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Keep calm and carry on. Danni St. Claire had seen the slogan somewhere and it seemed apt. She flexed her gloved fingers before tightening them again around the steering wheel.
Her passengers, one in particular, behind the privacy partition, would pay her no attention. They so seldom did. Especially if she just did her job and did it well. In this case, that job entailed getting Adam Marconi, heir to the throne of the European principality of San Philippe, and his glamorous date for the evening, back to their respective destinations.
And most importantly without Adam realizing that she was driving for him. She could do that. Especially if she kept her mouth shut. Occasionally she had trouble in that department, speaking when either her timing or her words weren't appropriate or required. But she could do it tonight. How hard could it be? She'd have no cause to speak. Someone else would be responsible for opening and closing the door for him. All she had to do was drive. Which, if she did it well meant without calling attention to herself. She would be invisible. A shadow. At a stop light she pulled her father's chauffeur's cap a little lower on her forehead.
A job of a sensitive nature, the palace had said. And so she'd known her father, although he'd never admit it, would rather the job didn't go to Wrightson, the man he saw as a rival for his position as head driver. Danni still had clearance from when she'd driven for the palace before, back when she was putting herself through college. She hadn't seen Adam since that last time.
All the same she hadn't known it would be Adam she'd be driving for tonight. When she'd intercepted the call, she'd thought all she'd have to do was pick up Adam's date for the evening, a beautiful, elegant Fulbright scholar, and take her to the restaurant. But then, and she should have realized there'd be a "then" because such instructions usually came on a need-to-know basis, she had to drive them both home. It was obvious, with hindsight, that there would be something that justified the sensitivity required.
Her stomach growled. She hadn't had time for her own dinner. And her father never saw the need to keep a wee stash of food in the glove compartment. There'd be all sorts of gourmet delicacies in the discreet fridge in the back but she could hardly ask them to pass her something over. Not appropriate at the best of times. Even less so tonight. She'd had to make do with crunching her way through the roll of breath mints she kept in her pocket.
At a set of lights she glanced in the rearview mirror and rolled her eyes. If the palace had thought that sensitivity was required because there might be shenanigans in the backseat, they needn't have worried. Adam and his date were deep in conversation; both looked utterly serious, as though they were solving the problems of the world. Maybe they were. Maybe that was what princes and scholars did on dates. And Danni should probably be grateful that someone had more on their mind than what they were going to be able to unearth for dinner from the shelves of the fridge.
Still, she would have thought the point of the date was to get to know one another. Not to solve the problems of the world, not to discuss topics with such utter earnestness that they looked like two members of the supreme court about to hand down a judgment. Danni sighed. Who was she to know about royal protocol? Things were different in Adam's world. They always had been. Even as a teen he'd seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Had taken his responsibilities and his duties seriously. Too seriously, she'd thought.
What she did know was that Adam was on the lookout for a suitable wife.
And one of the prospective candidates was in the backseat with him.
At thirty-one years old, he was expectedby his father and by the country, if the media were to be believedto do the right thing. The right thing meant getting married, settling down and providing heirs, preferably male, to continue the Marconi line and to ensure succession.
If anyone had cared to ask Danni, she'd have happily shared her opinion that what the prince needed was to shake things up a little, not to settle down. She'd always thought the narrow focus of his life stopped him from seeing what was really therethe variety and opportunities. And for as long as he kept that narrow focus, it stopped anyone else from seeing who he could be, if he only let himself.
For Adam, finding the right woman meant dating. Romantic dinners like the one she'd just picked him up from in the revolving restaurant that towered above the new part of the city.
Maybe, instead of dwelling on Adam, Danni should be trying to pick up a few pointers on how a real woman comported herself on a date. She glanced in the back. Obviously sitting up straight was important, manicured hands folded demurely in the lap, polite smiles, what looked like polite laughter, occasional fluttering of long dark eyelashes, a slight tilt to the head exposing a pale slender neck.
Who was she kidding? Danni didn't do fluttering. And manicuring with the life she ledworking in the motor-racing industrywas a waste of time and money.
She might sometimes wish she wasn't seen quite so much as one of the boys by all her male colleagues, but she knew she couldn't go so far as to look and behave like a Barbie clone. Scratch that, even Barbie had more personality than the woman in the backseat seemed to. Didn't they make a Pilot Barbie and NASCAR Barbie? Although she'd never heard of a Speak-Your-Mind Barbie or a Put-Your-Foot-In-Your-Mouth Barbie. Danni mentally pulled herself up. She was taking out her insecurities and inadequacies on a woman she didn't even know.
She glanced up, again determined to think better of the couple in the backseat. No. Surely not? But yes, a second glance confirmed that Adam did indeed have his laptop out, and that both he and his date were pointing at something on the screen.
"Way to romance a woman, Adam," she muttered.
He couldn't possibly have heard, not with the privacy screen up and her speaker off, but Adam glanced up, and for a fraction of a second his gaze brushed over hers in the mirror. Danni bit her tongue. Hard. Fortunately there was no flicker of recognition in his dark eyes. His gaze didn't pause; it swept over hers as if she was invisible, or of no more importance than the back of her headrest. That was good. If only she could trust in it.
Because she wasn't supposed to be driving for him.
Because he'd banned her. Actually, it wasn't an official ban. He'd only intimated that he no longer wanted her to drive for him. But in palace circles an intimation by Adam was as good as a ban. Nothing official was necessary.
Though, honestly, no reasonable person would blame her for the coffee incident. The pothole had been unavoidable. She sighed. It wasn't like she needed the job then or now. Then she'd had her studies to pursue and now she had her career as part of the team bringing a Grand Prix to San Philippe.
