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His Pregnant Princess
By Robyn Donald
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHUNT RADCLIFFE looked from the window of the private jet, metallic-blue eyes half-hidden by thick long lashes as he watched the desert inch past thousands of feet below. A glance at his watch confirmed that in just over an hour he'd be landing in the small Mediterranean island of Dacia.
He picked up a magazine his PA had handed over with a grin just before Hunt had boarded the plane at Capetown.
"Since when have I read society magazines?" Hunt enquired after a disbelieving glance.
The younger man's grin widened. "I thought you might like to do some more research. It features official photographs of the Prince and Princess of Dacia at their wedding."
Hunt already had a signed portrait of the royal couple, so he'd tossed the magazine onto an empty seat in the private jet, but now that he was almost there curiosity drove him to open it.
The formally posed shots had been taken in one of the rooms of the Dacian royal palace. Although Prince Luka and his bride, Alexa Mytton, looked cool and composed, nothing could hide the transparent happiness that radiated from them. A half-smile creased his face. No doubt, Alexa had fallen headlong in love, and it certainly looked as though the prince had met her more than halfway.
A prior engagement hadkept Hunt away from the wedding, but he was now fulfilling a promise to visit his old friend and her new husband.
Hunt turned the page. His eyes met a pair of amber ones, staring straight at the camera with the kind of haughty aloofness that set his teeth on edge.
Princess Lucia Bagaton, he read, distant cousin of the ruler of Dacia, and until his marriage his hostess.
The Ice Princess ...
She was one of Alexa's bridesmaids, and by the look on that remote, beautiful face, hating every moment of it. Hunt's black brows drew together. She probably thought her precious cousin had married beneath him. God, he loathed snobbery!
With a contemptuous flick of his fingers, he tossed the magazine onto the seat beside him.
Yet a moment later he picked it up again and opened it at the same page. He'd never met Lucia Bagaton, although he'd heard enough about her from a business associate whose son had met her, fallen in love with her and eventually died because of her.
Three months previously, after the royal wedding, Hunt had kept a quiet wake with Maxime Lorraine's father as the Frenchman mourned the death of his only child. Years before, the tall New Zealander had reminded the middle-aged industrialist of himself as a young man, determined to forge a future in alien territory. Kindly Edouard Lorraine had helped Hunt negotiate the tricky protocols of European social and business arenas.
"She targeted him," Edouard said wearily in his heavily accented English. He put his empty glass down on the side-table with a shaking hand. "And then, when he asked her to marry him, she threw him over."
"Possibly. The Bagatons have a pedigree that goes back a couple of thousand years, whereas I, as you know, am a nobody. But more, I think, because of money."
Hunt's brows shot up. "So what was the problem?" he asked bluntly.
The older man picked up the superb cognac. "For you too? No? I'm sure you'll grant me this indulgence for once," He poured himself another glass, then said bleakly, "Oh, she might have fallen in love with him, but she wanted the money more. She has none, you see. Or only a pittance."
"I thought the Bagatons were rich," Hunt said, frowning.
"The prince is, but her father and grandfather were charming playboys who ran through their inheritance as though they owned a goldmine. As Prince Luka's hostess she has a settled position, but when he announced his engagement to your countrywoman, Princess Lucia must have realised that her days of influence in Dacia were over. Titles, even titles as exalted as princess, are two a penny nowadays, but they do have commercial value. Looked at logically, her best bet was to find a very rich man and marry him."
"Barter her social cachet for his money," Hunt said with distaste.
"She has assets that push her price higher," Edouard smiled cynically. "That beautiful face and slim body are added value, and so is her discretion - she has figured in no scandals."
"Have you met her?"
The older man nodded. "Of course, as soon as Maxime told me that he had fallen in love with her I went to Dacia. She is pattern-book royalty - intelligent, exquisitely mannered, always gracious, with an endless fund of small talk," He sipped some more of the cognac. "I liked her very much, and it seemed to me that she liked my son, although she revealed very little of her thoughts."
Hunt made no comment.
His host said, "Maxime asked her to marry him the day after the Cortville deal blew up in my face. You remember it; some commentators were sure that Lorraine's would come crashing down with it."
"I remember. They were wrong, of course."
The older man drank half his brandy then set the glass down and finished fiercely, "But it was touch and go for a week or so, during which the Ice Princess turned my son down. He came back shattered, and then - then he decided to join this expedition."
Hunt frowned, but said nothing, and after a few brooding moments his host said, "If she hadn't been so greedy, if she had waited only a few days, she could have had my son and the money, a life with as much privilege as the one she left behind. But she didn't wait and now he is dead, lost in an imbecilic attempt to discover a dinosaur in the swamps of Africa. He would never have gone if she hadn't rejected him."
Hunt wondered. Maxime hadn't been the classic spoiled rich kid, but he'd been young enough to still feel bullet-proof. Until the break-up of his affair with the princess he'd contented himself with the usual dare-devilry, skiing the most dangerous pistes, sky-diving, racing his huge motor boat. Awash with humiliation and frustration, he'd probably jumped at the chance to go to Africa.
Now, less than an hour from meeting her, Hunt scrutinised the lovely, aristocratic face that gazed so calmly from the magazine page. Although still intensely sorry for Edouard and angry at the waste of a young life, it was none of his business if Princess Lucia of Dacia was despicable, a woman who substituted cunning and venal self-interest for integrity.
Yet his eyes lingered on her soft red mouth, wildly provocative in that aloof, controlled face.
His body stirred, hormones purring into predatory masculine alertness. She was truly lovely; blue highlights softened the black hair sleeked back in a regal coronet of braids, skin the softly burnished gold of a Mediterranean dawn, and eyes like a tiger's, amber with gold streaks in them ...
In spite of her regal composure, Princess Lucia oozed a subtle sexuality. For years she'd been driving the gossip columnists crazy; no men in her life, no wild parties or romances, nothing but good works and self-effacement. Even her affair with Maxime hadn't reached the columns; on Dacia, her cousin had power enough to keep his family's affairs private.
He flicked over another page, and there she was again, dancing with an obviously besotted man. Beneath the photograph a cleverly worded caption wondered if this was the man in the Ice Princess's life.
Hunt said aloud, "So she's clever, and discreet and prudent. A model princess ready to sell herself to the highest bidder."
He had better things to do than lust over a calculating, heartless woman. Yet as he closed the magazine with a snap and tossed it onto the empty seat beside him, that exotic face, almost feline in its beauty, lingered in his mind.
It held secrets, secrets he was privy to. That gracious, seamless facade, a product of rigorous training, disguised a woman who had given herself to a man who loved her, and then cruelly spurned him.
He wondered contemptuously if she ever regretted dumping Maxime Lorraine on the strength of a rumour.
Hunt stretched his long body, a cold smile tilting the corners of his mouth. Some questions would soon be answered, because she'd be meeting him at the airport in Dacia.
Excerpted from His Pregnant Princess by Robyn Donald Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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