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Tall, Dark And Dangerous
By Suzanne Brockmann
MIRACopyright © 2005 Suzanne Brockmann
All right reserved.
All of the major network news cameras were rolling as Tedric Cortere, crown prince of Ustanzia, entered the airport.
A wall of ambassadors, embassy aides and politicians moved forward to greet him, but the prince paused for just a moment, taking the time to smile and wave a greeting to the cameras.
He was following her instructions to the letter. Veronica St. John, professional image and media consultant, allowed herself a sigh of relief. But only a small one, because she knew Tedric Cortere very well, and he was a perfectionist. There was no guarantee that Prince Tedric, the brother of Veronica's prep-school roommate and very best friend in the world, was going to be satisfied with what he saw tonight on the evening news.
Still, he would have every right to be pleased. It was day one of his United States goodwill tour, and he was looking his best, oozing charm and royal manners, with just enough blue-blooded arrogance thrown in to captivate the royalty-crazed American public. He was remembering to gaze directly into the news cameras. He was keeping his eye movements steady and his chin down. And, heaven be praised, for a man prone to anxiety attacks, he was looking calm and collected for once.
He was giving the news teams exactly what they wanted — a close-up picture of a gracious, charismatic, fairy-tale handsome European prince.
Bachelor. She'd forgotten to add "bachelor" to the list. And if Veronica knew Americans — and she did; it was her business to know Americans — millions of American women would watch the evening news tonight and dream of becoming a princess.
There was nothing like fairy-tale fever among the public to boost relations between two governments. Fairy-tale fever — and the recently discovered oil that lay beneath the parched, gray Ustanzian soil.
But Tedric wasn't the only one playing to the news cameras this morning.
As Veronica watched, United States Senator Sam McKinley flashed his gleaming white teeth in a smile so falsely genuine and so obviously aimed at the reporters, it made her want to laugh.
But she didn't laugh. If she'd learned one thing during her childhood and adolescence as the daughter of an international businessman who moved to a different and often exotic country every year or so, she'd learned that diplomats and high government officials — particularly royalty — take themselves very, very seriously.
So, instead of laughing, she bit the insides of her cheeks as she stopped several respectful paces behind the prince, at the head of the crowd of assistants and aides and advisers who were part of his royal entourage.
"Your Highness, on behalf of the United States Government," McKinley drawled in his thick Texas accent, shaking the prince's hand, and dripping with goodwill, "I'd like to welcome you to our country's capital."
"I greet you with the timeless honor and tradition of the Ustanzian flag," Prince Tedric said formally in his faintly British, faintly French accent, "which is woven, as well, into my heart."
It was his standard greeting; nothing special, but it went over quite well with the crowd.
McKinley started in on a longer greeting, and Veronica let her attention wander.
She could see herself in the airport's reflective glass windows, looking cool in her cream-colored suit, her flame-red hair pulled neatly back into a French braid. Tall and slender and serene, her image wavered slightly as a jet plane took off, thundering down the runway.
It was an illusion. Actually, she was giddy with nervous excitement, a condition brought about by the stress of knowing that if Tedric didn't follow her instructions and ended up looking bad on camera, she'd be the one to blame. Sweat trickled down between her shoulder blades, another side effect of the stress she was under. No, she felt neither cool nor serene, regardless of how she looked.
She had been hired because her friend, Princess Wila, knew that Veronica was struggling to get her fledgling consulting business off the ground. Sure, she'd done smaller, less detailed jobs before, but this was the first one in which the stakes were so very high. If Veronica succeeded with Tedric Cortere, word would get out, and she'd have more business than she could handle. If she succeeded with Cortere...
But Veronica had also been hired for another reason.
She'd been hired because Wila, concerned about Ustanzia's economy, recognized the importance of this tour. Despite the fact that teaching Wila's brother, the high-strung Prince of Ustanzia, how to appear calm and relaxed while under the watchful eyes of the TV news cameras was Veronica's first major assignment as an image and media consultant, Wila trusted her longtime friend implicitly to get the job done.
"I'm counting on you, Véronique," Wila had said to Veronica over the telephone just last night. She had added with her customary frankness, "This American connection is too important. Don't let Tedric screw this up."
