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Catching a royal was tough. But catching an elusive Medina was damn near impossible.
Teeth chattering, photojournalist Kate Harper inched along the third-story ledge leading to Prince Duarte Medina's living quarters. The planked exterior of his Martha's Vineyard resort offered precious little to grab hold of as she felt her way across in the dark, but she'd never been one to admit defeat.
Come hell or high water, she would snag her top-dollar picture. Her sister's future teetered even more precariously than Kate's balance on the twelve-inch beam.
Wind whipped in off the harbor, slapping her mossy green Dolce & Gabbana knockoff around her legs. Her cold toes curled along the wooden ridge since she'd ditched her heels on the balcony next door before climbing out. Thank God it wasn't snowing tonight.
Wrangling her way into an event at the posh Medina resort hadn't been easy. But she'd nabbed a ticket to a Fortune 500 mogul's rehearsal dinner for his son by promising a dimwit dilettante to run a tabloid piece on her ex in exchange for the woman's invitation. Once in, however, Kate was on her own to dodge security, locate Prince Duarte and snap the shot. As best she could tell, this was her only hope to enter his suite. Too bad her coat and gloves had been checked at the door.
The minicameras embedded in her earrings were about to tear her darn earlobes in half. She'd transformed a couple old button cameras into what looked like gold-and-emerald jewelry.
The lighthouse swooped a dim beam through the cottony-thick fog, Klaxon wailing every twenty seconds and temporarily drowning out the sound of wedding-party guests mingling on the first floor. She scooched closer to the prince's balcony.
Kate stretched her leg farther, farther still until Pay dirt. Her pounding heart threatened to pop a seam on her thrift-shop satin gown. She grabbed the railing fast and swung her leg over.
A hand clamped around her wrist. A strong hand. A masculine hand.
She yelped as another hand grabbed her ankle and hauled, grip strong on her arm and calf. His fingers seared her freezing skin just over her anklet made by her sister. A good-luck charm to match the earrings. She sure hoped it helped.
A swift yank sent her tumbling over onto the balcony. Her dress twisted around her thighs and hopefully not higher. She scrambled for firm footing, her arms flailing as her gown slid back into place. She landed hard against a wall.
No, wait. Walls didn't have crisp chest hair and defined muscles, and smell of musky perspiration. Under normal circumstances, she'd have been more than a little turned on. If she wasn't so focused on her sister's future and her lips weren't turning blue from the cold.
Kate peeked and found a broad male torso an inch from her nose. A black shirt or robe hung open, exposing darkly tanned skin and brown hair. Her fingers clenched in the silky fabric. Some kind of karate workout clothes?
Good God, did Medina actually hire ninjas for protection like monarchs in movies?
Kate looked up the strong column of the ninja's neck, the tensed line of his square jaw in need of a shave. Then, holy crap, she met the same coal-black eyes she'd been planning to photograph.
"You're not a ninja," she blurted.
"And you are not much of an acrobat." Prince Duarte Medina didn't smile, much less say cheese.
"Not since I flunked out of kinder-gym." This was the strangest conversation ever, but at least he hadn't pitched her over the railing. Yet.
He also didn't let go of her arms. The restrained strength of his calloused fingers sparked an unwelcomed shiver of awareness along her chilled skin.
Duarte glanced down at her bare feet. "Were you booted for a balance beam infraction?"
"Actually, I broke another kid's nose." She'd tripped the nasty little boy after he'd called her sister a moron.
Kate fingered her earring. She had to snap her pictures and punch out. This was an opportunity rarer than a red diamond.
The Medina monarchy had pretty much fallen off the map twenty-seven years ago after King Enrique Medina was deposed in a coup that left his wife dead. For decades rumors swirled that the old widower had walled up with his three sons in an Argentinean fortress. After a while, people stopped wondering about the Medinas at all. Until she'd felt the journalistic twitch to research an individual in the background of a photo she'd taken. That twitch had led to her news story which popped the top off a genie bottle. She'd exposed the secret lives of three now-grown princes who were hiding in plain sight in the United States.
But that hadn't been enough. The paycheck on that story hadn't come close to hauling her out of the financial difficulties life had thrust upon her.
