Cinderella had his baby…now she’ll wear his crown!
Vibrant artist Frankie is shocked when Matt, the enigmatic stranger she gave her innocence to, reappears in her life. His touch was intensely sensual, his kiss pure magic…yet their affair had consequences, and Frankie had no way to contact him. Now she’s in for the biggest shock of all – Matt is actually King Matthias! And to claim his heir, he demands Frankie become his queen!
THERE WERE THREE things Matthias Vasilliás loved in life. The glow of the sky as the sun dipped into the horizon, bathing the world in streaks of gold and peach; the country he was one week away from ruling; and women—but never the same woman for long, and never with any expectation of more than this: sex.
The wind blew in across the hotel room, draping the gauzy fabric of the curtain towards him, and for a moment he looked at it, his mind caught by the beauty, the brevity, of such a fragile material—the brevity of this moment.
In the morning he’d be gone, she’d be a memory—a ghost of this life. In the morning he would fly back to Tolmirós and step into his future.
He hadn’t come to New York for this. He hadn’t intended to meet her. He hadn’t intended to seduce a virgin—that wasn’t his usual modus operandi. Not when he couldn’t offer any degree of permanence in exchange for such a gift.
No, Matthias preferred experienced women.
Lovers who were au fait with the ways of the world, who understood that a man like Matthias had no heart to offer, no future he could provide.
One day he would marry, but his bride would be a political choice, a queen to equal him as King, a ruler to sit beside him and oversee his kingdom.
Until then, though, there was this: there was Frankie, and this night.
She ran her fingertips over his back, her nails digging into him, and he lost himself to her completely, plunging inside her, taking the sweetness she offered as she cried out into the balmy New York evening.
‘Matt.’ She used the shortened version of his name—it had been such a novelty to meet a woman who didn’t know who he was, didn’t know he was the heir to the throne of a powerful European country, that he was richer than Croesus and about to be King. Matt was simple, Matt was easy, and soon this would be over.
For ruling Tolmirós meant he would have to abandon his love of women, his love of sex and all that he was, outside the requirements of being King. His life would change completely in seven days’ time.
Seven days and he would be King.
In seven days he would be back in Tolmirós, the country before him. But for now he was here, with a woman who knew nothing of his life, his people, his duties.
‘This is perfect,’ she groaned, arching her back so two pert breasts pushed skyward and he shoved his guilt at this deception aside, his guilt at having taken an innocent young woman to bed for his own pleasure, to slake his own needs, knowing it could never be more than this.
She didn’t want complications either. They’d been clear on that score. It was this weekend and nothing more. But he was using her, of that he had no doubt. He was using her to rebel, one last time. Using her to avoid the inevitable truth of his life, for one night longer. Using her because right here, in this moment, sleeping with Frankie made him feel human—only human—and not even an inch royal.
He took one of her breasts in his mouth and rolled his tongue over the tight nipple. It budded in his mouth, desperate for his touch, his possession, and he thrust into her depths, wondering if any woman had ever been so perfectly made for a man?
His fingers fisted in her long, silky blonde hair and he pushed her head up to meet his, claiming her lips, kissing her until she whimpered beneath him and the whole of her body was at his command.
Power surged through him at the way this felt, but it was nothing to the power that awaited him, the duty that would soon be at his feet.
For his country and his people, he would turn his back on pleasures such as this, on women such as Frankie, and he would be King.
But not quite yet.
For a few more hours he would simply be Matt, and Frankie would be his…
Three years later
NEW YORK SPARKLED like a beautiful diorama, all high-rises, bright lights and muted subway noise. He stared down at the glittering city from the balcony of his Manhattan penthouse, breathing in the activity and forcing himself not to remember the last time he’d been in this exact position.
Forcing his eyes to stay trained in the opposite direction of the School of Art, and definitely not allowing himself to remember the woman who had bewitched him and charmed him.
The woman who had given him her innocence, given him her body, and imprinted something of herself in his mind.
Inwardly he groaned, her name just a whisper in his body, a curse too, because he had no business so much as thinking of her, let alone remembering everything about her.
