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Authors: Amelia Autin

King's Ransom (7 page)

BOOK: King's Ransom
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“So tell me about Mara,” she said, succumbing to the sudden longing to know how her onetime friend was doing. “How is she? I remember reading that she received her PhD in math from Oxford University. That was her dream, I know. I was so happy for her I—”
Almost called her,
Juliana nearly said. But for some reason she didn't want Andre to know how tempted she'd been to reconnect with Mara despite everything.

“Mara is a professor at the University of Colorado. She and her husband live in Boulder.”

Juliana laughed a little, shaking her head. “I still can't believe she's married and it never made the news. I didn't even know she was in the States.”

Andre smiled as if at a private joke. “I sent her there.”

“Why?”

“Because I hoped she would find there what she could never find here—and she did.”

Juliana wanted to ask what that was, then realized she and Andre were conversing as if they were old friends. As if what had happened eleven years ago had never happened. She wandered toward the bookshelves, running her fingers over the leather bound tomes, then took a deep breath, and with her back to him asked as casually as she could, “So why did you want to talk to me?”

“I need to know. Are you and DeWinter lovers?”

Juliana whirled around, her face pale with shock. “You have no right to ask me that.”

He considered her answer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. He stood and placed the portfolio on a side table. Then he walked toward her, stopping a few feet away, his hands in his pockets, his stance casual. “Then answer me this. Are you in love with him?”

“You have no right to ask me that, either.” Her voice was tight with repressed anger.
“Your Majesty.”
She threw those last two words at him as an insult.

“Perhaps not. But I am asking anyway. And you will not leave this room without giving me an answer.” His seemingly indifferent tone was belied by his words...and his eyes. His eyes were bright green, blazing with some emotion she couldn't put a name to, and she knew he meant exactly what he said. Whether he had the right or not, Andre was just stubborn enough to keep her there until she responded, one way or the other.

She took two steps toward him. “No. I'm not in love with Dirk. And no, we're not lovers. We've
never
been lovers.” Her eyes burned with tears of humiliation she refused to shed as her anger built. “He's my friend. His
wife
is my friend. How
dare
you ask me that!” Her chest was heaving with anger, hurt and a half dozen other emotions that swirled through her.

He didn't respond at first, just stood there watching her in that assessing way he had. Then he asked quietly, “If you are not in love with him, then why were you pleading with him between takes this afternoon?”

Her hand came up to her throat, where she could feel her pulse racing. “Because...” she began, but didn't go on because Dirk had told her about Sabrina in confidence and she wasn't about to betray it. Especially not to Andre.

“Because why?” His voice was quiet but implacable.

“That is absolutely none of your business.”

He shook his head. “You are wrong, Juliana,” he explained patiently. “
You
are my business. Anything to do with you is my business.” Her mouth dropped open in amazement but she was too stunned to say anything. “If I must ask DeWinter, I will.”

“Don't you dare ask Dirk anything!”

“Then you tell me.”

“You have no right!” She was almost shouting now.

“I have the right you granted me eleven years ago,” he said softly, evenly.

Every drop of blood drained from her face, and she felt light-headed, dizzy. And cold. The warm summer day vanished, and she shivered violently. “How dare you use that night to justify your actions now,” she whispered, wrapping her arms around her waist to keep from shaking uncontrollably. “How dare you!”

“Juliana, I...” Suddenly she found herself in his embrace, his arms tight bands around her, her head pressed against his chest. And though everything in her rejected the idea of accepting
anything
from him, especially comfort, for a brief moment she stayed where she was. His heart was beating, beating, beating beneath her ear, and she remembered lying close beside him in that single bed in the cottage, her head pillowed on his shoulder, hearing his heartbeat exactly the same way.

“Tell me, Juliana,” he whispered, his strong hand stroking the nape of her neck with exquisite, insidious tenderness. “If not DeWinter, then who? Someone hurt you. Someone broke your heart. Tell me, little one,” he coaxed. “Tell me who it was.”

She jerked herself out of his arms, appalled at both herself and him. Appalled at herself that she could let him hold her even for a minute. And appalled at him that he had the gall to ask her that question. How could he not know? After what he'd done, how could he possibly think anyone but he had broken her heart? “You,” she said, wanting to hurt him as she was hurting. “It was you.”

His brows drew together in a frown, and his face was stern. “Do not lie to me, Juliana. Your heart was not broken when you chose to go to Hollywood instead of returning to Zakhar that summer.”

