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Santina's Scandalous Princess

By:Kate Hewitt

Santina's Scandalous Princess
Kate Hewitt

       CHAPTER ONE

‘NOW there, at least, is a Jackson who has bettered himself.'

Princess Natalia Santina glanced at her mother, whose arctic tone belied  what had sounded like a compliment. Queen Zoe's eyes were narrowed, her  lips pressed together in disapproval. Her usual look then. Natalia  turned to see who was the subject of her mother's grudging praise. Her  gaze moved through the crowd of well-heeled guests who had come to the  engagement party of her older brother Alessandro and his unexpected  fiancée, Allegra, daughter of British tabloid fodder and ex-footballer  Bobby Jackson, to finally rest on Ben Jackson, Allegra's older brother  and self-made millionaire. Not that the money made a difference to her  mother. Anyone, she liked to say with a sniff, could make money.  Breeding was what mattered.

After all, the fiancé who had thankfully just broken Natalia's own  engagement-Prince Michel of the small mountain principality of  Montenavarre-hadn't had much money. He'd claimed Natalia had possessed  impossibly expensive tastes, which was undoubtedly true for him. Prince  Michel might be second in line to the throne but he was practically  penniless, and in any case Natalia had no intention of spending her life  in some draughty castle in the Alps, listening to her husband go on and  on about his country's tediously noble history.

The question of just how she intended to spend her life remained, as  yet, unanswered. For the moment Natalia was simply glad to enjoy her  reprieve from matrimony. Nothing in her experience so far had  recommended it.

Now her own gaze narrowed as she took in Ben Jackson's powerful form. He  was dressed in a well-cut grey silk business suit, his tie a sober  navy, his movement restrained and precise as he chatted to another  guest. Unlike his father, whose flashy tie, booming voice and expansive  gestures proclaimed new money like nothing else could, Ben Jackson was  the epitome of understated male elegance. Queen Zoe, Natalia had noticed  with a stab of amusement, had held out only two fingers for Bobby  Jackson to shake and flinched visibly when he'd lavishly kissed her hand  instead.

‘What does Ben Jackson do exactly?' she asked her mother, who stiffened  at the vulgarity of such a question. Natalia knew you weren't supposed  to ask what people did, because of course people of class didn't do  anything. Not for money. Queen Zoe didn't even like to mention the  successful business ventures of her own son and heir to the throne.  Sometimes Natalia wondered if her mother had stepped from the pages of a  Victorian novel, or even a time machine. Her attitudes certainly did  not belong to this century.

‘He's an entrepreneur, as far as I can tell,' Zoe said stiffly. ‘Something in finance.'

How boring, Natalia thought, even as she eyed the oldest Jackson with  undisguised feminine appreciation. The set of his shoulders underneath  the tailored grey silk was impressive indeed. He lifted one  long-fingered hand to make a point, his blazing eyes and set mouth  creating an expression, Natalia decided, of controlled enthusiasm. He  felt deeply, but he didn't want anyone to know. She'd always been good  at reading expressions, and gauging a person's attitude. It had  certainly helped her through twelve years of incomprehensible education,  when often the curve of a mouth or lift of an eyebrow was the only clue  as to whether she'd got it right or wrong.

‘Who is he talking to?' she asked her mother. ‘Ben Jackson, I mean?'

Her mother sighed with the kind of weary disappointment Natalia was long  used to. ‘He's talking to the minister of culture and tourism,' she  told her, ‘which you would know, if you professed any interest in or  duty to the country of your birth and family.'

Natalia did not reply. She knew her mother was really referring to her  recently broken engagement. Both her parents had wanted her off their  hands and out of the country. At twenty-seven, happily unmarried and  with a rather active social life, she was an embarrassment to the royal  family. At least this time it was by choice.

‘You're right, Mother,' Natalia said with as much docility as she could  muster. ‘I should be familiar with Santina's ministers. I suppose I'll  have to remedy that immediately.'

And with a suggestive sway of her hips, she sauntered over to where Ben Jackson was still looking intriguingly … passionate.

