Prince albert, p.3
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       Prince Albert, p.3
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         Part #4 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige

  “Ugh. No,” she says. “How are you even a prince? Aren’t princes required to maintain some sort of regal bearing?”

  “That’s for public, luv,” I say. “All bets are off in private.”

  “Somehow I doubt you’re any different in a public setting,” she says. “So how are we going to take care of this catastrophe?”

  “What catastrophe are you referring to, exactly?” I ask. “The one where are parents are getting married, sis?”

  “Do not speak that word again,” she says.

  “Sis?” I ask. “But we’re going to be related now. Would you prefer that I call you wife?”

  “Both of those words are off-limits.”

  “There’s a giant list of things that are off-limits with you, aren’t there?” I ask. “Has anyone told you that life’s a lot more fun if you loosen up a little bit?”

  “You’re loose enough for both of us.”

  “That’s a terrible thing to say to your husband.”

  “Stop calling yourself that,” she says. “It’s a fake marriage. We were intoxicated. How could they marry us? I don’t think it’s even legal to get married while drunk.”

  I shrug. “You’d be surprised what a little extra cash will do.”

  “You bribed a wedding chapel?” she asks, disbelief evident in her voice. “Why in the world would you do that?”

  Why, indeed?

  “What’s that saying -- when in Rome?” I ask. “When in Vegas. I figured I’d never have the opportunity to get married by Elvis again.”

  “It’s not legal,” she says. “It was a dare. A joke. It should be easy enough to annul.”

  “I’m sure you have someone you can trust to do that. Someone who won’t leak it to the press,” I point out.

  “No, I –“ She stops. “Of course I don’t. I’ve been in Africa for the past two years. I was only in Vegas for a few days before – well, all of this with you. You have to get it annulled.”

  “No,” I say. The word escapes my lips before I’m even sure of what I’m saying, before I’ve had a chance to think it through. But as soon as I speak it, I’m certain. “I don’t think I will, actually.”

  “What do you mean, you don’t think you will?” she asks, her voice rising again, the way it did when she first saw me.

  I shrug. “I don’t think I feel like it right now,” I say. “Maybe I will later, if you ask politely.”

  “I just asked nicely,” she says, through clenched teeth. “You’re really not going to get it annulled?”

  “Come on, luv,” I say, not bothering to hide my grin. “Isn’t it more fun this way?”

  I don’t wait for her response before I press on the electronic keypad that opens the door to the passageway. I think I hear her protest, but I don’t wait for her response.

  I’m whistling as I walk down the hallway, my footsteps on the plush carpeting suddenly light as air. I’d only come back to the palace because my term of service in the Royal Protrovian Army was up, and my father had a heart scare that turned out to be an ulcer, not a heart attack. And because he wanted me to get to know his future wife – Sofia Kensington.

  Even in the military, I was treated with kid gloves, as the son of the king. So I’m enjoying the fact that Little Miss Do-Gooder isn’t taking any shit. She gives back as good as I dish out.

  Maybe coming back to the palace won’t be as damn boring as I anticipated.

  CHAPTER FOUR

  Belle

  That dickhead.

  That stupid, arrogant, childish, irresponsible ass.

  I pull open the drawer that holds the clothes I arrived with – one duffel bag, nothing fancy. In fact, it was so un-fancy that the butler who escorted me to my room when I arrived a few hours ago practically sniffed at me, disdain written all over his face. I wonder if my bag has already been burned, so as not to contaminate the palace.

  Rummaging through my clothes – perfectly folded and placed in the drawers for me, each item separated by fancy lavender tissue paper embossed with the royal crest in gold filigree -- I yank on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. I want out of this stupid dress and these uncomfortable heels.

  In fact, I should just get a flight out of here. I could head back to the States.

  I mean, sure, everything is different now. It's been two years since I've lived in the States. I was supposed to go back and move in with Derek.

  Derek and I had been in a long-distance relationship while I was in Africa, which seemed like the thing to do at the time, although in retrospect, it was obviously a stupid idea. But we'd dated throughout college, and my mother and his parents were friends. It's not as if we had no history together.

  It was expected that we’d be together. But if I were being honest with myself, I’d admit to myself that I was never in love with him. Not really.

  It was far too easy to leave him for two years to go to Africa. It shouldn’t be that easy to walk away from someone you love.

  To say that my mother will be disappointed with my breakup will be an understatement. It’s the reason I’d been avoiding her phone calls for the past week, hiding out while I got my shit together after the Vegas debacle. She had to send bodyguards and a private plane to escort me to Protrovia, ostensibly because I was avoiding her calls, but also because that’s just like her, to do something like that for dramatic effect.

