Two people leery of love agree to marry for every reason but, only to discover a red hot passion and maybe something more.
Eliza lost her family as a young child and has been raised as the beloved daughter to the eldest son of the Maharajah with the expectation that she will marry his nephew and heir. Only tragedy strikes again in her life and she loses her best friend while the Maharajah loses his heir.
Rajvinder has never been acknowledged by his royal family in India, but now they need an heir and even an illegitimate one will do. He’s offered the chance to take his rightful place in the family. The only stipulation is, he has to marry Eliza, the woman raised to be princess in the palace that should have been his home.
Edited with Forward by Mayurika Saxena
Copyedited & Formatted by: A.M. Copyediting
Her heart barely moving in her chest, the air void of necessary oxygen, Eliza walked into the private hospital room.
Her best friend and the man she was supposed to marry one day, lay in the bed, broken and battered. He’d survived the accident that had killed Adhip uncle, but just barely. His parents sat in chairs near the bed, their focus entirely on the man fighting for his life.
Only according to the doctor, Dev was destined to lose that fight.
Neither Veeresh, nor Mayurika, even looked up when Eliza walked in.
She walked to the other side of the bed from where they sat, laying her hand gently on Dev’s forearm, a small patch of skin that was unmarred by the accident and not covered in bandages. “Fight, Dev. Please fight.”
The only person she’d let have even a little piece of her heart since the death of her own family, Dev was necessary.
Silky black lashes fluttered and Dev’s eyes opened only a slit. “Eliza?”
“I’m here.” Tears choked her voice, but she didn’t let them fall.
Eliza hadn’t cried since she was ten years old. None of her tears then had brought back her family and tears wouldn’t help Dev now.
His mother cried out his name, but Dev’s head did not move, his gaze fixed on Eliza. “Take care…” His voice trailed off into gasping breaths.
Eliza said nothing, waiting for Dev to finish his thought. She would not risk talking over any word he might manage to get out.
“My family. Promise.”
His mother made a terrible sound of grief. Dev’s father, Veeresh, touched his son’s brow, oh so gently. “All will be well.”
But Dev’s focus was still on Eliza.
“I promise, Dev. I’ll take care of your family.”
“Find…” His breathing grew even more labored. “Love…” Now he was looking at his mother.
And Mayurika auntie knew what he meant. She told him how much she loved him, how proud she was of him, the litany continuing even as Dev’s breathing stopped and his heartbeat flatlined.
The doctors and nurses came running. Eliza got pushed out of the room. She didn’t know how long she stood out in the hallway, but the sound of a Mayurika’s wail told Eliza she had just lost her best friend.
At some point, Dev’s parents came out. Veeresh had his arm around a sobbing Mayurika. Eliza stood dry-eyed, her grief a cement block inside her heart.
The only thing she had to cling to was her promise to Dev to take care of his family and she knew what she had to do.
They’d talked about it many times over the years. Dev wanted his cousin brought into the family. He wanted the firstborn cousin, the one who should have been made heir to the Mahrajah, to come home to the palace.
He’d told Eliza that his cousin would have run their business interests with so much more acumen than Dev’s father, or even the current Maharajah, the man Eliza called grandfather. Only one man could save the Singh family and the Mahapatras Dynasty.
The time had come to reunite the heir with his family.
Vin looked down at the reminder for his next appointment, shock coursing through him and coming right out his mouth. In a bellow. “Jansen!”
The usually supremely efficient woman in her forties came rushing into the room, panic clear in his grey eyes. “Is something wrong? Are you all right?” She looked around his office as if expecting a gun wielding madman to jump out. “You shouted. You never shout.”
“My next appointment.”
“Oh, yes.” She seemed to relax, back on familiar territory. “Mr. Singh is already here.” She said it like that should be good news.
In fact, it had been his plan to live out the entire rest of his life without once laying eyes on another Singh from the Mahapatras dynastic family.
“You did not think to ask me before giving part of my very busy day to Trisanu Singh?” he demanded, imparting all the loathing he felt toward his biological father’s family into his grandfather’s name.
“You do not want to meet with him?” Ms. Jansen asked, sounding scandalized. “He is a potential investor in the Asia clean energy project. He has far reaching contacts in India.”
