The Billionaire’s Secret Princess
Part of the Scandalous Royal Brides Series
She must obey his command…
Desperate to escape her stifling royal life, Princess Valentina swaps places with her newly discovered identical twin. But fooling her billionaire “boss” Achilles Casilieris is harder than Valentina imagined…especially when his every look makes her burn with longing!
When closed-off Achilles discovers the game Valentina’s playing, he’s furious. But now the power is in his hands: it’s only a matter of time before her stunning facade cracks. He’ll push this perfect princess to her very limits…and he’s not afraid to use the full force of their attraction!
Book Two of the Scandalous Royal Brides duet.
The Billionaire’s Secret Princess
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The Billionaire’s Secret Princess
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Achilles Casilieris required perfection.
In himself, certainly. He prided himself on it, knowing all too well how easy it was to fall far, far short. And in his employees, absolutely—or they would quickly find themselves on the other side of their non-compete agreements with indelible black marks against their names.
He did not play around. He had built everything he had from nothing, step by painstaking step, and he hadn’t succeeded the way he had—building the recession-proof Casilieris Company and making his first million by the age of twenty-five, then expanding both his business and his personal fortune into the billions—by accepting anything less than one hundred percent perfection in all things. Always.
Achilles was tough, tyrannical when necessary, and refused to accept what one short-lived personal assistant had foolishly called "human limitations" to his face.
He was a man who knew the monster in himself. He’d seen its face in his own mirror. He did not allow for “human limitations.”
Natalie Monette was his current executive assistant and had held the position for a record five years because she had never once reminded him that she was human as some kind of excuse. In point of fact, Achilles thought of her as a remarkably efficient robot—the highest praise he could think to bestow on anyone, as it removed the possibility of human error from the equation.
Achilles had no patience for human error.
Which was why his assistant’s behavior on this flight today was so alarming.
The day had started out normally enough. When Achilles had risen at his usual early hour, it had been to find Natalie already hard at work in the study of his Belgravia townhouse. She’d set up a few calls to his associates in France, outlined his schedule for the day and his upcoming meetings in New York. They’d swung by his corporate offices in the City, where Achilles had handled a fire he thought she should have put out before he’d learned of it, but she’d accompanied him in his car to the private airfield he preferred without appearing the least bit bothered that he’d dressed her down for her failure. And why should she be? She knew he expected perfection and had failed to deliver it. Besides, Natalie was never bothered. She’d acquitted herself with her usual cool competence and attitude-free demeanor, the way she always did or she never would have lasted five minutes with him. Much less five years.
And then she’d gone into the bathroom at the airfield, stayed in there long enough that he’d had to go find her himself, and come out changed.
Achilles couldn’t put his finger on how she’d changed, only that she had.
She still looked the part of the closest assistant to a man as feared and lauded as Achilles had been for years now. She looked like his public face the way she always did. He appreciated that and always had. It wasn’t enough that she was capable of handling the complications of his personal and company business without breaking a sweat, that she never seemed to sleep, that she could protect him from the intrusive paparazzi and hold off his equally demanding board members in the same breath—it was necessary that she also look like the sort of woman who belonged in his exalted orbit for the rare occasions when he needed to escort someone to this or that function and couldn't trouble himself to expend the modicum of charm necessary to squire one of his mistresses. Today she wore one of her usual outfits, a pencil skirt and soft blouse and a feminine sort of sweater that wrapped around her torso and was no different from any other outfit she'd worn a million times before.
Natalie dressed to disappear in plain sight. But for some reason, she caught his eye this odd afternoon. He couldn't quite figure it out. It was as if he had never seen her before. It was as if she'd gone into the bathroom in the airport lounge and come out a completely different person.
Achilles sat back in his remarkably comfortable leather chair on the jet, and watched her as she took her seat opposite him. Did he imagine that she hesitated? Was he making up the strange look she'd seen in her eyes before she sat down? Almost as if she was looking for clues instead of taking her seat as she always did?
“What took you so long in that bathroom?” he asked, not bothering to keep his tone particularly polite. “I should not have to chase down my own assistant, surely.”
Natalie blinked. He didn't know why the green of her eyes behind the glasses he knew she didn't need for sight seemed… too bright, somehow. Or brighter, anyway, than they’d been before. In fact, now that he thought about it, everything about her was brighter. And he couldn't understand how anyone could walk into regular lavatory and come out… gleaming.
