Royally screwed, p.5
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       Royally Screwed, p.5
 

         Part #1 of Royally series by Emma Chase

  He smiles like a wolf that's just been handed a wounded sheep.

  "You really are an angel, lass."

  "Can he take a fork with him?" I ask. "So I don't have to listen to his stomach grumble the entire way."

  Smirking, she hands over a fork.

  And I go for the gold.

  "Would you like to have coffee sometime, Olivia? With me?"

  It's been years since I've asked a woman out on a real date. It's strange--exhilarating and nerve-racking at the same time.

  "I don't like coffee. Never touch the stuff."

  My eyes roll over the room. "You work in a coffee house."

  "Exactly."

  I nod. "Hmm, I see your point. It'll have to be dinner, then. Are you available this evening? I could pick you up on our way back."

  She gives a jumpy laugh.

  "I thought you didn't have time for" --she makes air quotes with her fingers-- "'wooing'?"

  "Some things are worth making time for."

  That catches her off guard, making her words stumble. "Well I...don't...date."

  "Good God, why not?" I ask, horrified. "That's a bloody sin."

  "A sin?"

  "You're stunning, obviously clever--you should date often, and preferably with a man who knows how it's done." I rest my palm on my chest. "Coincidentally, I happen to be fantastic at it. What are the odds?"

  She laughs again, quick and light. And it feels like when I pull myself up the last peak of a rock formation. Satisfying. More than a bit victorious. Before she can answer, a furry headache on four legs appears beside her, making a yapping, snarling sound.

  "Ellie!" she yells over her shoulder. "Bosco can't be down here!"

  "What is that?" I ask.

  "It's my dog."

  "No. No, I have dogs. Dogs are descended from wolves. That's descended from a rat." I look again. "An ugly rat."

  She lifts the little monster into her arms. "Don't insult my dog."

  "Not trying to--just telling the truth."

  For once. And it feels fucking grand.

  But the barking has to go. I make contact with its beady little eyes and snap my fingers, ordering, "Shh!"

  And blessed silence fills the air.

  Olivia looks from me to the animal. "How--how did you do that?"

  "Dogs are pack animals; they defer to the leader. This one is smart enough to recognize that that's me." I step closer to her, detecting a clean, lovely scent--like fresh honey. "Let's see if it works with you." I snap my fingers. "Dinner."

  She cocks her hip, annoyed and yet entertained against her will.

  "I'm not a dog."

  My eyes--filthy, deviant things that they are--slide over every beautiful inch of her. "No...you definitely aren't."

  Her cheeks go pink, making her eyes appear almost violet. It's lovely.

  But then another ball comes bouncing into the room--a small blond one, wrapped in a fuzzy teal robe with SpongeBob SquarePants slippers on its feet.

  "Awwww, yeah...school's closed again." She does The Whip. "Ooh-ooh..."

  Until she sees us--then she freezes.

  And she definitely knows who I am.

  "Hiiii. Wow." She points to Logan and says in a thin, mortified voice. "I like your tie."

  He glances down at the tie in question, then nods his thanks.

  And she seems to want to dissolve into the floor. But she takes the "dog" from Olivia instead, and confesses in a hushed voice, "I'm gonna go hang myself in my closet now."

  After she's gone, I ask, "Is she joking?"

  "She's seventeen. It depends on the day." Then she wipes her small hands down the front of her skirt. "Well, this has been fun. Thanks for stopping by." She waves to Simon. "Enjoy the pie."

  He already is. He smiles, mouth full of peach crumble.

  "See you around...I guess," she says to me.

  I step forward and take her warm hand in mine, before brushing a kiss across her knuckles. "Count on it, love."

  "COUNT ON IT, LOVE."

  Wow. What the hell just happened? Walking up to the apartment, I feel like a James Bond martini--shaken--but also stirred.

  Most of the guys I've known, Jack included, were laid-back and easygoing. Passive. What do you want to do tonight? I dunno, what do you want to do? I dunno.

  But Nicholas is...different. Decisive. A man. A man who's used to being listened to. Seeing him sober, I can tell the difference. It was in the way he carried himself--wide shoulders back, long spine straight, his presence almost like gravity, pulling at everything in his orbit, making us all want to let him take us where he will.

