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The Prince's Chambermaid - fb3_img_img_53ed437b-73b8-51be-9e92-125ef31a81ab.jpg

He could see her looking at him questioningly, and he stroked at her silken hair. ‘Who’d have thought,’ he murmured, ‘that a couple of weeks’ of intensive sexual tuition could make a humble little chambermaid such a perfect partner in bed?’

Cathy’s smile didn’t slip. She told herself not to react. That he probably wasn’t intending to insult her. To concentrate instead on the way he made her feel when his fingers were stroking sweet enchantment over her skin. Anyway, perhaps he couldn’t help it—maybe that arrogance was inbuilt, and part of his unique royal make-up. Maybe princes from Zaffirinthos were expected to be arrogant. Far better to accept him for who he was and not try to change him. Why spoil what was never intended to be anything other than a brief, beautiful liaison?

‘Who’d have thought it?’ she agreed.

Dear Reader,

One hundred. Doesn’t matter how many times I say it, I still can’t believe that’s how many books I’ve written. It’s a fabulous feeling but more fabulous still is the news that Mills & Boon are issuing every single one of my backlist as digital titles. Wow. I can’t wait to share all my stories with you - which are as vivid to me now as when I wrote them.

There’s BOUGHT FOR HER HUSBAND, with its outrageously macho Greek hero and A SCANDAL, A SECRET AND A BABY featuring a very sexy Tuscan. THE SHEIKH’S HEIR proved so popular with readers that it spent two weeks on the USA Today charts and…well, I could go on, but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves.

I remember the first line of my very first book: “So you’ve come to Australia looking for a husband?” Actually, the heroine had gone to Australia to escape men, but guess what? She found a husband all the same! The man who inspired that book rang me up recently and when I told him I was beginning my 100th story and couldn’t decide what to write, he said, “Why don’t you go back to where it all started?”

So I did. And that’s how A ROYAL VOW OF CONVENIENCE was born. It opens in beautiful Queensland and moves to England and New York. It’s about a runaway princess and the enigmatic billionaire who is infuriated by her, yet who winds up rescuing her. But then, she goes and rescues him… Wouldn’t you know it?

I’ll end by saying how very grateful I am to have a career I love, and to thank each and every one of you who has supported me along the way. You really are very dear readers.

Love,

Sharon xxx

Mills & Boon are proud to present a thrilling digital collection of all Sharon Kendrick’s novels and novellas for us to celebrate the publication of her amazing and awesome 100th book! Sharon is known worldwide for her likeable, spirited heroines and her gorgeous, utterly masculine heroes.

SHARON KENDRICK once won a national writing competition, describing her ideal date: being flown to an exotic island by a gorgeous and powerful man. Little did she realise that she’d just wandered into her dream job! Today she writes for Mills & Boon, featuring her often stubborn but always to-die-for heroes and the women who bring them to their knees. She believes that the best books are those you never want to end. Just like life…

The Prince’s Chambermaid

Sharon Kendrick

The Prince's Chambermaid - fb3_img_img_ac1369e3-2296-5c04-9499-780052f16cdf.jpg

www.millsandboon.co.uk

To Judy Hutson, Catriona Smith and Narell Thomas, who were there at this story’s inception and who inspired me—as did the green fields of West Sussex and the wild splendour of Cornwall.

And to Rachel Thomas for her invaluable research on head-hunting.

CONTENTS

Cover

Extract

Dear Reader

About the Author

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

EPILOGUE

Copyright

Chapter One

FOR a moment she thought she must have misheard him. Either that, or she was going crazy. And maybe she was. For hadn’t her foolish dreams of love just been dealt a death-blow in time-honoured fashion? From her position behind the reception desk where she was covering for the receptionist’s lunch-break, Cathy stared up at her boss in disbelief and tried not to think about the crumpled-up letter which was lying in the bottom of her handbag. Or the battering to her self-esteem which had left her feeling lonely, and wounded.

‘Sorry.’ She cleared her throat, wondering if he was having some kind of joke at her expense. ‘For a minute then, I thought you said—’

‘A prince? Yes, I did.’ Rupert’s smirk was supercilious, his upper-crust English accent even more pronounced than usual, as he paused to allow the significance of his statement to sink in. ‘A royal prince is going to be gracing our hotel with his presence—what do you think of that, Cathy?’

‘A prince?’ Cathy echoed in disbelief.

вернуться

He could see her looking at him questioningly, and he stroked at her silken hair. ‘Who’d have thought,’ he murmured, ‘that a couple of weeks’ of intensive sexual tuition could make a humble little chambermaid such a perfect partner in bed?’

Cathy’s smile didn’t slip. She told herself not to react. That he probably wasn’t intending to insult her. To concentrate instead on the way he made her feel when his fingers were stroking sweet enchantment over her skin. Anyway, perhaps he couldn’t help it—maybe that arrogance was inbuilt, and part of his unique royal make-up. Maybe princes from Zaffirinthos were expected to be arrogant. Far better to accept him for who he was and not try to change him. Why spoil what was never intended to be anything other than a brief, beautiful liaison?

‘Who’d have thought it?’ she agreed.

вернуться

Dear Reader,

One hundred. Doesn’t matter how many times I say it, I still can’t believe that’s how many books I’ve written. It’s a fabulous feeling but more fabulous still is the news that Mills & Boon are issuing every single one of my backlist as digital titles. Wow. I can’t wait to share all my stories with you - which are as vivid to me now as when I wrote them.

There’s BOUGHT FOR HER HUSBAND, with its outrageously macho Greek hero and A SCANDAL, A SECRET AND A BABY featuring a very sexy Tuscan. THE SHEIKH’S HEIR proved so popular with readers that it spent two weeks on the USA Today charts and…well, I could go on, but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourselves.

I remember the first line of my very first book: “So you’ve come to Australia looking for a husband?” Actually, the heroine had gone to Australia to escape men, but guess what? She found a husband all the same! The man who inspired that book rang me up recently and when I told him I was beginning my 100th story and couldn’t decide what to write, he said, “Why don’t you go back to where it all started?”

So I did. And that’s how A ROYAL VOW OF CONVENIENCE was born. It opens in beautiful Queensland and moves to England and New York. It’s about a runaway princess and the enigmatic billionaire who is infuriated by her, yet who winds up rescuing her. But then, she goes and rescues him… Wouldn’t you know it?

I’ll end by saying how very grateful I am to have a career I love, and to thank each and every one of you who has supported me along the way. You really are very dear readers.

Love,

Sharon xxx

вернуться

SHARON KENDRICK once won a national writing competition, describing her ideal date: being flown to an exotic island by a gorgeous and powerful man. Little did she realise that she’d just wandered into her dream job! Today she writes for Mills & Boon, featuring her often stubborn but always to-die-for heroes and the women who bring them to their knees. She believes that the best books are those you never want to end. Just like life…

вернуться

The Prince’s Chambermaid

Sharon Kendrick

The Prince's Chambermaid - fb3_img_img_ac1369e3-2296-5c04-9499-780052f16cdf.jpg

www.millsandboon.co.uk

вернуться

To Judy Hutson, Catriona Smith and Narell Thomas, who were there at this story’s inception and who inspired me—as did the green fields of West Sussex and the wild splendour of Cornwall.

And to Rachel Thomas for her invaluable research on head-hunting.

