Albie sighs. "Well, you've been here how long? A week?"
"Five days. But who's counting?"
It's been five damned days and the girl won't call me by any name other than James, the one she uses for all of her security team. The other bodyguards just shrug and pass it off as something that comes with dealing with royals.
It's driving me insane. I don't know why the hell it matters whether some spoiled princess knows my name, but the fact that she won't call me by it is getting under my skin.
"I think one of her bodyguards lasted two weeks," Albie muses.
"Eighteen days," I correct him. Yesterday, I went and checked with the personnel department. They shouldn't tell me that information since it's all supposed to be confidential. But apparently it's common knowledge now that I have some kind of personal tie to the prince, and the turnover with the princess' security is so rapid that there's a betting pool on how long I'll last. They were only too happy to inform me of its existence.
I told them to bet long, because I don't intend to go anywhere.
Nineteen days, and I'll have lasted longer than any of her other bodyguards
You'd think that security personnel would be better equipped to handle a problem princess. I mean, she's probably one hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet. How hard can it be to spend a couple of weeks guarding a princess?
* * *
As it turns out, I may have underestimated her.
"Rotten brat," I mutter under my breath as two burly men in the crowded street block my path to the alley the princess just ducked into. She turns for a moment and blows me a kiss before a wide grin spreads across her face. Then, she whirls around and heads back through the alley. I speak into my earpiece: "Brat sighted heading into alleyway northeast of the square. Head her off at the other side."
"Brat?" one of the other bodyguards crackles through the earpiece.
Shit. Did I say that aloud?
I clear my throat and use her codename, repeating the order into the earpiece – the real codename, not the one I call her in my head, even though "brat" is a lot more appropriate. The royal brat was supposed to be on her way to an event, but exited the vehicle when we were stopped in the middle of traffic at a stoplight, taking off down the street at a run like she was fleeing the scene of a crime. Of course, she left her phone in the vehicle, making it impossible to track her electronically.
"Where do you think you're going?" one of the men asks. His thick arms fold across him, resting on his large stomach.
"Get out of my way or I'll have you arrested," I growl.
"Says the asshole chasing down his girlfriend," the other one chimes in. "She doesn't want to see you, you know. Maybe you ought to learn to take 'no' for an answer."
"Yeah, jackass," says Dumbass Number One, glaring at me. "No means no. You should learn how to treat a lady."
Reaching into my pocket, I pull out my royal identification and shove it in their faces. "I'm not some abusive boyfriend, you tools."
Dumbass Two squints. "That says 'Royal.' You don't look like a prince."
"Yeah, she said she was running from her ex-boyfriend," Dumbass One says, shuffling awkwardly as he runs his meaty hand over his closely-cropped hair.
"She's the princess, you morons," I tell them, shoving Dumbass One and moving through them. In a country this small, how is it I've encountered the only two idiots who don't seem to recognize a member of the royal family? "My ID says 'Royal Security' because I'm protecting her."
"Huh? The princess? Protecting her from who?" one of them calls after me as I weave through the crowd and burst into the alley at a full running pace. My heart races, but only partly from the physical exertion. It thumps loudly in my chest in response to the adrenaline pouring through my veins, the irritation at the princess for hightailing it out of the vehicle, and anger at myself for not anticipating her move.
I should have seen that one coming. Obviously we'll need to employ child-proof locks on the princess' transportation now.
Or you could just sit in the back seat with her.
The thought pops into my head, and I immediately flash to that image – me in the seat beside her, my hand on her leg, then moving farther up…
No. I refuse to think about it. I’m not going there again – not right now in the middle of a fucking chase, and not later in the privacy of my bunkroom.
At the end of the alley, one of the other bodyguards throws his hands up in the air in frustration and shakes his head before darting in the other direction.
Well, that's fucking awesome. I've been on the job for seven days, and now I've lost the princess. Again.
Well, not exactly "again". Yesterday evening, I came onto my shift to find that the genius security guards on the morning shift had lost her at a bar an hour before.
Misplaced. That's the exact word they used. Like she's a piece of luggage at the airport. We misplaced the princess.
Where did I find the Crown Princess of Protrovia? In the middle of a high-stakes poker game with several members of the Russian mafia.
Nothing but classy and princess-like behavior from this girl, that's for damned sure.
