His Two Royal Secrets
A Combe Family Scandals Story
From heiress in the shadows
…to his pregnant princess!
For one passionate night, in a stranger’s arms, Pia had felt beautiful and free…free of being the lonely, overlooked heiress to her family’s millions. Then Pia learns she’s carrying the Crown Prince of Atilia’s twins!
Ruthless Ares is determined to claim his secret heirs, but he won’t – can’t – promise Pia more. And Pia’s true royal secret? She’s falling inescapably in love with her dark-hearted Prince…
His Two Royal Secrets
Pia Alexandrina San Giacomo Combe gazed back at her older brother, Matteo, with as much equanimity as she could muster.
She’d practiced this look in the mirror. For a good month or two already, and she still wasn’t sure she’d gotten it right.
“That’s what I said, Matteo,” she forced herself to say, in a very calm, composed, matter-of-fact sort of way.
She’d practiced that, too.
“You cannot be serious,” her brother blustered, a look of sheer horror on his face.
But Pia was standing before the wide desk in the library of the ancient manor house that had been in her father’s side of the family since that early, hardy Combe ancestor had clawed his way out of the textile mills and built it. Or she thought that was how the story went, having always preferred to tune out most of the lectures about the grand history of both sides of her family. Because her parents had so dearly loved to lecture at each other, as if their histories were engaged in a twisted battle for supremacy.
And because she was standing there before her brother, wearing a dress that fit her more tightly than she might have liked—in all that unrelenting funereal black that Pia had been draped in for the past six weeks since their mother had died—she could feel it when Matteo’s disbelieving stare landed on her belly.
Her belly, which, despite Pia’s best attempt to pretend none of this was happening, was protruding. Sticking right out, whether she liked it or not.
There was no way around it.
Her mother, of course, had noticed that Pia was getting “chunky” in the week or so before she’d died. And Pia had learned a long, long time ago exactly what weight she needed to maintain to avoid the acid side of her mother’s tongue. Her mother had seen the instant Pia had exceeded that weight, the way she had when Pia had been a rather moonfaced and shy young girl. To the ounce.
Puppy fat is for poor girls with no prospects, the legendary Alexandrina San Giacomo had said to her woebegone twelve-year-old daughter, her magnificent face calm—which made it worse. You are a San Giacomo. San Giacomos do not have chipmunk cheeks. I suggest you step away from the sweets. You are a San Giacomo. San Giacomos do not have chipmunk cheeks. I suggest you step away from the sweets.
After that Pia had been so determined to, if not live up to her mother’s impossible standard of effortless grace and beauty, at least escape her scathing put-downs. She’d dieted religiously throughout her teens, yet her cheeks had steadfastly refused to slim down, until one morning she’d woken up, aged twenty-two, and they’d gone.
Sadly, she’d taken her fateful trip to New York City shortly thereafter.
And Pia couldn’t say why her mother had done what she had done. She couldn’t definitively state that it was because she’d discovered her unmarried daughter was pregnant, and on the verge of causing the kind of scandal that was usually her mother’s province. Hadn’t Alexandrina spent the bulk of Pia’s childhood beating it into her—not literally, thankfully, though Alexandrina’s tongue was its own mallet—that Pia was to walk the straight and narrow? That Pia was to make certain she remained peerless and without blemish? That Pia needed to be, above all things, Snow White—pure as the driven snow or Alexandrina would know the reason why.
The truth was, Alexandrina hadn’t much liked the reason why.
Pia couldn’t say that the news that she was not only not at all innocent any longer, but pregnant by a stranger whose name she didn’t know, had made her mother decide to overindulge more than usual, as she had. And with such tragic results.
But she couldn’t say that wasn’t the reason, either.
And now it was six weeks later. Alexandrina had died and left their little family—and her planetful of admirers—in a state of despair. And then her father—brash and larger-than-life Eddie Combe, who Pia had thought was surely immortal—had collapsed with a heart attack three days ago and died that same night. And Pia was certain, now.
This was all her fault.
“You are serious,” Matteo said, darkly.
She tried to keep her face calm and expressionless, as her mother always had, particularly when she was at her most awful. “I’m afraid so.”
Matteo looked as if he had glass in his mouth. “You are aware, I feel certain, that we are moments away from our father's funeral?"
