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She had the figure of a glamour model, the face of an angel—and she was threatening him with a knife.
It wasn't every day his ocean-going yacht was boarded by a barely clothed virago. What few clothes remained on the young girl's bruised and scratched body were ripped and sodden, and the knife she was brandishing looked as if it had come from his galley. In her other hand, she was holding a hunk of bread and cheese, stolen from the same place, he presumed.
Was a French baguette worth killing for?
Probably, he mused, remembering he had persuaded a top French boulanger to open a branch in Sinnebar.
As the merciless sun sliced its way through the mist, his first impulse was to get the pirate princess into the shade, but he remained still, not wanting to provoke her into anything more reckless than she had already attempted. She was young, barely out of her teens, but had clearly been through some sort of trauma. He took in the tangled mass of blonde hair and bruised face with slanting blue-green eyes, more wounded than wounding. 'What do you think you're doing?' he said calmly.
'Don't!' she threatened, jabbing the sultry air with her knife.
He held the laugh, relieved she was okay. Mist hung tenaciously, making visibility poor; she must have climbed up on deck while he'd been in the sea checking the hull for storm damage.
'I'm warning you!' she exclaimed, though he hadn't moved.
If she backed away another inch, she'd be over the side.
Her shock at seeing him had forced her into the role of aggressor, he concluded, remaining still so as not to alarm her. She hadn't recognised him or she would have put down her little knife. 'Why don't you give me the knife?' he suggested, knowing if she had meant to attack him she would have done so by now. 'Or, better still, throw it overboard?'
She bared her teeth at that to give him a little warning growl, like a kitten with a toothache. 'Don't you come any closer,' she warned, 'Or I'll—'
'You'll what?' He disarmed her in one absurdly easy move. There was a flash of warm flesh beneath his hands, then it was all shrieking and clawing as she fought him as if to the death. 'Wildcat!' he exclaimed, feeling a sharp thrill of pain as she dug her sharp, white teeth into his hand. Resigned to capture, she couldn't take her eyes off the much bigger knife he wore hanging from his belt. 'I have no intention of harming you,' he reassured her.
She had no intention of listening, which left him dealing with a wriggling desperado, who drummed his deck furiously with her tiny heels as he steered her towards the opening leading to the lower deck and his first-aid kit.
Finally losing patience, he bound her arms to her side and swung her over his shoulder. 'Stop that!' he instructed as she arched her body and pummelled his back. 'Do you want to bang your head?'
She went rigid as he padded sure-footed below deck into what was an all-purpose space on the ocean-going racing yacht. She was still in shock, he registered as he set her down on the one and only seat. All home comforts had been stripped away below deck to make room for necessary equipment, but as he'd been trialling on this voyage rather than racing there was plenty of fresh food on board—hence the bread his pirate wench had stolen. He had brought other supplies and small comforts along to make his time aboard more pleasurable, including the cushions he'd laid out on deck so he could sleep beneath the stars.
When the girl groaned and put her head in her hands, his first thought was to rehydrate her. He reached into the cold box for a glucose drink. 'Here,' he said, loosening the top and offering it to her. Her expression didn't change. She remained stiffly non-responsive, staring ahead with her jaw set in white-faced fright.
'Drink it, or I'll hold your nose and pour it down your throat.' He'd used similar shock tactics years back when his younger brother Razi had refused to take his medicine.
Just like then, she retaliated with a furious, 'You wouldn't dare!'
One look from him was enough to settle that argument. She held out her hand. He gave her the bottle; she gulped down the contents greedily.
'When was the last time you had something to drink?'
She refused to answer. Swiping the back of her hand across her mouth, she raised blue-green eyes to his face. Chips of glacial ice would have held more heat.
No surrender, he concluded. And as for apologising for trespassing on his yacht? Forget it.
Tugging on the first top that came to hand, he began heating water to bathe her wounds. Blocking her escape with his body, he reached into a cupboard for antiseptic, lint and cotton wool. Adding a splash of disinfectant to the water, he stuffed a blanket under his arm and turned around. 'Here—put this round you.'
She flinched and refused to look at him, drawing her legs in defensively, but it was when she crossed her arms over her chest that he finally lost patience. 'I'mnot interested in your body,' he assured her, only to be rewarded by a tiny squeak of protest from a girl who was clearly accustomed to being admired. Proving the point, he put the bowl down and tugged the blanket tightly round her slender shoulders, trying not to notice that one lush, pert breast was partially exposed.
Seeing his momentary distraction, she snatched the blanket from him, holding it so tightly closed that her knuckles turned white.
'Don't flatter yourself.'
She was safe from him—too young, too reckless, plus he resented the intrusion. Any other time or place and he would have had her removed from his presence.
But she was tougher than she looked or she would have been reduced to a hysterical mess by now. She was an irritation, but she was also courageous, he concluded, and a breath of fresh air after the painted harpies who regularly served themselves up at court for his perusal.
There was only one thing wrong with the girl: she reminded him of someone else. Those tangled locks and slanting eyes held an echo of his father's mistress, a woman who had destroyed his mother's life and who had referred to Razi—the step-brother he couldn't have loved more if they had shared the same blood—as the worst mistake she had ever made. That woman might be dead now, but she had left disaster in her wake, and as far as he was concerned she had defined his father's weakness. It had been a fatal weakness that had stolen his father's attention away from his country and its people. With that lesson guiding him, things had changed for the better since he had assumed control. There was no longer chaos in Sinnebar, and his people knew that he would never repeat his father's mistake and become a slave to his heart.
He refocused as the girl shifted restlessly on the bench. 'I'm going to bathe your scratches before they turn septic,' he informed her crisply.
