The royals of coradova, BOOK 3
We were supposed to be together forever. After five years of wedded bliss, I thought our life was perfect. But I was wrong.
My name is Princess Arianna of Coradova and I’m finally ready to start a family with the love of my life, Lord Bennett. But a secret from the past has shattered our picture-perfect life.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way. We were supposed to live happily-ever-after.
Now it will take everything Bennett and I have to keep our marriage from unraveling . . . or the promises we made to one another will forever be broken.
EXCERPT FROM HEART PROMISED
My life in Coradova was perfect. Absolutely perfect. As the early morning sunshine peeked in through the crack in our curtains, I turned away from the brightness and rolled over to rest my head on the broad expanse of my husband’s chest.
Even after nearly two years of marriage, that word still caused love to expand within my heart. I may have grown up as a princess in a royal palace, but life had never been as wonderful as these last few years with Bennett.
When his hand reached up to brush along my fall of thick black hair, I sighed and melted into him. Bennett kissed my forehead and gathered me closer into his arms. “Good morning, mon amour. How did you sleep?”
“Not that well,” I sighed. “My mind kept going over check-lists for the fundraiser.”
Bennett chuckled. “Isn’t that four months away?”
I smiled at the hint of amusement in his voice. Bennett never seemed to understand exactly how much advanced prep work went into planning one of these charity events. “July will be here before we know it, and I have an endless list of tasks to complete.”
“It sounds like you could use a distraction,” Bennett murmured. His voice was warm and husky. He trailed his hand down the bare skin of my shoulder, then shifted his hold so he could look down at me. The sunlight streaming in through our window lit up his handsome face, accentuating a well-defined jaw, dark brows and his sleep-tousled black hair. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as his chocolate brown eyes seemed to beckon me. “I have a few ideas in mind, starting with a kiss.” He claimed my lips in a long, slow kiss that effectively wiped away my every thought.
A half-hour later, Bennett headed off to shower while I searched through my walk-in closet for an outfit. Rows of clothing ran along both walls from floor to ceiling. Racks of shoes and dresser drawers were packed into the farthest corner. Open shelving displayed my massive collection of jewelry and accessories. Two cozy white ottomans were centered in the middle of the closet beneath a sparkling crystal chandelier. It wasn’t very practical, but it gave the room a touch of the elegance that I loved.
Since birth, every aspect of my life had been filled with fancy dresses, glittering jewels and elaborate parties. Glamour wasn’t merely a luxury for a princess—it was a way of life. One that I had to admit, I truly loved. After selecting a navy pencil dress with matching blazer, I returned to our bedroom.
It was a palette of cool shades and warm textures. Ten-foot high pale gray walls and dark hardwood flooring was softened by a beautiful Aubusson area rug. On the far wall, our grand king-sized bed sat across from a white marble fireplace. Another chandelier dangled from the middle of the recessed ceiling, matching perfectly with the silver sconces that added a romantic ambience during the evenings. Pink accents and frills had once adorned my childhood bedroom, until I’d had it redecorated several years ago.
To keep my thoughts from once again wandering over various plans for the fundraiser, I set down my outfit and propped open the glass doors that led out to our balcony. The familiar scent of salty sea air greeted me and brought a smile to my face as I stepped out onto the landing. Beyond the palace walls, the sea stretched across the horizon in rippling waves of sapphire. Clear blue skies allowed for good visibility this morning. I could see all the way across the Mediterranean Sea to where Italy and France were a dark streak in the distance.
Our private suite overlooked seaside cliffs and the back corner of the palace garden. Movement down below caught my attention. Planting my hands on the cold stone banister, I leaned over for a better look, and smiled at the sight of my best friend and sister-in-law. Madison was out for her daily morning run with her personal guard, Gerard, jogging alongside her.
As they neared the edge of my vision, I saw Madison wave to a blond-haired woman herding along two small children. It was Madame Bisset, the nanny for my cousin’s children. Prince Leo and his family lived on a large estate on the southern edge of Coradova. They were staying in the palace for the summer, along with my uncle, Prince Theoren. After the scandal caused by my uncle’s recent divorce, my father had offered his younger brother refuge from the public eye. Divorce was highly frowned upon in Coradova, particularly for the Royal Family. For centuries, the common opinion was that royals married for life—no exceptions. Prince Theoren’s recent divorce was rumored to have been caused by his alleged affair. The public’s current opinion of him was very low indeed.
A soft rustling of cloth met my ears moments before I heard Bennett step out onto the balcony behind me. He slipped his arms around my waist and lowered his head to kiss the edge of my jaw. “What are you looking at?”
