Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3 (2 page)

BOOK: Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3
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He couldn’t imagine Nicki old, however. He could never get past the woman’s bright laughter and flashing eyes…nor the way she danced on his every last nerve, deliberately flaunting any rule she encountered.

“Yeah, well, you weren’t trying to help me either,” Nicki scoffed, flinging off the last of the net from her upper body. Her legs remained trapped by the trailing edge of the net caught beneath him, but she sank back on the small dune, apparently content to remain in the sun. A tightness in his gut he hadn’t realized he’d been holding eased.

As he was about to ask again if she was hurt, Nicki made a face. “You know, if you want to kiss me so badly, you don’t have to throw a net on me. You could just ask.”

Stefan didn’t react to her taunt. Nicki Clark spoke with the offhand assurance of a woman who knew that men didn’t find her sensually alluring so much as startlingly attractive, her bold, fervent grasp on life so shocking and alive that it took most people by surprise. She used the reaction she caused as a shield, he suspected. But a shield from what?

And the woman
was
pretty, by any standards. With her burnished red hair, currently tangled in a sand-caked ponytail, her green eyes and fresh, open face, she could—and had—turned heads both in the city and inside the palace. He’d watched others react to her, men and women alike naturally gravitating to her sunny demeanor and smiling at her brashness. Even the older, more established officials had unbent around her, in the way one did with someone who would be leaving soon. Nicki Clark didn’t fit, but you found yourself wishing she could.

She eyed him. “See? You’re thinking about it. Probably should get it over with.” She settled back into the sand, her eyes drifting shut as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Again.”

Her own skin flushed with the last word, and he found himself edging closer, despite the hard control with which he willed to his body not to respond. He had kissed Nicki once, in the palace pool. She’d been determined to beat him in a lap endurance test, and he’d broken first, knowing he was expected in the throne room of the palace. She’d surged out of the water with such delighted enthusiasm that he hadn’t thought, simply grabbed her and kissed her hard.

And she, as usual, had given as good as she’d gotten, leaning into the kiss with a passion that shouldn’t have surprised him, but somehow did.

Then she’d laughed it off as she laughed everything off, and he’d been left feeling…slightly uncertain.

And he never felt uncertain.

It was that memory of uncertainty that urged him forward now. As his shadow fell over Nicki’s face, her smug expression faltered—not a lot, but enough for him to know he’d gotten her attention.

“You want me to kiss you?” he murmured. Her breath hitched—and the resulting surge of adrenaline shot through his body, priming him for action. Nicki Clark was like a lit fuse. He didn’t know when it would spark out of control, but he wanted to be the one starting the fireworks.

That was dangerous, and stupid.

And so was he, when she was around.

“I have to say, I enjoyed feeling your body up against mine when you kissed me in the pool,” he continued, watching the stain of a blush creep up her face. “You surprised me then.”

He could tell the moment she lost her nerve. Her eyes flashed open and she gave him a big smile, as if the entire conversation were a joke she was wrapping up.

“I’m a surprising girl,” she said, angling her head away from him to peer down at her legs. “I’m pretty sure I’m also going to be a crippled girl if you don’t get these nets off me though. I’m about to lose circulation.”

He moved enough to free her legs, but as she scooted backward out of the cocoon of netting, he caught her hand. The movement startled her so much that she let him turn her wrist to his mouth. Holding her hand firmly in his grip, he bent forward and pressed his lips against her inner wrist. Her pulse was jumping again there, and there was no mistaking the quick intake of breath as Nicki inhaled, her entire body going still.

“You taste like sunshine,” he murmured against her skin, and he didn’t mistake the shudder that rippled through her. “I haven’t tasted sunshine in some time, I’m afraid.”

“I—”

He lifted his head. Nicki’s eyes had widened, her mouth soft and inviting, her skin flushed.

“I want to taste more of it, if you don’t mind.”

Not waiting for her to counter, he leaned forward and brushed her lips with his.

Chapter Two

Nicki’s head felt too light and her legs too heavy as Stefan deepened the kiss, her body strangely unsteady as he kept the grip on her right hand and pulled her close. She had kissed him, sure, but it had been more to scare the idiot off, not egg him on.

