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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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!
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?
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.
“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!
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?”
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.”
“Of subduing me?” she asked. Now why did that idea make her feel all soft and excited?
He smiled and the look made her insides tighten. “All in good time, but…” he paused, his free hand coming up to caress her cheek as he tucked her hair behind her ear. “How about if we talk and get to know one another first?”
She was so flustered by his touch, she wasn’t exactly sure what to say, how to respond.
“Too difficult?” he teased, winking cheekily at her.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped, trying once again to pull her hands free.
Turning her head to the side, she tried to get more oxygen into her lungs, but every time she tried, the air was filled with the spicy scent of his after-shave. It was…intoxicating. Yep, that was the only word that fit.
His eyes widened slightly. “What’s wrong with winking?”
He tilted his head slightly, almost as if he were genuinely listening to her. “Really? I’ve never heard that from anyone else.”
She rolled her eyes, trying diligently to not laugh at him. He seemed so genuine, but there was just something about him that was so…primal…that his expression was…okay, it was charming! Not that she was going to admit it to him though. Nope, the man had a big enough ego.
“Yes. Wink at your daughter, not at grown women.”
His head tilted slightly to the side, almost as if he were genuinely listening to her. “Is that a rule?”
She sighed. “Let go of my hands. They’re going numb. And yes, it is a rule.”
She thought about it for a moment, then grinned, unaware of the mischievous light in her eyes. “You want the secret rules all women know about?”
His eyes widened as if she’d genuinely surprised him. “Secret rules?” He pulled back a bit. “There are no secret rules.” His voice sounded firm, as if he didn’t believe her, but there was a not-entirely-hidden curiosity in his crystal blue eyes. Mila knew she had him hooked. Now if he’d let go of her wrists, she could…Mila actually had no idea what she might do now. The man didn’t seem to be a threat, but there was just something about him that irritated her. And intrigued her. Perhaps it was his arrogance, but he had overpowered her and that just begged for retribution. But then there was also his soft, sexy laughter and charming banter which…wasn’t annoying.
She shrugged slightly. “Okay, fine. You’re right. There aren’t any secret rules,” she replied, acting as if his comment was ridiculously naïve.
A moment later, she knew that she’d gotten to him. He quickly released her wrists but didn’t step away. “Okay, what are the rules?”
He sighed. “What’s your real name?” He glared at her, interrupting as he said, “I’m not calling you Sarah. You don’t look like a Sarah, so think up another name.”
She thought for a moment, trying to come up with a believable lie. She couldn’t tell him her real name, because that would be dangerous. “Mila” was just different enough that he might recognize the name and then connect her name to her country. Her features were distinctive enough that it wouldn’t be a hard connection to make. It wasn’t that she was in hiding, but Mila didn’t like her privacy invaded. She’d done a good job of avoiding detection so far this afternoon, she didn’t want to blow it now.
He threw back his head and laughed, shaking his head when he finally looked back down at her. “Fair enough,” he finally agreed.
She wanted to step away from him, more aware of him now that he was laughing. There was just something about a man who could laugh and she felt as if this man didn’t laugh very often. When she’d spotted him initially, he’d looked cold, hard, and mean. Angry almost. Seeing him like this, relaxed and laughing, it sent strange tingles throughout her body. She wanted to reach up and touch his jaw, to soothe the tension in his shoulders.
Stuffing her hands into her pockets so she couldn’t do either, she waited while he thought through the options. “How about if I call you Delilah?”
“Ah! I’m close, aren’t I?” he teased.
She pushed at his shoulders, relieved when he gave her a bit of space. “No. Not close at all,” she lied.
He took her hand as he bent down to retrieve her knife, handing it back to her. “If you say so, Delilah.” There was a mocking tone to his voice as he said that name and she smirked, enjoying being a mystery.
“No,” he said flatly.
She lifted her eyebrows. “No…what?”
“No, you wouldn’t be able to outrun me,” he explained, tightening his hand around hers ever so slightly.
He shrugged. “You don’t think I’m just a bum who roams around the area looking for lovely women to pick up?”
She laughed at that. “No. You’re not a bum.” His clothes alone spoke of wealth. But other than the excellent material and tailoring, there was an aura of authority that surrounded this man. He was in charge. Of what, she wasn’t really sure. But yes, he was a man used to being in control. He was powerful and wealthy and Mila suspected that he rarely took a day off to wander around a zoo.
