A Soldier’s Princess

Harlequin Romantic Suspense | Share

by Lexi Fairfax

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Pitch

When biological scientist Princess Alana Volkava finds herself in danger as next in line to the throne, she never expected Special Forces Major Gage McAllister to come to her rescue. With a past they both tried to forget and a threat to thousands of lives, will they unravel the plot in time? Two dangers. One outcome. Who will win? The one trying to take her throne? Or the one who wants to steal her heart?

Chapter 1

An ocean breeze off the Caribbean Sea whispered good morning to Alana Volkava as she snuggled against the cool cotton sheets. With eyelids still closed against the warm rays from the sun, she basked in the joy of waking up on her own time. Not by an alarm clock or city street noise but an internal clock triggered only by her own subconscious desires. Alana stretched. She felt like a self-possessed cat. Her body as languid as her mind. Both still in a welcome fog of oblivion induced by an early morning of lovemaking.

She rolled her head onto the empty pillow next to her and savored Gage’s scent that still lingered in the fabric. His absence did not concern her. Over their last two months together, she had come to know his patterns and quirks. He liked to meet the morning sun head-on rather than being surprised by it while his eyes were closed. He liked his coffee black and his beer full of hops. He liked mangos better than papayas, fish better than chicken, and always kept hard butterscotch candies in his pocket.

After their first dinner together, he pulled one of the golden wrapped candies deep from one of the many pockets on his cargo shorts and offered her one. She laughed and told him she thought it was a strange habit for a thirty-one year-old to carry a stash of hard candy. A smile teased the corner of his lips and he shrugged his shoulders. Alana was pretty sure that was the moment she fell in love with him.

Alana swung her bare feet to the floor anxious to be next to him again. She grabbed shorts and a t-shirt from where she had left them on the floor the night before and dressed. Padding through the doorway into the other room of the small two-room cottage they shared, she was surprised not to see Gage. Usually, by this time of morning, he would be almost through the local newspaper and on his second cup of coffee. But every instinct told Alana that she was alone.

Alana peered out the window above the sink to see if his motorcycle was still parked outside. She was happy to see it sitting where he had left it last night, but then her brain started running through possibilities on where else he could be. Gage always let her know where he was going and when he would be back, although even a few minutes of separation was rare since they met. The only time they were not together was when she worked at the medical clinic or he was out for his morning run. His sneakers sat next to the front door and there was no note on the kitchen table.

Alana walked over to the window next to the front door, which gave her a better vantage point to see down the sandy driveway. She adjusted her position at the window so she could see around a large palm tree and saw him. A gasp of surprise escaped her lips. Gage stood next to a large black sedan parked along the main road talking to her father. An uncomfortable mix of fury and confusion raced through her. How dare her father come down to Honduras to check-up on her?

She knew her parents were having difficulty adjusting to the reality that she was an adult, but this unannounced visit went too far. She had graduated Oxford two months ago and decided to spend the summer volunteering at a small clinic before going to medical school in the fall. Both of her parents hated the idea of her going so far away, but after weeks of arguing they finally relented. It was high time that her parents let her live her life the way she wanted to live it. Alana was certain her father did not go traipsing around the world tracking her younger brother down just to check up on him.

Reluctantly, Alana admitted to herself that she was not an average twenty-four-year-old since she was ninth in line for the Corannian throne, but her link to the small country’s monarchy had never affected the way she or her family lived their lives. She grew up in London, attended normal schools, worked summers, and every once in a while attended formal events where she represented her country. But being a distant member of a minor royal family was not a role that defined her.

Alana mentioned her unique heritage to Gage a few days after they met, but he was adamant that they keep their outside lives separate from their little paradise. They agreed to limit all contact with the outside world and focus on pleasing each other.

She watched Gage rub the back of his neck with his hand. His expression was hard and focused. Even though she could not hear what was being said, Alana could tell that he did not like what he was hearing. Fear lanced through her body. She was terrified her father was placing ultimatums on Gage, and their relationship was too new for labels or promises.

Alana felt her hands ball into fists at her side. She planned to go outside and give her father a piece of her mind. But just as Alana reached to turn the brass doorknob, she saw Gage grasp her father’s outstretched hand and give it a brief shake. She did not know if she was happy that they seemed to reach an understanding of some kind or disappointed that Gage befriended the enemy.

Before she could even digest the scene that played out in front of her, a Jeep pulled up along side Gage and her father. Two men wearing sunglasses, black t-shirts and cargo pants jumped out with the speed and agility of thoroughbred horses. They spoke to Gage and her father, as well as to another man who climbed out of the driver side of what she assumed was her father’s car.

Alana had no idea if she should go out and ask what was going on or wait for Gage and her father to come inside and tell her. Her instinct told her to stay put and observe for another minute. Maybe it was the serious faces of the men as they spoke to each other or the way Gage stood with his arms crossed as he listened to whatever her father said.

Alana sucked in her breath when Gage turned his head toward the cabin and his steel gray eyes locked with hers for a moment. His expression was strained as if he was in some kind of pain. She yanked the door open and called his name. Without a word, Gage gave her a weak smile then climbed into the Jeep with the two men. As her pulse pounded and her heart beat hard against her chest, Alana ran barefoot across the small deck and down the stairs just as the driver swung the topless Wrangler into a U-turn. Gage shifted his position in the passenger seat, gave her one last look, then slipped his sunglasses over his eyes and disappeared down the sandy road.

“What did you say to him?”

She ran to her father and the strange man standing next to him. Her voice rose in anger and was laced with the fear she felt.

Her father said something to the large man that was traveling with him then turned and walked toward her.

“Where did he go? You have no right to come here and mess-up my life.”

Alana knew she sounded too emotional. Too much like the child she tried to convince her parents she was not, but her head spun as she tried to make sense of the situation.

Her father took smooth and measured strides toward her. Normally, his calm demeanor would soothe her nerves, but at this moment it did nothing more than further ignite her rage and the small twinge of fear that churned in her belly.

Once her father reached her, he spoke in an even and soft tone. “Alana, we have a lot to discuss.”

She stood her ground and crossed her arms. “No. Tell me why you sent Gage away.”

“He and his team need to get things ready.”

Alana felt her world tilt. Her breathing became shallow.

“What team? Ready for what?” Alana asked, her voice caught in her throat as she spoke. “How do you know him?”

She held her breath, but somehow she knew what he was about to say. At least he had the decency to look uneasy.

“Gage McAllister works for me.” Her father let out a heavy sigh. “Your mother and I were worried about you down here on your own so we hired a bodyguard to look out for you. We knew you would not like it so we asked that he stay undercover. I had no idea you two would become involved. From the sound of it, neither did he.”

Ice washed through her veins. Air refused to move in and out of her lungs. Words sat trapped in her throat as her mind raced through images of her time with Gage. Their chance meeting by the roadside. His reluctance to get close to her. His kiss. His touch. Every moment was now tainted with lies.

The warmth of her father’s hand as it covered hers shocked her back into the present. “Alana, I have something more important to discuss with you. We need to go inside.”

More important that realizing she was the stupidest woman in the world? Gage was probably laughing it up with his friends about how easy it was to get her into bed. A few glasses of wine, a midnight walk on the beach, and she was lost. And he worked for her father the whole time. A paycheck with benefits. How lucky can a man get? Too numb to argue, Alana pulled her hand from her father’s grasp and walked back toward the cabin. She heard his footfall behind her.

Once inside, her father led her to the small table where she and Gage shared dinner the night before. It felt like a lifetime ago.

“Come sit down for a minute, sweetheart. Please. There is a lot I need to say and unfortunately we do not have much time.”

Alana sat in one of the chairs at the Formica table. She lifted her head and saw the tired look in his eyes as he sat in the chair across the table from hers. A new kind of apprehension clouded her emotions. She had never seen that look on his face, and somehow she knew his grey pallor had nothing to do with Gage. Her fear shifted to thoughts of her mother and brother.

“Did something happen to mother or Stefan?” She swallowed hard scared of what her father might say.

“No, they are well.” The relief she felt was brief. She could see in her father’s eyes that the worse was yet to come. Her father looked down at the table as if he needed a moment to collect his thoughts. After a torturous second, he lifted his head and moist blue eyes linked with hers. She braced herself.

“There was a massive explosion at the annual opening of Parliament in Corannia yesterday. Marcus and his family are dead.”

Alana’s hands flew to her mouth as tears begin to form. “Everyone? Uncle Marcus and Aunt Lillian? The boys? All of them? Dead? I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“That is why I came. I wanted you to hear it from me rather than read it on the Internet or in a newspaper.”

Her head spun trying to grasp what had happened to her family. They had all been together last Christmas at the palace. Images of her uncle as he laughed at a joke Stefan told or her beautiful Aunt Lillian trying on the scarf her sons bought her. The boys. Her lips began to quiver at the thought. The three boys so bright and strong and full of life. Her cousins, only toddlers, laughing at all of the joys of Christmas. All of them gone. It was too much to take in.

She looked at her father again. Now she understood the sadness in his eyes. Her over-traumatized brain could only eke out single words. “Who? How?”

“We are working with an international team to determine what happened. Hopefully, we’ll find out more when we get there.” Her father stood. “You need to pack as quickly as you can. Take just what you need. Someone will clean up the cabin and send you your things later. I’ll be in the car making some calls. Come out as soon as you are ready.”

She shook off the shock and tried to clear her mind, but it was all too much. “What? Go where?”

Her father turned mid-stride with a look of determination on his face. The grief she knew he felt buried deep once again.

“Our country. Corannia. I am going to be crowned king in two days. Your mother and brother are already there. You must be ready to assume your duties as second in line to the throne. We leave in half an hour.”

Alana felt the blood drain from her face. Her father came over and put a firm hand on her shoulder as he stood above her.

“I know this is a lot to take in, my sweet.” He shook his head lost in his own thoughts for a moment. “Believe me, I know.”

He offered a brief smile.

“But we have a duty now. A duty that is bigger than all of us. Right now you need to put one foot in front of the other and focus on getting on the plane. You are second in line to the throne now. I wish I could make this easier, but all of our lives are changed.” He gave her shoulder one more squeeze. “We can talk more once we are on our way.” He turned and left the cabin.

Alana sat motionless in the silent cabin. In one, brief moment her world had turned upside-down. Gage was gone. Her dreams of being a doctor were on hold or maybe lost forever. Her once simple life was now complicated beyond anything she could comprehend. She lifted her eyes and scanned the little cabin that would soon be a distant memory. One foot in front of the other. That is all her father asked. One foot in front of the other. She moved about the cabin detached as if she was seeing everything for the first time.

In the end, she took very little. Essentials she thought she might need. She did not touch anything that belonged to Gage. After she threw a few things into her backpack, Alana opened the door and walked through. There was no sense looking backward. Everything was about to change forever.

#

Army Major Gage McAllister wrapped his arm around the waist of the woman sleeping next to him and pulled her backside closer to his front. Every place where his skin touched hers sent lightening strikes of craving through his body, but it was a sweet pain. A pain he would gladly spend a lifetime suffering. He nuzzled his face against her neck and filled his lungs with a unique combination of sea salt, sun, and her. His woman. His Alana. A burst of joy exploded inside of him that almost made him smile. He mindlessly ran his fingertips against her flat stomach amazed that skin could feel so smooth. She laughed and turned over onto her back. Whiskey-colored eyes filled with love and passion looked up at him making all coherent thought impossible. There was only her. Her heart-shaped face. Her thick chestnut hair. Her long slim neck. Just her. As he leaned down to kiss her full lips, she called his name.

“Mac.”

Terror sliced through him. How the hell did she know his call sign? How did she find out the truth? He wanted to tell her his real identity every day they had been together, but he was terrified he would lose her. Gage never thought he could love like this. He reached for her but all he grasped was air. His heart raced as he clawed the sheets for her. She smiled then faded away.

“Major McAllister.”

Gage felt a nudge to his shoulder as if someone gave him a light punch.

Gage opened his eyes and a blast of sunlight blinded him. Instead of Alana staring up at him like he was her knight in shining amour, he found himself looking up at a large caramel-skinned man who could bench press three hundred pounds without breaking a sweat. Buzz, one of his Echo Company teammates, smiled at him as he stepped over Gage’s legs and hopped out of the helicopter after Sam.

It only took Gage a second to clear his head of Honduras and painful memories, and get his brain where it needed to be. It had been almost four years since he left her. The single most difficult thing he had ever done. But he never doubted for one minute that it was the right thing to do. He could never be the man she needed. She deserved someone whole and unbroken.

Gage shook his head, jarring himself back into the present. Afghanistan. He and his team just completed a seventy-two-hour mission behind enemy lines. Gage slung his gear over his shoulder ready to head to the chow hall. Just as he was about to step out of the helicopter, JT tapped him on the shoulder.

“What should we do with him?”

Gage followed JT’s finger and found their newest team member fast asleep in the corner of the helicopter bay holding his M-110 sniper rifle as if it was a teddy bear.

“Wake him up. I’m sure he’s as hungry as the rest of us.”

Gage turned, prepared to head out the open door, before JT’s words stopped him.

“No way. The way that kid shoots, I’m afraid I might have a hole in the center of my forehead before he even opens his eyes.”

JT was right. The kid could shoot. Gage looked down at Ethan Hill taking in his sharply chiseled features and pale blonde hair. The kid should be on a surfboard or chasing girls, not sitting on a helicopter surrounded by a dusty, hungry hard-core Army special ops team. They gave him the call sign ‘Cal’ for his California-boy good looks even though the kid was from Ohio.

Gage crouched down with his weight on the balls of his feet and gently shook Cal’s arm. The boy hugged his rifle tighter. Gage smiled as he stood up and readjusted his gear.

“Let’m sleep. He earned it. I’ll come out and get him after we eat.”

Gage hopped out of the helicopter after JT. The four men began walking toward the chow hall. Just as Gage was about to step through the threshold, a young female private ran up to him.

“Major McAllister, Colonel Davis wants to see you ASAP. He’s in his office.”

She looked about Cal’s age. Either he was getting too old for this business or the Army was recruiting out of kindergarten.

Gage looked at his men and shrugged his shoulders. Being called into the colonel’s office usually meant they would be heading out to their next assignment before the sun set. Gage hoped he would have time to grab a meal and a shower before they needed to leave. Teasing his nostrils with one last whiff of whatever was being served, Gage handed Sam his gear and followed the private to the colonel’s tent.

When he walked into the office, Gage was surprised to see a tall man with salt and pepper hair instead of the colonel behind the desk. The man had his back to the door, but Gage did not need to see his face to know who he was. The great Andrew Westin.

“Thank you, Private,” Gage said.

Westin spoke after the door closed behind the young soldier.

“I hear your mission went well.”

Gage nodded. He assumed that Westin knew about their mission to take out a senior terrorist financier. As the Deputy National Security Advisor for Operations or as Gage liked to think of him ‘the guy who did the president’s dirty work,’ Westin probably organized the op in the first place.

“You look awful, Mac.” Westin spoke casually as he took a seat in the colonel’s chair.

Gage didn’t argue. “I’m guessing this isn’t a social call.”

Westin had the authority to call up any military or government asset he needed whenever he needed it. It had been a while since Westin came calling for Gage and his team, which was just fine with Gage. He hated the clandestine missions of Westin’s world where people were friends one day and enemies the next. But, Gage owed Westin. He had been there to pick-up the pieces after Gage came home from Honduras. Without Westin, Gage would be a forgotten statistic by now.

“You’re going to want in on this one, Gage.”

Gage took a seat across the desk from Westin. “Andrew, I’ll be honest. My team’s beat. Isn’t there someone else you can get?”

Gage knew he could be ready in a few hours if he needed to be, but he would not ask his team to keep the grueling pace he set for himself.

Westin spoke in a firm, unemotional voice although his eyes conveyed sympathy. “It’s about Alana.”

Gage felt the air rush out of his lungs as if someone had sucker punched him in the stomach.

Westin remained silent. He would understand that Gage needed a moment to recover.

When Gage finally answered, his voice was rough with fatigue and emotion. “I’m not your man. Get someone else.”

“Mac, this is big and she’s right in the middle of it. You know I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was important.”

Gage crossed his arms and sat back against the chair. “I doubt that.”

“Ignis. Ever hear of it?” Westin asked.

“Sure,” Gage answered, “A Cold War fairy tale. Don’t tell me you want me to go chasing ghosts for you.”

“This is no ghost, Mac. I’ve seen it. The Cold War project the Soviets ran in the 1980s where they tried to genetically alter and combine viruses to make them more lethal is very much back in business. An autopsy on a man murdered in Switzerland uncovered a complex blend of ricin and botulism toxin. A recipe our analysts found in decoded Ignis documents.”

“And?” Gage was too tired for riddles.

“And last week we learned that there are six vials of the deadly mixture about to hit the open market.”

Gage could hear the stress in Westin’s voice.

“Andrew, you have an army of super-spooks that live for this stuff. Send them. They’re the experts. I’m just a knuckle-dragger who goes in to clean-up their mess once in a while.”

Westin’s expression changed. “We found a link, Mac. A link I vetted three times myself before I even considered it credible.”

“A link to what, Andrew?”

“A link between a known associate of the Ignis program and Alana.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Are you familiar with AP?” Westin asked.

“Sure. Altyn Poltinnik. A Russian organized crime syndicate made up of a bunch of former Russian Spetsnaz soldiers. Into stuff like prostitution, night clubs, drugs.”

“They’re into anything that makes money. A lot of it. And the deal of the day is . . .”

“Genetically altered bio-weapons,” Gage guessed.

“Bingo.”

“What does this have to do with the Princess?” Gage wished he did not care, but he did.

“Two weeks ago we picked up a series of text messages between AP and someone who supposedly has access to the Ignis virus. The seller needs someone to set-up an auction. Highest bidder wins the vials.”

Gage let out a low whistle. “How does Alana fit into all of this?”

Westin leaned back in his chair. His intense dark eyes assessed Gage as he spoke.

“The text message to AP was traced back to the Princess’ personal cell phone. We have logged four contacts between the known AP number and her cell phone in the past month.”

“What!?” Gage sprung from his chair. “Alana isn’t bartering in bio-weapons, Andrew.”

“I know it seems out of character, but, let’s face it, her country is still having some financial difficulties. The money would stabilize the political situation, make the monarchy look good . . .”

“You’re insane.”

“She’s building an infectious disease wing in their hospital. It’s her pet project. She graduated from Oxford with honors in bioscience. Hell, she spent time in Honduras working with a doctor who specialized in genetically modified treatments for malaria.”

Gage looked at Westin as if he had sprouted two heads.

“I’m not saying she wants to use them, but personal emotions aside, Mac, even you must see the possible connection. She has the background. Not to mention serious trauma in her life. Who knows what sends people over the edge? All she needs is for someone to set up the sale.”

“It’s bullshit and you know it.” Gage felt every protective bone in his body go on alert. There was no way Alana was mixed up in this.

Westin continued, “The body that was full of Ignis was General Hanski, a senior general in the Corannian army. He told one of our agents that a member of the royal family was storing Cold War bioweapons.”

“Did he mention the Princess?” Gage held his breath.

“No. He never mentioned the Princess.” Westin raised his hand. “But before you run off claiming her innocence, the General claimed to know more, but he was killed before we could meet him again.”

“We are doing what we can to bury the truth. The last thing we want is for the public to go into a panic before we can get the vials. But time is not on our side. We need to recover the vials and close down this program before it gets out of control.”

Gage ran his hands through his hair. “If they are already using the stuff on humans, I would say it’s already out of the control.”

Westin gave a brief nod of his head in agreement. Frustrated, Gage turned away from Westin and stared out the window. All he saw was the way Alana looked running after him in her bare feet. Her eyes begged for answers he could not give.

“Andrew, send someone else.”

“Mac, you’re the only one who can get close enough to her in the short amount of time we have. Our analysts think the sale might happen as soon as this Sunday. That gives us four days.”

“No. No way. I’m not going to lie to her again. National security sucks as an excuse when you break someone’s heart.”

Westin rose from the chair. “All you need to do is get close to her and figure out what the hell is going on. We need those vials and Ignis shut down.”

Westin moved to stand next to Gage. Minutes passed until Westin’s quiet voice broke the silence. “If I had to make a call right now, I would say she is innocent and being used. But, whoever is using her is close to her. Too close. She needs you, Mac. I wouldn’t ask if there was any other way.”

Gage hated his friend at that moment, but he knew he was right. Someone had access to Alana’s cell phone, which meant they had access to Alana.

Gage turned to Westin. “I want my team.”

Westin nodded his head in agreement.

“And I call the shots. No advice from DC unless I ask for it.”

“Of course. You’ll be undercover as part of a delegation who is finalizing plans for a small US base to be opened in the south. The agreement has been finalized. It just needs to be officially signed by the king and ratified by Parliament. There is a group traveling to Corannia today for the final meeting, ceremony, and ball. The conference begins tomorrow with most of the meeting and activities taking place at the palace. It should give you the access you need.” Gage was not surprised that Westin had already set the plan into motion.

“There’s something else you should know.” Westin looked uncomfortable with what he was about to say.

“What? Just say it.”

“You should know there are rumors that Alana is about to announce her engagement. The local press and European tabloids are all over it.”

Wow. Married. The logical side of his brain was happy she found someone. She deserved happiness and he sure as hell could not give it to her. But the caveman side of his brain wanted to use the guy for hand-to-hand combat practice.

He took a deep breath and forced back the pain that threatened to tear him in two. He gave up any right he had to feel anything when he let her plane take off without him. But regret would get him nowhere. Gage took one more second to lock his emotions deep inside of himself. He needed to focus on the mission. Do what he was trained to do.

“When do we leave?”

“As soon as you and the team are ready.” Westin walked over and met Gage at the door. “Listen, Mac, if this gets too hard, just let me know. This is too important for emotions to cloud your judgement.”

If Alana possessed even a fraction of the power she held over him in Honduras, keeping his feelings for her in control would be impossible, but he had to make an attempt. Whether or not she knew it, Alana was mixed up in Ignis and she needed him. He had to help her. Gage looked back at Westin and nodded his head in understanding then headed to gather up his team.


Chapter 2

Alana Volkova, Her Royal Highness, Princess of Corannia, watched as Sergei closed his cell phone and put it back in his suit jacket pocket. It was rare that he would take a call in the middle of a photo shoot, so Alana knew it must be important.

“Do you need to go?” Alana leaned over to him and asked in a whispered tone she had mastered during her four years in the public spotlight.

Sergei Semenov was not only her steady companion, but also the royal liaison to the Corannian Defense Ministry. So, it was not a stretch of Alana’s imagination to guess that he might have a few more important things to do than accompany her to the reopening of the Corannian National Library.

Sergei turned and took her hands in his as a cacophony of clicking camera shutters and popping flashes created a surreal effect on the ancient leather bound books that surrounded them. Alana groaned inwardly knowing that this seemingly intimate scene was sure to make the Internet within the hour, which would inevitably lead to more questions and then more pictures in a never-ending spiral of paparazzi perdition.

Over the past four years, interest in their relationship by European tabloids was usually kept at a manageable simmer, but when rumors of a possible engagement announcement leaked out of the palace last week, the simmer quickly increased to a rapid boil which turned the usually docile press corps into a pack of vultures circling a fresh kill.

Dealing with the press was a necessary evil as an HRH – her royal highness. Although Alana’s presence on the European royal stage was minor compared to the princes and princesses of Britain and Monaco, the unique and tragic story of her family’s assent to the throne still captured the hearts of most of the world.

As the second in line to the throne, Alana had grown into the role of professional princess after a difficult adjustment period. To some her job might look like nothing more than a professional ribbon cutter and parade waver, but she knew that her position meant more than that. She had learned how to read people, understand their needs and wants and the difference between the two. Alana was skilled at gauging the atmosphere of a room and adjusting her demeanor and speech as needed. She was a diplomat, psychologist, social worker, teacher, and fashion model all at once. Not quite how the fairytales described the job requirements, but she adjusted.

Alana also understood that one of her most critical duties was to marry and have children. It was not the dark ages anymore, but the responsibly of birthing the next generation of royals was something that time would never change. And, if marriage to Sergei further ingratiated her family to the Corannian people, all the better.

Although there was no question that her family’s claim to the throne was legitimate, the Corannian people, especially those in the northern territory, had questioned if her father was fit to rule since he had spent the majority of his life in England. It was a valid question. Alana and Stefan had only visited Corannia once a year for the holidays, and even then spent the majority of their time inside the palace walls. She did not know the people and they did not know her.

During her first year in Corannia, Alana had felt like a fish out of water. She had to learn the customs and traditions of the various groups and tribes that made up her country. The press had weeks upon weeks of stories and pictures of Alana mispronouncing words and fumbling during situations that should have been second nature to her if she was a true Corannian.

Eventually, she found a way to put her past hopes and dreams – and pain – behind her, and embrace her new life. Once she opened her heart, Alana soon became the darling of the people. They were fascinated with everything she wore, everything she ate, everything she said, and, of course, everyone she dated. Although there had been a few men here and there that escorted her to events, Alana’s heart was too battered and bruised to let anyone past the walls she had built. Until Sergei.

Sergei had been a constant in her life from the moment she and her family settled in the palace. Where her family where outsiders, Sergei was an insider; a true Corannian. He came from a long and distinguished line of prominent Corannian citizens, to include former prime ministers and important generals. During his four years at the Corannian military academy, Sergei roomed with Alana’s cousin, Prince Henry, and the two of them soon became the most sought after bachelors in Corannia.

After the tragedy, Sergei played an invaluable role in bringing her father up to speed with matters of state and defense. Sergei went out of his way to smooth over relationships with key members of Parliament and industry leaders. Soon his assistance migrated into more personal aspects of the royal family’s life. Sergei would take Alana and Stefan to town festivals, restaurant openings, and even once to the birth of a prize pig. He introduced them to everyone he knew. Being seen with him was the stamp of approval the country had been looking for.

Stefan eventually became comfortable in his role as prince, enjoying both the work and the women that seemed to come with the job. Alana’s brother soon became known as one of the most sought after bachelors in Europe leaving Alana and Sergei on their own. Over the next year and a half, Alana and Sergei established a unique friendship that soon grew into more.

Alana had heat and passion with Gage. She never wanted anything like that again. Passion was overrated as far as she was concerned. All she wanted and needed was a nice man who she could respect and love. Someone who appreciated her and her duties to the country. And she was sure Sergei was that man.

Alana looked up into his handsome face framed by soft brown curls and highlighted by sparkling green eyes as he gently rubbed her knuckles with his thumbs. There was no doubt that he was typecast for the role of Prince Charming. What more could a woman want? Certainly not the hulking, dark hair, quiet type that disappeared to never been seen of again. No woman needed that type of man in her life. Ever.

“I need to head back to the Ministry. General Hanski’s body just arrived at the airport on a plane back from Switzerland and I need to finalize the details of the ceremony and burial,” Sergei said.

“Yes, of course. You should have told me earlier. I could have made your excuses here.” She shook her head. “I still can’t believe what happened. Do you have any more information on how he died?”

Alana had meet the general on a number of occasions and could not believe that the kind man had came to such a violent end.

“It still looks like a heart attack while he was walking along the river, but I understand the final autopsy reports should be sent tomorrow. People said he had not been feeling earlier that day. I understand your parents decided to stay in Switzerland hoping to stay on top of the case, but will be home before the signing with the Americans.” Sergei said.

Sergei tucked Alana’s hand in the crook of his elbow and led her out of the library and in to the grand hall with its twenty-foot painted ceilings held up by stone buttresses that were carved when Catherine the Great reigned. They passed through a set massive wooden doors that led outside where her bodyguard, Victor, and personal secretary, Maya, waited patiently for her.

“You will let me know what the reports says?” Alana asked as they reached her stretch sedan.

“When we know more, I will tell you,” Sergei promised.

Ian, Alana’s driver opened the car door as a signal that it was time to leave. They were on a tight schedule and needed to be at the meeting with the Americans within the hour. That was just enough time for her to make the drive across the city and finish some key correspondence in the car.

“I’ll see you tonight for the ballet with the Americans.” Sergei leaned over and gave her a chaste kiss on the cheek then assisted her into the car. “You look beautiful, by the way,” he told her as he stepped back and shut the car door.

Alana smiled at his compliment. She watched as he gave one last wave and walked toward his own car followed by a small entourage. Maya and Victor took their designated seats in the car. Maya in the back with Alana and Victor up front with the driver.

“He is so beautiful. I really have no idea why you act like it is a national tragedy that you are going to marry him,” Maya said as the car pulled away from the curb.

“I do not,” Alana argued.

“Um, yes, you do. You make a face every time you talk about marriage. I, on the other hand, would not wait one more minute for that man to put a ring on my finger.” Maya wiggled her ringless left hand.

Alana looked at Maya and rolled her eyes. A very unprincess-like gesture. “I don’t think it is good for either Sergei or I to feel like we are being pressured into marriage. Even if it is something that will likely happen. Eventually. Soon.”

“Wow. Your enthusiasm is overwhelming,” Maya said sarcastically, but then continued with a more serious tone, “You know, Alana, at some point you are going to have to stop feeling guilty about winning the genetic lottery. You did not cause the tragedy that killed your aunt and uncle. You don’t owe anyone anything. You are a princess no matter what you decide to do about Sergei’s proposal. No one expects you to marry Sergei like some weird penance to prove to everyone that you care about this country. You’ve given up enough. Your family has Sergei as an ally, but they don’t need him as a son-in-law if that is not what you want.”

“I know. It’s just that . . “ Alana let her voice trail off. She did not feel like discussing her relationship with Sergei. It was hard to explain how heavy the burden of her crown felt most days.

“Just what?” Maya asked. Alana heard the concern in her friend’s voice.

This was not the first time they had had this conversation. Maya had been with her since the beginning of the Volkava’s assent to royal life. When Alana stepped off the plane from Honduras, Maya was there. She helped Alana through all of the bumps and bruises of her first year as princess. It did not take long for them to form a friendship, but even as close as they had become, Alana had never confided in her friend about Gage.

Maya played a critical role in helping Alana refocus from the dual disasters of the bombing and Honduras. Eventually, with Maya’s help, Alana threw herself into her work as a member of the royal family focusing on the good that she could do for others. Maya had even made the suggestion for Alana to plan the new hospital wing, a project that has become an obsession for Alana. The project was the best way for her to still be apart of the medical world even though she abandoned her dream of being a doctor. Alana knew she was blessed with so much, and she desperately wanted to show the country that she was worthy of the love and trust they gave to her. She knew in her head that marrying Sergei was the next logical step in her life. Now, all Alana needed was her heart to catch up and get with the plan.

“I have to marry someday, and I doubt there is anyone better suited for me or the kingdom. And, I like him.”

Maya made a face.

Alana spoke with more conviction, “I do like him. I love him.”

“Who are you trying to convince? You or me?”

When Alana did not answer her question, Maya smiled. “Okay, back to work.” Alana watched as her secretary bent down and pulled papers from the briefcase on the floor by her legs.

Maya shuffled papers as looked out of the tinted window. The dark blue stretch Mercedes adorned with official flags, which guaranteed them the right-of-way at intersections, turned onto the road that would take them from the west to the east side of the city. She leaned her head against the cool windowpane and lost herself in the panorama of her beautiful country. Something that never failed to soothe her nerves.

The car passed one of her favorite vistas. The afternoon light painted St. Mark’s, a gothic stone cathedral that dominated the skyline, in a swathe of russet and gold. The Black Sea, which bordered a third of the city, played hide and seek as her car passed by office buildings. Its dark blue ripples of water tossed the light back and forth in a hypnotic rhythm. A few blocks later they passed a series of small eighteenth century row houses painted in vibrant colors with each window decorated with late spring blooms.

The scene framed outside her window could be found on the cover of most picture books or tourist brochures about her country. But nothing was quite like seeing it in person. Alana could not help but find peace in the scenery. It was a beautiful country and one that she was proud to serve. The country deserved her undying devotion. And, if handsome prince charming Sergei was part of that package, who was Alana to argue.

Alana sighed and accepted the fact that she would not come to any conclusions about her future in the car. Before she completely lost herself in daydreams, Alana took the leather portfolio embossed with her family’s royal crest that Maya handed her and went over the daily correspondence that begged for her attention.

#

Gage knew the minute Alana was close. The princess and her brother arrived for the luncheon they were hosting for the American delegation and the room buzzed in anticipation of meeting members of the royal family. The massive door that dwarfed all who walked through it opened and Gage could see a group of people standing just outside of it.

Although his view of Alana was blocked by the prince and Philip Matthews, the head of the American delegation and a pompous bureaucrat, Gage could see her slim ankles and high-heels. He felt adrenaline pump through him. This was it. He refused to lean back in his chair to get a better view. She would walk in his line of sight soon enough.

Gage looked around the room and counted six tables of eight scattered in a zig-zag pattern around the blue and white room in a formal yet intimate setting. He had been seated with seven junior aids from the American and Corannian delegations at a table furthest away from where the prince and princess would sit. It was the diplomatic equivalent of the kids’ table, but Gage did not mind. It gave him a good vantage point to observe the rest of the room.

Gage arrived in Corannia after midnight. His team set-up in a small farmhouse Westin had procured, while Gage checked into the five-star hotel where the American delegation was staying. After studying the briefs and intelligence reports through the night, Gage had to admit that the links between Altyn Poltinnik and Alana were questionable. Whoever made contact with AP had to be someone in Alana’s close circle of friends or personal staff. Someone who could access her cell phone without anyone noticing.

Considering who she was, he figured there were at least a dozen people who would have unfettered access to the princess and her things. He needed to identify who they were and which one of them had connections to AP. But to do that, he had to get close to Alana and figure it out for himself.

If he asked too many questions, he could spook the AP link. Gage needed that link alive and talking so he and his team could figure out where the vials of Ignis were hidden and get them off the street before some nut job decided to use them against innocent men and women.

While sitting through mind-numbing morning meetings about the base opening, Gage tried to think of an alternative plan, one where he and Alana could stay on opposite sides of the palace, but Westin was right. Gage was the only one that had a chance of getting close enough to Alana in time to stop the sale of the bioweapon. Once it was sold, they had little to no chance of finding it again before someone used it or threatened to use it. Either situation would be devastating.

The only way he could begin to understand who or what he was up against would be to push past the defenses she would put up the moment she saw him again. He hoped there was enough goodwill left between them for Alana to let him back into her life. At least for a few days. All he needed was enough time to stop the sale and then he would be gone again. He could handle it. So could she. Four years was a long time. Long enough to move on. Honduras was just a blip on a radar, that was all. He had almost convinced himself that this would be a mission just like any other then she came into his view and all the lies he had just told himself crumbled like dried leaves in November.

A slim man dressed in old-fashioned livery walked through the doors and belted to the room, “Their Royal Highnesses, Princess Alana and Prince Stefan, and Assistant to the Deputy Under Secretary for European Affairs, Philip Matthews.”

Gage took a deep breath and stood with the rest of the men and women in the room. For Gage, the moment she walked in to the room, everyone else disappeared. There was only Alana. She wore her light brown hair in a tight twist that sat at the nape of her neck. He wondered if she had kept it long or if she had it done in a more mature style. Gage hoped she kept it long. He remembered how it hung past her shoulders and he would mindlessly play with it as they sat on their couch and read.

Gage appreciated the way her grey suit flattered her perfect figure. Her jewelry was simple and understated, but Gage had no doubt that just one of the pieces she wore was worth more than he made in a year. In general, she wore her new role well, he thought. Almost too well.

Gage watched as she was introduced to the delegates at the head table. Her movements were graceful. Her smile perfectly timed. She leaned in and shared brief words with everyone she met. The men and woman gushed and grinned, but Alana maintained her quiet pose.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

Gage forgot that someone was standing next to him. He must have looked confused, because the young woman repeated herself.

“The princess. You’re staring at her. It’s okay, everyone is. She’s beautiful. And nice, too. Or so I hear,” the woman babbled.

It took a second for Gage to switch his focus from the shock of seeing Alana to the chatty young woman next to him. He had met Amanda Kensington, a young Foreign Service officer on her first assignment, at the beginning of the morning meetings. She was young, blonde, eager, and willing to please. Usually Gage’s type, but not today.

“Yes, very beautiful,” Gage admitted hoping the conversation would end there.

Amanda shrugged a shoulder and gave him a flirty smile. “Rumor is she is about to announce her engagement, so I would not get any ideas, Major McAllister. I, on the other hand, have no plans if you want to go exploring after the ballet tonight.”

Gage raised an eyebrow.

“Exploring around the city I mean.” Amanda giggled.

Oh, Gage understood exactly what she meant. “Thanks, but I have other plans. Maybe next time.”

Amanda looked disappointed, but quickly turned her attention to the man sitting on the other side of her. Gage turned his attention back to Alana and waited for the moment when she saw him. He ran multiple scenarios in his head. Looking at her walk around the tables with a natural grace as she greeted everyone at the luncheon, he bet she would hold in every emotion she felt. She appeared completely in control of every gesture and every smile she made. Would she jump in his arms and hug him? His favorite of the options, but the least possible in his estimation. What if she did not recognize him? Ice-cold fear sliced through Gage at the thought.

He remembered when she wore every emotion she felt on her face. Embracing life as if there was no promise for the next day. He searched the Princess for any sign of the young woman he had once known. The face and body were the same, but the easy smile that lit her from the inside, the wild gestures she would use as she spoke, the fire and passion that boiled right beneath the surface were gone, doused with elegance and poise.

Guilt stabbed at his heart. Had he done that to her? Gage reminded himself that this was just a mission. He was not here to reignite any fire or make her eyes sparkle with happiness again. That was some other man’s job now. He needed to identify AP’s source in the palace, find the vials, and leave. That’s all.

As the prince and princess moved toward his table, Gage could hear the introductions Philip made for each of the American delegates. He swallowed hard and locked his emotions down. He knew he would see her today. He prepared for it. Visualized it as he had been trained to do. Then why the hell were his palms sweating like some kid saddling up for his first rodeo?

The afternoon light that streamed in from the large windows at one end of the room highlighted her brown hair making some strains looked like spun gold and others looked like they were kissed with fire. Women around the world paid big bucks to try to get that hair color, but for Alana it was all-natural.

A piece of golden brown hair fell out of her tight hairstyle as Alana leaned over to shake hands with a young man in a wheelchair that sat at a table catacornered from Gage. His hands ached to put it back into place. She gave the man one last smile then turned her attention to the the table where Gage sat.

