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New Orleans, Louisiana
Princess Erika Birgitta Inger Freya Mitras of Holsgrof knew how to make a royally memorable appearance.
Her mother had taught her well. And Erika needed all the confidence she could garner striding onto the practice field full of larger-than-life men in training. Most important, she needed all her confidence to face one particular man. The leader of this testosterone domain, the owner of the state-of-the-art training facility where he now presided. Players dotted the field in black-and-gold uniforms, their padded shoulders crashing against each other. Shouts, grunts and curses volleyed. Men who appeared to be trainers or coaches jogged alongside them, barking instructions or blowing whistles.
She'd finished her military stint a month ago, her hopes of serving her country in combat having been sidelined by her parents' interference. They'd shuffled her into some safe figurehead job that made her realize the family's Viking-warrior heritage would not be carried on through her. She'd been so disillusioned, adrift and on edge the day she attended the soccer game, she had been reckless.
Too reckless. And that weekend of indulgence brought her here. Now. To New Orleans. To Gervais.
Her Jimmy Choo heels sank into the most plush grass ever as she stepped onto the practice field of the New Orleans Hurricanes. She'd assumed this particularly American game was played on Astroturf. And assumptions were what she had to avoid when it came to her current adventure in the United States.
She had not intended to see Gervais Reynaud again after he left the United Kingdom. Their weekend of datesand amazing, mind-blowing sexhad been an escape from rules and protocol and everything else that had kept her life rigidly in check for so long. She'd had relationships in the past, carefully chosen and approved. This was her first encounter of her own choosing.
And it had turned out to be far more memorable than she could have ever imagined.
She felt the weight of his eyes from across the open stretch of greenery. Or perhaps he had noticed her only because of the sudden silence. Players now stood still, their shouts dimming to a dull echo.
The rest of the place faded for her while she focused on Gervais Reynaud standing at the foot of the bleachers, as tall as any of the players. He was muscular, more so than the average man but more understated than the men in uniform nearby. She knew he had played in his youth and through college but had chosen a business route in the family's shipping enterprise until he had bought the New Orleans Hurricanes football team. The American football team. She understood the difference now. She also knew Gervais's purchase of the team had attracted a great deal of press coverage in business and sports media alike.
He had not told her much about his life, but before she made her trip here she had made a point of learning more about him and his family.
It certainly was amazing what a few internet searches could reveal.
Tracing their ancestry deep into Acadian history, the Reynaud family first built their fortune in shipping, a business that his grandfather patriarch Leon Reynaud had expanded into a thriving cruise ship company. Leon also turned a love of sports into another successful venture when he'd purchased shares in a Texas football team, learning the business from the inside out. His elder son, Christophe, inherited the shares but promptly sold them to buy a baseball team, creating a deep family rift.
Leon passed his intense love of football to his younger son, Theo, whose promising career as a quarterback in Atlanta was cut short due to injury and excess after his marriage to a celebrated supermodel fell apart. Theo had three sons from his marriage, Gervais, Henri and Jean-Pierre, and one from an earlier affair, Dempsey. All of the sons inherited a passion for the game, playing in college and groomed for the NFL.
While the elder two sons broke ties with their father to bring corporate savvy to the front office of the relatively new team, the younger two sons both continued their careers on the field. The Reynaud brothers were especially well-known in Louisiana, where their football exploits were discussedas much a topic of conversation as the women in their lives. She'd overheard references to each in the lobby of the five-star hotel where she'd spent the night in New Orleans.
Would she be the topic of such conversation once her "encounter" with Gervais became public knowledge? There would be no way to hide it from his football world much longer.
Football. A game she still cared very little about, a fact he had teased her about during their weekend together, a weekend where they had spent more time undressed than clothed. Her gaze was drawn back to that well-honed body of his that had made such passionate love to her.
His dark eyes heated her with memories as he strode toward her. His long legs ate the ground in giant slices, his khakis and sports jacket declaring him in the middle of a workday. He stopped in front of her, his broad shoulders blocking the sun and casting his handsome face in shadows. But she didn't have to see to know his jaw would be peppered with the stubble that seemed to grow in seconds after he shaved. Her fingersher bodyremembered the texture of that rasp well.
Her breath caught somewhere in her chest.
He folded his arms over his chest, just under the Hurricanes logo stitched on the front of his jacket. "Welcome to the States, Erika. No one mentioned your intention to visit. I thought you didn't like sports."
"And yet, here I am." And in need of privacy out of the bright Louisiana sun and the even brighter curious eyes of his team and staff. She needed space and courage to tell him why she'd made this unexpected journey across the Atlantic to this muggy bayou state. "This is not an official royal visit."
