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Though Monte couldn't see her, Pellea Marallis passed so close to the Crown Prince's hiding place, he easily caught a hint of her intoxicating perfume. That gave him an unexpected jolt. It brought back a panoply of memories, like flipping through the pages of a booka vision of sunlight shining through a gauzy white dress, silhouetting a slim, beautifully rounded female form, a flashing picture of drops of water cascading like a thousand diamonds onto creamy silken skin, a sense of cool satin sheets and caresses that set his flesh on fire.
He bit down hard on his lower lip to stop the wave of sensuality that threatened to wash over him. He wasn't here to renew the romance. He was here to kidnap her. And he wasn't about to let that beguiling man-woman thing get in the way this time.
She passed close again and he could hear the rustle of her long skirt as it brushed against the wall he was leaning on. She was pacing back and forth in her courtyard, a garden retreat built right into this side of the castle, giving her a small lush forest where she spent most of her time. The surrounding roomsa huge closet filled with clothes and a small sitting room, a neighboring compact office stacked to the ceiling with books, a sumptuously decorated bedroomeach opened onto the courtyard with French doors, making her living space a mixture of indoors and outdoors in an enchanting maze of exciting colors and provocative scents.
She was living like a princess.
Did he resent it all? Of course. How could he not?
But this was not the side of the castle where his family had lived before the overthrow of their royal rule. That area had been burned the night his parents were murdered by the Granvillis, the thugs who still ruled Ambria, this small island country that had once been home to his family. He understood that part of the castle was only now being renovated, twenty-five years later.
And that he resented.
But Pellea had nothing to do with the way his family had been robbed of their birthright. He had no intention of holding her accountable. Her father was another matter. His long-time status as the Grand Counselor to the Granvillis was what gave Pellea the right to live in this luxuryand his treachery twenty-five years ago was considered a subject of dusty history.
Not to Monte. But that was a matter for another time.
He hadn't seen her yet. He'd slipped into the dressing room as soon as he'd emerged from the secret passageway. And now he was just biding his time before he revealed his presence.
He was taking this slowly, because no matter what he'd told himself, she affected him in ways no other woman ever had. In fact, she'd been known to send his restraint reeling, and he knew he had to take this at a cautious pace if he didn't want things to spin out of control again.
He heard her voice and his head rose. Listening hard, he tried to figure out if she had someone with her. No. She was talking on her mobile, and when she turned in his direction, he could just make out what she was saying.
"Seed pearls of course. And little pink rosebuds. I think that ought to do it."
He wasn't really listening to the words. Just the sound of her had him mesmerized. He'd never noticed before how appealing her voice was, just as an instrument. He hadn't heard it for some time, and it caught the ear the way a lilting acoustic guitar solo might, each note crisp, crystal clear and sweet in a way that touched the soul.
As she talked, he listened to the sound and smiled. He wanted to see her and the need was growing in him.
But to do that, he would have to move to a riskier position so that he could see out through the open French doors. Though he'd slipped easily into her huge dressing room, he needed to move to a niche beside a tall wardrobe where he could see everything without being seen himself. Carefully, he made his move.
And there she was. His heart was thudding so hard, he could barely breathe.
The thing about Pellea, and part of the reason she so completely captivated him, was that she seemed to embody a sense of royal command even though there wasn't a royal bone in her body. She was classically beautiful, like a Greek statue, only slimmer, like an angel in a Renaissance painting, only earthier, like a dancer drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec, only more graceful, like a thirties-era film star, only more mysteriously luminescent. She was all a woman could be and still be of this earth. Barely.
To a casual glance, she looked like a normal woman. Her face was exceptionally pretty, but there were others with dark eyes as almond-shaped, with long, lustrous lashes that seemed to sweep the air. Her hair floated about her face like a misty cloud of spun gold and her form was trim and nicely rounded. Her lips were red and full and inviting. Perfection.
But there were others who had much the same advantages. Others had caught his eye through the years, but not many had filled his mind and touched off the sense of longing that she had.
There was something more to Pellea, something in the dignity with which she held herself, an inner fire that burned behind a certain sadness in her eyes, an inner drive, a sense of purpose, that set her apart. She could be playful as a kitten one minute, then smoldering with a provocative allure, and just as suddenly, aflame with righteous anger.
From the moment he'd first seen her, he'd known she was special. And for a few days two months ago, she'd been his.
"Didn't I give you my sketches?" she was saying into the phone. "I tend to lean a little more toward traditional. Not too modern. No off-the-shoulder stuff. Not for this."
He frowned, wondering what on earth she was talking about. Designing a ball gown maybe? He could see her on the dance floor, drawing all eyes. Would he ever get the chance to dance with her? Not in a ballroom, but maybe here, in her courtyard. Why not?
It was a beautiful setting. When he'd been here before, it had been winter and everything had been lifeless and stark. But spring was here now, and the space was a riot of color.
A fountain spilled water in the center of the area, making music that was a pleasant, tinkling background. Tiled pathways meandered through the area, weaving in among rosebushes and tropical plants, palms and a small bamboo forest.
Yes, they would have to turn on some music and dance. He could almost feel her in his arms. He stole another glance at her, at the way she held her long, graceful neck, at the way her free hand fluttered like a bird as she made her point, at the way her dressing gown gaped open, revealing the lacy shift she wore underneath.
"Diamonds?" she was saying into the phone. "Oh, no. No diamonds. Just the one, of course. That's customary. I'm not really a shower-me-with-diamonds sort of girl, you know what I mean?"
He reached out and just barely touched the fluttering hem of her flowing sleeve as she passed. She turned quickly, as though she'd sensed something, but he'd pulled back just in time and she didn't see him. He smiled, pleased with himself. He would let her know he was here when he was good and ready.
