“What’s he doing here?” Acelin whipped around to stare at the fine ass retreating down the corridor. The all too familiar one she’d been fantasizing about since she first saw it retreating into the cockpit.
Okay, there was an image she didn’t need.
“He who?” Patrice stopped several steps ahead of Acelin, making it necessary to back up.
“Tall, blond, and mouthwatering, that’s who,” jerking her head in the direction of the outstanding specimen of male tushes. She kept her voice low to prevent her royal watchdog from overhearing.
“Oh, you mean Prince Nolan.”
“Prince Nolan.” Acelin knew her mouth gaped open like a floundering fish.
“Yeah, of Bermine.”
Patrice stuck her face directly in front of her friend’s. “What’s wrong with you? Other than the fact that you’re doing a great job impersonating a parrot?”
Acelin swallowed the lump in her throat. That, that magnificent example of manhood was the mysterious Prince Nolan? What was he doing posing as a pilot on the family jet? “What do you know about him?” She forced one foot in front of the other until she managed to get moving in the direction of her father’s study. Best to act normal. If Patrice suspected more than a casual interest, she’d never let Acelin live it down.
“Not much. He was here when I got back. He pestered me about you, wanting to know where you’d gone. Why?”
“He piloted the plane that flew me back here.”
“He did? I wondered where he’d disappeared to. Hell, every woman in this place with a pulse wondered.” Patrice scrambled to keep up with Acelin’s quick steps. “The gossip has been flying since he showed up, from what I understand. He was here when I got back, so I’m not sure when he arrived. He’s a pilot with the Royal Air Force, home on leave, and his father forced him to come to your birthday bash. Maybe he was the only one available to come for you on such short notice.” She watched Acelin’s face as they spoke. “I know that look. What are you thinking?”
Oh, Patrice gave her too much credit. She wasn’t thinking about anything other than the far too masculine, way too powerful, much too handsome for her piece of mind Prince Nolan. On the jet, his potent aura filled the small space and sucked up all the air. Now she understood why he carried himself as if he owned the airspace. “Any clue what he does in the Royal Air Force?”
“No one is sure, except that he’s a pilot, he flies anything and everything, and has for the decade or so he’s been in.”
Ten years. Well that explained why he’d been off her radar of available men. He’d been flying around the world playing G.I. Joe. Her spirit plummeted. Too bad he was off limits. Anyone who put in that much time at a job had to be devoted to it, where she needed—wanted—a man devoted to her. She didn’t do one night stands or even one week stands and his military career prevented anything more.
She sighed. What a waste. He was even more handsome now than he had been on the plane. His polo-style shirt clung to his wide shoulders and broad chest, showing off his flat abdomen to perfect advantage. The passing glance had her hormones revving up, anxious to see him again.
“I need a nice cold drink before I face my father. I know this brush with death is going to make him feel justified in pushing me to choose a husband.” That was her story and she was sticking to it.
Still, understanding her father the way she did, she did need time to gather her wits so she’d be able to remain calm. She accepted her father’s position. She’d spent some time coming to terms with it herself. Plunging into the ocean and facing death did that. After her brush with Prince Nolan, she’d be anything but calm, cool, and collected unless she took this breather.
Acelin spotted a maid and requested a pitcher of iced tea be delivered to her in the drawing room. She and Patrice walked to the Queen’s favorite sanctuary, where they waited only minutes for the refreshing beverage.
Acelin sipped at her tea in silence, taking deep breaths between swallows. Her thoughts raced a mile a minute, and then some, as she debated how to respond to her father. She concluded the best way would be to beat him to the table. She’d tell him that at the end of her week-long birthday festivities, she’d announce her future husband, if not publicly at the ball, then privately to her parents. This solution allowed her to remain in control while making her father a very happy king.
Comfortable with her decision, she rose to her feet. “I’ll meet you back here once I finish my conversation with my father.”
“Are you sure you don’t want me with you?” Concern clouded Patrice’s face.
“No. I’ll be fine. I’m positive my father will be pleased with what I have to say. For a change.” One corner of her lips lifted in a half-smile.
Patrice made herself comfortable in a plush chair. “I’ll be right here if you need me.”
And Acelin knew that. Her friend’s support meant the world to her. She pulled the door shut behind her to give Patrice some privacy from the wandering guests and headed for the royal chambers.
As she entered, barely pausing to knock, she noticed her father sat in his leather chair behind his massive mahogany desk. Over the years, she’d come to refer to that as his power play position. Pushing to his feet, a smile lit his face. He hurried from behind the desk, wrapping her in a tight hug.
