She wasn’t startled by the roar of the lion.
In fact, the gorgeous woman with creamy skin and dark hair looked pretty blasé. She didn’t scream or jerk backwards as the lion roared, his enormous mouth wide as the ferocious beast showed his teeth. When the roar was finished, the lion shook his massive mane and glared directly at the woman.
Anyone else would at least be impressed by the intense roar. Some might even jump backwards or possibly run away!
So why was this sexy, stunning woman simply standing along the edge of the elaborate lion area, staring back at the ferocious beast? Why was she so unconcerned?
Prince Tavon impatiently signaled for his overly cautious security guards to hold back as he slowly approached the woman. He couldn’t see much of her features with the ratty, floppy hat hiding her face, but the slim waist and perfectly round bottom in the loose cargo pants were enough to gain his attention. Maybe that was why the lion was roaring so loudly, trying to get her attention. Tavon chuckled as he continued to observe the staring match between the woman and the lion, amazed that the lion was losing the battle of wills.
Nor was the woman noticing Tavon either. Tavon almost laughed when he realized that he was actually in competition with the lion. Of all the outrageous…Tavon couldn’t believe he was trying to pull the woman’s attention away from an animal. And failing! He was used to women vying for his attention, not the other way around.
A new approach was called for, he thought as he walked towards the lion’s den. Thankfully, the ten foot moat and thirty foot wall separating the lions from the zoo visitors kept everyone safe. Still, the roar was pretty impressive.
The spring breeze lifted her dark hair, the soft tendrils dancing along her slender back as if laughing at him, taunting him. Tavon smiled mercilessly, but if anyone had passed by at that moment, they might translate his expression to one of pitiless wrath. In reality, he was amused and more-than-slightly challenged. His sister, Princess Sada, had always admonished him for appearing cold and heartless to the outside world. He didn’t care what the rest of the world thought of him. As Minister of Finance for Altair, he was in charge of ensuring the continued economic growth of his country and would do anything to achieve his goals, as long as they were within the laws of the country in which he was working. If he manipulated the rules to his advantage, then he didn’t care. He only cared about his family, the people of Altair and their continued prosperity.
And at the moment, gaining this woman’s attention.
His feelings definitely weren’t cold now. He was feeling a great many things, although he never allowed his heart to become involved in any way with the women that came though his life.
A breeze danced through the springtime warmth and her delicate, slender fingers lifted, holding the floppy hat on her head. His smile, barely a slight shifting of his lips, disappeared as new thoughts entered his mind. Ungentlemanly thoughts about what he’d like this woman to do with those lovely fingers. Instantly, his body reacted to the erotic images that unexpectedly popped into his mind and his expression turned…feral.
Oh, darling, you have no idea what you’re doing to me, do you? He almost laughed out loud as salacious things he wanted to do to the lovely woman swirled through his mind, before shaking his head, trying to banish the ungentlemanly thoughts. Unfortunately, the woman shifted slightly, just enough to draw his eyes away from her long, elegant fingers and down to her perky derriere. Any success at banishing those wicked thoughts was obliterated as his eyes observed her perfectly round peach of a bottom. Not small…oh, no. This woman’s derriere would be a handful. A perfectly round, amazingly tempting handful. She was… marvelous!
The silent challenge had been issued and he gladly accepted. She might not know that she’d issued a challenge, but he didn’t care. Tavon loved the chase. He loved the thrill of winning, be it in the boardroom or a lion’s den. He didn’t care. Tavon knew that he was imaginative and adept enough to win any challenge facing him.
Tavon casually stopped several feet away from the lovely lady, wanting a better look. No ring, he noted. Excellent. He didn’t have sex with married women, no matter how enticing.
And her profile, even shaded by that horrendous hat, was…stunning! The soft, lovely features were hidden by annoyingly large, dark sunglasses, but neither the glasses nor the saggy, rough-looking hat could diminish his prurient interest. He’d been following this woman for the past fifteen minutes, lured by the gentle, feminine sway of her full hips. The way she walked, her stance, and the way she’d meandered casually along the pathways of the zoo…it had caught his attention because it was so different from the way the other women moved. It was…regal, he finally thought. Whoever she was, someone had taught her to walk proud and tall, shoulders back, chest lifted, and spine straight. The effort screamed “stay away” as well as “come get me”.
