“This is the most important case you’ve ever had!” The shouted words boomed into the outer office, and Max frowned at the anger and vehemence in them. Seemed the new client was giving Kyle Monroe, owner of Bodyguards Inc., one hell of a time.
Ross Jackson glanced at his watch. “I think you’d better go in,” he said, punctuating the words with a tap of his pen to his desk.
“Will Kyle want me in there yet?” Max tried to ignore his concern about this whole mess. He wasn’t the kind of person to unnecessarily stress about situations. No, Maxwell Connery was a get-things-done kind of guy and had absolute focus. But this bodyguard to a prince gig was worrying him. He didn’t know if the actual prince was beyond the door to Kyle’s office, since the raised voices belonged to Kyle and only one other. The curse words from the other man didn’t bode well, but neither did they sound like any kind of prince Max had ever visualized. Max had arrived a few minutes after the potential clients and now sat with Ross in the outer office while initial discussion was undertaken, which was par for the course, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t heard every word from the angry man inside.
And now it was Max’s turn for his part in this beauty parade. He was up on a close protection job for a prince. A real, honest-to-God royal from some country in mainland Europe. He tried to get information out of the normally verbose Ross, but he was being uncharacteristically quiet this morning. Max couldn’t believe that Ross didn’t know something about what was going on in there. After all, the PA to the owner of Bodyguards Inc. knew everything and could always be relied on to pass along something that would give Max the edge during the interview.
“Before I go in, you seriously know nothing about the client?”
“Nothing,” Ross said. “Big scary dude who’s with our client isn’t happy, though.” He inclined his head to the closed door that was doing little to muffle the shouting.
“Is it the prince who’s doing all that shouting?” No doubt Prince Whatever was a spoilt, entitled, upper-class twat who coasted through life with no worries.
Ross peered at the screen in front of him. “Nope, that is Teddy. He’s built like…” Ross waved his hands around. “He’s the royal bodyguard. And that’s all it says. Just Teddy. Looks like he wants to kill everyone.”
Teddy sounded like a weird name for the guy Ross described and the owner of the cursing, shouting voice in Kyle’s office. ‘Teddy’ brought up images of a cute guy with an adorable button nose on his endearing little face. But as Max pushed himself up to focus on the job at hand, he knew he was the last one to talk about appearances. He was twenty-eight, but he was still carded all the time.
“At least my name is kinda cool,” he muttered, more to himself than Ross.
Drawing back his shoulders, Max knocked on the door and waited for the “enter.” There was no shouting now, just a horrible cold silence. Max quickly assessed the situation in the office. He recognized Teddy the giant—broad, six eight at least, short to the scalp hair, a scar on his forehead, black suit stretched over his muscled frame, earpiece dangling on his neck, and a scowl carved into his expression.
Which meant the other one was the prince. Right? Didn’t look much like a prince, though. The man was slouched in the chair with familiar white leads from earbuds plugged into an iPhone. Max couldn’t see the prince’s face, hidden as it was by the hood on a bright sapphire Cardiff University sweatshirt. Baggy jeans and scuffed Converse completed the look of couldn’t-care-less rebel. Max could hear the music the prince was playing from where he was. Not the bones of it to recognize an artist, but the high tinny beat of the music that flowed in time with the tap of the guy’s left foot.
“Maxwell Connery, Theodore Estevan.” Kyle indicated the giant. Max held out his hand to shake and was treated to a quick once-over from Teddy, or Theodore, as he was being introduced. “And this is Prince—”
“This is your man?” Teddy interrupted with something akin to horror. He stood up so violently he caused his chair to skitter back and hit the wall. “This child?” Teddy’s voice held an inflection—something Mediterranean, maybe?—though it was mostly lost in the sheer dismay in the tone.
Max didn’t drop his hand, and whether Teddy couldn’t think of another reason not to shake it or he was just being polite, Teddy grasped Max’s hand with a quick squeeze that was probably supposed to underline Teddy’s intimidating size and strength. Teddy was strong, that was undeniable, but Max didn’t flinch.
