A playboy prince
Bennet Casparian was once a hard-partying, racing, playboy prince until he wrecked his racecar and ended up paralyzed. Now, he’s wounded and angry with the world. The last thing he needs or wants is some know-it-all American pushing him to recover—especially the dowdy woman his doctor recruited for the task. But if she’s so plain, why can’t he stop thinking about her?
A stubborn physical therapist
Harper is happy with her job at the VA, but irresistibly tempted by her ex-fiancé’s job offer to rehabilitate an injured (and spoiled) Montrovian prince. He’s already driven away two physical therapists, but she’s determined to stick it out.
An unexpected connection
He pushes her buttons and tries to keep her away, but she finally breaks through his resistance. The more time she spends with him, the more she wants the prince, and the attraction is definitely mutual. Their relationship is forbidden for many reasons, so why does it feel so right?
An unforeseen consequence
They have broken the rules, and it’s only a matter of time until someone finds out. When their secret comes to light, Harper might lose everything important to her—including Bennet.
Harper Gaines silenced her cellphone when it vibrated in her scrubs pocket before getting back to the lance corporal, whose leg she was currently bending. “Just like that. And out. Don’t forget to exhale.” She guided him through the exercise twice more before stepping back slightly to have him perform the rest himself. He was making great progress, and she was certain he’d be released from the VA Hospital for this particular injury in a matter of weeks.
Her phone buzzed again, and she took it discreetly from her pants. Her eyes widened, and she smiled her pleasure as she brought it to her ear, turning slightly to shield her conversation while still allowing a view of the Marine’s form. “Tucker Carlton, I haven’t heard from you in months.”
His voice sounded like he was standing right next to her, though he was probably still in Montrovia, where he was the royal family’s personal physician. “It’s been a madhouse since Bennet…Prince Bennet crashed his racecar. Did you hear about that?”
“Of course.” Even in America, it was big news when a member of a royal family almost died, especially if it was due to some daredevil sport like racing. “How is your patient?”
“Maddening.” His cheerful tone belied his words. “He’s also managed to chase off the second physical therapist just this morning. That’s two in three weeks.”
“Impressive.” When the Marine looked up, she gave him a smile before turning a slight bit more from him. “He sounds like a spoiled brat.”
Tucker hesitated. “Oh, he can be, but he’s a good person too. I’m looking for a resilient physical therapist, who can take his crap and give it right back. Do you know anyone who might be interested in the position?”
Harper frowned as she ran through a mental list of colleagues. “Um, maybe. I have some contacts—”
He interrupted her with a laugh. “I’m talking about you, sweetheart. Are you up for the task?”
Her eyes widened, and she saw the shock in her expression in the full-wall mirror she was partially facing. “Me? But I have a job.”
“And some vacation time, right? And if you tell your boss where you’re going, I’m sure he’d let you take a leave of absence for this assignment. Gotta be good press to have a VA physical therapist get a prince of the Casparian House of Montrovia walking again.”
It was tempting, but she hesitated. “I have patients…”
“Would you like to hear the salary?” Without waiting for an answer, he named a sum that made her eyes cross. “That’s just until he’s up and moving again, so it could be a few weeks.”
“Or months or years. Level with me. Does his injury keep him from being able to walk? Because if it does, I won’t beat a dead horse. He’ll have to accept his limitations and focus on performing the tasks that will help him live as a quadriplegic.” She couldn’t in good conscience take the position with the prince expecting more than she could deliver, even if the payment was enough to completely pay off her remaining student loans.
“Paraplegic,” said Tucker, his voice all business now. “He was initially paralyzed from mid-chest downward, but the corticosteroids and surgery relieved some of the compression. He’s stabilized for now with little sensation below his mid-thigh.”
“Can he walk again?”
Tucker hesitated. “I believe he can, but I’d like your professional opinion. Are you up for an assessment?”
“I’m hardly flying all the way to Strater for an assessment. If I come, it’s to work.”
His grin was obvious in his tone. “I figured, and the capital city is Stratta, not Strater. Can I persuade you?”
Harper held back for a moment before curiosity overwhelmed her. “I think you can, as long as I can arrange a leave-of-absence.”
“Excellent. Let me know as soon as you have a firm decision, and I’ll ask the king’s assistant to arrange your travel. I’m sure Fiona Claremont will be thrilled to have another American sullying up the palace.” He laughed as he finished speaking.
“She sounds charming.”
“Oh, not as charming as Bennet.” He was downright chortling now.
Harper frowned. “You’re making me second-guess my decision, Tuck.”
“Don’t do that, Harp. You won’t regret it, but I won’t sugarcoat it either. You have your work ahead of you.”
