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Authors: Amelia Autin

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BOOK: King's Ransom
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“I...” Juliana cleared her throat. “I didn't know that.”

“I never told that part of the story to Mara and you,” Andre said, coming to stand at her side.

“I thought the church was all-powerful back then,” she said. “How did he...?”

A faintly cynical smile touched Andre's lips. “He used the only leverage he had—he threatened to join the Protestant Reformation that was already sweeping parts of Europe if the church refused.”

Juliana looked up at him, startled. “Wasn't he risking excommunication?”

“Perhaps.” He seemed to search for words to explain. “Raoul fiercely loved his parents—the mother who bore him in captivity and shielded him from the worst their captors dealt out, and the father who freely acknowledged him as his son even before paternity was proved.” Juliana's gaze was drawn to Andre's hands and the slight genetic defect that marked many of the Marianescus, including the original Andre Alexei and his son Raoul. “He was willing to take any risk to ensure they were not separated in death.”

Andre took a deep breath. “But the risk was not as much as you might think. Raoul was only twenty when his parents died, but he reigned for over forty years, and history tells us he was a very wise king from the moment he ascended the throne—a fitting heir for Andre Alexei the First. I am sure he knew that with all the other defections to Protestantism the Roman Catholic Church was desperate to keep Zakhar in the fold.”

“How did he manage it?”

“The church found ‘mitigating circumstances.'” She raised her eyebrows in a question, and he added, “In essence, they ruled Eleonora was not in her right mind when she committed suicide. Ergo, it was not a cardinal sin.” He smiled his faint smile. “No cardinal sin, no reason to refuse the sacrament of a church burial. And so they were buried together in hallowed ground.”

Juliana considered this for a long time. “I don't think—” she began, then stopped short.

“You don't think...?” prompted Andre.

“I don't think she was out of her mind,” Juliana whispered, staring at the tomb, feeling as if Eleonora were speaking to her. “And I don't think she gave a damn about whether or not suicide was a sin. I think she just couldn't bear to live without him. Not even if it meant leaving her children behind. This wasn't like the endless years of captivity. This was life forever without him...or joining him in eternal death.”

Silence greeted her words. Then Andre said in his deep voice, “So you believe she loved him that much?”

“Yes.”

“To death...and beyond?”

“Yes.” Her throat closed after that one word, and she refused to look at Andre, knowing her emotions were too close to the surface.

“But you don't believe he loved her the same way?”

Juliana fought the resurgent tears and shook her head. Those emotions she didn't want to feel choked her and she couldn't have spoken even if she'd wanted to.

After a tense silence Andre sighed. When Juliana darted a glance at him she saw an ineffable sadness in his face, and a weariness that had nothing to do with the physical. “You used to believe,” he said.

She swallowed hard and forced coldness into her voice. “I used to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, too.”

“Damn you,” he ground out, grabbing her arm and pulling her so close she could feel waves of anger emanating from him. Then he was kissing her, his mouth plundering hers, his arms holding her prisoner while he took what he wanted. She fought him with everything in her, struggling to free herself, knowing she didn't stand a chance against his overwhelming strength but refusing to surrender. He held her easily, her attempts to free herself futile, and rained kisses over her face. But when she sobbed against his lips finally, unable to stop herself, his arms gentled and he drew his mouth away from hers.

Then he was cradling her in his arms, soft words of apology in English and Zakharan flowing out of him in a steady stream until her tears ceased. But he didn't let her go. “Shhh,” he whispered, his voice harsh, his breathing ragged. “Forgive me. I never meant... Shhh, do not cry. God, Juliana, please...please forgive me.”

She shook her head. Forgive him? How could she ever forgive him? She wasn't thinking about the way he'd kissed her just now—that was nothing, and he wasn't the first man to try to force a response from her. If that were all, she could easily forgive him as she'd forgiven other men who'd tried and failed to rouse her to passion.

But she could never forgive him for being something other than the man she'd thought she'd loved...eleven years ago. For making her weep bitter tears until every shred of the warmth, love and trust she'd possessed at eighteen had been slain, replaced with cold, cynical suspicion.

Maybe he did you a favor,
she told herself now. If he hadn't already inoculated her against love, could she have survived in Hollywood? If she hadn't already experienced those devastating emotional wounds he'd inflicted on her, could she have portrayed them so believably on the silver screen, especially in the early stages of her career?

She didn't know. But one thing she did know. She would have traded every acting award she'd ever won, every glowing review from the critics, every box office success, if she could take back one night. Because if that night had never happened, if she hadn't believed herself loved the way legend claimed the first Andre Alexei had loved his Eleonora, then there would never have been the betrayal that destroyed her for any other man. She would never love again because love required trust. And trust was dead in her.

