to listen to you. You know how he gets when people try to tell him to take it easy."
I'd sooner keel right over and have a heart attack here and now than have someone take care of me. That's what he'd say.
"I sent you money, Mom," I protest. "Just promise me you'll use it."
"I know, honey, and we appreciate it."
"You haven't cashed the check, Mom. That's for the mortgage. I know you're a few months behind, and it'll take me a couple of months to get it to you, but I'll get the rest of it."
"Son, you know we can't –"
"Please tell me you'll go down to the bank today and cash it. That’s the whole point of my being here in Europe and doing this job. I can take care of you guys now."
My mother sighs. "I know," she says softly. "But you shouldn't have to."
"I want to, Mom. You know that. End of discussion," I say firmly.
"Are you going to tell me about the princess, or what? I want to know everything," she interrupts, changing the subject. My mom is almost as stubborn as my dad is when it comes to accepting help, even when they need it.
"She's a princess, Mom," I say, exasperated. What the hell am I going to tell her about the girl? That she seems hell-bent on trying to get me to quit? Or that she's over-the-top dramatic and attention-seeking and rebellious, but smart and clever and strangely endearing even though she's a complete brat? "I don't know what there is to say."
"Well, is she nice?"
"Princess Alexandra isn't … nice isn't exactly the word I'd use."
"Nice is definitely not the word I'd use." The princess' voice rings through the room, coming out of nowhere from behind me. "Nice is so boring, don't you think?"
"Mom, I'll call you later." I hang up before my mother can insist on talking to the princess herself. I turn around to look at Alexandra and all of the blood in my body goes straight to my dick. She's dressed as a fucking schoolgirl, wearing a white oxford shirt over a black bra and a short plaid skirt that barely covers her ass – let alone her mile-long legs. And she's standing there twirling a pigtail around her finger.
You're the one who told her you expected more from her.
"I would think you'd have better things to do than eavesdrop on private conversations," I say curtly.
A pink flush rises to her cheeks. Is she embarrassed? "I – I didn't mean to overhear," she stammers. Then she clears her throat and runs her palms down the front of her skirt. "I was just passing through here and –"
"Passing through here?" My curiosity is immediately piqued.
"I don't have to tell you why I'm going someplace in the palace," she responds haughtily.
"Yet you took time from your important schedule to listen to my conversation."
"I heard my name mentioned."
Alexandra shrugs. "And what? I overheard my name and I stopped. End of story."
"You wanted to know what I thought about you."
Her cheeks flush a deep shade of red and she fidgets with her fingers. "That's certainly not true," she says, rolling her eyes. "Now, I do have things to do, you know. I can't stand here chatting with my bodyguard all day long."
I hide a smile as she whirls on her heels and flounces away in that short-short skirt, her pigtails swinging on either side of her head.
I knock on the door to the security office. This place is down in the basement of the palace and it smells musty—the way the secret passageways that crisscross the palace grounds smell. I don't know how anyone can work down here. It's fucking creepy, all lit up by LED lights and no windows.
"It's open," a voice yells. "Oh. Princess Alexandra." The head of security stands up so suddenly it sends a stack of papers flying across the desk. When I bend to retrieve them from the floor, he shoos me away, scrambling to pick them up himself. "I didn't expect to see you here or I wouldn't have yelled for you to open the door."
"It's fine, Felix."
"How can I help you?"
"It's about my new bodyguard."
"Stone?" he asks.
I stare at him blankly. "I have a bodyguard named Stone?"
"Large fellow, tattoos?" he asks. "Any of that ring a bell?"
"Doesn't that sort of describe everyone who's on my security team?"
I vaguely recall a new bodyguard arriving. I can't remember what happened to the other one. I wave dismissively. "Not that one. The other new one. The one my brother recruited."
"Donnelley," he says. "He's not exactly new anymore, princess. In fact, I think he's been here the longest of any of your security."
"Has he?" I ask innocently, like I've forgotten. I remember just fine – Max is at eighteen days today, in fact. So he's tied with my old bodyguard's record. Obviously, Max was right and I need to up the ante if I want him to quit.
