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Just when Grace Cannon thought her day couldn't get any worse, she came up from the Tube carrying £1,000 worth of lingerie for her boss's fiancée and got splashed in the face by a passing Rolls-Royce.
Mid-December in London was frosty in the violet twilight. The rain had turned to sleet, but the sidewalks in Knightsbridge were still packed with shoppers. The icy spray of gutter water hit Grace's body like a slap. She stumbled and fell down, her hip hitting the pavement as the shopping bag tumbled into the street. She cried out, holding up her hands to protect her face from the endless crush of feet pushing forward.
"Get back. Get back, damn you."
A tall, dark stranger pushed apart the crowds with his broad arms, giving Grace space to breathe. He towered over her on the sidewalk, black-haired and broad-shouldered in an expensive black cashmere coat.
He turned to face her.
Electric gray eyes stood out sharply against his olive -hued skin. Every inch of him whispered money and power, from his Italian shoes to the muscular shape beneath his black coat and gray pin-striped suit. His lush masculine beauty was like none she'd ever seen before. He had chiseled cheekbones, a strong jawline and a Roman profile. Her gaze fell unwillingly to his mouth, to the sensual lips that curved as he looked down at her.
A bright halo of sunlit clouds silhouetted his black hair as he extended his hand.
Dazzled, Grace reached up and placed her hand in his far-larger one. As the handsome stranger pulled her to her feet, she felt a current run through her body more startling than the icy water that had splashed her.
"Thank you," she whispered.
Then she recognized him and literally lost her breath.
Prince Maksim Rostov.
Her throat closed.
She looked again. There could be no mistake.
Prince Maksim Rostov was the man who had saved her.
The lavishly wealthy prince was the most famous Russian billionaire in a city that was full of them. He was so ruthless in his business and personal life he made Grace's boss look like a saint in comparison. For the past two months, since the prince had broken up with his famous fiancée, he'd been photographed with a new woman every night.
Prince Maksim Rostov. Her boss's main rival. His worst enemy.
And that had been before last month, when Alan had stolen both the man's fiancée and his merger!
"Forgive me." The prince's cool gray eyes looked down at her gravely, searing through her like a laser. "It was my car that splashed you. My driver should have been more careful."
"That's…all right," Grace managed to say, utterly conscious of his larger hand still closed over her own. A few minutes before, she'd been icy cold. But her body was rapidly thawing.
She tried to pull away. She shouldn't let him touch her. She shouldn't even let him talk to her. She was two blocks away from the Knightsbridge town house she shared with her boss. If Alan ever found out that his most trusted secretary had been speaking in private with Prince Maksim, he'd never forgive her. And Grace desperately needed Alan in a good mood, tonight of all nights!
But even knowing this, she found herself unable to pull her hand from the prince's grasp. He was like a rugged, brutal, smooth old-style movie star. Like Rudolph Valentino from the 1920s, seducing women ruthlessly in a savage world of blood and sand. Like a dark angel, sent to lure innocent, helpless virgins to their destruction!
His grip tightened over hers, sending little sizzling currents up her arm, warming her beneath her wet coat.
"I will take you home."
Her teeth chattered. "I…" She shook her head. "No. It's really not necessary."
Prince Maksim pulled her close. He stroked the length of her arm, languorously brushing excess water from her coat sleeve. Feeling his hand move over her clothed body, she suddenly felt so hot she might as well have been lying naked on a California beach. Her skin burned where he touched, as if whipped by a fierce Santa Ana wind.
Beads of sweat formed between her breasts. "No, really," she managed. "I live close. It won't take me long to walk."
He looked down at her, a smile tracing his cruel, sensual mouth. "But I want to take you."
And still he held her hand. Her mouth went dry. Even Alan, the boss she'd loved with hopeless yearning for two years, had never sparked a response like this— never caused her nerve endings to jumble with such an intensity of feeling. Even before he'd taken a new fiancée and asked Grace to buy his Christmas gift…
Grace gasped, twisting her head to the right and left.
With a little cry, she saw the Leighton bag get nailed by a swerving black cab in the road, causing the embossed lavender box inside it to tumble into the bumper-to-bumper traffic. "Oh, no!"
