Christmas in the King’s Bed
Part of the Royal Christmas Weddings Series
His royal bride of convenience: Unwrapped and undone!
Orion is determined to rule his once-dissolute kingdom with integrity and respect. That means honouring his betrothal to Lady Calista Skyros. A woman whose father deals in scandal – and who threatens his unwavering self-control…
Calista knows her royal marriage was brokered by blackmail, but she has her own reasons for accepting Orion’s hand. Yet her husband shocks her with his demand for complete honesty. And as her first Christmas as queen approaches, her unstoppable desire for the king becomes her most dangerous truth of all!
Christmas in the King’s Bed
“Your betrothed is waiting for you, sire,” came the diffident voice of King Orion’s personal steward from behind him. “In your private salon, as requested.”
Orion murmured his thanks, but didn’t turn around. He kept his brooding gaze on his beloved country, laid out before him in the November sun. This view from the heights of the palace took in the largest town on the main island that made up the kingdom of Idylla, a sweep of stark white buildings with the blue Aegean beyond. He had always loved this view. In the long, dark days of his father’s tumultuous, dissolute reign—meaning, the whole of Orion’s life until a few months ago—he had often stood here. He had gazed out on the splendor of the tiny kingdom that had endured so many wars, regime changes, and horrors in its time, yet still stood.
He had told himself that Idylla would survive his father, too.
And he had spent long hours imagining what he would do differently when it was his turn to rule. How best he could honor and serve his people, who deserved so much better than what they’d had in King Max.
Orion had vowed he would do whatever it took to erase his people’s memories of his father’s excesses and scandals. Whatever it took to restore peace and serenity to the island kingdom.
But now the time had come to do just that.
And he did not want any part of it.
“‘Your betrothed,’” echoed his brother, Prince Griffin, in the lazily sardonic tone that matched the way he lounged in his preferred arm chair, there before the fireplace that took up the better part of one wall. “You do know that you’re the king now, Orion—don’t you? I was there when they put the throne on your head.”
“Do you mean when you swore an oath of fealty to me?” Orion asked mildly, without turning around. “Feel free to enact it.”
“Yes, yes, my entire life is an act of homage to my liege,” Griffin murmured in the same tone. He paused a moment. “You could also choose not to be betrothed. Then make it law. Again—you are the king. You can do as you like. I would have thought that was the main benefit of the whole thing.”
Orion could do just that. Of course he could. But there were factors at play that Griffin didn’t know about and more importantly, Orion had given his word. Their father had gone back on his word habitually. Constantly. King Max’s word had been meaningless.
Orion had no intention of being anything like his father.
“If I did such a thing I would be no better than him,” he said quietly, to the only other person alive who knew how seriously he took these things.
“You were born better than him,” Griffin retorted, a familiar harshness in his voice that always accompanied any discussion of their late, unlamented father.
Because King Max had not simply been a bad monarch, though he was that. In spades. He had been a far worse father than he’d been a king, and a terrible husband to their mother to boot.
But this was not the time to compare scars.
The future Orion had promised his people was here. He was that future. And he had no intention of breaking his promises. His earliest memories were of the vows his father had broken, one after the next, as if it was a game to him. He had betrayed his family and his country with the same carelessness. Orion would do neither.
No matter how little he liked what he needed to do next.
When he’d been sixteen, he had made a vow to the pack of reporters who had followed him about, clamoring for the Crown Prince’s take on his father’s every scandal. He had told them with all the ringing intensity of youth that he would live a blameless, honorable, scandal-free life.
Orion had gone to extraordinary lengths to keep that promise.
He saw no reason to stop now.
“Then I will leave you to your martyrdom,” his younger brother said. “I know how you love it.”
Orion turned, then. Griffin grinned at him, then rose—as wholly unrepentant as ever. He stretched like a cat instead of a prince, because he had always taken great pleasure in flaunting his physicality at every turn.
The spare could do as he liked. The heir, on the other hand, had always to think first of the kingdom.
Their father had apparently missed that lesson, but Orion had stamped it deep into his bones.
