Read King's Ransom Online

Authors: Amelia Autin

King's Ransom (4 page)

BOOK: King's Ransom

Even that long ago he'd been drawn to Juliana. Her lovely violet eyes set in what was then a plain face had glowed with an inner light that told him she understood far beyond her tender age the anguish of lovers torn apart for years. The longing. The yearning. The hope and despair. And then, incredibly, the joyous reunion, never to be parted again in life. Not even in death.

They had stood together at the lovers' mausoleum in the royal cemetery as he translated the Latin script carved upon the walls for her:

Two hearts as one,

Forever and a day.

He'd watched the words seep into Juliana's soul, watched her eyes fill with tears of empathy for what the lovers had endured before being reunited. She had
the story, the same way he always had.

He'd been immeasurably wounded when she'd mocked the love story the night of the reception. The Juliana he remembered could never have said those things, could never even have thought them. He'd struck back with a statement calculated to flick her on the raw. But then he'd seen the fear in her eyes, and that had wounded him far more. He'd never given Juliana reason to fear him. Even when he'd taken the gift she'd offered him so many years ago he'd shown her nothing but tenderness, had shown her how precious she was to him.

Once upon a time Juliana had believed in immortal love—he knew it. He didn't know what had happened to change that belief, but if he had anything to say about it she would believe again. Somehow he had to find a way to reach her.
Come to me, Juliana,
he urged, closing his eyes as if that would help deliver his silent plea.
Come to me.

* * *

Juliana studied the next day's script lying in a bubble bath with a half dozen scented candles surrounding her, her favorite way to memorize lines. But somehow tonight it wasn't working. Instead of the intimate, romantic dialogue between the newly wedded king of Zakhar and his queen on their wedding night and the poignant reunion scene she was supposed to be committing to memory, she kept hearing Andre's voice in her head like a siren's song, calling her to him.

She could have sworn she'd heard him calling to her eleven years ago, the night before she was to leave Zakhar, the same way she was hearing him now. The same way she'd heard him calling to her over the years. She knew it was just her own yearning—her own desires—projected in her mind as Andre's voice calling to her. Usually she was able to block him out by focusing on a script, but not here in Zakhar. Not where everything reminded her of him. Not where everywhere she turned memories tugged her into wondering what had happened to the beau ideal prince she'd known.

She tried to drag her concentration back to the script, but it was impossible—the script itself reminded her of Andre. Too much. Finally she gave up.
I'll just have to get up extra early tomorrow morning and memorize,
she told herself.

She got out of the tub and dried herself off, then slipped on one of the oversize cotton T-shirts she preferred instead of the silky, slinky, diaphanous gowns the public imagined she wore to bed. This one had a picture of a sleeping pink-and-white kitten curled up on the front, and it came down to her knees. She crawled into the comfy bed, set her little traveling alarm clock and tried to force herself to sleep. Tried to block out the eerie sensation that Andre was calling to her.

Come to me, Juliana. Come to me.

She remembered how she'd woken from a restless sleep hearing him calling to her eleven years ago, and she'd gone to him in secret. They'd shared one luminous night, a night she would remember on her deathbed. But she would never go to him again. Would never sleep with him again. Would never let herself be vulnerable to him again.

Would never let him break her heart again.

* * *

Dirk came over to where Juliana was trying to get into character as she waited for the set to be ready. Both of them were already in costume, their colored contact lenses in place. The makeup artists had done their jobs well, making them look years younger. History had it that Andre Alexei had been twenty and Eleonora had been seventeen when they were wedded. Dirk had needed to erase a few years of living from his face in order to play the twenty-year-old king in this scene. Juliana had no wrinkles, not yet, but camera close-ups could be brutal. Her face still looked like her when the makeup artist was done, but her mirror had given her a pang. She had looked just that innocent, just that eager yet untouched when...

“Are you okay?” Dirk asked her quietly. “You look...haunted. Yeah, I know your character's about to be kidnapped, but you're not supposed to know that ahead of time. You're supposed to be deliriously happy on your wedding night.”

Juliana shot him a quick glance, taking in the bleak expression on his face. “You don't look much better. What's wrong?”

He shook his head. “Nothing. Nothing's wrong.” But his voice lacked conviction.

“Don't lie to me,” Juliana insisted, placing a hand on his arm. “And don't pretend everything's okay. Something's wrong, I know it. It's Bree, isn't it? Please tell me.”

