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Nikola Tomislav Kresimir, Crown Prince of Vernonia, strode past his father's assistant and the two palace guards standing watch. As soon as he entered the king's office, Niko heard the door close behind him.
Niko didn't have time for another impromptu assignment. His in-box was overflowing. The upcoming trade conference was turning into a logistical nightmare. Princess Julianna of Aliestle was patiently waiting to have lunch with him.
He was used to juggling competing demands, thrived on them actually, but the collar of his dress shirt seemed to have shrunk two inches since he'd left his own office three minutes ago. He tugged on his tie.
Not that it lessened his frustration level.
A summons from the king trumped everything else and often messed up Niko's schedule for the rest of the day, sometimes week. Not to mention the havoc royal protocol played with his priority of turning their provincial country into a modern nation. But he followed his father's orders out of respect and for the good of the country.
King Dmitar sat behind his large mahogany desk staring at a manila file folder in his hands. His once dark hair was now as white as the snowcapped peaks of the Balkans and Carpathians. His face, like Niko's own, was as rugged as those same mountain ranges. His wire-rimmed reading glasses rested low on his nose, making him look more like a professor than a soldier or a king who had spent the majority of his rule trying to unite his country against all odds.
Niko stood ten feet away, waiting.
A breeze blew through an open window, carrying the sweet fragrance of flowers from the royal gardens. A vast improvement over the acrid smell of gunpowder and sickening scent of blood that used to taint the air around here.
Five years had passed since the ratification of the peace treaty. Tensions between the two warring factions erupted occasionally, but peace prevailed. Niko intended to ensure it always would. A totally united Vernonia, however, seemed like a far off dream. A fairy tale, really.
Not wanting to waste more time, he cleared his throat. His father looked up. Dark circles ringed his eyes. "You sent for me, sir," Niko said.
The lines on his father's face seemed deeper, more pronounced, than they used to be. The conflict had aged him; so had grief. But still the corners of his mouth curved upward into a rare smile. "I have good news, my son."
The best news would be that Vernonia had been accepted into the European Union, but Niko knew they still had too many improvement projects to complete first. He stepped closer to the desk. "I've spent the morning wading through the demands of the trade delegations. Good news will be a welcome relief, Father."
"Your bride box has been located." Not located. Found.
The unexpected news sunk in. Niko respected the past, but the fact something as important as his marriage was dependent on such on antiquated custom as presenting his wife a family heirloom on their wedding day irritated him. Traditions could only take his country so far. "You are certain it is mine?" "As certain as we can be until we have the box in hand." His bride box hadn't been seen in over twenty years. Not since the collapse of the Soviet Union brought turmoil to many Balkan countries. Vernonia had avoided the ethnic strife that ravaged many of its neighbors, but terrorist acts had led to a deadly civil war that tore the country apart and nearly destroyed its economy. "Where is the box?"
"The United States." His father adjusted his glasses and studied the folder. "Charlotte, North Carolina, to be exact."
"A long way from home."
The location wasn't really important. Niko would have the box back. Traditionand his fatherwould be satisfied. Nothing would stand in the way of Niko's marriage to Julianna. He could finally fulfill his duty as his parents and people wished him to do. The marriage would give him the means and opportunity to do what he wantedneededto do with Vernonia.
Plans formed in his mind, but he couldn't get too far ahead of himself. Nothing could happen until he had possession of the box. "How was it discovered?"
"The internet." His father shuffled through papers in the file. "Someone posted on an antiques forum looking for the key. After a few exchanges verifying the seriousness of our interest, we were sent a picture that confirmed our suspicions. The box is yours."
"Incredible." Niko considered the number of private investigators and treasure hunters hired to find the heirloom. He laughed at the irony. "Technology to the rescue of an Old World custom."
"Technology may be useful at times, but our people desire tradition. You must remember that when you wear the crown."
"Everything I've ever done has been for Vernonia." Niko's family had ruled for eight centuries. The country was in their blood and hearts. Duty always came first. "But we must modernize if we are to succeed in the twenty-first century."