The image was further enhanced by the dichotomy of her demeanor compared to her outfit. The faded, torn cargo pants, beaten up running shoes, the ragged hat pulled down low over her eyes, and the sleeveless shirt that showed off her strong, sexy arms…the image was incongruous.
His curiosity, not to mention his libido, had been captured by the mysterious, intriguing woman.
A gentleman would look away, or at least pull his eyes away from her slender waist and cute butt. Unfortunately, those gentlemanly instincts…they’d deserted him!
Now that he was really looking at her, the full breasts pressing against the thin, black material of her shirt and the elegant profile…even the determined jawline intrigued him. Her skin was tanned, creamy-looking and he noticed that she’d stuffed a great deal of hair underneath that hat.
She didn’t add up. There were too many inconsistencies.
That’s when it hit him…the incongruity of her figure, her stature versus her clothing…this was a woman in disguise. An amazingly beautiful woman in disguise, he corrected.
She was also eating those annoying frozen dots of ice cream that every child pleaded for during any outing. They were simply tiny balls of frozen ice cream and not even good ice cream, in his opinion. Just mediocre ice cream made into a debatable treat. His lovely woman scooped up another spoonful of the frozen dots, then cringed and he almost laughed out loud. Brain freeze, he thought.
She pushed away from the fence and casually passed the garbage can, tossing the remains of her cup into the trash. Then nonchalantly, as if she had all the time in the world, walked in the direction of the cheetahs. Good choice, he thought. He personally liked the cheetahs more than the lions. The lions might be the biggest attraction for the zoo because of their ferocious roar and the drama of their manes, but the cheetahs were much more interesting, in his opinion. Their speed alone was incredible. The huge feline could go from a standing position to more than sixty miles per hour in less than three seconds. That was about the same speed as his Porche!
Cheetahs were better hunters, catching about fifty percent of their prey, while lions were only successful about thirty percent of the time. Tavon felt he could relate to the cheetah more than the lion. Although, in this particular effort, he was going to be one hundred percent successful!
He followed her as casually as he could, silently warning his security team to hold back. He wanted a bit of privacy for this. Until he could figure her out, he doubted he’d be able to get her out of his mind. Mysteries had always intrigued him. That was one of the reasons he was so good at his job. As Minister of Finance, he thrived on discovering the mysteries of the economic world. He’d made billions over the years for his family’s interests, as well as for the Altair treasury, ensuring that the people of his country were well cared for, projects that needed to happen in the small and large towns had the funding they required, and the economy continued to thrive.
Women were another enticing mystery to him, one that he loved to investigate. Since they were such a delightful mystery, Tavon investigated their secrets on a regular basis.
His little sister, Sada, would not-so-teasingly define him as a cold-hearted predator, a man who went after a prize with single minded, terrorizing ferocity. Tavon hadn’t argued with the description because…well, it was true, although she described him with love. He was determined and merciless when it came to business, financial matters, and protecting Altair or his family. Sada might even say that he was pretty ferocious about her as well. But she was his little sister. For years, it had been only Jaffri and himself, then little Sada had come along, an unexpected and happy addition to their close-knit family.
Eyeing the woman, he vaguely wondered if Sada would ever wander around unprotected like this, and realized that she probably did. Shaking off the question, something he should talk with her about, he focused his energy on the woman. The intensity of his focus sharpened as he realized that the woman was wandering further away. It had been a long time since he’d been this interested in a woman, he realized.
He stopped and thought about that for a startling moment. When was the last time he’d been with a woman? With self-derisive clarity, he acknowledged that it had been a while! Business had been booming, but his sex life…? Yeah, there’d been a distinct lack of mysterious women in his life lately. Most of the women he’d met at the various social and official events for Altair were…well, their intentions were decidedly non-mysterious.
Had he grown jaded? Had he become immune to the lovely ladies that drifted through his life? The idea seemed impossible. After all, sex was a healthy way to pass the time during his travels, which sometimes lasted for months at a time.
Perhaps his heretofore-unrecognized abstinence was why this woman was so intriguing. He’d been so busy, flying around the world to different economic conferences and meetings with corporations, convincing them to bring their business to Altair, explaining the benefits of Altair’s highly educated workforce, the low cost of living, the large segments of land that could be developed…and he’d been without a woman for a while.