“Perhaps I’m an overworked accountant who needed to decompress after a stressful day of counting beans.”
She rolled her eyes, still trying to subtly extricate her fingers from his grasp, although, she wasn’t putting her whole heart into the effort. “Okay, so we’re both trying to hide our identities. What’s your name?” Now that this man wasn’t trying to stalk her or holding her, her fear had subsided and she could see his natural charm. Although, she also detected an edge of steel hidden amidst his charming words and attitude.
He laughed softly, a rich, startlingly sexy sound. Mila tried to ignore the bubbly sensation in her stomach.
She looked up at him, slanting her eyes slightly as she considered her options. Once again, Mila was unaware of the glint of excitement in her eyes, giving him fair warning that he needed to brace himself for whatever she might say next. “You’re a Harry.” Now, why was she enjoying herself all of a sudden?
He pulled back, his free hand moving to his chest. “Do I really look like a Harry to you?”
“What’s wrong with Harry? Prince Harry is a very handsome man!”
He rolled his eyes. “Harry it is.” He pulled her towards the right. “And we’re going down the bear trail now.”
He took her hand and gently tugged her in the opposite direction. “No. The pandas are always crowded. And boring. They don’t do anything except eat and poop. Nothing a lady should witness.”
She laughed at his outrageous comment. Not only was he wrong, the pandas were cute and adorable, but Mila had never heard anyone use the word “poop” in her presence before. Being a royal princess, she knew that there were words that were never spoken or discussed in polite company. This man, with the fascinating eyes and the arrogance that spoke of a man used to getting his own way, was delightfully irreverent. Almost irreverent enough for her to dismiss their horrible introduction. Almost, she cautioned.
He had been stalking her! And now he expected her to go with him?
And yet, she couldn’t ignore how drawn she was to him. “I’m a lady though?”
He looked down at her and nodded. “Oh, you’re definitely a lady. Which might be a problem.”
“A problem?” She really shouldn’t laugh at him. She should be trying to figure out how to get away from him. So, why was she heading away from the pandas? At least it was downhill, she thought. She was already a bit breathless from the conversation. She didn’t need to walk up a relatively steep hill towards the pandas too.
“Yes. A problem.”
She waited for him to elaborate, but when he only led her towards the bat house, offering bits of bat trivia as they walked, she knew he wasn’t going to explain why her being a lady could be a problem.
Peeking at his profile, Mila could tell that he was dangerous, although not a current a physical threat. But she couldn’t put her finger on how he was dangerous. And she was still walking with him, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Perhaps it was because he’d given the knife back? The very knife that she’d been threatening him with? Or maybe it was because he knew the most amazing facts about the animals. Some were interesting and others made her laugh at the outrageousness.
Whatever the reason, she found herself enjoying her time with this stranger more than she had in a long time.
For the rest of the afternoon, they wandered through the zoo, talking about the different animals and various ways the zoo keepers helped keep the animals’ minds active. She loved the orangutans that climbed across the wire near the gorilla house. They looked down on the crowds below as if the people were simply curious ants.
Mila was surprised at how her impression of this man had shifted in such a short time period. Over the course of the afternoon, he’d shifted from a threat, to an arrogant jerk, to a man who made her laugh. Not to mention, he was a veritable font of interesting factoids as well. He could cite the most random details about an animal and then look down at her, almost as if daring her to challenge his knowledge. A couple of times, she didn’t believe him and pulled out her phone, looking up the fact on the Internet. Unfortunately, he was correct every time. Both times she’d challenged his data and discovered he was right, she looked up to find his dark eyebrow lifted, his expression clear that he was waiting for her to tell him he was right. When she simply started walking again, he would throw his arm around her shoulders, chuckling as he pulled her closer.
Since those two times were very disturbing, leaving her flustered and confused for several moments, she stopped challenging his knowledge, simply accepting what he told her as the truth, although a few times, she mentally noted several facts to look up later.
She shivered as dusk started to descend. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, the air lost its warmth. What had been a beautiful spring day was going to be a cold night.
