The Prince & the Patriot

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Willa Caris is determined to keep the ancient Brasovian crown jewels from returning to her homeland until the royal family can return. No Matter What. But as she tries to enlist the help of Professor Nicholas Francia, another Brasovian descendent with the ear of the government and a reputation as playboy, she finds herself flustered and enraptured by his power.

All Nicholas wants is to continue with his day, but this woman keeps getting in his way… Literally. Her stubborn nature and seductive innocence disarm him, and he is trapped by a visceral need to protect her from naïve choices by kidnapping her… Twice.

Their time together creates an unexpected, intimate bond, both sensual and emotional, but will their separate secrets, born in a distant European country to another generation, tear them apart?

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Chapter 1

1982.

PROFESSOR NICHOLAS FRANCIA returned from his Wednesday afternoon lecture on Eastern European Cultures—The Ottoman Influence, to find the floor outside his office strewn with bodies. It looked like the aftermath of a wild party, he thought as he cast a jaded glance over the tangle of arms and legs.

It was the third time this week he’d had to deal with this, and he was fed up. Enough was enough. This time he was going to call the campus police and have the mess cleaned up once and for all. He had plenty on his mind, heaven knew, without having to put up with these blasted fanatics. With a scowl and a purposeful snort, Nicholas turned on his heel.

“Dr. Francia—please!”

One of the bodies detached itself from the throng. A small, slender woman rose to her feet, extending a hand toward him in supplication. The movement was fluid and had a kind of poignant beauty that reminded him of a ballerina. The woman’s gesture touched something in Nicholas, and against his better judgment, he paused.

With an outward frown and an inward sigh, he watched the woman make her way toward him. Annoyed that he couldn’t seem to dampen his appreciation of her lithe grace, he drew on his knowledge of body language and adopted a posture of intimidation.

“Ten seconds,” he snapped. “Then I call the cops.”

He towered over the woman by at least a foot, but she didn’t seem the least bit impressed by him or his threat. Throwing back her head, the better to meet his eyes, she returned his stare.

“Professor, all we want to do is talk to you. Could it hurt if you gave us just ten minutes of your time?”

Her eyes were midnight black with a light of passion in their depths. God save me from fanatics, Nicholas thought wearily. Veiling his eyes, he subjected her to a silent but thorough scrutiny—another tactic calculated to put his opponent at a disadvantage. The first thing that struck him was what an anomaly she was in this Southern California sunscape populated by legions of the blond and tanned. Her hair, as black as her eyes, had the bluish sheen of a raven’s wing. It was straight and blunt–cut to just below her chin. With every word she spoke, every movement she made, her hair seemed to ripple and flow with a vitality of its own. And though her skin was milky pale, it had an underlying glow of health and a fine matte texture that reminded him of flower petals.

There was more—a generous but finely drawn mouth, set now in determined lines; thick black lashes and nicely arched brows—but Nicholas was finding the appraisal curiously unsettling. Abruptly terminating it, he said, “All right, ten minutes. You, in my office.” To the people on the floor he snarled. “And the rest of you, if you’re still here when I come out again, I’ll have you arrested. That’s a promise, not a threat.”

No one moved.

“Okay,” the woman said, “we’ve got a meeting.” She made shooing motions with her hands. “That’s something, anyway. Look, guys, there’s nothing more you can do here. Why don’t you go outside and wait for me on the quad? Hey, and wish me luck!” She threw Nicholas a glance that held a gleam of unexpected humor and added, “And if I’m not out in fifteen minutes, send in a rescue squad.”

How unusual, Nicholas thought. A fanatic with a sense of humor.

He discovered he was watching with real interest as she bent to pick up a backpack and a light jacket. She was wearing tan walking shorts and an olive–green tank top. The colors did nothing for her coloring, but the brevity and fit of the clothes did a great deal, if not for her, then for him. Or his libido, at least. The strength and beauty of the muscles in her back and calves made him think again of dancers.

“Well?” She was looking up at him, waiting.

“After you,” he murmured sourly, and waved her ahead of him.

In his office he indicated a chair for his unwanted guest but didn’t seat himself. Instead he leaned against his desk and folded his arms on his chest, another gesture of confidence and authority. It was also a kind of relaxed aggression. Student activists could be a real nuisance, and he intended to keep this one on the defensive.

