A Royal Without Rules(6)

By: Caitlin Crews

“What are you talking about?” Lenz asked, after a muttered conversation and the sound of a door closing.

“Your latest discard,” Pato said. He stood there for a moment in his dressing room, scowling at his own wardrobe. What the hell was the matter with him? He felt...tight. Restless. As if this wasn’t all part of the plan. He hadn’t expected her to be...her. “Thank you for the warning that this was happening today.”

“Do you require warnings now?” Lenz sounded amused. “Has the Playboy Prince lost his magic touch?”

“I’m merely considering how best to proceed,” Pato said, that raw thing in him seeming to tie itself into a knot, because he knew how he’d like to proceed. It was hot and raw inside him. Emphatic. “Yet all I find myself thinking about are those Righetti royal mistresses. She looks just like them. Tell me, brother, what other gifts has she inherited? Please tell me they’re kinky.”

“Stop!” Lenz bit out the sharp command, something Pato very rarely heard directed at him. “Have some respect. Adriana isn’t like that. She never...”

But he didn’t finish. And Pato blinked, everything in him going still. Too still. As if this mattered.

“Does that mean what I think that means?” he asked. It couldn’t. He shouldn’t care—but there was that raw thing in him, and he had to know. “Is it possible? Was Adriana Righetti, in fact, no more than your personal assistant?”

Lenz muttered a curse. “Is that so difficult to believe?”

“It defies all reason,” Pato retorted. But he smiled, a deep satisfaction moving through him, and he thought of the way Adriana had looked at him, determination and awareness in her dark eyes. He felt it kick in him. Hard. “You kept her for three whole years. What exactly were you doing?”

“Working,” Lenz said drily. “She happens to be a great deal more than a pretty face.” He cleared his throat. “Speaking of which, the papers are having a grand time attempting to uncover the identity of your mystery woman.”

“Which one?” Pato asked, still smiling.

Lenz sighed. “And still the public adores you. I can’t think why.”

“We all have our roles to play.” He heard the restlessness in his voice then, the darkness. It was harder and harder to keep it at bay.

His older brother let out another sigh, this one tinged with bitterness, and Pato felt his own rise to the surface. Not that it was ever far away. Especially not now.

“I thought it would feel different at this point,” Lenz said quietly. “I thought I would feel triumphant. Victorious. Something. Instead, I am nothing but an imposter.”

Pato pulled on a pair of trousers and a shirt and roamed out of his dressing room, then around the great bedchamber, hardly seeing any of it. There was too much history, too much water under the bridge, and only some of it theirs. Chess pieces put in place and manipulated across the years. Choices and vows made and then kept. They were in the final stages of a very long game, with far too much at stake. Far too much to lose.

“Don’t lose faith now,” he said, his voice gruff. “It’s almost done.”

Lenz’s laugh was harsh. “What does faith have to do with it? It’s all lies and misdirection. Callous manipulation.”

“If you don’t have faith in this course of ours, Lenz,” Pato said fiercely, the rawness in his brother’s voice scraping inside him, “then all of this has been in vain. All of it, for all these years. And then what will we do?”

There was a muffled noise that suggested one of Lenz’s aides had poked a head in.

“I must go,” his brother said after another low conversation. “And this is about sacrifice, Pato, though never mine. Don’t think it doesn’t keep me awake, wondering at my own vanity. If I was a good man, a good brother...”

He didn’t finish. What would be the point? Pato rubbed a hand over his eyes.

“It’s done,” he said. “The choice is made. We are who are and there’s no going back.”

There was a long pause, and Pato knew exactly which demons danced there between them, taunting his brother, dark and vicious. They were his, too.

“Be as kind to Adriana as you can,” Lenz said abruptly. “I like her.”

“We are all of us pawns, brother,” Pato reminded him softly.

“Be nice to her anyway.”

“Is that a command?” The raw thing in him was growing, hot and hungry. And Lenz had never touched her.

“If it has to be.” Lenz snorted. “Will it work?”