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Kim Guilder stared out the bus window into the intense eyes of the stranger in the long leather coat. He was coming down the wide, stone stairway from the hospital administration building, moving like a man with a purpose, headed straight at her.
Her heart lurched and she looked quickly at the bus driver. Would he wait? Would the man make the bus?
But no. Relief filled her as the bus began to pull away from the curb. She reached out to steady herself on the handrail as it lurched into high speed. She looked back at the stalker, feeling a strange sense of triumph. He stood very still, staring after her. There was no way he could stop the bus, no way he could catch it and climb aboard. But she shivered in a quick attack of irrational fear anyway.
She didn't know him. She didn't think she'd ever seen him before. But he knew her. The way he'd been coming down those stairs when she'd looked up and caught sight of him, the way his eyes had blazed at her, she'd known right away he was trying to catch her. And she even thought she knew why.
She glanced around at the other passengers, wondering if anyone had noticed what had just happened. No one looked up except a little girl with bouncing red curls, sucking her thumb. The child stared at Kim, but dully, without significance.
Kim took a deep breath and tried to settle her pulse rate. What was she worried about, anyway? He'd caught sight of her there in that public area and obviously he'd recognized her right away. But that had to be pure coincidence. He couldn't possibly know where she was going or even the location of the rooms she was staying in right now. But something told her he would try.
Maybe she'd better find another place to stay, quickly. Maybe she should just race back to the rooms, grab her baby, and go.
But go where? It was coming down to that. There weren't many places left to run to.
She glanced back toward where they'd come from with a new spurt of adrenaline, suddenly wondering if he could find a way to follow the bus. No, how could he? it was almost impossible to find a taxi in this town, so unless he'd leaped up at the last minute and was clinging to the roof like an action hero, he had no hope.
So why wouldn't the butterflies in her stomach settle down? She looked out at the darkened streets. It was starting to snow. Half the streetlights were out, just another consequence of the recent war. But some optimistic souls had strung up Christmas lights here and there. It wasn't exactly cheerful, but it was a sign of survival.
She pulled her fake-fur coat more tightly around her and tried a couple of cleansing breaths, waiting, hoping, to feel a bit of calm return. She knew this was crazy. A man she didn't even know had picked up her world and tossed it into chaos for a moment or two. She couldn't let that sort of thing happen. She had a baby to think of.
But where had he come from so suddenly? His face, his eyes, they looked so familiar. She didn't know who he was, but she knew two things about him: he knew exactly who she was, and he'd been sent by the Ambrian royal family, and that meant Pellea, who was now queen.
Pellea was one thingthis man was quite another. Those icy spikes of fear she'd felt were a direct response to the animosity in his eyes. He'd never met her before and he already hated her. What did that tell you about the relationship she had with the royal family?
It hadn't always been like that, at least, not with Pellea. They'd been best friends most of their lives, pampered children of the Granvilli regime which had toppled the royal family before they were born. And then Pellea fell in love with Crown Prince Monte DeAngelis and helped him invade the island, restoring the monarchy. And Kim was left behind to pick up the pieces and mend the fencesand take the brunt of the anger when the Granvillis began to lose.
Her stop was just ahead. She rose, hanging on to the metal bar and moving toward the back exit. She looked out into the dark street behind. Headlights swooped by, making her heart lurch every time, but no one seemed to linger. She stared harder into the night. She couldn't help it. She just had a feeling .
The bus slowed to a stop at the side of the slippery road. It seemed to take forever for the door to open, and when it did, she took a deep breath and headed out into the snowy night.
"Hello, Kimmee," a deep voice spoke from just behind her.
She whirled, shock rocketing through her soul. It couldn't be him. It was impossible. And yet There he stood, tall and dark and terrifying.
Her first instinct was to run. He saw it in her eyes and his hand clamped down on her upper arm. "I need to talk to you."
She looked around quickly, trying to find someone who might help her, but the bus was leaving, its red taillights staring back impassively. Even more chilling, though cars rushed past anonymously, the street was empty of pedestrians. There was no one to run to. Her heart pounded.
"Let me go," she gasped at him. "I'm going to scream. The police."
"The police are hard to find these days and you know it," he told her dryly, his eyes glittering in the light from the street lamp. "Besides, you don't need them. I'm not here to hurt you. I was sent to give you some important information. Something that could change your life."