Dammit, though, she didn’t look the least bit defensive, perched on the edge of her chair like a blackbird, an eager sparkle in her eyes, a touch of color in her cheeks. That annoyed him considerably.

“Professor Francia, I want to thank—”

With calculated rudeness Nicholas interrupted. “You might not. Suppose you start with your name.”

She blinked and responded automatically. “Caris—Willa.”

“Willow?” He frowned, taken aback for a moment simply because it was such an apt name for her.

She shook her head. “It’s Willa. That’s short for Wilhelmina.”

Good Lord. The name was bigger than she was. “Strange name for a Brasovian.”

She studied him in silence for a moment and then said evenly, “So is Francia.”

“I’ve never made any secret of my ancestry,” Nicholas said distantly. “My parents were refugees in postwar France, a time when a Brasovian surname was a liability. I’m more interested in how you came by your name—since there’s no W in the Brasovian language.”

She threw back her head, proudly thrusting her chin upward; her hair slithered along her jawline to pool like ink in the curve of her neck. “Since you are Brasovian, I’m sure you know that the Netherlands was the first Western nation to recognize the sovereignty of Brasovia during its brief period of independence after the war. Queen Wilhelmina made a state visit—and she was the only Western head of state to do so. It was Brasovia’s finest hour!”

Her voice rang with emotion. Nicholas groaned inwardly but kept his expression bland. “Ah,” he said neutrally. “I see. So you were named for a queen.” It was worse than he’d thought—not only a fanatic but a royalist too. That was all he needed. He began to feel stirrings of unease, and masked them with a patronizing smile. “But surely, Miss Caris, that must have been decades before you were born.”

The fire in her eyes flared hot. Damn, she was something! The word firebrand came to mind, and, unbidden and most unwelcome, Nicholas felt the first stirrings of admiration for her. If she’d been born a few decades earlier, this woman would have been carrying a carbine, not books; lobbing grenades into German convoys instead of organizing campus sit–ins. That slender, graceful body would be crisscrossed with ammunition belts instead of the straps of a nylon backpack.

“My grandparents were heroes of the Resistance,” she said proudly. “They were invited to the grand reception in the queen’s honor, and they took my mother with them. She was presented to the queen. She was only a girl then, but she never forgot it, and when I was born…” Her voice trailed away and she gave her head a little shake.

Fascinated in spite of himself, Nicholas watched her quell and control her emotions, watched her bank the inner fires and discipline her features. Now only the tinge of color in her cheeks betrayed her.

“Professor Francia,” she said coolly, “I didn’t ask to speak to you so I could talk about my name and its origins. And would you mind terribly sitting down? I’m getting a crick in my neck.”

Swallowing an unanticipated snort of laughter, Nicholas lifted his eyebrows and said smoothly, “Really? I’m so sorry. Why didn’t you say so earlier? I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” Moving around his desk, he glanced pointedly at his watch. “You have used up more than half your time, however, so I suggest you start by telling me what it is you want from me.”

There was silence. When he looked at her, he saw she was chewing on her lower lip and gazing at him. For the first time he saw uncertainty in her eyes.

“Well?” Nicholas prompted, more bluntly than he meant to.

She took a deep breath and frowned. “I’m not sure I can. Five minutes isn’t very much time.”

“Miss Caris,” Nicholas said on a sigh of exasperation, “you and your compatriots have been camped outside my door all week. Surely you must have had an idea what you wanted to say to me, as well as plenty of time to rehearse.”

“As a matter of fact, I have rehearsed.” A smile touched the corners of her mouth, revealing the promise of a dimple. Nicholas had an idea it would transform her instantaneously from firebrand to pixie, if she ever allowed it to develop.

“Well, then?”

The smile vanished, and a frown of confusion took its place. “I guess I wasn’t as well prepared as I thought I was. I wasn’t prepared for you.” She stood up suddenly and paced agitatedly away from the desk. “I didn’t know you were going to be so—” She broke off.

“So… what?” Nicholas prompted softly.

She turned to look at him. “So damned difficult.” But there was a curiously intent look in her dark eyes, and he had an idea it wasn’t what she’d meant to say.

She came toward him in an earnest little rush and leaned her hands on his desk. “I guess I really don’t know what to say to you, Dr. Francia. I don’t understand your attitude. How can you not care about your homeland?”

