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'Ash.' Sophia Santina, youngest daughter of the King and Queen of the island of Santina, breathed the name silently to herself, almost reverentially. Just the feel of the nearly silent breath that whispered his name and caressed her throat was enough to raise erotic pinpricks of desire within her flesh. Ash. How the whispering of his name was enough to unleash within her an aching echo of the tumultuous teenage desires he had once aroused in her. The very air was electric with the reckless sensual excitement that wantonly flooded her, even though she had sworn she would not, positively not, allow herself to experience it.
She had known, of course, that he had been invited to her eldest brother's engagement party here at the castle that was their family home, but knowing that and actually seeing him with that strikingly sensual maleness of his that she remembered so well were two very different things.
She would have recognised him anywhere, just as she had done now merely from her brief glimpse of the back view of him as he walked into the ballroom and then turned to refuse a glass of champagne. Just the turn of his head, just the thick dark sheen of his hair and the way it curled into the nape of his neck, was enough to conjure up old memories. Memories of longing recklessly for the right to bury her fingers in its softness, curl them around its strands and then urge his mouth down to her own. A shudder of sensual awareness jolted through her. Some things never changed. A certain kind of need, a certain kind of desire, a certain kind of love.
First love? Surely only a fool believed that first love was an only love, and she prided herself on not being that. No, Ash had killed that tremulous, tender love when he had rejected her, telling her that she was a child still who was putting herself in danger by offering herself to a man of his age, that she was fortunate that his own sense of honour and the repugnance he felt at the very thought of taking what she offered meant that she was protected from him taking advantage of her naivety. Telling her that even if she had been older he would not have wanted her because he was wholly committed to someone else.
She had promised herself then that in future her love would only be given to a man who was worthy of it and who valued it and her. A man who loved her as much as she did him. And because of that promise to herself, she needed Ash's help now, no matter how much her pride reacted angrily against that need.
Putting down her virtually untouched drink, she started to walk towards him.
Standing in the packed ballroom in the castle on the Mediterranean island of Santina, the official residence and home of the royal family of Santina, Ashok Achari, Maharaja of Nailpur, frowned as his grim, obsidian gaze swept the scene in front of him. Beyond the open doors to the stunningly elegant ballroom with its crystal chandeliers and antique mirrors stood footmen wearing the livery of the royal family. An impressive dress-uniformed group of the king's own personal guard had been standing motionless in front of the castle in honour of the occasion and the guests. As a fellow royal, Ash had seen them salute him as the limousine that had picked him up from the airport had swept up to the main entrance. It was plain that no expense was being spared to celebrate the engagement of the king's eldest son and heir.
His fellow guests milled around him, and laughter and the sound of conversation filled the air.
Ash had gone to school with the groom-to-be, Alex, and they were still close friends. Even so, he hadn't wanted to attend this engagement party as he had more pressing matters to deal with at home, but duty was important to Ashfar more so than any personal desiresand duty had compelled him to accept.
He had, though, ordered his pilot to have his private jet standing ready to fly him back to Mumbai where he had an important business meeting in the morning.
A sixth sense had him turning round just as an exquisitely beautiful petite brunette came hurrying towards him.
A woman now, not the girl she had been the last time he had seen her in person. Where he had remembered a girl trembling on the brink of womanhood, innocent and eager, in need of protection from herself, he was now being confronted by a woman who clearly knew all about her sexuality and its power and how to both use it and take pleasure from it. That his body had recorded and registered that information in the time it had taken him to exhale and breathe again pointed to a weakness within himself of which he had previously been unaware.
The shock of his instant male awareness of Sophia as a woman had caught him totally off guard and Ash did not like that. That kind of thing was not something he permitted himself to do. It smacked too much of a hidden repressed need and Ash did not allow himself to have hidden repressed needsneeds that could make him vulnerable. Besides, the very idea of him being vulnerable to Sophia was laughable. She wasn't his type. No? So why then was his body reacting to her as though it had never seen a woman before?
A momentary lapse. He was a man, she was a woman, and his bed had been empty since he had dismissed his last mistress. If he was aroused by the sight of Sophia then it was probably completely natural. After all, from the luxuriant tumble of long, dark brown waves via the stunning beauty of her delicately shaped face with its dark eyes and soft full lips to the voluptuous curves of her sensationally sensually shaped body, Sophia Santina was an instant, irresistible magnet for male attentionand his own body was reacting just like any other heterosexual man's would. Wasn't it?
Yes. He would be a fool if he allowed that reaction more importance than it merited. To be caught off guard by a surge of physical desire so strong that he was glad of the packed floor of the ballroom and the darkness of his dinner suit to conceal the evidence of his reaction to her was an alien experience for him and added aggravation to what he was already experiencing. He had no desire whatsoever to be aroused by any woman right now, never mind Sophia Santina.
