Awakened on Her Royal Wedding Night
Swept away to the palace…
To become his bride!
Having dived into the ocean to escape one man, model Claudine Bergqvist washes up at Prince Felipe’s feet. She’s never before felt the searing heat that flashes between them. But she hardly expects Felipe to propose marriage!
Felipe must wed promptly or lose his place in line to the throne. So, in return, he’ll provide everything needed to help Claudine’s ailing mother. Claudine agrees—this could be her only chance to experience true pleasure! But can she enjoy the benefits of their marital bed without catching feelings for her new husband?
The virgin and the prince make a pact in this sizzling marriage-of-convenience romance by USA TODAY bestselling author Dani Collins!
Awakened on Her Royal Wedding Night
“Unless she intends to spit a cyanide capsule at me, I don’t think she’s carrying a weapon.”
— Felipe, Awakened on Her Royal Wedding Night
After writing the intense, intertwined quartet of Four Weddings and a Baby, I was ready for a simple, stand-alone story. Something over-the-top and sexy and wild.
I had pitched my editor on a royal and a beauty queen. The only other thing I had was a vision of the heroine swimming for her life and landing like a mermaid at the hero’s feet.
That isn’t exactly how this one plays out, but it’s close. Claudine is lured onto a yacht by Felipe’s evil twin and she has to escape him.
She makes it to Felipe’s private island where he falls in love with her on sight, but of course he doesn’t recognize it because his family is terrible. He wouldn’t know love if it threw sand in his eyes, which Claudine does.
If you love glamor and betrayal and secrets and an old-fashioned duel, I hope you’ll let Awakened on Her Royal Wedding Night sweep you away.
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Awakened on Her Royal Wedding Night
“You’ll die out there!” the Prince shouted from his speedboat. “I’m not coming after you!”
Good, Claudine Bergqvist thought, even though the sea was cold enough that her muscles were already cramping. The water was dark and pulled at the maxi-dress she wore. The jersey silk tangled against her legs as she tried to frog-kick. Waves dipped and rolled, making it hard to catch her breath without taking in a mouthful of water.
She was swimming a breaststroke so she could keep her vision fixated on the island ahead of her, but even though she was a strong swimmer, that black rise of land with only a few twinkling lights upon it was still terrifyingly far away. Barbed hooks of panic were trying to take hold in her while her imagination ran away with her. What else lurked in these waters besides her and that horrible man who had lured her onto his boat?
She heard the engine start up and stopped to tread water, swiveling to see if he was coming after her.
No. The running lights turned away from her. The aerodynamic speedboat shot away in a burst of its engine, spewing froth behind it.
She couldn’t see the yacht that had birthed it, or the super yacht where she had started her evening. This whole night had been a nesting doll of ever more perilous situations, not that she had seen it at the time.
“Come to a big party on a big boat. Why don’t some of you come to a smaller party on my smaller yacht? Actually, let’s take my runabout for a spin, just you and me.”
Now it was just him, the Prince, heading back to Stella Vista, the biggest island in the chain that made up the Kingdom of Nazarine. And her, Claudine. Alone in the sea.
Her heart thumped erratically. Her abdomen tightened with so much anxiety her lungs could barely draw a breath. The wake from the departing speedboat rippled toward her, picking her up and dropping her into the trough so she lost sight of the boat.
When she spun in the water, the small island she’d seen a moment ago was gone.
She turned and turned.
Do not panic.
There it was. She kept her gaze pinned to it while she fought the clinging material of her dress. She pulled her arms from its straps before she pushed the sheath off her waist and hips, freeing herself of the encumbrance.
I can do this.
She had done many things that were difficult, including becoming the Swedish contestant in the Miss Pangea pageant despite living in America for the last fifteen years.
She had also once won a bronze medal for her breaststroke. She’d been eleven and it had been a medley relay. Her portion had only been one hundred meters, but her team had made it to the podium.
Mom needs me alive, she reminded herself as she resumed her kick, stroke, breathe.
The thought of her mother only made her more anxious, though. Ann-Marie Bergqvist hadn’t wanted Claudine to do this pageant. Not any pageant. They were archaic and sexist, she’d insisted.
They were, Claudine agreed, but she’d stumbled into the first one on a lark with friends, then kept winning. At first, she had competed for a scholarship and some trendy clothes. Then luggage and a vacation in the Caribbean. She had been flattered by the modest fame and the interviews with TV personalities, but when her mother’s well-managed multiple sclerosis suddenly took a sharp turn into more serious symptoms, Claudine had sold the car she’d won along with the appliances.
