When love and duty compete, which will win?
King Xavier of Maynet doesn’t believe in love: he’s had enough experience to know it can’t be trusted. But he does believe in duty and knows he’ll choose a wife as tradition dictates. However, when his late brother’s widow joins him on a month-long royal tour of Maynet he develops feelings for her deeper than anything he’s ever known or believed possible, and he finds himself spending more time thinking about her than any prospective bride.
Princess Katerina won’t ever risk her heart again after the humiliation of her marriage. Instead, she’s dedicating her life to the betterment of her beloved adopted country, Maynet. Yet she finds herself attracted to Xavier in a way that threatens all her careful plans, and the more time they spend together the stronger their connection gets.
As time runs out for Xavier to choose a wife, will he realise what he feels for Katerina is love and that she’s more important than any tradition? Can Katerina trust herself and her feelings for Xavier and demand what she truly deserves, someone who loves her?
‘I have received an offer for your hand in marriage,’ her brother-in-law, king Xavier of Maynet said. The tic at his jaw was the only clue that this conversation was not to his liking.
‘Have I time travelled back to ancient times? I didn’t think this kind of thing still happened.’ This was not the discussion Katerina had expected when summoned to his office on the top floor of the palace. ‘From whom?’ she quickly added.
‘King Edgar of Resleigh,’ Xavier answered, his jaw ticking again.
‘He’s …’— an old lech— ‘an important ally of Maynet. Is this something to do with the treaty that I didn’t know about?’ Her mind reeled while her outward composure remained intact … just.
An uncharacteristic flash of anger crossed his face.
‘No, it is not.’
Dread inched down her spine. ‘When did he make this offer?’
He hesitated. ‘Last spring.’
‘Last spring! Was Max even cold?’
‘He spoke to me a few weeks after the funeral, at the joint fundraiser. I told him I’d discuss it with you once the official mourning period had ended.’
‘Why didn’t he ask me directly?’ Although she barely knew the man, other than meeting him at official functions, it still didn’t make sense. Why would he ask Xavier and not her unless it was something to do with Maynet? A shiver of distaste ran down her spine, King Edgar had a reputation with women that wasn’t pretty. She hadn’t always paid heed to such things, but she wasn’t eighteen any longer. She was smarter now and the way her skin crawled when he directed all conversations to her chest wasn’t to be ignored.
‘That’s the way he does things.’
The creepy, weird way.
‘If not for strategic gain, then what are his reasons for the marriage?’ Never again would she be a pawn in a game where she didn’t know the rules, or even that she was a participant.
Another telling hesitation.
‘He mentioned your youth, beauty and … poise.’
Katerina sprang from the chair in front of his desk and walked over to the windows, her silk skirt swirling around her legs. Humiliation pounding through her, she raised a shaking hand to her throat, her round-necked collar suddenly feeling too tight. Her said poise nowhere in evidence. What King Edgar really meant was her ability to turn a blind eye. What no-one knew was how hard-won it had been and the pain she’d gone through to cultivate it.
From her vantage point she looked out over the palace gardens through to the old city and across the capital. Battling the memories that taunted, she took a deep breath, then another until the view worked its magic as it always did. She loved Maynet, she had from the moment she’d first arrived seven years ago. It was a feeling of belonging and purpose she’d never experienced before and the reason she’d endured more than she ever thought possible to remain here. But she didn’t want to think about that. Dropping her hand, she schooled her features and turned back to Xavier.
His eyes were trained on her, yet he remained behind the heirloom desk that dominated his vast office. Its size did nothing to diminish the impact of the man who sat behind it. Tall, broad and radiating authority he was the focal point of the room. Of every room.
‘Will it damage Maynet’s relationship with Resleigh if I refuse?’ she asked, relieved that her voice was even and reflected none of her turmoil.
‘Not in the long term.’
Katerina’s stomach dropped. She’d hate any decision of hers to affect the treaty that existed between the two countries and knew Xavier’s integrity would never allow him to lie, unlike his brother who’d been a master at it. Max. She shivered thinking about her late husband before pushing away all such thoughts.
‘And in the short term?’
‘Possibly. But that’s no reason to coerce you into something you don’t want.’
‘What could he do? What has he said?’ Fear for her adopted country added a hateful tremor to her voice.
‘Nothing that I can’t manage. Threats veiled or not have never held any sway with me. The real question is whether you wish to marry him.’
Never. She didn’t want to marry him. She didn’t want to marry anyone. Although the thought of the country that she’d made home being in any kind of danger because of her was as sickening as the thought of being manipulated by another bridegroom.
‘I could never do anything that would harm Maynet, the people …’ You, she almost added.
‘I know that, so let me be very clear. This offer has nothing to do with the treaty, nor is it in any way arranged. This is up to you. Do you want to marry him?’
She squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. ‘No. I do not.’
Was it a trick of the light or did the set of his shoulders ease slightly?
‘You’ve answered my question, his question, that’s all I need. I’ll inform him of your decision.’
‘I’ll contact him, I don’t need you two discussing me like I’m some piece of furniture.’ She bristled at being treated like a possession to be passed between two powerful men. That was something she would never allow to occur again, after being an unwitting participant seven years ago. Though, to be fair, Xavier had played no part in that.
