Contrary to what Ava said, I hated Vermont. There were some not-terrible parts, like the food and the fresh air, but me enjoying the countryside? I didn’t know what she was talking about.
I did, however, miss all the time I’d gotten to spend with Ava over Thanksgiving after I returned to work.
It was almost embarrassing how fast Archer Group took me back as CEO when I returned from London. I wasn’t surprised—I was the best. The guy who replaced me was fine as a placeholder, but even he knew his tenure at Archer had reached the end of the road when I walked into my office four months ago.
That office had always been mine, no matter who occupied the chair.
The board had been all too happy to have me back, and Archer’s stock jumped twenty-four percent when my reinstatement as CEO hit the papers.
I did have a better work-life balance now that Ava had moved into my Logan Circle penthouse, mainly because I’d much rather be eating her out on our bed than eating takeout at my desk. I left the office around six these days, much to the relief of my staff.
“Sunshine?” I called out, kicking the front door closed behind me. I hung my coat on the rack and waited for a response.
Ava, who worked as a junior freelance photographer for World Geographic and a few other magazines, was usually home by this time. Worry flickered in my stomach before I heard the squeak of the faucet turning and the faint but unmistakable sound of the shower running.
My shoulders relaxed. I was still paranoid about her safety and had hired a permanent bodyguard to look after her, much to her dismay. We’d had an all-out, knockdown fight over it, followed by equally all-out, knockdown makeup sex, but we’d eventually compromised—we’d keep the bodyguard, but she would stay out of sight and not interfere unless Ava was in physical danger.
I’d taken other precautions to ensure my enemies would think twice about going after her as well…including seeding detailed “rumors” about what happened to the last guy who’d dared touch her.
Rest in hell, Camo.
The rumors worked. Some people were scared so shitless they couldn’t look me in the eye anymore.
Hauss Industries was also toast, thanks to Madeline’s unwise decision to be in cahoots with my uncle. I’d had plenty of blackmail on Madeline’s father. Embezzling, money laundering, deals with unsavory characters…he’d been a busy man. All I’d had to do was slip an anonymous tip and select pieces of information to Hauss’s competitor, and they took care of the dirty work for me.
Last I heard, Madeline’s father was facing years in prison, and Madeline was working at a skeezy diner in Maryland after the government froze all of her family’s assets.
The only person I was worried about was Michael, who Ava said kept sending Josh letters asking to see him. Josh had so far refused.
In an effort not to stain my hands with more blood, I’d dropped my plan to send Michael to an early grave in prison, but I had people on the inside monitoring him—and making his life more than a little uncomfortable. If he so much as uttered Ava’s name, I’d know about it—and make sure he never did it again.
Out of habit, I turned on the flat-screen TV in our room and half-listened to the evening news as I peeled off my work clothes. I should join Ava in the shower. What was the point of having a massive rainfall shower with a handy bench seat if we didn’t fuck in it at least once a week?
My penthouse was huge but had had minimal furnishings until Ava spruced it up after she moved in. And by “spruced up,” I mean art and flowers and framed pictures of us and her friends everywhere. Both Jules and Stella stayed in D.C. after graduation, while Bridget split her time between Eldorra, D.C., and New York. Her friends were more accepting of our rekindled relationship than Josh, but that didn’t mean I wanted their faces staring at me twenty-four seven in my own damn house. I’d only agreed to display the photos because Ava wouldn’t stop giving me sad puppy-dog eyes until I relented.
“You should’ve said no,” I muttered at a picture of myself and Ava at a Nats baseball game over the summer. It hung next to a more formal gallery of her work from London—the ones I bought in bulk at the WYP exhibition.
She had me doing all sorts of crazy things these days, like giving up coffee and sticking to a sleep schedule. She said it would help with my insomnia, and yeah, I slept more hours than I used to, but that had more to do with having Ava by my side than anything else. Besides, I still sneak the occasional cup of coffee at the office.
I was about to enter the bathroom when something the newscaster said caught my attention. I stopped short, sure I’d heard wrong, but the scrolling chyron across the bottom of the screen confirmed what I’d heard.
The sound of the running shower switched off, and the rumble of the stall door sliding open filtered into the bedroom.
There was a brief pause and a faint rustle. “You’re home early!” Ava stepped out of the bathroom in a swirl of steam, hair and skin damp, with nothing but a towel wrapped around her slender frame. She beamed when she saw me, and my face softened.
“Slow day in the office.” I dropped a kiss on her mouth. My cock stirred with interest, and I was tempted to rip off her towel and take her right there against the wall, but there was something she needed to know before we started one of our all-nighters. “Did you hear from Bridget today?”
“No.” Ava’s brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Check out the news.” I angled my head toward the TV, where the newscaster spoke a mile a minute.
Ava paused, listening to the update before her jaw dropped.
I didn’t blame her. Because what just happened? It hadn’t happened in over 200 years of Eldorran history.
The newscaster’s high-pitched voice filled the room, so excited it trembled.
“…Crown Prince Nikolai has abdicated the throne of Eldorra to marry Sabrina Philips, the American flight attendant he met last year during a diplomatic trip to New York. Eldorran law stipulates the country’s monarchs must marry someone of noble birth. His sister, Princess Bridget, is now first in line to the throne. When she becomes Queen, she will be Eldorra’s first female monarch in more than a century…”
Footage of an expressionless Bridget exiting the Plaza Hotel in New York, trailed by her grim-faced bodyguard and surrounded by shouting reporters, flashed onscreen.
“Holy shit,” Ava said.
Holy shit was right. From what I remembered—which was everything—Bridget had chafed at the restrictions that came with being a regular princess. Now that she was first in line for the crown? She must be flipping out.
On TV, Rhys steered Bridget into a waiting car and leveled the reporters with a glare so menacing they backed up en masse. Most people would’ve missed it, but I caught the heat in Bridget’s eyes when she looked at Rhys and the way his hand brushed hers for a second longer than it should’ve before he closed the door.
I filed that piece of information away for the future. Bridget was Ava’s friend, so she was safe, but it never hurt to have blackmail material on a future queen.
Based on what I just witnessed, Bridget’s feelings about her impending rule were the least of her problems.