don't know what happened, but I need to talk to Mr. Jenkins and make sure this isn't some kind of scam."
"Have you ever heard of any scams where people buy other people's houses for them?" she asks. "Because if you know of any, there's a whole lot of people in this town who'd like to get taken by one of those scams."
The princess' bedroom door opens. "Just let me look into it," I tell my mother, as the princess exits her room and looks at me like she just smelled sour milk.
"Am I interrupting your phone time, James?" the princess asks, her hand going to her hip. Bodyguards are definitely not supposed to be on private phone calls in the middle of their shifts.
"Mom, I have to go," I whisper.
Alexandra's eyebrows go up. "Mom?"
"I hear a girl. Is that the princess?" my mom squawks. "Tell her I saw her interview in one of the magazines at the grocery store and she looked –"
I hang up the phone and direct my attention to Alexandra. "Good morning, princess."
"Good morning, James," she replies, her voice clipped. "Was that your mother on the phone?"
"Are we back to James again? It was so cozy before, when you were calling me Max."
"You're avoiding the question."
I roll my eyes. "Yes, it was my mother on the phone, Your Highness. Now, are you ready for the big day?"
Her face goes pale. Big day was probably the wrong way of putting it. Alexandra isn't exactly thrilled about her father's engagement party tonight. I'm also positive that she's not going to be happy when she hears about the team of stylists that the future queen has scheduled to get her ready for the event. "What big day would you be referring to, exactly, James?" she asks, her voice icy.
For a second, I have a pang of sympathy for her, because she and the future queen so clearly don't get along – and because if you're getting a new stepmother, Sofia is a pretty cold one to be getting. The woman rarely cracks a smile, and she seems to communicate her displeasure with Alexandra with every frown she directs at her.
"Your father is requiring that you attend the engagement party tonight, you know," I tell her, handing her the day's agenda because she never reads the copy that's slid under her door in the morning.
She scowls as she takes the paper. "Or … I could skip out on the festivities," she says, looking me over. "How good are you at poker?"
"Not good enough to beat Russian mobsters, princess."
"You're not very useful, are you, bodyguard?"
"I'm better at other things." I don't realize how much the words drip with innuendo until they leave my mouth. I clear my throat and stand straighter.
Damn it, I need to get control over myself when it comes to this girl, especially because she's not just any girl. She's a princess – a spoiled one, at that. I don't know why she seems to have this effect on me.
Alexandra looks up at me, her eyes wide. "Other things," she says softly. She's standing so close to me that I can smell her perfume, something light, leftover from the night before. "Like what?"
I try to ignore the fact that I'm so close to her – once again – that I could kiss her. I try to ignore the fact that I'm even thinking about kissing her. I try to ignore the fact that I want to kiss her. "Like picking your entitled ass up and putting you over my shoulder."
Her eyes narrow. "That's not a skill to brag about."
"No? It seems to have come in pretty handy, in my experience."
"Oh? So you're in the habit of tossing princesses over your shoulder?"
"You're the only one." Neither of us move, despite the fact that we're standing too close to possibly be appropriate. If someone walked down this hallway, there would definitely be questions.
Still, I wonder what would happen if I put my mouth on hers.
"Lucky me," she whispers.
I think she might want me to put my mouth on hers.
A sound from around the corner makes both of us jump, and I step back a foot from the princess and clear my throat loudly. "Your hair appointment is at one o'clock," I tell her, a paragon of professionalism. "The future queen set it up, I believe."
"That is so not happening," Alexandra hisses, turning back toward her room. She pauses at the door. "Are you absolutely sure about the poker thing? You seem like you'd have a great poker face."
"I can't let you escape from the palace tonight," I tell her.
She smiles. "As if you allowed me to escape any other time, James."
* * *
"My parents' banker says the payment came from a company in Protrovia," I tell Felix Muller, the head of security. "I don't know what this is. I assume this is some kind of backwards attempt to blackmail me by paying me first? Obviously, the first thing I did was come here to report it."
"Huh." Felix's brow furrows. He looks puzzled but not surprised. "Well, making the payment upfront is a strange way of blackmailing someone."
"I agree. The only other possibility is that it's a clerical error."
"Yes. Clerical error," Felix parrots. "That's a legitimate possibility. Have you pursued that?"
