Royally endowed, p.4
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       Royally Endowed, p.4

         Part #3 of Royally series by Emma Chase
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  I take a moment before I answer.

  "Not intentionally. And not only her heart."

  One week later

  MY BRAIN HURTS.

  But it was worth it. The all-nighters. The cramming. The stunting of my already stunted growth from too much caffeine--all worth it. Because it's over now.

  I've crossed the finish line. Planted my flag on the mountain peak. Snapped the last Lego into place.

  The only problem is . . . there's no crowd to roar. I have no one to share the news with. Liv's asleep on the other side of the world, Marty's on a date, my dad's "out," a.k.a. wasted at a bar somewhere, and Cory, my friendly neighborhood security detail for the night, was snoring away at the coffee-shop table.

  People probably can't tell this about me, but I'm a sharer. I need to spread the word, like I need water or air or microwave popcorn.

  Which is why I'm doing something stupid right now. I didn't even tell Marlow, though she would've totally approved, the vixen.

  I'm going to Logan's apartment. I know it's dumb, but I just can't stop myself any more than a magnet can stop its stupid slide toward its one true opposite.

  A few weeks ago, at the museum, I could've sworn I felt . . . something. A connection. Logan wore my favorite tie--that's gotta count for something, right?

  Logan gave me the address to the apartment he shares with the other security guards in case I needed it. And I'm standing there now. It's a decent building--no doorman, nothing too fancy, but not a dump, either. I knock on the door of Apartment 409. I look up and down the hall, shuffling my feet, hearing "Silver Springs" by Fleetwood Mac in my head.

  Then the door opens, and it's not Logan I see, but Tommy Sullivan--like I've never seen him before. Shirtless, with low-slung jeans hanging haphazardly off his hips and a cigarette between his lips.

  Tommy's a hottie. Not the same kind of Adonis perfection that Logan is, but still a fine-looking boy.

  "Ellie!" He smiles, seemingly happy to see me. Tommy's always happy. He takes the cigarette from his mouth. "What are you doing here, pet? Is everything all right?"

  "Yeah, no, everything's fine. Is Logan home?"

  Tommy raises his eyebrows, questioning, but doesn't ask. Instead he turns his head toward the interior of the apartment and shouts, "Lo!"

  He leans out the door. "I'd invite you in, but it's no place for a girl like you. We're all indecent here."

  And doesn't that just get my imagination working overtime.

  Then Logan is filling the doorway, looking surprised.

  But I barely notice his expression.

  Because Logan is shirtless too. And in the immortal words of Joey Lawrence . . . whoa.

  Smooth, taut skin covers his shoulders and chest--bronze, except for the stunning swirl of colorful tattoos that spread across one shoulder and all the way down one arm. His arms are big, bulging with muscle--cut, tight. He has abs--lots and lots of abs--rock hard and rippling, with a slight dusting of hair low on his stomach, that makes the happiest of all trails into his jeans. It's a beautiful body. A man's body.

  He glances up and down the hall. "What's wrong?"

  "No, I--"

  "You're here by yourself?"

  He sounds annoyed and I start to think maybe this wasn't just a stupid idea, but possibly the stupidest idea I've ever had. And through the years, I've had some doozies.

  "Yes, I--"

  "Where's Cory?"

  Even if Cory had been awake, he's not the one I wanted to share my news with. And I didn't want him coming with me here. Because I wanted to talk to Logan--alone.

  "He's back at the coffee shop."

  "You snuck past him?" Logan asks, like he doesn't believe it.

  "Not exactly."

  His sexy muscles swell as he folds his arms. "Then how did you get here without him? Exactly?"

  I try to come up with a good excuse for Cory's sake . . . but lying has never been my thing.

  "He fell asleep."

  Wrong answer. Logan's eyes grow hot and intense.

  "He seemed really tired. Don't be mad, Logan."

  He pushes a hand through his dark hair, and for a moment I'm caught up in how soft and thick it looks. How it would feel between my fingers.

  And then a voice calls from inside the apartment--a voice that doesn't belong to one of the guys.

  "Let's go, Logan. It's your turn to deal."