“Mr. Estevan,” Max acknowledged.
Max waited for an introduction to the elusive guy under the hood. Instead Teddy grabbed his chair and sat back down. There was evidently no rush to include the prince in any of this, not that he seemed at all bothered. Apart from the tapping of his foot and the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, he didn’t move an inch.
“Max is one of my best operatives,” Kyle said, his tone the same one he used when he was calming Ross down after a missing stapler incident, low and encouraging. Like if he said something in just the right way, the situation would be diffused.
Teddy sneered at Max. “You told me this Max was a pilot, ex–Air Force. I don’t see that in this kid.”
“I am former RAF,” Max said. “Ten years, including two tours overseas.” Max refused to be insulted by the open contempt and disbelief on Teddy’s face. If it wasn’t for one crashed plane and a faulty ejection seat, he’d still be flying, and he was proud of what he’d achieved in his time in the service. People could judge him harshly on his age, but not on his accomplishments.
Teddy huffed dramatically with an angry shake of his head.
“You can’t think I am handing Prince Lucien over to the care of someone as… little… as this man. What happens when someone attacks? Is he going to blow them over with a kiss?”
Max refrained from making a retort. He wanted to, but that wouldn’t be professional. No, he had to let Kyle lead this. But hell if he would forget that kiss comment. He’d find Teddy and knock all six eight of him on the floor, then stand and laugh. There was no adage more appropriate than “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Max might only be five nine, but he knew all the moves to bring tree-size men to their knees.
“I’d suggest you show my operative some respect,” Kyle began. Max cast his boss a quick glance. That kind of language didn’t get sales. Kyle’s words could provoke, and provoke they did.
Teddy stood up again, and Max winced as the chair smacked the wall hard enough to leave scuff marks.
“I will not be spoken to like that. Prince Lucien, we’re leaving,” Teddy announced theatrically with a wave of his hand and the press of fingers to hood-guy’s shoulder.
The hidden man moved away from the hand, and with an exaggerated sigh, he pushed back his hood and pulled out his earbuds. He stood up, but Max couldn’t get a good look at him because Teddy was in the way.
“You need to go outside, Teddy.” The guy’s voice was slightly accented but English enough that it was difficult to ascertain the country of origin, similar to Teddy’s. Prince Lucien sounded tired.
Teddy stood firm. “I’m not—”
“Teddy, I’ll handle this.”
“I don’t trust him, sir,” Teddy insisted.
“I know you’re only thinking of me, but please, Teddy, give me five.”
Teddy didn’t respond, but there was a visible tightening of his shoulders and he spun, deceptively graceful for such a big guy, to face Max. There was one final stern glare that dripped with so much warning Max nearly took a step back, then Teddy moved away and left the room.
For the first time, Max got a good look at the man who had been hidden under the hood. Dark hair, tousled and messy in that just-out-of-bed look, with bangs that dropped to his eyebrows. With the hair was the darkest of eyes, a rich chocolate brown. The man had cheekbones to die for and a wry smile on his face. He didn’t look like any kind of prince that Max had seen before, certainly not all spit-polished and serious like he’d expected.
Max couldn’t help himself, he smiled back and extended his hand. “Max Connery.”
“And I’m Lucien Magrello. Could I possibly have the room for a few minutes?” He addressed the second to Kyle, who looked at both him and Max with concern on his face.
Finally, Kyle scooted up from his chair and left the room, briefly squeezing Max’s shoulder as he went past.
“Please, Max, have a seat,” Lucien said.
“I prefer to stand, sir.”
“Call me Lucien. Please.” He didn’t make a move to sit himself; instead, he looked at Max with a considering expression on his face. “Do you swim?”
Max blinked at the question. Swim? Why was that important? “I swim,” he said. He tried not to let the uncertainty in his head filter into his voice. He’d been on several jobs with BI before, but he’d never been asked whether he could swim.
