“Say that’s true. Want to explain to me how you’re a prince when your father is a mere lord?”
Erhall. Of all the people, it had to be Erhall.
Bile rose in my throat at the reminder we were related.
Andreas’s eyes shuttered. “My mother had an affair with Erhall. My father—my real father, even if he wasn’t my biological one—didn’t know until she told him before she died. Six years ago, cancer. I guess she wanted to go with a clear conscience. My father didn’t tell me until before he died, three years ago.” He barked out a short laugh. “At least my family can take secrets with them to their graves. Literally.”
“Does Erhall know?”
“No,” Andreas said a little too sharply. “And he won’t. My father was the one who raised me, not Erhall. My father…” A shadow flickered across his face and disappeared. “He was a good man, and he loved me enough to treat me like his own son even after he found out I wasn’t. Erhall, on the other hand, is a sniveling weasel.”
I snorted. At least we agreed on something.
Andreas’s smirk returned as he took another sip of tea. “Here’s a secret for you. I don’t want the throne. Never did. I’d step up if I had to, of course, but I would much rather have someone else fill that role—as long as they’re capable. The throne is the most powerful seat but also the smallest cage in the palace.”
“That’s utter crap,” I growled. “You’ve made your intentions clear multiple times. The meetings with the king and Speaker, the ‘helpful’ visit to my guesthouse the night before Nikolai’s wedding. Remember those?”
“Bridget needed a push,” he said coolly. “I wanted to see if she’d fight for the crown. But I also came back because…” He hesitated for a brief second. “I wanted to give Erhall a chance. See if we could connect somehow. That’s why I asked to shadow him during his meetings, more so than me wanting to be king. As for the guesthouse, I was trying to help you. I’m not an idiot, Mr. Larsen. Or should I call you Rhys, now that we both know we’re brothers?”
I glared at him, and he chuckled.
“Mr. Larsen it is,” he said. “I knew something was going on with you and Bridget long before the news broke. I didn’t have confirmation, but I could see it in the way you looked at each other. It’s a tough choice, love or country. Nikolai made his. Bridget, well, I guess she made hers, too. But before she agreed to marry Steffan”—the acid in my veins thickened and pooled in my stomach—“you two had a shot. Thought I’d give you a little nudge. You are my brother, and she is my cousin. Two of the few family members I have left. Consider it my good deed for the year.”
“What charity,” I said, my sarcasm evident. “You should be sainted.”
“Laugh all you want, but I was willing to push you two together because you were so clearly in love, even if it meant I had to take up the mantle should Bridget abdicate. Is that not a sacrifice?”
It was a sacrifice. But I wasn’t admitting that to Andreas.
My head pounded with the volume of new information rushing in. There was every chance Andreas was bullshitting me, but my gut told me he wasn’t.
“I almost told her about our father, you know. At Nikolai’s wedding reception. It doesn’t help much with the Royal Marriages Law, since it requires the monarch to marry someone of legitimate noble birth. You were born out of wedlock and never acknowledged by Erhall as his son—he doesn’t even know you are his son—so you don’t qualify.” Andreas finished his tea and set it in the sink. “But she disappeared from the reception and before I could talk to her, The Daily Tea allegations broke.” He shrugged. “C’est la vie.”
Dammit. I’d hoped, now that I knew I was the son of a lord…
“If it doesn’t help with the law, why would you tell her?” I demanded.
“Because I have an idea of how it might help in a roundabout way.” Andreas smiled. “It might even help you get Bridget back if you work fast enough. Holstein’s scheduled to propose next month. I’m willing to help you…”
“But?” There was always a but in these kinds of games.
“But you stop treating me like an enemy and as…perhaps not a brother, but a friendly acquaintance. We are, after all, the only direct family left besides our lovely father.” Something flickered across Andreas’s face before it disappeared.
“That’s it.” Suspicion curled in my stomach. It seemed too easy.
“That’s it. Take it or leave it.”
Something occurred to me. “Before I answer, I want to know. Did you ever snoop around my guesthouse when I wasn’t there?”
He gave me an odd look. “No.”
Andreas drew himself up to his full height, looking affronted. “I am a prince. I do not snoop around guesthouses…” the word dripped with disdain, “…like a common thief.”
I pressed my lips together. He was telling the truth.
But if he wasn’t the culprit, who was?
I supposed it didn’t matter anymore, considering I no longer lived there, but the mystery rankled.
I did, however, have more important things to focus on.
I didn’t trust Andreas. He may be honest today, and he may not want to steal the crown from Bridget, but that didn’t mean he would be honest always.
Unfortunately, I was running out of both time and options.
I hope I don’t regret this.
“Your idea,” I said. “I’m listening.”