M errick Montgomery studied the woman whose life he was about to destroy…and who could,
ultimately, destroy his.
Alyssa Sutherland was stunning, he conceded. Sexy, even in the silver wedding dress she wore. He
adjusted the binoculars to get a closer look. She sat without moving while a bevy of women fluttered
around her like jewel-colored butterflies. Her features were as close to perfection as a man could desire
and her figure—what he could see of it beneath the embellished gown she wore—threatened to rouse that desire to a fever pitch. Dappled sunlight touched the champagne blond of her hair, kissing it with the
merest hint of rose.
He felt an inexplicable and powerful urge to fully bare her to his gaze, to see if her body mirrored the
perfection of that face. Not that there was much doubt about what he’d uncover. Such was the gift nature
bestowed on certain women—warm, breathtaking beauty combined with cold, avaricious natures.
Beneath her gown he’d find her flesh pale and unblemished enough to make any man forget her true
nature. She’d feel soft and supple against his calloused hands. Would she be built like a goddess, her hips
a lush, feminine sanctuary? Or perhaps her gown hid a smaller, more boyish figure. He’d found such
women to be strong and lithe in bed. Miniature dynamos.
Goddess or dynamo, it didn’t matter. She’d sold herself to Brandt von Folke, which had forced his hand.
The voice whispering in his ear brought him to his senses and his mouth tightened. He’d allowed the
Sutherland woman to distract him from his goal and that angered him. It had never happened before. Not
once in all the years he’d been head of the Royal Security Force. But this woman…He studied her one
final time, acknowledging the intensity of her allure while deliberately setting it aside as nothing more than
an obstacle. Her beauty would be a problem. It wasn’t easily overlooked and threatened to draw
attention to his actions, something he needed to prevent at all costs.
He readjusted his binoculars, sweeping them in a slow, wide arc around the courtyard where the woman
sat. It only took him a moment to find what stood between him and his goal. There were eight guards in
all. Six clearly visible and two on either side of the chapel doors. He checked his watch and then sent a
quick hand signal to the men who accompanied him. They would move in in ten minutes.
Once again he fixed the powerful binoculars on the Sutherland woman, tightening the focus until all he
could see was the porcelain perfection of her face. She might have been lifeless for all the emotion she
showed. Her eyes were downcast as though in thought, and he couldn’t help but wonder what, if
anything, went on behind that perfect oval mask. As he watched he caught the tiniest quiver of her mouth.
Nervousness, perhaps? Second thoughts? No, not a chance. Not this woman. A prayer of thanksgiving
for her coming triumph? Now that was more like it.
His mouth tightened. Pray, woman. Pray for all you’re worth. Not that it would help. In a few more
minutes he’d take this woman. He’d do whatever necessary to ensure that this day ended much
differently from how she envisioned as she sat far below.
“It’s time,” Merrick announced. “No matter what, we make certain the woman doesn’t marry Brandt
von Folke. Understood?”
He didn’t wait for agreement. His men were handpicked. They would follow his orders without question
or hesitation. His mouth curled into a hard smile. There was no doubt what would happen next. His
reasons were just. His need absolute. He was doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons. He was
going to kidnap another man’s bride for the most noble of causes.
Alyssa Sutherland sat silently amidst a sea of chaos. It took every ounce of her self-control to keep from
jumping up and shrieking at the women surrounding her to leave her alone. To give her just two minutes
in which she could sit quietly and try and catch her breath. To allow her the luxury of tears or breaking
down in momentary hysteria or even to close her eyes and escape into a brief, blissful fantasy where
someone would come and rescue her from this nightmare. Not that there was any likelihood of that
Events for the past week had moved at a breakneck pace and she hadn’t found a single minute to regain
her equilibrium. Not a moment to think. Not to fight. Not to negotiate or protest or plead. Or run. She’d
simply been told what to do and been expected to obey without argument.
And she had, though it went against every instinct and every aspect of her personality. Unfortunately,
there had been no other choice.
“Princess Alyssa, it’s almost time.” The woman spoke in lightly accented English. But then all the people
Alyssa had met so far had spoken English as fluently as their native tongue. “You should enter the chapel
She spared the woman—Lady Bethany Something, she recalled—a brief glance. “It’s just Alyssa. I’m
not a princess.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Alyssa closed her eyes in despair. Lowering her head, she struggled to maintain her composure. She
could feel her mouth quiver, but it was beyond her ability to control it. “I need a moment,” she
“I’m sorry, Your Highness. That isn’t possible.”
How many times in the past week had she been told the same thing? Too many to count. Always polite,
always phrased with the utmost care and consideration and always the same underlying message: Not a
chance in hell will you be permitted a single moment alone. You’ll be guarded every single second that
ticks off each endless hour of every hideous day. And yet…
They called her Princess Alyssa. They bowed and curtsied and treated her as though she were made of
spun glass and was twice as fragile. Their respect wasn’t a pretense. She sensed an underlying sincerity
she couldn’t mistake. For the first time in over a week, a spark of hope ignited. Perhaps she could work
their deference to her advantage.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin and fixed Lady Bethany with a steely gaze. “I need a moment
Lady Bethany fluttered, casting nervous glances over her shoulder. “I don’t think—”
“I’m not asking you to think. I’m telling you that I need five minutes alone before I return to the chapel. I
need to…to gather my thoughts. To prepare myself for the ceremony so I don’t let down my—” she
swallowed, struggling to speak through the distress gripping her throat “—my husband-to-be.”
Lady Bethany’s fluttering grew worse. “I don’t think His Highness would approve. He ordered—
requested— we remain with you at all times.”
“The guard will see to my safety,” Alyssa pressed, sensing victory.
“But His Highness—”
“Would agree to your making an exception on my wedding day.” She infused her voice with “royal”
demand. Not that she had a clue what that really meant. She could only give it her best shot and hope she
hit the mark. “Why don’t we send for Prince Brandt and see who’s right?”
Apparently, it was the perfect tack to take. Her bluff worked. Lady Bethany blanched and stumbled
back a step, dropping a hasty curtsey. “That won’t be necessary, Your Highness. I’ll ask the guards to
escort you to the chapel when you’re ready. Will five minutes be sufficient?”
Five minutes. Five short, precious minutes. How could she possibly prepare herself for what was to
come in so little time? She inclined her head. “That will be fine, thank you.” It would have to be.
Her bevy of ladies-in-waiting, as they’d described themselves, gathered into a hurried group, whispering
in their native tongue of Verdonian—a language Alyssa didn’t understand, which put her at a distinct
disadvantage. Shooting quick, anxious looks over their shoulders, they withdrew into the chapel.
Drawing a deep breath, Alyssa stood and walked from the courtyard into the garden. The largest of the
guards followed, putting enough distance between them that she didn’t feel crowded, and positioned
himself between her and the woods that bordered the garden. She crossed to the stone bench farthest
from the chapel and all the prying eyes.
Earlier that morning it had rained, but now dappled sunlight filtered through the branches of the oaks,
warming her chilled skin. Not long ago she’d caught a glimpse of a rainbow—a sign, her mother had
always claimed, of better times to come.
“There’s a pot of gold waitin’ for us out there, Ally, baby,” Angela Barstow had always insisted. “And
one of these days, we’re gonna find it.”
“Not this time, Mom,” Alyssa whispered.
They couldn’t run away from their problems this time. No new starts. No new stepfathers. No being
dragged from her bed in the middle of the night so her mother could sneak them out of whatever city they
’d pitched their tent in. This time the trouble was too great to run from.
She fought against a wave of panic. She didn’t have long to gain control of her emotions. The seconds
were ticking by. She could sense the restless movement of her guard and attempted to dismiss him from
her mind. She drew in another breath, filling her lungs with the spring air that permeated what little she’d
seen of the European country of Verdonia.
If this had been any other time, if the series of events that had brought her here had been different, she
would have been enchanted by the beauty she’d encountered. But she was far from enchanted. She was
alone and frightened and desperate to find a way out of this nightmare.
If only she hadn’t gone chasing off to save Angela from her latest catastrophe. But the express envelope
begging for help, along with the prepaid airline ticket to Verdonia, had been too much to ignore. So,
Alyssa had postponed the start of her latest job and flown to the rescue. She couldn’t have anticipated
that she’d be snatched from the airport and carried off into the wilds of Verdonia anymore than she could
have foreseen being forced into a marriage as a result of threats she didn’t dare challenge—threats to her
Somehow she’d become caught up in a political maelstrom, one she didn’t understand. Her mother had
tried to explain but there’d been so little time. From their frantic and painfully brief conversation, Alyssa
had learned that everyone believed she was a princess of Verdonia, and that her marriage to Brandt von
Folke would unite two of three warring principalities. It was a crazy mistake. Even so, she found herself
at the very heart of the current turmoil. She’d simply been told her only option was to say “I do” or her
mother would suffer the consequences.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness. It’s time.”
Alyssa opened her eyes and stared at the burly guard hovering over her. Panic tightened her throat.
“It’s time,” he repeated, though she caught a hint of sympathy in his gruff voice and kindly brown eyes.
Before she could plead for another moment of solitude, just a few precious extra seconds, a small whine
sounded in her ear, whooshing past like a starving mosquito. A strange expression drifted across the
guard’s face as though he, too, had heard the odd noise. He made a small strangled sound and started to
lift a hand to his neck, before dropping like a stone. With an exclamation of horror, Alyssa leaped to her
She managed one quick step in his direction before an iron band wrapped around her arms and waist,
lifting her off the ground and up against a tall, muscular male body. At the same moment, a large,
powerful hand closed over her mouth, cutting off her incipient scream. She hung in his arms for an endless
moment, a rush of sensations swamping her.
His scent washed over her. It held the confusingly civilized odor of cedar and spice. But underlying the
crisp, delicious scent came something far more basic and dangerous, a primal pheromone that invaded
her senses at the most carnal and instinctual level. An image of a lion flashed through her mind’s eye,
streaking across the African veld, claws extended, teeth bared, its powerful haunches contracting as it
hurdled toward its prey…toward her.
Alyssa exploded into motion, kicking and twisting. It didn’t have the least impact. He controlled her with
frightening ease. The warmth of his breath stirred the curls alongside her temple and his laughter rumbled
against her back.
“Calm yourself, Princess,” he told her. “Fighting won’t do you any good. It will simply wear you out and
make my job all the easier.”
His voice contained the distinctive lilt of most she’d met in Verdonia, though his was deeper and darker.
Educated. The realization filtered through her terror. She struggled to control her panic and pay attention,
to gather as many facts as possible in the hopes that she could somehow use the information to her
She stilled and he gave a grunt of satisfaction. Turning his head, he called out several soft words in his
native language. They weren’t aimed at her. She sensed others around her—not the guards—but men
who worked in concert with the one who held her with such casual strength.
As soon as he’d satisfied himself that she’d given up her struggle, he melted into the shadows of the
surrounding trees, carrying her from the garden outside the chapel’s courtyard into the woods. She
caught a glimpse of the men he’d spoken to before they were blocked from view by a stand of trees. All
three were dressed in black, hooded and ominous in both appearance and size, and they moved with
unmistakable purpose. What did they want? What were they planning? Dear heaven, she’d wanted a
way out of the marriage, but not like this and not at the expense of her mother. Her mother! She tensed
within her captor’s hold, preparing to struggle again, but his grip tightened in warning.
“Don’t.” He lowered his head so his whisker-roughened jaw brushed her cheek. She shuddered at the
delicately abrasive sensation. It might have been a lover’s caress—would have been—if it hadn’t come
from a ruthless kidnapper. The dichotomy only further served to escalate her fear and she squirmed in
reaction. “Keep struggling and I’ll tie you up. Is that what you want?”
Oh, God, anything but that. Frantically, she shook her head. The movement dislodged her veil, sending it
sliding over one eye. The finely tatted lace obscured her vision, increasing her terror. She’d always
suffered from mild claustrophobia and the idea of being robbed of both her freedom of movement, as
well as her sight, horrified her. Panic bubbled upward and she forced herself to focus on her breathing, to
drag the air into her lungs bit by bit.
In the few moments it took to regain control of herself he carried her through the woods to a narrow
country road. A pair of SUVs idled on the dirt shoulder, one black, the other a silver-gray. So far she’d
counted four men, the one who’d spirited her off and the three from the courtyard who had yet to rejoin
them. Now she heard a fifth member of her abductor’s team emerge from one of the vehicles. Her heart
sank. A single kidnapper, particularly one as powerful as the man who held her, made any attempt at
escape next to impossible. But five against one killed all hope.
“It’s time.” Her abductor addressed the newest member. To Alyssa’s relief he continued to speak in
English, enabling her to follow the conversation. “You don’t have to go through with this. You can still
change your mind.”
“I can’t and I won’t. There are…reasons.”
At the sound of a woman’s voice, Alyssa stiffened. From the corner of her eye she caught a flash of
silver. She started to turn her head to look, but the man’s grip on her tightened, preventing it.
“Quickly, Merrick,” the woman murmured. Merrick! Alyssa filed the name away for future reference.
“We have only moments until her disappearance is discovered.”
Ripping the voluminous veil from Alyssa’s head, he tossed it to the woman. “Will this work?”
“It’s perfect. From what I can tell our dresses are almost identical. The veil will conceal any
She said something else, something in Verdonian that caused Merrick to give a short, gruff laugh. His
reply was unbelievably tender and gentle. Loving. At total odds with the ruthless kidnapper who’d just
abducted her. There was a soft rustle of clothing that came from the direction of the woman and then the
swift fall of her footsteps faded in the direction of the chapel.
Now they were alone and Merrick continued to restrain Alyssa within the protective shadow of the
woods. Releasing the arm that anchored her to his chest, he set her on the ground and spun her around to
face him. Her gaze inched upward past his thickly muscled chest to his face. She shuddered. It was as
though the lion she’d pictured earlier had been reborn as a man.
Dark brown hair awash with streaks of every shade from umber to desert sand fell in heavy waves to
frame strong, fierce features. Arching cheekbones underscored intense eyes, the brilliant gold irises ringed
in dark brown. His razor-sharp nose had been broken at some point, but it only added to the unrelenting
maleness of him, edging his appearance from the realm of stunningly handsome toward dangerously
intriguing. More telling, his broad mouth had a scar that hooked the left side of his upper lip and slashed
toward his cheek.
This was a man who’d lived a life of dangerous pursuits. Ruthlessness blazed in his eyes and was echoed
in the grim lines etched into his features. Any hint of gentleness had been carved away long ago, honing
his appearance to the bare essence of a man who eschewed softness and compassion and all things
temperate, who couldn’t be swayed by a woman’s love, and certainly didn’t compromise or yield, no
matter how overwhelming the odds.
He backed her against a tree trunk, holding her with only his hand clamped to her mouth and the sheer
force of his personality. The rough bark bit through her gown and clawed at her back. “I’ll release you if
you promise not to scream. Otherwise, I pull out the duct tape. Clear?”
She gave a careful nod. One by one his fingers lifted away, his hand hovering a mere breath from her
mouth. Tilting her chin she forced herself to meet his leonine gaze without flinching. She wouldn’t plead,
she refused to beg. But she’d demand answers before she took another step.
“Why?” She breathed the single word from between numb lips, allowing a hint of outrage to underscore
He shrugged, his black shirt pulling taut across broad, well-muscled shoulders. “You’re a pawn. A pawn
I intend to remove from the playing field.”
Her heart pounded in her chest. How did he plan to remove her? Did he mean…by killing her? A bubble
of nearly uncontrollable hysteria built inside her chest, pressing for release. “Isn’t there some other way?”
She forced the words past her constricted throat, despising the hint of entreaty they contained.
His expression remained unrelenting. Merciless. This wasn’t a man who could be affected by a woman’s
tears. Nor pleading, nor demand, nor wiles. What would happen had been predetermined by him and
she was helpless to change that.
“I can’t allow the wedding to go on.” He hesitated, and to her surprise a hint of distaste gleamed in his
odd golden eyes before being ruthlessly extinguished. “I need your gown.”
The demand caught her off-guard. “My what?”
“Your wedding gown. Take it off.”
She shook her head. Her hair, loosened when he’d ripped the veil from her head, cascaded to her
shoulders, cloaking her. “Then you won’t like this one any better. I can’t remove it.”
She was right. He didn’t like her answer. Hard furrows bracketed his mouth and tension rippled across
his frame. The lion stirred. “Pay attention, Princess. Either you take it off or I do. Your choice.”
For some reason his response angered her. She didn’t have a clue what hidden wellspring it erupted
from, or how it managed to overcome the fear that held her on the very edge of control. She simply
recognized that she had two choices. She could give in to the fear and start screaming, knowing full well
that once she started, she’d never be able to stop—not until he silenced her, perhaps permanently. Or
she could choose to react to an impossible situation with a shred of dignity.
She looked Merrick square in the eye. “I’m telling you the truth. I can’t remove my clothing. I’ve been
sewn into my wedding gown. I gather it’s the custom in this principality. So, if you’re going to kill me, get
it over with.”
“Kill you?” Something flashed in his eyes. Surprise? Annoyance? Affront? “I have no intention of killing
you. But I do need that dress. It’ll draw too much attention to us. So, if you can’t remove the damn thing,
She heard the distinctive scrape of metal against leather and, unable to help herself, her gaze darted
downward. He’d pulled a knife from a scabbard strapped to his leg. It was huge and serrated and
gleamed wickedly even in the shadow of the massive oak. The breath hissed from her lungs and she
discovered that she couldn’t draw it in again. Darkness crept into the periphery of her vision but all she
could focus on was that knife and the hand that held it—a hand that fisted around the textured grip with
unmistakable competence and familiarity.
She managed the word just as the knife descended in a sudden, swift arc, the edge biting into the bodice
of her gown. For a brief instant she felt the repellent coldness of metal against the swell of her breast
before it sliced downward through the silk straight to the hem. He shoved the ruined gown from her
shoulders, allowing it to pool on the verdant tufts of grass at their feet.
She turned ashen, every scrap of color blanching from her skin as she struggled to suck air into her lungs.
Merrick watched her reaction with a bitter distaste for the necessity of his actions. He despised what he’
d been forced to do, what he’d been forced to become because of von Folke. And yet, despite
everything he’d done to her, her recovery was as swift as it was impressive. The panic and fear rapidly
faded from her expression and renewed anger glittered in the intense blue of her eyes. He applauded her
spirit, even as he realized it would make his job all the more difficult.
The instant her breathing stabilized, she attacked. “You son of a bitch.”
He conceded the truth with a twisted smile. “So I’ve been told before.”
She stood with her spine pressed against the rough tree trunk, her arms folded across her chest. Seeing
her without her gown answered two of his earlier questions. She had, indeed, the creamy complexion he’
d imagined, perfect in every regard. And she was more goddess than dynamo.
For such a petite woman her breasts were surprisingly full, overflowing the low cut demi-bra she
attempted to conceal with her crossed arms. A tiny pink bow rested between the cups holding them
together, though how it managed to remain tied defied explanation and tempted him beyond reason to
release the pressure keeping all that bounty in place.
His gaze lowered and he almost smiled. Damned if she wasn’t wearing a petticoat, no doubt another
custom of the region. But then, he supposed it was necessary given the gown she’d worn. The layers of
white silk and tulle belled around her, whispering in agitation in the light breeze.
His amusement faded. Time to set the tone for their relationship from this point forward. Distaste filled
him again, but he forced himself to do what he knew he must. “Don’t move,” he ordered.
He lifted the knife again, giving her a full ten seconds to fixate on it before driving it through the
voluminous skirting at her hip and deep into the tree trunk, pinning her in place. Then he reached down
and snatched up the shredded wedding gown, crumpling it in his fist. Deliberately turning his back on her,
he carried the gown to the silver SUV and tossed it inside. His men would dispose of it.
Merrick paused, interested to see what the Sutherland woman would do next. Her choice would
determine how they spent the rest of their time together. He didn’t have to wait long for his answer. Nor
was he surprised by her decision. The sound of rending silk signaled her response.
Turning around, he was just in time to see her stumble free of the knife and run—as best she could given
her three-inch heels—back into the woods, her petticoats fluttering behind her. To his relief, it didn’t
occur to her to scream. He retrieved his knife before giving chase, running in swift and silent pursuit. Her
hair streamed behind her like a golden flag of surrender and her breath came in frightened pants. She’d
kicked off her shoes at some point and the tear in her petticoats where she’d ripped free of the knife
gave her plenty of legroom, allowing her to run more easily and making her far more fleet than he’d
Merrick gritted his teeth. Miri’s disguise would only hold up for so long. Before von Folke discovered
the deception, he needed to have his princess whisked far away from here. Putting on an extra bit of
speed, he closed the distance between them. He waited for her to take a couple more steps so that he
could control their fall, and then he launched himself at her.
He twisted so he’d take the brunt of the landing. Hitting the earth with a thud, he skidded a foot or two in
the leaf litter and tree bracken before coming to rest in a grassy section free of rocks and sticks. He
wrapped one arm around her body and the other around her neck, controlling her air supply. She
struggled for a brief minute before giving up the fight with a soft moan of surrender.
“You don’t listen very well.” He spoke close to her ear. “That’s going to cost you, Princess.”
“You don’t understand.” His choke hold prevented her from speaking above a whisper. “I have to get
back to the chapel. I have to go through with the marriage. If I don’t—”
“If you don’t, you won’t get to be Her Royal Highness, Queen of Verdonia. Is that it?”
“No! You don’t understand. My mother. He has my mother.”
“If your mother is anything like you, I’m sure she’ll be able to fend for herself.”
He released his choke hold and rolled, reversing their positions, which might have been a mistake. Seeing
her splayed beneath him against the grass-sweetened earth, her tousled hair fanned around her beautiful,
treacherous face was more provocative than he could have imagined. And though honor kept him from
touching, he sure as hell could look.
Her petticoats belled around her, nipping in at her narrow waist. The tear in the endless layers of tulle
allowed him to catch a glimpse of a lace garter and silk stockings—stockings that seemed to glisten along
every endless inch of her leg. And then there was the practically nonexistent bra she wore with the tiny
bow that tempted a man almost beyond endurance, begging him to tug at the ends and allow the feminine
scrap to drift from her body.
Merrick’s body clenched, reacting to a powerful need with frightening predictability. He was infuriated to
discover that it was beyond his ability to control the automatic response. Not even a lifetime of training
enabled him to overcome the temptation of this particular woman. It defied explanation.
Beneath her silver wedding gown she’d been dressed to seduce, to provoke the ultimate possession, to
make a man forget everything but the desperate need to mate. She stared at him with wide aquamarine
eyes and in that insane moment he saw what it would be like to have her. He saw them locked together in
the most primitive dance of all. A give and take that went much further than mere sex. He saw the
ultimate possession, a sharing he’d never dared allow himself with any of the women he’d had in his life.
White-hot passion. Basic driving need. A mindless surrender. Blind trust—something he’d never known
in all his twenty-nine years. He saw every last detail in eyes rich with promise.
And he wanted as he’d never wanted before.
He forced words past a throat gone bone dry. “Von Folke must have caught one glimpse of you and
thought all his dreams had come true.”
To his surprise she shuddered. “If he was attracted to me, he never showed it.” She squirmed beneath
him, which thrust her breasts and pelvis up against him in a provocative brush and swirl. “Please let me
He wanted to refuse her request, wanted it with a raging fervor that proved to him that man was still at
heart a creature of wanton instinct, an unleashed animal lurking beneath a thin veneer of civilized
behavior, ruled by emotions barely kept in check and not always within his ability to control. He fought
with every ounce of willpower. Endless seconds ticked by before intellect finally managed to overcome
“Very well, Princess.” Or maybe intellect hadn’t fully won out because he found himself saying, “But I
warned that running would cost you. Time to pay.”
With that, he took advantage of her parted lips and dipped downward, possessing the most lush,
sumptuous mouth he’d sampled in many a year.
A lyssa sank beneath the powerful onslaught of Merrick’s kiss. She’d never felt anything so
all-consuming, so fierce and passionate. This wasn’t remotely similar to what she’d experienced during
her lighthearted collegiate years, untutored kisses that tasted of beer and youthful enthusiasm. Nor did it
resemble the well-practiced embraces from the men she’d dated in the years since, embraces tainted with
calculation and ambition.
This was an experienced man with an experienced man’s skill and knowledge. A dark desire
underscored his breaching of her lips and the sweeping possession of his mouth and tongue. He
consumed her, igniting a fire she’d never known existed until he’d fanned it to life.
Heat pooled in the pit of her stomach, a finger of flame scorching a path downward to the most intimate
part of her and she moaned in protest. She shouldn’t want this—didn’t want this. And yet she remained
still beneath him, offering no resistance. His fingers forked into her hair, tilting her head so he could
deepen the kiss. He softened it, coaxing where before he’d subdued, tempting instead of demanding.
Teasing. Enticing. Daring her to respond.
And she did respond, her blasted curiosity getting the better of her.
Her mind screamed in protest while her body softened to accommodate a taking she didn’t want, yet
somehow couldn’t resist. Her jaw unclenched and her lips relaxed beneath his, parting to offer easier
access. Maybe she surrendered so readily because it would keep him off guard and allow for the
possibility of escape when he least expected it. But in her heart of hearts she knew the excuse was sheer
self-deception. She couldn’t explain her response to Merrick. She reacted to him in ways she hadn’t with
any other man, in primal ways that overrode rational thought and intellect in favor of reckless impulse and
And it horrified her even as it thrilled her.
One of his hands slid from her hair and followed the line of her throat to her shoulder before settling on
her breast. That single brushing stroke branded her, marking her his in some inescapable way. He
cupped her in his palm, his thumb grazing her rigid nipple through the thin layer of silk.
Her breath escaped in a soft cry of shock, the sound absorbed by his mouth. His hand shifted, hovering
above the bow that held the cups of her bra together. Before he could pluck the silk ribbons free, the
urgent clatter of church bells rang through the forest while a pipe organ bellowed forth the first few
triumphant notes of the wedding march prelude. The change in Merrick was instantaneous. He levered
himself off of Alyssa in a flash, his scar standing out bone-white against his tanned face.
“What the hell…?” With a quick shake of his head, he focused on her, the passion scoring his face dying
a rapid death. “Clever, Ms. Sutherland. Very clever. You’ll do whatever necessary, even seduce the
enemy, to make sure you wear the crown of Verdonia, won’t you?”
The breath hissed from her lungs and she glared at him as she shoved herself upright. “Seduce you? How
To her surprise, he whipped off his shirt and thrust it at her. Beneath it he wore a black stretch T-shirt
that clung to his muscular form, emphasizing every hard bulge and angle. “Put this on.”
“You kissed me, not the other way around,” she reminded him as she thrust her arms into the overlong
“And you fought me every inch of the way, didn’t you?”
Hot color flooded her cheeks while the unpalatable truth of his accusation held her silent. She searched
for a sufficiently quelling retort as her fingers fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. Not that she came up
with anything. Perhaps she had so much difficulty because his distinctive scent clung to the black cotton,
distracting her with his crisp, woodsy fragrance. Or perhaps it was because she kept sneaking quick
glances at Merrick—or rather how Merrick filled his impressive T-shirt.
Regardless, she worked each button into each hole with a stubborn doggedness until she’d fastened her
way straight to her neck. The instant she’d finished, he reached into his back pocket and to her horror
pulled out a flat roll of duct tape. Before she could utter a single word of protest, he’d slapped a piece
across her mouth and wound another length around her wrists.
