They say that duty and desire don’t mix…and they’re about to collide spectacularly in this royal romance from USA TODAY bestselling author Lucy Monroe.
Fifty dates to decide…
If she will wear his crown!
As a naive teenager, Lady Nataliya signed a contract promising her to a prince. Now, to release them both, she causes a scandal by going on fifty dates for a magazine. It works… Until her betrothed’s brother, widowed King Nikolai, insists she honor the marriage agreement—with him!
Her first duty? Finishing those dates with Nikolai. Their whirlwind courtship may be thrilling, but no matter how irresistible Nikolai is, Nataliya can’t forget she was never his first choice of queen. His wounded heart will always be off-limits…
Lady Nataliya Shevchenko stood outside the private reception room in the Volyarus palace, feeling more like she was entering a war tribunal than going to the family meeting her “uncle,” King Fedir, had decreed she attend.
And she was the one about to be on trial for Acts Against the State.
Only, legally, she’d done nothing wrong. Morally, she hadn’t either, but she did not expect “Uncle” Fedir to agree.
King Fedir wasn’t actually her uncle. He was her mother’s cousin, but the two had been raised as close as siblings and he had always called himself Nataliya’s uncle.
Taking a deep breath and centering herself, calling on a lifetime of training and all her courage, she indicated with a nod of her head for the guard to pull the ornate door open. His very presence indicated that there were more people in that room than her family.
Unless palace security had changed drastically, family only meant guards at either end of the hall, which there were, so this one meant more dignitaries inside.
Two guesses for who those dignitaries were and she would only need one.
Head held high, Nataliya walked into the luxuriously appointed room. No one would mistake this space with its silk wallpaper, and gilt and brocade furniture, for anything other than a royal’s.
Her heels clicking against the marble, before stepping onto the lush carpet that filled the center of the room.
King Fedir sat in an ornate armchair that might as well have been his throne, for all his regal bearing. Except that glower he was giving her. That didn’t look so much regal as just really, really annoyed. To his right sat Queen Oxana, her expression entirely enigmatic.
Nataliya’s own mother was there too. First cousin to the King and Oxana’s best friend, Solomia, Countess Shevchenko, nevertheless occupied a seat of no distinction.
Further from the royal couple than the youngest son of Prince Evengi of Mirrus, the other major player in this farce of judgment, Nataliya’s mother sat in an armchair away from everyone else. Whether that had been by her choice or the King’s, Nataliya would figure out later.
Right now, she surveyed the other occupants of the opulent room. Prince Evengi, former King of Mirrus, and his three sons sat opposite King Fedir and Queen Oxana. Although Prince Evengi had abdicated his throne to his eldest son, Nikolai, nearly a decade ago, there was no doubt that he was the driving force behind the contract Nataliya and her parents had signed.
A contract that stipulated, among other business and private concerns, that Nataliya would wed the second son to the House of Merikov, Konstantin.
Rumored to be descendants of both Romanov and Deminov blood, the Russian family had established their kingdom on an island between Alaska and Russia, like Volyarus, but Mirrus was in the Chukchi Sea.
They had another thing in common with Volyarus. The basis of their economy had started with mining rare minerals and was now just as profitable a worldwide concern, if not quite as stable as Yurkovich-Tanner, the company that supported Volyarus’ economy.
Despite the Ukrainian heritage of Volyarus and its not so amicable history with Russia, King Fedir was determined to cement a family and business alliance with Mirrus, even ten years after that draconian contract was signed.
The only other two occupants of the room were her “uncle’s” sons, Maksim, Crown Prince, and his elder brother, the adopted Prince Demyan.
There was a time that their families had been very close.
Although, Nataliya worked for Demyan and saw Maks and his wife on occasion when they were in Seattle, that closeness had been gone for many years.
Breaking protocol, Nataliya ignored the assembled Kings present and smiled her first greeting to her mother. “Hello, Mama. You look well.”
“Thank you, Nataliya. It is always good to see you.” Mama smiled back, but the expression did not reach her worried eyes, the same warm brown as Nataliya’s.
Nataliya was not surprised her father had not been summoned. He was, for all intents and purposes, a nonentity in her life and still very much a persona non grata in Volyarus.
