Step One: Set the ground rules early on. Clear communication is key. You’re the muscle.
She’s the target. Simple. Easy.
“My name is Constantine Leos, and I’m your bodyguard.”
The beautiful blonde who’d been swiping a rather shady-looking white cloth over the top of the bar paused at Constantine’s announcement. He kept his shoulders back and his arms loose at his sides. This was supposed to be an assignment that he didn’t fuck up, and he was going to stick to the Wilde rules on this one. Okay, fine, so maybe Wilde—the security firm that now employed him—didn’t exactly have a set of rules when it came to this precise situation. So Constantine had decided to improvise.
Slowly, the blonde tilted back her head. Deep, dark chocolate eyes—warmed with flecks of gold—locked on him. Her bow-shaped lips curled in the faintest of smiles as she nodded. “Does that pickup line often work for you?”
Voices rose and fell behind him. It was a Friday night, and Sal’s, the bar in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was certainly hopping. Plenty of people were hooking up in the bar, no doubt about it, but Constantine hadn’t traveled across multiple states and enjoyed the comfort of his boss’s private jet just so he could hit on a pretty blonde. “It’s not a pickup line. It’s the truth.” He turned his head and cast an eye around the packed place. “Too many people are here. I don’t like it.” Talk about a logistical nightmare.
“Then, ah, if you don’t like it, you should probably leave. There are lots of less crowded places in the area.” Gravely polite.
His attention shifted back to her. “I’m not going to leave without you.”
She took a tiny step back. He saw her hold tighten on the off-white cloth. The smile slipped from her lips. “I don’t intend to go anywhere with you. My shift doesn’t end until 2 a.m.”
Constantine’s head shook. “Bad mistake. You never, ever tell a stranger when you’re getting off work. I could be planning to stay around and wait out back for you. You come out on your own at 2 a.m., and then I could grab you.”
Her eyes flared with alarm even as a gasp tore from her.
I am screwing this up. “Not that I intend to do that, of course,” Constantine rushed to reassure her because he certainly didn’t want her terrified of him. Her terror would just make things awkward. “I’m your bodyguard. My job is to keep you safe.” There. She should be feeling better.
She backed up a little more. Constantine noticed that she’d dropped the cloth. “Right.” Now she smiled again, and the smile took the woman before him from being pretty to absolutely stunning. Unforgettable. It was the most charming and warm smile he’d ever seen in his life, and Constantine found himself leaning forward because he wanted to get closer to her as—
“Johnny, gonna need you to escort this guy out.” She pointed straight at Constantine.
But, wait, Johnny—who the hell was Johnny?
A beefy hand closed around Constantine’s shoulder. Ah, that must be Johnny. Constantine lifted a brow as he turned to face his new friend. “There a problem?” It was his turn to be gravely polite.
“Yes.” Johnny’s eyes appeared as angry, dark slits. “You’re the problem. Either you take your ass out of here on your own, or I will escort you out.” His grip tightened on Constantine’s shoulder. “You really don’t want me escorting you out. Trust me on that.”
Johnny obviously had confused Constantine with someone else. Someone who could be intimidated. Sure, Johnny might have about sixty pounds on him, but that weight wasn’t muscle, and Constantine had never, ever backed away from a fight. He didn’t typically start fights, but he always finished them. “I’m not done with my conversation.” Again, he tried for politeness even as his patience waned.
“Oh, but you are done,” the bartender told him, her voice still pleasant and warm and—oddly—sliding over his nerve endings in the best possible way. “Once you said you’d be stalking me after work, that was your ticket for the door.”
He hadn’t said those exact words. His head angled back toward her. After all, she was his assignment. “Princess…” Deliberately, he said the magic word.
Her long, thick lashes flickered. “Excuse me?” Not so pleasant and warm. Sharper. A little scared.
“I never said I was your stalker. I said I was your bodyguard. There’s a big difference.”
She swallowed. “Do enlighten me.”
Fair enough. “A stalker would probably want to wear your skin.”
“Jesus.” Johnny’s hold turned punishing. “You are a freak. You’re getting out of here, now.” He jerked on Constantine’s shoulder.
Since he didn’t like being jerked around—not a favorite hobby at all—Constantine grabbed the guy’s wrist and twisted. The movement would appear deceptively simple to any onlooker. He’d trained for it to look just that way. But in reality, there was nothing simple about the pain that would be sliding all the way from Johnny’s thick wrist, up his arm and to—
“Owww! Dammit, that hurts!” Johnny hit his knees on the floor near Constantine.
