Prince Ever After
by AC Arthur
Book 3 in the Royal Weddings Series
A royal wager
Playboy prince Roland DeSaunters is ready to live up to his royal legacy—by betting on his future. Winning the beautiful Valora Harrington in a poker game is a scandal waiting to happen. Lucky for him, Val has no intention of getting involved with the younger brother of the man to whom she was once engaged. But after sharing an earth-shattering kiss with Val, Roland is the one swept off his feet.
An ill-fated engagement to a man she didn’t love convinced Val that finding Prince Charming wasn’t in her cards. That was before she was drawn into a passionate clandestine affair with the handsome bad boy of the reigning family. With dangerous enemies plotting the noble dynasty’s downfall, are Val and Roland ready to gamble on an uncertain future? Or could a last-minute challenge lead to the biggest surprise wedding Grand Serenity has ever seen?
Prince Ever After
Book 3 in the Royal Weddings Series
Prince Ever After
The breeze cut across his cheek like a million tiny pinpricks. Beneath him the engine purred like a satisfied female as the wheels smoothly took another sharp turn where there was only one lane’s worth of road and then a drop down into space.
He’d traveled this road so many times before and most times at the same rate of speed. His fingers hugged the steering wheel in an easy embrace, his back and body comfortable against the smooth leather seats of the silver metallic Jaguar XJ220. Night had fallen over the mountains and cliffs of the island an hour ago and he’d itched to get out of the confines of those dress clothes and the formal dining room of the royal palace. It reminded him of his teenage years. Roland tossed his head back and laughed.
He’d been such a hellion back then. Eleven years didn’t seem that long, surely not long enough for him to mature into the prince that everyone expected him to be. He’d had too long to practice being reckless, adventurous and fearless, to bottle all that spirit and simply sit still as a member of the royal family of Grand Serenity island. No, that wasn’t Roland’s speed at all.
His speed was fast. Fun. Borderline rowdy.
With that thought he took another curve, going downhill now as he headed into town. The moment he’d been able to escape the clutches of another tension-filled family dinner, Roland had climbed into his car and driven to the small house hidden in the clefts of the mountainside that he adored. It had been his first major purchase the moment he’d been old enough to spend a part of his inherited fortune without adult supervision. The house was a high school graduation gift to himself, although he hadn’t actually been able to live in it until his four years in the Royal Seaside Navy was completed. His place was located on the southern tip of the island, where excavation had not yet reached. Therefore, this part of his homeland was still flanked with dense forestation with two of the island’s tallest mountains thrusting through the greenery.
Roland loved it here. The scent of the tropical air rejuvenated him. The stretch of the empty road encouraged him. This was where Roland thrived and very few people knew about it. Of course there were guards here, he was a prince after all. But he did not keep a formal staff, preferring to do for himself when he was here. That was why he was driving himself tonight. Using one of his three private vehicles to get around the island. He had an important appointment to keep and so he pressed harder on the gas and made yet another sharp turn, smiling into the breeze as his car handled perfectly.
Just fifteen minutes later Roland pulled into a dark alley. He parked his car alongside a white stone dwelling. Getting out he took the many steps upward two at a time, until he reached a door that—in the daylight—was painted a bright vibrant orange. Windows climbing up the front and back walls of this building had bright white borders and orange window boxes with flowers pouring out of each one.
The door opened after he’d knocked once and Roland stepped inside. The hallway was narrow, the steps going up to the second floor steep. He took them slowly, anticipation bubbling in his blood. The tips of his fingers tingled and his mind emptied of any and everything that could be a distraction.
That included the attacks on his family and the way the royal palace had been on lockdown for the past six months. They’d even stopped having guests at the palace and any staff who hadn’t been vetted, questioned and watched on a daily basis, were dismissed. His father’s wedding would take place in four weeks. His father’s fiancé was a royal pain in the ass. His older brother Kris, was married and still worried about a few accounts at their family bank. His sister, Sam, was married and glowing with love as she began turning over the majority of her responsibilities here on the island to Landry, Roland’s new sister-in-law and Malayka, the pain in the ass soon-to-be queen.
All of that, Roland pushed out of his mind. He focused instead on red and black, diamonds, hearts, clubs and spades
“We thought you might have changed your mind.”
That’s the first comment that greeted Roland as he cleared the steps, walked down a short hallway and into a brightly lit room. The walls were painted white here too and were covered in framed pictures of children, teenagers, and then older people. All taken on Grand Serenity, all appearing happy and content. At the round table in the center of the room with six chairs around it, one of them was empty.
