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"You have to go," Sophie Taylor insisted for the tenth time.
Glancing out the window of his temporary office trailer, Max Carter felt a sense of satisfaction at the sight of the finished bridge project. The new construction gleamed in the Australian sun as if it were shouting success.
"I've got too much to do," he said, turning to face his assistant of four years. "Paperwork, then it's on to the next project."
Sophie scowled at him. "You could take a short break. It's near the holidays. It wouldn't kill you. I can't believe you're dismissing this without giving it a second thought. They're your family."
Max rolled his eyes. There were few people he'd allow to argue with him this much, but Sophie had proven her value to him time and time again. He couldn't think of another woman he respected more. Even now as she frowned at him with softly accusing chocolate-brown eyes from behind her smudged glasses, he felt compelled to listen to her. He knew that beneath that curly mass of hair, she had a quick and fair mind.
"Why do you care so much about this? It's not your family," he said.
"I don't want you to have any regrets."
He sighed, remembering the day the two representatives of the Royal House of Devereaux had hunted him down on the job site. The words they'd said to him had been stuck in his brain like the annoying refrain of a song he couldn't make go away.
Your biological father was Prince Edward of Chan-taine.
"They're not my family, Sophie. I can't believe these royals are thrilled with the news that their father hatched a couple of extra children with a B-movie actress in America." Although Max had always known he was adopted, he never would have dreamed his biological parents were a prince and actress!
"What about Coco Jordan?" Sophie asked, referring to the other child the prince and actress had produced. "She's your sister. Don't you at least want to meet her? And, who knows, maybe she wants to meet you. You might try thinking about the feelings of someone other than yourself. Didn't you say both of your parents had passed away? She has no one now. No one except you."
"She doesn't have me," he retorted, but he felt an itchy sensation of obligation. "I wouldn't be able to pick her out of a crowd of two."
Her frown deepened. "Maybe you should just give her a chance."
Max sighed and glanced around the trailer that had become his temporary office and home. The LEGO rendering of the bridge sat next to his desk. A small Christmas tree blinked in the corner. Two stuffed puppies sat next to Sophie's desk. Sophie had complained many times over that she wanted a dog, but there was no way she could drag a pet to all the places Max had taken her for projects, many of which were international. From the first time she'd assisted him on a job, he'd learned she was the best assistant he could possibly have despite her complaints. He grumbled and she helped fix things. She anticipated his needs. Thank goodness he'd never given into any errant urges to have sex with her because he was certain that would have ruined the best relationship he'd ever had with a woman.
If she weren't his assistant, she might have been the perfect woman for him. Low-maintenance, undemanding and she wasn't at all clingy. Max, however, had Sophie's number. Underneath that practical veneer, Sophie was a romantic at heart. Even though she'd followed him around the world, he had an itchy, uncomfortable feeling that Sophie wanted a husband and baby to go along with that dog she so desired.
And with his past disastrous relationships with women, he'd learned to steer clear of women who wanted romance and home and hearth. "You're never gonna stop with this until I visit Chantaine," he said. "Are you?"
She looked at him from behind her glasses with un-apologetic determination. "Never. Ever."
"Okay. I'll go," he said. "For one day. Just one day and then you don't get to look at me with that guilty face."
Sophie gave a slight smile. "One day will be enough."
Max felt a sinking feeling at her expression. She looked like she knew something he didn't. That wasn't a good thing.
Max left the following day for the island country of Chantaine to meet his new relatives while Sophie wrapped up the loose ends of the contract. Terri Caldwell, one of the other assistants on the project, walked into the trailer.
"How's it going?"
"I'm halfway through a million pages of paperwork," Sophie said without looking up from her laptop.
"That's what you get for being so efficient and devoted," Terri teased. "And head over heels for Max Carter."