She gasped at how he was twisting the facts, and in defense she resorted to sarcasm. “And of course I would have known you wanted me to return to Zakhar because of your numerous phone calls, your impassioned pleas. Oh, that's right,” she said, snapping her fingers. “You never asked me to return. Instead you—”

The flush on his cheekbones was the only sign her sarcasm had hit its target. “You should know why I never asked you to return. I expl—”

Juliana cut him off as he had done to her. “You're right. I do know.”
You didn't love me. You didn't want me. You sent your men to tell me to stop bothering you with my love letters and emails. And you sent me money. You had to know that would be the most hurtful thing you could do to me, giving me money for—

She couldn't even finish the thought—the wound was still too painful, even after all these years. “So don't pretend you don't understand why I didn't return to Zakhar,” she threw at him.

Now his anger rose to match hers. “And taking a lover? What was that? Experimentation? Comparison? Wanting to see how I measured up?” Her hand came up of its own volition to slap him, but he was too quick for her, and he caught her hand before it could make contact. “No,” he said implacably, forcing her arm down. “I may have deserved it at one time, but not for this.” His whole body tensed. “I was not...sane...when I heard what you had done.”

Denial rose to her lips, despite the fact that he had no right to know anything, no right to question her actions. No rights at all where she was concerned. “I didn't—”

“Do not lie to me!”

Immeasurably wounded by his accusation that she was lying despite telling herself not to be, she shot back, “Believe what you want. I don't have to justify myself to you. But believe this, too,” she said fiercely. “You may have been the first, but that doesn't give you ownership of me. Whether I've had a hundred other lovers or none, it's not your concern. It never was. Not then, and certainly not now.”

“That is where you are wrong, Juliana.” He'd quickly regained his control, but his face was steely with resolve when he said, “It was always my concern. You belonged to me then. You belong to me now. The same way I belong to you—forever and a day. And from this moment on you will have no other lover but me. That is not a threat. Just a fact.” He turned and strode toward the library door, scooping up the portfolio on his way out. He paused on the threshold and looked back, his eyes blazing. “Count on it.”

 

Chapter 7

A
ndre stormed into his secluded private office off his suite of rooms and slammed the portfolio of dispatches on his desk. “Out!” he ordered his bodyguard with unwonted harshness, unexpectedly irked by the lack of privacy he normally took for granted—at least until Juliana had reentered his life. As soon as he was alone he uttered an earthy, Zakharan curse, and it felt so good he repeated it, but the second time didn't give him the same satisfaction.

Too wound up to settle, he paced the large room, back and forth, back and forth. Angry with Juliana. Angry with himself. More angry with himself than with her because he hadn't meant to confront her, hadn't meant to accuse her. And he damned well hadn't meant to throw the threat at her that he had every intention of being her lover again...now and forever. Because it
had
been a threat, no matter what he'd told her. A threat. A promise. A plea.

He stopped pacing and sank into the leather-and-ebony chair behind his desk, disillusion battling with despair for dominance.
This is not working out the way I had hoped,
he thought sadly.
The way I had planned.
He drew the small box out of his pocket and flicked it open, then set it on the desk before him and stared at the ring it contained for several seconds, the central stone reminding him poignantly of Juliana's eyes.
Why did I think it would be easy after all these years?

He couldn't get it out of his mind there was something he wasn't seeing with regard to Juliana. Something she wasn't telling him. Something important. He still thought it had something to do with DeWinter despite her denials. And if she wouldn't tell him, he would just have to get his answers out of the other man. No matter what he had to do to get them.

* * *

Andre left the ancient dining hall where the household staff was serving a buffet dinner to the cast and crew of
King's Ransom
. He'd already learned neither DeWinter nor his wife were in attendance. Nor Juliana for that matter, but for once his eyes weren't seeking her out. He was going to get answers. If not from Juliana, then from DeWinter. To that end he'd ordered his bodyguard to stay behind—over the man's vehement objections—because he needed privacy for what he was going to do, what he was going to ask.

But before he could head up the Grand Staircase, his cousin Zax caught up with him. “Andre! A moment, please!”

He paused with his foot on the first step and turned. “Can it wait, Zax?”

“No.”

Andre sighed, but not so his cousin would notice. “What is so urgent?”

Zax's normally austere expression was even more forbidding than usual. “What is this rumor I hear that you are considering allowing women in combat?”

“It is no rumor. I intend to bring it to a vote before the Privy Council later this week.”

“You are pushing too far too fast, Andre,” Zax warned. “Was it not bad enough your first royal proclamation threw open the doors to allow women to serve in the military?”

“Are you still on that? It has been three years.”

“Auxiliary service behind the line was bad enough. But now you want women in combat? Serving alongside men?”

