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It was a fairy tale come true.
Three months ago, Rose Linden had been struggling to pay her bills. Today, she no longer worked two jobs in San Francisco, scraping frozen rain off the window of the broken-down car she jump-started each night. As of an hour ago, she'd become a baroness, with the world at her manicured fingertips.
And Lars Vaxborg was her husband.
Rose glanced at her new husband across the enormous gilded ballroom of his castle in northern Sweden. The slender, blond baron looked sleek in his tuxedo, sipping champagne as he was deep in discussion with several young women.
She was his wife now. She should have been ecstatic. And yet, staring at Lars across the room, she suddenly found she couldn't breathe.
"Very fancy wedding, Baroness" her father teased, then frowned. "But why are you so skinny these days, peanut? You been sick or something?"
Her mother elbowed him in the ribs. "It's her wedding day," she hissed. "Rose looks beautiful!"
He looked her up and down accusingly. "She's skin and bone!"
Her mother patted her own full cheeks. "I dieted before my wedding to you, Albert. But of course" she sighed "that was five children ago. For heaven's sake, let Rose enjoy being thin, because it won't last!"
But Rose didn't laugh, as she normally would have while being teased by her large, loving family. Nor did she tell them that she hadn't lost weight on purpose. She just never felt like she could relax around Lars, even thoughor perhaps becausehe constantly assured her she was perfect in every way.
She'd told herself it was wedding day jitters, but though she'd already spoken her vows she was still feeling queasier by the minute. Was it because she hadn't eaten since yesterday? Or because the corset boning of the bodice of her wedding gown was laced too tightly, causing her breasts to spill over the top?
She should have felt like the perfect Cinderella bride, in full white skirts and with a diamond tiara sparkling above her long lace veil. But she still felt small and out-of-place in the castle. And her mother was a bloodhound where her children's emotions were concerned. She could already see Vera starting to frown. In a minute, she'd ask questions, questions Rose couldn't answernot even to herself.
Trembling, Rose set down her crystal flute on the tray of a passing waiter. "I'm going out for some fresh air."
"We'll come with you."
"No. Please, I just need a minute. Alone"
Turning, she fled the ballroom. She ran through the empty hallways of the castle and out into the dark winter's night. Once she was outside, she fell back heavily against the medieval door. It scraped against the stone before finally slamming shut with a sonorous bang that echoed into the white, ghostlike garden.
Rose closed her eyes, taking a deep breath that burned her lungs in the frozen February air.
She was married now.
She'd thought she would feel
At twenty-nine, she'd long been an object of pity to her friends and siblings, all of whom were married except her youngest brother. Every time they'd said, "You're too picky" or "Who are you waiting for, RosePrince Charming?" Rose had cried in private, in her lonely single apartment, but she'd still kept faith. She was determined not to settle. She would wait for true love, even if it took forever.
Then Lars had walked into the San Francisco diner where she worked the morning shift. He'd sat down at the counter and ordered coffee and the breakfast plate special.
San Francisco was a cosmopolitan, colorful city, far more populated than the tiny coastal village to the south where Rose had grown up; but even for San Francisco, a man like Lars was unusual. He was a wealthy, handsome aristocrat who'd gone to Oxford, who had his own ancestral castle in Sweden. From the moment they'd met, he'd pursued Rose with reckless abandon.
Men had pursued her before, and she'd never been interested. But Lars's incredibly romantic, complimentary charm had swept her off her feet. A week ago, he'd proposed marriage. "Let's elope today," he'd begged. "I can't wait to have you as my wife." After she'd accepted, he'd only grudgingly agreed to wait a week, long enough for her family to be able to attend. When she'd asked for a small wedding in her hometown, he'd arranged instead for her entire familyher grandmother, parents and her five siblings and their familiesto fly to northern Sweden.
They'd had a magical wedding. And tonight, they'd make love for the first time.
Was that why Rose felt this sinking feeling inside, like the cratering of her soul? She was nervous. That had to be the reason she felt so ill. She had nothing to be scared about, she told herself fiercely. Nothing.