Her window of opportunity to grab an up-close picture was shrinking. Already paparazzi from every corner of the globe were scrambling for a photo op now that news of her initial find leaked like water through a crumbling sandcastle.
Yet somehow, she'd beaten them all because Duarte Medina was really here. In the flesh. In front of her. And so much hotter in person. She swayed and couldn't even blame it on vertigo.
He scooped her into his arms, apparently sporting real strength to go with those ninja workout clothes.
"You are turning to a block of ice." His voice rumbled with the barest hint of an exotic accent, the bedroom sort of inflection perfect for voice-overs in commercials that would convince a woman to buy anything if he came with it. "You need to come in from the cold before you pass out."
So he could call security to lock her up? Her angle with the earring cameras wasn't great, but she hoped she'd snagged some workable shots while she jostled around in his arms.
"Uh, thanks for the save." Should she call him Prince Duarte or Your Majesty?
Coming into this, she'd envisioned getting her photos on the sly and hadn't thought to brush up on protocol when confronted with a prince in karate pajamas. A very hot, swarthy prince carrying her inside to his suite.
Now that she studied his face inches from hers, his ancestry was unmistakable. The Medina monarchy had originated on the small island of San Rinaldo off the coast of Spain. And in the charged moment she could see his bold Mediterranean heritage as clearly as his arrogance. With fog rolling along the rocky shore at his back through the open balcony doors, she could envision him reigning over his native land. In fact it was difficult to remember at all that he'd lived for so many years in the United States.
He set her on her feet again, her toes sinking for miles into the plush rug. The whole room spoke of understated wealth and power from the pristine white sofas, to the mahogany antique armoire, to a mammoth four-poster bed with posts as thick as tree trunks.
A bed? She tried to swallow. Her throat went dry.
Duarte smiled tightly, heavy lidded eyes assessing. "Ramon has really outdone himself this time."
"Ramon?" Her editor's name was Harold. "I'm not sure what you mean." But she would play along if it meant staying put a few minutes more. To get her pictures, of course.
"The father of the groom has a reputation for supplying the best, uh" his pulse beat slowly along his bronzed neck "companionship to woo his business associates, but you surpass them all in originality."
"Companionship?" Shock stunned her silent. He couldn't be implying what she thought.
"I assume he paid you well, given the whole elaborate entrance." His upper lip curled with a hint of disdain.
Paid companionship. Ah, hell. He thought she was a high-priced call girl. Or at least she hoped he thought high-priced. Well, she wasn't going that far for her sister, but maybe she could scavenge another angle for the story by sticking around just a question or two longer.
Kate placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. No way was she touching his bared chest. "How many times has he so generously gifted you?"
His smoky dark eyes streamed over the tops of her breasts darn near spilling out of the wretched thrift-store dress. "I have never availed myself ofhow shall we say? Paid services."
A good journalist would ask. "Not even once?" Maybe she could inch just her pinky past his open neckline.
"Never." His hard tone left no room for doubt.
She held back her sigh of relief and let herself savor the heat of his skin under her touch.
Her fingers curled. "Oh, uh just oh."
"I am a gentleman, after all. And as such, I can't simply send you back onto the balcony. Stay while I make arrangements to slip you out." His palm lay low on her waist. "Would you like a drink?"
Her stomach squeezed into an even tighter ball of anticipation. Why was she this hyped-up over an assignment? This was her job, one she was well-trained to do. Thoughts of her days as a photojournalist for news magazines bombarded her. Days when her assignments ranged from a Jerusalem pilgrimage to the aftermath of an earthquake in Indonesia.
Now, she worked for GlobalIntruder.com.
She stifled a hysterical laugh. God, what had she sunk to? And what choice did she have with a shrinking newspaper industry?
Sure, she was nervous, damn it. This photo was about more than staying in the media game. It was about finding enough cash fast to make sure her special-needs sister wasn't booted out of her assisted-living facility next month. Jennifer had a grown-up's body with a child's mind. She needed protection and Kate was all she had left keeping her from becoming an adult ward of the state.
Too bad Kate was only a couple of rent payments away from bankruptcy court.
The prince's hand slid up her spine, clasping the back of her neck. Her traitorous body tingled.