  Jeez--even Bosco listened to him, which definitely makes the little beast a traitor, but I get it.

  It was fucking hot. I can still feel the press of his lips on the back of my hand. Who does that--kisses a woman's hand? No one I've ever met, that's for damn sure. The spot he kissed feels warm and tingly. Branded--but not in a skin-sizzling, gross, torturing way that happens on cable television shows. The good kind of branded. Marked.

  "Do you know who that was?" Ellie shrieks, practically tackling me in the living room.

  "Shh! Dad's sleeping."

  She asks again, this time in a whisper-yell.

  "Uh, a rich asshole with a friend who really likes pie?"

  Her big blue eyes roll to the sky. "How are we even related?" She drags me into her bedroom and smacks me in the face with a six-month-old issue of People magazine. "That was Prince Nicholas!"

  And there he is, on the cover--perfect mouth grinning, perfect arms folded across that broad chest, wearing a dark blue cashmere sweater over a white collared shirt. Looking like an Oxford University wet dream.

  "Get out!" I deny it, even while ripping the magazine out of her hands.

  That explains the accent I couldn't place--not British or Scottish, but Wessconian. And his attitude--he's not a leader of the pack, he's heir to a freaking throne! There are a dozen more pictures inside. A baby photo, his first day of school wearing a lacy collared shirt, a close-up of him as a teenager glaring at the camera, looking broody as hell. And more recent ones--one with his arm draped around a stunning, tall blond in a red dress at a dinner party, another with him sitting in a high-backed wooden chair during a session of Parliament.

  And, holy shit, this one's gotta be a paparazzi shot--it's got a grainy, zoomed-in look to it but it's definitely him, walking out of the turquoise ocean off the Maldives Islands, skin glistening, dark hair slicked back...naked. The full monty parts are blacked out, but a dark, happy trail and the defined V of his pelvis are so very visible.

  My tongue tingles with the raw desire to trace that groove. Fuck, I want to lick the picture.

  A sidebar provides quick facts about his country and ancestry. He's a direct descendent of John William Pembrook, a northern British general who joined forces with the southern Scots in the Wars for Scottish Independence. He married the daughter of Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. After Scotland's defeat, Pembrook's coalition broke off from both mother countries and after years of battles, formed their own independent nation: Wessco.

  Blood rushes to my cheeks and my head feels hot. He must think I'm an idiot. Did he know that I didn't know? Who am I kidding, of course he knew--I threw a pie in his face.

  Jesus.

  Ellie grabs her glitter-cased phone off the bed. "I am so putting this on Snapchat!"

  My reaction is immediate and visceral.

  "No." I cover her hands with mine. "Don't. Everyone will come here looking for him--it'll be a madhouse."

  "Exactly!" She jumps up and down. "Business will be crazy. Ooh! We should name a pie after him! The McHotty--the king of pies!"

  I know that would be the smart thing to do. The part of me that doesn't actually want to get kicked out on the street yells, Sell, sell, sell!

  But it feels...wrong.

  I'm still not entirely sure Nicholas isn't the dickhead he acted like the other night. I don't owe him a thing. And yet, selling him out, u
sing him to bring in business, telling the world where he might show up next, feels like...a betrayal.

  "He won't come back if you post that, Ellie."

  "Did he say he was going to? That he's coming back?" This possibility seems to excite her more than a million social media likes.

  "I...I think he will."

  And electricity races up my spine, because I want him to.

  Ellie and I use the rare day off as a do-it-ourselves spa day. We soak our feet, loofah our heels, and paint each other's nails. We glob Vaseline on our hands and put them in thick cotton socks, to moisturize. We rub a mixture of olive oil and raw eggs through our hair, then wrap our heads in plastic wrap, a verrry attractive look--if only Instagram could see us now. We put cucumber slices on our eyes and oatmeal masks on our faces--all with a VH1 The Big '80s: The Big Movies marathon playing in the background--Ghostbusters, St. Elmo's Fire, Dirty Dancing. We finish the beautification ritual by tweezing each other's eyebrows--the ultimate trust exercise.

