"What's wrong with you?" I hiss. "They're going to bomb sweep the palace, and that's hilarious to you? They're going to catch us in here. Everything is a joke to you."
"Relax, Belle," he says. He's calm. Too damn calm. How the hell is he so composed when they're looking for the remote control to the vibrator that he used to make me come at dinner tonight…in front of the entire royal family?
This is not a time for being calm. This is time for freaking the fuck out.
The fact that he tells me to relax makes me do exactly the opposite of relax. I can feel myself spinning up, my anxiety spiraling out of control. I'm about to be publicly humiliated. We're about to be publicly humiliated.
"Don't tell me to relax," I say, positively seething with anger and panic. "Do you just love being the butt of jokes in the headlines?"
An odd expression crosses his face, and I think I might have hurt him. "Calm down, luv," he says, his voice clipped. "This will stay our filthy little secret. No one's going to know you fucked Prince Albert."
"Albie, I didn't mean –" I start, but he interrupts me, putting his hand up.
"You need to get out of here," he says. "Obviously we don't need to be seen leaving this room together."
"What if they search you?"
Albie laughs now, not even bothering to try to be quiet. I'm going to smack him. So help me, I'm about to smack the Crown Prince of Protrovia.
Then the door opens. I stand there like a deer in the headlights.
"Oh. Prince Albert. Miss Kensington," Noah says.
"I've been taking Miss Kensington on a tour of the palace," Albie says, suddenly business-like, a paragon of sophistication. "Can you believe she hasn't seen all of the important rooms?"
"Yes," I say. "A tour."
I don't look at Noah. I avoid making eye contact, because surely it's written all over my face. Hell, it's probably hanging in the air in the throne room – the smell of sex. And I have no idea what he did with the condom.
Don't panic. Don't panic.
Noah speaks into a microphone on his wrist. "Throne room is clear. I've accounted for the Prince and Miss Kensington."
Out in the hallway, Albie speaks to Noah. "About that remote…"
My heart sinks. Surely Albie isn't this reckless. I think I might faint.
"I know it was your sister who reported the remote, sir," he says. "But we still need to follow protocol. Of course we're keeping everything quiet, under the circumstances, since it's your father's engagement party."
I swallow hard. "Do my mother and the King know about the…bomb scare?"
"Of course," Noah says. "They've been apprised of the situation. If we think the threat is legitimate, we'll initiate the Chess Protocol."
"I'm afraid to ask what that means."
"Protect the King," Albie says. "In the event of an emergency."
Of course. They'll initiate the Chess Protocol.
To protect the royal family from the security risk associated with my renegade vibrator.
It would almost be funny, if this scenario didn't involve my imminent public humiliation.
"About that remote…" Albie says.
Don't vomit, I tell myself.
Noah sighs. "If you're about to tell me this was you, Albie…"
Albie shrugs. "I'd rather not say, with her here."
"What?" I squeak. "What aren't you going to say in front of me?"
"It's personal," Albie says, raising his eyebrows and giving me a look. "And my personal life really isn't any of your business, don't you think?"
"I see," I say, not seeing at all. I wouldn't put it past Albie to brag to Noah about hooking up with me. Who knows how close the two of them really are? Maybe Albie brags about all of his exploits. The thought makes me dizzy. "Am I free to go, then?"
"Of course," Noah says. "But stay in the wing near the ballroom, please. We haven't swept the residences yet."
I dart into the closest bathroom I can find to clean myself up, certain that my indiscretion is written all over my face. But instead, when I look in the mirror I see a slight hint of pink on my cheeks. The flush makes me look well rested, which is better than looking well fucked, I supposed.
And I was fucked well, wasn't I?
My fingers linger on my lips, the sensation of his bruising kisses still there even now. I can still feel him throbbing between my legs, sense his hands on my breasts.
I need to get out of here before my mind lingers too long on things it shouldn't.
I open the door and walk straight into her.
"Well, now," she says, her perfectly pouty lips curling up into a snide smile. "I don't believe we've had the pleasure of being introduced."
"Erika Matheson," she says with a sniff, her eyes traveling up the length of my body as she clearly judges me. "So you're the new stepsister."
If I didn't hate her before, I hate her now, as she looks at me with disdain.
"Yes," I say. "Forgive me. How do you know the royal family?" I blink innocently, pretending to have no idea who she is.
She smiles, the expression cold. "Albert and I will be having one of these parties in the not-too-distant future," she says.
Maybe the ex-girlfriend isn't so much an ex, after all. The thought makes me feel queasy. Did I just help Albie cheat on his fiancé?
"Oh." I force out the word. "Are you and the Prince engaged?"
"Not yet," she says, examining her perfectly manicured hand like she isn't sure whether or not she's wearing an engagement ring. "But we will be. It's a foregone conclusion."
"I see," I say.
I need to get out of here.
But my feet seem to be rooted in the ground, held there by an invisible force. I scan the hallway, looking for someone to rescue me from this conversation I don't want to have.
