“I’m twenty-eight years old. I don’t need a babysitter.” Her Royal Highness, Princess Esme Hollycombe of the tiny southern European country of Prylea, squared her shoulders and raised her chin. “I’ll take a regular security team with me to Washington, DC and be done with it.”
Her father’s intelligence advisors exchanged a look, then the head of security—a slightly hunched older man named Greaves who’d been hired by her father before Esme was born—gave her a quizzical stare. “Yes, your grace. But please remember that this trip is not only about you. Your ailing father, the king, will also be making the journey to get a second opinion on his condition. We cannot afford to leave either one of you unprotected during these turbulent times.”
Darn it. He had a point. And he knew just the right buttons to push. Esme would do just about anything for her father, as Greaves was well aware. Never mind the fact that the king was dying. This new opinion he was seeking in Georgetown would only slightly prolong his life, at best, or put another nail in his already well-sealed coffin. But she couldn’t turn down the chance to extend her time with him, even by one more day.
She swallowed hard against the lump of sorrow that had been lodged in her throat since her father had first been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years prior. Since then he’d been in and out of treatments, traveling the world to seek a cure for what was, as of yet, incurable. Still, if it gave her father some small measure of hope, she’d do whatever she could to ensure he got to see the specialist in DC.
Her fingers itched to pull out the knitting she’d brought along in her purse, but she clenched her fists instead. The hobby kept her busy and sane during these dark times and also helped her with one of her dearest charitable causes. All of the blankets she made were distributed to a charity for Prylea’s poor—under a fake name, of course. It wouldn’t do to have the royal family seen as nothing but a bunch of crafters, even for a good cause.
Esme took a deep breath and looked across the room to where her usual contingent of security guards stood. Most of them were middle-aged and indistinguishable from the others. They blended into the background as their job demanded. Silently watching and waiting for danger to rear its ugly head, then they’d spring into action to defend and protect.
One man, though, a relative newcomer, stood near the window, the sunlight striking his blond hair and making it look like spun gold. After six months of service, he was still an enigma to Esme. She was intrigued by him, watching him as closely as he watched her, and not because he was gorgeous either. Sure, the guy had the ripped physique of an ex-military man. He was a former Navy SEAL after all. But there was something more about him, a lingering haunted look in his gray-green eyes that had her wondering exactly what had happened to him during his time as a SEAL. She’d tried to find out by snooping through his employment records, but with everything else going on, she hadn’t had time to do a proper in-depth search.
“Your highness, we need an answer before you leave tonight,” Greaves said, his stern, jowly look setting her nerves on edge again. She didn’t like being forced into a corner. “We must insist on the security detail, princess. If you refuse, we’ll be forced to send your cousin Silvester in your place.”
Oh, he was good.
Silvester had once been a friend who’d now turned rival. The guy was only interested in power—namely the throne of Prylea. Unfortunately, Esme’s father had failed to secure her place in the line of succession for the country by changing the outdated rule in the Prylean constitution that said a woman could not rule. So very nineteenth century. So very irritating.
The last person on earth she’d want representing her or her country in the United States was her cousin Silvester. Esme was having a hard enough time trying to figure out how to get around her country’s antiquated rules without thrusting her power-hungry cousin out on the world stage to strut about like the overblown peacock he’d become.
“Fine.” She took a deep breath. “But I choose the team lead.”
“Fine.” A muscle ticked in Greaves’s cheek, but otherwise his face remained stoic. He leaned closer to whisper to his cronies then turned back to Esme. “We agree. But you must choose from the current team members already in the room.” His beady black eyes glittered behind his wire-rimmed glasses, as if he’d just pulled off some wonderful coup. “May I suggest Sutherland. He’s quite accomplished and has long served your father with loyalty and distinction.”
Sutherland was a short, stout man of brisk manners and few words. He and her father were old friends. “He’s fine to guard the king. I’ve got someone else in mind for head of my detail.”
Greaves raised a bushy white brow but remained silent.
“I want him.” She pointed to the blond Adonis still leaning against the wall by the window, looking for all the world as if she were bored to tears. “Zachary Raybourn.”
“But, your grace—” Greaves sputtered. “He’s not even been with the team for a year yet. And he’s not a Prylean citizen. He’s American.”
