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Her Royal Highness Princess Anastasia of Lydia grabbed the doorknob and gave it a turn, but when she tried to push the door open, it wouldn't budge.
Stasi blinked. How strange! Her door had never given her any problems before. She tried again, this time pushing harder, but with no success. Finally, throwing all her weight into it, she shoved the door with her shoulder. Nothing.
Had someone barricaded her door so it wouldn't open?
Stasi looked around her suite uneasily.
She was trapped inside her own room, and the royal motorcade would be leaving any minute for the state dinner.
Refusing to give in to the panic she felt, Stasi grabbed her phone and dialed the number for the palace managers.
Theresa Covington answered.
"I'm trapped inside my roomand the motorcade is leaving any second!" She fingered her sapphire necklace uneasily.
"I'll send someone immediately."
"Thank you." Stasi ended the call and waited, glancing nervously around, wondering why her door wouldn't open, and if the peculiar disturbance had anything to do with the other unusual trespasses she'd experienced lately. She knew of at least three other times in the past few weeks when items in her room had been eerily displacednot stolen outright, but disturbed, as though they'd been rooted through, and then put back slightly out of order.
Footsteps approached from the hallway outside her door. "Your Highness?" A voice sounded from the other side, and she watched the doorknob turn. "Your Highness?"
"Yes!" She practically threw the door open, prepared to thank whoever had rescued her, but she startled backward when she recognized the man on the other side of the door.
So, Theresa had sent her son.
"Thank you." Stasi glanced at the chair Kirk had pushed aside. Had it been propped against her door, preventing her from getting out? She didn't have time to analyze what had happened, so she brushed brusquely past him and hurried down the wide marble staircase. Dashing as quickly as she dared in her high heels across the gracious foyer, she flung herself through the front palace doors and blinked.
The twenty-foot-tall wrought-iron gates closed behind the last of the royal limousines a hundred meters away.
Her stomach sank.
The royal motorcade had left without her! She bit her lip, ready to cry after the ordeal of the last few minutes.
"Your Highness?" Kirk had followed her down the stairs. "Have they gone?"
"Yes." She straightened her posture to royal perfection. It wouldn't do to let Kirk Covington see her distressed.
"I'll drive you."
"I can drive myself. I'm a perfectly capable driver." She hoisted up the fluffy skirt of her long evening gown as she stepped outside and descended the palace steps.
"Yes, I suppose you could drive yourself" Kirk kept pace with her, hauling an enormous military-style duffel bag over his shoulder, as if he'd been en route to somewhere when his mother sent him to free her from her room "but then what are you going to do with your car once you arrive at the state dinner? There won't be valet parking, and if you have to hunt for a space "
"Fine." She didn't let him get any further, but glanced at the bag he carried as they ducked into the garage. "You're sure it's no trouble?" Stasi didn't want to spend any more time in Kirk's presence, but she had to catch up to the rest of her family in the motorcade.
"None at all."
"Then, thank you. Which car shall we take?"
"The Jeep." He placed his thumb against the touch pad of the cabinet that housed the keys to the royal vehicles. When his thumbprint registered, a green light illuminated, and Kirk opened the cabinet, pulling out the keys and snapping the cabinet locked shut again. "Come on." He jogged past several other vehicles and empty bays to the waiting Jeep, tossing the large duffel bag he'd been carrying into the backseat.
Stasi hoisted her skirt and hurried after him, climbing into the passenger seat just as Kirk got the vehicle into gear. Worries swirled in her head, but she did her best to quiet them.
So what if Kirk Covington had been accused of murdering her brother Thaddeus, the heir to the throne of Lydia, six years before? He'd been best friends with her brother forever before that, and there had never been enough evidence to prove he'd committed any crime. Her brother's body had never been found. Kirk had been eventually been cleared of all charges and reinstated to his position as part of the royal guard. Kirk was innocent, wasn't he?
Besides, what could possibly happen on the way to the state dinner?
For most of her life, Kirk had been a trusted friend. She still didn't believe he was a dangerous man, or that he'd ever done anything to hurt her brother. But she was nearly certain he knew more of what had happened to Thaddeus than what he'd confessed. Regardless of the real facts, Kirk had been the most hated man in Lydia for the last six years. If she was seen with him, she'd never live it down.
Kirk pressed the button to open the side gates of the palace courtyard. "We'll take Mursia Street as far as State Street. I should be able to get right up beside the motorcade at the intersection. You can hop out and catch up with your family. No one has to see you arrive with me." He seemed to anticipate her reservations as the Jeep rattled down the narrow cobblestone road.
