The secret baby, p.8

The Secret Baby, page 8

 

The Secret Baby
 


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  “He was your touch-point. He made you feel normal.”

  I nod. “And now I find out he had absolutely no idea what it was like because his parents weren’t distant. They were the king and freaking queen. He always got a little bit of a pass for being obnoxious and pushy, but I thought it was because he might be going through the same things as me. But, no. My folk hero is a literal prince not-charming.”

  “I think he’s still pretty damn charming,” Seb says. “Which brings me to my next question. How are you not throwing yourself at him?”

  “Did you not hear anything I just said?” I ask.

  “You’re upset because you didn’t know he was a prince, but that just happened. He’s been sleeping under your roof for four days now. He’s gorgeous, and he obviously wants your attention.”

  “If you are so familiar with how gorgeous he is, how did you not immediately recognize him?” I ask.

  “The pictures that have been splashed all over the celeblog—it’s a word, so don’t start with me. Anyway, those pictures have not exactly been the most flattering. But that’s not the point. You’re deflecting. This man has been doing everything he can to be in your orbit. What’s stopping you?”

  “He might be nice to look at, but the appeal stops there. Owen is domineering, aggravating, and very obviously used to getting everything he wants without having to put any effort into it. He doesn’t know what real work is and has never had to care about anything other than himself. I don’t have the time or patience for anyone like that in my life. You know how much I believe in hard work and pushing for what I want in life.”

  “What if that’s him?” Seb asks.

  “It’s not him.”

  “You haven’t given him a chance, Avery. Besides, Prince Amadeus has been going out of his way to get your attention. That doesn’t seem like someone who just wants what he wants.”

  “Please, Seb. Owen. His name is Owen. And if you bow to him one more time, you’re banned.”

  “Still deflecting.”

  “Him trying to get my attention is exactly him just wanting what he wants,” I say. “He’s just toying with me. The only reason he’s been trying is that I’m not giving into him. He’s not legitimately interested in me. He’s just trying to get what he wants from me. Besides, he’s only on the island for a short time before he goes home. Why waste my time on him?”

  “Alright,” Seb says, eyeing me like he knows something I don’t. “I’ll let it go.”

  “Thank you. Now, help me dip some apples. I only have a couple more days before the festival, and I want to be ready.”

  It takes longer than I expect to finish the batch of apples, and by the time I start back to Hometown Bed And Breakfast, the sun is already making its way down. Not for the first time in my career running the bed-and-breakfast, I’m glad dinner is not my responsibility for my guests. I’ll stuff them full of pastries, fruit, and eggs in the morning, but after that, I’m turning them loose on the rest of the village, and one of the other people can feed them for the rest of the day.

  There are lights glowing in two of the rooms at the back of the building, but the rest is dark. It seems most of my guests are still out enjoying all that Vidalia Isle has to offer. Fall is my favorite time on the island, and this year, there’s even more to draw in the tourists. Businesses are booming, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is just the start of transforming the harvest into the most popular tourist season for the village.

  Stepping into the house, I tuck my keys away in the drawer. I don’t know why I bother bringing them with me most of the time. They start up my car only a handful of times each year, and that’s only in the dead of winter. There’s rarely the need for me to venture back into the storage buildings or the two small cottages tucked away on the grounds. It’s mostly force of habit from the few months immediately after my grandmother died, when the business ground to a halt and every time I left the building I locked the door behind me.

  Clinging to that may not be the healthiest routine of mine. I’m sure someone would say bringing them with me even when they aren’t needed is sending that energy out into the universe, and that I’m going to attract the lack of business or some similar type of mumbo-jumbo. I’d like to think the universe is too busy with other, more important things, like war and famine and preventing that tear in the time-space continuum everybody keeps hearing about, to worry if I have my keys with me on any given day.

  I take a step through the foyer and feel someone’s eyes on me. The feeling sweeps down the back of my neck and along my spine, making me turn sharply toward the parlor. For the second time today, an unexpected figure makes my heart jump into my throat. Someone is standing in the darkened room.

  It startles me, but something about it also draws me in. We take a step toward each other, and he becomes more visible in the light from the foyer. It shines on his red mask, and my stomach tightens.

  “It’s you,” I murmur.

  He lifts a finger to his lips to quiet me as he comes closer. In one swift movement, I’m in his arms, my chest crushed against his and his mouth devouring mine. There’s no pretense. No delicate seduction. He’s already had his first taste of me, and now he wants more. My body springs to life, and I’m more than happy to give him what he’s after. His strong hands tighten around me, and he lifts me enough to guide me back against the wall.

  Pressing me there, he kisses me harder, his tongue glazing over my bottom lip and touching my tongue with his. I wrap my arms around his neck eagerly and rise up on my toes to press harder into his kiss, letting my body seek his. His hips push forward, and I lift one leg, mimicking the position he held me in when we were back against the gazebo. I let the hard bulge at the front of his pants grind against me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m aware that one of my guests could come into the foyer at any second and catch us, but I don’t care in the moment.

