A Royal Engagement
Part of the Qaderis Series
The Reluctant Queen by Caitlin Crews
Stolen away years ago, Princess Lara is offered an ultimatum by new King Adel. Return to her kingdom as his queen or pay back the bride price! Feisty Lara refuses, but remembers how Adel used to make her heart race.…
The Storm Within by Trish Morey
Dr. Grace Hunter seeks an ancient text beneath the castle of Count Alessandro Volta.
The reclusive count wasn’t expecting scientist Grace to be a beautiful woman who stirs his scarred soul. Outside, a media storm is brewing, but inside the count’s world the heat between them is sizzling!
A Royal Engagement
It was a dark voice, low and deep, and echoed hard and deep in Lara Canon’s bones—making them sing out in recognition. She turned without conscious thought, as if compelled, searching for the man responsible, though some part of her knew at once who he must be. Her gaze flicked across the parking lot of the unremarkable supermarket in her Denver, Colorado neighborhood, scanning out from the side of her car where she’d stopped still.
She found him at once, unerringly, as if he’d commanded it. Her heart began to beat wildly, even as her skin prickled.
He was even more compelling than his voice, tall and broad like a warrior, with jet black hair and deep grey eyes above a hard, unsmiling mouth. He held himself with an ease she knew at once was deceptive—he was too watchful, too ready. He wore a black, tight shirt that strained against the tautly-packed muscles of his broad chest and flat abdomen, and trousers in the same color that clung to powerful legs and lean hips. He was beautiful in the way that dangerous thunderstorms were beautiful, and Lara discovered that she was breathless.
He was the most gorgeous thing she’d ever seen, for all that he was the most arresting. And more than that, she recognized him. She knew him.
“I did not expect that you would grow to favor your father,” he said, those remote, storm-colored eyes seeming to see right through her, shocking her, looking straight into the past she’d long denied. The shopping bag in her arms slipped a few inches as her fingers lost feeling. As panic surged through her.
She realized two things, clutching at the brown paper bag before it fell to the asphalt at her feet. First, that he was not speaking English. And second, that she could understand the language he was speaking.
It made her think at once, of course, of Alakkul. Her father’s tiny, oft-contested country in the Eurasian, sometime-Soviet mountains, where his family had ruled with iron fists and an inflated sense of their own consequence for generations.
The country she and her mother had escaped from, in the dark of night, when she was sixteen years old. The country that she had been running from, in one way or another, ever since. And the last place she had seen this man, when he had still been more of a boy. When he was far less beautiful, far less dangerous, and had still managed to break her teenaged heart.
Her stomach clenched into a thick, tight knot. She told herself it was panic—that it could not be that old, familiar desire she’d been so overwhelmed by as girl. They were in a busy parking lot, filled with people on this bright June evening. He was standing far enough away that she didn’t think he could reach over and grab her—and anyway, she was twenty-eight years old. Her father could hardly attempt to regain custody now. There was no reason for him to be here. And therefore no reason for her to acknowledge their shared history.
“I’m sorry,” she said. In English. She shrugged to indicate her lack of comprehension and, hopefully, polite disinterest. It had been so long. Maybe she was seeing ghosts. Maybe it wasn’t him at all. “Can I help you with something?”
He smiled, and it was far more disturbing than his voice, or his hard, shocking beauty. It made his grey eyes warm slightly, with a flash of what looked like sympathy. It confused Lara even as it set off a tiny trail of flickering flames across her skin, licking up and down her limbs. Reminding her. Making her yearn for things she dared not name.
“You are the only one who can help me,” he said, in his perfect, exotically-accented English. His mouth crooked. “You must marry me. As you promised to do twelve years ago.”
She laughed, of course. What else could she do? She laughed, even as old memories chased through her head—long-buried images of crystal clear mountain lakes, snowcapped peaks jutting in the distance, the spires of an ancient castle hewn from the very rock of the steep hills. A lean, feral young man with dark grey eyes, looking down at her with a fierce expression while her heart beat too fast and the white-cloaked priests murmured archaic, improbable words through the haze of incense and ritual. His head bent close to hers to whisper secrets in the middle of a great festival dinner, making her shiver. His smile, his occasional laughter, that fire in his stormy eyes when he gazed at her…
How long had she told herself those images were part of a dream? That they could not be anything but a dream? Yet the man who stood before her was undeniably, inarguably real.
And worse, she knew him. Her body knew him—and was reacting exactly as it had then, when she had been so young. She’d spent a long time convincing herself that all that fire had been no more than a young girl’s fantasy. That he could not possibly do these things to her. That she had embellished, exaggerated, as young girls did.
“Thank you for the offer,” she said, as if she was placating him. As if she did not, in fact, remember him. “But I’m afraid I have a personal policy against marrying strange men who approach me in parking lots.”
“I am Adel Qaderi,” he said, in that calm yet implacable voice, his grey eyes on hers, that name sounding within her like a gong. Her breath tangled in her throat. “I am no stranger to you. I am your betrothed, as you know very well.”
