Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3 (6 page)

BOOK: Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3
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“According to Kristos, yes. But he’s never tested it, and I’ve found that’s not always the ideal circumstances to try out new tech in unfamiliar waters. I’m not sure how much attention we’ll want to draw to ourselves, especially if people are expecting the videos to go live mere hours after I take them.”

“You don’t seem like you’re one to avoid the limelight.”

“The limelight, no. The light from crackling electrical fires—that’s a little more worth missing out on.”

“We’ll have the men test it first. They’re usually game for a light show.”

She shrugged. “Your funeral.”

Stefan’s phone buzzed in his pocket, and Nicki pushed her seat back. “I need to work on my blogs, actually. Is one of the sitting rooms okay, or would you prefer me to stay in my cabin?”

The request was made completely without artifice, and Stefan experienced a surge of possessiveness, a need to not let Nicki out of his sight, or out of his reach. To see if she would bend in his hands, or break, or simply melt like burnished mercury, too quick and ephemeral for him to hold.

“A moment,” he said.

Nicki stopped in place as he checked his phone. Cyril. They hadn’t been gone but an hour and already he was getting tagged from the palace. But he didn’t have to respond immediately to the chief advisor. Cyril could wait. For these few moments, he could imagine that there was no op that might open the door to an international incident or the crushing private loss of a family lived all over again.

He could simply imagine he was on a private yacht with a woman who confounded him at every turn, yet who he wanted…needed to touch again.

He stood and Nicki waited for him to reach her.

Looking down at her, his need to respond to Cyril faded further into the background. “I confess,” he murmured. “I’d very much like to continue our conversation from the beach yesterday.”

She wrinkled a brow at him. “That wasn’t so much a conversation. Conversations generally require
words
.”

He paused, waiting for her to catch on. “Perhaps you could show me.”

Nicki’s smile grew wider as realization dawned. “Is this one of those things that will move the mission forward?” she asked, her clear blue eyes warming with interest.

“It’s a simple request.” He said, keeping his words bland. “If you find you’re unable to complete it—”

“Oh no.” Nicki continued grinning as she placed her hands on his chest, bracing herself against him as she lifted to her toes. The pressure was warm, and far more welcome than he’d expected. “Far be it from me to take issue with a command order.”

She brushed her soft lips against his once, twice, exploring his mouth with hers as he bent his head nearer, allowing her to move at her own pace, touching, tasting—searching. He felt more than heard her heart rate kick up, but it did so with a quickening rush as Nicki exhaled softly before following her breath with her lips and kissing him again.

He couldn’t wait any longer. He put his arm around her waist and pulled her tight. He suddenly wanted more. Far more. As much as Nicki would give him, in fact, right here, right—

His phone buzzed again.

“You know, you should probably get that,” Nicki murmured against his lips. “There could have been a bomb that went off or something in the capital city, forcing us to go back.”

“Garronia has an entire security force to attend to such matters.”

“Yeah, well, maybe the queen wants a particular souvenir from Alaçati. You’d hate to not get her the right snow globe.”

“That would indeed be a travesty.” Nevertheless, Stefan kept his arm around Nicki as he swiped for his phone. He connected on the third try.

“Sir,” he said, as Nicki went silent in his arms.

“How much of a briefing have you had on Nicki’s physical capabilities?”

Nicki coughed beneath him, and even Stefan blinked, his own adrenaline jacking as her hands slid down his waist, swirling to the front of his trousers to where his erection tented his trousers. “Extensive, sir. Everything is well in hand.”

Whether it was something in his voice or Cyril understood that this was not an avenue to pursue, the advisor moved on. “Very well. Let her know there are both wet and dry suits in her size aboard, but the tanks are not sized for someone of her frame. She’ll need to stick to snorkeling. Also, there are several other issues to discuss regarding when you reach Alaçati—”

Nicki stood back with what a forced smile on her face. He frowned at her, but she regarded him far too seriously all of the sudden.

“Problem?” he mouthed, and she shook her head, leaning up to kiss him on the cheek.

Then she was gone.

Chapter Five

Nicki rushed back to her state room, her heart squeezing in her chest.

