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Prince Aleksandre d' Gabriel took one look at Dr. Konstantine's long face and knew the news was bad.
"I'm sorry, Your Majesty, there is nothing more I can do." The royal physician, either unable or unwilling to meet his prince's eyes, stared down at the gleaming marble floor. "Your son is dying."
The softly spoken words pierced Aleks's soul like a bayonet. His boy, his reason for living, lay just beyond the thick, ancient castle wall dying, while his father stood in the long, ornate corridor of Carvainian Castle wishing to die in his stead.
Aleks was a ruler, a warrior prince, a man of wealth and power, and yet he was helpless against the infection that was destroying his son's internal organs.
He clenched his fists against the rising tide of fear, stifling the urge to pummel the stone walls in frustration and despair.
His mother, Queen Irena, touched his arm. "There must be something more we can do. Perhaps another physician?"
Dr. Konstantine's head jerked upward. "Your Highness, we've consulted every hepatology specialist in the world. The only answer is an organ donation. A tiny piece of organ from the right person will save his life. Nothing more, nothing less."
Queen Irena's face, still lovely though she was nearing sixty, had aged in the past weeks of Prince Nico's illness. The lines around her mouth deepened as she said, "My apologies, Doctor, I didn't mean to imply anything less than the best on your part. It's just that—" She lifted one hand in a helpless gesture.
Aleksandre understood exactly what she was feeling. The queen doted on the motherless boy she'd carried in her arms from America nearly five years ago. Without his mother's help, Aleksandre would never have known his son.
Fate and determination had given him Nico, and he would not give up his child without a fight.
"There must be a match somewhere," he said. "We will continue our search."
"Thousands have been tested, Your Majesty."
His people, loyal Carvainians, had lined the streets and clogged the telephones and computers in their sincere desire to save the adored little prince. But not a single person was a suitable match for the child whose blood was not one hundred percent Carvainian.
Aleksandre fought the sickness churning in his gut and the memory of an American woman who still haunted his heart. The child's mixed blood was his fault, just as the illness was, and yet Nico would not be Nico without Sara Presley's blood.
"I have a suggestion." Dr. Konstantine's gaze skittered away only to return with a fresh boldness. "May I speak frankly?"
The prince gave a bark of mirthless laughter. Dr. Konstantine had tended him for years, through childhood illnesses and wartime wounds. He trusted the man implicitly. "I have yet to quell your propensity for doing so. And we now are at a point of desperate measures. Say your piece."
"Nico's birth mother."
"No!" At the queen's outcry, both Prince Aleksandre and the physician turned to stare. Her face had gone white, and the long, graceful fingers pressed against her lips trembled. Aleks understood her reluctance for it matched his own, and yet, had he not just been thinking of Sara Presley?
"She won't agree." A deep and dreadful knot formed in his chest at the thought of the woman who had jilted him and abandoned their child. She had no love for either the father or the son. She had not cared then. She would not care now if Nico lived or died.
The physician pressed. "You have no other choice but to contact her, Your Majesty. She is the little prince's last hope."
The queen regained her voice. Her nails scraped against Aleksandre's sleeve. Almost feverishly she said, "Listen to me, Aleksandre. The woman has a heart of stone. She will never agree. Contacting her can only bring trouble that we do not need. Our burdens are heavy enough to bear. Think of the consequences. Think of what she might require of you. Of your son."
Aleksandre knew his mother was right. Sara Presley had damaged him before, but now, with Nico as a pawn, she might try to exact a price he was unwilling to pay. And yet, what choice did they have?
Dr. Konstantine was like a dog with a bone—or a man with no other recourse. "If she is a match, she could be the answer to our prayers."
"If she is a match, and if she would agree," Aleksandre said grimly. So many ifs. A woman who would abandon her newborn was not likely to go through surgery on his behalf… unless she had a strong incentive.
Queen Irena paced to the sunlit patch at the end of the hallway. She spun toward him, her agitation showing in jerky movements and the rapid rise and fall of silk over her breasts. "I won't have her here, Aleksandre. She's poison. She'll hurt us. Hurt you. Hurt Nico. I can't bear to watch that happen again."