She’d done her job running background on Trisanu Singh’s company, but she’d been unaware of the one connection that Vin never wanted to use. And that was the one between himself and that family.
“If that is what he told you to gain this appointment, he was lying.” Even if the grandfather who had refused to acknowledge Vin at birth, or again seventeen years ago, wanted to invest, there was less than a snowball’s chance in hell of Vin allowing it.
“I assure you, Mahapatras Enterprises is quite interested in the moves your country wants to make bringing clean and renewable energy technology to India.” The upper crust Indian accent spoken in that even tone sent shards of disquiet running down Vin’s spine.
He turned his body so he faced the man now standing just inside the impressive oversized double door entrance to his San Diego high rise business office. “Is it your habit to barge into another man’s office?” Vin asked of the older man with disdain, cutting at the supposed adherence to etiquette of those who called themselves royalty, even those of the deposed Indian royal families.
Trisanu grimaced, stepping further onto the antique Armistar carpet. “Had I waited for an invitation, I suspected it would never have come.”
“And that is an excuse for dismissing common courtesy?”
His grandfather sighed, suddenly looking older, his perfect posture slumping infinitesimally. “Forgive me. My grief has left me less than my usual self.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Vin said automatically, as his mother had drilled in him to do, though he had no idea what he was expressing sorrow for.
Whatever dismissals of courtesy Trisanu might feel comfortable with, Vin refused to allow himself such luxuries. His loss of control moments ago was entirely out of character and he would not continue to give the older man any reason to believe his presence was anything but a minor annoyance to Vin.
“So, you have heard the news?” Trisanu asked.
“About your father’s death.”
Vin felt nothing. No grief. No what might have been. He was a thirty-five-year-old man with a life much too full, to worry about the biological father who had never offered anything beyond his DNA contribution. “My father is alive and well in his office down the hall.”
Vin’s stepfather, Jamison Latham, and Vin had become official partners, merging their two companies together nearly ten years previous, keeping their headquarters in San Diego.
Trisanu winced. “I am aware you are not happy to claim our family, but Mr. Latham is not your father.”
“In every way that matters, he is.”
“All but one.”
Vin went back around to his chair and indicated his grandfather should sit before doing so himself. “The sperm donation is of no consequence.”
Again, the wince, this time in clear distaste. “It is to our family.”
“It wasn’t seventeen years ago when I wanted to meet Adhip.” Vin used his biological father’s first name as a purposeful indication of his lack of respect, or familial ties.
Trisanu merely shook his head and sighed. “Adhip is dead.”
“I was unaware, but again, I offer condolences on your loss.”
“How could you not know? His accident was not unremarked in the press.”
“I do not read that kind of press.” He, in fact, made sure his daily newsfeed was curated in such a way as to exclude any mention of his paternal genetic family.
Trisanu adjusted his designer suit jacket, no traditional Indian clothing for him, but then that was usually reserved for the men of his mother’s birth country only at special events and ceremonies. “You have no interest in the lives of the family of your birth?”
“Birth?” Vin asked with emphasis. “Adhip rejected my mother long before I was born and rejected me again eighteen years later.”
Suddenly he realized his Executive Assistant was watching this exchange in goggle-eyed wonder. It was a testament to how shocked he was to have the head of the Mahapatras dynasty in his office that Vin had just noticed.
“You may go, Jansen,” he dismissed briskly.
“Perhaps she could fetch me a cup of tea?”
Vin wanted to bark a denial, but again, that would indicate that the other man’s presence bothered him. And his mother had raised him better than that, even if he hadn’t grown up in a palace.
He inclined his head. “Of course. See to it, Jansen.”
“Any particular type of tea, Mr. Singh?” Jansen asked, giving the older man a look filled with nothing but professional interest.
Finally. She remembered one of the reasons he’d hired her. She had a reputation for maintaining professional decorum during the biggest crises. And thus far, she had not let him down, her inadvertent eavesdropping on his private life notwithstanding.
“Perhaps my companion might be allowed in?” Trisanu asked.
Vin frowned. Who would have accompanied the dynastic head? “Your companion?”
Trisanu nodded, but didn’t offer a name.
