It’s The Role of a Lifetime…
Living out of a car and waiting tables to make ends meet is hardly the stuff of fairy tales. So when a gorgeous man approaches Alyx Dagmar with a wild story about her royal lineage and an even wilder proposition, the aspiring actress is sure he’s got the wrong woman.
Self-made billionaire Daniel Voldakov needs connections before he can expand his software business into Europe. A blue-blooded fiancée would open all the right doors—and Daniel’s certain he can tempt the pretty but penniless Princess Alyxandretta to accept the part she was born to play.
Alyx can’t resist Daniel’s offer, and throws herself into the role. But as the paparazzi fall in love with their “storybook romance,” Alyx finds herself drawn to Daniel in ways she’d never imagined. Are his returned affections true, or all just part of the plan? He’ll do anything it takes to prove his love, and to make her see that the only happily ever after he wants is with her…the real her.
The pounding on the side of the car jerked her awake. Alyx shoved up her sleep mask and glared blearily at the window of her Volvo. If the cops seriously planned to make her move again, she might lodge a complaint with the city. The parking garage was open to the public and she didn’t pull in until after it opened. She’d parked in the back corner of the roof, on purpose, to avoid taking any choice parking from day dwellers.
But the blond haired, blue-eyed god cupping his hands against the glass to see past the glare did not look like a cop. Grumbling, she unfolded herself from the blanket. She’d just found the perfect position for her legs and back—one that wouldn’t leave her cramped awkwardly when it was time to get up.
She waved a hand at him as if to say “what?” and he answered with a two-knuckled knock on the glass and rolling his finger as though miming the window opening. She sighed. Yeah, he looked practically lickable, but she was about to get a ticket and she hadn’t paid for the last one yet.
Shoving the blanket off, she reached over and turned the hand crank. “Look, Officer, I’m sorry. I was too tired to drive home, and I thought I’d park here safely and get some Z’s.”
“Really? That’s why you pulled in two hours ago and hunkered down? And you’ve parked here for the last three mornings to sleep?” Hot caramel poured over ice cream didn’t sound as good as his voice. The pure liquid sex in the deep baritone ripped the cobwebs of sleep out of her mind and she crawled forward to peer up at him.
She knew him.
It was that guy from the restaurant—great tipper and really cute, but he’d seemed eager. Too eager.
“You’re not a cop.” Grumpy accusation hung in the air. It was one thing for a cop to rouse her from sleep, but another for the guy who sat in her station night after night, staring at her with wild speculation in his eyes. Years of bouncing from foster home to foster home gave her radar for people who wanted something from her. She didn’t know what his game was, but…ugh. No, thank you. Determined to ignore him, she began cranking the window back up.
“Wait.” He thrust his hand through to catch the glass. He held up a carrier with two oversized cups of coffee from the corner Starbucks. The scent hit her with a vicious allure. Okay, she might forgive him waking her up. Maybe. “Can we talk?”
“Ten minutes. All I’m asking for is ten minutes. I brought coffee. There’s croissants too.” He let go of the window to grab the paper bag off the tray and dangled it invitingly.
Bastard. But her stomach growled at the thought. She’d skipped her free meal the night before—the restaurant had been slammed and she needed the extra tips to cover the weekend immersion class coming up in Santa Monica. Cutting another look up at him, she weighed her options. If she ignored him, he’d probably knock again or report her. Either way, it wasn’t worth the hassle.
“Fine. Ten minutes. Back away from the door,” she ordered and waited until he complied before disentangling the last of the blanket and scooting over to let herself out on the opposite side of the car from him. That let her straighten her shorts and tank top to something a little more presentable.
Finger combing her tousle of red hair, she wished she’d tucked the ponytail holder around her wrist. It was what she usually did, but last night’s shift left her dead on her feet by two a.m. and she’d still had to drive five miles to the parking garage.