My mother is the one who does the rescuing, accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting. Those are their actual titles, too. They're really personal assistants, but retain the ridiculous antiquated titles, for no other reason than that it's apparently what tradition dictates.
"Mother," I say brightly, breathing a sigh of relief. "You know Erika Matheson."
"I do," she says. "You're Prince Albert's girlfriend, aren't you?"
Girlfriend. Not ex-girlfriend.
"Of course," Erika says, smiling warmly at my mother.
Now I really hate her.
And Albie. Let's not forget about him. I definitely hate Albie, who seems to have forgotten to mention that Erika is still under the impression they're dating.
I glare at Erika and she apparently takes the hint. "It was lovely speaking with you, Isabella but I really should be going."
"Miss Matheson?" my mother asks. "Please consider my invitation open-ended. You're obviously important to the Prince."
"Thank you," she says, smiling smugly. "I will certainly consider it."
"What invitation?" I hiss at my mother as soon as Erika is gone.
"Oh, I invited her to the summer home when we were talking earlier this evening," Sofia says, waving dismissively. "After the incident tonight, I thought it better to keep her and the Prince under close watch, if there's something going on there. Minimize the possibility of scandal before the wedding."
"What incident?" I ask. My chest feels tight. I swear that my lungs have suddenly decreased in capacity. I can't seem to take in enough air.
My mother leans close, speaking softly. "The bomb scare earlier this evening," she whispers. "There was no bomb. The remote was apparently a…ahem…device that was used by the Prince and a romantic paramour."
A romantic paramour.
That would be me.
"What does that have to do with Erika?" I ask stupidly.
My mother looks at me, her head cocked to the side. "Don't be obtuse, Isabella," she says. "Erika was obviously personally involved. Now, I must get back to guests. Go lie down.
You're looking a little peaked."
"Come on, man," Price says. "What the hell is your problem lately?"
"What?" I ask. "Nothing. No problem."
"Then you won't mind if I take home both of these girls." He nods toward the women on the other side of the room, both of whom are perched on the edge of one of the sleek black modern sofas artfully arranged to create a sitting space. The redhead waves back before crossing one long leg over the other, her foot tapping in rhythm with the bass in the club downstairs.
Redheads used to be my favorite.
Used to be.
What the fuck is wrong with me? One screw – one filthy as hell night with Little Miss Do-Gooder – and I'm completely preoccupied with her.
There's something messed up with that.
What I should do is get her out of my system. She's been avoiding me ever since the night of the engagement party, obviously regretting what happened in the throne room.
"Albie?" Price asks, irritation evident in his tome. "This is exactly my point. You're not even paying attention to me saying I'm going to screw both of these girls."
"Really," he says flatly. "Since when is Prince Albert just not feelin' it?"
"Go," I say, sliding my phone out of my pocket. "Pick up all the girls you want. With my blessing. Have fun."
Price rolls his eyes. But he turns around, holding his hands up in the air. "Ladies, I'm all yours."
I open the screen on my cell phone and start typing a message.
Stop avoiding me. You know you want me.
She doesn't respond, which only irritates me. The music in the club downstairs is getting on my nerves, and I'm watching Price on the other side of the room as he sits back against the sofa, with his legs spread and girls on either side of him. He looks like such a jackass.
That's how I used to be.
The fact that I'm thinking in the past tense doesn't escape me.
Belle doesn't respond to my text, until later, when I'm back at the palace.
Obviously I'm replying. So, I'm not avoiding you.
And she's obviously pissy.
I type out my reply.
Good. When you pack for the summerhouse, make sure to leave your panties behind, because you won't need them.
I pause for a second before hitting the send button. Maybe I should just let it go. Maybe I should just write off what happened with Belle as an unfortunate byproduct of our proximity to each other and nothing more.
It was just a convenience fuck.
Or crazy hormones.
Or the fact that she was simply hard up for sex.
Or all of the stress of our parents' engagement.
There are a million excuses for what happened. All of them are stupid as hell. I wanted Belle when I saw her, and I want her now.
I hit send. She doesn't respond.
"How's Princess Prisoner?" Raine asks.
"Don't get me started." I roll my eyes so hard I think she might be able to hear the movement over the phone.
I want to tell her about what happened with Albie. I want to confide in her.
But I can’t bring myself to actually speak the words.
Prince Albert made me come at our parents’ engagement party. At the dinner table. In front of everyone.
"Is it all cocktail parties and tea with the future queen?" she asks.
And fucking on the King's throne.
I leave out that detail – the most important detail.
"You know, Phoenix and I are in Prague," she says. "We can come spring you from the clink if you want us to."
"I might take you up on that offer," I say. "Or I may have to join you."
"Is it that bad?" Raine asks. "Why not just ditch out now? Come backpack around Europe with us. Take some time off. Enjoy your life, Belle. I can hear the stress in your voice. Nothing that takes place in a palace can be that serious."
"It's not that bad."
Not that bad.
An image of Albie sitting on the throne, tuxedo pants unzipped and cock in his hand, flashes in my head.
Not that bad.
The irony of those words is not lost on me. The other night was