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Crown Prince Andre Rastava of the Royal House of Diamante, rulers of Gemania, was bored, and when he got bored he tended to get restless. The noise of the crowd in the casino was giving him a headache, and he found himself shrugging away the caresses of the exotic lady who had draped herself up against his body like a sleazy silk scarf.
What was her name again? It didn't really matter. Lately the women had become as interchangeable as all the other decorative items in his life. He couldn't tell one from another.
"Your Highness?" the croupier nudged, waiting for his call.
He glanced back at the roulette wheel and shrugged, pulling his tie loose and shoving back the sleeves of his Italian suit.
"Let it ride," he said, his voice hoarse. It hardly mattered if he won or lost. He wasn't really here for the gambling. Though few around him realized it, he had a far more dangerous game to play. That usually kept his attention razor-sharp.
But for some reason not tonight. Maybe it was the early spring heat wave coming in on the winds through the high mountain pass and numbing his senses. Or maybe it was the throbbing pain from the shrapnel that still lodged in his leg from the near miss he'd had in the explosion of his car the previous year. Or maybe he was just getting tired of this lifestyle.
He looked at the snifter of cognac that no one ever seemed to notice he seldom touched. It was all part of the showjust like the two young ladies who were his guests here this evening, just like the gaming, just like the setting. Just like the onlookers who didn't know they were merely part of the audience to this play.
He looked out at them, at all the interested faces. Many of the men gazed at him with awe and a bit of envy. The women tended to smile as though hoping to catch his attention, even if for a fleeting moment. They seemed like nice enough people. Why were they watching him? For just a second he felt almost apologetic.
It's all an act, people, he wanted to say. Don't you get it?
But something happened that stopped that thought cold. As his gaze skittered through the crowd it met a pair of dark brown eyes that took his breath away. He knew those eyes. He knew that pretty, comical face with its sprinkling of freckles over the pert nose and its impatient pout.
But it couldn't be.
Shaking his head, as though to clear it of a fantasy, he closed his eyes and tried to erase her. But when he looked again she was still there, her blond curls like an enchanted cloud around her pretty face, her dark eyes blazing accusingly.
One sleek eyebrow rose as he stared back, curling his lip. He was letting her know from the start that he regretted nothing. She could take her complaints elsewhere. At least that was what he'd hoped to convey. But something in those soft dark eyes held him a beat too long. And suddenly he found himself sinking into her gaze in a way that caught at his breathing. Strange. He pulled away and blinked quickly. This wasn't like him.
His number won again. A larger crowd was gathering, which didn't help under the best of circumstances. His wide mouth twisted as he frowned and glanced at the croupier. The young man shrugged imperceptibly and appeared a bit bewildered. Prince Andre motioned to have his winnings collected and prepared to leave, ignoring the murmurings of the crowd and the entreaties of his two young female companions.
But when he rose and turned toward where he'd seen her she was gone.
Had he been dreaming? He scanned the room. No, he was still living in the real world. There she was, walking quickly toward the outer terrace that overlooked the lake, her honey-blond hair bouncing against her lovely back, the skirt of her yellow sundress swishing about her shapely knees.
He hesitated for another second or two. Was he sure it was Julienne? How could it be? His ward should be living under veritable lock and key in the mountain convent where she'd been ensconced for years now. The entire staff was under strict orders not to let her roam free. Was this merely a lookalike? A twin sister he'd never known about?
No matter. In any case, he had to check it out. He turned to leave the roulette table.
"Your Highness," the exotic beauty was saying, reaching for him. "Please ."
"May we go with you?" her Scandinavian partner was asking plaintively. "We're supposed to accompany you to"
"Find Rolfo," he said shortly, barely glancing at them. "He will see that you are taken care of. I have something urgent I must attend to." And he was off.
Princess Julienne was hurrying toward an exit, if only she could find one. She'd come up in an elevator, but now she was disoriented and wasn't sure where it was. This had been a bad idea. She should have known better.
This entire scene was alien to her. She'd never been in a casino before. She hadn't really been in a city beforeat least, not for years. She was a convent girl. What had made her think she could come here and beard the lion in his den? She'd thought she would have the element of surprise, but she hadn't realized he would have every other advantage.
He was so darn scary. Funny how she'd forgotten about that. Strength, power, and a casual disregard for danger seemed to exude from him like she'd never seen in anyone else. There was no way she could fight him. What had she been thinking? She wasn't going to talk him into anything. She'd do better making a run for it.
A little part of her had hoped. She hadn't remembered him as an ogre, exactly, and she'd thought she might be able to spark a little tiny flare of compassion in him. If she just had a chance to talk to him, face to face, surely .
But, no. She'd seen now how the land lay. There had been a time when she'd thought he cared about her, that he wanted her to be happy as well as useful to the crown. He was out of her life as far as she was concerned. He could just stay here with his fancy ladies and gamble and
She stopped herself, biting her tongue as her gaze darted about, searching for a way back to the parking lot.
She'd left Popov, the driver from the convent, down below with the car. Dear, sweet Popov. He was the only person she could trust. Now could she trust him to take her to the border and help her get across? Once she told him that was what she wanted, would he still be her only friend? Or would he become just as mean as everyone else?
She made one last attempt to find an elevator, but she'd lost track of where she'd come out on the floor, and besides, she was out on a wide terrace now. There were so many people, so much noise and color, with the blue waters of the lake shimmering behind it all. But ahead she saw an opening to wide, curving steps and she hurried forward, hoping to take them down.
