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"I'm going to kill him! Let me in there!"
Whit Howell had been hired as the king's bodyguard to protect him from political threats and criminalsnot from his own daughter. But as furious as Princess Gabriella St. Pierre was at the moment, she posed the greatest threat Whit had encountered yet during the ten weeks he'd been on the job.
"Your royal highness," he addressed her as protocol required even though they were alone in the hallway outside the door to the king's wing of the palace. "Your father has retired for the night and will not be disturbed."
"You damn well better believe he's going to be disturbed," she said, her usually soft, sweet voice rising to a nearly hysterical shout. "He'll be lucky to be alive when I'm done with him!" She rushed toward the double mahogany doors, but Whit stepped in front of them.
She slammed into him, her breasts flattening against his chest. With her stiletto heels on, her forehead came to his chin. Her haira thick golden brown, was falling over the tiara on her head and into her face and rubbing against his throat.
With her face flushed and caramel-brown eyes flashing with temper, she had never been more beautiful. He doubted she would graciously accept that compliment, though, so he bit his tongue to hold it back. Of course he had noticed she was attractive before but in the kind of untouchable, one-dimensional way that a model in a magazine was attractive. She hadn't seemed real then.
She certainly hadn't acted like any woman he'd ever known. Not only was she beautiful but also sweet and graciouseven to the people her father considered servants. She had seemed more fairy-tale fantasy than reality.
She was real now. And quite touchable. She put her hands on his arms and tried to shove him aside, so she could get through the doors to her father's rooms.
While she was tall, she was slenderwith not enough muscle to budge him. She let out a low growl of frustration and then fisted her hands and started pounding on his chest. "Get out of my way! Get out of my way!"
Damn. If she raised her voice any louder, she was likely to disturb the king. And Whit couldn't lose this security job. Assignments like this had been hard to come by the past three years. So he stepped closer to her, using his body to gently push her back from the door. She kept swinging even as she stumbled. So he caught her around the waist and lifted herup high to swing her over his shoulder. Then he touched a button on the two-way radio in his ear.
"Put me down!" Princess Gabriella screamed, pounding on his back now.
He crossed the wide hall, moving farther away from the tall wood doors to the king's wing. Then he touched the button again to call his partner. Former partner. They were no longer in the security business together. They had actually been hired separately to protect the king.
It was Aaron's night off, which he'd had to postpone until after the ball that had been held earlier that evening. But usually Aaron would still be on the job; the man was always on the job.
Maybe his partner answered but Whit couldn't hear him over the princess's shouts. Her yelling had drawn some of the other palace guards to the hall outside the king's private quarters. Whit gestured at one of the men he'd personally hired, a man with whom he'd served in Afghanistan, like he had with Aaron Timmer. He could trust him to guard King St. Pierre while he deposited the princess in her private rooms.
"Stop! Put me down!" she ordered, her tone nearly as imperious as her father's.
There was none of the sweetness and graciousness Whit had seen in her the past couple of months that he'd been guarding the king. While she had always talked to him as she did to all the help, with him she had seemed especially shy and nervousnothing like the woman currently pounding on his back. The sweet woman had attracted him; the angry woman exasperated and excited him.
As he carried her past the other guard, she implored the man, "Stop him!"
Like he trusted the guard, the guard trusted Whit, a lot more than Aaron trusted him now. The guard let them pass.
"You creep!" she hurled insults as she pounded harder on his back. "You son of a bitch!" She added some even more inventive insults, using words he wouldn't have thought someone as privileged as she would even know. Then she ordered him, "Get your hands off me!"
She wriggled in his grasp, her breasts pushing against his back while her hip rubbed against his shoulder. She had curves in all the right placescurves that he wanted to touch
But he shouldn't have been able to get his hands on her in the first place. Since the day, as an infant, she had been brought home to the palace, there had been threats to her safety. People had tried to kidnap her to ransom her for money or political influence from the king. To make sure that none of those abduction attempts were successful, she had been protected her entire life but never more so than now. Usually
"Where the hell's your bodyguard?" he wondered aloud. Even though he hated the woman who protected the princess, he couldn't criticize how the former U.S. Marshal did her job. She went above and beyond to keep the young heiress safe; she had even had plastic surgery so that she looked exactly like Gabriella St. Pierre.
Could it be that they had switched places
It made more sense that the woman he'd slung over his shoulder was the bodyguard than the princess because the bodyguard rarely let the princess out of her sight. Unless she had secured her in her rooms and was now masquerading as her.
