“Who’s Derek?” Alex asks. Her voice is just a little too loud, and I “hush” her.
“My – just an assho – my fiancé,” she says. “Ex-fiancé.”
“Oh no,” Alex says, wrinkling her forehead.
“What should I do?” Belle’s face is ashen. “I don’t want to cause a scene in the middle of a charity event.”
I have an idea of what I’d like to do to her cheater ex-fiancé. It involves my fists and would definitely cause a scene.
“I’m just going to sneak out of the room that way and hope no one notices,” Belle whispers. “Right?”
“I’ll go with you,” I start, but Alex glares at me.
“No,” Alex says. “I’ll go with her. You don’t want to draw any extra attention to you.”
“Belle!” A group of people part and Sofia walks toward us, her hand outstretched toward Belle. Belle’s eyes widen as she looks at me before slowly turning around to face her mother.
“Did you do this?” Belle asks. Her hands are clenched into fists by her sides. I can’t see her face, but I can tell by her tone that she’s no longer anxious as much as she is angry.
Sofia draws Belle in to hug her, standing with her hands on Belle’s arms, smiling broadly. “Derek is here because he wants to apologize, darling,” she says, her voice soft but still audible. “He and that friend of yours are no longer together. He contacted me because he wanted to make it right. He flew all the way in from the States to surprise you and to support you publicly at this event. He still wants to get married. Isn’t that fantastic?”
“Oh, fuck that,” Alex says beside me, her voice too loud.
I elbow her hard. “Be quiet, Alex.”
“What?” Alex whispers. “That’s a load of bull. She’s going to take him back?”
Sofia clears her throat and glares at Alex. “Well, Isabella, I’m sure the two of you have some things to talk about. Perhaps in another more private room, Isabella?” She asks the question without waiting for a response before putting her hand on Belle’s back and turning her around to casually direct her through the crowd.
I stand there watching Belle walk away, like this whole thing is a damn train wreck, because that’s what it is.
Alex elbows me. “You saw that, right?”
“I saw it,” I say, my voice the epitome of calm. But that’s only on the outside.
“So Belle just walked off to meet her cheating ex-fiancé who wants to get back together with her,” Alex says. She sets her empty champagne glass down as a caterer passes with a tray and turns back to me. “And you’re standing in here.”
“Where else would I be?”
How about someplace like punching Derek in the fucking face?
Alex raises her eyebrows. “I don’t know, maybe stopping her from getting back together with him?”
“Why would I do that, Alex?” I whisper.
Alex cocks her head to the side as she looks at me. “I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe because you like her.”
“I never said I liked her.”
“Yeah, right,” Alex says. “You guys have been obsessed with each other since she got here.”
“Says the girl who’s pointedly ignoring the bodyguard she clearly has a thing for?”
Alex crosses her arms over her chest. “It’s not the same thing.”
“So you’re just going to let her run off with her crappy ex,” Alex whispers.
“I’m not letting her do anything,” I say, my tone low. “Belle is capable of making her own decisions.”
“You’re so stubborn.”
“Go talk to Max.”
“Fuck off, big brother.”
“Love you, little sister.”
I walk away as Alex flips me off while pretending to scratch the side of her face. Outside of the ballroom, I walk down the hallway, fully intending to go straight to my room.
I should just let it go. I know I should.
That would be the appropriate thing to do.
It would be the royal thing to do. We’re taught, from the very beginning, to do what’s appropriate, to maintain bearing above all.
Our name is all we have. That’s what my father would say.
I can think of few things that are worse ways of ruining my family’s name, or my father’s legacy, than falling for my stepsister.
Belle is her own person. She should make her own decision. And if that decision happens to involve getting back together with the jackass who was stupid enough to cheat on her, then so be it.
The rational part of me knows that letting it go would be the mature thing to do.
I stand in the middle of the hallway for a long minute.
Maybe I’m not that mature after all.
“I know I screwed up, Isabella.” Derek stands in front of me with his hands in his pockets. And he shrugs.
