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His Royal Highness Prince Patricio, the most debauched creature in the kingdom of Kitziniaif not the entire worldand the bane of Adriana Righetti's existence, lay sprawled across his sumptuous, princely bed in his vast apartments in the Kitzinia Royal Palace, sound asleep despite the fact it was three minutes past noon.
And he was not, Adriana saw as she strode into the room, alone.
According to legend and the European tabloids, Pato, without the pressure of his older brother's responsibilities as heir apparent, and lacking the slightest shred of conscience or propriety, had not slept alone since puberty. Adriana had expected to find him wrapped around the trollop du journo doubt the same redhead he'd made such a spectacle of himself with at his brother's engagement celebration the night before.
But as she stared at the great bed before her, the frustration that had propelled her all the way through the palace shifted. She hadn't expected to find the redhead and a brunette, both women naked and draped over what was known as Kitzinia's royal treasure: Prince Pato's lean and golden torso, all smooth muscle and sculpted male beauty, cut off by a sheet riding scandalously low on his narrow hips.
Although "scandalous" in this context was, clearly, relative.
"No need to be so shy." Somehow, Adriana didn't react to the mocking gleam in Prince Pato's gaze when she looked up to find him watching her, his eyes sleepy and a crook to his wicked mouth. "There's always room for one more."
"I'm tempted." Her crisp tone was anything but. "But I'm afraid I must decline."
"This isn't a spectator sport."
Pato shifted the brunette off his chest with a consummate skill that spoke of long practice, and propped himself up on one elbow, not noticing or not caring that the sheet slipped lower as he moved. Adriana held her breath, but the sheet just preserved what little remained of his modesty. The redhead rolled away from him as Pato shoved his thick, too-long tawny hair back from his forehead, amusement gleaming in eyes Adriana knew perfectly well were hazel, yet looked like polished gold.
And then he smiled with challenge and command. "Climb in or get out."
Adriana eyed him in all his unapologetic, glorious flesh. Prince Pato, international manwhore and noted black sheep of the Kitzinia royal family, was the biggest waste of space alive. He stood for nothing save his own hedonism and selfishness, and she wanted to be anywhere in all the world but here.
She'd spent the last three years as Crown Prince Lenz's personal assistant, a job she adored despite the fact it had often involved handling Pato's inevitable messes. This paternity suit, that jilted lover's vindictive appearance on television, this crashed sports car worth untold millions, that reckless and/or thoughtless act making embarrassing headlines He was the thorn in his responsible older brother's side, and therefore dug deep and hard in hers.
And thanks to his inability to behave for one single dayeven at his only brother's engagement party!Pato was now her problem to handle in the two months leading up to Kitzinia's first royal wedding in a generation.
Adriana couldn't believe this was happening. She'd been demoted from working at the right hand of the future king to taking out the royal family's trash. After her years of loyalty, her hard work. Just when she'd started to kid herself that she really could begin to wash away the historic stain on the once proud Righetti name.
"Pato needs a keeper," Prince Lenz had said earlier this morning, having called Adriana into his private study upon her arrival at the palace. Adriana had ached for him and the burdens he had to shoulder. She would do anything he asked, anything at all; she only wished he'd asked for something else. Pato was the one part of palace life she couldn't abide. "There are only two months until the wedding and I can't have the papers filled with his usual exploits. Not when there's so much at stake."
What was at stake, Adriana knew full well, was Lenz's storybook marriage to the lovely Princess Lissette, which the world viewed as a fairy tale come to lifeor would, if Pato could be contained for five minutes. Kitzinia was a tiny little country nestled high in the Alps, rich in world-renowned ski resorts and stunning mountain lakes bristling with castles and villas and all kinds of holiday-making splendor. Tourist economies like theirs thrived on fairy tales, not dissipated princes hell-bent on self-destruction in the glare of as many cameras as possible.
Two months in this hell, she thought now, still holding Pato's amused gaze. Two months knee-deep in interchangeable women, sexual innuendo and his callous disregard for anything but his own pleasure.
But Lenz wanted her to do this. Lenz, who had believed in her, overlooking her infamous surname when he'd hired her. Lenz, who she would have walked through fire for, had he wanted it. Lenz, who deserved better than his brother. Somehow, she would do this.
"I would sooner climb across a sea of broken glass on my hands and knees than into that circus carousel you call your bed," Adriana said, then smiled politely. "I mean that with all due respect, of course, Your Royal Highness."
Pato tilted back his head and laughed.
