The Scandal That Made Her His Queen

HEAT LEVEL:
Satisfyingly Spicy

One royal reputation, one scandalous night and one shocking consequence! This romance by USA TODAY bestselling author Caitlin Crews has it all!

“You are carrying my heir…
…You will reign as my Queen.”

Crown Prince Zeus needed a front-page scandal to ruin his hated father’s plans for him. So when attraction flared with innocent Nina Graine, lady-in-waiting to the bride he never chose, one deliciously forbidden tryst seemed the perfect solution…

Orphaned Nina has always shunned the spotlight. But now, after her scandalous encounter with the Prince, she’s penniless and pregnant! She wants nothing from Zeus aside from his protection. Certainly not a marriage proposal! Or for the desire between them to be reignited—hot, fast and as dangerous as ever…

From Harlequin Presents: Escape to exotic locations where passion knows no bounds.  Read all the Pregnant Princesses books:

Book 1: Crowned for His Christmas Baby by Maisey Yates
Book 2: Pregnant by the Wrong Prince by Jackie Ashenden
Book 3: The Scandal That Made Her His Queen by Caitlin Crew
Book 4: His Bride with Two Royal Secrets by Marcella Bell

 

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The Scandal That Made Her His Queen

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Castles and palaces and all such trappings of royalty, Nina Graine reflected dryly, were much better in theory than in practice.

She would know, having had far too much of that practice.

In theory, castles were all about fairy tales. She’d thought so herself while growing up in the orphanage. Think of castles and it was all happy, merry songs dancing gracefully on a sweet breeze. Happy-ever-afters sounding from on high, possibly with the help of fleets of cantering unicorns.

Nina was pretty sure she’d had that dream at least a thousand times.

But then she’d learned the truth.

In practice, castles were dark and drafty old things. Most of them had been fortresses first and were therefore built in places where ransacking armies and the odd barbarian could be turned away with a minimum of fuss. They were filled with musty tapestries and bristling with trophies of battles past. No matter how modernized they claimed to be, there were always too many ghosts in the fortified walls.

Palaces, meanwhile, were less about defense and more about drama. Look at me, a palace cried. I’m better than everything and especially you.

Like the one she was currently visiting in the island kingdom of Theosia, sitting pretty in the Mediterranean Sea. The Kings of Theosia had called this place the Palace of the Gods, clearly not suffering from any form of impostor syndrome.

She almost started thinking about the palace’s current occupants, the unwell, old King Cronos and his only son and heir, the wicked, scandalous, upsettingly beautiful Prince Zeus. Almost.

But there would be time enough for that.

Instead, Nina focused her attention on the stuffy little room she’d been left in. It could have been in any palace, an afterthought of a space tucked away in the administrative wing where royal feet seldom trod. Nina had been marched here after she’d pleaded her case to a succession of palace guards, starting with the ones at the looming gate. They had finally transferred her into the care of the palace staff and she had been brought here by the sniffiest, most disdainful butler she had ever encountered.

But that was par for the course in the underbelly of a royal household. Nina tried to make herself comfortable on a settee that had likely been built for the express purpose of making interlopers squirm. No wonder it was down here in the basement, the domain of all manner of petty cruelties and intense jockeying for position. Down here—and it was always the same, no matter what kingdom or huffy principality—it was really more the palace of gorgons than gods.

Because the royals were bad enough. Kings and queens with their reigns and their wars and their commandments were all very well, though they did tend to litter princes and princesses about—all primed by lives of excess to behave as atrociously as possible.

They almost couldn’t help themselves, what with all that blue blood making them so constitutionally obnoxious.

It was the people who trailed about after royalty, obsequious and scheming, that Nina truly couldn’t stand. The palace courtiers and uppity staff. They could have helped themselves but chose not to. However subservient they were when faced with the royalty they served, that was exactly how cutthroat they were behind the scenes. It might as well still be the Dark Ages, when the wrong whisper in the right ear led straight to beheadings.

There might not be too many beheadings with a blade these days, because monarchies were ever more concerned with their images. These days, beheadings were performed in the press, reputations were slashed with a single headline, and on and on the courtiers whispered gleefully, as if actual lives weren’t ruined because of their games.

Why swing a blade when you could gossip to the same end?

Nina knew all of this entirely too well, and too personally. She’d been the primary lady-in-waiting to Her Royal Highness, Princess Isabeau of Haught Montagne, a small kingdom high in the Alps, since the day before her sixteenth birthday. A role she had not wanted, had not liked, and should have been overjoyed to lose six months ago.

Alas, her exit had been…complicated.

She was brooding about those complications as she fidgeted in her uncomfortable seat. The palace guards had confiscated her personal effects, so she couldn’t distract herself from what she was doing. No mobile. No snacks.

It really was torture.

