The secret princess's bodyguard
As head of a visiting royal's protection detail, Trace McKinnon's focus should be strictly on the external threats against a woman's life. But what happens when he finds Dr. Mara Marianescua princess incognito as a college professormuch more intriguing?
And that's only the start of his troubles. When actual danger arrives for this beautiful royal, Trace isn't sure if it's because of a genuine threat from her countryor because of the darkness in his own past. Trace knows he should let Mara goand does his best. But the cool, intelligent princess might just risk the one thing she has that is all her ownher heart
About the Author
Award-winning author Amelia Autin is an inveterate reader who can’t bear to put a good book down…or part with it. Her bookshelves are crammed with books her husband periodically threatens to donate to a good cause, but he always relents…eventually.
Amelia currently resides with her Ph.D. engineer husband in quiet Vail, AZ, where they can see the stars at night and have a “million dollar view” of the Rincon Mountains from their back yard.
Read an Excerpt
The princess's plane is arriving!" the US State Department's representative said unnecessarily as she bustled over to where Trace stood on the tarmac in the sweltering summer sun with the two Diplomatic Security Service special agents Walker had arranged to work with himKeira's brothers Alec and Liam Jones. While they'd been waiting for the princess's plane to taxi in from the runway, Trace's gaze had been constantly on the move, making sure the security measures the State Department had put in place to keep the curiousand potentially dangerousat bay were doing the job. So far so good.
When Trace realized the self-important woman in front of him was expecting some sort of acknowledgment of her statement, he said, "Yes, ma'am. We know. That's why we're out here already." As if it wasn't obvious.
Then he zoned the woman out, and his thoughts returned to the reason he was hereHer Serene Highness, Princess Mara Theodora. Thinking of the princess brought his favorite picture of her to mind, a picture that had been included in the detailed dossier he'd received, one that had not been formally posed. The princess was dressed in traditional riding kit, standing beside a magnificent black thoroughbred. Her riding helmet was hanging by its strap from one hand, and the other was tangled in the horse's black mane. Her long, wavy hair was casually tossed over one shoulder, as if it had tumbled down when she removed her riding helmet and she hadn't bothered to tie it up. And she was smiling in the general direction of the camera.
It wasn't a knowing smile. It wasn't an I-know-you're-there-and-I'm-posing smile. It was as if she'd been smiling at something elsethe horse, probablyand had just happened to turn right when the shutter clicked. Her eyes, which the unknown cameraman had focused on, were green. Not hazel, true green. And Trace had always been a sucker for green eyes ever since he was four and a half years old and had fallen in love with an older womanthe five-year-old girl next door.
That was also the first time he'd been fascinated by female intelligence, but certainly not the last. Maybe that's why he and Keira had hit it off as partners. She had definitely excelled in the brains department, and together they'd solved cases no one else could solve. But Keira wasn't just a pretty face and a quicksilver mind. She had courage and determination, and a deadly aim with a gun. All of which made her nearly impossible to replace as a partner in the two years since she'd married Walker.
Trace had trusted Keira as he had never trusted anyone else in his life, even his ex-wife. But he hadn't been in love with her. Maybe it was because of Keira's strong reserve, her insistence on being taken as seriously in her job as any male agent. Maybe it was because he hadn't wanted to screw up a great partnership with the uncertainty of a romantic relationship. Or maybe it was just that she didn't have green eyes.
A plane with the markings of the royal Zakharian air force pulled up to a stop in front of them. Two ground support personnel rushed forward to place chocks in front and behind the wheels, while two other men pushed a mobile staircase toward the plane's door. It took a few minutes, but eventually everything was secured and the door opened.
The first to descend the stairway were four young men with a military air about them, even though they were dressed in ordinary suits and ties. But Trace wasn't fooled by their casual stances at the foot of the stairway.
