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The Prince's Chambermaid

By:Sharon Kendrick

The Prince's Chambermaid
Sharon Kendrick

       Chapter One



FOR a moment she thought she must have misheard him. Either that, or she  was going crazy. And maybe she was. For hadn't her foolish dreams of  love just been dealt a death-blow in time-honoured fashion? From her  position behind the reception desk where she was covering for the  receptionist's lunch-break, Cathy stared up at her boss in disbelief and  tried not to think about the crumpled-up letter which was lying in the  bottom of her handbag. Or the battering to her self-esteem which had  left her feeling lonely, and wounded.

'Sorry.' She cleared her throat, wondering if he was having some kind of  joke at her expense. 'For a minute then, I thought you said-'

'A prince? Yes, I did.' Rupert's smirk was supercilious, his upper-crust  English accent even more pronounced than usual, as he paused to allow  the significance of his statement to sink in. 'A royal prince is going  to be gracing our hotel with his presence-what do you think of that,  Cathy?'

'A prince?' Cathy echoed in disbelief.

Rupert's smirk became even more pronounced. 'Prince Xaviero of Zaffirinthos. I don't suppose you've heard of him?'

Cathy bit back the defensive response which sprang to her lips. Just  because she was a chambermaid who'd never really qualified for anything  didn't mean that she was a complete write-off, did it? The implication  being that such a woman would barely recognise the name of a member of  the English royal family-let alone a rather more obscure foreign  version. But Rupert was right, damn him. Despite doing her best to keep  up with world events via newspapers and books, it seemed that  Zaffirinthos had somehow slipped off her radar. 'N-no,' she answered  uncertainly. 'No, I haven't.'

'Then let me enlighten you. He's next in line to an island kingdom, a  world-class polo player-and a lover of beautiful women,' said Rupert,  puffing out his chest. 'In fact, the most glittering VIP we've ever  had.'

Cathy stared at him, screwing up her eyes in confusion because something  didn't make sense. They both knew that important guests were few and  far between-despite the fact that there was a world-famous polo club  nearby as well as some pretty impressive stud farms. But there were also  other, more upmarket hotels and she couldn't imagine why on earth a  prince would choose to stay somewhere like this. Yes, the building was  listed and yes, originally it had been a very elegant private home  before it had been turned into a hotel. But Rupert's general  mismanagement and dwindling guest numbers had left house and grounds in a  pretty run-down condition, which didn't tend to attract VIPs.

'But why?' she questioned. 'I mean, why's he coming here?'

Rupert's smile disappeared as quickly as a ray of April sunshine. 'Why  is none of your business,' he snapped back, but then seemed to  relent-glancing round to check that the coast was clear and paying  lip-service to discretion, but clearly busting to tell someone. 'Well,  keep it to yourself-but he's moving over here from his home in New York  and he's about to complete the purchase of the Greenhill Polo Club.'

Cathy's eyes opened wider. She thought of the acres of valuable real  estate which housed the prestigious club, which brought international  celebrities flocking there every weekend during the polo season. 'A  place like that would cost an absolute fortune to buy,' she said slowly.

'For once, you're right, Cathy-but that won't be a problem, not in this  case. You see, this man is not just any old prince-with genuine blue  blood coursing around in his veins-he also happens to be outrageously  wealthy.' Rupert's eyes narrowed calculatingly. 'Which is why there are  going to have to be some changes made before he and his entourage  arrive.'

Cathy had been working for Rupert long enough to know just when to sense  trouble. 'Changes?' she said, hoping that she was hiding the  instinctive alarm which sprang up inside her. 'What kind of changes?'

'Well, for a start-we're going to have to spruce up the public rooms to  accommodate a man of his calibre. They'll all need a lick of  paint-especially the downstairs washrooms. I've organised for a firm of  decorators to come in and start work first thing tomorrow morning.'

Cathy stared at him. 'That quickly?'

