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Is everything in place?" Luc Lejardin rose from his antique desk and paced the length of the wooden floor to the arched office window. Expecting an affirmative, he watched the setting sun cast an impressionistic glow over the Mediterranean Sea, reflecting the colored lights of St. Michel as brightly as the crown jewels.
The American on the other end of the line hesitated a split-second too long. "Not quite. I'm close, though."
Lejardin frowned. Most wouldn't have picked up on the nearly imperceptible uncertainty in the speaker's voice. But Luc had. That was his job. To detect lies, disloyalty, duplicity. A human polygraph, as he liked to think of himself.
He trusted no one. Especially now when, for the sake of national security, everything must go without a hitch. There was no room for error on this mission. Not in the wake of the tragedy.
A tragedy he'd failed to prevent.
"I'm not pleased, monsieur," Lejardin snapped. "We arrive stateside in less than ten hours. I trust you will have completed your job before we board the plane. If there is a problem, I will assign someone more capable."
"There is no problem," the deep voice assured him. "I'll e-mail the last of the photos to you within the hour."
Luc terminated the call and tucked his Blackberry into the breast pocket of his Armani suit. Underneath the fine fabric, his heart felt heavy. He leaned against the wooden window frame and closed his eyes out of respect for the grieving king and those who'd lost their lives.
The tragic fire that killed Prince Antoine and his family had happened under Luc's watch. Not directly, as Prince Antoine had his own team of Royal Service Agentsagents who worked for Lejardin.
Those men had perished in the fire, too.
As minister of protocol, the blood of those who died would forever remain on Luc's hands. It was something for which he would never forgive himself, despite how King Bertrand insisted there was no way Lejardin could've prevented it.
Refusing to believe that someone was responsible for the tragedy that had stolen what remained of his family, the king clung hard and fast to the belief that the House of Founteneau was cursed. Sometimes Lejardin's most challenging job was protecting the king from himself.
Then the curse had struck again.
Ah, but Luc knew better. He was too much of a realist to believe in curses or anything so far beyond his control. A murderer was behind this tragedyand most certainly the other deaths that had happened one by one over the past thirty-three years. Each carefully orchestrated to look like an accident. Someone had taken enough care so that even the Crown Council and Luc's own father, who had been minister of protocol until the day he died three years ago and Luc stepped up to the post, had ruled each of the tragedies an accident.
With this "accident," every one of King Bertrand's children, every known Founteneau heir to the St. Michel throne was deadeach perishing in separate, but equally tragic, "accidents."
That one family would endure so much loss was almost unfathomable. Whether he had the king and the Crown Council behind him or not, Luc would not rest until the responsible parties paid for the innocent lives they'd taken.
In the meantime, though, he had other pressing business: ensuring the safety of the only remaining heir to the St. Michel throne. An heir who until yesterday nobody except King Bertrand knew existed.
Sophie Baldwin could've lied to herself and claimed the dress in the window of Tina's boutique was what stopped her dead in her tracks on that cold, gray late-November morning.
Right. As if she'd window shop in downtown Trevard, North Carolina, when she was late for workagain. Not to mention freezing due to the arctic temperatures.
No. It wasn't the dress that had stopped her.
As she walked, she'd glanced enticingly at her reflection, expecting to see the slim, attractive, young woman who lived in her mind's eye, but instead what smiled back at her made her stop and bite back a startled oath
"What the h
?" She moved closer for a better look. But it was no optical illusion. Bundled up in her big, canary-yellow wool coat, she really did resemble a life-sized squeeze bottle of FRENCH'S Classic Yellow Mustard.
It was startling, really, seeing herself like that. As she assessed the grotesque image, she realized it wasn't just the coat that made her look dumpy. Her brown hair was flat and lank, her green eyes were bloodshot and puffy. She looked haggard, worried and miserable. Much too old and tired for thirty-three.
As people flowed by on the sidewalk, she reached out and touched the weary reflection in the glass. Standing palm to cold palm with this alien, she tried to pinpoint when this dramatic shift had happened and why, until now, she hadn't seen it.
