“You are Jackson Gale, former Navy SEAL and one badass motherfucker,” I say to my reflection after wiping the fog from the bathroom mirror.
I like my showers super hot.
Pressing my palms down on the vanity, I continue my pep talk. “You save hostages. You obliterate foreign terrorists.”
My gaze flicks to the myriad of tattoos on my right arm, a full sleeve of commemorations and important insignia during my time as a SEAL. There’s some ink on my chest, a bit on my right ribs that curve around to my lower abdomen and disappear into the towel tied around my waist. Chicks love to follow that tattoo south.
Hazel eyes moving back to the mirror so I can look myself square in the face, I say with absolute certainty, “You most certainly do not babysit princesses.”
I stare at my reflection a good long time.
Give a firm nod, because I mean it.
No fucking way am I accepting guard duty for some spoiled-rotten royal brat and Kynan’s just going to have to accept it.
Kynan McGrath, owner of Jameson Force Security—perhaps the most elite private forces firm in the world—smirks at me. “Sorry, Jackson. I want you on this assignment.”
“To babysit a fucking princess,” I snarl as I slouch down almost petulantly in the chair across from his desk.
“It’s far more than a babysitting job,” Kynan replies blandly. “And you well know it.”
I don’t reply because I can’t really argue with it. Among other things, such as performing hostage rescues and working with foreign governments on black op missions, Jameson does routine protection and security services.
Except protecting a princess isn’t what I would call routine. Our company has been hired to provide security for members of Congress and Hollywood stars, but being asked to look after a royal is a first.
“I don’t get why you’re so averse to this job,” Kynan says, my lack of response prompting him to dig. “You’ve protected people before. You know it’s part of the job here and never complained.”
“She’ll be a spoiled brat, and it will be a miserable two weeks,” I grumble.
“And you know this how?” he challenges.
I shrug. I’m totally stereotyping, but I firmly believe people who wear tiaras simply can’t be genuine.
But that’s not the primary reason I don’t want this job. I get that not all our missions can be high adrenaline, dangerous, and pivotal to someone’s life or death. This isn’t the SEALs, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve had to ensure that my dad accepts it as well.
I’m third-generation navy, following in my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps. When I made the decision not to make it my forever career the way they did, well… that was almost unforgivable in my dad’s eyes, and he assured me my grandfather was rolling over in his grave. Our relationship has been strained ever since, and what’s worse is that my brother—who is still active-duty navy, intent on making it his career—has enjoyed becoming the favored son, lording it over me any time he can.
The only saving grace has been that Jameson is highly respected and called upon for help by the most important people in the world. Hell, the president himself hired us to protect his niece, and don’t think I haven’t thrown that in my dad’s face every time he lambastes me for leaving the navy for that “private, sissy security job.”
Christ, my family is complicated, and I shouldn’t care what my dad thinks of my life choices, but I went into the navy because I respected our family’s tradition. I wasn’t forced to do it. I wanted to do it. I wanted the Gale family honor to carry on by serving and protecting our country.
And I loved every damn minute of it.
It’s just… I didn’t love it enough to commit to it for twenty or thirty years. I wanted more freedom in my choices—I wanted a life, and let’s face it, I wanted better job security. Jameson pays a premium for the work we do, and my retirement potential is far greater.
“Jackson,” Kynan says, and my eyes slide over to meet his. I hadn’t realized my gaze had drifted and become fuzzy in my deep family thoughts. “You said the princess would be spoiled and you’d be miserable in the job.”
I shake my head, holding up a hand to stop the questioning. “Just forget it, boss. I’ve got this and can handle it. Two weeks is nothing.”
“Actually, it’s going to be three weeks,” Kynan says without an ounce of apology in his tone.
My eyes bulge slightly, and I swallow my ire. “But that means I’ll miss the training in Santiago.”
“There will be other training opportunities,” Kynan says dismissively. This isn’t open for debate.
I hold back a bitter reply. I was looking forward to practicing high-speed vehicular evasion tactics, an entire course built around how to outrun someone when being chased in a car.
“Why the change in agenda?” I ask, commending myself for sounding blasé about it.
“King Thomas has requested we meet with his royal security team in Bretaria the week before Princess Camille’s trip to the United States. He wants training exercises done to ensure we work seamlessly with their people, and then he wants our duties to start a little earlier than expected. It appears a member of the royal family has a wedding in London, and King Thomas wants to use that as a test of sorts.”
“To make sure I can protect his daughter at a wedding?” I ask drolly.
“To make sure we’re as good as our own government proclaims us to be,” Kynan retorts.
I scrub a hand through my hair, a move that makes my frustration apparent to my boss. Three weeks on security detail.
To a fucking princess.
Images of me following her around from couture store to couture store, hauling her bags and walking some tiny foo-foo dog cause my teeth to grit.
“She’s a high-value target,” Kynan reminds me, and those are the words I needed to hear to move past my irritation.
While I might not relish spending so much time ensuring the safety of an uppity royal, I do understand that the threat to her is real.
Bretaria is a sovereign city-state off the coast of Australia, just northwest of Brisbane, in the Coral Sea. It is composed of one main island and several outlying islands and islets. Originally annexed by the United Kingdom in the mid-1600s, but because it’s small and off on its own in the Coral Sea, it was largely ignored. Ruled by the Winterbourne family, it operated free of any real oversight by the British crown until it was finally granted status as a sovereign city-state. Not long after, and much to the dismay of King George III of House Hanover, it was discovered the main island and most of the satellite islands were rich with rubies.
Like, super rich.