Still, the enormity of what she'd promisedpledging her life to Lars forevermade her skin feel cold in a way that had nothing to do with the ice and frost. She'd just married the man of her dreams, so why was her body still shaking as if preparing to flee? What was wrong with her?
Pushing away from the medieval door of the castle, she crossed the bridge over the frozen moat and walked into the silent, decorative garden with its ghostly cover of snow. Her white tulle skirts trailed lightly behind her, scattering powdery flakes that sparkled like diamonds in the moonlight.
The night was dark and clear. Looking up, she nearly gasped when she saw violent streaks of pale green light suddenly whip across the sky. Northern lights. She'd never seen anything so beautiful or so strange. Their magic caught at her soul. She closed her eyes.
"Please," she prayed softly, "let me have a happy marriage."
But when she opened her eyes, the northern lights were gone, leaving only a dark, empty sky behind.
"So," a deep voice said behind her, "you are the bride."
Rose whirled to face him, her skirts sweeping the snow.
A man, dark as shadow, stood in front of three black SUVs on the edge of the graveled courtyard. His black hair and long, black coat were illuminated in the moonlight, where he stood beside a pale, solitary rowan tree that was thick with frost and half-strangled in mistletoe.
Rose trembled as if she'd seen a ghost. She whispered, "Who are you?"
Without a word, he started walking toward her.
Something about his malevolent stare and the shadows of his face frightened her. Rose suddenly realized how far she'd wandered from the castle, and how alone she was. In the warm, glowing castle, she knew the ballroom was full of noise, with a chamber string orchestra and hundreds of laughing, tipsy guests. Would anyone even hear her if she screamed?
Oh, she was being silly. She was in Sweden, for heaven's sake! There was no safer, friendlier place than this!
Ignoring the instincts that told her to turn and run, Rose folded her arms over her white, corseted bodice. Lifting her chin, she waited for his answer.
The stranger stopped directly in front of her, his body inches away from hers. He was so muscular and broad-shouldered he had to be almost twice her weight. He was so tall that the top of her head barely reached his shoulder.
His black eyes gleamed down at her. "Are you alone out here, little one?"
A chill crept across the skin of her arms, bare beneath the white lace sleeves. She shook her head. "There are hundreds of people inside the ballroom."
His cruel, sensual lips curved upward.
"Ah, but you're not in the ballroom. You're alone. And do you not know," he said softly, "how cold a winter night can be?"
Cold. A shiver went through her. No matter how high the thermostat was set in the aging castle or how many sweaters she'd worn, no matter how many times Lars had assured her that she was perfectthat she could be nothing but perfectshe'd never once felt warm in the sparkling, exquisite beauty of his northern palace surrounded by ice. But she wasn't going to say that to a stranger. "I'm not afraid of a little snow."
"Such bravery." The stranger's black eyes traced over her body, burning her wherever they touched. "And yet you know why I've come."
"Yes, of course," she said, bewildered.
"But you do not run away?"
She blinked, even as her feet inched backward of their own volition, and said, "Why would I run?"
His black eyes searched hers as if sifting through her soul. "You actually take responsibility for your crime?"
His face was too brutal, his body too muscular to be handsome. But it was hard to get a good look at his face. In the shadows of the moonlit night, he was like a vampire sucking up every bit of light despite the illumination from the snow. And his darkness was more than the black of his hair, his eyes and his long coat. There was something in his posture that frightened her. A danger. A threat.
And yet she forced herself to hold still. She glanced back at the castle to reassure herself. Her husband and family were near. She had no reason to be afraid. She was so overwrought she was imagining things!
"By 'crime' do you mean the wedding?" she replied lightly. "It was perhaps a bit overdone but that's hardly a crime."
But the man didn't even smile. She cleared her throat.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I shouldn't joke. You must have traveled a long distance for our wedding, only to arrive an hour too late. That would make anyone upset."
"Upset?" he ground out.
"I'll get you some champagne inside," she urged. Her feet started inching back again toward the castle. "Lars will be so happy to see you."