The cash had bought her mother some time off work and a number of specialist appointments, but her disease was not one that could be cured, only managed. Each time Claudine leveled up and won a bigger pageant, she was able to afford better care for her mother.
The global Miss Pangea pageant was one of the most lucrative. It had brought her to Nazarine, near the ankle of Italy’s boot, and if she was chosen to appear in their notoriously sexy swimsuit calendar, she would receive a very generous compensation. If she made the cover, she would earn even more. In fact, she was the favorite to win the whole contest.
If she made it to shore.
Was that why the Prince had targeted her? Because she was odds on to win?
She tried not to think of it. She was already tired. The exertion of swimming was not the problem. The force of the sea was taking a toll. This was no placid pool where she could skim along. She was being shoved from all angles, catching waves up the nose and swallowing salt water.
What if she didn’t survive? What if she didn’t make the photo shoot tomorrow? What if she didn’t win any prize money and her mother had to let her disease run its course?
What if she drowned and never saw her mother again?
Don’t think of it.
Kick, stroke, breathe. Kick, stroke, breathe.
“Intruder, Your Highness.” Prince Felipe’s guard brought him a tablet as Felipe was sitting down to a late dinner.
His mind always leaped to his twin when something unpredictable and less than desirable happened. Cold hatred threatened to engulf him, but Felipe habitually banked those grim, unhelpful emotions. He focused on exactly what was happening in the moment.
“How many?” He took the tablet.
“Just the one, sir.” The guard tapped to show the security footage in both night vision and infrared. A swimmer was approaching the western side of the island.
Situated furthest from the rest of the islands in the Nazarine archipelago, Sentinella had been named hundreds of years ago for the protective armies that had been stationed here. Its lofty cliffs allowed unimpeded surveillance of the surrounding waters and its lack of low, sandy beaches made it difficult to infiltrate.
In fact, any craft attempting to enter that particular lagoon took a beating through a toilet bowl of currents that punched every which way. Once inside, the shallow cove was littered with sharp rocks that lurked below the surface. They shipwrecked vessels and were guaranteed to shred a knee if you didn’t know where they were. There was no reward once you reached the beach at the base of the cliffs. It was mostly rocks and coarse sand.
Like its occupant, Sentinella was formidable and inhospitable to strangers.
Felipe tried to expand the image, but it was too grainy to provide many clues as to the swimmer’s identity.
“How did they get here? Is there a vessel nearby?”
“The Queen’s Favorite held a sunset dinner for the pageant contestants this evening. Tenders were buzzing around it, bringing people back and forth from Stella Vista and taking side trips to the smaller islands. That’s normal for these things. There was a seven-meter speedboat stalled about a mile out an hour ago. That’s the closest any came to us.”
The guard’s lips were tight. He knew the hostility that existed between the Princes and hated to even mention Francois.
Felipe wasn’t ambushed by the news that his brother was nearby. Francois spent most of his life chasing skirt and parties around the globe, but he always came home at this time of year, bringing his sordid little beauty contest to their island kingdom.
He didn’t usually send trespassers boldly up to Felipe’s front door, though. Not when he had his image and his own personal interests to protect. What was he up to this time?
“Let’s greet our visitor.” Felipe rose without having tasted the braised duck before him.
“Sir, he might be armed.”
He? Felipe looked again at the screen. The swimmer had found a rock to clasp. As their arm came out of the water, the strap of a bikini top was revealed.
“Unless she intends to spit a cyanide capsule at me, I don’t think she’s carrying a weapon.” He strode out the door to the inner grounds of the castle fortress, then across to the gate in the wall.
Two guards followed him, radioing low communications to the rest of the team. Another two fell into place next to Felipe as he stepped beyond the wall of the castle and made for the second gate, the one that blocked access to the stairs down the cliff face.
The narrow steps had been chipped from the stone wall by long-ago soldiers. A weathered rope was mounted through eyelets pounded into the rock, providing a tenuous handhold if a foot happened to slip.
Felipe hadn’t been down these steps in years, never at night, but he waved away the guard who tried to illuminate the path with a handheld spotlight. He wanted to approach more stealthily.
The quarter moon made it a treacherous descent. When they came to the bottom of the stairs, cypress trees briefly blocked his view of the water. He could hear the waves fighting one another outside the lagoon, but also heard a feminine cough and some ragged breathing near the shore.
He brushed past the guard who held out an arm, trying to hold Felipe back from advancing the short distance to the water’s edge.