He fucking shrugs.
Nonchalantly, like it’s no big deal.
“You screwed up,” I say. “I’m pretty sure that fucking my maid of honor – not once, but repeatedly – doesn’t count as screwing up. Screwing up is forgetting my birthday, or –“
He interrupts. “It was an accident, Isabella,” he says. “I didn’t mean to –“
“Ohhhhh,” I say, my tone exaggerated. “Well, you see, I didn’t realize it was an accident. In that case, since you only accidentally put your penis in Adriana over and over and over for two years, obviously I’d have to forgive you.”
“I knew you’d see reason,” Derek says.
“That was sarcasm, you idiot,” I say, my voice coming out louder than I intend.
We’re inside one of the drawing rooms, a civilized place surrounded by priceless antiques. And I have to clasp my hands in front of me to keep from picking up one of the porcelain pieces of art on a nearby table and throwing it at Derek’s stupid head.
Because that would be inappropriate. And soon-to-be princesses are never inappropriate.
“You were gone for two years, Isabella,” he says. “How was I supposed to last for two years? Besides, it was just sex. It meant nothing to me. She meant nothing to me.”
“You could have just said you wanted to break up,” I hiss, my hands on my hips. I’m dangerously close to reaching for the porcelain figurine nearby. It’s a horse, rearing back with its legs in the air. I wonder how much it’s worth.
I wonder what it would look like bouncing off of Derek’s forehead.
“But I didn’t want to break up,” Derek says. “And, you know, being European royalty will be a real asset when you’re part of my campaign someday. Think of it. You could be the wife of a Governor. President, even.”
I stare at him in disbelief, mentally congratulating myself on having not slugged him yet. He looks at me with the kind of earnest self-righteousness that can only come from being both stupid and spoiled.
“You mean that I could still be your wife?” I ask, my voice rising an octave. “You’ll have me, even after all of this?”
“We could be a team,” he says. “You and I. With your beauty and my brains, we’d be unstoppable.”
I stare at him, his words echoing in my head. Was he always this much of a tool, or did he actually get dumber in the past two years?
“You’re a moron.”
“Don’t make this mistake, Isabella,” he says. “Do you really want to give up all of this?”
“All of what? You?” I ask. “Don’t make me retch.”
Derek’s face changes, his expression no longer contrite. Now he just looks at me sneering. “You always did think you were too good for me,” he says. “With all of your saving the world crap.”
“I am too good for you, Derek.”
“You stupid cunt,” he says, his face screwed up, inner ugliness transforming his appearance. He brushes past me, knocking into my shoulder as he walks by.
“What the hell did you just call her?”
I hear Albie’
s voice behind me, and whirl around. “Albie, don’t –“
“I called her a cunt,” Derek says. “Because that’s what she is.”
“Albie, it’s not worth it –“ I start.
Albie punches Derek in the face, and he stumbles back, his hand over his nose, crashing into the end table and sending that porcelain figurine to the ground, where it shatters into pieces.
“You stupid fuck,” Derek says, lunging at him.
“Stop, Derek!” I scream, but he ignores me, rushing straight for Albie and driving his head into his stomach. They fall to the ground in a tangle of limbs, and Derek’s fist connects with Albie’s face before Albie manages to roll on top of him and hit him again.
I’m yelling at both of them to stop, and everything is chaos as our bodyguards run into the room and pull Albie off Derek. Noah stands in front of Albie, blocking him from trying to land another punch, and Albie pushes him back. “Get out of my way, Noah,” he says. “I will beat his ass. I don’t care who’s here to watch it.”
Derek struggles, shouting obscenities at Albie, even as Simon and Max restrain him. “This is none of your business, you prick,” he says, his mouth a bloody mess.
“Please! Just stop!” I yell, running toward Albie. His eye is already bruised underneath, a cut over his eyebrow where Derek punched him. “Are you okay?”
