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Prince Cristiano di Savaré slipped the last stud into his tuxedo shirt and straightened the points of his collar as he gazed at his reflection. The yacht rocked gently beneath his feet, but that was the only indication he was on board a ship and not in a luxury hotel room. He'd flown over two thousand miles to be here tonight and, though he wasn't tired, the expression on his face was grim. So grim that lines bracketed his mouth, furrowed his forehead, and made him look older than his thirty-one years.
He would have to work on that before he hunted his quarry. Though his task tonight gave him no joy, it had to be done. He forced a smile, studied it. Yes, that would work.
Women always melted when he turned on the charm.
He shrugged into his jacket and whisked a spot of lint away with a flick of his fingers. What would Julianne think if she saw him now? He'd give anything for another glimpse of her, for the little pout on her face whenever she concentrated— as she surely would while she straightened his tie and implored him not to look so serious.
Cristiano turned away from the mirror, unwilling to see the expression he now wore at the thought of his dead wife. He'd been married for so short a time—and so long ago now that he sometimes couldn't remember the exact shade of Juli-anne's hair or the way her laugh sounded. Was that normal?
He knew it was, and yet it both angered and saddened him. She'd paid the ultimate price for marrying him. He would never forgive himself for allowing her to die when he could have prevented it. Should have prevented it.
It was four and a half years since he'd let her climb onto a helicopter destined for the volatile border between Monterosso and Monteverde. In spite of the unease churning in his gut, he'd let her go without him.
Julianne had been a medical student, and she'd insisted on accompanying him on an aid mission. When he had to cancel at the last moment, he should have ordered her to stay behind with him.
But she'd convinced him that the new Crown Princess should work toward peace with Monteverde. As an American, she'd felt safe enough visiting both countries. She'd been certain she could make a difference.
And he'd let her certainty convince him.
Cristiano closed his eyes. The news that a Monteverdian bomb had ended Julianne's life, and the lives of three aid workers with her, triggered the kind of rage and despair he'd never experienced before or since.
It was his fault. She would have lived if he'd refused to let her go. Would have lived if he'd never married her. Why had he done so? He'd asked himself that question many times since.
He didn't believe in lightning bolts and love at first sight, but he'd been drawn to her. The attraction between them had been strong, and he'd been certain marrying her was the right decision.
Except that it hadn't been. Not for her.
The truth was that he'd done it for selfish reasons. He'd needed to marry, and he'd refused to allow his father to dictate who his bride would be. Instead, he'd chosen a bold, beautiful girl he barely knew simply because the sex was great and he liked her very much. He'd swept her off her feet, promised her the world.
And she'd believed him. Far better if she hadn't.
He dropped a mental shield into place, slicing off his thoughts. He would be unfit for mingling with Raúl Vega's guests if he did not do so. Those dark days were over. He'd found a purpose in their aftermath, and he would not rest until it was done.
The princess. The reason he was here.
"It is a beautiful night, is it not?"
Princess Antonella Romanelli spun from her cabin door to find a man leaning against the railing, watching her. Faintly, the ocean lapped the yacht's sides, someone laughed on another ship anchored not too far away, and the smell of jasmine hung in the air.
But her gaze was locked on the dark form of the man. His tuxedo blended into the night, making him nothing more than a silhouette against the backdrop of Canta Paradiso's city lights. Then he stepped forward and the light from the deck illuminated his face.
She recognized him instantly, though they'd never met. That handsome countenance—the jet-dark hair, the sharp cheekbones, the sensual lips—belonged to only one man in the whole world. The absolute last man she should be talking to at this moment.
Antonella drew in a sharp breath, fighting for that famous detachment for which she was renowned. Dear God, why was he here? What did he want? Did he know how desperate she was?
Of course not—don't be silly!
"Cat got your tongue, I see."
Antonella swallowed, willed her thrumming heart to beat normally. He was more beautiful in person than in the photos she'd seen. And more dangerous. Tension rolled from him, enveloping her in his dark presence. His unexpected presence. Warning bells clanged in her mind. "Not at all. You merely surprised me."
