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Prince Max leaned out over the edge of the wrought-iron rail on the balcony. A light rain was falling but he hardly noticed. He was at least the equivalent of five floors up. The castle garden below looked farther away than that. A strange, shivering impulse inside made him wonder what would happen if he jumped.
Too late now. A few weeks ago he could have jumped. He could have ended his worthless life with a flourish. No one would have cared.
But now he had a new lifenew responsibilities. People were beginning to expect things of him. What the hell made them think he could possibly deliver?
Actually, this might be a better time to jump. Maybe he would find out he could fly. It looked so simple. All he had to do was spread his wings. He knew what it felt like to fly. He'd been flying ancient crates from past wars for years now. Flying planes was the one thing he knew he was good at. But taking that leap on his own would be different.
No, he wasn't going to jump. He wasn't going to mock his fate by trying to fly without a plane. Self-destruction wasn't really his style. But he did have a peacock feather he'd picked up in the castle gardens. He held it out.
"Fly and be free," he muttered to it. And then he let it go. It began its long, meandering flight toward the ground and he leaned out even farther, watching it go. It flashed back colors, blue and green and gold. As it neared the ground, it started to spin crazily. He laughed. "Go, baby," he murmured to it. "Do your thing."
The feather hit the ground and his laughter faded away. Now it was caught, just like he was. A short flight to nowhere.
"Hey," a candy-coated feminine voice said to him. "Don't lean out so far. You'll fall."
He closed his eyes for a moment. Was he ready for this? Did he need it?
"You okay, mister?" she said.
He turned slowly, wondering if she realized who he was. Probably not. He was dressed for hiking, not for the ball. But he thought he'd seen her before, passed her in the halls. He recognized the look. And he knew the drill. Either he gave her a simple friendly nod and went on his way, or he smiled at her suggestively and things went on from there. His choice. He could tell she was ready. Eager even. A part of him groaned.
But he couldn't give in to that. What the hell? He was young. Life was there to be lived. And who knew how much longer he'd be free to follow where his urges led him?
"I'm fine," he said, and he smiled.
"You're wet," she countered flirtatiously.
He shook his head like a sheepdog. Water flew everywhere. She gave a little shriek and then she laughed.
"You'd better come on to my place and get dry," she offered.
"Your place?" he repeated questioningly.
"Sure. My room is on this floor. I'm only a few doors away. You need to dry off. You wouldn't want to catch a cold, would you?"
His gaze made an exploratory journey down the length of her, from her spiked, fireengine-red hair, down to her full lips, lingering on her hourglass figure. His look was insolent. He knew it. And he also knew she was the type of woman who liked that sort of thing.
"Sure, why not?" he said. Anything was better than joining the other royals at this ridiculous ball the queen had cooked up. A few hours with this willing playmate might be just the thing to help him get rid of this feeling of doom that was hanging over him. "You're like an angel of mercy, aren't you? Always on the lookout for someone in trouble."
Her smile had a wicked sparkle to it. "Not really," she said. "I'm kind of picky about who I help."
He raised an eyebrow. "And I made the grade?"
Her eyes widened appreciatively. "Oh, yeah. You'll do."
He pretended to bow. "I'm honored." She giggled and led the way.
Queen Pellea swept into the royal office and glared at Kayla Mandrake. "So where is he?" she demanded.
Kayla jumped up from her desk, shaking her head. That sinking feeling she'd been fighting since she'd found out who the new prince actually was had come back with a vengeance. "I haven't seen him at all," she said. "I thought he was supposed to be here ."
Pellea grabbed the back of a chair, her knuckles white. "Of course he was. He was given complete instructions. And he blew them off, as usual. Everyone is waiting in the ballroom."
"Shall I make an announcement over the speaker system?"
Pellea looked pained. "Oh, Kayla, you've been in Paris all this time and you don't know how things have been. This guy is driving me crazy."
Kayla held back a grin. That was Max. He drove everyone crazy.
"He'll settle down," she told the queen without really believing it herself. "Once he understands the way we do things."
"The more he understands, the more he flouts the rules. You're going to have to go out and track him down."
Pellea made a sound of angry impatience and tossed her head in frustration. She was wearing a spectacular gowndeep blue silk threaded with gold, strapless, form-fitting, with a skirt cut to move sinuously as she danced or walked. Kayla felt frumpy in her simple skirt and sweater.
"And I hope you're prepared to kill him when you find him," Pellea said dramatically.
"Your Majesty," Kayla began, beginning to give in to a touch of anxiety. She was trying to think of a new excuse for him on the flybut something that wouldn't get her fired. The queen did have her emotional moments.
"Don't." Pellea held up a hand like a crossing guard. "I don't want to hear any tales of woe. I don't want to hear explanations and confessions. All I want is Prince Maximillian here where I can punish him." She shivered with what looked like anticipation. "Or his head on a platter. That would do." Her dark eyes flashed. "Do you understand?"