Pia decided that wasn’t a real question. She waited instead of answering it, her hands folded in front of her as if she could stand there all day. She gazed past her brother and out at the Yorkshire countryside arrayed outside the windows, green hills beneath the gunmetal sky. Matteo, his gray eyes more dark and brooding than the stormy sky behind him, glared at her.
But when he spoke again, she had the impression he was trying his best to be kind.
“You look pregnant, Pia.”
As if she might have missed that. “I do.”
“There will be press at this funeral service. Paparazzi everywhere we turn. There was no avoiding them six weeks ago and it will be even more intense today. You must know what kind of commotion a visible pregnancy will cause.”
To his credit, he sounded as if he was trying to talk without clenching his jaw like that.
“What do you suggest I do?” Pia asked the question quietly, as if it hadn’t kept her up since the night her father died. If she didn’t attend the funeral, would that be worse than if she did?
“How the hell did this happen?” Matteo growled.
Pia had always considered herself close to her brother. It was only the two of them, after all, caught up some ten years apart in the middle of their parents famously tempestuous, always dramatic love story. Eddie Combe had been known as much for his tendency to take a swing at his business competitors as for his business itself, Combe Industries, that was the direct result of those tough Combes who’d climbed out of the mills.
Meanwhile, Alexandrina San Giacomo had been the most beautiful woman in the world. That was what they’d called her since she’d been all of eighteen. At her funeral, pop stars had sung elegies, the world had watched the televised version to weep along and post pictures of their black armbands, and rarely a day had passed since without Pia encountering some or other remembrance of Alexandrina that called her La Bellissima, the angel of our time.
And that was the more restrained lot.
Their parents’ love story had transfixed a generation. Pia had always been transported by it herself, especially as her experience of their love came with the shouting matches, the broken crockery followed by Those Noises behind locked doors, and their utter and complete fixation on each other at all times. No matter who else was in the room.
Matteo, darkly handsome, broodingly intense, and excruciatingly dedicated to his role as the last San Giacomo heir as well as his father’s successor in the family business, was precisely the sort of child one might expect to come from such a union.
Pia, by contrast, had been hidden away for most of her life, which she had always assumed was a direct consequence of her chipmunk cheeks. She’d been packed off to a convent, then a finishing school, while everyone in the family had gone to extreme and excessive links to keep her out of the public eye.
They all claimed it was to protect her, but she knew better. She was too awkward. Too chunky. The most beautiful woman in the world could not have an embarrassing, tragic daughter, could she? Alexandrina had been a swan by any measure. Pia was, sadly, still very much the ugly duckling in comparison, and she’d resigned herself to that.
Or she’d tried, very hard, to resign herself to that.
“Did you…ask me how it happened?” She stared at her brother now, feeling the wholly inappropriate urge to let out a laugh. Only her brother’s likely reaction to such a thing kept her from it. “Not that you fling it about, or anything, but I was fairly certain you…already knew.”
“Thank you for making light of the situation, Pia,” Matteo snapped, that glass in his mouth getting the better of him. “I’m glad this is all a joke to you. Our father’s funeral starts within the hour. You don’t think you could have given me some advance warning about—” his gaze raked over her, and made her cheeks heat with shame “—this?”
“I thought I should do it in person,” Pia said. That was true. What was also true was that she really hadn’t wanted to do it at all. “And you’ve been down in London since—” But she didn’t want to discuss their mother’s death. “And I knew you would be coming up here for the funeral anyway, so I thought, why not wait until I saw you.”
And Pia was nearly twenty-three years old. She might have been protected to the point of smothering her whole life, but she was still a woman grown. So why did she find herself acting like a stammering child when her older brother glared at her?
“This is a disaster,” he growled, as if she’d missed that. “This is not a game.”
“You’re not the one who can’t wear most of the clothes in your wardrobe, Matteo,” she replied. Airily, because what else could she do? “I don’t think you need to tell me how real this is.”
He stared at her, shaking his head. And Pia had tried so hard to put a brave face on all this. But the truth was, she was ashamed. She could feel that heat in her cheeks, and everywhere else, too.