His gaze raked over her slowly, leaving her skin prickling in its wake. "We have not been introduced," he said smoothly, his voice as rich and alluring as dark chocolate. "I am Cristiano di Savaré."
"I know who you are," Antonella said—and then cursed herself for saying it so quickly. As if words were weapons and she could use them to push him away.
"Yes, I imagine you do."
He made it sound like an insult. Antonella drew herself up with all the dignity and hauteur a princess could manage. "And why wouldn't I recognize the name of the Crown Prince of Monterosso?"
Her country's bitterest rival. Though the history between the three sister-nations—Monteverde, Montebianco, and Monterosso—was tangled, it was only Monteverde and Monterosso that remained at war to this day. Antonella thought of the Monteverdian soldiers stationed on the volatile border tonight, of the razor wire fences, the landmines and tanks, and a pang of dark emotion ricocheted through her.
They were there for her, for everyone in Monteverde. They kept her nation safe from invasion. She could not fail them— or the rest of her people—in her mission here. Would not. Her nation would not disappear off the face of this earth simply because her father was a tyrannical brute who'd bankrupted his country and driven it to the very edge of oblivion.
"I would not expect it otherwise, Principessa," he said with cool certainty.
Arrogant man. She lifted her chin. Never let them see your fear, Ella, her brother always said. "What are you doing here?"
His grin was not what she expected, a flash of impossibly white teeth in the gloom. And about as friendly as a lion's feral growl. The hair on the back of her neck stood up.
"The same as you, I imagine. Raúl Vega is a very wealthy man, si ? He could bring many jobs to a country fortunate enough to win his business."
Antonella's blood froze. She needed Raúl Vega, not this… this arrogant, too-handsome man who already had all the advantages of his power and position. Monterosso was wealthy beyond compare; Monteverde needed Vega Steel to survive. It was life or death for her people. Since her father had been deposed, her brother had been holding the country together through sheer force of will. But it wouldn't last much longer. They needed foreign investment, needed someone with the clout of Vega to come in and show other investors through example that the country was still a good bet.
The astronomical loans her father had taken out were coming due, and they had no money to pay them. Extensions were out of the question. Though Dante and the government had acted in the nation's best interest when they'd deposed her father, creditor nations had viewed the events with trepidation and suspicion. To them, requests for loan extensions would mean Monteverde was seeking ways to have the loans declared void.
A commitment from Vega Steel would change that.
If Cristiano di Savaré knew how close they were to the brink of collapse—
No. He couldn't know. No one could. Not yet, though her country couldn't hide it for much longer. Soon the world would know. And Monteverde would cease to exist. The thought dripped courage into her veins, each dose stronger than the last until she was brimming with it.
"I am surprised Monterosso cares about Vega Steel," she said coolly. "And my interest in Signor Vega has nothing to do with business."
Cristiano smirked, but it was too late to take back the words. She'd meant to deflect him, but she'd opened herself up to ridicule instead. Careless.
"Ah, yes, I have heard about this. About you."
Antonella pulled her silk shawl closer over the pale cream designer gown she wore. He made her feel cheap—small and dirty and insignificant—without saying one word of what he truly meant. He didn't need to; the implication was clear.
"If you are finished, Your Highness?" she said frostily. "I believe I am expected at dinner."
He moved closer, so nearly into her personal space that it must be intentional. He was tall and broad, and it took everything she had not to shrink from him. She'd spent years cowering before her father when he was in a rage; when he'd been arrested six months ago, she'd promised herself she would not cower before a man ever again.
She stood rigid, waiting. Trembling, and hating herself for the weakness.
"Allow me to escort you, Principessa, for I am headed in the same direction."
He was so close, so real. So intimidating. "I can find my own way."
"Of course." His smile didn't reach his eyes.
Beneath his studied demeanor, she sensed hostility. Darkness. Emptiness.
He continued, "But if you refuse, I might think you afraid of me."
Antonella swallowed, forced her throat to work. Too close to the mark. "Why on earth would I be afraid of you?"
