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The Crown Prince Thaddeus of Lydia didn't hesitate to respond to his prearranged code name. "Yes?"
"Have you seen the news?"
"Then you know?"
"Yes." Thaddeus didn't need his friend Kirk, the sole person on earth who knew how to reach him, to elaborate any more over the phone. Yes, he knew that the tiny kingdom of Lydia had been nearly overtaken by insurgent forces ten days before. He also knew who was behind those forcesa man who went by the code name 8, short for Octavian, an egomaniac would-be despot, who'd stop at nothing to achieve the power he desired. What Thad didn't know, was how to stop him from taking over the tiny kingdom.
"You know that we need you?" A voice broke in, a female. One of his sisters? Princess Isabelle or Princess Anastasia, he couldn't be sure which one.
"You need me to stay right where I am." Thad hoped his sister could hear the authority in his voice. He was, after all, her big brother, besides being the crown prince of the Christian nation. He knew what he was talking about.
"No" Isabelle's voice for sure. "We need you on the thr"
"Don't say it." Thad interrupted her before she could drop any words that might give away his identity. They had no way of being certain their line was secure, though he knew Kirk would have taken every possible precaution. The risk was simply too great. If Octavian ever found where he was hiding, all the sacrifices he'd made would have been in vain.
"We need you here." That was Alexander's voice, so much more mature than when Thad had left home. But then, Prince Alexander had been through many trials on behalf of Lydia. "You're the only one who can end this."
"If I come home, things will only get worse, I promise you. You have to trust that I know what I'm talking about."
"If you would explain"
"I can't. Not over the phone. You know that." Thad took a deep breath, wishing there were some way he could impress upon his younger siblings the gravity of the situation. They couldn't underestimate the foe they were up against. "Please don't try to contact me again. The risks are far too great."
"You need to come home." It was Kirk's voice again, insistent this time.
"No. I need to go. Goodbye." Thad gripped the phone, knowing he needed to end the call and cut the line that exposed him to potential detection. Still, he hesitated to sever the connection to his family. He missed them so much, the six long years since he'd seen them last weighing on his heart.
Anastasia's voice echoed distantly over the still-live line. "You were right, Kirk. He's determined not to return. I wish we could make him understand, but we can't risk trying to visit him, and he won't listen to any of us."
"There is one person he might listen to. I don't know if I can convince her"
"Don't!" Thad nearly shouted, glad he hadn't hung up the phone after all. "Don't bring her into this. Never speak of her again."
"No. There's nothing she can say to me that will change anything. She deserves her privacy. Do you understand?" Silence ticked by in tense seconds, and Thad feared the connection had been severed after all. "Promise me you won't try to contact her."
Reluctance filled Kirk's voice. "I promise."
"Thank you. I've got to go." Thad ended the call, feeling even more alone than he had mere moments before, the reminder of his long-lost wife prickling the long-dead parts of his heart like blood rushing back to a sleeping appendage, as though to rouse his buried feelings back to life.
He trusted his friend. Kirk would keep his promise not to reach out to Monica.
Thad stared at the phone in his hand, replaying the details of their conversation. They hadn't spoken Monica's name. And surely their line was secure. So why did Thad feel such a breathless sense of panic, as though somehow, by mentioning a woman he cared about, they'd exposed Monica to detection?
Because he knew his enemy. And every time he'd underestimated Octavian before, he'd been wrong. Dead wrong.
"I'll be back in an hour," Monica Miller promised her mother as she headed out for her morning run.
"Take your time." Sheila Miller dismissed her concern. "Peter and I have big plans. We're going to set up a fort in the sandbox."
Monica looked up as she stretched her calves against the shallow step that topped the graceful sidewalk in front of her modest Seattle bungalow. "You spoil him," she accused with a smile.
"I'm his grandmother. It's my job." Sheila wrapped her arms around Peter and kissed the blond curls atop the young boy's head.
"Thank you, Mom. I love you both!" Monica called over her shoulder as she took off down the familiar sidewalk of her friendly neighborhood. The June morning was still a little coolperfect for her workout. Even more perfect, her mother had offered to watch Peter every morning as Monica finished her marathon training.
Inhaling deeply, Monica thanked God for the blessings in her life. Her son. Her parents, who loved their five-year-old grandson and had never pressured her to tell them who his father was.
Which was a good thing, because she couldn't tell them. They'd never met Crown Prince Thaddeus of Lydia and would probably have a difficult time digesting her story about their whirlwind romance, secret elopement andhardest of allhis sudden disappearance before she'd even realized she was pregnant.
Truth be told, she didn't really understand why Thad had left her, but she trusted him enough to obey his order never to look for him. From what she'd seen on the news lately about the troubles in that tiny Mediterranean kingdom, Thad had been right about his dangerous enemies. Lydia's government had nearly been toppled.
For the first time, Monica had felt a tiny glimmer of gratitude that Thad hadn't brought her home to Lydia after all. Though she'd have rather grown old with her husband by her side, she appreciated the freedom to finish her degree and follow her dreams of becoming a professor of foreign languages. And Peter was growing up in a safe place. Her son's safety and well-being was more important to her than anything. To preserve that, she was willing to live out the rest of her life in the lonely limbo of technically married, but functionally single.
Monica rounded a corner to a tree-lined street as she followed her daily running circuit.
An unfamiliar car pulled up beside her, rolling at a creeping pace that matched her jogging speed.
Monica glanced at it. Did she know these people? She'd had friends stop to chat before, and the youth from church loved nothing more than to honk and wave frantically whenever they saw her out for a run.
Dark-tinted windows hid whoever was inside.
She picked up her pace, nearly sprinting.
The car sped up with her. Suddenly both passenger's side doors opened and two men leaped out.
