"The Crown Affair, Book 3"
Harlequin Intrigue® #690
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Harlequin Books
Pub. Date: December 2002
"Highness," Prince Alexander Zared's secretary signaled him through the intercom. "King Nicholas is on line four."
Alex hadn't spoken to his brother in weeks for fear that calls from the royal palace to the Vashmiran embassy in Washington D.C. might be tapped. Yet, through diplomatic channels, he'd agreed to maintain a low profile until the person or persons out to assassinate him had been caught, so his contacts believed he's phoning from Vashmira when in reality he was hiding inside his embassy.
Anxious over the problems back home, worried about the rest of his family's safety, especially his sister Tashya whose life had also been threatened, Alex immediately picked up the phone despite the late hour. "Is everyone okay?"
"Yes," Nicholas reassured him. "General Vladimir's aide and right-hand man is dead, and Tashya is safe." Alex relaxed his fingers that had been gripping the phone tight enough to crack the casing. Their father had been assassinated last year, and a few weeks ago, Nicholas, the new king had become a target. And then the General's aide had gone after Alex and their sister. That the traitor was now dead was excellent news. Alex's interminable hiding could come to an end.
As if reading his thoughts, Nicholas continued, "My chief of palace security is not convinced the danger is over. We think there may be a conspiracy."
"What kind of conspiracy?"
"We don't know. This may be an internal problem or come from one of our neighbors."
Vashmira, a new country founded by Alex's father had broken away from the former Soviet Union and the new king wanted to increase ties to the West. Vashmira bordered Moldova, Turkey, Bulgaria and the Black Sea, and its people were a melting pots of religions and ethnic groups. Enemies could come from within or without, and clearly this latest enemy had proved deadly and cagey.
Made restless by his confinement inside the half-finished embassy walls, Alex frowned. "Can you be certain our security chief isn't trying to justify his job?"
"You know better. What you don't know is that Tashya is getting married."
"To the Toad?" Alex couldn't believe she'd knuckled under to Nicholas' pressure for her to marry the Crown Prince of Moldova when she clearly detested the man. On the surface, Tashya might seem malleable, but she was an expert at getting her way and neither Nicholas nor Alex had ever quite figured out how she accomplished it.
"I've agreed to a marriage between her and Hunter, the American who we spoke about last week."
"She's in love. However, the Moldovan government is not pleased. I wouldn't be surprised if they are behind these assassination attempts. It would be prudent for you to maintain a low profile for a few more days."
Weary of remaining in hiding, Alex silently groaned and felt compelled to make the offer, "Maybe I should come home. Attend a few parties . . ." He often emulated the playboy who didn't take politics seriously, and it was surprising what kind of information he picked up at a jet-set party--while enjoying himself, too. But his new job of Ambassador to the U.S. would allow him to help his country in a different way.
"Stay and open our Embassy if you want. Right now we need to strengthen our contacts with the West, take advantage of my marriage and Tashya's engagement to Americans."
King Nicholas might speak like a crafty politician, but that didn't mean he wasn't totally in love with his new bride. Alex hoped his sister would be just as content.
He hung up the phone, gratified that Nicholas hadn't demanded for him to return. Although Alex had travelled extensively through Europe, Northern Africa and parts of Asia, Alex hadn't been to the United States before. He'd been eagerly awaiting the time when he could leave the Vashmiran embassy to explore, to accept the dozens of diplomatic invitations, to meet American women and perhaps to take a romantic sail down the Potomac river. Nicholas may have suggested that he continue to hide, but now that the immediate crisis was over, Alex refused to remain secluded any longer. Long ago he'd accepted that royalty and politicians were always targets and while cautionary measures at certain times were prudent, he wouldn't spend a lifetime in hiding.
Alex left his office for his private suite inside the embassy and retreated to his bedroom, savoring the options that would soon be his. He sat at his desk, but didn't really see his papers. He wanted to be free. Free to act like a tourist and tour the Smithsonian, the National Museum of Natural History enjoy a drink at the Sequoia. Free to explore the Washington Monument, free to taste ice cream from a street vendor, free to enjoy the company of a sensual woman.
Although generalizations could prove dangerous, he often found them to be true. European women had a certain diamond-like sophistication, a je ne sais quoi, a refined style that had been honed for generations and which he'd appreciated with gratitude. In Asia, the women were like pearls, each one precious and polished, tending to the men with a respect founded on rituals. And American women? He couldn't wait to meet them.
Once the political situation in Vashmira had stabilized, Alex savored the idea of just walking down Massachusetts Avenue and Embassy Row. Most people in this country wouldn't recognize him, and for a few hours he could pretend to be an ordinary citizen out for an afternoon stroll. His bodyguards had long ago learned discretion.
Freedom beckoned. His presence here had been kept a secret from all but a trusted few, and if he remained careful, the ever-vigilant American and European paparazzi might not find him for several days. He intended to make the most of his rare opportunity.
Fiery pain suddenly looped his throat.
Alex jerked upright. Raising his fingers to his neck, he touched a cruel wire that cut off his air and that was way too thin to grab. Flailing his arms, his fingers closed on the lamp on his nightstand.
Alex smashed the lamp against the table and shoved the shards into his attacker. The man screamed.
The garotte around Alex's throat loosened, and he gasped in air, shouted for his bodyguards. Behind him, the screams of his assailant ceased, but the unmistakable click of a gun's hammer pulling back gave Alex an instant's warning.
A bullet hissed by his ear as Alex dived through his doorway, rolled to his feet and sprinted down the hall. His suite door was wide open, and in the dim light, he spied the bodies of his guards, their necks twisted at odd angles. Dead.
Footsteps and the sound of wood splintering next to his head urged him to leap over the bodies and zigzag down the embassy's corridor. Cursing under his breath, hoping the blood oozing down his neck was only superficial and that he hadn't nicked an artery, Alex bolted into the grand and uncompleted foyer.
He raced through the nearest exit, past more dead guards. His military training had taught him the first few moments after an attack could be critical to survival. Without a weapon, returning to fight a deadly opponent would be suicidal. As much as he would have preferred to confront his enemy, he wanted to do so from a position of strength.
Run or hide?
He had just seconds to decide. Pounding down the wide street in the middle of the night, Alex searched for a place to disappear among the dark office buildings and parked vehicles on the block. Seeing nothing promising, he arbitrarily hung a hard right, then a left at the next two intersections.
He told himself things could be worse. He spoke English, was dressed in slacks and a shirt, instead of pajamas, and was wearing shoes. His injury didn't appear severe, although it still stung like hell. He had his wits about him, and he'd seemed to have outrun his attacker.
Unfortunately, he was lost in a strange country. He knew no one here.
He had no identification and no money. But somehow, he would manage, he was sure of it.
And then a car turned the corner, its headlights locking onto him like a heat-seeking missile to a hot target.