I have to admit that the whole driving thing is pretty cool. Soon, I'm flying down the road (well, not "flying" exactly, because Mr. Rule-Obeyer is very, very adamant about the speed limit).
"Why haven't I done this before?" I ask, rolling down the window and letting the almost-summer breeze fill the car. My hair gets swept around, strands landing in my face but I don't care.
When I reach for the radio, Max turns it off. "Keep your hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road."
I turn it back on. "It's been, like, fifteen minutes and I haven't gotten us into a car accident."
He turns it back off, shaking his head. "Yeah, you're on a real winning streak so far. But there haven't been any other cars on the road, and here comes one now. So, let's see if you can stop hogging the entire street."
"Shit, shit, shit," I mutter under my breath as I veer to my side of the road. I move the steering wheel a little too sharply, though, because my tires go off the pavement and into the dirt, sending a momentary pang of fear through me. Then the car passes and I overcorrect in the opposite direction, right back into the middle of the road.
When I glance over at Max, he has his hand on his chest. "It's okay, my life only flashed before my eyes for a second there. Nothing to worry about."
I giggle. "Shut up. If that was scary to you, you probably shouldn't be my bodyguard."
"I probably shouldn't be your bodyguard for a lot of reasons, least of all that," he says, his voice thick. He clears his throat and points ahead. "Keep driving. I don't know where this road goes, but we'll see. Oh, and try not to hit anyone."
I think he growls under his breath, but when I glance over at him out of the corner of my eye, he's looking out the window.
"I just can't believe no one ever bothered to teach you how to drive," he says.
"It's not that no one bothered," I tell him, although that's kind of it, too. After my mother died, things were different around the palace. My father was preoccupied, Albie and I were grieving, and I was busy getting into as much trouble as I could. But I don’t explain all of that to him. "Royals don't drive themselves. It's not considered … appropriate."
"Can you do anything for yourself?"
"Okay, Mr. Rude. I'm pretty good at rappelling down palace walls."
He laughs. "You are, I'll give you that. And you're great at evading your security."
"If you meant to ask if I can cook or do laundry or anything of that nature, the answer is no."
"So you'd be shit out of luck in a zombie apocalypse."
"I take offense to that," I protest. "I don't need to do either of those things in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Besides, I'm a black belt in karate and I can handle a weapon – and I can throw knives."
"You can throw knives?"
"So you can shoot, throw knives, rappel down palace walls, and evade bodyguards. Did your father send you away to a super secret spy boarding school when you were ten?"
"It was a super secret princess boarding school, thank you very much," I joke. "Actually, I was supposed to take archery lessons. Well, I did take archery lessons. Luckily for me, my archery teacher also knew how to throw knives. It turns out that throwing knives is a lot more fun than shooting a bow and arrow. My mom didn't know he taught me knife-throwing or she would have been mad, but I'm quite good. I could split an apple above your head with a knife."
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay away from you and knives, if it's all the same." He pauses. "You're not at all what I expected when I decided to come to Protrovia to guard a princess."
"Are you disappointed that it's not all parades and crown fittings and tea with the queen?" I ask sarcastically, although I do find myself slightly concerned with what he does think about this entire arrangement, but especially what he thinks about me.
He laughs. "Fuck, no." He's silent for a minute. "I'm not disappointed at all. Watch yourself, here comes another car."
I successfully avoid hitting the vehicle coming our direction and going off the road this time, so I congratulate myself for that. "I'm a pretty amazing driver, I must say."
Max laughs again. "Yeah, you're a rock star. Why don't we go ahead and practice parking now?"
"Is that your subtle way of saying I need to be off the road?"
"It's my way of saying that if you know how to go, you also need to know how to stop – and there's a little cluster of shops or something up ahead. I see parking spaces. Try not to hit any cars."
I'm about to make a smart-mouthed reply, but I'm too focused on not crashing the car as I put on my turn signal, turn, and pull straight into the first parking space I see. "Look! I parked it perfectly! Aren't you proud of me?"
Then I take my foot off the brake and turn to open the car door.
And promptly roll the car into the side of the little stone building in front of us. There's a loud 'clank' as something metal falls to the ground.
I look over at Max, who has his hand over his face. He groans loudly. "Always remember to put it in 'park' before you take your foot off the brake."
"That might have been helpful advice to know before I hit the building," I note. "But I'll remember that for next time. I think part of the car might have fallen off, by the way."
