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Rafiq de Couteveille looked directly at Therese Fanchette, the motherly, middle-aged woman whose razor-sharp mind oversaw the security of his island country in the Indian Ocean. In a level voice he asked, 'Exactly what sort of relationship does this Alexa Considine have with Felipe Gastano? Are they lovers?'
Therese said neutrally, 'They are sharing a room at the hotel.'
So they were lovers. Rafiq glanced down at the photograph on his desk. Fine featured, medium height and slim, the woman was laughing up at the man he'd had in his sights for the past two years. She didn't look like Felipe Gastano's sort, but then, he thought with ice-cold anger, neither had Hani. His sister, now dead. 'What have you discovered about her?'
'Not much, but I've just been talking to a source in New Zealand. I taped the conversation, of course, and I'll make a written report after I've had the information verified.' She straightened her spectacles and checked her notes. 'Alexa Considine is twenty-six years old, and in New Zealand she is known as Lexie Sinclair. Until a year ago she was a veterinarian in a rural practice in the north of the country. When her half-sisterJacoba Sinclair, the modeland Prince Marco of Illyria became engaged, it emerged that Ms Considine is actually the daughter of the dead dictator of Illyria.'
'Paulo Considine?' At her nod, Rafiq's brows lifted. 'How did the daughter of one of the most hated and feared men of the twentieth century grow up in New Zealand?'
'Her mother fled there when the children were very young. She must have had good reason to be terrified of her husband. According to the news media, neither girl had any idea of their real identityuntil they were adults.'
Anyone who knew Considine had reason to be afraid. Go on,' Rafiq said, his eyes once more on the photograph.
'She has spent the past year working with the peasants in Illyria, healing their animals and teaching classes at the veterinary college she's helped set up under Prince Alex of Illyria's patronage.' Therese looked up. 'It appears he used her obvious innocence of her father's sins to break the ancient system of blood feuds in his country.'
Yes, Alex of Illyria was clever enough to stage-manage the situation to his advantage, Rafiq thought, his mind racing.
So Felipe Gastano had brought Alexa Considine to Moraze. What the hell was her family thinking to allow it? Her cousins were sophisticated men of the world; they must know that Gastano lived on the edge of society, using his wits, his handsome face and the faded glamour of an empty title to dazzle people. The tabloids called Count Felipe Gastano a great lover. Rafiq knew of a woman who'd killed herself after he'd stripped her of her self-respect by seducing her and then introducing her to drugs.
But perhaps Alexa Considine had something of her father in her. In spite of her work for the peasants, she could be an embarrassment to the Illyrian royal family.
Possibly she didn't need protection because she knew very well how to look after herself
He had to know more before he worked out how best to exploit the situation. 'She and Gastano have been lovers for how long?'
'About two months.'
Rafiq's dark gaze travelled to the handsome face of his enemy. Although he doubted that Gastano felt anything much beyond a cynical, predatory lust for any woman, he had a reputation for pride. He had always demanded beauty in his amours.
But Alexa ConsidineLexie Sinclairwas not beautiful. Attractive, yes, even striking, but without the overt sexuality the man had always favoured. So why had he chosen her to warm his bed?
Brows drawing together, Rafiq studied the photograph of the woman on Gastano's arm. It had been taken at a party in London, and she was laughing up at Gastano's good-looking face.
The illegitimate son of an aristocrat, the man had assumed the title 'Count' after the real count, his half-brother, had died from a drug overdose. Gastano might well consider that the Sinclair woman's connections to the rich and powerful Considine familytainted though they werewould give him the social standing he'd spent his life seeking.
That certainly made sense. And now Gastano's arrogance and his conviction that he was above suspicion had delivered him into Rafiq's hands.
Transferring his gaze to the crest on the wall of his office, Rafiq reined in a cold anticipation as he surveyed the emblem of his familya rampant horse wearing a crown that held a glitter of crimson, signifying the precious fire-diamonds found only on Moraze.
Rafiq would not be his father's sonor Hani's brotherif he failed to use the situation to his advantage.
Revenge was an ugly ambition, but Hani's death should not be in vain.
As for Alexa Considineshe might have been innocent before she met Gastano, though it seemed unlikely. Her half-sister had worked in the notoriously amoral world of high fashion, so maybe Alexa Considine had a modern attitude to sex, taking partners as she wanted them.
