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The royal motorcade lurched to an unexpected stop. Her Royal Highness Princess Isabelle of Lydia glanced at Levi Grenaldo, her recently appointed bodyguard, expecting him to make some reassuring gesture that would indicate nothing was amiss.
He didn't look her way. In the silvery sheen of his mirrored sunglasses, Isabelle saw only the rear bumper of her brother's limousine sitting still on the road in front of them. The seconds ticked by and they sat, unmoving, in the narrow streets of Sardis, Lydia's capital city.
Something had to be wrong. The motorcade represented the power and pageantry of the royal family and therefore never stopped until it arrived at its destination.
"Why are we stopped?"
Levi didn't acknowledge her question, but instead pressed the button for the intercom and told the driver, "Get us off this street."
When the driver hesitated, Levi pressed the button again. "Now."
Much as she wanted to remain calm, Isabelle felt her fingers tighten as they gripped the edge of the leather seat. She didn't like anything about this situation. For one thing, she didn't trust Levi.
He'd been abruptly appointed as her personal bodyguard five days earlier with no explanation given, and on top of that, he didn't fit the profile for a bodyguard. Although he was plenty tall and his shoulders were broad with muscles, he was otherwise trim, and the dark angles of his beard gave his face a scholarly look. Unlike all the bodyguards she'd ever had before, his neck wasn't thicker than his head, and he looked unusually sharp in the tuxedo he wore for the state dinner they were about to attend.
Besides that, the bodyguard read books. Intelligent ones. She'd seen him with his nose buried in political tomes whenever he waited for her to finish an appointment.
Out of place as those attributes seemed, what really bothered her was the way he overrode her requests and limited her freedom. As the eldest daughter of King Philip and Queen Elaine, Isabelle was used to having to change her plans to protect her safety, but Levi's impediments went far beyond the usual. They'd butted heads several times. After three days she'd asked to have him removed, but her father had refused her request.
All her instincts told her something was amiss.
The driver had the car two points into what promised to be an eighteen-point turn on the narrow street when suddenly a deafening blast rent the air, rattling the official limo, and an orange ball of fire seared the sky in front of them.
Levi's hand mashed the intercom button.
"Back! Back! Now!"
A second explosion rocked the air even closer behind them, and Isabelle felt the car shudder. Though the royal limousines were made of bulletproof materials, she doubted they'd be any match for that kind of explosion. Her heart twisted with concern for the rest of her family. Alexander, her only living brother, rode in the limousine ahead of her, which didn't appear to have been damaged by the blast, but her parents' car was out of sight ahead of those carrying other royal officials. It would have been close to where the first explosion hit.
And her sister, Anastasia, rode in a car somewhere behind hers. Black smoke filled the air. Isabelle couldn't see any sign of her sister's car.
Levi cracked the door open and looked down at the street, letting in a wave of heat and the stench of fire and explosives.
"Shut that!" Isabelle lunged past him to close the door, mindful that, inadequate as the car might seem against the fiery blasts, it was the only protection they had.
He pulled the door closed and would have met her eyes had his not been hidden behind his ever-present sunglasses. But his face was suddenly far closer than she was used to her bodyguards' faces being, even in the midst of pressing crowds and certainly not in the backseat of a car.
His hand hit the intercom again. "Back up three feet and a little to the left."
The driver obeyed promptly this time.
Even before the limousine had come to a stop, Levi had the door open again. He leaned out and wrestled with something on the ground.
For a second, Isabelle thought about shoving him out and locking the door after him. But much as she didn't like the man, she wouldn't stoop to such a move just to keep herself safe, though his actions seemed to endanger both of them, and it frightened her.
A moment later he pulled the door closed again and slid back, slipping one arm solidly around her waist.
Isabelle gave a yelp and tried to jump away.
The vise of his arms didn't allow her to budge. "Your Highness, I'm going to open the door and we're both going down the manhole."
