Excerpt for The Princess and the Bodyguard, A Royal Sweethearts Romance Novel, Book 3, The Casteloria Royals by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The Princess and the Bodyguard

Book 3 in The Casteloria Royals Series

Originally published as A Cold Day in Paradise


Kristy K. James




Copyright 2016 Kristy K. James

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be copied or reprinted without express written permission from author.



From the author of the popular Coach’s Boys series comes Book 2 in The Casteloria Royals Trilogy

Some lines just aren't meant to be crossed…
Briannon Gallagher-Hughes is everything a man could ever hope for in a woman. Beautiful, intelligent, kind, and loyal. A man would be blessed to win her heart—and he knows it's his for the taking. But Fin was hired to protect the royal family, not to fall in love with his king's daughter.


Her patience has finally run out…

The moment they met, Briannon knew Fin was the man she wanted to spend her life with, but his stubborn pride has kept them apart for fifteen long years. Now, with her biological clock ticking, she realizes it's time to let go of her dreams—before she's too old to have the children she so desperately desires.


Filled with romance, intrigue, secrets, and danger, The Casteloria Royals is a series you can't help but fall in love with. Each story is complete with no cliffhanger endings.

Connect with Kristy…

http://kristykjames.net/

https://www.facebook.com/kristykjames


Be sure to follow Kristy on Bookbub to get notifications for her new releases!

https://www.bookbub.com/authors/kristy-k-james


Other Works by Kristy K. James


Coach's Boys Series

The Daddy Pact, Book 1

A Hero for Holly, Book 2

A Harry Situation, Book 3

Her Best Friend Jon, Book 4

Code Red Christmas, Book 5

Darby's Dilemma, Book 6

The Detective's Second Chance, Book 7

Back to the Beginning, Book 8

Holding Out For Love, Coach's Boys Companion Story (should be read between books 6 & 7)

Cooking With the Coach's Boys


A Royal Sweethearts Romance Novel Series

The Casteloria Royals

A Prince on the Run, Book 1

The Physician to the King, Book 2

The Princess and the Bodyguard, Book 3


Hemisphere/Paranormal Romance

The Ripple

Haunted Depot: The Ghost Curse Series

The Secret, Book 1

The Depot, Book 2

A Merry Depot Christmas, Book 3


Special Wishes Time Travel Romance

His Only Love

Her Long Road Home


Other Fiction:

Enza

Josh

The Secret Admirer

Erin's Christmas Wish

A Fine Mess

Reluctant Guardian




Dedication/Thank you…

Thank you again to Kathie and Shelley for working so hard to make sure my stories are as error-free as possible. And, Kathie—I can’t even express how grateful I am in that as much as I stink at anything having to do with numbers, you excel. That you’re still speaking to me after the mess I made of the timelines in Fin’s book and The Accidental Wish… Just thank you. From the bottom of my heart.




Chapter 1


Maybe it was a smirk and maybe it wasn’t, but whatever it was, Finley Hughes wanted to wipe the expression off Gannon Kearney’s face. Since joining the Royal Guard almost three weeks ago, the young man had turned his mornings into a never ending nightmare.

Late-October, in many parts of the world would be comfortable. Even Castelorian weather wouldn’t be too bad in the fall—or any time of year—but for the winds blowing in off the north Atlantic. Frigid windchills meant running was once again confined indoors where he made countless, miserably dull laps around the palace gymnasium.

The sound of his footsteps pounding against the gleaming honey colored wood echoed loud enough to compete with the music blasting from the slim headset, delivering James Taylor’s Greatest Hits to his ears. That was something he never had to worry about when he ran trails around the island.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Of course it wasn't. No, Kearney barely met the minimum age requirement for guards, having just turned twenty-five late in the summer. Fourteen years his senior, Fin knew age was catching up with him. Kearney knew it too.

He'd overheard the kid talking to the other two new hires earlier in the week. An ambitious little bootlicker, his only goal was to take over as Head of Castelorian Security. Unfortunately, Mr. Kearney would have to learn to live with disappointment because Fin had no intention of retiring. Not for another couple of decades at any rate. It might come as a surprise to the boy but job security would never be an issue for him. Not only was there a slight—very slight—ancestral tie to the Royal family, but one of his closest friends also happened to be the Crown Prince. Then there was the fact that he took his position seriously and gave it a hundred and ten percent.

Still, it rankled that this greenhorn was just waiting for him to screw up and so he pushed himself, running faster, running longer than he otherwise might have done. He could feel the sweat dripping off the ends of his short-cropped hair, running between his shoulder blades and soaking into his tee shirt, causing it to stick to his skin. And still he ran, only calling it quits when his legs started to shake and his lungs felt like they were on fire.

“Kearney,” he acknowledged with a curt nod, forcing the one word out in a normal tone on his way toward the hall.

Gannon, not relaxing his stance—his booted feet shoulder width apart, hands clasped in front of him—acknowledged the nod with one of his own.

Lowest man on the totem pole, he had to be in the gym an hour before King Liam and Nolan’s bride, Abby, arrived for their morning swim. Though the newlyweds now lived in a cottage about halfway between here and Birmore, she and the ruler of their small country had become best pals shortly after her arrival on the island the previous spring and she still came to visit most mornings.

Until recently, Fin timed his runs so he could greet both of them but with Kearney always watching him with that annoying, superior expression, he’d begun to come earlier. Usually, he managed to get at least half of his forty minutes out of the way before his audience showed up.

