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The scandalous princess had done it again. Evangelina Drakos had slipped away from yet another one of his top security guards. It was inexcusable. It was something that should never happen. And yet, it had. Three times in as many weeks.
Makhail Nabatov did not tolerate mistakes. Mistakes, no matter how smallfrom losing the princess one was meant to be guarding, down to the simple act of spilling hot coffee on yourself while drivingcould be disastrous.
He slammed his car door and rolled his shoulders forward, trying to ease the tension that had every muscle in his body bound into knots as solid as stone. He didn't believe in letting anything affect him like this. Yet another way Princess Evangelina seemed to be messing with the carefully wellordered life he maintained.
When he'd met her for the first time, all glossy brown curls, dark, glittering eyes and golden skin, she had seemed every inch the demure princess. Nothing like the bold, vivacious party girl who was making tabloid headlines with increasing frequency. He had wondered if the media had exaggerated her image.
Over the past six months he'd discovered that the tabloids were right, and he was wrong. He was never wrong. And yet the Drakos princess had proven him so.
He didn't like it.
It defied logic that one petite royal could cause so much trouble. And yet, this one seemed to have a knack for it.
He punched the speed dial on his phone for the man he'd had watching out for the princess. "Ivan, where did you last see her?"
"The casino. She disappeared into the crowd," Ivan said, his voice filled with fear. More weak emotion. He despised it.
"You're fired." Makhail clicked the end-call button and stuffed the phone back into his pocket, straightening his tie before striding down the electric strip of the only major city on the island of Kyonos. He was willing to bet Evangelina was still in the casino. Gambling away her father's money, no doubt.
He moved seamlessly through the crowd, weaving past revelers on his way through the gilded doors. Princess Evangelina wouldn't be in the main entry trying her hand at the slots. He'd bet she was in one of the high-roller rooms. It was the only place in a casino for a spoiled brat with a penchant for drama and pink champagne.
He passed quickly through the lobby and headed toward a pair of black doors in the back, flanked on either side by guards in suits.
"Name?" One of the men asked.
"Mak," he said. "I'm here to see the princess."
"I'm afraid you can't just "
One of the doors opened and a socialite in a skin-tight dress breezed out, the scent of alcohol clinging to her body. He took advantage of the moment and gripped the edge of the door, pulling it open the rest of the way and walking in.
He spotted her right away, bent over the table, laughing as she watched the man to her right roll a pair of dice, cheering when the numbers came up favorably. Then she looked up, at him.
Her dark eyes rounded, her pink lips parting slightly. She touched her companion's arm and said something quickly before edging away from him. She wasn't trying to run, not from him. She knew better than that.
One of the guards rushed into the room and everyone looked up from the game. "Princess," he said, "is everything.?"
She regarded Mak cooly, her manner distant, disdainful. "I would prefer it if this man wasn't here, but trust me when I say there's no way you can remove him," she said crisply. "He's in the employ of my father. You can see that that could become problematic." Her tone was commanding, haughty. Her dark eyes glittered with anger, proving her collected tone of a voice to be a lie. "So, I'm to be taken back to my cell then?"
"Your cell?" he asked. "Is that what you call that frilly pink bedroom of yours?"
A hint of raspberry color touched her golden cheeks. "Not officially."
"How did you lose your tail?"
Her lips curved upward into a smug smile. "Did you see the women at the slot machines in front? The ones who make change for patrons?"
He shook his head once. "No."
"Ah. Well, your guard did. Or more specifically, he noticed the fact that the necklines of their dresses were cut down to their navels. I took the opportunity to slip in back. He must have assumed I'd gone out front, as he'd suggested."
Mak clenched his teeth. "He was deluded. Naive enough to believe you would do as commanded."
Evangelina raised her eyebrows, her expression overly innocent. "Indeed."
"I am not."
One side of her mouth quirked upward. "I noticed."
He regarded her for a moment. She had a feline quality to her. Lithe, graceful and more than ready to bare her claws if the need presented itself. He could see how she'd managed to intimidate the palace guards, how she'd managed to dupe his men.
She would not do the same to him.
"I would recommend, printzyessa, that you come with me."
"And if I don't?"
"Your father will hear of this," he said.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. Now, her breasts he noticed. She wasn't showing off every bit of skin she could get away with and still be considered dressed. And it made her figure all the more enticing for it. It made him wonder. Made him wonder if she was golden all over. Made him wonder what her breasts would look like, uncovered for him.
