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"There is a science to matching people." Jessica Carter tucked a lock of blond hair behind her ear and lifted her computer, a flat, all-in-one device shaped like a clipboard, so that it obscured her figure. Pity, Stavros was enjoying the look of her. Even if she was starch and pearls, rather than spandex and diamonds.
She continued, her eyes never leaving the screen. "A matching of social status, values, education and life experience is very important to creating a successful, enduring marriage. I think most match services realize that." She paused and took a breath, pink lips parting slightly, her green eyes locking with his just for a moment before dropping back down. "However, I have taken things a step further. Matching is not just a science. It's an art. The art is in the attraction, and it's not to be underestimated."
Prince Stavros Drakos, second son of the Kyonosian royal family, and named heir to the throne, leaned back in his chair, his hands behind his head. "I am not so much concerned about the art, Ms. Carter. The essentials are general compatibility and suitability for my country. Childbearing hips would help."
Her pale cheeks flushed crimson, her lush mouth tightening. "Isn't that what all men want?"
"I'm not sure. And frankly, I don't care. Most men don't have to consider the entire populace of their country when they go about selecting a wife."
But it didn't matter what most men did. He wasn't most men. Ever since he'd been forced to step into the place of his older brother, he had been different. It didn't matter what normal was, it didn't matter what he wanted. All that mattered was that he be the best king possible for Kyonos.
His methods might be unorthodox, and they might grieve his father, but what he did, he did for the good of his people. It just wasn't in his nature to be too traditional.
She blew out a breath. "Of course." She smiled, bright and pristine, like a toothpaste commercial. She was so clean and polished she hardly seemed like a real woman, more like a throwback from a 1950s television show. In Technicolor. "I Not that I'm complaining of course, but why exactly have you hired me to find you a wife? I've read the newspaper articles written about you and you seem perfectly able to attract women on all your own."
"When I want to find a suit for an event, I hire I stylist. When I need to organize a party, I hire an events coordinator. Why should this be any different?"
She tilted her head to the side. Her hair was in a low, neat bun, her dress high-collared, buttoned up and belted at the waist. A place for everything and everything in its place. She all but begged to be disheveled.
Any other time, he might have done so.
"I see you have a practical outlook on things," she said.
"I have a country to run, I don't have time to deal with peripherals."
"I've compiled a list of candidates, to be refined, of course."
He took the monitor from her hand and hit the home button, tapping a few icons and not managing to find a list.
"What is this?"
She took the device back from him. "It's a tablet computer. Shall I put that technologically savvy women need not apply?"
"Not necessary, but you can put down that women with smart mouths need not apply."
Her full lips curved slightly. "Someone has to keep you in line."
"No one has to keep me in line. I'm going to be king." That hadn't kept Xander in line. In fact, he'd pulled himself straight out of line and put Stavros in front. But Stavros wouldn't falter. He wouldn't quit.
One well-shaped eyebrow lifted upward. "Oh? Is that so." She typed something on her onscreen keyboard.
"What? What did you write?"
"Strong tyrannical tendencies. A possible negative in social interactions, possible positive in BA."
"Bedroom activities. It's shorthand. Don't dwell on it," she said, her tone snappy. "I told you attraction is considered. That said, do you require a virgin bride, Prince Drakos?"
"Stavros will do, and no, I don't." He shouldn't be surprised by her frankness. She had a reputation for being bold, brash even. She also had a reputation for setting up unions that had led to successful mergers and increased fortunes. She was a relationships strategist, more than a matchmaker, and he'd been assured that there was no one better. She knew the rules of society, knew the function a practical marriage served.
His marriage, and securing it, meant nothing to him personally, and being able to pawn off the legwork on Jessica Carter had been too good of an idea to pass up. And if the press happened to pick it up, all the better. He had a reputation for doing things differently. Doing things his way. Turning away from how his father had run the country.
And this was as far from something his father would do as he could think of.
"That's good," she said. "It's always awkward to ask women to submit proof of sexual history."
"Do you do that?"
"I have. Though not just women."
"Who?" he asked.
"Ah, now, if I told you I would have to kill you. I operate on the basis of strict anonymity. Unless those involved are seeking publicity, I don't talk about my clients."
