Available Febuary 23
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Sofía Ramirez set a Manolo Blahnik-clad toe out of the classic-yellow Manhattan taxi, her shoe meeting pavement still radiating heat from a sultry, steamy New York summer day.
She followed up the iconic shoe with a slim leg that caused a tuxedo-clad male on the sidewalk to turn and watch, a champagne-coloured, beaded cocktail dress that accentuated her voluptuous figure without flaunting it and a Kate Spade clutch a shade deeper than her dress.
Suitably assembled on the sidewalk, she paid the driver, ran a palm over her sleek French twist to make sure it was intact, and made her way toward the entrance of the glimmering, stately Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As the co-owner of one of Manhattan’s trendiest fashion boutiques, she knew the importance of dressing for the occasion. Overdress in this city and you looked like you were trying too hard. Underdress and you would be talked about all night by the high-brow crowd.
She thought she’d gotten it just right as she swished through the front doors of the museum where one of her most important clients was hosting a benefit for the arts. But could any outfit ever really prepare a woman for her other, perhaps more important, task of the evening—saying thanks, but no thanks, to her relationship with one of Manhattan’s most powerful men?
Not just a man. A prince. The sexy, charismatic second-in-line to the throne of his tiny Mediterranean municipality, Akathinia, Prince Nikandros Constantinides, in attendance tonight. The untameable one, as the women who had dated him were wont to say in quick sound bites to the press, the slight hint of bitterness to their tone the only outward sign they were in any way chastened at being yet another of his castoffs.
For didn’t they all know their time with the prince was limited to the length of his attention span? That once his interest wandered, the clock was on?
She had known it. And what had she done? Waited for him to call when he’d come back from Mexico, his much-lauded free trade deal in hand, obsessively checking her phone for a message from him every fifteen minutes only to find nothing until tonight when he’d known they would be at the same party?
Her stomach curled with a fresh burst of nerves as she handed her invitation to the greeters at the door of the Egyptian-themed Temple of Dendur exhibit. Getting herself into a state over a man, even one as gorgeous as Nik, was something she’d sworn she’d never do. Couldn’t allow herself to do. So she was going to do what any smart, sensible woman would in her situation.
End it. Cut it off before he broke her heart. Before he made her want things she couldn’t have. Things she’d long ago determined weren’t attainable for her.
Her attendance verified, she wound her way through the glitzy, be-jeweled crowd to look for her hostess, Natalia Graham, a well-respected philanthropist who came from one of Manhattan’s historic, moneyed families. Business first, heart-pounding personal matter later.
The Temple of Dendur, a gift to the United States from Egypt in the late 1960’s, then bequeathed to the Met, was lit up this evening as the centerpiece of the event. Mystical, harkening back to the age of the pharaohs and the gods they worshipped, it was breathtaking.
Several acquaintances stopped her to talk, all of them clients. She spent a few moments with each, summoning the polite small talk she had studiously taught herself over the years because when you came from the opposite side of town these people did, where this world had once only been a dream in your daily existence, you weren’t equipped with those skills.
“Sofía.” Natalia found her moments later, drawing her into a warm embrace. “I’m so glad you made it.”
“I’m sorry I’m late. It was a crazy day.”
“And you probably want off your feet,” Natalia drew her toward the bar. “No Katharine tonight?”
She shook her head at the mention of her partner. “Her father is in town.”
“And no gorgeous man to escort you?” Natalia gave her a wry look. “I would have thought the men would be lining up to date you. Unless,” her friend said slyly, “the rumours of you and the prince are true?”
“I don’t have time to date,” she said smoothly, sliding onto a bar stool. “You know I’m always working.”
“Mm.” Natalia scoured her face with a speculative look. “Martini?”
“Please.” A healthy shot of potent alcohol might go a long way toward the liquid courage she needed at the moment.