“How well?” Lucien tilted his head as he spoke, his dark eyes narrowing as he assessed Max. “I mean, you’re not tall, so your length would be less than…” He stopped talking, a sudden flush of color on his cheeks.
“I swim well enough,” Max answered.
“Well enough to be on a swim team?” Lucien was so earnest and so young. Max knew Lucien was twenty-five which made him only three years younger than Max. But the way he was talking now made, all eager and excited, made Max felt terribly old. A swim team? That would involve swimming fast and yes, he could swim, but he wasn’t the fastest or the best swimmer out there.
A full sentence didn’t immediately come to mind. “Uhm…”
Lucien huffed a laugh. “Actually, you don’t have to answer that. I mean, it’s the perfect way to keep close to me if you practice with the swim team. But your boss had the idea of you pretending to be my boyfriend so you can come watch me practice even if you don’t swim.”
“If it becomes necessary then that is certainly an option,” Max said.
“Because I won’t give up my swimming, okay? Whatever you say, however many times you lock me in a room, I will always find a way to get out and swim.”
Max nodded like he understood every word that had just been said to him. He was a good swimmer, strong enough to keep up with the other cadets at Cranwell, but Lucien was right. Max was short, which was a handicap against long, lanky Lucien.
“I’m sorry, I just insulted you,” Lucien interrupted Max’s thought process. “I can assure you I am normally better mannered; it’s just I’m not in a good frame of mind. If that is any excuse.”
“I mean, you’re short, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do your job, yes?” Lucien clapped his hand over his mouth. “I did it again.” The flush of embarrassment seemed to intensify, and Lucien added a frown for good measure.
“I’m five nine, which is actually about average, and yes, I can do my job.” That was the best Max could come up with at the moment. He’d always found honesty was the best policy.
“And about Mr. Monroe’s idea for you to pretend to be my boyfriend?”
“If that’s what it takes,” Max said.
Max swore he saw a flash of disappointment in Lucien’s eyes at his noncommittal answer, but it was so quick he couldn’t pin it down. He’d think on what it meant later.
“And, Mr. Connery, you will stop… everything?”
That Max couldn’t promise, not until he knew all the facts. “Why don’t we go over why you need a bodyguard—besides the obvious, of course—and then I’ll tell you what I can do.” He sat down in the chair the prince had suggested and indicated that Lucien should take the chair opposite.
“What do you need to know?”
“Tell me everything.”
Lucien glanced at the door, uncertainty on his face. “Shouldn’t the others be in here?”
Max shrugged. “Do they know more than you?”
Bitterness and sharp-eyed focus replaced the uncertainty and blushing. “Hell, no.”
Max sat back in the chair and forced himself to relax. “Tell me, then.”
“Where from?” Lucien did the opposite to Max and leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees and foot tapping to an unheard rhythm.
Prince Lucien stopped for a moment, and his eyes lost that sharp focus. He was lost in memories and Max knew better to interrupt the flow. He just hoped that Kyle could keep Teddy outside for long enough that he could get a feel for whether he was a good fit on this case.
“I apologize for the way this story starts, because it’s a long time ago. And it isn’t excuses, but reasons. Is that okay?”
“When I was five, my youngest brother was born. He was a beautiful baby, and I remember holding him when they brought him home.” A soft smile tilted his lips. This was clearly a very happy memory. “And I don’t mean for the official photos, I mean just holding him to hold him. He was so tiny, and I thought, ‘He’s the person I want to be good for.’ Right there and then I felt so empowered as a big brother I decided I would keep my room clean, not shout at my mum, the whole list of things kids do to test the limits. As far as I was concerned, Sebastian, or Seb as we all called him, would be my responsibility. My other siblings were older than me and away at school, and it would just be me and Seb for the longest time.” Lucien stopped for a moment and Max sensed this story was going somewhere very painful for Lucien.
