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Benedek Kerkay, youngest prince of Valtria, stared at the evenly printed lines on the paper, but all he could see was the face of the most beautiful woman in the universe, the one who'd been holding him enthralled for years. A woman he could never have.
"Protesters are gathering at Liberation Square, Your Highness." His secretary stood in the door of his temporary office at the Royal Opera House, shifting from one scrawny leg to the other.
Benedek cleared his head and processed the man's words, forgetting the speech he should have been rehearsing for the reopening of the three-hundred-year-old opera house, his most significant project yet as an architect. His muscles drew tight. "No. Absolutely not."
Morin looked gravely ahead. A peculiar-looking little man, he was loyal to the bone at a time when loyalty was scarce. For this, he was much appreciated at the palace. He'd been with the House of Kerkay since Benedek could remember, even forsaking family for service, although rumors about him and the head housekeeper of the palace's east wing circulated from time to time. He was such a private man that even Benedek didn't know the truth of those rumors. Nor was he in the mood to speculate on them at the moment.
"There can't be a protest tonight." He came out of his seat and strode to the exquisitely restored six-foot-tall window, turning his back to Morin, wishing he could see across the five-acre Millennial Park to Liberation Square.
His fists tightened, crushing the sheets he held. Nothing would be allowed to upset the peace tonight. He'd been working toward this night for the last five years, restoring the Baroque-style building with painstaking care. Close to a thousandnobles, Valtrian celebrities and foreign dignitaries were invited to the opening night and were even now taking their seats. Rayne Williams, opera diva, "the voice of the night," was giving her first performance outside of the U.S. in a decade.
"Call in Royal Security, call in the army, call in the National Guard, call in the synchronized parachuters for all I care, but do not" he relaxed his clenched jaw muscles "let anyone spoil tonight."
"Yes, Your Highness. Only that it's" His secretary hesitated.
Benedek crushed the papers tighter, knowing from the look on the man's face that he wasn't going to like what he was about to hear. "Only what?"
"A show of force at the present momentagainst peaceful protesters."
Benedek walked to his desk then back to the window, pacing the antique reproduction carpet. Disbanding the protesters by force could look like an attempt to silence the voice of the people. Not a year after the siege of Maltmore Castle where the enemies of the monarchy had attempted to kill the entire royal family and take over the country, where dozens of people died in a night of bloodshed The royal guard marching on the people might not be the smartest thing politically. The country needed reconciliation and joint steps toward unity.
He hated politics. He'd become an architect partially for that reason. Buildings were simple. Buildings were stable. Buildings didn't stab you in the back.
"Who's handling it?"
"The police, Your Highness. Your brother Miklos is keeping a close eye on it as well."
Miklos was an Army major. He had an interest in security and also played a role in it. "Call the chief of palace security and tell him I need to talk to him. Here." Benedek was escorting Rayne to a reception at the palace after her performance. Palace Hill was just a few blocks away, not that far from Liberation Square. He needed to discuss these new developments with the chief. Maybe they needed to alter their plans. "I want the protest carefully watched and every change reported." He drew a slow breath, nodded beyond his office door. "Are they ready?"
"Yes, Your Highness."
He tossed his crumpled speech on his desk, on top of a stack of blueprints and photos of the various stages of the building's restoration. This building meant everything to him. His oldest brother, Arpad, had ribbed him about wanting to show the country that he was more than the youngest prince at the palace. Maybe there was some truth in that, but the project was more. It was his validation as an architect.
He straightened his tuxedo jacket. "How do I look?"
Morin seemed surprised by the question.
And Benedek was instantly annoyed that he'd asked. On any other day, he would have been too busy drawing blueprints in his mind to pay much attention to his appearance.
"Splendid, Your Highness," Morin said at last, after an awkward silence.
Benedek nodded his thanks, knowing the compliment meant little. As a prince he was used to hearing what everyone thought he wanted to hear.
Except when it came to bloody protesters.
He passed by his secretary, strode down the hallway that looked majestic even in the staff areas where the audience would never wander. He waved his new bodyguard away. "Wait for me at the royal box," he told the man, turning down the hall. He missed his old guard who had recently retired. He hadn't had a chance to develop the same kind of rapport with this one yet. And he didn't need anyone hovering at his back when he finally met Rayne Williams.
The rich carpet softened his steps on the antique floorboards. The building was like a grande dame of old with gracious curves and resplendent gilding, tantalizing textures and colors. He didn't stop until he reached the door at the very end. The sign on the door simply said Rayne. He adjusted his tie one last time then knocked.
He pushed the door wide with a smile, then stopped midmotion to stare. An unprincely thing to do. He needed to stop reacting to her like a moon-eyed teenager.
He'd seen her perform in New York several times, but Rayne Williams was a thousand times more beautiful up close. Silver eyes shone out of a face that was perfectly symmetrical; her skin was translucent and glowing, her lips ruby-glossed. Ebony strands of silky hair cascaded to well below her slim waist, while more was piled intricately at the back of her head. She was willowy, although not as tall as he was, wearing a burgundy gown, the copy of one worn by a historical heroine of Valtria at her royal wedding. The corset pushed up her breasts to the point of nearly spilling from the brocade, as had been the custom of that age.
He was all for historical accuracy. Absolutely.
He bowed deeply before she could notice his rapt attention to her cleavage. "Welcome to Valtria."
"Thank you, Prince Benedek. I understand you'll be escorting me to the stage tonight."
She was unfailingly polite, even though she disliked him. He knew that for a fact. But her voice, soft and rich, still had the power to keep him spellbound. He was to be her escort for tonight. Not nearly enough, although he'd come to accept that her remote behavior toward him was for the best.