This titillating lady had been worth the wait though. She was startlingly beautiful and alluringly intriguing. Normally, he found one or the other attributes in the women he worked and interacted with. He’d never met someone with both components. Usually, women were blatant about their desires.
His eyes narrowed in suspicion as she headed around to the other side of the big cats area. He suspected she was leading him away from safety and alarms went off in his head, but he didn’t care. She was worth the risk. That cute nose and fascinatingly stubborn chin on the elegant profile, which contrasted with her sensuous figure…both were enough to lure him closer.
She vanished behind a butterfly bush that was just starting to leaf out with the warmer spring air. The butterfly bushes and the other scraggly landscaping contained within the walls of the cheetah enclosure were just thick enough to hide her whereabouts and he looked around, trying to see where she’d gone.
Hurrying down the asphalt pathway of the Smithsonian Zoological Park, referred to by locals as “The National Zoo”, he looked around. When he still couldn’t find her, Tavon whipped off his sunglasses, furious with himself for letting her best him.
“Damn!” he muttered. How could she have disappeared so easily?
Suddenly, his arm was twisted behind his back and the delicate, feminine scent of a woman hit him. The twisting wasn’t painful and he was certain that it was his mystery woman. He also knew that he could easily break away from her hold, should he need to. But since he could feel her full breasts pressed against his back, he decided to hold off. At least for the moment. He wanted to see where she might take this altercation. The fact that she’d slipped away from him, then snuck up behind him and was now trying to disable him made her even more appealing! Damn, he wanted this woman! The lust surged through him like a tidal wave.
“Why are you following me?” her pretty voice demanded. Well…he suspected that it would be pretty if she’d stop gritting her teeth. And maybe if she released his arm.
He turned slightly, trying to get a look at her close up. Unfortunately, she was still wearing the big sunglasses and ragged, floppy hat. Tavon was undeterred.
“You’re a beautiful woman. Why wouldn’t I follow you?” he asked, smiling even as she twisted his arm a bit higher. The pain was slight, but he pretended to cringe, acting as if she was genuinely hurting him. His guards noticed what was happening, but he lifted his hand slightly so that only his guards could see, indicating that they should stop. They hesitated, none of them sure what to do. Never before had they allowed their prince to be manhandled, but then again, never before had a woman endeavored to harm him. The ladies were usually tripping over themselves to get Tavon’s attention, so this situation was unprecedented. That included their prince signaling for them not to interfere. Someone was laying hands on their prince and he was…he demanded that they not stop her?
Tavon lifted his fingers again, reinforcing the silent signal to stay back, that he had the situation under control. Although he was careful not to allow his signal to be noticed by the lovely woman. Not in any way did he want this mysterious, daring woman to know that he could break her hold at any moment. But he didn’t want his guards to interfere. He was interested to see where she might take this. He was at least a foot taller than she was, and had more than a hundred pounds of muscle on her. From the way she was pressing against his back to maintain leverage against his arm, he could feel her softness, every one of her delicious curves against his hard back.
Tavon and his brother had trained with one of the US Navy SEALS. They had studied the tactics for hostage situations, had specialized in hand to hand combat and, during one attempted abduction recently, Tavon had subdued more than ten men who were intent on killing him in a most vicious manner. Their goal had been to send a message to their followers, but he’d disarmed and subdued every one of them, coming away with only a few scratches and a torn fingernail.
He could break her hold, although he was happy to allow her the illusion of being in control. At least until he had some answers, he corrected mentally.
He felt her fingers tighten on his wrist, shifting her weight and grip ever so slightly to gain a better hold. Smart woman, he thought. But he could also feel that she was still slightly off-balance. He could lean to the left and she’d fall, losing her grip.
“Because I don’t want to be followed, perhaps?” she offered, jerking his hand higher. “Leave me alone.”
He pressed back against her, relieving some of the pressure on his shoulder, and also gaining just enough movement to twist his hand, grabbing her around the waist in case she tried to push away from him and disappear again. He didn’t want that to happen. Not until he knew her name and where she hailed from. She might think their interaction was over once she released him, but he could not allow that to happen.
“Why the disguise?’ he asked, correctly guessing that she was about to release him and sprint away. He didn’t want to be released. Her ability to disappear from him and her subsequent attempt to disable him was even more fascinating.
“Who says I’m wearing a disguise?” she asked, the surprise clear in her voice, and he tried not to chuckle. He suspected that his amusement would only infuriate her, hindering his efforts to get to know her better.
