The sixth book in the Capturing the Crown series, 2006
This book is dedicated to the victims and heroes of Hurricane Katrina, to those who lost so much, and to those who've given so much in an ongoing effort to bring aid, comfort and hope to the devastated.
I am in awe of you all.
He'd always been a little in love with Paris. She was the village eccentric, that mysterious lady reputed to possess a past both lurid and glorious. True, she was a bit blowsy now, not terribly clean and beginning to show her age, but beautiful still. And while she may have been mistrusted and reviled-and secretly envied-by her more conventional neighbors, one knew she was always ready to welcome a lad in need of refuge with open arms.
And there had never been a lad more in need of a refuge than Nikolas Donovan. His life had recently gone careening out of control with the dizzying speed of a sports car traveling down a steep and winding mountain road without brakes. It seemed to him a ride that could end only one way: with a calamitous plunge off a cliff.
Though at the moment, he had to admit, all the turmoil of the past several months seemed far away. It was an early September evening in Paris. Rain was expected later, but now the air was warm and soft with humidity. The trees were still green, with only a few leaves, harbingers of the autumn avalanche to come, tumbling and skittering like playful kittens under the flying feet of the children playing soccer among the chestnut trees in the Tuillerie Gardens. He felt pangs of envy as he watched them and listened to their grunts and scufflings of effort. He envied them this time, this age when a boy's only concern was whether he could kick the football between the makeshift goalposts before darkness and his mother's voice calling him to supper put an end to the game.
As he turned reluctantly back toward the flat he'd been calling home for the past few days, he was conscious of a certain irony in the fact that innocent children's games should be played in this spot where so much blood had been shed during France's chaotic march through history. It occurred to him that maybe there was a parallel, too, between those bumps and unexpected turns that were a natural part of growing children into adulthood, and the war, violence and turmoil countries seemed destined to endure on the way to becoming peaceful, democratic nations.
Certainly, in the past several months, Silvershire, the island country of his birth and of his heart, had experienced more than its share of that violence-murder, blackmail, attempted murder, conspiracy, terrorist bombings and assassination plots against the ruling family. Acts of violence in which he, Nikolas Donovan, had been suspected, if not openly accused, of complicity. Now the country seemed poised on the brink of outright rebellion-a rebellion Nikolas was assuredly guilty, at least in part, of fomenting.
He hadn't wanted rebellion.
Change, yes. He'd worked all his life for change. But not by violence. Never by violence.
But now change had come, and with a vengeance. Catastrophic change. Just not quite the way he'd expected.
The temporary lightness of heart he'd enjoyed while watching the soccer game sifted away, and he felt it again- the cringing coldness in his chest, the hollow tapping of a pulse deep in his belly-the symptoms that came to him now whenever he remembered his life had been turned upside down.
Dusk had fallen. Lights were winking on in the trees and bridges and on the tour boats cruising up and down the river, and lovers were strolling the pathways along the riverbank hand in hand, taking advantage of the lovely late-summer evening. Paris would always be a city for lovers. Feeling more alienated and alone than ever, Nikolas quickened his steps toward home.
On a quiet tree-lined street not far from the Eiffel Tower he paused to look up at the third-floor windows of the borrowed flat that was his temporary refuge now. He wasn't sure what made him do that-perhaps a habit of caution learned from his life as a rebel with a cause, accustomed to watching his own back. Or maybe simply stealing a moment to appreciate the charm of the grand old buildings with their balconies and tall mullioned windows framed by creeping vines. Whatever the reason for that quick, casual glance, the move that followed it was launched by pure instinct, and it was not in the least casual. He slipped into the shadows between trees and parked cars and became utterly and completely still while he studied the window of his supposedly empty apartment where, a moment before, he was absolutely certain he'd seen something move.
The movement didn't come again, but never for a moment did he believe it had been a trick of the eye. Unlikely as it seemed, someone or something had just entered his flat through the balcony window.
All his senses were on full alert as he quickly crossed the street and let himself into the building. Inside he paused again to listen, but it was quiet as a mausoleum; most Parisians would still be out and about this early on such an evening, at least until the forecast rain arrived.
