King's Ransom (Man on a Mission)

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9780373279241: King's Ransom (Man on a Mission)
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Reunion with the king turns forbidden...and dangerous 

 

Internationally renowned actress Juliana Richardson should be concentrating on the role of a lifetime, not on the man who broke her heart years earlier. Yet King Andre Alexei IV is no longer a young prince-in-training—he's an undeniably sexy monarch with seduction on his mind. Juliana's heart is at risk, but after a series of deadly coincidences, it becomes clear her life is on the line, too. 

Andre vows to protect the stubborn star even as she pushes him away. But as the threat to Juliana's life grows more intense, Andre must choose between saving the vulnerable beauty or letting her go forever...

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About the Author:

Award-winning author Amelia Autin is an inveterate reader who can’t bear to put a good book down...or part with it. Her bookshelves are crammed with books her husband periodically threatens to donate to a good cause, but he always relents...eventually.

Amelia currently resides with her Ph.D. engineer husband in quiet Vail, AZ, where they can see the stars at night and have a “million dollar view” of the Rincon Mountains from their back yard.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

King Andre Alexei IV of Zakhar, heir to a long line of imperious kings, absolute monarch in a world where absolute monarchs were extremely few, was royally pissed. He fixed his steely gaze on the master of the household and said in a soft voice that didn't fool anyone who heard it, "I thought I made myself perfectly clear with regard to the arrangements."

"Yes, Sire, you did," the man acknowledged stiffly. "But—"

"But what?"

"But the state apartments have always been reserved for immediate family or for visiting royalty." There was just a hint of outrage in his voice. "Since your mother's death, Your Majesty, no one has occupied the Queen's Suite except the Queen of England when she was here for your coronation three years ago. I had the maids prepare the suite formerly occupied by Princess Mara for Miss Richardson instead. It will be familiar to her, and I am sure she will be very happy th—"

"If the Queen's Suite is not ready to be occupied when Miss Richardson arrives, I will know the reason why." Andre's voice was even softer, and the elderly man in front of him quaked at the veiled threat in face and voice. The king was a gentleman as a general rule—kind, courteous and a wonderful employer to work for. Reasonable, too. But there was no doubt who ruled Zakhar—or this household. When he gave a direct order he expected it to be obeyed. Instantly. Not even forty years of faithful service would count when he looked and sounded this way.

Suddenly the king smiled. "Vladimir, old friend," he coaxed. "You have known me all my life. I learned court protocol at your knee. And many times you shielded Mara from my father's wrath—do you think I could forget that?" His smile faded. "But this is important to me. You cannot know how important. I realize it is a breach of state protocol, but do not fail me in this, old friend. Miss Richardson will be portraying Queen Eleonora in the film. I wish her to be treated as such, and not just in this way. In every way. She will be housed in the Queen's Suite."

Andre turned sharply and strode away before he betrayed himself any further. He'd worked tirelessly for this day for almost three years, ever since he ascended the throne. Now he would risk his future on one roll of the dice. But he wanted everything perfect beforehand. Everything that could be done to set the stage would be done. Then...if he lost...if he failed...he would have no one to blame except himself.

He'd been up since dawn, unable to sleep, knowing that in mere hours she would be here. Knowing that somewhere in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean, then over Europe, his men were closely guarding—albeit without her knowledge—the one woman for whom this entire endeavor had been undertaken. The woman for whom he'd paid the modern-day equivalent of a king's ransom to ensure she would finally return to Zakhar.

Juliana.

Even her name had the power to move him in ways he'd fought for years. Her memory burned white hot in his mind and his body. How many times had he cursed himself that he couldn't change his constant nature? How many times had he wished he was not a Mari-anescu? And how many times had he argued in his mind with the first Andre Alexei, only to hear the inevitable answer he did not want to hear, the same answer his namesake had implacably given to the church, to his Privy Council, to his subjects—it is her...or no one.

Forever and a day.

Most of the cast and crew of King's Ransom were already here and had been for several weeks: shooting exterior shots, scoping out the palace—especially the older wings—planning camera angles, testing lighting schemes and doing all the thousand and one things that went into making a blockbuster feature film. But the leads, the actor and actress who would portray the first King Andre Alexei and his beloved Queen Eleonora— Dirk DeWinter and Juliana Richardson—were arriving later this morning. And the grand, formal reception for the entire cast and crew was set for tonight in the Great Hall.

