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The President of Aliz was hiding in the ladies' room.
Veronica St. Germaine lifted her head, frowning at her reflection in the mirror. She really should go back out there, but she was tired of smiling, tired of shaking hands and making small talk, tired of feeling desperate and overwhelmed and so very out of her element.
Yet she knew she had a job to do.
For Aliz. Her people needed her, and she would not fail them. They'd entrusted her with their welfare and she would not return empty-handed.
Momentarily, she would go back to the hotel ballroom and paste on a smile. Just as soon as she regained her center of calm.
She couldn't quite say what had triggered her need to escape. Perhaps it was the huge crush of curious faces, the suggestive looks from some of the men, or even the knowledge that she was surrounded by men in black suits who would dog her every step for the next two years of her life.
That was what she hated most of allthe loss of her autonomy. In truth, it sparked unpleasant associations she would rather forget. Until the age of eighteen, her life had been so tightly regimented that she'd not had even a single friend.
Veronica took a deep breath and pulled a lipstick tube from her purse. Another moment, and then she had to return to the elegant party.
She'd been traveling for the past two weeks, trying to drum up investment in her country. It wasn't an easy prospect. Aliz was beautiful, with beaches and coastline and balmy breezes, but it was also poor after so many years of mismanagement. Investors wanted to know that if they poured money into the country, it wouldn't be in vain.
She was here to convince them Aliz was a good bet.
And it was much more difficult than she'd anticipated. In so many ways, she wasn't prepared for this job. She'd said no to running for office, but Paul Durandan old friend of her father'shad convinced her she was the person who could make everything right again.
She'd laughed at the ideawho was she to be president of a nation? She was famous in Aliz, but she was infamous the world over. There was a difference between the two, but Paul hadn't listened.
He'd spoken with such passion, such conviction. And he'd convinced her she was the one person who could do the most good for Aliz. Her notoriety, far from being undesirable, was an asset in the public arena.
She reminded herself of that now. She'd done many things wrong in her life, but she would do this right. Aliz needed her. And she was not the same person she'd been when she'd fled her father's house ten years ago.
Then, she'd been headstrong, selfish and a touch naive.
She'd been looking for adventure, and she'd done everything to excess once she'd escaped her father's control. It had been inevitable that she would become a bad girl, a diva, a spoiled debutante. Some would even include wanton seductress on that list, but all she would say was that she'd allowed herself the freedom to take lovers when it had suited her.
A dart of pain lodged beneath her breastbone. Her last relationship had not ended so wellthough it wasn't the man who'd caused the pain that even now threatened to consume her.
If she stopped fighting for even a moment, the pain would win. Because it was her fault it had happened. Her fault the tiny life growing inside her had never had a chance.
She'd always felt impervious, as if no one could hurt her because she refused to let them, but she'd learned there were many kinds of hurt. Some hurts snuck up on you like a scorpion in the night and left you gasping and aching and wondering how you'd never known it could happen to you.
Veronica swiped a hand beneath her eyes.
Not now. She would not dwell on it now.
The lights flickered overhead. It had been snowing heavily for hours. Perhaps the power would go out after all. She resolutely sucked in a breath and bent toward the mirror to remove all traces of tears from the corners of her eyes. Then she stood and smoothed a hand down her gown.
Her pity party was finished; it was time to return to the ballroom before the power went out and she was left in the dark alone.
Veronica bit back a cry as the door to the ladies' room suddenly swung inward. No one should have gotten past the bodyguard stationed outside.
But the intruder was a man, dressed in an all-too-familiar black suit.
She pivoted angrily. This was too much. She would not have her private moments intruded on by her security staff.
Except this man was not her guard, nor was he wearing the typical black suit of one of her people.
"Who are you?" she blurted, her heart beginning to hammer in her throat as she faced him.
The man was tall and clad in a tuxedo that appeared to be custom-fitted. The fabric looked expensive, with a hint of shine that came from how tightly the cloth was woven. His dark hair curled over his collar, his golden skin so exotic and beautiful.
She'd seen this man by the bar, talking to her old friend Brady Thompson. She relaxed infinitesimally. If he knew Brady
"I am Rajesh Vala."
The name meant nothing to her.
His hands were shoved casually into the pockets of his trousers. The door swung shut behind him, and then it was just the two of them in the small anterior suite of the powder room. Mirrors lined three walls, giving her the impression there was more than one man in the room with her.
She swallowed, the pulse in her neck tapping a rhythm he surely could see.
He said nothing, as if he were waiting for her to speak. But she couldn't. She could only stare. He was Bollywood-handsome, with his tanned skin and honey-gold eyes, and she found herself thinking of tigers. Sleek, gorgeous, deadly.
Her heart kicked up again and she found her voice. "What have you done with my bodyguard?"
His scorn was not promising. "Your security is sadly lacking, Madam President. The most inept criminal could get to you with little trouble. And that's a problem."
"My security is fine"
He took another step closer, his hands sliding free of his pockets like an animal unsheathing its claws. Instinctively, she backed away, her bottom hitting the ledge she'd rested her purse on only a few moments ago.
He held up his hands. "I'm not here to hurt you."
"Then step aside and let me leave."
His sensual lips parted in a mocking smile. Her heart stuttered, then tripped forward again. Too handsome and flashy. Too, too dangerous.
She had no use for men like this. No use for any man, she silently corrected, not for a long time now. Not since she'd realized there were consequences to be paid.
"I'm afraid I can't do that just yet, Madam President."
"I beg your pardon?" Veronica said, as coldly as she was able to. She'd learned, over the years, to brazen her way through when necessary. Sometimes all it took was the perception of authority to actually imbue authority. "That is not your decision to make."
Again the concentrated power of the leashed tiger reflected in his eyes. "Ah, but it is."