And the way Matteo looked at her then, as if he was so disappointed in her it hurt, Pia was very much afraid that she would stay ashamed forever more.
“I’m sorry,” she said quietly.
“Who is the father?”
But that only made that sickening shame inside her worse.
“Dad asked me that, too,” she said, instead of answering the question.
Because the answer was so…squalid. Humiliating, really. Oh, she’d thought it was so delightful before. She finally had a secret! She was a modern woman at last, like everyone else she knew! She’d stepped smartly into her own future, seized the day—or the night, to be more precise—and had stopped keeping herself like some kind of vestal virgin, forever on the shelf, because for some reason her scandal-ridden family seemed united in their desire to keep her from making the mistakes they had.
Everything was fun and games until the morning sickness hit, she had discovered.
Matteo’s glare darkened, which should have been impossible. “Dad knew about this?”
“Both Mum and Dad knew about it,” Pia said, her voice small.
Of all the things she couldn’t believe, what newly lived inside of her was really the least of it. She didn’t understand how the world could continue turning without her parents in it. Her mother had been like the sky above, even in the quiet of her own sitting room. That vast and given to sudden storms. Her father had been like a volcano. Big and imposing, and always this close to eruption.
How could they both be gone?
And how could she live with the sure knowledge that she was what had killed them, one way or another?
Her hand crept over her belly, then froze when she saw Matteo’s dark gaze follow the movement. A new wave of shame swept over her.
“What…” Matteo shook his head as if he couldn’t take all the information in. As if he could make it go away by scowling at it. Or her. “What on earth did they say?”
“About what you’d expect.” Pia tried to straighten her shoulders and stand taller, because Alexandrina had always told her it made a girl look a size smaller. “Mum wanted to make sure I knew that it was better to have a boy, as girls will steal your beauty.” She opted not to mention the awkward moment that had followed that pronouncement, as Pia and her mother had stared at each other, neither one of them pointing out the obvious. That Pia had clearly done nothing of the kind. Her brother blinked, and she pushed on. “While Dad said, and I quote, ‘I should have known you’d turn out to be nothing more than a common tart.’”
She even approximated their father’s growl of a voice, with that broad hint of Yorkshire he’d played up, the better to discomfit those who thought they were his betters.
For a moment, Pia and Matteo stared at each other.
Pia felt her stomach turn over, and not with leftover morning sickness. But with disloyalty. Her parents had always had it in them to be awful. Temper tantrums were one of their primary forms of communication. They had always been capable of saying terrible things, usually did, and then went to great lengths to make up for it—usually not by saying anything directly, but with whirlwind trips to far-flung places. Or sudden bouts of affection and sweetness.
They had been disappointed in her. Pia knew that. But if they’d lived, the temper would have given way to something kinder, no matter what they’d said to her in the heat of their initial reactions. She should have said that, too. She should have made it clear she knew they would both have softened.
But it felt too late. For them, certainly.
And for her, the child who had always disappointed them.
Pia could hear the sound of movement in the house outside the library. The staff was getting ready for the gathering that would happen after the service and burial. When all their father’s captain-of-industry contemporaries and associates—as Eddie Combe hadn’t trafficked in friends—would clutter up the house, pretending they missed him. And all of Europe’s heads of state would send their emissaries, because Eddie Combe might have come from the dark mills of Yorkshire, but he had married a San Giacomo. San Giacomos had been Venetian royalty in their time. At least one of their ancestors had been a prince. And that meant that the crème de la crème of Europe was bound to pay their respects today, no matter how little they had cared for Eddie personally.
Pia wanted no part of any of this. And not only because she was terribly afraid that she would cause a commotion simply by appearing in her…state. But because she still couldn’t believe her parents were gone. Not when she hadn’t had enough time to watch them come round. Not when she’d never know if this time, she’d disappointed them too much or if they’d soften the way they usually did. It seemed premature to mourn them.
And deeply unfair that she was expected to do it in public, as if she was part of a show for others to watch and judge.
“Do you not know who was responsible for getting you in this condition?” Matteo asked. Icily. “Or are you simply choosing not to name him?”
And maybe Pia was a little more emotionally fragile than she realized. Because that rubbed her the wrong way.
