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"Do you have a minute?"
It wasn't every day that Cameron Leandres looked up from his desk to find Rowan Santiago, his cousin and the prince regent of Tesoro del Mar, standing in the doorway of his office.
"Of course," Cameron said, because he couldn't imagine responding in any other way to the ruler of the country. "But not much more than thatI'm meeting with the Ardenan Trade Minister at nine-thirty."
"Actually, that meeting has been postponed," Rowan told him.
Cameron frowned. "No one told me."
"I just got off the phone with Benedicto Romero."
He immediately recognized the name of Ardena's king and waited silently, apprehensively, for his cousin to continue.
"He's furious about this morning's paper and threatening not to renew our trade agreement."
"I skimmed the front section," Cameron said. "I didn't see anything that would impact our negotiations."
"Did you check the society pages?" The prince regent tossed the paper onto his desk.
The photo and the headline battled for his attention, but it was the bold words that won out: Prince Cameron Adds New Notch to His Bedpost?
It was a mockery of the headline that had run on the front page only a few days earlier, Prince Cameron Adds New Title to His Portfolio, announcing that he'd been named the country's new Minister of Trade. He didn't want to know what this article claimed, but his eyes automatically began to skim the brief paragraph.
Apparently his new responsibilities on the political scene haven't curbed the prince's extracurricular activities. In fact, just last night the prince was spotted at Club Sapphire making some serious moves on the dance floorand on the King of Ardena's youngest daughter.
Cameron clenched his jaw, holding back the vehement curse that instinctively sprang to his lips. He glanced at the photo again, recognizing the woman who had plastered herself against him on the dance floor.
"I didn't know that she was the king's daughter," he said, ruefully acknowledging that truth wasn't much of a defense.
"The king's seventeen-year-old daughter."
Cameron dropped his head into his hands, and this time he didn't manage to hold back the curse.
"Did you sleep with her?" Rowan asked bluntly.
"No!" Maybe he shouldn't have been shocked by the question, but he was. And while he might have told anyone else that it wasn't their business, he couldn't say that to the prince regent. They both knew his actions reflected on his office.
He was relieved to be able to assert his innocence in this situation, because even if he hadn't guessed that the woman in the photo was underage, he had known that she was far too young for even a serious flirtation. While he hadn't always been discriminating in his choice of female companions, he was thirty-six years old now and long past the age where he was easily seduced by a warm body and willing smile.
"I was there with Allegra de Havilland," he explained, naming his frequent if not exclusive companion of the past six months, "and this girlshe only said her name was Leticiacame up to me on the dance floor while my date was in the ladies' room. We didn't even dance for two minutes. When Allegra came back, she and I left."
His cousin nodded. "Then there's no reason to believe that this can't be salvaged."
Cameron didn't know how to respond. His cousin had taken a chance on him six years earlier when he'd first appointed him to his cabinet, after Cameron had done everything in his power to undermine Rowan's position. At the time, he'd suspected that Rowan was subscribing to the old adage "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" and he couldn't blame him for that. But over time, as they'd worked together on various projects, they'd developed a mutual respect for one another. And Cameron would forever be grateful to his cousin for giving him the chance to be something more than a worthless title in the history books.
When he finally spoke, it was only to say, "I regret that this has caused a problem with the king."
Rowan nodded. "You need to be extra cautious and remember that, as a royal and a member of public office, everything you say and do is subject to media scrutiny."
"Do you want my resignation?" He held his breath, waiting for his cousin's response.
"No, I don't want your resignation. You've been an asset to this administration."
Cameron exhaled. "Do you want me to talk to the king?"
"No," Rowan said again. "I've invited him to join me for lunch. Hopefully I can smooth things over with him then."
Cameron refused to consider what the repercussions might be if his cousin failed. Rowan hadn't been born for the position he was in, but he'd stepped in without missing a beat when Julian and Catherine, his brother and sister-in-law, were killed in a fluke explosion on their yacht.
Maybe Cameron had resented Rowan's appointment back then, because he'd felt that he was just as qualified and capable of doing the prince regent's job. But over the past half-dozen years, he'd realized that he didn't want those duties and responsibilities, even on an interim basis. And he regretted that his own actionshowever inadvertentwere making his cousin's job more difficult.
