ALEXA MICHAELS closed the tabloid and put it down on the coffee table with careful precision.
Her hands were steady. It amazed her. A hurricane of pain was shaking her insides. She made no sound, though she wanted to scream. She wanted to rip the offending magazine to shreds, too. But she couldn’t do either. If she so much as touched the tabloid again...if she gave vent to even a tiny bit of the storm tearing apart her soul, she was going to lose it completely.
She refused to do that. She’d spent years controlling her emotions, hiding both physical and mental pain while denying her tears. Ray’s betrayal had made her cry and she’d sworn she wasn’t going to let another man do that again. Not even Prince Matthew.
“He’s just delish, isn’t he?” Lizzy breathed, oblivious to the devastation her visit had wrought in Alexa. She leaned forward and flipped the magazine open again, and pointed to the picture that was the source of Alexa’s current mental agony. “Can you imagine being that woman?”
Alexa looked down at the picture. She didn’t want to. It hurt, but she couldn’t help herself. Her eyes were drawn by an emotion as powerful as the love that lay bleeding at the bottom of her heart. The need to know and a desperate hope that her vision had deceived her the first time.
It had not.
The picture was exactly what she thought it was. It showed the drop-dead gorgeous president of the French arm of Grimaldi Shipping dancing with an equally attractive woman at his father’s birthday bash on Monte Carlo. They were practically molded to one another’s bodies. Prince Matthew was smiling and the woman looked like a beautiful, sleek cat who had just copped a whole bowl of the richest cream.
How could Alexa have been so stupid that she’d allowed herself to get involved with this man...to actually believe that they had enough in common where it counted?
She’d fallen into his arms with about as much self-preservation as a lemming following the pack leader off the side of a cliff. She’d given him her virginity and asked for nothing in return but his overwhelming passion. He’d offered her his fidelity, but that picture made her doubt the sincerity of the gift.
Contrary to what he had told her, her prince was the king of the playboys. Was she terminally stupid where men were concerned, or simply unlucky?
“Earth to Alexa. Hello, is anyone in there?” Lizzy’s voice penetrated Alexa’s crushing thoughts.
“Where were you at, girl? Don’t tell me you were thinking about work.”
“Something like that,” Alexa said in a strained voice. In her mind, her job and her lover were inexorably linked.
“I said, can you imagine being her?”
Only too well, except when Matthew held Alexa close like that, she was never wearing a designer original ball gown. Most of the time, she wasn’t wearing anything at all. “Yes.”
Lizzy laughed. “You’ve got a better imagination than me then.”
“Are you okay?” Lizzy asked, her face creased with concern. “You seem out of it, and more than just your normal preoccupation with being the original Wonder Woman at work.”
Alexa forced herself to look away from the picture and at her small, blond friend. They were both Americans, but that was where the similarity ended. Lizzy was five feet even with the body of a pocket Venus and short blond hair that fell in wild ringlets around her heart-shaped face. She also had an infectious smile that had drawn Alexa to her immediately.
Alexa, on the other hand, had slight curves, a very slender build, a neck that Matthew said looked like a graceful swan’s, but which she felt was too long, average looks he called refreshingly natural, and average height that felt very tiny beside his six-foot-two-inch frame. Her chin-length mouse-brown hair was straight and even when she tried to curl it, it never held. So she’d given up trying.
Matthew said it felt like silk against his fingertips and he loved the fact she didn’t starch it with lots of product, but the blonde he was holding so closely in the picture certainly looked made up to the nines. So much for Matthew’s evinced preference for the unadorned lily. It was obvious he liked hothouse orchids just fine.
That picture made her wonder if she hadn’t fooled herself about Matthew just as badly as she had with Ray.
She tried for a smile, but failed. She settled for a sigh. “I’m fine. Just tired. I’ve been working hard on the Cordova project.”
“With the hours you put in, it’s no wonder you don’t have a social life.”
But Alexa did have a social life...a secret one that gave her more pleasure than she’d ever dreamed was possible. At least it had until this moment.
She managed to force the smile this time, though she wasn’t sure it was a very convincing one. “You know how it is.”
