Excerpt: Crowning His Unlikely Princess

Excerpt: Crowning His Unlikely Princess

Harlequin Presents #

Chapter One

Cassidy checked the prospectus in her hand against the one on her computer screen and felt her stomach sink to her toes.

She had given him the wrong one.

She was doomed.

She would be fired.

This was it.

After a day that had started out badly and only got worse as it had progressed, it would be the tip of the iceberg.

She hadn’t had a day as bad as this one since her father had moved her and her sister out of the small parish in which they had grown up during the middle of the night all those years ago as if they had been criminals. They hadn’t been, but for a while they had been treated like they were. And she’d contributed to that, hadn’t she?

But beating herself up about past mistakes wasn’t going to help her now.

If she didn’t fix this, her meticulous boss would be heading to an important meeting in Boston the following morning, to finalise the capital investment they needed for a major project, with the wrong information. That would be eight months of painstaking work down the tubes. After the unexpected bombshell her sister had dropped on her this morning that had set off her day from hell, it was the last straw.

And she had no one to blame but herself. She should not have let Peta’s unexpected news derail her as much as it had, and she could either sit here and feel sorry for herself or she could get on and fix it.

And she still had time, she noted, checking her watch.

She double-checked the updated version of the document, ensuring that the right figures were in the right place this time, and hit the print button.

Of course the printer ran out of paper halfway through but that was to be expected. It should be one of Murphy’s laws that when a day started out badly you should just go back to bed and pull the sheet over your head.

Her forehead throbbed as she recalled how she had barely been awake when one of her eleven-year-old twin nieces had come careening into her bedroom with the news that their mother was getting married. Her mother, and Cassidy’s sister. The one who had moved in with her after she had hit rock bottom again. The one who had sworn off men after she’d become a teenage mother and been dumped by the twins’ father before they had even been born.

Peta had come into her room after that with a sheepish grin on her face and a diamond ring on her finger.

‘I wasn’t sure how to tell you,’ she’d said, half grimacing, half smiling. ‘Dan completely surprised me with his proposal and he wants me and the girls to move in with him right away. Not that we will,’ Peta had rushed to assure her. ‘Not until you find another place to live, or a flatmate, because I know you can’t afford the rent here on your own.’

Shell-shocked, Cassidy had just looked at her. ‘You’re engaged?’

‘I know, right?’ Peta had stared down at her ring with a stunned but delighted expression. ‘I can’t believe it either but… He’s so special, Cass. And he even wants to adopt the twins.’

A lump had formed in Cassidy’s throat at that. The twins were hers! She had been at their birth, she had helped her sister raise them, she had taken Amber to the emergency department when she’d broken her arm and Peta had been stuck on the other side of the city at work. She had been the one to read stories to April to take her mind off her twin in the operating room while they’d waited.

Dan was… Dan was… He was a nice guy, a lovely guy, but marriage?

In hindsight she should have been more prepared for it. Her sister was one of those uniquely beautiful people that made others do a double-take.

Like her boss. Prince Logan of Arrantino.

They moved through life on another level from the more ordinary folk like herself, turning heads and breaking hearts as they went.

It had always been that way. Growing up, the boys at high school had only ever shown an interest in Cassidy to get an introduction to her sister. It was something she had grown so used to that even now she always questioned a man’s hidden agenda before accepting an invitation to dinner. Not that she’d had many of those since the last guy she’d dated, who had only wanted her for her study notes. After the disastrous incident in high school that she refused to think about she really should have known better.

Just once she’d like to meet a man who wanted her for her body. Was that too much to ask?

An image of her boss leapt into her head and she immediately banished it. The only reason he would ever want her body was to bury it after he murdered her for making so many errors today.

First by putting through a phone call from a teary ex, hoping for a second chance, instead of the CEO of their law firm, and then for mixing up the restaurant where he was supposed to meet a client for lunch. She’d confused the luncheon date with one he was scheduled to have the following day and he’d been twenty minutes late as a result.

Now this debacle… She stacked the copies of the prospectus carefully on the table. The last thing she needed to do was to drop them as she raced down the stairs to the copy room and set about binding each one into a shiny booklet.

At this time of the evening the office was basically empty, most of her work colleagues at the bank having already gone home, so she was alone with her self-recriminations.

Which she was eternally thankful for.

