Cinderella: Hired By The Prince

Marion Lennox | Harlequin | 2010

Struggling cook Jenny works hard hiding her painful past behind fresh-baked muffins. Until a handsome stranger offers her a way out of her drudgery: a job on his yacht.

Jenny is drawn in by Ramón, and together they sail into the sunset. It could almost be perfect…. Until Ramón reveals he's not a humble yachtsman but a secret prince—next in line for the throne.

What future could a simple small-town Cinderella have with a crown prince?

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Cinderella: Hired By The Prince

by Marion Lennox

Jenny, lose your muffins. Get a life!'

Gianetta Bertin, known to the Seaport locals as Jenny, gave her best friend a withering look and kept right on spooning double choc chip muffin mixture into pans. Seaport Coffee 'n' Cakes had been crowded all morning, and her muffin tray was almost bare.

'I don't have time for lectures,' she told her friend severely. 'I'm busy.'

'You need to have time for lectures. Honest, Jen.' Cathy hitched herself up onto Jenny's prep bench and grew earnest. 'You can't stay stuck in this hole for ever.'

'There's worse holes to be stuck in, and get off my bench. If Charlie comes in he'll sack me, and I won't have a hole at all.'

'He won't,' Cathy declared. 'You're the best cook in Seaport. You hold this place up. Charlie's treating you like dirt, Jen, just because you don't have the energy to do anything about it. I know you owe him, but you could get a job and repay him some other way.'

'Like how?' Jenny shoved the tray into the oven, straightened and tucked an unruly curl behind her ear. Her cap was supposed to hold back her mass of dark curls, but they kept escaping. She knew she'd now have a streak of flour across her ear but did it matter what she looked like?

And, as if in echo, Cathy continued. 'Look at you,' she declared. 'You're gorgeous. Twenty-nine, figure to die for, cute as a button, a woman ripe and ready for the world, and here you are, hidden in a shapeless white pinafore with flour on your nose—yes, flour on your nose, Jen—no don't wipe it, you've made it worse.'

'It doesn't matter,' Jenny said. 'Who's looking? Can I get on? There's customers out there.'

'There are,' Cathy said warmly, peering out through the hatch but refusing to let go of her theme. 'You have twenty people out there, all coming here for one of your yummy muffins and then heading off again for life. You should be out there with them. Look at that guy out there, for instance. Gorgeous or what? That's what you're missing out on, Jen, stuck in here every day.'

Jenny peered out the hatch as well, and it didn't take more than a glance to see who Cathy was referring to.

The guy looked to be in his mid-thirties. He was a yachtie—she could tell that by his gear—and he was seriously good-looking. It had been raining this morning. He was wearing battered jeans, salt-stained boating shoes and a faded black T-shirt, stretched tight over a chest that looked truly impressive. He'd shrugged a battered sou'wester onto the back of his chair.

Professional, she thought.

After years of working in Coffee 'n' Cakes she could pick the classes of boaty. Holding the place up were the hard-core fishermen. Then there were the battered old salts who ran small boats on the smell of an oily rag, often living on them. Next there was the cool set, arriving at weekends, wearing gear that came out of the designer section of the Nautical Monthly catalogue, and leaving when they realized Coffee 'n' Cakes didn't sell Chardonnay.

And finally there were the serious yachties. Seaport was a deep water harbour just south of Sydney, and it attracted yachts doing amazing journeys. Seaport had a great dry dock where repairs could be carried out expertly and fast, so there were often one or two of these classy yachts in port.

This guy looked as if he was from one of these. His coat looked battered but she knew the brand, even from this distance. It was the best. Like the man. The guy himself also looked a bit battered, but in a good way. Worn by the sea. His tan was deep and real, his eyes were crinkled as if he spent his life in the sun, and his black hair was only really black at the roots. The tips were sun-bleached to almost fair.

He was definitely a professional sailor, she thought, giving herself a full minute to assess him. And why not? He was well worth assessing.

She knew the yachting hierarchy. The owners of the big sea-going yachts tended to be middle-aged or older. They spent short bursts of time on their boats but left serious seafaring to paid staff. This guy looked younger, tougher, leaner than a boat-owner. He looked seriously competent. He'd be being paid to take a yacht to where its owner wanted it to be.

And for a moment—just for a moment—Jenny let herself be consumed by a wave of envy. Just to go where the wind took you… To walk away from Seaport…

No. That'd take effort and planning and hope—all the things she no longer cared about. And there was also debt, an obligation like a huge anchor chained around her waist, hauling her down.

