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As coronation balls went, Rosie Matthews thought, surveying the palace ballroom, this one in Carathia had to be about as good as it got.
Wherever she looked flowers glowed richly against the white and gold walls. Men in the austere black and white of formal evening clothes radiated power and privilege, and beautiful women dazzled in couture so haute the ballroom looked like a catwalk for society's most favoured designers. Light from the gilded ballroom chandeliers scintillated opulently from famous and priceless tiaras, earrings and necklaces.
And every other woman in the ballroom seemed tall and impossibly elegant, including the one beside her. Hani Crysander-Gillan, Duchess of Vamili and sister-in-law of the newly crowned Grand Duke Gerd, was another racehorse, and the tiara glittering against her dark hair featured the rare and beautiful fire diamonds from her homeland of Moraze.
'I envy you,' Rosie told her cheerfully. 'This will be the only coronation ball I'll ever attend, but to get a good view I really need to stand on one of those gilded chairs. Still, I've never seen so many fabulous jewels. And the clotheswow!' She gave an elaborate sigh. 'I feel like the proverbial poor relation. And I'm not even a relation!'
Hani laughed. 'A likely story. You look stunning, and you know it. I don't know how you managed to find something the exact honey-amber of your hair.'
Rosie glanced down at her balldress. 'It was a stroke of luck; there's a really good vintage shop just around the corner from my flat. And this doesn't seem to have been worn much. It doesn't look ten years old.'
'Who cares how old it is? It's a classic.'
Certainly its body-skimming flow gave Rosie some much-needed extra height, assisted by a pair of killer heels that had cost her almost the last of her savings.
Hani raised her brows. 'It's not like you to be afflicted with self-doubt. What's the matter?'
'It's not self-doubt, it's the realisation that the jewellery alone must be worth more than most small countries,' Rosie returned airily.
She lied. Prince Gerd Crysander-Gillan, Grand Duke and ruler of Carathiacrowned only that dayhappened to be dancing right in front of her with the woman expected to become his bride. Princess Serina was yet another willowy, impossibly beautiful creature, her dark hair sleeked into an elegant chignon that showed off the diamonds of her family tiara to perfection.
'And the fact that every other woman in this room is at least ten centimetres taller than I am and wearing a tiara,' Rosie went on mournfully, before flashing Hani a gamine grin. 'However, being short means no one can see me, and Gerd won't expect glitz from a cousin by marriage.'
Especially a cousin by marriage who'd just finished her degree, only to discover that the job market had dried up.
Lifting her small, round chin, she let her eyes roam across the dancers. Inevitably they found the man who'd invited herand hundreds of othersto his rich little country to celebrate his coronation. As Rosie's gaze found his arrogantly handsome face Gerd smiled at the princess in his arms, then lifted his black head and looked across the ballroom, his boldly chiselled features radiating force and authority.
Flushing, Rosie lowered her eyes. Of course he wasn't looking atfar less forher. He was just making sure everything was going according to plan. Gerd always had a plan, as well as the ruthless determination to carry it through, no matter what the obstacles.
A hungry longing ached through her. She'd been so certain the tenuous thread of hope that had kept her dangling for years would be severed once she saw him with the glamorous, entirely suitable Princess Serina.
Instead, coming to Carathia, seeing him again, had reignited a fire that had never died.
So who's being melodramatic? she mocked silently. How could a fire die when it had never really been lit? OK, so three years agoon the other side of the worldshe and Gerd had been thrown together for a whole magical summer.
Although they'd known each other all her life, things had changed during those long, hot weeks, but even at eighteen Rosie had been wary. Gerd was almost twelve years older, and probably a couple of centuries further advanced in sophistication. As well, her mother's lamentable history with men had coloured Rosie's outlook, so although she'd become giddy with excitement whenever he smiled at her, she'd masked it with the brash, cheerful fagade she'd made her defence against the world.
Yet while they'd sailed, swum, ridden horses and talked at length about almost everything, her childhood affection for Gerd gradually developed into a deeper emotion, something that shimmered with a promise she didn't dare recogniseuntil the night before he went away.