Restless energy pulsed through his body, and Andre strode into the impressive Great Hall, with its massive mahogany pillars, three-story arched ceiling festooned with a grandiose display of gold inlay, and thick red-and-gold rug so immense it covered nearly the entire expanse of the floor.

Maids, footmen and equerries were hard at work preparing the room for the guests who would be there tonight. Banks of flowers and potted trees were being installed around the room, not just from the royal gardens but from professional nurseries in Drago and beyond, bringing the sweet freshness of the outdoors inside. The dust covers swathing the chandeliers had been removed, and in the morning light each prism sparkled and glittered, casting rainbow hues around the room. Tonight they would be even more dazzling.

Satisfied at the progress, Andre passed through the Great Hall to the Grand Staircase that led into it. He ignored the gilded, ornate railing and took the wide marble stairs to the second floor of the palace two at a time, his feet making no sound on the crimson carpet runner. Damon, Andre's personal bodyguard on duty today, followed him, scrambling to keep up.

His father had chosen his bodyguards when he was the Crown Prince. But once he ascended the throne he'd recruited his cousin Zax to head up the security force protecting him and had handpicked his bodyguards himself, men from his own unit in the Zakharian National Forces, men he'd trained with. Men he could trust with his life, who were also discreet.

Captains Damon Kostya and Lukas Branko were two of those men detached from the military to serve in the contingent guarding him. Damon was on duty today and Lukas would be on duty tonight during the reception. They were nearly fanatical in their devotion to him, to keeping him alive, sworn to protect him at all costs. As were all the men on his bodyguard detail. And they'd done a damned fine job so far through two assassination attempts in the past three years.

Normally Andre was considerate of his bodyguards, careful to make no sudden, unexpected moves that would take whomever was on duty by surprise. It wasn't his habit to make things more difficult for the men guarding him. But not today. He burst through the door to his suite of rooms, then turned abruptly. "Wait outside, Damon."

"But, Sire..." Damon obviously didn't like the idea of leaving his king unprotected, even in these relatively safe confines, but he acquiesced under the imperious expression on the face Andre turned on him. "Yes, Sire." Even though Damon had agreed, the king knew he would station himself right outside the door, within earshot. And he would fume and fret the entire time Andre was out of his sight.

Andre's elderly English valet was in the dressing room, humming to himself as he hung up on a stand the white gold-braided dress uniform the king would wear at the reception tonight. Brushing away a fleck of lint. Testing each button for a loose thread. Inspecting the belt, gold-handled sword and scabbard, ensuring the leather was polished to a high gloss and that there wasn't a spot of tarnish or a finger smudge on the steel. Checking everything twice so the king would be no less than perfect when he left his valet's hands. Normally Andre was amused at the way Sinclair fussed over his clothes, although he never let the other man fuss over him. But today wasn't a normal day, and Andre craved solitude.

"Later, Sinclair," he told his valet. "Come back later."

Alone finally, Andre glanced once at the large, intricately woven tapestry on one wall of the bedroom before he tore his thoughts away from it. Then he paced, reviewing every detail in his mind. As if by focusing on the minutiae he could push thoughts of Juliana to the background. As if he could quiet the eager pounding of his heart as it anticipated her arrival. Useless.

"Propinquity is not love," Andre's father had reminded him repeatedly through the years, as he paraded one potential bride after another in front of his son's disinterested gaze. Refusing to believe what he didn't want to believe, despite knowing—as all Zakhar knew—that Marianescus mated for life. That they loved once...then never again. Refusing to believe his son's heart had been irrevocably given at such an early age.

Not propinquity, Andre told himself now. His father had been as wrong about that as he'd been wrong about everything regarding his children—especially his only son. Andre's love for Juliana had never had its roots in their close proximity, in their frequent encounters when they were younger. Eleven years without her would eventually have eradicated his love if that had been the case, but it had not. She was the other half of his soul—something he'd long since accepted, but that his father had always denied. And since Andre had despised his father for his treatment of Mara, father and son had rarely spoken except in confrontation. He'd never confided in his father that his love for Juliana burned like an eternal flame and always would—forever and a day.

He impatiently pushed open the French doors and strode out onto his private balcony. The balcony was another thing Andre's bodyguards didn't like. But the risk was slight. The royal palace stood on a hill above Drago, surrounded by a high castle wall patrolled by armed guards. No buildings were in gunshot range outside the wall, and there was very little that would give any would-be assassin cover as he lay in wait. Nevertheless, to a man Andre's bodyguards begged him to have a care how often he exposed himself on the balcony without them to protect him.

