The truth was that he hated her.

Viscount Arthur Mabrey looked down from the huge window at the woman strolling through the palace gardens below. His mouth went dry and he felt the flutter in his gut. It was all too familiar. He always felt like this when he was anywhere near her. The effect she had on him was only one of the reasons he hated her.

She was so perfect, so he wanted so very badly to have her.

When they were younger and his friend, the Crown Prince, had married his arranged-for bride, Mabrey had barely acknowledged the placid young woman who would someday be his queen. She was lovely, of course, but there was nothing particularly compelling about her. She was just another in a long line of pretty faces and empty heads as far as the young Viscount was concerned.

With the passage of time, however, things changed. The people of Genovia came to love and revere their royal couple and the Queen became more involved in the actual work of government. The Queens who ruled Genovia before her had been little more than figure heads and fashion plates. The Kings made all the decisions and actually ruled the land. The Queens simply looked good and were charming hostesses. Clarisse Renaldi had somehow managed to change five hundred years of history and precedence within less than a decade as Queen. That didn't set well with the Viscount. Women had no place in either the board room or the throne room in his estimation.

Mabrey knew King Rupert trusted his wife and her judgment. The Queen was quite a manipulator and had woven her husband too tightly around her little finger, he often thought. Several times over the years, Mabrey had subtly tried to show King Rupert how his wife was controlling him – changing him and his policies. For the most part his efforts were unrewarded. The King was oblivious to the Queen's overarching influence.

Regardless of how much Mabrey disliked Queen Clarisse, he couldn't deny that over the past few years something had changed with her. She had come into her own, somehow. The quiet competence she exuded as a young woman had morphed into a confident power and aura of authority. As the years went by she changed from a somewhat shy, yet unmistakably lovely young girl into a cogent and commanding woman of statuesque beauty.

Despite the changes she'd made which sparked the Viscount's baser interests, she had never warmed to her husband's friend. Mabrey knew she didn't trust him and that infuriated him. He took great pains to insure that neither she nor the King had any inkling of how much he truly disliked her. In his darker moments he'd imagined what it would be like to take her – was it possible that she could be that aloof and disinterested when she was flat on her back? The unapproachable nature and the coldness she exhibited made him want to mar her perfection somehow. Mabrey wasn't in love with his Queen – far from it. He didn't even like her. But there was no denying that she had thoroughly captivated him. He felt a primal need to best her, to mark her as his own - to dominate and subdue that chilly perfection, that icy demeanor that refused to acknowledge him and his ultimate superiority. He would have her – of that, he had no doubt - someday, somehow. Arthur Mabrey was not a man who accepted failure. He went after what he wanted and he got it. No matter what it took.

Before he realized what he was doing, Mabrey's callous laughter echoed against the window panes. He glanced around, but no one else was in the room. He returned his gaze to the garden, only this time his eyes settled on another figure. One of the Queen's gardeners. As Mabrey watched, the man in a wide-brimmed straw hat came alongside the Queen and appeared to be asking her a question about the roses she was inspecting.

'Stupid man,' Mabrey thought. 'Why does she tolerate his presence? He is the picture of insolence – how dare he approach her like that?' His anger seethed and although he would never admit it, he was actually jealous of the gardener. The Queen turned to face the the man when he spoke to her. She favored him with a brilliant smile and her gestures and expression indicated her pleasure in answering the question he'd asked. If he were truthful, Mabrey would admit that he couldn't remember a single time she'd ever smiled at him – a real smile. She barely tolerated his presence, much less deigned to talk with him for any length of time.

She hated him and was scarcely able to hide it. He was tormented by her and was hardly able to contain himself.

Mabrey's focus on the Queen and his inner demons was resolutely quelled when the King's secretary knocked on the door and called him into the monarch's private office. Rupert Renaldi smiled broadly at his old friend and motioned him to a deep leather chair in the sitting area of the office, away from the formality of the desk. The secretary left the room, leaving the two men on their own.

"Scotch?" Rupert asked, reaching for a decanter on a silver tray sitting on the coffee table. Mabrey nodded.

The room was quiet for several minutes. The King didn't speak. He stared at the amber liquid swirling in the fine crystal glass and seemed to be thinking of how he wanted to proceed. Finally he looked Mabrey in the eye.

