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Authors: Amelia Autin

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BOOK: King's Ransom
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Andre watched Juliana from afar, watched as she spoke with the man he recognized as Dirk DeWinter, the actor who would be portraying his legendary ancestor in
King's Ransom
opposite Juliana. His gaze sharpened into something cold and deadly when the man caressed Juliana's cheek in a comforting fashion. Juliana's name had never been linked romantically with DeWinter's. Nevertheless, Andre didn't want him touching Juliana, not for comfort or anything else. If anyone was going to comfort her, it would be him.

His bodyguard tonight, Captain Lukas Branko, stood two feet away, alert to any sudden betraying shift in the crowd, his eyes constantly on the move. Andre forcibly relaxed his tense muscles and tried to distract himself by thinking of something—anything—else, and his bodyguards' warnings came to mind.

This kind of duty in a large, diverse crowd of people was a nightmare for any bodyguard, Lukas and Damon had told him more than once, much less anyone as fanatically devoted to their assignment as they were. It wasn't just the devotion of subjects for their king, Andre knew. It wasn't just the devotion to duty of men for whom duty was honor. Lukas and Damon were not without ambition, but their ambitions for the past three years had all centered around one object—keeping King Andre Alexei IV alive. Alive and ruling over Zakhar for many years to come. No matter what they had to do. No matter if they died trying.

It was the “die trying” part neither Lukas nor Damon cared for, Andre also knew. Even more than his other bodyguards, die trying was an excuse to them, an excuse for which they had no patience and no forgiveness. They
would
keep their king safe, no matter who else had to die. Even if it meant taking the law into their own hands. Even if it meant disregarding a direct order from the very king whose word was law to them.

Their stance on the subject had amused Andre at times, so much so he'd even discussed that contradiction in terms with his cousin Zax in one of their private meetings. But Zax hadn't been amused, Andre remembered now. And he wondered why that memory had suddenly occurred to him tonight of all nights.

He searched the throng of people for his cousin's face.
Maybe Zax can help me keep my mind off Juliana.
But he couldn't spot him in the overcrowded room. Then—despite ordering himself not to—Andre's gaze wandered inevitably back to Juliana, still standing with her friends where he'd left her.

He stared at her across the distance that separated them, wanting nothing more than to sweep her into his arms and carry her from the noisy, glittering crowd into the quiet sanctuary of his bedroom, the way he'd longed to do since the first moment she'd appeared at the top of the Grand Staircase tonight. Wanting nothing more than to make Juliana see what she was to him, what she had always been. Wanting to erase that hard, bitter edge he didn't understand but that he
knew
had to be an act, revealing the genuine, loving woman he remembered.

But she had to come to him. He could not force her. He could not make her. He had done everything humanly possible to get her this far, but that was as far as he could go. Now it was up to her. He could only do whatever lay in his power to convince her she belonged here in Zakhar. With him.

Her career was a stumbling block. She was at the height of her beauty, the height of her talent and power. It seemed as if there was nothing she couldn't accomplish in her career. No role she couldn't play.

On the other hand, there was no man in her life now, and had not been for several years. He was sure of it. But he had not relied on the tabloids for that information. She'd been under the covert protection...and surveillance...of his agents ever since he'd ascended the throne. Ever since he'd acknowledged that the unbroken line of Marianescus ruling Zakhar for over five hundred years would be broken, unless...

The Privy Council was again pressuring him to marry and beget heirs. Delicately, to be sure, and some members more than others, but pressuring nevertheless. He'd managed to maintain his composure in the face of the subtle and not so subtle hints thrown out by the Privy Council regarding the topic of his marriage. He'd never succumbed to the intense pressure his father had placed on him—he wasn't succumbing to the Privy Council's pressure now.

Since women couldn't sit on the Zakharian throne, Andre's heir wasn't his sister, Mara. That was his cousin Zax, the oldest son of his deceased uncle Evander—and a year older than he was. Andre had never worried overmuch about the succession when he'd served in the Zakharian National Forces, not even when his unit was deployed to Afghanistan. He knew Zakhar would be in good hands with Zax at the helm, although it would have meant breaking the unbroken father-to-son direct line. But in the years since then, he'd recognized the supreme importance of that unbroken line—not to himself or his yet-to-be-born son, but to the people of Zakhar.

