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Excerpt: Reluctantly Royal

Book 1: HRH Series

Chapter 1

Le Palais Princier

HRH Prince Lucien Arthur Beauregard Mathieu Greiner

I couldn’t recall a time when my brother had summoned me to dinner at the palace with good news. I was doubtful that tonight would be any different.

The fact that he wanted to meet me in the York Room was enough to make my blood run cold. I think I could count the number of times I’d been in that room—all during official functions as a Prince of Monaco—photo ops mostly, when first mon Père and then my brother signed important legislation. The fact that my own brother, the Sovereign Prince, was treating me so formally did not bode well for my evening.

I searched my brain for anything I might’ve done lately that His Royal Highness the Sovereign Prince of Monaco would’ve considered scandalous, but I couldn’t think of a thing. I’d been a good little prince for a change. Although if I was being called to the carpet, I would rather have done something worthwhile to earn it.

As I passed through the Mirror Gallery, I remembered all the times I played in here with my twin brother, Julien, when we were little. The dramatic aesthetic effect of the succeeding mirrors made the room look like a long series of rooms, and at the time each had a pair of identical little boys running around. Mum would pretend to get confused by all the boys in the “fake rooms” and we’d all giggle until we were gasping for air.

Of course that was after our older brother, Bastien, had been sent to boarding school at Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland. Until then he’d been the leader of our motley crew. Older by two years, Bastien had been the one to instigate most of our hijinks—which was probably why mon Père had shipped him off so young. The person who came back on holiday breaks was not my brother. Bastien had become a pod-person replica of our father, all perfect posture and diction, no longer interested in roughhousing with me and Julien. Childhood over at the age of ten.

Fucking depressing.

Not that mine was much better, but at least Julien and I got to escape to Eton College in Great Britain together, and at the ripe old age of thirteen. I don’t think I would’ve survived those years away from home without Julien.

I had no choice but to survive without him now. My eyes burned at the reminder.

I left the Mirror Gallery, quickly passed through the Red Room, then nodded to the silent servant who pulled open the door to the York Room. Empty. Leave it to His Royal Highness the Sovereign Prince to keep me waiting.

My eyes immediately went to the marble table in the center of the room, where important documents were signed. I wasn’t sure how to feel when I saw it empty. At least if there were papers there I’d have a clue about what this evening would hold. On the other hand, nothing involving me and papers on that hideous table would be a good thing. Knowing Bastien, he’d probably found a way to suck even more joy out of my existence as the spare.

I glanced over to the place where, for my entire life up until six months ago, the portrait of mon Père had hung. Now, instead, a plaque bearing the name and title of HRH the Sovereign Prince of Monaco Sébastien Laurent Pierre Hadrien Greiner was fixed under a painting of Bastien in his officer’s formal dress, staring serenely off into the distance. It mocked what my life had become a year ago when the plane carrying mon Père and the other half of my soul, my twin brother Julien, went down over the Atlantic Ocean.

I wasn’t supposed to be the spare. It should be Julien here doing what middle brothers did best—placating our bossy older brother and covering for me while I did whatever I wanted at a safe distance away from the palace and royal life. I’d taken my cushy life on the Continent for granted and now was paying the price. Or at least that was how it felt.

Shit, Julien was dead and here I was whining about having to play the dutiful spare.

I was an ass.

Just then the door opened and HRH the Sovereign Prince entered. “I hope you weren’t kept waiting too long.”

Non, monsieur.” I bowed slightly as I replied to my brother in the same formal manner as I would mon Père. Out of habit, my eyes darted again to the place where his portrait had hung. My jaw clenched at the reminder of all that had changed.

Bastien’s eyes followed mine, and he tilted his head when he saw what had drawn my attention. Shared grief hovered between us for a moment before Bastien was back to his uptight self. “Shall we have a drink before we dine?”

I inclined my head in answer and followed Bastien to the tray on a gilded side table against the wall. Without asking he poured me my usual Macallan whisky and himself a Cognac Prunier.

Bastien waited for me to take my drink, then raised his own in a toast. “Santé.”

I lifted my glass in reply and took a drink. It seemed tactless to toast to our health in the same room where the Duke of York had died, not to mention in the shadow of our father’s portrait, which had been relegated to this corner, but Bastien was the Sovereign Prince. And one never countermanded the Sovereign Prince.

“I’ve been thinking of starting a charity in honor of notre Père. Something to do with his love of racing, perhaps?” Bastien murmured over the rim of his cognac. “What do you think?”

I think he was a selfish bastard who marked a lot of lives, and I doubt anyone who’d met him will ever forgive—I mean, forget him. Not that I could say as much. Especially when mon Père glared down at me from his perch on his painted throne. Instead I murmured, “Interesting. What about Julien? We should do something for him as well.”

“We named that section in the royal garden for him—the place where he always ran to escape diction lessons with Monsieur Roux.”

I waited a beat for him to say something more, but he didn’t. “And?”

“And what?”

“We’re just going to stop there? Notre Père had that library named for him just after the accident. And the damned racing horse that’s always in the news lately. What about Julien’s memory? What are we going to do for him?”