Back off…back off!
she implored herself. Her deep breathing didn’t help until she closed the door behind her.

Did Cyril know somehow about her dizzy spells? She put her hands to her face, willing herself to relax. The girls wouldn’t have said anything—she knew they wouldn’t have. But if Cyril somehow had reached out to her parents…

No. No he couldn’t have. There’s no way he’d let her continue on the mission if he suspected her heart might go out on her. She was over-reacting. Again.

“It’s okay…it’s okay.” Nicki blew out a long breath, smoothing her hands over her head. Stefan hadn’t pursued the question, and all she needed to do was stay out of his way. She’d tell him about her fears—eventually. There was no need to yet. Not so soon after Cyril’s almost-bombshell.

She had time.

Squaring her shoulders, she walked over to the small workstation in her state room, and booted up her computer.

They reached the tiny island off the coast of Turkey close to midnight, but a storm had blown up late in the day from the southern Aegean, and the sea was too rough to allow for diving. After she’d finished her blogs for the day, Nicki used the time to go over the gear. She’d need a wetsuit, even for snorkeling. It was only June, and the Aegean would be too cold for comfort if she and whoever tag-teamed with her stayed in the water for any length of time.

Stefan remained tied up with Cyril for most of the night, as far as she could tell. Despite his dismissal of the idea, apparently he was a necessary component to the functioning of the Garronia government. Either way, the following morning Nicki marched resolutely up to the deck, carrying her underwater camera in its case. She wasn’t going to be underfoot, she wasn’t going to be in Stefan’s way. That was her promise, and she was sticking to it.

Stefan had not, however, specifically forbidden her from exploring underwater yet. So at least this glorious morning wouldn’t be a total loss.

After checking her own gear, Nicki rubbed her sternum absently as she once more studied the last and most important piece of equipment, the underwater camera. As Kristos had promised, it was state of the art, featuring all the bells and whistles for shooting high definition action. So if there were any really fast fish out there, she was ready.

“Everything up to your standards?”

Nicki jumped, though she’d been half expecting Stefan to check in before he and his team left the boat for the scavenger encampment. Now his presence filled the small deck as he strode toward her. He was dressed in loose pants and a microfiber shirt, as always cool and unflappable, while she could feel her skin begin to prickle beneath her swimsuit and water pants, heat flushing through her in waves.

“It’s great!” she said, too loudly, then modified her tone. “It’s great. I thought you were gone already.”

“I have two teams out already,” he said. “Depending on what they find, I’ll go—or we’ll go.” He eyed her. “Cyril contacted me again an hour ago, saying that the viewership of your videos was at a clip large enough to appear legitimate, and the more we could feed of every stop, the better, as long as we didn’t run into any problems.”

He delivered this information neutrally, and Nicki frowned. “Is that a good thing or a bad thing, that the posts are working?”

Stefan’s lips quirked up. “For your role as cover, I would say it’s a good thing.” He gestured to the equipment. “And for the moment, it affords us a few hours to try out all the toys Kristos sent along.”

We?
Nicki stared as Stefan slicked out of his shirt. She’d seen the man in swim trunks before, but he’d already been in the water at the time. For some reason, having him standing right in front of her, dry and half naked was kicking everything in her body up a few notches. He stopped, apparently concerned by her staring. “You didn’t think I’d let you go in alone, did you?”

“What? No,” Nicki blurted. “I mean, thought you were gone, that one of the crewmembers would go with me.”

He shrugged and she watched as the muscles rippled across his sun bronzed skin. She wouldn’t have expected his tan to be so deep, given his role within the royal family. She pictured him wearing tuxedos and sipping martinis, not diving off the side of boats. “You, um, dive a lot?”

“Not diving, usually. But snorkeling, yes. It would be difficult to live someplace like Garronia and not take advantage of all the ocean had to offer.” He picked up a snorkeling mask and proffered it to her. “We won’t need the tanks, right?”

“No—not for this first dive, and probably not at all. How deep is the water?”