Andre wasn't thinking about that. He had something much more important on his mind right now, and he needed the escape the balcony brought him.

Usually the sight of Drago in the early-morning light, nestled in its green valley and ringed by towering mountains, calmed him. But not today. Now he clenched his fists against the stone railing, his eyes scanning the empty skies for the plane he knew would not arrive for some time. "Come to me, Juliana," he whispered, the words he had dreamed for years but had never dared to utter aloud. Until today. "Come to me."

The man picked up the newspaper, unfolded it and shook it out...then cursed. The headline blared what he'd known for weeks, so it wasn't the headline or the accompanying story that made him angry. It was the reminder that something he'd long ago thought he'd taken care of for good was coming back to haunt him, and the radiant pictures beneath the headline only added fuel to the fire of anger that surged within him.

"Damn you," he whispered to the photos.

He knew the ostensible reason why Juliana Richardson was returning to Zakhar after all these years. But he couldn't trust that secrets long buried wouldn't somehow resurface while she was here. Couldn't trust that the truth wouldn't somehow be revealed, destroying him and everything he'd plotted and planned for the past three years.

If he believed in God—which he didn't—he would almost have said God held the king in the palm of his hand, foiling the two covert attempts he'd made to remove the king from his path to greatness. But although he didn't believe in God, he did believe in the devil. And his two previous failures had recently prompted him to cut a deal with the devil himself—Aleksandrov Vishenko. The head of a particularly vicious branch of the Bratva—the Russian Mafia.

But now that Juliana Richardson was returning to Zakhar, it was no longer just the king he had to worry about. Unless he could find some way to keep Juliana away from Andre, or keep Andre away from Juliana, Juliana—sweet, beautiful Juliana—would have to die. There was really no other option.

Juliana put away the script she'd been studying and buckled her seat belt at the flight attendant's announcement. She glanced at Maddie Treister, her administrative assistant, sleeping peacefully in the first-class seat next to her, but since her seat belt was already fastened Juliana didn't feel the need to waken her yet. Her gaze slid across the aisle and she saw Dirk DeWinter buckling up. He'd already let his hair grow out into the shaggy length worn by men in the sixteenth century, and he'd dyed it several shades lighter than his usual brown pelt to match the paintings of the man he'd be playing in King's Ransom.

He wasn't wearing the green-tinted contact lenses yet, but she knew he would. He was a stickler for authenticity, just as she was, and he would have worn them even if they hadn't been required because it would help make him "feel the part." Like him, she would wear colored contact lenses, in her case to change her eye color from violet to pale blue, but at least she hadn't had to dye her hair—the two paintings of Queen Eleonora that had survived through the years showed her with long raven tresses similar to Juliana's own.

She smiled at Dirk and got his brilliant smile in return, the heart-stopping smile that had won him millions of female fans the world over. But Dirk was a man's man, too, despite his movie star looks. His appeal was universal. Men wanted to be like him on the silver screen—brave, strong, heroic and utterly irresistible to women. Women just wanted him. But at thirty-four, five years Juliana's senior, he was quietly, steadfastly faithful to his wife of twelve years, Sabrina, the lovely blonde who sat in the window seat next to him, gazing down with interested eyes at her first glimpse of Zakhar.

Dirk was one of Juliana's few male friends in Hollywood. He was also one among the tiny handful of men who'd never tried to seduce her. Probably the only man who really saw the vulnerable woman behind the glamorous facade. Dirk and Sabrina were the only people besides Marty who knew Juliana was dreading the return to Zakhar. But even they didn't know why. There were secrets in Zakhar she wanted to keep, even from her best friends.

"Did you sleep at all?" Dirk asked her, his knowing gaze sweeping over the faint shadows beneath her eyes.

"Not much." She'd finally dozed off shortly after dawn, but then she'd woken with a start, her heart pounding, hearing words she'd heard in her head many times over the years. Come to me, Juliana. Come to me. Loving words. Lying words.

"Didn't think so. And that's not you. You can usually sleep anywhere. Remember when we were on location in Death Valley two years ago? No one else could sleep in that searing oven...except you."

Dirk knows me too well, she told herself. Which wasn't surprising. She'd starred opposite him three times before in the past ten years, the last being the action-adventure flick set in Death Valley, San Francisco and Hong Kong—another hit for both of them. Such a resounding commercial success the studio was begging for a sequel, although so far Dirk had refused. "No way," he'd told Juliana in private. "There's nothing new that can be revealed about those characters." And on his sage advice Juliana had refused, too.

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