She bats her eyes innocently. "What? Albie? How would I know where he is?" she asks, her voice suddenly an octave higher.
Subtlety is not Belle's strong suit, that's for sure – although you'd have to be blind not to notice the way my brother looks at her. Albie totally has the hots for her, and I suspect she feels the same way about him.
Belle pulls herself up onto the window seat, tucking her legs underneath her. "It's nice in here."
She's quiet for a minute, too, before she finally speaks. "Being in a palace is weird."
"You'll get used to it," I tell her. "There are benefits to being royal, you know."
"Oh? Like what?" Belle asks. "It mostly seems like you're swarmed by people every time you leave the palace, you have to attend a thousand functions scheduled by your parents, and you have security people tailing you everywhere you go."
Or hot bodyguards who throw you over their shoulders like cavemen.
"The royal chefs are great," I point out.
She laughs. "My mother convinced me to stay for the summer."
"Did she steal your passport?" I ask sarcastically, although Belle's Mommy Dearest seems like just the type to do something like that.
Belle gives me a funny look. "No. Albie brought it back."
I sit up straight. "So she did steal it?" This only gives me further evidence that Sofia Kensington is totally evil.
"It was misplaced," Belle says. "I don't think –"
"Oh," comes a voice. Albie suddenly materializes just inside the entrance to the library. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
I look at Albie. "Huh. That's exactly what your new stepsister said," I note.
Belle's face flushes scarlet. "I was just … wandering around the palace and I ran into Alex."
"My sister was in here reading?" Albie asks incredulously as he walks across the room to join us. When he snatches my book from my hands, I jump up from the window seat and try to grab it back. He laughs, teasing me by holding it over my head and looking at the title. "A Naval History of Protrovia. Protrovia doesn't even have a naval history. We're an inland country."
"Give me back my book, you tool," I protest as he opens it.
He grins as he shows the hollowed-out inside of the book to Belle. "This would be my little sister's drug paraphernalia," he says.
I grab the book out of his hand. "So what? I like to come to the library and get baked instead of read. There's good cell phone reception by the window."
"You should definitely look up to this princess as your role model," Albie teases, putting his arm around my shoulder and pulling me tight.
"I swear to God, if you try to give me a noogie, I will murder you right now, Albie," I protest, pushing him. "Get away from me."
"Wasn't this one of your old hiding places in high school?" Albie asks.
"This whole palace is full of great places to stash things," I tell Belle.
Albie laughs. "If you ever need someone to draw you a map of the tunnels under the palace – or help you plan an escape from the palace – or stash contraband, Alex is your girl."
I nod proudly. "I know the palace like the back of my hand. There are probably still bottles of booze hidden in half of these rooms."
"Probably?" Albie snorts. "Don't act like you haven't hidden anything recently."
“I can’t. My damn bodyguard has eyes like a hawk," I huff. "I'm tired of him taking my stashes. It's not even his job."
Albie laughs. "You should fire him. Oh, wait – dad won't let you."
"You're totally an asshole. If I didn't love you, I would probably kill you in your sleep."
"Belle will protect me," Albie declares with a grin.
"Don't drag me into your sibling rivalry," Belle warns.
"It's not a rivalry if you already know who wins every time," Albie tells her.
"And that person is me," I declare.
"Whatever, sis." Albie puts me in a headlock and gives me a noogie, and I shriek loudly enough that Max comes walking into the library. I look up from Albie's armpit to see him standing there looking at us with his stern bodyguard stare.
"I'd like to point out that there's a man currently choking me, while my bodyguard stands ten feet away watching," I note, still in Albie's headlock.
Max folds his arms over his chest. "I'm sure he has a good reason for choking you."
"Traitor," I hiss, poking Albie hard in his side. He laughs and lets me go. "Are you sure you want to be part of this family, Belle?"
"I'd recommend getting out now while you still have the chance," Max advises, his expression stoic.
I stick my tongue out at him as he leaves.