The thought of having to make polite small talk with a colleague, or returning home before she could paste on her face a genuinely happy smile for her sister, was too much right now. Not that she wasn’t genuinely happy for her sister. She was. She was just afraid of what it meant for her.

Afraid to face a future without seeing her family on a daily basis. Afraid to face a future with no one special in her life ever. She could almost see herself now, an unmarried woman with a shawl around her shoulders to keep out the chill, and a dozen feral cats fighting over bowls of cat food.

Her throat thickened. She and her sister were a team. They had been ever since the twins had been born when Peta had only just turned seventeen, and Cassidy eighteen. With their mother having walked out two years earlier, and their father struggling to keep his head above water, Cassidy had become the rock everyone leaned on. Which had been fine with her. She liked helping out, and she had never been the kind of person who walked away when the going got tough.

Glad that she kept up her fitness routine, she took the stairs two at a time as she returned to her office and dropped the glossy prospectuses on her desk, automatically reaching for her phone to dial the courier service.

Then she hesitated.

It would be her luck that the courier either didn’t show up or had an accident and the prospectuses ended up at the bottom of the Hudson. Not only would that be an environmental hazard, it would mean she could still be sacked for stupidity.

Being hired as Logan’s EA a few months out of college two years ago had been an amazing coup and she’d pinched herself for months afterwards at having landed such a lucrative role.

She knew she had only got it because she had been in the right place at the right time and the HR manager had been desperate. Otherwise she wouldn’t be where she was today. Working in a job that she loved for a man who was called a business genius by anyone who mattered. He was a commanding force who stopped at nothing to get what he wanted. Which had intimidated the heck out of her when she’d first come to work for him, but which she’d been advised not to show.

‘His previous EAs left because they either couldn’t keep up with the demanding workload,’ the fastidious HR manager had informed her as they’d marched down the hallway for her interview with her boss, ‘they were intimidated by the fact that he’s a prince and second in line to the throne of Arrantino, or they fell in love with him. Any of these three will have you out the door in seconds.’

Down to the last few dollars in her bank account Cassidy had assured the immaculately groomed manager that love was so far off her radar it didn’t even register as a blip. On top of that she’d held down two jobs and still come out top of her class during her senior year at high school so she knew nothing else other than hard work.

Cassidy stared at the ten prospectuses she’d just wrapped in brown paper. Her boss’s apartment was only a fifteen-minute brisk walk away and she had delivered things there before. So why not now? She could use the time to contemplate what she would say to her sister when she got home. And she’d also be more relaxed knowing that she’d rectified her mistake and her boss had the right material for his meeting.

Maybe she would even be lucky enough to find his apartment empty so she could swap the incorrect prospectuses with the new ones without him even knowing. Now, that would be a coup she could smile about.

Feeling better than she had all day, she slipped into her suit jacket, grabbed her handbag, and jabbed the lift button to take her to the ground floor.

Being mid-July, Fifth Avenue was teeming with sunburned tourists wearing ill-fitting shorts and weighed down with I Heart New York shopping bags.

Weaving in and around them with accustomed dexterity, Cassidy didn’t notice that the sky had turned leaden until a large raindrop landed like a burst water balloon right in the centre of her precious parcel.

Groaning with acceptance that this just was not her day, she ducked under a striped shop awning with a couple of women dressed for a night out just as the heavens really opened.

Another drop of water dripped onto her forehead and she barely batted an eyelash as she swiped at it with the back of her hand, glancing up to see a hole in the awning. At this rate a lorry would speed past, hit a puddle, and finish the job. It would only be fitting.

‘Excuse me,’ one of the women ventured. ‘My app’s stopped working. Is Broadway left or right from here? We’re late for a show.’

‘Left,’ Cassidy directed, wishing that getting to Times Square for a musical was the biggest worry on her to-do list right now. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d done anything light-hearted or fun. Who had the time for such frivolities?

Shrugging out of her jacket, she wrapped it around her parcel and hunted around for a cab. Of course the Avenue was gridlocked in the sudden downpour with not a yellow cab in sight.

Resigned to her fate, she stepped out into the deluge, knowing that if she didn’t move soon she wouldn’t make it home before dark. She only hoped that her boss appreciated her dedication when it came to bonus time.

By the time she made it to his landmark building she was a sodden, out-of-breath mess.