But this…

She didn’t want to scare him off from this. Not quite yet.

And Stefan seemed on board with that plan, apparently oblivious to the fact that they were on a public beach in front of God, the world, and everyone. Nicki fought for sanity, but all she wanted to do was keep going, keep pushing, to see how far they could take this moment, how far the very proper diplomat would be willing to go. Kristos and Emmaline had met on a beach, after all, but while they’d had to be circumspect because of his royal stature, Stefan didn’t have those restrictions. He was royalty, sure, but he wasn’t…

“I think you’re thinking too much,” he murmured as Nicki caught her breath. One of Stefan’s hands had snaked around her back, and he pressed against her. The heavy muscles of his chest against her breasts her made her nipples go hard and alert despite the thick fabric of her jog bra. She’d dressed for running, not seduction, and the result was a curiously muted and wholly infuriating sensation, her body demanding more….more. Whatever Stefan would be willing to give. Which was impossible and stupid and pointless and yet—

Screw it.

Angling her face toward him, Nicki surrendered.

Stefan met her more than halfway. His mouth was hard and firm against hers, his hands tightening to pull her close, despite the sand and sweat caking her skin, despite the tangle of nets around their feet. Her heart thudded heavily in her chest, but not too fast, not too hard, and she groaned with very real relief against his mouth. Stefan tasted of salt and heat and she wanted to wrap herself in the moment and hold it tight, a barrier against the outside world.

Nicki lifted both hands to his shoulders, pulling herself closer to him. He was a fair amount bigger than she was, but their bodies fit together perfectly. His chest and abs were hard, the thin fabric of his running shirt pressed tightly against them and leaving nothing to the imagination. As he arched her back and moved his mouth from her lips to her cheek to her chin, he pulled her over on top of him and rolled to his back. Suddenly she was straddling his lap, his body rock hard, her knees sinking down into the sand alongside his hips as his hands locked into place. Stefan’s eyes were dark, intent, and they fixed on her with unmistakable need.

“Kiss me again,” he rasped.

She leaned down into him, and for one precious moment she poured everything she had into that kiss. All her wants, needs, desires, fears—all the things Stefan knew nothing about, could never know anything about. For that beautiful second, suspended in time, she was as free as she’d ever been in her adult life, ever since she’d learned that life could be taken from her at any moment, ever since—

Stefan jerked himself away from her like a man who’d been ripped free of an oxygen tank, his eyes startled as he re-focused on her.

“What?” Nicki said. “You didn’t want to be kissed back?”

He stared at her, his expression becoming one of intrigue…and desire. “I think, Nicki Clark, you turn everything into a competition. It makes me wonder what else beyond kissing I should be training for.”

The unexpected heat in Stefan’s words made her blink—but not as much as the shift of movement behind him. On the edge of the beach, wavering in the heat so as almost to appear a mirage, was a man walking toward them. Not one man, either, but many of them. “Um, are you in trouble or something?”

Stefan stiffened without turning around. “No,” he said crisply. “There is nothing scheduled this morning, and my itinerary was logged.”

She lifted her brows. “Your itinerary included making out with me on the beach?”

HIs smile was back for a moment. “It should have, but no. I advised that I was going to search for you. Clearly, I was successful.” He’d moved back far enough that she could scoot completely off the netting, and she folded up the strands in as neat a packet as she could manage while he watched her.

“They could be coming for you,” he said.

Nicki snorted. “Not hardly.” She said the words without heat, but she knew her place among her friends. She was the fun adventure-girl sidekick, a little difficult for the rest of them to figure out, with their careful plans for the future—never mind that for two of them so far, those careful plans were falling to pieces around them. But either way, she wasn’t the one that people would be coming for, unless…

She glanced up with sudden interest. Just a few days earlier, she’d offered her services to the royal family in one highly specific way, a way that meant more to her than any of them realized. She’d never thought they’d take her serious but…

She cleared her throat, going for casual. “You don’t suppose they found something new about Ari, do you? Maybe where his plane landed in Turkey?”

