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‘WHEN AM I going to marry?’ Angelino Diamandis rolled his dark heavily lashed eyes with slumbrous amusement in receipt of his brother’s question.
Christened Angel by his friends, it being an in-joke that he was anything but angelic, the ruling Prince of Themos sprawled back on the upholstered ottoman in an untidy but indisputably graceful tangle of long lean limbs and simply smiled over his cup of coffee. The movie-star good looks that had long made him a favourite of the paparazzi had rarely been more breathtakingly obvious.
Prince Saif of Alharia, clad in the traditional silk finery of a bridegroom, studied his younger half-brother with an unimpressed frown. ‘Why are you smiling? As though I had asked you something foolish? You are a head of state and one day, just like me, you must marry. Neither of us has a choice.’
That last statement was voiced without resentment or self-pity, Angel acknowledged, wryly amused by his brother’s heartfelt sense of duty and honour. Saif still rejoiced in a streak of naivety that Angel had never had. Saif had been surrounded from birth by all the safety barriers a devoted elderly father considered necessary to conserve his only son’s happiness and security.
Angel, in comparison, had never known either parental love or parental protectiveness although he had never admitted that to a living soul. He had been raised by servants and sent to boarding school, his parents much craved but distant figures on his horizon…until he’d gained the maturity to see what they were really like. Catching his mother in bed with his best friend at the age of fifteen had been a cruel wake-up call to reality, and being exposed to his father’s equally grubby activities had been crushing. He had learned that all the money, privilege and status in the world couldn’t compensate for an essential lack of decency and good taste.
Angel had, however, left his brother with his innocent illusions intact about the mother who had abandoned him and her first husband, the Emir of Alharia, to run off with Angel’s father. Queen Nabila and her equally self-indulgent second husband, King Achilles, had, after all, died in a helicopter crash when Angel was sixteen. There was no good reason now to tell Saif the ugly truth about the mother he had never known.
‘Not much choice when it comes to marrying,’ Angel conceded ruefully. ‘But I still wouldn’t have agreed to go into an arranged marriage with a bride I haven’t met, as you have done.’
‘You know the precarious state of my father’s health.’
‘I do, but I also think you will eventually have to stop tiptoeing around him.’
Saif stiffened defensively. ‘You say that because I have not yet had the courage to tell my father about my relationship with you…and I’ve hidden you away here in a forgotten part of the palace to conceal your presence in Alharia on my wedding day.’
Angel nodded gently. ‘We are not children who need to hide wrongdoing,’ he murmured wryly. ‘Our mother grievously betrayed your father, but our blood tie should not be denied because of her behaviour.’
Saif looked troubled, too honest a man to deny that fact. ‘In time I will tell him that we have a sibling relationship.’
Annoyed that he had taken his bad mood out on his serious older brother by reproaching him, Angel changed the subject. ‘I will not be entering an arranged marriage as such when I wed but I have already chosen my bride.’
‘You are in love?’ Saif flashed him a sudden smile of mingled surprise and approval. ‘I had not thought you would even recognise that possibility.’
‘And you were right,’ Angel interposed. ‘I’m not in love and neither would Cassia be. She is simply the most suitable woman I know to take on the role of Queen, although to be frank I have not yet discussed the subject with her. It is merely that I know her practical views on marriage. Status and wealth appeal most to her.’
‘Cassia!’ Saif sliced in, his consternation unhidden because he had clearly been taken by surprise by that familiar name. ‘That frozen blonde?’ Breaking off mid-sentence, Saif reddened at his lack of tact and compressed his lips shut again before concluding, ‘Forgive me… I was—’
Angel shifted a dismissive hand and laughed with genuine appreciation. ‘No, Cassia and the iceberg that sank the Titanic do have much in common,’ he responded equably. ‘But that’s the type of wife I would prefer. I don’t want an emotionally incontinent bride or a demanding one or one likely to be unfaithful or careless of appearances. Cassia will suit me and my needs as the ruler of Themos very well indeed. Our sole challenge would be the production of an heir because I don’t think she is a very physical woman, but no doubt we would deal with that requirement when the time arrives…and neither of us would be in any hurry to get to the altar. I am only twenty-eight and she is twenty-five. According to our constitution, I cannot be crowned King until I marry or produce an heir.’