Like, nowhere else in the world holds as many fiery-red stones, and this has made the Winterbourne family the richest monarchy in the world. Though the islands are small, the value of the gemstones is mighty, and even to this day, the mines still produce the highest-quality rubies in the world.
If there was ever a person who could warrant millions in ransom, it would be Princess Camille Winterbourne. Her two-week trip through the United States will put her at risk, no matter how much security her family puts in place. In exchange for the prospect of a multimillion-dollar payout, kidnappers could afford to get extravagant with their planning and tactics. Hell, it’s suspected that if anyone is going to make a move on the princess, it will be an elite special forces–type group who won’t be afraid to drop bodies in their zeal to take her.
So yes… this is a real and important job. I know it. Kynan knows it. Her family knows it.
I’ll never explain it away to my dad, though. He’ll still see me giving up an honorable career in the navy whereby I’d protect millions of Americans versus protecting one measly person, and not even an American at that.
Sighing, I sit up in my chair, elbows on the armrests, and clasp my hands in front of me. “I know she’s a high-value target. The highest we’ve ever protected, and I’m glad you trust me to be her last line of defense. I’m fully on board.”
And I am fully on board in my duties, but it still doesn’t mean I have to like who I’m protecting. I’ll just have to put aside feelings about who I’m protecting and remember the why of it.
“You’ll need to pack,” Kynan says, picking up a folder and handing it across his desk. The dossier holds information about Camille, the royal family, and the details on her upcoming travels. I place it on my lap to review later. “You’ll leave in two days. August was going to head up the detail, but he’s come down with the flu. He insists he’s fine to go, but I want everyone at 110 percent so I axed him. Ladd will head the generalized protection services for her trip to the States with a team under him. You’ll, of course, have charge of the princess personally, and both of you will coordinate with their security forces.”
I’m glad to know Ladd is going. He’s probably the person I’m closest to here at Jameson since we started at roughly the same time. His background is army and CIA, and he’s older than most of our agents, but he’s as solid as they come.
“Security forces?” I ask curiously. His choice of words is odd.
Kynan shrugs. “Bretaria has no known enemies and no national military. It has virtually no trade relations, its ownership of the ruby mines operating more like a private business. Because it’s a city-state, it has a police agency to handle protection of the public, but there isn’t a need for a military. As such, King Thomas has his own private security force that protects the palace compound and all those who reside within.”
“Fascinating.” I might not have warm and fuzzies for my charge, but I find their island sovereignty and its vast differences incredibly interesting.
Imagine… no military.
“Just remember,” Kynan intones with a pointed look, “we’ve been hired by the US government, not Bretaria. You don’t answer to the king or to his security forces, but you will need to work in conjunction with them. You’ll need to cooperate, but they also know if they want our aid, we are in charge of the US operations when she comes here.”
I nod in understanding. Often, heads of foreign states will hire us directly, but that’s usually for black ops work. When foreign diplomats travel through the United States, we will provide our own government agencies at said diplomat’s disposal. Protection is often handled through the Secret Service and at our government’s expense and pleasure and is in turn passed off to the taxpayers.
In this instance, Bretaria holds no formal relationship with our government, and there are no trade relations. Our government can’t legitimately use its resources—funded by tax dollars—to protect the princess.
It can, however, use private slush funds and pools of pork-barrel money to hire our agency, and I’m sure the request to help protect Princess Camille was filtered down from a high-ranking member of Congress, or perhaps even the president.
Regardless, my first-in-line boss is Kynan, but after that, I will answer to my government and not to the Bretarian people I’ll be working with. It will make for an interesting dynamic.
“And once we take over her protection?” I ask Kynan, as he’s clearly had more than one conversation with the Bretarians about our assistance.
“You’ll be her shadow,” he says with a smirk and leans back in his chair. I grimace and think that perhaps I’ll wear earbuds and crank some Metallica, so I don’t have to listen to her prattle, as I’m sure princesses are prone to do.
I’m not sure where my notions come from. I don’t know a single princess. Haven’t seen a movie or read a book about one. I know Princess Diana was a big commodity, but I don’t know much about her as she died when I was young, and what I see in the news about other royals is that they’re fond of fancy clothes and polo ponies. I guess that’s why I don’t think there will be much substance, and someone without substance is nothing but fluff, which I find irritating.
“Jackson,” Kynan grumbles irritably. “You haven’t heard a damn word I’ve said.”
A slight flush crawls up the back of my neck, and I manage a sheepish look of apology. “Sorry… mind drifted to the task.”
Kynan rolls his eyes. “While in Bretaria, your services won’t be overly important. The palace sits in the center of the island atop a fortified butte protected by twenty-foot stone walls built a few hundred years ago. It would be nearly impossible for someone to breach the family compound to kidnap Princess Camille, and in her almost twenty-five years of existence, an attempt has never been made.”
“She’d be vulnerable to an inside job,” I point out.
Kynan nods. “I’m sure they’ve considered that, and I hope their vetting process is thorough. But it’s also why they want you there earlier than expected so they can test our mettle.”
“I get that,” I mutter. While we are the best at what we do, none of us would be offended by being tested. “They won’t be disappointed in what they see.”
“Got that right,” Kynan growls, his pride in the company he’s built and the respect it’s earned evident in his tone.
I have the same pride in Jameson. I just wish my dad would respect it as well so I can have pure fulfillment in what I’m doing.
“I pulled out the melon-colored dress for you,” Netty says as she bustles about my suite. “It’s perfect for your afternoon tea with Mrs. Delmonde and her very handsome son.”
I sit at my vanity table, examining my brows for stray hairs to pluck, and heave a sigh. I set my tweezers down and turn in my seat. “Mrs. Delmonde’s son is in no way worthy of me or my title. It’s a waste of time.”
