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Crown Prince Alessandro Bussoni of Ferara narrowed amber eyes in lazy speculation as he continued to stare at the brightly lit stage. 'She'd do.'
'I beg your pardon, sir?'
There was no emotion in the question. The man sitting next to the Prince on the top table at the lavish Midsummer ball wore the carefully controlled expression of a career diplomat, and had a voice to match. Thin and lugubrious, with sun-starved features, it would have been impossible for Marco Romagnoli to provide a sharper contrast to his employer, and Crown Prince Alessandro's blistering good looks were supported by one of the brightest minds in Europe, as well as all the presence and easy charm that was his by right of birth.
'I said she'd do,' the Prince repeated impatiently, turning a compelling gaze on his aide-de-camp. 'You've paraded every woman of marriageable age before me, Marco, and failed to tempt me once. I like the look of this girl'
And it was a lot more than just her stunning appearance, Alessandro acknowledged silently as his glance went back to the stage. The girl possessed an incredible energy not dissimilar to his ownan energy that seemed to leap out from the gaudily dressed performance area and thump him straight in the chest.
All he had to offer her was a cold-blooded business deal, but
His sensuous mouth curved in a thoughtful smile. In this instance mixing business with pleasure might not be such a bad thing.
'Are you serious, Your Royal Highness?' Marco Romagnoli murmured, taking care not to alert their fellow diners.
'Would I joke about so serious a matter as my future wife?' Alessandro demanded in a fierce whisper. 'She looks like fun.'
'Fun, sir?'Marco Romagnoli leaned forward to follow his employer's eyeline. 'You are talking about the singer with the band?'
'You find something wrong with that?' the Prince demanded, swivelling round to level a challenging gaze on his aide's face.
'No, sir,' Marco returned in a monotone, knowing the Prince would brook no prejudice based on flimsy face-value evidence. 'But if I may ask an impertinent question ?'
'Ask away,' Alessandro encouraged, his firm mouth showing the first hint of amusement as he guessed the way Marco's mind was working.
'She'd do for what, exactly, sir ? Only she's rather'
'Luscious? Bold? Striking? In your face? What?' the Prince prompted adjusting his long legs as if the enforced inactivity was starting to irk him.
All of those,' Marco suggested uncomfortably, his glance flashing back to the stage, where Emily Weston was well into her third number and clearly had the affluent, well-oiled crowd eating out of her hand. 'I can see that a young lady like that holds a certain attraction for' Marco Romagnoli eased his fingers under a starched white collar that seemed to be on the point of choking him.
'Go on. Don't stop now,' Prince Alessandro encouraged, reining in his amusement.
Taking a few moments to rethink his approach, the usually unflappable courtier replied carefully, 'Well, sir, I can see she's a beauty, and undoubtedly perfect for certain activities. But you surely can't be thinking'
'You mean I should bed her, not wed her?' Alessandro suggested dryly, as he looked back to where Emily had the microphone clutched between both hands for a slow number, looking as if she was about to devour it.
'I couldn't have put it better myself, sir. In my opinion such an ill-judged match would only create more problems than it would solve.'
'I disagree,' the Crown Prince of Ferara countered, 'and nothing you can say will persuade me that the girls you have paraded before me would fill the role any betteror vacate it without causing problems.'
He paused, and took another long look at the stage. 'As it is not my intention to break any hearts, Marco, this is the perfect solution. I want a straightforward business deal and a short-term bride'
Alessandro turned to answer the disquiet so clearly painted across the other man's face.
'I know,' he said, leaning closer to ensure they were not overheard. 'You're thinking of all the other implications such an arrangement would entailI would expect nothing less of you, my old friend.'
The Prince's companion grew ever more troubled. Even if he could have shed the role of cautious professional advisor, Marco Romagnoli had known Alessandro from the day of his birth, and was considered an honorary member of the royal family.
'I wouldn't wish to see anyone take advantage of you, sir,' he said now, with concern.
'I shall take good care to ensure that none of the parties involved in my plan is taken advantage of,' Alessandro assured him. 'Thanks to our country's archaic legislation I can think of no other way to solve the problem of succession.
If my father is to have his wish and retire I must marry immediately. It's obvious to me that this young woman has spirit. When I put my proposition to her I think she will have an instant grasp of the advantages that such a match can bring to both of us.'
