Royal Heirs Required(6)By: Cat Schield
Unable to fathom how she’d gotten involved, Gabriel stabbed his fingers through his hair. This business with Marissa’s daughters was fast spiraling out of control. “Have you spoken with her?”
“It’s three in the morning, sir.”
And if two little girls weren’t missing, he might be inclined to leave his questions until morning. “Tell her I want to speak to her.”
His private secretary wasn’t gone more than five minutes. “Apparently she’s in Lady Darcy’s room, sir.” Stewart paused. “With the girls.”
Dismay shouldered aside irritation as Gabriel headed for the wing that housed his future bride. An encounter between Olivia and Marissa’s daughters was a problem he hadn’t anticipated. No doubt she would have questions about them. She was proving more troublesome than he’d expected based on their limited interaction before he’d proposed. Christian had warned him there was more to Olivia than a pretty face and polished manners, but she’d done an excellent job keeping her agenda hidden. The question was why.
Gabriel knocked on the door of Olivia’s suite, agitation adding sharpness to the blows. His summons was answered more quickly than he expected by a pretty woman in her early thirties, wearing a classic blue dress and a frown. Her eyes widened as she spied him standing in the hall.
“I’m here looking for two little girls who’ve gone missing from the nursery,” Gabriel said, his tone courteous despite the urge to push past her. “I understand they are here. May I come in?”
“Of course, Your Highness.” She stepped back and gestured him in. “Lady Darcy, Prince Gabriel is here to see you.”
“If you’ll excuse us,” Gabriel said, gesturing her out before entering the dimly lit suite and closing the door behind him.
His gaze swept the room in search of his fiancée. He spied her by the fireplace. She looked serene in a simple cotton dress, her hair in the same updo she’d worn to the gala. So she hadn’t yet gone to bed. This thought made his attention shift to the large bed where he spied a lump beneath the covers.
“Sorry for the late visit,” he told her. “But two children have gone missing.”
“Bethany and Karina.”
She knew their names. What else had she found out?
“What are they doing here?” he asked the question more sharply than he’d intended and saw her eyes narrow.
“They each had a bowl of ice cream and fell asleep.” Her sweet smile had a bit of an edge. “They were terrified of that horrible woman who’d been hired to look after them and refused to sleep in their own beds. So I brought them here.”
“And plied them with ice cream?”
“Their mother just died a few days ago. Strangers tore them from the only home they’d ever known and brought them to this big, scary place. Do you have any idea how traumatic all that was for them?”
“The nursery is not scary.”
“It was for them. And so was that awful woman who was taking care of them.”
“Is that why you had her escorted out of the palace tonight?”
Olivia’s eyes flashed. “I suppose you’re going to tell me it wasn’t my place to fire her, but she reminded me of the villain in every children’s story I’ve ever read.”
Her outrage was charming and Gabriel found his annoyance melting away. “How did you come to meet them?”
“I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d go for a walk. When I got to the stairs I could hear their cries and the nanny’s scolding. They were running down the hall away from that woman and the things she said to them.” Olivia’s lips tightened. “I would like to speak to their father about her. First thing tomorrow morning if at all possible.”
“The situation with them is a little complicated,” Gabriel told her, his gaze once again drawn to the lump in the center of the mattress.
“Then explain it to me.”
This was what Gabriel had been wrestling with all evening. What he was going to tell the world about Marissa’s daughters was a small issue compared to how he would explain things to his parents and the woman he would soon marry.
“Some matters need to be cleared up first.”
Olivia’s hard stare searched his expression for a long silent moment before she spoke. “What sort of matters?”
He couldn’t tell her that the girls were none of her business when she’d already taken their care upon herself. At the same time, he didn’t want to claim the girls before the matter of their heritage was cleared up.
“Perhaps you’re referring to a DNA test.” She laughed at his surprise. “They look like your sister when she was young.”
“Didn’t you notice?”
“They only just arrived. I haven’t seen them yet.”
Heart thumping hard against his ribs, Gabriel moved toward the bed. Since finding out about the twins, he’d been impatient to see them, but abruptly his feet felt encased in concrete. Caught between dread and hope that the girls belonged to him, Gabriel stared down at matching faces, peaceful and so innocent in sleep.
The breath he’d taken lodged in his chest as recognition flared. Marissa hadn’t lied. They were his. He traced each of the children’s delicate cheeks with his finger and his muscles slackened as relief washed over him.
“They’re yours, aren’t they?” Olivia’s voice swelled with emotion, but when he glanced at her, her expression was as serene as if they were discussing the weather. “I had hoped they belonged to Christian.”
“I just learned about them tonight.”
“Their mother never told you?” Olivia sighed. “And now she’s dead.”
“Things ended badly between us.” He couldn’t face Olivia with his emotions this raw, so he kept his gaze on his daughters. “I didn’t know she was ill.” For a moment he was consumed by despair. He pressed his lips into a tight line. Then, feeling her watching him, he settled his features into an impassive mask.
“You loved her.”
He and Olivia had never spoken of love. Their marriage was about politics, not romance. But if she suspected he’d given away his heart to another woman, she might not be so happy.
“We were together a long time ago.”
“Karina and Bethany aren’t even two. It wasn’t that long ago.”
Despite her neutral tone, Gabriel suspected she wasn’t thrilled to have his past thrown so fully in her face. If the truth about the twins got out the press would speculate and create drama and controversy where there was none. Olivia would become the unwitting victim of their desire for ratings.
“This has to remain a secret,” he told her.
“Impossible. The minute you brought them to the palace you risked word getting out.”
“Perhaps, but I’d like to postpone that as long as possible so we can strategize how we’re going to control the damage.”
“If you’re worried about my father’s reaction, don’t be. He’s committed to opening a plant here.”
“They’re two precious little girls. I’ll support whatever decision you make, but I think you should proudly claim them as yours.”
Her eyes were clear of hesitation or deceit. Did she realize this would make her a stepmother to his former lover’s children? Would another woman have been so understanding?
“I can’t figure you out.”
“Gabriel,” he growled, amused rather than annoyed. “I’ll not have you calling me Your Highness in bed.”
The underlying heat in his voice reached her. Her cheeks flared pink.
“Gabriel,” she echoed, her soft voice low and intimate in a way that warmed his blood. “I promise to remember never to refer to you as Your Royal Highness, or Prince Gabriel, while we’re making love.”
For the first time he glimpsed the Olivia beneath the enigmatic, cultured woman he’d decided to marry. Impish humor sparkled in her eyes. Intelligence shone there, as well. Why had she hidden her sharp mind from him? Gabriel considered how little time they they’d spent together and shouldered the blame. If he’d gotten to know her better, he’d have seen the truth much sooner.
“All of a sudden, it occurs to me that I’ve never kissed you.” He took her hand and dusted a kiss over her knuckles.
“You kissed me the day you proposed.”
“In front of a dozen witnesses,” he murmured. He had asked her to marry him in front of her father and close relations. It had been a formality, really, not a true proposal. “And not the way I wanted to.”
“How did you want to?”
She’d never flirted with him before and he discovered he liked the challenge in her gaze. Anticipation lit up the room as he set his finger beneath her chin and tilted her head, bringing her lips to a perfect angle to align with his. He watched her long lashes drift downward.