Fifteen years ago, his decision to abandon his Countess and their child to pursue marriage to his most recent mistress had broken the cardinal rules of discretion and putting duty to country above personal considerations.
He had brought ugly attention to the royal family and the throne, and for that, Nataliya doubted he would ever be forgiven.
After greeting her mother, Nataliya gave King Fedir and Queen Oxana her full regard, dropping into a perfect curtsy between their two chairs. “Uncle Fedir, Aunt Oxana, it is a pleasure to see you again.”
That might be stretching the truth a bit. And under the circumstance, she had no doubt the man who was in actuality her first cousin, once removed was regretting not rescinding the courtesy title of uncle long before now.
“Nataliya…” King Fedir actually looked at a loss for words, for the first time in Nataliya’s memory. He certainly hadn’t been the last time they’d spoken.
That time during a phone call, she’d had to schedule two weeks in advance.
She might call him uncle, but she didn’t enjoy family privileges any longer.
When the silence had stretched, Queen Oxana gave an unreadable look to her husband and stood.
In a move that shocked Nataliya, the Queen approached her in order to give Nataliya the traditional kiss of greeting on both cheeks. “My dear, it is good to see you.” The Queen’s voice held no insincerity. “Come, you will sit beside me.”
The Queen gave a look to her son Maksim, indicating with a regal inclination of her head a couple of equally elegant flicks of her wrist what she wanted done. Despite being Crown Prince, Maks immediately jumped up and oversaw the moving of chairs so that Nataliya’s mother sat on her other side, thus cementing in the minds of everyone present just where the Queen stood on the issue to be discussed.
Nataliya’s scandalous behavior that had not in fact been scandalous at all.
The King did not look pleased by this turn of events, but Nataliya did not care.
His lack of true concern for her and her mother had been shown fifteen years ago, when they had been forced to emigrate to the States to protect the good name of the royal family. Though neither were responsible for the gutter press dragging their names through the mud.
No one spoke for several interminable minutes while both of the older Kings looked on at Nataliya in censure. King Nikolai had a better poker face than even Oxana, however.
Nataliya had no idea what the current King of Mirrus thought of the proceedings and what had prompted them, but even his unreadable regard did things to Nataliya’s insides she wished, for the hundredth time at least, it did not.
And because she never lied to herself, she did not try to believe she did not care what that was. He was not the man she was supposed to marry, but he was the only man in the House of Merikov whose opinion carried any weight with her.
When she did not let the clearly strategic silence force her into speech, King Fedir frowned. “You know why you are here?”
“I prefer not to guess.”
“You signed a contract promising marriage to Prince Konstantin.”
“I did.” Though if any man did not live up to his name, it was the one she was not engaged to, but still expected to marry one day. “Ten years ago,” she added, letting her tone tell them all what she thought of a decade-long wait for that contract to be fulfilled and yet her being here because she’d done what? Gone on a few dates?
Not that she hadn’t wanted just this reaction, but seriously?
A very unroyal-like sound came from Prince Evengi. “Then explain yourself.”
Nataliya stood and gave the King a curtsy, acknowledging him formally, before returning to her seat. One must observe the niceties. “What would you like me to explain?” she asked.
“Do not play obtuse,” he barked.
King Nikolai said something in an undertone to his father and the older man yanked his head in acknowledgement.
Prince Konstantin, current heir to his brother’s throne, frowned at Nataliya. “You know very well why you have been summoned here, why we have all had to take time from our busy schedules to deal with this mess.”
“What mess might that be?” she asked, unimpressed.
Had she curtsied to him? No, she had not and the ice cap on Mount Volyarus would melt before she did.
This man lived and breathed the company that made up the majority of his country’s economy. The time he’d taken for his affairs had been negligible and Nataliya had felt no actual envy toward the women he’d taken to his bed and done nothing else to romance.
Ten years ago, she had signed that draconian contract for two equally important reasons. Ten years in which this man had not even made enough time in his schedule to announce the engagement. Ten years during which Nataliya had lived in a stasis that had not upset her all that much, honestly.
Her mother’s limbo, she was not so sanguine about. Because one of the clauses of the contract was that Countess Solomia would be able to return to Volyarus upon the marriage of her daughter to the Prince of the House of Merikov.
