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Nikos Angelaki stood at the edge of the ballroom and surveyed the five hundred or so guests who were dancing or sipping champagne beneath the ornate chandeliers. The men were uniform in black tuxedos, while the women—dressed in couture gowns and flaunting a spectacular array of diamonds and precious gems—flitted about the dance floor like gaudy butterflies. He flicked back the cuff of his dinner jacket, glanced at his Rolex, and then began to make his way across the room—aware of the interested glances he received as he passed. At thirty-two he was used to the attention his looks and the rumours of his wealth attracted. An attractive blonde in a daringly low-cut dress caught his attention, and his gaze lingered on her fleetingly before he stepped into the lobby.
It was the first time he had attended the royal ball or visited the Aristan palace, and he was impressed by the elegant splendour of the rooms where the silk-covered walls were lined with priceless works of art. The ruling family of the House of Karedes was one of the wealthiest families in Europe, and the guest-list included members of the aristocracy and heads of state—grand people who had no idea that the Prince Regent's honoured guest tonight had grown up in the slums of Athens.
Nikos wondered cynically if the butler who had escorted him to the state drawing room to greet Prince Sebastian would have been quite so obsequious if he'd known that Nikos's mother had once worked as a lowly kitchen maid at the palace. However, that was something he hadn't even revealed to Sebastian, despite the close friendship that had developed between them.
He strode across the hall, pushed open a door, andfound himself in the banqueting suite, which was empty, apart from a waitress at the far end of the room who—unlike the other palace staff who seemed to be rushed off their feet tonight— was idly folding napkins.
The guests had eaten earlier, but Nikos's delayed flight had meant that he had missed the buffet supper, and as he glanced at the mouth-watering selection of canapés he was aware of a hollow feeling in his stomach. Business first, he told himself firmly. It was evening in Aristo, but early afternoon on America's east coast and he had arranged to call a client in New York. He strolled towards the waitress who had her back to him and was still oblivious to his presence.
'Can you tell me if there is somewhere I can be uninterrupted? I need to make an urgent business call.'
The deep, gravelly voice was so innately sensual that the tiny hairs on Kitty's body stood on end, and she turned her head, her heart crashing in her chest when she stared up at the man who had come silently into the room. She had recognised him instantly when he had walked into the ballroom earlier in the evening—Nikos Angelaki, billionaire shipping magnate, notorious playboy, and in recent months one of her brother's closest confidants. Sebastian had explained that he had met Nikos at a business function in Greece, and since then the two men had discovered a mutual liking for poker and the roulette wheel in the nightclubs of Aristo and Athens.
The photographs Kitty had seen of him in the tabloids had triggered her interest, but nothing had prepared her for the impact of Nikos in the flesh. He was suave, sophisticated and spine-tinglingly sexy. Taller than average; his tapered black trousers emphasised his long legs and taut thighs, while his impeccably tailored dinner jacket cloaked formidably broad shoulders. But it was his face that captured her attention. Handsome was a barely adequate description of the chiselled perfection of his features: the slanting, razor-sharp cheekbones and square chin, the heavy brows arched above midnight-dark eyes, and a wide, sensual mouth.
In the silence that stretched between them Kitty sensed his arrogance and devil-may-care confidence, and she felt an unbidden and shockingly intense tug of sexual awareness that sent a quiver down her spine. He was gorgeous, but she suddenly realised that she was staring at him, and she blushed.
'There is a small sitting room through there,' she mumbled, indicating the door at the far end of the room.
His eyes skimmed over her, making a brief inspection of her unexciting black cocktail dress, and Kitty wished fervently that she had bought a new outfit for the ball—something slinky and low-cut that would have made him look at her with male appreciation, rather than dismiss her without a second glance.
But she had never been very interested in clothes, preferring her research work for Aristo's museum to shopping, and it had only been when she had flicked through her list of preparations for the ball and seen the words 'buy dress' that she'd realised she had nothing suitable to wear to the palace's most prestigious social event.