She pulled herself from Andre's arms. “No,” she said, the ice in her veins bleeding into her voice. “I will never forgive you.”

He drew back and his face hardened at her cold, unforgiving tone. “Go, then. I will not keep you against your will.” When she hesitated, he said forcefully, “Go! Go before I change my mind.”

She walked away quickly then, back toward the cemetery entrance. But when she reached the point where the path veered she turned around for one last glance at Andre. She told herself not to, but she couldn't help it. He wasn't watching her as she had suspected. Instead he was kneeling on one knee in front of the tomb, a hand braced against it in an attitude of...dejection? She couldn't swear to it, not from this distance, but it looked as if his eyes were closed and his lips were moving. As if he were praying.

It was an intensely personal moment, and she felt guilty, as if she'd walked into someone else's confessional. She looked away before he could catch her at it and hurried toward the gate, her emotions swirling in confusion. She smiled at the wizened gatekeeper and thanked him in Zakharan, waiting for him to let her out. He responded with a flurry of words too quick and colloquial for her ears, and she shook her head at him, puzzled.

“The king, he comes after you, yes?” he said, still in Zakharan but slowly, distinctly. Juliana nodded reluctantly. “He tells me to bar the gate, to let no one else in. But he says nothing about your departure.” He took a large key from his pocket and stared from it to Juliana, obviously uncertain what to do.

“I don't think he meant for you to keep me a prisoner,” she told the man, but he stubbornly refused to unlock the ancient gate.

Frustrated, Juliana knew she had two choices. She could go back and fetch Andre, or she could wait here for him to show up. Neither choice was palatable. She didn't want another encounter with Andre, not now. Not anytime soon. She wanted to go somewhere to lick her wounds in private. She wanted to rebuild her walls against him, the walls that had been shaken by the sight of him praying at the tomb. She didn't want to think of him as a mortal man, she realized. She'd painted him as a callous villain in her mind for years, and she didn't want to see him as vulnerable because then it would be difficult—if not impossible—to hate him.

Hate?
The word bounced around in Juliana's mind and she caught her breath at the sudden realization. The opposite of love wasn't hate; it was
indifference
. Hate meant Andre still had control over her emotions. Hate meant those feelings of love weren't dead; they were merely suppressed. Pushed down to where they weren't a raw, open wound. But those wounds he'd inflicted weren't healed. Scar tissue had formed over them, but they were still tender, still aching to the touch. And she kept touching them. Couldn't help touching them. “No,” she whispered, dismayed.

 

Chapter 5

S
oft footsteps sounded behind Juliana and she whirled. Andre stood there, his face wiped clean of emotion. “Why are you still here, Juliana?” he asked. “Waiting to twist the knife again?”

She gasped at his unexpected verbal assault and shook her head. “He...he wouldn't let me out.” She raised a hand, indicating the elderly gatekeeper. “He said you told him to bar the gate.”

“Ahhh. I see.” He turned to the gatekeeper and spoke softly in colloquial Zakharan.

The old man nodded and quickly hobbled over to the gate, unlocked it and swung it wide. He bobbed his head at Juliana and muttered something she didn't understand, but his apologetic smile told her what he must have meant. “It is nothing,” she assured the man in Zakharan with a smile, knowing it wasn't his fault. “A simple misunderstanding.”

She passed through the gate and started to head back the way she came. Then she saw the magnificent black stallion tethered not far away, standing quietly. And just a few paces away was another man on horseback—Andre's bodyguard, the one she'd wondered about when Andre came to her alone in the cemetery. She knew the stallion had to be Andre's mount, but she was drawn admiringly to the horse's side. “Oh, you're a beauty, aren't you?” she whispered softly, careful not to startle the animal as she approached. The stallion let her caress his velvety nose, then run her hand along his withers under his ebony mane.

Forgetting for just a moment, she turned to Andre, not realizing this was the first real smile she'd given him since she returned to Zakhar. “What's his name?”

He stared silently down at her as if mesmerized for so long her smile faded into solemnity and she stared back at him. Finally he said, “His name is Charlemagne. He is half brother to Mara's horses, Alexander the Great and Suleiman the Magnificent.”

Her brows drew together in a question. “Mara's horses? But didn't I read somewhere that Alexander the Great was
your
horse? Didn't he win the Grand National for you one year?”

His lips twitched into a faint smile and he made the fencing gesture indicating a hit...and a point. “You are well-informed,” he said. “Yes, Alexander was mine, but no longer. I sold him for a fraction of his value to Mara when she married earlier this year—he was her wedding gift to her husband.”

“Married?” She tilted her head up in a question. “I don't remember reading anything about that.”

