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Harlequin Presents
ISBN: 0373131577
May 21, 2013
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Mills & Boon
ISBN: 0263900150
June 7, 2013
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Excerpt from A Throne for the Taking

CHAPTER ONE

He was coming. The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside told her that. Brisk, heavy footsteps, the sound of expensive leather soles on the marble floor.

A big man, moving fast and impatiently toward the room where she had been told to wait for him. A room that was not as she had expected, but then then nothing had been as she had expected since she had started out on this campaign, least of all this man she hadn’t seen in so long. It had been more than ten years since she had spoken to him, but they would now be coming face to face in less than thirty seconds.

How was she going to handle this?

Ria adjusted her position in the smart leather chair, crossing one leg over the other, then, rethinking, moving it back again so that her feet were neatly on the floor, placed precisely together in their elegant black courts, knees closed tight, her blue and green flowered dress stretched sleekly over them. Lifting her hand she made to smooth back a non-existent wandering strand of dark auburn hair. Her style would be immaculate, she knew. She’d 1pulled her hair back tightly from her face so that there was nothing loose to get in a mess or distract her. Nothing to look frivolous or even carefree. That was not the image she’d aimed for.

She’d even fretted at the thought that her dress might be a little too casual and relaxed when she’d put it on, but the below knee length of the swirling skirt covered her almost as much as the tailored trousers she’d considered wearing, and the lightweight black linen jacket she’d pulled on over the top added a needed touch of formality that made her feel better.

The room she sat in was sleek and sophisticated with pale wood furniture. Far sleeker and much more luxurious than she had ever anticipated. One of the soft grey walls displayed a set of dramatic photographs, sleekly framed. In black and white only, they were the sort of thing that had made Alexei Sarova his reputation and his fortune. They were superb, stunning but – Ria frowned as she looked at them. They were bleak and somehow lonely. Photographs of landscapes, places, no people in them at all. He did sometimes photograph people, she knew that from the magazines she had read and the stunning images that had appeared in the articles, but none of those commissions were displayed here.

Outside the door, those determined, heavy footsteps slowed, then halted and she heard the murmur of voices through the thick wood, the deep, gravelly tones making it plain that the speaker was a man.

The man. The one she had come here to meet, to give him the message that might save her country from all out civil war, and she had vowed that she was not leaving until she had done so. Even if the nerves in her stomach tied themselves into tight, painful knots at the thought and her restless fingers had started to beat an unsettled tattoo on the wooden arm of the chair.

‘No!’ Ria reproved herself aloud. ‘Stop it! Now!’

She brought her nervous hand together with the other one, to clasp them both demurely in her lap, forcing herself to wait with every semblance of control and composure, even if the churning of her stomach told her that this was very far from the case. Too much rested on this meeting and she wasn’t really sure that she could handle it.

Oh this was ridiculous! Ria drew in a deep, ragged sigh as she put back her head and stared fixedly at the white-painted ceiling, fighting for control of her breathing. She should be well able to cope with this. She’d been trained practically from birth to meet strangers, talk with them, making polite social chit-chat at court events. It was what she could do as naturally as breathing while all the time keeping her head up high, her spine straight so that she looked as good as good as possible, with first her nanny’s then her father’s voice in her ear telling her that the reputation of the Escalona family - an offshoot of the royal family – should be the first and foremost thing in her mind.

She could talk to Presidents’ wives about their trips round the glass –making factories, discuss the agricultural output of the vineyards, the farms. She could even, if she was let, converse intelligently on the vital role of exports, or the mining of eruminum the new miracle mineral that had just been discovered in the Trilesian mountains. Not that she was frequently asked to do any such thing. Those important details were usually left to her grandfather or, until recently, to her second cousin Felix, the Crown Prince of Mecjoria.

But she had never before had to deal with any mission that meant so much in the way of freedom, both to her country and herself. That restless hand threatened to escape her careful control and start its nervous tattoo all over again at just the thought.

‘Do it, then.’