вернуться

FOR a moment she thought she must have misheard him. Either that, or she was going crazy. And maybe she was. For hadn’t her foolish dreams of love just been dealt a death-blow in time-honoured fashion? From her position behind the reception desk where she was covering for the receptionist’s lunch-break, Cathy stared up at her boss in disbelief and tried not to think about the crumpled-up letter which was lying in the bottom of her handbag. Or the battering to her self-esteem which had left her feeling lonely, and wounded.

‘Sorry.’ She cleared her throat, wondering if he was having some kind of joke at her expense. ‘For a minute then, I thought you said—’

‘A prince? Yes, I did.’ Rupert’s smirk was supercilious, his upper-crust English accent even more pronounced than usual, as he paused to allow the significance of his statement to sink in. ‘A royal prince is going to be gracing our hotel with his presence—what do you think of that, Cathy?’

‘A prince?’ Cathy echoed in disbelief.

Rupert’s smirk became even more pronounced. ‘Prince Xaviero of Zaffirinthos. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of him?’

Cathy bit back the defensive response which sprang to her lips. Just because she was a chambermaid who’d never really qualified for anything didn’t mean that she was a complete write-off, did it? The implication being that such a woman would barely recognise the name of a member of the English royal family—let alone a rather more obscure foreign version. But Rupert was right, damn him. Despite doing her best to keep up with world events via newspapers and books, it seemed that Zaffirinthos had somehow slipped off her radar. ‘N-no,’ she answered uncertainly. ‘No, I haven’t.’

‘Then let me enlighten you. He’s next in line to an island kingdom, a world-class polo player—and a lover of beautiful women,’ said Rupert, puffing out his chest. ‘In fact, the most glittering VIP we’ve ever had.’

Cathy stared at him, screwing up her eyes in confusion because something didn’t make sense. They both knew that important guests were few and far between—despite the fact that there was a world-famous polo club nearby as well as some pretty impressive stud farms. But there were also other, more upmarket hotels and she couldn’t imagine why on earth a prince would choose to stay somewhere like this. Yes, the building was listed and yes, originally it had been a very elegant private home before it had been turned into a hotel. But Rupert’s general mismanagement and dwindling guest numbers had left house and grounds in a pretty run-down condition, which didn’t tend to attract VIPs.

‘But why?’ she questioned. ‘I mean, why’s he coming here?

Rupert’s smile disappeared as quickly as a ray of April sunshine. ‘Why is none of your business,’ he snapped back, but then seemed to relent—glancing round to check that the coast was clear and paying lip-service to discretion, but clearly busting to tell someone. ‘Well, keep it to yourself—but he’s moving over here from his home in New York and he’s about to complete the purchase of the Greenhill Polo Club.’

Cathy’s eyes opened wider. She thought of the acres of valuable real estate which housed the prestigious club, which brought international celebrities flocking there every weekend during the polo season. ‘A place like that would cost an absolute fortune to buy,’ she said slowly.

‘For once, you’re right, Cathy—but that won’t be a problem, not in this case. You see, this man is not just any old prince—with genuine blue blood coursing around in his veins—he also happens to be outrageously wealthy.’ Rupert’s eyes narrowed calculatingly. ‘Which is why there are going to have to be some changes made before he and his entourage arrive.’

Cathy had been working for Rupert long enough to know just when to sense trouble. ‘Changes?’ she said, hoping that she was hiding the instinctive alarm which sprang up inside her. ‘What kind of changes?’

‘Well, for a start—we’re going to have to spruce up the public rooms to accommodate a man of his calibre. They’ll all need a lick of paint—especially the downstairs washrooms. I’ve organised for a firm of decorators to come in and start work first thing tomorrow morning.’

Cathy stared at him. ‘That quickly?’

‘Yes, that quickly. Someone will be in later to measure up—and you’ll need to show him around,’ said Rupert testily. ‘The Prince will be arriving next week and there’s a lot to be done between now and then if it’s to meet royal expectations. Apparently, he only sleeps on Egyptian cotton sheets—so I’m going to have to send to London for those. Oh, and one other thing.’

His eyes roved over her in a manner she had always found offensive, but Cathy had learnt to ignore the suggestive way her boss looked at her, just as she had learnt to ignore his other annoying traits. Because no job in the world was perfect. Nothing was. Everyone knew that. ‘What?’ she questioned apprehensively.

‘You’ll need to do something about your appearance. All of the staff need some sort of overhaul, but you need it more than most, Cathy.’

It was a criticism he had levelled at her more than once. But Cathy never really had the inclination to use anything other than a little honest-to-goodness soap and water and to drag a brush through her pale and disobedient hair. Her chambermaiding duties meant she had to be up much too early to make a fuss and, besides, the great-aunt who had brought her up had been a no-nonsense woman who had scoffed at make-up—and had taught her great-niece to do the same.

Cathy hated the way Rupert sometimes made her feel. As if she were only half a woman. Why did he do that? Because he gets a kick out of it, that’s why. And because he’s never got over the fact that you once rejected him. But insecurity could sometimes get the better of you and she found herself asking, ‘What’s wrong with my appearance?’

‘How long have you got?’ Rupert smoothed back the lock of hair which flopped over his forehead. ‘The point is that the Prince is a connoisseur of beautiful things and beautiful women in particular. And while I’m not hoping for a miracle, I’d like you to make a bit more effort while he’s here. Some make-up wouldn’t go amiss, for a start. And you’ll be getting a brand-new uniform.’

Most women might have liked the thought of a new uniform but something in Rupert’s eyes made Cathy feel instinctively wary. Infuriatingly, she could feel herself starting to blush—a slow heat travelling all the way down her neck and beyond, to the infuriatingly heavy weight of breasts which had always been too lush for her tiny frame. ‘But—’ ‘No buts,’ said Rupert. ‘I’m the boss, Cathy. And what I say goes.’

Well, she certainly couldn’t argue with that. Cathy bit her lip as she watched Rupert sweep out of the reception area in that over-dramatic manner of his.

In a way, she had been in the job too long—and sometimes she wondered if she would ever have the courage to leave. Yet familiarity was a powerful tie, especially to the emotionally insecure, and she had never known anything else but this place.

She had been brought to this village as an orphan—delivered into the care of her great-aunt—a formidable spinster who had had little idea how to cope with a grieving child. Cathy had missed her parents badly—she’d fretted and cried at nights. And her great-aunt, though well-intentioned, had been unusually strict with her, extolling the virtues of clean living, early nights and plenty of book learning.

But Cathy had proved to be something of a disappointment. Not a particularly academic child, she had achieved little in the way of qualifications except for a commendation for cooking and a special mention of the contribution she’d made to the school garden.

When her great-aunt had become ill, Cathy had been happy to nurse the old lady—wanting in some small way to repay the woman’s kindness to her. And after her death Cathy had experienced that same terrible tearing sense of being alone as when her parents had died.

The job as chambermaid at Rupert’s hotel had never been meant to be anything other than a temporary post while she decided what she really wanted to do with her life. It had provided an undemanding refuge from the cruel knocks of life. But the days had drifted into months, then years—until she had met Peter, a trainee clergyman. Friendship had turned into dating and a slow-burning romance. Peter had provided sanctuary, and gentleness—and when he had asked her to marry him, Cathy had said yes, seeing a simple and happy future spread out before her, with a straightforward man who loved her.

