He’d found her. A sense of intense satisfaction rolled through Dax as he took a seat in the beach bar – on the far opposite corner to where the woman sat at a table alone, with her laptop in front of her and a big floppy sun – hat covering most of her hair and features.
She could have been any number of travellers in this laid back beach bar on the beautiful Malaysian island of Langkawi. It was a mecca for backpackers and sun worshippers with its white sand beaches and glittering green waters.
But Dax knew she wasn’t just any other traveller. And she certainly wasn’t a backpacker. For a start, he noted the not exactly discreet security detail keeping watch over her. Two burly men who looked like they were desperately trying to blend in and failing miserably.
Because the woman was Crown Princess Laia Sant Roman of Isla’Rosa, a small independent Kingdom in the Mediterranean. A long way away from here.
She was a Queen in waiting. Heiress to an ancient line of Kings and Queens who had battled to protect their modest rock in the sea. Dax knew her history and lineage well, because he was also not just a random traveller, in spite of his khaki cargo shorts and short – sleeved shirt.
He was the Crown Prince of Santanger, the neighbouring island Kingdom. Heir to his own throne, if anything happened to his brother the King, and until his brother had heirs.
Which is where this woman came in. She’d been promised in marriage to his brother since she was born. A pact made by their fathers – the late Kings – in order to ensure lasting peace and diplomacy in the region after hundreds of years of enmity and war.
But, to say she was reluctant was an understatement. Dax had vague memories of her father visiting Santanger when he’d been younger but Laia had only accompanied the King a couple of times. Dax remembered her as small and dark – haired, with wide eyes. A serious expression.
And then, since her father’s death, she appeared to have turned avoiding his brother into an art – form. And now, mere weeks before the wedding was due to take place, she’d flitted to South East Asia.
She, unlike her security, did fade into the crowd a little better. Especially for one so exceptionally beautiful. Dax’s insides clenched with an awareness that he desperately ignored. Not welcome. Not appropriate.
There was nothing he could do about it because she was the one woman Dax couldn’t touch. She was promised to his brother.
Which was why he was here. In a rustic beach bar in Malaysia. To bring her back to Santanger so she could fulfil her duty to his brother. Marry and beget heirs. A bilious knot formed in his gut at the thought of her with his brother. He chastised himself – she was beautiful and he couldn’t have her. That was all it was. FOMO. He smiled mirthlessly at himself.
It was time to let his brother know he had her and would be bringing her back. Dax put his hand out to retrieve his phone from where he’d put it on the table.
But his hand found nothing. He looked down. An empty space where he’d laid it just moments before. He looked up, his eye catching a small Malaysian kid on the other side of the bar who was handing Crown Princess Laia what looked like a phone. His phone.
She smiled at the boy indulgently, and handed him some ringgit. The boy skipped away, delighted with himself, counting the money. She slipped the phone into what looked like a voluminous beach bag and only then did she deign to let her gaze track over to Dax.
He saw the green of her eyes from here. It was like an electric shock straight into his blood – stream. Her smile faded. Dax stood up and walked over through the bar, her gaze tracking his progress.
He noted that her security didn’t move. Just watched carefully. He realised something then. He leaned against a wooden post beside her table and folded his arms across his chest. ‘How long have you known I was here?’
She started to put away her laptop and a notebook full of scribbles, not looking at him. ‘We knew as soon as you boarded the flight in Kuala Lumpur. We’ve been tracking you since you landed in Langkawi two days ago.’
‘Did it amuse you to wait and let me find you?’
She looked up briefly, that vivid green gaze barely skating over him. A not – so – subtle insult. He was used to women looking and lingering. But to this woman he was inconsequential. A novelty.
She said in a clipped voice, ‘Not particularly.’
She stood up and Dax realised she was wearing a turquoise blue one -piece swimsuit under cut off shorts. The floaty vibrantly coloured wrap couldn’t disguise her perfect body. Not an inch of excess flesh. She veered towards an athletic physique, but she still had curves in all the right places. Dax had to force his gaze up from where the swells of her breasts were barely contained by the thin material of the swimsuit. Since when were one – pieces provocative?
Her naturally olive skin was evidence of the same ancestry as Dax. A mixture of Spanish, Italian, Moorish and Greek.
He asked, ‘Can I have my phone back please?’
She looked at him. ‘That depends on what you intend to use it for. If it’s to divulge my location to your brother or anyone else, then, no, I’m afraid not.’
Dax was more amused than anything else. There were other means of getting in touch with his brother. ‘How do you know I haven’t already done that?’