Netty doesn’t look at me but clucks her dismissal. “Of course he’s worthy. His family is solid and runs a shipping empire.”
I scoff and turn back to my mirror, nabbing the tweezers. “He’s not royalty. Princesses do not marry non-royals, no matter how wealthy they are.”
Which isn’t true. My parents would love me to marry a royal, but a very rich man would work just as nicely. As evidenced by the fact they’ve set me up with a Delmonde.
Netty makes that clucking sound again, something I’ve heard my entire life; it’s how she expresses her disapproval of my thoughts. I should bristle at not being taken seriously, but why bother? I’m expected to marry and produce an heir before I succeed the throne upon my father’s demise.
It’s not that I can’t choose to hold off on marriage and motherhood until after he dies—which I hope doesn’t happen ever—but my parents constantly bestow upon me the importance of succession to the throne and carrying on our lineage, which puts a lot of pressure on a young woman’s shoulders.
“You are a princess,” Netty replies with a chuckle. “And deserving of someone with a royal title. But you and I both know that options are limited if you’re shooting for that. Princes don’t grow on trees, you know.”
I spot a stray hair, lean toward the mirror, and pluck it efficiently with a slight wince. I’d rather be gored by a rhinoceros than pluck individual hairs out of my eyebrows, but a princess must do what a princess must do. The only reason I’m doing it now is so I don’t have to engage in this age-old conversation with Netty.
“I don’t want to wear the coral dress,” I command, tossing the tweezers down. “Pull out the navy-and-white-striped jumpsuit—”
“But that’s not dressy enough,” she insists.
I ignore her protest. “The navy-and-white jumpsuit,” I clip out as I stand from the vanity. “And my decisions are not to be questioned.”
It’s a brusque, cold response, and truthfully, she doesn’t deserve it. Netty stares at me with pink cheeks and bobs her head. “Of course, Your Highness.”
I grit my teeth. Netty has known me since the changing of my first diaper. She rarely addresses me so formally, and really only when I remind her of my station, which is really unlike me to do. But I’m stressed about this tea today with the Delmondes and the continual push for me to go down a path I don’t want to travel.
Pushing aside any sympathy for Netty, I turn my back on her. “That will be all for today. I don’t want to be disturbed until it’s time to get ready for the tea.”
“Shall I send your breakfast up or will—”
“No, thank you,” I say quickly but firmly so as to discourage further solicitations. “See yourself out, Netty.”
I harden myself against the hurt on her face. Netty has been my caretaker in one form or another since I was a baby. At first, it was to help my mother in any way necessary—a live-in nanny so to speak. As I grew older, it was to escort me to and from school and ensure I ate properly and did my homework, since my parents traveled a great deal as part of their royal duties.
I’m almost twenty-five now, and Netty’s job within the royal compound is to take care of me. That means choosing my clothes, making sure I eat, managing my social calendar, and generally clucking at me when I need it.
When Netty is gone and the door shuts behind her, I waste no time in moving to my bedside table where my phone has been charging overnight. I unlock the screen and send a quick text to Marius. We still good?
I glance out the huge balcony windows of my suite. From the uppermost elevation of Bretaria—the main island of our kingdom—the waters of the Coral Sea call to me. Mystic teal, lighter closer to shore but never deepening much, even a hundred yards offshore, due to the barrier reef that surrounds our land. Only past that does the water turn deep blue.
It’s January, the height of summer for our island sovereignty that sits about fifteen hundred kilometers from Brisbane, or roughly a two-hour flight via one of our family’s jets located at our private airport at the island’s southern end.
Bretaria is not only the name of our kingdom—a sovereign city-state—but also the name of the main island upon which we live. It’s eighteen square kilometers, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you remember that Monaco, also a sovereign city-state, is only two square kilometers.
Though it is by no means our family’s largest ruby mine, the original one sits on the north end of the island and still produces a hefty number of gemstones every year. We have other mines on the outlying islands, and I’ve visited every single one over my lifetime. It’s my family’s legacy, so of course, I’m intimately familiar with the operations—I’ve been schooled in such since I started talking.
The weather in Bretaria is near perfect. The high summer months of December through February hover in the mid-eighties, and our winter months never dip below the mid-seventies. Living on this island means you spend most of your days outside to soak up the warm breezes and sunny skies.
My phone dings, and I smile when I see Marius’s response. Already waiting for you. Bring breakfast.
Heart filling with joy, I text him back that I’ll be there in twenty minutes and scramble to my dressing room to find what I need.
Five minutes later, teeth and hair brushed and a swimsuit on underneath a T-shirt and jean shorts, I move with stealth through the palace.
I’m not sure why three people need almost twenty thousand square feet to live in, but our monstrous home was born of nothing more than the ego of our ancestors who fell into the riches of our ruby mines. Even though Bretaria was originally under British rule, our palace mimics neoclassical French architecture. It was meant to be grand and lavish—some would say ostentatious.
But I love the white brick and cut-stone facade, white marble columns, and gilded, wrought iron balconies that dot the exterior of all four stories. The black-and-white marble squares of the interior courtyard look like a huge chessboard, and given the semitropical weather, every room, balcony, porch, and patio are filled with verdant plants that flower year-round and perfume the air.
It’s my home, and it’s magical.
It’s also stifling, and that’s not just because of the massive twenty-foot stone wall that circles the outer boundaries of the palace lands. The wall was originally erected to protect the north mine from pirates and looters, but as the family’s wealth and associated notoriety became global knowledge, the wall was continued as to encircle the entire palace grounds. Every one of my family members is a high-value target. Me, my mother, and my father.
