C2 Biggest Concern
She touched the loose curls self-consciously. “Your man said Alyssa was a blonde. I figured my disguise would hold up a little better if I bleached it.”
“Can you turn it back…after?” She actually managed to smile at the hint of alarm in his voice. “Yes, I can turn it back. You like it dark better than blond?”
“On you, yes.”
How ironic. From the day her mother had married Merrick’s father, King Stefan, she’d wanted to look like the rest of the Montgomerys, all of whom were tall and athletic and striking, their streaked hair and hazel eyes kissed with golden sunshine. Her coal-black hair and pale green eyes had always made her feel like an outsider, as did the fact that she was a princess by adoption and proclamation, rather than birth. Only with Brandt had she ever felt—
To her relief, Merrick broke in before she could complete the thought. “It just might work,” he conceded reluctantly. “From the photos I’ve seen, you’re close in height and body shape.”
“That was my biggest concern.”
“It’s not mine,” he retorted, a sharp edge to his words. “When it’s time for you to leave as Miri Montgomery, people might wonder why you’ve bleached your hair blond, especially when they see you exiting Alyssa’s room.”
“You think it’ll arouse suspicion?” She shook her head. “They’ll think I’ve made a poor fashion choice, that’s all. It won’t occur to them it’s because I took the bride’s place at the altar. As for being in Alyssa’s room…
I was helping the bride, poor dear. Something she ate didn’t agree with her, I suspect. She’s asked that no one disturb her for a bit. Just give her an hour or two to rest and she’ll be fine. Oh, and perhaps you’d deliver a message to Prince Brandt? Tell him that his bride is looking forward to joining him a little later this evening after she’s had some private time to recover.”
Merrick looked far from happy. “It might work.”
“It will work.”
“Don’t get cocky, Miri. You’re not a perfect match. And it’s far from a perfect plan.”
“So, I’ll improvise. With luck, no one will notice the discrepancies, especially not beneath a veil. You’ll need to give me Alyssa’s. If I wear a different veil…that is something women will notice.”
“I’ll make sure you have it.” His voice turned gruff.
“You look—You look incredible, sweetheart. I just wish this were real, that you were standing here dressed for your own wedding, instead of for this farce.” His words struck like a blow, though he couldn’t possibly have known. She forced out a careless smile and prayed her voice would hold steady.
“Thank you. But I’d need a fiancé for that, wouldn’t I?” Too bad the man she’d had in mind was no longer interested, despite what he’d once claimed.
An odd expression drifted across Merrick’s face, one she could have only described as “brotherly.” Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, he shrugged. “You’re only twenty-five. There’s plenty of time to fall in love.” He made a production of checking his watch, then gestured toward the door. “Time to go. We’re cutting this close as it is.”
Miri preceded her brother from the cottage he’d rented as a command centre and allowed him to help her into the passenger seat of a silver-grey SUV. Behind them, his men piled into a matching black one, which tailed them at a circumspect speed through the hilly roads of Vernonia’s northernmost principality of Avernos. Nerves prevented her from attempting idle chatter, not that she’d have had any opportunity. Merrick spent the entire trip filling her in on every detail he’d uncovered about Princess Alyssa, no matter how minor. Half an hour passed before the two cars turned down a narrow country road. Less than a mile farther along they veered onto a dirt shoulder.
Leaving the car to idle, Merrick swivelled in his seat to look at her. “Listen to me, Miri. This shouldn’t take long. No more than twenty minutes.” He tapped the car clock. “If we’re not back in that time precisely, you are to get behind the wheel and drive away. Head straight south from Avernos all the way through Celestia until you reach Verdon, and don’t stop until you get there. Don’t come looking for me. Don’t call anyone. Just get the hell out. Are we clear?”
He shook his head. “I’m serious, Miri. I want your word of honour. If I don’t return in twenty minutes, swear to me you’ll leave without intervening in any way.”
They were the two most difficult words she’d ever spoken. “I swear.”
He nodded in satisfaction. Climbing out of the SUV, he signalled to his men. The four of them, all dressed in melt-into-the-shadows black, slid ominous hoods over their heads as they trotted across the expanse of grass beside the road and headed toward a small ridge half-hidden by a dense expanse of deciduous forest. Miri inched forward in her seat and kept her gaze glued on the car clock. The seconds crept by, one by one, until after an hour—or what seemed like an hour—a mere fifteen minutes had piled up onto the clock.
At nineteen minutes, thirty seconds, Merrick emerged from the woods. He held a woman in his arms, a woman wearing a silver gown that proved a close match to Miri’s. A flowing lace and tulle veil sat askew on her long blond curls. Princess Alyssa Sutherland. She was absolutely stunning, Miri noted with a sinking heart. And a bit shorter than she, herself, was. But that shouldn’t present a problem. She’d brought an extra pair of shoes to cover just that eventuality. Switching the ones she wore for the pair with the lowest heels, she opened the car door and headed toward Merrick.
“It’s time,” he said, as she approached. “You don’t have to go through with this. You can still change your mind.”
“I can’t and I won’t. There are…reasons.”
She didn’t dare explain further. If Merrick knew the truth, he’d never have agreed to involve her. At the sound of her voice, Princess Alyssa stiffened. She started to turn her head to look, but his grip tightened, preventing her.
“Quickly, Merrick,” Miri warned. “We have only moments until her disappearance is discovered.”
Ripping the voluminous veil from Alyssa’s head, he tossed it to Miri. “Will this work?”
“It’s perfect. From what I can tell our dresses are nearly identical. The veil will definitely conceal any discrepancies.” She shot a wary glance toward Princess Alyssa and switched from English to Verdonian. From what Merrick had said, the woman had been raised in the United States and, until she’d flown out to marry Brandt, hadn’t been in Vernonia since she was a toddler. Chances were excellent she didn’t speak the language.