Shock Heir for the Crown Prince(4)

By: Kelly Hunter


The clink of glasses and a bottle thudding down on the table prevented him from doing either. Rudolpho was back, and with him a glass and a bottle of Royal Vault brandy. Age spots and veins stood out on the older man’s hands as he poured generously and pushed the glass into Casimir’s hand.

‘I don’t know the royal protocol for this,’ Rudolpho said gruffly. ‘But drink. You’re white.’

‘She’s… It’s…’ Cas took a steadying breath. ‘It’s not her.’

‘No. It’s not her,’ Rudolpho said evenly. ‘But the likeness is uncanny. How far did you get?’

Wordlessly, Casimir picked up the photo of the child in the garden. Rudolpho winced.

‘Summarise,’ Casimir said.

Rudolpho sighed and stared momentarily at the brandy. Casimir gestured for him to have one and succeeded only in offending the man. Rudolpho was a product of an earlier era and would no more sit and drink with Casimir, Crown Prince, than fly. It wasn’t done. It breached a thousand protocols. ‘The child is six years old and has a British birth certificate, courtesy of her being born at the Portland Hospital in London and her mother’s chosen nationality.’

Now it was Casimir’s turn to wince at the thought of a child of Byzenmaach claiming a foreign nationality.

‘The mother is Anastasia Victoria Douglas,’ Rudolpho continued. ‘Twenty-six years of age. Marital status: single. Occupation: interpreter for the European Parliament and the United Nations Secretariat. Currently residing in Geneva, where most of her work is.’

‘And the father?’ He had to ask. He already knew.

‘Father unknown.’

So.

Casimir, future king of Byzenmaach, had an illegitimate six-year-old daughter. A daughter who was the spitting image of his long-dead sister.

‘Your name isn’t on the birth certificate,’ Rudolpho pointed out quietly. ‘Maybe the child’s not yours. Maybe Anastasia Douglas doesn’t know who the father is.’

Cas silently rifled through the photos for the headshot of the girl in school uniform and held it up.

Rudolpho could barely bring himself to glance at it. ‘Maybe the mother has a weakness for amber-eyed men. My point being that the girl’s mother hasn’t contacted you in seven years. She hasn’t asked you for anything, least of all acknowledgement. She provides amply for the child. The girl has a roof over her head, good schooling, loving grandparents. The child is intelligent. She won’t lack for life choices.’

‘Are you suggesting I don’t acknowledge her?’

Rudolpho stayed silent.

‘That’s your counsel?’

‘Or you could bring her here,’ Rudolpho said finally. ‘And do your best to protect her.’

Temper soared. ‘You think I can’t?’ Never mind that Casimir had been the one to leave his sister unprotected in the first place. ‘You think I’m like him?’

‘I think…’ Rudolpho paused, as if choosing his words carefully. ‘I think this innocent bastard child looks like your sister reincarnated. She’d be a target for your enemies from the outset. Front page fodder for the press.’

Silence fell again, the deeply unsettling kind.

‘This stays between us for now,’ Casimir said finally.

Rudolpho met his gaze. ‘It can stay between us for ever, if that is your wish.’

Could he do it? Casimir glanced at the pictures strewn across his desk. Could he really shut her out the way he’d shut out all memory of his seven-year-old sister and too-weak-for-this-world mother? Pack all the pictures away and never look back?

Could he really continue on as if the girl simply didn’t exist?

The child was his blood. His responsibility. His to protect. ‘What’s her name?’ he asked gruffly.

‘Your Highness, the less you know the easier it’ll be to—

‘What’s her name?’

‘Sophia.’ Rudolpho sounded defeated. ‘Sophia Alexandra Douglas.’

A fitting name for the daughter of a king.

Had she known? Had Anastasia Douglas known who she was getting in bed with?

‘Your Highness—’

‘Enough!’ Whatever it was, he didn’t want to hear it.

‘Your Highness, please. Sleep on this. Think carefully before you expose the child to Byzenmaach, because there’s no coming back from that. They’ll take her and shape her into whatever they most desire, and you’ll have to protect her from that too.’

‘The way my father never did for me?’ Casimir asked, silky-soft and deadly.

Rudolpho remained silent. Never would he speak ill of the king he’d served for over forty years.