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'His highness will be here soon. Please remain in this room and do not wander. There are strict security controls and alarms in this part of the castle.'
The prince's aide spoke in clipped English and gave Tamsin a stern look. As if after finally passing the barriers of royal protocol and officious secretaries she'd run amok now she was within the royal sanctum.
As if, after weeks working in the Ruvingian royal archives and living in her suite on the far side of the castle courtyard, proximity to flesh and blood royalty might be too much for her! She'd never seen the prince. He never deigned to cross the courtyard to the functional archive room.
She stifled an impatient sigh.
Did she look the sort of woman to be overcome by pomp and wealth? Or be impressed by a man whose reputation as a wom-aniser and adventurer rivalled even that of his infamous robber baron ancestors?
Tamsin had more important things on her mind.
Secret excitement rippled through her and it had nothing to do with meeting a playboy prince.
This was her chance to rebuild her reputation. After Patrick's brutal betrayal she could finally prove herself to her colleagues and herself. Her confidence had shattered after the way he'd used her. He'd damaged her professionally but far worse, he'd hurt her so badly she'd wanted only to crawl away and lick her wounds.
She'd never trust again.
Some scars wouldn't heal. Yet here, now, she could at least kick start her career again. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and she was ready for the challenge.
For ten days Prince Alaric had been too busy to meet her. His schedule had been too full to fit her in. Clearly an expert on old books didn't rank in his priorities.
The notion ignited a shimmer of anger inside her. She was tired of being used, dismissed and overlooked.
Had he hoped to fob her off by seeing her so late in the evening? Tamsin straightened her spine, clasping her hands in her lap, ankles crossed demurely under the massive chair.
'Of course I won't leave. I'll be content here until His Highness arrives.'
The aide's dubious expression made it clear he thought she was waiting her moment to sneak off and gape at the VIPs in the ballroom. Or maybe steal the silverware.
Impatient at the way he hovered, she slipped a hand into her briefcase and pulled out a wad of papers. She gave the aide a perfunctory smile and started reading.
'Very well.' His voice interrupted and she looked up. 'It's possible the prince may be delayed. If you need anything, ring the bell.'
He gestured to a switch on the wall, camouflaged by the exquisite wood carving surrounding the huge fireplace. 'Refreshments will be brought if you need them.'
'Thank you.' Tamsin nodded and watched him bustle away.
Was 'delay' code? Was the prince busy seducing a glamorous beauty from the ball? If gossip was right Prince Alaric of Ruvingia, in line to the crown of Maritz, was a playboy par excellence. Pursuing women would be higher on his priorities than meeting a book curator.
Tamsin ignored a fizz of indignation.
Her gaze strayed to the ceiling height bookshelves. The inevitable spark of interest quickened her blood. Old books. She smelled the familiar scent of aged paper and leather.
If he was going to be late
Not allowing herself second thoughts, Tamsin walked to the nearest bookcase. It was too much to hope it would yield anything as exciting as what she'd unearthed in the archives, but why sit reading documents she knew by heart?
Her reluctant host was probably hours away.*
'You must excuse me, Katarina. I have business to attend to.' Alaric disengaged himself from the countess's clinging grasp.
'So late? Surely there are better ways to spend the night?' Her ruby lips parted and her silvery eyes flashed a familiar message. Sexual promise, excitement and just a touch of greed. She swayed forward, her barely covered breasts straining against her ball gown, her emerald-strewn cleavage designed to draw the eye.
Acquiring lovers had always been easy for Alaric but he was tired of being targeted by women like Katarina.
His rules were simple. First, no long term commitment. Ever. Emotional intimacy, what others called love, was a mirage he knew to be dangerous and false. Second, he did the chasing.
He needed diversion but on his terms.
Katarina, despite her genuine sexual desire, was another who'd set her sights on marriage. Permanency. Royal prestige. Wealth. Right now he had more significant concerns than satisfying the ambitions of a grasping socialite.
'Sadly it's a meeting I can't avoid.' Over her head he caught the eye of the steward hovering at the entrance. 'Your car is here.' He lifted her hand, barely brushing it with his lips, before leading her to the door.
'I'll call you,' she whispered, her voice sultry.
Alaric smiled easily, secure in the knowledge she wouldn't get past his staff.
Five minutes later, with the last guests gone, he dismissed his personal staff and strode down the corridor, his mind returning to the recent conversation with Raul.