The voice from the corridor sounded sharp and clear this time, bringing her head up in a rush, as she straightened once again in her chair. Shoulders back, head up . . . she could almost hear her father’s strict commands , as she drew in a long, deep breath to calm herself as she had done on so many other previous occasions.

But this wasn’t one of those events . This man wasn’t exactly a stranger and polite chit-chat was the last thing she expected to be exchanging with him.

The handle turned as someone grasped it from the other side. Ria tensed, shifted in her chair, half looked over her shoulder then rethought, and turned back again. She didn’t want him to think that she was nervous. She had to appear calm, collected, in command of the situation.

Command. The word rang hollowly inside her head. Once she had only to command something and it would be hers. In just a few short months her life had been turned upside down, and in ways that made her status in society the least of her concerns, so that now nothing was as it had ever been before, and the future loomed ahead, dark and dangerous.

But perhaps if she could manage this meeting with some degree of success she could claw back something from the disaster that had overtaken her country – and family. She could hope to put right the wrongs of the past, and, on a personal level, save her mother’s happiness, her sanity possibly. And for her father . . . no, she couldn’t go there, not yet. Thoughts of her father would weaken her, drain away the strength she needed to see this through.

‘I’ll expect a report on my desk by the end of the day.’

The door was opening, swinging wide. The man she had come to see was here, and she had no more time to think.

As the big dark figure appeared in the doorway her heart jerked sharply under her ribcage, taking her breath with it. For the first time she felt suddenly lost, vulnerable without the ever-present security man at her back. All her life he had been there, just waiting and watching in case he was needed. And she had come to rely on him to deal with any awkward situation.

The once ever-present security man, she reminded herself . The protection that was no longer there, no longer part of her life or her status here or in her homeland of Mecjoria. She was no longer entitled to such protection. It was the first thing that had been stripped from her and the rest of her family in the upheaval that had followed Felix’s unexpected death, and the shocking discovery of her father’s scheming in the past. After that, things had changed so fast that she had never had time even to think about the possible repercussions of the changes and to consider them now, with the possible consequences for her own future, made her stomach twist painfully.,

‘No delays . . . Good afternoon.’

The abrupt change of subject caught Ria on the hop, She hadn’t quite realised that his companion had been dismissed and that he was now in the room, long strides covering the ground so fast that he was halfway towards her before she realised it.

Good afternoon.’

It was stronger, harsher, much more pointed, and she almost felt as if the words were hitting her in the small of her back. She should turn round, she knew. She needed to face him. But the enormity of the reason why she was here and the thought of his reaction when she did made it difficult to move.

‘Miss . . .’

The warning in his tone now kicked her into action, fast. Her head jerked round, the suddenness and abruptness of the movement jolting her up and out of her seat so that she came to her feet even as she swung round to face him. And was glad that she had done so when she saw the size and the strength of his powerful form. She had seen pictures of him in the papers, knew that he was tall, dark and devastating, but in the 3D reality of living, breathing golden-toned flesh, deep ebony eyes and crisp black hair, he was so much more than she had ever imagined. His steel grey suit hugged his impressive form lovingly, the broad straight shoulders needing no extra padding to enhance them. A crisp white shirt, silver and black tie, turned him into the sleek sophisticated businessman who was light-years away from the Alexei she remembered, the wiry boy with the unkempt mane of hair who had once been her friend buried under the expensive tailoring. Snatching in a deep, shocked breath she could inhale the tang of some citrus soap or shampoo, the scent of clean male skin.

‘Good afternoon,’ she managed and was relieved to hear that her control over her voice was as strong as she could have wanted. Perhaps it made it sound a little too tight, too stiff, but that was surely better than letting the tremor she knew was just at the bottom of her thoughts actually affect her tongue. ‘Alexei Sarova, I assume.’

He had been moving towards her but her response had a shocking effect on him.

‘You!’ he said the single word thick and dark with hostility.

Excerpt from A Throne for the Taking © Kate Walker

 

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