“Note to self,” he muttered, his mouth twisting into a humorless smile, “from now on, no kissing the bad
She shook her head in furious denial, her angry protests stifled by the tape, though she didn’t doubt for
one moment that he understood the gist of what she’d attempted to impart, if not the full flavor. Standing,
he lifted her with ease and slung her over his shoulder. A strong, calloused hand held her in place,
gripping the backs of her thighs. She shuddered beneath the intimate contact even though it came through
layers of tulle, hating herself for the sizzle of heat that vied with her terror at her predicament.
Within minutes he’d retraced the path they’d taken in her desperate flight through the forest, carrying her
with long, swift strides to the SUV that idled on the side of the road. Opening the back door, he tipped
her onto the floor.
“Keep silent and still,” he instructed. “Don’t make me take more drastic measures than I have already.
Nod if you understand, Princess.”
She fought a silent inner battle for five full seconds. With no choice but to acquiesce, she jerked her head
up and down. Satisfied, he tossed a blanket loosely over her and closed the door. An instant later the
driver’s door opened and he climbed in. Without wasting another moment he put the car into gear,
driving swiftly from the scene of her capture.
They continued for what seemed like hours, the route twisting and turning, the roads rough and bumpy.
She could tell that many were either dirt or gravel. As the sun crept lower and lower in the sky, she
worried endlessly about what was happening back at the chapel.
It hadn’t been difficult for her to figure out that the woman who’d been part of Merrick’s group had
taken Alyssa’s place. But how long would the woman’s disguise work? Even more imperative—why had
Alyssa been kidnapped and what did Merrick plan to do with her? Clearly, Verdonia had political
problems in which she’d somehow become embroiled. Her abduction must be related to those problems.
Of even more concern was what Prince Brandt had done when he’d discovered the switch in brides.
Had he taken his fury out on her mother? Was her mother safe? Although the prince hadn’t leveled any
specific threat against her when she’d been brought to his palace, the implication had been loud and
clear. If Alyssa didn’t marry him, her mother would meet with an unfortunate accident.
She closed her eyes, fighting her tears. So now what? She had to find a means of escape, that much was
obvious, though even if she succeeded in freeing herself, how could she rescue her mother? The
worrisome questions swirled through her mind, increasing her fear and desperation while offering no
During the interminable journey, a single goal formed, burning in the forefront of her mind, and she
latched onto it with unwavering determination. She had to escape and return to Prince Brandt, no matter
what that entailed. But how? Slowly, an idea grew through her fear and worry.
There was little question that her abductor was attracted to her, even if he fought hard to resist that
attraction. She’d seen the desire in those extraordinary eyes of his, the hunger that had risen unbidden to
score his face when his hand hovered over the tiny pink ribbon holding her bra in place. It had been
strong enough an attraction for him to act on, despite the circumstances and the clear need for haste.
Assuming nothing better presented itself, she could attempt to seduce him in order to free herself, no
matter how distasteful she found the prospect. Then, once she’d returned to Prince Brandt, she’d marry
him if doing so ensured her mother’s safety.
It was a frightening plan, one that just a short week ago would never have occurred to her. But she hadn’
t come up with a better idea, and right now time was her enemy.
She wriggled in place, the floor of the SUV uncomfortable. Unable to stand it for another moment, she
inched onto the backseat, shoving the blanket under her head as a pillow. Over the next several minutes,
she surreptitiously peeled the duct tape off her mouth, wincing as the glue left her sensitive skin raw and
She took several slow, deep breaths, gathering her courage to speak. “You have to take me back,” she
finally called to Merrick.
He didn’t seem surprised to hear her speak. But then, if he’d wanted to permanently confine her, he
would have wrapped the duct tape around her head instead of slapping a short strip across her mouth.
And he’d have taped her wrists behind her instead of in front of her. She grimaced, wishing she’d thought
of that a couple of hours ago.
“You aren’t going back.”
She sat upright. “Why not? Why have you abducted me?”
“Lie down,” he snapped. “Keep out of sight or I’ll gag you again.”
She stretched out along the backseat, unwilling to put his threat to the test. Not that anyone driving by
could have seen her. Twilight was full upon them. “You don’t understand. I have to go back. It’s a matter
of life or death.”
“Very melodramatic, Princess.” He made a sharp turn that almost sent her plummeting to the floor again.
“But my reasons for taking you are equally imperative.”
“Please.” She choked on the word, despising the need to beg. But she’d do whatever necessary if it
meant getting to her mother. “I’m not being melodramatic.”
“This is not the time for that particular discussion.” The SUV came to a sudden halt and this time she did
roll onto the floor, landing on her hands and knees. “Welcome to your new home.”
Before Alyssa could get up, Merrick opened the door and lifted her out, setting her on her feet. She
shook her hair from her face and forced herself to confront him. Shoeless, wearing little more than his
shirt and a rumpled petticoat, she’d never felt more vulnerable in her life. Not that she’d allow that to
undermine her determination. “You have to listen to me. There’s more than a marriage at stake here.”
“I know far better than you what’s at stake,” he bit out, holding her in place with a hand on her arm.
“This is my country, Princess. You come here and upset the political balance. All I’m doing is resetting
that balance by removing you from the equation.”
“I didn’t choose to come back here,” she argued. “And I don’t care about your country’s political
problems. I only care about—”
She broke off at his expression and if his grip hadn’t tightened just then, she’d have fallen back a step. In
the little light that remained she could see a fierce anger turn his eyes to burnished gold, warning that she
should have selected her words more judiciously. He leaned in, huge and intimidating, his comment little
more than a whisper in the sultry night air.
“Interesting that you care so little for Verdonia when you’re intent on becoming her queen. But somehow
I’m not surprised. Your type sells herself for fame and fortune. Money and attention, that’s all you care
about. The throne. The crown. The jewels.” He emphasized his point by flicking her earlobe with his
index finger where a heavy amethyst and diamond earring hung. The pair were a gift Prince Brandt had
insisted she wear for their wedding. “You have no concern for the people or their problems, only for
His comments threw her. They didn’t make a bit of sense, but instinct warned she’d do well to listen
rather than question or argue. He released her arm and assisted her toward a small house set beneath a
stand of towering pines, steadying her as she picked her way around a scattering of stones gleefully intent
on torturing her bare feet. The structure was a pretty A-frame, what she could see of it through the
gathering darkness. The roofline and shutters were decorated with gingerbread trim painted a crisp white
that stood in sharp relief against the charcoal stain of the siding. High above, a balcony jutted out from the
second level and no doubt offered a spectacular view of the surrounding area.
“Where are we?” she asked.
He paused by the front door and removed a set of keys from his pocket. “In Avernos, on the border of
A fat lot of help that was. Maybe if she knew where Avernos or Celestia were, she’d have a clue. But
she didn’t. The names weren’t the least bit familiar. “Why are we here? Why did you abduct me? What
are you going to do with me?” So much for listening rather than peppering him with questions.
He shoved the front door open without replying and ushered her inside, flipping on an overhead light. She
looked around, filled with a reluctant curiosity. Directly in front of her a staircase led to the second level.
To her left she caught a glimpse of a great room complete with a stone fireplace and wall-to-wall shelving
overflowing with books. A dining room occupied the right side of the house and she could see a doorway
leading to a kitchen at the far end.
Merrick gestured toward the kitchen. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“I’d rather not.”
“No?” He lifted an eyebrow. “We could pick up where we left off earlier, if you’d prefer.”
An image of them in the woods flashed through her mind, of his mouth on hers. Of his hands on her. Of
heated desire and helpless surrender. Her throat went dry and she moistened her lips in response. Lord,
she could still taste his distinctive flavor. Worse, she felt a craving to taste it again. “No kissing the bad
A grin slashed across his face, changing his appearance. Where before he’d been harsh and remote, his
features were now rearranged into an expression she found quite stunning. A tug of forbidden desire
swept over her, causing her to stumble backward. He must have noticed her awareness of him, or at the
very least sensed the shimmer of sexual tension humming between them, because his smile grew.
She tugged at the tape that restrained her hands. What a fool she was, she conceded bitterly. She’d
wasted endless time in the car imagining herself capable of seducing this man. It had seemed reasonable
at the time, even straightforward. But she’d never bothered to consider how she’d set about
accomplishing such an impossible task. Should she simply touch him, drape her taped arms around his
neck? Would that even be sufficient to provoke him to make the next move, or would she have to push it
further still? Was she supposed to initiate a kiss or just offer her mouth for his possession?
None of those issues had been addressed when she’d come up with her idiotic plan. And even if she
enticed him to kiss her again, what would be her next step? Did she allow him to fondle her, to remove
the shirt he’d given her and untie the little bow that held her bra in place? She shivered as her imagination
took it one step further—the final, terrifying step. Did she let him make love to her? And once she had
him focused on her sexually, how did that help her get away? It would only work if she knocked him out,
Standing in front of him, confronting all that innate masculine strength and power forced her to concede
how futile her plan was, not to mention foolhardy. For one thing, she suspected he’d instantly figure out
what she was up to, which wouldn’t be beneficial to her overall health and well-being. And for another,
her reaction to him warned that he’d have more success seducing her than the other way around. How
could she keep her wits about her when every time she came within arm’s length of him her body sizzled
with desperate heat?
Her mouth tightened. Just because her body responded to him in such an unwelcome way didn’t mean
she had to act on that response. If seducing him wouldn’t work, she’d have to remain alert to other
“Well, Princess?” he prompted. “I assume your silence means you’d prefer to eat.”
“If the choice is food or picking up where we left off, then yes, I prefer to eat.” He laughed at her dry
tone, the sound deep and dangerous and far too attractive for her peace of mind. “Will you at least
explain why you’re doing this?” she asked.
He dismissed her question with a shrug. Planting his hand at the base of her spine, he guided her in the
direction of the kitchen. “You know why. Don’t play games with me, Princess.”
“Games?” She turned on him in outrage. “Let me assure you I don’t consider any part of this a game.”
Once in the kitchen, he pointed to one of two chairs tucked beneath a small butcher-block table that had
been positioned beside a wide picture window. In the final glow of twilight, she could just make out a
fenced garden overrun with flowers, weeds, and to one side, a collection of indeterminate vegetables.
“Sit, Princess. It’s pointless to keep up this pretence of ignorance.”
“I wish it were a pretence. I wish all of this was.”
Feeling the rising panic, she took a deep breath, striving for calm. Pulling out the chair he’d indicated, she
curled up in it, drawing her knees against her chest beneath the voluminous petticoats. Her pink-tipped
toes peeked through the rips in her stockings and she studied the smudges of dirt marring them as she
considered how best to get through to Merrick. If she didn’t get answers soon, she wouldn’t have the
necessary information to plan her escape, an escape that—second by second—became increasingly
more important if she were to save her mother.
“Why does everyone keep calling me Princess Alyssa?” she asked. “I’m not a princess.”
Merrick paused in the act of removing a selection of meats, cheeses and fruit from the refrigerator and
turned to study her. “You’re Princess Alyssa, Duchess of Celestia.”
“No. I’m Alyssa Sutherland, soon to be Assistant VP of Human Relations for Bank International.”
He ignored her attempt at humor. “You left Verdonia when you were just over a year old.” He placed
the selection of food in front of her, along with a crusty loaf of bread and several bottles of sparkling
water. “Your mother, an American college student who’d met the prince while on vacation, married and
divorced him in the span of two short years. A bit of a scandal at the time. Apparently living the life of a
princess wasn’t the fairy tale she’d envisioned. After the divorce, she took you back to the United States,
leaving your father and your older half brother behind.”
Alyssa hesitated. “She told me some of that years ago. But my father wasn’t a prince anymore than I’m a
“It would appear your mother neglected to mention a few pertinent details about your background.”
For the first time a twinge of doubt assailed her. What had her mother said in the few minutes they’d
been permitted to speak? She’d been incoherent, tearfully apologizing for tricking Alyssa into coming to
Verdonia and for not finding a way to warn her about the mess she’d managed to entangle them in.
There had also been something about how she’d fled the country twenty years earlier, never suspecting
Alyssa would be expected to assume her brother’s responsibilities—a brother she hadn’t even known
existed. The one thing that had been abundantly clear was that in order to keep her mother safe, Alyssa
would have to marry Prince Brandt.
She tried again. “Everyone thinks I’m a princess. I assure you, I’m not. This is all some hideous mistake.”
He saluted her with a sardonic smile. “Am I supposed to believe your story and let you go? Good try,
but it won’t work.”
“No, I thought you’d realize that you have the wrong person and help me figure out what’s going on.”
Her feet hit the floor with a small thud. “I’m telling you there’s been a mistake. I’m no more a princess
than I am this Duchess of Celdonia.”
“Celestia. Verdonia is the country, Celestia is one of her three principalities. And there’s no mistake.” He
tilted his head to one side. “Fair warning, this tactic isn’t going to work.”
“It’s not a tactic.” Frustration edged her words. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Something in the roughly stated word had her swallowing nervously. “Fine.” She waited a beat and then
whispered, “He has my mother, Merrick. He’s holding her hostage. That’s why I agreed to marry him.”
Merrick stifled a groan. It was her tone more than anything else that stopped him in his tracks; the soft,
American-accented voice was filled with fear and anguish. He vaguely recalled her mentioning her mother
while they were in the woods, but he’d assumed it had been another ploy to gain her release. He kept his
expression implacable as he joined her at the table but inside he was filled with rage at von Folke’s
“I have to know what’s going on. Please.” Her mouth worked for a moment. “Can you explain it to me
so I understand?”
“Eat. You’ll need your strength.”
He fought a brief inner battle while she picked at the meal he’d provided, weighing his belief that she was
in on von Folke’s plan against the possibility that she was an innocent victim in all this. If she were telling
the truth, it was only fair that he explain the situation. Honor demanded as much.
He left her long enough to fetch a map from the great room. When he returned, he spread it across the
table, anchoring the corners with the bottles of water. Next, he removed a fillet knife from a butcher
block on the kitchen counter and after first slicing the duct tape binding her wrists so she had more
freedom to eat, he used it to trace the outline of the country.
“This is Verdonia. It’s divided into three principalities.”
She studied it with all apparent interest as she massaged her wrists. “Where are we?”
He shook his head. “Not a chance, Princess.”
“In general. You said we were on the border of Celestia and…and—”
He tapped the upper portion of the map. “We’re just inside the border of Avernos. Mountainous and
riddled with amethyst mines. The gems provide the economic backbone of Verdonia. This principality’s
ruled by von Folke.” He broke off a chunk of bread and ate it before shifting the knife downward to the
very bottom of the map. “The most southern principality is Verdon, the financial heart of Verdonia.”
She glanced at him. “And the principality in the middle?”
He outlined the S-shaped bit of land that curled between the northern and southern principalities, cupping
each in turn. “Celestia. Traditionally the artisans who work the amethyst have come from this principality.
Until ten days ago, your half brother ruled here.”
She leaned forward and was forced to shove a tumble of unruly curls behind one ear in order to get a
better look. In the few hours since he’d first seen her, she’d been transformed from regal princess to
rumpled seductress, both of whom appealed far more than he cared to admit. His awareness of her
disturbed him. It was one thing to take her, but committing such a dishonorable act, even for honorable
reasons, had been the most difficult decision he’d ever made. But to compound it by lusting after von
Folke’s intended bride…. Touching her, making love to her…. Damn it to hell!
He shoved a plate of cheese in her direction and didn’t say anything further until she’d helped herself to
some. She nibbled at it with a marked lack of enthusiasm before cracking the seal on one of the bottles of
water. Tipping back her head, she took a long drink, unwittingly revealing the creamy line of skin that ran
the length of her neck.
The memory of how she’d looked in the forest earlier rose unbidden to his mind. She’d lay sprawled in a
lush pocket of ripe grass and summer leaves, like a sacrifice to the heathen gods of old, the scent of her
lightly perfumed skin mingling with the odor of rich, fertile soil. Dappled sunlight had gilded her creamy
skin, while the mystery of womankind had gleamed in eyes the color of aquamarines, tempting him to
plumb its many secrets. And he’d wanted her. Wanted her more than he’d wanted any other woman. If it
hadn’t been for the church bells…
His mouth tightened. He’d come close to sacrificing both honor and duty in that moment. Too close.
She eyed him quizzically. “You haven’t explained what’s happened to my brother. How’s he involved in
He didn’t see any benefit in withholding the information. “My sources inform me he was paid a lot of
money by von Folke to abdicate his position,” he replied. “When that happened, the title fell to you.
Where before you were Princess Alyssa, now you’re also duchess of Celestia. Or you will be once
church and state make it official.”
Alarm flashed across her face. “I don’t want the position.”
He could tell his skepticism annoyed her, but she impressed him by holding onto her temper, though she
spoke with a clipped edge to her voice. “Even assuming all of this is true, why would Prince Brandt have
paid my brother to abdicate?”
“Two weeks ago the king of Verdonia died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She hesitated briefly. “I don’t mean to sound crass, but what has his death got to do
with any of this?”
“Verdonia has a rather unusual system for replacing their monarchs. It calls for the people to vote in an
election, choosing from the eligible royals from each principality.”
“And there are three eligible royals?”
“Were three,” he corrected. “With your brother’s abdication we’re down to two. There’s Prince Lander,
duke of Verdon—”
“That’s…that’s the southernmost principality, right? The one that governs the finances?”
“Correct. And the other contender for the throne is von Folke. If you were over twenty-five at the time
of the election, you’d be eligible to rule, as well.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying that if my twenty-fifth birthday had fallen a few minutes sooner, I’d be a
contender for the throne? Me?” If she were feigning shock, it was a stellar performance. “No. No, thank
you. I have no interest in ruling Verdonia.”
He shot her a sharp look. “Interesting that you’re so quick to refuse when marrying von Folke will
accomplish precisely that.”
She stared at him, narrow-eyed, for a long, silent moment. “How?”
He stabbed the knife into the paper heart of Celestia, driving the point deep into the butcher-block table.
“The popular vote, remember?”
He only had to wait an instant for comprehension to dawn. Her brows drew together. “If I really am a
princess and duchess of Celestia and I marry Prince Brandt…” Her breath caught. “He’d win the
popular vote of the entire country, wouldn’t he?”
“Yes. To be honest, it’s a brilliant plan. The principality of Avernos—von Folke’s people—would vote in
his favor. And with Celestia’s princess married to von Folke—that’s you—honor and loyalty would
force the citizens of Celestia to vote for him, as well. Verdon would fall to Lander, but it wouldn’t matter
because von Folke would walk away with a two-thirds win.”
“Which you want to prevent from happening.” It wasn’t a question, but closer to an accusation. “Why?”
He studied her grimly. “I’ll do whatever it takes to ensure a fair election. I’m honor bound to protect all
of Verdonia, not just any one principality.”
“Isn’t who becomes king up to the people of your country to decide?” she argued.
He leaned in, crowding her. “Von Folke is the one who chose to tip the balance. He upset the natural
order of things—with your help. I’m merely righting that wrong.”
Apprehension flashed across her face before she managed to regain control. “By getting rid of me?”
He offered a humorless smile. “In a manner of speaking. The election is in a little more than four months.
Once it’s over, you’ll be free to marry whomever you wish.”
It took her several seconds to process his words. The instant she had, her breath escaped in a horrified
hiss and she shook her head. “You can’t be serious. Four months? No! I won’t let you keep me here
“And just how are you planning to stop me?”
He had to admit, she surprised him, something that hadn’t happened since he’d first begun his training as
a callow youth. She fisted her hands around the filet knife embedded in the table and yanked it free,
thrusting the razor-sharp tip toward his throat. She paused just shy of cutting him.
“My mother doesn’t have four months. You’re taking me back to Prince Brandt right now.”
Even with a knife at his throat, he couldn’t help marveling. God, she was beautiful. Vibrant. Infuriated.
Infuriating. He deliberately leaned closer until the razor-sharp point pricked the base of his throat. “Listen
up, Princess. Nothing you say or do will convince me to return you to him. There’s only one place I’m
willing to take you.”
She glared at him for a split second before her gaze shifted downward to where the knife had nicked him.
She shuddered at the sight of the blood she’d drawn. “And where is that?”
“My bed, of course.” In one easy move he knocked her hand aside, sending the knife clattering against
the wall and then to the floor. Before she could do more than utter a soft cry of protest, he swept her into
his arms and lifted her high against his chest. “Consider it your home for the next four months.”
M errick wasn’t the least bit surprised that Alyssa fought him, though this time she struggled even more
fiercely than when he’d initially abducted her.
“Stop it, Alyssa. You’ll only hurt yourself waging a battle you can’t win.”
“I don’t care. I’ll fight you until my last breath.” She clipped him with her fist. “I won’t let you do this.”
“I’m afraid you can’t stop me.”
He carried her from the kitchen to the steps leading to the bedroom and took them with swift efficiency,
despite his struggling armful. Depositing Alyssa on her feet at the top of the stairs, he reached around her
and thrust open the door on one side of the landing. Instantly she tried to skitter away. He gathered her
back up and held her wriggling body tight against his. Damn, but he needed to put some distance
between them. She’d become far too great a distraction, something he didn’t need when tomorrow
promised to be even more challenging than today.
“I don’t want to hurt you, Princess,” he warned. “But you will do as I say when I say it, or you’ll spend
the next four months tied to a bedpost.”
“You can’t honestly believe that I won’t fight, that I’ll just let you—” She clamped her mouth shut, unable
to utter the hideous words.
“You’ll sleep in my bed for however long we’re together.” He captured her chin and tipped it upward,
forcing her to look at him. “Allow me to emphasize the word sleep.”
She stared at him, her eyes wide and dilated. “Not…not—”
“No. Not,” he repeated calmly. “Just sleep. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day. I’d like to close my
eyes for a few hours between now and then and I need to make certain you won’t try anything foolish.
“Why did you make me think—” Her voice broke and she waved her hand in an impatient gesture. “You
“Because you had a knife at my throat and I was angry.” Even though the confession came hard, he didn’
t shy away from taking full responsibility. He let that sink in before adding, “But I wasn’t lying, Alyssa.
You will be sharing my bed for the next four months, though what happens in that bed is up to you.”
She reared back as if he’d struck her. “Nothing will happen there!”
He didn’t bother arguing. Time would prove her right or wrong more readily than anything he could say.
Turning her to face the open doorway, he gave her a gentle shove toward it. Under other circumstances
her expression of surprise and confusion when she found herself standing outside a bathroom would have
“Get cleaned up. Shower if you wish. You can also help yourself to any of the toiletries you find. There’s
a robe hanging on the back of the door. Put it on before you leave the bathroom.”
She bristled. “And if I don’t?”
He deliberately chose to misunderstand. “Come to bed naked. I won’t object.”
“I meant, what if I don’t come out at all?” Her fighting spirit had clearly been revitalized. “I’ll…I’ll sleep
in the bathtub.”
“You can try, but since the door has no lock you won’t be very successful.” He checked his watch. “You
have thirty minutes. Use it wisely. When your time is up, I’m coming in after you.”
“You wouldn’t!” The response was an automatic one. Even she realized as much, because she shook her
head. “Of course you would. But then, raiding the bathroom while I’m in the shower would be the least
of the offenses you’ve committed against me, wouldn’t it?”
He simply looked at her. Men rarely opposed him; women never did. And those few men who dared
balk at his orders only did so once. But then, they knew who he was. Alyssa’s unwavering defiance
impressed the hell out of him. Even as she acquiesced to his demand, her expression and posture warned
that she did so under protest.
When he remained mute, frustration vied with her anger. “You’re a total bastard, you know that,
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.”
Actually, the term was mild. As commander of the Royal Security Force, his life was comprised of
making impossible decisions that had dire effects on the people with whom he came into contact. Worse,
he had to live with the ramifications of his decisions. He didn’t doubt for a minute that the actions he’d
taken today, and would continue to take over the next four months, would produce the most painful
results to date.
With a look of utter contempt, Alyssa turned her back on him and slammed the door in his face. He took
it without flinching.
Score one for the princess.
She emerged from the bathroom thirty minutes later, timing it to the very last second, and he straightened
from where he’d been lounging against the hallway wall. Despite her earlier threat, she wore the bathrobe
he’d left for her and had washed her hair, which hung down her back in damp, heavy curls. Her face was
scrubbed clean and to his consternation she looked all of twelve. Or she would have if it hadn’t been for
the womanly curves that turned floor-length terry cloth into a garment every bit as seductive as the scraps
of silk and lace she’d been wearing earlier. How she managed it he couldn’t begin to guess, but it
guaranteed him a near sleepless night.
She stalked to the bedroom doorway, only a slight hitch in her stride betraying that she wasn’t as
amenable about the night ahead as she pretended. He followed, watching in exasperation as she crossed
to a chair on the far side of the room and curled up in it.
He shut the bedroom door and locked it, steeling himself for yet another pitched battle. “Get in the bed,
“No, thanks. I’m good here.”
“I can’t allow that. I need to sleep and I won’t be able to if I’m constantly watching to make sure you
She snuggled deeper into the chair, burrowing in for the duration. “You won’t get much rest, anyway. I’
m…I’m a very restless sleeper. I toss and turn all night long.”
He almost smiled at the blatant lie. Or he would have if she hadn’t been right about one unfortunate fact.
It didn’t appear he’d be getting much sleep. But it wouldn’t have anything to do with her restlessness. “I’
ll manage.” He pointed toward the double bed. “Get in.”
She took several deep breaths before obeying. Leaving the safety of the chair, she approached the
four-poster with all the caution of a mouse sneaking up on a baited trap and stood beside the bed for
several long moments. Just when he was on the verge of picking her up and tossing her in, she pulled
back the covers and slid between the sheets, curling up in as minute a ball as possible on the very edge of
Hell. The next few hours were going to be some of the most difficult of his life. He circled the bed and
yanked his black ops T-shirt over his head, tossing it onto the chair she’d abandoned. His boots came
next, hitting the floor with a distinctive thud before he released his belt buckle and unzipped his trousers.
He saw her stiffen at the distinctive rasp of the zipper and he could hear the nervous intake and exhalation
of her breath.
Stripped down to his boxers, Merrick joined Alyssa in bed. She made a pathetically small mound on the
farthest side of the mattress, no doubt attempting to remain as still and inconspicuous as possible in the
hopes he’d leave her alone. Releasing his breath in a sigh, he hooked his arm around her and tucked her
close, spooning her back against his chest. She remained stiff as a board, refusing to accommodate the
alignment of curve to angle.
As for thinking she was pathetic, he was forced to hastily revise his opinion. Though she didn’t struggle,
somehow the dainty, fragile woman he held within his arms had managed to transform herself into
hardened steel, gouging bony elbows into the few vulnerable parts of his body. Steel-tipped fingers dug
into the arm anchoring her in place, and even her heels and toes had became lethal weapons. The only
place she remained soft and cushioned was her backside, though he didn’t doubt she would change that
if she could. But at least it offered some small shielding against the rest of her anatomy.
“Do you have to touch me?” she whispered, squirming. “Isn’t it enough that I’m in the same bed with
Dear God, if she didn’t hold still there’d be hell to pay. “It’s necessary,” he explained with impressive
patience. “This way if you attempt to escape, I’ll know. And I’ll stop you.”
Her breath trembled from her lungs. “I won’t attempt to escape.”
“Yes, you will. You think your mother needs you. So you’ll continue to try and get away, just as I’ll
continue to stop you.”
She shifted again and he stifled a groan, only half succeeding. “There’s nothing I can do about it,” she
snapped. “I did warn you. I’m not used to sleeping like this.”
“Tonight would have found you in some man’s bed sleeping just like this, whether it was with von Folke
or with me.” Though with von Folke there would have been a lot more involved than talking and sleeping.