Muttering under the breath he worked hard to keep under control, he headed back to his apartment looking forward to the hot shower that would soothe his abused muscles. As he rounded the final corner, he almost collided with Cameron, who was pushing a vintage buggy his parents claimed they'd used to take both him and Briannon for walks when they'd been infants.

Two month old Zoey sounded like she was winding down from another crying jag and Cam looked like he’d been up with her half the night. Normally, he wouldn’t be seen outside the apartment he shared with Laura and their children in anything less than casual clothes. That all changed with the birth of his daughter. This morning, he wore a pair of gray sweatpants and a navy blue, knee length robe, and it was clear he was having a bad hair day with his dark blond locks sticking up in every direction.

“You know, you have a small legion of nannies who would jump at the chance take care of her for a few hours so you could get some sleep,” Finley reminded him, stopping beside the buggy and reaching down to stroke a soft, plump cheek.

“Yeah, I know.”

And he did, but Cam and Laura preferred taking care of their baby and didn’t often let anyone outside of family and close friends near her.

“You’re up early,” his friend observed, gently bouncing the handle so Zoey might not realize he’d stopped moving. So far, it seemed to be working.

“You know it’s always a little crazy getting ready for the P.R. tour. I’ve got to meet with your sister after breakfast to go over the final itinerary, and then with the detail that’s going with us this year to get them up to speed.”

Everyone had been making use of Google so they could familiarize themselves with each of the stops along the way, as well as the hotels and surrounding areas. Much as he’d resisted the inclusion of all things electronic into the job of keeping the Royal Family safe, he had to admit that the internet and cell phones made life a lot easier.

“You leave on Monday?”

Fin nodded. Two more days to make sure everything was in order. Most of their destinations were in the States, but there were stops scheduled in the United Arab Emirates, Ireland, and Austria.

Homes to some of the world’s wealthiest adventure seekers, Briannon would court their patronage with single minded determination. The Castelorian economy was largely dependent on their tourism industry and as far as it depended on her, she would do her best to ensure a fair number of attendees booked future vacations on the islands.

“I don’t envy either of you that chore,” Cameron said, then yawned. He grinned when Fin clenched his teeth together in an attempt to prevent the inevitable.

“You do that on purpose,” he muttered, covering his mouth with one hand.

“Maybe. Maybe not. You try having a baby—”

“Yeah. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll leave that to men like you and Nolan.”

“You never know. You might enjoy being a father.”

“I might enjoy bikini waxes and plucking my eyebrows too, but I doubt it.”

“One day, Fin. One day…”

“I think your daughter is starting to wake up again, daddy. Start walking.” Zoey wasn’t stirring at all and Cam chuckled at the obvious hint.

“Go take your shower. But when you get a minute, stop by my office later. We need to talk.”

“Will do."

Of course he'd known the request would be forthcoming, same as always. It was time for the annual, my-sister-is-a-stubborn-independent-young-lady talk. Like Fin hadn’t figured that out for himself, and a long time ago too. There weren’t many people in the world that drove him insane quite like Briannon Gallagher-Hughes and these yearly P.R. trips stressed him to no end.

It wasn’t that she purposely put herself in danger or anything like that. He’d never known her to sneak out of hotels to party or find the nearest bar. But she trusted far too many people. No matter how many times he, her father, and Cam warned her, she believed she should be able to mingle with crowds of ‘commoners’ like she was a normal person.

Not that he was saying the people she associated with were bad, but in the crowds the conventions drew, it would be impossible to know for sure. Then there was the fact that as far as countries went, Casteloria was one most of the world had never heard of, so she would probably never be a target—unless it was another nut case like Angus Farlane, Prince Colin’s father-in-law.

Colin was a nephew to the king and the overseer—much like a governor—of Coghlan, one of the three small islands that made up Casteloria. Unfortunately, his wife’s father had bigger plans for his grandsons—namely that one of them would one day be king.

With that goal in mind, he’d hired a group of thugs to make it happen. They had been responsible for the death of Cameron’s first wife, Shannen, three of Fin's agents, and they’d tried to kill Cam, his son Brendan, and the King. Thank God those attempts had been unsuccessful, but Brendan would be walking with an artificial leg for the rest of his life because of it. The sad thing was, Colin had no desire to be king, nor for his children to be put under the same scrutiny as his cousins had been in their younger years.

Angus and his henchmen had been put to death in the spring and, in his opinion, it was no great loss. Monsters like that didn’t deserve to live.