And then her baby kicked inside her, no doubt as cranky without a snack as Nina was—but the sensation made her smile. She smoothed her hands over her belly, murmuring a little to soothe them both.

Soon enough, someone would come and get her. And then, at some point or another, she would be face-to-face with the creature responsible for the state she was in—a state that required, once again, that she concern herself with the doings of royalty when that was the last thing she wanted.

Some people went their whole lives without encountering a person of royal blood. Nina couldn’t seem to stop tripping over them. Though tripping was not how she would describe her last encounter with the arrogantly named Zeus.

Prince Zeus.

Even thinking that name made her…determined.

Nina clung to that word. She was determined, that was all. To see this through. To acquit herself appropriately. To handle this situation as well as possible, for the sake of her child.

To do the right thing—without going down the rabbit hole of blame. She was determined, and that was enough. Because she didn’t like any of the other words she could have chosen to describe her current state.

She sighed and returned her attention to this palace and her officious little waiting room. All the furnishings here were too big, too formal, for a palace made all in glorious white—the better to beckon the sea, the guidebooks simpered.

When, once upon a time, the always overconfident Theosian monarchs had been far more concerned with commanding the sea than beckoning it.

The original Theosian castle lay in ruins at the far end of the island that made up the kingdom. Nina had seen it out her window as she’d flown in today from Athens. The parts that were still standing looked suitably cramped and dark, unlike the high ceilings and open archways that made the Palace of the Gods such a pageant of neoclassical eighteenth-century drama.

She’d spent the past few months studying this place as she’d slowly come to terms with what she was going to have to do. And that it was inevitable that she would actually have to come here. Sometimes she’d managed to lose herself a little in the studying, the way she had when she’d first found herself with Isabeau—and would have given anything to escape.

Nina had not had the opportunity to go off to university. Had Isabeau not chosen Nina on her desperate orphanage campaign—the Princess’s attempt to show that she was benevolent in the wake of one of her many scandals—Nina would have woken up the next day released from the hold of the state at last. She would have gone out into the world, found her own way, and been marvelously free—but likely would not have studied anything. She’d always tried to remind herself of that.

Isabeau could not have cared less about the private tutoring sessions her father insisted she take. Half the time she hadn’t bothered to turn up.

That had left Nina with the very finest tutors in Europe at her disposal. She’d loved every moment of her education, and she’d taken the overarching lesson with her through the years since. If she was to be forced to trail about after Isabeau, she might as well make something of the experience. She’d studied, therefore, every castle, palace, private island, and other such glorious place she found herself, dragged along with Isabeau’s catty entourage wherever the Princess went. She’d studied the places and all the contents therein as if she expected she might have to sit an exam on the material.

What Nina really loved was the art all these noble-blooded people tended to hoard. Museums were lovely, but the real collections were in private homes of collectors with bloodlines—and fortunes—that soared back through the ages. Nina had loved nothing more than sneaking away while Isabeau was entertaining one of her many lovers to take a turn about the gallery of whatever stately place they were trysting in.

That was how she knew that the painting that took up most of the wall opposite her, rather ferociously, was a satirical take on a courtier type some three hundred years ago. And it was comforting, almost, to think that those sorts had always been appalling. It made sense. As long as there were kings, courtiers swarmed.

She was telling her unborn baby about the history of Theosia—ancient Macedonians this, ancient Venetians that—when, finally, the door to her chamber opened.

Nina braced herself, but, of course, it wasn’t Prince Zeus who stood there. She doubted the Prince knew this part of the palace existed. Instead, it was the starchy-looking butler who managed to give her the impression that he was curling his thin lip at her without actually moving a single muscle in his face.

It was impressive, Nina thought. Truly.

“Were you speaking with someone?” he asked, each syllable dripping with scorn. He had introduced himself the same way when he’d brought her here. I am Thaddeus, he had intoned.

“Yes,” Nina said. They stared at each other, and she patted her bump. With, admittedly, some theatrical flair. “The royal child currently occupying my womb, of course.”

She might have drawn out the word womb.

And it was worth it, because she had the very great pleasure of sitting there, smiling serenely, as the man battled to conceal his distaste. Not because he was trying to spare her feelings, she knew. But because it had no doubt occurred to him that said occupant of her womb might, in fact, turn out to be the heir to the kingdom, and a good servant never burned a bridge if he could help it.

She was all too aware of how these people thought.

After all, she’d been one of them. Not quite staff, not quite a courtier, and therefore condescended to on all sides.

Nina had not missed it.

“If you’ll follow me, miss,” said the man, all cool disdain and not-quite-repressed horror. Not to mention a subtle emphasis on miss, to remind her she had no title or people or, in his view, any reason whatsoever to be here. I have seen a great many tarts, his tone assured her, and vanquished them all. “His Royal Highness has deigned to grant you an audience after all.”