"But word does spread," he said. He'd seen an old school friend three weeks earlier, and the smugness had practically been dripping from him as he stood there with his new fiancée. Oxford educated. And a model. She was everything he'd asked for. Beauty and brains. And who had accomplished the feat?
The woman the media called the World's Most Elite Matchmaker. She catered to billionaires. CEOs, tycoons. Royalty. And she was renowned for making matches that lasted.
That was what he needed. He'd given up on allowing himself any sort of personal interest in the selection of his bride ever since he'd discovered that it was likely he would be assuming the throne for his absentee brother. His wants didn't matter. He needed a woman who could be a princess, an icon for his country, an aide to his rule. Aside from that, he had some of his own ideas. Someone beautiful, of course. Someone smart. Philanthropic. Fertile.
It shouldn't be too hard to find.
"This isn't just about me, Ms. Carter, this is about Kyonos. My family has seen too much tragedy, too much upheaval. I have to be the rock. I have to provide a solid foundation for my people to rest on, and establishing a solid marriage is essential to that plan."
The death of his mother, nineteen years ago, had shaken his people to the core. The abandonment of his older brother, the rightful heir, had caused months of instability. Stocks had tanked, trade had stalled, the housing market going into a deep freeze.
Why had the future ruler really left? Would he truly abdicate? What secrets were the Drakos family guarding beneath that veneer of polish and old world sophistication?
He had been determined to undo all of the unrest brought about by his brother. And he had done it. He'd revitalized Thysius, the largest city on the island, with posh hotels and trendy boutiques. He'd brought in new revenue by having the seat of his corporation on the island, a country much too small to house companies the size of his, when the owner wasn't the crown prince.
He'd done much to drag his country back from the brink. From the age of eighteen his entire life had altered so that it revolved around his homeland. He hadn't had the luxury of being a boy. Hadn't had the luxury of feeling fear or sadness. He'd learned early on that feeling had no place in his world. A ruler, an effective ruler, had to be above such things.
"I understand that this is a big deal," she said. "Not just in terms of your country, but for you. She is going to be your wife."
He shrugged. "An acquisition I've long known I would make."
Jessica let out a long, slow breath. "Mr .Prince Drakos, will you please stop being so candid? It's remarkably hard to sell a man who clearly has no interest in romantic love."
"Try this for a taglinemarry the jaded prince and receive a title, a small island, a castle and a tiara. That might make up for it."
"Money can't buy love."
"Nice. Trite, overdone, possible copyrighted by The Beatles, but nice. You might consider tacking this onto the endlove doesn't buy happiness."
Something changed in Jessica's eyes, a shard of ice in the deep green that had been warm a moment before. "That's for damn sure, but we're talking about putting together a sales pitch. And you aren't helping."
He shifted. "Can't you put something in my file about my impeccable table manners?"
"I haven't witnessed them, and I don't lie. You're my client, yes, but there is a pool of women I work with on a regular basis, and I have great loyalty to them."
It was intriguing. The way she flashed hot and cold. The way she presented herself, nearly demure, and then she opened that mouth. And such a lovely mouth, too. She was holding it tight. What would it take to make it soften?
The idea made his stomach tighten.
"And you think one of them is my queen?"
"If she isn't, I'll walk through all of Europe beating gold-plated bushes until a member of minor nobility falls out. I won't stop until we get this settled."
"You are supposed to be the best. You did manage to get a confirmed bachelor friend of mine to settle down."
"That's because, in my business, there's no settling. It's all about making the best match possible," she said brightly.
"Somehow, I do not share your enthusiasm."
"That's okay, I have enough for both of us. Now.. " She looked back down at her tablet computer. "Your sister's wedding is in just a couple of weeks, and I don't want you going with a date, are we clear?"
He frowned. "I wouldn't have brought a date to a wedding." Weddings were where one picked up women; he didn't see the point of bringing one with him. The thought reminded him that it had been a very, very long time since he'd picked up a woman.
"And no leaving with any of the bridesmaids," she added. "You have to be seen as available, approachable and, oh yes, available."
"You said that already."
"It's important. Obviously, we don't want to put out a call for all eligible women in the kingdom to show up, so we need to go about this subtly."
He frowned. "Why aren't we putting out a call for all eligible women?"