The prince held up a hand. "Stop. This is my decision. Let me think."
Both his companions bowed slightly and grew silent. His mother's soulful black eyes watched him, reproachful. A twinge of guilt niggled at his conscience.
If not for the Queen Mother, Carvainia would have no Crown Prince Nico, and he would have no son. No one, other than himself, understood the treachery of Sara Presley as well as Mother. She was trying to protect both of her princes as she always had.
Aleksandre closed his eyes tightly for a brief moment to calm his raging spirit. He'd learned in battle to shut out the noise and horror around him and go deep inside to a place of peace where wisdom lived. He did that now, weeding out his own anguish at the thought of seeing Sara Presley again and concentrated instead on saving his child.
Vaguely, he could hear the quiet hush of servants moving about the castle and of nurses moving in and out of Nico's room. He listened deeper, imagined the sounds of the sea just outside the castle walls.
The sea was his solace and when time allowed he walked the beach to taste the salt spray on his tongue and smell the wind blowing across the great water. Someday he would teach Nico to sail and fish and race his speedboats. He would tell his son stories of the generations of Carvainians who had used the sea for defense and trade and livelihood.
But first, his son must live. And to live, he must have an organ donation. And that could only come from his biological mother.
He took a deep, cleansing breath and opened his eyes, certain now of what he must do.
"You are correct, Mother, when you say that the American woman will not come willingly. I also agree with you, Doctor, that she is our only hope. She must come." His jaw hardened with resolve. "She will come."
Queen Irena tossed her head. "You cannot force her. She is not under Carvainian jurisdiction."
"Not yet." A sly smile touched his bitter-tasting lips. "But she will be."
The queen's eyes widened. "Aleksandre, whatever are you thinking?"
"The American woman will not come to Carvainia for me or even for her son, but she will come if the incentive is great enough."
"And you will see that it is?"
"I know exactly what matters most to Sara Presley."
As a prince who'd led men into battle, he knew the importance of strategy and of knowing one's enemy.
And so a battle plan was forged.
"If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is," Sara Presley said with a laugh as she unpacked a box of novels for the romance section of The Book Shelf.
"But what if the prize is real, Sara?" Penny Carter, her friend and business partner waved the letter beneath Sara's nose for the umpteenth time in two days. "What if you've really won a fabulous trip to a European health spa—in a castle, no less?"
Sara scoffed. "To win, I would have to enter, right?"
"Well, maybe, but we own a bookstore. What if one of our vendors is rewarding us for outstanding sales?"
"Then you would be included in the trip. And you're not." Sara held a new book to her nose and sniffed.
"I love that smell," she said, trying to direct Penny's thoughts somewhere besides the goofy award letter. It couldn't be real. The prize was either a joke, or when she called, they'd ask her to send thousands of dollars or to provide her credit card number. She wasn't that stupid.
But as she'd done all morning, Penny stayed after her. "What about those contests you signed up for at the fair last month?"
Sara paused in thought, gazing down at a book cover. A shirtless cowboy gave her a sexy grin but she didn't feel a thing. No matter how sexy or how nice, no man had gotten past her defenses in over five years. She was a strong advocate of "once burned, twice warned."
"Cassie Binger won a blender at the fair last year," she mused, "so I guess that's possible."
Penny let out a whoop, pounding her index finger at the letter. "Call this number, right now, before I die of curiosity." She patted a hand over her heart. The letter crinkled against her plaid shirt. "Castle-by-the-Sea Health and Beauty Spa sounds so romantic."
"The only place I'll find romance is between the covers of the books we sell. The letter is a scam, Penny. It has to be. My luck ran out a long time ago." She quickly turned to the wall-high bookshelves.
Penny marched around to her side. Hands on her hips she said, "Sara, listen to me. You've spent five years living in the past. Five years haunting the Internet in hopes of finding out who adopted your baby. Five years getting over the jerk who left you."