The Zakharians firmly believed the good fortune and prosperity their country had experienced throughout the centuries was somehow tied in with the House of Marianescu and the monarchy's father-to-son direct descent, from the first Andre Alexei to his oldest son, Raoul, right up to the present day. Superstition? No question. But the average Zakharian citizen vehemently opposed tempting fate by breaking with the time-honored tradition. So Andre had every intention of acceding to the Privy Council's fervent wishes in the near future. Just not the way they expected.

Andre knew there were eyes all around them, watching, speculating, as if his life and Juliana's were just food for gossip, grist for the tabloid mill. He tore his gaze away from Juliana and smiled easily at the little group of men and women around him, joining in the inane conversation. No matter what, he had to shield Juliana from the tabloids if he could, the same way he'd shielded his sister, Mara, until her husband had come along to assume that responsibility. Perhaps that was an outdated attitude in this day and age, but he was Zakharian right down to his fingernails, and like his famous ancestor he would change for no man.

Just because he wasn't looking at Juliana didn't mean he couldn't see her, however. That heart-shaped face; those violet eyes fringed with long, natural, sooty lashes; those lips that looked so passionate yet somehow unkissable until a man saw the way the hesitant curve of her smile betrayed her vulnerability; the long, silky, ebony tresses that wreathed her face like a dark wavy halo and cascaded down her back.

She was perfection itself now, but that wasn't why he loved her. He remembered her as a coltish teenager, unsure of herself, unsure of the changes her body was going through as she metamorphosed from a girl into a woman. He had first loved her when she was sixteen and he was twenty, had loved her when only her violet eyes had conveyed a hint of the beautiful woman she would someday become.

But he had not touched her.

He had not touched her when she turned seventeen and began blossoming into a diminutive beauty standing just as high as his heart, not even when she practiced her newly discovered feminine wiles on him. He had teased her gently, turning aside her natural curiosity about men and women, deflecting her innocent desire for him, keeping her at a physical distance in a way that wouldn't seem like rejection to her sensitive soul.

Even the summer she turned eighteen he had not touched her, though by then her beauty made heads turn on the street, made men openly lust after her with their eyes. His body burned to possess hers that summer. He knew he could have her—Juliana's expressive eyes betrayed she ached for him the way he ached for her. Desire made him toss and turn in his bed so that he took to riding his stallion through the countryside late at night until they were both exhausted, then camping out in the rustic hillside cottage he'd made his own. Far away from the palace. Far away from the sleeping streets of Drago. Far away from temptation.

And he had not touched her.

She had tested his willpower to the breaking point, but it had held. Until the night before she left for college. Until the night she came to him like a silken dream...

As usual when Andre thought of Juliana, his body responded with a fierce surge of desire. He'd had a wealth of experience controlling that desire, and he tried to do so now. But it wasn't working. Not this time. Because Juliana was right there...just across the room. For the first time in eleven years he'd spoken with her, watched up close as those violet eyes changed hue with her emotions, saw the sudden fear ripple through her body, making her tremble and her nipples tighten under the violet silk sheath that caressed her body the way he longed to do. The gown she'd worn with nothing beneath it,
knowing
the effect it would have on him and every man who saw her. And then...knew she was remembering, as he did, one perfect night.

Do not think of that,
he warned himself.
Not here. Not now. Not with the eyes of the world fastened upon you like vultures on a carcass.

When he'd ascended the throne and had Zax assign men to protect Juliana, his cousin had asked in his blunt way if it wasn't possible Andre had built his love for Juliana into something more than it really was. That if he saw her again in person he might be able to get her out of his system.