It couldn’t be Vin’s father, presuming Trisanu had not lied. Adhip Trisanu Singh was dead. Vin refused to express any false sentiment of grief at what, for him, was no loss. He’d never had an Indian father.
Only an American one.
And Jamison Latham had come into Vin’s life too late for Vin to accept him fully in that capacity, regardless of what claims he made to Trisanu.
“By all means, bring your companion in. You have twenty more minutes of our scheduled meeting.”
By his expression, Vin’s biological grandfather didn’t like the reminder of their time limit, but he did not balk. He merely went to the door and beckoned someone inside.
It was a woman. Though she wore an Indian salwar kameez with European influence in its styling, she was clearly a western woman. With blonde hair and blue eyes that glowed like sapphires with emotion Vin did not understand, she looked at him expectantly.
“Miss…?” She looked familiar, but he wasn’t sure why. And then it hit him. She had been there on that fateful day, when he’d gone seeking connections that did not want to be made.
She’d been a child then. She was definitely a grown woman now.
“Worthington-Smythe,” she offered her hand. “My name is Eliza, I would be very happy if you used it.”
He squeezed a hand soft and small in his, shaking gently and then finding himself loathe to release. “We have met?” he asked, despite knowing the answer very well. He’d learned early in life that giving away information was never as beneficial as drawing it out of others.
“We have.” She tugged at her hand, her lovely oval face tingeing pink. “I saw you in India nearly two decades ago. You were kind to me.”
He remembered the shy, tow-headed child. Even dealing with his own fury at how the visit had turned out for him, Vin had not been able to dismiss the sadness in the young girl’s eyes. He had been gentle in tone and manner with her when all he’d felt was rage at the family that could dismiss one of their own so easily.
“I am glad you thought so. You seemed to need kindness at the time.”
His grandfather made a sound, though Vin was unsure what it signified.
Eliza inclined her head in acknowledgement of Vin’s words, her expression briefly shadowed by grief. He now knew that she had lost her parents not long before and come to live as ward to Adhip and his wife.
Images from their last meeting played through Vin’s brain. By some gallows sense of humor, Eliza had been there to witness his ignominious rejection by the Mahapatras Singhs. His biological family.
Biologically related? Yes. Family? Not so much.
No longer rulers in India, as none of the royal families were, they nevertheless were incredibly impressed with their own importance and had had no place in their giant palace for a bastard son of the heir.
Using his hold on her hand, Vin led Eliza to a chair, waiting to let go until she was sitting down. “You were there.”
“And you were kind,” she said again. “Despite what you were dealing with.” She smiled, those blue eyes glowing brightly in her lovely face.
Why did this beautiful and intriguing woman have to be with the despised Trisanu Singh? In other circumstances, Vin would have enjoyed getting to know the woman the girl had become.
“Why?” he asked as he settled against his desk.
Were it just his grandfather there, he would have returned to his chair, but he felt a strange loathing to put more distance between himself and Eliza.
“I do not know. You don’t have a reputation, now, for being a kind man.”
He dismissed her words with a flick of his hand. “That is not what I meant. Why are you here?”
“My parents were killed in an accident similar to the one that has taken Adhip uncle from us.”
“I know, and I am sorry.” And he meant the words in a visceral way he had not with his grandfather. He’d felt sorry for her then and understood her grief would always be a part of her now. “But I still do not understand what you are doing here?”
Even more confusing was how strongly his body was reacting to her. Vin’s sex was growing hard just from her presence and, in spite of, that of his grandfather’s.
Vin wanted Eliza like he hadn’t wanted another woman in a very long time, if ever.
Trisanu cleared his throat. “I will explain.” He gave Eliza a look. “We have only a few minutes to explain to Rajvinder the change in his circumstances.”
Vin’s instincts went on high alert, even as annoyance flared through him at the use of the name he only ever answered to with his mother. “My circumstances have not changed.”
“Indeed, they have. You are the only surviving male heir to the title of Prince of the Mahapatras.”
“I am not an heir. I was denied.” He allowed his condemnation to narrow his gaze. “I am Acharya, not Singh.” Not that his Acharya relatives had wanted to claim him either, at least not until his mother had managed respectability through marriage.
“That will have to change, of course.”
