His princess for keeps
Playboy Prince Marko’s rebellious past hides a wealth of pain, but he’s neglected his royal duties for too long. And now that his brother and country need him, he’ll do anything to prove he’s changed—starting with a fake fiancée!
Elite bodyguard Jasmine Gallagher was hired to protect the prince, not get swept into his glamorous world, but she can’t help falling for the man behind the crown. Marko’s found a way into Jas’s guarded heart, but will he claim her as more than just his convenient princess?
Read an excerpt
JASMINE GALLAGHER SAT in the back seat of a sleek, dark sedan, silently observing the passing countryside behind windows tinted almost black.
The road hugged the very edge of the island of Vela Ada, almost touching the perfect blue of the Adriatic Sea. It was late afternoon, and the ocean glittered beneath the glorious summer sun, the azure surface interrupted only by the occasional tall-masted boat with sails in blinding white.
Jasmine’s car was the third of three identical vehicles. Leading the small convoy were two of Jas’s team: Scott—who was ex–Special Forces—and Heather—who, like Jas, was ex-Australian National Police. Next in line was what was called the ‘principal’s’ car—the person that Gallagher Personal Protection Services had been tasked with protecting. In Jas’s career she had provided close personal protection services—what most people outside the industry would call a ‘bodyguard’—to a wide range of people: prime ministers, ambassadors, religious leaders, CEOs, celebrities—but this job was a first for her, and a first for her company.
From today—and for the next three months—she was looking after a prince.
Jasmine smiled. Royalty.
This was the opportunity of a lifetime for a girl who’d grown up in public housing on the outskirts of Canberra. And further confirmation that those naysayers who told her a woman couldn’t be the face of a protection services company were clueless.
Not that Jasmine had ever doubted herself.
The dense forest that faced the harbour thinned as the convoy approached the city. At a predetermined landmark—a distinctive cast-iron lamp just over a kilometre from the palace—Jas picked up her phone.
‘We’re approaching,’ she said.
As Jasmine ended the call the woman seated beside her shifted in her seat.
‘Can you quiz me again?’ she asked, her voice just slightly high-pitched. Jas met the gaze of their driver, Simon—a retired SAS Commando—in the rear-view mirror, and knew he was smiling. Felicity had been asking for help with her script and backstory ever since they’d picked her up from Dubrovnik airport, and then over the several hours it had taken to drive and then ferry to Vela Ada.
‘You’ve got this,’ Jasmine reassured her. ‘But we can run through it one more time if you like.’
Felicity nodded. ‘Thank you. I know I’m being ridiculous. I know, I know this, it’s just…’ she paused, pushing her long, perfectly curled blonde hair behind her ears ‘…this isn’t a normal acting job, is it? And Marko… I mean, you’ve met him, right? Prince Marko…? He’s pretty distracting.’
Jasmine laughed. ‘I can’t say I personally feel that way, but guess I can imagine why that would be.’
If you were the type to find tall, dark, broad-shouldered Mediterranean princes distracting. Which Jasmine was not. She couldn’t afford to be distracted by something as irrelevant as attractiveness in her job.
‘Oh, come on,’ Felicity said, narrowing her eyes. ‘You’re not that much older than me, and you’re not dead, so don’t pretend you haven’t noticed he’s totally hot. And that accent. Honestly, he could read a dictionary and make it sound sexy. Why don’t Aussie guys sound like that?’
She flopped back into her leather seat, and now Simon—also Australian—was quietly laughing as the car slowed to a crawl to navigate the narrow cobblestone streets of the city.
‘So, I met Marko in Rome six months ago, during a break, while he completed a secondment with the Italian Army and while I was on holiday. It was terrifically romantic…’
Jasmine nodded as Felicity spoke. Jasmine had, of course, been briefed on this rather unusual arrangement—although she didn’t know every detail that Felicity was running through now. But she wasn’t worried—Felicity was whip-smart, and very well prepared. Ivan—the Prince’s valet—had told her of Felicity’s exceptional improvisation skills as well, so she was clearly an excellent choice. Plus she certainly looked the part—even now, just slightly anxious, the blonde woman oozed class and polish.