Not when his engagement would be made formal within a month. Not when his future awaited—and duty to his country called to him as loudly as ever. Then, he’d been one week away from assuming the throne, and now he was weeks away from making a marriage commitment.
All of Tolmirós was waiting for its King to finally wed and beget an heir. An heir that would promise stability and the safekeeping of the prosperous nation: all of that was on Matthias’s shoulders, as much now as it had been then. He’d run from this fate for as long as he could. His family had died when he was only a teenager and the idea of marrying, having his own children, as though you could so easily recreate what had been lost, pressed against his chest like a weight of stone.
But it was needed; it was necessary. His country required its King to beget an heir, and he needed a wife. A suitable wife, like one of the women his assistant had vetted for him. A woman who would be cultured, polished and appropriate.
His eyes shut and there she was: Frankie. Frankie as she’d been that afternoon they’d met, her clothes paint-splattered, her hair scraped back into a ponytail, her smile contagious. His gut clenched.
His wife—his Queen—would be nothing like Frankie.
What they’d shared went beyond logic and reason—it had been an affair that had rocked him to his core because, after only a matter of hours, he’d known he was in danger of forgetting everything he owed to his people if it meant more time with the woman—she had been like some kind of siren, rising out of the sea, drawing him towards danger unknowingly.
And so he’d done what he was best at: he’d drawn his heart closed, he’d pushed his emotions deep inside, and he’d walked out on her without a backwards glance.
But now, back in New York, he found himself thinking of her in a way he’d trained himself not to. His dreams he could not control, but his waking mind was as disciplined as the man himself, and he saw no point in dwelling on the past, and particularly not on such a brief event.
Only she was everywhere he looked in this city—the lights that sparkled like the depths of her eyes, the elegance of the high-rises that were tall where she had been short, the nimble alertness, the vivid brightness—and he wondered what it would be like to see her once more. Call it idle curiosity, or simply scratching an itch.
He was a king now, not the man he’d been when they’d first slept together. But his needs were the same. His desires. He stared out at the city and the idea grew.
What harm could come from dipping into the past, just for a night?
* * *
‘The lighting is beyond perfect,’ Frankie enthused, glancing her trained artist’s eye over the walls of the midtown gallery. The showing was scheduled for the following day; this was her last chance to make sure everything was absolutely as she wanted it to be.
A frisson of excitement ran down her spine.
For years she’d been struggling. Establishing oneself as an artist was no mean feat, and every spare penny she made was funnelled into trying to keep a roof over their heads. It was one thing to be a starving artist when you were footloose and fancy-free—there was even a degree of romance to the notion.
The reality was a lot less enjoyable, particularly with a rapidly growing two-and-a-half-year-old to care for and a mountain of bills that seemed to go on for ever.
But this show…
It could be the game-changer she’d been waiting for.
Two broadsheet newspapers had already sent reviewers to have a pre-show viewing, and the opening night had been advertised across the city. Her fingers, her toes and the hairs on her head remained crossed that she might finally catch her big break into the competitive New York art scene.
‘I did think of using small spotlights here.’ Charles nodded towards some of her favourite landscapes—sun rising over oceans, but all in abstract oils—gashes of colour scratched over the paper to create the impression of day’s dawn. Each picture would be interpreted differently by the spectator, and Frankie liked that. It was her take on each day being what you made of it.
‘I like the overheads you’ve chosen,’ she demurred, another shiver running down her spine. Her whole body was a tangle of nerves—and she told herself it was because of the exposure. Not the media exposure—the exposure of herself. Every thought, lost dream, wish, fear, feeling had been captured on these canvases. Even the paintings of Leo, with his stunning crop of black curls, intense grey eyes, so shimmery they were almost silver, lashes that curled precociously and wild. He was her little love, her heart and soul, and his image now hung on the walls of this gallery, waiting to be seen by thousands, she hoped, of viewers.
‘The door,’ Charles murmured apologetically, in response to a sound that Frankie hadn’t even noticed. She was moving closer to the painting she’d done of Leo last fall.
He’d been laughing, collecting dropped leaves from the sidewalk and tossing them into the air with all the enthusiasm a two-year-old boy could muster, and as they’d fallen back to earth he’d watched their progress before crouching down and crunching a new selection into his chubby grip.
