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Authors: Amelia Autin

King's Ransom (6 page)

BOOK: King's Ransom

“Please, Andre...I love you...and I have to know...”

From the safety of the doorway he said in a guttural voice, “You do not know what you are asking.”

Her face resolved into a maturity that was unexpected, and the pleading look changed into determination. “Yes, I do know,” she told him quietly in the voice of a woman, not a girl. “If you care for me at all, don't let me leave tomorrow without knowing what it means to be yours...just once. Please give me tonight. And let me give you tonight, too.”

It swept over him like a tidal wave, the wanting and not having, the desire to hold her tight and never let her go, the need to show her how precious she was to him. And something more. The sure knowledge that he could no more walk away from the gift she was offering than he could walk out of his skin. He was shaking with the force of his desire, but one shred of sanity remained. One last chance for both of them. If he could make

He quickly unzipped his riding breeches and stripped them off, letting her see him naked, letting her see the enormity of his need. Then he slowly walked toward her, until he stood only a step away. “
is what you are asking for, little one,” he said softly, grasping himself crudely. “Is this really what you want? Me, inside you?”

He had hoped to shock her with his words, his size, with the realization of what was to come and the very real possibility of pain, but he was the one who was shocked. Without hesitation she reached out a hand and touched him, and a spark of electricity passed between them. Andre felt her touch everywhere, sizzling through him, leaving him gasping. His erection swelled even more, the skin feeling as if it would burst. And then it was too late. It had already been too late from the moment he'd seen her wearing nothing but moonlight and a cotton sheet.

Naked and trembling, he knelt before her, gazing deep into her eyes as he reached for the sheet...and tugged gently. Then she was naked and trembling, too, but not with fear. Desire. Desire that matched his. Her eyes told him she wasn't afraid, but they also told him what he already knew—this would be her first time with a man. Which meant he had to go slow. He had to build her desire to fever pitch before he did anything else.

If he could hold himself back. If it didn't kill him.

He reminded himself she had led a sheltered life. Her mother had died when she was a little girl, and though she was close to her ambassador father, it wasn't the kind of closeness a girl had with her mother. She might know the basics of what went where—impossible not to know that in this day and age—but he doubted she had any idea of everything he wanted to do to her. Would he shock her? Offend her? Or would she listen to her heart and know that every way he touched her was
...because he loved her?

She made room for him on the bed, her eyes on him betraying a nervousness she wouldn't acknowledge. She didn't know what to do with her arms, her legs, and they shifted restlessly. Then she lay back against the pillow and hesitantly parted her legs. He laughed softly, shaking his head. “No, little one. That is not the way. Not your first time. Not even your thousandth time.” He brought his body gently over hers, feeling her tremors of uncertainty. And suddenly it wasn't so difficult to hold himself back. He smiled down at her and his voice was little more than a deep whisper when he said, “Let me show you, Juliana.”

* * *

Juliana tossed and turned restlessly in her sleep, moaning to herself. The dream had come despite her stern warning to herself at bedtime. She wanted to stop the dream, but she couldn't, and now it was too late. The dream consumed her, controlled her.
Naked and trembling.

* * *

Juliana knew the moment Andre surrendered to the desire racking his beautiful body. His eyes, his face were transformed, and she thought,
He loves me. He couldn't look at me that way and not love me.
It gave her the courage she needed to be a woman for him, and not a girl shrinking away from her first sexual encounter.
But this isn't sex,
she reminded herself with joyous anticipation.
This is love—mine and his.

She slid sideways on the bed, making room for him. Nervousness returned out of the blue, but she lay back against the pillow and hesitantly parted her legs. Then was startled by Andre's soft laughter as he rose over her. “No, little one,” he told her. “That is not the way. Not your first time. Not even your thousandth time.” His voice dropped. “Let me show you, Juliana.”

With exquisite care and knowledge of women she didn't stop to question, he showed her. His big hands roamed her body, slowly, achingly, caressing every inch of her skin, building her desire step by incredible step. He was hot and hard against her, but he seemed to have an iron control over his body, because he refused to succumb to her frantic hands, her desperate pleas that he take her now...
. Instead he wove a magic spell as his hands lightly touched her here and there, until she was weeping from the beauty he created, until she was shaking and crying for him to release her.

She clung to him as tremors pulsed endlessly through her body, and he kissed away her tears. Then he moved, positioning himself at the damp portal of her womanhood, and thrust deeply. There was a brief, sharp pain, and Juliana couldn't hold back her sound of distress. But he was kissing her again, swallowing her pain and making it his own; his lips, his hands apologizing for having to hurt her this once.

