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Courted

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Chapter 1

Em Andrews gazed out over the crystal blue water…

Forget that. If she was standing in the middle of an honest-to-God fairy-tale kingdom, this daydream was going to start off the Best. Way. Possible.

Princess Emmaline Aurora Grace gazed out over her seaside paradise kingdom as sunlight danced over crystal blue water and members of her gorgeous, strapping royal guard trained in the crashing surf, preparing to protect the kingdom from—

“Yo, Em! Where’s the suntan lotion? I’m about to fry my face off!”

Em snapped back into focus and swung around, squinting as her best friend in the entire world ground to a halt in the sand beside her. Gasping for breath after the blurted demand, Nicki Clark braced her hands on her thighs, her reddish-gold hair and turquoise running tank plastered with sweat, her back heaving as she sucked in air.

“Red bag, side compartment,” Em said, mentally picturing her packing list for the day’s tote, everything neatly tucked into place. She would have grabbed the bag herself, except a tanned foot with perfectly polished toes snaked out of the shadow of the enormous hotel-monogrammed beach umbrella to kick it their way, the rasp following it as dark as death.

“Nicki, for the love of God… Silence.”

“Lauren! You’re up! You should have come jogging with me and Fran!” Nicki dropped to a squat and began rooting through Em’s provision bag as a muttered curse floated out from under the umbrella. “Best thing in the world to knock out a hangover.”

“Right after I finish icing my face. Promise.”

“Where is Fran, anyway?” Em returned her gaze to the beach. It was filling up with tourists and sunbathers, but the last member of their group was nowhere to be seen. “You didn’t lose her, did you?”

“Hardly. There was some sort of Farmers Market setting up. It looked awesome, but I wasn’t going to stop my run for it.” Nicki liberated the suntan lotion. “Fran found some sort of scarf thingy hanging from a rack and refused to move until she could buy it.”

She sank onto the beach blanket, then grabbed a towel and a squeeze bottle of water to sponge herself off. “I’m here now, though, so if you wanna take a walk, feel free. I’ll make sure nothing takes off on its own while Lauren is in recovery.”

Em smiled, nodding her thanks. Nicki knew her too well—she wouldn’t go wandering off to enjoy this beautiful day if Lauren might need her to go fetch food, water, or possibly a physician after she’d decided she could hold her own in a tsipouro drinking contest the evening before.

It’d been their first night in this idyllic kingdom, the second and southernmost stop on their European tour. A tiny country carved out of the mountains of Greece and edged by the glorious Aegean Sea, Garronia was an anomaly in the modern world—a nation run by royalty, and apparently run well.

But regardless of its governmental prowess, what Garronia really excelled in was looking amazing. Em turned again to gaze out over the smooth, sun-kissed water of the Aegean, then headed for the shoreline, her feet sinking into the soft white sand. If she were Nicki, she’d come up with the perfect words to describe the water’s particular shades of blue. Then again, if she were Nicki, she wouldn’t be focusing on the pretty picture the Aegean Sea made at all. She’d be analyzing riptides and undercurrents, trying to set up the perfect scenario for an impromptu wind-surfing competition.

But Em wasn’t interested in cataloging their European odyssey for some extreme travel blog. She wanted to immerse herself in it, diving into the inherent escape it provided, if only for a little while. Floating on the Aegean, she could forget about the letter she’d received before she left Kansas City, the rich, creamy stationery, the crisp typed words. Final scholarship deferment… Decision needed…sincerely hope you will consider…

No. She didn’t need to think about any of that. Not yet, anyway.

Now she needed simply to revel in the glittering waves that had been beckoning to her all morning. She wasn’t totally used to swimming in open water, but she couldn’t resist the lure of the gorgeous, jewellike azure sea. It already seemed to hold her in its shifting grip, drawing her out, pulling her deep

“Watch out!”

Em didn’t have time to react as a pair of large, powerful hands planted themselves on her upper arms, then lifted her off the sand a good two inches and thrust her to the side as if she were some sort of toy. A phalanx of the training navy guys, or whatever they were, pounded past, but as soon as they hit some imaginary mark in the sand, the fastest one of them turned and sprinted back to her. He wore long scuba-style tights and a gray tank emblazoned with Cyrillic writing she couldn’t make out. Still, it looked close enough to Greek that the guy could have been any US frat boy and given a whole new meaning to the term “Rush.”

He was just—beautiful. There was no other word for it. Muscles bulged out of his tank top and gave definition to his deeply tanned skin, and even beneath his thick tights, his legs still managed to look wickedly cut. His dark hair was just long enough to curl, and as Em stared, he raked a hand through it, pushing it back from sun-bronzed skin as his golden eyes swept over her, flashing with concern. She got a vague sense of perfect cheekbones and a strong jaw, then her own gaze settled on the guy’s absolutely criminal mouth. Holy Mother of—

“You’re all right?” Somehow, that mouth was moving now, spouting fluent if heavily accented English, and Em had to force herself to stop looking at the guy’s lips and actually process his words.

“What? Ah. Yes, sorry.” She shook her head, waving her arm to encompass him, the beach, the passing gulls—anything that would deflect his attention away from her. “I didn’t mean to get in your way.”

“Footrace. Unscheduled.” He grinned, and her heart almost stopped. “You’re going swimming? Be careful of the undertow. It can sneak up on you.”

“Oh.” She glanced out at the water. Undertow? She had read about the currents off Royal Beach in her tourist guidebook, but neither it nor Nicki had mentioned any sort of serious water hazard. Still, the man was looking at her with concern in his deep golden eyes, so she nodded confidently at him. “I’m a strong swimmer. But thank you.”

His glance was skeptical, but he did her the courtesy of not challenging her. At five foot two with a slender frame, Em knew she didn’t look like a powerful anything, but she knew how to swim, for heaven’s sake. Before Hottie Greek Guy could say anything more, however, a shout sounded from the men up the beach, and he looked toward them, giving her a view of his chiseled profile. Em took the moment to gape, imprinting the image in her memory. Seriously, he could have been Odysseus standing there, his face wind-hardened and sun-baked but as yet unlined except right around his eyes. His jaw tightened as he called something back to his friends, and those gorgeous lips—

Navy Adonis Man turned and clearly saw her staring, and there was no way Em could stop the blush this time. “Be careful,” he said again, and he bowed—actually bowed to her!—before turning to lope off.

Polite, protective, AND sexy as hell. Maybe not the best ad for Garronia’s military, but it certainly worked for her.