My breathing sounded shallow in the tiny, intimate alcove. It wasn’t right, the power this man had over me, but I was helpless in the face of my heart, hormones, and the indomitable force that was Rhys Larsen.
After what felt like an eternity, but in reality was only a few seconds, Rhys spoke. “I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier,” he said. “But happy birthday, princess.”
Thump, thump, thump, went my heart.“Thank you.”
He didn’t let go of my wrist, and I didn’t ask him to.
The air between us thickened with unspoken words.
I wondered if we would’ve worked in a different life, a different world. One in which I was just a woman and he was just a man, unburdened by the rules and expectations of others.
And I hated myself for wondering those things because Rhys had never given me any indication he was interested in me beyond physical attraction and professional obligation.
None, except for the fleeting moments when he looked at me like I was his whole world, and he never wanted to blink.
“How are you enjoying the ball?”
I might’ve imagined it, but I thought I felt his thumb rub the soft skin of my wrist.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“It’s fine.” I was too distracted by what might or might not be happening to my wrist to come up with a better answer.
“Just fine?” There it was. Another thumb rub. I could’ve sworn it. “You spent quite a bit of time with the Earl of Falser.”
“How do you know which one the earl is?”
“Princess, I know every man who even thinks about touching you. Much less one who you danced with. Twice,” Rhys added, the word lethally soft.
It should’ve frightened me, but instead, my skin tingled and my thighs clenched.
What is wrong with me?
“That’s quite a talent.” I’d only danced with Edwin twice because he’d insisted, and I was too tired to argue.
Rhys’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “So. The Earl of Falser. Is he the one?”
“No.” I shook my head. “Not unless I want to spend the rest of my life hearing about his clothes and gym equipment.”
Rhys pressed his thumb against my pounding pulse. “Good.”
The way he said it made it sound like the earl had escaped death by a hair’s breadth.
“I should return to the dance,” I said, even though that was the last thing I wanted. “Elin must be going crazy.”
I laughed my first real laugh of the night. “You’re terrible.”
“But not wrong.”
This was the Rhys I’d missed. The dry humor, the glimpses of his hidden softness. This was the real Rhys.
“How does twenty-four feel?” he asked as we walked back to the ballroom.
“Like twenty-three, except hungrier and more tired. How does thirty-four feel?” He’d turned thirty-four during the weeks we’d been apart. I’d thought about calling him on his birthday but chickened out at the last minute.
“Like thirty-three, except stronger and smarter.”
A grin touched his mouth at my half-amused, half-annoyed huff.
When we returned to the ball, we found Elin waiting for us at the entrance with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Good. You found her,” she said without looking at Rhys. “Your Highness, where have you been?”
“I had to use the ladies’ room.” It was only half a lie.
“For forty minutes? You missed your dance with Prince Demetrios, who just left.” Elin sighed. “Never mind. There are more potential suitors here. Go, quickly. The night is almost over.”
Thank God for that.
I resumed my dances. Elin watched me like a hawk, and I was too terrified to look in Rhys’s direction lest something show on my face that I didn’t want her to see.
“Am I that boring?”
“I’m sorry?” I dragged my attention back to my current partner Steffan, the son of the Duke of Holstein.
“You keep looking over my shoulder. Either there’s something fascinating happening behind me, or my in-depth analysis of the palace’s architectural style isn’t as scintillating as I thought.”
A blush warmed my cheeks. “My apologies.” None of my previous dance partners had picked up on my wandering attention, and I’d assumed he wouldn’t either. “That was terribly rude of me.”
“No apologies necessary, Your Highness.” Steffan’s eyes crinkled in a good-natured smile. “I must admit, I could’ve come up with a better conversation topic than the history of neoclassicism. That’s what happens when I’m nervous. I spout all sorts of useless facts.”