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Cassie was just congratulating herself on getting through two hours of successfully shielding herself behind the Aristo palace's pillars and pot plants, dodging both the press and Prince Regent Sebastian Karedes, when she suddenly came face to face with him.
She swallowed thickly, her heart coming to a clunking stop in her chest as her eyes went to his inscrutable dark brown ones so far above hers. She opened her mouth to speak but her throat was too tight to get a single word out. She felt the slow creep of colour staining her cheeks, and wondered if he had any idea of how much over the last six years she had dreaded this moment.
'Cassie.' His deep voice was like a warm velvet glove stroking along the bare skin of her shivering arms. 'Have you only just arrived? I have not seen you until a few moments ago.'
Cassie moistened her dry-as-parchment lips with the tip of her tongue. 'Um… .no,' she said, shifting her gaze sideways. 'I've been here all evening…'
A small silence began to weight the atmosphere, like humidity just before a storm.
Cassie marvelled at how he could inject so much into saying so little. Those two little words contained disdain and distrust, and something else she couldn't quite put her finger on.
'So why are you here?' he asked, his eyes narrowing even further. 'I do not recall seeing your name on the official guest list.'
Cassie swept the point of her tongue across her lips again, trying to keep her gaze averted. 'As part of my… um… parole programme, I took a job at the orphanage,' she said, loathing the shame she could feel staining her face. 'I've been working there for the last eleven months.'
When he didn't respond immediately Cassie felt compelled to bring her gaze back to his, but then wished she hadn't.
A corner of his mouth was lifted in an unmistakably mocking manner. 'You are looking after children?'
She felt herself bristling. 'Yes,' she clipped out. 'I enjoy every minute of it. I'm here tonight with some of the other carers and educational staff. They insisted I attend.'
Another tight silence began to shred at Cassie's nerves. She would have given just about anything to have avoided coming here this evening. She had felt as if she had been playing a high stakes game of hide and seek all night, the strain of keeping out of the line of Sebastian's deep brown gaze had made her head pound with sickening tension. Even now the hammer blows behind her eyes were making it harder and harder for her to keep her manner cool and unaffected before him. His commanding and totally charismatic presence both drew her and terrified her, but the very last thing she wanted was for him to realise it.
She surreptitiously fondled the smooth pearls of the bracelet around her wrist, the only thing she still had left of her mother's, hoping it would give her the courage and fortitude to get through the next few minutes until she could make good her escape.
'Well, then,' he said as his eyes continued to skewer hers, that sardonic half-smile still in place. 'As the royal patron of the orphanage you now work for, I would have thought you would have made every effort to include yourself in this evening's proceedings rather than hide behind the flower arrangements.'
Cassie's chin came up. 'And have the press hound me for an exclusive photo and interview?' she asked. 'Not until my parole is up. Maybe then I'll think about it.'
His eyes began to burn with brooding intensity. 'I must say I am surprised you haven't already sold your story to the press, Cassie,' he said. 'But perhaps I should warn you before you think about doing so. One word about our…' he paused over the word for an infinitesimal moment '… past involvement, and I will have you thrown back into prison where the majority of the population of Aristo believes you still belong. Have I made myself clear?'
Cassie felt anger run through her like a red-hot tide. 'Perfectly,' she bit out, her eyes flashing with fury. How she hated him at that moment. The injustice she had suffered was bad enough, but to have him threaten her in such a ruthless manner was abominable. But until her parole was up what else could she do but pretend she had nothing to hide? She had learned the hard way that silence was her best defence—her only defence.
Sebastian was conscious of the time and the press of the crowd behind them. He had told his bodyguards to give him a few minutes but he knew they would come looking for him soon. His formal duties for the evening were more or less over and the crowd would soon begin to disperse. But he hadn't seen Cassandra Kyriakis for close to six years, and he had to make sure she was not going to be a threat to his future as King of Aristo now she was out of prison. They had parted on such bitter terms; he had been so blisteringly angry at the way she had ended their affair, and her betrayal still rankled even after all this time.
When he had caught sight of her disappearing behind one of the pillars he had thought he must have conjured up her image, so great was the shock and effect on him of seeing her again. It had taken every bit of the thirty-two years of his royal training to keep his reaction hidden. He had formally opened the gala, chatted with the official guests, smiled in all the right places, but all the while wondering how he could capture five minutes in private with her.
But now that he had, he wondered if it had been wise to seek her out. Every pore of his skin was erect with awareness, his nostrils automatically flaring in the primal hunt for her feminine scent, and his groin tightening with an ache so intense he had trouble standing still.
It annoyed him to find his body still hummed with desire for her. He had considered himself over her, and yet one glimpse into that emerald gaze of hers had made him realise there was still a place deep inside him that responded almost involuntarily when he looked at her. It was as if she had secretly planted a tiny fish hook in his chest all those years ago, and every time their eyes met he felt its tiny but still-painful tug.
For all her supermodel beauty there was no escaping the fact she was a sleep-around socialite tart who had wantonly led him on only to dump him, no doubt for the glory of having bedded a prince. He had met plenty of women like her before and since, but he had not seen her rejection and betrayal coming and that irked him more than he wanted to admit. No one had done that to him before. He had never had his pride rubbed in the dust like that, but then that was Cassie for you. She had come along with those amazing green eyes, her long, silky, blonde hair and sensually seductive wiles, and snatched the breath right out of his chest.
His eyes ran over her appraisingly. She was wearing a shell-pink sheath of a dress that clung lovingly to her willowy frame, highlighting the small but perfect globes of her breasts, skimming over the slight, almost boyish hips and the endless legs that had so many times wrapped around his in the throes of their heated passion. Her slender arms were bare, but on her left wrist she wore a pearl bracelet which he had noticed her fiddling with earlier with those slim fingers of hers.