Fury filled Vin, unlike anything he had known since that fateful trip to India, when he still had some stars in his eyes at eighteen. He had kept a tight lid on his emotions since, but right now he was in danger of blowing his top.
Standing, he let his voice go arctic cold. “Leave.”
“Calm yourself. You have a responsibility to the family, to the dynasty. This is bigger than your singular life. We all have a responsibility now to let go of past prejudices and do what is needed for the sake of the family.”
“To you? Whatever this is, may be worth it.” He let the old man see just how much he meant the next words. “To me? It is of no importance at all.” His jaw was so taut it hurt, but he managed to keep his tone even, if bordering on strangled.
Trisanu opened his mouth to speak again, but Eliza laid her hand on his arm. “Dadaji, perhaps we should use our time to request a dinner to discuss this further?”
She used the Hindi word for father of her father, no doubt Trisanu’s preference since Adhip had been her guardian.
“Your accent is American,” Vin said apropos of nothing, but curious.
“I was born in America and the one request my mother made of Tabish auntie was that I be educated at an American boarding school.”
He should have guessed. Vin himself spoke with a British accent because he had spent his formative years from the age of six at English boarding schools. A requirement his maternal grandfather had made for funding their lives until his mother married Jamison Latham.
By the time his mother had remarried and could have kept him with her for the school months, Vin had established a life and friendships he was loathe to give up at school. And his mother, being the amazing woman she was, did not insist on it.
“There is no point in our having dinner,” he said now. “I don’t know why you are here, but I owe nothing to the Singh family.”
“And to your mother, do you owe the woman who sacrificed her place in society to keep you?” Trisanu had the gall to ask.
“What the hell are you talking about, old man? If anything, the Singhs owe a great debt to my mother. I have always been a good son.” Even if he was sometimes more American, and even British, in his thinking and behavior than she would have wished.
“Old is not an insult in our culture, as you well know.”
Vin refused to respond, waiting in silence for Trisanu to make his point.
The older man sighed. “Perhaps you are right, and our family owes Badriyah a debt for her treatment at my son’s hands. In any case, you can correct the past with your actions in the present. Once you are named Rajvindr Adhip Singh, your mother will be acknowledged as mother to the heir of our house.”
“Your mother’s stigma of giving a child out of wedlock would be minimized with such an official acknowledgement from the palace,” Eliza added. “Having a son who is a prince would give her back her honor, in a sense.”
Vin would not let that stand. “Her honor has never been in question. It was the men of her family and the one that took you in that were tarnished by the events surrounding my birth.”
Trisanu scowled and Eliza gave him a worried look before nodding toward Vin. “I am sure Adhip uncle regretted the way he treated your mother.”
“And me? Do you think he regretted rejecting the only son he would ever have?”
“He doted on his nephew,” Trisanu said with obvious pride. “My grandson was the most estimable heir.”
“And where is this paragon now?”
“Dev died in the accident.” Eliza’s expression cracked, showing a world of pain underneath her carefully controlled exterior. “He was my best friend and he’s gone. They’re both gone and the family is grieving. Please, just have dinner with us.”
“I will have dinner with you,” Vin offered, making a split-second decision. “Trisanu can stay at the hotel.” He half expected a swift denial to his offer, or at least some posturing on the older man’s part.
But after a speaking look between the two, Eliza nodded. “Fine. What time would you like to pick me up?”
“Who said I’m picking you up? This is the twenty-first century, surely you can make your own way to the restaurant.” He realized he was being rude but refused to let it matter.
As Eliza had already mentioned, Vin did not have a reputation for being a kind man.
“Must you be so entirely lacking in manners?” Trisanu asked, exasperation finally showing in his perfectly modulated voice.
But Vin wasn’t accepting censure from any Singh and particularly not this one. “Asks the man who barged into my office without leave.”
“And you would have Eliza pay the price for the great sin you consider being connected to the Singh family?”
“I was unaware I was asking something onerous. If it is that important to you, I can send a car for her.”
“I would prefer you had dinner at the hotel restaurant. She is an unmarried woman in my guardianship.”
“She’s not a Victorian maiden. She isn’t even a teenage ingenue, if I remember our age difference correctly, she is twenty-seven years old, of an age by even the strictest standards to travel to a restaurant without chaperone.”
