Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation
And she’ll enjoy every delicious second!
The king of Vallia never wanted to ascend to the throne. But in order to abdicate, Luca needs a good, old-fashioned disgrace. That’s where powerhouse PR pro Amy Miller comes in! Amy’s revived the career of many a star. She can certainly torpedo that of a reluctant royal.
But when instant attraction ignites with Luca, Amy’s soon starring in the scandal. And the fire burning between them is anything but fake news. But will this explosive flame be extinguished by what’s hidden in Amy’s past?
Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation is the first book in Signed, Sealed…Seduced, a multi-author trilogy written with Clare Connelly and Tara Pammi. Three best friends from boarding school start London Connection, an up and coming PR agency serving an exclusive clientele.
Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation
— Luca, Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation
I can’t take credit for the wonderful set up in this book. My editor asked if I’d like to be part of a trilogy with two other authors (the incomparable Clair Connelly and the tremendously talented Tara Pammi.
I always say YES! to these opportunities. Writing is a lonely business so having an excuse to email my writing pals and call it ‘work’ is awesome.
The project was pitched as ‘three friends from boarding school now run a wildly successful PR firm called London Connection.’ It sounded like a hoot and it’s always nice to be presented with an outline for a story rather than stumbling through on my best by golly. I’ve always enjoyed the stories I’ve been assigned, but this one was particularly fun.
Luca is very restrained and Amy is outgoing and sparky and blurts out some of the worst things at the very worst time. I had a riot with that and hope you enjoy the sundial scene especially. ~wink!~
Alas, I’m back to writing alone in my fortress of literature, but Clare, Tara and I–like our heroines–will always have London Connection.
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Ways to Ruin a Royal Reputation
Amy Miller blinked, certain she’d misheard Luca Albizzi, the king of Vallia.
She’d been reeling since she’d walked into this VIP suite in London’s toniest hotel and discovered who her potential client would be.
Her arrival here had been conducted under a cloak of mystery. A call had had her assistant frowning with perplexity as she relayed the request that Amy turn up for an immediate consultation, now or never.
Given the address, Amy had been confident it was worth pandering to the vague yet imperious invitation. It wasn’t unheard-of for managers of celebrities to conceal a client’s identity while they brought Amy and her team into a crisis situation.
Amy had snatched up her bag and hurried across the city, expecting to meet an outed MP’s son or an heiress being blackmailed with revenge porn.
The hotel manager had brought her to the Royal Suite, a title Amy had not taken seriously despite the pair of men guarding the door, both wearing dark suits and inscrutable expressions. One had searched through her satchel while the other inspected the jacket she had nervously removed in the lift.
When they opened the door for her, Amy had warily entered an empty lounge.
As she set her bag and jacket on a bar stool, the sound of the main door closing had brought a pensive man from one of the bedrooms.
He wore a bone-colored business shirt over dark gray trousers, no tie, and had such an air of authority, he nearly knocked her over with it. He was thirtyish, swarthy, his hair light brown, his blue eyes piercing enough to score lines into her.
Before she had fully recognized him, a hot, bright pull twisted within her. A sensual vine that wound through her limbs slithered to encase her, and yanked.
It was inexplicable and disconcerting—even more so when her brain caught up to realize exactly who was provoking this reaction.
The headlines had been screaming for weeks that the Golden Prince, recently crowned the king of Vallia, would be coming to London on a state visit. King Luca had always been notorious for the fact he was powerful, privileged and sinfully good-looking. Everything else about him was above reproach. According to reports, he’d dined at Buckingham Palace last night where the only misstep had been a smoky look of admiration from a married duchess that he had ignored
“Call me Luca,” he said by way of introduction, and invited her to sit.
Gratefully, Amy had sunk onto the sofa, suffering the worst case of starstruck bedazzlement she’d ever experienced. She spoke to wealthy and elite people all the time and never lost her tongue. Or her hearing. Or her senses. She refused to let this man be anything different, but he was. He just was.
She saw his mouth move again. The words he’d just spoken were floating in her consciousness, but his gorgeously deep voice with that Italian accent evoked hot humid nights in narrow cobblestone alleys while romantic strains of a violin drifted from open windows. She could practically smell the fragrance of exotic blossoms weighting the air. He would draw her into a shadowed alcove and that full-lipped, hot mouth would smother—
“Will you?” he prodded.
Amy yanked herself back from the kind of fantasy that could, indeed, ruin him. And her. He was a potential client, for heaven’s sake!
A cold tightness arrived behind her breastbone as she made the connection that she was, once again, lusting for someone off-limits. Oh, God. She wouldn’t say the king of Vallia reminded her of him. That would be a hideous insult. Few men were as reprehensible as him, but a clammy blanket of apprehension settled on her as she realized she was suffering a particularly strong case of the butterflies for someone who potentially had power over her.
She forcibly cocooned those butterflies and reminded herself she was not without power of her own. She could turn down this man or this job. In fact, based on this off-the-rails attraction she was suffering, she should do both.
