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The Prince & The Marriage Pact
By Valerie Parv
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnnegret West felt a rush of anticipation as she ventured deeper into the corridors of Merrisand Castle. The sounds of the wedding reception gradually faded behind her as she told herself there was no harm in looking around. If these areas had been off-limits to visitors, surely there would have been security guards to direct her back to the reception rooms?
Considering that the groom was a key member of the Royal Protection Detail, and many of his colleagues were occupied attending the wedding, she wasn't surprised when no one questioned her right to be here.
Her air of confidence was the key, she knew. She was well dressed, as befitted a guest at a wedding taking place in a royal castle, and she walked with the assurance of someone who knew exactly where she was going.
Passing a gold-framed mirror, she caught a glimpse of a statuesque blonde with short-cropped hair feathered around her ears. Her slender frame was skimmed by a sleeveless, navy linen dress, although she wouldn't have minded if her tiny, cream lace cardigan had buttoned over breasts a size or two larger. She smiled at her reflection, recalling a famous duchess saying one could never be too thin or too rich. Annegret's genes had taken care of the thin part. She was still working on the rest.
As producer of the television show, Behind Closed Doors, she had learned to trust her instincts. Right now they were leading her deeper into the castle. She was interested in the unique situation of the prince who ruled the castle, and intended to research his story for a possible program.
The show was on its summer break, allowing her to come to Carramer for the wedding of her former school friend, Donna, to the handsome security man, Kevin Jordan. With the ceremony and speeches over for the moment, and the wedding breakfast well under way, Annegret felt free to wander until she found what she was looking for.
And there it was.
She slowed as she approached a huge oil painting in an ornate gold frame. She had seen enough reproductions to recognize it on sight. Painted a hundred seventy-five years ago by a renowned Carramer artist, the Champagne Pact depicted the ancestor of the present prince sealing a bargain with a rich merchant by the name of Soral. A bargain with the devil, as history recorded it.
The painting gained its name from the goblets of champagne the figures were raising to seal their agreement. The merchant had provided a vast sum of money to finance development in the province of Taures, where Merrisand Castle was located. In return, Soral had extracted the prince's vow that for the next two centuries, if a firstborn son of Taures married a woman not of royal blood, the crown would pass to the Soral family.
Fiendishly clever, Annegret thought. According to history, the merchant had known that the prince was madly in love with a commoner, and had assumed the crown was within his grasp. But the prince had outwitted the merchant by sacrificing his love for the good of the crown. Annegret gathered that princes of Taures had been doing much the same thing ever since.
She had long been fascinated by the Champagne Pact itself, as well as the famous painting. Knowing that at least one branch of royalty was doomed to be unlucky in love gave her enormous satisfaction.
Recognizing her own bias in this particular area, Annegret felt a twinge of conscience. While working in the Australian diplomatic service, her mother had fallen in love with an equerry to Prince Frederick of Ehrenberg, then his country's ambassador to Australia. After promising to marry her mother and take her home to his country, the equerry had instead left Debra West alone and pregnant with his child.
Annegret lifted her shoulders in a shrug. So she wasn't a fan of royalty. It was hardly surprising, given that she was the child the man had turned his back on. The only correspondence her mother had received from the man was a letter soon after Annegret was born, telling her that she wouldn't be hearing from him again.
Ehrenberg's borders had been closed to foreigners for most of Annegret's life, so she and her mother couldn't seek out the man to demand an explanation. Not that Annegret wanted to. She told herself that he had done her mother a favor, leaving his child to be raised in Australia. Had he taken her mother home to Ehrenberg with him, Annegret would be there still, confined within the mountain kingdom, cut off from the rest of the world. If it wasn't for the unhappiness her father had caused her mother, Annegret would have no regrets at all.
Dismissing the thought, she studied the painting. If she hadn't known it was so old, she would have been confused by the strong resemblance of that prince to the present-day prince of Taures, Maxim de Marigny. He had put in an appearance at the wedding to wish the couple well.
He was amazingly good-looking, a fact that hadn't escaped her notice at the ceremony. As dark in coloring as his ancestor in the painting, Prince Maxim had the most amazing cobalt-blue eyes. As the guests left the chapel, the prince's gaze had fixed on her for a few seconds, sending a shiver of response down her spine. Although tempted, she hadn't looked away, and had caught a glimmer of amusement in his expression, as if he had expected her to lower her lashes, and was pleased when she met his gaze unflinchingly.
Pure fantasy, she told herself. The product of working too hard to wrap up her most recent series before leaving Australia. Still, she couldn't deny that he had noticed her. She had certainly noticed him.
He possessed a worldly look she found herself wondering about. He hadn't appeared overly pampered, yet his job as administrator of the Merrisand charitable trust had to be a sinecure. With a thousand years of royal tradition behind him, he obviously didn't need to work for a living.
He hadn't looked as inbred as she'd expected, either. His wide, strong mouth was far from effete, and his athletic build suggested he took as much care of himself as Annegret herself did. She liked that, having little patience with people who took no pride in their appearance. She didn't care whether they were tall or short, heavy or slender, as long as they made the best of what they had.
There was no denying that Prince Maxim did so, she thought. What he had amounted to a devastatingly masculine package. Her mental assessment had included long limbs and a lithe body encased in a dark suit that was a monument to tailoring excellence.
But there was something more - a commanding quality that owed nothing to breeding or tailoring. Had he been the lowliest commoner, Maxim would still have been an impressive man, she conceded. He couldn't have helped it.
Excerpted from The Prince & The Marriage Pact by Valerie Parv Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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