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Jake Ronan took a deep, steadying breath, the same kind he would take and hold right before the shot or the assault or the jump.
No relief. His heart was beating like a deer three steps ahead of a wolf pack. His palms were slick with sweat.
He was a man notorious for keeping his cool. And in the past three years that notoriety had served him well. He'd taken a hijacked plane back from the bad guys, jumped from ten thousand feet in the dead of night into territory controlled by hostiles, rescued fourteen school-children from a hostage taking.
But in the danger-zone department nothing did him in like a wedding. He shrugged, rolled his shoulders, took another deep breath.
His old friend, Colonel Gray Peterson, recently retired, the reason Ronan was here on the tiny tropical-island paradise of B'Ranasha, shifted uneasily beside him. Under his breath he said a word that probably had never been said in a church before. "You don't have your sideways feeling, do you?" Gray asked.
Ronan was famous among this tough group of men, his comrades-in-arms, for the feeling, a sixth sense that warned him things were about to go wrong, in a big way.
"I just don't like weddings," he said, keeping his voice deliberately hushed. "They make me feel uptight."
Gray contemplated that as an oddity. "Jake," he finally said reassuringly, his use of Ronan's first name an oddity in itself, "it's not as if you're the one getting married. You're part of the security team. You don't even know these people."
Ronan had never been the one getting married, but his childhood had been littered with his mother's latest attempt to land the perfect man. His own longing for a normal family, hidden under layersof adolescent belligerence, had usually ended in disillusionment long before the day of yet another elaborate wedding ceremony, his mother exchanging starry-eyed "I do's" with yet another temporary stepfather.
Ronan had found a family he enjoyed very much when he'd followed in his deceased father's footsteps, over his mother's strenuous and tear-filled protests, and joined the Australian military right out of high school. Finally, there had been structure, predictability and genuine camaraderie in his life.
And then he'd been recruited for a multinational military unit that was a first-response team to world crises. The unit, headquartered in England, was comprised of men from the most elite special forces units around the world. They had members from the British Forces SAS, from the French Foreign Legion, from the U.S. SEALs and Delta Force.
His family became a tight-knit brotherhood of warriors. They went where angels feared to go; they did the work no one else wanted to do; they operated in the most dangerous and troubled places in the world. As well as protecting world figures at summits, conferences, peace talks, they dismantled bombs, gathered intelligence, took back planes, rescued hostages, blew up enemy weapons caches. They did the world's most difficult work. They did it quickly, quietly and anonymously. There were few medals, little acknowledgment, no back-patting ceremonies.
But there was: brutal training, exhausting hours, months of deep cover and more danger than playing patty-cake with a rattlesnake.
When Ronan had been recruited, he had said a resounding yes. A man knew exactly when his natural-born talents intersected with opportunity, and from his first day in the unit, code-named Excalibur, he had known he had found what he was born to do.
A family, other than his brothers in arms, was out of the question. This kind of work was unfair to the women who were left at home. A man so committed to a dangerous lifestyle was not ready to make the responsibilities of a family and a wife his priority.
Which was a happy coincidence for a man who had the wedding thing anyway. Ronan's most closely guarded secret was that he, fearless fighting man, pride of Excalibur, would probably faint from pure fright if he ever had to stand at an altar like the one at the front of this church as a groom. As a man waiting for his bride.
So far, no one was standing at it, though on this small island, traditions were slightly reversed. He'd been briefed to understand that the bride would come in first and wait for the groom.
Music, lilting and lovely, heralded her arrival, but above the notes Ronan heard the rustle of fabric and slid a look down the aisle of the church. A vision in ivory silk floated slowly toward them. The dress, the typical wedding costume of the Isle of B'Ranasha, covered the bride from head to toe. It was unfathomable how something so unrevealing could be so sensual.
But it was. The gown clung to the bride's slight curves, accentuated the smooth sensuality of her movements. It was embroidered in gold thread that caught the light and thousands of little pearls that shimmered iridescently.
