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Cordina's Royal Family
By Nora Roberts
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter OneShe'd forgotten why she was running. All she knew was that she couldn't stop. If she stopped, she'd lose. It was a race where there were only two places. First and last.
Distance. Every instinct told her to keep running, keep going so that there was distance between her and ... where she'd been.
She was wet, for the rain was pounding down, but she no longer jumped at the boom of thunder. Flashes of lightning didn't make her tremble. The dark wasn't what frightened her. She was long past fear of such simple things as the spread of darkness or the violence of the storm. What she feared wasn't clear any longer, only the fear itself. Fear, the only emotion she understood, crawled inside her, settling there as if she'd known nothing else. It was enough to keep her stumbling along the side of the road when her body screamed to lie down in a warm, dry place.
She didn't know where she was. She didn't know where she'd been. There was no memory of the tall, wind-whipped trees. The crash and power of the sea close by meant nothing, nor did the scent of the rain-drenched flowers she crushed underfoot as she fled along the side of a road she didn't know.
She was weeping, but unaware of it. Sobs wracked her, clawing at the fear, doubling it so that it sprinted through her in the absence of everything else. Her mind was so clouded, her legs so unsteady. It would be easy to simply curl up under one of thosetrees and give up. Something pushed her on. Not just fear, not just confusion. Strength-though one wouldn't guess it to look at her, though she herself didn't recognize it-drove her beyond endurance. She wouldn't go back to where she'd been, so there was no place to go but on.
How long she'd been running wasn't important. She'd no idea whether it'd been one mile or ten. Rain and tears blinded her. The lights were nearly on her before she saw them.
Panicked, like a rabbit caught in the beams, she froze. They'd found her. They'd come after her. They. The horn blasted, tires squealed. Submitting at last, she crumpled onto the road, unconscious.
* * *
"She's coming out of it."
"Sir, you must step back for a moment and let me examine her. She may just be drifting again."
Over the mists she was swimming in, she heard the voices. Hollow, distant. Fear scrambled through her. Even in her half-conscious state her breath began to catch. She hadn't escaped. But the fear wouldn't show. She promised herself that. As she came closer to the surface, she closed her hands into tight fists. The feel of her fingers against her palms gave her some sense of self and control.
Slowly she opened her eyes. Her vision ebbed, clouded, then gradually cleared. So, as she stared into the face bending over her, did the fear.
The face wasn't familiar. It wasn't one of them. She'd know, wouldn't she? Her confidence wavered a moment, but she remained still. This face was round and pleasant, with a trim, curling white beard that contrasted with the smooth, bald head. The eyes were shrewd, tired, but kind. When he took her hand in his, she didn't struggle.
"My dear," he said in a charming, low-key voice. Gently he ran a finger over her knuckles until her fingers relaxed. "You're quite safe."
She felt him take her pulse, but continued to stare into his eyes. Safe. Still cautious, she let her gaze wander away from his. Hospital. Though the room was almost elegant and quite large, she knew she was in a hospital. The room smelled strongly of flowers and antiseptics. Then she saw the man standing just to the side.
His bearing was militarily straight and he was impeccably dressed. His hair was flecked with gray, but it was still very dark and full. His face was lean, aristocratic, handsome. It was stern, she thought, but pale, very pale compared to the shadows under his eyes. Despite his stance and dress, he looked as though he hadn't slept in days.
"Darling." His voice shook as he reached down to take her free hand. There were tears under the words as he pressed her fingers to his lips. She thought she felt the hand, which was strong and firm, tremble lightly. "We have you back now, my love. We have you back."
She didn't pull away. Compassion forbade it. With her hand lying limply in his, she studied his face a second time. "Who are you?"
The man's head jerked up. His damp eyes stared into hers. "Who-"
"You're very weak." Gently the doctor cut him off and drew her attention away. She saw him put a hand on the man's arm, in restraint or comfort, she couldn't tell. "You've been through a great deal. Confusion's natural at first."
Lying flat on her back, she watched the doctor send signals to the other man. A raw sickness began to roll inside her stomach. She was warm and dry, she realized. Warm and dry and empty. She had a body, and it was tired. But inside the body was a void. Her voice was surprisingly strong when she spoke again. Both men responded to it.
"I don't know where I am." Beneath the doctor's hand her pulse jerked once, then settled. "I don't know who I am."
"You've been through a great deal, my dear." The doctor spoke soothingly while his brain raced ahead. Specialists, he thought. If she didn't regain her memory in twenty-four hours, he'd need the best.
"You remember nothing?" The other man had straightened at her words. Now, with his ramrod stance, his sleep-starved eyes direct, he looked down at her.
Confused and fighting back fear, she started to push herself up, and the doctor murmured and settled her back against the pillows. She remembered ... running, the storm, the dark. Lights coming up in front of her. Closing her eyes tight, she struggled for composure without knowing why it was so important to retain it. Her voice was still strong, but achingly hollow when she opened them again. "I don't know who I am. Tell me."
"After you've rested a bit more," the doctor began. The other man cut him off with no more than a look. And the look, she saw at a glance, was both arrogant and commanding.
"You're my daughter," he said. Taking her hand again, he held it firmly. Even the light trembling had stopped. "You are Her Serene Highness Gabriella de Cordina."
Nightmare or fairy tale? she wondered as she stared up at him. Her father? Her Serene Highness? Cordina ... She thought she recognized the name and clung to it, but what was this talk of royalty? Even as she began to dismiss it, she watched his face. This man wouldn't lie. His face was passive, but his eyes were so full of emotion she was drawn to them even without memory.
"If I'm a princess," she began, and the dry reserve in her voice caused a flicker of emotion to pass over his face briefly. Amusement? she wondered. "Does that make you a king?"
He nearly smiled. Perhaps the trauma had confused her memory, but she was still his Brie. "Cordina is a principality. I am Prince Armand. You're my eldest child. You have two brothers, Alexander and Bennett."
Father and brothers. Family, roots. Nothing stirred. "And my mother?"
This time she read the expression easily: pain. "She died when you were twenty. Since then you've been my official hostess, taking on her duties along with your own. Brie." His tone softened from the formal and dispassionate. "We call you `Brie.'" He turned her hand up so that the cluster of sapphires and diamonds on her right hand glimmered toward her. "I gave you this on your twenty-first birthday, nearly four years ago."
Excerpted from Cordina's Royal Family by Nora Roberts
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.