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"You can't leave."
Sebastian Stone, Crown Prince of Caspia, spoke with such authority and conviction that for a moment Tessa Banks actually believed him.
Her boss's hard, handsome features seemed taut with stronger emotion than usual. He shoved a hand through his black hair and rose from the wide antique desk in his Midtown Manhattan office.
Tessa's stomach contracted with anxietyand with the infuriating heat of arousal he always stirred in her.
Hang tough. This is your life.
She took a deep breath. "I've been your personal assistant for almost five years. I appreciate the freedom and responsibility you've entrusted me with, but it's time for me to move on."
"Move on?" He blew out an exasperated breath. "This is not a gypsy caravan. It's a business. I'm counting on you to help me sort out this mess that's been dumped in my lap."
Tessa resisted the urge to point out that Caspia Designs might well have more in common with a gypsy caravan than an actual business. The conglomerate of luxury brands was colorful, extravagant and weighted with tradition. A crystal ball might reveal more lucid information than accounting ledgers that could only be described as "creative."
It was obvious, however, that her boss was not in a joking mood.
He strode across the office and grabbed the pile of papers from his in-box. "Please schedule a meeting tomorrow morning with Reed Wellington. I wish to consult him about my plans for Caspia Designs." He paused and flicked through the mail, a frown on his majestic brow. "And you must find me a new house sitter."
What? Did he plan to simply ignore her resignation?
Tessa's skin prickled with a combination offury and desperation as she stood in speechless silence.
Her boss shook his head as he studied one paper. Accounts receivable, probably. It wasn't a pretty sight.
She wished she wasn't leaving at a time when Sebastian needed help pulling Caspia Designs together. He'd been handed the reins of the once-prestigious company by his father, the king, only to discover it was in a shambles.
But if this was how little concern he showed for her needs, she should be glad to leave him in the lurch.
Things must be serious, though. For one thing, he was wearing a suit. Usually his broad chest bore the insignia of whatever luxury brand he'd most recently convinced to open a boutique in his beloved Caspia. Fendi, Prada, Gucciif there was a T-shirt with the logo on it, Sebastian cheerfully wore it to celebrate the new partnership.
Today fine gray wool draped his powerful physique. She should heave a sigh of relief that at least she didn't have to tear her gaze from his impressive biceps.
Right now she was too damn angry to care.
She laid her company PDA on the desk. "I'm moving to California in two weeks. If you prefer, I can leave immediately."
Sebastian muttered a curse, but still didn't look up. He flipped over a page of the report she'd put together and traced a column of numbers with a sturdy finger.
Tessa blinked, struggling to keep her breathing under control.
After all this time she was another office fixture, like the Aeron chair, the platinum penholder or the rack of servers. A simple, functional object without a will of its own.
"Goodbye." Her voice shook as she took a step toward the door. She had to climb over one of the cardboard crates of dusty papers that had consumed most of this last month, including three solid weekends. She'd given enough of her life in service to the Crown of Caspia.
"Where are you going?"
Sebastian's voice rattled the antique floor-to-ceiling windows that flooded the nineteenth-century brownstone with light.
"If you'd cared enough to listen, you'd know I'm leaving for California!" She'd never raised her voice to him before.
Sebastian put the file on the leather surface of the desk. "Tessa, you can't be serious?"
"Why not?" She wished her voice didn't sound so whiny and uncertain.
"Because I need you."
Spoken in his deep voice, the words echoed through her.
She steadied herself with a hand on the door frame.
If only he did need her, not just a faceless assistant who took care of everything so efficiently that she rendered herself invisible.
But he didn't. He had celebutantes and supermodels and starlets from Hollywood to Bollywood hurling themselves at him every minute of the day.
She should know. She fielded their calls.
"Tessa." He stepped toward her, skillfully negotiating an open box of papers. "You do realize I'd be lost without you."
His eyes fixed on hers with penetrating intensity. Large, dark and slightly almond shaped, those eyes had the power to make her do almost anything.
Her toes curled inside her shoes.
He's just saying it to stop you from leaving him in the lurch.
She lifted her chin. "I'm turning thirty in a month." She hesitated. Her personal life wasn't his business.
"What does that have to do with anything?"
Typical. Why would he care that she wanted a husband, children, a real life?
No need to mention that, she told herself. Better to leave with a shred of dignity. "It's time for a change."
"Tessa." He crossed his arms and stared at her. "If you were dissatisfied with your position in any way, you should have come to me immediately. Is it your job title? Your salary? We'll change them right now."
"It's neither of those things."
She hesitated, anxious not to reveal that he was part of the reason she needed to leave.
Sebastian Stone, christened The Prince of Midtown by the New York tabloids who tracked his every bold move, was a constant reminder of everything she was missing.
Especially since he barely knew she was alive.
"I feel as if I'm stuck in a rut. My life is slipping through my fingers " Could she come up with anything that wasn't a soggy cliché?
"And California is the golden land of opportunity?"
"I know it isn't, but I need to shake things up." She shrank from his forceful black gaze and paced across the room. Her heart hammered beneath her designer dress.
"What's the job you've been offered?"
She shoved her hair behind her ear. "I don't have a job lined up yet. I'm sure I can find one when I get there."
"Then why California? You're not running off after some man, are you?"
Tessa froze. Her stomach lurched. "There is someone, yes."
Sebastian hesitated. An unfamiliar sensation crept over him. "I didn't know you were seeing someone."
"Well." Tessa blinked. "You're my boss."
"But we're friends, too, are we not? You could have told me you were being swept off your feet and were preparing to run away and desert me."
"You've been in Caspia for the last three months. I haven't seen you."
