The only thing I care about right now is Belle.
When I glance behind me at her as I walk away, she pauses for a moment in the doorway, and her eyes meet mine.
I try to shake off the sinking feeling that I get as she closes the door.
She’s closing the door on us.
"I've done a lot of crazy shit," Raine says, "But this is way up there in terms of nuts, Belle. We didn't see any reporters, though, so that's good."
"Let's just get out of here." I exhale heavily, looking behind me at the summer house on the hill. The guard posted at the exit from the secret passageway saw me when I left, a weekend bag slung over my shoulder containing everything I'd need, at least for now. I half-expected him to stop me, to drag me back up to the house like a prisoner. But he didn't.
It was just like any other time I'd left the palace grounds.
Except that this isn’t any other time. This time, I’m sneaking out, unaccompanied by a bodyguard or a driver.
This time, Raine and Phoenix were waiting just across the street in a banged-up little car they'd bought to drive around Europe, duffel bags strapped to the top with bungee cords.
This time isn’t like the other times I’ve left to volunteer at the hospital. This time, I’m not going back.
“I can’t believe you got out of there without anyone knowing,” Phoenix says. “You’d think they would have better security.”
“I learned from the best,” I say, thinking of Albie. For a moment, I want to go back. I want to tell him that I don’t care what anyone thinks. “Besides, I’m not a prisoner there.”
"Are you sure you want to leave?" Raine asks. She sits in the back seat with me, Phoenix in the driver’s seat.
Am I sure?
I’m as far from sure as I can be.
Raine reaches for my hand. "I'm sure they have a plan to deal with the media, you know. It doesn't have to be a huge deal. You could hide out in the palace or whatever."
"No," I say, my voice flat. "I just…it's too much attention. I can't think right now."
Raine squeezes my hand. "What about Prince Albert?" she asks.
"I don't want to talk about him."
I think I might be in love with him.
The thought terrifies me.
“Are you sure, Belle?” Raine asks. “Are you certain you want to run away from this? From him?”
I could go back. Right now, I could turn around and walk back inside the house and tell Albie I don't care about any of it.
I could do the brave thing. I could tell everyone to fuck off.
I could tell Albie I want to be with him.
But I’m just not that brave.
"Just drive," I say.
"What do you mean, she's gone?" I ask. I pull out my phone and text Belle, but I hear the buzz of the phone in the room, and Noah holds it up. "Is that hers?"
"It's hers, sir," he says. "She left it in her room. I took the liberty of retrieving it before the head of security got to her bedroom, since I thought there might be things on her phone you might not want made public."
"She's gone," I say again, stupidly. I can't get it through my head.
"She took everything with her?"
"She took a bag," Noah says. "She evaded Simon and walked out of the gate."
"She left a note, sir," he says, handing me the folded sheet of paper. I open it.
I'm sorry, Albie. I just...can't stay.
I crumple it up into a ball in my hand and look at him. "Where?"
"With Raine," he says. "One of her friends from Africa."
"I know who Raine is," I snap.
"Royal Intelligence will get a lock on Raine's phone, I'm sure. Do you want to know where Belle and Raine are when they do?"
Do I want to know where she is?
She's the one who left, who ran from all of this.
She left her phone behind. She doesn't want to be found.
"Yes," I say, blurting out my response before I even think about it.
She doesn't want me to find her.
I should just let her walk away.
"No," I say. "Never mind. No, I don't want to know."
Noah looks at me for a long minute before speaking. "Sir," he starts, then shakes his head. "Oh, fuck it. I'm going to say my piece. Prince Albert. I've known you for a long time, and I've seen you with a lot of women. I mean, seriously. A lot of women."
"Noah," I warn.
"My point is this," he says. "I've seen you with a lot of women, but none like Belle. She loves you and you love her. It's apparent to anyone who sees you together, and if it isn't apparent, well, then they're fucking blind."
"She should have fucking stayed," I say, more anger in my words than I expected.
"She's scared," Noah says, his voice softening.
So am I. But I didn't run away.
I can't believe she just left. Without so much as a goodbye.
I'm angry at her for leaving, but I'm more angry at our parents – especially Sofia – for deciding that the best response would be for the PR team to descend on Belle like a swarm of locusts. And I'm angry at myself for telling my father about the Vegas marriage.
I don't even wait until dinner to see my father and Sofia. Instead, I go straight to the King's wing of the house, where he and Sofia sit inside the living room of their suite, Sofia on an armchair surrounded by a copy of every newspaper and magazine available, splayed out on a coffee table.
Our faces are plastered across the front page of all of them, a million different headlines, all of them promising tales of scandal.
"Albert," Sofia says. "There you are. I knew you'd see reason. See, Leo? We've been discussing a plan for PR."
"You know she's gone," I say. "You drove her away. With all of your concern about image and PR and bringing in Erika – Belle left."
"I'm sorry about Erika," she says. "I didn't think it would be such a big deal."
"You didn't think it would be such a big deal?" I ask, shaking my head in disbelief.
