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Convenient Bride for the King
Book two in the Four Kings Series (Claimed by a King)
She refused his royal proposal…
…but will she let him unlock the passion within?
King Theodosius must find a queen in order to keep his throne, but his less than romantic proposal letter leaves sheltered Princess Moriana cold. So Theo decides to make Moriana an offer she can’t refuse… If she’ll consider becoming his bride he’ll heat things up by initiating his innocent queen into the pleasures of the marriage bed…
Princess Moriana of Arun wasn’t an unreasonable woman. She had patience aplenty and was willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt at least once. Maybe even twice. But when she knew for a fact she was being passed around like a Christmas cracker no one wanted to pull, all bets were off.
Her brother Augustus had said he wasn’t available to speak with her this morning. People to see, kingdom to rule.
Nothing to do with avoiding her until she regained her equilibrium after yesterday’s spectacularly public jilting…the coward.
So what if Casimir of Byzenmaach no longer wanted to marry her? It wasn’t as if it had ever been Casimir’s idea in the first place, and it certainly hadn’t been hers. When you were the progeny of kings it was commonplace for a politically expedient marriage to be arranged for you. And yet…inexplicably… Casimir’s defection after such a long courtship had gutted her. He’d made her feel small and insignificant, unwanted and alone, and, above all, not good enough. All her hard work, the endless social politics, the restraint that guided her every move, had been for what?
Arun’s royal palace was an austere one, mainly because Moriana’s forefathers had planned it that way. Stern, grey and never quite warm enough, it invited application to duty over frivolous timewasting. It chose function over beauty, no matter how much beauty she found to hang on its walls. It favoured formal cloistered gardens for tidy minds.
Her brother had taken residence in the southern wing of the palace in the gloomiest rooms of them all, and not for the first time did Moriana wonder why. Her brother’s executive secretary—an elderly courtier who’d been in service to the House of Arun since before she was born—looked up as she approached, his expression smooth and unruffled.
‘Princess, what a pleasant surprise.’
She figured her appearance was neither pleasant nor a surprise, but she let the man have his social graces. ‘Is he in?’
‘He’s taking an important call.’
‘But he is in,’ she countered and kept right on walking towards her brother’s closed door. ‘Wonderful.’
The older man sighed and pressed a button on the intercom as she swept past. He didn’t actually speak into the intercom, mind. Moriana was pretty sure he had a secret code button set up just for her—doubtless announcing that Moriana the Red was incoming.
Her brother looked up when she walked in, told whoever he had on the phone that he’d call them back, and put the phone down.
Damn but it was cold in here. It didn’t help that the spring just past had been a brutal one and summer. ‘Why is it like an ice box in here?’ she asked. ‘Have we no heating you can turn on? No warmer rooms you could rule from?’
‘Or you could wear warmer clothes,’ her brother suggested, but there was nothing wrong with her attire. Her fine wool dress was boat-necked, long-sleeved and fell to just above her knees. Stockings added another layer to her legs. She was wearing knee-high leather boots. Had she added a coat she’d be ready for a trip to the Antarctic.
‘It is a perfectly pleasant day outside,’ she countered. ‘Why do you choose the coldest rooms we have to call your own?’
‘If I had better rooms, more people would be tempted to visit me and I’d never get any work done.’ His eyes were almost black and framed by thick black lashes, just like her own. His smile was indulgent as he sat back and steepled his hands—maybe his whole I’m in charge of the universe pose worked on some, but she’d grown up with him and knew what Augustus had looked like as a six-year-old with chickenpox and as a teenager with his first hangover. She knew the sound of his laughter and the shape of his sorrows. He could wear his kingly authority in public and she would bow to him but here in private, when it was just the two of them, he was nothing more than a slightly irritating older brother. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.
‘Have you seen this?’ She held up a thick sheet of cream-coloured vellum.
‘Depends,’ he said.
She slammed the offending letter down on the ebony desk in front of him. Letters generally didn’t slam down on anything but this one had the weight of her hand behind it. ‘Theo sent me a proposal.’
‘Okay,’ he said cautiously, still looking at her rather than the letter.
‘A marriage proposal.’
Her brother’s lips twitched.
‘Don’t you dare,’ she warned.
‘Well, it stands to reason he would,’ said Augustus. ‘You’re available, he’s under increasing pressure to produce an heir and secure the throne, and politically it’s an opportunistic match.’
‘We loathe each other. There is no earthly reason why Theo would want to spend an evening with me, let alone eternity.’
