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"Is someone here?"
The man's voice was harsh, echoing down the dark halls. Clapping a hand over her mouth, Lilley Smith cut herself off mid sob and ducked back farther into the shadows. It was Saturday evening, and except for the security guards in the lobby downstairs, she'd thought she was alone in the twenty-floor building. Until five seconds ago, when she'd heard the elevator ding and she'd dashed into the nearest private office to hide, dragging her file cart willy-nilly behind her.
Stretching out her foot, Lilley silently nudged the door closed. She wiped her puffy, tearstained eyes, trying not to make a sound as she waited for the man in the hall to leave so she could cry in peace.
Her day had been so horrible it was almost funny. Coming home that morning from an unfortunate, one-time-only attempt at jogging, she'd found her boyfriend in bed with her roommate. Then she'd lost her fledgling dream business. Finally, calling home for comfort, she'd been disinherited by her father. An impressive day, even for her.
Normally it would have bothered Lilley that she'd had to catch up with work on the weekend again. Today it didn't even register. She'd worked as a file clerk for Caetani Worldwide for two months, but it still took her twice as long as Nadia, the other file-room clerk, to get her files sorted, delivered and returned.
Nadia. Her co-worker, roommate and, as of this morning, former best friend. Exhaling, Lilley leaned back against her cart as she remembered the stricken look in Nadia's face as she'd tumbled out of bed with Jeremy. Covering herself with a robe, Nadia had cried and asked Lilley for forgiveness as Jeremy tried to make their betrayal sound like Lilley's fault.
Lilley had fled the apartment and gone straight for the bus downtown. Lost, desperate for comfort, she'd called her father for the first time in three years. That hadn't gone too well either.
Thank heaven for work. This job was all she had now. But when would the stranger in the hallway leave? When? She couldn't let himor anyonesee her like thiswith red puffy eyes, working at a snail's pace as every single letter and number shimmered and moved back and forth on the files. Who was the man, and why wasn't he dancing and drinking champagne at the charity ball with everyone else?
Lilley shivered. She'd never been in this office before, but it was cavernous and cold, with stark, expensively appointed furnishings of dark wood, a gorgeous Turkish carpet and floor-to-ceiling windows that revealed twilight across downtown San Francisco and the bay beyond. Her head slowly tilted back to view the frescoed ceilings. It was an office fit for a king. Fit for
Fit for a prince.
Lilley's lips parted. Panic ripped through her as she realized for the first time whose office this had to be. She gave a terrified little squeak.
The office door creaked open. Lilley reacted on pure instinct, throwing herself through the shadows into the nearest closet.
"Who's in here?" The man's voice was harsh and low.
Heart pounding, she peered through the gap in the door. She saw the hulking silhouette of the stranger's broad-shouldered body in the dim light of the hall, blocking her only avenue of escape.
She covered her mouth with her hands, realizing she'd left her file cart behind the black leather sofa. All the man had to do was turn on the light and he'd see it. Being caught sobbing in the hallway would have been humiliating. Being caught skulking in the CEO's office would be a career-destroying disaster!
"Come out." The man's footstep was heavy on the floor. "I know you're in here."
Her heart stopped in her chest as she recognized that husky, accented voice. It wasn't some random janitor or junior assistant who was about to catch her. It was the CEO himself.
Tall, dark and broad-shouldered, Prince Alessandro Caetani was a self-made billionaire, the CEO of a luxury conglomerate that reached to every corner of the globe. He was also a ruthless playboy. All the women who worked in his San Francisco regional headquarters, from the youngest secretary to the fifty-something female vice president, were madly in love with him.
And now he was about to catch Lilley alone in his office.
Trying not to breathe, she backed farther into his closet, pressing her body behind his jackets, against the back wall. His suits smelled of sandalwood and musk and power. She closed her eyes, praying the prince would turn and leave. For once in her life, she prayed her skill at being invisible to men would actually pay off.
The door was ripped open. The jackets were shoved aside as a large hand ruthlessly grabbed her wrist. She gave a little shriek as he pulled her out of the closet.