The perfect princess. Or rather, princess-to-be.
‘And he took me on a picnic to propose—at the Pavlovic Estate.’ Felicity paused. ‘I mean, can you imagine if that actually happened? If Prince Marko actually proposed to me for real?’ She sighed, and closed her eyes as if imagining the moment herself. ‘Princess Felicity!’ She shrugged. ‘Oh, well, best enjoy it while it lasts. And do my best to make it believable that Europe’s most notorious playboy would actually settle down.’
‘You’ve got this,’ Jas repeated, but then added, more seriously, ‘But remember, your engagement might be fake, but no one else knows that. Your security is real. We don’t have any intel that suggests Prince Marko is under threat, but if he was—to any potential bad guys, you are his fiancée, and you will be a princess. So it’s important for your own safety that you follow my instructions tonight, and over the next few months. Okay?’
Felicity nodded. ‘Of course,’ she said.
Jas watched as Felicity straightened her shoulders and adjusted her expression. No longer did even a hint of the actress remain—she was every inch the mysterious fiancée who Marko would be introducing to Vela Ada at tonight’s ball.
The car slid to a stop at the security checkpoint at the palace gate.
Now in range, Jas activated her earpiece. ‘We’re here.’
* * *
Marko sank back into the linen fabric of his couch, and rubbed his temples.
He had a cracking headache, right on top of the fuzzy cloak of fatigue he’d been wearing all week.
Across from him, in separate plush single armchairs, sat his valet, and the head of his new security detail—Jasmine Gallagher. Beyond that pair was a massive window, framed with heavy brocade curtains and so sparkling clean as to appear invisible. Through that—if he looked—he could see the entire east side of the island—a stunning view but also rather useful when the palace had also played the role of military lookout several centuries ago. Built at the island’s highest point, Palace Vela Ada had three-hundred-and-sixty-degree views of the tiny island nation—of its single undulating city of red-roofed stone houses, of the tiny towns dotted amongst the vineyards and market gardens that spoke of its rich agricultural industry, and of the boats and yachts that bobbed in the ocean andbrought in as many tourist dollars now as the fish.
But Marko wasn’t looking at the view, because he didn’t really want to be here at all.
He wanted to be back in Italy, he wanted to be the man who had just been promoted to Pukovnik—Lieutenant Colonel—and who had been thrilled at his progress in strengthening ties between the minuscule Vela Adian army and their allies in neighbouring Croatia and Italy. He also wanted to be the man who—much of the time—managed to ignore the reality of being a prince.
Sure, he was treated differently in the army—but it was subtle, now, after years of his adamant refusal to be coddled and protected or elevated to a rank he hadn’t earned. He’d earned the respect of his peers through hard work and later through tours of duty. He was Lieutenant Colonel Marko Pavlovic first; Prince Marko only really made an appearance at official royal events, and even that was rare, as his brother—King Lukas—seriously had that all in hand.
It was the greatest stroke of luck that Lukas had been born two years before Marko, rather than the other way around, as Lukas had been the perfect king-in-training since birth. He was everything a king should be, leading Vela Ada through the last few years of political unrest as the Vela Adian parliament had been rocked by scandal and corruption.
Now the dust had—almost—settled, but then Lukas had been diagnosed with cancer.
In the week since Lukas had called him, Marko had been in a fog. He was labelling it fatigue, but it was different from that, really. More a heavy weight of uncertainty and fear.
Lukas—and the royal doctor—had assured Marko and the royal family that Lukas’s form of cancer was highly treatable, and that his prospects of making a full recovery were extremely good. He’d also gone to great lengths to stress that Lukas’s cancer was unrelated to the cancer that had killed their father, the late King Josip.