There are actual companies that provide kidnapping and ransom insurance for the wealthiest of the wealthy and those who travel to dangerous territories. However, it is often laughed about in our family that we are uninsurable. No insurance company would be willing to take on the risk of paying out a requested ransom if one of us were successfully kidnapped.
Instead, my father has taken our vast fortune—in the multibillions and rapidly growing—and invested it in an elite palace security force to protect us.
All of which means… I have to be careful making my way to Marius. I have to skulk in the shadows and cut through rooms with multiple entrances. I make a quick stop in the kitchen and snag some fresh cranberry muffins, wrapping them in a linen napkin and stuffing them into my backpack.
I then quickly make my way to the servants’ quarters on the eastern side of the palace in the basement. It’s an area about two thousand square feet and provides small but luxurious apartments for the top-ranking staff. That would include Netty; Armand, our household manager who reports directly to my mother; the head housekeeper Mary; the head land manager Jules; and the top dog of the security force, Dmitri, who intimidates me without even trying. He’s an imposing figure, very tall and barrel chested. He’s probably in his late fifties and can be incredibly austere. There’s a rumor that he’s supposedly ex-KGB. On the one hand, that is what intimidates me, but on the other, he’s my father’s most loyal and trusted person within all the palace, and I feel secure with him here.
At any rate, every one of those staff members is off tending their duties and managing the massive amount of people it takes to run the palace. As such, their quarters are empty. It’s a short dash through the common hall to the rear door that leads to a small parking lot for the household vehicles, available should one of them want to run into the city for something.
Seabirds call out to me as I hit the stony pavement and hitch my backpack over my shoulder. I cut between two cars, through a small hedgerow where an iron gate provides exit, and along a steep stone staircase that meanders down the butte.
At the bottom is the stone wall that circles the palace. A steel door is set into the thick wall with an electronic key code. It’s a direct port to the rocky shoreline below where another path cuts south to a small, protected harbor with a dock and boats.
Several steel doors sit along the perimeter of the wall, and all have different key codes. Those codes are kept secret—only me and my parents, as well as the head of security, have access to them.
I glance over my shoulder up the stone staircase carved into the side of the hill and search the parking lot that borders the staff entrance. I don’t know why I look. No one saw me come out here, and if they had, they’d be calling my name to stop. But no one is looking for me. It’s assumed I’m in my suite. It’s also assumed I’m a dutiful and prudent woman who understands that I shouldn’t go unattended outside the compound walls, and no one would ever think me daring enough to do so.
Still, there’s a measure of relief I’ve made it this far without so much as a hiccup, and I don’t hesitate moving through the door to the other side of the wall.
Rather than take the path that cuts right and leads to the dock, I turn left and meander along the trail that’s bordered by tall grasses. It eventually leads to a low-hanging cliff overlooking the Coral Sea, and it’s there that I find Marius waiting for me.
Six foot two inches of golden skin and rippling muscles, sun-kissed brown hair, and sparkling green eyes, Marius Lafayette is God’s gift to women, and he knows it. Whenever we’re out and about—on the rare occasions I get to go out and about—women actually stumble over their own feet looking at him. He notices it, too, and it only adds to his cocky swagger.
“About time,” he grouses as I walk up. He’s wearing a pair of board shorts and a white tank top. His hair is mussed, and it’s clear he rolled straight out of bed without running a brush through it.
I slide my backpack off a shoulder, reach in for the muffins rolled in linen, and toss them to him. He scrambles to catch the food as the muffins come free, but in addition to being ridiculously gorgeous, he’s incredibly athletic and graceful. Like a juggler managing four balls, he brings them all under control, catching two muffins in each hand.
I make my way across the thick carpet of green grass that flows right to the cliff’s edge. I nab one of the muffins from his hand and plop down. Marius follows suit, and we stretch our legs toward the sea.
It’s quiet—except for the seabirds and the waves crashing at the cliff base—and we eat silently as we soak it all in. This isn’t the first time we’ve met here, and it won’t be the last. Marius and I have been sneaking out for years to meet up.
When we finish our breakfast, I lean over and nudge my shoulder against his. “Do me a solid and come to afternoon tea?”
His head turns my way, eyebrows drawn inward and reticence in his tone. “Why?”
“Because Mum is trying to set me up with Boyce Delmonde, and he and his mother are coming to tea,” I mutter as I brush crumbs off my fingertips. That muffin went down way too fast.
“What’s in it for me?” he drawls, expression serious, ready to wheel and deal.
I sigh and lie back on the grass, tucking my hands behind my head to stare at the pristine blue sky. “Nothing. Your family is uber rich. There’s nothing I can give you that you don’t already have.”
“True.” He chuckles and reclines next to me. “But I suppose I could do you a solid and attend. I’ll even kiss you in front of them. That should send them running.”
I snicker as I remind him, “And it would only put you on my parents’ radar again. Besides… I kissed you once, and it did nothing for me.”
“Ouch,” he mutters.
But it’s true. Marius and I have been friends since we were eight, when his parents moved to the island. Bretaria had already started growing into a known mecca of finance, funded by the island’s thick layer of rubies. Many banks moved here given our lack of taxes and regulations, and along with that came Marius’s family, the Lafayettes. His father was a successful financial advisor in Paris, and his mother the heiress to a couture fashion line. They’re not in the billion-dollar bracket as the Winterbournes are, but they are in the multi-multimillion dollars, and that makes Marius a suitable contender—in my parents’ eyes—for me to wed and produce pretty little royal babies.