“Duty comes for us all, brother,” he said lightly.
Or lightly for him, in any case.
“I haven’t forgotten what I promised you,” Griffin replied. “Even though, obviously, you could wave your autocratic pinky and save us both from our fates.” He let out a long, delighted laugh when Orion only frowned at him. “Please spare me another lecture on what we owe our subjects. Or your subjects, more like. I’ve heard it all before. I, too, will commit myself to blamelessness. Soon.”
“It becomes no less true in the retelling,” Orion said with what he hoped was quiet dignity. Instead of what he actually felt. That being the lowering realization that if he could, he would shirk this betrothal in a heartbeat, no matter what destruction that might cause. He would wave the royal pinky—
But he did not break vows. To himself, to others, or to his people.
That had to be the beginning and the end of it, or who was he?
Griffin rolled his eyes at his older brother and king as if he could read Orion’s mind. He likely could. He lifted a hand, then prowled his way out of Orion’s private office. No doubt off to despoil virgins, carouse, and enjoy the last days of the scandalous reputation he’d built for himself as possibly the most unrepentant playboy in the history of Europe.
Orion stood where he was, a muscle in his jaw flexing with a tension and fury he couldn’t control.
You are controlling it, he told himself stoutly. Because unlike your father, you are always in control. Always.
And always, always would be. That was one more promise he’d made himself.
He blew out a breath, there where even Griffin couldn’t see him.
And then there was nothing for it. Putting off his unpleasant duty wasn’t going to make it any better. It wasn’t going to save him from the unwelcome task he had no choice but to perform.
Like everything else in his life, he was simply going to have to do what must be done, no matter what.
His personal feelings were irrelevant and always had been.
He had learned that beyond any reasonable doubt when, at seventeen, he’d been the one to discover his mother, the queen, after she’d taken her own life. And when his father had proved unequal to the task of handling her funeral—preferring to decamp to the Caribbean with a brace of starlets on each arm—Orion had stepped in to handle it.
Not because he’d wanted to handle it. He’d been seventeen. Still considered a child by some. But despite his feelings and his youth, he’d handled it because it needed to be handled.
As the years passed, his father had increased his vile behavior, made ever more unhinged demands, and had shirked more and more of his royal duties. Orion had stepped in and shouldered the load, each and every time.
He’d been doing the lion’s share of the monarch’s actual work for a decade, but always with the knowledge that at any moment, on the slightest whim, his father could and likely would sweep in and undo all his work.
Today was an example of the old king’s machinations from beyond the grave, in point of fact, and it was the same as it ever had been. As if he was still alive to ruin lives. Orion would have to do what needed doing, not because he wanted to do it. But because it was for the good of Idylla.
He pushed away from the window and headed for his door, automatically checking his appearance in one of the mirrors as he passed. Not because he was vain, but because he was the Crown. And in contrast to his father’s visible, heedless decline, he wished to look above reproach—and as much like the official photographs of himself—as possible.
Because that helped his people feel secure.
Everything Orion did was to make Idylla better. To convince his people that all was well, that he could be trusted, that the years of shame and scandal were behind them all. Part of that was presenting them with an image of a king they could believe in.
One that was as opposite his father’s slovenly appearance in his last years as possible.
Orion looked presentable enough, and left his office, moving swiftly now that he’d stopped stalling the inevitable.
He might not wish to be betrothed, but he was. And that meant he was getting married, because a broken betrothal was a broken promise—a scandal in the making—and he would allow neither.
No matter what happened.
The palace corridor outside his office was quieter than it had been while his father was alive, when Orion’s staff had always rushed to and fro, always in one crisis or another as they’d all done their best to anticipate and/or manage the king’s mercurial decisions. Becoming king had actually eased Orion’s duties in many ways, because he no longer had to spend eighty-nine percent of his time conjuring up ways to handle the fallout of each and every one of King Max’s contradictory decrees.
Competent, reserved, and sane. Those were Orion’s goals as king.
Idylla had been the world’s punchline for far too long. It ended now.