In the pale moonlight, a woman—a mermaid? a siren?—was crawling from the glittering, black water. She paused, rearing up so she knelt in the shallows. Water lapped around the tops of her thighs. Her hair was pewter in the moonlight and stuck in vine-like curls against her shoulders and chest. Silver droplets fell off her chin and sat like diamonds against the swells of her breasts before slithering down her abdomen. Her chest heaved and every breath held a sob of effort.
That wasn’t a bikini. It was a bra and underwear, a lacy set in an indeterminate color that sat as a charcoal streak against skin that might have been tanned golden or naturally tawny, but in the cool light of the moon, turned her into a timeless black-and-white photo of a castaway survivor. Of Venus, rising from the deep.
She was the most fiercely beautiful thing Felipe had ever seen. She made his guts twist in a mix of awe and lust, the desire to possess and an instant certainty that she could not be captured or contained.
In a surge of uncharacteristic jealousy, he wanted to physically knock his guards’ gazes away from her. She was his.
With a fresh moan of effort, she crawled further out of the water and collapsed onto her side, chest heaving, legs still in the lapping surf.
As Felipe strode toward her, he dragged his gaze from her long thighs and trembling abdomen, past the quiver of her breasts to the way her eyes popped open beneath the anguished knot of her brows.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded in the Nazarinian dialect of Italian, crouching beside her.
The noise she made was one of pure suffering. Her arm moved in a sudden arc. A fistful of gravel peppered his face.
How was he here?
It didn’t make sense, but Claudine didn’t think, only reacted, trying to get away from the devil himself. She closed her hand on whatever bits of shells and rocks were on this godforsaken excuse for a beach and threw it at him.
While he swore roundly, she tried to roll away from him and get her arms and legs under her, but her muscles were utterly exhausted. She was shaking and weak, disoriented.
In the same moment, there were shouts and a scuffle of noise. A harsh male voice barked something in Italian. A heavy, rough weight pressed onto the back of her shoulder, squashing her onto her own feeble arms.
She should have let the sea take her because she was going to die tonight regardless of her fight to live. She let her face droop onto the pebbled beach beneath her.
I’m sorry, Mom. You were right. I’m so sorry.
There was a potent moment of silence, one that made her realize she had spoken aloud.
A burst of authoritative Italian came out of the Prince. There was the sound of a dull slap that transmitted a vibration into her shoulder before the punishing weight lifted off her back. It had been a foot, she realized, one with a roughly treaded sole. That’s all she could see when she lifted her head. Boots and more boots.
“Don’t attack me again,” the Prince warned in his accented English. “My guards don’t like it.”
If only she had guards, she thought with brief hysteria. Instead, she had been one woman defending herself against his attack.
She tried to push herself into sitting up and facing him, but her arms were overcooked pasta, completely ineffectual. Every part of her hurt. She didn’t even have the strength to cry.
“How did you get here?” he asked.
That seemed too obvious to bother answering. She searched for a path of escape, but only saw boots, boots, rocks and more boots. Then feet in what had to be bespoke Italian shoes. Not deck shoes like the Prince had been wearing earlier. Laced leather shoes with fancy detailing.
She could still hear the swish and churn of the water at the mouth of the lagoon. Soft waves were caressing her calves. Dare she try that route again? Swimming had been her only escape the first time, but she hadn’t managed to escape him, had she?
With a sob of utter despair, she dropped her head onto her wrist.
“Why are you here?” he prodded.
“I was aiming for Sicily. Is this not it?” she asked in a rasp.
There was a smirk from one of the hovering guards. The aggressive one who’d stood on her earlier nudged her hip with the toe of his boot.
The Prince, whom she heartily consigned to the hottest corner of hell, said something in quiet, lethal Italian that had all of his guards shuffling back a few steps.
“Now,” the Prince continued in English, “if you want to lie here waiting for all your cuts to grow septic, we can do that. Or you can come up to the castle for medical attention and give me a full explanation for your presence here. Can you stand?”
He started to take hold of her arm, but a fresh surge of pure adrenaline, the kind with its roots in an atavistic desire to survive, knocked his hand away. She scrabbled for a fresh handful of sand to throw at him.
“No.” His knee went into the bed of pebbles in front of her eyes while his firm hand pinned her wrist to the ground. The other immobilized her bent arm against her chest, pressing her onto her back. “We’ve talked about that.”
She was dimly aware of a noise that she had only heard in movies. It was the sound of guns being cocked and readied for firing. She had never been so petrified in her life. Her heart ought to have exploded.
She refused to look at him, though. She stared at the crease that went down the front of his trousers, from his knee to his shoe. Out of her well of pure hatred, she said, “Don’t. Touch. Me.”