Nicholas leaned back in his chair. Keeping his tone and expression aloof, he said. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean by ‘homeland.’ Miss Caris. I’m an American. And I was born in France, not Brasovia.”

“But you are Brasovian! How can you deny your heritage? How can you sit here and do nothing while the soul and spirit of Brasovia, the symbols of sovereignty our ancestors fought and died for, are about to be given into the hands of the oppressors?”

“I assume you are referring to the crown jewels,” Nicholas said, mildly amused by her verbal volley. It was, however, only a warm–up.

One small–boned hand curled into a fist and came crashing down on his blotter. “The Holy Crown of Brasovia, yes—for more than a thousand years the symbol of validation of Brasovian monarchs. And now the United States government is turning it over to that—that puppet government! Just handing it over to the occupation forces that forgot to go home. Don’t you see? They will be validating a regime that took away a nation’s independence, violated the rights of its citizens, ruthlessly crushed a rebellion, killed thousands of Brasovians, and forced hundreds of thousands more into exile! How can you just sit there and do nothing to stop it?”

Nicholas leaned back in his chair and regarded her through half–closed eyes. There was a part of him that was enjoying this, appreciating her, at least, on a purely masculine level—skin flushed pink and dusted with a silvery sheen of perspiration, eyes luminous and lips quivering with emotion, hair that rippled in the light like watered silk. And something more—the passion in her, passion that called to something primitive in him.

But with another part of himself he resented her and everything she stood for. She was dangerous, of course, but he wasn’t worried about it; he could take care of that part easily enough. He resented her because she was poking into something he’d put behind him long ago, dredging up feelings he’d carefully wrapped and hidden safely away in the depths of his soul. Next would come the memories, painful and cold….

In the long run the passion simply wouldn’t be worth the pain, so Nicholas fought to control both. He said coolly, “The crown belongs to the people of Brasovia. It is being returned as a gesture of goodwill. Why should I want to stop it, even if I could?”

She stared at him, her eyes full of unspoken challenge, and said softly, “You, of all people. How can you say that?”

Nicholas kept his expression stony, his voice flat. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”

He’d never seen anyone with a more expressive face; in a matter of seconds hers registered appeal, frustration, anger… resolve. She straightened abruptly and turned away, then seemed to change her mind and came back again. This time when she spoke, it wasn’t in direct reply to his denial; her words seemed almost conversational, as if she were changing the subject.

“Did you know that there are those why say that if the royal family had returned to Brasovia after the war to head the constitutional government, the Communist takeover never would have happened?”

“I’ve heard that theory, yes,” Nicholas said neutrally.

“King Alexi was just, fair, and good. He’s the only one who could have pulled all the factions together and united the country.” Her voice held the soft intensity of absolute conviction. “A strong, stable government could have resisted—”

“Pointless conjecture,” Nicholas said, interrupting flatly. “The royal family disappeared during the chaos of the last days of the war. Very probably they’re all dead.”

“Sure,” she said sarcastically. “So how did the crown jewels that disappeared at the same time wind up in the hands of the Americans? Huh? Explain that to me, Professor!”

“It’s a dead issue, Miss Caris.” Nicholas rose to his feet. “The crown jewels have been in American vaults for almost forty years, and it’s high time they went home. As for the royal family, if any of them are still alive or wished to be recognized, they would have made themselves known long ago. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to leave. I’ve given you a good deal more than the ten minutes I promised you, and I have no desire to be set upon by your ‘rescue squad.’ I’m sorry I can’t support your cause. Please close the door on your way out.”

She opened her mouth, closed it again, and with a small noise of frustration, turned away.

“Oh, Miss Caris, one more thing…”

With her hand on the doorknob she threw him a look of stark reproach. Damn her, anyway, he thought. Her eyes were like probes, relentlessly searching out the tender spots he thought he’d fortified more strongly than he obviously had. In defense he threw up a protective wall of cold anger. It made his voice harder and harsher than he’d intended, and gave his words a touch of cruelty that shocked him.

“The next time you or any of your bunch of hotheads disrupts my classes or camps on my doorstep, I promise you I will have you arrested. Good afternoon, Miss Caris.”

After she had gone, he sat for a long time staring at the door panels. When Cheryl, one of his teaching assistants, knocked and stuck her head in the door, he snapped at her. She said, “Oops—sorry!” and ducked back out again. Ashamed of himself, Nicholas thought about calling her back, but instead reached for the telephone and punched a number he knew by heart.

