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Having been trained to believe it was her duty, and a great honor, to die protecting a member of the royal family, Olivia Vanderbrook tried very hard not to dislike her queen.
The bitch didn't make it easy.
Queen Verona, the dowager who had ruled the kingdom of Grand Falls for sixteen years, since the death of her husband, was the most unpleasant person Olivia had ever known. The jewels dripping from every pudgy finger might sparkle, but the woman's true personality couldn't be brightened with all the gold in Elatyria.
Verona—once called Fair Verona—was petty and vain. Greedy and hungry for wealth. Impatient and capricious, she would hold a grudge for a hundred years after she was put in her grave.
To top it all off, she had truly awful taste in clothes. Olivia might always wear a simple black-leather uniform, designed for free movement in battle, but she knew a really bad dress when she saw one. Made with yards of heavy fabric and gaudy trimmings, the queen's ugly gowns would look better on that nudist emperor who liked prancing about his kingdom without a stitch on.
Despite all that, Olivia knew she should admire the woman. In this man's world, Verona had managed to defeat enemies who wanted to wrest the kingdom away from her young son, heir to the throne. She had become renowned for her shrewd dealings and her ruthless nature. Though not loved, Verona was feared and respected by all her subjects. Well, feared, anyway.
So as the captain of the all-female, Amazonian Royal Guard, Olivia should have been down with all of that. Women-supreme, chicks rule. Power to the va-jay-jay.
But no. As she stood in one of the queen's private receiving rooms, her head slightly bowed, feet apart, the butt of her longbow braced between them, she could only think it was a shame the king had died all those years ago, rather than his spiteful wife.
Olivia's father and the late king had been close friends. She remembered the former ruler as a kind man who had never ordered the head lopped off even the most saucy peasant. Renowned for his merry nature, he'd had a deep belly laugh and blew huge smoke rings from his pipe. He'd enjoyed playing chase-the-chambermaid, and so loved to dance that he kept a trio of fiddlers on call at all times.
Looking on him as an uncle, Olivia remembered anxiously awaiting his royal visits to her family's estate. He'd always brought wonderful presents for the Vanderbrook children. Frilly dolls and bows for her sisters. Books for her studious brother.
And weapons and miniaturized suits of armor for Olivia.
When she'd been but a child, the king had recognized in Olivia the same fighting spirit her most famous ancestor—her great-great-great-grandmother—had, a woman who'd been the leader of the last free-roaming Amazon band. The king had encouraged Olivia to join the Guard, and urged her parents to let her.
Considering they had several other daughters to marry off, and one studious, serious son who showed no interest in soldiering, Olivia's parents hadn't fought the idea. Every family needed a warrior—theirs would just be their second-oldest girl rather than their only boy. That she would be giving up a normal life—husband, family and everything else—hadn't bothered her, or them, one bit. Because nobody had ever assumed she'd wanted them.
Everyone had known her destiny, and none had been surprised she'd risen through the ranks to achieve the highest rank—Captain of the Guard—by her twenty-eighth year. Her only regret was that the old king, who'd so encouraged her, hadn't lived to see it.
Oh, yes, if he were still her monarch, the idea of laying down her life would be a whole lot easier to swallow.
For Queen Verona, though? Not so much.
"Ahh, there you are, Captain," the queen said, imperious as she swept into the private chamber where Olivia had been kept waiting at attention for nearly an hour.
"Greetings, Your Majesty," Olivia said, her head still down. Nobody looked the queen directly in the eye unless invited.
The queen draped herself across a chaise lounge, spreading out the skirt of her puce-colored brocade gown. Plucking off a piece of lint, she behaved like she had not a care in the world.
Olivia wasn't fooled. The queen was upset—the bulging veins in her neck and the ham-hock fisting of her hands made it clear. Knowing better than to speak until addressed, she didn't ask why.
"I have an important mission for you. A secret mission."
"I am grateful for your confidence in me, Majesty."
"You have undoubtedly heard that my son, Prince Ruprecht, is out on the continent, sowing his oats before his coronation."
Olivia nodded once. Everyone knew that the gay prince had gone off for one last romp before assuming the mantle of king. All of Grand Falls hoped that during his travels, he'd find a princess to wed. He had proved very picky about choosing a bride.
