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    Prologue

    Courtney lay silently, a frown on her face as she stared at the dimly lit ceiling above the bed. Cool air wafted across her body, drying the fine sheen of perspiration that had built there over the past hour. Her hand strummed idly against her stomach, her index finger flicking against the emerald belly ring that pierced the flesh above her navel.

    The feel of her nails rasping over her flesh was a pleasant sensation. In many ways, more pleasant than the experienced caresses of the man who lay beside her. Not that he hadn’t tried, not that she hadn’t tried, but satisfaction lingered just out of reach, an ethereal promise that she knew would remain unfulfilled for a while yet.

    Doubts assailed her in that moment, as well as a lingering regret. She hadn’t imagined this as her first sexual experience. She had envisioned an event much more earth-shattering, one that would fulfill not just her sexual desires, but those that filled her heart as well. Unfortunately, there were sacrifices to be made for the dream she had carried in her heart for so long. Her virginity was one of those sacrifices.

    She breathed in carefully, deeply, restraining the weakening emotion that assailed her at the thought of what could come. She wasn’t leaving her country or her home without knowing exactly what she was doing. She had studied her objective, learned every facet of his character possible and planned each move out carefully. She couldn’t fail. Too much was at stake to fail. Her future, her very heart and the dreams she had carried since childhood now lay on the line.

    “Well. I can honestly say you are my one failure, darling.” Sebastian DeLorents leaned casually on his side as he interrupted her musings, his voice filled with amusement.

    She turned her head, a smile quirking her lips as she stared back at perhaps her dearest friend on this Earth. Bastian had led her through many of her most important adventures and helped her ensure that her father never suspected that his little princess was perhaps a tad bit more reckless than he would have wished. Dane Mattlaw believed his perfect, innocent daughter was unwary of the world, unknowing of the darker side of life that could be found outside the walls of the estate he had raised her in. He had no idea of the free spirit, the reckless, outrageous woman his daughter had become.

    She wasn’t trying to be cruel in keeping him in the dark. She just knew how he worried, how he fought to always protect her from any harm that could come her way. He wasn’t overbearing, merely overprotective in a very fatherly way. And she understood the reasons why, had lived those reasons for three long, nightmarish years at her grandparents’ home in Spain when she was a child.

    But she wasn’t a child any longer.

    “Don’t take it personally.” She turned to him, heedless of her nudity, staring back at his darkly handsome face, the well-muscled, powerful body, the wicked glint in his black eyes. “I told you, I was saving myself for another, Bastian. I had only to get rid of that pesky shield of virginity to set my plans in motion.”

    He grimaced, though she knew he accepted it good-naturedly. She hadn’t deceived him. She had been aboveboard, honest. She couldn’t lie to Bastian, the very thought was abhorrent. Besides, he had wicked ways of getting even with those who crossed him. She wasn’t frightened of him, but she had a healthy respect for the code of honor to which he adhered.

    She reached out, trailing her fingers along his cheek as his arms came around her, pulling her close against his body. There was no sexual tension, no arousal. The friendship they had formed throughout her life was a comforting, supportive relationship that had given her the courage to go after her greatest dream. He had given her a memory to treasure, if not one of satisfaction, this night. He had tenderly, lovingly taken that last barrier to womanhood and given her the freedom to chase after her final dream.

    “I will miss you, la luz más, querida.” My little light. He had called her that for years. He kissed the top of her head as he sighed heavily. “You keep the world brighter.”

    A soft laugh escaped her at that. “You mean I give you a reasonable shield between you and the calculating mommas and baby girls snapping at your heels. Come on, Bastian, you need to settle down someday.”

    She followed as he rolled to his back, groaning lightly as she propped herself against his chest, staring down at him as laughter welled within her.

    Her Bastian was one of the finest-looking men Spain and England had ever beheld. He was a product of a Spanish aristocrat and an American mother, the pure blue blood of his ancestors diluted by the hated American sludge. At least, this was his grandfather’s point of view.

    For Courtney, it was the opposite. Her mother was the youngest daughter of one of Spain’s oldest bloodlines. Her father, though, was pure blond American mutt, as he referred to himself. An Army man, tall, strong, dominant enough to stand up to the combined disapproval of Marguerita Catherine Santiago Rodriquez’s maternal and paternal families.

    Thankfully, Courtney had not been required to spend a vast amount of time around her Spanish relatives. Marguerita had been unfortunate enough that during her relationship with Dane, her family had learned of her lifestyle, and had nearly destroyed her with their efforts to “save” her. Escaping them and the life they would have confined her to had not been easy.

    Courtney had been seven when her mother had taken her to visit her relatives, and the three years they had been confined there had been hell. Thankfully, her father had finally seen through the lies her mother’s family had told him of their deaths and had rescued them both. It was a time her parents never forgot. Her mother had once told her that it served to remind them both of how fragile life can be, and that they should never take a single day for granted. It was a lesson Courtney had taken to heart.

    “The calculating mommas are becoming wearisome,” he grunted reflectively, interrupting her thoughts. “Perhaps I should follow you to America. I’m certain I could help you with the mayhem you wish to create there.”

    His smile was pure devilry. She rarely saw him so relaxed, playful. Bastian rarely relaxed enough to become playful. Which was a truly a shame, because when Bastian cared enough to play, he was an incredibly sexy sight to behold.

    “Perhaps this is something you should do,” she agreed laughingly. “But give me time to capture him first. He won’t be an easy conquest, Bastian. And I could always fail.”

    Such an option was something she fought against. She couldn’t fail. She had dreamed of him for too many years, had yearned for him with a strength that refused to allow her any rest.

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