Ripping away from the prince's grasp, Grace pushed through the tourists to the edge of the sidewalk, looking both ways on the street and preparing to duck between the cars, double-decker buses and black cabs.
But Prince Maksim blocked her with one strong arm in front of her chest.
"Are you suicidal?" His English was perfect, with an accent she couldn't quite place. A little bit British, a bit American, with a slight inflection of something more exotic. He glanced out at the busy road. "You'd risk your life for that blue box?"
"That box," she snapped, "is my boss's Christmas
gift for his new fiancée. Silk Leighton lingerie. I can't go back without it!"
"Your boss isn't worth dying for."
"My boss is Alan Barrington!"
Glaring at him, Grace waited for a reaction when he realized she worked for his enemy, his rival in the gas and oil industry, who'd not only just stolen his merger with Exemplary Oil PLC but had stolen his fiancée, the beautiful, tempestuous Lady Francesca in the bargain!
Prince Maksim's handsome face was utterly impassive. She had no idea what he was thinking. A marked difference from Alan, Grace thought. Her flirtatious boss's thoughts were always instantly expressed, either by flippant words or the expression on his good-looking face.
But the image of her boss's toothy smile dissipated instantly from her mind as the dark Russian prince reached out his hand to lift her chin, forcing her eyes to meet his. "Your boss is truly not worthy of your sacrifice."
She licked her lips nervously. "Aren't you w-wishing you'd let me run into traffic now, Your Highness?"
Prince Maksim arrogantly smiled down at her.
"As tempting as it is to cause him staffing problems, I'm afraid I cannot allow you to cover the street with your blood." He gently stroked her hair from her face. "Call me old-fashioned."
He knew she worked for his enemy, so why was he still being courteous? Why wasn't he calling her names or wishing her to the devil? Although, he would have an easy time luring any woman anywhere, she thought. Even to the depths of hell itself.
Frightened by all the new sensations running through her at his touch, she pulled back. "I'll take my chances with the traffic."
"You'll get new lingerie."
"New lingerie?" Safely out of his reach, she regained her equilibrium enough to give an incredulous, scornful laugh. "Right! New lingerie. Maybe in your world Leighton clothes are disposable as baby wipes, but—"
"I will pay for it." He gave her a level look from his steel-gray eyes. "Of course."
If it had been any other person on the planet, she would have accepted gratefully. But not this man. She couldn't accept the help of her boss's worst enemy.
As if in slow motion, she saw a red double-decker bus crush the lavender-blue box into a big greasy puddle in the middle of the street.
Alan would be furious if she went home tonight with the expensive charge on his credit card but no lingerie. Alan was completely unforgiving of others' mistakes when they caused him problems. For years he'd hated Prince Maksim, the rival who'd beaten him over and over again. With Cali-West Energy Corporation's stock prices falling, the stockholders had begun to call for Alan's replacement as CEO.
That was before Alan met Lady Francesca Danvers at a charity ball six weeks ago. Their whirlwind romance had gained him the support of her father, the Earl of Hainesworth, who was chair of Exemplary's board of trustees. The deal had changed from a merger of British and Russian energy giants to a British-American one. For weeks now Alan had gleefully recounted to Grace how he'd finally beaten his rival.
Grace hadn't particularly enjoyed his gloating, since it inevitably involved details of how Alan was luring the beautiful, feisty, redheaded Lady Francesca into his bed.
What if Alan was so furious about the ruined lingerie, he demanded Grace pay the bill? What if instead of giving her the advance she so desperately needed, he docked her pay?
She swore under her breath.
"Do not refuse my help, Miss Cannon," Prince Maksim said evenly. "That would be stubborn and foolish."
"Well, Stubborn and Foolish are my middle names!" Grace snapped, furious at herself.
She could have stayed in L.A. and made sure her mother's mortgage was paid each month—but no. She'd been too stubbornly and foolishly infatuated with her boss. Pathetic, she thought in disgust. There surely had to be some kind of self-help program for women like her, pathetically in love with a boss who believed her to have no feelings—like an animatronic robot!
"Stubborn and Foolish, Miss Cannon?" Maksim's lips curved. "Clearly American baby-name trends have changed over the years."
