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Prince Kristo Stanrakis had never thrown a royal fit of anger in his life, but he was moments away from doing so just now. He flung his tuxedo jacket on a red brocade Louis XV chaise and ripped open his stark white shirt, sending a row of diamond studs flying. One pinged off an inlaid table before falling to the gold Kirman carpet, while another chinked as it hit a window.
This urgent meeting with the future King, his lawyers and the highest officials was over. Angyra would face change yet again.
His life had just been turned on its heel and there wasn't a damned thing he could do to evade his fate. No! His duty!
He paced the impressive length of his apartment. Duty! How he hated that word. How he hated her!
Just one month ago they'd buried their father, the beloved King of Angyra. She'd come to the funeral and sat with her father and sister, looking solemn and royal and aloof. Looking sexy as hell in a black sheath that had hugged her luscious curves.
He hadn't seen her in almost a year, yet the moment their eyes had met he'd been slammed him back to that day on the beach. A roiling mix of guilt, rage and desire had boiled in him.
He wanted nothing to do with her. Yet he still wanted her more than he'd ever wanted a woman.
Being near her needled him with guilt for betraying his brother and he did not like that feeling one bit. But he'd been prepared to suffer through her return in less than two weeks to marry King Gregor. Except that would not happen now!
The rap at his door was preceded by its opening. He whirled to find Mikhael striding into his suite, with a bottle of ouzo under his arm and two glasses clutched in one hand.
"I thought you could use this," Mikhael said, and promptly poured two drinks.
He took the offered liquor and tossed it back, relishing the bite to his senses. "Did you have any idea that Gregor was ill?"
Mikhael shook his head. "He's seemed tired of late, and complained of headaches, but I attributed it to the stress of assuming Father's duties."
The same thought had crossed Kristo's mind. He'd never dreamed that Gregor had secretly seen a doctor just before the King's death, only to discover two days ago that he had inoperable cancer.
The prognosis was grim. With death imminent, Crown Prince Gregor had chosen to abdicate before the State Council proclaimed him King of Angyra tomorrow.
That official announcement had been made just one hour ago.
By order of birth, the crown now passed to Kristo. He was now Crown Prince, which had thrown the council into emergency session. Unless they deemed him truly unfit to rulewhich was possible, considering his reputationthe accession ceremony would take place tomorrow promptly at eleven in the morning.
As if that weren't jarring enough, he was now forced to assume his brother's betrothal agreement as well! He had to marry Demetria Andreouin less than two weeks, if he kept to the schedule that had been set in place. Damn the fates!
Desirable, unfaithful Demetria would be his wife. His Queen.
"I don't look forward to tomorrow." "For what it's worth, I think you'll be a good King," Mikhael said.
Kristo wasn't so sure. Though he'd done his duty to the State Council, and sat in on required meetings, he'd paid little heed for he'd been in reality no more than a figurehead.
However, he'd taken his role as ambassador much more seriously, as that had allowed him to wine and dine dignitaries around the world. Gambling and carousing, as his father had called it.
At times that had been true. But the setting had allowed him to do what came naturally. In turn, being away from Angyra had allowed him the freedom to do what he really wanted.
But that would soon be in the past.
"Has he contacted Andreou yet?" Kristo asked.
"He was speaking with him by phone when I left."
How would Demetria take the change of plans?
Kristo stopped before the palatial window and looked out on the terraced garden that stepped down to the cerulean sea. He splayed his hands on the casing so hard that he felt the heavy moldings imprint on his flesh.
Dammit, he didn't want to be King! And by hell's thunder he certainly didn't want to marry Demetria!
But the only way to surmount his fate was by death or abandonment of his country. Though he'd joked that he could walk away from Angyra and never miss it, the truth of the matter was that he couldn't shirk his duty.
"Gregor felt certain that Andreou wouldn't balk at the change of plans," Mikhael said. "He suspects that the lady might feel differently."
"How she feels doesn't matter. She has a duty to uphold."
"True, but you are a stranger to her."
In some ways, but in others they were intimately acquainted. But that was his guilty secret to bear.
