Getting dumped ought to hurt more. Poets wrote about lost love, pining away as if the world would stop turning on its axis. Half the popular songs Kurt VonRamsberg knew were about the one who got away. People became obsessed with their ex’s. Late night phone calls, orgies of liquor and tears. Restraining orders. They were the stuff of a lover cast aside. And he couldn’t muster more than a sense of regret as he walked the few blocks from his apartment building to his office at the UN. What kind of future husband did that make him to care so little?
Kurt had built his life around three things – service to his country, his family, and the woman who’d give him his very own family to continue the traditions his father had taught him. He’d just lost number three, and he ought to be teetering like a stool missing a leg. He ought to be mourning the loss of Ilsa’s kisses or planning some way to get her back. Maybe she’d had it right when she’d written that his passions didn’t run very deep.
A car horn blared, pulling him back to reality. For the love of God, he’d almost stepped into First Avenue without looking.
“Mister, you’ll get yourself killed,” a man called.
Kurt didn’t look back to find him. Embarrassing enough he’d almost stepped in front of that cab without having to face witnesses. He waited for the light to change and crossed the street more carefully.
He could have had his driver take him to the UN as he usually did, but walking helped him clear his mind. And this was one of those mornings when you couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than Manhattan in the spring. It would cheer him up if he were heartbroken. But damn it all, he couldn’t figure out what he was. A failure, perhaps. He’d had the perfect woman for a prince of Danislova. Beautiful, cultured, royal in her own right. They got along. By all indications, they’d suit well in bed. And he’d failed to hold her interest.
“My dear Kurt,” he recited the letter in his head. On stationery, through the international mail, not over the computer. Cultured. “I hate to hurt you, blah, blah, blah. You’re a sweet man, and you deserve a woman who can love you blah, blah, blah.”
What man wanted women to think of him as sweet? No one he knew. At least, Ilsa didn’t seem familiar with the American kiss of death – I love you but I’m not in love with you – or she might have thrown that in, too.
As he continued, the sun warmed his shoulders, and the scents of spring seeped into his brain, turning his thoughts into oatmeal. Bland but nutritious for the most part, but occasionally he’d stumble across a raisin – something substantial to gnaw on. He ought to want Ilsa, or at the very least, he ought to think about dating someone who could fit the role of princess. But to be perfectly honest, the only thing bubbling up inside him was relief. Relief that he’d failed?
“As much as I adore your father,” Ilsa’s letter continued. Of course. All women adored his father. No woman would ever tell Friedrich VonRamsberg, the Prince Royal, she loved him but she wasn’t in love with him. Kurt even looked like the old man, or he would when his hair turned white. But where Friedrich was commanding and alluring, even in his sixties, Kurt was solid and reliable.
Solid and reliable. Sweet. He stopped in his tracks in the lush garden in front of the vintage apartment building on 42nd Street. For a moment, his feet seemed nailed to the pavement. Before him stood the UN and his work. This morning’s meeting with the Minister for Eastern European Rural Development. A dispute about goats no one else seemed able to settle except for good-old, dependable Kurt. Behind him waited his apartment. Luxurious but neat and ordered, just like the rest of his life. Going back there wouldn’t solve anything, either. What the hell was he doing with his life? Did he even have a life? And was he going to stand in the middle of one of the most expensive parts of Manhattan and have a mid-life crisis? Would anyone notice?
He ended up so caught up in mental self-flagellation he didn’t notice the woman approach until she had her hand on his arm.
Instinctively, he pulled back. “I beg your pardon.”
“You’re late,” she said. “And you’re going to get me in a lot of trouble.”
“I? I don’t even know you, madam.” She was hardly a madam but more like a miss, and a young one at that. The top of her head scarcely came up to his nose, but her grip remained firm as she stared at him out of eyes almost as dark blue as sapphires. Barely restrained at the nape of her neck, sable curls spilled down her back, making a contrast with pale skin. Pale except for her cheeks, which were flushed with excitement or, more likely, irritation.
“You don’t have to be in character,” she said. “You just have to be inside.”
She paid no attention to his objections as she tugged on his arm, leading into the apartment building. “I have one of the city’s most expensive photographers and another model waiting for you. My ass is going to be grass if we don’t get some good shots.”
“Grass?” She had said that her ass, or arse as the case might be, would be grass, hadn’t she? Well now, he couldn’t very well let that happen. Especially because the arse in question looked like a nice one, based on the few quick glances he’d managed. And who was he to keep an expensive photographer and model waiting for him? Of course, none of this could possibly have anything to do with him. She must have mistaken him for someone else, but…sure. If he could help her out for a few minutes, the escapade could help fill the urges he’d been having lately to do something just for the hell of it.