“Game time is at nine,” Roland replied and looked at the Harry Winston Ocean Tourbillon watch he wore. “It’s eight fifty-five.”
“In the nick of time,” a second man spoke as Roland made his way to the empty chair and took a seat.
The first man who had spoken was Nelson Magloo, a fifty something year old man who favored fedora hats and gold pinkie rings. Last year Magloo and his twenty-one year old wife Isla had built a mansion on the eastern side of the island. Magloo was an oil tycoon from Nevada who just recently found out he inherited stock in the old Chapman oil refinery on the island.
The second man to speak was Henri Jauvian, a French businessman vacationing on the island in secret with one of his many mistresses.
Also in attendance was Reece McCallum, famed NASCAR driver; Kip Sallinger, owner of the Sunset Casino which had only been part of the island’s economy for the last two years; and Hugo Harrington, one of Roland’s father’s oldest friends. The group had been assembled by invitation only and Roland was honored to join them. He would also feel honored to take every dime they each brought to the table.
“Whose dealing?” he asked when they all continued to stare at him.
“That’s right,” Reece remarked with a crooked grin. “Can’t expect the royal prince to deal the cards for us.”
“I can deal cards just fine,” Roland told him. “Just as I can take your money without a second’s hesitation.”
“Cocky bastard ain’t he?” Kip asked with a chuckle that had his rotund upper body vibrating with the action.
“But he can’t play no better than his granddaddy could,” Hugo added and took another puff on his cigar.
Roland was used to cigar smoke. His father kept a humidor on his desk and two in his private suite. Rafferty DeSaunters loved few things in life, his children and his cigars being among them.
“Josef couldn’t play worth squat,” Hugo continued after the cards had been dealt.
Roland held his cards loosely as he sat back in the chair. “And yet, he beat your father and a much younger, healthier and yes, cockier you, on more than one occasion.”
The others laughed and Hugo frowned. “I won plenty. My Pappy, well he was another story,” Hugo quipped. “Now pony up fools. I’m in for three.”
Reece whistled. “Three thousand dollars. Hugo you hit the lottery or somethin’?”
“No lottery here on the island. Good ‘ole Rafe, don’t like gamblin’ too much. I was surprised as the rest of the islanders when he let you come down here and open up that big shiny casino,” Hugo said to Kip.
Roland remained silent as he continued to contemplate the cards in his hand.
He didn’t comment on the subject at hand because he knew how his father felt about gambling. Roland sitting here at this very moment had a lot to do with Rafe’s misgivings on the subject. The DeSaunters family history where gambling was concerned was no secret, no matter how much Rafe wished it was.
Josef Marquise DeSaunters was not only known for leading the revolt against Marco Vansig and thus taking control of Grand Serenity in the late 1950s, but he was also known for his luck with the cards. Before the plan to take back their island had ever entered Josef’s mind, he was a hustler. Or at least that’s what Roland liked to think because a good high stakes card game was not the only venture that his grandfather excelled at. Josef could talk a woman out of her fortune. With his root beer colored eyes and movie star handsome face, Josef would likely have the woman naked and in bed while at the same time emptying her bank account. He was good looking, charismatic, fun-loving and in the end courageous. All traits, Roland felt blessed to hold himself. On more than one occasion he wondered what it would have been like to be Josef’s son, instead of Rafe’s.
Rafferty DeSaunters walked the straight line. He made the right decisions, did the honorable thing, said the perfect words, and fought the good battle. He was, in every sense of the word, born to be a prince. Roland, on the other hand, was not. Or at least that’s what the press said.
Roland set his cards face down on the table and reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a wad of cash. He counted off until he’d matched Hugo’s amount.
“I’m in,” he said somberly and placed the remaining bills back inside his jacket.
“Yeah, I’m just feelin’ lucky tonight. Real damn lucky,” Hugo said.
Hugo was grinning, holding his cards tight in his hand and grinning as if he knew he was winning this hand. Roland almost smiled at that thought. Instead, he remained silent watching as the others studied their hands and made their moves. There had been no reason to go over rules for this game, they’d all played on this level before. The secret, all cash no holds barred level. There would also be no tell signs, Roland thought as he looked across the table to Reece who was still studying his cards. They were all professionals here which meant each one of them was just as good at bluffing as they were at winning. At least, four of them were.
“Fold,” Henri said grimly and pushed his cards face down toward the deck.
