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Authors: Amelia Autin

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BOOK: King's Ransom
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“Didn't think so. And that's not you. You can usually sleep anywhere. Remember when we were on location in Death Valley two years ago? No one else could sleep in that searing oven...except you.”

Dirk knows me too well,
she told herself. Which wasn't surprising. She'd starred opposite him three times before in the past ten years, the last being the action-adventure flick set in Death Valley, San Francisco and Hong Kong—another hit for both of them. Such a resounding commercial success the studio was begging for a sequel, although so far Dirk had refused.
“No way,”
he'd told Juliana in private.
“There's nothing new that can be revealed about those characters.”
And on his sage advice Juliana had refused, too.

Dirk had never steered her wrong. He'd been responsible for her big break in Hollywood right from the beginning, convincing the producers of her first movie to take a chance on an unknown. He'd already been a major star then—the marquee name that could sell a movie all on his own, so the producers had acceded to his wishes. Dirk had seen Juliana's screen test, had seen something in her that he knew would click with him on-screen, and after they'd talked in person he'd picked her over already established stars to play the heartbreakingly fragile Tessa opposite his Terry O'Dare in the movie adaptation of the runaway bestseller
Jetsam
.

Dirk's instincts hadn't played him false. They had sizzled on the screen for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was Juliana's petite stature next to his robust frame, which emphasized her fragile femininity and his uncompromising masculinity.

Now they were being paired up again for
King's Ransom
, and she knew why the producer had wanted both of them. Their on-screen chemistry ranked right up there with Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall. Only more intense. And since movies had become more explicit since the heyday of those couples, even more sizzling.

Juliana had been excited by the script for
King's Ransom
when the part of Eleonora had been offered to her, and eager to work with Dirk again. Costume dramas in this day and age were always a risk for a movie studio. But the
King's Ransom
script contained thrilling battle scenes, not to mention incredibly romantic love scenes, and—as far as Juliana could tell—was almost religiously accurate in all the major details.

Great script, great director, a supporting cast she respected and Dirk DeWinter to star opposite her. Not to mention a studio willing to give the film the financial backing it needed. What more could an actress ask for? She
had
been excited about the role of Eleonora, as excited as Dirk still was about playing the first king of Zakhar...until she'd learned the movie was being shot on location. In Zakhar. In Drago. In and around the royal palace. Where—inevitably—she would encounter Andre again.

Juliana shut down that train of thought ruthlessly.
You will
not
remember,
she ordered herself forcefully, but she knew it was in vain. The memories already haunted her. They'd haunted her for eleven years. It was long past time for her to put those memories to rest where they belonged—in the graveyard of might-have-beens.

She wouldn't allow herself to care. Not anymore.
If you don't care, why did you bring that dress with you to wear to the reception tonight?
she asked herself derisively.
What are you trying to prove? And to whom?
It was a daring gown, designed to be worn with absolutely nothing beneath it. Designed to be worn by a woman who knew herself irresistible.
Well, that's true, isn't it?
she asked herself even more cynically. Millions of men lusted after her on the silver screen, the way women lusted after Dirk.

Millions of men...but not one in real life. Not one man who saw the plain girl she'd once been inside the beautiful woman she was now. Not one man who saw her need to be loved for who she was—her inner character—not the way she looked. Not one man who could ignite the fires of passion in a body that was ice-cold. Frigid. Doomed.

That's another thing to blame Andre for,
she realized.
He killed that part of me. He ruined me for other men. How he would laugh to know that!

* * *

The man presented his card of invitation to get into the reception—hiding behind a facile smile his resentment that he had to prove his right to be in attendance at this royal function. Then was forced to walk through the portable metal detector set up at the entrance to the Great Hall with all the other guests—again inducing resentment he refused to display to the king's men on duty there, even though their deferential attitude should have mollified him. No one would know from his expression that inside he was fuming.
My blood is as royal as the king's—I should be exempt, just as he is. I should not have to submit to this insult.

The metal detector had been installed in the palace years ago by the current king's father. When the king had ascended the throne three years earlier he'd wanted it removed, but his objections had been overridden at the insistence of the Privy Council and the king's own bodyguards—the metal detector had stayed in place. Not that a metal detector could detect any and all weapons, but it had definitely thinned the potential dangers the king's bodyguards had to be on the lookout for during public occasions like this.

He glanced around the vast room, already filling up even though it was early in the evening. He saw one of the stars of the movie—Dirk DeWinter—standing head and shoulders above the circle of adoring female fans surrounding him. But Juliana Richardson—the other star—was nowhere in sight. He didn't place much reliance on his being able to distract Juliana's attention from Andre—she'd never had eyes for anyone except Andre when he'd known her eleven years ago. But he would try. If he wasn't successful...there was always the alternative.