His betrothed might not know it yet, she might have her own agenda, for all he knew—but despite who she was and what she represented, she would fall in line with the goals of his new regime.
One way or the other.
Or she would pay the price.
He headed toward his private salon, nodding at courtiers and staff as he went. No one approached him, which told him he probably ought to do something about his expression.
But he didn’t.
Because he was not his brother, who could produce a smile from the ether on command, then wield it like a weapon. Orion had not spent years perfecting a smile, thank you, when he’d had a kingdom to run and a rogue monarch to manage. His face did what it would.
He open the door to his private salon briskly, prepared to lay out his plans and his expectations—
But the room was empty.
Orion blinked. He prided himself on being approachable and no particular stickler for courtly etiquette, but he was still the king. Even as the Crown Prince, there was only one person who had ever dared keep him waiting—and his father was dead.
This was not an auspicious beginning to matrimonial life.
A moment later he realized the French doors that opened out onto one of the balconies was ajar. He frowned, because this was not part of his plan. Moreover, he would have laid odds—not that he ever gambled the way his father had—that his betrothed would have been eager for this meeting he’d been putting off for the better part of two years. He wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d been stood just inside the door, waving one of her father’s tabloids in his face while crowing about her victory and his capitulation.
He’d expected as much, in fact.
And perhaps that wasn’t fair, he thought, because he prided himself on fairness, too. Or tried. The truth was, he knew very little about Lady Calista Skyros, the woman he was meant to marry. Because no matter what he liked to thunder at his brother, he too had been holding out hope that he wouldn’t have to do this.
Lady Calista was the eldest daughter of perhaps the single most vile citizen of the kingdom of Idylla, now the old king was dead. Aristotle Skyros had been born into Idyllian nobility, had ponced about in between various universities—getting sent down from each in turn—and had blown through his own fortune by the age of twenty-three. Luckily for him, his appalled father had died shortly thereafter, with no choice but to leave his considerable estate in his disappointing son’s hands. According to the many interviews he gave on his favorite topic—himself—Aristotle had disliked the seven months of so-called destitution he’d experienced and had thus vowed to do better with his second fortune.
Annoyingly, he had. He now owned a sprawling media empire, almost entirely made up of the kind of tabloid filth that made anyone who looked at it dirty. And those who were featured against their will in his snide, insinuating columns and slickly-produced shows could never make themselves clean again.
As Orion knew personally.
When his father had announced, three years ago, that he had arranged Orion’s eventual marriage, Orion had not bothered to argue about it. There was no point fighting his father, especially not when the old king was deep in his cups, which was where he’d preferred to live. Orion had assumed that if he waited it out, his father would reverse himself. Possibly within the hour—another thing that happened with alarming regularity.
But instead, his father had died. In the squalid circumstances the country in the world had come to expect from him, naturally, with unfortunate women and mood-altering substances all around. Because why change in death what he had so exulted in during his life?
Aristotle Skyros had slithered out of his hellhole and into the palace almost before the king is dead, long live the king finished echoing through the halls. And he had made it known that as far as he was concerned, the betrothal the old king had made between the new king of Idylla and his daughter was set in stone.
“Surely I decide what is stone and what is nothing more than a bad dream we have now happily woken up from,” Orion had said.
With perhaps more menace than was wise.
Aristotle, an unpleasantly dissipated-looking man whose bald head gleamed with the same malevolence that was apparent in his gaze, had smiled. Oily and insincere.
“You can do anything you please, Your Majesty,” he had replied unctuously. He’d bowed his head as if in deference. “As will I, if necessary.”
Orion had been tempted to pretend he didn’t recognize the threat in the other man’s words. He had been king for a matter of hours at that point, and had been naïve enough to imagine there might be some kind of grace period. Some allowance while he found his feet—but no. Of course not.
But he had tamped down on his temper and had not, sadly, strangled the other man where he sat. “If you wish to threaten me, Skyros, I suggest you do it. I detest pretense.”