Outside of the alley, I pause and scan the crowd for Princess Alexandra. People move past me, mostly young people dressed up to go to the clubs or already pouring half-drunk out of the nearby bars and pubs, apparently oblivious to the fact that several men in suits and earpieces are pushing through the streets looking for someone important.
Of course, this likely isn't the first time the princess has pulled this type of stunt, and probably in this very town square, so maybe the entire Kingdom of Protovia is used to seeing scenes like this.
I scan the nearby stores – a mixture of restaurants and bars and clubs and shops selling clothing and shoes and tourist crap – for someplace, anyplace she might have stopped to enter. She had to have planned this, so where would Princess Alexandra be trying to get to that she wouldn't have just cleared with us?
Someplace shady. Someplace her father wouldn't approve. Someplace dangerous.
All of the nearby storefronts look appropriate and normal, like upstanding establishments.
Then I see her not more than ten yards away wearing a baseball cap and a jacket – not what she was wearing when she left the vehicle. The brightly colored strands of hair poking out from her cap are a dead giveaway. Moving quickly through the crowd, I catch her by the arm and pull her into the nearest alley.
"What the –" she squeals, then her expression changes as she recognizes me and groans in frustration.
"Are you kidding me with this shit?" I ask, exasperated. "Where the hell were you even going?"
"None of your business." She turns her face up, her jaw set.
"None of my business, huh?" My hand is on her other arm before I even realize what I'm doing, and she's looking up at me with a defiant expression. Her lips fall open, her mouth pouty as hell, and all I can think about is kissing that smug look right the hell off her face.
That is not something I need to be thinking. Kissing this brat shouldn't be anywhere near my thoughts.
"Yes, James, it's none of your business."
"I'm your bodyguard."
"More like my prison guard," she spits.
"You're my job," I growl. Fuck, why do her eyes have to be so doe-like? I bet she gets away with murder, giving people this wide-eyed look like she's giving me right now. Behind that innocent blinking, she's planning her next poker game with Russian mafia. I'd bet my paycheck on it.
Hell, the girl is probably stealing my wallet out of my pocket at this very moment. I make a mental note to check my billfold later.
A slow smirk pulls at the corner of her mouth. "Maybe. Or maybe not for long."
"Nice try, but no cigar, princess," I tell her. "Your father ain't firing me. Of all people in the world, he definitely knows what a pain in the ass you are."
She shrugs. "You know, there are a lot of easier security jobs out there for someone like you." I can't help but laugh. "You're not very subtle," I note. "Trying to get me to quit is not going to work, sweetheart."
She narrows her eyes. "I'm a princess. You can't call me 'sweetheart'." She pauses. "James."
"Call me James again and I'll call you worse than sweetheart."
Her expression hardens. "James."
"Fine. Don't say I didn't warn you. You want me to call you Sugar Tits now? You got it."
Her jaw drops and she gasps. "Excuse me?"
"You heard me." I let go of her with one hand, keeping tight hold of her arm with my other hand because this girl is obviously a runner and I'm not letting her out of my damn grasp.
"I literally don't even know what that expression means," she says haughtily. "I assume it's a crude American phrase."
"Nah, it's one of those classy-as-fuck American phrases," I reply. "Now get your royal ass back into the car because we're heading to the palace."
"I had plans," she insists.
"Your plans changed when you got out of the car. Now you're a flight risk."
"You're a dick," she says. "Has anyone ever told you that?"
I laugh. "You're not the first, Sugar Tits. And you're sure not going to be the last."
"Stop calling me that, damn it," she insists, her voice angry. "It's disrespectful."
I shrug. "Then I'll make it Princess Sugar Tits. Better?"
Her eyes narrow. "Not at all."
"Well, when you learn my name, maybe I'll bother to learn yours." My voice is gruff, partly because I'm annoyed with her but mostly because I'm standing here with my hand on her arm and she's looking at me the way she's looking at me – wild-eyed, like she hates me.
I want her.
I must be losing my fucking mind to want a spoiled bratty girl like her.
"I'm not bothering to learn the name of someone who's going to be gone in a matter of days," she insists. When I pull her arm to go, she pulls back. "And I'm not going anywhere with you like I'm some kind of prisoner in my own kingdom."
