Her Highness and the Bodyguard
How could this have happened?
Rhiannon Bravo-Calabretti, Princess of Montedoro, could not believe it. Honestly. What were the odds?
One in ten, maybe? One in twenty? She supposed that it could have just been the luck of the draw. After all, her country was a small one and there were only so many rigorously trained bodyguards to be assigned to the members of the princely family.
However, when you added in the fact that Marcus Desmarais wanted nothing to do with her ever again, reasonable odds became pretty much no-way-no-how. Because he would have said no.
So why hadn’t he?
A moment later, she realized she knew why: Because if he refused the assignment, his superiors might ask questions. Suspicion and curiosity could be roused and he wouldn’t have wanted that.
Rhia sat very still in the old wooden pew with her hands folded tightly in her lap.
What did it matter, why or how this had happened? The point was it had happened.
Enough. Done. She was simply not going to think about it—about him—anymore.
The wedding mass was in English and the priest was concluding the homily drawn from scripture on the subject of Christian marriage. Rhia stared resolutely forward, trying to focus on the words. On the spare beauty of this little Catholic church in the small town of Elk Creek, Montana, where her sister was getting married.
The white-frame Church of the Immaculate Conception was simple and charming, as white inside as out. It smelled of candle wax and lemon furniture polish, with a faint echo of damp outerwear and old incense. The worn pews were of oak and all of them were full. Those who hadn’t found seats stood at the back and along the sides.
He would be standing. In back somewhere by the doors, silent. And unobtrusive. Just like the other security people. Her shoulders ached from the tension, from the certainty that he was watching her, those eerily level, oh-so-serious, almost-green eyes staring twin holes into the back of her head.
It doesn’t matter. Forget about it, about him.
What mattered was Belle.
Sweet, dignified, big-hearted Belle, all in white and positively radiant, standing at the plain altar before the communion rail with a tall, rugged American rancher named Preston McCade. It was a double ceremony. Belle’s longtime companion, Lady Charlotte of the notorious Mornay branch of the family, was also getting married—to Preston McCade’s father, a handsome old charmer named Silas.
“All rise,” said the priest.
Rhia stood up with everyone else. The priest made a little speech about the rite of marriage and proceeded to question both the brides and the grooms about their intentions—their freedom of choice and faithfulness, their willingness to accept God’s great gift of children.
And Rhia couldn’t help it. Her mind relentlessly circled back to the subject of Marcus.
It just made no sense, she kept thinking. He wanted nothing to do with her. He wouldn’t have chosen this.
So then, who had made the choice? Did someone else know about what had once happened between them, about those magical, unforgettable weeks so far in the past? Rhia had told one person. Only one. And that person was someone she trusted absolutely to say nothing. Marcus would have told no one. Which meant that no one else could possibly know.
Could they? A cold shiver slid down her spine. Was that what had happened here? Somehow, someone else did know and had decided to throw them together like this for some completely incomprehensible reason?
No. That made no sense. The very idea was ridiculous. What possible benefit could there be to anyone in forcing proximity upon them?
And besides, who else could know? It had been so long ago—eight years. Which was three years before her brother Alex had been kidnapped in Afghanistan, back when her family wasn’t so terribly security-conscious.
At the time, Rhia had been a freshman at UCLA. Once she was settled in her dorm and going to classes, she’d had no one watching over her. She’d enjoyed being just another student, like all the other students. Her private life at that time had been simply that: private. After all, she was sixth in line to the throne, with four brothers and Belle ahead of her. Plus, Rhia had always been a well-behaved sort of person. Between her good-girl reputation and the extreme unlikelihood that she would ever end up on Montedoro’s throne, she’d been of little interest to the scandal sheets.
Which was why she still believed that no one else knew.
At the altar, the ceremony had progressed to the exchange of vows. Rhia stood a little straighter and tried to concentrate on the beautiful, familiar words.
“I, Preston, take you, Arabella, for my lawful wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward…”
Rhia knew she was making too much of this. She should just…let it go. Let it be. Marcus wasn’t going to bother her. He was all about duty and keeping to his “place,” just as he’d always been. He’d hardly spoken three words to her since yesterday, when they boarded the family jet at Nice and she learned he would provide her security during this trip.
Why he’d been assigned to her didn’t matter. He was there to protect her, period. And she only had to get through this one more day and the evening. Tomorrow, she would fly home again.
And be free of him.
