The Count’s Baby

A Prasala Romance #3

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When Megan Russell’s life is shattered after her politician husband leaves her for another woman, she flees to Prasala for solace where her best friend, Katy, is now a princess.

Megan hopes to get a new start here and put the pieces of her life back together. She can’t go on as an emotional basket case because of what her husband did to her. She has to move on. She needs to find a meaningful career.

Especially now.

But the handsome Count with the wicked smile is making her mind go in other directions.

Count Philippe de BelleBourge enjoys his reputation as Europe’s most notorious playboy. He longs to get back to that life. But he has been saddled with handling his late father’s estate.

And now the intriguing divorcee from Kentucky has caught his attention. If only he could get her into his bed, she would realize what pleasures he could show her.

Megan senses danger around this man—that only makes him more interesting. But she can’t risk another betrayal. Can she hold her own against the Count’s wiles?

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Chapter One

Megan Russell smiled down at the pair of bright blue eyes gazing into hers with curiosity. From beneath the plush chenille blanket, a tiny hand reached out and wrapped around her finger.

The pressure was stronger than she expected, and her heart broke with tenderness at the sensation, even as she breathed in the sweet smell of baby powder—and fought the bitter taste welling up at the back of her throat.

“Little Prince Beaumont,” she whispered softly. “He’s beautiful.”

Beside her, Katy beamed. “Isn’t he? If I do say so myself.”

Megan sighed. The patch of black hair was like his father’s. The tiny mouth like Katy’s. “He has your eyes.”

Dressed in a pale pink slacks outfit, with her short blond hair smoothed back in a mature style, Katy didn’t look like the country girl she’d once been. Unless you knew her.

Megan watched her maternal moves as she fluffed the bedclothes of the hand-painted crib, a bed made long ago by specially commissioned carpenters to cradle the country’s royalty.

“Mama says that, too. And Darcy is beside herself with excitement over having a nephew.”

Megan still had trouble believing Katy’s little sister was the newly-crowned Queen of the country. She’d known Darcy since she was Prince Beaumont’s age.

Katy held out her arms. “Two o’clock. Nap time.”

Megan gave the little Prince back to his mother, watched her lay him gently on the silken sheets.

The afternoon sun danced playfully on the high majestic walls of the castle nursery. The intricate gold-leaf patterns glistened while the fanciful pastel scenes of knights and horses seemed to mock her. But the mural’s sweet innocence reflected the right tone for a baby.

And after all, the southeastern European country of Prasala was famous for its horses. No wonder some women from Kentucky felt so at home here.

Megan hoped to feel that way, too. She hoped she could heal here. She hoped to finally escape the emptiness in her heart.

Some things, though, were inescapable.

As the little Prince yawned and closed his eyes, Megan pressed a hand to her stomach. The familiar tremor of bitterness and fear rippled through her—feelings that had engulfed her for a few weeks now.

Her secret.

Stubbornly she bit back the hurt and fought the threatening tears with all her might. She would not fall apart in front of her friend.

Were they still friends? She hadn’t spoken to Katy in months.

As if she had read her thoughts, Katy took Megan’s hand and led her to a nearby divan.

“Who would have thought I’d grow up to be the mother of a Prince?”

“Or the wife of one.” Megan forced a smile as she eased herself onto the traditional Vendome sofa with its lavish carvings and cushions.

Katy continued to hold her hand, her face riddled with concern. “I’m so glad you’re here, Meg.”

With her free hand Megan smoothed the lap of her designer jeans.

She was still in the clothes she’d worn from the airport. Two days ago on a whim she’d had her light brown hair dyed dark and cut in a modern fringe. She must look a sight to Katy.

Avoiding her friend’s gaze she braced herself for the inevitable conversation.

“Tell me how you’ve been.”

How she’d been. Megan almost sighed out loud.

They used to be close.

She and Katy had been best friends when they were kids together in school. Back home in Kentucky, while Megan’s family had been well off, Katy’s had owned a struggling horse farm.

Funny. Katy always said Megan defended her from the bullies at school. The snobby rich kids who’d make fun of her because she didn’t wear designer clothes or couldn’t afford the latest gadgets. But Megan had always admired the way Katy stood up for herself.

Such an odd twist of fate.

As adults, Megan had been the one to comfort Katy when her well-to-do fiancé cheated on her days before her wedding. Now their situations were reversed. Katy was happily married and Megan was the one who’d been jilted.

Jilted. She hated that word.

Katy squeezed her hand. “Oh Meg, I’m so sorry about Tom. I wish you’d told me you were having problems sooner.”

“I didn’t know it myself until it was too late.” Megan stared down at their entwined fingers.

She and Katy had drifted apart the past year while she’d tried in vain to keep her life from disintegrating. When she’d called out of the blue last week and asked to come to Prasala for a visit, Katy had been understandably surprised. Even a little terse.