'Yes, sir,' Marco agreed reluctantly, flinching visibly as Emily launched into a raunchy upbeat number.
'I have seen enough, Marco,' the Prince said, reclaiming his aide's attention. 'And I like what I see. Please advise the young lady that Alessandro Bussoni wishes to talk with her after the performance tonight. No titles,' he warned. 'And if she asks, just say I have a proposition to put to her. And don't forget to ask her name,' he added as, without another word, Marco Romagnoli rose to his feet.
After the show, Emily Weston, the singer with the band, was having a tense debate over the phone with her twin sister Miranda.
'Well, how do you deal with them?' she demanded, shouldering the receiver to scoop up another huge blob of cleansing cream from her twin's industrial-sized pot.
'Who do you mean?' Miranda snuffled between ear-splitting sneezes.
'Stage Door Johnnies'
Miranda's summer cold symptoms dissolved into laughter. 'Stage Door Whosies?'
'Don't pretend you don't know what I'm talking about,' Emily insisted, flashing another concerned glance towards the dressing room door.
'I didn't think there was such a thing as Stage Door Johnnies nowadays,' Miranda said doubtfully.
'Well, I can assure you there is,' Emily insisted. 'What else would you call uninvited gentleman callers who won't take no for an answer?'
'Depends on who's doing the calling, I suppose,' Miranda conceded, blasting out another sneeze. 'Why don't you just take a look at him first, before you decide?'
'No way! That's never been part of our agreement.'
'But if he looks like Herman Munster you can send him packing and if he's a babe, pass him on to me. He'd never know the difference. If Mum and Dad can't tell us apart, what chance does this man stand? What have you got to lose?'
'Look, I'll have to go,' Emily said as another rap, far more insistent than the last, bounced off the walls around her head. 'I told his messenger I couldn't see anyone I didn't know immediately after a showpleading artistic temperament. He still hasn't taken the hint.'
'He sent someone round first?' Miranda cut in, her voice taut with excitement. 'He sounds interesting. He might be a VIP.'
'I doubt it,' Emily said as she peered into the mirror to peel off her false eyelashes. 'Though when I said I wouldn't see him I thought his representative muttered something about Prince being disappointed'
'Emily, you dope,' Miranda exclaimed through another bout of sneezing. 'Prince Records is the recording company my band's been hoping to sign with. And you've just turned away their scout.'
'Can't I get one of the boys to see him?' Emily suggested hopefully. After all, there were five male members in Miranda's band.
Are you kidding?' Miranda exclaimed. 'First of all they'll be in the pub by now and secondly, do you seriously think I'd trust them to discuss business without my being there?'
Remembering the dreamy idealism of Miranda's fellow musicians, Emily could only respond in the negative. 'It might have helped if you had warned me this might happen,' she protested reasonably. 'Have to go,' she finished in a rush, wiping her hands on the towel across her lap as another flurry of raps hit the door. 'Whoever this is, he's not about to give up.'
Cutting the connection, Emily grabbed a handful of tissues as she shot up from her seat in front of the brilliantly lit mirror. Then, scooting behind a conveniently placed screen, she called out, 'Come in.'
This was the craziest thing she had ever done, Emily thought nervously as she swiped off the last of her make-up and stuffed the used tissues into the pocket of her robe. She tensed as the door swung open.
'Hello? Miss Weston? Miss Weston, are you there?'
She had heard male voices likened to anything from gravel to bitter chocolate, but this one slammed straight into her senses. Italian, she guessed, and with just the hint of a sexy mid-Atlantic drawl. She pictured him scanning the cluttered space, hunting for her hiding place, and felt her whole being responding to some imperative and extremely erotic wake-up call.
'Make yourself comfortable,' she sang out, relieved she was hidden away. 'I'm getting changed.'
'Thank you, Miss Weston,' the voice replied evenly. 'Please don't hurry on my account.'
Just the authority in the man's voice made the hairs stand on the back of her neck. And there was a stillness about it that made her think of a jungle cat, lithe, impossibly strongand deadly.
It was in her nature to confront threats, not hide from them. So why was she skulking behind a screen? Emily asked herself impatiently. Could it be that the force of this man's personality had taken possession of what, in Miranda's absence, was her territory?
'Can I help you?' she said, struggling to see through a tiny crack in the woodwork.
'I certainly hope so.'
