Crowning His Lost Princess

Book 1 in the Lost Princess Scandal Series
HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

“I have come to take you home…”
To claim her crown!

After years spent searching for the long-lost princess of Ile D’Montagne, notorious warlord Cayetano Arcieri is tantalizingly close to taking back his country’s throne. The toughest part? Convincing innocent farm girl Delaney Clark to claim her rightful place—by wearing his convenient ring!

Down-to-earth Delaney had no intention of ever leaving her family’s farm…until she learns she’s a princess, switched at birth! Now, in Cayetano’s mountain castle, the only thing that feels real is their electrifying chemistry. But surrendering to it means becoming Cayetano’s bride…and one day, his queen!

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Crowning His Lost Princess

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Delaney Clark ran the back of her hand over her too-hot brow, frowning at the clouds of dust in the distance.

Someone was coming up the long dirt drive toward the rickety farmhouse and the tired old barns and outbuildings. In the middle of the afternoon. And that was unusual, because no one was expected.

She glanced over toward the old farmhouse, where her mother had raised her the way she’d been raised in turn. The way Clarks had raised their children here since the land was first settled. But she didn’t need to walk inside from the vegetable garden to see what Catherine Clark was doing or whether she was expecting anyone. Her mother didn’t get out much any longer, and any visits were planned well in advance—usually through Delaney, who hadn’t planned a thing for her this week.

Delaney’s confusion only grew when she saw what looked like a fleet of gleaming black SUVs roaring up the quiet lane.

Pickup trucks would have been one thing. This was Kansas. Right smack in the middle of the great prairie. Pickups were the preferred mode of travel, because everything was farmland or farmland adjacent. She would have been surprised to see a line of pickups barreling her way, too. But she could come up with a number of reasons why her neighbors might show up together.

She could not, however, think of a single reason that five extremely fancy-looking SUVs should come out to the farm at all. She couldn’t even imagine who might be driving them—or where they would get such vehicles this far from anywhere. Her closest neighbor was a fifteen-minute drive away. The nearest town around was Independence, but calling it “close” was pushing it. It was half a day’s drive south.

Well, missy, I expect you’ll just have to wait and see what’s going to happen, won’t you? came a familiar wry voice inside her. Her beloved grandmother’s voice. Delaney still hadn’t fully accepted Mabel Clark had passed. It had been some five years ago, but the pain of it still walloped her when she least expected it.

Even now, with the memory of her grandmother’s scratchy voice in her head, she could feel the hit of grief. She tried to shake it off.

Delaney walked across the yard, wiping the dirt off her hands on the bib of her worn and torn overalls. She wasn’t dressed for company, but she supposed that folks who turned up out of the blue shouldn’t expect much more than the dirty overalls she was wearing and the faded bandanna on her head. She stood there, frowning a little, as the gleaming black vehicles came to a stop before her, kicking up dust in all directions. She counted five in total.

And for a moment, she thought that maybe they’d realized their mistake. Maybe they were all peering out their dramatically tinted windows at her and realizing they’d taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Because nothing happened.

It was just Delaney, out beneath the endless bowl of a Kansas sky, corn stretching in all directions. It was a pretty day, not too warm or too cold, and she supposed if she had to stand around in her own yard waiting to see who’d taken it upon themselves to show up here today, she ought to be grateful there wasn’t a rainstorm. Or a tornado.

Thank you, Grandma Mabel, she said in her head.

She was grinning a little when the door of the vehicle that had stopped in the center of the other four opened.

By this point, Delaney could admit, she’d let anticipation get the better of her.

But it was only a driver. Though that, too, was fascinating. Who had a driver? She supposed she’d become her mother’s driver, in these last few years since Catherine’s arthritis and heart trouble had robbed her of so much. But she did not make her mother ride in the back seat. Nor did she wear a uniform. Unless her overalls counted.

Somehow Delaney knew that her overalls did not, in fact, count. Not to the sort of people who rode about in fleets and had uniformed drivers to open up their doors.

And it was an otherwise ordinary Tuesday, so she found herself far more interested in who, exactly, those sorts of people might be than she might have otherwise. She was really bemused more than anything else when the driver nodded at her as if she was exactly who he’d come to see, which was both laughable and impossible, then opened the back door of the SUV.

Some part of her was expecting trumpets to sound.