Lucien sighed. “We were close, but he became ill, leukemia. He died when he was twelve.”
When Max had suggested Lucien start from the beginning, he hadn’t imagined it would go this far back and compassion welled inside him. Lucien had clearly adored his brother.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured.
Lucien sat quietly for a moment and didn’t look up to acknowledge the comment or make eye contact with Max. “There is a reason why I’m telling you this. You see, there are particular ways of reacting to things in my family. We stay quiet and we grieve privately. We don’t rant and rave at the world, we accept sympathy with grace and courage. But when Seb died, I didn’t… I went… I lost control of my life for a long time, drinking, partying, and having—” He coughed. “—an inappropriate liaison. Of which there are photos.”
“Photos of the drinking, or the liaison itself?”
“Both. The drinking my family could handle, but the, uhm… sex side of it was a bitter pill as it doesn’t look good.” Lucien air quoted the last words with resignation in his voice.
“Have you seen the photos?” Max prompted.
Lucien reached for an envelope on Kyle’s desk and passed it to Max. “In there,” he said.
Max opened the envelope and pulled out one photo just far enough to see a grainy shot captured with a long-distance lens of a man that could potentially be Lucien with what looked like another man. Very quickly he pushed the photo back into the envelope. “I don’t need to see any more. So this whole situation is about you being blackmailed for what? Being gay? Being caught on camera?”
“Kind of.” The way Lucien spoke told Max there was more to this than was obvious at first.
“Whoever’s threatening to expose you does realize this is the twenty-first century, right?”
Lucien colored, but at least he was looking at Max directly now. “In my family, my country… Look, the man I’m with in the photos is a government official, a married official. I promise you I didn’t know he was married… but I was… drunk… really drunk. I don’t expect you to understand, but my family is held to a higher moral standing.”
So Lucien believed that any family in the public eye should have higher moral standards than the rest of the populace. Useful to know.
Max was puzzled. “Do they have problems with you being gay?” Max couldn’t recall anyone in the British monarchy who was openly gay, but to be honest, he didn’t pay that much attention.
“They know that I am. They don’t—” He searched for the word. “—approve as such. But as long as I keep it all behind closed doors, it’s fine. After all, I have three older siblings who can take care of the family firm and the appropriate number of heirs.”
“So, this government official, you think he is the one blackmailing you?”
“No, God no. The authorities went down that road and Edward denied everything and they couldn’t find any link or evidence.”
Max pulled his lower lip between his teeth and considered the information. Princely meltdown, photos, gay sex—none of it added up to Prince Lucien needing an actual bodyguard.
“There’s more, then,” Max said. There has to be.
Lucien shifted uncomfortably. “The first few notes arrived just after I was photographed with the man and they were sent to my parents. Imagine that? Your parents being sent incriminating photos of their quiet son. They were shocked, horrified, but they refused to negotiate with the blackmailer. They ignored them, and there weren’t any more threats, no more photos, and everything appeared to end. I just wanted to hand over any money they wanted, but my family wouldn’t let me, and it seemed they were proved right. Right then it seemed that whoever took the photos and threatened me had given up.”
“What do you mean, it seemed?”
“Because then they found the body.”
Lucien was growing agitated, twisting his fingers together, and he was no longer flushed with embarrassment but spiky with the beginnings of anger. A change of subject was probably a good idea.
“What body?” Max said.
“Wait, I have to get this straight in my head. I should start with university.” Lucien closed his eyes and looked to be getting his thoughts in order and Max had to hold back his instant state of alert at the mention of a body. “I decided I wanted to study in the UK, anything to get away from… everything. I’d already missed years by losing the plot, gap year from uni after gap year, always an excuse not to go. Then suddenly, that is all I wanted to do. My old tutor recommended Cardiff a long time ago when I was only twelve or so, something about the UK Universities having the best research facilities and Cardiff being a beautiful city. When I was applying I remembered what he said.”
“Not to mention it’s in a different country.” Max pointed out.
