Francesca is shocked by Conrad's sudden proposal. She doubts she's princess material: she's never worn a tiara in her life! But though she's reluctant to be royal, she wouldn't mind being married to gorgeous Conrad! Even if it's only pretendfor now .
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The Prince's Proposal
By Sophie Weston
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Chapter One'Today,' said Francesca Heller forcefully, 'has been the worst day of my life.'
She was still rather pale. But, being Francesca, she was already fighting back. Jazz decided that the fight needed support.
'Sure it was. So now you show Barry de la Touche that he can't get you down. What better way than to go out and have a good time?'
Francesca looked at her in disbelief. 'You can't expect me to go to a party after that.'
Jazz shook her marvellous head of tiny black plaits and refused to back down.
'Yes, I do. You're a professional bookseller now. You go to a publisher's party if it kills you.'
Francesca glared. Jazz was tall, black and gorgeous but Francesca had a glare that would cut steel when she put her mind to it.
Francesca was not tall. She was small and slim with ordinary brown hair and an ordinary, pleasant face. 'Invisible in a crowd,' said Francesca's elegant mother with resignation, and Francesca agreed.
But they both underestimated the impact of her eyes. They were huge, wide-spaced, and golden brown, fringed with long, sooty lashes. And they spoke. Whatever Francesca might say she was feeling, you could see the truth of it in those toffee-brown eyes. Even masked, as they normally were, by big-framed glasses.
Currently she was feeling put-upon. But Jazz Allen was her partner in London's newest independent bookshop, The Buzz. Jazz knew what she was talkingabout.
'You're not serious,' Francesca said. But without much hope.
'Yes, I am.' Jazz unwound her long legs from the top of the ladder from which she had been restocking 'Crime, authors F to G,' and slid to the ground.
'But you were here,' said Francesca in despair. 'You saw.'
Jazz grinned. 'Your father's got a temper on him,' she said with relish. 'So?'
Francesca stared at her. Jazz had the reputation of being tough. But this was armor-plated.
'Hello?' she said. 'We didn't split off onto different planets this afternoon, did we? You did see my father walk in and demolish the man I thought I was going to marry?'
'I saw your father lob a few firecrackers,' said Jazz serenely. 'But you were never going to marry that twerp.'
Francesca shook her head. She had not confided in Jazz but when she left home that morning she had made up her mind to accept Barry's proposal.
She said desolately, 'I meant to.' They were supposed to be going out to dinner at one of their favourite restaurants this evening. Francesca had been fondly imagining the candlelit scene. She had even cast the Italian owner to bring out champagne and his concertina while all the other diners applauded. And Barry de la Touche would take her hand, hook her glasses off her nose, and look straight into her eyes, in that way he had.
'My bird,' he would have said. And then, 'We were meant for each other.'
But that was this morning's fantasy. And then her father had walked in. It had been one of Barry's days for working in the stock room. He and Peter Heller had come face to face. Barry, as she could have foretold, was completely outgunned. Peter Heller had been a fifteen-year-old entrepreneur when he escaped from Montassurro. He had survived, and ended up a multimillionaire, by ferreting out his opponents' weaknesses. Then going for the jugular. Barry didn't have a chance.
Her father had produced a string of offences - petty criminal convictions, a dubious name change, even old school reports. And pointed out that Barry had only started his heavily romantic campaign after he had researched her wealth on the net.
Francesca had not believed him. Well, not at first. But then Peter Heller had announced that he was disinheriting her and Barry's romantic attachment dissolved. Fast. Taking with it a whole raft of Francesca's dreams and most of her self-respect.
But no one would believe that, of course. Everyone thought Francesca was such a fighter.
Now Jazz was bracing. 'You would have thought better of it eventually. There was nothing to Barry, after all. Just Bambi eyelashes and a good story.'
After the scene when her father had flung his accusations at Barry, Francesca could not really take issue with that. She bit her lip.
'Why didn't I see that?'
'You did really,' said Jazz comfortingly. 'Your father may have done the research. But the demolition was strictly down to you.'
Francesca's eloquent eyes widened and widened. She sat down rather hard.
'Think about it,' advised Jazz, seizing a pile of new stock and leaping nimbly up her ladder again to 'Crime, authors H to J'.
Francesca stared blindly at a pile of giraffe-shaped bookmarks that complemented the latest toddlers' book.
She had stood up to her father. She had linked her arm through Barry's and defied Peter Heller for the manipulative, money-grubbing troglodyte that he was. Only Barry was having none of it.
'My bird,' he said tenderly. He drew the glasses off her nose and slid them into his pocket, one of his more charming little tricks, Francesca always thought. It had cost her a fortune in replacement glasses, which she now had strewn about his flat and hers. 'I can't do this to you.'
He kissed her forehead. It was clearly meant to be a gallant renunciation.
Peter Heller snorted. Francesca felt sick. Without her glasses Francesca could only see a blur. 'We're both young. Healthy. Why do we need my father's money? We can work,' she said in a level voice. 'I don't care what you've done in the past. I'll stand by you. We can make it together -'
And that was the point when Barry turned on her, all charm wiped. She couldn't see him properly. But she could feel it in the jagged movement; hear it.
'No, we can't.'
Peter was delighted. He snapped his fingers. 'Aha!'
Francesca ignored him. She said to the Barry-shaped shadow lowering over her, 'I don't need money -'
'But I do.' It was a cry almost of anguish. 'Don't you understand? I've done my time wondering where the next meal is coming from. I'm never going back to that.'
Francesca said nothing.
'Goodbye, Mr Trott,' said Peter. That was Barry's real name. Not de la Touche, after all.
Francesca ignored him. 'You mean you don't think I can afford you,' she said to Barry. Even to herself her voice sounded odd.
'That old bastard has just made sure of that.' That was when she gave up. That was when she realised this was the end. And this was the worst day of her life.
She gave a little laugh that broke in the middle. 'Yes, I suppose he has.' She held out her hand politely, in the general direction of his voice. 'Goodbye, Barry.'
She was less polite to her father. And then she went off to the stock room and sought out her absolutely last pair of emergency glasses.
They were in the first-aid box. Their loose arm had been taped up with whatever had come to hand. It looked as if it had been a plaster originally, though it was difficult to tell. It had turned grey in the first-aid box and was fraying elastic bobbles by now. It kept catching on her hair, making her eyes water. That had to be what it was. Francesca, after all, never cried. As her mother always said, she was too like her father to cry.
So now Francesca blinked hard and said to the witch on the ladder, 'What do you mean - the demolition was down to me?'
Jazz looked down at her affectionately. 'Because you didn't tell Barry that you are rich in your own right.'
Francesca jumped. 'What do you mean?'
'Have you forgotten? You told me. When we were first talking about you coming into business I told you I was worried about asking anyone to invest in The Buzz who couldn't afford to lose money. I believe in it - but I could be wrong. And anyway it will take a long time to make a reasonable return on the investment. Let alone get its money back. And you said, "My father settled a lot of money on me when I was a teenager. It's mine. I can do what I like with it." So I said, OK, then, let's go for it. Don't you remember?'
Francesca swallowed. 'Yes. Yes, I do now. I see.'
'So when you said Peter couldn't disinherit you, that was the literal truth, wasn't it? He's already handed over your inheritance. Why didn't you explain that to Barry?'
Excerpted from The Prince's Proposal by Sophie Weston
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.