  At about four o'clock, our dad comes out of his room. His eyes are tired and bloodshot, but he's in a good mood. We play a few rounds of Hearts, a game he taught us when we were kids, then he makes Ellie and me tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. It's the best dinner I've had in a long time--probably because someone else made it for me. After the sun goes down and I can see my reflection in the window, Ellie slips on her boots, throws her coat over her pajamas, and walks to a friend's house down the block. Our dad follows soon after--heading to the bar to "watch the game" with the guys.

  And in my bed, alone, with a sandalwood and coconut candle burning on the nightstand, feeling soft and smooth and pretty, I engage in the activity I've been fantasizing about all day long.

  I Google Nicholas Pembrook.

  I have no clue if any of the information is true, but there's a ton of it. Everything from his favorite color (black) to what brand of underwear he prefers (Calvin's). Of course, he has his own Wikipedia page. He has an official website--and about ten thousand fan sites. His ass has its own Twitter handle, @HisRoyalArse, and it has more followers than Jon Hamm's Penis and Chris Evans' Beard put together.

  The gossip sites claim he's screwed practically every woman he's spoken to--from Taylor Swift (she wrote a whole album about him) to Betty White (best night of her life). Nicholas and his brother, Henry, are close, sharing passions for polo and philanthropy. He simultaneously adores his grandmother the Queen--a gentle-looking woman, cute in that little-old-person kind of way--and is counting the days until she drops dead.

  After a few hours, I feel like a stalker--and I'm convinced most of these writers are just making shit up. Before I log off, a video thumbnail at the top of the search list catches my attention--a news clip from the funeral of Prince Thomas and Princess Calista.

  I click on it and am brought to a close-up of two coffins, both white and trimmed in gold, being pulled in a horse-drawn carriage. Throngs of crying spectators line the streets like a black curtain. The camera pans out, showing four people walking behind the carriage. The Queen and her husband, Prince Edward, are in the center; a young boy with light curling hair, Prince Henry, walks on the outside, and Nicholas, wearing the same coal-colored suit as his brother, is on the other side.

  At fourteen, Nicholas was already his full height. His cheekbones are less defined, his chin smoother, shoulders narrower, but he's still a handsome boy. The newscaster's voice-over explains that it's Wessco tradition for the sovereign and heirs to walk behind the coffin of a royal family member as it's paraded through every street in the city, before arriving at the cathedral for the final service.

  Miles. They had to walk miles before they could bury their parents.

  Suddenly, Henry--he was ten then--stops walking, his knees almost buckling. He covers his face with both hands and sobs.

  And I taste tears in the back of my throat, because he reminds me of Ellie, the day we buried our mother. How hard she cried--inconsolable--and that same devastation plays out on my computer screen. For several excruciating seconds, it's as if all the people are frozen. No one moves; no one tries to comfort him. Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

  He might as well be standing in the middle of the street alone.

  And then in three quick strides Nicholas is there, pulling his little brother against him, wrapping his arms around his small body like a shield. Henry's head only comes to the top of Nicholas's stomach--he buries his face and Nicholas gently strokes his hair. Then he glares up at the crowd and the cameras, a hooded gaze burning with resentment and grief.

  After a few moments, Nicholas motions to a footman, and the broadcaster filming the event must have hired a frigging lip-reader, because there are subtitles.

  "Have the car brought forward."

  The man seems unsure and starts to turn toward the Queen--but the crack of Nicholas's words stops him in his tracks.

  "Don't look at her. I am your prince--you will do what I say and you will do it now."

  And in that second, Nicholas doesn't look like a fourteen-year-old boy; he doesn't look like a boy at all. He looks like a king.

  The man swallows and bows, and a few minutes later a black Rolls-Royce creeps slowly up through the sea of people. Nicholas guides his brother into the backseat. Then with the door still open, he crouches down and wipes Henry's face with a handkerchief from his pocket.

  "Mum will be so disappointed in me," Henry says, with a heartbreaking hiccup.

  Nicholas shakes his head. "No, Henry, never." He brushes Henry's wavy blond hair back. "I'll walk for both of us. I'll meet you at the cathedral and we'll go in together." He cups his small jaw in his hand and tries to smile. "We're going to be all right, you and I. Yeah?"

