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"WAITING FOR SOMEONE?" A man's voice cut through the rustling quiet of the garden. The Russian accent was soft and guttural, falling pleasantly on Emma's ears. Turning with a wry smile, Emma watched as Prince Nikolas Angelovsky stepped out of the shadows.
With his golden skin, his sun-streaked hair, and his unpredictable cruelty, Nikolas was more like a tiger than a human being. Emma had never seen such a perfect blend of beauty and menace in any other man. She knew from personal experience that there was good reason to fear him. But she was an expert at handling dangerous creatures. The only sure way to be hurt was to show her fear.
Emma relaxed her spine and settled more comfortably on the stone bench, located in the most secluded section of the formal estate garden. "I'm certainly not waiting for you," she replied briskly. "Why are you out here?"
He smiled at that, his white teeth gleaming in the darkness. "I felt like taking a walk."
"I'll thank you to walk somewhere else. I'm trying to meet someone in private."
"Who is it?" He slid his hands into his pockets, walking around her.
"Go away, Nikolas."
"You can't order me about on my own estate, child." Nikolas stopped a few feet away from her. He was a tall man, one of the few in London whom Emma didn't tower over. He had big hands and feet, and a spare, powerful build. A shadow fell across his face, obscuring all but the piercing yellow gleam of his eyes.
"I'm not a child. I'm a full-grown woman."
"So you are," Nikolas said softly. His gaze swept over her, taking note of herslender figure wrapped in a simple white gown. Emma's face, as always, was unpowdered and unpainted. Her hair had been pinned into a tight chignon, but exuberant curls sprang around her face and neck. Her hair was a sublime shade of red, burning with bronze and cinnamon lights.
"You look beautiful tonight," he said.
Emma laughed. "Don't flatter me. 'Attractive' is the best I can do, and I know it. It's hardly worth having my head stuck with hairpins and my ribs crushed with tight lacing until I can't breathe. I'd much rather go 'round wearing boots and breeches and be comfortable, as men are. If one can't be beautiful, one shouldn't have to try at all."
Nikolas didn't argue, though he had his own opinion on the matter. Emma's unique attractiveness had always fascinated him. She was a strong, resilient woman, with the grace of a tall-masted ship. Her face was a composition of delicate angled cheekbones, a lush mouth, a scattering of golden freckles across the bridge of her nose. Long-limbed and slender, she reached a height of nearly six feet, even in her flat slippers. Nikolas topped her by a scant two inches. He had often imagined her body matched exactly to his, her legs and arms wrapped around him.
They were right for each other. Strange that no one else could see it, but it had been clear to Nikolas for years, ever since he had first met her. She had been a devil-child, an explosive bundle of gangly limbs and wild red hair. Now she was a young woman of twenty, with a ruthless honesty that was a perfect foil for his own secretive nature. She reminded him of the women he had known in Russia, women with fire in their souls . . . so unlike the tepid European creatures he had known for the past seven years.
Aware of his inspection, Emma made a face at him. "I don't mind being plain," she said. "As far as I can tell, beauty is a terrible inconvenience. Now you really must go, Nikolas. With you hovering around, no man will dare come near me."
"Whomever you're waiting for, he won't last any longer than the others."
Emma scowled in sudden defiance. "This one will."
"They never stay," he continued idly. "You send them all away, in the exact order they come to you. Why is that?"
Emma's vivid flush clashed with her hair. She clamped her lips together. His arrow had found its mark. This was her third Season after having been presented. If she didn't marry soon, she would be considered a failure in the marriage market and on a rapid road to spinsterhood.
"I don't see why I need a husband," she said. "I don't like the idea of being owned by someone. You probably think that makes me unwomanly."
"I consider you very much a woman."
Her auburn brows inched upward. "Is that a compliment or mockery? With you, it's hard to tell."
"I never mock you, Emma. Other people, yes. You, no."
She gave a disbelieving snort.
Nikolas came forward then, stepping into the light that spilled gently from a garden lantern. "You will accompany me back inside now. As your host--and a distant cousin--I can't allow you to stay out here unchaperoned."
"Don't try to claim any kinship between us. You're my stepmother's relative, and you have no ties to me whatsoever."
"We're cousins by marriage," he insisted.
Emma smiled at that, knowing that as cousins, they could have a far more informal relationship, calling each other by first names and talking privately without the need of a chaperone. "Whatever you say, Your Highness."
"Perhaps you would like a tour of my art collection," Nikolas suggested. "I have an icon wall that might interest you. Many of them are works from thirteenth-century Novgorod."
"I don't care for art, and I certainly don't want to look at any gloomy old icons." Emma gave him a skeptical glance. "Why do you keep them?
Prince of Dreams. Copyright © by Lisa Kleypas. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.