* * *
Bella stared. Crown Prince Antonio De Santis had accepted her challenge and was standing in her small office. She’d thought he’d decline, all unbending regal politeness. But it seemed he really had chosen this morning to inspect her business—obscenely early, name-dropping the man who refused to acknowledge her and dressed like that.
She’d recognised him the second he’d pulled back the hood of his sweatshirt but he looked nothing like the austere Crown Prince she’d seen on screens and in magazines. That man was tall and broad-shouldered, with not a hair out of place and almost always dressed in an immaculate midnight-blue suit. Perfect for the reserved, always polite but distant Prince.
The man in front of her now hadn’t shaved. His hair was mussed. He must have been out running or something what with the old sweatshirt, track pants and trainers he was wearing. And the edge she’d glimpsed in his eyes? She never would have expected that. Nor would she have expected to feel breathless and hot in his company. Not so hyper-aware.
She never felt that around any guy.
‘You’ll find everything is in there.’ She opened the file and turned it so he could read it, reading it upside down herself. She wanted him to see every single piece of paper and be satisfied and leave as soon as possible. She wasn’t going down without a fight. She’d prove to all her doubters that she could manage this club. She’d prove it to him.
So never mind that she was in her shortie pyjamas, her top slightly too loose and with no bra beneath, because she couldn’t be embarrassed. Never mind that she’d only managed two hours’ sleep because she had so much to do. The club had been open only a week and, while it looked promising, she had a long, long way to go before it could be declared a success and she could sell up and start up the business of her heart.
But he didn’t say anything about the paperwork. She glanced up and caught him staring at her. Again.
She was used to men looking. They all wanted the same thing, right? They all thought they knew everything there was to know about her. But the ice in this man’s eyes was something else. It burned.
He stood silent. Guarded. Judging.
She’d not expected that from San Felipe’s broken, beloved Prince. Wasn’t he supposed to hide a wounded heart? Wasn’t he supposed to be kind and benevolent under the weight of all that duty?
Everyone knew his story. His ‘One True Love’ had tragically died of cancer barely two months after his coronation and the accident that had claimed the lives of both his parents. He’d not been linked to another woman since. The Prince had buried his heart with his girlfriend. And, according to the glossy mags, the nation believed only the love of a pure and perfect woman could heal him and bring him happiness...
That woman clearly wasn’t her given he was looking at her like that.
Thrown off balance, she felt goaded into provoking a reaction from him. Beneath the fifty feet of ice he hid behind, it had to be there—emotion of some kind.
She should have been intimidated. She should have remained polite. She should have respected the power he held. But she was too tired. And too hurt.
‘Why are you staring at me like I’ve forgotten something?’ She stepped out from her desk. ‘Should I have curtseyed as you walked in?’ She lifted her chin at his utter impassivity. ‘Should I get on my knees before you?’
She regretted the sultry taunt the second she’d uttered it.
Because there was no reaction. He didn’t move a muscle. Didn’t speak a word. Just kept, ever so coolly, regarding her.
Her cheeks burned as shame grew. She’d been everything the world expected her to be—a scandalous, tarty temptress. But she was a big fat faker.
And he wasn’t. He really was as frozen-hearted as they said. And every bit as breathtaking.
‘You’re going to have to do better than that,’ he finally said. ‘Do you think you’re the first woman to try seducing me by stripping and dancing in front of me?’
His words hit like hailstones.
‘I didn’t strip.’
‘Only because you didn’t bother getting dressed properly.’
‘And I didn’t dance for you.’ She ignored his interruption. ‘I was just warming up alone. You’re the one who stopped to watch. You could have kept walking, Tony.’