“Hi,” he said to the sultry voice on the other end of the line. “It’s me. Busy tonight?”

** ** **

When the door had latched behind her, Willa leaned against it and brushed an unsteady hand across her eyes. “Damn,” she whispered. “Damn, damn.”

She didn’t know why she’d let him get to her so badly; it wasn’t as if she hadn’t known what to expect. It was no secret that Professor Nicholas Francia was an arrogant so–and–so, nor was it any secret that he was the most attractive man on the entire campus. Attractive… hah! What an inadequate word that was to describe the pure, unadulterated magnetism of the man. How could he be so cool, so aloof, so regal—and still have an aura of sensuality about him that was almost tangible? Whatever he had, it went way beyond a tall, rangy body, strong, dark features and strange, compelling eyes. Dark hair that was just slightly too long gave him a rakish, almost dangerous air, but it was more than that too. It was… He was—

Exasperated with herself, Willa gave up trying to catalog all the elements of Nicholas Francia’s undeniable sex appeal. No matter how attractive the man was, she should have been able to handle him without making such a fool of herself. She hadn’t realized what it was going to be like to actually talk to him up close. She felt battered, exhausted, as if she’d just engaged in a tremendous physical struggle. Her ego and self–esteem were at an all–time low.

And worse, far worse, she had failed.

“I won’t ask you how it went,” a sardonic voice said. “I bet firing squads see happier faces.”

It was Joe Laski, the only other graduate student in the Freedom Fighters, and the acknowledged leader of the group. He was leaning against the wall across the way, smoking and watching her in narrow–eyed appraisal.

Willa snorted and abandoned the support of the door panels. “I feel like I just faced one.”

“Still think he’s the original Prince Charming?”

Willa ignored both the question and the sarcasm, and as Joe fell into step beside her she casually shifted her backpack to make a barrier between them. He was attractive enough, in a sullen, James Dean sort of way, but for some reason he’d always given her a vague case of the creeps.

“Well,” she said dejectedly, “I definitely struck out. He won’t go along with us. He thinks the crown should go back, says it belongs to the people of Brasovia, and it’s high time it was returned.”

“I wonder if he really means it,” Joe said thoughtfully.

Willa threw him a surprised look. “Why shouldn’t he? He sure didn’t sound equivocal to me.” There was nothing in any way equivocal about Nicholas Francia. The man’s self–assurance was overwhelming.

“I don’t know, he could be trying to keep his nose clean.” Joe gave her a sideways glance and lifted one eyebrow. “Rumor has it His Nibs has been in hot water with the administration again.”

“Oh, really? How come?”

Joe gave a dry laugh, reminding Willa that there was seldom any real amusement in his expressions of mirth. “The prof runs with a pretty fast crowd, baby, don’t you know that? Gets his name in the paper a little too often. He even made the tabloids there for a while when he was dating that rock star—what was her name? Dixie? Dottie? But what really blew the big boys’ minds was that thing with the teaching assistant last fall. You know, the one who tried to kill herself, and then her folks sued—”

“That case was dropped,” Willa said, breaking in, irritated by Joe’s avid recital of Nicholas Francia’s sins. “In fact, hadn’t that poor girl been in a mental hospital or something? It wasn’t Dr. Francia’s fault.”

“Doesn’t matter, babe. It’s the publicity that counts. The alumni hate that kind of thing. And since publicity is precisely what we’re after—”

“But dammit, Joe, this is different!” Willa’s hands clenched into frustrated fists. “It’s hardly in the same class as being photographed in some nightclub in a clinch with a rock star! Oooh, if only I could get him to listen to me!”

“Well, babe,” Joe drawled as he pushed through the door that led out to the north campus quad, “you had your chance.”

“Yeah, but I blew it,” Willa said morosely. “Joe, you wouldn’t believe how arrogant that man is. I couldn’t even think what to say to him. He made me feel about a foot tall. And about six years old. I had practiced all these terrific arguments, and instead I wound up telling him about the Queen of Holland, my royal namesake.”

Joe Laski’s sharp blue eyes swept over her with a look of appraisal. “You really did blow it, you know that? You went after the man with the wrong ammunition, kiddo.”

