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I want one hour with you."
Prince Durante D'Agostino froze at the foyer's threshold.
That voice. Coming out of nowhere. So low he shouldn't have heard it over the live jazz music blaring its infectious energy from the ballroom where the charity function was in full swing.
He heard nothing but its softness. As if faders had been hit, boosting it, dousing every other sound. More. As if it had been generated inside his head, a caress of a thought, making all else recede from his awareness. An awareness that bristled with responses so tactile that every hair on his body rose as if he were caught in a field of static electricity.
He frowned. What was all this, over hearing a woman's voice? Over yet another blatant invitation?
A scowl seized his face as he swung around to the offending entity. And everything receded farther. Disappeared. He felt as if his blood stopped in his arteries even as everything else hurtled through him. Heat, sensations. Urges.
Eyes. From the shadows behind the foyer's door, they transfixed him. Pieces of heaven. Staring up at him from a face that was what the offspring of an angel and a siren must look like.
Then the impossible creature spoke again. "One hour. I'll pay one hundred grand for it."
His eyes dragged away from the clear skies of hers to the lips spilling that offer. Dimpled, dewy and flushed as if she'd been sucking on bloodred cherries. They were still again, slightly parted. But he could see them as they'd wrapped around each syllable of her spell, could imagine them nibbling and suckling their way down his body
He shifted, stunned to feel himself hardening, zero to one hundred in two seconds.
Aroused? Here? From just alook and a few words?
He expanded his chest in an effort to draw in more oxygen, to drive blood to his head instead of his loins. He managed only to suck in her scentclean, with a tinge of jasmine and a deluge of pheromones. Every cell in his body twitched, revved.
Then she stepped out of the shadows and he forgot any intentions or delusions of subduing his body.
This might not be happening anyway. He might still be in the back of his limo, dreaming this apparition as he dozed off on the way to the charity event he was sponsoring. Thirty-six sleepless hours must have taken their toll on his nervous system. It would explain her, the epitome of his every far-fetched fantasy. From hair the shade of fire he'd once seen in a painting and wondered if it truly existed in nature, a waterfall of silk his fingers itched to twist through, to a complexion of such clear olive that it offset the vividness of her hair and the lightness of her eyes, to features sculpted and aligned in such an unusual way that they screamed character and whispered sensuality, to curves and swells in the abundance and the distribution to answer his every specification.
But she was no figment of his overworked mind. She was real.
What was unreal was her effect on him. Women had been throwing themselves at him since he'd turned seventeen, and even then he hadn' t operated on hormones. Then had come this woman.
She'd aroused everything in him just by breathing those words, by being near. Now, by just looking at him, she had his imagination flooding with images and sounds and sensations and scents, of drenched silk sheets and hot velvet limbs, of cries rising in the dark along with the aromas of arousal and satisfaction.
Was this it? The overtures of the breakdown Eduardo and Jade claimed he was teetering on? Was this surreal reaction the first crack before a chasm tore his psyche wide open? Not that he cared. If this was a breakdown, maybe it was exactly what he needed.
"I have a check right here." She fumbled inside her evening purse. "Make it out to the charity or cause of your choice."
He watched her supple hands, with those neat, short, unadorned fingernails, found himself imagining grabbing them, sucking each finger until she was begging for his lips and teeth and tongue elsewhere everywhere.
He took a step toward her, maybe not to translate fantasy into action, but to feel herany part of heragainst him, to confirm that sheand what she evoked in himwas real.
She stumbled back. He surged forward to stop her, only to become trapped in the swarm of people who'd materialized between them.
Maledizione. He hadn't even heard them approach. Now there was nothing but the cacophony of their intrusion, the encroachment of their self-interest.
"Prince Durante! You're finally here!"
"Prince Durante, this way."
"You must come this way first, Prince Durante."
"I have someone who's dying to meet you."
"Me, too, and you'll definitely want to meet him first."
He was suddenly sorry that he'd left his bodyguards outside.
