The ruler of Icarus is cunning and ruthless, yet Iliana Kracos has seen another side of Demetrius DeSante. And after an explosive night of passion together, she agrees to marry him. Yet when he reveals her true parentageshe's heir to the throneit puts her bridegroom in a new light.
Iliana isn't sure how she can trust Demetrius. Does he truly love her, or is she merely a pawn in his royal game? But Demetrius assures he'll protect Iliana at all costs, and with a ruthless assassin targeting royal heirs, Iliana has no choice but to put her faith in the man she knows the leasther husband.
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The king of Valencia was dying and leaving behind a hell of a mess.
Emmanuel Floros had two ex-wives, five spoiled children who had grown into self-centered adults and a wife who was as controlling as she was stupid. The eight of them were squabbling for land and money, but the fighting was pointless. After the king died and his will was read, all would be revealed. Some might be cut out; others may have inherited a treasure trove.
Fortunately for him, President Demetrius DeSante of Icarus had a knack for turning disasters into opportunities. In this case, the opportunity had a name: Ili-ana Kracos. It wasn't like him to care about a woman this much, even a woman as beautiful as Iliana, but she was special.
He wouldn't allow a little obstacle like her fury at him to stand in his way.
Demetrius had to take his pursuit of Iliana to another level. No more casual phone calls, flower arrangements, gifts or dropping by the castle to see her. She was giving him the old-fashioned silent treatment, and maybe he deserved it. She had been angry with him when he had refused to back down from a fight brewing in the Mediterranean, but since war had been averted, she should have moved past it and forgiven him. Yet she'd rebuffed his calls and communicated only through intermediaries. During his infrequent visits to Acacia, she'd been away from the castle on business.
He was outside Iliana's home, fist hovering in front of the wood door, prepared to knock.
Why was he nervous? He had nerves of steel, which had been tested many times over on the battlefield, and courage in spades that he displayed every time he faced difficulties head-on. But one fiery, green-eyed goddess had the power to reduce him to an anxious mess. Much more was on the line than Iliana's significance in Valencia. She was the most fascinating woman he had ever knownfeisty, smart and sexy, all wrapped up in a spicy package.
His servicemen were behind him, and he wouldn't show fear in front of them. Though their loyalty was unconditional and challenged on a regular basis, he wouldn't give anyone one shred of a reason to doubt him. He maintained control by showing power and strength. His careful decisions had pulled Icarus back from ruin and had changed it into a productive country for the first time in a century.
He heard a crash inside the house.
His protective instincts roared, and he pounded on the door. "Iliana! Open the door!"
Iliana's terror-filled scream rang out. Demetrius kicked at the door handle. Once, twice and the door splintered under his weight. He rushed into the house, his servicemen on his heels.
He followed Iliana's screams and the sound of breaking dishes.
She was at the back of the house, in her kitchen. Her hands were gripping the counter behind her, and a man was pointing a gun at her. Demetrius's own gun was in his hands in milliseconds. His guards would be brandishing theirs, as well.
Demetrius didn't recognize the man, but it wouldn't be the first time he'd be forced to kill a stranger. "You are outgunned and outmanned. Drop your weapon, or I'll kill you."
The intruder looked from Iliana to Demetrius. The coldness in his eyes and the firepower in his hands indicated this wasn't an armed robbery. This wasn't personal. This was a would-be assassination. The man was likely a hired gun who knew his trade well. The hit man didn't know Iliana, and that worked in their favor. He wouldn't make reckless decisions based on emotion.
Demetrius would have killed him on the spot for threatening Iliana, but she didn't like violence. And if the assassin was dead, they couldn't find out who had sent him. "Last warning."
Three more seconds and Iliana's aversion to violence would come second to keeping her safe.
The assassin set his weapon on the kitchen table and raised his hands. The man didn't have a death wish after all. Lucky for him. Demetrius took the gun and gestured to his servicemen to deal with the assailant.
After holstering his gun and handing the hit man's gun to his guard, he strode to Iliana, who was still clutching the countertop, her face white, her body shaking. His rage for the assassin was renewed. He should have killed the man for upsetting her and found out who'd hired him another way.
His woman shouldn't tremble from fear, and whether or not she chose to recognize it, Iliana was his woman.
White-hot anger sliced through him, and he reached for his gun. Any man who harmed Iliana would pay, and he'd set the precedent now.