“New Year's Day. Very quiet. Very private. It was Mara's wish, and I—”

“And you could never deny her anything,” she finished for him. “I remember that about you.” She studied him for a moment. “Who did she marry?”

That faint smile came and went. “An American bastard who does not even know his father's name.” Shock reverberated through her at his words, then her eyes narrowed in accusing fashion. He accurately read her accusation and explained ruefully, “That is his own definition of himself. I would rather have described him as a man who would give the blood from his veins to keep Mara safe, because she is his whole world.”

“Oh, I'm so glad for Mara,” Juliana said swiftly. “I always felt guilty that I—”

“That you never called her, never wrote to her after the first two months when you went away to college. She suffered under the loss of your friendship, little one. She never said anything—you know that was never her way—but I knew just the same. I had not thought you so cruel, so careless. Not to Mara.”

She was stung by the accusation, knowing there was some truth to it, and at the same time startled and wounded by the use of his pet name for her so long ago—
little one.
She'd always been petite and seemingly fragile, but she had strength of will and a stamina that could put many men to shame. Next to Andre, however, who'd always towered over her since the first day she met him,
little one
had been an obvious endearment. And at the time she hadn't minded. On the contrary, she'd welcomed his having a pet name for her, the same way he'd had one for his sister.
Dernya
, which meant “little treasure” in Zakharan, was what he'd always called Mara.
Kolinya
, or the English translation, “little one,” had been his choice for Juliana. It had made her feel precious. Cherished.

But Juliana hadn't expected to hear it on his lips ever again. Thrown off stride, she tried to defend herself. “I just
couldn't
remain friends with her. Not after...” She couldn't bring herself to say the words. Couldn't bring herself to talk about that terrible day she'd learned the truth about Andre...and about the fairy-tale world she'd been living in for two months.

His eyes darkened. “So I am to blame for that, as well?”

Pain welled up with such overwhelming force she couldn't hold it back. It slashed across her face, and the backs of her eyes prickled as a precursor to tears. She blinked rapidly, not wanting him to see her cry again. He closed his eyes, and if she hadn't known better she could almost have believed he couldn't bear to see her pain. But he'd authored her pain so many years ago maybe he'd forgotten. Was that possible?
Could
he have forgotten? Maybe he just
wanted
to forget, the way she wished she could.
I would give anything to forget,
her heart cried.

When Andre opened his eyes again Juliana saw that he had somehow retrieved that iron control over himself she remembered so well. “How did you come here, Juliana?”

If he could control himself and speak in a normal voice, so could she. “I walked.”

“All the way from the palace?” He raised his head to look at the palace in the far distance, several miles away at least. “All by yourself?”

“I like walking.”

He didn't smile, but his eyes softened. “I remember. But I cannot imagine you do much walking in Hollywood. Not alone.”

“Not so much,” she agreed, forcing herself to a semblance of a casual smile. “Fame carries a price.” She indicated Andre's bodyguard. “I'm sure you know all about that.”

Andre untied Charlemagne and quickly mounted with a creak of saddle leather. Then he held his hand out to her in imperious fashion. “Come. I will take you back.”

She stared at his hand, suddenly afraid. It wouldn't be the first time they'd ridden double, with him mounted behind her. But she didn't think she could bear it. Didn't think she could bear the memories it would evoke of Andre and her in the soft light of early dawn, cradled lovingly, protectively in his arms. Or so she'd thought at the time.

She looked up at his face now and his eyes betrayed him. The memory she wanted so desperately to avoid was fresh in his mind, too. She stepped back, away from the memories, away from pain, and shook her head. “I'd rather walk.”

* * *

Andre watched Juliana walking away from him, her head held high. He noted with passing approval that shortly after her departure a discreet shadow picked up her trail and followed her from a safe distance. In a corner of his mind he wondered why there weren't two shadows, but knew he'd get a report before too long that would explain the divergence from orders. But that wasn't really what he was focusing on.

He'd seen it in Juliana's eyes the way he knew she'd seen it in his—she remembered as clearly he did the ride together down the mountain the day she left Zakhar so long ago. The first fingers of sunlight had not yet crept over the eastern sky, but dawn had already begun paling the dark blue of night. They'd ridden down together, even though Juliana had ridden her own horse up the mountain. He just couldn't bear to be parted from her one minute before he absolutely had to. And so he'd cradled her in his arms as they rode, the additional slight weight nothing to a fully rested Balthazar. Juliana's gelding had trailed along behind them on a leading rope.

Do not go there,
his heart warned him.
Not now.

By some miracle he managed to suppress that memory as he cantered back to the palace, his bodyguard a half length behind him, then took up the pressing duties that awaited him. The memory stayed successfully buried the rest of the day by sheer will. He met with the Privy Council as arranged for several hours that afternoon and managed to keep his mind on the serious business of running the country.

