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Golden light streamed down from the vaulted ceiling but Melissa didn't pay it any attention. Even palaces paled into insignificance when measured against the realisation that her moment had come. At last.
Sometimes it seemed as if her life had been defined by this momentand that her future would be determined by its outcome. A moment she could trace right back to that terrifying second when she'd held the strip of plastic in her shaking fingers and seen the unmistakable blue line which had confirmed her pregnancy.
And the world as she'd known it had changed for ever.
'Did you hear me, Melissa?' Stephen's voice punctured her ballooning thoughts. 'I said that the King will see you shortly.'
'Yes. Yes, I heard you,' said Melissa, her heart beginning to pound as she allowed herself a brief glance in one of the ornate mirrors which lined the ante-room of the Zaffirinthos palace. She was not a vain womanthere would have been no time for vanity in her life even if her looks had warranted it. She had the kind of face which wouldn't have launched even a single shiplet alone a thousand. But an audience with the King
The King who had fathered her son!
As she tidied her long, thick hair for what felt the hundredth time she hoped she looked better from the outside than she felt on the inside. Because she had to look her best. Her very best. She had to make Casimiro believe that she was worth something. That she was fit to be the mother of his child. Smoothing damp palms down over the linen of her new dress, she looked anxiously to Stephen for some kind of confirmation. 'Do I do I look okay?'
He flicked her a brief glance before returning his attention to the clipboard in his hand. 'You look finebut you do realise he isn't going to notice what you're wearing? Royals never do. We're staff so we're deemed servantsand they never look properly at servants. We're just therelike part of the wallpaper.'
'Wallpaper,' she repeated blankly.
'That's right. Part of the background. All he wants from you is a brief outline of the itinerary for tonight's ball. Basically, I've told him everything he needs to knowbut since you've organised the flowers and the band he wants to speak to you himself, to thank you. It's a courtesy thing. Keep it short and keep it sweet, and don't forgetonly speak when you're spoken to.'
'Of course I won't forget.' There was a pause. What Melissa might have called a pregnant pause if the expression hadn't mocked her quite so much. 'You know I've I've met the King once before,' she ventured.
Stephen frowned as he looked up from his clipboard. 'When?'
What had made her say that? Was it perhaps to pave the way for the number one dream scenario she'd nurtured for so longthat Casimiro would immediately acknowledge Ben as his son and heir? That she would be able to tell people about Ben's dad with a certain amount of pride, instead of biting her lip and saying that she'd rather not talk about it?
The only trouble with dream scenarios was that once you started coming up with them, it wasn't easy to stop.
Because wasn't it possible that the King might even be grateful to her for the bombshell she was about to dropespecially as his younger brother's wife had recently given birth to a son. The world's press had fan-fared the birth of an heir to the fabulous Mediterranean kingdom, but Melissa knew that wasn't true. Because Ben was the heir. The true heir.
She cleared her throat. 'When when we did that museum party in London, for the touring exhibition of the Zaffirinthos marbles. Casimiro was thereand at the after-show party. Surely you remember?'
'Sure I do.' Stephen screwed up his eyes. 'You helped me hand out the canapes that night, MelI doubt whether you actually engaged him in any conversation other than, "Would you like another hors d'oeuvre, Your Majesty?" And if you're expecting him to remember you from back then, you'd better think again.'
Melissa gave a brief, nervous smile. Of course her boss wouldn't have noticedfor there had been no chemistry or eye contact between the party planner's assistant and the eligible King during what had been just another glittering socialite gathering. You would hardly expect the guest of honour to engage in light-hearted banter with a woman who was there simply to serve the privileged throng.
And yet what would Stephen say if he knew just what the King had said to her the very next night when she had been cold and empty and aching for some human comfort? Something along the lines of how criminal it was for her to wear panties at all and then he had proceeded to remove them with a dexterity which, when coupled with a passionate kiss, had made any argument against his love-making completely futile.
