“WHO’RE we baby-sitting this time, V?”
Brendan Borden stood with hands clasped loosely behind his back as his gaze quartered the cavernous parking garage, automatically checking all visible entry points. He didn’t question the decision of his superiors to keep the client’s name a secret, but he was sure, this close to game time, he could get the answer out of the lead agent.
Victor Thorogood gave his flippant partner a sidelong glance. “Is this a guessing game, or do you want me to just tell you who the primary is?” he asked.
Brendan parried Victor’s droll look with a shrug. “Unless you want me to beat it out of you.”
There was little to choose between Victor and Brendan for height, weight, or reach, and they were both highly trained in several disciplines of martial arts, not to mention their expertise with weapons, both projectile and edged. If they went at it, it would be a category four calamity with a lot of collateral damage, but Victor didn’t waste a second of time worrying about it. Brendan was his partner; there was no question of conflict between them, and if one ever did arise, it would be postponed until the job was over. They were professionals.
“We’re guarding honest-to-God royalty this time.”
“What flavor?” Brendan’s tone said that titles didn’t impress him much.
“Ever hear of Tramontaigne?”
“Where the hell is Tramontaigne?”
“It’s a small principality like Monaco, way up in the Alps.”
“I thought Monaco was an island near France,” Brendan said.
“Smartass. You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I do, don’t I? That’s why I’m the best partner you’ve ever had.” Brendan grinned as he rubbed the top of Victor’s head. “Look sharp. Here comes the boss.”
Anthony Frame, chief executive officer of Paladin Security Services, approached his two best operatives at a brisk walk. As usual, Frame looked as though he’d just been taken out of shrink-wrap: not a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in his suit, a fresh carnation in his lapel. Even his voice was crisp as lettuce when he greeted his agents.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen.” Frame eyed the two men critically. “You’re looking very smart,” he said, meaning it.
It wasn’t enough for Paladin’s operatives to be intelligent and lethal bodyguards; they had to be presentable as well, in order to blend in with the denizens of the upper crust. No earbuds for them, no matter how discreet, no outward signs of their profession whatsoever. It was said of Paladin that you couldn’t pick one of their minders out of a roomful of off-duty haute couture models.
Victor Thorogood’s light brown hair was sensibly short: just shy of trendy, nothing an enemy could use as a handhold. His broad-shouldered frame with its V-shaped torso tapering to slim hips was the perfect rack for his hand-tailored suit in classic navy. Brendan’s hair differed little from his partner’s in style or color, and his suit was a sober dark blue, cut so that it minimized his size. They looked like a couple of hotshot stockbrokers who got to the gym a few times a week. Their similar appearance was by design and by order of Paladin management, which matched up agents like teams of carriage horses. Paired by a chance resemblance, Victor and Brendan had become a perfectly meshed unit, the best on Paladin’s staff for nearly two years. They were the only men Anthony Frame would trust with this assignment.
“I apologize for all the secrecy, and I’ll give you the bad news first. Normally, Paladin has a strict policy of requiring the client to adhere to our rules, but protocol will be a bit different on this one.”
Victor could tell Brendan was as surprised as he was at the apology, but neither let their curiosity show on their faces. Both handsome visages remained impassive, giving away nothing as they waited for whatever their chief would say next.
“I don’t like to ask for favors, so this is difficult for me. The fact is that the primary’s mother is a very dear old friend of mine, and I agreed to a few changes for her sake. I know this highly irregular, and you may think what you like of me in private, but I would not have agreed to the conditions if I thought they would compromise your ability to do your job well.”
Victor nodded. “That goes without saying, boss.”
Frame accepted this vote of confidence and, having made his confession, returned to business. “Your primary is Prince Arkadio of Tramontaigne of the House Cerregea. His Highness is in our fair city for three days to dedicate a new wing of the Metro Museum of Art. He’ll be attending several public functions, as detailed in the agenda you’ve already received.”
“We’re all set,” Victor affirmed. “We’ve got our agenda, our ordnance, and spiffy clothes for everything from polo to a night at the opera.”
“What’s this prince like, boss?” Brendan asked.
“I’ve not met him,” Frame said. “Nor have I seen his mother for many years, but I still hold her in the highest regard. She’s Princess Wilhelmina of Tramontaigne now, but she used to be Willi Lamb.”
Victor’s eyebrows rose. “The actress from the sixties?” he said in surprise. “Wasn’t she some kind of heiress?”
“Madcap heiress is what the tabloids called her,” Brendan said. “I was just a kid, but I remember Willi. She was hot!”
“Quite,” Frame said heavily. “She’s the youngest daughter of the South African opal mine Lambs. I met her when she came to England to continue her education. She was just seventeen.” Frame paused and then went on. “Willi was astonishingly beautiful and quickly made friends, many of them among the avant-garde of the Carnaby Street culture. Her family was scandalized when she left university and began appearing in films—particularly the ones that seemed to have no budget for wardrobe.”
“That’s what I remember,” Brendan spoke up again. “There was this one movie about… I don’t remember exactly what it was about, but everyone had lots of hair and they dropped acid, and in one scene Willi was wearing nothing but paint. I got quite an education that day.”
“Thank you for the lovely trip down memory lane,” Frame said. “Perhaps it would be better if you didn’t mention the highlights of his mother’s career to the prince.”