“Of course I am. Dadaji is just watching out for me.”
Vin shrugged. “I’ll send a car. Be in the lobby at six-thirty.”
He had to speak to his mother before the dinner.
His decision in regard to claiming his birthright did not only affect Vin, but it affected the woman who had given him birth, the woman who had done her best to raise him in love and with a respect for the Indian culture she’d had to leave behind when sent off to America to live in unmarried, pregnant disgrace.
How desperate had Trisanu to be to come knocking on Vin’s door?
Maybe it was time Vin had the investigative company he had on retainer do a deep dive into the lives and finances of the Singhs. Did they truly merely want an heir, or were there other reasons Trisanu Singh was now willing to acknowledge his billionaire grandson?
He needed to remember that as lovely and charming as Eliza might appear, she had been raised for the last nearly two decades in the Mahapatras palace.
Vin could not trust her any more than he trusted any other Singh.
Two hours later, Vin could in no way doubt how very much his mother wanted him recognized as the official heir to the house of Mahapatras.
Badriyah Barbie Acharya Latham’s eyes positively glowed with joy at the prospect. “Oh, my dear son!” She clasped her hands before her, her beautiful, classic Indian features creased with a blinding smile, her dark eyes glowing with delight. “Rajvinder, to have you recognized.”
There was that word.
He had taken the money settled on him by the Acharya family, who were no keener to recognize him than the Singhs had been, and he had built an empire. Vin was worth more personally than the whole Mahapatras dynastic clan and Acharya family combined. But his mother?
Still needed him to be recognized.
It hurt her that Vin was not. Equally as important, she still carried some of the stigma among her own family and her social set back in India of having been an unwed mother. It was one of the reasons she had not visited the country of her birth until after she married Jamison.
She went once a year now, and Vin always accompanied her, but he knew that there was still a reticence between his mother and her family. There was no question that none of them accepted him into the fold as they did his cousins.
Not even his meteoric business success had elicited Acharya family approval.
And now if Vin cooperated, after thirty-five years, she was being offered the chance to be recognized as the honorable woman she had always been.
“I despise the Singh family.” It had to be said. He wasn’t all that enamored of his mother’s family either.
There were plenty American and British families he knew about that would still stigmatize a woman who had children outside marriage, much less thirty-five years ago. However, every family, regardless of culture, had a choice about how they treated those involved.
The Singhs had kept Adhip in their bosom as their heir, despite being fully aware of Vin’s existence.
The Acharyas had treated his mother like she was an embarrassment and Vin’s existence as the same.
His mother’s face fell and she whispered. “No. They aren’t all bad. Your father had an untenable choice.”
“He had a simple choice. Marry you, or the woman he’d promised to marry. You were pregnant by him. His honor should have demanded only one course of action.”
She shook her head, fiddling with the traditional veil she still wore over her shoulder like a scarf. “Things were different then. They probably still are. The royalty…you can’t imagine how unthinkable it is for a prince to marry anyone but a princess. It just isn’t done.”
“Then he should have kept it in his pants.” Adhip Singh had seduced Vin’s mother, a naïve innocent, who to this day believed she’d loved that bastard prince.
His mother gasped. “Do not be crude.”
“Sorry, Maan.” He wasn’t sorry for the sentiment in the least, and the look on her still youthful face said his mother knew him well enough to be aware.
He was only apologetic he’d let himself say it out loud in front of his sensitive and pretty conservative mother.
“Barbie, this isn’t about you.” Jamison put his arm around her waist, hugging her. “You know your son wants you to be happy, but correcting the mistakes of the past in both families should not be on his shoulders. You can’t expect Vin to care what the Singh family might want, or even the Acharyas. Not after the way they have all treated him.”
His mother twisted her lips at the use of his preferred name by Vin’s stepfather. “But…” She let her voice trail off, waiting for what her husband wanted to say.
An ingrained trait that in no way diminished his mother’s strength.
She might have the appearance of passivity, but his maan had a will of iron and was very good at getting her way. She’d managed to keep Vin despite the opposition of two powerful families.
Jamison smiled at her, his own corporate shark image softening for just a moment. “Your son has built a multi-billion-dollar business that I’m proud to be partner in. He doesn’t need recognition from people too stupid to see his value from birth.”