His joy had been so euphoric she’d had to capture it. So she’d snapped hundreds of photos from different angles, committing the light to her memory, and then she’d worked late into the night.
And she’d done what she did best: she’d taken a mood, a slice of one of life’s moments, and locked it onto a canvas. She’d created a visual secret for the viewer to share in, but only for as long as they looked at her work. It was a moment in time, a moment of her life, and now it was art.
‘The opening is tomorrow night, sir, but if you’d like to take a brief look at the collection…’
Two words, so deep, and from a voice so instantly familiar.
A shiver ran down Frankie’s spine of a different nature now. It wasn’t a shiver of anxiety, nor joyous anticipation, it was one of instant recognition, a tremble of remembrance and a dull thudding ache of loss.
She turned slowly, as if that could somehow unstitch the reality she knew she’d found herself in. But when she looked at Charles, and then the man beside him, all her worlds came crashing down at once.
It was him.
And everything came rushing back to her—the way she’d awoken to find him gone, no evidence he’d even slept in the same bed as her, no note, nothing. No way of contacting him, nothing to remember him by except the strange sensation of her body having been made love to, and a desire to feel that sensation again and again.
‘Hello, Frances,’ he said, his eyes just exactly as she remembered, just exactly like Leo’s. How many dreams had she spent painting those eyes? Mixing exactly the right shades of silver, grey and flecks of white to flick, close to the iris? The lashes, with their luxuriant black curls, had occupied much of her artist’s mind. How to transpose them onto canvas without looking heavy-handed? They were so thick and glossy that no one would actually believe they really existed.
It had been three years since Frankie had seen this man but, courtesy of her dreams, she remembered him as vividly as if they’d met only the day before.
Oh, how she wanted to drag her eyes down his body, to luxuriate in every inch of him, to remember the strength in his frame, the contradictory gentleness he’d shown when he’d taken possession of her body that first time, when he’d held her in his arms and removed the vestiges of her innocence. How she wanted to give into the temptation to hungrily devour him with her gaze.
With the greatest of efforts, she crossed her arms over her chest and maintained her attention on his face. A face that was watching her with just as much intensity as she was him.
‘Matt,’ she murmured, proud beyond description when her voice came out steady and cool. ‘Are you looking for a piece of art?’
Something seemed to throb between them. A power source that was all its own, that Frankie pushed aside. It wasn’t welcome.
‘Would you show me your work?’ he responded, and it wasn’t an answer. It was an invitation, one that was fraught with danger. Belatedly, she recollected that the wall of paintings behind her was of their son and if he looked a little to the left or right he’d see clearly for himself the proof of their weekend together.
‘Fine,’ she agreed, a little rushed, moving deeper into the gallery, towards another annex. ‘But I only have a few minutes.’
At this, she saw Charles frown in her peripheral vision. No wonder he was confused. Without knowing anything about Matt, it was clear that he had enough money to buy everything in the place, probably a million times over. From the fit of his suit to the gleam of his shoes, this was a man who obviously lived very, very comfortably. In normal circumstances, she wouldn’t dream of rejecting a potential investor in her work.
Matt who’d crashed into her world, seduced her effortlessly, triumphed over her and gone away again, just as quickly? He was danger, and not for anything would she spend more time with him than she had to.
He’s your son’s father. Her conscience flared to life and she almost stopped walking, so intense was the realisation, the moral impetus that stabbed into her sides.
‘I will take over when Miss Preston leaves.’ Charles’s offer came from just behind them.
Matt stopped walking, turning to face the other man. ‘Miss Preston’s company will be sufficient.’
Frankie saw pink bloom in the gallery owner’s face and sympathy swelled in her. Charles La Nough’s gallery was renowned in New York, and he was used to being met with respect, if not a degree of awe.
To be dismissed in such a way was obviously a new experience.
‘I’ll call if we need you,’ Frankie offered, to soften the blow.
‘Very well.’ Charles sniffed, turning and disappearing in the direction of the rooms that would eventually lead to the front door.
