Read an Excerpt
By Susan Kearney
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"It's time you married the bride I chose for you, Nicholas," King Zared I said, as he raised his sharp gaze from the documents on his sixteenth-century antique desk and scowled at his son.
Not again. At least once a year his dad summoned Nicholas to his royal office and pressed him to marry. Annoyed by his father's persistence, Nicholas refrained from rolling his eyes at the ceiling, and instead glanced back at the man with whom he found it so difficult to argue.
At fifty, hair black as midnight but short and neat, his shoulders still broad and firm, Zared looked every inch a king. But it was more than his height, his regal demeanor and a sharp wit that had won the admiration of Vashmira's loyal subjects; Zared was the hero of their revolution.
Not only had the king attained hero status during his lifetime, he had earned the love and respect of his family. Zared always meant well and because Nicholas loved his father, he found it difficult to reject the request, but he fully intended to hold his ground again. "I should be working."
"So should I." His father grinned, the charm that mesmerized millions of their people softening his words. "Although making you to listen to me is the hardest work I've done all year."
Nicholas didn't argue withthe exaggeration. His father could outwork most farmhands, dance the night away like a Cossack and still run five miles with elite palace security officers in the morning. Unwilling to overreact, Nicholas concentrated on remaining composed and looked out the palace window into the private courtyard.
A few moths fluttered close to the golden-hued lamplights above iron-studded gates. Mosquitoes buzzed incessantly and recycled water gurgled in the fountains. The sweet aroma of scarlet pelargoniums wafted through the air.
Calmed, he faced his father again and responded mildly to his complaint. "I always listen."
"And then you do exactly what you want." His father slapped his palm onto his desk, scattering documents. "It's high time you and Ericka Allen meet, fall in love and marry."
Nicholas identified his father's obstinate I-am-the-king-so-obey-me parenting technique. Avoiding the unpalatable topic of his arranged marriage wasn't going to work. He slipped into a well-worn leather chair, laced his fingers behind his head and tried not to express his frustration. As heir to the throne of Vashmira, he willingly fulfilled most of the obligations required of him, accepting that he would be asked to meet the needs of his people in numerous capacities - but marrying a stranger pushed the limits of loyalty and duty to country.
Nicholas strove to sound reasonable. "Just because her father died saving your life doesn't mean she'll want to have anything to do with me or the contract you cooked up with your old friend."
"Her father was like a brother to me." Nicholas looked out a window and watched the wind brushing a tufted box shrub against the ivycovered brick of the inner courtyard. The shrubs needed trimming. Nicholas loathed the subject of their conversation so much that he was willing to distract himself, however, with watching the shrubs' shadows shift against the wall.
While he admired his father's devotion to his old friend who'd died protecting him, he understood both the advantages and disadvantages of marriage to an American. An American-born princess bride could almost assure his country of increased economic aid from the United States and favorable loans from the International Monetary Fund, especially if the American was Ericka Allen, a highly respected correspondent for a major newspaper who had access to many powerful men in her government. However, stronger American connections would find disfavor among many of his people who preferred the old ways.
On a personal level, he was fairly certain that Ericka Allen was not in favor of their union, and the last thing he wanted was an unwilling bride. Over the years his father had sent her family funds and kept tabs on the woman. Although she had known about the contract since her eighteenth birthday when his father had written her, she had never bothered to contact them - which stung his pride a little. Obviously, she wasn't interested, a fact he'd mentioned to the king before - to no avail.
Grimly, he reminded himself there was some wiggle room. The lady could back out. So could he - but at the risk of destabilizing his country. If he chose another woman, many political factors would come into play. Some as simple as which language dominated Vashmira's communications and trade. Born of noble Russian parents who'd immigrated to the United States, King Zared I spoke English, Russian and Arabic, the three official languages of Vashmira, and he'd insisted that his children learn them, too. Many of their citizens resisted learning all three languages, contending the rest of the country should convert to their preference.
Just as different languages separated Vashmira's people, so did the three main religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Religious leaders would evaluate and assess Nicholas' wife with their own partisan agendas in mind. He had to select his queen with caution, insult no one - but the best way to accomplish that task was to adhere to his father's wishes, since Zared was beloved by all factions. Nicholas was caught in a bureaucratic trap of his father's creation.
Unfortunately, nothing Nicholas said seemed to make one iota of difference in changing his father's mind. Nicholas secretly hoped if he simply delayed long enough, Ericka Allen would eventually marry another man and let him off the hook.
However, he kept the thought to himself. "I understand arranged marriage contracts are prohibited in the United States."
"Last time I checked, we live in Vashmira, where such marriage contracts are legal. Since I am the king, and I uphold the laws, and you are a citizen, you will obey them. Invite her over for a visit."
"Fine. I'll ask her myself."
"Next week would be good. I'll be in Cairo then for the Mid-East peace talks."
His father leaned forward and crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you fighting me?"
Nicholas knew better than to give a political reason as an answer. "You of all men should understand. You married my mother for love. After she died, you married Sophia for love. I simply wish to do the same."
His father's eyes twinkled. "There is no reason you cannot love my friend's daughter."
Nicholas groaned and shoved to his feet. Retreating might be his best bet. Quarreling with the king was always complicated, especially when his father used his own singular brand of logic and charm. "You never give up, do you, Father?"
Excerpted from Royal Target by Susan Kearney Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.