Certain men possess voices so richly captivating, so drenched in sexuality, that they can bring a woman to her knees with a few simple syllables.
In a crowd of hundreds, it was the sound of one such voice that caught Megan’s attention first.
Her stomach seized the instant her ears picked out the distinct timbre amongst the din of merry voices echoing through the packed rotunda of the newly-renovated Barcelona Grandspire Hotel. Around her, men and women went on sipping cava from crystal flutes as they discussed upcoming business deals or renovations to their vacation homes. Tuxedoed waiters continued their discreet circumnavigation of the room, gathering used hors d'oeuvre plates and refreshing drinks. On the surface, all appeared unchanged. It was a perfect late spring night in a perfect city, and thus far the hotel's grand reopening celebration was a resounding success.
Then she heard it again. Only three or four indistinguishable words, but they hit her gut with the same force as a sucker-punch from a male twice her size. A well-built male like Prince Stefano Barrali, whose third-in-line claim to the throne of Sarcaccia meant he enjoyed immeasurable wealth and connections without the pressures that usually accompanied them, while possessing the Mediterranean good looks and sultry charm that often did.
A few feet away from Megan, a gray-haired gentleman and his much younger wife cast subtle glances toward the hotel's side entrance, the one used when high-profile guests needed to make an inconspicuous arrival or exit. Megan resisted the urge to follow suit, but a breath later the overall volume in the lobby rose even as men tall enough to see over the crowd leaned closer to their companions to whisper into diamond-studded ears.
It's not possible. Not here, not on the biggest night of her career to date.
Without allowing her smile to drop or the cadence of her speech to change, skills honed by years of professional banter at events such as this, Megan continued her conversation with Mahmoud Said, the CEO of a large Egyptian telecommunications company, giving him an overview of the beachfront hotel's state-of-the-art conference and special event facilities. At the same time, she strained to catch the familiar sound once more. Perhaps the voice existed only in her mind, a stress-induced result of the months of work that had gone into tonight's soiree or a trick caused by the rotunda's domed roof.
No, even as Mahmoud asked a question about the hotel's business center, she accepted that she'd ceased imagining Stefano's flirtatious, luxuriant voice years ago. In all probability, the sound emanated from one of the televisions mounted over the bar in the cocktail lounge adjacent to the lobby. Though the bartender had been instructed to keep the sets muted in keeping with the formality of the night's celebration, with so many people crowding the lobby it wouldn't take much for a remote control to get bumped the wrong way or for a guest to assert herself and tune in to a report about a celebrity—or hot young royal—who caught her eye.
The Grandspire's manager, Ramon Beltran, circled through the crowd near Megan, patting shoulders, shaking hands, and accepting congratulations as he went, before he ascended the lobby's grand staircase to cascading applause. With a sweeping gesture, he sounded a ceremonial gong calling the guests to attention.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he announced as the reverberation faded, “thank you for attending our celebration tonight. We’re honored to have so many friends and family of the Grandspire share this important evening. Dinner will now be served in the Gaudi Ballroom. I hope you enjoy both the meal and the view."
A pair of waiters opened the doors to reveal the ballroom's all-new floor to ceiling windows, which overlooked an immaculate beach and the Mediterranean Sea beyond. Modern tables topped with white-on-white orchids and Gaudi-inspired place settings filled the room. The resulting spike in conversation obliterated any chance Megan had of pinpointing the source of Stefano's voice.
Mahmoud excused himself to check on a friend, providing Megan the opportunity to conduct a discreet surveillance of the expansive marble lobby. Keeping her demeanor pleasant and professional, she scanned the faces of the well-heeled men in attendance, most of whom now escorted exquisitely gowned women past the lobby's large floral arrangements and into the ballroom.
The face that matched the voice didn't materialize. She exhaled, directing her nervous energy toward smoothing the silk fabric of the honey-colored cocktail dress she'd purchased especially for tonight, but her stomach remained unsettled.