A flash of something that might be anger or possibly hurt crossed his face. ‘That would never occur,’ he said stiffly, ‘and although I understand your desire to give him your answer yourself, this is the official, traditional way to deal with such matters.’
She pressed her palms together unable to deny the truth. She trusted Xavier. He was one of the few people she did. She’d learned the hard way about trust. And as blood-curdling as she found this situation she understood the delicacies involved, or more precisely King Edgar’s enormous ego and the damage he could try to inflict.
She nodded her consent. ‘If I had said yes, would you have given your approval?’ She couldn’t resist asking. Usually a master at hiding his thoughts, today she’d glimpsed both anger and unease. Would he have preferred her to say yes? Would it have been easier for him and the country he ruled with devotion if she did? Would he have tried to stop her? Did he care either way?
He stood and moved around the desk with a grace belying his size. A beautifully cut dark suit fit his tall and powerful build like it was made for him, which of course it was. His white shirt emphasising his olive skin, gleaming with health and vitality. He was the epitome of a man confident of his place in the world. Stopping an arm’s length away from her, energy bristled around him, as always. Yet today instead of energising her, it felt too close, too edgy, too potent. She channelled her willpower, preventing herself from taking a step backwards to press against the floor to ceiling windows.
‘That question isn’t relevant.’ His dark, short hair burnished in the early afternoon sunlight.
‘Please, I’d like to know.’
The intensity of his stare sent an unexpected twinge of awareness down her spine. Was it because they were having a discussion far outside the boundaries of what they normally did? Xavier had supported her from her wedding day onwards, despite whatever reservations he surely must’ve had beforehand due to her unsuitable background. But he’d done it in a formal manner, their conversations had revolved around duties and responsibilities, never before had they veered into such private territory.
‘You are my brother’s widow, a princess of the royal household who has ruled here for centuries, you have my full protection. You don’t need to marry anyone unless it is your wish. You can go wherever your head leads you.’ He paused for a moment. ‘However, in this instance I would have counselled you to choose more carefully.’
‘But you wouldn’t have tried to stop me?’ she persisted.
‘No,’ he said with an unnerving stillness.
Still she pushed. ‘You wouldn’t have minded me marrying that old lech, being what, wife number six?’
Jamming his hands in his trouser pockets in a very un-Xavier like gesture he stalked across the room. She tracked his movements, all the while telling herself she was cataloguing the differences between himself and her late husband, his fair-headed, slightly built younger brother. But the reality was she couldn’t drag her eyes away.
Xavier stopped on the handwoven rug that held pride of place in the centre of his spacious office. A grateful gesture from the Women’s Association of Maynet after he raised the marriageable age of females from fourteen to eighteen, aligning it with that of males. It was one of the first legislative changes he made when he became king sixteen years ago, at the age of twenty. He paused for a moment then swung around to Katerina planting his feet apart, his hands now by his side.
‘Minded yes. Stopped no. A woman always has the right to choose. But unless you’ve changed your mind it’s a moot point. Or do you want time to reconsider?’
‘Then the subject is closed.’
‘Good,’ she said, relief easing her breath for the first time since he had broached the unthinkable topic.
‘In which case, you’ll need to speak to your assistant about rearranging your diary, you’ll be joining me on the upcoming Maynetian tour.’
For one heart stopping moment Katerina could only stare at him.
‘I’m joining your tour? We’re touring together? For a month?’ she clarified, doubting her hearing.
‘But we haven’t done that before. I’ve only ever toured by myself or with Ma …’
She pulled herself up, shock had lowered her guard. She didn’t like thinking, never mind talking about her one and only tour with her late husband. Pushing out a deep breath, the reasoning finally hit her.
‘It’s because of Edgar, isn’t it?’
‘It’s for a number of reasons, one being the opportunity to promote the work you’re doing to increase the number of women attending university.’
Xavier had always been well informed and supportive of her work, especially on this. But this was a surprise. A massive one. He’d planned this tour prior to Max’s death and out of respect for his brother had delayed it to the end of the traditional mourning period. She never expected to be going as well. There was no precedence for such a thing, and how much that had to do with Edgar, she was unsure.
‘That’s … that would be … incredibly helpful, the take up in the regions, as you know, is far lower than the urban areas.’ Xavier had worked to improve the educational opportunities for all citizens when he became king. Five years ago, after seeing the figures of female university involvement, Katerina had made it one of her key areas to improve.
She waited. He didn’t elaborate, just held her gaze with a steadiness that made a mockery of her so-called poise. She didn’t feel steady or calm or in control.
‘When did you decide this?’ She would never normally question Xavier like this, no-one did, he was the king after all and a well-respected one. But she needed to make sense of what he was saying and why. She’d made it her personal mantra never to be unprepared for anything, yet throughout this whole discussion she felt like she was one gigantic step behind.
She felt a frown settle across her face. ‘Are you sure about this?’
‘Yes. We’ll meet tomorrow to discuss arrangements. We’re leaving at the end of the week, the day after the mentoring program gala.’ His tone clipped and business like, brooked no argument.
