His Two Royal Secrets(5)

By: Caitlin Crews

And because she was standing there before her brother, wearing a dress that fit her more tightly than she might have liked—in all that unrelenting funereal black that Pia had been draped in for the past six weeks since their mother had died—she could feel it when Matteo’s disbelieving stare landed on her belly.

Her belly, which, despite Pia’s best attempt to pretend none of this was happening, was protruding. Sticking right out, whether she liked it or not.

There was no way around it.

Her mother, of course, had noticed that Pia was getting “chunky” in the week or so before she’d died. And Pia had learned a long, long time ago exactly what weight she needed to maintain to avoid the acid side of her mother’s tongue. Her mother had seen the instant Pia had exceeded that weight, the way she had when Pia had been a rather moonfaced and shy young girl. To the ounce.

Puppy fat is for poor girls with no prospects, the legendary Alexandrina San Giacomo had said to her woebegone twelve-year-old daughter, her magnificent face calm—which made it worse. You are a San Giacomo. San Giacomos do not have chipmunk cheeks. I suggest you step away from the sweets.

After that Pia had been so determined to, if not live up to her mother’s impossible standard of effortless grace and beauty, at least escape her scathing put-downs. She’d dieted religiously throughout her teens, yet her cheeks had steadfastly refused to slim down, until one morning she’d woken up, aged twenty-two, and they’d gone.

Sadly, she’d taken her fateful trip to New York City shortly thereafter.

And Pia couldn’t say why her mother had done what she had done. She couldn’t definitively state that it was because she’d discovered her unmarried daughter was pregnant, and on the verge of causing the kind of scandal that was usually her mother’s province. Hadn’t Alexandrina spent the bulk of Pia’s childhood beating it into her—not literally, thankfully, though Alexandrina’s tongue was its own mallet—that Pia was to walk the straight and narrow? That Pia was to make certain she remained peerless and without blemish? That Pia needed to be, above all things, Snow White—pure as the driven snow or Alexandrina would know the reason why.

The truth was, Alexandrina hadn’t much liked the reason why.

Pia couldn’t say that the news that she was not only not at all innocent any longer, but pregnant by a stranger whose name she didn’t know, had made her mother decide to overindulge more than usual, as she had. And with such tragic results.

But she couldn’t say that wasn’t the reason, either.

And now it was six weeks later. Alexandrina had died and left their little family—and her planetful of admirers—in a state of despair. And then her father—brash and larger-than-life Eddie Combe, who Pia had thought was surely immortal—had collapsed with a heart attack three days ago and died that same night. And Pia was certain, now.

This was all her fault.

“You are serious,” Matteo said, darkly.

She tried to keep her face calm and expressionless, as her mother always had, particularly when she was at her most awful. “I’m afraid so.”

Matteo looked as if he had glass in his mouth. “You are aware, I feel certain, that we are moments away from our father’s funeral?”

Pia decided that wasn’t a real question. She waited instead of answering it, her hands folded in front of her as if she could stand there all day. She gazed past her brother and out at the Yorkshire countryside arrayed outside the windows, green hills beneath the gunmetal sky. Matteo, his gray eyes more dark and brooding than the stormy sky behind him, glared at her.

But when he spoke again, she had the impression he was trying his best to be kind.

“You look pregnant, Pia.”

As if she might have missed that. “I do.”

“There will be press at this funeral service. Paparazzi everywhere we turn. There was no avoiding them six weeks ago and it will be even more intense today. You must know what kind of commotion a visible pregnancy will cause.”

To his credit, he sounded as if he was trying to talk without clenching his jaw like that.

“What do you suggest I do?” Pia asked the question quietly, as if it hadn’t kept her up since the night her father had died. If she didn’t attend the funeral, would that be worse than if she did?

“How the hell did this happen?” Matteo growled.

Pia had always considered herself close to her brother. It was only the two of them, after all, caught up some ten years apart in the middle of their parents’ famously tempestuous, always dramatic love story. Eddie Combe had been known as much for his tendency to take a swing at his business competitors as for his business itself, Combe Industries, that was the direct result of those tough Combes who’d climbed out of the mills.

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