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Climbing out of his Rolls-Royce, Paolo Caretti pulled his black coat close to his body and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Sunrise was just a slash of scarlet above New York's gray skyline as his chauffeur held an umbrella to block the freezing rain.
For a moment he thought he'd imagined the soft sound, that his insomnia had finally caused him to dream in daytime. Then a small figure stepped out from behind the tall metal sculpture that decorated the front of his twenty-story office building. Rain plastered the woman's hair and clothes to her body. Her face was pale with cold. She must have been standing outside of his building for hours, waiting for him.
"Don't turn me away," she said. "Please."
Her voice was soft, throaty, low. Just like he remembered. After all these years he still remembered everything about her, no matter how much money he made or how many mistresses he'd taken to wipe her from his memory.
His jaw tightened. "You shouldn't have come."
"I I need your help." Princess Isabelle de Luceran took a deep breath, her light brown eyes shimmering beneath the streetlights. "Please. I have nowhere else to go."
Their gazes locked. For a moment he was taken back to spring days picnicking in Central Park, to summer nights making love in his Little Italy apartment. When, for four sweet months, she'd made his world bright and new and he'd asked her to be his wife
Now, he looked at her coldly. "Make an appointment."
He started to step around her, but she blocked him. "I've tried. I've left ten messages with your secretary. Didn't she give them to you?"
Valentina had, but he'd ignored them. Isabelle de Luceran meant nothing to him. He'dstopped wanting her long ago.
Or so he'd told himself. But now her beauty was seeping through him like a poison. Her expressive hazel eyes, her full mouth, those lush curves hidden beneath the ladylike coathe remembered everything. The taste of her skin. The feel of her lips kissing down his belly. Her soft hands stroking between his legs
"You're alone?" He clenched hisjaw, struggling to get himself under control. "Where are your bodyguards?"
"I left them at the hotel," she whispered. "Help me. Please. For the sake of who we once were."
To his horror, he saw tears blending with rain to fall in rivulets down her cheek. Isabelle? Crying? Her hands trembled. Whatever she wanted, she must want it badly, he thought.
Good. Having her on her knees begging for a favor was a very pleasant image. It wouldn't make up for what she'd done, but it might be a start.
Abruptly, he moved closer, tracing a finger down her wet cheek. "You want a favor?" Her skin felt cold, as if she were indeed the ice princess the world believed her to be. "You know I'll make you pay for it."
"Yes." Her voice was so quiet he could barely hear her over the sound of rain. "I know."
"Follow me." Taking the umbrella from his chauffeur, he turned on his heel and strode up the wide concrete steps. As he entered through his building's revolving door, he nodded a greeting to the security guards in the foyer. He could hear the click-click-click of Isabelle's high-heeled boots across the marble floor behind him.
"Good morning, Salvatore," Paolo said to the first security guard.
"Good morning." The elderly man cleared his throat. "It's a cold one today, isn't it, Signor Caretti? Makes me wish I was in the old country, where it's warmer." His eyes trailed to Isabelle. "Or San Piedro, maybe."
So even Salvatore had recognized her. Paolo uneasily wondered what his executive secretary would do. Valentina Novak, though highly competent, had one weakness: celebrity tabloids. And Isabelle, the princess of a tiny Mediterranean kingdom, was one of the most famous women in the world.
As Paolo left the guard station, he heard Salvatore whistle through his teeth. He couldn't blame the man. Isabelle had been a lovely, fresh-faced girl at eighteen; she was more beautiful now. As if even time itself were in love with her.
Angrily shaking the thought away, Paolo strode to his private elevator and pressed the button for the penthouse level. As soon as the elevator's doors closed, he turned to her.
"All right. Let's have it."
Isabelle's voice was low. Desperate. "Alexander's been kidnapped."
"Your nephew?" He gave her an incredulous stare. "Kidnapped?"
"You're the only one who can save him!"
His eyebrows rose, still disbelieving. "The heir to the throne of San Piedro? Needs my help?"
"He's not just the heir now. He's the King." She shook her head, wiping her eyes. "My brother and sister-in-law died two weeks ago. You must have heard."
"Yes." He'd unwillingly heard the details from Valentina, who'd told him the couple had died in a boating accident in Majorca, leaving their nine-year-old son behind. And that wasn't the only gossip she'd shared
Grinding his teeth, he pushed the troubling thought away. "I'm sorry."
"My mother is officially regent until he comes of age, but she's getting older, and I'm trying to help." She took a deep breath. "I was at the London economic summit yesterday when I got a frantic call from Alexander's nanny. Alexander was missing. Then I received a letter demanding I meet the kidnapper at midnight tonight. Alone."
"Don't tell me you're actually considering following his instructions?"
"If you don't help me, I don't know what else to do."
"Your nephew has a national army, bodyguards, police. Get them involved at once."
She shook her head. "The letter said if I contact anyone in an official capacity I'll never see Alexander again!"
He gave a harsh laugh. "Of course the kidnapper would say that. Don't be a fool. You don't need my help. Go to your police. Let them handle it." As the ding sounded and the doors opened on the penthouse level, he turned away from her. "Go home, Isabelle."
