Interrogators and sends me off to be tortured in a dark cell somewhere.
But he doesn't. He just sits there looking suddenly like an old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders and not the regal king he was even a moment ago.
Guilt crushes my chest. Seeing him here like this, the king reminds me of my father. I realize that I've profoundly disappointed him, and that gets me right in the gut, the way no amount of yelling at me ever could.
"I can't say it's not true, Your Majesty but–" I start.
I care about your daughter.
She's the best thing that's ever happened to me.
I think I love her.
"It ends today," the king interrupts.
I stand there, blinking. Part of me expected it to end with me being marched in front of a firing squad or being thrown in a dungeon, but a delusional part of me also thought I might be able to explain and that he'd understand.
"If I deport you, she won't follow you," he elaborates. "You understand that, don't you? Alexandra may be rebellious and you might think she'd break royal standards for propriety, but she was raised as royalty. She would never give up the palace to follow you. You know that. If she was going to give up being a princess to make her own choices, she would have done it already."
What he says is true, and I know it in my gut. If he banished me from Protrovia, I'd never see her again.
"I could throw you in prison for treason," he muses. "But that would make you a martyr and I don't want to make you a martyr."
I'm not going to be put in front of a firing squad, sentenced to life in prison, or deported. So what the hell is the king planning to do with me?
"My daughter is easily distracted and I trust she'll be easily distracted away from you soon enough."
Ah, there it is. I might as well stay because she'll look elsewhere soon.
The king lets out a loud sigh. "I also need you here," he tells me, pulling a folder from the side of his desk. "I know what you did for my son in Afghanistan. I know you saved his life. He had reason to trust you, and overlooking this grievous lapse in judgment, I have reason to trust that you're capable of keeping my daughter safe."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"And now you have a … personal investment in keeping her safe."
He holds out the folder. I open it to find a stack of photos and laminated copies of handwritten letters with crude drawings and threats emblazoned across the top and bottom and along the margins.
Threats against Alexandra.
"This is why I need you to remain here in Protrovia, and to remain close to my daughter." He pauses for a beat. "Not as close as you were before, of course."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Felix can brief you on this group. They're religious radicals, a cult who've been around for years with no history of violence. But one or more of the members seem to have become fixated on the princess as a symbol of all that's sinful and wicked in the world – ever since the unfortunate dress she wore at the nightclub. I believe you were present for that incident."
Does he know exactly how much I was present for?
"Yes, Your Majesty," I reply, my eyes scanning the pages. There must be a hundred letters here, all with similar handwriting – and too many photos to count, including a photo of me standing by the car just inside the palace gates, the door open and helping Alexandra out of the car.
Oh, shit. They have photos of that night.
I flip through the next ones, but don't see anything more incriminating than the one in my hands. Still, it's an appalling breach of privacy, and I never saw anyone tailing us. Of course, I was also distracted by the princess. Clearly, that can't happen again, not if I'm going to keep her safe.
"The group sent those," the king says, gesturing toward the folder. "The photos too, not just the letters. She's had threats before, of course. We all have. It's part of being royalty. But Felix thinks this group is different. The threats are getting more specific and more violent. Clearly an investigation is already underway, but you know my daughter and her penchant for escaping her security guards."
Now I understand. "So you'll retain me here in Protrovia so that I can keep the princess from escaping –"
"If you care about her, you'll want to keep her safe. Stay around her, keep her safe, maintain appropriate boundaries. Professional boundaries. You do not cross those boundaries or I'll be forced to deport you."
"And Alexandra will inevitably run away from her new bodyguards, putting her at risk of being harmed by this cult," I finish.
"Most importantly, my daughter is not to find out about this threat," he orders. "The risk, the cult, this deal we're making … she's not to be aware of any of it. I don't want her knowing she's in danger. After she … She wasn't the same after she lost her mother, and I won't have her fearful that she's going to be killed. Whatever's happening between you two doesn't happen anymore. I don't care what you have to tell her, but you cut it off and you protect her."
I swallow hard, nodding. So I make a devil's bargain. I agree to break things off with Alexandra without telling her the real reason why, in order to stay close to her.
In order to keep her safe.
