To Claim His Heir by Christmas(4)

By: Victoria Parker

The room began to spin.

‘Yes, thank you, that would be wonderful,’ she said, her voice thankfully calm and emotion-free as she plastered a cringe-worthy beatific smile on her face.

Coffee. Crème brulée. That would buy her another twenty minutes, surely.

Panic fisted her heart as the tick of the clock pounded in her ears. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

The walls loomed, closing in around her, crushing her lungs.

Calm down, Luce. What are you going to do—hyperventilate and pass out? Make a total fool of yourself?

She needed air. She couldn’t breathe.

‘I’m sorry—please excuse me. I think I need…’ To go out on the balcony? No, no, no, he’d follow her and drop to one knee, she knew. ‘To visit the restroom. I’ll only be a few minutes.’

After all that she realised he wasn’t listening. Someone on the other side of the room had caught his eye, and Luciana frowned as his lightly tanned face stained a ghastly shade of grey.

‘Augustus? Are you all right? Did you hear what I said?’

Slowly he shook his head. ‘I do not believe it. Luciana, you will never guess who is dining in this very room. I had no idea. Your father will be most displeased. I am so sorry…’

He was sorry? Ah, wonderful. One of his women, no doubt. The buxom brunette from earlier, come to ruin his perfect proposal? She didn’t want to know. It was her parents’ marriage all over again. No doubt she’d be faced with his mistresses most mornings too.

Well, that’s better than you warming his bed, isn’t it?

Anything was better than that.

‘Don’t worry about it, Augustus. Your secret is safe with me.’ Her father wouldn’t care less who the man whored with. There was more likelihood of mutual backslapping. ‘I’ll be back soon.’

Ignoring her, on he went. ‘Of all the places in all the world…’

Luciana bit into her bottom lip, stifling the impulse to run like a world class sprinter. Praying for this evening to be over. Praying someone would rescue her from this nightmare. Before the truth escaped on the scream that was building gradually, inexorably, and she single-handedly destroyed the very life she was trying to protect.

* * *

‘Of all the places in all the world… What an unpleasant surprise.’

His cousin, Seve, who was seated to his right at the oval dining table, leaned his upper body sideways in an effort to be discreet.

‘I can see the sweat beading on his upper lip from here. It’s your old pal from that exclusive rich joint you were sent to in Zurich. Viscount Augustus.’

Prince Thane of Galancia deflected the gut-punch the word Zurich evoked and sneered. ‘He was no pal of mine.’

For the one disastrous university term Thane had attended after his father’s death the Viscount had caused him no end of trouble—which he’d soon discovered was a horrendously bad idea—and subsequently shaken in his shoes every time he looked Thane’s way. Which had pleased Thane no end. It meant he’d generally kept a vast distance.

He couldn’t abide the man. Augustus was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Polished until every inch of him gleamed, he was a silver-tongued bureaucrat with sly eyes and a treacherous mind.

Seve smirked as if Thane had said the words out loud and he’d found it highly amusing. ‘What’s more, he’s dining with none other than Princess Luciana of Arunthia. One of Henri’s stuck-up brood.’

Thane resisted the urge to growl. ‘Then they belong together.’ A match made in heaven. ‘How do you know it’s definitely her? Last I heard, she lived abroad.’

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a photograph of any of them. Recent intel was off his radar, since he had zero interest in becoming embroiled with his uncle’s ongoing bitter feud with the house of Verbault. He’d made that mistake ten years ago, in his father’s day. Had the scars and the bitter aftertaste to prove it. Nowadays every time he thought of that varmint Henri a seizure of antagonistic emotion diseased his mind, so the less he heard or saw of the entire family the better. Besides, his every waking moment was spent deflecting blows from the latest fiasco in Galancia.

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