Dirk hesitated, then took a deep breath. “You're the first to know—I'm quitting the business.”

“What?” She was shocked.

“At least for the foreseeable future. I almost backed out of this picture, but Bree wouldn't let me.” He laughed without humor. “She'd heard about the legendary love story, of course. Who hasn't? She wanted to come here to experience it firsthand, despite...”

“Despite what?” Her voice was small.

“Bree's sick, Juliana.”

She looked at him sharply, remembering. “The night of the reception...she didn't look well.”

“Yeah.” His eyes squeezed shut in pain, and when he opened them again she saw her friend's naked torment. “The doctors won't say it, but I think she's dying.”

“No.” Juliana shook her head in denial. “How...? What...?”

“Don't let on you know. She doesn't want me to tell anyone yet, but I...I had to tell you. Third-stage ovarian cancer.”

“Oh my God. Cancer? Third stage? Why didn't she tell me?”

“I don't think she'd even have told
if I hadn't forced it out of her.”

“But...can't they do something? Anything? Surgery? Radiation? Chemotherapy? Cancer's not the death sentence it used to be. I know there's no guarantee, but Bree can't just do noth—”

His mouth was a hard line as he cut her off. “She won't even consider anything at this point.” His voice was strained and ironic when he said, “She's pregnant. Just about ten weeks.”

“Oh, Dirk...” Juliana looked at him helplessly, knowing the DeWinters had been trying for a baby almost as long as she'd known them. Very few people knew they'd pursued every avenue no matter how slim, even in vitro fertilization, with no success. Until now.

“When Bree heard the doctors say surgery can cause a miscarriage, she said surgery was out until the baby is born,” Dirk said, reaching for stoicism. “When she heard chemotherapy isn't considered safe for the baby until the pregnancy is at least fifteen weeks along, she said chemo wasn't an option right now. And radiation treatment has to wait until the fetus is ‘viable.' I asked Bree's doctors what the hell that meant, and they told me it means when the baby is far enough along to survive outside the womb—at least twenty-one or twenty-two weeks.” His face twisted in agony. “I told her...” He took a deep, shuddering breath. “I told her I didn't care about the baby. All I care about is her. I want my wife, damn it! I would sacrifice our baby in a heartbeat if it meant saving Bree. But she won't even discuss it with me.”

“She loves you,” Juliana said softly, compassionately, understanding Sabrina's dilemma, and her choice, in a way that Dirk obviously didn't. Her own life? Or the life of the child she desperately wanted to give the man she loved? “So what are you going to do?”

“As soon as this picture wraps I'm taking Bree away. I don't know how much time I have left with her, but I want every minute, every second. She's mine until God takes her away from me, and I'm not going to waste a moment acting in some meaningless picture. We don't need the money. Even if we did, no amount of money could make it up to me for the time away from her.” His face hardened. “And the minute she gives birth she's having surgery and going into chemo. I don't give a crap about bonding and breastfeeding, and all the other Holy Grail things of motherhood. I'm not giving her up without a fight no matter what. I can't force her to sacrifice her baby, but—”

Juliana's administrative assistant came over at that moment. “They're ready for you on the set, Juliana. And you, too, Mr. DeWinter.”

Maddie cast a shy, adoring look at Dirk, one Juliana knew she had no idea was so obvious.
So young,
she thought sadly.
So vulnerable. Just like I was once upon a time, wearing her heart on her sleeve. At least with Dirk she'll never think he loves her. Not like I—

She refused to let herself complete that thought. “Thanks, Maddie,” Juliana said kindly. “Come on, Dirk.” She took his hand in hers. “Let's go make love like there's no tomorrow.”
I think we can both understand what that feels like.

* * *

The man picked up the phone and dialed a number he'd been forced to memorize.
“Nothing in writing,”
the Russian had insisted. As he listened to the ringing on the other end, he told himself he had no choice. Juliana was no more immune to Andre now than she'd been eleven years ago—her reaction when Andre appeared on the set was a dead giveaway. To him, at least. As was Andre's reaction to her. So he would not let himself feel regret over what had to be done to safeguard his secrets. Juliana had brought this on herself. As had Andre.

