Vitala Salonius, champion of the warlike game of Caturanga, is as deadly as she is beautiful. She’s a trained assassin for the resistance, and her true play is for ultimate power. Using her charm and wit, she plans to seduce her way into the emperor’s bed and deal him one final, fatal blow, sparking a battle of succession that could change the face of the empire.
As the ruler of a country on the brink of war and the son of a deposed emperor, Lucien must constantly be wary of an attempt on his life. But he’s drawn to the stunning Caturanga player visiting the palace. Vitala may be able to distract him from his woes for a while—and fulfill other needs, as well.
Lucien’s quick mind and considerable skills awaken unexpected desires in Vitala, weakening her resolve to finish her mission. An assassin cannot fall for her prey, but Vitala’s gut is telling her to protect this sexy, sensitive man. Now she must decide where her heart and loyalties lie and navigate the dangerous war of politics before her gambit causes her to lose both Lucien and her heart for good.
An ExcerptVitala was not her given name. When she was born dark-haired, Papa named her Kolta: “blackbird.”
She was eight years old when the stranger arrived. Mama and Papa took him into the bedroom to speak with him. They shut her out, but she pressed her ear against the door to listen.
“We’ve completed the testing,” said the stranger, “and your daughter is exactly what we’re looking for. Highly intelligent, physically strong, and coordinated. And, of course, she’s black-haired.”
Mama said something she couldn’t quite make out.
“In the village, perhaps,” replied the stranger. “But in the Circle, dark hair is an asset. She can pass for Kjallan. It will allow her to move in areas where others cannot.”
More mumbling from Mama.
“The Circle is prepared to offer you compensation. Four hundred tetrals.”
Mama raised her voice. “I’m not selling my daughter!”
“Of course not,” soothed the stranger. “But Kolta will never reach her potential here in the village—not with the prejudice against girls like her. Why subject her to harassment and ostracism, when among the Circle she will be valued and revered? The money is our gift to you. A token of our thanks for aiding Riorca in its time of need.”
Mama began to sob.
“Treva, he’s right,” said Papa. “It would be selfish to keep Kolta here. A half-Kjallan bastard will never be accepted—”
“You hate her!” cried Mama. “You want to be rid of her!”
“Madam,” said the stranger, “consider the advantages to Kolta in joining the Circle. She will receive a thorough education, far better than anything she could get here. And she will be among her own kind. We have other half-breeds like her, dark-haired girls who know what it’s like to be Riorcan but look Kjallan. For the first time in her life, she will have friends.”
Mama continued to sob.
“Treva, think of it,” said Papa. “Four hundred tetrals! You know what that money would mean for us. This man is right. The Circle can do far better for Kolta than we can.”
Something unintelligible from Mama.
“No,” said the stranger. “It must be now. She must begin her language training immediately, or she’ll never speak with the proper accent.”
A long silence followed, broken only by Mama’s sobbing. There were soft words that Kolta could not make out.
The stranger was saying, “We find it’s best if there are no good-byes.”
The door opened, and the stranger stepped out. Terrified, Kolta hid in the corner between the wall and the door. But the door moved away, revealing her. The stranger stared down at her in surprise. “Were you listening, Kolta?”
She shook her head.
He knelt, bringing himself to her eye level. “Tell me the truth, and you will not be in trouble. Were you listening?”
She hesitated a moment, but nodded.
“And yet you do not cry.” His mouth twisted as he lifted her chin with his finger. “My name is Bayard. I’m going to be your friend, Kolta. Would you like that?”
She was silent.
“The people here don’t treat you very well, do they? They don’t like dark-haired girls. But I’m going to take you somewhere else. Somewhere you’ll be loved, Kolta. Do you want to be loved?”
Her chin began to tremble.
“Of course you do.” He folded her into his arms, and she began to cry. “It’s what we all want.”
Amy Raby is literally a product of the U.S. space program, since her parents met working for NASA on the Apollo missions. After earning her Bachelor’s in Computer Science from the University of Washington, Amy settled in the Pacific Northwest with her family, where she’s always looking for life’s next adventure, whether it’s capsizing tiny sailboats in Lake Washington or riding dressage horses. Amy is a 2011 Golden Heart® finalist and a 2012 Daphne du Maurier winner.
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