"I've got you now," he growled. He switched on a lamp, and a circle of golden light filled the dark, cavernous office. "You little "
Then he saw her, and his black eyes widened with surprise. Lilley sucked in her breath as, against her will, she looked straight into the face of her boss for the first time.
Prince Alessandro Caetani was the most handsome man she'd ever seen, from his muscular body beneath his black tuxedo to the cold expression in his dark eyes. His aristocratic Roman nose was offset by the slightly thuggish curve of his sharp, dark-shadowed jawline. He lookedand was, if the legends were truehalf prince, half conqueror.
"I know you." Prince Alessandro frowned, looking puzzled in the soft glow of the lamplight. "What are you doing here, little mouse?"
Her wrist burned where he touched her, sending sparks up her arm and down the length of her body. "Whatwhat did you call me?"
He abruptly dropped her wrist. "What is your name?"
It took her a minute to remember. "L-Lilley," she managed. "From the file room."
Prince Alessandro's eyes narrowed. He walked around her, slowly looking her up and down. Her cheeks went hot. Compared to his gorgeous perfection in his sleek, sophisticated tuxedo, she knew she was frumpy and frightful in her sweatshirt and gray baggy sweatpants. "And what are you doing here, Lilley from the file room? Alone in my office on a Saturday night?"
She licked her dry lips, trying to calm her shaking knees. "I was was " What had she been doing, anyway? Where was she? Who was she? "I was just um." Her eyes fell on the file cart. "Working?"
He followed her gaze, then lifted a dark eyebrow. "Why are you not at the Preziosi ball?"
"I I lost my date," she whispered.
"Funny." His sensual mouth curved in a humorless smile. "That seems to be going around."
The sexy, deep, accented timbre of his voice moved over her like a spell. She couldn't move or look away from his masculine beauty as he towered over her, strong, powerful and wide-shouldered, with thighs like tree trunks.
Thighs? Who said anything about his thighs?
Ever since Jeremy had arranged her file-room job, Lilley had done her best to make sure her billionaire boss never noticed her. And now, beneath the prince's black, hypnotic gaze, she found herself suddenly wanting to blurt out why. She wasn't very good at telling lies, not even white ones. The hot, searing depths in Prince Alessandro's dark eyes whispered that she could tell him anything, anything at all, and he would understand. He would forgive and show mercy.
But she'd been around powerful men before. She recognized the intensity of his gaze for what it actually was: an emotional shakedown.
The ruthless playboy prince, show mercy? No way. If he knew about Lilley's father, about her cousin, he'd fire her. Or worse.
"Lilley," he mused aloud in the silent office. He tilted his head, and his eyes suddenly gleamed in the small circle of lamplight. "What is your last name?"
"Smith," she said honestly, then hid a smile. No help for him there.
"And what are you doing in my office, Miss Smith?"
The scent of him, sandalwood and musk and soap and something moresomething uniquely himwashed over her. She gave an involuntary shiver. "Returning, um, files."
"You know my files go to Mrs. Rutherford."
"Yes," she admitted unhappily.
He moved closer. She could practically feel the warmth of his body through his crisp black tuxedo jacket. "Tell me why you're really here."
She swallowed, looking down at the expensive carpet beneath her old, scuffed jogging shoes. "I just wanted to work for a few hours in peace and quiet. Without anyone bothering me."
"On a Saturday night?" he said coldly. "You were searching my office. Going through my files."
She looked up. "No!"
Prince Alessandro folded his arms. His dark eyes were hard, his expression like chiseled stone.
"I was hiding," she said in a voice almost too soft to hear.
"Hiding?" His voice was silky. "Hiding from what?"
Against her will, the truth was ripped out of her. "From you.
His dark eyes sharpened. He leaned forward. "Tell me why."
Lilley could barely even breathe, much less think, with Prince Alessandro Caetani so close to her.
The soft golden glow of the lamp, the darkening twilight outside the windows filled the enormous, high-ceilinged office with deepening shadows. "I was crying," she whispered over the lump in her throat. "I couldn't stay at home, I'm days behind on my work, and I didn't want you to see me because I was crying!"
