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'She was only seventeen?'
'We're talking ten years ago. I was barely out of my teens myself.'
'Does that make a difference?' The uncrowned king of Aristo stared across his massive desk at his brother, his aquiline face dark with fury. 'Have we not had enough scandal?'
'Not of my making.' Prince Andreas Christos Karedes, third in line to the Crown of Aristo, stood his ground against his older brother with the disdain he always used in this family of testosterone-driven males. His brothers might be acknowledged womanizers, but Andreas made sure his affairs were discreet.
'Until now,' Sebastian said. 'Not counting your singularly spectacular divorce, which had a massive impact. But this is worse. You need to sort it before it explodes over all of us.'
'How the hell can I sort it?'
'Get rid of her.'
'You're not saying '
Sebastian shook his head, obviously rejecting the idea though a tinge of regret in his voice said the option wasn't altogether unattractive.
And Andreas even sympathized. Since their father's death, all three brothers had been dragged through the mire of the media spotlight, and the political unrest was threatening to destroy them. In their thirties, impossibly handsome, wealthy beyond belief, indulged and fêted, the brothers were now facing realities they had no idea what to do with.
'Though if I was our father ' Sebastian added and Andreas shuddered. Who knew what the old king would have done if he'd discovered Holly's secret? Thank God he'd never found out. Not that King Aegeus could have taken the moral high ground. His father's past actions had got them into this mess.
'You'll make a better king than our father ever was,'Andreas said softly. 'What filthy dealing made him dispose of the royal diamond?'
'That's my concern,' Sebastian said. There could be no royal coronation until the diamond was foundthey all knew thatbut the way the media was baying for blood there might not be a coronation even then. Without the diamond the rules had changed. If any more scandals broke 'This girl '
'You remember her?'
'Of course I remember her.'
'Then she'll be easy to find. We'll buy her offdo whatever it takes, but she mustn't talk to anyone.'
'If she wanted to make a scandal she could have done it years ago.'
'So it's been simmering in the wings for years. To have it surface now ' Sebastian rose and fixed Andreas with a look that was almost as deadly as the one used by the old king. 'It can't happen, brother. We have to make sure she's not in a position to bring us down.'
'I'll contact her.'
'You'll go nowhere near her until we're sure of her reaction. Not even a phone call. For all we know her phones are already tapped. I'll have her brought here.'
'I can arrange '
'You stay right out of it until she's on our soil. You're heading the corruption inquiry. With Alex still on his honeymoonof all the times for our brother to demand to marry, this must surely be the worstI need you more than ever. If you leave now and this leaks, we can almost guarantee losing the crown.' 'So how do you propose to persuade her to come?' 'Oh, I'll persuade her,' Sebastian said grimly. 'She's only a slip of a girl. She might be your past, but there's no way she's messing with our future.'
It was time to leave, but of all the places Holly had to farewell, this was the hardest.
The grave was tinya simple stone plaque nestled under the shade of the vast river-red-gum that gave this Australian cattle station its name. The tree was ancient. The native Australians who'd lived here for generations called it Munwannayresting placeand when Holly's tiny son had died it had seemed the only place to let him lie.
How could she walk away?
How could she walk away from any of this? Holly sank to her knees before her son's grave and turned to gaze back over the homesteadthe rambling, old house with its wide verandas, its French windows opening the house to every breeze, the neglected garden she'd loved so much since she was a little girl.
Andreas had loved this garden.
Andreas had loved everything about this place. And she'd loved Andreas.
Well, that was another thing she needed to walk away from. The memory of Prince Andreas Karedes. He'd been twenty when he'd come here to spend six months experiencing life in Australia's remote outback. She'd been seventeen.
She was twenty-seven now. It was more than time that she move onfrom this place, as well as a love that had been doomed from the start.
She'd been stalling for as long as possible, trying to keep the property presentable in case new owners could be found, but it had been on the market since her father's death six months ago. Financially it was impossible to keep going, and it was becoming bleaker every day as she watched it deteriorate. Finally she'd transferred her jobteaching on the School of the Airto the educational base at Alice Springs. This was the end.