Knowing Juliana—and it was unlikely she'd changed that much in the past eleven years despite her international fame—there would be opportunities to silence her forever should it become necessary...and make it appear an accident.

* * *

Juliana hadn't intended to make a dramatic entrance at the reception. But she hadn't been able to resist the oversize marble tub in the lavishly appointed bathroom in her suite, and she'd indulged herself for almost an hour. She'd washed her hair and let it air dry, thankful she'd never had to do much with it—just brush it out and let her natural wave do its thing.

Then she'd lain down on the large, incredibly comfortable bed, intending to just rest her eyes before the reception. But the lack of sleep on the plane had done her in.
Not just on the plane,
she'd sleepily acknowledged as she dozed off. She hadn't slept well ever since she'd known she would be returning to Zakhar.

She'd slept dreamlessly for the first time in weeks, her body too exhausted to do anything else. She never heard the rapping on her door, never roused until Maddie crept into the suite and then into her bedroom and shook her arm with a hushed, “Juliana! You're late! Everyone's asking about you!”

Juliana leaped into action and sent Maddie down to make her apologies. The household maid the palace had assigned to her had long since unpacked everything and put her things away. The dresses in the closet had already been steamed and pressed, ready for her to wear. Now she pulled out the full-length violet silk sheath that nearly matched the color of her eyes. Could she carry it off? Could she wear it the way it was intended to be worn, with no bra, no panties—not even a thong—and no pantyhose? Nothing except silk fabric clinging to her bare skin like a lover's caress, a daring side slit to mid-thigh. She'd bought the gown when she'd known she was coming back here. When she'd known she would see
him
again. It was a dress designed to make him remember...and regret.

And he
will
regret,
she promised herself as cold anger shook her. Naked, she slithered into the tight sheath and zipped it up, then stepped into the matching violet-tinted pumps. With shaking hands she added the diamond-and-tanzanite choker and earrings her father had presented her with after she won her first Best Actress award, because, he'd said with fond pride, they matched her eyes.

She quickly brushed her hair, swiped on a touch of lip gloss and added a dab of violet eye shadow to make her eyes even more mysterious. She didn't use eyeliner or mascara—her lashes were naturally long, dark and double-lashed. Then she spritzed herself with her favorite perfume, which she rarely wore. Not at $695 an ounce. But tonight she was pulling out all the stops.
If it's the last thing I do, I'll make him regret.

 

Chapter 2

J
uliana made an entrance as she hesitated at the top of the Grand Staircase leading into the Great Hall. Conversation stopped for a full thirty seconds as heads turned toward her. There were a few sharply indrawn breaths and a few gasps—from women, of course—at the sight of a dress few women would have dared to wear.

Somewhere down there she knew Dirk and Sabrina were making the rounds, and sprinkled throughout were other people she knew—cast and crew. But Juliana had eyes for only one man in the glittering crowd, and she saw him instantly. Even without the royal uniform he wore she would have known him in a heartbeat, and at the sight of him a shaft of pain rippled through her, as unexpected as it was unwelcome.

He turned at the sudden hush and saw her. Then he was moving toward her with obvious intent through the crowd that parted for him like the Red Sea before Moses. Tall, regal and handsome—just as she remembered him all those years ago. Just as she remembered him when she was a shy fourteen and he was the Crown Prince—eighteen and already a man—welcoming her to the palace. So handsome in full dress regalia then as now, with his golden-brown hair and finely chiseled features. So kind. So gentle with the shy, tongue-tied girl she'd been, coaxing her into talking with those smiling green eyes that invited confidences.

Don't remember that now,
she warned herself.
Don't.

He turned to the bodyguard following him like a silent shadow and said something—she couldn't hear what—but the man nodded acknowledgment of the order he'd just received and faded back into the crowd, although his eyes never left the man he was guarding.

When Andre reached her side at the top of the staircase, she said, “Your Majesty,” and curtsied to him. But she refused to bow her head, matching him in pride. Playing a role, she held her hand out to him in the imperious manner of a woman who knows her own beauty and expects homage—something she'd never done in her life. But she'd planned just what she was going to do when she met Andre again, how she would act, what she would say. Every sleepless night she'd spent since she'd known she was coming back here, she'd sworn he would never know how he'd savaged her heart. He would never know how much courage it took for her to face him again after the humiliating end to their relationship. She wasn't about to betray herself now.

He took her hand in his, staring down into her eyes. “Andre,” he murmured in dissent, then went on to remind her, “You were never so formal before.” He bent over her suddenly trembling hand and pressed a formal kiss on the back of it. At least that's what it looked like to the other guests in the room below. Juliana knew differently. It wasn't a formal kiss. Andre was seducing her right there, in front of hundreds of people. His lips were warm, firm and masculine, yet so tender and seductive she shivered and her nipples tightened beneath the raw silk. The fabric rubbed against those hard little peaks, making them tighten even more, until they ached unbearably.