Megan could tell she wanted answers. Answers Megan couldn’t give her.

Not yet.

When Katy asked if Tom was coming, she’d quietly said, no. She and Tom were divorced. She hadn’t told her the details.

Katy leaned closer. “I wish I knew how to help you. You’ve always been there for me. It must be devastating to…lose him.”

Lose him. As if he were a missing pet.

“I lost him years ago,” she said. “If I ever really had him.”

Bitterness churned inside her.

She had trusted Tom completely. They had been childhood sweethearts. She’d thought they had the perfect marriage. She’d wanted children with him.

She had helped him get through law school, find his first job as an attorney, run for city council, the mayor’s office, all the way up to the Assistant Attorney General of the state.

But she should have seen the telltale signs years ago. The strain in his eyes, his coldness, his avoidance of her with constant work that kept him at the office.

Though apparently it hadn’t all been work.

“There was another woman.”

Katy’s grip on her hand grew tight. “Oh, no, Meg.”

It was eight months ago now. Just after she’d returned from her last trip to Prasala for Darcy’s coronation. Megan had barely walked through the door and begun to unpack when Tom told her, in a very calm, very unemotional voice, that there was someone else.

He wanted a quiet divorce—as in keeping it from the media—with as little fanfare and fuss as possible. For him their marriage was over, he’d said. He felt nothing for her any longer.

She bored him.

His words had stung her like a gunshot. Shock and disbelief had immobilized her senses. She bored him? How could Tom say such a thing? Maybe the spark had gone out of their marriage, but they could get it back. Couldn’t they? How could there be someone else?

Who was she? What was she like? Megan never got a chance to ask.

Tom had already packed his bags. As soon as he delivered his message, he picked them up and left the mansion they had shared as man and wife as if it were a hotel he’d stayed in for a weekend.

The following months were a blur. Megan cried for days, feeling stupid and humiliated and angry and betrayed. But despite Tom’s unfaithfulness Megan refused to believe their marriage was done.

It couldn’t be over. What did he expect her to do with herself?

Like a desperate fool, she called his office over and over. She asked to meet him at their favorite bistro, to talk with him. To try to patch up whatever was wrong with their marriage.

He refused.

All through the summer and the holidays and the winter she wandered the halls of her house, at a loss for what to do. She refused to sign the papers when they came. Her family didn’t believe in divorce. Neither did she. She didn’t think Tom did, either.

This couldn’t be happening.

She called Tom again. This time she begged him to come to the house. She told him he’d left some of his things and insisted he pick them up in person.

He agreed but only if she signed the papers.

She said she would. But that wouldn’t be necessary.

When Tom walked through the door she’d greeted him with a candlelight dinner of creamed lobster and double stuffed potatoes with chocolate cake for dessert.

His favorites.

He’d wanted to turn around and leave but somehow she convinced him to stay, to eat, to talk. If only he would talk to her. They could work out their problems. Through the dinner they made idle chitchat. Finally she managed to tempt him into the bedroom.

They made love. For old time’s sake, she told him. Just one last time. She’d hoped he would see what he was throwing away.

But in the morning he’d simply gotten dressed and left.

His last words to her were, “I expect to see those divorce papers soon.”

That very morning she signed them and sent them back.

A little over a week later, the smell of her morning French toast had her running to the bathroom. She felt bloated and irritable.

Then she missed her period.

Praying it was the stress of the breakup or that she was coming down with the flu, she bought a pregnancy test from the drug store.

When she read the result, she refused to believe it. She made an appointment with her family doctor. His tests told her the same bitter news.

She was pregnant.

Pregnant with Tom Russell’s child. The child she had wanted so much with him.

That was when she woke from the daze she’d been wandering in and finally saw the truth.

Her marriage was over. Tom wasn’t coming back. She was on her own. She didn’t cry this time. She was done with tears. Instead the pain settled into a dull ache that wouldn’t go away. And neither would the result of that night.

She touched her stomach again.

She hadn’t been able to keep the news of her divorce from Katy, but she refused to tell her about the stupid mistake she’d made with Tom.

“I don’t believe it,” Katy murmured, pity in her voice. “I always thought you two were the perfect couple.”

Megan stared down at her waist. She’d always been so optimistic, blithely telling others their problems would work out for the best. Until now, things had always worked out for her. She’d been so blind. Her advice had been so shallow, so naive.

“Far from it,” she said coldly. “We never had what you and your Prince Julio have found. The night Tom left, he admitted he’d been cheating on me a year.”

Typical politician. The power had gone to his head.

“Meg, no.”

Megan’s lip quivered. She turned her head away, unable to bear the thought of falling apart in front of her friend. She thought she was done with the crying, the shock, the pain. All she wanted was to get past it. To get over this nightmare, this agony, and get on with her life.