She recognised a command, but to his astonishment something in her eyes said she would dearly like to strike him. 'I wouldn't do that if I were you,' he warned grimly, at which she scowled and slumped back like the spoiled teen he thought her to be. 'When did you last eat?' he demanded as he assessed her wounds and general condition.
Her stomach answered this question with an imperative growl, and then he remembered the hunk of bread she'd dropped on the deck. 'When I've finished, you can eat.'
She tilted her chin at a defiant angle to stare haughtily past him.
So, let her go hungry—though he was forced to concede he admired her nerve. He liked the electricity between them too, but neither of these things would affect how he dealt with her. He would administer basic first-aid and then turn her over to the authorities. 'Arms,' he prompted brusquely, and then, deciding he would teach her what it meant to risk her life in the Gulf, he demanded, 'Don't you know anything about maritime law?'
Her flickering gaze suggested not.
'If I report your actions to the ruling Sheikh in Sinnebar… You have heard of the man known as the "Sword of Vengeance", I take it?' He had the satisfaction of seeing her pale. 'If I tell him that you came aboard my yacht, stole my food and threatened me with one of my own knives I would imagine the most lenient sentence he could hand out would be life imprisonment.'
'But you wouldn't!'
Even as she protested her eyes were narrowing in defiance. He liked her fire. He liked her voice. He liked… 'Report you?' he rapped, calling his wayward thoughts back to order. 'That depends on you telling me exactly how you got here. And be completely honest with me; I shall know at once if you lie.'
Hearing the menace in his voice, she slowly unfurled her legs as if deciding a temporary truce was her only option. 'You were moored up, and so I thought…'
She'd take her chances, he silently supplied, feeling a beat of lust as she held his gaze. She spoke English well, but with the faintest of Italian accents. 'You don't look Italian,' he said, dropping it in casually.
'I had an English mother,' she explained, before her mouth clamped shut, as if she felt she'd said too much.
'Start by telling me what brought you to the Gulf and how you arrived on my yacht.'
'I jumped overboard and swam.'
'You swam?' He weighed up her guarded expression. 'You're telling me you jumped overboard and swam through these seas?' His tone of voice reflected his disbelief.
'For what felt like hours.' She blurted this, and then fell silent.
'Go on,' he prompted, continuing to bathe her wounds.
'Before the mist closed in, the boat we were on was hugging the coastline.'
She shook her head as if it was important to concentrate. 'I could see this island and was confident I could make it to the shore.'
'You must swim well,' he commented.
She spoke without pride, and, taking in her lithe strength, he was tempted to believe her. But she must have swum like an athlete to survive the storm, and however capable she believed herself to be she was no match for the dangerous currents and unpredictable weather conditions in the waters of the Gulf.
The girl had stirred some instinct in him, he realised. It was the instinct to protect and defend, and he hadn't felt that so strongly since his brother Razi had been young. 'What made you jump overboard?' He had his own suspicions, but wanted to hear it from the girl.
Her face grew strained as she remembered. 'Our boat was attacked.'
'I'll need more than that.' If his suspicions were correct, his security forces would need all the information he could glean from her. 'Was your boat attacked by pirates?'
'How do you know that?' The terror in her eyes suggested she thought he was one of them. In fairness, she had had quite an experience, and he was tempted to comfort her. It was an impulse he resisted.
'I suspected as much, and you just confirmed it. And I'm not a criminal,' he added when she continued to stare at him as if he had just grown horns. 'Quite the contrary—I bring people to justice.'
'So you're a law-enforcement officer?'
'Something like that,' he agreed.
Partially reassured, she settled back. 'I was lucky to escape with my life,' she said, echoing his thoughts exactly. 'I escaped.'
And now she was over-doing it with a dramatic hitch in her voice. As she looked at him, as if trying to gauge his reaction, he suspected she was used to playing someone— an older brother, perhaps? She was out of luck with him. He wasn't so easily won over. 'You are lucky to have escaped with your life—and I'm not talking about the pirates now. You boarded my yacht without permission. I carry arms on board and wouldn't hesitate to use them. What use would your little knife have been to you then?'
Colour rushed to her cheeks while her intelligent eyes sparkled like aquamarines. He didn't need a further reminder to put some distance between them. He picked up the radio, to call the officer on duty and let him know the girl had been found and was safe—and when he turned to look at her he felt another bolt of lust.
She couldn't stop shaking and the man didn't help. She had never imagined such a combination of brutal strength and keen intelligence existed, let alone in such a perfectly sculpted form. His manner was proud—disdainful, even. He was magnificent. He only had to touch her for her body to react as if he was caressing her intimately. There was just one thing wrong. She could be as bold and determined as she liked, but she was way out of her depth here, and he frightened her. She was a flirt, a tease, and was used to getting her own way, but she had never met a man so hard—so hard on her. She wasn't used to indifference. She was spoiled—she was the first to admit it—spoiled, both by a brother who adored her and by the attention of half the world's men. If anything, there were times when she wished herself invisible. This was not one of those times.
But why should the man be interested in her? He was out of her league—older, tougher, better looking and more experienced in every way. She had left her comfortable cocoon back in Rome to learn about life, but never had she anticipated learning quite so much quite so fast. She didn't even know if this man was more trustworthy than the pirates, and only had the fact that he had bathed her wounds to go on. Would he have done that if he had intended to harm her?
However caring that might make him seem, she refused to be reassured, or to relax her guard. There was something dangerous about him. At least when the pirates had attacked she'd had the chance to jump overboard, but she suspected this man had lightning reflexes and slept with one eye open. Right now he was talking on the radio in a husky tongue she guessed must be Sinnebalese. She had studied the language before setting out on her journey, and could pick up a word or two, but frustratingly not enough. She could learn more from his manner, Antonia decided, which was brisk, to the point and carried an air of authority. He was someone important—someone people listened to—but who?