Royal Heirs Required(10)By: Cat Schield
“I’ve treated our engagement like a business arrangement. For that I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I knew what I was getting into.” She heard a touch of cynicism in her tone and countered it with a wry smile.
Gabriel didn’t smile back. “I don’t think you have any idea what you’re getting into.”
“That sounds intriguing.” Olivia waited for more, but the prince didn’t elaborate.
“Starting now I intend to learn everything there is to know about you.”
While she was sure he meant to flatter her with the declaration, Olivia froze in momentary panic. What if he found out she hadn’t come clean about her past fertility issues? Even with the problem solved, he might be angry that she hadn’t disclosed such an important fact.
“A girl needs to keep a little mystery about herself,” she countered, gazing up at him from beneath her lashes. “What if you lost interest once you discovered all my secrets?”
“It never occurred to me that you’d have secrets,” he murmured, half to himself.
“What woman doesn’t?”
“I’d prefer it if we didn’t keep secrets from each other.”
“After the surprise you received last night, I understand why. So, what would you like to tell me?”
Olivia congratulated herself on turning the conversation back on him. “Getting to know each other was your idea. I thought you’d like to show me how it’s done.”
Gabriel’s eyes gleamed with appreciation. “What would you like to know?”
“Why did you pick me?”
“Your passion for issues relating to children and your tireless determination to make their lives better.” Gabriel stopped and turned her to face him. “I knew you would be exactly the sort of queen my country would love.”
As his words sank in she stared at the pond, watching the ducks paddle across the still water. “Your country.”
At times like this it amused her to think of how many girls longed to be her. If they knew what her life was like, would they still want that? Marriage to a prince might seem like a fairy tale come true, but did they understand the sacrifices to her privacy or the responsibility she would bear?
But marriage into Sherdana’s royal family would offer her the opportunity to focus on things near and dear to her heart and to advocate for those who needed help, but who had no one to turn to. Earlier in the week she’d had an opportunity to speak with a local hospital administrator about the need for a more child-friendly space to treat the younger patients. The woman had a lot of ideas how to change the children’s ward to make a hospital stay easier on the children as well as their families.
Olivia was excited about the opportunities to help. Sherdana would find her an enthusiastic promoter of solutions for at-risk and underprivileged children. She was proud of the money she’d raised in London and loved the hours she’d spent visiting with children in the hospitals. Their courage in fighting their illnesses always inspired her. She intended to inspire others to help.
As Sherdana’s princess and future queen, she would be in the perfect position to bring children’s issues to the forefront of public awareness.
“I will do my best to never let your country down.”
“I knew you’d say that.”
Her knees trembled as he slid his hand beneath her hair, fingertips drawing evocative circles on her nape.
Cupping her cheek in his palm, Gabriel turned her head until their eyes met. Her heart skipped a beat. He wanted her. The expanding warmth in her midsection told her so and she basked in the certainty.
His gaze held her entranced until the second before his lips skimmed hers. Wrenched free of anticipation, relief rushed through her like a wildfire. A groan built in her chest as his tongue traced the seam of her lips. Welcoming the masterful stroke of his tongue into her mouth, she leaned into him, pressing her breasts against his chest, needing his hands to cup their weight and drive her mad.
A throat cleared somewhere behind them. “Excuse me, Your Highness.”
Gabriel stiffened and tore his mouth free. Chest heaving, he drew his thumb across her lower lip. “We will continue this later,” he promised, his voice a husky rasp against her sensitized nerve endings.
“I look forward to it.”
She received the briefest of smiles before he turned to face his private secretary. Released from the compelling grip of his gaze, Olivia had a hard time maintaining her composure. The kiss, although cut short, had been everything a woman craved. Passionate. Masterful. A touch wicked. She locked her knees and moderated her breathing while she listened to Gabriel’s conversation with his secretary.
Stewart cleared his throat again. “Sorry to interrupt, but the media found out about your daughters and Lord Darcy is meeting with your parents.”
Distantly, she became aware that Stewart was filling in Gabriel rapid-fire style about what had been on the television this morning.
“How did they get wind of it so fast?” Gabriel demanded.
Not even the ice in his voice could banish the lingering warmth Olivia felt from his kiss.
Stewart came up with the most obvious source. “The lawyer might have gone to them.”
“Unlikely. He had nothing to gain.”
“Someone in the palace, then.”
“Who knew last night?”
“The maids who were tasked with preparing the nursery,” Stewart said. “But they’ve worked for the palace for over a decade.”
Olivia considered the one who’d been straightening her room at two in the morning. The strangeness of it struck her again, but surely the palace staff was carefully screened and the woman had merely been doing as she said.
“The nanny.” Olivia knew with a sinking heart that this had to be the source of the leak. “The one I had escorted off the property.”
Stewart considered this. “The lawyer assured me she’d been kept in the dark about the twins’ parentage.”
“But that was before they’d been brought to the palace,” Gabriel said.
“I’m sorry,” Olivia murmured, aware she’d committed her first huge mistake as Gabriel’s fiancée. “I shouldn’t have taken it upon myself to remove her.”
“She was the wrong caretaker for the girls and you had their best interests at heart.” Gabriel offered her a reassuring nod. “Besides, it was going to be impossible to keep the twins hidden for long.”
Although she was accustomed to life in the public eye, she’d never been the focus of such frenzied interest on the part of the media, and the upcoming wedding had stirred them like a cane striking a wasp nest.
“If we present a united front,” Olivia said, feeling like his partner for the first time, “I’m sure everything will blow over.”
Gabriel took her hand and scorched a kiss across her knuckles. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
* * *
Hand in hand, Olivia and Gabriel entered the salon most often used by the family for its proximity to the back garden and the views of the park beyond. They found Christian and Ariana there. Gabriel caught sight of the television and heard the reporter. The amount of information the news channel had gleaned about the twins’ arrival late last night revealed that someone inside the house must have been feeding them information. Gabriel went cold as the reporter speculated on whether or not the powerful Sherdana royal family had paid Marissa to go away or if all along she’d hidden her daughters to keep them from being taken away from her.
“They may be painting us as the bad guys,” Christian commented, “but at least they’re not claiming we’re weak.”
Gabriel didn’t reply to his brother’s remark as Marissa’s face came on the screen. As the narrator gave a rundown of her career, Olivia moved as if compelled by some irresistible force, stepping closer to the television. Dismay rose in Gabriel as one after another, the photographs of his former lover on the covers of Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar flashed on the screen. Her legs looked impossibly long. Her face, incredibly beautiful.
Gabriel knew his daughters would be as exquisite. Would they follow in their mother’s footsteps and pursue careers in fashion? Photographers would stand in line to take their picture. They’d make an incredible pair. But was that any way for an Alessandro to make a living?
The question forced Gabriel to consider his daughters’ place in his household. They were illegitimate. With their mother’s death, that situation could never be rectified. An ache built in his chest for Bethany and Karina. At their age they would retain few memories of their mother. They’d never again know her love.
When the television began showing images of Gabriel and Marissa together, laughing, arms around each other, looking happy and very young, he realized Olivia had gone still. Picture after picture flashed on the screen, and many of them weren’t paparazzi shots. There were photos taken of them in private at friends’ homes, even a couple when they’d vacationed on a private island in the Caribbean.