No one believes Princess Serena has the strength to rule Acacia least of all Serena. But the assassins that placed her in line for the throne have turned their sights on her. And the mysterious Casimir Cullenwho's already saved her life onceis the only man she trusts. Serena is drawn to Casimir with overwhelming ferocity. But affairs of state require that she marry King Warrington of Rizari.
Casimir's relationship with Serena was supposed to be a means toward revenge against Warrington. Falling in love was never part of the plan. Now, protecting Serena and bolstering her self-confidence has become his priority. But what will happen when she learns his secret destiny?
About the Author
She lives in Maryland with her family. C.J. believes in first loves, second chances, and happily ever after.
Read an Excerpt
Casimir felt the pulse of power in the ballroom of the Acacian castle. Three influential leaders, each with their axes to grind, were setting problems aside tonight in a public display of unity that hadn't been witnessed in the past twenty years. The king of Acacia was turning sixty and the night was meant for frivolity.
Too bad one of the kings would die tonight by Ca-simir's hand. He hated to ruin the party for the king of Acacia, but attacking the king of Rizari away from his palace made the logistics much simpler.
With the president of Icarus's help, Casimir had smuggled his weapons into the room. He was ready. He had mentally run the plan dozens of times. He had trained. He would do what needed to be done, shed his fake identity for good and he would disappear, taking asylum in Icarus.
Casimir was careful not to touch the gun at his side, a habit he'd formed in the military to ensure it was in place. The knife in its sheath at his hip brushed against his pants. He did nothing to call attention to himself. In addition to the three leaders, the room was filled with securityeach of the king's guards and the president's servicemen, all armed to the teeth.
Danae, the eldest princess of Acacia had her guards close as well. She was the heir to the throne, and watching her, Casimir understood why she was being courted by the king of Rizari. Princess Danae looked like a woman who liked to have fun, but who couldn't organize her closet, much less a country. Her brunette curls bounced as she laughed and threw her head back in delight.
The younger princess of Acacia, Serena, was standing alone on the perimeter of the party. Unlike her sister's vibrant, fanciful energy, Serena had a quiet, serious beauty about her. Her blond hair hung around her shoulders and she looked almost ethereal in a light blue gown. She sipped her glass of wine and watched the party with little change in her expression. No one spoke to her. She had to be bored. Casimir had been studying King Warrington's social circles, and he found her behavior curious, very different from what he had experienced in Rizari. To blend in to the royal social circle, extraversion was critical.
Why was the princess so removed? He knew little about the king and princesses of Acacia. They didn't factor into his plan, except that he was using their castle to exact his revenge. He would send an anonymous note of apology once he'd returned to Icarus and was safe in his new life, revenge complete. Perhaps then his soul would be quiet and peaceful.
"She is beautiful, no?" Demetrius DeSante said. The president of Icarus, and his good friend, spoke softly. Though DeSante and Casimir were careful not to give away how close they were, especially in regard to this conspiracy, DeSante had been making the rounds through the ballroom, talking to everyone with a title or a fortune. Casimir was pretending to have the latter.
Though DeSante had been accused of many bad things, he was a good leader and one of his best qualities was his charisma. He could talk anyone into doing what he wanted. It was another way he was dangerous.
The lights flickered and then went out.
"Is this your plan? You're doing this now?" De-Sante's voice in his ear.
The blackout was not part of his plan. Casimir was nowhere near King Warrington of Rizari. Casimir could only see by candlelight in the darkened room. Acacia was plagued by energy distribution problems. "Not my plan. Rolling blackouts"
The sentence died in his mouth. At the sound of gunfire, Casimir dove for the floor, instinctively dragging President DeSante with him. The ceramic tile was cold against his hands, but his body broke out into a sweat and adrenaline charged through him. Gunfire had that effect on him. He had already been keyed up, waiting for his chance to kill Warrington and now, he was all systems go and on full alert.
The music died. More gunfire and the room was filled with screaming and shouting. Glass was breaking and objects hit the floor. A woman's heel pierced his hand. Damn stiletto shoes. Shaking off the pain, Casimir belly crawled toward the darkness, away from the windows. If an active gunman was peppering the area with shots, he was safer in the darkest corner of the room. Once there, he would take stock of his position and kill whomever had decided to ruin his revenge.
