The Royal Bastard
Don't miss a single volume of the Royal Scandals Series!
- Christmas With a Prince (novella)
- Scandal With a Prince
- Honeymoon With a Prince
- Christmas on the Royal Yacht (novella)
- Slow Tango With a Prince
- The Royal Bastard
- Christmas With a Palace Thief (novella)
- The Wicked Prince
- One Man's Princess
- A Royal Scandals Wedding, for newsletter subscribers
Release date: June 15, 2015
Print pages: 274
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The Royal Bastard
The Royal Bastard
Five hours after Rocco Cornaro buried his mother, having tossed the last shovelful of dirt over her grave while wishing her a swift ascent to heaven, Satan knocked at his front door.
More accurately: Satan’s driver rang the bell at Rocco’s wrought iron security gate.
Rocco stood at a second story window in his Dubrovnik villa, seething at the gall of the woman hidden behind the tinted windows of the rented black Mercedes.
The uniformed driver hadn’t given his client’s name, but Rocco knew. Her appearance was inevitable after she’d phoned two days ago and he’d hung up after informing her that he had no interest in anything she had to say. He’d thought she’d at least give him the day of his mother’s funeral in peace, but apparently royals did what they wanted when they wanted, and to hell with anyone else.
Rocco took a seat in his late stepfather’s favorite worn leather chair, kicked his feet onto the windowsill, and dragged his palms over his face. Keeping it together while delivering his mother’s graveside eulogy was the toughest thing he’d done in his life. Despite the emotion that threatened to overwhelm him, he’d made it through, his voice resolute as he addressed the small gathering of friends and family. He finished a heartbeat before spying his wife watching from the shadows of a tree near the edge of the cemetery. There was no mistaking Justine’s stature, still lean and tight as any Olympic athlete, nor the fact she recoiled as he glanced in her direction. He hadn’t invited her, and she hadn’t intended to be seen.
What was it with women showing up where they weren’t wanted today?
Thank God his siblings hadn’t noticed Justine standing alongside the trunk of the thick oak. Double thanks that they hadn’t accompanied him back to his residence to see the sleek Mercedes now parked outside. It would’ve spurred even more questions than his wife’s appearance.
Rocco leaned forward in his chair to take another look outside. The driver spoke near the Mercedes’ cracked rear window, nodded, then returned to the gate and folded his hands in front of him in a show of resolve. On the roadway behind the Mercedes, a red BMW belonging to Rocco’s uphill neighbor slowed as it passed on its way to the heart of the city.
“Damn it all to hell.”
“Sir?” Kos Horvat stood in the doorway of Rocco’s study. Twice Kos had informed the driver that Rocco was not available. Twice the driver had insisted that Rocco would wish an audience with his passenger and that they would wait.
Rocco swirled the amber liquid inside the crystal tumbler he clutched in one hand, then took a long, slow sip, savoring the burn as it made its way down the back of his throat. If anyone could be deterred from darkening Rocco’s entrance, Kos was the man to deter them. Not only did he manage Rocco’s properties, he had extensive security expertise and a build as powerful and unyielding as Dubrovnik’s ancient city walls. But Queen Fabrizia, whose husband ruled the wealthy Mediterranean island nation of Sarcaccia, apparently wasn’t one to be put off by a burly, sour-faced Croatian with a voice rough enough to intimidate men twice her size. Nor was she one whose mood would improve with the delay.
“Talking to myself, Kos.” Rocco rose from the chair and turned away from the window. “Allow the visitor to enter, but the car and driver stay outside the gates. If this person is so anxious to see me, they can walk.”
The corner of Kos’s mouth twitched. It was as close to a smile as the big man ever revealed. “Of course.”
“Then go home. You’ve been here around the clock for the last two weeks and worked overtime before that.” During those long days, while Rocco’s mother had been ensconced in the guest room waiting for the end to come, Kos had been a godsend. “You’re due a vacation.”
“I’ve no need of a holiday.”
“And I don’t need you for the next few weeks. It’s April now. The weather should be beautiful. Go while you’re able.”
Kos regarded him for a moment, then gave a slight nod. “I’ll leave once your guest has departed.”
“No need to wait. I’ll gladly provide a personal escort from the premises when we’re finished.” Then he could sink into the solitude he desperately craved. He could mourn. He could rattle about the villa with no witnesses, no looks of concern, and none of Kos’s silent watchfulness.
“When shall I resume my services?”