Lizzy’s smile was genuine, if tinged with worry. “What I know is that you work too hard.”
“Not really. I love my job.”
“I love my job, too, girl, but you don’t see me spending every waking moment dedicated to it.” Lizzy winked.
“I’ve got better things to do with my off hours. Speaking of, I’ve got to get going...you sure you don’t want to come down to the taverna with the rest of us?”
Alexa shook her head. “Sorry, but I think I’ll go for an early night.”
Lizzy sighed and shook her head, her blond curls bouncing. “You need to get out more.”
“I do get out.” With Matthew, and nowhere anyone from Grimaldi Shipping was likely to run into her.
Lizzy just snorted, then her expression turned calculating. “If you aren’t there, Ramon from sales is going to be disappointed.”
“I doubt it.”
“The guy has the hots for you, he’s good-looking, great at his job, and he’s single. Why not come down, spend some time with him? See where it goes.”
“Ramon has had four different girlfriends in the last six months...he’s a bad risk.”
But she had to swallow a burble of hysterical laughter as she realized what she’d just said.
No worse risk existed in the relationship stakes than Matthew Anthony Charles Gilbert Grimaldi.
“All of life is a gamble, or haven’t you learned that yet?” Lizzy asked as she got up to go.
“Some chances are more worth taking than others.”
“And you don’t think Ramon is one of them?”
Alexa sighed. “I don’t know, but not tonight. I’m sure about that much, all right?”
“Okay.” Lizzy smiled again and reached out to hug her.
“Get some sleep. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”
Alexa hugged her back. As she stepped away, she remembered all the times she’d encouraged her friend, Tara, to go for it with Angelo Gordon, but this was different. No one could compete with Matthew...not even the sexy, charming Ramon from sales. “Have fun tonight.”
“We will.” Lizzy turned to leave.
“You forgot your magazine.”
“Keep it,” Lizzy tossed over her shoulder on her way out the door. “It’ll give you something to read before bed.”
The door shut behind the other woman before Alexa could respond.
She didn’t want to read the tabloid. She didn’t want to look at it. She didn’t want it in her apartment, but when she picked it up to throw away, she found herself rereading every single word of the article about King Vincent’s birthday party. It was a four-page spread with tons of pictures, a few quotes and enough innuendo to sink an oil tanker.
She was staring at the picture of Tomas and the woman dancing when a peremptory knock sounded on her door.
She lived in what had once been the groundskeeper’s cottage on a large estate on the outskirts of Nice. The family still occupied the main house and the security system was top-notch. Angelo and Tara had helped her find the place and she was really grateful. Even though Angelo had arranged for her job, she’d wanted to make it on her own in France from that point forward. So, she had refused her parents’ offer to help her buy another condo like the one she’d had in Portland, or in procuring what they considered an acceptable place of habitat for their one and only child.
The groundskeeper’s cottage with security services provided by the main house had been a compromise they could live with.
Because her home was far from the main road and the security was so good, she didn’t worry about getting unwanted guests. However, Matthew had drilled into her enough times never to open the door without checking first to be sure she knew her visitor, that she automatically did so now.
It was him.
She didn’t know why that should shock her, but it did. After seeing the article, her mind had told her he no longer belonged to her...if he ever had. Therefore, why would he bother showing up on her doorstep?
Yet, there he stood on the other side of her door looking like the epitome of French male perfection. From his golden-brown hair styled casually to enhance his sculpted features, to the tips of his Gucci leather shoes, he exuded delectable masculine appeal. He also looked tired, the skin around his cobalt-blue eyes lined with fatigue.
He’d probably been too busy partying to sleep. Even as the unpleasant thought surfaced, she was forced to dismiss it. She knew better.
He’d been gone on a business trip for more than a week before his father’s birthday party. They’d spoken on the phone every night and he’d made it clear he was pushing himself and everyone around him to finish.
Only seeing the picture had made her think that he wouldn’t come straight to her from the airport. Why would he when he had beautiful, sophisticated women like the one in the photo to spend his time with?
Perhaps it was an irrational line of reasoning, but she wasn’t at her logical best at the moment. He knocked a second time, the staccato rap and his scowl communicating his impatience at being kept on the doorstep.
