Once Upon a Billionaire

By: Jessica Clare

Chapter One




The timing of Griffin Verdi’s personal assistant-slash-valet was appalling. “What do you mean, you have the chicken pox?”

“I mean just that,” Kip Rothwell said into the phone, with a hint of the proper ruefulness. “My doctor assures me I won’t be contagious after ten days have passed. He suggested I stay in a hotel until I’m no longer contagious, because I know you can’t get sick right now.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Griffin said, using his friend Reese’s favorite expletive. It seemed appropriate at the moment. “You’re contagious for ten days? We leave tomorrow for Bellissime. I can’t go without my assistant.”

“I realize that, sir, but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”

Furious, Griffin hung up the phone on his long-serving personal assistant. The man had never troubled him before. Kip had worked for Griffin for ten years, all the way back to when Griffin was an eighteen year old who insisted on coming to the States for his education. Griffin’s mother had insisted on sending an entourage of servants to join him as befitted his class. He’d fired all of them except for Kip. Someone had to pick out his clothes and drive him around, after all.

And now, when he needed his assistant the most, the man was abandoning him.

Griffin stared at the pile of periodicals on the corner of his paper-strewn desk. Under a copy of Scientific American and Archaeology Today, there was a copy of Bellissime National News, which he had imported in. And below it, Time magazine, which had the same damn headline.

COUNTDOWN TO THE WEDDING OF THE CENTURY, it read in big, bold letters. Below, there was a picture of his cousin, Crown Princess Alexandra Olivia the Third, Duchess of Beaulac, Heir Apparent to the throne of Bellissime, and her fiancé, Hollywood action star Luke Houston.

Not only was Her Royal Highness marrying an American commoner, but she was marrying a very famous one, which meant that both American papers and Bellissime ones would be covering it to a ridiculous extent.

Bloody annoying was what it was.

As the upcoming event was the wedding of a royal princess of Bellissime, it meant every Verdi had been invited to the wedding and festivities, Griffin included. And while he could get away from most of his titular duties since he was an unimportant younger son and lived stateside, he couldn’t get away from this. The royal family—right down to far-flung cousins with better things to do—would be rounded up in Bellissime to celebrate HRH Alexandra’s wedding. Griffin fully expected to spend a week utterly miserable, avoiding paparazzi, smiling for photos (he hated photos), and generally avoiding whichever eligible princesses his mother threw in his direction.

All of which would be made even worse because his faithful assistant and traveling companion wouldn’t be at his side. He needed an assistant. Griffin couldn’t keep his own schedule straight, and according to his mother, it wouldn’t do for a royal to make his own arrangements. If his mother knew that his one and only assistant abandoned him, she’d resume her efforts into pressing him into a lifestyle he hated. His mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Sybilla-Louise, believed that a royal lifestyle should consist of an entourage, and she never had less than forty-six staff in her employment at all times.

But Griffin hated that sort of lifestyle. As long as he had things under control, he could live in his small, book-scattered townhouse off Central Park, with only Kip to assist him and a cleaning lady who came by to straighten things on weekends. It was how he preferred it. He hated hovering, and he hated having people around at all times. He hated fuss.

Griffin’s mother thought fuss was a necessity for the royal family.

Hell.

He had to figure out something, and fast. His mother would suspect him the moment she clapped eyes on his tie. If it was even so much as askew, she’d hyperventilate and force servants on him. It wasn’t proper, she’d say. Look at how he was running his own life into the ground, she’d say. Wouldn’t it be easier if he had an equerry and a valet and a driver and a few maids, and the next thing Griffin knew, he’d be tripping over people determined to make themselves useful. Then he’d have no peace at all. His loft would be crawling with maids and butlers and . . . he shuddered at the thought.

Griffin’s phone buzzed. He picked it up eagerly, hoping that Kip had texted him to state that he’d called the doctor because he knew Griffin was displeased, and had been cleared to fly. That he was returning to Griffin’s townhouse and it had all been a complete misunderstanding.

Sir, I have called the agency to see if they can provide a replacement. Will keep you posted. And I’ve arranged for a selection of high-end clip-on ties to be delivered this afternoon.

