My brain starts screaming at me now: Weirdo alert! Weirdo alert!
The problem is that my brain is drunk and seems to be working in very slow motion.
He pulls me down the hall toward the door, surprisingly strong for an old man, and it's only then that I realize something's really wrong. His gait isn't right for an old man. It's too strong, too steady.
"You knew we were coming for you," he says. His voice is too young for an old man, and for a second, I stare at him, my brow furrowed as I try to process the disconnect between his voice and his face.
He's wearing stage makeup.
"Who?" I ask stupidly, my heart racing as I glance back toward the hall. Is it too late to regret ditching the bodyguards earlier?
"Death is coming for you," he hisses, his breath stale.
"That's a little melodramatic, don't you think?" I ask, trying to plant my heels on the floor as he pulls at me, but the alcohol has made me unbalanced and these shoes are the worst kind of impractical. If I could just pull one off, it would make a great weapon.
"Whore," he breathes into my face. "Jezebel!"
Spoiled rotten brat.
Spoiled rotten, insanely hot, drives-me-fucking-crazy, thinks-she's-so-goddamnned smart-and-is-going-to-get-herself-killed brat.
I mutter the words over and over under my breath as I shove my way through the crowd just behind the other bodyguard who had pushed me aside at the exit from the VIP area. Alexandra thought she was being clever by getting the other guy Stone between us, putting me at just enough distance behind her on the way down the stairs to lose me when she darted into the crowd.
I tell myself that she's only a couple of yards ahead and that there's no evidence of that religious cult here tonight – and why would there be? It's not like they're going to patronize a sin-filled establishment like a nightclub.
Besides, Alexandra's itinerary was last-minute and impulsively decided, as usual. It's not as if she blasted her plans or location all over social media.
The risk of something happening is low, and besides, her behavior has always been a magnet for people who are unhinged – especially people who hate that she lives her life unapologetically – and she's gotten through life so far relatively unscathed.
Unscathed, except for when her bodyguard, the person who'd been the most intimate with her, called her the worst kinds of names and made her feel like nothing.
So, all in all, not exactly unscathed.
Of course, she didn't seem too fucking bothered by that tonight, drinking and pouring champagne all over some shirtless jackass. That made it pretty fucking clear that Albert was wrong and it didn't bother Alexandra a damned bit that things between us ended.
My heart beats faster as I head straight toward the back hallway while Stone heads toward the bathroom on the opposite side of the back wall. The further I get through the crowd, the more something in my gut twinges, a sudden certainty that something isn't right. I have no reason to believe anything is wrong except instinct.
My mind and body are on high alert, all of my senses suddenly acute as I burst through the opening of the hallway.
That's when I see her at the end of the hallway struggling against a man who's trying to drag her toward the exit of the club.
I break into a run at once, calling into my earpiece for backup and for the car.
"Secure the right rear exit," I bark into my earpiece.
Yanking the man away from her, I punch him hard in the face – once, and then again – and he stumbles to the ground.
My hands on Alexandra's arms, I speak quickly. "Are you okay? Did he hurt you?"
Her face is pale and she shakes her head, which I take to mean she isn't hurt. I don't wait for her to respond before I order her to stay close to me, throwing open the door to clear the immediate area before proceeding.
The only person outside in the alleyway behind the back of the nightclub is Finn Asher, leaning up against the side of the nightclub and smoking a cigarette without a single care in the world.
"Finn??" Alexandra shouts, confused.
Two security vehicles pull up to the area, and multiple royal bodyguards jump out of each one, two rushing for the princess and the remainder securing the perimeter outside. One of them makes a move to grab Finn, who's still standing there looking remarkably casual for someone watching this unfold in front of him. Immediately, I know there's something wrong with that.
Alexandra fusses when the bodyguard goes for Finn: "That's not him! The guy is inside! Relax!"
Finn exhales smoke rings into the air, one hand holding a cigarette and the other hand up in mock surrender. "You heard the girl," he says, his tone dark. "Relax."
"What the hell are you doing out here?" I growl.
But I don't get to hear his bullshit response because the nightclub door immediately opens and Stone emerges with Alexandra's assailant, his hands cuffed behind his back.
The deranged man looks at Finn. "You've done the Lord's work," he intones.
"Shut the fuck up, dipshit," Stone orders, jerking the cuffs on his hands and transferring him to one of the other bodyguards, who takes him away. Stone shakes his head. "Fucking whack jobs."
All I care about is whether Alexandra is okay. "Don't let go of the guy who's smoking," I toss over my shoulder at Stone before taking Alexandra toward the vehicle and out of the earshot of everyone. "Did he hurt you?" I ask. A million possibilities race through my head, each one worse than the one before.
She shakes her head. "He just… he was just weird, that's all."
"Did he give you anything? Inject you with anything? Touch you?"
"Grabbed me," she says, her voice halting. She's clearly shaken, and I've never seen Alexandra shaken. "Yelled at me. That's it."
"Come on. We need to get you out of here," I say, fighting every urge within me to scoop her up in my arms, put her in the vehicle, and ride away with her. It's something primal, this fierce urge to hold her and to protect her, the insane notion that the only way she's safe is if she's in my arms.
Just then she shoves me harder than I expect, her hands going right to my chest. "I said I'm fine," she insists. "Stop treating me like I'm fragile."
"Shit, Alexandra." I exhale a laugh, mostly relieved that she's acting like her normal self right now. "You could have been fucking killed."
Alexandra was out of my sight for a second and some crazy guy could have murdered her. The only thing I care about is the fact that I could have lost her – and that right now I want to kiss her more than anything.
