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Raul stared unseeingly out of the chopper as it followed the coast south from Sydney. He shouldn't be here when the situation at home was so delicately poised. But he had no choice.
What an unholy mess!
His hands bunched into fists and he shifted his long legs restlessly.
The fate of his nation and the wellbeing of his subjects were at risk. His coronation, his right to inherit the kingdom he'd been born to and devoted his life to, hung in the balance. Even now he could scarcely believe it.
Desperately the lawyers had sought one legal avenue after another but the laws of inheritance couldn't be overturned, not till he became king. And to become king
The alternative was to walk away and leave his country prey to the rivalries that had grown dangerous under the last king, Raul's father. Civil war had almost ripped the country apart two generations ago. Raul had to keep his people safe from that, no matter what the personal cost.
His people, his need to work for them, had been what kept him going through the bleak wasteland of disillusionment when his world had turned sour years before. When paparazzi had muckraked and insinuated and his dreams had shattered around him, the people of Maritz had stood by him.
He would stand by them now when they most needed him.
Besides, the crown was his. Not only by birthright. By dint of every long day, every hour he'd devoted to mastering the myriad royal responsibilities.
He would not renounce his heritage. His destiny.
Tension stiffened every sinew and anger simmered in his blood. Despite a lifetime's dedication to the nation, despite his experience, training and formidable capacity, it had all come down to the decision of a stranger.
It scored his pride that his future, his country's future, depended on this visit.
Raul opened the investigator's report, skimming familiar details.
Luisa Katarin Alexandra Hardwicke. Twentyfour. Single. Selfemployed.
He assured himself this would be straightforward. She'd be thrilled and eager. Yet he wished the file contained a photo of this woman who would play such a pivotal role in his life.
He closed the report with a snap.
It didn't matter what she looked like. He wasn't weak like his father. Raul had learned the hard way that beauty could lie. Emotions played a man for a fool. Raul ruled his life, like his kingdom, with his head.
Luisa Hardwicke was the key to safeguarding his kingdom. She could be ugly as sin and it would make no difference.
Damn! The cow shifted, almost knocking Luisa over. Wearily she struggled to regain her footing in the bog at the edge of the creek.
It had been a long, troubling morning with early milking, generator problems and an unexpected call from the bank manager. He'd mentioned a property inspection that sounded ominously like a first step to foreclosure.
She shuddered. They'd fought so long to keep the small farming cooperative going through drought, illness and flood. Surely the bank couldn't shut them down now. Not when they had a chance to turn things around.
Overhead came the rhythmic thunder of a helicopter. The cow shifted uneasily.
'Sightseers?' Sam shouted. 'Or have you been hiding some wellheeled friends?'
'I wish!' The only ones she knew with that much money were the banks. Luisa's stomach coiled in a familiar twist of anxiety. Time was fast running out for the coop.
Inevitably her mind turned to that other world she'd known so briefly. Where money was no object. Where wealth was taken for granted.
If she'd chosen she could be there now, a rich woman with not a financial worry in the world. If she'd put wealth before love and integrity, and sold her soul in that devil's bargain.
Just the thought of it made her ill.
She'd rather be here in the mud, facing bankruptcy with the people she loved than be as wealthy as Croesus, if it meant giving up her soul.
'Ready, Sam?' Luisa forced herself to focus. She put her shoulder to the cow. 'Now! Slow and steady.'
Finally, between them, they got the animal unstuck and moving in the right direction.
'Great,' Luisa panted. 'Just a little more and' Her words were obliterated as a whirring helicopter appeared over the rise.
The cow shied, knocking Luisa. She swayed, arms flailing. Then her momentum propelled her forwards into the boggy mess. Wet mud plastered her from face to feet.
'Luisa!' Are you OK?' Her uncle, bless him, sounded more concerned than amused.
She lifted her head and saw the cow, udder swaying, heave onto firm ground and plod away without a backward glance. Gingerly Luisa found purchase in the sodden ground and crawled to her knees, then her feet.
'Perfect.' She wiped slime from her cheeks. 'Mud's supposed to be good for the complexion, isn't it?' She met Sam's rheumy gaze and smiled.
She flicked a dollop of mud away. 'Maybe we should bottle this stuff and try selling it as a skin tonic.' 'Don't laugh, girl. It might come to that.'
Ten minutes later, her overalls, even her face stiff with drying mud, Luisa left Sam and trudged up to her house. Her mind was on this morning's phone call. Their finances looked frighteningly bleak.