She nearly dragged him toward the elevators, with the receptionists at the front desk looking on as if they witnessed this sort of scene every day.
“You’re in the wrong costume, do you know that?” she said as she continued, pulling him along through the marble and brass reception area.
He flatly refused to repeat the word costume just because it didn’t make any more sense than being in character or having one’s ass turn into grass. When the elevator doors whished closed behind them, she crossed her arms over her chest and studied him. “We’ll find something for you to wear.”
“For my character,” he said.
“Dare I ask what that might be?” he said.
Right. Gumshoe. That explained absolutely nothing, but who cared? This didn’t have to make sense. He’d help her out, and he’d only be a few minutes late for his meeting. Somehow, assuming the character of a gumshoe to keep her ass from turning into grass held more promise than a meeting on a warm, spring morning like this.
“Here we are,” she declared when the elevator doors opened.
“Right you are.”
Still holding his arm, she paused. “You’re not American, are you?”
“Not English, either. You have a different accent.”
“German,” he lied. If he mentioned Danislova, she might recognize him. If he was to give a performance as a gumshoe, whatever that was, he’d best do it incognito.
“That’s okay. No one has to listen to you.” The elevator doors threatened to close, but she stuck her hand out to keep them open. “Hurry up.”
Now committed to whatever she had in mind for him, he followed her down the hallway to a pair of double doors. She pulled a key from the pocket of her slacks and opened one. It let them into a living room with a view of the river. She only gave him a glimpse of plush carpets and modern furniture before she led him to another room full of exercise equipment.
At one end of the space, a sheet hung from some scaffolding. A man waited there with a camera slung around his neck. Nearby on one of the machines, a woman sat, dangling one leg over the other, her foot wagging with impatience. She wore several layers of makeup, and her clothes hugged her slender hips and artificially large breasts. What passed for beauty these days, at least in magazines.
“We have our hero,” his young woman said. “We can get started.”
The man with the camera checked his watch. “It’s half past.”
“You only paid me for an hour,” the model said.
The young woman held her hands up as if to keep them where they were. “We’ll get it done. I promise. No more screw-ups.”
“What do you want me to do?” Kurt said.
“Get changed, of course,” the young woman answered. “You’re not supposed to be a CEO or international financier.”
“Right here? In front of everyone?” Not that he’d do that, of course. Escaping the Minister for Eastern European Rural Development was one thing, but his cooperation did have limits.
She pointed toward a corner of the room where a screen stood with female clothes draped over it. No doubt where the model had changed into her costume.
“I see,” he said.
The young woman sighed. “Why do the pretty ones have heads full of Styrofoam?”
He could have stood there contemplating the fact that she thought he was empty-headed or the even more interesting fact that she found him pretty, but all three of them were staring at him. Waiting for him to change his clothes, no doubt. So, he went behind the screen and glanced around for what he was supposed to wear. He only found feminine things, and he’d no more try fitting into that than he’d undress in front of the rest of them.
He hesitated for a moment before asking what he was supposed to change into. As pleasant as the pretty comment had been, he didn’t particularly relish having to listen to another one about his head being filled with plastic.
After a moment, a hand snaked around the screen, holding a pair of pants and a shirt. He grabbed her arm and pulled the young woman to him. Her eyes widened until she noticed he hadn’t undressed.
“More questions?” she asked.
“What’s your name?”
“Casey. What’s yours?”
“Kurt,” he answered.
“Nice. Now get dressed,” she ordered as she stepped back around the screen.
He obliged, folding his clothing as carefully as possible and setting it into a pile on the floor. He quickly put on his costume and had just sat on the floor to put his socks and shoes back on when an irritated huff came from the other side of the screen.
“We aren’t getting any younger out here,” Casey called.
“Just putting on my shoes.”
“We’re not going to be taking pictures of your feet,” she called back.
“Right.” He rose and walked barefoot around the screen. He almost collided with Casey on the other side.
She stepped back and let her gaze wander over him. “Not bad.”
“The pants are tight.”
She said nothing but gave him a look that had “Styrofoam” written all over it. Then she reached for the buttons of his shirt and began undoing them.
“Wait.” He covered her hands with his own. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Exposing your chest, of course. How long have you been in this business?”
With no idea what business she was referring to, he had no way to answer that. But she probably hadn’t really expected a reply, so he dropped his hands and let her continue. With his shirt only. If she went for his pants, he’d let her know exactly who she was dealing with and end the whole charade.
