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"Ms. Wright? Ms. Wright, wait!"
Ava Wright did not wait, but trotted toward the pedestrian gate at the rear of the palace complex as quickly as she dared in her three-inch heels. She made eye contact with the guard inside the gatehouse and gave him her best commanding glare, signaling that she wanted the exit unlocked immediately.
The green light signaled that the gate's electronic lock had been momentarily deactivated, allowing her to open the gate and pass through. Ava felt a small shiver of satisfaction as she made her escape. Good. Jason Selini might be the head of the Lydian Royal Guard, but she could still get her way, even if it meant giving orders to his men.
But the captain of the royal guard was right behind her. "We need to discuss this further, Ms. Wright. Our conversation isn't over!" Captain Selini was one of the few people Ava had met who could match her commanding tone note for note, glare for glare.
No way was she butting heads with him any more today. The man was impossibly stubborn and could be completely unreasonable once he'd made up his mind on an issue-and he'd already made it clear that morning that his mind was quite made up about her plans for Princess Anastasia's wedding.
Captain Selini had refused her location request. How could she possibly proceed with her wedding-planning duties if the location wasn't approved? Given the princess's eagerness to marry, Ava was already working on a short timeline. The captain's refusal was a setback she couldn't afford. She wanted to scream in frustration.
Instead Ava pulled her keys from her purse and pointed the key fob at her car parked in the distance on the opposite side of the cobbled street. Clicking the button on the key fob, she watched with satisfaction as her headlights blinked, signaling that she'd successfully unlocked the car doors.
Good. Nothing more stood between her and her escape route.
"Ms. Wright, please come back."
It was the "please" that made her pause, almost against her will, halfway across the empty street, still a couple hundred feet from her car. She wavered there, undecided, for a few long seconds.
"Please," he repeated, sounding almost pleading.
The pleading note in his voice prompted her to turn back, if only to see the expression on his face. Captain Jason Selini begging? She wouldn't miss it, not after all the trouble he'd given her over the course of the recent royal weddings.
But when she turned to face him, she found he'd stopped in his tracks still dozens of feet from her and his face had gone nearly white.
"Get down!" he shouted, his words buried by an enormous boom behind her.
Ava ducked slightly, unsure what was happening. Time seemed to slow for a moment, and yet everything happened so quickly. She felt a sudden heat envelop her, blowing past her with a furious gust of hot wind. At the same time, she felt something sting her near her ankles.
The captain of the guard threw one arm up to shield his face as he ducked and ran toward her, still shouting something, though the blast of heat that had come from behind her swept forward and took his words away. That, or she couldn't hear anything. Her ears began to ring, a distant, tinny sound that further disoriented her.
Jason was at her side in an instant, one hand firmly propping her up by her elbow. "Let's get you out of here. Are you all right? Can you walk?"
Ava wanted to tell him not to be absurd, that of course she could walk, but as she took half a step forward in an attempt to prove it, the pain at her ankles bit into her furiously.
She looked down at her legs.
Far below her knee-length skirt, blood trickled down her ankles from half a dozen shards of glass that had embedded themselves in her skin.
Ava could only stare at her legs, wondering what had happened. Black smoke billowed toward her and she coughed, turning halfway around to see her car engulfed in flames. "What happened?"
"Car bomb. We've got to get you off the street." The captain's words echoed numbly against her throbbing eardrums.
"My car?" Ava blinked several times, but the smoke and heat stung her eyes, making it difficult to see, and she felt too stunned to think clearly.
"I'll have to carry you," the captain muttered as he bent to inspect the injuries on her legs.
Ava looked at him, horrified at the thought of him carrying her. Determined to prove she was perfectly capable of walking on her own, she tried to take another step forward but wobbled unsteadily, the ringing in her ears messing with her sense of balance. Fortunately she'd been on the far periphery of the blast, and what few shards of glass had flown that far had already fallen low, reaching only to her ankles. Other than the ringing in her ears and the injuries near her Achilles tendons, she didn't think she was hurt.
"I've got to get you off the street in a hurry!" The captain glanced up and down the cobbled path, though Ava saw no further sign of danger, just a bunch of uniformed royal guards pouring out from the pedestrian gate and a car farther up the street pulling out from the curb and driving away.
