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Linus Murati stepped into the visual surveillance room of the royal guard headquarters, a three-story brick building located on the Lydian royal palace grounds across the rear courtyard from the garages. "Get me suite 322 on screen, please," he requested.
"I thought you had duchess duty tonight?" Simon accused Linus as he pulled up the view from the surveillance camera.
"I do. Miss Miller has requested an evening in." Linus leaned over the back of his friend's chair and blinked at the image of the white paneled door where he'd left Queen Monica's pretty little sister mere minutes before. "But don't let her catch you calling her 'duchess' just yet. The queen has yet to announce the titleI don't believe Julia knows she's going to be royalty."
"Official or not, that's the name we've assigned to herwait now." Simon broke off midsentence as the door on the screen opened and the dark-eyed beauty poked her head out, looking both directions before darting down the hall. "Thought you said she was in for the night."
"That's what she told me." Linus watched Julia's progress, switching cameras as needed to keep up with her stealthy excursion down a set of stairs and around a bend in the hall. The woman had changed into shorts and a T-shirt and pulled her thick brown hair into a ponytail. "Do you suppose she's headed to the palace gym?"
"She's going the wrong direction for that."
"Maybe she's lost," Linus nearly growled as the woman took a corridor that led to an outside door. "I told her to page me if she wanted to go anywhere."
The duchess stepped through an exit to the courtyard and skirted a hedgerow, her furtive glances making it clear that she was escaping deliberatelynot merely adrift on her way to the gym. "Catch her."
"She won't get through the gates." Linus predicted but ran for the door anyway. The queen's little sister was an American in town on a visit. She wouldn't know her way around the kingdom of Lydia and might get lost if she stepped out alone. Besides that, as the ambush on the royal family just over two months before had taught them, even the most beloved royals could become targets of criminal activity.
Which was precisely why Julia needed a bodyguard.
Linus caught sight of her at the back gate talking to the men in the guardhouse. They wouldn't let her through without a guard. At the very least, they'd check with him before letting her pass.
But as Linus sprinted across the cobblestones, he watched Julia's sweet smile and fluttering eyelashes do their work.
The pedestrian door swung open.
Before Linus could quite recover from his shock, the duchess was through and the door slammed shut behind her.
"What are you doing?" Linus challenged his fellow guards as he bounded up to the open window of the guardhouse.
Galen, a sentinel who'd defied direct orders to save the lives of members of the royal family during the ambush two months before, looked at Linus without chagrin. "She's the queen's sister"
"I'm assigned to guard her." Linus tugged on the pedestrian door. Locked.
"Open this door." He glared at Galen, and glanced past him to see that another guard was in the booth. Good. There would still be someone to cover the gate if he took Galen with him. "And come with me."
"Why?" Galen did as instructed and stepped out behind Linus.
"We've got to find her." Linus looked down the limestone street. The duchess had already disappeared. "Did she say where she was going?"
"For a jog."
Linus let out a frustrated breath and wished he'd followed his instinct to set up a chair right outside the duchess's suite. But that had felt too much like he was keeping her imprisoned. It still would have been better than having her lost in a foreign country. The woman could have gone in any direction.
"You go that way." Linus pointed toward the foothills. "I'll head toward the beach." He quickly checked his earpiece to be certain he and Galen could communicate with one another. If they were fast enough, they might catch up to the duchess quickly, but they were already wasting valuable time.
As Galen headed uphill, Linus tore down the streets, slowing at each intersection to be certain Julia hadn't taken a side road. He told himself that she couldn't have gone far. It wasn't as though she'd had that much of a head start. He was bound to catch up to her any moment.
But as he passed one side street after another, Linus's fear for Julia's safety grew. What had she been thinking? The sun would be setting soon. He understood that she wasn't used to having bodyguardsshe'd already expressed embarrassment over the fuss of organizing the simplest outingbut she clearly didn't appreciate that Lydia wasn't entirely safe.
Sure, the sunset looked peaceful as the gentle waves slapped against the pristine white sand beach, and Lyd-ia's crime rates had traditionally been among the lowest on earth, but that was before all the dangers of late. Julia's sister, Monica, had been kidnapped and held hostage just over two months before. And while the man behind those crimes was now dead, that didn't mean the royal family didn't have to take precautions.
