Excerpt from The Royal Affair
Someone was following her.
Maya Chaudry pressed herself deeper into the dimly-lit alcove, hardly daring to breathe. Cold sweat beaded her palms. Her pulse raced in haphazard spurts. She locked her gaze on the staircase behind her, struggling to hear above the dull roar rocketing through her skull.
Muted sounds drifted up from the ballroom -- the high strains of the stringed sarangi, the deeper drumming beats of the mandal. Bursts of tinny laughter from the women Singh had flown into his Himalayan palace for the lavish affair.
The party was signature Singh -- white truffles, vodka filtered through a hundred diamonds, Almas Iranian caviar served in twenty-four carat gold tins. No cost spared to create that veneer of elegance and sophistication.
And mask the depravity underneath.
Maya’s belly clenched, and a fierce sense of urgency tore through her nerves. She had to hurry. She needed to find the kidnapped girl and whisk her to safety before Singh tired of the party downstairs.
But she hadn’t imagined those footsteps.
Had Singh spotted her? Had he expected her? A flurry of dread swirled through her at the thought. But breaking into the notorious criminal’s palace had been easy -- far too easy, the security around the servants’ entrance too lax. And now someone was dogging her steps -- hiding, biding his time, toying with her in a cat and mouse game that could lead to a deadly trap.
She clasped the good luck charm she wore around her neck and forced back the frenzy of nerves. The danger didn’t matter. She had to risk it. It was her fault Gina had been kidnapped. In her rush to get the feverish girl to a doctor, she’d broken her ironclad rule and ventured from her women’s shelter during the daytime, instead of waiting for the security of night.
And now it was up to her to make this right.
She jerked her gaze to the door at the end of the hallway and sucked in a steadying breath. Then she gripped the hem of the sari she’d lifted from the caterers’ truck and dashed across the rug in the hall. Her heart thundered as she raced toward the doorway. Adrenaline pounded her veins. She reached the door, glanced back at the still-empty hallway, then pressed her ear to the heavily-carved wood.
Silence. She inhaled, forcing herself to breathe through the choking tension, then quietly twisted the knob.
Light from the wall sconce spilled through the doorway, casting a silver haze over the rug. She crept inside the suite, her steps muffled on the thick Persian carpet and paused to let her eyes adjust.
A deep hush pulsed in the shadows. The fine hairs on her nape stood on end.
A footstep came from behind.
She gasped, whipped back, but a man slammed into her side. She fell, smacked into the carpet, a sharp cry wrenched from her lungs.
The man landed atop her. She groaned at the violent impact, twisting as his weight crushed her hips. She had to get herself free!
He reached for her wrists, but she went for his armpit, ramming her stiff thumb into his flesh. He grunted, jerked off-balance, and she instantly rolled to her knees. But he tackled her again, shoving her face-down into the rug, knocking the breath from her chest. Then he grabbed her wrists and locked them over her head.
She squirmed, bucked, fought to heave him off her back, unwilling to let him win. But he was too heavy, too strong. He stretched himself over the length of her and pinned her down with his weight.
He was smashing her ribs, her lungs. Panicked, she butted her head back, but he dodged the move and swore. She lunged sideways, managed to twist her head, and tried to bite his arm. But he had the advantage of weight. He shifted forward and trapped her head, then clamped his other hand over her mouth.
Her head grew light from the unyielding pressure. Bright spots danced in her eyes. She raked his palm with her teeth, but he tightened his hold even more.
“Stay still,” he warned, and his gruff voice rasped in her ear. She squirmed again, frantic to dislodge him, but his muscled body locked her in place. “Don’t move, or I’ll have to hurt you.”
She tried to nod, to make him loosen his hold, but she couldn’t move her head. He crushed her into the rug, turning her arms numb. His brute force bulged out her lungs. She desperately struggled to inhale but his huge hand blocked off her air.
Then mercifully, he rolled away.
She wheezed, but breathing was like inhaling fire. She coughed, unable to catch her breath, and gulped air to her searing lungs.
He’d nearly killed her.
And she wasn’t out of danger yet.
Her head reeling, knowing she had to act fast, she fought her way to her knees. But the room twirled, and her stomach heaved. She lowered her head, pressed her trembling palms to the rug, waiting for the dizziness to pass.
Running would be futile. As fast as her assailant was, she’d never make it past the door. But she couldn’t afford to get captured. She had to find Gina and whisk her to safety fast.
The man snapped on a lamp, and the bright light flooded the room. She blinked, pushed herself from the thick rug and struggled to rise.
But he strode back, grabbed her arm, and hauled her to her feet. Still shaking, her temper rising at being manhandled, she jerked her arm from his grip. She straightened her twisted sari, lifted her chin to meet his eyes.