The question remainedwas he following her?
She glanced back over her shoulder as she started down the huge sweeping staircase to street level. There was some sort of commotion back on the casino floor. That only spurred her on, and she raced down the steps, leaping from one to the next, her heart in her throat. Her only hope was to make it back to the parking area and find her driver before anyone could catch her.
She was going to get away.
Prince Andre was finding it necessary to push himself through a growing knot of people who were gathering about the table, as though just watching him play would make them rich. He cleared them just as she disappeared down the stairs, and by the time he got to the railing he could see that she was more than halfway down to the street. If she reached it before he caught her she would melt into the tourist traffic and be gone for good. He hesitated for barely a second. His impulse was to call out to her, but something told him she wouldn't obey his commands and he might as well save himself the trouble.
He glanced at the wrought-iron decorative work that led from one window to another on the outer building walls. The thought of his bad leg only deterred him for half a second, and then he was up on the railing and reaching for the ironwork. A shift in balance, a lunge for a hand-hold, a leap of faith, and he landed, upright and poised, right in front of Julienne as she made it to the last step.
That brought her up short and caught her attention, and she stared at him, her eyes wide as saucers.
"Wow," she said, thoroughly impressed.
The small crowd lining the upper railing sighed in awe as well, and a couple of them even clapped.
He managed to cover up the gasp of pain his leg gave him upon landing and glared at her.
"So it is you."
She nodded, still thunderstruck by his Tarzan stunt. Funny, but that pretty much fit in with the way she'd always seen hima bit larger than life. And it did appeal to her feminine senses.
But then, he always had. She gazed at him almost hungrily, taking in all of him. It had been so long since she'd last seen him. She realized he considered her nothing but a hindrance, a ward who had been thrust upon him, a responsibility he didn't need. But she'd always thought of him as her own personal hero. Only lately he hadn't been living up to that part.
"What the hell are you doing here?" he demanded, looking fierce.
She frowned at him, lifting her chin defiantly. She wasn't a child any longer and she wasn't going to let him treat her like one. "Don't swear at me. I'm your ward. You're supposed to be a role model for me."
"And you're supposed to be at the convent, preparing for your wedding."
She made a face and looked guilty, her gaze sliding to the side. "Yes, about that "
He groaned. Trouble. Nothing but trouble. He could see it in her eyes.
A crowd was forming on the street level as well now. Before he knew it the paparazzi would get wind of this, and then there would be hell to pay. It was time to disappear from view.
"Come along," he told her gruffly, taking her hand and beginning to lead her toward a shadowy space behind the stairs. "We need to talk."
"Exactly what I was thinking," she said pluck-ily, though the sense of his forceful personality was wafting over her like a tidal wave and she knew she had to resist. "We've got a lot of catching up to do."
That wasn't quite what he had in mind, but he didn't comment. Instead, he led her in through an unmarked door and then onto a private elevator that opened to his coded entry. Soon they were hurtling toward the penthouse of the ten-story building, and Prince Andre's suite.
He looked her over, glancing sideways. She'd always been pretty, but she'd developed a luminous quality since he'd last seen hera sort of inner glow that reminded him of angels.
Angels! He gritted his teeth. Just as he'd feared, she was more appealing than ever. He had to get her back to the convent as quickly as possible. Once she was married to his cousin, Prince Al-phonso, he could wash his hands of her.
The elevator doors opened right into the Prince's suite, making Julienne blink with surprise. As she stepped out she looked about, eyes wide with wonder. Everything was shiny chrome, gleaming dark cherry wood and smoky tinted glass, with sleek leather couches and huge abstract art pieces on the walls. One side of the room was a floor-to-ceiling picture window, overlooking the lake and showing off the snowcapped mountaintops in the distance.
When she'd been eight years old she'd gone on a trip to Paris with her parents and she'd stayed in places almost as elegant as this. But it had been a long time since then, and she'd become used to the simple, rough-hewn decor of the convent. This place took her breath away.
"Nice," she said casually, trying hard not to come across as the wide-eyed-in-wonder country bumpkin she felt like.
"I like it," he replied shortly. "Why don't you sit down?" he added, nodding toward one of the softer-looking couches. "I'll get you a drink."
"A drink?" she said hopefully.
"Nothing fancy," he warned her. "I think I've got some lemonade in the refrigerator."
"Oh," she said, somewhat deflated.
She'd been hoping he would serve an adult beverage, as though it were her duea sort of sign that he understood she was of age now. No such luck. He still thought she merited lemonade. She was used to wine of a sort with meals at the convent, but it was hardly more than colored water as far as she'd ever been able to ascertain. His lemonade would probably provide more punch, even if it didn't contain a bit of alcohol.
He watched the expressions change on her face and felt as though he could read every thought that was coursing through her mind. He had to turn away to hide his grin. Despite being fundamentally annoyed that she'd popped up into his world like this without warning, he couldn't help but be charmed by heras he always was.
What the heckhe supposed he could give her some vodka in her lemonade to make her feel as though she were doing something slightly sophisticated.
"Here you go," he said, handing her a tall frosted glass. "I added a little something, but just barely enough for you to feel it. We can't have you going back to the convent tipsy."
She smiled at him, delighted, but at the same time vowing that the convent was the last place for her tonight.