She needed a moment to regroupaway from this guy's surprising allureif she hoped to get the information she needed. "Is there a powder room nearby where I can freshen up while you pour the drinks? When I leave your suite, I shouldn't look like I climbed around outside the balcony."
"I'll show you the way."
Not what she had in mind. But she'd kept her cool during a mortar attack before. She could handle this. "Just point, please. I've got good internal navigational skills."
"I imagine you're good at a great many things." His breath heated over her neck as he dipped his head closer to speak. "I may have never had use for offers such as yours before, but I have to confess, there is something captivating about you."
His warm breath grazed her exposed shoulder, his lips so close to touching her skin without closing that final whisper for connection. Her breasts beaded against the already snug bodice of her gown. She pushed her heels deeper into the carpet to keep her balance. Her anklet rubbed against her other leg. Her good-luck charm from Jennifer. Remember her sister.
"About that bathroom?" Frantically, she looked around the bedroom suite with too many tall, paneled doors, all closed.
"Right over here." His words heated over her neck, raising goose bumps along her arms.
"Uh, but " Was that breathy gasp hers? "I prefer to go solo."
"We wouldn't want you to get lost on your way." He stopped just at her earlobe as if to share a secret.
Had he touched her? His breath against her skin left her light-headed. He cupped the other side of her head. Hunger gnawed deep within her as she ached to lean into his cradling touch.
Then he backed away, his hand teasing a tempting trail and his black workout clothes rustling a lethal whisper. "Just through that door, Ms. Kate Harper."
Duarte gestured right, both of her earrings dangling from between his fingers.
Duarte had been waiting for this moment since the second he'd learned which tabloid scumbag had blown apart his family's carefully crafted privacy. He held Kate Harper's earrings in his hands along with her hopes of a new scoop. He'd been alerted she might be on the premises and determined her hidden cameras' locations before they'd left the balcony.
He'd spent his whole life dodging the press. He knew their tricks. His father had drummed into his sons at a young age how their safety depended on anonymity. They'd been protected, educated and, above all, trained.
Sweat trickled between his shoulder blades from his workouta regimen that had been interrupted by security concerns.
One look at the intruder on the screen and he'd decided to see how far she would go.
In that form-fitting dress, she personified seduction. Like a pinup girl from days past, she had a timeless air and feminine allure that called to the primal male inside him. Good Lord, what a striking picture she would make draped on the white sofa just behind her. Or better yet, in his bed.
But he was an expert at self-control. And just calling to mind her two-bit profession made it easier to rein in his more instinctive thoughts.
Kate Harper perched a hand on her hip. "I can't believe you knew who I really was the whole time."
"From the second you left the party." He'd been sent pictures of her when he'd investigated the photojournalist who cracked a cover story that had survived intense scrutiny for decades.
Background photos of her portrayed something very different: an earthy woman in khaki pants and generic white T-shirts, no makeup, her sleek brown hair in an unpretentious ponytail as opposed to the windswept twist she wore now. A hint of cinnamon apple fragrance drifted his way.
Her bright red lips pursed tight with irritation. "Then why pretend I'm a call girl?"
"That's too high-class for the garbage you peddle." He pocketed her earrings, blocking thoughts of her pretty pout.
His family's life had been torn apart just when his father needed peace more than ever. Too much stress
could kill Enrique Medina faster than any extremist assassin from San Rinaldo.
"So the gloves are off." She folded her arms over her chest, rubbing her hands along her skin. From fear or the cold ocean wind blasting through the open French doors? "What do you intend to do? Call your security or the police?"
"I have to admit, I wouldn't mind seeing more than gloves come off your deceitful body." Duarte closed the balcony doors with a click and a snick of a lock.
"Uh, listen, Prince Duarte, or Your Majesty, or whatever I'm supposed to call you." Her words tumbled faster and faster. "Let's both calm down."
He glanced over his shoulder, cocking an eyebrow.
"Okay, I will be calm. You be whatever you want." She swiped back a straggling hair with a shaky hand. "My point is I'm here. You don't want invasive media coverage. So why not pose for just one picture? It can be staged any way you choose. You can be in total control."