Scaling the wall of a mansion and slipping from a balcony into an upperfloor room was probably a unique way of interviewing for a job. But Jack Santini was a pretty unique guy, and he decided it was the reasonable way to go. And all went well until he got to his destination. He hadn't expected to find a young woman in the room, much less in the bed, in midafternoon. As he came in through the open French doors, he was as surprised as she was.
He couldn't afford to have her scream and bring the household down on top of him, so he followed his instincts and grabbed her quickly, covering her mouth with his hand while he whispered in her ear.
"Take it easy, honey. I'm not going to hurt you."
She didn't struggle. Her first start of alarm faded quickly, and though he could feel hear heart beating wildly, she was looking at him sideways, more with wideeyed interest than with fear. She was a pretty one, with shiny golden hair that curled around her face and huge blue eyes framed by thick black lashes. For just a moment he was intensely aware of how soft and rounded she felt, and his head was filled with her fresh, sunshine scent. But he shook it off. Years of training held him in good stead and he quickly regained his professionalism.
"You think you can stay quiet for me?" he asked her, his mouth against her ear.
She nodded and he loosened his grip, waiting just a few seconds to make sure she wasn't bluffing before completely releasing her. Springing up off the bed, he went to the door and listened, ready to leave as quickly as he'd arrived. There were people in the hallway, chatting back and forth. Probably maids cleaning rooms. He combed a hand through his thick black hair, frustrated. He was going to have to get past them if he was going to end up downstairs in the business office without triggering any sort of alarm.
That was his goal. He'd come to interview for the job as head of security for this estate. He liked to take a direct approach and test out what was going on, which is why he'd come into the property the way he had. His experiment was showing him that security here needed a lot of work.
But his test wasn't over. He still had to arrive at estate manager Tim Blodnick's desk without being let in the front door. He was anticipating the look he would see on Tim's face when he appeared out of nowhere. The next few minutes after that look would determine whether he took the job or not. Even though he was desperate as hell for something to pull him out of the swamp he was stuck in, he wasn't about to sell his soul. Time would tell.
The best thing would be to show up in front of Tim's astonished face in about two minutes. But the voices still echoed up and down the hallway, sounding casual, in no hurry. He couldn't leave the room until they'd gone. Stymied, he glanced back at the girl on the bed.
She was sitting back against the headboard, watching him, her eyes very bright. She looked wary but not really scared, and he supposed that was a good thing, although rather unusual. One yell from her and he would seem foolish instead of exceptionally expert, which was what he was going for. He was lucky she was staying calm.
"Where are you taking me?" she asked him, acting more like someone on the brink of an adventure than anything else.
He turned fully and looked at her, noticing again that she was one of the prettiest girls he'd seen in a long time. An employee, probably. The room was sparse, with nothing more than a simple bed, a straightbacked chair and a small dresser. There were no decorations, no fancy drapes. The house itself had the look of a fairytale castle from the outside. If she was part of the family who lived here, he would think she would have fancier digs. At the most, he expected she might be a visiting granddaughter of the old couple Tim had mentioned lived in the place.
"I'm not taking you anywhere," he reassured her, starting back toward the door. "I'm getting out of here as soon as the coast is clear."
Her pretty face took on a puzzled frown. "Wait a minute. Didn't you come to kidnap me?"
He spun and stared at her, both hands raised. "Whoa, hold on. I'm not kidnapping anyone." He frowned, put off balance by her odd reactions. "Why would I want to kidnap you?"
Her chin lifted as though she was gathering pride around herself. "Because I'm the princess, of course."
A princess. Oh, sure. He relaxed. She certainly looked like one, though, sitting there in her lacy nightgown with her hair tumbling around her face. She could have been right out of a picture in a Victorian novel. Too bad she also seemed to be a little nuts. Either that, or she was just pulling his leg.
"A princess," he said wryly. "Right. And I'm Robin Hood."
Robin Hood. Karina Alexandera Roseanova, Princess of the Royal House of Nabotavia, mulled that over and it made her smile. This very imposing man would fit perfectly into the role of the bandit with a heart of gold. He moved with a strength and agility that made her marvel, and he had the right audacious attitude for it, as well.
She knew he was mocking her, but that didn't bother her at all. In fact, it made this encounter all the more interesting. She hardly ever got this close to such an attractive manespecially one who didn't know who she was. He was scoffing at the idea of her being a princess.
He didn't know!
This gave rise to all sorts of intriguing possibilities. She didn't get the chance to come across as a regular person very often. In fact, her life was often monotonous, although seldom ordinary. For her to sit here and contemplate being kidnapped and not be frightened by the prospect should have been bizarre, but somehow it wasn't. She knew very well that one of the main reasons they had to have such extensive security here at the estate was exactly because there were Nabotavian rebels who might think grabbing the princess would give them leverage of one sort or another.
There had been a coup in Nabotavia shortly after she was born. Her parents had been killed in the fighting, and she and her three brothers had been whisked out of the country for safekeeping. Ever since, fears that one of them might be grabbed and taken hostage in order to manipulate events back in the old country had been a constant backdrop to their lives. She knew she ought to take the risk more seriously, but she was tired of spending her life jumping at every strange sound and distrusting everyone who looked at her too long.
She'd lived that way for years; had endured being moved from one boarding school to another just when she'd finally made friends, because there might be a threat. She'd spent her summers in places so unpopular, no one under fifty could be seen on the streets; and had sat through long dinners where her aunt and uncle and other relatives moaned and groaned about living in exile, while she dreamed of just being close enough to real life to see men who didn't wear dentures.
