"The Crown Affair, Book 2"
Harlequin Intrigue® #686
Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0373226861
Publisher: Harlequin Books
Pub. Date: November 2002

"Have you ever seen such a radiant bride?" Prince Alexander Zared asked his sister, Princess Tashya.

With an approving smile, Tashya watched her oldest brother, the King of Vashmira, and Ericka, his Queen, stroll down the steps of the National Cathedral where his coronation ceremony and their marriage had just taken place. Triumphant trumpet fanfares accompanied their footsteps, and thousands of gardenias scented the air as television cameras broadcast the event live to the world.

"Careful, Alexander. If Nicholas catches you so much as sneaking a lingering look at his wife, he'll make you Ambassador to Antarctica."

Not the least perturbed, Alexander grinned. "So you've noticed our dear brother's a bit overprotective of his new bride?"

"He's so in love." Tashya could see the deep emotions in Nicholas' eyes every time he looked at Ericka. She wondered if a man would ever stare at her with such adoration, and if she'd ever respond with the open look of love she saw on Ericka's face. Good for them, Tashya thought. Nicholas deserved some happiness.

Ever since their father's assassination a year ago, Nicholas had taken on much responsibility. Stepping into their father's shoes couldn't have been easy for him. At first, he had balked at accepting an arranged marriage to a stranger, but Vashmiran law had clearly stated Nicholas must choose a bride before his coronation ceremony. Nicholas and Ericka had only met this past month, yet, Tashya suspected Nicholas couldn't have chosen better on his own. Without an arranged marriage, he might never have found a wife at all. In fact, before he'd met Ericka, Tashya's more serious brother had tendencies toward being a workaholic.

However, Nicholas had lucked out and fallen in love with the American. Tashya fully approved--not that anyone had asked her approval. But she genuinely liked her independent sister-in-law and realized Ericka could help the cause. Tashya intended to seek Queen Ericka's help to establish more equality for women in their country. But that would come later, after the honeymoon. Right now, as they waved to crowds of wellwishers, having the Queen at his side was bringing a gentle light of satisfaction to Nicholas' eyes.

Tashya wondered if Alex would ever look so happy. Freed from the pressure of ruling Vashmira, Alexander seemed to drift from woman to woman and party to party. Tall, dark and restless, her brother shifted impatiently from foot to foot, his attention lighting on first a pretty Muslim woman dressed in traditional clothing, then a young Jewish lady. Eventually he locked gazes with a sophisticated woman sending out unmistakably lustful signals.

Tashya refrained from rolling her eyes. With her luck, the paparazzi would catch her making a face, and she would do nothing to spoil the king's wedding day. Today was going to be perfect.

She discretely elbowed Alexander in his side. "Perhaps, if you stayed with one woman long enough to learn her name, you, too, might fall in love."

Alexander shrugged, his broad shoulders filling out his elegant dress uniform in a way that was sure to increase his already enormous popularity with the ladies. In fact, there had been such a national uproar and wild speculation over who would accompany him to the wedding that he'd chosen to go with his sister as he often did for official functions.

For her part, she always welcomed her brother's company. Especially since his presence protected her from those men who couldn't see past her title to a living, breathing woman. Sure, she held a title, but that didn't mean she didn't yearn for what other women wanted--a man who loved her for her unique individuality.

Alexander winked at a set of twins, brother and sister, who couldn't be more than four. "I'll never marry."

"Why not?" Tashya waved to the crowd as the bride and groom climbed into a horse-drawn carriage. It took a few minutes for Ericka's attendants to gather and tuck her long train around her feet. With an official handshake, Nicholas thanked each of the young boys accompanying the couple. To each of the little girls, he handed a long-stemmed red rose.

"I like variety. Perhaps the flaw is mine." Alexander's gaze focused on a lovely young woman in the crowd. "I'm distracted so easily."

Tashya nudged him again. "Stop that. She's too young for you."

"I only smiled at her," Alexander said pleasantly, not the least bothered by his sister's tone of disapproval. Alexander's problem was that he expected every woman to love him, and they invariably did. It irked Tashya that while he was never alone, he often seemed lonely. "I may be the perennial bachelor but at least I go out. It wouldn't hurt you to be a little more open to the possibilities," he chided.

"Oh, right. In case you haven't noticed, we still have a double standard in this country. Our people would not accept their Princess acting like their Prince and going to bed with every--"

"You needn't draw me a mental picture." Alexander had the grace to wince and quickly changed the subject. "Whatever happened between you and the Prince of Moldova?"

"The toad?" Tashya shuddered, then waved again before she and Alex finally headed down the steps toward the carriage that awaited. "Absolutely nothing happened between us--that was the problem."

"The man must be blind."

"Oh, he found me attractive enough, all right. In fact, I suspect that's all he wanted. Something pretty to hang on his arm and his every word. Besides, he had horse breath. Actually, my horses have breath much sweeter than his royal high--"

"Okay. Okay. Keep your voice down before you start another international incident."

"Nicholas' secretary of state smoothed things over."

"But we almost went to war."

"Surely you don't believe I should have married a man I thoroughly disliked, so Vashmira would make an alliance?"

"Nicholas and I hoped you'd be happy with the Moldovan Crown Prince. I'm sorry things didn't work out."

Alexander helped her into the carriage. They would parade through the crowds and the city until they reached the palace and the grand reception hall where dignitaries and guests from around the world waited. Vashmira's palace had never looked better and the aromas wafting from the kitchens this morning had been heavenly.

Alexander pulled up his trousers slightly to avoid creasing at the knees before he sat next to her on the leather seat. Naturally he'd want to look good for the legions of women he'd dance with at the ball. She, too, expected to have plenty of partners, but the evening had no appeal for her. She couldn't help worrying over the logistical nightmare of security.

Just last week Nicholas and Ericka had rooted out a traitor in their midst. The American government had responded by sending over a Secret Service team to guard the royal couple.

Along the parade route, handlers released doves from cages, and the birds soared into the sky. A sky where dark clouds threatened to block the sun. Tashya leaned back in the carriage seat, closed her eyes, and tipped her face to absorb the last rays of sunlight.

A car backfired, or at least she thought the sound came from a car. People screamed and shouted. She opened her eyes just as Alexander shoved her to the carriage floor.

With an undignified thump, she landed on knees and elbows, her gown riding up her legs. Alexander piled on top of her, pressing her into the carpet.

"What's wrong?" she asked as the carriage driver whipped the horses into a gallop and the milling crowds turned and fled.

"Someone's shooting at us."

"At us?"

Alexander had to be wrong. Neither of them held any power. Who would want to harm them?

"Alex, is some angry husband or father after you?"

"I don't think so."

A shot pinged off the carriage, close to her head. Fear started to wind up her throat and choke off her breath. This was no joke. Someone wasn't just trying to scare them.

Someone was trying to kill them.