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Authors: Catherine Mann

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BOOK: The Maverick Prince
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Her son’s safety? Perspiration froze on her forehead, chilling her deeper. Why hadn’t she thought of that? Of course she’d barely wrapped her brain around Tony…Antonio. “Drive faster. Get me home now.”

“I completely agree. I’ve already sent bodyguards ahead of us.”

Bodyguards?

“When?” She’d barely been able to think, much less act. What kind of mother was she not to have considered the impact on Kolby? And what kind of man kept bodyguards on speed dial?

“I texted my people while we were leaving through the kitchen.”

Of course he had people. The man was not merely the billionaire shipping magnate she’d assumed, he was also the bearer of a surname generations old and a background of privilege she couldn’t begin to fathom.

“I was so distracted I didn’t even notice,” Shannon whispered, sinking into her seat. She wasn’t even safe in her own neighborhood anymore.

She couldn’t wish this away any longer. “You really are this Medina guy. You’re really from some deposed royal family.”

His chin tipped with unmistakable regality. “My name is Antonio Medina. I was born in San Rinaldo, third son of King Enrique and Queen Beatriz.”

Her heart drumming in her ears, panic squeezed harder at her rib cage. How could she have foreseen this when she met him five months ago at the restaurant, bringing his supper back to the owner’s poker game? Tony had ordered a shrimp po’boy sandwich and a glass of sweet tea.

Poor Boy?
How ironic was that?

“This is too weird.” And scary.

The whole surreal mess left her too numb to hurt anymore. That would return later, for sure. Her hands shook as she tapped her glasses straight.

She had to stay focused now. “Stuff like this happens in movies or a hundred years ago.”

“Or in my life. Now in yours, too.”

“Nuh-uh. You and I?” She waggled her hand back and forth between them. “We’re history.”

He paused at a stop sign, turning to face her fully for the first time since he’d gripped her shoulders at the restaurant. His coal black eyes heated over her, a bold man of uninhibited emotions. “That fast, you’re ready to call an end to what we’ve shared?”

Her heart picked up speed from just the caress of his eyes, the memory of his hands stroking her. She tried to answer but her mouth had gone dry. He skimmed those scarred knuckles down her arm until his hand rested on hers. Such a simple gesture, nothing overtly erotic, but her whole body hummed with awareness and want.

Right here in the middle of the street, in the middle of an upside down situation, her body betrayed her as surely as he had.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. She had to be tough. “I already ended things between us last weekend.”

“That was a fight, not a breakup.” His big hand splayed over hers, eclipsing her with heat.

“Semantics. Not that it matters.” She pulled herself away from him until her spine met the door, not nearly far enough. “I can’t be with you anymore.”

“That’s too damn bad, because we’re going to be spending a lot of time together after we pick up your son. There’s no way you can stay in your apartment tonight.”

“There’s no way I can stay with
you.

“You can’t hide from what’s been unleashed. Today should tell you that more than anything. It’ll find you and your son. I’m sorry for not seeing this coming, but it’s here and we have to deal with it.”

Fear for her son warred with her anger at Tony. “You had no right,” she hissed between clenched teeth, “no right at all to play with our lives this way.”

“I agree.” He surprised her with that. However, the reprieve was short. “But I’m the only one who can stand between you both and whatever fallout comes from this revelation.”

Two
A
bodyguard stood outside the front door of her first-floor apartment. A bodyguard, for heaven’s sake, a burly guy in a dark suit who could have passed for a Secret Service employee. She stifled the urge to scream in frustration.
Shannon flung herself out of the Escalade before it came to a complete stop, desperate to see her child, to get inside her tiny apartment in hopes that life would somehow return to normal. Tony couldn’t be serious about her packing up to go away with him. He was just using this to try to get back together again.

Although what did a
prince
want with her?

At least there weren’t any reporters in the parking lot. The neighbors all seemed to be inside for the evening or out enjoying their own party plans. She’d chosen the large complex for the anonymity it offered. Multiple three-story buildings filled the corner block, making it difficult to tell one apartment from another in the stretches of yellow units with tiny white balconies. At the center of it all, there was a pool and tiny playground, the only luxuries she’d allowed herself. She might not be able to give Kolby a huge yard, but he would have an outdoor place to play.