Passing the last of the cobbled streets, Linus leaped over the boardwalk and sprinted downhill toward the beach. The sand was riddled with footprintsmost of them pointed inland as folks who'd spent the afternoon on the shore returned home for the night. By this hour the beach was nearly deserted.
To his left, the sand gave way to the docks of the Sardis marina. Yachts and sailboats floated peacefully between piers dotted with the occasional human figure, but none of them matched Julia's slender frame. None were jogging.
Linus turned right instead, where the shoreline bent around a jutting bluff, its craggy sides clutching the sandy shore with rutted furrows where children loved to play hide-and-seek. But as the sinking sun gave way to lengthening shadows, the hiding places took on a sinister cast. The duchess could easily disappear behind any of the protruding cliffs. He could pass right by her without even seeing her.
What if she hadn't gone this way at all?
Increasing his pace, Linus raced the sinking sun and tapped the relay button on his earpiece. "Any sign of her?"
"None. You?" Galen panted. His voice carried concern.
"She's not at the main beach. I'm headed toward the bluffs. Let me know if you spot her."
"Should we expand our search?"
Linus checked a chasm between bluffs before answering. No sign of Julia there, either. Should they call for more guards to expand the search? The royal guard had cut loose several men who'd been associated with the former head of the royal guard who'd shot the former king.
They were slowly rebuilding their ranks under the leadership of Jason Selini, the new head of the royal guard. But they couldn't hire just anyone. Royal guardsmen were required to have served four years in the Lydian military. Besides that, after the trouble his predecessor had caused, Jason insisted on carefully vetting all new members of the guard beyond the standard background checks.
Training new recruits took time. Jason had a vision for rebuilding the royal guard stronger than ever, but they weren't there yet. Linus hated to call more men on a case when they were already shorthanded.
And yet, what was that compared to Julia's safety? Linus recalled the stories his grandfather had told him, of his days serving in the royal guard. Those men would do anything to protect the royal family. His grandfather's stories had inspired him to become a guard. More than that, he wanted to make his grandfather proud.
He knew what he needed to do.
As he opened his mouth to instruct Galen to call for more guards, Linus cleared the tip of the farthest-protruding crag and caught a clear glimpse of the northward stretch of beach.
A lone female figure ran stalwartly along the sand, her dark brown ponytail bobbing. Though the evening light was almost gone, Linus recognized the bright pink shorts and pale pink T-shirt Julia had been wearing when he'd watched her on the security screen.
For the first time since she'd gone through the palace gate, he exhaled freely. "No need. I've spotted her. She's jogging on the beach. I'll catch up to her. You can meet up with uswe're north of town where the beach access trails connect with Seaview Drive."
"I can be there in five minutes."
"Great." Linus ended the transmission and focused on approaching the duchess without frightening her. Given the darkness and the isolated spot, she'd be startled if he suddenly bounded at her out of nowhere.
He trotted closer until she'd be able to hear him if he called out to her.
Julia didn't look back. In fact, she appeared to increase her pace. Was she trying to escape him? Maybe she was frightened at hearing a human voice on the isolated stretch of sand.
"Miss Miller!" He was closer to her already. She had to have heard. "Miss Miller!"
Her steps slowed and she turned back toward him, her brown eyes wide, her lips pursed, focused, questioning.
Linus grinned with relief. She'd heard him. He'd get her back to the palace safe and sound. "Miss Miller, please." He slowed down so she wouldn't bolt away again, and called out so she could hear him in spite of the distance and the sound of the waves. "You're not supposed to be out alone."
As he spoke, Julia came to a full stop, watching him. The setting sun cast its golden light across her. She looked positively radiant.
Linus felt his heart give a lurch. He told himself it was because he was glad to have caught up with her. He certainly didn't feel personal attraction toward her. That would be unprofessional. He'd honorably served the royal family for years without ever feeling anything beyond a fervent desire to do his job well.
Granted, the duchess was beautiful. He'd never argue otherwise. But the fast beat of his heart was due only to the exertion of catching up to her, and the fear he'd felt that he might not find her.
It had nothing to do with the way her pursed lips bent upward in a half smile of relieved recognition.
The duchess cast him the briefest look of acknowledgment, lowering her eyes as if feeling chastised for any trouble her escape had caused. Then she turned her head suddenly toward the craggy bluffs just beyond her left arm.