The only problem is that Marius and I are only friends. The best of friends, but friends nonetheless. When you’re a royal, your play options are limited, and the Lafayette family became good friends with mine. Thus Marius and I became good friends as we essentially grew up together.
When we were fifteen, we tried kissing and found that neither of us liked it. At first, Marius thought I was gay since I didn’t like kissing him—conceited oaf that he is—but we both realized it was because we were friends, almost like brother and sister, and it just seemed weird to be anything but.
At any rate, romantic love is not in the stars for us, but an enduring friendship most certainly is. We’ve about got our parents convinced to leave us alone and stop dropping not-so-subtle hints about a romantic relationship, but God… if Marius kissed me at tea today to send Boyce Delmonde packing, it would start them up again.
“Speaking of kissing,” I say, changing the subject, “how did your date go with what’s her name?”
“You mean Emelia?” he asks, a fondness in his tone.
“I guess,” I reply with uncertainty. He told me he’d made a connection at work and they were going to do dinner.
“Dinner went great,” he replies, and I don’t have to take my eyes off the sky to hear the mischief in his voice. “I didn’t give her a kiss good-night, but I banged her in her office the next day.”
My head whips to the left, and I lean up to stare at him, aghast. “Are you crazy? You can’t have sex with people in your dad’s office. That’s like … unprofessional or something.”
“She was begging for it,” he replies smugly, without even looking my way. “And besides, it’s my office too.”
That is true. While I graduated from university in Switzerland with a degree in humanities—totally useless for my trajectory but something I found to be incredibly fulfilling—Marius followed in his father’s footsteps and majored in economics and got his MBA immediately following. He joined his father’s firm as a full partner upon receipt of his master’s.
“You’re gross,” I say.
“You’re jealous,” he teases.
And he’s not far off the mark. Since graduating, I’ve been pretty much secluded back here in Bretaria. I’m not jobless, by any means—I’ve been working with my father to learn the family business of mining—but more importantly, I’m learning how to take over the role of sovereign as that event is inevitable.
In college, I was able to spread my wings. It was my first true taste of freedom, and while I always had a security detail, they were discreet and melted into the background. It let me be a college kid who could drink, smoke weed, and have meaningless hookups, although frankly, pretty sure the people assigned to protect me knew I did all those things.
But they wouldn’t have stopped me. My parents wanted me to have the enjoyment of university and all that came with it. My security detail was merely to keep me safe from would-be kidnappers and the like.
Those days are a fond memory, and yeah… I’m totally jealous that Marius gets to live his life the way he wants to.
And because I don’t want to get into my pitiful lack of a sex life since returning home three years ago, I push myself up from the grass. “Let’s dive.”
It’s really what we came here for, so I shed my clothes, leaving me in just a one-piece black swimsuit that’s modest and functional. If I were sunbathing on the beach or at one of our three palace pools, I’d be in a bikini, but cliff diving requires clothing that will actually stay on when I hit the water.
Marius pops up, too, and pulls his tank over his head, tossing it down on top of my clothes.
“Last one off is a rotten egg,” he challenges but politely waits while I wrap my long, blond hair with a hair tie.
I look out over the calm waters, and a shiver runs up my spine. Even though the water is smooth as glass, the thirty-five-foot drop is a bit harrowing. It’s not considered a huge cliff, but the height is dizzying for most people. Marius and I have been secretly diving into the warm waters from this cliff since we were fourteen, and no one has been the wiser.
“Let’s do this,” I say, and before Marius can fathom what I’m doing, I give him a hard push. He stumbles backward by about two feet, which gives me a two-foot head start.
I take one long stride toward the cliff, knowing I only need another four good ones to launch off the edge. Before my foot can leave the grass for the second stride, a voice snarls, “Stop, Your Highness.”
My blood chills in my veins as I recognize the roll of that Russian accent.
My father’s head of security, Dmitri Lebedev.
I slowly turn my head to find him standing fifteen feet away, and he’s pissed. After all this time sneaking out and cliff diving with Marius and essentially taking control of my life, I’ve been busted.
The woman in me—the one who hates being controlled and told what she can and can’t do—rebels against his command, and I actually step closer to the cliff’s edge. Dmitri’s icy-blue eyes flash with fury that I’d dare disobey him.
It’s quite a scary expression. Even Marius feels the dangerous vibes because he mutters in a low voice, “Don’t do it, Cami.”
He knows me well. He knows I’m ninety-five percent sure I’m going to take that dive off the cliff. I mean, I’ve already been busted. My escapades are coming to an end because now I’ll be put under heavy scrutiny and the steel-door passwords will be changed and I will not be made privy to them.
Fuck it. Might as well take one last dive.
I turn toward the cliff and the sparkling waters and prepare for a mad dash. He can’t catch me in time.
But before I even lift my foot again, Dmitri says in a deadly calm, rumbling tone, “Take one step, and I’ll shoot him.”
Ever so slowly, I glance over my shoulder and see that Dmitri has his gun unholstered, in his hands and pointed directly at Marius.
For a split second, I’m terrified he’ll actually shoot my best friend to keep me from jumping. Dmitri has no clue that I’ve done this hundreds of times, and he’s a bit crazy to begin with. He has no limits by which to hold him back in the protection of the Winterbourne family, so he could very well put a bullet in Marius’s leg to stop me.
But no … he won’t. He’d never. I’m sure of it.
Regardless, the jolt of adrenaline that nearly propelled me off despite the consequences fizzles, and my spine becomes boneless. With a sigh, I turn away from my adventurous free fall and stomp back to my clothes.
Marius gives me a sad smile, knowing that this little shenanigan we’ve shared through the years is done. He makes no move to put his tank on, and I’m sure he’s going to take a dip after I leave.
