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The plan was in motion.
Though suddenly, it didn't sound like such a good idea.
Demetrius Castanavo, the Crown Prince of the Mirraccino Islands, shrugged off the worrisome feeling as he stepped out of the air-conditioned black limousine. Nothing was going to go wrong. He glanced at the clear blue sky, appreciating this last bit of good weather before it cooled down in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Demetrius buttoned his charcoal-gray suit jacket, gave each sleeve a tug and then straightened his shoulders. Today he must look his best. It was imperative.
A bright camera flash momentarily blinded him.
He blinked, regaining his focus. The media coverage had begun. He restrained a sigh. Instead he lifted his chin and forced his lips into a well-practiced smile.
Demetrius, the royal playboy, was no more. His days of nonchalance and bucking the system were over. Now he was intent on becoming a proper and worthy heir to the Mirraccino throne. It was, after all, his birthrightwhether he desired it or not.
And now he was about to participate in a very important interview that would help shape his new, improved public imageone he hoped would sway the residents of the Mirraccino nation to support his inevitable rise to the throne.
His gaze settled on an impressive set of steps that led to a historic mansion. At the top was an expansive landing with large, white columns amid the backdrop of blue shuttered windows. The place was a timeless beauty. He was glad they were going to save this building by revitalizing it.
There was just one snag in his well-thought-out planZoe.
His estranged wife.
But that situation would be resolved soonvery soon.
The head of his security detail leaned in close and whispered, "The reporter is waiting for you on the landing, Your Royal Highness."
Demetrius shoved the disturbing thoughts of his estranged wife to the back of his mind. He'd deal with her tomorrow. "Good. As soon as I meet with him, we have to get moving if we're going to stay on schedule today."
"Sir, the reporter, it's a woman."
"Si. I remember now." Demetrius needed to keep his head in this game instead of wondering how Zoe would react when she saw him again.
Demetrius swiftly climbed the steps that fanned out, covering a large area while adding to the building's charm. He'd definitely made the right decision by insisting the all-access ramp be constructed on the side of the building, readily accessible yet not losing the building's aesthetic appeal.
His vision was to marry the building's beauty with functionality. They were doing well with the functionality. The beauty would be Zoe's area of expertise. And tomorrow would be her first day on the job.
Off to the far side of the landing stood a short, slender brunette. Her makeup was a bit heavy for his tastes, but he reasoned that it must have something to do with spending so much time in front of the television cameras. Interviews were one of his least favorite tasks, but at times they were a necessitylike now.
When his advisors had unanimously agreed this was the best way for him to overhaul his scandalous youthful past, they had also assured him that agreeing to the one-on-one interview would be the best way to give the citizens access to himto let them know that he was serious about being a caring, involved ruler. Though he'd rather keep his distance from the paparazzi, Demetrius had to admit that in this one particular instance, they may in fact come in handyquite handy indeed.
He reached the landing and turned to the reporter. Greetings were quick and formal. Demetrius had every intention of keeping things moving along at a brisk pace. He knew the more time he spent with the media, the more they'd learn. And in his experience, that was never a good thing. He wanted to control the flow of information, not the other way around.
Ms. Carla Russo, the face of Mirraccino's entertainment news, held a microphone. "Before we begin, I wondered if you might have an announcement for our viewers."
"I do have news"
"Oh, good. We've been hearing all sorts of rumors, and the viewers would really like confirmation that you've decided upon a princess."
The cameraman moved closer. Demetrius's throat constricted. They knew about Zoe? No. Impossible. The reporter was on a hunting expedition. Pure and simple. Anything for a sensational headline. Well, he wasn't about to give her anything to chase. Nothing at all.
With practiced skill, Demetrius forced his lips into a smile. "I can assure you there is no princess in my near future."
"That's not what we've heard. There are rumors floating about that someone special has caught your attention. Could you share her name with us?"