Nina had been told repeatedly that it would not be possible to see the Prince. If indeed Zeus was even here, which perhaps he was not, none could say—despite the standard that flew today, high above the palace, that was how the Prince informed his people he was in residence. She had only smiled calmly, explained and reexplained the situation, and waited.

And, when necessary, shared both her unmistakable belly as well as photographic evidence of the fact that, yes, she knew the Prince. Yes, in that way.

Because while it was probably not helpful to any palace staff to ask them to think back to a scandal six months ago—given how many scandals Prince Zeus was involved in on a daily basis—not all of them had been splashed about in all the international papers. Apparently, she really was special.

Nina ignored the little tug of an emotion she did not care to recognize, smiling the sharp little smile she’d learned in the Haught Montagne court.

“How gracious of the Prince to attend to his mistakes,” she murmured. “How accommodating.”

Then she took her time standing up, a basic sort of movement she had never given any thought to before. But it was different at six months pregnant.

Everything was different at six months pregnant.

She found she rather enjoyed seeing the faintest hint of a crack in the butler’s facade as he watched her ungainly attempts to rise. More ungainly than necessary, to be sure, but she was the pregnant woman here. They were treating her like she’d done it to herself.

When she most certainly had not—but it would help no one, least of all her child, if she let herself get lost in images that served no one. She already knew how little it served her, because she dreamed about that night all the time already, and always woke alone and too hot and riddled with that longing—

Stop it, Nina ordered herself crossly.

She kept her expression placid with the aid of years of practice, having had to hide herself in the orphanage and Princess Isabeau’s entourage alike. Then she followed the snooty butler out of antechamber, up from the bowels of the palace, and through the hushed, gleaming halls that were all about airiness and timeless glory, as if gods truly did walk here.

Nina was impressed despite herself.

She kept catching sight of herself in this or that gleaming surface. As ever, she was taken back by the fact that her belly preceded her. But she was perfectly well acquainted with the rest of the package. Here comes our Dumpy! Isabeau would trill, pretending that it was an affectionate nickname. Hurry, little hen, she would say as Nina trailed along behind her, forced to keep a smile on her face and her thoughts on such nicknames to herself.

Isabeau had believed that she was being hurtful. And given that being hurtful was one of the main joys in Princess Isabeau’s pampered life, it had taken everything Nina had to keep the fact she was in no way hurt to herself. Snide remarks from a royal princess really didn’t hold a candle to daily life in the orphanage, but Isabeau didn’t have to know that.

But Isabeau saw her as a hen, so a hen Nina became. She dressed as frumpily as possible, because it annoyed the Princess, herself a fashion icon. Not only were the clothes she chose not quite right, she made sure they never fit her correctly. She made a grand mess of her hair and pretended she didn’t understand what was the matter with it.

And she took particular pleasure in forever eating sweets and cakes at Isabeau, whose strident dedication to her figure bordered on fanatical.

Nina found she rather liked the hennishness of it all today, though. There were many ways she could have dressed for this encounter, but she’d chosen the maternity outfit that most made her look like the side of a barn. She could have done her hair, or at least brushed it. Instead, she’d opted to let it do as it would, frizzing about of its own accord. Like a rather unkempt blond halo, she thought, pleased, when she saw herself in the polished surface of an ancient mask—hanging there on the wall in bronze disapproval.

Thaddeus was striding forth briskly, clearly trying to hasten their pace, so she slowed her walk to an ungainly waddle. Then only smiled blandly when the man tried to hurry her along. And went even slower.

She was determined to do what was right, or she wouldn’t have come here.

But that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy herself in the process.

That had been her philosophy throughout her indentured servitude to the Princess. She was the little orphan girl plucked from obscurity and expected to live in perpetual cringing gratitude for every scrap thrown her way, when she would have been perfectly happy to be left to her own devices in her gutter, thank you. She had perfected the downcast look, with an unreadable curve of her lips that fell somewhere between possible sainthood and the expected servility. Depending on who was looking at her.

But she made her own fun all the same. Her clothes. Her constant sweet and cake consumption, leaving her forever covered in crumbs, which had sent Isabeau into rages. She’d often pretended not to understand the things Isabeau asked of her, forcing her to ask repeatedly. And she had been known to affect deafness when most likely to make the Princess go spare.

A subject of the house of Haught Montagne could not openly defy her Princess, of course. That was unthinkable.

But there were always ways.

Nina reminded herself that she’d found those ways once and could do it again as she walked through another set of gilded arches. More gilded than before, in fact. Her hands crept over her belly, where the baby was moving around, making itself known. She had not actually intended for this last, final act of rebellion, she could admit, if only to herself. She’d thought that she was perfectly all right with the consequences as they were.