* * *
"Well, isn't this lunch lovely?" Sofia says as she cuts the tiniest bite imaginable of her salad. I watch as she daintily chews lettuce and some vegetables, followed by the smallest sliver of grilled fish possible. Belle catches my look from across the table and hides a smile behind her napkin.
"See?" I say to Belle. "The chefs are amazing here. That's a bonus to being royalty that you just don't get anywhere else."
"Yes. The chefs create such an amazing meal, and you're so comfortable luncheoning in such casual attire," Sofia sniffs, looking at me.
My gaze goes to my tattered jeans and combat boots, my standard at-home look. "I'm glad you're comfortable weighing in on my clothing choices."
"Indeed," Sofia agrees. "So, Alexandra, have you given any thought to your dress for the engagement party?"
I bristle at the mention of the party. "I'm not sure yet. Will I be allowed to wear my thigh-high patent leather boots?"
Sofia's face pales and she blinks several times in rapid succession. I'm pretty sure she's not quite certain if I'm being serious or not, which makes me irrationally pleased. If she wants to be condescending, at least I can keep her off balance a little bit.
My father stares at me. "That's quite enough, Alexandra."
"Fine." I change the subject, turning back toward Belle. "Aren't you glad your mother had you stop doing all of that annoying charity work in Africa so that you could come live in a palace and eat grilled fish and attend parties with us? It's all so exciting, isn't it?"
Belle's eyes go wide. She opens her mouth to speak, but Sofia interrupts. "I'm sure that Isabella is more than content with her role here. There will be charity work for her to do in Protrovia."
My father glares at me. "You could do with a fair bit more charity work here in Protrovia yourself, Alexandra," he says sternly. "A sense of purpose, that's what you need. Alexandra is still finding herself."
My face flushes warm and I clench my hands tightly on my silverware. "Actually, I'm not finding myself – " I start, but Belle interrupts.
"It's funny you should say that about Alex," she says. "Because I quite admire her."
That's the expression my father gives us all. No one's ever said they admire me, least of all not someone like Belle.
My father puts down his fork. "Please go on, Isabella. I'd like to hear about my daughter's admirable qualities."
He says it as if he's throwing down the gauntlet, like he's not certain she can come up with any positive things to say about me.
That's humiliating, coming from my own father.
Before Belle can flounder about trying to come up with something, I push back my chair and toss my napkin on my plate. "That's okay, Belle. I appreciate your attempt to point out to my father that I might possibly be a redeemable human being, but I'm finished with lunch. I'm not really hungry anymore."
"Wait, I was going to say that –" Belle starts.
My father interrupts, his tone sharp. "Your rudeness will not be tolerated, Alexandra,"
"My rudeness? Well, then, I'll add rudeness to the top of the list of positive qualities about myself. I'll make a mental note."
Screw my father and his new bride.
I walk out the door.
When I blow past Max, who's standing outside of the dining room, he calls my name, but I brush him off. "I'd like to be left alone, thanks," I say, my voice wavering.
He trails behind me, all the way to my room, and I look straight ahead. I pause at the bedroom door, not turning to face him. I'm not going to let him see me cry. I never let anyone see me cry. "I don't need you to clear my room."
"Your father is blind," he says.
"Excuse me?" My throat is tight. I don't want to discuss my family dynamics with anyone, but especially not with Max.
"These walls are paper thin," he explains. "And your father is blind. He doesn’t see what's right in front of him when it comes to you."
"Well, that's great. Thanks for the pep talk. I'm glad that my embarrassment proved entertaining for you during lunch."
"Alexandra," he starts, his voice surprisingly tender.
"Do not call me Alexandra," I snap. "It's Princess Alexandra. And don't try to make me feel better, or pretend like you have any idea what's going on in my family, or in my head. You don't know anything about me."
Then I shut the door behind me.