But Stephen was clearly oblivious to the fact that she had become intimate with the man who ruled the prosperous Mediterranean island of Zaffirinthos. He had no idea that Casimiro was Ben's father. In fact, neither did her aunt, who was looking after Ben back in England at this very moment. No one didnot even Casimiro himself. It was a terrible, aching secret she had been forced to keep to herselfbut soon she would be free of the intolerable burden.
'And people are still concerned about the King's health, of course,' continued Stephen thoughtfully.
At this, Melissa stilled. 'He's he's not ill?'
'Ill? He's the fittest man I've ever seenwhich is a miracle when you stop to think about it,' said Stephen reflectively. 'You know he nearly died the year before last, don't you?'
Despite the warmth of the late-May evening, Melissa couldn't suppress the shiver which Stephen's words produced as they took her back to that terrible time. A time which had been like a living hell. Of course she knew that Casimiro had nearly diedhadn't she sat awake for hours watching the twenty-four hour news channel, wide-eyed and weary from lack of sleep as she'd waited for bulletins which had told her very little?
The King is fighting for his life had been the one grim and enduring announcement which had made her recognise that she couldn't keep burying her head in the sand.
And hadn't Casimiro's eventual recovery spurred her into actionslamming home the realisation that she must tell him about his baby? Even if she'd failed in her attempts to contact him beforebecause Kings were pretty much unreachable to people like herthis time she must. She must. For Ben was more than just a beautiful little boy she adored with all her hearthe was the progeny of a king; heir to a royal kingdomand didn't they both have a right to know that?
'He he fell off his horse, didn't he?' she questioneda fact she already knew. Actually, about the only fact she knew about the accidentthough perhaps Stephen could tell her more.
'Landed on his headreckless fool. Was in a coma for weeks.'
'But he's all right now?'
'Apparently. Though one of his staff was indiscreet enough to tell me that the King's initial relief at his full recovery has given way to a cold demeanour which makes most of them quake.'
This was not what Melissa wanted to hear. She wanted to hear that Casimiro was the sunniest person on the planet. That he would smile on her with delight when she grabbed an opportune moment to tell him her earth-shattering news, and tell her that she wasn't to worry. That he would sort it all out. 'Cold?' she echoed.
'Positively icy.' Stephen laughed. 'So, like I say, Melissakeep it short and keep it sweet.'
'I'll try to remember. See you in a while,' she said, and with strangely reluctant footsteps, she began to follow the footman who was waiting to lead her to the King's offices.
She'd only arrived at the palace yesterdaystepping off a private jet which had been light years away from her usual mode of public transport on crowded buses and trains. Ready to help Stephen with the final preparations for the ball that King Casimiro was throwing. It was to be a belated wedding party for his younger brother Xaviero and wife Catherineas well as a celebration of the birth of their baby son. And Stephen was organising the gatheringthese days he seemed to have a monopoly on high-profile events, and royal gatherings were his speciality.
Stephen Woods was her bossshe helped him plan his society parties, a job she'd stumbled on more by chance than by judgement. They'd met when Melissa had been temping in one of his officesafter she'd been forced to drop out of college due to a lack of funds when her mother had died. In the midst of her grief, Stephen had recognised her talent and made her feel as if she was worth something. Time and time again, the flamboyant caterer had told Melissa that her artistic eye was invaluable to him. That her talent for transforming the mundane into something extraordinary was what helped get his business talked about and her behind-the-scenes work was second to none. Which was why he valued her enough to let her choose her own hours and to work them around Benand she was so grateful to him for that.
Lost in thought, Melissa barely noticed the splendour and dimensions of the magnificent palace as she followed the footman along the wide marble corridors. The paintings on the walls seemed to all blur into one and the statues of ancient gods and goddesses bathed in sunlight were completely lost on her. She just kept thinking about Benand how his life was about to take on an entirely new direction. Very soon he would have a father at long lasta father he could grow to know and to love. Someone who would be able to enrich his young life with all kinds of benefits.