Without the formalized engagement, much less a marriage, that had not happened.
Her second reason had been no less successful. Nataliya had hoped that by agreeing to marry Konstantin, her inappropriate feelings for his married brother would go away.
While she’d gotten over Nikolai, it wasn’t because of her commitment to Konstantin.
“This mess,” Konstantin threw down the fashion magazine that had run the “50 First Dates for a Would-Be Princess” article.
“Are you hoping to claim that in the past ten years, you have not dated anyone, Prince Konstantin?” she asked him, with little interest in his answer and aware that the term date was in fact a misnomer. “Only I have a whole file full of pictures that would indicate otherwise.”
“You had me followed?” he asked with fury, surging to his feet.
Only his brother’s hand on his arm kept the angry Prince across the room.
She should probably be intimidated, but anger and posturing held no sway with a woman who had endured years in her father’s household. She could have told her erstwhile intended that.
His position as Prince was no more impressive to Nataliya. She’d been raised as part of the royal family of Volyarus until the age of thirteen and had never ceased being the daughter of nobility.
“Perhaps you would like to explain, Uncle Fedir?” she prompted, her own anger a wall of cold ice around her heart, making her voice arctic.
And she did not regret that. At all.
The King of Volyarus winced as his own family and that of the other royal family present gave him varying looks of anger and condemnation.
“Of course we kept track of Prince Konstantin, but it was in no way nefarious.” He made a dismissive gesture. “I have no doubt you had your interests watched, as well.” He indicated Nataliya with a tip of his head.
She wasn’t offended being referred to in that manner. The King’s ability to hurt her had passed years ago.
“You shared your investigator’s findings with your niece?” Nikolai asked, his voice laced with censure, but no shock at the other royal’s actions.
If he’d given a bit of that censure to his brother, Nataliya would have respected him more. And something in her expression must have told him so because he gave her a strange look.
“I did not,” King Fedir denied categorically.
“I believe I can answer that,” Prince Demyan, who had remained silent up until then, said.
Interesting that her mother and Queen Oxana were the only other women who had been invited to this ludicrous tribunal.
King Fedir stared at his other son. “How?” he barked.
“You know I use hackers to watch over our interests,” Prince Demyan said, clearly unafraid of making such an admission in the rarified company.
Not one of these royals would voluntarily share anything being said in this room right now.
King Fedir nodded with a single jerk of his head.
“Nataliya is one of those hackers.”
“The best one,” Nataliya added. “Not to put too fine a point on it.”
Demyan actually smiled at her, but then they were still friends, if no longer as close as siblings. “Yes, the best one.”
“You did not assign her to watch over her own errant fiancé,” the King asked, obviously appalled at the idea.
“He is not my fiancé,” Nataliya said fiercely.
“No!” Demyan said at the same time.
“Then how?” Her uncle looked at her. He had asked her the first time she’d brought the photos to his attention.
She’d avoided answering then, not wanting a lecture about her actions to derail the reason for their discussion. She’d still hoped he would put her happiness somewhere in the realm of his priorities three months ago. Now she had no such illusions.
She shrugged. “I like to practice my skills. I was looking through files and noticed one with his name on it.”
Everyone in the room seemed shocked by her actions.
“You hacked into your King’s private files?” Nikolai asked, nothing in his tone indicating what he thought about that.
But his deep voice reverberated through her being nonetheless. If she could have chosen one person not to be here for this farce, it would be King Nikolai of Mirrus.
“Not exactly. I hacked into Demyan’s files.” She frowned. “In fact, I was looking for security breach points. To shore them up. I like Demyan. I did not want him to be vulnerable to other corporate or politically motivated hackers.”
“Thank you,” Demyan said amidst gasps and condemnation by others.
“And so because you were angry my son had not paid you enough attention since signing the contract, and in a misguided fit of jealousy and feminine pique, you thought to embarrass him into action?”
She stared at the old King of Mirrus, flabbergasted at his interpretation of her actions.
“You think I was jealous?” she asked in icy disbelief she made no effort to soften.
“Naturally,” Konstantin said, ignoring her tone as he had her person for the past decade. “Only you miscalculated my reaction.”