But suddenly, she couldn’t hold back.

She leaned her head against Katy’s shoulder and wept.

Katy ran her hand over her back. “There, there. It’s good to get it all out.”

Megan winced.

She used to say those words to Katy. She had always been the level-headed one, the sensible one. The one who gave Katy advice about her heartaches. She hated being on the receiving end. Being the needy one. The one who craved sympathy.

She lifted her head and wiped her eyes with her hands. “I just want to heal and move on.”

“What are you going to do with yourself?”

“I don’t know, Katy.”

It was time to get on with her life. But that was the problem. She didn’t have a life.

She’d spent the last thirteen years playing hostess at dinner parties, charity balls, social events. Her days had revolved around Tom Russell and his campaigns, his goals, his schedule, his agenda. He said she was boring. If she’d become boring, it was because of everything she’d done for him.

“I need a job.” She could barely hide the resentment in her voice.

Katy studied her thoughtfully a moment, as if she knew Megan was hiding something from her.

“You majored in Art History in college,” she offered.

Megan had thought about that. “It’s a possibility. I’ve always loved art. I’ve thought of taking up painting again. Maybe becoming a dealer.”

“You used to love to paint.”

She smiled wistfully.

That was a lifetime ago. She hadn’t had time for a hobby with Tom’s busy schedule. Painting wouldn’t provide a livelihood, though. She had some money to live on. The alimony was adequate for now, more than she’d expected with Tom’s legal connections. But soon there would be another to care for.

She needed a solid career.

“Have you decided how long you’ll stay in Prasala?” Katy asked quietly.

“A few weeks, at least.” She had nothing to go back to. Her life in Kentucky, for all practical purposes, was over.

“You are going back to Chevalia with us after the christening, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” Megan nodded. “It was a spur of the moment decision to come early.”

When she’d discovered her condition, she hadn’t cared where she went as long as it was far away from Kentucky and everything that reminded her of Tom Russell. Though she’d planned to attend Beau’s christening, the trip to Prasala became an excuse to escape.

“I can’t wait for you to see our palace, though it’s not as regal as Avante.” Katy gestured at the ornate nursery. “You can stay with us as long as you need, Meg.”

“Thank you.”

Touched by Katy’s generosity and unwavering loyalty, Megan hugged her friend.

Then Katy whispered softly in her ear. “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?”

Megan pulled back and studied Katy’s too-sharp blue-green eyes. But before she could answer, there was a soft knock and the tall gilded door of the nursery opened.

A familiar figure peeped inside, and the pretty face broke into a wide grin. “Megan! They told me you were here.”

Katy’s sister, Darcy, rushed across the floor and threw her arms around her.

She had on a ruby red silk dress with a flared skirt that accented her thick dark hair which flowed over her shoulders. Darcy looked very grown up and regal indeed.

After a long, hearty hug, the new Queen pulled away with a grin. “If I’d known you were coming in this morning, I would have gotten up early and met you at the airport. How are you?”

Megan straightened her shoulders, trying to smile back.

She could see from Darcy’s face Katy had told her about the divorce.

It wasn’t a secret. Probably everyone knew by now. But Darcy’s way of handling the news was to chase it away by pretending life was wonderful.

It was for her, she was married to the King of this country, a man who adored her. Not that Megan was resentful. She was happy for Darcy. And proud of the girl who had been like a little sister to her growing up.

And maybe it was a good idea to act cheerful—whether she was or not.

“I’m fine,” Megan told her.

“Good.” Darcy gave her another hug, then tiptoed over to the crib, the material of her elegant dress making a soft rustle as she moved.

“So you’ve met my new nephew? He’s so cute I just want to eat him up.”

“Shhh,” Katy chided her sister. “We’ve just put Beau down for his nap.”

“Sorry,” Darcy whispered. Then she turned and cooed at the baby.

“If you wake him, you’ll have to get him back to sleep.”

“He’s already sound asleep. He takes after his aunt.” She yawned.

“I’m warning you, Darcy.”

Megan smiled, feeling suddenly wistful at the sisterly bickering she remembered so well. “I remember Darcy in diapers, trailing us around your house when I came to play. And now she’s married to the King of Prasala and has become his Queen.”

“She’s really grown up,” Katy said under her breath. “I’m proud of her.”

Darcy turned with a frown and put her hands on her hips. “What lies are you telling Megan about me, Katy?”

“I’m just complaining that I always have to keep an eye on you.”

Darcy waved her hand dismissively, then joined them in a chair near the sofa. “I’m so glad you’re here, Meg. You’ll never guess what news I have.”

Megan felt her spirits rise a bit. Darcy’s exuberance for life had always been infectious. “Have you written another song? You’re a wonderful songwriter.”