* * *

Andre and his cousin Zax walked alone in the royal garden, watching silently for the most part as the sun set behind the mountains, casting long gray shadows over them both. Although they usually spoke their minds when they were together with a freedom they'd exercised since boyhood, now they guarded their innermost thoughts from each other. And Andre mourned what increasingly seemed to be the loss of the confidant he'd always relied on, especially since becoming king.

There was no man he trusted more than his cousin, but Zax was a traditionalist. The old ways were good enough for him, and he deplored many of the sweeping changes Andre was implementing. No matter what position Zax took in private, though, no matter how much he opposed what Andre proposed, in public he never said a word in criticism of the king. “The king has spoken” was Zax's usual reply to any reporter who dared to ask Zax's opinion on a new policy he disagreed with.
The equivalent of “No comment,”
Andre thought now will a rueful smile.

He cherished Zax's loyal support in public, just as he cherished his cousin's friendship. He just wished they didn't clash so often in private these days. And though at one time he'd confided his hopes and dreams about Juliana to Zax—something he'd recently confided to his sister, Mara, but to no other man—they hadn't spoken of Juliana since she'd returned to Zakhar to film
King's Ransom
other than to discuss the security surrounding her.

Not once had Zax asked Andre if there was any progress in the campaign to win Juliana's heart. Not once had he expressed empathy for the difficulties he knew Andre faced where she was concerned. And though Zax was not a man to display his emotions—he was too old-school Zakharian for that—not once had he shown by word or deed that he cared one way or the other if Andre was successful.

Not once. And Andre didn't know what to make of it.


Chapter 4

uliana woke early, knowing she had a free day from filming and wanting to make the most of it. None of the scenes scheduled that day involved her. She considered seeking out Sabrina and discussing with her friend what Dirk had revealed, but decided against it. Dirk had told her his wife didn't want anyone to know she was sick, possibly dying. Juliana couldn't betray Dirk's trust that way.
I'll have to think of a way to get Bree to confide in me.
In the meantime, she had something she needed to do on her own.

She dressed quickly in a long-sleeved silk blouse in a becoming shade of amethyst—a color she wore often because of her eyes—then neatly tucked it into her slacks and rolled up the sleeves for coolness, since the day promised to be warm. She considered doing something with her long hair, then shrugged and left it unbound but slid a clip into her purse—she could always twist her hair up later if it got too hot. She settled on comfortable walking shoes, then slipped away down the long hallway before most of the palace's residents were stirring.

Priceless objets d'art were on display everywhere—in glass cases as well as out in the open. And masterpieces by Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli and a host of other famous painters hung in splendor from the walls she passed—paintings she remembered from the four years she'd been a constant visitor to the palace. She and Mara, Andre's sister, had been only a year apart in age. They'd attended the same private school and had been best friends for those four years—losing Mara's friendship had caused Juliana nearly as much heartache as losing Andre.

You didn't lose Andre,
she reminded herself sternly.
He was never yours to lose.

The guards were on duty, of course, but their job was to keep people out, not keep them in, so they didn't say anything to Juliana as she approached, just opened the massive doors for her so she could walk through. Then the guards on the gate did the same thing.

Once outside, Juliana took her time, wending her way through the narrow streets she remembered so well. Little had changed in Drago in eleven years. There was still that sense of walking in a sixteenth-century fairy-tale city, albeit one with strict sanitation rules that a real sixteenth-century city wouldn't have had. She chuckled to herself. Drago embodied the best of both worlds—she hadn't forgotten, not really—but she hadn't let herself remember because memories of Drago were all tied up with memories of Andre.

Juliana stopped for breakfast at a small café not too far from the royal cemetery—her eventual goal—and was glad to find the café she remembered was still there and hadn't made way for progress. She sat outside at one of the tiny tables and ordered coffee and a croissant. The square slowly came to life around her, and Juliana watched, enjoying the good memories it brought back.

When her breakfast arrived she thanked her smiling waitress in Zakharan and was rewarded with an even bigger smile. She knew the waitress recognized her as Juliana Richardson, but somehow it was different here in Drago, and her few words in the native language—rusty or not—carried more importance than her international fame. It would have been impossible for her to go most places by herself in the United States, but here in Drago she was relatively safe on her own. She'd known that even before she'd started out this morning. There were paparazzi here to be on guard against, just as anywhere in the world, but the average Zakharian citizen would respect her right to privacy.