The quaint old staircase with its ornate wrought-iron balusters and railings that spiraled up through the center of the building seemed to hang unsupported above him in the shadows as he curled his fingers into a fist around the keys and began to climb. His heart was pounding, sweat trickling coldly down his back, and not from the exertion of the climb. Nikolas made a point of keeping himself in shape. He was no adrenaline junky, but with everything that had been happening in Silvershire lately, a certain amount of paranoia seemed not only healthy, but prudent-perhaps even vital.
He mounted the last flight of stairs on tiptoe and moved soundlessly down the hallway, footsteps swallowed by the caipet runner. At the door to his flat he paused one last time to consider the situation, which was, the way he saw it, as follows: Someone had entered the flat through the balcony window. That someone either was or was not still in the flat. If not, he'd have a little mystery to solve at his leisure. On the other hand, if someone was in the flat, odds seemed against whoever it was being there for friendly purposes.
It had been a good eight years since his military sendee and commando training, but he was gratified to feel his mind and body shifting gears, settling into that particular state of quiet readiness he thought he'd forgotten. He could almost hear the hum of his heightened senses as he took hold of the doorknob and silently turned it.
The flat was in shadows, the darkness not yet complete. He'd left no light burning, but everything seemed as he'd left it. Aware that the slightly brighter backdrop of the hallway must cast him in silhouette, he stepped quickly into the room and closed the door behind him. checking as he did so for a body that may have been flattened against the wall behind it. Then he paused again, the old-fashioned metal key gripped in his hand like a weapon, and sniffed the air.
The room was empty now, he could feel it. But moments ago someone had been here, someone who had left traces, a faint aura…a scent too delicate and ephemeral to be aftershave or perfume.
Something about that scent jolted him with an untimely sense of deja vu. But before the feeling could coalesce into thought, he received a different kind of jolt entirely-a shock-wave of pure adrenaline.
There-a movement. Swift and furtive, just on the edges of his field of vision. The window curtain, stirring where no breezes blew.
Nikolas was naturally athletic and very quick for a big man. Moving swiftly and soundlessly, like a creature of the night himself, he crossed the room and slipped through the open casement window onto the balcony. In the fast-fading twilight he could see a figure dressed in black standing frozen beside the balcony railing. He heard a sound…saw a hand come up and extend toward him…and before the sound could become speech or the hand activate whatever death-dealing object it may have been holding, he launched himself toward the intruder, going in low, aiming for the knees.
He was a little surprised at how easy it was. There was no resistance at all, in fact, just a soft gasp when he drove his shoulder into a surprisingly slim midsection, then a somewhat louder "Oof!" as his momentum carried both him and the intruder to the balcony's plaster floor. With that slender body pinned half under him, Nikolas caught both wrists and jerked them roughly to the small of the intruder's back.
It was over just that quickly-so quickly, in fact, that it took another second or two for Nikolas's senses to catch up with his reactions, and for him to realize that, A. his would-be assailant carried no weapon, and B. wasn't a "he" at all. Wrists that slender, a bottom so nicely rounded and fitting so sweetly against his belly, that elusive scent…those could only belong to a woman.
The revelation didn't induce him to relax his vigilance or ease his grip, however. If there was anything he'd learned from the recent events in his homeland, it was that assassins came in all sizes and both genders. And that no one-no one-could be trusted.
"I expected someone with a bit more in the way of fighting skills." he said through gritted teeth, his face half-buried in the woman's warm, humid nape. The smell of her hair made his head swim.
That scent…I know it…from somewhere.
"I have skills…you can't even imagine." his prisoner replied in a breathless, constricted voice. "Just didn't think… it'd be smart…to kick a future king…where it'd hurt the most. Not exactly… a brilliant career move, you know? Plus… there's that little matter… of you being required to produce an heir…"
That remark, as well as the fact that the woman's accent was distinctly of the American South, barely registered. "Who are you? Who sent you? Was it Weston? Carrington? Who, damn you?"
"Neither. Well…sort of- Look, if you'll get off me and let me up so I can get to my ID…"
"Not a chance." An ingrained habit of courtesy under similar physical circumstances did induce him to take some of his weight off the woman-a concession he made sure to compensate for by tightening his grip on her wrists. She wasn't showing much inclination to resist, but he wasn't ready to take anything for granted. "I'll get it. Where is it?"