She took two steps forward, her head tilted up, and their eyes met. Gage stood still as if any movement might scare her away. In a split second, the smile that she offered so naturally to everyone else froze on her face as if someone at stopped time. Gage lost himself in her golden eyes and knew the moment that it fully registered in her mind that he was standing in front of her. Her eyes widened with shock as a soft gasp escaped her lips. Gage was close enough that he felt a whisper of her breath against his face. His stomach tightened as if someone grabbed it in his fist and squeezed. She blinked rapidly and looked around the room as if she was suddenly disoriented.

“Alana, are you okay?” her brother asked as he reached out and held her elbow in his hand.

She gave a little shake of her head. “I’m fine.”

Gage knew she lied. Neither of them were fine. They would never be fine. But that did not stop either of them from pretending like they were. Her chest rose as she took a deep breath and pulled her shoulders back so she stood ramrod straight in front of him. Her eyes turned cold and she gave him a tight lipped smile as Philip introduced him.

“Princess Alana, Prince Stefan, may I present to you Major Gage McAllister. He is a last minute addition to our little party.”

Stefan leaned forward and gave Gage a firm handshake. “A pleasure to meet you. What service are you in?”

“The Army.” Gage returned the handshake and made eye contact with the prince, but as soon as was polite he looked back at Alana. The fact that he was in the Army would be new information for her and he had no idea how she would react.

He heard her sharp intake of breath. Stefan gave her sister a look. It must have been enough to jolt her back into action, because she finally offered her hand to Gage.

“It is nice to meet you, Major McAllister.” Gage did not miss the cold tone in her voice or the added emphasis she gave to his rank.

He reached out his hand to meet hers. As soon as their fingers met what felt like electricity shot thought his body. Alana removed her hand from his the moment they touched, as if she felt the shock as well. Their minds might have moved on, but their bodies certainly remembered each other.

Philip and Stefan moved to greet Amanda and the others at the kiddy table. It only took a second more before Alana pasted a smile on her face and greeted the rest of the table as well. Gage assessed the crowd and it seemed as if no one noticed anything out of the ordinary. If they had, Gage hoped they would assume that the Princess was a little fatigued from the introductions, but nothing close to what actually transpired.

Alana, Stefan, and Philip took their assigned seats and the waitstaff began serving the food in a choreographed dance. As everyone began to eat and talk amongst themselves, Gage kept his focus on Alana. Although she only played with her food, she was polite and never neglected any of her tablemates. Gage could tell she was trying her best to ignore him, but she was failing miserably. Each time she looked in his direction, her eyes asked the same question. “Why the hell are you here?” He hoped she would give him a chance to answer soon.

The lunch lasted for about an hour then Stefan and Alana stood up to leave. The rest of the room stood up as well, and those next to the prince and princess offered their farewells and promises of seeing each other at the ballet that evening. Alana smiled as she followed her brother out of the room, but before she passed through the huge doors that led out to the hallway, she turned her head and gave him one last icy glare before she disappeared.

Gage felt Amanda lean over to him. “I don’t think she likes you very much.”

So much for no one noticing.

Gage nodded his head in agreement. “Nope, I don’t think she does.”


Chapter 3

“What the hell is Gage McAllister doing here?”

Alana tried to keep her body relaxed even as anger bubbled up inside of her hindering her ability to breathe. She pressed her hands against the railing of the balcony hoping the coolness of the stone would offer her some relief. Stefan and Alana had excused themselves from the small crowd that followed them out of the luncheon, and headed toward the family’s private wing. Alana walked through the main sitting room and onto the large balcony that overlooked the manicured gardens below.

“Who? That Army major we met at the luncheon?” Stefan asked as he followed her outside.

Alana paced back and forth in front of her brother. “Oh, I didn’t just meet him. I know him. At least I use to know him. But, now, I don’t want to know him. I don’t want to ever see him again.”

Stefan walked over to her and stopped her from pacing by placing his hands on her shoulders. “You sound like a crazy woman, Alana. Breathe. Now, who is he?”

Alana knew she was panicking and appreciated the concern in her brother’s voice, but she had every right to. She was not prepared to see Gage McAllister today. Or ever.

“He’s the bodyguard,” she said.

Stefan looked at her as if he did not understand.

“From Honduras,” she added.

It took another moment for Stefan to make the connection.

“Oh. Wow. Is this the first time you have see him since then?” Stefan dropped his hands from her shoulders. She knew he fully understood the situation now. He had seen the wreck Alana was when she arrived in Corrania after the bombing. Stefan unbuttoned his suit jacket and rested his hip on the railing.

“So why is he here?” Stefan asked.

Alana came and rested her backside against the railing and crossed her arms. “I wish I knew. All I know is I don’t want him here. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want to talk to him.”

“That’s mature.” He gave her a warm smile to show he was joking before his tone turned more serious. “Aren’t you a little curious? You could finally know the whole story. Have some closure.” Stefan offered.

“I had closure. I finally put it all behind me and moved on.” The last thing Alana wanted was to dredge up the pain she left in the past.

“That’s not closure and you know it.”

Alana knew her brother was right, but she did not care. She moved on and did not intend to revisit that painful time in her life.

“Can’t you get him kicked out of the meeting? Make him leave. I’m sure no one would miss him.” Alana felt as if she was becoming unglued. Gage just stood there like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing at her luncheon. At her palace. In her country.

“You know I can’t do that.”

“Why?” She chewed on the edge of her thumbnail as she tried to control the feeling of being lost and overwhelmed.

“Maybe he took this opportunity to finally make peace,” Stefan offered.

“I don’t want peace. I don’t want closure. I just want him gone.” Alana turned around and looked out over the gardens.

Stefan stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “Major McAllister’s name was not part of the original roster and he traveled alone, not with the main delegation. I overheard some of the American delegates talking about him. Philip certainly did not appreciate Gage showing up unexpectedly, but the group tried to hide it and introduced him as if he was one of them.”

“But he’s not. I know it. Something else is going on.”

Alana knew that Gage was not here for the opening of a new base. He did not fit in with the other diplomats that made up the delegation. He stood out like a Doberman among Chihuahuas.

Stefan turned and leaned against the railing next to her. “I’ll ask around. Make a few calls. See what I can find out.”

Alana leaned over and bumped her brother on his arm with her shoulder. “Thank you.”

Stefan’s face turned serious. “Alana, you never did tell me all that happened between you. All I know is that you two became close and you did not part well. I am guessing that promises were made and then broken, but what . . ? “

At the sound of the French doors opening, they both turned towards the intruder, unsaid words hanging between them. Stefan stood-up and smiled at Sergei.

Sergei returned the smile and closed the balcony doors behind him. Alana felt the stress of the morning leave her body as he strode over to her and gave her a warm kiss on the cheek. He was light where Gage was dark. Alana pressed her hand against Sergei’s clean-shaven cheek and she could not stop her mind from remembering the rough feel of Gage’s face if he went a day without shaving. Sergei’s eyes turned warm, welcoming the invitation of her touch. Alana smiled, embarrassed that the intensity between them was instigated by her thoughts – or frustrations – about another man.

Alana removed her hand not wanting Sergei to misread the gesture and think she was ready to make promises she had no intention of making. Men. They surrounded her most of the time, and generally she gave it little thought, but this morning they seemed like they were nothing but a source of stress. And Sergei’s next words did not offer any relief.

“I just finished a teleconference with the commander of the base the Americans are about to take over. Someone set off a small explosive device at the front gate. No one was hurt, but the base commander was worried that this might be the first of other attacks.”

Sergei continued, lines of concern creasing his face. “I’m worried that if the Americans find out, it could upset plans for the official signing of the base agreement on Sunday. We detailed another security team to the base just in case.”

“Any leads on who is behind this?” Stefan asked.

“The police and base security are working it, but no one had claimed responsibly yet. Likely just a traditionalist upset about negotiating with the Americans,” Sergei offered.

“Ridiculous.” Stefan crossed his arms. “I’m all for tradition, but if this country is going to survive we need to open up to foreign investment. It’s what is best for our small nation. Best for the people.”

“Tradition is not necessary a bad thing either. You and Alana might not remember since you spent most of your lives in England. But for me, and a lot of Corannians, we don’t have such bad memories.”

Alana knew Sergei felt very protective of the old regimes since his family had a large part in the way the country was run in the past.

Stefan turned to Sergei his eyes assessing. “Are you saying you do not support our alliance with the Americans?”

Alana felt the tension between the two men.

“No, it’s not that I don’t support it. Of course I do. I have sat next to you on many nights trying to hammer out the accord.” Stefan nodded his head in agreement. His arms hanging once again at his sides as Sergei continued. “It’s just that things are moving very fast. Maybe too fast for a lot of people.”

“The agreement will be signed this weekend. We have all been working on this for too long to lose focus now. That is just what the hardliners want us to do.” Stefan was adamant.

“Yes, but until now the debate was just that – a debate. Talk. Now it is real with the American visit on the cover of the newspaper everyday.” Sergei shrugged his shoulders, an uncharacteristic gesture for him Alana thought.

Stefan patted Sergei on the back. “You’re right. This is a huge change for everyone and I can’t forget that. But that does not excuse the violence. Let’s talk later this afternoon. The meetings will go for a few more hours then tonight we’re taking the delegation to the ballet. Are you coming with us?”

“Yes, I plan to escort the Princess.” Sergei smiled down at Alana.

“I’ve got to head back in. See you tonight.” Stefan smiled, the tension that flared between the two men gone for now. Stefan asked Alana. “Are you coming?”

“In a few minutes,” Alana said.

Stefan glanced at Sergei than back to Alana, winked, then disappeared through the doors. Sergei turned to Alana and smiled.

“I’m sorry to be the dissenting opinion on this, but I would be doing a disservice to your family if I was not honest about my thoughts.”

Alana nodded her head in agreement. Still smiling, Sergei took her hands in his. “Enough about politics. I enjoyed last night.”

Sergei had cooked for her at his apartment in town. He had set the table with candles and hired a violinist to play for them as they ate.

“It was lovely. Thank you again,” Alana said not wanting the conversation to go any further. She did not have the energy to discuss their relationship right now. Not with Gage somewhere in the palace. He took one of her hands and brought it to his lips for a light kiss.

“I should be the one thanking you. I don’t think I have ever had a more enjoyable night.”

She slipped her hands out of his and stood up, purposefully putting distance between them. “I should go. I want to get in a run before I have to get ready tonight.”

“You seem distracted. Is something wrong?” Sergei asked.

“No, I’m fine, just tired,” she replied.

He nodded his head and opened one of the balcony doors for her.

“I will meet you downstairs at seven?”

Alana absently nodded her head, but her mind was already tackling how she was going to get through this evening knowing she would see Gage again.

#

Gage watched Alana and Victor leave for their run. He could not stop himself from admiring Alana as she stretched, preparing her body for the workout. Although Gage had tried to replace that body with others over the last four years, no one ever came close to supplanting the space Alana occupied in his heart and his mind. Every curve and every hollow was imprinted in his brain and tattooed on the inside of his eyelids. His eyes locked on her form as she stretched her hamstring. Despite his mind’s protests, his body ached to discover Alana all over again.

Over the years, Gage tried to be thankful for the brief moment they had had together. Through some miracle of fate, he had been able to carve two months out of his life that he was able to call his own. Two months out of the darkness he normally lived in to bask in her light. He had known before their relationship even began that it could be nothing more than temporary. But as the weeks turned into months, Gage had started believing the dream could be real. That he could actually, somehow, make a life for them. He laughed and turned away from the window. What a joke.

“So what are you really doing here, Major McAllister?”

Gage turned and watched as Philip walked toward him, teacup in hand. Gage wanted to roll his eyes, but thought better of it. Philip might be a bureaucrat, but he had friends in high places, and the last thing Gage needed was too many people wondering what he was doing in Corannia.

“Just going where the Army sends me,” Gage answered noncommittally.

Philip took a sip of his tea. Gage wanted to ignore the man and get up to Alana’s room to switch out her cell phone to one that could be monitored by his team before she returned from her run, but Philip clearly had something to say and Gage was just curious enough to hear it. Gage pasted a smile on his face and tried his best to act like he was listening to Philip’s asinine comments.

“I have to say, it was quite the surprise for me to see your name on the roster this morning.”

Philip took another sip of tea, pausing as if he needed to savor the taste. Gage imagined gnawing on a two by four. That would be easier than standing here and pretending that this moron actually might have something useful to say. Philip finally set his cup in its saucer and looked at Gage squarely. “So, Major McAllister, I’ll ask you again. What are you doing here?”

“I’m here to help negotiate the base agreement. Isn’t that what this conference is all about?” Gage did his best to look innocent, although he was not sure he was skilled enough to pull it off.

“I think we both know that your particular presence here means something a little more than that,” Philip suggested.

Gage shrugged his shoulders. “Listen, I just do what I’m told to do. You know how it is, Phil. When the boss calls, all we can do is suck it up and go where they tell us to.”

Gage would bet that Philip did not like hearing that he had anything in common with Gage or being reminded that he actually worked for someone. Philip was one of those paper pushers who liked to pretend he had more power than he actually did.

Philip stepped away from Gage to carefully place his teacup down on one of the tables that lined the hall. When he turned back to Gage, Philip slowly slipped his right hand in to his pants pocket, his navy blue suit jacket obediently fell into to place neatly behind his wrist. Gage figured Philip practiced that move in front of the mirror about once a week believing that it made him look like Cary Grant. Gage wanted to tell him he missed it by a mile, but thought better of it.

“We aren’t going to have any problems, are we?” Philip asked.

As much as Gage would love to make a few problems for Philip, he could not let his feelings toward the man cloud all rational thought. “You don’t even know me, Phil. Why would you think there would be problems?”

Philip smiled as if he was holding an ace up his sleeve. “You see, I know about you, Major McAllister. Ambassador Studaman is a close friend of mine.”

Ah, that explained a lot. The fact that Philip and Stanley Studaman were friends confirmed every bias that Gage had about the man. Two bureaucratic peas in a pod. Gage did not even try to deny Philip’s implied accusation. Why would he? It was one of his finer moments.

“Yeah. We had a bit of a misunderstanding about what the word egress meant,” Gage offered.

“I believe you defined it with a chair out of a two-story window.” Philip’s face twisted as if he ate a sour lemon.

“It was a wooden bench actually.”

Gage smiled remembering his team being called in to rescue Studaman and his US Embassy staff after a coup in Sierra Leone turned violent. Gage and his team were called in to assist in evacuating the Embassy. They had successfully accomplished similar evacuations, but never before had he seen an Ambassador actually freak-out and abandon his staff during the chaos. By the time Gage finally found the man hiding in a bathroom stall, the front gates to the Embassy had been breeched by the rebel forces.

Luckily, the rest of Gage’s team had loaded the Embassy staff into the Blackhawk helicopter that waited for them at a soccer field a block away. But with Stanley’s little cut-and-run routine, and the extra time it took to find him, the entire mission was put in jeopardy.

After judging the distance between where they were and where the helicopter was, Gage knew it would be much safer if they did not have to double back down the stairs and egress through the back door. So, Gage introduced a bench to a window to create another exit option. There was no doubt in his mind that that bench ended up saving both of their lives. But, instead of thanking him, all Studaman did once his pudgy little feet hit American soil was to complain about being man-handled by Gage.

“You could have killed him.” Philip was incredulous.

“I lay odds that your buddy, Stanley, told the story from the safe and secure confines of his overly decorated office in DC. A place he never would have seen again if I hadn’t thrown that bench out the window.”

Philip’s face turned a nice shade of pink. Before he could speak again, Gage gave Philip a satisfying slap on the back forcing Philip to take a quick step for balance.

“It’s been great talking with you, Phil, but I need to run. I have a few errands to do before the ballet tonight.”

Gage glanced outside making sure Alana and Victor had not come back while he and Philip played the game of ‘who’s the boss and who’s the flunky.’ Gage turned and began walking down the corridor toward the west wing of the palace.

“McAllister, if you make a mockery of this conference, you will be handing in your credentials. Mark my words,” Philip called after him.

Gage kept his back to the man, but offered him a single wave of his hand over his head as acknowledgement that he had heard Philip’s parting words. Turning the corner, Gage picked up the pace and headed for Alana’s room.


Chapter 4

Alana’s feet pounded the pavement in a mind-numbing rhythm. Unfortunately, it was not mind-numbing enough. With each step, Alana wished she could stomp out the frustrating mix of emotions that churned her insides into mush and made her question her sanity. Usually she loved her daily runs. Always pushing herself a little faster and a little farther each day. She never listened to music, but preferred to be alone with her thoughts. Or sometimes no thoughts at all. Just the blood pumping in her ears and the soft, regular fall of her running shoes against the ground.

It was the one time during the day she was alone. Well, as alone as she ever was. She glanced back to see Victor only a few paces behind her despite the grueling pace she set. Knowing Victor was always there behind her allowed Alana the true luxury of letting her mind wonder. To disengage from the day and just be. But today was different.

There was nothing peaceful or relaxing about the thoughts that snarled her mind. This run was not about finding peace, but about holding on to some semblance of stability in her world that turned upside down the moment her eyes locked onto Gage. It was as if someone threw all the puzzles pieces of her life in the air and said ‘good luck.’

With each stride she tried to dig deeper within herself and find some way to be around Gage McAllister for the next three days and not lose her mind. The alternative was to find some excuse not to attend the whirlwind of social functions and meetings associated with the American’s visit. Although tempted, she refused to turn her back on her duties. Alana always preferred to face her problems head-on. And Gage was definitely a problem. The need to exorcise Gage from her mind forced her to run faster and harder, to release her pain and anger through sweat and physical exhaustion.

Alana rounded the corner and ran through the wrought-iron gate that would take her away from the manicured gardens of the palace grounds and onto one of the endless trails that crisscrossed over the open parkland that would eventually lead her into the forest that surrounded the palace. She tried to concentrate on the wind in the trees that carried the crisp air off of the Black Sea. On most days, Alana found the salty scent soothing, but now it just stirred memories of the cabin on the beach in Honduras. One more reminder of the man she had decided to hate for the rest of her life.

During the luncheon, Gage had moved his chair so he was in her direct line of sight. She was sure he did it just to annoy her. But what upset her even more than his juvenile antics was that it worked. His presence flustered her and made her stomach tingle with excitement. She was so unnerved during the meal that she could barely hold a worthwhile conversation at the table. And good conversation was one of her most important jobs.

She also noticed that their nearness did not seem to faze Gage at all. For most of the afternoon, he looked like the only thing on his mind was trying to stay awake. Meanwhile her pulse raced so fast she felt like she had just downed twenty espressos. The man infuriated her. Alana picked up the pace of her stride again as she ran deeper into the forest trying to temper the anger swelling inside of her.

What did she ever see in him? Sure he was attractive, even handsome, in a rugged, too-full-of-himself kind of way. She could even admit that his gray eyes were so striking against his olive skin and dark hair that it still took her breath away when he looked at her. Of course now the loss of breath felt more like an attack of asthma.

An image from this afternoon of Gage in a navy blue suit and French cuffed shirt that hugged his expansive chest was replaced by a vivid memory of him in the early morning when coarse stubble clouded his cheeks. The so-called diplomat she met today was so different than the man who stole her heart four years ago. The man she had fallen in love with.

They had met while she was doing work with the UN World Health Organization in Western Honduras. Most days she was either administering vaccinations to clinic patients or interviewing families in nearby villages about the health of their children. Alana thought it was a perfect assignment.

One day, after long hours visiting a small village, the battered flatbed truck that the clinic assigned her to used for house calls just stopped running. After she fumbled with the hood, she finally propped it open. Steam cloaked her face in a hot white cloud that fogged her sunglasses and made her cough. Just as she was about to radio the office for help, she saw a man with close cropped hair and dark sunglasses riding up the hill toward her. He slowed his motorcycle down and pulled alongside her truck. She pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head to see him better.

“Having some trouble?” he asked.

Although his Spanish was perfect, he spoke with a slight accent that told her he was not a native speaker. Khaki cargo shorts brushed against his muscular calves and a very wrinkled blue linen oxford cloth shirt hung from broad shoulders. Suddenly conscious of the old t-shirt and dusty, baggy pants she wore, Alana walked over to the man. She held her hand up to shade her eyes from the sun.

“Yes. It seems to have decided to take a siesta on me,” Alana answered in English.

“You’re British?” he asked causally as he kicked the stand down on his bike and swung a long leg over the seat.

“I grew up there, but my parents are Corannian. I’m with the WHO program in Copán. And, I’m volunteering in the clinic before I go to med school in the fall.” She sounded like an idiot. Feeling the heat of a blush cover her face, she shoved her hands in her pant’s pockets.

He was kind enough to smile. “I’m on vacation myself.”

“Vacation from what?” she asked, curious what a man like him would need a break from.

When his half-smile turned a little wicked, her stomach fluttered.

“Everything.”

He held out his hand. After she fumbled to get her hand out of her pocket, she watched as her fingers disappeared inside his gentle grip.

“I’m Gage, by the way.” His deep voice tickled her insides like a overly carbonated soda.

“Alana,” she answered breathlessly.

“It’s nice to meet you, Alana.” His fingers slowly released hers. When they were gone, she missed their warmth.

Not sure what else to do with them, she wrapped her arms around her body and suppressed an uncontrollable urge to giggle. This was ridiculous, she thought. Get yourself together, for goodness sakes.

Alana cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. “It’s wonderful you were passing by when you did. Lucky, really. I was afraid I would have to camp out here for the night.”

He pushed his sunglasses up on his head and locked his grey eyes with hers. “Luck’s a funny thing.”

Alana stopped mid-stride, the memory too painful to continue. It had been a long time since she let herself remember those months in Honduras. What would have been the point? To remind herself how stupid she was for believing that what they had shared together was actually real?

On the plane to Corannia, her father offered what little information he had on Gage. After Alana made it clear that she was going to Honduras no matter what, he called in a favor with a friend who held a senior position in the US Government. The friend told her father that he could arrange to have one of his men positioned in Honduras to watch her. Her father had never met Gage until the day he came to collect her.

Soon after they parted, Alana decided to ignore the hurt because she wanted to see Gage again. At the time, she believed they could work out their crazy situation. He needed to know that she would forgive him if he just came back to her. Alana searched for him like a lovesick fool. She called her father’s contact and left messages for three months, but never heard back. She spent hours on the Internet and social media looking for her Gage McAllister, but never found him. Alana even called the American Embassy in Honduras and said that she was his wife hoping people would hear the panic in her voice and ignore the red tape long enough to give her some answers. But there were none. Only more questions.

At first, Alana believed that Gage was in trouble or hurt. There had to be a reason he would not call. Stories of the tragedy in Corannia and pictures of her family were splashed all over the news. If Gage was not dead, she reasoned, he would know where to find her. But he never did.

Despite his assignment as her bodyguard, she was sure they had something more. No one was that good an actor. She wanted to let him know that she forgave him for lying. She just wanted him. But months and then years went by with no information. No one Alana asked had ever heard of a Gage McAllister. Even the cabin he rented was paid for by a cash advance. Her heartache mingled with anger and eventually hardened into hatred.

Alana looked back at Victor, her unflappable bodyguard. He looked in complete control, barely winded, as he scanned the area for threats. She, however, was bent at the waist and held on to her knees for support praying that her lungs would be able to capture enough air to keep her alive. Normally her daily runs left her energized and focused, but this run had pushed her too hard both mentally and physically.

Alana straightened, her breathing slowly coming under control, and put her hands on her hips. They were standing in a small clearing that overlooked the Black Sea. Alana squinted against the sun and forced herself to take a moment to appreciate the various greens of the new leaves that were sprinkled around the late spring forest. She took deep breaths as she tried to replace the mesh of unhappy thoughts swirling in her head with the beauty of the view. But it did not work. All she could see was Gage sitting at the other end of the room from her with those piercing gray eyes.

Her fists balled into knots at the thought of him invading her world. But the anger went beyond Gage and his untimely reappearance; beyond all of the unanswered questions it had taken years for her to accept. Alana was angry that her world, the little bubble she had created for herself, seemed to be threatened. Since becoming princess, Alana forced herself to live only in the present. Do what needed to be done at that moment. One foot in front of the other.

Her bubble was the only way she coped with all of the changes she made and the dreams she walked away from. If her bubble popped, Alana feared all of the control – that perfect princess persona she created and tried to maintain – would crash down around her. She could not afford to let that happen.

Alana glanced back at Victor who stood by her side patiently. She gave him a weak smile. It was all she could muster at the moment and began to head back toward the palace. Alana picked up the pace again hoping to exhaust herself to the point where coherent thought was not an option. In a matter of hours, she would be in a room with Gage again and she refused to fall apart. She promised herself that the next time she saw him, Gage would be the one who needed a five mile run and a cold shower.

#

Alana reached over and wiped the steam from the mirror thankful that Victor had suggested a quicker route back. By that time they neared the palace, Alana honestly did not know if her legs would be able to carry her much further. Somehow she had made it. Thoughts of a shower and some quiet time by herself pushed her the last quarter of a mile.

She looked at herself in the mirror. Maybe a little tired around the eyes, but presentable. That would make her mother happy. But her image reflected more than Alana would like to admit. Her eyes and skin were sallow and dull. Alana touched her face with her hand, brushing the tips of her fingers against the soft skin of her cheek as if she needed to remind herself that she was not completely numb. That she survived today. Of course, she had the evening and the next three days of the conference to get through. She could do it. One foot in front of the other.

Alana reached for her robe. It was a thick baby blue terry-cloth robe that was threadbare in some places. It was one of the few things she managed to salvage from her pre-princess days. She had put up quite the fuss to save it from destruction, but had not been so lucky with the rest of her former wardrobe. The majority of everything else she owned was deemed by the powers that be as too casual for someone in the public eye.

During that first transition year, there had been so many advisors and experts telling her what to do, where to be, and how to do just about everything that she felt lost in the shuffle. She had been in such a fog over her change in lifestyle, giving up her dreams of medical school and losing Gage, that concern over her clothes was the last thing on her mind. Her closets changed over night from jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops to suits, ball gowns, and high-heeled pumps.

Even now, four years later, her army of assistants and maids organized her closet. Her social secretary would work with Maya and her mother’s staff to determine what she would wear for each event she attended. It was a rare occasion when Alana could put on what she felt like wearing. Right now she longed for nothing more than a worn t-shirt, flannel pajama bottoms, and a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream. A night to wallow in self-pity, watch John Hughes movies, and go to bed early.

She picked up the comb and began to work out the tangles in her hair. Why did Gage have to show up now? Just when she had found a balance in her life. Had mastered the ability to carve out something for herself and still fulfill her duties as a princess. Granted there were slip-ups like tripping up the stairs of Parliament during the previous week, but even those moments were becoming rare.

She and Sergei had settled into a comfortable relationship where each person respected the other’s stresses and obligations. He had been by her side during her family’s darkest hours when they had to bury her uncle, aunt, and cousins. He had been there as she learned how to deal with her life being played out on a public stage where critics felt obligated to comment on her every move.

Sergei had even helped her to feel again with his quiet patience and understanding. He never pushed her. Instead he stood beside her as she made faux pas after faux pas. She needed to give him credit for all of those subtle gestures of kindness. Wasn’t that love after all?

Alana knew from hard won experience that love was not like the movies where people fell into a fiery embrace and then spent fifty years of bliss together. Passion never lasted. It was like a strike of a match – quick, explosive, then over. If the person held the match for too long, they would have nothing to show for their bravery but a burn mark on their fingertip. Gage was her match and she held on to it as long as she could. Alana had a country that depended on her. She could not afford to have anyone in her life that she could not depend on in return.

“Ow!”

Alana had lost herself in thought and yanked her hair too hard hitting a tangle with too much force. She slammed the comb down on the counter and took a deep breath. This was ridiculous. She could handle Gage or anything else that came her way. She looked at herself in the mirror again.

“Get it together. You’re a princess for goodness sake, not some school girl with a crush on the local bad boy.” In response to her own comment, she stuck her tongue out at herself and turned away from her reflection tired of the self-inflicted drama.

She leaned against the counter and crossed her arms. How could Gage still have such an affect on her? She would like to think that it was because she never had a chance to say good-bye. Unfinished business. Stefan was right. She did need closure. Nothing more. It’s not like she wanted him back. He was just a member of the delegation. Someone she once knew. It did not need to be anything more than that.

Alana had just about marshaled enough strength to see herself through the night with Gage when she heard someone moving around in her bedroom. Figuring the sound came from one of the maids fulfilling their never-ending quest to keep her room pristine, Alana casually put her comb away, walked to the bathroom door, and opened it prepared to ask the maid for few moments of privacy before one of her ladies-in-waiting came to help her dress. But instead of seeing a maid frantically dusting her dresser, Alana saw Gage casually sitting in the middle of her pale blue sofa in the center of her room.

There was something almost comical about his large, muscular frame surrounded by delicate, fringed throw pillows. But she was in no mood to laugh, not with her stomach lodged in her throat. He looked relaxed with his ankle resting on his knee and his arms spread-eagle over the back of the sofa as if he sat in her room waiting for her to finish her shower everyday. He even had the audacity to give her one of those half-smiles that was somewhere between sheepish and cocky. It made him look vulnerable and sexy at the same time and had never failed to make her go weak at the knees.

Except at that moment. Standing in the bathroom doorway, her private space invaded by the man who took away every dream she had ever hoped for without even a simple good-bye, all she felt was anger. How dare he act casual about this encounter?

Alana wanted with every fiber of her being to make him as uncomfortable as she had felt all day, but she knew lashing out at him with questions and angry words would be a battle he would be prepared to fight. He was trained for combat and would have armed himself for the onslaught of emotions that he would assume she would unleash on him. Well, Major Gage McAllister – or whoever the hell you are – think again.

Alana stood in the bathroom doorway getting angrier and angrier as he sat on the couch still as a leopard waiting for his prey to make the first move. She could see it in his eyes, his need to know what direction she would take in this unplanned encounter. At that moment, Alana knew what she had to do. She held her head high and walked across her bedroom to the closet.

With both of the double doors open, he could easily see her every move. Her closet was the size of a small apartment with shelves and drawers on one side and a variety of hanging racks on the other. There was a vanity with a mirror at the end of the room and a large round settee in the center, tufted in a complementary fabric that matched her suite’s fairy tale decor. One of her assistants had laid out a simple black Channel dress that had a slight ruffle at the hemline. It was form fitting, sleeveless and would fall just above her knee. Sheer black stockings, Christian Louboutin patent-leather pumps, and a lime green pashmina would complete the outfit. Perfect.

With the closet doors open, giving Gage a perfect view inside, Alana took a deep breath, keeping her back to him, and dropped her robe. She knew he was no threat to her. He would never do anything without her consent. Even with as many unanswered questions she had about Gage McAllister, she knew that with all of her heart.

The sharp intake of breath she heard from across the room gave her the courage to continue. She slowly put on her black lace undergarments silently thanking whoever put out one of her nicer sets. Normally, the fact that her staff would choose the underwear she wore would irk her to no end. Sometimes she would trade them out for a plain white cotton set just to remind herself she had some control over her life. But not today. Today she was more than happy to have to fiddle with a garter belt and stockings. She just prayed she would not fumble with the snaps like she usually did. Her hands were shaking from the uncharacteristic display of exhibitionism, but there was no doubt that the control of the room had shifted in her favor. She knew from his silence that Gage had not prepared himself for this type of guerrilla warfare.

Alana sat down on the settee and inched each of silk stockings along her leg. She stuck one of her well-formed calves in the air and smoothed the stocking across her skin before she fastened it to the garter. Knowing she was not yet brave enough to face him directly, Alana kept her back to him, sliding the form fitting dress down her body. She was glad it was a simple slip on with zipper underneath the arm and not down the back. Gage might misunderstand and consider the open back an invitation rather than the gauntlet she intended.

Alana lifted her bare arm and zipped the dress closed, then bent at the waist to slip her foot in the pumps. She looked down and twisted her ankle as if she was inspecting the fit. The finishing touch was a thick black belt that encircled her waist. She pulled it tight as if it could somehow give her the additional strength she would need to get through the next few minutes. Alana had not heard any sound from the sitting room.

After a few more moments of tense silence, Alana’s curiosity got the best of her. Still not prepared to face him directly, Alana thought she might be able to catch a glimpse of his reaction through the mirror above her vanity. She sat down on the dainty stool preparing to blow-dry her hair and slowly raised her eyes to meet his reflection. She realized her mistake the second their eyes met.

His rock hard stare locked on to hers with a vice grip that would not let her go. His face was stone and his glare pure heat. The tension caused by her reverse striptease suffocated the air from the room as if it was hit with a backdraft. Alana felt like a matador in the center of the ring and someone just opened up the gates for the raging bull. Raw strength against practiced skill. Only one of them would survive. And from the look of molten steel he was giving her, she doubted that it would be her.


Chapter 5

Gage could not turn away from her dark amber eyes even if the leader of Altyn Poltinnik walked in the room carrying the vitals of Ignis on a silk pillow. He sat paralyzed except for his racing pulse and the hardness growing in his pants. His fingers curled around the back of the sofa in a death grip that turned his knuckles white. Every fiber of his being wanted to take off each piece of clothing she had just put on and help her remember what they could be like when they were together. As he prepared to launch himself off of the sofa like a ballistic missile and make use of the plush carpet covering the floor of her closet, a soft knock at the door caught him by surprise.

Alana broke eye contact at the sound, a flash of guilt crossing her face. But before Gage could figure out if her guilt stemmed from her sexy display of bravado or the emotions they had just uncorked when their eyes meet, Alana was across the room. She shot him a look of pure anger before she opened the door just wide enough to poke her head through.

“Yes?” she asked.

“I wanted to make sure you were okay. One the maids saw a gentleman from the delegation walking the halls this evening near your room.”

Gage heard Victor’s deep voice from the other side of the door. The man that had taken his place as her bodyguard. A flair of intense, white-hot jealousy ripped through him. Victor immediately went to the top of his list as someone who would have access to Alana’s cell phone. He planned to give the bodyguard’s name to the analysts supporting the mission as soon as he finished with Alana.

Gage held his breath and wondered if Alana would alert the bodyguard to his presence. She did not answer right away as if she needed to think about what to do. That was a good sign for Gage. If she threw him out, he would just come back.

“I’m fine. Just finishing up getting dressed.”

“Of course.”

Victor waited at the door for a second longer before Gage heard him leave and Alana closed the door. She whipped her body around. Her fists balled at her sides. Immediately his mind envisioned what he would like to do to her against that door.

“It is beyond inappropriate for you to be in here, Major.” Her words were as icy as her glare.

He stood up ready for the battle he had expected. “And what was that little display that you just put on?”

His head would be messed up for days trying to deal with seeing Alana in black lingerie and garters. He jammed the memory in the back of his mind so he would not be rendered comatose on her couch for the next couple of hours.

“That was not inappropriate. That was me getting on with my life.” Alana did not yell or raise her voice, but spoke and a clear, clipped tone as if she was a teacher and he was a student about to get expelled.

Somewhere between her closet and the bedroom door she had put her mask back on. One hundred percent princess. One hundred percent in control. He refused to let her get away with it. He needed to break through her defenses for the mission and for himself.

“And how’s that goin’ for you, this life of yours?” he asked, trying to match her calm demeanor.

Gage saw an emotion flash across her face, but it disappeared too quickly for him to put a name to it.

“Just fine. Until . . .”

Alana bit off the words and pushed herself away from the door.

“Until what? Until I showed up?”

Gage put his hands in his pockets and pivoted away from her. He needed a moment before things got more out of control than they already were. This was not the way he expected this meeting to go. He prepared himself for a thousand scenarios, but never had he considered he would play voyeur to her sexy display of confidence. The image of her hands caressing her leg blocked every other thought from his mind. He needed clear his head fast. He took a deep breath and turned back to face her.

“Listen, there’s a lot that needs to be said. A lot that I need to answer for. I know that. But first we need to figure out how to be in the same room without you wanting to kill me or me wanting to pick you up and carry you to bed,” he spoke with more calm than he felt.

Her sharp intake of breath made him look up just as she released her fists from the tight balls that had turned her fingers red. It was the only emotion she showed him. The only insight that his words had an effect on her.

With her head held high and glided past him back as she walked to her vanity. She took a seat carefully avoiding the mirror, and began to blow-dry her hair. Gage would never know if it was the high whirling sound of the hairdryer or the sympathy he felt for her scalp as she yanked the brush through her hair with sharp tugs, but something propelled him forward. He reached the vanity in three strides. Without pausing he jerked at the hairdryer cord and pulled the plug out of the socket. The room went silent. If they were somewhere else, some time else, the look of shock on Alana’s face would be funny. But there was no room for humor between them. Not anymore.

“What the hell do you think you are doing, Major?” She turned on him with fire in her eyes. He would take the fire over ice any day.

“I came up here so we could have a few moments to talk without an audience.”

“We have nothing to say to each other. You need to get out of my room now before I call Victor back and let him deal with you.” Her expression was as firm and her tone. He knew that she would not hesitate to act on her threat, but he continued to push.

“You know as well as I do that we cannot run into each other at meetings and events for the next two days and pretend like everything is normal. We barely kept it together at the luncheon.”

Her sharp laughter cut him like razor. “Major McAllister, or whoever you are . . “

He ran his fingers through his hair. Things were getting out of control fast. He wanted to punch Westin in the face for sending him here.

“Alana, damn it. I know what happened, what I did, was unforgivable. But we need to get around it. Move on.”

“Oh, have no fear of that. I have moved on. And, if you do not leave this room immediately, I will not only have you thrown out of the palace, but I will have you removed from the delegation and this country.”

He leaned against the dressing room wall and crossed his arms across his chest. He needed to tread carefully. If she got him thrown off the delegation, his mission would be over before it really began. Of course, that was only half the reason he needed to backtrack. This encounter had exposed his underbelly more than he wanted to.

He shook his head and spoke in what he hoped was a light-hearted tone. “It wouldn’t be the first time someone had me kicked out of their country.”

“That is not a stretch of the imagination.”

Alana refocused her attention to the mirror and reached for a silver clip that was laid out on the vanity table with other things he did not recognize but assumed had some purpose. Gage watched amazed as her long hair disappeared into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. On most women that type of style would come off as matronly, like a librarian or a strict dorm mother, but not on Alana. The hairstyle accentuated her high cheekbones and slim neck. A few strains escaped the confines of the clip and hung by the side of her faces adding a softness as if they were just whispers of promises to come. She had always had the uncanny ability to rob him of all thought with no warning. This was one of those moments.