"Is my sister in her room?" Prince Albert asks. "She didn't answer any of my text messages." Prince Albert asks. He and Isabella stand in the hallway outside of Princess Alexandra's bedroom suite. Prince Albert holds up his phone, as if to demonstrate that she's not responding.
Isabella looks sheepish. "Lunch was horrible," she says, glancing at the prince. "I'm sorry about my mother."
"It wasn't just her this time," points out Prince Albert. "This time, it was my father. He and Alex are at odds lately. Well, they've been at odds for years, really, since before I left for the Protrovian Air Force."
"I see," Isabella says. "Still, she was really upset."
"Buzz us in to see her, Max," Albert orders impatiently.
I clear my throat. "The princess requested not to be disturbed."
Prince Albert laughs. "I'm her brother. I disturb her all the time. In fact, I'm pretty sure my very presence disturbed her for most of our teenage years."
I cross my arms. "Sorry. Princess' orders."
"The princess' orders?!" Prince Albert laughs, clapping me once firmly on the arm before he tries to step around me.
I move to the side and stand in front of her doorway, my arms still crossed. "I'm sorry."
"Seriously, man, she's not that upset," Albert insists. "She'll want to see us. She's gotten into it with my father over this stuff before. Loads of times, in fact."
"I'm afraid I have to go with the princess' directive. You understand."
"Maybe we should give her some space," Isabella suggests.
"That would be a good idea," I recommend.
But Albert doesn't back down. "Max, you're not really going to physically block me from knocking on my own sister's door, are you?"
"My apologies, but yes. I am."
The prince and I have a momentary stare-down before he caves. "Fine. This is ridiculous, but tell her that Belle and I came by."
"I will do that."
I wait an hour before buzzing the princess' door.
"Go away, Albie," she yells from inside the room.
"It's not your brother, princess. It's me."
"Well, go away, James."
I glance down the empty hallway before opening the door and walking inside anyway, shutting it hard against me. Princess Alexandra is sprawled across her bed on her stomach, her legs kicked up, wearing the smallest silky black slip I've ever seen. She's looking at something on her phone, and when she sees me, she lets out a little shriek. "What are you doing in here?"
"Excuse me? Did you not hear me when I told you to go away?"
"I heard you."
"So what are you doing, standing inside my room?"
"I came in here to tell you something."
"Before I tell you, you need to get your ass out of this bed and stop pouting."
Her eyes narrow. "Get out of my bedroom."
"That's not going to happen, sweetheart," I tell her. I walk across the room and sit down on the bed.
Her eyes go wide as saucers. "You're sitting on my bed. You walk into my room after I tell you explicitly to get out and sit down on my bed like you own the place."
"Have you lost your mind?" she asks. "If you don't get out of my room, I will scream."
"Don't you want to know what I came in here to tell you?"
She exhales heavily. "Fine, James. If it will get you out of my room, then yes. I'd be thrilled to know what is so important that you need to tell me right at this moment."
"I came in here to tell you that I think that you're not going to allow an asshole comment by your father get you down. I think that the Princess Alexandra I know doesn't let anything hurt her feelings." I'm completely crossing a line, speaking presumptuously and out of turn. How many lines have I crossed now?
She rolls her eyes. "Did you not catch the part earlier where I said you don't know me at all, James?"
I reach for her phone and take it out of her hand, turning it off. "Yeah, I caught that. I also think that's complete bullshit."
She sits up, her black negligee barely covering her breasts, and my cock twitches at the sight. "Give me back my phone," she demands.
She laughs. "I don't know why you suddenly think you can order me around," she huffs. "Because you can't. Phone, please."
"Put some clothes on. You're not just sitting in your room."
"I'm not doing anything until you give me back my phone."
I don't know why I do what I do next. It's probably because I'm petty and the girl is pissing me off. I stand up and drop the phone down the front of my pants and deposit it right into my boxer briefs.
Her hand goes over her mouth. "You put my phone in your pants. By your dick."
"You can put some clothes on and come with me, or you can fish your phone out yourself, if you like."