Now she had to start the search for a haven all over again.

“Here,” she said as she thrust her purse toward him, her keys in her hand, “please carry this so I can unlock the door.”

He extended his arm, her hobo bag dangling from his big fist. “Uh, sure.”

“This is not the time to freak out over holding a woman’s purse.” She fumbled for the correct key.

“Shannon, I’m here for you. For you and your handbag.”

She glanced back sharply. “Don’t mock me.”

“I thought you enjoyed my sense of humor.”

Hadn’t she thought just the same thing earlier? How could she say good-bye to Tony—he would never be Antonio to her—forever? Her feet slowed on the walkway between the simple hedges, nowhere near as elaborate as the gardens of her old home with Nolan, but well maintained. The place was clean.

And safe.

Having Tony at her back provided an extra layer of protection, she had to admit. After he’d made his shocking demand that she pack, he’d pulled out his phone and began checking in with his lawyer. From what she could tell hearing one side of the conversation, the news was spreading fast, with no indication of how the Global Intruder’s people had cracked his cover. Tony didn’t lose his temper or even curse.

But her normally lighthearted lover definitely wasn’t smiling.

She ignored the soft note of regret spreading through her for all she would leave behind—this place.
Tony.
He strode alongside her silently, the outside lights casting his shadow over hers intimately, moving, tangling the two together as they walked.

Stopping at her unit three doors down from the corner, Tony exchanged low words with the guard while she slid the key into the lock with shaking hands. She pushed her way inside and ran smack into the babysitter already trying to open up for her. The college senior was majoring in elementary education and lived in the same complex. There might only be seven years between her and the girl in a concert T-shirt, but Shannon couldn’t help but feel her own university days spent studying to be a teacher happened eons ago.

Shannon forced herself to stay calm. “Courtney, thanks for calling me. Where’s Kolby?”

The sitter studied her with undisguised curiosity—who could blame her?—and pointed down the narrow hall toward the living room. “He’s asleep on the couch. I thought it might be better to keep him with me in case any reporters started showing up outside or something.” She hitched her bulging backpack onto one shoulder. “I don’t think they would stake out his window, but ya never know. Right?”

“Thank you, Courtney. You did exactly the right thing.” She angled down the hall to peek in on Kolby.

Her three-year-old son slept curled on the imported leather sofa, one of the few pieces that hadn’t been sold to pay off debts. Kolby had poked a hole in the armrest with a fountain pen just before the estate sale. Shannon had strapped duct tape over the tear, grateful for one less piece of furniture to buy to start her new life.

Every penny she earned needed to be tucked away for emergencies. Kolby counted on her, her sweet baby boy in his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine pj’s, matching blanket held up to his nose. His blond hair was tousled and spiking, still damp from his bath. She could almost smell the baby-powder sweetness from across the room.

Sagging against the archway with relief, she turned back to Courtney. “I need to pay you.”

Shannon took back her hobo bag from Tony and tunneled through frantically, dropping her wallet. Change clanked on the tile floor.

What would a three-year-old think if he saw his mother’s face in some news report? Or Tony’s, for that matter? The two had only met briefly a few times, but Kolby knew he was Mama’s friend. She scooped the coins into a pile, picking at quarters and dimes.

Tony cupped her shoulder. “I’ve got it. Go ahead and be with your son.”

She glanced up sharply, her nerves too raw to take the reminder of how he’d offered her financial help mere moments after sex last weekend. “I can pay my own way.”

Holding up his hands, he backed away.

“Fine, Shannon. I’ll sit with Kolby.” He cautioned her with a look not to mention their plans to pack and leave.

Duh
. Not that she planned to follow all
his
dictates, but the fewer who knew their next move the better for avoiding the press and anyone else who might profit from tracking their moves. Even the best of friends could be bought off.

Speaking of payoffs… “Thank you for calling me so quickly.” She peeled off an extra twenty and tried not to wince as she said goodbye to ice cream for the month. She usually traded babysitting with another flat-broke single mom in the building when needed for work and dates. Courtney was only her backup, which she couldn’t—and didn’t—use often. “I appreciate your help.”

