Just Once - Page 30

Art gave his brother a stage-worthy double-take.

“Oh, please, Art!” Caleb snorted. “Just because you're smarter than me doesn't mean I'm stupid! Looks like I'm going to have to concede that at least part of your story was true.” He clapped his hand on Art's shoulder. “Congratulations . . . and I'm sorry.”

Art nodded, his lips pressed together tightly, his eyes fixated on the little girl. “It's just . . . hard, you know? This is the first time I've ever seen her in person, and I just want to . . .” He trailed off with a sigh. “But I can't.”

“The hell you can't!” Caleb swore a little too loudly, drawing a few cursory stares before all eyes turned back to the procession of Annika and her daughter toward their waiting limousine. “She's--” His words were chopped off suddenly via a subtly delivered, but no less painful for it, elbow into his stomach from his brother.

“In line to inherit the throne after her mother,” Art pointedly finished for Caleb in quiet tones. “A situation already complicated by the . . . circumstances of her birth.”

“Her people love her, and you know it!” Caleb retorted as he rubbed his stomach in reproach.

Art narrowed his eyes at Caleb. “How could you possibly know that?” he asked scathingly.

Caleb rolled his eyes and held up his smartphone. “Get with the 21st century, Art. I looked it up!”

Art glanced at the screen on his brother's smartphone, then shook his head. “You should have kept reading,” he said with a sigh. “Yes, Annika's line currently has popular support,” Art admitted, “but there's more involved than that if you want to keep your throne and your life. Just a few years ago one of Annika's cousins was executed after his assassination attempt failed, remember?”

“Yeah, but ---” Caleb started to protest.

“But nothing!” Art hissed. “Annika's people may have been quick to forgive her 'youthful indiscretion,' but part of that is because Annika's been coy on who the father is, implying it could one day give her country a much needed tie to a larger power.” He sighed again, then very quietly added, “The truth would only . . . make an already bad situation worse.”

“Then isn't Annika taking a big risk by bringing her here?” Caleb asked. “I mean, she'd have to know that you'd . . .” He trailed off as he realized Art and Annika had finally made eye contact. “Oh. Right . . .” Caleb whispered to himself. “Maybe I am a little bit stupid sometimes.”

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