Can a royal bachelor and a meddlesome matchmaker ignore their attraction while stranded--with killers?
Prince Lazlo knew he'd been tricked when he wound up stranded on a remote island with a nosy "marriage consultant" who'd been hired to find him the perfect princess bride. And the worst part was, she was the one woman he'd tried--and failed!--to seduce, claiming she never fell for a client. But the squabbling stopped once Lazlo realized they weren't alone, and in order to elude the desperate killers stalking them, they had to work as a team. Imminent danger had a surprising upside, he discovered. Out of her element, Milda let down her hair and her guard. Now if only she'd break her number one matchmaking rule....
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May 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Stranded with the Prince by Dana Marton
Stranded with the Prince
by Dana Marton
Sagro Prison island, Italy
Boots slapped on the concrete floor, keeping a regular rhythm. The night security lights were on, enough to see the guard who was texting on his phone as he strode out of sight, a sly grin on his pockmarked face. A minute went by, then another. The steel door opened then closed at the end of the cell block.
The 2:00 a.m. check was complete. Nobody would be by again until morning.
Roberto, fully dressed, slid out of bed, making no more noise than his shadow as it moved across the floor. He laid his pillow lengthwise on the bare mattress then draped the bed with his blanket, creating a bulky form.
His sheets had been ripped, twisted into rope and wrapped around his waist before he'd gone to bed. Now he bent and squatted one more time to make sure the cumbersome arrangement wouldn't limit his movement. He adjusted a tight strip under his left armpit before he stole to the door and pressed the top part of the lock hard.
Click. The sound was so soft even he barely heard it.
Jos� had fixed the locks. The oldest of the team, Jos� had been a locksmith before a drive-by took out his family in the godforsaken backstreets of Bogot�. With nothing to live for, he'd signed up for the rival gang. Jos� understood revenge.
So did Roberto. It pushed him forward as he stole down the hallway, moving fast in a crouch. He listened to the snoring of the other inmates. A bed creaked now and then as someone turned over in his sleep. He listened for any indication that someone noticed him, not trusting--despite substantial bribes and dire threats--that they wouldn't betray him and sound the alarm.
Jos� was waiting for him at the water block, along with Marco, the third member of the team.
"Any trouble?" Roberto kept his voice to a low whisper.
Marco shook his head. He was young and sullen, still not over the fact that they'd been imprisoned. That here, on the other side of the ocean, the boss couldn't protect them. He was ready to go, but didn't think it fair that they had to orchestrate the escape themselves. He'd griped and whined through the preparations. Which better stop right now, right here. Roberto flashed him a sharp look that warned him to be on his best behavior.
The young thugs coming out of the slums these days were too hotheaded, only after the glory, and rarely willing to put enough effort into a job to get it done right. They wanted the fastest car and the biggest gun, wanted to build reputations overnight, which led to too much senseless killing.
"All's according to plan," Jos� was saying.
Exactly what Roberto wanted to hear. His sticker, a spoon handle sharpened into a knife, waited stashed inside a showerhead. He retrieved the makeshift tool then went to work on removing a wall panel.
A hundred years ago, Sagro Prison had been the hunting castle of some Italian king. When they'd rebuilt it into a prison in the fifties, they changed just about everything. Security had been upgraded several times since, but the prison's waste and sewer system still connected to the old castle's cistern.
All Roberto and his men had had to do over the endless months that they'd been locked up here was dig through the wall. The cistern's ducts, carved from stone, were plenty wide to accommodate a man.
Jos� squeezed in first, then Marco, Roberto going last, pulling the wall panel into place behind him. By morning they'd be free men. His to-do list was simple: get food, finish the boss's business in Trieste, then get the hell out of Italy.
But he wouldn't go back to Bogot�, not straightaway. He had personal business in the area which he meant to see handled. He was going to Valtria, the small kingdom to the north, to gain retribution for his brother's death.
An eye for an eye, a life for a life. He might have been too old-school to condone all the senseless killing the new gangs did these days, but revenge was part of a man's honor. And he did believe in that. He certainly did.