She tore her gaze from him, not wanting him to see any evidence of the fear that’d reared up and settled into a hard knot in her belly. She didn’t want to let him or the country down. For a tour, never mind one with the king, she would usually spend months researching and preparing, not a mere five days. She gnawed on her bottom lip before she realised it, then immediately stopped herself. She wasn’t a teenage bride any longer. She could do this. Had been doing this for years. Whether she accompanied the king or not, that wouldn’t change.
‘Katerina, it will be okay.’ He took a step towards her, his voice low and intense.
She looked back at him as something shifted inside her, and she knew with absolute certainly that nothing would ever be the same again.
The clock chimed. She flinched. Sanity returned.
She checked her watch and steeled herself. ‘Yes, of course. Excuse me Your Majesty, I’ve got an online lecture this afternoon. I’d better go and get ready. I’ll see you … tomorrow. Goodbye.’ Any attempt at steadiness deserting her as she headed for the double doors as fast as her trademark heels would allow. She hadn’t used his title in private for years, but she needed to remind herself who he was. Her king, her brother-in-law. The man she would spend four weeks touring with.
She stopped and turned slowly to where he still stood in the middle of the room looking every inch the powerful ruler he was, as eyes the colour of treacle captured hers.
‘I would have done everything possible to stop you from marrying that odious man.’
Xavier watched Katerina as his words hit. Shock. Relief. Followed by something fragile and raw that he couldn’t fully identify flashed in her famous light blue eyes. Fairy princess eyes the press had named them. Eyes that stared at him while he glimpsed the uncertain eighteen-year-old who’d first arrived at the palace days before her wedding. Eyes that suddenly crashed closed, shutting him out.
Unable to stop himself he ran his gaze over her. Hair so fair it shone almost white in the sunlight was piled on top of her head, fixed in a high knot that looked like it could withstand a legendary Maynetian windstorm. He hadn’t seen it free and flowing in years, not since the early days when she wore it straight and unadorned down her back. Her make-up, perfect as always, couldn’t conceal how pale she’d become during their discussion today. Guilt stabbed at him again. He wasn’t used to second-guessing himself, but the conversation had spectacularly veered off track. Absolutely she had a right to know about the proposal, like she had a right to refuse. He’d decided prior to the meeting that if she rejected Edgar’s offer, she would accompany him on his upcoming tour. Unconventional but necessary, it was the best solution to any counter attacks made by Edgar and sent a clear message that she was under his protection. But nothing had gone as he’d planned, least of all his reactions. And that was inexcusable. He was not a man taken by surprise, least of all by his own behaviour.
Not allowing himself to linger his gaze continued past a black silky looking dress cinched in at her waist with a thin belt. Heels, blue today, were dangerously high. He’d long stopped marvelling at her ability to walk in them, never mind spend all day, or when the occasion called, all night. And despite the towering hair and heels, she still didn’t come close to his shoulders.
He rocked back on his heels and reminded himself, not for the first time today, that she was his late brother’s wife. A woman who bore his family’s name and who had his respect and protection. But something simmered in the air between them, something unexpected, something he couldn’t name. It had been released by this talk of marriage, like the proverbial genie in the bottle. He prevented a wince at the fanciful thought. He didn’t believe in fairy tales, he dealt in facts. And the fact of the matter was she was his sister-in-law and he was her only living immediate family member.
Her eyes flew open, cool and clear and caught his, her trademark poise back in place. A lifetime’s experience kept him still as the silence in the room continued, long past the comfortable stage.
He cursed himself again for revealing more than he needed to. More than he intended to and mulled over her use of his title. Something she hadn’t done in years, at least not when it was only the two of them.
‘Because?’ Her voice skated across the room and hit him square in the chest. Surely it had never sounded so husky, so low.
Because the thought makes my stomach roll.
‘You deserve better than that. Better than him.’
She remained exactly where she was, looking at him across the room, not even an eyelash revealing her feelings, so changed from the eighteen-year-old who’d worn her heart clear for everyone to see.
‘Thank you. But it doesn’t matter, I’ll not be remarrying,’ she said emotionlessly, like it was the weather they were discussing, not her future. She raised a hand to her throat then dropped it as soon as it reached its destination.
‘You can’t know that, you’re still so young, you’ve got your whole life ahead of you.’ He prevented another wince. He sounded like he was a hundred years old. But she was young and the thought of her locking herself away was as unsettling as the thought of her remarrying. He didn’t want to examine that scenario too closely, until he reminded himself it was the idea of Edgar as her bridegroom that had set his teeth on edge.
‘I’m twenty-five, hardly a child and you’d already been king for five years by the same age.’
He hadn’t forgotten either fact. She wasn’t a child and he knew only too well the position of trust he held in her life.
‘I realise that.’
‘I …’ She stopped whatever she was going to say as another silence filled the room. Her eyes flicked from his then back again. ‘I must go.’
Her back straight, head high, she turned and walked out the room with all the dignity of a queen and suddenly the thought of spending a month touring together didn’t seem like the logical solution to Edgar’s posturing. It seemed foolhardy. And Xavier was no fool.