Of course she'd been so busy trying to stay afloat since the divorce that she didn't have time for spa day at the Red Door. Not that she went to the spa regularly predivorce. Come to think of it, Trevard didn't even have a Red Door
unless you counted the one at the entrance to Cheap Tilly's Bargain Barn, but that was about as far away from the Red Door as you could get.
Still, spa or no spa, once upon a time, Sophie Baldwin had been quite a catch. And then she'd turned to mustard. Because don't they say that the outside is simply a reflection of what you are on the inside? Obviously she wasn't even the exotic, spicy variety of mustard. Nope. Just plain-old bland water and vinegar with a few generic spices thrown in to make it palatable. Barely.
Sophie sighed. Yeah, once upon a time men noticed her. Really, they did. It didn't seem so long ago, either. She was a different person thensomeone who wouldn't have been caught dead in the hideous mustard coat; someone who laid on the floor to zip herself into skin-tight jeans; someone who would've danced the night away in painfully high stilettos.
Because they would've been sexy stilettos.
And men would've noticed.
But that was when she'd been young and in love and sure that Frank was her Prince Charming and their next stop was happily ever after.
She hadn't fathomed that after fifteen years of marriage and one child together Frank would take a detour to the land of pert, perfect eighteen-year-old bodies.
Shallow idiot, that ex-husband of hers. Ditching his family and shirking his responsibilities to date girls who were just a few years older than his fourteen-year-old daughter.
A gust of cold, wet wind cut through the coat, chilling Sophie to the bone. It was snowing. First flakes of the season. Sophie turned up the yellow collar and held it shut with her gloved hand.
Never mind Frank's midlife crisis. What was going through her head when she'd sworn off black and its slimming goodness for brighter, cheerier clothes she'd fancied were more representative of her brighter, cheerier postdivorce life?
As she tore herself away from the mirror image, she nearly bumped into a woman pushing a toddler in a stroller.
"Oh. I'm sorry," she murmured, realizing the baby was crying. Screaming. Tears streaming and snot stringing from her tiny red nose.
For a split second Sophie locked gazes with the young mother, who looked to be in her early twenties. What she saw was both complicated and familiar. On the one hand, she was young and beautiful, the picture of Madonna and child (if the Madonna pushed a stroller); on the other hand, she looked frantic in a how-did-I-lose-control-of-my-life sort of way.
Sophie wanted to tell her, Yes, I was you once. Young and beautiful, owned by a fussy baby, too tired to have sex with my husband
and look at me now.
FRENCH'S mustard on two legs.
By that time the woman had moved on.
Sophie turned off Main Street onto Broad Avenue, quickening her steps toward the social services building. As she walked the remaining two blocks to work, she made a mental note to ban from her wardrobe all colors that resembled condiments
well, except for the coat.
She couldn't do anything rash like dumping it at Goodwill. Not unless she wanted to walk to work in her shirtsleeves in the bone-numbing cold.
She couldn't afford to replace it right now. In fact, she couldn't afford much outside her tight budget, which was one of the reasons she'd chosen to walk the mile and a half to work. Every penny counted right now, and if she could save even a tiny bit by walking, that was an easy sacrifice.
It's just that it had turned so cold.
She snuggled deeper into the ugly coat. At least there were no hotdog vendors in the park in the winter. The chances of someone actually mistaking her for a tubby vat of mustard were slim.
She smiled at the pun, and as she passed the diner, she breathed in the tantalizing scent of bacon, toast and coffee. Her stomach reminded her that she'd been too rushed againto eat breakfast. Someday when money wasn't such an issue, she was going to treat herself to a nice, leisurely breakfast before work.
But not today.
As she pulled open the big wooden door of the social services building, it dawned on her that this practical person she'd become must signal that she was in a new life phase.
Being a single mother did tend to push one toward practicality. Gone were the whims and flights of fancy. She'd traded them in for grounding and sensibility because that's what it took to give her daughter, Savannah, the best life possible.
That's what kept Sophie from telling Savannah the ugly truth about the divorce. Despite how Savannah blamed her mother, all Sophie would say was that the matter was a grownup issue. No matter how much Savannah pushed and needled, Sophie refused to expose the child-support-dodging, two-timing louse who could do no wrong in his little girl's eyes.