But if not, he'd be doing her a favour. Felipe Gastano was no considerate lover, and once his world started crumbling around him he'd fight viciously to save himself. She'd be far safer out of the way.
Besides, he thought with cold satisfaction, it would give him great pleasure to take her from Gastano, to show the creep the limits of his power and influence before the trap closed around him.
Mind made up, he said evenly, 'This is what I want you to do.'
Mme Fanchette leaned forward, frowning slightly as he outlined his instructions. When he'd finished she said quietly, 'Very well, then. And the count?'
Rafiq's voice hardened. 'Watch him closelyput your best people onto it, because he's as wary as a cat.' He got up and walked across to the window, looking down at the city spread below. 'Fortunately he is also a man with a huge sense of self-esteem, and a sophisticate's disdain for people who live in small, isolated countries far from the fleshpots of the world he preys on.'
From beneath lowered lashes, Rafiq watched the woman in the flame-coloured dress. Cleverly cut to reveal long legs, narrow waist and high, small breasts, the silk dress angled for male attention. But Alexa Considine's face didn't quite fit its skilful, not entirely discreet sensuality.
The photographs hadn't lied; she wasn't a top-class beauty, Rafiq decided dispassionatelyalthough, like every other woman attending the official opening of Moraze's newest, most luxurious, highly exclusive hotel, she was superbly groomed. Her cosmetics had been applied expertly and her golden-brown hair cut by a master to make the most of her features. However, apart from that eye-catcher of a dress, she stood out, and not just because she was alone.
Gastano, Rafiq noted, was across the other side of the room flirting with a film star of somewhat notorious reputation.
Unlike every other woman in the place, Alexa Considine wore no jewellery. And she looked unawak-ened, as though no one had ever kissed that tempting, lushly opulent mouthsensuous enough to make any red-blooded man fantasise about the touch of it on his skin.
Rafiq's gut tightened. Swiftly controlling the hot surge of desire through his blood, he scanned her fine-boned face with an impassive expression. It seemed highly unlikely that her features told anything like the truth. Mme Fanchette's source in New Zealand had come up with a blank about any possible affairs, but that didn't mean Alexa was an innocent. At university no one would have taken much notice of her love life.
And she was certainly Felipe Gastano's mistress, so that grave, unworldly air had to be spurious, a mere trick of genetics from somewhere in her bloodline.
Yet her cool self-possession challenged Rafiq in some primal, instinctive way. What would it be like to banish the composure from those regular features, set those large, slightly tilted eyes aflame with desire, feel those lips shape themselves to his ?
It took an effort of will to look away and pretend to scan the crowd, carefully chosen for their ability to create a buzza gathering wave of gossip and comment that would reach the ears of those who wanted privacy and opulence when they holidayed.
Rafiq had himself vetted the guest list, and apart from the woman in the sunset-coloured dress everybody in this Indian Ocean fantasy of a salon wore their sophistication like a badge of belonging.
Standing alone in the elegant, crowded room, she was attracting interested glances. Rafiq had to rein in a disturbing urge to forge his way through the chattering mob and cut her out, like a stallion with its favourite mare.
As he watched she turned and walked out through the wide doors into the warm, tropical night, the light from the chandeliers gleaming over satiny, golden-amber hair.
Across the room Gastano looked up, said something to the film star, and set off after his mistress. Rafiq fought back a raw anger that drove him to follow Gastano, and moved with the lithe gait of a man in complete control of his body.
He should leave it to the security men, of course, but he wanted to see them together, Gastano and Alexa Considine. That way he'd know for certain the truth about their relationship.
It was, he thought cynically as he stepped out onto the wide stone terrace, a perfect night for dalliancethe stars were as big as lamps, the sea gleamed like black silk shot with silver, and erotic perfumes from the flower farms of Moraze drifted lazily through the palms.
Stopping in the shadow of a vine heavy with flamboyant scarlet blossom, Rafiq watched the count walk up to Alexa Considine, and fought a primitive impulse to follow the man and best him in a territorial contest of overt masculine power.
The impulse startled him. Even in his amours he never allowed himself to be anything other than self-possessed, and this proprietary attitude towards a woman he didn't even knowand planned to usewas an unwelcome development.