"What do you mean?" Ava started to ask, but before she'd half spoken the question, the captain had plucked her up with his arms around her waist and tossed her over his shoulder like a bag of potatoes. Her feet stuck out in front in a most undignified manner, and her head bobbed behind him as he trotted quickly back toward the gate to the palace courtyard.
"Sorry. I'll have you down in a minute," he apologized as he ran.
Ava yelped. She wanted to demand to be put down, and yet it had occurred to her that perhaps she didn't want to be on the street, not if cars were going to be exploding. And she wasn't nearly fit to walk, not with the sharp glass digging into her skin with every twitch of her legs and her ringing ears making her feel like a bobblehead doll.
Besides that, there was something oddly thrilling about being carried by the captain of the guard. She couldn't quite put her finger on what it was but attributed it to all the trouble he'd given her and some peculiar sense of justice that he should have to carry her, running and giving orders to his men all at the same time.
In a moment he had her back through the door of the royal-guard headquarters, the building she'd only just left short minutes before. He settled her in a seated position on a hard sofa in the waiting room, with her injured legs sticking stiffly out in front of her. She didn't dare twitch a muscle for fear of being further injured by the glass.
The captain called out to a guard seated behind a bulletproof glass panel, "Oliver, toss me the first-aid kit, will you?"
"Do you need me to assist you?" Oliver asked as he came around by way of a side door and delivered a large cross-emblazoned metal box.
"No. Keep an eye on those security screens and let me know if anything else blows up. And call the Sardis police. Tell them to send over their bomb squad. That car was on their side of the street." As he spoke, Jason Selini gingerly touched Ava's leg, then made a disgusted sound.
"How bad is it?" Ava asked.
"From the looks of it, they're just surface scratches, nothing very deep, but I can take you to the hospital if you'd prefer."
Ava grimaced. She liked to think of herself as a tough, independent woman. She had work to do. Prince Alexander's wedding to Lillian Bardici was to take place in eight days, and she was already in the early stages of planning his little sister Princess Anastasia's wedding, scheduled for just a few months later. Hospital visits were time-consuming, weren't they? "I'm sure it's fine. I can tend to them myself if you need to go out and see to your men."
"You can tend to them yourself?" Jason challenged her, the firm set of his lips bent upward in grim amusement.
Determined to prove her statement, Ava leaned forward, ignoring the pain caused by the movement as her leg muscles stretched.
"Stop that. Now you're making it worse," the captain chided her, snapping on a pair of gloves before tearing open a few small packets.
"What are those?" Ava asked warily. She didn't trust this man, not after the way they'd been arguing mere minutes before. In her mind, Jason Selini was nothing more than an obstacle to her goals. He'd never helped her before.
"Just a little antiseptic." He bent over the cuts on her legs and gingerly plucked out the glass. Finally he looked satisfied with his work. "I believe I got all of the glass out. Once I clean off the blood, I can see what else is there. You're fortunate you weren't any closer to your car-these bits didn't have the full force of the blast behind them. Any closer and you could have been seriously hurt. There." He daubed a bit more with the antiseptic-soaked gauze. "It really wasn't bad at all-just a bit of blood that made everything look worse."
"You're sure you don't need to be outside with your men?"
The captain dug into a package of bandages. "They know what to do. They'll secure the area and then hand things over to the bomb squad as soon as they arrive."
"So this sort of thing happens all the time?" Ava had been in the tiny Mediterranean kingdom of Lydia for ten months-long enough to plan two royal weddings, a handful of titling ceremonies and a royal marriage-renewal ceremony. In that time, she'd heard rumors of violence and danger, and once had her reception hall locked down because of gunmen on the loose within the walls of the palace grounds. But this was the first car bomb she'd ever heard about.
"We haven't had a vehicle explode since the royal motorcade was ambushed last June-almost a year ago now. But those were grenade hits, not bombs."
"Ow!" Ava shrieked before he was quite finished. "Could you be more careful?"
"Sorry. That little piece of glass was hiding."
"Are you sure I don't need stitches?"
Jason held up his gloved hand in front of her, a slender shard of glass perched on one finger. "That's all it was. I'm almost done. There's nothing that needs stitching."