  Henry sniffles and works hard to give his brother a nod. When Nicholas takes his place beside the Queen, the procession continues.

  As I close my laptop, my heart feels so heavy inside my chest, so sad for them. Henry was just a little boy and Nicholas--in spite of the money and the power and the gold-plated everything--Nicholas Pembrook hadn't been so different that day. Not so different from me. Just a kid, trying his hardest to keep the family he had left from falling apart.

  The next day, the sun is shining but the air is still frigid, ensuring the snow piles outside won't be melting anytime soon. After the morning rush, I'm behind the register, cracking open a new roll of quarters, when a low, lyrical voice places an order.

  "Large coffee, please. Milk, no sugar."

  My eyes lift, meeting a gray-green gaze. And a spiky thrill zings over my skin, immediate and irrepressible. "You came back."

  "Unlike some strange--but very pretty--people, I happen to like coffee."

  He's wearing jeans, relaxed and worn, with a casual black button-down. And a baseball hat pulled low over his forehead. For some reason, the hat--seeing him in it--is funny. So normal, I guess, and a laugh weaves through my words.

  "Nice hat."

  He raises a fist. "Go Yanks."

  "Do you really think it'll work as a disguise?"

  He's surprised by the question. He glances around the room--only two other customers sit at the tables, and neither seems to notice him. He shrugs.

  "Glasses always worked for Clark Kent."

  Today the two men who shadowed Nicholas the other night are joined by a third. They sit at a table by the door, inconspicuous and casually dressed, but alert and watchful.

  "Who told you? Did you figure it out yourself or--" his finger flicks to the spot where Ellie did her celebratory jig yesterday morning "--was it the cherry bomb with an affinity for SpongeBob footwear?"

  "My sister--Ellie--yeah, she spilled the beans." I thought it would feel different, seeing him again, now that I know who he is. But it doesn't--not really. Other than the sting of embarrassment for not recognizing him right off the bat, looking at him still stirs up the same feelings it did yesterday--heated attraction, magnetic fascination--not because he's a prince, but because he's him. Gorgeous, sexy,
captivating.

  Nicholas pays cash from a leather wallet and I pass him his coffee. "You must think I'm completely clueless."

  "Not a'tall."

  "Am I supposed to curtsy or something?"

  "Please don't." And then the dimples make an appearance. "Unless you have the urge to do it naked, then, by all means, curtsy away."

  He's flirting with me. It's a sweet, sliding, teasing dance, and more fun than I can remember having in a long time.

  "You don't seem like a..." my voice lowers to a whisper, "prince."

  Then he's whispering too. "That may be the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me." He rests his arm on the counter, leaning in. "Now that you know, have you reconsidered my invitation to dinner?"

  I bet a guy like him--fucking royalty--is used to women falling at his feet. Literally. And I'm not used to seduction or head games, but working here all these years, growing up in the city, there is one thing I know how to do when it comes to men.

  Play it cool.

  "Why?" I scoff. "Because you happen to own a country? Like that's supposed to impress me?"

  "It impresses most people."

  And the dance goes on.

  "Guess I'm not most people."

  His eyes sparkle and his lips grin. "Apparently not." He angles his head toward a table in the corner. "Well, then--I'll be over there in case you'd like to join me."

  "That's what you're going to do all morning? Stay here?"

  "That's the plan, yes."

  "Don't you have...stuff to do? Important stuff?"

  "Probably."

  "Then why aren't you doing it?"

  He searches my face, those eyes falling to my mouth like he can't tear his eyes away.

  "I like looking at you."

  Whoosh goes my stomach and the whole world spins.

  Nicholas casually strolls over to his table, looking so very satisfied with himself.

  A few minutes later, behind the counter, Marty leans in close, his brown eyes wild. "Don't look now, but we've got a celebrity customer."

  I start to turn, but he grabs me. "I said don't look! That's Prince Nicholas over there or my name isn't Martin McFly Ginsberg."

  I think Marty's mom was kind of high when she named him, too.

  I lay calming hands on his shoulders. "Yes, it's him--he came in the other night and yesterday morning."

 
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