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Narroweyed, Alex Matthews surveyed the ballroom of the palace. The band had just played a few bars of the Carathian national folk song, a tune in waltztime that was the signal for guests to take their partners for the first dance of the evening. The resultant rustle around the margins of the room flashed colour from the women's elaborate gowns and magnificent jewellery.
Alex's angular features softened a little when he saw the bride. His halfsister outshone any jewel, her blazing happiness making Alex feel uncomfortably like an intruder. Quite a few years younger, Rosie was the daughter of his father's second wife and, although they'd become friends over the past few years, he'd never had a close relationship with her.
Alex transferred his gaze to his brotherinlaw of a few hours, the Grand Duke of Carathia. Gerd wasn't given to displays of overt emotion, but Alex blinked at the other man's unguarded expression when he looked down at the woman on his arm. It was as though there was no one in the room but the two of them.
It lasted scarcely a moment, just long enough for Alex to wonder at the subtle emotion that twisted inside him.
Sex and affection he understoodrespect and liking alsobut love was foreign to him.
Probably always would be. The ability to feel such intense emotion didn't seem to be part of his character. And since breaking hearts wasn't something he enjoyeda lesson he'd learned from a painful experience in his youthhe now chose lovers who could accept his essential aloofness.
However, although he couldn't imagine that sort of emotion in himself, he was glad his halfsister loved a man worthy of her, one who not only returned her ardour but valued her for it. Although he and Gerd were distant cousins, they had grown up more like brothersand if anyone deserved Rosie's love, Gerd did.
Couples began to group around the royal pair, leaving them a space in the middle of the ballroom.
The man beside him said, 'Are you planning to sit this one out, Alex?'
'No, I'm pledged for it.' Alex's blue gaze moved to a woman standing alone at the side of the room.
Elegant and smoothly confident, Princess Serina's beautiful face revealed nothing beyond calm pleasure. Yet until Rosie and Gerd had announced their engagement, most of the rarefied circle of high society she moved in had assumed the Princess would be the next Grand Duchess of Carathia.
Regally inscrutable, if Serina of Montevel was secretly grieving she refused to give anyone the titillating satisfaction of seeing it. Alex admired her for that.
During the last few days he'd overheard several remarks from watchful wedding guestsa few compassionate but most from people looking for drama, the chance to see a cracked heart exposed.
Made obscurely angry by their snide spite, Alex mentally shrugged. The Princess didn't need his protection; her impervious armour of breeding and selfsufficiency deflected all snide comments, denied all attempts at sympathy.
He'd met her a year ago at Gerd's coronation ball, introduced by an elderly Spanish aristocrat who had formally reeled off her full complement of surnames. Surprised by a quick masculine desire, Alex had read amusement in the Princess's amazing, darkly violet eyes.
A little sardonically he'd commented on that roll call of blood and pride, power and position.
Her low amused chuckle had further fired his senses. 'If you had the same conventions in New Zealand you'd have a phalanx of names too,' she'd informed him with unruffled composure. 'They're nothing more than a kind of family tree.'
Possibly she'd meant it, but now, possessed of disturbing knowledge about her brother, Alex wasn't so sure. Doran of Montevel was only too aware that those names were embedded in European history. Did the Princess have any idea of what her younger brother had got himself mixed up with?
If she did she'd done nothing about it, so perhaps she also wanted to see herself back in Montevel, a true princess instead of the bearer of a defunct title inherited from her deposed grandfather.
And Alex needed to find out just what she did know. He set off towards her.
She saw him coming, of course, and immediately produced an irritatingly gracious smile. The smoky violet of her gown echoed the colour of her eyes and hugged a narrow waist, displaying curves that unleashed something elemental and fierce inside Alex, an urge to discover what lay beneath that lovely fagade, to challenge her on the most fundamental levelman to woman.