She squared her shoulders, catching sight of the resolve in her expression, framed by the short black pixie cut, which emphasized the creaminess of her complexion. “We’d best get started as soon as possible then.”
Optimism spread through her as she hung up and finished the session with the lance corporal. After that, she cleared a leave with her boss—who was just as happy to accommodate as Tucker had speculated—and had a whirlwind schedule faxed to her home by the time she arrived that evening. Smiling down at the itinerary in front of her, she was confident in her decision.
Maybe that confidence had come too soon. She was forced to consider the idea as she gazed around her when stepping foot into the summer palace of the royal family, where they were currently in residence. It was luxurious beyond compare, and enough to really underscore to her how out-of-place she was with her Midwestern, middleclass upbringing when contrasted with her surroundings.
Firming her shoulders, she reminded herself she was there for her expertise in physical therapy, and because she wasn’t afraid of a challenge. This might be outside her comfort zone, but she couldn’t let that hold her back.
By the time she recognized a familiar face a few moments later, she was feeling more certain again. She walked forward to meet Tucker, who was beaming at her. His dark skin had gotten a couple of shades darker, and his curls, neatly cropped close to his head last time she’d seen him, had grown out into a two-inch high start of an Afro. He looked tired, but also fantastic.
The abrasive sound of a throat clearing broke apart their hug of greeting, and she smoothed down her slacks and shirt before turning to face the source. Somehow, she kept a pleasant smile on her lips even as she faced the expression of disapproval directed her way. The owner of the expression was a tall, sour-looking brunette with a furrow in her brow that looked like it was there perpetually. Right away, she was certain it was the Fiona Claremont Tucker had mentioned to her.
“Now that you’re here, I’ll show you to the servants’ quarters. The driver will have already sent in your bags. After that, the doctor will want you to meet the prince, I’m sure. Once that’s finished, I have a list of rules to discuss with you.”
Harper firmed her spine and took a step closer. She extended her hand as she said, “Hello. You must be Ms. Claremont. Thank you for making the travel arrangements.” For a moment, her hand remained there with no sign of acknowledgement.
Eventually, Fiona made a production of juggling the items in her hands to take her hand in a limp-fish squeeze before quickly releasing it. “Of course, Ms. Gaines. It’s my job to help the royal family, and the doctor seems to think you might provide some assistance to Prince Bennet.”
There was a chill in the air, and Harper briefly wondered if Tucker and Fiona had a thing—or had once had a thing, and the woman was jealous of the history between them. Once the other woman cast a frigid, dismissive glance at Tucker, she quickly revised that hypothesis. Whatever Fiona’s problem, it wasn’t because she was involved with Tucker, or because Harper had once dated him.
It didn’t take long for Fiona to show her to a room three floors up. It was toward the back of the palatial home, and when she left her at the door, she parted with a crisp, “Next time you enter, please use the servants’ entrance instead of the main entryway, Ms. Gaines.”
Before Harper could acknowledge the admonishment, or even think about telling her the driver had dropped her at the main entrance, the other woman was gone in a cloud of expensive perfume and surrounded by an invisible, impenetrable icy shield. With a shrug, she watched her leave before entering her room.
It wasn’t as opulent as everything else she’d seen, but it was a room reserved for servants. Everything was rather spartan, but all clean and of obviously excellent quality. She was certain the bedframe, though plain, was an antique by the patina on the wood. The armoire and dresser were the same. There was nothing about which to complain—not that she would have anyway. It would have started off her employment on the wrong foot, and she was certain Fiona wouldn’t have cared if she was sleeping on a bed of nails. She gave off that kind of vibe.
It had been a long flight, though hardly a burden on the private jet they had arranged for her. She’d felt almost guilty wasting all those resources for just herself, but hadn’t exactly minded having the whole space to herself without having to share idle conversation with strangers. Still, she hadn’t been able to sleep no matter how she’d tried, and she was starting to feel the effects of not sleeping for almost ten hours.
She pushed aside her exhaustion, going into the bathroom that appeared to connect to another door that was currently unlocked, and splashed water on her face. Her makeup was nonexistent by that point, but she didn’t bother adding more. It was too much effort.
When she stepped out of her room a few minutes later, she was unsurprised to find Tucker waiting for her. She smiled at him and wove her arm through his, allowing him to take a bit of her weight as he led her down the hallway.
“Frigid Fiona put you in the middle of nowhere, didn’t she?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Probably. Where are you?”
“I’m in a room next to Bennet’s, in his wing of the house, but Frigid Fiona hates that. She likes to remind me every chance she gets that I’m an employee, not a guest, and certainly not worthy of a suite.” He laughed.