His response was fair. The move was supposed to hurt. “You shouldn’t put your hands on people.” He let Johnny go.
The bouncer immediately surged toward him.
Constantine didn’t even tense.
Johnny went nose to nose with him. Seriously, nose to nose. Invading personal space much? Someone needed to learn appropriate boundaries. “Back up or you’ll be on your knees again.” A polite warning seemed appropriate given the circumstances.
Johnny licked his lips, glanced over at the gorgeous bartender, and took a quick step back.
“Smart choice,” Constantine applauded.
“Seriously?” Disgust coated the word as it came from the woman. “I thought you were the badass bouncer, Johnny!”
“Look, Jules,” Johnny hurried to say, “I’m just taking a minute for us to all calm down. Just a calming beat, ya know?”
“Jules?” Constantine forgot the bouncer and focused completely on her. “You prefer that to Juliet?” He could see where she might. Jules was a lot less formal, but…she was formal. Pretty much as formal as one could get.
Because the woman standing behind the bar and glaring at him was an honest-to-God princess. An exiled one, but still actual royalty.
“How did you know my name is Juliet?” Fear flickered in her eyes. He hated the fear. His job was to make sure she wasn’t afraid.
Trying to buy a little time because clearly, he had not handled the initial meet and greet well, Constantine tugged at the sleeve of his suit coat. Most of the other people in the bar were wearing jeans and sweatshirts. But he’d come in with his tailored suit and black tie. What could he say? He loved his suits.
But back to the matter at hand… “I’m your bodyguard.” She just kept getting stuck on understanding that point. “That means I know everything about you.” A deliberate pause and then… “Princess.”
Her gaze jumped to Johnny, then back to Constantine.
Right. More of an introduction would be in order. He extended his right hand toward her, holding it above the bar. “Constantine Leos, at your service, and I can assure you, I come with incredible references. I work for Wilde, perhaps you’ve heard of the protection firm?” He kept his hand outstretched even though she’d made no move to touch him. “We tend to specialize in high-end cases just like—”
She grabbed his hand. A warm, soft touch. He rather liked her touch. A surge of electricity danced across his fingers right before she—
Squeezed. “Stop talking,” Juliet ordered. Juliet Laurent, age twenty-five. A woman who worked her nights as a bartender and spent her days working to finish up her Master’s degree at LSU. She wanted to be a psychologist, and he could see where she’d enjoy working at the bar as she finished up her studies. After all, everyone knew customers willingly spilled their guts to bartenders all the time.
He'd made it a point of learning all he could about Juliet, and, honestly, what he’d learned had impressed the hell out of him. But now wasn’t the time to talk about that background info. Now was the time to get moving. “I don’t have much of a lead.” He could feel Johnny watching them. He ignored Johnny and leaned closer to her. “Your secret is about to come out in a very big way.”
She leaned toward him, too, sliding her upper body across the bar. “I have no secret.”
“Liar.” The word came out as an endearment.
Her mouth tightened. “I want you to walk out of this bar. I want you to walk out of my life. And I never want to see you again.”
“Never?” he repeated. “What a loss that would be for you. I’ve been told that I can be quite charming.” Under the right circumstances. These were probably not those circumstances.
“Never,” she snapped. “You have the wrong woman.”
“No, I don’t.”
“I haven’t hired you. I don’t need you. Leave.” Her breath came faster.
The fear in her eyes had deepened. Hell. So much for an easy first meeting. She obviously was not in the mood to cooperate. Not that he could blame her. The woman’s life was about to implode. Because time was of the extreme essence, he’d had to kiss tact goodbye and get straight to the point.
But if she didn’t want him by her side…
Then he’d have to slide to the shadows. “They are coming.” She needed to be prepared. “You don’t have much time.”
She snatched her hand away from him. “You have the wrong woman.”
No, he didn’t. But Constantine inclined his head toward her. “You’re going to need me.”
“I will not.”
“We’ll see.” With one last look, he turned away. Constantine took a step forward, then stopped. He pointed at Johnny. “Better keep an extra close watch on things tonight. Something tells me the scene will get wild.”
Johnny’s thick brows climbed. “Wild how?”
“You’ll see.” Time to regroup. Whistling, Constantine walked through the crowd.
No, no, no, no, no. This could not be happening. Could. Not. Be. Juliet Laurent’s heart drummed too fast and hard in her chest as she watched the tall, dark, and dangerously sexy stranger cut his way through the crowd.
He knew her secret. A secret she’d only learned herself in the last six months. The man had to be trouble.