Willa didn’t have to ask him what he meant; the parts of her body touched by his gaze felt as if they’d been stripped. She controlled an impulse to shiver. Joe could be really unnerving, at times.

“Come on, Joe,” she mumbled, shifting her backpack, then sighed. “Seriously. Where do we go from here?”

“I am being serious.” His hand snaked out and caught her arm, pulling her around to face him. His eyes were bright, intent. “You want another shot at him?” When Willa didn’t answer, he went on, his voice very soft. “It’s either that or we go back to the original plan, baby.”

There was a long, tense silence. Willa’s heart began to beat a little faster. The original plan. In a low voice she said, “You know how I feel about that.”

“Yeah, I do. And I agreed to let you try it your way, didn’t I? But if your way doesn’t work, we have no choice. It’s either the professor or Plan A.”

Willa looked away, frowned, then let her breath out and reluctantly brought her gaze back to Joe’s. “I don’t even think I can get near him,” she said sullenly. “He’s promised to have us arrested if we disturb him again. I believe him.”

“Ha!” Ignoring the backpack, Joe draped an arm across her shoulders and began to walk with her across the quad. There was a rather unpleasant smile on his face. “Unlike our dear motherland, this is a free country, remember? I’ve got news for you, babe, not even His Highness can have people arrested if they aren’t breaking any laws. Right?” He looked down at her, broadening the smile into a puckish grin. “And as far as I know, there’s no law against a few friends having a conversation in a public parking lot—is there?”

Wllla halted, more as an excuse to get out from under Joe’s arm than anything else. “Parking lot?”

He turned to look back at her, making no attempt to feign innocence. “Right,” he drawled smugly. “Such as the parking lot in which I happen to know Prince Charming parks his car.”

** ** **

Nicholas was tired, glad to be heading home. It had been a long day, thanks to that department head meeting this morning, and then the trouble with those students. He felt a surge of irritation and quickly quelled it. Hopefully this time they’d gotten the message and would leave him alone from now on.

Another emotion caught him unawares, chiefly because it wasn’t something he felt very often. He had a little trouble identifying it at first, but when it was followed by a vivid mental picture of a pale face dominated by luminous jet–black eyes, he had to acknowledge it as guilt. He did regret having been so high–handed with that poor woman—what was her name? Oh, yes. Caris. Wilhelmina. Nicholas chuckled and shook his head. What a hell of a name to saddle a beautiful girl with.

Beautiful.

That, too, caught him unawares. But yes, now he thought about it, she was beautiful, in an unusual sort of way—not at all his type, of course. Maybe, he thought in self–mockery, that was all there was to it—a missed opportunity. There were certainly a lot of people who’d believe it of him. But no, he truly did wish he’d been a little kinder, because for all the woman’s toughness and passion, he’d sensed an underlying vulnerability in her that would continue to haunt him for a long time.

He sighed as he mounted the steps to the upper–level parking lot, fishing in his pocket for his car keys. He’d be glad when this whole Brasovian crown thing was over. He didn’t need that kind of a disturbance in his life. He liked it just the way it was, or had been. Until recently his life had been… most satisfying. He smiled to himself as he drew the crisp air of February deeply into his lungs. It had a nice bite to it. He’d suggest to Tanya they stay in tonight. It was a perfect evening for a crackling fire and a glass of chilled wine. He wasn’t in the mood for noise and crowds, and besides, Tanya had a real talent for massage.

“Here he comes,” Joe Laski said, pushing himself unhurriedly away from the classic sports car’s gleaming pewter hood.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Willa muttered. Several bad feelings, actually. Like a knot in her stomach the size of a small Ferrari. Like cold, sweaty palms and a heartbeat so wild and heavy it hurt.

“Hey,” Joe said, “don’t worry about it.”

As he turned to caution the rest of the group, Willa caught the glitter of excitement in his eyes. She realized he was enjoying this. She envied him a little; Joe seemed to thrive on this sort of brinksmanship, while it always made her feel slightly sick.

“Remember,” Joe was saying to the group in a low voice, “don’t touch the car. Don’t touch anything but the pavement you’re sitting on. We don’t want to give him grounds for calling the cops.”

But as Willa watched Professor Francia stride toward her across the parking lot, she had an idea he wasn’t much concerned with law and order. In fact, right now he looked very much like a man with murder on his mind.

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