  The masked man kisses me until I’m breathless, and then he lifts me into his arms and starts toward my bedroom. It occurs to me through my foggy thoughts that the door opens immediately, meaning I must have forgotten to lock it. I never forget to lock my bedroom when I’m not in it but, much like the possibility of getting caught, I don’t care.

  The man tosses me onto my bed and leans down over me. Clothes fall away under desperate, hungry hands, but he keeps his mask firmly in place. His mouth is hot as it closes over my nipple, and his hand doesn’t hesitate to travel along my body and dip between my thigh. My body is already wet, waiting for his touch, and he plunges two fingers deep into me, pulling a cry from my chest.

  His cock settles on my leg, heavy and hard as it drips slick fluid onto my skin. Wrapping my hand around it, I pump at the same rhythm his fingers thrust hard into me. We’re both almost frantic with need for release, and just as my climax coils through my body, he rolls onto his back and slams his hard shaft into me. Taking my virginity. Lights dance in front of my eyes as he fills me, pushing me into my orgasm and drawing his name from my lips.

  Wait…

  Did I just scream… Owen?

  Everything has gone still as I reach up to move the man’s mask out of the way. Owen’s dancing hazel eyes grin up at me just before I snap awake.

  Heat radiates off my skin, and my sheets are tangled around my legs. The pounding of my heart sends ripples through my body, shivering on my skin. I look over at the clock on my nightstand, confirming it is an ungodly hour of the morning, sometime after the hour of drunk men stumbling home from the bar and before the sky wakes up. It doesn’t matter. That dream was enough to prevent me from going back to sleep tonight. Or maybe ever.

  Now I just have to convince my body to feel the same way.

  Chapter Eleven

  Owen

  The hammock and I have come to an agreement. At the very least, we’re in negotiations. I wriggle into place, sitting in the center and tossing myself back so I’m lying in it. The flimsy fabric of this thing is ridiculous.

  The first thing I
m doing when I get back home is ordering Avery a real hammock made of sturdy rope. One like that might be more temperamental and toss you out on your ass faster if you look at it funny, but at least there’s more of a chance of getting onto it.

  As if just thinking about heading back reached out through some cosmic connection I sincerely hope isn’t in place all the time, my phone rings. Fishing it out of my pocket, I glance at the screen just for confirmation before I answer. Like it could be anyone else.

  “Hello, Mother.”

  “Are you still in Vidalia Isle?” she asks, like she’s inquiring if I’m still serving time on a chain gang.

  “For someone who always talks about how much you loved this place, you sure are critical of it.”

  “I do love it,” she defends, “but not when it’s playing host to my son who is doing everything he can to avoid his responsibilities.”

  “You’re talking about me like I’m a kid who didn’t feed his dog again.”

  “You didn’t feed your dog when you were young. That’s why he’s now my dog.”

  “Better off that way,” I say. “Snippy little thing never liked me. He’s much better as a pampered lap dog.”

  “We aren’t talking about the dog,” she says.

  “And we also aren’t talking about a child. I’m a grown man.”

  “Which is exactly why I’m concerned. You are well beyond the age when you should be married and thinking about your future, but you don’t even have any prospects.”

  “I don’t know if that’s true,” I say. “There are plenty of women who would be happy to consider themselves prospects.”

  She doesn’t return my laugh. “Owen, we’re serious about this. You can’t continue performing your royal duties unmarried for much longer, and that means you can’t take the throne when your time comes.”

  “Dad is healthier and stronger than everyone in the palace combined. Unless you’re planning on knocking him off sometime in the near future and then turning yourself in out of your desperate guilt, I don’t think I really need to be contemplating my ascent to the throne right this second.”

  My mother shudders on the other end. “Don’t say things like that. It’s more than just your age you need to be thinking about. Your carefree attitude and less-than-dignified behavior on some of your recent escapades have started to affect your reputation. We are still trying to gloss over some of those tabloid features.”

  “The last time I ended up in a tabloid was last year,” I point out. “That doesn’t exactly qualify as recent.”

  There’s tussling on the other end, and my mother’s voice drifts into the distance.

  “Owen, this is your father.”

  “Thank you for telling me. I never would have recognized your voice. Speaking of which, if you drop it down an octave or two, the dramatic reveal will have more of an impact.”

  “Your mother is very upset.” He glides right past the joke without acknowledging it, but I know that’s only because if he gave himself even a second to think about it, he’d laugh and ruin his serious royal father routine. My brown hair and affinity for popcorn with garlic butter come from my mother. The sense of humor is right from Dad.

  “I didn’t mean to upset her,” I tell him. “She just keeps pushing the issue.”

  “And she’s going to. Both of us are. Son, you know I’ve tried to distract her and keep her attention on other things, but there’s nothing I can do anymore. There are expectations, and the time has come for you to live up to them. We can’t ignore the laws of our country.”

  “I mean, you can. You are King.”

  “And as King, I’m held to an even higher regard. I have to honor our traditions and ways, and that means making sure my only child continues them. According to the law, you have to be married within the year, or you forfeit your eventual claim to the throne. Your wild days have to come to an end. It’s time to get yourself together and settle down. Your future depends on it.”

  The message sits heavy in my chest. “Understood,” I say.

  “Good. You really must do what I say, Owen. Do you know why?”