'Alex,' she said, the smile widening a fraction when he stopped in front of her. 'This is such a happy occasion for us all. I've never seen such a blissful bride, and Gerd lookswell, almost transfigured.'
A controlled man himself, Alex admired her skill in conveying that her heart wasn't broken. 'Indeed,' he responded. 'My dance, I believe.'
Still smiling, she laid a slender hand on his arm and together they walked into the waiting, chattering circle around Rosie and Gerd.
Alex glanced down, a phrase from childhood echoing in his head. White as snow, red as blood, black as ebony. Snow White, he remembered.
And Serina was an almost perfect snow princess.
Exquisite enough to star in a fairy tale, she radiated grace. Her black chignon set off her tiara and classical features perfectly, contrasting sensuously with the almost translucent pallor of her skin.
She'd passed on one part of the description, though; her lips were painted a restrained shade of dark, clear pink. A bold red would be too blatant, too provocative for this Princess.
But they were tempting lips
A hunting instinct as old as time stirred into life deep within Alex. He'd wanted Serina Montevel ever since he'd first seen her, but because he too had wondered if she was wounded by dashed hopes he'd made no move to attract her attention. However, a year had passed enough time to heal any damage to her heart.
He stopped with Serina on the edge of the crowd of dancers and sent a flinty territorial glance, sharp as a rapier, to a man a few paces away eyeing Serina with open appreciation. It gave him cold pleasure to watch the ogler hastily transfer his appreciative gaze elsewhere.
The band swung into the tune and the crowd fell silent as the newlyweds began waltzing. Softly the onlookers began to clap in time to the beat.
Serina glanced up, tensing when her eyes clashed with a sharp blue gaze. Her breath locked in her throat while she wrestled down an exhilarating excitement. Tall, dark and arrogantly handsome, Alex Matthews had a strangely weakening effect on her.
Warily, because the silence between them grew too heavy, almost significant, she broke into it with the first thing that came into her head. 'This is a very pretty tradition.'
'The Carathian wedding dance?'
Neither Rosie nor Gerd smiled; eyes locked, it was as if they were alone together, absorbed, so intent on each other that Serina felt a sharp stab ofregret?
No, not quite. A kind of wistful envy.
Just over a year previously she'd decided to make it clear to Gerdwithout being so crass as to say the wordsthat she wasn't on the market to become Grand Duchess of Carathia. Such a union would have solved a lot of her problems, and she admired Gerd very much, but she wanted more than a convenient marriage.
Just as well, because shortly afterwards Gerd had taken one look at the Rosie he'd last seen as a child and lost his heart.
What would it be like to feel that herself? To be loved so ardently that even in public their emotions were barely containable?
Keeping her eyes on them, she said quietly, 'They fit, don't they.' It wasn't a question.
Alex's enigmatic glance, as polished as the steelsheen on a sword blade, brought heat to her skin. What a foolish thing to say about a couple who'd just made their wedding vows!
Of course they fitted. For now, anyway, she thought cynically. Somewhere she'd read that the first flush of love and passion lasted two years, so Gerd and Rosie would enjoy perhaps another year of this incandescent delight in each other before it began to fade.
'Perceptive of you,' Alex commented in a level voice. 'Yes, they fit.'
The music swelled, accompanied by a whirl of colour and movement as everyone joined in the dance, swirling around the absorbed couple.
Serina braced herself. Nerves taut, she rested one hand on Alex's shoulder and felt his fingers close around the other as he swung her into the waltz. Anticipation sizzled through herheady, compelling, so unnerving that after a few steps she stumbled.
Alex's arm clamped her against his lean, athletic body for breathless seconds before he drawled, 'Relax, Princess.'
His warm breath on her skin sent tiny, delicious shudders through her, a gentler counterpoint to the sultry heat that burgeoned deeply within her at the intimate flexing of his thigh muscles. Shocked by the immediacy of her response, Serina pulled herself a safe distance away and forced herself to ignore the sensual tug until her natural sense of rhythm settled her steps.
