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Authors: Amelia Autin

King's Ransom (8 page)

BOOK: King's Ransom
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She hurried inside, smiling at the guards at the door as they let her in. In her haste she didn't see the shadowy figure that had followed her into the garden now follow her up the stairs and down the corridor to the DeWinters' suite, pretending to continue on without hesitation when she stopped and tapped on the DeWinters' door.

Sabrina opened the door. “Oh, it's you,” she said, a worried frown on her face. “I thought it might be Dirk.”

Surprised, Juliana asked, “He's not here?”

Sabrina shook her head. “He went off with the king twenty minutes ago.”

“Damn! I didn't warn him soon enough.”

Sabrina cocked her head to one side. “You know why the king wanted to see Dirk?” Hot color seeped into Juliana's cheeks, and Sabrina pushed the door wide. “You'd better come in and tell me about it.” She led Juliana into the sitting room and curled up gingerly in a corner of one of the sofas, waving a hand to tell Juliana to sit wherever she wanted.

But she couldn't sit. And at first she thought she couldn't tell her friend what Andre had accused her of.
What if deep down Bree suspects that, too?
Juliana felt like crying. She didn't want her friend to think she would betray her trust.
I don't have that many friends in Hollywood that I can afford to lose Bree...and Dirk,
she thought with dismay.

Sabrina made it easy on her. “So the king thinks you and Dirk are lovers?”

Juliana gasped. “How did you know?” Then she stumbled over herself to deny there was any truth to Andre's accusation. “Not that we are... We aren't... I would never... Dirk wouldn't...”

Sabrina laughed, and it was such a carefree sound it put to rest Juliana's sudden suspicion that her friend might have thought... “You're right. You wouldn't. And Dirk wouldn't, either. But I don't think the king knows that.” Her smile turned empathetic, but it wasn't just for Juliana. “I think he looks at you...and he doesn't think at all, he feels. And he transposes his own feelings for you onto every man around you.” She patted the sofa beside her, coaxing Juliana to sit next to her. When Juliana perched on the edge, she said kindly, “Don't you think it's time you told me what this is all about?”

Warmth surged up into Juliana's cheeks again, and she couldn't meet her friend's eyes. “I don't know what you mean.”

“Dirk and I have eyes, you know,” Sabrina said softly. “He told me you freeze on the set whenever the king shows up. He affects your performance, which isn't like you—no man
ever
makes you flub your lines like that. And we saw the two of you together at the reception, don't forget that. Add up everything we've seen, throw in the fact that you never wanted to come back here, and it's obvious there's history between the two of you. I hope you know I would never betray a confidence you gave me. Not even to Dirk.”

Juliana linked her fingers together and twisted them subconsciously, then glanced over at Sabrina. “You're right,” she admitted in a tight little voice. “Andre and I knew each other a long time ago.”

“He's part of your mysterious past?”

Juliana's tone was harsh. “He's all of it.” Sabrina made an encouraging sound, and she continued. “I was eighteen. He was twenty-two. I thought he loved me. He didn't. End of story.”

“Nice try,” Sabrina said drily. “Try again.”

Juliana took a deep, shuddering breath. “We had one night together. One. Then I went back to the States to attend college in Virginia. I wrote to him...more than once. Love letters. Emails. Pouring my heart out to him. It makes me sick now to remember just how pathetic I must have seemed to him.” She stopped, unable to continue for a minute. “He never wrote back,” she said finally. “No letters. No emails. I waited for him to call me. He never did.” Her eyes filled with tears. “So I called him. Several times. But he never answered. I thought he loved me, even though he never said the words. I was so
sure
. But—”

“He
does
love you.”

Juliana rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes like a little girl, wiping away the tears. “He wants me. Just like nearly every other man in the world except Dirk. He thinks I've slept around and figures why shouldn't I sleep with him, too? After all, I did once before.”

Sabrina's smile was gentle. “What makes you think Dirk doesn't want you?”

 

Chapter 8

“W
hat?”
Shocked, Juliana stared at Sabrina.