“Madame Bisset is out in the garden with the children.”
“Ah.” He hugged me closer to his chest. “How’s Prince Theoren doing?”
“As well as you’d imagine … under the circumstances.”
“Do you really think he had an affair?” Bennett asked, his voice tinted with censure.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.
Disquiet settled over us as we lapsed into silence. Resting my hands on the arms Bennett had wrapped around my waist, I laid my head back against his shoulder and looked out over the palace grounds. As I watched the children laugh and chase each other around the garden, I felt a stir of longing. Over the last few months, my desire for motherhood had been growing.
I was ready to have a baby.
“Bennett?” I ventured softly. “When do you think you’ll be ready to start a family?” Feeling oddly nervous, I waited breathlessly for his response.
A few seconds later, Bennett leaned down to whisper in my ear. “I’m ready now.”
Surprised, I twisted around to meet his eyes. “Really? You’re ready to have a baby?” I could barely contain my rush of excitement.
Bennett stroked a hand down the hair tumbling around my face and smiled. “Yes, mon amour. I’ve been thinking about it since Christmas and I’m ready to start a family with you.” He looked at me with an expression that caused a flutter of anticipation in my stomach. “And I’m ready right now.”
I moved closer, drawn in by the passion I could see burning in his eyes. “Do you mean, right this very minute?”
Bennett held my gaze. “Yes.”
A sultry smile curved my lips as I skimmed my hands up his bare, well-muscled chest. I loved the feel of his smooth skin beneath my hands. “Then let’s get started, Bennett. It might take us a few tries.”
His gaze heated. “Your wish is my command, ma princesse.” With a grin, Bennett scooped me up into his arms and whisked me away into our bedroom, where we lost ourselves in the excitement of starting a family.
* * *
The Deimos home was a lovely, well-maintained luxury estate. It was built around an inner courtyard with paving stones and planters for thick palm trees. A white exterior, dark tiled roof and arched doors leant perfectly to the Mediterranean-style of the home.
When the family housekeeper let us into the grand foyer, Lady Deimos’ enthusiastic greeting echoed from down the long corridor. Her heels clicked against the stone flooring moments before she appeared with a wide, welcoming smile. “Ben! Arianna!” She pulled us both into her arms for a firm hug, then eased back to inspect her son. “You look good, Ben. They must be feeding you well inside the palace.” Léa gently patted his cheek. “You look happy, son.”
“Of course I’m happy.” Bennett’s warm gaze briefly met mine. “I’m married to the most beautiful woman in Coradova.”
Léa turned her green eyes on me and quickly examined my face with motherly intuition. “You’re practically glowing, Arianna.” She raised a single, black brow. “Is there something you’d like to share with us tonight?”
Hiding a smile, I exchanged a glance with Bennett. He looked just as amused by his mother’s probing. She’d been hinting at wanting grandchildren for almost a year now. She would be thrilled to learn that we were officially trying to have a baby.
Bennett smiled and slipped an arm around his mother’s slender shoulders. “Come on, Mother. Let’s find Father and get through dinner before you start questioning us about your future grandchildren.” He steered her in the direction of the formal living room.
I fell into step behind them as Léa asked, “Does that mean I’ll have a grandchild in nine months?”
Bennett sent me a playful look over the top of her silver-streaked head and answered evasively. “Maybe.”
“Bennett, you are a wretched tease,” Léa scolded.
When we reached the formal living room, she bustled over to the open set of glass doors. “Michel,” she called out onto the patio. “Ben and Arianna are here.” Turning back, she gestured toward the collection of regal furniture in the circular-shaped room. “Please, have a seat. I’ll put together some drinks.”
Bennett placed a hand on the small of my back and led me over to the tufted sofa beneath the windows. It had a classic French look, with a hand-carved wood trim and cream-colored fabric. Polished marble flooring stretched across the room. The walls were white and touched up with intricate wood encasings that stretched up into the dome-shaped ceiling. Dark blue drapes dangled from rods at the top of the arched windows, bringing color into the neutral space and matching beautifully with the navy and white paisley-patterned throw pillows.
“The usual, Ben?” Léa questioned as she rummaged through the drink cart. At his nod, she turned to me. “And wine for you, Arianna?”
I declined, earning a knowing look from her just as Lord Deimos entered the room on a whiff of cigars. As a government politician, he was dressed in his usual business suit. A grin spread across his face at the sight of us, white teeth flashing in his dark, short-cropped beard. “Bonsoir,” Michel greeted as he crossed the room in long strides.