Or so he’d said. He had taken a job up north and the plan had been that she would join him at the end of the year. And then yesterday, the letter had arrived. The one which had destroyed all her hopes and dreams and made a mockery of all she stood for. The one which said: I’m sorry, Cathy—but I’ve met somebody else and she’s going to have a baby…

She was so lost in her troubled thoughts that at first she didn’t notice that anybody had walked into Reception. Not until a faint movement alerted her to the presence of someone moving towards the desk. A man. Cathy sat up straight, automatically pinning a professional smile of welcome to her lips.

And froze.

It was one of those rare moments which chanced along once in a lifetime if you were lucky. The sensation of being sucked in by a gaze so mesmerising that you felt as if you were being devoured by it.

Dazed, she stared up into the most startling pair of eyes she had ever seen. Eyes as golden as a late-afternoon sun—all richness and lustre—but underpinned by a cold and metallic gleam.

Unseen beneath the reception desk, Cathy’s fingers bunched themselves into two little fists. She was unable to stop herself from staring at the rest of his face—at arrogant, haughty features which looked as if they had been carved from some rare and gleaming piece of metal. At lips which were curved and full—the corners mocking and sensual. But they were hard, obdurate lips, too, she realised as an instinctive shiver iced her skin.

His hair was dark and ruffled, and his olive skin was faintly flushed, glowing with health and vitality as if he’d been engaged in some kind of violent exercise. Tall and broad-shouldered, his physique was powerful yet lean—a fact which was emphasised by the T-shirt he wore, which clung lovingly to every hard sinew. The muscular torso tapered down into narrow hips and the longest legs she had ever seen. Legs which were encased in mud-spattered denim so faded and old that it seemed to caress his flesh like a second skin. Cathy swallowed. Her heart was racing and her throat had constricted, as if someone were pressing their fingers against it.

‘I’m…I’m afraid you can’t come in here looking like that, sir,’ she said, forcing the words out.

Xaviero studied her—though without quite the same awestruck intensity with which she had been studying him. He had noticed the way her pupils had darkened and the way her lips had parted with unconscious longing. But he was used to having that effect on women—even when he’d just come from a long, hard session of riding, as now. Her stuttering response was not unusual either—though it usually happened when he was on official duty, when people were so caught up with the occasion and the protocol which surrounded him that they couldn’t think straight.

The most important thing was that she hadn’t recognised him—of that he was certain. After a lifetime of being subjected to idolatry and fawning he was an expert in anonymity and in people pretending not to recognise him.

His eyes flicked over her in brief assessment, registering that she was tiny and fair. And that she possessed the most magnificent pair of breasts he had seen in a long while—their thrusting pertness noticeable despite the unflattering white overall she wore. Too big, surely—for such a petite frame? His eyes narrowed in expert appraisal. And yet completely natural, by the look of them.

‘Looking like what?’ he questioned softly.

Cathy’s mouth dried. Even his voice was drop-dead gorgeous. Rich, like dark sweet molasses and with a strange and captivating lilt to it. An accent she’d never heard before and one she couldn’t place at all. But who cared when somehow he managed to turn each syllable into a poem?

Oh, for heaven’s sake, she thought. Pull yourself together. Just because you’ve been dumped by your fiancé, there’s no need to behave like some old spinster—eyeing up the kind of man who wouldn’t look twice at you.

And yet she could do nothing to prevent the powerful thundering of her heart. ‘Looking like…like…’ Like what? He looked like danger, that was what. With the faintly disreputable look of a womaniser who had probably left his motorbike outside—and she knew Rupert’s opinion about bikers staying in the hotel. So get rid of him. Direct him to the B&B down in the village. And do it quickly, before you make even more of a fool of yourself.

‘I’m afraid that all our guests must be properly attired in smart-casual clothing,’ she said quickly, echoing one of Rupert’s stuffy directives and embarrassingly aware of the mocking twist of the man’s lips. ‘It’s…it’s one of the rules.’

Xaviero almost laughed aloud at the pompous restriction—but why knock something which had the power to amuse him? ‘One of the rules?’ he repeated mockingly. ‘A very old-fashioned rule, I must say.’

Cathy risked moving her hands from beneath the desk and she held her palms up in a silent gesture of helplessness. She totally agreed with him—but what could she do? Rupert was still mired in the past. He wanted formality and ostentatious symbols of wealth—he certainly didn’t want people walking into his hotel wearing mud-spattered clothing. Yet Cathy thought of the dwindling guest numbers and thought that her boss could do with all the help he could get.

‘I’m very sorry,’ she repeated softly. ‘But there’s nothing I can do. Our policy is very strict.’

‘Is it now?’ he murmured as he stared down into a pair of wide aquamarine eyes. ‘And you don’t make any…exceptions?

How could he make such a simple query sound as if…as if…? Her mouth drying like sand, Cathy shook her head, trying to quell the haywire nature of her thoughts, thinking that most people would be happy to make an exception for him. ‘I’m afraid we don’t. Not…not even for guests.’

As she shrugged her shoulders apologetically the movement drew his attention to the sway of her magnificent breasts and, unexpectedly, Xaviero felt the sharp stirring of lust at his groin. For there was no sweeter temptation than a woman who responded to him as a man, rather than as a prince.

Placing one lazy denimed elbow on the counter which separated them, he leaned forward and gave a conspiratorial smile. ‘And what would you do,’ he queried softly, ‘if I told you that I was not here as a guest?’

Cathy’s heart gave a lurch. Up close, he seemed to exude an air of raw masculinity which had short-circuited her brain and was making her breath come in short, shallow bursts. What was the matter with her? Struggling out of the befuddled haze of her thoughts, she realised that his answer hadn’t really surprised her. After all, he didn’t really look like a guest, did he? ‘You’re…you’re not?’

‘No.’ He paused while he thought about who he would like to be. Whose skin he would like to step inside for a brief moment of complete freedom. It was a game he had always liked to play when he was younger—when he had gone away to mainland Europe to college—and it had always driven his security people mad.

For Xaviero—or, rather, Prince Xaviero Vincente Caius di Cesere of Zaffirinthos, to give him his full title—liked to remain incognito wherever and whenever possible. Anonymity was his rarest and most precious possession. He liked to play at a life that could never be his for more than a few minutes at a time. A world in which he was judged as other men were—by appearance and demeanour, and by what he said. Where chemistry counted more than privilege.

Didn’t matter that outside in a bullet-proofed car sat two bodyguards with guns bulging at their breast pockets—or that a further two were lurking somewhere in the grounds. For as long as this woman remained ignorant of his true identity, he could pretend he was just like any other man. ‘No, I’m not a guest,’ he added truthfully.

Suddenly it all made sense and Cathy wondered how she could have been so dense. ‘Of course! You’re the painter and decorator,’ she said slowly, her lips parting in a wide smile. ‘And you’ve come to measure up the washrooms.’

Xaviero’s eyes narrowed at her outrageous assumption—but he could hardly berate her for insubordination when she had no idea who he was! He had been about to deny her laughable assertion, but now she was rising to her feet and instead he found himself utterly captivated by her lush little body—and by the sheer sunny quality of her smile. When had anyone last smiled at him that sweetly? Or treated him as just a man, instead of a privileged member of one of Europe’s richest royal houses?

En route from the polo club to the airfield which housed his private plane, he had called in here on a whim. The sweat from a hot, hard ride still drying on his skin, he had been curious as to how the place looked before it was made ready for his official visit. But now he wondered whether the hand of fate might have stepped in. Had he been guided here by some unseen and benevolent hand, to have sexual hunger awoken in him once more by a lowly woman who was completely unaware of his true identity?