For what purpose?
To attack the king?
After the announcement her father had made at the ball that evening, the princess had more reasona damn good reasonto want to hurt the man who had so hurt and humiliated her. Whit had done the right thing to not let her into the monarch's wing of rooms. Because if she really was the princess, he could understand why she was so pissed, and he wouldn't have blamed her had she wanted to kill her own father. But he couldn't let heror her bodyguardcomplete the task.
Which woman was she?
It mattered to him. He didn't want his pulse racing like crazy over the bodyguard. He didn't want his hands tingling with the need to touch her wriggling body. He had never been attracted to the former Marshal, and he didn't want to be.
Charlotte Green had already cost him too much. Just like every other woman he'd ever had contact with, she hadn't given a damn about him. Maybe she didn't really give a damn about the princess, either.
No guard stood sentry at the entrance to the princess's suite. He pushed open the unlocked door and strode down the hall to her private rooms and found no security there either. If the princess had been left in her wing of the palace, Charlotte Green had left her unprotected. No matter how much he despised her, he doubted she would have done that. But she wouldn't have let the royal heiress go running off on her own, either.
Sure, they were inside the palace. But that didn't mean they were safe, especially with guests from the ball spending the night in the palace. And even if they weren't, sometimes the greatest threats to one's life were the people closest to them. The princess had learned that tonight.
She must have also learned that yelling and struggling wasn't going to compel him to release her because she'd fallen silent and still. Her body was tense against his. And warm and soft.
And entirely distracting.
He needed to deposit her in her rooms and get the hell back to his post. Using his free hand, the one not holding tight to the back of her toned thigh, he opened the door to her sitting room. Painted a bright yellow, the room was sunny and completely different from her father's darkly paneled rooms. After going inside, he released her, and she moved, sliding down his bodyevery curve pressing against him. He bit back a groan as desire overwhelmed him, and he was the tense one now.
As her feet touched the floor, she stepped back, and then stumbled and fell against him. He caught her shoulders in his hands to steady her, and he realized she'd lost a shoe somewhere along the route to her room. She stood before him in only one stiletto slip-on sandal. She really was a fairy-tale princess; she was freaking Cinderella.
No, that wasn't right.
His mom had taken off early in his childhood, leaving him with a father who'd had little time to read him fairy tales. But Whit had picked up enough from movies and TV shows based on them to realize he'd gotten it wrong. If she was Cinderella, then she would be the bodyguard and not Gabriella.
"Who are you?" he asked.
Beneath the hair falling across her brow, lines of confusion furrowed. Then she blinked brown eyes wide with innocence. Real or feigned?
"You know who I am," she haughtily replied.
"No one can really know who you are," he said, "but you."
She shivered, as if his words had touched a chord deep inside her. As if he'd touched her. And he realized that he held her yet and that his fingers almost absently stroked over the silky skin of her bare shoulders. Her gown was strapless and a rich gold hue only a couple shades darker than her honey-toned skin. She was so damn beautiful.
But beauty had never affected Whit before. He wasn't like his partnerhis former partner. Aaron Timmer fell quickly and easily for every pretty face. Not Whit, though. He was a professional.
So he forced himself to let go of her shoulders and step back. And that was when he heard it. Her little shuddery gasp for breath as if she'd been holding hers, tooas if she'd been waiting for him to do something. Else. Like move closer and lower his head to hers.
But besides her gasp, he heard another noisea low thud like someone bumping into something in the dark. Despite the brightly painted walls, the sitting room was dimly lit, but small enough that Whit would have noticed someone lurking in the shadows. However, a door off the room stood ajar, darkness from her bedroom spilling out with another soft thud.
Someone was already waiting to take Princess Gabriella to bed. But she gasped againthis time with fearand he realized she'd heard the noise, too. And she wasn't expecting anyone to be inside her bedroom.
"Stay here," he whispered and reached beneath his tuxedo jacket to pull his gun from his holster. Armed, he headed toward her bedroom.
"Be careful," she whispered back, her sweet voice trembling with concern. For him?
Her words touched something inside Whitsomething that he'd closed off years agothe part of him that had yearned to have someoneanyonegive a damn about him. Of course she didn't really care, but those words.