There was supreme confidence and not a little amusement
in the response, as well as the type of worldliness that had Emily mentally rocking back on her heels. It was almost as if the man had caught her out doing something wrongas if she had no right to be looking at him.
Drawing a few steadying breaths, she tried again. But all she could see through the crack in the screen was the broad sweep of shoulders clad in a black dinner jacket and a cream silk evening scarf slung casually around the neck of an impressively tall individual. A man whose luxuriant, dark wavy hair was immaculately groomed and glossy the type of hair that made you want to run your fingers through it and then move on to caress She pulled herself up short, closing her eyes to gather her senses senses that were reacting in an extraordinary manner to nothing more than a man's voice, Emily reminded herself. She spent her working life objective and detached yet now, when it really matteredwhen Miranda's recording contract was at stakeshe was allowing herself to be sideswiped off-beam by a few simple words. 'I'm sorry, Mr er'
'Bussoni,' he supplied evenly.
'Mr Bussoni,' Emily said, her assurance growing behind the protection of the screen. 'I'm afraid I didn't give the gentleman who works for you a very warm welcome'
'Really? He said nothing of it to me.'
She was beginning to get a very clear picture of the man now. The image of a hunter sprang to mind someone who was waiting and listening, using all his senses to evaluate his quarry. 'I understand you'd like to discuss the possibility of signing the band?' she said carefully.
There was another long pause, during which Emily formed the impression that the man was scanning all her neatly arranged possessions, gathering evidence about her and soaking up informationdrawing conclusions. And from his position in front of the mirror he could do all of thatand still keep a watch on her hiding place.
Taking over last minute from Miranda meant she had been forced to come straight from work. There had been no time to find out about the event, let alone who might be in the audience. She had certainly not anticipated the need to be on her guardto hide everything away. 'You are from Prince Records?' she prompted in a businesslike tone, hoping to bounce the man into some sort of admission.
'Do you think you could possibly come out here and discuss this in person?'
It was a reasonable enough suggestion. But Miranda was never seen without full war paint, and after liberal applications of cold cream Emily's own face had returned to its customary naked state. If she hoped to impersonate her twin an appearance right now was out of the question.
'I know this must sound rude, after you've taken the trouble to come backstage, but I'm rather tired this evening. Do you think we could talk tomorrow?' she said, knowing Miranda should have recovered and taken her rightful place by then.
'Tomorrow afternoon, at three?'
Emily's hearing was acutely tuned to his every move. He was already turning to go, she realised. Suddenly she couldn't even remember what she had on the following day, let alone specifically at three o'clock in the afternoon. The only thing she was capable of registeringapart from an over-active heartbeat was that the recording contract for Miranda's band was vital.
'OK. That's fine,' she heard herself agreeing. 'But not here.'
'Anywhere you say.'
Possibilities flooded Emily's mind. She dismissed each one in turn until the very last. 'Could you come out to North London?' Her mother and father had insisted that if Miranda's cold had not improved by tomorrow she should be brought home to recuperate. Emily knew she could rely on her parents to fill in any awkward gaps smooth over the cracks when she changed places with her twin.
'I don't see why not.'
'That's if you're still interested?'
Interested? Alessandro thought, curbing his smile just in case Miss Weston decided to suddenly burst out from her hiding place. If he had been fascinated before, now he was positively gripped.
He ran one supple, sun-bronzed finger down the slim leather-bound diary he so longed to open, and traced the length of the expensive fountain pen lying next to it before toying with a pair of cufflinks bearing some sort of crest.
The handbag on the seat had quality written all over it, rather than some flashy logo. And the smart black suit teamed with a crisp white double-cuffed shirt hanging on a gown rail was Armani, if he wasn't mistaken.
His gaze swept the threadbare carpet that might once have been red to where a pair of slinky high-heeled court shoes stood next to a dark blue felt sack, ornamented with a thick tassel. Alongside that, a pull-along airline case
His gaze switched back to the screen.
'Mr Bussoni, are you still interested?'
There was just a hint of anxiety in the voice now, Alessandro noted with satisfaction. This contract obviously meant a great deal to her. He cast a look at the discarded stage costume Something jarred. No, he realised. Everything jarred.
'Only on one condition,' he said, adopting a stern tone as he assumed the mantle of time-starved recording executive.
And that is?' Emily said cagily.