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"I WANT a crate of soda, a monster bowl of hot chips and a triple layered choc–fudge banana–split sundae. Got that? And make it snappy!"
Natasha Telford glared at the back of Australia's youngest pop star as he strutted towards the lift after snapping his order at her. She surreptitiously squeezed a stress ball under the concierge's desk while wishing she could rip a few more slashes into the upstart's trendy torn T–shirt.
How old Harvey did this job on a daily basis she'd never know.
As a kid growing up in Telford Towers, she'd thought the concierge had the most glamorous job in the world. Until this week, when she'd had to fill in while Harvey had his hip replacement. Giving polite tourists directions to Melbourne's famous sites she could handle. It was the sulky, rude, demanding famous—especially young punks barely out of school—she could politely strangle.
Speaking of famous, the Prince of Calida was due any second, and she cast a quick, assessing look around the lobby, ensuring everything was in place. The demanding little snot of a pop star could wait for his sundae. She had a bigger guy to impress, namely Dante Andretti, soon to be crowned monarch of a tiny principality off Italy's west coast, if the info she'd gleaned off the Net was accurate.
The lobby looked perfect, from its polished marble floor to gleaming brass–trimmed check–in desk, its plush chocolate–brown sofas and muted antique lamps with the stunning floral bouquets ordered on a daily basis arranged strategically throughout.
Natasha smiled, infused with the same pride she experienced every day she entered the Towers. She loved this place. Every last square inch of it. And she'd do anything to make sure it stayed in the family. Anything.
"So when's His Uptightness due?" Natasha's smile broadened as she whirled around and came face to face with Ella Worchester, her best friend.
"Don't call him that. He's probably a really nice guy," she said, rearranging a pile of maps, a box of theatre tickets and a credenza of tourist flyers for the umpteenth time. Her nerves were working overtime, and if the prince didn't arrive soon she'd go into serious meltdown.
Ella rolled her eyes and stuck her ink–stained hands in the pockets of her low–slung denim hipsters. 'Yeah, I bet he's a real prince."
Natasha ignored Ella's cynicism as she usually did. Right now, a prince was exactly what she needed—or, more accurately, what the Towers needed.
"Do you know much about him?"
Not enough. And that was what had her worried. Usually, she knew everything about the VIPs staying at the hotel. It was her job. In this case, even more vital than usual. Telford Towers needed the prince's presence, like, yesterday.
Natasha shrugged. 'Only what I've gleaned off the Net, which isn't much. There was a whole heap of geographical stuff about Calida, a tiny bit about the royal family and that's about it."
"Is he cute?" Ella stuck out a slender hip in a provocative pose, and Natasha laughed.
"Couldn't tell much from the pic on the website. Too small."
"You wouldn't be holding out on me by any chance?" Ella's teasing tone elicited more laughter and Natasha held up her hands in surrender.
"Give me a break. From what I could see, the guy was trussed up like a turkey in some fancy–schmancy uniform, had his hair slicked back in army fashion and looked like he couldn't crack a smile if his life depended on it. There, satisfied?"
Though there was one thing that had stood out in the prince's picture.
Beautiful, clear blue eyes that had leapt off her computer screen and imprinted on her brain.
She'd always had a thing for guys' eyes, believing in the whole 'windows to the soul'thing. Pity she hadn't read the real motivation behind Clay's eyes. It would've saved her a lot of heartache, and would've avoided putting her family in the invidious position of losing the one thing that meant everything, courtesy of her greedy ex.
"Well, don't let him boss you around, okay? You're only filling in for Harvey; doesn't mean you have to take anything from anyone, prince or not."
Natasha squeezed Ella's hand. 'The prince is important for business, and I'll treat him like I treat the rest of the customers. With respect, care and—' 'Yeah, yeah. Save the spiel for someone who hasn't heard it a million times before." Ella held up her hand, though her fond grin underlined the lack of malice in her words. 'Now, if you don't mind, I have a gardening column to write and a few more botanical drawings to do before lunch."
