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Authors: Jennifer Blake

Royal 02 - Royal Passion

BOOK: Royal 02 - Royal Passion
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Copyright ©1985 by Patricia Maxwell

NOTICE: This work is copyrighted. It is licensed only for use by the original purchaser. Making copies of this work or distributing it to any unauthorized person by any means, including without limit email, floppy disk, file transfer, paper print out, or any other method constitutes a violation of International copyright law and subjects the violator to severe fines or imprisonment.
CONTENTS

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3

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18

About the Author

* * * *
ROYAL PASSION
Jennifer Blake
Copyright © 1985 by Patricia Maxwell.
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
1

The fire leaped high, its resinous wood crackling and snapping so that orange sparks swirled with the smoke up into the dark branches of the overhanging trees. The glow of the flames was reflected in the paint of the gypsy caravans, highlighting their chipped red and blue glaze and their tarnished gilt. It shone on the bracelets and belts of polished coins worn by the gypsy women and on the earrings that hung from the ears of the lounging men. Polished brass uniform buttons and shining boots also refracted the blaze, glinting in the dimness as the men of the cadre of Prince Roderic of Ruthenia shifted on the piled rugs that formed their couches. They talked among themselves in low voices, laughing, lifting cups to drink.

The prince himself sat with his blond head bent over a mandolin. His strong, nimble fingers drew from it a wild rhapsody, a heart-quickening song that seemed to throb with gaiety and reckless passion in the cool night air. An old gypsy with a bent back kept pace with him on a violin. Roderic looked up, his face alight with laughter as together the two played point and counterpoint; the music blending, clashing, swelling with the fierce pleasure of the players. The fire's glow gleamed on the high cheekbones of the prince and shone bright in the vivid blue of his eyes while leaving the triangular hollows of his jaw in shadow. It caught the straight line of his nose and the square jut of his chin. It turned his hair to molten gold and made a pale blur of his open-necked shirt and white uniform trousers. He appeared relaxed there among his friends, without care, and yet there was about him a guarded awareness, a tension that could be released instantly into explosive action. Virile, broad of shoulder, he seemed like some hero of the ancient legends, sure of his power, without peer, frighteningly invincible.

Marie Angeline Rachel Delacroix stood watching from the shadows of an oak thicket, her wide gray gaze fixed upon the prince. Her head ached, and there was a burning wetness at her temple where a deep graze spread blood into the dark waves of her hair. She could hardly lift her right arm for the stiffness of her shoulder. Her cloak was stained with mud, her gown of white silk was torn loose at the waist, and she thought that only the thickness of her petticoats with their horsehair padding had saved her from a broken knee.

None of these things was surprising, considering that she had been pushed from a moving carriage not more than a half hour before. But it was not the pain of her injuries, or even the shock of what had happened, that caused the shudders rippling over her body and the feeling of sick fear in the pit of her stomach. It was the man she saw before her in the gypsy camp.

It was Prince Roderic of the Balkan country of Ruthenia; the man she must seduce. And betray.

She had never seduced a man in her life. Oh, she had flirted a little, had practiced the art of attracting members of the opposite sex at the various balls and picnics and pink teas arranged for the entertainment of young ladies making their first appearance in New Orleans society. But never had she set out to entice a man, to enthrall him so that he would willingly do her bidding. Never. No matter what others might say.

Or perhaps she had. She did not know, could not be sure. Still, whatever she may have done in the past, she did not deserve to be set such an impossible task.

The music of violin and mandolin rose to a crescendo, hovering, then with sweet resonance died away. The gypsies leaped to their feet, shouting, beating their hands and rattling tambourines in applause. The prince tilted his head in brief acknowledgment, smiling, and slapped the old gypsy on the shoulder. Then, with a smooth flexing of muscles, he rose to his feet and swung away from the fire. His long strides carried him across the clearing with incredible swiftness. He was moving toward where Mara stood, his movements sure, as if he knew precisely where he was going, had known of her presence for some time.

She took a hasty step backward, but it was too late. He was before her, reaching to take her hand and draw her into the light. She swayed a little, and his grip, warm and firm on her fingers, tightened in instant support.

"Welcome, fair wraith,” he said, his voice gentle but cool, though a moment later it held the quiet scrape of drawn steel as he turned toward his men. “Fair or not, it is without doubt a wraith, else how could she get through the sentries?"

"The fault is mine, Your Highness."

From the darkness behind her stepped a young man. He was dark and handsome in a raffish fashion, with liquid brown eyes, a gold ring in his ear, and a cowrie-shell amulet on a leather thong around his neck. He held himself well, with no sign of submissiveness or guilt.

"Well, Luca?"

The gypsy Luca swept a hand in Mara's direction. “Look at her. Do you see a threat? I saw her thrown from a carriage. When she came this way, I followed."

"Graceless,” said Prince Roderic, “you might have offered aid.” The words were offhand, but he was frowning as his gaze rested on Mara's pale face.

"It seemed best to see what she would do."

Mara, hearing the note of lingering curiosity in the gypsy's voice, thought back to the moment when she had picked herself up and started toward the encampment. Had it seemed too obvious that she had known where she was going? She had been told in which direction to look, but after her jarring fall she had been stunned, disoriented. In the end, she had simply followed the sound of the music. Her progress had been slow, erratic. It could not have appeared otherwise. Her relief was weakening; her fingers trembled in the prince's grasp.

"Come,” he said abruptly, and led her toward the pile of rugs he had left.