"At the engagement party, I'd heard you and Erika had…" Her voice trails off, and her cheeks redden. They actually redden. Maybe the woman doesn't have ice in her veins after all.
"That we'd fucked?" I ask, not caring about the use of vulgarity in front of the soon-to-be-Queen or my father. "No, Sofia, it wasn't Erika I screwed at the engagement party. It was your daughter."
"Albert!" my father booms, his voice echoing in the room. "That will be quite enough."
"I don't think so," I say. "I married Belle. And it wasn't anything in the beginning, but now it is. Was. Maybe it's past tense; I don't know. All I know is that I don't care about all of this. I don't care whether you approve or not."
"The wedding is weeks away," Sofia protests. "It's obscene, right before the –"
"You know what?" I don't even know what I'm saying before I say it. None of this is planned or thought out. It should be. It would be more mature that way, more reasonable. "Screw the wedding. And -- "
A single knock interrupts what I'm about to say, the 'screw the throne' rant I'm about to dive headfirst into, and Alex bursts into the room. "Get out, Alex," I say.
“I’m sleeping with Max.”
“Oh my,” Sophia says, her hand over her chest. “Apparently today this family is all about disclosing way too much personal information. Who’s Max?”
“He’s my bodyguard,” Alex says, her tone imperious. She turns around and points as Max follows her into the room and stops short, looking back and forth between us.
“Oh shit,” Max says, only partly under his breath.
“You’ve got that right,” Sophia says.
“So if you’re mad at Albie, you can be mad at me, too,” Alex says. “Did you tell them you’re in love with Belle?”
Sofia looks at us her eyes wide. "You're not in love with Belle," she says.
"Oh please," Alex huffs. "He's in love with her. I've never seen him look at anyone the way he looks at her. And now she's off running around Europe because he didn't have the balls to tell her how he felt."
"Didn't have the balls to tell her?" I ask. "She went running off before I could even say – "
"You heard what I said," Alex says. "No balls. You missed your shot with her. And she ran off because she didn't want all the drama."
"You mean, all of this drama?"
"Silence!" my father yells, his voice cutting through our bickering. "The two of you are not children anymore, so stop acting like it!"
"I didn't even do anything!" Alex squeals. "I'm trying to tell him what's good for him."
"Enough!" My father yells in the voice that we all know means business. He walks over to the bar against the wall and pours himself a glass of scotch from the crystal decanter, his movements slow and deliberate.
None of us speak.
Alex and I watch as he sips from the glass, then sets the tumbler down on the bar. He places his palms on the top of the bar, standing with his shoulders slumped as if he's carrying the weight of the world.
For a minute, I feel terrible. For all of his flaws, my father has always been a good man. Now he’s found happiness with someone, something that's eluded him since my mother’s death, and Alex and I are in here driving him into an early grave.
“Do you love her?” my father asks, without turning around.
“Leo!” Sofia says. "You can't be seriously entertaining this idea."
“Do you love her?” he repeats.
Do I love her?
“Obviously, he does,” Alex interrupts.
“Alex,” my father warns. “Stay out of this.”
“I love her,” I say. It’s the first time I’ve said the words out loud.
It's the first time I've been certain of it.
“You could go back, you know,” Raine says, sipping her coffee. We’re sitting at a café in downtown Budapest, people-watching. Raine's boyfriend is sightseeing with a group of people from the hostel, probably shooed away by Raine so that she could interrogate me about Albie.
“Seriously, I’m totally fine,” I say. It’s an obvious lie, yet I feel the need to say it. I feel the need to convince myself of that fact. “I’m having fun.”
“You’re having a terrible time,” she says. “You should go back to him.”
“After I flipped out and went running away?” I ask. “I can't. Besides, it’s Albie. He’s the playboy prince. There are plenty of women who will be throwing themselves at him. I’m sure he’s moved on already.”
“You’re so full of shit, Belle,” she says.
“I’m not! You’re the one who knows all about his exploits in the tabloids.”
“Those are the tabloids,” she says. “We both know that stuff is only partly true.”
I cock my head to the side and raise my eyebrows. “Please,” I say. “The stuff I read about Albie was mostly true.”
“But that was before you met.”
“And it’ll be true again, after me.”
“You don’t believe that,” she says.
“I don't know what to believe," I say. "I'm sure he hates me now."
“Go to him,” she says. “Tell him that you were stupid and foolish and impulsive and you ran because that’s what you do.”
“What?” I squeal. “Because that’s what I do? I don’t do that.”
“Belle.” Raine sips her coffee and gives me a knowing look. “I love you. But you know I’m right.”
I roll my eyes at her and exhale heavily. “Okay, I run. I ran. I fucked up.”
As I speak the words, my heart sinks, because I know they’re true. I fucked up. I was falling for Albie and I got scared and ran. And now it’s messed up.
“Do you love him?”
“My mother is marrying his father, Raine,” I say, shaking my head. “The whole world is watching us."
"That's not what I asked."
I still avoid answering her question. "I was sneaking around with him, and playing with fire, and it’s my own damn fault I got burned. It would have happened, whether he told his father we got married or not.”
“He told his father?” Raine asks.