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PRUDENCE WINSLOW was late. And for once it wasn't her
fault. Well, maybe a little her fault, but not entirely her fault.
She cast a quick look at her reflection in the doors that led her into the exquisite lobby of the Waldorf Towers, one of the grandest of the Manhattan hotels, though her father had always preferred to put up business guests in the St. Regis Club in Essex House right on the park.
She sighed at her own reflection. Disheveled. It was raining slightly, and humidity had a tendency to play havoc with hair that didn't like taming at the best of times. Coils of copper had sprung free from the bun Mrs. Smith insisted on. Mrs. Smith had also insisted on a skirt, hem below the knee dear, and the skirt had not stood up well to her travels, appar-ently disliking humidity as much as her hair.
Young Brian, clingy since the accident, and unhappy with the replacement nannywithout giving her a chance, natu-rallyhad managed to spill butterscotch pudding on Prue's navy trench coat just as she was getting away. Despite her bestand time consumingeffort the smear had refused to be totally eradicated.
Still, she crossed the lobby with the haughtiness of a queen, and eyed the desk clerk.
Cute, she thought. Blonde. A poor girl's Brad Pitt. Then she reminded herself she was a reformed woman. Still, she had to fight the smallest urge to smile at him. Six months without so much as a date!
And six months to go, she warned herself sternly. Being as businesslike as one could be with a smear of butterscotch pudding on her lapel, and while fighting the temptation to just offer one little smile and see what happened, she announced, "I'm here to see, um, Kaelan Prince."
On the phone earlier, Mrs. Smith had been uncharacteris-tically chatty, and evasive at the same time. Prudence had gotten that a man wanted to meet her. Because of the news-paper story. Be on time, be presentable.
"A skirt," Mrs. Smith had specified sternly. "And, dear, do something with your hair!"
Well, she was in a skirt, not anything like the flirty little numbers she once would have worn. Mary Poppins approved. But she was not on time and not particularly presentable, either. Prue didn't want to meet a man because of all the silly attention of that newspaper story. So far, after the financial scandals surrounding her father's death, Prudence had managed to stay out of the relentless radar of the press. No connection had been made between Winslow, the-heroic-nanny, and Winslow-the-crumbled-empire.
She wanted it to stay that way, so she had tried to refuse this meeting, but Mrs. Smith had been adamant.
"For the good of the Academy, dear," she'd said. Prue had not needed to be reminded how much she owed Mrs. Smith, who had been there for her when so few others had been. "Kaelan Prince," she repeated to the clerk, who was looking baffled.
Suddenly a light came on for him. "Kaelan Prince? I think you must mean Prince Ryan Kaelan."
"Whatever," she said, thinking right, everyone's a rock star, and glancing at her watch. Ten minutes late. Shoot.
"Ah," he said, a trifle uncomfortably, "the young women over there are trying to catch a glimpse of him, as well."
Prue followed his gaze and frowned.A gaggle of young girls and women were clustered together by the elevators, giggling.
"I'm expected," she said, and saw that her change of tone affected him as much as the words. Oh, she could still be her father's daughter when she wanted to be.
"Your name, madam?" he said, picking up the phone. She gave it to him, and he made a call. He looked at her with an entirely different kind of interest when he set down the phone. "Someone will be down to escort you immediately, Miss Winslow."
Down to escort her? What was going on? Was the man really a rock star? It would be totally unlike Mrs. Smith to be influenced by celebrity.
The doors to the elevator slid open, and the small crowd by it pushed forward hopefully, and then started calling out ques-tions. "Will he be down today? How is Gavin?" One girl, lovely, stood out from the rest. She looked all of twelve, and was wildly waving a sign that said Someday My Prince Will Come.
The child reminded Prudence of herself at twelve, hoping, craving, living in a fantasy because real life was too lonely.
Girl, she thought, we need to talk. But her focus changed to an older, very dignified looking man in a dark green uniform with gold epithets on the shoul-ders coming toward her. There was some sort of crest on his breast: it looked like a dragon coiled around an instrument she thought might have been a lute.
He ignored the gathering, came to her and inclined his head ever so slightly. "Miss Winslow? If you'll come with me. Ignore them," he suggested out of the side of his mouth as they passed through the throng.
"Ronald," he introduced himself as the elevator doors whispered closed, and she found herself alone with him in the elevator. She regarded him thoughtfully.
Older, but very handsome. One little smile. She sighed at how very hard it was to become a new person.
"Have you been briefed in protocol?"
"Aside from punctuality, certain forms are expected of visitors."
He managed to say that in a way that took the sting out of the fact that he was mildly reprimanding her for being late.
"A curtsy is no longer necessary, though of course, if you desire"
"You're kidding me, right? A curtsy?" She laughed, and then registered the faintly offended dignity on Ronald's face. She recalled, the desk clerk correcting her on the name. Not a rock star after all!
"Are you telling me," she said slowly and softly, "I'm going to meet a prince? A real prince?"
