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For a moment she thought she must have misheard him. Either that, or she was going crazy. And maybe she was. For hadn't her foolish dreams of love just been dealt a death-blow in time-honoured fashion? From her position behind the reception desk where she was covering for the receptionist's lunch-break, Cathy stared up at her boss in disbelief and tried not to think about the crumpled-up letter which was lying in the bottom of her handbag. Or the battering to her self-esteem which had left her feeling lonely, and wounded.
'Sorry.' She cleared her throat, wondering if he was having some kind of joke at her expense. 'For a minute then, I thought you said—'
'A prince? Yes, I did.' Rupert's smirk was supercilious, his upper-crust English accent even more pronounced than usual, as he paused to allow the significance of his statement to sink in. A royal prince is going to be gracing our hotel with his presence—what do you think of that, Cathy?'
'A prince?' Cathy echoed in disbelief.
Rupert's smirk became even more pronounced.
'Prince Xaviero of Zaffirinthos. I don't suppose you've heard of him?'
Cathy bit back the defensive response which sprang to her lips. Just because she was a chambermaid who'd never really qualified for anything didn't mean that she was a complete write-off, did it? The implication being that such a woman would barely recognise the name of a member of the English royal family—let alone a rather more obscure foreign version. But Rupert was right, damn him. Despite doing her best to keep up with world events via newspapers and books, it seemed that Zaffirinthos had somehow slipped off her radar. 'N-no,' she answered uncertainly. 'No, I haven't.'
'Then let me enlighten you. He's next in line to an island kingdom, a world-class polo player—and a lover of beautiful women,' said Rupert, puffing out his chest. 'In fact, the most glittering VIP we've ever had.'
Cathy stared at him, screwing up her eyes in confusion because something didn't make sense. They both knew that important guests were few and far between— despite the fact that there was a world-famous polo club nearby as well as some pretty impressive stud farms. But there were also other, more upmarket hotels and she couldn't imagine why on earth a prince would choose to stay somewhere like this. Yes, the building was listed and yes, originally it had been a very elegant private home before it had been turned into a hotel. But Rupert's general mismanagement and dwindling guest numbers had left house and grounds in a pretty run-down condition, which didn't tend to attract VIPs.
'But why?' she questioned. 'I mean, why's he coming here?'
Rupert's smile disappeared as quickly as a ray of April sunshine. 'Why is none of your business,' he snapped back, but then seemed to relent—glancing round to check that the coast was clear and paying lip-service to discretion, but clearly busting to tell someone. 'Well, keep it to yourself—but he's moving over here from his home in New York and he's about to complete the purchase of the Greenhill Polo Club.'
Cathy's eyes opened wider. She thought of the acres of valuable real estate which housed the prestigious club, which brought international celebrities flocking there every weekend during the polo season. 'A place like that would cost an absolute fortune to buy,' she said slowly.
'For once, you're right, Cathy—but that won't be a problem, not in this case. You see, this man is not just any old prince—with genuine blue blood coursing around in his veins—he also happens to be outrageously wealthy.' Rupert's eyes narrowed calculatingly. 'Which is why there are going to have to be some changes made before he and his entourage arrive.'
Cathy had been working for Rupert long enough to know just when to sense trouble. 'Changes?' she said, hoping that she was hiding the instinctive alarm which sprang up inside her. 'What kind of changes?'
'Well, for a start—we're going to have to spruce up the public rooms to accommodate a man of his calibre. They'll all need a lick of paint—especially the downstairs washrooms. I've organised for a firm of decorators to come in and start work first thing tomorrow morning.'
Cathy stared at him. 'That quickly?'
'Yes, that quickly. Someone will be in later to measure up—and you'll need to show him around,' said Rupert testily. 'The Prince will be arriving next week and there's a lot to be done between now and then if it's to meet royal expectations. Apparently, he only sleeps on Egyptian cotton sheets—so I'm going to have to send to London for those. Oh, and one other thing.'
