SECRET CHILD, ROYAL SCANDAL
The Sherdana Royalty, Book 3
The prince must produce an heir. Little does he know, he already has...
Christian Alessandro lives life in the fast lane. But royal duty calls, and the bachelor prince must settle down and sire the future king of Sherdana. That's when a chance encounter with former flame Noelle Dubone yields a bombshell discovery: Christian's already a father! Marrying Noelle will make his boy the legitimate heir. It's a rocky reunion. The determined dressmaker refuses to fall in love--or in bed!--with Christian again, even as old, intense feelings return with a vengeance. But what the prince wants, the prince gets...
Prince Christian Alessandro, third in line to the Sherdana throne, stood behind the current and future kings of Sherdana and glowered into the camera. No doubt he was ruining Nic and Brooke's fairy-tale wedding photos, but he didn't care. His last hope to remain a carefree bachelor for the rest of his life had been reduced to ashes the second his brother had gazed deep into his bride's starry eyes and pledged to love and honor her to the day he died.
"Smiles everyone," the photographer cried, casting an anxious glance Christian's way. "This is our last photo of the complete wedding party. Let's make it count."
Despite his black mood, Christian shifted his features into less grim lines. He wasn't about to smile, but he could at least give his brother one decent photo. No matter how badly this marriage had disrupted his life, in the days to come he really would make an effort to be happy for Nic and Brooke. For today he'd simply don a mask.
"Let's set up over there." The photographer pointed to a small stone bridge that crossed a decorative creek.
The path beyond meandered toward the stables. Christian preferred his horsepower under the hood of a fast car, but he'd gladly take his twin nieces to visit their ponies just to get away. Bethany and Karina were old hands at being flower girls, this being their second royal wedding in four months, but being two-year-olds, they had a short attention span and were growing impatient with having to stand still for photos. Christian sympathized with them.
Since his accident five years earlier, he'd avoided cameras as much as possible. The burn scars that covered his right side--shoulder, neck and half of his cheek--had made him the least attractive Alessandro triplet. Not that it mattered much how he looked. His title, wealth and confirmed bachelor status made him a magnet for women.
His gaze roamed over the multitude of assistants and palace staff required to keep the bridal party looking flawless and the photo shoot moving forward. Trailing the bride was a petite, slender woman with mink-brown hair and dual-toned brown eyes. Internationally renowned wedding dress designer Noelle Dubone had designed Brooke's dress as well as the one worn by Christian's sister-in-law, Princess Olivia Alessandro.
Born in Sherdana, Noelle had moved to Paris at twenty-two to follow her dream of becoming a fashion designer. She'd done moderately well until three years ago when she'd designed the wedding gown for the bride of Italian prince Paolo Gizzi. There'd been so much media coverage surrounding the nuptials that Noelle became an overnight success. Movie stars, European nobility and the very wealthy became eager for a Noelle Dubone original.
"Imagining your own wedding?" taunted a female voice from behind him.
Christian turned and shot his sister a sour look. Ariana was looking too smugly amused for Christian's taste.
"No." But the slim figure in blue-gray caught his eye again.
Noelle Dubone. The one woman in the world who'd come closest to taming the wildest Alessandro prince. He hadn't been worthy of her. She hadn't deserved to be treated badly by him. That he'd done it for her own good was what let him sleep at night.
"You should be," Ariana countered, looking stylish and carefree in a knee-length, full-skirted dress with puffy long sleeves. A fashion trendsetter, her wedding attire shimmered with gold embroidery and straddled the line between daring and demure with strategically placed sheer panels that showed off her delicate shoulders and hinted at more thigh than the formal occasion called for. "The future of the kingdom rests in your hands."
Christian grimaced. "Father's health has never been better and I don't see Gabriel dropping dead any time soon, so I suspect I will have time to choose a wife and get her pregnant."
Just the thought of it made him long for a drink. But as his mother had pointed out numerous times in the months since Nic had abdicated his responsibility to Sherdana by choosing to marry an American, Christian was no longer free to overindulge in liquor and women. The idea that he had to start walking the straight and narrow path after being the party prince all his life was daunting. He'd misstepped all his life. As youngest in the birth order, it was what he did.
Gabriel, as eldest, was the responsible one. The future king.
Nic, as middle son, was the forgotten one. He'd gone off to America in his early twenties to become a rocket scientist.
Christian was the indulged youngest son. His antics had provided the paparazzi tabloid fodder since he was fourteen and got caught with one of the maids.
At twenty he'd been raising hell in London. He'd thrown the best parties. Drank too much. Spent money like it was being printed by elves, and when his parents cut off his funds, he'd started buying and flipping failing businesses. He didn't care about success. He just wanted to have fun.
At twenty-five several of his less prudent actions had blown up in his face, leaving him scarred and his heart shredded.
Now at thirty he was expected to give up his freedom for the crown.
"You only think you have time," Ariana countered. "Mother showed me the list of potential candidates. It's two-feet long."
"I do not need her help or anyone else's to find a wife."
"Neither did Gabriel and Nic and look how that turned out."
Gabriel had eloped five months earlier in a grand, romantic gesture that had rendered him blissfully happy, but by marrying a woman who could never have children, he'd left his two brothers holding short straws.
As the last born of the triplets, Christian had made it clear to Nic that it was his duty to step up next. In order for the Alessandro family to stay in power, one of the three princes needed to produce a son. But before Nic could begin looking for a potential bride from among Europe's noble houses or Sherdana's female citizenry, the beautiful American, Brooke Davis, had stolen his heart.
And with their wedding today, it all came down to Christian.
"I can find my own bride without Mother's help."
Ariana made a noise unfit for a princess. "You've already been through half the suitable single women in Europe.
