Stolen Princess’s Secret by Kelly Hunter

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Stolen Princess’s Secret

Book Five in the Four Kings Quartet

Publisher: Harlequin Mills and Boon
Publication Date: August 2024

His princess from the past…
has a secret to change his future!

Kidnapped as a child, Crown Princess Claudia’s bold reappearance shocks everyone! Especially king’s aide and falconer Tomas, whose guilt over not saving her all those years ago still tortures him. Stunned by the beautiful woman Claudia’s become, he can’t risk giving in to his red-hot attraction…

Claudia is determined to convince Tomas that their chemistry can conquer their past. But after a tense encounter finally boils over into a scorching night of passion, Claudia wakes up with a life-changing secret… She’s pregnant, by a man who considers her utterly forbidden!

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

‘I’m going to be a falconer when I grow up,’ said Claudia, as she watched Tomas offered a sliver of meat to the fierce-eyed peregrine falcon perched on a stand in front of them. ‘Just like you.’

‘No, you’re not,’ he corrected, as he curled a soft leather strap around one of the falcon’s narrow legs—its metatarsus, his father called it. The falcon, Lolo, was Tomas’s first imprint, hand raised by him, and he tended her with every care. His father—the King’s Falconer—made sure of it. Tomas gave his second bit of meat to Claudia—positioning it in her little leather-gloved hand just so and making sure she held her arm out properly so that Lolo could take it from her with ease. ‘You’re not allowed.’

‘Because I’m a girl?’

‘Because you’re a princess. Princesses don’t get to be falconers.’ His eleven-year-old soul was sure of it.

‘They do too!’

If he turned, he would see eyes as fierce as any falcon’s glaring at him, golden for the most part with a wide rim of dark green around the edges. Those eyes would be accusing, so he kept his attention on Lolo. First, he fastened the anklets and then the jesses—crafted from a soft brown leather that he’d chosen from the pile and cut into shape beneath his father’s watchful gaze. The points were as perfect as he could make them, the greased leather as soft as could possibly be. ‘Maybe some of the time you can do falconry,’ he allowed. ‘In between the princessing.’

‘Will you be my falconer?’ she asked.

‘That’s the plan.’ Both his father and grandfather had been falconers to the royal family of Byzenmaach. ‘If I’m good enough.’

‘You will be.’

She had a lot of confidence for a little kid. Maybe that was why the birds liked her. She wasn’t afraid of their sharp beaks or claws or the fact that above all they were hunters. But she was still careful in their presence—doing exactly what she was told or shown to do, no matter if it was Tomas doing the telling or his father. She looked to him for guidance, and that made him feel big and strong and smart.

Maybe that was why he liked it so much when the little princess gave her tutors the slip and came to visit the falcons.

‘There. All done,’ he told Lolo. ‘Look at you with your new jesses.’ She was strong and swift and bred for racing. ‘Maybe one day I’ll take you to Saudi Arabia to compete in the time trials and you’ll win a fine fortune.’

‘Can I come too?’ Claudia asked. ‘What will you do with a fine fortune?’

‘Nothing, because it won’t be mine.’

‘You are correct,’ said the gravelly voice of his father from behind them. ‘As much as any bird can be owned, these ones belong to the Crown, along with any prize money they may win.’ His gaze fell to Claudia. ‘Your governess is looking for you. Again.’

‘I guess that means she’s awake,’ Claudia muttered, her golden eyes downcast. She didn’t see the fleeting amusement that crossed his father’s face, but Tomas did. His father was a stern man, no point thinking otherwise. But he was fair and never cruel, and there was none better when it came to gaining the trust of wounded animals. He had the touch.

Tomas badly wanted to have the touch too.

‘I will escort you into her care,’ his father rumbled. ‘Tomas, prep enclosure three for incoming when you’ve finished here.’

Enclosure three was one of their bigger aviaries. ‘What are we getting?’

‘A mated pair of Steppe eagles.’

‘Oh, wow! They’re really rare.’

‘Indeed.’ His father favoured them with one of his rare smiles. ‘So put Lolo away and get to work.’