“Did I?” she asked, doubting very much that she had.
“Your weekly online auction of the items I sent to you in my effort to court you prior to announcing our formal engagement made me look the fool.”
The wooing gifts had started arriving exactly one month after her appeal to Kind Fedir to renegotiate the terms of the contract, no doubt prompted by him. Konstantin’s attempt at courtship had been as impersonal as the greeting between strangers at a State function and with even less effort put behind it.
“The proceeds go to a very deserving charity,” she pointed out, not at all unhappy with the direction this conversation was heading, and not particularly bothered that Konstantin had found her disposal of the gifts inappropriate.
Maksim swore, a pithy Ukrainian curse that shocked the people around him. But he was looking at Nataliya with reluctant respect. He knew.
Nataliya couldn’t help smiling at the man who had been as close as a brother until she was thirteen years old, and her entire family was ripped from her. She even winked.
“You find this amusing?” Prince Konstantin asked with angry reproach.
“I find this situation laughable, yes,” Maksim said without apology in his manner, or tone.
And Nataliya wondered if the future King of Volyarus was more reasonable than his father and understood how over-the-top everyone’s reaction was.
Not that she had not relied on that extreme reaction, but she still found it archaic, chauvinistic and not just a little ridiculous. Her manipulations would not have been possible if a gross double standard did not exist in the minds of almost every male in this room.
“You think your cousin is amusing, though her actions have destroyed our families’ plans of a merger?” Konstantin asked furiously.
“Oh, there will be a business merger,” Demyan said before his brother could answer. “Both our countries will benefit, but more to the point, Mirrus cannot afford to back out. The repercussions would be devastating for Mirrus Global and your country’s economy.”
“I will not marry her,” Konstantin said implacably.
His father looked pained, and his brother, the King, frowned, but Nataliya felt elation pour through her. She had won. Because regardless of what the rest of the people in this room wanted, his words had just released her from her promise. And ultimately, that was all that mattered to her.
She’d only been eighteen, but she’d signed the contract in good faith and had been unwilling to simply renege. Her integrity would not allow it. She was not her father.
King Fedir suddenly looked old, and tired in a way she’d never noticed before. “That is exactly what you wanted, though, wasn’t it?” he asked her.
“I could have done without the name calling and disgusting double standard, but yes.”
King Fedir shook his head, clearly confused by her reaction. “I thought you wanted your mother settled back in her home country.”
“Ten years ago, I wanted that more than anything. I wanted to come home, or at least be able to visit often.”
“And that has changed?” King Fedir asked, sounding as fatigued as he looked.
“My mother has finally found peace with her life in America.”
Queen Oxana looked wounded. “You don’t want to come home?” she asked her best friend of more than thirty years.
Mama drew herself up, her dignity settled around her like a force field, making Nataliya nothing but proud. “My home is in America now.”
“You do not mean that.” Queen Oxana had the effrontery to sound hurt when she’d done nothing to stop Mama and Nataliya’s exile fifteen years ago.
“She does,” Nataliya said with satisfaction, and was so happy about that she could cry. “You and your husband exiled my mother and me for the sins of my father. And though he knew how important that clause in the contract was to us both, he made no effort to press for fulfillment of the marriage merger.” Now it would not happen at all.
Queen Oxana’s expression was troubled. “You were too young to tie down to marriage when it was signed.”
“But not too young to sign it? Not too young to be used as a political and business pawn?” Nataliya shook her head in disbelief.
“We all have duty we must adhere to,” the Queen said, though with less fervent conviction than she used to.
“Our duty included exile. Looking back, I realize that asking more of my daughter was obscene.” Mama could do regal disapproval as well as any queen.
“You know why we had to ask the sacrifice of you,” King Fedir said to his cousin.
But Mama made Nataliya so proud yet again when she shook her head. “No, I never understood your decision to sacrifice me, a woman who was a better sister to you than Svitlana ever was. I spent years grieving the loss of my homeland, but I grieve no longer.”
“And so you decided to break the contract?” Nikolai asked, this time his opinion clear for any to hear the disapproval and disappointment in his tone.