Iliana set her hand on his, her soft fingers sending a jolt of lust and desire through him. "No, Demetrius. Don't kill him. Please."
She knew him too well. She had read the intention in his eyes. It wasn't the first time she had stopped him from killing a man. If it were any other woman, he would have ignored her plea.
"He hurt you." Translation: he deserved to die.
She shook her head. "He scared me. He didn't hurt me. I threw dishes at him."
Scaring her and hurting her made little difference to him. "It's the same." But he had to admit, her fight and her resourcefulness impressed him.
"My gun is in that drawer," she said, pointing to a cabinet a few feet from her. "I was trying to get to it."
Surprise and admiration washed over him. "Since when do you have a gun?"
She stabbed her slender fingers through her red hair. "Since a few months after my cousin and uncle were gunned down at his birthday party."
Demetrius had attended the late king of Acacia's birthday party. Tragic scene, catastrophic consequences. "You didn't mention your interest in owning a gun. I could have taught you to use it."
"I took lessons." She shook her head, still seeming dazed. "What are you doing here?" Her voice sounded faint. He wasn't used to that. Usually everything Iliana said was accompanied by an energetic, playful tone, occasionally marked with a little sass.
Except during the last conversation they had, the conversation he didn't like to think about. She had been hurt and angry with him.
"I came to speak with you." She had pulled her hand away, and he was desperate to reach for her. He didn't. The number of times he had touched Iliana could be counted on one hand. Their relationship, though far more intimate than any other he'd had with a woman in years, was lacking in the physical aspect. Not because he wasn't interested. He was very interested. What held him back was the fear he would mess this up. He needed it to work in order to follow through with his plan.
"Did you arrange this attack in an attempt to win my forgiveness by saving me?" she asked.
The idea was repulsive, and it burned that she thought so low of him. "I have told you before. It is not my intention to hurt you, ever. I would never send a man here to kill you or threaten you so I could step in and save you. The timing was fortuitous, and you can confirm with your queen's husband that I am in Acacia at his invitation. We met earlier today." King Casimir, one of the few men Demetrius trusted, had invited him to Acacia to discuss some outstanding political issues, among them, trade arrangements in the Mediterranean.
Iliana nodded once swiftly. She believed him and she should, because he spoke the truth. Demetrius made it his policy not to lie to her outright. But secret keeping was necessary, and as a member of the royal family, she should understand that.
"You're here. Say what you need to say," Iliana said. She set her hand on her hip, and he liked that her sass was back.
He had practiced the speech many times, but now he felt words were inadequate to express his thoughts. "I'm sorry that politics interfered in our relationship."
Iliana quirked a brow. Demetrius kept his eyes locked on her face, but it was tempting to peek at her generous curves. For a petite woman, she was shapely in the right places.
When he had first learned of Iliana's existence during a poker game with Emmanuel the First, the king of Valencia, Demetrius had been intrigued. Locating her had been a simple matter, as had been confirming her identityone even she wasn't aware ofby taking a strand of hair from her hairbrush. What had not been simple was his attraction to her. She was take-his-breath-away gorgeous. Although he was regularly hit on by sexy women, those drawn to his power and money, Iliana intrigued him like no one else did.
She fascinated him in all the right ways. He found it refreshing that she didn't seem to care about his position or his wealth. It had been far too long since a woman liked him for him.
"It wasn't politics that came between us. You didn't listen to me. You did what you wanted without any consideration for my thoughts and feelings."
Demetrius checked his temper. Iliana could push his buttons like no one else. Fighting with her made his blood run hot. Because she mattered to him. She had then, and she did now. "I had to do what was right for Icarus. I believed that war could be avoided, but I could not appear weak by backing away from provocation from Rizari."
Iliana's eyes softened. Was he winning her over? "I couldn't explain everything to you with the queen close at hand, and, after that, you refused to speak to me," he said.
She dropped her arms to her sides, hands unclenched. She was considering the matter.
He went for broke. "You've been through an ordeal today. Please stay with me until things settle down and we know more about this incident." Such as who the assassin was and why he had targeted Iliana. Demetrius could venture a few guesses, but vocalizing them would only scare her or anger her further.
She inhaled deeply, seeming to consider his proposition. "I will be fine. The police will be here soon, and it will be over."