“Daddy, I can’t breathe.” Her stiff muscles protested the contact, but she refused to allow anyone to know how much she ached. She laughed as she squeezed back. He had held her even closer when she’d stepped off the plane. So close that she’d felt the tears on her cheek. Not that she was complaining. She loved her father and his enthusiastic displays of affection. She loved the feel of her parents’ life-reaffirming hugs.
“You’ll just have to put up with it, darling. I intend to let your mother and you and your brother and sister know how much I love you all the time. I never appreciated just how precious life is until...”
Acelin saved him from talking about her nearly fatal accident. “I’ve thought the same thing, Daddy. Which is why I've made a decision.” She drew a shaky breath and prepared to plunge forward.
“Wait, before you say anything, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
She hadn’t realized someone sat in the high-backed leather chair across from her father’s. As soon as he stood up, she wondered how she hadn’t known he was in the room, when his presence overwhelmed her so.
“You.” So much for sounding intimidating when the word fell out on a sigh.
“Princess Acelin,” he bowed deeply, the graceful gesture suiting him somehow. “It is a pleasure to formally make your acquaintance.”
“Prince Nolan.” She curtsied with the best of them. So take that. “The pleasure is all mine.” Oh how she wished it were.
She fought with herself, struggling to keep from undressing him with her eyes. If she didn’t mistake the gleam in his, he wanted to know what she looked like out of her skimpy sundress. Her gaze locked with his and her wits scrambled, those amazing blue eyes knocking her senseless. So much for her relaxation time in the drawing room.
King Warrick cleared this throat. “Prince Nolan and his father are here for your birthday, Acelin. And I have asked a special favor of the young prince.” Was it her imagination or did the young prince wince at being called that? “He has agreed to be your escort for all of the festivities.”
The air suddenly got sucked from the room and the floor shifted beneath her feet. She’d never survive a week in close proximity to this man without taking him to her bed. Brief contact already had her panting after him. As she shifted her eyes to meet his, he cocked a finely arched brow at her, as if the son of a bitch knew what she thought. Of course, he probably had women all over the world throwing themselves in his path. Why wouldn’t they?
She had to extricate herself from this, and in a hurry. “While I appreciate the offer, Prince Nolan, I’m sure my father can serve as my escort, whenever necessary.” She flashed her most dazzling “princess” smile, honed by years of diplomatic necessity.
“Don’t be silly, dearest, your mother and I are the hosts of this soiree and have obligations. Nolan is the perfect man for the situation.”
Okay, now she knew she saw the look that passed between her father and the prince. What the hell was going on here? Was her father trying his hand at matchmaking or had her mother put him up to it? To a career soldier? Her unfortunate tumble into the ocean had scared them all, but this stretched the limits. He’d promised never to interfere in her choice; he’d better not have changed his mind now.
Regardless of any ulterior motives her father may or may not have, she needed to dislodge Mr. Mouthwatering from his duties. She didn’t stand an iceberg’s chance in the Timorian harbor of scoping out a potential husband with Superhunk at her side, sending her hormones into a rousing rendition of the cha-cha-cha by his mere presence.
Unless that was exactly what her father wanted to happen.
Too bad. She’d made up her mind and no one was going to shake her off course. She had to focus on finding a husband and taking her place as the future ruler of Timoria. A career soldier did not fit into those plans.
“Your Highness, I beg you to allow me to have a private word with my father.” She decided to appeal to Nolan directly.
“That’s not necessary, Acelin. Anything you have to say, you can say in front of Nolan.”
Like hell she could. She could hear it now. Daddy, you have to make this man go away because I want to throw him down and ride him like there’s no tomorrow. Any man, with the exception of her father, wanted to hear that. And then where would they be? In her bed with her being ridden like a carnival attraction? Her pulse raced at the thought. “Daddy…”
Nolan’s bow to her father could have been recorded and used to teach youngsters how to properly defer to the royal head of a country. Ten years in the military hadn’t cost him any of his protocol skills. “Your Majesty, if you will allow me to excuse myself. My throat is parched and I could benefit from something cold.”
So could Acelin. A cold shower.
“Of course, son. We’ll speak later.”
Son? Her nerves went on alert. Had her father gone ahead and made arrangements for her marriage? She had to know what the hell was going on. She pressed her lips tight, bit her tongue, and prayed for patience. Flying into a snit wasn’t the answer.
No sooner had the door closed behind the butt from heaven—that she refused to think about right now—then Acelin addressed her father. “Daddy, we have to talk…”
“I know what you’re going to say.”
