To Claim His Heir by Christmas

By: Victoria Parker

CHAPTER ONE

HE WAS GOING to propose. Any minute now.

It was every little girl’s dream. A handsome man, one of the most beautiful she’d ever seen, sat opposite her at an intimate table for two, with a velvet box nestled in his inside pocket. Aristocracy, no less. The suave Savile Row sophisticate who was Viscount Augustus. The man who’d set the scene so superbly.

Dimly lit chandeliers cast a seductive romantic ambience throughout the room of the critically acclaimed restaurant, where Michelin chefs were famous for creating masterpieces of haute cuisine. Open fires crackled and crystal tinkled as exorbitantly priced champagne flowed, poured into flutes in an amber rush of opulent effervescence. And beyond the wide plate-glass windows lay the majestic vista of the Tarentaise Valley—Savoie, bathing in the rose-pink wash of dusk, its white-capped mountains towering from the earth like watchful sentinels over the exclusive lavish ski resort of Pur Luxe.

Stunning. Awe-inspiring. The stage was set.

All that was left were the words.

And Princess Luciana Valentia Thyssen Verbault was paralysed with dread.

Please, God, please get me out of this somehow…

There is no way out, Luce. Not only do you have a duty to your people but a deal is a deal. And you made one with the devil himself.

Lord, she hated her father right now. ‘Go to the Alps,’ he’d said. ‘Take a few days to think things over, get your head together.’

Luciana had taken in his seemingly sincere autocratic face, paler since she’d last seen him as his health continued to deteriorate, and thought, yes, a few days to ponder. After all, she’d thought, she had years before her coronation, plenty of room to breathe, to barter for more time. But, as the saying went: Men plan. Fates laugh.

King Henri of Arunthia was being pushed by his doctors to retire. So she’d come to inhale the invigorating crisp air, to infuse her mind with solace. Reassess. Come up with a strategy where matrimony wouldn’t equate to losing the only person she lived for. What her father hadn’t said was that he was dropping her smack-bang in the midst of her worst nightmare by sending Augustus to seal the deal.

She supposed she should have seen it coming. Avoiding the Viscount via any means possible since her return home from China three weeks ago obviously hadn’t worked a jot. All she’d done was delay the inevitable.

You can run but you can’t hide. Wasn’t that what they said?

Truth was, for so long she’d been living on borrowed time, wishing with all her heart that time would miraculously stand still. But time, as she’d soon realised, waited for no man. Let alone a woman as desperate as she was to avoid the ticking clock.

Now she would pay the ultimate price for bartering with her father five too short years ago. Five years of living a normal existence, well hidden in her sanctuary near Hong Kong. Five years of latitude and liberty in exchange for total compliance—starting now.

‘Luciana? Is the filet not to your liking, querida?’

Her eyelashes fluttered as she fought the urge to squeeze them shut. Pretend she was anywhere but here. Querida… Lord, she wished he wouldn’t call her that. Wished too that she could extinguish the heat banked in his blue eyes. Hadn’t he had enough carnal relations for one afternoon? She almost asked him. If he’d enjoyed the brunette in his suite. The one who’d answered his door half naked and ravaged. But the truth was she couldn’t care less. It was the endearments she loathed. They hinted at affection and love and there would be none in this marriage. On either side.

He was playing a part, though, wasn’t he? She wondered, then, if he was going to get down on one knee. While she sincerely hoped not, he was a virtuoso at playing the press and they’d want the fairy story.

Fairy story. Yeah, right. A fool’s dream. Like so many others that taunted her day and night.

‘It’s wonderful, thank you,’ she said, attempting another small mouthful even as her stomach roiled.

It could be the best filet mignon in the world and it would still taste like black ash. Though no one would ever know it. Trained by the best, she was the perfect picture of elegant refinement. Graceful to a fault.

‘Good. I want tonight to be perfect,’ he said softly. Slick and skilful.

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