"Excellent." Stasi fumbled with her seat belt and tried to tell herself not to be so nervous. She'd be fine. From the vantage point of the high road, she could just catch a glimpse of the motorcade ahead of them as the buildings and alleyways flashed by. Much as she wanted to prompt him to hurry, she knew Kirk was driving as quickly as the narrow streets would allow. And though the pedestrians were few on the side street, it wouldn't be safe to travel too fast.
"Who barricaded your door?" Kirk asked as they bounced along.
"I don't know."
"Was it a prank?"
"I don't think so." The only people who had ever played pranks on her had been Thaddeus and Kirk, but that had been years ago. "It might be related to the other break-ins I've had lately."
"What other break-ins?" Kirk paused at a stop sign and met her eyes. He looked startled.
"Weren't you briefed on them?" As a member of the royal guard, Kirk should have been made aware of each incident report.
"I haven't heard a peep about anything having to do with you or your room. Was anything stolen?"
"Oddly enough, no. I keep careful track of all my jewelrythat's why I noticed things had been moved. But nothing was missing."
Kirk's eyes returned to the road. They were catching up to the motorcadejust in time.
Stasi tried to suppress the tremble in her voice. "Someone has been in my room before. Things have been moved. I spoke with Viktor Bosch directly." As the head of the royal guard, Viktor had insisted on handling the incidents himself.
Before Stasi could sort it out, Kirk shifted gears again as they paused at another stop sign. "We're almost there."
Stasi took advantage of their position to crane her neck, looking to where the motorcade would be passing by.
She placed a tentative hand on Kirk's arm and pointed down the angular bend of road to where the motorcade sat.
"They're not moving. Why aren't they moving?"
Kirk's warm hazel eyes met hers for just a second, and she saw sincere fear there.
Something was terribly wrong. There were still several more blocks to go before the first limousine would reach the State House. And the royal motorcade never stopped until it reached its destination.
An ear-piercing squeal rent the clear evening, and Stasi's fingers tightened around Kirk's arm instinctively. With a loud explosion, an orange ball of fire erupted above the front of the motorcade.
Right where her parents' car had paused.
Though buildings blocked her sight of the spot, Anastasia had little doubt the massive fireball had erupted from the head limousine, or very close to it.
"No." Her lips trembled. "No. No." She shook her head in disbelief.
As though to reinforce the reality of the situation, another furious explosion rocked the earth, this time closer to the rear of the motorcade.
But her brother, Prince Alexander, and her sister, Princess Isabelle, would be riding toward the rear of the motorcade.
Right where the blast had struck.
Another bright ball of fire seared the sky.
Kirk punched the vehicle into gear and whipped the Jeep into a tight turn.
"What are you doing? What's going on?" Stasi couldn't believe the horrific sight she'd just witnessedwas still witnessing, as another loud explosion rocked the city behind them.
"Get down," Kirk ordered.
Stasi's eyes widened as she looked at him. What was happening? Were Kirk's actions related to the attack? He'd been linked to such a horrible crime before.
"Down!" Kirk's open palm pushed her head below the level of the dashboard.
She grabbed his wrist and tore his arm away from her royal head. "No. I won't do what you say."
Kirk stopped the Jeep with a jerk and glared at her. "Don't fight me. Don't you see? The royal family has been attacked. If anyone sees you, they'll know you weren't killed. I've got to get you out of here."
Stasi looked at him dumbly. Too many disturbing things had happened that day. "What do you mean? You think someone might try to kill me?"
Throwing a glance in the direction of the motorcade, Kirk leaned close to her ear. His voice rumbled in low tones. "I've heard rumors." Kirk was a sentinel in the royal guard. Stasi wondered if that was where the rumors he'd heard had originated. "I didn't think there was any substance to it. Clearly I was wrong."
"Rumors of what? This attack?"
Kirk's hazel eyes closed as another blast rent the air. Pain struggled across his face. When he opened his eyes, his tone was patient, yet intense. "An insurgent uprising. A coup to overthrow your father's government. Assassinating the royal family."
"My family?" Stasi could barely muster the words. She felt as though her breath had been stolen.
"Please." Kirk's voice plunged to pleading depths. "You've got to stay down. Your life is in danger."
Stasi shrunk in her seat, but her eyes didn't leave Kirk's face. "What are you going to do with me?"
"I'm going to hide you if I can." He looked around at the empty streets. "But you've got to do what I say."
Numbly, Stasi nodded, hardly able to believe what she was agreeing to. But really, she had no choice. She'd have to trust the man who'd been accused of killing her brother.