Island of Morka, Nature Preserve, Valtria
She was the scourge of his life, a relentless thorn under his royal skin. Prince Lazlo of Valtria watched Milda Milas bear down on him and knew what it felt like to be hunted.
A professional matchmaker from New York. He loved his mother as much as all his brothers did, but the Queen had gone too far this time. One of her ladies-in-waiting had a cousin in New York who'd been Milda's client. Apparently, a recommendation had been made. He didn't like the idea of his mother discussing his personal life with her ladies-in-waiting. Shouldn't they have been talking about the royal gardens or copying antique tapestries and the like when they retired to the Queen's private quarters?
Despite the calming, balmy breeze that streamed from the endless azure water, Lazlo's sense of peace was fast disappearing. He'd been looking forward to spending the day away from the palace, away from Mil-da's harping. He should have known she wouldn't let a perfectly good day go by without doing her best to ruin it. A dull throb started up in the knee he'd once injured in a crash. Maybe his subconscious was beginning to associate her with pain.
"And there I was, thinking I could hide from you here," he said when she reached him.
He liked the island of Morka, fifty miles off the Italian coast, an inhabited chunk of land in the Mediterranean Sea, owned by the Valtrian royal family and set up as a nature preserve. With its wild olive and orange groves, the place was a veritable paradise--but for Milda Milas's unfortunate presence.
"Your Highness." She stopped in front of him with that ra-ra-hurra look that hardly left her face whenever she dealt with him. She seemed to think that if she smiled wide enough and pretended that what she was doing to him was normal--wonderful, even--somehow he could be tricked into agreeing with her.
"I don't know how you got here. Never mind that." He reconsidered and cut to the point. "You should leave," he told her firmly. "I'm not playing your games today. I've made other plans."
Since the top of her head only came up to his shoulders, she usually rose to the tips of her toes when she wanted to browbeat him into yet another one of her crazy plans. She was stretching up so hard at the moment that she looked like a ballet dancer. The wind whipped her long, reddish-brown hair around her slim face. Her eyes, the exact dusky blue of his first race car, narrowed as she dropped the smile, recognizing smartly that it wasn't going to work today.
"You should face your responsibilities, Your Highness. Don't you think all this endless evasion is childish?"
She had his gander up in thirty seconds flat. A new record. She knew she was annoying him, but she didn't care. She had the Queen's protection. She'd been given free reign, God help him.
"I'm childish?" He drew up an eyebrow slowly, regally, and regarded her with a chilly expression he'd learned early on in life from his mother. "You torture me for money. What does that make you?"
She dropped back on her heels and stuck her chin out, her eyes and lips narrowing. "To be honest, I'd torture you for free. If that makes you feel better."
He was taken aback for a moment. He was used to more respect as a prince. Although not from her, admittedly.
"You know what I think?" she asked with a smirk, losing the last of her polite veneer.
He allowed a subtle sneer. "A better question is, mademoiselle, do I care?"
"I think you're afraid that you couldn't hold an intelligent woman's attention over the long term. That's why you engage only in nightlong, scandalous affairs with those twits." Her tone turned to lecturing. "Your conduct is embarrassing the monarchy and the Queen. You were caught on tape in a compromising situation, for love's sake." She rolled her dusky blue eyes in a way that told him exactly what she thought of that.
Not that until now he'd been forced to guess. She had expressed her opinion a number of times since the unfortunate incident.
He tried to put this latest scandal out of his mind. No chance of that with her around. She was going to lecture him on his duties as a prince? His blood pressure inched up. He drew a long, slow breath.
"You know what I think?" he asked, and kept going, without giving her a chance to pipe up. "I think American kamikaze nuptial consultants should stay in their own country."
He was pleased with himself for resisting the urge to raise his voice. He was not going to lose control because of her. He was a prince. He was certainly up to the challenge of ignoring a troublesome matchmaker. "Where are my brothers?"