“Don't get me wrong. I trust Dirk completely. I know he would never cheat on me, would never have an affair with you or any other woman.” Sabrina's eyes shone with her complete confidence in her husband's loyalty. “But he's a man—very much so. And you're an incredibly beautiful and sexy woman. He's held you in his arms. He's kissed you. He's made love to you on-screen, sometimes with very little in the way of clothes between you. He wouldn't be human if he hadn't thought about it at times.”

She waited for Juliana to digest that. “But that's as far as it goes. Even if he wasn't married to me, you've got Touch Me Not signs everywhere. And Dirk is too much of a gentleman to ever risk hurting you. He knows there was a man in your murky past who shattered your trust in men. And since we've been here in Zakhar, I'm sure he's figured out who, the same way I have. Just not why.”

At the tail end of that last sentence Sabrina suddenly caught her breath and pressed her fingers to her side. Juliana reached over and placed a comforting hand over her friend's hand. “Bree, what is it?”

Sabrina made a sound of pain and her eyes squeezed shut. “It's nothing...just a twinge,” she said at last.

Juliana knew it wasn't
just
a twinge. It was the cancer. But she was torn. If she told Sabrina she knew the truth, knew about the cancer and the pregnancy, Sabrina would know Dirk had told her. And she didn't want to betray Dirk's trust. “Do you have something you can take for it? Aspirin? Ibuprofen?”

“Aspir— Oh!” She whimpered in a little voice, “It hurts.”

“Aspirin? Is it in the bathroom? Tell me where it is, Bree, and I'll get it for you.”

“Bathroom.”

Juliana flew into the adjoining bathroom and scrabbled through toiletry and makeup bags until she found a bottle of aspirin. She ran water into a glass, rinsing it out before filling it halfway, and flew back into the sitting room. She put the glass in Sabrina's hand, then fumbled with the bottle until she got the childproof cap off, and shook several tablets into her hand.

“How many? Two? Three?”

“Two.”

“Stick out your tongue.” Bree did so, and Juliana deposited two tablets there. “Sip the water,” she ordered, “and chew the tablets but don't swallow. Put them under your tongue for as long as you can—they'll be absorbed faster that way.” When Sabrina was done, Juliana took the glass from her hand and set it on the side table. Then she knelt in front of her friend, clasping her hands. “Can I do anything else?”

“Dirk,” Sabrina whispered. “I just want Dirk.”

Juliana sprang to her feet and whirled toward the door, but just before she reached it the door burst inward and suddenly Dirk was there. His face was white with repressed anger, but before Juliana could say anything he took everything in with one comprehensive glance, and his anger was replaced with concern.

“Bree...” He was at his wife's side in an instant.

“Dirk...” She reached up to him, her lips pressed tightly together to hold in the pain. He swept her into his arms and swiftly carried her to their bedroom.

Juliana stood rooted where she was, not sure if she should wait or leave the two of them alone. Wishing there was something she could do. Soft, deep murmurs from the bedroom told her Dirk was comforting his wife, and she turned to go. But then Dirk came back into the sitting room, softly shutting the door to the bedroom.

“Don't go yet,” he told her. “Bree's resting now. What happened?”

She shook her head. “I really don't know. We were talking, and then...all of a sudden, she got this sharp pain.”

“Did you tell her you know?”

Juliana shook her head. “I just got her some aspirin. I felt so helpless. God, it's just not fair. Bree doesn't deserve this.”

Dirk's mouth twitched into a travesty of a smile that didn't reach his eyes. “No. She doesn't. At least I had the chance to tell her I finally understand what she's going through right now, before we were interrupted.”

“I'm so sorry about that,” Juliana said. “I didn't think Andre would really...” She trailed off. She glanced at Dirk uncertainly. “What did he ask—”

“What did he ask me? Don't you mean what did he accuse me of?”

She cast him a wounded look before turning away. “I'm sorry,” she said again. “I told him it wasn't true. I guess he didn't believe me.”

