King's Ransom (9 page)

That faint smile came and went again. “Whenever I want,” he agreed.

“You can't,” she protested angrily. “I won't stay here. I won't! Even if I have to move out of the palace, I won't stay where I have no privacy.”

At first he didn't say anything, as if assessing the sincerity of her threat. “No need,” he told her finally. “I only came to apologize for not believing you about DeWinter. But then...” He shrugged his shoulders. “You are a temptation that is hard to resist, little one.”

“Don't call me that!” she said sharply. “Don't call me ‘little one,'” she insisted, hurt by the memories it evoked of happier days with Andre.

“I cannot promise that,” he told her in his deepest voice. “It is what you are to me—small and precious. But I
promise I will never again use the passageway to come to you.” He indicated the key in the ancient lock. “Lock this door, and your privacy will be inviolate, Juliana. I will not use my key.” His words, his tone, the expression on his face told her he meant it. “But know this—I will not lock my door against you. You are welcome to use the passageway to come to me, if you choose. Anytime. Day or night.”

“Never.” She shook her head, remembering telling him the same thing at the reception. “Never again.”

Again there was that faint, tantalizing smile that reminded her of how she'd responded to him only a few minutes ago. Of how her body had fought her mind and had almost won. Of how much her body still wanted him, even now, even when he wasn't touching her. But he didn't say anything—he didn't have to. He merely turned, moved the tapestry to one side and disappeared into the darkness.


Chapter 9

ack in his bedroom Andre paced until his body calmed down, until his heartbeat slowed and the blood no longer raced in his veins. But a flicker of hope had been ignited. He'd been so close. So close to having Juliana again he hadn't wanted to let her go when she'd struggled against him—but he had. Instantly. He'd sworn to himself he would wait until she came to him.

He hadn't intended to seduce her. Hadn't intended to touch her at all. He honestly had gone to her room merely to apologize. He'd considered going to her suite via the main corridor, but he hadn't wanted to compromise her. In addition to his own bodyguard and the ones assigned to her—the ones she still didn't know anything about—anyone could have seen him in the hallway, knocking at her door, and at that time of night it would seem...curious. Possibly suspicious. Certainly worthy of comment. While his bodyguards were discretion personified and the household staff knew better than to gossip outside the walls about anything going on in the palace, he didn't want backstairs gossip making the rounds about Juliana.

He hadn't seen her in the corner of her bedroom when he'd first entered it through the passageway, and he'd thought she wasn't there. He'd planned to enter the sitting room to wait for her return, apologize for not believing her about DeWinter and leave. Simple. Straightforward. But when he turned and saw her reflection in the mirror, saw her undressing, he'd been frozen. Unable to move. Unable to speak. Then she'd seen him. Ordered him to leave. And when she'd clutched the bodice of her dress like an outraged virgin, he'd moved. Not to leave, as his brain told him to do. But toward her. Needing to touch her the way he needed to breathe.

To hear her accuse him of hurting her had been more than he could bear. He had to remind her of what it had really been like all those years ago. Had to remind her that
had come to
. But when he touched her, when he smelled the delicate scent that rose from her heated skin, he couldn't stop. His brain kept telling him to stop, but his body refused to obey. Because every word he whispered to her reminded him of what it had been like to make love to her. What it had been like to know she loved him enough to come to him.

And her body had responded to his. Finally. She didn't want it to—oh yes, he could tell she was fighting her body's response—but he knew she wanted him, too. At last. Not enough. Not yet. But it would happen. He knew it in his heart. He could wait until then. He'd waited all these years, hadn't he?

With that realization he finally let himself grow calm enough to focus on something else. Something that had been weighing on his mind for several days. Juliana was in danger. She didn't know it, seemed totally oblivious to the fact that someone had deliberately tried to run her down the day she'd visited the royal cemetery. But he was as sure as a man could be. The Mercedes had turned out to be stolen. That meant someone had planned the attack on her.

Should he tell Juliana? Warn her? If he did, would she believe him?
Not unless you tell her how you know,
he admitted to himself, and he wasn't ready to do that. Not yet. Because he didn't know how she'd react when he told her his men had been guarding her for the past three years. That his men had surrounded her in the first-class cabin on the plane bringing her here. That she hadn't taken a single step since she'd been in Zakhar without men following her, keeping her safe.

