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The Sultan's Bought Bride
By Jane Porter
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"YOU'RE not going to go." Princess Nicolette tossed the heavy parchment paper into the garbage can. "You just pick up the phone and tell the sultan - or sheikh - or whatever he is that you're not doing this disgustingly barbaric arranged marriage thing again. For heaven's sake, Chantal, you're a woman - not a human sacrifice!"
Chantal's mouth curved, but the tight smile didn't touch her gray eyes, or her tense expression. "He's wealthy, Nic. There's a chance he might be able to buy Lilly's freedom, and if this is the way -"
"It's not the way! Absolutely not the way. You barely survived one hellish marriage. How could you even consider another?"
"Because our country needs it. Our people need it." Chantal's slim shoulders lifted, fell, as did her voice. "My daughter needs it."
Chantal's resignation killed Nic. Her sister had lost her spirit, her backbone, her courage. The last couple of years had virtually annihilated the elegant princess, the eldest of the Ducasse royal grandchildren.
"You have needs, too," Nic shot back. "And you need to be treated kindly, lovingly, with respect. Another marriage of convenience - to another playboy - will only crush you." Nic's emotions ran high. If Chantal couldn't fight anymore, then Nic would have to do it for her. "And I know you want to help Lilly, but your daughter needs to come home to Melio, Chantal. She doesn't need another foreign country, another foreign culture, or another foreign nanny saying no princess, you can't princess, don't smile princess, we don't approve of laughter, princess!"
Chantal winced. "You're not helping, Nic."
Nic dropped to her knees, and wrapped her arms around Chantal's legs, holding her sister close. "So let me help. Let me do something for a change!"
Chantal's fine dark brown eyebrow arched and she lifted one of Nicolette's long blond curls. "You'll marry the sultan?" Chantal gently mocked. "Come on, Nic. You'd never agree to a marriage of convenience. And you're not even close to being ready to settle down. You're still sowing all your wild oats."
Nicolette pressed her cheek to Chantal's knees. "I'm not sowing wild oats. I'm just dating -"
Her sister laughed and tugged on the long blond curl. "You don't date, love. You hunt and destroy."
"You make me sound like the Terminator! I don't destroy men. I just haven't found Mr. Right yet."
"And how are you going to find the right man when you sleep with all the wrong ones?"
"I don't sleep with everybody."
"But you do like sex."
Nic eyed her sister thoughtfully. "Uh-oh, big sis doesn't approve."
"Big sis worries about AIDS. Venereal disease. Herpes. Pregnancy."
But that wasn't really what Chantal worried about, was it? Chantal wasn't thinking about Nicolette contracting a disease. She was worrying about her sister's reputation. "Is this where you make the Good Girls Don't speech?"
"Well, Mother's not here."
"Which probably makes you glad because Mother wasn't a Good Girl, either!"
Chantal stiffened. "Don't speak of Mother that way, and more importantly, you know we all need to make good marriages. This has been the plan for five years." Because their kingdom, consisting of two small islands in the Mediterranean Sea, Mejia and Melio, would be split at year's end. Mejia would revert to French rule, Melio to Spanish rule if the royal Ducasse family couldn't pay their taxes and trade agreements.
Chantal had been the one to suggest marriages of convenience. If the three princesses all made good marriages they could save Melio and Mejia, infusing the economy with new money, new alliances, new power. So Chantal had been the first to marry to Prince Armand Thibaudet of La Croix and it'd been a nightmare from the start.
So, no, Nic hadn't been overly anxious to marry, but that wasn't to say she wouldn't do her part. "You don't think I can marry well anymore, do you?"
If Chantal had heard the hurt in Nic's voice she gave no indication. "I don't know anything about your reputation, but I do know we all have a responsibility to take care of Melio. Succession depends on us. Melio's security, and stability, must come through us. We are the next generation."
"I've never shirked my duties. While you've been gone I've taken over your charities along with mine."
"Charities are all very well and nice, but it's money we need. Millions of dollars. And you have had two proposals, Nic."
"Exactly! And nothing since. Because all the European royals know you've been voted by the press as the Ducasse princess least likely to settle down."
The criticism rang in Nicolette's ears. It still rankled Nic that Chantal continued to perceive duty ... responsibility ... as the best of personal virtues. "You're saying your sultan, King Nuri, would never propose to someone like me?"
"Well, he didn't, did he?"
Nic stared at Chantal for a long moment, realizing that even if duty-bound Chantal wanted to go to Baraka to meet the Sultan, Nic wouldn't let her. Chantal had been through too much in the past few years. No one but Nic knew about Chantal's private hell. Even Joelle, their youngest sister, knew little about the abuse Chantal suffered at the hands of her late husband.
"There's no reason for any of us to marry the sultan," Nic said after a moment. "We can get him to help us without giving up our freedom, and yes, I do value my freedom." Her gaze locked with Chantal's. "We'll get Lilly free. We'll bring her home."
Chantal shook her head. "Her grandparents will never let her go."
"They will if pressured properly." Nic's gaze held her sister's. "They will if King Nuri insists. You did say he was immensely powerful."
"And wealthy," Chantal whispered.
"So I'll go to King Nuri and ask for his help. He won't say no to his future bride, will he?"
"I'll go, pretend to be you, get him to fall in love with me -" "Nic."
"He's a man, Chantal. I know how to manage men."
"It's not going to work. You'll never be able to pass yourself off as me. You're blond, I'm dark -"
"I'll dye my hair. As a brunette I could pass for you." Nic suddenly laughed, empowered. "I'll sneak in, sneak out. He won't even know what's happened."
"Oh, Nic, this is a disaster waiting to happen!"
"Not if I'm smart," she answered smugly. "Trust me. I can do this. I'll put together a plan, and you know me, Chantal. When I want something, I always win."
Excerpted from The Sultan's Bought Bride by Jane Porter Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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