For years, he'd gone to her performances in the U.S., sometimes two or three times a year, sending her a bouquet of Valtria's signature purple roses each time, always with an invitation to dinner. Her response notes were always the same, she felt honored but no thanks.
And no matter how much he wanted to get closer to her, he'd never pushed beyond that. Because even as he'd fantasized about taking her as a lover, he was afraid that might not be enough. His twin brother, Lazlo, was the consummate ladies' man. Benedek was more of a one-woman kind of guy. And Rayne Williams could never be his one woman.
He could never have her forever. He could absolutely not marry an American singer, no matter how famous and respected. The scandal alone would kill his ailing mother. Dark memories surfaced. He pushed them back. He wouldn't make a mistake of that magnitude again. He was a prince. He was to marry a daughter of the Valtrian nobility who was even now being selected behind closed doors by the chancellor and his team.
Seeing how much positive publicity Miklos's marriage and the birth of his son had brought to the monarchy, the new chancellor was obsessed with marrying off the rest of the princes. And Benedek was determined not to buck protocol again. He'd done that before with disastrous consequences.
He cleared his throat, then did his best to clear his mind of all the things he and Miss Williams could be doing instead of walking to the stage. He was a grown man, thirty two years old. He'd had lovers, passion, disappointments. Tragedies.
But Rayne Williams was Rayne Williams.
"If you will allow me the honor, Madam," he said and offered his arm.
After tonight, she would stay for three more days in Valtria. Three days in which he would content himself with admiring her from afar and would not, under any circumstances, seduce her. Not that she looked like she would let him if he tried. Still the challenge He killed that thought without mercy and took in those silver eyes that held nothing but politeness. No batting of the lashes, none of the come-hither looks he was used to from women.
On this count, at least, the royal family seemed safe from trouble.
Trouble with a royal titleRayne summed up the man in front of her and continued wearing her stage smile.
He was as handsome as the devil himself, a prince spoiled by privilege, and way too young to be looking at her the way he had from the moment he'd set foot inside her dressing room.
If he noted the conspicuous lack of a gushing response to the enormous bouquet of purple roses he'd sent earlier, he didn't show it. The roses, like all other flowers she received, were usually distributed among the support staff.
He was an exceedingly charismatic man in person, she noted with dismay. She'd been right to stay away from him. He carried himself with the unconscious grace of nobility, his body toned and agile. From what she'd read, all the Valtrian princes were serious sportsmen, and it certainly showed. The youngest prince of Valtria was no palace weakling; he was built tough like most of his countrymen. She supposed it came from living in this rugged country at the foot of the Alps.
"Whenever you're ready." He smiled a charmer's smile. It looked unfairly good on him.
And despite her misgivings, she placed her hand onto his offered arm. She was taken by surprise when a shock wave of connection and awareness shot all the way to her elbow, despite the barrier of his tuxedo and her satin gloves between them.
She caught her breath, but said, "Let's go then." And glided alongside him without the slightest pause. She was a professional performer. If she didn't want him to know the effect he had on her then, by God, he wouldn't.
She'd been pursued by enough presumptuous rich men who thought all performers were of loose morals, living only to be pretty and to satisfy their every desire. They sent flowers to her dressing room, truffles, even jewelry. They had their expensive cars wait for her at the actors' exit after performances. She'd always sent the chauffeurs home with an empty backseat.
Leaders of industry, even public figures showed up in her dressing room, ready for a quick tumble, treating her like she was the flavor of the month out of some musical revue at a downtown theatre. They didn't know anything about her, nothing at all.
She wasn't for sale, not ever again. All the rich perverts could keep their money and drown in it.
At forty, she was an accomplished singer and a woman of independent means. And she was damn proud of that.
But she did give a gracious smile to the handsome prince, even if she had the distinct feeling that she was being served on a silver platter to the man. To be invited to the reopening of the Valtrian opera, a historic occasion, was an honor, regardless of the fact that she didn't want to be here. She would have rather chosen a place much closer to her home for her first transatlantic flight in a decade.
"Your tie is crooked," she told him, registering the fact automatically.
He would give her introduction. She didn't want him to go up on stage with his tie askew and have the audience looking at that instead of what he was doing. Checking and rechecking herself and the rest of the cast before shows was something she did without conscious thought.
An odd look flashed across his eyes as he reached up, his long, masculine fingers fumbling. Without a mirror, he had no idea what to adjust.
She drew a breath. "Let me." She was tall, but he was taller so she had to reach up. She straightened the black cloth at his neck, pulling back too fast when her knuckles brushed against his strong jawline for a second.
"Thank you, Madam." His focus on her never wavered.
Those intense dark eyes could be the doom of a woman if she weren't careful, she thought for a fanciful second before she gathered herself. She wasn't about to let on that she was oddly flustered. Flustered. At her age. By some prince nearly a decade her junior. How crazy was that? "Rayne, please, Your Highness." Everybody in the business called her Rayne.
"If you call me Benedek." His focused, mesmerizing intensity relaxed by a small degree.
He seemed pleased. Then he let go all the way, and the smile that slowly bloomed on his handsome face was absolutely stunning: warm, sexy, masculine. His eyes were the deep rich brown of the Swiss truffles she rewarded herself with on occasion. The manufacturer spoiled her with regular gifts, one of the perks of being a diva of her time. The title came with both advantages and disadvantages.
As did his, the thought crossed her mind. Maybe his life was as strange and as out of his hands at times as her own. Maybe they had something in common, after all.
His smile held. God help any unsuspecting woman he set his sights on. She was relieved to know that in three days, she would be leaving Valtria.
It'd been a long time since she'd been this aware of a man.