Minutes before walking down the aisle, Princess Alyssa Sutherland—possible heir to the Verdonian throne—vanished into thin air. Rumor has it that the lady in question wasn't marrying for love. Did Her Highness catch a case of cold feet? Perhaps a certain oh-so-uninvited guest crashed the party. Sources say Merrick Montgomery was spotted on the scene and gossipmongers are buzzing with tales of a secret elopement. Did the dangerously sexy rebel kidnap the princess for political gain? Or did he simply sweep our royal beauty off her feet?
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Merrick Montgomery studied the woman whose life he was about to destroyand who could, ultimately, destroy his.
Alyssa Sutherland was stunning, he conceded. Sexy, even in the silver wedding dress she wore. He adjusted the binoculars to get a closer look. She sat without moving while a bevy of women fluttered around her like jewel-colored butterflies. Her features were as close to perfection as a man could desire and her figure what he could see of it beneath the embellished gown she wore"threatened to rouse that desire to a fever pitch. Dappled sunlight touched the champagne blond of her hair, kissing it with the merest hint of rose.
He felt an inexplicable and powerful urge to fully bare her to his gaze, to see if her body mirrored the perfection of that face. Not that there was much doubt about what he'd uncover. Such was the gift nature bestowed on certain women warm, breathtaking beauty combined with cold, avaricious natures.
Beneath her gown he'd find her flesh pale and unblemished enough to make any man forget her true nature. She'd feel soft and supple against his calloused hands. Would she be built like a goddess, her hips a lush, feminine sanctuary? Or perhaps her gown hid a smaller, more boyish figure. He'd found such women to be strong and lithe in bed. Miniature dynamos.
Goddess or dynamo, it didn't matter. She'd sold herself to Brandt von Folke, which had forced his hand.
The voice whispering in his ear brought him to his senses and his mouth tightened. He'd allowed the Sutherland woman to distract him from his goal and that angered him. It had never happened before. Not once in all the years he'd been head of the Royal Security Force. But this woman He studied her one final time, acknowledging the intensity of her allure while deliberately setting it aside as nothing more than an obstacle. Her beauty would be a problem. It wasn't easily overlooked and threatened to draw attention to his actions, something he needed to prevent at all costs.
He readjusted his binoculars, sweeping them in a slow, wide arc around the courtyard where the woman sat. It only took him a moment to find what stood between him and his goal. There were eight guards in all. Six clearly visible and two on either side of the chapel doors. He checked his watch and then sent a quick hand signal to the men who accompanied him. They would move in in ten minutes.
Once again he fixed the powerful binoculars on the Sutherland woman, tightening the focus until all he could see was the porcelain perfection of her face. She might have been lifeless for all the emotion she showed. Her eyes were downcast as though in thought, and he couldn't help but wonder what, if anything, went on behind that perfect oval mask. As he watched he caught the tiniest quiver of her mouth. Nervousness, perhaps? Second thoughts? No, not a chance. Not this woman. A prayer of thanksgiving for her coming triumph? Now that was more like it.
His mouth tightened. Pray, woman. Pray for all you're worth. Not that it would help. In a few more minutes he'd take this woman. He'd do whatever necessary to ensure that this day ended much differently from how she envisioned as she sat far below.
"It's time," Merrick announced. "No matter what, we make certain the woman doesn't marry Brandt von Folke. Understood?"
He didn't wait for agreement. His men were handpicked. They would follow his orders without question or hesitation. His mouth curled into a hard smile. There was no doubt what would happen next. His reasons were just. His need absolute. He was doing the wrong thing for all the right reasons. He was going to kidnap another man's bride for the most noble of causes.
Alyssa Sutherland sat silently amidst a sea of chaos. It took every ounce of her self-control to keep from jumping up and shrieking at the women surrounding her to leave her alone. To give her just two minutes in which she could sit quietly and try and catch her breath. To allow her the luxury of tears or breaking down in momentary hysteria or even to close her eyes and escape into a brief, blissful fantasy where someone would come and rescue her from this nightmare. Not that there was any likelihood of that happening.