She rolled stiff shoulders. At least a shower was only minutes away. A wash, a quick cup of tea and
She slowed as she topped the hill and saw a helicopter on the grass behind the house. Gleaming metal and glass glinted in the sun. It was hightech and expensivea complete contrast to the weathered boards of the house and the ancient leaning shed that barely sheltered the tractor and her rusty old sedan.
Fear settled, a cold hard weight in her stomach. Could this be the inspection the banker had mentioned? So soon?
It took a few moments before logic asserted itself. The bank wouldn't waste money on a helicopter.
A figure appeared from behind the chopper and Luisa stumbled to a halt.
The sun silhouetted a man who was long, lean and elegant. The epitome of urbane masculinity.
She could make out dark hair, a suit that probably cost more than her car and tractor put together, plus a formidable pair of shoulders.
Then he turned and walked a few paces, speaking to someone behind the helicopter. His rangy body moved with an easy grace that bespoke lithe power. A power that belied his suave tailored magnificence.
Luisa's pulse flickered out of rhythm. Definitely not a banker. Not with that athletic body.
He was in profile now. High forehead, long aristocratic nose, chiselled mouth and firm chin. Luisa read determination in that solid jaw, and in his decisive gestures. Determination and something completely, defiantly masculine.
Heat snaked through her. Awareness.
Luisa sucked in a startled breath. She'd never before experienced such an instant spark of attraction. Had wondered if she ever would. She couldn't suppress a niggle of disturbing reaction.
Despite his elegant clothes this man looked.dangerous.
Luisa huffed out a choked laugh. Dangerous? He'd probably faint if he got mud on his mirrorpolished shoes.
Behind the house, worn jeans, frayed shirts and thick socks flapped on the clothes line. Her mouth twitched. Mr steppedfromaglossymagazine couldn't be more out of place. She forced herself to approach.
Who on earth was he?
He must have sensed movement for he turned.
'Can I help you?' Her voice was husky. She assured herself that had nothing to do with the impact of his dark, enigmatic stare.
'Hello.' His lips tilted in a smile.
She faltered. He was gorgeous. If you were impressed by impossibly handsome in a tough, masculine sort of way. Or gleaming, hooded eyes that intrigued, giving nothing away. Or the tiniest hint of a sexy cleft in his chin.
She swallowed carefully and plastered on a smile.
'Are you lost?' Luisa stopped a few paces away. She had to tilt her chin up to look him in the eye.
'No, not lost.' His crisp deep voice curled with just a hint of an accent. 'I've come to see Ms Hardwicke. I have the right place?'
Luisa frowned, perplexed.
It was a rhetorical question. From his assured tone to his easy stance, as if he owned the farm and she was the interloper, this man radiated confidence. With a nonchalant wave of his hand he stopped the approach of a burly figure rounding the corner of the house. Already his gaze turned back to the homestead, as if expecting someone else.
'You've got the right place.'
She looked from the figure at the rear of the house whose wary stance screamed bodyguard, to the chopper where the pilot did an equipment check. Another man in a suit stood talking on a phone. Yet all three were focused on her. Alert.
Who were these people? Why were they here?
A shaft of disquiet pierced her. For the first time ever her home seemed dangerously isolated.
'You have business here?' Her tone sharpened.
Instinct, and the stranger's air of command, as if used to minions scurrying to obey, told her this man was in a league far beyond the local bank manager.
An uneasy sensation, like ice water trickling down her spine, made her stiffen.
'Yes, I need to see Ms Hardwicke.' His eyes flicked to her again then away. 'Do you know where I can find her?'
Something in that single look at her face, not once dropping to her filthy clothes, made her burningly selfconscious. Not just of the mud, but the fact that even clean and in her best outfit she'd feel totally outclassed.
Luisa straightened. 'You've found her.'
This time he really looked. The intensity of that stare warmed her till she flushed all over. His eyes widened beneath thick dark lashes and she saw they were green. The deep, hard green of emeralds. Luisa read shock in his expression. And, she could have sworn, dismay.
Seconds later he'd masked his emotions and his expression was unreadable. Only a slight bunching of sleek black eyebrows hinted he wasn't happy.
'Ms Luisa Hardwicke?'
He pronounced her name the way her mother had, with a soft s and a lilt that turned the mundane into something pretty.
Premonition clamped a chill hand at the back of her neck. The accent had to be a coincidence. That other world was beyond her reach now.
Luisa wiped the worst of the dirt off her hand and stepped forward, arm outstretched. It was time to take charge of this situation. 'And you are?'