And now a gorgeous specimen of the most virile masculinity had been dropped right into her lap.
She watched as he went back to the door and pressed his ear to it, listening, it seemed, to see if the coast was clear. Remembering how it had felt when he'd held her in his arms, she shivered, even though she knew very well it had only been for emergency purposes. She hadn't had much male attention in her young life. That feeling was one she was going to cherish for a long time.
And she was going to need it, knowing the future she had in store for her. A shadow passed over her face as she thought of it, but she pushed it away quickly. She had the rest of the spring and most of the summer before her fate would be sealed. She meant to enjoy that small window of freedom to the hilt.
" she began, but he motioned for silence and she obeyed.
"Just a minute," he murmured, listening at the door and getting impatient. The maids were passing very close, laughing over some shared joke. If only they would get out of the hallway. At this rate he was going to be late, and the effect of his entrance wouldn't have nearly the same impact.
"Well," she began again, from right behind him this time.
He spun around, shocked that she had gotten up out of the bed and come so close without his noticing. He must be losing his edge. And guys in his business who lost their edge usually lost a lot more in the process. He was going to have to watch it.
"Shh," he warned her sternly.
She blinked and complied with his warning, going on in a stage whisper. "If you're not here to kidnap me, what are you here for?"
"Get back on the bed," he told her gruffly, feeling slightly dizzy from the sense of her warmth so close. He was tall and muscular, and suddenly he felt every bit of his manhood as he looked down at her delicate features. The white lace of her nightgown was edged by a threaded blue satin ribbon, emphasizing her femininity. She came to his shoulder, but her figure was slender. She looked light as a feather. Still, the outline of her breasts was clear through the lace, full and rounded and
The bottom threatened to fall out of his stomach, like going fast over a dip in the road, and he had to look away quickly to keep control of his reactions. He'd just told her to do something, but he'd forgotten what it was, and she wasn't doing it, anyway. He frowned, trying to recapture his sense of reserve.
"You're not trying to burglarize us in broad daylight, are you?" she demanded as she thought of it. "Or maybe you're casing the joint?"
He had to look at her again at that one. She'd said it oddly, and he suddenly realized she had a very slight accent. "'Casing the joint?'" he repeated, his tone shaded with just a little ridicule. "You've been watching too many old movies."
"And you're avoiding the question."
He supposed she deserved to know the truth. "Listen, you've got this all wrong. I'm not burglarizing anything. I'm just testing the security system on this estate, evaluating how tight it is."
She rolled her eyes. "'Just testing.' Right." She said it in a direct copy of the way he'd responded when she'd mentioned being a princess. "And I'm the chimney sweep."
He couldn't hold back the slow grin she evoked. She was darn cute, if annoying, with her tousled locks and her pert attitude. "Okay, chimney sweep," he said. "Because that really is what I'm doing. Just give me a minute and I'll be out of your hair."
The word triggered something between them. Her hand went involuntarily to smooth back her curls, and his gaze followed, caressing the golden cascade of hair for a moment, then sliding down to take in the way her breasts filled the bodice of her nightgown before he met her gaze and realized she'd noticed the way he was looking at her. Her huge blue eyes widened, and without saying another word, she reached out and took up a light robe that was slung across the back of a chair, slipping into it and pulling it together in front.
He felt his ears burn and wondered why. Suddenly, incredulously, he knew. Dammit, he was blushing.
That was what getting mixed up with women did for you. It was Eve with the apple every timesweet temptation that you had to pay for, bigtime, later on. With a soft, internal groan, he turned back to the door. There was still noise in the hallway. Without bad luck, he would have no luck at all.
"They'll be gone in a few minutes," she told him calmly. "They're a pair of chatterboxes."
"Maids?" he asked.
She nodded. "They would be in here right now, only they think I'm asleep. I'm just getting over the flu."
He glanced at her again, realizing that his attention was being drawn back to her repeatedly because she was just so good to look at. "I was wondering what you were doing in here at this time of the day."
She gazed at him levelly, her head to the side as she scanned him. "Since you figured out that I'm not the princess, what do you think I am?" Raising her arms, she turned before him, her eyes crinkling with amusement. "What do I look like to you?"
He would hate to say. She would probably slap his face if he were honest about it. "I don't know." He shrugged, put on a forced frown and went to the window, looking out at the rolling green lawn that was her view. You couldn't see the street from here, but he could see the tall wroughtiron fence that guarded the property. Everything else was trees. You would have thought this was out in the country somewhere. You couldn't really tell they were in the middle of Beverly Hills. "Maybe a nanny for the little kids or something," he said back over his shoulder.
"You think I look like a nanny?" She seemed pleased as punch, turning to look in her mirror as if to confirm his opinion. And that just confused him all the more.
"You do work here, don't you?" he asked, just to make sure.
"Oh, yes." Turning back, she nodded wisely. "I work very hard, in fact."
"Do you? What do you do, exactly?"
" She avoided his gaze, her attention skimming over the room. "You might say I'm a sort of companion to
to the princess." She gave him an impish grin. "There really is one, you know. And to the duchess."
"The duchess? What duchess?"
She turned to stare at him rather majestically. "Do you mean to tell me you broke into this house and you haven't any idea who lives here?"
"I haven't a clue."
"You see, that's your problem. If you did better research before you set up your breakingandentering projects, things might go more smoothly."
He knew she was trying to tease him, but he shrugged again. "It doesn't matter. My old friend Tim told me he had a job for me as head of security. I'm in real need of a job right now. He gave me the address and I came on over."
She drew in a quick breath. "So you're going to work here?"