Not stalking her. That wasn't it at all, but she might feel that way. Might feel it was an unwarranted intrusion into her life, and he couldn't take that risk—he
to keep her safe no matter what.

He'd already doubled the surveillance and protection on Juliana, which meant he ran the risk she would notice she was being guarded. But that was better than the alternative.

* * *

Juliana tossed and turned, unable to sleep. Unable to erase the evening from her mind. Not just Andre appearing in her bedroom, but earlier, in the little library. All the different ways he'd looked at her. The way he'd held her in his strong embrace, his voice tenderly coaxing her to confide in him while his heart beat so reassuringly beneath her ear. The emotions in his voice, his face, his eyes. Sweet, then autocratic. Demanding, then tender. Gentle, then implacable. All the facets of his personality she remembered from her growing-up years. Her beau ideal prince.

Then she remembered him saying,
“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.”

That made absolutely no sense. The way he talked now sounded like the Andre of old, the one from eleven years ago. The man she'd fallen in love with. The man she'd been so sure loved her. The man whose children she'd wanted to bear. If she didn't know better, she'd think he loved her now. If she didn't know better, she'd think he'd loved her then, too, had always loved her.

But she did know better. She knew he hadn't loved her then. She knew because of the money he'd sent her as a parting gift. The money and the words of rejection. Not just a rejection of her, but of everything she'd ever wanted to give him. He could never have done that if he loved her. Never.

* * *

Andre looked around the conference table at the Privy Council. “We are agreed, then, gentlemen?” he asked politely. Not by a flicker of his eyelids did he betray they had spent far more time than he'd allotted for discussion of this issue, and that the conclusion the council had nearly reached after much dithering was the one he'd already reached the week before, despite Zax's powerful arguments against it.

Bringing Zakhar into the twenty-first century had entailed far more than bringing in new industry and technology. Far more than instituting sweeping policy changes. Andre had long since determined Zakhar also needed to modify its political structure. Absolute monarchs were passé in this day and age, but the Zakharians had stubbornly clung to their traditional way of life, and that had included a fierce, unshakable devotion to the much-loved monarchy. Zakharians were proud that the House of Marianescu had reigned over Zakhar in an unbroken line for centuries, from father to son, and were resistant to change.

Zakhar had been extremely fortunate the House of Marianescu had been just as devoted to Zakhar as the Zakharians had been to it, and that the kings of Zakhar had—to a man—been worthy to rule. Some more than others, it was true, but Zakhar had never had a truly bad king. Andre's own father had ruled with a fair and just hand, despite his own personal shortcomings as a father and a husband. It wasn't common knowledge, but Andre's father had been instrumental in his wife's death by insisting on another son to ensure the Marianescu legacy, despite the queen's doctor warning against a second pregnancy. But as a king Andre's father had been above reproach.

The Privy Council advised, but the king had final authority. And the Privy Council had always been appointed by the king, so it was unlikely the council would provide any advice that ran contrary to the king's wishes. That was the way it had been right up through his father's day. But in the three years since Andre had ascended the throne he had slowly but surely started placing more power—and responsibility—in the hands of the now-elected Privy Council, another change he'd instituted over the objections of nearly everyone, including his cousin Zax. That meant having the patience of a saint at times, something Andre struggled to attain. But he knew it was the right thing to do...for the long term. In the short term, however, he often had to grit his teeth and smile.

He glanced in the direction of his cousin Niko lounging indolently on the other side of the large conference table. Niko had been a mistake, a big one. Andre hadn't intervened when Niko had stood for election to the council. He'd figured the electors would see Niko's obvious moral weaknesses and unsuitability for the job the same way he did, and would reject his candidacy without Andre expressing an opinion one way or the other, something he was loath to do in the new political process.
I just didn't count on the Zakharians' devotion to the royal family,
he acknowledged privately. He wouldn't make that same mistake the second time around.

Niko had easily won his election despite the stellar qualifications of his opponent—a man Andre had really wanted on the council—and had been a royal pain ever since. Andre had hoped Niko's new responsibilities on the council would steady his erratic younger cousin the way military discipline had shaped his cousin Zax, but that had been a fleeting hope at best. Niko still skated through life like the petulant boy he'd once been. And he delighted in obstructing change, even when it was change for the better.