And Adriana was forced to admithowever grudginglythat his laugh was impossibly compelling, like everything else about him. It wasn't fair. It never had been. If interiors matched exteriors, Lenz would be the Kitzinian prince who looked like this, with all that thick sun-and-chocolate hair that fell about Pato's lean face and hinted at his wildness, that sinful mouth, and the kind of bone structure that made artists and young girls weep. Lenz, not Pato, should have been the one who'd inherited their late mother's celebrated beauty. Those cheekbones, the gorgeous eyes and easy grace, the smile that caused riots, and the delighted laughter that lit whole rooms.
It simply wasn't fair.
Pato extricated himself from the pile of naked women on his bed and swung his long legs over the side, wrapping the sheet around his waist as he stood. As much to taunt her with the other women's nakedness as to conceal his own, Adriana thought, her eyes narrowing as he raised his arms high above his head and stretched. Long and lazy, like an arrogant cat. He grinned at her when she glared at him, and as he moved toward her she stiffened instinctivelyand his grin only deepened.
"What is my brother's favorite lapdog doing in my bedroom this early in the day?" he asked, that low, husky voice of his no more than mildly curious. Still, his gaze raked over her and she felt a kind of clutching in her chest, a hitch in her breath. "Looking as pinch-faced and censorious as ever, I see."
"First of all," Adriana said, glancing pointedly at the delicate watch on her wrist and telling herself she wasn't pinched and didn't care that he thought so, "it's past noon. It's not early in the day by any definition."
"That depends entirely on what you did last night," he replied, unrepentant and amused, with a disconcerting lick of heat beneath. "I don't mean what you did, of course. I mean what I did, which I imagine was far more energetic than however it is you prepare yourself for another day of pointless subservience."
Adriana looked at him, then at the bed and its naked contents. Then back at him. She raised a disdainful eyebrow, and he laughed again, as if she delighted him. The last thing she wanted to do was delight him. If she had her way, she'd have nothing to do with him at all.
But this was not about her, she reminded herself. Fiercely.
"Second," she said, staring back at him repressively, which had no discernible effect, "it's past time for your companions to leave, no matter how energetic they may have beenand please, don't feel you need to share the details. I'm sure we'll read all about it in the papers, as usual." She aimed a chilly smile at him. "Will you do the honors or should I call the royal guard to remove them from the palace?"
"Are you offering to take their place?" Pato asked lazily.
He shifted, and despite herself, Adriana's gaze dropped to the expanse of his golden-brown chest, sun-kissed and finely honed, long and lean and
For God's sake, she snapped at herself. You've seen all this before, like everyone else with an internet connection.
She'd even seen the pictures that were deemed too risque for publication, which the palace had gnashed its collective teeth over and which, according to Lenz, had only made his shameless brother laugh. Which meant she'd seen every part of him. But she had never been this close, in person, to Prince Pato in his preferred state of undress.
It was different. Much different.
When she forced her gaze upward, his expression was far too knowing.
"I like things my way in my bed," he said, his decadent mouth crooking into something too hot to be any kind of smile. "But don't worry. I'll make it worth your while if you follow my rules."
That crackled in the air, like a shower of sparks.
"I have no interest in your sexual resume, thank you," Adriana snapped. She hadn't expected he'd be so potent up close. She'd assumed he'd repulse herand he did, of course. Intellectually. "And in any case it's unnecessary, as it's been splashed on the cover of every tabloid magazine for years."
He shocked her completely by reaching over and tugging gently on the chic jacket she wore over her favorite pencil skirt. Once, twice, three timesand Adriana simply stood there, stunned. And let him.
By the time she recovered her wits, he'd dropped his hand, and she glanced down to see that he'd unbuttoned her jacket, so that the sides fell away and the silk of her thin pink camisole was the only thing standing between his heated gaze and her skin.
Adriana swallowed. Pato smiled.
"Rule number one," he said, his husky voice a low rumble that made her wildly beating heart pump even faster. Even harder. "You're overdressed. I prefer to see skin."
For a moment, there was nothing but blank noise in her head, and a dangerous heat thick and bright everywhere else.
But then she made herself breathe, forcing one breath and then the next, and cold, sweet reason returned with the flow of oxygen. This was Pato's game, wasn't it? This was what he did. And she wasn't here to play along.
"That won't work," she told him coolly, ignoring the urge to cover herself. That was undoubtedly what he thought she'd do, what he wanted her to do before she ran away, screaming, like all the previous staff members Lenz had assigned him over the years. She wasn't going to be one of them.