Sophie grimaced. Nearly a decade older than herself, Terri was a good woman from Arkansas, honest to a fault. Her husband was a truck driver back in the States, but they visited every chance they got. Terri had started taking the long-distance work to pay for her twin boys' college tuition. She had become a good friend to Sophie especially during the last couple of months. Terri was intuitive enough to spot Sophie's unrequited feelings for Max, and Sophie had grown to trust the woman's discretion. It had been a relief to have the older woman's sympathy. "Don't rub it in. I'll get over him someday. Maybe someday soon. I really want a King Charles spaniel and there's no way I can do that if I allow him to keep dragging me all over the world."
"What amazes me is that he doesn't seem to notice your feelings for him when everyone else can see it as plain as day," Terri said, leaning against Sophie's desk.
Sophie felt a jagged twist inside her. "He doesn't see me as a woman. He sees me as the ultimate assistant."
"Well, you are the ultimate assistant," Terri agreed with a nod. "But you're also a woman. Ever thought about giving him a clue about that?"
Sophie stopped keying in the final construction details and glanced up at Terri. "I'm not exactly sure how. I'm not the type to wear low-cut shirts or short skirts. Or lots of makeup. But I'm still feminine."
"Of course you are. I wonder if Max might belly up to the bar if he had a little competition."
Sophie shook her head. "That's not my way."
"Sometimes men need a little push. You may have to think outside the box. Unless you're okay with having unrequited love for the rest of your life."
Sophie sighed, remembering the first time she'd met Max. She'd been bowled over. He was the Indiana Jones of road construction. She'd quickly learned how to anticipate his professional needs. He'd learned, not quite as quickly, how valuable she could be to him. Though her feelings for him had deepened over the years, only his professional respect had grown for her, and nothing more.
Sophie had hoped and wished, but nothing romantic had developed between them. She'd watched Max engage in several quickie affairs that had brought her enormous pain. Somehow, his relationship with her had turned out to be his most long-lasting one with a woman. Except, he didn't really view her as a woman.
"Maybe with the holiday break, I can go back home and get my King Charles spaniel. Maybe then I'll get over him," Sophie said. "Not being around him could help me get over him."
"It would help if he weren't so good-looking," Terri said.
"I can get over the good-looking part, but he can be charming," Sophie said. "When he wants to be, he can be so damn charming."
"He can also be a toad. He's fine about making us all work long hours" Terri said.
"True, but he works longer than anyone else. And everyone is well-compensated. The real trouble for me is that he is charitable. He puts on this front about only caring about himself, but everywhere we go, he gets the crew involved in some kind of charity project." She pointed at the pile of wrapped gifts next to the Christmas tree. "For children stuck in the hospital over the holidays. If only he were as selfish and uncaring as he says he is."
"Have you gone out with another man since you've met Max?" Terri asked.
Self-consciousness burned through her. "Yes, I have," she said. "Four times. All during my vacations."
"Woo-hoo. Four times in four years." Terri shook her head. "I dare you to meet six new men over your holiday."
"How am I supposed to do that?"
"Online. You can arrange meet-ups in no time."
"I think I'd rather poke out my eye with a pencil," Sophie said under her breath.
"You gotta do something," Terri said. "You either need to pull that pony in or let him ride."
Max couldn't see much of the island country of Chantaine while soaring in the sky since he was arriving after dark. He'd run a computer search and caught a few images. Beautiful country that seemed to combine Greece's Mediterranean views, France's sophistication and Italy's charm. While he'd run the search, he'd also looked into his new so-called siblings. The eldest, Crown Prince Stefan, came across as a hard worker, more serious-minded than their biological father, Prince Edward. It appeared that their father had enjoyed yachting and living like a playboy, much more than ruling.
Max figured that his adopted parents' failed marriage was one more reason for him to never get married. They had fought more than they hadn't when his father had been around. When things got tough, which was quite frequent, his adoptive father would leave the house and desert Max's adoptive mother. He'd always been grateful for the home and opportunities his parents had provided for him, but their discord had bothered him the first time he'd heard them screaming at each other and doors slamming at night.
Now, Max not only had been given a bad example of marriage, he had the genetic material of a philanderer from Prince Edward.