She sank down upon them. As she felt the warmth of the fire, she shivered, and the graze on her forehead began to throb. She reached up to touch the skin near it. The prince snapped his fingers, giving a low-voiced order, and immediately a pair of gypsy women came forward. They bathed her injuries and used a scarf of red cotton shot with gold silk thread to tie a bandage pad to her temple over the loosened waves of her dark hair, which fell to her waist. Pressing a cup of red wine into her hand, they moved silently back to their places.

The wine was new and harsh, but it gave her strength. She sipped at it, trying to clear her mind, to subdue the trembling inside her by force of will. Through her lashes, she could see the prince's men gathered around her. Their faces mirrored a disturbing sympathy combined with judicial patience. Near her on the rugs sat the prince, with one elbow resting on a drawn-up knee and his cupped palm supporting his chin. His gaze upon her was lucid, steady, assessing.

Roderic shifted his position, rubbing his finger along his nose. This woman was not the kind a man would use and discard; she was too fine, too fresh. Despite the shadow of fear that she sought to hide in the depths of her clear gray eyes, she appeared untouched, so untutored in the ways of men that he would swear it had not yet occurred to her how vulnerable her position was, there among them. More, she was beautiful, her skin soft and translucent, her mouth tenderly shaped, infinitely kissable. The line of her cheek, the curve of her neck, the firm molding of her chin were perfection. She had capable hands with long fingers, but so slim and white were they that it was plain she did no labor. The silk of her gown was finely woven, far from cheap, and the style, though fairly restrained, was easily recognizable as coming from one of the most fashionable modistes in Paris. No, she was not the kind of woman a man would take out into the French countryside and fling from him like some useless thing.

He leaned toward her."Gypsy hospitality does not require that a guest give a name; still, I ask it. Dark angel, who are you?"

Mara lifted her gaze to meet his hard blue stare. She moistened her lips, remembering her instructions. They had seemed easy, at least when compared to the enormity of what she must do, but now she could not seem to bring herself to follow them. Once she had spoken the words, once the lies had begun, there would be no drawing back.

"What?” Roderic said softly. “Is it guile that restrains you or conscience?"

The trap had been sprung so suddenly, and was so blatant, that Mara felt the stir of anger. It gave her courage. Allowing the distress she had been hiding to seep into her eyes, she shook her head. “I don't—I can't—remember my name."

"Ah, the misfortune of Ulysses, another waylaid traveler. A loss of memory can be most inconvenient—or entirely otherwise. Have you a purse about you?"

A purse, with some means of identification. Mara made a show of searching through the pockets of her cloak. “No. Apparently not."

"Robbed? Then the culprit was either inept or stupid, for he discarded what was of most value."

"You mean—"

"Holding you to ransom would have made much more sense."

There was a low rumble of comment among the uniformed men. For the first time, Mara allowed herself to look at them as individuals rather than as simply members of the prince's entourage. They were only five in number, though they seemed more.

Roderic, following the line of her gaze with a swift turn of his head, came to his feet. “Does my
garde du corps
disturb you? Perhaps a presentation in form would allay your fears? Michael, come forward and make your bow to our lady-guest."

The young man so named stepped near the rug and, with a click of his heels, inclined his head. Tall and slim, with dark hair, he had the same blue eyes as the prince, though they were more somber. He appeared to be a few years younger than Roderic, perhaps in his midtwenties. The impression he gave was one of earnest dependability.

"I give you my cousin Michael, the Baron von Brasov, son of Leopold the Steadfast,” the prince said.

As Michael stepped aside, another of the
garde du corps
took his place. This one was also above average height, though his hair was silver-white and his eyes hazel. But as he bowed, Mara, blinking, saw that the hair was worn in braids wrapped close to the head and the uniform, impeccably tailored for fit, covered the form of a woman.

"Trude, our spear maiden."

The woman, straightening with all the pride and hauteur of a Valkyrie, gave Mara a stare that was as level and searching as a man's. Satisfied, she wheeled with precision and dropped back.

Advancing next came a matched pair. Their curling sandy hair was the same, their green eyes were the same, and so was the laughter in their faces, the level of their heads, and the set of their shoulders. They saluted her in unison, their swords held at the exact same angle behind them, and their smiles as they stood erect again were warm, almost caressing.

Roderic's tone was resigned as he made the introduction. “Jacques and Jared, the brothers Maniu, skirt chasers par excellence, twin crosses."

"But, my prince!” they said together in protest.

"My personal crosses,” Roderic said firmly, and waved them aside.

As they moved, they revealed a short, slender man with thinning dark hair and merry eyes above a magnificent set of whiskers and mustache. Despite the cut of his uniform, he managed to appear rather seedy, and his bearing was less than military. At his side was a ragged mongrel with a scruffy coat of mixed black and brown, and drooping whiskers about his nose gave him a ludicrous resemblance to his master.

"Estes, the Count Ciano."

"And this,” said the count, indicating his pet with a flourish, “is Demon, the very valuable guardian dog of the cadre.” The dog, hearing his name, lolled out his tongue and wagged his tail in a complete circle.

The prince gave the animal a skeptical look. “A veritable Cerberus, one who makes up in valor what he lacks in discipline, manners, size, and appearance, or at least that's the claim."

The prince himself had not been introduced. She could not be expected to know who he was. Greatly daring, Mara said, “And you, sir?"

"I am Roderic."

The Italian count lifted a brow. “His Royal Highness, Prince Roderic son of King Rolfe of Ruthenia, my lady."

There was a silence. They were waiting, Mara knew, for some acknowledgment and for her to give her own name in return. She could not bring herself to meet their eyes. Stretching out a hand that trembled toward the dog, she said, “I am pleased to know all of you. I would tell you who I am, if I could."

BOOK: Royal 02 - Royal Passion
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