"Your little stunt was poorly considered, to say the least," my father says, his tone disappointed. His disappointment is nothing new, though. He's perpetually disappointed in me. I've always been the daughter who is too abrasive and too abrupt, who never does anything the way protocol and propriety dictates it should be done. "Your mother would be turning in her grave."
I'm more than aware that confessing to sleeping with my bodyguard was a social misstep – the actual sleeping with my bodyguard was one as well, although when it comes to these matters within the royal family, it's not really of concern until it's public. Still, I immediately bristle at my father's invocation of my dead mother to lecture me on how I should feel with regard to his marrying another woman. "Would she?" I ask coldly. "Or would she be more upset by your marriage to the Ice Queen?"
"Alexandra!" he bellows, his voice booming through the office and probably through the entire wing of the palace. Calling Sofia the Ice Queen probably crosses a line.
That's another line I've crossed.
"I shouldn't have called her that," I admit begrudgingly. At least not out loud, anyway. Despite how eager my father is to shove his marriage to Sofia Kensington down my throat, I don't need to be best friends with her. I have no idea what my father sees in Sofia, and that's doubly true after the woman brought Belle's cheating ex-fiancé to the charity event and tried to break up Belle and Albie. Sofia is nothing like my mother was, not at all.
"Was there something else?" I ask, my voice cracking. "Or can we skip the lecture on how I should be best friends with my new stepmother?"
My father looks at me angrily, and I feel small standing here with my fists clenched. I'm acting small, that's for sure. I'm well aware of that fact.
"You know why I called you here, so stop trying to get away from that fact. I called you in here to discuss the bodyguard situation."
I bark out a laugh. "I'm not discussing my sex life with my father, thank you very much. Not even if you are the King of Protrovia."
"I didn't pull that information out of you, Alexandra," he starts. "You do recall walking into our suite and volunteering that information – needlessly, I might add, and heedless of consequences or protocol."
"Well, the next time I announce I'm screwing my bodyguard, I'll make sure to check the handbook on royal etiquette," I reply sarcastically. "Should I notify you by sending a letter on royal stationary next time?"
"Alexandra!" my father yells. "That is quite enough."
"I'm not even interested in him at all," I lie. "I was only trying to keep you from flipping out over Albie and Belle."
"This wouldn't be an attempt to keep him from being fired?"
My chest tightens at the prospect of Max being fired, especially over a stupid outbu
rst of mine. I steel my jaw. "I couldn't care less if he's fired or not," I casually declare. "Fire him if you wish. I'm sure it won't be too hard to find a new bodyguard for me."
We both know that replacing Max would be a very difficult task.
My father studies me, and I have to avert my gaze, hoping my attempt to feign disinterest is remotely plausible. "You're treading a thin line, Alexandra," he warns. "Fraternization with your security staff will not be tolerated."
"You're joking, right?" I ask. "You do realize that Albie and Belle just declared their undying love for each other – publicly."
"What your brother does is none of your concern," he bellows. "And Isabella is now a royal by marriage – not a commoner, and not a palace employee. I won't permit a relationship with someone who is."
I bristle. If there's anything I hate, it's anyone – even the king – telling me what to do. "You won't permit it?"
My father's expression darkens. "Don't test me on this, Alexandra. I've tolerated more than my share of rebellious behavior from you, but this is a line you won't cross."
"Or what??" I'm getting more irritated by the second.
My father's face reddens. "It's treason," he bellows, and even the distant hum of activity outside of this room stops.
I choke back a laugh. My father might be a lot of things, but he's not an absolute tyrant. The idea of Max's behavior being treasonous is completely insane. "This isn't the eighteenth century," I point out. "You can't have someone charged with treason because they sleep with your daughter!"
"Your bodyguard would be deported, banished from Protrovia," he threatens next, all bluster and bravado.
"Try that," I threaten. "And you would see me banish myself from Protrovia as well."
Then he breaks out the big guns. "You know your mother would never approve. She would consider it beneath you."
I open my mouth to argue, then close it again, because I know he's not wrong. My mother was a traditionalist, a royal through-and-through. Kind, loving, and generous – but always aware of propriety. He's right about her disapproval, but still, that's a low blow even coming from my father.
"Well then, it's a good thing I'm not with my bodyguard," I say, swallowing hard. I blink back tears that spring to my eyes for some inexplicable reason I don't understand, and clench my hands into fists, digging my fingernails into my skin. "Like I told you a minute ago."
