Covert agent Drew Canady has guarded Princess Mirie Selskla without once crossing the line between protector and lover. Keeping her safe, and his true identity under wraps, has never been a problem. Then an attack against Mirie sends her straight into his arms. Suddenly all those feelings he's never acknowledged won't go away.
Drew knows she's the last woman he should fall for. His focus must be on finding the enemyeven if that blows his cover and drives Mirie from his life for good. But as the stakes climb, maybe he's underestimated the power of the attraction between them .
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"Drei Timko," a voice barked.
Drew responded to the name as if it were his own. In the ways that mattered, the name was his. The man once known as Drew Canady had become a ghost from another lifetime. A life so long gone, he had almost forgotten. Almost. Not quite.
Turning, he watched the grizzled old man muscle through the crowd, broad shoulders forging a path through the mourners, face split with a gap-toothed grin. The logger, a man named Vlas, had befriended Drew back when he had been a stranger among strangers in this mountain village of Alba Lunca.
"You guard the princess as closely as you once guarded a lighthearted girl." Vlas clapped Drew on the back.
Drew glanced at the woman walking behind the casket cart-graceful and dressed head to toe in white, from the fur ushanka on her head to the hiking boots on her feet. She looked appropriately austere for a funeral, colorless but for the flushed cheeks and wisps of caramel-colored hair lifting on the wind, her expression as brittle as the weather.
"That's what they pay me to do." His breath clashed with the morning air in a frigid burst.
Princess Mirela of Ninsele hadn't been that light-hearted girl for a very long time.
Not since the years before his princess had come out of hiding. One minute she had been the girl he'd been hired to protect, a girl who loved to run barefoot through the meadows in spring.
Now she was the ruler of this mountain kingdom, and a very desirable woman. When he looked at her, he didn't see Princess Mirela, last royal of the House of Selskala. He saw past the woman who engaged the media with intelligence and grace, who handled foreign diplomats skillfully and didn't retreat when facing revolutionaries and thugs who would bully her to sidestep justice. He didn't see the woman the media had nicknamed "Mirie of Alba Lunca," a princess who had long hidden among commoners.
Drew saw only the laughing woman he had devoted so many years to protecting.
The woman who rarely made an appearance anymore.
He didn't share the thought with Vlas, who had once been a friend. Long ago, he and the old logger had stood around the bonfire in the square, sharing opinions and flasks offdptd. Now they trudged uphill in an early-morning funeral procession. Nearly a mile of icy dirt road. In minus-twelve degree weather. The people of Alba Lunca were Spartans.
At least Drew wasn't carrying the casket or digging the grave in frozen earth. He had retreated far enough to assess the procession perimeter but still had his eyes on his target. He had been in lockstep with Mirie for more than fifteen years. "The princess seems pleased to be back," Vlas said.
Drew wouldn't go that far. Mirie was burying her nanny, the woman who had saved her life during a coup when the royal family was executed. Geta Bobescue had hidden the eight-year-old princess in this obscure village. With the help of a retired royal guard, she protected Mirie during the decade-long civil war and prepared her for the day the dictator was overthrown. That day had come six years ago. Mirie had been plucked from Alba Lunca and taken to the capital city of Briere to rule her kingdom.
She hadn't been back since.
Geta's funeral was a bittersweet reason to return. This visit also posed an unnecessary risk. But Mirie hadn't considered the risk to herself enough reason to forsake the task of burying her nanny.
Fortunately this funeral procession wasn't a fast-moving train. It wound through the village slowly, people adhering to the crowd like filings on a magnet with each shop they passed, each house and alley. This parade of mourners was intent, like Mirie, upon honoring its dead. And enjoying the charity meal that would come after the burial. That was tradition.
Drew scanned each newcomer and kept a watch on the rooftops, balconies and doorways, assessing potential threats. He needed to get a lock on everyone who ventured near Mirie.
The Ninsele Royal Protection Guard, known as the NRPG, was the branch of military charged with the princess's protection. Right now guards were posted throughout the village, but once the procession moved beyond the gate, the terrain would be nearly impossible to secure. Drew would be the first line of defense. He was always the first line of defense.
"Her Royal Highness tried to return before Geta died, but it wasn't possible," he said. Not with all the preparations to host representatives from the European Commission, who would be arriving in Ninsele in a matter of weeks.
A historic first step that was attracting global attention.
