Authors: Jennifer Chance
Gowns & Crowns, Book 3
Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Chance
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Liz Bemis, Bemis Promotions
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, events, establishments, organizations, or locations are intended only to provide a sense of authenticity, and are used fictitiously. All other characters, and all incidents and dialogue, are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.
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Also by Jennifer Chance in the Gowns & Crowns series
For Cathy, Frani, Laurie and Sandy
May your lives always be filled with romance.
Nicki Clark inched her fingers along the thick ridge of the stone wall, grateful as always that the kingdom of Garronia had a deep and abiding love for ornamental frescoes over every door, window and empty roofline in the city. She hadn’t tried escaping the palace at this particular point before, but the descent so far had been easy.
Getting down the last several feet would be more of a trick.
“One…two…” she muttered, planting her right foot solidly as she eased her way down. She didn’t have to jump the entire distance, not yet. The wall was smoother below this point, but it was nevertheless hewn out of thousands-year-old chunks of stone. She could get purchase for at least another yard, then drop. Her shoes were sturdy and her grip strong. Besides, she’d already done this a dozen times in the weeks she’d been trapped inside the gilded palace like a caged lion.
She shimmied downward, her heart rate picking up. She’d not scouted out this specific four feet of wall, she’d merely glimpsed it in passing from down the alley when she’d been out shopping the day before with her three friends. It’d looked promising, but the space below her was currently hung with early morning shadows, and she couldn’t see beyond the next small jut of stone.
She swung a foot out experimentally—
And nearly fell off the wall when it was forcibly stopped in someone’s hard grasp. A grasp that was infuriatingly familiar.
Nicki gave her foot a hard shake. “Back off, Stefan.”
The diplomatic ambassador of the royal family of Garronia held fast.
“If you insist on clambering over walls to escape the confines of the royal palace, you should at least do a better job picking your locations,” Stefan said in his cool, superior voice. When he wanted, like now, he could speak English without so much as a trace of the thick accent she’d heard him use when he spoke his native tongue. As usual, she wished he would stick to Garronois so she didn’t have to listen to his complaints about every detail of her existence.
“So far as I can tell, there’s nothing beneath me but you. And if you have your hand on my foot, it’s not a far drop. So go away.”
“I’ll catch you.”
Nicki took a moment to rest her head against the cool stone. Solid rock was more reasonable than Stefan when he got that tone. She knew it well, having heard it virtually every time they’d spoken. He had certain opinions about what was appropriate for her, all of them wrong. But rather than moving on to torment one of the other women of their group, he’d fixated on her, constantly dogging her steps, showing up every time she’d thought she’d fled the palace, berating her every decision from running routes to climbing gear.
He wasn’t going to go away. And if she was honest, she didn’t want him to—not entirely. The man was easy on the eyes…if only he’d shut up once in a while.
“Fine.” Without any further warning, Nicki kicked her foot free of Stefan’s hold and pushed away from the wall. He was expecting the movement, and he caught her easily, dropping her lightly to her feet. As usual, the touch of his hands on Nicki’s arms electrified her. How had he found her so early though? The sun was barely up over the ridgeline of the mountains ringing this seaside idyll, and the Garronois weren’t known for being early risers, other than the fishermen.
And Stefan wasn’t dressed for fishing.
She took in his hard body encased in long spandex shorts and a short sleeved racing top, the outfit doing nothing to hide the fact that he had muscles on top of muscles, for all that he cut an aristocratically slender figure in a tuxedo. He could not be planning on running with her—she’d told no one she was going to attempt this particular avenue of escape.
known, apparently. He always seemed to know. The bastard.
The bastard in question remained too close to Nicki as she drew in an unsteady breath, his gaze raking her face. She stared back, taking the opportunity to memorize the man’s impossibly beautiful features—light colored hair and honey-tanned skin, piercing gray-blue eyes, angled cheeks and hard jaw.
He was perfect. And he might as well be a mirage, because eventually, by some miracle, they would get out of this royal city and back on their trip through Europe, and Stefan would be only a memory.
She wanted him to be a fantastic memory. Which meant he needed to be
He ruined it a breath later. “You’re breathing too fast. What’s wrong?”
“You’re blocking all the oxygen in this alley.” Nicki stepped back, her mind refocusing on the task at hand. Namely, getting away from Stefan Mihal. “How’d you know I’d be here?”
“It wasn’t too difficult,” he smirked. “You’ve escaped via nearly every other likely avenue in the palace. Your itinerary yesterday suggested you’d be walking through the old city, which would have afforded you a view of this wall.” He gestured down the cobblestoned street. The courtyard where they’d shopped yesterday for yet another round of wedding paraphernalia for Emmaline and Prince Kristos was less than a hundred feet away.
“You had someone spying on me?” she demanded. “One of the guards?”
Stefan drew up to his full six foot two inches, which put him nearly a foot taller than her, and Nicki rolled her eyes. She wasn’t a huge fan of her height, but it did allow her to be light and quick. She was also wiry enough to shimmy over walls, up trees and through tight spots that most people couldn’t manage.
