Suddenly Royal(3)

By: Nichole Chase

How to Lose a Royal

—Perry Talks

“My family?” I felt my eyebrows rise and tried to control my expression. What the hell was going on?

“Why did you decide to keep your mother’s maiden name when she married your father?” Rose folded her hands in front of her and her eyes bored into mine.

“I’m not sure why that would be any of your business.” I looked at Alex, but his face gave nothing away. “I thought I was here to discuss the raptor program for Dr. Geller.”

“Yes, I realized that earlier. However, I was hoping to discuss something else.” Rose leaned back as the waitress and several helpers delivered their food to the table. “I was hoping to discuss you.”

“I can’t imagine why.” Shaking my head, I leaned back so the waitress could set my plate in front of me. “Thank you.”

“Do you know much about Lilaria?” Rose took a sip from her glass before picking up her fork and knife. “We’re a small but proud country.”

“No, I can’t say I know much about your homeland.”

“Let me tell you a bit about it. We control a rather large portion of Europe’s oil resources, which brings a great deal of wealth to our citizens, but it also brings trouble. In the late eighteen hundreds, a royal family of the name Malatar felt it was time for a change; however, they didn’t want an outright war. You see, they didn’t have many supporters. The country was flourishing and the people were happy.” Rose looked at the waitress, who seemed to be taking longer than needed to deliver Alex’s plate. With annoyance, I realized she was buttering his roll while pushing her cleavage into his face. I don’t know why I cared, but it bothered me. Here we were trying to have an important conversation and this chick was acting like a dog in heat. He didn’t look exactly happy about it, but also looked like he wasn’t sure how to stop it without a fuss.

When the waitress stood up with a smile on her face, I pushed my dinner roll in her direction. “What exceptional service the Parallel offers. Thank you.” The waitress’s eyebrows pulled together, but there wasn’t much she could do. Taking the butter knife off my dish, she slathered the roll with butter and set it back on the plate.

“I haven’t seen bread buttered that well in a long time.” I smiled at her sweetly and heard Alex chuckle. The waitress turned around and stormed away. I narrowed my eyes at Alex. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but maybe you should practice telling people to leave you alone. I thought she was going to maul you.”

“Occupational hazard. If I’m rude, there’s a story in the paper about me mistreating the staff. If I do nothing, it could go either way.” He raised an eyebrow. His words made me narrow my eyes; I was obviously not cut out for diplomacy. I was also a little surprised he had decided to explain it to me. “But thank you for stepping in. I was afraid to breathe or I might fall into her shirt.”

“No problem.” I shook my head and looked back at Rose, who was watching us. “You were telling me about the family trying to take over.”

“Yes. Well, they didn’t have much support, so began going after the royal families they thought would put up the most resistance. Several royal families died in bizarre accidents and that’s when everyone became nervous. There was a lot of anger and finger-pointing, but no hard evidence. Our family was left with no way to legally arrest the traitors.” Her sigh was laced with frustration. It was obviously something that had caused her relatives a great deal of stress. “Eventually, some of the families felt threatened enough to leave the country. At times with no notice, leaving everything behind like they would be back any day.” Rose leaned forward, her keen eyes brightening. “One of the largest families to leave was that of Duke Rousseau.”

I was glad I didn’t have anything in my mouth, because I was pretty sure I would have spit it out on the table. “You think I’m part of his family?”

“I know you are part of his family.” Rose’s grin was victorious. “My sister, the queen, has been searching for all the families for years in hopes of bringing them home. We’ve traced your family all the way back to the day they set sail from the French coast for America.”

I sat there for a minute, completely unable to form a coherent thought. Images of my mother passed before my eyes. Snippets of conversation repeated themselves. I knew that at one point my family had come from money, but my great-grandfather had gambled most of it away. Then there was the fact that my family had supposedly run. Run away and deserted our homeland. I felt sick. Confused.

“Why? Why are you telling me this?” I looked up from the plate of food I was no longer interested in.

“We want to reinstate your title and lands, Samantha. They are yours and have been kept in trust until we could find you.” Rose watched me, apparently not sure of my reaction.

“It’s true, Samantha. My mother has been searching for the missing families for years. If my aunt says you’re from the Rousseau line, then you are.” Alex reached out and touched my hand, the one that was clutching the fork so tightly my knuckles had turned white. Heat washed up my arm and I met his eyes.

“Why? Why would she want to find the people who abandoned their country?” I couldn’t wrap my brain around the thought.

“Samantha, in our country, the most important thing to us is family. Not just among the royals, but all our citizens. Our work laws are geared to protecting families. Duke Rousseau did what he did to protect his family. There was no legal way of safeguarding themselves, and he knew they would be targets.” Alex squeezed my fingers and I looked down at our hands. His was much larger than mine, and somehow, even though I had just met him, I found his touch comforting.

“What does this have to do with me? What do you want?” I thought I’d come here tonight to discuss a donation for the raptor program. Instead, my whole life was being turned upside down.

“As I said, the queen wants to reinstate your lands, Samantha.” Rose calmly folded her hands in her lap. “She wants to reinstate your title.”

“Title?” My mind was mush. I couldn’t make sense of what they were telling me.

“Yes. By all rights, you are the Duchess of Rousseau. You are the legal heir.”

I stared at her and tried to wrap my brain around what she was telling me. “That can’t be right. There must’ve been a mistake. I’m not a duchess. I’m a grad student.” I gently pulled my hand out from under Alex’s.