A whisper escaped from his lips, “Alli.”

Alana turned her head and stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers. The color drained from her face. He could feel her pain and disbelief like a tangible thing between them. He almost regretted using his special name for her, but it had felt good on his lips.

She stood-up abruptly turning her back to him as her arms hugged her body. When she finally spoke, her voice was no louder than a whisper. “Don’t ever call me that.”

Gage took a tentative step forward wanting to find some way over this chasm between them. He needed her to understand. “Alli, I had a duty . . . you were a job that . . .”

He heard the crack of the slap before he felt the pain on his cheek. Her next words were like icicles stabbing him in the heart.

“You will address me as ‘Your Highness’ or ‘Princess’. You are not family or friend and you have taken great liberties with a past you obviously have more sentiment for than I do. Leave. Now. I would hate for this to turn any uglier than it already has.” The anger in her firm voice resonated deep within him.

In that blink of a moment, something had changed in her. Gage would swear that the temperature of the room dropped twenty degrees. The ice princess was back with a fury. Alana marched to the door with a back so straight Marines would weep with pride. After opening the door soundlessly, she stood by it like a sentry.

“Now, if you would please go, Major McAllister, I need to finish getting ready.”

Gage was stunned. Angry. Frustrated. They might not have a future, but damn it, they had a past. And one he was not ready for her to forget.

He strode to the door and slammed it shut with one hand. He left his palm pressed to the door so she could not open it again. A flash of panic in her eyes was quickly replaced by heat. Good. He wanted to give her a little back of what she just gave him.

“Say my name.”

His voice was low and hard when he spoke. If he heard her call him Major one more time he would explode.

Her lips parted as she stood next to him, but no words came out. His eyes rested on her mouth.

“Say my name.” His voice became a raspy whisper as his held back the last vestiges of control.

“Major Mc . .”

In a swift move, he dropped his hand and reached for her. His hands held her upper arms and he twisted her body so her back was pressed against the door. He braced his palms on either side of her head and boxed her in. Her chin tilted up and her eyes sparked with a dangerous combination of passion and anger.

“Why do you care what I call you?”

He leaned in and whispered in her ear. “Say my name, Alli. I need to hear it. We are more than our titles. At least to each other.”

He leaned in and rested his forehead against hers. Her warm breath caressed his cheek when she spoke.

“Gage.”

If he had been any further away, he may not have heard it. But he did, and his heart constricted from both pain and joy. He stole one more moment with her before he pushed himself away from the door.

She could deny it as much as she wanted, but there was still something between them. And Gage needed to make sure she knew it, too.

Defensively, Alana tried to take a step away from him, but the door at her back hindered her movement. Instead, she wrapped her arms around herself. He could see her brain churning trying to find some logic in the situation. But he did not walk her to think took much right now. He needed her raw and emotional. It was the only way she would let him in.

Gage grabbed the thick belt she had wrapped around her waist and pulled her toward him. Her arms went slack at her sides at the abrupt movement. He brought her close enough to him that he could see the rapid rise and fall of her chest. She opened her mouth to say something, but before she could get her words out, Gage placed one finger against her lips. This was not her turn to speak.

“I’m going, but know this. No matter how much you deny it, we do have a lot to say to each other.”

He could feel her preparing to protest. He shook his head and put a slight pressure against her lips with his finger.

“And it will be said before I leave here.” He felt a small smile tease his lips as her eyes sent the sharp words her mouth wanted to speak.

“You can’t forget what we had and neither can I,” Gage spoke with a quite force in his voice.

He was about to release her and let her go – for now. But, instead he drew her even closer as his finger moved from her lips and he slowly traced his fingertip along her jawline. He drew a slow path down her neck and stopped in the center of the hollow just below her throat. He could feel her blood racing through her veins. She flushed but kept her eyes angled away from his.

Gage bent his head bringing his lips close enough for a kiss. She followed his lead and turned her head to accept him. Her eyes fluttered closed contradicting her earlier words that she wanted nothing to do with him. Just as he was about to take what she was offering, he stopped himself. Maybe it was for his own sanity. Maybe he needed to show Alana that she could not control everything all of the time. Just a breath away from touching her, Gage filled the space with whispered words.

“And the next time you feel like you need an audience just let me know. I will be more than happy to oblige. See you at the ballet tonight.”

With that he let her go, opened the door, and walked out of the room. He wished the listening device he planted in her room had video. He would pay big bucks to see how she would deal with him giving a little of what she gave him. Mission aside, he wanted her perfect princess mask to crack just enough so he could see if the Alana he remembered was still somewhere inside.

#

Gage ran his hand through his hair more shaken by his encounter with Alana than he would ever admit to anyone. He had been face to face with deadly terrorists and his palms remained dry as a bone. But ten minutes in the same room with Alana and he was like a schoolboy who accidentally walked into the girls’ locker room. Awestruck and scared at the same time. Lust and regret made a strange cocktail.

He maneuvered his way through the palace, glad he did not run into anyone other than the countless servants that moved silently up and down the endless halls doing the royal family’s bidding. He was unconcerned about the video feeds he knew tracked his movements. Acting like he belonged usually kept most people from asking too many questions. Except for Victor. Gage heard his voice call to him just as he was about to take a side door that led to the car park.

“Have you misplaced your group already?” Victor asked as he walked toward Gage.

Gage pivoted and pasted on a smile. “We’ve not had a chance to meet yet. I’m Major Gage McAllister with the American delegation.” Gage offered his hand and pumped up his smile to what he hoped was an aww-gee-sucks level.

“I know exactly who you are, Major. I saw you for the first time four years ago in Honduras.”

Victor’s heavy Slavic accent made his words sound ominous. The man in the black sedan. Gage has only seen a glimpse of who drove the king’s car on that fateful day four years ago. So, Victor did know exactly who Gage was. Well, that made things more interesting.

Gage assessed the bodyguard. He was likely somewhere in his mid to late forties, but Victor’s boxer body had not gone to flab. He was dressed all in black as if he had been typecast as a James Bond villain. If the situation arose where he had to take Victor on, Gage was honest enough with himself to admit that it would be a tough fight.

It was not Victor’s six foot three frame or his shoulders that resembled the steel girders underneath the Brooklyn Bridge that gave Gage pause. It was something else. Something more deadly than brute strength. The look of pure determination. It was clear to Gage that Victor took his duty to Alana very seriously. A comforting if Victor was on the right side of crazy, but scary as hell if he was the link to AP they were looking for.

The men stood across from each other in a silent battle of wills. Victor’s brown eyes felt like guided lasers as they looked into his. It felt as if the man was trying to read his soul. Good luck with that, Gage thought. Hollow like the Tin Man. He forced himself to maintain a relaxed posture underneath Victor’s scrutiny until the man finally blinked.

“Why are you here?” Victor asked.

“I’m a member of the delegation. Just offering my services for the good and peace of both of our countries.”

Gage continued to play it cool. He understood Victor. They were cut from the same cloth. Victor would stand back and let things play out and wait for Alana to call foul before he pounced. Gage was sure Victor would let Alana call the shots. Knowing that Gage and Alana had a history worked in his favor and would kept Alana’s guard dog at bay at least for a while. He hoped. But that did not stop Victor from probing for information.

“I am more than aware of what type of services you are capable of offering, Major, and none of them ever lead to good and peace. So, I will ask you again, why are you here?” Victor’s voice was calm, but deadly serious.

Gage was half tempted to tell him the truth just get his reaction. Gage would know in a second if he was the link they were looking for. But, Gage needed to play his cards close to his chest for a while longer, at least until he knew who was who.

“Vic, I told you. I’m just here . . .”

Victor raised his hand as if he heard enough of the lies. Too bad, Gage had a bag full of them. “I suggest you stay away from her. I do not care why you are here. My only hope is that you leave as soon as possible.”

“Now that’s not very welcoming of you, Vic.”

Victor turned up his lips in what might be called a grin.

“Go home, Major McAllister. There is nothing for you here.”

Victor gave him one last look before he turned and walked back down the hallway away from Gage. Gage made additional mental notes about Victor for the analysts and headed outside. He slid into his rental car and drove down the hill into the city. He took the long way to the farmhouse Westin had secured for his team to make sure no one followed him.

The old farmhouse sat just on the outskirts of the city. From the description Sam gave him earlier, their makeshift headquarters was a small stone structure with one large room that served as dining room, kitchen, and living room downstairs with two small bedrooms upstairs. It only took Gage fifteen minutes to make it to the house. He pulled his car into the barn and scanned the property making a note of the ingress and egress options. Always prepared. When he was sure everything looked good from outside, Gage headed across the field to the house.

Gage found Sam sitting at the small wooden table in front of a bank of monitors and electronic gear. Even after working with Sam for over six years, Gage could barely identify any of the specialized instruments he used. Chief Master Sergeant Sam Forester, call sign Cosmo, was a communications genius. He could break into computers, tap a telephone, and listen to a conversation taking place half a world away all without breaking a sweat. They had met during the assessment and selection program all Army Special Forces candidates were forced to endure. As candidates, they quickly learned that survival was more about mental strength than physical aptitude. Rank and background did not matter. No one made it through the program without using their minds and working as a team. And the two of them had been a team ever since. Sam was the closest thing to a family Gage had ever had.

Sam held up one finger as Gage walked into the room. Understanding the signal, Gage remained silent as he pulled off his suit jacket and took a seat across from his friend. He was prepared to wait until Sam was ready to talk. Gage looked at the man who was sometimes mistaken for his younger brother.

They both had dark hair, olive competitions – Sam’s from his Italian father and Gage’s from his Spanish mother – as well as a similar build, but in Gage’s opinion that is where the likeness ended. Sam was as tough as nails in a firefight, and Gage would never doubt that his friend would go to hell and back for him. He had proved it time and time again. But there was something about Sam’s easy-going personality and belief that, in the end, all was good with the world that reflected in his physical appearance. Of course, if Gage had grown up in a family like Sam’s, he would be smiling all of the time too.

Sam came from a huge Italian family and was one of five siblings that were all close. Gage’s father started his career as a Marine Corps Gunny Sergeant who saw his job as a parent no different than his job for the Marines. Focused more on rising through the ranks than caring for his child, Gage ended up being raised by an overwrought mother who barely left her bedroom and then a series of boarding schools.

The few times he and his father communicated, they used as few syllables as possible. Gage could never remember his father ever touching him except to pat him on the back when he passed his room inspection every evening. Gage knew how to make bed with hospital corners before he could read.

When he was young, he had wanted nothing more than to please his father, scared that if he didn’t, he might leave for a tour and never come back. But as a teenager, that need for love and attention turned to rebellion. Gage worked hard to push his relationship with his father to the brink, daring the man to cut him lose. An inevitable outcome for a kid growing up in such a strict environment.

At eighteen, Gage could not apply to West Point fast enough. He rapidly excelled through the ranks, eventually becoming an officer and passing the grueling test to be accepted into the Special Operations branch. It was not long until senior decision makers noticed his unique leadership skills. He moved from mission to mission to mission. All he needed was his team and an objective. Simple and routine. Until Alana.

When Westin pulled him aside and briefed him on the Honduras mission, it sounded more like a vacation than a job. Keep an eye on the daughter of some important family who had links to European royalty. A favor for a friend of a friend. According to Westin, her father just wanted to make sure his daughter stayed safe as he let her have the freedom she craved.

Gage staged a little meet and greet, a controlled operation, to mask his true identity. He rigged her truck to break down on the desolate road and made sure he was the only one to come to her aid. Alana fell for it hook, line, and sinker, which was about the same rate he fell for her.

From the moment she walked over with her hair messed up from the steam of the engine babbling about herself, he was a goner. Gage kept his distance for as long as he could, but his job did not make that easy. After a few days, they became friends. And a few weeks later, lovers.

“How you holding up?” Sam’s voice interrupted Gage’s reverie.

“Fine. The meetings are putting me to sleep, but I’ll survive.”

Gage loosed his tie and pulled it off in one fluid motion.

Sam looked at him like he had two heads. “Not the meetings, dumb shit. Alana.”

Gage had confided in Sam just after Honduras. Sam and Westin were the only people who knew how hard this mission was for Gage.

Gage shrugged his shoulders. “No big deal.”

“Sure. I bet. That’s why you look like someone just stole your lunch money and its chili-mac day.” Sam leaned back in his chair and took a swig from the water bottle that sat on the table.

“Whatever.” Gage dismissed Sam’s comment. He had had enough rehashing of emotion for one day. “Where is the rest of the team?”

Sam had called Gage during the afternoon session to let him know that the team arrived with the rest of their gear.

“Picking up the last minute supplies from the airport,” Sam answered.

“How is the signal off of Alana’s phone?” Gage asked.

“Strong. We are getting good reads from her bedroom as well. But, nothing interesting yet.”

“What about background checks on the delegations and palace staff?” Gage started flipping through the preliminary reports laid out on the table in front of him.

“Our personal analysts . . . “ Sam winked obviously liking the idea of having a staff at his beck and call. “Our analysts at the Embassy are working on it. That is the initial background info on her personal staff. A few interesting tidbits. Her personnel secretary, Maya, is in serious financial debt. Alana had a maid whose brother has some questionable ties to a Russian mob family.”

“So, no smoking gun?” Gage had hoped the background checks would make this easier for all of them.

“No such luck, my friend. You’re not getting off that easy. But, we should have more this evening. I’ll call you if anything looks interesting.” Sam tapped commands on one the computer screens as he spoke.

They discussed mission details until Gage looked at his watch and got up, the wooden chair scraping against the stone floor. “Okay, I need to head back and get ready for this evening event.”

“Where are you going?” Sam asked as he grabbed his headphones and put them around his neck.

“Dinner with the delegation then the ballet.” Gage pulled his suit coat off the back of the chair and slung it across his arm.

Sam made a face like he had just tasted something unpleasant. “The ballet? Man, I would rather be in a foxhole eating bugs for dinner.”

“I couldn’t agree more. Let me know when you get something.” Gage clapped Sam on the shoulder and headed toward the front door.

“Will do.” Sam put his headphones back on his head and was lost again.

Gage headed to his hotel room to change, and prepare to see Alana again.


Chapter 6

Alana could not believe that she almost kissed him. All of that bravado she mustered up. Dressing in front of him. Showing him he was no more special than a fly on a wall. She even slapped him. And, then he got near her and she melted like jelly.

She wanted to kick herself. What was it about that man that made her lose all rational thought? She was a grown woman. Strong. Powerful. She was one step away from ruling a country for goodness sake. But put Gage McAllister in the room with her and she was putty in his large, scarred hands. She shifted in her seat, but Alana knew the chair had nothing to do with her discomfort.

Alana scanned the audience again, but did not see Gage. She wondered if he had taken her suggestion and left the country. He had left before when things got serious, why should now be any different. Good thing she did not care. Thoughts of Gage churned in her mind as if she was caught in a riptide until a deep voice pulled her back to the present.

“Are you okay?” Sergei leaned over and whispered in her ear. He sat in the seat next to hers in the royal box at the national theatre. Alana had no idea what was happening on stage. Once the house lights went down, her mind replayed her last encounter with Gage word for word and touch for touch. She knew she had pushed him this afternoon, but he had pushed right back. Her skin turned warm at the thought of how exactly he pushed back. She poked the lion and now had to deal with consequences.

“Yes. I’m fine,” she lied.

“Really?” Sergei lifted the mangled program from her lap. She must have been twisting it with her hands as she thought about Gage. She felt guilty thinking about another man while sitting next to Sergei.

“I’m just tired.”

He stretched his arm over the back of her chair and cupped his hand around her shoulder.

“Do you want to leave at intermission? I can make our excuses.” Sergei whispered.

“No, I will be okay.” She refused to let Gage get in the way of her duties.

Just as she spoke the crowd erupted with applause and the house lights came up. He moved his hand and they both clapped their approval, although Alana had no idea what transpired on stage.

“Do you want to head to the balcony with us? We were going to stretch our legs,” Stefan said as he walked past them toward the door at the back of the theatre box. Philip and two other senior American delegates followed the prince out. During intermission it was tradition for the royal family and their guests to stand outside the box on a balcony above the crowds below. It was a way to see and be seen without compromising security. With her parents still in Switzerland, she and Stefan would need to make the official appearance.

Alana tucked her crumpled program in the corner of the seat and moved to follow the group, but Sergei put his hand on her arm to stop her.

“We will be out in a minute,” Sergei told Stefan.

Stefan smiled and headed out the door. In a moment, she and Sergei were alone. Alana pivoted in her seat so she faced him.

“You know we need to go stand on the baloney and mingle?” she asked.

“Yes, but. . . Alana, is something wrong? Ever since last night you have seemed distant. I’m sorry if you felt I was pushing you for an answer, but I asked you to marry me over a month ago.”

Sergei spoke in a low whisper. Alana was sure no one overhead them, but she still was conscious of prying eyes. Two in particular. She had not seen Gage yet, but every nerve ending in her body told her he was close.

She looked around the theatre. Outside of the usual glances toward the royal box, no one seemed to care what was happening between them. Still, talking to Sergei about his proposal was the last thing Alana wanted to do.

“Sergei, this is not the time.”

“I know, but I can’t stop going over last night in my mind and wondering if I did something wrong or pushed too hard too soon.”

Alana hated seeing the vulnerability in his eyes. She was not being fair to him. She wanted to reassure him without making any promises she could not keep. “You didn’t. I loved last night. I just need some more time. I don’t want to make any mistakes.”

He reached out and brushed a lose tendril of hair back behind her ear. “I want nothing more than to be with you. You and me. A family. A true Corannian family. Everything I said last night was from the heart. This has nothing to do with politics or cameras. Just promise me you’re thinking about it.” He gave her a wink. “I am a patient man, but I also know what I want.”

“I promise I’m thinking about it.”

She did not want to hurt him, but she was not ready to say yes especially after her afternoon encounter with Gage. Sergei deserved someone who would be fully committed to the relationship, and after her almost kiss with Gage, she knew she had a long way to go before she would be ready to say yes.

He stood up and took her hand. “That’s all I ask. It would pain me if your quiet mood was because of last night. I miss your smiles.”

She grabbed her small clutch as she stood up. “Oh, believe me, you have nothing to do with my mood. In fact, quiet the contrary.” She gave him a smile and squeezed his hand before she turned and headed toward the door at the back of the box.

Sergei put a hand on her lower back and walked up the two low stairs next to her. “I need to call General Kisvery and finalize my plans to visit the northern territories tomorrow. I’ll meet you back at the box at the end of intermission.”

“That sounds fine. I need to find Maya and see if I can reschedule a meeting at the hospital wing tomorrow. It looks like one of our shipments is delayed.”

Alana opened the door to find Victor and Maya waiting on the other side for her. She glanced around to make sure Gage was nowhere close. She was not going to let him sneak up and surprise her again.

#

Gage watched Alana as she exited the royal box. His eyes honed in on Sergei’s hand that rested on the curve of her back.  He clenched his jaw for control. Sam had pulled some kind of electronic magic so Alana’s cell phone acted as a microphone for a very short distance. Gage heard every word of endearment Sergei spoke to Alana.

A few years ago, he took shrapnel to his left leg while on a mission in Uganda. The medic dug the pieces out in the middle of the jungle during a monsoon while Gage gnawed on a stick. Gage thought that was a bad day. This was worse. Seeing Alana and Sergei together was very different that glancing at a photograph on the cover of a magazine. Gage knew that Sergei was just the type of man Alana needed by her side. But that did not mean he had to like it.

Alana smiled and spoke to the few people that approached her. He doubted that they saw the fine lines of stress around her mouth and the smile that never reached her eyes, but Gage did. He ached to comfort her, to whisk her away if only for an hour or two. It was insane that Westin asked them to go through this, but the alternative was worse.

Gage readjusted the glasses he wore. They had a video camera embedded in the screw. He leaned against the wall where he had a good vantage point and could see almost everyone on the balcony, although he concentrated his gaze on the crowd nearest to Alana.

“Are you getting this?” he asked Cal who was on the other end of the dot microphone that rested on his collarbone just underneath his shirt. It picked up the vibrations of his voice and transmitted them to the team. A microscopic receiver sat behind his ear that allowed him to hear what was being said on the other end. To the layman, it looked like a small mole.

“Yep,” Cal replied. “The analysts are running the facial recognition software real-time, but no one is coming up as a potential match.”

“Okay. Let me know if you need me to change positions,” Gage said.

“Who are you talking to?”

Philip Matthews walked over to Gage with his program tucked underneath his arm and a cocktail in his hand. Gage let out a sigh of frustration.

“I didn’t know you wore glasses,” Philip commented.

“I need them to see at a distance, and I didn’t want to miss any of the ballet.” Gage wished the man would disappear, but had to maintain his cover.

“So, you are a fan of the ballet, Major.” Philip took a slow sip of his drink. Gage winced when he saw the two cherries floating in the glass. He almost felt sorry for the bureaucrat. Almost.

“I would not say I’m a fan, but after seeing Misty Copeland in Firebird, I discovered an appreciation for the art form.”

Philip’s look of shock was priceless. A highlight of the evening for Gage.

“Where the hell did that come from? Wikipedia?” Cal said in his ear.

Gage ignored the laughter he heard from his team on the other end of the radio and concentrated on keeping Alana in his sights and not blowing his cover with Philip.

“Yes, I could not agree more. She is an exquisite dancer.”

“Exquisite,” Gage said.

“Shift a little to the left, Mac. We want to get a second reading on the blonde at Alana’s two o’clock,” Cal requested.

Gage pushed himself off the wall and walked toward the center of the balcony. Philip followed.

“Was there something you wanted, Philip, or did you come over just to talk ballet?”

Gage really wanted the man to go bother someone else.

“I was wondering if you had heard anything about King William.”

“No. Why?” Gage kept his face turned toward the blonde, while he listened to what Philip said. Did something happen to Alana’s father?

Philip took a step closer to Gage as if he was sharing a secret and dropped his voice into a whisper. “Well, someone on the Corannian delegation has a friend that works at the airport. The king and queen were scheduled to stay in Switzerland for another day or two, but instead they flew in this afternoon.”

“So? I would imagine as king and queen they could move around as they choose.” Gage said.

“Now, move to your nine o’clock and focus on the waiter carrying the tray of champagne,” Cal ordered. Gage adjusted his stance to get the angle he needed for the team. Philip gave him a funny look then readjusted his stance to mirror Gage’s.

“Of course, but my source said the royal party deplaned in a closed hanger, which is unusual. Then he said his friend saw two stretchers come off the plane. One was covered with a white sheet. That was likely General Hanski. But the other carried the king. It was all very hush hush.”

Gage spun around and focused his full attention on Philip.

“Say that again?”

“Rumor is the king might be sick. If not, and the king and queen were back in country, why wouldn’t they be here? This is an important this weekend for all of us.” Philip reached his fingers in his glass and pulled out a cherry to eat.

“We’re on it,” Cal said in Gage’s ear.

Gage ran his mind through the briefing prep and his discussions with Westin. Hankski was the only one of the group in Switzerland that showed any signs of illness. Gage was worried although he tried his best not to show it.

“Did anyone else mention that the king was back or ill? The prince and princess don’t look concerned.”

Other than tired, Alana seemed to be fine. She spoke to two women as Victor loomed a few steps away. Before Philip had a chance to answer, Sam’s voice bellowed in Gage’s ear.

“Gage, scan the room now. Alana’s phone is in use right now.  It just made contact with the AP number we are tracking. The text reads ‘proof imminent.’“

“Say again,”  Gage said as his eyes darted around the room.

Sam repeated the text message they intercepted, proof imminent.  They are going to use Ignis at the ballet tonight.  The signal from her phone geo-locates close to your current position.  The call is coming from the theatre.”

Gage went on alert. His mind blocked everything and everyone out except his target. His sharp gaze inspected every person on the balcony. There were at least two dozen people either talking, texting, or looking at their cell phones. His gaze locked on Alana. The two women that stood next to her earlier had left and were walking back to the bar. Alana and Maya were moving in the direction of the royal box. Maya had a cell phone in her hand.

“Alana,” he called from across the balcony.

She turned to his voice. Eyes wide in surprise. Gage saw the shocked looks on the faces of people as he made a bee-line for her.

When he finally reached her, he asked, “Where’s your cell phone?”

Victor moved to stand between him and the princess. He held up his hand and Gage noted that he held a cell phone. The screen was lit which meant it had been recently in use.

“Major McAllister, you are out of line. Step back right now.” Victor’s voice was firm.

Alana moved next to Victor. Her eyes burned with anger. “I know you are unfamiliar with proper protocol, Major, but please do not refer to me in the familiar. I am sure your Embassy has instructed you on the protocol.”

Philip appeared out of nowhere. “Absolutely, Your Highness. The Major received the same briefing packet as the rest of the delegation. I apologize for his behavior.”

Gage ignored the men and kept his eyes locked on Alana.

“Where’s your phone, Your Highness?” Gage spoke in a low voice trying to keep the growing crowd around them from overhearing what was being said. He would have to work at being subtler. Later. Right now he had to know who accessed Alana’s phone. That person was the key to Altyn Poltinnik .

The flash of a camera came from somewhere to his left. Alana looked uncomfortable with the attention.

“Major, I am not sure what this is all about. But please funnel your questions to me through the proper channels.” Alana turned her back on him just as the ceiling lights flashed on and off. Some of the people around them began to shuffle back inside the theatre for the second act, but most stood their ground more fascinated with the show on the balcony.

“We lost the connection,” Sam said in his ear.

Damn it. Before Gage could defuse the situation he just created, a woman screams pierced the air. Gage ran to the balcony railing in time to see the crowd part like the Red Sea to reveal a man collapsed on the floor in full convulsions.

Gage ran toward the staircase pushing men and women out of his path. He flew down the stairs taking them two at a time then made his way to the man on the floor. The crowd gave him room to work. Gage gently moved the man to his back and checked his pulse. It was weak but rapid.

“We’ve called for an ambulance. Relay the symptoms.”

Gage was glad to hear JT, the Echo company medic, on the other end of the transmitter.

“A weak, rapid pulse. Sweat on the face. Hands are cold. Pupils enlarged and blood shot.”

Gage leaned over and hovered his cheek over the man’s mouth, but did not feel any air coming out. Gage ripped off his suit coat and laid it over the man. He reached out and loosened the tie to make sure the airway was clear.

“Beginning CPR.”

Gage pressed the heel of his hands in rhythmic chest compressions silently counting to himself. He heard sirens in the distance, but did not stop pressing and counting until he felt a hand on his shoulder.

Gage slid back and let the emergency medics take over. As they raised the man to the stretcher, Gage noticed blood on the floor. It had come from the man’s ear. Gage used his handkerchief to wipe it up and carefully folded it to protect the sample before he put it in his pocket.

As he stood up, the men and women around him clapped and patted him on the back. He forgot he had an audience.

“That was impressive, Major. You must be well-trained. Sure you don’t want to go for a drink. You deserve it after that.” Amanda Higgins, the young officer that he sat next to at lunch handed him back his suit jacket. Gage draped it over his arm.

“Thanks. I appreciate it, but I think I will head back to the hotel. Alone.”

Gage did not want to hurt her feelings, but he had no time for uninvited midnight visitors. As she walked away, Gage tilted his head to look up at the balcony and saw a large group watching him from above. It only took a moment for his eyes to find Alana. She offered him a weak smile. Before he had a chance to return it, Sergei came up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder. She gave Gage one last look before she left with Sergei.

Victor stood at the railing for a moment longer making sure Gage saw him. Gage put his fingers to his temple and gave the bodyguard a smart salute. Victor’s gaze bore into him for a second longer then was comfortable. Finally, the bodyguard turned in the direction of the princess and disappeared.

Gage headed out the front doors. He wanted get the blood sample back to the house so it could be analyzed. The text that Sam sent confirmed Gage’s worst fears. If the man had been poisoned with Ignis at the ballet as a proof that the vials existed, then buyers had already been contacted about the auction. They were running out of time and they did not have any more information than when they started. He would have to regroup and change tactics. As much as he hated doing it, it was time to force his way into Alana’s life one way or another. Somehow she was at the center of this and he needed to know why.


Chapter 7

Alana covered her mouth with her hand as she suppressed a yawn. She had tossed and turned all night. And, for the few minutes of sleep she did get, she dreamt of grey eyes, a firm body, and a wicked half-grin. Around five o’clock, she gave up and got dressed. She hated waking Ian and Victor, but she needed to get out. And there was only one place she wanted to go.

The unfinished hospital wing took on an eerie glow at such an early hour. Usually she had an entourage with her that gave her briefings and updates on the progress. But every once in a while, she was able to sneak in and explore on her own. The new Infectious Diseases wing had been her pet project for the last two years. The wing was scheduled to open in three months. She hoped the investment would attract world-renowned scientists and physicians. A project like this, if successful, could become a cornerstone for the country.

Resting the clipboard against her abdomen, Alana made a note of the inventory she was verifying. Through donations, both private and from the state, Alana made sure the wing received the latest equipment.

“What the heck are you doing here at this hour?” Alana turned as she saw Dr. Sophie Baxter walk through the swinging doors. Her bright red curly hair was tied up in a knot on top of her head.

“Hey, Vic, mind giving us a minute?” Sophie said with ease. Sophie was one of the few people that could confirm that Victor did actually smile.

“I’ll be right outside the doors.” Victor left the two women alone.

Alana climbed up on to an empty desk and let her feet dangle from the side. Sophie took a seat on a palette full of latex gloves.

“You know, Al, you are the only princess I know that would rather squirrel herself away in the middle of a construction site than be catered to and pampered by her very large staff. Why should we girls even bother with fairy tales if princesses have to work like the rest of us?”

“Do you know a lot of princesses, Soph?” Alana reached down and grabbed a Styrofoam cup of coffee that sat on the next to her. She offered the cup to Sophie, who declined, before she took a sip of the hot liquid.

“Actually, one is enough for me, thank you very much.”

Alana laughed, shaking her head at her friend’s honesty. Sophie’s Irish brogue sounded like music to her ears. Alana and Sophie met at Highgate boarding school when they were sixteen. They roomed together at Oxford and had planned to attend St. Mary’s Medical School, but only Sophie was able to attend.

When it came time to hire a staff for the new program, Sophie was the first person Alana called. Just off a bad break-up, her friend was more than eager to accept the appointment.  Until the new wing opened, Sophie helped out in the emergency room. Alana was thrilled to have her best friend so close.

“So how are things on the pediatric floor? I hear the new administrator is putting a number of processes in place,” Alana asked. As official patroness of the hospital she was provided a weekly report on all of the departments, and often gave suggestions where she saw potential problems or room for improvement.

“Oh, there are the typical glitches. One of the nurses mislabeled the in and out files so we were checking in patients on the way out and checking out patients on their way in. That was a fun couple of hours.” Sophie smiled.

“The new software should be up set-up sometime early next week.”

“No worries. No harm came from it.”

“Anything else I should know about?”

“Now, you did not hire me to be your canary in the coal mines did you? I can’t be snitching on everyone and everything.” Sophie was always brutally honest with Alana, something she appreciated about her friend.

“Just let me know if I can do something to help make things run more smoothly. I have a way of getting around the bureaucratic tape.” Alana offered before she took another sip of her coffee.

“Aye. Will do. Now tell me, what happened last night at the ballet. How are you holding up?” Sophie asked.

“I’m okay. I checked in on the gentleman who collapsed last night. He’s still in a coma.” Alana could not get the scene of Gage racing across the theatre lobby out of her mind.

“I’m not talking about the man who collapsed, although I am glad to hear he’s alive. I’m talking about the handsome American mystery man that was fawning all over you at the ballet last night? I want all of the juicy details.”

Sophie wiggled her eyebrows.

“What are you talking about?” Alana was still angry at Gage’s inappropriate behavior. She hated public scenes and had hoped the medical emergency would be what everyone remembered, not her run in with Gage.

“Don’t play daft with me, Princess, its all over this morning’s papers, ‘American Hero Confronts Princess.’“ Sophie highlighted each word with her hand as if the byline was written in the air in front of her. “He’s hot by the way. Now, spill.”

Alana jumped up off the desk. “You’re kidding me. Its all over the papers?”

“And the news. Your team will be working on this as soon as the sun is up.”

“Crap.” Alana took off the lab coat she wore over her clothes so they would not get dusty. “I need to get back to the palace and do some damage control.”

Sophie got up and followed Alana across the room. “Wait, Al, who is he?”

“Gage McAllister.” Alana pushed her hair out of her face and wished for a clip so she could put it up.

Sophie let out a low whistle. “He’s come crawling back, has he?”

“Hardly. I don’t know what he wants and it’s driving me crazy. He’s officially part of the American delegation, but I think something is off. He’s not really the Foreign Service type, but I just can’t make it out. All I know is I wish he would climb back into whatever hole he crawled out of and disappear again.” Alana crossed and uncrossed her arms. Finally, they landed on her hips. “He’s screwed up everything in one day.”

Sophie reached out and rubbed her friends upper arm. “Calm down. Breathe. Take a minute before you go out and deal with the press vultures. Get yourself together.”

Alana paced back and forth in front of Sophie. She figured if she let herself lose it now, she could hold it together later.

“That’s the problem. Gage showed up yesterday and I’m a wreck. Then he comes at me last night at the ballet asking about my phone like a crazy man in front of everyone.” Alana stopped for a second and looked at Sophie. “He’s crazy. That’s it.”

She paused for a moment then started to pace again. “And then he runs through the lobby like some kind of superhero and saves a man’s life. Who does that?” She paused and looked at Sophie again. “Who does that, Soph?”

“Someone I would like to meet, that’s for sure.”

Sophie did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation.

“Oh, and did I mention that Sergei asked me to marry him again last night?”

Sophie let out a burst of laughter. “Are you kidding me? No wonder you are down here hiding out. Did you give him an answer?”

Alana remembered her conversation with Sergei at the ballet. “I told him I needed more time. I thought he took it well, but he seemed pretty insecure about it last night.”

“Well, he’s going to be even more insecure after he sees the news about your secret lover.”

“I could kill Gage for putting me in this situation.” Alana bit the outside of her thumbnail, a habit she thought she had conquered. She thought about what she could do to spin the story away from speculation about her and Gage.

“Do you still love him?”

Leave it to Sophie to ask the question Alana refused to even contemplate.

Alana crossed her arms to put distance between her mouth and the thumb she was about to gnaw off. “I don’t want to, that is for sure.” Alana took a deep breath. “I just can’t forget, Sophie. I just can’t. It hurts to even look a him.”

“I know.” Sophie had ended a seven-year relationship and understood heartache.

A sharp beep interrupted the silence of the room. Sophie pulled her pager off the waistband of her green scrubs and looked down at the message. “Ah, crappers, I need to run. But don’t think this conversation is over. I plan to go over this in great detail with a bottle of wine and a big box of chocolate.”

Alana followed her friend to the doors. “You’re still coming tonight, aren’t you? I need you there for moral support.” The ball tonight was an annual event in honor of the founding of the capital. It would be even bigger this year with the American delegation in attendance.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I can’t wait to meet this solider-lover of yours. It’s like Mrs. Simpson and King Edward but in reverse.”

“He probably wouldn’t stick around long enough for me to give up my throne.” The thought of marrying Gage twisted her empty stomach into one big knot.

Sophie must have read the angst on her face. She walked over to Alana and gave her friend a big hug. “I promise I’ll be by your side all night if you need me to.”

“Thanks. I’m going to hold you to that,” Alana said as she hugged Sophie back.

Sophie headed out of the room and Alana called for Victor. She needed to get a plan together and figure out what to do with Gage McAllister once and for all.

#

Gage moved through the halls of the palace with fierce determination. He ignored the staff that gave him questioning looks. Thank goodness no one interfered with his path. He was angry and seeing red. Gage had not planned to spend the better half of his morning cleaning up the mess Alana had made, but the woman had given him no choice. Gage knew exactly where to find her. Cal had been tracking Victor since the ballet, and wherever Victor was, Alana would not be far away.

Once Gage found the door he was looking for he crashed through it and was welcomed by Victor’s gun in his face. He expected it. He figured if he made enough noise in the hall, Victor would be prepared and not shoot him on sight. It was a gamble, but worth it. He needed to see her. And to do that, Gage needed to get past her bodyguard. Shock still pulsed through his body at what she had done.

Alana looked up with wide eyes as the door swung open.  Her pen paused in mid-air.  She sat at a long, thin desk that was decorated in gold and polished wood. His eyes darted to her long crossed legs underneath the desk then back to her shocked face. Sunlight poured through the large window behind her giving her a glow. If he was not so angry, he might be in a better frame of mind to appreciate her beauty.  But, right now all he wanted to do was throw her over his knee.

“You asked to have me removed from the delegation? Is this some kind of joke to you?” Gage shouted from the doorway. How dare she compromise his position and his mission.

He stood his ground at the doorway.  He knew he could only push Victor so far and Gage did not feel like getting shot this morning.

Three hours ago, Gage was dragged out of bed and his restless sleep by banging on the door.  Philip and two Corannian policemen were on the other side.  With an arrogant smile on his face, Philip told Gage that his diplomatic credentials had been revoked, which meant he was in the country illegally.  He was told to stay in his room until things could be sorted out.  But Gage, and the two nervous looking policemen knew that the hotel room would not hold him if he wanted to get out.  Which he did.

It did not take long for Gage to get past the police that were assigned to watch him. It was more of an annoyance than a challenge.  Gage certainly had better things to do with his time this morning than play hide-and-seek with the Corannian police.

Alana’s eyes held the shock of his outburst. But only for a moment. She sat up straighter and put on her most royal attitude.  With a very controlled motion, she set her pen down on the desk and sat back in her chair. Her look was cold as she assessed him.

“Major McAllister, I don’t believe you are an invited guest at the palace any more. Please see yourself out.”

“Holster your gun, Victor. I’m not going to hurt your precious princess despite the fact I would like to wrap my hands around her neck for what she did.”

Gage addressed Victor, but never took his eyes off Alana. She was his target right now.

“Tell him to holster his gun, Princess. You have gone too far.”

After a long, tense moment, Alana give Victor a nod and the bodyguard put his gun back in his shoulder holster. The fact that Victor had his gun snapped back underneath his arm made him no less of a threat. Gage could feel that the man was ready to pounce as soon as Alana gave the word.

“I want to talk to you alone, Your Highness,” Gage requested through clenched teeth. “Tell your man to stand down.”