So far Tedric was doing a good job. He looked good. He sounded good. But it was too early for Veronica to let herself feel truly satisfied. It was her job to make sure that the prince continued to look and sound good.
Tedric didn't particularly like his younger sister's best friend, and the feeling was mutual. He was an impatient, short-tempered man, and rather used to getting his own way. Very used to getting his own way.
Veronica could only hope he would see today's news reports and recognize the day's success. If he didn't, she'd hear about it, that was for sure.
Veronica knew quite well that over the course of the prince's tour of the United States she was going to earn every single penny of her consultant's fee. Because although Tedric Cortere was princely in looks and appearance, he was also arrogant and spoiled. And demanding. And often irrational. And occasionally, not very nice.
Oh, he knew his social etiquette. He was in his element when it came to pomp and ceremony, parties and other social posturing. He knew all there was to know about clothing and fashion. He could tell Japanese silk from American with a single touch. He was a wine connoisseur and a gourmet. He could ride horses and fence, play polo and water-ski. He hired countless aides and advisers to dance attendance upon him, and provide him with both his most trivial desires and the important information he needed to get by as a representative of his country.
As Veronica watched, Tedric shook the hands of the U.S. officials. He smiled charmingly and she could practically hear the sound of the news cameras zooming in for a close-up.
The prince glanced directly into the camera lenses and let his smile broaden. Spoiled or not, with his trim, athletic body and handsome face, the man was good-looking.
Good-looking? No, Veronica thought. To call him good-looking wasn't accurate. Quite honestly, the prince was gorgeous. He was a piece of art. He had long, thick, dark hair that curled down past his shoulders. His face was long and lean with exotic cheekbones that hinted of his mother's Mediterranean heritage. His eyes were the deepest brown, surrounded by sinfully long lashes. His jaw was square, his nose strong and masculine.
But Veronica had known Tedric since she was fifteen and he was nineteen. Naturally, she'd developed a full-fledged crush on him quite early on, but it hadn't taken her long to realize that the prince was nothing like his cheerful, breezy, lighthearted yet business-minded sister. Tedric was, in fact, quite decidedly dull — and enormously preoccupied with his appearance. He had spent endless amounts of time in front of a mirror, sending Wila and Veronica into spasms of giggles as he combed his hair, flexed his muscles and examined his perfect, white teeth.
Still, Veronica's crush on Prince Tedric hadn't truly crashed and burned until she'd had a conversation with him — and seen that beneath his facade of princely charm and social skills, behind his handsome face and trim body, deep within his dark brown eyes, there was nothing there.
Nothing she was interested in, anyway.
Although she had to admit that to this day, her romantic vision of a perfect man was someone tall, dark and handsome. Someone with wide, exotic cheekbones and liquid brown eyes. Someone who looked an awful lot like Crown Prince Tedric, but with a working brain in his head and a heart that loved more than his own reflection in the mirror.
She wasn't looking for a prince. In fact, she wasn't looking, period. She had no time for romance — at least, not until her business started to turn a profit.
As the military band began to play a rousing rendition of the Ustanzian national anthem, Veronica glanced again at their blurry images in the window. A flash of light from the upper-level balcony caught her eye. That was odd. She'd been told that airport personnel would be restricting access to the second floor as a security measure.
She turned her head to look up at the balcony and realized with a surge of disbelief that the flash she'd seen was a reflection of light bouncing off the long barrel of a rifle — a rifle aimed directly at Tedric.
"Get down!" Veronica shouted, but her voice was drowned out by the trumpets. The prince couldn't hear her. No one could hear her.
She ran toward Prince Tedric and all of the U.S. dignitaries, well aware that she was running toward, not away from, the danger. A thought flashed crazily through her head — This was not a man worth dying for. But she couldn't stand by and let her best friend's brother be killed. Not while she had the power to prevent it.
As a shot rang out, Veronica hit Tedric bone-jarringly hard at waist level and knocked him to the ground. It was a rugby tackle that would have made her brother Jules quite proud.
She bruised her shoulder, tore her nylons and scraped both of her knees when she fell.
But she saved the crown prince of Ustanzia's life.
Excerpted from Tall, Dark And Dangerous by Suzanne Brockmann Copyright © 2005 by Suzanne Brockmann. Excerpted by permission.
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