‘I have a theory about that—’
‘It goes something like this. He pulled your pigtail when you were children, you gave him a black eye and you’ve been fierce opponents ever since. If you actually spent some time with the man you’d discover he’s not half as bad as you think he is. He’s well-travelled, well-read, surprisingly intelligent and a consummate negotiator. All things you admire.’
‘A consummate negotiator? Are you serious? Theo’s marriage proposal is a form letter. He filled my name in at the top and his at the bottom.’
‘And he has a sense of humour,’ Augustus said.
‘Everyone except for you.’
‘Doesn’t that tell you something?’
Oh, it was on.
She pulled up a chair, a hard unwelcoming one because that was all there was to be had in this farce of a room. She sat. He sighed. She crossed her legs, etiquette be damned. Two seconds later she uncrossed her legs, rearranged her skirt over her knees and sat ramrod-straight as she stared him down. ‘Did you arrange this?’ Because she wouldn’t put it past him. He and their three neighbouring monarchs were close. They plotted together on a regular basis.
‘Did Casimir?’ He of the broken matrimonial intentions and newly discovered offspring.
‘I doubt it. What with burying his father and planning a coronation, the instant fatherhood and his current wooing of the child’s mother… I’m pretty sure he has his hands full.’
Moriana drummed her fingers on his ugly wooden desk, partly because it gave her time to digest her brother’s words and partly because she knew it annoyed him. ‘Then whose mad idea was it?’
He eyed her offending fingers for a moment before casually pulling open his desk drawer and pulling out a long wooden ruler. He held it up, as if gauging its reach, before bringing the tip to rest gently in his palm. ‘Stop torturing my desk.’
‘Or you’ll beat me? Please,’ she scoffed. Nonetheless, she stopped with the drumming and brought the offending hand in front of her to examine her nails. No damage at all. Maybe she’d paint her nails black later, to match the desk and her mood. Maybe her rebellion could start small. ‘You haven’t answered my question. Whose idea was it?’
‘I’m assuming it was Theo’s.’
She looked up to find Augustus eyeing her steadily, as if he knew something she didn’t.
‘It’s not an insult, Moriana; it’s an honour. You were born and raised for the kind of position Theo’s offering. You could make a difference to his leadership and to the stability of the region.’
‘No.’ She cut him off fast. ‘You can’t guilt me into this. I am through with being the good princess who does what she’s told, the one who serves and serves and serves, without any thought to my own needs. I’m going to Cannes to party up a scandal. There will be recklessness. Orgies with dissolute film stars.’
‘When?’ Augustus did not sound alarmed.
‘Soon.’ He didn’t look alarmed either, and he should have. ‘You don’t think I’ll do it. You think I’m a humourless prude who wouldn’t know fun times if they rained down on me. Well, they’re about to. I want the passion of a lover’s touch. I want a man to look at me with lust. Dammit, for once in my life I want to do something that pleases me!’ She’d had enough. ‘All those things I’ve been taught to place value on? My reputation, my sense of duty to king and country, my virginity? I’m getting rid of them.’
‘Okay, let’s not be hasty.’
‘Hasty?’ Princesses didn’t screech. Moriana dropped her voice an octave and gave it some gravel instead. ‘I could have had the stable boy when I was eighteen. He was beautiful, carefree and rode like a demon. At twenty-two I could have had a sheikh worth billions. He only had to look at me to make me melt. A year later I met a musician with hands I could only dream of. I would have gladly taken him to my bed but I didn’t. Would you like me to continue?’
‘Casimir’s not a virgin,’ she continued grimly. ‘He got a nineteen-year-old pregnant when he was twenty-three! You know what I was doing at twenty-three? Taking dancing lessons so that I could feel the touch of someone’s hand.’
‘I thought they were fencing lessons.’
‘Same thing. Maybe I wanted to feel a little prick.’ All these years she’d denied herself all manner of pleasures others took for granted. ‘I have waited. No romance, no lovers, no children for Moriana of Arun. Only duty. And for what? So that today I could wake up and be vilified in the press for being too cool, too stern and too focused on fundraising and furthering my education to have time for any man? I mean, no wonder Casimir of Byzenmaach went looking for someone else, right?’
Augustus winced. ‘No one’s saying that.’
‘Have you even read today’s newspapers?’
‘No one here is saying that,’ he amended.
‘What did I do wrong, Augustus? I was promised to an indifferent boy when I was eight years old. Now I’m getting a form letter marriage proposal from a playboy king whose dislike for me is legendary. And you say I should feel honoured?’ Her voice cracked. ‘Why do you sell me off so easily? Am I really that worthless?’