"Her Zakharian bodyguards," he murmured to the Jones brothers, who both nodded in agreementand approval. Trace knew the bodyguards were armed beneath their jackets, same as he was. Same as the Jones brothers were. There was just something about the way they held themselvestheir bodies alert, their eyes sharply watchful of their surroundingsthat reminded him of himself. Especially the way he'd been while guarding a witness during his stint in the US Marshals Service. A man never forgot that mental toughness, not really. For just a moment he let a tiny smile escape. You can always spot a bodyguard.
The next person down was a short middle-aged womandefinitely not the princess. She carried a square case in her hands as if it contained the crown jewels. Hell, Trace thought with sudden amusement, maybe they are the crown jewels. When the woman reached the bottom he saw a movement above her head, and the princess appeared in the doorway.
He recognized her instantly. Even if he hadn't seen her pictures, he would have known who she wasthere was just something in the way she carried herself. Regal. Not superior. Not conceited. Just regal. And composed, as if she knew the eyes of the world were always upon her. She was wearing a kelly green skirted suit that shrieked money. Her long, honey-brown hair was pulled back into a soft chignon at her nape, and there was a small green hat with a curled brim perched atop her wavy locks. She looked complete to a shade and exactly what she wasthe kind of woman the paparazzi buzzed around for a very good reason.
There weren't any paparazzi herethis area of the airport had been cordoned off, ensuring the princess's safe and inconspicuous arrivalbut Trace made one last check of their surroundings to be sure. The king of Zakhar had made that condition quite plain, despite being couched in diplomatic terms, and the State Department had been quick to agree. Trace wasted a few seconds hoping the princess maintained her anonymityit would make the job of guarding her so much easier if the general public and the press had no idea who she was. Not to mention anyone who out-and-out wished her harm.
Then the princess clutched the handrail for a moment to steady herself, and Trace took a step forward, wondering if she was just about to tumble down the stairs. The faint smile remained plastered on her face, but she was deathly white beneath her delicate, understated makeup. He was a second away from making a dash up the stairway to catch her if she fell when she pulled herself together with iron determination, pressed her lips together in a firm line and descended the stairway with her chin tilted up, her hand only lightly touching the rail. One of her bodyguards moved forward to take her arm on the second to last step, but she said something to him in Zakharan. Her voice was clear and light, but cold, and it carried.
"Do not touch meI do not need your help," Trace translated easily. The bodyguard stiffened and stepped back, freeing her arm. She turned abruptly from him toward the US State Department's representative, who had moved forward to greet her.
The word popped into Trace's head, and he couldn't erase it. Something about the cold detachment in her voice was all too familiarit reminded him of the way his grandparents had always spoken to him, the morally outraged grandparents who'd raised their unwanted bastard grandson from a sense of duty, not a sense of love. The grandparents he hadn't seen since the day he joined the US Marine Corps when he turned eighteen. The grandparents who'd been eager to see Trace walking out their door, never to shame their doorstep again.
Now his heart went out to the young man who had only been trying to help, but who had been cut off at the knees by a touch-me-not princess. A whole year, he thought grimly. I have to spend a whole year guarding this green-eyed bitch?
The princess was smiling graciously now, speaking with the State Department representative in English that held only the barest hint of an accent. Trace remembered from her dossier she spoke five languages fluentlyone fewer than he didand had a PhD in mathematics, but he was no longer impressed by her intelligence. Brains, but no heart. I'll take heart over brains every time.
"Your Serene Highness, may I introduce Alec Jones and Liam Jones," the State Department representative said, turning to present to the princess the men who would be guarding her during her stay in Colorado. "And Trace McKinnon. He's the head of the team, and will be your primary bodyguard."
"I am pleased to make your acquaintance," the princess said with a lovely smile. She shook each man's hand. The Jones brothers, trained as they were in diplomacy, said all the right things. But when she offered her hand to Trace he looked down at her, remembering how she had withered one of her Zakharian bodyguards with a few carefully chosen words. She won't wither me.
