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Prince Darius Marten Constantijn of the Royal House of Ambria, presently deposed and clandestinely living under the name of David Dykstra, was not a heavy sleeper. Ordinarily the slightest unusual sound would have sent him slipping silently through his luxury penthouse apartment with a lethal weapon in hand, ready to defend his privacyand his life.
The sense that his life might be under threat was not outrageous. Since he was a member of an overthrown monarchy, his very existence was a constant challenge to the thuglike regime that now controlled his country. And as such, he had to consider himself in constant jeopardy.
But tonight the instinct to defend his territory had been muted a bit. He'd hosted a cocktail party for fifteen rowdy London socialites and they'd all stayed much too long. That had a consequence he didn't suffer from often anymore, but its effects were not unfamiliar to him. He'd had too much to drink.
So when he heard the baby cry, he thought at first that he must be hallucinating.
"Babies," he muttered to himself, waiting to make sure the room had stopped spinning before he risked opening his eyes. "Why can't they keep their problems to themselves?"
The crying stopped abruptly, but by now he was fully awake. He listened, hard. It had to have been be a dream. There was no baby here. There couldn't be. This was an adult building. He was sure of it.
"No babies allowed," he murmured, closing his eyes and starting to drift back to sleep. "Verboten."
But his eyes shot open as he heard the little rule breaker again. This time it was just a whimper, but it was for real. No dream.
Still, in his groggy state, it took time to put all the pieces of this mystery together. And it still didn't make sense. There was no way a baby could be in his apartment. If one of his evening guests had brought one along, surely he would have noticed. And if this same ill-mannered person had left that baby behind in the coat room, wouldn't they have come back for it by now?
He tried to shrug the whole thing off and return to peaceful slumber, but by now, that was impossible. His mind was just awake enough to go into worry mode. He'd never go back to sleep until he was sure he was in a baby-free abode.
He groaned, then rolled out of bed, pulled on a pair of jeans he found in a pile on his chair and began to stalk quietly through his set of rooms, checking one after another and wondering grumpily why he'd leased a place with so many rooms, anyway. The living room was littered with cocktail napkins and empty crystal wine goblets. He'd sent the catering crew home at midnighta mistake, he now realized. But who knew his party guests would stay until almost 3:00 a.m? Never mind, the cleaning lady would arrive in just a few hours and make everything clean and sparkling again.
"No more parties," he promised himself as he turned back to his search, kicking a long feather boa someone had left behind out of the way. "I'll just go to shindigs at other people's homes. I can still maintain my information sources and let others deal with the hassle."
But for now he had an apartment to search before he could get back to bed. He trudged on.
And then he found the baby.
It was asleep when he first saw it. He opened the door to his seldom-used media room and there it was, tucked into a drawer that was serving as a makeshift crib. The little mouth was open, the little round cheeks puffing a bit with each breath. It looked like a cute kid, but he'd never seen it before in his life.
As he watched, it gave an involuntary jump, its chubby little arms lurching upward, then falling slowly back again. But it didn't wake. Dressed in a pink stretch jumper that looked a little rumpled and a lot spit up on, the child seemed comfortable enough for now. Sleeping babies weren't so bad. But he knew very well what happened when they woke up and he shuddered to think of it.
It was pretty annoying, finding an uninvited baby in your home and it was pretty obvious who was to blamethe long, leggy blonde draped rather grace-lessly across his cantilevered couch. He'd never seen her before, either.
"What in blazes is going on here?" he said softly.
Neither of them stirred, but he hadn't meant to wake them yet. He needed another moment or two to take in this situation, analyze it and make some clear-headed decisions. All his instincts for survival were coming alert. He was fairly certain that this was no ordinary sleepover he'd been saddled with. This must have something to do with his royal past with its messy rebellion history and his precariously uncertain future.
Worse, he had a pretty strong feeling it was going to turn out to be a threatmaybe even the threat he'd been expecting for most of his life.
He was fully awake now. He had to think fast and make sound judgments. His gaze slid over the blonde, and despite his suspicions about her, his immediate reaction was a light frisson of attraction. Though her legs were sprawled awkwardly, reminding him of a young colt who hadn't got its bearings right just yet, they were shapely legs, and her short skirt had hitched up enticingly as she slept, showing the aforementioned legs off in a very charming way. Despite everything, he approved.
Most of her face was hidden by a mass of wiry curls, though one tiny, shell-like ear peeked through, and she'd wrapped her torso up tightly in a thick brown sweater. She wasn't really all that young, but her casual pose made her seem that way and something about her was endearing at first glance. There was an appeal to the woman that might have made him smile under other circumstances.
But he frowned instead and his gaze snapped back to stare at that gorgeous little ear. It was decorated with a penny-sized earring that seemed familiar. As he looked more closely, he could see it was molded in the form of the old Ambrian coat of armsthe coat of arms of the deposed royal family he belonged to.
As adrenaline shot through his system, his heart began to thump in his chest and he wished he'd picked up the weapon he usually carried at night. Only a very select set of people in the world knew about his connection to Ambria, and his life depended on it being kept a secret.
Who the hell was this?
He was pretty sure he was about to find out.
"Hey. Wake up."
Ayme Negri Sommers snuggled down deeper into her place on the couch and tried to ignore the hand shaking her shoulder. Every molecule of her body was resisting the wake-up call. After the last two days she'd had, sleep was the only thing that would save her.
"Come on," the shaker said gruffly. "I've got some questions that need some answers."
"Later," she muttered, hoping he'd go away. "Please, later."
"Now." He shook her shoulder again. "Are you listening to me?"
Ayme heard him just fine, but her eyes wouldn't open. Scrunching up her face, she groaned. "Is it morning yet?" she asked plaintively.