Why did parents always think they knew everything? Here she was, almost thirty years old and her father still thought he knew. “Why are you insisting that Prince Nolan puppy dog me around this week?”
Her father waved his arm with all the majestic fury he reserved for the throne room and with none of the love and compassion he bestowed on his family. Stomach dropping to her feet, she steeled herself for a royal decree of the worst kind that followed such displays. His mouth opened and closed several times before his arms dropped to his side and he faced her, his eyes bright with unshed tears.
“Your mother and I feared we’d lost you yesterday, darling. When Nolan called…” His clammy hand reached across the distance to clasp hers and she felt him tremble. Knowing her parents had been frightened and seeing it in her father’s eyes were two vastly different things. Her anger diffused. “We’ve never been so scared in our lives. And we realized how much pressure we’ve been putting on you to find a husband. Even though we thought we weren't. Pressure that put you smack in the path of danger. No, don’t stop me,” he held out his free hand when she opened her mouth to speak. “I haven’t finished. So I’ve come to a conclusion. You know your duty as heir to the Timorian throne. Your mother and I trust you to fulfill that promise, but we will allow you to do so in your own time. We have no intention of holding you to your promise to marry by your thirtieth birthday.” His fingers squeezed hers but did not let go.
A tear rolled down Acelin’s cheek and plopped on her blouse. The gift her father had just given her strengthened her resolve to do the right thing. “Daddy, I did a good deal of thinking while I was floating around in the water and praying someone would come rescue us. Now, after listening to you, I know I made the right decision. I will be using this week as an opportunity to find a husband, as Mother no doubt intended when she started planning this birthday extravaganza. Not because I feel pressured, but because it’s the right thing for me to fulfill my obligation to Timoria. While I strongly doubt that an engagement announcement will be made at the ball, I hope to have established an understanding by then with my future husband. I’m sure Mother has invited every acceptable eligible single man on the planet for me to choose from. Most of whom I’ve already dated.”
“Darling, you don’t know –”
“No, now it’s my turn to talk.” She gestured imperiously, having been taught by the best. Flashing her father a smile, she continued. “And if I’m going to have any luck meeting your new son-in-law, I can’t have Nolan glued to my side.” An utterly inappropriate image of Nolan stuck between her thighs invaded her brain, adding to the already long list of reasons why she needed to dump him.
“You’ll have to figure that one out, if you’re serious about this husband hunt. I have asked Prince Nolan to be your escort and I have no intention of changing my mind.”
Surveying the determined line of her father’s mouth, combined with the steel in his eyes and his stiff spine, Acelin saved her breath. She recognized an unmovable mountain when she saw one. She still had no idea why he insisted Nolan be her personal shadow. “Why?”
“I need you to trust me on this, Acelin. I will not change my mind on this one.”
So much for getting away from Nolan. She’d just have to figure out how to deal with him and the impact he had on her. She’d slipped away from more nannies and governesses than any dozen royal brats combined when she’d been a young hellion. She’d be able to shake off one pesky bodyguard, no problem. She had to if she wanted to be able to assess the possibilities of any other man. The thought that her parents had an ulterior motive for their insistence on Nolan’s presence weighed heavy on her mind. It mattered not. She’d make up her own mind when it came to a husband.
“Fine.” She tried not to sound petulant. “I’ll allow him to puppy dog me around for a week. I just wish you’d tell me why this is so important to you.”
“The King of Bermine has always been a strong ally of ours. It would mean a great deal to me if you would allow me to honor him and his family in this small way. Continued good diplomatic relations and all that. Do you understand?” She understood, but she didn’t believe it for one minute.
Rising to her feet, she hugged her father. “I do, Daddy. Why didn’t you explain it to me sooner?” So I could have braced myself. But she kept that thought to herself.
Was it her imagination or did he mumble “Because I just thought of it myself” under his breath? “Excuse me?”
“Did you say something?”
“Just that I didn’t say anything sooner because I thought you’d agree just because your father asked you to do something. I do occasionally know what’s best for you.”
Acelin laughed at her father’s expression as he tried to be serious, only to fail. “I know, Daddy. I’ll play nice with the prince.”
“Thank you, darling.”
She didn’t miss the flare of satisfaction in her father’s eyes or the triumphant grin he tried to suppress. Whatever his scheme, or her mother’s scheme, to be more precise, Acelin still held the cards. The decision regarding her husband still rested in her hands. That hadn’t been taken away from her. Forcing her to spend time with the uber-god she’d kicked out of the room did not mean she had to marry him. Oh, no. Marrying him would mean following him around for his career, putting her duty to Timoria on hold. A duty she’d just decided to wholeheartedly embrace.