He’d have wanted to consummate their union in order to make the marriage legally binding as per
Verdonian law. For some reason the mere idea of anyone else putting his hands on Alyssa roused
Merrick to a white-hot fury. “Or are you forgetting this would have been your wedding night?”
He didn’t know what prompted him to ask the question, but to his surprise she shuddered. “I had
forgotten,” she confessed. Then her voice dropped to a whisper so soft, he barely caught it. “Being with
him…It would have been far worse.”
He didn’t cut her any slack. “If that’s how you felt, you should have refused to marry him. I doubt he’d
have hurt your mother.”
Her elbow clipped him in the gut and this time he suspected it was deliberate. “You didn’t see his
expression. I did. Prince Brandt will do whatever it takes to get me to the altar.”
“If it means winning the throne, you’re right. He’ll say whatever he must to force your agreement. But
even a man like von Folke has lines he won’t cross. I suspect murder is one of them.”
“People cross lines all the time when they’re desperate.” Her voice held a note of cool conviction. “One
of my stepfathers was an auditor and I worked for him the summer between high school and college.
That’s how I became interested in finance in the first place. I could always sense when someone had
been cooking the books. You can almost smell their desperation. If I were auditing Prince Brandt, I’d be
checking his accounts very carefully.”
Interesting. “Are you saying he’s embezzling money?”
“No. I’m saying he’s desperate. I have no idea why. But I can sense it, even though he’s working really
hard to keep a lid on things. Whether it’s related to finances or not, I can’t tell.”
She fell silent after that, leaving Merrick free to sift through her observations. Something was up. Too bad
he couldn’t be certain what. He didn’t doubt that von Folke would go to almost any extent to wear the
crown. Avarice. Power. Prominence. All were substantial motivators. But why would a man be
desperate to become king? Desperation implied a driving need rather than a burning desire. Why would a
man need to be king?
He’d already checked von Folke out. Maybe it was time to dig a little deeper. A full profile, he decided,
including—he smiled—any books that might have been cooked.
Alyssa had finally settled, for which he was eternally grateful. Moonlight crept through the doors leading
out onto the balcony and slipped into bed with them, frosting their entwined forms with silver. The crown
of her head rested beneath his chin and silken strands of her hair snagged along his whisker-roughened
jawline. He inhaled, filling his lungs with the odor of the herbal shampoo she’d used. He could also catch
a hint of a lighter, more irresistible aroma, though whether it came from her soap or the natural scent of
her body, he couldn’t be sure. Either way, the fragrant perfume soaked into his pores, permeating his
senses in a way he knew would forever be a part of him.
“That women who was with you earlier,” she said, catching him by surprise. “What were you saying to
each other? The part in Verdonian, I mean.”
He lifted onto his elbow and drew her head to one side so he could look at her. The moonlight muted her
vibrant coloring, turning her hair to silver and darkening her eyes to black. Her features took on a pearly
glow, given depth and definition by the charcoal shadows sinking into the gentle planes and angles of her
face. Watching her closely, he bit out a swift comment in Verdonian. She responded by staring at him in
“You don’t speak the language, do you?” He shook his head in disbelief. “You come here expecting to
be our queen and you can’t even speak to your people in their native tongue?”
“Why should I?” she retorted indignantly. “I didn’t know I was part Verdonian until last week.”
“I would think if you were going to rule a country you might want to communicate with your subjects.
What would you do if English wasn’t our second language?”
“If I’d known that’s what was going to happen to me, I would have learned Verdonian.” Exasperation
edged her words. “What did you say to me? How do you know I wasn’t pretending I didn’t understand?
You think I’m pretending about everything else.”
“Because my comment was unforgivably coarse.” Unable to resist, he stroked his thumb along the
sweeping arch of her cheekbone. “If you’d understood, you’d have reacted.” Slapped him, most likely.
“Oh.” She rolled away from him, not protesting this time when he spooned her into their earlier position.
“You still haven’t answered my question. What did she say to make you laugh?”
“She called me a bear cub. It can also mean a stuffed animal.”
“A teddy bear?”
“A teddy bear. Yes.”
Silence descended for several more minutes, though he wasn’t the least bit surprised when she spoke
again. “That woman—the one who called you a teddy bear—she took my place, didn’t she?”
“That was the plan.”
“Who is she?”
“My sister, Miri.”
Alyssa turned her head again, this time of her own volition, and gazed at him in confusion. “Aren’t you
worried about what Prince Brandt will do to her when he discovers the deception?”
“Yes.” He was incredibly worried.
“Then why did you let her do it?”
He hadn’t wanted to but she’d insisted, threatening to reveal his plans if he didn’t allow her to participate
in the abduction. “It was necessary,” Merrick limited himself to saying.
“She mentioned there were reasons for what she did,” Alyssa said slowly. She settled onto her back.
“Were they the same reasons you have? To make sure the elections are fair?”
He hesitated. He’d assumed that’d been what Miri had meant at the time, but since then he’d had several
long hours to reconsider her words. Something in her tone had disturbed him, though he’d been unable to
pinpoint what. With anyone else, he’d have managed it, had been trained to do precisely that. But his
feelings for Miri interfered with his training, clouding his logic with emotion.
He narrowed his gaze on Alyssa. She’d proven herself a shrewd judge of character when it came to von
Folke. Perhaps she’d picked up on whatever he’d missed. “Something’s bothering you about what Miri
Alyssa shrugged and her robe parted to reveal the soft skin of her throat and shoulders. “Her comment
Personal. The longer he thought about it, the more certain he became that Alyssa was correct. He could
see it now—the quiet despair in Miri’s green eyes, the stalwart determination in her stance, the way she’d
flinched when von Folke’s name had been mentioned in connection with Alyssa’s. Hell. Why hadn’t he
seen it before? He should have. Another concern to contemplate during the endless hours of the night.
“Go to sleep,” he told Alyssa. He needed to think without distraction—and she’d already proven herself
a huge one. “Tomorrow is going to be difficult enough as it is.”
He sighed. “You ask a lot of questions, Princess.”
“Yes, I do. And here’s one more…” She rolled over to face him and her subtle perfume invaded his
senses once again, threatening his sanity. “Are you certain you want to go through with this?”
It wasn’t the first time the question had been posed, and Merrick didn’t hesitate in his response. “The
future of Verdonia depends on it.”
She moistened her lips, choosing her words with care. “Eventually you’ll be caught. You realize that, don
’t you? What will happen to you when you are? Will you be sent to prison?”
“Maybe. Or banished. It depends on who catches me.”
“But if you send me back—”
So. She’d found a new angle of attack, one he cut off without compunction. “Enough, Alyssa. Prison or
banishment, I’ll deal with the consequences when they occur.”
“What about Prince Brandt? What will he do to you? You said there were lines he wouldn’t cross. Are
you willing to bet your life on that?”
“He won’t be pleased that I’ve taken away his best chance at the throne.” That had to be the
understatement of the century. “Not that it matters. Whatever occurs as a result of my actions is an
“You can’t be serious.”
“I’m quite serious.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’re worried about me?”
“Of course not.” But he caught the flicker of concern that gave lie to her claim. The temptation to touch
her became too much and he stroked his hand along the curve of her cheek and down the length of her
neck. She shivered beneath the caress.
“Don’t,” she whispered.
He spoke without volition, drawn to tell her the truth regardless of the consequences. “I’m honor bound
to protect Verdonia from you.”
“Am I such a threat?”
“A threat to my country.” His mouth twisted into a ghost of a smile. “But a far worse threat to my honor.”
As though to prove it, he lowered his head and captured her lips. They were every bit as soft and lush as
he remembered, honey sweet and welcoming. A half-hearted protest slid from her mouth to his and he
absorbed it, wanting to absorb all of her in every way possible.
How could she have been willing to give herself to von Folke? Didn’t she realize it was criminal? More
criminal than his abduction of her, and he told her as much with sharp, swift kisses. Then he sank back
between her lips, reacquainting himself with every warm inch within.
He knew her mouth now. Laid claim to it. Drank from it. Possessed it, just as he planned to possess her.
She went boneless in his arms, a surrendering that was every bit as wrong as it was overwhelmingly right.
The instant he released her mouth she whispered his name and it shivered between them into the velvety
silence of the night. “You promised,” she said.
“What did I promise?”
“That you wouldn’t.”
Her head moved restlessly on the pillow. “I can’t remember.”
“Neither can I.” Nor did he want to.
He found her mouth again and there was no more talking. Lips clung, then parted before unerringly
finding each other again. Hands brushed, tangled, then released. Sweet murmurs filled the room, broken
words that shouldn’t have any meaning, but somehow spoke volumes.
Desire fired his blood, filling his heart and mind, crowding out rational thought. He needed more. Wanted
the woman in his arms as he’d never wanted anything before. Clothes impeded him, taunting him, as they
came between him and the warm, soft skin he so desperately craved. Skin that teased him with an
irresistible perfume that had burrowed deep into his subconscious.
He found the belt that kept Alyssa from him. The knot fought his efforts to release it. And then it gave up
the struggle, just as the woman had. He parted the coarse terrycloth and found the silken flesh within, soft
and fragrant and burning hot.
“I swear, I’ll make this good for you.”
But the second he’d said the words, he knew he’d lost her. She stiffened within his arms and the
desperate heat that had burned in her eyes only moments before faded, replaced with horrified distress.
The princess had awoken from her enchantment and discovered she wasn’t with Prince Charming. Far
Her breath came in short, ragged gasps. “I want you to stop.”
Desire rode Merrick hard and it took every ounce of effort to pull back from the edge. “Easy, Princess. I
But his assurances had little effect. Panic held her in its grip and wouldn’t let go gently. “You claim you’re
honor bound to protect all of Verdonia. Doesn’t that protection extend to me, as well?” she demanded.
“Or does your code of honor allow you to rape helpless women?”
She couldn’t have chosen a more effective insult. He tamped down on his anger with only limited
success. “It wouldn’t be rape, and you damn well know it.”
“Maybe not. But it wouldn’t be honorable, either. Not when I’m being held prisoner. And not when you
can’t be certain I haven’t given in because I fear the consequences if I don’t.”
He swore, long and violently. He’d never had his honor called into question. Not ever. Even so, he knew
she was right, which disgusted him all the more. If matters weren’t so desperate, he’d never have
abducted her in the first place. He told her there were lines a man didn’t cross. But hadn’t he just
stepped over one of them? Hell, he’d run full tilt over it, which bothered him more than he was willing to
admit. Honor was everything to him, as was duty. He’d had a lifetime’s training in each and in one fell
swoop, had destroyed both. But no matter how far he’d sunk, forcing himself on a woman was
Sweeping the edges of her robe closed, he secured the belt, making certain every inch of her was
covered, from neck to ankle. “Turn over,” he ordered. “No more talking.”
And no more touching. He needed every remaining hour to recharge his batteries because he could
predict exactly what sort of trouble the morning would bring.
Eventually his prediction was proven all too correct. At dawn the next day Merrick awoke—as he was
certain he would—with guns pointed at his head.
A lyssa stirred, switching from soft, sweet dreams to heart-pounding alertness in a single breath. She didn
’t understand what caused the sudden burst of fear. She only knew that it slapped through her, causing
her pulse to race and a bitter metallic burn to scald her tongue. She started to speak but Merrick’s arm
tightened in clear warning and she fell silent.
“Don’t move, sweetheart.” Merrick whispered the instruction, his mouth nuzzled close to her ear. “I’ll
protect you. Just do exactly what I say. And…trust me.”
Trust him? Of course she trusted him. The thought was immediate, instinctive and totally wrong. In the
next instant, her brain kicked into gear and she remembered who he was, what he’d done. How his
actions had put her mother’s life in jeopardy. And she remembered a lifetime of her mother’s warnings—
never trust a man. They’ll always betray you. No, she didn’t trust him. Not in the least.
“Squeeze my hand if you’re ready.”
With no other choice, she did as he instructed and he shifted her within his arms, just the gentlest of
movements, as if they were lovers easing into a more comfortable position. And then he seemed to
explode. One instant she was held in the sweetest of embraces and the next she found herself cocooned
in pillows with her face pressed against Merrick’s broad back.
He’d somehow grown during the night, turning into a human wall. It was the only explanation for how he’
d become twice as tall and broad as he’d been just hours ago. The muscles across his back were roped
into taut steely cables, contracting smoothly in preparation for…for what, she wasn’t quite certain, other
than it would undoubtedly be violent. She dared one quick peek around her human Stonehenge and
There were six of them. Each wore the sort of black special ops gear that her abductors had the previous
day. And each held an assault rifle pointed directly at Merrick’s head. She shuddered. Not good. Not
good at all. She could sense Merrick’s compulsion to act, which would have only one horrific outcome.
She needed to put an end to their little standoff, and fast, before matters escalated out of control. Without
giving herself time to consider, she rolled out from behind him and scrambled to the far side of the
One of the gunmen caught her by the shoulders and dragged her from the bed, his grip painfully tight.
“Ouch! Let go of me. I’m surrendering, you idiot. See?” She held her palms up and out. “This means
Merrick hadn’t moved from his crouched position on the bed. He simply cut his eyes toward the man
who held her and said, “Take your hands off her.”
He issued the order in a soft voice, barely above a whisper. But something in the tone had the ability to
liquefy bone. Everyone froze for a brief instant and the man she’d been grappling with released her.
Amazing. Then the leader of the group barked out an order and she was once again wrapped up in a
crushing hold. Worse, Merrick received the brunt of the leader’s displeasure, taking a fist to the jaw.
She cried out in protest, not that anyone listened to her. The assailants pulled Merrick from the bed. It
required four of them to secure him and she took a vicious pleasure in that. If they didn’t have guns, she
suspected that even six to one odds would bring into question the outcome of this little sortie. She’d have
put every last penny she owned on Merrick. Unfortunately, guns were an issue and he must have realized
as much because he stopped struggling.
He stood immobile a short distance from her, topping the four men surrounding him by a good three or
four inches. She’d heard the term “noble savage” before but until that moment she’d never fully
appreciated the meaning. Dressed in black boxers and endless muscle, he exuded elemental male at its
finest and most noble. But the expression on his face read pure savage. He addressed the leader of the
assailants in Verdonian, a man she suddenly recognized as Tolken, von Folke’s right-hand man. Her
heart sank. Not assailants, she realized, but a rescue party.
“Yes, old friend, I know what’s at stake,” Tolken replied in English, apparently in response to Merrick’s
question. “And it’s the only reason you’re still alive.”
Merrick’s eyes filled with fierce conviction. “This is wrong, Tolk. You know that. Our people should be
free to choose who they want for their king, not have it orchestrated for them. How many times did we
discuss that very issue in university?”
The order came from one of the men holding Merrick, who followed with a fist to the gut. Not that it had
much impact, Alyssa realized, biting back a cry of protest. Lord, the man must have steel-belted abs.
Tolken rapped out a reprimand and the man who’d hit Merrick stepped back, looking sullen.
“You’ll have to excuse his manners,” Tolken said. “He’s understandably upset. You took something that
didn’t belong to you and there is a price to be paid for that. Consider those two blows a down payment.”
It was too much. Alyssa fought the man restraining her. Or did he think he was protecting her? Not that it
mattered. She didn’t like being held by him any better than she liked the attack on Merrick. “He’s
unarmed. You have no right to hit him.”
It was pointless to struggle, but she didn’t care. She wanted their attention on her. It never occurred to
her to wonder why she’d be so intent on protecting her abductor. She only knew she didn’t want him
harmed. She kicked at her captor, her heels pounding against vulnerable knees and ankles while she
sharpened her fingernails on defenseless skin.
The recipient of her attack must have had enough of her antics. He gripped her wrists in one hand and
lifted his other, planning to backhand her. “Stop, you fool!” Tolken commanded, furious. “Have you lost
your mind? That’s Princess Alyssa, the duchess of Celestia.”
Merrick didn’t wait to see whether the order was obeyed. Though his arms were pinioned, his legs were
free and he put them to good use, lashing out with his foot and knocking the man to the floor. It earned
him another fist. Dropping to his knees, he shook his hair from his face and fixed his gaze on Tolken.
“If your man touches her, or even attempts to touch her again, he’s dead.”
Once again, the words were barely above a whisper, and once again they had an immediate effect on the
rescue party. It was subtle, but more noticeable this time, perhaps because she was in a better position to
observe. Every one of them stiffened, including Tolken, coming to attention the way subordinates do in
the presence of a superior.
As soon as Merrick saw he had their full attention, he added, “And if I don’t succeed in killing him, von
Tolken hesitated only a moment. She could see the inner battle he fought played out in the souring of his
expression. Part of him wanting to defy Merrick’s demand, to establish who was in control. The other
part recognized the validity of those two simple threats. With a harsh curse, he barked out another order,
this one in Verdonian, an order that had the man holding her scurrying from the room. They must not
have considered her much of a threat because no one else attempted to secure her. It was a reasonable
assessment. She wasn’t a threat…at least not in a physical sense.
Merrick maintained eye contact with Tolken, not sparing her so much as a glance. “She won’t go with
you until she knows her mother’s safe.”
She didn’t miss a beat. “He’s right. I’m not leaving here until I talk to her.”
Tolken dismissed her with barely a glance. “You will leave when we tell you. As for your mother, Prince
Brandt will allow you to speak to her when he sees fit.”
“Your Highness,” she retorted icily.
The man frowned. “What?”
“You will address me as Your Highness, or as ma’am. But don’t you ever again speak to me in that
dismissive tone. Not if you value your current position.”
Shock slid across Tolken’s face, followed by a wash of mottled red. His hands collapsed into fists—fists
itching to wrap around her neck if she didn’t miss her guess. No doubt Merrick could sympathize. As
though aware of his regard, she spared him a brief glance and he gave the barest nod.
“Get my mother on the phone. Now.”
“I can’t do that, Your Highness,” Tolken said through gritted teeth.
Folding her arms across her chest, she dropped to the edge of the mattress. “Then I’m not going
anywhere.” One of his men took a step toward her and she shot him a warning look, deciding to follow
Merrick’s lead. “Don’t even think about it. I may not have the power to stop you right now, but as
Prince Brandt’s wife, I plan to have a long and vindictive memory. If you dare put your hands on me
again, I’ll make you pay. And I’ll make sure it’s both inventive and painful.”
To her surprise the man believed her. He stopped in his tracks glancing helplessly from her to Tolken.
Behind him Merrick’s lips twitched, forcing her to struggle at maintaining her “ice princess” demeanor.
Damn the man. Didn’t he understand how difficult she found all this? They had guns, for crying out loud.
Prince Brandt held her mother hostage. And she’d been abducted—twice in two days. It wasn’t a game
and it sure as hell wasn’t amusing, no matter how absurd the situation had become.
The stalemate lasted for endless seconds before Tolken caved. Plunging a hand into his pocket, he
yanked out a cell phone and placed a call. Alyssa was fairly certain he spoke directly to Prince Brandt.
They conversed for several minutes in Verdonian before he handed her the phone.
“Ally? Baby, is that you?”
Static sounded in her ear, but Alyssa could still make out her mother’s distinctive voice and it brought
tears to her eyes. “Hi, Mom. Are you okay?”
“What’s going on?” Fear rippled through her question. “What’s happened? Why is everyone so angry?
Where are you?”
“Everything’s fine, Mom.” She used her most soothing tone, one that came naturally whenever she spoke
to her mother. After all, she’d had a lifetime worth of experience calming her, reassuring her, taking care
of her the best she knew how. “I’ll be there soon. I promise.” Before she could say more, Tolken yanked
the phone from her hand. “I wasn’t finished,” she protested.
“Don’t push your luck, Your Highness. We’ve done as you asked. Now you will come with us without
any further argument or discussion.” He put the phone to his ear and spoke for another moment before
breaking the connection. Thrusting the phone into his pocket, he addressed his men. “Our top priority is
retrieving the princess and ensuring her safe return to His Highness.”
Alyssa struggled to maintain her composure while they spoke around her, referring to her as though she
were a package. A possession. That’s all she’d been since the moment she’d stepped foot in this blasted
country and she was getting darned sick and tired of it.
“What about the commander?” one of the men asked, nodding toward Merrick.
Alyssa sat up straighter. Commander? Commander of what? Not that she had the opportunity to ask, not
while they were busy determining Merrick’s fate. She shot him an apprehensive glance. He didn’t seem
the least concerned. She remembered comparing him to a lion when she’d caught her first glimpse of him.
Perhaps she’d been mistaken. He was more of a leopard than a lion, she decided, all lean muscle built for
power and speed. There was also a ruthlessness about him, she associated more with leopards than
lions, a deadly intent. A crouching watchfulness that preceded explosive action.
His eyes glittered a hard, winter-bright gold, watchful and determined. Whether these men knew it or not,
they’d already lost. This man didn’t fail, no matter how huge the odds or how dangerous the mission. She
took a fierce pleasure in the knowledge before realizing that should Merrick succeed, she would lose. He
’d prevent her from returning to her mother by any and all means at his disposal. How was it possible that
every instinct urged her to trust him when it put her mother’s life in jeopardy?
But no matter how hard she tried to picture him as the enemy, what she recalled most strongly were his
arms wrapped tight around her and his hands and mouth offering the most intense pleasure she’d ever
experienced. “Trust me,” he’d said. She wanted to. God help her, she wanted to. And perhaps she
would, if it weren’t for her mother.
Tolken had reached his decision and he confronted Merrick. “I know you, old friend. It’s too risky to
bring you back on the helicopter with us. We’ll secure you here on the premises.” He stabbed a finger at
three of the four remaining guards. “You will remain behind and guard him. He can be retrieved later and
dealt with at that point. You will make sure he doesn’t escape. His Highness will be most disappointed if
you fail to do so.”
“Prepare to be disappointed,” Merrick murmured. “I won’t be here when you return.”
One of the men still surrounding Merrick raised his hand, but a single glance at Alyssa had him thinking
better of it. Still, it prompted her to sweep to her feet. “Enough! I won’t have a man beaten in my
presence. In fact, you will keep your hands off him until he’s turned over to Prince Brandt. Is that clear?”
She didn’t dare wait for a response since she didn’t know how much longer she could maintain her bluff
of future retribution. She turned to Tolken. “I need clothing, including shoes.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” He looked discomfited. “I—”
“Closet and dresser,” Merrick said. “You’ll find everything you need.”
Tolken signaled his men to secure Merrick and leave. Alarmed, Alyssa took a swift step in his direction,
only to stop short when she realized the inappropriateness of her actions. She stared at him in dismay,
bewildered when he returned her gaze with one of calm confidence. A half smile hooked the corner of his
mouth, his scar giving him a mischievous appearance that sat at odds with his warrior nature.
She didn’t understand it. They were going to take him away now. They’d tie him up while they returned
her to Prince Brandt. Once on the prince’s turf Merrick would be punished, severely, she suspected.
And there was nothing she could do about it, nothing at all, not if she wanted to protect her mother.
She should hate Merrick for what he’d done, but she didn’t. For some strange reason, she wanted to
protect him every bit as much as she wanted to protect her mother. How could that be? He’d abducted
her. Stripped her. Bound and gagged her. He thought she was motivated by greed and ambition. He’d
taken her captive. Forced her to share a bed with him. Held her in his arms. Kissed her until she couldn’t
see straight. Touched her in ways no man had ever touched her. She ought to congratulate Tolken and
his storm troopers. Offer profuse thanks. Instead, she wished them all a swift journey straight to hell.
The man who’d been sent away earlier appeared in the doorway. “Sir, the helicopter’s arrived. We can
depart at any time.”
Tolken jerked his head in Merrick’s direction. “Take him,” he instructed. “See if there’s a root cellar and
secure him there. The rest of you wait for me by the car.”
Without another word, they escorted Merrick from the room, the men filing out one by one until only
Tolken remained. Yanking open the closet door, he removed the slacks and blouse and tossed them to
Alyssa. “I’ll be waiting outside the door to escort you to the helicopter as soon as you’re dressed.” He
paused in front of her. “And I believe these belong to you. A wedding gift from His Highness, weren’t
He opened his hand and held out the amethyst and diamond earrings Prince Brandt had given her the day
before. Had it only been yesterday? Good grief. She vaguely recalled leaving the earrings in the bathroom
when she’d showered. Color tinted her cheeks at the hint of reprimand in Tolken’s voice. But what did
he expect? For her to wear them to bed…with Merrick? The ludicrousness of the whole sorry mess
struck her and hysterical laughter vied with embarrassment.
Lifting her chin, she regarded him with as much composure as she could manage. “Thanks.” She
accepted the earrings and, since he continued to stand there and wait, put them on.
He gave a nod of approval and stepped into the hallway. The instant the door closed, she crossed to the
small dresser shoved against one of the walls and checked the drawers. Sure enough, she found
underclothes with the tags still on them. Had Merrick chosen them, or had his sister, Miri? Not that it
The plain cotton underpants and matching bra fit reasonably well, though the bra felt a trifle snug. To her
relief, they’d gotten the size of the blouse right, the soft taupe a color she often chose to wear. The plain
slacks, several shades darker than the blouse, also fit well, if a little loose at the waist. She suspected the
clothes had been chosen for their simplicity and in the hopes that the wearer wouldn’t attract any undue
attention. Understandable, if regrettable. Had the circumstances been different, she’d have wanted to
attract as much attention as possible. Next, she found a pair of sandals in the closet. They were a tad
large, but the various straps and buckles could be tightened to compensate.
Glancing in the mirror, she groaned. No wonder Tolken had treated her with so little respect. She looked
like a woman who’d made a rambunctious night of it. Checking the rest of the drawers, she lucked onto
a comb and used the remaining few minutes taming the curls billowing around her face. That’s what came
from going to bed with wet hair.
Finished, she opened the door, surprised to discover that Tolken wasn’t waiting for her after all, but
another man stood in his place. “Where’s your boss?” she asked.
“I’m to escort you to the helicopter,” he replied.
“What about Merrick?”
He didn’t answer, but jerked his head toward the steps. She preceded him down and crossed to the
front door. She managed a swift glance toward both the kitchen and the great room before she exited the
house, but didn’t see anyone. Perhaps they’d found that root cellar Tolken had referred to and were
busy tying up Merrick. It was a depressing thought.
Outside, more men stood around the vehicle waiting to transport her to the helicopter. As soon as she
settled inside they drove a short distance to a narrow valley tucked between the mountains. A large black
chopper squatted in the middle. Off to one side a half dozen men were lounging on the ground in a small
group while another half dozen stood guard, their weapons at the ready. She didn’t have time to do more
than glance at the contingent before being helped into the helicopter. Tolken had brought far more men
than she’d realized. Clearly, Prince Brandt wasn’t taking any chances. He wanted her back and would
use every resource available to ensure it.
She glanced up to thank the man who’d assisted her onboard and stared at Merrick in utter disbelief.
He smiled, taking far too much enjoyment in her astonishment. “I had men surrounding the house. They
She fought to make sense of it all. “But, that means…. You knew Tolken would find me?”
“I had a pretty good idea. I had my men stationed, ready for that possibility.”
“It was all a setup?” she demanded. “You knew in advance that Tolken and his men would raid the
house? You knew we’d wake up with guns pointed at our heads?” At his nod of confirmation, the full
impact of his admission struck and unbridled fury took over. “How could you put yourself at risk like
that? If one of those idiots had been a little more trigger-happy you could have died! How could you be
He gave her an odd look. “And you,” he pointed out. “I put you at risk, as well.”
She waved that aside. “They wouldn’t have hurt me. Prince Brandt would have had their heads if I’d
been harmed. But you…Damn it, Merrick. I’m sure they considered you expendable. Those men were
out for blood. Yours, if I’m not mistaken. They—” Her voice broke. “They beat you.”