He hesitated for a moment, then her fingers were engulfed in his. He bowed, almost as if to kiss her hand. The gesture was charming and outlandish. It sent a squiggle of reaction through her, making her breath falter. Especially as his warm, powerful hand still held hers.
Heat scalded her face and she was actually grateful for the smearing of dirt that concealed it.
He straightened and she had to arch her neck to meet his glittering scrutiny. From this angle he seemed all imposing, austere lines that spoke of unyielding strength.
Luisa blinked and drew a shaky breath, trying to ignore the butterflies swirling in her stomach and think sensibly.
'I am Raul of Maritz.' He said it simply but with such assurance she could almost imagine a blare of trumpet fanfare in the background. 'Prince Raul.'
Raul watched her stiffen and felt the ripple of shock jolt through her. She yanked her hand free and took a step back, arms crossing protectively over her chest.
His mind clicked up a gear as interest sparked. Not the welcome he usually received. Fawning excitement was more common.
'Why are you here?' This time the throaty edge to her words wasn't gruff. It made her sound vulnerable and feminine.
Feminine! He hadn't realised she was a woman!
From her husky voice to her muddy boots, square overalls and battered hat that shadowed her grimy face, she had as much feminine appeal as a cabbage. She still hadn't removed the hat. And that walk! Stiff as an automaton.
He froze, imagining her in Maritzian society where protocol and exquisite manners were prized. This was worse than he'd feared. And there was no way out.
Not if he was to claim his throne and safeguard his country.
He clenched his teeth, silently berating the archaic legalities that bound him in this catch22.
When he was king there'd be some changes.
'I asked what you're doing on my land.' No mistaking the animosity in her tone. More and more intriguing.
'My apologies.' Automatically he smiled, smoothing over his lapse. It was no excuse that the shock of seeing her distracted him. 'We have important matters to discuss.'
He waited for her answering smile. For a relaxation of her rigid stance. There was none.
'We have nothing to discuss.' Beneath the mud her neat chin angled up.
She was giving him the brushoff? It was absurd!
'Nevertheless, it's true.'
He waited for her to invite him in. She stood unmoving, staring up balefully. Impatience stirred.
And more, a wave of distaste at the fate that decreed he had to take this woman under his wing. Turn this unpromising material into
'I'd like you to leave.'
Raul stiffened in indignation. At the same time curiosity intensified. He wished he could see her without that mask of mud.
'I've travelled from my homeland in Europe to speak with you.'
'That's impossible, I tell you. I have no'
'Far from being impossible, I made the trip for that sole purpose.' Raul drew himself up and took a pace closer, letting his superior height send a silent message. When he spoke again it was in a tone that brooked no opposition. 'I'm not leaving until we've concluded our business.'
Luisa's stomach twisted in knots and her nerves stretched to breaking point as she hurried through the house back to the veranda where she'd left her visitor.
The crown prince of Maritz, her mother's homeland, here at her house! This couldn't be good.
She'd tried to send him away, turn her back rather than face anyone from that place. The memories were too poisonous.
But he'd been frighteningly immovable. A single look at that steely jaw told her she wouldn't succeed.
Besides, she needed to know why he was here.
Now, armoured as best she could manage by scouring hot water and clean clothes, she tried to stifle rising panic.
What did he want?
He filled up her veranda with his larger than life presence, making her feel small and insignificant. His spare features reminded her of pictures of the old king in his youthimpossibly handsome with his high cut cheekbones and proud bearing. From his top notch tailoring to his air of command, this man was someone.
Yet royalty didn't just pop in to visit.
Disquiet shivered through her. A shadow of the stormy past.
He turned to her. Instantly she felt at a disadvantage. With those chiselled aristocratic features and that uncompromising air of maleness he was stunning. Despite her wariness, heat ricocheted through her abdomen.
His eyes narrowed. Luisa's heartbeat pattered out of kilter and her mouth dried. With a jolt of shock she realised it was the man himself, as much as his identity that disturbed her.
Luisa laced her fingers rather than straighten her loose shirt, her only clean one after weeks of rain. She wished she could meet him on equal terms, dressed to the nines. But her budget didn't run to new clothes. Or a new hairdryer.
She smoothed damp locks from her face and pushed back her shoulders, ignoring the way her stomach somersaulted. She refused to be intimidated in her own home.
'I was admiring your view,' he said. 'It's lovely countryside.'
Luisa cast her eyes over the familiar rolling hills. She appreciated the natural beauty, but it had been a long time since she'd found time to enjoy it.