She and Natalia caught up, working their way around to the joint endeavor they had been planning together, a fashion show in support of one of Natalia’s charities. They were discussing the details when the philanthropist’s gaze sharpened on the crowd behind them.
“Speaking of the prince,” she drawled, “he just sat down behind you.”
Her pulse picked up, thrumming a steady beat in her throat. A prickly sensation slid up her back. She didn’t need to turn around to know Nik had spotted her. She could feel the heat of his gaze, eating her up as it always did.
“Well I guess that answers my question,” Natalia murmured.
Sofía took a sip of her martini. She and Nik had managed to keep their relationship out of the tabloids after they’d met at a hospital fundraiser, but rumours had been circulating of late. Since their relationship would be dead after tonight, she saw no reason to confirm it to Natalia.
“It’s nothing,” she shrugged. “You know what he’s like.”
Natalia lifted a brow. “If that’s his it’s nothing look, I’d like to see the something one.”
She dug her teeth into her lip. Unable to resist, she swiveled on the stool, directing her gaze toward the group of men populating the lounge area behind them. It didn’t take her long to locate Nik. Tall, dark and swarthy-skinned in a nod to his Mediterranean heritage, he looked…breathtaking.
The jacket of his silver-grey suit lay discarded on the back of his seat as per the other men at the table, his white shirt open at the throat, his every physical cue as he lounged, long legs spread out in front of him, that of supreme confidence.
Her stomach twisted, her agitation intensifying. He looked like sex poured into an exquisitely made suit. Lethally powerful. Dangerous.
She lifted her gaze to his light, magnetic one that contrasted so vividly with his olive skin. Blue, an icy blue, it was focused on her in a not-so-discrete perusal, full of a sensual promise that took her breath away.
A wave of heat consumed her. He was just that virile.
Turning around, she reached for her glass and took a long sip with a hand that trembled ever-so-slightly. Remember how discarded, how vulnerable you felt waiting for him to call this week. That had to be her armour tonight.
You are going to do this, Sofía. You are not going to back out again. Muster your willpower.
* * * * *
“Bar bill says he will.”
Nik pulled his attention away from Sofía and frowned at his two closest friends. “What’s the wager for?”
“You.” Harry, his best friend since college, flicked him an amused smile. “I bet the bar bill the eye candy over there breaks your self-imposed slump. Jake says she doesn’t.”
Nik could have told him she already had. That he and Sofía had been seeing each other for a couple of months. But he liked things the way they were. Private. Uncomplicated. Sizzling hot.
He took a sip of his whiskey, savouring the smoky flavour of the spirit before pointing his glass at Harry. “I’ve spent the past six months negotiating a free trade deal. A landmark free trade deal, I might add. It’s not a slump. It’s a lack of bandwidth.”
Harry gave him a speculative look. “Still you’ve been off. Your head isn’t here. What gives?”
He wished he knew. Hadn’t been sure what had been eating at him for a long time. All he was conscious of was that he wasn’t himself, had been consumed by a restless craving for something he couldn’t put his finger on.
What should have been the peak of his career, negotiating a free trade deal between his country and Mexico, a deal the critics had said couldn’t be done, hadn’t brought with it its usual adrenalin rush. Instead it had left him flat. Empty. Uninspired. A bit dead inside if he were to be honest.
But to try and explain that to his high-flying friends, still deeply immersed in the highs of their ultra-successful legal and banking careers, seemed pointless. That he, manager of a multi-billion-dollar portfolio for his nation, a prince with unquestionable influence who could flick his fingers and have his heart’s desire at a moment’s notice, was having an identity crisis.
For what else could it be? Surely he was too young to be experiencing a mid-life crisis?
He downed the last of his whiskey as their hostess slid off the stool beside Sofía, resisting the urge to delve too deeply into his head because it never ended well, these ruminations of his. Thinking too much could make a man crazy.
“Maybe I need some inspiration,” he murmured, getting to his feet.
“Yesss.” Harry held up a hand in victory. “I knew it.”