A chill rippled down her spine like the beginnings of an avalanche. Understanding unfolded within. She'd seen this man with Brady, but she had no idea who he really was.
What he was capable of.
Why he was here, now.
Her pulse throbbed even faster. "What have you done to my bodyguard? If you've hurt him
His head tilted. "He is special to you?"
Veronica clasped her tiny purse in both hands, holding it in front of her body like a shield. A very inadequate shield. A sudden, overwhelming urge to walk over and wipe the superior look off this man's face rolled through her. She would not act upon it, however.
"He is my countryman, and he's in my employ. Yes, I care about him."
"I see. Admirable of you, Madam President. But tell me, why are you not so careful with your own person?"
Veronica gave her head a little shake. She almost felt as if she'd been drinking, when in fact she'd had nothing stronger than sparkling water, so completely did this man befuddle her senses. "I beg your pardon?"
"Once more with the begging? I'm surprised. I understood that you were far more fierce than this."
A current of anger spiked in her belly. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage, Mr. Vala. You seem to know so much about me, and I know nothing of you. Other than I saw you talking with Brady Thompson in the bar."
"So you were paying attention."
Veronica ground her teeth in frustration. "I would appreciate it very much if you could stop talking to me like I'm a two-year-old and tell me what you want."
Rajesh Vala laughed. The sound startled her. It was rich, deep. Sexy. It curled around her, slid through her. Disconcerted her.
"Very good, Veronica. No wonder they elected you. You project competence, regardless of whether or not it's true."
She refused to rise to the bait, though a worm of hurt burrowed through her composure. But what did she expect? She'd spent years being the kind of person no one would ever take seriously.
"If you truly know Brady, then you'll know you aren't impressing me at the moment. What is the purpose of the exercise, Mr. Vala?"
His golden eyes sparkled. Those sensual lips twitched. She found herself focusing on them, thinking how they would feel pressed against her own.
The thought shocked her. She hadn't felt the slightest hint of interest or attraction for any man in over a year. She simply wasn't ready for it.
To say this was an inconvenient time for those feelings to return was an understatement.
"No purpose, other than to see how good your security is. It isn't." He leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. It was such a casual pose.
But it was deceptive. She had the impression that he wasn't relaxed at all. That he could spring into action at any second. Could strike without warning.
Like a scorpion in the night.
"The guard?" she demanded again.
"He's fine. He might even be achieving his own personal Shangri-la right about now. Depending on his staying power, of course."
She felt her face redden and she glanced away. Since when did she blush over innuendo? She was Veronica St. Germaine, notorious trendsetter. She'd once attended a party in Saint-Tropez wearing a dress that had been air-brushed onto her body. She'd literally been naked, other than the paint.
And this man made her blush?
"He was quite easily distracted, by the way. The charms of lovely Tammy, an Irish lass from Cork, were too much to resist, it seems."
"No. I'm thorough. And quite adept at staying."
Her ears were on fire. She was no longer certain what they were talking about. Security? Sex? Her mind was opting for sex and her body was reacting to the suggestion.
It'd been too long since she'd had sex. That had to be the only reason he could make her flush like an innocent virgin.
"I can't imagine that Brady approves of your methods," she said coolly. It was the first thing she could think of to say that might bring the conversation back from the brink.
"Not always. But he knows I'm the best."
She wanted to sit. The heat was going to her head, making her feel faint. Or perhaps her dress was too tight. Whatever the case, she was moist with perspiration. She sank onto the bench, uncaring what he might think, and clasped her hands in her lap. Though what she really wanted to do was grab one of the fluffy white towels stacked on one corner of the vanity and dab her forehead with it.
"The best, Mr. Vala?" A sudden thought occurred to her. Brady had told her just this morning that she was too wound upbut he wouldn't hire a gigolo to relax her, would he? A gigolo who outfoxed her bodyguard and caught her in the ladies' room? A bubble of laughter escaped before she could stop it.
God, it was ridiculous. And maybe, just maybe, Brady truly was that crazy.
"I am a
security consultant," the man said, watching her curiously.
Did he think she would pat the bench and suggest they get cozy together? Was Brady so insane as to think she had bodyguard fantasies? That a handsome, too-sexy tiger in a tuxedo could rock her world in the ladies' powder room of an expensive hotel and she'd suddenly be relaxed and ready to face the challenges awaiting her?
Once, no doubt, that would have been true. But she was a different person now. She had to be.
She found the strength to stand again. "I'm not in the mood, Mr. Vala, but I thank you for the diversion. If you could get out of my way, I'll say good-night now and return to the ballroom."
His brows drew down. She had the feeling she'd insulted him somehow.
"Perhaps you didn't hear what I said," he replied, taking a step toward her.
"Oh, I heard you. And I'm not sure what you and Brady cooked up between you, but I'm not that desperate. Or that stupid."
He stood so close now. So close that if she reached out, her fingertips could slide down the sleek fabric of his lapel.
His scent stole to her. Sharp and clear, like rain and warm spices. Like a sultry Indian night.
The lights dimmed for a long moment before brightening again. The tiger didn't move, his gaze never leaving her face. She felt trappedand safe, paradoxically.
"The power will probably go out," he said. "We should get you back to your room. It is the safest place."
"The safest place for what?" she asked, her voice little more than a cracking whisper, as her imagination ran wild and her skin grew hot and prickly.
Again, he looked at her curiously. "For you, Madam President."
Cobras. They had cobras in India. Cobras that mesmerized their prey before striking. Was he less of a tiger and more of a cobra? Was she mesmerized? Was that why she felt so languid and warm, why she wanted to close her eyes and lean into him? Why she wanted to take what she thought he was offering and then pretend it had never happened?