She thought quickly. He was probably telling the truth. He wasn't the first who had been sent to try to convince her to come back to the castle. Each one seemed to have a more fantastic story meant to lure her away.
But this was a bit different. This one didn't like her.
She looked up at him, studying his face for a stealthy moment. How could he look so familiar at the same time she was so sure she'd never seen him before? Odd.
He was ridiculously handsome, with even features and a square jaw that bespoke a lack of tolerance for nonsense. His eyes were crystal blue and penetrating, framed by lush dark lashes any beauty queen would commit outlandish crimes to get for herself. Still, there was no hint of softness, not even a trace of any sort of compassion or sensitivity.
Everything about him telegraphed strength and authority, even a sense of command. And every one of those elements only made her feel more rebellious.
Still, he was bigger than she was, stronger than she was, and right now, he had hold of her arm. She figured it was useless to try to get away. Better to play along until she saw her chance.
"Okay, change my life," she said a bit sarcastically, looking at where his long fingers held her prisoner. "Tell me quickly. I've got to go."
His hold on her tightened.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
Looking up, she met his cold gaze and managed to keep from flinching. That was a plus.
There was no way she could let him know where she was staying. The rooms she'd taken were only a block away. Dede, her nine-month-old baby, was there with a babysitter she didn't completely trust. She had to get back to her right away. But letting this hostile man tag along was an impossibility. She felt trapped.
"Just tell me this important information you have for me," she said, trying to look as hard as he did while wiping snowflakes off her cheeks and shaking them from her thick blond hair. "And I'll be on my way."
The faint twist of his wide mouth almost looked like a smile, but there was no sign of that in his cold blue eyes.
"No chance," he said, then glanced up and down the dark street. Most of the shabby stores were closed, but a small cafe on the corner looked open.
"Let's go in there," he said, jerking his head in the direction of the coffee shop. "I'll buy you something warm to drink."
She tensed, firming her resistance. Maybe if she showed him she was no pushover he would tell her quickly and leave her alone. Maybe.
"I don't want a drink or anything else," she told him crisply. "I don't know who you are or where you came from. If you've got information for me, why don't you send it to me in a letter?" Her chin rose and she glared at him as fiercely as she knew how.
He searched her face impatiently, looking as though he were weighing the alternatives.
"I think you know very well that Pellea sent me," he said tersely.
He was right on that one. Pellea, the queen of the new, restored Ambrian monarchy, wanted her old best friend to come home to the castle for some reason. But she didn't seem to understand that it could never be home to Kim again. Her people, the Granvillis, had been driven out. The DeAngelis royals were in charge. There was no place for her there.
Still, Pellea didn't give up, and she kept sending people to try to lure Kim back. If she'd understood how deeply Kim's feelings of pain ran, if she had a clue how she resented the way she was treated toward the end, she might not have bothered.
Kim stared at the dark man and shook her head. She didn't have a lot of choice. She could stand here and scream at the top of her lungs, but he'd been right about the police. Since the end of the war, they were hard to find. Street crime was rampant. He could knock her on the head and drag her off into an alley before anyone even noticed, and from the look in his eyes, she had no doubt he wouldn't hesitate.
On the other hand, she could go with him to the coffee shop. It was a public place. He wouldn't do anything to her there. He could tell her his information, she could tell him why she didn't care, and hopefully, that would be that.
"All right," she said reluctantly. "Let's get this over with as quickly as possible."
His wide mouth twisted with a sort of mocking amusement at her words.
"Hold on a moment," he said, letting go of her arm and turning to snap a chain and lock on an ancient, crumbling motorcycle she hadn't noticed before, fastening it to the bus bench.
So that was how he'd caught her. She sighed, rocking on her heels, tempted to make a run for it now, while she had the openingsort ofbut just curious enough to give him a chance, at least for a few minutes.
Turning back, he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm in a familiar way she found utterly offensive, and escorted her into the coffee shop as though they made a habit of meeting this way.
She pulled her hand away as soon as she was able and slipped into a booth. He slid in across from her, holding her gaze with his own icy eyes. She stared back, feeling warmth begin to creep up her neck to her cheeks.
Why were his eyes so filled with accusations?