Kip and Reece added their bet to the pot and Hugo smiled giddily. “Yes sir! Lucky indeed!”
Reece put down two cards, pushing them toward the deck so he could take two new ones. Kip took one new card. Hugo took none. Neither did Roland.
“I’ll raise the bet,” Hugo quipped. “To three thousand five hundred.”
Roland was amused.
Reece folded. Kip did too.
Roland saw the bet.
Hugo continued to smile.
Roland slowly set his cards in a fanned out fashion down on the table.
Hugo almost fell out of his chair he was so excited. A huge grin spread across the man’s face as he fanned himself with his cards. “Best night ever!” he said before finally dropping his cards to the table.
Roland didn’t look down to see his opponent’s cards immediately. Instead, he kept his gaze trained on Hugo Harrington. He was a short man, well below Roland’s six foot, one inch stature. He had a very round face with a dusky brown complexion. When he laughed his neck, all three of them, shook in a funny cartoonish way. His bugged eyes watered and the thick bristly mustache above his top lip twitched. Something wasn’t right.
“You’re an idiot, Harrington,” Kip stated. “Your hand’s a loser.”
Reece chuckled as he reached over and spread Hugo’s cards further apart. “Yeah, man, you lost. And his royal highness over here only has three of a kind. He beat you with a royal bluff.”
Roland still did not look down at the cards. He continued to stare at Hugo, who continued to laugh.
“Oh he won alright. He won the best prize ever!” Hugo told Roland. “See this right here.”
Hugo had reached into the money pot, sifting through the bills he’d thrown down. “This here, this little slip of paper is a promissory note.”
“What?” Kip asked. “You put up the money for the bet. Why add a promissory note in too? Have you been drinking old man?”
Hugo shook his head, one tear streaming from his face as he continued to chuckle. “It’s fake. All of it, is fake! Got it from some sailor a few months ago. Should have known the bastard was crooked from the start. Who the hell would pay all that money for one of her pictures? Just ridiculous!”
“You tryin’ to cheat us old man?” Reece asked. “We play an honorable game here.”
Now Hugo was standing and nodding. “I know. I know. The Prince especially is honest and loyal. All of the DeSaunters are. Ain’t that correct?” he asked with another nod.
Roland was feeling uneasy now. Actually, he was getting irritated.
“I got your winnings though,” Hugo told him. “I got the payment you deserve. Don’t you worry. Come on, follow me.”
Reece and Kip looked at Roland in question. Roland didn’t hesitate, but stood and followed the old man down a short hall.
“I wouldn’t cheat you, Your Highness. No, not at all. I’m an honorable man too. Just like my daddy before me and his before him. We’ve been on Grand Serenity since the beginning and we do what’s right. We keep our word,” Hugo told him. “Unlike some others.”
The last was said as he turned the knob to a door at the end of the hallway.
“Your prize, Prince Roland,” Hugo said and motioned for Roland to enter.
The scream that greeted Roland before he could even take a step was ear-shattering. The curses that followed were fluent and angry.
The half-dressed woman spouting the saucy words was…for lack of a better word…impressive.
Why had she let her father borrow her car? Why had she agreed to stay at his house tonight while he went out on yet another crazy chase for fortune and fame? Why, oh why, was this her life?
Valora “Val” Harrington asked herself these questions over and over as she reached for her bag and began to change out of the uniform she wore while working as a tour guide at the Serenade Museum. She’d worked there for the last three years in lieu of pursuing her dream to become an artist. That was only partially true. Val was an artist. Her paintings were far better than a good number of the ones hanging in the museum. The only things she was missing were an agent and the high-paying clients clamoring over them.
So, she’d settled for the job at the museum because it was the closest thing she had to the life she really wanted. Grand Serenity was her home. She’d been born here and had never entertained the thought of leaving this beautiful island. She could paint in the evenings at her house and during the day she could share the history and the artifacts of her heritage. It was a complete picture, even if deep down she wished for something more.
Her father, on the other hand… Hugo Harrington was a totally different subject, one that Val had been struggling with her entire life. Her mother had died in childbirth making Val Hugo’s only child. His only daughter. That hadn’t been Hugo’s plan. He’d wanted sons to carry on the Harrington name, to stand next to the royal family in the place he’d always thought was due him thanks to his father’s contributions to the battle that put the DeSaunters family in the palace.
