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Authors: Amelia Autin

King's Ransom (10 page)

BOOK: King's Ransom

Dirk's expression turned troubled. “I hope you're right,” he said roughly. “Because it's not one baby she's carrying. We just found out it's twins. And because there's a tendency toward premature delivery with chemo, she's resisting that idea, even though she's now safely in her second trimester and doesn't have to worry about the chemo causing birth defects.”

“Oh God,” Juliana said helplessly before she pulled herself together. Twins, she knew, usually had lower birth weights, which would explain why Sabrina didn't want to risk premature delivery at this stage. “Think positive,” she told Dirk stoutly. Her assistant, Maddie, came up to them just then, with bottles of water for both of them.

“I'm trying,” Dirk said. “I've got plans for tonight. There's a full moon and I've arranged to take Bree a horse-drawn carriage.”

Juliana's face softened. “That's so romantic, Dirk.” She raised her hand to cup his cheek. “Bree is lucky to have you,” she said, blinking back unexpected tears. “I wish...” She never got the chance to say what she wished, because all at once she saw Andre standing off to one side watching her. Watching Dirk. A brooding expression on his face. She drew her hand away from Dirk's cheek sharply, as if she'd been caught doing something she shouldn't. It had been an innocent gesture, but Andre wouldn't know that.

“Come on,” Dirk said, helping her off the bed. “Let's get these duds back to Wardrobe before we hold them up.”

I haven't done anything wrong,
she told herself as she walked past Andre toward Wardrobe with her head held high, refusing to look in his direction.
No matter what he thinks, I haven't done anything wrong.

* * *

“How the
did it happen?” Andre demanded of his cousin Zax in the privacy of his office, cold anger making him pace and ramping up his blood pressure. “Do you have any idea? Who was guarding Juliana? I thought you doubled the security around her. How did security break down?”

“Be reasonable,” Zax said, answering the last of the machine-gunned questions first. “Who could have predicted this? You cannot blame the men guarding her any more than you can enclose Juliana in a bubble to keep her safe from
possible threat.”

“If she were yours, Zax,” Andre said fiercely, “you would not say that.”

Zax waited until Andre calmed down enough to listen to reason, then offered up what evidence had been collected so far. “It was no accident. That much we know. The anchor points were nearly filed through on two sides, leaving enough to bear the light's weight for a time, but eventually gravity would cause a stress failure. Other than that...”

Andre stopped pacing to nail his cousin with an angry flash of his eyes. “Who is responsible?”

Zax shook his head. “It could be anyone. One of the crew...or not. According to the producer, those lights were set up yesterday in preparation for today's filming. Again, according to the producer, it was not necessarily aimed at harming anyone. Filming of that scene was expected to be completed long before the light actually fell, so it might have been merely someone with a grudge against the film. According to the producer.”

“No, Zax. Juliana was targeted, the same way she was targeted when she was nearly run down weeks ago. Follow the money trail. Someone was paid to do this.” Andre clenched his fist as tight as his jaw. “Somewhere there is a record. Find it for me, Zax. Find whoever is trying to kill Juliana.”


Chapter 10

nother failure.” The man tried to hold on to his temper because the Russian's cold stare unnerved him, but it wasn't easy. “That makes twice you have failed to eliminate the threat Juliana Richardson entails.”

“The first failure—yes,” the Russian nodded, “I will take responsibility for that. My man failed to run her down. He should have been successful despite the interference—we will not be surprised like that again. But
were the one who wanted to try the ‘accident' on the set,” the Russian reminded him. “Not us. We arranged your insistence.” His expression clearly conveyed what he thought of that amateurish attempt.

“Juliana's death has to appear accidental,” he justified. “With the tight security around her, what else could we have done? I cannot afford to—”

“Yes, yes,” the Russian said, cutting him off. “You cannot afford to show your hand in this, not if you are to achieve your goal. I am aware. But the head of my organization is displeased with the lack of progress in the overall plan. Not the woman—he cares nothing for her—it is the king who stands in his way. And when Aleksandrov Vishenko is unhappy, unpleasant things everyone.”

The deadly tone in the Russian's voice sent a chill down his spine, and his bowels cramped.
I should never have gotten involved with the Russian Mafia,
he realized now. Now...when it was too late. But he could not draw back at this stage. He could not become
with the Brotherhood. And the reason he'd cut a deal with Vishenko in the first place—that reason still existed.

he acknowledged with a grimace, attempting to calm his fears,
I have no choice. Not anymore.
Because his ultimate goal—to take his destined place as king of Zakhar—that goal was still attainable...but only with the
help. “So what are you going to do?”

says,” the Russian stated flatly, referring to Vishenko, “that the woman has distracted you—us—from our real goal long enough. It is time to forget the woman, and return to the original plan.”

