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One minute Reeve Stratton was standing on the narrow sidewalk of a street designed hundreds of years ago to handle only foot traffic and carts, and the next he was dashing between cars to snatch a small boy from the path of a speeding taxi.
He yelled at the impatient cabbie, who sent him the universally recognized one-fingered response and roared off around the corner.
"Whoa there, son," Reeve said, hiding his disgust at the driver while trying to keep his voice light so the boy wouldn't panic at being grabbed by a stranger. "Better watch where you're going." He swung the boy around and set him down on the sidewalk before looking at him. When he did, he was met by the impish grin and sparkling brown eyes he'd seen in many recent photographs. The boy's expression told Reeve there was no need to worry about this kid panicking.
He was Prince Jean Louis, the seven-year-old son of the heir to the throne of the Principality of Inbourg. He and his mother were the ones Prince Michael had hired Reeve to protect. Reeve wasn't supposed to start the job until that evening, but it seemed that fate had other ideas. Not that Reeve believed in fate - or coincidence, for that matter.
"I was watching," Jean Louis protested, pointing a sturdy arm up the street. "I was after that butterfly. It looked like one I saw in a book. It flew out of the park and I was going to catch it."
"You'd be better off chasing butterflies in -"
"Jean Louis!" a frantic voice called, then a woman rushed up and pulled the little boy into her arms.
Reeve had an impression of thick, red-gold hair, flashing gold bracelets and the scent of violets as the woman knelt before the boy and gave him a frantic examination. Finally she released a sigh, looked directly into Jean Louis's face as she gripped his shoulders firmly and asked, "Why did you do that? Esther and I couldn't find you. I've told you to never run off like that."
"I'm okay, Mom," the boy said with the put-upon tone of a long-suffering son. He flashed her a disarming grin.
"I saw a blue butterfly and I chased it out of the park."
"And right into the path of a taxi," Reeve interjected.
She paled as she looked at her son and then at Reeve. Visibly shaken, she stammered, "I ... didn't see. He moved so fast ... Thank you for saving him."
Reeve nodded, studying her. He knew all about Anya Marietta Victoria of the House of Chastain and the Principality of Inbourg - and not merely from the press reports. Prince Michael had freely answered all Reeve's questions about the princess. Also, the prince had a portrait of his three daughters displayed prominently in his office. Reeve didn't know about the other two princesses, but the artist hadn't done this one justice.
She was pretty rather than beautiful, but there was something about her thick hair, the color of Black Hills gold, and her deep-green eyes that would have stopped traffic anywhere in the world. Combined with delicate features, full lips and flawless skin ... well, Reeve now understood why the tabloids were so obsessed with her.
She was dressed in a simple beige sheath dress as if she wanted to blend into the crowd. Fat chance, he thought.
Unreasonably annoyed, he frowned as he asked, "Don't you watch your kid? Where's your bodyguard?" he asked. His gaze swept the area, but he didn't see any burly men rushing to the rescue and looking contrite for having let the little prince get away from them.
The panic in her eyes gave way to coolness as she stood up slowly and grasped her son's hand firmly in hers. Reeve watched her face as she considered what to say. It was obvious that he knew who she was. She looked down her nose at him, which was quite a feat since she was about six inches shorter than he was.
"Of course, but we hardly need one right here in Inbourg. I gave him an hour off," she answered in a tone that clearly said it was none of his business. "He's to pick us up shortly."
"I see." Reeve gave her a long, slow appraisal just to see how she would react to it. "You might want to reconsider the policy of going around without a bodyguard."
Her lips pressed together and she seemed to be preparing a sharp answer when another woman hurried up to them. She was short and plump, and the exertion of running had her face bright red and her breath coming in gulps.
"Your Highness," she gasped, "is he okay? Are you okay? I'm so sorry. He was right beside me, and then -"
"He's fine, Esther," the princess answered in a soothing tone, though her annoyed gaze remained on Reeve. She turned her head and he had to admire the strongly defined profile and the determined set of her jaw. "We need to return home."
"Oh, I see. All right," her flustered companion answered. She took Jean Louis's hand from Anya's. "Let's go, young man. I'm going to talk to Guy Bernard about putting some kind of electronic device on you so I'll know where you are at all times."
"Really?" the boy asked, clearly intrigued by the idea. He gave her a sly grin. "Cool! Does that mean I'll know where you are at all times, too?"
"Absolutely not," came the brisk answer.
Princess Anya watched as the two of them hurried down the sidewalk in the direction of the car park. Reeve saw a slight frown crease her brow before she blanked her expression and looked back at him.
She hitched the strap of her purse onto her shoulder and stood with her back very straight. "As I said, thank you for rescuing my son, Mr...."
"Reeve, Your Highness. Reeve Stratton."
She glanced up at the flat tone in his voice. "Well, thank you, Mr. Stratton." She reached into her purse, removed a card and a slim gold pen, and wrote something with a quick flourish. "If there's ever anything I can do for you, please call this number and my secretary, Melina, will arrange it."
Reeve took the card, read the number written there and then tilted his head curiously. "What kinds of things does she arrange for you?"
The princess had been in the act of turning away, but now she glanced back at him, her green eyes sweeping him from head to toe and back again. "I beg your pardon?"
Reeve had to admit that the royally freezing look she turned on him could be very effective. But he'd had worse thrown his way. Much worse. "I'm just wondering how much she can arrange. I mean, how much is your son's life worth?"
She stared at him. "What?"
Good, he thought. He had her attention. He lifted the card, holding it between his first two fingers. "This seems like an easy way to pay someone back for your son's life, but what if I hadn't been there?"
The annoyed flush drained from her face, leaving her starkly pale. When she spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. "But you were there, and you saved his life. Thank you."
"But it wouldn't have been necessary if your bodyguard had been with you, Your Highness," he said. He knew he was being hard on her, but this was his job now and Prince Michael was paying him extremely well to make sure he did it right.
"Mr. Stratton, I hardly need advice from a stranger. From your accent, I can tell you're an American, not even a citizen of Inbourg," she said with another of those freezing looks. "And furthermore -"
"Princess Anya, is this a new boyfriend?" a voice broke in. "Look this way, will ya?" The click and whir of a camera punctuated the tension between Reeve and Anya.
Reeve saw her jaw clench and dread flash in her eyes before she turned to glare at the photographer. The photographer loved that, quickly snapping more pictures of the displeased princess.
With barely a thought, Reeve wrapped his hand around her arm and pulled her behind him as he reached out with his other hand to place his palm over the camera lens.
Behind him, he could feel that she was holding her body stiffly away from him. Good, he thought, at least she had some self-protective instincts. Too bad she didn't aim them in the right direction.
Excerpted from Protecting The Princess by Patricia Forsythe Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.