  She comes into view and she's not just "buxom"--it's like the word was invented for her. Big, shiny red hair, flawless skin, legs as long as my whole body encased in tight, might-be-painted-on jeans, a teeny waist and big boobs covered by an even teenier black tank-top.

  She looks like the head manager at Hooter's in man-only heaven.

  Her green eyes slide from Logan over to me, then back again. "Oh, sorry--I didn't realize you had a visitor." She smiles. "Is this your little sister?"

  You know the sound a balloon makes when it's dying?

  That's my heart--right now.

  He puts his hand on her bare arm and the weirdest combination of sadness and violence consumes me. I want to cry . . . and bite his hand off like an outraged chimpanzee.

  "Go back in. Tell Tommy to deal."

  Deal? Are they playing strip poker?! Kill me, kill me, die, die, die . . .

  After she fades back, I shuffle my feet. "Sorry to interrupt."

  "It's fine." He says softly, "What do you need, Ellie?"

  "Nothing. Never mind. You should go back to your . . . friend."

  Logan shakes his head. "She's Tommy's friend."

  But what is she to him? More than a friend? A fuck-buddy? A lover?

  My stomach spins. I'm such an idiot.

  "That's good. Friends are good." I hook my thumb over my shoulder. "I'm just gonna head out. Skedaddle."

  'Cause nothing says mature, sophisticated woman like "skedaddle." Christ on a Ritz cracker, somebody nail my tongue to the wall.

  "Ellie--"

  But I'm already turning, skipping the elevator and heading right for the stairs, trying to appear dignified while bleaching the image of Logan touching that woman from my mind.

  "Later, Logan."

  "Fuck . . ."

  And the sound of the slamming door chases me down the stairwell.

  Out on the street, the air is humid and the cars are loud, honking. It's after eleven p.m., so the sidewalk isn't too crowded, but it's busy enough that I should be able to give Logan the slip if he tries to follow me.

  Or I would be . . . if I were dealing with an average guy.

  "Ellie! Hold up!"

  There's nothing average about Logan St. James.

  I make it one block before he's standing right in front of me, blocking my way. He's got a shirt on, but it's only half-buttoned.

  "Why'd you run away so fast?"

  I shrug, tapping a quick beat against my outer thighs. "You know how it is--places to go, people to see."

  Logan bends his neck forward, lowering his head, catching my eyes and holding on tight.

  "Why'd you come here? Tell me the truth."

  "It's not a big deal . . ." I sigh, feeling small and stupid.

  "Tell me anyway."

  I look down at the cracked sidewalk. "Remember the other day, that last exam I was studying for?"

  He snorts. "Yeah--physics, wasn't it?"

  "I got my grade back." I slip the paper out of my pocket, holding it up. "I aced it."

  And for the first time, I say out loud, "I'm valedictorian."

  Logan gazes at the paper for a long moment. And when he takes it, I feel the brush of his finger against mine.

  "Look at that," he says with awe. "That's brilliant. Smart girl." His large hand moves to my shoulder, squeezing. And I feel it everywhere. Warmth tingles through me, from the top of my ears to the tips of my toes.

  "Congratulations, Ellie."

  My mouth stretches so far into a smile, tears spring up in my eyes. "Thanks. I just . . . I wanted to tell someone."

  Him. I wanted
to tell him.

  Because he's gorgeous, but even more than that--he makes me feel wanted. Valued and important, like I'm someone worth protecting. Knowing this man would give his life to shield me, guard me from pain or danger--it's a heady thing. An arousing, stirring thing.

  I lost my virginity to Aaron Myers after the winter formal last year. I'd known Aaron since I was a kid, he's a good guy. It wasn't true love, it was just something we ended up doing, and it was nice. A good memory.

  But now, I wish I had waited. For Logan. I know it's stupid and would never happen, but if in some upside down, alternate universe, it did happen--he would make the earth move for me. I feel more alive just standing next to him, than I have around anyone else. I can only imagine, dream, what it would be like to be held in his arms, to feel the power of his body, his passion and tenderness, surrounding me, inside me.

  "I'm glad it was me." His hand squeezes again. "Let's walk you home."

  "You don't have to."

  As much as I love being around Logan, I don't want to be annoying. Don't want to become a nuisance to him.

  "Aye, I do. It's not safe."