"And you're not in uniform." His eyes glided over her wraparound dress.
"I'm out of the service now to begin furthering my studies." About to return to school to be a nurse-practitioner, the career field she'd hoped to pursue in the military, but they would not allow her such an in-the-field position, instead preferring to dress her up and trot her around as a figurehead translator. "I am here for a conference on homeopathic herbs and scents." A part of her passion in the nursing field, and a totally made-up excuse for being here today.
"The homeopathic scents for healing, right? Are you here to share specially scented deodorant with my players? Because they could certainly use it." His mouth tipped with a smile.
"Are you interested in such a line?" Still jet-lagged from the transatlantic flight, she was ill prepared to exchange pleasantries, much less ones filled with taunts at her career choice.
"Is that why you are here? For business before you start your new degree?"
She could not just banter with him. She simply could not. "Please, can we go somewhere private to talk?"
He searched her eyes for a long moment before gesturing over his shoulder. "I'm in the middle of a meeting with sponsors. How about supper?"
"I am not here for seduction," she stated bluntly.
"Okay." His eyebrows shot upward. "I thought I asked you to join me for gumbo not sex. But now that we're talking about sex"
"We are not." She cut him short. "Finish your meeting if you must, but I need to speak with you as soon as possible. Privately. Unless you want your personal business and mine overheard by all of your team straining to listen."
She definitely was not ready for them to hear she was pregnant with the heir to the Reynaud family dynasty.
She was back. Princess Erika, the sexy seductress who'd filled his dreams since they'd parted ways nearly three months ago. And even though he should be paying attention to the deal with his sponsors, he could not tear his eyes away from her. From the swish of her curves and hips. And the long platinum-blond hair that made her look completely otherworldly.
He needed to focus, but damn. She was mesmerizing.
And apparently, every team member on the field was also aware of that fact. From their top wide receiver Wildcard to running back Freight Train.
Gervais turned his attention back to finishing up his conversation with the director of player personnel Beau Durantresponsible for draft picks, trades, acquiring the right players and negotiating contracts. An old college friend, Beau shared his friend's interest in running a football team. He took a businesslike, numbers approach to the job and wed that with his personal interest in football. Like Gervais, he had a position in his family's multinational corporation, but football was his obsession.
"Gervais, I'd love to stay and chat, but we have another meeting to get to. We'll be in touch," his former college roommate promised.
"Perfect, Beau. Thank you," he said, offering him a sincere handshake. Beau's eyes were on the princess even if he didn't ask the obvious question. Beau was an all-business kind of guy who never pried. He'd always said he didn't want others sticking their noses in his private life, either.
The eyes of the whole damn team remained on the princess, in fact. Which made Gervais steam with pro-tectiveness.
He barked over to his half brother, the head coach, "Dempsey, don't your boys have something better to do than stand around drooling over a woman like pimply teenage boys?"
Dempsey smirked. "All right, men. Back to practice. You can stare at pretty girls on someone else's time. Now, move!" Henri Reynaud, the Hurricanes' quarterback and Gervais's brother, shot him a look of half amusement. But he slung his helmet back on and began to make his way into formation. The Bayou Bomber, a nickname Henri had earned during his college days at LSU, would not be so easily dissuaded from his obvious curiosity.
Dempsey scratched some numbers out on his paper. Absently, he asked, "What's with the royal visit?"
"We have some
unresolved issues from our time in England."
"Your time together?" Dempsey's wicked grin spread, and he clucked his tongue.
He might as well come clean in an understated way. The truth would be apparent soon enough. "We had a quiet
"Very damn quiet if I didn't hear about it." Crossing his arms, he did his best to look hurt.
"You were busy with the team. As it should be."
"So you have some transcontinental dating relationship with Europe's most eligible princess?"
"Reading the tabloids again, Dempsey?"
"Gotta keep up with my players' antics somehow." He shrugged it off.
"Well, don't let her hear you discussing her eligibility. She's military. She might well be able to kick your ass."
"Military, huh? That's surprising."
"She said male royals serve. Why not females? She just finished up her time." Which had seemed to bother her. He understood well about trying to find where you fit in a high-profile family.
"Carole Montemarte, the Hurricanes' press relations coordinator, will have a blast spinning that for the media. Royalty for a girlfriend? Nice, dude. And she chased you clear across the ocean. You are quite the man."
Except that didn't make sense. She'd ignored his calls after he left the country. Granted, what they'd shared blew his mind, and he didn't have the time or energy for a transcontinental relationship. So his calls had been more
obligatory. Had she known that? Was that the reason she'd ignored him?
So why show up here now?
He sure as hell intended to find out.