“I think you’ll find that I’m responsible for getting myself into this condition,” she replied. “I wasn’t attacked, if that’s what you mean. Nothing was done to me that I didn’t enthusiastically participate in. I’m not a damsel in distress, Matteo.”
There was a part of her that might have liked the fact she was pregnant—had it not horrified everyone who knew her. Pia had always wanted a family. Not the one she had, but a real family. The sort that she imagined everyone else had.
Matteo was studying her, and she could almost see the machinery working in his head. “That trip you took to New York. That was it, wasn’t it?”
“If you mean the graduation trip I took to celebrate finally completing college, then yes.” And oh, how she’d fought for that. It had been Matteo who had finally stepped forward and bluntly told their parents that Pia deserved as much of a chance as anyone to live her own adult life. Her cheeks burned all the brighter. Because she was imagining what he must be thinking of her now. “We had a lovely week in New York. It turns out, I happened to come back home with a little bit extra—”
“I don’t understand. You…?”
There was the sound of footsteps beyond the door, and darker clouds began to pull together over the hills in the distance. And Pia stared back at her brother, her cheeks so hot they hurt.
“You don’t understand?” she asked him. “Really? I’ve certainly seen your face and photographs with different women in the tabloids, yet you remain unmarried. How can this be?”
“If you’re going to act like we’re Victorian, Matteo, I should have every right to ask about the state of your virtue. Shouldn’t I?”
“I beg your pardon. I am not in the habit of having intimate relations with women that I do not know.”
“Well. Okay, then.” She drew herself up even straighter. “I guess I’m just a whore.”
“I doubt that very much,” Matteo growled.
But the word stayed in her head, pounding like a drum, because the doors to the library were tossed open then. The staff that Matteo had kept at bay came flooding in, his erstwhile assistant was there to whisper in his ear, and it was time to do their sad duty.
And she knew their father had thought exactly that of her, at least for that moment. He’d looked at her—really looked at her, for a change, because Eddie Combe had usually preferred to keep his attention on himself—only three days before his heart attack. And called her a common tart to her face.
She kept telling herself that wasn’t cause and effect. That the heart attack hadn’t had anything to do with her condition. And that, if he’d had more time, he would have found her in the next days or weeks and gruffly offer some sort of olive branch.
Yet as she rode down in her brother’s car, tucked there in the back with him while he tended to the business of running the family company and his assistant Lauren handled calls for him, she accepted that she couldn’t know for sure. How could she?
The last thing Pia knew Eddie had thought about her was that she was a whore. He’d said so. And then in a matter of days, he was dead.
Her mother had called her fat, which wasn’t anything new. Then again, that was the worst thing Alexandrina could think to call another woman, and she hadn’t yet cycled through to the usual affection before she’d passed.
Either way, Matteo and Pia were orphans now.
And Pia was still terribly afraid it was her fault.
But she snuck her hand over her belly because whether it was or wasn’t her fault, that didn’t extend to the next generation. She wouldn’t allow it.
The funeral service was simple and surprisingly touching. It made Eddie seem far more approachable than he had in life, and Pia wondered if she would understand the man more as time went on. If her memories would mellow him into more of a father figure, lingering on his gruff affection. Or if he would always be that volcanic presence in her mind. The one that had thought his only daughter was a trollop right before he’d died.
The ride back up the hill toward the Combe estate was somber, and Pia was glad, in a fierce sort of way, that it was a moody day. The dark clouds threatened, though the rain held off, and they stood in a bit of a brisk, unpleasant wind as Eddie’s casket was lowered into the ground in the family plot.
The vicar, who Eddie had hated in life, though had requested in his will in some attempt to torture the holy man from beyond, murmured a prayer. Pia kept her eyes on the casket that was all that remained of her father—of her childhood—until she could no longer see it.
And somehow kept her tears at bay. Because there were too many cameras. And how many times had Alexandrina lectured her about red eyes and a puffy face?
It hit her again. That Alexandrina was gone. That Eddie was gone. That nothing was ever going to be the same.
Then Matteo’s hand was on her back and they moved away from the grave site to form the necessary receiving line for those who might or might not make it back to the small reception at the house. It was times like these that her years in finishing school came in handy. Pia was infinitely capable of shaking hands and making meaningful eye contact with every royal in Europe without noticing them at all.