Rhia released a slow sigh. Yes. It would be all right. She smiled a little, watching her beautiful sister. Belle was saying her vows now, her eyes only for her groom, her fine-boned face seeming to glow from within. “I, Arabella, take you, Preston…”
In the front pew, Benjamin, Preston’s toddler, let out a happy trill of laughter and called, “Belle, Dada, Shar-Shar, Pawpaw!” The guests laughed, too, as Belle, her groom, Charlotte and her groom paused to turn and wave at the little one, who sat on the lap of a sturdy-looking older lady.
A moment later, Belle began her vows all over again.
Yes. Truly. It was only for one day, Rhia reminded herself, her heavy mood lightened by the laughter of the little boy.
She could bear anything for a single day—a day that was already halfway through. It had been a shock, that was all. And now she was past it.
She would simply ignore him. How hard could that be?
Harder by the hour, by the minute. By the second, for heaven’s sake.
After the ceremony, the brides, the grooms and Belle and Rhia’s parents, Her Sovereign Highness Adrienne and His Serene Highness Evan, held a receiving line in the vestibule. Rhia got to hug Belle and Charlotte and wish them all the love and happiness in the world, and to congratulate the two grooms.
Then there were pictures. Rhia had to stay for those. Belle and Charlotte had chosen to forgo attendants and there were no groomsmen, but Belle wanted her family—her parents and sisters and brothers—in the photographs. So that took more than an hour. Outside the sun hovered just above the craggy, snow-capped mountaintops and the temperature was dropping.
The whole time they lingered at the church, Marcus lurked just beyond Rhia’s line of sight. He had a knack for staying out of the way and yet, somehow, always remaining nearby, for keeping her constantly in his view. His expression, whenever she made the mistake of sliding a nervous glance in his direction, was as still and unreadable as a bottomless pool in some secret, hidden place.
She did try to ignore him, something so easily done with any other man. She tried so very hard not to turn her head his way, not to look at him.
But it was no good. He seemed to be everywhere—and nowhere—at once. And she needed so strongly to pick him out of the crowd, to pin him in space, to know for certain where, exactly, he was.
The photographer was posing a shot of Belle and Charlotte holding the beaming Benjamin between them, when Silas and Preston McCade came toward her. At first, Rhia thought the two men intended to speak with her. But then, with matching nods and smiles and a couple of murmured greetings in her direction, they moved on by.
She turned to watch them step right up to Marcus.
Marcus nodded at father and son. “Gentlemen.” His voice so deep and solemn and contained. “Congratulations.”
Silas laughed and held out his hand. “Good to see you, Marcus. Place ain’t the same without you.”
Marcus took the older man’s offered hand and spoke again, quietly enough that Rhia couldn’t make out the words. Silas and Preston both chuckled.
And Rhia was left turning, lurching away. Stunned. Stricken, that Marcus could be almost friendly with the McCade men while behaving like a bleak and watchful stranger around her. Yes, she already knew that he’d been assigned to Belle when Belle came to America to nurse her terminally ill friend Anne, who was Benjamin’s mother. But that he’d remained with Belle when Belle brought Benjamin to Montana? She’d had no idea, not until just now when the McCade men had greeted him.
Dear God, Rhia hated all the secrecy. All the lies. She was not in any way ashamed of having loved Marcus. She didn’t want to keep the secrets and she didn’t want to tell the lies. Marcus wanted all that. And all those years ago, she’d foolishly promised him that they would do it his way.
Thus, she had only become aware that Marcus had previously been assigned to Belle when she flew to North Carolina for Anne’s funeral. She’d seen him there, guarding Belle, and been as hollowed-out and desolate at the sight of him as she was right now.
Except that now was worse because today he was watching her and there was no escaping him.
Rhia slipped through the wide-open oak doors to the vestibule, driven to get away from him, though she knew it was hopeless. He would only have to follow her.
In the vestibule, her sister Alice appeared at her side, all dimples and laughing eyes, her brown hair a wild mass of loose curls to her shoulders. She wrapped an arm around Rhia and whispered, “How are you managing?”
Alice chuckled. “Oops. Sorry. I already did.”
Rhia loved, admired and trusted all four of her sisters. But with Alice, the bond went even deeper. They were not only siblings, they were best friends. They told each other everything. And they had sworn from childhood to protect and respect each others’ confidences. Rhia needed one person in her life to whom she could say anything. Alice was that person. And Rhia told her everything. Alice was the one who knew about Marcus.
Marcus stepped through the open doors into the vestibule. Spotting her instantly, he slid back into the shadows along the wall where he was out of the way yet could keep her in sight.
“This is ridiculous,” Rhia muttered out of the side of her mouth. “I can’t get away from him and it’s driving me insane. I’m pathetic. How can I possibly care this much?”
Alice moved in front of Rhia, facing her, blocking Marcus’s view of her. Now they could talk without the unpleasant possibility that Marcus would overhear them or read their words from their lips.