"Still fucking the help, are we?" Finn yells. "That's trashy even for your low standards."
I spin around and head straight for him, even as Alexandra calls my name. "Get her in the car," I call over my shoulder at the bodyguards. She's going to hate that, but I don't care because I'm completely consumed by rage right now. This punk has pissed me off long enough, and if he had something to do with that deranged lunatic trying to hurt Alexandra, I swear I'll kill him.
Everything happens fast after that.
I grab Finn by the collar to slam him up against the wall. "What did you do?" I demand.
He knows exactly what I'm talking about. He spits in my face. "I was in the right place at the right time and I let him in the fucking door," he brags. "I mean, who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth? Once he dragged her ass out here and she saw me, Alex would have spread her legs the way she should have been doing for me all along. I'd have made sure of it."
I don't give a shit about anything else except what he's saying about Alexandra, and how he put her in danger, and what the fuck he intended to do with her after that nutjob had taken her out of the club.
The prick deserves to be beaten within an inch of his life.
So I hit him. And I hit him again.
I don't stop hitting him until the other bodyguards pull me
Alexandra is in protective custody, having been whisked off by her security. Meanwhile, I'm standing here, my suit dotted with specs of Finn's blood and my knuckles still raw from hitting him.
It's three in the morning, and I'm in the sitting area in the king's royal residence watching while the king mixes himself a scotch from the bar. Suffice it to say that I never thought I'd be in this situation, waiting for the king of a freaking country, clad in pajamas and a robe, to pour himself a scotch and then yell at me.
The king finally turns around. "That was a colossal disaster."
"Yes, Your Majesty, it was." As if I'm going to deny it.
"Increased security, yet all of you lost sight of her in that club!" he exclaims. "She could have been taken by that cult. Kidnapped, tortured, killed…!"
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Your job – your only job – was to protect her!" he yells. "You were given more security guards, yet you couldn't secure a small nightclub! And Finn Asher … do you have any idea what you've done??"
"I took care of the guy who tried to use a crazy cult leader to drag your daughter out of a club so he could assault her in an alleyway," I burst out angrily. Then I add: "Sir."
The sir part doesn't make my outburst any less disrespectful when it comes to addressing a king. Especially when I broke so many fucking rules tonight.
Not just tonight. I've been breaking the rules since I got here.
I've broken every goddamnned rule when it comes to this woman.
The king's face reddens. "You assaulted the son of one of the most prominent families in Protrovia," he bellows, his voice booming. "One of the richest families in Europe."
"I'm not sorry for a second about that, Your Majesty." I clench my fists at my side. I'll apologize for a lot, but I'm not apologizing for that.
The king throws the crystal tumbler at the wall and it smashes into a hundred pieces. The bedroom door opens and Sofia comes out fully dressed. For a second, the completely ridiculous thought that she might actually sleep in a pantsuit goes through my head. It's almost hysterical enough to make me laugh, which definitely means I'm losing my mind. She's worried though, her face pale and her brow furrowed with a hand over her mouth as she watches us in shock.
"You're not sorry for a goddamned thing when it comes to my daughter!" King Leopold yells.
The door to the royal residence flings open and a security guard pokes his head inside, asking if everything is okay, but the king yells at him to leave.
"If you're asking me whether I'm sorry for loving your daughter, the answer is no," I answer.
I love her.
That's what this is. It's not sex or just something fun. It's love.
I take a breath, barreling on, totally aware I'm only fucking myself over here by speaking to the king this way. The thing is that I don't give a damn anymore. "I'm sorry for not following protocol and I'm more than sorry that I lost her in the club. But I'm not the least bit sorry for being in love with your daughter, and I never will be."
"Get out!" he bellows, pointing at the door. "You're finished here, and you're finished in Protrovia!"
Then I'm escorted out of the king's residence by one of the other security guards.
With that, I'm banished from Protrovia.
I'm a mixture of irate and exhausted. I was whisked away from the nightclub last night in the middle of whatever was going on when Max just waved his hand and dismissed me.
Except he also came to my rescue – and when his hand touched my back as he guided me out of the club, every part of me wanted to just collapse against him. Every part of me wanted him to pick me up and carry me out of that nightclub and just walk away with me.
Clearly that was just some kind of traumatic reaction to the craziness in the club, because wanting him after what he said to me only makes me pathetic.
I don't do pathetic.
I'm even more irritable because I spent the rest of the night and most of today at a safe house "for my protection" instead of being returned to the palace. Now I have to check in with my father, listen to the lecture I'm inevitably going to get for ditching my security at the club, hear Sofia make some kind of disparaging comment about what a total train wreck I am and grill me about why there are photos of me pouring champagne over a half-naked guy floating around the internet, and go back to dealing with being around the jerk who broke my heart and then saved my life.
Poor little rich girl, right?
I exhale heavily, nodding at the bodyguard in the hallway near my room. "Where's Max?"
I don't know why I'm asking. Max did his job by saving me, but that doesn't negate any of the hateful things he said. I'm only his job and nothing more.
"You haven't heard, Your Highness?"
"He's gone, Your Highness."
"Gone, like he was rewarded with a vacation for rescuing me?"
He gives me a look. "Gone-gone. To America."
His words hit me like a punch to the stomach. "Yes," I mumble, my head spinning. "I understand. Thank you."
Except I don't understand at all.
I don't understand why he's gone.
I don't understand this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that makes me feel like I'm going to retch.
I don't understand why I care at all whether he's gone.
Pulling open the door to my bedroom, I stand there blinking and trying to understand what I'm seeing.
My room is plastered with … sticky notes??
I rip one off of my desk.
What the hell is this?