“Take two weeks. No…take three. Your wife deserves a vacation as much as you do. She’s been incredibly patient while you’ve been here.”
“As you wish.” Gratitude flared in the Croat’s eyes. “Again, sir, my condolences. Your mother was a great woman.”
“She was. Thank you.”
As Kos’s steps faded, Rocco spun away from the door and set his half-empty tumbler atop the wide mantel that crowned the room’s stone fireplace. His mother always described Queen Fabrizia as a worthy opponent. Better he wait to finish his liquor until the woman departed.
With any luck, it’d be his first and last confrontation with her, and it wouldn’t take long. He ran a hand around his waistband, ensuring his shirt was securely tucked in, then straightened his tie. He couldn’t imagine what the queen could want that warranted a face-to-face visit. She was one of the most sought-after women in the world. Arriving on his doorstep unnoticed couldn’t have been easy.
He sensed Fabrizia’s presence before he heard Kos announce,“Sir, your visitor.”
“Thank you.” Without looking over his shoulder to gauge Kos’s shock—for surely he knew the famous face—Rocco said, “I trust your walk up the driveway was a pleasant one? The gardener did a spectacular job with the annuals this year.”
She waited until the door closed behind Kos to answer. “You’ve made a beautiful home for yourself, Rocco.” The voice sounded just as it did on television, warm and well-modulated, the Italian accent hearkening to the queen’s Sarcaccian home.
“Pity you felt the need to travel so far to see it. I’ve had an exhausting week and am not in a position to play host. On the other hand, I didn’t feel I could leave you at my gate. You never know who might wander by with a camera and I suspect you don’t want your visit here noticed.”
“You suspect right, though for more reasons than simply exposing our…link.”
He turned then, taking in the sight of the elegant queen as she lowered a scarf from her head to her shoulders. He’d grudgingly found her attractive whenever he’d seen her on television and magazine covers, but those images paled compared to the real-life woman. Despite knowing her to be in her mid-sixties, Rocco would’ve guessed her age closer to fifty. Golden hair cut in a sleek, modern style emphasized her high cheekbones and full mouth. A light spray of wrinkles radiated from the edges of her bright, intelligent green eyes, but her taut physique, fitted black and white silk dress, and matching black studded leather handbag gave her the overall appearance of a younger woman. She held a pair of sunglasses he guessed she’d worn with the scarf to mask her identity.
More than her attractiveness, however, it was her dignity that surprised him. She didn’t require a crown to demand attention and deference.
“I don’t believe your man recognized me.” The queen approached as if she were being introduced to him at one of her palace garden parties, her hand extended and a cordial smile lifting the edges of her lips. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
He couldn’t bring himself to be so rude as to ignore the proffered hand, nor could he pretend graciousness by responding in kind. He kept their touch brief and businesslike. “Fabrizia.”
Her eyes lit with a mixture of curiosity and amusement. “So much like your parents.”
He merely raised his brows in response. The queen might hold power in Sarcaccia, but not in his home. So long as they stood in his home, in his study, discussion of his parents was off the table.
“Like Teresa, you don’t use my title,” she added as she slipped the sunglasses into her handbag.
Good for you, Mother. Titles should be earned. I’ve never much cared for them.”
She moved past him, her fingers trailing across the back of the study’s plush gray sofa as her gaze flicked around the room, taking in the tall windows and the clean-lined navy curtains that framed them, then the hefty desk and leather chair he’d inherited from his stepfather, before settling on a framed photo of his mother at one end of the mantel. “For you, on this occasion, I’ll grant a pass. You are loyal to your mother, and I find that honorable.”
“Why are you here?”
She laughed, a true, bubbly laugh that surprised him. “Now that is your father’s trait. For better or worse, you prefer to get to the point, rather than learn about others through discussion.”
“My father died five years ago. You never met him.”
The queen paused near the mantel, then slowly turned to face him. “Jack Cornaro may have married your mother and raised you, Enzo, and Lina, but it’s King Carlo’s blood you carry in your veins.” She lifted Rocco’s crystal tumbler and swished the contents beneath her nose. Her eyebrows lifted. “You drink Aberlour.”
“Interesting. So do my husband and twin sons.”
He took a long, quiet breath, waiting for her to get to the point. After he finished that glass—if he finished that glass—he’d find a new brand of Scotch.
“You look like them, you know. It’s uncanny, the resemblance between you and my twins.”
The softness of her voice snapped his gaze to hers. She was studying him in the same calculating manner as she’d assessed his decor.
