I've been so disconnected from the outside world that I had no idea who he was.
And now, I feel like a complete and total idiot for not recognizing Prince Albert. He’s only one of the most famous princes on earth. Notorious would probably be a better word for it, known more for his antics in the bedroom than any kind of political activity.
The door swings open and there he is, as if simply thinking about him was enough to conjure him up out of nothing, summoned here by the universe. I silently curse my luck. "Get out of here," I hiss, the words barely coming out, my breath still short.
"Are you having a panic attack or a total mental breakdown?" he asks.
"Neither," I lie. In fact, I might very well be having a breakdown. Maybe I’m hallucinating this entire scenario.
"Good," he says. "I'd hate to think I over-estimated you."
“I just needed a second," I say, my voice defensive. I don't know where this guy gets off talking about over-estimating me. "Leave me alone."
"Not a chance," he says, still standing by the doorway. "Count to ten after I walk out this door before you follow me. When you leave here, turn right and go down the hallway. There's a Monet -- it's the third painting on the right side of the wall. Push on the panel beside it. It's a secret passageway."
A secret passageway? Of course there's a secret passageway. It's a palace. I’ve practically walked right onto the set of a James Bond film. "You’re nuts if you think I'm about to follow you into a secret passageway," I say, my panic turning into disbelief.
He gives me a cocky grin and shrugs. "Don't pretend you have anything better to do, luv," he says. "Unless you're planning to get on a plane and head back to Africa?"
"How do you know I was in -- " Africa, I start to say, but he's already turned around. Damn it.
I sit there in the bathroom, my heart no longer racing the way it was, no longer panicked and anxious. Instead, my heart pounds wildly in my chest for different reasons as I look at the closed door, where he just left. The thought of the way he looks at me, his gaze traveling the length of my body, sends warmth radiating through my body.
We spent one night together – and not even that way. I haven’t been with him. It was one random night in Vegas, driving around in a limo.
And getting married.
It seems like a lifetime ago.
I thought I would never see him again. I shouldn’t have ever seen him again. And how in the world was I supposed to know he was a prince? Or my future stepbrother?
We spent one night together. One kiss. So what?
It was one kiss that I’ve thought about it every day for the past two weeks, unable to shake the way his lips felt pressed against mine.
I should be devastated by my broken engagement. When your maid of honor confesses her affair with your fiancé, it should crush you. It’s supposed to crush you, right?
Except that I’ve been thinking of him instead.
I'm certainly not going to chase Prince Albert – he was Albie to me then, and definitely not a prince -- down a secret passageway.
I count in my head -- ten, then twenty, and thirty before I stand up and walk to the door and do exactly what he told me to do.
Damn it. Prince Albert is totally trouble. I know it in my gut, with more certainty than anything. I know it with all the certainty that I knew it that night.
Albie is going to be the worst kind of trouble.
And this is going to be the worst kind of decision.
The door opens, and she steps inside, looking radiant even in the dim light that shines from the overhead LED lighting in the passageway. The tunnels are an artifact of the palace, a relic from a thousand years ago, crisscrossing underneath the palace grounds and leading outside the gate. There’s a security guard posted at the exit, of course, a necessary precaution – but the tunnels were always my escape to freedom, out from under the watchful eyes of my father.
That was when I was younger, of course. Now, I'm free to do what I want. My father has given up on my being anything but exactly what I am.
The wayward crown prince.
The irresponsible prince.
The prince who lets his cock do all his thinking for him.
And my dick is definitely doing some thinking of its own, as I'm looking at Belle right now, standing not more than a foot away from me in her simple shift dress, an aqua blue the color of the ocean in the Mediterranean that makes her eyes look even brighter than they are.
But she wasn’t Isabella when she met me, half-drunk in Las Vegas. It was Belle then.
“Belle.” The name rolls off my tongue.
“You a-hole,” she whispers, clearly angry. It makes me laugh.
“Come again, darling?” I ask. “Oh, wait, no, there was no coming involved, was there? We never consummated our marriage bed. There are lots of beds in the palace, you know. I’m happy to make that happen.”
“How kind,” she says, voice dripping with sarcasm. “Is this totally a joke to you? You didn’t tell me you were a…”
“An asshole?” I ask.
She glares at me. I can see it even in the flickering light. She looks at me, her dark eyes steeled, her jaw set. “A prince,” she says, her tone imperious. “I gathered that you were an asshole the night we met. That didn't exactly take a lot of detective work."