Predictably, all of Stefan’s good cheer fell away from him like an avalanche. Prince Aristotle Andris had crashed his small plane a year earlier, somewhere over the Aegean Sea. The family had been in mourning ever since—until recent new evidence pointed them toward a coastal town in Turkey…a coastal town that Nicki, of all people, knew well. Alaçati, Turkey was host to an international windsurfing competition, and she’d competed there the previous summer. It was a thin connection, and in truth she didn’t know how she could truly help—yet. But she wanted to help.

Needed to.

Stefan’s face shuttered. He had no interest in accepting her aid, he’d made that abundantly clear. “Then they would definitely not be coming for you.”

He rolled to his feet and held out a hand, which she ignored as she pulled herself to her feet as well, dusting the sand off her legs. Somehow Stefan had managed to thrash around without marring a single hair on his head or dirtying his spandex with so much as a grain of sand. It almost made her want to push him down into the dune.

Instead he turned smartly and began walking back toward the approaching men, and Nicki squinted into the sun and followed behind him. She knew the tall, slender man in the center, his face impassive as he stopped, allowing them to come to him. Cyril Gerou was the royal family’s chief advisor, with ties to the military and communications and probably every other arm of royal rule in the tiny country. He was a good man, she supposed, but he suffered from a perennial case of the grumpies, which Stefan seemed to catch whenever he was within ten feet of the guy. Like now.

“Sir.” Stefan nodded as Cyril bowed to Nicki. “Is anything wrong?”

Cyril shook his head. “We weren’t sending a search party out, I assure you. The men are about to go on maneuvers, and I decided to accompany them. When you were spotted, I thought it would be a good time to discuss developments. My apologies,” he turned to Nicki. “I didn’t know you were with the ambassador.”

Yeah, well, that’s because the ambassador was mashed up against my face.
“No worries. I was leaving for a jog anyway when Stefan and I ran into each other. I can let you guys talk?”

“Where are you going?” Stefan’s words were too sharp, and she pivoted toward him, gratified to see the warring emotions flit across his face for a moment. He needed to get debriefed or whatever the term was, but he also didn’t want her out of his sight. His sight or his arms—though maybe, for him, they were both the same thing.

That thought made her stand a little straighter. Had his kiss been something more than simple lust? Maybe some sort of weird move to control her or keep her in place? It was exactly the kind of high-handed move Stefan would enjoy, and irritation riffled through her.

She hooked a thumb over her shoulder. “One of the hotels is setting up their kayaks and boogie boards. I’m going to go work on that. You guys have a good time.”

“Don’t leave the beach,” Stefan said, the words more an order than a suggestion.

“Sure thing,” Nicki waved.
Not.
“I’ll see you later.”

She stamped off through the sand, aware that Stefan was watching her. Her heart had quieted finally, and she breathed a sigh of relief for that. The true condition of her heart was a complete unknown, though she definitely had dizzy spells and migraines, which were problematic enough. She’d been prescribed beta blockers for the migraines, and despite her disdain for pills she’d continued taking them, hoping they’d keep any worse heart issues at bay.

Which was silly, really. Beta blockers wouldn’t fix her heart if what she really feared was true. Her brother and father had been diagnosed with familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy…basically, their heart muscle was thick and inefficient, slowing down the flow of blood out of the heart. Her father had had a devastating heart attack five years earlier, and lived in fear of having another one. Her brother, once he’d been diagnosed, had lived in fear, too. Neither one of them had done anything active since.

Nicki had been tested…once. But she hadn’t gone back. She couldn’t live in constant fear. She wouldn’t live in constant fear.

Still, any time her heart skittered out of control she knew was facing a potentially deadly risk, and she needed to watch that. And there was no denying that whenever Stefan got close her heart definitely did kick up a few notches, and not in a comfortable way. He made her feel out of sorts, defensive and aggressive at once, and she wasn’t used to anyone making her feel that way, especially not a guy. Especially not a guy who people called “ambassador” with a straight face. That wasn’t the kind of man Nicki had ever attracted.

BOOK: Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3
3.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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