She straightened her shoulders, smoothed her hands over the skirt of her dress and made sure the hem sat in a straight stern line. She hated losing her composure, hated feeling needy and greedy and hard to love. She was wired to please others. Trained to it since birth.
But this…expecting her to fall all over herself to comply with Theo’s request… ‘Theo’s uncle is making waves again and questioning Theo’s fitness to rule. I do read the reports that come in.’ She read every last one of them. ‘I understand Liesendaach’s need for stability and a secure future and that we in Arun would rather deal with Theo than with his uncle. But I am not the solution to his need for a quickie marriage.’
‘Actually, you’re an excellent solution.’ Augustus was watching her carefully. ‘You’ve been looking forward to having a family for years. Theo needs an heir. You could be pregnant within a year.’
‘Don’t.’ Yes, she wanted children. She’d foolishly once thought she’d be married with several children by now.
‘You and Theo have goals that align. I’m merely stating the obvious.’
Moriana wrapped her arms around her waist and stared at the toes of her boots. The boots were a shade darker than the purple of her dress. The pearls around her neck matched the pearls in her ears. She was a picture-perfect princess who was falling apart inside. ‘Maybe I don’t want children any more. Maybe keeping royal children safe and happy and feeling loved is an impossible task.’
‘Our parents seemed to manage it well enough.’
‘Oh, really?’ She knew she should hold her tongue. She didn’t, and all her years of trying and failing to please people bubbled to the fore. ‘Do you think I feel loved? By whom?’ She choked on a laugh. ‘You, who would just as soon trade me into yet another loveless marriage in return for regional stability? Casimir, who never wanted me in the first place and was simply too gutless to say so? Theo, with his form letter marriage proposal and endless parade of mistresses? Do you really think I’ve basked in the glow of unconditional parental love and approval for the past twenty-eight years? Heaven help me, Augustus. What planet are you living on? Not one of you even remembers I exist unless I can do something for you.’
She felt stupid. Stupid for putting her life on hold for a decade and never once calling into question that childhood betrothal. She could have asked for a time frame from Casimir. She could have pressed for a solid commitment. She could have said no to many things and got over trying to please people who didn’t give a damn about her. She gestured towards Theo’s offending letter. ‘He doesn’t even pretend to offer love or attraction. Not even mild affection.’
‘Is that what you want?’
‘Yes! I want to be with someone who cares for me. Why is that so hard to understand?’
‘Maybe he does.’
‘Theo. Maybe he cares for you.’
‘You don’t seriously expect me to believe that.’ Moriana looked at him in amazement. ‘You do. Oh. You must think I’m really stupid.’
‘It’s a theory.’
‘Would you like me to disprove it for you?’ Because she had years and years of dealing with Theo to call on. ‘I can count on one hand the times I’ve felt that man’s support. The first was at our mother’s funeral when he caught me as I stumbled on the steps of the church. He made me sit before I fell. He brought me water and sat with me in silence and kept his hatred of women wearing black to himself. The second and final time he was supportive of me was at a regional water summit when a drunk delegate put his hand on my backside. Theo told him he’d break it if it wasn’t removed.’
‘I like it,’ said her brother with a faint smile.
‘He knows where you are in a room full of people,’ Augustus said next. ‘He always knows. He can describe whatever it is you’re wearing.’
‘So he’s observant.’
‘It’s more than that.’
‘I disagree. Maybe he’s wanted me a time or two, I’ll give him that. But only for sport, and only because he couldn’t have me.’ She plucked the form letter from the desk and folded it so that the offending words were hidden. ‘No, Augustus. It’s a smart offer. Theo’s a smart man. I can see exactly what kind of political gain is in it for him. But there’s nothing in it for me. Nothing I want.’
‘I hear you,’ Augustus replied quietly.
‘Good.’ She sent her brother a tight smile. ‘Maybe I’ll send a form letter refusal. Dear Applicant, After careful consideration I regret to inform you that your proposal has been unsuccessful. Better luck next time.’
‘That would be inviting him to try again. This is Theo, remember?’
‘You’re right.’ Moriana reconsidered her words. ‘Better luck elsewhere?’
‘Yes.’ Her brother smiled but his eyes remained clouded with concern. ‘Moriana—’
‘Don’t,’ she snapped. ‘Don’t you try and guilt me into doing this.’
‘I’m not. You’re free to choose. Free to be. Free to discover who and what makes you happy.’
‘Good. Good chat. I should bare my soul to you more often.’