Aristotle had not bothered with another show of false obeisance. “You will marry my daughter, Majesty. Because if you do not, I will have no choice but to release a selection of photographs I have in my possession that were in a private collection for years. Photographs so shocking and potentially explosive that your father offered you as collateral to keep them hidden.”
Orion had scoffed at that. “My father would have cheerfully offered me as collateral in a game of checkers. And likely did.” He’d shaken his head. “What could possibly be worse than the things he already felt comfortable foisting upon the entire world?”
“I thought you might ask that,” the other man had said, with entirely too much satisfaction in his voice.
That had been Orion’s first inkling that this was all worse than he’d thought.
Aristotle pulled out a file and placed it on the table between them. A low coffee table where he could, with what seemed to Orion to be great relish, flip through the photographs he’d brought with him.
It took three pictures.
Orion sat back, feeling faintly sick.
And with those images in his head that he knew he would never be able wash clean.
The man across from him hadn’t laughed, though there was a look about him that suggested he would, later.
“Tempting, isn’t it, to imagine that with the old man dead and buried, all his scandalous acts are swept away. But I think you see, now, that there are some things that can never go away. And more important, that you too will find yourself tainted if they are exposed.” Aristotle had smiled again. “Your Majesty.”
For moment, Orion hadn’t been sure that he could speak. And he had been closer to indulging the tidal wave of fury inside him than he ever had been before.
It took everything he had not to launch himself at the other man. Everything he had and the sure knowledge that Aristotle would love it if he did.
But everything in him had rebelled. Giving into blackmail was never the right answer. He knew that. It had been impressed upon him from a young age that he must never allow another person to have that kind of hold over him, not when he would one day rule—except, what choice did he have?
Idylla could not stand another scandal.
And certainly not one that was, though it beggared belief, worse than all that had come before.
Aristotle had waited, the very picture of corpulent malice.
And, as ever, Orion had shoved his personal feelings aside and thought of the kingdom.
“I do not know what bargain you made with my father,” he had said eventually, though every word was like poison on his tongue. “Therefore, I cannot honor it. If you want your daughter to be my queen, you must agree to my terms.”
Aristotle had chuckled. “That’s not how this works.”
But the longer Orion gazed at him, expressionless, the less he laughed.
And when he stopped, Orion continued. “You will sign a binding legal document that will ensure two things. One, that you will be imprisoned for life if you violate any of the terms in said document, all of which, of course, will insist upon your silence regarding these photos. And two, in addition to your jail time, you will be fined. To the point of insolvency and beyond, if you are ever responsible for any of this coming to light. Do you understand me?”
Aristotle sputtered. “I don’t think—”
But Orion had spent his whole life dealing with a man just like Aristotle. A man who was even worse, in fact, because his every word had been law, like it or not. Once the red edge of his temper had faded, he’d understood that like it or not, he was in his element.
He would be handling his father unto eternity, it seemed.
But at least he was good at that.
“In return,” he said coldly, “I will elevate your vile, polluted bloodline. I will marry your daughter. I will do this because unlike my father, I am a man of my word.” He’d watched Aristotle’s face grow mottled. “But because I am my father’s son, I will also put the betrothal agreement in writing.” He’d taken out his mobile and fired off a series of texts to his staff. “I will have my attorneys deliver the appropriate documents while we wait for the search on your properties to be finished.”
And Aristotle hadn’t liked it but he’d nodded, anyway, and made the deal.
There were worse things, Orion told himself now as he opened the French doors and stepped out onto the balcony. Men in his position had been marrying for reasons like this, or worse, as long as there had been kings. So it went. His own parents’ marriage had been arranged and if he knew nothing else it was that without even trying, he would be a better husband than his father had been.
No matter if Calista Skyros was a carbon copy of her repellant father.
He was sure that the woman who stood at the balcony rail, her gaze somewhere in the distance where the Aegean met the sky, heard his approach. But she didn’t turn.
And whether she had a sense of the dramatic, was deliberately being rude, or was girding her loins for this confrontation, he didn’t know. But he took the opportunity to do the same.
