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‘You paid for it.’

His brows shot up. ‘Did I?’

‘It was very expensive.’

The confession brought an enigmatic smile. ‘Money well spent, I would say. Are we ready, ladies?’

He held out a hand to Freya, who took it, and held out a crooked elbow to Kate, an invitation presumably for her to lay her arm on it.

An innocent enough gesture, and part of her wanted to accept it graciously, but that part of her wanted way too much. Best to avoid physical contact, especially when proximity affected her ability to think coherently.

She made a point of not noticing the invitation instead, moving around to Freya’s other side and taking the little girl’s other hand in her own.

Mockery shone in his eyes as they challenged her, but Kate tuned him out and turned to Freya.

‘A lovely necklace,’ she said, touching the delicate silver shell suspended from a chain around the child’s neck.

‘Papa bought it me.’

Kate looked atPapaand immediately regretted it. It took another few moments for her to get her galloping self-control on a leash. This was crazy, and it was going nowhere. He made every woman he looked at feel she was the only woman on the planet. That was the secret of his success. She couldn’t allow herself to think otherwise.

‘Very pretty.’

‘You haven’t got a necklace.’

The childish comment brought Marco’s eyes to Kate’s pearlescent creamy skin. The slender column of her body was immediately under attack from streaks of heat. ‘She doesn’t need one.’

‘I have the lovely hair clip you let me use,’ Kate said, struggling with the after-effects of a brief brush with Marco’s predatory stare to the extent that it didn’t even cross her mind that to the casual observer there might be anything misread in the little procession.

It wasn’t until after they had encountered a few uniformed staff that Kate realised that the picture they presented could be easily misinterpreted by someone who didn’t know her position in the palace.

This was about the last thing she needed. The way the gossip mill in this place worked, she could only imagine what stories would be circulating by the end of the evening.

They had reached an open area, the stone walls banked with elaborate flower arrangements, when the guests clustered there, awaiting their entrance, parted like a well-dressed sea. The reason soon became obvious. Up ahead she and presumably everyone else could see the King and Queen flanked by a number of high-ranking officials in ceremonial dress heading their way.

She let go of Freya’s hand and stepped back, not wanting any part of the prearranged ceremonial procession.

Marco frowningly looked over his shoulder. ‘What are you doing?’

She shook her head and said quietly, ‘The optics wouldn’t look good.’ Then, giving Freya a thumbs-up sign, added, ‘Have fun and save me a dance.’

Marco nodded, his eyes gleaming dangerously. ‘I will.’

Continuing to walk backwards, she blushed. ‘I was talking to Freya.’

‘Iwas talking to you.’ The least he could reward himself with was a chance to hold her in his arms and feel her body against his.

Not in the way he wanted to and it would be a kind of torture probably immediately regretted, but his defiant determination was set in stone.

Kate gave a small, tense smile as his eyes burnt her up. She pressed a hand to the flutter at the base of her throat, almost weeping with relief when she heard a familiar voice at her elbow.

‘Going my way?’

It took her a few moments to identify Marco’s assistant, who she had met on several occasions now. ‘, you look smart.’

He looked pleased and twiddled his bow tie, pulling what appeared to be a spare duplicate out of his pocket and admitting with a humorous grin, ‘Couldn’t tie it. Someone lent me a clip-on.’

‘I couldn’t tell,’ she promised.

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