Casimir assessed the area. Though his eyesight was compromised, his hearing was sharp and his nose searching. As if his senses had been attuned to violence, he peered through the candlelit glow of the room. The king of Acacia was slumped on the floor, the older princess next to him. In the dimness, it was impossible to know if the king was dead or injured. The sound of gunfire was elsewhere in the castle. Seeing no one guarding the king, Casimir filled in the blanks. Security had fled in the direction of the shooting, leaving the bodies of the king and princess alone. Were they already dead?
Dread consumed him when Princess Serena's face came into view. She was moving toward her father and sister. Was she trying to get herself killed? Wasn't she aware she should run away from bullets, not toward them?
Forgetting his own safety, Casimir rose to his feet and sprinted toward her. Princess Serena was pulling her father behind a table. For protection? Her face was grief-stricken and her eyes met his. They screamed for help, pleaded with someone to come to her aid.
Women in need were a soft spot for him. He could have used the darkness to search for King Warrington and kill him. But the probability of finding him unguarded was slim. More pressing was the beautiful woman who needed his help.
Serena shouldn't have come to the capital tonight. She had decided at the last minute to forgo her usual excuses and instead had driven to the castle for her father's birthday.
Serena's face felt sticky and her feet slid on the floor. She had to drag her father and sister to safety. Someone was shooting into the ballroom. No answers came to mind as to why.
She couldn't find her father's security. She had commanded her cousin and personal secretary Iliana to hide in the coat closet. But Serena couldn't leave her father and sister exposed. She had no medical training, but she could be with them until help arrived.
Pulling her father's weight was nearly impossible. Why was the floor so slippery? Her shoes slid out from under her again. Her dress tangled around her ankles as she fought to stand. A shadow blotted out the little light shining in her direction. Help had arrived! She lifted her head to welcome whomever had come to assist her.
Instead, she came face to face with the muzzle of a gun.
Before she could scream, not that screaming would have made a difference in the current environment, a hot and wet liquid hit her face. She closed her eyes and when she opened them, the lights were on again. She blinked as her eyes adjusted to the scene.
The man who'd been holding a gun at her was slumped in the arms of a stranger. A very dashing stranger, with reddish-brown hair, hazel eyes, a mustache and goatee, pronounced cheekbones and a perfectly straight nose. Serena was sure she had never met this man before and yet he seemed so familiar.
He threw the body to the side. She winced at the sound it made hitting the porcelain tile. The man slid his knife into a sheath beneath his black suit coat. A knife-wielding stranger had saved her life.
He extended his arms to her. On the heels of a violent attack, she should be more wary of him, but her instincts told her he wouldn't harm her. He had saved her life. If he wanted her dead, he could have allowed the gunman to kill her.
She took his hand. Her feet slid beneath her. Blood. It was blood she'd been slipping in. In stark contrast to the gruesome scene, the stranger was watching her with the kindest eyes she had ever known. She turned her head to look at her father and sister, to see what help they needed.
The man put his hand on her cheek. "Do not look, Princess. This is not what you should remember." He took a white handkerchief from his pants pocket and wiped her face. Blood smeared the material.
He began to escort her away. Suddenly, her father's guards flew in her direction, ripping her from the man's arms and slamming him against the wall.
"Release the princess!" More shouting and commands.
Serena held out her hands toward the stranger this time. "Please stop. Stop! I command you to stop! This man saved my life." Now the guards appeared again? In the chaos, they had left her and her family unprotected. Hysteria threatened to consume her. She stared at the stranger. If she looked away from him, she would look back at her father and her sister.
"Come, Princess, you need to be taken to the safe room."
The stranger looked over his shoulder at her. Her guards released him and he turned toward her, bowing slightly. "You will call on me again if I am needed."
He fled the ballroom, toward the sound of sirens. He was gone before she realized she didn't know his name.
President DeSante pulled Casimir away from the crowd. Everyone was being questioned by the police. In the circle of DeSante's guards, they could speak freely.
"Was this your plan?" DeSante asked.
"I already told you it was not." Casimir threw off his fury and focused. Someone had beaten him to the punch, but the assassins had killed the wrong king, at least in his thinking. "I had nothing to do with this." His plan had been to kill King Warrington of Rizari only. His revenge did not include a massacre.
"This was chaos. This was reckless." DeSante's fingers bit into Casimir's arm and his eyes were blazing with intensity. "This was not the revenge you had planned, but this is an opportunity. Don't squander it."