She lacked the confidence to wear sexy outfits, anyway, she acknowledged dismally. And she certainly wouldn't stand a chance with a man like Nikos. He had given no sign that he recognised her, but palace protocol dictated that she should make the first introduction. Immediately she felt tongue-tied by the crippling shyness that had afflicted her since childhood.
Not for the first time she wished she shared her sister Princess Elissa's self-confidence and sparkling personality. Liss always made socialising look so easy.
She was Princess Katarina Karedes, fourth in line to the throne of Aristo, Kitty reminded herself. She had been trained practically from birth to deal with social situations, but she had never found meeting new people easy, and she was still steeling herself to offer her hand to Nikos in formal greeting when he spoke again.
'I've a feeling that you are needed to serve champagne in the ballroom. I understand from Prince Sebastian that a number of the catering staff have been taken ill, and I noticed that many of the guests have empty glasses.' He gave her a faint, dismissive smile, as if he expected her to immediately scuttle off, and turned his attention to his phone.
Kitty gaped at him, overwhelmed by his powerful personality, and taken aback by his suggestion that she was needed to serve drinks. She was aware of the problem with the caterers she had booked to work alongside the palace staff, and, having spent the past month planning every detail of the ball like a military operation, she found it annoying that so many of the waiters had succumbed to a virulent sickness virus. Anxious to ensure that the evening ran smoothly she had come to the banqueting room to check over the buffet table, but the head butler had assured her that everything was under control, and she was sure it was not necessary for her to take on the role of waitress.
Usually she had little to do with the royal ball, but this year, with Queen Tia mourning the death of the king, Sebastian had asked her to oversee the arrangements. Seb had enough on his mind, Kitty thought ruefully. After their father's unexpected death Sebastian should have immediately become the new king. But the shocking discovery that the Aristan half of the Stefani diamond, which was set in the Aristan Crown, was a fake, and that the real diamond was missing, had thrown the plans for his coronation into disarray. By royal tradition Sebastian could not be crowned if he did not have the jewel, and until it was found he could only assume the title of Prince Regent.
Lost in her thoughts, Kitty suddenly realised that Nikos Angelaki was watching her with unconcealed impatience. He moved away and began to punch numbers into his phone. 'My client is expecting my call,' he said as he walked towards the door leading to the sitting room. 'And you had better get back to work.' He paused, and looked back at her. 'Actually, you could bring me some champagne—and while you're about it something from the buffet. The dolmathakia looks good, and perhaps some bread and olives.'
He was a guest, Kitty reminded herself, and her duty as hostess of the ball was to ensure that the guests enjoyed the evening. But his haughty tone rankled. It was usual for people she did not know to address her as Your Highness, but Nikos was either unaware or unimpressed that he should use her royal title. Throughout her life Kitty had been treated with a deference suited to her royal status. She did not expect to be fawned over, but Nikos had spoken to her as if she were a lackey. Didn't he know who she was?
'You want me to serve you?' she queried, taken aback by his arrogant demand.
Her sharp tone caught Nikos's attention and he glanced across the room, his eyes narrowing when he noted the waitress's mutinous expression. He had paid scant attention to her when he had first walked into the room, and had formed a vague impression of a dumpy, rather plain girl in a badly fitting dress. But now, as he studied her more closely, he realised that she was far from uninteresting.
She was unfashionably curvaceous, he mused idly, allowing his gaze to roam over the swell of her hips that flared below her neat waist. Her voluptuous breasts straining beneath her dress would make a generous handful. A vivid mental picture came into his mind of her wearing a strapless, low-cut couture gown that displayed her breasts like plump, round peaches. In his imagination he saw himself slowly removing the gown, drawing it down and feasting his eyes on her nakedness, and he felt his body tighten with unbidden sexual awareness.
She wasn't his type, he reminded himself irritably. He liked tall, elegant blondes, and she was a short, curvy brunette. Her heavy-rimmed glasses were unflattering, but he noted that her skin was smooth and tinted a pale olive-gold, her slanting cheekbones highlighted by a flush of rose-pink, and her mouth was wide, her lips full and lush and eminently kissable.