"Who are you?" the man demanded, ignoring her question. "What are you doing here?"
He wasn't going away. She would have to talk to him and she dreaded it. Her eyelids felt like sandpaper and she wasn't even sure they would open when she asked them to. But somehow she managed. Wincing at the light shafting in through the open door, she peered up through her wild hair at the angry-looking man standing over her.
"If you could give me just one more hour of sleep, we might be able to discuss this in a rational manner," she proposed hopefully, her speech slightly slurred. "I'm so tired, I'm hardly human at the moment."
Of course, that was a lie. She was human alright, and despite how rotten she felt, she was having a reaction to this man that was not only typically human, it was also definitely feminine. Bottom line, she was responding to the fact that he was ridiculously attractive. She took in the dark, silky hair that fell in an engaging screen over his forehead, the piercing blue eyes, the wide shoulders and the bare chest with its chiseled muscles, and she pulled in a quick little gasp of a breath.
She'd seen him earlier, but from a distance and more fully clothed. Up close and half-naked was better. She recommended it, and under other circumstances she would have been smiling by now.
But this wasn't a smiling situation. She was going to have to explain to him what she was doing here and that wasn't going to be easy. She did try to sit up and made an unconvincing attempt at controlling her unruly hair with both hands. And all the while she was trying to think of a good way to broach the subject that she'd come for. She had a feeling it wouldn't be a popular topic. She would have to introduce it just right and hope for the best.
"You can do all the sleeping you want once we get you to wherever it is that you belong," he was saying icily. "And that sure as hell isn't here."
"That's where you're wrong," she said sadly. "I'm here for a reason. Unfortunately."
Little baby Cici murmured in her sleep and they both froze, staring at her for a moment, full of dread. But she sank back into deep slumber and Ayme sighed with relief.
"If you wake the baby up, you're going to have to take care of her," she warned him in a hushed voice. "I'm in a zombie trance."
He was sputtering. At least that was what it sounded like to her, but she wasn't in good judging form at the moment. He could have been swearing under his breath. Yes, that was probably it. At any rate, he wasn't pleased.
She sighed, shoulders sagging. "Look, I know you're not in the best shape yourself. I saw you when we first got here. You had obviously been enjoying your party a little too much. That's why I didn't bother to try to talk to you at the time. You know very well that you could use more sleep as much as I could." She scrunched up her nose and looked at him hopefully. "Let's call a truce for now and "
She sighed, letting her head fall back. "No?"
She made a face. "Oh, all right. If you insist. But I warn you, I can barely put a sentence together. I'm incoherent. I haven't had any real sleep for days."
He was unrelenting, standing over her with strong hands set on his very tight and slender hips. The worn jeans rode low on them, exposing a flat, muscular stomach and the sexiest belly button she'd ever seen. She stared at it, hoping to deflect his impatience.
It didn't work.
"Your sleep habits are none of my concern," he said coldly. "I'm not interested. I just want you out of here and on your way back to wherever you came from."
"Sorry." She shook her head, still groggy. "That's impossible. The flight we came on left for Zurich ages ago." She glanced at the baby, sleeping peacefully in the drawer. "She cried almost the whole trip. All the way from Texas." She looked up at him, expecting sympathy but not finding much. She made a face and searched his eyes, hoping for a little compassion at the very least. "Do you understand what that means?"
He was frowning like someone trying to figure all this out. "You flew here straight from Texas?"
"Well, not exactly. We did change planes in New York ."
"Texas?" he repeated softly, as though he couldn't quite believe it.
"Texas," she repeated slowly, in case he was having trouble with the word itself. "You know, the Lone Star state. The big one, down by Mexico."
"I know where Texas is," he said impatiently.
"Good. We're a little touchy about that down home."
He shook his head, still puzzling over her. "You sound very much like an American," he said.
She shrugged and looked up with a genuine innocence. "Sure. What else would I be?"
He was staring at her earrings. She reached up and touched one of them, not sure what his interest was. They were all she had left from her birth mother and she wore them all the time. She knew her original parents had come from the tiny island country of Ambria. So had her adoptive family, but that was years ago and far away. Ambria and its problems had only been minimally relevant to her life as yet.
But then, she was forgetting that the Ambrian connection was the reason she was here. So naturally he would notice. Still, something about the intensity of his interest made her uncomfortable. It was probably safer to go back to talking about Cici.
"But as I was saying, she wasn't happy about traveling, and she let everyone know it, all across the Atlantic." She groaned, remembering. "Everyone on that plane hated me. It was hell on earth. Why do people have babies, anyway?"
His eyes widened and one eyebrow rose dramatically. "I don't know. You tell me."
She gulped. That was a mistake. She groaned internally. She really couldn't afford to goof up like that. He'd assumed Cici was her baby, which was exactly what she wanted him to think, at least for now. She had to be more careful.
She wished she were a better actor, but even a professional performer might have trouble with this gig. After all she'd been through over the past week, she really ought to be in a straightjacket by now. Or at least a warm bath.
Just days before, she'd been a normal young first-year lawyer, working for a small law firm that specialized in immigration law. And then, suddenly, the world had all caved in on her. Things had happened, things she didn't dare think about if she was to keep her wits about her. Things she would have to deal with eventually, but not yet not now.
Still, she was afraid that nothing would ever be sane again. She'd turned around and found herself in the middle of a nightmare, and suddenly she'd had very limited choice. She could give up and go to bed and pull the covers over her head for the durationor she could try to take care of what was left of her family and get baby Cici to where she belonged.
The question was moot, of course. She was used to doing what was expected of her, doing the responsible thing. She'd quickly decided on the latter course and now here she was, single-mindedly following the path she'd set for herself.