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She couldn't believe she was really doing this.
Lizzy Pryce climbed the palace steps, feeling as if she was walking into a dream. Through the open, gilded double doors she could see a throng of guests milling about the foyer, dressed in sparkling gowns and tailored tuxedos. Waiters carried trays of mouthwatering hors d'oeuvres and champagne in delicate crystal flutes. From the ballroom she could hear the orchestrathe one she herself had chosenplaying a waltz. She could just imagine the couples dancing, swirling across the floor, so graceful and light they looked as though they hovered an inch above ground.
Everything in her wanted to turn around and run, but she'd come this far. She had to see this through.
Gathering her courage, she approached the guard posted at the door and handed him her invitation. Normally palace employees were strictly forbidden from attending royal parties, but this was the gala celebrating Morgan Isle's five hundredth anniversary. The party of the century. And because she held one of the highest positionsthe queen's personal assis-tanther name had been included on the guest list.
Her married name, that is. She didn't want people to recognize her. It was silly, but just for tonight, she wanted to feel as if she was one of them. The beautiful people. She certainly looked the part.
The golden-blond hair that she normally kept pinned back and fastened primly at the base of her neck now tumbled in loose tendrils across her shoulders and down her back. She'd ditched her glasses for contacts. And she'd abandoned her usual shapeless, dullbut properbusiness suit for the formfitting, shimmering gold, Carlos Miele gown she had rented.
At the risk of sounding arrogant, she looked damn good.
The guard compared the name on the invitation to his list then motioned her through without a second glance.
As Lizzy stepped through the door into the foyer, one by one heads began to turn her way until what must have been a hundred pairs of curious eyes fixed right on her.
Don't get too excited, she told herself. They're only looking because they don't know who you are.
But she couldn't help noticing some of those looks, particularly the male ones, conveyed more appreciation than curiosity.
Head held high, she made her way through the crowd to the ballroom, nodding graciously and returning polite greetings with people she'd only read about in the papers or seen on television. Heads of state, Hollywood film stars and business moguls.
She was way out of her league. The value of the jewelry alone would probably feed an entire Third World country for a year. She hadn't even made it out of the foyer and she was a nervous wreck.
Lizzy, you have just as much right to be here as anyone else.
She swiped a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and took a generous swallow, the bubbles tickling her nose. She was only a few steps from the ballroom doors.
Just do it, walk in, her conscience taunted. So she took a deep breath and forced her feet to propel her forward.
Stepping through the doors and into the ballroom was like entering some ethereal, fairy-tale fantasyland where everything sparkled and shimmered. Handsome couples swished across the dance floor while others congregated in small groups, sipping their champagne and chatting, nibbling on decadent treats.
It was just as she had imagined. And for an instant she felt swept away.
"Excuse me," a male voice said from behind her, and the first thing that struck her was the very distinct American accent.
Taking another fortifying sip of her champagne, she turned and nearly spit it right back out.
Not only was he American, he was the Prince of Morgan Isle. Illegitimate half brother to the king. Half brother-in-law to the queen, Lizzy's boss.
Georgeous, rich, undeniably arrogant but charming to a fault. Of all the men who could have approached her, the one who was by far the most off limits, did.
"I don't believe we've met," he said.
She thought he was toying with her, then she realized, by the look on his handsome, chiseled face and the curiosity in his charcoal-gray eyes, he honestly had no idea who she was. And why would he? The few times he had passed her in the halls of the palace, he hadn't given her more than a fleeting glance. And why would he? She was an employee.
"I don't believe we have," she said.
He offered his hand. "Ethan Rafferty."
When she took it, instead of shaking her hand, he bent at the waist and brushed a gentle, and dare she say seductive, kiss across the top. No big surprise there. She didn't know a lot about the prince, only that he was a confirmed bachelor and a shameless womanizer. She had overheard the queen countless times commenting on the rather scandalous state of his very public personal life. She had also heard the king complain of Ethan's lack of respect for their royal customs and policies. Which would explain why Ethan was dressed in a tux and not the royal uniform. The dark hair was slicked back away from his face. A face that bore an uncanny resemblance to his brother's.
Ethan's recent acceptance into the royal fold, and his new business partnership with the family, was all anyone at the palace talked about these days.
Though she couldn't deny that seeing him like this, watching the way his eyes raked over her, was the tiniest bit thrilling. He was the epitome of male perfection, and he smelled absolutely delicious. Just as a prince and a multimillionaire should, she supposed.
Her ex-husband had been gorgeous, too, and smelled just as nice, though he was lacking the millions of dollars or the motivation to earn even a fraction of that. And like the prince he was also an arrogant, womanizing, philandering dolt.
But because Ethan was royalty, she curtsied and replied, "It's a pleasure, Your Highness."
He actually cringed. "I'm not much into titles. I prefer just Ethan."
She was pretty sure that if he knew who she really was, he wouldn't be so gracious. And while this had been kind of fun, it was time to move on. Find a guest who wasn't quite so far out of her league. And against policy. Palace employees were strictly forbidden from intimate relationships with the royal family.
"Well, it was nice to meet you." She nodded and curtsiedforce of habitthen turned and headed in the opposite direction.
"I didn't catch your name," Ethan said from behind her, and her heart sank.
Bugger. Couldn't the man take a hint? She set her empty glass on a passing waiter's tray and grabbed a fresh drink. "That's because I didn't tell you my name." She tossed the quip back over her shoulder.
"And why is that?" he asked, right beside her now.
She took a long swallow for strength. A smart person was not rude to royalty. Even though the last documented beheading had been well over two hundred years ago.
Of course, he had no idea who she was, so really, what did she have to lose? And who knew, maybe it was time someone put Mr. Wonderful in his place.