She gave an irritable-sounding snort. "Oh for God's sake. It's in my jacket-inside pocket. Left side. Just don't-"
He was already in the process of shifting both himself and his prisoner onto their sides so he could slip his hand inside her jacket, which was leather and as far as he could tell, fitted her like her own skin. It closed with a zipper which was pulled all the way up, almost to her chin. "Don't…what?" He found the tab and jerked it down, impatient with it and with his own senses for noticing and passing on to him at such an inopportune moment how supple and buttery soft the leather was, almost indistinguishable from her skin, in fact…and how warm and fragrant her hair… .and what was that damn scent, anyway?
He thrust his hand inside the jacket opening…and froze.
"Never mind." A rich chuckle-hers-seemed to ripple down the length of his body as his hand closed-entirely of its own volition, he'd swear-over a breast of unanticipated voluptuousness. Furthermore, the only barrier between his hand and that seductive bounty was something silky, lacy and, he felt certain, incredibly thin. A chemise? It seemed to him an unlikely choice of attire for an assassin.
And the nipple nested in his palm was already hardening, nudging the nerve-rich hollow of his hand with each of her quickened breaths in a way that seemed almost playful. As if, he thought, she were deliberately taunting him. Testing his self-control.
A growl of desperation and fury vibrated deep in his throat. He tried again to shift his weight to give his hand more room to maneuver inside the jacket and only succeeded in bringing her bottom into even closer contact with the part of his own anatomy least subject to his will.
"You're not going to have much luck finding it where you're looking," she remarked, her voice bumpy with what he was sure must be suppressed laughter.
"I'm so glad you're finding this entertaining." he said in his stuffiest. British old-school tone, feeling more sweaty and flustered than he had since his own schoolboy years in that country. "Forgive me if I don't share your amusement… These days I don't consider-Ah!" With a sense of profound relief, he withdrew his hand from its enticing prison, a thin leather folder captured triumphantly between two fingers. "Yes-here we are."
"How are you going to look at it? It's dark out here." The woman pinned beneath him now seemed as overheated and winded as he, and her body heat was merging with his in steamy intimacy that should have been unwelcome between two strangers-or, he thought, at the very least, unsettling. Exotic. Instead there was that odd familiarity, as if he'd been in this exact same place, with this same woman, before.
The situation was becoming intolerable. Nikolas levered himself to his feet, hauling his unwelcome visitor with him. "Come on-inside. Now." His natural bent toward gallantry deserted him as he hauled her none too gently through the casement window.
"This really isn't necessary." she panted, and he was grimly pleased to note there was no laughter, suppressed or otherwise, in her voice now. "If I'd wanted to leave we wouldn't be having this conversation."
"Yes, and then the question becomes, why are you here at all, doesn't it?" He quick-marched her across the shadowy room to the light switch beside the front door, and flipped it on. filling the room with the soft light from an art deco chandelier. "Now then, let's see who… Ah-the Lazlo Group. I say-I'm impressed. And you are-" And he halted, the ID in his hand forgotten…or irrelevant.
The face he'd half convinced himself must be a fantasy.
She was the fantasy every heterosexual male past the age of awareness must have entertained at least once. The impossibly beautiful woman who came from out of nowhere to land-almost literally-in his lap, proceeded to make passionate love to him and then…vanished without a trace.
The summer between his second and third years at Oxford…
Nikolas was interning with Silvershire 's diplomatic mission to Paris. He'd been to a reception at the embassy in honor of the newly appointed ambassador from Spain, where the wine had flowed rather freely. He returned to his hotel in a not entirely unpleasant state of fuzzy-headedness. The weather had turned hot and muggy, and that combined with his mild intoxication had made him too warm to sleep, so, in the hope of clearing his head and cooling his body, he 'd stepped out onto the balcony.
He was leaning on the railing, enjoying a breathtaking nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower and contemplating the possible sobering effects of a cold shower when it happened. Someone-a body-a woman's body-clad all in black and lithe and supple as a cat's, seemed to fall right out of the night sky. Fell on top of him and knocked him flat.