"How rich do you want to be, Arthur?"

"How rich is too rich, Your Majesty?" Mabrey countered.

"Exactly, my friend. Exactly." Rupert laughed and downed his drink with a flourish. "I have a proposal for you, Mabrey. Have you ever heard of the San Cayetano casinos?"

For the next half hour, the King filled the Viscount in on the details of his plan for membership in the San Cayetano financial consortium. Renaldi explained how he needed a front man – someone to handle his business, while allowing the Crown to be distanced from the shady business group. In exchange for the Viscount's service, the King would be more than willing to share profits.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Arthur. I've been involved with the fringes of this group for many years, but more as a customer than as an investor."

Mabrey smiled at the understatement. He was well aware of the King's love for games of chance and the accouterments of a weekend at exclusive gambling clubs. He'd even accompanied the King on a few of these trips.

"I've been approached for an investment in a new San Cayetano Casino project. The potential for return is enormous. They need both my money and my political contacts. I can give them both, but I need someone to filter the money for me and to act as a go-between. You're just the man for the job, Arthur.

"The Cayetano cartel is not the most open and above board of companies. It would cause quite a scandal for the King of Genovia to be too closely linked to them. That's why I need your help. You will be the figurehead – the front man – and I will supply the funds and whatever influence I can."

"And in return, Your Majesty?"

"In return, you invest however much of your own money that you wish. I will make sure you are appointed to the most powerful committees in parliament, especially those that involve relations with countries where the San Cayetano does business. It will be a huge boost to your political career. And your fortune will easily double. Acting as my agent you will become both rich and powerful."

Mabrey knew there must be a downside. He knew Rupert Renaldi too well not to suspect that. But, at the moment, he couldn't figure out what it could be. And in addition to the promise of power and wealth, this would no doubt mean more time spent at the palace and that in turn might mean… He didn't even bother to finish the thought, but smiled wryly. "I can't think of any reason to refuse, Your Majesty."

Rupert laughed heartily. "I was sure you wouldn't, old man!" They decided on a clandestine meeting at Mabrey's estate later that month to hash out the details of their first transaction. In the meantime, the King would alert his contacts that Mabrey would be acting for him.

"I can't thank you enough for this, Arthur," Rupert told him. "We will both make obscene amounts of money through this deal, and I couldn't do it on my own. I owe you. You will have to let me know how I can reward you."

Mabrey glanced out of the office windows, taking in the view of the gardens beyond. "I'm sure I'll think of something, Your Majesty."

_______________________________________________________________________

Within a short few months, the business details had been arranged and Mabrey was spending a considerable amount of time, not to mention his own money, on the cartel's business. The profits were good, for himself as well as the King.

True to his word, King Rupert had appointed Mabrey to several powerful committees and Mabrey was becoming a power broker in the Genovian Parliament. He spent more time than ever at the palace. Given the Viscount's penchant for manipulation and power, Rupert came to rely on him more and more.

The Queen, however, remained unimpressed with the Viscount and impervious to his influence. She always managed to vacate the vicinity whenever he was present. She wasn't rude, simply detached. And that was what really got under his skin. If she'd had the decency to be spiteful towards him, or to at least acknowledge his presence, it would have been better than being ignored. She acted as if he were completely unimportant.

She may not appreciate him, but she certainly had to admit he was quickly becoming one of the most powerful men in Genvoia, Mabrey thought.

In celebration of the success of the first year of their joint venture, Rupert arranged a trip to the new casino, which was set on an incredible piece of property on the Mediterranean coast. He took Mabrey with him, as well as his oldest son, Crown Prince Pierre. The King was in high spirits and ready for some entertainment.

This was not the first time Pierre had accompanied his father on these sorts of trips. Ostensibly the King wanted to spend time with his son, but their interests seldom converged and they normally saw very little of each other on this trips. Pierre suspected that his mother was behind most of the invitations from his father, but he felt obligated to accept. And Rupert did seem to genuinely enjoy his company. At times.

After almost 5 straight hours at the blackjack table, Rupert was ready for a break. Pierre had long since tired of the activity. He had been to dinner and was on his way to a show that evening. Mabrey had sampled most of what the casino floor had to offer and had managed to have a cocktail with the casino manager. The manager was intent on making sure that one of his largest investors was happy. He told Mabrey that the entire facility and staff were at their disposal. Anything – anything – he or the King wanted would be provided without hesitation.