Struggling not to cry, Lilley looked away. If she wept in front of her powerful boss, her humiliation would be complete. He would fire herwhether for skulking in his office, for crying in such an unprofessional way, or for being so behind on her work, it hardly mattered. She would lose the last thing she valued. The perfect finale to the second-worst day of her life.
"Ah," he said softly, looking down at her. "At last, I understand."
Her shoulders sagged. He was going to tell her to gather her things and get out of his building.
The prince's gaze was full of darkness, an ocean at midnight, deep enough to drown in. "You were in love with him?"
"What?" Lilley blinked. "Who?" The corners of his sensual mouth curved upward. "The man."
"What makes you think I was crying over a man?"
"Why else would a woman weep?"
She laughed, but the sound was almost like a sob. "Everything has gone wrong today. I thought I might be happier if I lost some weight. I tried to go for a jog. Big mistake." She looked down at her old running shoes, at her baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants. "My roommate thought I'd left for work. When I came back to the apartment I found her with my boyfriend. In bed."
Alessandro cupped her cheek. "I'm sorry."
Lilley looked up at him, shocked by his unexpected sympathy. Then her lips parted. Sparks spread from his touch, zinging from her earlobes to her scalp, down her neck and spine, causing heat to whirl like lightning across her skin. Her breasts felt strangely heavy, her nipples tightening beneath her workout bra.
His eyes narrowed in surprise. "But you're beautiful."
Beautiful? It was like a slap in the face. She ripped away. "Don't."
He frowned. "Don't what?"
His cruelty took her breath away. She blinked fast, glaring up at him. "I know I'm not beautiful. And it's fine. I know I'm not smart either, and I can live with that. But for you to stand there and taunt me like that.." She gripped her hands into fists. "It's not just patronizing, it's heartless!"
Alessandro looked down at her gravely, not saying a word. And Lilley sucked in her breath, realizing she'd just told off her boss.
She clasped her hands together. "I'm fired, right?" When he didn't reply, a shudder of grief went through her. Her hands shook as she picked up a file from the floor and reached for the metal cart. "I'll finish my work," she said miserably, "then collect my things."
He grabbed her arm, stopping her. "So a compliment is a taunt?" Staring down at her, he shook his head. "You're a strange girl, Lilley Smith."
The way Prince Alessandro was looking at her, for an instant she'd almost thoughtbut no. Strange was a code word for helpless failure. She said over the lump in her throat, "So my father has always told me."
"You're not fired."
She looked up at him with the first glimmer of hope.
Leaning forward, he took the file from her hand and set it on top of the metal cart. "I have a different sort of penalty in mind."
"The guillotine?" she said weakly. "The electric chair?"
"You'll come with me to the ball tonight."
Her lips fell open. "W-what?"
His dark eyes were as warm as molten chocolate and hot as embers of fire. "I want you to be my date."
Lilley stared at him, her eyes wide, her heart pounding. Had she fallen into some strange dream? Prince Alessandro could have the most beautiful women on earthand he'd already had quite a few of them, according to the celebrity tabloids. Frowning, she turned around to make sure he wasn't talking to some movie star or lingerie model behind her.
"Well, cara?" he said huskily. "What do you say?"
Lilley turned back. She felt dizzy from his attention, half-drunk beneath the intensity of his dark gaze. She said slowly, "I don't understand."
"What's to understand?"
Lilley cleared her throat. "I don't get the joke."
"I never joke."
"You don't? Too bad. I joke all the time," she said. "Usually by accident."
He didn't even smile. He just looked down at her, his face unmovable and oh, so handsome.
"Butit's the Preziosi di Caetani ball," she stammered. "The biggest charity event of the summer. The mayor will be there. The governor. The paparazzi."
"So you could have any woman you want."
"And I want you."
His four simple words made Lilley's heart twist in her chest. She clasped her trembling hands together. "But you have a girlfriend. I've read"
His expression hardened. "No."
"But Olivia Bianchi"
"No," he said tersely.
Biting her lip, Lilley looked up at him. He wasn't telling her the whole truth. And the waves of danger emanating off his body nearly scorched her. If he found out who Lilley really was, she would lose her jobor possibly get dragged into court on charges of corporate espionage. Every instinct of self-preservation told her one thing: Run.