She opened the door and then stood staring mutely at his large frame as it filled her doorway.
His sensual lips transformed from a frown to an enticing smile. “Good evening, chére. Are you going to let me in?”
“What are you doing here?”
His eyes narrowed, the smile disappearing as quickly as it had come. “What kind of question is that? I have not seen you for more than a week. My plane landed not an hour ago...where else would I be?”
Six months ago, when they’d begun their affair, the question would have been ludicrous. He had made it a point of seeing her only a couple of nights a week, but as the weeks progressed the number of nights they spent together increased until they were practically living together...albeit in secret.
“Maybe spending time with your new girlfriend?”
He stepped into the small cottage, forcing her to move backward if she didn’t want him touching her. And she didn’t. Not right now. Maybe never again.
She tripped backward with speed, not stopping until she was several feet away.
“What other girlfriend?” he asked, enunciating each word with quiet precision as he pushed the door shut behind him and then followed her across the room.
She lifted the gossip rag toward him. “This one.”
He stared down at the magazine and then took it from her hand to look more closely. His eyes skimmed the pages, his expression turning to one of disdain before he tossed it to the coffee table behind her. “That is nothing more than a scandal sheet. Why were you reading it?”
“Lizzy brought it over. She thought it was a hoot to read an article about the big boss. What difference does it make how it came into my possession? Dismissing it as a low form of journalism isn’t going to make the pictures go away or the behavior that got caught in the camera lens for that matter.”
“Nothing untoward was caught on film.”
“You don’t think so?”
“I danced with a few women at my father’s birthday party, smiled at some, talked. There is no crime in that.”
“Not if you weren’t attached, no.”
His frown intensified, eyes that usually looked on her with indulgent affection going wintry. “You know I will not tolerate a possessive scene, Lexy.”
She almost laughed. He sounded so darn arrogant it wasn’t hard to believe he was a prince, only that he was the youngest son. That kind of egotism should be reserved for the heir to the throne.
“Fine. Leave and we won’t have one.”
He jolted as if she’d slapped him. “You want me to leave? I’ve just arrived.”
“Well, since apparently the only thing you want me for is sex and I’m definitely not in the mood after seeing those pictures, you might as well.”
“I have never said that.” He cursed volubly in French.
“Where did that come from? Why would you say such a thing? I do not see you as a body without a brain.”
“Good, because I have one, and it’s telling me that if I was more than a body in your bed, I would have been by your side at your father’s party, not reading about it in a gossip rag two days later and having to see pictures of you flirting with other women.”
“You know why you were not at my side.”
“Because you don’t want anyone to know about me! You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?” she asked, slipping one more notch into pain-induced irrationality and unable to do a thing to prevent it. Which terrified her more than the pain itself. She had always been able to control her emotions, no matter how devastating, but what she felt for him was too big.
Apparently he thought she’d gone over the edge, too, because he stared at her as if she’d lost her mind. “You are insane tonight. First you accuse me of having another woman, then you say I see you as nothing but a sex toy...or as good as.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “This is crazy. I am not ashamed of you.”
“But you don’t want anyone to know about me.”
“For your own sake.” He swore again and tunneled his long brown fingers through his hair. “You know how invasive the paparazzi can be. The minute they got wind of my relationship with you, you would be watched your every waking moment. You would not be able to go to a public restroom without having a reporter ready to take your picture from under the stall next to your own.”
“It wouldn’t be that bad. I’m not big news.”
“But I am. I have lived my whole life the son of one of the relatively few royal couples in history to have divorced. I had no privacy in my marriage. Bianca had to travel everywhere with bodyguards not only for her personal security, but to protect her from the intrusive press. I have told you this.”
Alexa said nothing. The logical part of her brain knew he spoke the truth, but she could not make herself admit it. Even if her mind told her that he was determined to keep their relationship private because he valued it so much, her heart said that a relationship that had to be hidden wasn’t valuable enough.
The way he’d been dancing with the blonde certainly made it look like he valued her.
He sighed. “I developed a playboy facade after Bianca’s death to protect myself and the woman I truly wanted to be with. You know this. We have discussed it before.”