He clenched his hands into fists, battling the images that flashed through his mind. He didn't let women distract him. Ever.
This was an aberration. As unusual as it was unwanted. It would not happen again.
"I'm not all that concerned over my father hearing about this. What will he do? Lock me in the dungeon? Or perhaps he'll marry me off to a stranger at his convenience? We both know he won't do the former, and he's actively attempting to accomplish the latter."
"I'll throw you over my shoulder and carry you out. If your designer heels don't make it.." he shrugged, "it's not my problem."
Her dark eyes narrowed. "You wouldn't."
He took a step toward her. She didn't shrink, didn't step away. "You don't think?"
She regarded him for a moment. "I'll allow you to escort me out."
He reached out and took hold of her arm, running his fingers over her smooth skin, her flesh hot beneath his palm. He pulled her to him, linking their arms. He leaned in, his lips brushing her ear. "I will allow you to leave on your own two feet."
She turned to face him, deep brown eyes blazing with defiance. "Good for both of us, as I imagine the alternative would not have ended well. For you or for me."
"Then it's good you chose the right option." He held tightly to her arm, leading her from the room. She kept her chin tipped up, her neck craned, likely so she could look down her nose. It gave her a haughty, untouchable air. It made all of the men in the room practically fall at her feet.
They breezed through the foyer and back out into the damp night air. Salt spray lingered, thick and pungent and the sound of the sea could be heard roaring in the distance. He opened the passenger door to his car.
"In," he commanded.
She complied, stiffly, her posture rigid as she settled into the vehicle, her eyes fixed straight in front of her. He rounded the car and got into the driver's side, revving the engine and pulling away from the curb, heading in the direction of the palace.
"So," she said, her voice conversational, "you won't tell my father?"
"No." It wouldn't benefit anyone to bring the king into this. "I might tell him," she said, her tone still light, casual. Obnoxious.
"Why is that?"
"As I said, he won't do anything about it. He has no leverage. At least, as far as what he can do to me. Now you he may fire you."
Makhail tightened his grip on the steering wheel. "He won't."
"No. He won't. I fired Ivan, and now I personally will be guarding you. Your father knows that there isn't anyone better suited to the job."
"Does he?" she said, her tone flat.
"Your palace guards can't keep tabs on you, and they cannot be distracted from issues of national security to deal with a brat who has no interest in her own safety. That leaves me. I am in the unique business of guarding royalty when the built-in protection of a nation proves to be ineffective. And I never make mistakes. It's regrettable that one of my employees did."
"Two," she said.
"Two of your employees did." She reinforced the figure by holding up a matching number of fingers. "I've given two of them the slip while they were busy rubbernecking some woman's figure."
"Former," he said.
"Former employees. They lacked discipline, and that means I have no room for them among my staff. You may not realize this, as your spoiled tendencies keep you from looking too far outside of yourself, but this is about more than image."
"Is it? I thought it was mainly about making sure I didn't look unsuitable to possible fiances."
"This is about your safety. You are an important piece of political power, printzyessa"
"Am I?" She injected false, breathless surprise into her voice. "And here I thought I was just Evangelina."
"When a title is involved, no one is 'just' anything."
She turned to face him, the indicator the sound of her clothes sliding over the leather. He didn't turn to look at her. Didn't take his eyes of the road. "Except I am. I am just a political pawn."
"An important one," he said.
She snorted and he heard her flop back against her seat. "What more could a girl ask for?"
Eva felt as though she was going to crawl out of her skin. Her arm still burned from where Makhail had touched her, and she was so angry she thought she might actually fold in on herself. Yes, she was being outrageous and she knew it. But it was her power. Her only power.
Impotent, it turned out.
Six months ago, when her father had introduced her to Makhail she'd breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer a field agent. That he wouldn't be guarding her personally. Because he well, he was just too disturbing. Far too big. Too masculine. Broad shoulders and cropped brown hair, a square jaw, a mouth that looked as if it had never smiled. And his eyes gray like the barrel of a gun. And they were every bit as cold.
And now here he was. It was one thing to mess around his goons. Easy too. They were far too interested in what was going on around them. But Makhail focused in on her in a way that no one else ever did. It was as if he was looking into her. She didn't like it at all.
