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The Italian's Virgin Princess
By Jane Porter
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Ducasse Palace, Porto, Melio
PRINCESS JOELLE DUCASSE studied the sealed letter she'd left on her grandfather's desk. Identical copies of the letter were being couriered to her sisters, Nicolette in Baraka, and Chantal in Greece.
The heavy cream envelope with the gold Palace seal suddenly looked ominous on Grandpapa's desk.
He'd be so hurt, she thought, feeling tears well up. He wouldn't understand.
But then, she didn't even understand why she felt so desperate to get away, to escape Melio and the glare of publicity and the camera lenses. She'd never found it comfortable living in the public eye but since Grandmama's death it'd gotten worse. So much worse.
The media wouldn't - couldn't - let her grieve privately. They were there documenting every outing, every appearance, capturing Joelle's weekly visit to her grandmother's grave on film, capturing the sheen of tears in her eyes as she left the royal cemetery, capturing her shell-shocked expression as she climbed into the waiting car.
There was no privacy, no respect, and no time to hide her hurt. Or her confusion.
Grandmama's death had triggered all sorts of pain, pain that must have been buried deep inside of her since her parents' death eighteenyears ago. And those tabloid photos, those sensationalized articles, Queen Astrid's Death Rocks The Youngest Princess, only made the confusion worse.
Truthfully, she didn't know what to feel. She didn't even feel. Sometime in the last six months, in the months between Grandmama's funeral and now, she'd lost all feeling, all hope, all courage.
How could she live a public life ... a life of public service ... if she didn't even know who she was? If she didn't even know what she was?
Joelle reached for the envelope on Grandpapa's desk, and her fingers brushed his antique leather blotter, a blotter that had been in the family for over a hundred years, the leather soft and worn, the felt pad replaced numerous times and tears filled her eyes.
She felt so conflicted. So much in knots.
Joelle loved the old leather blotter, loved Grandpapa's handsome paneled study, loved everything about the old limestone palace and she knew intellectually why she needed to marry and remain here - Nic had married the sultan and couldn't return to Melio, and Chantal had married a commoner and the Greek couldn't become king - but she couldn't imagine assuming more duty, more responsibility without recovering her composure first.
She needed a break. Space. Desperately needed privacy. The palace felt so empty without Grandmama, and while she adored Grandpapa, it was Grandmama who'd always counseled her, Grandmama she'd talked to. And now without Grandmama here, she couldn't bear it. Couldn't bear the emptiness, the loneliness, the uncertainty of her future, and yet Joelle knew it was time she started to come to grips with the loss. Even if it meant dealing with the grief her way, without everybody watching, without everybody talking.
Joelle left the letter where it was.
I'm sorry, Grandpapa. Forgive me.
You're only going for a year, she told herself, turning away from the desk and heading for the door. It's not forever. You'll be back in twelve months, you'll marry Prince Luigi Borgarde and life will continue as it should.
But six hours later as she settled into a coach seat on a small European carrier, sunglasses on, a hat pulled down low on her head, she was still trying to shake the guilt and focus on the positives.
She'd have twelve months to find peace, twelve months to come to grips with Grandmama's death, twelve months to grieve without being the focus of cameras and paparazzi.
And yet as the hours passed and Joelle struggled to get comfortable in her narrow coach seat, she wished for just one moment that she'd traveled the old way, traveled as a princess usually did - whisked in and out of security, private customs, private lounges, hidden behind the broad shoulders of bodyguards and airport security. Private protectors. Public defenders. Plainclothes police and government sharpshooters ever vigilant on behalf the royal family's safety. Security.
But that was the problem, Joelle thought, tugging her thin fuzzy blanket higher around her shoulders. There was no way to be Princess Joelle without the cameras, without the security, without the palace protocol. And as long as she remained Princess Joelle Ducasse, everyone would have too much information, would assume they knew everything about her.
But people didn't really know her. They only knew what the media wrote. They only knew what the palace PR people told them.
They didn't know her real dreams. Or the depth of her emotion. They didn't know how much she longed for choice. For independence. For freedom.
Her older sister, Chantal, said personal choice was overrated, not an essential, and certainly not a guarantee when one's last name was Ducasse and your lineage dated back to the late thirteenth century.
But Joelle didn't want to be a Ducasse. She'd had enough of the Ducasse lifestyle. All she wanted was to be a regular person. Private. Independent. Self-sufficient.
For one year she was going to be a regular Jo.
New Orleans, Eleven months later
"A DRINK, Miss d'Ville?"
The question, asked by a distinctly male voice, a very deep, very quiet voice, sent a ripple of unease through Joelle. Voices like that only came from years of power.
Positions of authority, the kind of authority she'd left behind in Europe. Joelle turned reluctantly, more than reluctantly, knowing by his voice that it was him.
The one who'd sat in the front row tonight, just left of stage center.
The one who'd distracted her all night with his intense gaze, a gaze that never seemed to leave her.
Twice she'd lost her place in the middle of a song. Twice she'd stood there on stage in the purple and blue gel lights utterly blank - losing all thought, all memory, all words. She'd never forgotten lyrics like that. She'd never stared out at a dark sea of audience and wondered what she was doing with a microphone before.
But it hadn't been an entirely dark sea. She'd seen one face, one man the entire time, and his intense focus had trapped her, called her, just as he did now.
Up close, barely a foot away, he made her feel bare, exposed. She'd never minded dressing sexy on stage but somehow with his dark gaze scrutinizing her, a slow inspection from head to toe, she knew he disapproved.
His censure was nearly as heavy as her guitar case hanging from her shoulder.
"A drink?" she repeated, trying to force her brain to function despite the rather mad thought that if she ever belonged to a man, it wouldn't be to someone like this, someone so overwhelmingly male, so fiercely controlled.
She wanted ease. Charm. She wanted comfortable.
He wasn't comfortable.
"As in a beverage," he answered almost gently, smiling a little and yet the smile remained at his lips, failed to warm his eyes. Instead his dark eyes burned, his dark eyes owned her, possessed her, a hard sexual possession that had nothing to do with civilized behavior and everything to do with bodies. Skin.
She felt a cool silvery shiver shoot down her spine, and her body reacted - hair at her nape lifting, goose bumps prickling her arms, even her breasts firmed, nipples peaking.
Joelle pressed her guitar case closer to her hip, making it the latest in body armor. "I understand the concept. We have beverages in America, too," she said, letting him know she understood he was foreign, and yet he couldn't intimidate her.
But she was wary. Not because he posed a physical threat, but because he was different, and she'd always been fascinated by that which was unusual. Intriguing. And he was certainly intriguing.
Tall, darkly handsome and probably very Italian. His accent sounded Italian.
"Then you'll join me," he said, indicating his table.
His stunning confidence dazzled her. "I ... I've ... plans." Laundry. And packing. She needed to get ready to return home.
There was something ... raw ... about him, something male and stunningly primitive which didn't go with his superbly tailored suit, the sleek lapel just so, jacket molded, shaping the shoulders and chest, the trousers hanging perfectly, the cuffs hitting the top of his shoe. She'd dated a number of men in the past year and none had been like him. "I can't."
His brow furrowed, his expression hardening. "You must," he said, his tone deceptively soft. "It's important."
Important how? Important to whom?
Excerpted from The Italian's Virgin Princess by Jane Porter Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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