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“I think I know your name,” Ambra told him, blushing as she shook hands with Prince Julian, the future king of Spain. He was far taller than she had imagined, with soft eyes and a confident smile. “I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight,” she continued, quickly regaining her composure. “I imagined you as more of a Prado man–you know, Goya, Velazquez … the classics.”
“You mean conservative and old-fashioned?” He laughed warmly. “I think you have me confused with my father. Mallo and Miro have always been favorites of mine.”
Ambra and the prince talked for several minutes, and she was impressed by his knowledge of art. Then again, the man grew up in Madrid’s Royal Palace, which possessed one of Spain’s finest collections; he’d probably had an original El Greco hanging in his nursery.
“I realize this will seem forward,” the prince said, presenting her with a gold-embossed business card, “but I would love for you to join me at a dinner party tomorrow night. My direct number is on the card. Just let me know.”
“Dinner?” Ambra joked. “You don’t even know my name.”
“Ambra Vidal,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You’re thirty-nine years old. You hold a degree in art history from the Universidad de Salamanca. You’re the director of our Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You recently spoke out on the controversy surrounding Luis Quiles, whose artwork, I agree, graphically mirrors the horrors of modern life and may not be appropriate for young children, but I’m not sure I agree with you that his work resembles that of Banksy. You’ve never been married. You have no children. And you look fantastic in black.”
Ambra’s jaw dropped. “My goodness. Does this approach really work?”
“I have no idea,” he said with a smile. “I guess we’ll find out.”
As if on cue, two Guardia Real agents materialized and ushered the prince off to mingle with some VIPs.
Ambra clutched the business card in her hand and felt something she had not felt in years. Butterflies. Did a prince just ask me for a date?
Ambra had been a gangly teenager, and the boys who asked her out had always felt themselves to be on an equal footing with her. Later in life, though, when her beauty had blossomed, Ambra suddenly found men to be intimidated in her presence, fumbling and self-conscious and entirely too deferential. Tonight, however, a powerful man had boldly strode up to her and taken total control. It made her feel feminine. And young.
The very next night, a driver collected Ambra at her hotel and took her to the Royal Palace, where she found herself seated next to the prince in the company of two dozen other guests, many of whom she recognized from the society pages or politics. The prince introduced her as his “lovely new friend” and deftly launched a conversation about art in which Ambra could participate fully. She had the sensation that she was being auditioned somehow, but strangely, she didn’t really mind. She felt flattered.
At the evening’s end, Julian took her aside and whispered, “I hope you had fun. I’d love to see you again.” He smiled. “How about Thursday night?”
“Thank you,” Ambra replied, “but I’m afraid I’m flying back to Bilbao in the morning.”
“Then I’ll fly up as well,” he said. “Have you been to the restaurant Etxanobe?”
Ambra had to laugh. Etxanobe was one of Bilbao’s most coveted dining experiences. A favorite of art aficionados from around the world, the restaurant boasted an avant-garde decor and colorful cuisine that made diners feel as if they were seated in a landscape painted by Marc Chagall.
“That would be lovely,” she heard herself say.
At Etxanobe, over stylishy presented plates of sumac-seared tuna and truffled asparagus, Julian opened up about the political challenges he faced as he attempted to emerge from the shadow of his ailing father, and also about the personal pressure he felt to continue the royal line. Ambra recognized in him the innocence of a cloistered little boy but also saw the makings of a leader with a fervent passion for his country. She found it an alluring combination.
That night, when Julian’s security guards whisked him back to his private plane, Ambra knew she was smitten.
You barely know him, she reminded herself. Take it slow.
The next several months seemed to pass in an instant as Ambra and Julian saw each other constantly–dinners at the palace, picnics on the grounds of his country estate, even a movie matinee. Their rapport was unforced, and Ambra couldn’t remember ever being happier. Julian was endearingly old-fashioned, often holding her hand or stealing a polite kiss, but never crossing the conventional boundaries, and Ambra appreciated his fine manners.
