Sure enough, there was an army of cameras and questions and the second they saw her arrive at the venue with Jaxon, they pounced on them both.
‘How long have you known Jaxon Greene?’
‘Who designed your dress, Princess Fiorella?’
Fiorella braced. She’d been sheltered not just from men, but media intrusion too. And she’d never really been taught how to deal with them. But she tried to ignore the questions she didn’t want to answer and smile for the photographers. ‘My dress was made by a fellow student here at Wynyard, Millie Townsend,’ she explained, hoping the wobble in her voice wasn’t audible. ‘She hand-painted the design. It’s a work of art, don’t you think?’
‘You didn’t tell me you were wearing another student’s dress.’ Jaxon muttered as he guided her past the photographers and into the privacy of the corridor inside with a firm hand on her waist that made her stand taller and have to resist the urge to lean into him.
‘I didn’t get the chance to explain because you were too busy judging me.’
He chuckled. ‘Can you blame me?’
‘For making assumptions based on appearances?’ She shot him a look. ‘Of course I can blame you.’
‘Everyone makes assumptions, Princess. I bet you’ve made them about me. The shock on your face when you found out my name? What was it that surprised you so much?’
She considered her reply and decided on candour. ‘You’re better looking than I expected.’
His jaw dropped. ‘I—’
‘But your manners are shocking.’
He stared at her a second and then laughed appreciatively. ‘I like your honesty Princess, it’s refreshing.’
‘Do you?’ She smiled. ‘Why don’t you try it?’
Her heart thudded. ‘Why not tell me the real reason why you want me here as your date tonight?’
‘I already have. I want you to entertain my friend,’ he said simply, but his gaze on her intensified. ‘His wife is a fan of every Royal family on the planet and I’d like them to have a night they’ll always remember.’
He really was doing this for someone else? The stab of disappointment was stupid. Shouldn’t she feel relieved he didn’t want a date with her?
But despite that unnecessary nick of personal disappointment, she couldn’t resist leaning closer, just to whisper. ‘So you lied when you said you had no soul, no conscience and no empathy?’
‘I didn’t lie.’
Fiorella swallowed at his tight-lipped reply.
‘Henry is one of the few people who matters to me.’
Oh? Why so few? But Fiorella just nodded. ‘Henry,’ she nodded. ‘And his wife—’
She nodded. ‘Got it.’
‘Work-mode already?’ he questioned. ‘Is it always duty or do you actually enjoy it?’
‘I enjoy it when it’s my choice, remember?’ she muttered back, hardly about to admit that she did very few public appearances because she’d had little experience or preparation before leaving Triscari. She’d worked hard to catch up on the skills she was missing.
‘You chose the deal I offered.’ He chuckled and flicked her cheek with a fingertip. ‘Do you choose all of your royal appearances?’
‘Okay.’ She conceded with a rueful smile. ‘I have an assistant who screens them.’
Except her lovely assistant Hester had gone home to Triscari with Alek earlier this afternoon and they hadn’t wanted or needed Fiorella to go with them. Because, to Fiorella’s total shock, they were getting married. But she couldn’t process that now. Instead she drew a breath and walked beside Jaxon Greene into the sumptuous and sparkling reception hall.
Meeting Jaxon’s former teacher Henry and his wife Rose was easier than she’d anticipated. They were curious and kind and she found commonality in discussing their studies. Jaxon was called away several times, but Fiorella kept her focus on the elderly couple. It was an hour into the drink when someone called for silence, and to her surprise Jaxon stepped onto a small dais to make a speech.
‘I thank Wynyard for your invitation and it was a great privilege to attend today’s ceremony. But the truth is I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today if it weren’t for the one person who encouraged my incessant questioning, who helped me figure how to find the answers for myself, and who believed in me when no one else did. He’s the one who ought to be honoured so that’s what I’m going to do now. I’d like to announce the establishment of the Henry Butler Centre for Creativity.’
Thunderous applause echoed around the vast ballroom. Henry’s cheeks flushed while tears filled Rose’s eyes. Fiorella turned back to see Jaxon’s brilliant gaze slide from his former mentor’s to hers. Something fierce flashed in his eyes before his gaze ducked from hers too. Intuitively Fiorella realised he hated public speaking and appearances as much as she did. He’d done it only for the elderly man standing beside her and he’d wanted to make it wonderful. And suddenly, she was quite desperate to help him do just that.
Two hours later, Jaxon uncomfortably realised he was jealous. Rose was glowing, Jax would be too if Fiorella gave him her undivided attention like that. And seeing her listen so intently to Henry was disconcerting.
‘Ah, Jaxon,’ Henry beamed as Jax finally escaped the University president who’d been waxing lyrical about his endowment. ‘I was just telling Fi about when you were my student.’
He was telling “Fi”? Ants crawled down his spine. ‘I don’t think she’d be interested—’
‘Oh but I am.’ She smiled directly at him. ‘I didn’t realise Henry was your elementary school teacher—’
He stiffened, not wanting to venture down this history at all. ‘Dance with me.’