Juliana continued to watch the activity in the square, remembering when Andre had brought Mara and her here on school holidays. Remembering feeling so honored to be with him. The citizens of Drago had loved their approachable, down-to-earth prince, and Andre had always lived up to their ideals.

He'd treated Juliana with the same gentle kindness he showed his own sister—teasing her gently, listening to her inchoate hopes and dreams, giving her advice on everything from her schoolwork, to horseback riding, to hiking the mountains around Drago, to the Zakharian boys who asked her out, including his own cousin Niko.

Until the summer before she left Zakhar to return to the United States to start college. Until one unforgettable night...

Juliana's smile faded. That time in her life seemed so far away now, as distant from her as the emotions she refused to let herself feel...except when she was acting. That was different. When she was acting she could let her emotions run the gamut. Maybe that was why the critics loved her performances—all her pent-up emotions were allowed free rein. Joy and sorrow. Passion and pain. And agony. No one, the critics claimed, could portray agony the way Juliana could. Agony was easy. All she had to do was think of Andre.

She drank the last of her coffee and refused a refill, but she wasn't ready to leave, not quite yet. Tomorrow was the deathbed scene, and though she didn't really want to, she needed to visit the lovers' tomb in the royal cemetery. Needed to remember the story as Andre had related it to her when she was a young, impressionable teenager. Needed to remember how she'd understood Eleonora's actions that long-ago day, when the husband she loved more than life itself lay dying. She just wasn't quite ready for it, although she didn't want to acknowledge what that reluctance meant.

Juliana sighed eventually and rose, paid her bill and added a generous tip, then headed in the direction of the royal cemetery. She was just thinking to herself that Zakhar was blessed not having the kind of traffic that made driving in Hollywood and Los Angeles such a nightmare, when she stepped off the curb into the cobblestone cross street to the sound of a revving engine and squealing tires.

“Watch out!” A hard, male body tackled her, knocking the breath from her body and dragging her to safety on the far side of the street just as a dark blue sedan whipped by her so close Juliana could have reached out and touched it.

The stranger immediately let Juliana go as soon as he confirmed she was steady on her feet, and they both stared after the car that had almost struck her as it rapidly disappeared into the distance. She'd been so startled and shaken by her close call she hadn't thought to get the license plate number, and now it was too late.

“You are okay, Miss Richardson?” the stranger asked in faintly accented English.

“Oh yes,” she replied quickly, but in Zakharan. “Thank you so much—you saved my life!” She didn't question how this man knew who she was. Hers was an easily recognizable face, especially since all the world knew she was in Zakhar filming
King's Ransom
. “That was close. My fault, I guess. I wasn't paying attention the way I should have when I crossed the street. I should have looked both ways.” She made a rueful sound as she found she was still trembling in the aftermath. “Accidents can happen anywhere, even here. I should have been more careful.”

He gave her an enigmatic glance from his rather stern eyes and switched to Zakharan himself. “You think it was an accident, then?”

Juliana laughed shakily. “What else?”

“Yes,” the man said softly. “What else could it have been?” But he looked as if he could have told her more. He smiled, a movement of his lips that didn't reach his eyes. “Please be more careful in the future, Miss Richardson. Zakhar would grieve should something happen to you here.” He touched two fingers to his forehead in an old-fashioned gesture that made Juliana think if he'd been wearing a hat he would have tipped it to her. Then he walked back across the street, apparently in the same direction from which he'd come.

She watched the stranger for a few seconds, wondering why he seemed somehow familiar. Hollywood? On the plane here? She racked her brain, but try though she might, she couldn't place him. Maybe it wasn't his face she recognized, but the way he held himself tall and straight. Almost military in aspect.
Maybe he
she thought abstractedly. He wasn't in uniform, but maybe he was in the Zakharian National Forces and was off duty. He was the right age for it. All Zakharian men were required to join the military when they turned eighteen and serve for at least four years—it was the badge of citizenship, and most Zakharian men were proud to serve. Some even went on to make it a career choice.

Only the royal family was exempt from the military service requirement, something Niko had accepted as his due when he turned eighteen. But Niko's older brother, Zax, hadn't, Juliana remembered. Neither had Andre. He'd insisted on joining the Zakharian National Forces and training with them just as hard as any basic recruit, despite his father's vehement opposition.