None of that helped her right now, however, as Stefan loomed. “I didn’t need to have anyone spying on you,” he said, his voice taking on the clipped edge she enjoyed provoking so much. “You are a guest of the royal family of Garronia. As such, your safety is our number one concern.”
Without any further warning, Nicki took another step and turned on her heel, her feet digging into the cobblestones as she launched herself down the narrow alley. Stefan immediately gave chase, but not ten steps away, Nicki saw what she thought she’d glimpsed—another alley, barely wide enough for a child to scrape through. She dove into the tight corridor and grinned as Stefan cursed. He started running down the main alley though, hard, and she knew she wouldn’t have much time. The city was riddled with these tiny passages, but they all eventually ended up dumping either into the main courtyard of the town or smaller streets that led to the sea.
She bet Stefan would pick the courtyard—Nicki had run on the beach twice already this week, and she typically mixed things up more than that. Which Stefan would know, because despite his aristocratic outrage, he
had been spying on her.
The moment she cleared narrow space, Nicki turned in the opposite direction, jumping over short walls and skirting fountains and public wells, the quaint architecture of the city blurring by her as she raced through more streets and down additional narrow walkways. She had traversed the capital city of Garronia way too many times to count, and she had an affinity for directions and maps and knowing where she was quickly and certainly. That skill had served her well in her job, and it definitely helped today as she sought to shake her most persistent tail.
Laughing as the full brunt of the Mediterranean sun hit her, Nicki burst out of the last little cluster of buildings and onto the wide, fine sand of Garronia’s famed Royal Beach. Had it really been two weeks they’d been stuck here? This morning, it felt like she was seeing it all for the first time.
She fairly flew by a collection of fishing nets and headed straight for the packed sand at the water’s edge, definitely easier on her ankles. Her gaze filled with the gorgeous blue-green Aegean Sea, and she drew in a deep, cleansing breath, tasting the salt and sun and heat. She had the whole beach to herself and she bent into her run, mentally choosing her destination as—
A sudden weight thudded against her right shoulder. It wasn’t enough to down her, certainly not enough to cause pain, but a thick drape of fisherman’s net had somehow wrapped its way around her body and was everywhere. She turned, then turned again as she fought to get herself free. While cresting a small dune, she saw the flash of Stefan’s running shirt too late as the man leapt toward her.
“Got you—” he said. Then his arms were around her, and the two of them were rolling in the thick sand, the net somehow growing to three times its normal size as she fought to escape.
“Don’t move—don’t move!” Stefan laughed. “You’ll only make it worse.”
But she couldn’t make it worse—she couldn’t.
Because Stefan was lying on top of her…and her heart felt like it was about to explode.
Nicki Clark’s gasp was so affronted, so outraged, that Stefan couldn’t help but gloat a moment longer than was strictly necessary to prove his point. She was the most infuriating woman he had ever encountered—and he’d encountered quite a few in his years serving the royal family. Never, though, was there anyone as confident in ways that she manifestly shouldn’t be confident in. Not her beauty, her brains, or even her ingenuity—Nicki Clark thought she was a lion in the body of a mouse.
And she was constantly trying to prove she was right.
“Get off me,” she sputtered and he moved willingly enough to the side, but he wasn’t quick about freeing her from the thick ropes. To her credit, she didn’t struggle. Instead she went wholly quiet, her breathing evening out though he could tell her pulse was racing.
Racing…a little too fast, he thought. The same as it had in the corridor by the palace wall.
Concern instantly flushed the momentary surge of triumph out of his system. “Are you hurt?” he asked, reaching for her, but Nicki flinched away from his hand, in that peculiar manner she had. He’d seen many women who’d borne the brunt of a man’s violence—this wasn’t that. She wasn’t ducking away from his attack, but from his offer of aid. It had taken him days to realize that distinction, while she and her friends had been guests of the royal family. If anything, it made her more intriguing to him.
Now she glared down at the web of netting with which he’d ensnared her. “I always see it thrown at people’s feet, tripping them up,” she said, reaching out one long-fingered hand and expertly picking up the edge of the net that would most quickly free her. The woman’s mind worked like that, he’d learned too. She didn’t flail. She didn’t flop. When she was out of her depth she slowed down her mind and body, and her next choice was almost always the right one.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt you,” Stefan said, leaning back to watch her pick her own way out of the netting. This morning Nicki wore barely enough clothing for decency, but she did it in such a way that it wasn’t intended as a means to attract men. In truth, she could outrun most of the men of Garronia if she caught them off guard—including him, though he was getting better at not being caught off guard. Her legs were powerful for all their short stature, corded with muscle beneath smooth, tanned skin. Her core was tight—not thick with muscle as he would have expected, but steady and firm. Her arms were lean and toned, burnished bronze by the sun despite the suntan lotion she liberally applied. She was too young to be weathered, but he’d caught himself imagining what another twenty—thirty years out in the elements would do to her face, her skin, her shiny, red-gold hair.