Shaking her head, Courtney took the money and passed back the extra twenty. “You don’t need to give me all that, Mrs. Crawford. I was only doing my job. And I’m not gonna talk to the reporters. I’m not the kind of person who would sell your story or something.”

“Really,” Shannon urged as she folded the cash back into her hand, “I want you to have it.”

Tony filled the archway. “The guard outside will walk you home, just to make sure no one bothers you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Castillo. Um, I mean…” Courtney stuffed the folded bills into her back pocket, the college coed eyeing him up and down with a new awareness. “Mr. Medina…Sir? I don’t what to call you.”

“Castillo is fine.”

“Right, uh, bye.” Her face flushed, she spun on her glitter flip-flops and took off.

Shannon pushed the door closed, sliding the bolt and chain. Locking her inside with Tony in a totally quiet apartment. She slumped back and stared down the hallway, the ten feet shrinking even more with the bulk of his shoulders spanning the arch. Light from the cheap brown lamp glinted off the curl in his black hair.

No wonder Courtney had been flustered. He wasn’t just a prince, but a fine-looking, one-hundred-percent
man
. The kind with strong hands that could finesse their way over a woman’s body with a sweet tenderness that threatened to buckle her knees from just remembering. Had it only been a week since they’d made love in his mammoth jetted tub? God knows she ached as if she’d been without him for months.

Even acknowledging it was wrong with her mind, her body still wanted him.

Tony wanted her.

In his arms.

In his bed.

And most of all, he wanted her back in his SUV, heading away from here. He needed to use any methods of persuasion possible and convince her to come to his house. Even if the press located his home address, they wouldn’t get past the gates and security. So how to convince Shannon? He stared down the short tiled hallway at her.

Awareness flared in her eyes. The same slam of attraction he felt now and the first time he’d seen her five months ago when he’d stopped by after a call to play cards. Vernon had mentioned hiring a new waitress but Tony hadn’t thought much of it—until he met her.

When Tony asked about her, the old guy said he didn’t know much about Shannon other than her crook of a husband had committed suicide rather than face a jury. Shannon and her boy had been left behind, flat broke. She’d worked at a small diner for a year and a half before that and Vernon had hired her on a hunch. Vernon and his softie heart.

Tony stared at her now every bit as intently as he had that first time she’d brought him his order. Something about her blue-gray eyes reminded him of the ocean sky just before a storm. Tumultuous. Interesting.

A challenge. He’d been without a challenge for too long. Building a business from nothing had kept him charged up for years. What next?

Then he’d seen her.

He’d spent his life smiling his way through problems and deals, and for the first time he’d found someone who saw past his bull. Was it the puzzle that tugged him? If so, he wasn’t any closer to solving the mystery of Shannon. Every day she confused him more, which made him want her more.

Pushing away from the door, she strode toward him, efficiently, no hip swish, just even, efficient steps. Then she walked out of her shoes, swiping one foot behind her to kick them to rest against the wall. No shoes in the house. She’d told him that the two times he’d been allowed over her threshold for no more than fifteen minutes. Any liaisons between them had been at his bayside mansion or a suite near the restaurant. He didn’t really expect anything to happen here with her son around, even asleep.

And given the look on her face, she was more likely to pitch him out. Better to circumvent the boot.

“I’ll stay with your son while you pack.” He removed his shoes and stepped deeper into her place, not fancy, the sparse generic sort of a furnished space in browns and tan—except for the expensive burgundy leather sofa with a duct-taped
X
on the armrest.

Her lips thinned. “About packing, we need to discuss that further.”

“What’s to talk about?” He accepted their relationship was still on hold, but the current problems with his identity needed to be addressed. “Your porch will be full by morning.”

“I’ll check into a hotel.”

With the twenty dollars and fifty-two cents she had left in her wallet? He prayed she wasn’t foolish enough to use a credit card. Might as well phone in her location to the news stations.

“We can talk about where you’ll stay
after
you pack.”

“You sound like a broken record, Tony.”


You
’re calling
me
stubborn?”

Their standoff continued, neither of them touching, but he was all too aware of her scrubbed fresh scent. Shannon, the whole place, carried an air of some kind of floral cleaner. The aroma somehow calmed and stirred at the same time, calling to mind holding her after a mind-bending night of sex. She never stayed over until morning, but for an hour or so after, she would doze against his chest. He would breathe in the scent of her and him and
them
blended together.