But he couldn't deny the fact that he was. Not with that arousal already straining at the expensive fabric of his suit, despite the ferocity of the mental control with which he was attempting to prevent it.
She was still coming towards him and in another handful of seconds she would be flinging herself into his arms, just as she had done as a young girl. And if she did that
His body beat out a raw demanding pulsing clarion call of lust. Ash cursed inwardly. He was a man who prided himself on his control of his appetites, especially when it came to sex.
It meant nothing that Sophia was sexually desirable andif one believed the gossip presssexually available, as well, should a man chance to catch her attention. Desiring her wasn't on his agenda for where he planned to take his life and it never would be.
Apart from anything else, as he had already reminded himself, Sophia simply wasn't his type. Following the death of his wife, the women with whom he had shared his bed had all been elegant long-limbed women skilled in the arts of sexual pleasure, with cool logical minds in whose lives emotions did not play a part. Women who, when the game ended, gracefully accepted the generous gift he gave them and left his bed as discreetly as they had entered it.
Sophia was not like that. Sophia, as he well knew from watching her grow up, was an intense melding of passionate emotions. A man who took her to bed would need
His body reacted again, causing him to have to shift his weight from one leg to the other in an attempt to ensure that that reaction was disguised. There was no question of him taking Sophia to his bed. Not now, not ever.
'Ash,' Sophia said again, automatically stepping forward to embrace him, her eyes widening when he immediately encircled her wrist with his right hand to fend her off while stepping back from her in rejection.
How could she have been so stupid? There was, after all, a history of rejection between them, or rather of Ash rejecting her, and now she had put herself on the back foot by allowing him to feel that he needed to push her away. In her anxiety to plead for his help she had acted foolishly. She must be more mentally alert, she warned herself.
Yes, an inner voice argued defensively, but all she had been doing was greeting him as she would greet anyone she knew well, not coming on to him. She opened her mouth ready to make a feisty protest and berate him for misinterpreting her gesture and then closed it again, as she controlled her emotions. This was not the time to antagonise him, no matter how strongly she felt that she was being misjudged. And now that she was so close to him, she could see what she hadn't seen before: the change in him that was clearly written in the steely uncompromising coldness of his expression.
Against her will, sadness locked her throat. The Ash she remembered had been a warm, outgoing young man who had laughed a lot and enjoyed life. What had happened to change him and turn him into the cynical, almost-brooding man in front of her now? Did she really need to ask herself that? He had lost his wife, a wife whom he had loved.
Her sadness grew, compassion for the Ash she remembered filling her. That Ash had been a young man whose innate kindnessespecially to the young sister of a school friend on those holiday visits he had made to the islandhad made that girl feel for the first time in her life that someone understood her, and valued her. His kindness and his understanding had meant so much to her, and it was her memory of those things that had brought her to his side now and not the abrupt sea change in their relationship as she had turned from a girl to a woman, and his rejection of her because of it.
Those qualities though had been stripped from the man in front of her now, Sophia recognised with a sudden painful jolt of her heart into her ribs. This Ash possessed a dark and brooding air that she didn't remember, along with a cold remoteness, as though somehow a dark cloud had darkened the warmth of the personality of the young man she remembered.
Something deep within her ached for what he had been. Immediately, Sophia clamped down on that feeling. She must not allow herself to be vulnerable to him emotionally. She must not feel anything for him. Not even when she had once patterned her ideal of what she thought desirable in a man on Ash himself? That had been a foolish mistake and one for which she had paid through the heartbreak that only the young and idealistic can know. The reality was that right now she should be feeling glad that he had changed and that there was therefore no danger of her being foolish enough to
To what? To still feel something for him?
That was impossible.
But what if her responsiveness to him both physically and emotionally was burned into her DNA? Burned into it? Sophia winced. Burned was the correct word and she still had the scars to prove that. But those scars protected her now. She would never make the same mistake again. She was immune to Ash now and she intended to remain immune. She wasn't sixteen any more, after all.
Before, she had been filled with a young, romantic teenager's need to taste the apple the serpent had offered to Eve, and she had turned to Ash to help her assuage that need. That had been a terrible mistake for which she had paid in tears of shame and anguish.
Now she had to think past that, to that innocent time when she had merely seen Ash as her saviour, the one person she could turn to, to help her, the person who had, after all, saved her very life on more than one occasion. It was that Ash she desperately wanted to talk to right now, the words she would use to elicit the help she needed from him honed and practised. Now though she was beginning to recognise that somehow she couldn't just simply turn back and open the gate into the garden of innocence whose pathways Ash had walked with her when she had been a child.
She must not give up hope. She could not, Sophia reminded herself. But she must be careful. Careful and aware of what she needed to achieve for her own survival. This was just one meeting. One ordeal she had to go through to gain something she desperately needed. After tonight she would never have to see Ash again and she would be safe, from her own past and from the future her father planned for her.