When We Meet Again
He was, no doubt, the greatest mistake in her twenty-two years. And the most glorious.
The starlight drifted in through the tall windows in the ornate palace bedchamber to silhouette the profile of his face. It was an exceeding noble profile, high forehead, strong straight nose, lips just full enough to be at once arrogant and exciting. Even in slumber he had the appearance of royalty, of a man born to rule.
She should leave and had every intention of doing so before he woke, indeed, she had made him promise to allow her to go before the break of day. Still, at the moment, she could not bring herself to stir from his side.
She started to brush aside the dark hair that had fallen over his forehead but hesitated, her hand hovering over the contours of his face. In spite of the intimacies that had passed between them in this very bed, this simple act seemed rather too intimate. Rather too personal. A liberty she had no real right to.
Of course, in truth she had no rights to him at all. Nor did she expect any. She knew full well what to expect when she’d selected him. He’d been chosen for his charm and his reputation with women and the very fact that there was no possibility of a future with him. She had no desire for emotional entanglement with a man who was not free to return her affection. No, that path led to heartbreak and she would not tread it again.
She had wanted him for the very reason countless other women had no doubt wanted him: for his handsome face and figure, for the enticing aura of power that surrounded him and for his royal title. A title that bore responsibilities that precluded any heartfelt morning declarations of affection and commitment. She wished for nothing beyond tonight. Or at least, that had been her plan.
She sighed softly and slipped out of the massive bed, grabbing her cloak from the floor and wrapping it around her naked body like an oversized shawl. She padded to the open doors and gazed out beyond the balcony that overlooked the Grand Canal.
The starlight danced off the waters and even at this late hour, or rather this early hour, the faint strains of music sounded from somewhere in the distance. Venice and the people who inhabited it did not seem to adhere to the rules that governed other cities. This was a place of magic and passion and all the things that dreams were made of. The kind of place where a young woman with a shattered reputation could begin her life anew as a woman of the world with a man of experience whom she fully intended never to see again. It had been two years, after all since she’d lost her virtue, squandered it foolishly really, and it was past time to move on with her life. And why not? She was certainly not the same foolish girl she had once been.
She had expected his seduction to be fairly easy. The man had a sizable reputation. Rumor had it that he enjoyed a touch of intrigue, at least when it came to amorous pursuits. Where better to entice him than at a grand masked ball? It was the perfect setting to play to his love of mystery. She had even refused to remove her mask until long after the rest of her clothing had been shed.
What she had not expected was the undercurrent that had run between them from the first. An odd spark, perhaps of recognition of a common spirit, most certainly of mutual attraction and possibly something more. Something intense and indefinable and irresistible.
And really rather wonderful.
From the moment his lips had first brushed her hand there had been the strangest sensation in the pit of her stomach. A physical sense of anticipation, of excitement, of desire she had not truly experienced before. She had allowed it to carry her forward and provide her with a courage she might not have otherwise had.
Certainly the anonymity provided by the mask helped in that regard and indeed some of it, much of it perhaps, could be attributed to the nature of Venice itself. The very air of the city had a sensuality that made even a woman with scant experience in the art of love feel like a courtesan. She’d been far more forward and flirtatious than she’d ever been. He’d been intrigued and interested and responded in a manner both exhilarating and gratifying. And she had indeed ended the evening in his bed.
That too was not as she had expected. Certainly she knew her previous experience had been cursory and hurried and secretive but it had been colored, at least on her part, by love and was therefore exciting or so she’d thought. She had never anticipated what an experienced lover could provoke in her. How he could bring her senses alive with pleasure. Even now her body still hummed with a tense excitement.
” I do not even know your name.” His voice came softly behind her and she was rather glad he had awakened to join her. He rested his hands on her shoulders and she leaned back against him.
” Is it necessary then to know my name?”
He paused for a moment, not long in the scheme of things, but long enough to provide a measure of satisfaction, of pleasure really that he might care enough to want to know who she was. At last he laughed softly. “I suppose not. Still, I admit to a certain curiosity as to who has shared my bed.”
” Why?” It was her turn to laugh. “I cannot imagine that a man with a reputation as great as yours would be overly concerned with names. It is said you have bedded half the women in Europe.”