“And yet, you saw fit to spend the entire night with me,” I say.
“Temporary insanity,” she says. “Obviously, I was out of my mind. And there was a lot of tequila involved, if I remember correctly. Plus, I was running away. But you already know that.”
I bend down to pick her shoe up off the ground.
Drunken disheveled Cinderella, complete with her high heel – black, classy and simple – askew on the ground.
When I slide it back onto her foot, my fingers graze the side of her ankle, and I look up at her. My eyes connect with hers and I can’t help what I do next. I slide my hands along her calf, watching as her eyes widen.
“That's not my shoe you're touching,” she says. She’s objecting, yet her tongue traces the edge of her lip, like she’s inviting me to slide my hands up higher. And I want to go higher. I want to take my hands and move them up her thighs, farther and farther until I’m reaching underneath her dress. I wonder if she's wearing panties.
“No, it’s not,” I say.
“People are looking.”
When I stand -- too close to her to be polite -- she inhales sharply, catching her bottom lip between her teeth. But she doesn’t move. She doesn't step back, the way she would if she didn't like how close I am.
The look of realization that I’m waiting for, the exclamation – Oh my God, you’re him! You’re Prince Albert! – never happens.
She doesn’t have a clue who I am.
"Yes," I say. "Fortunately for you, you ran right into me."
She laughs, tucking a strand of hair behind her hear. "Yeah, I’m a lucky girl," she says. "You could have mentioned the whole – oh, I don't know -- glaring fact that you're a freaking prince."
I shrug. "You never talked about your work."
"That's not even the same thing --" she says, her face upturned. She balls one hand into a fist, obviously frustrated, and the fact that she's at the end of her rope makes her endearing somehow. "I'm not a..."
"Princess?" I ask. "Well, you're going to be."
"Our parents are getting married," she says. "And we just got married. In Vegas. You're a prince. Please tell me you understand there's a potential for huge scandal here. Don't you take anything in life seriously?"
"I try to take all of my marriages seriously."
Her eyes widen. "There are more marriages?" I pause for a beat, and a look of realization spreads across her face. "That's not even remotely funny."
"Don't worry," I say. "You're the only woman I’ve married in Vegas."
"That's hilarious," she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "It
was a drunken marriage. You’ve gotten it annulled, haven’t you?"
I shrug. "I had other things to do," I say. Sure I did. Except that's not the whole truth. I could have gotten an annulment. I should have gotten an annulment. Instead, I told myself it was irrelevant. Belle walked away -- and I figured it would be out of sight, out of mind. It was as if it never happened.
That's what I told myself.
Except for the inescapable fact that I couldn't get her out of my head, even half a world away and two weeks later.
A woman taking up two weeks of residence in my brain – especially one I didn't even fuck? That's definitely some kind of record. My style is more of a one and done kind of thing – I prefer not to know the names of the women I screw. Of course, Belle’s name has been on repeat in my brain, playing over and over on a loop. And I didn’t even screw her.
I married her.
"You could have gotten it annulled," I say.
"I was busy," she whispers. "Dealing with my…"
Her voice trails off, and the way she glances away for a moment sends a momentary pang of guilt rushing through me for giving her shit. Her other wedding is what she was going to say. The night I ran into her – the night we got married in one of those Vegas chapels, by an Elvis impersonator, no less – was the night she found out her fiancé was screwing her maid of honor.
That night, she was running through the casino, away from her former best friend and all of her bridesmaids.
She told me everything over tequila shots in the back of a limo as we drove around Vegas – a slurred confession to me, her drunken priest.
Except that I'm the opposite of chaste.
And I've had nothing but the most impure of thoughts when it comes to Isabella Kensington.
"I was busy," she says, clearing her throat.
"I hope you properly disposed of your ex-fiancé’s body," I say, my tone light, joking, except there's a surprising undercurrent of irritation that runs through me at the thought of that asshole who cheated on her with her best friend.
A smile pulls at the corners of her mouth, then disappears just as suddenly. "I'm sure you have people that could do that for me," she says.
"Actually, we do," I say. "There's a secret branch of the military. If you need the ex-fiancé and ex-friend murdered, I'm happy to have it arranged. You are my wife, after all."
"You're a perfect gentleman," she says. “No one’s offered to have anyone murdered for me before.”