Maybe she should really think about getting an apartment. But the ones she could afford were dumps and if she sank all of her money into a place to live, she wouldn’t be able to take classes.
A lose-lose proposition all the way around.
She squinted across the top of the car. Mr. Godlike kept his distance, but damn if the man didn’t look fantastic. Bronze skin, white button-down shirt open at the collar and sleeves rolled up. His dress slacks weren’t wrinkled and his blond hair curled just slightly toward his face. He didn’t even have the grace to look a bit stubbly and rumpled.
Padding barefoot around the car, she held out her hand for the coffee. He handed it to her and opened his mouth, but silenced when she held up a finger. She inhaled the sweet fragrance of the coffee and considered taking a sip—just one, what could it hurt? But the guy was few slices shy of a full loaf and this was LA. With great regret, she set the cup on top of her car.
Beware strangers bearing gifts…
“You have ten minutes. Go.” She leaned back against her car, cradling her Taser in her hand. He frowned and looked at the bag of croissants and then over at her again. She shook her head. If she wasn’t drinking his coffee, she wouldn’t take his tasty pastries either—no matter how good they smelled.
Sighing, he took his own coffee cup out before setting the holder on the black Lexus she hadn’t noticed parked right next to hers. With exaggerated care, he took a long drink before leaning back against his vehicle, mirroring her pose.
“My name is Daniel Voldakov. I own Spherecast Technologies.” He paused as if she should recognize the name.
Lifting her eyebrows, she glanced meaningfully at her watchless wrist.
“We’re the fastest-growing software company in the States. I’ve made great strides in Canada and South America, but we can’t get traction in the European Union markets. Too many competitors from old families there.” Irritation discolored the words. “But I have an opportunity that I’d like to explore and a proposal for you…”
Alyx sighed, rolling her head from side to side to relieve the crackle of tension stiffening the muscles. She concentrated on keeping her expression bland, waiting. The scent of the dark-roast coffee kept tormenting her, but her grip on the Taser remained firm.
“If you’ll agree to marry me—and by that I mean you don’t have to actually marry me, but we will have to be engaged—and lend me the use of your royal title, I can make the acquaintance of the Andraste Grand Duke Armand. Once we’ve cemented that introduction, I could use his influence to open the EU markets for the company.”
She knew he spoke English. The words and the accent were exceptionally clear. But the so-called proposal rang madness in her ears. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Marry me. Be engaged to me. I’ll take care of your bills, get you a real place to sleep and all you have to do is be my princess and help me get those invitations.” He swallowed another mouthful of coffee and took a step forward. “I know it will take a lot of work on both our parts. But we can definitely do this. You’ll be amply compensated. I promise.”
Yeah, she really should have opened the door and used the Taser on him. In fact she shouldn’t have opened the car door at all. As casually as she could manage, she scanned the upper lot of the downtown Los Angeles parking garage. Unfortunately at six-thirty in the morning, no one else seemed to need to park up here.
They were alone.
“I’ve got a great place in Beverly Hills. Twenty rooms, six bedrooms—you can have your pick. I’ll throw in all the clothes you’ll need and anything designer we pick up for events. They would be yours to keep.” He held out the verbal enticement like she was some kind of stray dog who would leap at the offer of a free meal.
Not that she wasn’t wishing she could drink his coffee and dive into the bag with the croissants in it, but that was hardly the point. “Do I look like a prostitute to you?”
Probably not the best question considering she stood there barefoot in shorts and a thin yellow tank top, but still…
“I’m not offering you money for sex, Princess. I understand who you are. I’m just offering you an opportunity to be someone and help me out at the same time. It’s a win-win proposition.” Strangely, his tone echoed with sincerity, but the words flirted with insanity.
“You think just because I’m an actress looking for work, I’m going to agree to some farce of a marriage so you can get me alone? Do I look stupid to you?” He could be Ted Bundy—or worse, Jeffrey Dahmer. All the serial killers in the movies looked sweet and some looked sexy. He didn’t smell like a meth head, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t stoned on something.