Feeling slightly embarrassed that she'd shrieked for such a tiny piece of glass, Ava mustered up her pride. "I think you're taking far too much satisfaction at seeing my pain, after all the trouble I've caused you," she accused him.
Jason sighed and pasted another adhesive bandage above her ankle. "So you admit you've caused me plenty of trouble."
"No more than you've caused me." She bit her lip as the captain applied more antiseptic, dabbing roughly at her injuries. "You know, you could try to be gentle."
The captain was silent for a moment, but his movements became more precise, with less pressure.
"You know," Jason echoed her as he stuck another bandage carefully in place, "you could thank me."
"For what? You threw me on this couch like you were tossing a sack of kittens in the river."
She expected Jason's sharp retort but instead heard snickering from the doorway, and looked up in time to see a group of royal guards filing back into the building.
"Report," Jason commanded, not sounding the least bit amused.
The men sobered. "All's clear. The Sardis Police Bomb Squad has taken over the crime scene. They've got their bomb-sniffing dogs working the entire perimeter of the palace grounds, three blocks deep. If there's another bomb in the area, they'll find it."
"Good work, men. Back to your stations."
The men filed out in silence, but before the door closed behind them, a voice carried clearly from the hallway. "He would like to toss her in the river like a sack of kittens."
A chorus of guffaws agreed with the statement.
"You didn't hear that," Jason stated bluntly as he spread antiseptic on the last of her cuts.
"Yes, I did," Ava informed him. "And I felt the sting."
The captain applied the last bandage, but that hadn't been the sting she was referring to. Did Jason Selini really want to be rid of her that badly that he'd toss her off a bridge? The captain seemed to be a man of integrity and perfectly upright character, but she knew his resentment toward her ran deep. They'd been in opposition since the very first ceremony she'd planned at the end of the previous summer. She'd ignored his attitude all these long months, just as she habitually ignored anyone who didn't like her. Hadn't she learned her lesson long before? She couldn't please everyone. Best to focus on doing her job and giving her brides the weddings of their dreams. That much she could do.
But the image of her burning car had seared itself into her mind. Why had her car exploded? Had someone placed a bomb inside to hurt her? What if they'd killed her?
"It's all right. I'm done." The captain handed her a tissue.
Only then did Ava realize she'd started sniffling, her near brush with death somehow penetrating her usually impervious armor. "Why do you think my car blew up?" It took all of her resolve to keep her voice steady.
"Somebody put a bomb in it. From what I saw, they probably had it set to go off a certain number of seconds after you unlocked your door-the idea being that you'd be very near or inside the car at that moment. If you hadn't stopped and turned around, that's where you would have been."
"But-that would have killed me." Ava couldn't get the image of her charred car from her mind-nor could she quite grapple with the idea of what would have become of her if she'd been inside.
The captain met her eyes for just a moment. Instead of hardened anger in his flint-gray eyes, she saw a hint of sympathy, maybe even apology.
The change shook her as much as the realization that she'd narrowly escaped a horrific end. "They wanted me dead?"
The captain closed the box of bandages and tucked them away in the first-aid kit, not meeting her eyes. "That's the only reason I can think of for what I saw."
Jason looked her full in the face, a bit of sadness shimmering in his steel-gray eyes. "Do you have any enemies?"
Ava stared at him for long seconds, her stunned mind taking longer than usual to process her thoughts. Finally she answered, "You."
The captain turned away and began plucking up the bandage wrappers he'd left lying about. "I'm the worst enemy you have?"
She nodded, no longer trusting her voice.
"Then I don't know why anyone would put a bomb in your car." He sucked in a sharp breath and met her eyes again. "But I intend to find out."
His words hit her with such cold force he might as well have tossed her in an icy river. His statement was part vow, part threat. What would it take to find out who'd tried to kill her? Discussing past relationships? Analyzing all the hurts she'd put behind her, including the ones that had made her who she was? She tried to return the captain's determined gaze, but she found she couldn't keep her head up, not at the prospect of rooting through the skeletons in her closet. That wasn't a place she wished to explore, certainly not with this man who hated her.
But what other choice did she have?