Loch knew something was wrong when he walked into his great-aunt’s private study and found the queen, the crown princess, and her new American husband all seated there, along with the queen’s most trusted advisor.
This was bad. If there was a state holiday, perhaps he could understand it. But ten at night on a Tuesday? Not good.
Loch ran a hand through his messy hair, wishing he’d had time to shower prior to appearing at the palace. “Sorry. Just got out of a polo match not too long ago.” Well, polo and then a few hours down at the local tavern with a few buddies. He was a fan of celebrating wins, though, and they’d won. He moved in and kissed the old queen on the cheek. “Aunt. How are you?”
“Concerned,” she said, and patted his shoulder. “Sit down, Loch. This is not going to be an easy conversation.”
Hell. He went and greeted Alex with a kiss to the cheek and nodded at her husband, Luke, before taking a seat in the empty chair across from the queen. He hadn’t greeted the minister, but he didn’t know the damn man and all of this mystery was starting to make him a hair nervous. “What’s going on?”
The queen looked to the minister and nodded. “You may speak.”
The little man adjusted his glasses and studied Loch for a moment. “You’re aware that you are fifth in line for the throne, correct?”
“Thought it was sixth, actually.” He hadn’t given things much thought since he had no plans of using his title other than to get free drinks and to occasionally impress women. It was perfectly fine for him if he never moved up the food chain—look at how serious it made his cousin Alex. She never had a bit of fun.
Him? He was all about fun and enjoying himself.
“Well, there was the recent issue with George.” The man adjusted his glasses again and shot a nervous look at the queen. When she nodded, he continued. “I’m sure you’re aware that George recently abdicated from the line of succession?”
Loch rubbed the side of his nose. “Would have to be under a rock to be unaware of it.”
George had been caught with not one but two of the palace maids—both married—and had been pressured by the queen to give up his spot as second in line to the throne. He’d been compensated with a hefty stipend, though only family knew about that. To the rest of the world, George was a cheater who was truly chagrined at being caught with his pants down. Family knew better. George had always been a bit of a letch. Loch felt sorry for his poor wife, though. She seemed nice enough.
“Do be serious, Loch,” Alex said, her tone steel.
He shifted in his seat. “Sorry. Yes. Aware. George is no longer second in line to the throne.”
“That moves everyone up in the succession list,” the minister went on. He pulled out a chart. “After Princess Alex, George’s son Peter is next. Then his daughter Alma. Then it is your cousin Griffin. After him comes you.”
Loch nodded. They weren’t telling him much that he hadn’t heard before.
“The problem is that there is a large growing faction that is unhappy. A very vocal faction. They are not pleased with Her Grace Alexandra’s marriage to an American. They’re looking for someone new to put on the throne once the queen passes on.”
Loch’s brows drew together in a frown. He looked at his regal great-aunt, startled. She looked a little frailer this year than last year, but she was strong and still in control of her faculties. The British queen was even older than Great-Aunt Alexandra, wasn’t she? No one was jockeying for her spot. Why all the goings-on over his great-aunt’s throne? “I don’t understand. Why are we talking about succession?”
“Because I am old,” the queen said bluntly. “People want new blood on the throne. I will be stepping down in the next year or two in favor of Alex.”
“And the faction that is unhappy does not like that she is married to an American, so they’re looking for someone new to place on the throne.”
Loch thought for a moment. “Not Peter?” His cousin’s son was barely seven or so.
“Not Peter,” the queen agreed. “Too young. Not Alma, either. Same reason.”
Loch started to sweat. “Then Griffin?”
“Griffin is also marrying an American in the next few months,” Princess Alex pointed out gently. “A very infamous American with no fortune. He is very much in love with her and is willing to give up his place in line of succession if pressured.”
Damn. This was getting very uncomfortable. He shifted in his chair. “Surely not me?”
“On paper, you look very good to the people of Bellissime,” the minister said, glancing at the queen. He pulled out a sheet. “You’re very well liked amongst the younger populace and you did two years in the royal army despite having the money to do otherwise. You’re very wealthy on your own and won’t put a burden on the populace. You’re good-looking and sporty. You have no immediate scandal. If you were to marry a Bellissime lady—or even a princess from Saxe-Gallia—you would be the natural choice of the people for the next king.”
Loch gave Alex an alarmed look. “I don’t want to be king.”
“I don’t want you to be king, either,” she said in a cool voice. He noticed that she reached for her husband’s hand and laced her fingers in his. “We’re trying to have a baby to cement the line of succession, but until then, there are unhappy vocal dissidents who are not pleased with my marriage to Luke.”
“They’d be less happy with me on the throne,” Loch exclaimed. “I went to school in Britain. I’m a cock-up. The only reason I have money is because of Griffin’s investments and because I sold the family estate to that movie producer. I don’t do anything worthwhile except show my face at a few events. Truly, I’m the wrong man for the job.”
“We agree,” the queen said, her expression bland. “You would be a poor choice.”
Well, at least they agreed on that. Damn if it didn’t make him feel like an ass, though.
“That is why you’re here tonight, Loch. You’re going to leave the country.”
Alex looked over at her grandmother, then back to Loch. “It’s for the best if you fall out of the public eye for a while.”
He rubbed his jaw. He didn’t like the idea—Bellissime was his home. But if it was a choice between taking the throne or heading to a nice sunny island for a few months, then he’d do that. “All right. I’ll go on vacation—”