"Because you're not my type," she told him, and he had the gall to laugh.
"You're a liar."
She stopped so abruptly the contents of her glass sloshed over and dripped onto her fingers. He stopped, too. "I beg your pardon?"
"Look at me," he said, spreading his arms. "What's not to love?"
She couldn't tell if he was joking or actually had such a high opinion of himself. Could he honestly be that arrogant? "I have to know, does that pathetic excuse for a pickup line actually work?"
He grinned, a sexy, playful smile that made her heart flutter. "I'll let you know in a minute."
He was adorable, and he knew it. And she knew, before she opened her mouth, that telling him her name was a very bad idea. But maybe if she did, he would lose interest and leave her alone.
"Lizzy," she told him, since everyone at work knew her strictly as Elizabeth. And instead of Pryce, the name she had switched back to before the ink was dry on the divorce papers, she used her married name. "Lizzy Sinclaire."
"Would you do me the honor of a dance, Ms. Sinclaire?"
Because she so hated that name and everything it stood for, she told him, "I prefer Lizzy."
"All right, Lizzy."
"And no, I won't dance with you. Because as I said, you're not my type."
Rather than be insulted, or discouraged, his grin widened. "I'm not asking for your hand in marriage. Just a dance. Unless
" His brow wrinkled. "Oh, I see. You don't know how to dance, do you?"
Oh, please, did he really think she would fall for his pathetic attempt at reverse psychology?
The truth was, she and her ex had taken ballroom dance classes several years ago. Only later had she learned that he'd been the one giving personal lessons to the instructor.
"You've found me out," she told him. "Now, if you would please excuse me." She spared him one last dismissive nod then turned and walked back in the direction of the foyer, chanting to herself, Please don't let him follow me. Please don't let him follow me.
"I could teach you," she heard him say, and cursed under her breath. He was right back beside her, matching her step for step.
"I might step on your foot and scuff your shoe," she said.
He shrugged. "It's been stepped on before."
She stopped again and turned to him. "Why is it so important you dance with a woman who has no desire to dance with you?"
He flashed her that grin again, and she swore she could feel it all the way through to her bones. "Because the woman in question is the most captivating in the room."
Oh, man, was he good. He almost had her believing he was sincere. Ethan's words could have melted her into a puddle. Which she was sure was exactly his intention. Men like him didn't see women as people. They were conquests. A notch in the bedpost, so to speak.
She drained the last of her second glass. "I just don't think it would be a good idea."
Ethan took her empty glass and set it on the tray of the waiter who magically appeared at his side. "Please, one dance."
She didn't think a man like him used the word please. And there was something about it that sounded so
genuine. She could feel her resolve slip the tiniest bit. And it certainly didn't help that she was feeling a little giddy from the champagne.
All she had to do was to tell him who she was, and she was sure he would lose interest, but for some reason she couldn't make herself say the words. How often in life was a girl lucky enough to be pursued by a prince? And honestly, what harm would one little dance do? Even if someone recognized her, she could claim she was simply being polite.
"Fine," she told him. "One dance."
He offered her his arm and led her out to the dance floor. She glanced nervously around, noting with relief that the queen, the one person who might actually recognize her, was nowhere in sight.
Ethan took her in his arms and she experienced a delicious shiver of awareness, one she blamed on the champagne. Because in her right mind she would never feel sexually attracted to an arrogant womanizing cad like him. She didn't care how many millions he possessed or hotel resorts he owned.
But one little dance never hurt anyone.
He led her in a waltz and she found him to be quite an accomplished dancer.
"So, you are a liar," he said, and she shot him a questioning look. "I think my shoes are safe."
"This is definitely not the first time you've danced."
Caught red-handed. "No," she admitted. "It isn't."
And it obviously wasn't his first time, either. He seemed to glide, light as the air, across the floor.
"It's not so bad, is it? Dancing with me, I mean."
Not bad at all. In fact, it was so not bad, that when the song ended and a new one began, she didn't pull away. And still she couldn't completely relax.
One dance could easily be explained. But two? And why hadn't she told him who she was? She really should tell him.
"I didn't see the queen," she said. "Is she here?"
"Why, would you like to meet her?"
"No, I was just curious."
"She's probably in the parlor resting. She's expecting soon."
"I believe I had heard that." And Lizzy was grateful to know that Queen Hannah was staying off her feet, as the doctor had advised when she began to complain of regular and intense back pain. Lizzy was constantly after her to take it easy, put her feet up and relax a little. Just as she was always after Lizzy to not work so hard, to take some time off and have fun. But ten-and twelve-hour workdays were an excellent excuse to continue to ignore the fact that she had no life.
"Are you excited to become an uncle?" she asked Ethan.
He shrugged and the planes of his face hardened almost imperceptibly. "I suppose."
He didn't look excited. "You don't like kids?"
"Kids are great. It's the child's father I'm not all that crazy about."
Lizzy knew they didn't get along, but wasn't aware that Ethan harbored such a deep animosity toward the king. And she was a sucker for juicy gossip. So, when the song ended and another began, a slower melody, she pretended not to notice that their one dance had now become three.
"Sibling rivalry?" she asked, shamelessly pumping him for information. "My sisters and I certainly had our share."
"To call him a brother is a stretch. We simply have the misfortune of sharing a few chromosomes. Any familiarity stops there." He spun her around then pulled her back in, much closer than she had been before. So close she could feel the heat of his body radiating through his clothes. Close enough to make her heart do a quick back-and-forth shimmy in her chest.
She felt like a princess, whirling across the dance floor with the world's elite, as though she actually belonged here. As if she were one of them.
But it was an illusion. A fluke.
Tell him who you are, her conscience insisted, but she blocked the annoying voice out. Just a few more minutes.
One more dance, then she would walk away.