‘That’s right,’ he said slowly, doing his best to hide another sudden stir of lust. ‘I’ve come to measure up the washrooms.’

‘Right. Well, in that case—Rupert has instructed me to show you around.’

Xaviero smiled. So he wouldn’t even have to deal with the crashing snob of an Englishman who set his nerves on edge. This was getting better by the minute. ‘Perfect.’

Cathy could feel the skitter of her heart as his eyes drifted over her. She remembered the discarded letter which lay in her handbag and yet hot on that memory came the realisation that no man had ever made her feel like this before. Not even Peter—the man she had thought she’d loved enough to want to marry!

Was this what love really felt like? The thought flew into her mind unbidden, before she firmly sent it packing. Oh, for heaven’s sake, Cathy—have you finally lost sight of your senses? You’ve only just met him. You don’t know him. He’s a stranger who’s clearly aware of just how devastatingly attractive he is. And if he’s going to be working on-site there’s no way you can keep dissolving in a puddle at his feet every time he flicks you that curiously arrogant glance of his.

She gave him an efficient smile. ‘So if you’d like to follow me.’

Xaviero tried to imagine how a painter and decorator might respond in such a situation. Especially one who was mesmerised by a woman’s petite beauty. Wouldn’t he flirt a little? Especially in view of the way she had been staring at him—like a starving cat who had just been confronted with a plate of food. Was she as hungry for sex as he was? ‘I can’t think of anything I’d rather do,’ he murmured.

His provocative words were tantalising—but they were daunting, too. Cathy came out from behind the reception desk and then half-wished she had remained behind its protective barrier. Because standing so close to him, she felt so…exposed…so intensely aware of his towering height and his hard-packed muscular body. Her knowledge of men was laughably small—but even she realised that this man exuded a sensual kind of aura which spelt danger. So what did you do when you encountered danger? she asked herself. You put some physical distance between you, that was what.

‘Let’s go,’ she said quickly.

‘Mmm. Let’s.’ Like a snake lured by a charmer, he watched the seductive sway of her body as she led the way. She really was a tiny little thing—like a pocket Venus—with those curiously old-fashioned curves which made her bottom look so eminently cuppable. He knew from exgirlfriends who haunted the international fashion shows that clothes looked best on lanky beanpoles without any bust or hips—but he realised instantly that this was the kind of woman who would look best with no clothes at all…

Cathy was trying to walk normally—though how could she do that when she could feel his gaze on her back, burning into her like golden flames shot from a blowtorch? She made the decision to leave the washrooms until last—because how embarrassing would it be to have to stand pointing out the peeling paintwork behind one of the cisterns? Instead, she stopped in front of a set of double doors and, pushing them open, stepped into a large, highceilinged room.

‘Here we are,’ she said brightly. ‘This is our formal drawing room—where guests sometimes bring their coffee after dinner. It…well, it hasn’t been used very much lately.’

Xaviero looked around at the general air of neglect. ‘So I see,’ he said wryly.

The furniture was much too faded to be described as ‘shabby chic’ and a chandelier looked as if it hadn’t been dusted for an age. Cathy saw him glancing at it with a slightly disbelieving expression and, to her horror, she noticed a froth of cobweb lacing its base.

‘It’s, well…it’s a bit difficult to get to—even with a feather duster,’ she said apologetically. ‘I’d have had a go myself, only I’m slightly on the small side.’

Golden eyes assessed her from head to toe, lingering luxuriously on her petite frame. ‘You certainly are. And presumably you’re not actually the cleaner?’ he questioned drily.

‘Er, no—I’m not,’ she said quickly. ‘I’m…’ She stared up into the man’s gleaming eyes wondering if her next statement would make his interest fade. ‘I’m…I’m the chambermaid actually.’

The chambermaid? Sweet heaven! Xaviero almost groaned aloud—because the image which sprang into his mind was of a bed. A large, soft bed. And her in it, rather than making it. That soft, voluptuous form sinking onto crisp sheets and him sinking right on top of her. It was the most powerfully erotic image he had experienced in years and he shifted his weight very slightly in a doomed attempt to relieve the aching at his groin.

‘Really?’ he murmured. ‘That must be a very…interesting job?’

Cathy’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Was he making fun of her—flippantly discounting a very necessary job which carried with it zero status? And yet he looked interested. She gave him the benefit of the doubt. ‘Well, it can have its moments,’ she said truthfully and then smiled again. ‘Honestly, you wouldn’t believe some of the things the guests leave behind!’

‘Such as?’

Primly, she locked her lips together. ‘I couldn’t possibly say.’

He laughed. ‘A loyal chambermaid,’ he murmured.

‘Professional discretion,’ she agreed. ‘And at least it’s a job which gives me plenty of free time.’

‘I suppose there is much to be said for that,’ he answered reflectively, thinking that she would not have dared speak to him in such a natural and unaffected way if she had been aware of his identity.

‘Yes.’ She opened her mouth to start telling him about the magnificent grounds which surrounded the hotel and all the secret places you could find to daydream in. About the scented haven she had created in her own little garden, but then she changed her mind and shut it again. Just go, she told herself. Go before you make a fool of yourself. Because haven’t you done overtime in the fool stakes recently? You’ve just been left by one man—so best not frighten away another.

‘Look, I’ve wasted enough time talking. I’d…I’d better leave you to get on with your work,’ she said reluctantly, though she noticed that he hadn’t produced a tape measure. Why, he didn’t even appear to have anything to write with!

Xaviero studied her. The most sensible thing in the world would be to come clean—to disclose his real identity and tell her that he wasn’t some painter and decorator at all. But he wasn’t feeling in the least bit sensible. In truth, he was feeling reckless and more than a little wild—a feeling which had only been intensified by recent events on his island.

His mouth hardened. Except that it was not his island any more, was it? It lay firmly under the rule of his elder brother now—it was his domain. The moment the crown had been placed on Casimiro’s head Xaviero had felt as if he no longer had any real role there.

The year of official mourning for his father had left him feeling strangely hollow and empty—and wasn’t that one of the reasons he was here? To swap his bustling New York existence and make a new life for himself—by purchasing one of the most famous polo grounds in the world, and realising a long-cherished dream to build up a training school?

He stared down into the face of the blonde, mesmerised by her pale beauty. She was so tiny, so delicate and light that he thought he might be able to pick her up with one hand, and hold her—like a small trophy. He imagined his big, dark body contrasted against her pale fragility. Could a woman this small accommodate a man as large as him?

He felt the recklessness transmute into desire—and the sheer and potent power of desire after so long an absence took him off guard. His gaze drifted over her lips and their rose-pink softness only increased his sudden yearning. Lips as luscious as rain-swollen petals and slightly parted as she gazed up at him. Lips that were born to be kissed; begging to be kissed. Would she let him? No woman had ever resisted him—because there wasn’t a woman alive who would refuse the advances of a prince. But he had never kissed a woman under the guise of anonymity before…

How would he fare as an artisan? Did small-town country girls let painter and decorators take immediate liberties whenever lust coursed through their veins? He saw her eyes darken. Saw the sweet, almost wary way she stared up at him. It seemed that they did.

‘No,’ he said suddenly. ‘Don’t leave.’

Cathy’s eyes widened. For a moment she thought that she had misheard him. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘I don’t want you to go anywhere,’ he said unevenly, and his smile was complicit. ‘Any more than you do.’