"Precisely." He held out his arm, daring her to accept.
She hesitated. But there was no way out and she would not run like a frightened child. It was a betrayal of Monteverde to be seen with him—and yet this was the Caribbean; Monteverde was thousands of miles away. No one would ever know.
"Very well." She laid her hand on his arm—and nearly jerked away at the sizzle skimming through her. Touching Cristiano was like touching lightning. She thought he flinched, but she couldn't be sure.
Was that brimstone she smelled? It wouldn't surprise her— he was the devil incarnate so far as she was concerned.
But, no, it was simply her imagination. He smelled like a sea-swept night, fresh and clean with a hint of spice. When his hand settled over hers, she had to force down a sense of panic. She felt trapped, and yet his grip was light. Impersonal perhaps. It was the touch of a man schooled in protocol, a man escorting a woman to an event.
It was nothing.
Yet her heart tripped as if it were on a downhill plunge. There was something about him, something dark and dangerous and altogether different from the type of men she usually met.
"You have been in the Caribbean long?" he asked as they strolled along the outer deck.
"A few days," she replied absently, wondering how to make him pick up the pace. At this rate, it would take several minutes to reach the grand ballroom. Several minutes in which she would be alone in his company. "But I haven't seen much of the island yet."
"No, I don't imagine you would."
Antonella ground to a halt at his tone. Smug, superior. "What is that supposed to mean?"
He turned toward her, his eyes slipping down her body, backup again. Evaluating her. Judging her. Oddly enough, she found herself wanting to know what color they were. Blue? Grey like her own? She couldn't tell in the yellowish light from the deck lamps. But they left her shivering and achy all at once.
"It means, Principessa, that when you spend much of your time on your back, you can hardly expect to do much sightseeing."
She couldn't stifle a gasp. "How dare you pretend to know me—"
"Who does not know you, Antonella Romanelli? In the past six months, you have certainly made yourself known. You parade around Europe dressed in the latest fashions, attending all the best parties, and sleeping with whoever catches your fancy at the moment. Like Vega."
If he'd notched an arrow and aimed it straight at her heart, it could have hurt no worse.
What could she possibly say to defend herself? Why did she even want to?
Antonella spun away, but Cristiano caught her wrist and prevented her from escaping. His grip was harder than any she'd imagined. Her heart raced so hard she was afraid she'd grow light-headed. Her father was a strong man. A man with a hair-trigger temper and a quick fist when angered. She'd borne the brunt of that fist more times than she cared to remember.
"Let me go," she bit out, her skin prickling with icy fear.
"Your brother should control you better," he said—but his grip loosened and she jerked free, rubbing her wrist though he had not hurt her.
Anger slid into place, crowded out the fear. "Who do you think you are? Just because you're the heir to the Monterossan throne does not make you special to me. And my life is none of your business." Her laugh was bitter. "I know what you think of me, of my people. But know this—you have not beaten us in over one thousand years and you will not do so now."
"Bravo," he said, eyes glittering dangerously. "Very passionate. One wonders how passionate you might be in other circumstances."
"You will have to continue to wonder, Your Highness. Because I would throw myself over the side of this yacht before ever entertaining a man such as you in my bed."
Not that she'd ever entertained any man in her bed—but he didn't know that. Regardless that she'd never found a man she trusted enough to give herself to, that she was still a virgin, all it took were a few parties, a few rumors, and a few photos to turn the truth into a lie. Most men believed her sophisticated and worldly, and the one she'd actually been brave enough to date once she'd been free of her father's iron grasp had told the lie he'd slept with her after she'd rebuffed him. Others had taken up the rallying cry until it was impossible to separate truth from rumor.
God, men made her sick. And this one was no different.
They could not see beneath the surface, which was why she primped and pampered and wore the careful exterior of a worldly princess. Her beauty was her only asset since she'd never been allowed to pursue any kind of profession.
It was also her shield. When she focused the attention on her physical appearance, she didn't need to share her secrets or fears with anyone. She could hide beneath her exterior, secure in the knowledge that no one could hurt her that way.