The conversation steered easily onto safer topics, and Nicki followed Stefan across the deck, inhaling and exhaling slowly and carefully as she watched his muscles stretch and work beneath his skin. Even his trousers seemed tailor-made to make her stare, the fabric stretching over the thick muscles of his legs. She’d seen the man practically naked already, but…

“One thing,” Stefan turned to her, then waited with a smirk as she jerked her eyes up from his ass to meet his gaze. His smirk told her that he knew exactly what she’d been staring at. “Tamas, one of the men, will be going with us as well. It should appear as if it’s only the two of you down there. I should not be in any of the video feed. You should be in the water with a single subject, not surrounded by guards. And I shouldn’t be in the water at all, merely tapped for this assignment as a political representative of Garronia. You understand?”

Nicki nodded. “I’ll keep you out of the frames, or we’ll catch it in the editing pass before I push the videos live.” Inside, however, her spirits deflated a little. Stefan’s warnings reminded her that this was not the joy ride it was being touted as. More importantly, however, she’d thought she could capture some video of the man in the water. He truly had the most amazing body, and if she could have some souvenir video clips, it’d make all of this last a little while longer.

Oh well.

Within minutes, they were in the water, the sudden shock of it a balm to her senses and a needed distraction for both her body and mind. As promised, Tamas proved to be a willing subject, and they spent the morning coasting over an honest-to-God sunken ship that was clearly visible through the water, shallow caves filled with brilliantly colored fish, and rock formations that glinted and burned with the reflection of the sun.

As expected, Stefan’s swimming abilities in the open sea were every bit as graceful as when he’d been in the palace lap pool, and she longed to capture him on video. With Herculean effort she resisted. For his part, Stefan swam out and around, circling them in a wide arc, and some of the equipment he carried on his own weight belt looked suspiciously lethal. Another reminder that despite all appearances, this wasn’t really a lazy afternoon in the Mediterranean.

Nicki was legitimately tired by the time they pulled themselves out of the water, gratefully accepting Stefan’s help as he took her equipment and stacked it on the deck.

“Stay here,” he said when she cleared the ladder. He was already stripping out of his wet suit, and she followed his lead. “There’s food, and we can see what you captured on film. It’ll save time.”

She watched him as he took the camera and popped the drive, transferring it to a large-screened laptop that had been brought to a shaded alcove of the deck. She grabbed a handful of grapes and a towel, then flopped down on a teak bench to dry herself off as Stefan reviewed the footage.

It was as spectacular as she’d hoped it would be when viewing it under water. The fish were large and exotic. The centuries-old boat—while no bastion of lost treasure—was charmingly authentic, and the Garronois guard Tamas was handsome and fit and truly at home in the water. There were shots of Nicki too, taken by Tamas to continue the illusion that they were the only two down there, as she glided over a thick coral bed, then pointed the camera toward the glittering, glinting surface of the rocks.

Abruptly, Stefan’s hand shot out and froze the screen. “What is that?” he asked, the impassive calm of his voice at odds with the urgency of his fingers on the trackpad.

Nicki stopped toweling her hair.

“That’s great, isn’t it?” she asked. “Something bright stuck into the coral. I assumed it was debris, but the way it’s wedged in there is cool. It’s obsidian, maybe—or some sort of thick glass. Something cut with facets to reflect all that sunlight.” She pointed to two bright spots.

“Tamas.” Stefan turned and spoke rapid Garronois to the other man, who stared from him to the screen, then stood and crossed the deck to scoop up his discarded snorkeling mask.

Nicki frowned. “What?” she asked. “What do you see?”

“The chunk of glass you’re pointing out could be simply glass, nothing more. Rock. Debris. But it is also could be glass that has been shattered into specific facets, such as the glass monitors of aircraft tracking equipment.”

Her eyes widened. “You don’t think it’s part of Ari’s plane?”

“I don’t.” he shook his head definitively. “It could be anything. If it is debris, it could be from any plane that has flown over this space and crashed in the last five years. It’s unreasonable that it belongs to Ari’s craft. But it’s at least evidence that planes have crashed here—recent planes, potentially. And that’s a start.”

He stood abruptly. “Go get dressed. I want you to go with us ashore after Tamas recovers a chunk of that glass.”

BOOK: Claimed: Gowns & Crowns, Book 3
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