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'Keep your eyes down, serve the food and then leave. No lingering in the President's Suite. No gazing, no engaging the prince in conversation, and no flirting. Especially no flirting Prince Casper has a shocking reputation when it comes to women. Holly, are you listening to me?'
Holly surfaced from a whirlpool of misery long enough to nod. 'Yes,' she croaked. 'I'm listening, Sylvia.'
'Then what did I just say?'
Holly's brain was foggy from lack of sleep and a constant roundabout of harsh self-analysis. 'You saidyou told me' Her voice tailed off. 'I don't know. I'm sorry.'
Sylvia's mouth tightened with disapproval. 'What is the matter with you? Usually you're extremely efficient and reliable, that's why I picked you for this job!'
Efficient and reliable.
Holly flinched at the description.
Another two flaws to add to the growing list of reasons why Eddie had dumped her.
Apparently oblivious to the effect her words were having, Sylvia ploughed on. 'I shouldn't have to remind you that today is the most important day of my careercatering for royalty at Twickenham Stadium. This is the Six Nations championship! The most important and exciting rugby tournament of the year! The eyes of the world are upon us! If we get this right, we're made. And more work for me means more work for you. But I need you to concentrate!'
A tall, slim waitress with a defiant expression on her face stalked over to them, carrying a tray of empty champagne glasses. 'Give her a break, will you? Her fiancé broke off their engagement last night. It's a miracle she's here at all. In her position, I wouldn't even have dragged myself out ofbed.'
'He broke off the engagement?' Sylvia glanced from one girl to the other. 'Holly, is Nicky telling the truth? Why did he do that?'
Because she was efficient and reliable. Because her hair was the colour of a sunset rather than a sunflower. Because she was prudish and inhibited. Because her bottom was too big
Contemplating the length of the list, Holly was swamped by a wave of despair. 'Eddie's been promoted to Marketing Director. I don't fit his new image.' So far she hadn't actually cried and she was quite proud of thatproud and a little puzzled. Why hadn't she cried? She loved Eddie. They'd planned a future together. 'He's expected to entertain clients and journalists and, well, he's driving a Porsche now, and he needs a woman to match.' With a wobbly smile and a shrug, she tried to make light of it. 'I'm more of a small family-hatchback.'
'You are much too good for him, that's what you are.' Nicky scowled and the glasses on the tray jangled dangerously. 'He's a b'
'Nicky!' Sylvia gave a shocked gasp, interrupting Nicky's insult. 'Please remember that you are the face of my company!'
'In that case you'd better pay for botox before I develop permanent frown-lines from serving a bunch of total losers every day.' Nicky's eyes flashed. 'Holly's ex and his trophy-blonde slut are knocking back the champagne like Eddie is Marketing Director of some Fortune 100 company, not the local branch of Pet Palace.'
'She's with him?' Holly felt the colour drain from her face. 'Then I can't go up there. Their hospitality box is really close to the President's Suite. It would just be too embarrassing for everyone. All his colleagues staring at meher staring at mewhat am I going to do?'
'Replace him with someone else. The great thing about really unsuitable men is that they're not in short supply.' Nicky thrust the tray into the hands of her apoplectic boss and slipped her arm through Holly's. 'Breathe deeply. In and outthat's itgood. Now, here's what you're going to do. You're going to sashay into that royal box and kiss that sexy, wicked prince. If you're going to fall for an unsuitable man, at least make sure he's a rich, powerful one. The king of them all. Or, in this case, the prince. Apparently he's a world-class kisser. Go for it. Tangling tongues at Twickenham. That would shock Eddie.'
'It would shock the prince, too.' Giggling despite her misery, Holly withdrew her arm from her friend's. 'I think one major rejection is enough for one week, thanks. If I'm not thin and blonde enough for the Managing Director of Pet Palace, I'm hardly going to be thin and blonde enough to attract a playboy prince. It's not one of your better ideas.'
'What's wrong with it? Straight from one palace to another.' Nicky gave a saucy wink. 'Undo a few buttons, go into the President's Suite and flirt. It's what I'd do.'