One sunny morning, three weeks ago, Ambra was in Madrid, where she was scheduled to appear in a segment of a morning TV show about the Guggenheim’s upcoming exhibits. RTVE’s Telediario was watched by millions live around the country, and Ambra was a little apprehensive about doing live television, but she knew the spot would provide superb national coverage for the museum.
The night before the show, she and Julian met for a deliciously casual dinner at Trattoria Malatesta and then slipped quietly through El Parque del Retiro. Watching the families out strolling and the scores of children laughing and running about, Ambra felt totally at peace, lost in the moment.
“Do you like children?” Julian asked.
“I adore them,” she replied honestly. “In fact, sometimes I feel like children are the only thing missing in my life.”
Julian smiled broadly. “I know the feeling.”
In that instant, the way he looked at her felt different somehow, and Ambra suddenly realized why Julian was asking the question. A surge of fear gripped her, and a voice in her head screamed out, Tell him! TELL HIM NOW!
She tried to speak, but she couldn’t make a sound.
“Are you okay?” he asked, looking concerned.
Ambra smiled. “It’s the Telediario show. I’m just a little nervous.”
“Exhale. You’ll be great.”
Julian flashed her a broad smile and then leaned forward and gave her a quick soft kiss on the lips.
The next morning, at seven thirty, Ambra found herself on a television soundstage, engaged in a surprisingly comfortable on-air chat with the three charming Telediario hosts. She was so caught up in her enthusiasm for the Guggenheim that she barely noticed the television cameras and the live studio audience, or remembered that five million people were watching at home.
“Gracias, Ambra, y muy interesante,” said the female host as the segment concluded. “Un gran placer conocerte.”
Ambra nodded her thanks and waited for the interview to end.
Strangely, the female host gave her a coy smile and continued the segment by turning to address the home audience directly. “This morning,” she began in Spanish, “a very special guest has made a surprise visit to the Telediario studio, and we’d like to bring him out.”
All three hosts stood up, clapping as a tall, elegant man strode onto the set. When the audience saw him, they jumped to their feet, cheering wildly.
Ambra stood too, staring in shock.
Prince Julian waved to the crowd and politely shook the hands of the three hosts. Then he walked over and stood beside Ambra, placing an arm around her.
“My father has always been a romantic,” he said, speaking Spanish and looking directly into the camera to address the viewers. “When my mother died, he never stopped loving her. I inherited his romanticism, and I believe when a man finds love, he knows in an instant.” He looked at Ambra and smiled warmly. “And so …” Julian stepped back and faced her.
When Ambra realized what was about to happen, she felt paralyzed with disbelief. NO! Julian! What are you doing?
Without warning, the crown prince of Spain was suddenly kneeling down before her. “Ambra Vidal, I am asking you not as a prince, but simply as a man in love.” He looked up at her with misty eyes, and the cameras wheeled around to get a close-up of his face. “I love you. Will you marry me?”
The audience and the show’s hosts all gasped in joy, and Ambra could feel millions of eyes around the country focusing intently on her. Blood rushed to her face, and the lights felt suddenly scalding hot on her skin. Her heart began to pound wildly as she stared down at Julian, a thousand thoughts racing through her head.
How could you put me in this position?! We’ve only recently met! There are things I haven’t told you about myself … things that could change everything!
Ambra had no idea how long she had stood in silent panic, but finally one of the hosts gave an awkward laugh and said, “I believe Ms. Vidal is in a trance! Ms. Vidal? A handsome prince is kneeling before you and professing his love before the entire world!”
Ambra searched her mind for some graceful way out. All she heard was silence, and she knew she was trapped. There was only one way this public moment could end. “I’m hesitating because I can’t believe this fairy tale has a happy ending.” She relaxed her shoulders and smiled warmly down at Julian. “Of course I will marry you, Prince Julian.”
The studio erupted in wild applause.
Julian stood up and took Ambra in his arms. As they embraced, she realized that they had never shared a long hug before this moment.
Ten minutes later, the two were sitting in the back of his limousine.