"Geta was at peace. She called the priest and received absolution and the Eucharist. She didn't expect the princess to return even for the funeral." Vlas withdrew an envelope from his coat pocket. "This is why I chased you down. And this.." His face split into another grin as he pulled out a leather flask.
Drew accepted the envelope, which had been addressed in a shaky scrawl with the princess's formal title. Slipping the envelope into the pocket inside his coat's lining, he asked, "You want me to deliver this letter to Her Royal Highness?"
"Eventually. When you think she is strong enough to be reminded of the past and her losses. Deathbed request." Vlas took a deep swig after uncorking the flask. "Geta worried about the girl. She told me you would know when best to pass along her words. Give the girl time to grieve."
Drew scanned the crowd around Mirie again, ready to intervene at any sign of a threat. People were keeping their distance, which made his job easier.
The envelope was sealed. Geta would never burden Mirie without good reason. No one knew better how deeply the loss of her family had affected the young princess.
Drew wished he could allow the contents to remain private, but that wasn't his choice. "Anything else I need to know?"
"Secrets, Drei? That girl was Geta's only secret." Vlas motioned to Drew with the flask. "Go on. It'll warm you up. She'll be safe. We protect her as we always have."
The villagers had done that. In the past when the princess's existence had been fodder for conspiracy theorists, the people of Alba Lunca had claimed her as their own. Of course they hadn't known she was a princess. Back then she had simply been a military officer's daughter orphaned in the coup. That explanation justified the privileges and protection Mirie had enjoyed growing up in a rural village-the additional tutors, the bodyguard.
No one had questioned the facts then, and no one remembered them now. Mirie belonged to Alba Lunca. Period. A princess had lived among commoners. She belonged to these people now even more than she had then. No wonder the paparazzi never left her alone. Mirie's story had captured the imaginations of a world that wanted to believe in happy endings.
Drew was determined to make sure Mirie got hers.
"As much as I'd like to accept your hospitality, my friend, I'll have to pass," he said. "I'll make sure she gets this letter at the best possible time."
There would be no good time. Mirie was barely twenty-five years old. She had royal obligation to a country violently split in its regard for the monarchy. Her days were filled with duty as she worked with the Crown Council to win the support of the European Commission to become an acceding country into the European Union and provide Ninsele with a future.
Whether the people wanted that future or not.
Many didn't, but in a life filled with enemies, the one foe that had gotten close was the one Drew couldn't fight.
He glanced at Mirie again, her hand resting on the casket as if she didn't want her nanny to be alone. Her head was bowed low beneath the fur ushanka, and Drew could tell she was fighting back tears. He wished she'd had the chance to come back and say goodbye one last time.
She might be surrounded by people every moment of every day. Ministers and military officers. People who served. People who clung. People who schemed. People who wanted her to succeed. People who wanted her dead.
But her last connection to family lay in that casket.
Drew understood why Geta had been worried. He also knew why she had wanted him to decide when to turn over the letter. She had faith in his ability to protect Mirie-from physical as well as emotional threats. Protecting Mirie was his job.
One of them, anyway.
But no one in Ninsele knew about his other job. Never once during all these years had Drew given anyone a reason to suspect he wasn't exactly who he claimed to be.
Drei Timko, Romanian close-protection guard.
No one had any idea that he was actually Drew Canady, a sleeper operative for Excelsior, a United States national security agency.
"You will cast down the branches to mark her passing. You who were loved by her as a granddaughter would be."
Grateful for this honor, Mirie accepted an armful of fir branches from the village elder council that stood as ceremonial guard around the grave containing Bunica's casket.
Geta Bobescue may not have been blood related, but she had become many things to Mirie during their years together. Protector. Confidant. Mentor. Savior in so many ways. Bunica had helped Mirie make sense of the senseless tragedy that had upended her life and helped her find strength. It had been there as promised, buried deep inside. But above all, Bunica had been a last flicker of love when all other flames had sputtered out.
Now she was gone, too.
"Peace, my beloved Bunica," Mirie whispered.
She tossed the branches. They scattered over the casket with the springy sound of living flora. But they were no longer alive. Cut from the tree of life, they would soon grow brittle and dry and wither to dust.
Such was life.
Kneeling, Mirie reached into the pit and broke away a clump of frozen dirt. She tossed a fistful into the grave.
"Godspeed, Bunica. Take our leave now and rest."