"No!" She twisted her torso in an attempt to free herself.
Levi had her clamped against him so securely she couldn't move more than an inch in any direction. The touch of his hands and the tenacity of his grip sent memories scurrying out from the dark corners of her mindmemories she'd hoped to keep hidden forever.
She felt his neatly trimmed beard brush her temple as he spoke briskly into her ear. "Once I open the door we'll be vulnerable. We need to get below ground as quickly as possible. Don't fight me."
Isabelle took a shaky breath. To his credit, though he held her immobile, Levi wasn't squeezing her too hard for her to breathe. Maybe it was that small allowance that made her decide to trust him.
Or maybe it was because she didn't have any choice.
"The car is bulletproof," she reminded him in one last attempt to derail his plan. "We won't be safe if we leave it."
Another blast rocked the air, and the hood from another vehicle crashed against the limousine's windshield, the royal hood ornament visible for just a second as the dented metal scraped past them.
"We won't be safe if we stay here." Levi reached across the seat. "You can take your purse." He shoved the satin clutch into her hands. "Anything else you need?"
Isabelle tried to think, but her mind was filled with fears for the safety of the rest of her family. Judging by the proximity of the last blast, she was nearly certain it had been centered just ahead of Alexander's limo. That may have been the hood of his car that had fractured their windshield! She couldn't see anything through the black smoke, but she sent up a silent prayer and forced herself not to act on the instinct to leap from the safety of her vehicle to look for her brother. He was a grown man and a soldier. Surely he knew more than she did about staying alive.
"On three." Levi's words jerked her thoughts away from her brother and back to the crazy-sounding plan to leap through the manhole. "One, two"
With no time to protest, Isabelle pinched her eyes shut as Levi opened the door and, in one swift movement, pulled her from the vehicle and shuttled her through the hole in the pavement. Much as she didn't trust him, she knew the danger outside was real, and she didn't want to be exposed to it any longer than was absolutely necessary. For that reason only, she cooperated with his actions.
She opened her eyes as the soles of her leather pumps slid against the slippery metal bars that formed a ladder secured to the wall of the tunnel. Although she couldn't get purchase on any of the rungs, Levi seemed to have a steady hold on both the ladder and her. She wished she'd chosen to wear something a bit more practical than a silk, floor-length evening gown, but the dress had been the perfect choice for the state dinner she was now about to miss.
Her trembling hands reached for the bars, and she managed to grip one securely.
"Hold on tight." Levi's instructions sounded close to her ear. "Got it?"
Unable to muster up words, she nodded. He surely couldn't see much in the darkness of the hole, but he must have felt her movement because he let go of her and reached above them to pull the manhole cover shut.
Metal grated against pavement and Levi's body rocked as he muscled the cover back into place above their heads.
Orange fire flashed above them and Isabelle felt its heat penetrate their hiding place.
Levi immediately let go of the manhole cover to shield her. As the simmering air stilled, he slid the manhole cover the last couple of inches closed, leaving them in total darkness. "Are you okay?"
Isabelle could feel herself trembling, but she forced her voice to speak. "Fine. You?"
"Fine," he echoed.
"You didn't scorch your hands, did you?"
"Not too bad."
Isabelle was aware that he hadn't denied being injured, but because he didn't complain, she didn't press the question. It wasn't as though she could do anything for him at the moment.
With the manhole cover blocking out all light, the darkness was damp and absolute, and Isabelle felt a wave of terror wash over her. Who was this man, and what were his intentions? What did the explosions above mean? And where were they? Her nose told her it wasn't the sewer.
"Can you climb down, Princess?" Levi's voice surprised her with its closeness.
Suddenly mindful of her position wrapped in the arms of a man she didn't trust, Isabelle resisted going any farther. Gripping the metal bar a little tighter, she ignored his prompt.
"What was that?"
"Ambush." He stated flatly. "Let's get moving."
