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"You'll probably get bored following me around, Mr. Murdock."
Gabriel managed a smile, his gaze traveling over the regal woman standing in front of him. "I can't imagine that, Princess Lara. Many men would give their eye teeth to have my job right now."
The princess stiffened at that comment. "I'm well aware of the paparazzi camped out down near the front gate, Mr. Murdock. Those photographers are more than willing to sell their soulsand minefor a picture of me. Why, I'll never comprehend. I've accepted that, but I don't have to like it. However, having a photojournalist follow me around day by day is going to be a bit daunting. And as I said, you'll get bored. My life is not as exciting as the tabloids seem to think."
Gabriel didn't want to feel sorry for the beautiful woman standing by the fireplace, but the grief and doubt on her face did look real. And she had suffered a great loss. "I'm sorry," he said, wondering why he felt the need, "about your husband. In spite of my being a skeptic of the worst kind, I do believe you two were the real deal."
She turned and stood against the backdrop of the marble fireplace and an exquisite painting of an Arcadian village over the mantel, her expressive blue-green eyes holding him. "We loved each other. I don't care what the rest of the world thinks."
Or him. She didn't really care what he thought. And Gabriel didn't blame the woman. He'd read up on his subject enough to know the details. American heiress falls for European prince and the whole world goes wild with fascination at this match made in ratings heaven. In spite of the odds, they get married and will supposedly live happily ever after. But five years into their picture-perfect marriage, the prince is killed in a hunting accident. And the beautiful young princess is left grief-stricken and alone, to carry on their good works all over the world.
A widow for over two years now, Her Royal Highness Princess Lara Barrington Kincade had come home to New Orleans to continue her charitable work by holding an art fundraiser to benefit the Kincade Foundation and to continue building Kincade houses for the HRH Theodore Kincade Home Restoration Project in New Orleans.
Gabriel glanced up at the massive painting over the fireplace. He'd seen pictures of it in displays and magazines. A Benoit, painted in the late-nineteenth century by the French artist Jacques Benoit. An authentic representation of the Arcadians who'd been forced out of Nova Scotia in 1755, but depicted in New Orleans in the true Arcadian art theme of a place of contentment and harmony. This, and the title Arcadian Dreams, made the painting bittersweet. A village within a dreamtwo distinct themes in one painting. And worth a lot of money, if his guess was right.
"The Benoit is stunning," he said to take her mind off the masses pushing at the gate. He noted a blinking light on the wall over the painting. A sensor for protection, no doubt.
"Yes." She turned to glance up at the painting. "It was a wedding gift from my husband."
So this was how her life played out. Priceless artwork and neverending philanthropic events.
Gabriel had been assigned to follow the princess around and produce a photo spread with accompanying content. Right now she was preparing for a big art auction and reception to benefit Kincade House. He was supposed to be grateful that he'd been "given" this opportunity at the national magazine where he'd worked for ten years. "Given" being the loose term for punishment. According to his editor at Real World News, Gabriel had gone rogue one too many times to get the pictures and story he wanted.
Nothing like getting the job done while rubbing a third-world dictator and the Secretary of State the wrong way in order to get the best shots. But that wasn't why he'd been banished to New Orleans to do a fluff piece. He didn't want to think about the real reason he'd agreed to take this easy assignment.
Gabriel searched for the truth and he told it in his award-winning photographs and tell-it-like-it-is text. While the magazine owner and his editor had published his latest expose with unabashed glee, they still had to make him pay to save face with the government.
And this was their way of doing that. This was torture for a true reporter and photojournalist. But what a beautiful torture.
Remembering another woman in another place, he put on a blank expression and tried not to chafe at being in such a straightlaced setting.
"Call me Gabriel," he said, thinking even though this was child's play, at least the subject matter was lovely to look at. The princess was honey-blonde and photogenic, no doubt about that. But Gabriel wanted to get down to the real woman behind that chignon and those designer pumps.
"Gabriel," she said, coming to sit down on the settee across from the overstuffed chair where he'd landed. "So I understand you have a home here in New Orleans, too."
"Yes." He nodded, stared at the hot tea growing cold in front of him. "I grew up here, and when my mother died, I inherited a town house in the Quarter. So it's not far from your home. One of the many reasons this assignment enticed me."
