Jaxon Greene dived to the bottom of the sleek pool and swam several meters before surfacing to draw in a deep breath. Having an hour alone to slough off the suffocation from being back in Boston was priceless. He'd survived the university graduation ceremony this afternoon, now all that remained was the gala tonight. He swam a few lengths, willing old memories to ebb away on the water. They didn't. He rolled to float on his back in a last attempt to attain inner peace.
The door at the far end of the complex banged, ruining his already failed mindful moment. Silently he watched the intruder walk along the edge of the lap pool. He recognized her instantly but still wasn't prepared for such feminine perfection in the flesh. Her hair, bittersweet-chocolate brunette, fell in glossy waves past her shoulders and her curvy body was sheathed in an absurdly glamorous dress for university lectures.
Jax sank deeper into the cool water as he realized that he didn't need inner peace, he needed distraction. And fortuitously, the most stunning possibility just walked on in.
Princess Fiorella Salustri—the university's most famous student—was a vision as she swiftly stepped along in spindly high heels, and Jaxon appreciated every stunning detail. Apparently oblivious to him, she smiled to herself as she tossed something up and caught it again in a single hand. With every other step she threw and caught it in a graceful motion so artless and easy it had to be a frequent habit. Over and over, she tossed and caught and he watched, every ounce of his attention ensnared by the lissom display. His body heated in a primal, unbidden response and for the first time in eons, he felt a welcome lick of sensual anticipation. Yes, he definitely needed this kind of distraction.
He finally figured the thing glinting on the end of a long chain was a miniature gold ball. But at the height of her latest throw something went wrong. She gasped as the small golden sphere maintained its swift arc through the air. The trinket glittered in the light, speeding fast and unstoppable until it landed far into the deep pool with a loud plop.
'Oh no.' She ran to the edge and hastily kicked off her high heels before twisting awkwardly to fidget with the side of her dress. 'Rats. Rats, rats, rats.'
Jaxon noticed she was struggling to unzip her dress and as delightful as that prospect was, she needed to know she wasn't alone.
'Princesses don't swear?' he called lazily from his hidden spot farther in the deep end.
'Oh!' She gasped, dropped her hands and stared at him for a second. 'Sorry, I didn't realize anyone was—' She broke off. 'Could you help me? Please?'
But Jaxon had frozen, all but drowning in the bottomless depths of her dark brown gaze.
He'd been told by the very proud university president that Princess Fiorella was studying science here at Wynyard, an exclusive private college in the heart of Boston. And the world knew that back home her elder brother, Prince Alek Salustri of Triscari, was facing some archaic marriage requirement before he could be crowned king.
Jax felt for the guy. No one should be forced into marriage, especially not for a job. Marriage was an institution he intended to avoid completely. He didn't have time for many traditional institutions—including universities. His only reason for accepting that honorary doctorate earlier today was so he could thank his old teacher. He should've just sent money. But if it weren't for Henry Butler, teen Jaxon would've been spat out of the education system, straight into the penal one.
'The sign out front said the pool was closed for cleaning, but the caretaker said that wasn't actually the case,' Jax said huskily, forcing himself to move to where the pendant had fallen. 'Apparently, as you weren't here, I was free to use it,' he added, interested in her reaction to that little nugget. 'Do they always close the pool just for your personal use?'
'It's a little more complicated than that.' She now stared anxiously into the water. 'Look, do you think you could dive down and try to find my locket? Please? It's very precious and I can't dive in wearing this—'
No. The design on the silk was so unique it had to be couture, and the way the dress clung to her curves meant it had to have been precisely made to measure. Now, as her breathing quickened, it tightened a fraction at the bust and Jaxon struggled not to stare. Bad form to leer. But his peripheral vision wouldn't let those details go and he felt his core temperature soar. Why she was wearing such a dress late on a Thursday afternoon, he had no idea. Maybe princesses were always ready for parties? But she'd been about to slip out of it and because he was here she couldn't.
'What'll you give me if I get it for you?' he teased. Though this instant he didn't want anything more than for her to look at him again.
And now she did. The impact of her attention shot awareness through every cell. Her eyes were the most gorgeous deep brown. They made him think of rich, glossy chocolate ganache—the silky smooth, bittersweet veneer of a delectably rich cake that only the luckiest would be permitted to sample…his mouth watered.
But coolness stiffened her stance and her chin lifted regally. 'Gratitude.'
'Not enough,' he replied instinctively.
Her eyebrows shot up, widening those beautiful eyes and her full, pouting mouth tightened. 'What would you prefer?'
The plans he'd made for the evening had been bothering him for hours. He'd only agreed to attend the gala for Henry, but Jax was useless at small talk and maintaining relationships. A gilded distraction might make it more tolerable for his old teacher. And yes, for him too. A party princess to make the time slip by. Recklessly he took a chance. 'Your time, tonight.'
Her jaw dropped but a swirl of color streaked across her high cheekbones. 'Pardon?'