If anyone else had asked him to stay here, cooped up through winter, Alaric would have ignored them. The need to be out and doing something, keeping busy, was a turbulent tide rising in his blood. The idea of six more months tied to his alpine principality gave him cabin fever.
It might be home, but he felt hemmed in. Constricted. Prey to the darkness clawing from within.
Only constant action and diversion kept him from succumbing. Kept him sane.
Alaric forked a hand through his hair, impatiently flicking his cape off one shoulder. That was another thing to thank his distant cousin and soon-to-be monarch for. An evening wearing the outmoded uniform of two centuries ago.
Yet he'd given his word. He must help Raul.
After decades of peace, the recent death of the old king, Raul's father, had reignited unrest. Alaric's principality of Ruvingia was stable but elsewhere tensions that had almost led to civil war a generation ago had reopened. With careful management danger would be averted, but they couldn't take chances.
He and Raul had to ensure stability. In their nation of Maritz, clinging to monarchical traditions, that meant a calm, united front in the lead up to his cousin's coronation and the reopening of parliament.
So here Alaric was, cutting ribbons and hosting balls!
He swung into another corridor, itching for action. But this wasn't as simple as leading a commando squad to disarm combatants. There was no violence. Yet.
Alaric's belly twisted as the ghosts of the past stirred, a reminder of how suddenly tragedy could strike.
With an effort he shoved aside the lingering pain and glanced at his watch. He was miles late for his last obligation of the day. As soon as it was over he'd escape for a few hours. Take the Aston Martin over the mountain pass and try out its paces on the hairpin bends.
Alaric quickened his step at the beckoning sense of freedom, however temporary.
Another twist in the ancient passage and there was the library door. Automatically he slowed, acknowledging but not yielding to the frisson of discomfort feathering his spine.
This would never be his study, no matter what the staff expected. It was his father's room, his brother's. Alaric preferred the mobility of a laptop he could use elsewhere. Preferred not to be reminded he walked in dead men's shoes.
Too many dead men.
Fragmented images rose. At the forefront was Felix, his talented, capable, older brother.
The one who should be here instead of Alaric.
Who'd died because of Alaric.
The frisson of awareness froze into a gut-stabbing shaft of ice. Familiar guilt engulfed him. Pain tore his chest and throat with each breath.
He accepted it as inevitable. His punishment. The weight he would always bear.
Eventually he forced his breathing to slow and his legs to move.
The room was empty. Logs burned in the fireplace, lamps glowed but no expert waited to harangue him about the state of the archives. If the matter was so urgent surely she'd have stayed.
All the better. He could be on the open road in ten minutes.
He was turning away when a stack of papers caught his attention. A battered briefcase sagged on the floor. Immediately he was alert, his gaze narrowing.
Then he heard it, an almost imperceptible swish from above. Instincts honed on the edge of survival sharpened. He flexed his fingers. An instant later, hand on the hilt of his ceremonial sword, he faced the intruder.
For long moments he stared, then his hand fell away.
The room had been invaded by a.mushroom.
On top of the ladder fixed to the bookshelves perched a shapeless muddle of grey-brown. A long granny cardigan the colour of dust caught his eye and beneath, spread across the ladder top that now served as a seat, a voluminous grey skirt. It was a woman, though her clothes looked like something that had sprouted on a damp forest floor.
A wall sconce shone on dark hair, scraped back, and a glint of glasses above a massive book. White-gloved hands held the volume up, obscuring her face. And beneath his gaze riveted on the rhythmic swing of a leg, bare to just above the knee.
One seriously sexy leg.
Alaric paced closer, his attention gratefully diverted from sombre remembrances.
Skin like moonlight. A shapely calf, trim ankle and neat foot. Toes that wriggled enticingly with each swing.
Masculine appreciation stirred as his gaze slid back up her leg. Even her knee looked good! Too good to be teasing a man who was restless and in desperate need of distraction.
He crossed to the base of the ladder and picked up a discarded shoe. Flat soled, plain brown, narrow and neat. Appallingly dowdy.
He raised his brows. Those legs deserved something better, assuming the one tucked beneath that horror of a skirt matched the elegant limb on show. They demanded heels. Stiletto sharp and high, to emphasise the luscious curve of her calf. Ankle straps. Ribbons, sexy enough to tease a man till he took them off and moved on to other pleasures.