“You’re fucking him!” Derek shouts, his rage apparent. “I knew it! You’re pissed off because I was screwing Adriana, and you’re over here fucking that spoiled prick!”
“Get him the hell out of here before I hit him again,” Albie says.
I can hear people outside the room. I know the commotion is attracting attention. But all I can focus on is Derek’s accusation.
You’re fucking him.
“Shut up,” I say. “Everyone shut up.”
I hear Derek laugh as the bodyguards drag him out of the room. “I knew it. Your own stepbrother. You stupid bitch.”
I know that they’re taking Derek out of the room, and I think Noah says something to me. I can hear Albie’s voice, calling my name.
But all I can hear in my head is Derek’s accusation.
You’re fucking him.
Your own stepbrother.
And then my mother is there, and the King. I can hear them talking, but it’s like I’m underwater, their voices are distorted and muted. I’m here and they’re far away.
Far, far away.
Then everything goes dark.
“Won’t you please excuse us for a moment?” my father asks. He stands with his back turned toward me on the other side of the library, the first room far away enough from the ballroom to be assured of privacy. The royal physician hovers over me, pulling at my forehead as he does a cursory examination.
“I’m fine,” I say, an edge in my voice. “Is Belle all right? She fainted.”
“She’ll be okay,” Doctor Evanston says. “You’re going to need a few stitches above your eyebrow. I can do it, but to minimize scarring, I think we should call in a plastic surgeon.”
“Plastic surgeon,” my father scoffs. “Is my son going to bleed to death in the next few minutes?”
“Of course not, Your Royal –“
“Then won’t you please give us a few minutes.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
The door shuts, leaving my father and I alone in the room. I know what he’s going to say. I can already anticipate it.
I should be embarrassed, ashamed of myself for displaying utter and complete lack of royal bearing.
I should be worried about Belle’s ex-fiancé’s accusation that Belle and I are together.
I should be concerned about what my father will think. Or what Belle’s mother will think. Or what the public will think.
But I don’t fucking care.
“What the hell were you thinking?” my father asks. He doesn’t look at me.
“I was thinking that Belle’s ex is an asshole who deserved to be punched in the mouth for the shit he was saying about her.”
My father turns around slowly. “You are not eighteen,” he bellows. “You’re not a child. And you’re not a normal person. How long is it going to take you before you understand that? You’re a prince. Getting into a bar room brawl in the middle of a charity event is not something that a member of the royal family of Protrovia does. It’s not something the Crown Prince of Protrovia does!”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I say sarcastically.
“What in the world would possess you to do such a thing?” he asks. “All of the things you’ve done, the tabloid headlines and filth they’ve printed in the papers – I thought you’d left that all behind when you joined the Army.”
“He called her a cunt,” I spit. My father flinches at the crudeness of the word. I wonder if anyone’s ever said the word cunt in front of the King of Protrovia before. I guess there’s a first time for everything in life, isn’t there?
Some part of me, a warped part, finds that amusing.
I think I might be a little delirious.
“I don’t care what he called her,” my father says. “Did you even stop to think for a moment before you hit him? Prince Albert of Protrovia assaults a guest of the royal family – it’ll be all over the newspapers tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry it’ll distract from the PR pieces about the wedding,” I say.
“I thought the Army changed you,” he continues. “I thought it instilled some sense of responsibility in you. But I can see that nothing’s changed at all. You’re still the same immature, irresponsible boy who has no appreciation for consequences – no appreciation for tradition and family and –“
I stand up, the blood rushing to my head. “What the hell would you have done, if some guy were saying things about mom?” I yell. “I’m supposed to stand there, while some asshole talks about Belle that way?”
“It’s not the same thing,” he roars. “You’re not married to Isabella. She’s barely family, not even your stepsist –“
“She’s my wife!” I yell, rising to my feet, my hands balled into fists at my side. Adrenaline is pumping through my veins, anger surging through me, and I don’t realize what I’ve said until I hear the words, practically echoing in the space between us.
She’s my wife.