I pull my shorts and T-shirt on, shove my feet into my sandals, and turn toward Dmitri. His gun is again holstered, and he makes a sweeping motion toward the path that will lead us back to the door. He doesn’t bother looking at Marius but merely inclines his head for me to precede him.
I do so, and I don’t look back at my friend. I know it will be too painful to get that one last look at the freedom I’ve just lost forever.
It’s with a pissy attitude that I lead us back to the steel door. I step aside and make Dmitri punch in the code. Arms crossed over my chest, I demand irritably, “How did you know I was out there?”
“I went looking for you, and you weren’t in your suite like you told Netty you would be. It was a simple review of the security cameras to find you.”
We move through the door, into the palace through the servants’ quarters, and I assume he’s going to escort me either to my father’s office where I can face his ire or to my suite.
He does neither, though, instead turning down a hall that leads to the security offices.
“Where are we going?” I ask suspiciously.
“Some people you need to meet,” he replies curtly, not bothering to slow his pace or look over his shoulder at me.
“Who?” I demand.
“The members of the security agency your father hired to accompany you to London for the wedding and then on your trip to the States.”
I stop mid-stride, stunned by his revelation. “But why? I assumed you’d be heading up the trips with our own men.”
His tone is clipped. “Some of our men will be involved, but I cannot attend to you, and your father felt better with this American company to help us.”
“What do you mean you cannot attend to me?” I ask, scrambling to catch up with him. “You’re the head of our security. It’s your job.”
“It’s not my only job,” he mutters in annoyance as he comes to a closed door that leads into a conference room.
“Stop,” I command imperiously, and to my surprise, Dmitri faces me. In my haughtiest tone, I declare, “I am Princess Camille of House Winterbourne. I demand you look at me when I’m talking to you. I also demand that you give me the full details about what the hell is going on. You answer to me as much as to my father.”
Dmitri’s eyes flash again, not with anger like out on the cliff side, but with amusement.
He finds me funny.
And it’s humiliating that I don’t even get the respect my weighted title should afford me.
He reaches out and turns the knob, pushing open the door. He sweeps a hand and says, “Why don’t you see for yourself? All the answers to your questions wait in there.”
“I’ve seen worse places to have a home,” Ladd comments as he stands before a pair of opened French balcony doors. The view is of the city center with the Coral Sea beyond. While Bretaria is only about as old as the United States, the wealth blanketing the island means that all the buildings are pristine, the roads new, and there are no obvious signs of poverty.
From the dossier I read at least ten times during the long flight, I learned that King Thomas uses his ridiculous wealth to manage upkeep of everything. There are no taxes on the people who live here, but then again, their money isn’t needed for the sovereign state. The citizens—which number close to a hundred thousand between the main island and the outliers with mines—fall into two classes: middle working class and the überwealthy.
The working class are those who work the mines, work for the royal family, or those who work to maintain the city-state itself. They are paid a minimum of four times the minimum wage of the closest country of Australia, and that amount goes up depending on job skill and experience.
Privately owned small businesses, including bakeries, restaurants, and retail stores, operate at full capacity at all times of the year. Between private business success and a well-paid workforce, there is virtually no poverty, no slums, and no lack of education. King Thomas even provides private schooling for every single child on the island. If you are lucky enough to have citizenship here, you never want to leave. Truly, the working class is the middle class and the concept of lower class has no standing in Bretaria.
The other part of the citizenry is the überwealthy. Those in banking and finance have flocked here over the last hundred years, the wealth of the ruby mines like a beacon. Others who’ve come include heiresses and one-percenters who wanted a part-time home on a beautiful island with near-perfect weather year-round. With those people came construction of grand homes and mansions, fine dining, couture shopping, and expensive cars. You’re more likely to see a Lamborghini zipping along the narrow-cobbled streets than you are a moped, also a popular means of travel on the island.
Yes, I learned a lot about this very interesting city-state and garnered a modicum of respect that King Thomas spreads his royal wealth to his people. And while he is generous, almost to a fault, with his money, he’s also frivolous. He is splashy and spends on ridiculous things. It’s no secret to the world that he’s so rich, he could pay off a kidnapper every month and still never dent the interest he earns in that same period.
That makes him, and every member of his family, a high-value target, which is why I’m sitting in the security conference room of the royal palace in Bretaria.
We arrived early this morning and met with Dmitri Lebedev, the head of palace security. It’s really not just the palace he’s in charge of but the very personages of the king, queen, and princess.
I can’t get a good read on the dude. He’s old enough to be my dad but I wouldn’t want to tangle with him. He’s reserved and mistrustful, but hell, so am I when it comes to the business of protection. Kynan said he’s former KGB, although you’ll never find that in any public record or résumé. Such information comes straight from our government, as we vet all our clients as thoroughly as they should be vetting us.
I’ve got no qualms with his prior Communist ties, nor with how crooked and corrupt the KGB was. I figure if you’re going to protect a family such as the Winterbournes, you have to be as ruthless as they come.
In addition to Ladd, two other Jameson mates came along to the meeting, Cruce Britton and Dozer Burney.
Cruce will be more of a consultant as we get started. His background in the Secret Service means he’s got loads of experience scoping out places ahead of time and devising protection plans. He’s basically here to verify the final agenda of the princess’s travel in the US, go over the original plan we devised a few weeks ago based on her proposed agenda shared with us, and then head back to the States to finalize plans based on the scouting he’s coordinated.
Dozer isn’t an active agent with the company but rather our resident genius who Kynan stole away from NASA. He’s built like a linebacker, but his brain is bigger than his muscles. He currently helps run the Research and Development division at Jameson, along with our ex-con hacker, Bebe Grimshaw, and they are developing some freaky shit.
