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.
His dark gaze shifted to her mouth, and the impact of that one searing glance scorched her body like the hottest flame. She felt her lips tingle and her heart thumped against her chest.
And that warning beat was the wake-up call she needed.
Oh, God . ‘Your Highness.’ Was she supposed to curtsy? She’d been so transfixed by how impossibly good-looking he was, she’d forgotten protocol. What was she supposed to do?
The unfairness of it was like a slap across the face. The one time she absolutely did not want to be noticed, she’d been noticed.
By Prince Casper of Santallia.
Her horrified gaze slid back to the tissue in his hand. And he knew she was upset. There was no hiding.
‘Breathe,’ he instructed in a soft voice. ‘Slowly.’
Only then did she realise that he’d positioned himself right in front of her. His shoulders were wide and powerful, effectively blocking her from view, so that the rest of his party wouldn’t see that she was crying.