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Mt. Roche, Principality of Verdon, Verdonia
Prince Lander Montgomery gripped the phone and spoke in a low, forceful voice. "You owe me, Arnaud. You've been in my debt for years. It's time for you to pay up, and I have the perfect way you can do it."
"I don't owe you a damn thing," Joc snapped. Even from half a world away his voice was as clear as though he stood in the same room. "You and your cronies made my life hell at Harvard. You're lucky I haven't tried to even the score. But now that you've taken the time and trouble to remind me of those good ol' days, I may reconsider."
Lander glared in disbelief. "Payback? After all this time?"
"Why not? When you have as much money as I do, payback can be a real bitch. A fact you'll soon discover firsthand, Your Highness."
"You have a convenient memory. I'd almost think you'd forgotten about graduation night." Lander paused.
"Not to mention the promise you made."
Joc snarled a curse. "I was out of my mind when I made that promise."
"No doubt. But still, you made it. Or doesn't the infamous Joc Arnaud honor his promises? Given your background, I thought honor was everything."
There was a moment of dead silence and Lander wondered if he'd pushed too hard. Then, "What do you want, Montgomery?"
Lander fought to disguise his relief. Years of practice maintaining an impassive facade came to his rescue and was reflected in the calmness of his voice. "I want to discuss a business proposition. I'm throwing a charity ball this Saturday. I understand you'll be in the vicinity."
"If you consider Paris in the vicinity."
"It's a hell of a lot closer than Dallas. Where should I send the invitation?"
"Corporateheadquarters. And make it two. There's someone I'd like to invite to your little shindig."
"I'll courier them to you today."
"You never did say, " A hint of curiosity climbed into Joc's voice. "What do you want from me?"
Lander smiled in satisfaction. When it came to Arnaud, curiosity was a good thing. A very good thing. "Not much. I just want you to save Verdonia."
She was late. Unforgivably late.
Juliana Rose mentally willed the cab to hurry, to cut through the heavy traffic overflowing the streets of Verdonia's capital city of Mt. Roche and reach her des-tination while she could still enjoy what remained of the evening's festivities. Even if she made it to the palace within the next five minuteshighly unlikelyshe didn't doubt for a single moment that she'd be the last guest to arrive.
Peering through the window, she struggled to see how much farther they had to go. In the distance the palace of Mt. Roche topped a nearby hill. It gleamed silvery gold beneath an early June moon, its graceful turrets and glittering stonework reinforcing its fairy-tale appearance. A hunger built deep inside, a hunger to believe in fairy tales and happily-ever-after endings, even though she'd learned long ago that such things were impossibleat least for her.
This was her very first ball, a reward for all her char-itable work for Arnaud's Angels. The fact that the fates were busily conspiring to prevent her from enjoying the fruits of her labor simply underscored her suspicion that some things were never meant to be. Besides, wasn't it considered a major no-no to arrive after the royal family? Would they even let her in? Or would she be turned from the door before she had the chance to peek inside? Well, she'd find out whether they'd let her in soon enough. And if they didn't, She shrugged philosophically. She had a briefcase full of work back at her apartment and a dozen potential candidates who would benefit from Angels' benevolence.
As the cab turned onto the winding approach to the palace, Juliana struggled not to fuss with her hair or tug at the scrap of beaded silk that bared more of her breasts than she found comfortable. Instead she folded her hands in her lap and cleared her mind by silently working her way through a complex mathematical equation. She'd stumbled across the trick as a child, starting with simple multiplication tables to calm herself whenever she'd been upset. Since then, she'd refined the technique, increasing the level of difficulty until it took all her focus and concentration to work her way through the problems. To her relief, the exercise worked, easing her tension and allowing her to regain her poise.
At long last the cab pulled through the palace gates and cruised slowly around the sweeping circle to an entryway as elegant as it was imposing. "Lion's Den," the driver announced in near perfect English. But then, most Verdonians were fluent, since it was their second language. Even the children she worked with spoke English as well as she spoke Verdonian.
"Why do you call it the Lion's Den?" Curiosity com-pelled her to ask.
He shrugged. "Prince Lander is the Lion of Mt. Roche." "So you call the palace the Lion's Den?"
He acknowledged her amusement with an answering grin. "Well, perhaps not to His Highness's face."
"No, I imagine not."
