“Spank me! Master, spank me!”
I stifled a laugh at my bodyguard Booth’s face as Leather the parrot squawked in his cage. The parrot’s name said all you needed to know about its previous owner’s sex life, and while some found him amusing, Booth did not. He hated birds. He said they reminded him of giant flying rats.
“One day, he and Leather are going to get into it.” Emma, the director of Wags & Whiskers, clucked her tongue. “Poor Booth.”
I held back another laugh even as I felt a small pang in my heart. “Probably not. Booth’s leaving soon.”
I tried not to think about it. Booth had been with me for four years, but he was leaving for paternity leave next week and staying in Eldorra after to be closer to his wife and newborn. I was happy for him, but I would miss him. He was not only my bodyguard but a friend, and I could only hope his replacement and I had the same rapport.
“Ah, yes, I forgot.” Emma’s face softened. She was in her early sixties, with short, gray-streaked hair and warm brown eyes. “Lots of changes for you in a short time, my dear.”
She knew how much I hated goodbyes.
I’d been volunteering at Wags & Whiskers, a local pet rescue shelter, since my sophomore year of college, and Emma had become a close friend and mentor. Unfortunately, she, too, was leaving. She’d still be in Hazelburg, but she was retiring as the shelter director, which meant I would no longer see her every week.
“One of them doesn’t have to happen,” I said, only half-joking. “You could stay.”
She shook her head. “I’ve run the shelter for almost a decade, and it’s time for new blood. Someone who can clean the cages without her back and hips acting up.”
“That’s what volunteers are for.” I gestured toward myself. I was belaboring the point, but I couldn’t help it. Between Emma, Booth, and my impending graduation from Thayer University, where I was majoring in international relations—as expected of a princess—I had enough goodbyes to last me for the next five years.
“You are a sweetheart. Don’t tell the others, but…” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “You’re my favorite volunteer. It’s rare to find someone of your stature who does charity because she wants to, not because she’s putting on a show for the cameras.”
My cheeks tinted pink at the compliment. “It’s my pleasure. I adore animals.” I took after my mother in that regard. It was one of the few pieces of her I had left.
In another life, I would’ve been a veterinarian, but in this life? My path had been laid out for me since before I was born.
“You would make a great queen.” Emma stepped aside to allow a staff member with a wriggling puppy in his arms to pass. “Truly.”
I laughed at the thought. “Thank you, but I have no interest in being queen. Even if I did, the chances of me wearing the crown are slim.”
As the princess of Eldorra, a small European kingdom, I came closer to ruling than most people. My parents died when I was a kid—my mother at childbirth, my father in a car accident a few years later—so I was second in line to the throne. My brother Nikolai, who was four years my senior, had been training to take over for our grandfather King Edvard since he was old enough to walk. Once Nikolai had children, I would be bumped further down the line of succession, something I had zero complaints about. I wanted to be queen as much as I wanted to bathe in a vat of acid.
Emma frowned in disappointment. “Ah, well, the sentiment is the same.”
“Emma!” one of the other staff members called out. “We’ve got a situation with the cats.”
She sighed. “It’s always the cats,” she muttered. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you about my retirement before you heard it from anyone else. I’ll still be here until the end of next week, so I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
“Sounds good.” I hugged her goodbye and watched her rush off to deal with a literal catfight, the pang in my chest growing.
I was glad Emma hadn’t told me about her retirement until the end of my shift, or it would’ve been in my head the whole time.
“Are you ready, Your Highness?” Booth asked, clearly eager to get away from Leather.
“Yes. Let’s go.”
“Yes, let’s go!” Leather squawked as we exited. “Spank me!”
My laugh finally broke free at Booth’s grimace. “I’ll miss you, and so will Leather.” I stuffed my hands in my coat pockets to protect them against the sharp autumn chill. “Tell me about the new bodyguard. What’s he like?”
The leaves crunched beneath my boots as we walked toward my off-campus house, which was only fifteen minutes away. I adored fall and everything that came with it—the cozy clothes, the riot of earthy colors on the trees, the hint of cinnamon and smoke in the air.
In Athenberg, I wouldn’t be able to walk down the street without getting mobbed, but that was the great thing about Thayer. Its student population boasted so many royals and celebrity offspring, a princess was no big deal. I could live my life like a relatively normal college girl.
“I don’t know much about the new guard,” Booth admitted. “He’s a contractor.”
My eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
The Crown sometimes hired private security contractors to serve alongside the Royal Guard, but it was rare. In my twenty-one years, I’d never had a bodyguard who was a contractor.
“He’s supposed to be the best,” Booth said, mistaking my surprise for wariness. “Ex-Navy SEAL, top-notch recommendations, experience guarding high-profile personalities. He’s his company’s most sought-after professional.”
“Hmm.” An American guard. Interesting. “I do hope we get along.”
When two people were around each other twenty-four-seven, compatibility mattered. A lot. I knew people who hadn’t meshed with their security details, and those arrangements never lasted long.
“I’m sure you will. You’re easy to get along with, Your Highness.”
“You’re only saying that because I’m your boss.”