'Fortunately she isn't you!' Sylvia's cheeks flushed with outrage as she glared at Nicky. And she'll keep her buttons fastened! Quite apart from the fact I don't pay you girls to flirt, Prince Casper's romantic exploits are getting out of hand, and I've had strict instructions from the Palaceno pretty waitresses. No one likely to distract him. Especially no blondes. That's why I picked you in the first place, Holly. Red hair and frecklesyou're perfect.'
Holly flinched. Perfect? Perfect for melting into the background.
She lifted a hand and touched her unruly red hair, dragged into submission with the liberal use of pins. Then she thought of what lay ahead and her battered confidence took another dive. The thought of walking into the President's Suite made her shrink. 'SylviaI really don't want to do this. Not today. I just don't feelI'm having' Whata bad hair day? A fat day? Frankly it was a battle to decide which of her many deficiencies was the most pronounced. 'They're all going to be thin, blonde, rich and confident.' All the things she wasn't. Her hands shaking, Holly removed the tray of empty glasses from her boss's hands. 'I'll take these back to the kitchens. Nicky can serve the royal party. I don't think I can stand them looking at me as if I'm'
As if I'm nothing.
'If you're doing your job correctly, they shouldn't be looking at you at all.' Unknowingly echoing Holly's own thoughts, Sylvia removed the tray from her hands so violently that the glasses jangled again. Then she thrust the tray back at Nicky. 'You take these glasses back to the kitchens. Holly, if you want to keep this job, you'll get up to the President's Suite right now. And no funny business. You wouldn't want to attract his attention anywaya man in his position is only going to be interested in one thing with a girl like you.' Spotting another of the waitresses craning her neck to get a better view of the rugby players warming up on the pitch, Sylvia gave a horrified gasp. 'No, no. You're here to work, not gape at men's legs' Abandoning Holly and Nicky, she hurried over to the other girl.
'Of course we're here to gape at men's legs,' Nicky drawled. 'Why does she think we took the job in the first place? I don't know the first thing about scrums and line-outs, but I do know the men are gorgeous. I mean, there are men and there are men. And these are men, if you know what I mean.'
Not listening, Holly stared into space, her confidence at an all-time low. 'The wonder is not that Eddie dumped me,' she muttered, 'But that he got involved with me in the first place.'
'Don't talk like that. Don't let him do this to you,' Nicky scolded. 'Please tell me you didn't spend the night crying over him.'
'Funnily enough, I didn't. I've even been wondering about that.' Holly frowned. 'Perhaps I'm too devastated to cry.'
'Did you eat chocolate?'
'Of course. Wellchocolate biscuits. Do they count?'
'Depends on how many. You need a lot of biscuits to get the same chocolate hit.'
'I ate two.'
Holly blushed. 'Two packets.' She muttered the words under her breath and then gave a guilty moan. 'And I hated myself even more afterwards. But at the time I was miserable and starving! Eddie took me out to dinner to break off the engagementI suppose he thought I might not scream at him in a public place. I knew something was wrong when he ordered a starter. He never orders a starter.'
'Well, isn't that typical?' Nicky's mouth tightened in disapproval. 'The night he breaks up with you, he finally allows you to eat.'
'The starter was for him, not me.' Holly shook her head absently. 'I can't eat in front of Eddie anyway. The way he watches me always makes me feel like a pig. He told me it was over in between the grilled fish and dessert. Then he dropped me home, and I kept waiting, but I just couldn't cry.'
'I'm not surprised. You were probably too hungry to summon the energy to cry,' Nicky said dryly. 'But eating chocolate biscuits is good news.'
'Tell that to my skirt. Why does Sylvia insist on this style?' Gloomily, Holly smoothed the tight black skirt over her hips. 'I feel as though I'm wearing a corset, and it's so short.'
'You look sexy as sin, as always. And eating chocolate is the first phase in the healing process, so you've passed that stage, which is a good sign. The next stage is to sell his ring.'
'I was going to return it.'
'Return it? Are you mad?' The empty glasses rattled again as Nicky's hands tightened on the tray. 'Sell it. And buy a pair of gorgeous shoes with the proceeds. Then you'll spend the rest of your life walking on his memory. And, next time, settle for sex without emotion.'
Holly smiled awkwardly, too self-conscious to confess that she hadn't actually had sex with Eddie. And that, of course, had been her major drawback as far as he was concerned. He'd accused her of being inhibited.
She bit back a hysterical laugh.
A small family-hatchback with central locking.