Orion had seen pictures of her, of course. His staff had presented him with an exhaustive portfolio on Lady Calista within hours of his father’s initial announcement. He knew she’d been educated at the Sorbonne, not at an Idyllian university. That she had been bred to make an aristocratic marriage, regardless of her father’s filthy trade, because that was how Idyllian nobility worked. Its purpose was to continue itself.
He knew that after the Sorbonne, Calista had come back to Idylla and started work at the lowest level of her father’s company, which he was sure was meant to counteract suggestions of nepotism when it was clearly the opposite. These days, she had clawed her way much higher in the company. She was now the vice-president of a media conglomerate that trafficked in lies.
His betrothed was a liar by blood and by choice, in other words.
She was in no way an appropriate choice to be his queen. If he’d been permitted to choose for himself, he would have looked for someone who worked with charities. Someone whose calling in life was service to others, not… revolting tabloid speculation.
But Orion was a practical, rational man. He’d had to be, whether he wanted to be or not. The truth was, he had never expected that he might get the opportunity to fall in love like a regular person. Because he wasn’t one.
In a way, this was no different from any arrangement that might have been made for him.
And all that mattered was that he would protect Idylla, come what may. Even if it meant marrying this creature and linking her detestable family to his.
He had placed the crown of Idylla upon his head and he had sworn to do his duty, and so he would.
She turned then, and for moment, Orion didn’t think of duty at all.
His betrothed was not the least bit photogenic, he understood in a searing, unexpected flash of what he was appalled to understand was desire.
Electric and near-overwhelming.
Every photograph he’d seen of his intended had led him to expect that she would be pretty. In that way that so many slender blonde women were pretty. Not quite interchangeable, but then again, the world was filled with them. One blended into the next.
But Calista Skyros was not the blandly pretty blonde she’d appeared in photographs.
There was something about her. Something about the way she held herself, maybe. Or the surprising, sparkling intelligence in her aquamarine gaze. She was blonde, yes. And pretty, inarguably.
But something in him pulled tight and seemed to hum as he gazed at her, and he had not been prepared for that.
For what seemed like an eternity, their eyes caught and held, out there on the windswept balcony.
And Orion was uncomfortably aware of himself as a man, not a king. Flesh and blood and need, to his horror.
“Your Majesty,” she said in quiet greeting, and he was sure some kind of shadow moved over her face.
It only made her prettier. And more interesting. She straightened from the rail as she faced him, then sank before him in the expected deep curtsey, exhibiting both an easy grace and the kind of excellent manners that would have told him of her years of comportment classes if he hadn’t already known.
He would have said such displays were fussy, old-fashioned window dressing he could do without, but the sight of Calista Skyros genuflecting before him made everything inside him tighten, then shift.
She rose with the same ease and he studied her, this woman who would be his queen. His wife. The mother of his heirs.
It seemed an odd thing indeed to stand on this familiar balcony while cool November air came in off the ocean, with an edge to it despite the sun, and think so dispassionately about his wife. About the sex he would have with this stranger to assure his line of succession. About the relationship they would be forced to cobble together because of those things, one way or another. Toward the end of his mother’s life his parents had been separated by as many layers of staff and physical distance inside this palace as possible, but Orion had always hoped he could create some kind of harmony in something so cold-blooded.
And yet what he thought when he looked at her was… not harmonious.
He forced himself to remember who she was.
“Lady Calista,” he said coolly by way of greeting, inclining his head.
He could not fault her appearance in any way, though he wanted to find nothing but faults in her. That would be easier, somehow, but unlike her father, she was flawless. She wore a long-sleeved dress in a soft dove gray color that flattered her features, and was both modest and modern at once. She wore pearls at her ears, and though the brisk sea air rushed around them, her hair stayed put in its sleek chignon.
He felt his jaw tighten, because, of course, she was auditioning for the role of Queen. A role she knew she’d already won, perhaps. But that being the case, she could have rolled into this meeting like a publicity disaster waiting to happen—simply to show him how little control he had, as he suspected her father would have if he was her—and she hadn’t.
