Font Size:  

Madelyn studied the Hermitage as she climbed the last little way. It was even more impressive up close, where she could see that the ancient artisans really had etched the building from the mountain itself. From a distance, it looked as if it floated here, somehow holding the peak up above it while perched so prettily on the bulk of the mountain below. Up close, it was less pretty and more...a kind of shrine to a certain ruthlessness, really.

Because who climbed this far up the side of an inhospitable mountain and thought,Why, yes. I will fashion myself a dwelling place here and make myself a part of the mountain itself.

But even as she thought that, something in her knew the answer.

The Hermitage rose several stories above the path, on the other side of a stone arch and an ancient gate that could have guarded the entrance to any medieval keep. As she approached, she looked around, not for a doorbell or anything so modern, but for some kind of ancient device—a bellpull or the like—that might allow her to signal whoever lurked within that she was here.

A part of her hoped there was nothing. Or even if there was, that it would fail to raise the Hermitage’s lone inhabitant. She was already plotting out how she would sorrowfully explain to Angelique that there was nothing to be done. That she couldn’t even gain entrance, and so it was best all round if she simply took herself back home and let the Kingdom of Ilonia sort itself out without her.

Madelyn felt the most cheerful she’d been in days as the path opened up a bit wider here at the top, to fit in all that stone and drama.

But her hopes were crushed when she got closer and realized that there was a little door in the great gate, and it already stood open.

Muttering under her breath, Madelyn forced herself to step right on through instead of standing there, thinking better of it.

Inside, she blinked as she looked around, because she was still outside, if beneath the outcropping above. She’d walked into what looked like some kind of castle keep and realized that what she’d taken for an ornate window between one floor and the next was actually a perfect place to pace around, staring down at the world far below. On clear days, Angelique Silvestri’s assistant had informed her on the plane, it was possible to see the entire sweep of Ilonia from the hallowed heights of the Hermitage. Madelyn hadn’t cared much about that while flying. But now that she was up here, she found herself almost wishing that it was clear today. Because she imagined the view must be spectacular enough to almost make even her forced march worth it.

And that was when some faint little movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. So she turned her head, and there he was.

Her breath caught.

Seeing him, it turned out, was significantly worse thanimagining seeing himhad been all these years.

Seeing him was like getting torn wide open. She was shocked she withstood the impact of it. She thought she might have crumpled, or screamed, or simply...imploded.

But she didn’t. She stood fast.

She reminded herself that she had already survived him.

Defiantly, Madelyn took a big, deep breath and told herself it was the melodrama of this situation that was getting to her, nothing more.

There was no need tofeelanything, she told herself. She eyed him critically instead.

He stood there at the top of the carved stone stairs. He was dressed in black. A pair of black boots that looked better suited to combat, even from a distance. A pair of tactical trousers that rode low on his hips, as if he planned to scale a fortress later on. And a T-shirt that did its job of defining each and every muscle in his upper body far too well.

He had been lean and beautiful when she’d known him. Almost ethereal, as his many admirers had sighed and simpered. His hair had been longer, a mess of blond waves that had made him look like a myth. Today, that hair was close cropped and much darker, giving him the look of a kind of burnished gold and lending him an air of intensity that made her skin seem to tighten where she stood.

But it wasn’t hishairthat was the most disconcerting,she corrected herself. It wasn’t all the messy things inside her that she refused to admit she was feeling. It was that he wasn’t smiling.

His mouth was set in a hard line, though that didn’t diminish the sensuality that had always been one of the first things anyone ever noticed about him—a presence and charisma that could light up whole cities without his even trying—but, rather, made it something else again. He had always seemed amused by his effect on others. He’d appeared entertained by the arrangement of his features, as if he’d had a hand in making himself so beautiful. Those high cheekbones, that mouth, the dazzling symmetry of his objectively perfect face.

Today, there was nothing that suggested entertainment or amusement anywhere in him. He looked...tougher, Madelyn thought. Though that was a remarkably strange word to use about this man. A man she always pictured lounging somewhere. A man so languid and committed to his own pleasure that he could make a simple morning stretch, still lying in bed, a symphony of sensuality if he chose.

It was not that this harder, more intense man had lost that sensuality. It was more that it had shifted into a kind of brooding masculinity that seemed to carve its way deep inside Madelyn where she stood. Then it was not only that her skin prickled, but also that she could feel that same tightening wind around and around inside her, spiraling down until she felt it twist into heat at her core.

She shouldn’t have been surprised.

This was the problem with this man. This was his sorcery. Madelyn had been levelheaded and rational, not at all the sort to have her head turned by the glittering mob of Cambridge’s excruciatingly glamorous upper class. She’d worked too hard to get there. She’d known exactly who she was. She’d been proud of her modest beginnings, her down-to-earth upbringing. Her goal in life had been to make her parents proud, then do something worthwhile with her life to prove that she was worth all the education neither Angie nor Timothy Jones had ever thought was worth the bother.

Instead, one night she’d walked into the wrong pub—filled, for some reason, with a collection of bright and shining young things who the friends she’d been with had informed her spent most of their days on the pages ofTatler. When not yacht-hopping across the Mediterranean or sequestering themselves on breathtakingly posh estates from Vanuatu to Positano and back again.

Madelyn had glanced their way with the sort of interest she might have shown a cage of sleeping creatures in a zoo.

But he’d looked back. Their eyes had met, then held.

And nothing had ever been the same.

She’d found a prince in England, just as her friends back home had teased her she would. Sadly for her, he’d used his charm to talk her into behavior that was so unlike the staid, prim, studious girl she’d been that she’d spent all the years in between wondering how on earth he’d ever compelled her to do it.