‘You didn’t have to be so rude,’ she responded, only this time the words were breathy and her pulse was rushing inside her. They were close—just a few feet apart—and she could smell him, she could feel his warmth and her skin was pricking with goosebumps.
Responses she had long since thought dead were stirring to life and demanding indulgence. But she ignored them—such feelings had no place here, or anywhere any more. She tilted her chin defiantly and stared at him. ‘And now that he’s gone you can tell me exactly what you’re doing here. Because I know it’s not to buy one of my paintings.’
* * *
He regarded her through shuttered eyes. Memory was a funny thing. He’d recollected her in intimate detail over the years, but there were a thousand minute differences now that he stood toe to toe with Frankie Preston. Things his mind hadn’t properly written into his memory banks, so that he wanted to hold her still and just look.
She remained the most distractingly intriguing woman he’d ever seen, and yet there was no one thing in particular he could ascribe that to. It was everything about her—from eyes that were feline in shape and just as green as he remembered, to a nose that had a tiny ski jump at its end and a flurry of pale freckles rushing over its bridge, and lips—Dio, those lips.
Pink and pillowy, soft, so that when he’d crushed his mouth to them three years earlier they’d parted on a husky sigh, surrendering to him, welcoming him. His body tightened at the recollection.
Then, she’d been coming home from an art class, carrying a rolled-up canvas in a bag, wearing a pair of paint-splattered jeans and a simple white singlet top, also marked with the signs of her artistic labour. And she’d been so distracted in her own thoughts that she’d walked right into him, smearing a healthy dose of what he’d later discovered to be Cerulean Blue on his suit.
He’d liked her in those clothes—so casual and relaxed.
Now, she wore a dress, black with puffy sleeves that just covered her shoulders and a neckline that dipped frustratingly close to her cleavage without revealing even a hint of the generous curves beneath. It fell to her ankles, and she’d teamed it with leather sandals and a bright yellow necklace. It was a more elegant ensemble, but still so very Frankie.
As she was in his mind, anyway.
But wasn’t it more than likely that the woman he’d slept with three years earlier was more a creation of his than a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman? Wasn’t it more than likely he’d created a fantasy? How well could he have really known her, given that they’d spent so little time together?
‘How do you know,’ he drawled, considering her question, ‘that I am not here to make a purchase?’
She blotted her lips together; they were painted the most fascinating shade of dark pink—as if she’d been feasting on sun-warmed cherries and the natural pigments had stained her mouth.
‘Because you’re not interested in my art.’
He thought of the piece in his office, the piece he’d bought through a dealer to keep his acquisition at arm’s length—the painting Frankie had been working on the day they’d met—and frowned slightly. ‘Why would you say that?’
A hint of pink bloomed in her cheeks. ‘Well, I remember clearly how well you played me. Pretending interest in my work is how you fooled me then. I won’t be so stupid this time around. So what is it that brings you to the gallery, Matt?’
Her use of that name filled him with a confusing rush of emotions. Shame at having given her only the diminutive of his full name, because surely it proved that he’d set out to deceive her, even from that first moment? Pleasure at the memories it invoked—no other woman had called him that; it was their name, it belonged to that weekend, and he would hear it on her lips for ever, calling out to him at the height of her passion.
He wanted her.
Even now, after three years, after walking away from her, he congratulated himself on doing the right thing. He’d been strong in the face of incomprehensible temptation, and he’d done it for his kingdom.
Oh, yes. He wanted her.
Moving slightly closer, just enough to be able to catch a hint of her vanilla perfume, he spoke, his eyes intent when they met hers.
‘I am to marry. Soon.’
* * *
His words seemed to come to her from a long way away, as though he were shouting from atop a high-rise, and the floor of the gallery lifted in one corner like a rug being shaken, threatening to tip her off the sides of the earth.
I am to marry.
Her stomach rolled with what she told herself must be relief. Because his impending marriage meant she was safe—safe from the flashes of desire that were warming her insides, safe from an insane need to revisit the past even though it was so obviously better left there. How dare she feel like that, when he’d walked out on her without having the decency to leave so much as a note?