Alaric shook his head. He'd bet all the jewels in the basement vault the owner of this shoe would be horrified at the extravagance of footwear designed to seduce a man.
A tingle of something dangerously like anticipation feathered his neck as he watched her leg swing and her foot arch seductively. This time the little wriggle of her toes seemed deliciously abandoned as if the drab clothes camouflaged a secret sybarite.
Alaric's mood lightened for the first time in weeks.
'Cinderella, I presume?'
The voice was deep and mellow, jolting Tamsin out of her reverie. Warily she lowered the volume enough to peer over it.
She froze, eyes widening as she took in the man gazing up at her.
He'd stepped out of a fantasy.
He couldn't be real. No flesh and blood man looked like that. So mouth-wateringly wonderful.
Numb with shock, she shook her head in automatic disbelief. He could have been Prince Charming, standing there in his elaborate hussar's uniform, her discarded shoe in one large, capable hand. A bigger, tougher Prince Charming than she remembered from her childhood reading. His dark eyebrows slashed across a tanned face that wasn't so much handsome as magnetic, charismatic, potently sexy.
Like Prince Charming's far more experienced and infinitely more dangerous older brother.
Eyes, dark and gleaming, transfixed her. They were aware.
Meeting his unblinking regard she had the crazy notion that for the first time ever a man looked and really saw her. Not her reputation, not her misfit status but the real flesh and blood Tamsin Connors, the impulsive woman she'd tried so hard to stifle.
She felt vulnerable, yet thrilled.
A lazy smile lifted one corner of his mouth and a deep groove creased his cheek.
Stunned, she felt a squiggle of response deep in her abdomen. Tiny rivers of fire quivered under her skin. Her lungs squeezed her breath out in a whoosh of of
The book she held shut with a snap that made her jump. Instantly the other volumes in her lap slid and she grabbed for them. But they were cumbersome and she didn't dare let go of the precious herbal in her hands.
In dry mouthed horror she watched a book tumble out of her grasp. It fell in slow motion, turning over as it went. Even knowing it was too late to save the volume she scrabbled for it, barely keeping her precarious perch.
'Don't move!' The authority in his voice stopped her in mid lunge.
He strode forward a step, stretched out his hand and the book fell into his grasp as if it belonged there.
Dizzy with relief, Tamsin shut her eyes. She'd never have forgiven herself if it had been damaged.
How had he done that? The volume was no paperback. It weighed a ton. Yet he'd caught it one-handed from a fall of twelve feet as if it were feather light.
Tamsin snapped her eyes open and saw him turn to place the book on the desk. The indigo material of his tunic clung to his broad shoulder and muscled arm.
That formidable figure wasn't the result of tailored padding.
She swallowed hard, her gaze dropping to long powerful thighs encased in dark trousers. The crimson stripe down the side drew attention to the strength of those limbs.
No pretend soldier. The straight set of his shoulders and the contained power of each precise movement proclaimed him the real thing.
Abruptly he turned, as if sensing her scrutiny. His gaze pierced her and she shivered, overwhelmingly aware of him as male.
She worked with men all the time, but she'd never met one so undeniably masculine. As if testosterone radiated off him in waves. It made her heart race.
'Now to get you safely down.' Was that a glint of humour in his eyes?
'I'm OK.' She clutched the books like a lifeline. 'I'll put these back and'
'No.' The single syllable stopped her. 'I'll take them.'
'I promise you I'm not usually so clumsy.' She sat straighter, annoyed at her stupidity in examining the books here instead of taking them to the desk. Normally she was methodical, logical and careful. It was no excuse that excitement had overridden her caution.
'Nevertheless, it's not worth the risk.' He walked to the foot of the ladder and looked up, his face unreadable. 'I'll relieve you of your burden first.'
Tamsin bit her lip. She couldn't blame him. She'd almost damaged a unique volume. What sort of expert took such risks? What she'd done was unforgivable.
'I'm sorry, I'
Her words cut out as the ladder moved beneath her, a rhythmic sway as he nimbly closed the distance between them.
Tamsin became excruciatingly self-aware as his ascent slowed. Warm breath feathered her bare ankle then shivered against her calf and to her horror she couldn't repress a delicious little shudder.
A moment later a dark head appeared in the V between her splayed knees. Something hard and hot plunged down through her abdomen as she met his gaze.