Maybe someday when Savannah was grown they'd have that conversation, but not now.
Even if he wasn't forthright in supporting his daughter monetarily because he'd spent the better part of the year "between jobs," he did spend time with Savannah, and the girl needed to cling to that rock when he was in town. She had suffered enough during the divorce.
One of the things that surprised Sophie the most about the ordeal was that she thought working as a social worker would've prepared her for divorce. She'd helped numerous women get back on their feet after their marriages dissolved. Still she'd felt just as alone and scared as the best of them.
At least she had a good job and benefitsthat was one of the main reasons she'd decided not to pack up and move to Florida with her parents after Frank left.
The elevator dinged, and Sophie waited for three people aboard to exit. Once they did, she stepped inside and gave a cursory glance around the lobby to see if there were others rushing to catch the elevator, too. Nope, she was the only one. She glanced at her watch to see just how late she was and her heart quickened: 8:20.
Twenty minutes. Yikes. Her first appointment wasn't until 8:30. Maybe she'd still be able to slide into her office unnoticed.
She jabbed the third-floor button a few times, as if that would shift the ancient machine into express mode. But the doors stayed open, like a big mouth indulging in a long, lazy yawn.
"Come on." She gave the button another impatient tap. This time the doors slid shut. She hated being late, but sometimes she just couldn't help it. Sometimes she was operating on only three or four hours of sleep after working her second job waiting tables at Bob's Steak House. This was one of those mornings, and it had turned into a comedy of errors that began with a scavenger hunt for a homework assignment Savannah swore she'd left on the table the night before. That prompted Sophie to issue the usual "you need to get everything ready the night before" speech. Which, in turn, elicited eye rolls and sullen harrumphs from her daughter.
That she was forced to be the "bad cop" rankled her on so many levels. She was the disciplinarian, while Frank got to ride in on a figurative white horse, like Prince Valiant to the rescue. The cool dad who'd moved to California, gotten a tattoo and had his ears pierced, when Sophie had just vetoed her daughter's request for a belly-button ring.
When the elevator finally reached the third floor and the doors slid open, Sophie's heart lurched at the sight of her boss, Mary Matthews, standing at the front desk talking to Lindsay Bingham, the receptionist and Sophie's best friend.
Mary, wispy, thin and city chic, stopped midsentence and leveled Sophie with a look, before glancing pointedly at her watch.
"Nice of you to join us." She tucked a strand of sleek, black bob behind an ear. "Sleeping in?"
Luc sipped a glass of sparkling water and opened the thick file on the tray table in front of him. He leafed through the stack of photos he'd received a mere forty-five minutes before boarding the plane. Cutting it a little too close for his liking, but at least the investigator had come through.
He paused at a close-up of Sophie Baldwin's face. There was no denying the woman was attractive, with her engaging smile, shoulder-length dark hair and light green eyes. Though, she wasn't exactly what he'd expected. Tr s naturelle.
Naturally she hadn't been groomed for the role that was about to be thrust upon her. So, really, should there be any expectations?
A little voice inside him that knew far too much piped up, Oh, but everyone will have expectations. Lofty, unfair ideals that no mere mortal should ever be held to. But she will be. Just as has each of those who've come before her.
He flipped to the next photo of Sophie on the porch of a modest clapboard house. Then to another of her bundled up in a hideous bright yellow coat, with a large purse slung over her shoulder and a satchel in hand as she walked along a quaint downtown sidewalk; then to yet another shot of her in a marketor grocery store as they called it in the Statesreaching for something on a shelf. In this photo, she wasn't wearing the coat. Her clothes were neat but ordinary, except for how they clung to her voluptuous body, making her curves look rather sexy
Luc dropped the thought like hot coal. He closed the thick case file with a sharp flick of his wrist, irritated with himself for letting his thoughts stray.
Closing his eyes, he rubbed his throbbing temples.
It was fatigue talking. Yes, that was the reason. He'd barely slept since the accident.
How long had it been now? He'd lost count in the midst of the madness, but it had to have been more than seventy-two hours.