"As I remember it, the veil is more of an ivory shade. There are seed pearls scattered all over the crown area, and then down along the edges on both sides. I think that will be enough."
Veil? Monte frowned. Finally, a picture swam into stark relief and he realized what she must be talking about. It sounded like a wedding. She was planning her wedding ensemble.
She was getting married.
He stared at her, appalled. What business did she have getting married? Had she forgotten all about him so quickly? Anger curled through him like smoke and he only barely held back the impulse to stride out and confront her.
She couldn't get married. He wouldn't allow it.
And yet, he realized with a twinge of conscience, it wasn't as though he was planning to marry her himself. Of course not. He had bigger fish to fry. He had an invasion to orchestrate and manage. Besides, there was no way he would ever marry the daughter of the biggest betrayer still alive of his familythe DeAngelis Royalty.
And yet, to think she was planning to marry someone else so soon after their time together burned like a scorpion's sting.
What the hell!
A muted gong sounded, making him jerk in surprise. That was new. There had been a brass knocker a few weeks ago. What else had she changed since he'd been here before?
Getting marriedhah! It was a good thing he'd shown up to kidnap her just in time.
Pellea had just rung off with her clothing designer, and she raised her head at the sound of her new entry gong. She sighed, shoulders drooping. The last thing she wanted was company, and she was afraid she knew who this was anyway. Her husband-to-be. Oh, joy. "Enter," she called out.
There was a heavy metal clang as the gate was pulled open and then the sound of boots on the tile. A tall man entered, his neatly trimmed hair too short to identify the color, but cut close to his perfectly formed head. His shoulders were wide, his body neatly proportioned and very fit-looking. His long face would have been handsome if he could have trained himself to get rid of the perpetual sneer he wore like a mark of superiority at all times.
Leonardo Granvilli was the oldest son of Georges Granvilli, leader of the rebellion that had taken over this island nation twenty-five years before, the man who now ruled as The General, a term that somewhat softened the edges of his relatively despotic regime.
"My darling," Leonardo said coolly in a deep, sonorous voice. "You're radiant as the dawn on this beautiful day."
"Oh, spare me, Leonardo," she said dismissively. Her tone held casual disregard but wasn't in any way meant to offend. "No need for empty words of praise. We've known each other since we were children. I think by now we've taken the measure, each of the other. I don't need a daily snow job."
Leonardo made a guttural sound in his throat and threw a hand up to cover his forehead in annoyance. "Pellea, why can't you be like other women and just accept the phony flattery for what it is? It's nothing but form, darling. A way to get through the awkward moments. A little sugar to help the medicine go down."
Pellea laughed shortly, but cut it off almost before it had begun. Pretending to be obedient, she went into mock royal mode for him.
"Pray tell me, kind sir, what brings my noble knight to my private chambers on such a day as this?"
He actually smiled. "That's more like it."
She curtsied low and long and his smile widened.
"Bravo. This marriage may just work out after all."
Her glare shot daggers his way, as though to say, In your dreams, but he ignored that.
"I came with news. We may have to postpone our wedding."
"What?" Involuntarily, her hands went to her bellyand the moment she realized what she'd done, she snatched them away again. "Why?"
"That old fool, the last duke of the DeAngelis clan, has finally died. This means a certain level of upheaval is probable in the expatriate Ambrian community. They will have to buzz about and try to find a new patriarch, it seems. We need to be alert and ready to move on any sort of threat that might occur to our regime."
"Do you expect anything specific?"
He shook his head. "Not really. Just the usual gnashing of teeth and bellowing of threats. We can easily handle it."
She frowned, shaking her head. "Then why postpone? Why not move the date up instead?"
He reached out and tousled her hair. "Ah, my little buttercup. So eager to be wed."
She pushed his hand away, then turned toward the fountain in the middle of the courtyard and shrugged elaborately. "'If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly,'" she muttered darkly.
"What's that my sweet?" he said, following into the sunshine.
"Nothing." She turned back to face him. "I will, of course, comply with your wishes. But for my own purposes, a quick wedding would be best."
He nodded, though his eyes were hooded. "I understand. Your father's condition and all that." He shrugged. "I'll talk to my father and we'll hit upon a date, I'm sure." His gaze flickered over her and he smiled. "To think that after all this time, and all the effort you've always gone to in putting me off, I'm finally going to end up with the woman of my dreams." He almost seemed to tear up a bit. "It restores one's faith, doesn't it?"
"Absolutely." She couldn't help but smile back at him, though she was shaking her head at the same time. "Oh, Leonardo, I sometimes think it would be better if you found someone to love."
He looked shocked. "What are you talking about? You know very well you've always been my choice."
"I said love," she retorted. "Not desire to possess."
He shrugged. "To each his own."
Pellea sighed but she was still smiling.
Monte watched this exchange while cold anger spread through him like a spell, turning him from a normal man into something akin to a raging monster. And yet, he didn't move a muscle. He stood frozen, as though cast in stone. Only his mind and his emotions were alive.
And his hatred. He hated Leonardo, hated Leonardo's father, hated his entire family.
Bit by bit, the anger was banked and set aside to smolder. He was experienced enough to know white-hot emotional ire led to mistakes every time. He wouldn't make any mistakes. He needed to keep his head clear and his emotions in check.
All of them, good and bad.
One step at a time, he made himself relax. His body control was exceptional and he used it now. He wanted to keep cool so that he would catch the exact right time to strike. It wouldn't be now. That would be foolish. But it would be soon.
He hadn't been prepared for something like this. The time he and Pellea had spent together just a few weeks before had been magical.