Would she be less inhibited if her bottom were smaller?
Possibly, but she wasn't likely to find out. She was always promising herself that she'd diet, but going without food just made her crabby.
Which was why her clothes always felt too tight.
At this rate she was going to die a virgin.
Depressed by that thought, Holly glanced in the direction of the President's Suite. 'I really don't think I can face this.'
'It's worth it just to get a look at the wicked prince in the flesh.'
'He hasn't always been wicked. He was in love once,'
Holly murmured, momentarily distracted from her own problems. 'With that Italian supermodel. I remember reading about them. They were the golden couple. Then she died along with his brother in that avalanche eight years ago. Horribly sad. Apparently he and his brother were really close. He lost the two people he loved most in the world. A family torn apart. I'm not surprised he's gone a bit wild. He must have been devastated. He probably just needs someone to love him.'
Nicky grinned. 'So go up there and love him. And don't forget my favourite saying.'
'If you can't stand the heat '
'Get out of the kitchen?' Holly completed the proverb but Nicky gave a saucy wink.
'Remove a layer of clothing.'
Casper strolled down the steps into the royal box, his handsome face expressionless as he stared across the impressive stadium. Eighty-two thousand people were gradually pouring into the stands in preparation for the breathlessly awaited match that was part of the prestigious Six Nations championship.
It was a bitterly cold February day, and his entourage was all muttering and complaining about freezing English weather.
Casper didn't notice.
He was used to being cold.
He'd been cold for eight long years.
Emilio, his Head of Security, leaned forward and offered him a phone. 'Savannah for you, Your Highness.'
Without turning, Casper gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and Emilio hesitated before switching off the phone.
'Another female heart broken.' The blonde shivering next to him gave a disbelieving laugh. 'You're cold as ice, Cas. Rich and handsome, admittedly, but very inaccessible emotionally. Why are you ending it? She's crazy about you.'
'That's why I'm ending it.' His voice hard, Casper watched the players warming up on the pitch, ignoring the woman gazing longingly at his profile.
'If you're ditching the most beautiful woman in the world, what hope is there for the rest of us?'
No hope for them. No hope for him. The whole thing was a game, Casper thought blankly. A game he was sick of playing.
Sport was one of the few things that offered distraction. But, before the rugby started, he had to sit through the hospitality.
Two long hours of hopeful women and polite conversation.
Two long hours of feeling nothing.
His face appeared on the giant screens placed at either end of the pitch, and he watched himself with detached curiosity, surprised by how calm he looked. There was a loud female cheer from those already gathered in the stands, and Casper delivered the expected smile of acknowledgement, wondering idly whether any of them would like to come and distract him for a few hours.
Anyone would do. He really didn't care.
As long as she didn't expect anything from him.
He glanced behind him towards the glass windows of the President's Suite where lunch would be served. An exceptionally pretty waitress was checking the table, her mouth moving as she recited her checklist to herself.
Casper studied her in silence, his eyes narrowing slightly as she paused in her work and lifted a hand to her mouth. He saw the rise and fall of her chest as she took a deep breath watched as she tilted her head backwards and stared up at the ceiling. It was strange body language for someone about to serve lunch.
And then he realised that she was trying not to cry.
Over the years he'd taught himself to recognise the signs of female distress so that he could time his exit accordingly.
With cold detachment he watched her struggle to hold back the oncoming tide of tears.
She was a fool, he thought grimly, to let herself feel that deeply about anything.
And then he gave a smile of self-mockery. Hadn't he done the same at her agein his early twenties, when life had seemed like an endless opportunity, hadn't he naively allowed his emotions freedom?
And then he'd learned a lesson that had proved more useful than all the hours spent studying constitutional law or international history.
He'd learned that emotions were man's biggest weakness, and that they could destroy as effectively as the assassin's bullet.
And so he'd ruthlessly buried all trace of his, protecting that unwanted human vulnerability under hard layers of bitter life experience. He'd buried his emotions so deep he could no longer find them.
And that was the way he wanted it.
Without looking directly at anyone, Holly carefully placed the champagne-and-raspberry torte in front of the prince. Silver cutlery and crystal glass glinted against the finest linen, but she barely noticed. She'd served the entire meal in a daze, her mind on Eddie, who was currently entertaining her replacement in the premium box along the richly carpeted corridor.