“I can see I startled you,” Julian said. “I’m sorry. I was trying to be romantic. I have strong feelings for you, and–”
“Julian,” Ambra interrupted forcefully, “I have strong feelings for you too, but you put me in an impossible position back there! I never imagined you would propose so quickly! You and I barely know each other. There are so many things I need to tell you–important things about my past.”
“Nothing in your past matters.”
“This might matter. A lot.”
He smiled and shook his head. “I love you. It won’t matter. Try me.”
Ambra studied the man before her. Okay, then. This was most certainly not how she had wanted this conversation to go, but he had given her no choice. “Well, here it is, Julian. When I was a little girl, I had a terrible infection that almost killed me.”
As Ambra spoke, she felt a deep emptiness welling up inside her. “And the result was that my life’s dream of having children … well, it can only be a dream.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Julian,” she said flatly. “I can’t have children. My childhood health problems left me infertile. I’ve always wanted children, but I am unable to have any of my own. I’m sorry. I know how important that is to you, but you’ve just proposed to a woman who cannot give you an heir.”
Julian went white.
Ambra locked eyes with him, willing him to speak. Julian, this is the moment when you hold me close and tell me everything’s okay. This is the moment you tell me it doesn’t matter, and that you love me anyway.
And then it happened.
Julian shifted away from her ever so slightly.
In that instant, Ambra knew it was over.
THE GUARDIA’S DIVISION of electronic security is located in a windowless warren of rooms on the subterranean level of the Royal Palace. Intentionally isolated from the palace’s vast Guardia barracks and armory, the division’s headquarters consists of a dozen computer cubicles, one telephone switchboard, and a wall of security monitors. The eight-person staff–all under the age of thirty-five–is responsible for providing secure communication networks for the staff of the Royal Palace and the Guardia Real, as well as handling electronic surveillance support for the physical palace itself.
Tonight, as always, the basement suite of rooms was stuffy, reeking of microwaved noodles and popcorn. The fluorescent lights hummed loudly.
This is where I asked them to put my office, Martin thought.
Although “public relations coordinator” was technically not a Guardia post, Martin’s job required access to powerful computers and a tech-savvy staff; thus, the division of electronic security had seemed a far more logical home for her than an underequipped office upstairs.
Tonight, Martin thought, I will need every bit of technology available.
For the past few months, her primary focus had been to help the palace stay on message during the gradual transfer of power to Prince Julian. It had not been easy. The transition between leaders had provided an opportunity for protesters to speak out against the monarchy.
According to the Spanish constitution, the monarchy stood as “a symbol of Spain’s enduring unity and permanence.” But Martin knew there had been nothing unified about Spain for some time now. In 1931, the Second Republic had marked the end of the monarchy, and then the putsch of General Franco in 1936 had plunged the country into civil war.
Today, although the reinstated monarchy was considered a liberal democracy, many liberals continued to denounce the king as an outdated vestige of an oppressive religio-military past, as well as a daily reminder that Spain still had a way to go before it could fully join the modern world.
Monica Martin’s messaging this month had included the usual portrayals of the king as a beloved symbol who held no real power. Of course, it was a tough sell when the sovereign was commander in chief of the armed forces as well as head of state.
Head of state, Martin mused, in a country where separation between church and state has always been controversial. The ailing king’s close relationship with Bishop Valdespino had been a thorn in the side of secularists and liberals for many years.
And then there is Prince Julian, she thought.
Martin knew she owed her job to the prince, but he certainly had been making that job more difficult recently. A few weeks ago, the prince had made the worst PR blunder Martin had ever witnessed.
On national television, Prince Julian had gotten down on his knees and made a ludicrous proposal to Ambra Vidal. The excruciating moment could not have been any more awkward unless Ambra had declined to marry him, which, fortunately, she had the good sense not to do.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath, Ambra Vidal had revealed herself to be more of a handful than Julian had anticipated, and the fallout from her extracurricular behavior this month had become one of Martin’s primary PR concerns.
