Read an Excerpt
'Lucas, my friend, I have a favour to ask of you.' Favour?
Lucas Garcia had survived some of the worst conditions known to man, therefore a favour in his eyes involved hand grenades, automatic rifles or the calming of troubled waters on an international scale. What it unequivocally did not suggest was flying to London to retrieve a wayward snit of a girl, who disrespected the wishes of her father and showed no concern for her family or the country she'd been born to!
Anger blended with a tinge of discomfort in his gut as he took shelter beneath the green-striped awning of a coffee shop on Regent Square. Although summer approached, rain fell in heavy sheets, pooling at his designer-clad feet. Cold and inhospitable, the damp seeped through the wool of his Savile Row attire to lick at his skin.
'Dios, this city is miserable,' he muttered, scanning the wide glass entrance of ChemTech, London's foremost biomedical research centre, as he awaited the arrival of his current mission.
'Bring her home, Lucas. Only you can succeed where others have failed.'
He was honoured by such high regard, and during his three years as Head of National Security for Arunthia he had successfully executed every order without question, standing by his moral code to honour, protect and obey. But this
I write. I appeal. Yet she ignores my every plea.'
Lucas flexed his neck to relieve the coil that had been tightening there ever since he'd left the office of his crowned employer two days ago.
What kind of person turned her back on her heritage, her birthright? Who would give up the luxurious warmth and beautiful lush landscape of Arunthia for a perilous city built of glass and thriving on iniquity?
As soon as the thought formed the answer came stumbling out of a traditional black London cab, weighed down with enough paperwork to make a significant dent in the Amazonian rainforest. Smothered in a long grey Mac, with her slender feet encased in nondescript black pumps, she blended into the dour backdrop seamlessly. Yet his avid gaze lingered on the wide belt cinching her small waist, enhancing the full curve of her breasts. Her dark hair was scraped back, gathered at her nape in a large lump, yet Lucas could almost feel it lustrously thick and heavy in his hands. Hideous spectacles covered a vast proportion of her oval face. But that didn't stop his imagination roaming with the possible colour of her eyes.
Princess Claudine Marysse Thyssen Verbault.
Hunched under the punishing thrash of rain, with the elegant sweep of her nape exposed, she seemed vulnerable. Swallowing hard, he could almost taste her flurried panic as she grappled with her purse, fighting against the clock to be on time for a meeting he'd ensured would never take place.
Lucas ground his heels into the cementstand down, Garciaand stemmed the impulse to rush to her aid, erase her panicked expression. Instead he called upon years of training, focused on doing his job and concluded that her appearance was neither his care nor his concern.
Flipping back one charcoal cuff, he glanced at his Swiss platinum watch. With a jet on standby he'd estimated a four-hour turnaround, and frankly it was all the time he was willing to spare.
Taking one last look at the reluctant royal as she stormed through a deluge of puddles, bedraggled and unkempt, Lucas stroked his jaw in contemplation.
Trained in warfare, and adept at finding the enemy's weak spot, he should be confident this assignment would be a stroll on the beach. After all, she was a biochemisthe'd captured mass murderers in half the time. Still
'Oh, my God, no.' Claudia Thyssen glanced at the wall clock, swaying on her feet as she stood at the entrance to her lab. Her. Very. Empty. Lab. Instinctively she reached for the doorframe and gripped so hard a dull ache infected her wrist.
On any other day she would have been grateful for the isolation. So it was rather ironic that when she needed a room full of heavy pockets to fund her research the place was as deserted as an office on Christmas Day.
Her face crumpled under the sting of frustration burning her throat.
She was too late. Twenty minutes late, to be precise. Unable to avoid a visit to the children's ward at St Andrew's, where she'd been collating data for weeks, she hadn't banked on a monsoon and the entire city shuddering to a standstill.
It had taken her days to psyche herself up for this visit. Long days, considering she'd prepped through the night. Even her walk today came with a rattle, courtesy of a bottle and a half of stress-relieving tablets. But through it all she'd managed to convince herself that twenty minutes of spine-snapping social networking would be worth it.
Hot and wet, a single teardrop slipped down her cheek, and each framed article covering the wallsannouncing her as a top biochemist in her fieldblurred into insignificance. Because she was mere weeks away from a cure for JDMSa childhood condition close to her heartand her budget had careened into the red. Now fifteen months of development and testing would scream to a juddering halt. And the fault was hers alone.
