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Ruby Tate looked over her shoulder at the sound of footsteps behind her.
A hulking figure, more shadow than man, slipped behind the nearest building.
Ruby blinked. Was someone there, or were her eyes playing tricks on her in the dimness of dusk? Unsure of how to react, Ruby walked faster. At the end of the block she turned the corner. The road bent uphill toward the Lydian royal palace. She would soon put the empty street behind her.
Footfalls echoed behind her againmoving faster now.
Ruby increased her pace to a trot. She had two blocks left to reach the door to her apartment building, built into the rear wall of the palace grounds.
The looming sounds behind her picked up their pace, as well. Was it her imagination, or was he gaining on her?
Ruby ran. She gripped her purse with one hand to keep it from thumping against her hip as she accelerated to a sprint. She could still hear the resounding prooflouder and fasterthat she was not alone.
Risking another backward glance, Ruby saw nothing.
She slowed, looking back again, this time scanning the street for the source of the noise she was nearly certain she still heard.
Where had the man gone? Ruby panted, catching her breath, thinking quickly. Was someone actually chasing her? In all the times she'd visited the Mediterranean kingdom of Lydia with Princess Stasi years before, while the two of them were roommates studying gemology in the United States, Ruby had never heard of any violent crimes in the Christian monarchy. She and Stasi had been out late and walked the city streets, without incident, far more times than she could count.
The memories stilled her fear. In those days, Princess Stasi had a bodyguard named Galen, a youngish guard with a lopsided smile, who'd acted as much as an accomplice as a guard, helping them sneak back inside the palace when Stasi had missed her curfew, keeping Stasi's identity under wraps so they could mingle anonymously with the locals.
But everything had changed in the last year. In June, a fiery ambush against the royal family had shattered the peace of the tiny kingdom. And Ruby hadn't spoken to Galen since their painful parting the previous summer.
A noise startled her.
Were those footsteps again?
Ruby wasn't about to stick around to find out. She sprinted toward the safety of the palace, her ballet flats slamming against the cobblestones as she glanced between buildings, looking for the source of the sounds. Between her rushed breathing and the distant traffic noise from a busy thoroughfare several blocks away, Ruby couldn't be sure what she heard.
But it sounded like the footsteps were drawing nearer again.
With one long block to go, Ruby passed the break of a side street, glancing down the branching road in time to see a large man tearing toward her from the shadows. Something covered his facea sheer mesh, like nylon stockings, distorting his features into those of a hideous monster.
The man had her cut off. If she ran straight for her apartment door, she'd run right into his path. He'd be on her in seconds.
Ruby nearly stumbled as she changed direction, taking the other branch of the cross street at a dead sprint, the heavy footsteps closing in.
She cut down an alley. She'd taken this path with Stasi years before. There was a pedestrian gate just ahead that led through the palace wall, with a gatehouse manned by royal guards.
Royal guards meant safetyif she could stay ahead of her pursuer long enough to reach them.
Thick boots hammered the cobblestones directly behind her. He was close, far too close. She could hear each rasping breath as the man panted in her wake. The palace wall was near but still too far away.
Something tugged at her hair. Fingers swiped her arm, grasping at her shirt.
She was never going to make it. The pedestrian gate lay a full twenty yards ahead, already within view, but rough hands closed over her arms, breaking her flight and tugging her backward.
Ruby let out a panicked scream a split second before a hand slipped over her mouth.
"What was that?" Galen Harris asked.
"Eh?" Elias, whose guard shift had ended half an hour before, lingered in the pedestrian gate guardhouse, chatting as he so often did.
"It sounded like a scream."
Ever since Princess Anastasia had called ten minutes before, asking him to watch for her assistant Ruby's return, Galen had kept his attention on the security screen, which he'd switched to show the area outside Ruby's apartment door. There'd been no sign of the princess's friend.
Not out back, anyway. The scream had come from down the block, beyond the scope of the security camera. Galen peered out the rear window and caught sight of two figures struggling in the distant darkness.
"Watch the guardhouse!" Galen punched the button that unlocked the door. He burst out as the woman screamed again, the sound muffled. The evening's dying light glinted off her red hair.
Galen bounded through the door. He'd heard she was in town, and wondered if Ruby would let him see her again after the way her visit had ended the previous summer. Certain his company wasn't welcome, he'd purposely avoided her.
But he couldn't stay away now.
