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Prince Nico of the royal House of Montenevada pulled down his cap and turned his collar up, partly against the misting drizzle, but also in order to avoid being recognized. His family had been back in power less than six months and he was already sick of the toll it was taking on his private life. He hadn't spent five years leading a rebellion in the mountains so that he could be treated like a rock star. He'd thought they were fighting for bigger things. Now he wasn't so sure.
The dark streets were pretty much deserted and only dimly lit by flickering street lamps. A lone car went by. Then a cluster of giggling teenagers, late for their curfews. As he started over the Gonglia Bridge, he passed a young woman whose eyes were strangely vacant; she seemed to gaze right through him. Her mass of blond crimped curls was wild around her pretty face, but that seemed to be a style that was popular these days and he didn't think twice about it. That otherworldly look in her eyes stayed with him, though, and when he reached the high point of the bridge's arc, he turned and looked back to see what she was doing.
What he saw had him running back. The crazy woman was about to jump! In the half a minute since he'd passed her, she'd climbed out on the scaffolding and was leaning over the inky waters that rolled beneath, racing down out of the mountains toward the sea.
"Hold it!" he yelled as he flung himself at her.
She looked up, startled, and tried to avoid him, twisting away so that she was even more dangerously close to crashing down into the river. He grabbed her roughly. There was no time for niceties. Gripping her upper arm, he sank his other hand into her thick hair andyanked her back onto solid surface. She fell against him and he had just time to take in the soft, round feel of her breast as his palm unintentionally slid over it, before she turned on him like a scalded cat.
"Get away!" she cried, glaring at him and backing away. "Leave me alone!"
He grimaced, annoyed with her, annoyed with anyone who would make such an obvious play for attention as jumping from a bridge. And then her soft blue jacket fell open enough for him to see her body and he realized that she was pregnant. That put a different light on things. He winced, knowing from experience that a pregnancy could change everythingfor everyone involved. He looked deeply into her wide dark eyes and saw something that tugged at his sympathies after all.
"I'd be happy to leave you alone," he said, trying to shave any harshness from his comments, "if you think you could refrain from flinging yourself into rivers."
She shook her head impatiently. "I wasn't trying to jump."
"Really? You were doing a pretty good imitation of a bridge jumper."
"No, I was just looking for my things." She looked away distractedly. "He he threw them over the side of the bridge and " Her voice trailed off and she met his gaze again, her own eyes hooded. "Never mind," she said, hunching deeper into her jacket and turning away.
He'd only heard half her muffled words but he was willing to join in. "What were you looking for? Maybe I can help you."
"No." She seemed to be trying to put distance between them. Glancing at him sideways, she began to move away. "You can't help me."
It was dark. He was large. And male. He knew he probably looked threatening to her. He didn't mean to. But what the hell? He had better things to do with his time than to follow a crazy woman around. So he shrugged.
"Fine. Have it your way."
She glanced back over her shoulder. "I will, thank you."
He slowed, then came to a stop and watched as she hurried away. He supposed it was best to leave her alone, just as she'd demanded. Still, he hated to do it. She bothered him. There was something in the way she moved, to quote an old song.
Besides, this town was only a few months into recovering from a war and the place was crawling with unsavory characters who had nothing better to do than to make trouble for someone else. It was a problem he and his brothers were going to have to deal with very quickly. One of many. And right now it could be a problem for this troubled lady.
You can't save them all.
Those words echoed painfully in his head and he shook them away. Gordon Greiva, his best friend and comrade-in-arms, had said that often in the old days when they'd been fighting for their country's liberation. Nico, let it go. You can't save them all. The irony was, Gordon himself had died in that final battle.
No, he couldn't save them all. Truth to tell, he didn't have the greatest track record in saving much of any of them. And what could he do to help this one? Not much. She'd certainly made it clear she didn't want his help.
With a careless shrug, he turned away and started back toward the other side of the bridge. He needed a drink.
He heard the pub before he saw it, music and laughter an appealing invitation to step into the crowd. But he hesitated in the doorway, peering inside. He would love to go in, order Scotch, neat, and sit back and let that liquid fire burn its way into his soul, restoring him to something resembling real feeling again. It was tempting. He could see himself sitting there in the darkened room, letting the smoke and conversation wash around him while he contemplated life and all its twists and turns.
But he knew that picture was a fantasy. As soon as he sat down, the waitress would look at him sharply, then whisper to one of the other customers. The buzz would begin as people craned their necks, staring, until finally someone would get brave enough to come over and start talking. And once the ice had been broken, the flood would come, people wanting to rehash the war, people wanting to know why everything wasn't instantly wonderful now that the good guys had taken over again. And who knew if it was a bar full of patriots or a refuge for disgruntled losers. You paid your money and you took your chances. But tonight, he didn't feel up to testing those waters.
Turning away from the pub, he looked back at the river. He couldn't seem to shake the image of his distressed jumper, her wild curls floating around her face, her dark eyes filled with mystery. He wondered if she'd found what she'd been looking for, and if she was going to have any trouble making her way home. The bridge looked ominous from this angle, like a path into dangerous territory. The wet streets were empty. It was getting late and time for him to make a decision as to where he was going to spend the next few hours.
He started down the walkway that fronted the river feeling vaguely uneasy, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, his gaze running restlessly over the scene. And then it sharpened. Something was moving down by the riverbank, where various debris was piled up around a short pier. He stopped and looked harder, then swore softly and vaulted over the river wall to get to the water's edge. It was her.