* * *

Alone and restless, Juliana stood on the balcony outside her bedroom, looking up at the full moon. Somewhere out there, she knew, Dirk and Sabrina were riding in a horse-drawn carriage beneath that full moon, and once again she felt an ache of envy. Even knowing the precariousness of Sabrina's situation, she would have traded places with her friend in a heartbeat. Not to be with Dirk, but to be with Andre. To know herself loved the way Dirk loved Sabrina. To be carrying Andre's children, even at the risk to herself.

“No!” she whispered in a desperate undertone, appalled at where her thoughts had strayed.
How can you even think that? Haven't you learned the hard way that Andre doesn't love you?

But she wanted him to. It wasn't just that her body craved his touch. Her heart yearned for him, too, despite everything. And her desire for Andre's children was a part of that yearning. The scene they'd filmed this afternoon had brought that desire achingly to life.

She wondered if Eleonora had ever faced a situation like this. It seemed unlikely, but you could never know for sure. The chroniclers of the time had painted the first Andre Alexei with a heroic brush, granting him all the virtues and none of the vices. Had he really been faithful to Eleonora for nearly five empty years?

There was nothing in the history of the day to suggest otherwise.
In other words, no bastards attributed to him,
she thought with a wry tilt to her lips. And that was at a time when royal bastards were an everyday occurrence and rarely hidden. It wasn't as if he didn't have what it took sexually—Eleonora had conceived their first night together, and then had borne him six more children in the sixteen years after she'd been ransomed. So it seemed likely Andre Alexei had remained faithful.

But had he really paid a king's ransom to redeem her and her son, the son whose paternity had yet to be proved? Again, relying on the historians at the time, it seemed probable. Andre Alexei had beggared his kingdom—that was a known fact.

And Raoul
been his son, she remembered from the story Andre had told her and Mara so long ago, although it had taken a genetic defect to prove it—a crook in the pinkies of both hands, in father and son. A dominant gene—one that had come down through the centuries, but that hadn't impaired their fighting abilities. Both Andre Alexei and Raoul had been fearsome warriors. Mara hadn't inherited that defect; her fingers had all been perfectly straight. But Andre had.

Juliana remembered examining his hands minutely the night they'd become lovers, fascinated by the little thing that had made such a vast difference in whether or not Zakhar accepted Raoul as Andre Alexei's legitimate heir. Wondering if the children she would someday give him would have the same odd but endearing genetic defect.

The children I will never have,
she reminded herself. The thought was nearly unbearable.

* * *

Alone and restless, Andre stood on the balcony outside his bedroom in defiance of his bodyguards' wishes, looking up at the full moon. Wondering if bringing Juliana here had been a terrible mistake. Danger for himself he could accept. Danger for Juliana he could not.

He'd lost his temper with his cousin—fear did that to a man. Not fear for himself. Never that. But fear for Juliana, which was becoming his constant companion. Just as he'd wanted Mara safely out of the country after the second assassination attempt and had accomplished two goals by sending her to the United States, now he wondered how he was going to keep Juliana safe here in Zakhar. Not just during the filming of the movie, but forever and a day.

Seeing her on the set this afternoon, her body rounded with the pregnancy she was faking for the movie, he'd suddenly realized just how much was at stake. Not just Juliana, but any child they might have. If she stayed in Zakhar, if she married him, if they created a child from their love...the risk of assassination would be there.

Whoever was behind these attempts on Juliana's life had to be caught. He could not be allowed to remain a threat to Juliana or their child...assuming they had a child. Assuming Juliana ever grew to love him again enough to make that a possibility.

He breathed sharply. Even if the man behind the threat to Juliana was caught, he still wasn't sure if she
ever love him again. Yes, her physical attraction to him was undeniable. But would he ever know the joy of hearing those simple words from her that had thrilled him when she'd first said them? Thrilled him at the time and then haunted him over the years.
“Please, Andre...I love you...and I have to know...”

He closed his eyes as a wave of desire shuddered through him and his body came roaring to life. He wanted her in every way a man could want a woman. Not just as his lover. Not just as his wife. But also as the mother of his children. He craved that closeness, that bond of the flesh, that pledge for all eternity. Would he ever have a son to inherit the throne? Or would the monarchy's direct descent from father to son end with him? “God only knows,” he whispered to himself, fighting the despair that crept in unawares, “because I surely do not.”

Time was running out. The producer of
King's Ransom
briefed him daily on the film's progress, and they were on schedule. Another few weeks and the cast and crew would withdraw, returning to Hollywood to finish up whatever odds and ends remained that didn't require filming on location. And Juliana would leave with them.

he told himself, steely determination sweeping through him.
She will not leave. Not now. Not ever. She belongs here in Zakhar. With me. Whatever I must do to keep her, and keep her safe, I will do.