The doorman did a double-take when he saw her and rushed to hold the door open as she dashed inside. ‘Evening, Miss Ryan.’

‘Evening, Michael.’ She paused to catch her breath, her heart racing a mile a minute. ‘Is the boss in?’

‘Yes, ma’am. He came in an hour ago.’

‘Great,’ she said glumly. No chance she could hide her mistake, then.

Since he hadn’t responded to her earlier text, she used her personal pass to access his penthouse apartment and waited for his private lift.

A sudden attack of nerves hit her as the lift ascended to the top floor. She’d been here on numerous occasions before to drop things off, but she’d never been here when he’d been at home. The thought of seeing him on his home turf made her feel a little jittery, but perhaps that was just a residual feeling from a day she couldn’t wait to see the back of.

Arriving in his state-of-the-art apartment with three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views over Manhattan and beyond, she stepped carefully from the elevator so she didn’t slip on the marble floor. It was a gorgeous space, the interior designer who had remodelled it having used light wood grain and endless yards of glass to create a home that was boundless and warmly inviting.

Conscious that she was soaking wet, she moved stiffly into the immaculate open-plan living area and called his name. When she didn’t get an answer she glanced outside the windows, momentarily captivated by the sunset over heaven bound skyscrapers. She exhaled slowly, taking in the magnitude and peace of her surroundings. She could see the congested traffic in the distance, the mad dash of pedestrians trying to get to their next destination, and it almost felt surreal in the stillness of Logan’s apartment.

After a day that had not let up from morning till now it was like being cocooned in cotton wool, safe from the frantic beat of a city that never slept. A welcome reprieve.

And then suddenly that reprieve was shattered when she felt the air shift behind her. Knowing that it could only be her boss, she gripped her jacket-wrapped parcel tighter and turned, letting out a short gasp when she was confronted by the sight of him. Sweat-soaked in a singlet top that did little to disguise his wide shoulders and ripped torso and tiny gym shorts that hugged his strong thighs, he was a spectacular display of blatant male power and vitality. He had ear buds inserted and she could hear the pounding music from where she stood.

For a moment she couldn’t speak, her body frozen by the impact of over six feet of bronzed, honed muscle glistening with athletic prowess. Of course, she’d guessed that he was well built beneath his custom-made business suits but her imagination hadn’t even come close to the real thing.

Logan’s eyes did a slow perusal down her body and she was so out of sorts she felt her insides start to heat up, her heart pumping hard again as if she was still outside, rushing to get out of the rain.

She swallowed heavily, horrified to note that her body was reacting to the sight of him in a way that transcended the professional boss-employee relationship. It had been the same reaction she’d had on first meeting him behind his big desk in a tailored suit and a very bad mood. He hadn’t smiled at her then either, testing her mettle by reading her every reaction to his questions with thickly lashed deep blue eyes that were dangerously intelligent.

It was the same look he was giving her now, only this time she didn’t feel half as successful at hiding her emotions, something she generally considered one of her superpowers after a childhood fraught with upheaval.

A superpower she had employed within the confines of his office that very first day to hide how attractive she’d found him, concentrating instead on how fortunate she had been to even have the chance at such a prestigious job, and how desperately she had needed the money. It had also helped that there was the somewhat minor—but pivotal—point that a man who already had everything the world had to offer would not give a woman such as herself a second glance.

A bead of water rolled from her forehead down her nose and onto her top lip. Her tongue sneaked out to capture it and Logan’s blue eyes darkened, his nostrils flaring as his gaze lingered on her lips. Cassidy felt a surge of sexual awareness so deeply within her body it shook her to the core.

She was like a startled impala facing a hungry lion, with nowhere to run, and she suddenly felt less annoyed at the women who regularly called his office, trying to win a second chance with him, and more sorry for them. If he ever swept her up in those massive arms she wasn’t certain she’d want him to let her go either.

Fortunately the scowl that crossed his face was a timely reminder that the chance of him ever sweeping her up into anything was less than zero.

Squeezing her soggy jacket tighter against her chest, she knew that she had to do something to sever this strange connection between them before she embarrassed herself.

But before she had the chance, Logan reached into his pocket and killed the music on his phone before yanking the ear buds out of his ears. ‘What are you doing here, Cassidy? And why are you dripping all over my floor?’