Well, he'd seen Juliana in person. Finally. And Zax was wrong. He would never be free of the hold she had on him—heart, mind, body and soul. She was in his blood. In his DNA. Not that he'd spent the past eleven years doing nothing—he'd built a life of purpose without the woman he loved and had accomplished great things in the few short years of his reign. But as he'd told his sister, Mara, without Juliana he would be forever incomplete.
Come to me, Juliana,
he prayed silently.
Come to me.

 

Chapter 3

“C
hange of plans,” the man said, sipping from a wineglass and gazing in Juliana's direction. “That may well be your first target instead. Before anything else.”

“Juliana Richardson?” the Russian standing with him asked dubiously, instantly recognizing the famous face. “How does removing her achieve your goal?”

“Let me worry about that,” the first man replied, his eyes hardening. “Trust me, I have a very good reason. You just prepare to do what you are told...should it become necessary.”

The Russian laughed, a short bark of laughter that held no humor. “It is your money.” His eyes were cold, with no redeeming touch of humanity in them, not even when he laughed. “A target is a target.” He shrugged. “A pity she made an enemy of you.” His gaze displayed a hint of curiosity, but no hesitation. “Security?”

“Assuredly. See the two men standing against the wall just behind her, with their eyes glued to her? They are not guests, although they pretend to be. Their sole purpose is to guard her—and there is not a thing I can do about it. You will just have to take that into account.” He took another sip of wine—a bigger one this time—using the alcohol to give himself courage.
He is a tool to be used,
he reminded himself, needing the false courage engendered by the alcohol.
Not an equal.
“But do no more than prepare until I give the word. It may not be necessary.”

“It will be arranged.” A slight touch of contempt colored the Russian's tone. “At no risk to you, of course.”

The first man's voice held nothing but ice. “There had better not be. Not with what is at stake—for everyone concerned.”

* * *

Dirk excused himself for what he said would be a brief discussion with the film's producer, but Juliana and Sabrina made humorous faces at each other. They both knew once Dirk got started on a topic of conversation it would be difficult to drag him away. While they waited patiently for his return, the two women wandered toward one of the tall windows open to the night air along one endless wall. They didn't say much—theirs was an easy yet intimate friendship that didn't require constant chatter to fill any silence—and both women were guarding secrets.

Juliana knew why she wasn't ready to share anything about Andre with Sabrina. She'd never told
anyone
about that time in her life and didn't intend to start now. But she wondered what Sabrina was keeping from her. Her friend looked strange, unlike herself, and it wasn't merely the pain Sabrina was obviously suffering that she tried her best to hide. There was just something about her, something Juliana couldn't put her finger on. The faintest trace of trepidation combined with...suppressed excitement?

A hand touched her bare arm and a voice said, “Juliana.”

She whirled around, her heart suddenly pounding again, but then she relaxed. The voice was similar to Andre's, deep and strong, but there was just a touch more of a Zakharian accent to this man's English. She smiled as she recognized him even though she hadn't seen him for eleven years.

“Hello, Zax. Good to see you again,” she said honestly. Then another man came up behind Prince Xavier, and her smile faded. “Hello, Niko. Good to see you again, too,” she lied with a straight face. She turned to introduce the two princes to Sabrina. “Your Highnesses, may I present my dearest friend, Sabrina DeWinter. Bree, this is...” She hesitated a second and looked up at Zax. “It's Crown Prince Xavier now, isn't it?”

Zax shrugged dismissively, then smiled down at Juliana. “Yes, until such time as Andre marries and has male heirs, which will no doubt be soon. I place little stock in the royal title, to be honest. I much prefer my military title.” He turned to Sabrina, shook her hand and murmured formal words of welcome.

Juliana managed to hide the slicing pain Zax's words caused. For years she'd expected to read about Andre's engagement and subsequent marriage, and had steeled herself against it. But hearing Zax talk about it as if it were imminent...
Who?
she wondered feverishly. Of all the names that had been bandied about over the years as the next Queen of Zakhar, who was Andre's chosen one? And why wasn't she here tonight?

