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Ava glanced out of the car window at the sparkling summer sunshine bouncing off the exquisite French countryside and wished herself a thousand miles away. Maybe a million. That would land her on another planet where no one knew her name. Where no one knew the man her father had expected her to marry was about to marry another woman, and felt sorry for her in the process.
'It's time you stopped messing around in Paris, my girl, and came home to Anders.'
That particularly supportive comment had come only this morning, making her blood boil. His condescending words filled her head, drowning out the singer on the car radio who was warbling about wanting to go home. Home was the last place Ava wanted to go.
Not that her father's anger was entirely unexpected. Of course he was disappointed that the man she had been pledged to marry since she was a child had fallen in love with someone else. The way he'd spoken to herA woman your age doesn't have time to waste!'as if turning thirty in a year meant that she was over the hillmade it seem as if it was her fault.
But Ava wanted to fall in love! She wanted to get married! She just hadn't wanted to marry Gillesa childhood friend who was more like a brother to her than her ownand he hadn't wanted to marry her. The problem was they had played along with their fathers' archaic pledge for a little too long, sometimes using each other for a fill-in date when the need arose.
Oh, how her father would love to hear that Somehow, after her mother's death fifteen years ago, her relationship with him had disintegrated to the point where they barely spoke, let alone saw each other. Of course if she had been born a boy things would have been different.
She would have had different choices. She would have been Crown Prince, for oneand, while she had no wish at all to rule their small European nation, she would at least have had her father's respect. His affection. Something.
Ava gripped the steering wheel of her hatchback more tightly as she turned onto the narrow country lane that ran alongside Chateau Verne, Gilles's fifteenth-century estate.
For eight years she had lived a happy, relatively low-key existence in Paris; finishing university and building her business, stepping in at royal functions when her brother Frederic had been absent. Now that Gilles, Marquis de Bassonne, was set to marry a friend of hers, she had a bad feeling that was all about to change.
Ava crinkled her nose at her uncharacteristically gloomy mood. Gilles and Anne had fallen in love at first sight two months ago and were happier than she'd ever seen either one of them before. They completed each other in a way that would inspire songwriters and she wasn't jealous.
Not at all.
Her life was rolling along just fine. Her art gallery, Gallery Nouveau, had just been reviewed in a prestigious art magazine and she was busier than ever. It was true that her love-life was a little on the nonexistent side, but her break-up three years ago with Colynthe man she had believed she would eventually marryhad left her emotionally drained and a little wary.
At nearly twenty years her senior he had seemed to her to be the epitome of bourgeois intellectualism: a man who didn't care about her heritage and loved her for herself. It had taken a couple of years to figure out that his subtle criticisms of her status and his desire to 'teach' her all that he knew made him as egotistical and controlling as her father.
And she really wished he hadn't popped into her mind, because now she felt truly terrible.
The only other times she'd felt this miserable had been during gorgeous evenings wandering by herself along the Seine, when she was unable to avoid watching couples so helplessly in love with each other they couldn't walk two paces without stopping to steal another kiss.
She had never felt that. Not once.
She frowned, wondering if she ever would.
After Colyn she had been determined only to date nice men with solid family values. Men who were in touch with their feelings. But they hadn't inspired much more than friendship in her. Thankfully her business kept her too busy to dwell on what she lacked, and if she was getting older
Stamping on even more moodaltering thoughts, she adjusted the volume dial on the radio and wasn't at all prepared when she put her foot on the brake to slow down for a bend in the road and nothing happened. Imagining that she had put her foot on the accelerator instead, she'd moved to correct the oversight when the car hit a patch of gravel and started to slide.
Panicking, she yanked on the steering wheel to keep the car straight, but the car had gathered momentum and in the blink of an eye it fishtailed and rammed into some sort of small tree.
Groaning, Ava clasped her head where it had bounced off the steering wheel.
For a moment she just sat there. Then she realised the engine was roaring, took her foot from the accelerator and switched the car off. Her ears rang loudly in the sudden silence and then she caught the sound of one of her tyres spinning in midair. Glancing out through the windscreen, she realised her car was wedged on top of a clump of rocks and heather plants in full bloom.
Talk about a lapse in concentration!
She blew out a breath and gingerly moved her limbs one at a time. Thankfully the car had been going too slowly for her to have been seriously hurt. A good thingexcept she could picture her father shaking his head at her. He was always telling her to use a driver on official engagements, but of course she didn't listen. Arguing with him had become something of a blood sport. A blood sport he was so much better at than her. It was one of the main reasons she'd snuck off to study Fine Arts at the Sorbonne. If she had stayed in Anders it would have been impossible to keep the promise she had made to her dying mother to try and get along with her father.
His earlier edict replayed again in her head. She couldn't return to Anders. What would she do there? Sit around and play parlour games all day while she waited for him to line up another convenient husband? The thought made her shiver.
Determined to stop thinking about her father, Ava carefully opened the car door and stepped out into the long grass. The spiky heels of her ankle boots immediately sank into the soft earth.
Great. As a gallery owner it was imperative that she always look impeccable and there was no way she could afford to ruin her prized Prada boots. Since she'd decided a long time ago not to take any of her father's money she didn't have any spare cash lying around to replace them. Another decision that had displeased him.
She stood precariously on the balls of her feet and leaned in to retrieve her handbag. Her phone had fallen out and when she picked it up she saw the screen was smashed. Unable to remember Gilles's mobile number, she tossed it back in the car in frustration. She could always call emergency services, but then her little accident would be all over the news in a heartbeatand the thought of any more attention this week for 'the poor jilted Princess' made her teeth gnash together. Which didn't help her sore head. No. She'd simply have to walk.