Maybe the reporter did know something about Zoe, after all. Though the palace employees had all signed confidentiality agreements, there could still be a leak. A delivery person? A guest? There was always room for someone who'd slipped through the cracks. But obviously, whatever this woman knew wasn't much or she'd be throwing out names and facts.
He couldn't lose control of this interview. It wasn't just the building that was about to get a fresh lease on life. If his plan succeeded, their futures would both have makeovers. After all, he'd been putting off getting on with his royal duties long enough now. He'd grown. He'd learned. And now he was becoming the man he should have been all along.
With his twin brother, Alexandro, now married and spending a lot of time abroad in his wife's homeland, more responsibilities had befallen the king. But the king was not in the best of health. The physicians kept warning him to slow down. And that's why Demetrius's plan just had to work. He didn't want his father to have a heart attack or worse.
The first part of his plan included gaining the public's trust. The second part was a bit more delicategetting his estranged wife to quietly sign the annulment papers. The question that needed answering was why had she ignored the papers for months now?
By the time the revitalization project had finally gotten off the ground, so had Zoe's career as an interior designer. She'd worked on some of the most notable buildings here in Bellacitta, the capital of Mirraccino. With the public enthralled with her work, he knew he needed to hire her. His advisors, knowing his history with Zoe, said he was foolish. But Demetrius insisted he had reasons for this unorthodox approach.
His first reason was that she had a flare with colors and arrangementsa way to make people sit up and take notice without it being over-the-top. And the second reason was to be able to get close to her without arousing the press's suspicions. With her close at hand, he'd be able to work the answers out of her that he needed to put his short-lived marriage to a very quiet end.
Demetrius struggled to maintain his calm and easy demeanor. "Today, I'd like to focus on Mir-raccino and in particular the South Shore redevelopment. It's very important to me and to the king. It promises to bring new homes and businesses to the area as well as create new job opportunities for the local residents."
"So the rumors of a new princess are false?"
Drawing on a lifetime of experience of dealing with the media, he spoke in a calm, measured tone. "You will be my first call when I have a marriage announcement. But I believe right now the viewers would like to hear more about the project."
The reporter's brows rose and her eyes filled with unspoken questions, but he met her gaze head-on. If she dared to continue this line of questioning into his personal life, he'd wrap up this interview immediately. It wasn't as if she was the only reporter on the island, though she did host the nation's most popular entertainment show.
Color infused her cheeks as she at last glanced at the camera. "The South Shore project is going to benefit quite a number of people. How exactly did you come up with the idea to revitalize this area?"
"This endeavor is something that has been of interest to the crown for some time now. However, it wasn't until recently that we were able to gain the last of the property deeds in order to push ahead with the plans."
The loud rumble of an engine caught his attention. He sought out the source of the noise. It was a taxi that had pulled to the curb near his limo. A tall, willowy brunette emerged from the blue-and-white taxi. She turned and leaned in the passenger window as she handed over the cab fare. If Demetrius didn't know better, he'd swear that was his wife. But he refused to let his imagination get the best of him and upend this interview.
He turned back to Ms. Russo. "Residenza del Rosa is our first project. We will have it up and running by the beginning of the new year."
"So you have plans for more than just the mansion?" Ms. Russo sent him an expectant look.
"Si." Demetrius swallowed hard and forced his thoughts back to business. "Residenza del Rosa is already well underway. As soon as we have the necessary funding secured, we will start on phase two, which will be to build affordable housing." The clicking of heels caught his attention. He refused to be distracted. Security would handle it. "We intend to make the South Shore accessible to both the young and the young at heart. This area will once again be a robust community."
The head of his security detail approached him. Demetrius held up a finger to pause the interview. The bodyguard leaned over and whispered in his ear. "It's a Ms. Sarris. She has a pass and she says she works here. Should we let her through?"
"Oh, look." Ms. Russo's face lit up. Too late. She'd caught sight of Zoe. The reporter's eyes sparkled as though she'd been given a special treat. "Isn't that the interior designer, Zoe Sarris?"