We rose from the sofa to meet him halfway. Bennett reached out to shake hands, but his father pulled him in for a hug instead. “Welcome home, son.” He released him and turned to me with a smile. “Arianna, you’re even lovelier than the last time we saw you.” He drew me in for a warm hug as well. I may have been a princess, but Bennett’s parents had always treated me like family.
Léa joined us and handed Bennett his icy glass of pastis. “Isn’t she glowing, Michel?” she hinted to her husband.
He examined me with dark eyes that were the same exact shade as Bennett’s. “She does have a different glow about her,” Michel conceded.
“And she turned down wine, Michel,” Léa added with a nod.
I suppressed a smile. She was like a cat with a canary.
“Well now,” Michel said. A hint of interest colored his voice. “Does that mean you two have some news to share with us?”
Bennett and I shared a look. He slid an arm around my shoulders and tucked me close against his side, then smiled at his parents. “We’re not pregnant yet, but we have started trying for a baby.” His grin widened at their matching smiles. “We hope you’ll be grandparents soon.”
His mother clapped her hands in delight and reached out to hug me. “Oh, that’s wonderful news!”
I squeezed her back, sharing in her joy. “We’re excited too.”
When she turned to hug her son, I was swept up into Michel’s fierce embrace. “We’re very happy for you two. There’s no greater joy than having children.” He stepped back with a smile and rubbed the spot over his breastbone, looking lost in thought. Then he grinned again as he clapped a hand over Bennett’s shoulder. “Congratulations, son.”
After the well-wishes were exchanged, Michel ushered us over to stand before the grand fireplace and passed out drinks for a toast. Holding up my glass of sparkling water, I smiled at their exuberant faces. If they were this excited over the news that we were trying for a baby, I could only imagine their joy when we were actually expecting.
Raising his glass, Michel spoke in a deep voice filled with emotion. “To Bennett and Arianna. You’re about to set out on one of life’s greatest journeys. Parenting is a challenge and sometimes you’ll make mistakes, but every choice will be for the benefit of your child—no matter how difficult it is to make.” His gaze paused briefly on Bennett before he continued. “Follow your hearts and remember that every moment is well worth it. Santé!”
We clinked our glasses together in cheers. It was a night we would always remember.
It was another glorious morning in the paradise of my Mediterranean home.
I couldn’t contain my smile as I passed through the wide hallways, up the curving grand staircase and down the long corridor of the fourth-floor office wing. I nodded at various members of the palace staff and a few politicians as they made their way into the conference room.
Pausing to peek in through the open doorway, I caught sight of my father and brothers standing at the head of a thirty-foot-long conference table. Dressed in business suits of various shades, they were bent over the table and peering down at the documents spread across the surface. Their dark heads were grouped close together as they spoke in hushed voices. All three were tall and towered well over six feet.
My father’s hair was a dark brown and peppered with gray at the temples. He had a regal bearing and ruled his country with a firm, yet understanding hand. Many of the changes he’d implemented since taking over the throne had greatly improved the lives of citizens all over Coradova, and brought in a significant boost in tourism and trading. He was serious and thoughtful, and had consistently taught his children the importance of doing whatever was best for our country—no matter how difficult. During our childhood, he’d been a king first, and father second. But I’d always known I was loved. King Mathis was a beloved monarch, by both his family and his country.
My brothers were nearly identical in appearance with raven-black hair and the deep blue eyes that we’d all inherited from our Italian-born mother.
As the Crown Prince of Coradova, Alexander was the most responsible of the royal children. He had a compassionate heart and a deep love for our people. He took his responsibilities so seriously that he often forgot how to be the man behind the title. That’s what I loved about his marriage to my best friend. Madison helped Alexander remember that there was more to life than just obligation to crown and country. She brought love and life into his world. For that alone, I would always be grateful to her.
My younger brother, Ashton, was the carefree one of the family. He was always ready with a joke, and quick to show off his dimpled smile. His loyalty to his family had no bounds, and he was the first one to offer a hug or shoulder to cry on when needed. But as the second-born prince of Coradova, Ashton was often overlooked by our people. While he was still very much beloved, his fame paled in comparison to our older brother. When Ashton met Brielle, he had finally found someone who needed him above all others, and who saw the wonderful man behind the title of second-born prince. Their relationship had progressed quickly over the last three months. I wouldn’t be surprised if a proposal was in their near future.
“Bonjour, Princess Arianna,” one of the politicians within the room greeted me.