“Open your hand,” he commanded.
“Go to hell.”
“We’re staying here, then?”
She hated him. Really truly hated him.
But when his hold on her wrist didn’t relent, she reluctantly allowed her fingers to splay. Her only weapon sifted out of her grasp.
His hold on her lifted away. “Can you stand on your own?”
She could not, but she refused to admit it. “I’m not going anywhere with you ever again,” she choked. “I’d rather drown.”
There was such a profound silence at that statement she opened her eyes and glanced around, half expecting the guards to have somehow evaporated.
“You were on the Queen’s Favorite?” the Prince demanded.
“You know I was.” She was really at the end of her rope. The salt on her cuts was killing her and her stomach was no longer tolerating all the seawater she’d swallowed.
“You swam the whole way from there? Impossible.”
“Well, I didn’t have a life ring or anything else to help me, did I? What sort of vile person leaves someone alone in the open water? At night?” The force of her emotive outburst put pressure on her stomach. Reaction to all that had happened—and all that she now faced—was starting to hit her with shattering force. She was definitely going to vomit.
“Porta la luce.” He snapped his fingers.
One of his guards came forward to blind her with the light of a hideously strong torch. She flinched and tried to duck away from it, but the Prince took hold of her arm again and forced her to stay on her back.
It hurt like hell, but he ruthlessly kept her there and said, “Look.” He pointed at the white line on his cheek. “Did I have this scar when you saw me last?”
Oh no…oh no. She had thought there was nothing worse than being trapped and preyed upon by the Prince of Nazarine.
There was one thing worse, though. One man worse. The other Prince.
“I am Felipe. Crown Prince of Nazarine. You will come up to the castle and tell me everything that happened tonight.” He rose and offered his hand. “Can you walk? Or shall I carry you?”
She couldn’t answer. It took all her strength to roll away so she wasn’t violently sick all over his pretty shoes.
Felipe signaled his men to turn their backs and gently lifted her wet hair until it was behind her shoulders, then he supported her while she returned half the lagoon to its rightful owner.
When she’d finished retching, he drew her to sit braced between the V of his bent legs.
“Lean on me,” he insisted while he removed his shirt.
She was trembling, likely in shock. Her long cold marathon of a swim was something even he, with his very athletic habits, would hesitate to attempt. It would also be taking a mental toll.
She was like a cloth doll, boneless as he threaded her arms into his sleeves. He brushed at sand on her shoulder which caused her to flinch, making him realize the skin beneath was scraped raw. Her shins wore similar injuries and there was a dark stain coming through on the elbow of his shirt.
He carefully closed two buttons between her breasts, concentrating on that task rather than letting himself fully take in what she had put herself through to get away from Francois. That reckoning would come later, after he’d had a full account from her.
He gathered her in his arms and stood. She was long and lean and essentially a dead weight because she was so spent. Barely conscious, he suspected.
His head guard glanced warily over his shoulder, having been warned that one more step out of line—like stepping on her again—would cost him his job. His life, if they had lived a short century or two ago.
“A sling is on its way, sir,” the guard said, taking a tentative step toward Felipe, arms outstretched.
Felipe shook his head, rejecting the man’s attempt to help. He carried her to the bottom of the steps where he met the men who had brought the rescue sling. He gently placed her on it, draped a foil blanket across her and secured her with the straps.
“What is your name?” he asked as he worked. “Is there someone we should call?”
“I want to go home,” she said with a pang of longing in her voice.
“I’m sure you do.” Pity rose in him. He knew what it was like to be a target of Francois. His brother was cruel enough to enjoy terrorizing someone and dangerous enough to kill them in the process.
Felipe used one bent knuckle to caress her cheek soothingly. “Let’s attend to your injuries first. Then we’ll talk about what happens next.”
She turned her head away from him and closed her eyes in rejection.
That shouldn’t have bothered him, but it did. It was proof that Francois continued to leak poisonous lies about him and that people continued to believe them. Usually he didn’t care, but he found himself bothered that she believed them.
Così è la vita. Such is life.
He took up one of the handholds of the sling himself, helping to carry her up the cliffs, then inside the castle walls to the infirmary.
Claudine woke in a dimly lit room. She was in a hospital bed with an IV tube stuck into the back of her hand, but the room looked like a five-star hotel. A Tiffany-style lamp stood on a Renaissance-style night table. Judging by the closed drapes, there was an adjoining terrace of some kind. Two wingback chairs faced a big-screen television above the mantel of a fireplace.
Was she back on Stella Vista? Thank God!