But there was still no particular sound, so there was nothing to distract her from the way the breeze danced in from the fields, or the sound of the wind chimes that made her mother happy, and then, there before her, the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her entire life… unfolding himself from the back of the SUV that seemed entirely incapable of holding him.

Because what could possibly hold… him?

He was otherworldly. Almost alien, so little did he belong here in the middle of this rolling prairie, where the farmhouse and the red barn stood exactly as they had for ages and yet, she was sure, had never borne witness to anything like him.

Even the tornadoes would find it hard to top this man.

She knew exactly where the sun was above her, and yet Delaney felt certain that it had shifted. The better to beam its golden light all over this man. As if the sun itself wanted nothing more than to highlight him as best it could.

Delaney found she understood the urge. She felt it herself, everywhere. When she could not recall a single other time in her twenty-four years that she had ever had any kind of reaction to any kind of man. The boys she’d grown up with had been nice enough. They still were. And if she’d wanted, she had always suspected she could have gotten close to one of them and settled down the way so many of her high school classmates had.

It had never really occurred to Delaney to do anything of the kind. Because there was the farm. There had always been the farm. There was Grandma, and her mother, and Delaney took very seriously the fact that she was the last Clark. This land would be hers—was already hers in all the ways that mattered—and while she didn’t intend to farm it alone the way her mother had done since Delaney’s father had died before she was born, she also knew she had to make sure she picked the right kind of man.

She had yet to find a man around here who came close to her idea of the right kind.

It had never crossed her mind that the reason for that might be because none of them were men. Not like this man was.

As if he was redefining the term.

Delaney was always solid on her own two feet, planted right where they belonged in Kansas soil, and yet she actually felt dizzy as she stared up at the man before her. As if he was doing something more than simply standing there next to that obnoxiously glossy SUV that still gleamed as if the country roads hadn’t dared get any dirt on it.

It wasn’t that she thought the creature before her was the right sort of man. It wasn’t like that, no matter that her body was doing all kinds of bizarre things. Too hot. Too cold. Fluttery, for some reason. As if he was so beautiful that human eyes were not meant to behold him.

Maybe she was coming down with the flu.

Besides, she doubted very much a man like this even knew what a farm was. He likely looked down the not inconsiderable length of his own body and saw nothing but dirt. Delaney had no use for such people.

She told herself that. Repeatedly.

Still, she couldn’t seem to bring herself to look away from him. Maybe it was the loving way the sun fell over him, calling attention to the crisp black suit he wore that should have made him look as if he was attending a funeral. Yet it did not—or not the sort of funeral Delaney had ever attended around here, anyway. Maybe it was the way he held himself that made her think of the neighbors’ prize bull. Never quite at rest, always rippling with that ferocious power right beneath the surface that could erupt at any moment…

Though she associated the sort of suit he was wearing with men in magazines, always too angular and wee to her mind, he wasn’t either of those things, either. He was powerfully built, a symphony of lean muscle in a tall frame that made her breath feel a little short.

She had the sudden, strange conviction that this was a man who was well used to people looking up at him the way she was.

He was wearing dark glasses, but as she stood there gaping at him, he shifted them from his eyes. He did not shove them on the top of his head, or even on the back of his head, the way folks often did around here. He slid them into the lapel pocket of that suit of his, a small, simple gesture that made clear the breadth of his sophistication. She couldn’t have said why. Only that it was as obvious as the width of his shoulders, the power in his chest, all the rest of him cast in stone and dark glory.

And Delaney should have laughed at herself for even thinking something like that. Dark glory. It was so melodramatic. It was so unlike her.

But then, it was almost too much to look upon his bare face. It was almost too much.

It was as if he’d been carved, not born. As if he’d been sculpted in a fury, bold lines and a forbidding palette. She thought of stone again, immovable. The harnessed power of great, wild animals. And some kind of hawk, too, fierce and commanding as he peered at her.

The man was…a lot.

“Wow,” Delaney said, the word coming out of her mouth of its own accord. “Who are you? Are you lost?”

That was the only thing that made sense. That he was lost, out here in the prairie in his conspicuous caravan to God only knew where. That he’d turned in to ask for directions, perhaps—though that was hilarious in its own way. Since he looked like a man who would know where he was, always. As if he was his own compass in all things.

She was vaguely aware that other doors were opening, and other people were coming out of the gleaming vehicles, but she couldn’t seem to look away from the man before her. She felt as if she was caught, somehow. As if he was deliberately holding her where she stood. There was something about his burnt gold gaze that nailed her to the spot. And though it wasn’t even warm, she could feel herself heat up—even as a strange shiver worked its way from the nape of her neck all the way down her spine.