Distraction was definitely necessary. As was distance from Henry and Rose and all the memories they were apparently determined to unearth. But the Princess didn’t blink at his rather rudely uttered order.
‘Is this part of the deal?’ she asked as he took her hand. ‘Shouldn’t I dance with Henry?’
The small contact with her didn’t soothe the irritation swirling through him, all it made him want to do was haul her closer and touch more of her. ‘What did he tell you?’
‘Nothing you need worry about. He’s proud of you.’ She stopped a few metres from the dance floor. ‘But I’m about to let you down.’
‘How?’ Was she about to walk out on him?
Her hand squeezed his. ‘I can’t dance,’ she whispered.
He laughed. But he swiftly sobered when he saw the chagrin in her eyes. He tightened his grip before she could slide her hand free. ‘You’re serious?’
She nodded urgently. ‘Please let’s not, it won’t be the success you’re after and the evening’s gone so well…’
He didn’t care about the evening anymore. Henry was happy, that was enough. Now Jaxon wanted something for himself. ‘How can you not dance? You’re a princess, don’t you get trained in all the—’ he broke off as she rolled her eyes.
‘No,’ she said. ‘There’s no degree in Princess. I was never taught to dance. I had governesses at home and zero social life until I came here.’
Zero social life? Never taught to dance? He frowned but a few things fell into place. Her nerves in front of the photographers. Her passing mention of her father’s protectiveness…
Perhaps this Princess wasn’t the socially polished party girl he’d initially assumed her to be?
‘Okay.’ He made himself release her as he realised his mistake. Princess Fiorella wasn’t spoilt. And she wasn’t a party princess. And she wasn’t to be his sparkling distraction. Bitter disappointment burned. ‘Then I guess we should call it a night.’
A flashing glint in her deep brown eyes echoed the sting inside him. His skin tightened at the revealing expression. But she wasn’t a practiced flirt either and he just knew he had to ease off.
‘I’ll take you back to your residence,’ he added hoarsely.
After the short drive she smiled at him tightly. ‘Thank you, I had a nice evening.’
‘That’s not just polite princess talk?’ He couldn’t help asking, unable to resist prolonging the night for the merest moment more.
‘No, I mean it, they’re lovely people. What you did for Henry was amazing.’
‘It was nothing.’ Jaxon said briefly. ‘He deserves more.’
‘It clearly meant a lot to him.’ She got out of the car but then paused.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked as he got out to escort her to her door.
‘Nothing.’ But her smile was fixed.
‘Fiorella?’ He frowned as she avoided his gaze. Was she stifling panic?
‘Y-you don’t need to see me inside. I’m fine.’
Oh there was so something wrong. He stiffened—was she afraid of him?
‘Fiorella?’ He frowned and then deliberately unfrowned and tried to reassure her. ‘I’m not about to try it on. I only want to walk you to your door to see you there safely. You recklessly sent your guard away.’
‘I know.’ She groaned and her faint smile morphed into one that screamed mortification. ‘But I can’t get into my rooms.’
‘You—what?’ He stared up at the building.
‘Hester’s not there, she’s gone. I forgot my bag when I left earlier because I was distracted by their news and I was running late to meet Millie and then I…’
‘You don’t have your key? Can’t you call your personal protection officer?’
‘I told her I was fine and that I wasn’t leaving campus. I don’t want to bother her or the caretaker and…’ She faced him. ‘You don’t need to be held up by my stupidity.’
‘I’m not leaving you out here alone.’
‘I don’t need protection.’ She gritted her teeth. ‘I’m perfectly safe.’
‘Okay.’ He glanced around the dimly lit courtyard. ‘So are you planning to sleep in the doorway?’
Fiorella had no plan at all. She just wanted to die of embarrassment.
Jaxon turned back to face her and was silent for a fraction too long. ‘Come on,’ he finally growled. ‘You can stay with me. I have an entire suite with more than one bed, so relax, I’m not propositioning you, Princess.’
‘I know that,’ she said stiffly, trying to suppress the heat building in her cheeks because there was that part of her wishing he would. Wasn’t he Jaxon Greene, slayer? Had she been imagining that look in his eyes all evening?
‘It’s a short flight away, how are your security going to feel about that?’
‘Flight?’ she frowned.
‘At night? Is it safe?’ She looked at him, barely resisting the urge to gnaw on her lip. ‘I’ve never flown in a helicopter.’
‘You…’ His gaze narrowed. ‘But your brother has the most outrageous private jet ever commissioned.’
‘So its super safe and even then I’ve only been on it a few times to get from Triscari to here and back again.’
‘You’ve not been anywhere else?’ His eyes widened and he suddenly straightened. ‘Well then, you get all the choices now, right? Night on the doorstep or flight in a helicopter?’
Fiorella couldn’t tear her gaze from him as he stood towering above her, tall and bright-eyed and with that wickedly challenging smile on his mouth. There was no over-protective father, no guard, no one watching. And Jaxon was right. It was her choice.
Except this time, there really wasn’t one.