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HIS MAJESTY, KING GAETANO of the European country of Mosvakia, paced by the window of his private office as he awaited the arrival of his best friend and legal advisor, Dario Rossi.
Dario had phoned him to tell him that the investigation agency had finally found her, and Gaetano was eager to hear the details. Not because he was particularly interested in what his estranged wife might be doing or where she was living, he assured himself, but simply out of natural human curiosity.
Although there was nothing particularly natural about the predicament he had got himself into just over two years earlier, he conceded sardonically, his lean, darkly handsome face tense with scornful recollection. While suffering from temporary amnesia, Gaetano had managed to marry a woman he had known for barely six weeks, a woman whom he knew virtually nothing about. Gaetano, prior to that act of inexplicable insanity, had been a playboy prince, notorious for his affairs and dislike of stuffy conventions such as getting married and maintaining a royally respectable low profile. So, what the hell had come over him after that accident in the mountains?
Two years on, Gaetano was still struggling to answer that baffling question. And to underline the obvious mistake he had made in marrying the woman, his bride had deserted him at dizzying speed. Gaetano, the son of a mother who had abandoned him as a toddler, had little sympathy for lying, disloyal women who walked out on their responsibilities. That he should also have married the same sort of woman infuriated him and it only emphasised how unsuitable the wife he had chosen had been. Most particularly a woman who had told him she loved him only hours before running away from him when he had needed her the most.
Mosvakia was a small country on the Adriatic coast, which had been in meltdown for the first year of Gaetano’s return home. Vittorio had had leukaemia but instead of the long slow decline he had envisaged, Gaetano’s older brother had died very suddenly from a heart attack. There had been no time for the careful training and transfer of power that Vittorio had planned for his little brother, no time for final goodbyes either.
Even worse, there had been neither the space nor the privacy for Gaetano to grieve or freak out about the huge responsibility of the throne that had become his without warning. Gaetano had had to bury his personal feelings deep and keep it together for the sake of the Mosvakian people. Wild ideas like abdication had had to be firmly squashed when the streets had filled with candle-holding crowds mourning his brother’s demise. Loyalty and respect for Vittorio’s dutiful example had gripped him hard.
He had toiled through the endless weeks of official mourning, the solemn state funeral rites and his own subsequent coronation like an automaton, simply making the speeches and performing the duties that were expected of him in his new and unfamiliar role as monarch. Like the rest of Mosvakia, Gaetano had still been reeling in total shock because Vittorio had been the brightest jewel in the Mosvakian crown and an impossible act to follow.
Furthermore, nobody had ever expected Gaetano to follow his sibling and end up as King. He was the second son, born from their father’s brief second marriage, the literal spare to match the heir. Twenty years older than Gaetano and already having ruled for almost as long, Vittorio had married at the age of forty. Everyone had assumed that an heir would arrive quickly after his marriage to Giulia, only sadly, that long-awaited event hadn’t happened, and then poor Vittorio had fallen ill.
Only months into Gaetano’s reign, senior courtiers had begun to hint that Gaetano should now consider finding a bride. He had thought about the runaway wife who nobody but Dario knew he had, and he had duly redoubled his efforts to trace her and get a divorce. She had been impossible to find, with no social media presence.
Suddenly, memory sliced in like a shot of lightning to throw his rational thought processes into chaos. He remembered a tiny woman with a mass of strawberry-blonde hair and huge aquamarine eyes that dominated her delicate freckled face, a woman standing in front of a Christmas tree covered with multi-coloured lights. She was smiling, always smiling at him as though he lit up her world. His first sight of her and then the images and the remembered jumble of thoughts became distinctly cringeworthy. Why? Unbelievably, Gaetano, the heartbreaker and sexually unfettered cynic, had developed a severe case of insta-lust or insta-love, whatever people called that overwhelmingly immediate desire to possess another human being body and soul.
Gaetano blinked and gritted his teeth hard, annoyance flashing through him that those disturbing, illogical memories could still infiltrate his brain when he relaxed his guard even for a moment. Even two years on, she had left a mark on him that, it seemed, nothing could fully eradicate, and it outraged his pride. He turned with relief when a knock sounded on the door and Dario strode in clutching a file and looking nothing short of triumphant.
‘At last!’ Dario proclaimed, slapping the file down on Gaetano’s desk, a tall, rangy male with a neatly clipped beard and a ready smile, a close friend since childhood. ‘Now we can sort out that little problem of yours and return your life to normal.’
Gaetano frowned at that choice of words. ‘Regrettably, my life’s never going to be normal again.’ As soon as he voiced that absurd truth, he raised a lean brown hand in a gesture of immediate apology. ‘Forget I said that. I know that I should be grateful that our people have accepted me so readily in Vittorio’s place.’
‘Don’t apologise for admitting that you never wanted the throne. You weren’t trained for it, and you don’t enjoy the pomp and ceremony in the same way as Vittorio did. And don’t look at me like that, I was not criticising your beloved brother,’ the lawyer declared. ‘I merely want to point out that Vittorio was by no means perfect.’
‘He was a good king,’ Gaetano cut in defensively.