His golden eyes danced. "Won't it? Are you sure?"
"I'm not your brother's lapdog any longer." Adriana squared her shoulders and held his gaze, tilting her chin up. "Thanks to your appalling behavior last night, which managed to deeply offend your soon-to-be sister-in-law and her entire familyto say nothing of the entire diplomatic corps I'm yours until your brother's wedding."
If anything, Pato's eyes were even more like gold then, liquid and scalding. As wicked as he was, and her whole body seemed to tighten from the inside out.
"Really." He looked at her as if he could eat her in one bite, and would. Possibly right then and there. "All mine?"
Adriana thought her heart might catapult from her chest, and she ignored the curl of heat low in her belly, as golden and liquid as his intent gaze. This is what he does, she reminded herself sternly. He's trying to unnerve you.
"Please calm yourself," she said with a dry amusement she wished she felt. "I'm your new assistant, secretary, aide. Babysitter. Keeper. I don't care what you call me. The job remains the same."
"I'm not in the market for a lapdog," Pato said in his lazy way, though Adriana thought something far more alert moved over his face for a scant second before it disappeared into the usual carelessness. "And if by some coincidence I was, I certainly wouldn't choose a little beige hen who's made a career out of scowling at me in prudish horror and ruffling her feathers in unspeakable outrage every time I breathe."
"Not when you breathe. Only when you act. Or open your mouth. Or" Adriana inclined her head toward his naked torso, which took up far too much of her view, and shouldn't have affected her at all "when you fling off your clothes at the slightest provocation, the way other people shake hands."
"Off you go." He made a dismissive, shooing sort of gesture with one hand, though his lips twitched. "Run back to my drearily good and noble brother and tell him I eat hens like you for breakfast."
"Then it's a pity you slept through breakfast, as usual," Adriana retorted. "I'm not going anywhere, Your Royal Highness. Call me whatever you like. You can't insult me."
"I insulted the easily offended Lissette and all of her family without even trying, or so you claim." His dark brows arched, invoking all manner of sins. Inviting her to commit them. "Imagine how offensive I could be if I put my mind to it and chose a target."
"I don't have to imagine that," Adriana assured him. "I'm the one who sorted out your last five scandals. This year."
"Various doctors I've never met have made extensive claims in any number of sleazy publications that I'm an adrenaline junkie," Pato continued, studying her, as if he knew perfectly well that the thing that curled low and tight inside her was brighter now, hotter. More dangerous. "I think that means I like a challenge. Shall we test that theory?"
"I'm not challenging you, Your Royal Highness." Adriana kept her expression perfectly smooth, and it was much harder than it should have been. "You can't insult me because, quite honestly, it doesn't matter what you think of me."
His lips quirked. "But I am a prince of the realm. Surely your role as subject and member of staff is to satisfy my every whim? I can think of several possibilities already."
How was he getting to her like this? It wasn't as if this was the first time they'd spoken, though it was certainly the longest and most unclothed interaction she'd had with the man. It was also the only extended conversation she'd ever had with him on her own. She'd never been the focus of all his attention before, she realized. She'd only been near it. That was the crucial difference, and it hummed in her like an electric current no matter how little she wanted it to. She shook her head at him.
"The only thing that matters is making sure you cease to be a liability to your brother for the next two months. My role is to make sure that happens." Adriana smiled again, reminding herself that she had dealt with far worse things than an oversexed black sheep prince. That she'd cut her teeth on far more unpleasant situations and had learned a long time ago to keep her cool. Why should this be any different? "And I should warn you, Your Royal Highness. I'm very good at my job."
"And still," he murmured, his head tilting slightly to one side, "all I hear is challenge piled upon challenge. I confess, it's like a siren song to me."
"Resist it," she suggested tartly.
He gave her a full smile then, and she had the strangest sense that he was profoundly dangerous, despite his seeming carelessness. That he was toying with her, stringing her along, for some twisted reason of his own. That he was something far more than disreputable, something far less easily dismissed. It was disconcertingand, she told herself, highly unlikely.
"It isn't only your brother who wants me here, before you ask," Adriana said quickly, feeling suddenly as if she was out of her depth and desperate for a foothold. Any foothold. "Your father does, too. He made his wishes very clear to Lenz."
Adriana couldn't pinpoint what changed, precisely, as Pato didn't appear to move. But she felt the shift in him. She could sense it in the same way she knew, somehow, that he was far more predatory than he should have been, standing there naked with a sheet wrapped around his hips and his hair in disarray.