Distracted him enough that when he stepped inside the bedroom, the intruder got the drop on him. Before his eyes could even adjust to the darkness, something struck his headknocking him down and knocking him outleaving the princess at the mercy of the intruder.
Blood seeped into his blond hair, staining the short silky strands. Gabriella pressed her fingers to the wound, gauging the depth of it. Would it need stitches? Had he been hit hard enough for the injury to be fatal?
She moved her fingers to his throat. He had already loosened the collar of his silk shirt and undone his bow tie, which dangled along the pleats of the shirt. So she had easy access to the warm skin of his neck. At first his pulse was faint, but then it suddenly quickened.
She glanced at his face and found his dark eyes open and staring up into hers. How could he be so blond but have such dark, fathomless eyes? The man was a paradoxa mystery that had fascinated her since the day he'd walked into the palace to guard her father.
She had been able to think of little else but him. No matter where she'd beenfashion show or gallery opening or movie premiereher mind had been on himwhich had probably made her even more distracted and nervous every time the press had interviewed her.
She had been looking forward to tonightto seeing him in a tuxedo. To blend in, all the security team had worn black tie. But she had seen only Whit, looking like every young woman's fantasy of Prince Charming. Then her father had made his horrible pronouncement and shattered all Gabriella's illusions of a fairy-tale happily-ever-after.
"You're alive?" she asked.
While he'd opened his eyes, he had yet to moveto even draw a breath. Of course he wasn't dead, but he must have been stunned. In shock? Concussed?
Finally he nodded, then winced and repeated her ridiculous question, "You're alive?"
Her lips twitched into a smile. "I'm fine."
"The intruder didn't take you," he said, as if surprised that she wasn't gone.
"No." She shuddered at the thought of being abducted, as she had nearly been so many times before until the former U.S. Marshal had become her bodyguard a few years ago. As well as protecting her, the ex-Marshal had taught her how to defend herself. Fortunately Gabriella hadn't been put in that position tonight. But she wished she could have defended Whit and saved him from the blow he'd taken to the head.
"Who hit me?" he asked, "Charlotte?"
She chuckled at the thought of her bodyguard knocking him out in the dark. Charlotte would not have been so cowardly, as cowardly as Gabby had been when she'd allowed her father's pronouncement at the ball to stand instead of immediately speaking up. And when she had finally gathered her courage and her anger, this man had stopped her from talking to the king. She should have been angry with him. But she only felt relief when he had finally opened his eyes. The three minutes he'd been unconscious had seemed like a lifetime to Gabby.
"Charlotte?" he repeated but his tone was different now, as if he suspected that she might actually be her bodyguard.
That was nearly as ridiculous as Charlotte striking him. "It all happened so fast that I have no idea who it could be. After hitting you, he ran out the door. All I saw was that he was dressed in black pants and a black sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight around his face."
"It was a man?"
She nodded. "Tall and thin with no curves. But I suppose it could have been a woman." At all those fashion shows and movie premieres, she had met many tall, thin women. "But not Charlotte."
"No," he agreed, but tentatively, as if he debated taking her word for it.
"You don't trust me?" she asked, wondering if she should be offended or amused. Certainly it wasn't good to be thought a liar but that wasn't the issue for her.
Most people didn't consider her clever enough to be able to pull off any deception. The public believed she was an empty-headed heiress. They weren't being cruel or unfair. Because she was naturally shy and introverted, nerves got the better of her during interviews, and she usually babbled incoherentlyearning the nickname of Princess Gabby.
"I'm not even sure who you are," he admitted, his dark eyes narrowing with suspicion as he studied her face.
He really believed she might be Charlotte Green. Again she was flattered instead of offended. Most people might mistake the former U.S. Marshal for herfrom a distance. Along with already having the same build and coloring, Charlotte had had plastic surgery so their faces looked alike, too. Except Charlotte had a beauty and wisdom that came with being six years older and so much more worldly than Gabriella. Her bodyguard was tough and independent while Gabby was anything but that.
Charlotte would not have been passed off tonight from one fiance to anotherpublicly humiliated during the ball. What was worse was that the man who had traded Gabriella to the highest bidder like a brood mare at auction was her own father.
She expelled a ragged breath of frustration. "I wish I was Charlotte," she admitted. "Then I wouldn't be engaged to marry a stranger. I wouldn't have had people trying to kidnap me since I was a baby just so they could get to my father. No one would even care who I am."
"I would care," he said, with a charm of which she had not thought him capable.