‘He was an introvert, and you are an extrovert. You excel at diplomacy, and you single-handedly rescued the crown estate from bankruptcy years ago. You are and were very different men with divergent strengths. Stop comparing yourself to him,’ his old friend chided quietly. ‘If it’s any consolation, my wife thinks women prefer you because you’re so handsome and I know that’s a very silly comment on a serious situation, but it should at least make you laugh.’
‘Carla often makes me laugh,’ Gaetano responded with his flashing smile, even white teeth bright against his bronzed skin. He swallowed the urge to point out that he had been unable to enjoy his friends’ company over cosy suppers in recent times because his new status made such casual outings almost impossible to arrange or enjoy.
Bodyguards and police now surrounded him wherever he went. His attempt to lessen that security presence and reduce the long list of rules he was supposed to follow for his own safety had been unwelcome. Having lost his grandfather to the sea, his father to a car accident and now a third king to ill health, the Mosvakian government currently viewed royals as extremely fragile beings in constant danger. And now that there was only one royal-born left? Everyone was scared that some random act of fate or violence could kill off Gaetano as well, especially when he had no heir to follow him.
As Gaetano leant back against the edge of his desk to study the file, silence fell. Dario ordered coffee while Gaetano rapidly scanned the initial listed facts, but he ended up staring at the single photograph on offer instead. It wasn’t a very good photo, depicting as it did a young woman bundled up in a padded jacket against the wintry cold, a braid of reddish blonde hair escaping from the hood and only a slice of her pale freckled profile visible.
‘She’s…she’s signed up for further education classes?’ Gaetano breathed in surprise, his attention still locked to the photo.
‘Yes, she mostly studies online. The two of you really didn’t talk very much during those six weeks, did you?’ the lawyer murmured. ‘When you met Lara Drummond, she was working as a house-sitter.’
‘She told me that she was a waitress and a cleaner!’ Gaetano objected, his strong jawline clenching.
‘That wasn’t a lie. She’s currently working evenings as a cleaner. I imagine she will be eager to agree to a quick divorce if you offer her a decent settlement,’ Dario opined with cynical conviction.
‘She’s not a gold-digger!’ Gaetano bit out defensively. ‘If she’d wanted money, she would scarcely have run away from me and my jet-set life!’
‘Gaetano… I’m your lawyer as well as being your friend. My primary goal is to protect you. You married her without a prenup and because of that she could ask for the shirt off your back and get it in a British court,’ Dario warned him worriedly. ‘But as things stand, she left you. You have lived apart for the requisite two years and a no-contest divorce is straightforward.’
Gaetano nodded in silence, struggling to get a grip on the emotions simmering up inside him, emotions he had successfully managed to suppress for most of his life. He was convinced that letting his emotions loose was what had plunged him into trouble in the first place. He hadn’t known who he was when he first met Lara and his amnesia had made the most of that new exhilarating freedom to do and say as he liked. Without the restraints imposed by his birth and conditioning and the depressingly constant presence of the paparazzi, Gaetano had become a much more innocent, vulnerable version of his true self and he had allowed his emotional intensity to control him.
He was appalled by that truth and determined never ever to make such a mistake again. Vittorio had fallen in love several times with the wrong women before he finally married Giulia, a woman whom he’d loved only as a friend. Gaetano had grown up watching his brother get his heart broken, witnessing for himself how many gold-diggers and social climbers were willing to lie and cheat their way into Vittorio’s life and pretend to be something they were not.
‘Yes, a divorce should be straightforward. Of course, that is assuming that there is no chance that Lara Drummond’s child could be yours?’ Dario prompted, that question startling Gaetano out of his reflections.
‘She has a child?’ Gaetano exclaimed, incredulous at that news, stalking over to the window with the file and turning his back on his friend to read it again.
Lara had had a little boy but, as his birth certificate had yet to be tracked down, the investigation team could only make a rough guess at his age. Eighteen to twenty-four months? Gaetano counted dates inside his head, and he did it so painfully slowly that nobody would ever have guessed that he was gifted in the mathematical field.
‘Evidently your runaway wife has not been living the celibate life in the same way that you have been,’ his friend pronounced in a rueful undertone. ‘It may well transpire that she was pregnant when you first met her. But no matter, it is, hopefully, another reason why she may well be happy to regain her freedom. The only evidence of a male in her life, however, is her landlord, who appears to be a friend.’
His strong jawline clenched like a rock, Gaetano swung back to face the other man. ‘A friend?’ he derided.
‘The agency cannot be more precise because the landlord is a soldier deployed abroad and nobody has actually seen her with him.’
‘But she’s living in his house.’
‘It was originally his parents’ home and his sister lives there with her as well,’ Dario slotted in wryly. ‘So, no proof of anything untoward that could be useful to us.’
‘You have my gratitude for keeping this businesslike,’ Gaetano breathed, running a restive set of long brown fingers through his cropped black hair while resisting the temptation to smash a frustrated fist into the wall.
‘You knew her for six weeks and you weren’t exactly in your right mind during that time. I assume we can now proceed as planned?’ Dario studied him expectantly.
Gaetano’s dark as midnight gaze narrowed. ‘No. I want to see her first…when I’m in my right mind. I want to know how I react to her now.’
‘For many reasons that would be unwise,’ his friend warned him, frowning. ‘The press could catch on. You did nothing wrong in marrying her, but I know you would prefer that connection to stay out of the public domain. You could also meet her again and—’