A note from Empi:
We're still in editing, so this may be slightly different from the final version that releases on 26 November (but it's pretty close!)
The Illegitimate Prince
New Year’s Eve, December 2019
“You should have been a prince.”
Kalahari “Kal” Asanti stilled at the words—words so similar to those his mother had uttered on several occasions; words he’d learnt at an early age to dismiss as the romanticism of a woman who, despite the hand life had dealt her, had still believed in fairy tales. Unfortunately for his Mamaa, she didn’t get the happily-ever-after she’d never stopped believing in. Even on her death bed when the irrefutable truth laid bare the lie she’d stubbornly clung to all these years, she’d played her final card and revealed a secret she should have taken to her grave.
The truth had unleashed venom into Kal’s heart and set him on a path of vengeance. Instead of the tearful reunion she’d hoped for, his mother had ensured the downfall of the man she claimed to love.
She had one thing right, though. He was going to meet the Saene family of the kingdom of Bagumi—the first step in his plan to destroy the man he should have called father. King Ibrahim Aziz Saene.
Soft footsteps behind reminded him he wasn’t alone. The Zanzibar Convention Centre was brimming with thousands of guests attending the annual Children’s Foundation Gala, one of the biggest charity events in Africa. Tickets were pegged at a thousand US dollars each, with the proceeds going to several charities across the continent. Like most such events, however, many attendees used it for networking, some to brag about their altruistic deeds and others for the opportunity to rub shoulders with the rich and mighty.
Normally, he avoided such pomp and pageantry. The way he saw it, there had to be something fundamentally wrong with making a big show of one’s good deeds. He preferred to make anonymous donations to many of the causes he supported. He’d broken protocol this time for one reason only. To observe the enemy.
As luck would have it, King Ibrahim was the guest of honour this year, a privilege which came with the price tag of a hefty ‘donation’—a gimmick undoubtedly meant to garner some international media attention. An hour into the event, neither the king nor a representative had made an appearance. His absence hadn’t slowed down the festivities.
Finding the glitz and glamour strenuous, Kal had stolen out of the massive ballroom and taken refuge on one of several balconies. As it turned out, his escape from the flashlights and idle conversation hadn’t gone unnoticed.
He gritted his teeth, bringing his mind back to the present and the person who’d interrupted his solitude. The last thing he needed was the company of a stargazing woman who’d spent a thousand dollars in hopes of catching the eye of a prince. Someone ought to save her from herself and rip the plaster off that fantasy. He was as good a candidate as any. After all, he might be the son of a king, but he wasn’t Prince Charming. The sooner he made that clear and got rid of her, the better.
“What makes you think I’m not royalty?” He turned, lips pursed to dish out some tough love, yet the words didn’t form.
He found himself entranced by the way the lights from the ballroom played against every rounded curve, awakening something primitive in him. She looked to be about five-foot-six, discounting the extra height afforded by her shoes. Her face remained shrouded in the dimness of the balcony.
Intrigued, he knew he’d pay any price to see what she looked like. She stepped forward and suddenly her face was bathed in a beam of light slicing through the darkness from … he didn’t care to check where.
She held him captive with the most exquisite eyes he’d ever seen. An intense brown, like smoked honey, with a sparkle of gold in the left one where the light reflected off it. Their radiance would have laid his soul bare if he hadn’t been standing in the shadows. With her entire face concealed behind an elaborate tattoo of ethnic make-up designed to give the appearance of a veil, she was mystery personified. She made easy prey of him as desire flared in his being with a fierceness that challenged reason. Her effect didn’t end at the physical, though. It ran deeper, reached him on an instinctive and spiritual level. Like a soul mate.
He shook away the errant thought, hoping she hadn’t sensed his momentary confusion.
“For one,” she started, “you’re hiding out here instead of basking in the limelight.”
He quirked a brow. Hiding?
Her lush lips curved up, revealing an even row of pearly whites invoking a vision of her nibbling on his earlobe. Somehow, he knew her teeth on his skin would be …
He snapped out of the reverie, forcing his mind to focus. Clearly his unintended celibacy—the result of focusing too intently on revenge—needed to be rectified. How long had it been? Six months? More?