They’ve managed to develop an artificial intelligence they’ve named BOB for no particular reason. BOB can predict outcomes based on information fed into the program. Currently we use BOB, and Dozer, to help us plan and carry out missions by building hypotheses based on the information provided. BOB then offers solutions and potential outcomes so we can make well-informed decisions.
Super freaky shit.
Dozer’s currently working on his laptop, diamond studs glistening in his ears. Probably communicating with BOB.
“You got to admit,” Cruce says as he leans back in the leather conference chair, “this isn’t a shoddy job.”
I don’t reply. His job isn’t the same as mine. He’s going to help Ladd and Dozer work out logistics and manage perimeter support along with several other agents that will rotate in. He won’t be stuck babysitting, but whatever.
I can deal.
“Your asset isn’t hard to look at,” Cruce continues, his eyes coming straight to me, and they are alight with mischief and goading.
I shrug but remain silent. Not even going there because in addition to the very accurate and complete dossier I’ve read, which provided plenty of information about Camille Winterbourne, I googled the princess.
There were a multitude of paparazzi-funded photos of her in bikinis, sipping fancy drinks aboard yachts, and a plethora of red-carpet pictures of the princess in couture gowns. Every single picture, she’s smiling perfectly. She emits an air of superiority—maybe it’s the chin lift, maybe it’s my own prejudice, but no matter how gorgeous she is, she’s still a princess without a handle on real life.
At least that’s the prevailing theory I’m going with. I’m willing to keep an open mind, though.
“Stop,” says a female voice just outside the door Dmitri exited through to get the princess more than half an hour ago. Ladd turns from the balcony, eyebrows raised at the command within that one word.
“I am Princess Camille of House Winterbourne. I demand you look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Her accent is beautiful… a slightly dry English tone that’s been passed down over hundreds of years from when Bretaria belonged to the British crown.
Ladd’s gaze meets mine, a sly smirk on his face as he shakes his head. He knows I’m not crazy about babysitting a princess.
Dozer’s head pops up when she continues on. “I also demand that you give me the full details about what the hell is going on. You answer to me as much as to my father.”
“Oh man,” Cruce murmurs upon a chuckle, sitting straighter in his chair. “She sounds like a pistol.”
Like a spoiled brat.
Dmitri answers her, but his voice is too low—very calm—and I can’t hear exactly what he says. But within just a moment, the knob turns and the door swings open. I see Dmitri, but then my vision is filled with Camille Winterbourne as she walks through the door.
My gut tightens, not in reaction to her extreme beauty, which, to be fucking honest, is unparalleled. She’s got golden skin, sun-bleached hair, and light blue eyes. Her face is exquisite, her body perfectly proportioned.
But that’s not what has me doing a double take.
It’s that she’s wearing a pair of frayed denim shorts, an old T-shirt, and a pair of nondescript sandals. Her hair is in a bun with locks of it coming loose to frame her face, and she doesn’t have on a lick of makeup.
She looks … normal.
Although highly irritated.
Her blue eyes sweep the room, passing right over me, Cruce, and Dozer, landing on Ladd to stick there. “I understand you’re part of my new protection detail for my upcoming travels to the United States.”
It’s no surprise she narrowed in on Ladd. He’s the oldest of our crew—not that forty-one is old—but I’m sure his premature salt-and-pepper hair makes him look like he’s the mature one in charge. He rolls with her assumption and steps forward to greet her while Cruce, Dozer, and myself rise from our chairs.
The dossier briefed us on royal protocol, including meeting a royal and how to address them. The Winterbournes aren’t as formal as some sovereign families, so all that is required is a slight bow, really more a bob of the head and Ladd extends his hand to her.
She takes it to shake without hesitation as he says, “I’m Ladd McDermott from Jameson Force Security. I’ll be helping lead a team for your perimeter security on all your stops in the States along with Cruce Britton and Dozer Burney.”
When he announces their names, he tips his head to them and the princess gives each a short smile of acknowledgment.
She then turns those pretty blue eyes my way. “And you are?”
I don’t bow, bob, or offer my hand. “Jackson Gale. I’ll be your personal bodyguard during your trip.”
She takes the higher road, stepping toward me and extends her hand. She doesn’t chastise me for not showing her proper respect, and I’m shocked by that as we shake. “I’m Camille.”
No Princess Camille. No Her Royal Highness Princess Camille of House Winterbourne, or whatever bougie titles they give themselves.
She releases my hand and turns back to Dmitri who has entered the room and closed the door. “I still don’t understand why you can’t head up my security. You’ve always done so in all my travels.”
Dmitri is one cool son of a bitch and doesn’t hesitate to lie to the princess. “You’ve never been to the United States before, and the American government insists on providing security for your trip. Jameson will cover your cousin’s wedding in London as a means for us to judge their worthiness.”
The lie is that the American government is in no way insisting on providing security. We’ve merely been offered as a kindness, which was accepted, but come to find out today, the reason we were so gladly accepted by Dmitri and approved by King Thomas is that Camille doesn’t have the biggest threat potential right now.
What Dmitri shared with us—and which we’ve been forbidden from revealing to the princess—is that her father has a very active threat of assassination hanging over his head. This was picked up not by the Bretarian security forces but rather by Interpol who caught chatter about a plan forming to take out the king.
Apparently, the status of the royal throne isn’t as concrete as one might assume. When the royal charter was enacted in 1682, an obscure clause was included that provided for stability should a monarch die before his or her heir was sufficiently mature enough to take over duties of not just the throne but more importantly, the ruby mines. Specifically, the charter decrees that if the ruling king or queen predeceases their heir apparent before said heir reaches the age of twenty-five, then the heir is not qualified to assume the monarchy. Instead, the title will pass to the next in line to inherit.