She crossed her arms and spoke in a clipped tone, “I can’t imagine that we have anything to say to each other.”

“Oh, believe me, Princess, I have a lot to say, and I’m guessing you may not want an audience.” 

“I admit I’m surprised that you’re not already at the airport. I told you yesterday, Major, that if you did not act according to protocol that I would have you removed.” Alana wore her cool reserve like a solider wore Kevlar.

“I’m not going anywhere. I have a mission, and I plan to see it through.”

Gage felt like Victor might start growling any second.

“And what mission is that, Major?”

“You.”

Gage and Alana locked stares like rams lock horns. Neither one of them willing to give an inch. The room was silent. Gage wanted nothing more than to grab her and kiss that stern look off of her face. He had almost convinced himself that he should when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out and saw that it was an emergency text from his team. Gage cursed under his breath. He needed to take this. He looked back at Alana who had not moved an inch since he stormed into her office.

“You need to clear this matter up now.”

Gage sent a one-letter text back that the emergency message was received.

“Or what?” she asked. Her voice as firm and her stare.

“This is not a game, Alana.”

“I never said it was.”

He shot her one last look for emphasis before he pivoted and headed back down the hallway. He needed privacy to take the call. He jammed in his passcode and dialed the safe house.

“This better be good news.” Gage was in no mood for more questions. He needed answers.

Sam chuckled at Gage’s tone. “Let’s go secure.”

Gage pushed a few buttons and entered a series of codes. His phone beeped and whistled then the screen changed from green to blue. It sounded like a computer making an old-fashion dial-up connection in his ear, but Gage knew the technology he was using was state-of-the-art.

“I’ve got you secure.”

“The intel guys at the Embassy just called. They were able to uncover some interesting facts about your favorite bodyguard,” Sam offered.

“Victor?”

“That’s the one.”

“What you got?” Gage asked.

“Well, for starters, he is not your average rent-a-cop. Try former Soviet special forces. When the wall came down, he moved with the rest of his cronies into the FSB, Russian intelligence. The guys at the CIA say he was top notch. One of the best. Then for no apparent reason when King William assumed the throne, he took over as Alana’s bodyguard.”

“Yeah, he was there the day her father showed up in Honduras,” Gage remembered.

“And, according to the official record, has been assigned to her ever since.”

“What about the unofficial record?” Gage asked.

“Ah, now that’s where it gets interesting. According to the intel weenies, and I had to get the secret handshake for this, Victor is still on the books.”

“What do you mean?” Gage knew there was something more to Victor.

“He is still active with Russian intelligence. Never retired. Never got the gold watch. The analysts found an offshore account in the Caymans where he is depositing his extra paycheck. So the next question is . . .”

“What the hell is he doing with Alana?” Gage blew out the breath he had not realized he was holding.

“And, wait, you have not heard the worst of it.”

Gage wondered what was worse than Alana being ten feet away from an active FSB agent with a gun.

“Victor’s former commander in the special forces was Adrian Tolansky. Adrian Tolansky, is the . . .”

“The current deputy commander of AP,” Gage finished the sentence for Sam. “Shit.”

“Yeah, that about sums it up.”

“Tell Cal to keep eyes on him twenty-four/seven. Call this in to Westin and get extra guys assigned to the case. I don’t want Victor out of our sights. Not for a moment. My gut tells me if we follow him, we will find Ignis.”

“Roger. Hey, Mac, there is something else. We checked on the king’s status,” Sam said.

Gage’s mind was still focused on Victor and the fact that he was always two steps behind Alana. It took him a minute to switch gears.

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“Looks like your little buddy, Philip was right. The king did sneak into the country and was wheeled out on a stretcher. The report says he’s holed up somewhere in the palace under tight guard.”

“The king is sick?” Gage immediately thought of the man who collapsed last night. Would anyone be bold enough to actually poison the king? And for what reason?

“From the looks of it, he is very sick.”

“Does any one else know? Alana? Stefan?” Gage’s stomach knotted. He knew how close Alana was to her family. The king’s illness would devastate her.

“Stefan called Alana earlier this afternoon and asked that she meet him in her father’s chambers tonight at seven. Her reaction was normal. No concern registered in her voice. But Stefan’s voice was stressed according to the monitors.”

So the prince knows something and they planned to tell Alana tonight.

“Sam, get me that medical report. We need to get a blood sample and trace it against Ignis. I don’t have a good feeling about this at all. The King getting sick is too much coincidence for me to swallow. Did we get the lab work back on the blood sample from the man that collapsed last night?”

“Nope, still waiting,” Sam said.

“Get it to me as soon as you hear something. I’m going to go back and make sure they don’t kick me out of the country.”

Gage needed to figure out a way to see Alana privately. It was time she knew what was going on in her country and that her bodyguard was likely more threat than protection.

“Roger that. Anything else for me, Mac?” Sam asked.

“No thanks, Sam. Just get me those lab reports. Mac out.”

Gage hit a few numbers and the screen returned to a normal view. He took a deep breath and headed back to find Alana.


Chapter 8

Alana spent the rest of the day avoiding Gage. There were not many places she could hide. She did have work to do, but her staff and Victor went out of their way to accommodate her unplanned changes of venue. She looked at her watch. Seven o’clock. She was surprised when her mother asked her to go to the chambers in the east wing. They normally kept that wing closed unless there was an overflow of guests. The east wing was in desperate need of repairs they could not afford.

Alana knocked on the heavy wooden door. After a few seconds, the queen opened it. Again, Alana thought something seemed off. Why didn’t Uri, the king’s valet, did not do the honors?

“Alana, my dear.” Her mother enveloped her in her arms and all of the cares of Gage and Sergei and being a princess went away. It was just a mother holding a daughter and it felt good.

Her mother broke the embrace but reached up and cupped Alana’s cheek in her palm. Alana leaned into the warmth of her mother’s caress.

“Alana, you look tired. Are you okay?” Her mother and she had always been close. Alana wished she could tell her mother about Gage, but she saw the bags underneath her mother’s eyes and knew now was not the time to bring her problems. Something else was wrong.

“I’m fine, Mom. Just busy.”

Her mom looked at her in the eyes like she did not believe her, but thank goodness the queen did not press. Alana was trying to get her last encounter with Gage out of her mind. She followed her mother through the elaborate suite to the sitting area where she sat down next to Stefan on the sofa.

“How did things go today with the Americans? Is the memorandum of understanding ready to sign?” the queen asked.

“Everything went well. We agreed on the final language. Things should be ready for the ceremony Sunday morning,” Stefan offered.

“That is wonderful news.”

Alana noticed a subtle exchange between mother and son. She looked back and forth between the prince and the queen but neither of them seemed like they were prepared to share whatever it was that was on their minds. Already dealing with a full plate, she didn’t push. Alana glanced around the room thankful the servants had all departed. It was a rare occasion that the family was alone. Then it hit her.

“Where is Father?” The look passed between Stefan and their mother again. Now she knew something was wrong. She could see it in their faces.

“What’s going on? What are you two not telling me?” Alana turned around and noticed that the double doors to the bedchamber were closed.

Stefan turned to Alana and took one of her hands in his. His handsome face wore a solemnness that she had not seen since her uncle had died and her father assumed the throne. “Dad is sick. He came down with something in Switzerland and the doctors can’t figure out what it is.”

“What?” It felt as if she was one of those rides where the elevator shaft free-falls through the air. She prayed it would stop soon.

Her mother sat next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. Alana felt guilty. She should be the one comforting her mother, not the other way around. “He was not feeling well when we left for Switzerland, but he insisted on going. You know you father. Then his condition got progressively worse. He has been bedridden for the last three days.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Alana tried to hold back the tears that she felt welling up. She needed to be strong for her mother.

“The doctors have no idea. A specialist from Geneva saw him every day we were in Switzerland, but could not figure out what was wrong. They recommend a number of more invasive tests, but your father insisted that he postpone the tests until after the signing on Sunday. He does not want anything to jeopardized the agreement.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I know, but you know your father.”

“What about medicine? Can’t they give him something?”

“They have. Unfortunately, your father is not responding to any of the medicines they have tried so far.”

“If he needs care, then he should get it regardless of the Americans or anyone else for that matter,” Alana insisted. Geopolitics should be the last of his concerns.

Stefan stood up and began pacing the room. “I know and I told him so, but he is as stubborn as an old cow.”

“Stefan,” the queen scolded.

“Please, mother, you know it’s true.”

“I know, but you don’t have to say it.” She offered her son a weak smile then looked back at Alana.

Alana noticed the fine lines around her her mother’s eyes and the sallowness in her cheeks. She took her mother’s hands and tried to rub the cold out of them. Her parents’ relationship was solid and based on love. Alana had always wished that her marriage would be much like theirs. This must be awful for her mother.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner? I would have come out to be with you.” Alana did not think anything was more important than family.

“That is the last thing he wants. The press cannot get wind of this.”

“He only told me last week so we could be ready to sign the Treaty of Matvic if it comes to that.” Stefan stood and stuffed his hands in his pants pockets. He seemed as lost as Alana felt.

The Treaty would put Stefan in change of the monarchy as Regent until Alana was officially crowned as Queen. It would be up to Stefan to say exactly when they should transfer the power from a living king to his heir. Alana knew that it was the last thing Stefan wanted to do.

The Volkavas were not a power-hungry family. They all believed that they were guardians for the people that had no voice. The Parliament still controlled the primary day-to-day operations of the country, but her father was the face of Corannia. She knew that if her father’s condition got out that it would, at the very least, postpone the signing of the memorandum with the Americans. In the worst-case scenario, it would give the opposition more time to rile up the masses and possibly stall the deal indefinitely.

“Do the doctors say he can wait until Sunday for the exploratory surgery?” No deal was worth her father’s life.

“They are not happy with it, but they agree for now. If things get worse, then we will reassess then.”

Alana read the pain on her mother’s face.

“Can I see him?” Alana glanced at the large wooden doors with trepidation.

“You can, but the trip has worn him out. The doctors gave him a sedative, so he is sleeping.”

Alana walked into the bedchamber with Stefan and her mother close behind. A single nurse was by her father’s bedside reading a book. She smiled serenely when she saw the royal family at the door and excused herself to give them some privacy. Her father rested in the center of a massive carved wooden bed. He looked small and frail in comparison to the man she knew. The beeps and whirls of the machines plugged into her father’s body were the only sound in the room.

The king looked like a shell of his former self. His skin was grey and limp. His hair and lips were white. It looked as if all of the life had been forcefully pushed out of him. She choked back a sob. Her mother and brother needed her to be strong. There would be time for tears later.

Alana walked over to her father and held his limp hand in hers. She wished there was someway for the energy of her body to thread out and become infused in his. She would give anything to make him better. She looked back at her mother and brother. Their faces reflected the helplessness she felt.

Alana bent over and kissed her father on the forehead and told him that she loved him and she wished him a quick recovery. There was no response. Alana’s mother put her arms around her and led her back out of the room. Stefan closed the door behind them.

With vision blurred from unshed tears, Alana asked, “What do we do now?”

“You must carry on with your duties as before. We are only letting a few of the most trusted staff in to help.”

Alana could hear the exhaustion in her mother’s voice.

“But won’t there be questions?” Alana asked.

“I have let the staff know that the king has a nasty bit of stomach flu, but he is recovering nicely. We will continue to send the daily correspondence through him, but I will sign any official documents in his stead. It is just for the next couple of days. Then, as mother said, we can reassess.” Alana knew Stefan would do what he had to do. One foot in front of the other.

The queen used the pad of her thumb to brush away a tear that escaped down Alana’s cheek. One she had not realized she shed.

“Now, my beautiful girl, I believe you have a dinner party to host with your brother.”

Alana shook her head in protest. How could she go downstairs and host a dinner party with her father sick upstairs?

“I don’t think I can,” she admitted.

“Of course you can. You are the princess. And your father would expect it,” the queen spoke in a firm unyielding voice. Alana knew she was right. They needed to keep this close hold until they knew what they were dealing with. Alana never wanted to be a doctor more than this moment. She wished she could do something to help other than paste a smile on her face and pretend like everything was alright, but Alana understood her duties. Getting on with palace life and making sure everything ran smoothly was what her mother and father both needed. It was the least Alana could do for them.

“Of course, Mother. But you must promise to keep Stefan and I updated and let us know immediately if there is any change of status,” Alana insisted.

She felt Stefan’s arm around her shoulder. “I’ve already had her make that promise three times over. Now, let’s go downstairs and make these damn Americans happy so when the king wakes up we can tell him that all of his hard work for the last year is now law.”

Alana nodded her head and hoped her smile looked as real as her brother’s.

#

Gage knew the king was in bad shape. Even without seeing the medical report Sam was working on getting, he could read it on Alana’s face. He doubted other members of the dinner party noticed the strain in her voice and the lack of enthusiasm in her mannerisms. She was like a smiling statue. She nodded her head when she thought she should to feign listening, but to Gage she looked like she was about to fall over from exhaustion. He would to give her five more minutes of this after-dinner cocktail mumbo jumbo and then he planned to figure out some way to whisk her away. Even if it meant working with the damn Russian that never left her side.

“You were lucky that the order to have you thrown out of country ended up being a clerical error.”

“Yes, I was.”

Gage turned to Phillip, who slid up along side of him wearing a suit that looked like it had just come out of the dry cleaning bag. It did not have a single wrinkle or crease even though they had all just sat through a seven course dinner. How did he always look so damn perfect? It was creepy.

“Would you like me to catch you up on what you missed in the morning session? We were able to hammer out a significant piece of the treaty that dealt with . . “

Gage put his hand up to stop the man from his diatribe. “Please, Philip, don’t go into detail about what “thee” and “thou” and “the party of the second” language. It was bad enough sitting through it this afternoon. I really don’t need the replay.”

“If you don’t care about these negotiations then why are you here?” Philip asked.

“Because my government asked me to be. Just like you.”

“I suppose you would rather be in some rat hole with a gun trained on a terrorist?” Philip said that like it was a bad thing. Gage would never see eye-to-eye with the man.

Gage watched as Victor came up to Alana and whispered something in her ear. She nodded, made her excuses to the group she had been speaking with, and left the room with her bodyguard. Gage’s stomach turned sour. Now that he knew who Victor was, seeing him anywhere close to Alana made him want to take the man down.

“Yeah, Philip. I do prefer a fight where the good guy and the bad guy are clear and I can take the shot when I have it. In this world,” Gage took a sip of his cognac wishing it was straight whiskey, “the lines are blurred and that does nothing but make me dizzy.”

Philip leaned toward Gage with a determined expression. “Don’t fool yourself, Major, your world is just as blurry as mine. You and your team may shoot the bad guys, but don’t forget that we decide who those bad guys are at negotiations much like this one. You just have never been privy to this side of the fence before.”

“Yeah, well, now I know the grass isn’t any greener. Excuse me.”

Gage handed his glass to a man in a tuxedo with a silver tray and left the room. He tried to tell himself he was concerned about Victor and wanted to keep an eye on the bodyguard, but even he could not lie that well. He knew Westin would have agents on Victor. Gage wanted to see Alana. He needed to make sure she was okay.

All night he wanted to whisk her away from the crowd that surrounded them and take her somewhere private where she could let out the emotions that he knew she was holding back. She needed to cry. Scream. Whatever. Gage was scared that if she did not let her emotions free, she would burst from the inside. He had been there before and when that dam broke, which it always did, it was nearly impossible to put back the pieces.

The corridors were empty except for a few uniformed staff here and there. He would not be surprised if she went back to her father’s suite to check on him. Even he didn’t have the audacity to barge in there, although he would love first hand information on the king’s condition. Gage decided to try Alana’s suite. He put his phone back in his pant’s pocket after confirming with Buzz, who had eyes and ears on Victor’s room, that the bodyguard had retired for the evening and was tucked away in his own room for the night.

Gage arrived at Alana’s door and paused. He stood there and convinced himself that he just wanted to see for himself that she was okay. Then he would leave her alone. That’s all. “Liar!” a part of him screamed from deep inside. He suppressed the voice and rapped on the door with his knuckle.

Her voice carried through the door. Even from this distance he could hear the exhaustion in it.

“Come in.”

Gage walked through the vestibule only to find her sitting room empty. She called from the bathroom. “You can just set it down on the table, Marta. I’ll make it myself . . .”

Alana walked into the sitting room but stopped the second she saw him. He was at a loss for words as well. Instead of looking across the room at the tired and worn-out princess he expected to find, he was looking at his Alli. It was as if four years disappeared and they were standing in that little cabin in Honduras where the sound of waves crashing against the sand lulled them to sleep every night. Their only care was deciding between mango or papaya for breakfast.

His breath caught in his throat and he felt his hands shake with need. A need to touch her. Confirm that she was real and not some figment of an over-wrought imagination. Her thick hair was held back in a loose ponytail. Her face scrubbed clean. Gage knew that her lips would be moist from her favorite lip balm she put on religiously every night. The same lip balm he would religiously kiss off every night. She had even taken the time to remove her fingernail polish leaving her nails bare and natural.

She wore a Save the Whales t-shirt that he had grown quite familiar with four years ago. It was thin and threadbare and sexy as hell. Gray sweatpants and bare feet. This was his Alli. His chest tightened with need as he stared at her.

“I can’t do this now, Gage.”

Her voice cracked and his heart broke. He knew he should go away and leave her alone. Nothing could ever come of this. She was a princess and he was just a solider. A broken soldier with the scars inside and outside his body to prove it. Their worlds could not be more different. He knew it the day she left Honduras and he knew it now. He should turn around and walk out of her life. Save them both from opening up old wounds that could never be fully healed. Westin could take the case from here. There were better men he could put on the job. But Gage could not move. His feet were glued to the carpet beneath him. Then she lifted her face and he saw the pain in her eyes.

He could not wait a second more. He erased the distance between them in two strides, but stopped before he touched her. He did not want to push too hard. If she did not want him then he would go. No questions asked.

She shook her head. Her chin quivered as it fought for strength. “Gage. Please. I can’t fight you any more. Not tonight. Please.” Her request came out as a whimper.

“Please what?” he asked. His voice deep and raw with emotion.

She looked down at her feet and shook her head.

“Let’s call a truce. For tonight,” he offered.

He reached out and lightly caressed her arms and began to slowly rub the goose bumps away. He kept her at arm’s length. If she wanted to get closer to him he would be there for her, but it would be her decision. It took every ounce of strength he had.

His baser instinct fought to take over and pull her hard against his chest and kiss her pain away. But she did not need to be mauled by a man who wanted to drink her like a desert wants water. She needed a champion. A hero. Someone that was going to comfort her until she let out all she was holding back so tightly. He controlled his own need and gave her the final choice. Let her make that last step. The step that would make the space between them disappear. She earned that at least.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity to him, Alana looked up and her amber eyes dissolved into his. His heart melted.

“Oh, Gage.”

And that was it. The damn burst. She took the final step and he crushed her against his chest and let her cry until her body could produce no more tears. He held her as her body shook with frustration and sorrow. Finally, when the worst of it was over, and he felt her strength give out, he reached down and picked her up, cradling her against his body. Her arms went around his neck and her head rested on his shoulder. It felt as natural as if her body was tailor-made to be next to his.


Chapter 9

Alana clung to his thick neck like she would cling to a tree in a hurricane. If she let go, she knew she would blow away. She expected him to take her to her bedroom. She had already decided she would not protest. She needed to be close to him, to feel him against her body. The warmth of his skin and the mastery of his hands. She had not been with anyone since Gage. Not even Sergei. As princess, casual affairs were not an option. Most men had to sign a release form just to take her out for an evening. But with Gage, it was different. Despite her earlier protests, in the end she would trust him with her life.

But she should have known Gage was too much of a gentleman to take her to bed after such an emotional display. He placed her gently on the couch and even pulled up the soft cashmere blanket over her legs. She looked at him and was sure he could read the confusion and disappointment she felt on her face. He gave her one of those killer half-smiles she missed so much and shrugged his shoulders.

“Listen, don’t get me wrong. Putting you on that couch was about the hardest thing I have ever done. But I think you need something more than that right now.” Gage rubbed the back of his neck with his hand as he looked down at her. She could see the debate that raged within him.

“Always making decisions for me. Always thinking you know what’s best. Have you ever considered for a minute that you might not know what is best for me? Maybe getting naked and having hot, monkey sex might be just what I need right now.”

It felt good to say exactly what was on her mind. She had been holding in so many thoughts and emotions for so long. Saying something so shocking felt good. She looked up at him expecting to see his mouth gaped open. Instead he looked at her like she was adorable. Alana should have known that it would be nearly impossible to say anything that would shock him.

He chuckled, which only made her more frustrated.

“I’ve never actually seen monkeys having sex. Have you?”

He handed her a box of tissues. Alana grabbed one and blew her nose in a very unprincess-like way. But she was past caring. At least for tonight.

“I know what you’re doing. You’re not as suave as you think you are,” she said as she wiped her nose.

“Honey, I never would claim to be suave. Witty at times if I’ve had enough to drink. Sarcastic, definitely. And handsome as the devil if you like the used merchandise look. But never suave.”

She rewarded his banter with a smile. At least she hoped it looked like a smile. She was too tired to know for sure.

“But, just out of curiosity, what is it that I’m doing?  You know, just for future reference.” Gage stood over her with his hands in his suit pockets.  His suit jacket stretched against his broad shoulders and the light blue tie played havoc with her imagination.

“You’re trying to take my mind off of my fath . . .my troubles by distracting me and making me laugh. It’s what you do. Your preferred way of dealing with those nasty things we mortals call emotions.” She wished she could tell Gage about her father. Maybe he could help in some way. But she could not betray her family’s secret.

“Emotions? Never heard of them.”

“Well, for us lowly humans, emotions are pesky little feelings we have to deal with — like being happy or sad or hurt. Maybe even angry.” She raised her eyebrows. “Have you ever felt something like that?” she teased.

“They sound awful.” He pretended to shiver like the very idea of having an emotion was a sort of punishment.

But then again, maybe Gage was not pretending. Even when they were together, he avoided emotions like a child avoids Brussels sprouts. He put his hands in his pants pockets and looked down on her with clear silver eyes. It was as if he looked right through her. The humor she felt a second ago was replaced by other sensations she had not felt for a long time. Suddenly, she was extremely conscious of her puffy eyes and damp cheeks. She must look awful. Alana grabbed a tissue and wiped her face. At least she took her mascara off already so she did not have to worry about raccoon eyes.

As if he were reading her mind, he leaned down and took the damp tissue away from her and smiled.

“You look just fine. Prettiest monkey I’ve ever seen.” His voice was rough and deep and sent tingles of electricity through her.

“Enough with the monkeys. I’m sorry I ever said anything.”

“I’m not. I feel as if I got a small glimpse into your dirty little mind.” He flashed her that wicked smile again and she felt herself melt into the sofa.

“You’re officially the most annoying man I have ever come into contact with.” Alana tried to hold on to some of her bravado, but she was losing the battle fast.

Gage chuckled softly as he came over to the sofa, lifted her legs as if they weighed no more than a few ounces, and sat down on the opposite end. He let her legs rest lazily against his thighs and began to rub her feet. For a moment, she closed her eyes and wondered how she ever let this man get away. He was handsome. And sweet. And knew just when to hold her and just when to make her laugh. She wished he could be there for her everyday. Then she remembered. She did not let him get away. He left her.

Alana’s eyes flew open. She had to protect herself. Who knew when he would disappear again? No good-bye. Just nothingness. She could not go through that again. It had cost her to dearly to piece herself together back again like some twisted version of Humpty Dumpty.

She shifted positions and put her feet flat on the floor. At least he had the sense to look guilty. She rubbed her face with her hands, threw off the blanket, and stood-up feeling like a caged animal full of pent-up energy and rage with nowhere to release it.

“You don’t have to do that.” His voice was calm. Too calm. She wanted to scream.

“Do what?” She crossed her arms and looked down at him daring him to say the wrong thing. All of the untapped energy inside of her begged to be released.

“Fight to put that mask back on. Come sit back down and let me take care of you for a minute.” Gage patted the seat next to him. His look was soft. Not confrontational. But, damn it, she wanted confrontation. She did not need him to be nice or sweet. The last thing she needed was to need him and then have him gone again.

“Sure, you will take care of me until you decide I’m all better and then you will go. Disappear. No, thank you, Major. I have been down that road before and I have no plans to go there ever again. Ever.”

She saw a flash of hurt mixed anger in his eyes. Good. She was glad he felt some of what she did. Her unspent energy turned to anger. This was her time to speak. All of the unspoken speeches and unanswered questions came bursting out of her like a breeched levee.

“You lied to me. The whole time we were together. You lied. How could you?”

“Alana . . .” Gage whispered her name.

“Nope. Not your turn to talk.”

Alana paced the room in front of him while she bit the edge of her thumbnail. Her brain ran through all of the things she had wanted to say to him after he left her.

“What was I to you? Did you think I was stupid? Just woo me into some little affair and then, when I went home, you would just go on to your next conquest and get a paycheck for all of your troubles.”

“No, it was not like that at all. Alana, don’t do this. You are exhausted and need to rest.”

 His calm deadpan voice unraveled her nerves even more.

“No, I don’t need rest. I need to deal with this,” she gestured at the air between them, “Us. I’ve had years to think about this. And I finally get to ask my questions.”

She knew she sounded like a crazed woman. But she did not care. It was good to feel a little crazy.

“You’re right,” he conceded.  ”If this will make you feel better then ask away.”

Her anger flared again as Gage leaned back against the cushions and stretched his arm along the back as if he was settling in for the interrogation. She was sure he would have nice, neat little answers prepared, but she had to ask anyway.  She spent four years wanting to know how he could lie to her.  How he left with not even a ‘Good-bye, its been fun.’

She sat on the edge of the armrest on the side of the sofa furthest from him and considered what she wanted to ask.

“So, my Jeep. Did it really break down or did you do something to it?”

“I did something to it.”

She crossed and uncrossed her arms then stood up and paced in front of him. Her head swam in a slurry of emotions. Maybe she did not want to know how he really felt or what really happened in Honduras. Were there any moments that were not lies? Nope. She had to know. This was the closure Stefan spoke of. The closure she knew she needed.

Alana continued running the highlight reel from Honduras in her mind.

“Then we kept running into each other. At the market. At the beach. You found that piece of blue sea glass. I was so blown away when you showed up that night with it set in a necklace for me. I didn’t take that necklace off until . . It probably wasn’t even the same piece of glass, was it, Gage?”

“It was the same one.”

The emotion she heard in his voice rattled her for a second. There was sadness in it that made her stomach tighten with regret.

But she refused to let his sentiment interrupt her conspiracy theory. Four years of bitterness had bubbled to the surface and there was no stopping it now.

“Well done, by the way. I fell for it all hook, line, and sinker. Was the leave of absence from the tough job, the cabin . . .Was that all part of the master plan?”

“No. I just had to keep an eye on you. Make sure you were safe. The leave, the cabin, the necklace . . .that was all for me.” Gage leaned forward and rested his arms on his legs as he contemplated the rug beneath him. He seemed uncomfortable with what he just admitted, but she did not care.

“Just a little added benefit for your troubles. Might as well grab a little something extra on the side. Ugh! Bag her and tag her. Is that how it worked?” The walls she had built to protect herself did not allow her to think any of it was real. It could not have been. Because if it was, he never would have left.

She crossed her arms wanting to protect herself from confirming her worst fear. What if he said yes? What if that was all she was, just a little piece of ass on the side? Something to do until the mission was over. But, Alana could not stop the assault now. She had to see this to the end. He looked up at her. Anger flared in his eyes. Although she wanted to turn away from the intensity of his stare, she forced himself to meet his gaze directly. Although his eyes had turned to hardened steel, he did not move a muscle as she assessed him.

“Was it all a lie?”  Her heart had begged for an answer to this simple question for four years.

“No.”  His voice was quiet and as hard as his eyes. Emotionless.

She stood-up and turned her back to him. She did not want him to see the unshed tears in her eyes.

“Just say it, Gage. It was all a lie.”

“No.”

Her voice rose in frustration and pain. She swung around and pointed her finger toward him.

“Then why did you disappear? Why did you run away the first chance you got? I find out that my uncle was killed, my father was king, and I’m the second in line to the throne, and where are you? Gone. I don’t see or hear from you for four years. Then I walk into that luncheon yesterday – that stupid, routine luncheon – and there you are. Like nothing happened.”

“You think that was easy for me?” He stood but did not take a step toward her. “You make it sound like I wanted to leave you. I left because I had to. Those were my orders. I’m a solider, Alana, just a solider. I do what I am told.”

“Don’t you dare talk to be about duty and missions!” she shouted.

Scared she would fall apart again, she walked across the room to the window. She could see the city lights below. Everyone down there having normal lives. Falling in love. Having children. Sharing the ups and downs of life with family and friends. That was where the true fairy tales were.

Alana watched Gage through the reflection against the polished windowpane and considered the man that wavered somewhere between prince and villain in her heart. He had sat back down and raked a hand through his hair as he took a deep breath.  His hand reached up and yanked his tie loose from around his neck as if it was strangling him. As he unbuttoned the top buttons of his dress shirt, she felt an uncontrollable urge to taste his skin right behind his ear where she knew she would feel his pulse quicken against her lips. What was wrong with her? How could she still want him after all he had done?

Lost in her own thoughts, Alana was surprised when he suddenly looked up at her with eyes of molten steel. She almost collapsed with the need she saw there. The same need she felt for him. She turned. Without a word, Gage stood up and moved toward her. He did not stop, did not hesitate, until her lips were pressed against his. His hand snaked behind her neck as he pulled her to him.

“I didn’t want to leave you, Alli. Believe me.” His gruff words came out as he shifted his position and she opened her mouth for him. Oh, how she wanted to believe him. Needed to believe him. But all she could focus on was the heat of his kiss as their tongues and lips and teeth danced together following a choreography they both knew by heart.

Her arms wrapped themselves around his neck and her body pressed against his. He lifted her off her feet and pressed her body against the window. She perched against the sill and wrapped one leg around his thick thigh making sure he understood that she wanted him as close as he could get. She felt the cool of the windowpane against her back as he deftly removed her t-shirt. As if just realizing where they were, he lifted her off the sill.

“We wouldn’t want someone seeing something they shouldn’t.” His voice was gruff with need.

“I don’t care,” she whispered.

“You will later.”

“But not now.”

Alana wrapped her legs around his waist and threaded her fingers through his hair pulling his attention back to her and the mind-numbing kiss. She let him carry her into the bedroom where he gently laid her down on the bed in a steady, controlled motion until the soft duvet caressed her back. Gage left her there as he stood up, never taking his eyes off of her, and yanked his tie further down until it became unknotted. The swish of the tie being released from the bonds of his collar was one of the most erotic sounds she had ever heard.

After undoing a few buttons and unclasping the cuff links on his shirt, he pulled the dress shirt off over his head in one fluid motion. His chest was well-sculpted, broad shoulders, flat and defined abs. Even more sculpted than she remembered. Her hands itched to touch him. She licked her lips in anticipation and was rewarded by a low growl from deep in his throat.

“I definitely don’t mind the used merchandise look.”

“Good thing, honey, because four years and a hundred battle scars latter, that’s what you got.”

She reached up, impatient, and grabbed his belt as he had done to her the day before and pulled him down toward her.

Once they connected, his lips followed her jawline to her ear then down her neck. She arched up and her hands found his face, rough with evening stubble, as she guided him back up to her lips. She loved the faint butterscotch taste of him and hungered for more. He settled in between her open legs. Even through their pants, Alana could feel his arousal hard against her inner thigh. She was about to tell him she couldn’t wait much longer — it had been too long already — when something vibrated against her leg. She broke the kiss and looked at him.

“That’s new.”

#

Gage glanced down at Alana and wondered what he had just done that would warrant such a comment. He was so mind-numb having her half naked underneath him that he was flying on pure instinct. He was too far-gone to use any of his tricks — not that he had many. He was about to go back to work on torturing her lips and neck when he felt his phone vibrating in his pants.

“Shit.”

He rolled off of her and sat on the edge of the bed. His back to her. He took a deep breath trying to calm his racing pulse as he put the phone up to his ear.

“Yeah?”

“Go secure,” Sam demanded.

“Can’t now.” Gage clenched his jaw.

“Well, you need to get down to the house ASAP. We just got the records you asked about earlier and there’s something you need to see.  This will not wait.”

Gage turned his head to look at Alana. She was lying on her side, half naked and staring at him like he was dinner and she had not eaten in weeks. Pale skin, perfect breasts, lips swollen from his kisses. Achingly beautiful. To Gage she looked like she was sculpted by the hands of a master. Except she was flesh and on an emotional roller-coaster and, shit, what did he just do?

He turned his head back around and stared down at the carpet underneath his feet. Sam was still talking in his ear and Gage had missed everything his teammate just said. He promised himself he would never hurt her again. But here he was again doing exactly that. Taking advantage of her when he should have kissed her on the cheek and tucked her underneath the covers.

“Repeat,” Gage asked.

“We have already called this back to headquarters. Westin is on his way, and expects you at the house within the half hour.”

Every instinct in Gage told him that he needed to move now. Whatever had happened in the last hour was serious.

“Okay. I’ll be right there.”

Gage disconnected the call and ran his hand through his hair. He never thought of himself as a coward, but there was no doubt in his mind that not turning around and facing Alana was about as cowardly as it gets. He felt the bed shift and heard her get up on the other side.

Digging for a courage he did not feel – he stood up and turned in time to see her slip on a thick blue robe and walk back out into the sitting area. He grabbed his clothes and began dressing. After he picked up his suit jacket and stuffed his tie in the pocket, Gage stood in between the door and Alana not sure which way to go.

Gage wanted to choose the door that lead out of her suite and just walk away.  He itched to leave every emotion that raced through him behind. But he couldn’t do that. He turned toward her and looked at her for the first time since the phone call. Her eyes were red rimed and the color of embers left from a dying flame. Before he could formulate any words that could explain his actions, she spoke the one word he needed to hear.  The word that pushed his feelings – his obsession – of her deep inside of himself.

“Go,” she said in a whisper.

“Alli, it’s important. I’m sorry.” Gage had never noticed what lame words important and sorry were when strung together.

Wordlessly, Alana walked into her bedroom and shut the double doors in one swift motion. The unmistakable click of the lock felt like a prison door just slammed shut. If he ever doubted it before, he was sure of it now – he did not deserve Alana. He was a grunt. A solider that was wired to wreak havoc everywhere he went. No one deserved someone like him messing up their dreams and making promises that could not be kept. Especially not twice in one lifetime.

He hung his pathetic head and headed out of her room promising himself that after Sunday, he would protect her in the best way he knew how. He would walk away and never look back.

After making out of the palace without incident, Gage jumped in his car and raced down the hill toward the farmhouse. The headlights illuminated the road in front of him as he took sharp turns and side streets to avoid detection. He thanked his years of military and intelligence training because he needed his muscle memory to propel him forward. His mind was useless. The click of the bedroom door echoed through his thoughts.

Of course he loved touching her and kissing her, but he also loved just being around her. Being in the same room with her. He wanted to hear her laugh and roll his eyes at her bad jokes. He wanted to reach out at night and feel her next to him. Dammit, he just wanted her.

Gage slammed his hand against the steering wheel. His wants were pointless. Even if there was no mission. No Victor. No Sergei. They could not be together. He was a grunt and she was a princess. Alana and her country needed more than he could ever offer. That is why he let her go four years ago and that is why he will leave her on Sunday. That is why . . .

Gage swung his head around just in time to see the white van crash into the side of his car. The sound of mangled metal and shattered glass deafened him. His hands hugged the steering wheel in a death grip. With wrists locked, he jerked the car to the left then the right in time to keep it from flipping over. The seatbelt dug into his chest as it hugged him hard. His head whipped back and forth as airbags exploded around him. He slammed on the brakes.

He heard tires screech. Before the air bag blocked his view, Gage saw the van pull off into the night. There were no other cars on the dark road. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the backrest of the car seat. It took a moment for his breathing to stabilize and his heart to slow down into a more normal rhythm. Pain surged through him as his adrenaline levels regulated. He took a deep breath as he did a body check. Nothing felt broken, but he knew he was in no shape to make a thorough assessment.

He reached down and undid the seatbelt. He rested for a brief moment as his body adjusted to moving. Once he was able, he gathered his strength and pulled his cell phone out of his pants pocket. He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. His hands shook as he dialed the code that would connect him directly with the safe house.

“Mac?”

Sam’s deep voice was a welcome sound to Gage’s ears. “Sam, I need you to track my phone and send someone to my location. I just got t-boned by a van. Might lose consciousness.”

“Roger, Mac. Already on it. Stay with me. Can you move your neck?” Sam asked. Gage could hear raised voices and movement on the other end of the line. He knew help would arrive soon. He tried to concentrate on Sam’s voice and do what he asked him to do. Move his neck, right? But the airbags went out of focus and moments later his world went black.


Chapter 10

The phone on Alana’s bedside rang. With eyes still closed, she groped for the device and knocked over a glass of water on her nightstand.

“Crap,” Alana said as her hand found the phone and brought it to her ear.

“And good morning to you, too, sister.”

Stefan sounded too awake. Alana could see the light filter through her curtains, but had no idea what time it was. After she heard Gage close the door the night before, she sat on the edge of the bed for another fifteen minutes. Even if she wanted to move, her limbs refused the request. The fear of her maids finding her comatose from exhaustion on the bedroom floor was the only reason she got up and finally climbed underneath the covers. At least when she shut her eyes, she fell right to sleep.

“Are you there?” Stefan asked.

“Sorry. Yes. What time is it?” Her voice was groggy with sleep.

“Six-thirty. I just got a call from the US Embassy. The Ambassador would like us to come down to the Embassy as soon as we can. He said it was an emergency. How fast can you get ready?”

US Embassy. Gage. Her heart raced and any traces of sleep disappeared. “What do they want?”

“I don’t know, but they insisted they need to speak with us at their Embassy rather than come to the palace.”

She threw the covers to the side and scrambled out of bed as she spoke. “Give me half an hour.” She passed the mirror above her dresser and glanced at her reflection. “Nope. Give me forty-five minutes and I’ll meet you in the garage.”

Alana did not wait for Stefan to respond. She ended the call with him and dialed her day maid.