She would, once she politely heard him out. At the very least, she could recommend one of her colleagues.
Why did that thought make this weird ache in her diaphragm pang even harder?
She shook it off.
“I’m sorry,” she said, managing to dredge the words from her dry throat. “Did you say someone is trying to ruin you? London Connection can definitely help you defuse that.” There. She almost sounded like the savvy, confident, cofounder of a public relations firm that her business card said she was.
“I said I want you to ruin me.”
You. Her heart swerved. Did he know? Her ears grew so hot, she feared they’d set her hair on fire. He couldn’t know what had happened, she assured herself even as snakes of guilt and shame writhed in her stomach. Her parents and the school’s headmistress had scrubbed out that little mess with all the alacrity of a government cleanup team in a blockbuster movie. That’s how Amy had learned mistakes could be mitigated so well they disappeared from the collective consciousness, even if the stain remained on your conscience forever.
Nevertheless, her hands clenched in her lap as though she had to physically hang on to all she’d managed to gain after losing everything except the two best friends who remained her staunchest supporters to this day.
“Our firm is in the business of building reputations.” Muscle memory came to her rescue, allowing her voice to steady and strengthen. She said this sort of thing a million times a week. “Using various tools like media channels and online networking, we protect and enhance our clients’ profiles. When a brand or image has been impacted, we take control of the narrative. Build a story.” Blah, blah, blah.
She smiled while she spoke, hands now stacked palm up in her lap, ankles crossed. Her blood still sizzled because, seriously, he was positively magnetic even when he scowled with impatience. This was what a chiseled jaw looked like—as though a block of marble named “naked gold” or “autumn tan” had been chipped and worked and shaped to become this physical manifestation of strength and tenacity. Command.
“I know what you do. That’s why I called you.” Luca rose abruptly from the armchair he’d taken when she’d sat.
He paced across the spacious lounge. His restless movement ruffled the sheer drapes that were partially drawn over the wall of windows overlooking the Thames.
She’d barely taken in the decor of grays and silver-blue, the fine art pieces and the arrangements of fresh flowers. It all became a monochrome backdrop to a man who radiated a dynamic aura. He moved like an athlete with his smooth, deliberate motions. His beautifully tailored clothes only emphasized how well made he was.
He paused where the spring sun was streaming through the break in the curtains and shoved his hands into his pockets. The action strained his trousers across his firm behind.
Amy was not an ogler. Men of all shapes, sizes and levels of wealth paraded through her world every day. They were employees and clients and couriers. Nothing more. She hadn’t completely sworn off emotional entanglements, but she was exceptionally careful. Occasionally she dated, but even the very nice men who paid for dinner and asked politely before trying to kiss her had failed to move her.
Truthfully, she didn’t allow anyone to move her. She preferred to keep her focus on her career. She’d been taught by an actual, bona-fide teacher that following her heart, or her libido, or that needy thing inside her that yearned for someone to make her feel special, would only leave her open to being used and thrown away like last week’s rubbish.
But here she was acting like a sixth-former biting her fist because a particularly nice backside was in her line of sight. Luca wasn’t even coming on to her. He was just oozing sex appeal from his swarthy pores in a passive and oblivious way.
That was ninja-level seduction and it had to stop.
“I’m asking you to reverse the build,” Luca said. “Give me a scandal instead of making one go away.”
She dragged her attention up to find him looking over his shoulder at her.
He cocked his brow to let her know he had totally and completely caught her drooling over his butt.
She briefly considered claiming he had sat in chewing gum and gave her hair a flick, aware she was as red as an Amsterdam sex district light She cleared her throat and suggested gamely, “You’re in the wrong part of London for cheap disgrace. Possibly hire a woman with a different profession?”
He didn’t crack a smile.
She bit the inside of her lip.
“A controlled scandal.” He turned to face her, hands still in his pockets. He braced his feet apart like a sailor on a yacht, and his all-seeing gaze flickered across her blushing features. “I’ve done my research. I came to you because you’re ideal for the job.”
Whatever color had risen to her cheeks must have drained out of her because she went absolutely ice cold.
“Why do you say that?” she asked tautly.
His brows tugged in faint puzzlement. “The way you countered the defamation of that woman who was suing the sports league. It was a difficult situation, given how they’d rallied their fans to attack her.”
Amy released a subtle breath. He wasn’t talking about her past.
“It was very challenging,” she agreed with a muted nod.
She and her colleagues-slash-best friends, Bea and Clare, had taken on the case for a single pound sterling. They’d all been horrified by the injustice of a woman being vilified because she’d called out some players who had accosted her in a club.
“I’m compelled to point out though—” she lifted a blithe expression to hide the riot going on inside her “—if you wish to be ruined, the firm we were up against in that case specializes in pillorying people.”
“Yet they failed with your client because of your efforts. How could I even trust them?” He swept a dismissive hand through the air. “They happily billed an obscene amount of money to injure a woman who’d already been harmed. Meanwhile, despite winning, your company lost money with her. Didn’t you?”