“Why can’t the crazy ones just stay in New Orleans?” Johnny grumbled. “Why do they have to haul their asses up here?”
She swallowed. Twice. Her throat had turned so dry that the movement hurt. “Crazy. Yeah, that’s what he was.” If only.
Wilde. That had been the name of the protection firm that the so-called bodyguard had dropped. Most people had heard about Wilde because the agents were in the news every other day. They protected celebrities. The mega-wealthy. And even…royalty.
I am doomed. She grabbed for the black apron that she’d tied around her waist earlier that night. It took her three tries to get the damn thing off because her hands shook so much. Every instinct she possessed screamed for Juliet to run. To burst out of that bar, to jump in her Jeep and to get as far and as fast away as possible.
Where would I go? This was home. This was her life.
“Jules?” Johnny frowned at her.
Juliet realized she’d slapped the apron down on the bar top and her hand now gripped her keys. But she couldn’t run off in the middle of a shift. That would be irresponsible. Sal, the owner, had always been good to her.
And there isn’t any place to go.
The guy…Constantine…he’d vanished. He—he could have just been trying to scare her. To rattle her. Before her mother died, hadn’t she warned Juliet that opportunists would pop up? That people who’d want to use and manipulate her might appear?
She didn’t know Constantine. She sure as hell couldn’t trust him. In fact, when it came to her deep, dark secret, Juliet trusted no one.
“I’m fine,” she finally said. A total lie, but who cared? With fingers that still trembled, she tucked her keys back into the pocket of her black pants. And, once more, she put on her apron. “If you see that man again, you warn me, got it?”
An immediate nod from Johnny. “Can you believe that shit about wearing your skin?”
Juliet flinched. Can you believe that shit about him calling me a princess?
“Sorry,” he mumbled. “Don’t you worry. I won’t let that jerk get anywhere near you. You’re safe here.”
Safe. Sure. She was safe. Safe in her comfortable, normal life with her comfortable, normal routine. Juliet went back to making drinks, and she tried to forget about the stranger who’d just burst into her life, claiming he was there to protect her.
The truth was, though, that she didn’t think protection had been his real plan. She feared he’d been in the bar to wreck her world.
Closing time. A few stragglers remained, as they always did at the end of the night, but Juliet knew the manager would take care of them. Rides had already been called, and she’d cleaned up the bar and shut down the register. Her apron hung inside her locker, and she slung her bag over her shoulder before slamming the locker door shut.
Tips had been insane that night. One of the reasons she kept bartending when she could have found something else? Money. You just couldn’t beat the schedule and the money she was pulling in. Soon, though, she’d be getting her Master’s and her plan was to hang up her own shingle with her counseling business.
“Night, Jules!” Johnny called out as he ducked out of a small storage room and back toward the front of the bar.
She clutched her bag a little tighter and eased out the back door. Her trusty Jeep waited in the employee lot. Just about thirty feet and she’d be in that baby and safely on her way home. The door swung closed behind her with a distinct clank, and Juliet took a quick step forward.
You never, ever tell a stranger when you’re getting off work. I could be planning to stay around and wait out back for you. You come out on your own at 2 a.m., and then I could grab you.
The stranger’s words whispered through her head, and her pace picked up even more. She didn’t see anyone else behind the building. Only employees were supposed to park in this lot, and it was quiet. Well-lit. No sign of the dangerously attractive guy…
Juliet stilled. Maybe five feet from her ride. That was the distance that separated her. Her hand drove into her bag and her fist came out holding the keys. She hit the button to unlock the Jeep, and the taillights flashed at her as she bounded for her vehicle.
“Juliet Laurent?” A woman’s voice. Polished. Poised. And, oddly enough, coming from the direction of the dumpster.
Juliet spun around. Sure enough, a woman had just stepped from behind the shadows of the dumpster. She wore a loose blouse, a pencil skirt, and high heels. She also wasn’t alone.
A man was with her. A man who had a camera hoisted on his shoulder.
“I’m Vicky Skye with Channel Four News.” The woman rushed eagerly forward. “Are you Juliet Laurent?”
The cameraman followed her.
“Princess Juliet Laurent?” The reporter motioned to her cameraman and the light over his lens blasted into Juliet’s face. “Tell me, why is the heir to a European kingdom working at Sal’s Bar in Baton Rouge?”
Juliet could feel all the blood rushing from her head. Her body swayed even as her stomach rolled sickeningly.
Before she could answer, the screech of tires shattered the night. Her head whipped to the right. A large, black van barreled to a stop, blocking the lane that took vehicles both in and out of the parking lot. Blocking my escape.
