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Copyright © 2011 Mackenzie McKade
All rights reserved ~ Mackenzie McKade
What would you be willing to do to save those you love—and yourself?
Princess Maya never expected to see the man who took her virginity and walked away with her heart. But now duty forces her to choose between him or a cruel czar who’s already buried two wives.
Alexander Braxton still craves the woman who haunts his dreams, and he needs her father’s alliance for his vulnerable planet. But Maya would rather have his head on a pike than in her bed, and who can blame her?
Yet if they can’t put the past behind them and work together, the czar will tear their worlds apart. Can Alex and Maya rediscover the love that first brought them together?
Heart pounding, Maya Caine flashed the two guards dressed in blue-and-gold livery a withering scowl. Twice her size, Loni and Raul parted like the Dark Rift or “Black Road” that divided the Milky Way, giving her a wide berth. Maya suspected the piece of glimmering steel at her hip, and the fact that she had bested these two in training, was a determining factor to their acquiescence.
Either way she would speak to her father. Now.
Chancellor Waitings, a balding, rotund and rather self-important man, stepped between her and the magnificent twelve-foot doors to her father’s office. As she attempted to skirt around him, his hand jutted out, barely skimming her arm. At his cold touch she whirled around, firing her glower upon him.
“Princess, your father is occupied with—”
“Out of my way.”
Maya crammed the fencing mask she held against his chest with a thud. He made a deep throaty sound, staggering backward.
“I will speak to him.” Fingers curled into a fist, she punched the large plate on the wall to activate the doors. As they slid open a burst of air left her lungs in a rush. “How could you? Tell me it isn’t so.”
King Edward Caine slowly stretched his imposing six-two, solid physique from behind the intricately carved desk where he sat. “Maya, can this wait? Now is not the—”
“When was I to be told?” Holding her temper behind a thin wall of resentment, she sucked in a taut breath. “Before or after the wedding to that-that hideous creature?”
Her father’s eyes gaped. From zero to three seconds his serene face burned as red as his wavy hair. His palms slapping the wood surface before him made her jump.
“Daughter! You will remember who you speak to.” Leaning ominously forward, he shot a piercing glare she should have heeded, but dammit she was upset.
Maya squared her shoulders for the battle brewing in her father’s raging green eyes, so like her own. Hot silence stretched between them. That is until someone behind her cleared his throat and she blinked, breaking the mental struggle she engaged in with her sire.
Annoyed by the intrusion, she spun around. Instead of issuing the demand to leave them that was perched on the tip of her tongue, her mouth went dry. It felt like minutes instead of seconds before she found her voice.
“You!” Bitterness spewed past her lips as she glared at Shannon Braxton, the first Prince of Tulipa.
Arms crossed over an impressive broad chest, the man she hoped never to see again hiked one golden eyebrow over a midnight-blue eye. The bane of her existence dared to wink at her before he smiled.
A growl rumbled past her teeth as she bared them with a snarl. Her reaction was automatic. Splaying her clenched fingers, she went for her sword.
“Maya!” Her father’s sharp reprimand halted her blade, but it did nothing for the fiery haze burning across her mind.
Shannon brought out the worst in her. And the best, her foolish conscience pricked her sensibilities. She shook her head, trying to erase the memory of what he had once meant to her.
Marry the very man who broke her heart and betrayed her? A pang in her chest made her gasp. How could she live having him in her bed, again? And that was the crux of all her anger… And pain.
Gathering her control, she raised her chin and faced her father. “I have bent to your will once before.” She thought of her betrothed’s death no more than a month ago and her resolve firmed. “God deemed I remain single. I will not be a tool used for political gain.” Even as she spoke, Maya knew arranged marriages were the very reason her father had borne girls. Not to say he didn’t love her and her sisters, but history had a way of repeating itself, even in the twenty-third century.
In this day and age, the sex of a child could be manipulated. After three male heirs to her father’s title, he had begun to accumulate female children. Three in total. Ties through marriage were invaluable.
Embarrassment tightened her father’s features. Her obstinacy dishonored him. There would be hell to pay. But if she could stop this ludicrous union the price would be worth the cost.
At one time she would have welcomed their joining, but she had been just a teenager. She glanced over her shoulder at Shannon’s large hands, hands that had stroked her body until she burned out of control. Her chest squeezed with the memories she thought buried and gone. Clearly, she was wrong.
“Banish me to Earth.” Her request came out rushed. There she would have the right to choose a husband.
Anger flickered in Shannon’s eyes, quickly shielded behind an expression of indifference. “I take it you have not revealed her plight, as well as her sisters’.” The smooth caress of his baritone voice turned her nerve endings raw, needy.
Curse him to the twin moons. She didn’t need this, not now. It didn’t help that he wore boots, tight black leather pants, a matching vest that displayed every bulging muscle and a broad chest that would make any woman swoon. Even the sword around his slender hips and the knife and laser strapped to his waist gave him a sexy, dangerous mien. Thankfully the breastplate buried beneath her white fencing jacket hid her blatant arousal. She would not fall into his deceitful web again.
Did he say sisters?
Worry lines etched in her father’s forehead did not bode well. “There was no time.” Coming from around his desk, he attempted to draw Maya into his arms, but she was lithe, moving beyond his reach.
Dammit. She was mad at him. If he touched her, held her, she might lose the grip she had on her indignation, the only thing holding her together. Drifting toward the large, oval conference table, Maya attempted to quell the tremor that started in her hands by clenching her fists again.
Her insolence should have had her father foaming at the mouth, but something changed in his demeanor. He looked upon her with love and compassion, feelings that spiked her anxiety. It didn’t help that an ill wind whispered through the French doors, disturbing the reddish-brown curtains and sweeping across the large chamber to fill the room with the bittersweet scent of the hufla flowers that lined the terrace. The white shark-teeth blossoms shouldn’t be blooming this time of year in the rugged desert of Zyrian, but due to the cooler weather things were off kilter, including her.
“Honey.” His voice softened. “Your hand has been requested by the Czar of Mannoth. Rexial is seeking an alliance between us.”
Maya flinched, frowning. She couldn’t have heard him correctly.
But as his words pushed past her bewilderment, her heart beat a rapid staccato. The idea of marriage to Rexial would be laughable if it wasn’t so terrifying. Twice he had wed and twice his wives had met with unfortunate accidents. Within months the Czar had taken over their home planets, killing their leaders.
Fear iced her veins. The thought of her family and home ravished by the cruel dictator was inconceivable.
“I have arranged marriages for you and your sisters to prevent him from infiltrating our family and lands. Your safety is of my utmost concern. You must wed Braxton immediately.”
The breath she didn’t know she held released in a whoosh. Hungrily she filled her lungs, but it wasn’t enough. Each breath was faster and deeper than the next, until the room began to spin. The floor tilted. Her knees buckled and everything went dark.
When her eyelids rose she found herself wrapped in Shannon’s strong embrace. Only then did she notice the puffy, dark areas beneath his eyes as if he hadn’t slept for days. His shoulder-length ebony hair was mussed. Beard stubble prickled his arrogant chin and jaw. He looked like hell. She fought the urge to brush back a tendril that fell across one eye. Instead, she pushed out of his arms and got to her feet.
The heat of embarrassment swarmed across her cheeks. Nice and slow, she breathed, until the storm in her head calmed and she could speak again.
“You would throw yourself upon my sword to protect me from a marriage worse than death.” Because death would surely follow if she wed Mannoth’s ruler.