Dark, familiar eyes.
Shock shuddered through her. Her lips parted in disbelief.
He was the last person she’d expected to find at Singh’s estate.
She shook her head, as if to unscramble her vision, certain she’d made a mistake. But her eyes hadn’t lied. It was Deven, all right. A woman never forgot the man who’d taken her virginity and then dumped her, no matter how many years had passed.
He was taller now, more muscular. His thick, blue-black hair was shorter, the angles of his cheeks more pronounced. But he still had that golden skin, those dark slashing brows, that wickedly sensual mouth.
Her heart made an unsteady beat.
She scowled at her body’s reaction, still stunned by how he had changed. The years had hardened his features, whittling the warmth out, paring them down to the stark masculinity underneath. And a scar now jagged through his beard shadow, warning of violence, danger.
He’d been a gorgeous teen -- edgy and wild, radiating raw sexual energy. Girls had flocked to him, unable to resist his allure.
He looked far more lethal now.
His wide shoulders stretched the seams of his T-shirt. His biceps bulged as he folded his arms. And he towered over her, that brutal scar menacing, his eyes sparking barely-leashed ire.
She had to fight the urge to step back.
“What are you doing here?” His deep, graveled voice vibrated with outrage.
Her own temper stirred. She didn’t owe this man anything, certainly not an explanation -- especially if he now worked for Singh.
The thought staggered her. The boy she’d loved had battled for justice, fought for the side of right. She’d never dreamed he’d join forces with her arch-enemy, the despicable human trafficker and international arms dealer, Sanjeet Singh.
But twelve years had passed since she’d seen Dev, and he was no longer that boy. He was a man -- a hard, dangerous man from the looks of him. A man she knew nothing about.
And thanks to a childhood spent on Kintalabad’s mean streets, she knew the depths to which men could sink.
“None of your business,” she told him and stepped away.
“The hell it isn’t.” He grabbed her arm and yanked her back.
Her face hot, she wrenched her arm from his grasp and shot him a level stare. No one intimidated her, no matter how formidable he seemed.
But Deven only moved closer, so close that his warm breath brushed her face, and the heat from his hard body enveloped hers. He loomed over her, dominating her vision, her space.
“I asked what you’re doing here, Maya.”
“And I told you it’s none of your--”
“You made it my business when you climbed that staircase. Now what are you up to?”
His hard jaw flexed in a sign of temper. His dark eyes drilled into hers. She inhaled to regain her composure, but his enticing, male scent washed through her, that once familiar blend of soap and man.
And before she could block them, the memories swept back -- a hot, steamy night. Whispered words and frantic need. Pleasure -- fierce, shocking pleasure -- more explosive than she’d ever dreamed.
And despite the danger, despite her anger, she felt something shift inside her, something she’d buried for twelve long years. The insidious warmth of desire.
She stifled it fast. She’d believed him once -- believed his promises, his words of love. His lies.
And she refused to make that mistake again. She knew better than to trust him -- or anyone in this city seething with treachery, corruption and spies. Her success as the Leopard, leader of the underground network that rescued women trafficked through the Himalayas, hinged on astuteness and stealth.
But then a whimper cut through the silence. Gina. Pushing aside thoughts of Deven, she spun around and scanned the room -- the Hindu murals painted on the walls, the chandelier glittering with crystals, the ornately sculpted Ming chairs.
And in the corner, an open door.
Her pulse accelerating, her hopes rising, she hurried across the room. She paused in the doorway, reached around and flipped on the light switch, spotted the young girl huddled on the floor.
Her heart thudded. “Gina.”
She rushed over, and the girl looked up. Her eyes were bloodshot and glazed with fever, her face sweaty and flushed. “Maya?”
“I’m here.” She knelt, pressed her hand to the girl’s forehead, inhaling sharply at the fiery heat. Her people had rescued Gina in Romanistan’s mosquito-infested lowlands, where the girl had contracted malaria -- and without medical help, she could die.
Not that Singh cared.
Maya closed her eyes and trembled with anger, outraged at the injustice done to this girl. She’d promised Gina safety, an escape from the degradation and pain she’d endured, a chance at a normal life. And no one, not even Sanjeet Singh -- a man whose power cowed police even beyond the Himalayas -- had the right to drag her back.
“Leave,” Gina murmured, her voice faint.
Maya snapped open her eyes. “Right. Let’s go.”
“No, you.” The girl struggled to form her words. “Trap...Singh knows...who you are.”
Maya went still. Singh knew she was the Leopard? How had he found out? Her identity was a carefully guarded secret, known only to a trusted few.
And if Singh had discovered the truth... Fear slithered though her, a bone-deep feeling of dread. He must have infiltrated her inner group. It was the only explanation. Someone she trusted had betrayed her -- which put dozens of lives at risk.