"Look, Prince Charming, unless you want to put a glass slipper on a whole bunch of sweaty feet, you do this my way. That means you behave how I tell you to at Princess Evangelina's wedding."
"I wouldn't have picked up a bridesmaid. My sister's friends are far too young to interest me," he said.
"Ah so you have an age range," she said, perking up. "That's important."
"Yes, no one as young as Evangelina. I'd say twenty-three at youngest. A ten-year age difference isn't so bad. Maybe cap it at twenty-eight."
She frowned. "Oh. All right." She looked down at her computer, then up, then back down again, her mouth twitching, like she was chewing on something. Her words, he imagined. She looked up at him again. "Why, exactly, is anyone older than twenty-eight too old?"
"I need a wife who can have children. Preferably a few of them. Any older and."
"Right," she snapped, directing her focus downward again.
"If I ask you how old you are I'll only make this worse, won't I?" he asked dryly.
"I have no problem with my age, Prince Stavros, I'm thirty. Not that it's your business."
"It's not personal."
"I get it," she said. "And I'm not applying anyway."
"A pity," he said, noticing the way color bled into her cheeks.
Jessica set her iPad on the ornately carved table to her right and put her hands in her lap, trying like crazy to stop the slight tremble in her fingers. She was saying all the wrong things. Letting her mouth run away with her. Not a huge surprise since she tended to get prickly when she got nervous.
She'd managed to make that little quirk work for her over the years. People found her bold approach refreshing. And that suited her, since it enabled her to keep all shields up and locked, fully protecting her from people getting too close. Without showing vulnerability.
And now, with Prince Stavros Drakos, was not the time to let her guard down. No, most especially not with him.
"I've managed to finagle three wedding invitations," she said. "They will go to three girls that you and I will work at selecting sometime this week. At the wedding, you will speak to them for twenty minutes apiece, no more. And after that, I want you to pick one to advance to a higher tier. I've made a list of questions for you to consider asking."
"I'm not even getting a full date?" he asked, dark eyebrows lifting.
She shifted in her chair. He was so sexy it was unnerving. Because his aesthetic appeal couldn't be observed in the cool detached manner she might use to look at a nice piece of art. That was the way she'd been looking at men for the past few years. As lovely objects, nice to behold, but nothing that invoked feeling.
She'd let that part of herself go and she hadn't missed it. Until now.
Stavros well, he made a spark catch in her belly. One that had been entirely absent for so long now she'd thought it had gone out permanently. It was a disastrous realization.
She stood up and took a step away from him, hoping distance would bring clarity. Or at least control over her body.
"You don't need a full date. Not at this stage. I've picked out a few candidates based on what we talked about over the phone. And now I've refined some of that, and I've got a number of women I'd like for you to have an initial meet with. You've been matched with them based heavily on compatibility. The kind we can establish from forms, anyway. Attraction," she said, the word sticking in her throat for some reason, "is actually one of the simpler parts of this stage. But it's not simple, not not really." She felt her stomach tighten. The way Stavros was looking at her was intense, his brown eyes locked with hers. He was gorgeous.
It was sort of ridiculous how hot he was. It was as if he'd splashed around in the finest end of the gene pool, only collecting the good, the bad rolling right off. Square jaw, straight, proud nose and his lips they changed a lot. Firm and unyielding sometimes. And other times, when he smiled, they looked soft. Soft and kissable.
She swallowed and tried not to think about how very long it had been since she'd been kissed. She tried even harder to stop thinking about kissing Stavros's lips.
"Anyway," she said, breathing in deeply. She knew what to say next, knew her system by heart. She could explain it in her sleep. And she could take a few more steps away from him while she did it. "We start with that base attraction. What I call 'lightning bolt' attraction" like the kind she'd felt when she'd walked into Stavros's office this morning "or what many confuse with love at first sight. You'll feel a stronger pull of that immediate attraction to at least one of the women at the wedding. As we go on, we'll try and figure out which woman you feel a more lasting attraction for. But that's a different phase of the program."
"And you're accusing me of lacking in romance. You have this all worked out to a cold, calculated system. I'm not complaining, but let's be what was the word you used? Candid. Let's be candid, you and I." A smile curved his lips and he rose from his desk, slowly rounding it. "You're no more romantic than I am."