‘That’s nice,’ she said, the words not quite as clear and calm as she’d have liked. ‘So perhaps you are after a painting after all? A wedding present for your wife?’ She spun on her heel, moving deeper into the gallery. ‘I have some lovely landscapes I painted out in Massachusetts. Very pretty. Romantic. Floaty.’ She was babbling but she couldn’t help it.
I am to marry. Soon. His words were running around and around in her mind, ricocheting off the edges of her consciousness.
‘Perhaps this piece.’ She gestured to a painting of a lake, surrounded by trees on the cusp of losing their leaves, orange and bright, against a beautiful blue sky. Her heart panged as she remembered the day, that slice of life, when she’d taken Leo on their first vacation and they’d toured Paxton and its surroundings.
‘Frankie…’ His voice was deep and, though he spoke softly, it was with a natural command, a low, throbbing urgency that had her spinning to face him and—damn him—remembering too much of their time together, the way he’d groaned her name as he’d buried his lips at her neck, then lower, teasing her nipples with his tongue.
Only he was so much closer than she’d realised, his large frame right behind her, so when she turned their bodies brushed and it was as though a thousand volts of electricity were being dumped into her system.
She swallowed hard then took a step backwards, but not far enough. It gave her only an inch or so of breathing space and when she inhaled he was there, filling her senses. He’s getting married!
‘What are you doing here?’ She didn’t bother to hide the emotion in the question. He was a part of her past that hadn’t been good. Oh, the weekend itself, sure, but waking up to discover he’d literally walked out on her? To find herself pregnant and have no way of contacting him? The embarrassment of having to hire a detective who even then could discover no trace of this man?
‘I…’ The word trailed off as he echoed her movement, taking a step forward, closing the distance between them. His expression was tense; his face wore a mask of discontent. Frustration and impatience radiated off him in waves. ‘I wished to see you again. Before my wedding.’
She took a moment, letting his statement settle into her mind, and she examined it from all angles. But it made no sense. ‘Why?’
His nostrils flared, his eyes narrowed with intent. ‘Do you ever think about our time together?’
And the penny dropped and fury lashed at her spine, powerful and fierce, so she jerked her head away from him and bit back a curse her adoptive mother certainly wouldn’t have approved of.
‘Are you kidding me with this, Matt? You’re getting married and you’re here to walk down memory lane?’ She moved away from him, further into the room, her pulse hammering, her heart rushing.
He was watching her with an intensity that almost robbed her of breath. Only she was angry too, angry that he thought he could show up after all this time and ask about that damned weekend…
‘Or did you want to do more than walk down memory lane? Tell me you didn’t come here for another roll in the hay?’ she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest, then wishing she hadn’t when his eyes dropped to the swell of her cleavage. Indignation made her go on the attack. ‘You can’t be so hard up for sex that you’re resorting to trawling through lovers from years ago?’
A muscle throbbed low in his jaw as her insult hit its mark. Matt Whatever-his-last-name-was was clearly all macho alpha pride. Her suggestion had riled him. Well, so what? She couldn’t care less.
‘And no, I don’t think about that weekend!’ she snapped before he could interject. ‘So far as I’m concerned, you’re just some blip in my rear-view mirror—and if I could take what happened between us back, I would,’ she lied, her stomach rolling at the betrayal of their son.
‘Oh, really?’ he asked softly, words that were dangerous and seductive all at once, his husky accent as spicy and tempting as it had been three years earlier.
‘Yes, really.’ She glared at him to underscore her point.
‘So you don’t think about the way it felt when I kissed you here?’ She was completely unprepared for his touch—the feather-light caress of a single finger against her jaw, the pulse-point there moving into frantic overdrive as butterflies stormed through her chest.
‘No.’ The word was slightly uneven.
‘Or the way you liked me to touch you here?’ and he drew his finger lower, to her décolletage, and then lower still, to the gentle curve of her breast.
Heaven help her, memories were threatening to pull her under, to drown her with their perfection, even when the truth of their situation was disastrous.
Just for a second, she wanted to surrender to those recollections. She wanted to pretend they didn’t have a son together and that they were back in time, in that hotel room, just him and her, no consciousness of the outside world.
But it would be an exercise in futility.