I look her directly in the eyes, my hand not moving. "You have no idea how stubborn I can be, princess. But you're about to learn. Your father wants you safe and following n your schedule and he's not firing me. And if you think I'm going to quit because you pull a few stunts, then you've lost your damned mind. I'm not going anywhere."
The princess inhales sharply, and I try very hard to ignore the way her full breasts rise in the t-shirt she's wearing, the one that she's taken a pair of scissors to, cutting the top so it's jagged on the edges and puts her cleavage on display. I try to ignore the way she pulls her lower lip in between her teeth, and I try to ignore the stirring inside me as hatred and anger flash in her eyes.
Something is really the hell wrong with me that seeing her angry at me turns me on.
Before I know it – and way the hell against my better judgment – I'm pushing her up against the nearest wall. She lets out a sound that's remarkably like a moan, and I'm pressing her hands above her head as she looks up at me, her breath coming in short gasps.
I don't kiss her.
I want to bring my lips down on hers – rough, hard – and take her mouth. I have the overwhelming urge to possess every inch of this girl I can't stand.
She arches her back, her breasts close to my chest, her face angled toward mine. Her lips are so close I can taste her on my tongue already. Then she whispers, her words soft and slow. "I'm just as stubborn as you are. So if you want a war, you've got one, James."
Max pauses in the doorway after clearing my room, which is in itself an exercise in total stupidity. Really, who's going to be hiding in my room in the palace, for goodness' sake? My other bodyguards clear my room intermittently, yet this one is obsessed with following every piece of protocol, regardless of how stupid it is.
"Are you satisfied?" I ask.
He pauses. "You're not going to undress for me this time?" His expression is serious, and the only hint that he might be joking is the tiniest of crinkles on the edge of one of his eyes.
I wonder if he ever smiles.
Probably not. He's probably too fucking busy following the rules. Arranging his shirts by color in his closet.
Rigid. Uptight. Wants everything his way. Totally demanding.
I wonder if he's like that in bed.
The thought sends a rush through me just like the one that went through me when he grabbed me in the alley. Standing there with my heart racing, my stomach doing flips over and over until I was dizzy, I thought about arching up to reach him and press my lips against his, just to see what they felt like. But I didn't, because princesses don't kiss their asshole bodyguards.
I raise my eyebrows. "I don't know what you're talking about," I lie, recalling the way I turned and slipped my shirt over my head that day, dropping it to the floor with the full knowledge that he was standing behind me.
I don't know why I did it, exactly.
I've never done something like that with one of the bodyguards before. I've never done anything with the bodyguards, actually. I've never crossed that line in any way. It's not that I follow the rules – in fact, rule-breaking is one of my favorite pastimes. It's that there's something really intimate about the relationship between a royal and their personal security.
A bodyguard spends time with a royal and knows all their secrets – everything there is to know about that person.
I'm not so big on being known.
"No?" Max asks, raising his eyebrows. He looks too handsome, standing there in his suit. Handsome isn't the right word for it because he's not groomed like all of the men who surround me, with their perfectly manicured hands and their perfect backgrounds and their perfect families.
I swallow hard, trying not to let my eyes linger on him too long. Too long and I might lose my cool. "Nope," I say, my voice clipped as I shrug nonchalantly. "I must not have noticed you standing there."
"Sure you didn't," he says, chuckling to himself as he turns to leave. He closes the door – quietly, almost politely, as if he didn't just drag me back from town like some kind of overbearing, domineering brute.
I let out a frustrated groan. He thinks he's slick, with his friendship with Albie and whatever understanding he now has with my father. But I'm not going to let some overzealous bodyguard come barging into my life like a bull in a china shop, dictating to me where I can and can't go or what I can and can't do – even if that bodyguard is the sexiest man I've ever laid eyes on.
The very idea that a bodyguard could command a princess is ridiculous.
You know you'd like him to order you around.
The thought pops into my head, and as nonsensical as it is, I find myself entertaining the idea. But only briefly. I'd never act on it with this man.
I bet he's just as controlling in bed.
Arousal rushes through me at the thought of Max throwing my bedroom door open and bursting inside.
"What's my name, princess?" he growls as he heads straight for me, with no deference to my title or my time or my privacy or whatever the hell I might be doing in my bedroom.
I gasp as he grips my hair in his thick hand, yanking my head back until my face is upturned to look at him, only him. "James," I whisper.