He was supposed to be on the island with them, and only them, on a day hike. Miklos's idea. Since the failed rebel attacks of the past two years, the six royal brothers hardly got to spend time together anymore. If he didn't like Miklos's and Benedek's wives so much, he would have blamed it on them, but Princess Judi and Princess Rayne were too lovely to fault for anything. He couldn't truly blame his brothers for not wanting to leave home, even if he never understood what had possessed them to rush into marriage.
Single life suited him just fine. Being a prince, he already had more expectations and regulations, more rules governing his every move than he cared to think about. Marriage would have been just another prison.
Which Milda refused to understand.
"Your brothers aren't coming." Her slim fingers worried the colorful bead bracelet on her left wrist.
Why couldn't they just call, instead of sending a message with her, of all people, when--Lazlo froze, a terrible premonition holding him speechless for a moment before he could ask, "This is another one of your traps, isn't it?"
So help him God--
"You'll be going hiking with the Lady Lidia, the Lady Szilvia and the Lady Adel." Her "this will be fun, you'll see" smile returned.
He swore in a way that should have been beneath him as a prince. "My brothers helped you set me up?" A new low. Incomprehensible, really. The sense of betrayal was overwhelming.
And her guilty look confirmed everything.
His brothers probably thought it was a grand joke. "I'm going to murder them," he muttered.
History was full of princes who killed their own brothers to get closer to the throne. He didn't care about the throne. But he might be driven to murder by Milda Milas yet. Except, then centuries from now historians would speculate that maybe he'd been secretly in love with her, and the act had been motivated by jealousy or some such nonsense. That would be intolerable. She was already messing up his life; he wasn't going to let her sully his legacy.
"How dare you?" He stepped toward her, ready to take her to task, but caught sight of a sizable pile of duffel bags farther up the beach. He'd thought them a pile of rocks earlier, with the sun in his eyes, but now that a small cloud blocked some of the brilliant rays, he could see that he'd been mistaken. "What is that?"
They couldn't have needed all that equipment for one day. His own guards were in the process of unloading his speedboat, removing the two boxes that contained the food and drink he and his brothers would have needed until they returned to the palace this evening.
"A two-week hike?" she squeaked, cleared her throat, went back up on her tiptoes then said again, in a deeper tone of self-confidence she must have practiced in the mirror, "A two-week hike with the ladies." Her damned smile was in full bloom.
He glanced around but didn't see any desperate women ready to drag him to the altar. Excellent. He had plenty of time to run for the boat. "Have you lost your mind? "
She drew her slim shoulders up, looking like some sort of exotic bird taking up defensive position. Or getting ready to attack. He had the uncomfortable feeling that he was about to be pecked to death.
"The ladies went to see the Painted Rocks. They should be back shortly. You need to spend time with intelligent, self-sufficient women, and stay away from your empty-headed beauties for a few days," she stated.
So she admitted that the three ladies in question weren't beauties. Not that he could bring that up without proving himself to be shallow--of which she accused him endlessly.
The impatient growl that escaped him didn't seem to alarm her in the least. "Once you calm down, Your Highness, you'll see this was a good idea." She didn't back away. She never backed down from him, one of her many annoying qualities. "By tonight, I promise you'll feel a lot better about all this."
The only thing that would have made him feel better would have been tossing her into the sea. Sadly, being a prince, he'd been raised better than to threaten bodily harm to a woman. Not even a woman who was dead set on ruining his life.
She wasn't going to quit until she saw him married. She was the type to see that the job got done. No matter what. In anyone else, he could have appreciated the drive. He could appreciate little in her. They'd been doing battle for months now.
A wave of weariness hit him. "Why are you doing this to me?"
Her gaze never wavered. "For one, as you pointed out, I get paid for it."
"I could pay you more to go away."
"I would never break my contract. You should be grateful. I'm here to help you. The Queen gave you six months to announce that you've chosen a bride. She wants to see you settled down. You must end the scandals."
"I still have another month." In fact, he'd been counting on that last month of freedom rather desperately.
"Two weeks on this blasted island would waste half.