  I roll my eyes to the skyscrapers. "I grew up in New York--it's my city--I know it better than you do. We're in Tribeca, for God's sake . . . it's not dangerous."

  "You're a young, beautiful girl, Ellie. The whole world is dangerous for you."

  And, of course, among all those words, the one I latch onto is . . . beautiful.

  Because I'm still an idiot.

  Half an hour later, we walk into the coffee shop, where Cory's blond head rests on his arms on the table. Logan walks straight to him and kicks the leg of the chair--almost knocking him over.

  Cory startles awake, sputtering, "What--who?" Then he rubs at his eyes. "What's the deal, Lo?"

  "The deal," Logan says in a deadly calm tone that makes me shiver, "is you're gonna get your arse back to the flat, pack up your shit and go home. You're done."

  Oh crap.

  "No, Cory--you don't have to do that--it's not your fault." I tell Logan, "It's not his fault."

  But Logan doesn't even look at me. He's staring daggers at poor Cory. Jagged, bloody daggers.

  "You're gonna want to move now, mate, or you won't like how I'll move you."

  Cory frowns down at the table. Then he pushes out of the chair, so hard it falls back, and stomps out.

  Logan locks the door behind him.

  "Why did you do that? I'm the one who snuck out. It's my fault."

  Logan points toward the door. "Did you bash him on the head? Drug his tea?"

  No.

  "Then it's his fault--and he knows it."

  "Couldn't you give him a second chance?"

  "No. Not in this job." He moves closer. "We have to be focused and ready--alert at all times. It only takes one fuck-up to get someone hurt, or killed. What if he'd fallen asleep while your sister and the Prince had been here?" His voice sharpens. "What if something had happened to you tonight?

  And there it is, again. The wonderful warmth that suffuses my limbs. Logan makes me feel precious with every word he says--and every breath he takes.

  THE DAY OF ELLIE'S HIGH SCHOOL graduation is sunny--one of those bright, clear days when the sky is the color of a robin's egg and the air is both cool and warm. I'm driving the black SUV from the parking deck near our flat to Amelia's, to pick up Ellie and Marty and her dad. Tommy's in the passenger seat. After about ten minutes on the road, he looks at me suspiciously from the corner of his eye.

  "Is that REO Speedwagon?"

  I hit the signal and make a left turn.

  "What?"

  "You're humming 'Can't Fight This Feeling' by REO Speedwagon, if I'm not mistaken."

  Huh. Didn't even realize it.

  My hands slide over the steering wheel as I shrug. "Ellie made me this playlist . . . it's actually not half-bad."

  Tommy slips his sunglasses down his nose and stares at me above the frames.

  "Who the hell are you, right now?"

  I glance at him, frowning hard. Then I flip him off.

  He laughs and pushes his sunglasses back into place. A minute later, the wanker tilts his head back, and belts out "Keep on Loving You."

  And I look for a spot to pull over so I can stuff him in the trunk.

  Ten minutes later, I park in the alley behind the coffee shop and Tommy and I head into the kitchen through the back door.

  We're welcomed by the sound of Ellie yelling . . .

  "Fuck my ass!"

  And I choke on my own spit. "What did you just say?"

  She turns from standing in front of the sink, eyes wide and stuttering. "I don't . . . I mean, I've never tried . . ."

  My eyebrows jump to my hairline.

  "It's just an expression!"

  Tommy mutters under his breath, "American girls have odd expressions."

  Ellie holds up a white, strappy little shoe. "My heel broke. And I don't have any other shoes that go with this dress! I'm royally screwed."

  I gesture for the shoe. "Give it here." I turn it over in my hands. "I have some bonding liquid in the car--I can fix this."

  She gives me an adoring look. "You're my hero, Logan. I could kiss you, right now."

  And the way she says it--all breathy and eager--makes me think she's not just using an expression.

  I'm not a fool; I know Ellie's crushing on me hard. I'm aware of how she looks at me when she thinks I'm not looking: so idolizing it feels like I'm on a pedestal fifty-feet tall. Other times, her stare is so naked with desire it hits me like a punch to the gut.

  Because as alluring as Ellie is . . . she's also young and way fucking off limits.

  Since we're only here for the summer, there's no need to embarrass her by talking to her about it; I'll keep pretending I don't know what's going on.