Shrugging away bad memories, he stepped under the steaming spray and let the hot water cascade over his head. Might as well enjoy this while he could because there would no relaxing once they left for the four week tour.


~~~~~


It's that time of year again, folks. Yes, Princess Briannon Gallagher-Hughes, affectionately known in some circles as the Eternal Virgin of Casteloria, will once again be hitting the road for her annual public relations scam tour. An event Castelorians look forward to year-round, the Princess—an expert at pimping the country’s luxurious vacation packages to the world’s wealthiest inhabitants—will be on the prowl for those eager to be parted from their hard-earned money.

Far be it for me to judge, but there are some who say the Royal Family and their subjects are no better than carnival grifters. Then again, guests on the islands willingly shell out thousands upon thousands of dollars for adventures that include murdering wildlife and abusing the dogs used to pull their sleds.

Perhaps one day, a respected animal rights organization might land on the King’s doorstep. Until then, I’m sure he’s praying that this year, like each one that has passed before it, he might get lucky and find a man desperate enough for a wife that he might finally marry the Princess off.

Pursing her lips, Briannon scrolled down to the comments section of the web page while trying to concentrate on the breakfast of peppermint tea, a hard-boiled egg, and freshly baked, flaky croissant sitting on the table in front of her. Moments before, she’d been looking forward to it. Now, however, she found it hard to work up much of an interest in eating anything.

Still, she slathered raspberry jam on the pastry and wondered why she bothered visiting the Galway Gazette website. Not that she made the news there every day, but once it had been brought to her attention that Hogan McCallum had made her his personal whipping board, she couldn’t seem to stay away.

To her disgust, she found herself scouring his column every day, hoping he’d found a topic more interesting than her. But he never did and she wondered what she might have done to warrant the man’s obvious hatred. She’d probably never know—and she wished she didn't care.

It wasn’t as if he'd singled her out either. No, the man seemed to despise a lot of other people too. Fortunately, many other royals, and celebrities hailing from all around the world, found their names slandered nearly every day of the week in what was known as the ‘rag mag’ of the east.

Eternal Virgin of Casteloria?

She focused on the comments again, pleased to note that most were from Castelorian citizens defending her honor. It warmed her heart that they were so quick to jump to her defense but it still hurt that the ugly words were on the worldwide web for anyone to see.

It also made her see red that Hogan had the nerve to insinuate that their vacation packages promoted what amounted to cruelty to animals. Casteloria had some of the strictest animal rights laws on the planet. The only ones they allowed to be hunted were those that endangered the human inhabitants of the islands, or those used to feed families. Even the black bears and grizzlies were limited to a dozen a year. Yes, the pelts were given to the marksmen who made the kill, but the rest was used for food too. Even the bones were used by local craft makers. Nothing was wasted.

It wasn’t her father’s fault that their ancestors had imported them, along with deer and moose that reproduced in such vast numbers that driving at night—safely—was always a challenge. Still, Hogan seemed to think they promoted the slaughter of all animals, and just for fun. Yes, it was fun for the hunters who reserved their spots as many as three years in advance, but it was also a necessary evil in order to keep the numbers under control.

With a sigh, she pushed her plate away, her croissant barely touched. A few more comments, some written by those who loved the insults directed at her, and Briannon closed the laptop. Pushing away from the small table in front of the French doors that opened out to a balcony, she began to pace from one end of her luxurious apartment to the other.

“Just stop thinking about him,” she muttered to herself, annoyed that she’d let the reference to ‘virgin’ get to her again.

There was nothing wrong with saving herself for marriage, though at nearly thirty-five, it seemed those odds were dwindling every day. If only- She nipped the thought in the bud, knowing if she went there it would take forever to work herself out of the funk it always caused.

Time to focus on the trip, she decided, pivoting on her heel when she reached the foyer, then detouring up the curved stairway to her bedroom. Ladies maids would deal with the packing, but she still had to choose which outfits she intended to take along on the tour.

As she started rifling through the hangers in her closet, she wished she could just deal with it all herself. She was perfectly capable of stuffing her own clothes in suitcases and garment bags, but after having her father point out that she’d be putting several women out of a work if she kept forgetting she was a princess, she decided to suck it up. She wouldn’t be the cause of them losing their jobs.

They would be gone nearly a month. Twenty-eight days. Ten symposiums that, to the best of her knowledge, were booked solid.

That meant ten changes of clothes suitable for business would be necessary. According to palace designers and seamstresses, it would be in poor taste to be photographed wearing the same article of clothing twice. Sometimes, Briannon wondered if she’d been born to the wrong family because it seemed more trouble than it was worth.

Still, she pulled out the requisite number, then chose another week’s worth of more casual clothes. Since the hotels they would be staying at provided laundry service, she wouldn’t need more than that. Several pairs of jeans, tee shirts, and sweaters were stacked on top of the coverlet on her queen sized bed. When she was off duty, she intended to be comfortable. Fortunately, Casteloria was so small, she was always able to play tourist in most cities without fear of recognition. Much of the time anyway.

That job out of the way, she stopped before an antique triple mirror standing in the corner of her room. A cream silk skirt paired with a rose colored blouse and simple pendant showed off the few curves she possessed, but there was no hiding the fact that she would never be mistaken for a voluptuous woman. It was a fact she’d had to accept as an insecure teen, and one she didn’t like any more today than she had then.

Removing the two clips on either side of her head, Briannon tried to smooth the long dark curls a bit before tucking it back behind her ears and securing it again.

It was the best she could do, she told herself, as she took a slow breath to try and steady her nerves. For most of the morning, she'd managed to pretend that today was just another day, but it wasn't. While they didn't happen often, she'd had enough private meetings with Finley Hughes through the years that they shouldn’t bother her, but they did. It didn’t help to remind herself that she'd survived them before—and she would for years to come, or for at least as long as she continued to represent her country in an effort to contribute to their tourism industry.

Days like today, which was pretty much any time they had to discuss tours and other functions that took her out of the country, never failed to stress her out though. As head of security, he had to know her plans down to the smallest detail. It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t have to come along on each trip, but then she supposed they would be harder to handle if he didn’t.

At least this way, she could continue to delude herself into thinking he cared about her as more than just a member of the family he’d sworn to protect. That maybe someday, he might see her as a woman. A woman who had been in love with him for the past fifteen years.


~~~~~


The butter, just beginning to sizzle in the hot pan on the stove, filled the small kitchen with a rich, mouthwatering aroma. Fin poured in the eggs he’d spent the last couple of minutes whisking, stirring them with an aged wooden spoon as he added a couple of handfuls of diced peppers, onion, and ham. It wasn’t long before he was dumping the scramble on a stark white china plate, adding a thin slice of lightly buttered multi-grain toast, and sliding it across the counter to where he would sit and eat it.