She shook her head to clear her mind. She’d worry about that problem later. Right now she had to focus on getting Gina to safety -- before Singh or his henchmen came back.
But what about Deven? Would he try to stop them? She shot him a wary glance. He stood in the doorway, his eyes grim as he studied the girl, his large body blocking their path.
She didn’t want to believe he was involved with Singh. Everything she’d ever known about him rebelled at the thought. He’d once shared her dreams, her plans. He’d been an avenger, a crusader for the downtrodden -- or so she’d thought.
But even the most upstanding men were capable of horrendous cruelty, as she well knew.
Then his gaze collided with hers, and the turmoil in his eyes stole her breath. He was innocent. He had to be innocent. But then why was he here?
Before she could ask, he turned his head. “Lock the door and get out,” he ordered. He stepped back into the other room and closed the door.
And then she heard voices. Deep, male voices. Singh’s men.
She leaped up and lunged for the door, latching it with shaking hands. Then she whirled around and scanned the room, searching for a way to escape. Her gaze landed on the balcony doors. They were one story up, but it was their only hope.
She raced back to Gina, grateful the girl was alert. But Gina was weak, her thin body wracked by fever -- and that locked door wouldn’t gain them much time.
“Gina, come on.” She tugged the girl to her feet, keeping her arm around her waist to support her, and hurried to the balcony across the room. Then she opened the doors and stepped out.
The night had cooled, and the air was heavy with the honeyed scent of orchids, moist from the recent monsoons. She peered into the darkness below the balcony as a truck engine rumbled to life. The servants’ entrance was just around the corner. The commotion surrounding the catering trucks would help distract the guards.
But Gina was trembling violently, her teeth chattering, in no condition to climb to the ground. No wonder Singh had left her unguarded. He probably doubted she had the strength to escape.
Time to prove him wrong.
Maya quickly unwrapped her sari, shivering in her skirt-like petticoat and midriff-baring top. She looped the long strip of silk around the railing, then handed Gina one end of the cloth.
“All right, listen,” she said, keeping her voice low. “We don’t have much time. Climb over the railing and sit on the edge of the balcony.” She pointed to the stones just beyond the rails. “Just hang onto the cloth. When I tell you to go, push off. That’s all you have to do. Just hold on, and I’ll lower you to the ground.”
Assuming the fabric held.
Pushing aside that worry, she motioned toward the servants’ entrance below. “The gate’s right around the corner. Don’t wait for me. As soon as you get to the ground, run. I’ll meet you back at the shelter.” She paused. “You understand?”
Gina nodded, and Maya gave her a hug, impressed that even in her weakened state, the girl had the spirit to fight.
She would need it to survive.
Maya helped her over the railing, watching nervously as she perched on the ledge.
“Okay, hold on.” Her stomach tensing, Maya sat on the balcony floor and braced her feet on the rails. Then she adjusted her hold on the cloth and leaned back.
Voices rose outside the bedroom door. A heavy thud rattled the wood. Gina’s gaze flew to hers, and Maya’s own anxiety swelled. “Go!”
The girl jumped. The cloth went tight, nearly leaped from Maya’s hands. She tightened her grip and held on.
But it wasn’t easy. Pain bolted down her back like the sizzle of lightning. Her shoulders knotted and throbbed. She loosened her hold, trying to let the fabric out slowly so Gina wouldn’t plunge to the ground -- but the cloth tore through her palms. Too fast.
She fought to keep it steady. Sweat dripped in her eyes and stung. Her arms ached; her entire body shuddered with pain as she wrenched the cloth back and held on.
Again. Her palms burning, she inched out the fabric. Her thigh muscles bunched from the strain. The long cloth jerked along the railing, inch by agonizing inch, still too far from the ground.
And then it stopped. Panting, Maya played out the fabric. The rails bit into her feet. But the darned cloth still didn’t move.
Suddenly it ripped, went slack, rocking her back against the stone floor. Below her, Gina let out a startled cry.
Horrified, Maya pushed herself to her knees and peered through the railing, fear like a vise on her throat. But Gina got to her feet, staggered into the shadows, and disappeared into the night.
She’d made it.
Maya slumped against the railing and pressed her hand to her racing heart. Feverish or not, Gina was a survivor. She’d get past the gate, make her way through the ancient city of Kintalabad’s warren of streets to the shelter where she’d be safe.
But now Maya had to get herself down. Her arm muscles cramping, sharp spasms wracking her thighs, she pulled herself to her feet.
Another thump sounded behind her. The bedroom door burst open, and she spun around. Singh’s men rushed in, their weapons drawn.
Her luck had just run out.
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Copyright 2009 by Gail Ellen Barrett. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.