Andre had actually been in the military when she'd first met him, although his military service had had to be modified to accommodate his royal duties, of course, such as his presence at official functions. Lieutenant Marianescu—he'd steadfastly refused promotion to any rank he hadn't earned—had been a member of the Zakharian National Forces the entire four years she'd known him and had still been on active duty when she'd left Zakhar.
Why remember that now?

It wasn't until Juliana turned and continued on her way to the royal cemetery that she realized she'd never asked the man who'd rescued her what his name was.
Damn! What was I thinking?
He knew who she was, but unless he came forward later or spoke with the press—neither scenario very likely, since he was Zakharian—she had no way to thank him again. With a little sigh of regret for her lapse of judgment she put the entire incident out of her mind.

* * *

The phone rang suddenly, and even though the man had been eagerly waiting for it the ring startled him. He snatched at the phone. “Yes?”

“No,” said the cold flat voice at the other end, a voice he recognized.

He cursed, softly and fluently. “How?”

Both men knew better than to speak incriminating words over the phone, so the only answer was, “Interference.”

He slammed the phone down.
he thought with a sudden spurt of anger. Whatever had prevented the successful execution of his plan—and he would find out the details later, in person—somehow Andre was involved.
I should have known.

He couldn't attempt something similar. Not now. Juliana's death had to appear to be an accident, and two incidents of the same nature within a short time span would raise suspicions. He couldn't let Andre suspect someone was deliberately trying to keep Juliana away from him—although he was.

He controlled his anger, calming himself with an effort. One failure was not the end of the world; he still had time. And as the Russian had said, he had the money. When their father died, he and his brother had inherited a fortune that was exceeded only by Andre's royal inheritance. Unlimited funds meant he had unlimited options.

* * *

Juliana had already memorized the dialogue for the deathbed scene scheduled to be filmed tomorrow. The king had been mortally wounded in the raid that finally recovered the huge ransom he'd paid sixteen years before and exacted vengeance for everything his dearly beloved queen had suffered at the hands of her kidnappers. Now he lay near death, surrounded by those he loved. When Juliana stood before the tomb and read the words carved upon it, a portion of that scene came back to her.

“I'm here, Andre. Can you feel my hand?”

“So dark. Light the torches. I cannot see your face...”

Eleonora glances from the terrible wound on her husband's brow to the torches blazing in their holders, knowing no light can pierce the darkness surrounding her Andre—it is the end. “Hold my hand, beloved. As you did once for me, I will lead you out of the darkness into the light.” She slides Andre's dagger from its sheath.

“Mother...” Raoul, eldest son and heir—only twenty, but already a man—speaks from the other side of the bed, as he suddenly realizes her intention.

Eleonora silences him with a fierce look. She clasps Andre's hand in one of hers, the dagger in the other, listening intently to her husband's ragged breathing. Waiting. Waiting...

“My light...always.” Andre struggles for breath. “Promise me...” He can't finish his request, and no one ever knows what promise he wished to secure from his wife.

“Always,” she tells him reassuringly. She kisses him tenderly one last time. “Forever and a day, beloved.”

“Eleonora...” One word. One gasp. And then no more.

Agony flickers across her face as she whispers her husband's name. “Andre.” But there are no tears in her eyes, no hesitation—Eleonora plunges Andre's dagger in her heart, ending her heartbeat almost simultaneously with her husband's.


Juliana came back to her surroundings with a start. Tears stained her cheeks and she struggled for breath as she knelt at the tomb, experiencing Eleonora's agonizing loss, understanding what had driven Zakhar's first queen to take her own life. It was a conscious choice, but a grievously difficult one—orphaning her seven children to accompany her husband into the darkness...and bring him with her into the light.

A sudden sound of footsteps on the gravel path behind her made Juliana jolt to her feet and turn around sharply. Andre stood there, dressed in the riding clothes that always emphasized his vibrant masculinity. His ever-present bodyguard was nowhere in sight.

Andre's eyes took in her tear-ravaged face, but he made no move to come closer, and Juliana scrubbed furiously at her cheeks, embarrassed to have Andre see her so emotionally devastated by the love story she had professed not to believe in. His silence unnerved her, and she turned back to the tomb, thinking of the two buried there, sleeping peacefully together throughout eternity.

Almost as if he could read her thoughts, Andre said softly, “It was not easy for Raoul—he had to fight the whole Roman Catholic Church to allow his parents to be buried together in hallowed ground. Suicide usually meant an unhallowed grave in those days.”

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