It was an old story, one which Hugo had told Val one time too many while Val was growing up. It was also the reason Hugo drank and gambled more than he ever worked and supported his only child. It was a good thing Val had been a cute child and that one of the women her father had fallen into bed with in those early years had worked for a beauty pageant. From the time Val was six years old, until her sixteenth birthday, she and her father had lived comfortably on her winnings from being a participant in one pageant after another.
By the time she was sixteen Val was done. She refused to do another pageant. That was nine years ago. Her father had been drinking, cursing, gambling and guilt-tripping her ever since.
Now, he was smiling as Val held a pillow over her chest and glared at him and the man that he’d just escorted into the room. The man that—damn, she was going to strangle her father the moment she had the chance—was the prince of this beautiful island she called home.
“What are you doing? I thought you were going to be out tonight. Why are you…why is he…what are you doing?” she exclaimed. Hugo, who looked as proud as a peacock, dressed in an appropriately colorful shirt and ragged black jeans, grinned.
“Here’s your winnings,” Hugo replied clapping his beefy hand onto the prince’s shoulder. “She’s a beauty isn’t she? I mean, really she is. Got all the pageant prizes to say so. Now, I know what you’re thinking.”
To Val’s complete mortification her father continued to talk, his words oddly clear even though she could smell the liquor oozing from his pores from all the way across the room.
“Sure, she was promised to Prince Kristian. But he’s all married up now to that American. So there’s no harm, no foul here. You can have her and this’ll settle our debt,” Hugo announced with another smile.
“Dad!” Val yelled. “Are you crazy?”
He ignored her, something he’d been doing for most of her life. Val wasn’t really his daughter. More often than not, she was his commodity.
“Get out! I want both of you to get out!” she screamed this time.
The window behind her was open and a warm breeze blew in, reminding her that she only wore her work pants, shoes and a bra. The pillow in front of her was certainly large enough to keep her covered, but still, she was standing there in her bra. She was so angry her hands were beginning to shake and she thought for one instant that she might actually lose her grip on the pillow and then…what? She would be flashing the prince of Grand Serenity. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, she was wearing her old cotton bra with the broken snap in the back. Yeah, this was the perfect Friday night scenario.
“I apologize, ma’am,” the prince said before giving her a slight bow and then turning to her father. “I’ll speak to you outside, Harrington.”
The prince walked out of the room but her father stayed. “Put some clothes on and come out to meet the prince. You’re embarrassing me,” he said in what was supposed to be a whisper, but Val was certain everyone living on this half of the street could hear his drunken words.
She made a sound that was animalistic which was all that she could muster. She was so freakin’ angry. She was embarrassed as hell too, but the anger was really trying to take over.
The minute that door closed, Val grabbed her work shirt and shoved her arms back through the openings. She buttoned it hastily and grabbed her purse and bag. When she opened that door minutes later it was to thankfully see an empty hallway. Her feet couldn’t seem to carry her outside fast enough. Just a short way down the street she saw her car and hustled down there just as quickly as she could, only to stop at the driver’s side door and curse again, because her father had her car keys.
“I can drive you home.”
No. No. No.
She chanted silently without turning around.
“Your father can’t find your keys. He’s looking, but I doubt he’ll be successful. At least not until he’s a bit more sober.”
Realizing that it was rude to keep her back turned to a member of the royal family, Val turned slowly. She looked up into soft brown eyes and sighed.
“I’m sorry,” she said to him. “I’m sure this is not how you expected to spend your Friday night.”
Roland DeSaunters was known for the gambling, partying and womanizing that had earned him the Reckless Royal title. Standing on the street offering a ride to a museum worker was a far stretch from entertainment for him.
“I can walk home,” she told him.
“No. You cannot,” he replied, his gaze had gone down to her chest and back up to her face.
A quick glance down showed that she’d buttoned her shirt wrong, so that the material was now lopsided with a gap that proudly displayed a good swatch of her sensible white bra.
Groaning, Val turned away from him. “I can. I will. And I’ll be fine. Thank you and good night, Your Highness.”
His hand on her arm was a shock—first, because he was the prince and all that royal business. But second, because the quick jolt of heat that moved from her wrist up to her arm and then quickly spread across her chest.
“I cannot let you walk home at this time of night,” he said, when he came around to once again stand in front of her. “My car is just up the hill. I’ll carry your bag while we walk and then I’ll take you home.”
When Val opened her mouth to speak, he simply shook his head.
“Do you really want to add to your father’s embarrassing circumstances by refusing the prince?”
She did not. So Val clamped her lips shut and let him slide the bag from her shoulder. She folded her arms and walked beside him, hating every mortifying step she had to take because of her father.