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Xavier Marcel LeDuc, Commandant of the Royal Pasadonian Republican Guard was ready to go home. For six months he'd been away, traveling with the crown jewels on an extended American tour that started in New York and would end here in San Francisco.
He ran his gaze over the well-dressed crowd. Tonight was a pre-event viewing, for the social elite and members of the museum, and privileged donors. Hardly a high risk crowd. All the more reason to be on guard, in his opinion. And as the senior officer in charge of the crown jewels' security, his opinion counted.
He saw her the moment she walked into the room, a breath of fresh air in a throng of perfumed elegance. She wore a black ruffled skirt that ended a few inches above her knees topped by a black sweater with beaded trim. Young and chic, her only adornment was her creamy white skin and the vibrant fall of red gold hair that reached the top of her lovely derriere.
An attractive blond accompanied her through the exhibit, but it was the redhead who held his attention. Not only was she lovely, something about her was familiar.
When the women reached the portrait of Princess Vivienne, he went totally still, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end.
Signaling one of his men to take command of his post, Xavier approached the woman and her companion.
"Oh, oh, oh. Look how the tiara sparkles. That's it. I just decided I'm having a tiara for my wedding. Do you think you could borrow this one for me?"
"Shh!" Amanda hooked her arm around Michelle's and drew her away from the delicate diamond display. "These are royal jewels on loan from Pasadonia. I do not work for this museum, so no, I can't borrow it for you. Now behave yourself."
"I guess I could just snatch it."
"Oh my God."
"Relax. I'm just teasing. Trying to get you to relax. You're bound tighter than your grandmother's knickers."
"Stop. And no more talk of borrowing or snatching any of the Crown Jewels. That's not going to relax me. Security is all over the place. It would not look good to the museum I do work for if I was kicked out of this one."
"Is it the security that has you twitching?"
"No. I mean it shouldn't be. We're not doing anything to draw their attention. But I feel like I'm being watched. It probably is the extra vigilant security."
"Maybe not. Let's take a gander, shall we?" Michelle led the way to one of the three foot by three foot glass displays that stood six feet high in the middle of the room. This one held a beautiful ballgown from the late 1800s topped by a stunning ruby necklace, earrings, and tiara.
Being women, the jewels got first consideration but the elaborate dress also drew Amanda's attention. "Can you imagine wearing something that heavy to dance in?"
"I couldn't do it." Michelle shook her head, her blond hair shimmering with the motion. "I would have had to be a strumpet."
"Ha." Amanda closed her lips over a burst of laughter, the old habit hard to break even though she'd been out from under Grandmother's iron rule for nearly six months. "I'm telling Nate you said that."
Her friend slanted sly green eyes her way. "Nate loves my inner strumpet."
"I bet he does." Amanda bumped shoulders with her best buddy. "I'm so happy for you. It's obvious you two are in love. He's been good for you."
"Dude, he's the best. And he comes with the little munchkin."
She glowed. The biggest cynic Amanda knew actually glowed talking about her fiance and his infant ward. It made Amanda ache with delight for her friend, but also with loneliness.
Both her BFFs had found their very own Prince Charmings. And Amanda truly wished them a fairy tale happily ever after. But it made her long for a man of her own, someone she could be herself with, who would believe in her without limits, who loved her despite her faults.
Despite her faults? Wow, she had to stop channeling her grandmother. She wanted what she'd never had, a relationship of comfort, warmth and affection. She longed for a man she could trust, a man who above all else would be honest with her.
And yes, a man who embraced her inner strumpet.
"There he is," Michelle whispered in her ear.
"Where?" Amanda looked up and into the brown eyes of a black-haired man. He stood militarily straight, on the edge of the room, arms crossed over his chest, eyes trained on her.
She smiled. And he quirked an eyebrow.
She blinked and looked away, pulling Michelle with her towards the display of royal portraits.
"Mmm, sexy," Michelle observed. "And he definitely has his eye on you."
"You were right, he's security. Head of security for Pasadonia."
"How do you know?"
"I saw him on the morning news. They were doing a piece on the opening. He's part of the Pasadonian Royal Guard traveling with the crown jewels."
"He sure is pretty, but intense. It looks like a smile might break those cheekbones."
Amanda pulled Michelle around so they faced the painting of a woman wearing a three-point crown and a jewel encrusted crest around her neck. The plaque read Princess Vivienne, 1760-1822.
"He's working." For some reason Amanda felt compelled to defend him. "And some people like to kid around about stealing the tiaras."
Michelle grinned. "Bet that would land his ass in a wringer."
"Yes, actually, that is indeed the truth."
The deep male voice with a slight accent sounded from behind them causing Amanda to jump guiltily.
Michelle was unfazed. Smiling easily she turned to confront the man. "You can't put all these sparkles on display and not expect a girl to want."
"You are welcome to admire all you wish." He bowed his head slightly. "That is, of course, the point of the tour. However, I must insist you do nothing to place my ass in a wringer."
Amanda smiled appreciating his humor, the gentle mocking.
"Oh, he's funny." Michelle took no offense. She elbowed Amanda. "Sexy and funny, you should say hello."
"Hello." Well used to her friend's bluntness, Amanda just went with it. Besides, he was sexy, and funny. She held out her hand. "I'm Amanda Carn."
"Miss Carn." He bowed low over her hand, almost but not quite kissing her fingers. "It is my pleasure."
Michelle shifted so he wouldn't be able to see her, and wiggled her eyebrows. Amanda just stopped herself from rolling her eyes. But she couldn't help but be charmed.
"Xavier Marcel LeDuc at your service."
"You must forgive my friend, monsieur. She has a warped sense of humor but means no harm."
