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So this is how the other half lives.
Hannah Castillo's eyes widened as she drove through the gates into the upscale neighborhood of Verde Colinas.
Actually, she knew it was more likely how half of one percent of the population lived, and she couldn't help wondering what it would be like to grow up in a place like this. Having spent the first eight years of her life moving from village to village with her missionary parents, she hadn't realized there was anything different until her uncle Phillip had brought her to his home in Tesoro del Mar.
And even then, she wouldn't have imagined that there was anything like this. She hadn't known that real people lived in such luxury. Not regular people, of course, but billionaires and business tycoons, musicians and movie stars, philanthropists and princes. Well, at least one prince.
Prince Michael Leandres was the thirty-eight-year-old president of a multimedia advertising company, cousin of the prince regent, widowed father of Tesoro del Mar's youngest princess, and the first man who had ever made her heart go pitter-patter.
As she slowed to wait for another set of gates to open so that she could enter the drive that led to the prince's home, she couldn't help but smile at the memory. She'd been twelve at the time, and as flustered as she was flattered when Uncle Phillip asked her to accompany him to the by-invitation-only Gala Opening of the Port Augustine Art Gallery.
She'd been so preoccupied thinking about what she would wear (she would have to get a new dress, because a gala event surely required a gown) and whether she might be allowed to wear makeup (at least a little bit of eyeliner and a touch of lip gloss) that she hadn't given a thought to the other guests who might be in attendance at the event. And then she'd walked through the doors on her uncle's arm and spotted Prince Michael.
To a preteen girl who was just starting to take note of the male species, he was a full six feet of masculine perfection. He was also a dozen years older than she, and already there were rumors swirling about his plans to marry his longtime sweetheart, Samantha Chandelle. But Hannah's enamored heart hadn't cared. She'd been content to admire him from afar, her blood racing through her veins just because he was in the same room with her.
Since then, she'd met a lot of other men, dated some of them and even had intimate relationships with a few. But not one of them had ever made her feel the same kind of pulse-pounding, spine-tingling excitement that she'd felt simply by being in the presence of Prince Michaelnot even Harrison Parker, the earl who had been her fiance for a short time.
Now, fourteen years after her first meeting with the prince, she was going to come face-to-face with him again. She might even have a conversation with himif she could manage to untie her tongue long enough to form any coherent wordsand hopefully persuade him that she was the perfect woman to take care of his adorable daughter. Of course, it might be easier to convince him if she believed it herself, but truthfully, she wasn't sure how she'd let Uncle Phillip convince her that the idea of working as a nanny for the summer wasn't a completely ridiculous one.
Or maybe she did know. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that she was in desperate need of an income and a place to stay for the summer, and working as a nanny at Cielo del Nortea royal estate on the northern coastwould provide her with both. But on top of that, her uncle claimed that he "would be most grateful" if she would at least meet with the princeas if it would be doing him some kind of favor, which made the request impossible for Hannah to deny. That the salary the prince was offering was more than enough to finally pay off the last of her student loans was a bonus.
As for responsibilities, she would be providing primary care for the widowed prince's almost-four-year-old daughter. She didn't figure that should be too difficult for someone with a master's degree, but still her stomach was twisted in knots of both excitement and apprehension as she turned her ancient secondhand compact into the winding drive that led toward the prince's home.
Having grown up in tents and mud huts and, on very rare occasions, bedding down on an actual mattress in a cheap hotel room, she was unprepared for life in Tesoro del Mar. When she moved into her uncle's home, she had not just a bed but a whole room to herself. She had clothes in an actual closet, books on a shelf and a hot meal on the table every night. It took her a long time to get used to living in such luxurious surroundings, but pulling up in front of the prince's home now, she knew she was about to discover the real definition of luxury.
The hand-carved double front doors were opened by a uniformed butler who welcomed her into a spacious marbletiled foyer above which an enormous crystal chandelier was suspended. As she followed him down a long hallway, their footsteps muted by the antique Aubusson carpet, she noted the paintings on the walls. She had enough knowledge of and appreciation for art to recognize that the works that hung in gilded frames were not reproductions but original pieces by various European masters.
The butler led her through an open doorway and into what was apparently the prince's office. Prince Michael himself was seated behind a wide desk. Bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes lined the wall behind him. The adjoining wall boasted floor-to-ceiling windows set off by textured velvet curtains. It even smelled rich, she thought, noting the scents of lemon polish, aged leather and fresh flowers.
"Miss Castillo, Your Highness." The butler announced her presence in a formal tone, then bowed as he retreated from the room.
The nerves continued to twist and knot in her stomach. Was she supposed to bow? Curtsy? She should have asked her uncle about the appropriate etiquette, but she'd had so many other questions and concerns about his proposition that the intricacies of royal protocol had never crossed her mind.
She debated for about ten seconds, then realized the prince hadn't looked away from his computer screen long enough to even glance in her direction. She could have bowed and curtsied and done a tap dance and he wouldn't even have noticed. Instead, she focused on her breathing and tried to relax, reminding herself that Michael Leandres might be a prince, but he was still just a man.
