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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 Des-marais 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 itabout himanymore.
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 marriedto 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 intentionstheir 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 agoeight 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 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 more day, Rhia reminded herself, her heavy mood lightened by the laughter of the little boy.
She could bear anything for a single daya 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 familyher parents and sisters and brothersin the photographs. So that took more than an hour. Outside the sun hovered just above the craggy, snowcapped 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 everywhereand nowhereat 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 soundbut 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 fiances. 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 fiances, 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?"