"Coffee at Trevi's, usual time?" By then, she'd definitely need a caffeine hit.
"Sounds great. See you at five."
Ella gave her a cheeky wave and sauntered away, a slim, tall figure in head–to–toe denim with her short, shaggy auburn bob swinging in sync with her steps.
Her best friend was stunning, enjoyed life and had energy to burn, while Natasha felt like a worn facecloth wrung dry. Stress did that to a person, the type of stress that dogged her every waking moment, and unfortunately most of her sleeping ones too. Little wonder she looked so pale next to her vibrant friend.
Glancing at her gold and silver link watch—the one her dad had given her for her twenty–first, years before money had become a problem for them—she wondered why the prince was late. Most of the VIPs she usually dealt with had their itineraries scheduled to the last second and she assumed royalty would be more pedantic than most.
Especially a prince who looked like he couldn't crack a smile, if that tiny pic on the Net had been any indication.
At that moment, a gleaming black Harley roared to a stop outside the front door, and Natasha nibbled nervously on her bottom lip, hoping Alan the doorman would get the noisy thing valet–parked as soon as possible. First impressions counted, and she desperately needed to make this one count with the prince.
After another nervous glance at her watch, and more subtle rearranging of the tourist brochures stacked on the concierge desk, she glanced up in time to see the Harley's rider stride through the glass doors.
And her mouth went dry.
The guy looked like a walking advertisement for Bad Boys Inc: tall, over six feet, with broad shoulders hugged in soft grey cotton, long lean legs encased in faded denim, black wavy hair mussed by a helmet and a gusty southerly Melbourne wind, and a bone structure that could've been chiselled by one of the Italian masters.
Natasha took a deep breath, closed her eyes and tried to refocus. What on earth was she doing? So the guy looked like every woman's fantasy come to life—since when did she have time to ogle guys, let alone lose her concentration on the job?
Especially at a time like this! Mentally slapping herself for letting her long–dormant hormones get the better of her in that one, glorious moment when he strode into the foyer, she exhaled and opened her eyes, ready to march out onto the street and haul the prince into her hotel the minute his limo pulled up.
Being antsy was getting the better of her and making her think all sorts of crazy things, like how much she'd like to walk up to the sexy bad boy and ask in her best, sultriest voice, 'Can I help you?"
He saved her the trouble. 'I need your help."
Natasha quickly smoothed her cuff over her watch–she really had to stop glancing at it every five seconds–and fixed her professional welcoming smile in place. However, her smile froze when she looked up and locked gazes with the bad boy.
Clear blue eyes.
Almost aquamarine, the mesmerising colour of the Great Barrier Reef on a sunny day.
A colour imprinted in her memory banks, considering it was the only stand–out feature she could remember from the prince's fuzzy picture.
"Miss Telford, is it?"
The bad boy glanced at her name tag before returning his gaze to her face. A face flushed with heat at the realisation that she really must be losing the plot if she thought for one second that this scruffy, wind–tossed guy could be the Prince of Calida.
She really needed a day off to unwind. Badly. 'Yes, that's right. What can I do for you?"
Apart from bustle you out of here and get ready for the most important meeting of my life.
He rested his forearms on the desk, and she tried not to stare at the way his biceps bunched at the simple action.
Oh boy, maybe she needed to change her whole nondating policy. It had been eighteen months since the Clayton disaster, and she hadn't been out with a guy since, preferring to concentrate on fixing the mess Clay had lumbered her family with.
Resisting the urge to take a peek over his shoulder towards the door in case the prince snuck in without her seeing, she said, 'Do you have a reservation, sir? If not, perhaps I can arrange it with someone at Check–in and we can discuss your needs later?"
"No, I need this sorted now, and you're just the woman I want."
His low, gravelly voice sent an unexpected shiver down her spine, and her smile faltered as he fixed her with a penetrating stare.
Those eyes…that colour…no way!