Dark glory was the only term that fit.

“You are called Delaney Clark,” the man said.

“I am,” she replied, because it seemed important that she answer him immediately. And only when she had did it occur to her that he hadn’t actually asked her a question.

That had been a statement. As if he already knew her when she knew she most certainly did not know him.

That should have been a huge red flag, but all Delaney could seem to think about was dark glory and the way he spoke. That was certainly no Kansas accent. It was as if his words had a particular spice to them, and the way he said her name—

Get a grip, girl, she ordered herself. Before you start drooling on the man.

She was embarrassed at the very idea.

But she didn’t step back.

“I see it,” the man pronounced. And Delaney was aware, then, that he was making some kind of declaration. More, that all the people he brought with him were making murmuring noises as they gazed at her, as if that declaration meant something to them. Something intense. “The cheekbones. The mouth. And of course, the eyes. She has a look of the Montaignes.”

Again, there were more murmuring noises of assent. And awe, if she wasn’t mistaken. And Delaney was still standing there in her overalls, with dirt all over her, allowing this strange moment to drag on. Because she didn’t know quite what to do. Or what to say.

Or maybe because this man was too darkly beautiful and it turned out she was a silly little farm girl after all. That was how she felt, which was novel in its own right, because she had never been silly. Surely she could come up with something to say that wasn’t dark glory or the neighbors’ bull.

“Who are you?” she asked again.

Not exactly an improvement, though not as bad as it could have been. Delaney realized how dazed she was when the men flanking him stepped forward. Because she hadn’t even seen them fall into place like that. But there they were, clearly…bodyguarding him.

In response, the man himself…barely moved. He did something with his head. Maybe inclined it slightly. Maybe shook it? But either way, the men froze on either side of him, as if he’d stopped them with his own hands.

“I am Cayetano Arcieri,” he replied.

And then waited, as if his name itself tolled across the field like deep and terrible bells, calling down storms from above.

But it was still the same old Kansas sunshine. Delaney blinked. “I can tell that I’m supposed to recognize that name.”

The man before her was hard and fierce, yet the way his brow rose was nothing short of haughty. “Do you not?”

“Well. No. I can’t say that I do. I’m guessing you’re not a salesman. I doubt you’re here to see about the tractor, which is a pity, because it’s nothing short of poorly these days. And to be honest, I’m pretty sure I would remember that name if I’d ever heard it before.” She shook her head sadly. Because she actually was sad that she was who she was and always had been—and that, therefore, there was no way on earth this man could possibly be looking for her. It felt a bit like grief, but that was crazy. “I thought you were lost, but now I think maybe you have some bad information.”

He no longer looked haughty. Or not entirely haughty. A weather system moved over his face and what was left was a glinting thing that made her feel entirely too warm.

His hard mouth curved. Slightly. “If you are this Delaney Clark, and I can see that you are, I am afraid, little one, that I’m in exactly the right place.”

No one had ever called Delaney little one. She had the sense she ought to have been offended.

Yet that was not, at all, the sensation storming around inside of her.

“I really don’t think so,” she said, because it felt critically important to her that she set the record straight. It didn’t matter that every part of her wanted to be this man’s little one. She would have to investigate that later and ask herself some hard questions. Probably. But she couldn’t cope with extending this misunderstanding.

She had the oddest conviction that humoring this man not only wouldn’t work, but that going along with him only to discover that she was not the Delaney Clark he was looking for would…bruise her, somehow.

And merely being in his presence felt bruising enough.

The more he looked at her, the more she began to feel as if the burnt gold of his gaze was somehow…inside her. She could feel the flames. And that delirious heat.

Cayetano seemed impervious to the dust beneath him, the breeze, the typical Kansas spring carrying on all around. He seemed to grow broader and taller the longer he stood there before her… and Delaney had never considered herself a whimsical person.

It was difficult to be too whimsical on a farm. There were too many chores.

And yet that was the only word she could think of as she looked at this man. Whimsy.

Except a lot hotter.

“I come from a country called Ile d’Montagne,” Cayetano said. He paused as if he expected her to react to that, so she nodded. Helpfully. His mouth—a thing of wonder itself, stark and sensual at once—curved faintly once more. “It is a small place. An island in the Mediterranean to the north and east of Corsica. And it has been ruled for many centuries by false kings and queens.”