“Combat service will not be mandatory,” Andre explained in his reasonable way. “That was never my intent. Just as military service is completely optional for women, so, too, will combat service be optional. You have no sister, so perhaps you do not see this the same way I do. But Mara is right when she says women should make the decision for themselves—that career path should not be arbitrarily denied them merely because they are women.”

Zax ground his teeth. “Mara is wrong. Combat is no place for women. You should know that—would you have wanted women serving beside you in Afghanistan? I certainly would not, not even as chopper pilots doing search and rescue as I did, or medevac. You are asking too much of the people this time. And the military—”

Andre cut his cousin off. “What of the military?”

“The men have remained loyal to you through all the other changes you have implemented, politically and militarily. But this may be the last straw.”

Andre gave Zax a steady look. “It is the right thing to do. If I must compromise my conscience to retain my throne, I will surrender the throne and keep my self-respect.”

Zax made a gesture of frustration. “It is not a matter of surrendering your throne—nothing so easy as that. You are playing with fire, Andre. Two assassination attempts in the past three years by traditionalists—”

“Like you.”

His cousin's eyes hardened but he nodded. “Yes. Traditionalists, like me. Men who opposed the changes you implemented. Two attempts—foiled by the grace of God.”

“The grace of God—and the devotion of the men guarding me,” Andre corrected. “The would-be assassins are dead and I am still alive.”

“And I am ultimately responsible for keeping you safe despite yourself. Despite your actions that make you even more of a target than you would otherwise be. Do you know how difficult that is? Hell, Andre, I can think of a half dozen ways to kill you myself, at no risk to me.”

Andre smiled his faint smile. “Then it is a good thing you are on my side, is it not?” he said gently. He placed a conciliatory hand on his cousin's shoulder. “We can discuss this further, but not now, if you please. Come see me tomorrow morning—marshal your arguments and I will listen to what you have to say, I promise. Tell my appointments secretary I said to make room in the schedule for you.”

He waited for Zax's reluctant assent and watched until his cousin was out of sight, a slight frown furrowing his brow. Things had grown so strained between them these past few weeks. And now he wondered how Zax had heard about his latest proposition. Someone on the Privy Council must have talked—there was no other explanation. Had whomever it was hoped Zax could dissuade him from pursuing this course?

He continued on to the DeWinters' suite and knocked on the door, mentally shelving one problem to confront another, but his sharp rap wasn't answered immediately. Impatient, he knocked again, harder this time.

“Just a minute!” The solid oak door was jerked open suddenly, and DeWinter stood there, a casually inquisitive expression on his face that turned into surprise when he saw the king framed in the doorway. The surprise quickly turned into something else. “I'll be damned,” he said softly. “Bree was right.”

“Accept my apologies for the intrusion on you and your wife.” Good manners dictated the apology, but despite Zax's earlier interruption Andre was riding with his emotions on a curb bit, so his tone was perfunctory. “I must speak with you...about Juliana.”

“Who is it, Dirk?” Sabrina came up behind her husband. “Oh.” She glanced from Andre's hard, set expression to her husband's dawning smile, and she put a restraining hand on his arm. “Honey, I don't think—”

He cut her off. “I know you don't, but it's okay,” he reassured her. He looked back at Andre and cocked a questioning eyebrow. There was also a bit of a challenge in his eyes, in his stance. “What did you want to know...about Juliana?”

Andre's gaze slid toward Sabrina. “Privately,” he insisted after turning his attention back to DeWinter. The two men assessed each other like gamecocks, each noting the strengths in the other man...and seeking out the weaknesses, the chinks in the other's armor. Then came the realization in both sets of eyes that there
were
no weaknesses to exploit. Andre inclined his head slightly, acknowledging an equal. “Walk with me,” he demanded softly.

“Dirk, I—”

“It's really okay,” he told his wife. “I'll be back shortly. I promise.”

The two men strode silently but purposefully back down the East Wing's lengthy hallway, then down the Grand Staircase, the king leading the way. The two guards at the front doors snapped to attention and saluted when Andre came into sight, but he turned away to a side corridor. “This way,” he said, leading the other man into the music room.

Andre locked the door and stood with his back to it for a moment, watching silently as DeWinter wandered toward the grand piano on a dais in one corner of the room, sat down and began playing. Then, his voice hard and unrelenting, he stated, “Juliana tells me you and she are not lovers.”

DeWinter's hands paused in midstroke, and he looked up at Andre. “You've got stones, I'll give you that.”

“I would know if that is the truth.”

One corner of DeWinter's mouth quirked up in a half smile. “Far be it from me to contradict a lady.”