"Surely there was one woman among all those you've spent time with who appeals to you."
"Appeals, yes." Christian resisted the urge to search for Noelle again. "But not one I want to spend the rest of my life with."
"Well, you'd better find one."
Christian ground his teeth together and didn't answer. He knew Ariana was right. The price one paid as a royal was to not always get to do as one liked. Gabriel had been lucky to choose Olivia to marry before he understood that he was in love with her. But right up until he and Olivia eloped, Gabriel had grappled with his duty to Sherdana versus following his heart's desire.
Nic had the same issue with Brooke. He'd known he needed to put her aside and marry a woman whose children could one day be king.
But in the end both men had chosen love over duty.
Which left Christian to choose duty.
One of the photographer's assistants came to fetch them for more pictures, putting an end to the conversation for the moment. Christian endured another tedious hour of being posed with his brothers, his sister, the king and queen, and various members of the wedding party. By the time the session was finished, he was ready to get drunker than he'd been in the five years since the accident that left him with a disfigured body to match his tarnished soul.
What stopped him from making a beeline for the bar was Noelle.
It seemed perfectly right to walk up behind her and slip his arm around her waist. Christian dropped a kiss on her cheek the way he had a hundred times, a habit from the old days that used to speak to his strong affection for her. For a microsecond Noelle relaxed against him, accepting his touch as if no time or hurt had passed between them. Then she tensed.
"You look beautiful," he murmured in her ear.
She didn't quite jerk away from him, but she lacked her usual grace in her quick sideways step. "Thank you, Your Royal Highness."
"Walk with me." It was more a command than an invitation
"I really shouldn't leave the party." She glanced toward the bride and groom as if hoping to spot someone who needed her.
"The photos are done. The bride has no further need of her designer. I'd like to catch up with you. It's been a long time."
"As you wish, Your Highness." To his annoyance, she curtsied, gaze averted.
The gardens behind the palace were extensive and scrupulously maintained under the queen's watchful eye. The plantings closest to the I-shaped structure that housed Sherdana's royal family were arranged in terms of design and color that changed with the seasons. This was the most photographed section of the garden with its formal walkways and dramatic fountains.
Toward the back of the extensive acreage that surrounded the palace, the garden gave way to a wooded area. Christian guided her to a small grove of trees that offered plenty of shade. There would be more privacy there.
"You've done very well for yourself as a designer."
Christian hated small talk, and it seemed idiotic to attempt any with Noelle. But how did you begin a cordial conversation with an ex-lover who you'd once deliberately hurt even as you told yourself it was for her own good?
"I've been fortunate." Her polite demeanor contrasted with the impatience running through her tone. "Luck and timing."
"You neglected to mention talent. I always knew you'd be successful."
"That's very kind."
"I've missed you." The words came out of nowhere and shocked him. He'd intended to ply her with flirtatious compliments and make her smile at him the way she used to, not pour his heart out.
For the first time she met his gaze directly. His heart gave a familiar bump as he took in the striking uniqueness of her eyes. From a distance they merely looked hazel, but up close the greenish brown around the edges gave way to a bright chestnut near the pupil. In the past, he'd spent long hours studying these colors and reveling in the soft affection in her gaze as they lingered over dinner or spent a morning in bed.
She gave her head a shake. "I'm sure that's not true."
"I might not have been the man for you, but that doesn't mean I didn't care," he told her, fingertips itching to touch her warm skin.
"Don't try to flatter me." The words held no heat. "I was a convenient bed for you to fall into after you were done partying. You came to me when you grew tired of your superficial crowd and their thoughtless behavior. And in the end, you pushed me out of your life as if two years together meant nothing."
For your own good.
"And look how you thrived. You moved to Paris and became an internationally famous designer." He sounded defensive, and that wasn't the tone he wanted to take with her.
"Is that what you think I wanted?" Her breath huffed out in a short burst that he might have taken for laughter if she hadn't been frowning. "Fame and fortune?"
No, it's what he'd wanted for her. "Talent like yours shouldn't go to waste."
"Do you want me to thank you?" she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
During the time they were together, he'd been more honest with her than anyone else before or since. Not even his brothers had known of the demons that drove him. Maybe he trusted Noelle because they'd been friends before they became lovers. Her openness and gentle spirit had offered him a safe place to unload all his fears and doubts. And because of that, she'd gotten the full weight of his darkness.
"Then why are we having this conversation after five years of silence?"
Because once again he needed her solace and support. The pressure of fathering the future heir to Sherdana's throne was dredging up his worst qualities. She'd talked him through bouts of melancholy in the past.
"I need you."
Her expression reflected dismay. "I'm no longer that girl." Her tone heated as she continued. "And even if I was, I have other things in my life that will always take priority over a…" As if realizing what she'd been about to say to her prince, Noelle sucked in a giant breath and pulled her lips between her teeth. Her next words were polite, her tone tempered. "I am no longer in a position to be your friend."
She twisted the word friend into something ugly. Christian read her message loud and clear. She wanted nothing more to do with him. Not as his confidante, his champion or as his lover.
Before he could argue, she dropped another one of those annoying curtsies. "Excuse me, Your Highness, but I should get back to the party."
Christian watched her vanish back along the path and marveled how thoroughly he'd mucked up his most important act of selflessness. She was right to shut him down. He'd repeatedly demonstrated that he was nothing but trouble for her.
But after talking to her, he knew if he was going to get through the next few months of finding a wife and settling down to the job of producing the next heir to the throne, he was going to need a friend in his corner. And once upon a time, Noelle had been the only one he talked to about his problems.
He desperately wanted her support. And although she might not be on board with the idea at the moment, he was going to persuade her to give it.