‘Because you only knew for certain I was here when you walked into the bar.’
‘So you stole my phone.’
She made a tsk’ing sound. ‘I’m not a thief.’
‘No, you employed an innocent child to do your dirty work. What kind of a message is that sending out?’
She flushed at that and Dax found it inordinately satisfying to see her flustered. How much more satisfying would it be to see her flushed with arousal? Dax shifted minutely and cursed his imagination.
Princess Laia said stiffly, ‘I told him I knew you and wanted to play a joke on you.’
The fact that she’d considered the integrity of what she was doing sent a dart of something unfamiliar to Dax’s gut. A mixture of humour and something soft. Dangerous. He stood up straight. ‘Enough chit – chatting, Princess, we both know why I’m here. It’s time to come home and fulfil your responsibilities to the people of Santanger.’
Her eyes glittered brightly, ‘Santanger is not my home and never will be. I already have a home and responsibilities to my own people.’
Dax studied her, curious about this intransigence. The marriage pact between Santanger and Isla’Rosa made sense on many levels. Not least of which were economic and to foster lasting peace in the region. There hadn’t been any active wars in at least a couple of generations, but there was still an underlying seam of distrust and enmity between the people in each Kingdom, which was having an adverse effect on inward investment – even in Santanger.
Some investors that Ari and Dax had courted to do business were put off by the merest hint of potential instability and it didn’t help that things were still stirred up occasionally by very small but effective rebel elements who seemed determined to hang onto the enmity of the past generations.
Ari wanted to stamp this out once and for all through the marriage.
But, the risk of stirring up unrest was one of the reasons why the marriage between Ari and Laia hadn’t been promoted with as much fanfare as would normally be the case. Everyone knew about it, and had known about it for years, but the details, like the wedding date, weren’t due to be released until just before the event, to minimise even the small risk of rebellion in either Kingdom.
Dax pointed out, ‘You know that marrying my brother will bring about a much hoped – for surge in goodwill from both Kingdoms that will put an end to any rebel elements for good. Not to mention the much needed injection of capital and development for Isla’Rosa.’
The smaller Kingdom was much poorer than Santanger. Where Santanger had moved with the times and grown into a modern and largely flourishing economy with a thriving tourist scene for most of the year, thanks to its Mediterranean climate, Isla’Rosa still lagged far behind.
It was a charming island and attracted its own loyal tourists who were captivated by the quaintly medieval capital city and idyllic villages and pristine beaches, but it badly needed hauling into the modern era.
Dax pointed out, ‘Your father did your Kingdom a disservice by not allowing more growth to happen.’
Princess Laia went even pinker now. Dax was momentarily distracted by that wash of blood into her cheeks.
‘Don’t you dare mention my father. He was a great King and beloved by the people.’
Dax shrugged minutely, ‘I’m not disputing that. But our fathers were products of their time, stuck in the past. Santanger has grown and modernised under my brother, and he can do the same for Isla’Rosa. You know this.’
‘I also know that I can do the same for Isla’Rosa once I become Queen, and I intend to. On my own.’
She gathered up her bag that held his phone and moved around the table. Dax’s gaze tracked down over long shapely bare legs and pretty feet in sandals. He realised she was leaving. ‘Where are you going?’
‘Back to where I’m staying.’
‘You have my phone.’
‘If you want it back you’ll have to come with me.’
‘I don’t intend letting you out of my sight.’
Something flashed across her face at that but it was gone before Dax could decipher what it was. A curious mixture of fear? and something else. But why would be be afraid of him?
She walked out of the bar and Dax saw a slightly battered four – wheel drive appear. The driver – one of the bodyguards – jumped out and held open the back door. Princess Laia got in. Dax went around to the other side and opened the door to hear Princess Laia say frostily, ‘You can ride in the front with Pascal.’
Dax looked at her for a long moment, doubly intrigued by this animosity and then said, ‘As you wish.’ He closed the door and got into the front passenger seat beside the bodyguard who seemed as frosty as the Princess, not even looking his way.
Another vehicle followed them as they drove away from the beach bar, presumably the second bodyguard. She had good protection at least. They drove for about fifteen minutes on the main road with typical Malay houses on either side, built high off the ground to keep them cool in the intense heat. Children scampered about, along with dogs and chickens. A moped overtook them with at least four people on board and a grinning toddler on the lap of the driver. A typical sight in South East Asia.
Then their vehicles turned down onto a dirt track and they emerged after a couple of minutes into a cleared area where there was a jetty and two boats, bobbing on the water.
