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At eight-thirty on Thanksgiving morning, Damien Bravo-Calabretti, Prince of Montedoro, heard a knock on the outer door of his palace apartment.
Damien had given his man, Edgar, the holiday off. That left the prince to ignore his uninvited, way-too-early visitoror get out of bed and answer the door himself.
He was quite comfortable in his bed, thank you. Paying no attention to the continued tapping seemed the most attractive option.
But the knocking continued.
And then he thought, Vesuvia?
And that had him glaring at the coffered ceiling far above his bed. Not V. Please. It was much too early to have to deal with V.
Besides, it was over between them. She knew that as well as he did.
Not to mention she was supposed to be in Italy, wasn't she? And there were guards at every entrance. She couldn't just stroll in uninvited. How could she have gained access to his rooms, anyway?
Who knew? A man never did when it came to V.
And if it was V, he could forget drifting back to sleep. She would keep right on knocking until he gave in and answered. The woman was nothing short of relentless.
Muttering a few choice expletives under his breath, Dami shoved back the covers and grabbed his robe. He shrugged it on and belted it as he strode down the hall.
By the time he reached the door that led out into the palace corridor, he was angrier than he should have allowed himself to be. He yanked the door wide with a scowl on his face, prepared to tell the impossible woman on the other side exactly what he thought of her.
But it wasn't Vesuvia after all. It was sweet little Lucy Cordell, whose brother, Noah, would be marrying Damien's sister Alice in the spring.
At the sight of his less-than-welcoming expression, Lucy's pink cheeks flushed red and she jumped back with a soft cry. "Oh! It's too early, isn't it? You weren't even up ." She gave him a dazed once-over, from his bare feet to the section of naked chest displayed where the robe gaped a bit, and upward. She took in the dark stubble on his jaw and his uncombed hair.
Dami instantly felt nothing short of sheepish. He straightened the robe and raked a hand back through his hair. "Luce. Hullo."
"Go ahead, say it. Too early, I knew it."
"No. Really. It's fine. Not too early at all." If he'd known it was Lucy, he'd have put something on under the robe. Dami was very fond of Lucy. She was so fresh scrubbed and sincerecharming, too. And she did look fetching this morning, all big brown eyes and short tousled hair, and a smart and imaginative ensemble she had no doubt created herself. He could almost forgive her for dragging him from his bed.
She was not soothed by his assurances, but instead winced and scrunched up her pretty face. "Yikes! I get it. You've got company, right?" And then she was off and chattering. "Oh, Dami. I'm sorry, truly. I don't want to interrupt anything, but I've been working up the nerve to approach you concerning a certain, er, issue, for weeks now."
"Working up the nerve?" He gazed at her, bemused. "What issue?"
"Ugh. I hate myself."
He gestured her into the suite. "Come in. We'll talk."
"But you're busy ."
"No, I'm not. And I promise you, I am completely alone."
"Truly. Now come in."
But she only sighed and covered her eyes with her hands and then spread her fingers enough to peek out at him. "This is so awkward and weird, isn't it? But I just, well, this morning, I finally couldn't stand it anymore."
He stepped to the side and waved her in again. "Whatever it is, let's not discuss it out here in the hallway. You must come in. We'll have coffee."
She didn't budge, except to drop her hands away from her face and wrap her arms around her. "I just had to see you. And so I decided to go for it, before I lost my nerve, you know? But of course, I see I should've at least waited until nine or. .later or whenever you Oh, my Lord." She let her head fall back and groaned at the carved painted ceiling overhead. "You would think I had no manners at all." She looked at him again, her gamine face crumpled in misery. "Oh, Dami. Sorry, sorry. This is awful, isn't it?"
"Luce, what are you on about?"
She blinked at him again, her mouth trembling. "You know what? I'll just come back later and maybe then we can "
The flood of words stopped when he caught her hand. She stared up at him, her mouth slightly agape in a confused expression that he found simultaneously humorous and captivating. "Come inside now." He gave her fingers a tug.
"Oh, I just don't "
"Luce." He snared her darting gaze and held it. "Oh, God." Her plump cheeks puffed out with a hard breath. "What?"
"Come in. Please."
That did it. Finally. She gave him a sad little nod. And then, slim shoulders drooping, she let him draw her over the threshold.
