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Princess Alisa of Teslinko's first hint that the man waiting for her at her family's table was trouble was the fact that he wore dark glasseseven inside the palace dining room, where the candle-illuminated table made the light relatively dim.
Her second hint, his unabashedly scruffy appearancefrom his rumpled black hair to his disheveled, too-casual clothes. Usually when suitorseven those from other countriesvisited royalty, they made sure to look their best, even for her. The fact that he hadn't bothered told her he either honestly didn't care, or worse, didn't know any better.
Either way, as she made her way toward him, she grudgingly admired him for his boldness in daring to be different. She had to admit, it pricked her interest, especially since she was different herself. Someone like him was a welcome change from the usual ass-kissers who came seeking her hand. Though she knew she'd eventually have to choose one of them, so far she hadn't been able to get past the fact that every single one of them felt more infatuated with her money and status than her.
And now this man, apparently the latest in a long queue of minor Pack royalty.
Head up, dark glasses obscuring his face, he ignored her as she drew closer. This gave her pause. He didn't turn toward her and flash his teeth in a patently false smile or dip his perfectly cleft chin in acknowledgment or even give any outward sign that he noticed her approach. Except for the slight flaring of his nostrils, he might have been completely oblivious.
Barely stopping herself from rolling her eyes, she made her way to the table, affecting a pleasant smile that she hoped hid her frustration. Lately her parents had been focused obsessively on marrying her off, as though they had some sort of checklist of their children's names and hers was the next one on it. It didn't help that she was not as beautiful as her two older sisters or that she was known around Teslinko as a bit of a brainiac.
And here sat yet another one of her parents' finds.
There was a second or two of extreme awkwardness when she reached them. Her father gallantly stood, while her mother and the stranger remained seated. Alisa couldn't believe it. She'd never had a visitorsuitor or otherwiseact in such a deliberately boorish manner.
Finally, as though by second thought, he pushed back his chair and stood, tilting his head as her father performed the introductions. His title and nameDoctor Somethingbarely registered as she studied him, wondering why he looked so familiar, when in fact she knew they'd never met.
"Princess Alisa, I'm honored to meet you."
About to make some pithy comment, Alisa froze. Stunned, she couldn't at first form a reply. The richness of his sensual voice rolled over her like molten caramel. Her reaction shocked her. Quite frankly, she hadn't been expecting this at all.
Despite herself, she shivered. Hellhounds.
Gathering her shredded composure, she inclined her head. She could do this. After all, she was a princess, well schooled in affecting grace in all sorts of unique situations. One rude stranger with a voice as rich as sin couldn't even put a dent in her composure.
Regally, she held out her hand, absently wondering if he'd kiss it or simply take it in a weak clasp before releasing it. When he did neither, her heart rate increased and her face heated. Swallowing hard as this next bit of discourtesy forced her to slowly lower her arm, she glanced at her father to see how he was taking all this. Such impossible behavior should not be tolerated. At the very least, this man should be given a severe dressing down. Or, even better, sent packing.
But instead of wearing a thunderous frown, King Leo simply pulled out her chair for Alisa, indicating with a dip of his chin that she should sit.
Really? Biting back a retort, she did. Once she'd gotten seated, Dr. Rude-with-sunglasses-still-on did the same.
Great. Her parents weren't going to let her off the hook so easily. She'd have no choice but to smile and somehow get through what promised to be the dreariest hour she'd spent in weeks. Months, even. Which just went to show exactly how far her parents were willing to go to procure a husband for their plain and brainy daughter. They refused to accept the fact that Alisa did not want to get married. Not yet, maybe not ever.
Barely curbing her impatience, she schooled her face into a bland sort of pleasantness. Though she realized how excruciatingly long this luncheon just might be, part of her job as princess was making sure her visitor had no idea that she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else.
But still glancing at the man wearing his dark sunglasses, she sighed. Discourteousness had a way of begetting impoliteness. Maybe she could help move things along if she simply cut to the chase.
Leaning across the table, she flashed him her most brilliant smile, even though she knew smiling only detracted slightly from her plainness. "Doctor, I'm afraid I missed your name. But since you're here, why don't you tell me why you think I should consider marrying you rather than someone else? We can save a lot of time that way."