“If it’s so unbearable,” Alice suggested low, “talk to Alex. Tell him you want someone else.” Their brother Alexander had created the elite fighting force called the Covert Command Unit, or CCU, in which Marcus served. Right now, Alex was back in the chapel with his wife, Her Royal Highness Liliana of Alagonia, and their three-month-old twins, Melodie and Phillipe.
“If I go to Alex, it will only look bad for Marcus. Plus, it could make Alex wonder if there’s something between us.”
Alice made a snorty sound—but when she spoke, she did it very quietly. “So what? Deny it.”
“It would still reflect negatively on Marcus, you know that.”
Rhia suppressed a sigh and tried to explain in a near-whisper, without moving her lips too much, “Haven’t we been through this?” She darted glances from side to side. No one seemed to be the least interested in their conversation. “Marcus sees himself as beneath me. He couldn’t stand for Alex or anyone else to suspect that there might have been something between us once, that we were…” She let the words trail off. No need to be overly specific. Alice knew anyway.
Her sister reached out and cupped the side of her face with a soothing hand. “You really must get past all this. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’m trying.” And she had been trying for eight endless years. During that time she’d had two fiancés. Both good men, each supremely suitable: an internationally known artist from a fine family and a generous duke who worked diligently for a number of worthy charities. Somehow, she hadn’t managed to bring herself to marry either of those men. And they had both eventually realized that her heart wasn’t in it. The relationships had died. She remained on friendly terms with both of her former fiancés, a fact that made her failure with them all the more wretched. As though both men had realized that there hadn’t been enough to what they’d shared in the first place to be bitter or angry over losing it.
“Try harder,” Alice suggested with a sigh.
“I know you’re right. And I do need to get over it. And I am completely and utterly fed up with myself, with my silly broken heart and my inability to get past something that happened years ago. I want to scream, Allie. I want to scream really, really loud.”
“Just hold it together. Just a little while longer.” Alice tipped her head in the direction of the open doors to the chapel. “They’re finishing up. We’ll be leaving for the ranch soon.” The reception was to be held in the main house at the McCade family ranch, which was half an hour’s drive away. Alice reached out again, still aiming to soothe. She gently stroked Rhia’s pinned-up hair. “Just breathe, all right? Stay calm.” She lifted her other hand, where she held the keyless ignition remote to the shiny red pickup she’d rented that morning. “You can ride to the ranch with me and the bodyguards can follow us. And after we put in our time there, we’ll bust out. You’ll have fun and forget all your troubles, I promise you.”
Rhia gave her a wary look. “Excuse me. Bust out?”
“It’s cowboy country. We’ll go wild.”
“No, Alice. Seriously.”
Allie patted her shoulder. “Trust me. Busting out is the answer. I haven’t exactly worked out the logistics yet. But it is going to be good.”
Rhia should have nixed the busting out right then and there. It was a bad idea. But she was just upset enough and feeling trapped enough to think that doing something risky and wild wouldn’t be half bad. Anything to get her mind off the bodyguard she could never quite seem to forget.
She did ride with Alice to the ranch. Marcus, along with Allie’s bodyguard, a giant named Altus, followed them in one of the black luxury SUVs that the family had leased for the visit.
Alice kept up a steady stream of cheerful chatter during the ride. She was excited about the electronic key. You carried it on your person and the doors and ignition responded to the touch of your hand. “Amazing, isn’t it, the things they come up with these days?”
Rhia tried to appreciate her efforts to brighten the mood. Still, it felt like the drive went on forever. Rhia stared out the windshield at the endless sky that was darkening steadily toward nighttime, at the craggy, shadowed peaks in the distance, and the rolling open land dotted here and there with patches of leftover snow. She gazed glumly at the patient, hulking shapes of grazing cattle. Alice kept saying how beautiful it all was.
Rhia agreed with her. Montana was stark and beautiful and a little forbidding to a woman raised in a palace on the Mediterranean. It brought to mind the great Western artist, Charles Russell—or at least it did for Rhia, who had studied Russell’s work in her History of American Art class when she was at UCLA.
The McCade ranch house was two stories high, of wood and stone. They’d hired cowboys to act as valets. Allie turned over her electronic key to a tall, lean fellow in a white hat and they went up the wide front steps.
At the door, the two brides and their grooms greeted the guests with hugs and handshakes and happy smiles. There was plenty of good food—what the Americans called home cooking—laid out on the big table in the formal dining room. Guests loaded up plates and sat wherever they could find a chair, in the living room, the family room, or the kitchen. Many simply stood in the foyer holding their plates, chatting about the beauty of the simple wedding, about the weather, about the quarter horses the McCade ranch was known for.