He smiled and shook her hand, but his smile didn't reach his eyes. "Princess," he said softly. The insulting inflection was so subtle the State Department representative didn't catch it, but the Jones brothers did, and they both shot sharp glances at Trace. He didn't care about that. All he cared about in that instant was whether or not the princess got the message. She did. She had been pale before, but Trace could have sworn she went a shade whiter. Her lovely smile faded and her eyes took on a guarded expression.
"Mr. McKinnon," she said in a voice that never wavered, that never betrayed what he knew she must be thinking. "I have been told you once spent six months guarding the US Embassy in my country. I would enjoy talking with you about that experience sometime."
How the hell does she know that? he wondered in shock. He glanced at the State Department representative who shook her head slightly, indicating that information hadn't come from them. He recovered quickly. "Special Agent McKinnon," he corrected her. "And I think you'll find Colorado reminds you a lot of Zakhar," he said smoothly. "Especially the mountains."
She nodded and turned toward the Rockies, looming smoke blue and haze purple in the distance. When her gaze returned to Trace's face, her smile returned, too. "That is one reason I chose to teach at the University of Colorado. I hope to soon feel at home here."
More people had deplaned during the introductions, including two more men Trace tagged as part of the princess's security detail, and now there was a sizeable retinue gathered around the princess, including the four men he'd originally pigeonholed as bodyguards. Six al- together, Trace noted approvingly. More than enough. But better too many than too few.
"This way, Your Serene Highness," the State Department representative said, indicating several limousines that had discreetly pulled up behind them.
The princess began walking toward the first limousine in the line, her low heels clicking faintly on the concrete tarmac, but Trace steered her firmly to the second one. "No, Princess," he said. "It will be safer for you this way. One of my team will ride in the car in front, and the other will ride in the car behind. You'll ride in here, with me."
She turned startled eyes on him, and Trace found himself falling into those deep, green depths. "I did not realize," she said, for his ears only. "Am I really in such danger here?"
Trace shook his head. "After today there will only be one bodyguard at a time. Other than your Zakhar-ian bodyguards, that is. But until we get you settled in and establish a routine, I'd feel better if we play it safe."
She wrinkled her brow. "Play it safe?" she asked. "I am sorry, but I "
"Don't take any unnecessary risks," he explained. "Take extra precautions."
"Oh." A self-deprecating smile flitted across her face. "Thank you for explaining. My English is"
"Your English is probably better than mine," he replied. "Unless you're native born, though, a language's idioms can be difficult to master."
"True," she said, with a smile that invited understanding.
But Trace wasn't feeling particularly understanding at the moment. He held the door open for her. "If you please, Princess."
Her eyes sought his, and he could see the question she wouldn't voice engendered by the subtle insult embodied in that one word. What have I done to you?
He couldn't tell her he'd heard her cruel words earlier, not without giving away he understood Zakharan. And that would defeat half his purpose in guarding her. I'd better tone it down, he told himself. No matter what I think of her personally, I've got a job to do.
When she was seated inside, he turned to the bodyguard who had tried to help her earlier. "If you want to sit in the front with the driver, go ahead. I'm going to ride shotgun." And he slid into the seat beside the princess.
The cavalcade had already begun before the princess asked him, "Ride shotgun?"
Trace chuckled at the innocently curious note in her voice. He couldn't help himself. "It actually means sitting beside the driver of a vehicle, providing armed protection. Like me, now. You're not driving, but I'm still sitting beside you, armed and ready to do whatever's necessary to protect you."
She said something under her breath he had to strain to hear. "Even though you do not like me."
"Yeah," he said, "even though." Her head snapped up, as if she was surprised he'd heard her. Or surprised he openly acknowledged his dislike.
She stared at him for a moment, her green eyes widening. Then she drew a deep breath and said, "I think we have somehow started incorrectly." There was honest contrition in her face. "If I have offended you in some way, I apologize."
Trace couldn't hide his surprise. An apology? From her? That didn't jibe with her insulting words earlier to her Zakharian bodyguard. But he couldn't have misunderstood. It was a knack he had with regard to languages. Just as he had been able to soak up the Afghani language during his tour of duty there, not to mention the various tribal dialects that confused the hell out of most of his fellow soldiers, it hadn't taken him more than three months to master the rudiments of the Zakharian language. And by the time he'd left Zakhar three months later he was speaking the language like a native.