"The bank assured me that isn’t the case."
"Well, perhaps a good citizen has decided to help your parents."
I laugh, the sound clipped. "A good citizen? Good citizens like that don't exist."
"No, of course not. That would be ridiculous." Felix looks at me for a long time, and I stare back at him, waiting for him to ask me something else about it – anything else, like the company the payment was made through – but he doesn't.
Because he either assumes I'm on the take and he's about to fire me, or because he already knows what happened.
"You've made an impression on the princess, I think," he finally says.
"What does the princess have to do with any –" I start, then stop short when I realize that he's not bringing the princess up as a random topic of conversation.
But that's impossible. The princess wouldn't have done something like this, not after overhearing a single conversation. Right? She didn't even hear that much of it, and definitely not the part about my parents' mortgage. Did she?
"Nothing. She has nothing to do with this, of course." Felix coughs. "She has kept you around longer than anyone else who's ever been her private security."
"I don't think she had much choice in the matter," I note. Even after the helicopter incident, the firing I expected to happen never materialized. Either Alexandra didn't tell her father about me throwing her over my shoulder, or he didn't care.
Of course, I can't imagine that her father wouldn't have cared, which means she must not have told him.
Which means she wants to keep me around.
A warped sense of pride runs through me at the fact that she might not entirely be hell-bent on kicking me out of the palace.
"The king trusts Prince Albert," Felix says. "And the prince trusts you. And now the princess apparently trusts you as well."
"Well, trust might be going a little too far," I say. I can't quite imagine Princess Alexandra trusting anyone completely. She's the most guarded person I've ever met. She definitely doesn't trust me.
She shouldn't trust you, either. Especially considering all of the filthy thoughts you've had about her.
Felix gives me a hard look. "I'm certain that you wouldn't do anything to betray that trust," he says, as if he can read my thoughts.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. "Obviously not," I deflect. "Which is why I came by here to ask about the payment to my parents. If someone's trying to blackmail me, that's clearly important to the royal family."
"Yes." He clears his throat. "Blackmail."
"Unless it was a gift from someone in the royal family," I say, verbalizing my suspicion. Part of me doesn't really believe it could be the princess' doing. Maybe the king decided that a bonus was in order for my stellar work protecting his daughter.
My work hasn’t been stellar.
"If it's a gift, perhaps it's best it remain anonymous," Felix says.
the king routinely give gifts like this to his employees?"
"The royal family gives employee bonuses routinely," Felix says, noncommittal.
"This is some employee bonus."
"Yes. Well, perhaps we'll never know who the giver was." Felix rises, summarily dismissing me.
Perhaps we'll never know.
Fuck that. I know exactly who did it. I just don't know why.
"Ditch the boring party and come to Monaco," Finn suggests. He leans close, his palm flat against the stone wall above my head. We're standing just inside the secret passageway near my bedroom, and he shouldn't be here. My aristocratic son-of-a-billionaire drug dealer is perfectly welcome at the royal engagement party (in fact, his parents are in the ballroom dancing as we speak), but sneaking around alone with me in the secret passageway?
I'm supposed to be at the engagement party too, but I'm not. I decided much earlier that this party was much too horrific to attend even remotely sober. Even though I haven't seen Finn since Max dragged me out of his car at the summer house, I arranged to meet him earlier out by the pool house so that I could be appropriately medicated for this event. At the pool house, we got the distinctly horrific experience of walking in on Belle and my brother.
It's a long story. I only saw Belle standing awkwardly behind a bar inside the pool house, and then something rolling across the floor that looked really, really, really like a vibrator. So Belle is either a pervert who masturbates in pool houses during engagement parties (in which case Little Miss Goody Two Shoes might have earned a little bit of my respect) or my brother was hiding behind that bar (which is far more plausible, and also simultaneously makes me want to barf in my mouth a little bit).
Whatever. Family's family, right?
So I covered for her with the only thing I could think of to do at the time: I pointed at the vibrator and called it a bomb. Finn bought that story (since he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer) but he also told someone else when we got back to the palace, which means that right this very minute, the security staff is sweeping the palace for bombs. Or whatever it is they do in these situations.
So, somewhere in the palace, security is looking for me. I haven't seen Max yet tonight. In fact, I haven't seen him after what happened in the hallway this morning outside my room.