"As Gregor pointed out today, the betrothal contract simply states that Demetria is to marry the Crown Prince," Kristo said, chafing over the fact that he was now that man. "Surely she is aware of that fact."
"You are being callous about this, brother."
"I'm simply being pragmatic," Kristo said. "Demetria and I are bound by the same laws. There is nothing left to discuss."
The Royal House of Stanrakis had one ancient and non-breakable rule. All future rulers must be of noble Greek blood. As the Stanrakis family continued to produce males, their Crown Princes had only to find a noble bride of Greek blood.
Easier said than done. But then, they weren't marrying for love. Even if such a thing existed, it wasn't ordained for a Stanrakis prince.
It certainly wouldn't be for him!
Demetria had been handpicked by the King. She had been groomed to be the next Queen of Angyra.
She possessed the right lineage. Her maternal grandfather was Greekone of the old noblemen like Kristo's father. And her mother had married a Greek, even though Sandros Andreou's blood wasn't as pure.
That man had pricked his temper more times than naught over business dealings. As for Demetriashe fired his lust as well as his anger.
"I still think it would be wise for the sake of your marriage if you would take Demetria aside tomorrow and talk to her," Mikhael said. "It would go a long way in allaying her fears."
Kristo stared into his glass, his smile slow to come. "Yes, you're right."
He'd talk to her, all right. He'd let her know that he'd not tolerate her flirtations. That he'd have her watched carefully since he knew she was not to be trusted.
But the following day at the accession ceremony Demetria was embarrassingly absent.
"Please forgive her, Your Majesty," Sandros Andreou implored as he bent in as deep a bow as a man with such a considerable girth could manage. "Demetria went on a shopping jaunt for her wedding trousseau hours before Crown Prince Gregor abdicated. I haven't been able to reach her on her mobile phone to tell her of the news."
"She is alone?"
The old Greek shrugged. "I'm not sure."
"Don't you know where she went?" Kristo asked, furious that the man hadn't kept a closer eye on his daughter. "Couldn't you send a messenger to find her?"
Sandros Andreou's face turned an ugly purple. "I wasn't sure where to send him, Your Majesty. Her sister thought she went to Istanbul, but the maid thought she went to Italy."
"This is intolerable," Kristo growled. She could be anywhere, with anyone. She could even be entertaining some man!
"Rest assured that when she returns I will have her contact"
Kristo silenced the man with one wave of his hand that looked surprisingly like the dismissing gesture his father had employed. The wave he'd hated.
"I will see to it myself. Considering the turn of events, it would be wise if your daughter stayed here at the palace until the wedding."
"For twelve days?" Then, as if remembering who he was addressing, Sandros quickly demurred. "Of course, Your Majesty."
"You and your family are welcome to avail yourselves of the guesthouse the day before the wedding." "The day before?" Andreou repeated.
"Yes. That is all."
The old Greek attempted another bow before taking his leave.
Kristo pushed from his chair and stalked to the window, more restless than he recalled being in years. His gaze fixed on the ridge of mountains in the distance.
Graceful cypresses and thickets of olives blanketed the rugged terrain and helped to conceal Angyra's most treasured commodity. Rhoda golda pure metal kissed with a rosy blush and prized all over the world.
The ore taken from the Chrysos Mine had made the Stanrakis family rich beyond measure. It had turned this island kingdom into a mecca that now brought tourists here in droves to buy a trinket made of Rhoda gold.
But an equally rare treasure was the sea turtles. Protecting their nesting ground was his personal challenge, and that had evolved into his secretly backing similar programs worldwide. But who would pick up that challenge now?
"What are you going to do?" Mikhael asked.
The answer was simple. At least to him. "Find Demetria and bring her here."
"But the wedding is less than two weeks away. Women have much to do before such an event."
"She can attend to anything that needs be done here." And he could keep a close watch on her that way.
She would not take a stroll along the beach and entertain a stranger the day before their wedding! "What if the lady refuses?"
He cut his brother a knowing look. "I am not giving her a choice."
Mikhael's eyes went wide. "You can't mean to kidnap her?"
"I most certainly do."