The sense of entitlement and the almost fawning attitude of the manager were intoxicating. Mabrey loved the feeling of power it gave him. He made his way back to the King's side, the beginnings of an idea playing at the back of his mind.

"Arthur! Where have you been? I'm up by almost four thousand." The King was almost giddy – tired and hungry, but having too much fun to slow down.

"I'm afraid I don't have your luck, Your Majesty," Mabrey all but simpered. "I've arranged dinner for us with the manager. There are also some other…entertainments…that the casino has to offer for later on in the evening. If you are interested, that is."

"Dinner is probably a good idea," the King laughed good-naturedly. He indicated to the dealer that he was leaving the table. The pit boss materialized at his shoulder, noting the King's winnings and promising to have them added to his account. Rupert stood and stretched his long legs, while cuffing Mabrey's shoulder soundly. "Bring on the food!"

Rupert Renaldi was always quick with a hearty laugh and a funny story. The ability to entertain and put others at ease had served him well in diplomatic circles. Few who had close dealings with him doubted his shrewd business acumen or his duty to his country, but he softened his blows with laughter and good-natured camaraderie. This dinner was no exception and soon the casino manager was under the spell of the exuberant sovereign.

As dinner progressed and the pre-dinner cocktails gave way to wine which gave way to dessert liqueur and brandy, the King's stories became more ribald and his glances that followed the serving staff took on a slightly lecherous quality. Nothing gauche, but a noticeable lingering of the eyes, an errant touch here and there.

Mabrey was biding his time and when he thought the King was high enough to acquiesce, but not in danger of passing out too soon, he mentioned that the casino offered a full service, in-room massage for its high rollers. Rupert was all attention at that suggestion. The manager confirmed this and within a very short time, Rupert was ensconced in his guest suite, completely naked and being pummeled by a leggy brunette.

His groans of satisfaction were proof enough of his relaxed and suggestible state. Mabrey, who had accompanied the King to his room, stood up from his seat on a nearby couch.

"I'll be leaving now, Your Majesty," he said.

"Suit yourself, Arthur. But you should really give this a try," the King said, his voice muffled by the massage table.

"Oh, I plan to," Mabrey laughed. "There should be a young woman in my suite right now." He caught the eye of the masseuse and nodded deliberately. "Don't forget, this is a full service massage Your Majesty. I'm sure you'll want privacy."

The King's only answer was a throaty laugh. Mabrey left the suite and his last glance behind him as he shut the door revealed the brunette slowly undoing the buttons of her shirt.

Rupert woke hours later to find the woman still in his bed. This irritated him to no end, but he wasn't going to be rude about it. He was a married man who certainly loved his wife. But he was never one to confuse sex with love. A man in his position, he assumed, was expected to have the occasional dalliance with a beautiful woman. No one got hurt. It was never personal. That's why he hated to wake to find the woman still there. That verged on the personal. No one, not even his wife, ever spent the entire night with him. That was the whole point of having separate rooms.

He slipped out of bed, trying to avoid waking her so he wouldn't have to talk to her. He pulled his robe over his broad shoulders and knotted the belt before he opened the bedroom door. Robert was on duty outside.

"Morning, Robert."

"Sir." Robert nodded a greeting and came to attention.

"I'm going to take a shower. Would you make sure that my room is empty when I get out?"

"Yes, sir. I'll see to it that everything is in order." The guard's face was a picture of passivity, his thoughts hidden deep below a mask of efficiency.

As soon as he heard the water running in the shower, Robert stepped into the room and shook the woman awake. He informed her politely that she needed to vacate the premises. She was a pro and knew better than to make a scene about the obviously curt dismissal. She pretended to have overslept and had a sudden, urgent need to be somewhere else. Her cooperation and understanding earned an agreement from the guard when she asked to dress in private. He was not in the room when she retrieved the small camera from its hiding place in the folds of the bed's canopy. She'd been paid handsomely to make sure that the programmed camera had plenty to shoot and to deliver the goods to the right people. She was a consummate professional. In more ways than one.