“Never again,” he promised her, remaining motionless.

Juliana sensed he was waiting for her body to accommodate his, waiting while her inner depths stretched and contracted, accepting his invasion, waiting while a fine sheen of sweat broke over his body from the strain she only vaguely understood. He was so deep, so tight; she couldn't believe they had ever been apart. Then he withdrew slowly, agonizingly, and the emptiness was unbearable. “No,” she breathed, clutching at his hips until he filled her again with another sure thrust. And another.

“Now,” he whispered to her in Zakharan, his eyes alight in the darkness. “Now it begins.”

* * *

Juliana woke with tears on her cheeks. “Andre,” she whispered, her throat aching. She didn't understand, would
understand how Andre could have made love to her with such exquisite tenderness, and then...

Remember the rest,
she told herself savagely. She impatiently threw back the covers and rose, then moved to the open window and stared out at the sleeping streets of Drago at the bottom of the hill. She was angry with herself for crying for the moon, for crying for a fairy tale that had no basis in reality. Angry for shedding tears after all these years for a man so cruel, so uncaring he could humiliate her by sending agents to tell her he wanted nothing more to do with her.

She couldn't control her dreams, but she could control her waking thoughts. And while she acknowledged he had never seduced her—
he didn't have to; you threw yourself into his arms, into his bed,
she reminded herself, the memory a humiliating scourge in her mind—she could never forget he didn't even have the common decency to tell her himself that the one night she'd begged him for was all they would ever have.

Juliana wrapped her arms around herself as a cold hollow feeling settled in the pit of her stomach, remembering how she had wept through the night after his Zakharian agents had left—her heart breaking, her dreams shattered. Remembering how she'd asked herself again and again how the gentle prince she'd known for years, the tender lover who'd made her weep with ecstasy, could be the same man who had sent her
as a parting gift as if she had been a whore—used and discarded without a second thought.

No. Even if he could explain why he'd sent agents instead of telling her himself, she could never forgive him for the money and the degrading, soul-destroying words that had accompanied it. Never.


Chapter 6

ut!” the director ordered.

“Save the lights,” someone called out, and the hot lights were mercifully shut off. Juliana took a deep breath and expelled it slowly, evenly, letting the tension out at the same time. She wanted to wipe her forehead, but she knew better. The makeup team moved in quickly. One woman patted gently at Juliana's face, blotting the perspiration beading beneath her fluffy bangs. Somebody else handed Juliana a cold bottle of water, and she gave him a grateful smile before she drank thirstily. Work on her went on even as she drank—makeup touched up, hair brushed and the dresser assigned to her fussed over a streak of dust that had somehow mysteriously appeared on the back of her midnight blue velvet skirt. A few feet away Dirk was being given the same treatment.

The director came over to talk to Juliana and Dirk. “That was good, really good, but not quite what I was hoping for. Let's try one more take, okay?”

“Sure,” Dirk said.

“And this time, Dirk, see if you can add a little more...euphoria?...when you hear the news Eleonora gives you. I mean, this is the first child whose paternity won't be questioned. The first child after Eleonora was ransomed. Not to mention neither of you were sure Eleonora could even have more children after everything that happened to her.”

Dirk was quiet for a moment, and Juliana gave him an anxious look. Then he smiled. “Sure thing.”

After the director walked away, Juliana waited until everyone else had walked off the set, too, then said softly, “You okay?”

Dirk's smile faded, and the eyes he turned on Juliana were bleak. “It would be easier to express euphoria over Eleonora's pregnancy if I wasn't praying Bree would...”

“I know.” She put her hand on Dirk's arm, wishing she knew what to say to him. “It would be easier for you to understand if you were a woman,” she told him, her heart aching. “When a woman loves a man, really loves him, she wants to give him the immortality only his child can give him. No price is too high to pay, not even her own life.” She breathed deeply, searching for something more she could share to make him see things from Sabrina's point of view.

“But that's not all,” she said eventually. “To feel another life growing inside you, knowing it was created from the love the two of you share...this is what Bree is experiencing. I know it. Not that she doesn't want to live,” she added, blinking hard against the emotions welling up in her, not wanting to ruin her makeup, “but we all die at some point. And giving you this gift means that no matter what, your love will live forever.”

Dirk stared down at her, an arrested expression on his face. “I didn't think of it that way. I just... Thanks.” He lifted her hand and kissed it. “Come on,” he said. “Let's get this scene in the can so I can go find Bree and tell her I understand...finally.”