His nose flared.

Her pupils widened.

She stumbled back, her chest rising faster. “I do need to change my clothes. Are you sure you’ll be all right with Kolby?”

It was no secret the couple of times he’d met the boy, Kolby hadn’t warmed up to him. Nothing seemed to work, not ice cream or magic coin tricks. Tony figured maybe the boy was still missing his father.

That jerk had left Shannon bankrupt and vulnerable. “I can handle it. Take all the time you need.”

“Thank you. I’m only going to change clothes though. No packing yet. We’ll have to talk more first, Tony—um, Antonio.”

“I prefer to be called
Tony
.” He liked the sound of it on her tongue.

“Okay…Tony.” She spun on her heel and headed toward her bedroom.

Her steps still efficient, albeit faster, were just speedy enough to bring a slight swing to her slim hips in the pencil-straight skirt. Thoughts of peeling it down and off her beautiful body would have to wait until she had the whole Antonio/Tony issue sorted out.

If only she could accept that he’d called himself Tony Castillo almost longer than he’d remembered being Antonio Medina.

He even had the paperwork to back up the Castillo name. Creating another persona hadn’t been that difficult, especially once he’d saved enough to start his first business. From then on, all transactions were shuttled through the company. Umbrella corporations. Living in plain sight. His plan had worked fine until someone, somehow had pierced the new identities he and his brothers had built. In fact, he needed to call his brothers, who he spoke to at most a couple of times a year. But they might have insights.

They needed a plan.

He reached inside his jacket for his iPhone and ducked into the dining area where he could see the child but wouldn’t wake him. He thumbed the seven key on his speed dial…and Carlos’s voice mail picked up. Tony disconnected without leaving a message and pressed the eight key.

“Speak to me, my brother.” Duarte Medina’s voice came through the phone. They didn’t talk often, but these weren’t normal circumstances.

“I assume you know.” He toyed with one of Shannon’s hair bands on the table.

“Impossible to miss.”

“Where’s Carlos? He’s not picking up.” Tony fell back into their clipped shorthand. They’d only had each other growing up and now circumstances insisted they stay apart. Did his brothers have that same feeling, like they’d lost a limb?

“His secretary said he got paged for an emergency surgery. He’ll be at least another couple of hours. Apparently Carlos found out as he was scrubbing in, but you know our brother.” Duarte, the middle son, tended to play messenger with their father. The three brothers spoke and met when they could, but there were so many crap memories from their childhood, those reunions became further apart.

Tony scooped up the brown band, a lone long strand of her blond hair catching the light. “When a patient calls…”

“Right.”

It could well be hours before they heard from Carlos, given the sort of painstaking reconstructive surgeries he performed on children. “Any idea how this exploded?”

His brother hissed a long angry curse. “The Global Intruder got a side-view picture of me while I was visiting our sister.”

Their half sister Eloisa, their father’s daughter from an affair shortly after they had escaped to the States. Enrique had still been torn up with grief from losing his wife…not to mention the guilt. But apparently not so torn up and remorseful he couldn’t hop into bed with someone else. The woman had gone on to marry another man who’d raised her daughter as his own.

Tony had only met his half sister once as a teen, a few years before he’d left the island compound. She’d only been seven at the time. Now she’d married into a high-profile family jam-packed with political influence and a fat portfolio. Could she be at fault for bringing the media down on their heads for some free PR for her new in-laws? Duarte seemed to think she wanted anonymity as much as the rest of them. But could he have misjudged her?

“Why were you visiting Eloisa?” Tony tucked the band into his pocket.

“Family business. It doesn’t matter now. Her in-laws were there. Eloisa’s sister-in-law—a senator’s wife—slipped on the dock. I kept her from falling into the water. Some damn female reporter in a tree with a telephoto lens caught the mishap. Which shouldn’t have mattered, since Senator Landis and his wife were the focus of the picture. I still don’t know how the photographer pegged me from a side view, but there it is. And I’m sorry for bringing this crap down on you.”

Duarte hadn’t done anything wrong. They couldn’t live in a bubble. In the back of Tony’s mind, he’d always known it was just a matter of time until the cover story blew up in their faces. He’d managed to live away from the island anonymously for fourteen years, his two older brothers even longer.