With a quick word of thanks, she added a generous tip to the fare and exited the cab. She could practically hear the clock ticking a frantic warning that time was passing, but she refused to rush, choosing instead to soak in the beauty of her surroundings. Normally she wouldn't have dared attend an affair like this. But she was in Verdonia, a small European country that rarely gained media attention, and farshe hopedfrom the intrusive focus of the paparazzi. No one knew her real name here, that she was an Arnaud. Instead, she'd been using her first and middle name. She was just Juliana Rose, charity worker, invited to the ball as a generous afterthought.
Tonight she had an opportunity she'd never experi-enced before. Tonight, she'd be able to cut loose from her conservative image and allow a tiny piece of her natural personality to take over. To shine as hot and brightly as she dared without worrying about who was watching or taking note of every word she spoke, or dress she wore, or man who danced with her.
Tonight she could be herself and damn the conse-quences.
Footmen lined the great hall, unobtrusively direct-ing her along the corridor. As she suspected, she was the only guest not yet in the ballroom. The spiked heels of her sandals fired off a rapid tattoo against the endless expanse of marble flooring. With every step she felt more and more like Cinderella, though if she were fortunate her Elie Saab gown wouldn't dissolve into rags on the stroke of midnight any more than the cab she arrived in would revert to a pumpkin with a mouse for a driver.
Passing between huge Doric columns she found herself on a large curved landing overlooking the gath-ering. A majordomo guarded the wide staircase that led downward into the mass of glittering partygoers. She paused to absorb it all, to savor every single aspect of this moment out of time. Flowers of endless variety and hue overflowed urns and vases, filling the room with a lush, heady scent. Elegant French doors were thrown wide, allowing a soft warm breeze laden with the advent of summer to filter through the throng, and causing the candles that lit the room to flicker and dance. Eventu-ally her attention drifted to the staircase leading down-ward. And that's when she saw him, positioned at the foot of the steps as though he'd been waiting for her.
He was tall. Even standing a full story above him she could tell his height was impressive. He wore his black tux with casual ease, his chest and shoulders a virtual wall of immovable masculinity. Thick, wavy hair swept back from his face, streaks of sun-bleached blond com-peting for supremacy over the rich nut brown.
She could see his chiseled features were striking, with high arcing cheekbones and a strong, square jaw that warned of a stubborn nature. But it was his mouth that fascinated her the most. It sat at odds with the hard, forbidding lines of his face and jaw. That mouth be-trayed him, the lips full and sensuous and perfectly designed to give a woman pleasure. There was a volcano of passion brewing beneath that mountain of calm con-trol, passion requiring only a single spark to ignite an explosion. The knowledge stirred a secret smile, one that faded the instant she realized he was watching her.
While she'd been studying him, curious and un-guarded and exposed, he'd been busy returning the favor. Their gazes locked and held for an endless mo-ment. Heat pooled low in her belly, lapping outward in ever-increasing demand. Never in all her twenty-five years had she experienced anything quite like it. She'd heard of women who'd been struck by that sort of sexual lightning bolt, had even scoffed at the possibility, but she'd never believed it possible.
Now, she was faced with an urgent demand she could no more restrain than deny. She knew this man. Oh, they'd never met. But somehow she recognized him. Connected with him on some primal, instinctive level.
For instance, she knew with every fiber of her being that he was a strong man. Powerful. A leader. And she knew that he'd taken one look at her and decided he would have her. He wanted her, wanted to sweep her into his arms and carry her off to his own private lair. To lock had his fill of her.
The knowledge almost had her stumbling backward. Pride kept her locked in place. He wasn't the first of his kind she'd had to sort out. She'd spent her entire life dealing with strong, powerful men. They were nothing but trouble. They demanded full control and consid-ered everyone and everything within their world a chal-lenge to either conquer, absorb or destroy.
She also knew that if she were smart she'd turn around and flee the palace. The safest recourse open to her was to hail a cab and return to her apartment where she could hide herself in precious anonymity. There was only one problem.
She wanted him, too.
Flight or confrontation? Rationality or insanity? She hesitated for a telling second before lifting her chin. To hell with it. She'd never before thrown discretion to the winds. Tonight would be her one chance and she in-tended to seize it with both hands. Gathering up her silk chiffon skirting, Juliana started down the steps and toward whatever fate the gods decreed.