After numerous apologies about the time of day and going off her set schedule, Alana arranged for the maid to come up and help her get ready. She still needed to be presentable even if this was not an official visit. And if she saw Gage or this was about Gage in some way, Alana wanted to have her armor on. And in her world, Dolce and Gabbana was stronger than chain mail.

An hour later, Alana sat next to Stefan in the wooden paneled private conference room of the US Ambassador to Corannia. She sipped on strong coffee the ambassador’s assistant had prepared for her and prayed the caffeine would jumpstart her brain and keep her from embarrassing herself.

The ambassador sipped at his own coffee as he sat across from her and Stefan at a large table in the center of the room. He appeared uncomfortable, which heightened her concern about why this meeting had been called.

“Thank you for coming in on such short notice. I realize this is highly irregular, but understand that this is a very delicate matter.” The ambassador gave her a funny expression, before took another long sip of his coffee and his eyes shifted to the closed door. She wondered if Gage told someone where he was and what he did with her last night.

Her stomach flipped-flopped and the coffee threatened to change direction in her throat. This could not be about last night. That would be ridiculous. She knew she should have never let Gage get close, but that was between the two of them. Why would the ambassador care? She decided the that the best way to deal with the situation was for her and Gage to stay as far away from each other as possible.

During the car ride, Alana told Stefan that she would only be able to make a brief appearance at the ball tonight and then at the signing ceremony tomorrow. His questioning look told her he knew something was wrong, but he did not push for more information. Stefan accepted her adjusted schedule and said nothing more of it.

She only had to get through twenty-four more hours and then Gage would be gone from her country and her life. A separation that would be best for both of them. Her eyes darted between her brother and the ambassador, who made small talk about the weather. If she needed to, Alana would be more than happy to share her decision to stay to herself until the American delegation departed with anyone who asked.

“Why don’t you begin by telling us why you called us here. I would be delighted to work on a solution together to whatever delicate matter concerns you.” Alana asked the ambassador. If this was going to be an uncomfortable conversation, then she wanted to stay on the offensive as long as possible.

Before the ambassador had a chance to reply, the conference room door swung open and Gage walked in. Alana’s felt her eyes go wide at his condition. His forehead was bandaged with a large piece of gauze, his lower lip was cut, and his left eye and cheek were black and blue with bruises.

His eyes found hers as he gave her one of his cocky half-smiles. She noticed that he limped to one of the chairs next to the ambassador and fought the urge to rush to his side.

“What happened to you?”

She asked forgetting that they were barely supposed to know each other, but she did not care about formalities at the moment.

“A van slammed in to his car last night.”

Alana did not notice the tall, attractive man that came in behind Gage until he spoke. His dark eyes assessed her as he stood by the door.

“Thank you, Doug. I’ll stop by your office when we are done here.”

The man spoke directly to the ambassador who did not hesitate to get up and head to the door as if the man had just given him a get out of jail free card. The ambassador turned and nodded his head toward Stefan and Alana before he disappeared down the hall. Alana felt her stomach churn again. What kind of meeting was this if the ambassador went running out of the door?

The tall man walked over to the table. “Andrew Westin, Deputy National Security Advisor. I am here on behalf of the president. I believe you have met Major McAllister.” Westin offered his hand to her. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. I have looked forward to meeting you for a long time. I am sorry it is under such unusual circumstances.” His voice was deep with a slight accent she could not place.

Alana stood and shook his hand. Westin gave her a warm smile before he turned to her brother. After Westin and Stefan shook hands, they all took their seats. Westin sat in the seat the Ambassador vacated and Gage took the seat across from Alana. Stefan gave her a quick glance before he turned his attention toward the men on the other side of the table. Alana had a thousand questions run through her mind, but could not find her voice. Thank goodness Stefan asked what she wanted to.

“What happened to you, Major? A van slammed in to you?” Stefan asked.

“Yes,” Gage offered. “Last night. Just a few minor injuries.” Gage looked turned to Alana. “Nothing to worry about.”

She gave him a once-over. The injures did not look minor to her.

“Did you go to the hospital?” Alana asked as she tried to keep her expression neutral.

“No need. I’m fine. Really,” Gage insisted.

She glared at him. Gage raised an eyebrow. His expression dared her to say something more. She knew probing Gage further would be useless. Either he did not want to talk about it in front of an audience or he did not want to talk about it at all. If he wanted to pretend like he was fine, then what could she do about it. She lifted her chin and turned to Westin.

“If I may ask, why did you call us down to your Embassy at such an early hour? The ambassador said it was an emergency.” She wanted to know what this meeting was about and when she could leave.

“We wanted to make sure we were somewhere that our conversation was not overheard,” Westin offered.

Stefan’s face turned hard and he leaned his elbows on the table. “Are you insinuating that we can not secure our conversations? I assure you, Mr. Westin, that . . .”

“Your father has been poisoned,” Westin said matter-of-factly.

Stefan and Alana exchanged a look. She remembered how her father looked the night before. But poisoned? She must have misheard. Her eyes darted between the two men in front of her.

“That is quite an accusation,” Stefan said, his tone firm.

“I don’t make it lightly. If he does not get the antidote within the next forty-eight hours the damage the toxins have done to his nervous system will be irreversible and he will die.”

Westin slid a manila folder across the conference table. Stefan opened the folder so both he and Alana could read the paperwork inside. She studied the medical report. It was conclusive. Her father had been the victim of a slow ingestion of a combination of ricin and tularemia.

She blinked. That can’t be right. That combination of toxins could not exist. It was impossible. Alana lifted her eyes. Gage gave her a brief nod and in her heart she knew it was all true even if her brain begged for more information.

“But how?” she asked her voice raw with emotion. “Why?”

“We are still working on the why, but we believe your bodyguard or someone working with him have been slowing ingesting your father with poison.”

“Victor? What?” Alana questioned.

“It’s the other reason we brought you to the Embassy at this hour. Gage’s team took Victor in for questioning while he was waiting outside for you.”

“What!” Stefan’s chair flew backward as he stood. His face was red with anger. “That is the most blatant disregard of international law that I have ever heard of.”

“Please take a seat, Prince Stefan. I promise to explain everything,” Westin spoke in a calm, even tone.

Stefan glared at Westin then looked down at Alana. She was as shocked as he was, but she wanted to know more. She trusted Gage.

“Stefan, let’s hear them out.”

After a few moments, Stefan pulled his chair back to the table and sat down.

“Where is Victor? And how does this pertain to my father?” she asked. Alana was just as upset as Stefan, but she needed answers and knew the only way to get then was to stay in control of her emotions.

“Let me start at the beginning,” Westin offered.

“Please, but make it quick. I only have so much patience for this type of strong-arm tactics,” Stefan countered.

Westin gave Stefan a brief nod before he spoke. “First, let me say that Victor is fine. The team will keep an eye on him until we can decide on our next steps together.” Stefan nodded his head and Westin continued. “Yesterday afternoon, we received a copy of your father’s medical records.”

“What!” Stefan exclaimed.

She put a hand on her brother’s sleeve hoping to calm him down long enough for them to understand the situation.

Gage continued for Westin, “Once we got wind of your father’s illness. . .”

“How did you get wind?” Stefan looked at Alana briefly. She shook her head but felt her cheeks burn with embarrassment that Stefan thought she would betray family secrets to Gage.

“Someone at the hanger saw your father being carried out on a stretcher.” Gage offered.

Westin spoke again. “I know this is out of the ordinary, but we had to act fast. We normally would not have even mentioned such a breach of trust. . .”

“You apologize for divulging the information, but not on the fact that you collect it.” Stefan pounded his finger on to the table for emphasis.

“You had better be damn glad we did or else we might be burying your father instead of signing the agreement on Sunday. Sorry to be so blunt, but we are running out of time.”

Alana stared at Gage, shocked at his outburst.

Even though she did a better job at handling it, she was as upset as Stefan. She felt violated. This was her country. But Gage was right. They had to overlook the methods used and be glad that her father will get the help he needs.

“How was this diagnosis confirmed? I have never seen a combination of toxins like that. How do you even have an antidote?” Alana asked.

Gage explained. His eyes never leaving hers as he spoke. She could hear the strain of stress in his voice. “I got a call that the diagnosis was confirmed last night.”

So that is why Gage had to leave so quickly last night. It helped knowing.

“An expert physician from the National Medical Intelligence Center was put in the backseat of an F-15 Delta flying out of Andrews Air Force Base at 1200 Zulu. With one mid-air refueling, we expect him and the antidote in about three hours. A team is on stand-by to escort the king to a secure location where his medical team and our consultant can work together to get him better. With your permission, we would like to begin the treatment immediately.”

“Of course you have permission.” Stefan stood up and paced behind his chair. “How did you diagnose this when our doctors couldn’t?”

“Because we knew what to look for,” Gage answered.

“And what does Victor have to do with all of this?” Alana asked.

Westin leaned his arms on the table and clasped his hands in front of him as he explained. “A few weeks ago, we received confirmation that a debunked Soviet bioweapon program that concentrated on making unique combinations of toxins was up and running again. We had seen one confirmed case in Switzerland.”

“General Hanski?” She asked. Her gaze connected with Gage. Concern clouded his features. She had to look away to keep from feeling overwhelmed with everything that happened in the last twenty-four hours. She adjusted her position and concentrated on Westin.

Westin continued, “Yes, General Hanski also tested positive for a known Ignis poison.”

“The autopsy report said he died of a heart attack.” Stefan pressed his fingertips into the back of the leather chair until they were white. “Are you also falsifying autopsy reports?”

“We did not want to cause a panic before we knew what we were dealing with. As far as we know, there are only a few vials available. We believe Hanski, your father, and the man who collapsed at the ballet were proof to potential buyers that the bioweapon exists. Hanski was the first proof, but when his preexisting heart condition became known, we believe the buyers insisted on another display of the weapons power.”

“My father?” Alana asked.

“We think so. But your team whisked him away so quickly the buyers called foul. So, they injected the man at the ballet with the poison. He passed away last night.” Westin paused for a moment after relaying the sad news.

Alana closed her eyes and said quick prayer for the man. She remembered how Gage tried to save his life and how strange Gage had acted that night. And all she did was try to get him kicked out of the country. But she did not know what was happening behind the scenes. Alana knew Gage was in Corannia for something other than the base agreement, but even in her wildest dreams she could not have imagined the scenario Westin and Gage laid out. Her eyes found his again and he gave her a smile of understanding.

“Buyers? For what?” Stefan asked.

“We believe that someone has the Ignis poison, maybe discovered them in an old Soviet stockpile, and is about to put them on the market to the highest bidder. The sale is expected to take place in the next day or two. We are tracking a Russian crime group, Altyn Poltinnik, who is organizing the auction. All of the links to date led us here, to Corannia.”

“Links? Do you mean Victor? I don’t believe it.”

“We believe your bodyguard used your cell phone to make the deal with AP. He has direct connections to AP and access to your cell phone.”

“My cell phone?” Alana interrupted. “What does my cell phone have to do with all of this?” She remembered the scene at the ballet where Gage demanded to know who had access to her cell phone. Her jaw went slack. “Is my cell phone somehow connected to this?”

“Someone contacted AP from your phone on five occasions.” Westin explained.

“I have three phones that are connected to my personal line. A number of people, Victor and others, have access to those phones. There is one I use primarily for my personal business, but I certainly don’t hide them or lock them up.”

“We can show you the intercepts, but which phone really does not matter at this point. It seems that whoever is contacting AP is using other means than your phone now. They changed tactics after the ballet. The phone is what initially drew us here, but since then our analysts have begun working other links as well.”

Alana pictured Hanski, her father, and the poor, innocent man at the ballet. To think she might play a role in this plot, even if it was without her knowledge, left her cold. Then another thought raced through her mind. She hated that it even toyed with her when much more serious matters needed to be addressed. But once she considered it, she could not let it go. Gage was here for the bioweapon not for her.

‘It is what drew us here,’ Westin had said. A small part of her heart wished that he had attached himself to the delegation to see her. She did not even know she had hoped for such a thing until she knew it was not true. She felt so stupid. He had not made an effort to contact her for four years. Why would he do so now? The night before was a fluke. A strange combination of emotion and pent-up desire.

She, like Gage, needed to concentrate on the bioweapon and AP, and figure out what role her family and country played in the plot. Her feelings for Gage needed to stay in the past where she left them.

Unfortunately, last night brought back her desire for him full force. It was hard for her to sit across from him and not want to touch him, hold his hand, check his wounds. But she found a way around her feelings for him before. She would do it again.

Gage must have sensed her distress. He shifted in his chair so his whole body was aligned with hers. The cuts and bruises on his face reminded her why she was there. Her personal life did not matter. She swiveled her chair away from Gage and focused on Westin.

“So, what is our next step? And, Mr. Westin, I strongly urge you to work with us, and not in secret. This is a threat to our country. My family. I think we can get much further by working together than separately,” Alana said matter-of-factly.

Stefan pulled back his chair and sat down next to her. “Yes. My sister is right. We need to work together and quickly. My father is the first concern.”

“Then we are in agreement. Time is working against us and there are still many unanswered questions. I have a large team in place that is working on AP links in country, as well as trolling the dark net to identify the time and location of the auction. However, we cannot ignore that whoever is connected with Ignis is also connected with your family. Someone in your inner circle.”

“I thought you said it was Victor,” Stefan asked.

“We think so, but can’t be sure until we question him.”

“I want my men there as well. If Victor threatened my family, it is a matter for Corannian security,” Stefan demanded.

“Of course,” Westin conceded.

“What else?” Alana asked.

“I want my men on the inside. Your family needs protection and we also need to be ready to act. The threat could come from a million different directions. With your permission, Princess, I would like to move Gage into Victor’s place as your bodyguard.”

“What!” Gage and Alana spoke at the same time.

“Just temporarily until this is over,”  Westin said.

Alana took a sip of her now cold coffee and tried to compose herself.

“I don’t think that is such a good idea,” Stefan added as he glanced over at her with tenderness in his eyes.

She put her cup down and gathered the courage to look at Gage. He looked like he wanted to spit nails. His steel-hard glare bored into her. No one in the room could doubt that for Gage this was personal. Alana saw the cuts and scrapes from the accident as his hands balled into fists.

Westin held up his hand. “Now hear me out. With Victor missing, AP might try to act on their own. They might assume that the princess knows where Victor is and try to harm her for the information. Of course, you can appoint someone officially to take over in Victor’s absence. They can walk around behind her and stand post as Victor would. When the princess is out in public, Gage can just be in the area, and if need be, we will call in reinforcements to protect his cover. We will have a team at the ball and, with your permission, set-up cameras and alarms in both of your rooms. I’m assuming Victor knows the security protocol of the palace.”

Westin looked at Alana and Stefan for confirmation and they both nodded in agreement.

Westin continued. “So changes will be necessary. When you are not in your room or in a large crowd where will have multiple teams on you, Gage needs to be there. That’s when AP will likely strike. If Victor is the inside man, they already have your itinerary and know the layout of your private quarters.”

Stefan reached out and covered her hand with his.

“You really think that is necessary. Such an invasion of her privacy?” Stefan asked.

“Unless you know of anyone you trust as much as you do Gage with the princess’ life.”

Alana watched as the two men sized each other up. It would have been a funny scene if her sanity was not on the line.

Stefan turned to her. “I will only agree to it if you do.”

Alana could not find the words, but nodded her head in agreement. What else could she do? If she made the call not to allow Gage inside her personal world, and something happened — they missed the sale or worse, someone else died — she would never forgive herself.

“We would like to put someone on your watch as well, Your Highness,” Westin spoke to Stefan.

“If you think that best, I’m sure we can work out some arrangement,” Stefan offered.

“You think Victor has the vials?” Alana needed to refocus her mind on to the threat at hand. If she thought about Gage assuming the role her abandoned four years ago, she would scream in frustration.

“We intend to find out,” Gage said with hardness in his tone Alana had never heard before.

“If the buyers don’t get what they want, they will come looking for answers. Especially now that they know that Ignis exists and works.” Westin scanned the room making eye contact with each person. “AP is not our only threat. I need you all to understand the gravity of this situation. This is not over until we find those vials.”

“It’s not the vials that are the problem,” Alana said. Her mind turned the problem over and over as she tried to put all of the pieces in to place.

“What do you mean?” Gage asked.

“The vials are an issue, don’t get me wrong, but the real threat is the recipe. How the toxin in the vials is made. Someone might be able to reengineer the weapon from the sample, but that could take years. I am assuming that the buyers you are talking about are more impatient than that. No, I think what the buyers want is the methodology – the way that they fused the toxins or viruses.”

The room was silent as everyone digested Alana’s comments. Westin was the first to speak.

“I’ll get you the reports and translations we have to date. We have some old recipes and notes from the Soviet scientists, which is what helped us make the initial connections.”

“But if you have those, it is likely someone else would as well, correct?” Alana asked.

“Sure.” Westin looked at Gage who also seemed to agree with the theory.

“Something must have changed. As you said, why is this old recipe on the market now? Research and technology have come a long way since the Soviet days. I think the buyer is looking for new directions or maybe even new technology. Maybe what had been imagined by the Soviets is possible now with modern technology.”

Alana knew she was right. Medical research worked the same way. Everyone understood the general science behind most solutions, but it was the way someone put the pieces together – how they broke the problem down and pieced it back together – that made the big money, received the patents, or won Nobel prizes.

“Excellent point. I will mention it to my team. See if you see anything interesting in the documents I will have sent to you. Our scientists didn’t, but that does not mean that they didn’t miss something. In the meantime, I need you both to act like nothing is wrong. Keep to your schedules. Go to the ball tonight. Gage, you stay with the princess and let me know the minute something seems out of the ordinary.”

“We have a large team in country that are primed for this mission. We will coordinate with the Corannian teams you supply and hope we can lock this down before the auction takes place. Prince Stefan, please come with me and we will organize our teams so they can begin to question Victor. I hope to hell he talks and talks fast. Right now he is our only lead.”

Westin, Gage, and Stefan stood and began to walk toward the door.

Alana watched as Gage nodded his head and accepted his orders with no visible emotions. Alana was sure her feelings were written all over her face. Gage was her bodyguard again. The idea did not sit well with her for about a million reasons. But Ignis and her father were more important.

“You will get the antidote to my father?” Alana asked as she stood as well.

“As soon as it lands. We can check on the plane’s location on our way out,” Westin said to Stefan.

Stefan walked over to Alana and pulled her in to a firm hug and whispered in her ear. “You can do this, but if it gets too much, call me and I will arrange something else. Okay?”

She shook her head in agreement as he pulled away.

Westin left the conference room with Stefan at his side. Alana moved to follow, but Gage stepped in her path and blocked the doorway. His tall frame took up most of it.

“So, you see why I had to leave so abruptly last night.”

“I had no doubt it was a national emergency of some kind.”

His eyes pleaded with her for something. Understanding, maybe. But she already gave him that. There was nothing else to give.

“We have to work together and I don’t want anything hanging over us. We need to be in sync. If something should happen, I need to follow my orders.”

“I can follow orders as well as you can, Gage. I am grateful that you and your team do what you do. You saved my father’s life and my family will be forever grateful. I have never doubted that you are a true hero.”

Gage rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “Damn it, Alana, I don’t want to be a hero. I want . . .”

She looked him squarely in the eye. “What do you want?”

Then she saw it. The doubt. Just for a second. Just for a second it seemed as if Gage McAllister had no idea what he wanted and Alana felt sorry for him. She suffered from the opposite fate. Alana knew exactly what she wanted, but there was no way she would ever be able to have it. She had resigned herself to her fate. Which one of them was the bigger fool?

Alana brushed by him. “I need to freshen up. I will meet you at my car in ten minutes. When we get to the palace, Maya will give you my itinerary for the day.” She turned back and looked at him. “I am sure you are well-versed on how to act as a proper bodyguard.”

#

Gage leaned against the conference table lost in thought as Sam walked in to the room.

“Where’s is everybody?” Sam asked.

“Westin took the prince to the briefing room to begin coordinating the line of questioning for Victor and Alana went to freshen up.” Gage offered. His mind still unsettled from his most recent set of orders.

Sam leaned on the table next to him. “So, what’s next? We have Victor in a room downstairs. He’s not happy.”

Gage turned his head and gave Sam a look. Sam raised both of his hands. “Don’t look at me. We didn’t touch him. He went willingly. Although I don’t think he knew we spoke Russian and that I understood exactly what he wanted me to do with a bull.”

Gage felt his lips curve into a smile even through his mood remained sour. He longed for simple orders like go find this bad guy and take him out versus go play bodyguard to the woman you love but can’t have. Watch her every move. Protect her. But don’t touch her. It was like giving a kid a train set and telling him not to play with it.

“You look like someone just kicked your puppy. What’s up?” Sam asked.

“Westin wants me to be Alana’s bodyguard while we keep Victor busy.”

Sam barked a loud laugh and stood up. “Are you kidding me? Man, that guy has a solid steel set on him.”

Gage could not argue with that. But he was too emotionally involved with this mission to trust his own judgment. If Westin believed he should act as Alana’s bodyguard, then he would. He doubted he would trust anyone else with her safety anyway. Even his own team. Maybe Westin understood that.

“So, what are you going to do?” Sam asked.

“Watch her. Make sure no one hurts her. Pray that Victor spills his beans so we can wrap this up and get out of here.”

Sam raised his eyebrows.

“Really. Soon as we know she is safe and we lock this mission down, I’m leaving.  I need to get back to my world.”

“Maybe she is your world?”

Gage looked away.

“Well, at least say good-bye this time.”

Gage winced at Sam’s comment. But, he had no defense. He took the coward’s way out four years ago. Would he do the same this time?

Gage rubbed the back of his neck hoping to release the tension he felt there. “If you asked me three days ago when we were lying face down in that ditch waiting for our target if I believed I would even see her again, I would have said no. Now, I’m stuck with her day and night. I have to walk behind her and that boyfriend of hers tonight and act like I’m invisible. Man, I don’t know what I’m doing from one moment to the next and that is uncomfortable as hell.”

“You want me to take over? I’ll watch her like a hawk. You know that.”

Gage had always felt like Sam was the brother he was never lucky enough to have, but this moment topped all others. He stood up and slapped the side of Sam’s arm. This was the emotional equivalent of taking Sam taking a bullet for him.

“Thanks. If this lasts more than a couple of days, I might take you up on it. I can only be around her for so long and not want to hold her. You know what I mean?” Gage put his hands in his pockets and felt like idiot for saying such a thing.

“Nope. Haven’t got a clue,” Sam admitted, “but I’ve never been in love.”

“You know more about love than I do.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Look at your family compared to the mess I grew up with.”

Sam nodded his head in agreement. “True, but just because your parents would not win any awards, doesn’t mean you can’t love someone. I was there after Honduras and I see you now. You love this woman even though you are not ready to admit it.”

Gage brushed off the last comment. Ignored it. This was not love. Sure, he wanted more from Alana than to get in her pants – although he wanted that really bad, too – but love was something else. He wanted to hold her. Make her smile. Joke around like they had the night before. He missed waking up next to her and watching her sleep. He did not know what it was, but it was not love. Although how would he know. No one had ever said that word to him and he had never said it to anyone. In his world, love was as foreign a concept as peace.

“So, who’s taking the first shift on Victor?” Gage asked, ready to get back to business.

Sam did not miss a beat. “Cal. He has never debriefed in the field before. We figured we would let the kid take a crack at it and, if he comes up with nothing, then we will send JT in.”

Gage nodded his head in approval. JT had a knack of getting anyone to talk about anything. It was a skill that had saved the team’s backsides more than once.

“I’m going to monitor coms. They sent some crackerjack analyst to the house this morning. One of Westin’s whiz kids, who thinks she’s all that and a bag of chips. She’s over there playing with my dials right now. I just know it.”

Gage pursed his lips trying to hold back a smile. “Playing with your dials, huh?”

“Leave it alone. It’s not like that. She is a little, tiny thing with glasses and a ponytail.”

“I like ponytails,” Gage said remembering having Alana’s wrapped around his fist last night as he kissed her.

“Whatever, dude,” Sam said as he shifted his weight from one foot to another.

Gage had never seen Sam so agitated and made a note of it so he could tease him later.

“Well, call me if you get anything. I’ll be following the princess around all day and then attending the ball tonight,” Gage said in a deadpan voice.

“Yeah, you win in the shitty assignments contest. I knew the minute you said we were working a mission for Westin that one of us would end up in a tux. I’m just glad it’s not me,” Sam said, heading for the door.

“At least I’ll get my gun back. They would not let me wear it while part of the delegation. Next time Westin comes knocking, we need to all run for cover. Give me the desert or jungle any day.”

“Roger that.”

Gage followed Sam out into the hallway and caught a glimpse of Alana heading down the stairs toward the front door where her driver was waiting with the car. Sam slapped him on his back as Gage turned to follow her.


Chapter 11

The Americans kept their promise and moved her father out of the palace early the next morning. She and Stefan filled their mother in on the details of the king’s condition, as well as the details of the threat that they were all facing. The queen insisted on staying with her children and helping where she could, but in the end Alana and Stefan convinced their mother to stay near their father. If anything should happen, if the antidote did not have the promised effect, they should be together.

By noon, the royal family leaked the story that the king had the stomach flu and needed to cancel his engagements for the day. They cancelled the queen’s appointments as well, just in case she was contagious. They said that the last thing the family wanted was to make the American delegation or their guests at the ball sick. The ploy seemed to have worked. No one seemed suspicious. Alana and Stefan fielded routine questions and good wishes for the king.

With one hurdle down, Alana concentrated on building a plausible story for Victor’s absence. She told Maya and the rest of her staff that Victor was called away for a family emergency in Russia and had to leave immediately. Stefan reassigned one of his guards to Alana. She did not see Gage as she moved from meeting to meeting, but she felt his presence. They had moved the final day of negotiations with the Americans to the palace to make sure Gage had an excuse to be close if they needed it.

Alana and Gage had not spoken in the car as they drove that morning from the Embassy to the palace. Alana did not trust anyone any more. Not even her driver. Once they arrived back at the palace, Gage pulled her close and whispered in her ear to move through her day as she would normally. He promised he would always be close even if she did not see him. It was unnerving. Alana knew she looked ridiculous peering around corners and looking behind her, but knowing Gage was so close kept him in the forefront of her mind.

After a long day, Alana retired to her rooms to get ready for the ball. She saw a note from Gage on the coffee table. She recognized his no-nonsense handwriting immediately. It reminded her of their time in Honduras when he would leave her notes anytime that he was going out. He would tell her exactly where he was, how she could reach him, and when he would return. She thought it was a romantic gesture back then. Now, she knew it was just part of his bodyguard routine.

She sat down on the sofa to read the note and remembered him sitting on the same cushions just the night before. His hands. His lips. Maybe if he needed to be around her all of the time, they should both give their libidos a break and just have sex. That way if anyone attacked her, Gage would be right there.

Alana laughed at herself. It had been a long couple of days — heck, it had been a long four years – and having him so close made her crazy. It was like leaving a bowl of chocolate in front of a starving diabetic. Yep, it had been a very long four years.

Alana ignored the twinges of her unsatisfied sex drive, and read the note. Gage told her he would see her at the ball and the addendum to the negotiations that they discussed earlier were in place. Which told her that the team had installed the cameras and alarms. The note went on to say that if she wanted to discuss the matter further, he would be at the ball. He signed the note and left two phone numbers.

Somewhere in the basement of the palace was a box of notes like this one. Ones Gage left for her in Honduras. As her father promised, a nameless, faceless person went through the cabin and packed up everything she and Gage left there. About a month after she moved into the palace, the boxes arrived.

She did not have the stomach to touch them and asked that they be burned. She thought they would be, but Maya told her about a year ago that the boxes still existed and were stored with the rest of the family’s personal, pre-palace things. Alana had not given those boxes another thought until today. Now, they felt as if they might take on a life of their own like some horror movie or campfire story. After all of this was over, she would need to tell Maya to finally burn them.

Alana crumpled up the paper and threw it in the trash basket. She did not intend to save anymore of his letters. Her maid knocked on the door to help her get ready for the ball. Alana wanted to look fabulous. She chose a floor length black beaded dress that had a low, but still respectable, V-neck and lace cap sleeves. The dress hugged her curves in the right way and was forgiving where she needed it to be.

She wore her hair pinned to one side in a wave that cascaded down over her left shoulder. Large diamond earrings hung from her ears. Her maid reached for a necklace, but Alana stopped her. She thought a necklace would be too much with the beads and opted for a bare neck. Alana gave herself one last glance in the mirror and was pleased with what she saw.

Sergei waited in the blue room for her.

“You look exquisite, Alana. Truly. You take my breath away.” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek by her ear and whispered. “I can’t wait to make you mine so I can help you into and out of dresses like this.”

Alana took a small step away from him, but offered him a warm smile in consolation.

“Alana, there is something I want to talk to you about before we go inside. Okay?”

“Of course. Would you like to sit down?” She gestured to the gold and blue seats near them.

“No, I’m stand. I wanted to see if you have given any more thought to my proposal.”

Alana looked down at her hands. She hoped she was doing the right thing by making him wait, but if things did not go well with her father then she would be queen. She needed to show the country she was responsible and stable.

She knew in her head that marrying Sergei was the right thing to do. It would make her parents happy and could ease her father’s mind to know that the kingdom was in stable hands should anything happen.

Sergei placed his hands over hers and she looked up in to his blue eyes. She did not feel the heat in her belly the way she did when she looked into Gage’s, but heat was not what this choice was about.

“Please say you have been thinking about it. Thinking about me.” His voice was soft and patient, but held a new edge she had not heard before.

“Yes, of course I have. With my father sick and Victor out, there has been so much going on, I haven’t had any time.”

She felt him tense. “Where’s Victor?”

“A family emergency.” She hated that she lied to him. It not the way to start off a lifetime together, but something in her gut told her now was not the time to share the real details of the crisis. She could tell him everything later when they were not pressed to attend the ball.

He squeezed her hand and ran his thumb over her knuckle. “I thought I could wait, Alana, but I want you. I want us so badly. We could announce the engagement after the signing.”

“What? Tomorrow?” She was not ready.

He lifted his hand and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger more forcibly that was comfortable. Then he tilted her head up so their eyes met and he gave her a warm smile that did not reach his eyes.

“I want you Alana Volkava. I love you. Say yes and make me the happiest man alive.”

He leaned over and gave her a soft kiss on her lips.

“We will be good together, you and I.” He let her chin go and took a step backward. “Stop thinking so much.”

Her head spun. Why couldn’t she just say yes. She would eventually, once Gage left and they figured out who was threatening the royal family. She wanted to confide in Sergei. She had shared so many things with him over the years that it did not feel right holding something back from him. But, with her father’s life on the line, she knew now was not the time.

“I promise I will think about it and give you an answer soon.”

“That is all I can ask. Let’s go to the ball. Your brother will be upset at me if you are late for the receiving line.”

Alana took the arm he offered her. They chatted about mundane things as they walked.

“How was your trip to the north?” she asked.

“Fine. The fighting has been concentrated to one area. We hope we can negotiate a cease-fire soon.” Sergei lead them into the hallway to begin the walk to the ballroom, which was located on the other side of the palace from the family wing.

“That is excellent news.”

It would mean so much to her father if they could make peace will the northern traditionalists.

“Yes, it is. How are your parents? I hear they are not feeling well.”

“No,” Alana lied, “but I hope they will be up and around tomorrow.”

“As do I. Maybe I could see them later.”

“Maybe,” she said.

As Sergei lead her to the ballroom, Alana fought the urge to peer around corners and look for Gage. Her stomach did a summersault for no reason and the hairs on the back of her neck tingled. She knew he was close.

#

Gage watched Alana and Sergei walk down the hall past him. They looked like the perfect royal couple. A part of him was happy for her. Sergei was her future. He could accept that, although he requested that the team back at the safe house run a deep dive on Sergei just in case. He wanted to make sure he covered all of his bases, and if he found out that Sergei kept a mistress or hid some other deep, dark secret, Gage reasoned that it would better if Alana knew sooner rather than later that Sergei was not the man for her. Jealously or not, he wanted to make sure that the man that eventually claimed Alana was worthy.

Gage used his skill and training to follow Sergei and Alana to the ballroom. He blended in with the crowds when they reached the public spaces. He felt his earpiece buzz and found a secluded spot to hold a conversation. He called the safe house on his cell phone and immediately went secure as soon as Sam answered.

“Hey, Mac. Buzz just got back from the debrief with Victor. It looks like he is not our guy.”

“Damn it.” Gage wanted to hit something.

“Yeah, I know. Hold on, I’m passing you to Buzz so he can update you with the latest.”

Gage heard Buzz’s deep baritone voice on the other end. “We talked to Victor all afternoon. He admitted to still being on the Russian payroll, but said his loyalty was with Alana and her family. It always had been. If he fed any intel to the Russians, it was all benign and passed to help Corannia, not hurt it. The Russians just wanted to keep someone on the inside just in case they needed him.”

“And you believed that crap.” Gage did not buy it for one minute.

“Yeah, I do. You weren’t in the room with him. It may not be as rosy rainbows as he made it out to be, but he cares for Alana and her family. That I would take to the bank.”

“Okay.” Gage trusted Buzz’s gut instinct. “Did he know anything about Ignis?”

“Yeah. Here’s where it gets interesting. Victor admitted to being the one to make the AP contact on Alana’s phone.”

“What!” Two tuxedo-clad gentlemen turned and looked at Gage. Gage pivoted and walked further down the hall while still keeping Alana in his sights. “You said he wasn’t the link.”

“He’s not. Get this. He called his AP contact as a signal to us. He knew from his own sources in country that someone had restarted the Ignis program. He just was not sure who. He had been trying to track it for the last month, but wanted help. He knew that the AP number he called would trigger our interest. He also knew that if he used Alana’s phone, somehow it would link back to you.”

“You’re kidding me. He made a bet on a lucky roll of the dice and used Alana at collateral. I don’t like it.”

Gage squeezed the phone in his hand. How the hell could he put Alana in jeopardy like that? If the US was listening, it is a good bet other countries were as well.

“Neither did Westin,” Buzz chuckled. “You know how Westin doesn’t like to be played. He took over most of the questioning from there.”

“And?” Gage asked.

“Westin is triple checking every word that came from Victor’s mouth, but so far it all seems like the truth. Ignis is alive and well. He called it an assassin’s drug. Unless a doctor knows what he is looking for, there is no way he would diagnose the combination of toxins in time.”

“Victor believes someone plans on using it against the royal family to restart a civil war.”

Gage’s heart went cold. Someone tried to kill the king. Alana was next in line, which made her a target.

“So the attempt on the king was real, and when that failed . . .what? Why kill Hanski and the guy at the ballet.”

“Proof of concept we think, but here’s the kicker. Vic does not think the auction is for Ignis, he thinks AP is paying the highest bidder for a civil war.” Buzz said. “It’s what they wanted four years ago, but Alana’s father did a better job that they thought he would at holding back the traditionalists.”

“They have to act before the American’s establish a base here. With the extra forces here and our alliance, it would be too risky. That is why Sunday is the deadline.”

Gage was stunned. He scanned the room and found Alana in the middle of a receiving line. He wanted to grab her and take her away. Hide her and keep her safe. But she had a duty just as he did. This would have to play-out in public. Neither of them has a choice.

“Who’s the connection with the insurgents that want a civil war?” Gage asked.

“Vic did not know. We’re working on it.”

Gage trusted his team and knew Westin would not rest until he got to the bottom of this even if he had to call in additional reinforcements. The best place for Gage to be was right were he was. As close to Alana as possible. His gut told him that she was at the center of this. He just had no idea how.

“Buzz, I mean it. As soon you guys get anything, even if it doesn’t make sense, call me. I don’t like this. I feel like we just walked in to the middle of a shit storm without a weather report.”

“Roger, that. Watch your back, Mac. Try to get the princess to leave this shindig early. You don’t need to deal with a crowd tonight.”

Gage agreed. “Got it. Anything else?”

“Yeah, get me back out to the field as soon as possible,” Buzz joked.

“You and me both.”

Gage ended the call with Buzz and considered his options. His favorite was to throw Alana over his shoulder and take her to the safe house until they could figure out what was going on. But he knew she would never agree. She had as much of a sense of duty as he did, and he respected that.

He looked over at her as she greeted each person in the receiving line. His breath caught at how beautiful she looked. He wanted her in his arms so much his limbs ached. Alana was an incredible combination of strong and fragile that had fascinated him from the day they met. Damned if he would let anyone threaten her or her family. Ever.

To hell with watching her from the sidelines. If he was going to protect her, he needed to be up close and personal. It was time he did what he came to Corannia to do. Leverage his relationship. Get her close. And keep her safe. Gage headed off in the direction of the royal family to make his presence known.


Chapter 12

Alana breathed a sigh of relief when the chief protocol officer came and whispered in her ear that it was time for the receiving line to close. She and her brother walked into the ballroom once they were formally announced and took their place in the center of the dance floor to officially open the evening.

After their dance ended, she and Stefan made their obligatory rounds with the senior members of Parliament and key dignitaries. During one of her many turns around the dance floor, Alana found herself looking around the room for the one man she had not seen yet. She knew Gage was somewhere in the crowd. Selflessly, she wanted to see him dressed in a tuxedo. The romantic in her wanted him to dance with her, although she could not see Gage ever taking to the waltz. An image of his scarred chest filled her thoughts and she missed a step. Her partner smiled as if nothing had happened. Embarrassed, Alana tried to refocus on her partner, but could not help herself from scanning the crowd. Her eyes inadvertently landed on Sergei. He smiled and waved.

She looked as him as he deftly maneuvered between groups of people. He was dashing in a princely sort of way. He would make a wonderful husband. Right? She should just accept his proposal and get on with her life. What was standing in her way? A man that she shared a few months with before her life turned upside down? Her heart skipped a beat at the thought. She wished Gage would stand in her way, but that was like wishing on dandelion seeds.

Her partner swung her around in a reverse turn. She smiled because she thought she should. The retired general that held her had to be close to eighty. He was hard of hearing and did not try to make small talk as they danced. She thanked fate for small favors. She had had her share of small talk for the night. Alana let her mind wonder during her few minutes of reprieve.

Maybe her feelings for Gage were actually feelings of regret over her lost pre-princess life. He was a symbol of the freedom she had before she wore the crown. Her longing for him was just a longing for her life prior to becoming a princess. When things were simple and her life was her own. When the choices she made did not have international repercussions and her dreams did not matter to anyone but her. When her father was not fighting poison ingested in his body and her bodyguard imprisoned by the Americans. Calling her life before the crown simple was like calling Versailles a little house in the suburbs.