Of course, the man was extremely observant and caught her involuntary shiver. “I would give you my coat, but I don’t have one,” he told her, pulling her closer and tightening his arm around her shoulders. “Does this work?”
She looked up at him, her mouth falling open slightly as she absorbed the warmth of his body. “I should be going,” she told him. In truth, she should have left hours ago. Mila wasn’t sure why she’d spent so much time in this man’s company. She’d visited zoos all over the world so this one in Washington, D.C. wasn’t dramatically different from the others. But she loved zoos and visited one whenever she had the time.
They stopped and he turned, facing her now. “Have dinner with me tonight,” he coaxed, his hands moving up and down her arms.
She shrugged. “Because it would be too dangerous,” she explained truthfully, without mentioning her work. That might raise too many questions she couldn’t answer.
He pulled her out of the way of other people who were leaving the zoo. “Why would it be too dangerous?” he asked.
She thought about the security she’d left behind at her hotel, the threats she’d received because of her work. But none of it was pertinent right at this moment. “Because you are dangerous to me,” she told him honestly, then stood there in front of him, shocked that the words had actually left her mouth.
He was silent for a long moment, his blue eyes moving over her features slowly, as if he were caressing them softly. “Dangerous how?”
She felt his hands move down lower on her back and she wanted to press her hips against his, to feel his hard body against hers. But she was afraid to move, afraid of giving away any more than she already had this afternoon.
“I need to go,” she muttered, avoiding his question.
He didn’t release her and she didn’t try too hard to pull away. Once she did that, she’d turn around to leave, never able to see this man again. Even though she knew that was the logical outcome of their fanciful afternoon, for some reason, the idea of never speaking with him, never seeing him again, made her sad. No man had ever made her laugh and relax while, at the same time, create a tension inside of her like he had today.
She still wasn’t sure how he’d altered her perception of him from a threat to a…friend? Was “friend” the right term for what she felt towards this man? No, that didn’t seem accurate. Friend was too tame of a word.
He still wouldn’t release her hands, although his fingers were barely touching hers. They were sort of dangling between their bodies, obviously neither of them wanting to break the connection. “No, you don’t. Just dinner, Delilah. I promise it won’t be more than that.”
She considered her options for a moment, and started to shake her head, ready to turn around and leave him. It was the safest, smartest course of action, and yet, she still hesitated. He pushed on, “We both have to eat. And I know you’re hungry because you didn’t finish your ice cream this afternoon.” He paused and he could tell she was wavering. “You can even pick the restaurant.”
She rolled her eyes, wondering if he thought that allowing her to choose the restaurant was really the tipping factor that was going to push her decision over the edge. Deciding to be a bit impish, she nodded agreement. “Fine. But you’re not going to like it,” she warned, anticipation zinging through her. She couldn’t wait to see his reaction to one of her favorite restaurants in this area.
His smile was triumphant, she tried to ignore the curling of expectation in her stomach at his expression. Instead, she focused on extracting her fingers, needing to distance herself. There was no future for either of them. It would be better if they just accepted the lovely afternoon together and moved on with their lives. But Mila knew she wasn’t going to do that. She was going to have dinner with him. It would be casual and fun, no romance at all. A table would be in between them, so he wouldn’t even have a chance to touch her.
Then she’d leave him and move on with her life, with her mission. Just one meal. That should be innocent enough. The word “safe” came to mind, but her eyes moved over his hard, seemingly cold features and she mentally chided herself. There was nothing safe about him!
She shook her head and successfully pulled out of his arms this time. It was easier now since she knew that she was going to get to see him tonight. “I’ll meet you there. Give me your phone number,” she told him.
He took her cell phone and added his private line in, then handed it back to her. “Where are we eating?”
He looked wary. “The Crazy Chicken?”
She laughed at his suspicious expression, then shook her head. “It’s actually El Pollo Rico.”
He pulled back from her but kept his hands on her waist. “That translates to The Rich Chicken.”
Mila laughed. “I’ll see you there at seven o’clock. You’ll understand once you walk through the door.”
With that, she stepped out of his arms and lifted a hand to hail a taxi. A cab immediately stopped right by her side and she stepped into the back seat, but not without looking back at him. She laughed at his confused expression, but winked as she pulled her legs into the dark interior. All she heard a moment before slamming the door was his rich, deep laughter.