Before answering the reporter, Demetrius gave an affirmative yet reluctant nod to his man to allow Zoe to join them. That woman certainly did have bad timingfirst when she walked out on him just hours after saying "I do"and now. How did she do it?
He could feel the reporter's gaze on him. He cleared his throat. "Yes, it's Miss Sarris."
"I wonder what she's doing here?" The reporter sent him a speculative look. "Did you arrange this?"
He resisted the urge to frown at the reporter's fishing expedition as well as the fact that his estranged wife was about to crash his very important interview. "No. It appears she's here to work. We've been lucky enough to obtain Ms. Sarris's exclusive services to create a welcoming yet relaxing environment for the future residents of Residenza del Rosa."
"And what features will it provide?"
"This long-term care home will be able to accommodate different levels of care from assisted living to skilled nursing."
"And Ms. Sarris is here to make this mansion into the beauty it once was?"
"We're hoping she'll be able to take what is here and give it a fresh feel."
"I'm sure she will. Is Miss Sarris signed on for the other buildings in the revitalization project?"
"Not at this point. We want to see how this first building goes and then we'll reevaluate, figuring out what works and what doesn't."
Ms. Russo nodded in understanding. "How splendid that she can join us and give our viewers an idea of what she has in mind for the place. I've seen her work before and it's fantastic. In fact, we can do before and after shoots of the mansion, both inside and out, with your permission of course."
"That sounds like a good idea."
Demetrius followed Ms. Russo's gaze to the woman in question. Zoe's clothing choice was nothing out of the ordinary, a short black skirt and a pink blouse. But on her, it looked fantastic as it nestled her curves perfectlycurves that he still knew by memory. She lifted her black sunglasses and then shook out her long dark curls before resting her shades atop her head like a hairband.
No matter what had gone down between them, there was no denying the obviousshe was a knockout. He should glance awaycheck his phonecontinue the interviewanything but continue to stare at her.
Her legs were long, toned and tan. He couldn't have turned away even if he'd have tried, which he had no inclination to do. It'd been months since he'd laid eyes on her. Visions of her in his dreams didn't countthey couldn't hold a candle to the real thing.
Zoe moved one strappy black high heel in front of the other. The classic ZZ Top song "Legs" started playing in his head. This girl definitely knew her strongest attributes and she worked themno wonder he'd fallen for her hard and fast. Was it possible that she was even more gorgeous now than she had been when they'd met more than a year ago?
"It's warm standing here in the sun. Perhaps we should move to the shade." Ms. Russo signaled to her cameraman to take a break. "Prince Demetrius, are you all right?"
The concern in the reporter's voice startled him out of the trance he'd fallen under. He drew a breath of air into his straining lungs. With effort, he turned his gaze from Zoe to the reporter who wore an inquisitive expression.
Not good, Demetrius. Not good at all. Stay focused.
He cleared his throat. "Sorry. I just remembered something that needs my attention. Let me just make a note of it." He pulled out his phone and made the pretense of typing something while he got his brain screwed on straight.
The same question kept playing over and over in his mind. What in the world was Zoe doing here? Surely she hadn't come to see him. No. That was impossible. His schedule was kept under wraps for security purposes. Even Ms. Russo had not been alerted to the location for this interview until this morning. So that still left the question of why Zoe had crashed this important interview?
Demetrius slipped his phone back in his jacket pocket. "Okay. Where were we?"
"I thought we might want to wait for Ms. Sar-ris to join us."
Her comment had him instinctively turning back to the woman who'd gained the reporter's attention. Zoe climbed the last two steps in those sky-high black heels that made her legs look as though they went on and on forever. His mouth grew dry and his palms became moist.
He should have had his men turn her away. How was he supposed to concentrate on the interview when all he wanted to do was confront Zoe?
He only had one question: Why?
Okay. So maybe he did have a couple more questions. Like, when did she start dressing like that? Were her skirts always so short? How was a man to make intelligent conversation when all he could think about was her bare, tanned legs?