Andre took a step forward. “Are you saying you
are
lovers?” he demanded coldly, clenching his right fist despite his promise to himself not to lose his temper. Had Juliana lied to him about this?

“No, I'm saying you've yet to prove to me it's any of your damn business.” DeWinter obviously wasn't about to back down to anyone, king or commoner. There was a long tense pause, during which DeWinter seemed to reach a decision. “I've known Juliana for ten years,” he said finally. “I've been married for twelve.” His voice was as cold and hostile as Andre's had been. “That's all the answer you should need. And it's all the answer you're going to get.”

Eventually Andre nodded. “Fair enough. But you are an intelligent, observant man, so answer me this. Is Juliana in love with you?”

DeWinter laughed suddenly, and Andre slowly let out the breath he was holding. No man could sound that unconcerned if there was any truth to the question. Not where someone as devastatingly beautiful as Juliana was concerned. “Juliana's a brilliant actress. On screen she's loved me since our first movie together—her Tessa to my Terry O'Dare was incandescent. Incomparable. And if she looked at me in real life the way she looks at me on the set of
this
movie, as if I'm her whole world and her only chance for salvation, I'd be hard-pressed to walk away from her. Although I'd like to think I'd remain faithful to Bree,” he added drily. “But that's all there is between us. Make-believe. She's not, nor has she ever been, in love with me.” The confident, forthright way he made that assertion convinced Andre his suspicions were wrong. Dead wrong.

Relief flooded him.
Not DeWinter. Never him. Someone. But not him.

“Now I've got a couple of questions of my own,” DeWinter said, closing the keyboard with a decided thud and rising to his full six foot two. “Juliana didn't want to return to Zakhar to film this movie. She wouldn't tell us why, but it's obvious to me...now. It's also obvious you maneuvered to get her here. Why? And who the hell do you think you are to break her heart?” Now his stance was a threat.

Andre considered both questions for several heartbeats and chose to answer the last one first. “I never broke her heart.” He hesitated for another couple of heartbeats. “
She
left
me
.”

“Well, that answers the first question, too,” DeWinter replied.
“Why,”
he answered as Andre lifted a questioning eyebrow. “You want her back. That's why you went to all this trouble and expense to get her here.” When Andre didn't answer, just folded his lips tighter together, DeWinter said, “The screenwriter you picked is a friend of mine. She let it slip who commissioned the screenplay. When I asked the studio about it they played dumb...but I'm not stupid. I offered to take a substantial cut in salary for a piece of the film, but I was smugly told they had all the financing they needed. And I wasn't even here a week before I started putting two and two together and coming up with some very interesting answers.”

Andre didn't want to ask, but he had no choice. “Have you said anything to Juliana?”

DeWinter shook his head. “She's having a hard enough time with things as it is.” He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Juliana and I have been nothing but friends since the day we met. But I'll be honest. From the very beginning I told myself I could heal her...if I were free.”

He let that sink in, watching Andre with sharp eyes before continuing. “But the flip side is that if I
had
been single and hunting her, we wouldn't be friends. Juliana doesn't let men get close to her—not in that way. Someone did that to her. Some man. I've always known it—I just never knew who it was...until now.”

Andre shook his head decisively. “It was not me.”

DeWinter grunted, but whether in denial or agreement, Andre couldn't be sure. And now that DeWinter had confirmed he and Juliana weren't lovers, now that he'd denied Juliana was in love with him, Andre needed time. Time to reassess, to consider what it all meant. Time to figure out why Juliana would accuse him of breaking her heart. And why DeWinter had been misled into thinking the same thing.

But there was still one question he wanted answered. “What was Juliana telling you this afternoon on the set?” It still ate at him, the pleading expression on her face as she looked at the man opposite him, the way she'd touched him with intimate purpose.

DeWinter cursed fluently, and suddenly the two men were standing toe to toe in confrontation, neither one backing down. “That is none of your damn business.”

“That is what she said, too.” Andre's eyes narrowed. “If you have lied to me—”

“What Juliana said is private, and has nothing whatever to do with you, or her, either, for that matter. It concerns my wife. And that's all I'm going to tell you.” Eyes clashed; steely resolve met steely resolve. Then DeWinter shouldered Andre aside and stalked out.

* * *

At first Juliana had been so angry at Andre she'd gone for a long walk in the gardens surrounding the palace, needing to expend all the excess energy that had built up during their confrontation. But then she realized she should warn Dirk. She wouldn't put it past Andre to ask Dirk the same questions he'd asked her earlier...
To see if our answers match,
she thought derisively.
Damn him!

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