She touched her baby's gravestone one last time, aching with regret and loss. And then she paused, looking upward as the stillness of the hot April morning was shattered.
A helicopter was arrowing in fast from the east. It was big and powerful, a much larger machine than those owned by the larger local landowners. All black, almost menacing, it swept in low across the bare paddocks, heading straight for the homestead.
Holly winced. There'd been a trickle of potential buyers looking at the place since it had gone on the market. No one had been interested. Munwannay needed a massive injection of cash and enthusiasm to build it up to the magnificent property it had once been. If these were more potential buyers sent by the rural land agents, they'd react the same as the others. They'd walk through the faded splendour of the old homestead; they'd look at the weathered outbuildings and the dilapidated infrastructure and they'd walk away. If these buyers were coming in such a helicopter they'd have more money than most, but then they could afford to buy a more prestigious place.
And she didn't want them here now. Not on her last day.
But they were landing. She watched them as the chopper settled in a cloud of dust; as the doors opened. Four men in dark jeans and black T-shirts jumped out. Big men. Powerfully built, all of them.
Odd. Up until now potential buyers had been local farmers wanting to extend their own landholdings, distinctive by age and by weatheringor men in suits from the city.
No matter. She needed to be gracious. If this place sold it would give her a hope of settling the crippling debts left by her ather's refusal to believe his circumstances in the world had changed. She pinned a smile on her face and hurried forward, not wanting them to come hereto see the tiny gravestone she loved so much.
They were young to be buyers, she thought as they approached. And foreign? They were olive skinned, as Andreas had been. They looked serious, purposeful, striding across the paddock towards her with an intent at odds with a potential buyer's initial appraisal.
A shiver of unease shot down her spine. She was alone here. Too alone.
She gave herself a swift mental shake. She was being fanciful. They'd hardly come here in such a helicopter with the intent to do her personal harm, and there was nothing left to steal.
She smoothed her suddenly damp palms on her jeans, tuckedor tried to tuckher unruly blonde curls behind her ears, firmed her smile and called a greeting.
'Hi. Can I help you?'
There was no answering smile on any of their faces, and Holly's sense of unease deepened.
'Are you Holly Cavanagh?' the leading man called.
Maybe they were Greek, she thought. They had the same accent as Andreas. Maybe they were even from Aristo, the island country Andreas had come from.
That was being even more fanciful. Or maybe not. She'd read that ruthless dealings by the old King Aegeus had turned Aristo into an economic force to be reckoned with. There were casinos there now, easy money, rumours of corruption in high places. Maybe there were citizens with the money to transform a place like this.
Maybe Andreas had heard Munwannay was on the market, she thought suddenly. He'd loved it. Maybe
Maybe she needed to stop thinking, for the men had reached her.
She stretched her hand out in greeting. The first man to reach her took it, but not with the light, formal greeting she was expecting. His grip was harsh and unrelenting. She tugged back but he didn't release her.
'You need to come with us,' he said, and she stared at him in blank astonishment.
But he was already tugging her towards the helicopter. As she resisted one of the other men grasped her by the other arm. They had a hand under each elbow now and were almost lifting her; hauling her fast towards the helicopter.
There was no one to hear. Munwannay had been deserted long since by everyone but this slip of a girl, whose efforts to save the place had come to nothing.
'Get her into the chopper, fast,' the leader said, in a language she recognized; a language she'd learned for fun so she and Andreas could speak to each other without her parents understanding.
'No. No!' But she couldn't fight them. She was one woman among four men surely trained to use brute strength to good effect.
'Shut up,' one of the men snapped at her, and another hauled her forward so roughly he almost dislocated her arm.
'Don't hurt her,' another snapped, urgent. 'The prince said we're not to harm her.'
'What ? Why?' They were lifting her bodily into the chopper with as little trouble as if she'd been a bag of chaff.
'Just be quiet,' another of them said, quite kindly as if humouring a child. 'And there's no use in struggling. The Prince Andreas wants you, and what the Prince Andreas wants, the Prince Andreas gets.'