His piercing look felt like a barbed hook that dug deep into her middle.
Amy licked her lips and crossed her legs. It was another muscle memory move, one she trotted out with men in an almost reflexive way when she felt put on the spot and needed a brief moment of deflection.
It was a power move and it would have worked, buying her precious seconds to choose her words, if she hadn’t watched his gaze take note of the way the unbuttoned bottom of her skirt fell open to reveal her shin. His gaze slid down to her ankle and leisurely climbed its way back up, hovering briefly on the open collar of her maxi shirtdress, then arrived at her mouth with the sting of a bee.
As his gaze hit hers, his mouth pulled slightly to one side in a silent, Thank you for that, but let’s stay on task.
It was completely unnerving and made her stomach wobble. She swallowed, mentally screaming at herself to get her head in the game.
“I would never discuss another client’s financial situation.” She would, however, send a note to Bea advising her they had some confidentiality holes to plug. “Can you tell me how you came by that impression, though?”
“Your client was quoted in an interview saying that winning in the court of public opinion doesn’t pay the way a win in a real court would have done, but thanks to Amy at London Connection, she remains hopeful she’ll be awarded a settlement that will allow her to pay you what you deserve.”
Every nerve ending in Amy’s body sparked as he approached. He still seemed edgy beneath his air of restraint. He dropped a slip of paper onto the coffee table in front of her.
“I want to cover her costs as well as my own. Will that amount do?”
The number on the slip nearly had her doing a spit take with the air in her lungs. Whether it was in pounds sterling, euros, or Russian rubles didn’t matter. A sum with that many zeroes would have Bea and Clare sending her for a cranial MRI if she turned it down.
“It’s…very generous. But what you’re asking us to do is the complete opposite of London Connection’s mission statement. I’ll have to discuss this with my colleagues before accepting.” Why did Clare have to be overseas right now? Starting London Connection had been her idea. She’d brought Amy on board to get it off the ground, and they usually made big decisions together. Their latest had been to pry Bea from slow suffocation at a law firm to work for them. Bea might have specific legal concerns about a campaign of this nature.
“I don’t want your colleagues,” Luca said. “The fewer people who know what I’m asking, the better. I want you.”
His words and the intensity of his blue eyes were charging into her like a shock of electricity, leaving her trying to catch her breath without revealing he’d knocked it out of her.
“I don’t understand.” It was common knowledge that the new king of Vallia was nothing like the previous one. Luca’s father had been… Well, he’d been dubbed “the Kinky King” by the tabloids, so that said it all.
Amy’s distant assumption when she had recognized Luca was that she would be tasked with finessing some remnant of Luca’s father’s libidinous reputation. Or perhaps shore up the cracks in the new king’s image since there were rumors he was struggling under the weight of his new position.
Even so… “To the best of my knowledge, your image is spotless. Why would you want a scandal?”
“Have I hired you?” Luca demanded, pointing at the slip of paper. “Am I fully protected under client confidentiality agreements?”
She opened her mouth, struggling to articulate a response as her mind leaped to her five-year plan. If she accepted this assignment, she could reject the trust fund that was supposed to come to her when she turned thirty in eighteen months. Childish, perhaps, but her parents had very ruthlessly withheld it twice in the past. Having learned so harshly that she must rely only on herself, Amy would love to tell them she had no use for the remnants of the family fortune they constantly held out like a carrot on a stick.
Bea and Clare would love a similar guarantee of security. They all wanted London Connection to thrive so they could help people. They most definitely didn’t want to tear people down the way some of their competitors did. Amy had no doubt Bea and Clare would have the same reservations she did with Luca’s request, but something told her this wasn’t a playboy’s silly whim. He looked far too grim and resolute.
Coiled through all of this contemplation was an infernal curiosity. Luca intrigued her. If he became a client… Well, if he became a client, he was absolutely forbidden! There was a strange comfort in that. Rules were rules, and Amy would hide behind them if she had to.
“I’ll have to tell my partners something,” she warned, her gaze landing again on the exorbitant sum he was offering.
“Say you’re raising the profile of my charity foundation. It’s a legitimate organization that funds mental health programs. We have a gala in a week. I’ve already used it as an excuse when I asked my staff to arrange this meeting.”
“Goodness, if you’re that adept at lying, why do you need me?”
Still no glint of amusement.
“It’s not a lie. The woman who has been running it since my mother’s time fell and broke her hip. The entire organization needs new blood and a boost into this century. You’ll meet with the team, double-check the final arrangements and suggest new fundraising programs. The full scope of work I’m asking of you will remain confidential, between the two of us.”
His offer was an obscene amount for a few press releases, but Amy could come up with a better explanation for her friends later. Right now, the decision was hers alone as to whether to take the job, and there was no way she could turn down this kind of money.
She licked her dry lips and nodded.
“Very well. If you wish to hire me to promote your charity and fabricate a scandal, I would be happy to be of assistance.” She stood to offer her hand for a shake.