The coffee shop wasn't much at this point, but it had obviously been a trendy meeting place before the war. The remnants of the decor were still in place, looking shabby and worn, but still hopeful. A young girl who looked like she should have been home finishing up an assignment for her biology class came to take their order. She watched them brightly, her hair pulled into braids at either side of her head, and Kim smiled at her.
"I'll have a cup of tea," she said. "Herbal."
"Black coffee," he ground out. "Bold."
The girl nodded. "Nothing to eat?" she asked hopefully. "We have a lovely apple pie. The cook just took it out of the oven."
Now that she'd mentioned it, the scent of the pie was in the air. Kim breathed it in with pleasure, then caught the dark man's gaze and saw that he was doing the same thing.
Her eyes widened.
Something electric snapped between them, shocking her. She wasn't sure if it was a sign of attraction or one of pure loathing and she looked away quickly, trying hard not to react.
But her heart pulsed. Was it fear? She didn't think so. But if not that.what?
She didn't even notice that he'd ordered them a piece of pie with vanilla ice cream and two forks until it appeared on the table along with their drinks.
That was just a little too friendly, wasn't it?
She looked up and met his gaze again. He was watching to see how she would react, and she flushed, looking back down. She thought about refusing to take a bite, but she knew that would seem churlish, and it did smell so good. She hadn't eaten all day. Could he hear her stomach rumble?
She looked at the luscious piece of pie. Steam was coming off the apples. The crust looked crisp and crumbling. The ice cream was just starting to melt around it.
Maybe just one bite. Or two.
They ate in silence. He very carefully only took his share and she wondered why. It was his pie, after all. She risked another glance at his face but his cold expression didn't tell her anything.
When every bit of pie was gone, he sighed with satisfaction and murmured, "That has got to be the best apple pie I've had since."
He didn't go on and his mouth tightened. She wondered what painful memory had stopped him. So there was more to him than pure anger. That did make him seem a little more human.
The little cafe was warm. She opened her coat a bit, flushing as she noticed him looking at her nurse's uniform. She wasn't really a nurse, she just played one at the hospital, since actual nurses were in such short supply these days. But the uniform seemed to give people confidence.
"Tell me something," she said, looking at him directly. "Who are you?"
He took a deep breath before he answered. "I'm Jake Marallis. Pellea is my sister."
"Your sister!" She stared at him, surprised and not sure she believed him. "That's impossible. I've known Pellea all my life. She doesn't have a brother."
"Half brother." He shrugged. "My mother was married to her father before her mother was."
She thought that over quickly. It was possible, she supposed. But she knew she'd never seen him. Had Pellea ever mentioned him? Actually, now that she thought about it, she might have. She seemed to remember something. .
"You never lived in the castle?"
"No. Not in the old days."
She studied his face. Yes, she could see it now. That was what was so familiar about him. The look in his eyes was just like Pellea's, even though his eyes were blue and hers were dark. How extraordinary.
"You know she wants you to come home." He said it softly, as though testing the waters. And he got a quick reaction.
"Home!" She winced, looking inside, probing her own response. Did it still hurt as badly as it used to? Was the feeling of betrayal healing over yet? Not a chance.
"That castle will never be home to me again."
But to her surprise, her tone came out more wistful than angry. She frowned. Maybe she was softening. She would have to keep an eye on that.
He leaned back, his narrow gaze penetrating without a hint of sympathy.
"What keeps you away, Kimmee?"
She grimaced. It had been a long time since anyone had called her by that childhood nickname. "It's Kim now, not Kimmee. That name is from my old life."
He shrugged. "As you wish." He raised one dark eyebrow. "The question still stands. I know I'm not the first my sister has sent to find you. Why won't you come back?"
It was none of his business, and he probably only wanted to know so that he could use the information against her, but for some reason, she found herself telling him anyway.
"Come back to what?" she said. "I've lived my whole life as part of the Granvilli era. I've never been a subject of the DeAngelis monarchy. I never backed the invasion. Ambria has been torn apart by the war between these two factions. The DeAngelis royalty now has the castle in their possession." She lifted her chin and met his gaze defiantly. "Well, bully for them. I'm with the Granvillis. And I won't turn traitor and go back to the protection of the castle just to have an easier life."