Royally endowed, p.3
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       Royally Endowed, p.3

         Part #3 of Royally series by Emma Chase
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  When you grow up in a city, your parents have the mugging talk with you at a young age. The one about how no amount of money or jewelry is worth your life. So, if someone wants those things, just hand them over. They can be replaced--you can't.

  "He wrote us a letter a few years ago from prison--the guy who did it. He said he was sorry, that he didn't mean to shoot her, that the gun just . . . went off."

  I glance up to find Logan looking and listening intently.

  "I don't know why anyone thinks stuff like that is supposed to make people feel better. That he was sorry. That he didn't mean to do what he did. It didn't for us. If anything, it just proved that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And that . . . if I didn't exist, the love of my dad's life would still be here. I'm not being dramatic--it's just a fact. And that's why he can't even look at me."

  We're quiet for a few minutes. Me, leaning back on my calves, Logan looking straight ahead.

  Then he rubs his neck and asks, "You know how they say that New Jersey is the armpit of America?"

  "I always thought that was shitty. I like Jersey."

  "Where I grew up--East Amboy--it's like the taint of Wessco."

  A quick laugh busts out of my throat.

  "There was this guy--Wino Willie--everyone called him that. He'd spend the whole day begging, walking the streets looking for loose change in the gutters. Then he'd buy the biggest, cheapest bottle of liquor he could get."

  The steady sound of Logan's deep voice, the lilting accent, is calming. Soothing, like a dark lullaby.

  "But he wasn't always Wino Willie. Once, he was William. And William had a pretty wife, three little kids. They were poor, we were all poor, and they lived in a tiny, one-bedroom flat on the fourth floor of a building that was falling apart--but they were happy."

  His voice drops.

  "William worked the night shift at the supermarket, unloading trucks, stocking shelves. And one night, he kissed his pretty wife goodbye, tucked his kids into bed and went off to work. And when he came home . . . everything that he loved, everything he lived for, was nothing but ash."

  I gasp, small and quiet.

  "There'd been a fire, bad wires, and they all got trapped in that tiny flat and died. All except one. The oldest, Brady--he was about the same age as me. He was able to jump out a window before the smoke got to him. He broke bones up and down his leg, but he lived. Now, you'd think, having lost everything else, William would've held onto that lad with both hands. Never let him go, never let him out of his sight."

  Logan shrugs. "Instead, as soon as Brady was out of the hospital, William called social services, signed away his rights, and gave up his only living child."

  He shakes his head, his voice softening as he remembers.

  "When they came to take him, it was the saddest thing I ever saw. Brady on the pavement, hoppin' around on crutches, cryin' and beggin his dad to let him stay. Willie never even turned around. Never said goodbye. Just walked on . . . and started lookin' for change."

  "Why?" I demand, pissed off and hurt for a kid I never met. "Why would he do that?"

  Logan looks into my eyes. "To punish himself--for not being there when the people he loved needed him. For failing them, not protecting them--it's the worst sin a man can commit. If a man can't keep those most precious to him safe . . . he doesn't deserve them."

  "But it wasn't his fault."

  "The way he saw it, it was."

  His voice is soft around the edges. Gentle.

  "I've seen your dad's face when you're near, Ellie--he doesn't hate you. Right or wrong, he hates himself. You remind him of everything precious that he didn't keep safe. He's drowning so deep in his own hurt, he can't see yours or your sister's, or how he's adding to it. He's weak and sad and focused on himself, but that's on him--you know? It's got nothing to do with you."

  It doesn't fix things. It doesn't make anything better. But hearing those words from someone on the outside--who's got no skin in the game, no real reason to lie--makes it . . . not quite as hard.

  And that's when I feel the exhaustion. It hits me like rushing floodwaters--hard and fast and knocking me on my ass all at once. My bones feel like they're seventy years old instead of seventeen. Well, at least what I imagine seventy will feel like.

  I cover a yawn with the back of my hand.

  "Go on up to bed, lass." Logan stands, brushes off his pants and picks the broom up from the floor. "I'll finish here."

  I drag myself up too. "I thought you don't sweep fucking floors?"