There was a split second before the fantasy she’d been nurturing ever since he’d walked in began to come true. As he began to move towards her Cathy felt she should protest, but no words came—despite the certainty that he was about to kiss her and that it was both inappropriate and unprofessional to kiss a man she had only just met.

But Cathy’s ego was bruised—she had been left feeling bitterly hurt by Peter’s rejection. The future she had imagined for herself was no longer an option and she felt empty and undesirable. When her fingers had tightened around her fiancé’s letter, hadn’t she imagined that no man would ever desire her again? And yet, now—out of the blue—came this.

‘You don’t want to go anywhere, do you?’ he persisted, on a murmur.

‘I’m…I’m not sure.’

‘Oh, I think you are, cara. Just as sure as I am.’

Leaning forward, he brushed his mouth over hers and felt the corresponding tremble of her lips.

‘You like that?’ he questioned unsteadily.

‘Yes,’ she whispered back as the lips came back and this time lingered—and Cathy knew she was lost as he pulled her into his arms and began to kiss her in earnest. Because it felt as if her life had been on hold until that moment. Peter’s letter had left her feeling empty and aching and worthless. Yet all her fears and insecurities—all that hurt and rejection—were wiped away by the sheer, simple power of this man’s amazing kiss.

Xaviero felt her instant capitulation—she gasped when he deepened the kiss still further. He felt the instant and glorious response of his own body, and his mind began doing rapid calculations. How long before his security bleeped him? Time to lock these doors and push her to her knees and have her pleasure him with those incredible lips of hers? She was too easy, he thought despairingly as desire now became mixed with disgust—for Xaviero freely admitted to having the double standards of many men where women were concerned. But that did not stop him guiding her hand to the hardness at his groin.

Several things happened at once. Firstly, an alarm began to vibrate in the pocket of his jeans—a movement which corresponded with the blonde snatching her hand away with a little yelp. And somewhere in the distance, a telephone began to ring.

Through a haze of humiliation and a terrible unfamiliar aching sensation in her breasts, Cathy took a step back and stared up at the man in horror, her cheeks burning as the memory of his hot, hard ridge seemed to be imprinted on her fingers.

‘Wh-what the hell do you think you’re doing?’ she demanded tremblingly, though deep down she knew she should have been asking herself the very same question. Why had she let this stranger take such liberties with her?

Xaviero gave a scornful laugh as his gaze raked over her swollen breasts—their tips now clearly outlined against her ill-fitting overall, just crying out for the feel of his fingers and his lips. Frustrated desire quickly became selfcontempt. Was he so hungry for a woman that he should resort to behaviour like this? Like some teenage boy who had never known sex before?

‘I should have thought that was obvious,’ he grated. ‘I was giving you what your body was clearly crying out for and still is, by the look of you. Sadly, I don’t have time to oblige you, at least not right now—although, frankly, I prefer my women to put up a little more fight.’ His mouth hardened with a mixture of derision and frustration as he fought the desire to start kissing her all over again. ‘Did no one ever teach you that when something is given so carelessly it loses much of its appeal?’

Cathy felt a wave of injustice wash over her. He probably wouldn’t believe her if she told him that she’d never behaved in such a way with a man before and yet why should she take all the blame for what had just happened? He had been the one who’d started it—who had begun to kiss her with such practised skill that she had melted in his arms like a piece of molten wax.

‘I suppose you consider yourself to be blameless?’ she demanded, wanting to slap him around his arrogant face. But he obviously saw the itching temptation in her trembling fingers, because he shook his dark head, the gold of his eyes almost completely obscured by twin circles of black fury.

‘Don’t even think about it, cara,’ he warned.

The thinly veiled threat brought her to her senses as a sudden and acute sense of shame washed over her. But it was too late for redress because, with one final look of frustrated contempt, the golden-eyed man turned and walked from the room without another word.

For several disbelieving moments she just stood there until, in the distance, Cathy heard the muffled sound of tyres squealing over gravel and she hurried over to the window to see two expensive black cars racing down the drive at high speed. Automatically, she registered the sound of their powerful engines, and frowned. Now where had they come from, and where were they disappearing to? she wondered dazedly.

Trying desperately to compose herself, she smoothed her hands down over her hair before walking back into the reception area—to find a plump middle-aged man standing by the desk, wearing paint-covered overalls and holding a large notebook in his hand. He looked up with a wide smile when she appeared.

‘Can I…can I help you?’ asked Cathy—though some chilling sixth sense began to clamour out a terrible warning in her head.

‘I certainly hope so,’ said the man, in a cheerful Irish accent. ‘I’m the painter. Well, the foreman—to be exact. And I’ve come to measure up. So where would you like me to start?’

вернуться

STANDING in the small bedroom of her cottage, Cathy stared into the mirror and shook her head in mute horror. How could she possibly go to work, looking like this? Like…one of those women you sometimes saw falling out of the pub late on a Friday and Saturday night. The kind of woman who poured herself into her clothes without stopping to consider whether they might be the right size. Yet surely the dressmaker couldn’t have got her measurements wrong when she’d been for, not one, but two fittings?

She did a little swivel to regard her back view, and shuddered—because from the back it looked even worse, if that were possible. The material clung to her bottom and seemed to draw cruel attention to its over-generous curves.

Her nerves were already shot to pieces and picking up her new uniform from the dressmaker’s had only made her precarious mental state seem a million times worse. She’d put it on with trembling fingers but it seemed unsuitable no matter what angle she came at it from. Too small and too tight—the man-made fabric strained over the lush lines of her breasts and made them look absolutely enormous.

She didn’t want to wear clothes which made her feel self-conscious about her curvy figure, nor to plaster her face in make-up—which she hadn’t a clue how to apply properly. But Rupert had read her the Riot Act and so she had reluctantly complied—just as she had agreed to jettison her normal comfy flat shoes and replace them with a pair of heels so high she could barely walk in them. Beneath the mascara and lip gloss, she felt like a fraud, but one who was not in any position to object—because how could she possibly do that when she had placed herself in such an unwise situation?

Her boss was ignorant of the fact that she had behaved like a complete fool who had allowed a complete stranger to kiss her in a way that still made her cheeks burn when she remembered it. Only in this case, the complete stranger had turned out to be a royal prince. A guest of honour who would shortly be arriving with all his royal entourage.

A lying and duplicitous prince, she reminded herself bitterly—and one who clearly found it funny to unleash his potent sex appeal and to amuse himself with a naïve and stupid woman who had fallen completely under his spell. Playing games with commoners—was that how he got his kicks?

After he had walked out of the hotel last week it had taken only minutes for Cathy to work out that the man with the golden eyes had not been a humble decorator—but Prince Xaviero himself. A fact which had been confirmed by her subsequent heart-sinking search on the Internet, where his official portrait had flashed up in front of her disbelieving eyes. Yet the sternly handsome face which had stared back at her from the computer screen had seemed worlds away from the denim-clad man who had kissed her with such careless sensuality.

On the official website of Zaffirinthos Xaviero had been pictured dressed in some sort of formal uniform—wearing a dark jacket with several medals pinned to the front of it. His black hair had looked tamed instead of ruffled and his lips had been hard and unsmiling. And try as she did to resist, Cathy hadn’t been able to help drinking in his remarkable beauty—before reminding herself that he had deliberately deceived her.