He would never
she was safe...always...unless he was at her side. Unless he could listen to her quiet breathing as she lay next to him in the deepness of the night. If he hadn't promised Juliana her privacy would be inviolate, he could slip into her room this very minute to assure himself she was safe. Then do the same each night that followed. Every night of her life. An assurance even more critical now, after the recent attempts to kill her. But he
promised, so that avenue was closed to him...for now.

Which leaves what?
he asked himself.

He could seduce Juliana into staying, into sharing his bed. He knew that much. She'd been fighting herself as much as she'd been fighting him the other night. He could make her want him. He could drug her with sensual pleasure so she would willingly give him her body—a body he yearned to have now even as he'd yearned when she was sixteen...seventeen...eighteen.

But it wouldn't be enough. He would always live in fear that someday it wouldn't be enough for her, either, and she would leave again. He couldn't do that to his people, to his kingdom. No matter the cost to him personally, he couldn't do that to Zakhar. She
to come to him of her own free will.

If she came to me I would know she loves me again, that she has come full circle. I would know that all the other men in her life were meaningless. If she came to me...

He couldn't let her go, but keeping her by seduction or any other form of coercion would destroy the dream. And the dream was all he had left. “Come to me, Juliana,” he whispered to the night, to the moon. “Come to me.”

* * *

Come to me, Juliana.
Andre's voice in her head made Juliana shudder with treacherous longing.
Come to me.

“Stop it!” she told herself desperately, covering her ears with her hands as if that could prevent her from imagining she was hearing Andre calling to her. She'd imagined it like this eleven years ago and through all the intervening years, but never so strongly. Never as if his hands were caressing her body as he said the words. Never as if his lips were pressed to her ear, whispering in Zakharan, melting her insides as he'd done that first night...and then into the wee hours of the morning. Each time. Every time.

Desperate to escape the memories of Andre and the sound of his voice in her ears, Juliana threw off the covers and stomped out of bed, tearing off her nightshirt as she went. She grabbed a pair of jeans from the dresser and angrily tugged them on, followed by a bra, then rummaged in the drawer for her cotton knit short-sleeved shirts. The first one she pulled out was in a shade of emerald green that matched Andre's eyes.
Don't think about that now,
she warned herself, thrusting the green shirt back and pulling out a white one with tiny blue forget-me-nots embroidered all over it. It wasn't much better as far as reminders of Andre went, but at least it wasn't the color of his eyes.

She stepped into a pair of espadrilles, bundled her hair up quickly and slipped quietly from her room.

The palace at night looked very different than it did in the daytime. Sconce lighting spaced periodically through the halls allowed Juliana to see her way clearly, although there were shadows enough to spook anyone who wasn't familiar with the palace at nighttime.

Juliana was. She'd spent enough nights here with Mara—giggling together as teenage girls did during sleepovers—to become familiar with certain sections of the palace on the second floor. And Mara had occasionally spent the night with her in the ambassador's residence not that far from the palace.
Andre's doing,
she remembered suddenly. Andre had wanted his sister to have all the normal experiences young girls had growing up, and had actively encouraged Juliana's friendship with Mara. He'd stood up to his father, too, especially on Mara's behalf. Fighting Mara's battles with their father because Mara had been too insecure.

Don't think about that now,
her heart warned her.
Don't think about Andre.

She passed the little library, her feet making no sound on the thick carpet runners that lined the hallways, resolutely thrusting away the memory of her encounter with Andre there the day before.
Don't think about that now.

She laughed under her breath, a ghost of a sound. Those words were becoming her mantra—
don't think about that now.
As if she could ever
think about Andre, especially here in the palace.

A slight sound behind Juliana had her whirling around in sudden panic, her heart jumping.

Her eyes frantically searched the shadows as well as the patches of light all the way down the corridor, but she saw nothing. No movement. Nothing to be afraid of. “Old buildings creak,” she muttered. “That's all it is.”

She turned back and continued making her way toward the suite that had once been Mara's. She knew it was unoccupied. She'd run into the master of the household the week before—she'd remembered him as well as he'd remembered her—and they'd chatted about those long-ago days and about Princess Mara. The old man had always had a soft spot for Mara and Juliana, indulgently overlooking their teenage girlish pranks—more Juliana's doing than Mara's, who'd always tried to be so perfect to please her father, although that had been impossible. After several minutes the master of the household had told Juliana he'd intended to house her in Princess Mara's old suite for sentimental reasons.

“But the king overruled me,” the master of the household had said in his formal way. “I trust you are comfortable where you are?” At the time Juliana hadn't known why the king had overruled him, but it made sense now she knew of the connecting passageway between her bedroom and Andre's.

Just before Juliana reached the door to Mara's suite she mentally kicked herself as she realized her quest was most likely for naught—the door would probably be locked, especially with all the strangers—movie people—being housed in the palace for the duration of the filming. And she didn't have the key. Sure enough, when Juliana tried the old-fashioned latch it refused to budge.

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