Juliana and Dirk took their places on the set. When she turned her head she was startled to see Andre standing in the shadows, watching, his face hard and cold, one of the bodyguards who followed him everywhere right behind him.
How long has Andre been there?
she wondered.
And why is he upset?

She thought about what she'd just told Dirk. The words had somehow poured out of her, and she realized she hadn't just been talking about Sabrina. She'd been talking about herself, too, about the way she'd felt toward Andre...once upon a time. At the time she'd prayed she was pregnant, wanting his child with an intensity she hadn't really understood until she found out it wasn't going to happen. But then she'd told herself it was probably for the best, that there would be other chances for them.

That was before she'd learned the truth. Before she'd learned that one chance was all she would ever have. And not just because Andre would never be hers. There would never be a child for her because there would never be another man whose child she would want to bear.

* * *

Andre watched Juliana touch DeWinter's arm and stare up at him, an expression of pleading on her face. He couldn't hear what she was saying, but whatever it was seemed to move DeWinter. When DeWinter raised Juliana's hand and kissed it something cold and terrifying sliced through him.

The fingers of Andre's right hand unconsciously curled into a fist.
DeWinter touched Juliana at the reception, too,
he remembered,
with his wife standing right there. Are they having an affair?
His cousin Niko's offhand comment yesterday about the apparent closeness and obvious affection between the two movie stars had flicked Andre on the raw, and he'd been hard-pressed to hide his reaction from his cousin's curiously intent stare. Somehow he'd managed it, had managed to present a front of casual indifference, but inside he'd been seething. He still was. Andre would never have believed the Juliana he knew could have an affair with a married man, but then...she had changed. She wasn't the woman he remembered. She was hard. Cold. Cynical.

Then he remembered her tears in front of the royal lovers' tomb and her well-known political stance as a children's rights activist, and he realized that despite recent evidence to the contrary she wasn't hard and cold. Cynical? Yes. But not hard and cold—she cared passionately. She'd been wounded, and the pain had turned her cynical.
Which of her lovers did it?
he wondered.
Which one broke her heart?
The tabloids, the celebrity magazines and the internet, his only sources of news of Juliana in the early years, had never even hinted her heart was broken. On the contrary, the stories had all indicated she was the original ice queen, moving from man to man but never giving her heart.

It was that last that had kept hope alive as year followed empty year. If Juliana had given her heart to no other man, then her heart could be him. She had loved him once. She could love him again. He just had to find the key to unlock the mystery. If he knew
she had stopped loving him, he could change whatever it was in himself that needed changing. But if Juliana's heart had been broken it meant she had given her heart to another man. And if she had given her heart irretrievably—not just her body—then hope was dead.

He'd suffered the torments of the damned when Juliana dropped out of college after one year, went to Hollywood and took a lover instead of returning to Zakhar...and him. He could still remember the murderous rage that had possessed him when he returned from his tour of duty with the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan and learned what Juliana had done. Could still remember finding himself standing in the midst of the wreckage he'd made of the cottage where they'd shared one luminous night—with absolutely no memory of taking it apart, piece by jagged piece. Only his hands, bruised and bleeding, bore mute testimony to what he'd done.

Then the madness that had gripped him evaporated, and sanity had returned. He'd fallen to his knees in the ruins and wept for the first and only time in his adult life. Not just for the loss of the woman he loved, but for the frightening glimpse of his true self, for the gentleman he
. And he'd known even as he wept that somehow he'd brought this on himself, that if he hadn't surrendered to temptation as he'd sworn he wouldn't do, he wouldn't be paying for it now. That if he'd been a better man he wouldn't have lost Juliana.

That had been the turning point in his life. He'd vowed never again would he let himself lose control. Never again would he succumb to temptation. Never again would that murderous rage be let loose. Somehow he would find the inner strength. And in doing so he would change himself into a man who deserved Juliana's love. Just as the first Andre Alexei had done, he would find a way to bring her back to him, no matter the cost. Somehow he would find a way to regain her love.

“Cut! And that's a wrap! Great job, Dirk. You, too, Juliana. Let's call it a day.”

The director's words broke into Andre's consciousness, and he realized he'd been so caught up in his thoughts, his memories, that he hadn't even observed the scene that had just been filmed. Now he looked over to where DeWinter had stood with Juliana minutes before and was surprised to see the other man gone already. Juliana was still there, talking to the director about something, but as he watched she finished her discussion and started to leave. Grips were already tearing down the set, the lights, and moving the cameras preparatory to setting up the following day in another location within the palace. Juliana picked her way carefully through the disarray, holding her skirts up to avoid tripping over the wires everywhere.

