Chef Gemma Harper is on a dating break, so the last thing she needs is gorgeous stranger Tristan tempting her into a fling especially when he's revealed as the crown prince of Montavia!
Gemma knows forever isn't possible with duty-bound Tristan, but swept off her feet by this charismatic prince, she's determined to make every moment count. And when Tristan throws out the royal rule book, a happy-ever-after could be within Gemma's grasp if only she's brave enough to say "I do!"
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Using an old-fashioned wooden spoon and her favourite vintage-style ceramic bowl, Gemma Harper beat the batter for the cake she was baking to mark the end of her six months' self-imposed exile from dating.
Fittingly, the cake was a mixture of sweet and soura rich white chocolate mud cake, flavoured with the sharp contrast of lemon and lime. For Gemma, the six months had been sweet with the absence of relationship angst and tempered by sour moments of loneliness. But she'd come out of it stronger, wiser, determined to break the cycle of choosing the wrong type of man. The heartbreaking type.
From now on things would be different, she reminded herself as she gave the batter a particularly vigorous stir. She would not let a handsome face and a set of broad shoulders blind her to character flaws that spelled ultimate doom to happiness. She would curb the impulsiveness that had seen her diving headlong into relationships because she thought she was in love with someone she, in fact, did not really know.
And she was going to be much, much tougher. Less forgiving. No more giving 'one last chance' and then another to a cheating, lying heartbreaker, unworthy of her, whose false promises she'd believed.
She was twenty-eight and she wanted to get married and have kids before too many more years sped by.
'No more Ms Bad Judge of Men,' she said out loud.
It was okay to talk to herself. She was alone in the large industrial kitchen at the converted warehouse in inner-city Alexandria, the Sydney suburb that was headquarters to her successful party planning business. Party Queens belonged to her and to her two business partners, Andie Newman and Eliza Dunne. The food was Gemma's domain, Andie was the creative genius and Eliza the business brain.
After several years working as a chef and then as a food editor on magazines, in Party Queens Gemma had found her dream job. Going into partnership with Andie and Eliza was the best decision she'd ever made. And throwing herself headlong into work had been the best thing she could have done to keep her mind off men. She would do anything to keep this business thriving.
Gemma poured the batter into a high, round pan and carefully placed it into a slow oven, where it would cook for one and a half hours. Then she would cover it with coconut frosting and garnish it with fine curls of candied lemon and lime peel. Not only would the cake be a treat for her and her partners to share this afternoon, in celebration of the end of her man-free six months, it was also a trial run for a client's wedding cake.
Carefully, she settled the cake in the centre of the oven and gently closed the oven door.
She turned back to face the island countertop, to find she was no longer alone. A tall, broad-shouldered man stood just inside the door. She gasped, and her handencased in a hot-pink oven mittwent to her heart.
'Who are you and how the heck did you get in here?' she asked, her voice high with sudden panic.
Even through her shock she registered that the intruder was very handsome, with a lean face and light brown hair. Just her type. No. No longer her typenot after six months of talking herself out of that kind of very good-looking man. Especially if he was a burglaror worse.
She snatched up a wooden spoon in self-defence. Drips of cake batter slid down her arm, but she scarcely noticed.
The man put up his hands as if to ward off her spoon. 'Tristan Marco. I have a meeting this morning with Eliza Dunne. She called to tell me she was caught in traffic and gave me the pass code for the door.'
The stranger seemed about her age and spoke with a posh English accent laced with a trace of something else. Something she couldn't quite place. French? German? He didn't look Australian. Something about his biscuit-coloured linen trousers, fine cream cotton shirt and stylish shoes seemed sarto-rially European.
'You can put down your weapon,' he said, amusement rippling through his voice.
Gemma blushed as she lowered the wooden spoon. What good would a spoon have been against a man taller than six foot? She took a deep breath in an attempt to get her heart rate back to somewhere near normal. 'You gave me quite a shock, walking in on me like that. Why didn't you press the buzzer?'
He walked further into the room so he stood opposite the island counter that separated them. This close she noticed vivid blue eyes framed by dark brows, smooth olive skin, perfect teeth.
'I'm sorry to have frightened you,' he said in that intriguing accent and with an expressive shrug of his broad shoulders. 'Ms Dunne did not tell me anyone else would be here.'