Dragging her eyes away from his portrait, she’d clicked onto the history of the island instead. Zaffirinthos. A beautiful, crescent-shaped paradise set in the Ionian Sea—close to Greece and at no great distance from the southernmost tip of Italy. It was rich in gold and other precious minerals, and the di Cesere family was fabulously wealthy—with property and business interests in just about every part of the globe.

With one final fraught glance at the unfamiliar image gazing back at her from the mirror, Cathy realised that she couldn’t keep delaying the inevitable. It was time to go and face the man she had kissed so impetuously and who, for one stupid and unedifying moment, had made her heart sing. And then what? Pray that he wouldn’t inform her boss that she had behaved so unprofessionally—and leave her to fade into the background with her embarrassing memories.

It was a sunny summer’s day and a pretty walk through green and golden lanes to the hotel. Although it was still early, she could see a big shiny black limousine parked in front of the entrance and a burly-looking man standing sentry at the doors.

‘I work here,’ she said in reply to the rather hostile gaze which was levelled at her as she approached.

‘Identification?’ he clipped out.

Fishing around in her handbag, Cathy produced her driving licence and gave it to him and stood while a pair of emotionless black eyes slowly compared her face to the photograph. Eventually, he nodded and stepped back to allow her through.

Bodyguards clearly didn’t need much in the way of people skills, Cathy thought wryly as she made her way inside. But once she’d substituted her trainers for the dreaded high-heeled shoes and locked away her handbag she looked around—marvelling at what a transforming effect a little care and attention could have.

All the walls had been painted a pale sienna colour—so that the whole place looked bigger and cleaner. Cobwebs and dust had been removed from the chandeliers, which now cascaded from the ceilings like floating showers of diamonds. Huge bowls of flowers were dotted around the place, and they seemed to make the biggest difference of all. Blue irises and white roses added scent, beauty and focus to the downstairs rooms.

Yesterday, she’d made up the bed in the Prince’s suite with the pristine Egyptian cotton sheets which had been sent down specially from London. Smoothing her fingers over their crisp surface, she had marvelled at how much money Rupert must have spent on his revered guest. Soft new velvet drapes hanging from the four-poster bed had completely changed the look of the room and all the lighting had been updated. Even the ancient old bathroom had been ripped out and replaced by a spanking new top-of-the-range version.

She was just tugging down at the too-short uniform when Rupert walked into Reception, a look of immense satisfaction on his face.

‘Has the Prince arrived?’ asked Cathy nervously.

‘He’s on his way. One of his people has just rung me.’

She felt the quickening of her heart in alarm. She didn’t want to see him. Liar. You’ve thought of nothing else other than his golden eyes and the soft promise of his lips. ‘I’d…I’d better go—’

‘Wait a minute.’

Cathy realised that Rupert’s attention was focused solely on her, his gaze slowly trailing from the top of her head to the tip of her toes. And she found herself thinking that when the Prince had looked at her—no matter how much her conscience had protested that it was wrong—she had felt an unexpectedly hot kick of awareness. As if his gaze had lit something deep inside her and she wanted it to keep burning. As if he had brought her to sudden life.

Yet when Rupert looked at her, all she was aware of was a faint sense of nausea and a slow creeping of her flesh.

‘You look fabulous,’ he said thickly.

She made to turn away, but he caught her by the arm.

‘No. Don’t move, Cathy. Let me look at you properly.’

‘Rupert—’

‘Very nice,’ he said. ‘Ve-ry nice indeed. What amazing legs you’ve got! Who’s been hiding her light under a bushel all this time?’

She was saved from having to answer by the sound of footsteps ringing out—and Cathy sprang away from the contamination of Rupert’s touch. But not before she whirled round to see the look in the golden eyes of the man who was coming through the doors towards them. A look as hard and as cold as metal itself and she felt a shiver of apprehension shimmering its way down her spine as his eyes iced over her.

She had mentally been preparing for this encounter ever since the Internet had confirmed his identity—but nothing could have cushioned her against the shock of seeing him in his true guise for the first time.

Today there was not a shred of denim or mud-spattered clothing in evidence. Today he could never have been mistaken for anything other than a prince as he arrogantly swept in. His towering height and awesome presence were both imposing and autocratic, with power and privilege radiating from every atom of his being.

And no matter how much she told herself not to stare, Cathy couldn’t tear her eyes away from him. The dark grey suit fitted his body closely—its luxurious fabric skating over every hard contour and drawing attention to the muscular physique beneath. A snowy shirt emphasised the soft olive glow of his skin and the jet-dark ruffle of his hair. But it was the golden eyes which dominated everything—gleaming and dangerous as they raked over her with predatory recollection.

Cathy’s heart raced with fear and self-consciousness. Should she curtsey to him? She had only ever seen people curtsey in films and her attempt to replicate the crossedleg little bob was a hopeless parody of the movement. She saw the Prince’s lips curve in disdain and instantly regretted having made it.

‘Don’t curtsey—I don’t want formalities,’ Xaviero clipped out—but the quiet fury which was simmering inside him was not because she had breached some unspoken code of conduct. No, it had its root in something far more fundamental than etiquette. The inexplicable had happened and Xaviero did not like it.

Because the tiny blonde had haunted him when he had not wanted nor expected to be haunted by such a woman. A chambermaid! A humble, low-paid worker whom he should have forgotten in an instant.

So how was it that ever since he had taken her in his arms last week for that laughably brief kiss, she had disturbed his nights and his dreams. Was it because she was the first woman he’d ever kissed under the guise of total anonymity? And, by responding to him so passionately, hadn’t she somehow managed to explode one of his tightly held beliefs? That despite his undeniable physical characteristics it was the cachet of royal blood which provided his major attraction to the opposite sex. Yet the chambermaid had not known about his royal status and neither had she seemed to care. She had seemed to want him, and only him.

The memory of her hungry reaction had taunted him with tantalising images of how that pale curved body might respond if it were naked and gasping and pinned beneath him. And all too vividly he had imagined plunging deep and hard into her body. Night after night he had awoken, bathed in slick sweat and inexplicably aching to make love to her.

Was it simply a case of her having been in the right place at the right time to excite his interest? His jaded sexual appetite returning with an inexplicably fierce hunger and swinging at him with all the weight and momentum of a giant ball bearing crashing against him? How else could he possibly explain his sustained interest in her?

Hadn’t there been a part of him which had felt the whisper of anticipation as his plane had dipped down over the English Channel this morning, knowing that he was going to see her again? Knowing that he only had to snap his fingers for the little blonde to give him exactly what he wanted? He had fantasised about her lips on his aching hardness. The plunge of that hardness into her molten softness. The idea of losing himself in a woman’s body after such a long sexual drought had been almost too sweet to contemplate.

And yet all he was aware of was a crushing sense of disappointment because the woman who looked at him today was merely a caricature of the one he had held in his arms. Gone was her scrubbed and fresh-faced appeal—for she had changed completely. From being like a sweet, native flower plucked on impulse from the meadow, she was now the manufactured and forced bloom of the hothouse.

The lush breasts at which the ill-fitting blouse had merely hinted so alluringly were now displayed in a tightfitting and too-short overall, which only just stopped short of vulgarity. Likewise, her petite charms had been vanquished by the wearing of heels as high as a skyscraper. And her eyes! He had thought them mesmerising in their natural state. But now they were ringed with make-up—their sooty outline somehow diminishing the effect of their clear, aquamarine hue.

She looked like a tramp!