But Marko couldn’t imagine life without his brother. They might be as different as night and day, but there was no one on this planet Marko respected more than Lukas. Nobody.
Marko couldn’t say for sure that was how Lukas felt about him—but that didn’t really matter. Especially not now.
‘I need you to step up for me, Marko,’ Lukas had said. ‘The island can’t cope with any more turmoil. My people need to feel safe, they need to trust our government and know that we—the heads of state—are in control and incorruptible. You need to be—for once in your life—respectful of your position. Respectful of your responsibilities. You can’t run away any longer.’
Marko had bristled—despite his concern for Lukas he was unable to leave that comment unchallenged. ‘No one would ever dare question my commitment to our military,’ he’d said, his tone hard-edged.
‘Your commitment to training all over the world, you mean?’ Lukas had said. ‘Italy, Australia, the US, France…’
His brother had sighed.
‘Look, I’m incredibly proud of what you’ve achieved in your career, and what you’ve done for our defence alliances—but would it have killed you to spend a bit more time in Vela Ada? To actually be visible to your people? To support them in a way that is tangible to them? Especially over the past few years? Instead, all they see of you is photos in glossy magazines. What was the last article on you? Something about top ten royals in their swimwear… I mean, well done on being number one and all…’ Lukas’s tone had been desert dry ‘…but honestly—you were with a different woman in every single photo. How do you think that looks to our people?’
‘It’s none of their business,’ Marko said firmly.
‘That’s the point,’ Lukas had said—for the first time sounding as tired and unwell as he really was. ‘You’re a prince. Their Prince. It is their business that you’d rather spend your time anywhere but here and with a different woman every week.’
The phone had been silent for long moments.
‘This isn’t going to work, is it?’ said Lukas. ‘I know you’re capable of caretaking my role, but perception is the problem. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t feel safe. And I can’t have that. We’ve worked too hard to prosecute Senator Božić and his allies and rid Vela Ada of this scourge. Look, I know the label’s not entirely accurate, but will they believe in the Playboy Prince? Maybe I can still be active, in between treatments. Try and downplay my illness, and don’t mention it’s cancer…’
His brother was talking faster and faster.
‘Stop,’ Marko said. ‘I’m not the Playboy Prince. Not any more.’ He’d paused, trying to work out what he could say to reassure his brother. He hated hearing his usually impeccably calm and measured brother so anxious. He also hated—as he’d always hated—the way his personal life was even relevant to Vela Adians—and that his brother bought into it too. Surely his years of military service outweighed a selection of photos of him with bikini-clad women? But this wasn’t the time for that argument. ‘I’m engaged,’ he blurted out the moment the idea even partially formed in his brain. ‘I wanted to tell you in person. So you needn’t worry. The Playboy Prince is no more.’
‘Really?’ Lukas had been stunned. ‘That’s perfect. I mean—congratulations!’
‘Thank you,’ Marko had said, his lips quirking upwards.
‘Who is she? I didn’t know you were dating anyone.’
Because, of course, he hadn’t been. Marko searched his mind and the room for some titbit about this mystery woman he could share with his brother. On the wall of the small hotel room was an aged map of the world, and his gaze fell to the right-hand corner. ‘She’s Australian,’ he said, thinking fast. ‘I met her six months ago. How about she comes with me to Vela Ada, next week, so you can meet her?’
‘Yes—’ Lukas had said, sounding like himself again. ‘I’ll announce my illness this week and then have a ball a few days later to reassure everyone I’m not about to keel over, and to reposition you as a stable, responsible, engaged caretaker head of state. I like it.’
‘A ball, Lukas? That’s really not my thing—’
‘It is for the next three months, Marko. You’d better get used to it.’
Marko’s gaze slid from the view to the people before him. Ivan sat neatly in his ever-present pinstriped suit, listening intently and studiously taking notes. Beside him, Jasmine—also in a suit—was talking of safe rooms, escape routes and tonight’s schedule.