Gemma took off her oven mitts, used one to surreptitiously wipe the batter dribbles from her arm and placed them on the countertop.
'I wasn't frightened. It's just that I'm on my own here and' now wasn't that a dumb thing to say to a stranger? 'Eliza will be here very soon.'
'Yes, she said she would not be long,' he said. His smile was both charming and reassuring. 'I'm looking forward to meeting her. We have only spoken on the phone.'
He was gorgeous. Gemma refused to let the dangerous little fluttering of awareness take hold. She had just spent six months talking herself out of any kind of instant attraction. She was not going to make those old mistakes again.
'Can I help you in the meantime?' Gemma asked. 'I'm Gemma Harperone of Eliza's business partners.'
To be polite, she moved around the counter-top to be nearer to him. Realising she was still in her white chef's apron, she went to untie it, then stopped. Might that look as if she was undressing in front of this stranger?
She gave herself a mental shake. Of course it wouldn't. Had six months without a date made her start thinking like an adolescent? Still, there was no real need to take the apron off.
She offered him her hand in a businesslike gesture that she hoped negated the pink oven mitts and the wielding of the wooden spoon. He took it in his own firm, warm grip for just the right amount of time.
'So you are also a Party Queen?' he asked. The hint of a smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
'Yes, I'm the food director,' she said, wishing not for the first time that they had chosen a more staid name for the business. It had all started as a bit of a lark, but now, eighteen months after they had launched, they were one of the most popular and successful party planning businesses in Sydney. And still being teased about being Party Queens.
'Did you did you want to see Eliza about booking a party?' she asked cautiously. To her knowledge, the steadfastly single Eliza wasn't dating anyone. But his visit to their headquarters might be personal. Lucky Eliza, if that was the case.
'Yes, I've been planning a reception with her.'
'A reception? You mean a wedding reception?'
The good ones were always taken. She banished the flickering disappointment the thought aroused. This guy was a stranger and a client. His marital status should be of no concern to her. Yet she had to admit there was something about him she found very attractive beyond the obvious appeal of his good looks. Perhaps because he seemed somehow different.
'No. Not a wedding.' His face seemed to darken. 'When I get married, it will not be me arranging the festivities.'
Of course it wouldn't. In her experience it was always the bride. It sometimes took the grooms a while to realise that.
'So, if not a wedding reception, what kind of reception?'
'Perhaps "reception" is not the right word. My English ' He shrugged again.
She did like broad shoulders on a man.
'Your English sounds perfect to me,' she said, her curiosity aroused. 'Do you mean a business reception?'
'Yes and no. I have been speaking to Eliza about holding a party for me to meet Australians connected by business to my family. It is to be held on Friday evening.'
It clicked. 'Of course!' she exclaimed. 'The cocktail party at the Parkview Hotel on Friday night.' It was now Monday, and everything was on track for the upscale event.
'That is correct,' he said.
'I manage the food aspect of our business. We're using the hotel's excellent catering team. I've worked with them on devising the menu. I think you'll be very happy with the food.'
'It all looked in order to me,' he said. 'I believe I am in capable hands.'
Everything fell into place. Tristan Marco was their mystery client. Mysterious because his event had been organised from a distance, by phone and email, in a hurry, and by someone for whom Eliza had been unable to check credit details. The client had solved that problem by paying the entire quoted price upfront. A very substantial price for a no-expenses-spared party at a highend venue. She, Eliza and Andie had spent quite some time speculating on what the client would be like.
'You are in the best possible hands with our company,' she reassured him.
He looked at her intently, his blue eyes narrowed. 'Did I speak with you?' he said. 'I am sure I would have remembered your voice.'
She certainly would have remembered his.
Gemma shook her head. 'Eliza is our business director. She does most of our client liaison. You are not what we' She clapped her hand to her mouth. Put a zip on it, Gemma.
'Not what you what?' he asked with a quizzical expression.
'Not not what we expected,' she said. Her voice trailed away, and she looked down in the direction of his well-polished Italian shoes.
'What did you expect?'
She sighed and met his gaze full on. There was no getting out of this. She really needed to curb her tendency to blurt things out without thinking. That was why she worked with the food and Eliza and Andie with the clients.
'Well, we expected someone older. Someone not so tall. Someone heavier. Someone perhaps even bald. With a twirling black moustache. Maybe maybe someone like Hercule Poirot. You know the detective in the Agatha Christie movies?'