“Dammit, that’s Channel Seven,” Vicky groused. “Biting at my heels as usual.”
The van’s side door rolled open, and three people jumped out. Two had cameras.
Juliet stumbled back.
Honk. Loud, jarring.
Her keys slipped from her hand and fell to the ground. Another vehicle had just pulled up behind the van, but since the van was blocking the lane, that driver was trapped.
Honk. Long and angry. The driver blared his frustration right before he abandoned his vehicle. He came running for Juliet, too, but he wasn’t holding a fancy camera to film her. He just used his phone.
Everyone was closing in on her. Shouting questions.
“Are you really royalty?”
“Why have you been hiding?”
“Do you intend to head back to Lancaden?”
Lancaden. A small dot on the map. Barely noticeable. Meaningless to most. Certainly not nearly as famous as Monaco, its neighbor. But the name utterly terrified her. Juliet’s head moved in a frantic shake.
“So you’re abandoning your people?” Vicky pounced. “Turning away and never looking back?”
All the lights were on her. They were filming. Watching. Questioning. Blowing her quiet life to hell and back. She dropped to her knees as she tried to find her keys.
The reporters closed in even tighter.
“Don’t you care about your people at all?”
Where were the damn keys? Her hands clawed against the cement. “I’m American.” Her voice came out sounding too hoarse. Too scared. “Born in a hospital right here in Baton Rouge.” She’d never set foot in Lancaden, for good reason.
When the people there wanted to kill you, you knew to avoid the place. Hadn’t her mother told her Lancaden was dangerous? One didn’t rush straight into danger.
“Are you dating anyone?” This question came from the tall male with the camera. He leaned over her. Kept filming. “Who’s the lucky partner for a princess?”
She threw up her hand because his camera was inches from her face. “Get back!” The keys had vanished, and she feared someone had snatched them up or kicked them away. After all, without the keys, how could she escape?
But it wasn’t like she could drive out of the lot, anyway. Not with the van blocking the lane.
Juliet shot to her feet. She’d go back inside Sal’s. Stay there until the reporters left. Except when she tried to get to the bar’s back door, they stepped into her way. They surrounded her and kept filming and—impossibly—more people had appeared. More people filming with phones. The questions became a non-stop blast as they fired at her.
“Stop, please!” Juliet tried to dodge her way through the throng. “I need to get back inside!”
They closed in tighter. Terror clawed at her because the group was too thick. How had this happened? Where were all these people even coming from? Their bodies jostled into her. The filming continued. Phones were all around her as she spun in a frantic circle, trapped.
“Poor lost princess…” A low rasp.
Her breath caught. “Who said that?”
More questions blasted at her. A hand grabbed at her arm. Fingers bit into her skin. “Stop!” Juliet cried.
But they weren’t stopping. She couldn’t break free. The cameras were catching every terrible moment, and there was no escape. She couldn’t even get back to the bar because they blocked her and pushed her, and she was terrified. Tears pooled in her eyes.
A growl pierced the night. A loud, rumbling growl that sounded like something that might just come from one very pissed-off dragon. She could even smell smoke drifting in the air.
No, not smoke. Exhaust. And that growl was coming closer. Getting even louder.
“What the hell?” Vicky jumped back and so did her crew. A few others followed suit because a motorcycle had just rolled right up to the scene. The driver had a black helmet over his head, but she recognized the expensive suit that he wore.
He paused the motorcycle near the throng of people as he shoved up the visor on his helmet. “Need a ride, princess?” His hand extended toward her.
Juliet didn’t hesitate. She flew toward him and grabbed his hand like the lifeline it was. “I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my entire life!”
His mouth kicked into a half-grin. “Remember that.”
She jumped on the motorcycle behind him. Let go of his hand, but gripped his waist.
He took off his helmet and put it on her head. “Hold tight.”
She already was holding tight.
But when he spun the motorcycle around, she grabbed on to him even tighter. Juliet could have sworn that she heard the rumble of his laughter, but the growl of the motorcycle’s engine swallowed up the sound in the next instant. The motorcycle surged around the parked van—with its still open driver’s door—and around the vehicles lined up behind the van. As soon as he hit the street, Constantine drove fast and hard, and when she looked back, she saw that reporters were chasing them.
And still filming.
So much for her quiet, normal life. She kissed it goodbye even as she held tight to…her bodyguard? “Thank you,” she breathed against him, not sure if he’d even hear her words.
But he had heard her because Constantine said, “No problem. Protecting and saving is part of the package deal.”