“He's very possessive of you,” Dirk agreed. “So...are you going to tell me why?”

“He has no right to be possessive,” she said, still with her back turned. “Maybe eleven years ago, but not now.”

Dirk considered her statement, then shook his head as if something didn't make sense. “According to him, you left him.”

“That's a lie!” Juliana whirled around, anger rising to the top. “He—” She cut off the rest of her sentence, unwilling to admit—even to Dirk—the scars Andre had left on her heart. It had been hard enough confessing to Sabrina the few things she'd shared with her. She couldn't tell Dirk what she couldn't bring herself to tell Sabrina, what she'd never told
anyone
.

Dirk looked as if he were going to say something, but then thought better of it. He reached out one hand, tucking behind her ear a strand of hair that had fallen down. “He believes it, babe. I don't know what your history is with him, but I can tell you this. He believes you deserted him. Despite that, he's determined to win you back.”

* * *

“It's a lie,” Juliana told herself as she stormed back to her own suite and locked the door behind her with a savage twist of the bolt, something she didn't usually do. “A damned lie.” A lie she was shocked to discover Andre had told Dirk.
Why are you shocked?
she asked herself.
A man who will do what he did to me has no honor. None. So lying about it shouldn't be a shock.
But it was. Andre had never lied to her—not in so many words. And he'd never lied to Mara as far as she could recall. In fact, she couldn't think of a single instance when he'd lied. “Except by his actions,” she reminded herself with a cynical twist of her lips. “Except when he let you think he loved you the night he made love to you.”

No, he didn't make love to you,
she corrected herself.
He had sex with you. That's all. Lovemaking on your part, yes. But just sex for him. Fantastic sex, maybe, but sex all the same.

Still, she couldn't deny Andre's growing tension and possessiveness. The edge of command, of a hint of savagery, was clear beneath his royal restraint. And she was responding to it. To him. Since the moment she'd seen Andre at the reception, she'd wanted him—a visceral response she'd fought that night...and every moment since. Her body had recognized what it wanted, what it needed, even though her brain said no. What she feared most wasn't that Andre wouldn't take no for an answer—he would never force her—but that her traitorous body wouldn't take no for an answer. And that he knew it.

Still thinking about ways and means to protect herself from herself, Juliana wandered into the bedroom, where the bed had already been turned down by the maid assigned to her from the palace staff. She made her way to the dresser and pulled out a nightshirt to get ready for bed. It was early, but it wouldn't hurt her to have a quiet night. She shut the drawer, laid the nightshirt on top of the dresser and unbuckled her belt. She'd just unbuttoned the line of tiny buttons running from neck to waist when out of the corner of her eye she caught a movement in the old-fashioned cheval mirror standing in one corner. She turned toward the mirror, then swung sharply around. Andre stood there in the middle of her bedroom. Watching her. Just watching her as she undressed.

She was so startled to see him there that at first she couldn't speak. Anger, outrage and fear—of her own weakness where he was concerned—surged through her in a riptide. Then she found her voice. “Get out!”

He didn't say anything, but he didn't move, either. Just stood there, his gaze sliding from her face downward, lingering on her bared skin, and then back again. Juliana clutched at the bodice of her dress, holding the two edges together in sudden desperation. Only then did he move, walking toward her with an unhurried gait. She backed away, unable to tear her eyes away from the determination in his face, but she didn't have far to go before she backed up against the wall.

She wanted to say, “Don't touch me,” but she couldn't get the words out because he was already touching her, caressing her cheek with fingertips like the brush of a butterfly's wings. Not an overtly sexual move, but unbearably arousing all the same.

“Do not be afraid of me, Juliana,” he said. “You know I would never hurt you.”

“You are,” she whispered. “You did.”