"Yes, miss. I'm sorry. I thought you knew." Why hadn't Mrs. Smith told her this? Or had that snippet of information been buried somewhere in that muddled phone call?
No, no, NO! Life was too unfair. Coincidence was too cruel. Just like that girl at the elevator, Prudence had believed in princes. Oh, had she ever! She was the love junkie! She had collected books and movies, she had craved the things they promised. Since she was fourteen years old, and had dis-covered how much men liked her, she had been searching, she had known deep in her heart that when she kissed the right one her fairy tale would begin.
But so far she had kissed a thousand toads, and not one of them had turned into a prince.
And then, last year, after the death of her father, she had realized, ever so painfully it was the love of that remote and disconnected man that she had craved, and that now she would never receive it. Never.
She had turned over a new leaf. No romance for a year. Not a single date, not a kiss, nothing. Somewhere, she knew, in that desperate search for a prince, she had lost herself.
And lately, she'd begun to have a sense of finding what had been lost.
The universe was testing her resolve! That's what was happening. Prudence became very aware that she did not want to meet a prince, she was not ready to have her resolve tested! She eyed the emergency stop button on the elevator.
A hand touched her sleeve, and she looked into her escort's eyes. They were kind and good-humored. "There's nothing to be afraid of," he said quietly.
"Afraid?" she said defensively. She, Prudence Winslow had never been afraid of anything! Unless winding up alone counted!
And lately even thought didn't fill her with panic the way it once had. She thought, resolutely, of her volunteer work. Before finding Mrs. Smith's academy, shortly after her father's death, she had found herself at a food bank, humili-ated and hungry. Now, every spare moment and cent she had were spent paying back to that wonderful organization that not only fed the hungry, but allowed them to keep their dignity.
Her life was on track! She wasn't ready for this challenge. She just wasn't.
"Dammit," she said, and tried to capture some of those loose curls and force them back into place.
Her escort eyed her with a trace of uneasiness. "Naturally we don't curse in the presence of His Royal Highness," he said, tactfully.
"Naturally," she repeated, gave up on her hair and folded her restless hands primly in front of her.
"The correct form of address, when you are presented to him, is Your Royal Highness, not Prince Ryan. After the initial meeting, you may call him "sir.'"
"Ah," she said. "But no curtsy."
If he detected even a hint of sarcasm, he pretended not to.
"Unless you want to," he assured her.
"Believe me, I don't." An attempt at a curtsy would probably land her right on her nose not, thank heaven, that she was the curtsying type. Even in her fantasies!
Ronald's sigh was barely audible. "I believe you." The elevator doors slid open and she was led across a thickly carpeted hallway to double doors that opened to sheer opulence.
The hotel suite was resplendent with vases of fresh, sweet-scented lilies. There was a grand piano in the main room, silk-covered sofas, rich carpeting. An elegant chandelier dripped raindrops of light, the fireplace was lit against the dampness of the day. "May I take your coat?"
She didn't want to surrender her coat, even with its stain! It felt like some form of protection!
Against what? she asked herself annoyed. She shrugged off the stained jacket. Underneath she had on a plain white blouse that had been pressed, but was intent on reacting to the humidity in the same way as the skirt and her hair.
"Please, have a seat," Ronald said. "I will announce you." But she couldn't sit. She studied the tasteful paintings, the view out the window, glanced in at the dining room that was through adjoining double doors. A maid, in a crisp uniform, was setting the Queen Anne table for eight.
The time ticked by. Why was she here? Why had Mrs. Smith sent her here? Prudence hated this! She did not like mysteries. Since her father's death she was absolutely allergic to surprises. She liked control, the neat and tidy little world that she was building for herself, the amount of money she was managing to raise for Loaves and Fishes.
Once upon a time, that amount of money would have seemed laughable to her.
It occurred to her, she did not want to be using the phrase once upon a time when she was about to meet a prince. She was the girl who had sworn off fairy tales! Suddenly she relaxed. She got it! The prince was going to be ugly. Old. Fat. Balding. She was here to learn how ridiculous her fantasies had always been!
The universe wasn't testing her. It was rewarding her, saying, girl, you are on the right track.
Just in case she was wrong, she eyed the door wistfully, but knew she could not let Mrs. Smith down. If Mrs. Smith wanted her to meet a prince, and thought it might be in some way good for Mrs. Smith's Academy of Fine Nannies, Prudence would do her best.
Did Mrs. Smith know, that if you said it really fast, three times in a row, the last time it came out Mrs. Smith'sAcademy of Nine Fannies? What if Prue accidentally said that to the prince? What if she thought about it when she was with him? At her father's funeral, she had suddenly thought of the time she had wrapped his favorite dog, Kelpie, in toilet paper, and then she'd had to fight the absurd desire to giggle for the rest of the service.
This was going to be the same. She just knew it. She might as well leave now, before she brought eternal shame down on the Academy of Nine Fannies.
But before she could act, the double doors opened on the other side of the suite, and Ronald came through first, holding the door.
Prue felt her mouth fall open at the man who swept through those open doors, and she snapped it shut.