I looked over to see that it was Lord Rousseau, the Earl of Grignan. He was a high-ranking politician in various branches of the government, including the king’s Executive Council. He was of average height, with dark hair and a graying beard, and sharp green eyes. Since he was also a friend of my father, I’d known the man since infancy. While he was an exceptional politician, I’d always thought he was a bit too judgmental and criticizing as a parent. His morals were very old-fashioned, and he had a tendency to struggle with some of the changes Alexander wanted to implement in the government.
Effortlessly slipping into my royal mask, I smiled demurely. “Bonjour, messieurs.”
My father and brothers had looked up upon Lord Rousseau’s greeting. They each offered me a warm smile before Father and Alexander returned their focus to the documents on the table.
Ashton’s gaze lingered on me. “Have you seen Brielle this morning?”
“Not yet,” I answered, glancing down at the thin gold watch on my wrist. It was five minutes to eight. “I have a meeting with her and Maddy at eight-thirty. We’re working on a fundraiser for the Calais Women and Children’s Charity.” I sent him a knowing smile. “Why are you asking? Didn’t you just see her last night?”
Ashton flashed his signature dimpled grin. “And it was a night to remember. I’m sure Bree can’t wait to tell you all about it.”
* * *
My office was small in comparison to my father’s and brothers’, but it was all the space I needed. One half of the room was packed with a desk, bookshelf and rows of filing cabinets. The furniture was a pale wood with intricately etched molding along the edges. A floral-print rug covered up most of the dark hardwood flooring. Across the room, a hand-carved antique sofa sat beneath the wall that was decorated with various paintings by local Coradovan artists—including Madison’s mother, Claire Kavanaugh.
Her landscape painting of the coastline was one of my absolute favorites. How she could swirl together so many different colors into one stunning image was incredible. I was not creative by any means. Practical, prompt and efficient, yes. I liked to have things in order and planned out, and I always played by the rules. Just the thought of Madison’s troublemaking youth made me shake my head in wonder.
She had constantly gotten herself into mischief—and dragged my older brother along for the ride. As a princess, she was a little more tempered down, but the allure of a reckless adventure often seemed to beckon her.
A sharp knock preceded Madison into my office, with Brielle following on her heels.
“Good morning, Ari,” Madison announced. She was as lovely as usual, but even more radiant this morning with a smile that matched her dancing brown eyes. Life as a princess suited her. Her dark, wavy hair was styled up in a French braid, and her smoky-blue dress had an asymmetrical neckline and notched sleeves. It brought a conservative touch to the outfit, while the slimming pencil skirt still showed off her long legs.
Brielle looked beautiful too in black skinny jeans and a forest-green silk blouse that matched perfectly with her fall of dark auburn hair. “Good morning,” she said softly. A smile played at her lips and her pink cheeks hinted at some emotion hiding beneath the surface. Then again, Brielle was a well-known blusher. It never took much to make her cheeks flush—a warm look from Ashton often did the trick.
“Good morning,” I replied, stepping around my desk to give them both a hug. I gestured toward the empty chairs behind me. “Shall we get started?”
Madison groaned, but took a seat anyway. “No coffee and girl talk first?”
“Business first, then coffee and girl talk second.” I sat down in my dark leather office chair and met her frown from across the desk top. Suppressing a smile over her disgruntled look, I added, “I’ll send for croissants along with the coffee.”
“And hazelnut creamer,” Madison requested with a smile.
I shook my head in amusement. Madison loved her coffee with hazelnut creamer.
“It’s a deal,” I agreed and pointed an accusing finger at her. “As long as you focus and help me get this done. I can tell that you’re itching to share something, but I want it to wait until after we’re done.”
Madison rolled her eyes at my commanding tone. “Yes, Your Royal Bossiness.”
Unwilling to waste any more time, I dove right into business. “All right, let’s get started.” I divvied up the tasks I wanted completed by the end of the week, and searched through my neat stacks of folders for the one about potential venues. “Do either of you have any suggestions on a banquet hall?”
Brielle shifted in her seat, but hesitated as if uncertain if she should speak. She was new to the royal life, and even though she wasn’t technically a part of the family yet, she’d thrown herself into helping out anywhere she could. Raised on a cattle ranch in Montana, Brielle was a hard-worker who got the job done without complaint. She was quiet, and still unsure about many aspects of her new life in Coradova. Little by little, I’d seen her open up and grow more confident as the months passed by. I knew she would make a wonderful princess one day.
I sent her an encouraging smile. “Do you have an idea, Brielle?”