It was such an odd, old word. Lara concentrated on that—pushing away the fluttering of her pulse, the constriction in her throat. The onslaught of too many memories she’d thought forgotten long ago.
“I’m sorry,” she said, dismissing him. If she didn’t accept this was happening, it didn’t have to happen, did it? “I’m late for a—”
“You are the Crown Princess of Alakkul,” Adel said in that low, commanding voice, somehow making it impossible for Lara to turn and get into her car as she knew she should. As she wanted to do. “The last of an ancient bloodline, warriors and kings throughout history. The only child of the great King Azat, may he rest in peace.”
She felt the blood drain from her face. Her knees wobbled beneath her.
“May he…?” she echoed. She shook her head, trying to clear it. What could this mean? How could it be true? Her father was the monster under her bed, the nightmare that laid in wait when she closed her eyes. Hadn’t her mother always told her so? “He’s… dead?”
“At least you do not deny your own father,” Adel said, his expression stern. He moved closer to her but then stopped, as if he felt called to an action he chose not to take. Still, somehow, she knew he grieved for her father in all the ways she could not. It made a headache bloom to life in her temples. “Perhaps we can dispense with the rest of this game of pretend now.”
“You approached me in a parking lot, like a vagrant,” Lara hissed, stung. Unwilling to face what he’d just told her. Unwilling to imagine what it might mean. “What did you think my reaction would be?”
“I did so deliberately.” His gaze was cool. Assessing. Dangerous. “I assumed you would feel more at ease in a public place. After all, you have spent most of your life running away at the slightest hint of your homeland.”
Lara shifted the bag in her arms, and wished her head would stop spinning. How was she supposed to act? Feel? She had not heard from her autocratic father directly in twelve years. She had not wanted to hear from him. If asked even five minutes before, she would have announced without a qualm that she hated the man.
But that did not mean she’d wanted him dead.
“I need to inform my mother…” she began, her temples pounding, wondering how fragile, prone-to-hysteria Marlena would be likely to take such news. Wondering, too, what her mother would center her life around now there was no more King Azat to hate and fear and blame. But perhaps that was unkind.
“Your mother is being notified even now,” Adel replied coolly. Lara found herself staring at the play of muscle in his strong arms, his hard abdomen. She felt her body’s treacherous heat, its instant response to the very sight of him, despite her emotions. “I am afraid your business is with me, Princess. I cannot allow you the necessary time to grieve.” Was his tone ironic? Or did she only imagine his judgment? Was that guilt she felt, pooling inside of her? “We must wed immediately.”
“You are insane,” she told him, when she could speak. When the red haze of confusion and emotion receded slightly. When she could jerk her attention away from his warrior’s body. “You cannot really believe I’ll marry you!”
Adel smiled again, though this time, there was nothing particularly sympathetic about it. Where was that younger man she remembered, who had been so eager to see her smile?
“I understand that this is a shock,” he said. “But let me be clear. You have only two possible choices before you, and while I am aware neither one is necessarily easy, you must choose one of them.”
“Your attempt at compassion is insulting,” Lara managed to say, her hands clenched tight into the bag she held. Part of her wanted to fling the sack at him as he stood near the trunk of her sensible sedan. And then run. Only the fact that he probably expected that reaction kept her from it.
“Nonetheless, it is real,” he said. His storm-colored eyes moved to hers, and darkened. “It would never have been my choice to confront you in this way, with this news. I regret the necessity. But it does not change anything.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lara said after a moment, her temper kicking in—replacing the wild swirl of far trickier feelings. Anger was better. Anger felt better—more productive. “And more important? I don’t care.”
“Yet you must listen,” he told her. So quiet. So sure. And she could only stare at him. And obey. “I am sorry for that, too, but so it is.”
There was something about the way he looked at her then that… bothered her, in a way she couldn’t quite categorize. As if he could see the buried truths she’d denied existed for years. The old dreams. The yearnings for a life, a family, the kind of things other girls took for granted while she trailed around after Marlena, cleaning up her messes. The way she’d felt about him all those years ago, the things she’d dreamed they’d do together—
Lara blinked, and steeled herself against him—and the surprising swell of something like grief that she would have sworn she’d never feel.
“What, then?” she asked, her voice too rough, as she fought back the unwieldy emotions that shifted and rolled within her. “What is it you think I need to hear?”
“You have a choice to make,” he said again, and the worst part, Lara realized in a sort of horror, was that his voice was kind, his eyes the same. As if he understood exactly what she was going through—as if he knew.
And yet he was continuing anyway, wasn’t he? He was an Alakkulian male. An Alakkulian king. Just like her father, he thought only of himself. That much was blatantly obvious, no matter how kind his eyes might seem. No matter her memories of his smile, of his tenderness.
“The only choice I will be making,” she told him, enunciating clearly, deliberately, with razor-sharp precision, as if sounding tough would make her feel that way, too, “is to get in my car and drive away from here. From you. From this ridiculous conversation. I suggest you get out of the way, unless you’d like me to run you over.”