Events for the past week had moved at a breakneck pace and she hadn't found a single minute to regain her equilibrium. Not a moment to think. Not to fight. Not to negotiate or protest or plead. Or run. She'd simply been told what to do and been expected to obey without argument.
And she had, though it went against every instinct and every aspect of her personality. Unfortunately, there had been no other choice.
"Princess Alyssa, it's almost time." The woman spoke in lightly accented English. But then all the people Alyssa had met so far had spoken English as fluently as their native tongue. "You should enter the chapel now."
She spared the woman"Lady Bethany Something, she recalled"a brief glance. "It's just Alyssa. I'm not a princess."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Alyssa closed her eyes in despair. Lowering her head, she struggled to maintain her composure. She could feel her mouth quiver, but it was beyond her ability to control it. "I need a moment," she whispered.
"I'm sorry, Your Highness. That isn't possible." How many times in the past week had she been told the same thing? Too many to count. Always polite, always phrased with the utmost care and consideration and always the same underlying message: Not a chance in hell will you be permitted a single moment alone. You'll be guarded every single second that ticks off each endless hour of every hideous day. And yet
They called her Princess Alyssa. They bowed and curtsied and treated her as though she were made of spun glass and was twice as fragile. Their respect wasn't a pretense. She sensed an underlying sincerity she couldn't mistake. For the first time in over a week, a spark of hope ignited. Perhaps she could work their deference to her advantage.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted her chin and fixed Lady Bethany with a steely gaze. "I need a moment alone."
Lady Bethany fluttered, casting nervous glances over her shoulder. "I don't think."
"I'm not asking you to think. I'm telling you that I need five minutes alone before I return to the chapel. I need toto gather my thoughts. To prepare myself for the ceremony so I don't let down my." she swallowed, struggling to speak through the distress gripping her throat "my husband-to-be."
Lady Bethany's fluttering grew worse. "I don't think His Highness would approve. He ordered"requested" we remain with you at all times."
"The guard will see to my safety," Alyssa pressed, sensing victory.
"But His Highness."
"Would agree to your making an exception on my wedding day." She infused her voice with "royal" demand. Not that she had a clue what that really meant. She could only give it her best shot and hope she hit the mark. "Why don't we send for Prince Brandt and see who's right?"
Apparently, it was the perfect tack to take. Her bluff worked. Lady Bethany blanched and stumbled back a step, dropping a hasty curtsey. "That won't be necessary, Your Highness. I'll ask the guards to escort you to the chapel when you're ready.Will five minutes be sufficient?"
Five minutes. Five short, precious minutes. How could she possibly prepare herself for what was to come in so little time? She inclined her head. "That will be fine, thank you." It would have to be.
Her bevy of ladies-in-waiting, as they'd described themselves, gathered into a hurried group, whispering in their native tongue of Verdonian"a language Alyssa didn't understand, which put her at a distinct disadvantage. Shooting quick, anxious looks over their shoulders, they withdrew into the chapel.
Drawing a deep breath, Alyssa stood and walked from the courtyard into the garden. The largest of the guards followed, putting enough distance between them that she didn't feel crowded, and positioned himself between her and the woods that bordered the garden. She crossed to the stone bench farthest from the chapel and all the prying eyes.
Earlier that morning it had rained, but now dappled sunlight filtered through the branches of the oaks, warming her chilled skin. Not long ago she'd caught a glimpse of a rainbow"a sign, her mother had always claimed, of better times to come.
"There's a pot of gold waitin' for us out there, Ally, baby," Angela Barstow had always insisted. "And one of these days, we're gonna find it."
"Not this time, Mom," Alyssa whispered.
They couldn't run away from their problems this time. No new starts. No new stepfathers. No being dragged from her bed in the middle of the night so her mother could sneak them out of whatever city they'd pitched their tent in. This time the trouble was too great to run from.