This acute physical responsejungle drums of sensation pounding through herhad sprung into action the first time she'd met Alex. Gritting her teeth, she resisted the tantalising thrill, sharp and adrenalincharged as though she faced a sudden danger.
Did he feel the same?
She risked an upward glance, heart racing into overdrive when she met searing, disturbingly intent eyes. His grip didn't tighten, but she sensed a quickening in him that he couldn't control.
Yes, she thought triumphantly, before a flurry of panic squelched that intoxicat ing emotion.
Swallowing, she said in her most remote tone, 'Sorry. I wasn't concentrating.'
Then wondered uneasily if the admission had hinted at her body's wilful blooming.
Rapidly she added brightly, 'This has been one of the most charming weddings I've ever attended. Rosie is so happy, and it's lovely to see Gerd utterly smitten.'
'Yet you seem a little distracted. Is something worrying you?' Alex enquired smoothly.
Well, yesseveral things, in fact, with one in particular nagging at her mind.
But Alex wasn't referring to her brother. He'd have noticed that plenty of eyes around the ballroom were fixed on her, some pitying, others malicious. Of the two she preferred the spite, although a hissed aside that had been pitched carefully to reach her ears still stung.
'It must be like eating bitter aloes for her,' a French duchess had said.
Her blonde companion had returned on a laugh, 'I'll bet the brother's furiousonce she failed to land Prince Gerd they lost their best chance of clawing their way out of poverty. And losing out to a nobody must be bitter indeed.'
Not everyone was as catty, but she'd noticed enough abruptly terminated conversations and parried enough speculative glances to know what many of the guests were thinking.
Let them think what they liked! Pride stiffening her spine, she smiled up at Alex. Oh, not too widely, in case those watchers suspected her of actingbut with a slow, amused glimmer that should give some of the eager gossipers a few seconds of thought.
'I'm not distracted, and nothing's wrong,' she told him, her tone level and deliberate.
His black brows climbed for a second. 'As you've probably noticed, quite a few people here are wondering whether you're regretting a missed opportunity.'
At least he'd come out and said it. She tilted her head and met his calculating scrutiny with unwavering steadiness, praying he couldn't see how brittle she was beneath the surface selfpossession.
'About as much as Gerd is,' she returned coolly, hoping she'd banished every trace of defiance from her voice.
Alex's mouthunsoftened by its compelling hint of sensualityrelaxed into a smile that was more challenge than amusement. 'Indeed?'
'Indeed,' she returned, infusing the word with complete assurance.
She shot him a questioning glance, parrying a look that sent a quiver the full length of her spine. He let his gaze wander across her face, finally settling it on her lips. A voluptuous excitement smouldered through her.
Surelyyes, she thought with a triumph so complete she could feel it radiating through herhe was flirting with her. And she was going to respond.
But first she had to know something. That suspect recklessness gave her the courage to say, 'I'm surprised you're alone this week.'
His latest reputed lover was a gloriously beautiful Greek heiress, quite recently divorced. Rumour had it that Alex had been the reason for the marriage breakup but Serina found that difficult to believe. He was noted for an ironbound sense of integrity, and it seemed unlikely he'd let a passing fancy for a beautiful woman compromise that.
However, she thought with another spurt of cynicism, what did she really know about him? Nothing, except that he'd used his formidable intelligence, ruthless drive and an uncompromising authority to build a worldwide business empire.
Besides, his fancy for his Greek lover might not be passing.
Alex's tone was matteroffact. 'Why? I have no partner or significant other.'
So that was that. Neither have I seemed far too much like a bald, much too obvious invitation.
Serina contented herself with a short nod, and kept her eyes fixed on the throng whirling behind him. He was an excellent dancer, moving with the lithe, muscular grace of an athlete, and wearing his formal clothes with a kind of lethal elegance that proclaimed the powerful body beneath.