Alice, whose life revolved around the fabulous Akhal-Teke horses she bred and trained at home, was on her way out the door to visit the McCade stables the minute she’d finished with the greetings. Before she went, she whispered to Rhia, “Do you have your international driving permit?”
“It’s in my clutch bag. The housekeeper took it upstairs with my coat.”
“Go up and get it. Just the permit. If you get your bag and coat, you-know-who will guess that something’s up.”
“What, exactly are you planning?”
“I told you. Escape.” That was all Alice would say. She turned and went out the door, Altus behind her.
Rhia would have gone too, but it was cold outside and she cared more than Alice did about preserving her shoes—in this case, a gorgeous pair of blue satin Manolo Blahniks with four-inch heels. And then there was Marcus, who would only follow her out there, which meant that she wouldn’t be able to complain further to her sister about the awfulness of the situation anyway.
So she went upstairs and into the bedroom where all the coats were piled. She found her bag and got her permit and put it in the concealed inner pocket of her silk suit jacket, taking a minute after that to smooth her hair and apply fresh lip gloss so that when she exited the bedroom, Marcus would assume she’d only gone in to freshen up.
He was waiting right there in the upstairs hall when she emerged. Her heart lurched alarmingly at the sight of him. She took care not to make eye contact with him as she turned for the stairs.
Once on the first floor, she proceeded to the dining room where she piled some food onto a pretty gold-trimmed china plate, grabbed a flute of champagne, and mingled with her family and the neighbors and friends that the McCades had know all their lives. She worked hard to keep her spirits up, and she knew she was talking a little too loudly and laughing too much, trying to show both herself and the silent, ever-present bodyguard that she was having a great time and didn’t really even notice he was there.
It was exhausting. Her neck ached from keeping her back so straight and holding her chin high. And then there was the tension headache pounding at her temples, battering at the base of her skull. She only wanted to return to Elk Creek, to the motor inn where her family had booked every room, to take a long bath, gulp down some aspirin and climb into bed.
However, if she left now, before Allie returned to rescue her with that big red pickup she’d rented, Marcus would be driving her. She did not want to be trapped alone in a vehicle with Marcus for the ride back.
So she stayed.
“You’re scrunching up your forehead,” Alice whispered in her ear. She smelled of hay and fresh air.
“I have a splitting headache. Did you just come back inside?”
“I did. Preston and Silas have my complete respect and admiration. The stables are clean and open and well-lighted with excellent turnout into large, grassy pastures. The horses are happy and healthy and beautiful. It’s a fine operation. I would love to get a chance to ride while we’re here. Too bad we’re leaving tomorrow and I failed to bring riding clothes from the Drop On Inn.”
“Oh, Allie. You got mud on those fabulous Jimmy Choos.”
Alice shrugged. “It was worth it. Did you get the permit?”
“Excellent. I have come up with a plan for you, for both of us.”
Allie poked her in the ribs. “Don’t uh-oh me. It’s a brilliant plan.”
“Like the time you crashed that big BMW motorcycle you borrowed into that poor fruit seller’s stand at the open-air market?” The open-air market was a Saturday tradition in Montedoro. Rows of street vendors set up stands and sold fresh produce, meats, baked goods and sundries on the Rue St. Georges.
“That was not a plan.” Allie spoke sternly. But her eyes were gleaming. “That was an accident.”
“Exactly my point.”
Allie leaned closer. “Do you want to get away from him or not?”
Against her better judgment, Rhia slid him a glance. Those eyes that were both cool and smoldering at once gazed back at her. Knowing. Ever watchful. She let out a weary sigh. “You know that I do.”
“Then let’s go. We’ll find some thrilling American bar where they play songs about lost love. We can dance with cowboys and drink tequila and you can forget all your troubles.”
“You know he’ll only follow us. It is his job—and what about your bodyguard?” Rhia tipped her head in Altus’s direction. Like Marcus, he was close by.
“We’ll wait till they both turn away and then we’ll duck out.”
“But Marcus never turns away.”
Allie took her hand and dragged her into the dining room. Before the bodyguards could follow, she pressed the truck’s electronic key into her palm, closing her fingers around it. “The pickup is right out in front, ready to go. I had the valet bring it up before I came inside.”
Rhia opened her palm and saw that the key wasn’t the only thing Allie had handed her. “Condoms.” There were two of them. “You’re not serious.”
“Stop looking at your hand. He’ll see.”
Rhia closed her fist and dropped it to her side. “What could I possibly need condoms for? I’m not going to have sex with a stranger.”