His warm, strong hand closed over hers in a firm clasp and gave it a strong pump. The satisfaction that flared in his expression made all sorts of things in her shiver. He was so gorgeous and perfect and unscathed. Regal.
“Now tell me why on earth you would ask me to ruin you,” she asked, trying to keep her voice even.
“It’s the only way I can give the crown to my sister.”
Luca released her hand with a disturbing sense of reluctance. He quickly dismissed the sexual awareness dancing in his periphery. Amy Miller had a scent of biscotti about her, almonds and anise. It was going to be incredibly distracting to sit with her on the plane, but she was now an employee and he finally had a foot on a path that would allow his sister to take the throne. His entire body twitched to finish the task.
“Eccellente,” he said in his country’s Italian dialect. “Let’s go.”
“Go?” Amy fell back a half step and blinked her sea green eyes. “Where?”
“I’m needed in Vallia. We’ll continue this conversation on our way.”
He glimpsed a flash of panic in her expression, but she quickly smoothed it to show only professional calm.
“I have to take your details first. Prepare and sign the contract. Research—”
Impatience prickled his nape. “I want a secure location before we discuss this further.”
“My office is secure. We don’t have to go to Vallia.” She made it sound like his home was on another planet.
“It’s only three hours. My jet is waiting.”
Amy’s pretty, glossed mouth opened, but nothing came out.
Luca had had his doubts when she had first come onto his radar. He didn’t trust anyone who seemed to enjoy being the life of the party, and her job involved nonstop networking with spoiled, infamous attention-seekers. Her online presence was filled with celebrity selfies, club events and influencer-styled posts. It all skated too close for comfort to the superficial amusements his father had pursued with such fervor.
Along with awards and praise from her colleagues, however, she came highly recommended when he’d made a few discreet inquiries. In person, she seemed levelheaded and knowledgeable—if aware of her ability to dazzle with a flick of her more-blond-than-strawberry locks and not the least bit afraid to use such tactics. She was mesmerizing with her peaches and cream skin. Her nose was cutely uptilted to add playfulness to her otherwise aristocratic features, and there was something intangible, a certain sparkle, that surrounded her.
But the very fact she entranced him kept him on his guard. He was long practiced at appreciating the fact a woman was attractive without succumbing to whatever lust she might provoke in him. He was not and never would be his father.
Even if he had to convince certain people he was enough like him to be undeserving of his crown.
“But—” She waved an exasperated hand. “I have other clients. I can’t just drop them all for you.”
“Isn’t that what I just paid you to do? If you needed more, you should have said.”
“You really don’t know what my work is, do you?” She frowned with consternation before adding in a disgruntled voice, “I’ll have to shift things around. I wish you’d made it clear when you called that you expected me to travel. I would have brought a quick-run bag.” She moved to the leather satchel she’d left on a stool at the bar.
“Are you a PR rep or a secret agent?” Luca asked dryly.
“Feels like one and the same most of the time. At least my passport is always in here.”
He eyed her slightly-above-average height and perfectly proportioned curves. Amy wore nothing so pedestrian as a skirt suit. No, her rainbow-striped dress was styled like an ankle-length shirt in lightweight silk. She’d rolled back her sleeves to reveal her bangled wrists and left a few buttons open at her throat and below her knees. It was a bohemian yet stylish look that was finished with a black corset-looking device that made him want to take his time unbuckling those five silver tongue and eye closures in the middle of her back. Her black shoes had silver stiletto heels that glinted wickedly, and the shift of filmy silk against her heart-shaped ass was positively erotic.
Not her, Luca reminded himself as a bolt of want streaked from the pit of his gut to the root of his sex. He was woke enough to know that objectifying women was wrong, that women who worked for him were always off-limits, and that grabbing anyone’s backside without express permission was unacceptable—even if she’d gawked at his own like she’d wanted to help herself to a handful.
When he’d caught Amy checking him out a few minutes ago, he’d considered scrapping this whole idea in favor of suggesting he refile his flight plan so they could tour the king-size bed in the other room.
Luca didn’t place nascent physical attraction over real world obligations, though. Whether it looked like it or not, allowing his sister to take his place was the greatest service he could do for his country. He wouldn’t be swayed from it.
If that left room in his future to make a few less than wise decisions with a woman who attracted him, that was icing. For now, he had to keep his mind out of the gutter.
Or rather, only go there in a very shallow and deliberate manner.
Look at the bar Papa set, his twin had sniffed a few weeks ago when he’d been relaying his frustration with the Privy Council’s refusal to allow him to abdicate. You have a long way to sink before they would even think of ousting you in favor of me.
Luca didn’t want to put the country into constitutional crisis or start firing dedicated public servants. He only wanted to make things right, but there were too many people invested in the status quo. He’d tried cultivating a certain incompetence as he’d adopted the duties of king, pushing more and more responsibilities onto Sofia to show she was the more deserving ruler, but the council dismissed his missteps as “adapting to the stress of his new role.” They hovered more closely than ever and were driving him mad.