They came to a stop. The driver got out and opened the door for Princess Laia. Dax got out too. Bemused. A boat man was on one boat, readying it. Princess Laia walked down the jetty and greeted him in Malay.
Dax noted that the bodyguards carried bags of what looked like groceries and deposited them in the first boat. Then they got into the other boat which was larger, more like a small yacht. He followed them to the jetty. Princess Laia got into the smaller boat, helped by the driver.
She turned and looked at Dax. She arched a brow. ‘Coming?’
He put his hands on his hips. ‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Not if you want your phone back.’
‘I can get another phone. I know where you are now.’
Princess Laia shrugged. ‘Suit yourself. I thought you were here to take me back but if you’re prepared to risk me disappearing again…’ she trailed off.
Dax gritted his jaw. This magical mystery tour was beginning to get on his nerves. But, he was here to bring her back so he really couldn’t risk watching her sail off into the sunset and potentially lose her as she’d just threatened.
For all he knew she could be on a plane again within the hour and flitted off to somewhere else.
He stepped into the boat. Princess Laia was sitting primly on a seat at the back. For all the world like the Queen she would soon become. Queen of Santanger. And Isla’Rosa. She would be a powerful woman. But he already sensed that power within her.
The driver indicated for Dax to take a seat too and he did as he was told. The engines started up and the boats moved into the sea, the bodyguards staying close.
They hugged the coast of the island for a while before heading out to sea. When Dax was beginning to wonder if they were headed all the way to Thailand, an island came into view. Small, and very lush. As they came closer, he could see a pontoon and a beautiful beach.
A wooden structure was just about visible high on a hill through the thick foliage. It looked like a small palace with elaborate decorations on the roof, reminiscent of royal Thai palaces.
The engine went silent as the driver guided the boat in alongside the fixed pontoon. Dax saw that the bigger boat stayed out on the almost luminously green water.
Princess Laia stood up and lifted some of the bags onto the pontoon. Then she stepped out. He followed her, feeling as bemused as ever.
When he was out, the driver handed him some more bags. He saw that there were supplies of vegetables and other foods and domestic items.
He heard the engine start again and looked up to see the driver untying the boat. It was already chugging away from the pontoon. The other boat containing the bodyguards was still some distance away.
He watched the driver wave cheerily at Princess Laia as she said something in Malay. He looked at the Princess who was regarding him with a suspiciously triumphant glint in her green gaze. His own narrowed. ‘What the hell is this?’
‘It’s an island, called Permata. That’s ‘jewel’ in Malay. It belonged to my mother and now it belongs to me.’
He hadn’t meant that and she knew it. He’d meant, what the hell was this situation. ‘Why has the boat left?’
‘Because he was only dropping us off.’
‘How do we get off this island?’
‘We don’t. Unless I call for the boat again or ask Pascal and Matthew to come and get us. I wouldn’t recommend swimming, there are dangerous currents in the waters even though it looks safe.’
It was sinking in. With a slow certainty that was almost embarrassing. She’d caught him out.
Dax put down the bag he was holding and held out a hand. ‘My phone please.’ He would arrange transport off this island with her on board within the hour.
Princess Laia held up a finger, as if just remembering. ‘Ah.’ She opened her bag and scrabbled around for what seemed like long minutes. Dax’s frustration and irritation was growing by the second.
‘Dammit, Princess – ‘
She held up the phone triumphantly, with a smile. ‘Got it.’ And, as he watched, she flung it out to the side and it landed in the sea with a loud splosh.
Her eyes went wide, ‘Oops. Butterfingers.’
She picked up a couple of bags full of shopping and started to walk towards the beach and the lush hill beyond. Dax just stood there, absorbing what had happened, looking at the place where his phone was undoubtedly sinking to the sea bed.
She stopped and looked back. ‘We’re the only ones here so if you want to eat, you’ll need to bring those bags with you. There are a lot of steps up to the villa, you don’t really want to have to make two trips.’
Dax looked at the array of bulging bags at his feet on the pontoon. Then up again. Then out to sea where the boat that had brought them was disappearing back to the bigger island, not even visible from here.
The other boat was now bobbing gently in the sea. Obviously anchored. No sign of the bodyguards. No sign of help.
Dax almost felt like throwing his head back and barKing out a laugh. It had been a long time, if ever, that someone had surprised him so effectively. Taken him unawares. Blindsided him. But she’d done it with ruthless and efficient precision.
She’d basically kidnapped him and all without hitting him over the head or disabling him. He’d followed her every step of the way into this lush and humid paradise.