She tried to sit up and couldn’t help the guttural noise that came out of her. Every muscle protested as though thoroughly bruised. She grabbed at the bed rail, trying to pull herself up, only to watch a specter-like shadow rise from a wingback and come toward her.
“Good morning,” Felipe said. He was even more imposing in the weak daylight, wearing a crisp white shirt and gray trousers. His dark hair was short and precise. His jaw was shiny with a fresh shave.
That scar on his cheek was both reassuring and terrifying. He wasn’t Francois, but what kind of man was he? What did he intend to do with her?
She sank back onto her pillow.
“My medical staff cleaned your injuries and topped up your fluids.” Felipe nodded at the IV bag, then pressed the back of his fingers to her forehead and cheek.
A teetering sensation arrived in her midsection. Don’t trust him, her logical mind cautioned. A more instinctual side of her yearned for someone to look after her.
“No fever. That’s good.” He reached across her to press a button, filling her senses with the spicy fragrance of aftershave. “Our guest is awake,” he said, then released the button and straightened. “Are you hungry?”
“What time is it?” Her voice came out raspy and weak.
He turned his head to look at where a clock hung on the wall. “Six twenty.”
Time enough to make the photo shoot? She was supposed to be there by eight.
“Dr. Esposito.” The Prince greeted the man who came into the room. “Did you sleep in your clothes?”
“In case I was needed, yes.” The doctor looked to be in his seventies. He stifled a yawn as he buttoned his white coat over his creased clothing. “Good morning, Claudine. How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”
“How do you know my name?” She darted her gaze back to Felipe.
“My security team are all highly trained operatives who employ the latest technologies in facial recognition,” Felipe told her impassively. “None of which was necessary. I looked up this year’s Miss Pangea contestants and there you were, second from the left.”
“Your pulse is elevated,” the doctor said, holding her wrist while watching the clock. “The Prince has been known to have that effect on a woman. Should I ask him to step out of the room?”
Was that supposed to be a joke? Felipe seemed to think so. His eyelids floated down over his dark brown eyes, heavy with amusement.
She sealed her lips. If she said yes, it would confirm she was reacting to him. If she said no, it would seem as though she wanted him to stay.
It’s fear, she wanted to spit at him. Contemptuously.
As if he read her mind and was deeply unimpressed, the smug curl at the corner of his mouth deepened.
“I have to use the bathroom,” she told the doctor. “Can you take this out of my hand?”
He made a noise of agreement and slid open a panel above her where supplies were kept. He unplugged the IV tube, smoothly removed the cannula and pressed a ball of cotton over the puncture, taping it in place.
He would have lowered the bed rail then, but Felipe swiftly did it on the other side.
“I’ll call the nurse to help,” Dr. Esposito offered.
“I can manage,” Felipe insisted.
“I think he was talking to me,” Claudine said, annoyed that one light brush of the Prince’s hand was all it took to swing her legs off the bed while his other arm effortlessly slid behind her back, bringing her to sit on the edge facing him.
The abrupt move made her head swim so she wound up bracing a hand against his chest and clinging to his sleeve, waiting for her equilibrium to catch up to the rest of her.
“He was not,” Felipe assured her. His firm hand on her waist ensured she didn’t topple forward off the bed. “The nurse is also a man, so there’s no difference in who helps you except that Dr. Esposito suffered a back injury last year, so he should not.”
There was every difference, she wanted to grouse. She didn’t want to be near him anymore than his brother.
She slid off the bed and her knees almost gave out.
Felipe caught her.
Dear Lord, she hurt. How was it possible to be this wrecked and still be alive?
She clung to his arms, needing his support to stand. She felt a thousand years old as she shuffled to the bathroom, every footstep sending a lightning bolt through her stiff muscles.
His arm stayed firm across her back while his fingers dug into her waist. Heat radiated off his torso through his shirt and the hospital gown she’d been put into. She could have cried at that invasion, being stripped and touched by strangers.
One glance at his indifferent profile and she doubted he had stuck around to watch. His brother might have leered in that circumstance, but Felipe didn’t seem to see her as a woman at all.
“Can you manage?” he asked briskly as he lowered her onto a velvet bench beside the toilet.
Even this bathroom, which was clearly still part of the medical wing, was beautifully appointed with gold fixtures, a claw-foot tub, and a huge shower stall tiled in dark blue. On the back wall of the shower tiles, a landscape of a coastal village sat inside a painted frame of golden grape vines.
“Don’t even think of going through that window.” He pointed to the panel of stained glass inserted into a modern casement that allowed it to swing outward. “You’ll land on the guard stationed below.”