There was an antique cherry wood table and four chairs in the corner of the room, and a larger, fancy dining room that seated ten just down the hall. But Fin had always found sitting alone at any table, especially in the privacy of his own home, uncomfortable and so he chose to eat all of his meals at the counter.

When he finished juicing a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, he slid the tall glass across the smooth, polished granite too before walking around the bar to sit down and eat the breakfast he’d had nearly every morning for as long as he could remember. Heavy on protein and produce, light on carbohydrates was his motto. Not that he didn’t sometimes indulge in foods like waffles or the occasional donut, but protein was better for maintaining muscle, and muscle helped him stay fit enough to do his job.

As he ate, he opened his laptop and skimmed the emails sent by his second in command, Quinn MacMahon. Not only was the man built like a tank, he was smart—a certifiable genius when it came to anything having to do with computers—so promoting him after Darron O’Neill had been killed in the shootout on Bois Blanc Island fifteen months ago seemed to be the logical choice. Thus far, he hadn’t regretted his decision for an instant.

Quinn rose earlier than pretty much anyone Fin knew, himself included, spending quiet hours researching anything that might affect the world around them, especially the family they were sworn to protect. If there was anything he needed to know, it would be waiting in his inbox before the sun was up, though for a good part of the year, it didn't take much to beat the sunrise.

Per usual, there wasn’t much he needed to know but the subject line with a single word, ‘McCallum,’ made his jaws clench. Two or three times a month, every month—and sometimes more frequently than that—Hogan McCallum wrote a disparaging article about Briannon. He’d been doing so for the past couple of years and never seemed to run out of fodder for the fans of stories that were always more fiction than truth.

Taking another bite of egg, Fin clicked on the email, then read the contents of the latest article. By the time he finished, he was pinching the bridge of his nose, determined that somehow, he would put a stop to the vicious attacks against King Liam’s daughter. He wasn't sure how he would accomplish it but he was going to have a chat with Quinn. There had to be some dirt on Hogan, and if there was, they were going to find it. And then they would use it to discredit the self-proclaimed journalist.

Like most people in the free world, Fin believed in freedom of the press. But when someone like McCallum was attacking others—only with the intention of hurting them, and most everything he wrote was nothing but lies and supposition—it rankled. And with Briannon the target of so much venom- Yeah. It was going to end.

When he finished eating, he rinsed everything off and put them in the dishwasher. It usually took four or five days to fill it enough to bother running it and that would be this evening, he noted, closing the door and then heading for the bathroom to brush his teeth.

He had an appointment with the princess in about fifteen minutes. They would be going over her itinerary one more time before they boarded one of the royal jets sitting in a private hangar at the small airport in town.

Fin never looked forward to private meetings with Briannon. In fact, he often wondered why he didn’t just hand the reigns of her security detail over to Quinn, or one of the other longtime guards he trusted. But he never had. And he never would because he didn’t trust anyone enough to look after her when she was out of the country. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

With a sigh, he wiped his mouth on a hand towel, threw it in the hamper, and then quickly ran the electric razor over his face. Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he chided himself for wishing he’d postponed breakfast until after the meeting.

The eggs he'd eaten felt like they were turning sour in his stomach and he knew it was because he would be spending an hour or so alone with the princess. She had an expression that made it clear she thought he was a coward, and while he’d long since perfected the facade that it didn't bother him, it always did.

“Time to get it over with,” he muttered, glancing at his watch. Five minutes now. He was really going to have to hoof it because being late to any meeting was unacceptable. It was a work ethic he’d pounded into the brains of his subordinates—and he never expected anything from them he wasn’t prepared to do himself.

“Cutting it close, boss,” Quinn said when they passed in one of the many wide, opulently decorated hallways.

“Tell me about it,” he said over his shoulder, not slowing his pace.

Cutting it close wasn’t an exaggeration. He glanced at his watch just before opening the door to Briannon’s receptionist’s office. Seventeen seconds to spare. Fin resisted the urge to let out a relieved breath as Marilee Ahearn smiled up at him.

“I’ll let her know you’re here,” she said, pressing a button on the phone on her desk. “Mr. Hughes has arrived.”

“Send him in please,” a soft voice said through the small speaker.

“Go on in. Can I bring you some coffee?”

“Thank you, Marilee, but I’m fine.”

He walked to the door, rapped once, then opened it and stepped through. Briannon didn’t bother getting up from behind her desk, she just motioned toward the chairs sitting before it. Setting the file he carried down in front of her, he chose the leather chair on the right, relaxing as much as he ever could while in her presence.

“You’ve gone over everything?” she asked, spinning it around and opening it.

Though they could have done everything electronically, Liam preferred to have a paper trail, just in case. The King loved technology as much as anyone, even texted his family members on a regular basis, but he didn’t trust it. As careful as they were to back everything up, he still worried that a crash could wipe out everything, and so whatever went into a phone or computer was also printed and filed.

“Yes. Everything seems to be in order. Your father had a problem with a couple of the tourist attractions on the list so they’ve been removed, but it’s a go on the rest.”

As he spoke, she was nodding her head and flipping through the pages. When she saw that her father had nixed the idea of a popular dance club and museum of questionable arts, her lips thinned for a moment, but she only shrugged and continued reading.