But standing on the grassy verge with her hands on her hips, she realised just how far it was to the main gates. Her beloved boots would be destroyed. Not to mention how hot and sweaty she would be by the time she got there. This was not the graceful and dignified entrance she had planned to make. And if one of those media vans she had seen loitering a few miles back saw her.
Wondering just what to do next, she had a sudden brainwave. A sudden and slightly crazy brainwave. Fortuitouslyif she could describe running her little car into a ditch in such termsshe'd crashed right near a section of the outer wall that she had played on with her brother Frederic and her cousin Baden and Gilles during family visits to the chateau in her childhood. Scaling the wall as revolutionary spies had been their secret game, and they'd even scraped out footholds to aid their escape from imaginary enemies.
Ava felt a grin creep across her face for the first time that day. She had to concede it was a tad desperate, but with Gilles's wedding only hours away that was exactly what she was. And, anyway, she had always loved to climb as a kid; surely it would be even easier as an adult?
'There's a woman stuck on the south wall, boss. What do you want us to do with her?'
Wolfe pulled up in the middle of an arched hallway in Chateau Verne and pressed his phone a little tighter to his ear. 'On the wall?'
'The very top,' repeated Eric, one of the more junior members of Wolfe's security team.
Wolfe tensed. Perfect. Most likely another interfering journalist, trying to get the scoop on his friend's extravagant wedding to the daughter of a controversial American politician. They hadn't let up all day, circling the chateau like starving buzzards. But none had been brazen enough to go over the wall yet. Of course he'd been prepared for the possibilitythe reason they now had this little intruder in hand.
'Says she's Ava de Veers, Princess of Anders.'
A princess climbing over a forty-foot brick wall? Wolfe didn't think so. 'ID?'
'No ID in her handbag. Says she had a car accident and it must have fallen out.'
Wolfe considered his options. Even from inside the thick walls of the chateau he could hear the irritating whine of distant media choppers as they hovered just outside the established no-fly zone. With the wedding still three hours away he'd better extend the security perimeters before there were any more breaches.
'Want me to take her back to base, boss?'
'No.' Wolfe shot his hand through his hair. He'd rather turf her back over the wall than give her even more access to the property by taking her to the outer cottage his men were temporarily using. And he wouldafter he had established her identity and satisfied himself that she wasn't a real threat. 'Leave her where she's perched.' He was about to ring off when he had another thought. 'And, Eric, keep your gun on her until I get there.' That would teach her for entering a private function without an invitation.
'Ah you mean keep her on the wall?'
When Eric hesitated Wolfe knew right then that the woman was attractive.
'Yes, that's exactly what I mean.' For all he knew she could be a political nutcase instead of an overzealous journo. 'And don't engage in any conversation with her until I get there.'
Wolfe trusted his men implicitly, but the last thing he needed was some smoking Mata Hari doing a number on their head.
Wolfe pocketed his phone. This would mean he wouldn't be able to start the pre-wedding game of polo Gilles had organised. Annoying, but it couldn't be helped. He'd offered to run security for Gilles's wedding because it was what he did, and the job always came first.
Once outside, Wolfe found Gilles and his merry band already waiting for him at the stables, the horses groomed and saddled and raring to go. Wolfe ran his gaze over the roguish white Arabian that Gilles had promised him. He'd missed his daily gym workout this morning and had been looking forward to putting the stallion through his paces.
Hell, he still could. Taking the reins from the handler, he swung easily onto the giant of a horse. The stallion shifted restlessly beneath his weight and Wolfe automatically reached forward to pat his neck, breathing in the strong scent of horse and leather. 'What's his name?'
His mouth quirked and Gilles shrugged. 'Apollo was taken and he's a bloody contrary animal. You should enjoy each other.'
Wolfe laughed at his aristocratic friend. Years ago they had forged an unbreakable bond when they had trained together for selection on an elite military task force. They'd been there for each other during the tough times and celebrated during the good. Inevitably Gilles had started sprouting reams of poetry and Greek myths to stay awake when they'd spent long hours waiting for something to happen. By contrast Wolfe, a rugged Australian country boy, had used a more simple method. Sheer grit and stubborn determination. A trait that had served him well when he had swapped special ops for software development and created what was currently the most sophisticated computer spyware on the planet.
Wolfe Inc had been forged around that venture, and when his younger brother had joined him they'd expanded into every aspect of the security business. But where his brother thrived on the corporate life Wolfe preferred the freedom of being able to mix things up a little. He even kept his hand in on some of the more hairy covert ops some governments called consultants in to take care of. He had to get his adrenaline high from something other than his beloved Honda CBR.
'Always the dreamer, Monsieur le Marquis,' he drawled.
'Just a man who knows how to have balance in his life, Ice,' Gilles countered good-naturedly, calling Wolfe by his old military nickname. He swung onto the back of a regal-looking bay. 'You should try it some time, my friend.'
'I've got plenty of balance in my life,' Wolfe grunted, thinking about the Viennese blonde he'd been glad to see the back of a month ago. 'No need to worry your pretty head on that score.'
Achilles snorted and tossed his nose in challenge as Wolfe took up the reins.
'I won't be joining you just yet. I need to check on an issue that's come up.' He kept his tone deliberately bland so as not to alarm his friend, who should be concentrating on why he was signing his life away to a woman in matrimony rather than why a woman was currently sitting on one of his outer walls. 'Achilles and I will join you in a few.'
The horse pulled against the bit and Wolfe smiled. There was nothing quite like using all his skills to master a difficult animal, and he wondered if Gilles would consider selling him. He already liked the unmanageable beast.