She had absolutely been thinking of doing that. He probably knew it from the belligerent dismay that came into her face at his warning.
“Call if you need me.” He left her alone.
She used the toilet since she’d come all this way, then washed her hands before she took inventory of her injuries. Four scrapes had bled enough to need covering, two on her shins, one on her shoulder and one on her forearm. The rest were scuffs that had been painted with something that had stained her skin yellow. There was even a small bruise on her cheekbone.
As she met the appalled disbelief in her reflection, all she could think was, I can’t do the photo shoot. I can’t win.
She had been in the top three in every portion of the contest so far. She was the frontrunner who was expected to win.
As long as Claudine could remember, her mother had had good spells and bad spells, but her symptoms had always receded. This time, they were more severe and weren’t going away. Ann-Marie was in a lot of pain and having trouble walking. She seemed to be losing vision in one eye.
After two decades of coping with it, Ann-Marie had exhausted all the conventional treatments. She had gone into a secondary progressive phase, her doctor had told her. There were experimental treatments that were showing promise, like stem cell transplants, but they were expensive and held out no guarantees. However, without any sort of treatment, she would definitely suffer more pain, keep losing function, and her life span would be shortened.
Claudine’s gamble on winning the prize money hadn’t been a sure bet, but it had been a strong one. Even something like being chosen for the calendar would have given her enough money to hire her mother a specialized home care worker.
What would she do now?
With a sob of despair, Claudine sank back onto the bench, hands covering her face only to discover there was still enough sand in her hair to rain onto her knees. Her feet were filthy, her pedicure a disaster.
She didn’t think about whether it made sense to shower, only rose to start the water. She dropped the gown and stepped under the spray, reaching for the shampoo. She washed her hair, then rubbed the silky body wash all over her skin, trying to remove salt and dirt and this whole wretched experience.
Maybe the scrapes could be covered with makeup, she thought wildly. As the water soaked through the bandages, she peeled them away, finding long red streaks and skin scraped raw. It would scab even worse before it healed.
The soap stung like living hell, but she scrubbed anyway, trying to erase the scratches and scuffs with the fluffy white cloth only to stain the soft cotton with fresh blood.
Would the pageant even pay to fly her home? Francois would probably accuse her of walking away and disqualify her. He’d been furious when she had fought off his advances.
“Do you want to win or don’t you?”
What should she do? Report him? Who would believe a prince had left her to die in the open sea?
She cringed, realizing that even if she could convince anyone she’d been on his speedboat at all, he would only turn it around and claim she had come aboard intent on seducing him to try and win the pageant. That she was a cheater. How had she been so stupid?
“Claudine.” There was a firm knock.
She ignored him and kept scrubbing.
“Stop that.” Felipe entered. “You’re making it worse. Stop, Claudine. Stop.”
He came right into the shower, ignoring the rain of the spray that soaked his clothes and landed on his gold watch. He snapped off the taps and stole the cloth from her hand, throwing it to the floor with a plop. Then he stepped away and reached for a towel. He shook it out and wrapped it around her trembling body, seeming to take no notice of the fact she was absolutely naked.
As he had done on the beach last night, he easily picked her up and carried her to the bench where he left her soggy and bedraggled and freshly bleeding.
“Give her new bandages,” he said irritably as he walked out.
Claudine swallowed a lump in her throat. She was so irrationally bereft at his leaving she almost called out for him to come back.
A man she presumed was the nurse, since he wore scrubs and carried a tray of tape and bandages, used a second towel to dab her shoulders and arms and face and feet. He was efficient and kind, covering each of her injuries again, then offering a comb before saying, “I’ll fetch a clean gown.”
As she struggled to work the tangles from her hair while keeping her towel in place, he returned with a clean, dry hospital gown and an over-the-counter headache tablet.
“Would you like help dressing?” he asked after she had swallowed the pill.
“She can wear these.” Felipe arrived wearing a dry shirt and fresh trousers. He carried a pair of silk pajama bottoms in dark green with a plain, navy blue T-shirt. “It’s good you’re almost as tall as I am. Leave us. I’ll help her.”
The nurse closed the door behind him.
Felipe lowered to one knee as he began to thread the pajama bottoms up her calves and thighs. “Stand,” he ordered.
With a small catch of her breath, she did, bracing a hand on his shoulder to hold her balance.
He pushed the waistband the rest of the way up, reaching under the towel with that same dispassionate expression. He stood and lifted the drape of the towel to tie the drawstring, then gathered the T-shirt and slipped it over her wet head. He guided one arm and the other through the sleeves then waited for the shirt to fall down and cover her chest before he dragged the towel away.