“Not surprising, as we share a sperm donor.” Her damned husband. The man who’d taken advantage of his mother all those years ago, then abandoned Teresa for the aristocratic, wealthy Fabrizia.
Rocco’s harsh words didn’t deter the queen. “I can understand why you feel that way, but I assure you, King Carlo considers you far more than the result of…that. As do I.”
“Don’t.” His tone made it clear he expected her to state her business and leave.
She set the Scotch on the edge of his desk. “Teresa and I had our differences. Strong differences. However, she was a good mother to you. King Carlo would have been a good father to you, if he’d had the chance—”
“I had a good father.”
“Yes, you did. But now you have neither Jack Cornaro nor Teresa. You have soundly rejected King Carlo. Therefore, your care falls to me.”
Care? “I’m a grown man, Fabrizia. Older than your children, in fact.” Including the children Carlo fathered with the queen while still involved with Rocco’s mother, the son of a bitch.
“You’re a grown man in trouble, whether you know it or not. That’s why I’m here.”
“Say your piece, then I shall wish you a safe and speedy journey home.”
She swept a hand toward the sofa. “May I?”
“You weren’t stopped by my gate or my property manager. Why stop now?” He’d never before spoken to a woman in such an abrasive tone, let alone a queen, but dammit, he’d buried his mother today. And he still had the matter of his wife’s graveyard appearance to confront.
The queen perched on the edge of the sofa, her back straight. Rocco remained where he was, arms crossed over his chest.
“You remember last year, when every reporter in the world seemed to be searching for my son, Alessandro?” At his grudging nod, she continued, “Your mother called King Carlo and said you were approached at a farmer’s market in Dubrovnik by a man who asked if you were Alessandro. Teresa was very concerned. She claimed that the man followed you to the market from your wife’s apartment.”
“My wife is none of your business.”
He regretted the outburst as comprehension flashed in the queen’s eyes. She knew she’d pricked his Achilles’ heel.
“You handled the situation well by telling the man he was mistaken. However, the incident gave me pause. I put a tail on you to ensure no one inquired further and discovered the truth of your parentage.”
“You…what?” Fabrizia had been spying on him? Had his mother known? No…she couldn’t have. She wouldn’t have stood for it.
“It was for your own protection.”
“Let’s be honest about who needed protection here,” he shot back. “It wasn’t me.” If the world discovered that King Carlo had a stealth paramour and children during the first years of his marriage to Queen Fabrizia, it would severely damage both the king’s popular image and the queen’s reputation as a savvy, intelligent woman.
“I would do anything to protect my family. Choose to believe it or not, but I include you and your siblings in that group. If your parentage were to become public knowledge, your life would be forever changed.”
“So would yours.”
“Then we’re on the same side, aren’t we?” She exhaled and shifted her position on the sofa. “The man who approached you that day in the market was indeed a reporter. He moved on to another story when my son returned to Sarcaccia the following week. However, while investigating the reporter I discovered something far more disturbing. He wasn’t the only one watching your movements.”
She opened her handbag and withdrew a cell phone, then turned the screen toward Rocco. It displayed an image of a sidewalk café located on a busy street a block from his wife’s apartment. “Have you ever seen this man? Do you know him?”
Taking the phone from her, he zoomed in on the face of the man seated at the outdoor table. The man’s hawklike nose, lean build, and curly dark hair were familiar. “I don’t know his name, but he rents one of the offices above mine.”
Rocco first noticed him several months ago when they’d stood in line at a local newspaper kiosk waiting to make purchases. A teenage boy mouthed off to the owner for refusing to sell him cigarettes. The man in the photograph had told the youngster to move along, much to the relief of the elderly kiosk owner. Since then, Rocco caught glimpses of the man from time to time, usually as he ducked in or out of the building’s elevator or followed Rocco through building security. He carried a worn, black leather messenger bag and walked in quick steps with his head down, as if he were late for an appointment. f not for the incident at the kiosk, the man would’ve escaped Rocco’s notice entirely.
“Who is he?” Rocco asked.
“Viktor Radich. Twenty-eight years old. Tech expert. His specialty is surveillance equipment.” She aimed a glance at the upper corner of Rocco’s study, where a security camera was mounted, its form partially obscured by the woodwork. “Mostly custom-designed, high end systems like yours for a variety of clients around the world.”
“You’re quite observant.”