It made so much sense. Alana could not help but to laugh at herself. She felt as if the world around her just opened and a tremendous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. It was Psychology 101. Gage had not ruined her for some other man. She would be able to love again. Why not take Sergei and make little Corannian babies. How bad could that life be? Her confusion was not about Gage, but about her own life as a royal.

Her partner seemed to take her sudden merriment as his personal success and turned her around in an exuberant spin. She hoped she would be as nimble as he was when she was an octogenarian. Surprised that the general had it in him, she laughed harder. Alana relaxed and enjoyed the moment. During another practiced turn, Alana scanned the ballroom again looking for Sergei or Stefan hoping they were having as good a time as she was. Instead, her gaze locked on a pair of silver grey eyes that had haunted her dreams for four years.

The calm she felt only a moment before was replaced by something she did not want to label although she knew exactly what it was. Desire. Heat. She turned every sexual urge off four years ago as if she were a nun. She was not interested; could not get excited if she tried. Alana figured she was broken.

The change of lifestyle, the heartbreak over Gage, the stress of being perfect all of the time flipped a switch in her. Dried her up. She did not think even think about romance and sex. Instead, she accepted it for what it was. A life of duty to others. It worked for her until the moment when her eyes met his at the luncheon. Since then another switch had been flipped. One that was grounded in need and want. Heat and passion. A selfishness that made it easy to forget about what she should do and who she needed to be. All she cared about – all she thought about – was him.

Gage stood in the corner watching her intently. Even from halfway across the ballroom she could see his grey eyes sparkle as if he knew what she was thinking. His half-smile dared her to relegate her feelings for him to nothing more than a passing fancy. He leaned lazily against one of the twenty-foot marble columns that surrounded the room with his hands in his pockets and a foot crossed over his ankle.

He had removed the gauze bandage from his forehead. Although she could see the marks and bruises that scared his face, they somehow they made him look even more handsome. Even more like the devil he was. To an outside observer, he appeared to not have a care in the world. As if palace life and ballrooms were his natural habitat. But she knew better.

Knowing that he was there to protect her, to protect her country, made the magnetic pull around him that much stronger. She could see other women sizing him up as if he was fresh meat in a lion’s den. A sharp twinge of jealousy shot through her. The music ended and she forced her gaze away from Gage and thanked her partner for the thrilling dance. They applauded the orchestra and she kissed the elderly general on both cheeks in thanks.

“If you are not otherwise engaged . . .”

Alana was not sure how Gage crossed the ballroom and ended-up at her side so quickly. She took the hand he offered with out a word. She was tired of fighting what she knew was an unwinnable battle and stepped into his open arms. The orchestra began to play a slow waltz as he put pressure on her waist and began to guide her around the floor with what seemed like little effort. She could not hide her surprise.

“You dance beautifully, Gage.”

“You sound surprised.”

“I guess never pictured you as a ballroom dancer.”

He twirled her in a complicated spin forcing her to look down at her feet to verify they were still touching the floor.

“How do you picture me?” he asked.

She ignored his question since her real answer – naked and in her bed – would lead into dangerous territory.

“Where did you learn how to dance?” she deflected. Her pulse raced as he turned her again.

The corners of his mouth turned up into a knowing smile. She was happy when he did not press his question, but answered hers instead.

“My father shipped me off to a military prep school in Virginia when I was fourteen. Ballroom dance was the only way we could see girls on a regular basis. I had to pay some guy fifty bucks to drop out so I could take his place.”

She shook her head in wonder.

“What?” He was so close she could feel the heat radiating off his body. Her hand brushed across the fine fabric of his black tuxedo that hugged his thick shoulders. She ignored the gun she felt underneath his jacket.

“I’m just trying to reconcile Honduras Gage with bodyguard, tough-guy Gage with the way you look now.”

“How do I look now?” he leaned forward and whispered in her ear.

“Like you walked off of the set of Casablanca. Certainly not like you were ever some boy desperate to meet women. I can’t even imagine you like that.”

She smiled at the idea of him being young and awkward.

“Don’t let the tux fool you. I’m still desperate.” He gave her a wink and a cock-sure grin that turned her insides to liquid.

Her eyes scanned his scars, his tan, rough and weathered skin, his lips. She forced her gaze back to his. “Please. You could have any woman in this room with just the snap of your finger.”

He pulled away a fraction of an inch so their eyes met. The heat in his eyes was unmistakable.

“But I only want one,” he said with a voice rough with need.

She lost her balance. His arms immediately tightened around her.

“Are you okay?”

No, she would never be okay. He had ruined her. Broke her the day they met on a desolate road in Honduras.

“I think I need some air.”

#

Gage watched as Alana hurried out of the ballroom. A few people seemed to notice her departure, but did not seem to make much out of it. Gage debated if he should follow her.

He activated the radio he wore underneath his shirt.

“Cal, do you have eyes on the princess?”

Cal worked backup with about five other undercover operatives, but Cal was the only person Gage trusted to take over for him.

“Roger that,” Cal responded. “She just headed down the balcony stairs to the garden.”

“Does anyone seem overly interested in her?” Nothing mattered more than her safety.

It took a moment for Cal to answer. “No, Sir. Everyone is doing their own thing. She is heading to a house in the back of the garden.”

“The Orangery?” Gage pictured the tall stone structure that stood alone in the middle of the garden. He had studied multiple satellite images of the property to prepare for the assignment and memorized a map of the palace. It was just the sort of place Alana would use as a hideaway.

“Um, sure. I’m not sure what you would call it. A stone house thing with windows all around it. Do you want me to go inside with her?” Cal asked.

Gage could not help but smile. Was he ever that young?

“No, just monitor the perimeter. I’m on my way.” Gage clicked off his radio. Despite Cal’s innocence with the world, he was an excellent soldier and would protect Alana at all cost.

Gage hung back for a moment longer, scanning the crowd for anyone that looked out of place or seemed curious about the princess’ disappearance. Stefan and Sergei were focused on the little huddles of people that surrounded each of them. He doubted either one of them noticed that Alana was no longer in the room.

The last few days had been a roller coaster. Gage knew he should have kept his mouth shut and not said anything about her being the only woman he wanted. But it was time they stopped ignoring the heat that surged between them every time they were within twenty feet of each other. He had tried to ignore it. Tried for four years to ignore her. But, damn it, he was human. This limbo they were in was torture. When he saw her come out of her room in that lacy black gown all wrapped up like the ultimate present, his fingers itched to unwrap her.

He knew that she would protest if he confronted her. She would claim that he made everything worse and she would be right. He knew he should just leave her alone. Stay close enough to be there if she needed him or if something happened, but far enough away so he did not ache to pull her closer with every beat of his heart. What was the point? Eventually they would wrap-up this case and he would be assigned to another mission. She would go on with her life, marry Sergei, and deliver the next generation of royals. It all sounded easy. Neat. But no matter how illogical it seemed – no matter how it did not fit in to anyone’s plans – every fiber of his being wanted to go after her and finish what they started the night before.

Gage swallowed hard. He needed to stay in control. His pants did the talking in Honduras. He refused to make that same mistake when there was a real threat around the corner. But damn, he needed to find some release. Maybe after she went to bed, he could pass Cal the watch for an hour and go for a run. Maybe punch a stone wall for a while. Something other than just watching.

“What did you do? Step on her toes?”

Gage turned to see Philip standing next to him holding a glass of champagne and wearing a self-satisfied smirk.

“I must admit, Major, you look strangely at home here. I did not realize you father was General Highgate, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I am assuming you took your mother’s name.” Phillip took a slow sip of his champagne.

Gage ignored the arrogant man.

“Well, anyway. Even through you might be more schooled in etiquette than you first appear to be, this is still a very different scene than even your West Point or White House dinners.”

Gage continued to ignore the little man’s erroneous comments as he considered what to do about Alana. The more he thought about her, the more he wanted her. They deserved one night. They needed one night.

Gage interrupted Philip. He had no idea what he was saying anyway. “Excuse me, but I need to go check on something.” Gage did not wait for the man to answer before he moved across the ballroom toward the balcony. Once Gage reached the balcony, he turned and headed straight for the Orangery.

“I’m coming in from the North. Don’t shoot me. Especially you, Cal. I don’t feel like being pissed off tonight.”

Gage took the steps to the garden in a brisk jog. He knew to give fair warning if he was approaching the target zone.

The warm spring wind rustled the trees above him and the evening air smelled of rain. He jogged around sculpted topiaries and hopped over manicured flowerbeds. Finally, he reached the stone building whose windows were fogged from the humidity inside. No lights were on, but the full moon would give him enough illumination to see shadows.

“Cal, continue covering the perimeter. I’m going inside. I’m turning my radio to mute but it will still be on if you need me.”

“Roger that,” Cal said in the radio.

Gage did not see the young soldier, but knew he was close.

Gage opened the glass-paned door and called to her. No one answered, but he heard a slight rustle at his eleven o’clock. He took a chance and headed in that direction. He found her sitting on one of the stone benches.

He hesitated for a moment, doubting his decision to follow her. He did not want to hurt her again. And, heaven knew that he might not recover if things did not go well tonight.

Alana turned as he approached her. Her form was outlined in moon shadows. As he stepped closer, he could see that her face was damp and dark trails of mascara ran down her cheeks. Gabbing a handkerchief from his pocket, Gage took the last few steps that closed the distance between them and sat down next to her. Instead of handing her the linen, he reached out and cupped her chin with his hand. He tilted her face and wiped her tears and make-up away.

To his surprise, she leaned forward and let him take care of her. His movements were slow and controlled. There was no point in rushing. Gage knew their time was limited and this might be their last private moment together. Ever. It needed to be savored. That thought chilled him to the bone. Could he leave her and never see her again except on magazine covers in the grocery store checkout line? Or after he had too many drinks and searched for her images online?

Once her face was cleaned and dry, Gage pocketed the handkerchief. He leaned back against the garden bench and stared out into the darkness of the room. He planned to sit in silence next to her all night if that was what she wanted. If something came up, the team knew how to reach him.

Her voice broke the silence. “I’m going to marry Sergei.”

He sucked in his breath, but did not move. “You’ll make a perfect couple.”

Alana angled toward him and tucked one leg underneath the skirt of her gown. Her shoes sat on the stone floor. She did not speak for a few moments while she looked down and played with a bead on her dress. When she finally spoke, he could hear the raw emotion in her voice.

“There is no reason not to, right? If something happens to my father, if the antidote does not work, I’m next in line. I could have been queen already if you and your men had not acted so quickly.” She paused. “I need to be the person the country needs me to be.”

“You do.” He shifted and put his elbows on his knees and looked down at the darkness below him.

He could feel her gaze on him. There was a reason silence was such an effective interrogation method. When something needed to be said, most of the time all that a person needed was time to say it. His emotions got the best of him and he felt his first slip of control.

He sat up and ran his fingers threw his hair. “What the hell do you want me to say, Alli? Don’t marry the perfect guy?”

He heard his own voice grow louder. He took a breath and tried to bury the frustration he felt. Finally, he said in a low voice, “I have nothing to offer you. What would a life with me look like? Who would give up what?”

Gage stood and took a few steps into the darkness of the room. He needed to put space between them. He balled and released his fists and concentrated on his breathing.

He heard her stand up and walk toward him. Gage closed his eyes and wished that she would just walk past him to the door. Just walk away, Alli.

Instead, he felt her hand tighten around his arm. The heat of her fingers burned him. He felt the strength to fight her leave his body as he let her spin him around so they were face to face.

“That’s a shitty thing to say, Gage McAllister.” Her voice was soft, but firm. Her golden eyes glowed in the moonlight and did not waver from his.

“I thought you wanted honesty. That’s as honest as it gets.” Gage felt the tension rise up in him. She needed to understand. “You’re a princess. I’m a soldier. It has always come down to that. It’s why I left you in Honduras and it’s why I’ll leave you when this mission is over. You need more than me, Alli.”

He did not want to sound cruel or hurtful. He had never cared for anyone as much as he cared for her. But she needed to understand that they had to let each other go. When he spoke again, his voice was softer, less argumentative. What he was doing, he was doing for her.

“We are who we are, and there is nothing either of us can do about it. Go marry your prince charming and have a wonderful life. You have my blessing.”

She let go of him and took a step back. She crossed her arms, which pushed her breasts up. The tension in him became layered with heat.

“You’re an ass. I don’t want your blessing. I know you feel more for me than that. You think you’re being so honest, but you aren’t. You’re standing here lying to me and lying to yourself.”

“What do you want me to say?” he ground out his words as his body coiled in frustration. He knew if he admitted his feeling for her, something in him would snap.

“Tell me the truth,” she demanded. “Tell me it was not easy to let me go. You might walk away when this is over but for God sake don’t act like it’s easy.”

Her stare was hard and unyielding, but the moonlight caught the unshed tears that glistened in her eyes. Her chest rose up as she took a deep breath, her breasts strained the form-fitting fabric. He waited for her to exhale, but instead she held her breath in her while she waited for his answer.

“Don’t push me, Alli.”

His voice was low and firm. He took a step toward her. His hands itched to touch her. She held her ground. Her head tilted up so their eyes met. In the shadows, she looked half devil and half angel.

“Tell me,” she said in a whisper.

“How about I show you.” The control he held on to so tightly snapped. There was no turning back.

He barely got the words out before he grabbed her upper arms and pulled her to him. His lips came down hard on hers. He tilted his head to deepen the kiss. His tongue did not wait for an invitation, but as soon it found an opening slid into the wet warmth of her mouth. She opened to him as he crushed her against him. He had his Alli back in his arms and unless bullets came through the windows around them he did not plan on letting go of her any time soon.

Gage paused and his deep voice whispered in her ear as he kissed her neck, “You’d better tell me right now to stop.”

Alana tilted her head further back and gave him full access to her neck as she said the words he wanted to hear.

“Don’t stop, Gage.”

As his hands relaxed their grip, her arms snaked around his neck and he heard her soft moan. His mind went blank with raw need. His hands reached behind her and pulled her zipper down in one fluid motion. Lips and tongues mated as his fingertips found skin. His kisses left her mouth and followed her jawline to her ear lobe where he sucked at the tender flesh.

She arched her neck giving him complete access to her jugular, which he seized with his lips. One of his hands wound its way up to the base of her neck while the other headed south and slowly maneuvered its way beneath her dress to the small of her back. Using both hands, he pressed her hard against him hoping she could feel the effect she had on him as his lips reconnected with hers in a deep kiss.

Alana pulled back an inch, which was enough for her heavy dress to fall down between them. She stood in front of him dressed in a black strapless bra and panties, thigh-high stockings, a garter belt and thin black heels. He felt his knees buckle at the sight. The moonlight cast silver ribbons of shadows across her body as if the night itself wanted to caress her. He took a minute as he engraved her image into his mind.

She reached out and relieved him of his tuxedo jacket. Her fingers followed its descent along his thick arms. As soon as she heard it swish to the floor, she reached up and pulled at one edge of his bow tie and let the knot unfurl. Using her thumb and forefinger, she undid the buttons of his shirt. She leaned in and smoothed her palms over his exposed skin. Everywhere she touched was followed by warm kisses that made him forget everything except what was happening between them.

“You are so much more than a solider. You are warm. You are beautiful. And see,” she rubbed her palms over his chest, “no camouflage underneath. Your skin is not green and covered in ribbons and rank. You are a man that does a hard job. Be here with me now, Gage. No mission. No army. Just us.”

His eyes never left hers as he stepped back to remove his shoulder hostler and gun. After dropped the piece on the floor, he reached out and cupped his hand around her head and pulled her back to him. He threaded his fingers through her hair. When their lips touched again it was if they released all of the emotions that they had held in for four years.

Her palms pressed a path over his shirt and paused as they came to his broad shoulders. Her fingers took hold of his white braces and pushed them down his arms until they hung down around his legs. Eager to touch his skin, to feel him as he felt her, she trailed her hands down his sculpted chest and pulled his shirt out from the waistband. After a few tugs, she reached up underneath his shirt and rubbed her hands in the trail of hair just above his belt. The need to touch him made her movements less graceful that she would like, but they were well past the point of no return.

He took a step away from her and she saw the look of hunger in his eyes. She let the last sliver of doubt disappear from her mind. With his eyes locked on her, she took off all but her stocking and garter. As soon as she stepped over the pile of clothes toward him, his hands reached around and splayed themselves across her bottom as his lips found hers again. She let him lift her as she wrapped her legs around his waist and twisted her arms around his neck. Lost in the kisses and warmth of his body next to hers, she barely felt the cool stonewall against her back.

Gage had taken her deeper into the room and away from the windows. They were almost in complete darkness. Once she was propped up against the wall, his lips followed her jaw line again. He sucked and pulled and drove her almost mad with need. She threaded her fingers through his thick hair and held on to him like a lifeline in a raging sea. He adjusted his position only to allow him room to reach between them and undo his belt buckle and pants.

She felt his need and ground herself down against him making sure he knew what she wanted. He readjusted his balance and drove himself in her in one fluid motion. He paused as if he needed to recover for a moment. She squeezed herself around him and he growled out a curse. One of his palms pressed against the wall above her head as he stroked her hard and deep. Soon his rhythm increased and she felt her body tense in anticipation. It did not take long for both of them to reach the peak. Sparks of heat rose within her. Just as she was about to scream out her need, he covered his lips with hers. She felt him shake with release and held him close.

Neither of them moved. Their shallow panting was the only sound in the room as they both tried to catch their breath. After a moment, Gage took a deep breath, kissed her gently then pulled away a few inches. His eyes searched her face as if her expression would give him the answers he needed. His brow furrowed and he looked like he was seconding guessing what they just did.

Her eyes did not flinch or blink when they locked with his. She was not shy or sorry for what happened and she refused to let him regret the moment they just shared.

“You okay?” he asked. His voice was hoarse.

“Yeah, I’m good. Really good.” She wanted to tell him she could not remember ever feeling better, but thought that such a declaration might scare him away.

He leaned in and kissed her forehead before he pulled away completely and let her down so her feet touched the floor. Alana felt her legs give out when she tried to stand, but Gage was right there and held her before she fell over. Before Alana had a chance to right herself, Gage swooped her into his arms and carried her to the bench. He placed her down as if he might break her.

“Wait here. I’ll go find your things.” He disappeared into the darkness of the room before she could tell him to stop. The moonlight had faded and the sound of rain beat against the windows. Gage came back in a moment carrying her things. He must have used the time to fix his own clothes, because when he came back his buttoned shirt was tucked inside his waistband with his fly zipped and the braces back in place. His gun and shoulder holster reminded that there was a world outside their little sanctuary. The only sign of their frantic coupling was the black bow tie that hung loose on either side of his neck and the top two buttons of his shirt were left undone. She stood and put on her underclothes.

“Sit.” His voice was gravelly when he spoke.

He bent down on one knee on the floor in front of her and reached for her leg. As he pulled her leg to rest on his bent knee, his hands caressed her calf before he slid her shoe on.

“Gage, you don’t have to do this.” She did not want him to treat her as something breakable.

“Hand me your other foot.”

Alana lifted her leg and placed her ankle in his open palm. His fingers kneaded and smoothed her leg before he placed the shoe on her other foot.

“Give me your hand.”

She did as he asked. She had no idea what thoughts ran through his mind. Were they full of joy or regret?

“I’m fine.” She insisted, as she placed the weight of her hand in his as her helped her stand.

“Lift up your arms.” Gage held her heavy dress over her head. Once her arms were in place, the weight of the beads and fabric draped down over her and covered her body.

She wished she knew what he was thinking. His face was lined with determination as if he fought for control. She let him put her back together as she thought of ways to break past the walls he was build-up between them. It was if she could see him construct his defenses brick by brick. It was hard to imagine he had been inside of her only moments before. Their coupling should have brought them closer, but instead he seemed more distant than ever.

“Turn around.” His voice was flat when he spoke, but she obeyed him not sure what else to do.

She felt his knuckle blaze a path of heat as her zipper pulled the fabric closed over her back. When she was finally encased back in her dress, he stayed behind her. Alana was frozen in place, unsure what she should do. Just as she was about to turn and face him, she felt him bend down and plant a warm kiss at the place where her neck and shoulder met. His lips lingered for a moment before he pulled away.


Chapter 13

Gage brushed his thumb across the smooth skin of her exposed back before he turned and bent over to pick up his tuxedo jacket. Rain beat against the glass that surrounded them. A reminder that the world outside waited for them.

He gave the jacket a few brushes before he draped it over his arm. He had not meant for this encounter to go quite so far. He shook his head and tried to erase the memory of Alana pressed against the wall as he drove himself in to her. He was sure that somewhere in an old dusty law book what he did to the princess was an offense punishable by death. This was not how he wanted their last night together to end.

The skin between her eyebrows puckered as she gave him a questioning look. The last thing he wanted was to rehash what just happened. Even if he tried, he knew he could never find the words that would explain his actions or the emotions that threatened to consume him. So, he did what he did best when he felt cornered. He locked his feelings up and threw away the key.

Gage angled himself away from Alana and switched his radio off mute to call in a status check.

“Cal, what is the perimeter status?”

“Oh, hey, Mac. Everything is quiet and clear out here, although wet.”

Cal’s voice sounded as if he was uncomfortable. He wondered if the young soldier knew about his previous relationship with the princess. Gage knew that no one saw them. He had intentionally moved away from the windows that surrounded the little house and hid their bodies in the darkness, but that would not stop a bored solider on a quiet stakeout from a run away imagination.

“The princess and I are coming out. Sam, you there?”

“Yep, I’m here, Mac. Everything is quiet here as well. Eerily so. It’s like everyone went to ground.” Gage heard the stress in Sam’s voice.

Sam’s words put Gage on alert. Any field operator understood that there was always a calm before a big operation where all parties went radio silent and concentrated on the individual roles they played in a larger mission. All of the orders had been given and the only thing left to do was wait for the clock to run down to zero hour.

A moment of pure fear went through Gage. He looked at Alana as she fussed with her hair. He wished they could stay in this little stone house all night, but both of them would be missed. Their moment of peace was over.

Just as Gage was about to give orders to his team, JT came on the radio. “Mac, I’m in the op room Westin set up at the Embassy. The new hospital wing was just broken in to. No alarms went off, but some woman just called it in to the police. Sounds like the lab and offices are trashed.”

Gage felt adrenaline raced through his veins. His vision and hearing went on alert making every object clearer and every sound more intense. He felt Alana come up next to him and she put her hand on his arm.

“What happened?” He saw the concern on her face. He knew her first thought would be about her father.

“JT, what is the king’s status?”

“Green. He took to the meds well and the last report was that his pulse had normalized and he regained consciousness.”

Gage relayed the good news to Alana and he saw her face relax.

He refocused his attention on the new development at the hospital. It might be unrelated, but he needed to check it out for himself. He did not believe in coincidences.

“I’m heading to the hospital now. Cal, meet us at the door and escort the princess back to her rooms. And, find a damn umbrella for her.”

“Westin wants you to say with the princess.” JT chimed in.

“She will be fine with, Cal. I want to see the hospital for myself. Make sure you get our team out there dusting for prints. This is connected, I just don’t know how.” He turned to Alana. “Get to your room and stay there. Do not go anywhere without me or Cal.”

He turned and walked toward the entrance where Cal would meet him. He needed to put some space in between them. He had not recovered completely from being with her. His foggy thoughts put them all in jeopardy. Gage planned to go to the hospital then come back and resume his bodyguard duties after he had time to collect his runaway thoughts. He was sure she would be safe in a room his team had alarmed and that Cal watched.

“What happened at the hospital?”

Alana chased after him, reaching him just as he opened the door. A tall, blond man startled her as he silently moved in front of them with an umbrella. She assumed he must be a member of Gage’s team since Gage did not show any signs of alarm. The rain came down in a steady flow. Mac stepped across the threshold into the downpour, his white shirt became plastered to his chest. The blond soldier held the large umbrella over her as she stepped outside.

“I got her from here, Mac,” the blond man said.

“Wait.” Alana reached out and tugged at Gage’s arm, her arm wet from the rain. How dare he not clue her in. “What is going on? Why are you going to the hospital?”

Gage looked annoyed that she stopped him from leaving, but she did not care. She gave him a hard look.

“Just stick with Cal. I’ll come back tonight and fill you in.” His voice was terse and he turned again as if he was about to leave.

He was all business now. They might have been strangers the way he spoke to her. The last vestiges of satisfaction and warmth from their time together disappeared. She used her Royal Highness voice when she spoke again.

“You can fill me in now or I’m not moving another foot.”

Gage took a step toward her. His face twisted in a scowl. “Look, I don’t have time for this. You are not that heavy, Alana. You’re moving if I say move. It’s your choice if you use your feet or if Cal throws you over his shoulder.”

Alana glanced at the young soldier. A look of complete terror spread across his face.

“And I’ll scream bloody murder. Which will take more time, you telling me what the hell is going on or dealing with the crowds and questions?” Alana put her hands on her hips. This was her country and she was not some just-for-show princess. If something was happening with Ignis or her hospital, she and Gage were going to deal with it together, whether he liked it or not.

He must have believed her threat. Smart man. He let out a loud sigh of frustration, and turned away from them as he headed up the stone walkway that led through the garden to the back of the palace. “Fine. You both follow me. And keep up.”

The blonde looked grateful. The young man did his best to hold the umbrella over Alana as they both tried to kept with with Gage. She finally gave up and hobbled on one foot then the other as she wiggled out of her shoes. She flashed the blonde a smile before she jogged out in the rain in her stocking covered feet. It was the only way she could possibly keep up. He grinned, collapsed the umbrella and caught up with Gage.

“Do you have a car?” Gage shouted through the rain. He did not turn around, but instead picked up the pace.

“Of course, I have a car,” she said, her voice breathy from exertion. “If you are heading to the car park, there is a quicker way to get there.”

She turned off the path and ran across the grass in to a small grove of trees. They were all soaked to the bone by the time they passed the trees and made a hard left turn down a narrow paved path.

“Maybe you should tell me what’s going on so I can help you.” Alana called out to Gage mid-run and he turned his head toward her.

“Someone came in and trashed the new wing of hospital.”

Alana stopped mid-stride. “What? The new wing? My new wing?”

He turned and gestured for her to catch up. She shook her head in disbelief, but put her body back in motion.

“How bad is it?”

“I don’t know. That’s why I want to get there and find out for myself. Go with Cal. I’ll fill you in when I get back. Just get me a car, Alana.”

“I’ll get you a car, but I’m coming with you.”

He ignored her comment. Like hell she was coming with him. He had no idea what he was walking into and he would not put her in jeopardy like that.

They ran through a wrought-iron gate. He could see the long row of garage doors in front of him. Alana ran ahead and pulled open a door at the end of the large stone and wooden structure. She disappeared inside. After a moment, all of the six garage doors opened and revealed close to ten million dollars’ worth of automotive power. He heard Cal give a low whistle. It was an impressive sight.

“Perk of the job. Pick one.” Alana stood a few yards away from him. Her hair suck to her head and her dress hung limp. Her chest moved in and out at rapid intervals as she caught her breath. Yeah, he would need to become a monk when this mission was over. There would never be another woman that could hold a candle to her in his eyes. Ever.

“Which one is yours?” he asked.

“They are available to anyone who needs them.”

“Sweet.” Cal stood next to him and grinned like a kid who just broke into a toy store. Gage hated what he was about to do.

“Cal, you stay here with the Princess.” Gage saw his smile fall and a look of disappointment cross his face, but he was too solid of a professional to complain. “I promise, when this is over, I’ll make sure you get to take one of the guys for a spin, okay?”

Cal nodded. They both walked into the shelter of the garage and over to the midnight blue Aston Martin Vanquish. It was perfect for the road conditions and sharp turns they would need to make to get the hospital. Alana met the men at the car.

“Cal can stay, but I’m going,” she insisted.

Gage held out his hand. “Give me the keys. You’re not going anywhere.”

She leaned her back against the driver side door, shocked that it was only moments ago that the arrogant man in front of her had kissed her senseless. He was not the only one who could compartmentalize emotions.

“On the contrary. You want a car. You take me with you. This is a sovereign country and whatever you plan to do with your little band of soldiers, I plan on being right there.”

“Alana, this is no place for you. It could get dangerous. And we are wasting time.”

“You’re wasting time.” She refused to budge.

He put his hands on his hips. Unable to stop herself, she let her eyes take in his taught muscles underneath his see-through, wet shirt.

Gage rolled his eyes. “Fine. Get in. Cal, call in the change of plans. Let everyone know I have the princess and we are heading to the hospital. Make sure you tell her brother where she is. The last thing I want to deal with the prince trying to play Superman. It’s bad enough I have to deal with her.”

Alana tilted her head and gave him a smirk. She shifted positions, pulled the door handle open, and slipped behind wheel.

“Oh, hell no. I’m driving.”

“Get in. You’re wasting time. My car. My road. My country.” She slammed the door shut and let the engine roar to life.

He stared down at her through the window with eyes as hard as steel. He did not move. She rolled down the window and gave him an unyielding look.

“Do you know the fastest way to the hospital?”

She put up the window and shifted the car into drive. He stood there staring bullets at her for another second before he pivoted and jogged around the hood to the other side of the car. She was heading out of the garage before he had a chance to strap in.

As soon as she passed the guards at the palace gates, she pushed the gas pedal to the floor and upshifted through the gears in quick succession. The engine growled with happiness. Alana spared a quick glance from the windy road down to Gage as he gave her a surprised look and grabbed for his seatbelt.

“You’ve never seen me drive before, have you?” she said with a smile and let the engine out even further. The roads were slick, but she trusted herself and the machine that vibrated underneath her.

Gage shook his head as he reached out for the dashboard after she took a sharp turn. She laughed at his expression, which was a mix of surprise, horror, and a little pride.

“Growing up with Stefan and my father, I had to hold my own with cars. The faster the better. Then after my father’s coronation, I went through six weeks of training with the Corannian military.” She glanced over at him before she downshifted and took a hard left. The Vanquish headed up a narrow alley.

“They taught me how to use my car as a weapon and how to push it so I could get out of nasty situations. They also taught me hand-to-hand combat, survival techniques for hostage situations, and a few other moves that are classified.”

“And, I probably taught them what they taught you,” he said flatly. His hand reached up to the roof to steady himself as she spun out of the alley into oncoming traffic. She up-shifted and maneuvered the vehicle around the other cars. She ran a red light then spared him another glance.

“You aren’t use to sitting in the passenger seat, are you?”

He gave her a cocky half-smile. “No, I’m not.”

She felt a smile lift her lips in return as she headed up a hill and shot the car through a yellow light.

“So, I guess you’re a bit of a bad ass.” His deep voice made her belly tingle.

“Let’s just say I wouldn’t make too many assumptions about me not being able to handle myself.”

She was not sure, but she thought she saw a look of pride in his eyes.

“So, did Westin get anything out of Victor?”

“Did you know he is a member of the Russian Special Forces?” Gage asked.

“Sure. That is one of the reasons my father hired him.”

“No, Alana, not was a member, is a member. He is still on active duty.”

“How can that be?” The first inkling of doubt about her bodyguard took root in the pit of her stomach. “Do you think that has anything to do with my father being poisoned?”

“I don’t know, but it is something the team is looking into. He is on the short list of people with unfettered access to you and the king.”

“I just can’t believe it. He really cares about my family and me. In my heart, I know that.”

Gage gave her a quick look that reminded her that her heart has misjudged people before — him specifically. She pulled the car up against the curb in front of the hospital. They parked behind a black SUV, which meant that Gage’s friends from the embassy were already here. She turned off the engine and jumped out the car following him through the entrance.

They ran through the automatic sliding doors, but this time instead of running through the hospital with her in tow, Gage waited for her to catch up.

“What is the quickest way to the lab?” he asked.

She headed toward the stairwell. “Two floors down.”

“Right.”

Gage jumped over each set of stairs. Alana tried to follow as quickly as the heels she wore would let her. When she pushed through the double metal stairwell doors, the scene that confronted her made her gasp. Her hand went to her throat as she surveyed the destruction. It looked as if a bomb went off. Paper and file folders carpeted the floor. Cabinets were toppled over, their contents strewn out around them. The smell of chemicals permeated the air. She stepped over a couple of thousand dollars of equipment to get to where Gage stood with the other men.

“A woman called it in to the police about 2200. We came as soon as we made the connection that it was the new lab.” A large man with arms the size of her waist and warm caramel-colored skin spoke to Gage. He wore cargo pants and a navy blue polo. His attire contrasted sharply with Gage’s, whose clothes dried around his body into a series of wrinkles that hugged his muscles.

“Where is the woman?” Gage asked.

The large man angled his head to the office that sat off the main lab area. Alana saw Sophie talking to Westin. She jogged toward her while calling her name. Sophie met her halfway wearing a lab coat over her cream colored ball gown.

“What are you doing here?” Alana asked as she hugged her friend.

“When you left and did not come back, I got bored, so I came to the lab to finish-up some work I started earlier in the day. It was like this when I arrived. I called the police and was shocked when the Americans showed up soon after. I tried calling you a couple of times but you never answered.”

“Maya has had my phone all evening.” Alana did not offer her friend any more details in front of their audience.

Sophie put her hands in her lab coat pocket and shook her head at the wreckage around them. “Who would do this, Al? This is hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. It will take us months to recover.”

Alana saw Westin come out of the office and walk toward her. “Did your team uncover anything about who would do this?”

“We are working with the police to recover the security tapes. They dusted for prints and the lab is running them now,” Westin explained.

“Where’s Victor?” Alana asked Westin. Her bodyguard was the only lead she knew about. She wondered if he offered any insight into who would have destroyed the lab.

“He’s not with you?” Sophie asked.

Westin and Alana exchanged a knowing look. Westin answered Alana’s question and ignored Sophie’s. “He is still at the Embassy. We have been with him all day. Unless this was preplanned, he knows nothing about this.”

Gage joined the group. Westin continued to speak. “Dr. Baxter offered to make an inventory so we could see if anything was missing.”

“Aye, I said I would try, but you will have to forgive me if it’s not accurate. This is a bloody mess.”

“I’ll help.” Alana walked over and grabbed her lab coat off the hook and moved to put it on before Gage stopped her.

“Buzz and Westin’s team can help. You are not staying here a minute longer than you have to. It’s not secure.”

She glared at him. “This is my lab. I know what is supposed to be where better than anyone. There is no way I am going back to the palace just to twiddle my thumbs while everyone else is up all night working. I’m staying.”

“Twiddle?” His lips moved into a small smile. She bit her lip to keep from grinning at him like a smitten school girl. He was an infuriating man who knew just when she needed to smile. He stepped back and let her put her lab coat on over her damp dress. She knew she looked a mess, but did not care. Someone destroyed her dream and she was not going to stand back and pretend that was okay. She grabbed a clipboard and began to make notes.

#

Buzz and Gage spent an hour comparing notes in the small office as Alana, Sophie, and a few of Westin’s men helped clean up. After an hour of discussion and hypothesizing, they were no further along than where they were when they picked up Victor. The Corannian police had found the van that smashed in to him the night before, but it had been wiped clean. Gage chalked that up to one more dead end.

He looked through the large glass window to the lab on the other side. He saw Alana, still in that black dress that was now beyond repair, check something off of her clipboard before she bent down and gathered more papers that were scattered about beneath her stocking feet.

It had been four years since he had seen Alana in action. She was a wonderful, brilliant princess, but he could see there was always something holding her back when she acted on behalf of the crown. An invisible wall that kept her real self from those around her. But here, in the lab, she was a natural.

This was her happy place. She would need a project like this wing to have balance. For some women, being princess might be enough. But not for Alana. Her family understood it, which is why she had this wing as her pet project. He hoped Sergei would understand that about her. As her husband – he choked on that thought – he would need to make sure she always had something in her life that kept her linked to her passions. She must have felt his stare, because she looked up and gave him a smile before she returned back to her work.

Gage turned when he heard Westin end his call. “Victor just passed the second polygraph. I hate it, but I think the man is telling the truth.”

“That he called AP just to loop us in. That still seems far-fetched to me.” Buzz perched his mammoth body on the corner of the desk. Gage was a little surprised that it did not tilt forward from his bulk.

“I agree. But he already knew about Gage and the team from Honduras. After a detailed background check courtesy of Russian intel, he found out about the link and its capabilities. Not to mention our success rate. When you think about it, who else could he trust with the threat to Alana and the royal family? Ignis is an old Soviet program, someone in his chain of command could have been involved.” Westin put his hands on his hips. His ever-present blazer hung out to the side as if the expensive sports jacket was a cape.

“It was a ballsy move,” Gage added. Both Westin and Buzz nodded in agreement. “So, where does that leave us? We still have two dead bodies and a poisoned king.”

“Who is recovering quite well,” Westin offered.

Gage was pleased to hear it and looked forward to telling Alana that her father would be okay. She would have to wait a while longer before she put the queen’s crown on her head. Maybe she would postpone the announcement of her engagement to Sergei. But Gage dismissed the thought. It did not matter to him either way.

“We also have the van that tried to T-bone you and a trashed lab.” Buzz shifted his position and Gage swore he heard the desk moan under the pressure.

“Who gains from all of this?” Gage asked as he ran a hand through his hair. “It seems so random, but there has to be a link.”

“The link is your princess out there. She is connected to everyone and everything in this little mystery.” Westin pointed to Alana before he pulled back the desk chair and took a seat. The three men looked through the glass to the princess who was conferring with one of Westin’s men.

“So, do you think its personal?” Buzz asked.

A wave of protectiveness washed over Gage. Damned if he would leave Corannia until he knew for a fact that she was safe.

“It’s a possibility.” Westin crossed his arms. “But Gage is right, who would gain? They have not directly targeted her.”

“But they have targeted her world.” Gage turned from the window as a flash of clarity hit him. “Whoever it is, they have destabilized her world. They took out her bodyguard, destroyed her lab, almost killed her father. Someone is trying to force her into a decision or take an action that she would not make unless she felt pressured. They would know that her loyalty to her family and country would be resolute. She would do anything to protect either one.”

“It has to be someone who does not know about you two. If not, they would have changed their tactic when you arrived in country.”

Gage nodded. He agreed with Westin’s assessment. It was a leap in logic, but his gut told him that their theory was on the right track.

Buzz looked between the two men. Gage had not told him about his previous relationship with Alana, since it happened before Buzz joined his team. But, thankfully, the man did not press the issue.