But there was always the hope that maybe he could stay a step ahead. Be his own man. Succeed on his own merits. “We’ve all been caught in a picture on occasion. We’re not vampires. It’s just insane that she was able to make the connection. Perfect storm of bad luck.”

“What are your plans for dealing with this perfect storm?”

“Lock down tight while I regroup. Let me know when you hear from Carlos.”

Ending the call, Tony strode back into the living room, checked on Kolby—still snoozing hard—and dropped to the end of the sofa to read messages, his in-box already full again. By the time Tony scrolled through emails that told him nothing new, he logged on to the internet for a deeper peek. And winced. Rumors were rampant.

That his father had died of malaria years ago—false.

Supposition that Carlos had plastic surgery—again, false.

Speculation that Duarte had joined a Tibetan monastery—definitely false.

And then there were the stories about him and Shannon, which actually happened to be true. The whole “Monarch’s Mistress” was really growing roots out there in cyberspace. Guilt kicked him in the gut that Shannon would suffer this kind of garbage because of him. The media feeding frenzy would only grow, and before long they would stir up all the crap about her thief of a dead husband. He tucked away his phone in disgust.

“That bad?” Shannon asked from the archway.

She’d changed into jeans and a simple blue tank top. Her silky blond hair glided loosely down her shoulders, straight except for a slight crimped ring where she’d bound it up on her head for work. She didn’t look much older than the babysitter, except in her weary—wary—eyes.

Leaning back, he extended his legs, leather creaking as he stayed on the sofa so as not to spook her. “The internet is exploding. My lawyers and my brothers’ lawyers are all looking into it. Hopefully we’ll have the leak plugged soon and start some damage control. But we can’t stuff the genie back into the bottle.”

“I’m not going away with you.” She perched a fist on one shapely hip.

“This isn’t going to die down.” He kept his voice even and low, reasonable. The stakes were too important for all of them. “The reporters will swarm you by morning, if not sooner. Your babysitter will almost inevitably cave in to one of those gossip rag offers. Your friends will sell photos of the two of us together. There’s a chance people could use Kolby to get to me.”

“Then we’re through, you and I.” She reached for her sleeping son on the sofa, smoothing his hair before sliding a hand under his shoulders as if to scoop him up.

Tony touched her arm lightly, stopping her. “Hold on before you settle him into his room.” As far as Tony was concerned, they would be back in his Escalade in less than ten minutes. “Do you honestly think anyone’s going to believe the breakup is for real? The timing will seem too convenient.”

She sagged onto the arm of the sofa, right over the silver
X
. “We ended things last weekend.”

Like hell. “Tell that to the papers and see if they believe you. The truth doesn’t matter to these people. They probably printed photos of an alien baby last week. Pleading a breakup isn’t going to buy you any kind of freedom from their interest.”

“I know I need to move away from Galveston.” She glanced around her sparsely decorated apartment, two pictures of Kolby the only personal items. “I’ve accepted that.”

There wouldn’t be much packing to do.

“They’ll find you.”

She studied him through narrowed eyes. “How do I know you’re not just using this as an excuse to get back together?”

Was he? An hour ago, he would have done anything to get into her bed again. While the attraction hadn’t diminished, since his cover was blown, he had other concerns that overshadowed everything else. He needed to determine the best way to inoculate her from the toxic fallout that came from associating with Medinas. One thing for certain, he couldn’t risk her striking out on her own.

“You made it clear where we stand last weekend. I get that. You want nothing to do with me or my money.” He didn’t move closer, wasn’t going to crowd her. The draw between them filled the space separating them just fine on its own. “We had sex together. Damn good sex. But that’s over now. Neither one of us ever asked for or expected more.”

Her gaze locked with his, the room silent but for their breathing and the light snore of the sleeping child. Kolby. Another reminder of why they needed to stay in control.

In fact, holding back made the edge sharper. He skimmed his knuckles along her collarbone, barely touching. A week ago, that pale skin had worn the rasp of his beard. She didn’t move closer, but she didn’t back away, either.

Shannon blinked first, her long lashes sweeping closed while she swallowed hard. “What am I supposed to do?”

BOOK: The Maverick Prince
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