“It serves me well in my position.” A tentative smile lifted the edges of her mouth. “It also doesn’t hurt that I live in a residence with superior security. I’ve made it habit to look for both cameras and exits upon entering a building. A member of my staff once told me he always has a minimum of two escape routes in mind when I’m in a room. I’ve never needed them, but his words stuck with me.”
Rocco suspected the queen was the type to have more than two escape routes in mind, and not because she’d been instructed to do so. Teresa had once described Fabrizia as a wily survivalist camouflaged by designer labels. He didn’t doubt it.
“Radich’s parents divorced and his mother emigrated to the United States with Viktor when he was a small child. Under the custody arrangement Viktor spent summers with his father in Moscow…at least when the man wasn’t being held by the authorities." Her look was hard. “Russian mafia. No charges that stuck long enough to keep him imprisoned indefinitely, but he’s still questioned frequently. Radich hasn’t been back to Russia since he finished high school. He went on to study electrical engineering and computer science at MIT. Graduated near the top of the class.”
“So he’s intelligent.”
“Very. No criminal record, either, which is necessary if one wishes to work installing security systems. He started his own business right out of college and had several high-profile clients in the United States before moving here, ostensibly to open a second office.”
“He didn’t install my system, if that’s your point.”
A twitch of the queen’s lips made it plain she already knew that fact. “Tell me, Rocco, how far is your office from your wife’s apartment?”
He frowned, unsure where the queen was heading with the abrupt question. “A ten-minute drive without traffic. Twenty with.”
“Every other Tuesday, Radich dines at the same restaurant where your wife meets with her girlfriends, about three blocks from her apartment. He arrives a few minutes before they do, like clockwork. He sits at different tables each time, but always in the same section where the women have their standing reservation. He’s done it for at least three months now.”
Rocco returned the phone to the queen. He forced a calm expression, though a sense of unease prickled the hairs on the back of his neck. “Coincidence. Many people who work near my office live in the same district as my wife. It’s a popular neighborhood.”
“That’s what my people thought…at first. But on alternate Wednesdays, the morning after Radich has eaten near your wife and her friends, he leaves the office building you share to have lunch at this café near your wife’s apartment, despite the fact there are any number of places to eat near your office.”
“Perhaps he has a standing meeting.”
“In fact, he does.” Fabrizia turned her phone to show Rocco a different image. “Ever seen this man?”
“No. Never.” Taken at the same café, the photo showed a barrel-chested, middle-aged blonde man with a military haircut and dark sunglasses. His face bore bright, raised scars on one cheek, the edges stretched and shiny, as if he’d suffered excruciating burns. The scars extended from beneath the lower edge of his sunglasses and down his jaw to his neck, then disappeared in the collar of his dark leather jacket. A camera sat on the table in front of him as he leaned toward Radich. The pair appeared to be studying the screen of Radich’s laptop.
If Rocco had ever encountered this man, he’d have remembered. The guy dwarfed Radich, and Radich, while lean, wasn’t short. A scarred man with such a massive build stood out in a crowd.
“His name is Anton Karpovsky.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“He was honorably discharged from the Russian army after being injured by an IED in Chechnya. He developed a reputation among his men for his patriotic single-mindedness. Very driven, very inflexible. Very unforgiving of the Chechens…or anyone who rebels against Russia, for that matter.”
The queen returned the phone to her handbag and met Rocco’s gaze. “Karpovsky resented the fact that his injury cost him his military career. His parents hired him to work at their grocery store in Yekaterinburg, which he considered beneath him. Then one night, he shot his wife three times in the head and chest when she arrived home late from work. He claimed he thought she was an intruder, but his wife’s sister alleged that Karpovsky was engaged in illegal activities, having become acquainted with members of the Russian mafia while sourcing inventory for his parents’ store. His wife had planned to report him to the authorities and file for divorce. The sister-in-law believed Karpovsky killed his wife to keep her from going to the police and testified to that at his trial. He served two years in prison for manslaughter before having his conviction overturned when the sister-in-law recanted.”
Rocco spread his hands wide, silently asking what the beefy Russian’s presence in Dubrovnik had to do with him.
“The sister-in-law disappeared a few months later while vacationing in Bali. Whether there was foul play or not, I haven’t been able to determine, but the woman’s claim that Karpovsky is involved in illegal activities is true. Publicly, he once again handles inventory for his parents’ grocery store in Yekaterinburg. Privately, he is a gun for hire.”
The queen stood, leaving her handbag behind on the sofa as she strode to the window and looked out at her driver. When she turned back to face Rocco, her brow was furrowed. “I believe they intend to kidnap your wife.”
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