His eyes roved over her in a manner she had always found offensive, but Cathy had learnt to ignore the suggestive way her boss looked at her, just as she had learnt to ignore his other annoying traits. Because no job in the world was perfect. Nothing was. Everyone knew that. 'What?' she questioned apprehensively.
'You'll need to do something about your appearance. All of the staff need some sort of overhaul, but you need it more than most, Cathy.'
It was a criticism he had levelled at her more than once. But Cathy never really had the inclination to use anything other than a little honest-to-goodness soap and water and to drag a brush through her pale and disobedient hair. Her chambermaiding duties meant she had to be up much too early to make a fuss and, besides, the great-aunt who had brought her up had been a no-nonsense woman who had scoffed at make-up—and had taught her great-niece to do the same.
Cathy hated the way Rupert sometimes made her feel. As if she were only half a woman. Why did he do that? Because he gets a kick out of it, that's why. And because he's never got over the fact that you once rejected him. But insecurity could sometimes get the better of you and she found herself asking, 'What's wrong with my appearance?'
'How long have you got?' Rupert smoothed back the lock of hair which flopped over his forehead. 'The point is that the Prince is a connoisseur of beautiful things and beautiful women in particular. And while I'm not hoping for a miracle, I'd like you to make a bit more effort while he's here. Some make-up wouldn't go amiss, for a start. And you'll be getting a brand-new uniform.'
Most women might have liked the thought of a new uniform but something in Rupert's eyes made Cathy feel instinctively wary. Infuriatingly, she could feel herself starting to blush—a slow heat travelling all the way down her neck and beyond, to the infuriatingly heavy weight of breasts which had always been too lush for her tiny frame. 'But—'
'No huts' said Rupert. 'I'm the boss, Cathy. And what I say goes.'
Well, she certainly couldn't argue with that. Cathy bit her lip as she watched Rupert sweep out of the reception area in that over-dramatic manner of his.
In a way, she had been in the job too long—and sometimes she wondered if she would ever have the courage to leave. Yet familiarity was a powerful tie, especially to the emotionally insecure, and she had never known anything else but this place.
She had been brought to this village as an orphan— delivered into the care of her great-aunt—a formidable spinster who had had little idea how to cope with a grieving child. Cathy had missed her parents badly— she'd fretted and cried at nights. And her great-aunt, though well-intentioned, had been unusually strict with her, extolling the virtues of clean living, early nights and plenty of book learning.
But Cathy had proved to be something of a disappointment. Not a particularly academic child, she had achieved little in the way of qualifications except for a commendation for cooking and a special mention of the contribution she'd made to the school garden.
When her great-aunt had become ill, Cathy had been happy to nurse the old lady—wanting in some small way to repay the woman's kindness to her. And after her death Cathy had experienced that same terrible tearing sense of being alone as when her parents had died.
The job as chambermaid at Rupert's hotel had never been meant to be anything other than a temporary post while she decided what she really wanted to do with her life. It had provided an undemanding refuge from the cruel knocks of life. But the days had drifted into months, then years—until she had met Peter, a trainee clergyman. Friendship had turned into dating and a slow-burning romance. Peter had provided sanctuary, and gentleness— and when he had asked her to marry him, Cathy had said yes, seeing a simple and happy future spread out before her, with a straightforward man who loved her.
Or so he'd said. He had taken a job up north and the plan had been that she would join him at the end of the year. And then yesterday, the letter had arrived. The one which had destroyed all her hopes and dreams and made a mockery of all she stood for. The one which said: I'm sorry, Cathy—but I've met somebody else and she's going to have a baby…
She was so lost in her troubled thoughts that at first she didn't notice that anybody had walked into Reception. Not until a faint movement alerted her to the presence of someone moving towards the desk. A man. Cathy sat up straight, automatically pinning a professional smile of welcome to her lips.
It was one of those rare moments which chanced along once in a lifetime if you were lucky. The sensation of being sucked in by a gaze so mesmerising that you felt as if you were being devoured by it.
Dazed, she stared up into the most startling pair of eyes she had ever seen. Eyes as golden as a late-afternoon sun—all richness and lustre—but underpinned by a cold and metallic gleam.
