‘Tell that to my skirt. Why does Sylvia insist on this style?’ Gloomily, Holly smoothed the tight black skirt over her hips. ‘I feel as though I’m wearing a corset, and it’s so short.’
‘You look sexy as sin, as always. And eating chocolate is the first phase in the healing process, so you’ve passed that stage, which is a good sign. The next stage is to sell his ring.’
‘I was going to return it.’
‘Return it? Are you mad?’ The empty glasses rattled again as Nicky’s hands tightened on the tray. ‘Sell it. And buy a pair of gorgeous shoes with the proceeds. Then you’ll spend the rest of your life walking on his memory. And, next time, settle for sex without emotion.’
Holly smiled awkwardly, too self-conscious to confess that she hadn’t actually had sex with Eddie. And that, of course, had been her major drawback as far as he was concerned. He’d accused her of being inhibited.
She bit back a hysterical laugh.
A small family-hatchback with central locking .
Would she be less inhibited if her bottom were smaller?
Possibly, but she wasn’t likely to find out. She was always promising herself that she’d diet, but going without food just made her crabby.
Which was why her clothes always felt too tight.
At this rate she was going to die a virgin.
Depressed by that thought, Holly glanced in the direction of the President’s Suite. ‘I really don’t think I can face this.’
‘It’s worth it just to get a look at the wicked prince in the flesh.’
‘He hasn’t always been wicked. He was in love once,’ Holly murmured, momentarily distracted from her own problems. ‘With that Italian supermodel. I remember reading about them. They were the golden couple. Then she died along with his brother in that avalanche eight years ago. Horribly sad. Apparently he and his brother were really close. He lost the two people he loved most in the world. A family torn apart. I’m not surprised he’s gone a bit wild. He must have been devastated. He probably just needs someone to love him.’
Nicky grinned. ‘So go up there and love him. And don’t forget my favourite saying.’
‘If you can’t stand the heat…’
‘Get out of the kitchen?’ Holly completed the proverb but Nicky gave a saucy wink.
‘Remove a layer of clothing.’
Casper strolled down the steps into the royal box, his handsome face expressionless as he stared across the impressive stadium. Eighty-two thousand people were gradually pouring into the stands in preparation for the breathlessly awaited match that was part of the prestigious Six Nations championship.
It was a bitterly cold February day, and his entourage was all muttering and complaining about freezing English weather.
Casper didn’t notice.
He was used to being cold.
He’d been cold for eight long years.
Emilio, his Head of Security, leaned forward and offered him a phone. ‘Savannah for you, Your Highness.’
Without turning, Casper gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and Emilio hesitated before switching off the phone.
‘Another female heart broken.’ The blonde shivering next to him gave a disbelieving laugh. ‘You’re cold as ice, Cas. Rich and handsome, admittedly, but very inaccessible emotionally. Why are you ending it? She’s crazy about you.’
‘That’s why I’m ending it.’ His voice hard, Casper watched the players warming up on the pitch, ignoring the woman gazing longingly at his profile.
‘If you’re ditching the most beautiful woman in the world, what hope is there for the rest of us?’
No hope for them. No hope for him. The whole thing was a game, Casper thought blankly. A game he was sick of playing.
Sport was one of the few things that offered distraction. But, before the rugby started, he had to sit through the hospitality.
Two long hours of hopeful women and polite conversation.
Two long hours of feeling nothing.
His face appeared on the giant screens placed at either end of the pitch, and he watched himself with detached curiosity, surprised by how calm he looked. There was a loud female cheer from those already gathered in the stands, and Casper delivered the expected smile of acknowledgement, wondering idly whether any of them would like to come and distract him for a few hours.
Anyone would do. He really didn’t care.
As long as she didn’t expect anything from him.
He glanced behind him towards the glass windows of the President’s Suite where lunch would be served. An exceptionally pretty waitress was checking the table, her mouth moving as she recited her checklist to herself.
Casper studied her in silence, his eyes narrowing slightly as she paused in her work and lifted a hand to her mouth. He saw the rise and fall of her chest as she took a deep breath—watched as she tilted her head backwards and stared up at the ceiling. It was strange body language for someone about to serve lunch.
And then he realised that she was trying not to cry.
Over the years he’d taught himself to recognise the signs of female distress so that he could time his exit accordingly.
With cold detachment he watched her struggle to hold back the oncoming tide of tears.
She was a fool , he thought grimly, to let herself feel that deeply about anything.
And then he gave a smile of self-mockery. Hadn’t he done the same at her age—in his early twenties, when life had seemed like an endless opportunity, hadn’t he naively allowed his emotions freedom?
And then he’d learned a lesson that had proved more useful than all the hours spent studying constitutional law or international history.
He’d learned that emotions were man’s biggest weakness, and that they could destroy as effectively as the assassin’s bullet.
And so he’d ruthlessly buried all trace of his, protecting that unwanted human vulnerability under hard layers of bitter life experience. He’d buried his emotions so deep he could no longer find them.
And that was the way he wanted it.
Without looking directly at anyone, Holly carefully placed the champagne-and-raspberry torte in front of the prince. Silver cutlery and crystal glass glinted against the finest linen, but she barely noticed. She’d served the entire meal in a daze, her mind on Eddie, who was currently entertaining her replacement in the premium box along the richly carpeted corridor.
Holly hadn’t seen her, but she was sure she was pretty. Blonde, obviously. And not the sort of person whose best friend in a crisis was a packet of chocolate biscuits.
Did she have a degree? Was she clever?
Holly’s vision suddenly blurred with tears, and she blinked frantically, moving slowly around the table, barely aware of the conversation going on around her. Oh dear God, she was going to lose it. Here, in the President’s Suite, with the prince and his guests as witnesses. It was going to be the most humiliating moment of her life.
Trying to pull herself together, Holly concentrated on the dessert in her hand, but she was teetering on the brink. Nicky was right. She should have stayed in bed and hidden under the duvet until she’d recovered enough to get her emotions back under control. But she needed this job too badly to allow herself the luxury of wallowing.
A burst of laughter from the royal party somehow intensified her feelings of isolation and misery, and she placed the last dessert on the table and backed away, horrified to find that one of the tears had spilled over onto her cheek.
The release of that one tear made all the others rush forward, and suddenly her throat was full and her eyes were stinging.
Oh, please, no. Not here.
Instinct told her to turn around, but protocol forbade her from turning her back on the prince, so she stood helplessly, staring at the dusky pink carpet with its subtly intertwined pattern of roses and rugby balls, comforting herself with the fact that they wouldn’t notice her.
People never noticed her, did they? She was the invisible woman. She was the hand that poured the champagne, or the eyes that spotted an empty plate. She was a tidy room or an extra chair. But she wasn’t a person.
‘Here.’ A strong, masculine hand passed her a tissue. ‘Blow.’
With a gasp of embarrassment, Holly dragged her horrified gaze from those lean bronzed fingers and collided with eyes as dark and brooding as the night sky in the depths of winter.
And something strange happened.
The tears didn’t spill and her heart didn’t beat.
It was as if her brain and body separated. For a single instant, she forgot that she was about to make a giant fool of herself. She forgot about Eddie and his trophy blonde. She even forgot the royal party.
The only thing in her world was this man.
And then her knees weakened and her mouth dried because he was insanely handsome, his lean aristocratic face a breathtaking composition of bold masculine lines and perfect symmetry.