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Phoebe Wells stared blankly at the man slouched in a chair across from her. He gazed back with a sensual smile and heavy-lidded eyes, his sable hair rumpled, the top two buttons of his shirt undone to reveal a smooth expanse of golden skin.
'How much?' she repeated. The question made no sense. How much what? Her fingers tightened reflexively around the strap of her bag and she tried not to fidget. She'd been hustled here by two government agents, and it had taken all her self-control not to ask if she was being arrested. Actually, it had taken all her self-control not to scream.
They'd given her no answers, not even a look, as they ushered her into one of the palace's empty reception rooms to wait for twenty panic-laden minutes before this man— Leo Christensen, Anders's cousin—had made his lazy entrance. And now he was asking her how much, and she had no idea what any of it meant.
She wished Anders were here; she wished he hadn't left her to suffer the scorn of his damnable cousin, the man who now uncoiled himself from the chair and rose to stand in front of her with an easy, lethal grace. She wished, she realised with a little pulse of panic, that she knew him better.
'How much money, Little Miss Golddigger?' Leo Christensen clarified softly. 'Just how much money will it take to make you leave my cousin alone?'
Shock stabbed her with icy needles, but it was soon replaced by an even icier calm. Of course. She should have expected this; she knew the Christensen family—the royal family of Amarnes—didn't want an American nobody in love with their son. The country's heir. Of course, she hadn't realised that when she'd met Anders in a bar in Oslo; she'd thought he was just an ordinary person, or as ordinary as a man like him could be considered to be. Golden-haired, charming, with an effortless grace and confidence that had drawn her to his side with the irresistible force of a magnet. And even now, under Leo Christensen's sardonic scrutiny, she clung to that memory, to the knowledge that he loved her and she loved him. Except, where was he? Did he know his cousin was trying to bribe her?
Phoebe straightened and forced herself to meet Leo's scornful gaze directly. 'I'm afraid you don't have enough.'
Leo's mouth curled in something close to a smile, the smile of a snake. 'Try me.'
Rage coursed through her, clean and strong, fuelling her and overriding her fear. 'You don't have enough because there isn't enough, Mr Christensen—'
'Your Grace, actually,' Leo corrected softly. 'My formal title is the Duke of Larsvik.'
Phoebe swallowed at the reminder of just what kind of people she was dealing with. Powerful, rich. Royal. People who didn't want her… but Anders did. That, she resolved, would be enough. Plenty.
She'd had no idea when Anders asked her to meet his family that they actually comprised the king and queen of Amarnes, an island principality off the coast of Norway. And this man too, a man Phoebe recognised from his endless appearances in the tabloids, usually the lead player in some sordid drama involving women, cars, gambling, or all three. Anders had told her about Leo, had warned her, and after just a few minutes' conversation with Leo she believed everything he'd ever said.
'He's a bad influence, always has been. My family tried to reform him, they thought I could help. But no one can help Leo…'
And who was going to help her? Anders had told his parents about her last night; she hadn't been present. Clearly, Phoebe thought, swallowing a bubble of near-hysterical laughter, that conversation hadn't gone well. So they'd sent Leo, the black sheep, to deal with her… the problem.
She shook her head now, not wanting to speak Leo Christensen's damn title, not wanting him to know just how out of her depth she was. Yet he knew it; of course he did. She saw it in the scornful little smile he gave her, the way his gaze flicked over her in easy dismissal, making her feel like trash.
Still, if he knew it, at least that meant there was nothing to lose. She lifted her chin. 'Fine, Your Grace. But there's no amount of money you could give me that would make me leave Anders.' Brave words, she knew, and there was no way she'd take Leo's money, but still… where was Anders?
Leo stared at her for a moment, those sensual, sleepy eyes narrowing, flaring. His mouth twisted and he turned away. 'How quaint, my dear,' he murmured. 'How very admirable. So it's true love?'
Humiliation and annoyance prickled along her skin, chased up her spine. He made what she had with Anders sound so trite. So cheap. 'Yes, it is.'
Leo shoved his hands in his pockets and strolled to the window, gazing out at the plaza in front of Amarnes's royal palace. It was a brilliant summer morning, the sky blue with faint wisps of cloud, the jagged, violet mountains a stunning backdrop to the capital city of Njardvik's cluster of buildings, the bronze statues of Amarnes's twin eagles—the country's emblem—glinting in the sun. 'How long have you known my cousin?' he finally asked and Phoebe shifted her bag to her other shoulder.
