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In the shape of a starburst, the gold hair clip was encrusted with diamonds.

‘Oh, Freya, it’s beautiful but I couldn’t. It’s too precious, too valuable.’

‘Granny gave it to me for Christmas, it’s mine, so I can give it you...or lend it, if you like, for the ball...please, please.’

Responding to the pleading blue eyes, Kate sighed, unable to disappoint the little girl, though the idea of walking around with the princess’s jewellery in her hair made her very nervous. ‘All right, just for tonight.’

‘Julia will put it in for you...sit still,’ Freya added.

‘Princess bossy,’ Kate observed, doing as she was instructed.

‘It looks perfect. Come on, Papa is waiting.’

‘He is?’ Kate’s stomach did a double flip. This hadn’t been the arrangement as had been relayed to her. ‘I thought I was taking you to meet—’

‘He’s here to escort us.’

Escort you, Kate thought, following the child from the bedroom.

Marco made an unnecessary adjustment to his spotless cuff and continued to pace the room impatiently, unable to control this uncharacteristic restlessness.

The evening would go smoothly. Whatever else Rosa was, she was faultless when it came to organising the big events. She had an eye for detail and delegation.

He did not suffer from stage fright, and the ability to hold his audience was not something he had to work at, but being good at something didn’t mean you necessarily liked it. Marco hated working a room and being nice to people that your instinct told you to cross the street to avoid. He’d been smiling for the cameras since he was younger than Freya, wheeled out, hair slicked down for a photo op. There was nothing like the snapshot of a cute kid to distract people from a political scandal or a financial crisis.

Normally he would get through these mind-numbing but necessary social events—necessary in the loosest sense of the word—by anticipating the reward he allowed himself afterwards. The last reward had been a weekend on the Caribbean island that had been a wedding gift for his parents, which they had never to his knowledge visited, in the company of a beautiful corporate lawyer who had a delightfully uninhibited and unemotional attitude to sex.

But there was no naked swimming with a beautiful companion or sundowner cocktails to look forward to this time. He had nothing planned. This oversight likely explained in part the restless tension that he was suffering, that and the fact he had serious doubts about allowing himself to be persuaded to include Freya. His protective instincts were telling him to keep her away from this sort of circus for as long as possible.

Kate Armstrong could give a masterclass in soft power. She’d manipulated him and the hell of it was he had enjoyed it, or at least enjoyed the illicit pain/ pleasure of the forbidden desire he experienced in her company. If it were only in her company, he reflected with a bitter laugh of self-contempt, he might be getting more sleep than he was.

He was starting to think the entire illicit situation was part of the problem—it was the pull of the forbidden pleasure. If he’d slept with her, taking into account his normal game plan, the interlude would by now just be a pleasant memory.

The line was still there, and he was not about to step over it, even if it was slowly driving him mad. It would still be an abuse of a position of power.

A swirl of pink in the periphery of his vision made him turn.

Marco let out a silent whistle, a smile on his lips he picked Freya up and looked beyond her to the figure who had materialised in the doorway. A tremor went through his body, his smile froze. Everything froze. Brain-numbing desire engulfed every cell in his body. If he hadn’t been holding his daughter he was sure he would have lunged for her, the need to crush her beautiful mouth under his was so primal, so utterly overwhelming.

That dress... Thinking about the body it covered would cause him serious pain on top of the serious pain he was already enduring. He was starting think he had regressed to his hormonal teens.

‘Papa, too tight!’

‘Sorry.’ Putting his daughter down gave him a chance to claw back some of his self-control. He had not felt this out of control since the day he had jumped into a waterfall head first and been carried down to the rocks below.

People had said it was a miracle he had survived with only a scratch to show for it.

There was no miracle to ground him now, only rigid, hard-fought-for restraint.

He straightened up and the silence stretched and so did Kate’s nerves. ‘You look very...’ She stopped, swallowed and fished around for a description that was notsublime.

Which he was.

Tall and commandingly exclusive in perfectly tailored formal attire, his dress shirt creaseless and perfect, the brilliant white emphasising the golden olive of his skin. And with the dark suit hanging off his broad shoulders and emphasising the muscular strength of his long legs, he looked lean and lethal.

‘Nice,’ she finished lamely.

‘Beautiful dress.’

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