Pity, too. Because anyone who looked as good as he did should really not be a drug addict.
“No, Princess.” He took a step forward and she raised the Taser, looking to keep her options open if she had to run. She could shock him and leave him drooling on the concrete. Not a lot he could do with a twelve hundred volts running through his system.
He stopped and held up his free hand, open and palm forward. “Maybe I should start over.”
“Maybe you should get back in your car and go back to whatever wonderland you escaped from and we’ll forget all about this.” It was too far to run for the stairs, but she might make it around the car and back inside.
“Princess, I understand that you may not want to advertise your heritage, particularly if you’re living out of a car. But I’m the guy who can put you on top. That’s got to be worth something.”
Yeah, a one-way ticket to a hugging jacket was what it was worth.
“What’s with the princess shtick? Do you think if you say it enough it will happen? Like Beetlejuice?” She suddenly didn’t want the coffee anymore.
The man—Daniel Voldakov, remember his name, you may need to report him to the cops—sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Princess, let me start at the beginning?”
“I’m thinking your ten minutes are up. I listened. I’m not interested. Thanks for the coffee.” She jogged right and made it to the trunk of her car and around to the other side. He remained next to his vehicle—thankfully—a look of consternation wrinkling his forehead.
“Your birth name is Alyxandretta Dagmar. Your parents were Alexi and Sioban Dagmar.”
She froze, one hand on the driver’s side door. Daniel stared at her steadily and held up his hand as he ticked off the information.
“Your father’s father and his father before him were born in Norway, the grandson and son respectively of the Grand Duchess Elizabeta Dagmar of Russia and first cousin to the Czar Nicholas II.” He didn’t smirk. If anything, he sounded resigned.
“So?” Alyx could have bitten her tongue for interrupting when he went silent for a long moment.
“She was his only surviving relative and potential heir following the Czar’s execution in 1917. Your family was—is one of the wealthiest in Europe. The grand duchess fled Russia for Norway the night of the coup, barely making it across the border. Her husband was not as fortunate. Her son, Nicolai—named for her beloved cousin—was just four years old.” Daniel stepped forward and took her ignored coffee cup off the top of the car. “They were offered asylum by their family in Norway and remained there until your grandfather immigrated to the United States.”
Slack-jawed, she stared at him. She wasn’t certain what was more startling. The story or the ring of truth she heard in his voice.
Get in the car, Alyx.
But she didn’t open the door. The picture he painted with staccato facts echoed barely remembered fairy tales from her childhood. She recognized the names from vague memories of best-forgotten bedtime stories her father used to tell her.
“How do you know that?” Her father had always called her princess, but he’d worked as an accountant and her mother a schoolteacher. They’d lived in a pretty little yellow house for as long as she could remember. Papa had mowed the lawn. Mama had planted flowers. Alyx had played in the cracked driveway, drawing hopscotch with chalk.
At least she did before they died. A bad patch of ice and a drunk driver shattered her childhood. She’d been left with a single suitcase of clothes and an Imperial teddy bear that currently lay on the floor of her car. If she’d had any family at all, they would have come for her.
But they hadn’t.
“I know this because you’re a popular urban legend—well, your father was. His father lost all of his investments to bad gambling debts and a propensity for alcohol. His family cut him off, and he ran away to America to remake his fortune and they lost track of him. Rumors circulated in inner circles speculated about his son and his granddaughter. But they were dismissed as rumors. Until now.”
Rumors. Why did he have to sound like he believed this bedtime story? Sure… She was a princess. A princess with four years of college debt, low prospects and an acting career on the fast track to nowhere. Hell, she slept in her ten-year-old Volvo because it was all she could afford. “Look, I appreciate that you think you’ve hit the mother lode. But I don’t have any money. I sure as hell don’t have a title, and I wouldn’t know a grand duke if I tripped over him on the street—thanks for the titillating story, but no, thanks.”