Of course, it couldn't be personalwell, it was, he thought with a slow burn of anger, but it was between him and Gastano. Attractive though she was, the woman was merely a bystander.
Frowning, he noted her reaction to the count's opening remark, scanning her face for emotions as she turned from her contemplation of the lagoon.
Although Rafiq had a hunter's patience, he must have made some slight movement, because the woman looked over the count's shoulder. Her eyes widened momentarily, only to be hastily covered by long lashes.
Not in fear or surprise, he thought, but in warning. A very cool customer, this one. No, he didn't have to concern himself about her feelings; she was fully in command of them.
Narrowly he inspected the regular features highlighted by the silver witchery of starlight. Her sensuous mouth was compressed, her detached expression not altering as Gastano bent his head down to her.
The count's voice was pitched too low for Rafiq to hear what he said, but the tone was unmistakeableintimate and smoothly caressing.
The woman's brows lifted. 'No, I haven't changed my mind.'
Again the count spoke, and this time Rafiq caught a few words. He stiffened.
Speaking in English, the count had said, 'Come, don't be so angry, my dearest girl,' accompanied by a lingering, significant gaze.
She tossed back a crisp comment and walked past him, her spine straight as she headed for Rafiq.
'Hello,' she said in English, her voice clear and steady. 'I'm Lexie Sinclair. Isn't it a gorgeous evening?' Not giving him time to answer, she turned to include the count and asked in a pleasant tone, 'Do you two know each other?'
Full marks for social skills, Rafiq thought sardonically. Aloud he said, 'Of course.' Without offering a hand, he favoured the other man with a slight unsmiling inclination of his head. 'Gastano.'
Ah, sir, how delightful to meet you again.' The count's voice was a mixture of impudence and false man-to-man heartiness. 'I must congratulate you on yet another superb investmentI can tell you now that this hotel will be a huge success. I've already had two film stars singing its praises, and at least one minor European royal is planning to bring his latest mistress here for a week's tryst.'
He switched his attention to the woman, letting his eyes linger on her face, and went on in a voice where the impertinence had transmuted into charming ruefulness. 'Alexa, I must introduce you to Rafiq de Courteveille. He is the ruler of this lovely island, and all who live here, you know. But I must warn you to beware of himhe is well known to be a breaker of hearts. Sir, this is Alexa Considine, who prefers to be known as Lexie Sinclair. Perhaps she will tell you why.'
With an ironic smile, he bowed to them both then walked back into the hotel.
Aware of the anger that tightened her neat features, Rafiq took Alexa's arm. Ignoring her startled resistance, he walked her towards the edge of the wide, stone-flagged terrace.
A volatile mixture of irritation laced with apprehension had prompted Lexie's decision to make use of this stranger. If she'd known that he was the hereditary ruler of Moraze she'd never have dared; she'd probably shattered protocol. It had been kind of him to ignore her lack of manners.
So why did she feel that her impulsive approach to him had set something dangerous in motion? Resisting a faint, foolish urge to turn and run, she stole a rapid sideways glance at his face and dragged in a silent breath. A silver wash of starlight emphasised boldly angular features, strong and thrusting and uncompromising.
Dead gorgeous, she thought with involuntary appreciation, her heart picking up speed. In superbly tailored evening clothes he carried himself like an autocrat, his six-foot-several-inches of lean manhood almost intimidating.
Against such steel-hard authority, Felipe's glamorous sophistication suddenly seemed flashy and superficial.
Sedately, she said, 'It's an honour to meet you, sir.'
'My name is Rafiq.' He smiled at her, his dark eyes intent.
Lexie's pulse rate accelerated further, and an odd twist of sensation tightened her stomach. Trying to curb her runaway response, she struggled to remember what she'd read about the man who ruled this small, independent island state.
Not a lot. He didn't make the headlines, or figure largely in the tabloids. Felipe had referred to him contemptuously as 'the tinpot fake prince of a speck of land thousands of miles from civilisation.'
But Felipe's jeering dismissal of the man beside her had been foolish as well as wrong. Rafiq de Couteveille walked in an aura of effortless power based on formidable male assurance.
Her mind jerked away from the memory of the moment that morning when, tired after the long flight from Europe, she'd discovered that Felipe had organised for her to spend the week in a room with him.
It had been a shock. She'd already decided she wasn't in love with Felipe, and by going back to New Zealand she'd be ending their relationship.