An old man runs out of the building wearing an apron and carrying a dish towel. He looks at us and shakes his head.
"I'll deal with the building owner," Max starts, but I'm out of the driver's seat before he can stop me.
The old man stares at me, his eyes wide, although I'm not entirely sure if he's staring because I'm wearing heels and lingerie and just ran into his building; or if he's staring because I'm the princess. "You're – the Princess," he says, bowing. That answered that question, although I'm definitely underdressed, possibly scandalously so, for the countryside. "I was just about to go inside and call for the police. I thought a couple of drunks had run into the bar."
"A bar? Well, this is my lucky day!" I chirp. "Did you hear that, James?"
Max picks a long piece of the car off the ground and stands up with it. "I'm sorry, princess. I didn't catch that because I was picking up the bumper of the car."
I resist the urge to stick out my tongue at him. Instead, I turn toward the old man. "Some of my very favorite places in Protrovia are bars, you know," I tell him.
His fat cheeks redden. "Well, then this is my lucky day, Your Highness. I'd be honored if you'd come in for a pint. And don't worry about the building – it's made of stone. It wouldn't be the first time someone has rolled into the side of it trying to park here."
"Did you hear that, James?" I call. "It's not the first time someone's hit the building."
Max holds up the bumper. "I'll just put this in the back of the car, then," he yells back.
"Oh, that's rubbish!" the man exclaims. "Putting it in the car, I mean, not the bumper. The bumper is still perfectly usable. I'll call Karl down from the auto shop. He'll get that fixed straight away."
"That would be very kind of you. And we'll come into the bar and have a pint," I declare brightly. I toss a grin at Max over my shoulder, and he rolls his eyes, sighing as he puts the bumper up against the side of the building.
"The Princess of Protrovia in my bar," the old man says, sticking out his hand. "Edward Gilroy, Your Highness. Oh, that was rude of me, wasn't it? I don't suppose you go around shaking hands all the time."
I shake his hand. "I try to only limit it to people whose buildings I run my cars into."
He chortles like that's the funniest thing he's ever heard, even though my jokes are definitely not. "Come on inside. I never thought I'd be serving royalty."
Inside, the bar is dim and noisy with a large crowd watching two different games on the televisions, one on either side of the room. Max speaks low in my ear as we enter. "This isn't a good idea, princess. The bar hasn't been cleared."
I roll my eyes at him. "We're not going to be rude. Besides, haven't you ever wanted to live
a little, James?"
"I live plenty, princess."
"Well, then, let's assume that no one here has been planning to assassinate me, since this is an impromptu stop."
"This is a security nightmare," he grumbles. "Of course, that's not any different from a million other places you frequent."
"That's the spirit, James," I chirp.
Edward rings a bell on the wall, and every head in the place turns in our direction. "Can I have your attention, please?" he yells, his cheeks turning red. "As fate would have it, Princess Alexandra – the Princess Alexandra – has graced us with her presence this afternoon. So, try to act like you're not the most obnoxious sods on the planet and class it up a bit for her, eh?"
"Well, I don't know about gracing anyone with my presence," I note, as the crowd in the bar rumbles then breaks into applause.
Edward motions for them to stop clapping. "She's also the one who just rolled her car into the building."
"Edward, you tattletale," I tease loudly. "If I hadn't had a little parking mishap, I wouldn't have gotten the chance to have a pint of beer with you lovely folks."
Cheers erupt again momentarily, and then people are asking to take selfies with me and sign autographs. Max hovers by my side, glaring at any man who attempts to get a photo. I snap a few photos and sign some bar napkins and a few hairy man chests before Edward cuts the crowd off.
"Enough, enough, you're going to suffocate the princess already," Edward says, motioning people away as he ushers Max and I over to the bar. He practically shoves an even older man off of his barstool. "Give her your seat, Dennis."
"Oh, that's okay," I protest.
"Dennis doesn't mind," Edward declares as he scuttles behind the bar, quickly pouring two glasses from the tap. He yells louder in Dennis' direction. "Do you, Dennis?"
"Eh?" Dennis cups his ear at him as Edward slides the beers toward us.
"I don't know if your gentleman here would like a beer, but there you are," Edward says, wiping his hands on his apron.
I laugh. "My gentleman? I'm not sure he's even a gentleman."