Nataliya met his gaze squarely. “My mother told me five years ago that she was not sure she would move back to Volyarus permanently, even if she could.”
His brows drew together in a thoughtful frown. “Then what prompted your dating and the very public rejection of my brother’s attempt to court you?”
“There is so much wrong with that question, I don’t even know where to start.” Was he as draconian as his father?
Nataliya had never believed it of Nikolai.
It was the please that did it.
“One, I was never engaged to your brother. I was contracted to be engaged and married at a later date, which was never specified. Not exactly good contract negotiations,” she criticized King Fedir. “So, I could have been dating all along.”
Heck, she could have been sleeping around. She’d had no legal or moral obligation to go to her marriage bed a virgin, and the stipulation of her chastity or lack of romantic social life until the marriage had not even been alluded to in the contract.
She’d read it through, all thirty-six pages of it, before embarking on the dating article.
“But you did not date before this.” Nikolai’s words made it very clear that his family had in fact had her watched.
She shrugged, not particularly caring that a lady was never supposed to be so dismissive. “I did not want to risk developing an emotional attachment that would have made keeping my promise difficult, or possibly even impossible.”
Nikolai nodded in approval of her words. “Very wise.”
“So, by converse, you consider that your brother has been foolish?” she asked, unable to resist.
Nikolai looked at his brother and then back to her. “Considering the outcome of his choices, I would say that is a given.”
“My choices?” Konstantin demanded with umbrage. “I was doing my best to protect and expand the business interests of our country so that we did not lose our independent status. How does that make me the bad guy here?”
Nataliya might have agreed with Konstantin, except for two things. One, he’d had affairs, if not dates. Two, he’d acted like an ass about her innocent dating.
If he hadn’t, she might have even felt compelled to honor the contract.
But Nikolai ignored him. “You said one, there are other thing wrong with my question?”
“Second, it is obvious that what prompted my actions was my desire not to marry a man who so obviously had no more personal integrity than my father.”
“I am not like your philandering father.” The Prince took clear offence with the comparison. “We were not engaged!”
Nataliya looked at Konstantin with a frown. “If that is your attitude, then how do you explain refusing to marry me because I dated other men while you were having sex with other women?”
Konstantin’s mouth opened and closed without him saying anything.
“Anything else?” Nikolai asked her.
“Do you believe that waiting ten years to fulfill the terms of a contract is keeping good faith in that contract?” she asked instead of answering.
“There were circumstances,” Nikolai reminded her, almost gently.
She nodded in agreement. “Your father’s heart attack, followed by your own ascension to the throne and your brother having to take over more business responsibility.”
“That was eight years ago.”
“Our family was in mourning,” Konstantin said snidely. “Surely you did not expect a formal announcement during that time.”
He was referring to the death of his brother’s wife, the new Queen, and trying to make her feel small doing it, but Nataliya wasn’t going to let anyone in this room make her feel less than. She wasn’t the one who had dismissed finer feelings or responsibilities.
“It is customary to observe a period of mourning for one year.”
And it had been five. It didn’t need to be said. They all knew. Again, the timing did not justify the ten-year wait.
For her, or her mother.
“No one from Volyarus approached me about formalizing the engagement,” Konstantin pointed out, like that was some kind of fact in his favor.
“Are you saying that you only fulfill the terms of a contract when you are pushed into doing so?” she asked, not impressed and letting that show.
Konstantin glowered. “You have all but admitted you don’t want the marriage,” he accused rather than answer her question.
She wouldn’t deny it. “I do not.” While she’d never actually wanted to marry this man, she had wanted Mama to be able to return to the bosom of her family.
Nataliya had come to realize both she and her mom were better off without a family that could eject them from their lives so easily, but that was not how it had been ten years ago.
“If you had realized you didn’t want to marry my son, surely you should have taken less scandalous steps to insure it.” Prince Evengi sounded more baffled than angry at this point. “You could simply have reneged on the contract.”
She cast a glance at her uncle before answering. “I approached King Fedir with my desire to do just that.”
“And he threatened to remove financial support of my mother.”
“You are not worried he will do that now?” Nikolai asked her with a frowning side glance toward Kind Fedir.
“He could try, but I think everyone in this room is aware of how far I am willing to go to protect her.”