He turned around, one eyebrow arched, his hands still in his pockets. His silence was eloquent, and Phoebe felt a blush stain her throat and rise to her cheeks. Ten days. It wasn't much; it sounded ridiculous. And yet she knew. She knew when Anders looked at her… and yet now this man was looking at her, his amber gaze sleepy and yet so sardonic, so knowing. Ten days. Ten days was nothing. And judging by the contemptuous curl of Leo's lip, he thought so too. Phoebe straightened. What did she care what Leo Christensen, the Playboy Prince of Amarnes, thought of her? He was a man given over to pleasure, vice. Yet, standing in front of him now, she was conscious of a darker streak in him, something more alarming and dangerous than the antics of a mere playboy. An emotion emanated from him, something dark and unknowable, yet a force to be reckoned with… if only she knew what it was.
'And you think ten days is long enough to know someone?' Leo asked in that honeyed voice that wound around Phoebe like a spell even as alarm prickled along her spine. 'To love him?' he pressed, his voice so soft, so seductively mild, yet still with that thread of darkness that Phoebe didn't understand. Didn't want to.
She shrugged, determined to stay defiant. She wasn't going to defend what she felt for Anders, or what he felt for her. She knew it would sound contrived, as trite and silly as Leo was determined to make it.
'You realise,' Leo continued in that same soft voice that made the hairs on the nape of Phoebe's neck prickle, 'that if he stays with you—marries you, as he has suggested—you will be queen? Something this country is not prepared to allow.'
'They won't have to,' Phoebe returned. The idea of her becoming queen was utterly terrifying. 'Anders told me he will abdicate.'
Leo's eyes narrowed, his body stilling. 'Abdicate?' he said softly. 'He said that?'
Phoebe jutted her chin. 'Yes.'
Leo's eyes met hers and he held her gaze with unrelenting hardness. 'Then he will never become king.'
She would not let this man make her feel guilty. 'He doesn't even want to be king—'
Leo let out a bark of disbelieving laughter. 'Doesn't want to be king? When it's all he's ever known?'
'He told me—'
He shrugged in derisive dismissal. 'Anders,' he said, cutting her off, 'rarely knows what he wants.'
'Well, he does now,' Phoebe returned with more determination than she felt at the moment. Somehow, as the target of Leo's incredulous scorn, she found her determination—her faith—trickling away. 'He wants me,' she said, and it came out sounding childish.
Leo stared at her for a moment, his expression turning thoughtful, then blank, ominously, dangerously neutral. He could be thinking anything. Planning anything. He cocked his head. 'And you… want… him?'
'Of course I do.' Phoebe fidgeted again; the reception room with its heavy drapes and furniture felt oppressive. A gilded prison. Would she be allowed to walk out of here? She was conscious of her uncertain status as a foreigner in a small and fiercely independent country, and she was even more conscious of the man in front of her, a man with power and authority and clearly no compunction in using both for his own ends.
And where, oh, where was Anders? Did he know she'd been sent for? Why wasn't he looking for her? Since he'd announced their relationship to the royal family he'd been absent, and she now felt a treacherous flicker of doubt.
'You know him?' Leo pressed. 'Enough to live a life of exile?'
'Exile from a family that doesn't accept or love him,' Phoebe returned. 'Anders has never wanted this, Mr— Your Grace.' She swept an arm to encompass the room and the entire palace with its endless expectations.
'Oh, hasn't he?' Leo laughed once, a sharp, unpleasant sound. He moved back to the window, his back to her, seeming lost in thought. Phoebe waited, impatience and worse—fear—starting to fray her hope. Her faith.
'Would ten thousand dollars, American, do it?' Leo asked, his back to her, his voice musing. 'Or more like fifty?'
Phoebe straightened, glad for the renewed wave of outrage that poured through her, replacing the fear and doubt. 'I told you, no amount—'
'Phoebe.' Leo turned around, and the way he said her name sounded strangely gentle, although his eyes were hard, his expression remote. 'Do you honestly think a man like Anders can make you happy?'
'And how could a man like you possibly know?' Phoebe flung back, annoyed and angry that he was making her feel this way. Making her wonder.