But her friend was thinking none of these things. Cathy was prodding her, grinning, rolling her eyes at the sheer good looks of this guy, and Jenny smiled and gazed a little bit more. Cathy was right—this guy was definite eye-candy. What was more, he was munching on one of her muffins—lemon and pistachio. Her favourite, she thought in approval.

And then he looked up and saw her watching. He grinned and raised his muffin in silent toast, then chuckled as she blushed deep crimson and pushed the hatch closed.

Cathy laughed her delight. 'There,' she said in satisfaction. 'You see what's out there? He's gorgeous, Jen. Why don't you head on out and ask him if he'd like another muffin?'

'As if,' she muttered, thoroughly disconcerted. She shoved her mixing bowl into the sink. 'Serving's Susie's job. I'm just the cook. Go away, Cathy. You're messing with my serenity.'

'Stuff your serenity,' Cathy said crudely. 'Come on, Jen. It's been two years…' Then, as she saw the pain wash across Jenny's face, she swung herself off the bench and came and hugged her. 'I know. Moving on can't ever happen completely, but you can't keep hiding.'

'Dr Matheson says I'm doing well,' Jenny said stubbornly.

'Yeah, he's prescribing serenity,' Cathy said dourly. 'Honey, you've had enough peace. You want life. Even sailing… You love the water, but now you don't go near the sea. There's so many people who'd like a weekend crew. Like the guy out there, for instance. If he offered me a sail I'd be off for more than a weekend.'

'I don't want…'

'Anything but to be left alone,' Cathy finished for her. 'Oh, enough. I won't let you keep on saying it.' And, before Jenny could stop her, she opened the hatch again. She lifted the bell Jenny used to tell Susie an order was ready and rang it like there was a shipwreck in the harbour. Jenny made a grab for it but Cathy swung away so her body protected the bell. Then, when everyone was watching…

Attention, please,' she called to the room in general, in the booming voice she used for running the Seaport Ladies'Yoga Sessions. 'Ladies and gentlemen, I know this is unusual but I'd like to announce a fantastic offer. Back here in the kitchen is the world's best cook and the world's best sailor. Jenny's available as crew for anyone offering her excitement, adventure and a way out of this town. All she needs is a fantastic wage and a boss who appreciates her. Anyone interested, apply right here, right now.'

'Cathy!' Jenny stared at her friend in horror. She made a grab for the hatch doors and tugged them shut as Cathy collapsed into laughter. 'Are you out of your mind?'

'I love you, sweetheart,' Cathy said, still chuckling. 'I'm just trying to help.'

'Getting me sacked won't help.'

'Susie won't tell Charlie,' Cathy said. 'She agrees with me. Don't you, Susie?' she demanded as the middle-aged waitress pushed her way through the doors. 'Do we have a queue out there, Suse, all wanting to employ our Jen?'

'You shouldn't have done it,' Susie said severely, looking at Jenny in concern. 'You've embarrassed her to death.'

'There's no harm done,' Cathy said. 'They're all too busy eating muffins to care. But honest, Jen, put an ad in the paper, or at least start reading the Situations Vacant. Susie has a husband, four kids, two dogs and a farm. This place is a tiny part of her life. But for you… This place has become your life. You can't let it stay that way.'

'It's all I want,' Jenny said stubbornly. 'Serenity.'

'That's nonsense,' Susie declared.

'Of course it's nonsense,' Cathy said, jumping off the bench and heading for the door. 'Okay, Stage One of my quest is completed. If it doesn't have an effect then I'll move to Stage Two, and that could be really scary.'

Coffee 'n' Cakes was a daytime café. Charlie was supposed to lock up at five, but Charlie's life was increasingly spent in the pub, so at five Jenny locked up, as she was starting to do most nights.

At least Charlie hadn't heard of what had happened that morning. Just as well, Jenny thought as she turned towards home. For all Cathy's assurances that she wouldn't be sacked, she wasn't so sure. Charlie's temper was unpredictable and she had debts to pay. Big debts.

Once upon a time Charlie had been a decent boss. Then his wife died, and now…

Loss did ghastly things to people. It had to her. Was living in a grey fog of depression worse than spending life in an alcoholic haze? How could she blame Charlie when she wasn't much better herself?

She sighed and dug her hands deep into her jacket pockets. The rain from this morning had disappeared. It was warm enough, but she wanted the comfort of her coat. Cathy's behaviour had unsettled her.