In this case, it’s one of the king’s cousins, who lives in Brussels, although the cousin hasn’t been explicitly implicated in the plot yet. Rather, Interpol picked up vague chatter—assassination of a monarch to disrupt the succession to the throne.
Out of the current list of existing kings, queens, emperors, and emirs, it was easily narrowed down that the Winterbourne family was the most likely target of the plot. Camille will turn twenty-five in four and a half weeks. If her father were to die before her, the cousin in Brussels could make a play for the throne because it’s at age twenty-five Camille is formally named as the heir apparent. It’s not a guarantee the cousin would prevail and it would be fought out in the Bretarian courts, but having Camille out of the way would pave a very clear path for the cousin.
It was all a crapshoot, and the family was never mentioned by name, but it was enough of a threat that Dmitri felt it imperative that he not leave the king’s side for any reason. He told us that the solution was to cancel Camille’s trip and hold her on the island until her birthday. But Thomas is a kind man who loves his daughter and didn’t want to collar her any more than has already been done. She’d been planning this US trip for over a year.
Considering all the factors, it was decided Camille could go on her trip and that Dmitri would focus on the bigger threat to the king’s life.
After Dmitri told us this background, I felt compelled to point out, “Camille could be an assassination target as easily as her father.”
“True,” Dmitri had agreed with that thick roll of r’s from his Russian tongue. “But that is why we have you involved—to protect Camille.”
“Assassination is a lot different from kidnapping,” Cruce added. “You have to get up close to kidnap someone, but you can take someone out from a thousand yards with a high-powered rifle.”
Dmitri gave a sound nod. “Also true. But again, this is why we hired you. Mr. Britton, you were Secret Service. You managed to protect your president from getting killed. I expect the same for Princess Camille.”
“Yeah,” Cruce said with a wry smile. “Our resources were vastly greater when protecting the president.”
“And you shall have whatever resources you need,” Dmitri countered. “King Thomas has authorized an unlimited fund for his daughter’s safe travels through your country.”
“You seem very confident in our abilities,” I said, my eyes narrowed on him. “If that’s the case, why are we here for you to test us first?”
Dmitri laughed low, his eyes flashing with mistrust. “King Thomas is confident in your abilities. Your government spoke very highly of you. I, on the other hand, reserve judgment.”
Yeah… this guy was a piece of work. He was mistrustful and had lied point-blank to the princess that her father could be in danger, but you had to give him bonus points for being absolutely loyal to his employer by carrying out his wishes to engage our services.
I’m jolted out of my memories when Camille gives a weighty sigh. “I still don’t understand why you’re not going to be involved, Dmitri. There’s something you’re not telling me.”
She’s savvy. But just because she has sharp instincts doesn’t mean she won’t be a pain in the ass to watch.
“You’re being told all you need to know,” Dmitri responds icily, and in such a way if a former KGB officer said that to an ordinary person, they might faint from fear.
But Camille narrows her eyes. “We’ll see about that. I’ll have a talk with Father, and he’ll tell me what the hell is going on.”
“By all means,” Dmitri says with an easy incline of his head. And that tells me King Thomas has no intention of worrying his daughter. He’ll lie to her as well.
I hate that this makes me feel bad for my charge. While I’m seeing some of the haughtiness I’d been expecting from this royal, I’m actually seeing more concern for someone other than herself. I hate it because it means I might have misjudged her.
Not that I’ll beat myself up about it too much—we still have a long time ahead of us. Her initial impression so far has been benign, but it’s been a period of less than five minutes. You can’t really tell anything from that.
Without a word of farewell, she turns on her heel and marches for the door, apparently intent on taking Dmitri up on his dare to go to her father.
When her hand touches the knob, he says, “Tonight, Mr. Gale will be accompanying you to the Enovia gala.”
Camille’s head whips toward Dmitri. “I already have an escort. Marius will be—”
“Meeting you there,” Dmitri interrupts. “Mr. Gale will be taking you.”
“But I’m not in danger on this island,” she insists. “And Marius is expecting to pick—”
Dmitri cuts her off again. “Marius has been informed to meet you there. Starting tonight, Mr. Gale will be your personal bodyguard.”
“I don’t need a personal bodyguard here,” she snaps, blue eyes darkening to what I imagine the deep ocean would look like.
Dmitri cocks an eyebrow at her. “Contrary to the fact you went outside the palace walls without permission or protection and were going to dive off a cliff into the sea.”
My body jerks at that revelation, and I see that Ladd, Cruce, and Dozer are all as shocked as I am.
She’s a rebel.
A bad girl.
An adventurous spirit.
Christ, my job just got infinitely harder.
And admittedly, more interesting. Never in a million years did I imagine the princess diving off a cliff.
“Whatever,” Camille snarls at Dmitri and opens the door. She sails through and slams it behind her. There’s the pique I’d been expecting.
Dmitri looks at each of us before giving a small nod. “I’ll leave you gentlemen to continue your plans. We can meet again tomorrow.”
After Dmitri exits, we settle back down in our chairs. Ladd remains standing, arms crossed over his chest. “That was interesting,” he says.
Dozer leans over his computer, typing furiously. The clacking of his keyboard has us all watching him. His head pops up, and he grins at me over the laptop screen, eyes sparkling. “I just put this information into BOB, and it reports back that you are going to have your hands full with this woman.”
I glare at him but Ladd, Cruce, and Dozer have a good laugh at my expense.