Sofia’s casual remark had been effortlessly on the nose, providing Luca with the solution he’d been searching for. He needed to sink to that unforgivable depth in one shot, touch bottom very briefly, then shoot back to the surface before too much damage was done.
Amy Miller was uniquely positioned to help him make that happen, having bailed countless celebrities out of scandals of their own making.
She was helping herself to items from the hospitality basket, dropping an apple and a protein snack into her bag before adding a water bottle and a bar of chocolate.
“I’ll deduct this from your bill,” she said absently as she examined a lip balm before uncapping it and sweeping it across her naked mouth. She rolled her lips and dropped the tube into her bag. “I’ll buy a change of clothes from the boutique in the lobby on our way out.”
“We don’t have time for a shopping spree. I’ll make arrangements for things to be waiting for you when we arrive.”
“I’m hideously efficient,” she insisted. “Shall I meet you at the front doors in fifteen minutes?” She plucked the black motorcycle jacket off the back of the stool and shrugged it over her dress.
Something in that combination of tough leather over delicate silk, studded black over bright colors, fine blond hair flicked free of the heavy collar and the haughty expression on her face made him want to catch her jacket’s lapels in his fists and drag her close for the hottest, deepest kiss of their lives. His heart rate picked up and his chest heated.
Their eyes met, and they were close enough that he saw her pupils explode in reaction to whatever she was reading in his face.
Look at the bar Father set.
“Car park. Ten minutes.” He pushed a gruff coolness into his tone that made it clear he was not invested in her on any level. “Or the whole thing is off.”
She flinched slightly, then gave him what he suspected was a stock keep-the-client-happy smile, saying a very unconcerned, “I’ll risk it.”
It was cheeky enough to grate, mostly because it lit an urgency in him, one that warned him against letting her get away. He started to tell her that when he said something, he meant it, but she was already gone.
Amy fled the suite. She had reached the limit of her ability to pretend she was cool with all of this and desperately needed to bring her pulse under control, especially after what had just happened.
What had just happened?
She had found an excuse to escape his overwhelming presence, dragged on her jacket, glanced at Luca, and a crackling surge of energy between them had nearly sucked her toward him like a tractor beam pulling her into an imploding sun. For one second, she’d thought he was going to leap on her and swallow her whole.
Much to her chagrin, she was a teensy bit disappointed he hadn’t. In fact, she was stinging with rejection at the way he’d so quickly frozen her out, as if he hadn’t handpicked her to make his worst nightmare come true.
As if she’d been obvious in her attraction toward him and he’d needed to rebuff her.
As if she had consciously been issuing an invitation—which she hadn’t!
She was reacting on a purely physical level and was mortified that it was so potent. So obvious. She didn’t understand why it was happening. Even before all her PR management courses, she’d had a knack for being dropped into a situation that demanded swift, decisive action and turning it around. Now it was her day job to create space for clients to freak out and sob and come to terms with whatever drama might have befallen them. She was adept at processing her own reactions on the fly, but today she was shaking and wishing for a paper bag to breathe into.
Luca was the diametric opposite of everything she’d ever encountered. He wasn’t a boy from the council flats who’d stumbled into stardom and didn’t know how to handle it. He’d been raised to be king. He was a man of impeccable reputation who wanted her to engineer his fall from grace. Instead of his looks and wealth and privilege getting him into trouble, he needed her to make that happen for him. I want you, he’d said.
He’d made it sound as if he saw her as exceptional at what she did, but there was that niggling fear deep in her belly that she’d been chosen for other, bleaker reasons.
Even as she was texting Clare and Bea from the lift, informing them she was leaving town with an important new client who’d offered a “substantial budget,” she was stamping her feet to release the emotions that were accosting her.
There was no tricking herself into believing Luca Albizzi was a client like any other. He wasn’t. Not just because he was a king. Or because he radiated more sex appeal than a whole calendar of shirtless firefighters. He was…magnificent.
He was causing her to react like a— She pinched the bridge of her nose, hating to admit it to herself, but it was true. She was behaving like damned schoolgirl.
That would not do. She was older and wiser than she’d been back then. Infatuation Avenue was firmly closed off. Men were no longer allowed to use her very natural need for affection and companionship as a route to taking advantage of her. Besides, he was a client. Their involvement had to remain strictly professional. It would, she vowed.
As the lift doors opened, Clare texted back that she would run things remotely. Bea promised to email their boilerplate for the contract. Neither protested her disappearing, darn them for always being so supportive.
Amy hurried to the boutique. Thankfully, she was blessed with a body that loved off-the-rack clothing. It took longer for the woman to ring up her items than it did for Amy to yank them from the rod. She didn’t need to buy a toothbrush. She always kept the grooming basics in her shoulder bag since she often had to freshen up between meetings.
She was catching her breath after racing down the stairs to the car park when the lift bell rang. Luca’s bodyguards stepped out. One checked as he saw her hovering, nodding slightly when he recognized her. An SUV slid to a halt, and Luca glanced at her as he appeared and walked across to the door that was opened for him.