“I apologize,” she said quietly. Simply. And there was something about her voice then. It was almost… musical.
It occurred to Achilles that he had certainly never thought of Natalie's voice as anything approaching musical before in as long as he'd known her. It had always been a voice, pure and simple. And she had certainly never gleamed.
And that, he thought with impatience, was one of the reasons that he had prized Natalie so much for all these years. Because he had never, ever noticed her as anything but his executive assistant, who was reasonably attractive because it was good business to give his Neanderthal cronies something worth gazing at while they were trying to ignore Achilles’s dominance. But there was a difference between noting that a woman was attractive and being attracted to that woman. Achilles would not have hired Natalie if he’d been attracted to her. He never had been. Not ever.
But to his utter astonishment that was what seemed to be happening. Right here. Right now. His body was sending him unambiguous signals. He wasn’t simply attracted to his assistant. What he felt roll in him as she crossed her legs at the ankle and smiled at him was far more than attraction.
It was need.
Blinding and impossible and incredibly, astonishingly inconvenient.
Achilles Casilieris did not do inconvenience and he was violently opposed to need. It had been beaten into him as an unwanted child that it was the height of foolishness to want something he couldn’t have. That meant he’d dedicated his adult life to never allowing himself to need anything at all when he could buy whatever took his fancy, and he hadn’t.
And yet there was no denying that dark thread that wound in him, pulling tight and succeeding in surprising him—something else that happened very, very rarely.
Achilles knew the shadows that lived in him. He had no intention of revisiting them. Ever.
Whatever his assistant was doing, she needed to stop. Now.
“That is all you wish to say?” He sounded edgy. Dangerous. He didn’t like that either.
But Natalie hardly seemed to notice. “If you would like me to expand on my apology, Mr. Casilieris, you need only tell me how.”
He thought there was a subtle rebuke in that, no matter how softly she’d said it, and that, too, was new. And unacceptable no matter how prettily she’d voiced it.
Her copper colored hair gleamed. Her skin glowed as she moved her hands in her lap, which struck him as odd, because Natalie never sat there with her hands folded in her lap like some kind of diffident Catholic schoolgirl. She was always in motion, because she was always working. But tonight, Natalie appeared to be sitting there like some kind of regal madonna, hands folded in her lap, long, silky legs crossed at the ankles, and an inappropriately serene smile on her face.
If it wasn't impossible, he would have thought that she really was someone else entirely. Because she looked exactly the same save for all that gold that seemed to wrap itself around her and him too, making him unduly fascinated with the pulse he could see beating at her throat—except he’d never, ever noticed her that way before.
Achilles did not have time for this, whatever it was. There was entirely too much going on with his businesses at the moment, like the hotel deal he’d been trying to put together for the better part of the last year that was by no means assured. He hadn't become one of the most feared and fearsome billionaires in all the world because he took time off from running his businesses to pretend to care about the personal lives of his employees.
But Natalie wasn’t just any employee. She was the one he’d actually come to rely on. The only person he relied on in the world, to be specific.
“Is there anything you need to tell me?” he asked.
He watched her, perhaps too carefully. It was impossible not to notice the way she flushed slightly at that. That was strange, too. He couldn't remember a single instance Natalie had ever flushed in response to anything he done. And the truth was he’d done a lot. He didn’t hide his flashes of irritation or spend too much time trying worrying about anyone else’s feelings. Why should he? The Casilieris Company was about profit—and it was about Achilles. Who else’s feelings should matter? One of the things he’d long prized about his assistant was that she never, ever reacted to anything that he did or said or shouted. She just did her job.
But today Natalie had spots of red, high on her elegant cheekbones, and she’d been sitting across from him for whole minutes now without doing a single thing that could be construed as her job.
Elegant? an incredulous voice demanded inside of him. Cheekbones?
Since when had Achilles ever noticed anything of the kind? He didn’t pay that much attention to the mistresses he took to his bed—which he only deigned to do in the first place after they passed through all the levels of his application process and signed strict confidentiality agreements. And the women who made it through were in no doubt as to why they were there. It was to please him, not render him disoriented enough to be focusing on their bloody cheekbones.