Except that maybe you don't really want him to quit so badly, after all. Even with his annoying, overbearing adherence to the rules.
"He has, and I'm afraid that if you've come down here to complain about him, your father has already made it clear that Donnelley stays."
"Of course he has." I roll my eyes. "Whatever. I'm not here to complain."
He raises his eyebrows. "You're down here inquiring about one of the bodyguards and you're not here to complain?"
"Don't act like it's a rarity, Felix."
He cocks his head as he looks at me. "Princess, how long has it been since you've been down here?"
I trace my finger along the edge of a photo of Felix and my mother and I, from the sidelines of a polo match at the palace. "It's been a while."
"That was when you were six," he says, pointing at the photo. "You were clever, even back then. I remember that time you and Albert disappeared and all of the palace went looking for you."
"My father was not happy," I say, laughing. "The palace was always the best place for hiding."
"You always had a knack for running away, even when you were a kid." He pauses. "Still do."
I smile wryly. "If you hired better bodyguards, maybe I wouldn't be able to evade them so much."
"Your mother, God rest her soul, would tell me to lecture you."
My heart skips a beat at his mention of her, but I play it off. "She didn't mind when I escaped."
"Well, she knew most of your hiding places, even when you got older." He leans back against the desk, crossing his arms. "So, what's this about the bodyguard?"
I shrug nonchalantly as I turn back to the photo on the wall. "Nothing. I just wanted to see his file, that's all."
He's silent, but I don't turn around to look at his face. "Can I ask why?"
"Can't a girl be curious about who's guarding her?" I ask.
When I turn around, Felix is looking at me with an odd expression on his face. "Not you. You're never curious."
I exhale heavily. "It's no big deal, okay? I just wanted to know where he was from."
He furrows his brow. "America," he replies. "One of those southern states, I think – let me check." He doesn't probe again to ask why. He goes to his computer and logs in, then types a few more times to pull up a file before looking up at me. "Kentucky, it says."
"And his family is there?"
"Is there anything you want to tell me, princess?" Felix gives me a long look.
I roll my eyes. "I don't need an interrogation, okay?"
"Could you – could I just get you to do a favor for me?" I pause, holding up my hand. "But don't make it into a thing, okay? And don't ask me a hundred questions about it."
"Of course, princess. Anything." He stops, obviously reconsidering his words. "Well, anything within reason."
"The bodyguard, he has family or parents or something back in America that he's sending money to."
Felix stands up at his desk. "If there's any question about his loyalty or whether he's vulnerable to bribery or –"
"No, Felix." I s
igh again, aware I'm not going to be able to make the request without explaining why I'm requesting it. The problem is, I don't exactly know why I'm asking him to do this myself. "It was just something I overheard. He doesn't know I heard it, and I don't want you to say anything."
"Of course not, princess."
"I want you to buy their house, Felix."
I roll my eyes. "Please don't make me repeat it, Felix. You're always saying I should be involved with doing hands-on, charitable things."
Felix looks taken aback. "I didn't know you listened to anything I said, princess."
"I'm not hard of hearing. Sometimes I do take your advice. Not a lot, mind you. Only occasionally."
A smile pulls at his lips. "Just occasionally."
"Yes. Can we get on to what I'm trying to do, now?"
"Of course, princess."
"Pay off their house. I'll arrange for it, sign for whatever. Call the accountant, et cetera. Just track down his parents' bank or however it is you do these things."
"However it is I arrange to purchase the houses for the families of staff members?" he asks.
"I know you have ways of dealing with this stuff," I huff. "Just do it anonymously. They're not to know it came from me."
"An anonymous purchase of a house," he says slowly.
"Don't make this weird," I tell him. "You're making it into a thing and now it's going to be weird."
He raises his eyebrows without saying anything.
"It's not," I insist. "I promise. It's nothing. I have tons of money and I spend it on frivolous things."
"Like home purchases," he says.