At a signal from Ramon, Megan made her way against the tide of guests to encourage the attendees still clustered in the sunken bar area on the far side of the lobby to join the rest of the crowd in making their way to dinner. Progress was slow. All around her, air kisses were exchanged, lunches suggested, and holidays arranged as guests mingled. Gossip snaked its way through every conversation.
It was exactly the type of event where one expected to find Prince Stefano being courted by the movers and shakers of major corporations and high society, all of whom hoped that making inroads with the Barrali royal family would help them gain access to the family's vast financial and social network. However, as the Grandspire's head of business development, Megan had combed through the guest list for tonight's soiree more than once and Prince Stefano's name wasn't on it. It would not have escaped her notice.
As she descended the wide steps leading to the lounge area, Megan's gaze flicked to the bank of televisions mounted high over the sleek granite bar. Five soundless screens carried sporting events, but the sixth flashed the latest celebrity gossip. The bartender, a sociable young Catalan with a knack for attracting female attention, watched alongside a curvaceous blonde guest who gasped at the blaring announcement of a popular Spanish soap star's pregnancy with twins.
A sense of relief washed through Megan. That must've been it. It wouldn't be the first time Stefano spoke to her from a television.
The bartender glanced from the buxom blonde to Megan, shooting Megan a disarming what can you do? grin before fiddling with the remote to mute the sound and return the television to its usual sports station.
Megan arched a mischievous eyebrow at him, then at the blonde’s back, before stretching her toes inside her new gold heels to release the tension of the last few hours. She couldn't blame herself for being on edge. Tonight's event was the culmination of five years of hard work. Given that investment of time and energy, together with a shortage of sleep this past week while the final preparations were made, she should've expected her nerves might get the better of her. She needed to take a cue from both the bartender and the guests lingering nearby and relax. The best way for her to showcase the refurbished hotel to the potential business clients in attendance would be to visibly enjoy the Grandspire herself—tonight's dinner, the art exhibition, the rooftop fireworks, all of it—and consider it a reward for a job well done. After all, she'd already booked eight major conferences and over two dozen smaller events for the coming months, enough to kick-start the hotel's income stream and gild her resume before she sought her next position.
Invigorated at the thought, she made her way to each of the seating areas in the lounge and introduced herself to those guests she didn't already know before directing them toward the ballroom. One by one, empty glasses filled the bar top as the partygoers progressed to dinner. However, a cluster of people remained near the fireplace, their attention riveted on a male seated in their center. Megan hated to interrupt, but couldn't see past those who were standing to identify the speaker. Only his highly polished shoes were visible between the high heels and wingtips of those surrounding him.
A man making his way toward the stairs glanced toward the fireplace when he thought no one was looking, though his partner, a woman whom Megan recognized as the owner of a major shipping company, stared openly, apparently unconcerned that others would notice her fascination with the conversation taking place.
The knot returned to Megan's stomach, twisting tighter than before. Everyone in attendance tonight was accustomed to the trappings of money and fame. Whoever sat near the fireplace held a special allure, even amongst the social elite, the kind often reserved for royalty. And always reserved for good-looking royalty.
A familiar rumble of laughter cut through the lounge, confirming her fear. Low, sexy, and even more inviting than Megan remembered, if such a thing were possible. Her knees softened and the floor seemed to sway beneath her.
After their last face-to-face meeting, she'd spent weeks trying to contact Stefano, using every means at her disposal, but now she needed nothing more than to escape. Seeing him in the flesh would make her want everything she knew she could never have, and she did not want to want. Especially not him.
Wanting Stefano could mean losing everything.
She took a step backward and started to turn away. She'd ask the bartender to send the group to dinner, then figure out how she could possibly avoid the prince for the rest of the evening so she could keep her attention where it needed to be: on work. Stefano's presence wouldn't distract her unless she let it.
"Megan.” The telecommunications CEO she'd spoken with earlier appeared at her elbow, propelling her back toward the fireplace. "Have you had the opportunity to meet my guest? I didn't wish to say anything until I knew he'd arrived." Mahmoud's voice dropped to a whisper as he added, "You know these types. You cannot always count on them to appear when they say they will."