Delaney felt as if she was outside herself. Nodding along while this man who could have stepped out of a Hollywood movie talked to her of kings and queens. Kings and queens, of all things, as if royalty was something he thought a great deal about. In his day-to-day life. So much so that there was a difference between false and un-false kings and queens.

Maybe she was actually still in her vegetable garden. Maybe she’d toppled over and hit her head on her loop hoe and was dreaming all of this.

That made a lot more sense than this conversation.

With this impossibly magnetic man.

Out here in the yard, talking of royalty and Mediterranean islands.

“For almost as long, there has been a rebellious faction,” Cayetano told her. “The mountains that form the spine of the island have been contested since the first false king attempted to claim it. Just because a man comes along and calls a bit of land his, that doesn’t make it so. There have been skirmishes. What has been called a civil war or two, but for that to be the case, all involved would need to be citizens. Subjects. When those who fight do not consider themselves either. Between these conflicts there have also been long stretches where those who reject the false kings merely…wait.”

“Wait?” Delaney repeated. Hoping she sounded like something more than a mere parrot.

But what else was there to do but squawk?

“Wait,” Cayetano agreed, his gaze dark and intent. “Have you never heard the proverb? Wait long enough by the river and the body of your enemy floats by.”

That seemed to take an unnecessarily dark turn, in her opinion, in an already notably violent little tale this stranger was telling her. Out here in the yard where she should have been alone with her plants the way she was every other day.

“I can’t really speak to rebellious factions hunkering down in contested mountains,” Delaney said. Nervously. Her hands suddenly felt like they might betray her in some way. So she shoved them into the pockets of her overalls. “Or waiting by rivers. You do know that this is Kansas, don’t you? We don’t really have mountains. Though there are some big rocks.”

Was it her imagination or did Cayetano move closer? Whether it was or not, she found she was having trouble breathing, and instead of being alarmed by that…

She kind of liked it.

Obviously she was not well.

But still, she couldn’t seem to move.

“For centuries, my people have waited to claim what is theirs,” Cayetano told her, and his voice was low now. Almost quiet. And yet it was as if all the fields in all directions went still. As if the sky paused, the better to listen. To wait. “For an opportunity. A chance. My grandfather negotiated our current peace, which has held far longer than anyone thought might. Yet still we believed that any chance we might get to reclaim what is ours could only come with bloodshed.”

Bloodshed.

And…there it was at last. That alarm that Delaney should have been feeling from the start. It washed through her in a torrent then, so electric she was sure she could feel every hair on her body stand on end.

“I’d like to come down firmly against bloodshed, if that’s an option,” she said, as carefully as a person could when talking about…whatever it was they were talking about here. This very serious nonsense the man with the burnt gold eyes seemed so intent on sharing with her.

“I am a warlord,” the forbidding man before her told her. “I earned my place in blood and fire.”

“Metaphorically?” Delaney asked with a nervous little laugh.

No one echoed that laugh.

The men arrayed behind him were stone-faced. Cayetano himself appeared to be fashioned from stone.

“I have found a far better way to reclaim my ancestral lands than any war,” he told her, his gaze never wavering. “A foolproof plan, at last.”

“Oh, good.” Delaney was beginning to feel something like lightheaded. Or maybe it was more of that dizziness. “That sounds much nicer than bloodshed.”

The look on his face changed, then. And if she hadn’t been so overwhelmed she might have thought that, really, it looked a lot like amusement.

Assuming a man like this was capable of being amused.

“That depends on how you look at it,” Cayetano said. Distantly, Delaney registered the laughter of his minions, indicating that they were capable of it. “You and I are to marry.”

Had he said that he planned to ride a dinosaur down to Independence and back, or perhaps catapult himself high enough into the air to swat down the sun, that would not have been any more astonishing.

“I…what?”

“You are the key,” Cayetano Arcieri, self-styled warlord of a country she’d never heard of, who had earned his place in blood and fire, assured her.

Delaney’s throat was upsettingly dry. “I feel pretty sure I’m not.”

“You are the lost heiress to the crown of Ile d’Montagne, little one,” Cayetano informed her. “And I have come to take you home.”

He said that the way something as over the top as that should be said, really, all ringing tones and certainty and that blaze in his burnt gold eyes. Delaney thought the corn bowed down a little, that was how impressive he sounded.

But all she could do was laugh.

End of excerpt

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