“Like what, for example?” She asked the question and then she smiled at him, that curve of her mouth that was suddenly wired to the hardest part of him, and echoed inside of him like heat. Heat he didn’t want. “I'll be happy to tell you anything you wish to hear, Mr. Casilieris. That is, after all, my job.”
“Is that your job?” He smiled, and he doubted it echoed much of anywhere. Or was anything but edgy and a little but harsh. “I had started to doubt that you remembered you had one.”
“Because I kept you waiting? That was unusual, it’s true.”
“You’ve never done so before. You’ve never dared.” He tilted his head slightly as he gazed at her, not understanding why everything was different when nothing was. He could see that she was exactly the same as she always was, down to that single freckle centered on her left cheekbone that he wasn’t even aware he’d noticed before now. “Again, has some tragedy befallen you? Were you hit over the head?” He did nothing to hide the warning or the menace in his voice. “You do not appear to be yourself.”
But if he thought he'd managed to discomfit her, he saw in the next moment that was not to be. The flush faded from her porcelain cheeks and all she did was smile at him again. With that maddeningly enigmatic curve of her lips.
Lips, he noticed with entirely too much of his body, that were remarkably lush.
This was insupportable.
“I am desolated to disappoint you," she murmured as the plane began to move, bumping gently along the tarmac. “But there was no tragedy.” Something glinted in her green gaze, though her smile never dimmed. “Though I must confess, in the spirit of full disclosure, that I was thinking of quitting.”
Achilles only watched her idly, as if she hadn’t just said that. Because she couldn’t possibly have just said that.
“I beg your pardon,” he said after a moment passed and there was still that spike of something dark and furious in his chest. “I must have misheard you. You do not mean that you plan to quit this job. That you wish to leave me.”
It was not lost on him that he’d phrased that in a way that should have horrified him. Maybe it would at some point. But today what slapped at him was that his assistant spoke of quitting without a single hint of anything like uncertainty on her face.
And he found he couldn’t tolerate that.
“I’m considering it,” she said. Still smiling. Unaware of her own danger or the dark thing rolling in him, reminding him of how easy it was to wake that monster that slept in him. How disastrously easy.
But Achilles laughed then, understanding finally catching up with him. “If this is an attempt to wrangle more money out of me, Miss Monette, I cannot say that I admire the strategy. You're perfectly well compensated as is. Overcompensated, one might say.”
“Might one? Perhaps.” She looked unmoved. “Then again, perhaps your rivals have noticed exactly how much you rely on me. Perhaps I've decided that I want more than being at the beck and call of a billionaire. Much less standing in as your favorite bit of target practice.”
“It cannot possibly have bothered you that I lost my temper earlier.”
Her smile was bland. “If you say it cannot, then I’m sure you must be right.”
“I lose my temper all the time. It’s never bothered you before. It’s part of your job to not be bothered, in point of fact.”
“I’m certain that’s it.” Her enigmatic smile seemed to deepen. “I must be the one who isn’t any good at her job.”
He had the most insane notion, then. It was something about the cool challenge in her gaze, as if they were equals. As if she had every right to call him on whatever she pleased. He had no idea why he wanted to reach across the little space between their chairs and put his hands on her. Test her skin to see if it was as soft as it looked. Taste that lush mouth—
What the hell was happening to him?
Achilles shook his head, as much to clear it as anything else. “If this is your version of a negotiation, you should rethink your approach. You know perfectly well that there’s entirely too much going on right now.”
“Some might think that this is the perfect time, then, to talk about things like compensation and temper tantrums,” Natalie replied, her voice as even and unbothered as ever. There was no reason that should make him grit his teeth. “After all, when one is expected to work twenty-two hours a day and is shouted at for her trouble, one's thoughts automatically turn to what one lacks. It’s human nature.”
“You lack nothing. You have no time to spend the money I pay you because you’re too busy traveling the world—which I also pay for.”
“If only I had more than two hours a day to enjoy these piles of money.”
“People would kill for the opportunity to spend even five minutes in my presence,” he reminded her. “Or have you forgotten who I am?”
“Come now.” She shook her head at him and he had the astonishing sense that she was trying to chastise him. Him. “It would not kill you to be more polite, would it?”
His own assistant had just lectured him on his manners.
To say that he was reeling hardly began to scratch the surface of Achilles’s reaction.