She mocked him with a chuckle. “I saw you inside. You were the picture of boredom.”
Now he realised it wasn’t her first remark that had snagged his attention, but rather her voice. It had an ethereal quality that seeped through him and did the impossible. He’d always felt restless, had often grappled with a compulsion to move, to do, to be on alert. When she’d spoken, the ever-present static in his mind quietened. Her voice had stilled the storm within him. The sudden calm slammed into him with such force he nearly doubled over at the impact. By God. What was this?
He took in a deep breath, quelling the melée of shock and euphoria, told himself this couldn’t possibly be real. Perhaps his thoughts of vengeance had tripped his senses, lured him into a trap of his own emotions. He never relied on sentiment to make decisions in any facet of his life—especially when it came to bedding a woman. Whoa! When did he decide he was going to sleep with her?
He ignored the taunt.
She hadn’t taken another step forward as if intentionally putting herself on display for his pleasure. His gaze snagged on her elaborate ‘veil.’ Masks were popular at the gala. She hadn’t gone for the norm though, something she could simply take off. The tribal undertones made it even more arresting, made her more captivating. A jewel hiding in plain sight.
Who was this vision in a piece of elegance that delicately cupped breasts which would fit perfectly in his hands? His eyes narrowed, lingering. No. They’d spill over just enough to entice his lips to them. Her waist, covered entirely with layers of stringed gemstones, invited his touch. He balled his hands into fists of resistance.
While he enjoyed the visual excursion she presented, he’d much rather she were displayed for his viewing in full naked glory, so he could adore her curves as they were clearly meant to be. What would she do if he touched her? What if emboldened, he pulled her forward, captured her full lower lip in his teeth and nibbled? Would she offer him her tongue? Wrap her arms around him? Invite him to discover the treasures concealed beneath her clothes?
Merde! He reminded himself of the futility of his imaginings. Her first statement made it clear she sought a prince. Bile rose up his throat—a testament to the extent of his distaste for the notion.
“I’m not a prince and I don’t desire to be one. You might want to move along.”
She raised a hand and fluttered her fingers in a queenlike fashion. The title of queen would certainly suit her. She possessed the looks, the grace and … that extra something many women searched for but most never found.
“If I were looking for a prince, I’d be inside,” she said. “I came out here to find you.”
A giddy sensation exploded within him, chasing away the darkness engulfing him at the idea of her and prince charming together. However, a sliver of suspicion rooted him to the ground.
As a man on a mission that could bring down an entire nation, he couldn’t take anything for granted. He’d been discreet in his reconnaissance of King Ibrahim and the Kingdom of Bagumi. As a successful financier specialising in corporate takeovers, discretion counted for everything. He’d taken all necessary precautions, but now he wondered if he’d allowed his hatred for the man to affect his focus. Had he failed to cover his tracks as well as he’d thought?
He needed to distract her. Experience told him of one sure way to achieve it. Seduction. He stepped out of the shadows, stopping close enough that he could reach out and touch her. Satisfaction brewed and swelled as he noted her sharp intake of breath.
“You look far too innocent to utter such words.”
Her gaze dropped, colliding with his chest. Her lips parted as her focus hastened back up. Instead of the apprehension he’d expected, desire stared back at him. His pulse responded with exuberance. For the first time tonight, he began to see the bare-chested warrior costume his stylist had foisted on him as a plus.
She blinked, visibly regaining composure. “I didn’t know innocence could be judged by sight.”
Sassy. He’d give her that.
“There’s a lot I can discern at a glance.”
“You sound confident.”
“I have no reason not to be.”
“Maybe innocence is part of my act.”
He searched her eyes. They were open, guileless—like someone who had nothing to hide.
He shook his head in absolute conviction. “Except it’s not. I see it in your face, your expression … your persona. You couldn’t fake it if you wanted to.”
The moment he finished speaking, the desire she’d swept to the back burner surged back into her eyes, socked him in the chest. It revealed exactly what context she’d taken his words. In seconds, his mind went right there with her.
“Would it bother you?” she asked in a soft almost hesitant voice.
