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A Beautiful Surrender
By Brenda Williamson
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.Copyright © 2007 Brenda Williamson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKaterina stared at the dais as if it was a sanctuary. Once she reached the top, she'd relax. Balthazar held her back, pausing at the base of the dais and she waited with him. Her brother, the diplomat in social affairs, always believed it best to acknowledge the guests with a bow before ascending to their lofty perch. He said it made them more human to the people they ruled. Except those in the room were nobility, the pompous mixture of lords and ladies. They weren't the peasants, the backbone of their existence.
She followed Balthazar's lead and gave a small nod to the left, then to the right. Her gaze locked onto one person. Dreamy couldn't be a word used for a man, it seemed-unmanly. Still, the word floated in place of conjuring another.
A crushing weight debilitated her normal breathing. His intense stare lingered with what she thought interest. Just when she thought her headache might wane in favor of this distraction, his gaze left hers. He whispered to the young woman next to him. Flustered by the mind-numbing throb to her temples, Katerina's outrage at his flagrant disregard left her empty inside.
"Kat?" Balthazar leaned close, nudging her out of a trance.
"Yes, I'm coming." She walked with him up the steps.
Her mind returned to their predicament. As much as she wanted to be ruler, Katerina had doubts as to whether she could perform when needed. Raised for the position, she and Balthazar were capable of accepting the esteemed honor as joint rulers. They worked well together and hardly ever disagreed about important decisions. However, it was decreed only one of them could ascend to the throne. Her heart wavered when it came to a single aspect of the duty. Was she capable of taking full reign of Alluvia? Would her migraines, with their searing pain, cloud her judgment?
"Our guests, sweet sister," Balthazar whispered without moving his lips. "Do they not look ever so happy to be here?"
His voice bubbled excitedly. In ways only she recognized, Balthazar was still her cute little brother. A year separated them in age, yet she always saw him as an adorable boy, never serious, never concerned over anything. She used to tease that their father found him in a snowdrift.
"Vultures," she replied. "Every man in this place is attracted to the throne and our coffers. None are interested in just me."
She resisted the urge to press her fingertips to her temples. The action would take away from her public appearance, not to mention ruin her neatly pinned coiffure.
"Ah, I think you must be wrong. The eyes of men don't deceive when they look at you, Kat." He nodded at the guard to allow the first guest to come up the short run of carpeted steps. "While I do believe you are right about them dipping greedy fingers into our finances, I believe they would first like to obtain a place in your bed." He snorted, a comical sound that irritated her.
"I wouldn't laugh if I were you. This wonderful lot of ladies does look below your standards. I'd like to point out those most anxious to have your favor are old enough to be our mother."
She didn't bother with a snicker when a woman approached them. The woman appeared quite ready to accept the prince in her bed if nothing more. The smile and giddiness were unsuited for the aging matron, but so typical of a lonely lady's attraction to a man. Balthazar had all the fine qualities of stateliness, including the handsome features people admired. If he wasn't so fun-loving and irresponsible, he might have had himself a bride before it had become a requirement.
She heard him swallow and take in the seriousness of the situation.
"Some warning about the succession could have been mentioned before Father's demise," he said sharply to Katerina under his breath while smiling at the oncoming woman.
Katerina's eyes watered. She loved her father and she doubted very much he expected to die suddenly. She liked to think he had every intention of letting them have as long as necessary to meet and marry in a normal fashion. She needed to believe that, rather than the idea he had purposefully left them both as contestants to the throne.
"Good evening, Countess Hortence." Balthazar bowed.
Katerina gave a tip of her head. Even that slight movement reinforced the sharpness of her pain.
"Good evening, Your Highnesses. I do hope I'm not too bold in offering my condolences on your father's passing. King Norvel was beloved by our kingdom."
"Thank you." Balthazar nodded.
"Such tragedies seem to abound for you over the years. First your mother's death ..."
Katerina could have bust a gusset on her corset. The woman had no right mentioning their mother. Her passing many years ago remained a painful memory. Even to Balthazar, she suspected, when his hand clasped her fingers for comfort.
"Yes, but we all must part this world for a greater one." His hand clenched a few times and released. "Some are blessed to go ahead and make our road less troublesome when we join them."
"But for your poor family to lose a mother, a brother and a father is beyond the limits many of us could endure."
Katerina appraised the woman as an obnoxious nuisance with her morbid talk of death. While Countess Hortence's choice in topics appeared to be her tedious way of connecting with Balthazar's emotions, she couldn't have chosen a better way to alienate him. He never liked talking about death.
The woman continued to chatter, almost lapping at Balthazar's caribou boots in a bid to become his wife. The goal of becoming Queen of Alluvia was the dream of most women. Nevertheless, the woman had to be at least forty years older than Balthazar and the obscenity of even consider her left a sour taste in Katerin's mouth.
When Balthazar finally gave the woman a dismissive bow, she waddled down the dais with clear disappointment on her face.
"Father's rulership was commendable, but his edict for us is deplorable," Katerina fumed. "The idea one of us must marry to succeed to the throne is a troublesome annoyance."
"Don't look now, but I do believe it is your turn to be ogled closer than a prize ham." He lifted her hand and kissed her gloved knuckles.
"Oh, please, Balthazar. Could we not break protocol and dance?" She took a fleeting glance at Lord Henry of Elbian and Lord Thames of Alluvia advancing in the line of guests they were receiving.
"What of your headache?"
"I'd suffer worse having to deal with them." Her headache had come from the whole ordeal of searching for suitable prospects.
"As much as I'd like to break tradition, we are required to spend time greeting the guests."
"Not we, only one of us is required. I'll concede the position to you." She shuddered while trying to consider one of the two unsuitable men for her.
"Then dance away, dear sister, and have fun."
She looked at the line of men and women. The one man she'd locked gazes with before caught her attention. His disinterest hurt. As he fussed over his female companion's hair, Katerina decided he was a fop-a handsome man, but a bore with an ego.
"I'll stay." She twined her arm through her brother's. "My headache is too horrid to concentrate on dancing."
"Good. I could use the company." He rubbed her fingers. "Besides, in a short while we'll dismiss the well-wishers and you can discreetly slip out of here altogether and lie down."
He turned from her to greet the next in line.
Katerina's real excuse for remaining stood in that line. The popinjay had something intriguing in his stance and she had to meet him, regardless of the fact he came with a lady at his side. The reason was no doubt a form of self-torture, but she didn't care.
While he wasn't the only tall man in the crowd, he impressed her with his handsome features, much more than Lord Henry and Lord Thames ever could. They were older than dirt, uglier than toads and chauvinistic cretins. They also believed a country should only be run by a man. Their presence was one reason she didn't want to show any tears. The man she married would have more interest in her than ruling her country.
Excerpted from A Beautiful Surrender by Brenda Williamson Copyright © 2007 by Brenda Williamson. Excerpted by permission.
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