She nodded and leaned forward in her chair. “What about hosting the fundraiser here in the palace? The charity is for single women and their children. I think most of those children would love a chance to see inside the palace. I know I would have.”
I nodded in agreement and smiled. “That’s a wonderful idea, Bree.” As a cowgirl from America, Brielle knew what it felt like to be one of the people. Both she and Madison had an insight into our community that I never would. “Since the fundraiser is planned for July, the weather should be perfect for an outside event. We can set it up on the lawn and terrace.”
“Maybe we could have a carnival theme?” Madison suggested, jumping into the conversation with a note of excitement. “We can have games and plenty of kid-friendly food. These families are struggling and down on their luck. A day of fun would be a special treat for them. Even the children from privileged families would have a blast.”
“That’s another great idea,” I agreed, scribbling down notes in my planner.
We continued to discuss various aspects of the fundraiser until I noticed a glazed look in both Madison’s and Brielle’s eyes. They were slipping into event planning overload. I had a tendency to get carried away once I started in on a new project and often had trouble reining myself in. Taking pity on them, I set aside my event planning folder, rested my hands on the desk with clasped fingers and offered them a reprieve. “Well, I think that covers everything for today. Let’s have that coffee sent up and get lost in some girl talk.”
A half-hour later, the three of us were squished together on the sofa with a tray of coffee and accompaniments on the small table next to us. More than half the coffee was gone, and all that remained of the croissants were crumbs.
Brielle ran a hand through her fall of long auburn hair and sent me a sidelong glance. “I’m surprised at you, Arianna. You haven’t said a single thing about my ring yet.”
I straightened. “What ring?” My gaze snapped to her hand. Sparkling in radiant bursts from the third finger of her left hand was a stunning diamond engagement ring. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed it sooner. “Oh, Brielle! Ashton proposed?” I asked excitedly as I took hold of her hand for a closer look at that gorgeous diamond.
Her brilliant smile said it all. “He proposed last night.”
“You have to tell me everything,” I requested with a hint of command.
Brielle grinned and happily obliged. Ashton had taken her to a gorgeous scenic overlook and proposed on bended knee in a field of wildflowers.
When she was done going over every sweet detail of the proposal, I let out a dreamy sigh. “What a perfect proposal. I never knew my brother had such a romantic streak.”
“He’s very romantic,” Brielle said. When her cheeks turned pink a moment later, I knew she was thinking about Ashton.
Madison crossed her long line of legs and shifted toward me on the sofa. “Well, now that you’ve finally noticed Bree’s engagement ring, I also have some news to share.” Her eyes twinkled with sudden excitement. “Alex and I are trying to have a baby.”
A wide smile spread across my face. “Oh, Maddy, that’s wonderful. Congratulations!” I leaned over to hug her. “Bennett and I are trying too,” I confessed.
“Really?” Madison exclaimed in delight, hugging me close once more. “This is so exciting! How fun would it be if we were pregnant at the same time?”
Her enthusiasm lapped over me in waves, and soon I was lost in talk about baby names and nursery decorations. Brielle piped in, her own excitement obvious. I could tell that she was looking forward to the day when she and Ashton started their own family.
When my personal secretary entered the room wearing a grave expression, the smile died on my lips.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Your Highness,” Mary apologized with a slight curtsy. “You have an urgent call from Lord Bennett.”
A flicker of unease shot through me, but I forced it down. Bennett was out of the palace for the day, but his security detail was with him. There was no reason to be concerned about his safety. Carefully wiping every emotion from my face, I slowly rose from the sofa and stepped around a worried-looking Madison and Brielle. “Thank you, Mary. I’ll take the call in here.”
“He’s on line two.” After another curtsy, she retreated from the room.
“Do you want us to leave?” Madison asked quietly as both she and Brielle stood. Their concern was evident on their faces.
“No, please stay.” If something was wrong, I knew I would want them here. My heart hammered against my ribcage as I moved behind my desk, and reached for the phone. I took a deep breath before bringing it to my ear. “Bennett?”
“Arianna,” Bennett’s frazzled voice responded. “I’m on my way to the hospital—”
His words caused a spike of fear to shoot through me. “What happened?”
“I’m fine, Ari,” he said in a rush, making me sigh with relief. “But it’s my father. He collapsed with chest pains. They think he had a heart attack.” Shock numbed me as I listened to Bennett take a deep, steadying breath. “I need you. Can you come to Dubois Hospital in Calais?”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” I promised.
“Thank you.” He paused before his ragged voice spoke again. “And Arianna? Please hurry. I don’t know if he’s going to make it.”
END OF SAMPLE