When he raised his head from her hand she saw from the knowing glint in his eyes that he knew the effect he was having on her. He
knew
. And he smiled, the satisfied smile of a man who knows he's a man, and that the woman with him knows it, too. It was
not
the expression Juliana had sworn to herself he would wear.

He drew her closer and tucked her hand under his arm. When she tried to draw it back he refused to let her go, and she reluctantly let him lead her down the stairway and into the Great Hall. The only way Juliana could have escaped would have been to make a scene, something she wasn't willing to do. Not here. Not yet. If she did that people might suspect she had something to hide, and her pride wouldn't let her give rise to gossip. Not only that, Andre might suspect...something. And she was fiercely determined he would know...nothing.

Laughter and chatter swirled around them, and sly, sidelong glances were cast their way. The massive chandelier overhead glittered with a thousand points of light, reflecting off the gilded ceiling and walls. Andre steered Juliana through the crowd, stopping courteously as people greeted her. But he never let go of her arm. And he never lost sight of his ultimate goal—a quiet alcove on the far side of the room, to which he eventually led her.

He briefly stopped a passing waiter and took a champagne flute, which he formally offered to her before taking one for himself. Then he saluted her with his glass and spoke for the first time since he'd met her at the top of the stairs, and his voice was just as she remembered. Deep, tender, with that barest hint of an accent to his English. “You are more beautiful in person than any woman has a right to be.”

She stiffened. Was he mocking her? He'd known her when she hadn't been beautiful. When she'd been plain and awkward. He seemed to read her mind and shook his head slightly. “No, Juliana. Beauty of face and figure will fade. But your eyes, those windows into your soul, will always be beautiful to me. Forever and a day.”

Those last four words stabbed at her heart. Once upon a time she'd prayed to hear those words from him. Once upon a time she'd thought he felt them, even if he didn't say them. But she'd been wrong. Horribly, heart-wrenchingly wrong. She'd paid the price of loving unwisely, while he...

Desperate to wound him as grievously as he had wounded her with his comment, Juliana drawled cynically, “Ah yes, those immortal words,
forever and a day
.” She raised her champagne glass to him in a mocking toast. “To love. Im
mor
tal love. Isn't that why I'm here?”

Andre's eyes narrowed dangerously. “What do you mean by that?”


King's Ransom.
A love story for the ages,” she said flippantly. “A fairy tale. As if any man, then or now, ever loved a woman that much.” She tried for a carefree laugh, but couldn't prevent a tinge of bitterness from creeping in. Couldn't prevent her own life's experiences from coloring her perspective. “As if
any
man in that day and age would take a woman back who had shamed him in the eyes of the known world. Not to mention a king who could easily have the marriage annulled and have his pick of women. Chaste women.”

She faltered at the icy expression in his eyes and the danger that radiated from him, so palpable she could feel it. She stared up at him, remembering Andre telling her the love story behind
King's Ransom
, the story of the founder of the House of Marianescu, the first king of Zakhar. Remembering how she'd hung on every word. Remembering how she'd believed in the immortal love the story represented—once upon a time.

Remembering, too, how she'd yearned to be a woman like Eleonora, who had inspired that kind of love in her husband, the first Andre Alexei. How she'd dreamed of someday making
her
Andre love her that way.
My Andre?
she told herself with redoubled cynicism.
He was never
my
Andre. What a fool I was. As if I ever meant anything to him other than another conquest.

The frightening look in Andre's eyes faded. Then he smiled faintly as he slowly, deliberately looked her over from head to toe, and she knew he was aware she was naked beneath her dress. Something flickered in his eyes. Possessiveness. Desire. The sleeping wolf awakening at the sight of a helpless fawn. “Throughout history men have taken women for a variety of reasons.” His gaze held hers prisoner. “Love is only one of them.”

A frisson of fear ran down Juliana's spine, and in that instant she knew Andre wanted her. More than that, he was determined to have her. In a different century he would have just taken her—
droit de seigneur
—whether or not she wanted him, whether or not she already belonged to another man.

But that can't happen today...can it?
she reasoned with herself, but the sudden pounding of her heart refused to be calmed. Zakhar was one of the last absolute monarchies left in the world, and the man standing in front of her was its king. If she just disappeared...who would know what had happened to her? Who would dare to question the king?

Her eyes widened and her breath quickened as her body automatically shifted into full panic mode—muscles tightening in a fight-or-flight reflex that told her to...
run, damn it! Run!
Her fear must have communicated itself to him, because his smile faded, and a tinge of some other emotion entered his gaze, something she couldn't decipher. It almost looked like...pain. But that didn't make sense...did it?