He twisted again, catching sight of a smooth cheek and full, wide lips. Damn, she was even more beautiful up close! He was momentarily stunned by the softness of her skin, wondering what it would feel like. It took him several moments to remember that she’d asked him a question, then another pause to revive his brain enough to remember what she’d asked. Wearing. Disguise. Right. Why did he think she was wearing a disguise! “The huge sunglasses, the tattered clothing…they don’t match the way you hold yourself.”
She jerked his hand again, but he shifted so that he was in a better position for what he had planned next, although he continued to allow her the impression that she was still in control.
The lovely lady huffed a bit, obviously not agreeing with his assessment of her poise. “I’m walking through the zoo, enjoying a beautiful spring day!” she argued. “There’s nothing about me that is different from any other woman here.”
He chuckled, which caused her to tighten her hold further. “I disagree. You don’t fit in.” He shrugged slightly, almost as if he were accepting her mystery. Which he was, even though he was going to get to know all of her secrets. “You have an elegance about you, a regal stature. And yet, your clothes look like you stole them from a trash bin. The clothes and the way you walk and hold yourself are too different. I need to understand. I enjoy solving mysteries. You’re a mystery. I need to figure you out.”
There was a long silence while she digested this. “And what if I don’t want to be a puzzle for you?” She twisted his arm again, but Tavon was able to shift slightly so that she wasn’t in jeopardy of breaking his arm or pulling his shoulder out of the socket. The woman was stronger than she looked. The realization was startling…and an additional turn on.
Before this interaction became embarrassing, he suspected he should end it so they could move on to a more conciliatory conversation. One that was more conducive to his goal: getting her into bed and easing the aching lust that burned inside of him.
Decision made, he twisted, turning the tables on her. With a flick of his wrist, he spun her around and manacled her wrists in his hands, with her bottom pressed against his groin. “And you know how to fight. I like that,” he murmured in a deep, husky voice as her bottom revved up his body.
Something clattered to the ground and he looked around to see a small but possibly lethal knife on the ground. “Tsk tsk,” he chuckled. “Even more surprises. Why is a beautiful, spunky woman like you dressed in rags and carrying a wicked looking knife, walking around a massive zoo on a gorgeous, sunny afternoon?”
“Let me go!” she hissed furiously, viciously jerking her hands to try to elbow his ribs. But he only tightened his hold, being careful to not hurt her.
“I don’t think so,” he replied evenly and, with his chin, knocked her hat off her head. A tumble of silky black hair tumbled down around her delicate shoulders, the soft locks caressing his chin and cheek since he was so close, a few of them even catching on his beard and he realized that he was more turned on than he had been in a long, long time!
Mila couldn’t believe how fast this dangerous stranger had turned things around on her! She felt trapped and…good grief, he smelled amazing. And felt good!
When she realized what she was thinking, she stiffened with anger. The scent of a stranger was…unimportant! Especially when the stranger was holding her so tightly, she could barely move!
“Get off me, you brute!” she snapped, shoving back against his chest in an effort to break his surprisingly firm hold. But the man was strong! Oh and goodness, he was tall! She wasn’t abnormally short, but this guy’s chin was over her head. Nice!
When she realized where her mind was going, her whole body stiffened in horror. Nice? She thought it was nice that he was taller than she was? Where had her mind gone?
No! Not nice! He was holding her securely, trapping her arms and…okay, so he wasn’t hurting her, despite the fact that she’d tried to hurt him just a moment ago. What he didn’t realize was that the knife on the ground was broken. She didn’t like carrying a real knife around. It felt wrong. The fact that she was carrying a broken knife probably sounded stupid. Her father had repeatedly told her never to carry a weapon that she wasn’t prepared to use, but she simply couldn’t stomach the idea of hurting another human being. So far, the broken knife looked lethal enough to deter would-be threats, but she’d never had to actually use it. The look of it had scared people off in the past. It was just that this man was so much taller and…well, stronger! Probably a bit smarter than her other assailants too. Not that she’d tell her father about any of the men who had approached her in the past. No way! He’d put guards right back on her and she’d never have any freedom again!
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Mila thought quickly. “Sarah,” she announced, then waited tensely, wondering if he would believe her.