Niko cleared his throat and Juliana quickly brought her thoughts under control. “I'm sorry, Niko. Bree, this is Prince Nikolai, also of the House of Marianescu. Zax and Niko are the king's first cousins on his father's side.”

Niko bent over Sabrina's hand and said suavely, “Ah yes, Mrs. DeWinter. I had the pleasure of meeting your husband—a marvelous actor, by the way—when I ran into him in the portrait gallery this afternoon.”

Sabrina raised her eyebrows. “Really? Dirk didn't mention it.” She withdrew her hand as soon as practicable, and Juliana shot her friend a sharp glance. Apparently Sabrina was equally unimpressed with the younger Zakharian prince.

“How is your father, Juliana?” Zax asked. “Is he enjoying his retirement?”

She smiled as she thought about her father. “My dad is still going strong at seventy-five—I hope I'm that active when I'm his age. He volunteers as a tutor at the local high school two days a week and distributes “Meals on Wheels” to seniors even older than he is on the weekdays he doesn't tutor.”

They chatted desultorily for a few minutes after that, and Juliana assessed her old acquaintances. Zax looked older than she remembered, of course, but he'd already been a man when she'd left Zakhar, and the years had touched him nearly as lightly as they had Andre. His face was austere, and his bearing was as military as it had always been—she wasn't surprised to learn Zax was now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Zakharian National Forces, on detached duty as head of security for the king.

But it was his younger brother's appearance that truly surprised her. Niko was only two years older than she was, which meant he was two years younger than Andre and three years younger than his older brother. But there were already tiny lines of dissipation in his face. And though he was still a handsome man—the Marianescu good looks hadn't passed him by—the overall impression was of a man who'd indulged too often. Wine. Food. Women. And drugs? Juliana never liked to think of people she knew using drugs, even people she didn't care for, but she wouldn't put it past him. The press had dubbed him the playboy prince, and they weren't far off. The moniker
wasn't
a compliment.

Juliana suddenly remembered how Niko had ignored her in the early days, only displaying an interest in her once she started showing signs of the beauty that had eventually made her world famous. So very different from Andre, who'd never treated her as an imposition when she and Mara used to trail after him, who'd never made her feel as if either of them were in the way.
And this is important why?
she asked herself. Andre-then and Andre-now weren't the same person. Maybe that held true for Niko, too. Maybe he'd improved with age, had become less self-centered, less self-important.

But probably not,
she mused with a touch of cynicism, although she maintained an air of sweet interest on the surface. She'd always seen right through Niko, had seen his pursuit of her years ago for what it was. From his appearance and the avid way he was acting now, he hadn't changed one bit.

* * *

Zax showed up on the set nearly every day, but Juliana put that down to the meticulous way he did his job and not a particular interest in her. As head of security for the king, he was responsible for—among other things—making sure the cast and crew of
King's Ransom
weren't a threat to the king's safety in any way. They conversed sometimes when she had a few minutes between scenes—reminiscences for the most part—including memories of Juliana's father, who'd been the US Ambassador to Zakhar when she'd lived here. Although Zax reminded her poignantly of Andre in the way he looked, the way he spoke, even his mannerisms sometimes, and though she could tell he appreciated the beautiful woman she'd become, there was no spark and he never went beyond the line. He never said anything to which Juliana could take exception.

Niko also showed up on the set frequently over the next few weeks, and his presence watching the filming didn't bother Juliana one iota, any more than Zax's presence did. Nor did his attempts to get her alone cause her anything but amusement. Niko was just another in the long line of men who pursued her because of who and what she was—a status symbol. She'd dated men like Niko back in Hollywood, men who thought she was an easy mark. Not as many dates as the tabloids had trumpeted to the world, but a few. Like those Hollywood Lotharios, Niko would soon learn Juliana was no man's conquest, and eventually he'd lose interest.

The problem was, Andre occasionally visited the set, too, much to Juliana's dismay. Every scene was doubly hard to play with him there, and she never knew when he would show up. She had a well-deserved reputation with directors for being the consummate professional, able to do most scenes in one or two takes. That was something else she'd learned from Dirk.