He dismissed that with a casual shrug. “Fortunately for us Tolken had them well under control, a fact I
was counting on since we’d both been trained by the same man—a man who abhorred unnecessary
bloodshed.” He held out his hand. “Now, if you don’t mind, hand over your earrings.”
The change of subject baffled her. “Why?”
“Tolken found you thanks to them.” He hesitated. “You’ll be pleased to know they’ve also helped prove
Too much had happened in too short a time. She didn’t understand anything anymore. When he made a
move toward her, she held up her hands. “Stop. Just stop a minute and explain it to me in short,
easy-to-digest monosyllabic words. Use sentences and paragraphs only if there’s no other option.”
He assisted her into one of the seats. Tucking her hair out of the way, he proceeded to strip her of the
earrings. He held them up. “Von Folke gave these to you?”
She nodded. “As a wedding gift.”
“They have a tracking device embedded in them.” He allowed that to sink in before adding, “It confirms
the story you’ve been telling me about being forced to marry von Folke. He wouldn’t have needed to
plant a tracking device on you if you’d chosen to marry him of your own free will. It only would have
been necessary if he’d been concerned that you might try and run.”
Outrage left her breathless. “That’s how Tolken found us? I was…I was bugged?”
“And you knew they’d come for me?”
He shrugged. “Suspected. Hoped.” Crossing to the open doorway of the helicopter, he tossed the
earrings to one of his men. “If Tolk came after you, I could secure him and his men long enough for us to
disappear. It worked. Now you and I will head out and Tolken will return to von Folke empty-handed.”
“But, isn’t this his helicopter?”
Merrick grinned. “Kind of him to lend it to us for our escape, isn’t it?”
“But, isn’t it bugged or…or have some sort of tracking device on it, too?”
“It is and it does. Too bad it’s been disabled or he’d know where we were going.” Turning, he signaled
the pilot. “Now, if you’ll fasten your seat belt, Princess, we’ll take off.”
The blades began to whip around. “Please don’t do this.” She had to shout to be heard over the growing
roar of the engines and blades. “Please. Just let me go with Tolken.”
“Sorry, Princess. I can’t. I’m afraid you’re stuck with me for the duration.”
The noise grew too loud to allow for further conversation. After a few minutes, the chopper lifted off and
banked to the south. They climbed over the ridge of mountains separating Avernos from Celestia, a
feature Alyssa remembered seeing on the map the previous evening. It didn’t take long until they were on
the other side and she caught her breath at the beauty of the rolling green hills spread before them. Rain
clouds drifted off and the sun broke through, sending a rainbow spearing toward earth. She’d been born
there, she marveled. She’d come from this place.
Eventually, the helicopter set down in another field, bordered by a dirt road. A car was parked off to one
side along the grassy verge. As soon as she and Merrick had exited the craft, the chopper departed,
winging northward once again.
“You had this all carefully planned, didn’t you?” she asked as soon as the noise had faded enough to
“It’s my job to plan carefully.”
Alyssa planted herself in front of the man who’d abducted her for the second day in a row, facing him
with a fierceness born of equal parts exhaustion and anger. “Who are you?” she demanded. “I mean,
“We were never formally introduced, were we?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “No. This might be a good time.”
He surprised her by sketching an elegant little bow. “Merrick Montgomery, at your service, Princess.”
Not only a leopard, but a graceful one with old-world manners. She didn’t want to notice such things.
She wanted him to be rotten and evil so she could focus on escape, instead of being distracted by how
he looked and moved, spoke and smelled. And kissed. Those kisses had been the ultimate distraction.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered.
He nodded in agreement. “Bordering on the bizarre.”
“You still haven’t told me what you do. How did you become caught up in all this?”
“I’m commander of Verdonia’s Royal Security Force.” At her blank look, he clarified, “It’s the security
contingent for the country as a whole, rather than any one principality.”
“Like the army or something?”
“Or something. A specialized armed forces.”
That explained Tolken and his men’s demeanor toward Merrick, as though they were subordinates
addressing a superior. It also explained their apprehension. What the hell had she become involved in?
And how could she get herself and her mother out of it? “Well, Commander, would you mind explaining
to me how snatching an innocent woman is part of your job description?”
“It’s my job to see to the safety and protection of my country and its citizens. That includes you and your
mother, something I’ll deal with before much longer.” He started across the field toward the car. He didn
’t even check to see if she followed, though considering she had nowhere else to go, it was a bit of a
no-brainer. “Now let’s start at the beginning, Alyssa. How and why did you come to Verdonia?”
He spoke English with a near perfect accent. But it still held a gentle lilt most noticeable when he said her
name. Was there nothing about the man she could despise? “I was about to start a new job.”
He nodded. “Assistant Vice President of Human Relations for Bank International in New York City.”
“Do you remember my saying that, or did you have me investigated?”
Did they have a dossier on her? She found the idea unnerving. Did he know about all her jobs? About
how, since college, she’d bounced across the country, from position to position, always looking for the
“perfect” one? The perfect place to finally, finally put down roots? Did he know about her mother’s
background, as well? Oh God.
“My mother—Angela Barstow—sent me an express envelope. It contained a brief note begging me to
help her out of a jam she’d gotten herself into. And she sent an airline ticket.” Alyssa shrugged. “What
could I do? I flew out to help.”
“This jam, as you call it—what was it?”
Alyssa frowned. “She didn’t say. She and my current stepfather recently broke up and she often runs
away after—” She broke off, aware she’d said too much. “She thought an extended trip to Europe might
give her time to get over him. I don’t know why she returned to Verdonia. Maybe she got it in her head
to visit my half brother for some reason. Perhaps she wanted to visit my father’s grave.”
Merrick swiveled to face her. “Is it possible she set you up deliberately? Could she be working with von
A lyssa glared at Merrick. “My mother working with von Folke? Not a chance,” she retorted without
hesitation. “She’s the least devious woman I know. She’s…helpless. That’s why I need to get to her as
soon as possible.”
With a noncommittal nod, he continued on to a white sedan and opened the passenger door. “That’s not
going to happen, Princess. You’re going to have to trust me when I say that von Folke won’t do anything
to harm her.”
Instead of climbing in the car, she slammed the door shut. “I’m supposed to trust you?” she demanded.
“How can you even suggest such a thing? What have you done to inspire my trust?”
“Not a damn thing.” Merrick dropped his hands to Alyssa’s shoulders. “Since you haven’t known me
long enough to trust me, consider this…. Tolken and his men know I’ve taken you against your will. I
made that clear to them. They also know that you were willing to return to von Folke. Hell, you were
eager to. The fact that you weren’t able to isn’t your fault and everyone will recognize that fact. There’s
no advantage to hurting your mother. It won’t help his cause.”
It made sense, but she didn’t dare risk her mother’s life based on Merrick’s brand of logic. “You can’t
be certain. Not a hundred percent certain,” she argued.
“I can, and I am. Right now von Folke has a certain level of sympathy. Someone has stolen his bride and
that has the potential for swinging votes his way—assuming he makes that information public knowledge.
I’m betting he’ll keep it quiet for the time being. There are too many variables beyond his control to risk
any sort of general announcement.”
Merrick ticked off on his fingers. “If it comes out that you were forced to the altar, his credibility is called
into question. If we make it public that von Folke’s holding your mother in order to ensure your
compliance. If the point is made that by forcing you to marry him, he would win the throne. All of these
variables are out of his control and of substantial risk to him. No, he’ll remain silent. Instead, he’ll send
men after us in the hopes of recapturing you without creating an uproar.”
“Aren’t you concerned about that?”
“We have a few advantages of our own. Tolken is…” He frowned, seeming to struggle for the right
words. “You have state law enforcement in your country, do you not?”
“Yes. Local police. State troopers.”
“Tolken is like that. As von Folke’s right-hand man, he enforces the peace within the principality of
Avernos. You also have law enforcement that supercedes the state level?”
“Of course. Federal agencies.”
“I am the equivalent of that. It would be frowned upon for Tolken to come into Celestia and attempt to
enforce the law. When he comes—and he will—it’ll be on tiptoe, whereas I only have to tiptoe if it’s to
“Okay, I get it. Commander tops the principality police.” She returned to the issue that worried her the
most. “I still don’t see how that guarantees my mother’s safety.”
“The only way von Folke succeeds is if you’re willing to marry him. If you return and discover your
mother’s been harmed, I can’t see you agreeing to cooperate with his plans. It’s in his best interest to
keep your mother healthy.”
“And if he decides his plan is a bust?” she protested. “Don’t you think he’ll want to get rid of everyone
who knows what he attempted?”
“Including you and me?” He gave it a moment’s consideration. “All the more reason to stay well away
from him until after the election.”
“At which point he can take his anger out on my mother.”
He fought to hang onto his patience. “I’ll find a way to free your mother.”
“How?” she demanded.
“Again, you’ll have to trust me.”
She wanted to. She wanted to more than she cared to admit. Every instinct she possessed urged her to
allow him to take control of the situation, to yield to his superior strength and conviction. But she didn’t
dare. “I can’t,” she said at last.
She hesitated, not certain she wanted to reveal such personal information. But something in his eyes held
her, demanding the truth. And she found herself telling him, opening herself in a way she hadn’t with any
other man. “I spent a lifetime watching my mother run from one bad situation—and man—straight into
the arms of another. Each time she trusted the new man in her life and gave up all her power and control,
allowing her new husband to dictate how and what and when and why. And each one betrayed that trust,
leaving her worse off than she’d been before.”
“Hell, Princess.” He was seriously taken aback. “How many stepfathers have you had?”
She waved his question aside. “That’s not important.”
“I disagree. I think it may be very important.”
She shook her head, refusing to betray her mother. “The bottom line is that long ago I promised myself I’
d never repeat the same mistakes she made. I’d stand on my own two feet. Control my own life. Make
my own decisions. And the main decision would be to never allow any man to tell me what to do or how
to live my life.”
“And now you have a man doing just that.” He blew out a harsh breath. “Tough break.”
“It has been. Until now.” She paced away from the car, gazing toward the mountains that bordered
Prince Brandt’s principality. “So far I’ve lived my life my way. I haven’t let any man control me. I’m tired
of playing the victim. One way or another, I’m going to take control again, to determine my own fate.”
“Good for you. In four months, you can get right back to doing that.”
She spun to face him. “Not in four months. Right now. I’m going to find a way to rescue my mother. You
can either help or get out of the way. But I’m not going into hiding for the next four months and leave my
mother to Prince Brandt’s mercy. You can’t guard me every second. Sooner or later I’ll find an
opportunity to escape and I intend to seize it with both hands.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll make sure I don’t give you that opportunity.” He opened the car door again.
“Please. Get in.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
“But if I do?”
His expression remained adamant. She could no more move him than the mountains at her back. “I plan
to succeed,” he stated.
“No matter who gets sacrificed?”
He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. “Please. Get in the car.” He waited until she’d reluctantly complied
before leaning in to fasten her seatbelt. “In case it hasn’t occurred to you, if you’d married von Folke you
’d have given up even more control than you have with me. He’d have seen to that. This solution may not
be much better. But it is better.”
She had no response to that.
“What?” she whispered.
His expression softened. “Welcome home.”
Alyssa turned her head and stared out the front windshield while Merrick watched in concern. She’d
done a fair job at concealing her thoughts from him, but her mouth quivered ever so slightly. He
remembered her looking just like that when he’d studied her through the binoculars the day before. At
the time he’d thought of her as a lifeless doll, that betraying quiver a result of either nerves or triumph. He
knew better now. She might be trying to hide the fact, but he could tell that being in Celestia, knowing her
roots were here, had made an impact.
She flicked a swift glance in his direction and then away again. “Where are we going?”
“I have a place nearby where we can spend the night. We can’t stay there longer than a day. Tolken may
figure out where we are.” He grimaced. “It depends on how good his memory is.”
“What is this place?”
“A farm that belongs to my grandparents. The place is vacant while they visit my brother in Mt. Roche.
That’s the capital city of Verdonia.”
“So you have both a brother, as well as your sister, Miri. What’s his name?”
He hesitated. Would she recognize it? He couldn’t afford to take the risk. “It’s not important.” Before
she could comment, he changed the subject. “You’re not going to like this next part,” he informed her.
“Really?” She lifted an eyebrow. “And which part up to now have I liked?”
Score another point for the princess. “For the rest of the time we’re together we’ll be sharing a bed, the
same as last night.”
“No,” she rejected the plan. “I can’t do that. Not again.”
“Why?” Fool. He knew damn well why. They’d only spent one night in bed together and he hadn’t been
able to keep his hands off her even for the space of those few hours. How was he supposed to succeed
in leaving her untouched for weeks…months? “Was it because of that kiss?”
Her gaze jerked up to meet his and he read the answer without her saying a word. Her eyes were an
incredible shade of blue, startling in their intensity, even more so with memories of the previous night
darkening the color. Her lips parted and he could hear the quickening of her breath. He leaned closer,
drawn to that mouth, that amazing, lush mouth. He’d never sampled anything like it, anything so addictive,
so intoxicating. He wanted more. He wanted to drink her down until all he could taste was her, until his
hands knew her body more intimately than his own, until the air filling his lungs was saturated with her
scent and the sound of her voice became the only music his ears could comprehend.
The confines of the car seemed to close in around them, shrinking until only the two of them existed. He
reached for her, cupping her head in his hands. Her hair slid through his fingers, the curls knotting around
them, anchoring him in place. Not that he wanted to go anywhere. He leaned in until their lips brushed.
Parted. Brushed again, harder this time. Sealed. She moaned, a rich, helpless sound that rumbled deep in
her throat, like a cat’s purr. She didn’t even seem to realize she’d made it, a fact he found unbelievably
Her hands slipped to his chest and she gathered up fistfuls of his shirt. For an instant she relaxed into the
embrace, welcoming his touch. Her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder and wayward strands of
silky hair clung to his jaw, giving off the faintest aroma of exotic flowers mixed with tangy citrus. And then
she released his shirt and her arms encircled him. He could feel her urgency, one that fed his.
Her kiss was filled with a desperate passion, as though snatching life-giving sustenance before the
onslaught of a drought. She consumed him with abandonment, greedily drinking in everything he had to
offer. And that’s all it took to set him off. The combustion was as violent as it was immediate, a flash fire
sweeping through him and igniting the overwhelming compulsion to make this woman his on every
possible level. He pushed her against the door, angling her mouth for a deeper kiss. Their tongues joined
in a sweet, hot duel. Tangling. Warring. Caressing.
This was wrong. Oh, so wrong. Not that he gave a damn. If they’d been anywhere other than in a
twoseater with a stick shift threatening mayhem between them, he’d have taken her right there against the
door and to hell with the consequences. The only thing that stopped him was the expression in her eyes.
A fierce conflict raged in them, physical desire in a pitched battle with rationality. Want clashing with
He couldn’t say how long they teetered on the knife’s edge, caught between a mindless, delicious fall into
insanity and the far less satisfying retreat toward reason. He could take her, could have her body and use
it until he was sated. But it wouldn’t be enough. He didn’t want just her body. He wanted far more, he
suddenly realized. And he wouldn’t be satisfied until he had every piece of her. If that happened here and
now, so much the better. He could convince her that what had started out as an abduction had become
something else altogether. Personal. Vital. Necessary to both of them. Still, he forced himself to make it a
fair fight and eased back a scant inch.
She accepted the out he offered and pulled back, gasping for air, staring at him with glazed, bewildered
eyes. “Why does this keep happening?”
“Because I’m irresistible?”
She disengaged herself from his embrace and the curls wrapped around his fingers tightened in protest
before reluctantly setting him free. “Every time you touch me I come undone.” She glanced down at
herself and the breath hissed from her lungs. She plucked at her blouse. “Look at me. This is exactly
what I’m talking about. How did you manage to do that?”
To his amusement, half the buttons were unfastened. “I don’t know how that happened. I thought I’d
been cupping your head the entire time.”
She fumbled with the buttons. “You have to stop trying to seduce me. It’s not fair. It’s only supposed to
work in reverse. Not in…in…Not this way.”
Her comment intrigued him. “You mean, it’s acceptable if you seduce me?” He could only come up with
one reason why she’d attempt that. The corner of his mouth kicked upward. “You think seducing me will
give you an opportunity to escape?”
“If that’s what it takes, then yes,” she snapped. “Not that I’d have succeeded.”
“You might have.” He opened his arms. “I’m willing to let you give it a try if you want.”
“Oh, ha ha. Very funny. But I’ve already thought it through. It wouldn’t work.”
“Why not?” He was genuinely curious.
“Simple. What happens after I seduce you?”
“I go deaf and blind?”
Her mouth twitched before she managed to suppress it. “If I thought you would, I might be willing.
Because the only way I’d manage to give you the slip would be if you really did go deaf and blind. And
even then, I’d need a three day head start.”
He snagged another of her wayward curls and twined it around his finger again, forcing her to look at
him. “If I ever get you in my bed for real, if I ever make love to you—proper love to you—I’d never let
you go, Princess. I’d keep you wrapped up so tight you wouldn’t know where you ended and I began.”
She jerked back. It was too much too soon and she reacted with a feminine alarm as old as time. The
female preparing to flee from the pursuing male. The scent of want mingled with the fear of domination.
As badly as she needed to retreat, it didn’t come close to how badly he wanted to give chase. Every
instinct he possessed urged him to take her. Now. To forge a bond before she escaped.
She must have read his intent because her hand groped for the door handle, clinging to it as though it
were a life raft. “I think we should go now.” She spoke with an authority that didn’t quite ring true.
Moistening her lips, she tried again. “But I have a condition of my own before we do.”
He buried a smile. He could guess what that condition would be. “Which is?”
“You don’t kiss me again. No touching. No sexual overtures. I need to feel safe.”
His amusement died, replaced with regret. Is that what he did to her? Made her feel unsafe? But then,
how could it be otherwise? He’d abducted the woman. Tied her up. Forced himself on her—even if she
had responded with a passion that blew him away. And he’d been unable to resolve the issue with her
mother, something that left her frantic with worry.
“You are safe,” he informed her gently. “You have my word.”
“Fine. Then we can go.”
“As soon as you fasten your seatbelt.”
She groaned. “I didn’t realize I’d unfastened it. Buttons. Seatbelts. You’re a regular magician, aren’t
“If I were, I wouldn’t bother with buttons and seatbelts. Anyone can unfasten those.” He turned the key
in the ignition. “I’d find it far more interesting to unfasten you from the inside out.”
She didn’t reply, but confusion warred with alarm. Leaving her to consider his words, he shifted the car
into gear and drove to the farm. He gave her time to explore, keeping his distance so she had an
opportunity to come to terms with her situation without his breathing down her neck. Dusk had settled
around them when they met in the kitchen for their evening dinner.
“Who’s taking care of the farm while your grandparents are away?” Alyssa asked toward the end of the
Had she hoped for rescue from that direction? If so, she’d be sorely disappointed. “There are caretakers
who live not far away. I warned them I’d be here tonight.” Merrick topped off her glass of homemade
buckthorn wine, a wine his grandparents only served to their most honored guests. Much to his relief,
Alyssa had been effusive with her praise of the exotic brew, taking to the unusual flavor as though born to
it. “They won’t interfere,” he added pointedly.
She accepted the information with a stoic nod. “I’ve been wondering…What happens to Celestia when I
return home? Who will inherit it after me?”
She frowned and genuine concern lit her eyes. “Didn’t my father have any relatives? Distant cousins or a
twice removed niece or nephew or something? The succession can’t just end with my brother.”
“No.” He waited a beat. “But it can and does end with you.”
Her frown deepened. “Then, what happens to Celestia?”
He took a sip of the golden wine before replying. “According to law, it’ll be divided in half and absorbed
by the other two principalities. One portion will go to Avernos, the other to Verdon.”
Her distress wasn’t feigned. “That seems so wrong.”
He shrugged. “It’s within your power to prevent.”
She started shaking her head before he even finished his sentence. “I can’t. My home is in New York. I
have an apartment. Responsibilities. I start a new job in another two—”
He winced as she broke off. He could tell she’d only just realized that being held by him for the next four
months put more things at risk than just her mother. No doubt she’d lose her job, as well. She’d been
thrust into a situation not of her choosing, her entire life turned upside down courtesy of the political
upheaval in Verdonia. And there was nothing he could do to change that. At least, not until he could
figure out what was behind von Folke’s desperate maneuvering.
As much as he regretted the sacrifices her abduction created, he didn’t for one minute regret her
presence in Verdonia. In the short time they’d been together he’d come to realize that she belonged here.
More, he realized she belonged with him.
Now all he had to do was convince her of that.
One look was sufficient to warn it would take a hell of a lot of convincing. Alyssa stood, her smile
strained, darkness eclipsing the brilliance of her eyes. “I think it’s time for me to turn in,” she announced
in a painfully polite voice. When he would have stood, as well, she held up a hand. “Could you give me a
few minutes? I need some time to myself. I promise I won’t try and escape.”
“Of course. I’ll get our luggage from the car.”
“We have luggage?” She laughed, the sound heartbreaking. “You do plan ahead, don’t you? At least, for
She left the kitchen and a few minutes later he heard her enter the bedroom. The door closed with a
gentle click, leaving Merrick swearing beneath his breath. Damn it to hell. He’d never meant for this to
happen. The decision that had seemed so obvious and clear cut a week ago had become complicated
beyond belief now that he’d executed it. What he needed was time to think, to review his options, as well
as review possible alternatives he hadn’t previously considered.
Exiting the house, he removed the luggage and delivered it to Alyssa before retreating to the kitchen. He
sat in one of the ladder-back chairs, remembering the summers he and his brother had spent here. Little
had changed since then. The heart oak kitchen table remained the same, with only a burn mark from one
of his grandfather William’s cigars to mar the scoured surface. He could still recall his grandmother
scolding her husband for his inattentiveness and the way he’d reduced her to breathless laughter by
apologizing with a smacking kiss. The wide plank flooring was just as spotless now as then, as were the
whitewashed walls. And every appliance had been polished to a satin sheen.
He poured himself a final glass of wine and carried it out to the front porch to William’s rocker. His
“thinking chair” as he’d often referred to it. Sipping the wine, Merrick allowed the minutes to ease by.
The consequences of his actions weighed heavily, the potential outcomes haunting him. He’d forsaken all
he’d held dear, all he’d spent a lifetime creating. Had he made the right decision? Was his purpose just
and honorable? Or had he subconsciously allowed personal aspirations to guide his choices?
After two full hours of contemplation, he still didn’t have an answer. Giving it up as a lost cause, he
returned to the bedroom, groping his way in the dark. After a quick shower, he climbed into bed. If he’d
been any sort of a gentleman, he’d have left Alyssa alone. But he couldn’t. He needed her. He slid an
arm beneath her and tucked her close. He heard her breath sigh into the night as she settled into his
“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I didn’t intend for you to lose your job or to put your mother in harm’s way.
If I could change any of it, I would.”
“You can change it. You choose not to.”
He couldn’t deny the accusation. “True. Will they hold your job for you?”
“Doubtful. Not for four months.” She spoke dispassionately, but he heard the underlying ripple of pain
“The outcome would have been the same even if I hadn’t abducted you. You realize that, don’t you?”
She stilled in his arms. Apparently that hadn’t occurred to her. He gave her the hard, cold truth—at least
the truth as he saw it. “If I hadn’t interfered you’d now be married to von Folke and your job would still
have been sacrificed. This way you’ll be free in four months, free to return home and pursue your career
once again. I suspect von Folke would have kept you tied to him for a year or two. Possibly longer.”
“I…I hadn’t thought of that.” She fell silent for a long moment. “I don’t know what I’m going to
“You could stay in Verdonia.”
Her laugh held a bitter edge. “Pretend to be Princess Alyssa, duchess of Celestia?”
“You are Princess Alyssa, duchess of Celestia. You have degrees in psychology and business
administration, with experience in international finance. Your education is tailor-made for the position,” he
“I don’t belong here.”
She fell silent for a long time. Then, “Was he your friend?”
The switch in topic caught him by surprise. “Who?” But he already knew.
“Tolken. You sounded…” She paused to consider. “You sounded familiar with each other. More than
familiar. Friends. No, more like friends turned enemies.”
She continued to amaze him with her insight. “Yes, he was my friend. He was my best friend.”
He exhaled. “Until I put my hands on you. The friendship ended in that moment.”
“So much sacrificed by so many,” she murmured.
He found the reminder tortuous. “Sleep, Princess. Tomorrow’s a long day.”
“Where are we going?”
“We need to keep moving. But at least you’ll see more of your land.”
She twisted within his arms. “Not my land.”
“Deny it if you will. But you belong to Celestia every bit as much as she belongs to you.”
“And who do you belong to?”
“No one. Nothing. At least, not anymore.”
It was a painful truth to face. Though his roots sank deep into the rich Verdonian soil, they didn’t run
deep enough to survive this. Von Folke would see to it that he paid dearly for his actions. At the very
least, he’d be expelled from Verdonia, a pariah to his people. More likely he’d be imprisoned.
“What will you do?” she asked.
“Finish what I started.”
“Face the consequences.” After all, he had no other choice. Not anymore.
The next day, Merrick made tracks southward toward Glynith, the capital city of Celestia. He had to
work hard to maintain a low profile. He was a public figure and easily recognized. But either Alyssa didn’
t pick up on the deference they offered him or she put it down to his being the commander of the Royal
He’d arranged for several safe houses, though the first they headed for wasn’t far from the Celestian
capital. He’d debated just driving up into the hills and staying at the anonymous cabin he’d rented there.
But he preferred a place that offered more avenues of escape while he waited for von Folke’s next
He soon discovered that the worst part of the abduction wasn’t the wait, but the endless nights. How he
ever thought he could spend four full months sleeping with Alyssa, wrapped so tightly together that every
luscious inch of her body was pressed against every hard-as-tempered-steel inch of him, he didn’t know.
After just one week exhaustion rode him almost as hard as shameless desire. Not that she noticed.
The instant he crawled into bed with her and tugged her close, she fell into a deep, abandoned sleep,
accepting his embrace as though they belonged in each other’s arms. It was almost as if they were two
parts of a whole, separate and adrift from dawn until dusk, complete only at night, where within the
velvety darkness it felt safe to express emotions they kept well hidden in the harshness of daylight.
To his relief, she didn’t follow through on her threat to take off the first chance that presented itself, not
that he gave her the opportunity. He guarded her every second of every day. But by the end of their
eighth day together, Merrick was sick of staring at the four walls of their rooms and twitching from the
effort of keeping his hands off Alyssa, neither of which boded well for the endless weeks ahead of them.
She must have felt something similar, because when he suggested a short excursion through the capital
city, she leaped at the offer, promising the world in exchange for the chance to be outside.
Driving through the busy streets of Glynith, he pointed out key landmarks, including the royal residence.
“Not as impressive as the one in Verdon or Avernos,” he observed. “But it serves its purpose.”
“It’s huge,” she replied faintly. “It’s so strange to think that my mother once lived there.”
He regarded her in amusement. “So did you.”
“And I had a father and a brother I can’t even remember. I wish…” She swiveled in her seat. “Did you
know them? What were they like?”
“I never met your father, but he was considered a good man, committed to Celestia and her people. He
came from farm stock, like my grandparents, and loved the land.”
Bittersweet emotion swept across her expression. “And my brother?”
“Also a good man. I find it hard to believe that he’d have taken money to abdicate. Perhaps von Folke
brought other pressures to bear.”
“I can’t imagine living your entire life in one place.” And yet, he heard an intense longing quivering in her
voice. How different would her life have been if she’d grown up here? Had put down roots here? Did
she ever wonder? “What about Miri? Has there been any news?”