Eventually coming to a halt, the footman knocked loudly on an ornate pair of doors and she heard a single terse word emanating from within.
There wasn't really time to register the throaty and sexy accentwhich she knew spoke Greek as fluently as Italianor the fact that she was seconds away from seeing him, because the doors were pushed open. Melissa's hands were trembling as she was summoned insideindeed it seemed as if her whole body was trembling. The thought that her most longed-for wish was about to come true was making her wonder whether her shaky legs would bear her weightbut she knew that she had to stay calm and focused. She had to.
And then she saw him.
Seated at his desk with an air of intense concentration as he scrutinised a sheaf of papers which were spread out in front of him, he seemed to have been carved from a piece of dark and glittering stone and was completely oblivious to her presence. For a moment, she just stood theredrinking him in. The ebony sheen of his hair and the powerful broad shoulders set her pulse racing. He might have been born to rule with untold riches at his clever fingertips, but to Melissa he had always been the most perfect man she'd ever seen, and, from this angle, that much hadn't changed.
Suddenly, he looked up and her heart lurched with excited recognition as their eyes metfor, despite everything, she felt her heart turn over with longing. Because what woman wouldn't feel moved by the sight of her ex-lover whose seed had grown inside her belly for nine long months? Time after time he'd preoccupied her thoughtseven if he'd never shown the slightest inclination to stay in touch with her. How long had it been since she'd seen him? she wondered dazedly. Getting on for two years. Nearly two whole years!
She stared into deep amber eyes fringed with jet-dark lashes, which made his gaze seem to pierce right through her. At hair the colour of a raven's wing. At autocratic and proud features and a lean, muscular body, which was wearing some kind of uniform. Casimiro. It was Casimirobut he seemed so different. His face seemed darker, hardermore forbidding than she remembered it. She swallowed. Cloaked in the unmistakable aura of royalty, he looked regal and imposingand utterly, utterly inaccessible.
Yet once he had been accessible, hadn't he? she reminded herself. Accessible enough to take you to his bed and to thrust his golden-dark body into yours over and over again. It was just seeing him nowsitting in his very own palacethat Melissa felt insecurity wash over her. Because even though you knew something intellectually, you couldn't always accept itnot emotionally. But now, for the first time, she did. He really was a king. A king who ruled an exquisite island kingdom. Who was lord and master of all he surveyed. And the enormity of what lay before her seemed positively daunting.
But it was too late to back out nowthe access she had longed for had finally been grantedand with a fast-thudding heart, Melissa smiled. Because he was the father of her child andno matter what had happened in the pastsurely they could be adult about the future?
She hadn't exactly expected him to leap to his feet with pleasure and to pull her into his arms, but she had been expecting him to say something. To have registered some kind of emotion on his facelike shock or surprise, maybe even dismay, because she wasn't naive enough not to realise that his life would have moved on in all kinds of ways. But his countenance remained coldas cold as iceand maybe it was up to her to break it.
Fixing a hopeful look to her face, she attempted a smile. 'H-hello,' she said, even though the word felt like a pebble which had stuck in her throat.
For a moment, Casimiro did not respond to her greeting or to her soft English accent. He had been so deep in troubled thought that he could barely remember summoning anyone to his offices, and now he narrowed his eyes as he studied the woman who stood before him.
Her long, glossy hair was the colour of strong teathe brown hair which was so widespread among Englishwomenand her eyes were green. Skin so pale it was almost translucent showed a fine tracery of blue veins at her temples and she wore a dress whose only eye-catching feature was the fact that it drew his attention to a pair of long and very attractive legs.
He frowned. All his life had been steeped in protocolit was as much a part of his existence as breathing itself. Often he professed himself bored with such etiquette and railed against its restrictionsbut its absence was enough to ensure his frosty disapproval. Placing his gold fountain pen down on the desk, he fixed her with a look of chilly censure.