Before Megan could protest, the group parted in front of her to reveal a broad-shouldered man sitting on the far edge of the cocktail table, his face turned away as he laughed at a comment from a statuesque, cat-eyed brunette wearing the most arresting red gown Megan had ever seen.
Mahmoud cleared his throat. "Prince Stefano, may I present Megan Hallberg, the Grandspire's director of business development? Megan, this is Prince Stefano Barrali of Sarcaccia. His father and I have hosted a number of charity events together over the years, so I wanted Stefano to see the Grandspire's new facilities. I'm certain he'll give King Carlo a favorable report on the hotel's suitability for our future events."
The brunette tried to hide her disappointment at the interruption as Stefano spun and stood in one easy motion. Megan's mouth went dry as sand. She'd forgotten how tall he was, how fluidly he moved. As Stefano stepped toward her, the memory of their first meeting returned in a rush that threatened to flatten her. He'd moved in that same easy manner when he'd approached her a decade ago, offering to carry a length of pipe for her as she struggled to maneuver it through an alley in the congested Venezuelan village where they both worked as volunteers. She'd joked that he was her hero when he'd hefted it onto one shoulder as if it were no heavier than a loaf of bread.
But there were changes in him, too. While the celebrity gossips frequently commented on Stefano's athleticism, his playful nature, and even his dimples, no report could accurately convey the ways he'd matured in the years since Megan had last seen him. Television and magazines failed to capture the masculine line of his shoulders as they filled his tuxedo jacket, the texture of the skin along his sunkissed cheekbones, or the utter charisma he exuded.
Megan forced herself not to flinch as he came within arm's reach. She hadn't thought it possible his appearance could improve over the years, but it had. He’d become broader, stronger, more confident…more him.
Of course, his most distinctive physical characteristic could never change. His eyes were a clear sea green with a distinct ring around each iris, as if Picasso himself had taken up a narrow paintbrush to edge the green in black. She remembered all too well the last time she'd looked into those eyes. She'd been twenty-two, as had Stefano. They each sported grubby clothes that evening, having worked the entire day to finish installing a water system, but they'd been unwilling to use a single precious moment to change, knowing it was their final night together before returning to their separate lives. Their real lives.
He'd threaded his long fingers through her hair as they stood on a secluded beach not far from the village. Even in the waning light of the setting sun, she'd seen the deep passion in those green eyes. "I will never, ever forget you," he'd whispered before pulling her into a heart-stopping, explosive kiss. "These have been the best days of my life."
It felt surreal to look into those same eyes now, knowing she'd been forgotten within weeks, perhaps even days, relegated to what would become a long, long line of disposable women. A decade's worth of women, starting with the one to whom he'd become engaged less than a month after leaving Venezuela. The one to whom he’d run, barefoot, across the palace courtyard in a photo that appeared around the world, intriguing even those who’d never heard of the Barrali royal family.
Yet she couldn't have forgotten Stefano Barrali, even if she'd wanted to forget. Emotion threatened to overwhelm her as he stood before her, reaching out to take the hand she extended as if she were on autopilot. Before he could speak, undoing her with his whiskey-rich voice, she managed a calm, "Prince Stefano, it's an honor to have you here at the Grandspire. I hope you're enjoying your time in Barcelona."
He wrapped his large hand around hers, the touch shaking her very center. Searching out any excuse to break eye contact, she glanced toward Mahmoud and thanked him for the introduction. It was an act of sheer self-preservation out of fear Stefano could see to her soul, revealing both the wild lust coursing through her and the secret she'd kept hidden for so long.
Twenty floors above them, in the expansive suite that served as Megan's residence while she worked on the hotel's revitalization, a young girl with sea-green eyes and the same dark, wavy hair as Stefano sat at a desk, under the supervision of Megan's parents, finishing her homework.
A young girl conceived that very night on the beach.
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