Saif dealt him a remarkably sombre look. ‘Such a bloodless arrangement won’t work for you, Angel. You have much more heart than you are prepared to admit. Even if Cassia seems the perfect candidate now, at some stage of your life you will want more,’ he declared.
Angel simply laughed again, utterly unconvinced by that sentimental forecast, indeed, only his respect for his brother killing the scornful rebuttal ready to leap to his tongue. He had never been in love in his life, and he didn’t believe he was capable of that kind of self-delusion. It was his belief that love was more often the excuse for the dreadful things that people did. His mother had told him that it had been her love for his father that had made her desert her first husband. Of course, she hadn’t even mentioned the infant son she had left behind at the same time, he recalled in disgust, or the fact that she had already been pregnant with Angel by Prince Achilles. Too often, Angel had seen friends treat each other badly and employ love as a justification for cheating, lying and betraying the trusting or the innocent. He was a realist. He knew exactly what sort of marriage he would be getting if he wed a woman like Cassia and that brand of icy detachment would suit him to perfection.
‘I must return to the reception.’ Saif sighed with regret. ‘I am very sorry that you are unable to join the festivities.’
Setting his cup aside, Angel vaulted fluidly upright. ‘No, you were right to hide me,’ he said softly. ‘I was, as I often can be, impulsive in flying out here the instant you told me you were getting married. For sure, someone would have recognised me at the party.’
His brother gave him a discomfited look and Angel suppressed a sigh but there was nothing he could do to change the situation. He, the child of their mother’s scandalous second marriage, could not expect to be a welcome guest in the Emir’s family circle. Some day, of course, that would change when nature took its course and the elderly Emir passed, but it was unlikely to change any sooner. Angel rejected the faint sense of resentment afflicting him as he accompanied his brother out to the open galleried corridor beyond the suite of rooms where he had been placed. The palace of Alharia was a vast building, built over many centuries and capable of hiding an army should there be that necessity, he thought wryly, glancing over the wall into the courtyard beneath and catching a glimpse of red hair that spun his head back.
‘Who’s that?’ he heard himself ask of the woman below, playing with a ball and a couple of young children.
‘Haven’t a clue,’ Saif admitted. ‘By the look of that starchy uniform, someone’s nanny…she probably belongs to one of our wedding guests.’
Belongs? Just as if the woman were a stray dog, Angel savoured with amusement. Was he quite as remote from the domestic staff as his elder brother appeared to be? He didn’t think so. His childhood had put paid to that lofty royal distance. The only affection he had ever received had come from his parents’ employees and he had learned to think of them and see them as individuals rather than mere servants there to ensure his comfort.
‘It was the red hair. It always catches my eye,’ Angel confided truthfully, still looking down into the courtyard while censuring himself for doing so.
Obviously, it wasn’t her! As bright as she had been at Cambridge when he met her, there was no way she would now, five years on, be as humbly employed as a nanny in service. And why hadn’t he long since forgotten about that wretched girl? With her combat boots, stroppy attitude and blue eyes deeper and truer in colour than even the legendary Diamandis sapphires? He gritted his teeth in annoyance at the vagaries of his persistent memories. Was it because she had been the one who, in popular parlance, had got away? Was he still that basic? That male and predictable?
‘Yes…that’s very noticeable,’ Saif remarked with a hint of amusement. ‘You are an unrepentant womaniser, Angel. Everything the global tabloids say about you is true but at least you have enjoyed the freedom to be yourself.’
‘And so will you some day.’ Angel gave his brother’s shoulder a quick consoling pat even while he knew that he was voicing a white lie intended to comfort. As an obedient son, most probably a very faithful husband and the future emir of a traditional country, Saif was unlikely to ever have the liberty to do as he liked, but there was little point in reminding him of that hard fact, Angel reasoned with sympathy.
