He was impossible.
“Thank God I have you, sweetie,” I said to Meadow. “At least you can carry on a decent conversation.”
She meowed in agreement, and I smiled. I swore cats were smarter than humans sometimes.
There was another long stretch of silence before Rhys surprised me by asking, “Why do you volunteer at an animal shelter?”
I was so startled by the fact he’d initiated a non-security-related conversation I froze mid-pet. Meadow meowed again, this time in protest.
I resumed my petting and debated how much to tell Rhys before settling on the simple answer. “I like animals. Hence, animal shelter.”
My spine stiffened at the skepticism in his voice. “Why do you ask?”
Rhys shrugged. “Just doesn’t seem like the kinda thing you’d like to do in your free time.”
I didn’t have to ask to know what types of things he thought I liked doing in my free time. Most people looked at me and made assumptions based on my appearance and background, and yes, some of them were true. I enjoyed shopping and parties as much as the next girl, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care about other things too.
“It’s amazing how much insight you have into my personality after knowing me for only a month,” I said coolly.
“I do my research, princess.” It was the only way Rhys addressed me. He refused to call me by my first name or Your Highness. In turn, I refused to call him anything except Mr. Larsen. I wasn’t sure if it accomplished anything, since he gave no indication it bothered him, but it satisfied the petty part of me. “I know more about you than you think.”
“But not why I volunteer at an animal shelter. So, clearly, you need to brush up on your research skills.”
He flicked those steely gray eyes in my direction, and I thought I spotted a hint of amusement before the walls crashed down again. “Touché.” He hesitated, then added reluctantly, “You’re different from what I expected.”
“Why? Because I’m not a superficial airhead?” My voice chilled another degree as I tried to cover up the unexpected sting of his words.
“I never said you were a superficial airhead.”
“You implied it.”
Rhys grimaced. “You’re not the first royal I’ve guarded,” he said. “You’re not even the third or fourth. They all acted similarly, and I expected you to do the same. But you’re not…”
I arched an eyebrow. “I’m not…?”
A small smile ghosted across his face so fast I almost missed it. “A superficial airhead.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed.
Me, laughing at something Rhys Larsen said. Hell must’ve iced over.
“My mom was a huge animal lover,” I said, surprising myself. I hadn’t planned on talking about my mother with Rhys, but I felt compelled to take advantage of the lull in our normally antagonistic relationship. “I got the gene from her. But the palace didn’t allow pets, and the only way I could regularly interact with animals was by volunteering at shelters.”
I held out my hand and smiled when Meadow pawed at it like she was giving me a low five. “I enjoy it, but I also do it because…” I searched for the right words. “It makes me feel closer to my mom. The love for animals is something only we shared. The rest of my family likes them fine, but not in the same way we do. Or did.”
I didn’t know what prompted my admission. Was it because I wanted to prove I wasn’t volunteering as a PR stunt? Why did I care what Rhys thought of me, anyway?
Or maybe it was because I needed to talk about my mom to someone who hadn’t known her. In Athenberg, I couldn’t mention her without people shooting me pitying looks, but Rhys was as calm and unruffled as ever.
“I understand,” he said.
Two simple words, yet they crawled inside me and soothed a part of me I hadn’t known needed soothing.
Our eyes met, and the air developed another layer of thickness.
Dark, mysterious, piercing. Rhys had the kind of eyes that saw straight into a person’s soul, stripping past layers of elaborate lies to reach the ugly truths underneath.
How many of my truths could he see? Could he see the girl beneath the mask, the one who’d carried a decades-long burden she was terrified to share, the one who’d killed—
“Master! Spank me, Master!” Leather chose that moment to let loose one of his notoriously inappropriate outbursts. “Please spank me!”
The spell shattered as quickly as it had been cast.
Rhys flicked his gaze away, and I looked down, my breath gusting out in a mixture of relief and disappointment.
“Mas—” Leather quieted when Rhys leveled it with a glare. The bird ruffled its feathers and hopped around its cage before settling into a nervous silence.
“Congratulations,” I said, trying to shake off the unsettling electricity from a moment ago. “You might be the first person who’s ever gotten Leather to stop mid-sentence. You should adopt him.”
“Fuck no. I don’t do foul-mouthed animals.”
We stared at each other for a second before a small giggle slipped from my mouth and the iron curtain shielding his eyes lifted enough for me to spot another glimmer of humor.
We didn’t talk again for the rest of my shift, but the mood between us had lightened enough that I’d convinced myself Rhys and I could have a functional working relationship.
I wasn’t sure if it was optimism or delusion, but my brain always latched onto the smallest evidence things weren’t so bad to cope with discomfort.
The wind nipped at the bare skin on my face and neck as we walked home after my shift. Rhys and I had fought over whether to walk or drive, but in the end, even he had to admit it would be silly to drive somewhere so close.
“Are you excited to visit Eldorra?” I asked. We were leaving for Athenberg in a few days for winter break, and Rhys had mentioned it would be his first time in the country.
I’d hoped to build on our earlier flash of camaraderie, but I’d misjudged because Rhys’s face shut down faster than a house party raided by cops.