“Innocence is a quality easily affected by many women.” He paused, unable to prevent his gaze from roving over her as less-than-virtuous thoughts saturated his mind. “The true kind is refreshing.”
“Now I’m sure you’re no prince. Their education doesn’t include flattery.”
He caught a whiff of her scent—something wild yet feminine. It taunted every masculine cell in his body, but he didn’t want to scare her with his considerably bigger stature. He held her gaze.
“I don’t flatter, Honey Eyes. I may flirt with danger occasionally, tempt fate even, but flattery isn’t in my nature.”
“Danger?” She laughed, an incredibly beautiful sound, ensnaring him like a siren’s song. “Do I look dangerous?”
“Said the splinter to the lion. I’d tread carefully if I were you.”
“If I’m the splinter, then perhaps it’s you who should be careful.”
He allowed a smile. “I consider myself forewarned.”
Their gazes locked. Heat flared between them. This time when she blinked, she couldn’t sweep away her desire. Flirting had brought them to a crossroads. Turn right to keep going; left to retreat. He waited for her to make the call, half-expecting her to take Door Number Two—seek refuge in more innocent banter or invent an excuse to return to the party. Safety in numbers and all.
“I’ve been treading carefully my whole life,” she surprised him by saying. “Tonight, I walk on the wild side.”
He laughed softly. Maybe not so innocent, after all.
“The wild side, hm? I can take you there, my splinter, if that’s what you want.”
By now he was certain she had no link to King Ibrahim. His intelligence team would already have alerted him. If word had somehow reached the king of Bagumi about Kal’s investigations, it would seem he’d picked the one person alive who could momentarily shift his focus.
“Take me there, Warrior.” Her sweet command, though whispered, drowned out every other sound.
He extended a hand. “Come.”
She stared at his proffered invitation, indecision warring with desire in her eyes. Their relative sizes occurred to him anew. At six-three, he towered over her by nearly a foot. His muscular build and warrior costume—though overly embellished—probably didn’t help. The arm guard with metallic tentacles snaking up to form a cuff around his biceps, already a snug fit, suddenly seemed to be cutting off his blood supply. A faux leopard skin cape draped over his other arm provided the only covering for his upper body. Even the shendyt didn’t make him look any less … manly, as his brother had put it.
Then again, she’d been the one to encroach on his privacy. She didn’t get to look at him as if he were a menace. He posed no threat. Unless she turned out to have an agenda. In which case, she—and whoever sent her—would discover the most dangerous predators struck without warning and inflicted deadly bites. He vacated the thought, preferring to return to the exhilaration of bantering with her.
She snapped up her head, her eyes colliding with his. For the briefest of seconds, he witnessed a depth of desire he hadn’t expected without having even touched her yet. He saw something else. Lust. Pure and unbridled, as if it had been brewed in the cauldrons of Eros.
“It isn’t hesitation if I already know what I want.”
She placed her hand in his. The contact, a spark of electricity, compelled his fingers to close around her hand instead of the instinct to pull away as if from danger. Yielding to the force which had led them to this point, he tugged her into his arms, draping her left arm over his shoulder.
As her supple curves melded against him, she tilted her head fully in a natural motion to meet his gaze. Her lips parted as though she’d resorted to breathing out of her mouth. They beckoned, but he resisted the urge to dip his head for a taste, knowing the build-up of anticipation would make the eventual surrender more satisfying. If it didn’t kill him first.
“Dance with me,” he said.
He swayed her sideways, the beginning of a waltz. The crystal beads surrounding her waist rubbed against his lower abdomen, causing erotic friction. If he didn’t start a conversation to get his mind off how good it felt, he’d be hoisting her on his shoulder and hauling her off to the nearest bed.
“What do I call you?” he asked.
“No names,” she whispered in a tone laced with urgency.
He raised a brow, curiosity aroused. He tempered it down, deciding against probing.
“Too bad. My name would sound beautiful on your lips.”
No matter how much she affected him, this would unfortunately be a one-time deal. After tonight, he’d be embarking on a dangerous mission, one which couldn’t accommodate the entanglements of a woman awaiting his return. It didn’t keep him from wondering at her reasons for wanting to hide her identity.