It couldn't be.
His voice dropped lower as he leaned across the desk barely inches from her face, enveloping her in a heady scent that reminded her of hot cross buns: warm and sweet and cinnamon. Yum.
"I think you've been expecting me. I'm DanteAndretti." Natasha gripped the desk to steady her wobbly legs. This couldn't be happening.
No way could this guy be the prince. 'The Prince of Calida," he added as an afterthought, the corners of his mouth lifting in a small, sexy smile which did strange things to Natasha's insides, things she'd never felt before, things she had no right to experience now.
He was the prince.
This…this…rebel was the man she'd pinned all her hopes on for saving her father's business?
Lord help her. 'Is there a problem, Miss Telford?"
Swallowing her first response of 'you bet your sweet butt there is', she said, 'Not at all, Your Highness."
"Ssh!"He shook his head vigorously and put an index finger to his lips, like some second–rate spy. 'Someone might hear you."
"And that might be a problem because…?" Her voice held a slight tinge of hysteria, and she took a few steadying breaths.
This was crazy. It had to be one of those stupid Candid Camera stunts where her dad and Ella would leap out at any moment and say 'Gotcha!"
She'd expected the prince to arrive in a stretch limo; this guy had revved in on a motorbike.
She'd expected the prince to have an entourage of bodyguards; this guy was solo.
She'd expected a stiff upper lip, hair–slicked–back pompous ass, and this guy was laid back, ruffled and very, very sexy.
Way too sexy. 'In case you hadn't noticed, I'm not advertising my identity and I'd like to keep it that way."
Natasha sighed, wishing for one ounce of the kind of saint–like patience that Ella demonstrated when she sat for hours in front of a plant to sketch it. 'I'm not following this. You're booked in under your real name but you don't want anyone to know you're here?"
He snapped his fingers under her nose, his smile broadening. 'Exactly."
No, no, no!
Natasha wanted to stamp her feet like one of her rock–star guests having a tantrum.
This wouldn't do. She needed to broadcast the prince's presence in her hotel to the world, and he wanted to keep it a secret? Was the guy out of his mind?
"Is there a security problem? Something I should know about?" Like why you've turned up here looking like a jeans model and spouting a whole lot of nonsense?
"No problem. But I would like a chance to talk further. Like I said, I need your help while I'm here. Let me check in, and perhaps we can meet when you've finished your shift, yes?"
Natasha lowered her voice, deriving some satisfaction from the surprised glint in those too–blue eyes. Good. Let him see how it felt to be on the receiving end of a few surprises for once. She'd had her quota for the day.
Schooling her face into what she hoped was a professional mask, she said, 'What I meant was I'm busy here for the next few hours. It will be a while before I finish up."
"No matter."He waved his hand as if her answer meant little, and she suddenly realised that though this guy didn't look like a prince he had the commanding mannerisms down pat. 'I will wait. I'm booked in as Dan Anders."
Her mouth twitched, the first time she'd felt like smiling since this crazy, prince–impersonating–a–badboy had strode into her hotel.
He shrugged, and she stared at those muscles again, the way they bunched and shifted beneath the cotton T–shirt, and she wondered if they felt as firm as they looked.
"Dante Andretti, Dan Anders. I chose something similar not to confuse myself."
His self–deprecating grin displayed a row of even white teeth, made more startling by his sensational tan.
She knew pictures often didn't do their subjects justice. In the prince's case, he should have the royal photographer shot.
The guy was gorgeous, impressively so. And for a girl who had sworn off guys after Clay that was saying something.
So she wasn't blind. She could look, couldn't she? Like window shopping; you didn't have to touch—oops, she meant buy—the merchandise!
"Why don't we meet in the Lobby Bar for a coffee around four–thirty? I have plans at five."
There was no way she'd be popping into this guy's room for a rendezvous, prince or not. She had a reputation to uphold in this place, not to mention the fact he unnerved her with that steady, blue–eyed stare.