She fought against a wave of panic. She didn't have long to gain control of her emotions. The seconds were ticking by. She could sense the restless movement of her guard and attempted to dismiss him from her mind. She drew in another breath, filling her lungs with the spring air that permeated what little she'd seen of the European country of Verdonia.
If this had been any other time, if the series of events that had brought her here had been different, she would have been enchanted by the beauty she'd encountered. But she was far from enchanted. She was alone and frightened and desperate to find a way out of this nightmare.
If only she hadn't gone chasing off to save Angela from her latest catastrophe. But the express envelope begging for help, along with the prepaid airline ticket to Verdonia, had been too much to ignore. So, Alyssa had postponed the start of her latest job and flown to the rescue. She couldn't have anticipated that she'd be snatched from the airport and carried off into the wilds of Verdonia anymore than she could have foreseen being forced into a marriage as a result of threats she didn't dare challenge"threats to her mother's well-being.
Somehow she'd become caught up in a political maelstrom, one she didn't understand. Her mother had tried to explain but there'd been so little time. From their frantic and painfully brief conversation, Alyssa had learned that everyone believed she was a princess of Verdonia, and that her marriage to Brandt von Folke would unite two of three warring principalities. It was a crazy mistake. Even so, she found herself at the very heart of the current turmoil. She'd simply been told her only option was to say "I do" or her mother would suffer the consequences.
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness. It's time."
Alyssa opened her eyes and stared at the burly guard hovering over her. Panic tightened her throat. "Already?"
"It's time," he repeated, though she caught a hint of sympathy in his gruff voice and kindly brown eyes.
Before she could plead for another moment of solitude, just a few precious extra seconds, a small whine sounded in her ear, whooshing past like a starving mosquito. A strange expression drifted across the guard's face as though he, too, had heard the odd noise. He made a small strangled sound and started to lift a hand to his neck, before dropping like a stone. With an exclamation of horror, Alyssa leaped to her feet.
She managed one quick step in his direction before an iron band wrapped around her arms and waist, lifting her off the ground and up against a tall, muscular male body. At the same moment, a large, powerful hand closed over her mouth, cutting off her incipient scream. She hung in his arms for an endless moment, a rush of sensations swamping her.
His scent washed over her. It held the confusingly civilized odor of cedar and spice. But underlying the crisp, delicious scent came something far more basic and dangerous, a primal pheromone that invaded her senses at the most carnal and instinctual level. An image of a lion flashed through her mind's eye, streaking across the African veld, claws extended, teeth bared, its powerful haunches contracting as it hurdled toward its prey, toward her.
Alyssa exploded into motion, kicking and twisting. It didn't have the least impact. He controlled her with frightening ease. The warmth of his breath stirred the curls alongside her temple and his laughter rumbled against her back.
"Calm yourself, Princess," he told her. "Fighting won't do you any good. It will simply wear you out and make my job all the easier."
His voice contained the distinctive lilt of most she'd met in Verdonia, though his was deeper and darker. Educated. The realization filtered through her terror. She struggled to control her panic and pay attention, to gather as many facts as possible in the hopes that she could somehow use the information to her advantage.
She stilled and he gave a grunt of satisfaction. Turning his head, he called out several soft words in his native language. They weren't aimed at her. She sensed others around her"not the guards"but men who worked in concert with the one who held her with such casual strength.
As soon as he'd satisfied himself that she'd given up her struggle, he melted into the shadows of the surrounding trees, carrying her from the garden outside the chapel's courtyard into the woods. She caught a glimpse of the men he'd spoken to before they were blocked from view by a stand of trees. All three were dressed in black, hooded and ominous in both appearance and size, and they moved with unmistakable purpose. What did they want? What were they planning? Dear heaven, she'd wanted a way out of the marriage, but not like this and not at the expense of her mother. Her mother! She tensed within her captor's hold, preparing to struggle again, but his grip tightened in warning.
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