“Yes. I mean, at first my family didn’t like the idea of me moving so far away without a security team. Or without the pomp and ceremony of a visiting dignitary.” Lucien rolled his eyes. “But after everything I went through when Seb died, I think my parents finally came to the decision that any move to get my head out of my arse was a good one.”
Max couldn’t help the small snort of amusement. The word arse coming out of Lucien’s mouth was just all wrong. Lucien frowned momentarily at the snort but continued.
“So some years later than the other students I should have been with, I started my degree. I was registered as just Luke Magrello, the normal guy with the funny accent.” He pointed at himself and offered a wry smile. “Luke Magrello doesn’t need a bodyguard or any special treatment. The threats had stopped. Everything was quiet, and I wanted to blend in and be normal. I’m ashamed to say that I did my own bit of blackmailing by promising my parents to never drink again if they’d only let me study at Cardiff and live on campus and just be normal.”
“Okay, let me understand this. You’re a prince, royalty, but you imagined you could hide away and no one in the age of Twitter and Facebook would put two and two together?”
“Prince is a title, that’s all. My family doesn’t have the money one would think was attached to it. I’m maybe eightieth in line to the throne in the UK through my father’s side, but we’re not rich—in fact you could say we’re property rich but cash poor.”
Max couldn’t get any of that to make sense. Why was someone blackmailing a family with no money, and—wait, none of that answered his original question. “So why do you need a bodyguard?”
Lucien bit his lip. “I don’t think I do.” He held up a hand to stop Max from responding. “The letters,” he said. He passed over another envelope, and this time Max pulled out everything. Nine separate letters in individual plastic wrappers with the stamp of Cardiff police on three of them and a familiar country name on the other six. So that’s where Prince Lucien comes from. Envelopes were attached to each, but none had gone through a postal service as such. All hand delivered, then.
“They’re in order,” he said. “The first six were sent to my home before I moved here and when the police looked at them the first five were all linked by tone. Crude and sexual, whoever wrote these was after one thing, and they signed off OS. The sixth one is different. The first five had my parents demanding I had a 24/7 bodyguard, and there was no way they would have let me leave the country on my own. Look… you’ll see.”
Max read the first one, a letter of admiration and respect, albeit a short one. Nothing much that would ping his radar, apart from the fact the letter had been signed off with mine forever before the simple initials OS. It appeared all five of the letters ended the same way.
The second was a little more insistent, suggesting Lucien maybe hadn’t received the first, then apologizing for being a nuisance. Although there was no return address on the first, so how the hell Lucien could have replied even if he’d wanted to wasn’t clear.
“That’s just irrational,” Max murmured, more to himself than Lucien.
“It’s like he wanted a reply,” Lucien said. “I don’t get it either.”
The third was angry and said in no uncertain terms that Lucien should know better and where were his manners. Still irrational. The fourth was where it got interesting. Abruptly the writer was saying that Lucien wasn’t the man he thought he was, the man that OS, whoever OS was, had fallen in love with. The letter writer said there were photos and he would hate to see them released to the press if Lucien didn’t respond to the letters admitting he was in love with OS.
“That’s where I am thinking, respond to what? Is there something in those letters I should be seeing to know who to respond to?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t see anything. But somehow the writer thinks you should know him. Did OS seem familiar to you? Oliver, Oscar, something?”
“Nothing at the time, I promise you.”
“And the blackmail photos, I assume he means the ones I just saw.” He turned to the next letter and confirmed his own statement. Crudely stapled to the fifth missive was a black and white print of the blurred image Max had just looked at with the words You think I couldn’t give you this? All you needed to do was ask. Then written in block capitals, I will have you.
Lucien pointed at the writing. “We had checks done on printing and the tone of the words. All of the letters are a supposed match but because there is no part of it that is handwritten in cursive or script, we can’t get any more from them. The authorities couldn’t find anyone with the initials OS who had a direct link to me, but do you know how many people in my country have those letters in their name?”