The Commandant nodded to the portrait behind her. "Your resemblance to Princess Vivienne is what drew me over. Do you, perhaps, have family in Pasadonia?"
"Oh my gosh," Michelle exclaimed. "Amanda, you totally look like the princess in the picture."
"What?" Amanda automatically turned to view the painting.
The woman in the picture appeared to be in her forties. She wore her bright red hair up, the weight of it, and the crown making her long neck look fragile. A creamy complexion and somber blue eyes gave her an elegant air. She possessed a delicate beauty beyond anything Amanda aspired to. Yes, their coloring was similar, but that was all, and even then Amanda's strawberry blond hair and silver gray eyes resembled the woman's but were a toned down version of the princess.
"Oh no." Amanda automatically made the denial. Because really, the closest she got to royalty was playing princess at Princess Camp all those years ago. But then she had to qualify, because she didn't really know her full ancestral makeup. "Not that I'm aware of."
"The likeness is quite remarkable."
"Oh please," she gave a dismissive wave, "she's beautiful."
"Yes." He nodded, a shallow, regal gesture, his amber gaze never leaving her face. "Very beautiful."
"Oh." She blushed. Those compelling light brown eyes held her captive, seemed to delve into her soul, seeking all her secrets. And she was keen to share. Michelle's elbow dug into her ribs, reminding her to speak. "Um. Thank you."
"What she meant to say," Michelle corrected, "is would you like to join her for a cup of coffee?"
"Oh I cou—" Again the denial came without thought, but she stopped. Why couldn't she? She wouldn't find her prince charming by being timid. "Yes, I meant what she said."
He smiled, not with his mouth but with those incredible eyes. "This would be my wish, however, duty requires I remain here."
"Of course." Heat rushed to Amanda's cheeks as his rejection registered. "You're working."
"May I have a rain coat? Perhaps tomorrow morning?"
"Rain check," she gently corrected him. "I'd be delighted to meet you in the morning. There's a decent coffee house two blocks from here."
He inclined his head and they agreed on a time.
"Ladies, may I take your picture with Vivienne's portrait? A memento of our meeting."
"Of course." Michelle gave Amanda no chance to answer. Hooking her arm through Amanda's, she smiled as Xavier held up his phone and took the shot. After which he bowed and excused himself to return to work.
"You have a date with a foreign hottie," Michelle chortled as soon as he stepped out of ear shot. "I'm so proud of you."
"It's only coffee." Amanda down played the date, because she didn't want to get too excited, even though her heartbeat drummed wildly and her palms were sweaty.
"It's a date with a sexy, sophisticated man. And you don't fool me. Inside you're dancing on tiptoes."
Amanda shook her head. But this was Michelle, so she finally came clean. "I totally am. Which is probably a huge mistake." She gestured to the displays around them. "The exhibit is only here for six weeks."
"Exactly. No time to get emotionally attached, but plenty of time to have fun. And if you're lucky, you might get to celebrate your freedom with a foreign hottie in your new apartment."
"That's your inner strumpet talking."
Michelle laughed. "You're right." Her gaze went to the painting of Vivienne. She looked from the picture to Amanda and back again. "Are you sure you're not related to anyone in Pasadonia?"
"Not on my mother's side. They're Norwegian."
"What about your father? You don't know what your dad was. He could be Pasadonian."
"Michelle, we're not talking just anyone in Pasa-donia." Amanda pointed at the painting. "She's the Prince's great grandmother. We're talking the royal family."
"I know. Cool, huh?"
It was her turn to laugh. "Yeah right. I'm the long lost daughter to the Prince of Pasadonia."
She had to scoff because they'd just tapped into one of her biggest childhood fantasies. She'd loved playing princess and often pretended to be rescued from her lonely existence by a prince who took her away to his beautiful castle.
Her mother had died from complications in childbirth, so Amanda was raised by her grandparents, who were in their late forties when she was born. They always maintained they didn't know who her father was, that her mother never revealed his identity.
"Hey, your mom may have met him when he was on a trip to America. Or she could have had a European trip after college."
"If she did, I've never heard of it." Amanda sighed. "They rarely talk about her. Grandmother gets so withdrawn when I ask questions. I stopped asking long ago."
Michelle muttered an unflattering word about grandmother and then wrapped Amanda in a hug. "Sorry, but I've never liked her since she refused to let you come back to Princess Camp. Plus, I know what it's like to be in a stifling home situation. You do know Elle and I love you."
"Yes, I do know." Amanda squeezed her friend before stepping back. She'd been taught from birth to avoid public displays of affection. "I love you guys, too. But enough of this silliness. I have a date with a foreign hottie."
"Yes, you do." Michelle went with the change of subject. "What are you going to wear?"
"Oh no, you're not going to do that to me. I'm not going to go mental over what I wear tomorrow. That's your thing, not mine."
"I don't know how you can be so calm about such a big decision. Impressions matter."
"I'll be fine. I don't own anything that won't make a good impression."
"Yeah. Now that you're out on your own, we have to do something about that."
"Sir?" Officer Bonnet appeared at Xavier's side in answer to his summons.
"See the redhead leaving with the blond?" he indicated Amanda and her companion. "I want you to follow her. Discreetly. I want to know where she goes, what she does, and where she lives."
"Yes, sir." Bonnet turned to leave.
"Bonnet." Xavier stopped the man. "Don't let her see you."
"Sir." Bonnet nodded and moved after the women.
Xavier watched Amanda, she moved gracefully, her posture straight, elegant. It wasn't hard to see her as a royal. She suddenly looked back and saw him. She gave a little wave.
Xavier inclined his head in acknowledgement. A moment later she was gone, Bonnet on her heels.
Xavier reached for his phone, dialed a long distance number. When a voice answered, he said, "It's LeDuc. I need to speak to the Prince."