Bastien shrugged. “I suppose we could make it a family charity. In honor of both of them.”

I clenched my teeth until my jaw ached in order to bite back the roar that was boiling in my gut. Did Bastien not even care that we’d lost a brother? And Julien of all people. He was the best of all of us. He deserved better. He deserved to be remembered. Not just lumped in with mon Père because I’d asked. What would they have done if I was the one who’d died? Named the damned dog after me as tribute?

Bastien set his glass on the tray. “I’ll discuss it with Mum and see what she has to say.”

Fantastic. I was sure our mother had loads to say on the subject. Since the accident, she couldn’t bear to be in the same room as me without breaking out into sobs. Every time she looked at me she saw Julien’s ghost. What might’ve been. If I were honest, my reflection haunted me, too. But at least I knew Mum would fight for Julien’s place in the charity as viciously as I planned to. “Sounds good.”

“I believe dinner is ready. We shouldn’t keep the staff waiting.” Without pausing for my answer, Bastien turned and walked briskly to the door.

If he hadn’t spent all that time in his Swiss boarding school, I would’ve guessed Bastien had been brainwashed by our British cousins. He was so full of the stiff-upper-lip attitude it was a wonder he could walk for the pole lodged in his ass.

I set my empty glass down on the side table and poured myself another round before I followed my brother like the good little prince I’d never been until now. We walked down the series of hallways with their painted frescos and gilded mirrors. Meanwhile I slammed down my second whisky like it was cheap rotgut and not a fine Scotch that had cost several hundred euros.

Moments later we arrived in Bastien’s private dining room and went through the whole song and dance of chairs being pulled out and napkins draped in our laps. Wine was poured, and we were halfway through the first course before Bastien spoke to me again.

From the other side of the gilded dining table, my brother stared thoughtfully at his glass of wine. “I believe enough time has passed that we need to give our country something to celebrate. Something to look forward to.”

I barely resisted the urge to punch my arrogant, hard-nosed brother in the middle of his face. Enough time had passed? Was that really how he referred to the most horrific moment of my life? By skimming over it? More than anything I wished that Julien was here in my seat, which would have meant that I could be back at my post in France—flying planes and running exercises with my men. Drinking and horsing around while on leave. Living the good life. I clenched my jaw and fought my baser urges like I’d been taught. Mostly because my prick of a brother would throw me in the gaol—perks of being the reigning monarch and not the spare.

A butler appeared at my elbow and soundlessly poured wine into my almost empty glass. That was another part of palace living that was still hard to readjust to. The past ten years in France, living without servants constantly underfoot, had been oddly liberating. I’d never realized how much of my life in Monaco had been spent under constant surveillance. At least tonight I’d get to escape the formality of the palace and return to my home down the coastline at Villa Clos Saint-Martin . . . where I lived with my own pack of servants. Fuck, that was depressing. And made my skin itch.

Bastien set his wineglass down and stared stoically at me from across the table. “Next week I will be announcing my engagement to Princess Helene. The wedding will be in the spring.”

I blinked. Princess Helene? When did this happen? I think I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen my brother in the same room with the third in line to the Belgian throne—at the Belgian Grand Prix, the Royal Ascot, and two Rose Balls. Hell, at the last Rose Ball I don’t think I’d seen them within ten meters of each other. And now they were engaged? “You’ve proposed?”

“Yes. We’ve officially agreed to terms through our representatives, and the contracts have been signed. We’ll hold a press conference next week to announce the union.”

“Congratulations?” It came out sounding like a question because I was still having a hard time processing my brother’s news. He’d described it like a damn business arrangement. This was how Bastien wanted to spend the rest of his life? Shackled to a woman he’d met a handful of times, in a loveless union? Hadn’t he learned anything from our parents’ disastrous marriage?

“Thank you. Our national grieving has gone on long enough. I hope my wedding will give our people the hope they’ve been needing.” Bastien sat back in his chair and gave me an ominous look. “And brings me to the point of our dinner tonight.”

Fantastic. Here it comes.

“It’s time you started considering your future as well.”

C’est pas possible. I couldn’t believe this. Was he channeling mon Père? The intonation, timbre, and expression were on point. It was spooky. But for the thirty-year age difference and the fact that mon Père was dead, it might as well have been him sitting at the table lecturing me on royal duty. Scratch that. Considering what Bastien was saying, the resemblance was terrifying.

I masked my rattled thoughts with an indifferent expression. “You can stop right there. I’m not doing it.”

“Luc, you must think of what’s best for our country. For our people. They need hope right now, and that means we—”

“It means we sacrifice our lives. It means we breathe for the citizens of Monaco.” I repeated the lecture verbatim without a thought; I could probably do it in my sleep. “Do you think I wasn’t paying attention every night at dinner when notre Père was lecturing us? I heard him then, just as I’m hearing you now. And I’m still not doing it.”

Bastien tilted his head like he’d heard me, but that was soon evidently not the case, given what he said next. “I’ll have Zara draw up a list of names, and we can start from there. I think you’ll change your tune as soon as you see who we are talking about.”