  "You're looking downright lovely, Miss Ellie," Tommy says.

  And she does. In her simple, light pink dress, her slender arms bare, her colorful hair long and shiny and curled at the ends, she looks like . . . a princess. All she needs is a crown.

  "Thanks, Tommy."

  Marty walks through the swinging door from the dining room and his giant bundle of silver and dark blue balloons--engraved with all forms of graduation congratulations--sways frantically.

  "Got enough balloons?" I ask.

  Ellie giggles. "They're from Olivia. I think she feels bad that she's not here--but she shouldn't."

  Tommy checks his watch. "We need to get going. You can't be late for your own graduation."

  "And I have to get a prime seat for the speech," Marty adds.

  Ellie's been working on her valedictorian speech for the last three days, around the clock. She slides her arms into her white graduation gown, then uses the glass cabinet door as a mirror to pin her cap on her head. Damn, she's a beauty.

  "Where's your da?" Tommy asks.

  And the playful spark that's always in Ellie's big blue eyes . . . fades right out of them.

  "He's sleeping. He's not coming."

  Marty clears his throat, giving me a disgruntled look, but keeps his mouth shut. And we all head out to the car.

  I swing around to the trunk and quickly fix Ellie's heel, then hand it to her through the backseat window. "Tommy's gonna drive you over--I'll catch up." The coffee shop is closed for the day. "I'm gonna do a once-over, make sure everything here is locked up tight."

  She slips heart-shaped sunglasses onto her face. "Okay--but don't be late. You guys are the only cheering section I have. I expect to hear some serious woot-fucking-woots."

  I nod. "Wild horses couldn't keep me away."

  "Get up."

  Eric Hammond is lying on his back in bed, still wearing last night's gray T-shirt and trousers--stinking like the floor of a pub. He doesn't budge when I call out again, and I have neither the time nor the patience to fuck around.

  "Hey." I smack his cheek--holding back from punching him in the mouth, because knocking him out won't speed things up.
>
  "Hey! Let's go--get up."

  "What?" He inhales, snorting, and slowly his eyes focus on me. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

  I move to his closet, sliding the hangers over, looking for a suit.

  "Your daughter's graduating today. I'm making sure you get to where you need to be."

  "Ellie?" he says, confused.

  "Oh, you're aware she's your daughter? I wasn't quite sure you knew."

  "That's today?" he asks, rubbing his face.

  I find a dark gray suit and a white dress shirt, still in plastic from the cleaners, that look like they'll fit him.

  "It's today. She's valedictorian."

  He rubs at the salt-and-pepper whiskers on his chin. And hangs his head. "Damn it. Damn it." He lifts his head, meeting my eyes, his voice a sandpaper whisper. "Logan, right?"

  I nod.

  "You must think I'm a real piece of shit."

  My jaw tightens. "It doesn't matter what I think."

  "You don't understand." He opens the drawer at the bedside table and takes out a frame, staring at it--talking to it, more than to me.

  I look at Eric Hammond and I can see the man he used to be. Strong and straight--noble, even, before the weight of life bent him in half, turned him into the sad sack of bones he is now.

  "You're wrong," I say softly. "I do understand."

  Then my voice turns fierce.

  "I just don't care. Not about you." I point towards the door. "I have stood by and watched you break that girl's heart every day for the last six weeks, and I'm not watching it anymore."

  It's my job to keep Ellie Hammond safe. All of her. Her body as well as her sweet little soul. And I'm damn good at what I do, but more than that, I want to protect her. Because she's kind and clever, lovely and precious . . . and fuck . . . somebody has to care enough to keep that safe.

  "So you're going to get out of that bed and clean yourself up and for the next few hours, you're going to pretend she matters."

  He nods and when he sets the frame on the bedside table, I'm able to see the photograph. It's a family picture--a child-sized Olivia with crooked teeth and wild hair; her father standing behind her, sober and happy, and in his arms, her sister with baby cheeks and white-blond hair. And it's like a punch to the gut when I see the woman beside him--gazing up at him, smiling. A woman with short blond hair . . . and Ellie's beautiful face. They look almost exactly alike.

  "She does matter," Eric Hammond whispers, running his thumb over the image of everything he once had.

 
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