Her traitorous body wanted to take him for a test drive, though. Duty be dammed.
“Now, you’d best prepare for the extravagant lunch your mother has arranged. And that includes taking a nap. You must still be exhausted from your ordeal.” Smiling, she kissed her father on the cheek and headed out the door.
With no further thought than stopping by to retrieve Patrice and retreating to shore up her defenses, she strode into the room. “I’m ready when—” She stopped cold when Nolan rose to his full height from behind a high-backed chair. She wanted to whine and pout and stomp her feet. To decry the injustice of it all. What did she ever do to deserve this? She’d made her decision, one she felt good about.
Only to have this magnificent off-limits temptation thrown in her path.
Instead of looking uncomfortable and out of place in the middle of the ultra-feminine surroundings, he seemed to blend in somehow, even while his masculine aura dominated everything around him. She tried not to imagine him naked, sprawled out on one of the chaise lounges, ready for her, waiting for her. She didn’t imagine him waiting long.
Dammit, she wanted him to look like a sumo wrestler in a frou-frou gift shop, not a Playgirl model.
“Your Highness,” his rough-edged voice melted into her veins. And made her wet. “Did you have a nice conversation with your father?” He straightened from a deep bow, his manners flawless.
As she gawked at his spiked blond hair and too blue eyes, she forced herself to remember why the prince in front of her was off-limits. Military, that’s right, the man was career military. Not a good fit for a princess who would one day be queen. A princess who had to stay in her country, not bounce from assignment to assignment with her husband. Duty and all that jazz.
“Yes, we came to an understanding. Thank you for allowing us that privacy.”
He executed a half bow, his eyes never leaving hers. She’d never seen such an intense blue, ice blue, before, one that robbed her of the ability to speak and breathe.
“At your service, Your Highness.”
Speaking of which… “Since we’ll be spending a great deal of time together over the next week, please, call me Acelin.” She ignored the flare that lit up his eyes and set her libido on fire. The empty promise of an orgasm must have impacted her in a big way, she’d never before responded to a man on such a physical level.
“Only if you call me Nolan.”
“Agreed.” She found herself being sucked in by his magnetism, unable to control her traitorous body or the train of thought wondering if she still had condoms in her nightstand.
“It might be nice if anyone spoke to me at all.” Patrice chimed in from her chair near Nolan’s. “No matter what you call me.”
Acelin purposely avoided the gaze boring into her. Her friend ascertained her feelings all too easily and she didn’t have the energy to deal with that right now. “Are you ready, Reese? It seems we need to prepare for a lunch my mother felt compelled to arrange.” She adopted her best royal hauteur as she addressed Patrice, hoping to keep her feelings to herself for the time being.
“Of course, Princess,” Patrice responded with her meek subservient charade, the one that never failed to piss off Acelin. “It has been a pleasure spending time with you, Your Highness.” Patrice curtsied for Nolan.
“It’s Nolan, and the pleasure was all mine. Especially now that we understand each other, don’t we Patrice?”
What the heck did that mean? Acelin made a mental note to ask once she and Patrice were alone.
“Now, if you ladies will allow me the privilege of escorting you?” For a man who’d spent the past decade doing who-knew-what with a bunch of other men, none of the royal polish had rubbed away.
Patrice stuffed her hand into the crook of his offered elbow before Acelin opened her mouth, robbing her of the opportunity to beg off. And it forced her to accept his offer or look ungrateful. She’d get her friend for this one.
The simple touch of her fingertips to his bare skin set off a chain of events, from her nipples to her clit.
Muscles bunched and flexed, teasing her palm, as they exited the room. Real muscles earned by hard work, not let’s-impress-the-ladies workouts on complicated machines. His scent overpowered her, a lethal combination of something expensive and his own natural being, fresh and outdoorsy and chock full of pheromones that called out to her.
A plan formed as his hip brushed against her. Maybe what she needed to do was sleep with the man, not get what she wanted, and put him behind her. Surely once she’d reduced him to the level of every other man she’d been with, this ridiculous attraction would dissipate. Then, she’d be able to spend the rest of the week concentrating on the important task of finding a husband.
Her step lightened as she regained control of her circumstances. Nolan gazed down at her, a puzzled gleam in his eyes. She simply smiled. No point in giving anything away until she’d launched her attack. When he escorted her back to her room, it would be time to spring the trap.