Fin bit back a grin. He’d known her long enough to know that she had no interest in either of the destinations, but sometimes she seemed to resent the bubble she lived in because of who her family was. When that happened, she tended to rebel a bit, though Liam always nipped it in the bud. She might be thirty-five years old, but his was the final word when he thought her safety could be at risk.

What amused Fin the most was that he knew she knew the suggestions would never be approved but she threw them in anyway, like a child drawing a line in the sand. Except she was the one daring to cross it—and being thwarted at every turn.

One day she would have her way though. She would leap over one of the lines for no other reason than to prove that she was an adult and capable of making her own choices. And once her need to rebel had been satisfied, she would again become the classy princess her parents raised her to be.

Sometimes Fin couldn’t help but wonder what the beautiful woman before him might have done with her life if she’d been born into a normal family. Would things be different between them now if she’d been someone like him instead of the daughter of his king?




Chapter 2


Unlike the schedules commercial flights were limited to, jets belonging to the royal family could take off and land at any time, and so Briannon found herself buckled into a plush seat and gripping the armrests as the plane took off mid-afternoon on Monday, long after they'd originally planned to leave.

A computer glitch had wiped out the website she worked hard to maintain during the night and given the nature of her trip, she'd refused to leave until it had been resolved. While Quinn McMahon spent hours trying to find the problem, finally fixing it shortly before noon, she'd been working to update their alternate, in-case-of-just-such-an-emergency site.

Fortunately, it hadn't been necessary to use it, though the delay would cost them. Including a brief layover in New York City for refueling they should have arrived in Orlando before two o'clock eastern time. Now it would be pushing midnight before they landed, plus another hour or so to drive to their hotel in Cocoa Beach.

Focusing on her breathing as the small jet picked up speed on the runway, she just wanted it to be over. If they'd left early, she would likely have dozed on and off, sleeping away at least part of the flight. It wasn't very likely after the start to her day, which meant she'd spend every second in the air stressed and wishing for it to be over.

She'd never told her parents, but she hated flying. In fact, if she had her way, she’d never leave Castelorian soil. Ever. But they all had a role to play and her primary ones were palace liaison and official photographer. She definitely preferred the latter and would be happy to snap pictures from sunup to sundown any day of the week.

“We’ve leveled off,” Fin said quietly, setting a cup of tea on the small table between her seat and the one next to it. “You can relax now.”

Of course, he’d long ago figured out that she had a problem with heights. She counted herself fortunate that he’d never teased her or harassed her about it. Then again, she knew he wasn’t that kind of man. No, he might be gutless when it came to personal relationships with those he considered his betters, but there wasn't a mean bone in his body.

Having assured himself that she was as comfortable as she could be under the circumstances, he called all of the guards they’d brought along to the small meeting room near the back of the cabin.

There were a dozen besides him on the plane, plus the cockpit crew, two ladies maids, a secretary, and a chef. They were all scurrying about, doing whatever jobs they felt needed doing in the confines of the aircraft. Even Marilee sat with her eyes glued to the screen of her laptop, though the way the corners of her lips twitched from time to time, Briannon figured she must be reading or watching something amusing rather than dealing with palace business.

And that was fine with her. There really wasn't much business they could deal with here anyway. Once they landed though, it would be another story. At each of their destinations, hotel staff wouldn’t be allowed in her suite. The maids would take care of whatever cleaning was necessary, and the chef would prepare all of the meals eaten in the suites. She would be guarded around the clock, coddled, and watched like she didn't have the sense God gave a goose.

With a sigh, she wished as she’d sometimes done, that her family hadn’t been born into the Gallagher-Hughes clan. That she and Cam had attended public schools and gone home to a little two-story house where they’d both had chores and homework. Then, after supper, they might have run around town with the neighbor kids.

Except their lives hadn't been like that and she did what she’d always done when those thoughts invaded her mind. She reached for her laptop, opened it up, and started working.

Slipping the disk for the slide show into the CD drive, she would spend the flight going through the presentation she would give at each of the conventions. As the representative for Castelorian vacation packages, she wouldn't be the only one vying for the attendees' hard earned dollars. There would be several more resort reps hawking the benefits of their offerings so she needed to be as prepared as possible.

She already knew the slides were in the proper order, but it never hurt to make sure. Besides, when they wouldn’t reach the first airport for several hours, there really wasn’t much else for her to do.

It wasn’t long before the early start to her day caught up with her and her eyelids began to feel heavy. When she woke nearly two hours later, she noticed that her seat had been reclined and she’d been covered with a lightweight blanket. Since no one seemed to have noticed she was awake yet, she lay there for a few more minutes with her eyes closed.

This was the worst part of the trip. Not counting the fact that they were thousands of feet above the ground, there really was nothing to do but read, eat, watch movies, pace around the small area, or get in a workout on the exercise bike or elliptical set up at one end of the small meeting room across from the kitchen and restrooms.

