She’d looked so stormy—strong and sensual. She’d waded into those waves without so much as a glance around or a second’s hesitation as the cool water had hit her. She’d been every inch the fighter then. And she looked it now.
He didn’t want children at this time in his life. Definitely didn’t want a wedding. But he’d step up. Because there was an underlying benefit for someone even more important.
‘Your plan, Stella?’ he prompted, irritably ignoring the urge to haul her against him and kiss her into compliance.
She didn’t answer.
‘Why didn’t you come to me?’ he asked. Was she afraid of him? Or was it just the usual—no one thought Prince Eduardo could be capable in a crisis.
‘I didn’t know,’ she said, as if choking on the words.
He wanted to believe her, and almost did. He even felt a twinge of sympathy. But he damped it down. People lied. People withheld information. She already had. This would never have happened had she been honest in the first place. But she’d hidden her identity for reasons he had yet to work out, and the fact that she had given her virginity to him so quickly was utterly unfathomable.
‘Where were you going to go?’ he asked, wanting to see whether she’d offer even a scrap more information.
‘I don’t know. Anywhere.’
Anywhere but to him. That was clear. And she wasn’t willing to talk about it. Why was she so secretive? And why did he still want her so acutely?
He clamped his teeth together, angered by the searing betrayal of his body. She was just another woman, wasn’t she? Hadn’t he had plenty? But he hadn’t slept with another woman in the weeks since that afternoon. Maybe that was why he was feeling the edge now.
He knew it wasn’t.
‘You have no choice, Stella,’ he said harshly. This situation would be defused, because there could only be duty now. ‘And nor do I. We must make the best of this situation. We must do the right thing.’
She stared at him, and he knew she was desperately thinking up alternatives. ‘I cannot stay here.’
‘You can. And you will.’
He didn’t like the look that now entered her eyes. It echoed the way she’d looked at the result of that pregnancy test. Terrified.
‘Think of it as a mission.’ He softened, trying to speak in language she understood to reassure her. ‘Like a tour of duty. It doesn’t need to be for ever.’
And it didn’t. While not ideal or desirable, a divorce within the royal family was something that could be weathered. An illegitimate heir, however, was not.
She stiffened at his words, the spark in her eye reigniting, but she paused before answering, ‘I understand.’
He’d angered her, but at least that vitality had returned to her expression. His skin tightened and his blood heated.
‘But now I’ve had a chance to think,’ she said slowly, ‘it seems obvious to me that we don’t need to do this at all. Your brother is the Crown Prince. He makes the laws. So he can simply change the law to recognise the child as your heir. There is no need for us to marry for the baby to have its birthright.’
Anger flared. Would she deny his child? Would she defy him? And she dared suggest he ask his brother to fix up this mess? Never would he do that.
‘My baby will have nothing less than she or he deserves. Nothing less than the very best.’ He placed his hands on her fine-boned shoulders and spoke right into her face. ‘I repeat. We will be married here tomorrow. Whether you like it or not, it is what will happen.’
She flung her head back and glared up at him. ‘You can’t make me.’
‘No?’ He laughed at the challenge, and the urge to bait her was irresistible. ‘You are a soldier. You are trained to do as you are told.’
Her nostrils flared. ‘I will not obey you. You are not my superior officer. And I’m no longer a soldier.’
‘You’re a born soldier,’ he said. ‘And I am a prince of the realm.’
‘But not the Crown Prince.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘You’re not the supreme commanding officer. You’re not the monarch who passes the laws of the land. You are nothing but a mere man to me.’
His lips curled as satisfaction rushed and adrenalin surged, sharpening every one of his muscles. This challenge and fearless fighting vitality was what he’d liked about her. She was no prince-adoring sycophant.
‘A man that you wanted. That you had. That you’re now stuck with. For better or for worse,’ he mocked, but he meant it. ‘And you will do as I say tomorrow. You’ll find you have very little choice in the matter.’