Her eyes widened in shock and her jaw dropped. She started to scream, but long arms reached from the shadows, covering her mouth, scooping her up and carrying her kicking toward the rocks.
Linus snapped into action, hitting the relay on his earpiece as he dashed toward the duchess.
"Galen! Call for backup. The duchess has been attacked." He listened. Nothing. "Repeatthe duchess has been attacked!"
Had Galen heard? Was his lack of acknowledgment due to an overlapping signal delay in his haste to pass the message along to the other guards?
Linus didn't have time to sort it out. Julia's immediate safety was his first priority. He reached the bluffs in time to see the shadowy figure hauling Julia's writhing form up a trail. No doubt about it, the man's actions weren't welcome. Linus wouldn't hesitate to use force against him if necessary.
But on the steep, rocky trail, he'd have to be careful not to risk injury to the duchess. If she fell from this height, she could be gravely injured, even killed.
Julia opened her mouth to scream, but a gloved hand clamped tightly over her lips. She tried to pull away, but hard arms tightened around her. Julia twisted and flailed, trying desperately to free herself from the tight grip of the leather gloves that covered her mouth and lifted her up. She wanted to scream, but she could hardly breathe.
"Don't fight me," the man warned, his arms tightening as he dragged her from the beach toward the bluffs. "I don't want to have to hurt you. I just need the file."
File? She couldn't make sense of the man's words. What did he mean? Stars danced across her vision. Beyond them, she saw the dark outline of the craggy bluffs that lined the pristine Lydian beach. A deep chasm ran inland, uphill, away from the peaceful coastline. Her captor carried her up and away, out of sight of the guard who was too far away to be of any help to her now.
A fresh shot of terror surged through her. Trails led up the bluffs toward a highway that followed the coastline all the way to the Albanian border. Where was this man taking her? What was he planning to do? The man had come out of nowhere, leaping from the shadows of the rocks and grabbing her the very instant she'd realized he'd appeared.
She had to get free of him before he reached the highway. If he got her in a vehicle, she might never get away.
Her attacker had tight hold of her arms and torso. She tried to jab him with her elbow, to pry her arms freeanythingbut his overwhelming size advantage made that impossible. With a desperate lunge, she kicked at him with flailing legs.
Pain shot up her leg as her shin slapped against the protruding rocks of the cliffs.
If she could have, she'd have cried out in pain. Tears stung her eyes, but she refused to give in to self-pity for even a second. The man already had every advantage. She tried again to wriggle free. She couldn't even see her captor. How could she fight him?
Suddenly the man cried out and she felt the arms around her slacken.
"Run! To the beach!" The guard's voice echoed across the rocks.
Twisting and writhing, she lunged free from her attacker as the guard pried him away. Darkness filled the small gorge where the trail cut through the cliffside. Julia lunged back in the direction of the seashore, clutching the rocky sides of the gorge as pain speared up from her injured shin. She half hopped, half dragged herself away, crumbling almost to a crawl as her ankle protested and she scrambled to put distance between herself and the battle being waged behind her.
She looked back to see two shadowy figures fighting in the distance and cringed at the sound of knuckles connecting against bone and flesh. If she could have seen who was who, or even stood on her injured leg, she might have tried to help. Instead it was all she could do to pray silently but earnestly for the safety of the guard who'd come to her aid.
"Who are you?" a harsh male voice demanded. The guard who'd come after her? In spite of the darkness of the evening, she was nearly certain it was Linus. The handsome guard's chivalrous actions the day beforeopening doors for her, pulling out her chair, bringing her anything she wanted before she had to ask for ithad left her feeling uncertain of precisely where she stood with him. To her understanding, his gracious behavior was simply part of his job. But at the same time, she wasn't used to it, and had escaped for her evening run alone in part to distance herself from his unfamiliar courtesies.
Now Linus's chivalry had him struggling with her attacker, demanding to know the man's identity and intent.
The masked man didn't answer, but pulled back far enough to throw a punch, sending a stinging blow across her rescuer's face before darting away into the shadows of the craggy cliffs.
Rather than chase after him, Linus spun toward her, the concern on his features only easing slightly when he spotted her.
He ran from the shadows toward her, and for the first time she got a look at his face, certain now of his identity.