No, he couldn't have misunderstood her. But maybe, just maybe, there was an explanation. It's not like me to jump to conclusions, he thought. Why did I? He had a suspicion, but he didn't want to admit it. Especially not with the effect those green eyes were having on him. Safer to dislike her. But it was a tenuous safety at best.
The cavalcade drove through the iron gates of the palatial estate the king of Zakhar had purchased in the Boulder foothills and furnished for his sister's year-long stay. Even though Trace had been here weeks earlier checking out the security measures and having new ones installed, he still couldn't help mentally whistling through his teeth at the size and grandeur. But now that he'd seen the number of people accompanying the princess he realized the estate wasn't too bignot if it had to accommodate a small army.
Trace had previously gone through every room in the house in minute detail, especially the bedrooms, and in his mind he'd already assigned rooms to the princess and the key personnel he knew were accompanying her. But the princess had other ideas, and wasn't shy in the least about expressing her opinions.
"No," she said immediately when he showed her to the large, sumptuous bedroom he'd picked out for her.
"Why not?" Trace dug in his heels. Not only was this the largest bedroom, it was the most easily defensible, situated as it was on the east side of the house with a vast expanse of open lawn in front of the long windows, no cover for anyone who might make it past the iron gates.
"I did not come to Boulder to look at grass," she said firmly. "No matter how well kept. I wish to see the mountains from my bedroom window."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fantastic book. I loved the suspense and the romance, but it was the depth of emotion that put this one over the top for me. I first met Trace in Cody Walker's Woman, where he was Kiera's partner. His respect for her abilities, while still being protective made him pretty special. I loved his interactions with her, and was thrilled to find out he would have his own story. Trace has been asked to head the security detail for Princess Mara's stay in the US, while she is teaching at a local college. He's been asked to use his knowledge of her language covertly, to make sure there is nothing untoward going on. There are also those who want him to use his good looks to get closer to the princess, but that he refuses to do. During his first encounter with her, he hears something that makes him think she is cold and that she thinks she is superior to others. It colors his treatment of her for some time, because he had experienced too much of that treatment himself. He was raised by his grandparents, who never let him forget that he was illegitimate, and that his mother had no idea who his father was. Though Mara misses her homeland and her brother, she is happy to be doing a job she loves. It gives her a sense of satisfaction that she rarely receives anywhere else. Mara spent her life feeling her father's hatred of her and enduring his constant belittling. Even after his death, his words haunt her, making her believe that no one will ever love her for who she is. Trace's treatment of her only reinforces how she feels. She doesn't know what she's done to make him feel that way, and it hurts her. I loved seeing them together. There were some interesting clashes between them as Mara had to adjust to the restrictions placed on her and Trace had to balance her safety with allowing her some freedom. Their love was a slow growing one that had major obstacles to overcome. There was attraction between them from the start. Trace knew that, as her bodyguard, getting involved with Mara would be wrong on many levels. He fought hard to keep a distance between them, but it was a losing battle. As he got to know her, he learned more of the things that had shaped who she was and couldn't help but be affected by them. This was really apparent on their hike when he confronted the man with the camera. He begins to see a different Mara than the one he thought she was, and that Mara is one he likes a lot. Mara had started out by being intrigued by Trace, even as his attitude hurt her. Although she felt that he disliked her, she also knew instinctively that she could trust him. Mara had come to the US incognito, wanting a chance to feel like a normal woman and just try to fit in. She gets to know Trace better and her feelings for him begin to change. What she feels is something she's never felt before and she can't help but show the way she feels. After an afternoon when their attraction leads to more than either expected, Mara knows that she loves him and believes he loves her too. Because of space limitations, review is continued at: http://susans2015readingblog.blogspot.com/2015/03/mckinnons-royal-mission-amelia-autin.html