She stopped just north of his belt and for a moment did nothing but stare at him, her head cocked to one side. The air thickened around them as her hand came up in slow motion and she pressed her palm to the place just over his heart. She had small fingers, although by now, he knew their strength. They felt warm against his skin. Some devil inside him made him lift his own hand and cover hers, squeezing gently. As natural as if he’d done this dozens of times before or planned to do it for a long, long time.
Finally, a throat cleared. The camera man snapped a few pictures and then pointedly stared at his watch. The model, on the other hand, seemed almost as intent on studying his chest as Casey was. Though he was certainly no stranger to what went on between men and women, all this female adoration was something new and slightly intoxicating, especially when it came so freely from the little dynamo standing so close he could detect the scent of shampoo in her hair.
“Can we take a picture now?” the camera man asked. “Please?”
Casey dropped her hand and gave him a sheepish smile. “You know what to do?”
Under the circumstances, honesty seemed like the best policy. “No.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll make it up as we go along.”
“Delightful,” he said. “Now, if you’ll explain what a gumshoe is…”
The camera man groaned.
Casey turned toward the man. “He’s not American, okay?”
“I hope they take pictures wherever he comes from,” the man said.
“He’ll be fine. Just give me a second,” Casey said.
“Well, I’m outta here in a couple,” the model said. “You only paid for an hour.”
“It’s very simple.” Casey put her hands on his shoulders and looked up at him. This close, she had to tip her head upward, and for a mini-second, she appeared to be asking for a kiss. Kurt had to mentally shake the idea out of his mind, but it wasn’t easy. He hadn’t notice before that freckles adorned her nose. Five of them exactly. And her blue eyes seemed to have golden highlights.
“You’re a private detective,” she said. “You spend your days chasing down the ugly underside of life. It’s made you hard to the world.”
“I see.” He squinted in imitation of a Hollywood actor who played a tough guy.
“Uh, maybe not that hard,” she said. “Just try for intensity.”
“Could we try for a picture instead?” the camera man said.
“Sure, sure.” Casey waved her hand in the general direction of the camera man. “This woman has hired you to do something especially seedy, but you’re going to make her pay a special price first.”
Across the room, the model stepped in front of the sheet. She struck a saucy pose, her hands on her hips. Her blouse open far enough to expose the black lace of her bra, she stood there, waiting for him to complete the scene.
“Okay, go get her, tiger.” Casey clapped him on the shoulder and then nudged him in the direction of the model.
When Kurt joined the model in front of the camera, she immediately stepped into his embrace. To make things even more provocative, she tipped her head back in a pose that showcased the length of her neck and pulled her bosom away from his chest so the camera could catch some cleavage. Casey had told him to try for intensity, so he did his best to smolder, staring at a spot above her collarbone.
“Well, shit,” the cameraman said. “That’s about as sexy as my aunt’s canasta parties.”
“I know.” Casey joined them and placed her hand on the back of Kurt’s head to bend it toward the model. “Kiss her neck.”
“He’s a detective, not a vampire,” the cameraman said.
“Try it,” Casey said.
Kurt bent closer to the model. Now with his face only inches from her skin the scent of her make-up and hairspray was overpowering. He pulled back but not in time to keep him from sneezing. Twice.
“That does it.” The model stepped away from him. “Your time’s up. I’m tail lights.”
“No, please.” Casey reached for the woman’s arm, but the model avoided her and went behind the screen. Pieces of clothing disappeared, one at a time, from where they’d been hanging, and after a moment, the model re-emerged with a large bag draped over her shoulder. Bits of fabric stuck out of the top as the woman walked out.
Casey turned toward the cameraman. “You have to stay. I need to finish this, or I could lose my job.”
Damn. That explained the ass being grass remark. Whoever was supposed to serve as the male character had failed her completely by not showing up, and Kurt hadn’t done a lot better with his miserable performance. At least he’d tried, even if he’d been a disaster.
“You want me to take solo pictures of him?” The cameraman gestured with his head toward Kurt.
“No,” Casey said. “I need to get another female.”
“I’m not sticking around for that,” the cameraman said. “It took long enough to get him here.”
“All right, we will all remain calm.” She rubbed her forehead as if trying to ward off a headache. “I’m a female. I’ll pose with him.”
“You?” the camera man said. “You’re not even made up.”
“You can cut out my head and insert the model’s, right?” Casey said.
“If you want to look like Frankenstein,” the man said. “All stitched together.”