Not that Niko would ever openly take a stand against Andre any more than his brother would...but for entirely different reasons. Nothing would have been more fatal to Niko's nascent political career—in a showdown between the king and his younger cousin there was no contest in the eyes of the Zakharians. But Niko agitated the Privy Council in private, raising specious objections to Andre's best ideas, and encouraging the council to drag its feet on one issue after the other, especially when it came to changes potentially limiting the monarch's absolute authority.

Andre wondered—not for the first time—if Niko's opposition to any lessening of royal power and privilege had its roots in his assumption he might one day inherit the throne. But every time the thought occurred to Andre he dismissed its relevance. If anything happened to him, Zax was first in line. The brothers were only three years apart in age, and Zax was in far better physical shape than the self-indulgent Niko. It was highly unlikely Niko would outlive Zax, even assuming Andre had no heirs of his own body to supplant both Zax and Niko in the line of succession.

That train of thought led directly to Juliana, and Andre sighed inwardly without letting it show on his face. He'd planned to drop in on the filming this afternoon, but it was highly unlikely that would happen now. Not unless the Privy Council could get off the stick and reach a resolution.

* * *

Dirk caught Juliana and lifted her effortlessly into his strong arms, cradled her, then carried her the few steps to the massive bed. He laid her gently down, kissed her tenderly, then lifted his head to bellow for the servants and the midwife.

“And cut!” the director said. He glanced at his watch. “And I guess that's a wrap for today,” he said with reluctance.

Dirk grinned down at Juliana as a flurry of work went on around them. “Oh, my aching back,” he told her, pretending her featherweight had given him a backache.

“Ha ha ha,” she responded, struggling to sit up, the bulky padding she was wearing to simulate a late-term pregnancy giving her trouble. “It's not my fault we had to do that scene six times.”

The first take, Juliana's special padding had shifted noticeably and alarmingly just as Dirk placed her on the bed, and he'd dissolved into laughter. An extra strap had been added to Juliana's gear to prevent that from happening again. One of the arc lights had gone out during the second take before he'd taken two steps, and they'd had to wait while that was replaced. The third take, Dirk had stumbled and almost dropped her, making her yelp, then giggle. One of the overhead microphones had unexpectedly shown up in the main camera shot just as the camera was panning out during the fourth take, and that had involved much cursing and pointing the finger of blame.

The fifth take had been a near disaster when one of the overhead lights had inexplicably come crashing down in the middle of the bed, right before Dirk was to place Juliana in it. If they'd been two feet closer, Juliana, and most likely Dirk, too, would have been seriously injured or killed by the impact. That had taken almost an hour to repair—especially picking the glass out of the bedding and off the floor where it had scattered in all directions—and both the director and the producer had been furious. The director because of the delay; the producer because of how this might affect the insurance on the film. The producer was still fuming, vowing to fire whomever had been so criminally negligent, but everyone in earshot was disavowing responsibility.

Juliana had shrugged it off; Dirk not so much. Accidents happened no matter how careful people were, but as a man who'd gotten his start in movies as a stuntman, Dirk had never been one to leave things to chance. Juliana had caught him eyeing the lighting setup a few times while the cleanup went on around them, as if trying to figure out exactly how it had happened.

By the sixth take everyone in camera range except Dirk and Juliana was holding his or her breath, wondering what would go wrong this time. But the sixth take had worked like a charm, from Juliana's initial gasp of pain as labor started, to Dirk's final bellow. The scene that would end up as roughly thirty seconds in the final cut had taken the remainder of the afternoon to film.

Dirk put his arm around Juliana's shoulders, helping her to straighten up. “Is it really that awkward?” he asked. “Pregnancy, I mean.”

Juliana laughed. “I can't speak from experience, but that's what I've heard. I've had friends tell me it's like carrying around a bowling ball. But you'll know soon enough when Bree—” She stopped abruptly, realizing she had no idea if Sabrina would be able to go full term.

Juliana and Dirk had been shooting on location for almost ten weeks, which meant her friend was nearly five months pregnant and definitely showing. Sabrina had finally confided in Juliana about her pregnancy, but she hadn't mentioned one word about the cancer, and Juliana—true to her word to Dirk—hadn't said anything, either. But things had been going well for Sabrina so far, and Juliana was praying they'd stay that way, that her friend would safely deliver her baby four months from now.

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