“Your assistant could write down the name of that Norwegian princess with her twin sister. I’m still not doing it.” My jaw clenched as my frustration boiled.

“Luc, this is our duty. We must—”

“I must nothing!” I pushed away from the table, and my chair landed somewhere behind me with a violent crash. But I didn’t care. I leaned forward and drove my pointed finger into the table. “I am not sacrificing every shred of myself and my dignity to marry a fucking stranger on your say-so. I will not be a miserable mess like Mum or a lecherous bastard like notre Père was. I’m not participating in a dynastic marriage. End of story.”

My chest heaved with my panting breaths. He got me so angry. I was tired of the “you must”s and the lectures on duty that I’d been getting my entire life. There was no way I was consigning my life to the same miserable existence that our parents had suffered, all for the sake of duty and country. It was ridiculous. Why did he think I moved to France ten years ago and joined the Air Force the second I was able?

Bastien stared narrowed-eyed at me. After a moment, he broke eye contact and nodded to the servants who had scattered when the furniture started flying. “If you would please excuse us? Thank you.”

Bastien watched as the silent staff scurried through the door at the end of the room, hidden in the stucco wall and camouflaged amid the gilded paneling. Not that I gave a shit. I didn’t take my eyes off my brother.

When the door closed behind the last servant, Bastien sat back into his chair with a sigh. “I don’t know what I’m to do with you, Luc.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I left the Air Force and came back. I’m here. I’m toeing the line, playing the dutiful spare to Your Sovereign Highness. But I will not be forced into some horror show of a dynastic marriage on the off chance you cannot sire a legitimate heir. I won’t.”

I might as well have not said a thing with the way Bastien waved aside my speech with the twitch of a well-manicured hand.

“You cannot behave that way in front of our staff. It’s completely inappropriate for a prince. You know that.”

I gritted my teeth. “I’ll apologize later. That doesn’t negate my point. I will not be some royal pawn you pimp out to the highest bidder. It’s my life, dammit!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, brother. It’s not your life. You live for the Principality of Monaco now. You do what’s right for the country. For our people.” Bastien lifted his wineglass and murmured, “Merde, I’d think after some twenty-odd years of lectures you would finally understand what your function in life is.”

“My function?” I barely resisted the urge to hurl the bottle of wine across the table and directly at my brother’s head. “Up until eight months ago, my function in life was to do whatever my commanding officer wanted. Don’t talk to me about royal duty. This wasn’t my life last year. Considering everything that has happened, I’m doing the best I fucking can.”

“Okay. Okay.” Bastien set his wine down and sat back in his chair. “I understand where you’re coming from, mon frère. This past year hasn’t been the easiest for any of us.”

I laughed derisively. Considering that in one fell swoop Bastien had gotten everything he’d ever wanted, I kinda doubted it’d been all that difficult for him.

Bastien narrowed his eyes at me in the same way our father used to do. “But you have to remember what we’re working against. We can’t have the same sort of scandals that plagued notre Père and our aunts. They made a mockery of the House of Greiner. We must learn from the past mistakes of our elders. It’s up to us to provide a better future for the citizens of Monaco, because otherwise we’re just a couple of pretentious, spoiled brats who literally serve no purpose. And that’s the kind of party that will end with us exiled, at the very least, or imprisoned—if not worse.”

I jerked my head in a nod to indicate that I heard my brother. I knew all this. I’d sat at the same table night after night and heard a variation of the lecture my entire life. It didn’t make the impotent anger I felt disappear. This wasn’t the life I was supposed to be living.

“Look, the real reason I called you to dinner was to ask you to take my place at the Global Gaming Expo at the end of the month. I’ll be busy with press conferences and negotiating wedding plans with Belgium, so I need you to attend in my place and give the keynote speech. It’s already written and been approved by the council.” Bastien smirked. “Think of it as a last hurrah before you settle down.”

My jaw clenched again as I glared at my brother. I really wanted to tell him what I thought of his last remark, but what was the point? I was the spare. I had to toe the line with the ruling monarch. But he really knew how to push my buttons. And the fact that he thought my attending some boring conference was an equivalent exchange for my freedom was laughable. I wasn’t changing my mind. He couldn’t force me into any marriage against my will.

But one thing I’d learned during my time in the armed forces was the importance of retreat. So I let him think I was playing along for now.

I nodded tightly. “Have your assistant send the details to my assistant.”

“Already done.”

“Fantastic.” I walked over to the place where my chair had landed earlier and dragged it back to the table. “I guess all that’s left is to have a drink in honor of your pending doom—I mean, your pending nuptials.”

Bastien toasted me with his wineglass. “And while you’re at the conference, try not to get caught doing anything . . . embarrassing. Let’s leave the scandalous photos to our British cousins.”

Now sitting, I lifted my wineglass and toasted my brother’s loathsome advice. Like I’d ever go bowling, let alone bowling naked.

My brother was an ass, but at least I was getting out of here for a few days, even if only to attend some ungodly dull conference.

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