She’d likely spend some quality time with the elliptical once supper was over. And she would need it, she knew, as the aroma of grilled steak and chocolate soufflé assailed her nose. Her stomach grumbled and she found herself looking forward to foods she rarely touched when she was home. It might be a working trip, but it was still a holiday of sorts and that meant a little indulgence was in order.


~~~~~


Used to the weather at home—which would be considered downright chilly in late August—the humid heat in Orlando, even at eleven o’clock at night, was almost stifling in its intensity.

Fin could feel a fine sheen of sweat on his brow before they even reached the terminal. And by the time bags had been loaded in three limousines parked out front—acquired and driven by the team who had arrived the day before—the fabric of his starched dress shirt was sticking to his back. Some people might thrive when dealing with a more than fifty degree change in temperature in less than a day—but he wasn’t one of them. He already missed home and windchills.

But over the next few weeks, he’d become acclimated to it. Briannon always did her best to start the tours in the south, working their way north so the frigid temperatures at home wouldn't be such a shock to the system. Still, even the northern states were warmer than what they were used to.

Fin shook his head, bringing himself back to the present. After the incredibly long day they'd already had, he must have zoned out during the hour-long drive to the upscale hotel they would be staying at in Cocoa Beach—a definite strike against someone holding the position of head of security.

Now, focused on their current location as seventeen Castelorians headed for the elevators in the lobby, he wasn’t surprising that they drew glances from curious guests. It was always this way. By morning, some of those same guests would still believe that Briannon was some sort of singer or actress, while others would have figured out who she was. Those were the ones who would hang around trying to catch glimpses of a real life princess.

All Fin wanted was to get her safely to her room, make sure the guards assigned to the third floor hall and balcony were in place, and fall into bed.

By the time everything was in place, he didn’t even remember crawling into the bed in one of the rooms off the spacious living area that separated Briannon’s bedroom from the rest. No, he was only aware that he’d fallen asleep because he’d neglected to close the drapes and the sun was shining in his eyes.

Even in Florida, he knew that wasn’t right. Not in November. That meant he’d slept far longer than he’d intended—well past seven. With a groan, he flung the comforter back and sat up, swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress. All he wanted to do was crawl back under the covers and dive back into dreamland, but he had a job to do.

With few exceptions, Fin had never been one to dawdle in the shower. In fact, he knew he could count on one hand the number of times he’d let the hot water run out. The only instance that came to mind though was last year on the island after Sam had cut his leg. He’d spent so much time in the frigid lake helping everyone into the boat during the raging storm that he’d been nearly frozen by the time they’d reached the chalets.

This morning, however, he was neither frozen nor in need of heat to soothe overworked muscles and so he cut his usual ten minutes in half. Within twenty minutes of opening his eyes, he was standing in the living area clean, shaved, and fully dressed—to see Briannon looking at him with a smirk.

"Enjoy it now," he said, his tone even and unruffled. "It's never going to happen again."

"Lighten up, Fin," she said, the smirk turning to a grin. She lifted a china cup to her lips. "It's not a crime to oversleep. Besides, you could almost call this a vacation."

“You might, but I don’t.” Nodding at her shortly, he crossed the room to where Nora Mahoney sat at a desk in the corner. “We’re going to the Kennedy Space Center this morning?”

“Yes, sir,” she told him, her smile kind. Then, anticipating his next question, she looked back at her computer screen and added, “Her Highness will be lunching at Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar at eleven-thirty, with supper at The Mango Tree at six o’clock.”

With the convention starting at eight, he added silently. She would have the afternoon to lounge at the pool, nap, go over her notes, or whatever she wished to do. But she would fulfill her duties as a representative of Casteloria by playing tourist in cities where she hoped to attract those who would do the same in their home country.

Fin appreciated that she wasn’t a fake about it. She genuinely enjoyed seeing the sights in other countries, but she was limited in the time she had to spend in most. They would be leaving in the morning for Myrtle Beach, where they would be staying for three nights, so she would be out and about more there.

It was so much easier to do his job when all members of the royal family were safe in their palace, he thought, walking to the patio doors leading out to the balcony. He knew that the majority of people in the world had never heard of Briannon Gallagher-Hughes, but all it took was one crazy like Angus Farlane and anything could happen.

Except nothing was going to happen to her or any of the rest of them on his watch. Still, he looked forward to the day their jet landed back in Birmore.


~~~~~


“How do we keep from freezing our fannies off on these hunting expeditions, Your Highness?”

This question came from a man sitting at a table with a group of his friends. Or at least that’s how Briannon had pegged them. Of course, the fact that they’d chatted quietly amongst themselves during the slide presentation didn't necessarily mean they knew one another. It could have been nothing more than the fact that they'd all been imbibing generously of the spirits offered by the wait staff. Especially the young man with his hand still waving in the air. To say that he'd had a bit much to drink would have been an understatement, but he seemed to be a happy drunk and she couldn’t help but smile at him.

“Naturally, we assume that winter guests realize it’s going to be cold—really cold—on an island in the middle of the North Atlantic and that they'll bring weather appropriate gear. If they mistakenly believe they’ll be enjoying balmy, tropical weather, we have a few shops in town where they can replace their suntan lotion and bathing trunks for parkas and boots.” She purposely kept her tone teasing and light and was rewarded with laughter from most of the guests. “As for the camping, we provide double walled space station tents. They’re very durable and able to withstand any storms that may pop up. They will also keep you toasty warm during meals and sleep.”

“Do we catch our own supper?” another guest shouted.

“If you like. If not, our chefs will be on hand to prepare gourmet breakfasts, lunches, and suppers.”

She answered dozens of more questions before the eighty or so attendees ran out of topics to grill her on, but as they filed out of the conference room, she knew there would be a fair number making reservations at some point over the next year or two. Unfortunately, some of the adventures on the island were booked two years in advance, largely because of the limits on bears.

But there were plenty of other activities—like deep sea fishing, cross country skiing, and small mountains to climb that would keep most visitors occupied and content. And then there were the plush accommodations, five-star restaurants, and plenty of shops offering their world renowned jewelry, local crafts, and baked goods.