Isabelle reached upward for the next higher rung. "My family is up there. My brother's car"
"You're not going back up." Levi tugged her back down, closer against him.
The grip of his arms in the darkness brought more horrible memories rushing back. She fought him instinctively. "No! I don't know who you are or what you're doing"
"Your father hired me to protect you." Levi's arms were too strong for her, and her position on the slippery metal rungs was a precarious one.
She tried to fight back. "The royal motorcade was ambushed and now you're trying to kidnap me. I demand to know why!"
Instead of responding, Levi wrenched her free of the rungs and climbed downward with her more or less slung across his shoulders. "We need to get moving. If the lid on this hole sustains a direct hit, you could be killed standing where you are."
"Where am I?" A shudder of fear chased through her, but Isabelle stopped fighting and relented to being carried down the dark hole. She felt the vibrations as another explosion rocked the earth in spite of the thick stone that surrounded them, so she didn't doubt Levi's warning was sincere.
"The Catacombs of Charlemagne."
Isabelle startled and nearly fell out of Levi's arms. He obviously hadn't expected her to jolt at his words.
"We're in the Catacombs of Charlemagne?"
"But they were filled in more than a thousand years ago." Her words, spoken in an awed whisper, echoed through the empty chamber.
"Your father had them excavated." Levi climbed downward, his movements slow and deliberate in the darkness.
"How do you know that, and I don't?" Isabelle couldn't fathom why her father hadn't told her. And how had Levi learned of them?
"I was just wondering the same thing." Levi's voice echoed louder, and Isabelle realized the chamber had widened with their descent. He continued. "Actually, your greatgrandfather King Alexander III began the excavation during the first World War, thinking the royal family might need the catacombs to escape if they were ever threatened on their own soil." His posture changed as he let go of the ladder, and Isabelle heard the scraping sound of his shoes against the floor of the tunnel. "Little did your great-grandfather know, he was rightjust a century off."
Isabelle wished she could see his face, but the utter darkness hid everything. So much had happened so quickly, she wasn't sure she entirely understood what Levi was talking about. "The catacombs run beneath the city of Sardis." She recalled from history lessons. "Charlemagne built them in the ninth century when he used Lydia as an outpost in his attempt to further his kingdom and the spread of Christianity toward the east."
In a patient-sounding voice, Levi continued the story. "Lydia has always been a Christian nation, so they supported Charlemagne's efforts."
"Even though he was eventually thwarted." Isabelle wasn't sure how large a space they occupied, but from the way their voices carried, she judged it to be at least a few meters wide, with a ceiling well above their heads. Tentatively she stepped away from Levi, half expecting to feel cold stone against her back. She felt nothing. With a shiver, she took a step back toward him, unwilling to lose her only human contact in the vast darkness.
"Stay near me." He cautioned her abruptly. "We need to get moving."
Isabelle gulped a breath of the cool underground air. She had to think. Too much about this situation wasn't right, and just because the man knew about the catacombs, that didn't mean she ought to trust him. After all, there was surely little coincidence between the timing of his appointment and the attack on the royal motorcade. For all she knew he was in on the ambush and had brought her into the tunnel to finish her off or hand her over to a political enemy.
But how could she sort out what to do when she couldn't even see?
Levi tugged on her arm.
"Hold on." Isabelle pulled her cell phone from her purse and flicked it open, illuminating the screen, its miniscule light startling in the utter darkness of the tunnel, casting their faces and the rock walls around them in an eerie greenish glow.
"Thank you. That helps." Levi offered her a slight smile.
To Isabelle, his angled lips looked sinister in the flickering light. "You should take your sunglasses off."
As she watched his face, his jaw tightened under his close-cropped beard. He seemed reluctant to remove the mirrored shades, which, together with the facial hair, hid his face almost completely. At his hesitation, Isabelle realized she'd never seen him without the sunglasses on, not even indoors. For a moment, she wondered why.
Then he slowly peeled back the lenses and she knew the answer.