Unseen beneath the reception desk, Cathy's fingers bunched themselves into two little fists. She was unable to stop herself from staring at the rest of his face—at arrogant, haughty features which looked as if they had been carved from some rare and gleaming piece of metal. At lips which were curved and full—the corners mocking and sensual. But they were hard, obdurate lips, too, she realised as an instinctive shiver iced her skin.
His hair was dark and ruffled, and his olive skin was faintly flushed, glowing with health and vitality as if he'd been engaged in some kind of violent exercise. Tall and broad-shouldered, his physique was powerful yet lean—a fact which was emphasised by the T-shirt he wore, which clung lovingly to every hard sinew. The muscular torso tapered down into narrow hips and the longest legs she had ever seen. Legs which were encased in mud-spattered denim so faded and old that it seemed to caress his flesh like a second skin. Cathy swallowed. Her heart was racing and her throat had constricted, as if someone were pressing their fingers against it.
'I'm…I'm afraid you can't come in here looking like that, sir,' she said, forcing the words out.
Xaviero studied her—though without quite the same awestruck intensity with which she had been studying him. He had noticed the way her pupils had darkened and the way her lips had parted with unconscious longing. But he was used to having that effect on women—even when he'd just come from a long, hard session of riding, as now. Her stuttering response was not unusual either—though it usually happened when he was on official duty, when people were so caught up with the occasion and the protocol which surrounded him that they couldn't think straight.
The most important thing was that she hadn't recognised him—of that he was certain. After a lifetime of being subjected to idolatry and fawning he was an expert in anonymity and in people pretending not to recognise him.
His eyes flicked over her in brief assessment, registering that she was tiny and fair. And that she possessed the most magnificent pair of breasts he had seen in a long while—their thrusting pertness noticeable despite the unflattering white overall she wore. Too big, surely—for such a petite frame? His eyes narrowed in expert appraisal. And yet completely natural, by the look of them.
'Looking like what?' he questioned softly.
Cathy's mouth dried. Even his voice was drop-dead gorgeous. Rich, like dark sweet molasses and with a strange and captivating lilt to it. An accent she'd never heard before and one she couldn't place at all. But who cared when somehow he managed to turn each syllable into a poem?
Oh, for heaven's sake, she thought. Pull yourself together. Just because you've been dumped by your fiancé, there's no need to behave like some old spinster— eyeing up the kind of man who wouldn't look twice at you.
And yet she could do nothing to prevent the powerful thundering of her heart. 'Looking like…like…' Like what? He looked like danger, that was what. With the faintly disreputable look of a womaniser who had probably left his motorbike outside—and she knew Rupert's opinion about bikers staying in the hotel. So get rid of him. Direct him to the B&B down in the village. And do it quickly, before you make even more of a fool of yourself.
'I'm afraid that all our guests must be properly attired in smart-casual clothing,' she said quickly, echoing one of Rupert's stuffy directives and embarrassingly aware of the mocking twist of the man's lips. 'It's…it's one of the rules.'
Xaviero almost laughed aloud at the pompous restriction—but why knock something which had the power to amuse him? 'One of the rules?' he repeated mockingly. 'A very old-fashioned rule, I must say.'
Cathy risked moving her hands from beneath the desk and she held her palms up in a silent gesture of helplessness. She totally agreed with him—but what could she do? Rupert was still mired in the past. He wanted formality and ostentatious symbols of wealth— he certainly didn't want people walking into his hotel wearing mud-spattered clothing. Yet Cathy thought of the dwindling guest numbers and thought that her boss could do with all the help he could get.
'I'm very sorry,' she repeated softly. 'But there's nothing I can do. Our policy is very strict.'
'Is it now?' he murmured as he stared down into a pair of wide aquamarine eyes. 'And you don't make any…exceptions?'
How could he make such a simple query sound as if…as if…? Her mouth drying like sand, Cathy shook her head, trying to quell the haywire nature of her thoughts, thinking that most people would be happy to make an exception for him. 'I'm afraid we don't. Not…not even for guests.'