"Ah, so you're single, then?" Dennis turns to face us and gives me a toothless smile.
Edward chortles. "Selective hearing."
"I hear the things that are important," Dennis says. "Single, then, yes? Who's the suit who looks like he wants to kill me?"
I turn to look at Max, who's standing on the other side of me, glaring and large and menacing. "I'm her bodyguard," he growls.
"He's quite the possessive one," Dennis yells.
"You have no idea."
Edward shakes his head. "Leave the poor girl alone, Dennis."
"If I were thirty years younger," Dennis says wistfully.
Edward guffaws. "Thirty years? More like eighty years, you lecherous old pig!"
"If I were fifty years older, Dennis," I say, raising my glass to his.
When the old man finally turns back to talk to his friends, I turn to Max, sliding the second beer across the bar toward him. "Have a pint."
"Suit yourself. I'm happy to drink yours," I tell him, downing a few sips of mine and giving Edward a thumbs-up gesture. "What do you do on your days off?"
"What do you mean?" Max asks.
"You get days off, don't you? Aren't there times you're not guarding me? Do you walk around Protrovia in a suit, glaring at people?"
"Sometimes." I think I see a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "When I'm not teaching princesses how to drive."
"Wait. Is today your day off?"
He shrugs. "My shift was over earlier."
"You decided to teach me to drive on your day off?" I take another sip of beer as one of the teams on the television scores or something and the bar explodes into cheers. Then someone buys a round for the place, and I'm being offered a shot of tequila that I have to take because everyone else is doing it. Which leads to more cheers and a second shot before the noise dies down.
By the time the noise diminishes, Max is doing his usual bodyguard thing – scanning the room for anyone that might cause me harm. I poke him on the arm and he looks at me. "Can I help you?" he asks.
"Yes, you can," I reply. "You never answered my question."
"I didn't think it was a question."
"Why did you take me to drive on your day off?" I ask.
He shrugs again. "I took one of the other guards' shifts. I didn't like what happened at lunch and besides, I didn't have anything better to do."
"You didn't have anything better to do than hang out with a spoiled princess?" I ask, incredulous. "God, you really need to get a life, James."
He turns toward me, and someone bumps into him from behind, pushing him suddenly closer. "You're the one hanging out in a bar with your bodyguard."
I screw up my face into a mock disgusted expression. "You're right. That's totally pathetic."
There is definitely something pathetic about the fact that my heart speeds up a little bit when I know he's coming onto his shift to guard me. I've spent more time with him than any of my other bodyguards – more time than anyone I've hooked up with, too.
It's almost like he's my boyfriend.
The thought pops into my head and it must be the alcohol talking, because Princess Train Wreck does not do boyfriends. Never has and never will.
So I shove that thought right back into the dark recesses of my brain that it came from, and when Old Man Dennis slides a shot my way and declares that he can drink me under the table, I don't take him up on the challenge.
I definitely don't need thoughts like that popping into my head again.
"I don't understand. That has to be a mistake, Mom."
"It's not a mistake, Maxwell! Bobby Jenkins himself drove over from the bank – personally! He closed up the whole darn place in the middle of the day to come by and congratulate us. Well, now, obviously it wasn't just to congratulate us, because you and I both know that man is one of the nosiest people in South Hollow, but still, he closed the bank right up. The whole town is talking about it, thanks to you."
"That's not possible, Mom. People don't just have their mortgages paid off by good Samaritans."
"Enough with the act, Maxwell Donnelley. You don't need to be modest. Your father and I know you're the one who did it – and now the whole town does, too."
"I didn't do anything, Mom. This is the first I'm hearing about it."
My mother says something off the phone, her voice muffled, and then I hear my father on the line. "No one likes false modesty, son."
"I'm not being falsely –" I start, my voice raised, and then I drop it to a whisper. I'm standing outside the princess' bedroom door and the last thing I need is her overhearing another conversation. I definitely don't need one of my parents insisting on talking to the princess themselves, which is something they'd do. "I'm not being modest. I literally don't know anything about the mortgage. I didn't do it."
My mother comes back on the phone. "It came from overseas, and you're the only one we know overseas. We didn't teach you to lie, and this isn't the kind of surprise that you should keep covering up, so just tell us you did it. You're upsetting your father, and you know his heart isn't the greatest."
I groan. "Don't guilt me, Mom. I'm being straight with you. I