DeSante spoke quietly. "Think like a king. Who is next to inherit the throne in Acacia?"
"The princess. Princess Serena." It had been difficult to walk away from her. But he couldn't stay. He had no reason to remain with her and if he did, too many questions would be asked.
"That's right. The princess, the woman whose life you saved."
Casimir mustered control of his anger over his lost chance. He focused on what his old friend was saying. They were not blood relatives, but they were brothers on the battlefield and DeSante owed Casimir a debt. A debt that would not be paid until Casimir'd had his revenge.
"I killed one of the assassins." Casimir had slit the throat of the man who had planned to kill the princess at point-blank range. The assassin had gotten what was coming to him and Casimir felt no regret for his actions.
"That you did. I promised you revenge and asylum from the fallout of that revenge, but this is more than I could have given you. Use her."
Use her for what? DeSante was a chess master, seeing many moves ahead in the game and in life. For Casimir, his anger often drove him harder than reason. He shook off his anger and took a cleansing breath. "You said she is to inherit the throne. Are the king and Princess Danae dead?" From what he had seen, it didn't look as if they had much chance of survival, but doctors could sometimes perform miracles.
DeSante inclined his head toward the ambulances. "An official announcement has not been made, but I would assume that yes, they are dead."
The ground had been covered in blood. The assassins had worked quickly.
True peace in the Mediterranean between Icarus, Acacia and Rizari had never been achieved. After tonight, Casimir guessed it would be impossible. Accusations would be made and blame would be spread around enough for everyone to be hit with some.
But perhaps DeSante was right and this was an opportunity for Casimir to achieve a goal he had never believed possible. As a royal, Princess Serena would be part of King Warrington's social circle. After all, he had been planning to marry Serena's sister. Casimir could use contact with Serena to keep the king close while Casimir planned his next move. If he was lucky and played his cards right, instead of killing King Warrington outright as he had intended tonight, perhaps he could clear his mother's name. Casimir could make a play for the crown and the throne of Rizari. The crown that rightfully belonged to him.
King Warrington would pay for what he had done to Casimir and his mother, but not with his life. Instead he would lose everything that mattered to him.
"Do you think that President DeSante is responsible for the bloodshed?" Iliana asked. She set a cup of coffee next to Serena's easel.
Serena didn't look away from her canvas. She had been painting since midday. Painting and thinking. Her long-term therapist, Dr. Shaw, had helped, but she'd had only a couple weeks to process what had happened the night her father, sister and fifteen others had been killed in a massacre the media had dubbed the Birthday Bloodbath.
Serena found the name distasteful, but she found everything about the situation distasteful and almost too painful to bear. "He denies it. The investigation hasn't uncovered who hired the assassins to murder my father."
According to the one killer who had been apprehended by the police, the deaths of her sister and the others had been collateral damage. As if they hadn't considered that firing bullets into a crowd in the dark would result in deaths. Serena wasn't surprised to learn the ME had found amphetamines in the assassins' bloodstreams. Their behavior had been aggressive and erratic.
Serena had never planned to be queen, and yet she would be Acacia's queen in a few weeks' time. She hadn't had a boyfriend, and yet negotiations were in progress for her to marry the king of Rizari. Samuel Warrington had been courting Danae, and now, as if the two sisters were interchangeable, he planned to pursue Serena.
Serena had asked for a fortnight to grieve away from the public eye in the seclusion of her beach house, knowing that being granted that amount of time was a boon. Her personal feelings didn't matter. Her country needed a strong alliance with King Warrington and Rizari, the closest country to the east, to keep the dictator of Icarus on their western shores from attacking during a time of weakness. Acacia's Assembly would keep the country running while she grieved, but the country needed their princess.
King Warrington would provide military protection in exchange for uniting their countries and placing his own advisers in positions of influence in Acacia's Assembly. He had agreed to respect her country's culture and traditions and give Serena a certain amount of independence. It was the best and only offer she'd had. Her advisers were discreetly inquiring about other arrangements, but Icarus, through that detestable Demetrius DeSante, was rattling its saber, letting it be known that the death of the king of Acacia had presented them with an opportunity to strike. Rizari and Icarus had long been enemies and Acacia, being geographically in between them, was subjected to the fallout of that long-standing feud.