“My slippers.” He set them in front of her bare feet. “Now we’ll eat breakfast. I sense you’re the type who is grumpy until you’ve had your coffee.”
He wasn’t wrong, but that wasn’t why she shuffled so resentfully behind him, wincing with every step.
The warm shower and moving around, along with the tablet, were gradually easing some of the ache from her muscles, though.
He took her through an empty ward of a half dozen beds, then past a series of offices where faces glanced up before quickly getting back to whatever they were doing. There was a grand hall of some kind with sunlight streaming in through a dome of colored glass that drew her eyes upward. Stairs curved down from a gallery, but he ignored them. There was a mosaic in the floor beneath their feet, but she didn’t get a chance to study it.
They arrived at a pair of open doors where guards stood sentry. He led her through a small foyer that let onto a parlor, then through a huge, formal dining room.
“Are we there yet?” she couldn’t help asking.
“Soon.” He didn’t even glance back at her, but after passing through a small breakfast room, they finally emerged on a shaded terrace where a table was set for two.
Half a dozen staff hovered, eager to pull out chairs and pour coffee and lift silver lids to reveal poached eggs on beds of chopped peppers with herbs and olives atop toasted bruschetta slices.
Claudine was so hungry she barely made herself wait until Felipe waved an invitation for her to tuck in. Flavors of basil and butter and salt exploded on her tongue. Blood oranges appeared with grapes and fresh figs. She gobbled them down, then chased them with a sweet pastry and a second cup of coffee.
When he said, “Bring oatmeal,” she realized he had stopped eating long before she had. How embarrassing.
“No. Thank you,” she insisted. “I missed dinner.” She had missed a lot of meals in the run-up to this pageant, but there was no need to make up for it in one sitting.
She self-consciously sat back only to wince at the various aches and bruises that connected against the quilted seat back.
She finally took a proper look at her surroundings. This terrace was on the ground floor overlooking a courtyard that contained a hedge maze of waist height. A fountain in the center whispered its steady pour of water.
The walls of the courtyard were three stories high and were covered in tangled, verdant vines. She couldn’t see the sea or the collection of islands that made up Nazarine, only a thin layer of wispy clouds in an otherwise blue sky.
She looked at the castle behind her, spotting a number of terraces that probably afforded a view to the horizon.
“I don’t wish us to be seen by any long-range lenses,” Felipe said.
“Because knowledge is power. Right now, I know that you survived your swim, but my brother does not.”
The lethal grit in his voice caused her heart to take a swerve.
He looked so much like his brother it was disconcerting. Aside from that stark white line in his swarthy cheek, he was Francois’s match in height and build. They both had thick, dark brown hair and equally dark brown eyes beneath stern brows. Their long sloping cheeks were clean-shaven, their jawlines chiseled from granite, their mouths…
Here she saw the difference. The shape was the same with a peaked top lip and a thick, blunt line for a bottom one, but Francois’s mouth was softer. He smiled often and quickly and wore a pout when he relaxed.
Felipe’s mouth held the tension of discipline and command. He didn’t need to charm to get what he wanted, she realized with a roll of uncertainty through her abdomen. He spoke and he received.
“I’d like to go back to Stella Vista,” she said.
“My mother expects me to check in every day. She’ll be worried if she doesn’t hear from me soon.” That was an exaggeration. “The organizers will be contacted.”
“I’m counting on it.” His mouth twisted with cruel satisfaction.
Her heart lurched. “Don’t do that to her! She has enough to worry about.”
Stress was the worst thing for her condition.
“We’ll reassure her of your safety through private channels. Is there someone she trusts implicitly? One of these people who drives her to her medical appointments, perhaps?”
“How do you know that about her?” she asked with alarm.
“She thanked her team on social media. The post was set to public,” he added when she recoiled. Warning flashed behind his eyes. “I was only trying to get to know my houseguest, not targeting her for anything.”
A houseguest? Was that what she was? She hadn’t exactly arrived voluntarily, and apparently wasn’t allowed to leave. She searched the walls in the courtyard, spotting a door that led where? To a treacherous descent to the water and another life-threatening swim?
She curled her fingers into fists in her lap.
“Tell me about last night. How did you come to be in the water?”
She stubbornly clamped her mouth shut, not wishing to revisit it, especially not with servants and bodyguards standing around listening.
“Take your time. We can walk in the garden if you like. It’s very relaxing.”
She couldn’t resist glancing at him then, wondering if he ever relaxed. He radiated readiness for action.