Feeling pleased with the night’s results, because not all conventions were as well attended or received, Briannon wanted to bask in the success for a little longer. She decided to walk along the moonlit beach for a while after they returned to the hotel.

Not bothering to try and blend in with the locals, the two guards walking ahead of her looked out of place in their charcoal gray suits, as did the two behind her. And then there was Fin, who always stayed a couple of yards behind and to her right. For a man who socialized with her family, who was one of her brother’s best friends, there was never any evidence of closer relationships when he was on the job. Technically, she supposed, there wasn’t much in the way of familiarity with her even when he was off duty.

And she truly wished it wasn’t the case. Her feelings for him aside, it would have been nice to have someone to talk to on these long trips so far from home. Sure, she could Skype with everyone at the palace, send emails to her heart’s content, or just pick up a book to distract herself. But sometimes, she wished she had a friend to keep her company as they traveled from city to city.

The humid air made her skin feel sticky and she started to remove the white linen jacket she’d worn over her lime green sundress. Before she got it much past her shoulders, Fin was there helping her out of it. Then he offered an arm so she could remove her sandals. How well he knew her, she thought, as he dropped back to his position of protector—and holder of discarded clothing and footwear.

She enjoyed the feeling of warm sand squishing up between her toes, the way it seemed to envelop her feet with every step, so she concentrated on that, and the sound of waves rolling in the sea and washing up on the shore.

It was better, she knew, than focusing on how isolated she felt. Here she was in a foreign land, on a beach as beautiful as any she’d ever seen, and there was no one to enjoy it with her.

It wasn’t long before the heavy air got to be too much, before Briannon could feel drops of perspiration sliding between her shoulder blades, and she turned and headed for the hotel. A quick shower and her bed sounded more than a little appealing, especially since they were heading out immediately after breakfast in the morning.


~~~~~


The stops that were scheduled for multiple days, when all of the days didn’t include a conference, were the worst. This one, for instance, had a luncheon the first day, with the meeting on the third day after supper. That left one completely free day in between.

The daytime hours wouldn't be bad. In fact, she always looked forward to walking through local museums, gardens, and most tourist attractions. It was the nights that weren't much fun. Sure, she could see some of Myrtle Beach’s night life, but without friends to hang out with, or a date to keep her company, she wouldn’t enjoy it as much as she could. The guards, Fin especially, were too busy looking for non-existent danger to be good company.

“How is everything?” Liam asked as she was lazing on a lounge chair in her bedroom. It was the only place in the suite where she had any privacy and right now, since there wasn't much time before the lunchtime meeting, she didn't feel like pretending to socialize with people paid to watch over her.

“Boring, Dad. Unimaginably boring.”

“You should go out and have fun, sweetheart," he urged, and she could hear the concern in his voice. "Stop taking everything so seriously. You’re only young once.”

“Not so young anymore,” she said with a sigh. Liam took lighthearted offense at that.

“Hey. I object to that. If you're not young anymore, what does that make me?” They laughed for a moment before she sighed again.

“It’s hard to have fun when you’re only company is a bunch of guards dressed in suits. We stand out like neon signs wherever we go. Yesterday, for instance.” She described how cute—and casual—Grills Seafood was, and how everyone but the guards had dressed like normal people. “It’s impossible to blend in and look like everyone else. And it’s just really uncomfortable when I’m sitting alone at a table and all of the guys are at the ones on either side of me.” They always chose tables located near an outside wall so there was nothing behind them. She understood that it made their jobs easier, but it made her feel even more isolated.

“Well… I might not be able to take you out on the town, but I think I can do something about that. Hang on.”

In seconds, he was back on the line, changing the subject to the weather, of all things. From there, they moved on to the fact that Zoey smiled at him that morning, and then he had to hang up because he had a meeting with the manager of the diamond mines. Perfect timing, actually, since she had to get ready herself.

Perhaps it was that the meetings were so old hat now she could probably do them in her sleep, but as Briannon crossed the stage to the podium, she knew it had to do with her state of mind too. Whatever the reason, she'd never wanted to cancel a conference so much in her life. But as the Castelorian tourism liaison, she could not. Still, she wished for the secondhand on the clock at the back of the room to move faster, but it never did. Each minute seemed to last twice as long as it should have and she prayed that her boredom wasn't apparent to the guests that packed the room.

As she walked back to the suite, surrounded by a small army of guards, she supposed it had gone as well as all of the rest. There had been plenty of jokes and laughter, and many serious as well as facetious questions. Exactly the same as the dozens of other meetings she'd hosted since taking on the position fifteen years ago.

Sighing again, something she seemed to do more and more lately, Briannon walked directly to her room, not saying a word to anyone. There, she grabbed her digital reading device from the bedside table, a bottle of water from the little refrigerator beneath the microwave oven, and then flopped back down on the lounger she'd left so reluctantly three hours earlier.

There was nothing else on the agenda today until supper so she would while away the hours getting lost in a book. Not only that, she was going to read for nothing but pleasure.

So absorbed in the story of a soon to be divorced couple—a couple who hated each other as passionately as they’d once loved—ship wrecked on a deserted island, she was surprised when Nora rapped on the door to let her know she should start getting ready for supper. If it weren’t for the fact that she was actually looking forward to this supper, she would have opted to just stay in and order room service so she could finish the book.

However, Medieval Times sounded exciting with a dinner show that included jousting, sword fights, and other acts sure to catch and keep her interest for the entire time they were there.

Fin would probably even enjoy himself too, were it not for the fact that their supper would be served without utensils. Like the people in the eleventh century, the website boasted, they would eat roasted chicken and other foods with their hands. For as much as he considered himself a commoner, Fin was very proper in the way he lived his life. So watching him eat with his fingers should prove amusing.

Keeping in mind the venue, the weather—which was a good ten degrees cooler and far less humid than Cocoa Beach, and the fact that this was purely for pleasure, Briannon slipped into a pair of faded blue jeans and a pink flared tee shirt with three-quarter sleeves, then she pulled her hair back in a matching scrunchie.

Examining herself in the mirror, she knew she would blend in with the crowds likely to fill the castle. It was just too bad her entourage would not. No matter what her father had promised, there was no way these guys would feel comfortable doing their jobs in anything less than the suits they always wore.

Except she was wrong.

When she walked out into the living area, her jaw dropped. Not only were most of them wearing jeans, even Fin—though his were creased, their shirts ranged from loose Hawaiian prints to black tee shirts and sports jackets. A couple of them even wore sandals while the rest had opted for sneakers.

“Happy now?” Fin asked, his lips turned down in a scowl. The tee shirt and sports jacket was the best he could manage but he was so unhappy, she almost laughed.

“Yes. Yes, I am. Thank you for asking.”

The surprises continued. Though the four guards still maintained their positions ahead and behind her, Fin actually walked beside her as they wandered around the castle. The museum of torture proved an interesting, albeit rather gruesome experience—one they kept short before seeking out the master falconer. Fascinated as he trained his birds, Briannon wondered if something like that might be worth looking into for Casteloria. The skill might not appeal to all guests, but it would to some.

Finally, they watched a knighting ceremony before heading to the combination dining/show room. Glancing all about her like a normal tourist, she was awed as they strolled toward their seats in the V.I.P. area. She also began to think of similar things they might do in Casteloria. Maybe, she thought, her father might be open to allowing an actual Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament Castle to be built in Birmore. As impressed as she had been thus far, she was sure he would be too.

Fin held a chair out for her and she was glad she was sitting down when he took the one next to her. If she hadn’t been, she was afraid she might have fainted from the shock. When she got a minute, she would have to ask her father what, exactly, he’d said to bring about such drastic changes in protocol today.