"Halt!" he shouted. "Royal guard!"
The attacker glanced up, his features marred by nylon netting. He moved his hand from Ruby's mouth only to grab her by the arms.
Galen tore toward them. The masked man tugged at Ruby's purse strap, shoving against her shoulder with his other hand as he wrenched at the bag.
With a leap, Galen threw himself at the hefty brute, slamming his arm down on the hand that gripped Ruby's purse strap.
The man's grasp broke as he stumbled backward, still standing, even with Galen half on top of him.
"Run to the gate!" Galen shouted to Ruby as he attempted to restrain her attacker. The thug spun on his heels to run, but Galen didn't want the mugger running free on the streets of Sardis, Lydia's capital city. He grabbed the man by the arm, pulling him back.
Behind them, he heard the faint buzz that meant Elias had deactivated the electronic lock on the door so that Ruby could get inside. Relieved that she was safe, Galen turned all his attention to the angry man in front of him.
Tugging hard on his arm, Galen tried to bring him down, but his massive opponent spun his arm toward Galen's neck.
Galen saw the blow coming a split-second before it hit him and ducked to take the blow with his hard forehead instead of his neck.
The man grunted as his fingers crunched against Galen's skull.
Taking advantage of the man's momentary weakness, Galen threw his weight against him, heaving downward on his arm. But in spite of his strength and skill as a fighter, Galen was outweighed by Ruby's attacker who resisted his downward pull.
Changing tactics, Galen jabbed one heavy boot toward the middle of the man's legs, hoping to knock his knees out from under him. The thug pulled away, clear of Galen's kicks.
Galen lunged onto the man's back, determined to bring him down. The attacker sagged, but snapped one arm over his shoulder toward Galen's face. This time his opponent angled his fist deeper and caught Galen full on the nose, snapping his head backward and sending tears to his eyes, momentarily stunning him.
Before Galen could pull him in again, the assailant dived toward the alleyway and fled into the night.
A gush of blood flooded from Galen's throbbing nostrils. He squinted after the man, but his vision was blurred with tears and he could hardly see where the attacker had gone.
"Galen?" A female gasped behind him.
"Get inside." He gestured to Ruby, who'd stepped back outside and now hovered anxiously near the gate.
She ducked back into the guard booth. As Galen staggered back to the brightly lit doorway, she reappeared with a towel in her hands. "Here." She reached toward his bleeding nose.
"I've got it." Galen accepted the towel but insisted on holding it himself, gingerly prodding the bridge of his nose; at least the thug hadn't broken it.
"Sit down." Ruby led him toward the chair where he'd been sitting until he'd heard her scream.
"Who was that guy?" Galen tried to look Ruby in the eye, but the fat towel clamped over his nose blocked most of his vision.
"I don't know. Did you recognize him?"
"No. Where'd he come from?"
"The streets. He followed me, I think from as far as Stasi's studio."
"Followed you?" The words hit him harder than the blow to his nose. It was one thing to have Ruby attacked by a vicious purse-snatcher. It was far worse to think the man had tailed her, targeting her specifically. "How do you know he followed you?"
"I heard footsteps." Ruby's voice broke.
Galen angled his head and adjusted the towel so that he could see her face. He might not stanch the flow of blood as quickly with his head down instead of up, but he needed to see her. He needed to know whether she was okay.
Jade-green eyes blinked at him with fear in their depths.
Galen felt his heart twist. Part of him had been eager to see Ruby ever since he'd heard she'd stepped in to fill the role of Anastasia's assistant, as the talented princess designed all the jewelry for the upcoming royal weddings. An equal part of him had been wary of a potentially awkward reunion. But awkwardness had become the least of his concerns.
"Are you okay?" He spotted the red marks along her neck where the strap of her bag had cut against her. "Did he hurt you?"
"I'm fine, I think." She touched her neck. "Just sore."
Elias, who'd been hovering silently, his attention divided between the two of them and the security screens, reached for the small fridge where the gateway guards kept their lunches and beverages. "Put something cold on that," the older guard suggested, placing a chilled soda in her hands.
Ruby held the bottle like an ice pack against her neck. "Thank you. That helps."
Relieved that she wasn't seriously injured, Galen went back to wondering why the young American had been followed. "He wanted your purse?"