“I have never spent much time learning about the pageant.” He casually held out his cup for someone to step forward and refill it. “I expect it’s very competitive?”
“I was not trying to get an advantage!” she burst out, insulted. Her eyes immediately grew hot and she cast another annoyed glance at their audience.
It helped that they were alone now, but would he even believe her? Defensive words bubbled up. She was desperate to plead her side of it before she had to face all the scrutiny and disbelief that would be heaped upon her if she reported it to the pageant, though.
“You started on the Queen’s Favorite, I presume?” he prompted.
“For a dinner cruise, yes. The ship is huge. I was part of a group touring all the decks when the Prince caught up with us. He invited us onto a smaller yacht. It was inside the bigger one and already had champagne and photographers on board. I thought it was a surprise announcement that we’d made the calendar or something. Pageants do that, ambush us with big news so they can capture our reactions.”
She had been so excited at that point, giving absolutely no thought to being in any sort of danger.
“It was still a really big boat,” she continued. “They took us toward one of the other islands where we could see the sun setting. Once it was dark, I wandered around and the Prince found me. He said, ‘Look, I have this little boat that won all these races. Let’s pop aboard and zip around to surprise everyone.’ It seemed harmless. He did. Then he steered it away from all the other boats and…”
She didn’t want to continue.
He didn’t move or speak, but she couldn’t look at him to see what he was thinking. She was too embarrassed.
“I feel really stupid for trusting him, but he owns the pageant. He’s a prince.” According to the online accounts, the twins had been competitive when they were young, but Felipe had supposedly been the one with the violent streak. Francois was the forgotten spare who was sensitive and kind and only wished to make his country proud.
“You don’t have to tell me what happened, Claudine,” Felipe said gravely. “The fact you swam a mile to get away from him tells me all I need to know, but if he…hurt you, Dr. Esposito can do any necessary tests. They’re helpful for prosecution.”
Her stomach protested the heavy meal she’d put into it. She swallowed and shook her head.
“That’s not necessary. He didn’t—he was angry that I wouldn’t go below with him and grabbed my arm.” She rubbed where there was a shadow of a bruise on her wrist. “I managed to pull away and…I jumped overboard. It was a senseless thing to do. I realize that now.” She covered her eyes. “I just reacted.”
“I’m sorry you felt it was your only option. And I’m glad you survived it,” he said in a tone that sounded sincere, but also severe enough to draw her nerve endings taut. “Do you think this is something he’s been doing all along? Assaulting his contestants?”
She hadn’t even thought of that, but of course this would have been Francois’s modus operandi.
She flashed a look upward. Felipe’s voice was concerned, but his narrow-eyed visage suggested there was something more calculating behind his interrogation.
“Why do you care? Because you see this as a weapon you can use against him?”
His expression didn’t change, but the sweep of his gaze suggested he was reassessing her. He sipped his coffee, giving the impression he was considering how much to tell her.
“His ship is called the Queen’s Favorite because he is. Our mother adores him.” He sat back, lips twisting with weary disdain. “I’ve always thought the pageant very tawdry. Our mother supports his argument that the pageant showcases Nazarine’s beauty, raising our profile and enticing tourists to visit long after the pageant is over. I can’t deny there are economic benefits to it, but if this contest is a cover for his sex crimes, then it must be stopped.”
She folded her arms across her middle, cupping her elbows.
“Judging by the way certain crew members behaved…” Her stomach turned as she recalled the way the purser’s gaze had slid away from hers. “It’s hard to describe, but they didn’t seem surprised by his taking me out alone. I have a feeling that if I were to go back and say that he had plotted to assault me, the crew would say I seemed happy to go with him. In fact…” She cringed as she saw it in a new light. “The Prince made a point of saying I wanted to see how fast his speedboat could go.” She covered her face again. “If I accused him of anything, he would say what you implied, that I was just trying to seduce him so I could win the pageant.”
“Will anyone have noticed last night that you went missing?”
“Probably not. There were tenders going back and forth to shore all evening. Other people coming and going. Celebrities and entertainers. It was very chaotic. They probably won’t notice I’m missing until this morning’s photo shoot for the calendar.”
Her stomach was churning over that. She had never broken a contract in her life, but here she was missing one of the key requirements of the contest.
It was killing her that she had lost so much so quickly! She should have done as her mother had asked and taken the job at the bank. It was entry level and hadn’t paid much. Not enough to support her mother or pay for her treatment. Definitely not both, but she could at least have been with her mother.
She’d been so sure she had a shot at that stupid calendar, though! It was easy money. Just smile.
“Please, can I go home?”