  Logan winks. And, right there in that dim little coffee shop, he steals a piece of my heart forever.

  "In your case, I'll make a fucking exception."

  He starts sweeping up, but when I get to the kitchen door, I pause. "Thanks, Logan. For everything."

  He looks at me a moment, then gives an easy nod. "No need to thank me--just doing my job."

  OVER THE NEXT TWO WEEKS, we settle into a routine. I take the early-morning shift with Ellie at the coffee shop, and then I give Marty a hand in the kitchen fulfilling orders, washing dishes--once Tommy goes with her to school. It's not noble work, but it's busy, fast-paced, and the time goes quickly. I stay till dinnertime, when one of the other boys--Cory or Liam--shows up for the night watch.

  I like routines--they're steady, predictable, easy to manage. It's the same, day in and out.

  Except for the songs. The ones Ellie blasts in the kitchen at four a.m., while she's baking. Those are always different, like she's got an infinite playlist. A few she seems to like more than others, putting them on repeat. Today it's "What a Feeling" from that eighties stripper movie. Yesterday it was "The Warrior" and the one before that was "I Love Rock and Roll."

  And she's always dancing. Skipping around like sunlight sparking off a mirror.

  Once, I asked, "Is the music necessary?"

  And she just smiled that sweet smile and replied, "Music makes the pies taste better, silly."

  This morning, though, Ellie's looking especially weary, with dark circles--almost bruises--beneath her baby-blue eyes. And there are books and notes spread out on one side of the counter that she glances at, mumbling to herself while she prepares the pie shells.

  "You study a lot," I say.

  She chuckles. "I have to--I'm in the home stretch. It's down to me and Brenda Raven for valedictorian. I've already been accepted to NYU in the fall, but graduating first in my class would be a yummy cherry on my academic sundae."

  At first glance, Ellie Hammond comes off as kind of . . . ditzy. Like she's got a little too much air between her ears. But nothing could be farther from the truth. She's not an airhead; she's just . . . innocent. Trusting. Joyful. Probably the most chipper young woman I've ever known.

  "Did you go to college?" she asks.

  "No."

  A counselor told me I was dyslexic when I was nine. It was a relief to know I wasn't just a dumb fuck. She taught me how to get by, but even now reading doesn't come easy.

  "I was never real talented in school."

  I move closer to the counter, putting my hand on the handle of the rolling pin she's using.

  And Ellie freezes, like a delicate blond deer.

  "I'll do it," I say. "So you can study. I've watched you make enough of them to manage."

  And she looks up at me like I just offered her the world on a platter. "Yeah?"

  "Sure." I shrug, ignoring the hero worship in her eyes. "I'm just standing here."

  I don't like to be useless.

  "Ah . . . okay. Thanks." She opens a drawer and hands me a white apron. "You should put this on, though."

  She might as well be holding a roach.

  "Do I look like the kind of guy who'd wear an apron?"

  Ellie shrugs. "Have it your way, Mr. I'm-Too-Sexy-for-My-Apron. But that black dress shirt isn't going to look so sharp when it's covered in flour."

  I snort. But leave the bloody apron on the counter. Not a chance.

  There's an odd satisfact
ion to baking that I'd never admit to aloud. It occurs to me as I slide the last of two dozen pies onto the cooling rack on the center counter. They look good--with golden, flaky brown crusts--and they smell even better. Ellie closes her big textbook and shuffles her papers away with a bright white smile taking up half of her face.

  "God, I needed that. Now I can make this exam my bitch."

  She's relieved. And I feel satisfaction in that too.

  We head out to the front dining room and take the chairs down from where they sit, upside down on the tables. Her gaze follows my every move--she tries being sneaky about it--skittering her eyes away when I glance back, but I've been checked out by enough women to know what's going on. Ellie's interest is weighted with curiosity and fascination, skimming over me like the touch of unpracticed, seeking hands.

  She opens the window shade, revealing the crowd of customers that's already gathered on the pavement. It's smaller than it was a few weeks ago--now that the public knows the Crown Prince of Wessco has left the building, and the country.

  Ellie goes back to the kitchen . . . and screams bloody murder.