Moriana rounded her brother’s imposing desk and kissed the top of his head, mainly because she knew such a blatant display of affection would irritate him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. ‘I like what Theo’s doing for his country. I applaud the progress and stability he’s bringing to the region and I want it to continue. There’s plenty to admire about him these days, and if I thought he actually liked me or that there was any chance he could meet my needs I’d marry him and make the most of it. I don’t need to be swept off my feet. But this time I do want attention and affection and fidelity in return for my service. Love even, heaven forbid. And that’s not Theo’s wheelhouse.’
Augustus, reigning King of Arun and brother to Moriana the Red, watched as his sister turned on her boot heel and headed for the door.
‘Moriana.’ It was easier to talk to her retreating form than say it to her face. ‘I do love you, you know. I want you to be happy.’
Her step faltered, but she didn’t look back as she closed the door behind her.
Augustus, worst brother in the world, put his hands to his face and breathed deeply before reaching for the phone on his desk.
He didn’t know, he couldn’t be sure if Theo had stayed on the line or not, but still…the option to do so had been there.
He picked up the phone and listened for a moment but there was only silence. ‘You still there?’ he asked finally.
Damn. ‘I wish you hadn’t heard that.’
‘She’s magnificent.’ A thousand miles away, King Theodosius of Liesendaach let out a breath and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. He had the fair hair and blue-grey eyes of his forefathers, the build of a warrior and no woman had ever refused him. Until now. He didn’t know whether to be insulted or to applaud. ‘The stable boy? Really?’
‘I wish I hadn’t heard that.’ Augustus sounded weary. ‘What the hell are you doing, sending her a form letter marriage proposal? I thought you wanted her co-operation.’
‘I do want her co-operation. I will confess, I wasn’t expecting quite that much no in response.’
‘You thought she’d fall all over the offer.’
‘I thought she’d at least consider it.’
‘She did.’ Augustus’s tone was dry—very dry. ‘When’s the petition for your removal from the throne being tabled?’
‘Week after next, assuming my uncle gets the support he needs. He’s close.’ The petition was based on a clause in Liesendaach’s constitution that enabled a monarch who had no intention of marrying and producing an heir to be removed from the throne. The clause hadn’t been enforced in over three hundred years.
‘You need a plan B,’ said Augustus.
‘I have a plan B. It involves talking to your sister in person.’
‘You heard her. She’s not interested.’
‘Stable boy,’ Theo grated. ‘Dissolute Would you rather she took up with them?’
‘Why are you any more worthy? A damn form letter, Theo.’ Augustus appeared to be working up to a snit of his own. ‘Couldn’t you have at least shown up? I thought you cared for her. I honestly thought you cared for her more than you ever let on, otherwise I would have never encouraged this.’
‘I do care for her.’ She was everything a future queen of Liesendaach should be. Poised, competent, politically aware and beautiful. Very, very beautiful. He’d dragged his heels for years when it came to providing Liesendaach with a queen.
And now Moriana, Princess of Arun, was free.
Her anger at her current situation had nothing on Theo’s when he thought of how much time they’d wasted. ‘Your sister put herself on hold for a man who didn’t want her, and you—first as her brother, and then as her King—did nothing to either expedite or dissolve that commitment. All those years she spent sidelined and waiting. All her hard-won self-confidence dashed by polite indifference. Do you care for her? Has Casimir ever given a damn? Because from where I sit, neither of you could have cared for her any less. I may not love her the way she wants to be loved. Frankly, I don’t love anyone like that and never have. But at least I notice her existence.’
Silence from the King of Arun.
‘You miscalculated with the form letter,’ Augustus said finally.
‘So it would seem,’ Theo gritted out.
‘I advise you to let her cool down before you initiate any further contact.’
‘No. Why do you never let your sister run hot?’ Even as a child he’d hated seeing Moriana’s fiery spirit squashed beneath the weight of royal expectations. And, later, it was one of the reasons he fought with her so much. Not the only one—sexual frustration had also played its part. But when he and Moriana clashed, her fire stayed lit. He liked that.
‘I need to see her.’ Theo ran a hand through his already untidy hair. ‘I’m not asking you to speak with her on my behalf. I’ve already heard you do exactly that and, by the way, thanks for nothing. What kind of diplomat are you? Yes, I’m being pressured to marry and produce heirs. That’s not an argument I would have led with.’
‘I didn’t lead with it. I mentioned it in passing. I also sang your praises and pushed harder than I should have on your behalf. You’re welcome.’
‘I can give her what she wants. Affection, attention, even fidelity.’
Not love, but you couldn’t have everything.
‘That’s your assessment. It’s not hers.’
‘I need to speak with her.’
‘No,’ said Augustus. ‘You need to grovel.’
Convenient Bride for the King
Convenient Bride for the King