I look at Eric Hammond and I can see the man he used to be. Strong and straight—noble, even, before the weight of life bent him in half, turned him into the sad sack of bones he is now.
“You’re wrong,” I say softly. “I do understand.”
Then my voice turns fierce.
“I just don’t care. Not about you.” I point towards the door. “I have stood by and watched you break that girl’s heart every day for the last six weeks, and I’m not watching it anymore.”
It’s my job to keep Ellie Hammond safe. All of her. Her body as well as her sweet little soul. And I’m damn good at what I do, but more than that, I want to protect her. Because she’s kind and clever, lovely and precious . . . and fuck . . . somebody has to care enough to keep that safe.
“So you’re going to get out of that bed and clean yourself up and for the next few hours, you’re going to pretend she matters.”
He nods and when he sets the frame on the bedside table, I’m able to see the photograph. It’s a family picture—a child-sized Olivia with crooked teeth and wild hair; her father standing behind her, sober and happy, and in his arms, her sister with baby cheeks and white-blond hair. And it’s like a punch to the gut when I see the woman beside him—gazing up at him, smiling. A woman with short blond hair . . . and Ellie’s beautiful face. They look almost exactly alike.
“She does matter,” Eric Hammond whispers, running his thumb over the image of everything he once had.
There are photographers outside Ellie’s graduation. Not a large group, just three, but they’re there. I guide Mr. Hammond towards the door of the gymnasium, where a student volunteer is waiting to exchange our tickets for paper programs.
The journalists shout questions as we pass:
“Mr. Hammond, is Prince Nicholas coming to the ceremony?”
“How do you feel about Olivia’s pregnancy? Is the baby the Prince’s?”
“Mr. Hammond, when’s the wedding?”
Eric’s good about it. Doesn’t react, doesn’t even turn his head. As I lead him to his seat, he asks quietly, “Olivia’s not really pregnant, is she?”
“Is it always like that? The reporters?”
The corner of my mouth pulls up. “Usually, it’s a hundred times worse.”
I stand in the back during the ceremony, eyes on the crowd, watching the late arrivals and early exits of the people coming and going. When Ellie gives her speech, I know the moment that she spots her dad, sitting beside Marty. Her words pause—just slightly—and for a second her face is slack with disbelief. And then she smiles. So happily.
And even though we’re inside, the day seems even sunnier.
Marty says he’ll walk back to his place after the ceremony and says his goodbyes outside the school. But when Tommy goes to get the vehicle, Ellie’s dad says he prefers to walk back to the coffee shop—it being such a nice day and all.
So I text Tommy to meet us at the diner and then follow Ellie and Mr. Hammond from a decent distance—giving them space for privacy, but staying near enough to reach them if I have to.
Ellie takes her gown off and drapes it over her arm, swinging her diploma and hat in one hand. About halfway home, the pavement clears out a bit and I hear Mr. Hammond talking low and seriously to his youngest daughter.
“You looked beautiful up there today, baby.”
Ellie gives a short, self-conscious laugh. “Thanks, Dad.”
And then he looks longer, his eyes growing sober and wet. “You look beautiful every day. Just like your mom.”
Ellie’s chin dips. “I’m sorry. I know that upsets you.”
And her saying that seems to upset him even more. Mr. Hammond pauses at a tiny park, a patch of green with a few benches and a pathway that connects to the next street. He guides Ellie to a bench and sits down, and I hear him say there are things he needs to tell her.
I don’t listen after that. I stay alert and focus on the surroundings. I keep them in my sight, but I block out the conversation—because that’s part of the job too. The only way this works without making people crazier than a box of frogs is if those I’m protecting can still carve out some piece of privacy for themselves.
No matter how up-close and personal we have to be, some things just aren’t our bloody business.
After a while, Ellie stands while Mr. Hammond stays sitting.
“I’ve already lost your sister. I don’t want to lose you too,” he tells her, sorrowfully.
And there are tears leaking from Ellie’s eyes when she hugs him, even while she begs, “Don’t cry, Daddy. You haven’t lost Olivia and you’re not going to lose me. We love you and we know how hard it is . . . how sad you are.”
And then I hear Eric Hammond’s deep voice, as he wipes at his face with a tissue and reaches out to pat Ellie’s arm. “I’m gonna try, baby. I promise, things will be different from now on.”
I won’t hold my breath. It’s a promise often made but, more often, broken.
They walk back over to the pavement, side by side, and that’s my cue to fall into step behind them. As they continue home, Ellie looks back at me—but I don’t make eye contact, I turn my head to the street. Because I don’t want her to think I know or care about what just passed between her and her father—I don’t want her to feel embarrassed.
As they walk up to the front of Amelia’s, a blaring red Volkswagen Beetle convertible with Ellie’s friend Marlow behind the wheel pulls up and double-parks in the middle of the street. She honks the horn and cups her hands around her red lips—the same shade as the car.
“Let’s go! Weekend at Bernie’s!”
Based on what I overheard, their classmate Bernie Folger is hosting a graduation party at his parents’ shore house in Wildwood, New Jersey. Before she can ask, I’m already telling her, “You can’t go alone.”
That’s when Tommy steps out of the diner door onto the pavement.
“Tommy can come with us!” Marlow shouts. “I’ll even let him drive, ’cause I’m a fucking sweetheart like that.”
Tommy meets my eyes—and we both nod. Ellie hugs her dad goodbye and turns to me, shyly shuffling those white strappy heels.
“Well . . . I’ll see you tomorrow, Logan.”
Then she’s scurrying to the car and climbing into the back. On his way to the car, Tommy swings past me, tapping my arm. “Mr. Hammond has a visitor. Inside.”
He slips into the driver’s seat and the three of them take off.
I open the door for Mr. Hammond and follow him into the coffee shop. And that’s when I catch sight of the redheaded visitor Tommy mentioned.
The 4th Earl of Ellington rises from his chair.
He smiles the only way he knows how—warmly—while extending his hand. “Mr. Hammond, my name is Simon Barrister. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’d like to speak to you about a business venture that may be lucrative for both of us.”
Eric Hammond shakes the Earl’s hand. “What’s your business, Simon?”
And Lord Ellington’s blue eyes sparkle. “I’m hoping that it will be . . . pies.”
Ten months later
A ROYAL A WEDDING IS a major event on any day, but when the royal getting married is the former Crown Prince who gave up the throne for an American girl he couldn’t live without? It’s a madhouse.
For men like me, it’s a high-octane event—my senses are sharp, on high alert. The place is packed with press, aristocrats, dignitaries, celebrities galore. This is what we do—these are the moments that our training and strategizing prepare us for.
Security is planned out months in advance in a war room—like preparing for a battle. Everyone knows his role; everyone has a position. Tonight, my focus in on Prince Nicholas. Although he’s never far from Olivia’s side, there’s another man who’s assigned to her—Tommy. Olivia, now a princess and a duchess, shimmers like a pretty disco ball—all white silk and jewels. And Nicholas’s smile shines brighter than the tiara on her head.
“Happy” has left the building—and tonight, at the dinner celebrating his royal matrimony, the prince is nothing short of ecstatic.