  "Nooooooo!"

  Adrenaline spikes through me and I dart to the kitchen, ready to fight. Until I see the cause of her screaming.

  "Bosco, noooooo!"

  It's the rodent-dog. He got into the kitchen, somehow managed to hoist himself up onto the counter, and is in the process of demolishing his fourth pie.

  Fucking Christ, it's impressive how fast he ate them. That a mutt his size could even eat that many. His stomach bulges with his ill-gotten gains--like a snake that ingested a monkey. A big one.

  "Thieving little bastard!" I yell.

  Ellie scoops him off the counter and I point my finger in his face. "Bad dog."

  The little twat just snarls back.

  Ellie tosses the mongrel on the steps that lead up to the apartment and slams the door. Then we both turn and assess the damage. Two apple and a cherry are completely devoured, he nibbled at the edge of a peach and apple crumb and left tiny paw-prints in two lemon meringues.

  "We're going to have re-bake all seven," Ellie says.

  I fold my arms across my chest. "Looks that way."

  "It'll take hours," she says.

  "Yeah."

  "But we have to. There isn't any other choice."

  Silence follows. Heavy, meaningful silence.

  I glance sideways at Ellie, and she's already peeking over at me.

  "Or . . . is there?" she asks slyly.

  I look at what remains of the damaged pastries, considering all the options. "If we slice off the chewed bits . . ."

  "And smooth out the meringue . . ."

  "Put the licked ones in the oven to dry out . . ."

  "Are you two out of your motherfucking minds?"

  I swing around to find Marty standing in the alley doorway behind us. Eavesdropping and horrified. Ellie tries to cover for us. But she's bad at it.

  "Marty! When did you get here? We weren't gonna do anything wrong."

  Covert ops are not in her future.

  "Not anything wrong?" he mimics, stomping into the room. "Like getting us shut down by the goddamn health department? Like feeding people dog-drool pies--have you no couth?"

  "It was just a thought," Ellie swears--starting to laugh.

  "A momentary lapse in judgment," I say, backing her up.

  "We're just really tired and--"

  "And you've been in this kitchen too long." He points to the door. "Out you go."

  When we don't move, he goes for the broom.

  "Go on--get!"

  Ellie grabs her knapsack and I guide her out the back door as Marty sweeps at us like we're vermin.

  Out on the pavement, it starts to rain--a light, annoying mist. From the corner of my eye, I see Ellie pull her hood up, but my gaze stays trained ahead of us. If your eyes are on the person you're supposed to be protecting, you're doing it wrong.

  I take note of who else is on the street, reading their body language--pedestrians on their way to work, a homeless guy on the corner, a businessman smoking a cigarette and yelling into his phone. I stick close to Ellie, keeping her within reach, scanning left to right for potential threats or anyone who might make the poor decision to try and get too close. It's second nature.

  "Do you need to head to school?"

  "Not yet. It's finals week, so I have free study periods first and second."

  Without needing to look, I text Tommy that I'll get Ellie to school--he should meet us there.

  The rain grows stronger and there's a flash of lightning in the gray sky.

  "Is there somewhere particular you want to go?"

  I don't want her getting ill from the rain.

  "I know a place." And her little hand wraps around my wrist. "Come on."

  By the time we pass through the stone arch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it's full-out pouring, the water coursing over the entrance steps in a hundred little rivulets. Inside the marble-floored foyer, it's warm and dry. Ellie shakes the water from her hoodie and wrings out her long, multicolored hair and I catch her scent. It's sweet--peach, orange blossoms and rain.

  "My mom used to bring me and Olivia here all the time."

  I reach for my wallet, but Ellie flashes a student ID and slides two vouchers to the ticket taker. "I have guest passes," she says, "and they have early-access hours for students."

  I've never been to a museum--not as a patron, anyway. The royal family has attended more museum events and galas than I can count, but my attention wasn't on the exhibits. I walk beside Ellie from one cavernous room to the next, and she chatters away the whole time, like her mouth's incapable of being still for too long.

  "Did you always want to be a bodyguard?"

  "No," I grunt.

  "What did you want to be?"

  "Something I was good at."