His mouth compressed. “None. Tolk doesn’t have her or he’d have said something when he found us.”
“But you can’t be sure.”
“He wouldn’t harm Miri.” There wasn’t a shred of doubt in his mind. “But, the few times I’ve called
home, no one’s heard from her.”
And the fear and concern were tearing him apart. What had Alyssa said about so much sacrificed by so
many? Here was another sacrifice—one laid firmly at his feet. His noble intentions seemed far less noble
all of the sudden. He had so many to protect, so much at stake—more than his future, or Alyssa’s new
job, or even the safety of Miri and Angela Barstow. There was an entire country to consider. And until
he found out what secret von Folke concealed and why he’d become so desperate to gain the throne,
Merrick had to put the welfare of the country ahead of the few. He’d put out feelers, but so far he hadn’t
discovered anything pertinent.
Neither of them wanted to return to their rooms after the drive and Merrick decided to take one more
risk and allow them a brief walk through one of the commercial sections near their apartment. A local
jewelers window held Alyssa’s attention the longest, and she returned a second time on their way back
to their rental.
“My favorite is this one.” Alyssa pointed to a deep purplish-blue amethyst with flashes of brilliant red at
Merrick smiled. “You have excellent taste. That particular stone is called a Verdonia Royal. The color is
unique to our country and quite rare, like a Siberian amethyst, only with more blue than red. The most
common are these ones,” he said and indicated a pinkish-lavender stone. “The Celestia Blush. Outside of
Verdonia this color is often called a ‘Rose de France’ but our name has historic significance, so we tend
to use it rather than the other.”
“And this ring?” She pointed to the centerpiece of the display. “I love it.”
They’d caught the eye of the proprietor who waved them in. Before Merrick could stop her, Alyssa
opened the door and entered the shop. Hell. Adjusting his sunglasses, he settled the American-styled ball
cap he’d recently acquired lower on his forehead and prayed he looked as much like a tourist as Alyssa.
Then, he followed her in.
It was too much to hope that the store owner wouldn’t recognize him, but the instant he did, Merrick
gave a single shake of his head without alerting Alyssa. The owner, a man named Marston, nodded in
silent understanding, clearly willing to cooperate if Merrick wished to remain anonymous. Satisfied, he
leaned against a nearby counter and watched the two interact.
“Every once in a while the mines cough up a few of the Royals,” Marston explained as he slid the ring on
Alyssa’s finger. It fit perfectly. “They’re highly prized and only used in the best pieces. Like this ring.”
“It’s beautiful. Is this white gold or platinum?”
“The ring is platinum.” He spared Merrick a brief glance and after receiving a nod, rolled into a more
fulsome description. “The antique Edwardian setting features a three carat Royal as its center stone and a
blue diamond and Blush on either side, each perfectly balanced, and weighing in at 2.1 carats apiece. The
broad gallery is bead set with .44 carats of European cut diamonds. Finished with fully mille grained
edges, the pierced openwork gives this ring an unsurpassed elegance.” He blinked up at Alyssa through
wire-rimmed glasses. “Would you like to know what the ring says?”
Alyssa lifted an eyebrow. “The ring says something? Tell me. I’d love to know.”
“Our finest pieces are always designed to express a particular sentiment. In this case, the Verdonia Royal
symbolizes the union of soul mates. Aside from the unique color, that’s why it’s so highly prized and so
rare. It’s considered very bad luck to give or accept one if it’s not for true love. But this ring also has a
diamond and a Blush. The diamond represents many different things, but mainly strength, love, and
eternity. As for the Blush, it was used in olden days to seal agreements and contracts.” He pointed to the
pattern formed by the pierced openwork of the ring. “And then, see this?”
Alyssa examined the banding more closely. “Why does that pattern seem so familiar?”
Merrick took a look and smiled. “Because it’s the shape of Celestia. Historically, Celestia has always
been the fulcrum between Verdon and Avernos, unifying the two opposing forces into one country.”
Alyssa exclaimed in delight. “So, the pattern represents the unification of the three separate stones into
Marston nodded. “Very astute. The designer named it Fairytale because that’s what the ring is. It’s a
fairy tale with a happily-ever-after ending all in one. Soul mates united in an unbreakable bond of eternal
love. That’s what it means.”
“It’s an incredible piece,” Alyssa marveled. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”
Marston grimaced. “Unfortunately we haven’t been able to purchase any stones of this caliber for years.
Even the Blushes have become rare. The problem has grown worse over the last few months. Rumor has
it that the amethyst supply is drying up.” He threw Merrick a hopeful look. “Perhaps you could shed
some light on the source of the problem? Are the mines played out, as some have suggested? Or is it
simply a means to drive the international price up by creating an artificial shortage?”
Merrick shook his head. “I can’t answer that. I wish I could. But I can assure you that we’re aware of
the problem and it’s being looked into very carefully.”
A small sound came from the doorway between the retail section of the shop and the back room. An
older woman stood there, wide-eyed. “Your Highness,” she said with a gasp and swept him a deep
curtsey. “We’re honored to have you in our store.”
Alyssa stiffened. “Your Highness?” she repeated sharply.
The woman offered an understanding smile. “I can tell from your accent that you’re an American, so
perhaps you don’t recognize His Highness. This is Prince Merrick.”
“No.” Alyssa took a swift step backward. “He’s commander of Verdonia’s Royal Security Force.”
The woman nodded. “That’s right. The commander is Prince Merrick Montgomery. His older brother,
Prince Lander, could very well be our next king.” Her gaze flitted back and forth between the two and a
hint of uncertainty crept into her voice. “I’m sorry. Have I said something wrong?”
“I believe His Highness is incognito, my dear,” Marston explained gently.
Before the woman could do more than stammer out an apology, Alyssa slipped the ring from her finger
and carefully returned it to the velvet tray. Then turning on her heel, she darted from the store.
A lyssa flew out of the jewelry shop and down the street that led deeper into the commercial district.
Instinct was driving her and she simply acted, determined to get as far away from Merrick as quickly as
possible. To lose herself in the twisting jumble of avenues that spidered out in all directions.
She’d been deceived. Merrick had deceived her. The thought echoed the painful tattooing of her heart
and pounding beat of her racing footsteps. That woman had called him “Your Highness.” She’d said that
Merrick was a Montgomery, that he and Prince Lander were brothers. And who just happened to be
Prince Brandt von Folke’s rival for the throne of Verdonia? Prince Lander.
All Merrick’s fine talk about wanting the best for his country had been nothing but a lie. Everything he’d
done had been to benefit his brother. He’d had an ulterior motive for preventing her marriage, right from
the start. If she’d gone through with the wedding, Celestia and Avernos would have voted for Prince
Brandt and he’d be king. By stopping the ceremony, Merrick’s brother still had a shot at the throne. So
much for the better good of Verdonia. More like the better good of the Montgomerys.
She kept up a rapid jog, taking turns at random, forced to slow to a brisk walk when she developed a
stitch in her side. The breath heaved in and out of her lungs. How could she have been so stupid? She’d
seen the respect with which people treated Merrick. Had caught the casual familiarity with which he
referred to Prince Brandt. His air of authority. The way von Folke’s men had reacted to him. It simply
hadn’t occurred to her that it was anything more than the appropriate deference offered to the
commander of the Royal Security Force. Now that she knew better, she needed to get away.
Ahead of her she saw a uniformed officer. Was he the local authority? If so, perhaps he could help her
reach the American embassy. Before she’d taken more than a single step in his direction, a heavy arm
encircled her waist, yanking her against a hard, masculine body—a very familiar hard, masculine body.
At the same time a hand whipped across her mouth, cutting off her incipient shriek.
“Not a word,” Merrick murmured close to her ear.
He pulled her backward into a pitch-black alleyway. Up ahead the officer paused to speak to someone,
and when the man turned his face into the glow from an overhead streetlight, she realized it was Tolken.
She stiffened within Merrick’s hold.
“I see you recognize our friend.” Merrick’s voice was a mere whisper of sound. “It appears Tolk’s given
up tiptoeing and is being a little more aggressive in his search. That tells me it’s time for us to find a new
hiding place.” His grasp tightened. “Pay attention, Princess. When I tell you to move, you move. Nod if
you understand and agree.”
A tear escaped before she could prevent it, plopping onto the hand he kept locked over her mouth. His
reaction to that single drop of moisture was subtle, but confined within such a close embrace, she felt him
stiffen and heard the slight hiss of breath escaping his lungs. It sounded like a sigh of regret. No sooner
had the thought entered her head than she rejected it. No. That wasn’t possible. People as ruthless as
Merrick didn’t experience regret.
“You haven’t responded, Princess. I’d hate to do this the hard way. Now, will you obey me?”
She nodded in agreement, yet even then, his hold didn’t slacken. He maneuvered them backward,
deeper into the alley. How he could see, she didn’t have a clue. But somehow he managed to avoid the
obstacles blocking their path. A few yards further on they reached the opposite end of the alley, which
opened onto a dimly lit side street.
“I’m going to uncover your mouth. If you make a single sound, I promise you’ll regret it. When I release
you, we’re going to head back to where I parked the car. We maintain a brisk pace. We walk with
purpose, but don’t run. Two lovers eager to return home. Clear?”
She nodded again and he removed his hand, ready to silence her again if she so much as breathed wrong.
When she simply stood there, he tucked her distinctive hair beneath her blouse and lifted the collar.
Sliding his arm from her waist to her shoulders, he tucked her close against him so she was almost
concealed from curious eyes and urged her onto the sidewalk. He kept to back streets, emerging close to
the jewelry shop. Another block and they reached the parking lot where he’d left the car. The entire way
she didn’t dare make a sound. But the instant she’d slipped into the passenger seat, she turned on him.
“You lied to me, you bastard. You didn’t tell me you were Prince Lander’s brother!”
Without a word, he started the engine and thrust the car into gear.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” she demanded.
“Not here and not now.”
They sped past their apartment without pausing and she twisted in her seat, watching it vanish behind
them. “Where…where are we going? Why aren’t we returning to the apartment?”
“Too risky. We’re moving on. I have another safe house that’s not too far from here. We’ll spend the
night there before heading into the hills.”
“But our clothes—”
“Are replaceable. Everything we need I have on me.”
She fell silent at that, too upset and emotionally drained to do more than stare out the side window. There
was so much she wanted to say in reply, but words failed her. Perhaps it was due to the exhaustion
dogging her. More likely it was because she knew if she tried to speak again she’d end up in tears. The
drive seemed endless as they darted up and down narrow, winding streets, at times backtracking and
circling. After an hour he’d satisfied himself that they weren’t being followed and pulled into a drive that
lead up a steep embankment. At the crest of the hill stood a large house with an impressive view of the
As soon as they were ensconced inside, he walked her through the place, checking windows and doors
as he went. Checking escape routes, she supposed. The home was beautifully appointed, far superior to
the apartment they’d shared.
“Whose place is this?” she roused herself enough to ask.
“No one I know personally. No one Tolk can trace to me.”
“He found us sooner than you expected, didn’t he?”
She could tell that fact had him worried and she couldn’t decide if the knowledge brought her a certain
level of satisfaction, or if she joined him in his concern. They returned to the living area and Merrick
crossed to a well-appointed wet bar.
“We need to talk,” he announced, pouring drinks.
“What’s the point? You lied. End of discussion.”
“You deserve an explanation.” He handed her a snifter half-filled with amber liquid. “Here. You look like
you could use this.”
She cupped the glass in her hands and inhaled the rich, nutty scent as she gazed at him across the wide
brim of the cut crystal snifter. “Is brandy the official antidote for betrayal?” she asked.
“You’ll have to let me know.”
She lifted the glass. “In that case…to trust,” she said and took a healthy swallow.
“I apologize, Alyssa. I should have told you who I am.”
Her mouth curved in a bitter smile. “And who are you, exactly?”
“Exactly who Marston’s wife claimed I was. Merrick Montgomery.”
“Don’t you mean Prince Merrick? Younger brother of Prince Lander, duke of Verdon.” She lifted an
eyebrow. “Do I have that right?”
“The same Prince Lander who’s competing with Prince Brandt for the throne?”
A muscle jerked in his cheek. “Yes,” he said again.
“It would seem your antidote isn’t working.” She swirled the brandy around the balloon of the snifter. “I
still feel betrayed.”
“I believed you,” she whispered. He didn’t say anything and she took another gulp of brandy, choking as
the aged wine took a bite out of the back of her throat. “I actually believed you had an altruistic motive
for what you were doing. But instead every last action has been to ensure your brother becomes king.
What a fool I am. You’d think I’d have learned from my mother’s mistakes. Never trust a man,
especially one with an agenda.”
His anger flashed, hot and potent, causing her to stumble back a step. “Do you think I haven’t questioned
my own motives?” He tossed back his brandy, as well, though he handled it far better than she had.
“That I haven’t worried that they might be less than pure?”
She turned her back on him and strode to the French doors that accessed a large balcony. Thrusting
them open, she stepped outside. Glynith stretched out far below, the glittering lights of the various
buildings turning the city into a virtual fairyland, filling her with a yearning she didn’t understand.
She sensed Merrick’s approach and spoke without turning around. “You may have questioned your
motives, but it sure as hell didn’t stop you from abducting me.”
“No, it didn’t.” He dropped his snifter onto a small table at one end of the balcony, the fragile crystal
ringing in protest. “Because it all boiled down to one vital consideration. What was best for Verdonia.”
“And your brother’s the best choice, is that it?”
She turned her head, startled to discover Merrick standing almost on top of her. She fought to conceal
how everything about him affected her. Profoundly. The deep roughness of his voice. His musky scent.
Even the size and shape of his hands captivated her on the most basic, primitive level. Her gaze lifted to
the sensuous curve of his mouth. His distinctive scar hooked his lip into a half smile. She could still
remember how that scar felt beneath her own mouth and she drew a deep breath, forcing herself to
ignore everything but getting through the next few moments.
“If your brother isn’t the best choice, then why did you abduct me?”
He took the brandy from her hand and set her glass on the table alongside his. “The best choice is
whomever the people of Verdonia choose in the upcoming election. But it’s their call. Not von Folke’s.
Not Lander’s. Not mine or yours. It’s for all of Verdonia to determine. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
She hated that his words made sense, that they struck a chord that resonated deep within. He stood for a
deeply rooted community, for individuals joined together in purpose. It was something she’d longed for
all her life. Instead, she’d always hovered on the outside, her nose pressed to the proverbial glass. “And
now? What happens next? Do we continue our four-month pilgrimage?”
“That’s no longer possible. Trust is a two-way street, Alyssa. Neither of us trusts the other. So, it’s time
to take more drastic action.”
She swallowed, wishing she had more of that brandy. “I’m afraid to ask what that might be.”
“I always had a plan B. I just hoped not to have to use it.” His mouth curved in an ironic smile. “We’re
going to marry.”
It took two tries to catch her breath sufficiently to speak. “We’re what?”
“Going to get married.”
She shook her head. “You’ve lost your mind.”
“Think about it, Alyssa. If I marry you, von Folke can’t.”
“You’ve hit on the perfect solution. The perfect way,” she marveled, then added furiously, “the perfect
way to get my mother killed.”
“If we marry, he can’t use you as a pawn. You’re free. We’ll wait a decent interval and then divorce. As
for your mother—” he scrubbed a hand across his jaw “—if you marry me, I’ll leave immediately
afterward to rescue her.”
That stopped her. “Are you serious?”
“You…you would do that?”
“I would have done it already if I’d believed she were in any real danger.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Do
we have an agreement? Will you marry me?”
She wished she had time to think it through, to give it more than two seconds’ worth of consideration.
But she was out of both options and time. She snatched a quick breath and took the plunge. “Yes. I’ll
“Excellent.” His satisfaction at her response vied with some other emotion, one she hesitated to put a
name to. One that held a frightening element of the personal attached to it. “Then I suggest we seal our
The words hung between them for an endless moment. The driving thunder of her pulse matched the
harsh give and take of his breath. He took a step in her direction, closing the scant few inches separating
them. Resolve darkened his eyes and he reached for her, mating their bodies, locking them together in a
fit that could only be described as sheer perfection.
There was nothing tentative about his taking, it came lightning fast and deliciously accurate. He knew
precisely how to touch her, how to kiss her, how to steal every thought from her head except the burning
need for gratification. Desire struck, a sharp, lustful craving that demanded satisfaction. He plundered her
mouth, initiating the sweetest of duels.
She surrendered without hesitation. No. Not a surrender. A battle for supremacy. Then not a battle at all,
but a giving, one to the other. His tongue tangled with hers, teasing, playing, demanding. His hands
followed the length of her spine, his fingers splaying across the curve of her buttocks, fitting her into his
palms. He lifted her, pulling her tight against him. She could feel his arousal pressing against her belly and
it ignited her own desire, intensifying it. Spurring it to unbearable heights.
She forked her fingers deep into his hair, tilting his head to a more accessible angle. Catching his bottom
lip between her teeth, she tugged urgently, before falling into his kiss again. Time and place vanished. All
that remained was the harsh sound of breathing, the rustle of clothing, the slide of flesh against flesh.
More than anything she wanted him to hike up her skirt and rip through the modest layer of cotton that
kept her from him. To drive into her and give her the relief she craved. She’d been alone all her life.
Endless, empty days and nights. A life of running from, but never to. She wanted to stop running. To fill
that emptiness, fill it in the most basic, carnal way possible. If her mouth hadn’t been otherwise occupied,
she would have asked for it, demanded it. Begged.
And it was that image—of her pleading to be taken on the balcony of a stranger’s home as mindless lust
overrode common sense—that acted like a splash of cold water. She shuddered. What the hell was she
doing? How could she have been so foolish? Worse, how could she have compromised herself with such
ease and so little thought? Had she learned nothing from her mother’s example? From Merrick’s
betrayal? She untangled herself from their embrace, ashamed that she couldn’t resist snatching a final,
hungry kiss before pushing at his shoulders.
“No more.” The words were as much plea as demand. “This is a mistake and I’ve made enough
mistakes in my life without compounding them.”
She could see him debate whether or not to push, to take advantage of her momentary weakness. To her
relief, he contented himself with feathering a final kiss across her mouth before releasing her. “Consider
our bargain sealed.”
She moistened her swollen lips with the tip of her tongue. His taste lingered, unsettling her, and she
struggled to come up with a way out of the agreement she’d been foolish enough to enter. “About that—
He lifted an eyebrow, clearly amused. “Going to break your word already?”
She was tempted. Sorely tempted. She’d gotten herself caught in a dangerous situation, one she should
have walked away from the minute she’d sensed the trap. But she’d have done anything, agreed to
anything, if it meant saving her mother. Now she’d struck a deal with the devil and she didn’t doubt for a
minute that he’d hold her to it.
“Don’t worry, I’ll stick. You just make sure you play by the rules from now on.”
His grin slashed through the dark. “I’m not here to play by them, Princess. My job is to make them up as
we go along.”
He’d gotten her with that one and she turned away without another word. She stalked back into the living
room, his soft laughter following her, tripping through her, rousing emotions she’d thought were long
dead. She wasn’t here for romance, she reminded herself. She was here bargaining for her mother’s
safety. Falling in love wasn’t part of the plan. Nor was falling in lust. Regaining control of her life was the
end goal and she’d be smart to remember it.
It took her a few minutes to remember where the bedroom was located and once she’d found it, she shut
herself inside, praying Merrick would give her time before joining her. Closing her eyes in helpless
despair, she leaned against the door and forced herself to admit the truth. She wanted to be swept away
by his touch, to drown beneath his kisses. To sink into the powerful surge of his lovemaking before
floating on the glorious tide of release that would surely follow. Why? Why did she react to him? Why
this man over all the others she’d met in recent years?
She wandered through the darkened room, caught in the restless ebb and flow of her own emotions.
Eventually she found herself standing beside the huge bed. Images flashed through her mind. Male and
female, naked. Darkness and light, intertwined on a bed of silk. The first tentative strokes. Gentle.
Tender. Soft, urgent cries of need. The slow give and take of the mating ritual. A sweet loving.
She spun away from the bed. What in the world was wrong with her? No. Not loving. Sex was one
thing. Love, something entirely different. She could use one, enjoy it, without being imprisoned by the
other. She lowered her head, dragging in air. Damn it! A single crazed kiss and her hormones were all
stirred up and desperate for release. What had happened to her self-control? What had happened to her
focus and determination?
She had one single goal—to rescue her mother and return home—and she’d do well to remember that.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Merrick winced as he opened the door a little wider to allow his brother, Lander, access to the safe
house. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” That seemed the smartest response, at least until he
had time to find out how much big brother knew.
“I’m talking about the abduction of Princess Alyssa Sutherland.”
Damn. Apparently he knew a lot. Too much, in fact. “Who talked?”
“Miri.” Lander brushed past him and paced across the living room, as large and aggressive as ever, the
embodiment of his nickname—the Lion of Mt. Roche. “She’s on the Caribbean island of Mazoné,
probably because she knows our mother will wring her neck when she finds out what the pair of you
have been up to.”
“Thank God she’s—” Safe. Merrick bit off the word. Probably not the best thing to say to an overly
protective older brother. “I’ll deal with Mother.”
“Good luck with that.” He faced Merrick, his arms folded across his chest. “Now where is the princess?
She’s going back to Avernos right now, even if I have to take her there myself.”
Merrick swore beneath his breath. “She’s asleep and she’s not going anywhere. In fact, you don’t want
her going anywhere. If you return Alyssa to von Folke, you’ll lose the election.”
Lander cut him off with a cutting sweep of his hand. “Then I lose the election.”
“Don’t interfere,” Merrick warned. “Alyssa and I are getting married. End of discussion. When we do, it’
ll put paid to von Folke’s scheme and the election will be based on merit rather than regional loyalty.”
Lander appeared skeptical. “I can’t believe Princess Alyssa is agreeable to such a drastic solution.”
“Trust me. When it comes down to a choice between me and von Folke, she’s agreeable.”
“You swear she’s willing?” Lander pressed. “You’re not forcing her the way Brandt was?”
Merrick fought back a wave of indignation. “Hell no, I’m not forcing her. I’m not von Folke.” Though he
couldn’t in all honesty claim she was a hundred percent willing. Amenable, perhaps. If he stretched it.
“We reached an agreement. She marries me in exchange for my rescuing her mother.”
“Son of a—von Folke again?”
“Yes.” Merrick took a step in the direction of the door. “You need to go. I don’t want anyone to find out
we’ve been in communication.”
Lander speared his fingers through his brown and gold mane of hair and glared with hazel eyes that were
more green than gold. “I’m not going to be able to talk you out of this craziness, am I?”
Merrick shook his head. “Not a chance.”
“Do you realize all you’re sacrificing?” Lander asked urgently. “You don’t have to do this. Not for me.”
“Yes, I know precisely what I’m sacrificing. And yes, I have to do this. By tomorrow it’ll be a done
deal.” He offered a crooked smile. “Just so you know, I consider it well worth the consequences.”
Lander cleared his throat. “Thanks.”
Merrick executed a slight bow. “My pleasure and my duty, Your Highness.”
“Oh, knock it off,” his brother said in embarrassment. “Here, I have something for you.” He pulled out a
computer CD in a plastic case and handed it over. “You requested a set of blueprints to von Folke’s
palace. I offered to play courier.”
Merrick frowned in concern. “You shouldn’t have brought these anymore than you should be here. I’m
trying to keep you out of this. I want you to have plausible deniability.”
“You’re kidding yourself if you think that’s possible. I could shout deniability from dawn until dusk, and
no one would believe it. You’re my brother. The assumption will be that I’m in on the abduction and any
other actions you take from here on.” His face settled into grim lines. “Not that I care. We’re not the
ones who set this game in motion. Von Folke will have a tough time crying foul play when it’s revealed
that he’s been cheating from the start. Was he really forcing her to marry him? You’re certain?”
“Positive. Once Alyssa found out he was holding her mother, she didn’t feel she had a choice other than
to go through with the ceremony. If I hadn’t taken action, they’d be married by now.” Merrick gestured
toward a small study off the living room. “Come on. There’s a computer in there. Let’s take a look at
what’s on the disk.”
Lander followed him, leaning against the desk to watch. “I’ve been going over the situation ever since I
found out about von Folke’s plan,” he said while they waited for the computer to boot up. “I can’t figure
why he’d pull such a stunt. It’s out of character for him.”
“I have a feeling it’s connected with the amethyst supply drying up. I can’t help wondering if something’s
happened with the mines.”
Lander shook his head. “Why would he keep a problem with the mines a secret?”
Merrick considered the various possibilities. “I’m not sure. For political leverage? If it became common
knowledge that the mines were tapped out and he hadn’t given the country adequate warning, there’d be
hell to pay come the election.” He slipped the CD into its slot and pulled up the menu. “Okay. Let’s see if
we can figure the best way for me to get into the palace, nab Alyssa’s mother and get out again with our
Lander traced his finger along an underground passageway that ran between the interior courtyard of the
palace and the chapel. “What about taking this route? You could slip in through the woods near the
chapel, take the passageway to the palace and be right on top of them before they knew what hit them.”
“Assuming he hasn’t blocked it off.”
“Hmm. If he has, you’ll have to approach from this side.” Lander gestured toward the south entrance.
Merrick began jotting down notes, sketching out the bare bones of a plan. “I’ll send one of my men in
tonight to see which is the most viable choice.”
Lander straightened. “So, when’s the wedding?”
“What? Oh. Tomorrow.”
“We could just…make her disappear for a few months. You don’t have to go to the extreme of marrying
Merrick tossed aside his pen and stood. “Too risky. She could escape. Von Folke could find her. The
variables are endless. Marriage is the only way to make certain he doesn’t get his hands on her and finish
what he started.”
Lander shot his brother a hard look. “Does she know the marriage will have to be consummated in order
for it to be legal in Verdonia?”
“It hasn’t come up,” Merrick answered shortly.
“You’re not going to tell her, are you?”
“It won’t be an issue.”
Lander stared in disbelief. “Are you sleeping with her already?”
Merrick bristled. “That’s none of your business.”
“I think it is. Damn it! You don’t need me to tell you how inappropriate that is. Do you have feelings for
this woman? You can’t be thinking of turning this into a real marriage.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Merrick snapped. “My concern—my only concern—is for Verdonia. Marrying
Alyssa is a means to an end, nothing more.”
Lander’s eyes narrowed. “That had to be the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard. You can stand there
and tell me you don’t care about this woman, but I’m your brother. I know when you’re lying, even when
it’s to yourself.”
Anger swept through Merrick, possibly because Lander’s comment hit a little too close to home. “There’
s more than a relationship at stake. More than even an election. With Alyssa’s brother, Erik, abdicating,
the principality is in desperate need of its princess. If Alyssa doesn’t stay, it means the end of Celestia. I
intend to keep that from happening.”
“Or maybe you want a justifiable excuse for taking her to bed,” Lander suggested dryly.
Merrick didn’t have an answer to that. As much as he wanted to deny it, he couldn’t. Not totally. Lander
was right. In order for their marriage to be considered legal, it had to be consummated. If von Folke
suspected there was a loophole somewhere, he could still cause trouble. But the marriage also gave
Merrick the excuse he needed to make love to Alyssa. Once they were husband and wife, he wouldn’t
have any other choice if he wanted the ceremony to be legally binding. Nor would she. Still, he hoped
she’d choose to remain in Verdonia and accept her rightful position. Celestia needed her. It wouldn’t
survive without her.
The real question was…was he making the decision to marry her for the better good of Verdonia? Or
was his true motivation something far less honorable?