Thinking about her parents made her nostalgic for those mornings when she’d woken up and run into their room to bounce on the bed. Or better, the breakfasts her mother had insisted on cooking every morning and the way her father would slide his hands around her mother’s waist and hug her from behind before twirling her into a dance.
Grief fisted around her heart.
She missed them.
Every day she missed them. She’d seen happily ever after.
And worse, she’d seen what happened after the last page of the fairy tale. She didn’t want to think about it now.
Daniel sighed and crossed from his car to hers, but remained on the other side of the vehicle. “I don’t think you have any money, Pri—Miss Dagmar. But I do. A lot of money. More money than I could ever spend. I want to give you money. I want to help you claim the title and position that you should always have had.”
“All so I can help you get your software company access to EU markets?” Skepticism poured thick on the words. No one did anything for nothing. And he was asking her to believe he just wanted her name—a name that frankly didn’t mean anything.
She’d gone to school with a man named Brad Pitt—he didn’t benefit from sharing the actor’s moniker and heaven knew neither did Tina Fay, who was only one letter off. Just having the right name wasn’t a game changer, particularly in her case. No one had heard of her—yet. She planned to change that. All she needed was the right part, the right role, and she could launch her acting career. Until then it was nights at Roughy’s Steakhouse and days at lessons and auditions.
“Exactly. It’s a more than fair and equitable trade.” His mouth compressed, frustration knitting his brows together. It added a darker, more attractive layer of intensity—and he wore it well. Her stomach clenched and she was glad that a car separated them. She’d never been attracted to insanity before and this didn’t seem like the best time to get started.
Reaching into a pocket, Daniel pulled out a card and slid it across the roof of the vehicle. “Think about it. I have all the proof at my attorney’s office—including copies of your birth certificate, the obituary for your grandfather, photographs of your great-grandparents and a detailed report from the private investigator I hired.”
That gave her a jolt. She stared at the card like it was a snake—or worse, an apple from a snake.
“Can you do that? Can you think about it?” His fingers were steady on the card’s edge and his gaze compelling. She made the mistake of staring into those too-blue eyes. Her gut said she could trust him, but her mind shrieked like a blonde racing away from an ax murderer in a horror movie.
Nothing good ever came from trusting a stranger.
But he didn’t seem to be going anywhere. She fisted the Taser in right hand, ready to zap if he did anything funny, and reached for the card. Her fingers brushed the edge, but he didn’t let it go.
“Call me. Anytime. I’ll meet you anywhere you want. Anywhere you feel safe.” The words unlocked the band of suspicion winding around her chest.
“Okay. I’ll think about it and I’ll take your card.” The admission cost her nothing and promised even less.
He nodded and let go of the card, watching until she picked it up. But he didn’t leave, standing there and staring at her.
“Princess, I know you think I’m crazy and maybe I am. But if you do this for me, I can promise you, you won’t regret it.” Shivers chased over her skin at the quiet, solemn oath. He gave her a tight smile and a little salute, and then finally retreated to his black Lexus. She said nothing, watching him slide into the driver’s seat. The engine rumbled to life with a smooth purr and he donned sunglasses before backing the vehicle out.
She watched him until the car disappeared around the curve and descended into the garage. Fingering the card, she padded over to the wall and glanced down the six stories to the street below. Two minutes later, his Lexus pulled out and turned onto La Cienega and blended into morning traffic.
Surprising herself, she looked down at the card. She should crumple it up and throw it away. That was what logic and common sense told her to do. But she wanted coffee—she opened the door and tucked the card up under her sun visor. Climbing back into the car, she put her keys in the ignition and started the engine. No way in hell could she contemplate sleep at this garage—not after her visitor and his wild proposition. Her mind hummed with the possibilities of it all, but it didn’t matter.
Fairy tales weren’t made of common sense and logic—they were leaps of faith.