here all their lives will face losing their own homes. Then the village houses will be bought by holidaymakers who'll only live here for three or four weekends a year."
"No!" said Alastair, outraged. "Of course not. None of us want that." She was getting through. All she could see of her son was his strongly muscled back, but it was expressive enough. Alastair had been brought up to accept responsibility. Marguerite had every hope that he'd accept it now.
Despite Belle. Or even with Belle's assistance ... Alastair was a good son, she thought fondly. A son to be proud of. Until his recent involvement with Belle, Alastair de Castaliae had been considered to be one of Europe's most eligible bachelors.
Well, why not? Of royal blood and with an inherited fortune, he'd been attractive even as a child. Time had added to his good looks until, at thirty-two, his mother-and a fair percentage of the principality's female population-considered him perfectly splendid.
The tragedy in his background did nothing to lessen his appeal. In fact, the distance he'd placed between himself and the rest of the world since Lissa's death had seemed only to make him more desirable.
And he was desirable, his mother decided, trying to look at him without bias. Alastair was six feet two in his socks-and his muscled, taut and tanned frame made him seem even taller. He was smoulderingly dark. His jet black hair, his crinkling, brown eyes and his wide, white smile had made many a girl's heart melt.
Just as his father's smile had melted her own heart all those years ago ...
Sternly Marguerite blinked back unexpected tears and returned to the job at hand. Emotion wasn't any use here. It wouldn't convince Alastair-he'd held himself emotionally distant after Lissa died-and she was almost convinced that Belle didn't have any emotion to play with.
"It's only for a year."
"What's only for a year?" Alastair turned back to face his mother, his brow drawn heavily over his deep-set eyes. "You sound as if you have this whole thing arranged."
"Well, I do," she said apologetically. "Someone has to think of the future. You've been so involved getting the estate back into working order-making sure all the workers are paid, organising the rebuilding of the stonework, doing all the work caused by two such sudden deaths-that you haven't had time to look at the whole picture. So if you'll only listen ..."
"I'm listening." It was the best she could hope for, but he was still glowering. And all she could do was explain.
"Our problems are all caused by Louis's father changing the inheritance," she told him. "Louis's dissolute ways were giving him nightmares, so he put in the clause -"
"I know this." Of course he knew. After all, Louis had bleated to him of it often enough, and the clause was the nub of his problems now. Alastair's brow descended even further. "It decreed that Louis marry a woman of unimpeachable virtue or he couldn't inherit."
"Yes." Marguerite tried very hard not to look at Belle. What she was about to say now wouldn't be easy. Alastair already understood about the clause-but did Belle? "Your uncle couldn't predict that Louis would end up in the grave three months after his own death. And now it's left us in a mess, because the clause applies to anyone inheriting the title-which includes you."
Silence. Then ... "Contrary to what the lawyers are saying," Alastair said softly, in a voice that sounded almost dangerous, '"Belle is a woman of unimpeachable virtue."
"No, dear, she's not." Marguerite refused to be silenced. There was no easy way to say this but both Belle and Alastair had to face it. She'd been saving it for when Alastair saw how bleak his position was, and that time was now.
"You know it, or you wouldn't be spending all this time with the accountants," she went on. "The lawyers are all of the same opinion. Your cousins are prepared to take legal action to see that the estate's sold and divided, and if you marry Belle that's exactly what will happen."
"Just because Belle's been married before -"
"And also because she's had affairs, ever since she was a teenager." Marguerite did look at Belle now, and her tone softened. "I'm sorry, my dear," she told her, "but it's time for plain speaking."
"Go right ahead," Belle told her. Alastair's companion sat with her hands loosely clasped on her elegantly crossed knees. She was wearing a chic, black dress, her silk-stockinged legs looked as if they went on for ever and her expression, rather than seeming offended, seemed coolly calculating. She tilted her head, causing her sleek bob of auburn hair to glint in the sunlight. It made a striking impression, and she knew it. "So I'm not a woman of unimpeachable virtue. Fine. Don't mind me."
"I do mind you, dear," Marguerite said apologetically. "But the cousins have been digging up dirt. I gather you had an affair with a married man when his wife was pregnant ..."
Belle's beautiful face shuttered down at that. "That was ten years ago. It's hardly relevant."
"The lawyers say it is. And it means that if Alastair marries you, he can't inherit."
"Which is damnable," Alastair snapped, and his mother nodded in agreement. But her face didn't look hopeless. "Yes, dear, it is damnable, but it's also avoidable."
"I'm marrying Belle!"
"But if you waited for a little -"
"Just a moment." Belle rose, stretched, cat-like, and crossed to where Alastair was standing. And as she did, his mother had to acknowledge why her son had been attracted to her.
Excerpted from A Royal Proposition by Marion Lennox
Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.