Someone not so devastatingly handsome.
Thank heaven, he laughed. 'So are you disappointed in what you see?' He stood, arms outspread, as if welcoming her inspection.
Gemma felt suddenly breathless at the intensity of his gaze, at her compulsion to take up his unspoken offer to admire his tall, obviously well-muscled body, his lean, handsome face with those incredibly blue eyes, the full sensual mouth with the top lip slightly narrower then the lower, the way his short brown hair kicked up at the front in a cowlick.
'Not at all,' she said, scarcely able to choke out the words. Disappointed was not the word that sprang to mind.
'I am glad to hear that,' he said very seriously, his gaze not leaving hers. 'You did not know me, but I knew exactly what to expect from Party Queens.'
'You you did?' she stuttered.
'Party Queens was recommended to me by my friend Jake Marlowe. He told me that each of the three partners was beautiful, talented and very smart.'
'He he did?' she said, her vocabulary seeming to have escaped her. Billionaire Jake Marlowe was the business partner of Andie's husband, Dominic. He'd been best man at their wedding two Christmases ago. Who knew he'd taken such an interest in them?
'On the basis of my meeting with you, I can see Jake did not mislead me,' Tristan said.
His formal way of speaking and his charming smile made the compliment sound sincere when it might have sounded sleazy. Had he even made a slight bow as he spoke?
She willed herself not to blush again but without success. 'Thank you,' was all she could manage to say.
'Jake spoke very highly of your business,' Tristan said. 'He told me there was no better party-planning company in Sydney.'
'That was kind of him. It's always gratifying to get such good feedback.'
'I did not even talk with another company,' Tristan said with that charming smile.
'Wow! I mean that's wonderful. I we're flattered. We won't let you down, I promise you. The hotel is a perfect venue. It overlooks Hyde Park, it's high end, elegant and it prides itself on its exemplary service. I don't think I've ever seen so much marble and glamour in one place.'
She knew she was speaking too fast, but she couldn't seem to help it.
'Yes. The first thing I did was inspect it when I arrived in Sydney. You chose well.' He paused. 'I myself would prefer something more informal, but protocol dictates the event must be formal.'
'The protocol of your family business?' she asked, not quite sure she'd got it right.
He nodded. 'That is correct. It must be upheld even when I am in another country.'
'You're a visitor to Australia?' Another piece of the puzzle fell into place. The phone calls had all come from Queensland, the state to the north of New South Wales. Where Jake Marlowe lived, she now realised.
'Yes,' he said.
She still couldn't place the accent, and it annoyed her. Gemma had studied French, German and Italiannot that she'd had much chance to practise themand thought she had a good ear.
'What kind of business does your family run?' she asked.
That was another thing the Party Queens had wondered about as they'd discussed their mystery client. He was still a mystery.
Tristan was still too bemused by the vision of this cute redhead wearing bright pink oven mitts and wielding a wooden spoon as a weapon to think straight. He had to consider his reply and try not to be distracted by the smear of flour down her right cheek that seemed to point to her beautiful full mouth. While he'd been speaking with her, he'd had to fight the urge to lean across and gently wipe it off.
Should he tell her the truth? Or give the same evasive replies he'd given to others during his incognito trip to Sydney? He'd been here four days, and no one had recognised him.
Visiting Australia had been on his list to do before he turned thirty and had to return home to step up his involvement in 'the business'. He'd spent some time in Queensland with Jake. But for the past few days in Sydney, he had enjoyed his anonymity, relished being just Tristan. No expectations. No explanations. Just a guy nearing thirty, being himself, being independent, having fun. It was a novelty for him to be an everyday guy. Even when he'd been at university in England, the other students had soon sussed him out.
He would have to tell Party Queens the truth about himself and the nature of his reception sooner or later, though. Let it be later.
Gemma Harper was lovelyreally lovelywith her deep auburn hair, heart-shaped face and the shapely curves that the professional-looking white apron did nothing to disguise. He wanted to enjoy talking with her still cloaked in the anonymity of being just plain Tristan. When she found out his true identity, her attitude would change. It always did.
'Finance. Trade. That kind of thing,' he replied.
'I see,' she said.
Sydney is great, and I love living here,' she said. 'But I'm sure Montovia must be, too. When I think of your chocolate, I picture snow-capped mountains and lakes. Am I right?'