The word slid slyly into her mind. Ben Jackson didn't look like a  passionate man. The shoulders were impressive, yes, but everything about  the man from his sober suit to his close-cut brown hair said  restrained. Controlled. Boring, even. A man who guarded his passions-if  he had them at all-carefully.                      
      
          



      

‘Princess Natalia!' The minister of culture and tourism inclined his  head in a nod as Natalia approached. She smiled, reaching out to shake  his hand.

‘Minister. How lovely to see you again.' The minister blinked, and  Natalia wished she'd thought to ask the man's name before she'd come  over. It would have added a nice touch.

‘Likewise, Your Highness,' the minister responded after a pause, and  still smiling, Natalia turned to Ben Jackson. Up close he wasn't quite  so boring. His body radiated a certain leashed power, and despite his  aura of restrained wealth and prestige, Natalia still felt an  undercurrent of cynical wariness that intrigued her. He might have risen  far on his own, but he hadn't left the boy behind. But then, you could  never

really leave behind the child you'd been … even if you wanted to. Desperately.

His eyes were blue, navy like his tie, and now they were narrowed not in  admiration or even assessment but … amusement, Natalia realised with an  icy pang of shock. He was laughing at her. The thought caused a stab of  irritation to knife through her. If there was one thing she couldn't  stand it was to be laughed at. The butt of someone's silent joke. It had  happened too many times before.

‘I don't believe we've been introduced,' she said, switching from  Italian to English. She held out her hand, and Ben Jackson's mouth  flicked upwards at one corner, the faintest of mocking smiles.

‘Not formally,' he agreed, ‘although I know you are one of the Santina  princesses, and you undoubtedly know I am a Jackson.' He took her  fingers in his own for the most cursory of handshakes, but Natalia was  still left with an impression of latent strength.

‘Ah, but which Jackson?' she replied with a lift of her brows. ‘There are so very many of you.'

Ben Jackson narrowed his gaze, his mouth pressed into a thin line.  Natalia gave him a bland smile back. She would not be anyone's  amusement. Not ever again. If she amused, it would be by choice, not  because of what she could-or couldn't-do.

‘And there are quite a few Santinas as well,' he replied in as bland a  tone as her smile. ‘Large families are such blessings, aren't they?'

‘Oh, yes,' Natalia murmured, although she'd hardly call her large family  a blessing. Their relationships were too fractured and distant for  that. Save for her twin sister, Carlotta, Natalia didn't feel  particularly close to anyone in her family, and certainly not her  parents. Yet knowing what she did of Bobby Jackson's clan, she didn't  think Ben thought his family such a blessing either.

The minister of tourism and culture had excused himself with a murmur,  and Natalia nodded to his retreating back. ‘You were certainly having a  cozy chat with our minister. Are you planning on spending some time on  our fair island?' She'd spoken playfully, giving him a flirtatious look  from under her lashes, but Ben Jackson remained all too expressionless.  Unaffected, or perhaps still amused.

‘As a matter of fact, I am.'

‘A holiday, perhaps?'

‘Not quite.'

He was definitely amused. Natalia suppressed another stab of irritation.  She was used to managing such conversations better, or, if she were  honest, wrapping men like Ben Jackson around one manicured pinkie. No,  not men like Ben Jackson. She had a feeling she hadn't met many men like  Ben Jackson, which was something to be thankful for. The man was  downright annoying.

‘Then perhaps,' she suggested, ‘you're here to keep an eye on your sister? Make sure she behaves herself?'

‘My sister is an adult and perfectly capable of behaving herself,' Ben  replied coolly, ‘unlike some women who have been happily plastered  across the pages of most of the tabloids of Europe.'

Natalia jerked back just a little, shocked by the sudden sharpness in  his tone. He didn't sound amused any more; he sounded condemning. She  knew she was featured heavily in most tabloids and gossip magazines. She  sought out such publicity deliberately. Yet hearing this aggravating  man mock her for the exaggerated stories of her evening exploits made  her now burn with fury-and shame.

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