“Samantha, ask yourself this: Why did your mother keep her maiden name? Why did she not take your stepfather’s last name for you and herself?” Rose sat patiently, her face blank as she waited for me to think about it.

Unbidden, my mother’s voice filled my mind. There are two things you must never forget. One, you are a Rousseau and you should always be proud of that. Two, family always comes first. Always. She had told me those things a hundred times, but I’d always thought she was telling me to be proud of who I was, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know my father. And we were a family until we met Dean, my stepfather. And then they became family. The saying never changed. Family comes first.

“Did she know?” I looked at Rose and hoped she didn’t notice the tears in my eyes. Mom had been gone for five years, but it still hurt when I heard her voice in my head like that. And now, to find out this, I wasn’t sure what to do. What to think.

“I’m not sure. It’s likely she knew a little, but I don’t believe she knew everything.” Rose frowned. “I’m sorry we didn’t find you sooner. I would have liked to have met your mother. I understand she was a brilliant biologist.”

“She was.” My eyes slid around the room as I tried to regain my composure. How could she not tell me? Did she know the truth? Part of the truth? And what about my dad? My feet started to itch and I wanted to get up and go demand an answer.

“I’m leaving in a couple of days to head home. I’d like it very much if you would return with me.” Rose leaned forward. “The Rousseau family was a very important one and my sister is extremely excited to meet you.”

“In a few days? I can’t. I have school. Projects. I can’t just leave.” I shook my head. A queen wanted to meet me? This was insane. “What would I do?”

“Aunt, surely we can give her more time to consider everything.” Alex looked at Rose, his bright blue eyes serious. “That’s a lot to put on her all at once.”

“True.” Rose picked up her fork and knife and cut her chicken. “But the world has a way of throwing us curve balls. We have to decide whether to swing or strike out. This is your moment, Samantha. You’re up to bat.”

I snorted. I couldn’t help it. The duchess had just made a baseball analogy about my life. I picked up the glass of wine, deciding I needed a sip to help calm my jangling nerves. “How long would I be away?”

“That would depend on you. There is a ceremony to be performed. Legalities to be followed through with. Of course, once you take control of the estate and become the family head, it would be pertinent for you to stay in the country as much as possible. You would be your family’s voice on the council to the queen.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I looked at her, my mouth hanging open. “Holy shit. You’re serious.” Rose’s mouth twitched and I realized I had just cursed in the presence of royalty. “Sorry. A seat on the council to the queen? You guys know nothing about me!”

“That’s not true. You’ve made the dean’s list at your school every year. You were the top student to be chosen for your graduate program. You are dutiful to your family and take good care of your stepfather. You are a remarkable young woman our country would be proud to have.”

I knew my mouth was still agape. I didn’t care. Rose had just outlined my life, but instead of making it sound boring, she had made it sound like I was a saint.

“I can’t just leave school. My degree is very important to me.” I’d worked so hard to get to where I was. The scholarships alone had taken countless hours of work to receive.

“Raptors are incredibly important in our country. Each of the noble houses has one as their symbol. Your family is the merlin. A small but fierce bird. There are several well-known schools and programs that would be pleased to have you. And you would have the added benefits of our medical system for your father.” Rose looked up from her food. “There are many treatments available overseas your government has not allowed here.”

That gave me pause. More than anything she could have said tonight, that was the one thing that would make me seriously consider this craziness. From the look in her eyes, she knew it, too. I was being maneuvered. I didn’t like it, but at the same time, she made a good case. And I knew about merlins. They were amazing birds.

“I need to think about this.” I picked up my fork and pushed the potatoes on my plate.

“Of course.” Rose smiled and I caught a hint of victory in it. “Like I said, I will be here for a few more days. And if you decide to come, we can push it back a little so you can accomplish any tasks you’d need to do first. I’m sure you will want to speak with your father, as well.”

“Thank you, but I’m not sure I’ll be going.” I took another sip of wine. And then another. Oh good God. What would Dad say?

“I hope he will be able to come for the ceremony.” Rose sipped from her wine. “If you decide to take up the mantle, of course.”

If I decided, of course. I had a feeling it wouldn’t be that easy.

“If you come out, you’ll have to go hunting with me.” Alex nodded toward me.

“I’m not much of a hunter.” I racked my brain, wondering why he would think I would want to go hunting, but found it a little difficult to get past the fact he had asked me to do something with him. “I’ve only shot a gun a few times.”

He chuckled and the sound sent a wave of goose bumps over my arms. “No, I meant with birds. I own several hawks that are excellent hunters.”

“Oh.” That made much more sense. I scooped some of the food into my mouth, enjoying the flavors. Despite the crappy service, the Parallel’s food had lived up to the hype. “I’ve been a few times, but don’t have a bird of my own.”

“I’d be happy to lend you one of my birds. I’ve been away for a while, so it would be good to have help exercising them.” The corners of my mouth pulled up a little. He was being nice. There was no way he didn’t have a gamekeeper to help him take care of the birds while he was away.

“What do you have?” I pulled apart some of the bread I had asked the waitress to butter.

“Three Harris hawks.”

“Alex and his father are very large bird advocates in our country.” Rose tilted her glass toward her nephew. “He presented his first bill to the Lilarian council when he was twelve. He called for stricter punishments for the purposeful deaths of raptors and endangered birds.”

I looked over at Alex and felt my first true smile of the night. “That’s a pretty big proposal. Good for you.”

“Didn’t do it for me.” Alex sipped from his glass and smiled.