A Throne for the Taking

By: Kate Walker

CHAPTER ONE

HE WAS COMING. The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside told her that. Brisk, heavy footsteps, the sound of expensive leather soles on the marble floor.

A big man, moving fast and impatiently towards the room where she had been told to wait for him. A room that was not as she had expected, but then nothing had been as she had expected since she had started out on this campaign, least of all this man she hadn’t seen in so long. It had been more than ten years since she had spoken to him, but they would now be coming face to face in less than thirty seconds.

How was she going to handle this?

Ria adjusted her position in the smart leather chair, crossing one leg over the other then, rethinking, moving it back again so that her feet were neatly on the floor, placed precisely together in their elegant black courts, knees closed tight, her blue and green flowered dress stretched sleekly over them. Lifting her hand, she made to smooth back a non-existent wandering strand of dark auburn hair. Her style would be immaculate, she knew. She’d pulled her hair back tightly from her face so that there was nothing loose to get in a mess or distract her. Nothing to look frivolous or even carefree. That was not the image she’d aimed for.

She’d even fretted at the thought that her dress might be a little too casual and relaxed when she’d put it on, but the below knee length of the swirling skirt covered her almost as much as the tailored trousers she’d considered wearing, and the lightweight black linen jacket she’d pulled on over the top added a needed touch of formality that made her feel better.

The room she sat in was sleek and sophisticated with pale wood furniture. Far sleeker and much more luxurious than she had ever anticipated. One of the soft grey walls displayed a set of dramatic photographs, sharply framed. In black and white only, they were the sort of images that had made Alexei Sarova his reputation and his fortune. They were superb, stunning but— Ria frowned as she looked at them. They were bleak and somehow lonely. Photographs of landscapes, places, no people in them at all. He did sometimes photograph people—she knew that from the magazines she had read and the stunning images that had appeared in the articles—but none of those commissions were displayed here.

Outside the door, those determined, heavy footsteps slowed, then halted and she heard the murmur of voices through the thick wood, the deep, gravelly tones making it plain that the speaker was a man.

The man. The one she had come here to meet, to give him the message that might save her country from all-out civil war, and she had vowed that she was not leaving until she had done so. Even if the nerves in her stomach tied themselves into tight, painful knots at the thought and her restless fingers had started to beat an unsettled tattoo on the wooden arm of the chair.

‘No!’ Ria reproved herself aloud. ‘Stop it! Now!’

She brought her nervous hand together with the other one, to clasp them both demurely in her lap, forcing herself to wait with every semblance of control and composure, even if the churning of her stomach told her that this was very far from the case. Too much rested on this meeting and she wasn’t really sure that she could handle it.

Oh, this was ridiculous! Ria drew in a deep, ragged sigh as she put back her head and stared fixedly at the white-painted ceiling, fighting for control of her breathing. She should be well able to cope with this. She’d been trained practically from birth to meet strangers, talk with them, making polite social chit-chat at court events. It was what she could do as naturally as breathing while all the time keeping her head up high, her spine straight so that she looked as good as possible, with first her nanny’s then her father’s voice in her ear, telling her that the reputation of the Escalona family—an offshoot of the royal family—should be the first and foremost thing in her mind.

She could talk to presidents’ wives about their trips round the glass-making factories, discuss the agricultural output of the vineyards, the farms. She could even, if she was allowed, converse intelligently on the vital role of exports, or the mining of eruminum, the new miracle mineral that had just been discovered in the Trilesian mountains. Not that she was often asked to do any such thing. Those important details were usually left to her grandfather or, until recently, to her second cousin Felix, the Crown Prince of Mecjoria.

But she had never before had to deal with any mission that meant so much in the way of freedom, both to her country and herself. That restless hand threatened to escape her careful control and start its nervous tattoo all over again at just the thought.

‘Do it, then.’