To her astonishment, the doctor nearly choked on the wine he'd been about to drink. Carefully setting the glass down, he blotted his mouth with the napkin before he cocked his head toward her. "I think you misunderstand," he began. "Actually, I believe you're a bit confused as to the purpose of my visit."
Again she had that odd reaction to his voice, which both infuriated and inexplicably energized her. And for him to say she was confused? Now that was fresh. Most of her prior suitors had carefully avoided commenting on her intelligence, even though that was the one thing she truly liked about herself. Brains over beauty, this had been the hand she'd been dealt. She'd long ago stopped longing to be more like her glamorous older sisters.
"Misunderstand what?" Her tone came out a bit sharper than she'd intended, causing her father to reach over and cover her hand with his in a gentle warning.
Taking a deep breath, she continued in a much softer voice. "Are you or are you not here because you want to apply for my hand in marriage?"
King Leo cleared his throat and started to speak. To her shock, the doctor held up a hand to silence him. The king. He dared to silence the king. Hiding her glee, she waited for the eruption. Any moment now, all hell would break loose.
To her surprise, nothing happened. Her father's always-mercurial temper appeared to be on hiatus. Instead of acting infuriated as he should be, her father appeared to find this man hugely amusing. What she didn't understand was why. Had her parents truly given up all hope for her?
Apparently completely unaware, the doctor leaned forward. "About your assumption that I'm here as your what, suitor? I'm not. Not at all."
"Really?" she repeated. "But"
He continued on as if she hadn't spoken. "That's a bit arrogant of you, isn't it? Do you automatically believe that any man who visits has some sort of over-reaching desire for you?"
Arrogant? He really didn't know her at all, did he? She would have thought the man would have at least bothered to do some research on her before his arrival.
Opening her mouth, she eyed his blasted dark glasses. Her father's glare and her mother's slow shake of the head made her close it without giving any sort of rebuttal.
"I can assure you," he said, his low, impossibly rich voice vibrating with certainty, "I have absolutely zero interest in marrying you, or anyone else for that matter."
Stunned, she sat back in her chair. To further the surreal aspect of it all, neither of her parents commented. At all. Even if he wasn't here to court her, even though it was the twenty-first century, who talked to a princess like that? Who talked to anyone like that? Honestly.
As she pondered how to respond, her mother leaned forward and took Alisa's hand, gently squeezing. "Honey, Dr. Streib is here because we asked him to come for medical reasons. You know we've been concerned about your health. And even in America, Dr. Streib learned of your situation. He's traveled all this way because of that."
Mortified and horrified, Alisa finally realized what Doctor what's-his-name was doing here. "They called you because they think I'm sick." Saying this, she felt queasy.
Expressionless, sunglasses still hiding his eyes, he nodded. "I am a doctor, yes. But"
This time she interrupted him. "Honestly, I'm sorry they wasted your time. Which they have." Turning her attention to her most likely ally, her father, she tried to keep her voice level. "Dad. There is nothing wrong with me. Just because I haven't shifted into wolf lately "
"Six months is not 'lately.'" Despite the steely look in his eyes, like her he kept his tone mild. "You know as well as I do that you need to change more often. Everyone does."
"I don't. I've told you"
"Yes, you have. And your story has become well known in not only our country, but all around the world. So much so that Dr. Streib contacted us from the United States and expressed a wish to examine you. Your motherand I," he added pointedly, "are both very concerned over your mental well-being."
"I'm fine." She'd grown weary of the old argument. Ever since she'd first shape-shifted, with no inclination or yearning to do so again on any regular basis, her parents had worried. Until she'd become a teenager, her mother had made shifting to wolf a family event, something that they did every weekend, as regularly as other families went to church or to the mall. This had been their way to ensure Alisa changed regularly. She'd actually come to enjoy these little outings, the royal pack of wolves running and hunting and playing together in the rugged mountains near the palace.
But once she and her siblings had grown older, her sisters had gotten married, and her mother had weddings to plan and grandchildren to dote over. The family get-togethers had stopped and Alisa had changed less and less frequently.