T he morning of Alyssa’s wedding dawned clear and warm, filled with the scent of springtime yielding to
summer. The marriage had been planned for early evening when the church would be closed to
parishioners and Alyssa couldn’t help but remember preparing for a far different ceremony just two short
weeks ago. On that occasion she’d been terrified and alone. She’d also feared her bridegroom, been
sick with worry about her mother and unsuccessful at discovering a way out of her predicament.
This time she felt far differently, a fact that left her uncertain and confused. She should hate Merrick for
twisting her arm to get her to the altar. After all, he was no better than Prince Brandt, right? But no matter
how hard she tried to convince herself of that fact, it didn’t quite work. Merrick wasn’t Brandt and never
would be. Although his motives weren’t pure, they were noble.
From the moment he’d announced his plan to marry her, events had screamed by at breakneck speed.
He’d chosen the venue and had a gown, veil and shoes delivered by one of his men. Even a set of
wedding bands had shown up. She didn’t bother contesting any of his plans. How could she? It would
have been like attempting to derail a runaway train with a toothpick.
As the afternoon deepened, she dressed in the gown he’d selected, a simple three-quarter length ivory
silk with a wide, sweeping skirt and fitted bodice. A hip-length mantilla veil looked stunning with it, which
she chose to carry, rather than wear and risk damaging on the drive.
The chapel Merrick had chosen was glorious—small, intimate, reverent. The floors were flagstone, worn
smooth from years of faithful usage. Stained glass lit the interior with a rainbow of glowing light. The pews
and altar were lovingly polished to a high sheen, and the faintest hint of beeswax and lemon
complimented the scent of the flowers and candles.
Once again Alyssa was struck with how differently she reacted to everything in comparison to last time.
Nervousness gripped her, an excited fluttering deep in the pit of her stomach. Not fear. She remembered
that sensation all too clearly. Could it be…anticipation?
She shook her head. No. That wasn’t possible. She didn’t want to marry Merrick. She’d agreed for one
reason and one reason only—to save her mother. She’d made a bargain, one she’d honor no matter
what. But it wasn’t a bargain she anticipated with any degree of excitement. It couldn’t be.
“This is for you.” One of the staff members at the church handed Alyssa a hand-tied bridal bouquet, a
medley of herbs, ivy and curling sticks and twigs. “It’s a traditional bouquet. The herbs are to ward off
evil spirits and endow the bride with fertility. The birch twigs are for protection and wisdom, the holly
branches represent holiness. And the ivy is to ensure fidelity.”
Alyssa ran a finger along the sprigs of lavender. “And this?”
“The national flower. It promises a marriage filled with luck and love.”
It was a sweet gesture, if a pointless one. Or so she thought until she joined Merrick in front of the altar.
She didn’t think she’d ever seen him look more handsome and the sight of him stirred emotions she
shouldn’t be experiencing. The final glorious rays of sunlight warmed the chapel, filling it with a rainbow
of color as soft as a prayer.
Taking both her hands in his, Merrick bent and kissed her. “It’ll all work out,” he whispered. “I swear it.”
His words affected her more deeply than she cared to let on, filling her with a desperate yearning. What
would have happened if they’d met under different circumstances? If she’d grown up here and met him
as part of her royal duties? Would she have fallen in love with him? Would they have been celebrating a
real wedding instead of this charade? Or would they have settled for a brief, intense affair before going
their separate ways? The fact that she couldn’t answer any of those questions left her nerves jangling.
Afterward, she didn’t recall much of the ceremony. From the instant Merrick touched her and their eyes
connected, time slowed. She didn’t remember looking away, not once, but allowed herself to be held by
his fierce golden stare, empowered by it. The one moment that burned itself into her memory was when
he repeated his vows, his voice strong and sure, and slipped the wedding ring onto her finger.
She caught her breath at the beauty of the platinum band he’d chosen, a circlet studded with alternating
diamonds, Verdonia Royals and Celestia Blushes. Before she could say a word, he bent and took her
mouth in an endless kiss. It was in that timeless moment that she realized her feelings for Merrick had
undergone a radical change.
And that she was in serious trouble.
Alyssa had no idea what happened immediately after the ceremony. A part of her retreated, stunned by
the realization she’d made when Merrick kissed her. She’d allowed feelings for him to slip beneath her
guard. She cared about him.
She didn’t know when or why it had happened. She didn’t even know how it was possible after all they’
d been through. She simply felt…harmony. A rightness. A belonging. A wild passion that went deeper
than anything she’d ever felt for any other man. She burned with it, bled from it. Was consumed by it.
And, ultimately, she turned from it, refusing to deal with the consequences of those emotions.
They returned to the house tucked into the hills overlooking Glynith, where she’d first agreed to marry
him. Silence reigned, neither willing—or able?—to speak. She entered the darkened room and stood in
the middle of the living area, still dressed in her wedding finery. She removed her veil, meticulously folded
it and set it on the back of the couch. And that’s when all her doubts came storming back.
“What have we done?” Alyssa murmured.
“You’re just wondering that now?”
She spared Merrick a quick glance, alarmed to discover him in the process of stripping off his suit.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting comfortable.” He tossed his jacket aside and approached. “Would you like help getting out of
your wedding gown?”
She took a quick step backward. “And then what?” She couldn’t believe she’d asked the question,
despite the fact that it been plaguing her for the past hour or more. “I mean—”
“I know what you meant,” he replied mildly.
“I’m sorry.” He maintained his distance, but he was still too close for comfort. Everything about him
overwhelmed her, filled her with a sense of risk. “I guess I’m not handling this well.”
His eyes grew watchful. “Then chances are you aren’t going to handle this next part any better.” A
predatory smile edged his mouth. “After we get out of our clothes, I plan to make you my wife in every
sense of the word, even if it’s for only one night.”
Oh God. He’d said it. He’d actually said the words. Part of her trembled with anticipation, the other with
apprehension. Apprehension won. “Not a chance.”
“I think there’s every chance. You want me as much as I want you.” He stepped closer. Too close. “We
’ve shared a bed every night for almost two weeks and it’s been sheer torture. Do you deny it?”
“We’re attracted to each other,” she began, but the expression darkening his face had her faltering.
“Okay, fine. I want you. Are you satisfied?” Maybe that accounted for the feelings she’d experienced
during the ceremony. Simple desire. Not caring. Not an emotional connection. Lust. It was the only
“There’s only one way we’ll both be satisfied and you damn well know it. Or are you afraid?” His eyes
narrowed. “Is that it, Princess? Are you afraid to take the final step, afraid of what will happen if you
Her chin shot up. “Where do you want it? Here? On the table over there, maybe?” She scuffed a toe in
the carpet. “This looks soft enough. Maybe you’d prefer it down and dirty.”
She’d pushed him too far. She saw the crack in his self-control, watched as it fragmented and splintered.
Before she could do more than take a single stumbling step backward, he snatched her high in his arms.
“Personally, I prefer the comfort of a bed.”
“I’ve waited as long as I intend to. Tonight we finish it.”
Without another word, he carried her down the short hallway and into the bedroom. The skirt of her
gown flowed over his arm and trailed behind, a fluttering flag of virginal surrender. Striding to the center
of the darkened room, he set her down. She took a quick, desperate look around. Even unlit, she could
tell the bedroom was extremely masculine—too masculine. She wanted lightness and femininity and
romance—a playful fantasy that softened the harsh reality. This…this was pure male. Unbridled male.
Sharp and potent and darkly dangerous. Just like Merrick. She spun around, intent on escape and
plowed directly into him.
“Shh,” he soothed, gathering her close. “Easy.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I can’t.” She shot an uneasy look in the direction of the bed. “I just can’t.”
“Let’s see if I can help you with that.” He caught her left hand in his and ran his thumb across her
wedding band. It gleamed in the subdued lighting. “We made promises tonight. Do you remember them?”
“I promised…” Her chin wobbled. “I promised to love. To honor and cherish.”
“As did I.” His voice deepened, turning to gravel. “Don’t you understand? This ring symbolizes the first
chapter in a book you’ve set aside before even beginning. Don’t leave it unread. What’s happened so far
is no more than the prologue. And then what, Princess? Where does the tale go from there?”
Her breathing grew harsh, labored. “Nowhere.”
“That’s not true and you know it. It can go anywhere you want. We create the story. We determine the
direction. We can even start over if you want and rewrite the beginning.” He lifted her hand and kissed
her ring. “Or we can move in a new direction. Start fresh on a new page. The choice is yours.”
“What about your choices?” She laced her fingers with his, turning their locked hands into the moonlight
streaming through the windows. His wedding band splintered the gentle glow, shooting off sparks of
silver and gold. “What happens to you when this is all over?”
He hesitated for the briefest moment. “My choices are more limited.”
“What do you mean?”
“This can only have one ending for me. Von Folke will see to that.”
Alyssa’s vision blurred. “You mean jail.”
“Most likely.” He brushed her cheek with his thumb, erasing the tears she hadn’t been able to control. A
cloud drifted across the moon, casting their rings into shadows. The glitter dimmed, then winked out. A
prediction of their future? “Look at me, Alyssa.”
She did as he demanded and saw the calm certainty in his gaze. “I’m not afraid to make love to you.”
The truth came tumbling out. “I’m afraid of what will happen afterward. What it’ll do to us. How it’ll
Those two simple words hung between them. And then the clouds passed and moonbeams once again
pierced the dimness, stabbing the room with tines of silver. He stepped back from her into one of the
shards, the moon’s gilding leeching him of all color. Only the blacks and whites and grays remained,
shades of darkness and light, of ambiguity and clarity.
Without a word, he unbuttoned his shirt and shrugged it off his shoulders. It dropped into shadow.
Holding her with his gaze, he unzipped his trousers, the metallic sound harsh and grating in the silence of
the room. His trousers parted and her mouth went dry. She could barely think above the fierce pounding
of her heart. In one fluid motion, he stripped away the last of his clothing before drawing himself to his full
height. Totally nude, sculpted by the moonlight, he made for an impressive sight. He stood motionless,
allowing her to look her fill.
He had one of the most spectacular physiques she’d ever seen. His shoulders and arms were powerfully
masculine, able to bear the heaviest of weights. And yet it struck her that those same arms would also be
gentle enough to cradle a helpless infant. The dichotomy moved her more deeply than she thought
possible. Her gaze dipped lower, to a chest lightly furred with crisp brown hair just deep enough to sink
her fingers into. A narrow line speared downward, like spilled ink, splitting washboard abs on its path to
his groin. He was fully aroused, yet made no effort to act on that arousal.
“Why are you doing this?” she whispered.
“So you can see you have nothing to fear.” His gaze grew tender. “Whatever you want, it’s yours.”
“Just tonight.” She choked on the words. “It can only be for tonight. You know that, don’t you?”
“Then it’s just for tonight.” He stepped from the light into darkness, finding her where the gloom held her
ensnared. “But when tomorrow comes, you may discover that one night isn’t enough.”
She wanted what he offered, but fear and uncertainty froze her in place. “Tomorrow doesn’t belong to
us. You’ve already warned me about that. Von Folke—”
“Will be dealt with. And who knows, perhaps it’ll all work out.” He planted his feet and spread his arms
wide, an oak of a man—strong and sturdy and protective. His heart and soul was rooted deep in the soil
of Verdonia, a fact she envied more than she could have believed possible. “Just come with me. Stay
with me. Take a chance.”
His words sang with endless promise, bewitching her, offering to turn dreams into reality. She gave in to
their enchantment. She stepped into his arms and fell from darkness into light.
Alyssa slid her hands across Merrick’s chest in a quiet prelude to their mating dance. For the first few
minutes they barely touched, just a tentative brush of hands. A whisper of a kiss. Lips joining. Clinging.
Parting. Then rejoining. The soft exhalation of desire across heated skin.
This time she was the one wearing too many clothes and she fought to curb her impatience. She didn’t
want anything separating them, nothing that would prevent them from touching flesh to flesh. And yet, this
wasn’t an occasion to hurry. She wanted to linger over each and every step, to sear into her memory
every moment as it happened.
He found the cloth buttons holding her gown in place, and one by one released them. She lifted her arms,
savoring the drag of flesh-warmed silk followed by the cool sweep of air. Her slip came next, skating
down her hips to pool at her feet. He dropped to his knees, lifting first one foot free, then the other,
leaving her standing in nothing but a bra and thong. Sliding his hands around her thighs, he held her steady
as he trailed feather-light kisses from knee to thigh, wandering ever higher until he’d reached the
His breath was warm through the triangle of silk that concealed her. Hooking his fingers into the elastic
band at her hips, he tugged. Her panties drifted downward, seeming to vanish of their own volition. And
then he took her, his kiss the most intimate she’d ever received. She threw back her head and dug her
fingers into his hair, her throat working frantically.
“Easy, Princess,” Merrick murmured against her. “We have all the time in the world.”
“Okay. Fine. I just—” She shuddered. “I need to finish getting naked. I need to finish getting naked right
now. And then I need you naked on top of me. Or under. I’m not particular.”
She felt his smile against her heated flesh. “I can help with that.”
All of a sudden she didn’t want to savor each moment. She wanted to seize every last one, burn through
each second in a swift, glorious blaze. She couldn’t handle slow, let alone leisurely. Fast and desperate
appealed far more.
“Hurry.” He slid his hands from her thighs upward, cupping her, and she practically danced in place.
“No, I mean it. Hurry!”
But he didn’t hurry. Instead, he parted her with his thumbs and blew ever so gently, a mere whisper of
sensation before he kissed her again. And that was all it took. She exploded in his arms, unraveling
helplessly. A keening wail built in her throat, trapped there for an endless moment before escaping. She
hung, suspended in paradise until finally her knees gave out and she collapsed into his waiting arms.
Merrick swept her up, carried her to the bed and spread her across a velvet-soft bedspread. “Why?”
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “It gave you pleasure.” His hand slid behind her back and released
her bra. “And that gave me pleasure.”
“In that case, prepare yourself,” she warned him as he tossed the scrap of silk outside the oasis of the
bed. “Your pleasure quotient is about to go through the roof. I’m going to see to that.”
Rising to her knees, she slid her arms around his neck and kissed him, a hard, urgent, open-mouthed
kiss. To her amazement, desire flamed again, thrumming through her with stunning urgency. It was as
though the past several minutes had never happened, as though this was the first time they’d touched, the
first time they’d kissed, the first time they’d shared a moment of intimacy. She pressed closer and
wrapped herself around him. It was like sliding into a pool of molten heat.
Merrick groaned. “You’re killing me, Princess.”
“I don’t want to kill you, not unless it’s to love you to death.”
He tipped her onto her back. “I think I can live with that.”
Her quick laugh must have provided him with a beacon to her mouth because he honed in on her parted
lips with pinpoint accuracy. Sealing them with his own, he drank her in. First fast and needy, then slow
and tender, before haste consumed them in a frantic burst of uncontrollable hunger. He snatched a final
swift kiss and began sampling her as though she were a buffet of delicacies spread out for his tasting
pleasure. Her shoulders. Her neck. Followed by the painfully sensitive tips of her breasts. He ignored her
urgent pleas, feasted there while his hands took over, touching, probing, teasing, wallowing in a banquet
of tactile indulgence.
The tension grew within her again. Desperate. Demanding. Frenzied. An explosion building toward a new
eruption. She shoved at his shoulders, forcing him to give ground. Stabbing her fingers into his hair, she
pulled him back to her mouth, consumed him in one fierce, biting kiss before wriggling her hands between
them. She found him, fully aroused, steel wrapped in velvet. Scissoring her legs around him, she pulled
him inward. Took him. Absorbed him.
He surged to the very core of her, hard and heavy, almost painfully so. She could feel him trying to hold
back, to ease his passage into her body and she arched, her muscles drawn taut.
“Don’t stop.” The breath burned in and out of her lungs. “Even if it kills me. Even if it kills you. Just don’t
He moved then, mating their bodies in a primal give and take, stroking to the harmony of their own
private song. Fire burst all around them, flames licking at her skin, burning through her blood, gnawing at
her bones. She could see the brilliance of it, hear its angry crackle, feel the heat exploding within. A
scream built, clawing at her throat. She could sense the release approach, more powerful than anything
she’d felt before. It slammed into her, the power of it smashing through every barrier. She flew apart,
disintegrating into pieces so small they could never be gathered up again.
From a great distance she heard a voice. The voice of her soul mate. “Alyssa.” That single word
whispered through the air, barely audible. And yet, it did the impossible.
It brought her home.
Merrick woke to complete darkness, uncertain what had disturbed him. It only took an instant to realize
what it was. His arms were empty and his bed cold. He sat up, searching the darkness for Alyssa.
The curtains by the balcony stirred, alerting him to her whereabouts. Tossing aside the tangled sheet, he
padded nude across the room. The French door to the balcony stood ajar and he stepped outside into
the soft, dewy air. He found Alyssa there, leaning against the railing, the bathrobe she’d wrapped around
herself fluttering in the breeze. She gazed out at the city where the full moon dipped low in the sky. Its
silvery life’s blood flowed across Celestia, a river of light pouring across her homeland.
He knew the instant she became aware of him. Without a word, she untied the robe and allowed it to slip
off her shoulders. He came up behind her and slid his arms around her waist, tugging her close. Flesh slid
against flesh, warm and vibrant and life-affirming. Alyssa twisted in his arms, grasping his shoulders.
Cupping her bottom, he lifted her and in one easy thrust, sheathed himself in her heat. Turning, he braced
her against the French door.
Then slowly, ever so slowly, he moved with her to a rhythm only the two of them could hear. She arched
in reaction, drawing his hands to her breasts, tilting her head back against the cool glass in silent ecstasy.
The moonlight painted her with a loving brush, turning her skin luminescent. She glowed with an unearthly
passion, a passion that pierced him to the soul. Consumed him. Threatened to destroy him. They clung to
each other, riding to the edge, teetering there, poised on the brink of an endless fall. She gathered him up
with moonlit eyes, before leaning in and pressing her lips to his ear.
“You’re right,” she whispered. “One night’s not enough.”
And then she exploded in his arms.
M errick woke early the next morning. Pre-dawn light eased into the room, gilding his wife in a soft, rosy
Just the thought filled him with pure masculine possessiveness. Alyssa was his woman, joined to him in
every way possible. When he’d first suggested marriage, it had been with the thought of forming an
alliance. A contract. He’d wanted her, he couldn’t deny that. But it had been a purely physical want,
nothing more. He’d intended for their wedding night to consummate their contract, to close all legal
loopholes. Now he wasn’t as certain of his motivations.
He closed his eyes. Damn. What was he going to do? Their relationship didn’t have a hope in hell of
succeeding. Too many factors interfered. Little things such as he lived in Verdonia and she in the States.
He’d abducted her and put her mother at risk. Most problematic of all, he was headed for prison, she for
a new job in New York City. Not the most promising foundation for a successful marriage.
The early morning light strengthened, a warning that time was passing. As much as he hated the idea, he
should leave. He’d made a promise to his wife, a promise to rescue her mother immediately after their
marriage, and come hell or high water, he’d honor that promise.
Yet as urgently as he needed to head out, he gave himself a few final minutes to study the sleeping face of
his wife. From the first, he’d found her beauty startling. In an aesthetic sense, it was. But in the weeks he’
d known her, he’d found her character even more beautiful, giving depth and dimension to the physical.
He leaned over and kissed her, lingering, slipping within. She moaned, her mouth softening, parting,
responding even in her sleep. Her eyes flickered opened, reflecting the sunlight, the color deepening to
the sultry blue of a warm summer sky.
“Good morning.” Dreams still clung to her voice, filling it with a delicious huskiness. “You’re awake
“Good morning, wife,” he greeted her with a slow smile. “Welcome to our first day of married life.”
Unable to resist, he lowered his head and kissed her again. Cupping the nape of her neck, he nudged her
into a deeper embrace. Her arms encircled him and after a long moment, she pulled back just long
enough to look at him. He thought she was going to speak, but instead she slid her fingers into his hair
and tugged his head back down to hers. He didn’t need any further encouragement. He gave in to her,
gave everything. Not that he had any choice. Half measures weren’t part of his nature. But he was honor
bound, bound to obligations he could no longer postpone.
He swept unruly curls from her face. “It’s time for me to leave.”
“Leave?” The hint of sleepy passion ebbed from her voice. “Where are we going?”
He didn’t know whether to laugh or groan at her look of utter bewilderment. He wished he could take
credit for her having forgotten, that he could believe she’d been so enthralled by their lovemaking that it
had driven every other thought from her head. But he knew the more likely cause was exhaustion. He
hated to remind her, to put their relationship back onto a business footing, especially after the night of
passion they’d shared.
“Your mother, remember?” When she continued to stare blankly, he added, “Our bargain?”
“Our—Oh, good Lord!” A deep blush blossomed across her cheekbones and she shot him a chagrined
look. “One kiss and you drive every intelligent thought out of my head,” she admitted.
Her embarrassed honesty had him fighting back a grin of sheer masculine delight. She had forgotten and it
hadn’t been due to exhaustion. At least he could take comfort in that much when he left. “I’ve made
arrangements for you to stay with some of my men. They’ll protect you while I’m gone.”
It took a second for his words to sink in. The minute they did, she bolted upright in the bed. The sheet
dropped to her waist, and she snatched it up again, tucking it beneath her arms.
“You’re leaving without me? No way. I’m coming, too.”
He shook his head before she’d even gotten the words out. “Too risky. It’ll be faster and easier for me
to slip in, grab your mother and slip out again on my own.”
“She won’t go with you unless I’m there,” Alyssa argued. “You’ll need me to convince her.”
How should he phrase this? “I’ll convince her the same way I convinced you.”
He should have chosen a more diplomatic way of wording his explanation, perhaps something in the
nature of a flat-out lie. Rage lit her eyes. “You’re going to abduct my mother?” she demanded in
disbelief. “You’re going to terrorize her the way you did me? That’s just great. Brilliant plan, Prince
He gritted his teeth. “I may not have any other choice.”
“You can’t do that. She’s not like me. She doesn’t get angry in scary situations. She’ll be terrified.”
“Only until I get her clear of the area.” Didn’t she understand? He’d been trained for this, damn it! He
knew what he was doing. “I’ll explain everything to her then.”
“Please, Merrick. Don’t do this. There’s only one of you. You’re one man against all of Prince Brandt’s
forces. Against a royally ticked off Tolken, in case you’ve forgotten. And you’ll be abducting a struggling
uncooperative woman who will be crying and screaming the entire way. Somehow I don’t think that’s
going to work. Unless, of course, you plan on holding a knife to her throat.” Her eyes widened in sudden
alarm. “Oh my God. Is that your plan? To use a knife on my mother?”
Hell. Didn’t she know him better than that by now? “Of course it isn’t. If it’ll help satisfy you, I’ll arrange
to bring a few men with me. But I still can’t risk taking you.”
“Can’t risk…? And just what am I supposed to do when you’re captured?” she protested. “Spend the
rest of my life hiding out with your men?”
Morning had fully broken and brilliant light flooded through the window, washing over her. It struck her
jeweled wedding band and splintered, shooting miniature rainbows of color in every direction. A
conflicting combination of pleasure and sorrow surged through him. The ring looked right on her finger, as
though it belonged. It was a declaration, a promise, a pledge for the future. His jaw firmed. A future they’
d see together, no matter what it took.
She stood, struggling to wrap herself in the length of soft Egyptian cotton sheet. “It only makes sense to
bring me with you,” she argued as she worked the knot.
Merrick snagged a pair of jeans from his overnight bag. “Maybe to you. Not to me.”
“But we’re married.” She thrust a tumble of curls from her eyes. “There’s nothing Prince Brandt can do
anymore. You’ve stopped him.”
“You don’t know the man. There’s plenty von Folke can—and will—do.”
She folded her arms across her chest and the knotted sheet slipped a tantalizing inch. “Then he can and
he will, whether I’m with you or not.”
“I can’t risk that. I can’t risk you,” he corrected.
“Right back at you, husband.”
Husband. She’d called him husband. He approached and grasped the ends of the loosened sheet. With
quick, economical movements he retied it. “Lyssa. Princess.” He smiled. “Wife. You have to trust me.”
“I do. It’s just—”
“No, not just. No debate.” He cupped her face, forcing her to look at him. “Yes or no. Do you trust
Her mouth quivered. “You have no idea what you’re asking.”
“I know precisely what I’m asking. And you haven’t answered my question.” He feathered a kiss across
her mouth. “Listen to your heart. What does it tell you?”
The answer he wanted hovered on her lips and glowed in the sudden softening of her eyes. The events of
the life she’d shared with her mother had forced her to erect self-protective barriers, to regard others
with deep suspicion. To distrust. But now those barriers trembled, their foundation shifting and he knew
that he was close to breaching them.
His cell phone rang before Alyssa could say anything further. He was tempted to let it ring, to force her to
answer his question. But only a limited number of people knew where they were. And they’d been told
to contact him only in case of an emergency. He crossed the room and snatched up the receiver.
“They’ve found you,” his man informed him, a hint of urgency underscoring his words. “Von Folke’s
man, Tolken. He’s on his way to the safe house. Please, Your Highness, you must leave immediately.”
“What? What’s happened?” Alyssa demanded the instant he cut the connection.
“Tolken. He’s on his way here.” Merrick grabbed the overnight bag and dumped the contents onto the
bed. “Get dressed. Fast.”
She didn’t waste time talking. Ripping off the sheet, she started throwing on clothes. In less than a minute
she was ready to go. Merrick spared precious extra seconds rolling up her wedding gown and stuffing it
into the bag.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “We have to hurry.”
“We’re not leaving your wedding dress.”
He spared her a brief look. “Don’t get misty-eyed on me. I don’t want to leave any evidence behind of
our marriage. No point in giving them an edge.” At her stricken look, he added. “Okay, so maybe there’s
a little bit of sentiment involved. Grab your veil and head for the car. I need to clean out the study.”
In under five minutes they were on the road and racing away from Glynith. He deliberately headed north
toward Avernos, hoping Tolken would expect them to travel south to Verdon since it was
“What now?” Alyssa asked.
“I’ll arrange to rendezvous with one of my men and pick up the equipment I’ll need to rescue your
mother. He’ll take you with him to another safe house. With a bit of luck your mother and I will join you
there within twenty-four hours.”
“Let me come with you.” She spoke urgently and he suspected tears weren’t far off. “I can help.”
“No, you can’t.”
A quick glance confirmed the tears—tears she seemed determined to keep from falling. “We’re married
now, Merrick. If we approach Prince Brandt with that fact, maybe he’ll let us take Mom home without
“I have no intention of approaching von Folke, let alone confronting him about our marriage. If I had my
way we wouldn’t come within a hundred miles of the man.” He shot her a concerned look. “I’d keep you
a solid thousand miles away, if I could.”
She managed a smile, though he could tell it took an effort. She fell silent after that and two hours later
they reached the rendezvous spot. To his frustration, his man wasn’t there. Nor did he answer his cell
phone or show up in the three hours they sat and waited. Finally, Merrick started the engine.
“Change of plan, Princess.”
“I’m coming with you?”
“You’re coming with me.”
“What about the supplies you need?”
“I know a place I can get them. But this worries me.”
They crossed the border between Celestia and Avernos in the early hours of the morning. Merrick
parked near the location of Alyssa’s abduction. Once he had the car secured, he reached into the back
for the equipment he’d purchased. His wife stood patiently by while he helped her strap on a pair of night
vision goggles and instructed her on their operation. Then he led the way through the woods toward the
On the edge of the woods, he caught Alyssa’s arm and drew her to a stop. “I doubt there’s anyone
around at this hour. But we don’t want to take any chances. So, no talking once we leave the woods.