He fought the urge to signal them to disperse the throng who'd so rudely fractured the pristine intensity that had cocooned him with her. But they might rush to deal with the situation with inappropriate force. They'd been jumpy ever since Jeremiah Langley had stabbed him a month ago.
Apart from bellowing for everyone to get the hell away from him, he had no recourse but to let them sweep him along, watch her recede as she remained standing where she'd first intercepted him in that evening gown that could have been spun from the hues and radiance of her eyes. The last thing he saw of her before the ballroom doors closed was her arm falling to her side, the check held limply in her hand.
He buzzed his head bodyguard, muttered an order to keep track of her if she left. He couldn't risk losing her.
Only then did he start playing the evening's sponsor, burning to wrap everything up so he could do what he really wanted to do. The first thing in years that he couldn't wait to do. Seek her out, give her whatever she wanted and experience that eagerness and exhilaration she'd inspired in him, something he hadn't felt in ever.
Gabrielle Williamson's eyes clung to one thing among the ebbing wave of people. The man they'd swept along, the one who towered above them all.
So that was Prince Durante D'Agostino.
She'd thought she knew what he looked like from endless photos in newspapers and magazines, including her own publications. She'd known nothing. Every photo had downgraded him to the man who deserved every letter of his reputation as the world's most notorious, eligible and panted-after royalty.
In reality he was a a god.
And she'd approached himokay, ambushed him more likewith her pathetic offer. A hundred grand felt ridiculous now. But what would an hour with a god rate?
The ballroom door closed, severing the mesmerism of those azure twin stars he had for eyes.
A tremor hit her. A second hit harder. Then a deluge broke out, until she was shaking like a rag in a storm.
What was wrong with her? She was the one who was supposed to surprise him into agreeing to give her that hour. To make a solid pitch before he asked questions. Especially about who she was. She'd wanted to eliminateor at least postpone the prejudice her name had already elicited from him. She'd wanted a fair hearing.
But seeing him in the flesh, even from the back, had almost blanked her mind. Then he'd turned, and everything had vanished.
She'd forgotten where she was, what she was supposed to say, could only stare at him. She'd moved only when the tractor beam of his will had forced her forward for his inspection. And boy, had he inspected. She'd felt inspected down to her cellular level.
Then, those people had charged him, saved her from doing that rag-in-the-storm impression in his presence. They'd also taken him away before he'd said yes. And he'd been about to. Or she could have been imagining that, along with his surreal impact on her.
Imagining shimagining. She was a thirty-year-old divorcée who hadn't had fantasies even as a young girl. Being the only child of parents whose marriage had sunk daily into the dark realities of bankruptcy and depression hadn't been conducive to flights of fancy.
That was part of the convoluted journey that had brought her here today, on a mission to save her own company from bankruptcy, while repaying the man who'd supported her family during those desperate years. King Benedetto of Castaldini Prince Durante's father.
After her father went bankrupt, the king, a friend and former business associate, had convinced him to move his family closer, to Sardinia, so that the king could be of more help. And he had more than helped, had continued to do so after her father's death six years later. He'd supported her and her mother and financed her education until she'd graduated from journalism school.
She'd since insisted on repaying her family's debts with interest. But while she'd needed to settle the financial debt, she'd always cling to the emotional one.
It had been because of that bond, along with what had been solid financial advice at the time, that she'd invested heavily in stocks and assets in Castaldini. It was partly why Le Roi Enterprises, her publishing company, was in trouble now. The kingdom had been hit by a steep recession after the king's stroke six months ago.
His condition had been hushed up until his recovery hadn' t conformed to his doctors' optimism. His grim prognosis had leaked out, and Castaldini's stock market had crashed like a meteor.
He'd called her a couple of weeks ago, requesting a video meeting. He'd said he had a solution to all her problems. She remembered that call
She'd waited for the meeting to start, contemplating how to turn down his offer of more help. It was one thing to settle her father's debts and see to their household upkeep, but another to float a company with multinational subsidiaries. She didn't think he could afford anything of this magnitude now. And she couldn't be so deeply indebted again, even to him. She'd been so driven to repay her family's debt that she'd done something as crazy as marry Ed. But could she afford to turn down help, when hundreds of people depended on her for their jobs?