He felt the dulling edge of disillusionment and yet surely he should have been used to it by now. Because this kind of thing happened all the time. People were never truly themselves in the presence of a royal personage. They dressed to get themselves noticed. They said things they thought you wanted to hear. They were puppets in awe of his powerful position and sometimes he tired of knowing he could jerk their strings whichever way he chose.

‘Your Serene Highness,’ said Rupert. ‘May I suggest—?’

‘You may not,’ snapped Xaviero as his disdainful scrutiny continued, ‘suggest anything.’ He recalled the familiar way the Englishman had just been admiring her as he had walked in. Was she his? he wondered. Xaviero felt the steady beat of his heart, remembering how, on more than one occasion, men had offered him their women in their pathetic attempts to ingratiate themselves with him. Would this man do likewise?

His mouth hardened. And would he accept such an offer? Did not his ancestors enjoy the charms of the opposite sex if they were presented to them in the same way as they might be presented with a goblet of good wine, or a plate of delicious food? He flicked his eyes over the blonde—noting the small pulse which fluttered frantically at the base of her neck. ‘Who is this woman?’

‘This is Cathy. She’s our chambermaid—among other things,’ said Rupert, and then he lowered his voice. ‘I can get rid of her if you like, sir, if you’d like to speak to me in private.’

Xaviero gave an impatient flick of his hand to silence him. The presumption! As if he, Xaviero, should seek the private company of such a man as this! ‘And she has knowledge of the area?’

Cathy wanted to open her mouth and tell them to stop talking about her as if she weren’t there.

‘Yes, she has,’ said Rupert, as if she were some kind of performing animal. ‘In fact, she’s lived here all her life.’

Xaviero turned to her then, registering the automatic dilation of her blue eyes in response to his stare, and he felt a slow beat of satisfaction. Yes, she would be his. And before the day was out, too. Because this inconvenient hunger must be fed if he was to be rid of it. ‘Good. Then she will be my guide while I am here.’

Cathy’s lips parted and she stared at him in horror. ‘But…but I’m not qualified as any kind of guide,’ she protested in a voice which suddenly sounded squeaky.

‘So?’ challenged Xaviero, on a silken drawl.

‘Surely…’ Cathy swallowed as she twisted her fingers together. It mustn’t happen. He can’t mean it to happen. ‘Surely you should have someone who is properly specially trained in royal protection, Your Highness.’

Xaviero’s suggestion had been carelessly made—it would have meant nothing for him to retract it—but her objection secured his determination to have her. By expressing a wish to make herself inaccessible, she had sealed her fate. For a man who had spent his lifetime having his wishes met, it was the almost unheard-of protest which always intrigued him. Suddenly, the eager little blonde was not so eager any more!

‘How very thoughtful of you to be so concerned about my welfare,’ he murmured sardonically, ‘but I want a guide, not a bodyguard. And someone with local knowledge is always much more useful than one of my own people.’

Cathy flinched. Useful. He had called her useful. It was the kind of word you might use to describe the pair of rubber gloves you wore when you were washing up. A deeply unflattering description, but maybe that had been his intention. Had he chosen it with malice and care? She glanced over at Rupert. Can’t you do it? her eyes begged him. ‘And besides, I work here,’ she said. ‘I…I can’t just disappear at the drop of a hat to be your guide.’

‘Of course you can,’ Rupert said, completely ignoring the silent plea in her eyes. ‘The hotel is closed to other guests while the Prince is here—and I’m sure that someone else can sort out the linen! Cathy is at your service for as long as you need her, Your Serene Highness.’ He smiled and an unmistakable warning was arrowed in her direction. ‘And what the Prince wants, we must make sure the Prince gets, mustn’t we, Cathy?’

Cathy felt slightly sick—because Rupert seemed to have reduced her job and her status down to something as basic as linen-sorting. How sycophantic he sounded. Didn’t he notice the Prince curling his arrogant lips in response to his toadying attitude?

But there were more pressing concerns than the Prince’s arrogance—because she had very real reasons for wanting to refuse to be his ‘guide’. Fleetingly, she thought of his kiss and her response to it. A heady encounter which seemed the most highly charged of her life had been given an even more piquant edge once she had discovered his true identity. She thought of the danger of being in such close proximity to him and excitement warred with fear. What on earth was his motive in making such a request?

She risked another look, meeting the cool mockery lurking in the depths of his golden eyes, and realisation hit her like a velvet hammer. He wants you and, what’s more, he thinks he’s going to have you. Cathy bit her lip. And in view of the way you acted with him—can you really blame him for thinking that?

And yet, if the truth were known, didn’t she want him, too—even now? Hadn’t the touch of his lips and his tight embrace made her feel really wanted—her broken and rejected spirit erupting into life at the thought that such a man could desire her?

Willing the hungry clamour of her body to calm down, Cathy hoped that her shrug disguised the frantic pounding of her heart. ‘What can I say?’ she questioned flatly. ‘That I’d be delighted?’

Xaviero’s eyes narrowed. Surely that was not resignation he could hear lurking in the depths of her soft voice? Or was she merely playing a coy game with him? Trying to show a little decorum where last week she had shown precisely none? ‘Excellent,’ he murmured.

Rupert beamed. ‘Well, if that’s all sorted—perhaps you would like to come with me, Your Serene Highness, and then I’ll show you to your suite.’

‘No, no.’ Xaviero’s voice was soft as he flicked his hand dismissively at Rupert. ‘Go and leave us,’ he ordered. ‘The girl will attend to my needs.’

Rupert hesitated for one slightly puzzled moment before he left the reception area like a small child sent out into the rain to play and Cathy was left alone with the Prince. For a moment, there was silence and she didn’t know where to look or what to say. All she was aware of was the prickle of her senses and the wild thunder of her heart as he caught her in the crossfire of his gaze.

‘You look wary,’ he commented softly as he reacquainted himself with the aquamarine beauty of her darkening eyes. ‘Are you?’

She swallowed. Wary as anything—and frighteningly excited, too. ‘Why would I be wary, Your Highness?’

‘That doesn’t answer my question.’ Dark eyebrows arched in arrogant query. ‘Are you wary of me?’

There was a pause. ‘Not at all,’ Cathy answered, but she lowered her gaze lest he read the lie in her eyes.

Xaviero’s lips curved into a speculative smile. Didn’t she realise that desire was shimmering hotly from her tense and voluptuous frame, no matter how much she tried to disguise it? And yet the fact that she was trying to resist him was proving to be an irresistible aphrodisiac.

From the cold, bleak space which seemed to have inhabited his body for so long, he felt the answering tug of desire.

‘Then show me to my suite,’ he commanded softly.

вернуться

‘YOU look different today,’ Xaviero observed.

His words whispered over her skin like liquid silk but for a moment, Cathy said nothing. Her thoughts were scrambled and her senses working overtime as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she was standing in the newly decorated bedroom suite alone with a royal prince. How disturbingly claustrophobic it felt—with his golden eyes searing into her as if they could see right through her tight uniform to the trembling body beneath. And close by was a giant, king-size bed. A bed she had made herself…

His bags must have arrived earlier, for as well as a whole sheath of official-looking papers littering the desktop there were lots of precious-looking things lying around the place. A pair of gleaming golden cufflinks stamped with an intricate crest, a beautiful silver-backed hairbrush inlaid with jewels. They looked priceless and ancient—but even more dauntingly they were his personal artefacts, reminding her of the intimacy of their surroundings.