But then she smiled, and that reaction got more complicated. “I got on the plane anyway. I decided not to quit today.” Achilles could not possibly have missed her emphasis on that final word. “You’re welcome.”
And something began to build inside of him at that. Something huge, dark, almost overwhelming. He was very much afraid it was rage.
But that, he refused. No matter what. Achilles left his demons behind him a long time ago and he wasn’t going back. He refused.
“If you would like to leave, Miss Monette, I will not stop you,” he assured her coldly. “I cannot begin to imagine what has led you to imagine I would try. I do not beg. I could fill your position with a snap of my fingers. I might yet, simply because this conversation is intolerable.”
The assistant he’d thought he knew would have swallowed hard at that, then looked away. She would have smoothed her hands over her skirt and apologized as she did it. She had only riled him a few times over the years and she’d talked her way out of it in exactly that way. He gazed at her expectantly.
But today, Natalie only sat there with distractingly perfect posture and gazed back at him with a certain serene confidence that made him want to… mess her up. Get his hands in that unremarkable ponytail and feel the texture of all that gleaming copper. Or beneath her snowy white blouse. Or better yet, up beneath that skirt of hers.
He was so furious he wasn’t nearly as appalled at himself as he should have been.
“I think we both know perfectly well that while you could snap your fingers and summon crowds of candidates for my position, you’d have a very hard time filling it to your satisfaction,” she said with a certainty that… gnawed at him. “Perhaps we could dispense with the threats. You need me.”
He would sooner have her leap forward and plunge a knife into his chest.
“I need no one,” he rasped out. “And nothing.”
His suddenly mysterious assistant only inclined her head, which he realized was no response at all. As if she was merely patronizing him—a notion that made every muscle in his body clench tight.
“You should worry less about your replacement and more about your job,” Achilles gritted out. “I have no idea what makes you think you can speak to me with such disrespect.”
“It is not disrespectful to speak frankly, surely,” she said. Her expression didn’t change, but her green gaze was grave—very much, he thought with dawning incredulity, as if she’d expected better of him.
Achilles could only stare back at her in arrogant astonishment. Was he now to suffer the indignity of being judged by his own assistant? And why was it she seemed wholly uncowed by his amazement?
“Unless you plan to utilize a parachute, it would appear you are stuck right here in your distasteful position for the next few hours,” Achilles growled at her when he thought he could speak without shouting. Shouting was too easy. And obscured his actual feelings. “I’d suggest you use the time to rethink your current attitude.”
He didn't care for the brilliant smile she aimed at him then, as if she was attempting to encourage him with it. Him. He particularly didn't like the way it seemed too bright, as if it was lighting him up from the inside out.
“What a kind offer, Mr. Casilieris,” she said in that self-possessed voice of hers that was driving him mad. “I will keep it in mind.”
The plane took off then, somersaulting into the London sky. Achilles let gravity press him back against the seat and considered the evidence before him. He had worked with this woman for five years and she had never spoken to him like that before. Ever. He hardly knew what to make of it.
But then, there was a great deal he didn't know what to do with, suddenly. The way his heart pounded against his ribs as if he was in a real temper, when he was not the sort of man who lost control. Of his temper or anything else. He expected nothing less than perfection from himself, first and foremost. And temper made him think of those long-ago days of his youth, and his stepfather’s hovel of a house, victim to every stray whim and temper and fist until he’d given himself over to all that rage and fury inside of him and become little better than an animal himself—
Why was he allowing himself to think of such things? His youth was off-limits, even in his own head. What the hell was happening?
Achilles didn't like that Natalie affected him. But what made him suspicious was that she’d never affected him before. He'd approved when she started to wear those glasses and put her hair up, to make herself less of a target for the less scrupulous men he dealt with who thought they could get to him through expressing their interest in her. But he hadn’t needed her to downplay her looks because he was entranced by her. He hadn’t been.
So what had changed today?
What had emboldened her and worse, allowed her to get under his skin?
He kept circling back to that bathroom in the airport and the fact she’d walked out of it a different person than the one who’d walked in.
Of course she wasn’t a different person. Did he imagine the real Natalie had suffered a body snatching? Did he imagine there was some elaborate hoax afoot?