Andre moved to intercept her, his bodyguard following him like a determined shadow. When Juliana saw who it was she stopped and looked up at him. He was so disconcerted by the pale blue color of her eyes, different from her normal violet hue, that at first he couldn't say anything. He slid his right hand into his pocket, feeling the small box there, and the reminder grounded him. Conscious that whatever he said would be overheard, he spoke a few carefully chosen words. “I need to talk to you.”

Juliana blinked a couple of times. “Can it wait? I need to get out of costume, get this makeup off, and I really need to take my eyes out—they're starting to bother me.” It was so unexpected he chuckled, and so did she. “I didn't word that quite right,” she said, still laughing softly. “I need to remove my contact lenses. That's what I meant to say.”

“How long will all that take?”

“A half hour? Maybe less. I need a shower, too, but if it's urgent I can wait for that.”

“It is important, but not urgent. Have your shower. I will wait for you in the little library.”

* * *

Even if the cast and crew of
King's Ransom
hadn't been shown over most of the palace in the early days, Juliana would have known where the little library was on the second floor, not far from Princess Mara's suite. She and Mara had often studied there when they were young. Mara had been a much better student than Juliana in just about every subject, but especially in math—Juliana had been hopeless and Mara had been gifted. Mara had tried to tutor her in math, but it was a lost cause.

The only area Juliana had excelled in was in recitation. She could speak blank verse as if it were simple English, and at one point had dreamed of being a Shakespearean actress like her famous mother—the mother who'd had a whirlwind romance with Juliana's ambassador father and died when her daughter was barely four. But the demand for Shakespearean actresses being what it was, when Juliana had decided to forget college and become an actress she'd headed for Hollywood.

Dressed in a floating sleeveless pale primrose summer dress belted around her tiny waist, sandals on her slender feet, her hair piled atop her head for coolness and held in place with a pair of cloisonné butterfly clips, Juliana hurried toward the little library forty minutes later. Andre's bodyguard was standing in front of the closed door, but he opened it and moved aside as she approached—he'd obviously received orders to let her pass without challenge. Then the door was quietly closed behind her.

“Little library” was a misnomer. It was little only in comparison to the Royal Library on the main floor. Andre was ensconced in one of the large, comfortable easy chairs scattered around the room, reading what looked to be official dispatches. Juliana remembered him doing something similar years ago while she and Mara studied, their books spread out on the antique table in the center of the room.

“I'm sorry I'm late,” she said. “I couldn't resist taking a bath instead of a shower. The suite I'm in has the most amazing marble bathtub.”

“The Queen's Suite,” he said easily, closing the portfolio of dispatches with a snap. “Yes, the bathtub there is the biggest I've ever seen—it is bigger than mine.”

Startled, she said, “The Queen's Suite? I didn't realize... Mara once said your father had that sealed off after your mother died and no one was allowed inside. We never even dared to sneak inside for a peek.”

“Yes, it was closed for years, but it was reopened at the time of my coronation. I believe the Queen of England occupied it at that point, but no one since.” His voice dropped a notch. “Eleonora's suite has been waiting for you, Juliana.”

Something in his tone disturbed her, but she couldn't put her finger on it. For something to say, she asked, “Was it really Eleonora's?”

“So legend has it, but all the queens of Zakhar in recent memory have occupied it. It has been extensively remodeled numerous times over the years, of course. Candle sconces replaced the torches. Then gaslight replaced the candle sconces. What was then modern plumbing was added, although a plumber today would laugh at it. Then electrical wiring replaced the gaslight. And truly modern plumbing was added in my grandmother's day. My mother loved it—I have vague childhood memories of her in that suite when I was very young—and she added her own touches.” He smiled at her, a smile of singular sweetness. “You are comfortable there?”

“Incredibly. I've felt like a queen since the very first day.”

His smile grew. “That was my intention.”

Suddenly nervous for no reason she could think of, Juliana wandered over to the table in the center of the room. “How well I remember this table,” she said, running her hand over its polished surface, loving the smooth feel of the wood beneath her fingertips.

“Yes, I imagine you would.”

Her gaze fell on the portrait of Andre's father done at the time of his coronation, his wife at his side—both staring out at the world in haughty superiority. She'd met Andre's father, of course, but his mother had died when Mara was born. It was one of the things she and Andre had in common—he'd lost his mother at a young age, too. Now as she contemplated the picture she realized just how much Mara resembled her dead mother physically, if not in any other way. Regal beauty was reflected in the face of the woman in the portrait, but no sweetness, unlike her daughter. There had been a sweetness about Mara, Juliana remembered, an emotional vulnerability that had made Juliana want to shield her from hurt...just as Andre had always tried to do.

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