Max glanced at Lucien, who was gesturing wildly to underscore the question.
“I can imagine,” he said.
The sixth letter was different. The paper quality better, and the words used less raw and more controlled. If Max didn’t know better, he’d say they were from a completely different person.
All it said was You don’t need to worry any more. I’ve dealt with him.
“The suspicion was that this was a different person,” Lucien said. “Then—” He squirmed a little in his seat. “—the police found a body in a burned-out car, a man named Oscar Sheiver.”
“You think that was OS?”
“His apartment wall was covered in photos of me, my family, and he had these printed wedding invites between me and him. All they could determine was the dead man, Oscar, had been murdered before being placed in the car, killed by several blows to the head. There was no evidence to link to who killed him, and for the longest time I thought my parents had cleared up the issue.” Lucien lowered his head. “I didn’t know what to think.”
“Okay, so letter six is someone admitting what they did,” Max summarized. “That they ‘dealt’ with OS.”
“That is what the police thought, but with no more leads, it was done. I sobered up, became more of who I should be, and applied for a university place here.”
Max turned to letter seven, the first of the ones with the Cardiff police station tag. I’ve seen what people are like around you. Be careful. The paper was again different, which ruled out a connection that way, but still, the tone of it was a warning and wasn’t threatening in any way.
“That was pushed through the door,” Lucien said.
“And you think it’s by the same person who might have removed OS from the picture?”
Max shook his head. “I don’t know. No one knows. It certainly looks like it, but it’s been so long since the first six letters, it’s anyone’s guess.”
If the author of the last letter six had followed the prince to his school in a completely different country, then it didn’t matter the tone wasn’t threatening. Not good.
Letter eight rambled on for two pages, all in capitals, talking of the kind of people that Lucien should watch out for: the teammates in the swim team who were lying to him and the housemates who wanted nothing from him but money.
“This seems pretty specific. Do you have a feeling that someone is lying to you on the team?”
“And is someone in your house taking money from you?”
“No, nothing more than lending a fiver here and there,” Lucien said. “No one knows who I am apart from the uni authorities.”
Letter nine was on different paper, a pale yellow cheap stock from the weight of it. This was both somewhat of a threat couched in a demand for Lucien to ‘see’.
It ended with a strange sentence. I can’t always keep you safe, why don’t you see that? I need you to see or you’ll end up getting killed.
Just that. A simple collection of words that were stone cold in their finality and intent.
Max considered the last part: or you’ll end up getting killed. That wasn’t the same as ‘I’ll kill you’? The words were subtle in difference and it didn’t sit well with Max. “He or she didn’t say they would kill you, just that you’ll end up being killed. That suggests a dissociation from hurting you directly.”
“I can’t see the difference,” Lucien said. “At the end of it I’m dead, according to whoever wrote these.”
“You want my advice?” Max asked. He pushed forward before Lucien could say a thing. “Go home to the castle or palace or whatever with Teddy, and get as far from here as possible until the authorities track the letter writer down. If it’s the same person who dealt with OS and that person is here in the UK now, then you should be keeping your head down.”
“We don’t have a palace or a castle,” Lucien snapped. “And I’m not going home. That is exactly what my parents want. I’m in my last year, and I want to stay. The deal so I get to stay is that I have security. They sent Teddy over—he’s the head of security at home. But you’ve seen him with his best impression of a hairless Hagrid, and if he’s with me, nothing will be the same. I need someone who will just be with me. If I stay here, if I don’t want to go home, can you help me? Will you?”
Max glanced up from the letters to see the resignation on Lucien’s face. Lucien was expecting Max to say no. Vulnerability shadowed his eyes, and he clasped his hands together so tightly the skin was white. Max’s heart won out over his head. Lucien wasn’t arrogant or expecting Max to say yes, he was defenseless and scared. He might not be listening to Max’s advice, but that wasn’t what Max was here for. Max was merely the bodyguard.
“Let’s talk more.”