Pausing only to shut and lock the door, he led her down the hallway, past the sitting room and his bedroom, the dining room and his small study. At the back of the apartment, he had a narrow galley kitchen for those times when he preferred to dine in private. He led Lucy to the small table by the one window at the end and pulled out a chair. "Have a seat."
She dropped to the chair cushion, folded her hands neatly in her lap and didn't utter a word as he got to work grinding the coffee beans, filling the French press and setting it on the cooker to brew. He would have preferred, while they waited for the coffee, to run back down the hall and throw on something more appropriate than his black silk robe.
But he was afraid if he left her alone, she just might bolt. He couldn't allow that. Clearly, she did have something to say to him. It was all very intriguing. He wasn't letting her go until she revealed what had brought her to his door.
He said, "I'm surprised to see you at the palace at this hour."
"But I'm a guest here. I have a beautiful little room on the third floor with a bathroom right down the hall."
"I thought you would be staying at the villa with Alice and Noah."
"Well, the truth is I asked Alice if she could get me in as a guest here at the palace insteadfor the life experience, you know?" Something evasive in her expression tipped him off that "life experience" wasn't all of it.
"And because of Noah?"
She shrugged. "He's promised to stop hovering over me and to let me lead my own life, but he still thinks he knows what's best for me. Here at the palace, I'm on my own. I take care of myself without my big brother keeping tabs on where I go and when I come in at night." She loosed a gusty sigh. "Honestly, Dami. Sometimes he acts like I'm twelve instead of twenty-three."
"He loves you and wants to be certain you're safe and well."
For that she shot him an I-don't-want-to-hear-it look. He let the subject drop.
The coffee didn't take long. He poured her a cup, got out the cream and sugar and even found a couple of pastries in the bread box. He put the pastries on a serving plate, set them each a place, along with napkin, fork and spoon, and then took his own cup and settled into the chair opposite her. "There. Drink your coffee."
Obediently, she spooned in a little sugar, poured in a drizzle of cream, stirred and sipped. "It's good."
"Life is too short for bad coffee."
A sudden smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
He shook his head. "Something amuses you?"
"It's too weird, that's all. Being served coffee and sweet rolls by a prince ."
He waved a hand. "Under everyday circumstances, my man, Edgar, would prepare the coffee. But Edgar is elsewhere this morning."
She blushed again, the color flowing upward over her sweet, velvety cheeks. "Thank you, Dami. You're always so kind to me." All at once her big eyes brimmed with moisture.
"Luce?" He jumped up, went around to her and knelt by her chair, taking care as he did it that the damn robe didn't gape and embarrass them both. "What is this?
She sniffled. "Oh, Dami " Her scent drifted to him: cherries and soap. So very Luce. It made him want to smile.
But he didn't. He kept a solemn face as he took the silk handkerchief from the breast pocket of his robe. "Here, now. Dry your eyes."
With a sad little sigh, she dabbed at her cheeks. "I'm being ridiculous."
"You are not, nor have you ever been, ridiculous." He roseand then hesitated, not wanting to leave her side if she was going to keep crying.
She waved his handkerchief at him. "Go on. Sit back down. Your coffee will get cold."
So he returned to his chair and took his seat. "Eat a pastry, why don't you? Your choice, raspberry or almond."
Obediently, she transferred the raspberry brioche to her plate and took a bite. The red filling clung to her lower lip and he watched as the tip of her pink tongue emerged to lick it clean. "Yum."
He prompted, "Now. What is this 'issue' that you've come to me about?"
She sucked in a long breath. "First of all "
"Oh, Dami. First I really, really need to thank you."
"Oh, please. You know why. For coming to my rescue when I was running out of options and had no idea what I was going to do."
He gave her a one-shouldered shrug. "You've already thanked me. Repeatedly."
"But I can never thank you enough. You came and you helped me with Noah when I couldn't get through to him and I didn't see how I ever would." Her brother had been reluctant to let her go away to fashion school in Manhattan. "I live in New York City now because of you. I live in the greatest old building with the nicest neighbors because of you." She laid her hand against her upper chest, where the tip of a pale scar was just visible above the neckline of her striped top, which she wore with great panache, along with a short, tight, floral-print skirt, a wide black belt and ankle boots. "Thank you."