The call came just after dinner. The manservant beckoned Andreas discreetly from his family's presence, and he slipped silently away.
In truth the royal family of Karedes was so caught up with the scandals rocking them right now, the absence of Andreas from their midst would hardly be missed. In his father's time it would have been unthinkable to leave the table before port was served to the males of the family, but the king was dead.
Long live the king, Andreas thought bleakly as he made his way swiftly from the room. All they needed was a coronation. And a diamond. And no more scandal.
In this atmosphere Holly's secret was enough to blast them off the throne.
At least the first part of Sebastian's plan had worked. He knew it the moment he picked up the phone. 'She's on her way,' Georgiou said, and he drew in his breath in relief. He hadn't thought it would be so easy.
In truth he didn't know what he'd thought. He'd expected Holly to be married by now. It had been a shock to hear she was still single.
That had been the least of his shocks.
And now she was on her way. To him.
'She agreed to come straight away? There was no argument?'
There was a silence on the end of the line and Andreas's jet-black brows snapped down. 'Why don't you answer?' he demanded as the silence lengthened.
'Our instructions were to use whatever means necessary to get her to you.'
'But you asked her to come? Your instructions were to tell her she was needed here urgently. To offer her every comfort '
'And if she didn't agree, the Prince Sebastian told us to ignore her protests. She was alone. She was expecting the land agent. Our decision was that it was wisest to move fast. Discussion would have wasted time and maybe jeopardized our ability to take her at all.'
'So we put her on the helicopter whether she willed it or not, then transferred her to a plane which took us up north and then on. There's no problem. There was no one to see us come or her go.'
He closed his eyes, appalled, the ramifications of what they'd done slamming home. 'You abducted her.'
'There was no choice,' Georgiou said firmly. 'She will not listen. All through the flight we've been trying to tell her you simply wish to see her, but the lady is too angry to listen. She bit Maris.'
'There was a struggle?'
'She didn't wish to come. Of course there was a struggle.'
His breath hissed with dismay. For them to abduct her What the hell must she be thinking? And if this got out A prince of the royal house of Karedes kidnapping an Australian woman; dragging her out of the country against her will
'Did you hurt her?' he demanded, incredulous.
'We haven't hurt her,' Georgiou said, defensive. 'We have our orders. Though she fights like a wildcat.'
'I don't care how she fights,' Andreas snapped, appalled at the results of Sebastian's curt orders. 'You will not retaliate. She's just a girl.'
'She's a woman,' Georgiou corrected him. 'She's every bit a woman. Mixed with tigress.'
Andreas thought back to the Holly he'd left ten years ago. Even at seventeen Holly had had spirit.
Years ago he'd spent a glorious six months on Holly's parents' property, experiencing life in the Australian outback before taking up his royal duties. It had been a dispensation granted reluctantly to a younger son by his father, the king. His relationship with Holly had flared from nowhere and turned to wildfire. The young Andreas had been desperate for it to continue, but Holly had been strong enough for both of them.
'You don't belong in my world and I don't belong in yours,' she'd said firmly as he'd held her close one last time and declared he couldn't leave her. 'You're needed at home. Your life is on Aristo. You're promised in marriage to a princess. Andreas, don't make it harder than it needs to be for both of us. Just go.'
So he'd gone, trying hard to block the stricken expression he'd glimpsed on his beloved's face as Holly had turned away that one last time. Yes, there had been tearshe'd been close to them himselfbut she was right. He was a royal prince, already promised in marriage. Holly had aging parents to care for and a budding career as a teacher on School of the Air. Holly and Andreas belonged on separate sides of the world.
So that had been it. He'd tried not to think of her for ten long years, through a tumultuous royal marriage that ended in acrimonious divorce, through his career as a royal prince with princely duties, through a life in the goldfish bowl of royalty. His was a life of service to the crown, a crown that must be protected at all costs.
A crown that Holly herself was now threatening to undermine, whether she knew it or not.
'Just bring her here fast,' he said, his tone becoming harsher as he recalled all that was at stake. 'Bring her straight to the palace.'