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Anna Constantinides stood at the edge of the gathered crowd and hoped the serene countenance she'd practiced before the mirror for the past week was holding up. Tonight was, without doubt, the most humiliating night of her life. Her fiancecorrection, former fiancewas marrying another woman.
It would not have been so bad, perhaps, if her fiance wasn't Prince Alessandro, heir to the Santina throne. She should have been his queen, yet she was currently the jilted bride.
A fact the media took great delight in reporting.
Again and again and again. She'd hardly had a peaceful moment since Alex had dumped her so publicly and humiliatingly for another woman. He hadn't even had the courtesy to inform her personally. No, he'd let her find out in the pages of the tabloids. Simply mortifying.
The pity she'd had to endure. The knowing lookseven, surprisingly, a hint of censure. As if it were her fault somehow. As if she were the one who'd been caught kissing another man while engaged to someone else, as Alex had been photographed with Allegra Jackson.
Anna wanted nothing less than to be at his engagement party tonight, but she'd had no choice. "Anna," her mother had said when she'd refused, "you must. Protocol demands it."
"I don't give a damn about protocol," she'd replied. And she hadn't. Why, when she'd dedicated her life to protocol and duty and been so spectacularly punished for it?
Her mother took her hands. "Sweetheart, do it for me. Queen Zoe is my oldest and dearest friend. I know she would be disappointed if we were not there to support her."
Support her? Anna had wanted to laugh, to shout, to rail against the unfairness of lifebut she had not. Ultimately, she had done precisely what her mother asked because, for pity's sake, she felt guilty.
Anna stiffened her spine as the king began to toast the happy couple. But she lifted her glass of champagne along with everyone else, and prepared to drink to the health and happiness of Alex and Allegra, the woman who'd turned her preordained life upside down.
At least, thank goodness, she could be certain there were no photographers present tonight. They would be waiting outside the palace gates, naturally, but for now she was safe.
And yet she still had to smile, had to pretend she wasn't dying from embarrassment. She would have to endure the stories, the photos, the quotes from anonymous "friends" who claimed she was holding up well, or that she was fragile, or that her heart had shattered into a million pieces.
Anna sipped her champagne on cue. Only an hour more, and she was out of here. Back to the hotel where she would crawl into her bed and pull the covers over her head. The toast ended, and then the ensemble began to play a waltz. Anna slipped her barely touched glass onto a passing waiter's tray and turned toward the doors to the terrace. If she could escape for just a few moments, she could endure the next hour with a great deal more fortitude.
"Anna," a woman called. "I've been looking for you."
Anna gritted her teeth and turned toward Graziana Ricci, the Amanti foreign minister's wife. The woman sashayed toward her, a bright smile pasted on her cosmetically enhanced face. But it wasn't Signora Ricci who captured Anna's attention. It was the man beside her.
An Englishman, she assumed, as there were so many who had descended upon Santina recently.
He was tall, dressed in a bespoke tuxedo like nearly every other man in the room, and quite striking. Handsome, in a boyish way that somehow wasn't boyish at all. No, it was devilish, as if he knew the temptation he offered merely by existing. Eyes the color of roast coffee glittered in a face that had been carved by Michelangelo. Somehow, the look in those eyes dared her to envision him naked atop a pedestal.
Anna shook herself. Perhaps he was a work of art, but he had not been carved by Michelangelo. How silly.
But he could have been. His face was a study in angles sculpted for the sole purpose of making the owner appear sinfully irresistible to the female of the species. Sharply defined cheeks, a blade-straight nose, firm sensual lips and a small cleft at the base of his chin that deepened when he smiled.
And when he turned that smile on her, her heart skipped a beat.
The picture that filled her mind at that moment was decidedly uncharacteristic of her. She had absolutely no desire to kiss this man, no matter what her mind conjured up. It was stress, pure and simple.
As were the skipped beats. Stress.
The man smiled and winked, and Anna very deliberately looked away. Honestly, what was wrong with her?
"Anna, this is Leo Jackson," Signora Ricci said, and Anna instantly stiffened. The other woman didn't notice as she giggled, hugging his arm to her surgically enhanced body. Shameless hussy. "Leo is Allegra's brother."