Then he pushed away from his desk and rose to his feet, and she realized that she was wrong.
This man wasn't "just" anything. He was taller than she'd remembered, broader across the shoulders and so much more handsome in person than he appeared in newspaper photos and on magazine covers. And her heart, already racing, leaped again.
He gestured to the chairs in front of his desk. "Please, have a seat."
His voice was deep and cultured, and with each word, little tingles danced over her skin. She couldn't be sure if her reaction to him was that of a girl so long enamored of a prince or of a woman instinctively responding to an undeniably attractive man, but she did know that it was wholly inappropriate under the circumstances. She was here to interview for a job, not ogle the man, she sternly reminded herself as she lowered herself into the Queen Anne-style chair and murmured, "Thank you."
"I understand that you're interested in working as my daughter's nanny for the summer," the prince said without further preamble.
"I am," she agreed, then felt compelled to add, "although I have to confess that I've never actually worked as a nanny before."
He nodded, seemingly unconcerned by this fact. "Your uncle told me that you're a teacher."
"How long have you been teaching?"
"Six years," she told him. "Do you enjoy it?"
"Of course," she agreed.
He frowned, and she wondered if her response was somehow the wrong one. But then she realized that his gaze had dropped to the BlackBerry on his desk. He punched a few buttons before he looked up at her again.
"And I understand that you've met Riley," he prompted.
"Only once, a few months ago. I was with a friend at the art gallery" coincidentally, the same art gallery where she'd first seen him so many years earlier, though it was unlikely that he had any recollection of that earlier meeting "and Princess Riley was there with her nanny."
Phillip had explained to her that the nannyBrigitte Francoeurhad been caring for the princess since she was a baby, and that Prince Michael had been having more difficulty than he'd anticipated in his efforts to find a replacement for the woman who was leaving his employ to get married.
"The way Brigitte told it to me was that my daughter ran away from her, out of the cafeand straight into you, dumping her ice cream cone into your lap."
Hannah waited, wondering about the relevance of his recounting of the event.
"I kept expecting to read about it in the paper," he explained. "Princess Riley Accosts Museum Guest with Scoop of Strawberry."
She couldn't help but smile. "I'm sure, even if there had been reporters in the vicinity, they would not have found the moment newsworthy, Your Highness."
"I've learned, over the years, that a public figure doesn't only need to worry about the legitimate media but anyone who feels they have a story to tell. A lot of ordinary citizens would have happily sold that little tale to El Informador for a tidy sum. Not only did you not run to the press to sell the story of the out-of-control princess, but you bought her a new ice cream cone to replace the one she'd lost."
"It wasn't her fault that the strawberry went splat," she said lightly.
"A gracious interpretation of the event," he noted. "And one that gives me hope you might finally be someone who could fill the hole that Brigitte's absence will leave in Riley's life."
"For the summer, you mean," Hannah sought to clarify. "For the summer," he agreed. "Although I was originally hoping to find a permanent replacement, the situation has changed. The current nanny is leaving at the end of this week to finalize preparations for her wedding, and my daughter and I are scheduled to be at Cielo del Norte by the beginning of next. None of the applicants I've interviewed have been suitable, and your uncle has managed to convince me to settle for an interim solution to the problem."
She wasn't sure if she should be amused or insulted. "Is that why I'm here? Am I"
"Excuse me," he interrupted, picking up the BlackBerry again. He frowned as he read the message, then typed a quick response. "You were saying?" he prompted when he was done.
"I was wondering if I'm supposed to be your 'interim solution.'"
His lips curved, just a little, in response to her dry tone. "I hope so. Although my royal duties are minimal, my responsibilities to my business are not," he explained. "I spend the summers at Cielo del Norte because it is a tradition that began when Samantha"
His hesitation was brief, but the shadows that momentarily clouded his dark eyes confirmed her uncle's suspicion that the prince was still grieving for the wife he'd lost only hours after the birth of their daughter, and Hannah's heart couldn't help but ache for a man who would have faced such an indescribable loss so quickly on the heels of intense joy.
"when Samantha and I first got married. A tradition that she wanted to carry on with our children." He cleared his throat, dropping his gaze to reshuffle some papers on his desk. "But the truth is that I still have a company to run. Thankfully I can do that from the beach almost as easily as I can do it from my office downtown. I just need to know that Riley is in good hands so that I can focus on what I need to do." '
Be a good girl and stay out of the way so that Daddy can do his work.
The words, long forgotten, echoed in the back of Hannah's mind and sliced through her heart.
Maybe they had been born into completely different worlds, but Hannah suddenly wondered if she and Princess Riley might have a lot more in common than she ever would have suspected.
Her own father had rarely had any time for her, and then, when she was eight years old, her mother had died. She still felt the void in her heart. She still missed her. And she wanted to believe that in some small way, she might be able to fill that void for the prince's daughter. If he would give her the chance.
"Are you offering me the job, Your Highness?" she asked him now.
"Yes, I am," he affirmed with a nod. "Then I accept."