“Do not run, Juliana,” he said softly, reassuringly. “You have nothing to fear from me. You never did.” It wasn't that easy, of course. She couldn't just turn off the panic at a word from him. Especially since his words didn't stop there. “When I make love to you,” he said, his eyes suddenly blazing, his deep voice curling inside her, making her knees weak, “you will come to me of your own free will. You will come to me because you want me the same way I want you.”
Naked and trembling.
He didn't say the words, but his vivid green eyes told her he remembered.

A memory flashed into her mind, a memory she'd resolutely suppressed until now. And suddenly she was seeing Andre as she'd seen him all those years ago, his green eyes in a shaft of moonlight, glowing with what she'd fooled herself into believing was love. She was hearing his voice, that deep, throbbing voice she still heard in her dreams, whispering in Zakharan,
“Now it begins.”

“Never,” she whispered from a throat gone suddenly dry, fighting the sensual web he was weaving. Fighting herself. “Never again.”

His faint smile returned and his voice dropped a notch. “You
will
want me again, Juliana. That is a promise, not a threat. And when I take you, you will understand why.” With that parting shot Andre turned on his heels and strode away.

Arrogant.
Breath hissed out of Juliana as she watched him mingle with his other guests, so suave, so debonair, so much the gentleman king. But he hadn't been a gentleman with her. He'd been an arrogant savage, albeit with a kingly mask cloaking his wolfish intentions. She downed the glass of champagne in her hand, needing something to cool her parched throat. But that was a mistake. She'd had nothing to eat all day and the alcohol went right to her head, making her dizzy.
Maybe it's not the alcohol,
she thought wildly.
Maybe it's him.

He turned just then, his eyes staring at her from across the vast room. Even though she couldn't see the color of his eyes at that distance, she felt those green orbs stripping her dress off until she shivered. And trembled. The power in him was incredible. It pulled at her, drawing her under his spell the way it had always done. He was a man, first and foremost. The king was secondary. But that was just as frightening as the idea that he might kidnap her and hold her captive until he was ready to let her go.

If he ever let her go.

Movement out of the corner of her eye made Juliana tear her gaze away from Andre, and she sighed gratefully as she saw Dirk and Sabrina nearing. Sabrina was wearing a sequined sky blue tunic belted over a long silver skirt, with the delicate filigree sapphire necklace and earrings that suited her. Juliana knew Dirk had given them to her as a pledge of his love years ago from the money he'd earned in his first starring role, and she wore them often. Like Juliana, she had “matched her eyes” with her dress, and from a distance she looked as lovely as she always did. But close up her smile looked forced, and there were two tiny lines of pain bracketing her mouth.

“Bree, are you okay? You look—”

Sabrina's smile widened, but it was an effort. “It's nothing, just a twinge, that's all.” She turned in the direction where Juliana had been staring when she walked up. “That is a dangerous man,” she said softly, and Juliana couldn't hide her sharp intake of breath. “He's why you didn't want to return to Zakhar.” The eyes of the two women met, and Sabrina's were knowing, sympathetic.

Dirk spoke for the first time. “So that's the king of Zakhar. I've seen the portrait of the first king in the portrait gallery, and I must say there's an amazingly strong resemblance. You'd think after five centuries the genes would be diluted to the point where the resemblance would be nonexistent, but no.” He reached over and rubbed the backs of his fingers comfortingly against Juliana's cheek. “He wants you, babe,” he added casually. “And he looks like the kind of man who always gets what he wants.”

“Dirk!” Sabrina's tone chided her husband, and he gently patted her arm.

“Don't worry, Bree. I'm not telling Juliana anything she doesn't already know.” He glanced back at Juliana. “Am I.” It wasn't a question.

“No.” Her voice was husky. “But he's not going to have me.”
Not ever again.

“Want me to pound him into the ground for you?” he teased.

She laughed as he had intended her to do, although a little shakily. “I'll fight my own battles, thank you very much.” She glanced from Dirk to Andre across the room, and back to Dirk again. Both men were close in age, of a similar height and weight, and in superb physical shape. But still... “If I were you,” she drawled, teasing him back, “I wouldn't be too quick to take him on. He's a fighter. He trained with the Zakharian National Forces, and he doesn't look as if he's lost his edge.”

Dirk spluttered with laughter and looked down at his wife. “Did you hear that, Bree? I think she just insulted my manhood.”

Now it was Bree who patted
his
arm. “That's okay. You're man enough for me, honey, and that's all that counts.” Husband and wife stared into each other's eyes, private smiles forming as they retreated to their own little world, and a pang of pain darted through Juliana when she saw the unshadowed love for each other in their faces.

* * *

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