Luckily for Angel, his subjects didn’t expect moral perfection from their monarch. The island of Themos in the Mediterranean Sea was a liberal and independent nation. Although it was a small country, Themos was also incredibly rich because it was a tax haven, beloved of the wealthy and famous for many affluent generations. The royal family of Diamandis was of Greek origin and had ruled Themos since the fifteenth century. Throughout history Angel’s wily family had retained the throne through judicious alliances with more powerful nations and, while their army might be small, their formidable financial holdings ensured that Themos would always box above its weight.
Angel studied what he could see of the nanny, the gleam of that fiery hair displayed in a simple long braid visible beneath the woven sun hat she wore. In the sunlight that braid glittered like polished copper, summoning up further uninvited echoes from the past. Squaring his wide shoulders as he separated from his brother, Angel turned away and returned to the suite that had been put at his disposal, a glossy concealment of the truth that he was under virtual house arrest until he flew out of Alharia again because his brother didn’t want him to be seen and recognised.
Regrettably, Angel hadn’t realised that that would be a problem. He had assumed that the wedding ceremony would be a hugely crowded public event, not a strictly private affair with only the Emir and the bride’s parents in attendance. He had arrived for the wedding with the comforting belief that there would be so many people present that he would easily escape detection. The discovery that he could not attend either ceremony or reception had exasperated him. As an adult, Angel had little experience of disappointment and certainly not the boredom of hiding out alone in Victorian surroundings, far removed from the comforts he took for granted. He wasn’t a ‘kick back and watch television’ kind of person, he reasoned irritably, but it was only for a few hours. He reached for his phone as it vibrated.
It was the pilot of his private jet. A fault had been discovered in the landing-gear hydraulics. Angel winced even as he was assured that the mechanics team that had already flown in would be working on the problem through the night in an effort to get him airborne and back home again as soon as possible. He swore under his breath and paced the Persian carpet below his feet, wondering what he could possibly do to pass the time…
Gabriella flicked through the television channels again in search of entertainment, but it was no use. Even though she spoke the language, nothing she had so far seen could capture her attention.
In an effort to dispel her bleak mood, she stood up, stretching in the light white cotton sundress she had donned once the sun went down, and her official workday was over. Not that she had had the opportunity to do any real work during her brief stay in Alharia, she reflected wryly. Having registered her services with an international nanny agency the month before, Gaby was only accepting short-term placements. A couple of bad experiences in more permanent positions had made her wary and she intended to be far more cautious when choosing her next live-in employer. Providing childcare cover for wedding guests in the Alharian royal palace had sounded like a ridiculously exciting, glamorous and safe job. Only in actuality the experience, while certainly safe, had proved to be anything but exciting and glamorous. Tired of sitting around doing nothing, she was counting the hours until her flight home the following day.
Aside from an hour in the afternoon spent supervising two six-year-olds, she hadn’t had any children to look after because most of the guests had either left their kids at home or had brought their own staff with them. Someone had overlooked that likelihood when hiring her and she had been surplus to requirements. So, what else is new? she asked herself with faint bitterness. Being an unwanted extra was a painfully familiar sensation for Gabriella.
Her parents and her little brother had died in a motorway pile-up when she was fourteen years old and recalling the sudden savagery of that shattering loss could still make her skin turn cold and clammy. Grief had shot her straight from awkward adolescence into scary adulthood long before she was ready for the challenge. Her mother’s kid sister, Janine, had become Gaby’s reluctant guardian and virtually all the money that her parents had left had been used to pay for the fancy boarding school that had kept her out of Janine’s hair. She had received a terrific education at the cost of the love, security and healing that she had needed so much more. Barely a year after losing her parents and brother she had decided that she would concentrate on becoming a top-flight nanny, after graduating from university. In her innocence, she had assumed that living in a family situation would ease her heartache for the family she had lost.