“It’s my only hope, and you have to do it. Raven Publishing paid you a lot of money,” Casey said.
“Sure, why not?” The cameraman threw his hands into the air in frustration. “Knock yourself out.”
She unbuttoned her blouse…not quite as far as the model had but enough to show the swell of small but firm breasts. Then she pulled the clip that held her hair in place, dropped it to the floor, and shook out her curls. A waterfall of sable fell around her face and graced the length of her throat. The warm brown contrasted with her pale skin, drawing his gaze downward.
Before he knew what was happening, she’d pressed herself against him from his pelvis to his chest. In contrast to the nothing-but-bones body of the model, Casey felt soft everywhere. Exactly the way a woman should melt against a man, and his man’s anatomy responded in a very predictable, if embarrassing, manner.
He might be a prince and an ambassador to the UN, bound by courtesy and protocol, but he was also human. He hadn’t become so fully erect so quickly since his youth, but within seconds he’d reached a state that would normally lead to lovemaking.
Casey’s eyes widened as she gazed up at him. She’d noticed his hardness. She couldn’t have missed it, snuggled up against him as she was. She didn’t say anything, but her lips parted. The model had pretended an invitation. Casey meant it, and he couldn’t help but bend toward her, seeking a taste of her mouth.
“That’s hot,” the cameraman said as he clicked away. “Give me more.”
Kurt shook himself mentally. For a moment, he’d lost track of reality. He’d only just met this woman and knew nothing about her but her first name. Even if they hadn’t had a witness, he couldn’t kiss her less than an hour after meeting her. And they did have an audience. He shouldn’t have reacted this way, and he shouldn’t want nothing more than to strip her slowly and guide them both to the carpet so he could sink into her.
She gave him a hazy smile, full of sin and seduction. It set his heart to racing. The click of the camera grew constant so that he hardly noticed it any longer. He had a woman in his arms, soft in all the right places and as excited by the situation as he was.
“You two are dynamite together,” the cameraman said. “Smoking hot.”
“Let me try something else.” Casey stretched backward as the model had before. This time, the pose made sense…a woman offering her neck to her lover in hopes of a caress. Her skin had a rosy hue to it, and her pulse beat visibly at the base of her throat. This time when he bent toward the woman in his arms, he encountered the pleasant scent of shampoo he‘d noticed before.
“Hold it right there,” the cameraman shouted. “Don’t kiss her. Just anticipate. That’s it…hold it…hold it…”
As soon as the man told Kurt not to kiss her, the need to do exactly that consumed him. He paused, his lips an inch away from her soft skin, her curls brushing his nose. One more movement, and he could taste her. Instead he had to hold himself away. So unnatural. He should place caress after caress along a path up to her ear, and he would…if only that man would disappear and take his clacking camera with him.
She made no secret that she felt the same way he did. She trembled in his embrace, and her breath grew unsteady. In a moment, he could have her moaning. Soon after that, he could hear her gasps and finally the cry that signaled her satisfaction. If only he were free to do what his body demanded.
In the end, his willpower deserted him. He had to kiss her, or the lost opportunity would haunt his dreams. He closed the distance and pressed his lips to the place where her pulse raced. Now her perfume surrounded him, fogging his brain for anything but her. When she let out a soft gasp, he continued upward caressing her neck up to her ear.
Abruptly, she pulled back, holding his face between her hands. “Do you have what you need now?”
“Need?” Kurt repeated.
“I meant Joe,” she said. “The guy taking pictures.”
“Do I ever,” Joe said. “There should be at least eight or ten shots we can use.”
“Well then…” she said.
“Right.” Joe grinned. “I get the message.”
Whatever message the man had received, it helped him to gather up his lenses and pack them in a case quickly. A moment after that, Joe left. Kurt was alone with his arms around a woman who obviously had the power to make him more than a little crazy.
“You’re something else, Kurt,” she said.
She was right. Something else or someone else. He’d started out the day his normal, predictable self. Now he found himself locked in an embrace with a perfect stranger, and it felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Because that stranger was smiling and not stepping out of that embrace, he could show her just how perfect she was. He did that by kissing her again. Not a press of his lips against her neck, but a total possession of her mouth. The word “sweet” exploded at the back of his brain as he nibbled, and stroked, and sucked.
He’d had as much sexual experience as most men and rather more than some, but none of that prepared him for the power of his response to her. Even with her short stature, they fit together perfectly. Her softness welcomed him everywhere, especially where his stiff member pressed against her belly.
