Luisa's hands curled tight as she forced down growing panic. 'I've got nothing to do with your wedding.' 

One dark eyebrow winged upwards. 'The antiquated style of the contract means I'm bound to marry the Princess of Ardissia.' He paused, his mouth a slash of pure displeasure. 'Whoever she is.' 

'You're out of your mind!' Luisa retreated a frantic step, her stomach a churning mess. This truly was a nightmare. 'I never signed any contract!' 

'It doesn't matter. The document is legal.' His lips twisted. 'The best minds in the country can't find a way out of it.' 

She shook her head, her hair falling across her face as she backed up against the window. 'No way! No matter what your contract says, you can't take me back there as-' 

'My bride?' The words dropped into echoing silence. Luisa heard them repeat over and over in her numbed brain, like a never ending ripple spreading in a still, icy pool. 

'Believe me; I'll do what's necessary to claim my throne.' His chin lifted regally, making clear what he hadn't put in words: that he didn't wish to marry someone so far beneath him. Someone so unappealing. 

Why was he so desperate? Did power mean so much? 

Luisa choked on rising anger. Twenty four years old and she'd received two marriage offers - both from ambitious men who saw her as nothing but a means to acquire power! Why couldn't she meet a caring, honest man who'd love her for herself? She felt soiled and cheap. 

'You expect me to give up my life and marry you, a total stranger, so you can become king?' What century had he dropped out of? 'You're talking antiquated nonsense.' 

His expression grazed like shards of ice on bare skin. 'It may be antiquated but I must marry.' 

She jutted her chin. 'Marry someone else!' 

Something dangerous and dark flashed in his eyes. But when he spoke his words were measured. She sensed he hung onto his control by a thread. 

'If I could I would. If you hadn't existed or if you you'd already married, the contract would be void and I could choose another bride.' 

As if choosing a wife took a minimum of time and effort! 

Though in his case it might. With his looks, sexual magnetism and wealth there'd be lots of women eager to overlook the fact they tied themselves to a power hungry egotist! 

His deep voice sent a tremor rippling through her overwrought body. 'There's no more time to find a way out. I need to be married within the constitutional time limit or I can't inherit.' 

'Why should I care?' Luisa rubbed her hands up chilled arms, trying to restore warmth. 'I don't even know you.' 

And what she did know she didn't like. 

He shrugged and unwillingly Luisa saw how the fluid movement drew attention to those powerful shoulders. The sort of shoulders that belonged on a surf lifesaver or an outback farmer, not a privileged aristocrat. 

'I'm the best person for the kingship. Some would say the only suitable one. I've trained a lifetime for it.' 

'Others could learn.' 

He shook his head. 'Not now. Not in time. There was unrest in the last years of my father's reign. That's growing. A strong king is what the country needs.' 

The sizzle in his eyes stopped her breath. 

'That leaves only one option.' 

She was his only option! 

'I don't care!' Cool glass pressed against her back as he took a pace towards her and she stepped back. 'Let them crown someone else. I'm not a sacrificial lamb for the slaughter.' 

His lips curled in a knowing smile that should have repelled her. Yet her heart hammered as she watched his eyes light with a gleam that warmed her from tip to toe. 

'You think marriage to me would be a hardship?' His voice dropped to a low pitch that feathered like a sultry breeze across her suddenly flushed skin. 'That I don't know how to please a woman?' 

Luisa swallowed hard, using her hands to anchor herself to the window sill behind her, rather than be drawn towards the glittering green gaze that seemed now to promise unspoken delights. 

ÂHe was far more dangerous that she'd realised. 

'Be assured, Luisa, that you will find pleasure in our union. You have my word on it.' 

A beat of power, of heat, pulsed between them and she knew how an animal felt, mesmerised by a predator. 

'The answer is still no,' she whispered hoarsely, shocked at the need to force down a betraying weakness that made her respond to his sensual promise. Why did her dormant hormones suddenly jangle into life around him? 

For a long moment they stood, adversaries in a silent battle of wills. 

'Then, sadly, you leave me no choice.' The fire in his eyes was doused as if it had never been. A flicker of what might have been regret shadowed his gaze then disappeared. 'Just remember that decision, and the outcome, are entirely yours.' 

Already he turned away. Only her hand on his elbow stopped him. 

'What do you mean?' Fear was a sour tang in her mouth. 

He didn't turn. 'I have business to finalise before I leave. Some farms to dispose of.' 

Panic surged. Luisa's fingers tightened like a claw on the fine wool of his suit. She stepped round to look up into his stern face. 

'You can't foreclose! They haven't done anything to you.' 

His stare pinioned her. He shook off her hand. 

'In a choice between your relatives and my country there is no contest.' He inclined his head. 'Goodbye, Luisa.'

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Released : mid-July 2011


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