The man barked a sudden laugh. "Is that another joke?"
Rose stopped. "Aren't you one of his friends?"
The man drew closer to her.
"No," he said. "I am not a friend."
His body towered over hers without touching her, leaving her in shadow. She felt his physical strength like a threat.
And suddenly, she knew that her instincts had been right all along.
She had to flee for safetynow.
"Excuse me," she choked out, stumbling back. "My husband's waiting for me. Hundreds of peoplesecurity guards, policemenare waiting for our first dance as a married couple
The man's hand flew out to grab her upper arm over her translucent lace sleeve, gripping her tight, preventing her escape.
"Married?" he repeated in cold fury.
Why was he looking as if he might kill her for saying something so innocent and so obvious? "Yes, it's ourYou're hurting me!"
His hand had tightened, gripping painfully into her arm. His black eyes stared down at her with deep, fathomless rage as he slowly looked from her breasts, which were pushed up by the tight bodice, to the enormous diamond ring sparkling on her left hand.
Finally, his eyes met hers, and it was like a blast of fire as he said in a low voice, "You both deserve to burn in hell for what you've done."
She gaped at him. "What? What are you talking about?"
With a brutal jerk, he pulled her so close to him that her wide tulle skirts whirled around his muscular legs.
"You know," he said in a low, grim voice. "And you know why I've come."
"I don't!" she panted, struggling in his brutal grip. "Are you insane? Let me go!"
An icy breeze lifted her veil above her blond chignon, up into the air, swirling around them both in the dark frozen night. She felt the latent power and hostility emanating off the stranger's strong body, and for a moment, she felt lost in a medieval nightmare of ice, fire and Vikings.
But this wasn't a dream! He held her tight, crushing her fruitless struggles.
"You are a liar, just as I knew you'd be," he hissed in her ear. She saw the ice crystals of their joined breath swirl like mist and smoke around them, before he pulled back to look down at her with hard eyes. "What I did not realize was that you would also be so beautiful."
you've made some kind of mistake." She licked her dry lips. His dark eyes fell to her mouth, tracing the movement of her tongue.
Her lips burned beneath his gaze, causing a scorching trail of fire to spread down her body, sizzling from her lips to her earlobes. To her breasts. To her core, coiling low in her belly.
"No mistake," he said roughly, his grip tightening on her shoulders. "You've committed a crime. Now you will pay."
"You're drunkor crazy!"
Kicking his shins, she wrenched away from his grasp. Desperately, she fled toward the bright, warm castle, with its music and free-flowing champagne. She ran for safety. Ran for her life. Toward her family and her new husband and the crowds of beautiful, laughing, celebrating Swedes.
But the stranger caught up with her. She felt his hands roughly grab her and she screamed.
With a savage growl, he seized her, lifting her up in his arms, holding her tightly against his chest as if she weighed nothing at all. Her white, translucent veil flew behind them as he carried her across the snowy garden.
"What are you doing? Stop!" she cried, kicking and struggling in his arms. "Let me go! Help! Someone help me!"
But no one came. No one could hear her screams inside the castle, over the noise of the orchestra.
Holding her, the man grimly waded through the snow toward the three black SUVs parked in the dark courtyard. She heard the three engines start. She screamed and twisted against him, fighting with all her strength, but her abductor barely seemed to notice.
And why should he? What was Rose's strength, compared to his?
He pushed her inside the back door of the last SUV, then slid in beside her, closing the door behind them.
"Go," he said.
The driver stomped on the gas, scattering rocks and gravel as the back tires slid on a patch of ice. The other two cars roared ahead of them, as they sped into the dark forested mountains of the countryside.
The dark stranger released Rose's wrist, glowering down at her.
Rubbing her wrist, she turned to look through the back window in time to see the castle disappear behind her. Her family, her new husband, everything that was rational and civilized and knowngone.
With a choked gasp, Rose looked at the madman beside her, the dark stranger who'd just stolen her away from everyone she loved. "You kidnapped me," she whispered. "From my own wedding reception."
The man stared back at her with dead eyes. His jaw clenched.