“May I offer my condolences on the part of the Kingdom of Atilia and His Majesty King Damascus, my father?”
Something about that voice kicked at her.
Pia’s hand was already extended. And even as she focused on the man standing before her, his hand enveloped hers.
And she knew that sudden burst of flame. She knew the shiver that worked its way from the nape of her neck down to pool at the base of her spine.
Her eyes jerked up and met his.
As expected, his gaze was green, shot through with gold. And as shocked as hers.
Pia panicked. How could this be happening? The last time she’d seen this man, he had been sprawled out, asleep, in a penthouse suite high above Manhattan. She had gathered her things, feeling powerful and shaken at once by her daring and all the things he’d taught her, and had tiptoed away.
She’d never imagined she would see him again.
“You,” he said, almost wonderingly. “New York.”
And part of her was warming, in instant response to the way his mouth curved in one corner. As if Pia was a good memory, as he had been for her. At least at first.
Before the morning sickness had sent her to the doctor to discuss the flu she couldn’t kick.
But Pia couldn’t indulge in memories, good or bad, because she was standing next to her brother. And he was focusing that dark scowl of his on the man still holding Pia’s hand.
“New York?” Matteo asked. Demanded, more like. “Did you say you know my sister from New York?”
But the man, still smiling slightly, seemed unaware of the danger he was in. “I met your sister in Manhattan some months ago,” he said, amiably enough. He smiled at Pia. “Do you go there often?”
“Miss Combe, my younger sister, has been there once,” Matteo growled. “And guess what? She picked up a souvenir.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The man frowned. But in that way very important men did, as if inviting everyone around them to apologize for opportuning them.
“My sister is six months pregnant,” Matteo bit out.
Pia had the sense that she was in some kind of slow-motion car accident. The sort she’d seen in movies a thousand times. She could almost hear the scraping of the metal, the screech of the tires. Yet everything before her seemed to move in tiny, sticky increments. She watched her brother ball up his fists and step closer to the man. The man—who had told her his name was Eric, though she doubted that was real—did not back up.
And they both turned and stared at Pia as if she was some kind of roadside curiosity.
“If your sister is or isn’t pregnant, that is no concern of mine,” the man said.
Far less amiably.
Just in case Pia had wondered if it was possible to feel worse about all of this. Look at that! It was. She rubbed at her chest as if that could make her heart stop pounding the way it was. Or at least, ache less.
“Pia,” Matteo said, dark and furious. “Is this the man?”
“Have you forgotten where we are?” she managed to ask, though she was barely able to breathe.
“It’s a simple question,” her brother bit off.
“Once again, the state of your sister’s womb has nothing to do with me,” the man said.
And he wasn’t just a man.
If Pia had been going to throw away a lifetime of doing the right thing and making the correct choice over any old man, she would have done it years ago. This man was beautiful. Those gorgeous eyes and silky dark hair, a jawline to inspire the unwary into song and poetry, and shoulders to make a girl cry. This man had walked into the party where Pia had already been feeling awkward and out of place, and it was as if a light shone upon him. It was as if his bones were like other people’s, but sat in him differently. Making him languid. Easy.
His smile had been all of that, plus heat, when he’d aimed it at her, there beneath some modern art installation that looked to Pia’s eye like an exclamation point. In bronze.
But best of all, this man hadn’t had any idea who she was.
She could always tell. It was the way they said her name. It was a certain gleam in their eyes. But he’d had none of it.
He’d liked her. Just her.
She’d planned to hold on to that. She’d wanted to hold on to that. But it seemed that would be one more thing she didn’t get to have.
“Thank you so much for asking about my private life, Matteo,” she said to her brother now. In a decent impression of her mother’s iciest tone, which came more naturally than she’d expected. “But as a matter of fact, I have only ever had sex with one person.”
Then she looked at the man before her, and her memories wouldn’t do her any good, so she cast them aside. No matter how beautiful he was. “And I regret to inform you, but that one person was you.”
But that didn’t have the effect she expected it to have.
Because all the beautiful man before her did was laugh.
At her, if she wasn’t mistaken.
“Like hell,” he said.
And that was when Matteo punched him.
Right in the face.
End of excerpt
His Two Royal Secrets
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