Monica tried to scream, but one man covered her mouth with an odorous cloth, scooping her up by her shoulders while the other picked her up by her legs. Her panic faded as darkness blocked out the light of the sun.
"We've got a seaplane taxiing toward the personnel dock."
"In this fog?" Thad pulled his attention away from the charts on his desk and hurried down the hallway after the oil-rig worker who'd brought him the message. The Prud-hoe Bay oil fields north of Alaska were remote, almost unreachable. Deliveries were clumped together and personnel exchanges scheduled weeks ahead of time. No one made the trip by chance. They weren't expecting anyone.
He clattered down the stairs, reaching the landing just as a woman disembarked from the plane. Shoulder-length dark hair blew across her face in the arctic wind, obscuring her features.
Still, his heart lurched with recognition, and he crossed the platform in three strides, just in time for her to brush back her hair and meet his eyes.
"You shouldn't be here." He had to yell to be heard over the sound of the idling plane engine and the streaming wind.
Her dark eyes snapped with anger and a trace of exhaustion. "Neither should you."
"Get back on the plane." He'd have picked her up and deposited her there himself, but that would require touching hera risk he wouldn't take unless he had to. The woman had long ago proven irresistible to him. He didn't need to get any closer to her than he already was.
"I've traveled too far to turn around now." Her words sounded worn-out, as though she'd repeated them to herself many times.
His heart gave a sympathetic lurch, which he instinctively resisted. Had Kirk contacted her in spite of his promise? It was a mistake he'd have to quickly rectify. He couldn't give her a chance to get under his skinshe'd done it once before, and it had taken him all of the past six years to get over her. "Get back on the plane. The fog is getting worse. If you don't leave now, you might not be able to leave for days."
"I'm not leaving without you."
Her commanding tone was met with a roar of interest from the catwalk above, and Thad turned to see a crowd of workmen gathering to watch. Out here on the oil rig, they didn't get much live entertainment. He quickly realized he wasn't going to easily convince Monica to leavenot without some explanation. And that explanation needed to be completely private.
"Fine. Come with me." He pushed his way up the stairs, past the gathering men, barking at them to get back to work, trusting her to follow him. Once free of the crowd, he turned to find her close on his heels. "This way."
As he escorted Monica along the carpeted hallway that rang hollow with each footfall, Thad's heartbeat thundered more hollow still.
How had she found him? Never mind that the remote oil drilling outpost sat far beyond even the farthest reaches of permafrost. Never mind that, under strict orders to keep the men civilized in spite of the inhumane setting, women weren't allowed on the rig any more than tobacco or liquor.
It had been three days since his conversation with Kirk and his siblings. Had they contacted Monica in spite of his request? How long had she been looking for him?
And had she been followed?
He ducked into his office, pulled her after him and closed the door behind them both. Meeting her eyes, he fought the urge to push her away, as far away as he could. For her own safety. And his. And the security of Lydia.
But Lydia's security had been breached two weeks before.
The attacks on his tiny kingdom had toppled his family's government and left his father, King Philip, in a coma, fighting for life. Thad had warily watched the reports on the news, knowing that, for all his power as the heir to the throne, there was nothing he could do to help his siblings. No, if he stuck his head up, he'd only make things worse. Too bad he hadn't been able to make them understand that. Monica's arrival endangered them all.
He kept his arms to himself. "How did you find me?"
"Not even Kirk knows exactly where I am." Thad's best friend knew only that Thad was living on an oil platform north of Alaskaa vast amount of space for anyone to cover. Thad deliberately moved between platforms frequently. Even his own coworkers had difficulty tracking him down at times. Kirk could have pointed her in the right direction, but Monica would have undoubtedly had quite a time finding him.
"No kidding." She frowned, and her mouth twitched.
"Were you followed? Has anyone been watching you?"
"If you're worried about Octavian finding me, you're too late. He kidnapped me yesterday morning and sent me on this crazy trip to find you. He didn't know where you were so I had to ask Kirk."
"What? Octavian found you? He kidnapped you?" He gripped her by the shoulders and stared into her brown eyes seeking answers. But instead of answers, he felt a rush of emotions. He wanted to pull her into his arms, to protect her from Octavian. But it was too late. "We've got to get you out of here."
"Did you hear what I said?" Her words came out in a disbelieving whisper. "He kidnapped me. He sent me here to bring you to him."
Thaddeus tried not to think about the beguiling way she looked at him through her long eyelashes. He tried not to consider how close her lips were to his. He had to understand what Monica was saying. "Octavian kidnapped you, and then you contacted Kirk. How did you do that?"
"Octavian already had his number."
"How did he get it?"
"How did he find out about me?" She pulled her shoulders from his hands and stepped away. "You promised me that if I never spoke your name, never made any effort to contact you, never told anyone I'd ever met you, that I'd be safe."
Thad's mouth hung open. The realization of his worst fear sunk in slowly. Octavian had found out about Monica. He'd used her to get to him.
He'd underestimated his enemy.
"Octavian sent you here?" he confirmed. "Yes. He hired the pilot to fly me around until I found you."
Thad looked around frantically. "We've got to leave. We'll have to sneak away and hide somewhere else."
"No!" Monica's voice rose to shouting. "Have you heard anything I've said? Octavian sent me to get you, to bring you to him."
"We can't go to him." Thad tried to shush her with a glare that had sent many a calloused oil worker cowering.
"Listen." She ignored his silencing expression. "Octa-vian needs your signature. He needs a document that he says you stole from him. He says if you sign it, he'll leave us alone."
Thad knew he had to contain the situation. Not only that, he needed to get a handle on the unfamiliar emotions that were thrashing inside him like the arctic waters during a storm.