“Has she made any decisions recently that she felt compelled to make? Maybe a timeline that was speed up?” Buzz asked.

Gage thought about her decision to marry Sergei. He would love it if he had an excuse to separate the two of them. But his own emotional involvement made him take a mental step back and reevaluate the connection. He did not want to waste time accusing the wrong person. They weren’t even sure if Alana was the intended target. Maybe someone wanted to pressure her to get to the king or Stefan. He shared his thoughts with the group.

“But she was going to marry him anyway. Why would he need to move up the timeline?”

Gage knew the power Alana had over men. Maybe the man just wanted her to himself. He could understand that.

Westin stood and walked to the office door. Buzz followed. Gage imagined that the desk sighed in relief.

“We will head back to the ops center and do a deep dive on Sergei, as well as anyone else who would benefit from a destabilized royal family. In the meantime, get the princess home. I am sure you both want to get out of your clothes. And, no, I don’t want to know what happened.” Westin paused and gave Gage one of his rare smiles before he continued. “I’ll have our analysts run scenarios once we see what is missing from the lab. Our primary mission remains the same. We need to track down the link to Ignis. Two people are dead because of it and I don’t want more bodies on my watch.”

Westin and Buzz headed out as Gage walked over to Alana. It was three o’clock in the morning. He could see the dark circles underneath her eyes. Her skin had lost its glow and every time she bent down for something it took her a second longer to get up. Yep, it was time to take her home.


Chapter 14

Alana leaned her head back against the headrest and shut her eyes. She was so exhausted that she let Gage drive the Vanquish back to the palace. She rolled her head to the side and watched his face as he took a sharp turn. A smile spread across her face.

“What?” He turned his head briefly to look at her before he refocused on the road ahead of him. The rain had stopped and the streets were empty at this time of night.

“You’re having fun,” she said in a lazy voice.

He turned to her again and winked.

She laughed and he flashed her with a full smile. It was such a rare gesture, like seeing a falling star, that she almost did not believe she saw it. Her stomach flipped and her heart begged for more.

She closed her eyes again and let him enjoy the car. She must have fallen asleep because the next thing she was aware of was Gage staring at her, with his wrist draped over the wheel and heat in his eyes.

She took a deep breath and sat up straighter in the seat. “I must have dozed off. Are we here?”

“We arrived about ten minutes ago. I didn’t have the heart to wake you. It’s been a long day.”

“It has.” Images of his hands and mouth on her flashed in her mind. She flushed. Her eyes slid over his face and landed on his full lips, which curved into a devilish smile.

“Come on. Let’s get you to bed.”

“Okay.” She wiggled her eyebrows and smiled. She liked him like this.

He let out a soft laugh and shook his head. They both got out of the car and looked up at the looming stone palace lit up against the pre-dawn sky. They were both in their ruined black-tie clothes. He wrapped his tuxedo jacket around her shoulders to shield her against the chilly night air.

“I hope no ones sees us. I don’t know how I would explain this.” She began walking to one of the side entrances near the garage.

“I can promise you, someone sees us. Many people see us.” He followed her inside the building. They wound their way through the kitchens and long, half-lit hallways. Portraits of kings and queens from a bygone era watched them from the walls as they made their way to the private family wing.

“I love the palace at night. Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I wander the quiet corridors and empty rooms.”

She looked over at him to see if he thought her comment was silly. Instead, she saw a softness in his look that made her heart skip a beat. After a few more minutes, they arrived at her room.

“I’ll just go in and make sure everything is okay. Stay here.” She did as he asked. He walked on the balls of his feet and carefully peered around corners and checked in closets before he declared the room empty. She met him in her sitting room.

“So no bogeyman then?” Alana asked as she handed him back his jacket before she took a seat on the sofa.

His face was serious. “This is not a joke, Alana.”

“I know. I’m just strangely tired and wound up at the same time.” She kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes through her ripped stockings.

“It’s the adrenaline. It’s like a drug. Some people get addicted to it. It’s like a runners high.”

“Are you addicted to it?” she asked. Maybe that was why he did what he did.

“I used to be, but not anymore.”

He looked down at her. His shirt was untucked. Somewhere during the night, he had opened another button that exposed even more of his skin.

“Stand up and turn around.”

She did not know why he asked her to move, but she did as she was told. She was too tired to argue about anything. Her question was answered in a second when she felt him tug the zipper down her back. His finger followed down her spine making her skin tingle with goose bumps.

“I just wanted to make sure you got out of that thing. The zipper could have rusted shut.”

She crossed her arms and hugged the ruined dress around herself. “You have been doing a lot of dressing and undressing of me today.”

“Yeah, well.” He ran a hand through his hair and took a few backward steps toward the door to her suite. “The cameras are on, so you might want to go in the bathroom and put a robe on. I’ll wait for you to come out then head to my room.”

Alana was too tired to argue and wanted to get out of the clothes she had been wearing all night. She went in the bathroom, stripped out of all of her clothes, and tucked herself in her blue terry bathrobe. She would take a shower after she saw Gage out. She was sure he was just a tired as she was.

Gage stood looking out the window with his hands in his pockets. He turned when she walked back into the room.

“I guess I better go.” He did not move from where he stood.

She walked across the room toward him, and stopped a few inches in front of him. The muscles on the side of Gage’s jawbone bulged. She moved toward him until she could feel the heat of his breath on her face.

“I guess you better,” she said in a whisper.

The phone rang, breaking the growing tension in the room. They both went on alert. The phone only rang at this hour of the morning for emergencies. Alana looked at him for reassurance and picked up the house phone that sat a small desk in the corner of the room.

“Hello?” she answered. Alana heard the wariness in her own voice.

“Your Highness, this is Maya. I am so sorry to call you so late, but you did not come back to the ball and there are a few things I needed to discuss with you about tomorrow. I asked the guards to call me when you came in.”

Alana covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand and told Gage it was Maya. She saw his face relax.

She removed her hand. “Sure, Maya. No problem. What are the plans for the ceremony tomorrow?”

“I left an agenda on the coffee table and amended it to add your engagement announcement. The king . . .”

“My WHAT!” Alana exclaimed. Gage was by her side in an instant. Alana held up her hand asking him to wait before he went all macho bodyguard.

Maya’s voice wavered as she spoke, “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. Sergei said you had finally accepted his offer.”

“No, I did not accept anything. I told him I was not ready. When did he tell you this? Tell me exactly what happened.”

“Your Highness, I am so, so sorry. I did not know. I thought . . .”

Alana calmed herself. It was not her secretary’s fault. She would save her outrage and anger for Sergei. “I know you didn’t, Maya. It’s not your fault. Just tell me what happened.”

Maya hesitated.

“It’s okay. I’m not mad at you.”

“It was toward the end of the ball. He came up to me and asked me where you were. I told him I didn’t know. He said you must have retired for the evening. That you we tired since it was such an emotional night for the both of you. That is when he said you accepted his proposal. He said that you wanted to make an announcement after the signing ceremony so the country could have two things to celebrate.”

Alana took a deep breath. She thought of what she was doing with Gage when Sergei said those things to Maya. She glanced over at Gage who still hovered over her with his brows furrowed and an intense look on his face. She could not understand what Sergei thought he was doing. Had she given him any cause to think that she accepted his proposal? Alana replayed their conversation in her mind and remembered being very clear about needing more time.

“Maya, listen to me. I did not accept Sergei’s proposal.”

Gage shifted next her like a caged animal that was ready for battle. She put her hand on his arm to still him.

“Who else knows about this so-called engagement announcement?” Alana asked Maya.

Maya hesitated, which told Alana that the word had already spread. “Well, I had to coordinate with the rest of the royal family’s secretaries because we needed to choreograph the announcement and work it into the ceremony.”

“Okay, Maya, listen to me. Call everyone who you think might know and tell them it was a mistake. There will be no announcement. Then called Sergei’s house and get him here first thing tomorrow morning. I want to see him in my office at eight o’clock. And, let’s just hope the press did not get wind of this.”

Maya continued to apologize until Alana cut her off and told her to begin making calls. When she hung up, she turned to Gage. He looked as if he was grinding his teeth to nubs. His fists were balled and ready for a fight.

“Can you believe that? I don’t know what got into Sergei.”

“I don’t like it.”

Gage had Alana repeat everything Maya said word-for-word. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. Alana listened as Gage repeated everything to his team.

“Yeah, get someone out to his house now. I want to talk to him.”

“No, you can’t do that. You will cause an international incident,” she insisted. The last thing anyone needed was for the press to get a picture of an American soldiers dragging the Corannian equivalent of JFK out of his house in the middle of the night.

“I don’t care what I cause.” Gage turned and looked at her. “That man has a screw loose at the very least. And the worst is something that would be worth me pulling prince charming out of bed for.”

“Do you think he is connected to Ignis?”

“I intend to find out.”

“Fine. At least have our security bring him in. The last thing I need is to explain to the press why an American military team dragged a senior Corannian official out of bed in the wee hours of the morning. We all have enough on our plates without the press in the middle of this as well.”

Gage waited a moment before he spoke back into the phone.

“Sam, get Westin to coordinate with the prince and Corannian security. Question Sergei at his house so we don’t cause an international incident.”

Gage looked down at Alana with raised eyebrows as if checking to see if she approved. She nodded her head, pleased that he adjusted his approach. He shifted his attention back to the phone call.

“But if that man resists for one moment or if looks like he is thinking about resisting, I want him zip-tied and at the Embassy.”

Alana shook her head and Gage gave her a half-cocked smile.

“Yeah. Okay. Keep your analysts working on the deep dive. I want to know why he is so desperate to marry the princess. Drugs. Gambling. There must be something. Right. Call me as soon as you have something.”

Gage disconnected the call.

“So, it has to be drugs or gambling. Not that he is so love-struck with me that he’s desperate to be with me. You really know how to make a woman feel special,” Alana teased.

Gage stood there dumbfounded for a moment. Alana felt badly for teasing him. They were both tired and neither of their brains were working on full power.

“I’m teasing. Since I’m up, I’m going to take a shower. You’re welcome to stay or go. It’s up to you.”

She did not wait for him to answer. Alana headed in to her closet and gathered her silk pajamas that her maid laid out for her then went into the bathroom. Looking back later, she would not remember making the decision understand to keep the bathroom door open. The terry robe slipped down to the floor and Alana stepped into the hot shower.

Her muscles immediately relaxed as the hot water pelted her body. She closed her eyes and tilted her face toward the shower nozzle. Her hands pushed her hair off of her face as she let her mind go blank. She did not think about Ignis or Sergei or weddings or her crown. She tried to push Gage out of her mind, but the memory of his hands on her, his body pressing against her were too potent to dismiss.

She heard the door to her shower open and close. Her heart skipped a beat. She had hoped he would come. His hands snaked around her waist and his lips landed in the area between her neck and her shoulders. She leaned back against him.

His hands reached up and played with her breasts and nipples and the water fell down around them. She tilted her head so his lips had full access to her neck where he sucked and kissed and made her toes curl.

“Now, I believe you were saying something about me knowing how to make a woman feel special.” His lips nibbled at her earlobe as he whispered in her ear.

She tuned around in his arms so she could face him. “You have always made me feel special, Gage McAllister, right up to the time when you didn’t say good-bye.”

His hands came up and cupped each side of her face so she had no choice but to look into the molten steel eyes.

How could he make her understand?

“I left because you were special, Alli. No one has ever meant more to me than you.”

“I know. I just wish things could be different.”

“So do I. But we have right here and right now. A moment is all I can offer you. All I can guarantee.”

“Then let’s make it worth it.”

Gage saw the hungry look in Alana’s amber eyes. He would make this moment one they would both remember. The orangey was about pent up passion that had to be released before they both exploded. This would be about creating a memory. A moment they could both look back on and smile. For the first time, they were together with no secrets or lies between them.

He bent his head slowly until his lips touched hers. Their mouths met and twisted and met again. Gage pulled back an inch and saw the passion that clouded her eyes. Her lips were full and red from his kisses. He felt a wave of masculine pride.

“Wipe that smirk off your face and kiss me again, Major.”

Gage felt his smile grow into a full grin. It had been a long time since he left his cheeks lift in such as way.

“Yes, Your Highness.” He gave a low sexy laugh.

And, he did as she commanded. His hands snaked behind her head and he bent down to met her lips again. He moved back down to her neck and lapped up the warm water as he progressed to her collarbone. His hands found her breasts and were soon replaced by his lips as he sucked on her nipples and kneaded her breasts.

He continued his exploration of her body, appreciating every curve and undulation his hands and lips met until finally her reached her core. Her fingertips massaged his scalp as he worshipped at her womanhood. How had he lived without this woman in his life for so long? How was he going to leave her again?

He pushed the dark thoughts from his mind and concentrated on making sure she never again doubted exactly how special she was. When her body began to quake and her moans deepened, he increased the pressure until she screamed out her release. He drank his way up her body until his lips met hers again.

Alana snaked her arms around his neck and pressed his body against hers.

“Stay with me tonight, Gage. Please. I want to wake up in your arms one last time.”

He raked his eyes over her face then kissed her deeply. “I’ll stay as long as I can.”

The idea that Sergei tried to manipulate her did not sit well with him. Gage did not care if Sergei was linked to Ignis or if he was just a megalomaniac bent on marrying the next person in line for the throne, he sure as hell was not going to let that man try to strong arm Alana. His fists looked forward to making sure Sergei knew exactly that. But he would stay with her until Sam called. Cal was already stationed in the palace ready to take over the guard duties while he took care of Sergei. Until then, he would take care of Alana.

He took his time soaping her body and nearly lost control as she returned the favor. After washing their hair in between more kisses and touches, they stepped out of the shower. He wrapped a towel around his waist and kissed her as he grabbed the phone that he left on the sink counter.

“Sam, anything on Sergei?”

“Nothing yet, Mac. The prince and Westin insisted that we stand down until morning.”

“What?” Gage could not believe they were second-guessing him.

Sam cleared his throat. “Um, yeah, the prince was pretty upset. Said it was just a misunderstanding and that he would get to the bottom of it himself. Westin thought that you might be letting your emotions be getting the better of you. They are going to deal with it in the morning.”

“Westin thinks I’m jealous?”

Sam did not answer.

Gage could not believe it. His clenched his teeth and squeezed the phone in his palm. Ten years in the field, and Westin thought he was making tactical decisions with his dick. He watched Alana towel dry her hair and twist it into a lose bun at the nape of her neck. She smiled at him when she caught him looking at her through the mirror. His body reacted immediately. Maybe they were right. Gage closed his eyes and tried not to be disappointed in himself.

“Tell Westin I want to talk to him first thing in the morning,” Gage ground out the words.

“Oh, he knows. He told me to tell you to be at his office all night. He also said do what you need to do and stop beating yourself up. In that order.”

Gage cursed underneath his breath.

“Gage, you there?”

“Yeah, I’m here, Sam. I just hate being a freakin’ open book.”

Sam chuckled. “Mac, you are about the furthest thing from an open book. More like an uncrackable encryption wrapped in a cipher and hidden underground. There are only about three of us on this planet that might be able to take a somewhat educated guess about what you might do. And, unfortunately for you, Westin is one of them.”

“And the other two?” Gage asked. He hated feeling human and vulnerable.

“I’d probably get in the ballpark, at least. And, I’m hoping you have the other one somewhere in your line of sight.”

Gage eyed Alana as she spread some kind of cream on her face. His heart contracted as if something gave it a squeeze. He felt a little sick and turned his back to the mirror and Alana.

“Whatever. Call me if anything, and I mean anything, comes up. I doubt it will be a surprise to anyone, but I’ll say it anyway, I’m going to be with the princess until I hear from you.”

Sam gave another little chuckle that sounded like nails on sandpaper to Gage. “Roger that. Anything else?”

“Yeah, kill the cameras.”

Gage did not wait for Sam to respond before he disconnected his phone.

“Do you want some tea? I have a kettle in the other room. Or I have something stronger if you want that.” Alana had put on her terry robe again, but Gage noticed the belt was not as tightly knotted as it had been before.

Gage thought about what he might be doing in a couple of hours. “Just some water. I’m still thirsty.”

Alana looked over her shoulder at him. His knees went weak with the heat in her eyes.


Chapter 15

She put her head on Gage’s shoulder as he rested on his back and stared up at the painted ceiling. Their legs tangled together and they stretched out underneath the covers of her bed. He rested his head on one arm while his other hand mindlessly played with her hair. They had made love again and took time to cherish each other as if they both understood this was likely the last time they would be together like this. The early morning sunlight peeked through the drawn curtains and made cracks of light in the shadows. She traced circles with the tips of her fingertips on his chest.

His olive skin was tan from the sun, which highlighted the puckered white scars across his right forearm and followed around to his back. One scar in particular concerned her above all the others. A small circle, no larger than a thumbnail rested like a colorless tattoo two finger-widths from his collarbone. A similar scar lay directly below it. She knew it was a bullet wound, but did not want to ruin their quiet morning by forcing him to dredge up painful memories. But, she could not shake the thought that there was so much she did not know about this man.

“I can hear your mind churning, Alli. Close your eyes and sleep for a while.”

“How do I know you won’t just leave? I don’t want to wake up to an empty bed again.” She bit her lip and hoped she was not scaring him away by sharing her fears. Alana had no idea what this night meant to him, but she knew that it had meant a lot to her. But she needed something other than sex. She needed him to open up a little. Who was this man that she loved four years ago and, if she was not careful, could love again? Was it possible for her to feel more deeply for him than she had four years ago?

He waited long enough to answer that her pulse quickened. Her finger stopped its lazy exploration mid-circle.

“I promise I will say good-bye.” His voice was horse when he spoke. Alana did not know if it was from exhaustion or emotion or a combination of both.

She hated pressing the issue, but all of her old feelings about him were rekindled. The good and the bad.

“Do you mean this morning or when you leave for good?” She needed to know so she could prepare herself. When he did not answer, she turned and rested her rested her chin on his chest and looked up at his face.

“I’m serious, Gage.”

“I know you’re serious.”

“You could just leave this palace, this country, and never come back. You could disappear again and I would live my life looking over my shoulder wondering when or if you might show up in some boring luncheon or be standing in a crowd somewhere. I didn’t know better four years ago, but I do now, and I’m not sure I could live like that.”

A wave of emotions crossed his face before he answered. His voice was rough from emotion when he finally spoke. “I promise I will say good-bye.”

She gave him a weak smile before she turned her head around to rest on his chest again. She heard car doors slam and echoes of voices in the hallway. The palace was coming to life.

“Tell me something about your life? Something people don’t know.” Her voice was thick with emotion. She wanted something from him. Something he did not give easily. A gift of himself that would be more precious than diamonds or gold. It would be a memory that she could open like a locket when she wanted to be close to him again.

When he did not answer, she moved off of his shoulder and propped herself up on her elbow. Her head rested in the palm of her hand as she gazed over at him. He shifted his head to look at her.

Gage felt his instinct to run kick in. He wanted to move, duck for cover. Talking about himself was his least favorite pastime. But the combination of warmth and vulnerability in her eyes held him in place. She gave of herself so easily. The least he could do was give her something in return.

“You know everything about me and I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know where you grew up or if you played sports,” she spoke softly, but he could hear the stress in her voice.

“I told you all that when we lived together.”

“Was that the truth or just more of your cover story?”

“It was the truth,” he sighed. He came here to face her head on. Deal with what they had so they could both move on. And that started with honesty.

“Most of it was true,” he continued, “I might have glossed over a few of the less than flattering moments.” Normally, when people asked about his personal life, he shrugged off the question. He never considered it relevant. He was the man he was and that had nothing to do with where he came from or who his parents were. But she deserved to know the whole truth. She deserved something from him even if it was nothing more than a sad little childhood memory.

“I didn’t tell you much about my father, did I?”

“No, you did not tell me much about anything, but I was too in love with you to notice.”

He glanced at her for a moment not sure what to do with the honesty. No one had ever said they loved him before. He ignored the emotions it stirred within him and looked back over the semi-dark room. It was easier to focus on the outlines of furniture and other stuff scattered about the room than at the actual woman that found the cracks in his defense as easily as if her words were guided by heat-seeking missiles.

“I don’t talk about him much. To anyone.” He looked pointedly at her hoping she would understand. “He was a career Marine. Retired as a four-star General. He rose up the ranks from an enlisted grunt to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The darling of the military.”

“But you don’t share that admiration? Her question was one he had to answer often. Usually he did so with a shrug or a flippant comment, but she deserved more than that from him.

“Yeah, we didn’t have the healthiest father-son relationship.” When Alana did not say anything else, he continued. “So, I grew up on Navy bases. A regular military brat. I was more at home everywhere than somewhere. He was always out at sea working on that next rank promotion and I was hanging out with the kids getting into all the crap that kids get into. It was a great life for me and the General, but not so much for my mom.”

“When I was thirteen, we were stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Beautiful place, right? Well, I think people forget how small the island is. You can lap it in about three hours. Well, my dad was off on a six-month tour and I had spent the day. It was a Sunday, learning how to surf with some friends. I came home and found my mother passed out on the kitchen floor. She had swallowed a bottle full of pills and chased it down with half a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

Gage heard Alana gasp, but kept talking.

“I won’t go into the gory details, but it’s not a pretty way to die.” Gage took a deep breath but did not look over at Alana. He knew the face he would see. He also knew that if he saw her face he would not be able to finish his story.

“Anyway, I called the police. After we came back from the hospital, I refused to leave our quarters so a neighbor stayed with me until they could get my father home. It took a couple of days. That first night after everyone left the house the neighbor feel asleep on the couch, I crawled in my mother’s closet and pulled down all of her clothes around me so I could have her scent all around me. I stayed there until my father dragged me out and told me to act like a man.”

“What did she smell like?”

Gage turned towards Alana’s soft voice. She looked stricken by the story, as he knew she would. So he offered he a small smile.

“Lavender. She kept all of these sachets in her dresser drawers and her closet. She hated moving so much, and said that by the time he got the cardboard smell out of her clothes they would have to move again. To this day, that smell makes me a little nauseous.”

They sat in silence for a moment before he spoke again.

“I found a butterscotch candy in her robe the first night I wore it. And, you know the worst part?”

Alana shook her head.

“I didn’t even know she liked that kind of candy. Heck, I didn’t know she even ate candy. When I found it it just made me start thinking of all the things I didn’t know about my mother. Like how unhappy she was. Did she have any friends? I don’t even know how she spent most of her days.”

Gage felt a lump begin to creep up the back of his throat. It had been a long time since he thought about his mom and that awful day. He concentrated on holding himself together. The last thing he wanted was to ruin these last few hours together with some sappy story and painful memories. Alana shifted positions and put her head back on his shoulder. She stroked his stomach with the palm of her hand in a slow rhythm.

He told himself he did not want her pity. He had lived a life of looking into sad eyes after people learned how his mom died. But the warmth of her body felt so good next to his that he suppressed his first instinct–to get up and run–and leaned into her, letting her take some of his weight, and maybe some of his pain as well.

“So what happened when your father came home?”

Thinking of his father was enough to dam the tears that were threatening a moment ago. Gage allowed himself few emotions where the General was concerned and none of them were pleasant or heartfelt.

“He came home. Blamed me for not taking better care of her and for disrupting his mission. It took him two months to bury my mother and find some childcare for me before he could get back out to his assignment. After that it was boarding schools, West Point. Eventually I got in with the Special Mission Branch and ended up on the White House Special Action Task Force where I met you. Blah, blah, blah. All very boring and uneventful.”

“It is not and you know it. Where is your father now?” Alana lazily rubbed her thumb over his scarred chest.

“He died two years ago. I buried him in Arlington. I figured if I put him there, someone would visit him once in a while. It sure as hell won’t be me.”

“I’m sorry.” Alana said. She turned her head and kissed an old knife wound that puckered over his lower ribs.

“I’m not.”

Gage did not hate his father. He felt nothing for the man. He resisted the urge to shift positions or get out of the bed. He knew that she needed to touch him and much as he needed to feel her touch.

“So, you never reconciled?”

“I tried once. Right before my graduation at West Point, I drove down to DC where he was stationed at the Pentagon and asked if he would come to my graduation.”

“And did he come?” Alana squeezed his hand tighter. He could only shake his head.

“How awful.”

“Not every man should be a husband and a father.”

Gage tried to ignore the feeling that he was talking about himself. He knew he was nothing like his father. There was no way he would raise a kid the way he was raised. The moment Gage put on a uniform, he knew what choice he made. Some men did a wonderful job at juggling it all — wife, home, kids, deployments. He admired them, but knew that could never be him. If he could work, take a deployment or a shift from someone else then he could send those guys home to be tickle monsters and get a warm snuggle in the middle of the night, then he did. Alana needed to hear his story so she understood why he left her in Honduras and why he would leave her again when this mission was over.

Alana looked at the man she loved. There was no doubt in her heart or her head that Gage would always be the love of her life. She understood and appreciated the gift that he had just given her. It helped her to answer the burning questions — the whys and hows of Gage McAllister.

She had suffered tragedy and loss as well, but her memories were those of family and love. She could not imagine what it was like feel as alone as he must. It was only one story, but she doubted there were many people on the planet that understood what he went through with his father.

“You think you are just like him, don’t you?” She sat up, modesty had her holding the sheet over her naked breasts, and looked down at him.

Could he, this strong wonderful man, be that lost? Misunderstand himself that much?

Gage threw the covers off and reached for his clothes. He hated putting on his wrinkled tux, but he did not have a choice. “It was only a story. Not some psychoanalysis session. Don’t make it more than it is, Alli. Believe me, I’ve seen enough shrinks to know that I’m okay.”

Alana wrapped the sheet around her and climbed out of bed and put a hand on his arm as he pulled on a pair of boxers. She could sense that he wanted to pull away. His eyes darted around as if he was looking for a way out. But, since he was the man he was, he held his ground.

Alana ran her hands over his morning whiskers and smoothed her thumbs over his dry cheeks hoping that the motion would somehow find it way to soothe that part deep inside of him that he never let anyone touch. She wanted to make him understand, make him see what she saw when she looked at him, when she thought about him. The way he made her feel.

All she could think of was to say, “You are nothing like your father. When we were together you make me feel wonderful.”

“It was my mission to protect you. I could not leave your side even if I wanted to.” His voice was cold. She felt him pulling away.

Her hands fell back to her sides. He had hit her where he knew it would hurt the most. She saw the regret in his eyes immediately but he did not apologize. She knew he wouldn’t. He had told her too much and had made himself vulnerable. Like a cornered animal, he would need to lash out.

“You didn’t mean that. You said that to hurt me. And you did.” Alana spoke calmly.

He turned his back to her and jerked a dark green polo over his head. He pulled on jeans in the same angry motions while she stood there watching him and wondering how to reach him before he rebuilt all of his walls.

He raked his hand through his hair. Dressed except for his bare feet, he finally turned to her. “Duty is everything to me just like it was to him. You should understand that. Duty is everything to you as well.”

“Duty and love can coexist, Gage. I do plan to love, get married, and have a family. I also plan to be the princess, and someday the queen, my country needs me to be. You have to work at it, but I have to believe balance is possible.”

“Do you love Sergei? Do you see managing your duty and family with him?”

That caught her off guard. She had not come up with an answer for that question in her own head, so she had no idea how to answer him. “After last night, he has a lot of explaining to do for me to accept him again, but I have also made him wait for longer than I should for an answer. A part of me loves him for what he did for my family. He was there when you were not.”

“I’m happy for you both. You make a lovely couple.” She heard the sarcasm in his voice. He walked out of the bedroom and searched for his shoes and socks near the sofa where he left his clothes from the night before.

“Do you have an alternative you would like to offer me?”

She was surprised when she heard the words even though they came out of her own mouth. He froze and his face went blank. She had never seen anyone look more terrified. But now that the words were said, she wanted to know his answer.

“Have you never pictured a life where you are I get to live happily ever after?” she asked.

His face was white. She knew that the thought of giving up his duty for love scared him more than when he had to look down a barrel of a gun. But she could not understand why?

“Is it because of you father?” she asked.

“No. It’s because I am a solider. It is what I do and who I am.” He paused as if searching for the words. “It’s what I am.”

“But it’s not all that you are.” Alana took a step toward him. He took a step away. She smiled. She loved this man and she was going to show him that he was something other than a solider. He was a man. A man with the capacity to love and to care. Honduras was not an act. What they felt for each other was real. She had to believe it and she needed him to know. They had played the same game for four years of ignoring what they had. It was time to stop running. And yet he was still with her in her room. That had to mean something.

“Fine. I’ll give up my throne. Stefan is more prepared than I to rule.” Alana was dead serious. She loved this man. And, if she had to give up her life for his, she would.

He took another step backwards. “No. Why would you do that? Because we had sex a couple of times?”

She swallowed hard and felt her throat tighten. Unshed tears blurred her vision. She was exhausted and did not have the energy to control the pain she felt. Her instinct was to hurt back, but she knew if she was going to break through his defenses, she would have to be strong for them both.

“Alli, I would never ask you to do that for me. Never.” His voice was rough. If possible, Gage went even paler.

“No you didn’t ask. I offered.”

He shook his head. “I just told you what it did to my mother. I could never do that to do. No one should have to chase someone else’s dream only to give up theirs in the process.”

She could hear the tension and strain in his voice and knew that she pushed him past his limit by making him think of commitments and the future. Gage was a man who lived and loved in the present. She understood that about him now. But she had to push. She needed to figure her life out. Marriage and family were not just a royal obligation, but something she wanted for herself. Alana had to know if Gage could ever be that man. She would step down for him. Doing something for the person you loved was not sacrifice. It was not giving up your dream. It was creating a new dream together. If he would let her. If he wanted her. Fear raced through her veins like ice water. Did she misunderstand him again? What if all he ever wanted from her was a way to say good-bye?

Gage knew this had gone too far. He should have stayed away. She was ready to give up the throne. What the hell? She was exhausted and not thinking straight, he reasoned. He was not worthy such a commitment. He could never live up to whatever it was she thought he was. Every action, every mistake he made – and he was sure there would be many – he would be afraid she was thinking that she left her country for this man.

Her willingness to leave her life and her family scared the hell out of him. He wished he could be more than what he was. He wished he could be the man she needed. But he wasn’t.

He drank her. Memorized her standing there with the sheet wrapped about her like a toga. Her hair messy from the night before. Her face natural and glowing. He gave her what he knew was a weak smile, grabbed the rest his clothes, and said good-bye.

#

“You just left?” Sam sat back in his chair and stared at Gage. He took the headphones he wore around his neck off and laid then near the two laptops he was working on. “Man, that’s cold.”

Gage felt his face heat with embarrassment and regret. He had gone to the safe house after he left he palace and jumped into a hot shower. As he let the hot water wash over him, he tried to keep his thoughts on the mission, but his brain betrayed him with images of the last shower he took. Alana before him wet and wanting. Frustrated in more ways than was good for any man, he slammed off the shower and threw on kakis and a polo before he headed downstairs to get an update. He expected to see Sam and Westin’s communications expert, Bailey Andrews, but Bailey had left the house to take a walk. If Gage had to guess, Sam had asked Bailey to give them some privacy. Not much got passed his friend.

“So, you want to tell me what happened? You look like you’ve been up all night. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Gage shared a G-rated, abridged version of his night with Alana. He felt as if he needed to confide – or confess – to someone and Sam had been there from the beginning. But now that Sam called him on what he had done, all Gage wanted to do was drop the subject.

“Just drop it. I don’t want to discuss it or her unless it pertains to Ignis. Understand.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Sure. I understand.”

“So where are we with Sergei? Did we get the debriefing report yet?”

“No, not yet. The scheduled meeting,” both Sam and Gage rolled their eyes, “is supposed to start in about fifteen minutes. Westin and the prince, along with JT and some other guys, are headed over now. But Bailey did find something interesting on your boy Sergei last night.”

Gage leaned forward and put his elbows on the table.

“It seems that Mr. Perfect Prince Charming has a past.”

“Really? Do tell.”

Gage tried to tamper the glee he felt that Sergei might not be such a great catch after all. Gage had been in the business long enough to know that everyone had a past. It was what people did about it that mattered.

“He was a hellion at his boarding school and university. But someone covered for him and paid enough people to have his record hidden.”

“Obviously, they did not hide it deep enough from you.”

Sam grinned. “It was Bailey. I would never tell her this, but she is a damn fine hacker.”

“Should I ask what you mean by damn fine? Are you taking about her looks or her hacking skills?” Gage teased.

Sam ignored him and Gage dropped the subject of Bailey. “Okay, back to Sergei.”

“His indiscretions,” Sam used his hands for air quotes, “which is the term his father used when he asked for the police to conveniently forget that his son is a criminal, are pretty serious. Also, there is a pattern of escalation that is concerning.”

“How do you mean?” Gage ground his teeth together. He planned to call Cal the minute Sam was finished with the brief and tell him not to let Sergei near Alana until he could get back to the palace. His gut was screaming that this guy was no good in any way, shape, or form.

“He ran an extortion ring at his boarding school, and from the reports Bailey uncovered, it seems that his little bowtie wearing gang was pretty brutal to the boys that did not cooperate and pay him a protection fee. Then he had an alternation with a teacher that left the teacher in the hospital. There were car thefts, break-ins. You know, your normal run-of-the-mill teenage pranks.” Sam said with a sarcastic smile.

“You said it got worse?”

“Oh, yeah. After he graduated, he took his crimes to a whole new level at university. Gambling, prostitution rings with university girls, more extortion.”

“Wasn’t Alana’s cousin his roommate?”

“Yeah, but it’s not clear if he was involved. He might have been the one with the political pull and money to get Sergei’s record expunged. Bailey is still looking into who was involved and getting a link analysis chart together. You should see how that little analyst’s mind just churns all of the time.”

Gage gave Sam a look but did not tease. The Sergei information was unnerving considering he had close and continuing contact with Alana and was on the short list to be her husband.

“But here is the thing. After the explosion four years ago and Alana’s parents come into town, all of a sudden Sergei changes his tune. There seems to be a greater effort spent on destroying his records, and taking care of people associated with his university days.”

“How do you mean?” Gage felt the blood in his veins go ice cold and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.

“One guy’s house caught on fire with him and his family in it, a couple of car accidents, and then there was one connection I made sure Westin and the prince were going to ask him about.”

“What was that?”

“It seems General Hanski’s son was a close friend of Sergei’s at university.”

“The General Hanski that was full of Ignis?”

“The very one.”

Gage stood up. “I’m going to the meeting. Tell Westin I will meet him there. What’s the address to . . .”

Gage was cut off by a beeping sound that came from one of Sam’s computers. Sam grabbed the headphones and put them around his ears.

“Sam here.”

Sam’s eyes darted from the computer screen then back to Gage.

“Roger. He is right here. Yes, Sir. Roger. Sam out.”

Gage felt his hands ball into fists. Something was wrong.

Sam pushed the headphones so they hung down around his neck. “Sergei was not at the house when they got there. They have the police and Westin’s team searching the area.”

“Where’s the princess? Call Cal.”

Gage moved behind Sam so he could see the computer screens. Sam cursed.

“What?” Gage asked. His body on full alert.

“The cameras in her suite were never turned back on after last night.” Gage wanted to rage. That was because he never asked for them to be turned back on. How would his team have known? He put her in jeopardy because he let his feelings for her get in the way of what he should have been doing and that was keeping her safe. While Gage railed on himself, Sam pulled the cameras up, but the princess’ room was empty. Gage felt his heart leap into his throat.

“Get Cal,” Gage ordered.

In a second, Cal was on the line.

“Yeah, Sam.”

Gage leaned over and spoke in the mic that jutted from one of Sam’s laptops. “Where’s the princess?”

“Right here. She seemed pretty upset this morning and wanted to go on a run. We are heading out the palace now.”

“Stand down. Get her back in her room. Sergei is missing and I think he is a direct threat to the princess. Keep her there until I get there.”

“Wait. She’s already started. Man, she’s fast.” Gage could hear Cal’s breaths come more rapidly. He must be in a full run behind the princess.

“Cal, I don’t care if you throw her over your shoulder. You get her inside. Now.” Gage ground out his words as he tried to hold back his temper. He needed to keep a clear head. Sergei was coming after Alana. He knew that with a certainty he could not explain. Although a part of him wanted to join the search for Sergei – he wanted to be the first one to get the man, but his need to get to Alana and protect overwhelmed him. And, if he was right, Sergei would eventually come to Alana and Gage would be there waiting.

“I’m on my way now. Get her inside. And be weapon ready. If you see Sergei, you have permission to detain him. Understood?” Cal answered in the affirmative. Gage turned to Sam. “Sam, let me know the minute that they find Sergei. Tell Westin I think he is our link to Ignis.”

Sam nodded his head and put his headphones on as Gage checked the weapon he kept in his shoulder holster. Gage grabbed two more magazines of bullets before he ran out to his car.


Chapter 16

Alana pounded the ground underneath her feet in a mind-numbing pace. She wanted to think and feel nothing but the burning in her lungs and muscles. She was done. She was done with Gage. How could he walk away and just say good-bye? Who did that? The story about his father was touching. He definitely did not have it easy growing up. But, damn it, neither did a whole lot of other people. That man needed to get over himself. Ugh! And she said she would leave her throne for him. Was she crazy?

She looked back and saw Gage’s man, Cal, running to keep pace with her. He seemed a normal, attractive man with blonde hair, muscles in all of the right places. Even smiled once in a while. Why couldn’t she go weak in the knees for him? Why did it have to be some brooding man who acted like he had to write a personal check every time he smiled. Well, no more. She was done. Done. Done.

The day was warm and it seemed like the sun would peek through the clouds. Alana made a turn toward the forest when she heard a loud thump. She turned and saw Cal laying on the ground. Alana turned around and ran to the young man. He was shaking and sweating as if he had a fever. She crouched down and rolled him carefully on to his back. She wanted to call for help, but she did not run with her cell phone. Victor always had one on him if they needed anything.

“Cal, can you hear me? Where are you hurt?” Alana asked looking down at the sick man. He made no response. She checked his face. His pupils were dilated and his skin color was grey.

“Cal,” She called again. “Cal, I need to get you help. I’m going to check you for a phone.” Alana padded his clothes and found his cell phone. She played with the buttons and illuminated numbers, but she could not unlock it or make an emergency call.

Shit. “Cal, I’m going to run for help. I promise I will be right back.”