Sebastian had to remind himself Cassandra Kyriakis had killed her father with those very delicate feminine hands. The lesser charge of manslaughter didn't make her any less of a murderess, or at least certainly not according to the press and public's view. But right now she didn't look capable of doing anyone harm. She looked nervous, agitated almost, her bottom lip being savaged by her small white teeth, and her body looked tense and ill at ease.
A little stab of guilt pierced him. His threat had perhaps been a little heavy-handed and ruthless, but he had to be absolutely sure she would keep quiet about their previous relationship. He would make it worth her while, although any dealings he had with her now would have to be conducted under the strictest secrecy. The press were like sniffer dogs when it came to the Karedes royal family and it would be risky even being seen talking to her, but it would be well and truly worth it if he could achieve what he wanted. He knew it just by looking at her. The old adage might have it that revenge was a dish best served cold, but the sort of revenge Sebastian had in mind was going to be hot—blazingly so, for he had a score to settle with her and he knew where it would be settled best.
In his bed.
A palace official approached, and Sebastian exchanged a few words with him, turning back barely thirty seconds later to find Cassie had completely disappeared. He narrowed his gaze and scanned the crowd, looking for a flash of baby-pink chiffon or platinum-blonde hair, but there was none.
'Are you looking for someone in particular, Your Royal Highness?' the junior official asked. 'I can organise security to find them for you if you like.'
Sebastian schooled his features into impassivity. There was only one aide in the palace he could trust with this sort of minefield situation, and this unfortunately was not him. 'No,' he said curtly. 'That will not be necessary.'
The young man gave an obsequious bow and moved away. It was only then that Sebastian saw the tiny bracelet lying on the floor where Cassie had been standing such a short time ago. He bent down and picked it up, his fingers absently stroking over the string of smooth orbs as he scanned the dispersing crowd once more.
As yet another official approached, Sebastian surreptitiously slipped the bracelet into his trouser pocket, inwardly smiling as he let the pearls slide through his fingers, one by one.
Cinderella might have escaped from the ball, but this particular Prince Charming was going to lure her back to him with something even more fitting than a glass slipper.
'Cassie, what's wrong?'Angelica, Cassie's flatmate, asked as soon as she came in. 'You look totally flustered. Is everything all right?'
Cassie closed the door and leaning back against it, pinched the bridge of her nose with two fingers, her eyes squeezed tightly shut in a vain effort to ease the tension about to explode behind her temples. 'No… no, I'm fine, just a headache.' She opened her eyes and, pushing herself away from the door, moved farther into the flat.
'Is Sam OK?'
'Of course he is,' Angelica assured her. 'He was a bit unsettled at first, but I promised him you would be back as soon as you could, and he eventually went to sleep and hasn't stirred since. I just checked him a few moments ago. He's out for the count.'
'That's good,' Cassie said, expelling a tiny breath of relief, although her stomach was still full of fist-like knots.
'You worry too much, Cassie,' Angelica admonished her gently. 'Sam's five years old now. He needs to learn to be away from you occasionally. You can't keep him tied to you for ever, you know.'
'I know. It's just he's never really got over being separated from me when I was in prison,' Cassie said, trying not to think of that harrowing time when Sam's desperate cries had echoed in her head for months after he was wrenched from her arms. She had been allowed to give birth to him inside the high walls of the Aristo prison and keep him with her until he turned three. Of all the suffering she had endured over the years that had been by far the very worst. Relinquishing Sam had felt like having one of her limbs torn off. She still had nightmares about it, waking up in a lather of sweat, in case someone had crept into the flat during the night and stolen her baby son away from her all over again.
'You're the one who hasn't got over it,' Angelica said astutely. 'Put it in the past where it belongs. You're on a roll now, Cassie. Your work at the orphanage is your ticket to a new life off the island once your parole is up. And, speaking of the orphanage, how did the fund-raising event go at the palace? Did you see Prince Sebastian? Is he as handsome as he looks in all the press photos?'
'Um…yes, he is…' Cassie felt her heart give a painful squeeze as she thought of that brooding, dark, all-seeing gaze. She had taken a huge risk leaving the gala so abruptly, but she couldn't have coped with another torturous minute in Sebastian's company. The air between them had been charged with sexual energy; she had felt it as soon as she looked into his face. She had felt the slow burn of his gaze through the fine layers of her dress, as if he was recalling every intimate inch of her and how he had pleasured her in the past. A shiver travelled the entire length of her spine at the thought of how she had come apart time and time again in his arms. Had he guessed she still felt the same way? Oh, please, God, don't let him have guessed!
Her fingers automatically went to her left wrist, her heart giving a sudden lurch of panic when she found it totally bare. 'Oh, no!'
'What's wrong?' Angelica asked. 'You've gone as white as a ghost.'
Cassie swung around and backtracked her way to the front door of the tiny flat with agitated steps. 'I've lost my bracelet,' she said, searching the floor in rising desperation. 'My mother's pearl one. It must have fallen off on the way home. I was sure it was still on my wrist when I was at the palace.'
'Maybe it fell off in the cab,' Angelica suggested. 'You could call up the company and ask them to look for it.'
Cassie turned to look at her friend. 'I didn't take a cab home.'
Angelica's eyes widened. 'You walked home in the dark in those shoes?'
No, I ran home in the dark, Cassie felt tempted to confess but instead said, 'I felt like I needed the fresh air. The palace was crowded and… and stuffy.'
'I'll get a torch for you,' Angelica said. 'I'll mind Sam while you retrace your steps, or do you think we should wait until morning when we can both search?'
Cassie shook her head determinedly. 'No, someone might pick it up before then. I'll go a few blocks and see if I can find it. I'm sure it can't be too far away.'