The reason Ronan was stationed so close to the altar was that this beautiful bride, Princess Shoshauna of B'Ranasha, might be in danger.
Since retiring from Excalibur, Gray had taken the position as head of security for the royal family of B'Ranasha. With the upcoming wedding, he'd asked Ronan if he wanted to take some leave and help provide extra security. At first Gray had presented the job as a bit of a larkbeautiful island, beautiful women, un-beatable climate, easy job, lots of off-time.
But by the time Ronan had gotten off the plane, the security team had intercepted a number of threats aimed directly at the princess, and Gray had been grim-faced and tense. The colonel was certain they were generating from within the palace itself, and that a serious security breach had developed within his own team.
"Look at the lady touching the flowers," Gray said tersely.
Ronan spun around, amazed by how much discipline it took to take his eyes off the shimmering vision of that bride. A woman at the side of the church was fiddling with a bouquet of flowers. She kept glancing nervously over her shoulder, radiating tension.
There it was, without warning, that sudden downward dip in his stomach, comparable to a ten-story drop on a roller coaster.
Surreptitiously Ronan checked his weapon, a 9mm Glock, shoulder holstered. Gray noticed, cursed under his breath, tapped his own hidden weapon, a monstrosity that members of Excalibur liked to call the Cannon.
Ronan felt himself shift, from a guy who hated weddings to one hundred percent warrior. It was moments exactly like this that he trained for.
The bride's gown whispered as she walked to the front.
Gray gave him a nudge with his shoulder. "You're on her," he said. "I'm on the flower lady."
Ronan nodded, moved as close to the altar as he could without drawing too much attention to himself. Now he could smell the bride's perfume, tantalizing, as exotic and beautiful as the abundant flowers that bloomed in profusion in every open space of this incredible tropical hideaway.
The music stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the flower lady duck. Now, he thought, and felt every muscle tense and coil, ready.
An old priest came out of the shadows at the front of the chapel, his golden face tranquil, his eyes crinkled with good humor and acceptance. He wore the red silk robe of a traditional B'Ranasha monk.
Ronan felt Gray's tension beside him. They exchanged glances. Gray's hand now rested inside his jacket. His facade of complete calm did not fool Ronan. His buddy's hand was now resting on the Cannon. Despite the unchanging expression on Gray's face, Ronan felt the shift in mood, recognized it as that itching for action, battle fever.
The sideways feeling in Ronan's stomach intensified. His brain did a cool divide, right down the middle. One part of him watched the priest, the bride. The groom would arrive next. One part of him smelled perfume and noted the exquisite detail on her silk dress.
On the other side of the divide, Ronan had become pure predator, alert, edgy, ready.
The bride lifted her veil, and for just a split second his warrior edge was gone. Nothing could have prepared Jake Ronan for the fact he was looking into the delicate, exquisite perfect features of Princess Shoshauna of B'Ranasha.
His preparation for providing security for the wedding had included learning to recognize all the members of the royal families, especially the prospective bride and groom, but there had never been any reason to meet them.
He had been able to view Shoshauna's photographs with detachment: young, pretty, pampered. But those photos had not prepared him for her in the flesh. Her face, framed by a shimmering black waterfall of straight hair, was faintly golden and flawless. Her eyes were almond shaped, tilted upward, and a shade of turquoise he had seen only once before, in a bay where he'd surfed in his younger days off the coast of Australia.
She blinked at him, then looked to the back of the room.
He yanked himself away from the tempting vision of her. It was very bad to lose his edge, his sense of mission, even for a split second. A warning was sounding deep in his brain.
And in answer to it, the back door of the church whispered open. Ronan glanced back. Not the prince. A man in black. A hood over his face. A gun.
Long hours of training had made Ronan an extremely adaptable animal. His mission instantly crystallized; his instincts took over.
His mission became to protect the princess. In an instant she was the focus of his entire existence. If he had to, he would lay down his life to keep her safe. No hesitation. No doubt. No debate.