The idea was absurd. But he couldn’t seem to get past it. The plane hit its cruising altitude and he moved from his chair to the leather couch that took pride of place in the center of the cabin that was set up like one of his high-end hotel rooms. He sat back with his laptop and pretended to be looking through his email when he was watching Natalie instead. Looking for clues.
She wasn’t moving around the plane with her usual focus and energy. He thought she seemed tentative. Uncertain—and this despite the fact she seemed to walk taller than before. As if she’d changed her very posture in that bathroom. But who did something like that?
A different person would have different posture.
It was crazy. He knew that. And Achilles knew further that he always went a little too intense when he was closing a deal, so it shouldn’t have surprised him that he was willing to consider the insane option today. Part of being the sort of unexpected, out of the box thinker he’d always been was allowing his mad little flights of fancy. He never knew where they might lead.
He indulged himself as Natalie sat and started to look through her own bag as if she’d never seen it before. He pulled up the picture of her he kept in his files for security purposes and did an image search on it, because why not.
Achilles was prepared to discover a few photos of random celebrities she resembled, maybe. And then he’d have to face the fact that his favorite assistant might have gone off the deep end. She was right that replacing her would be hard—but it wouldn’t be impossible. He hadn’t overestimated his appeal—and that of his wildly successful company—to pretty much anyone and everyone. He was swamped with applicants daily and he didn’t even have an open position.
But then none of that mattered because his image search hit gold.
There were pages and pages of pictures. All of his assistant—except it wasn’t her. He knew it from the exquisitely bespoke gowns she wore. He knew it from the jewels that flowed around her neck and covered her hands, drawing attention to things like the perfect manicure she had today—when the Natalie he knew almost never had time to care for her nails like that. And every picture he clicked on identified the woman in them not as Natalie Monette, assistant to Achilles Casilieris, but Her Royal Highness, Princess Valentina of Murin.
Achilles didn’t have much use for royals, or really anyone with inherited wealth when he’d had to go to so much trouble to amass his own. He’d never been to the tiny Mediterranean kingdom of Murin, mostly because he didn’t have a yacht to dock there during a sparkling summer of endless lounging and further, didn’t need to take advantage of the country’s famously friendly approach to taxes. But he recognized King Geoffrey of Murin on sight and he certainly recognized the Murinese royal family’s coat of arms.
It had been splashed all over the private jet he’d seen on the same tarmac as his back in London.
There was madness, Achilles thought then, and then there was a con job that no one would ever suspect—because who could imagine that the person standing in front of them, looking like someone they already knew, was actually someone else?
If he wasn’t mistaken—and he knew he wasn’t, because there were too many things about his assistant today that didn’t make sense, and Achilles was no great believer in coincidence—Princess Valentina of Murin was trying to run a con.
Which meant a great many things. First, that his actual assistant was very likely pretending to be the princess somewhere, leaving him and her job in the hands of someone she had to know would fail to live up to Achilles’s high standards. That suggested that second, she really wasn’t all that happy in her position, as this princess had dared to throw in his face in a way he doubted Natalie ever would have. But it also suggested that third, Natalie had effectively given her notice.
Achilles didn’t like any of that. At all. But the fourth thing that occurred to him was that clearly, neither this princess nor his missing assistant expected their little switch to be noticed. Natalie, who should have known better, must honestly have believed that he wouldn’t notice an imposter in her place. Or she hadn’t cared much if he did.
That was enraging, on some level. Insulting.
But Achilles smiled as Valentina settled herself across the coffee table from him, with a certain inbred grace that whispered of palaces and comportment classes and a lifetime of genteel manners.
Because she thought she was tricking him.
Which meant he could trick her instead. A prospect his body responded to with great enthusiasm as he studied her, this woman who looked like an underling that a man in his position could never have touched out of ethical considerations—but wasn’t.
She wasn’t his employee. He didn’t pay her salary and she wasn’t bound to obey him in anything if she didn’t feel like it.
But she had no idea that he knew that.
Achilles almost felt sorry for her. Almost.
“Let’s get started,” he murmured, as if they’d exchanged no harsh words. He watched confusion move over her face in a blink, then disappear, because she was a royal princess and she was used to concealing her reactions. He planned to have fun with that. The possibilities were endless, and seemed to roll through him like heat. “We have so much work to do, Miss Monette. I hardly know where to begin.”
End of excerpt
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The Billionaire’s Secret Princess
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