My father gives me a long, hard look. "Good. Because I'd hate to think that you were foolish enough to destroy his life because of something ill-considered and transitory."
I grit my teeth. "Don't worry," I tell him. "I'm not going to inflict my transitory, ill-considered self on anyone, much less my bodyguard. Am I dismissed, Your Majesty?"
My father turns his back toward me. "Go," he orders.
I'm waiting by Alexandra's bedroom door when she returns from meeting with her father. Every part of me is dreading saying the words I have to say to her. My chest is tight and I force myself to meet her gaze as she walks down the hall.
I think she knows what I'm going to say because she's avoiding making eye contact with me as much as I am with her right now. But I accompany her into her room anyway, where I close the door and stand just inside it with my hand on the doorknob.
Rip it off. Like a bandage, I tell myself, but Alexandra speaks first.
She exhales, the sound heavy in the room. "I didn't think through what I said when I said it. I was trying to help Albie and I was … well, I didn't foresee the consequences of what I was saying, exactly."
I force a harsh tone in my voice that I don't feel, not in the least. But I remind myself that it's better if she's angry at me than if she's left unprotected by me. "Well, isn't that just fucking typical of you."
"Excuse me?? I'm sorry, I –" she stammers, her brow furrowing. "It wasn't the smartest thing ever, but it also wasn't malicious –"
Oh, God, Alexandra. Stop being reasonable and nice. Don't make this harder than it is.
The way she's looking at me right now, her expression a mixture of confusion and hurt and the faintest beginning of indignation, hits me like a fist to the gut. It takes every ounce of strength I possess not to rush to her and put my lips against hers and explain that the entire thing is ridiculous, that of course I don't care that she told her father she was screwing me. Hell, I'd be honored if she shouted it from the fucking rooftops.
Don't be weak.
Tear off the bandage. It's for her own good.
"Of course it wasn't the smartest thing ever," I say angrily. "You impulsively revealed that you were screwing me! Did you ever think of asking me if I wanted that information to be made public?"
A flush rises to her cheeks. "I didn't – why wouldn't you – I mean, you're not embarrassed by what happened, are you?"
Embarrassed?? Are you out of your fucking mind? Why in the world would I be embarrassed about sleeping with you?
I scowl at her, even as it kills me inside to say what I'm about to say. Taking a deep breath, I spit out the words as fast as I can, machine-gun style: "The Trainwreck Princess. Slutty Princess Alexandra. A Royal Mess. That's what everyone calls you behind your back, you know, not just in the tabloids. You tell me, sweetheart – should I be embarrassed?"
Her expression falls. Her jaw clenches tight and her eyes begin to redden around the edges. My stomach seizes and I taste acid in my throat.
Bury the knife. Don't show weakness.
"I mean, don't get me wrong," I tell her coldly. "You were definitely a good fuck – legendary, even. But, really, you didn't think this was going to be anything except screwing, did you? Did you think you were going to confess to Daddy that you were sleeping with me and that I would decide I wanted to be your boyfriend?"
Don't let me talk to you that way. Don't let me call you a good fuck and walk out of here.
Punch me, for fuck's sake. Slap me across the face. Scream.
Do something other than stand here looking at me the way you're looking at me.
"Get out of my room right now," she says, her voice low. I wish that her eyes were filled with hate and anger because it would make this moment a million times easier. But they're not.
Instead, all I see in them is pain. Princess Alexandra, Miss I-Don't-Do-Love-Or-Feelings, is hurt.
I hurt her.
I tell myself that all of this is designed to keep her safe. She might hate me, but at least she'll be safe.
"Go!" she yells, pointing at the door. She turns away. I want to run to her, but I don't. When she speaks, her voice cracks. "Just go."
* * *
A fist flies against my bunkroom door, the pounding echoing loudly through the silence in my room. Once, twice, three times. "Calm the fuck down," I curse under my breath, yanking open the door.
Prince Albert's hands go straight to my shirt, and he slams me against my bedroom wall. I let him, my hands going up in a gesture of surrender. I don't protest at first because hell, if I were him, I'd have already laid into me. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he shouts.
"Back off, Al," I reply darkly. Using his nickname from Afghanistan is beyond inappropriate, especially now, but I don't care because I'm finished being appropriate. I give him my one and