She would've liked to take a walk along the harbour before she went home, only in this mood it might unsettle her even more.

All those boats, going somewhere.

She had debts to pay. She was going nowhere.

'Excuse me?'

The voice came from behind her. She swung around and it was him. The guy with the body, and with the smile.

Okay, that was a dumb thing to think, but she couldn't help herself. The combination of ridiculously good-looking body and a smile to die for meant it was taking everything she had not to drop her jaw.

It had been too long, she thought. No one since…

No. Don't even think about going there.

'Can I talk to you? Are you Jenny?'

He had an accent—Spanish maybe, she thought, and seriously sexy. Uh oh. Body of a god, killer smile and a voice that was deep and lilting and gorgeous. Her knees felt wobbly. Any minute now he'd have her clutching the nearest fence for support.

Hey! She was a grown woman, she reminded herself sharply. Where was a bucket of ice when she needed one? Making do as best she could, she tilted her chin, met his gaze square on and fought for composure.

'I'm Jenny.' Infuriatingly, her words came out a squeak. She turned them into a cough and tried again. 'I… sure.'

'The lady in the café said you were interested in a job,' he said. 'I'm looking for help. Can we talk about it?'

He was here to offer her a job?

His eyes were doing this assessing thing while he talked. She was wearing old jeans and an ancient duffel, built for service rather than style. Was he working out where she fitted in the social scale? Was he working out whether she cared what she wore?

Suddenly she found herself wishing she had something else on. Something with a bit of… glamour?

Now that was crazy. She was heading home to put her feet up, watch the telly and go to bed. What would she do with glamour?

He was asking her about a job. Yeah, they all needed deckhands, she thought, trying to ground herself. Lots of big yachts came into harbour here. There'd be one guy in charge— someone like this. There'd also be a couple of deckies, but the guy in charge would be the only one paid reasonable wages by the owners. Deckies were to be found in most ports—kids looking for adventure, willing to work for cheap travel. They'd get to their destination and disappear to more adventure, to be replaced by others.

Did this man seriously think she might be interested in such a job?

'My friend was having fun at my expense,' she said, settling now she knew what he wanted. Still trying to firm up her knees, though. 'Sorry, but I'm a bit old to drop everything and head off into the unknown.'

'Are you ever too old to do that?'

'Yes,' she snapped before she could stop herself—and then caught herself. 'Sorry. Look, I need to get on.'

'So you're not interested.'

'There's a noticeboard down at the yacht club,' she told him. 'There's always a list of kids looking for work. I already have a job.'

'You do have a job.' His smile had faded. He'd ditched his coat, leaving only his jeans and T-shirt. They were faded and old and… nice. He was tall and broad-shouldered. He looked loose-limbed, casually at ease with himself and quietly confident. His eyes were blue as the sea, though they seemed to darken when he smiled, and the crinkles round his eyes said smiling was what he normally did. But suddenly he was serious.

'If you made the muffins I ate this morning you're very, very good at your job,' he told her. 'If you're available as crew, a man'd be crazy not to take you on.'

'Well, I'm not.' He had her rattled and she'd snapped again. Why? He was a nice guy offering her a job. 'Sorry,' she said. 'But no.'

'Do you have a passport?'

'Yes, but…'

'I'm sailing for Europe just as soon as I can find some company. It's not safe to do a solo where I'm going.'

'Round the Horn?' Despite herself, she was interested.

'Round the Horn,' he agreed. 'It's fastest.'

That'd be right. The boaties in charge of the expensive yachts were usually at the call of owners. She'd met enough of them to know that. An owner fancied a sailing holiday in Australia? He'd pay a guy like this to bring his boat here and have it ready for him. Maybe he'd join the boat on the interesting bits, flying in and out at will. Now the owner would be back in Europe and it'd be up to the employed skipper—this guy?—to get the boat back there as soon as he could.

With crew. But not with her.

'Well, good luck,' she said, and started to walk away, but he wasn't letting her leave. He walked with her.

'It's a serious offer.'

'It's a serious rejection.'

'I don't take rejection kindly.'

'That's too bad,' she told him. 'The days of carting your crew on board drugged to the eyeballs is over. Press gangs are illegal.'

'They'd make my life easier,' he said morosely.

'You know I'm very sure they wouldn't.' His presence as he fell into step beside her was making her thoroughly disconcerted. 'Having a press-ganged crew waking up with hangovers a day out to sea surely wouldn't make for serene sailing.'

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