"Wait." She put her hand on his wrist. "There's more. Something I haven't told you."
He stared down at her hand. He could feel the electricity through his cashmere coat, his tailored jacket, his finely cut shirt. He had the sudden desire to close the door behind him, to push her up against the wall of the elevator, to pull up her skirt and taste her. He yearned to lick the rain off her skin, to pull off her sodden clothes and warm her with the length of his body
What the hell was wrong with him? He felt nothing for Isabelle de Luceran but scornboth for her shallow nature and for the naïve boy he'd been when he'd loved her.
So how was it possible that five minutes with her made his body combust into flame? Even through his clothes, her touch burned his skin.
He jerked his arm away.
"I'll give you one minute," he ground out. "Don't waste it."
He strode out onto his private floor, crowded with employees who managed his global holdings. Valentina stood up from her desk. As always, she was the picture of well-groomed efficiency: her stylish red suit accentuated her curvy figure, and her bright auburn hair was pulled back in a neat chignon. Her only jewelry was the gold Tiffany watch he'd given her last Christmas.
"Good morning, Mr. Caretti." She spoke rapidly, chewing on her full lower lip with white, even teeth. "Here are the numbers you wanted from the Rome office. Palladium is up two percent on the Nymex, and I've taken several calls this morning from reporters about the rumor of a buyout offer. Then, of course, all those calls from a woman claiming to be "
Blue eyes widening, she sucked in her breath, staring at Isabelle.
"You told them Caretti Motors is not for sale," Paolo said. "Correct?"
The thirty-year-old redhead looked as if she might swoon. "Yes. No. That is"
"Hold my calls," he bit out. Grabbing Isabelle's wrist, he dragged her into his office and closed the door behind them. Tossing his coat on the plush black leather sofa, he turned on a small lamp to illuminate the dark, spacious room.
"Thank you," Isabelle said softly, rubbing her wrist.
"I appreciate that you" "Say what you have to say, and get out," he interrupted.
Her caramel-colored eyes narrowed. She took a deep breath. "I need your help."
"So you said," he replied coldly. "But you didn't explain why you need my help instead of going to the police or the bodyguards who protect San Piedro's king. Or, better yet," he added scornfully, "your fiancé."
She looked at him in surprise. "You know about Magnus?"
Paolo folded his arms, trying to calm the tension he felt in every muscle. "You're famous, Isabelle. I hear about your life whether I want to or not."
But it was more than that.
He was still reeling. Ever since Valentina had started sighing over their "glamorous" affair, he'd wanted to hit somethingpreferably Magnus's meek, handsome face.
"I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I don't try to end up in the tabloids. They chase me. It's how they sell papers."
His lip curled. "It must be hard," he agreed sardonically. He could hardly believe she was trying to pretend she didn't love every minute of her fame. Her whole shallow existence had been built on the temple of her vanity and insatiable appetite for adoration. Even he himself had once been stupid enough to
Stopping the thought cold, he clenched his jaw. "So why don't you ask your fiancé for help?"
"He's not my fiancé. Not yet."
"But he soon will be."
For the first time she looked away. "He proposed to me a few days ago. I haven't given him my answer yet, but I will. Once Alexander is safe, we will announce our engagement."
It was exactly what he'd expected, and yet involuntarily, he stepped toward her. IsabelleMagnus's bride? The thought ricocheted through his body like a bullet.
"And as for why I can't ask him for help," she said, "he would insist on calling in the police and working through proper channels." She shook her head fiercely. "I can't be that patient. Not when some criminal has Alexander."
The irony of it rose like bile in his throat, nearly choking him. "So that's why you've come to me?"
"I've read about you as well." Her eyes met his. "You're ruthless. Well-connected. Magnus has told me about"
"About what?" he interrupted harshly.
"About how you focus only on yourself," she said. "You ignore the pain of others. You'll drive right past accidents. You're almost inhuman in your determination to win."
He clenched his jaw. Of course Magnus hadn't told her about their pasthe was even more ashamed of it than Paolo was. "That's why I always win every race and Magnus takes second place."
"People whisper that you're truly your father's son," she said quietly.
He'd heard it so many times that he didn't even flinch. "So you're seeking one monster without morals to fight another?"
"Alexander's bodyguards could be involved. I need an outsider, and you're the only one ruthless enough to bring him home safe. No one must ever know he was kidnapped. It would make my country appear weak and corruptas if we couldn't even protect our king."
"So you want me to keep the whole thing secret, even from your future husband?" He raised an eyebrow. "Hardly a sound foundation for marriage, Princess."
"Insult me however you want. Just bring Alexander home!"
He watched her. "And you're sure Magnus didn't send you to ask me?"
"Of course not." She lifted her chin. "He would be horrified if he knew. He wouldn't want me to get involved."
"Such a perfect gentleman," he said sardonically.
She bristled. "He is perfect! He's handsome and charming. Wealthy and influential beyond belief. The tenth richest man in the world!"