“Well, yes I have. But that’s not all. Philippe is giving a party.”

“Philippe?” Megan thought the name sounded familiar.

“You remember him. The Count with the cute dimples and devilish eyes? You met him at Katy’s wedding.”

“Philippe is giving a party?” Katy said before Megan could reply.

Darcy nodded. “It starts tonight.”

Katy didn’t seem to like the idea. “A party tonight?”

“More than a party. A three-day celebration. There’ll be hunting and a picnic and lavish dinners. And I’m going to sing my new song.”

“A three-day celebration starting tonight and he hasn’t invited anyone until now?”

Darcy rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows about it but you. And Megan, of course, because she just got here. It’s a surprise in honor of Beau’s christening.”

Speechless, Katy stared at her sister.

It wasn’t the reaction Darcy had been expecting. She launched into a defensive tirade.

“Philippe has spent months fixing his place up. It’s the first social event at the Castle Rosa since his father died, and he’s hosting it all by himself. Everyone’s going. The Queen Mother, All the advisors. Even the stuffy old Lord Sebastian. Megan’s invited, too, of course.”

Katy shot Megan an uncomfortable glance. “I don’t think Megan feels up to it. Do you, Meg?”

But Megan couldn’t answer.

She was barely been listening to the squabbling sisters now. Her mind was focused on the Count with the cute dimples and devilish eyes. She remembered him now. He’d been at Katy’s wedding. She vaguely recalled a suave young man in a tuxedo with dark curly hair with tinted ends. A flamboyant man whom Darcy had run off with.

Much to Katy’s disapproval.

Darcy raised her hands in frustration. “Don’t be silly, Katy. Everyone’s invited. Besides, Philippe is just the person to cheer Megan up.” She smiled slyly.

Megan felt Katy stiffened with anger. “Are we talking about the same person? Darcy, do you really want Megan to meet Philippe? Now?”

Darcy looked at Megan, then back at Katy. “But she already met him at your wedding. You remember him now, don’t you, Meg? Count Philippe de BelleBourge?”

The picture in Megan’s mind was getting clearer. Now she could see the tall, dashing figure of the man with green eyes. She remembered his wicked, playful grin.

“I think so,” she murmured.

Beside her, Katy stiffened. “Darcy. This is very bad timing. You know how difficult it’s been for Megan lately.”

“That’s why this party will cheer her up,” Darcy insisted.

Katy got to her feet. “You intend to cheer her up with the likes of Philippe de BelleBourge? The most notorious playboy on the continent? The man who’s broken every heart from the Mediterranean to the North Sea?”

“You’re exaggerating,” Darcy scoffed.

Megan blinked. Oh, yes. “Now I remember him.”

The man had caused a real stir among the guests when he’d run off with Darcy at Katy’s wedding reception. She recalled the gossip she’d heard about him that night.

He had the reputation of a devil.

Suddenly her mind filled with the image of the audacious man in the elegant black tuxedo. He had looks that took your breath away. Megan recalled Katy had disliked the Count since she’d first met him.

That night at the reception, Megan had been inclined to agree with her.

Darcy stood up and straightened her shoulders. “You’ve never understood Philippe, Katy. He’s my friend. He and Leopold are cousins and have been best friends since boyhood. And Philippe has changed his ways. He’s settling down and trying to run the estate his father left him. He’s giving this party in Beau’s honor to try to make amends.”

“I don’t care what he’s doing,” Katy snapped.

Darcy’s voice became a plea. “You can’t ruin it for him. Or for Julio.”

Katy gritted her teeth, her love for her husband getting the better of her. “I may have to attend Philippe’s party with Julio for protocol’s sake, but I refuse to let Megan go.”

“Katy, you’re being impossible.”

Megan rose as well and calmly raised her chin. “She’s right, Katy.”

Katy spun around, eyes glowing. “What?”

“Staying away from a celebration because of the host’s reputation would be cowardly.” Even if the Count’s reputation made Tom and his philandering look like a Boy Scout. “Besides I came to Prasala to forget my old life. A party is the perfect opportunity to do that.”

Katy’s mouth opened. “But Megan—”

Megan laughed. “This Count may have bedazzled every woman in Europe, but I’m certainly not going to fall for his charms after what I’ve been through.”

He’d be lucky if she didn’t scratch his eyes out. No, she would be civil. She was well trained in behaving in public no matter how she felt on the inside.

She turned to Darcy with the poise of a politician’s wife. “Tell Count de BelleBourge that we’ll be glad to come to his party.”

Triumphantly, Darcy grinned and stretched out a hand. “Come on, Meg. Let’s find you something cool to wear. We have to be there in a few hours.”

Leaving Katy to fume in the nursery, Megan followed Darcy out the door and down the castle hall.

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