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Eugenia and Gwendolyn, fairy godmothers both, sat comfortably on a cloud and looked down on the scene below. This evening, the private dining room at the Villa D'Or, an exclusive resort on the coast of the Mediterranean, hosted the royal family of Boisdemer and several members of the family Jones from Canada. At one end of the long table, His Majesty Alexandre Michel Philippe Artur de la Croix presided over the meal with a proud smile. At the other end of the table, Hannah Jones, mother of the newly betrothed Catharine, wore an expression that appeared equally content.
"My, my," Eugenia sighed, shaking her head slowly. "Do you see that, sister?"
"I do. I certainly do. She peeks at him when she thinks no one is looking. He believes himself so clever to be watching her, unobserved. And everybody else is trying to figure out how to get Hannah and Alex together again."
"They're not the only ones," Eugenia muttered. "Never have I met a more stubborn woman."
"Well, now, sister, that isn't exactly true. If you recall, there was that one in England..."
"Quite right. How could I have forgotten that one?"
Eugenia laughed and then turned her attention back to the people below. "So lonely, both of them. So very much alike. Neither can forgive themselves for the mistakes they've made."
"You're looking at the younger ones now."
"I am." Eugenia sighed heavily. "It's a good thing Catharine and Philip's wedding will take place so soon."
"Yes, I agree. That will be an enormous infusion of power for us."
"It will." Eugenia turned and smiled at her sister. "I have a feeling that before our work hereis done, we're going to need all the help we can get."
"There you are, you snake in the grass! I've been looking all over for you. Don't you even think about escaping!"
The tall man with the lean physique of a swimmer and the grace of a dancer stopped with one hand on the doorknob and gave her a cool smile just shy of a smirk.
"Don't be ridiculous, Your Royal Highness. Not even you can order me not to think about something."
His patronizing tone pushed Rachel de la Croix's temper even closer to eruption. With her anger simmering since she'd been summoned to her father's office half an hour before, she needed someone to vent it on. Pure chance had brought her to the solarium on this beautiful Sunday morning, and karma had placed this man here and now. Who better to blast than her father's security chief?
"Don't you 'Your Royal Highness' me, Peter Jones. I don't know what the hell you told my father, but I want you to march right back to his office and take it back!"
"No way in hell, Rachel."
Peter lost his faintly amused veneer and turned deadly serious. She'd not seen quite that look on him before, but the coldness in his eyes sent a chill down her spine. No one had shared the details of Peter's past with her. Right now, she wouldn't be surprised to learn he'd killed a few men along the way.
Inhaling deeply, she forced herself to ignore that look, whatever it meant. She wouldn't let curiosity or thoughts about what had made him the man he was distract her. The time had come, she resolved, for this "handling" by her family--by her father--to come to an end.
"My father has informed me I am not to leave the palace grounds without you in tow. This isn't the usual discreet surveillance by members of your staff from a respectful distance. Oh, no. But you. With me. In the same vehicle. Everywhere. Merde!" Rachel grabbed her hair in frustration, nearly screaming the last word.
"Sorry about that, toots. I know it's going to cramp your style with whatever flavor-of-the-week young stud you have warming the sheets for you, but that's too damn bad. This is a matter of national security."
National security, my ass! Rachel paced as she tried to think. But thinking for her had always been difficult near this man. Peter's assessment of her love life only added insult to injury. One of his minions must have fallen down on the job if the security chief didn't know that her sheets had been sadly lacking in the stud department for a long, long time. This felt like a big conspiracy between her father and Peter. She would bet on it. Obviously, being two years clean and sober didn't mean a damn thing. They didn't trust her. They'd noticed her distraction lately, her moodiness, and they'd attributed it to the easiest excuse they could find. Rachel was using again.
Well, Rachel isn't using again. She'd made a mistake a couple of years ago. A bad one. But it had been a mistake and had nearly cost her not only the love and respect of her family, but also her very life. When she thought back to that time now, she felt stupid. Judging by the look of determination on Peter's face, nothing she said would convince him she could be trusted.
And if I can't convince him of that, how the hell am I ever going to convince him I'm in love with him?
Emotionally deflated, she turned mid-pace and skewered him with a look she knew was pure ice, because she felt frozen inside.
"Since you seem to believe I have the morals of an alley cat, I'm amazed you didn't make a comment about having the opportunity to become a voyeur. Never mind. Do what you have to do, I don't care. Just stay the hell out of my way. In case it has slipped your tiny little mind, your sister is marrying my brother in three weeks. I am nearly done with making the wedding gown, but there's still a lot left to do on the bridesmaids' dresses--not to mention setting up The Couturier. My brother, at least, seems to think that I have something of value to contribute to the economy of our country by opening this fashion house, so don't try to stop me."
"I have no intention of stopping you when you've found your niche at last."
She couldn't detect a hint of sarcasm in his voice. The man sure as hell kept her off balance. One minute he's all but calling her a whore, the next he's acting like a proud big brother. How could she keep up?
Still a bit unsettled by his seeming mood swing, she found herself babbling about her project. "I never thought that being a designer of clothes would be good enough to make a career of. But Helene became excited when she saw my designs. Your sister, too." Helene, her sister-in-law, had convinced Michael and their father what an economic boost it would be for Boisdemer to have its own design house. The family decided to invest in Rachel's new enterprise, and she was determined they would never regret it.
"And your ability to design and make the dresses immediately means Catharine and Philip can get married sooner rather than later. Yes, I heard all the girly chatter at the engagement dinner last week."
Despite his dismissive words about the "girly" talk, Peter's tone softened tellingly when he spoke of his sister. Rachel's belly quivered. She imagined his voice softening like that--well, maybe not quite like that--when he spoke about her.
"The best thing in the world is to build a career from what you love to do," he finished quietly.
They shared a smile. At moments like this, she could almost believe that Peter saw her not only as a woman, but also as a desirable woman. Almost. Running her hands through her long hair, she marshaled her thoughts to get their conversation back on track, namely, to the fact she didn't need him to babysit her.
"I do not understand why you need to be with me everywhere I go. Papa mentioned heightened publicity. The spotlight of the world is shining on Boisdemer because Philip is marrying Catharine. Fine. But what has that to do with me?" She felt her throat tighten and turned her face away from him. Damn it, she would not cry. She hadn't planned to plead her case, but the words slipped out. "I swear to you, I'm not using drugs again. I barely even drink alcohol anymore. I can be trusted."
She heard his approach, but still was unprepared when he spun her around to face him. His grip on her arms was the only thing that kept her from stumbling.
"You're too smart to think this has anything to do with that. Damn it, Rachel, I know you're not using. That has nothing to do with these heightened security measures. If I could trace the source of those damn letters, then--"
"Letters? What letters?"
He looked annoyed. While he seemed to weigh what to say next, she gripped his arms and gave him a shake.
"Am I never to be treated like an adult in my own home? What letters?"
"I guess your father didn't want to frighten you."
"Oh, of course. Much better for me think no one trusts me."
"Honest to God, Rachel--"
Because Peter looked so upset, she relented. Smoothing away her anger, she took a step back and folded her hands in front of her. "What letters, please?"
As if surprised to find he still held her, he slowly lowered his hands. His words were quiet and carefully chosen. "We've received threats."
A pause. "Yes."