Unlike apparently everyone else in the Pack, she didn't feel a craving or compulsion to become wolf. In truth, she hadn't cared if she remained human forever. Actually, she hadn't even been aware six months had passed since the last time she shape-shifted. And she certainly hadn't realized her parents were still keeping track.
Now, they were so concerned about her mental health that they'd invited this man into their home. Was he a psychologist? Because according to conventional wisdom, her ability to remain in her human form for a longer period of time than most meant that she should be stark raving mad.
The fact that she wasn't continued to astound everyone.
"Then you are here to psychoanalyze me?" she asked, hurt despite herself. "You are going to make sure I'm not crazy, is that it?"
"No. I'm not that kind of doctor," he began.
"Doctor Streib is a top neurosurgeon," her mother said, still holding Alisa's hand. "He has also made a career out of studying the brain. He is here because he believes that your ability could have great benefits for our kind if it can be replicated."
Replicated? Eyeing her parents, who until now had seemed remarkably indulgent of her many imperfections, she began to wonder if they were only making up this nonsense to soothe her wounded pride over the fact that they believed she needed a psychiatrist.
"Do you think I've gone mad?" she asked bluntly, holding her father's gaze.
King Leo blinked before slowly shaking his head.
"Good." Now Alisa turned to face her mother. "How about you, Mom?"
"Of course not," Queen Ionna hastened to reassure her, while her father watched, amusement glinting in his bright blue eyes. All of the family had those same sapphire eyes, except Alisa. Hers were the color of sea foam.
"I don't think you're crazy, dear," the queen finished.
"No? Then why have you sent for this man?" she wondered out loud. "Have I shown a single sign of mental instability?"
"No, of course not," her father said, his mouth twitching in an obvious attempt to keep from smiling. Her mother shook her head in agreement, while the boorish doctor continued to stare, his sunglasses reflecting back her distorted image.
"Then why?" Shooting a wry look at both her parents, she waited for someoneanyoneto state the obviousthat this had been a colossal mistake.
When no one did, Alisa glared at the doctor and did it herself.
"I'm fine," she repeated. "Dr. Streib, I assure you I'm doing perfectly well. There is nothing wrong with my brain, I promise. So there's no reason for you to be here, no reason at all. You're wasting your time."
"I'm not concerned with your mental health." When he spoke for the third time, the timbre and resonance of his voice was like whiskey and silk. Smooth and dangerous at once. Damn his voice. She had to force herself to focus on his words instead of melting into the sound of him.
"You're not?" she managed, looking from her mother to her father and back again. "Then why are you.?"
"As your mother mentioned, I amwasa neuro-surgeon," the doctor said. "I don't believe there is anything wrong with your brain, not at all. But I do believe that there is something different in you, something that enables you to do this thing that no one else can."
Alisa picked up on a single word. The was. "You were a neurosurgeon, you said. But you're not now?"
"No." A man of few words, this doctor.
"Dr. Streib no longer performs surgery," her father said, before she could ask the doctor to elaborate. "Even though he no longer operates, he's the foremost Pack expert in research that may someday enable all shifters to do as you doto go longer periods of time in human form without going mad."
"Research. Interesting." She frowned, even though her mother kept reminding her a smile made her look prettier. Straightening her shoulders, she took a deep breath, not sure she liked the direction this conversation appeared to be heading.
Though she suspected she knew the answer, she had to ask anyway. "That's nice, but what does that have to do with me? Don't tell me he wants to study my brain."
Though she said the last as a joke, no one laughed. Instead, both her parents continued to regard her intently.
"That is exactly what he wants to do," King Leo said. "And more."
"More?" she said faintly, looking at her mother for help. The queen's serious expression told her she couldn't expect assistance from that quarter.
"Dr. Streib has been given copies of your blood work. He also has requested both blood and tissue samples."
Eyes gleaming, King Leo practically rubbed his hands together. "We've had numerous conversations on the phone. Throughout Pack history, there have only been a few documented cases of shifters who could do as you do."
Great. Briefly she closed her eyes. Yet another well-intentioned reminder of how different she was.