When he had kissed her
And Rosie had gone up in flames, all fears forgotten in a shocking, mesmerising rush of passion. He'd muttered her name and tried to pull away, but she'd clung, and as if he too was caught in the grip of some elemental summons he'd kissed her again, and then again, his arms tightening around her while every kiss took her deeper and deeper into unknown, thrilling territory.
How long they'd kissed she never knew, but each sensuous exploration stoked the fire that burned away her virginal inhibitions, and she was crushed against his lean, strong body in an ecstasy of surrender when he suddenly jerked free.
And said in a thick, impeded voice, 'I must be mad.'
Chilled, the intoxicating hunger rapidly vanishing, she'd dragged in a painful, jarring breath, unable to speak, unable to feel anything but an icy, bitter wash of hu milia tion at his rejection.
He'd straightened and stepped back further. In a controlled, coldly remote voice he said, 'Rosemary, I should not have done that. Forgive me. You still have a lot of growing up to do. Enjoy university, and try not to break too many hearts.'
A small, cynically rueful smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. The only heart that had been affected was hers. For the firstand onlytime in her life Rosie had known the wild, intoxicating charge of desire.
Why hadn't it happened again? She'd met men almost as handsome as Gerd, men with reputations as superb lovers, and not one had stirred her emotions, not one had summoned that ravishment of her senses, as though she'd die if it wasn't satisfied
Her eyes narrowed slightly when Gerd said something to his partner. The princess lifted her face and smiled, and they looked so utterly right together that Rosie winced at a stark return of the aching emptiness that had followed Gerd's departure that summer.
Whatever had happened during those enchanted weeksthe com pan ion ship, the close nesshad meant nothing to him. Not once had he contacted Rosie. News of him came through his brother, Kelt.
Don't be an idiot, she told herself robustly. Of course he hadn't contacted her. Once he'd left New Zealand his life had been packed with action and events.
Immediately after he'd arrived in Carathia his grandmother, the Grand Duchess, named him heir to her throne, and he'd had to deal with disaffection amongst the mountain peopledisorder that became riots, and had then turned into a nasty little civil war.
No sooner had it been decisively won than Princess Ilona slipped into the lingering final illness that forced
Gerd to become the de facto ruler of Carathia. A year of official mourning had followed her death.
Which had given her three years to break free of the spell of the hot, lazy days she'd spent falling in love.
It wasn't through lack of trying. She'd kissed enough would-be lovers to gain herself a reputation as a tease, but nothingand no onehad matched the sensuous magic of Gerd's kisses. Flirting had become a defence; she used it as a glossy, sparkling shield against any sort of true intimacy.
How pathetic to be still a virgin!
Yet when she did make love she wanted it to mean somethingand she wasn't going to succumb until her feelings matched the hungry passion Gerd had summoned so effortlessly in her.
Rosie focused her attention on the rest of the dancing throng, but inevitably her gaze crept back to Gerd and his partner.
He was looking over Princess Serina's head, straight at Rosie. For a heart-stopping second she thought she read anger in his topaz-gold survey before the woman in his arms said something, and he glanced back at her.
Rosie's heart thumped violently and a swift flare of colour burned up through her skin. Turning to Hani, she gave a quick nod in the general direction of the dance floor and forced her voice into its normal insouciant tone. 'They look good together, don't they?'
Hani was silent a moment before saying slowly, 'Yes. Yes, they do.'
Rosie would have liked very much to ask what was behind the equivocal note in her voice, but the music stopped then, and Kelt, Gerd's younger brother and Hani's husband, came up. Hani's face broke into the smile she kept only for him.
Rosie sighed silently; even after several years of marriage and a gorgeous little son, Hani and Kelt still looked at each other like lovers. And, when the band struck up again after the interval, she watched them melt into each other's arms on the dance floor and fought back a shaming surge of envy, of wonder that they'd found such joy and satisfaction, when she
When she'd let a memory rule her life. One summer of laughing, stimulating companionship and a few passionate kisses had fuelled a futile desire without any chance of fulfilment.
Enough's enough, she thought on a sudden spurt of defiance. She was tired of being moonstruck. From now onfrom this moment, in factit was officially over. She'd find some nice man and discover what sex was all about, get rid of this humiliating, futile hangover from the past
The floor shifted under her feet and her stomach contracted as though bracing for a blow. She sucked in a sharp breath before slowly turning to look up into Gerd's face, its angular features imprinted with the intimidating heritage of a thousand years of rule.
