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'Now there, at least, is a Jackson who has bettered himself.'
Princess Natalia Santina glanced at her mother, whose arctic tone belied what had sounded like a compliment. Queen Zoe's eyes were narrowed, her lips pressed together in disapproval. Her usual look then. Natalia turned to see who was the subject of her mother's grudging praise. Her gaze moved through the crowd of well-heeled guests who had come to the engagement party of her older brother Alessandro and his unexpected fiancée, Allegra, daughter of British tabloid fodder and ex-footballer Bobby Jackson, to finally rest on Ben Jackson, Allegra's older brother and self-made millionaire. Not that the money made a difference to her mother. Anyone, she liked to say with a sniff, could make money. Breeding was what mattered.
After all, the fiance who had thankfully just broken Natalia's own engagementPrince Michel of the small mountain principality of Montenavarrehadn't had much money. He'd claimed Natalia had possessed impossibly expensive tastes, which was undoubtedly true for him. Prince Michel might be second in line to the throne but he was practically penniless, and in any case Natalia had no intention of spending her life in some draughty castle in the Alps, listening to her husband go on and on about his country's tediously noble history.
The question of just how she intended to spend her life remained, as yet, unanswered. For the moment Natalia was simply glad to enjoy her reprieve from matrimony. Nothing in her experience so far had recommended it.
Now her own gaze narrowed as she took in Ben Jackson's powerful form. He was dressed in a well-cut grey silk business suit, his tie a sober navy, his movement restrained and precise as he chatted to another guest. Unlike his father, whose flashy tie, booming voice and expansive gestures proclaimed new money like nothing else could, Ben Jackson was the epitome of understated male elegance. Queen Zoe, Natalia had noticed with a stab of amusement, had held out only two fingers for Bobby Jackson to shake and flinched visibly when he'd lavishly kissed her hand instead.
'What does Ben Jackson do exactly?' she asked her mother, who stiffened at the vulgarity of such a question. Natalia knew you weren't supposed to ask what people did, because of course people of class didn't do anything. Not for money. Queen Zoe didn't even like to mention the successful business ventures of her own son and heir to the throne. Sometimes Natalia wondered if her mother had stepped from the pages of a Victorian novel, or even a time machine. Her attitudes certainly did not belong to this century.
'He's an entrepreneur, as far as I can tell,' Zoe said stiffly. 'Something in finance.'
How boring, Natalia thought, even as she eyed the oldest Jackson with undisguised feminine appreciation. The set of his shoulders underneath the tailored grey silk was impressive indeed. He lifted one long-fingered hand to make a point, his blazing eyes and set mouth creating an expression, Natalia decided, of controlled enthusiasm. He felt deeply, but he didn't want anyone to know. She'd always been good at reading expressions, and gauging a person's attitude. It had certainly helped her through twelve years of incomprehensible education, when often the curve of a mouth or lift of an eyebrow was the only clue as to whether she'd got it right or wrong.
'Who is he talking to?' she asked her mother. 'Ben Jackson, I mean?'
Her mother sighed with the kind of weary disappointment Natalia was long used to. 'He's talking to the minister of culture and tourism,' she told her, 'which you would know, if you professed any interest in or duty to the country of your birth and family.'
Natalia did not reply. She knew her mother was really referring to her recently broken engagement. Both her parents had wanted her off their hands and out of the country. At twenty-seven, happily unmarried and with a rather active social life, she was an embarrassment to the royal family. At least this time it was by choice.
'You're right, Mother,' Natalia said with as much docility as she could muster. 'I should be familiar with Santina's ministers. I suppose I'll have to remedy that immediately.'
And with a suggestive sway of her hips, she sauntered over to where Ben Jackson was still looking intriguingly passionate.
The word slid slyly into her mind. Ben Jackson didn't look like a passionate man. The shoulders were impressive, yes, but everything about the man from his sober suit to his close-cut brown hair said restrained. Controlled. Boring, even. A man who guarded his passionsif he had them at allcarefully.
'Princess Natalia!' The minister of culture and tourism inclined his head in a nod as Natalia approached. She smiled, reaching out to shake his hand.