The immediate and urgent goal: remove Princess Shoshauna from harm's way. That meant for the next few minutes, things were going to get plenty physical. He launched himself at her, registered the brief widening of those eyes, before he shoved her down on the floor, shielding her body with his own.
Even beneath the pump of pure adrenaline, a part of him felt the exquisite sweetness of her curves, felt a need beyond the warrior's response trained into himsomething far more primal and maleto protect her fragility with his own strength.
A shot was fired. The chapel erupted into bedlam. "Ronan, you're covered," Gray shouted. "Get her out of here."
Ronan yanked the princess to her feet, put his body between her and the attacker, kept his hand forcefully on the fragile column of her neck to keep her down.
He got himself and the princess safely behind the relative protection of the stone altar, pushed her through an opening into the priest's vestibule. There Ronan shattered the only window and shoved Princess Shoshauna through it, trying to protect her from the worst of the broken glass with his own arm.
Her skirt got caught, and most of it tore away, which was good. Without the layers of fabric, he discovered she could run like a deer. They were in an alleyway. He kept his hand at the small of her back as they sprinted away from the church. In the background he heard the sound of three more shots, screams.
The alley opened onto a bright square, postcard pretty, with white stucco storefronts, lush palms, pink flowers the size of basketballs. A cabdriver, oblivious to the backdrop of firecracker noises, was in his front seat, door open, slumbering in the sun. Ronan scanned the street. The only other vehicle was a donkey cart for tourists, the donkey looking as sleepy as the cabdriver.
Ronan made his decision, pulled the unsuspecting driver from his cab and shoved the princess in. She momentarily got hung up on the gearshift. He shoved her again, and she plopped into the passenger seat. He then jumped in behind her, turned the key and slammed the vehicle into gear.
Within seconds the sounds of gunfire and the shouted protests of the cabdriver had faded in the distance, but he kept driving, his brain pulling up maps of this island as if he had an Internet search program.
"Do you think everyone's all right back there?" she asked. "I'm worried about my grandfather."
Her English was impeccable, her voice a silk scarf soft, sensual, floating across his neck as if she had actually touched him.
He shrugged the invisible hand away, filed it under interesting that she was more worried about her grandfather than the groom. And he red-flagged it that the genuine worry on her face made him feel a certain unwanted softness for her.
Softness was not part of his job, and he liked to think not part of his nature, either, trained out of him, so that he could make clinical, precise decisions that were not emotionally driven. On the other hand he'd been around enough so-called important people to be able to appreciate her concern for someone other than herself.
"No one was hit," he said gruffly.
"How could you know that? I could hear gunfire after we left."
"A bullet makes a different sound when it hits than when it misses."
She looked incredulous and skeptical. "And with everything going on, you were listening for that?"
"Yes, ma'am." Not listening for that exactly, but listening. He had not heard the distinctive ka-thunk of a hit, nor had he heard sounds that indicated someone badly hurt. Details. Every member of Excalibur was trained to pay attention to details that other people missed. It was amazing how often something that seemed insignificant could mean the difference between life and death.
"My grandfather has a heart problem," she said softly, worried.
"Sorry." He knew he sounded insincere, and at this moment he was. He only cared if one person was safe, and that was her. He was not risking a distraction, a mis-direction of energy, by focusing on anything else.
As if to challenge his focus, his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He had turned it off for the wedding, because his mother had taken to leaving him increasingly frantic messages that she had big news to share with him. Big news in her life always meant one thing: a new man, the proclamation it was different this time, more extravagant wedding plans.
Some goof at Excalibur, probably thinking it was funny, had given her his cell number against his specific instructions. But a glance at the caller ID showed it was not his mother but Gray.
"Yeah," he answered.
"Here, too. Aurora" he named the princess in Sleeping Beauty, a reference that was largely cultural, that might not be understood by anyone listening "is fine."
"Excellent. We have the perp. No one injured. The guy was firing blanks. He could have been killed. What kind of nutcase does that?"
He contemplated that for a moment and came up with one who wants to stop the wedding. "Want me to bring her back in? Maybe they could still go ahead with the ceremony."