” Don’t be absurd. Half the women indeed. I am not nearly old enough to have bedded even a fraction of that number.” She could hear the smile in his voice. “Although I have given it a fair amount of effort.”
” No doubt,” she said wryly.
” Is that jealousy I hear?”
” Not in the least, Your Highness.”
” Pity,” he said more to himself than to her.
In spite of her best intentions her heart sped up and the oddest sense of something that might well have been hope leapt within her. Utter nonsense of course. She thrust it firmly aside.
“Do you realize you are precisely the right height for me?” He pushed her hair aside and kissed the nape of her neck. “It is extraordinarily easy to kiss you.”
“Is it?” She shivered.
“Indeed it is,” he murmured against her neck. “You know who I am. It seems entirely unfair that I should not know who you are.”
“There is much in life that is unfair. We cannot always have everything we want.”
He scoffed. “Rubbish. I always get everything I want.”
” Always.” Without warning he spun her around to face him and stared down at her. “I do not permit otherwise.”
She sensed he was trying to make out the details of her features in the faint light and was confident he could not do so well enough to identify her. Anonymity was part of the magic of the night. It made no difference at any rate, she would be gone by morning and there was little chance they would encounter one another ever again.
” I should rather like it, I think, for you to be jealous of the women who came before you.”
” Why?” She shook her head. “There are no ties between us. You are a prince and I—”
” Yes?” A hint of eagerness sounded in his voice. “You are?”
She laughed. “I am not a princess.”
” Aren’t you?”
Her breath caught. How had it happened that what she had intended to have no significance beyond a romantic interlude with a handsome stranger had become rather more important? It was not merely the pleasure he had provided in their hours in his bed, the responses he had coaxed from her, the unexpected joy in their coupling. Something had touched her somewhere in the vicinity of her heart although such thoughts were the height of absurdity. This was a moment stolen out of time, nothing more than that.
” Although I confess, I do not care if you are in truth a princess or a chambermaid.”
She adopted a teasing tone. “And that is which part of your anatomy speaking?”
” My heart,” he said without pause.
” Your heart is caught up in the magic of the night, your highness.” She paused for a moment resisting the impulse to accept his words, embrace them, revel in them. “I understand, as do you, that come the morning, what has passed between us in the darkness will be of no significance. Your highness—”
” Alexei,” he growled and kissed the curve of her neck.
” Alexei.” She shuddered with his name and the feel of his lips on flesh still sensitive from lovemaking. She resisted the urge to melt into his arms. “Alexei, I—”
” What shall I call you?”
” It scarcely matters.”
” I must call you something. It is still sometime before sunrise and I do not intend to permit you to go before then.”
” We agreed I would leave by dawn.”
” But not so much as a moment before.”
” I am not entirely certain I can trust—”
” La Serenissima.” His hands caressed her back through the silk of her cloak and he nuzzled her ear. “The serene one. That is what I shall call you.”
” You’re going to name me after Venice then?” She sighed with the pleasure of his touch. “After a city?”
” It is not merely a city.”
” And I am scarcely serene.”
” Oh, I shall make certain of that.” He chuckled then quieted and turned her around to face out again into the Venetian night, pulling her close against his bare chest and wrapping his arms around her. “I have always loved it here. There is a feel to Venice that touches the yearning in one’s soul. It is in the very air we breathe, in the light itself, and unlike anywhere else in the world.”
” Such fanciful notions, your highness. I would not have suspected it of you.”
I would not have suspected it of myself,” he said in a wry manner. “I doubt I have ever said it aloud before but I have long thought this was a place of magic where anything could happen. And no more so than tonight.”
She stared out over the wide canal, at the stars overhead and their light reflected in the windows of the ornate palazzi that seemed to grow from the water itself. “A place of dreams.”
” Where a prince can be nothing more than a man with a beautiful woman in his bed. And ask no more from life than that.”
” But you are not merely a man.”
He blew a long breath. “No, I am not.” He paused. “Still it has been an unexpected and rather extraordinary night.”
” Indeed it has.”
” I am scheduled to remain in Venice for several weeks. There is nothing to say we cannot share another night as glorious as this one. Or a dozen nights. Or more.”