"And it's not as if he's asked me to marry him or anything, so there wasn't that much to tell." She shoved a hand into her hair. Long, golden hair. Rumpled, as if she'd been running her fingers through it all day.
Unexpected desire mingled with the irritation in his blood. "So he's asked you to move clear across the country for him, but he's not even proposed to you?"
Her high-boned cheeks colored. "No. It's not like that."
"Who is this man?"
Tessa blew out a breath. "His name's Patrick Ramsay. He's a lawyer." She picked up a paperweight off the desk and held it poised in her elegant fingers. "We've been seeing each other for a few months. He's joining a practice in L.A. and, two days ago, he asked me if I'd like to move there with him."
"And you said yes?" Disbelief and indignation made him splutter.
She spun on her long, slender legs and strode across the room. "I told him I had to think about it. Now I've thought about it." She kept her face turned away from him. "And I've decided it's just the change I need."
"You're wrong." He'd never been so sure of anything.
She turned to face him, her green eyes wide. "I feel bad leaving, especially now that you've taken over Caspia Designs. I know there's a lot of work to do. But what if this is my one chance?"
Her voice rose to a high note that tugged at something in his chest. How could such a beautiful and talented woman be willing to throw her whole life away on a gamble?
"The name Patrick Ramsay rings a bell." An alarm bell.
"He's quite well known. He represented Elaina Ivanovic in her divorce from her husband Igor."
Sebastian's hackles shot up. "The divorce lawyer?" He'd seen that smarmy hustler on TV. Patrick Ramsay didn't know the meaning of the term low blow.
She nodded, jerked her imploring gaze from him and started across the far end of the room. "He's very nice, really. Busy, as you'd expect, but kind and thoughtful and Oh!"
She tripped on an open box and sprawled forward. Adrenaline surged through Sebastian and he leaped across the room. "Are you hurt?"
"No! I'm fine. How silly of me." She blushed charmingly as he helped her up, her hand hot inside his.
On her feet, she pushed her hair back. "It's my fault for leaving these boxes everywhere. I'll stack them against the wall before I go."
"You'll do no such thing." He still held her hand. He didn't want to let go of it. To let go of Tessa.
She was the best assistant he'd ever had. Since he now spent most of his time in Europe, he needed someone he could count on to show up for work even with no one else there. Tessa had proven herself a sharp-minded self-starter anduntil nowas steadfast as the rocks in the ancient harbor at Caspia.
He trusted her with everything, from his personal affairs to the embarrassing state of Caspia Designs's financials.
She tried to pull her hand back. He held it fast.
"Tessa, you are indispensable to me. What can I say that will make you stay?"
Her gaze skittered over his face and he sensed the swell of her emotion. Her muscles tensed, as if she wanted to say something but couldn't form the words.
Why had he never noticed how mobile and expressive her mouth was? Or that her skin had an iridescent sheen, like a haze of gold dust?
In that moment of contemplation she jerked back and tugged her hand from his grasp. Cool air assaulted his palm.
She turned and strode away, her slim body held stiff. "I don't want anything."
The words fell from his lips before he'd formulated the thoughts to go along with them.
It pained him to see her pacing the floor like a nervous colt, ready to gallop off to disaster.
She belonged here, with him.
His own conviction surprised him. Was some primal masculine jealousy aroused by the thought of her with another man?
She bent over a box filled with hanging files. Her back strained under the weight as she tried to lift it.
"Put that down." He marched over, hefted the box off the floor and shoved it against the wall. The exertion felt good. Then he heaved another into position next to it. He glanced at Tessa. "I don't want you injuring yourself."
A brow shot up and her green eyes flashed. "I may be skinny, but I'm strong."
She picked up a box, dumped it next to his, then dusted her hands and placed them on her hips. Which had the unfortunate effect of drawing his attention to the hourglass waist hidden inside her simple gray dress.
Desire heated his blood.
"You know you're only making it more impossible for me to let you go." He smiled.
She flashed back a defiant grin. Then it faded. "I can't stay."
Her pulse fluttered at her neck and he resisted a sudden, fierce urge to press his lips to the quivering, warm skin.
"I'm afraid I can't let you go."
She let out a sharp laugh. "You can't let me? Off with her head? Those days are over, even if you are a prince."
He laughed. "A beheading does sound counterproductive. But I do insist you give the ancient, sovereign nation of Caspia at least the customary two weeks'notice." A plan blossomed in his mind. "You must come to Caspia with me. Immediately."
A tiny fire lit inside her eyes. Good.
"I need you to arrange an immediate meeting of the principals of Caspia Designs. The chief executives of each of the subsidiary brands must be there, no matter what it takes to bring them."
He watched for her reaction. The prospect of cajoling pleasure-seeking European plutocrats into attending to actual business might make some people quit on the spot.
But not Tessa. A glow of appreciation filled him as she simply nodded.
"To be honest, when I took the job, I hoped it would involve some travel. I'd be glad to come to Caspia before I go."
Had he truly never taken her to Caspia before? Surely he'd remember the vision of all that golden hair being tossed by the sea breeze. He'd grown to think of travel as a tiresome necessity. He clapped his hands together. "We'll fly tomorrow in my private plane. Arrange for a 2:00 p.m. departure."
Energy surged through him as his plan took shape. This trip would take Tessa's mind off that divorce-mongering cad who wanted to steal her away from him.
Not that his interest in her was personal, of course. He took both business and pleasure very seriously, which meant keeping them strictly separate.
But the charms of Caspiacombined with some judicious charm on his partwould soon make Tessa realize she'd been crazy to ever think of leaving.