“She’s as charming as I expected.”
He shrugged. “Let’s see if I did Bennet justice in describing him.”
Harper swallowed down a bit of nervousness. “Yeah, okay.” By the time they made the long trek to the prince’s wing, she’d had plenty of time to quell her nerves.
They still flared to life again when Tucker knocked on one of two French doors before entering. She followed him inside, looking around surreptitiously and trying not to ogle the blatant display of wealth.
“Bennet, where are you, man?” asked Tucker.
“In here,” called a deep voice with a crisp accent. It wasn’t quite English-sounding, but similar.
From the research she’d done before coming to Montrovia, she knew the small island country had been founded when Mad George the Third banished his ill-liked distant relation there and ordered him imprisoned. At some point, the imprisonment had turned to a governorship during the Regent’s reign, and Montrovia had been an independent monarchy for the last hundred-plus years after a brief, nearly bloodless war with England. Their rich oil deposits and rare Earth minerals had probably had something to do with England’s acquiescence.
She held her breath as the prince came into sight, battling the latest surge of nerves. Her first sight of him wasn’t the professional evaluation it should be. Instead, she noticed his lean, toned physique displayed by the tight white tank top he wore. It wasn’t what she would’ve expected from a Prince, but she couldn’t argue that it certainly highlighted how muscular his arms were—which reminded her that she was there to work, not ogle the Prince.
This time, when she ran her gaze down his body, it was more professional as she assessed his strengths. It was good that he had strong arms, because he needed that to lift himself in and out of the chair and to be able to move it on his own. She was pleased to see it was a manual wheelchair, instead of a power chair, which would have reduced his need to exercise and might have made his recovery that much slower. Either Tucker or one of the physical therapists must have been responsible for that choice, because she doubted the hospital and convalescent homes where he had spent his first few weeks would have tried to persuade him to go with the manual chair if he’d insisted on a power one.
Summoning a deep breath and a smile, she moved her gaze from his body to his face, muscles immediately tightening at the smug expression he wore. Her smile felt strained under the prince’s gaze. She caught her breath slightly at the odd coloring, somewhere between purple and blue, and fringed by long brown eyelashes. His face was symmetrical perfection, as though carved by a skilled sculptor, and his cheekbones looked sharp enough to cut any finger that dared wander down it. She might’ve been overwhelmed by his appearance if not for the faint curl of his lips and the complete disinterest in his gaze.
Tucker stepped forward, putting a casual hand on her midback as he urged her forward. “This is the new physical therapist I told you about, Bennet. Harper Gaines, meet Prince Bennet Casparian.”
She held out her hand, realizing after extending it that he had no intention of reciprocating. She let it hang awkwardly for a moment before dropping it back to her side. She was still nervous, but was quickly becoming familiar with another emotion—annoyance.
“You did that wrong, Tucker. You’re supposed to introduce the prince to the commoner first, not the other way around.” His voice was a rich baritone, and his accent was not quite English, but still even more alluring in its uniqueness. It was too bad he apparently only used it to deliver scathing comments.
Tucker shrugged. “Royal decorum isn’t my thing, Bennet.”
The prince didn’t reply to Tucker’s comment. Instead, his gaze hardened as he looked up at Harper after letting his gaze sweep over her form in a similar fashion to the one she’d used to appraise him. When he met her eyes, he gave her a lazy smile. “You’re younger than I expected, and prettier too. You should consider makeup and doing something with your hair.”
She squeezed her hands into fists as she took a deep breath while reminding herself this might be the prince’s coping mechanism. Even if it wasn’t, and she had to deal with that sort of attitude every day, she could do it. She’d had difficult patients before, and she had come expecting an adversarial relationship with the prince, at least in the beginning. “You aren’t what I expected either, Your Highness.”
He cocked a brow. “How so?”
She just shrugged, not wanting to get into a discussion of the importance of manners. “If you’re ready, I’d like to do an assessment.”
He stiffened slightly. “What does that entail?”
She arched a brow. “Did neither one of your previous physical therapists ask for an assessment?”
His expression darkened. “The hideous dragon lady from Belgium attempted such a thing, but I refused to cooperate. The simpering miss from Stratta seemed to use it as an excuse to fondle the royal prince.”
She resisted the urge to loudly assure him she wouldn’t do such a thing. Instead, she managed a smile and asked sweetly, “Would you please consent, Prince Bennet? I need to know where you are so I can figure out the best way to help you reach your maximum potential.”
He stiffened again, his expression completely closed off. “There’s nothing you can do to help me.”
“Won’t you at least give me a chance to try?” She squared her shoulders. “I’m very good at what I do.”