Jaxon couldn't resist pushing it. 'I have to attend a gala and I'd like you to accompany me.'
'You want a date, just for getting my locket?'
Remorse flickered at her words and he dived. Her precious pendant was easy to spot and took only a second to scoop up. He resurfaced a couple of meters from where she waited at the edge. He held the ball between finger and thumb. It was intricately engraved and had a nifty-looking mechanism to open it. Which he didn't. Its contents were her business and doubtlessly didn't need to be waterlogged.
She stared at it safe in his hand and then lifted her lashes to look directly into his eyes. He felt her focus like an actual touch to his skin. And as the color in her cheeks bloomed even more and her pout softened into a luscious smile, Jaxon's throat tightened.
'What do you say, Princess?'
'You were serious?' she murmured. 'You won't just give it to me out of the goodness in your heart?'
'You're assuming there is goodness in my heart,' he rasped. It was an effort not to move closer.
'Or that you even have one,' she added with a huskiness of her own.
He chuckled, pleased at her banter—and that involuntary revelation of emotion. 'I thought you were a science student.'
'You might have the apparatus that pumps blood around your body and keeps you alive, but I'm unsure whether you have a soul or a conscience or even any empathy.' She'd almost purred, but her words had claws. He found he liked them.
'Let me save you the debate,' he responded with almost total honesty. 'I've no conscience. No empathy. No soul. I'm only out for myself.'
'I don't believe you. You're still human.'
The sudden resurgence of her smile buffeted him like a hot mistral wind.
'Apparently, even that's debatable.' His last date hadn't been the first to inform him that he was too cold and clinical to be in a relationship with. But he'd never wanted a relationship anyway. He'd long ago learned such things weren't for him. He liked certainty and independence. A series of short, simple affairs were enough to keep any 'human' need for socialization satisfied. He was very certain an affair with the princess here would satisfy one very great need that had suddenly reared fiercely within.
'Is that why you're reduced to coercing random women into dating you?' she asked with spirit. 'What is it you think I'll bring to your evening?'
'Decoration,' he said honestly. 'A bit of glitter.'
'Arm candy? That's all you want?' Reproach narrowed her impossibly deep brown eyes.
Her reaction made him instantly realize his mistake. She wasn't 'a bit' of anything. And glitter definitely wasn't the right word for her. He was struck by the conviction that she had more to offer than some superficial dusting of sparkle, there was brilliance in her depths, hidden considerations he was tempted to seek out…
Instead he paused his runaway thoughts and tried to drag himself back on task. Since when was he so fanciful?
Clearing the frog from his throat, he nodded. 'I think you'll be the perfect cherry on top.'
'Of what occasion? Will other people be present?'
Yes, they would, and that was the point. 'Hundreds. Rest assured, you'll be perfectly safe. I want you only as a polite, pretty accompaniment. Presumably you have the skills to talk to anyone?'
He watched her suck in a steadying breath and guessed she was struggling to remain polite. Which in turn, provoked his desire to provoke her not to be. He suppressed a small self-mocking smile—since when was he so bothered? Okay, so attracted.
'I'm talking to you and managing to stay civil, am I not?' she queried.
'Yes. You're amazingly skilled.'
'Yes,' she echoed with no little sarcasm. 'My self-control is second to none.'
'Is that right?' He couldn't help glancing down her beautiful body and wondered if she'd ever relinquished that self-control. If so, to whom? How? And would she ever again? 'You can wear what you've got on, it's very fetching.'
Her only visible reaction was ignition in her eyes—a searing assessment that drew him closer like the damned moth to the flame.
'You don't seem the type to need arm candy to get through an event,' she said.
He moved to the edge of the pool and hoisted himself out, unable to resist getting closer. 'You're not there to glitter up my night.'
Her eyes widened as he straightened to stand right in front of her and soft color swarmed into her cheeks all over again. Given her fixed stare, he rather suspected she was having the peripheral vision issues he was. He only just resisted the urge to flex.
'I'm not going to be your date?' she asked.
The husky edge in her voice made his muscles tense anyway. 'You are, but I want you to talk to my other guests.'
'Oh lovely, you're planning to pimp me out.'
A sudden flare of possessiveness rippled through him and he couldn't hold back a surprised laugh.
Her deep brown eyes glinted. 'You're ruthless.'
Again, not the first time he'd been told that. 'I know how to get what I want,' he clarified.
He hadn't gotten to where he had as quickly as he had without going for what he wanted.
'By exploiting people's weaknesses?'
He raised his hand and rolled her precious golden ball between his fingers pointedly. 'Materialism is a weakness.'
'It's sentimentality that makes that priceless.' Passion throbbed low in her voice and pulled him to lean closer still. 'Not its actual monetary value.'
'Sentimentality is even more of a weakness.' He held the ball just high enough to be beyond her reach, unable to resist insisting on the deal. 'But I guess that means you'll be saying yes then, Princess?'
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