"Perhaps a girl could ask for more diamonds in her gilded cage?"
"You think because I'm rich I have no right to complain?" she asked.
"Not at all. I'm not here to have an opinion. An opinion would imply that I care. I don't. I am here to do a job. Keep you safe, keep you scandal-free. I will do it."
"Until my marriage?"
"After, if I must."
A strange thought. That she would be guarded even after her marriage was secured, and yet she knew it was true. She was a royal, destined to marry a royal. From the moment she'd been born, her life had been controlled down to what shoes she was to put on in the morning.
And of course, the man she would marry was also to be carefully selected. Just like her breakfast cereal.
It had been over six months since she'd woken up to a terrible, clawing fear that she would never be able to make a decision for herself. Not one. Not about what she wore, not about where she went, or what she ate. That was when the serious rebellion started. So Makhail Nabatov could talk about duty and spoiled brattiness all he wanted, but he didn't know what it was like to be her.
He was the enemy.
"I dare say my husband will have his own guards intent on ensuring my submission."
"And what makes you think they'll be any better than your father's guards?"
He didn't look at her, never took his eyes from the road, his profile strong, uncompromising. A crooked nose that looked as though it had been broken at least once, a square jaw that verged on being too sharp. A mouth that looked incapable of smiling.
"They may not be. But maybe I won't try to escape. That all depends on who my father selects, I suppose. Or if I fall in love with him."
She doubted she would. She had a vague idea of who her father might find suitable, because there weren't very many royals just lying around for her to marry. A few minor members of nobility, and of course there was Bastian, King of Ko-menia, a small principality in eastern Europe, actively looking for his queen. She felt nothing for him, no matter how hard she tried. And she did try.
Because he was the likeliest candidate. The one who would bring the most strength, the most power, financial and military resources to Kyonos.
How she feltlove, attractiondidn't come into it as far as her father was concerned. And Bastian was nice. He was even rather handsome. But there was no spark. He touched her and she felt nothing. He wasn't the one.
But it was looking as though she would never have the chance to find that man.
"You want love, do you?" he asked, maneuvering the car through the narrow streets, cafe tables pressed in so close to the roadway that if she rolled the window down she could reach out and steal a cappuccino. Unless of course the windows were locked. Likely, under the circumstances.
"Of course I do. Don't we all?"
"No," he said. No explanation, just no. She wasn't sure why she was surprised. Except she was. And then it made her angry. Because he could have love if he wanted it. He could marry whomever he wanted to, and he didn't have anyone trying to make the decision for him.
But he just said no, he didn't want love. Probably because he was more interested in cleavage, anonymous cleavage, than he was in a real woman. That was what she'd noticed with the other men who guarded her. That was how she'd shaken them.
Makhail was no different, though he was more focused when he needed to be, clearly, since he hadn't even noticed the busty cocktail waitresses at the entrance of the casino.
But still, he had all the freedom in the world and he wanted to waste it on shallow, frivolous things. Not that her night in the casino had been anything more than shallow and frivolous. But it had been fun, and she'd had a shortage of fun in her life.
"Well. I do," she said, looking out the window again, her stomach tightening as they neared the palace.
"What do you mean why?" She turned to his profile again.
"Everyonewell, not you, we established not youmost everyone wants love. Love is "
"A lot of work."
She looked down at his hands, his grip tight on the steering wheel. There was a platinum band there, thick and prominent, on his left ring finger. "Are you married?"
"Not anymore," he said. There was no emotion in his voice. No hint of how he felt about the subject. Yet he still wore his ring.
He flicked her a glance for the first time. "I did not realize we had to become friends in order for me to protect you."
"Let's get one thing straight," she said, annoyance coursing through her. "You aren't protecting me. Not really. You're keeping me out of trouble. Or perceived trouble. I'm an adult woman. I'm twenty, you know. Almost twenty-one."
"Ancient," he said, his tone dry.
"Anyway, no, we don't have to be friends. I suppose us being friends would be impossible, actually, seeing as we're working with opposing agendas."
"And what is your agenda, Princess?"
They pulled up to a wrought-iron gate, guards stationed out along the perimeter of the pale stucco wall that stretched around the palace, backed by the Aegean Sea.
"If I told you, Mr. Nabatov, it would be much too easy for you to gain the upper hand."