"You are completely welcome. I'm glad I could helpand you were the driving force in your own liberation. You have to know that. You made it happen."
"But I couldn't have done it without you being willing to fly to California to save me." Her brother, Noah, owned a large estate in Carpinteria, near Santa Barbara. "You stood up for me with Noah, and you took me away." She plunked a scrap of paper on the table and pushed it toward him. "This should pay you back, at least a little."
He saw that it was a check for a large sum of money and shook his head. "Don't be absurd. Noah paid for it all." Her brother had finally seen the light and given her his blessing to follow her dreamalong with the all-important backing of his enormous bank account.
"Dami, you flew me to the East Coast in your own private jet. You leased me my beautiful apartment in your amazing building without asking for a deposit or anything. And I may be way naive, but even I know that my rent is impossibly low."
"Put your money away."
She drew herself up. "No. I will not. I have my trust fund now and I'm doing fine. I owe you this money, at least." She'd grown quite stern suddenly.
And he realized that to continue refusing her in this would only be ungracious. "Fair enough. Consider me repaid in full."
A glowing smile bloomed. "Excellent."
He transferred the almond brioche to his plate and cast a second dismissive glance at her check. "So, then, was that itthe 'issue' that's been troubling you?" How disappointing, to think her blushes and nervous chatter and unwilling tears came down to a nonexistent debt she felt driven to repay.
But then she pressed her soft lips together and shook her head.
Anticipation rose in him again. "So there's more?"
She nodded. And then dipped her head and spoke to her half-eaten brioche. "You and your girlfriend, Ve-suvia.?"
V? She wanted to talk about V? Whatever for? He certainly didn't. But she'd stalled out again. And she was still staring at her plate as though she didn't have a clue how to go on. Warily, he prompted, "What about Vesuvia?"
Her brown head shot up and she met his eyes. A tiny gasp escaped her. "I mean, she's so impossibly beautiful and glamorous and it seems like she's always on the cover of my favorite magazines Vogue and Bazaar and Glamour and Elle."
He arched a brow at her and asked in a tone he took care to make lighthearted, "Do you want me to introduce you to V for some reason?" God. He hoped not. But perhaps she had some idea that V might be willing to wear her designs.
"Introduce me to her? Oh, no. I don't. Not at all."
Relief had him settling more comfortably into his chair. "So, then?"
"Well, are you, um, still together with her?" The question came out in a breathy rush.
He was tempted to remind her that his relationship with V was really none of her business. But he couldn't quite bring himself to do that. He liked Lucy too much and she was far too flustered already. So he said, "No, we're not seeing each other any longer. I'm afraid it didn't work out."
Lucy stared at him rather piercingly now and he had the oddest sensation of being under interrogation. "So you're broken up, you and Vesuvia? And you're not in a relationship with anyone else?"
He couldn't help chuckling. "Yes, we are, and no, I'm notand, Luce, my darling, don't you think it's time you told me about this so-urgent issue of yours?"
She sagged back in the chair with a groan. "Oh, Dami. It's just Well, there's a man. A special man I met."
"A man?" He was totally lost now. From V to a special man?
"Yes. He's just way hot. He's an actor. He lives in my building in NoHo Well, I mean your building. Brandon? Brandon Delaney?" She seemed to be prompting him.
He shook his head. "No idea."
She kept trying. "Blond hair, the most amazing butterscotch eyes."
Dami had a property manager and a superintendent for the building and only a vague idea of who lived there. Some of the apartments were co-op, others leased. And butterscotch eyes? Was this a man or a dessert? "I'm afraid I don't recall this Brandon."
"Oh, Dami. He thinks I'm a child, you know? And I'm not a child Well, yes, okay, I am inexperienced, not to mention naive. I get that. But I'm not stupid. I've simply been sick for most of my life and kind of out of the mainstream of things. But not anymore. I'm well and I'm strong and I'm living my dream. And I really, really need to get started on doing the things that normal, healthy women donow that, at last, I am a normal, healthy woman. Dami, I need to, you know, hook up."
He tried not to look as befuddled as he felt. "Hook up."
"You know have sex?"
"Er, yes. Of course I know."