"I also contacted La Noticia," Rowan continued. "Because I was annoyed that Alex would run such a headline without at least giving us a heads-up."
Alex Girard was the society columnist for the local paper whose fair and objective reporting had earned him several invitations to the palace and the opportunity to write exclusive stories about the royal family. Now that Cameron thought about it, it wasn't only out-of-character for the reporter to launch an attack on a member of the prince regent's cabinet but potentially detrimental to his own career.
"As it turns out, Alex didn't have anything to do with the story. He's out of the country for a couple of weeks so the society pages are being covered by another staff writerGabriella Vasquez."
Cameron should have guessed that. Not that she'd always hated him. In fact, there was a time when they'd been extremely close. But that was long before she'd become "Dear Gabby" and started using her column to vilify both his character and his activities. And while her references to him had always been unmistakable, she was usually more subtle in her condemnation. Now she'd apparently taken the gloves off.
And he was prepared to do the same.* * *
Gabriella wasn't surprised when she received the summons to her editor's office, but she did feel the tiniest twinge of guilt when she saw Allison Jenkinsone of her oldest and dearest friendsrubbing her forehead, as she often did when a major headache was brewing.
"You wanted to see me?" Gabriella said.
The editor looked up. "I'm sure you know why."
"Since there wasn't anything particularly controversial in my 'Dear Gabby' column this week, I'm guessing this is about the 'Around Town' segment."
"Would you also like to take a guess as to how many phone calls I've received this morning? Or how many emails have flooded my inbox?"
Gabriella's own office computer had actually been so overloaded with incoming messages that it had crashed, but she was unconcerned. Everyone knew that the newspaper business was suffering and anything that increased circulationas her contribution to the society pages had done exponentiallycouldn't be a bad thing.
"So put your big girl panties on and deal with it," Gabriella said. "That's why they pay you the big bucks."
Alli shook her head. "You're not even sorry."
"Why should I be? I didn't write anything that wasn't true."
"You may have created an international scandal," her editor warned.
"I wasn't dirty dancing with the King of Ardena's underage daughter," she pointed out.
"They were dancing," Alli repeated. "There is absolutely no evidence of anything more than that."
"I never said that there was."
"No," her boss agreed. "But your text implies that the prince is a seducer of virgins."
Gabriella knew that he was, but she didn't intend to admit that to her boss. "Royal headlines sell papers," she reminded Allison.
"And we get a lot of inside news because we've worked hard to establish a good relationship with the palace."
"Do you really think anyone at the palace even noticed an article buried in the middle of page twelve?"
"I don't think it, I know it," Alli told her. "Because one of the multitude of phone calls that I received was from Prince Rowan."
Gabriella swallowed. "The prince regent called you?"
"And he wasn't very happy."
"Then I'll apologize for putting you in an awkward position," she said. "But I can't apologize for what I wrote. Prince Cameron uses his title and his charm to lure women into his bed and innocent girls should be forewarned."
"Then take out a public service announcement with your name on it but don't use this newspaper to pursue what is obviously a personal vendetta."
Gabriella felt the sting of that reprimand because she knew there was some truth in her boss's words. When Alex Girard had asked her to cover the celebrity watch while he was on vacation, she'd had mixed feelings about the request. For the better part of sixteen years, she'd been careful to steer clear of anyone connected with the royal family. Of course, that hadn't been too difficult for a commoner who didn't move in the same circles they did.
But this new assignment would require Gabriella to seek them out, to go to the places they were known to frequent, to rub elbows with their friends and acquaintances. Of course, the assignment was broader than the royal family, but everyone knew that the Santiagos and the Leandreses were the real celebrities in Tesoro del Mar.
"For Monday's paper, I wrote about the prince regent's picnic at the beach with his family. Tuesday, I covered Princess Molly's book launch and her reading at the library. Yesterday, I was out of town interviewing the Hollywood elite who are filming a romantic comedy in San Pedro. In fact, I didn't even want to go to Club Sapphire last night, but I got a tip that 'several people of note' were going to be there, so I went."