We’re going in low and careful. I take point. You follow. Agreed?” At her nod, he continued. “There’s
an underground passageway near the chapel that leads to an interior courtyard. Are you familiar with it?”
“Yes. The private rooms of the palace surround it. They’re keeping my mother in one of the courtyard
“Do you know which one?”
She frowned. “I might be able to figure it out once we’re there, assuming they haven’t moved her. They
kept us separated most of the time. I only had the opportunity to see her once. Considering how upset
we both were…” She trailed off and bit her lip.
He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her into a swift embrace. “Don’t worry. We’ll find her.” Of
course, then they’d have to get away again, backtrack to the car and drive like maniacs for the border.
All in a day’s work. “Okay, let’s go. Once we get to the palace courtyard I’ll need you to show me
which room is hers.”
The first part went more smoothly than he could have hoped. The chapel appeared deserted and they
found the door to the passageway without any problem. It was locked, of course, but he didn’t detect
any sort of alarm system, cameras or motion detectors, which surprised him. The lock proved a minor
obstacle. He had it picked and open in less than a minute. The next phase of the operation promised to
They emerged on the palace side and he signaled Alyssa to wait while he checked the exit. He still couldn
’t find any sign of an alarm system and that bothered him more than he cared to admit. Every instinct he
possessed warned that their incursion had been too easy. That it was a trap. More than anything, he
wanted to turn around and get Alyssa the hell out of here. But he knew, without a single doubt, that the
only way she’d leave without her mother was the same way he’d removed her last time—by physical
The landscaping of the courtyard offered plenty of cover. Trees and shrubs abounded. He made a swift
reconnaissance of the area, familiarizing himself with the layout. There were two doors that accessed the
building and here he finally found an alarm system. He examined it carefully and it only added to his
Hell. He couldn’t see Tolken using something this basic. Not when a pair of wire clippers and a remote
device could disarm it. They’d both been trained better than that. He returned to the passageway.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered the minute he crouched beside her.
“It’s a trap.”
“The alarm system is too dated. I can punch through it in no time.”
“But that’s good.”
He sighed. “They know we’re coming and they’re waiting for us. We should leave.”
“Not without my mother.” And then she played the one card he couldn’t trump. “You promised. You
gave me your word.”
“I did. And I’ll keep it. But I want you out of harm’s way.”
Her mouth tightened. “You mean, you want me to return to the car.”
“And leave if I’m not back within thirty minutes.”
She shook her head. “Good try, but I’m staying.”
“We’re wasting time, Merrick. Let’s get in there, grab my mom and get the hell out before we’re
He could feel her anxiety, sense how close to the edge she’d slipped. If they had any hope of succeeding,
they needed to act. Now. Catching her hand in his, he lifted it and kissed her ring. It sparkled in the
subdued light, a rainbow flash of joy that mirrored his memories of their wedding night. It helped center
him, filling him with determination.
“Okay, Princess. Listen up. Once we’re in the courtyard, I’m going to give you a moment to get your
bearings. There are two doors. One will be to your left, the other directly in front of you. See if you can
remember which is closest to the room where they were keeping your mother. Ready?”
At her nod, they exited the passageway and slipped into the deep shadow of an ornamental cherry tree
that overhung a koi pond. She scanned the area and then pointed toward the door to their left. As
promised, he disabled the alarm in minutes. He went through the door first, ready for anything.
The corridor was empty. Not good. It only heightened his sense of dread. This wasn’t going to end well.
He knew it with a gut-deep certainty. The worst part was putting Alyssa at risk, which was why he’d
deliberately left his weapon behind. At the first sign of trouble, he intended to surrender. In the meantime,
he’d let it play out and hope he could negotiate a reasonable resolution if the situation went sour.
She tugged at his arm and pointed to a room farther down the corridor. He nodded in acknowledgement.
Keeping her behind him, he approached the door she’d indicated. Ever so carefully he turned the knob.
It held firm. Precious seconds were eaten up as he picked the lock. The deadbolt snicked home and he
eased the door open. The room lay in total darkness and yet with his night vision goggles he could see a
woman standing rigid in the middle of the room. The only thing she lacked was a sign hung around her
neck that read, “cheese.”
Before he could stop her, Alyssa brushed past him and darted toward the woman. “Mom!”
He swore. Instantly, the lights flashed on, blinding him. He tore off his goggles, not that it helped. His
vision was gone and all he could do was brace himself for the inevitable. They took him down. Hard.
They’d left nothing to chance this time. There were a full dozen men who moved with a fluid coordination
that warned that their attack had been expertly planned and executed. He didn’t fight them. There was no
point. They finally dragged him to his feet, not too bruised, his hands cuffed behind him.
Tolken stood beside the two women, both of whom were weeping as they embraced. “This was the
second most foolish thing you’ve ever done, Your Highness,” he commented.
“And the first?” As if he didn’t know.
“Abducting Princess Alyssa, of course.”
Merrick would miss their friendship, could hear the finality of its passing in Tolk’s voice. “I’d have to
disagree with you there.” He attempted a smile, then winced as it tugged at his newly split lip. “That may
have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
“You will change your mind after Prince Brandt is through with you.”
Merrick’s smile faded. “Or he’ll change his when I’m done with him.”
Tolken escorted Merrick and the two women through the palace. They ended up in a large, richly
appointed office. Von Folke sat behind his desk, nursing a drink. He stood as they filed into the room,
studying each of them in turn. His attention settled on Alyssa.
“Are you all right, my dear? Montgomery didn’t harm you?”
His undisguised warmth surprised her, as did the tenderness underscoring his words. What in the world
was going on? “I’m fine, thank you,” she replied cautiously.
His gaze shifted to Merrick and all warmth and tenderness vanished. Raw fury gleamed in the inky
darkness of his eyes, fury he barely held in check. “You stole my wife, you son of a bitch.”
Alyssa shuddered. She’d heard a similar tone used only once before. Ironically, it had come from
Merrick when Tolken and his men had burst into their bedroom that first morning at the cottage and one
of the guards had dared to put his hands on her.
“I stole your bride,” Merrick corrected. “There’s a difference.”
Brandt lunged before his men could stop him. He grabbed Merrick by the throat and slammed his back
against the wall. “She isn’t just my bride, you bastard. She’s my wife. You dare deny it?”
“Your wife? Hell, yes, I deny it.” To Alyssa’s relief, Merrick didn’t fight back. She suspected if he had,
Prince Brandt would have taken him apart, piece by precious piece. “What are you talking about?”
“You snuck into my home in the middle of the night and you took her from me. She was with you when
my men found her. In your bed.” A primal rage exuded from von Folke. “You may have taken advantage
of her since our wedding night but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s my wife. You put your hands on
my woman. And I will see that you burn in hell for that.”
Merrick’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I abducted her, but not in the middle of the night.” He spoke slow and
clear, a hint of cold arrogance bleeding into his words. “And FYI…She’s not your wife.”
Brandt’s hand fisted and for a split second Alyssa was certain he intended to use it to pound Merrick’s
face. Gathering himself, he released Merrick and took a step back, the breath heaving in and out of his
lungs. His fight for control was impressive to watch. Bit by bit he regained command of himself, banking
the fierce anger that held him in its grip in order to consider the situation logically.
“I’ve never before known you to flat-out lie, Merrick,” he said after several endless minutes had passed.
“In consideration of our former association and out of respect for the faithfulness with which you have
served our country, I’ll give you a single opportunity to justify your actions. After that, I promise you, life
will become very painful.”
In response, Merrick pulled himself up into a military stance, wincing as he did so. “First, you didn’t
marry Alyssa Sutherland. I can’t be any clearer than that. As for justifying my actions, you know damn
well why I took her from you.” His voice held undisguised condemnation. “The people of Verdonia
deserve a fair election, not one orchestrated by you. I was honor bound to stop you, and I did. End of
“I have no intention of debating politics with you. That can wait for a more opportune time. At this point,
all that matters is the harm you’ve brought to my wife and the lies you’re telling about her.” Brandt
stalked across the room and took a stance at Alyssa’s side. “I married this woman two weeks and one
day ago. Bishop Varney performed the ceremony. Afterward, she retired to her room where she
remained…attended to the entire time.”
“You mean, under guard?”
The taunt sent dark color sweeping across Brandt’s cheekbones. “I was with her that night. I should
know who I married.” He laced Alyssa’s hand in his. “She even wears my ring.”
She lifted the hand he held for everyone to see. Her amethyst and diamond studded wedding band
glittered in the subdued light. “You’re mistaken, Prince Brandt.”
He gripped her fingers, staring in disbelief. “What have you done with the wedding ring I gave you?” he
“You never gave me one.”
“Merrick’s right. I never made it to the ceremony. He abducted—I mean, I escaped with him before the
wedding took place.”
“That’s not possible.” Brandt said the words automatically, but they lacked his former heat. “You were
there. At the ceremony. We said our vows.”
She shook her head. “I wasn’t. I never married you.”
“The earrings. The tracking device.” He struggled as though finding his footing on shifting sand. “That’s
how we located you after Montgomery’s abduction later that night.”
“You gave me those earrings before we married,” she reminded him. “Think back. Did you see them on
at any other point? During the ceremony? Afterward? When we were together on our wedding night?”
He shook his head, his mouth compressing. “How do I know you aren’t lying?”
“I have no way of proving what I say, if that’s what you mean. But I assure you, I’m not lying. I’ve only
ever married one man and it wasn’t you.”
“Who?” His infuriated gaze shifted. “Montgomery? You married him?”
Merrick took the opportunity to shrug off the guards restraining him. “Yes, she married me. Now take
your damn hands off my wife!”
Brandt stilled, his expression icing over. “Everyone out.” He signaled to the guards. “Escort Mrs.
Barstow to her room. Princess Alyssa will remain behind.”
“No!” Angela cried. “I want to be with my daughter.”
Brandt dropped a hand to her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s only for a short time.” To
Alyssa’s surprise, the prince’s manner had softened perceptively. “Please don’t worry. This will all end
very soon and then you may return home.”
“Do you promise?”
He inclined his head. “I promise.” He glanced at Tolken. “You and Prince Merrick stay, as well.”
They waited while Alyssa’s mother and the guards exited the room. The door clicked loudly in the
sudden silence. “Hold him,” Brandt ordered Tolken, indicating Merrick.
As soon as Merrick was secured, he turned to Alyssa. “Allow me to apologize in advance, Princess. But
I need to verify your claim.”
Her alarmed gaze slammed into Merrick’s. “How?”
Brandt gestured toward her jeans. “Unzip them.”
Merrick’s howl of fury raised the hair on the back of her neck. He fought Tolken, fought with a wild
recklessness that terrified her. It took all Tolken’s strength to restrain him. If it hadn’t been for the cuffs,
he wouldn’t have succeeded.
“Stop!” Alyssa cried. “Merrick, don’t. It’s not worth it.”
His eyes were crazed, the gold burning so bright it hurt to look at them. “I swear to God, von Folke, if
you touch her, I’ll kill you.”
“He’s not going to touch me. I won’t let him.” She ripped at the snap of her jeans and yanked down the
zipper. She glared at Prince Brandt. “There, I’ve done it. Now, what do you want?”
He stood in front of her, blocking her from the view of the other two men. “Show me your left hip. The
woman I married had a tattoo there.”
She did as he requested, tugging the denim along her side down an uncomfortable few inches. An
embarrassed flush stained her cheeks. “Satisfied?”
“The other hip, if you will.” As soon as she’d complied, he stepped back, thinking hard. “There are such
things as temporary tattoos, are there not?”
“Yes,” Alyssa acknowledged, refastening her jeans.
“Then there’s no way to be certain yours wasn’t temporary, unless…” He faced her with stony resolve.
“Again I must apologize, Alyssa. If there were any other way, I’d take it.”
“What are you going to do?” she asked warily.
A slight smile softened the harshness of his features. “Make your husband—assuming he is your husband
Her chin shot up. “And me, as well, I suspect.”
He inclined his head. “And you, as well.”
He didn’t give her time to retreat. Cupping her face between his hands, he bent down and, with Merrick’
s curses ringing in their ears, he kissed her. He took his time, tracing her lips with his, first gently and then
with a hint of passion. She stood, enduring it, praying all the while that Tolken was a hell of a lot stronger
After an endless moment, Brandt straightened and took a step back. Then he turned and faced Merrick.
“It would appear your wife is telling the truth. She’s not the woman I married.” His attention shifted to
Tolken. “Your men have some explaining to do.”
“Yes, Your Highness. I’ll get the facts as soon as we’re done here.”
“Give me a timeline, Montgomery,” Brandt ordered. “When, where, how.”
“Very well.” Merrick shrugged free of Tolken’s grasp. “May twentieth, thirteen-thirty. I infiltrated the
woods behind the chapel garden. Your bride and one of her guards moved from the courtyard into the
garden. I disabled him and—” A hard, fierce smile tugging at the scar on the side of his mouth. His anger
had subsided, though not by much. She could still hear the remnants of it, undermining the tattered scraps
of his self-control. “And liberated your bride-to-be.”
“I cooperated fully,” Alyssa insisted.
Brandt held up his hand. “Good try. But considering your mother was my…guest, I doubt you’d have
willingly left without her.”
“Merrick insisted you wouldn’t harm her.”
“Did he?” The question held a trace of amusement. “And you believed him?”
“Admirable.” He gestured to Merrick. “Continue. You forgot to mention the men you had with you.”
“I operated on my own.”
“A lie, but an understandable one, given the circumstances.” He addressed Tolken, not bothering to
conceal his intense displeasure. “Clearly, one of your men neglected to report this. You’ll find out who
and deal with it.”
“I used a modified tranquilizer dart,” Merrick offered. “The subject is only rendered unconscious for a
short time. He could have believed he’d fainted or blacked out for some reason, and since your bride
was still present and safe when he came to, he was too embarrassed to report it. Regardless, I drove
Alyssa to the safe house where your men found us the next morning.”
“At which point you—how did you refer to it before? Ah, yes. You liberated my helicopter and flew to
Merrick inclined his head. “We appreciated the loan.”
Alyssa stifled a groan. “For God’s sake, do you have to go out of your way to provoke him?”
“When did the two of you marry?” Brandt asked.
“Two days ago.”
“I assume you can prove the legality of it?”
“In that case, I only have one final question.”
Merrick bared his teeth in a mock grin. “Always happy to help.”
“Just out of curiosity…” Brandt strolled closer, the expression in his eyes causing Alyssa to shudder.
“Whom did I marry?”
M errick shrugged. “Some woman I picked up. I don’t remember her name.”
He pretended to consider. “Sorry, doesn’t come to me.”
“Perhaps time in a jail cell will assist your memory.”
Merrick planted his feet as though in preparation for a blow. “Don’t count on it.”
Brandt stopped in front of him. “I married this woman you ‘picked up’ believing her to be Alyssa. I took
her to my bed and made love to her.” He lifted an eyebrow. “You react to that. Interesting. So, you do
know her. And for some reason you don’t care for the fact that we were intimate. I’d suspect she were a
former lover of yours, except for one small detail.”
“What’s that?” Merrick asked through gritted teeth.
“My mysterious bride was a virgin.”
Merrick’s fury burst through his self-control. “How dare you put your hands on her. You had no right!”
“I had every right. She’s my wife.” He leaned forward, speaking in a low, intense voice. “Do you think I
took her by force? If so, think again. Now tell me who she is and why you’re protecting her.”
Merrick gathered himself. “It’s my job. I got her into this situation. It’s my responsibility to ensure that no
harm comes to her.”
“Then you shouldn’t have put her in harm’s way.” Brandt stepped back and signaled Tolken. “Take
Prince Merrick and his wife to the Amethyst Suite. And Tolken?” His black eyes held a warning. “Make
sure it’s secured. No more surprises.”
Merrick paused by the door, determined to have the last word. “She left you, Brandt.” He tossed the
comment over his shoulder. “Your wife could have stayed. But she didn’t. You might want to think about
Apparently, he wasn’t to have the last word, after all. “And you might want to wish your own bride a
fond farewell,” Brandt shot back. “Because I intend to make certain that this is the last night you spend
with her for a very long time to come.”
Alyssa and Merrick were escorted to their room. As soon as the door locked behind them, she walked
into her husband’s arms. “This is all my fault.”
“No,” he corrected. “It’s von Folke’s.”
“You warned me it was a trap. I should have listened to you.”
“Okay, that’s true.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Amazing. Here we are, captured, locked in a room, the threat of jail
hanging over your head. How can you make light of it?”
“What would you rather I do?”
“Hold me.” He tightened his arms around her, willing to do whatever necessary to ease her mind. “You
were right about one thing.”
“I’m right about most things,” he informed her with impressive modesty. “Which one did you have in
“Did you see how Prince Brandt treated my mother? He was so…gentle with her. So careful. She usually
has that affect on people, but even so I suspect he’d never have hurt her. You told me he wouldn’t, but I
didn’t believe you.”
“You couldn’t take the risk. I understand that.”
“I’m so sorry, Merrick.” Her arms encircled his neck. “I can’t bear the thought that you’ll be condemned
to prison because of me. What are we going to do?”
“Give von Folke time to come to terms with what’s happened.” He released his breath in a long sigh.
“Which will give me time to come to terms with it, as well.”
“That won’t be easy.” She hesitated, lowering her voice to a soft murmur. “What about Miri?”
“We keep silent about her. Do you hear me, Alyssa? Not a single word to von Folke.”
She frowned. “You’re not going to tell him who he married?”
Was she kidding? “Not a chance. I don’t want him anywhere near my sister any more than I want him
near my wife.”
Alyssa hesitated, and he could tell she was picking her way through their conversation. “She stayed with
him, Merrick. If Prince Brandt is telling the truth, she chose to sleep with him. Did you tell her to do
He jerked back as though she’d struck him. “Hell, no! How could you even suggest such a thing?”
“I didn’t think you had,” she hastened to placate. “But the point is, it happened. She wouldn’t have slept
with him just to give us more of a head start, would she?”
Her hands dropped to his shoulders, massaging the clenched muscles. “Is that a ‘No, I hope not because
I can’t handle the guilt if she did’ or ‘No, it’s not in her nature to ever do such a thing’? I hate to ask the
question, but does Miri have as strong a sense of duty as you? Would she have slept with Prince Brandt
for king and country?”
He swore, long and virulently. “Yes, she has a strong sense of duty. No, I hope to God she wouldn’t do
anything as foolish as to sleep with von Folke in order to give us extra time to get away, or even worse,
out of obligation.”
He didn’t dare consider the possibility that there might be another reason, not when he was holding on to
his temper by a thread. Still, he couldn’t help remembering the conversation he and Alyssa had the night
he’d abducted her—the one where they’d discussed the possibility that there’d been a personal aspect to
Miri’s insistence on participating in the abduction.
“So, what now?” Alyssa asked.
“Now we do as von Folke suggested. We make the most of the time we have left together.”
“Don’t say that,” she protested in alarm. “You’re not going to prison, not if I have anything to say about
it. I’ll deny I was abducted. They can’t prove I didn’t go with you willingly.”
“This isn’t the United States.” He tried to break it to her gently. “Despite the fact that you’re Princess
Alyssa, duchess of Celestia, von Folke governs this part of Verdonia. His word is law. He can throw me
in prison, if that’s what he chooses and there’s little anyone can do about it. My best guess is he’ll leave
me to rot in jail for a while before banishing me.”
“But just from Avernos, right? Surely, he can’t banish you from the entire country?”
“He can—and will—if he takes the throne.”
“No! I won’t allow that to happen.”
He regarded her with regret. “You won’t be able to stop it.” He brushed a kiss across her brow. “Since
we can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, there’s no point in worrying about it now. We still have
tonight. Let’s not waste our few remaining hours.”
Tears filled her eyes. “What if I want more than just one night?”
“Our relationship was never meant to be permanent. That was our agreement, remember?” He tilted his
head to one side, hoping against hope. “Or has that changed?”
“And…and if it has?” Her chin shot up and a hint of defiance gleamed in her eyes. “What if I said I
wanted more than a temporary relationship?”
He had to hear the words. “How much more?”
She took a deep breath and he could feel her square her shoulders. “What if I said I wanted our marriage
to be a real one? What would you say then?”
He hardened himself against her pleading gaze. “I’d say that wasn’t enough. I want more from my wife,
from the woman I commit to spend the rest of my life with.”
A tremor rippled through her. “Then…what if I said I loved you? What if I told you that I love you more
than I thought it possible to love another person?”
He closed his eyes, wanting to shout in triumph. “Are you asking? Or are you saying the words?”
“I love you, Merrick.” No hesitation this time. No doubt. No ambiguity. Just a hint of wonder and a
infinite quantity of joy.
“That’s all I need to hear.” He cupped her face. “I love you, too, Princess. You are my beginning, my
middle and my end. More than anything, I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
Dragging his head down to hers, she took his mouth in an urgent, hungry kiss, one that devastated the
senses. Her hands caught at his T-shirt, shoving it up and out of her way until she hit hot, bare skin.
Her desperation poured over him in waves, her need ripe and edgy. Demanding a response. Teetering
out of control. She so clearly wanted to lose herself in him. He followed her lead, taking his mouth off
hers only long enough to yank her thin cotton shirt over her head and toss it aside.
She was beautifully naked underneath, her breasts milky white and topped with sweet raspberry buds
that begged to be tasted. He took a quick biting sample and she went rigid in his arms. A thin, keening
wail caught in her throat and she vibrated with a frenzied yearning that nearly proved his undoing. He slid
his hands along endlessly bared skin to the snap of her jeans, ripping it open.
“I’ve never wanted a man the way I want you.” She swept a hand down his chest until her hand hovered
at the heavy bulge beneath his belt buckle. “I can’t seem to help myself. I can’t seem to get enough. I
“No problem.” It took every ounce of self-possession not to grind himself against her hand. He settled
for leaning more fully into her, mating them as completely as possible without immediate access to a bed,
far fewer clothes and the time and energy to indulge in every hot and sweaty fantasy the two of them
could invent. “For you, I have a limitless supply.”
“No.” Her head moved restlessly back and forth. “This isn’t just about sex. That wouldn’t be enough for
“Really? I thought it was pretty good, myself.”
She fixed her gaze on him, her eyes huge and dilated. “Sex…that’s for anyone, anywhere. That’s easy. I’
ve never been willing to accept easy. I’ve always wanted more.”
He stilled, understanding what she was trying to say. “But you’ve been too afraid to grab more, haven’t
She trembled with the effort to speak, to trust him enough to open her heart. “I’ve spent a lifetime
running. My mother taught me that lesson well.” Her throat worked for an endless moment, and when the
words came they were heavy with pain. “I’m afraid to stop.”
“Then pause. Just for one night.” He soothed her with a kiss, eased her heartache the only way he knew
how. “Savor the moment. You can always run tomorrow.”
“You don’t understand, because you’ve always had it. A home. Roots. Security.” She leaned into him
and closed her eyes, almost chanting the words. “I don’t belong. I’ve never belonged.”
“Is it that you don’t belong, or have you turned away from the one thing you want most of all because
you were too afraid to take a risk?” He pushed ever so gently. “Tell me which it is.”
Tears squeezed from beneath her tightly closed lids. “I’m afraid,” she whispered. “I want to belong. But I
can’t risk it. So, I tell myself I can’t have it. That I don’t even want it.”
The answer was so simple. Didn’t she see? “It’s already yours, my love. You do belong. You belong
with me. Now and forever.”
He speared his fingers into her hair and lifted her face to his. Her beautiful, tragic face. He kissed away
the pain etched alongside her mouth, across her eyebrows, nuzzling the muscle-tense juncture of neck
and shoulder, before briefly sampling the raspberries and cream. He trailed his hands up her exposed
arms to her shoulders, watching her shiver. Watching her nipples peak with desire while her gold-tipped
lashes fluttered open once again. Her skin felt like silk, the sheen from her desire tinting it with the barest
hint of sultry rose.
His touch sparked an immediate response. With a sigh of relief she opened to him, gave herself without
question or hesitation. And he took what she so unstintingly offered. He lowered his head and captured
her mouth once again. Her lips parted beneath his in helpless invitation and she softened against him. It
was such a gentle taking, the way he slipped between her lips, the sweep and swirl of his tongue a blatant
imitation of a more physical joining. It told her how it could be, if she would just let down her guard and
open to him. She responded, tentatively at first, and then with growing ardor.
Instantly, the gentleness shifted and became more passionate. Fierce. Raw. Their desire spinning out of
control. Without breaking contact with her mouth, he cupped her bottom and lifted. Her legs parted of
their own accord, wrapping around him, allowing him to settle in the warm juncture of her jean-clad
thighs. His clothes were a delicious abrasion, the friction of his slow undulations driving her toward the
brink. She rocked in tempo with him for an endless minute of pure delicious lust before freezing.
“Please.” She tightened her hold, preventing him from moving, while she dragged air into her lungs. “I’m
going to lose it.”
He brushed his fingertips across her beaded nipples, edging her closer still. “I hope to heaven this suite
has a bedroom.”
She swallowed, fighting for control, teetering so close to oblivion that he knew the least little movement
would send her over. “Find it. Fast. Or it’ll be too late.”
“It’s already too late. We’ll do it here and now.”
His mouth crushed hers, practically swallowing her whole, as he tipped her onto the floor. Hands got in
the way, his as he tackled her jeans, hers as she tackled his. Clothes ripped loose, discarded with
blistering haste. The urgency built, pounding at them, firing their blood, reducing them to the most basic,
primal essence. Through the roar in his ears he heard her whimper, the breathless plea, the blatant
demand. Or maybe they came from him.
The scent of her filled his lungs, the sweet, hot musky odor that was so uniquely hers. It roused him to a
fever pitch, proving to him yet again that in this regard, nature forever dominated intellect. He found her
ready for him, burning wet, and he filled her, driving into her, sending her up and over. She crashed
down, brutally hard, only to scream upward once again as he rode the pain and pleasure.
It had never been like this. Never. “More. More. More!” The words were ripped from him. A desperate
mantra that beat out the pace. The music sang through them both, soaring to a final endless note before
dying to silence.
The breath shuddered from her lungs and she stared at him, dazed. “That was…that was—” She
trembled. “I haven’t a clue what that was. But you better be able to play it again.”
“Oh, yeah.” Maybe. If he lived that long.
Eventually they found the bed and fell into it, exhausted. She clung to him and he read the silent message.
She was terrified that any minute now Tolken and his men would come to the door and drag him away.
He could only reassure her with his touch. He held her, stroked her, soothed her. The light fragmented off
his wedding band, catching her eye and her arms tightened around him in response.
“You’re my husband.” She said the words, fiercely, laying claim.
“For as long as you choose.”
Her fingers traced his features, a delicate exploration before feathering into his hair. “He’ll come for you
His shoulders lifted. “We have a little longer.”
“I don’t think I can handle it when they take you.” The admission came hard. “I want you in my life.
More than that, I need you.”
“I can give you what you need. No question.” He said it with absolute assurance.
She smiled, her mouth trembling from laughter to tears. “You don’t know what I need or want. You
might think you do. But you don’t.”
The tenor had grown serious and he rolled onto his side to face her. “Then tell me,” he urged. “Tell me so
She met his gaze and he read the temptation hovering there along with the reluctance. “If you were
smart,” she whispered, “you’d let me go. I’m not the type to stick around.”
“I can’t. I won’t.” He felt the brief yielding of her body and pressed home his advantage. “You say you
love me, that you want to be with me. You have a home in Celestia. You have people who love you and
need you there. So, stay.” To his frustration, he instantly realized he’d miscalculated, a rare misstep.
