Expecting Royal Twins!

By: Melissa McClone

CHAPTER ONE




NIKOLA TOMISLAV KRESIMIR, Crown Prince of Vernonia, strode past his father’s assistant and the two palace guards standing watch. As soon as he entered the king’s office, Niko heard the door close behind him.

He grimaced.

Niko didn’t have time for another impromptu assignment. His in-box was overflowing. The upcoming trade conference was turning into a logistical nightmare. Princess Julianna of Aliestle was patiently waiting to have lunch with him.

He was used to juggling competing demands, thrived on them actually, but the collar of his dress shirt seemed to have shrunk two inches since he’d left his own office three minutes ago. He tugged on his tie.

Not that it lessened his frustration level.

A summons from the king trumped everything else and often messed up Niko’s schedule for the rest of the day, sometimes week. Not to mention the havoc royal protocol played with his priority of turning their provincial country into a modern nation. But he followed his father’s orders out of respect and for the good of the country.

King Dmitar sat behind his large mahogany desk staring at a manila file folder in his hands. His once dark hair was now as white as the snowcapped peaks of the Balkans and Carpathians. His face, like Niko’s own, was as rugged as those same mountain ranges. His wire-rimmed reading glasses rested low on his nose, making him look more like a professor than a soldier or a king who had spent the majority of his rule trying to unite his country against all odds.

Niko stood ten feet away, waiting.

A breeze blew through an open window, carrying the sweet fragrance of flowers from the royal gardens. A vast improvement over the acrid smell of gunpowder and sickening scent of blood that used to taint the air around here.

Five years had passed since the ratification of the peace treaty. Tensions between the two warring factions erupted occasionally, but peace prevailed. Niko intended to ensure it always would. A totally united Vernonia, however, seemed like a far off dream. A fairy tale, really.

Not wanting to waste more time, he cleared his throat.

His father looked up. Dark circles ringed his eyes.

“You sent for me, sir,” Niko said.

The lines on his father’s face seemed deeper, more pronounced, than they used to be. The conflict had aged him; so had grief. But still the corners of his mouth curved upward into a rare smile. “I have good news, my son.”

The best news would be that Vernonia had been accepted into the European union    , but Niko knew they still had too many improvement projects to complete first. He stepped closer to the desk. “I’ve spent the morning wading through the demands of the trade delegations. Good news will be a welcome relief, Father.”

“Your bride box has been located.”

Not located. Found.

The unexpected news sunk in. Niko respected the past, but the fact something as important as his marriage was dependent on such on antiquated custom as presenting his wife a family heirloom on their wedding day irritated him. Traditions could only take his country so far. “You are certain it is mine?”

“As certain as we can be until we have the box in hand.”

His bride box hadn’t been seen in over twenty years. Not since the collapse of the Soviet union     brought turmoil to many Balkan countries. Vernonia had avoided the ethnic strife that ravaged many of its neighbors, but terrorist acts had led to a deadly civil war that tore the country apart and nearly destroyed its economy. “Where is the box?”

“The United States.” His father adjusted his glasses and studied the folder. “Charlotte, North Carolina, to be exact.”

“A long way from home.”

“Yes.”

The location wasn’t really important. Niko would have the box back. Tradition—and his father—would be satisfied. Nothing would stand in the way of Niko’s marriage to Julianna. He could finally fulfill his duty as his parents and people wished him to do. The marriage would give him the means and opportunity to do what he wanted—needed—to do with Vernonia.

Plans formed in his mind, but he couldn’t get too far ahead of himself. Nothing could happen until he had possession of the box. “How was it discovered?”

“The internet.” His father shuffled through papers in the file. “Someone posted on an antiques forum looking for the key. After a few exchanges verifying the seriousness of our interest, we were sent a picture that confirmed our suspicions. The box is yours.”

“Incredible.” Niko considered the number of private investigators and treasure hunters hired to find the heirloom. He laughed at the irony. “Technology to the rescue of an Old World custom.”

“Technology may be useful at times, but our people desire tradition. You must remember that when you wear the crown.”

“Everything I’ve ever done has been for Vernonia.” Niko’s family had ruled for eight centuries. The country was in their blood and hearts. Duty always came first. “But we must modernize if we are to succeed in the twenty-first century.”

“Yet you have agreed to an arranged marriage.”

He shrugged, but the last thing he felt was indifference. His marriage would act as a bridge between the past and the future. He might not be the United Kingdom’s Prince William, but Niko had the attention of royal watchers. The publicity surrounding a royal wedding would be good for his country’s nascent tourist industry. He would use whatever he could to Vernonia’s advantage. “I may not be a stickler for tradition, Father, but I will always do what is best for the country.”

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