"Well," the queen said, "it's not true."
Though startled, Olivia managed to avoid showing it.
"In fact, the prince has…left. Without our blessing."
"Left, Your Majesty? Do you mean he has, er, run away?" It was a ridiculous way to put it since the prince was a man of nearly thirty years. Though, to be honest, he didn't act much like a man. Well, not the way Olivia thought a real man should act.
"Yes," the woman admitted. "Call it what you want. He got it in his head to go over there before taking his place as king."
Over there. Olivia sucked in a surprised breath. Usually, the other place was only spoken of in whispers or cautionary bedtime stories to children. Be good, or you'll be sent over there to work in a fast food restaurant! Whatever that was.
Just to be sure, she asked, "You mean, Earth?"
"Yes, of course I mean Earth!"
Earth, the flipside of reality. The darker reflection of her own world.
Earth, whose inhabitants believed everything about Elatyria was simply a fairy tale, a bedtime story—as if they were amusing, insignificant and to be laughed at.
She'd been there. She didn't like it.
"His note promised he would be back well in time for his coronation, on his birthday, but I haven't heard one single word from him in months."
A note. Great Athena's ghost, the future king had left a note and traipsed away like a moody little princess. "I see."
The queen stopped pacing. Her frown dropped her jowls almost down to her shoulders. "I blame that awful Penelope Mayfair!"
That would be Queen Penelope, newly arrived and crowned head of the neighboring kingdom of Riverdale. She'd been raised on the Earth side, from what Olivia understood.
"She filled Ruprecht's head with silly prattle of some city with a golden bridge and a parade of people who love rainbows!"
"That is where he went? To this city with a golden bridge?"
"Yes. It's in a place called California." The queen came closer, to within a few steps. Without warning, she reached out and grabbed Olivia's chin, lifting Olivia's face to look her in the eye. "You must go find him. And bring him back here."
"Majesty, what if the prince doesn't wish to return?"
"Then toss him in a sack and bring him anyway!"
Olivia swallowed. Lay violent hands on a member of the royal family? On the kind old king's son and heir? It went against all her training. Not to mention her loyalty to the late monarch.
The queen dropped her hand, but not her stare. "Captain—Olivia—you care for my son, don't you? You were practically raised together, after all."
That much was true, even though she'd never had much use for the prince. He'd been a whiny crybaby whom she'd called Rupie when they were children. "Of course, Majesty."
"And you wouldn't want to see him lose the throne."
"Surely it wouldn't come to that!"
The queen put her hands together and nodded, appearing pious and sincere. "It could and it will. The law of the land decrees it. If Ruprecht is not crowned in two weeks, the title passes to one of his cousins from a faraway kingdom. The new king would likely bring his entire court here, dismissing this one."
The queen didn't have to say it, her threat hung in the air. If Ruprecht lost the crown, and a new ruler arrived, the Vanderbroooks—Olivia's parents and siblings—would lose their positions as favored courtiers, friends of the royal family. Marriage prospects would disappear, as would her brother Basil's chance to study enough to become a wise man or royal advisor.
The Vanderbrooks could become destitute.
"I understand, Your Majesty," she said, meaning it.
"You'll bring him back by any means necessary?"
She hesitated, then nodded once. "I will do as you command."
The queen smiled beneficently. "Ahh, good. I expect you to be off immediately." But before she swept away, she added, "Oh, and Captain, I assume I needn't warn you not to be swayed from your duty by my son? He is a very handsome man."
"Never," she swore, hearing her own vehemence. She'd seen the prince traipse through the tulips one too many times when they were young to ever think of him as anything but a silly boy.
The queen lifted a haughty brow. "Indeed?"
Knowing the queen's vanity about her son's looks, she added, "I simply mean, my training allows for no thought of such things. Those interests have long been driven out of me."
That was true. She'd made her choice when she'd turned twenty. Celibacy and devotion to duty had ruled her life for eight years, even if others in her troop weren't as rigid about their vows.
Not Olivia. No man had ever tempted her to stray.
And she doubted she ever would. But if she ever were tempted, it certainly wouldn't be by a silly fop like the prince.