Kayla nodded. Despite everything, she was working hard to suppress a grin. She didn't dare let it show. Pellea was so angry.
The trouble was, she knew very well that the Max she had known was sure to make Pellea even angrier as time went by. There was nothing she could do to avoid it.
"Yes, Your Majesty. I'll do my best."
"Just find him!"
Queen Pellea swept out like the storm she could sometimes resemble. Kayla took a deep breath and steadied herself. What now? How was she supposed to find a rebel prince who obviously didn't want to be found?
It was always this way with Max. Rules were made for other people, not for him. He was easily the most infuriatingand the most charmingman she'd ever known. Just the thought that she would see him again any moment gave her a thrill that was electric. But it also gave her a dull, pounding headache. How was she going to work this? Heaven only knew.
She started by making a few phone calls. There were guards everywhere and security officers working the monitors at special locations. If he was in the castle, someone must have seen him. And some had. She got a lead here and there, and finally, an actual sighting from a hall guard who'd seen him disappear into the apartment of a local girl who was well-known for partying.
"Of course," Kayla muttered acidly. "I should have known."
She started off toward the place like a rocket, but deep in her heart, she dreaded the whole confrontation ahead of her. What was she going to do once she got to the door? Barge in on a seduction? She shuddered as she punched in the floor designation on the elevator panel.
"Darn you, Max," she whispered. "Do you always have to make life so hard?"
She thought about the last time she'd seen him, almost two years ago, his thick, bronzed hair disheveled, his eyes bleary with pain. Emotional pain. They'd both been in agony that night, both mourning over the same tragedy. The next thing she'd known, he was gone.
The elevator doors slid open silently and she stepped off, heart beating, head aching. It was only a few steps to the doorway. She stood in front of it, wishing she were anywhere else. Her phone buzzed and she pulled it open. It was Pellea, of course.
"Have you found him yet?"
She sighed. "I've got his location. I'm about to go in and see. ."
"Watch him," Pellea warned. "If there's a balcony, he'll jump."
Kayla gasped. "You don't think he's suicidal, do you?"
"Oh, heavens no. He defies death for the fun of it. I swear he's got to be an adrenaline freak."
Kayla considered that seriously. "You know " she began.
But Pellea wasn't waiting to hear other views.
"Last week, we had a gathering of the new princes at the ski chalet, a meeting for them to get to know each other better. We'd barely begun cocktails when Max and the chalet manager's two beautiful daughters took off on snowmobiles, racing off into the mountains as though it were nothing more than a free snow day. And they didn't come back."
"No excuses the next day, of course. He thinks his smile covers all bases."
"I see," she said for lack of anything cogent to add. She felt a little lost with the queen battering her with complaints like this. A part of her wanted to defend him, but how did you defend behavior like this?
"Last night it was dinner with the Italian ambassador. We're about to sign an important treaty with them. He didn't show. And what was the excuse? He'd stopped in at a pub and got involved in judging a karaoke contest and lost track of time."
"Oh, Max," Kayla said in soft despair.
"So I say, watch the balcony. He'll tie a rope to the edge and pretend he's Tarzan. Don't let him get away."
"I won't." She only wished her determination was as stout as it sounded.
Pellea sighed. Maybe her tone hadn't been convincing. "Give me your exact location. I sent a couple of security officers up to help you. I'll key in directions for them."
That startled her. "Help me do what?" she asked after giving the queen her location.
"Make sure he doesn't escape. We'll tie him up and drag him in if we have to."
"We will?" She knew Max and she was pretty sure that wasn't going to be done easily. This whole thing was beginning to resemble a nightmare. She stared at the door to the target apartment. Max was supposedly in there. They'd told her he'd gone in with a woman. Did the phrase love nest come to mind? This wasn't the way she'd imagined their reunion might pan out.
"Now I want you to be forceful," Pellea encouraged. "You must take him by surprise."
Kayla gasped in horror as a picture of what that might mean spun through her head. "You mean burst in on him without warning?"
"If you have to. Whatever you do, you've got to stop him from disappearing again. Call me when it's over."
"Yes, Your Majesty. Of course." She hung up just as two security guards stepped off the elevator and marched over to join her.
"Sgt. Marander, ma'am, at your service," the one who seemed to be in charge announced. "Here's the master key. We're here to back you up. We'll be right behind you."
She chewed on her lower lip. "Can I knock first?" she asked, rather forlorn.
His stare was steely cold. "I'm afraid not. Her Majesty specifically recommended a surprise attack. She's afraid he'll."
"Escape by jumping off the balcony. Yes, she told me as much."
He glanced at her and frowned. He probably heard the reluctance in her voice and didn't approve. "Sorry, miss. Instructions from the queen are not to be taken lightly."
She took a deep breath. "All right," she said, straightening her shoulders and heading for the door.
"Here I go."