I reach up to tuck the wayward lock of her hair that keeps coming undone, back behind her ear, and when I touch her, she closes her eyes lightly, moving her face ever so slightly against my hand. Her lips part, just barely, and I think that if she allowed herself to do it, she'd be moaning right now.
The thought makes me hard as a rock, my cock pushing against the fabric of my pants.
I lean in close to whisper against her ear. "I'm definitely not a gentleman," I say, tracing my finger behind her ear and down the side of her neck. She tilts her head slightly to the side, and her chest rises as she inhales deeply, the top of her breasts exposed above the neckline of her dress. "Although I always let a lady come first."
Belle makes a strangled sound, and reaches up, pushing my hand away from her. “There’s going to be no coming involved.”
“Are you saying you’re not a lady?” I tease.
She narrows her eyes as she looks at me, anger replacing her arousal. “Did you know who I was when you met me? You had to know who I was.”
“Are you insane?” I ask. “I bumped into you in Vegas. Does that sound planned to you?”
“There’s no way this was a coincidence – these kinds of things don’t happen in real life. My mother had to have shown you photos, told you who I was.”
“She did show us a few photos, but no offense, luv, I didn’t really give a shit about what my new stepsister looked like,” I say.
Obviously, if I had realized how hot Belle was going to be, I’d have paid significantly more attention. I didn't even know she was going to be in Vegas – or that I was going to be in Vegas. It was an impromptu week of debauchery with my friends. I'd tired of Europe, and what better place for debauchery with American women than Las Vegas? I had no idea who she was when I met her – it wasn't until we signed the wedding paperwork that I recognized her last name. And by then, well, I was too drunk to care.
“How did you know I was in Africa?” she asks.
I shrug, the gesture more nonchalant than I feel. So what if I did a little research on her after the Vegas trip? It’s not every day that a girl I spend all night just talking to – and marry, no less – ditches me and runs off without so much as a see you later.
I found out that Belle had been off the radar for two years, doing some charity work in Africa. She’d only been back in the United States for a few days before the infamous Vegas trip. And I found out that she was Sofia Kensington’s daughter.
“Do you really think I’m not going to check out the background of a girl I married?” I ask, holding up my hand to stop her from interrupting. “I found out who you were after the fact.”
“But you knew who I was before this announcement today,” she says, a look of horror coming over her face. “You knew that I was your new…”
“Stepsister?” I ask.
“Oh my God,” she says, her hand covering her mouth. “I’m totally going to vomit.”
“There’s no need to be so dramatic,” I say.
“You think I’m being dramatic?” she asks, her voice going up an octave. “I got whisked away on a private jet, taken to a palace, and told that my mother is going to marry a king. And that the hot guy I spent a night hanging out with in Vegas – and married, by the way – is my new stepbrother.”
“Hot guy?” I ask.
“What?” she asks, looking at me blankly, her hands on her hips.
“You just said I was hot.”
She looks taken aback. “I totally did not.”
“Uh, I beg to differ,” I say.
“You’re completely delusional if you think I said you were hot,” she protests. “You’re hearing things.”
“I know what I heard,” I tell her. “If you like, I’ll get the security footage and play it back to show you. You called me a hot guy. You should just admit it.”
Her eyes go wide. “There are cameras on us in here?”
“Lighten up, luv,” I say, rolling my eyes. “I think you’re the most tightly wound woman I’ve ever met in my life. I was kidding. There are no cameras. My father has a thing about us not being watched – the only cameras in this place are in the public rooms."
“Don’t do that,” she says, shaking her head.
“Don’t joke?” I ask. “You’re going to have to get a sense of humor if you’re going to make it in a palace, luv.”
“That,” she says. “Don’t call me luv,” she says. “Just because we spent a night doing tequila shots in Vegas doesn’t mean you get to do that. You don’t get to give me pet names.”
“Luv,” I say, drawing the word out more slowly, my voice more gravely than I’d like, the arousal in my tone more evident than it should be. “Luv. I like how it just rolls off the tongue. You’re going to beg me to call you luv.”
“I can promise you that I’m never going to beg you to call me anything.”
“And I can promise you that I’m not going to let you come until you ask me to call you luv. Politely, too. Like a lady.”
“You’re a real piece of work,” she says, shaking her head. But at least she’s smiling. “Do you get slapped a lot?”