Hell! He'd obviously been celibate for too long, he thought sardonically. He was a self-confessed workaholic, and under his leadership Petridis Angelaki Shipping's profits had soared. He worked hard and played hard, but recently he hadn't played enough. It was time he redressed the balance—but he doubted Prince Sebastian would be pleased if he seduced a member of the palace staff.
'If it's not too much trouble,' he drawled sarcastically. 'It is your job, after all.'
Kitty thought of the hours she'd spent organising the party, and felt a spurt of temper. She'd been run ragged for weeks, anxious to ensure the ball was a success for Sebastian's sake, but her duties didn't include acting as a personal attendant to one of her brother's friends. Twin spots of colour burned on her cheeks, and she put her hands on her hips.
'The idea of the buffet table is that guests can help themselves,' she informed Nikos tightly.
She saw him frown as his eyes trailed over her, and it suddenly struck her that her high-necked, long-sleeved black dress—which she had bought two seasons ago in the hope that the starkly simple style would make her look slimmer—was almost identical to the uniform that the female serving staff were wearing. Her job! Understanding slowly dawned. Could it be that Nikos Angelaki had no idea of her identity? They had never met, and, unlike Liss, who was often pictured in the tabloids, she was rarely recognised by the paparazzi. Nikos clearly believed she was one of the palace staff, and she didn't know whether to be amused or insulted by the mistake.
She opened her mouth to tell him that she was Princess Katarina, not a lowly servant, but something held her back. It was humiliating that he had mistaken her for a waitress. She wished now that she had made more effort with her appearance instead of blithely assuming that no one would take much notice of her. She was acting as the Prince Regent's consort tonight, and people had noticed her, but for all the wrong reasons.
During the evening she had overheard various unflattering comments from the guests that she was the Plain Jane Princess who had missed out on her sister's looks: '… twenty-six…oh, no, not married… must be hard to be in the shadow of lovely Liss. Apparently Princess Katarina is the brainy one, but she doesn't share Princess Elissa's beauty.'
Kitty wondered how Nikos would react when she told him she was a princess. Would he share the general consensus of the guests that she was the ugly duckling of the family? It didn't help that he was so stunningly good-looking. She could feel her heart thudding erratically as she absorbed the masculine beauty of his face, and she was startled by a fierce longing to run her fingers through the lock of silky black hair that had fallen forwards onto his brow.
She was terrified that he could somehow read her mind, but she could not tear her eyes from his, and she sensed something indefinable pass between them that made her skin prickle and her breasts tingle. To her horror she felt her nipples swell beneath her dress and she hastily crossed her arms over her chest, her cheeks burning.
Nikos recognised the flare of sexual awareness in the waitress's eyes and was infuriated by his own body's involuntary reaction to it. He did not have time to waste dealing with a stroppy domestic, even though the chemistry between them was tangible. 'I suggest you look up the word "servant",' he said coldly. 'You'll find it means "someone who is paid to serve". I'm sure Prince Sebastian is a fair employer who pays you a generous wage, and I would be grateful if you could do as I've asked without further argument.'
He should walk through into the private sitting room and make his call—but for reasons he couldn't explain, he hesitated. He could not dismiss the ridiculous urge to pull the girl into his arms and kiss her senseless. Not a girl, he corrected himself, his eyes drawn once again to the firm swell of her breasts. She was very much a woman, with a gorgeous hourglass figure that might not be 'in' with the fashion police but was incredibly sexy. He felt a fierce tug of sexual hunger in his groin and inhaled sharply, his nostrils flaring. 'What is your name?' he demanded harshly.
'It's…Rina.' The words spilled from Kitty's lips, and the moment they were out it was too late to retract them. She didn't understand what had prompted her to withhold her true identity, but she knew that Nikos had previously met Liss at a party in Paris and, although it was stupid, she could not bear the idea of him comparing her with her beautiful, glamorous sister. 'I'm new here,' she mumbled, assuring herself that she had only lied to save him the embarrassment of learning that he had mistaken a member of the royal family for a servant.