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Two days after Christmas, in the soft pink Honolulu dawn, Josie Dalton stood alone on a deserted sidewalk and tilted her head to look up, up, up to the top of the skyscraper across the street, all the way to his penthouse in the clouds.
She exhaled. She couldn't do this. Couldn't. Marry him? Impossible.
Except she had to.
I'm not scared, Josie repeated to herself, hitching her tattered backpack higher on her shoulder. I'd marry the devil himself to save my sister.
But the truth was she'd never really thought it would come to this. She'd assumed the police would ride in and save the day. Instead, the police in Seattle, then Honolulu, had laughed in her face.
"Your older sister wagered her virginity in a poker game?" the first said incredulously. "In some kind of lovers' game?"
"Let me get this straight. Your sister's billionaire ex-boyfriend won her?" The second scowled. "I have real crimes to deal with, Miss Dalton. Get out of here before I decide to arrest you for illegal gambling."
Now, Josie shivered in the cool, wet dawn. No one was coming to save Bree. Just her.
She narrowed her eyes. Fine. She should take responsibility. She was the one who'd gotten Bree into trouble in the first place. If Josie hadn't stupidly accepted her boss's invitation to the poker game, her sister wouldn't have had to step in and save her.
Clever Bree, six years older, had been a childhood card prodigy and a con artist in her teens. But after a decade away from that dangerous life, working instead as an honest, impoverished housekeeper, her sister's card skills had become rusty. How else to explain the fact that, instead of winning, Bree had lost everything to her hated ex-boyfriend with the turn of a single card?
Vladimir Xendzov had separated the sisters, forcibly sending Josie back to the mainland on his private jet. She'd spent her last paycheck to fly back, desperate to get Bree out of his clutches. For forty-four hours now, since the dreadful night of the game, Josie had only managed to hold it together because she knew that, should everything else fail, she had one guaranteed fallback plan.
But now she actually had to fall back on the plan, it felt like falling on a sword.
Josie looked up again at the top of the skyscraper. The windows of the penthouse gleamed red, like fire, above the low-hanging clouds of Honolulu.
She'd caused her sister to lose her freedom. She would save herby selling herself in marriage to Vladimir Xendzov's greatest enemy.
His younger brother.
The enemy ofmy enemy is my friend, she repeated to herself. And, considering the way the Xendzov brothers had tried to destroy each other for the past ten years, Kasimir Xendzov must be her new best friend. Right?
A lump rose in her throat.
I would marry the devil himself
Slowly, Josie forced her feet off the sidewalk. Her legs wobbled as she crossed the street. She dodged a passing tour bus, flinching as it honked angrily.
There was no backing out now.
"Can I help you?" the doorman said inside the lobby, eyeing her messy ponytail, wrinkled T-shirt and cheap flip-flops.
Josie licked her dry lips. "I'm here to get married. To one of your residents."
He didn't bother to conceal his incredulity. "You? Are going to marry someone who lives here?'''
She nodded. "Kasimir Xendzov."
His jaw dropped. "You mean His Highness? The prince?" he spluttered, gesticulating wildly. "Get out of here before I call the police!"
"Look, please just call him, all right? Tell him Josie Dalton is here and I've changed my mind. My answer is now yes."
"Call him? I'll do nothing of the sort." The doorman pinched his nose with his thumb and finger. "You must be delusional if you think you can just walk in off the street "
Josie rummaged through her backpack.
"His Highness's presence here is secret. He is here on vacation. "
"See?" she said desperately, holding out a business card. "He gave me this three days ago. When he proposed to me. At a salad bar near Waikiki."
"Salad bar," the doorman snorted. "As if the prince would ever " He saw the embossed seal, and snatched the card from her hand. Turning over the card, he read the hard masculine scrawl on the back: For when you change your mind. "But you're not his type," he said faintly.
"I know," Josie sighed. Twenty pounds overweight, frumpy and unstylish, she was painfully aware that she was no man's type. Fortunately Kasimir Xendzov wished to marry her for reasons that had nothing to do with loveor even lust. "Just call him, will you?"
The man reached for the phone on his desk. He dialed. Turning away, he spoke in a low voice. A few moments later, he faced Josie with an utterly bewildered expression.
"His bodyguard says you're to go straight up," he said in shock. He pointed his finger towards an elevator. "Thirty-ninth floor. And, um, congratulations, miss."
"Thank you," Josie murmured, tugging her knapsack higher on her shoulder as she turned away. She felt the doorman watching her as she crossed the elegant lobby, her flip-flops echoing against the marble floor. She numbly got on the elevator. On the thirty-ninth floor, the door opened with a ding. Cautiously, she crept out into a hallway.