Vin wanted to agree, out loud and vehemently, but the look his mother gave Jamison stopped him. It was filled with such grief, such unfiltered disappointment.
She believed Vin would agree and was already grieving giving up what was apparently a long-held dream.
“You want this,” he said to his mother, stating the obvious, but insisting on transparency.
She shrugged, belying her expression. “It is your life, as Jamison has pointed out. As much as I would like my family and the Singhs to finally accept you, you don’t care about it.” She sighed, giving him a reproachful glance. “I’m not sure how you can feel this way. Perhaps it was a mistake to raise you here in America.”
“Barbie,” Jamison chided.
But she just gave them both that look. The one that said she was disappointed. A look he was not at all used to be on the receiving end of.
And he didn’t like it. He also didn’t like how she pretended she maybe could have raised him in India. “You didn’t have a choice about where you raised me, not if you wanted your family to help you financially,” Vin pointed out implacably, his tone harsher than usual with his mother.
She did have a frustrating tendency to only see, or remember, what she wanted to.
“You told me your father refused to help financially unless you took your son to another continent to live.” Jamison wasn’t sounding any too tolerant of a less harsh viewpoint himself.
“But he didn’t insist I give Rajvinder up. You cannot imagine what a concession that was for him.” And once again she completely ignored the truth that she’d had no choice but to raise Vin in America.
Vin shook his head. “As long as you hid me away.”
“You’ve hardly lived in the shadows,” she said with gentle censure.
“Neither have I been a part of the Acharya family.” He would have taken Jamison’s last name after the marriage if his mother hadn’t had a crying meltdown over the very idea.
She didn’t want Vin to give up his heritage. A heritage that had left him a nonperson according to two powerful families, but a heritage that he had embraced in many important ways regardless. He was proud to be Indian by birth, but that didn’t mean he was proud to be part of two families he despised.
“I’ll never understand your tolerance for your family’s behavior toward you and Vin before we married,” Jamison said in a more indulgent tone than Vin could have managed.
He was a thirty-five-year-old man with a life. “I’m not moving to India. I will not live in the Mahapatras seat.”
Not that Vin never went to India. He’d spent a lot more time there since becoming and adult than his mother did. Vin had varied and important business interests in Asia and did most of his wheeling and dealing with India as his base.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t expect that,” his mother said with less conviction than the words implied. “We live in the twenty-first century, after all.”
Vin wasn’t convinced that either his mother’s or his father’s family had entered the modern age, but he wasn’t compromising on his stance either. They didn’t deserve the consideration. “I’m meeting with Eliza Worthington-Smythe to talk about what exactly the family wants from me,” he informed his mother.
Both Badriyah and stepfather looked taken aback.
“I knew she was made a ward of Adhip and his wife,” his mother said, sounding bemused. “But I did not realize she was so entrenched in the family.”
Vin made no effort to hide his cynicism. “She is the child they never had.”
That made his mother frown. She didn’t like the idea of an interloper being raised in the opulence that should have been afforded her son.
“I hardly think it appropriate for you to discuss these things with her.” His mother did disapproval as well as any royal.
“Because she’s a woman?” he teased, knowing his mother had never held the more conservative views on that score as the rest of her family.
She wouldn’t have struck out on her own if she had.
“Of course not, but she’s not really a member of Singh family. She cannot speak for them.”
“She’s more a member than I am.”
“That is not true. Acknowledged, or not, you have always been Adhip’s son. You are their heir now.”
“Only if I accept the legal trappings of such a thing.” No matter how much his mother might want it, Vin wasn’t sure he was willing to be a nominal prince.
Jamison frowned. “Technically, you could be named heir without your permission. It is more a matter of what the family is willing to acknowledge.”
“And if they did that, I could then sell off all the assets and walk away.” His mother’s choices might have been taken away thirty-five years ago, but Vin would never allow his to be.
“You would not do such a thing!” His mother’s shock and horror at such an idea was not feigned.
“I’ll talk to Eliza.” And that was all Vin would promise.
Dismantling the Mahapatras empire? That was a far too tempting prospect to simply dismiss on even his mother’s say so.