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'Do you mind if I join you?'
A shiver of recognition ran down Bella's back as the man with the husky Latin American voice lifted the latch on the stable door and walked in. There was only one man who could breeze through security in Her Majesty's backyard: the Guards' Polo Club in Windsor. Nero Caracas, known as the Assassin in polo circles, played off ten, the highest ranking a polo player could achieve, and enjoyed privileges around the world others could only dream of. Impossibly goodlooking, Bella had seen Nero commanding the field of play, and had lusted after him like every other hotblooded woman, but nothing could have prepared her to be this close to so much man.
'So this is Misty,' he said, running an experienced palm down the pony's shoulder. 'She looks smaller close up'
'Appearances can be deceptive.' Racing to the defence of her favourite pony, Bella forced her hands to go on oiling the mare's dainty hooves. She'd lived close to animals for so long she was as acutely tuned in to danger as they were and, though the mare seemed calm, Bella was on red alert.
'The match starts soon'
And? Bella thought, still polishing. As trainer and one of the coaches of the British team, she knew only too well when the match started. Surely it was Nero, as captain of the opposing team, who should be elsewhere?
Nero's reputation preceded him. He had obviously thought he could drop in and his smallest wish would be granted with one eye on the timetable for a match in which he would captain the Argentinian team. No such luck. The Assassin could yield to the Ice Maiden on this occasion. And he did, but with a warning glint in his eye. 'I need to speak to you about Misty,' he said, running another appreciative glance over her pony.
'This isn't the time,' Bella said coolly, realising only when their stares clashed that she was running the same type of assessing look over Neroexperience had nothing to do with it. Her points of reference were in her head. And all the better for staying there, she thought, having taken in Nero's dark tan, closefitting white breeches, plain dark polo shirt, wayward curls catching on his ferocious black stubble, not to mention the leather boots hugging his hardmuscled calves. It was safer, certainly.
'As you wish,' he said.
When he dipped his head, one professional acknowledging another, she saw the steel of challenge in his eyes. Nero Caracas was hardly the most sensible enemy for a woman in Bella's precarious financial position to make. The recession had taken a deep bite out of her resources and the polo world was too small, too incestuous to take chances. You failed in the eyes of one, you failed in the eyes of everyone. But she wouldn't fail, Bella told herself firmly, straightening up to confront this god of the game. 'Is that everything?'
Nero's lips pressed down. 'No,' he said with a shake of his head. 'I think Misty would benefit from being ridden by a man who really appreciates her'
'I can assure you that the captain of the English team appreciates Misty'
'But does he ride her in a way that brings Misty pleasure?'
Did Nero Caracas have to make everything sound like an invitation to bed?
She glanced at her watch.
'Do I make you nervous, Bella?'
She laughed. 'Certainly notI'm merely concerned that you're leaving yourself dangerously short of time.'
'My timing is split second,' Nero assured her.
Was that humour in his eyes? As the rugged Argentinian caressed Misty's neck, Bella lost herself for a moment. All muscles and tough, virile appeal, Nero Caracas was quite a man. Another woman, another timewho knew what might come of this meeting? Bella thought wryly, dragging herself round.
'En garde,' Nero murmured when she came to stand between him and the dapple grey polo pony. 'I would like you on my side, Isabella, not working against me for the competition.'
Bella gave him an ironic look. 'I'm very happy where I am, thank you.'
'Maybe I can change your mind'
'I wish you joy of that'
'If that's a gauntlet, I should warn you, Bella, I always pick them up.'
Too much mantoo closetoo desperately disturbing
Irritated by the fact that her highly strung mare had remained calm when Nero had entered the stable, Bella demanded sharply, 'Anything else?'
Sensation overload, she registered dizzily as Nero's long dark stare made her heart go crazy. Nero Caracas was ridiculously attractive and had more charisma than was good for any man. No woman wanted to be reduced to a primal mating state by an unreconstructed male. A woman wanted controlsomething Bella possessed in vast amounts usually.