For her part, she seemed as caught up in the passion of the moment as he was. She clung to his neck as she parted her lips under his, and her tongue darted out to make explorations. When he touched it with his own, a shock traveled through him. Hot and strong, it sent a clear message—stop here or continue to the end.
No. He didn’t know this woman. He didn’t have any protection. Though his body craved the ultimate with a hunger that shook him to his bones, his mind had to win out. He gently took her shoulders and put her away from him. Not far. Just enough to say “no more.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never lose control like that.”
“Never?” She ran her tongue over her lips as if to taste him there. The gesture almost snapped his tenuous hold on sanity, so he closed his eyes for a moment and took even breaths.
He searched through his lust-addled brain for an honest answer to her question. Had a woman ever moved him so completely with no more than a kiss? “Never.”
“I think I’m flattered.”
“I’m relieved.” He’d take flattered over angry at his forwardness. He really had pressed the kiss too far.
“You thought I’d be offended?” Her blue eyes held the twinkle of a woman who knows she has a man at a disadvantage. “They must do things differently in Germany.”
The reference to Germany shook him for a second. But then, he’d told her he was German to explain his accent. “I assure you men don’t take advantage of women in my country.”
“I can slap your face, if you like, but it’s really not that big a deal.” She bit her lip, and the gleam in her eye turned positively wicked. “On the other hand, something was a big deal, wasn’t it?”
“Lieber Gott.” His cheeks burned. He’d be blushing so brightly she’d have to notice.
“Hey, look, I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
In the outer room—the living room they’d walked through—a door closed.
“Casey?” a man’s voice called. “Casey, where are you?”
She flinched. “Shit, you have to get out of here.”
He just stopped himself before he said “Lieber Gott” again, this time shouting. “That’s your husband? We’ve been standing here, doing…this…when you have a husband?”
“My boss, and he can’t catch you here.” She went to the door, opened it, and stuck her head around the side. “I’m exercising, Phil. I’ll be out in a bit.”
“At this hour? You’re supposed to be working on my blog tour,” the man’s voice called back.
“I had to get my heart rate up, get the old juices flowing,” she said. “I’m really sweaty. Don’t come in.”
“All right. I’ll be in the library. Ten minutes, Casey. I mean it,” Phil said.
“Ten minutes. No problem.” She waited for a while and then let out a breath. “He’s gone. Out the back way. Hurry.”
She once again grabbed him by the arm and started to lead him somewhere, but he hung back. “My clothes.”
“Okay, but hurry up, will you?”
He’d barely gone behind the screen and grabbed his things before she reached for his arm again and pulled him out the door and into a short corridor. That ended in a huge, state-of-the-art kitchen. He hardly had time to admire many hundreds of dollars worth of copper pots and pans hanging over a butcher-block work table before she propelled him toward another door.
“Why do I have to hide from your boss?” he said.
“If you knew Phil, you wouldn’t ask. He’s going to want to bite the head off everyone involved in that cover shoot.”
Kurt dug in his heels, jerking her to a stop. “That includes you.”
“I get my head bitten off at least once I week.”
“Then why do you work for him?” Kurt demanded.
“No time to explain.” She released him and opened the door to reveal a hallway of the kind servants used so as not to disturb their employers. “You have to leave.”
He stood his ground. “How will I see you again?”
“I don’t know…um…”
“I can come back here when you finish work,” he said.
“No. ” She put up both hands as if to warn him off. “Not here.”
“Then where?” If he could pursue a more rational relationship with her, he might rightfully enjoy more of those kisses and follow them to their logical conclusion. He might be old world and cautious in how he approached affairs of the heart—at least he had been in the past—but he wasn’t foolish enough to throw away the promise of their embrace.
“I’ll give you my phone number.” He fumbled with the suit draped over his arm and found the pocket of his jacket. After pulling out his pen, he reached for a business card. He couldn’t use that, though, without revealing his status as prince of Danislova and United Nations ambassador. “Do you have a piece of paper?”
“Reams of it,” she said. “In the other room. With Phil.”
He handed her his pen and continued fumbling.
“Give me your hand,” she said.
“Just do it.”
He did as she ordered and she pressed the pen to his palm. After a moment, she’d written her phone number on his skin. “There you go. Now, you really have to leave.”
With that, she pushed him out the door and closed it behind him. Prince Kurt Wilhelm Richard VonRamsberg, third in line to the throne of Danislova, found himself standing in a servants’ corridor wearing too-tight pants and a shirt open to his waist, his own clothes tangled in his arms and a young woman’s phone number scrawled on his palm.
For the love of God, what had just happened to him?