In a small shop in Istanbul, Demetria Andreou unwrapped a yard of Egyptian cotton from the bolt, blissfully unaware of the drama taking place on Angyra. She tested the way the soft fabric shot with silver, copper and gold flowed over her arm like a molten waterfall. Her heart raced with excitement, for when cloth seemed this much alive she knew a garment made of it would positively explode with motion.
"How many bolts of this do you have?" she asked.
"Just this one," the Turkish supplier said. "You like?"
She loved the fabric. It fell naturally into folds when bunched, and it felt gloriously sensuous gliding against bare skin.
It was a wonderful find. To know he only had one bolt almost ensured that no other designer would come out with a garment using the exact same cloth.
Originality was further aided by the fact that she preferred buying fabric from lesser-known markets. Fabric defined style. The best designer in the world was nothing without the appropriate cloth. A design didn't pop until the right fabric was paired with the right fashion.
That was when magic happened. That was when she knew she had created something that could eventually compete side by side with the top fashion houses.
"This is perfect," she told the draper, and earned a smile as she handed him the bolt. "I'll take this one."
He laid it atop the others she'd chosen, and scampered off to select another of his high-end specialty fabrics. She ran a finger over the rich fabric, elated with her finds and yet feeling bittersweet that she wouldn't be able to oversee the making of her designs.
How quickly life had changed for her since the King's death.
In two weeks she'd marry Gregor and become Queen. She'd never get the opportunity to stand in the wings while willowy models sashayed down the catwalks in one of her designs.
But she could still select the fabric for her designs. The fashion show in Athens was two weeks away, and her partner would have precious little time to prepare for what was to be their debut into the fashion world.
While Yannis was living their dream in the design world, she'd be marrying King Gregor Stanrakis.
Chills danced over her skin at the thought, and with it came the flood of shame that she'd have to face Kristo again. How could she possibly marry his brother when it was Kristo she lusted for? How could she sit across a table from her husband's brother and not be tormented by memories of him kissing and fondling her on that beach?
The answers continued to elude her as the draper bustled from the back room, bearing more bolts of fabric. She pushed her worries to the back of her mind and focused on the selections before her.
The first two bolts were easy choices, as they were exactly what she'd envisioned for several of the garments she and Yannis intended to make for their debut line. But her heart raced with delight as light played over the cloth on the last bolt. Was it blue? Green? A combination of both, plus it was shot with magenta.
A midnight carnival of color that constantly moved and changed. The warmth of reds and golds twined with blues and silvers to create a marriage of color that commanded attention.
The cloth was beyond rich. It was regal. Royal.
"I am sorry to have picked this one up," the draper said, and made to take it from her. "This has been damaged in transit and is to be destroyed."
Toss out such beauty?
She refused to relinquish the fabric. This would be the perfect cloth for her signature creation. A loose dress. Flowing. Flirty. A dress that would force her husband to notice her.
The fact there was very little of it left undamaged on the bolt only increased its value.
This was her personal find. The perfect dress for her to wear in her new role as Queen. A garment designed by her for her personal use.
"I will take what you have of it."
"But there is only seven meters. Maybe less."
"It's enoughand please wrap it separately." She'd take this one with her for it was her find. Her treasure.
With the last bout of shopping over, she paid her bill with a degree of sadness. When she married, jaunts like this would be unheard-of. She'd have guards around her. She'd have obligations. She'd in essence be a prisoner of her duty.
After securing delivery of the material to Yannis, who was at her flat in Athens, Demetria left the draper's shop with a sense of dread. Freedom as she knew it was quickly ending for her. The next twelve days would certainly fly by too quickly.
Since she'd forgone lunch, and eaten only a piece of fruit for breakfast, she decided to sate her hunger with takeaway food. But even that she'd have to hurry. She dared not miss the ferry back to Greece or her papa would fly into a fury again.
She'd started up the lane when a sleek limo whipped around her and stopped. Before she could register that it had blocked her way, the doors flew open and two men jumped out.
Both were huge. Both wore menacing frowns. Both came at her.
Her instincts screamed run. But before she could force her legs to move a third man emerged from the limo.
Demetria froze as her gaze locked with the one man who'd haunted her dreams.