Tonight, however, Ambra’s indiscretions seemed all but forgotten. The tidal wave of media activity generated by the events in Bilbao had swelled to an unprecedented magnitude. In the past hour, a viral proliferation of conspiracy theories had taken the world by storm, including several new hypotheses involving Bishop Valdespino.
The most significant development concerned the Guggenheim assassin, who had been given access to Kirsch’s event “on orders of someone inside the Royal Palace.” This damning bit of news had unleashed a deluge of conspiracy theories accusing the bedridden king and Bishop Valdespino of conspiring to murder Edmond Kirsch–a virtual demigod in the digital world, and a beloved American hero who had chosen to live in Spain.
This is going to destroy Valdespino, Martin thought.
“Everyone, listen up!” Garza now shouted as he strode into the control room. “Prince Julian and Bishop Valdespino are together somewhere on the premises! Check all security feeds and find them. Now!”
The commander stalked into Martin’s office and quietly updated her on the situation with the prince and the bishop.
“Gone?” she said, incredulous. “And they left their phones in the prince’s safe?”
Garza shrugged. “Apparently so we can’t track them.”
“Well, we’d better find them,” Martin declared. “Prince Julian needs to make a statement right now, and he needs to distance himself from Valdespino as much as possible.” She relayed all the latest developments.
Now it was Garza’s turn to look incredulous. “It’s all hearsay. There’s no way Valdespino could be behind an assassination.”
“Maybe not, but the killing seems to be tied to the Catholic Church. Someone just found a direct connection between the shooter and a highly placed church official. Have a look.” Martin pulled up the latest ConspiracyNet update, which was once again credited to the whistle-blower called firstname.lastname@example.org. “This went live a few minutes ago.”
Garza crouched down and began reading the update. “The pope!” he protested. “Avila has a personal connection with–”
When Garza finished, he stepped back from the screen and blinked his eyes repeatedly, as if trying to wake himself from a bad dream.
At that moment, a male voice called from the control room. “Commander Garza? I’ve located them!”
Garza and Martin hurried over to the cubicle of Agent Suresh Bhalla, an Indian-born surveillance specialist who pointed to the security feed on his monitor, on which two forms were visible–one in flowing bishop’s robes and the other in a formal suit. They appeared to be walking on a wooded path.
“East garden,” Suresh said. “Two minutes ago.”
“They’ve exited the building?!” Garza demanded.
“Hold on, sir.” Suresh fast-forwarded the footage, managing to follow the bishop and the prince on various cameras located at intervals across the palace complex as the two men left the garden and moved through an enclosed courtyard.
“Where are they going?!”
Martin had a good idea where they were going, and she noted that Valdespino had taken a shrewd circuitous route that kept them out of sight of the media trucks on the main plaza.
As she anticipated, Valdespino and Julian arrived at the southern service entrance of Almudena Cathedral, where the bishop unlocked the door and ushered Prince Julian inside. The door swung shut, and the two men were gone.
Garza stared mutely at the screen, clearly struggling to make sense of what he had just seen. “Keep me posted,” he finally said, and motioned Martin aside.
Once they were out of earshot, Garza whispered, “I have no idea how Bishop Valdespino persuaded Prince Julian to follow him out of the palace, or to leave his phone behind, but clearly the prince has no idea about these accusations against Valdespino, or he would know to distance himself.”
“I agree,” Martin said. “And I’d hate to speculate as to what the bishop’s endgame might be, but …” She stopped.
“But what?” Garza demanded.
Martin sighed. “It appears Valdespino may have just taken an extremely valuable hostage.”
Some 250 miles to the north, inside the atrium of the Guggenheim Museum, Agent Fonseca’s phone began buzzing. It was the sixth time in twenty minutes. When he glanced down at the caller ID, he felt his body snap to attention.
“?Si?” he answered, his heart pounding.
The voice on the line spoke in Spanish, slowly and deliberately. “Agent Fonseca, as you are well aware, Spain’s future queen consort has made some terrible missteps this evening, associating herself with the wrong people and causing significant embarrassment to the Royal Palace. In order that no further damage be done, it is crucial that you get her back to the palace as quickly as possible.”