‘Don’t.’ She batted his hand away and stepped away from him, anger almost a match for her desire. She rammed her hands against her hips, breathing in hard, wishing there was even the slightest hint of his having been as affected by those needs as she had been. ‘It was three years ago,’ she whispered. ‘You can’t just show up after all this time, after disappearing into thin air…’
He watched her from a face that was carefully blanked of emotion, his expression mask-like. ‘I had to see you.’
Her heart twisted at those words, at the sense that perhaps he’d found it impossible to forget their night together. Except he’d done exactly that. He’d walked away without a backwards glance. He could have called her at any time in the past three years, but he hadn’t. Nothing. Not a blip.
‘Well, you’ve seen me,’ she said firmly. ‘And now I think you should go.’
‘You’re angry with me.’
‘Yes.’ She held his gaze, her eyes showing hurt and betrayal. ‘I woke up and you were gone! You don’t think I have a right to be angry?’
A muscle twisted at the base of his firm, square jaw. ‘We agreed we would just spend the weekend together.’
‘Yes, but that wasn’t tacit approval for you to slink out in the middle of the night.’
His eyes narrowed. ‘I did not slink.’ And then, as if bringing himself back to the point, he was calm again, his arrogant face blanked of any emotion once more. ‘And it was best for both of us that I left when I did.’
It was strange, really, how she’d been pulling her temper back into place, easing it into the box in which it lived, only to have it explode out of her, writhing free of her grip with a blinding intensity. ‘How? How was you disappearing into thin air best for me?’ she demanded, her voice raised, her face pale.
He sighed as though she were a recalcitrant toddler and his impatience at fraying point. ‘My life is complicated.’ He spoke without apology, words that were cool and firm and offered no hint of what had truly motivated his departure. ‘That weekend was an aberration. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have let it happen. I had no business getting involved with someone like you.’
‘Someone like me?’ she repeated, the words deceptively soft when inside her cells were screeching with indignation. ‘But it was fine to sleep with someone like me?’
‘You misunderstand my meaning,’ he said with a shake of his head. ‘And that is my fault.’
‘So what is your meaning?’
He spoke slowly, carefully, as though she might not comprehend. ‘I wanted you the minute I saw you, Frankie, but I knew it could never be more than that weekend. I believe I was upfront about that; I apologise if you expected more from me.’ He went to move closer but she bristled, and he stilled. ‘There are expectations upon me, expectations as to who I will marry, and you are not the kind of bride I would ever be able to choose.’
She spluttered her interruption. ‘I didn’t want to marry you! I just wanted the courtesy of a goodbye from the man I lost my virginity to. When you crept out of that hotel suite, did you stop to think about what I would think?’
She had the very slight satisfaction of seeing something like remorse briefly glance across his stony features. ‘I had to leave. I’m sorry if that hurt you—’
‘Hurt me?’ She glared at him and shook her head. It had damned near killed her, but she wasn’t going to tell him that. ‘What hurts is your stupidity! Your lack of decency and moral fibre.’
He jerked his face as though she’d slapped him, but she didn’t stop.
‘You were my first lover.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Sleeping with you meant something to me! And you just left.’
‘What would you have had me do, Frankie? Stay and cook you breakfast? Break it to you over scrambled eggs and salmon that I was going to go back to Tolmirós to forget all about you?’
Her stare was withering. ‘Only you haven’t forgotten me, have you?’
She held her breath, waiting for him to answer, her lips parted.
‘No,’ he agreed finally. ‘But I left because I knew I needed to. I left because I knew what was expected of me.’ He expelled a harsh breath, then another, slowly regaining control of himself. ‘I didn’t come here to upset you, Frankie. I’ll go away again.’
And at that, true, dark anger beat in her breast because it simply underscored their power imbalance. He’d come to her and so she was seeing him again, and he’d touched her as though desire was still a current in the room—it was all on his terms. All his timeline, his power, his control. He thought he could leave when it suited him and have that be the end of it.
Well, damn him, he had no right! ‘Did you even think about the consequences of that night, Matt? Did you so much as give even a second thought to whether or not I would be able to walk away from what we shared as easily as you did?’