'Minister. How lovely to see you again.' The minister blinked, and Natalia wished she'd thought to ask the man's name before she'd come over. It would have added a nice touch.
'Likewise, Your Highness,' the minister responded after a pause, and still smiling, Natalia turned to Ben Jackson. Up close he wasn't quite so boring. His body radiated a certain leashed power, and despite his aura of restrained wealth and prestige, Natalia still felt an undercurrent of cynical wariness that intrigued her. He might have risen far on his own, but he hadn't left the boy behind. But then, you could never really leave behind the child you'd been even if you wanted to. Desperately.
His eyes were blue, navy like his tie, and now they were narrowed not in admiration or even assessment but amusement, Natalia realised with an icy pang of shock. He was laughing at her. The thought caused a stab of irritation to knife through her. If there was one thing she couldn't stand it was to be laughed at. The butt of someone's silent joke. It had happened too many times before.
'I don't believe we've been introduced,' she said, switching from Italian to English. She held out her hand, and Ben Jackson's mouth flicked upwards at one corner, the faintest of mocking smiles.
'Not formally,' he agreed, 'although I know you are one of the Santina princesses, and you undoubtedly know I am a Jackson.' He took her fingers in his own for the most cursory of handshakes, but Natalia was still left with an impression of latent strength.
'Ah, but which Jackson?' she replied with a lift of her brows. 'There are so very many of you.'
Ben Jackson narrowed his gaze, his mouth pressed into a thin line. Natalia gave him a bland smile back. She would not be anyone's amusement. Not ever again. If she amused, it would be by choice, not because of what she couldor couldn'tdo.
'And there are quite a few Santinas as well,' he replied in as bland a tone as her smile. 'Large families are such blessings, aren't they?'
'Oh, yes,' Natalia murmured, although she'd hardly call her large family a blessing. Their relationships were too fractured and distant for that. Save for her twin sister, Carlotta, Natalia didn't feel particularly close to anyone in her family, and certainly not her parents. Yet knowing what she did of Bobby Jackson's clan, she didn't think Ben thought his family such a blessing either.
The minister of tourism and culture had excused himself with a murmur, and Natalia nodded to his retreating back. 'You were certainly having a cozy chat with our minister. Are you planning on spending some time on our fair island?' She'd spoken playfully, giving him a flirtatious look from under her lashes, but Ben Jackson remained all too expressionless. Unaffected, or perhaps still amused.
'As a matter of fact, I am.'
'A holiday, perhaps?'
He was definitely amused. Natalia suppressed another stab of irritation. She was used to managing such conversations better, or, if she were honest, wrapping men like Ben Jackson around one manicured pinkie. No, not men like Ben Jackson. She had a feeling she hadn't met many men like Ben Jackson, which was something to be thankful for. The man was downright annoying.
'Then perhaps,' she suggested, 'you're here to keep an eye on your sister? Make sure she behaves herself?'
'My sister is an adult and perfectly capable of behaving herself,' Ben replied coolly, 'unlike some women who have been happily plastered across the pages of most of the tabloids of Europe.'
Natalia jerked back just a little, shocked by the sudden sharpness in his tone. He didn't sound amused any more; he sounded condemning. She knew she was featured heavily in most tabloids and gossip magazines. She sought out such publicity deliberately. Yet hearing this aggravating man mock her for the exaggerated stories of her evening exploits made her now burn with furyand shame.
'Then you must be watching out for the rest of your family,' she said with an answering edge to her voice. She let her gaze sweep through the room, lingering pointedly on his outrageous father, who was laughing far too loudly, before moving on to one of his sisters arguing heatedly with a guest, and then another sistersome kind of reality TV star, for heaven's sake!who certainly looked the part, before finally resting on yet another sister, a curvy blonde who was poured into a dress and flirting outrageously with a man twice her age. 'I don't believe all of them are able to behave themselves, are they?'
Ben's expression didn't change, not one bit, yet Natalia experienced a ripple of unease anyway. She felt again that impression of latent strength, leashed power.
'I believe,' Ben said softly, 'this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.'
She lifted her chin. 'I hardly think we can compare families, Mr Jackson, despite their similar sizes.'
'Ah, I see. You're a snob as well as a brat.'