'Yes, that quickly. Someone will be in later to measure up-and you'll  need to show him around,' said Rupert testily. 'The Prince will be  arriving next week and there's a lot to be done between now and then if  it's to meet royal expectations. Apparently, he only sleeps on Egyptian  cotton sheets-so I'm going to have to send to London for those. Oh, and  one other thing.'                       
       
           



       

His eyes roved over her in a manner she had always found offensive, but  Cathy had learnt to ignore the suggestive way her boss looked at her,  just as she had learnt to ignore his other annoying traits. Because no  job in the world was perfect. Nothing was. Everyone knew that. 'What?'  she questioned apprehensively.

'You'll need to do something about your appearance. All of the staff  need some sort of overhaul, but you need it more than most, Cathy.'

It was a criticism he had levelled at her more than once. But Cathy  never really had the inclination to use anything other than a little  honest-to-goodness soap and water and to drag a brush through her pale  and disobedient hair. Her chambermaiding duties meant she had to be up  much too early to make a fuss and, besides, the great-aunt who had  brought her up had been a no-nonsense woman who had scoffed at  make-up-and had taught her great-niece to do the same.

Cathy hated the way Rupert sometimes made her feel. As if she were only  half a woman. Why did he do that? Because he gets a kick out of it,  that's why. And because he's never got over the fact that you once  rejected him. But insecurity could sometimes get the better of you and  she found herself asking, 'What's wrong with my appearance?'

'How long have you got?' Rupert smoothed back the lock of hair which  flopped over his forehead. 'The point is that the Prince is a  connoisseur of beautiful things and beautiful women in particular. And  while I'm not hoping for a miracle, I'd like you to make a bit more  effort while he's here. Some make-up wouldn't go amiss, for a start. And  you'll be getting a brand-new uniform.'

Most women might have liked the thought of a new uniform but something  in Rupert's eyes made Cathy feel instinctively wary. Infuriatingly, she  could feel herself starting to blush-a slow heat travelling all the way  down her neck and beyond, to the infuriatingly heavy weight of breasts  which had always been too lush for her tiny frame. 'But-' 'No buts,'  said Rupert. 'I'm the boss, Cathy. And what I say goes.'

Well, she certainly couldn't argue with that. Cathy bit her lip as she  watched Rupert sweep out of the reception area in that over-dramatic  manner of his.

In a way, she had been in the job too long-and sometimes she wondered if  she would ever have the courage to leave. Yet familiarity was a  powerful tie, especially to the emotionally insecure, and she had never  known anything else but this place.

She had been brought to this village as an orphan-delivered into the  care of her great-aunt-a formidable spinster who had had little idea how  to cope with a grieving child. Cathy had missed her parents badly-she'd  fretted and cried at nights. And her great-aunt, though  well-intentioned, had been unusually strict with her, extolling the  virtues of clean living, early nights and plenty of book learning.

But Cathy had proved to be something of a disappointment. Not a  particularly academic child, she had achieved little in the way of  qualifications except for a commendation for cooking and a special  mention of the contribution she'd made to the school garden.

When her great-aunt had become ill, Cathy had been happy to nurse the  old lady-wanting in some small way to repay the woman's kindness to her.  And after her death Cathy had experienced that same terrible tearing  sense of being alone as when her parents had died.

The job as chambermaid at Rupert's hotel had never been meant to be  anything other than a temporary post while she decided what she really  wanted to do with her life. It had provided an undemanding refuge from  the cruel knocks of life. But the days had drifted into months, then  years-until she had met Peter, a trainee clergyman. Friendship had  turned into dating and a slow-burning romance. Peter had provided  sanctuary, and gentleness-and when he had asked her to marry him, Cathy  had said yes, seeing a simple and happy future spread out before her,  with a straightforward man who loved her.

Or so he'd said. He had taken a job up north and the plan had been that  she would join him at the end of the year. And then yesterday, the  letter had arrived. The one which had destroyed all her hopes and dreams  and made a mockery of all she stood for. The one which said: I'm sorry,  Cathy-but I've met somebody else and she's going to have a baby …

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