But that was when the consequences were being ejected from Isabeau’s service and called a national disgrace, among a great many other, less polite names, in an endless slew of articles that were always sourced from unnamed people in Isabeau’s circle—the curse of the courtiers.

These consequences were a bit different than a bit of scandal and being called mean names by terrible people, she thought, leaving one hand on her belly as she walked.

And that same fierce, mad love blazed through her again, the way it did so often these days. Maybe she hadn’t planned this baby, but she wanted it. She had never loved anything the way she loved the tiny human inside her. The little gift she couldn’t wait to meet.

She reminded herself that today was all about determination. Nothing more.

Thaddeus flung open a suitably impressive set of doors with all attendant fanfare, then led Nina inside.

“Your Royal Highness,” he intoned. “May I present Miss Nina Graine. Your…guest.”

Nina blinked as she looked around, and it took her a moment to get her bearings. She found herself in a vast room flooded with light that poured in from exquisitely arched openings on three sides. They were not so much windows as graceful doors that let in all that Mediterranean blue, the boundless sun, and the far-off call of wheeling seabirds. There was the hint of riotous bougainvillea on the terrace outside, and the breeze brought in the scent of honeysuckle and jasmine.

She knew she was standing in a room in the palace—very likely the royal version of a lounge—but it seemed more like some kind of temple.

And as if summoned by that thought alone, there was suddenly a far brighter gleam where the sun was brightest, until it detached itself from such lesser light and became a man.

Not just any man.

Zeus.

Bathed in light as if he’d conjured it and wearing nothing but a pair of flowing white trousers that clung low on his hips.

Nina hated herself, but that didn’t stop the way the sight of him rolled through her, like a song from on high. Except this song came with heat and licked over her. Her breasts. Her belly. The softness between her legs.

Focus, she ordered herself. He was magnificent, but as person saddled with the name Zeus, he would have to be. He had clearly taken his name as a lifelong challenge.

A challenge he had met, if not exceeded.

And Nina couldn’t help but remember, with an unhelpful vividness, that she knew every inch of him.

Zeus moved closer, somehow looking regal and glorious when he was barefoot and wearing the princely version of pajama bottoms. She tried her best to find him ridiculous, with that dark blond hair that looked forever tousled and the half smile that appeared welded to his lips, but she couldn’t quite get there. Instead, she was struck by the similarity between him and that bronze mask she’d seen out in the palace halls.

He looked ancient. Almost forbidding, so severely drawn were his features. If she hadn’t known better, she would have sworn that he could only have been carved from stone or forged from metal. There was no possibility he could be a man of flesh and blood.

But Nina knew better.

Still he came toward her, until she could see the green of his wicked eyes. And then, sure enough, that slow, edgy curve of his sculpted lips.

She braced herself for that inescapable magnetism of his that she had always thought ought to be bottled, so it could be used as a weapon. It was that fierce. That intense. It seemed to fill the room, closing around her so it was impossible to pretend that she was anything but captivated, no matter how little she wished to be. Her pulse was a racket inside her veins. Her heart thudded.

Even her baby stopped kicking, as if awed.

But far more concerning was the melting sensation that swept over her, making the fire in her burn hotter. Brighter.

As if she hadn’t already gotten into enough trouble with this man.

Prince Zeus of Theosia did not say a word. He put his hands on his lean hips, still with that half smile, as if this was all deeply entertaining, and took a long, slow circle around her. Studying her like she was a cow on a market block in the kind of medieval keeps this man’s relatives had ruled over when the earth was young.

When he made it back around to her front, his face was transformed with laughter.

Her heart stopped. Then kicked back into gear, so hard it was painful.

Nina had prepared a brief, informative little speech so she could get the practicalities out of the way and then get back to her life. And she would have told anyone who asked—though no one ever had—that she was not the least bit intimidated by royalty of any stripe. In her case, familiarity really had bred contempt. She wanted no part of hereditary laziness, ceremonial scepters in place of any hint of kindness, or too many thrones instead of thoughtfulness.

And yet she couldn’t seem to make her mouth work the way it should.

“I remember you,” Zeus said after a long moment of that face of his, far too beautiful for any mortal man.

But he said it as if that surprised him. That it was not that she was in any way memorable, but it was deeply amusing to him that he should recognize her.

As if it was a great compliment to a woman who stood before him, her reason for being here clear enough, as she was swollen with his child.

Nina was sick to death of these royals.

“Are you certain?” she asked crisply, ignoring all that stunning male beauty. Not to mention her memories and the chaos inside. She also ignored the way his brows rose at her tone. “You’ve had more than a legion or two, I imagine, and there’s no telling how many have turned up with claims like mine. Easy to get them all mixed up. You should take a closer look, surely. I could be anyone.”

End of excerpt

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Jan 25, 2022

ISBN: 978-1335568359

The Scandal That Made Her His Queen

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