As if he could be anyone else.
"How nice," Anna said frostily, her heart careening out of control with anger and helpless frustration. Allegra's brother. As if his sister ruining her life weren't enough, she now had to be faced with another Jackson when she quite simply wished them all to hell. Which wasn't very polite or charitable of her, she knew, but it was how she felt right now. "Welcome to Santina, Mr. Jackson. If you will excuse me, I was just on my way to to an appointment."
It was a lie and her face flamed the instant she said it. Not because she cared that she'd lied, but because Leo Jackson arched one perfect eyebrow as if he knew she wanted to escape him. His lips quirked, and the flame inside her burned hotter.
But was it embarrassment or something else?
Embarrassment, she decided firmly. There could certainly be no other reason for it. If not for his sister, she wouldn't be in this predicament now. She wouldn't be standing here enduring the humiliation of hundreds of eyes surreptitiously turning upon her every time Alex leaned in close to his new fiancée and whispered something in her ear.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Anna," Leo said, using her given name as if he had every right in the world. Arrogant man! But her skin prickled with heat at the way her name sounded when he said it. Soft, sexy, alluring. Not boring Anna, but beautiful, exciting Anna.
"Nevertheless," she said, standing as straight and tall as she could. "It is the case."
What was wrong with her? Why was she being fanciful? She was simply Anna. And that's precisely who she wanted to be. Anna was safe, predictable, quietly elegant. She was not bold or brassy. Nothing like Signora Ricci, thank heavens.
Signora Ricci's mouth turned down in an exaggerated frown. "This will not take but a moment. I had hoped you could show Leo around Amanti tomorrow. He is thinking of building a luxury hotel."
Anna glanced at Leo Jackson. There was something dark and intense behind those eyes, no matter that one corner of his mouth turned up in a mocking grin. A fire began to burn low in her belly. She might be the tourist ambassador to the neighboring island of Amanti, but that didn't mean she had to personally show this man the sights.
It wasn't safe. He wasn't safe. She felt it in her bones.
Besides, his sister had stolen her future, and even if that wasn't his fault, she couldn't forget it if she were forced to spend time with him. No, she wanted nothing to do with this manwith anyone named Jackson.
"I'm afraid that's not possible, Signora Ricci. I have other things to attend to. I can arrange for someone else"
The other woman scoffed. "What is more important than Amanti's economy? This would be good for us, yes? And you are the best for the job. What else do you have to do now that you have no wedding to prepare for?"
Anna swallowed her tongue as bitter acid scoured her throat. If she weren't a dignified person, a calm and controlled person, she might just strangle Graziana Ricci where she stood.
But no, Anna Constantinides had more dignity than that. She'd been raised to be serene, to be a perfect queen. She would not break because one woman dared to insult her on a day when she'd already been insulted by her exfiance and the overwhelming media coverage of his new engagement. She was strong. She could handle this.
"If tomorrow doesn't work," Leo interjected, "the next day surely will." He pulled a card from his pocket and held it out. "My personal number. Call me when you are available."
Anna accepted the card because to do otherwise would be rude. His fingers brushed hers, and a tongue of fire sizzled along her nerve endings. She snatched her hand back, certain she'd find her skin blackened where he'd touched her. Graziana Ricci had turned away, distracted by an elderly matron who gesticulated wildly about something.
"I'm not sure when that will be, Mr. Jackson. It might truly be better for someone else to take you."
"And yet you are the tourist ambassador," he said with a hint of steel underlying the polite veneer in his tone. "Unless, of course, you do not like me for some reason?"
Anna swallowed. "I don't know you. How could I possibly dislike you?"
His gaze cut toward the front of the room where Alex and Allegra were currently standing close together and talking in hushed tones. "How indeed?"
Anna thrust her chin out. It was bad enough she had to endure this night, but for this man to know how she felt? It was insupportable. "Tell me about this hotel you propose to build," she said. "How will this help Amanti?"
His gaze slid down her body, heat trailing behind it. Dangerous, a voice whispered.
He took his time meeting her eyes again. "Have you not heard of the Leonidas Group?"