Before the habitual thrash of self-loathing crippled her legs, she commanded her body to move and stumbled through the sterile white room, throwing the contents of her arms atop the stainless steel workbench. Shrugging out of her coat, she let the sodden material fall to the floor in a soft splat and collapsed onto one high-backed stool. Ripping the glasses from her face, she hurled them across the table and buried her head in ice-cold hands.
'Could this day get any worse?'
'Excuse me, miss?'
Claudia bolted upright, swivelled, and nigh on toppled off her perch.
'Who are you?' Slamming a hand over her riotously thudding heart, she slid off the plastic seat and righted her footing before the mere sight of the man, almost filling the doorway, all but knocked her flat on her back. Hand uneasy, she brushed at her lab coat until the damp cotton fell past her knees in a comforting cloak. 'And how on earth did you get in here?'
She was surprised the floors hadn't shaken as he'd walked in. In fact it was quite possible they had. Because Claudia felt as if she were in the centre of a snowglobe, being shaken up and down by an almighty fist.
Of course it was just shock at the unexpected interruption, blending with the disastrous events of the morning. It had absolutely nothing to do with the drop-dead gorgeous specimen in front of her. Claudia had never been stirred by a man, let alone shaken.
Strikingly handsome, smothered in bronzed skin and topped with wavy dark hair, he stood well over six feet tall. Dressed to kill in a dark grey tailored suit and a white shirt with a large spread collar, he exuded indomitable strength and authority. But it was the silk crimson tiesuch a stark contrastwrapped around his throat and tied in a huge Windsor knot that screamed blatant self-assurance. Her stomach curled. Whether with fear or envy she couldn't be sure.
'Apologies for the intrusion. You left the door open when you came in just now,' he said, in a firm yet slightly accented drawl that shimmied down her spine, dusting over her sensitised flesh like the fluff of a dandelion blowing in the breeze.
Gooseflesh peppered her skin and she glanced down at her soggy lab coat, convinced her strange reaction was nothing more than the effect of rotten British weather.
With a deep, fortifying breath, she raised her gaze to meet his. Perfectly able to look a giraffe in the eye, she felt a frisson of heat burst through her veins at the mere act of looking up to a man. Yet the chilling disdain on his face told her she was wasting vital body heat and energy reserves.
Who on earth did he think he was? Coming into her lab and looking at her as if she'd ruined his day?
'You shouldn't be in here,' she said, her tone high, her equilibrium shot.
Claudia had not only ruined the day for thousands of children, she'd gambled with their entire future, their health and happiness. Unless she could think of a way to reschedule the meeting. Oh, God, why had they left so soon? Twenty minutes wasn't so long, and
Her brain darted in three different directions. 'Wait a minute. Are you here for the budget meeting?'
Maybe he was one of the money men. Claudia could appeal to his better nature. If he had one. Because the customised perfection of his appearance couldn't entirely disguise a nature that surely bordered on the very edges of civilised.
His jaw ticked as he shook his head, the action popping her ballooning optimism.
'My name is Lucas Garcia,' he said, striding forward a pace and announcing his name as a gladiator entering the ring would: fiercely and exuding pride. With the face of a godintense deep-set eyes the colour of midnight, high slashing cheekbones and an angular jawhe seemed cast from the finest bronze. Beautiful, yet strangely cold.
A stinging shiver attacked her unsuspecting flesh and she wondered if there was a dry lab coat in the room next door. 'Well, Mr Garcia, I think you've lost your way.'
An arrogant smile tilted his mouth. 'I assure you, I lose nothing.'
Oh, she believed him. His mere presence pilfered the very air. She was also sure Lucas Garcia wouldn't have just lost the chance of three and half million pounds.
An unseen hand gripped her heart. What was the point of her life if she couldn't save others from what she'd gone through? Oh, she realised most of the children she met had families who cared for them, loved themunlike Claudia, who'd been abandoned at twelve years old. But they still had to suffer the pain, the pity. The bewildering sense of shame. As with most childhood diseases, when adolescence gave way to adulthood the side effects waned. But she knew firsthand that was altogether too late to erase the emotional scars etched deep in the soul.