“I didn’t believe you could find what you wanted in less than an hour.” His gaze dropped to the bag she swung as she hurried toward him. “Your ability to follow through on a promise is reassuring.”
“Reassurance is the cornerstone of our work. I’m not being facetious. I mean that.” She let his bodyguard take her purchases and climbed into the vehicle beside Luca, firmly ignoring the cloud of the king’s personal fragrance, which may or may not have been a combination of aftershave, espresso and undiluted testosterone.
Whatever it was, it made her ovaries ache.
As the door shut and the SUV moved up the ramp into the daylight, Amy withdrew her tablet from her satchel, determined to do her job, nothing more, nothing less.
“I was going to look up some background information unless you’d rather brief me yourself?”
He pressed the button on the privacy window, waiting until it was fully shut to ask, “How much do you know about my family?”
“Only the—” She pursed her lips against saying sketchiest. “The most rudimentary details. I know your father passed away recently. Six months ago? I’m very sorry.”
He dismissed her condolence with an abbreviated jerk of his head.
“And your mother has been gone quite a bit longer?” she murmured gently.
“Twenty years. We were eleven.” The flex of agony in his expression made Amy’s attempts to remain impervious to him rather useless.
“That must have been a very hard loss for you and your sister. I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” he said gruffly, and something in his demeanor told her that even though his mother’s death was two decades old, he still mourned her while his grief over his father was more of a worn-out fatalism.
“And Princess Sofia is…” Amy looked to her tablet, wishing she could confirm the impressions that leaped to mind. “I believe she’s done some diplomatic work?” Amy had the sense it was far more substantial than a celebrity lending their name to a project.
“Sofia is extremely accomplished.” His pride in his sister had him sitting straighter. “She began advocating for girls when she was one. We both studied political science and economics, but when I branched into emerging technologies, she pursued a doctorate in humanities. More recently, she played an integral part in the trade agreements in the Balkan region. She’s done excellent work with refugees, maternal health and global emergency response efforts.”
“I had no idea,” Amy said faintly. Her parents had disinherited her and she’d come a long way from a hard start, but women like his sister made her feel like a hellacious underachiever.
“She’s remarkable. Truly. And has way more patience for politics that I do. I don’t suffer fools, but she’s willing to take the time to bring people around to her way of thinking. We both know where Vallia needs to go, but my instinct is to drag us there through force of will. She has the temperament to build consensus and effect change at a cultural level. She’s better suited to the role, is arguably more qualified and, most importantly, she’s an hour older than I am. The crown should be hers by birthright.”
“Wow.” If her voice held a touch of growing hero worship for both of them, she couldn’t help it. “It’s rare to hear a powerful man sound so supportive and willing to step aside for anyone, let alone a woman. That’s so nice.”
“I’m not ‘nice,’ Amy. Shake that idea from your head right now,” he said tersely. “I am intelligent enough to see what’s obvious and loyal enough to my country and my sister to make the choice that is right for everyone concerned. This has nothing to do with being nice.”
He was using that voice again, the one that seemed intent on warning her that any designs she might have on him were futile.
Message received, but that didn’t stop her from lifting her chin in challenge. “What’s wrong with being nice? With being kind and empathetic?”
“I’m not advocating cruelty,” he said with a curl of his lips. “But those are emotions, and emotions are hungry beasts. Soon you’re doing things just so you feel kind. So you have the outside validation of people believing you’re empathetic. Ruling a country, doing it well—” he seemed to pause disdainfully on the word, perhaps criticizing his father’s reign? “—demands that you remove your personal investment from your decisions. Otherwise, you’ll do what appeases your need to feel good and lose sight of what’s ethically sound.”
She considered that. “It seems ironic that you believe giving up the crown is the right thing to do when your willingness to do what’s right makes you ideal for wearing it.”
“That’s why my sister won’t challenge me for it. She refuses to throw Vallia into turmoil by fighting for the right to rule, not when I’m healthy, capable and wildly popular. From an optics standpoint, she can’t call me out as unsuited and install herself. She has to clearly be a better choice, recruited to save the country from another debacle.”
“Why was she passed over in the first place? Primogeniture laws?”
“Sexism. Our father simply thought it would make him look weak to have a woman as his heir. He was too selfish and egotistical, too driven by base desires to see or do what was best for Vallia. When it was revealed my mother was carrying twins and that we were a boy and a girl, he declared the boy would be the next king. Even though Sofia was born first, making her the rightful successor, the council at the time was firmly in my father’s pocket. No one pushed back on his decree.”
“Does that council still have influence? Can’t you simply abdicate?”
“I’ve tried.” Impatience roughened his tone. “Once I was old enough to understand the reality of my position, I began to question why the crown was coming to me.” He pensively tapped the armrest with a brief drum of his fingers. “Our mother knew Sofia was being cheated, but she worried that pressing for Sofia’s right to inherit would cost her what little influence she had. She used her mandate of raising a future king to install a horde of conservative advisers around us. They genuinely wished to mold me into a better king than my father was, and they are extremely devoted to their cause. That isn’t a bad thing, given the sort of people who surrounded my father.” He side-eyed her.
