Royal Heirs Required(3)

By: Cat Schield

 Before Olivia considered her actions, she turned to the king. “Excuse me.”

 “Of course,” the handsome monarch replied, his smile cordial.

 Released, she left the king and headed in the direction her fiancé had gone. Perhaps she could catch Gabriel before he returned to the ballroom and they could spend some time talking, just the two of them. She hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps before Christian Alessandro appeared in her path.

 His gold eyes, shadowed and wary around most people, warmed as he smiled down at her. “Are you enjoying the party?”

 “Of course,” she replied, bottling up a sigh as the youngest Alessandro prince foiled her plan to speak to his brother alone.

 She’d encountered Christian several times in London over the years. As the wildest Alessandro brother, in his university days, Christian had spent more time partying than studying and had barely graduated from Oxford. He’d earned a reputation as a playboy, but had always treated her with respect. Maybe because Olivia had recognized the clever mind he hid beneath his cavalier charm.

 “I noticed Prince Gabriel left the party in a hurry,” she murmured, unable to conquer the curiosity that loosened her tongue. “I hope nothing is wrong.”

 Christian had an impressive poker face. “Just some old business he had to take care of. Nothing important.”

 “He looked a bit shaken up.” She stared at her future brother-in-law and saw the tiniest twitch at the corner of his eye. He was keeping something important about Gabriel from her. Olivia’s pulse skipped. Seemed she wasn’t the only one with secrets.

 Since Gabriel had opened negotiations with her father a year ago, Olivia hadn’t had much opportunity to get to know the man she would marry. The situation hadn’t improved since she’d arrived in Sherdana a week ago. With the wedding only a month away and parliament in session, they’d barely spent an hour alone together and most of that had been divided up into one-to five-minute snippets.

 A stroll in the garden the day after she’d arrived, cut short when they’d met the queen’s very muddy vizsla. Gabriel had commended Olivia’s nimbleness in dodging the dog and retreated to the palace to change his trousers.

 A moment in the carriage before the parade yesterday. He’d complimented her hat.

 A whole five minutes during the waltz this evening. He’d told her she looked lovely.

 Their exchanges were polite and cordial. At all times he’d been the perfect prince. Courteous. Gallant. Cultured. And she’d been seized by the absurd desire to muss his hair and shock him with outrageous remarks. Of course, she would never do that. The daughter of an earl, she was acutely conscious of her image and position.

 Christian refocused her attention on the crowd around them and began filling her ear with all sorts of salacious gossip about the local nobility. Normally she’d be amused by his outrageous slander of Sherdana’s wealthy and powerful, but with each new dance the air in the ballroom grew stuffier and she wanted to spend time getting to know her fiancé.

 What did Gabriel expect from her? A political partner? Or an attractive figurehead that he could trot out for state occasions? She hoped it was the former.

 Firstborn, he’d won the right to inherit the throne by a mere forty minutes. But there was no question in anyone’s mind that he was utterly and completely suited to the role.

 His commitment to Sherdana was absolute and apparent to all. He’d been educated here and rarely left, except on official business. While in contrast, his two younger brothers had both chosen to spend as little time in their native country as possible.

 Drawn by a magnetic pull too great to resist, her attention returned to the ballroom doors that Gabriel had passed through. What could have taken him away in the middle of the party? As if her thoughts had summoned him, she spied the prince coming through the crowd toward her.

 Her gaze traced the sculpted breadth of his shoulders, the way his white jacket stretched across his broad chest, providing an abundance of room for the medals pinned there. A blue sash cut diagonally from shoulder to hip.

 “Forgive me for neglecting you,” he said as he came to a stop before her. “I hope my brother has kept you sufficiently entertained.”

 “Christian has been filling me in on your guests.”

 For the first time in her company, Gabriel’s courteous mask slipped. He shot his brother a hard look. “What have you been telling her?”

 “Things most people, including you, wouldn’t. If she’s going to be Sherdana’s princess, she needs to know where the bodies are buried or she’ll be no help to you at all.”

 Gabriel shook his head. “She doesn’t need to know all the ins and outs of our politics to help out the country or me.”

 Olivia’s heart sank. Now she knew what he expected from her. There would be no partnership, no working together. She would attend ceremonies and support charities while he ran the country and dealt with its problems alone.

 “She’s smarter than you’re giving her credit for, Gabriel. You should use her to your best political advantage.”

 “Thank you for your opinion, brother.” And his tone said that was the end of the conversation.

 With a mocking bow, Christian retreated. While part of Olivia regretted his departure, she was glad for a moment alone with Gabriel. Or she was until he began to speak.

 “I know you haven’t seen much of Sherdana since your arrival,” he said, his polite formality pushing her to greater impatience. “But maybe that can change in the next week or so.”

 “That would be lovely.” She bit back her thoughts on how unlikely it was. With the wedding only a month away she would scarcely have the opportunity to sleep, much less take a tour of the countryside. “I’m eager to visit the wine country.”

 “Sherdana takes pride in its wine as you well know.”

 “As it should,” she murmured, her boredom coming through in her tone. “I’m glad you were able to get your business resolved so you could return to the party so quickly.”

 “Business?” There wasn’t the least suggestion of understanding in his manner.

 “I saw your private secretary approach you with some news. It seemed to be something unpleasant. And then you left. Christian explained it was old business you needed to take care of.”

 “Ah, yes. Just a misunderstanding with Stewart. It was nothing.”

 “I’m glad.” But her mind was busy cataloging all the nuances of his tone and expression. Her future husband was skilled at deflection.

 “Would you care to dance?” he asked, his deep voice rumbling through her like distant thunder.

 Not really. She was tired and her shoes pinched. But she smiled. “Of course.”

 A waltz began to play as Gabriel took her hand and led her onto the dance floor. Keeping her expression pleasant and neutral was torture as his palm slid against her back. The gown she wore had a modest cut, showing no cleavage or bare shoulders, but the material was silk and the heat of Gabriel’s hand burned through the fabric and set her on fire.

 “Are you feeling compelled to marry because your father wishes it?”

 The abruptness of his question was so unexpected, she almost laughed. “Why would I need to be compelled by my father? You’re rich, handsome and going to be king one day. What girl wouldn’t wish to be queen?”

 “You didn’t answer my question.”

 “I’m not being forced to marry you. I have been given an opportunity many would envy.” She assessed his expression, curious where this line of questioning originated. “Are you worried that down the road I’ll regret my choice?” She cocked her head and regarded him intently. “Or are you looking for an excuse to break our engagement?”

 “Nothing like that. I am just wondering if perhaps you’d have preferred a different life.”

 “I’m sure many people wish every day that they’d done something different. Mostly, we must play the hand life deals us. For some, it’s struggling with poverty. For others raising a child on their own or dedicating themselves to their career and forgoing a family.” She pitched her voice into sympathetic tones for the next example. “For you it’s ensuring your kingdom’s economic security. I get to marry a prince and someday become a queen.”

 For some inexplicable reason, he grew short with her. “But is that what you want?”

 “To marry you and become a queen?” She let her surprise show. “Of course.”

 Gabriel didn’t appear convinced. “We haven’t had much time to get to know each other,” he said. “I hope that will change over the next month.”

 “Perhaps we could begin now. What is it you’d like to know?”

 “Let’s begin simply. How do you come to speak French and Italian so fluently?”

 “I had a whole army of tutors from the time I was small.”

 “Your accent is quite good.”

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