‘Your Highness,’ she said, her tone suddenly steelier. ‘This is important. I appreciate that Ivan will probably brief you again later, but for your safety—and for the safety of my team and everyone in the palace—you need to pay attention.’
Now his gaze sharpened. Before he’d simply been aware that a woman in a jet-black pantsuit sat across from him, but she was right—he hadn’t been paying attention. He hadn’t even really looked at her. This week had been such a blur of bad news, upturning his life and coordinating his impulsive ‘fiancée’ lie, that he’d simply approved the appointment of Gallagher Personal Protection Services based on the recommendation of Palace Security and thought little more about the woman who headed the company.
Now he properly considered her.
She was quite tall—obvious even when seated thanks to her long, crossed legs and the fact that her shoulders sat almost level with Ivan’s. Her hair was dark, and tied back sleekly from her pale skin, with not one stray strand obscuring the curved line of her cheeks and straight edge of her jaw. Right now, that jaw was firm as she studied him with intense brown eyes.
No, hazel eyes, he corrected as he continued to just look at her, and as the sun that streamed through the window highlighted the flecks of gold in her gaze.
She had great eyes, he realised—large and framed with thick lashes and neat eyebrows as black as her hair. And sharp—as if she missed nothing.
Which would come handy in her job, he supposed.
She hadn’t missed his perusal. He felt her intent gaze as his continued to track its way down her narrow, ski-slope-shaped nose—with the slightest upturned tip. It was a nose that probably veered closer towards large than small—and it sat above lips that were neither large nor small. Pink though, and glossy.
Her chin—like her jaw—was firm. A stubborn chin, most likely—but again, this was probably a trait useful in her profession.
Overall, he’d say she was pretty. Certainly pretty enough that in any other week of his life he would’ve noticed that fact immediately. But he barely remembered what his fake fiancée looked like, and he’d met with her via video conference and face to face nearly a dozen times this week.
His gaze slid back up to hers. Actually, her eyes were definitely more than pretty…beautiful, really—
‘Your Highness, may I assume that you also spend this much time documenting the appearance of your male security personnel?’
Marko blinked. Jasmine’s eyes were hard.
‘My apologies—’ he began.
‘My gender is irrelevant, Your Highness. And I have certainly not been employed for you to look at.’
‘No—of course not—’
Marko couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so flustered. He’d say most people who knew him would assume he never was.
‘But if we can agree that I’m not to be either ignored, or ogled, from now on, I think we can continue with my briefing.’
Marko nodded, not just a little ashamed of his behaviour. She was absolutely right—he’d had a terrible week, but it didn’t excuse what he’d just done.
What was wrong with him?
He needed to pull himself together. He needed to commit to this—to this stupid plan of his—with everything he had.
He needed to do this for Lukas.
And for Vela Ada.
‘I sincerely apologise, Ms Gallagher,’ Marko said, again meeting her gaze squarely. ‘I assure you it won’t happen again.’
She raised an eyebrow, but then she nodded. A neat, controlled movement—like all her movements, he suspected.
He didn’t like that she clearly didn’t believe him. Did Jasmine think he was the Playboy Prince, too? That he was some frivolous, useless heartbreaker who’d abandoned his country and left his brother to deal with all that royalty bother while he flitted around the world enjoying himself?
And he wouldn’t be able to talk her around, especially after that rather woeful first impression.
He didn’t bother to analyse why it mattered what the head of his protection team thought of him—he knew, instinctively, it wouldn’t make any difference to the quality of service that Jasmine would provide.
But it did matter.
Maybe because he genuinely wasn’t the man who—as Jasmine had said—ogled his employees. Or maybe it was because if he wanted all of Vela Ada to respect him, he needed to start with the people standing around him.
Or maybe it was just because Jasmine Gallagher had remarkable golden eyes.
Text Copyright © 2017 by Leah Ashton
Cover Art Copyright © 2017 by Harlequin Enterprises
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books SA. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprise Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.