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Prince Dane of the Royal House of Montenevada, newly reinstalled monarchy of the sovereign nation of Carnethia, walked reluctantly into the trendy dance club. Chic's was located in a neighboring country to his own, in the nightlife district of the city of Darnam. The pulsing music seemed to slam against his brain like a bad headache. The swirling colors and flashing lights brought back painful memories of nights on the battlefieldnights not so far removed but best left unremembered.
He stood at the entry, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the light, scanning the crowd. He was alone. He'd ditched his security detail at his hotel and headed out on his own without company. There was nothing about him to signal royalty, but people turned and looked at him, anyway. Standing at the top of the stairs, his thick dark hair slightly tousled, his legs apart, his hands lightly clenched, his tough, muscular body balanced, he would have looked like a fighter if his face hadn't been so flawlessly handsome. Few in this crowd seemed to recognize who he was, but they knew he was someone someone of consequence. And they stared at him, wondering.
He began to walk through the crowd, his startling silver-blue eyes searching. Men stepped back out of his way, suddenly wary, as though they sensed danger. Women followed him with their gazes, unconsciously flirting with their eyes, their lips, the way they thrust out their breasts as he passed. But he didn't make contact. He was looking for someone, like a hunter stalking prey.
A champagne cork popped, the explosion sending golden bubbles through the air. Someone at the far end of the room was calling out a toast, and confetti began to fall from the ceiling. He turned slowly, staring at the boisterous group. Two people stepped back, parting the crowd, and there she was in the center of everything.
He froze, still as a statue. She was just as he'd remembered her: thick, mahogany-red hair swirled riotously around her beautiful face in deep, extravagant curls; eyes as green as precious emeralds glittered beneath long dark lashes, all set against skin as white and pure as alabaster. Her dress was cut low enough to reveal a lot of smooth, luscious skin. Made of something slinky, it was shaped trim and tight in the bodice and around her full, lavish hips, only to whirl out around her knees, giving a generous view of her perfect, athletically muscular legs. She was still the most gorgeous creature he'd ever seen.
But seeing her again drove a knife into his heart. Real, physical pain sliced through his body. For just a moment, this man who had stood up to armies and assassins without a qualm was flooded with the instinct to turn and run. Facing her like this was hard. If it hadn't been for his suspicions about her, he would have stayed away. But he was pretty sure she had something that belonged to him. This was a stand he had to take.
He watched as she laughed up at the sophisticated-looking man with silver hair at his temples who was standing next to her. The man smiled down at her as though he had a claim. Dane raised an eyebrow. Another dragon to slay?
No matter. He'd come on a mission and he wasn't going to be deterred. But as the man reached out and put his hand on the woman's naked upper arm, a feeling like cold anger twisted inside Dane. His heart, which had been thudding harder than usual, but at a steady pace, began to bang against his chest wall. Adrenaline. He always felt like this before a fight.
The people around her had fallen silent, watching his approach, and finally she turned and saw him. Her gaze met his and caught, held by the intensity in his eyes. It was one of those crystal moments that would be seared into his soul for a lifetime. For just a few seconds, time stood still. Everything else faded awayall the people, the music, the noise, even breathing itself. There was only the two of them and the deep, tangled connection that sizzled between them.
And then her green eyes widened and her mouth opened as though she might almost cry out. And that was when he saw the fear.
She covered it up quickly. Her chin rose and her eyes flashed defiant fire. But he'd seen the truth. She didn't fear much, but she was afraid of him. And if she feared him, there could only be one reason. It meant his guess was right.
It was an educated guess. He'd heard rumors and he'd put two and two together. He'd been shown pictures, but pictures could be faked.
Still, he had to admit, hope had come into play. But he didn't think he'd let it carry him away. He knew a reliance on hope brought only heartbreak. He'd spent a lifetime learning to control his emotions. Hell, some might even say he'd learned to snuff out any communication with his heart. It had a basic function, to keep pumping vitality into his body. As for the rest, he'd learned to live without it. Life was simpler that way.
She tossed back thick, silky hair that glowed with deep-red highlights, scattering confetti that had caught in it as she did so. Squaring her shoulders, she faced him boldly.
"So, what do we have here?" she said in a sort of mock greeting. "The pretender to the Carnethian throne, isn't it?"
He gazed back steadily. "I'm not the pretender, Alexandra. You Acredonnas were the pretenders." He put his hand over his heart as he added coolly, "I'm the real thing."
All the fire and pain of the war stood between them, the war during which his family, the Montenevadas, took back the country her family, the Acredonnas, had wrested from them fifty years before.
"I want to talk to you," he told her.
The smile that twisted her carmine lips held no hint of warmth. "Interesting. But this is a dance club. I want to dance."
He shrugged, his eyes hooded. "I'm at your service."
That seemed to surprise her. A look of wariness flashed in her green eyes.
"Not with you," she said, a bit too quickly.
He raised an eyebrow. "Why not? What are you afraid of?"
"Not you," she said again, eyes narrowing. "Never you."
But there was a thread of quivering emotion in her voice that gave lie to her declaration. Something in him responded to it, softening. His impulse was to reach for her, and his hand went out to do just that.
Too late. The tall man with the silver sideburns had come to her side, and she stared at Dane's hand as if it were a snake. Quickly she took the tall man's arm, leaning into him as though for protection.