Tears welled in Sara's eyes. Her belly gnawed with emptiness now as it did every time she thought of the infant son she'd lost. And she thought of him constantly. A TV show, a book cover, a child on the street or in the store could send her into a tailspin for days. "Don't, Penny."
Penny grasped Sara's upper arms and pulled her around, her face wreathed in compassion. "Honey, I'm not trying to hurt you. You're my best friend and I love you like a sister. But I've watched you beat yourself up for too long. When life offers sunshine, don't hide in the shade. You have to move on."
"I can't, Penny." She sniffed. "My baby is out there somewhere. Is he happy and healthy? Does his adoptive mother love him the way I do?"
"You made the right choice. You did what was best for him at the time. Let it go. Move on. Let yourself live again."
They'd hashed this through hundreds of times and Sara knew Penny was right. Penniless, without family to turn to, and still in college on scholarship, she'd done what she had to in order to secure her baby's future. "I'mhaunted by the thought that if I'd kept him, something would have worked out."
"If that Aleks jerk had stuck around and been the man you thought he was, things would have worked out. But he didn't. That's my point. Life happened. It sucks but it happened. Now, life is happening again in a good way." She shoved the letter at Sara. "Take a chance, Sara. Go for it. Just this once, let yourself be happy."
Sara shook her head but took the letter in hand. Penny's insistence was starting to wear her down. She did need a change. She needed to shake loose from the guilt and loss and depression that had plagued her for too long.
In a feeble attempt to resist, she muttered, "It can't be true. I wish it was, but I'm not the kind of person who wins fabulous trips to Europe."
A male voice intruded. "I beg to differ, Miss Presley. If you are indeed Sara Presley, you are our grand prize winner."
Both women spun toward the tall, imposing figure who had entered the shop. Dressed in a business suit with hair graying at the temples and the smell of intellect coming off him in waves, the man reminded her of a slick television lawyer.
"Who are you?" Sara blurted. "And how do you know about the prize?"
"I am here as executor of the contest, Miss Presley. Since you have not yet called to claim your prize, the owner of the spa felt an official visit was in order to assure you that everything is in order and that our staff eagerly awaits your arrival."
Sara looked from the man to Penny. Her friend's eyes were as round as saucers.
"Are you serious?" Sara gestured to the letter. "This is for real?"
"Indeed." The man moved into the small space behind the cluttered counter and offered Sara a manila envelope. "Inside you will find a brochure detailing the prize, a round-trip ticket and your cash prize."
"Cash?" Sara squeaked. "Ticket?"
With hands now trembling, she removed the items from the envelope one by one. Penny leaned over her shoulder. "That stuff's real, Sara."
"I can't believe this." She read over the brochure and saw photos of pampered women getting massages and facials, of a fabulous castle standing proud and ancient by a perfect blue sea, of rooms so beautiful they stole her breath. She checked the airline ticket. Her stomach jumped into her throat. "First class?"
"A vacation unrivaled by any other awaits you, miss, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." The man tilted his head. "Do you believe it now?"
"I'm beginning to."
"Excellent. I will tell the owner of Castle-by-the-Sea to expect you. He will be delighted to greet you on Thursday."
Sara trailed him as he moved toward the door. "Thursday? This coming Thursday? That's only two days away."
"Why, yes, madam. Is that a problem?"
Penny popped up behind them and gave Sara a little whack on the shoulder. "No problem at all. She'll be there."
Two days later Sara was still in delighted shock as she waved goodbye to a jubilant Penny and boarded a plane for London. Once there, she was whisked aboard a private jet that took her to Castle-by-the-Sea.
As she disembarked, she breathed in the scent of sea spray, warm and salty and so different from the landlocked aroma of Kansas.
At the bottom of the steps, a line of attendants waited, tidy and professional in red uniforms. The castle itself sprawled before her, a stunning old stone structure complete with spires and cupolas and towers that had no doubt once housed European royalty. In the distance, below the hill was a blue sea that would have provided protection for the castle inhabitants. Today a handful of people reclined on the white sand or cavorted in the crystal waters.
The butterflies in her belly fluttered. "This must be a resort for the rich and famous."