But, she reminded herself, her father did need the job. For his sense of self and his purpose in life, if not for the money. Close to retirement age, he'd begun to live in fear of being replaced in the job that gave his life meaning. The job that his father and his father's father before him had held.
Danni didn't look in the mirror again, not into the backseat anyway. She consoled herself with the fact that her unofficial banning had been five years ago while driving on her summer break, and surely Adam, with far more important things to think about, would have forgotten it. And definitely have forgiven her. In those intervening years he'd become a stranger to her. So she drove, taking no shortcuts, to San Philippe's premier hotel and eased to a stop beneath the portico.
"Wait here." Adam's deep voice, so used to command, sounded through the speaker system.
A hotel valet opened the rear door, and Adam and the perfectly elegant Ms. Fulbright Scholar with the endless legs exited. Clara. That was her name.
Wait here could mean anything from thirty seconds to thirty minutes, to hoursshe'd had it happen before with other passengers. He was seeing a woman home from a date; Danni had no idea if it was their first or second or something more. Maybe Clara would invite him in. Maybe she'd slide his tie undone and tear that stuffy suit jacket off his broad shoulders and drag him into her hotel room, her lips locked on his, making him stop thinking and start feeling, her fingers threading into his dark hair, dropping to explore his perfectly honed chest. Whoa. Danni put the brakes on her thought processes hearing the mental screech that was in part a protest at just how quickly her mind had gone down that track and just how vividly it had provided the images of a shirtless Adam.
Danni had grown up on the palace estates, so yes, despite their five-year age difference they'd sometimes played together, as had all the children living on the palace grounds. There was a time when she'd thought of him as almost a friend. Certainly as her ally and sometime protector. So she couldn't entirely see him as just a royal, but he would be Crown Prince one day. And she knew she wasn't supposed to imagine the Crown Prince shirtless. She also knew that she could too easily have gone further still with her imaginings.
Besides, Danni hadn't picked up any of those types of signals from the couple in the back, but then again, what did she know. Maybe well brought up, cultured people did things differently. Maybe they were better at hiding their simmering passions.
She eased lower in her seat, cranked up the stereo and pulled down the brim of her cap over her eyes to block out all the light from the hotel. The good thing about driving for the royal family was that at least she wouldn't be told to move on.
She leapt up again when she felt and heard the rear door open. "Holy"
Minutes. He'd only been minutes. She jabbed at the stereo's off button. The sound faded as Adam slid back into the car.
Utterly unruffled. Not so much as a mismatched button, a hair out of place, or even a lipstick smudge. No flush to his skin. He looked every bit as serious as before as he leaned back in his seat. Nothing soft or softened about him. Even the bump on his nose that should have detracted from the perfection of his face somehow added to it. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
Had they even kissed?
Danni shook her head and eased away from the hotel. She shouldn't care. She didn't care.
Normally, with any other passenger she'd say something. Just a "Pleasant evening, sir?" At times a chauffeur served as a sort of butler on wheels. But Adam wasn't any other passenger, and with his head tipped back and his eyes closed, he clearly wasn't needing conversation from her. Long may the silence last. She'd have him back to the palace in fifteen minutes. Then she'd be free. She'd have pulled it off. Without incident. Her father would be back tomorrow. No one would be any the wiser.
Finally, a quarter of an hour later, she flexed her fingers as the second set of palace gates eased open. Minutes later, she drew to a sedate stop in front of the entrance to Adam's wing, the wheels crunching quietly on the gravel. Nobody knew what it cost her, the restraint she exercised, in never once skidding to a stop or better yet finishing with a perfectly executed handbrake slide, lining up the rear door precisely with the entrance. But she could imagine it. The advanced security and high-performance modules of her training had been her favorite parts.
Her smile dimmed when the valet who ought to be opening the door failed to materialize. Too late, Danni remembered her father complaining about Adam dispensing with that tradition at his private residence. Her father had been as appalled as if Adam had decided to stop wearing shoes in public. Danni didn't have a problem with it. Except for now. Now, Adam could hardly open his own door while he was asleep.
There was nothing else for it. She got out, walked around the back of the car and after a quick scan of the surroundings opened Adam's door then stood to the side, facing away from him. She'd hoped the fact that the car had stopped and the noise and motion, albeit slight, of the door being opened would wake him. When he didn't appear after a few seconds she turned and bent to look into the car.
Her heart gave a peculiar flip. Adam's eyes were still closed and finally his face and his mouth had softened, looking not at all serious and unreachable. Looking instead lush and sensuous. And really, he had unfairly gorgeous eyelashesthick and dark. And he smelled divine. She almost wanted to lean in closer, to inhale more deeply.
"Adam," she said quietly. Right now she'd have been more comfortable with "sir" or "your highness" because she suddenly felt the need for the appropriate distance and formality, to stop her from thinking inappropriate and way too informal thoughts of the heir apparent. To stop her from wanting to touch that small bump on the bridge of his nose. But one of the things Adam had always insisted on was that the personal staff, particularly the ones who'd effectively grown up with him in the palace circles, use his name.
He was trying to be a prince of the times. Secretly she thought he might have been happier and more comfortable a century or two ago.
"Adam." She tried to speak a little louder but her voice came out as a hoarse whisper. Danni swallowed. All she had to do was wake him and then back out of the car. She leaned closer, steeling herself to try again. Ordering her voice to be normal. It was only Adam after all. She'd known him most of her life though five years and infinite degrees in rank separated them.