Only, Gaby reflected with deep sadness, she had been far too young and ignorant of the world when she had made that decision. Unhappily, the job hadn’t worked out the way she had hoped and now she was wondering whether she should be looking at a different career option. Thankfully, she did have the qualifications required to seek an alternative. Gifted from birth, Gaby spoke six languages fluently and had a working knowledge of several more along with a first-class degree in Modern Languages from Cambridge University. The prospect of looking for a starter job in another field held little appeal for her, however, when she was able to earn an excellent salary in the job she was in. Sadly, though, her recent experiences as a nanny had sapped her confidence and left her feeling more alone than ever. Should she fight through that feeling? she asked herself as she lifted her soft drink and wandered out to the courtyard outside her room.
Colourful glass lanterns burned below the loggia that ringed all four sides. Tall fluffy palm trees cast giant shadows across the terracotta floor tiles and the fountain gently spraying water down into a circular pond. The warm still air was infused with the fragrance of exotic flowers, and the sound of the falling water was soothing. There was nothing glamorous about the old-fashioned nursery she had spent her day in, the few people she had met or her small unadorned bedroom, but the courtyard was a truly beautiful place.
She sat down on a stone bench, determined to appreciate her surroundings because tomorrow she would be returning to London and searching for somewhere to live again. She didn’t want to overstay in her aunt’s spare room. She and Janine had never been close. A fresh live-in position would make practical sense, but she could only grimace at the prospect and as she lifted her head and straightened her tense shoulders in denial of that awful surge of anxiety her long loose hair shimmied round her in rippling waves. Nobody was ever going to scare her like that again, she promised herself fiercely, but the fear that someone might try to do so still lingered…
Angel saw her from the walkway above, but she was seated in the shadow of the trees. Only a pale gleaming pair of shapely lower legs was visible from his vantage point. A confident half-smile tilting his wide sensual mouth, he strode down the corner staircase and saw her in the light shed by the lanterns, her metallic copper hair shimmering in a glorious tumble of bright splendour. Angel stopped dead. He had a ‘thing’ for redheads because of a young student who had had hair exactly like that and he was immediately gripped by an intense sense of familiarity.
But it could not be Gabriella Knox, it wasn’t possible, he reasoned with a frown of disbelief, his keen dark gaze narrowing as he stared across the courtyard at her, and instantly fierce recognition fired inside him. That nanny he had glimpsed earlier? It had been her. It was her! His focus now considerably more intent, he appraised her in search of change and found little evidence of the years that had passed.
Possibly that oval face of hers was a little finer now that she had reached her twenties, he reasoned, but, if anything, she was even more of a beauty than she had been at nineteen. Her hair was spectacular, and the delicate cast of her features was only accentuated by her fair, flawless skin. She was a little on the small side, indeed barely five feet two inches in height, but that did not dim Angel’s appreciation of her other charms. The average man might first notice Gaby’s hair and her face, but her highly feminine curvaceous figure commanded equal attention. Five years earlier those wondrous curves of hers had infiltrated his every fantasy.
Back then, he had quantified Gabriella’s appeal, pigeonholed her and rationalised his attraction to her because right from the start she had been trouble and Angel had never in his life before or since chased trouble in his sex life. He didn’t take risks; he didn’t need to take risks. Women were invariably all too willing to agree to his smallest wish…only not Gabriella. Gabriella had stood firm, defying him to the last.
Yet in his opinion what he had asked for had not been unreasonable. Other women hadn’t argued, most certainly hadn’t accused him of trying to steal their freedom or control them. He had an understandable need for discretion in the women he took as lovers. But Gabriella had been too outspoken, volatile and independent to agree to his rules. Encounters with women who only wanted to bed him to sell a story to the paparazzi had educated Angel the hard way and, while the great and good of Themos couldn’t care less that their ruling prince might have remarkable staying power between the sheets, Angel held himself accountable to a higher standard than either of his parents had observed. He believed that revelations in print about his sex life were seedy and undignified.
‘Gabriella…’ Angel murmured tautly.