Considering he played lead guitar and was the front-man singer for a popular weekend rock band, Rafe Cabot had heard more than his fair share of pickup lines. Women had told him they wanted to polish his long, hard microphone. Or asked him to pluck their strings. They'd offered to let him practice his licks on their thighs. And he had been told more times than he could count that he and some female could make beautiful music together.
Snooty legal types who wouldn't give him the time of day if they saw him at his regular job as a carpenter threw their panties on stage when he sang. Old and young, single and married, they did crazy stuff to get the attention of a man they saw as hot and easy.
Being hot was part of the rocker mystique. No matter what a guy looked like, if he had a guitar, chicks went for him. That would explain why elderly grandpas from big-name groups still got panties—thongs, not Depends—thrown at them, too.
Being easy, though, he wouldn't cop to. Been there, done that, had his fun and now it was over. When the show ended, he would go home to sleep—alone—focused on the carpentry jobs he had lined up for next week, not the sex he could be getting over the weekend.
Still, the come-ons were part of the gig. He knew it, every band member knew it. A couple of the guys were young enough to hit whatever got pitched to them, but Rafe was far enough along that he never even picked up the bat. No harm, no foul.
Thing was, lately, he'd been getting pitches from some unusual sources. Really unusual. In the one way Rafe definitely didn't swing.
"Oooh, a group of hot ones just sat down at the far right table," said Adam, their bass player, who was peering out from the back room of the popular club. Snickering, he added, "Of course, they're dudes. Anyone wanna bet who they came to see?"
Their drummer, Jeremy, piped in. "Watch what you use to wipe the sweat off your face tonight, Rafe. You might get a pair of boxers tossed at ya instead of silk panties."
"Screw you guys."
The others laughed, knowing Rafe had been worrying about his new fan base. Lately, it seemed like his most enthusiastic groupies came with very different equipment in their pants.
He was no homophobe. He'd lived in San Francisco, for God's sake. Hell, he'd voted against Prop 8.
But…seriously? This was getting ridiculous. Somehow, he had become the flavor-of-the-month for the type of clientele who usually hung out in bars where guys danced with guys.
Gig after gig, the audience grew a bit more mixed. Where they used to stand on stage and look out at a sea of estrogen, now they saw groups of men who applauded as loudly as the women. And between sets, a lot of them hit Rafe with some of the same pickup lines he'd been hearing from females all these years.
A few times, he'd been sorely tempted to hit them back.
"Gotta ask, dude, what happened?" Jeremy asked. "When did you become gay-bait? Is there something you're not telling us?"
"Screw you twice," he muttered.
"It's been a long time since we've seen you with a woman. If you've switched sides…"
"I haven't," Rafe snarled. "Just because I don't pick up a different woman after every show doesn't mean I've stopped liking them." Forcing his annoyance away, he said, "I think I have a look-alike somewhere in the city. These guys have been calling me by the wrong name. Ralphie, Roofie, something like that."
"Sounds a lot like Rafe to me," Jeremy said.
"I'm telling you, it's all some big screw-up."
One he wanted to rectify ASAP. Whoever this guy was, he must look a lot like him. Rafe heard his name at almost every show.
"You ready?" the club manager asked. "Line's out the door!"
Adam smiled broadly. "Would you say the crowd has more X chromosomes or Y?"
Rafe glared at his friend. "One more crack and I'm gone."
Chuckling, the other man held up a hand, palm out. "Sorry."
Determined to ignore everything but the music, Rafe returned to the stage. Applause washed over him, the heat of the lights melting his irritation. Hitting the strings hard, he pounded out his troubles in an edgy rhythm, losing himself in the beat. He kept looking over the heads of the audience, not making eye contact.
At least, until his eyes landed on her.
The blonde stood by the bar, her back ramrod straight. Looking neither left nor right, she concentrated strictly on the stage, so intently focused, she didn't even seem to be on the same planet as the noisy crowd that surrounded her.
Actually, that wasn't quite true. She wasn't looking at the stage. The woman was concentrating solely on him.
Every time he glanced her way, he found her staring at him. But not the way most women stared. This one was not wearing anything that could be described as a come-and-get-me smile. The expression on her beautiful face would more correctly be described as give-me-what-I-want-or-I'll-hurt-you.