That deep, sexy chuckle sent a shiver of sharp awareness down her spine. “No, that’s a lie.” He loosened his hands, but only to spin her around to face him.
She glared up at him, finally getting a proper look at the man. He wasn’t traditionally handsome but there was an intensity about him that was….forbidding? Attractive? Interesting? She preferred interesting to the other two descriptions. Interesting seemed pleasantly benign. Although…no one would ever describe this man as pleasant. Or benign!
High cheekbones, hard jawline, and eyes that promised…something she couldn’t define. Not happiness or gentleness. She doubted that the man even knew how to spell those words. But…yes, there was something in his features, in his surprisingly blue eyes, that made her…aware. Hyper aware.
Of him? Of him as a man?
Yes. She was intensely aware of him as a strong, unrelentingly intense male. Raw, powerful masculinity shouted at her that he would never play the fool.
Since he was holding her still, Mila couldn’t get away. Not with his hands around her wrists and his hips pressing her against the metal fence behind her. She could also feel his muscles, his hard chest and…more! Good grief…a lot more!
“What’s a beautiful woman like you doing trying to subdue a big guy like me?” he asked, but it seemed as if he were asking the question to himself and not really expecting an answer from her. So she tried to jerk her hands free.
“Not so fast, pretty one,” he teased, taking her hands and easily pulling them behind her, holding them with one hand while he arrogantly lifted her sunglasses. “Yeah, just as I suspected.” And he started to shake his head.
Mila was shaking with fury, which doubled when he seemed disappointed after looking into her eyes. “What’s wrong now?”
“Your eyes,” he commented, still shaking his head.
She reared back slightly, wanting to slam her knee into his groin. Obviously, he’d been anticipating that move because his hips pressed more firmly against her stomach, so she couldn’t quite reach. Smart man, she thought. The best she could do was kick the back of his knees with her heel, but that would take a bit more finesse than she had at the moment. If he would stop touching her…then maybe she could get a bit of force behind her anger. Right now, she felt like a…well, like a silly piece of fluff.
She wasn’t fluff! Even worse, she didn’t like men who caused her to feel like fluff. She was a strong, independent woman who was making significant strides in her country towards making women’s lives better! How dare this man make her feel…silly!
But staring up at him, feeling the powerful strength pulsing in his body, Mila knew that there was no way she could overpower him. No, getting away from him would require delicate finesse and creative subterfuge instead of brute force.
Determined to win this battle of wills, she relaxed her body ever so slightly, trying to convey a different tact. “Listen, we got off on the wrong foot,” she began, trying to smile and bring all of her negotiating skills to bear on this obnoxious man. “Why don’t you release me and we can start over?”
He laughed, and Mila was floored at how incredible his laugh was. He didn’t just chuckle with an irritating sound. No, his laugh was full bodied, rich and…sexy as hell!
When his laughter died down again, he looked down at her, his look admiring, which also made her uncomfortable. “Your eyes are incredible, do you know that?”
She blinked owlishly. He liked her eyes? But…he’d just implied that her eyes weren’t any good. He’d shaken his head when he’d taken off her sunglasses! She glared up at him. “What game are you playing, mister?”
“Ah, Sarah, you’re such an interestingly feisty woman,” he purred, his stance almost casual except that he was still holding her wrists. “And I don’t play games. At least, not games I can’t win.”
She shrugged, not mollified by his pretty speech. This stranger was still holding her hands behind her back, keeping her in place. And he’d been following her. Never a good sign in a man.
Considering her options…brute force was out since he was significantly stronger, and he’d already eliminated the few dirty moves she knew how to use effectively…that left trickery. “Okay, so you’re a wimp. What does that have to do with me?”
That brought forth another chuckle, a deep, sexy sound that she liked way more than she should.
“Why do you think I’m a wimp?”
Mila tilted her head to the right slightly, shrugging one shoulder. “Because you only play games you can win. Never challenged, are you? That’s a shame. I’ve found that winning in life is best when confronted by a worthy adversary. Makes the triumph that much sweeter.”
He chuckled, lowering his head until their lips were almost touching. “Are you saying that you’d like me as an adversary?”
She pulled back, but because of their positions, pulling her head back meant that her hips were pressed more intimately into his groin. And she could feel every inch of him! A bit breathless, she shook her head. “No. I don’t think you’d be a strong enough adversary.”
His grin widened. “I think I’d like the challenge, though.”