"Welcome, Miss Dalton." Two large, grim-looking bodyguards were waiting for her. In a quick, professional motion, one of them frisked her as the other one rifled through her bag.
"What are you checking for?" Josie said with an awkward laugh. "You think I would bring a hand grenade? To a wedding proposal?"
The bodyguards did not return her smile. "She's clear," one of them said, and handed her back the knapsack. "Please go in, Miss Dalton."
"Um. Thanks." Looking at the imposing door, she clutched her bag against her chest. "He's in there?"
He nodded sternly. "His Highness is expecting you."
Josie swallowed hard. "Right. I mean, great. I mean " She turned back to them. "He's a good guy, right? A good employer? He can be trusted?"
The bodyguards stared back at her, their faces impassive.
"His Highness is expecting you," the first one repeated in an expressionless voice. "Please go in."
"Okay." You robot, she added silently, irritated.
Whatever. She didn't need reassurance. She'd just listen to her intuition. To her heart.
Which meant Josie was really in trouble. There was a reason her dying father had left her a large parcel of Alaskan land in an unbreakable trust, which she could not receive until she was either twenty-fivethree years from nowor married. Even when she was a child, Black Jack Dalton had known his naive, trusting younger daughter needed all the help she could get. To say she could be naive about people was an understatement.
But it's a good quality, Bree had told her sadly two days ago. I wish I had more of it.
Bree. Josie could only imagine what her older sister was going through right now, as a prisoner of that other billionaire tycoon, Kasimir Xendzov's brother. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath.
"For Bree," she whispered, and flung open the penthouse door.
The lavish foyer was empty. Stepping nervously across the marble floor, hearing the echo of her steps, she looked up at a soaring chandelier illuminating the sweeping staircase. This penthouse was like a mansion in the sky, she thought in awe.
Josie's lips parted when she saw the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Crossing the foyer to the great room, she looked out at the twinkling lights of the still-dark city, and beyond that, pink and orange sunrise sparkling across the Pacific Ocean.
"So you changed your mind."
His low, masculine purr came from behind her. She stiffened then, bracing herself, slowly turned around.
Prince Kasimir Xendzov's incredible good looks still hit her like a fierce blow. He was even more impossibly handsome than she remembered. He was tall, around six foot three, with broad shoulders and a hard-muscled body. His blue eyes were electric against tanned skin and dark hair. The expensive cut of his dark suit and tie, and the gleaming leather of his black shoes spoke of moneywhile the ruthlessness in his eyes and chiseled jawline screamed power.
In spite of her efforts, Josie was briefly thunderstruck.
Normally, she had no problems talking to people. As far as she was concerned, there was no such thing as a stranger. But Kasimir left her tongue-tied. No man this handsome had ever paid her the slightest notice. In fact, she wasn't sure there was any other man on earth with Kasimir's breathtaking masculine beauty. Looking into his darkly handsome face, she almost forgot to breathe.
"The last time I saw you, you said you'd never marry me." Kasimir slowly looked her over, from her flip-flops to her jeans and T-shirt. "For any price."
Josie's cheeks turned pink. "Maybe I was a bit hasty," she stammered.
"You threw your drink in my face."
"It was an accident!" she protested.
He lifted an incredulous dark eyebrow. "You jumped up and ran out of the restaurant."
"You just surprised me!" Three nights ago, on Christmas Eve, Kasimir had called her at the Hale Ka'nani Hotel, where she was working as a housekeeper. "My sister told me to never talk to you," she'd blurted out when he introduced himself. "I'm hanging up."
"Then you'll miss the best offer of your life," he'd replied silkily. He'd asked her to meet him at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant near Waikiki Beach. In spite of knowing he was forbiddenor perhaps because of itshe was intrigued by his mysterious proposal. And then she'd been even more shocked to find out he'd meant a real proposal. Marriage.
"You ran away from me," Kasimir said quietly, taking a step towards her, "as if you were being chased by the devil himself."
"Because I did think you were the devil," she whispered.
His blue eyes narrowed in disbelief. "This is your way of saying you'll marry me?"
She shook her head. "You don't understand," she choked out. "You."
Her throat closed. How could she explain that even though he and his brother had ruined their lives ten years ago, she'd still been electrified by Kasimir's bright blue eyes when he'd asked her to marry him? How to explain that, even though she knew it was only to get his hands on her land, she'd been overwhelmed by too many years of yearning for some man, any man, to notice herand that she'd been tempted to blurt out Yes, betraying all her ideals about love and marriage?
