Shock Heir for the Crown Prince(3)

By: Kelly Hunter


Rudolpho set a yellow courier’s envelope on the desk as if he couldn’t wait for it to leave his hand. ‘The report you ordered on Anastasia Douglas came in. I took the liberty of opening it.’

‘You open everything.’ Nothing unusual about that.

‘Not every report I glance through threatens my ability to breathe. Did you know?’

The older man’s voice had taken on a hard, precise edge, with an undertone of something Casimir couldn’t quite place. Fear? Despair? Maybe it was disappointment. ‘Know what?’

‘I’ll be in my office,’ Rudolpho said, and stalked away, his spine one ramrod line of displeasure.

Disappointment it was. Casimir eyed the offending envelope with deep suspicion before reaching for it.

New memories to replace the old, he reminded himself grimly. Closure, rather than curiosity. Nothing to worry about. He’d asked for this.

So why did his hand tremble ever so slightly as he reached in and withdrew the contents of the envelope?

There were photos, lots of photos, and the topmost image was a close-up of Ana’s face. A heart-shaped face, wide of brow and pointy of chin, with eyes to drown in and lips that promised heaven. Strong, shapely eyebrows and lashes, thick and black, made the cerulean blue of her eyes all the more arresting. In this picture her hair had been scraped back into a careless ponytail. In the next photo it framed her face in sultry waves that curled around her neck and shoulders. It was a face to stop a man’s breath. Casimir put a hand to his face and rubbed hard before turning to the next photograph.

So she’d grown into her beauty. No surprises there.

The next shot was a full-body take of Ana walking up a set of wide outdoor steps—rushing up them most likely, because her body was a study in motion. Slender legs and rounded curves and, again, that loose mane of ebony hair. She wore a dark grey corporate skirt and jacket and had a black satchel slung over her left shoulder. Two more photos showed similar variations on a corporate theme.

The next photo showed her in jeans and a pink short-sleeved T-shirt, standing outside school gates with a young schoolgirl by her side. The photographer had caught them from the rear, as Ana adjusted the shoulder strap of the girl’s backpack. So she was a mother now—good for her. Hopefully she had a husband to love and a solid family life. Casimir looked to her hand to see if she wore a wedding ring but the photo didn’t allow for that level of detail.

The next shot was a formal school photo of the child.

At which point the world as Casimir knew it simply stopped.

There was no sound. No air.

Grey threatened the edges of his sight.

No.

Yes.

Casimir had had a sister once. For seven years he’d had a sister three years younger than he was. And then the rebels to the north had taken her and when his father hadn’t agreed to their demands they’d killed her and sent back pieces to prove it.

His mother had never recovered. She’d taken her own life a year later to the day, leaving her husband and her son to carry on alone.

They didn’t talk about it, Cas and his father. They never had and probably never would. Therapists had been out of the question—too much potential for exploitation to ever let someone inside the young Prince of Byzenmaach’s head, so Cas had survived as best he could.

The pictures of his mother and sister remained prominent in the palace—a permanent reminder of failure, loss and grief. One of the first things he’d do as king would be to remove them to a rarely used dining room and shut the door on them.

Such a small and petty command for a new monarch to give.

He couldn’t look away from the picture of the girl. The cloud of unruly black hair, the cowlick at the child’s temple, the aristocratic blade of her nose.

Those eyes.

He put his hands to his own eyes and rubbed, but the picture was still there.

There would be no getting rid of this.

More pictures followed and each one brought with it a barrage of conflicting emotions because from a distance the kid could be any young girl, but up close…up close, and especially around the eyes—the hawkish, tawny-gold colour of her eyes…

The photo of her twirling in the garden, arms outstretched as if to catch the dust motes in the air…

Heaven help him, he was ten years old again, only this time he hadn’t left his sister alone in the garden to go and get a jar to catch the praying mantis in, and when he came back she hadn’t been gone.

Taken.

Kidnapped.

And never coming back.

Weakness didn’t sit well on him but he’d rather cut his own eyes out than look at another photo of Anastasia Douglas’s daughter. Cas closed his eyes and concentrated on the formerly simple act of breathing.