  “Why?”

  “Because,” his voice drops low, “I am your father.”

  It’s not quite James Earl Jones territory, but it cracks the tension and brings a grin to my face.

  “There it is.”

  “Have fun in Vidalia Isle, then come home.”

  I hang up with a sick feeling in my stomach. This is exactly what I came to the island to escape. The expectation for me to marry by the age of thirty isn’t new. It’s been drilled into me since the time I was old enough to even understand what marriage was. But I’ve never put much thought into it. I wouldn’t let myself think that far into the future. That’s always what it felt like… Far.

  Until last year, when it came right up in my face. Now they want me to not only come to terms with the reality of needing to get married within the next year if I want to ever take over the rule of Calidonia but also that my parents think they’ve already chosen my wife for me.

  The conversation has totally taken the fun out of my daily swing in the hammock. My days in Vidalia Isle are feeling more numbered, so I’m determined to enjoy my time here as much as possible. I brace myself and roll, depositing myself out of the hammock, ready to head back inside. Avery hasn’t spoken to me since yesterday when we had the showdown over my identity, and I’ve had enough of the silent treatment.

  As much as I don’t want to admit it, she’s still getting to me. The backdoor leading into the kitchen is locked, so I have to walk all the way around to the front of the bed-and-breakfast to get back in. As I come around the side of the building, I notice someone standing on the porch, leaning down so close to one of the railings it almost looks like he’s passed out and conveniently landed with his forehead flat on the white-painted wood.

  “Do you need some help?” I ask, stepping up onto the veranda.

  He snaps up sharply, and I see it’s the red-faced man Avery refers to as GPS. I still think it’s possible she was so wrapped up in the idea of the blogger showing up at Hometown Bed And Breakfast and giving her a review she projected it onto this guest, but I have to admit the small notebook in one of his hands, and the picture he snaps with his phone don’t bode well for my theory.

  “Not as much as this bed-and-breakfast does.”

  He says it like it’s offensive Hometown Bed And Breakfast would think of itself under that title.

  “What do you mean?” I ask.

  He looks around conspiratorially. “I guess I can speak freely. It’s not like the owner is here. I don’t think I’ve seen her more than twice since I checked in.”

  “Her name is Avery,” I tell him, the defensive edge in my voice evident enough to bring his eyes away from whatever he’s scribbling on his notebook.

  “I’m more concerned about her business.”

  “Oh, really?” I ask. “And why is that? As far as I can see, Avery is doing just fine for herself.”

  The shade of his face brightens, and he shoves his notebook into his pocket like he thinks I’ll forget he was holding it and not figure out who he is.

  “Because I’m staying here. As a fellow guest, doesn’t it bother you?”

  “Not really,” I tell him without a hint of humor. “But I have a fairly high tolerance.”

  It takes a few seconds for what I said to sink in, and he lets out a huff. “You may not be concerned about woefully insufficient amenities, faded paint on the porch, a repetitive and derivative breakfast each meal, and a total lack of customer service, but I am accustomed to better.”

  Did he just say derivative breakfast?

  He stalks past me, and I watch him disappear into the backyard before I start down the driveway. I’m halfway to the village when I notice a woman coming toward me. Her face is buried in the book she’s holding, and I have to swerve to avoid running into her. A rock in the path doesn’t extend her the same courtesy.

  I’d been abl
e to walk around it, but she was so invested in her reading she steps directly on it and stumbles. She manages to stay on her feet even as everything in her arms goes flying around her and scatters on the ground. I go back to help her, tucking a wide assortment of snacks into the canvas bag that’s sagging in the dirt and then reaching for the book. As I hand it back to her, I catch the title.

  “The Stranger Beside Me?” I ask.

  It doesn’t fit with the cropped, fading blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses that look back at me, but she smiles broadly. I met her over breakfast this morning but can’t remember her name.

  “Are you a fan of Ann Rule?” she asks enthusiastically.

  “Can’t say that I’ve read anything of hers,” I tell her, handing her the last few objects from the ground and helping her up.

  “Oh, you should. She’s so insightful. Of course, I might be a little biased considering we share a name, but her insight into the mind of killers is…” She lets out a sigh just a tad too close to exhilarated. “Incredible.”

  “Maybe I’ll try one of her books sometime.”

  She bats her eyelashes at me. “Any time you want to borrow one of her books, come on by my room. You’re more than welcome to anything.”

  Well, that’s uncomfortable.

  “Thank you for the offer. Have a nice day, Ann.”

  She blinks at me a few times.

  That has to be her name, right? She said she shares her name with that writer.

  Could her name seriously be Rule?

  The silence stretches for another few seconds, becoming increasingly awkward until she finally smiles again and waves before heading toward Hometown Bed And Breakfast.

  I make it to the village and roam around for a while, simultaneously enjoying taking in my surroundings and looking for Avery. Without having experienced the island at any other time of the year, I can’t say with certainty this is the best time, but what I’ve seen from the fall here so far, it’s hard to imagine any other season being better. Far from a tropical oasis, Vidalia Isle is a cozy small town that happens to be floating around, surrounded by the bay.

 
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