“Be prepared, I always say.”
“But Allie, you know me better than that.”
“Stop arguing. Get near the front door so you can duck out fast. I’ll create a distraction.” Her eyes were bright with mischief and excitement.
“Then he’ll follow you—and you’ll lead him to me.”
“No, I won’t. That’s why I gave you the key. Because on second thought, I’ll stay right here. You’re on your own. If you want to get away, do it.”
It was a wild and stupid idea and Rhia knew she should simply say no. She wasn’t like Allie. Except for that one time with Marcus eight years ago and that other crushing, humiliating event two years after that, Rhia never stepped outside the rules. She inevitably behaved in a manner both dignified and agreeable, as the daughter of an ancient and noble house should. She had a lovely career overseeing acquisitions and restorations at her country’s National Museum, a career that was more of an avocation, really, as befitted a princess of Montedoro. She lived a quiet, respectable life in a beautiful little villa with a fine view of the sea.
And look where all that exemplariness had gotten her. Twice engaged to “suitable” men she’d never managed to actually love. Still pretending that she wasn’t pining for a man who had made it more than clear that it was long over between them and would forever remain that way.
The man in question was standing in the doorway to the foyer. Watching. Tall, wide-shouldered and beautifully male, with those distant eyes she wanted to drown in and that fine, sculpted mouth she only longed to kiss again….
Fair enough. Maybe Alice had the right idea. Perhaps it was time she shook things up a little. “I’ll get my coat.” She turned for the stairs and the bedroom up there that had been designated as a coat room.
Allie grabbed her hand, yanked her back and whispered in her ear, “You are no good at being bad.” Patiently, she explained again, “Remember? If you get your coat, he’ll know you’re leaving.”
“But it’s cold out there.”
“Believe it or not, the pickup has a heater. And so will the cowboy honky-tonk bar.”
“A honky-tonk bar? Where am I supposed to find one of those?”
Allie puffed out her cheeks and crossed her eyes. “Just keep driving until you see one.”
“What if I never see one?”
“You will—and you’re stalling.”
“Are so. Do you want to get away or not?”
“I…if I run away, Marcus could be in trouble for losing track of me.”
“That’s his problem.”
“Rhia. Make up your mind. Are you doing this or not?”
She sucked in a fortifying breath. “I am. Yes. Definitely.”
“Then wander over near the front door and wait for me to distract him.”
“How will you do that?”
“Oh, wait. I get it. You don’t know how you’ll do it.”
“I will figure out something.”
“Allie, I really don’t think…”
But her sister was already turning away. And not looking back.
Rhia watched her go and told herself to stop being a coward. She was busting out. It was better to make a move—even a bad move—than to go on like this, moping around dear Belle’s wedding reception, wishing she could be anywhere but here.
So she slid around the end of a heavy china cabinet where, for a moment or two, Marcus couldn’t see as she slipped the car remote and the unnecessary condoms into the pocket of her suit jacket next to her driving permit. Turning, she smoothed her hair and grabbed a bottle of water from the flower-bedecked beverage table. Sipping the water, doing her best to act as though she wasn’t going anywhere but a different room, she wandered out into the living room and stood and chatted for a bit with her brother Rule and his wife, Sydney. She cooed over Sydney and Rule’s new baby, Ellie, who was the same age as Alex and Lili’s twins. She even got a shy kiss from the adorable Trevor, Rule and Sydney’s three-year-old.
Eventually, sipping her water and playing it ultra-casual, she meandered toward the foyer, pausing to share a few words with anyone who happened to make eye contact with her along the way. In the foyer near the stairs, she chatted up an older couple who were very active in the church where Belle had just gotten married, and then circled around until, at last, she was standing in front of the door.
By then, she was actually having a little fun. Preparing to do something she probably shouldn’t wasn’t as bad as she’d imagined it might be.
Would Allie be ready to provide the distraction—whatever it was?
And where was Allie anyway?
No need to ask. Right then, her sister made her move. A sudden shriek had heads whipping toward the door to the living room, where Marcus just happened to be standing—though off to the side a bit. Carrying a plate mounded with food from the buffet table and a tall glass of what appeared to be iced tea, Allie tripped over her slightly muddy Jimmy Choos and lost her balance as Marcus whirled her way and caught her before she ended up face-down on the hardwood floor.
What he didn’t catch was the plate of home cooking or the big glass of ice and tea. It all went flying. The food hit him in the face and the tea splashed down the front of his handsome dress uniform.
Rhia didn’t stick around to see what happened next. While all eyes were on Alice and the food-and-tea-drenched bodyguard, she opened the front door and slipped through.
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