You will be missed, she added silently as the priest reached for the hoe.
The church bell tolled, a hollow sound that echoed over snow-tipped trees covering mountain peaks in every direction. Mirie retreated as a group of young men came to fill the grave.
The tolling filtered through her as if she stood naked in the wind. She had learned restraint through the years, but she had also learned that the past was a ghost and the future beyond her grasp. Right now was all she had. If she could only endure this moment, she would find her strength again, even though her insides felt frail. As if the wind might sweep away all ability to feel and she would never know anything but weakness again.
Bunica was free of this life. Bunica of the quick hugs and practical wisdom, who brooked no disobedience or rebellion, yet understood the need for kindness and confidence. Only Bunica's belief in Mirie had helped her learn to believe in herself.
This simple, solid woman, who had been chosen by Mirie's grandfather to rear her beloved Papa, had lived all the stories with her lost family. Bunica had witnessed the first steps and last breaths of two generations. Weddings and coronations. Life and laughter. Fear and murder. How many moments and memories had not yet been told, tiny minutes in the lives of Mirie's family that were now being buried in this grave?
The church bell withered to silence. The priest gave a blessing, and the women gathered to sing the burial song. Mirie joined the circle and raised her voice in a melody that rained sorrow down the mountain.
The song might have been beautiful but for the sadness. And she remembered this feeling, heartache that wrung every ounce of her strength as if her insides were made of sponge.
But she couldn't take Bunica from this mountain. Nor could she leave any part of herself here. She had already given away everything, kept only what she needed to survive.
When the song faded to silence, the feeling lingered, loss cast on the wind, across frosty trees, rebounding through her.
Mirie might never see this place again.
Alba Lunca had been home when she had needed one most. When she had been robbed of love and identity, she had found joy again running through the dirt streets of the village, through leaf-strewn forests, over sunlit meadows.
This place had become everything to her. Shelter. Safety. Solace. But hope most of all. Mirie had learned life would go on here, like it or not. Whether that life was joyous or miserable was a choice that was hers to make and hers alone.
She had clung to that knowledge during these past six years, knowing life in all its simplicity was exactly where she had left it-in the mountains with Bunica. The knowledge had given her strength during neverending council sessions, consolation when the palace she had been born in felt like an alien planet. Alba Lunca had given her purpose. She worked for Ninsele, fought to preserve a way of life she believed in.
Stay in the present, she reminded herself. Just focus on this moment.
The mourners began to move and whisper. It was time to leave. Perhaps forever.
Inhaling deeply, Mirie memorized the taste of the sharp wind in her lungs, of spruce and snow, of hope when all had felt hopeless, of life that filled her with possibilities the way the wind whistled through trees and filled this valley.
There was a path nearby that led to a hidden grove with a spring and a waterfall, one of the many secret places of this harsh yet heavenly country. Secret from strangers, at any rate. Teenagers had long ago designated the place as a rendezvous point. Mirie had kissed her first boyfriend there after escaping from her bodyguard.
Of course she had been caught long before youthful exploration had much of a chance to heat up. She had never been able to lose her tail for long.
That thought only made her sigh.
The fresh earth over Bunica's grave looked like a dirty scar marring the snowy ground, but even in death Bunica's nearness made Mirie long for that simpler time. She could not tear herself away even though she could hear people retreating. Bunica was her connection to Alba Lunca, to her life of eventual peace after everyone she loved had been taken.
Mama, Papa, Alexi, Petre, Stefan
There had been only Bunica. This tiny mountain village. And these people.
A slight touch on her arm brought her back to the moment.
He was there as he always was. The man who had long ago replaced Bunica as Mirie's protector, such a constant presence he had practically vanished. How could she notice her shadow or be surprised by the sight of her reflection in a mirror?
He was a blond bear of a man, hard from every angle-big body, chiseled expression, gemstone eyes. But his gaze was soft now as he watched her with eyes so startlingly green they seemed out of place on a granite face. He waited for her cue, an exchange that had become as natural as breathing to them.
She inclined her head, and he led her away.
They rounded the front of the church, following the procession that was fast losing its formation and reverent demeanor. People joined friends and family for the walk back to the village. They greeted each other. Someone laughed.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Very good book. Love how so.eone was trying to pose as the royal highness brother. And her brother and other bad guy triedto hurt her royal highness. Your loyal reader, Janet v.s