Then a stranger came onto the screen. It was several dropped heartbeats before she realized it was the king. The incredibly fit and virile seventy-four-year-old man she'd last seen seven months ago at her mother's funeral had metamorphosed into an emaciated, hundred-year-old version of himself.
Tears surged behind her eyes, at seeing him like that, at the acrid thankfulness that her mother's illness had been quick and merciless so that she hadn't suffered his fate, hadn't lasted long enough to see her beauty almost mummified.
"It's good to see you, figlia mia."
The wan rasp that used to be the surest baritone forced a tear to escape her control. She wiped it away, pretending to sweep her hair back. "I-it's good to see you, too, King Benedetto."
His smile was resigned, conciliatory. "No need to tiptoe around me, Gaby. I know that seeing me must be a shock for you. But I had to speak to you face-to-face as I ask you this incalculable favor."
He was asking, not offering, a favor? She didn't see how that could solve her problems, but the very idea of being of service to him infused her with energy and purpose.
"Anything, King Benedetto. Ask me anything."
"You once wanted to approach Durante with a book offer."
She frowned, nodded. She'd asked him how best to approach his elusive son with an offer for a motivational biography, when the enigmatic media-magnet had turned down every offer to publish anything about his life. The king had told her to forget it.
That had been before her mother's death and she'd since forgotten about it, along with every plan she'd had, lacking the drive to pursue anything new that required focus and determination. Her grief was dulling to a pervasive, crippling coldness, and there was nothing and no one to ameliorate it.
She'd made no friends since she'd returned to New York, seemed to have made only enemies. She had colleagues and employees, was on good terms with most, but she hadn't forged a real closeness to any of them. Her uncles and their families lived states or continents away and she'd never been close to them anyway. From the men who hunted her for the fortune they thought she'd inherited and the one she'd acquired, to the disaster of her marriage, to the disappointment of her attempts to wash away its ugliness in other men's arms, to the women who treated her like a succubus who'd drain their men of life, it felt as if she'd lost one bond to the world after another. Her mother's death had cracked the last link. Why bother? was the one thought left echoing inside her.
Only the employees who'd lose their jobs and the causes she'd be unable to contribute to if she threw in the towel had kept her going, just enough to keep her head above water.
"I feel responsible for your company's problems."
The king's rasp dragged her back to the moment. She blinked.
"Please, don't, King Benedetto. It's not your fault."
She bit her lip on much more. Her company's decline had started with the discovery of her mother's terminal illness, and its slow death had begun when a part of her had died with her mother, a part she didn't know how to resuscitate, didn't feel like trying. Castaldini's recession had just been the last straw.
But she could see how he'd think that, because she wasn't alone in her decline. Many smaller corporations heavily invested in Castaldinian stock were floundering. Even though the new regent, Prince Leandro D'Agostino, had stepped in and floated the economy, the original hit had been bad. She'd heard that Leandro would work his way down to companies at the level of hers, but doubted her company could last until he did. And then, even with his power and financial clout, as regent only, he didn't promise the market the long-term stability a king would. Advisors had urged her not to await rescue, said Leando might even let lesser interests go under to stabilize the big picture.
The king went on. "Durante could revive your company, either with a bestseller or in other ways if he so wished."
That was what her advisors had said. That only a guaranteed bestseller or a merger with any major player would buoy her company. Prince Durante would have answered both criteria. But previously, the king had said Durante wasn't an option. Which meant "So he'd be amenable to an offer now?"
"I'm not saying he would be."
That stymied her. "Then what has changed?"
"Your situation. And mine."
She didn't understand what her situation had to do with his, only that he thought a positive result might be obtained now. She should jump at the opening. Yet she wanted to do nothing but say goodbye and sit staring into space. It seemed that her lethargy wasn't about to let her challenge-tackling abilities escape its somnolent grip. She sighed. "I'll give it some more thought