“You did not merely promise to marry me, as any young girl might,” Adel said in the same calm, commanding tone, as if she had not just threatened him. “You entered into a binding legal contract.”
“I was a teenager,” Lara retorted. “No court in the world would ever hold me to it. It’s absurd you would think otherwise—this is not the Stone Age!”
“You overestimate the progressive nature of the world’s courts, I think,” he replied, something almost like humor flashing briefly across his face. But she did not want to think of him as human, as capable of humor as he’d been before, and ignored it. “But in any case, it does not matter. Your father signed for you when you were too young, as is the custom. When you came of age you did not withdraw your consent from the contract—which, according to the laws of Alakkul, means you thus agreed that you entered into the terms of the contract of your own free will.”
“I will not marry you,” she said. Her shoulders tightened, her chin rose like a fighter’s. “I would rather die.”
“There is no need for such theater,” Adel replied in a faintly reproving tone. Yet his mouth curved slightly—as if he found her amusing. It made her temper kick in again. Hard. That, she told herself, was the feeling that pounded through her, shaking her. “You may break the contract, if that is your wish. But there is a price.”
“Let me guess.” Lara scraped her heavy curls back from her face with an impatient jerk of her hand. “My honor will be smeared? My family name forever muddied? Isn’t that how you people think?”
“By ‘you people,’” he asked, his voice staying even though a cold fire blazed to life in his gaze, “am I to understand you mean your own people? Your countrymen?”
“I’ll live with the dishonor,” Lara told him, not wanting to admit the twist of shame she felt move through her. Much less the odd urge she had to reach over and touch him. “Quite happily.”
“As you wish,” Adel said with that great calm that, for some reason, infuriated her as surely as if he’d openly taunted her. It made her want to scratch at him, poke at him—made her want to see beneath the surface, rip off the mask she was sure he wore, see what lurked beneath. She just wanted to touch him.
She had no idea where that urge came from. Nor why it seemed to move through her like a scalding heat, rippling over her skin and pooling in places it shouldn’t.
The city seemed to mute itself around them, the parking lot fading, the bright sky above and the slight breeze from the Rocky Mountains in the distance disappearing. There was only this dangerous, compelling warrior of a man in place of the boy she had once known, and too many emotions to name. She felt… pulled to him. Drawn. As if he’d cast a spell with that fascinating mouth and that commanding, resolute gaze of his, and she was helpless to resist, no matter how many reasons she had to avoid him and how little she wanted to hear what he might have to say.
But if there was one thing she refused to be, it was helpless.
“Wonderful,” she said, pulling herself back from the brink of disaster. Her tone was acerbic, as much to defend herself against this man as to convince herself he was not getting to her in so many odd, uncomfortable ways. “I’m glad you traveled across the world to tell me all of this. You can consider our absurd betrothal ended.”
“As you wish,” he said. But he did not move. His gaze seemed to sharpen, as if he was some great predator and she nothing but prey. She fought off an involuntary shiver. “You need only pay me the bride price.”
“The bride price?” she repeated, caught as much by the sudden ferocity in his dark gaze as by the words themselves.
“Your dowry was the throne of Alakkul, Princess,” Adel said quietly, deliberately. “I am afraid that the sum my family paid for you was significant, give or take such things as the exchange rate, the rate of inflation, and so on.”
He named a number that she could not possibly have heard right—a number so astronomically high that it, too, made her laugh. It was as patently absurd as him suddenly appearing in a parking lot and announcing he was going to marry her, just as she’d dreamed when she’d first left Alakkul—and as impossible.
“I have nothing even approaching that amount of money, and never will,” she said flatly. “I am an accountant. I live an entirely normal and unremarkable life. That amount of money is a fantasy.”
“Not to the Queen of Alakkul,” he said, and something flared between them, hot and bright, making her breath tangle in her throat, making her ache low in her belly. “Or to me.”
“That is another fantasy,” she gritted out. “One I have no interest in.”
“I am a compassionate man,” Adel said after a moment, though the expression he wore made her doubt it. “I will release you from your obligations to me, if that is your desire. You need only repay what your mother stole from the palace when she disappeared twelve years ago. It is not so much. A mere nine hundred thousand dollars, and some precious jewels.”
“Nine hundred thousand dollars,” Lara repeated in disbelief. “You must be joking. I don’t have it—and if my mother took it, it is no more than she deserved, after what my father subjected her to!”
Adel merely inclined his head. “I will not argue with you about your mother,” he said. “Nor will I debate your choices with you. They are simple. Marry me, or pay the price.”
He held up an autocratic hand when she started to speak, and she knew deep in her bones that he was every inch a king as well as a warrior. She should hate that—him. And yet her treacherous body, instead of finding him repulsive, yearned.
“There is not much time, Princess.” he said. “I regret the necessity, but you must make your decision. Now.”