"I can spend it on whatever ridiculous things I want," I protest.
"You've never been interested in the families of your bodyguards before, princess," he points out. "Can I ask why you're doing this now?"
"Ugh, Felix. It's not a big deal. You said it yourself. He could be blackmailed or whatever. I don't know why we have people on staff who have families who are struggling anyway, because it makes them vulnerable to blackmail. Besides, it's basically just a bonus anyhow."
"A bonus," he repeats. "Buying his parents' home is a bonus."
I run my thumb over the screen on my phone, feigning distraction by it even though I get no cell reception down here. "A bonus, exactly. I'm glad we're both clear on things. I have to go. Hot date tonight."
I open the door, pausing to turn to him before I leave. "Oh, and Felix?"
"Obviously, this is just between us."
"Obviously." He pauses. "Princess?"
"Your mother would like this very much," he says, before clearing his throat. "I just thought you should know."
It's no big deal, I tell myself as I walk down the corridor and back toward my residence. Not a big deal at all.
* * *
"It's ridiculous that you haven't been out in days, Alex," Charlotte says, pouring me a vodka tonic from the bottle on the table. She hands me the glass, sitting back on the wide white sofa in the roped-off VIP area of the club where our large group of friends are mingling. I pause to sip the drink, halfheartedly paying attention to her while scrolling through social media on my phone. The thumping of the bass is giving me a headache, and I don't know why. If there's anything I'm always up for, it's a party. "Finn was asking where the hell you disappeared to, you know."
I shrug. A few weeks ago, I'd have been perfectly happy hearing from Finn Asher. He's an old hookup (boyfriends aren't my thing), the son of billionaire parents, and exactly the kind of person I should be dating, according to my friends, at least. My father doesn't particularly care for him, even though he's friends with his parents, which is honestly all the more reason for me to hook up with Finn. Right now, though, the prospect of dealing with Finn is just annoying. "You know – hanging out with the family." I glance over to the entrance where my bodyguard stands at the roped-off section, his gaze flickering from place to place in the club. He doesn't look at me, and I find myself slightly disappointed.
Charlotte laughs. "Hanging out with your new stepmother?"
"Don't call her that," I snap.
"What's Isabella like?" she asks, oblivious to my annoyance. "She's American, right? And a commoner? Is she just trashy –?"
"I don't want to talk about Belle." I cut her off, suddenly protective of my new stepsister. It's not like we've hung out much or as if we're best friends, but she's been surprisingly nice for a girl with a mother as snotty as hers is – and besides, I think my brother is really into her.
I breathe a sigh of relief when two hot guys interrupt us, mostly because I don't want to deal with Charlotte interrogating me about my new family situation. I've obviously not come to terms with it yet myself. "Can I buy you a drink?" one asks, nodding at the vodka on the table.
Beside me, Charlotte giggles. Has she always been this annoying? I look up at the dumb guy offering to buy me a drink when I have one in my hand already, and my gaze happens to meet Max's.
It's his eighteenth day on the job. One more night and he'll hold the record for outlasting any of my other bodyguards.
I could go home early and cut him some slack, since he's lasted this long.
But then a dark look passes over Max's face and he practically glowers at me as Drink Guy blathers on about something inane.
Or … I could have some fun with the new bodyguard.
I force my attention back to Drink Guy, who lights up when I look at him. "I've been wanting to say hello to you forever," he tells me.
I force a smile on my face, downing the glass of liquor Charlotte poured for me and savoring the warmth as it fills my stomach. "Hello."
He puts his hand on my leg, and I flinch. "I can't believe I'm sitting here with you."
Okay, that's a bit creepy. I'm about to move his hand from my leg and make an excuse to get up when Max appears behind Drink Guy. I raise my eyebrows. "Can I help you, Bodyguard?"
He puts his hand on Drink Guy's shoulder. "I'm afraid I have bad news for you."
"Don't touch me," Drink Guy protests, standing up and reaching for his hand to remove it, but Max's hand stays clamped right where it is.
"It's about your car," Max says.