Eyes closing under the weight of fatigue, she inhaled deeply. She was so close to success she could taste musky victory on the tip of her tongue. Or was that his glorious woodsy scent? Good griefshe was losing it.
'I need to speak with you on a matter of urgency,' he said, the deep cadence of his voice ricocheting off the white-tiled walls.
God, that voice 'Have we met before?' There was something vaguely familiar about him.
'No,' he said, standing with his feet slightly apart, hands behind his back, just inside the doorway.
Claudia suppressed an impulse to stand to attention. He was the most commanding man she'd ever seen. Almost military-like. Not that she had much to compare him to. One of the downfalls of self-imposed exile: she didn't get out much. The upside was that she rarely broke out in hives and she didn't get close to anyone. Claudia had no one and that was exactly how she liked it. No touching of her body mind or soul and there'd be no tears.
'I'm extremely busy, Mr Garcia,' she said, tugging at the cuffs of her coat, covering her wrists. 'If you don't mind '
The words evaporated from her tongue as she caught the searing intensity in his blue eyes as he followed her every move, a frown creasing his brow.
Her stomach hollowed. Stop fidgeting and he 'll stop staring! 'What exactly is it you want?'
'May I come in?' he asked, moving closer.
The word no was eclipsed from her mind as his body loomed impossibly larger. Within two seconds self-preservation kicked in and she edged her way around the desk to ensure a three-foot metal barricade. Back off, handsome.
Showing some degree of intelligence under all that ripped muscle, he paused mid stride, then devoured her face as if his eyes were starved. After he'd looked his fill their gazes caught held. Claudia stared, mesmerised, as black pools swelled, virtually erasing the blue of his irises.
Pulse skyrocketing, the heavy beat echoed through her skull. After a few tense moments she blinked, trying to disconnect and sever the pull, unsure of what was happening. But no matter how hard she tried things just seemed to get worse: the temperature in the room soared and her spine melted into her pelvis under the scorching intensity.
'Why are you staring at me?' she whispered.
'You look like ' He blinked rapidly, his face morphing into a mixture of amazement and disgust as if he couldn't quite make up his mind what he was feeling or thinking.
The past slammed into her and she stumbled back a step. She'd seen that look on too many faces as they'd stared at her juvenile muscle-fatigued body, ravaged by skin rashes as unsightly as they were unfair. Yet the most destroying memory of all was the black-hearted response from her own flesh and blood.
Oh, God, why was she thinking about that now?
'What?' she asked, reaching behind her to pat the desk, searching for her glasses.
Lips twisting, almost cruel, he said, 'You look like your mother.'
Her hand stilled together with her heartbeat.
The glass door, the stark overhead lightingall seemed to implode, raining shards of glass to perforate her carefully controlled, sanitised world.
Such a fool. So preoccupied with work. So pathetically enraptured by this man. She'd missed the signs staring her in the face.
His name. His deep, devastating voice. His fierce, powerful demeanour.
'My parents sent you,' Claudia breathed in a tremulous whisper.
No, no, no. She couldn't go back to Arunthia. Not now. Maybe never. It was a place she was only willing to visit in her imagination during moments of agonising loneliness. If only to reassure herself she was better off on her own.
'Yes,' he said, with a cool remoteness that made her shudder and remember all at once. For her childhood years had been made up of her parents' haughty detachment and hostile impatience.
It was their impatience that had condemned her, because Claudia had been an enigma no doctor could diagnose. Their detachment had sentenced her to extradition because she was an embarrassmentshe'd been swept off to England, placed under the care of tutors, governesses and an army of paediat-ric specialists while her so-called loving parents forgot she'd ever existed.
They had betrayed her in the most unforgivable way. The ache in her chest crawled up her throat and she squeezed her eyes shut.
It didn't take a brainiac to decipher their message. This man said it all. They wanted something and this time they were deadly serious. Just fight, Claudia. You've done it before and you can do it again.
She just wasn't entirely sure she had the strength.
Exhaustion pulsed through her weak leg muscles and her hand shot out to grip the edge of the desk as she begged her body to stand tall. Come on, Claudia, fight. They don't need you. They didn't want the imperfect child you were. Don't give them the chance to hurt you again.
Memories gushed like a riptide, flooding her psyche with such speed they threatened to break through the dam and obliterate her every defence.
Within the blink of an eye Claudia's day veered from bad to apocalyptic.