He made a scoffing sound. “How old are you? You look like you’ve barely finished college.”
“I’m twenty-seven,” she said in an even tone. “I’m a fully qualified physical therapist, and I’ve helped a lot of clients. Even those who don’t want to be helped, and who were very stubborn about the whole situation.” She bit her tongue as she uttered the indiscreet words, but couldn’t call them back.
He glared up at her. “I don’t like your tone, or your attitude. Send her home, Tucker.”
“No,” said Tucker and Harper simultaneously.
She took a step closer to the prince before kneeling down to be closer to his level. She kept her tone brisk. “You need help, and I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re fired, and I’ll fire him too if you don’t get out.”
Tucker seemed unconcerned with the threat as he crouched down on the other side of the prince’s chair. “I’ve already spoken with the king, and he assures me that my job is secure, as is Harper’s, unless she does something grossly incompetent. We all want to help you, and you know that, Bennet.”
Bennet glared at him before turning his heated gaze on Harper. “It appears I’m stuck with you.”
She nodded just once. “Yes, it does. Now, should we do the assessment?”
He didn’t resist, but his lack of participation was obvious over the next twenty minutes as she evaluated his form and remaining function. It was an emotionally exhausting experience, and one of the worst sessions she had ever done, and they hadn’t even started the difficult things yet. It was a relief when he pulled his chair back a few feet, rolling backward, and crossed his arms over his chest.
“I’m done being your damn guinea pig for today Ms. Gaines. Get out of my room now.”
She could have argued and insisted on continuing, but there was no need. She had enough basic information to put together a treatment plan, and she wanted to escape the prince’s constant presence for a while as she recomposed herself. Without another word to him or Tucker, she turned and left.
She drew up short a few feet down the corridor when she ran into Fiona Claremont, who was clearly waiting for her. She bit back a groan and attempted a small smile. “I’d almost forgotten you had something you wanted to discuss with me.”
“We’ll talk while we walk back to your quarters.” She left no choice but to follow as she turned and started walking briskly down the hallway.
Harper fell into step behind her, vaguely aware of Tucker catching up with them as they moved down the corridor.
“Take this.” As she spoke, Fiona pivoted slightly to drop a thick booklet into Harper’s hand. Her brisk steps never faltered. “Take time to memorize it.”
“What is it?” As she asked the question, she glanced down at the title and frowned. “Employee handbook.” Was she an employee, or was she an independent consultant?
“As I said, read it and memorize it. There are certain rules and standards to which you must adhere. You have to learn protocol and decorum, and what is acceptable behavior.” Fiona stopped and spun around, glaring at Tucker for a moment before her gaze cooled as it moved to Harper’s. “You’re here as an employee, not a friend. It would be wise to remember that and behave accordingly.”
“Fiona certainly hates it when us commoners dare become friends with the royalty,” said Tucker with a chuckle, clearly unconcerned by Fiona’s opinion on the matter.
The brunette glared daggers at him again. “It would behoove some to learn their place.”
Tucker didn’t bother with a response as he turned to face Harper with a grin. “Don’t be too afraid of her. She’s King Barret’s right-hand man, but she doesn’t wield half the power that she thinks she does.”
Fiona sniffed at him. She also seemed to choose to ignore his reply as she focused on Harper. “The prince needs a physical therapist, not another friend. Remember that, and you’ll do well here.”
Harper somehow stifled the urge to roll her eyes. “I’m here to help the prince, and I can’t imagine ever becoming friends with him. He’s too unpleasant.”
Fiona looked scandalized. “Please refer immediately to your manual, chapter four subsection seventeen-A. You’ll see you’re not allowed to say such things.”
Harper couldn’t hold back the eye roll that time despite her best efforts. “I’ll certainly look through the manual and try to devote some attention to decorum in between focusing on helping the prince reach his full potential again. Thank you for your time, Ms. Claremont.” It was a dismissal, and she was able to pull it off because they had returned to the room she’d been assigned earlier. She swept past the king’s assistant, nodded to Tucker on the way, and closed the door behind her.
As soon as the door was settled in the jamb, she leaned back against it and took a deep breath. Her heart was pounding, and she was gripped by myriad emotions. She didn’t know whether she wanted to laugh, cry, or scream.
Briefly, she wondered if she had made the wrong choice by coming to Montrovia. Tucker had warned her it would be difficult, and she’d thought she had prepared herself, but it seemed obvious that it was going to be the hardest assignment she’d ever undertaken. The sense of excitement she’d experienced in the face of a new challenge before failed to rise this time, and she let out a deep breath as she stood up and moved away from the door, dropping the manual provided by Fiona on a writing table nearby as she did so.