Here it was again, that seductive, treacherous ache of longing, almost more potent than the physical hunger that accompanied it. Pride persuaded her to ignore the shivers tingling down her spine.
'Hello, Gerd,' she said, hoping her voice was as steady and cool as his. 'Why can I never get you or my mother to call me Rosie?'
His wide shoulders lifted fractionally. 'I don't know. That, surely, is up to you?'
Rosie's snort was involuntary. 'Try telling Eva to shorten my name and see how far you get,' she told him briskly. 'And I seem to remember asking you quite often to call me Rosie. You never did.'
'You didn't askyou commanded,' he said with a faint smile. 'I didn't take kindly to being ordered about by a tiny snip some twelve years younger.'
You are not in love with him, she reminded herself with desperate insistence. You never have been.
All she had to do was get him out of her bloodstream, out of her head, and see him as a man, not the compelling, powerful, unattainable lover of her fantasies.
'Dance with me.'
Her brave determination melted under a sudden surge of heat. To be in his arms again.
Resisting the seductive impact of that thought, she summoned a smile glinting with challenge. 'And you have the audacity to accuse me of ordering people about?'
'Perhaps I should rephrase my request,' he said on a note that held more than a hint of irony. 'Rosemary, would you like to dance with me?'
'That's much more like it,' she said sedately, hanging on to her composure by a thread. 'Yes, of course I'll dance with you.'
His mouth quirked at her formality, and something jabbed her heart. It took a determined effort of will to walk beside him onto the dance floor.
But when Gerd took her in his arms her natural sense of rhythm almost deserted her. Concentrating fiercely, she followed his lead. In that dazzling, dazed summer they'd danced together several times and she'd never forgotten the sensation of being held against his big frame, the way she'd felt so deliciously overpowered by his size and latent strength.
Now, close to him again, every cell in her body sang a wanton song of desire.
You're not in love with him, she repeated fervently. Not a bit. Never have been.
This was merely physical, a matter of hormones and hero-worship. He'd imprinted her the way a mother goose imprinted her goslings.
The thought curved her mouth in an involuntary smile. How apt. She was behaving just like a goose!
Gerd broke a silence that threatened to drag on too long. 'How long is it since we've danced together?'
'I don't know.'
That was a stupid response, an instinctive attempt at defence. And he'd noticed. Defiantly Rosie cocked her head and met his unusual eyes, tawny and arrogant as an eagle's.
Hoping her tone projected amusement tinged with nostalgia, she continued, 'Oh, yes, of course I do. How could I forget? It was my first grown-up party, do you remember? You were on holiday in New Zealand that summer.'
'I remember.' His voice was lazy, as amused as hers, the dark lashes almost hiding his eyes.
'You gave me my very first grown-up kisses,' she told him, and laughed before adding, 'Ones that set an impossibly high standard.'
If she'd thought to startle him, she failed.
'There have been plenty to judge them by since then, I understand,' he said austerely.
Disconcerted, she demanded, 'How do you know that?'
Again he shrugged, the muscles flexing beneath her fingertips. 'Information travels fast in this family of ours,' he told her laconically.
Rosie pointed out, 'Except that I'm not proper family. The only connection is that my father's first wife was your cousin. A fairly distant cousin at that. So I'm actually flying false colours. Everyone seems to think I'm a Crysander-Gillan, instead of a very ordinary Matthews!'
'Nonsense,' he said negligently, adding with an oblique smile, 'There's nothing ordinary about you. Anyway, your half-brother is my blood relation as well as a good friend, and Alex would very properly have told me where to go if you hadn't been invited.'
Of course she'd been aware that only Gerd's ironbound sense of duty had led to this invitation, but his laconic acknowledgement of it stung nevertheless.
Stifling her hurt, Rosie switched her gaze to the half-brother she'd never really known. Her parents' marriage had disintegrated before she was old enough to realise that the boy who appeared occasionally in her life was actually related to her.
Gerd's arm around her tightened; Alex forgotten, she followed the almost imperceptible command and matched her steps to her partner's. A sensuous thrill ran through her as they pivoted, their bodies meeting for an intimate moment.