"Yet you have agreed to an arranged marriage."
He shrugged, but the last thing he felt was indifference. His marriage would act as a bridge between the past and the future. He might not be the United Kingdom's Prince William, but Niko had the attention of royal watchers. The publicity surrounding a royal wedding would be good for his country's nascent tourist industry. He would use whatever he could to Vernonia's advantage. "I may not be a stickler for tradition, Father, but I will always do what is best for the country."
"As will I." His father placed the folder on his desk. "You have the key."
"Of course, sir." Niko always had the key. He had been wearing the damn thing ever since the decree that he could never take it off twenty odd years ago. The only thing that had changed since then was the size of the chain. He pulled the thick silver one from beneath his shirt. A key that looked more like a cross and heart welded together dangled from his fingers. "Can I finally stop wearing the necklace now?"
"No." The word resonated through the spacious office until the tapestries on the wall swallowed the sound. "You will need the key when you go to North Carolina tomorrow."
"Send Jovan. I can't travel to the United States right now. I'm needed here," Niko countered. "My schedule is full. Princess Julianna is here."
"The box is yours," his father said. "You will be the one to bring it home. The travel arrangements have already been made. Your aide will be provided with an itinerary and the necessary information."
Niko bit his tongue. Further resistance would be futile. The king's word was final even if it made little sense under the current circumstances. "Fine, but you do realize I have never seen the box."
"You have seen it. You were a child, so you don't remember."
What Niko remembered from his childhood and early adulthood was war, the one thing he wanted and hoped to forget. Keeping peace and modernizing Vernonia were his main goals now. Though the parliament wanted him to provide an heir. Might as well get on with that, now that nothing stood in his way of marrying. Speaking of which
"Do you wish for me to propose to Julianna before I leave for America or upon my return, Father?"
The king's face reddened. "There shall be no official proposal."
"What?" Niko remembered the open window and the people on the other side of the office door. He lowered his voice. "We've spent months negotiating with the Council of Elders in Aliestle. Even the Separatists are in favor of the marriage since King Alaric supported them during the conflict. The only obstacle to marriage has been the bride box. A delay will send the wrong"
Frustration mounted. Niko had searched for a suitable bride for almost a year. He didn't want to have to start over. "You agreed Julianna is an excellent choice for a wife and the future queen of Vernonia. That is why finding the bride box has been a priority."
"Julianna is more than suitable to be queen, but " His father removed his glasses and rubbed his tired-looking eyes. "Are you in love with her?"
Love? Niko was surprised his traditional father had broached the subject. His parents' marriage hadn't been a love match. Niko had never expected one for himself after his older brother, Stefan, had been killed during the conflict.
"We get along well. She's beautiful and intelligent. I will be content with her as my wife," Niko stated honestly. He'd always known as crown prince he would marry for Vernonia's good, not his own. "The publicity surrounding a royal wedding will increase our visibility to the tourist industry. Most importantly, an alliance with Aliestle will give Vernonia the capital it requires to complete rebuilding. That will help our efforts to join the European Union."
"You've looked at all angles."
Niko bowed his head. "As you taught me, Father."
"And Julianna. Are her feelings engaged?"
"She.cares for me," Niko answered carefully. "As I do for her. She understands what is expected."
"But is she in love with you?"
Uncomfortable, Niko shifted his weight between his feet. "You've never spoken about love before. Only duty and what a state marriage would entail."
"You are old enough to know whether a woman has feelings for you or not. Answer my question."
Niko considered his outing with Julianna yesterday afternoon. They'd left their security detail on the shore and sailed on the lake. He'd kissed her for the first time. The kiss had been pleasant, but Julianna seemed more interested in sailing than kissing him again. "I do not believe she is in love with me. In fact, I'm certain she isn't."
"I do not understand what is going on, sir. If something has changed with Vernonia's relationship to Aliestle"
"Nothing has changed there." His father's drawn out sigh would have made the parliament members' knees tremble beneath their heavy robes. "But a slight complication in regards to you marrying Julianna has arisen."