A few quick strides brought him to where she was bending over a large black plastic bag.
"What the hell are you doing?" he demanded.
She looked up, startled once again. Straightening, she pushed at her damp hair, leaving wet strands plastered to her forehead. "It's none of your business."
She'd been crying. Once he saw the tears on her cheeks, he knew he was a goner. It was none of his business, but there was no way he could stay out of it now. She was far too vulnerable. Only a cad would leave a woman like this to fend for herself in the night.
Still, his impulse was to growl and start ordering her about. He restrained it. He knew enough about women to know that wasn't going to work out well. Taking a deep breath, he said carefully, "Why don't you tell me what you're doing. What's wrong?"
She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head. "Please, just go. I'm really busy here. I've got to find " Her voice trailed off and she went back to trying to move the huge plastic bag.
Instead of leaving, he moved closer. "You've got to find what?"
She shook her head and threw a hand out as though covering the waterfront. "My bag. My things."
He frowned. She could hardly be talking about this big plastic bag she seemed to be so intent on moving out of the way. He reached around her and moved it for her, revealing only more, smaller plastic bags, all filled with suspicious substances. It was obviously trash someone had stacked there, along with things that had washed up on the shore.
"What sort of bag?" he asked her. "What did it look like?"
She straightened and looked around, her bottom lip caught by her teeth, her eyes worried. "I I'm not sure "
He resisted the impulse to throw up his hands. "Then how are you going to find it?"
Tears welled in her dark eyes and she turned her head away, her damp curls flopping limply against her neck in a way that somehow touched him. He could see her finely cut profile against the lights from across the river. Her features were delicate, yet strong in a determined sort of way. Her body was slender despite the pregnancy. Her legs were long and exotic, like a dancer's, and her short skirt showed them off in a way that would turn any man's head. She moved like a dancer, smooth, fluid motion, like a song brought to life. But that thought made him want to laugh at himself for thinking it. He wasn't usually quite so sentimental.
Then she turned and his gaze dropped to her full breasts and the way they strained against the soft sweater she wore under her jacket, and he felt a reaction so quick and so hard, it threw him off guard for a moment.
"I don't need help," she said, but her voice quavered and the tears were still in her eyes.
Something caught in his chest and he grimaced. No, he wasn't going to let her get to him. At the same time, she obviously couldn't be abandoned here. He'd already noticed someone skulking farther down along the river. No, he was going to make sure she got to safetywherever that might be.
But he wasn't going to care. Never again. That part of him was goneand good riddance.
"Just go away," she said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. "Just go."
"I'm afraid to leave you here," he shot back. "You might try another shot at river-rafting."
She glared at him. "I was not trying to jump into the river."
"Really? Then what were you doing? Practicing high-bar techniques for Olympic trials in gymnastics?"
She didn't answer, turning away instead.
"I'll admit it seems unlikely for someone in your condition ."
"Condition?" she asked. Then she looked down and gasped softly, her hands going protectively to her rounded belly. "Oh. I forgot."
He stared at her. Females didn't "forget" pregnancy. There was something very odd about this woman. But something distracted him from the subject. For the first time he noticed there was something dark and shiny in her hair. He touched it and drew back his fingers. Blood.
"Hey. What's this?"
She reached up but didn't quite touch it herself. "I don't know." She frowned. "Maybe I hit my head when I fell. Or or " She looked up at him questioningly. "Maybe it's where he hit me."
Her words sent a blinding flash of outrage slashing through him. The thought of someone deliberately hurting her made him crazy for an unguarded moment.
"Who?" he demanded. "Where? What did he do to you?"
A look of regret for having mentioned it flashed across her face and she turned away. "I don't know," she said, shaking her head. "I don't know."
"Wait." He grabbed her arm to stop her from starting off. "This is serious. I'm taking you to the police."
She jerked from his grip and began to back away, her eyes wide. "No, I can't do that. No." She glared at him, shaking her head, looking fierce. "I can't go to the police."
She hesitated, looking past him.
He frowned. He could think of only two reasons why someone wouldn't want to go to the police, neither of them good.
"Look, I'll be with you. I'll handle things. There's nothing to be afraid of."
She flashed him a scathing look. "It must be nice to be so sure and cavalier about other peoples' lives," she said. "Who do you think you are, anyway? King of Carnethia?"
He looked at her sharply, but no, she really didn't seem to know she was talking to someone pretty close to that mark.
"Just someone trying to help you," he said softly.
"Really?" She tossed her damp hair and sent him a penetrating look. "And what do you expect to get out of it?"
He gave her a half shrug and a well-practiced look of pure boredom. "I was hoping for a simple thank you, but even that seems to be out of the question."
For just a moment, her gaze faltered. "Why should I trust you?" she asked, pushing hair back out of her eyes.
"You don't seem to have a lot of choice, do you?" he grumbled, moving restlessly. "Look, if you don't want to go to the police, there must be somebody I can call to come get you or something." He pulled out his cell phone and held it poised. "Give me a number."
She shook her head and looked away.
"Come on. We've got to get you out of this drizzle, at least." He looked back at the storefronts along the riverside. It was late and most of the shops were closed. "How about that little café there? It'll be warm and dry."
She looked up. He could see she was tempted.
"A nice hot cup of coffee? Come on. I'm buying."
She glanced at the café and a look of longing came into her face. "I'm so hungry," she admitted softly.
He snapped the cell phone shut and put it back in his pocket. "That does it. Come on. Let's go."
Turning, she looked searchingly into his face.