“Are you threatening me, child?” King Fedir asked her, sounding more hurt than worried.
She gave him a cool look, hoping it conveyed just how very little she cared about his hurt feelings after all he had put her mother through. “I am telling you that all actions have consequences and I guarantee you do not want to live with the ones that would come from you doing something so reprehensible.”
“Solomia, talk to your daughter!” King Fedir demanded, his shock palpable.
“I am very proud of you, Nataliya, you know that, yes?”
The King frowned. “That is not what I meant.”
“You are upset because she carries the ruthlessness that is such a strong trait in our family?” Mama asked her cousin, their King.
Nikolai looked at Nataliya, his expression assessing. “But you did make a promise. You signed that contract,” Nikolai said.
“I did.” Nataliya could wish she hadn’t been so eager to make up for her father’s sins at eighteen, but she couldn’t deny she had signed the contract.
“And you take your own promises very seriously.”
“I do.” Hence her need to get Prince Konstantin to back out of the contract.
Nataliya might no longer feel it was her responsibility to compensate for her father’s behavior, but she still understood duty only too well. And she may have been exiled, but her integrity as a member of the royal family was still very much intact.
“She was willing to renege on the contract,” Konstantin pointed out. “Her personal ethics cannot be that strong.”
King Fedir drew himself up, his expression forbidding. “On the contrary, my niece came to me and asked me to negotiate different terms, sure that if the suggestion came from me, you would be more than willing to do so. At no time did she intimate our family should simply renege.”
Nataliya didn’t know what the point was of her cousin harping on how he thought of her as a niece. She would have thought King Fedir would want to distance himself from her at this point. Just as he’d done fifteen years ago.
Nikolai nodded his understanding. “But you refused?”
“I did, more the fool I.”
Personally, Nataliya agreed with him. Her uncle had been a fool to think that she would sit meekly by, when in her estimation, she should never have been asked to sign the darn thing in the first place.
“But we raised a lot of money for Mama and Aunt Oxana’s favorite charity,” she pointed out, not entirely facetiously.
The charity that helped families stay near their children receiving treatment for cancer and other life-threatening illnesses was very dear to Nataliya’s heart, as well. However, no one else seemed to find that the benefit she did, if all the gloomy faces were to go by.
“All that aside, you still consider yourself bound by the terms of the contract, do you not?” Nikolai asked her.
She stared at him, not sure what he was trying to get at. “Prince Konstantin has verbally repudiated his willingness to abide by its terms in front of witnesses.”
She smiled, relief that the current King of Mirrus wasn’t going to try to push her to marry his brother despite either of their desires.
“The contract, as it is written, still stands,” Nikolai said, his tone brooking no argument.
Shock made Nataliya lightheaded as dread filled her. “Your brother denounced the contract,” she reminded him, even though she shouldn’t have to, because Nikolai had just agreed that was the case. “I am under no obligation to marry him now.”
“But you are under obligation to marry a prince of the House of Merikov,” Nikolai said implacably.
Gasps sounded, his father demanded what he meant, but Nikolai ignored it all, his attention focused entirely on Nataliya.
Her brain was whirling, trying to parse out what he meant. Her gaze skittered to the youngest Merikov Prince. Dimitri, called Dima by his friends of which she counted herself one, though they’d met on only a few occasions, they had chatted more via text and email than she had with Konstantin in past years.
Not even out of the university yet, Dima was looking with utter horror at his eldest brother.
“I will not enter into such a bargain with a child,” Nataliya vowed, knowing being called a child would prick her friend and unable to pass up the chance to tease him.
“You were four years younger when you signed that contract ten years ago,” Nikolai pointed out without correcting her use of the term child, earning a frown from Dima.
“And still desperate to return home. I’m not that teenager any longer either.” And she would not allow done to Dima, what had been done to her. She liked the twenty-two-year-old Prince.
“Regardless of what your reasons were for signing the contract, you did so. And while you were only eighteen, you were not a minor. You are obligated to its terms unless both parties agree to different ones.”
“I will not marry either of your brothers.”
“I am glad you did not include me in that categorical refusal.” His smile was more like an apex predator baring its teeth.