Niko's muscles tensed. "What kind of complication?"
Inside Bay #2 at Rowdy's One Stop Garage in Charlotte, North Carolina, a Brad Paisley song blared from a nearby boom box. Oil, gasoline and grease scented the air. Isabel Poussard bent over a Chevy 350 small block engine. The bolt she needed to remove wouldn't budge, but she wasn't giving up or asking for help. She wanted the guys to see her as an equal, not a woman who couldn't make it on her own.
She adjusted the wrench. "Come on now. Turn for Izzy."
A swatch of light brown hair fell across her eyes so she couldn't see.
Darn ponytail. It never stayed put. If she had any extra money, she would get a short hairstyle so she wouldn't be bothered anymore. She didn't dare cut it herself. For years her uncle Frank had chopped her hair with whatever was handy, scissors or razor blades. She'd grown up looking more like a boy than a girl. Not that any dresses hung in her closet today.
Izzy tucked the stray strands behind her ear. She struggled to turn the wrench. Her palm sweated. The wrench slipped.
Frustrated, she blew out a puff of air. "No one is going to let you work over the wall in the pits during a race if you can't loosen a little bolt."
She imagined the start of the Daytona 500. The roar of the crowd. The heat from the pavement. The smell of burning rubber. The rev of engines.
Excitement surged through her.
Being on a professional pit crew had been Uncle Frank's dream for as long as Izzy remembered. An aneurysm had cut his life short. Now it was up to her to turn his dream into a reality. He'd spent his life caring for her and sharing his skill and love of cars. More than once he'd had the opportunity to be on a pit crew, but he hadn't wanted to leave her. This was the least she could do for him.
As soon as she saved enough money, she would enroll in pit crew school. She wanted to put her days at dirt tracks and stock car circuits behind her and take a shot at the big leagues. For Uncle Frank and herself. She had bigger goals than just being on the pit crew. She wanted to be the crew chief. Izzy would show those kids who laughed at her grease-stained hands they were wrong. She would do something with her life. Something big.
She adjusted her grip on the wrench and tried again. The bolt turned. "Yes!"
"Hey, Izzy," the garage owner's son and her closest friend, Boyd, shouted to her over the Lady Antebellum song now playing on the radio. "Some folks here to see you."
Word of mouth about her skills kept spreading. She could not only fix old engines, but the new hybrids, too. Her understanding of the computer and electronics side of things coupled with a gift for diagnostics drew in new clients daily. Her boss, Rowdy, was so happy he'd given Izzy a raise. If this kept up, she could enroll in school in a few months.
With a smile, she placed her wrench and the bolt on the top of her toolbox.
Izzy stepped outside. Fresh air filled her lungs. Sunshine warmed her face. She loved spring days better than the humid ones summer brought with it.
In front of her, a black limousine gleamed beneath the midday sun. The engine idled perfectly. Darkened windows hid the identity of the car's passengers, but uniformed police officers stood nearby.
Not simply "some folks" wanting to see her. Must be a VIP inside the limo if police escorts were needed.
Izzy couldn't imagine what they wanted with her since the car sounded like it was running fine.
She wiped her dirty hands on the thighs of her cotton coveralls. Not exactly clean, especially with grease caked under her fingernails, but cleaner.
One of the police officers gave her the once-over, as if sizing up her danger potential. A good thing she'd left the wrench in the garage.
A chauffeur walked around the car and opened the back door. A blond man exited. He wore a designer suit and nicely polished black dress shoes. With a classically handsome face and short clipped hair, he was easy on the eyes. But his good looks seemed a little bland, like a bowl of vanilla ice cream without any hot fudge, whipped cream and candy sprinkles. She preferred men who weren't quite so pretty, men with a little more.character.
"Isabel Poussard?" the man asked.
She stiffened. The last time anyone used her real name had been during her high school graduation ceremony when she received her diploma. She'd always been Izzy, ever since she was a little girl. Uncle Frank had taught her to be careful and cautious around strangers. He'd worried about her and been very protective. She knew he'd be that way now if he were here.