That much was true at least. He didn't mind some downtime in New Orleans. Good food, good jazz and a mirror of his own conflicted soul. Now he had a beautiful woman to admire, too.
"I'm sorry about your mother. Were you close?"
He wanted to say no, not really. His artistic, temperamental mother had stayed single and had never told him who his father was. Maybe that was why he'd become so nomadic. Seemed he was always searching for the truth. Instead he said, "We grew to be close as we both matured."
She smiled at that. "Sometimes, growing up is hard work."
"Yes." He didn't want to discuss his relationship with his mother. "Anyway, I have the town house here. So I'll have my darkroom and some other equipment stashed away."
"That's convenient," she said, sipping her tea with her pinkie precisely in the right place. "My parents bought this house when I was a toddler. They split their time between New Orleans and several foreign locations since my father was a diplomatgreat for them and educational for me. After they retired and moved to Virginia, they left this house to Theo and me. We spent part of our honeymoon here." Her vivid eyes went blank for a second. "I rarely get back here but this fundraiser is important. I want to continue the work Theo and I started in New Orleans."
Gabriel finally lifted the tea and took a swallow. Bitter and tangy, the tepid liquid coated his dry throat. "New Orleans will certainly benefit from your efforts. This city needs all the help it can get after that flurry of hurricanes a few years back."
She inclined her head, her pearl teardrop earrings trembling against her skin. "We started this foundation a year after the last big hurricane."
Gabriel glanced around the big square parlor. "Did your home suffer any damage?"
"A good bit, but we moved most of the artwork before the storm and when we returned we rebuilt the house. I have a friend who rents the carriage house, but she's on her honeymoon right now. Esther married a renowned adventurer and archaeologistCullen Murphy. You might have heard of him?"
Gabriel grinned. "Heard of him and had the pleasure of meeting him and the lovely Esther when we did a magazine shoot on the Levi-Lafitte Chocolate Diamond. They mentioned several locations in New Orleans, but obviously left your estate out for the sake of privacy. Amazing find, that."
"Yes, Esther told me all about their big adventure. Lots of danger and intrigue, but they found the diamond and now it's in a museum in Washington, I believe."
"That's right. So you know Esther and Cullen. It's a small world."
"Too small at times," she said.
When a nearby cell phone rang, she excused herself and hurried to pick it up, surprising Gabriel. He figured she had servants in every corner to take care of such tasks. He'd already met one of them, a strange little lady who had introduced herself as Deidre. Deidre had brought him into this room and disappeared immediately. He'd seen others, bodyguards and drivers and security teams. He'd been fully vetted before he could even take on this assignment and then a nice burly escort had met him, frisked him and brought him here. Gabriel had no doubt he was being watched even now.
"Hello?" Princess Lara turned toward him with an apologetic smile. "Hello?" Frowning, she hung up. "Wrong number."
Gabriel wondered about that and why Deidre wasn't fielding the phone calls. "Could be. Or maybe the photographers lined up outside are taking turns to see if you're still in the house."
"I told Deidre I was expecting some very important calls, but if this keeps up I'll have to let her run interference."
Ah, that explained that, then. A self-sufficient princess. He liked her already. But she could be a bit naive, too. "You know the paparazzi have a way of getting even the most private of numbers."
She came to sit back down, a pretty frown marring her face. "You know all the tricks, I see."
"A few." He finished off the tea, then stared over at her. "But I want you to understand, while I'm trailing around after you, I will respect your privacy and your work. You'll have full approval on any and all photographs that make the cut for RWN magazine as well as the accompanying content, I can assure you."
She did the chin-lifting thing againher way of nodding, he decided. "And when will we officially begin?"
Gabriel looked at his watch. "I'm on the clock right now."
She stood as if to dismiss him but stopped. "Would you like to stay for dinner? We can go over my schedule. It can be a bit daunting if you're not used to it."
Surprised, Gabriel shrugged. He had to eat. Might as well get to know her over good food. "If it's not too much trouble, I'd appreciate that. I like to be prepared so, yes, a schedule would be great."
"I'll go and tell my assistant to ready our meal, then."
Gabriel wondered if he wanted to eat anything cooked by Deidre. The little woman was so somber and skittish, she gave him the creeps. And it took a lot to scare Gabriel Murdock.