"Who else was there?" Alli wanted to know.
"Most of the Hollywood contingent," Gabriella admitted.
"Why didn't you get any pictures of them?"
"Because I already have a ton of photos that were taken during the interview sessions."
Alli dropped her head into her hands. "Are you trying to give me an ulcer?"
"I did my job," Gabriella said.
"Which you could have done just as effectively by concentrating on the visiting actorswhat they were wearing, what they were drinking, who was hooked up with whom."
"And ignoring the prince's presence?" Gabriella challenged.
"It would have been enough to reference the fact that Prince Cameron was there," her editor insisted.
"With the king's daughter," Gabriella reminded her.
"I'm going to end up with an ulcer and a pink slip," Alli muttered. "But at least I'll have you to keep me company when I'm unemployed."
"I didn't cross any lines."
"Tell that to the legal department when we get slapped with a libel suit."
"It's not libelous if it's true," Gabriella insisted.
"But the truth is often a matter of opinion, isn't that correct, Ms. Vasquez?"
Gabriella recognized that voice. Even after more than sixteen years, the smooth, sexy tone hadn't faded from her memory, and her breath caught in her throat as she spun around to face the door.
"This day just keeps getting better and better," Alli grumbled, but not so loudly that the prince could hear.
Gabriella didn't see her friend moveshe couldn't seem to tear her eyes from the man lounging indolently against the doorjambbut she heard the chair slide and knew that Alli was rising to her feet in deference to the man at her door. She would probably even curtsy.
Gabriella refused to do the same. She wouldn't bow and scrape to this man. Not now, not ever again.
But she couldn't deny that seeing him made her heart slam against her ribs, and while she was determined to play the scene out coolly and casually, her knees had gone just a little weak.
He hadn't changed much in sixteen years. His hair was still thick and dark and slightly tousled, as if he couldn't be bothered to tame it. His golden-brown eyes were further enhanced by thick, black lashes and bold, arched brows. His perfectly-shaped and seductively-soft lips were now compressed in a firm line, the only outward sign of his displeasure.
He was dressed in a charcoal-colored suit with a snowy white shirt that enhanced his olive skin and a black-and-silver patterned tie. But in his case, it was the man who made the clothes rather than vice versa, and not just because he was a royal but because of the supreme confidence he wore even more comfortably than the designer threads on his back.
On closer inspection, she realized that there were some subtle signs of the passing of time: a few strands of gray near his temples, laugh lines fanning out from his eyes, but certainly nothing that detracted from his overall appearance.
His shoulders seemed just as broad as she remembered; his body appeared as hard and lean. He'd always known who he was, what he wanted, and he'd never let anythingor anyonestand in his way. He was as outrageously sexy and devilishly handsome as ever, and she'd never stood a chance.
"Do you think we could speak privately in your office?"
Cameron asked her, his tone as casual as his postureand in complete contradiction to the anger that she saw glinting in the depths of those hazel eyes.
Gabriella lifted her chin. "I don't have an office, I have a cubicle. Not all of us are handed cushy jobs with"
"You can use mine," Alli interrupted hastily, shooting daggers at Gabriella as she moved past her on the way to the door. "I have to get to a meeting with the marketing director, anyway."
"Thank you," Cameron said, inclining his head toward her.
Gabriella had no intention of thanking her boss. She was feeling anything but grateful at the prospect of being stuck in Allison's tiny little office with a man who had always made her feel overwhelmed in his presence. But she squared her shoulders, reminded herself that she wasn't seventeen years old anymore, and faced him defiantly.
In the more than sixteen years that had passed since he'd dated Gabriella Vasquez, Cameron hadn't forgotten about her, but many of the details had faded from his mind. Facing her now, those details came flooding back, washing over him in a powerful wave that left his head struggling to stay above water.
When they'd first met, her hair was a tumbling mass of curls that fell to the middle of her back. Now, the sexy sun-streaked dark tresses grazed her shoulders and the shorter style drew attention to her face, to the dusky gold skin, cocoa-colored eyes, long, inky lashes, and soft, full lips that promised a taste of heaven.