She stiffened within his arms, wariness creeping into her gaze. “Is this how you negotiate? Use whatever
advantage will get you what you want?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t help smiling. “Though if it makes you feel any better, I only use my sexual advantage
Exhaling roughly, she flopped onto her back. “Of course. After all, it’s worked like a charm up until now,
hasn’t it?” She scrubbed the heels of her hands across her face as though waking from a deep sleep.
“What am I thinking? I’m not the type who stays. I can’t believe I’m even considering the possibility.”
He couldn’t resist a final caress, one that left her shivering in reaction. “What did she do to you, Alyssa?”
She didn’t pretend confusion, he gave her credit for that much. “It’s not my mother’s fault. Not totally. I
could have chosen a different path instead of following in her footsteps.”
“Explain it to me.”
“You haven’t noticed her hands, have you?” She shook her head before he could answer. “No, you
wouldn’t have. There hasn’t really been an opportunity for you to.”
Merrick frowned, picturing Angela during that brief time they’d been in the room together. He’d
observed her, of course, and had automatically filed away a quick, detailed image in his mind. An
occupational hazard. She’d been slight of build and fair like Alyssa. Paler. Fragile. Eyes the same
slice-of-heaven blue. But her features were sharper. Drawn. She’d stood perfectly still, arms at her sides,
as though reluctant to draw attention to herself. But he couldn’t recall anything specific about her hands.
“No, I didn’t notice,” he admitted. “What about them?”
“They were broken as a child. Deliberately. Finger by finger.”
“The details aren’t important. Let’s just say that whatever type of abuse you can imagine happening to
her probably did.”
Anger filled him, an impotent rage over the helplessness of children trapped in the keeping of deviant,
amoral adults. “Was she removed from her parents’ custody?”
“Yes. Foster homes followed. A series of them. I don’t think she was abused there. At least, she’s never
hinted at it. She just wasn’t helped. When she turned sixteen, she took off.”
He closed his eyes. “And so the running began.”
“Exactly. She’s spent most of her life looking for love and never finding it, always hoping she’d discover
salvation around the next corner.” Alyssa’s mouth twisted. “Or with the next man. Most of her husbands
have been older. Substitute father figures, if I had to guess.”
It fit. “Like Prince Frederick.”
“He was a father figure?” He’d surprised her. “Older than Mom?”
“Twenty, twenty-five years older.”
Her brow wrinkled. “I guess my brother must be older, too.”
“Forty-five, at least.”
“I didn’t realize.” She released a gusty breath. “So, the pattern was set, even then.”
“Apparently.” He took a moment to digest everything she’d told him before asking his next question.
“Okay, I understand your mother and what motivates her. But how do you fit into all this?”
“I love her,” Alyssa stated simply. “I’ve been the one constant in her life. We’ve been on the run from the
minute I was born, with brief layovers along the way. A couple of cockeyed optimists searching for the
pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. At least, that’s how she always described it to me.”
“So, it’s all about honor and duty with you, too. Not to mention protecting those you love.” Judging by
her stunned expression that had never occurred to her before. “And now? Where do you go from here?”
“I’m so tired, Merrick.” Her voice dropped, filled with a yearning that tore at his heart. “I’d like to stop,
maybe stay somewhere awhile. Let that rainbow find me for a change.”
He brushed a tumble of curls from her eyes. “Maybe stay longer than a while?” he asked tenderly. “How
does forever-after sound?”
“That might have been a possibility, if it weren’t for one small problem.” She smiled, a wobbly effort too
painful for words. “The one person I’d have been willing to stay for won’t be here, not if Prince Brandt
throws you in jail. Now, how’s that for irony?”
“Then maybe I can give you something to remember me by.”
He left her arms long enough to find his trousers and remove a small velvet pouch from the pocket. He
dumped out the contents and returned to the bed, gathering her close once again. Taking her hand in his,
he slipped a ring on her finger.
“This is for you,” he told her.
The subdued light flashed off Fairytale, the ring she’d admired at the Marston’s shop. A ring that
symbolized soul mates united in an unbreakable bond of eternal love. With a small exclamation of
disbelief, she turned in his arms and clung to him. “How? When? Why?”
A slow smile lit his face. “Why? Because it was meant for you and only you. The how and when were a
little trickier. But I found a way.” His smile faded. “I’d planned to choose the perfect time to give this to
you, but I’m not sure there’s going to be one.”
She gathered his face in her hands and kissed him. “Then we’ll make this the perfect time. Here and
And as one by one their final minutes together ticked away, she made those moments more perfect than
any that had come before.
Prince Brandt sent for Alyssa early the next morning. She was escorted once again to his office. She didn
’t know quite what to expect, though she could guess what he wanted.
“Please. Sit.” He held her chair with an inborn graciousness. “We need to talk.”
“First, I wish to apologize to you. I pulled you into a situation not of your making or of your concern. It
was wrong of me.”
“You tried to force me to marry you,” she replied bluntly. “And you used my mother in order to ensure
my agreement. That wasn’t just wrong. It was outrageous.”
“There were reasons. Valid reasons.” He said it without remorse.
Anger swept through her. “Because you want to be king? You consider that a valid reason?”
He started to reply, then hesitated. “I can’t go into it at this point. Perhaps someday in the future.” He
regarded her in silence for a moment and then spoke with surprising frankness. “You were a pawn,
Alyssa, a pawn I chose to use without taking into account how it would affect your life.”
“You mean without caring.”
He inclined his head. “Without caring.” This time he did show a hint of regret. “If there had been any
other way, I would have taken it. But there wasn’t. There still isn’t.”
“You can’t really intend to throw Merrick in prison,” she said, hoping to take advantage of his
momentary change in disposition. “You abducted me, remember? If anything, his could be considered a
Brandt shrugged that off. “My principality, my rules. His prison sentence stands.”
“So, what now?” She struggled to keep her distress from showing. “Is this the point where you threaten
me if I don’t tell you who you married?”
“I was thinking more in the nature of a bribe.” He cocked a sooty eyebrow. “Would that work any
better? You and your mother on the next plane to New York, Merrick at your side? Any interest?”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
He sighed. “Don’t tell me Montgomery has brainwashed you with his notion of honor and duty.”
She tilted her head to one side. “You know, a few hours ago you might have scored with that one. But
my husband pointed out an interesting fact to me. I do believe in honor and duty, in protecting the ones I
love. Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, intent on saving my mother and my husband.” She
smiled coldly. “So, no. He didn’t brainwash me. I was pretty much there already.”
“Honor and duty? Really?” He looked mildly intrigued. “Are you serious?”
“Let me guess.” Laughter gathered in his eyes. “You plan on saving Verdonia from the evil prince.”
“Hey, if the royal shoe fits.”
“And you plan to swear on your honor that Montgomery didn’t abduct you.”
“You cooperated with him.”
“All the way.”
“In order to avoid marrying me.”
“Can you blame me?”
“So when the opportunity presented itself, you ran off with Montgomery.”
“And let Miri take your place.”
“Yes. No. No!” She stumbled to a halt, staring at him in barely controlled panic. She debated
backtracking, saying something—anything—to cover up her mistake. But she could see it was far too
late. He’d bluffed; she’d fallen for it. She closed her eyes, guilt overwhelming her, and spoke through
numb lips. “How did you know?”
“I was pretty much there already,” he replied, tossing her own words back at her. “But I appreciate the
confirmation. Now, one final question. Where is she?”
“I don’t know.” She opened her eyes, blinking against tears. “That’s the truth.”
“Yes. I can see it is. You don’t lie very well, Ms. Sutherland.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“In my position, it can be. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.” He picked up the phone and punched a
button. “Bring them.”
She regarded him with undisguised bitterness. “You’ll never know how delighted I am that we never
“You may find this hard to believe, but so am I, despite the agenda that made our alliance so critical.”
He leaned across his desk toward her. She found his features too austere for her taste, though she couldn
’t deny they were compelling. And when he smiled with gentle warmth, as he did now, he was downright
“Don’t take it too badly. Despite your husband’s ridiculously protective nature, there are few women he’
d feel the need to defend with quite such passion and ferocity. His mother. His wife.” Something shifted
within his gaze, an emotion that he swiftly banked. “His sister. It only required calm logic to reach the
appropriate conclusion.” He gave a harsh, self-deprecating laugh. “Though I’m forced to admit it took
me most of the night to manage calm, let alone logic.”
“And why is that, Prince Brandt?”
“Because of Miri,” he surprised her by admitting. “And then, once the obvious occurred to me, I needed
someone to confirm my guess about her.”
Alyssa flinched. What he meant was someone foolish enough to confirm his guess. Before she could snarl
a response, Tolken entered the room, followed by Merrick and her mother, as well as a handful of
Prince Brandt stood. “You’ll all be pleased to know that Alyssa and I have reached an accord.” He gave
Alyssa a courtly bow. “Thank you, Princess, for your assistance identifying Miri as my wife. The three of
you will be driven immediately to the airport where I’ve arranged for first-class seats from Verdonia to
Merrick, whirled to face her, took one look at the guilt she was certain was written all over her face and
charged toward her. He was stymied by the timely intervention of the guards. “What the hell did you
do?” he demanded, frantically struggling against his captors. “You told him, didn’t you? Why, Alyssa?
Why would you do such a thing?”
A lyssa shook her head, frantic to explain, eaten up with guilt. “It’s not what you think.”
But before she could explain further, Prince Brandt interrupted. “Part of me envies your future,
Montgomery. To live in the United Sates, playing house-husband while your beautiful, intelligent,
cooperative wife takes over as Assistant Vice President of Human Relations at Bank International. Quite
the life of leisure. Far better than a jail sentence, don’t you agree?”
“Take off these handcuffs and I’ll show you how well I agree with you.”
Brandt shook his head. “Perhaps we’ll save that for another time and place.” He picked up a packet and
handed it to Tolken. “Here are the tickets. The ladies will be riding in the limousine I have waiting. I’m
afraid I don’t quite trust you to behave well enough for such an elegant vehicle, Montgomery. Tolken and
a few of his men will escort you in a van better suited to the transportation of felons. Not quite as
comfortable, but I’m sure you understand the necessity. Just as I’m sure you understand the necessity of
the handcuffs remaining on until you’re safely aboard the plane.”
“I’m not leaving Verdonia.”
“I thought you might say that.” Brandt smiled. “So, I’ve arranged for a jail cell for your wife and
mother-in-law should you refuse. Your choice, Montgomery.”
“You can’t do that,” Alyssa protested. Her gaze flickered from Brandt to Merrick, and back again. “You
can’t, can you? Everyone keeps telling me I’m a princess. That ought to count for something.”
Brandt shrugged. “Once again…my principality, my rules. I might not be able to lock you up forever, but
I can hold you long enough.”
Merrick shot her one brief look. “My wife in jail. Tempting.”
“But you’ll pass, won’t you?” said Brandt.
To Alyssa’s distress, Merrick had to think about it before nodding. “If it means she’ll be out of Verdonia
permanently, then yes. I’ll pass.” Before anyone could prevent him, he took one swift step in her
direction. “It’s a good thing you run well, Princess. Because when I get free, you better be able to run
faster and farther than I can.” His gaze, pure molten gold, pinned her in place. “Trust me on this one, you
don’t want me to catch you.”
Without sparing her so much as another glance, he crossed to the door and addressed Tolken. “What
are we waiting for? Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“She betrayed you, old friend.”
“Shut up, Tolk.” The van rumbled onto the highway and gathered speed.
“Don’t feel bad. Women are notorious for being weak.”
“Some women, perhaps,” Merrick conceded. “Not Alyssa.”
“So you’re saying she’s strong enough to resist Prince Brandt’s questioning?” Tolken nodded. “That
would indicate she chose to betray you. Outrageous. Definitely not the sort of woman to rule Celestia.
Verdonia is better off rid of her.”
Merrick ground his teeth. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Tell me. What did you mean?” When a response wasn’t forthcoming, he suggested, “Perhaps her
betrayal is your fault.”
“What the hell are you talking about now?”
“You abducted her for the greater good. Do I have that right? I’m sure you set an excellent example. No
doubt she betrayed Miri for a similar reason. Of course in this case it was for her greater good and that
of her mother.” Tolken lifted a shoulder. “Well…and yours.”
Merrick deliberately changed the subject. “I won’t get on that plane. You realize that, don’t you?”
“I realize it’ll take force. It’s a good thing I have plenty of that available.”
“Even if you succeed, I’ll return.”
“With your wife?” Tolken tilted his head to one side. “Or without?”
There was no question. “Without.”
“In that case, I’ve been authorized by Prince Brandt to offer you a deal.”
“What deal?” Merrick asked warily.
“Simple. Resign your position as commander of the Royal Security Force and return to Verdon. Stay
there. Quietly. Live a long and peaceful life out of the public eye. If you do that, Prince Brandt is willing
to pretend this incident never took place.”
Merrick gave a short laugh. “What you mean is, if I don’t tell on him, he won’t tell on me. It wouldn’t be
to his advantage for any of this to be made public, would it? Not before the election.” He stared moodily
out the window of the van. “What about Alyssa?”
“What about her? She’ll return to New York. Not that there’s anything Prince Brandt could do if she
elected to stay in Verdonia, despite his threats. Especially since the airport is on Celestian soil.” He
curled his lip. “Just as well she goes, if you ask me. She wasn’t suited to play the part of a princess.”
“You know nothing about her.” The retort burst from Merrick. It felt good to explode, better yet to
siphon off some of the anger sloshing around inside him.
Tolken grunted. “I know one thing. She’s capable of betraying her husband. No doubt she hid that trait
from you. I’m sure you’d never have married her, otherwise. A very devious woman, your wife.”
“Just shut the hell up, Tolk, she’s not like that. She believes in honor and duty as much as I do. She
protects the people she loves. She risked everything to save her mother. Sacrificed everything.”
It took a second for him to hear his own words. The minute he did, he groaned. Oh, man. He was a
first-class idiot. His head dropped toward his chest. Dammit, dammit, dammit. He did need to resign his
position. No one this stupid should be allowed to live, let alone be in charge of a national security force.
“You could be right,” Tolken was saying. “I’m not familiar with that aspect of her character. There is one
thing I know for certain.”
Merrick lifted his head, finally, finally starting to put the pieces together. “And what’s that?”
“Your wife is a rotten poker player, whereas Prince Brandt is a master.”
Merrick stared blankly. It took a full minute before the implication sank in. And then he said, “Get me out
of these handcuffs and give me your cell phone, Tolk. Hurry. I have a plane to stop.”
Tolken smiled. “About damn time.”
They arrived at the airport and Prince Brandt’s guards escorted Alyssa and her mother through security.
She delayed as long as she could, constantly checking over her shoulder for Merrick. But he never
showed. Once through the checkpoint, they were ushered to a private lounge where she paced off the
next two hours, minute by endless minute, step by dragging step.
And still he didn’t come.
“I don’t understand it,” she burst out. “They weren’t that far behind us. They should be here by now.”
“Maybe they’re holding him in the van until it’s time to board,” her mother said, trying to soothe her.
“They probably don’t want you having the opportunity to scream at each other ahead of time.”
Alyssa spun to face her guards. “You must have cell phones. Can’t you call Tolken and find out where
“My apologies, Your Highness. I’m not permitted to do that,” was all one would say.
Another hour passed and a knock sounded at the door. Alyssa flew across the room, waiting
breathlessly for Merrick to join them. But instead of her husband, an airport official entered. “You may
board now,” he informed them.
Deaf to her protests, the guard escorted Alyssa and her mother from the lounge to the boarding gate and
then down the gangway leading to the plane. “Wait. Please.” She had to try one more time. “I need to
speak to Merrick.”
“You can do that when he boards, Your Highness.”
“You don’t understand.” She fought to keep from weeping. “He’s not coming. I know he’s not. He
thinks I betrayed him. And he needs to protect his sister. He won’t leave Verdonia.”
“I assure you, Your Highness, he won’t have a choice.”
They were shown to their first-class seats in the front of the plane where Angela handed her daughter a
third tissue to help mop up her tears. “Listen, baby, as long as you’re already crying, there’s something I
need to tell you.” She glanced around, then lowered her voice, whispering, “It’s about your father.”
“I already know,” Alyssa replied, fighting to regain control of herself. “Merrick told me that he was older
“No. That’s not it. I mean, there’s that. But there’s something else that I should have told you long ago. I
did marry Freddy because he was older and because he was safe. We only knew each other a week
before we did a Las Vegas.” She twisted her ruined hands together. “But that’s not what I have to
explain to you.”
No doubt there was a point to her mother’s confession, but Alyssa wasn’t sure what it might be. Still, it
was a relief to focus on her mother, to put her needs first. Anything to take her mind off Merrick. She
dried the last of her tears and gave Angela her full attention. “What is it, Mom? What do you have to tell
Her mother bowed her head. “It’s about what happened when Freddy and I came here. By then it was
too late to change anything. We were already married and I couldn’t just leave him. I mean, how would
that look after just a week?”
“So, you didn’t run?”
“I couldn’t. Mainly because I didn’t have a plan in place at that point. Besides…” Her voice dropped to
a mere whisper. “That’s…that’s when I met him.”
A coldness crept into the pit of Alyssa’s stomach. “Met who?”
“Freddy’s son, Erik.” Angela’s eyes slowly lifted and fixed on her daughter. “Your father.”
Alyssa could only stare for a long minute in stunned disbelief. “You’re saying…” She drew in a deep
breath. “Are you telling me that my brother is actually my father?”
“Yes, to the father part. No, to the brother.” Angela’s brow crinkled. “Although since he was technically
my stepson at the time, maybe he would be both your brother and your father. I get a headache just
thinking about it.”
Her face crumpled. “I’m sorry. I’m not doing this very well.”
“Is this somehow connected to why you’re here in Verdonia?”
“Uh-huh.” Her lashes flickered as she glanced at Alyssa, and then away again. She cleared her throat.
“After I left Jim, I decided to fly out to Verdonia. I’d heard that Freddy died a few years back and I
thought maybe…maybe Erik and I…” She bowed her head, trailing off miserably. “I wanted to see him
“And did you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I saw him, all right.”
“Good grief, Mom. What did he say? What did he do when you showed up?”
“Oh, he abdicated.”
Alyssa struggled to breathe. “You went to visit Prince Erik, duke of Celestia and he up and abdicated?
Just like that?”
“Sort of. He said something about finding these important documents and needing to fix things, or some
such. He said if he abdicated, you could rule Celestia and that when he returned he and I could marry.
Only…” Her eyes overflowed. “Only Erik disappeared and Prince Brandt arrived and invited me to stay
with him. With Erik gone, I didn’t know what to do. So, I went with Prince Brandt. As soon as he
learned that Erik had abdicated and that you would rule Celestia in his place, that’s when everything went
to hell in a handbasket. He came up with that crazy scheme to marry you.”
It was Alyssa’s turn to supply the tissues. “You can still find Prince Erik. You can be with him now.”
“No, it’s too late.”
“Only if you let it be too late.”
Angela shook her head. “I’ve made a mess of my life. I allowed my past to ruin my future. I let it dictate
my choices.” She faced her daughter, the river of mascara and tears slowing. “That doesn’t have to
happen to you. You’re so much stronger than I am, just like your father. You can take a chance. Have
the future you always dreamed of having.”
“Listen to me, Ally.” She used a tone Alyssa had never heard before, that of a determined mother. “I
want you to leave. Now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I want you to get off this plane and live your dreams.” She swiped the dampness from her cheeks. “Don
’t think about it. Do it. Get up and walk away.”
“I can’t leave you behind,” Alyssa protested. “You need me.”
“Not anymore. I’ve held you back for too long. We’ve gotten our roles all mixed up. I’m supposed to be
the parent. You’re supposed to be the child. And yet I’ve always let you take care of me.”
“I wanted to, Mom. It was my choice.” She gripped her mother’s poor, broken hands, lifted them to her
mouth and kissed them. “I love you.”
“Ever since I was a child I wanted someone to take care of me. To love me unconditionally. You always
did that.” Angela broke down for a brief moment again before gathering herself back up. “But it wasn’t
fair of me to let you. It was wrong and I won’t allow it to go on any longer.”
“There’s no point in getting off the plane. Merrick thinks I betrayed him.”
“Then you’ll have to set him straight.” She released Alyssa’s hands. “Take off your wedding rings.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Take them off. There’ll be an inscription inside of them.”
“How do you know?” Alyssa asked, even as she found herself tugging off the rings.
“It’s a Verdonian tradition, a rather sweet one, actually. A private message between husband and wife.
Read what yours says. If it’s something pitiful, like, ‘You’re my hoochy momma’ or ‘It’ll be fun while it
lasts’ then you know it wasn’t meant to be and we’ll hit New York City and buy shoes or something.”
She leaned forward. “But if it’s special, really special, then you have to promise me you’ll get off the
plane. Do we have a deal?”
“Okay, yes. It’s a deal.”
Alyssa held Fairytale to the light, turning the ring until she could make out the flowing script inside and
started to cry.
“Oh God. It says hoochy momma, doesn’t it?”
Alyssa shook her head. “No, no it doesn’t. I’ve got to get off, Mom. I have to go now.” She half rose in
her seat before realization dawned. “The guards. They’re not going to let me off the plane.”
“Of course they will.”
“No, they’ll stop me.”
“Think, Alyssa, think. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s getting out of a tight spot. And this one isn’t
even all that tight.” Her mother smiled slyly. “You just have to tell them who you are.”
“Tell them—” Of course. Alyssa didn’t hesitate. She gave her mother a fierce hug. “Come with me. Do
it, Mom. You can have the dream, too. We can find out what happened to Prince Erik. And maybe you
can have your happily-ever-after ending, as well.”
She didn’t wait for her mother’s decision. It was hers to make. Alyssa had her own life to live, her own
future to fight for. She swept to the doorway. The guards were still posted there. They immediately
moved to block the exit.
She drew herself up to her full height. “I am Princess Alyssa, duchess of Celestia,” she announced in her
most ringing, royally-ticked-off tone of voice. “And you will move out of my way.”
She’d rattled them, she could tell. They glanced helplessly at each other, uncertain how to respond.
Before they could decide, a man in uniform appeared from the front of the plane, either the captain or
co-captain, she wasn’t sure which.
“Did you say you’re Princess Alyssa?”
“We’ve been denied clearance until you’re removed from the plane.” Annoyed disbelief touched the man
’s face. “We’ve been accused of abducting Celestia’s princess. So, if you wouldn’t mind
“I’d be happy to.”
The guards weren’t given an option at that point and they reluctantly moved aside. A few minutes later,
Alyssa stepped back onto Verdonian soil. To her absolute delight, her mother joined her. She reentered
the airport only to be greeted by a wave of people. Clearly, someone had revealed her identity. The
minute they saw her, they began to cheer. And when she paused in front of them, every last man, woman
and child swept into deep bows and curtsies.
It took her two tries to get the words out. “Thank you,” she finally said. “You have no idea how much
this means to me.”
“Will you be staying, Princess?” one of the women asked shyly.
Alyssa smiled. “Where else would I go? It’s my home.” And that was the simple truth, she realized.
“And your husband?” a husky voice sounded in her ear. “What about him?”
She spun around. Merrick stood behind her. For a long moment they didn’t move, each greedily drinking
in the other. There were so many questions she wanted to ask, so much she wanted to say. Apologies to
make. Explanations to give. Wounds to heal. But none of it mattered. Not right then. Not when she
looked into those beloved golden eyes and saw the fierce glow of undisguised love.
She took one step toward him. Then another. And then she raced into his waiting arms. He practically
inhaled her, kissing her mouth, her eyes, her jaw before finding her mouth again. They were hard, fierce
kisses. Urgent kisses. Greedy and needy. Telling her without words how desperately he wanted her. And
then the tenor changed.
He kissed her gently, a river of passion flowing deeply beneath. A balm. A benediction. A husband gifting
his wife. “I didn’t tell him,” she said, breathless and dazed. “I swear to you, I didn’t.”
“I figured that out. It took a while, but I got there.”
“I couldn’t leave Verdonia. Couldn’t leave you.”
“I figured that out, too.” He cupped her face with his magician’s hands. “You still haven’t answered my
question. You have a husband, Princess. What are you going to do about him?”
Her chin wobbled. “My home is within your heart. At least, according to this Fairytale I read not long
ago. Unless your ring has a better suggestion.”
A hint of color darkened his cheekbones. “It’s trite.”
She grinned through her tears. “I can’t wait to hear this. Come on, warrior man. What does it say?”
He snatched his wife into his arms, lifting her high against his chest. More cheers broke out around them.
“It says, Two souls destined to live as one.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face against his shoulder until she’d recovered
sufficiently to speak. “Let’s go home, Merrick.”
“Is this your home, Princess? Have you finally found your roots?”
“A home. Roots. Heck, I’ve even found a father.” She laughed at his stunned expression. “I’ll explain
that part later.”
To her delight, Merrick’s brother was waiting for them outside the airport. One look was all it took to
see the resemblance, both in autocratic manner and old-world graciousness. She looked forward to
getting to know her brother-in-law a little better, to form an opinion about the man who would be king.
There was hint of a warrior about him, a trait that must run in the family, though the rough edges were a
bit more polished than with Merrick.
To her surprise, it didn’t take long for Lander to put her at ease, and he had her mother charmed within
minutes. He also drove them back to Glynith, and though it rained almost the entire way, Alyssa neither
noticed nor cared. There were too many other matters of far greater importance to address.
“How did you figure out I hadn’t betrayed you?” she asked Merrick at one point.
“Tolken helped with that.” He flicked her nose with the tip of his finger. “Surprises you, doesn’t it? Once
I calmed down enough to think straight I realized you would never have given up Miri, not even for my
freedom. Certainly not for your own.”
“Not even for my mother’s,” she confirmed. “I’d have given him almost anything else, but not that. It was
too high a price to pay.”
“There’s the palace,” Angela broke in. Wistfulness underscored her comment. A whisper of bittersweet
Merrick peered out the window, squinting as the sun broke through the rain clouds. He wrapped his arm
around his wife. “We can’t take up residence there until after church and state have made your position
official. But that shouldn’t be too long a wait.”
“And you? What will you do?”
“I’ve decided to keep my current job. After my dealings with von Folke, I think Verdonia needs a tough
watchdog.” He inclined his head toward the palace. “I’ll just relocate my base of operations.”
Alyssa stared at her new home. This was it. Permanent. No more running. A hint of apprehension rippled
through her. Staying involved so much responsibility. How would she manage to handle it all? If it hadn’t
been for Merrick’s presence, she would have been tempted to order Lander to turn the car around and
return them to the airport.
And then she saw it. Watched as it formed right before her eyes. From its roots, deep in Celestian soil, a
rainbow arched across the sky, a brilliant sweep of color, so dazzling it hurt the eyes. And from where
she sat it seemed to burst apart right on top of the palace. Merrick saw it, too. He turned to her, a
crooked grin tugging at the corner of his mouth, clearly understanding the significance.
Alyssa caught her mother’s hand and directed her attention out the window. “Look, Mom. You were
right. Our rainbow was out there. After all these years we finally found it.”
And then she met her husband’s steady gaze, one that glittered like the sun. She’d discovered what was
at the end of her rainbow and it was infinitely more precious than mere gold. She curled deeper into
Merrick’s embrace. “Take me home,” she whispered.
“On one condition.”
“That you promise to live happily ever after.”
She pretended to consider. “There’s only one way that’ll work.” Her expression softened. “And that’s
with you at my side.”
He lowered his head and kissed her. “Welcome home, my love. Welcome home.”
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