“All the better.” Esme bit back a smile at the way the old man said that last word, more like an unsavory curse than a nationality. She pushed to her feet, blood pounding and knees wobbling. Her late mother had always said that being a good monarch demanded firm judgment and a will to succeed. Esme had the drive to become the next queen down pat. The judgment part was still in question. But Raybourn was really the only choice she had. All the other men were loyal to the Prylean constitution. At least Raybourn didn’t give two hoots about her country or its dark-age ways. He was here for the job, at least from what she could tell. And he kept his mouth shut, which was even more important. Heck, he’d barely said more than two words beyond the normal civilities to Esme the entire time he’d been in the family’s employ. “I want him to be the lead of my personal team or no deal.”
She gave a quick side-glance to see Raybourn had straightened and was looking as stunned as she felt. Good. She raised her chin to him. “Do you accept the position?”
Raybourn hesitated, then smoothed a hand down the front of his black suit coat. “Yes.”
* * *
To say Zachary “Z” Raybourn was surprised by the princess’s offer would have put it mildly. He wasn’t sure yet how he’d work this to his advantage, but he would. He always did. He wasn’t known as the best card shark in the royal guard for nothing. Not that he didn’t appreciate the palace and all its ancient grandeur, but he longed for a good burger and fries and some decent beer for a change, not the watered-down stuff they called ale here in Prylea.
“Your grace, I realize that we said you could choose your own team leads, but Mr. Raybourn is not a wise choice.” Greaves cleared his throat. “Perhaps someone more experienced and well-versed in international diplomacy might be a better selection. As I said, Sutherland is—”
“Already occupied with the king,” Z supplied helpfully. “I’m fully capable of leading the princess’s security detail, Mr. Greaves, I assure you. I was fully briefed on all things Prylean prior to being sent here and I am American. No one knows how to handle a difficult situation in the States better than me. It’s my homeland.”
He knew damned well why they were pushing for Sutherland instead of him. The guy supported the parliament’s current nationalistic views and with the king stepping back from his duties and handing more and more responsibilities off to others, Sutherland and his cronies wanted to keep the monarchy in the hands of their puppet—the princess’s cousin Silvester. Z hoped that by Esme going to America and handling the meetings her father had been scheduled to preside over with the government, it would show everyone she was a capable leader and that there was no reason for her not to be Queen of Prylea.
And yeah, maybe his last SEAL mission hadn’t exactly ended as he’d wished—it had been a total disaster, truth be told. That didn’t mean he wasn’t capable of running a tight ship when it came to those under his protection. Hell, he had the scars all over his back to prove it.
Bad enough he’d been stuck here playing babysitter for half a year. He was ready to get back in the game, ready for more. If this wasn’t exactly a huge promotion, at least it was a start. Besides, Prylea was a big piece of the puzzle in the United States’ arsenal as far as friendly ports where they could keep their military at the ready in case of attack were concerned. That was the whole reason he’d been lent out to the royal family—as a gesture of cooperation between the two countries. Silvester had recently made speeches hinting at his plans for a more nationalistic policy and less friendly relations with the US. It was contrary to the choices the king had made over the last several decades, but the king currently lacked the strength to speak out against him, and there were many in parliament who liked the idea of returning to the “good old times” when Prylea stood for itself alone. The princess was the only one standing against him, and Z intended to give her all the support she needed—blustering cabinet members or not. He’d stood his ground in front of screaming drill sergeants and irate four-star generals. He could sure as hell withstand a load of bogus crap from a room full of tired old men looking to protect their own asses.
“Look, let’s consider this a trial run, eh?” Z said to appease the glaring opponents in the room. He met Esme’s wary gaze and flashed what he hoped was a confident smile. “We’re traveling to Washington, DC. Hardly a hotbed for insurgency. And Sutherland will be there as backup if I need him.” He wouldn’t. “If anything goes wrong, you can switch us out and be done with it. No questions asked. Deal?”
He held out his hand to Greaves. The old man exhaled loud and reluctantly shook on it.
Z bit back a grin and barely resisted winking at the princess. He was going to be her head of security, at least for this mission. He was going to get a chance to work the troops on the ground, so to speak. He was going to be free at last.
And he was going to enjoy every second of it.