She did know it. She had even seen it as something deeply personal they had in common. After all, hadn’t she developed an outgoing, flirtatious image to hide the very private person she was beneath the facade? She’d seen his playboy reputation the same way once he explained it to her. Only that photo implied the persona was the man.
It made a mockery of the love she’d discovered she felt for him. Love wasn’t supposed to be like this. It wasn’t supposed to hurt so much. It was supposed to make life beautiful, to empower the lover...but all she ever got from it was pain and a horrible sense of insecurity.
“How many women have you truly wanted to be with since Bianca?” she demanded, feeling waspish and hurt and unable to hold back the ugly question.
“That is none of your business.”
“Apparently most of your life is none of my business.”
“That is not true.”
“You don’t share it with me.”
“That is a lie.” He looked like he wanted to shake her. “You get more of my time than anyone else. Did I not work twenty-hour days while I was gone so that I could fly back to you after the birthday party rather than returning to our shipping office in Hong Kong?”
He rubbed his eyes, his face drawn with exhaustion and reflecting disappointment. “We spend practically every evening together doing more than sharing our bodies and you know this, chéri. We have been to the theater, out to dinner many times...we have put puzzles together because it is something you enjoy doing and you have taught me to play odd American card games. The only part of myself I do not share with you is the public spotlight. I understood that was not something you craved. Was I wrong? Do you wish to be known as the latest lover for a Monaco prince?”
His sarcasm didn’t even faze her. “If it means I don’t have to see pictures of you plastered against another woman, yes.”
He shook his head. “We were dancing. That is all. It meant nothing. You must know this.”
“All I know is that you two looked like you were getting ready to make a hasty exit from the party and find someplace private to continue dancing.”
“You are jealous.” He shook his head. “There is no need.”
“Only because you do not trust me.”
“How can I?”
“I told you that for as long as we are together, our relationship would be exclusive. I gave you my word. You have known me for a year, intimately for half as long. When have you ever known me to break it?”
“I don’t like being your dirty little secret.”
“What we share is not dirty, and you are a secret because our relationship is so special to me that I do not want to lose it,” he gritted out between clenched teeth.
She averted her face, refusing to answer, and the silence stretched between them. She sensed his movement, but was still shocked when one of his hands brushed the hair back from her temple and then slipped down to cup her chin. He gently turned her face until their gazes met.
“I am very sorry if the pictures hurt you.”
She knew he considered this a major climb-down, and to give him credit, for him it was. He had started the conversation off with a refusal to have a scene and was now apologizing. He was too darn perfect to have to apologize much and too powerful to be forced into giving one even when he was wrong in most cases, but it didn’t make her feel any better.
What difference did an apology make when it wasn’t accompanied by the assurance the offense would not happen again?
Seeing the picture had hurt her. A lot. She felt like her heart was being ripped into shreds even now.
“Just tell me one thing,” she said. “How would you feel if our positions were reversed? What if you were the one looking on at me flirting with other men?”
His jaw clenched as if the thought was not a pleasant one, but then he visibly relaxed his tense facial muscles. “In order to keep our relationship private, I must act naturally at public social functions. It would be entirely un-natural for me to ignore a roomful of women.
Speculation would be rife if I was to do so and the paparazzi would soon begin looking for my secret liaison or making assumptions about my masculine urges, or worse.”
“That’s not an answer to my question.”
He was a master at redirection, which made him a force to reckon with in the business world and not much more user-friendly in a relationship. But she’d been with him six months and worked for him six months before that. She knew most of his techniques by now and wasn’t about to be swayed by them.
“It is all the answer you need. This is not about tit for tat. My behavior was necessary.”
“And if I behaved similarly out of necessity it would not bother you?”
“The occasion does not arise.”
“Are you sure about that?” She paused, giving him a moment to let the question prick at his arrogant certainty. “Just because I’m not gossip-column worthy doesn’t mean I never flirt with other men.”
“And do you?” he asked with an indulgence that said more clearly than anything else could how little he worried about the possibility.
“I haven’t, because I considered myself taken, but I realize now that I shouldn’t have.”