Demetrius didn't want to frighten her, but he knew this would not be over until she was dead or the person who wanted her dead was stopped. "Could we speak in private?"
Iliana glanced over his shoulder at her attacker.
He hadn't swept the outside to see if another killer was lying in wait. "Upstairs would be better." She swallowed hard. "Okay."
Demetrius followed her up the stairs, taking in the details around him, paint color, the pictures on the wall, all canvas paintings, and the flooring: soft but worn. He hadn't been inside her home before, and he noticed how much like her it was. Inviting, modern and comfortable.
When she reached the top of the stairs, she took one more step and turned. "There are only bedrooms and a bathroom up here. We can talk in the hallway."
Was she worried about being alone with him in the bedroom because of what may happen when a bed was close by? The idea thrilled him because it meant she still felt their attraction. For him, it was a constant thrum in his veins.
Being attracted to her was an unexpected bonus of the larger, more important task at handto win her over. He would have had to seduce her no matter what he felt for her, but being that she was gorgeous and smart, it made the job that much more pleasant.
He needed to be honest with her and give her the right motivation to stay with him. He could keep her safe as no one else could. "The man in your kitchen meant to assassinate you. Whoever sent him won't give up after one attempt."
Iliana shot him a look of disbelief. He loved that about her. She wasn't a simpering woman, quick to burst into tears. She rallied quickly in the face of hardships. "Perhaps there are a lot of people who have reasons to kill you. No one has reasons to kill me."
She knew so little about her life. It was too soon to tell her all he knew. He had to disarm her, marry her and then show her how she fit into the chess game.
"If you will not stay with me, please call your dear cousin and arrange to stay in the castle."
Since a massive corruption conspiracy had been uncovered within the queen of Acacia's ranks, she had cleaned house. New security measures had been put in place, and Queen Serena kept her thumb on everything and everyone in the Acacian government. It helped that her husband, King Constantine Casimir Warrington IV of Rizari, brought his skills as an experienced military man to the table.
Iliana wrinkled her nose. "I don't want to stay in the castle. It's big, but Serena and Casimir are still in the honeymoon phase and I'd be the third wheel there."
Demetrius knew the feeling. Those long looks and the constant touching between Serena and Casimir nauseated him. "Then, my home it is."
Shouting below them had Demetrius reaching again for his gun and pushing Iliana behind him. If more hit men had arrived, they'd have to shoot him dead to get to Iliana. He'd been shot four times in his life and had survived without any loss of major body functions. He'd cheated death and tempted fate before, and he would do it again.
The police had arrived. Demetrius surveyed the scene before bringing Iliana downstairs with him.
A detective strolled up to Iliana. "We found another man lurking outside. This address is on the queen's watch list. Ms. Kracos, you'll need to come with us."
"I've invited Iliana to stay with me. I think we should let her decide where she'd feel safest," Demetrius said, banking on Iliana choosing him. It was risky, but Iliana couldn't be cornered.
* * *
As bad days went, this one was tops. Iliana hadn't even had breakfast yet and her home had already been invaded by an assassin and Demetrius DeSante.
It was the second time that Demetrius had saved her life. She was capable of protecting herself, but being around him made her feel like batting her eyes and flirting and giggling. Not the tough image she wanted to convey.
A woman didn't flirt with the president of Icarus. He would find that behavior appalling. He was so serious and stern and powerful. Darkly good-looking, a fact he seemed unaware of, which made him that much more attractive.
Instead, Iliana kept her wits about her and reviewed her options.
She could stay in her home, she could stay with Serena and Casimir at the castle or she could run off with Demetrius DeSante.
Her heart had an obvious preference, given that it almost beat out of her chest at the idea of being alone with Demetrius. The safest place, in more ways than one, was the Acacian castle. Yet she would be loath to intrude on her cousin and her new husband. Her home felt unsafe and the police would likely insist, to the point of forcing her, that she leave. Demetrius's home held appeal.
She had a history of being brash and wild with men, so she would exercise some caution this time. "If I go with you to Icarus and wish to return to Acacia, you'll allow it?"
"This is not a kidnapping. You are coming with me of your own volition and may leave whenever you wish. I will arrange safe transportation for you to return to Acacia at your request."
His voice was liquid honey, and her knees felt as if they might give out. "If I come with you, it doesn't mean that I forgive you."
His eyes darkened. "Of course not."