She was proud of herself for not showing her surprise. If the Leonidas Group wanted to build a hotel on Amanti, that could be a very good thing. "Of course I have. They own some of the most luxurious hotels in the world and cater to the wealthiest of clients. Do you work for them, Mr. Jackson?"
His laughter was rich, rolling from him in golden tones that vibrated through her. "I own the Leonidas Group, Anna."
Again with her name, and again with the prickle of awareness skimming along her nerve endings. "How fortunate for Amanti," she said, because she could think of nothing else to say. She felt like a fool for missing the Leo in Leonidas, though it wasn't an immediately obvious connection. But if he owned the Leonidas Group, he must be very wealthy indeed.
He leaned in closer. "Perhaps you will change your mind about tomorrow, then."
Heat coiled tightly inside her. His voice was a delicious rumble in her ear, though she tried not to notice precisely how delicious. She was tired, that was all. He was just a man, and men were fickle. Unpredictable. Dishonorable.
She closed her eyes, her heart thrumming steadily. It was uncharitable to think of Alex that way, and yet she couldn't help it. He'd made a promise, damn him!
"I will have to check my calendar," she said coolly.
His smile made her heart skip a beat. Too, too charming. Perhaps his sister was equally as charming. Perhaps that's how she'd stolen Alex away.
"And yet, when you wake up and see the morning papers, you will no doubt wish yourself far from Santina."
A current of dread slid through her, icy fingers scraping her soul. The papers. They would be filled with news of Alex and Allegra tomorrowand she would be mentioned side by side with them. The poor jilted bride. The faithful girl who'd been stood up by a prince. Sad little heiress, no longer a queen-in-waiting.
Anna's throat constricted. She absolutely did not want to be here tomorrow. And he was giving her a way out, though she would have to endure his company. But which was worse? The media frenzy, or Leo Jackson?
If she took him to Amanti, they wouldn't escape the attention entirely, but at least they would be out of Alex and Allegra's proximity. Perhaps the press might not think her so sad and distraught if she were seen going about her duties.
"I've just remembered," she said, proud that she managed to sound so cold and detached. Professional. "My appointment isn't for tomorrow after all. I keep getting my days mixed up. It's for the next day."
"Is that so?" Leo said, his gaze slipping over her once more. There was heat and promise in that voice, and a hint of possession, as well. It infuriated herand intrigued her.
"If you wish to tour Amanti," she said crisply, already partially regretting the impulse that had her choosing him over tomorrow's papers, "we can leave around nine in the morning."
"Nine?" he mocked. "I doubt I'll have slept off tonight's debaucheries by then."
Anna felt her ears going hot. She refused to picture any debauchery. "Nine o'clock, Mr. Jackson. Or not at all."
"You drive a hard bargain, darling," he drawled, as if he weren't in the least bit dangerous to her sense of well-being. "But we'll do it your way."
Before she knew what he was about, he caught her hand and pressed a kiss to the back of it. Her skin tingled as his warm breath washed over her, his beautiful lips skimming so lightly over her flesh. She couldn't suppress the small shudder that racked her body or the ache of sensation that made her crave more of his touch.
Leo Jackson looked up, his gaze sharp. Too sharp. As if he'd seen through to the core of her and knew what she'd been thinking. That devilish grin was back as his coffee-colored eyes glittered with heat. "Tomorrow, darling," he said. "I look forward to it."
Anna pulled her hand away, tried very hard to ignore the pulsing throb in her belly, between her legs. "I'm not your darling, Mr. Jackson."
He winked. "Not yet. But let's see what tomorrow brings, shall we?"
After a restless night, Anna rose early the next morning, and then showered and dressed with care. She was the tourist ambassador to Amanti, not a woman going on a date, so she chose a fashionable skirt and blazer. She paired the gray suit with a red silk camisoleher one nod to colorher pearls, and gray suede pumps. She wrapped her long dark hair in a neat knot and secured it with pins. Then she slipped on mascara and lip gloss before walking over to the cheval glass and studying her reflection from head to toe.
She looked professional, competent. Precisely the way she wanted to appear. She absolutely did not care whether Leo Jackson found her attractive or not.