How could she possibly explain such pathetic, naive stupidity? She couldn't.
"Why did you change your mind?" he asked in a low voice. "Do you need the money?"
They did need to pay off the dangerous men who'd pursued them for ten years, demanding payment of their dead father's long-ago debts. But Josie shook her head.
"Then is it the title of princess that you want?"
Josie threw him a startled glance. "Really?"
"Many women dream of it."
"Not me." She shook her head with a snort. "Besides, my sister told me your title's worthless. You might be the grandson of a Russian prince, but it's not like you actually own any land"
Whoops. She cut off in midsentence at his glare.
"We once owned hundreds of thousands of acres in Russia," he said coldly. "And we owned the homestead in Alaska for nearly a hundred years, since my great-grandmother fled Siberia. It is rightfully ours."
"Sorry, but your brother sold your homestead to my father fair and square!"
He took a step towards her.
"Against my will," he said softly. "Without my knowledge."
Josie took an unwilling step back from the icy glitter in his blue eyes. A self-made billionaire, Kasimir Xendzov was known to be a ruthless, heartless playboy whose main interest, even more than dating supermodels or adding to his pile of money, was destroying his older brother, who had cheated him out of their business partnership right before it would have made him hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Are you afraid of me?" he asked suddenly.
"No," she lied, "why would I be?"
"There are rumors about me. That I am more than ruthless. That I am" he tilted his head, his blue eyes bright "half-insane, driven mad by my hunger for revenge."
Her mouth went dry. "It's not true." She gulped, then said weakly, "Um, is it?"
He gave a low, threatening laugh. "If it were, I would hardly admit it." He turned away, pacing a step before he looked back at her. "So you've changed your mind. But has it occurred to you," he said softly, "that I might have changed my mind about marrying you?"
Josie looked up with an intake of breath. "Youwouldn't!"
He shrugged. "Your rejection of me three days ago was definitive."
Fear, real fear, rushed through Josie's heart. She'd gambled her last money to come here. Without Kasimir's help, Bree would be lost. She'd be Vladimir Xendzov's possession. His slave. Forever. Her shoulders felt tight as hot tears rushed behind her eyes. Desperately, she grabbed his arm.
"Noplease! You said you'd do anything to get the land back. You said you made a promise to your dying father. You" She frowned, suddenly distracted by the hard muscle of his biceps. "Jeez, how much weight lifting do you do?"
He looked at her. Blushing, she dropped his arm. She took a deep breath.
"Just tell me. Do you still want to marry me?"
Kasimir's handsome face was impassive. "I need to understand your reason. If it's not to be a princess "
She gave a choked laugh. "As if I'd marry someone for a worthless title!"
His dark eyebrow lifted. "For your information, my title isn't worthless. It's an asset. You'd be surprised how many people are impressed by it."
"You mean you use it as a shameless marketing tool for your business interests."
His lips curved with amusement. "So you do understand."
"I hope you're not expecting me to bow."
"I don't want you to bow." He looked up, his blue eyes intent. "I just want you to marry me. Right now.
Staring at his gorgeous face, Josie's heart stopped. "So you do still want to marry me?"
He gave her a slow-rising smile that made his eyes crinkle. "Of course I want to marry you. It's all I've wanted."
He was looking down at her as if he cared.
Of course he cares, she told herself savagely. He cares about getting his family's land back. That's it.
But when he looked at her like that, it was too easy to forget that. Her heart pounded. She felt desired.
Josie tried to convince herself she didn't feel it. She didn't feel a strange tangle of tension and breathless need. She didn' t.
Kasimir reached out a hand to touch her cheek. "But tell me what changed your mind."
The warm sensuality of his fingers against her skin made her tremble. No man had touched her so intimately. His fingertips were callousedclearly he was accustomed to hard workbut they were tapered, sensitive fingers of a poet.
But Prince Kasimir Xendzov was no poet. Trembling, she looked down at his strong wrist, at his tanned, thick forearm laced with dark hair. He was a fighter. A warrior. He could crush her with one hand.
"My sister," she whispered, then stopped, her throat dry. "Bree changed your mind?" Dropping his hand, he walked around her. "I find that hard to believe."
She took a deep breath.
"Your brother kidnapped her," she choked out. "I want you to save her."
She waited for him to express shock, elation, rage, something. But his expression didn't change.
"You " He frowned, narrowing his eyes. "Wait. Vladimir kidnapped her?"
She bit her lip, then her shoulders slumped. "Well, I guess technically," she said in a small voice, "you could say she wagered herself to him in a card game.