Natalia drew back, shocked. No one ever talked to her like that, at least not a commoner at a public event. Within the palace walls was another matter altogether. 'You should know,' she told him coldly, 'that I could have you thrown out of here for making remarks like that.'
'Is that a threat?'
Natalia said nothing. It was a threat, and a useless one at that. She could go and fetch one of the liveried guards standing sentry at the doors to the palace ballroom, and she could request that they eject Ben Jackson from the premises. Whether they would do so was highly questionable. Ben Jackson was the brother of the future queen of Santina and, despite his family's insalubrious background, an honoured guest. And the palace staff, on orders from her parents, took any of her requests with an irritating dose of cautious skepticism. She'd just been very foolish.
'Consider yourself warned,' she told him, and he laughed softly.
'At least you have some sense.' 'And you have no manners,' she shot back. His eyebrows lifted once again, and another mocking smile quirked that rather mobile mouth. 'Kettle?' he reminded her softly. 'Pot?'
Natalia resisted the very strong urge to remind him she was of royal blood. And to kick him in the shins. or maybe somewhere a bit higher. She plucked a flute of champagne from a circulating tray and took a large sip. 'So,' she said, eyeing him over the rim of her drink, 'why are you considering spending time on Santina?'
Ben regarded her for a moment, and then seeming to shrug although his shoulders barely moved, he decidedthankfullyto be civil. 'I'm starting a sports camp for the island's disadvantaged youth.'
Surprise flickered through her. She'd expected him to say something about touring Santina's sights, or renting a private yacht or palazzo. The usual reason a restless millionaire came to their shores. 'How very charitable of you,' she finally murmured.
'And I suppose you're hoping to find the next Lionel Messi or David Beckham? Get a few kickbacks?'
Ben narrowed his eyes. 'If you're implying that my aim in starting this camp is to find a future star and benefit financially from it then you would be very much mistaken.'
'Oh, come now. Surely you can't deny you have something of an ulterior motive? or are you going to spend however many weeks or months setting up this little camp with no profit whatsoever?'
'As incredible as it seems to you, Your Highness,' Ben murmured, 'yes.'
Natalia shook her head. She knew enough about businessor at least mento realise that no one did anything for free. There was always a price; it just depended on who paid it. And even if Ben had the saintliest motives possible, she still liked to annoy him. Especially since he'd annoyed her so much. 'Perhaps not a future star, then,' she acknowledged, 'but the publicity can't be bad.'
'You know what they say about publicity. No publicity is bad publicity, except I don't think that's quite true in your case?' He left it as a question, but the iron in his eyes made Natalia quite sure that he had no doubt about the publicity she'd hador its accuracy. Only last week she'd been photographed leaving a club at 4:00 a.m., in the company of two well-known jet-setting playboys. A man like Ben Jackson probably found that shockingand shameless. 'In any case,' he continued, 'the amount of publicity generated by a youth club on this small island will be negligible to my business or its profits.'
Natalia didn't know whether to be amused or outraged by his complete dismissal of this small island. She was a bit of both. Her mother would possibly swoon at such scorn. 'Well,' she said, keeping her voice careless, 'since you seem so well-acquainted with the tabloids of Europe, I have no doubt you'll be able to deliver the information into the right hands and guarantee yourself a front page or two.'
He stared at her for a moment, long enough to make her lose her edge of defiance and start to squirm. Or at least want to squirm. Thankfully she remained quite still. 'Are you always this pleasant?' he finally enquired.
'No, I'm not,' she told him. 'You happened to catch me at a good moment.' He let out a dry chuckle, surprising her. So boring Ben Jackson possessed a sense of humour. A small one.
'I shudder at the thought of catching you at a bad one,' he told her, and his voice was low and honeyed enough to slide right over her senses. Restrained and boring he may be, but he was also all too attractive.
Natalia knew she had been rather rude to him, but only because she'd felt so defensive. As soon as she'd met Ben Jackson he'd examined and dismissed her, all in the space of a few minutes. She'd spent a long time perfecting her air of polished, jaded sophistication, and she didn't like someone like Ben blowing it. Seeing right through it. Laughing at her. 'Shudder away,' she told him. 'Somehow I don't think we'll be meeting again.'