"My middle name is actually Diana." Narrowing her eyes, she looked up at Prince Maksim. "But you already know that, don't you? How do you already know my last name?"
"You told me you work for Barrington." He lifted a dark eyebrow. "Don't you think I know the name of his most trusted secretary?"
Prince Maksim Rostov knew her name.
The fact made her feel warm all over. Made her feel…important.
Until a new, chilling suspicion went down her spine.
He knew her name.
He knew she worked for Alan.
And she was supposed to believe they'd just randomly met on the street two blocks from her home?
Grace was distracted and was nearly knocked over by two heavy tourists decked in cameras, Harrods bags and Santa hats, but she steadied herself to glare at him. "So you'll understand why, as his most trusted secretary, I can't accept any favors from you."
Prince Maksim gave her an easy smile.
"Barrington has nothing to do with this. Replacing the lingerie is repaying a personal debt to you." His smile spread into a carelessly wicked grin that she felt down to her toes. "I can hardly remain indebted to my enemy."
She swallowed, hardly able to collect her thoughts beneath the intensity of his gaze. "I wouldn't say I'm exactly your enemy…"
"Then there is no problem."
He enfolded her hand back in his own. The warmth of his naked palm against hers was more erotic than she'd ever thought holding a hand could be. After so many years of useless pining over her boss, this was the most physically intimate she'd been with any man since…since…
Since that brief moment after the Halloween party when Alan had drunkenly taken her in his arms and given her a big wet kiss before he'd collapsed in a drunken stupor on the office couch.
That sad event had been her first—and only—kiss. In school she'd been too focused on her studies to date anyone. After her father had died and she'd dropped out of college, she'd been too grief-stricken. Then she'd been too busy as a temp in downtown L.A., working to take care of her heartbroken mother and younger brothers.
Grace had become a twenty-five-year-old virgin.
A freak of nature.
And a million miles away from Prince Maksim Rostov's league!
But his car had splashed her, she argued with herself. He'd caused her to drop the lingerie. Wouldn't it be fair to allow him to replace it, when the alternative could mean her ruin?
Tempted, she licked her lips nervously. The sensation of his hand against her own caused a swirling in the tender center of her palm that sent awareness prickling up to the flesh of her ear, tightening her nipples and making her breasts feel strangely heavy. She felt his gaze trace her lips. Her cheeks went hot and her mouth went dry. Every breath she took, every rise and fall of her lungs, became more shallow.
"It is cold," he said. "My car is waiting."
"But, but Leighton clothes are expensive," she stammered, floundering. "They're so expensive they make Hermès and Louis Vuitton look like a bargain-basement fire sale."
He lifted his dark eyebrows.
"I think I can handle the expense," he said dryly. Signaling with one hand, he put the other against the small of her back, guiding her gently toward the curb of a side street where she saw a black Rolls-Royce limousine.
She felt his hand on her back and shook all over. It was that touch which finally forced her surrender.
Looking back at him, she whispered, "Alan must never know."
His lips trembled on the brink of a smile. "Agreed."
The shock waves from his hand on her lower back continued to sizzle up her arms and down her legs as she breathed, "Thank you."
"Thank you." His eyes gleamed down at her. "I always enjoy the company of a beautiful woman."
It broke the spell. She started to laugh, snorting through her nose before she covered it with a cough.
Her… beautiful? That was a good joke! She knew she wasn't anything special. And at the moment, wearing no makeup, with a damp old coat over her second-hand skirt suit and her hair tucked back in a soaked blond ponytail, she looked like a half-drowned refugee from an office in a swamp!
So why had a handsome prince dropped out of the sky to help her? Just because his driver had splashed her with water from the street? Did he have that much honor and generosity of Christmas spirit?
Or was it something else?
The dark suspicion returned to her. When she was younger, she'd believed the best of people. But since she'd started working for Alan, she'd seen how devious people could be. Both in business and in love.
Was Prince Maksim hoping to use her against Alan to take back his merger and his marriage?
"I hope you know," she said evenly, "that doing me this favor won't make me discuss Alan or the merger."
He just gave her a darkly assessing smile. "Do you think I need your assistance?"
"Don't you?" she said uncertainly.