She laughed lightly. “I fear another night with you, your highness, and I shall fall madly, irrevocably in love which can only lead to the breaking of my heart.”
” That would be a very great shame. Of course,” his voice was thoughtful, “it could well be my heart that is broken.
” And that would be a greater shame.”
” Because I am a prince?”
” Because you will one day be a king,” she said softly.
” There are moments when I would rather be a mere man.”
” I suspect you could never be a mere man.”
He laughed, scooped her up in his arms and her cloak fell to the floor. She realized he was as naked as she and noted in the back of her mind how odd it was to be in this position and yet not feel at all exposed or embarrassed but rather quite, quite lovely. He started back toward the bed. “You would be very good for me, Serenissima.”
” You would be very bad for me, your highness.”
” Alexei. Tonight, let it be no more than Alexei and—”
” Serenissima?” She laughed.
” Serenissima.” Abruptly his mood sobered. “As serene and beautiful and mysterious as the city she is named for.”
” Beautiful? I am flattered as you have not seen truly seen me.”
” And yet I know.” He laid her on the bed and stretched out beside her. “My lips have kissed yours and explored the features of your face.” He suited his actions to his words. “My hands have caressed the curve of your hip and the length of your legs and the firm, sweet swell of your breasts. I have felt you quicken beneath me at our joining and known the excitement of your release surrounding me.”
She slipped her arms around his neck and pressed her body closer to the heat of his. “You are very good at this, your highness.”
” I suppose I am.” He gathered her to him and fell silent for a long moment. She felt his heart beat in his chest against the press of her breasts. His growing arousal nudged between her legs and her own newfound desire pooled within her. “I could keep you here, you know. At this very minute, there are guards outside the door and others in the room beyond. I could spirit you away without notice, if I so wished, and keep you forever in my bed and by my side.”
” Yet you will not do so.” Even as she said the words she knew the truth of them. He was a man with unlimited power. A man used to getting exactly what he wanted yet she hadn’t the slightest doubt that, in spite of his threat, he would not do anything to tarnish the memories of this night. He would not do anything she did not wish. “And to what end, your highness? I have no desire to be any man’s mistress not even a prince’s.”
” I cannot offer more.”
” I am well aware of the obligations of the heir to a throne.”
” Alexei.” She brushed her lips against his. “You would grow tired of me before the week is out.”
” Never,” his lips murmured against hers.
” There is no place for me in your life beyond this one night.”
” What is it about this night?” His voice rang hard in the shadows and he drew away. She sensed him studying her. “You have cast a spell upon me, Serenissima. In truth, I am enchanted. By a woman I have not seen save by the light of the stars. A woman who will share her body but not her name. A woman who initiated seduction yet has had little experience in such matters.”
She caught her breath.
” Do not be surprised, Serenissima.” He chuckled. “You cannot choose a man of my reputation for this game you play and not expect him to notice you are not what you appear.”
” It is not a game, Alexei,” she said quietly. “It is my life.”
” It could well be my life at risk. You could be an assassin sent to cut my heart out.”
” As you can see I am unarmed.”
” Indeed, I made certain of it.” A grin sounded in his voice. “Ah, Serenissima, I have no reason to trust you yet I do.” He shook his head. “It is this place, no doubt. In the air. The stars. The music of the water. The magic of the night.”
” Alexei.” She drew him back to her. “We have this moment and this moment alone. Tonight. Is it not enough?”
” I have never wished for more than this from a woman before,” he muttered. “It is most disconcerting.”
” Tomorrow you will be Prince Alexei Pruzinsky, the heir to the throne of Avalonia and the night will have no more significance than a dream.”
” And you? Who will you be tomorrow?”
” I will be . . .” she smiled. “I will never be the same again.”
” Serenissima.” He groaned and met her lips with his and all rational thought vanished beneath an onslaught of passion and sensation of utter, indescribable delight.
And in the moment before she gave herself completely to the pleasure of his touch she wondered if indeed she could be a woman of the world and share the beds of other men or if whatever had passed between her and this one man on this magic night was far and away too wondrous and unique to know ever again.
He was indeed a glorious mistake.
One she would never forget.
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