Alana thought she saw him nod, but could not have been sure. It made her feel better thinking that he knew what was happening. She ran as fast as she could, hoping to see someone that could help, but everyone was helping get the palace ready for the signing with the Americans later in the day. They had only gone about a half mile from the palace. Alana was sure she could get him help in time.

She rounded a corner and ran past the gates into to car park.

“Alana.” She heard her name being called from the other side of the car park, closer to the palace.

She saw Sergei, dressed in a tailored suit, and called to him. “Sergei. Cal is sick. You need to call for help.”

With a few strides, she came up to him. Her breath blew in and out of her lungs in rapid succession.

“Sergei, you need to call someone. The man that was running with me is hurt.”

Sergei looked at her with a deadpan expression like he did not understand the words she said. She had never seen him like this before.

“Sergei. Your phone now. He is sick and I need to get him help.”

After a second, it seemed as something snapped in Sergei and his blue eyes locked with hers. His lips curled into a grin that did not reach his eyes. It sent chills down Alana’s spine.

“Why would I send help when I was the one who made him sick?” Sergei spoke in a normal tone which made his words seem even more surreal.

“What?” She did not understand. Why would he joke about such a thing. An image of Cal flashed through her mind. She could deal with Sergei later. She needed to get Cal help now.

She moved as if she was going to go around him, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her to him.

“I think we should take a ride.”

She struggled against him. “Sergei, what is wrong? Why are you acting so strangely? Let me go. I need to get Cal help now.”

He ignored her and pulled her along with him, her feet dragging along the gravel. Alana frantically looked around, but did not see anyone.

“Sergei, let me go now. You’re hurting me.” His fingertips dug into her skin as they reached his car.

“Sergei!” she screamed.

He opened the driver-side car door and threw her inside. She tried to scramble free and let out a yell. Alana felt the sting of the slap across her face before she realized what happened. She had never been hit before. Her face stung where the back of his hand hit her cheek. A new sensation came over Alana. Fear. The change in Sergei was so dramatic that she was stunned. Her mind told her body to move, but her body did not cooperate.

He pushed in on her. Grabbed her hips and flung her across the seat. Her hip connected with the steering wheel and gearshift that sat in the middle between the driver and passenger seats.

“Move,” he growled. Alana had never heard his voice sound so forceful.

She was forced further into the car as he crowded his body into the driver seat. Reaching for the passenger side door, Alana thought she could pop out on the other side of the car and make a break for it, but just as her hand reached the door handle she heard the click of the door locks. She was trapped.

She had no choice but to twist around and sit in the seat. He started the car and raced down the driveway.

“Sergei, what is wrong with you? Where are we going?”

“Somewhere we should have gone before.”

Desperate, Alana tried to command him to stop. “Sergei, I order you to stop.”

All he did was laugh. It was a spooky, guttural laugh that came from a dark place.

“You think you can order me? Its time you leaned who was in charge.”

#

Gage swung the rental car around the corner and into the palace car park. The guards tried to stop him but darted out of the way when Gage did not slow down. He would apologize later, but right now nothing mattered more than getting to Alana. The gravel sprayed as he brought the car to a stop. The guards ran toward him and he could hear an alarm sounding in the distance. Gage checked his Glock and stuffed the extra clips in his pockets. As he jumped out of the car, he pulled out his cell phone and called Sam.

“Call Stefan now, and tell him to get the palace security to stand-down. I just ran the gate and they don’t look happy.”

“Roger that. And, Mac, Cal has not made radio contact in the last ten minutes.”

“Geo-locate him.”

It was a few seconds before Sam came back on the line. Mac felt his body coil with tension. Rule one – always answer the radio . Uncoordinated radio silence will be assumed as a distress signal.

“He is about half a mile from your location. Toward the back woods. I am sending you the location now.”

Gage was already moving. Hopefully if he could find Cal, he would find Alana. But, he prepared for the worse. Gage pushed his body to the limit in a dead run. He rounded a cluster of pines and heard moaning in the distance. His eyes scanned the forest trail. A man was down on the ground. Cal. Shit. Gage ran toward his teammate and friend and slid to the ground when he reached him.

Cal was pasty white. His eyes were dilated. His breathing rapid as if he could not get enough air in his lungs. Gage remembered the man from the ballet and his heart stopped. Ignis.

“It’s okay, buddy, I’m here. We are going to get you help. Just hang in there.”

Gage called Sam. His fingers shook from adrenaline and fear.

“Sam. Get someone to the location you just sent me. Now. I think Cal has been injected with Ignis and Alana is no where to be seen.”

“On it.”

The line went dead. Gage threw his phone down in the dirt and began CPR on Cal. One. Two. Three. Four. One hundred compressions in a minute. Gage focused on the rhythmic count as he forced Cal’s heart to beat. Where the hell was Alana? His eyes probed the forest around him looking for any sign on where the princess could be.

“Come on, buddy. You just joined the team. This isn’t a first in, first out kind of business. You have to wait your turn to die like a hero.”

One. Two. Three. His mind raced with guilt and regret. If he had never left Alana. If he had never let his emotions take over. If he had never touched her. He could have kept her safe. He should have been doing his damn job instead of stealing kisses and more. One. Two. Three. Four. At the very least, Gage should be lying on the ground full of the deadly toxin instead of this kid. He continued to curse himself as he forced his weight on to the boy’s chest.

Gage heard noises coming up the path. Sam must have gotten the prince to call off the guards, because no one came around the bend shooting. At least something was working. Gage called to one of the guards.

“Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” the guard answered. “The doctor is on his way.”

“Do you know CPR?”

The guard nodded his head.

“Take over, and do not stop until the doctor gets here. I don’t care if your hands are about to fall off. You don’t stop. Do you understand?”

The guard nodded his head again.

The men timed the transfer so a beat was not lost. Gage watched the guard and was impressed by his compressions and form. He seemed to know what he was doing. Gage looked down at Cal whose eyes were open but not focusing on anything. He brushed back the blonde hair from Cal’s forehead with the palm of his hand. Gage swallowed hard when he felt the cold, clammy skin. He brushed the boy’s hair back once more than stood.

“I mean it, kid. You hang in there.” Gage turned to the guard on his knees beside his teammate. “Don’t stop. That boy’s life is in your hands.”

“Yes, sir.” The guard said without looking up, but focused on the compressions.

Two other guards rounded the bend. Gage picked up his phone and walked over to them.

“Did either of you see where the princess went? Is she inside the palace?”

“No, sir.” The taller one spoke in broken English. “She left with the Count.”

“Who?” Gage was already calling Sam.

“Count Sergei Semenov.” The guard said. “He drove fast out of the gates.”

The blood that ran through Gage’s veins went ice cold.

Gage put the phone to his ear as he watched the guard keep Cal alive. Gage was too well- trained to go running off without knowing the direction he needed to go and get the information he needed about the target. He forced his emotions aside. Alana needed a soldier not some love-crazed ex-boyfriend running round like an idiot.

“Sam. Sergei has the princess. Find him.”

“Bailey is already on it. She hacked into the police cameras. Unfortunately, the coverage is pretty spotty, but we do have his car, a red, late model Ferrari, blowing out of the palace gates and heading west. We picked him up again on the highway heading out the city heading northwest. Then we lost him. I’m working with Westin’s team out of DC to see if we can get a drone or satellite coverage of the area. Don’t worry man, we’ll find her.”

Gage cursed. The doctor and other guards ran toward him. Gage spoke rapidly to the doctor, telling him the situation. He made sure that the doctor was in touch with the physician taking care of the king. They already had a helicopter on the way with the antidote. Gage gave Cal one last look and sent a prayer up to whoever might be listening. A wave of guilt washed over him, which he quickly suppressed. There would be time for regret and guilt after he found the princess and dealt with Sergei.

Gage turned to the tall guard. “I need a car. A fast one.”

The guard nodded his head and broke out in a run. Gage followed him as they headed back toward the car park. Gage ran toward the garage and memories of Alana and her feisty attitude about driving the Aston filled his mind. He took a deep breath and ignored the emotions that threaten to overwhelm him.

The garage doors opened and Gage ran around and jumped into the yellow Lamborghini Superleggera. Before he closed the butterfly doors, Gage told the guard to call the police and tell them not to stop him, and to clear the streets between the palace and the roads to the northwest highway.

Without waiting for an answer, Gage pulled the door closed, revved the powerful engine, and put the car into gear. He called Sam on speakerphone when he passed through the gates.

“Where are we?” Gage asked as he used his fingers on the paddle shifter and the car purred in reaction.

“We are still looking for her.” Gage slammed his hand against the steering wheel. Not good enough. If anything happened to Alana . . .

Sam continued. “But, we think we know where he’s taking her. Bailey found reference to a hunting lodge owned by his family that is about an hour outside the city and located in the direction they were going.”

Gage pushed the gas pedal down as his fingers paddle shifted and he opened the car up to take the increased speed. “I’m heading to the highway. Let me know the second that you find him. We don’t have a second to lose.”

“Roger that. The prince has called on the police to begin the search and Westin is retargeting his team. And, Mac . . .”

“What?” Gage could hear the tension in his voice. He needed to calm himself down. Focus.

“Victor is gone.”

“How the hell did that happen?”

“Westin left him in the detention room of the Embassy, while he joined JT and Buzz to deal with Sergei. He left one of his best men in charge of a team. They just got a call that the team is down and Victor has escaped.”

Alana. Gage saw red. If he did not contain his emotions, he would rip the steering wheel off of its column.

“Get me a location. Now.” Gage ground out the words. This was his fault. If anyone hurt the princess, even looked at her in a threatening way, Gage would take them out. He was well past the point of working within the rules of engagement. This was his woman they threatened. Geopolitics and chess pieces aside. This was personal.

Gage hit the freeway as the city disappeared in his rear view mirror. He upshifted again and sent the car rocketing down the highway. Gage sent up a silent prayer. Please let Alana be safe. And God help anyone who stood in his way.


Chapter 17

Sergei slammed the car into park in front of a small wooden cabin. They had turned off the highway and headed down small country roads that took them deeper into the hill country. Alana sat in the passenger seat terrified. She had been so upset at Gage and how he left her, that she did not put on her watch that was equipped with a tracking device. The only thing she wore was her jogging outfit, socks, and sneakers. She promised herself she would stay alert and look for a chance to escape or a weapon. Alana took a deep breath and hoped that if the opportunity presented itself, she would be able to act to protect herself.

“Stay there. Believe me, you don’t want to make this worse on yourself.” Sergei climbed out of the car. His blue eyes never wavered from hers as he walked around the car and opened her door. He grabbed her arm. His fingertips dug deep into her flesh, and pulled her to him.

“You made me wait for four years. I smiled and acted like the sap. Luckily I had girls that satisfied me, while your icy ass went to sleep alone every night. But then, imagine my surprise when I hear that an American stayed in your room for the entire night.” Sergei leaned in and whispered into her ear. “I will erase every memory of him you have. He might have made you cry out in pleasure, but I plan to make you scream.”

Alana tried to wrench her arm from his. She fought and squirmed with with all of her might. The crack of the slap across her face stunned her. His smile made her shiver in fear. He readjusted his grip and pulled her with him as he strode toward the cabin. He yanked her up two stone steps and across a deep porch. The cabin was a combination of stone and wood. There was no other structure or sign of life anywhere she looked. Tears of frustration and fear pooled in her eyes making the dark room blurry when he threw her inside. She stumbled and fell to the dusty wooden floor.

The room was dark with the only light coming in from dirty windows covered by fabric curtains. Sergei pointed to a chair, one of two that flanked a large stone fireplace.

“Sit. If you move, it will be the last thing you do.”

Sergei closed the door and locked it from the inside with a key that he slipped into his pocket. As he walked around the room, looking out the windows, Alana picked herself up off the floor and surveyed the cabin marking possible weapons and exits. The main door was the only one she could see, although it looked like there might be other rooms down the hallway. The simple kitchen was tucked in the corner and there was a small island that separated the area from where she sat. There were three paned windows, one that led to the front of the house and two to the side.

“Sergei, the signing is this afternoon. We will both be missed.” Alana had no idea how to reach this monster in front of her. He was not the boy she knew as a child or the man she thought she would marry. But she knew she had to bide her time. Someone would miss her. Someone would come for her. She had to believe that. It was the only way to keep her sanity in an insane situation.

She watched as Sergei opened a closet door by the fireplace. He pulled out two pump action shotguns and boxes of ammunition. He set them on the island in the center of the kitchen. She knew now that whatever happened to her or him would end here. Fear threatened to immobilize her, but she knew she had to refocus. If someone did come to her rescue or if she had the opportunity to escape or hurt Sergei, she needed to be ready. Although Sergei concentrated on arming the weapons, she knew that he was attuned to her every move. She sat on the edge of the upholstered chair, her cheek still burning from his slaps, ready to run the moment she had the chance. She counted the steps she would need to take the window. Imagined opening the latch and jumping out. In her heart, she knew she would never make it, but she needed to keep her hope alive and not give into this man-turned-monster.

She reasoned with herself that Gage would find Cal and Gage would figure it out. Even after all he had put her heart through. Even after he walked away this morning, she knew he would come for her no matter what. She made a promise to herself and whoever might be listening to her prayers, if he came for her she wouldn’t try to hold on to him. She would do the only thing he ever asked of her, which was to appreciate what they had and then let him go. She wanted to cry and scream. If she had not pushed him so hard this morning, maybe all of this would have turned out differently. He was never hers to keep. He told her he gave her all he could, and she begged for him to give her more. She felt guilty for wanting him even now. What if he was hurt or worse?

Silent tears fell down her cheeks. She tried to control them. She did not want to show any weakness, but she could not help herself. Sergei looked over to her and his face softened. He put the gun he held in his hands down on the counter and came over to her. Her hands gripped the edge of the cushion she sat on as he crouched down in front of her.

She forced herself to remain still and not pull away as he reached out and used the pad of his thumb to wipe the tears from one of her cheeks. She thought he might be reverting to the Sergei she knew, the one she might be able to reach and convince him to let her go. She believed that until he took his thumb, wet with her tears, to his mouth and sucked on it. His lips curled into a chilling smile.

“There will be more of those today.” The confidence in his voice unnerved her.

“No, there won’t.”

A gunshot rang out and deafened her. Before Alana knew what had happened, Sergei slumped to the side and a bullet hole the size of a silver dollar gushed blood and brain. Her body shook violently as she moved off the chair and looked back to where the shot cam from. Victor stood there in the hallway dressed in a grey suit and crisp white shirt open at the collar. She ran to him and threw her arms around him.

“Oh, thank God you’re here.”

She felt him return the hug with one arm. His gun remained at his side in the other.

“Are you alright, Princess?” Victor asked as she pulled away from him.

She nodded her head. Tears of relief mixed with shock.

“How did you know where to find me?” Her voice vibrated as the words fell out.

“I have been here many times before. I knew when Sergei came for you this would be where he would take you. He was so predicable.” Something in Victor’s voice make her take a step backward. Her brain went back on alert.

“I didn’t know you knew Sergei so well?” she asked.

“I’ve known him a lot longer than you. I met him when he was just a boy and, even then, I knew that something was wrong with him in the head, but he had promised me that he would treat you well as long as we supplied him with other women who could appease his other,” Victor paused, as if he searched for a word, “um, desires.”

Alana felt her heart skip a beat. The fear resurfaced. She was not safe. She knew that. But, at least with Sergei she understood the threat. Now, she tried to remember all Gage had told her about her bodyguard and his connections to Altyn Poltinnik and Russian intelligence. But, her brain was too addled to be able to piece it all together.

“You look lost, moya printsessa.”

She understood he said “my princess” in Russian. He rarely spoke his native language to her. His use of it unsettled her even further. Something was definitely wrong. She turned her head and looked at Sergei’s lifeless form then her eyes went back to Victor.

“Do not mourn him. Now, go sit while we wait for your boyfriend and his little team.” Victor stashed his gun into a shoulder holster underneath his suit. He patted her on the arm as he passed her. A chill went through her.

“What are you talking about? Does Gage know where I am?” A hint of relief peeked through her fear, but she was too afraid to hold on to it. She still did not understand if Victor was a threat.

She held her ground, wanting distance from him. She also stood in front of the hallway. Alana figured Victor came down the hallway. Maybe there was another exit she could take if she needed it. She kept her voice calm and tone conversational and hoped that if Gage and his team did know where she was that they were close.

“Victor, can you please explain to me what is going on? Why didn’t you tell me you knew Sergei so well?”

Victor picked up one of the shotguns and cocked it with one hand. The loud clap of the bolt action sliding into place made her jump.

“No time, Princess. They’re here.”

#

Sam and Bailey had located the red Ferrari using one of Westin’s satellites and sent Gage the coordinates. The rest of the team had assembled with a group of elite Corannian soldiers and was in-bound to the location. Gage parked the car about a quarter of a mile from the cabin, close to the helicopter landing zone Sam had identified. Gage checked his gun and clips making sure all was ready. He planned to ask forgiveness, not permission, when he ran into Sergei.

He radioed the group that he was en route to recon the cabin. His plan was to stay in the wooded perimeter and then ingress to the target with the rest of the team. That was the plan until he heard the gun shot. Gage gave up any pretense of trying to move quietly through the forest and ran toward the cabin. His heart was in his throat. One word played over and over in his mind. Please. Please. Please.

He reached the cabin and took the two stairs in one giant leap. He rolled for cover underneath one of the windows as glass shot out above him. The whirl of helicopter blades told him that his team was close. But, for Alana, that could be the difference of life and death. He forced down the bile that threatened to come up at the thought of her hurt or worse. All he knew was that he needed to get in that cabin and to her without dying in the process.

Gage heard the distinctive pump of a shotgun being cocked.

“Gage. It’s Victor. It’s just the two of us. One big room. He is . . .”

Relief washed over him at the sound of her voice. It sounded strong before it was cut off. He could have kissed her–and he would as soon as she was in his arms again–for the vital information she passed. Not only did he know he was up against Victor, but she was also standing northeast of his current position.

He listened hard for any movement, but did not hear anything, which meant that Victor silenced her at her position. She was not dragged to another. A soft whistle from the woods told him his team was in place and they marked his position. He held up one finger and then made a sweeping motion over his arm to signal one suspect. Then he held up one finger and cupped his hand around his throat to signal one hostage. He made a pump action with his hand to signal a shotgun.

Sam had described a brief layout of the cabin to the team as they were in route based on satellite imagery and some pictures Bailey found when she hacked in to Sergei’s accounts.

Gage knew that Buzz and JT would be making their way about to the back of the cabin where there was a door that came off one of the back rooms. Alana and Victor were likely in the larger main room, which he imagined did not give him many options for cover.

“Major McAllister. I suggest you call your team back from the cabin before I blow off your beautiful princess’ head.” Victor’s voice came out through the open window frame above him.

“Now, Victor, what kind of bodyguard would you be if you shot your own client? It might hurt your chances for follow-on employment.”

Gage wanted to keep Victor as distracted as he could from Sam, who had silently climbed onto the porch behind him. Sam worked a small camera on a snake scope underneath the front door as Gage distracted Victor. It was a long shot, but if they could get eyes on the room even for a second, the chances of Alana and the rest of them making it out alive increased dramatically.

“You failed her twice, but yet here you are, paid by your government. I believe both of our futures will be secure no matter if she lives or dies.”

Gage swallowed hard. He would not let this man get in his head. Gage looked down at his cell phone as a blurry black and white image appeared. He saw the leg of a chair. Then what he assumed was Sergei’s feet. As Sam maneuvered the camera around the room, Gage continued to distract Victor.

“I failed her, but you didn’t. I know, in the end, you care for her. You would not hurt her. Just let her go. You and I can finish this man-to-man. Okay?”

Gage’s fingertips were white as he gripped the phone.

“You let her go, and I promise I will walk in empty handed.”

Gage heard Alana struggle then go quiet. His heart flipped and he had to mentally hold himself back from jumping through the window to get to her. He would be no good to her dead.

Victor barked a laugh. “Why the hell would I want you? Your team is dead anyway, as soon as I give the signal. You flew in with two men on my payroll that have already radioed me your position and have your men within their gun sights. Now, what do you have to bargain with, Major?”

Gage turned his neck so he could see Sam behind him. Sam gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. Gage then turned to the forest and signaled for his team to watch their backs. He looked back down at his phone. Sam moved the camera around to show the locks on the front door that he would be breeching as soon as they could locate Victor and Alana.

“Thanks for the info, Vic.”

Gage squeezed the phone harder as if he was wiling Sam to get the camera into position. Bingo! He saw Victor holding Alana through the circle scope. One of his hands was clamped around her upper arm and the other held a shotgun pointed at her head. Gage willed her to hold on. Victor held himself far enough away from her that she could not surprise him with a body blow. He would know she was trained in hand-to-hand combat.

He turned back to Sam who nodded his head once to indicate he saw the same thing. Sam pivoted the camera to take in the rest of the room. They both looked for cover opportunities and vulnerabilities. Sam held the camera on the window above the kitchen. Since Gage was without a radio, he turned back to Sam who signaled that the sniper was in place. He hoped that it was someone they could trust. They were all moving on the fly and without Cal on the other end of the scope, Gage was nervous that the room for error was wider than he would like.

They had all of the intelligence they were going to get. It was time. Gage turned back to Sam who gave the signal. Three. Two. One.


Chapter 18

Gage reached out and held Alana’s hand. She had not regained conciousness since the forest. The helicopter raced them to the hospital as the rest of the team wrapped up the scene on the ground. The doctors asked him to wait in the waiting room as they assessed her condition, but he refused. He would never leave her side again. His look must have told them he was serious, because they handed him a mask and told him to wait in the corner. Gage felt better when her friend Sophie came in. She immediately took charge. When they had finally stabilized Alana and moved her into a private room with security sent by the king, Sophia came by and explained her condition to him.

“It’s called cardiomyopathy caused by an intense shock to the system. A massive amount of adrenaline stunned her heart.”

Gage rubbed the back of his neck and swallowed down the lump in his throat.

“And?” It was the only word he could get past his lips that began to quiver. He swallowed again.

Sophie reached out and rubbed his arm. “Time will tell. She needs rest and quiet.”

Gage nodded his head. He did not trust himself to speak.

“Why don’t you head home and I’ll call you if anything happens.”

“I’m not leaving her.” His voice was rough with emotion. “I’m not leaving her ever again.”

Sophia smiled, her eyes watery with tears. “’Aye. Okay, then. Well, then I suggest you get out those clothes. I can get you some scrubs. I also want to take a look at your wounds. Is that your blood or someone else’s?”

Gage looked down at his blood stained shirt. He honestly could not answer her question.

“Okay. Come over here and sit. I don’t need two of you passed out from shock.”

He let Sophia lead him to a chair where he took off his shirt and she assessed his wounds. It was a surprise to him that bullets had grazed him on his shoulder and his side. With his own adrenaline wearing off, every emotion was intensified. The fear of what could have happened if he had not covered Alana with his body overwhelmed him.

“Nurse, get me a tray so I can see to his wound then I want you to help the Major with a shower.”

Gage glowered at her.

“Aye. I know it may not be kettle of tea, but I am not having you pass out in the shower on my watch. The sooner you let me take care of you, the sooner I can get you back to sitting by Alana. Okay?”

Gage grunted his agreement. It did not take long for the Sophie to close his wound, shower, and get back in a chair next to Alana. He let Sophie order him some food. He knew he needed to eat. He knew how to recover from a mission as intense as the cabin. But, he had no idea how to recover if he lost the woman he loved.

He had never loved anyone before. Sure, he loved Sam and his team, but not like this. Not with this soul crushing intensity. And, he had no idea what to do with it. Alana’s family had visited and received the same update from Sophie that she had given him. The only time he stepped out of the room, was to give the queen and prince time to visit with her.

He wanted to apologize to them both. Tell them it was his fault she was lying in a hospital bed unconscious. He knew he should beg for their forgiveness, but he knew once the words passed his lips, a dam would break and he needed to stay strong for Alana. After the family visit, the queen came up to Gage as he sat there in chair outside of her room. His head was bent as his arms rested on his knees. A pair of black heels and trim ankles came into view.

“Major?”

A soft, melodic voice carried past the pain. He looked up and saw Alana’s golden eyes in an elegant face that was twenty years older. The queen.

“Ma’am.” He made the effort to stand, but she gestured for him to sit. She took the chair next to his and he sat up straight. Security was tight around her and Alana’s room. He could see the prince still inside Alana’s hospital room through the glass window that separated her room from the hallway.

“I think my family has you to thank for saving my daughter’s life.”

“If I had done what I should have done, she would not be here.”

She gave him a small smile. “But, you are here, and so is she. That is what matters. None of us can live focusing on past regrets. The only thing we can do is learn from them and try our best not to repeat our mistakes.”

“I love your daughter, ma’am, and I’m not leaving her. If I learned anything, it is that. If she will still have me, I’m not going anywhere.”

The queen’s smile broadened. “Well, that is up to her. I learned a long time ago, Alana makes her own decisions. She is a smart girl with good instincts and I trust she will make a choice that is best for her and her future.”

Gage felt his heart lurch. He knew he was not the best choice for Alana’s future. There would be a thousand other men better for her than him. And, if she chose one of them, then he would still be there for her. Gage told the queen his plan.

“I will be there for her however she will have me.”

The queen patted his hand.

“Well, then I guess I will be seeing you later. The prince and I will be back tomorrow to see her.”

“I will be here.” Gage’s voice was firm.

Her smile became full and wide. Her eyes sparkled the same ways Alana’s did when she was overcome with joy. “Have the hospital ring us if there is any change.”

“Of course.”

The both stood and shook hands. The prince came out of the room and joined them.

The prince looked exhausted. “Major.” The men nodded heads in acknowledgment of each other. “The treaty is signed. We took my father back to his room after the ceremony, but he will be here tomorrow. We told the press that the princess came down with the same flu and is recovering at the hospital. I have posted guards outside the hospital to keep the press at bay, as well as around the wing and at her door. I have personally vetted these guards. The rest of Victor’s men are being rounded up now.”

Gage nodded his head. He trusted others to deal with making the palace safe. His only concern was inside the hospital room.

“Right. Mother and I will be back tomorrow, and maybe my father if he is up to it.”

“I’ll be here.” Gage said with conviction.

The prince gave a brief smile then led his mother down the hall.

Gage walked back in the room and resumed his place next to the princess.

#

Alana could feel the tension in the air. Gage went silent. She wished she knew what he wanted her to do. If she made the wrong move, she could put him and his team, not to mention herself, in mortal danger. Her training had taught her the best thing she could do was be predictable. Stay where you were. Let the team make the moves. Don’t be the surprise. When things started happening, she knew she needed to get out of the way as soon as possible.

She thought she was prepared, but when the bang of the explosion went off at the door and a shot came in through the window over the kitchen sink, she heard herself scream. Out of the corner of her eye she saw someone jump the window frame and come toward her. She knew it was Gage even though he was a blur. Smoke filled the room. Men shouted orders at each other. She felt Victor’s hand release her arm and she dropped down to the ground. Gunfire erupted, but she kept her head pinned down on the floor as she body crawled her way toward the hallway.

A heavy weight fell down on her and she screamed.

“Shhh. It me. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Gage covered her with his body as he spoke in her ear. She felt his hot breath on her face and wanted to weep in relief. Her head felt light as an almost uncontrollable urge for her to close her eyes and sleep came over her.

He must have sensed the change in her. “You’re in shock, baby. Stay with me. Listen to my words. You are going to get on the balls of your feet, but stay down. When I say go, you and I are going to sprint down that hallway. Just follow me. I’m not going to leave you.”

Alana could barely hear him over the gunshots and shouting, but she nodded her head. She would follow wherever he led.

“Now.” His arms held her on either side and his body hovered over hers. They both ran as fast as they could in the crouched position. She felt pressure on her side and made a left as he whirled her into another room. A picture of him leading her on the dance floor using a similar pressure on the small of her back as he effortlessly guided her flashed through her mind.

Before she knew it, a door in front of them opened and they were outside. He would not let her slow down until they were deep into the forest that surrounded the cabin. He released her and in one swift move stood and swept the area around them with his gun pointed.

“The princess and I are clear.”

She heard the words but had no idea who he was talking to.

She sat on the ground and looked up at him as he knelt down in front of her.

He cupped his hands on either side of her face. He said words to her, but she did not hear anything but silence. She panicked. Her breathing came quickly and the forest floor began to spin beneath of her. He kissed her and gave her a little shake.

“Hold on, love. Hold on.” He rubbed her arms only stopping when she winced. He let out a curse when he saw the bruising. “Alana, sweetheart, look at me.”

Slowly his blurry features became clear and the world stopped spinning.

She heard his voice over the ringing in his ears. “It’s over. You’re safe. Just hang on and we will get you out of here.”

Gage spoke to someone behind her, but she lacked the strength to turn around. “The princess is going into shock. I’m heading to the chopper.”

What was once moving in fast-forward now moved in slow motion. Her mind and movements felt like she was trapped underwater. She gasped for air. She saw the look of concern on Gage’s face as his eyes raked over her. She saw blood over his face and hands. Her heart raced faster. Was it hers? Sergei’s? Gage’s? The world started spin again.

“We’re moving now.”

The last thing she felt before she blacked out was Gage’s arms around her as he picked her up and cradled her against his body.

#

Alana felt like she had just come out of the spin cycle of the washing machine. Her head hurt and she felt groggy. Her eyelids seemed like they had weights attached to them and she had to force them open. Her consciousness was greeted by beeps and clicks of machines. She tried to move her neck, but it was stiff like it had been soldered into place. She shifted her eyes so she could see out of the large picture windows. The sunset turned the clouds to a rainbow of oranges, purples, and pinks. She took a deep breath, thankful she lived to see another day.

It took her a few more seconds to realize she was in a hospital room. Memories of Sergei and Victor and the rescue at the cabin flooded her mind and her pulse quickened. She focused on the white walls and machines around her. She was safe. Her eyes slid down to the side of the bed and she saw Gage.

His large frame was stuffed into a small chair angled to face her bed. His head tilted back and his long legs stretched out in front of him. He looked completely uncomfortable. One arm was stretch out toward her bed and the other rested on his stomach. She followed the arm and saw that his hand had hers in a firm grip. Her heart skipped a beat.

He was here. He was here with her. He had not run or taken the opportunity to leave. He stayed. That had to mean something. But her excitement only lasted a second before she remembered the promise she had made while Victor held a gun to her head. If they got out alive, she would not hold him. She would let him go. Tears threatened, but she held them at bay. She needed to look strong for him. She did not want to make him feel like he had to stay. He stayed with her and that was more than she had hoped for. Now, she had to be strong for him and let him go.

The hospital door swung open. Gage shot up as if a bolt of electricity had surged through him. His hand squeezed hers. His sleep filled eyes focused on the door then on her then back to the door. Sophie stood at the door and smiled.

“I’m glad I come in peace. You look like you are ready to tear something apart, Major.” Sophie smiled as she walked in the room. Alana felt her medially trained eyes assessing her.

“Nice to have you back with us, Al. Have a nice nap?” Sophie checked the monitors that surrounded Alana’s bed. “You gave us quite a scare. It took some rather large orderlies to hold the good Major back.”

Alana tried to smile but her cheek screamed out in pain.

“Aye. You have quiet a shiner on your cheek. But it looks much better than it did two days ago. Let’s check that heart of yours. It’s so strong, you sent off alarm bells at the nurses’ station.”

Gage moved out of the chair and was at Alana’s side in an instant. He peered down at her, ignoring everyone else in the room as they checked her monitors and vitals.

“Alli.” He used his other hand to brush hair off of her forehead. “You’re awake.”

Before she could speak, a dry cough wracked her body. Sophie pressed a button and Alana’s bed angled itself into more of a sitting position. Gage handed her a glass of water, which she drank down in slow sips before she tried to speak again. Both Sophie and Gage waited patiently and gave her a look as if they were afraid she might break.

“Sorry. My throat is so dry.”

Gage went to refill her water cup and handed her back a full cup. His expression was unlike one she had ever seen on his face. It unnerved her a bit. He looked like a man in love. There were no walls or shield up. His every emotion – relief, regret, exhaustion, and – she raked her eyes over him again to be sure – and love – were written on his face for anyone to see. It was too weird. Maybe she was worse off than she thought. Alana turned to Sophie.

“So, what’s the prognosis, doc?”

Sophie straightened up from leaning over Alana’s chest with her stethoscope. She waved a pen right in her eyes then clicked it off and placed it in her pocket.

“Well, obviously, we will need to do an EKG and run some other tests. But, you seem well enough to me. Most people in your case return to normal in just a few days with no damage to the heart.”

“What happened?” Alana asked.

Sophie looked to Alana then to Gage then back to Alana. “Clinically its called cardiomyopathy, but in layman’s terms its called the broken heart disease.”

Alana gave her friend a look that said ‘don’t go there.’ Sophie just shrugged her shoulders and headed for the door.

“I’m going to ring you up a light dinner for both of you and call your family. I would say you have about fifteen minutes of privacy before the hordes descend.” With that Sophie winked and walked out. The door swung closed behind her.

Alana looked up at Gage and told herself to be strong. Be cool.

Besides looking tired, he looked gorgeous to her. His ebony hair was mussed from sleep and his steel grey eyes sparkled down at her. Besides that kind of sappy, very non-Gage look he wore on his face, he was a sight for her sore eyes.

“How are you feeling?” he asked in a soft voice as he brushed her forehead. His thumb moved up and down over her hand in a light caress.

“A little out of it, but I’ll be fine.” She tried to move her hand from his, but he held on to it.

“Hungry?”

“A little.” The way he looked down at her made her want things she knew she could not have. She changed the subject to business hoping to refocus both of them.

“So what happened after I passed out?”

“We rushed you here via a helicopter. You were unconscious for two days. You had us all worried sick. I’m so happy to see those beautiful eyes again.

She continued to stay string and ignore the urge to cry or pronounce her love for him. “What happened to Victor? Is your team okay? Oh, I just remembered Cal. Is he okay?”

Gage chuckled and smiled down at her. Her eyes darted around the room. Did she wake up in an alternate universe? One where Gage smiled and laughed. Oh boy, letting him go was getting harder to do by the minute.

“Yes, everyone is okay. Cal is fine. He’s just a few doors down from you recovering. Everyone else took a little beating, but is okay. We’re all just worried about you.” He grinned down at her again.

“And, Victor?” She needed to know.

The grin disappeared from Gage’s face. The steel of his eyes turned hard. “Victor will not be bothering you again.”

“What about Ignis?”

“Westin came by yesterday and said they found the recipe book among Victor’s things. Just as you had said. And a few additional vials. The team also found two more vials of Ignis in Sergei’s apartments along with some other things I will not go into. Let’s just say, he was a very sick man.”

Alana swallowed and focused on the sunset behind Gage. The colors had turned deeper and a midnight blue hugged the horizon.

“I can’t believe I came so close to marrying him. And, Victor. I considered him my friend. It will be hard to trust anyone again.”

“I know, but you have to try. Your belief that everyone is good is just one of the things I love about you. Don’t let those two monsters take that away from you.”

Her eyes locked on to his. She was sure he did not hear him correctly. Her hearing must still be messed up from the explosions. He grinned again.

The pad of his thumb smoothed the furrowed lines lines in-between her eyebrows. “I love the way you get these little lines between your eyebrows when you can’t figure something out.”

She ignored the L-word and tried not to notice that he used it twice. “Am I concussed?”

He chuckled again and her pulse raced. “Nope. Now that you’re awake and your heart is beating in a normal rhythm, you’re on the road to being all better.”

“Then why are you acting weird?”

“Weird?”

“Yeah, weird.” She pulled her hand from his and crossed her arms as best she could with the tubes and tape that hung from her. “Like you said, I’m all better now. You can go. I’m sure you have another mission to get to.”

He perched himself on the side of the bed. A smile still plastered on his face. He leaned forward and rested his hands on either side of her bed. She was boxed in by the man. His face was close enough to her that she felt his heat.

“I’m already there,” he crooned.

“Already where? Gage, please just go. It is hard enough to say good-bye without you acting all, you know.”

“I don’t know.” He leaned in closer.

“Stop acting like you love me, okay. Just go back to your brooding self. What happened was not your fault. It just happened okay. I don’t want you staying with me and turning on this little act of yours just because you feel some sort of guilt or regret. You’re a hero. You’re awesome. Take the golden get out of jail free card and go. Please.” She tried to stay strong till the end. But even she heard her voice give away a bit at the end. She turned away from him. She lacked the courage to look at him anymore.

“I do take responsibility for what happened, but as someone wise told me a few days ago that we can’t live focusing on regrets.” He took her chin between his thumb and forefinger and gently pulled her so her eyes locked with his. “And, that is what I plan to do. Live.”

She swallowed hard. All she could do was imagine the pain she would feel when he decided to go. And, he would decide to go eventually. “And, there are those little lines again. Stop thinking, Alli.”

He leaned in and softly kissed her on the mouth. He pulled back and smiled down at her again.

“I’m not going anywhere, Alli. As soon as you are well enough, I plan to ask you to marry me.”

She felt her eyes open wide in shock.

“I love you, Princess Alana Volkava. I am yours for better or worse. I always have been. It just took this soldier a little time to figure everything out.”

Her lips rose in a smile. She tried to stay strong, to hold back, but his words were a salve to her heart. She loved this man from the moment she met him on that dirt road in the mountains of Honduras and she would love him until the day she died.

“So, what’s your next mission?” she asked preparing herself.

“You. You’re my only mission. If you want me, I’ll be right beside you. If you don’t, I’ll be right behind you or wherever you want me. But, I’m not going anywhere.”

She opened her heart and let in the joy. He must have seen it, because he bent down and kissed her again.

Once they separated, she said. “I do have an opening for a bodyguard.”

He wiggled his eyebrows. “I have some experience in that area.”

“You do? Well, that’s good, because I’ve had some difficulty in the past with my bodyguards.”

“Really?” He feigned and leaned in for another kiss. “Do tell?”

“Well, one left me. Twice.”

“Ouch.” He winced as he continued to lean toward her.

“And the other tried to kill me.”

“Well, that’s not good. Kind of goes against the job description,” he whispered, only inches from her face.

“I think so,” she said, just as his lips hovered over hers. “I love you, Gage McAllister. Don’t you dare leave me again.”

“I would not dream of it, Your Highness.”

He kissed her in a way that told her that the last of the walls around his heart were gone. Finally, Alana tilted her head and kissed him back with her whole heart knowing he was ready to accept it.

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