~~~~~


Fin tried to ignore the fact that this felt very much like a blind date. A date he'd been badgered into going on—one that had begun to head south from the first introduction. King Liam had made it sound like a request when he'd called earlier in the day. It would please him greatly if he and the rest of the guards could do their best to blend in when they weren’t at the actual conventions. But it had been clear—at least to him—that it was nothing more than a politely worded order.

That hadn't been the worst of it though. It would also be appreciated if they would try and make sure his daughter enjoyed herself, that she wasn’t left feeling isolated and alone.

He'd done his best to comply, sending a couple of the guards on an emergency shopping trip, armed with clothing sizes for everyone and instructions to find them all tourist clothes. They'd returned with a couple of dozen bags stuffed with purchases they'd be sorting through for days.

In the meantime, he was stuck pretending he was off duty and enjoying himself—and the company. And he might have, had he been a normal man and she a normal woman. But she was and always would be the princess he had sworn to protect and serve.

He wished he was here with Cam and Nolan because he could see the three of them having a ball, but with Briannon, it just felt uncomfortable.

As the show continued, Fin knew he would always count these as two of the longest hours of his life. From expert horsemen showing off their skills in the arena in the center of the dining area, to swordsmen and jousters—all dressed in period costumes from the eleventh century—it was an impressive display of talent and showmanship. And one that seemed as if it would never end.

The tiny part of him that wished he didn't always have to be so responsible longed to let his hair down and have fun for a change. More than once he'd had to stop himself from cheering or thrusting a fist in the air. It didn’t help that he was dressed casually, something he rarely did outside of his private apartment, or that the atmosphere hummed with excitement. He just knew he would have liked to join in the merriment, to enjoy a pleasant supper with the woman beside him but since he could not, he just wanted it over.

“Oh! Thank you!” Briannon gasped, rising from her chair and leaning out to accept a rose one of the ‘knights’ was holding out to her.

Her brilliant, pleased smile made his breath catch. She was so beautiful and he knew for a fact she didn’t know it. He did. In fact, from the moment they’d first been introduced more than fifteen years ago—when she’d been a shy young lady of twenty and he’d been all of twenty-four—he’d found her to be the loveliest woman he’d ever met. That opinion had never changed.

“Did you see that?” she asked, raising the flower to her nose, closing her eyes, and inhaling slowly. The expression on her face could only be described as pure bliss. And why not? Prince Charming giving the fair maiden a single rose? It was the stuff romance novels everywhere were made of.

“Very chivalrous of him,” Fin said, trying to keep a hint of sarcasm out of his voice. The odds were better than good she received the rose because a few key people knew she was a real life princess.

“Wasn’t it?”

Her good mood lasted the rest of the evening and she was still smiling when she retired for the night. Fin, on the other hand, sat on the balcony scowling at the moonlight reflecting on the water. Women were so easy, he thought irritably. A guy who couldn’t get a real job dressed up as a knight—complete with a sword—hands her a flower and she swoons.

A nagging voice in his head whispered that it was the first flower she’d received from a man who wasn’t related to her in a long, long time. He told it to shut up, got to his feet, and headed to his room.

His attitude hadn't improved much by the time he entered the living area the next morning and found Briannon enjoying her breakfast—the red rose having found its temporary home in a crystal vase in the middle of the table.


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