Amy briefly rolled her lips inward. “I won’t pretend I haven’t read the headlines.” Countless mistresses, for instance, sometimes more than one at a time. “I don’t put a lot of stock into gossip, especially online. Paparazzi will post anything to gain clicks.”
Even if Luca’s father had been into polyamory, it was merely a questionable look for someone in his position, not something that negated his ability to rule.
“Whatever you’ve read about my father is not only true,” Luca said in a dark voice, “it is the whitewashed version.” His voice rang as though he was hollow inside. “When he died, I brought up crowning my sister despite the fact I’ve always been the recognized successor. It was impressed upon me that Vallia was in too fragile a state for such a scandal. That we desperately needed to repair our reputation on the world stage and I was the man to do it.”
“It’s only been six months. Is Vallia strong enough to weather you renouncing your crown?” she asked skeptically.
“It’s the perfect time to demonstrate that behaviors tolerated in the previous king will not be forgiven in this one. A small, well-targeted scandal that proves my sister is willing to make the hard decision of removing me for the betterment of our country will rally the population behind her. I need something unsavory enough to cause reservations about my suitability, but not so filthy I can’t go on to hold positions of authority once it’s over. I don’t intend to leave her in the lurch, only restore what should be rightfully hers.”
“What will you do after she ascends?” she asked curiously.
“Vallia’s economy has suffered from years of neglect. Recent world events have not helped. Before the duties of a monarch tied up all my time, I was focused on developing our tech sector. We have a small but exceptional team working in solar advancements and another looking at recovering plastics from the waste stream to manufacture them into useable goods.”
“Be careful,” she teased, noting the way his expression had altered. “You almost sound enthusiastic. I believe that’s known as having an emotion.”
His gaze clashed into hers. Whatever keenness might have briefly brimmed within him was firmly quashed, replaced by something icy and dangerous.
“Don’t mistake my frankness for a desire to be friends, Amy,” he warned softly. “I’m giving you the information you need to do your job. You don’t know me. You can’t. Not just because we’ll never have a shared frame of reference, but because I won’t allow it. I’ve lived in the shadow of a man who made everything about himself. Who allowed himself to be ruled by fleeting whims and hedonistic cravings. If I thought my desire to go back to reshaping our economy offered anything more than basic satisfaction in pursuing a goal, I wouldn’t do it. It’s too dangerous. I won’t be like him.”
They were coming into a private airfield and aiming for a sleek jet that had the Vallian flag painted on the tail. A red carpet led to the steps.
Amy squirmed internally. He might not have emotions, but she did. And she was normally well-liked. It bothered her to realize he not only didn’t like her, but he didn’t want to. That stung. She didn’t want to feel his rebuff this keenly.
“Developing a rapport with a client is a way of building trust,” she said stiffly. “Given the personal nature of this work, and how I live in my client’s pockets through the course of a campaign, they like to know they can trust me.”
“I’ve paid top price for unquestionable loyalty. I don’t need the frills of bond-forming banter to prove it.”
Keep your mouth shut, she warned herself.
“Lucky you. It’s included with every purchase,” she blurted cheerfully.
The SUV came to a halt, making it feel as though his hard stare had caused the world to stop spinning and her heart to stop beating.
“Dial it back,” he advised.
She desperately wanted to tell him he could use a laugh. Lighten up, she wanted to say, but the door opened beside her. He was the customer and the customer might not always be right, but they had to believe she thought they were.
She buttoned her lip and climbed aboard his private jet.
Did he feel regret at taking her down a notch? If Luca allowed himself emotions, perhaps he would have, but he didn’t. So he sipped his drink, a Vallian liquor made from his nation’s bitter oranges, and watched her through hooded eyes.
He told himself he wasn’t looking for signs she’d been injured by his cut. If she was, she hid it well, smiling cheerfully at the flight attendant and quickly making a workspace for herself. She made a call to her assistant to reassign various files and eschewed alcohol for coffee when offered, tapping away on her tablet the whole time.
She seemed very comfortable in his jet, which was built for comfort, but she was relaxed in the way of someone who was not particularly impressed by the luxury. As though she was familiar with such lavishness. Took it for granted.
She catered to celebrities so she had likely seen her share of private jets. Why did the idea of her experiencing some rock star’s sonic boom niggle at him, though? Who cared if she’d sat aboard a hundred yachts, allowing tycoons to eyeball her legs until she curled them beneath her like a cat while tracing a stylus around her lips as she studied her tablet? It was none of Luca’s business if she traded witty barbs with stage actors or played house with playwrights.
He was absolutely not invested in how many lovers she’d had, rich, poor or otherwise. No, he was in a prickly mood for entirely different reasons that he couldn’t name.
He flicked the button to bring down the temperature a few degrees and loosened his tie.
“I’m sending you the contract to forward to your legal department.” Amy’s gaze came up, inquiring. Professional, with a hint of vulnerability in the tension around her eyes.
Perhaps not so unaffected after all.
