It's time you married the bride I chose for you, Nicholas." His father, King Zared I, raised his sharp gaze from the documents on his sixteenth-century antique desk, and pegged his son with a frown.
Not again. At least once a year his dad summoned him to his royal office, pressed him to marry, and he'd started in on him again earlier this afternoon. Annoyed by his father's persistence, Nicholas refrained from rolling his eyes at the ceiling, and instead glanced back at the man, whom he found it so difficult to argue with.
At fifty, hair black as midnight but short and neat, his shoulders still broad and firm, his father looked every inch a king. With his height, his regal demeanor and a sharp wit, the monarch added up to a coup for Vashmira's loyal subjects, who adored the hero of their revolution.
Not only had Zared attained hero status during his lifetime, his family adored and respected him, too. His father always meant well and because Nicholas loved the man, he found it difficult to reject the request, but he fully intended to hold his ground again. "I should be working."
"So should I." His father grinned, the charm that mesmerized millions of their people softening his words. "Although making you to listen to me is the hardest work I've done all year."
Nicholas didn't argue with the exaggeration. His father could outwork most farmhands, dance the night away like a Cossack and still run five miles with elite palace security officers in the morning. Unwilling to overreact, Nicholas took a moment to focus on remaining composed and looked out the palace window into the private courtyard.
A few moths fluttered close to the golden-hued lamplights above iron-studded gates. Mosquitos buzzed incessantly and recycled water gurgled in the fountains. The sweet aroma of scarlet pelargoniums wafted through the air.
Calmed, he faced his father again and responded mildly to his complaint. "I always listen."
"And then you do exactly what you want." His father slapped his palm onto his desk, scattering documents. "It's high time you and Ericka Allen meet, fall in love and marry."
Nicholas identified his father's obstinate I-am-the-king-so-obey-me parenting technique. Avoiding the unpalatable topic of his arranged marriage wasn't going to work. He slipped into a well-worn leather chair, laced his fingers behind his head and tried not to impart his frustration. As heir to the throne of Vashmira, he willingly fulfilled most of the obligations required of him, accepting he would be asked to meet the needs of his people in numerous capacities--but marrying a stranger pushed the limits of loyalty and duty to country.
Nicholas strove to sound reasonable. "Just because her father died saving your life doesn't mean she'll want to have anything to do with me or the contract you cooked up with your old friend."
"Her father was like a brother to me."
Nicholas gazed outside and watched the wind brushing a tufted box shrub against the ivy-covered brick of the inner courtyard. The shrubs needed trimming. Nicholas loathed the subject of their conversation so much that he was willing to distract himself, however, with watching the shrubs' shadows shift against the wall.
While he admired his father's devotion to his old friend who'd died protecting him, he understood both the advantages and disadvantages of marriage to an American. An American-born princess bride could almost assure his country of increased economic aid from the United States and favorable loans from the International Monetary Fund, especially Ericka Allen, a highly respected correspondent for a major newspaper who had access to many powerful men in her government. However, stronger American connections would find disfavor among many of his people who preferred the old ways.
On a personal level, he suspected that Ericka Allen was not in favor of their union, and the last thing he wanted was an unwilling bride. Over the years his father had sent her family funds and kept tabs on the woman. She had a thriving career, had known about the contract since her eighteenth birthday when his father had written her, and she had never bothered to contact themwhich stung his pride a little. Obviously, she wasn't interested, a fact he'd mentioned to the king beforeto no avail.
Grimly, he reminded himself there was some wiggle room. The lady could back out. So could hebut at the risk of destabilizing his country. If he chose another woman, many political factors would come into play. Some as simple as which language dominated Vashmira's communications and trade. Born of noble Russian parents who'd immigrated to the United States, King Zared I spoke English, Russian and Arabic, the three official languages of Vashmira, and he'd insisted his children learn them, too. Many of their citizens resisted, contending the rest of the country should convert to their preference.
Just as different languages separated his people, so did the three main religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Religious leaders would evaluate and assess Nicholas' wife with their own partisan agendas in mind. He had to select his queen with politic caution, insult no onebut the best way to accomplish that task was to adhere to his father's wishes. Nicholas was caught in a bureaucratic trap of his father's creation.
Unfortunately, nothing Nicholas said seemed to make one iota of difference in changing his father's mind. Nicholas secretly hoped if he simply delayed long enough, Ericka Allen would eventually marry another man. Let him off the hook.
However, he kept the thought to himself. "I understand arranged marriage contracts are prohibited in the United States."
"Last time I checked, we live in Vashmira where such marriage contracts are legal. Since I am the King, and I enact the laws, and you are a citizen, you will obey them. Invite her over for a visit."
"Fine. I'll ask her myself."
"Next week would be good. I'll be in Cairo then for the Mid-East peace talks."
His father leaned forward and crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you fighting me?"
Nicholas knew better than to give a political reason as an answer. "You of all men should understand. You married my mother for love. After she died, you married Sophia for love. I simply wish to do the same."
His father's eyes twinkled. "There is no reason you cannot love my friend's daughter."
Nicholas groaned and shoved to his feet. Retreating might be his best bet. Quarreling with the king was always complicated, especially when his father used his own singular brand of logic and charm. "You never give up, do you, Father?"
"I never stop fighting for our people. An alliance with the West is critical to our survival. Without the hard dollars of American currency, we cannot feed and educate our children. I'm hoping Ericka Allen will do for Vashmira what Princess Grace did for Monaco and what Queen Noor did for Jordan. Her illustrious political connections will prove invaluable to us. A woman in her position will know the ins and outs of the Congressional system, how best to acquire economic aid and loans. An American princess will put our country on the map."
"Father, I really have work." Nicholas strode out of the office, the heat of his irritation chilled by his father's persistence and the knowledge his arguments did have political merit. However, surely the discussion was over for another year?
Nicholas strode through the royal foyer, and the palace guards closed the doors behind him. He had not yet departed the outer reception area when the loud crack of a gunshot sounded behind him.
Nicholas' heartbeat galloped and his scalp broke into a sweat. That shot sounded as if it had come from his father's office! Adrenalin and fear spurring him, he rushed past the guards into the royal office. They followed close on his heels. No one else was thereexcept his fatherwho lay on the floor in a puddle of blood.
So much blood.
"Find the man who did this," Nicholas ordered, outrage hot upon him even as he searched for a pulse. But his father's bright blue eyes had already turned glassy. His heart no longer beat.
In shock, Nicholas cradled his father, rocking him, unable to shed the tears scalding his eyes and constricting his throat or release the sobs bottled in his chest. As his father's body chilled, he vowed to find his killer.
From deep inside, he drew on a deep-seated strength he'd never known he had. It took enormous effort to force his fingers to uncurl and disengage from his father's body. Finally he shoved to his feet, straightened shoulders that had grown heavy with guilt and grief and the burden of new responsibilities. With a heavy heart, he went to inform and console his step-mother and siblings.
Their king was dead.