He'd briefly checked out the rest of the Devereaux clan. The eldest sister, Valentina, lived in Texas with her rancher husband and their daughter. The second sister, Fredericka, lived in France with her movie producer husband. Princess Bridget was married to a doctor from the States and Princess Pippa had just married an international businessman. The youngest brother, Jacques, attended Oxford and played soccer.
Once he'd told the palace he would be coming, Prince Stefan's wife, Eve, had sent him a message asking him to keep his visit secret because she wanted his presence to be a surprise for Coco Jordan's wedding. The idea that he would be a surprise for anyone's wedding, let alone his full-blooded sister, made him squeamish, but he agreed to the plan.
The plane landed with a jolt, reminding him he was about to put himself in an insane situation. He thought of how Sophie had hounded him. After this brief visit, she wouldn't be able to look at him with her guilt gaze. Lord knew, he hated that guilt gaze.
A man approached him at the luggage carousel. "Mr. Carter? Mr. Maxwell Carter?"
Max nodded slowly. "Yes, and you?"
"I'm Mr. Bernard, an assistant to His Highness, Prince Stefan. We're happy that you're visiting Chantaine. Welcome to our country. If it pleases you, I have a driver ready to take you to a villa just outside the palace grounds. We would normally invite you to stay on the palace grounds itself, but with Miss Jordan's wedding taking place in a few days, Princesses Eve and Bridget have requested to keep your presence secret until the nuptials."
"Fine with me," he said reluctantly, and realized his one-day stay had just been extended.
Three days later, after several tours of the island, Max was escorted to the office of Crown Prince Stefan Devereaux. Now, pacing the office as he waited for his half brother, Prince Stefan, he felt the hard gaze of the palace security tracking every move he made. If the De-vereauxes were so insistent that he join them, then why did they look at him as if he were a potential assassin?
One moment later, a man stepped inside the room. "His Royal Highness, Prince Stefan," the man announced.
A dark-haired man wearing a black suit strode toward him and nodded. "Maxwell Carter?"
Max nodded. "Yes. Max. And what shall I call you? Your highness or Prince Stefan?"
Prince Stefan lifted his left eyebrow. "Stefan will do."
Max nodded again. "Stefan it is."
Stefan waved his hand to a chair facing the desk and then sank into the large chair behind the desk. "I appreciate that you have made an effort to come to Coco Jordan's wedding. Coco has made a huge effort to meet us and now to meet you."
Max shrugged, uncomfortable with Stefan's gratitude. He'd expected the man to be more cold and pompous. "I haven't met any members of the family before now."
"You will before and after the ceremony," Stefan promised, glancing at his watch. "In fact, the girls should be stopping by any minute. My sisters have been fussing over Coco for the last few days. I'm sure you're curious to meet her."
"I suppose," Max said. "I have no idea what kind of person she is even though we share the same blood."
"Well, she's delightful," Stefan said. "Kind and compassionate. The kind of woman you would want as a sister."
"I'm impressed that you can say that after you have four sisters."
Stefan laughed. "Good point. My sisters do their best to keep me in line."
"And you?" Max asked.
"I do my best to keep them out of the equation," Stefan said. "I'm told you've had a chance to tour the island?"
Max nodded. "I have," he said. "It's a beautiful place, and because of my profession I notice the infrastructure. Most of the roads and bridges are in good condition except the north end of the island."
"I was going to ask you about that," Stefan said. "One of my brothers-in-law has expressed an interest in building a green retreat with an emphasis on the nature areas on that part of the island, but he and I agree that the roads currently can't sustain the possibility. We'd like to improve the roads, but keep the costs down."
"Isn't this something your government would pursue? I wouldn't have expected a royal to have interest in roads."
Stefan gave a shark-like smile. "Then you wouldn't be familiar with the current generation of Devereauxes. All of us are interested about improving our country and the life of our citizens."
"Unlike previous generations?" he asked, thinking of his biological father, who, from everything he'd read, was a shameless playboy.
Stefan's facial expression closed. "Every generation has their emphasis. We can either be inspired by what they did or didn't do or spend our lives complaining about it. I sense that you're a man of action rather than the kind to sit around grumbling. Perhaps we have that in common."
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