Dear God. The only thing worse than his mother seeing his tie askew was if she saw him in a clip-on.

Something simply had to be done.

***

“Ante up, boys.” Reese tossed his chips into the center of the table. “Let’s get this show on the road. Some of us don’t want to be here all night.”

“You never minded before,” Jonathan grumped as he threw his chips after Reese’s. “Marriage turning you into an old man?”

“Nope,” Reese said easily. “Just eager to get home and see my firecracker. Pregnancy really increases a woman’s hormones, you know.” He wagged his eyebrows at the others in a devilish manner.

“Please, spare the details,” Cade said with a grimace. He added his ante. “Audrey’s a childhood friend of mine, and I don’t want to hear about her raging hormones.”

“Jealous?” Reese said with a grin. He nudged Griffin on the other side of him. “You in, buddy?”

“Hm?” Griffin looked up from his phone, frowning at Kip’s message. It was two simple words. No luck. Damn it all. “I’m in.” He forced his attention back on the card game.

Logan put in his ante and arched an eyebrow at Griffin. “Everything okay?”

“Just family issues,” Griffin said sourly, and reached backward to the drink table and grabbed the bottle of cognac. The others preferred whisky, but he liked something a bit smoother. He didn’t bother pouring it into a glass, just opened the bottle, swirled it, and took a swig.

Now, both of Logan’s eyebrows went up. “I’m pretty sure,” Logan began, “that there’s no such thing as ‘just’ family issues. At least, not in my experience. They asking for money?”

“If only.” If he could toss a few million at his family and make this go away, he would. Griffin chugged the cognac again. Maybe he should have gone for whisky after all.

Reese began to flick cards out on the table, dealing. “So where the hell is Hunter tonight?”

“Gretchen said he was on his way,” Logan said with a shrug. “I assume he got caught in traffic.”

Jonathan picked up his cards off the table and gave Griffin a curious look. “You nervous about the site visit?”

“Site visit?”

“The dig we sponsored. Spain?” Jonathan looked surprised that Griffin had forgotten. “We’re supposed to go next week and see how things are progressing. You know they found a promising cache of coins.”

“Damn it.” He’d forgotten. “I can’t go. I have to be at the royal wedding.”

All the men groaned sympathetically. “God, that sounds like the biggest whipping ever,” Reese said.

Griffin didn’t disagree.

Jonathan was frowning. “You’re bailing out on me, man? But I—”

The door at the top of the stairs opened, and all five men turned, conversation forgotten.

Hunter appeared at the top of the stairs, dressed in a heavy jacket, scarf, and carrying a box of Kleenex. His nose was red, his eyes bleary, the ugly scars on his face livid. He sneezed.

As Hunter descended the stairs, his girlfriend, Gretchen, trailed close behind him, a worried look on her face. “Do you need more cold medicine, baby?”

She looked like she was the one who’d been sick. Her vivid red hair was pulled into a messy bun, and she wore a baggy sweater and yoga pants. If he’d have passed her on the street, Griffin would have questioned if she was homeless or not. He still couldn’t believe Hunter had fallen for her. She seemed so very . . . uncouth.

“I’m fine,” Hunter said, though he hardly sounded like himself. His voice was raspy and broken.

“Oh, clearly,” Gretchen said sarcastically. She tromped to the bottom of the stairs after him and began to unwind her scarf, tugging off her jacket. “Hi boys, sorry we’re late.”

Griffin groaned into his cards. This wasn’t the first time Hunter had brought his loudmouth girlfriend with him to one of their “supposedly” private meetings, and it annoyed Griffin each time. “Really, Hunter? You couldn’t come without her?”

Gretchen shot Griffin the finger as she reached for Hunter’s jacket, helping him take it off. “He’s sick as fuck, prick. I told him to stay in bed, but he wouldn’t, so I came with him. You can just suck it up.”

“Lovely,” Griffin muttered. “Just what the evening needed, a visiting harridan.”

“That’s my sister-in-law,” Reese murmured to him. “So can you shut your mouth before I hear about it when I get home?”

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