Nothing happened. At least, he didn't kiss me. He was standing so close, and I think I wanted him to kiss me.
I'm better at other things.
The thought of the other things he might be better at sends a shiver running up my body right now, causing goose bumps to form on my arms.
But I shake it off because it's not Max that I'm here in the secret passageway with. Max hasn't been around tonight. Instead, some other bodyguard showed up at my room earlier this evening and had been hovering around ever since.
He was a ton easier to lose than Max.
"As enjoyable as ditching all of this bullshit would be," I say sarcastically, knowing full and well that Finn Asher isn't bright enough to catch sarcasm if it smacked him right across the face, "I'm going to have to pass. I think the king and future queen would notice if the king's only daughter was missing from their ridiculously tacky engagement party."
Not that I'm bitter about the engagement party.
Finn smiles smugly as he looks down at me. There was a time – a long while ago – that look might have made my stomach flutter, but now his expression only makes my stomach lurch in response. "You're here with me right now."
I shrug nonchalantly. "What can I say? I needed party favors and I never got them at the pool house."
He runs a finger down my arm, and his touch makes me want to recoil. He reeks of scotch and is high on who-knows-what. "You're the one who texted me to meet you alone in the passageway. Obviously, because you want me in your passageway."
I hold my clutch purse up between us like a shield. It's an impractical beaded number sent to me by the designer for this event but too miniscule to hold much of anything other than the pills I just got from Finn – and definitely too tiny to be used in my defense. "Thanks, but I already got what I came for."
Finn's look turns dark. "I didn't get what I came for." He slides his hand around my waist, and then it drops lower until he's cupping my ass.
I grab him between the legs – hard – and he yelps. "I'd really reconsider that thought, if I were you."
"Damn, Alex, I knew you were into some kinky stuff, but I didn't know that meant you were going to grab my –"
Just then, the door to the passageway opens and my bodyguard storms inside. Max's eyes meet mine, and for what seems like forever but is probably little more than a second, I totally forget that I'm standing here with my hand on Finn's junk.
Then I realize how it must look to Max – like my hand is on Finn's junk.
Max's eyes narrow. "Get out," he orders, his voice steady. I'm not sure whether he's addressing me or Finn.
Finn yanks my hand away from his crotch and takes a step back, his eyes locked on Max. Finn didn't understand why I refused to trade out Max for another bodyguard, why Max stuck with me for so long when none of my other security personnel lasted longer than a couple of weeks.
Max has been with me now longer than any boyfriend, although I'd never give him the satisfaction of telling him that. After all, it's kind of pathetic if your bodyguard, with whom you share no personal or intimate details, is closer to you than any actual relationship you've ever had.
Okay, it's not kind of pathetic. It's totally pathetic.
Raising my eyebrows, I give Max my best look of annoyance, trying to ignore the growing heat in my core. "Excuse me? You can't possibly think it's appropriate to order around my friends." Calling Finn a friend is stretching it, even for me, and Max must know that. Surely he doesn't think I'm in the tunnel here hooking up with Finn Asher, party boy extraordinaire.
Of course, I'm party girl extraordinaire. Crazy behavior – drunken hookups in a tunnel, doing drugs in the back of a club – would be just the kind of thing everyone would expect from me.
Not that I haven't done those things, of course. I've done them quite a bit, actually – enough to warrant the tabloid monikers. But not recently, anyhow – other than the party favors, but those are just for today. How else can I be expected to get through my father's wedding to the Ice Queen?
Max doesn't seem to register my protest. He doesn't even look at me now. Instead, he walks toward us, his eyes on Finn. The two of them stare each other down like animals in the wild trying to settle the question of who's the alpha.
In this case, there's no real question. I'm not sure Finn is aware of that fact.
My breath is caught in my throat as I stand there watching them motionlessly, an observer in a nature documentary. Notice the way the Alpha establishes dominance when in the presence of a competing male.
Max couldn't possibly think he can get away with hitting Finn, could he? That would be career suicide, even for someone who clearly carries favor with my father the way he does. But there's no mistaking his intent, his fist clenched at his side. If Finn doesn't move, Max is going to punch him. If that happens, not even Max's close relationship with my brother will keep him from getting into serious trouble with my father. Finn's parents aren't just any normal Protrovian couple. They're practically royals themselves,