A tautness invaded his abdomen. He nodded and glanced at his phone, sending the document as quickly as it arrived. Seconds later, he realized he was typing her name into the search bar, planning to look into more than her professional history. He clicked off his phone and set it aside.
“How did you get into this type of work? The company is only two years old, isn’t it? But it won an award recently?”
“For a multicountry launch, yes. Specifically, ‘Imaginative Use of Traditional and Social Media in a Coordinated International Product Launch Campaign.’” She rolled her eyes. “These types of awards are so niche and specific they’re really a public relations campaign for public relations.” She shrugged. “But it’s nice to have something to brag about and hopefully put us at the top of search engines for a few days.”
“That’s how your firm came to my attention, so it served its purpose.”
“I’ll let Clare know.” She flashed a smile.
“Your partner.” He vaguely remembered the name and photo on the website. The dark-haired woman hadn’t projected the same vivacity that had reached out from Amy’s headshot, compelling him to click into her bio and fall down an online wormhole of testimonials.
“Clare is one of my best friends from boarding school. London Connection was her idea. She came into some money when her father passed and wanted to open a business. I worked the social media side of things, organizing high-profile events and managing celebrity appearances. Once we were able to expand the services beyond straight promoting into problem-solving and crisis management, we exploded. We’re so busy, we dragged our friend Bea from her law firm to join our team.” Her face softened with affection. “We’re all together again. It’s the best career I could have imagined for myself.”
“Boarding school,” he repeated. That explained how Amy took to private jets like a duck to water. She’d probably been raised on one of these. “I thought I detected a hint of American beneath your accent. Is that where you’re from?”
“Originally.” Her radiance dimmed. “We moved to the UK when I was five. I went to boarding school when my parents divorced. I was just looking up your foundation. Do I have the name right? Fondo Della Regina Vallia?”
“That’s it, yes.”
“I have some ideas around merchandise that would double as an awareness campaign. Let me pull a few more details together.” She dipped her attention back to her tablet, corn-silk hair falling forward to curtain her face.
And that’s how it was done. Replace the thing you don’t want to talk about with something that seems relevant, but actually isn’t.
Amy Miller was very slick and not nearly as artless and open as she wanted to appear.
Rapport goes both ways, he wanted to mock, but he didn’t really want to mock her. He wanted to know her.
Who was he kidding? He wanted to know what she liked. She was twenty-eight, and at least a few of the men photographed with her must have been lovers. Maybe some of the women too. What did he know? The fact was, she was one of those rare creatures—a woman in his sphere who attracted him.
His sphere was depressingly empty of viable lovers and historically well-guarded against them. His mother had surrounded her children with hypervigilant tutors, mentors and bodyguards. It had been the sort of blister pack wrapping within a window box frame that allowed others to look in without touching. He and Sofia had been safely admired, but never allowed out to play.
Mostly their mother had been trying to protect her children from learning the extent of their father’s profligacy, but she’d also been doing what she could for the future of Vallia. There’d been a small civil war within the palace when she died. Luca and Sofia’s advisers had collided with their father’s cabal—men who had had more power, but also more to hide.
In those dark days, while he and Sofia remained oblivious, deals had been struck that had kept everyone in their cold war positions. Their father’s death had finally allowed Luca and his top advisers to carve the rot from the palace once and for all. Luca had installed his own people, and they all wanted to stay in the positions to which they had ascended—which was how he’d wound up in this predicament.
And the reason he was still living a monk’s existence. He had no time and was monitored too closely to burn off sexual calories. At university, potential partners had always been vetted to the point that they’d walked away in exhausted indifference rather than run the gamut required to arrive in his bed.
As an adult moving through the hallowed halls of world politics and visiting allied territories, he occasionally came across a woman who had as much to lose by engaging in a loose-lipped affair as he did. They would enjoy a few private, torrid nights and part ways just as quickly and quietly. The few who had progressed into a longer relationship had been suffocated by his life, by the inability to make the smallest misstep with a hemline or a break with protocol without suffering cautionary lectures from his council and intense scrutiny by the press.
Luca didn’t blame women for walking out of his life the minute they saw how little room there was to move within it.
Amy would die in such a confined space. She was too bright and vivacious. It would be like putting a burning light inside a cupboard. Glints might show through the cracks, but all her heat and power would be hidden and wasted.
Why was he dreaming of crawling in there with her? Imagining it to be like closing himself within the cradle of a suntan bed, surrounded in the sweet scent of coconut oil and a warmth that penetrated to his bones.
He dragged his gaze from where the barest hint of breast swell was peeking from the open buttons of her dress and set his unfinished drink aside. Best to slow down if he was starting to fantasize about a woman he’d hired—to ruin him.
He bet she could ruin him. He just bet.
His assistant came to him with a tablet and a handful of inquiries, and Luca forced his mind back to who he was and the obligations he still had—for now.
Perhaps when this was over, he promised himself, he would be able to pursue the iridescent Amy. Until then, he had to remain the honorable and faultless king of Vallia.