"I'm all booked up, you see," she told Dane flippantly. "Maybe some other time."
He shrugged, dropping his hand to his side. "I'll wait," he said, not allowing her to see evidence of the ache that tore through him at her rejection.
The tall man flashed Dane a look of pure triumph, but he ignored it. The man was nothing. A mere annoyance. Alexandra was in his sights and she was all he was focused on. He leaned against a post, arms folded, and watched them go out onto the tiny, crowded dance floor.
They were good. It was obvious they'd danced together before. He watched her turn and shimmer to the music, and he cursed the way it made him feel. She moved like an angel with just enough fire to be an arousing delight, but not so much as to lose that simple, decent elegance that he'd always seen in her. She moved like a ladya provocative lady, but a lady, nonetheless.
His mouth went dry as he watched her. He wanted her. He always wanted her. This was his fatal flaw, the chink in his armor, the weak place in his soul. If he wasn't careful, it could destroy him.
Every muscle in his body hardened. Somehow this woman appealed to him in ways no other female had ever come close to. And here she was, the enemy. Their families had fought against each other for decades. She hated him. She'd made that very plain every time they'd met. He knew there could never be anything but fierce animosity between them.
Still, for some reason, people were always telling him what she was up to, where she was, who she was seeing. No matter how often he ordered them into silence, somehow they managed to convey every rumor that poisoned the air. And one rumor in particular had chilled his blood. That was the one he had to check out. Once he'd heard of it, he knew he couldn't stay away.
Alex and her brothers had been difficult to find since they'd escaped from Carnethia at the end of the war. He'd heard only that morning that she might be coming to Chic's tonight, in this small, neighboring neutral country. Interestingly, it had been his sister, Carla, who had told him, in casual conversation over toast, and not the intelligence people he'd specifically tasked for the last few weeks with the job of finding herever since he'd heard the whispers about her and what she'd been doing for the last year or so.
She came back to the table with cheeks stained red and a new sparkle in her green eyes.
"Are you still here?" she asked as she passed him.
"I'm still here. We need to talk."
She glanced back at him over her shoulder. "I don't think"
His hand flashed out and took her upper arm in his grip, fingers curling tightly into her soft flesh. Two men in her party reacted quickly, stepping forward and looking to her for a sign.
"I do think," Dane said crisply, ignoring her protectors. "Either you dance with me, or I'm taking you out into the street. One way or another, we're going to talk."
She glared at him. "You're not royalty here, Dane. Everyone doesn't tremble at your every desire."
His lip curled. "Too bad. You look so appealing when you tremble."
Her breath caught in her throat and she blinked rapidly, trying hard to keep her cool. What he'd said had connotations far beyond this room, and the reminder set her back on her heels. He knew just how to get to her, to reach in and find the weak spot.
And he was bound and determined to be a jerk tonight, wasn't he? She was caught in a trap. She had bodyguards with her, but she couldn't let them make a scene. Things were too dicey for her family in this city as it was.
Too late she had a pang of regret. She shouldn't have come tonight. She'd only chanced it because she was so sick of hiding. But she should have known this might happen.
Oh, why didn't she just admit it? She'd hoped against all reason that she would see him. Or see someone who knew him. Or at least hear something about him. Even though she knew any kind of contact was the most dangerous thing for her.
But it had been so long and she hungered for him in ways she couldn't reveal. Every scrap of information she could find fed her addiction to the man. She had pictures, mostly of official royal functions where he'd appeared recently. And she had his T-shirt, the one he'd been wearing when she'd found him in the wreck of his car and dragged him to safety. It was still stained with his blood, because to wash it would be to wash away the scent of him, the feel of him, the knowledge that it had once been against his body.
But all this had to be in secret, because she could never have the man himself. And to let him near her like this was stupidly reckless.
Still, she was surrounded by friends. He couldn't do anything to her here. So why did she feel so vulnerable? Why did fear flutter inside her like a butterfly seeking freedom?
She had to do something. Dane was going to make sure she was humiliated if he kept this up. The only way to avoid it was going to be to dance with the man. Very well, then. She took a deep breath and raised her chin. She might as well get it over with.
"You win, oh mighty one," she said mockingly. "Let's dance."
Second thoughts came fast and furious, and she stiffened as he took her in his arms as though they were heading out to perform a Viennese waltz. She hadn't expected that.
"Wait," she said, resisting. "What are you doing?"
"You don't think I'm going to do the Shim Sham or whatever crazy dance is popular, do you?" he said blithely, not giving an inch. "I'm not one of your pretty boys, Alexandra. And I won't make a spectacle of myself before the whole world."
She lifted her chin, green eyes glittering. "You didn't like my dancing style?"
He smiled down at her coldly. "Your dancing was exotic, erotic and totally shameless."
He pulled her just a bit closer. The music started and he began to lead her onto the dance floor, turning her slowly to every other beat. Somehow, it worked, and though they were in a slow embrace, they seemed to be in tune to the music, regardless.
"I told you I wanted to talk. We can't do that jumping up and down on each other's toes."
Her pulse raced. It was so strange to be with him like this. For months she'd longed to see him at the same time she dreaded it. Now that he was here, she knew nothing good could come of it. He was a danger to her, a danger to her family. She had to be so careful what she said, so careful what she let him know. He was still the enemy, no matter what ties still lingered between them.