But when Andre was there it was nearly impossible to act naturally. And more than once she was forced to apologize to the director and her fellow actors for some stupid screwup on her part, especially her scenes with Dirk. She told herself to ignore Andre. Told herself he was nothing to her now, no more than any casual acquaintance, so she shouldn't let him upset her. Told herself she didn't care what he thought of her, that the respect of her director, Dirk, the rest of the cast and the crew was all she cared about. But she was lying to herself, and she knew it.

She was dreading the two intimate love scenes scheduled for filming tomorrow: the wedding-night scene, where Eleonora and her husband consummated their wedding vows just hours before Andre Alexei was almost slain and Eleonora was kidnapped; and the reunion scene years later, after the king finally ransomed his queen and her young son at a cost that beggared his kingdom. A stupendous cost equivalent to a king's ransom, not just a queen's. And then had brought them home to Zakhar...to him.

The scene where Eleonora bravely confessed everything to her husband and offered to enter a convent to hide her shame and his—an offer Andre Alexei had adamantly refused. The scene where he made love to his wife so gently, so tenderly, she was finally able to respond to his lovemaking despite everything she'd endured in captivity.

That scene reminded her poignantly of a scene between Terry O'Dare and Tessa in
Jetsam
. Dirk had said the same thing to her when he'd first read the
King's Ransom
script, and they'd already discussed just how they were going to play it. But that made it incredibly intimate, more than just the words in the script. It was supposed to a closed set, with only the bare minimum cast and crew necessary to film both scenes. But who on the set would have the nerve to tell the king of Zakhar he couldn't be there?

* * *

Andre knew his presence on the set was having a negative effect on Juliana's abilities as an actress, and it bothered him not at all. He welcomed it as a sign she wasn't as indifferent to him as she pretended. But the night before the scheduled love scenes he knew he couldn't be there. He couldn't watch Dirk DeWinter and Juliana making love, take after take, angle after angle, fully and partially clothed. He knew the scenes would be tastefully done—Juliana was never fully naked in any of her films. And he knew it wasn't real, that they were merely actors playing the roles of the first king and queen of Zakhar. He still couldn't watch it.

I should have ordered the screenwriter to remove those scenes from the script,
he told himself angrily. But in his heart he knew the scenes were necessary. The audiences
had
to see the love scenes, both before and after their long separation, in order to understand the eternal love that bound the two together even through years apart. They were actually beautifully written—the screenwriter had outdone herself.

But Andre couldn't watch those scenes being filmed. He also knew he would never be able to watch the completed movie—not with those scenes in it. It was too personal, would remind him too much of the one magical night he'd shared with Juliana. And if Juliana never came to him again, it would be like watching the nails being pounded into his own coffin, knowing that unlike his renowned predecessor, somehow he'd failed to win back the woman he loved.

He opened the French doors onto his private balcony, hesitated for only a second as he heard his bodyguards' warnings in his head, then walked out anyway. It wasn't that he thought himself invincible, but he couldn't live his life always afraid of assassination, even though in the three years of his rule he'd survived two attempts by traditionalists who resented the political and military changes Andre was trying to implement. One of those attempts he'd used as an excuse to send his sister, Mara, to Colorado, where she'd met and fallen in love with the man who was now her husband. So at least something good had come out of what could have been a national tragedy for most Zakharians.

He was a little more cautious these days—the attempts on his life had shaken him more than he cared to admit, and he no longer took unnecessary risks. But here in the palace—even exposed as he was on his private balcony—he was fairly safe.

Andre breathed deeply and looked down upon the twinkling lights of the sleeping city where he'd been born and raised, the city that was such a part of him he knew he could never live anywhere else even if he wasn't its ruler. There were precious memories here, too—memories of himself taking fourteen-year-old Juliana and his sister, Mara, thirteen, from one historical site to another, relating the history of Zakhar to them as they listened, spellbound. Juliana, even more than Mara, had been captivated by the love story of the first Andre Alexei and his beloved Eleonora, and never tired of hearing him tell the tale.

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