Leo stiffened, his face blanking once more. A man like me?' he enquired with stiff politeness.
'Anders has told me about you,' Phoebe said, both the fear and the anger spiking her words, making them hurt, making her want to hurt him—although how could you hurt a man like Leo Christensen? A man who had seen it all, done it all and cared about nothing? Or so the newspapers said, Anders said, and the man in front of her with his sardonic smile and cold voice seemed to confirm every awful thing she'd ever heard. 'You know nothing about love or loyalty,' she continued. 'You care only about your own pleasure— and I suppose I'm a little inconvenience to that—'
'That you are,' Leo cut her off. For a second Phoebe wondered if she'd hurt him with her words. No, impossible. He was actually smiling, his mouth curving in a way that was really most unpleasant. Frightening. 'Quite an inconvenience, Miss Wells. You have no idea just how much.' As if drawing a mask over the first one, Leo's expression changed. It became sleepy, speculative, his smile turning seductive. He took a step closer to her. 'What would have happened, do you suppose,' he asked in that soft, bedroom voice, 'if you'd met me first?'
'Nothing,' Phoebe snapped, but even so her heart rate kicked up a notch as Leo kept walking towards her with languorous, knowing ease, stopping only a hairsbreadth away. She could feel his heat, smell the faint woodsy tang of his aftershave. She stared determinedly at his shirt, refusing to be intimidated, to show how afraid—how affected—she was. Yet even so, her gaze helplessly moved upwards from the buttons of his fine silk shirt to where they were undone, to that brown column of his throat where a pulse leaped and jerked, and Phoebe felt an answering response deep inside, a tug in her belly that could only be called yearning. Desire.
She flushed in shame.
Leo gave a low chuckle. He raised one hand to brush a wayward curl from her forehead, and Phoebe jerked instinctively in response, felt the heat of his fingers against her skin.
'Are you so sure about that?' he queried softly.
Yet at that moment she wasn't, and they both knew it. Heard it in her ragged breathing, saw it in how she almost swayed towards him. Horrible man, Phoebe thought savagely, yet she condemned herself as well. She shouldn't let him affect her like this, not if she loved Anders, which she did.
'So sure,' Leo whispered, his voice a soft sneer, and his hand dropped from her forehead to her throat, where her pulse beat as frantically as a trapped bird's. With one finger he gently touched that sensitive hollow, causing Phoebe to gasp aloud in what—? Shock? Outrage?
She could still feel the reverberation of his touch, as if a string had been plucked in her soul, and the single note of seduction played throughout her body.
Gasping again, this time in relief, Phoebe stumbled away from Leo, from his knowing smile and hands. She turned towards the doorway and saw Anders, appearing like the golden god Baldur from the Norse myth, smiling at Phoebe with a radiant certainty that dispelled all her own fears like the dawn mist over the mountains. 'I've been looking for you. No one would tell me where you were—'
'I've been here—' tears of relief stung Phoebe's eyes as she hurried towards him '—with your cousin.'
Anders glanced at Leo, and his expression darkened with a deeper emotion. Phoebe couldn't tell if it was disapproval or fear or perhaps even jealousy. She swallowed and glanced at Leo. She saw with a sharp jolt of shock that he was staring at his cousin with a bland expression that somehow still managed to convey a deep and unwavering coldness. Hatred. And Phoebe was reminded of the ending of the Norse myth she'd read about during her travels through Scandinavia: that Baldur had been murdered by his twin brother, Hod, the god of darkness and winter.
'What do you want with Phoebe, Leo?' Anders demanded, and his voice sounded strained, even petulant.
'Nothing.' Leo smiled, shrugged, spreading his hands wide in a universal gesture of innocence. 'She obviously loves you, Anders.' His mouth twisted in a smile that didn't look quite right.
'She does,' Anders agreed, putting an arm around Phoebe's shoulder. She leaned against him, grateful for his strength, yet still conscious of Leo's dark, unwavering gaze. 'I don't know why you were talking to her, Leo, but we're both determined to be together—'
And such determination is so very admirable,' Leo cut across him softly. 'I will tell the king so.'
Anders's expression hardened, his lower lip jutting out in an expression more appropriate to a six-year-old before he shrugged and nodded. 'You may do so. If he wanted you to convince me otherwise…'