“When?” he asked softly, his hand sliding down to cup her breast through her dress, and the nipple tightened of its own accord beneath that sure but gentle touch. His breath rasped in his throat. “When did I hurt you? When I took you that first time? But I made it beautiful for you first, yes?” He kissed her just behind her ear, then her neck. Then his lips moved tantalizing to the open bodice of her dress, kissing her between her breasts but making no attempt to go further. “You knew there would be pain the first time. But did I not promise never again? And did I not prove it to you that night, twice over?”

“Don't.” It was just a thread of a sound, and it was directed more to her treacherous body than it was to him.
Don't respond to him,
she was saying.
Don't let him make you want him. Don't let him do this to you again.
But his words, his touch were bringing all those memories vividly to life, and she shuddered as a wave of heat began in the core of her being and swept outward, bringing her body to life along with the memories.

His warm, caressing hand left her body, but he didn't move away. “‘Don't?'” he asked softly. “‘Don't?' That is not what you told me then,” he said, his deep, seductive voice telling her he knew what he was doing to her. His head moved until his lips were a tantalizing inch away from hers when he whispered, “‘Please.' That is what you said to me that night. ‘Please.' Do you remember, Juliana? I do. ‘Please, Andre.'”

“Please, Andre.” Was that her voice saying those words? That breathless, desperate,
needy
sound? Her brain wanted to retract her plea but her lips refused to obey, and then it was too late.

His lips took hers. Warm. Firm. Sensual. Seducing her with no more than a kiss. “I did please you, little one,” he breathed when he raised his mouth from hers. His tongue touched her lower lip. “Each time.” His teeth caught her lip and tugged delicately. “Every time.”

She shook her head. She wasn't denying his statement; she was trying to tell herself no, not to let him seduce her this way.

“Yes, Juliana. Do you think I could not tell?”

His hands slid beneath her skirt, pulling it up until it bunched at her waist. Then he lifted her effortlessly, sliding her body against his until she could feel him at the crux of her thighs—throbbing through the scant protection of her panties the way she remembered. Only then there had been nothing between them. Nothing but hard male flesh against tender female flesh. More than anything she'd ever wanted, she wanted him in that instant. Wanted him to rip away the barriers between them, to thrust himself into her the way her body ached for him to do. Wanted him to take her with that controlled male power she remembered so vividly, and in taking give and give and give.

“No!” She wrenched against him and he let her go immediately, let her slide down his body, then stepped back. She put distance between them, and her trembling fingers buttoned as many buttons as she could as quickly as she could. “You have no right,” she told him, panting a little, trying to catch her breath. “No right.”

“You gave yourself to me once,” he told her, an unreadable expression in his eyes. “I would have let you go untouched. But you came to me.” His jaw tightened. “Do you think it was easy for me? Two years.
Two years
I fought against taking you, knowing I had no right. I was one day away from letting you leave Zakhar a virgin. But then you came to me and you gave me that right. You cannot take it back. Not now. Not ever.”

He turned on his heels and strode toward one of the wall hangings, not toward her sitting room, where the door to the outside corridor was. Juliana's gaze flew to the outside door just visible through the sitting room doorway, and she realized it was still firmly bolted.
How did he get in?
“Andre!” she called. He paused and turned back to her. “How...how did you get into my bedroom?”

The corner of his mouth curved upward in a faint smile. “Are you just now asking yourself that question?” he said, unexpected amusement in his face.

“I want to know,” she insisted.

“You are occupying the Queen's Suite,” he told her, as if that should be answer enough. When she shook her head, puzzled, he lifted a hand and raised the heavy tapestry on the wall, revealing a doorway cunningly concealed in the masonry behind it, with an ancient wooden door that opened inward into a passageway. “The King's Suite is at the other end,” he said, letting the wall hanging fall back into place.

When she gasped in comprehension, he said, “The passageway lends credence to the legend that this suite of rooms began as Eleonora's. I discovered it when reading some old manuscripts from that era. After I ascended the throne and occupied the King's Suite that had been my father's, I located the passageway and had it cleaned out. At the same time I had the iron hinges on both doors oiled, and the rust removed from the locks and keys.”

“You mean you can just walk into my bedroom whenever you want?”

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