He met briefly with his cousin Zax to discuss the current threat assessment—and was perturbed by what had nearly happened to Juliana that morning. But he trusted Zax as he trusted no other man, and when he immediately ordered increased security he knew he didn't have to spell it out—Zax would know what needed to be done and wouldn't delay carrying out that command.

His appointments with the head of the Zakharian branch of the Red Cross and the delegation of international businessmen who were seeking investment opportunities in Zakhar went off without a hitch. A three-hour reception and state dinner with his cousins and the ambassadors of half a dozen countries, all vying for favored-nation status—Zakhar was small but strategically situated at a crossroads—was followed by a performance of the Zakharian Symphony Orchestra in the new Drago Performing Arts Hall in the ambassadors' honor.

Only Andre knew that all the while he was smiling politely and conversing with the ambassadors over dinner, he had no idea what he was eating. Only he knew that he heard nothing of the reportedly magnificent performance by the symphony orchestra beyond the opening bars of music. He'd stood to applaud when the ambassadors in the royal box stood, and had shouted “Bravo!” along with the rest of the audience. In between he fought a protracted battle with himself to hold back the memories that threatened to swamp him.

But when he finally slept he could no longer deny the one memory that had haunted him for years. The memory that had finally caused him to start setting things in motion three years ago to bring Juliana back to Zakhar. The memory Juliana so obviously wanted to forget.

Then the dream engulfed him.

* * *

Andre sighed and turned over, the simple cotton sheet rustling beneath him. It wasn't going to work tonight. He had ridden Balthazar until he'd finally taken pity on the horse and returned to this lonely, empty cottage, knowing it wasn't enough. That he wasn't exhausted enough to keep his desires at bay. Not tonight.

One more night,
he'd told himself sternly as he groomed Balthazar, then led him into the stall, fed him and covered him with a blanket.
And then she will be thousands of miles away. Safe from herself...and me.

But it had been a mistake to let himself think of Juliana, even in this way. Because thinking of her made him want her. Wanting her made him need her. And needing her was driving him insane. His body throbbed and ached for release. Not the release he could give himself, which he'd resorted to on far too many nights already, but the release he knew he could have with Juliana. Only with Juliana.

She wants you,
an insidious little voice said inside his head as he turned over again.
You could have her. It would be so easy.

Easy in one way, yes. Juliana loved him, and she would give him her body as willingly as she had given him her heart. He could make love to her as he'd yearned to do for the past two years. But he'd been having this same argument with himself—and winning—for those same two years. He wasn't falling into that trap now.

Because he knew himself, knew his constant nature. Knew he was like the first Andre Alexei, who had loved his Eleonora beyond all reason, even unto death. Making love to Juliana would seal his fate...and hers. He could never make love to her until it meant as much to her as it meant to him. Until she knew there could be no going back after that moment. Until she acknowledged she belonged to him the same way he belonged to her.

Forever and a day.

Eventually he dozed fretfully, only to dream of her.
Come to me, Juliana,
he dreamed.
Come to me.

He woke to the sound of hoofbeats and a horse neighing softly. At first he thought he'd dreamed it, although that wasn't how his dreams usually ended. Then he heard a voice that was both dream and reality calling his name. He pulled on his riding breeches and was outside the cottage even before she'd dismounted.

“What are you doing here, Juliana?” he demanded harshly, his hand automatically grasping the reins below the bridle. She just gazed down at him in the moonlight, and she didn't have to say a word. He knew. “No,” he told her, steeling himself against temptation.

She slid off her horse's back before he could stop her, and then she was standing so close to him he could feel her trembling. “Please,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I know you want me, too. I
know
it. I heard you calling to me. I can't go away without...”

“No,” he said again, leading her horse to the tiny stable, putting distance between them as he cared for the horse. When he looked up from his task she was nowhere in sight.

“Juliana?” he called, but she didn't answer. He put the currycomb down and walked outside. Still no sign of her. But the door to the cottage was open the way he'd left it when he'd come outside. And he knew where she'd gone. “No,” he whispered to himself. But the insidious little voice inside his head insisted,
Yes. Yes!

The open doorway pulled him, lured him, and when he stood on the threshold he saw by moonlight what he'd known in his heart he would see. Juliana was sitting on the edge of the single bed, her clothes a pile on the floor where she'd dropped them in her haste to disrobe. If she'd been completely naked he might have been able to resist her. But she'd pulled the cotton top sheet so it was draped over the most vulnerable parts of her body, and that one insecure gesture pierced his defenses as nothing else could have.

“Juliana...” he said helplessly, his body reacting in predictable fashion, blood pooling between his thighs, until he could count his heartbeats in the pulses.

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