A robe hung over the back of a chair—its rich, satin folds cascading down like liquid silver. White shirts glimpsed through the half-open wardrobe door—and a riding crop, with a worn leather handle which was leaning against a door. Cathy swallowed down her apprehension and wondered how soon she could decently leave. And yet if she was being honest—wasn’t there a part of her which could have stayed close beside him all day?

‘Very different,’ he murmured as his eyes continued their unashamed scrutiny.

Her heart was beating out a frantic rhythm but at least he wasn’t aware of it and that knowledge helped keep her face completely expressionless. ‘Yes, Your Highness,’ she answered matter-of-factly. ‘I have a new uniform.’

He looked at the buttons which trailed so enticingly down the front—and which seemed to be losing the battle to keep those magnificent breasts contained. ‘So what happened?’ he questioned unevenly. ‘Did you gain some weight while it was being made?’

Cathy suspected that Rupert had deliberately told the dressmaker to make the uniform tighter—but she could hardly turn round and admit that. Disloyalty to your boss was not an admirable trait—no matter how much he might have deserved it. And neither was answering back this insolently rude prince—no matter how much he deserved it.

‘None that I’m aware of,’ she said woodenly.

Xaviero found his gaze travelling over her undulating curves. No, if she’d gained any weight at all, then it had been a complementary gain, because there wasn’t an ounce of flesh on her which shouldn’t have been there. Hers was not a fashionable shape, he decided—much too rounded for modern tastes—but it appealed to the primeval sexual hunger which underpinned the desire of every man. The biological imperative which subliminally announced to the onlooker that soft hips and full breasts equalled fruitful and fertile.

He felt his mouth drying along in time with the increasingly sweet torture of his tightening groin. Those magnificent breasts looked as if they should never be sullied by the wearing of clothes—and maybe he should do them both a favour by removing them as quickly as possible. She looked like one of the naked women adorning his favourite painting in the Throne Room back in Zaffirinthos—the one he used to gaze at with surreptitious longing during his teenage years.

Yet this woman was not responding to him as he had anticipated she would. Xaviero studied her with interest. Today she wasn’t sending out those delicious come-and-kiss-me messages which had made him pull her into his arms without thinking. Her eyes weren’t telling him that he was at liberty to do so again—in fact, on the contrary, she was regarding him with the caution that she might use if she had suddenly found herself alone in a room with a rather terrifying snake. And why was that? Especially when this time they were not in a public place. Rather, one which conveniently had a bed in it—and his guards would not disturb him unless he gave them permission to do so. What the hell was holding her back?

Xaviero’s eyes narrowed. Unless she really did desire the man she had thought him to be more than the man he really was! A woman more turned on by a painter and decorator than a member of one of the most prestigious royal houses in Europe. And, inexplicably, this thought excited him more than anything he could remember.

‘So which is the real you?’ he drawled softly. ‘Did I catch you unawares the other day, all soft and natural. Or is this…showgirl appearance your usual look?’ Irresistibly, his eyes now strayed to the generous curve of her bottom. ‘Maybe you thought that a prince would respond favourably to the rather obvious signals you’re sending out today. Am I right, Cathy?’

He said her name quite differently from the way anyone else had ever said it—his tongue seeming to caress the first syllable as if he were kissing it. And even though she was dimly aware that he was insulting her with that sexy drawl of his, that didn’t seem to stop her traitorous body from responding. It was as if she had no power at all over her reaction to him. As if she was helpless in her fight to resist him. She could feel the blood pounding at her pulse points and her throat seemed to have constricted so much that she could barely stumble out her answer. ‘I…I would not dream of being so presumptuous, Your Highness.’

‘Wouldn’t you?’ he questioned as he noticed the soft rise of colour washing over her cheekbones. ‘That’s a pity. Because maybe I’m in the mood for a little presumption right now. Maybe I’m bored with the people who always bow and scrape to me. Who act like puppets and tell me only what they think I want to hear.’ He glittered her a look. ‘Because, you know, I rather enjoyed the way you reacted to me the other day.’

‘Sir—’

‘I enjoyed the honesty with which you looked at me and the unashamed hunger you clearly felt for me. The way you gave yourself up to that kiss and melted into my arms—that delicious body promising untold pleasure.’

Her throat dried. Hadn’t she been trying to put the memory from her mind ever since? ‘Sir—’

‘Why, if that infernal alarm hadn’t gone off, then who knows where it might have ended?’ His voice deepened, enjoying the way she was trying not to react to his verbal seduction. ‘Except that we both know exactly where it would have ended, don’t we, Cathy?’

Please stop looking at me like that, she prayed silently. A way which was making her blood move like thick, warm honey as it pulsed its way through her veins. Making her stomach feel as if it wanted to dissolve and her skin tremble as if she were standing in a snowstorm. She struggled to find something to say, but the only thing which came from her dry lips was a strangled little sound which was barely comprehensible. ‘I—’

‘And there’s nothing I hate more than unfinished business,’ he murmured. ‘So I think we’d better do it all over again, don’t you? Kiss me again, Cathy. Only this time without stopping.’

His words both shocked and excited her but Cathy could feel her body thrilling in eager response to the way he was looking at her. Wanting to feel the warm brush of his lips against hers once more. Was that so very wrong?

Xaviero’s eyes narrowed, her hesitation surprising him as he reached out his hand and touched the smooth flush of her cheek. He couldn’t remember ever having to ask twice before. ‘Unless there is something preventing us? Some commitment you have made to another man perhaps?’ But he spoke with the natural arrogance of someone who knew that there was not another man who could not be cast aside in the light of his own wishes. The Prince’s desire overrode anything. The only thing was that meant he might have to wait…and he did not want to wait—not when his appetite felt so exquisitely and unexpectedly sharpened.

Cathy shook her head—her pulse racing erratically. How could she think straight when he was looking at her like that? ‘No. There isn’t.’ She bit her lip as she remembered the sense of aloneness and rejection which had flooded through her on receipt of Peter’s letter. ‘There was…there was someone. I was engaged to be married, but…but…’

‘But what?’ prompted Xaviero, eager to get this one last obstacle out of the way.

‘He…he…well, it’s over.’

Xaviero allowed himself a brief smile of satisfaction. Perfect. Absolutely perfect. A fiancé meant that she was experienced—but that she had been faithful, too. Had the man broken her heart? he wondered idly. And if that were the case—couldn’t he, Xaviero, show her that there was life after the end of a love affair? And that she could enjoy the caresses of another man…

He traced the outline of her quivering lips almost thoughtfully, recognising that in a way she would be getting the very best and yet the very worst of a postfiancé lover. Because he was undoubtedly the finest lover she would ever know—but she would spend her whole life searching fruitlessly for a man to equal him.

‘So let’s make love,’ he said simply.

‘Your Highness!’ she breathed, even though she realised that her protest lacked any real conviction. The look of intent which had darkened his golden eyes was just too beguiling—the expectation that he was about to hold her too tantalising to resist. And the sense of burning hunger in her empty heart was like nothing she had ever experienced before. Should she stop him? Shouldn’t she even try?

She would never know. Because now he was pulling her into his arms with a smile on his lips which made her desperately want to kiss him. To relive the amazing sensations he’d awoken in her the other day. Half-heartedly Cathy twisted in his arms but the movement brought from him a low and mocking laugh and she quickly realised why—as she collided with a rock-hard and very formidable groin. She felt the mad, frantic race of her heart and the intoxicating fizz of her blood—her body blindly reacting to the sweet sensation of his touch.

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