Nero raised his hands in mock surrender. 'Don't worry, I'm going. But I'll be back to see you, Misty,' he crooned to the unusually compliant mare.
Bella's eyes flashed fire. 'When I'm not here, Misty is protected by the most stringent security measures.'
'Which I'll be sure to bear in mind' Nero's Latin shrug could easily be translated as So what?
No one would keep him out. Nero Caracas could do anything he wanted, buy anything he wanted. Chatter around the yard suggested the famous Argentinian wanted to buy Misty, the polo pony Bella had foolishly allowed herself to love.
'You've done well with Misty, Bella,' Nero observed as he paused by the stable door. 'She's in prime condition'
'Because she's happy with me'
Nero's head dipped in acknowledgement of this, but the sardonic smile on his lips suggested he had more to offer any horse than she did.
She was at risk of losing Misty. The thought struck Bella like a bombshell. There was always pressure honour in the game that demanded the best players were given the best polo ponies to ride. Misty was the best, and only a fool would stand in the way of a rider like Nero Caracas and expect to keep the career she loved intact.
'Until the next time, Bella'
I wouldn't count on it, Bella thought, tightening her lips. There would be no next time. Misty was all she had left of her late father's yardher late father's honour. While Misty was on the field people still talked of Jack Wheeler as the best of trainers, and forgot for that moment that Bella's father had been a gambler who had lost everything he had ever worked for. 'Misty only runs for those she trusts.'
'Like any woman.' Nero's smile deepened, carving an attractive crease in the side of his face. Coming back to the pony, he ran an experienced hand down Misty's near foreleg. 'Good legs,' he commented as he straightened up.
And she felt hers tingling too. The look Nero gave her left Bella in no doubt that everything in the stable had been assessed. She was way out of her depth here. If only Nero would go and everything could return to normal. 'Enjoy the match,' she said numbly, conscious of the power he wielded in the game.
'You too, Bella' There was both humour and challenge in his voice.
'Misty will outrun your Criolla ponies from the Pampas'
'We'll see.' Nero shot her an amused glance. 'My Criollo are descendants of the Spanish war horses. Their power is second to none. Their loyalty? Unquestioned. Stamina?' His lips pressed down in the most attractive way. 'Unrivalled, Bella. And it goes without saying that combat is in their genes.'
And Nero's, Bella thought. She'd watched him play, and had marvelled at his speed and agility, his handtoeye coordination, uncanny intuition, and the eager way Nero's ponies responded to him. She had never thought she would feel those subtle powers working on her. 'May the best man win,' she said, tilting her chin at a defiant angle as she rested a protective hand on Misty's neck.
'I have no doubt that he will,' the undisputed king of the game informed her.
She had always felt safe in the stables, with the scent of clean hay in her nostrils and the warmth of an animal she could trust close by, but that safety had just been challenged by a man whose voice was like a smoky cellar, deep and evocative, though ultimately cold. Whatever game it was, she must never forget that Nero Caracas always played to win. 'Win or lose today, Misty is not for sale'
'I've completed my examination, and I like what I see,' Nero remarked as if she hadn't spoken. 'Of course, Misty would need to pass the vet's exam,' he went on thoughtfully, 'but if she fulfils her promise today, as I'm sure she will, I'd like to make you an offer, Bella. Name your price.'
'There is no price, Senor Caracas.' She wasn't going to roll over just because Nero Caracas said she must. 'I don't need your money.'
Nero angled his head. He didn't need to say anything to echo the thoughts of everyone else in the polo world, all of whom knew that couldn't be true. 'You might not need my money, chica,' he said with a faint mocking edge to his voice, 'but you must need something. Everybody does.'
'Is that a threat?' Was she to lose everything she had worked for? A flash of panic speared through her as the dark master of the game stared her down. Why should Nero answer when he was the centre of the polo universe, around which everything else revolved? He had more money, more skill on the field and a better eye for the horse than any man alive. Why was she challenging him when Nero Caracas could dash her career against the wall with a flick of his wrist?
'Relax,' he murmured. 'You work too hard and worry too much, Bella. Polo?' The massive shoulders eased in a shrug. 'It's only a game.'