  Her head tilts, looking up at me. "How did you end up being Nicholas's guard?"

  "I was in the military. I was good at it--got picked for special training."

  "Like, James Bond, Navy SEAL kind of stuff?"

  "Something like that, yeah."

  Ellie's head bobs as she thinks. Her golden hair is drying now, and there's a soft wave to it. She stops in front of an Egyptian display, and the reflection of light off the sarcophagus casts her features in warm-toned shadows.

  "Have you ever killed anyone?"

  I'm careful with my answer. "What amendment in your Constitution protects people from self-incrimination?"

  "The fifth."

  I nod. "I'll go with that. Final answer."

  She's not at all put off by my reply. Her long, pale lashes blink at me curiously. "I don't think I could ever kill someone."

  "You'd be surprised what you're capable of in certain situations."

  A few steps later she asks, "If you had killed someone . . . would you feel bad?"

  I run my tongue over the inside of my cheek and go with honesty, no matter how it might come off. "No, I wouldn't. There are some in this world who need killing, Ellie."

  I open the door for her and she hums as she passes through--into a fashion exhibit room, all low lighting and seductive red walls.

  "So what's with the dark clothes?" she asks as we walk down the hall. "Is it like a mandatory dress code they taught you at Bodyguard School?"

  I look down at her. "You ask a lot of questions."

  "I like to know things." She shrugs. "I'm a people person. So, what's with the clothes?"

  I finger the navy tie around my neck--the one I remember her liking.

  "Knights have armor; we have dark clothes. We're supposed to blend in."

  "Inconceivable! You're way too fuck-hot to blend."

  I hold back a smile. She's a flirty little thing--daring; she doesn't know how to hide her feelings, and wouldn't even if she did. If Ellie were older, if we were different people, I'd be giving serious thought to flirting back. I like to give as good as I get, in all things.

&nbs
p; Out of curiosity, I ask, "What do you want to be? When you're done with school?"

  She sighs, long and deep.

  "That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" Her head toggles back and forth. "If I wanted financial security, I would go into accounting. Become a CPA. I'm good with numbers, and businesses will always need auditors."

  I open another door for her to the next exhibit. "It sounds like there's a 'but' coming."

  Her mouth sparkles with a smile. "Buuuut, accounting isn't really me."

  "What is 'you,' Ellie Hammond?"

  "I want to be a psychologist. Talk to people, help them through their problems. I think that would make me happy."

  Something tugs in my chest as I look at her--good-hearted lass. I want that for her; she deserves to be happy.

  Ellie stops walking and turns to the display in front of her. It's a bed--four-poster canopy, ornate and curtained with intricate, gold-trimmed, royal-blue and purple fabric. She reads the description off the plaque on the wall. "The bed of His Majesty King Reginald the Second and Queen Margaret Anastasia of Wessco. That's Queen Lenora's parents, right?"

  "Yeah."

  She gazes back at the bed with a longing sigh. "Wow. I can't imagine living like this every day. Servants and castles and crowns--how perfect would that be?" She points at the opulent bed. "Queen Lenora could have been conceived on this bed, right here!"

  I flinch at the thought.

  "Let's not speak of it."

  Ellie laughs--a twinkling kind of sound. As we move on to the next display, she asks, "What's the weather like in Wessco?"

  I glance up at the glass ceiling where the rain still batters against the pane. "Like this. Mostly gray, kind of cool--it rains a lot."

  "I love the rain," she says on a breath. "It's so . . . cozy. Give me a rainstorm and a warm fire going in the fireplace, a soft blanket and a cup of tea in a sturdy brick house--I'd never want to leave."

  She paints a very pretty picture.

  Ellie stops in front of a painting of the Crown Prince of Wessco, Prince Nicholas Arthur Frederick Edward Pembrook. It's his official portrait, commissioned when he turned eighteen. He's wearing his military uniform, looking regal and dignified. But because I know him, I see the resignation in his expression and the flatness in his eyes.

  Like a hostage with no hope of being released.

  She stares at the portrait, and her voice turns hushed. "He's going to break my sister's heart into a thousand pieces, isn't he?"

 
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