"Did he?" Ruby gingerly touched the red mark left behind when her attacker had tugged on her purse. "I didn't think I made an obvious target, but I guess by walking home alone " Her words broke off again, and she took a couple slow breaths, meeting his eyes over the towel he held clenched to his nose.
"You weren't an obvious target," Galen reassured her, trying not to think about the way her shining eyes made his heart leap or how much he'd missed seeing her since the last time she'd visited Lydia. Ruby was heir to an American jewelry chain. He was a humble sentinel with the Lydian royal guard. Their lives were worlds apart. She'd pushed him away when he'd tried to overlook their differences before. He ignored the way he felt sitting close to her, and focused on the attack. "If that man wanted to snatch a random bag, he could have gone downtown. Plenty of women don't guard their purses very well when they go out on the town."
Ruby's freckles scrunched slightly as she wrinkled her nose, visibly fighting back her emotions in order to speak. "But why would he want my bag?" She broke his gaze and turned her head away.
"Are you carrying many valuables?"
"Hardly. Not much cash, a debit card, but my bank account is nearly empty already." She opened her purse and took a quick inventory, rifling through papers and receipts. "Lip balm, keys, cheap sunglasseswhich are now broken." Ruby's voice faltered as she pulled out the ruined eyewear. The shades had snapped along one rim. A lens fell out as she lifted them.
Galen reached for the fallen lens, then quickly pulled his hand back as Ruby bent to pick it up, as well.
Best to give the pretty redhead her space. That's what she'd asked him for the year before, and he wasn't about to push the issue. He had things to dolike reporting the incident to royal guard headquarters, and making sure Ruby really was all right.
And figuring out who her attacker was, and what he was after. And then, making sure the man never hurt Ruby again.
Ruby nearly dropped the broken sunglasses before she got them back into her purse. Maybe she could fix them.
Just like all the other things in her life that needed fixing right now. She'd come to Lydia at Princess Anastasia's invitation. Her best friend from gemology school had set the ambitious goal of designing unique jewelry for the many upcoming Lydian royal weddings, starting with the marriage of Princess Isabelle and Levi Grenaldo in just over a week.
Those pieces were ready to go, but Stasi and Ruby still worked long hours trying to meet the deadlines that lay ahead, which was why Ruby hadn't left the studio until twilight. Ruby was thrilled to help the princess. More than that, she felt honored that Stasi had given her family's line of jewelry stores, Tate Jewelry, exclusive reproduction rights to all the designs.
Given the level of public interest in the royal weddings, the Tate Jewelry reproductions should sell well. Maybe even well enough to save the family business. But Ruby had a lot of work ahead of her if that was going to happen. She didn't need the interference of an attacker to set her even further behind. If Galen hadn't come to her aid, she might be as broken as the sunglasses in her purse.
Horrified that Galen had been hurt while helping her, Ruby turned away from the sight of the injured guard. It was hard enough for her to be near him at all. Seeing him hurt, remembering how much she cared for him it was too much to think about, especially in the wake of what happened.
Ruby stared through the street-side window at the crime site, a mere dozen yards away, where she'd struggled against the masked man. Galen's blood had splashed on the cobblestones, marking the spot. Her heart pinched at the sight.
She'd purposely avoided him since she'd been back in Lydia because of her embarrassing last encounter with him the previous summer and her feelings toward him that had made their final parting so awkward. She'd made up her mind that she needed to keep her distance from him, but telling him so had proven catastrophic.
It wasn't that she didn't enjoy his company. It was precisely the opposite. The man could distract her from anything, even her goal of saving her parents' business, which she must do to earn back their trust after her accidental betrayal years before.
If she revived her friendship with Galen, she didn't know if she could leave Lydia again. The tiny Christian kingdom was her favorite place in the world, not just because of the friendly people and perfect climate, but because of the fascinating history of the place. The kingdom of Lydia could trace its history all the way back to the days of the Bible. The kingdom was named after the woman whose house church had grown into a small, independent nation. Princess Stasi and the rest of the Lydian royal family could trace their lineage all the way back to Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth who appeared in Acts 16: 14 & 40.
Ruby wasn't sure which was more difficultleaving Lydia or leaving Galen. One glance at the guard stirred her dormant feelings back to life. His ready smile was irresistible. His dark hair, now cropped to military shortness, curled as it grew out, ready to burst forth like his fun-loving nature the moment it escaped the rigid parameters around him. But given the way she'd left things with him the year before, she doubted he'd want to be friends anymore, anyway.