Only a game?
'I look forward to seeing Misty play.' The dark eyes stared deeper into her soul than they had any right to and then he was gone.
Bella let out a shuddering breath and slumped back against the cold stone wall. How could she fight him? But fight him she would if Nero pushed her, Bella determined as one of her grooms came in and, after a few covert sideways glances, asked if Bella was all right.
'I'm fine Fine,' Bella confirmed, wishing she was back at home with her dogs and horses, where life was uncomplicated, and where the children she encouraged to visit her stable yard learned how to care for animals in a blissfully downtoearth setting. Mess with Nero and she would lose all that.
'Shall I take Misty to the pony lines?'
The girl glanced towards the stable door as she spoke, and Bella guessed she must have passed the master of the game on his way out. Nero threw off an aura of power and danger, which had made the young girl anxious. 'Yes, take her,' she confirmed, 'but don't let her out of your sight for a moment.'
'I won't,' the girl promised. 'Come on, Misty,' she coaxed, taking hold of the reins.
'Actually, I've changed my mindI'll come with you.' She had intended to check the other ponies first, but she could do that at the pony lines. Nero Caracas turning up unannounced had really shaken her. He had reminded her that her life was a house of cards that could collapse at any time and that Nero Caracas never paid anyone a visit without a purpose in mind.
She would just have to fight his fire with her ice, Bella concluded, shutting the stable door behind them. She had done it before and come through in one piece. There was still talk about how her father's gambling had destroyed his career, which was one reason she still had the Ice Maiden tag. Life had taught her to keep rigid control over her feelings at all times. And Misty was more than just a pony; the small mare was a symbol of Bella's determination to rebuild the family name. She had promised her father before he died that she would always keep Misty safe. So could she fight off this bid from Nero Caracas?
She had to. Nero might be every woman's dream with his blacksmith's shoulders, wicked eyes and piratical stubble, but she had a job to do.
'Good luck, Bella,' the stable hands chorused as she crossed the yard.
Lifting her hand in recognition of their support, she hurried on, afraid to let Misty out of her sight now.
'The Argentine team is looking good,' one of the grooms observed, keeping pace with her for a few steps. 'Especially Nero Caracashe's been living up to his nickname in the last few matches. The Assassin has cut a swathe through the competition'
'Great. Thank you.' She didn't need reminding that Nero inhabited a brutal world. He might feel at home here, and play the role of gentleman in the prince's backyard, but Nero lived in Argentina, where he bred and trained his ponies on an estancia the size of a country on the vast untamed reaches of the pampas.
This conjured up such fabulous imagesterrify ingly wild and impossibly dangerous.
And the sooner he went back there, the sooner she could relax, Bella told herself firmly. They had reached the pony lines where the horses were tethered to wait their turn to enter the match. 'I'll never let you go,' she whispered, throwing her arms around Misty's firm grey neck. 'And I'd certainly never sell you on to some blackhearted savage like Nero Caracas. Why, I'd sooner'
The images that conjured up had to stop there. Burying her face against Misty's warm hide, Bella tried and failed to blot out the image of her moaning with pleasure in Nero's arms. Daydreams were one thing, but she'd be sure to lock the stable door in future.
He never listened to gossip. He preferred to make up his own mind about people, places, animals, things And Isabella Wheeler.
The Ice Maiden's eyes had been wary and hostile to begin with, but not by the time he had left her. Why was Bella's luscious, long red hair cruelly contained beneath a net? It was preternaturally neat, but he had detected a wild streak beneath that icy veneer. He had seen enough ponies standing meekly in the corral, only to kick the daylights out of a groom if they weren't approached with respect. Control ruled Bella. She had earned the highest respect in equine circles, but still managed to remain an enigma, without a shred of gossip concerning her private life. How could she not present him with a challenge he found impossible to resist?
Mounting up, he gathered his reins and called his team around him for the pep talk. He was unusually wired and the men knew it. They stared at him warily whilst keeping a tight rein on their own restless mounts.