Maybe he should be more wary of the princess he was about to get to know on a personal level. After all, beauty and grace could hide a multitude of sins.
The man was sinfully handsome.
Lara took another bite of the catfish smothered in crawfish etouffee, her stomach almost recoiling at the rich New Orleans food. Her nerves weren't the best these days. Since Theo's death, she'd been an emotional wreck and her doctors had given her more sedatives and antidepressant pills than she cared to remember. But the pills didn't help the neverending ache in her heart. She pretended to take them, but most of the prescribed medication went down the drain. She had to have a clear head for the task ahead.
Tonight, she thought this distress might have more to do with the man sitting beside her at the antique Queen Anne table than the spicy food or a lack of pills. But those annoying hang-up calls hadn't helped her nerves, either.
Gabriel Murdock ate the food with gusto, his manners impeccable even while he enjoyed each bite. He was buff and in shape, so he could afford the spicy sauce and crusty catfish. His hair was dark and curly, with just a hint of gray near the temples. His eyes were an interesting shade of brownalmost golden at times. She'd heard many tales regarding the renowned photojournalist, some of them good and some of them bad. "Infamous" was how Deidre had described him. He traveled light and often, never stayed in one place for long and was rumored to be one of the best at getting a story with just one shot of his camera. But he had also been involved in exposing corruption and righting wrongs by being nosy. Malcolm had thoroughly researched the man, but had given his okay to this assignment.
"He'll be aware and on high alert," Malcolm had told her.
Apparently these were impressive qualities in a good photo-journalist. "He tends to dig deep to get his stories."
Deidre, on the other hand, warned Lara almost immediately.
"You'd best watch out for that one, ma'am," her overpro-tective assistant had cautioned. "Especially since you refused to bring a full detail with us."
"I'll be perfectly fine," Lara had replied. "I don't want guards hovering around me day and night. Our smaller team is sufficient. I need some freedom for a change."
But Lara knew that the guards were out there somewhere, watching in spite of her need to break free. She wasn't so complacent as to think they had let her get away with her request so easily. She would always be a member of the royal family, even if her husband was no longer alive. She owned a mansion full of priceless artifacts and antiques, too. And that meant protection, since even now she had death threats and stalkers and all sorts of other worries to consider. Now was not the best time to have a photographer trailing her, but it couldn't be helped. She needed publicity for her cause. She'd have to be very careful about what she revealed to him, however.
But this oneGabrielseemed capable of handling anything they might encounter together. The man had been embedded with American troops in the Middle East, had trailed drug lords and terrorists undercover through the jungle to get the real story. He seemed to be content and confident in his own skin, even if his eyes did hold a rim of sadness. Lara felt a strange sense of peace, the first real peace she'd felt since Theo's death.
"This is really good," Gabriel said now. "My compliments to the chef."
"We have a good friend who is an accomplished chef," Lara replied, happy that he approved of the cuisine. "Even though Deidre is an excellent cook, Herbert insists on cooking for me when I'm in town. He so enjoyed teaching Theo all about Creole and Cajun cooking and the difference between the two."
"Spoken like a true Louisiana soul," Gabriel replied. "Did your husband enjoy eating the local dishes?"
"Oh, yes. He was willing to try anything. Even alligator meat and frog legsI've never managed to acquire a taste for either."
The room went quiet as she remembered the good times she'd had with Theo. Finally, she glanced over at Gabriel and realized he'd put down his fork. "I'm so sorry. It's just I miss him."
"I understand." He pushed his plate away. "From everything I've seen and heard, he was a good man."
"The best." She blinked away her grief with a quick flutter of her lashes and a flash of regret in her expression. "Now, let's move on, shall we? We have a lot to discuss. I'll show you some of the other art piecessome I own and others on loan for the reception we'll hold here before the official show in the Quarter. As you know, I intend to be in New Orleans for at least three months. How long do you plan to shadow me?"
He gave her a direct look. "I have the whole month."
One month, weeks and weeks, with this nice-looking man. Lara had to wonder if they'd get along, or if they'd wind up getting on each other's nerves.
"Don't look so glum," he said, as if reading her mind. "I don't bite. I know my job and I know my place."