‘Yes, Father. Bye, Cl—’ His father’s quick frown stopped him mid-name. He’d had that lecture about knowing his place and not taking liberties with the young princess’s friendship way too many times to want to hear it again. ‘Bye, Princess.’

‘Are the Steppe eagles coming today?’ she asked. ‘Do they have names? What do they look like?’

‘You will see them tomorrow if your father wills it.’ His father spared a meaningful glance for Tomas. ‘King Leonidas and his hunting party arrive this evening. I’ve let the stable master know.’

Tomas nodded and secured Lolo to her stand. King Leonidas was a cruel man with a vicious temper and a swift arm—especially when he held a riding crop in hand. There were a dozen brood mares grazing the lower valley that would need to go into hiding in the mountains, because what the King did not see he could not ruin. The mares would stay hidden until the King departed, and then Tomas and his father would fly falcons with trailing green ribbon tied to their right legs to signal the all-clear for the stable hands staying with the mares to bring them back down.

Tomas hoped the King and his hunting party didn’t stay long.

The light in the little princess’s eyes had dimmed at the mention of her father. She too would be kept out of sight during his visit. ‘Bye, Tomas, bye, Lolo.’ The little girl gave a stiff wave, no bravery left in her, just fear.

His father always told him to make sure an animal felt safe, not scared. It was the biggest rule of all, so how come it never seemed to apply to this little girl?

He stepped forward, avoiding his father’s gaze as he leaned to whisper in her ear, ‘Remember that secret place I showed you?’ The secret room in the fortress wall that he’d made his own with candles and hay bales and borrowed blankets and his collection of pretty feathers in an old clay vase. ‘Go there if you need to and I’ll find you. I’ll never rat you out.’

Her lips tightened even as her eyes grew shiny with tears, and then she nodded, once, and flung her arms around his middle and hugged him hard before turning away.

Tomas met his father’s hard gaze and squared his shoulders as Claudia set out for the castle. ‘She’s scared.’

‘She has a brother. And a mother. And they are much better placed to withstand a king’s wrath than you.’ His father’s hand on his shoulder was firm. ‘You can’t encourage her to come to you for comfort, do you understand?’

‘Because she’s a princess?’

‘That, and because if you fall foul of the King, no one will be able to protect you from his wrath. Not even me.’

He shrugged away from his father’s hand in a rare display of defiance. It wasn’t right for Claudia to be so scared of her father. It wasn’t right for her mother to lie in bed day after day and let her children bear an evil king’s wrath. He didn’t even know what the word wrath meant, but he knew what he meant whenever he thought of King Leonidas. Vicious, like some of the wild eagles in their care. Vicious and angry and impossible to understand.

‘Why can’t we ask if Princess Claudia can come here more often and help us with the birds? It would keep her out of sight, just like with the mares. She could imprint one of the peregrine fledglings as part of her lessons, and then she can be here with us more without having to sneak away. What’s wrong with that? Can we at least ask for that?’

‘You’ve far too much of your mother in you. Soft-hearted.’

Tomas’s mother had died years ago from a blood cancer that had taken her within weeks of finding out she was sick. Tomas liked the thought of being a lot like her. She’d given great hugs and laughed when his hair refused to stay flat. She’d made his father smile and laugh the way no one else ever had. It wasn’t wrong to be soft-hearted like her, surely.

‘It’s just not right that no one keeps a little kid safe. Please, Father. Can you ask if she can imprint one of the eyas? It’s not a bad idea.’

His father bent down until he was at eye level. Hope filled Tomas’s body, his soft heart and probably his puppy eyes, as his father nodded slowly. ‘I’ll try. But you have to promise to leave this to me, understand? You say nothing about wanting to protect her and this being a way to do so. You stay out of trouble and out of sight if her father comes hovering.’

‘I promise.’ Tomas nodded as hard and as fast as he could.

Days later, his father won permission for Claudia to take falconry lessons, and for a while Tomas’s plan worked a treat.

But good intentions didn’t always win against evil deeds.

In the end, none of Tomas’s fine plans had been enough to keep the little princess safe.

Site by Jennifer Wu

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