Victor suppressed a smile as he addressed his superior. “Is there anything you can tell us about Prince Arkadio? The dossier looked like it was put together by a publicist. Born at Neufroche Castle twenty years ago. Educated by tutors and at private schools. Involved with charitable and conservation foundations. Not very useful.” Victor didn’t specify if it was the dossier or the prince that fell short.
“That’s the way the client wanted it,” Frame replied. “When I spoke with Willi on the phone, I got the impression that the prince has been rather sheltered and doted upon.”
“I’m not going to like him, am I?” Victor asked as the elevator door opened on a party of four.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Everyone loves me,” said the young man at the center of the group.
Frame greeted the uniformed man who got out first while Brendan and Victor checked out their assignment. Prince Arkadio stood between two men who were easily six and a half feet tall and probably weighed in at an eighth of a ton each. Their sheer mass made the willowy prince look even slimmer than he was. Victor noted the young man’s deceptively simple clothing, hand-tailored of fine fabrics. The prince was attractive, as you’d expect of the offspring of a celebrated beauty who had plenty of time and money to spend on grooming. Arkadio had the upright, elegantly casual carriage that distinguished every royal Victor had ever seen, but a certain tension in the prince’s stance put the bodyguard on alert.
“Which one of you is my handler?” the young man asked loudly.
“We prefer minder, or personal guard, Your Highness,” Frame said smoothly. “Brendan Borden and Victor Thorogood, I have the honor to introduce Prince Arkadio. This gentleman is Captain Gaucher of the Royal Guard. The captain is responsible for the prince’s safety when in Tramontaigne.”
“I am responsible for Prince Arkadio regardless of geographical details,” Gaucher said firmly.
“Captain Gaucher will be allowed direct participation in this operation. However,” Frame said in response to his agents’ inquiring expressions, “he understands that our operative is always in charge.”
Gaucher did not look as if he had that understanding at all, but he didn’t contradict Frame. He eyed Brendan and Victor as though they were the most sway-backed, knock-kneed ponies in the corral, but held his tongue for now.
“To answer His Highness’s question,” Frame said, “Mr. Thorogood is lead agent on this assignment.”
Gaucher stuck out his hand. “Mr. Thorogood,” he said crisply.
Victor shook Gaucher’s hand, approving of the firm grip. “Captain.”
“Is there actual food in my future?” the prince broke in to the introductions.
Gaucher turned to the boy immediately, and Victor noted the softening of the captain’s obsidian gaze. So this wasn’t just a duty for the officer; he had a deep emotional investment in protecting the prince. Interesting, and possibly significant, it also made Victor’s job more complicated.
“We will eat very soon, Your Highness,” Gaucher said. “Thank you for being so patient.”
“Here,” Victor said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a trail mix bar and handed it to Gaucher.
Gaucher tore open the foil packet and examined the compressed rectangle of fruit, grains, and nuts. After taking a small bite, he offered the snack to the prince. The young man instantly popped a bite into his mouth with every indication of enjoyment. His immediate problem solved, the captain turned to Frame again.
“I assume the car is ready,” he said.
Frame nodded. “This way, gentlemen.”
The car was a sleek, gleaming, diamond-black limousine built by Mercedes-Benz. The entire vehicle was armored and featured several other options not readily available to the general car-buying public. Brendan went to the driver’s door and got behind the wheel, evasive driving being one of the few areas where he had an edge on his partner. Victor opened the passenger door and waited beside it as Captain Gaucher dismissed the two hulking bodyguards and gestured the prince toward the car.
“Your Highness?” he said. “If you are ready?”
“If you absolutely promise that you’re taking me somewhere that serves food,” the prince pouted.
“You have my solemn word as a gentleman,” the captain replied.
“That might be worth something if you were a gentleman,” the prince said, “but we know differently, don’t we, Jean-Michel?”
Victor caught the sharp edge to the playful tones in the prince’s voice and glanced quickly between the young man and the captain. There was a lot more going on there than met the eye, Victor decided. The minder didn’t particularly like the way the prince teased Gaucher in front of other professionals, but his expression was perfectly neutral as he held the door open. Gaucher walked around and got in on the other side as Victor slid into the back seat next to the prince. The doors closed almost simultaneously and the captain settled into the seat opposite Arkadio. Brendan put the car into drive, but at Frame’s gesture, he rolled down the window.
“Take good care of His Highness,” Frame said. “And try not to embarrass me.”
“Have we ever, boss?” Brendan replied.
Frame didn’t crack a smile. “I’ll be waiting for you to report in,” he said, making it sound like a threat.
Brendan nodded, took his foot off the brake, and pulled out of the underground garage into the sunlight. The game was on.
© Stefan Seabourne
Author: Stefan Seabourne
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Victor Thorogood is a senior agent for Paladin, a security company that provides discreet protection for elite clients. When he's assigned with his partner and best friend Brendan Borden to guard Prince Arkadio of Tramontaigne, he doesn’t expect to like the spoiled aristocrat and is proven a true prophet.
But the young prince reveals the steel under his silken exterior during an abduction attempt, compelling Victor to develop an unlikely respect for him. As the two men are forced to rely on one another for survival, admiration warms into an emotion Victor was afraid he’d never feel.