Read an Excerpt
Mail-Order Prince In Her Bed
By Kathryn Jensen
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe situation was far worse than he'd imagined. Antonio Boniface stepped off the elevator at the tenth floor of the Washington, D.C., high-rise and stared at the plaque on the heavy oak door facing him - Klein & Klein Public Relations and Advertising. Quickly, he checked the address on the slip of paper, his eyes narrowing, the muscles across his stomach clenching as if in preparation for an opponent's punch. Marco had said nothing about the place being a business establishment. He'd assumed he would end up at the woman's apartment.
Don't make more of this than necessary, he told himself firmly. A simple explanation to this Maria McPherson, the client Marco had been on his way to see before Antonio and U.S. Immigration had caught up with him. That was all that was required.
"Scusi, signorina -" No! English, he corrected himself, speak in English! "Pardon me, miss. Mr. Serilo is no longer employed by the Royal Escort Service. If you tell me how much you paid for his services, I shall be happy to reimburse you."
There. What was so difficult about that? For one thing, he hadn't counted on approaching the woman at her workplace with such delicate news.
But too much was at stake to back down now. He couldn't let Marco's use of his family's illustrious name bring further dishonor. The Bonifaces d'Apulia had once ranked alongside the Medicis in power, had been benefactors to great artists including Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. Their aristocratic roots extended back to the twelfth century, included two popes, illustrious statesmen, men and women of vision and pride. No rogue servant would be allowed to tarnish that name while Antonio lived!
Determined, he turned the knob and pushed through the door, into a gray-and-beige reception area furnished in sterile Scandinavian decor. The receptionist's desk was vacant. No one seemed to be around. What to do now?
Suddenly, he heard shouts burst out from behind a half-closed door to his right. Antonio swung around, strode toward it with purpose, peered through the crack.
The conference room was jammed with men and women in business attire. On a long mahogany table at the room's center was a neon-frosted cake, candles ablaze. Poised over the cake, her cheeks puffed out in preparation for extinguishing a blinding array of candles, was a petite young woman with cool gray eyes and long, wavy hair the color of champagne. She delicately blew out each candle then straightened and smiled nervously at the crowd around her.
"There. Now everybody enjoy a piece of cake. I really do have to get back to work," she said, starting to turn away.
"Whoa! Not so fast, Maria." A tall woman with blunt-cut black hair laughed, stepping forward to block her path.
"Your present hasn't arrived yet."
A titter went up around the room, and Antonio guessed that everyone knew what that gift was to be.
Clearly, the woman whose birthday they were celebrating did not.
He observed the waiflike creature, feeling sorry for her. Sensing also, in a sudden, too-vague recollection, that he had seen those gentle features before. Somewhere. The sense of familiarity was haunting, gnawed at his mind. But both place and time ultimately eluded him.
Maria shook her head nervously. "Please, Tamara, you shouldn't go to all this trouble for me."
"Oh, it's our pleasure, dear. I think we'll get as much out of this gift as you will."
"Not if she's lucky!" a voice rang out from the crowd, and everyone broke into laughter.
So that was their plan, Antonio thought. These sophisticated, brash PR types had decided to have a little fun at the expense of their bashful co-worker. They had sent for a mail-order prince as offered in the escort service's vulgar advertisement.
Fortunately, his good friend the Senator had seen it and sent him a copy. The knave had been using Antonio's name and official title, Il Principe di Carovigno, as his own. At least the service hadn't been bold enough to use a photograph too!
In a way, it was a lucky thing for Miss McPherson that he'd learned of his former employee's deception and sent the Casanova packing. The young woman he was watching tentatively nibble a slice of the gaudy cake wouldn't have to suffer the indignities of Marco's foolish performance, whatever that might entail. For all Antonio knew it might have involved removing articles of clothing. Or worse!
But would his walking in and announcing that the game was over only delay the young woman's torment? A new scheme might soon replace the original farce. His heart went out to her. If there was any way of saving her further embarrassment ...
The solution came to him in an unexpected flash of inspiration.
Antonio pushed through the door and into the conference room. All talk ceased. He smiled around the room at the women, fixed the male employees with a daunting glare, then turned his darkest, most mysterious gaze on the birthday girl.
"Ah, signorina," he said, bowing as he approached. He lifted her limp fingertips to his lips. "It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard so much about you, cara mia." Yes, he was laying the accent on a bit thick, but he suspected that would have been Marco's style.
A worried smile hovered over Maria's lips. She blinked up at him, at a loss. "Y-you have?"
"Si. Your friends have arranged for you to share l'avventura with me. I believe you have the rest of the day off?" The raven-haired woman nodded, her eyes wide, appreciative and more than a little envious. "Andiamo, cara. My car waits for us."
Maria shot a panicky glance around the room, then looked pleadingly at Antonio as she sidled closer to him. "You don't have to do this," she whispered. "I know it's all a joke."
"But Signorina McPherson, it is my pleasure," he said aloud, giving her a conspiratorial wink. He placed a hand at the hollow of her slim back and guided her firmly toward the door. She wore a conservative sweaterlike dress of a synthetic fiber - black, a bit scratchy to the touch.
He imagined her in cashmere, perhaps a soft blue to set off her eyes. Much better.
Tamara finally found her feet and rushed to catch up with them. She handed Maria her purse, coat and a card. "Have fun, honey. This will explain the services your date is prepared to offer. Be sure to let us know all the details tomorrow."
Maria blushed a bright pink, snatched at her things and didn't look back as she allowed Antonio to escort her out of the office to a chorus of cheers and hoots.
"Would you like my driver to help you carry anything else down?" he asked, allowing the exaggerated accent to fade.
"Ah, no ... this is fine," she said, tightly. "Let's just get on the elevator and I'll explain everything to you."
"Certainly." He let her step on ahead of him, admiring the view from behind. Yes, cashmere would suit her. She had an elegant figure. She just didn't know how to dress. Or perhaps she couldn't afford quality clothing.
As soon as the elevator doors shut, Maria faced him. "Listen, I know this is your job, but you can drop the phony aristocratic act now. They were just trying to embarrass me. You've done your job." Her chin lifted and cool mist-gray eyes darkened as if it took a great deal of courage for her to speak. And now she seemed to be struggling to hold eye contact with him. "I don't know what else you have been paid to do, but you can forget it. I don't date strange men. I have no interest in a romantic ... adventure," she finished at last, looking flustered.
"You have other plans for the celebration of your birthday?" Antonio asked. "A party with your family?"
"No." She laughed as if uncomfortable that he was prolonging the conversation. "No party. I'm going home. I expect I'll enjoy my afternoon off with a good book and a hot bath."
He raised a questioning brow. "Alone?"
"Yes, alone!" she gasped, sounding short of breath. "What kind of woman do you take me for?"
"A lovely, intelligent, sensitive one," he said simply. He wasn't trying to flatter her; he was being perfectly honest.
Excerpted from Mail-Order Prince In Her Bed by Kathryn Jensen Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.