Orion would take his triumphs where he could.
“Perhaps we can step inside,” he said, because maybe it was the sea air and the view that was getting to him. Maybe the usual Idyllian sun was making her appear more lovely and less patently evil than she was. Inside the palace, surely, reality would reassert itself. “We have much to discuss.”
She smiled in a quick sort of way that made him imagine she felt awkward, though that was unlikely.
Beware the urge to consider her a pawn in this, he growled at himself. She is the vice president of her father’s company, not a sacrificial virgin he’s offered up in tribute.
Whatever she was, he ushered her indoors with exaggerated courtesy, then sat across from her on a set of antique sofas that dated from the 15th century.
And then instantly regretted it.
Because it was quieter in here. More intimate, and the last thing in the world he wanted was intimacy with a member of the Skyros family.
If his parents’ twisted relationship had been any indication, intimacy was not a prerequisite for the royal marriage. Or even particularly desirable, for that matter.
He didn’t know how long he sat there, studying her as if the force of his attention could render her as bland as he’d expected her to be. But when he realized they were sitting in silence, and would continue to do so because he was the king and should speak first, he cleared his throat.
“Thank you for coming today,” he said, sounding stiff and formal and pompous, which struck him as far more appropriate than standing about on balconies, confusing himself. “I thought it was best for the two of us to meet before our official engagement announcement.”
He paused, and she seemed to startle, as if she’d never heard of such a thing. “Of course. Yes. The official announcement.”
That struck him as disingenuous, but he wrestled his temper into place, locked up tight inside him.
“It will take place in two days’ time, at the first holiday ball of the season.” She didn’t react to that, so he carried on with his talking points. “We will discuss our whirlwind relationship and how it was a bright light during the dark days before and after my father’s death. We will talk about hope, and a new dawn, not only for ourselves, but for Idylla. As is tradition, we will be married six weeks from the first ball, on Christmas Eve, captivating the hearts and minds of not only the kingdom, but the world. Yet as spectacular as our wedding will be, as is customary, our marriage will be reserved. Competent.”
“And sane,” she chimed in. And smiled when he lifted a brow at her, though he rather thought the curve of her lips had an edge to it. That was unexpected. “Forgive me, Your Majesty. But I have heard your speeches.”
Was that a slap at him? He shoved it aside. “Excellent. Then you already know how things will go.”
“I admire your…” She paused. “Certainty.”
“I am certain,” Orion said quietly. “Because I will make it so.”
“Indeed. As I am the monarch.” He waited for her to swallow, hard. “I will marry you, Lady Calista, because I gave my word that I would. I will make you my queen and consort, because that is the bargain your father made with mine. But hear me.”
And this time, she only stared back at him mutely. No clever comments at the ready.
“I will tolerate no scandals,” he told her. “And I understand that this might be hard for you, as scandals are your stock in trade.” He saw something flash in her eyes like the sea, but she only pressed her lips into a firm line. “But there will be no anonymous stories from this palace. There will be no salacious insider exposés. If you cannot comply with this requirement, I am sorry to tell you that you will find our marriage… challenging.”
“‘Challenging?’” Her voice was huskier than before. “What, precisely, does ‘challenging’ mean?”
He allowed himself a faint smile. “I will take a page from kings of old,” he told her, the vow of it in his voice. He felt certain she could hear it. “If you defy me I will install you in Castle Crag.”
“Castle Crag.” She blinked. “You don’t mean Castle Crag.”
“I have never meant anything more.”
“Castle Crag is in the middle of Aegean.” She stared at him, her eyes widening at whatever she saw. “It’s a slab of rock with an ancient fortress on it. I don’t think it has electricity. It’s a prison.”
“That is precisely why any number of my ancestors preferred to keep their wives and assorted other dissidents there,” Orion said, his voice even and his gaze hard on hers. “I plan to rule as a progressive king, Lady Calista. But when it comes to the queen I was blackmailed into accepting, know this. Where you are concerned, you can expect me to be purely medieval.”
End of excerpt
Christmas in the King’s Bed
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