  There’s a single knock on the door, and the door swings open without hesitation. My mother closes it swiftly behind her, standing with her hands on the doorknob behind her back as if she needs it to support her. “Isabella Kensington,” she says, her tone harsh.

  “I understand you're upset, Mother," I start. "I had planned on telling you about what happened with Derek. I just needed some time."

  "No," she says, walking toward me with long strides, her expression calm. You'd never know she was upset in the least, not to look at her. "Upset isn't the right word to use in a situation like this. Right now, I’m devastated."

  I choke back a laugh. "Devastated?" I ask. "You're devastated about my broken engagement? I think that's how I should feel."

  She holds her hand up, making a silence gesture. "I tolerated your need to run off to that God-forsaken continent to save the world. I was more than understanding."

  "Yes, you were the epitome of support," I say, my tone bitter. I applied for the two-year position without telling anyone, using my mother’s maiden name and keeping my secret until I knew I’d gotten it without any connection to my mother or the Kensington fortune. I only told her after I’d already made the decision and accepted the position.

  "There's no need to take that tone with me," she says. "And your little outburst today was appalling."

  "I'm sorry you found it disturbing," I say. "Perhaps you'd find it as upsetting to know that your favorite almost son-in-law was fucking Adriana? Or that he's been doing it for years?"

  "Derek is a man," she says. "All men have indiscretions, particularly men like Derek. What matters is that he's marrying you. And, if you recall, I never liked Adriana.”

  I shake my head. "We’re not getting married anymore," I say. "And I don't believe that. I don't want something like that."

  She raises her eyebrow. "Please tell me I raised a daughter who's not naive enough to believe in some ridiculous notion of true love."

  I don't know why the words surprise me, but they do. "It's not ridiculous," I protest, my voice weak.

  Except I'm not sure I believe that. Maybe it is ridiculous and naive.

  "Fairy-tales," she says. "I blame that nanny of yours. She was always reading you stories like that when you were young. It's time to grow up, Isabella. Life isn't one big fairy-tale."

  "You're marrying a king, mother," I say. "You don't see the irony of that? You're telling me that fairy-tales don't exist when we're literally standing in a palace?"

  "Don't be stupid," she says. "You're not a stupid girl. It's beneath you. As are fairy-tale notions of life.”

  "You didn't fall in
love with a king..." I question, my voice trailing off.

  She looks at me for a long time. "You will fall in love with Derek. You'll smile and take his arm and stand by his side when he becomes the Governor of New York, just like his father. And then you'll stand beside him when his family money ensures he becomes President. And you'll turn the other way when he shares his bed with someone else. You'll smile and look beautiful because it's what you do."

  "I'm not a teenager," I protest. "I'm twenty-three. And, despite what you might think, this isn't the eighteen hundreds and you can't force me into a marriage. I'm not doing it."

  "We’ll discuss it later,” she says, waving her perfectly manicured hand dismissively. “There are more important matters at hand right now.”

  “Like the fact that you’re marrying a King,” I say sarcastically. Obviously, that’s her most important concern here.

  She raises her eyebrows and gives me a disapproving look. “Yes, Isabella,” she says. “We’re talking about making history. I know that you don’t seem to have an appreciation for rules and tradition and – God knows, I tried to instill that in you –“

  “You’re from the United States,” I say. “You’re not even a native of Protrovia. You aren’t connected to their history or tradition.”

  “We are making history,” she says. “Do you understand that? The Kensingtons – your family – your father’s name, God rest his soul. We are making history. Years ago, the idea of the King of Protrovia remarrying – to a foreigner, no less – would have been unacceptable. It would have been appalling. But today, it’s different. And we are a part of that. Do you not see the importance of this?”

  I shake my head. “I don’t want to be a part of this,” I say, feeling strangely detached from the entire thing. “I’m going back to the States, mother. Coming here was a mistake.”

  Of course, I’m already a part of this, I think. I’m married to the Crown Prince.

  I force the thought out of my head. It’s inappropriate. And something I’ll just have to rectify before anyone finds out. The last thing I want is to become part of a public scandal, my life spread out before the world like an open book.

  “It’s very important to me that you’re here for the summer,” she says, her tone calm. But it’s clear that it’s not a request.

  Well, she can’t tell me what to do. I’m not a child anymore.

  “I can’t stay here,” I say.

  “The last thing you want is a public scandal,” she says. “I know how much you despise being the center of attention.”

  “Why would anything be a scandal?” I ask, trying my best to keep my voice calm despite the guilt that surges through me at the thought of the secret I share with Albie.

  “Staying for the summer, getting to know the king and your new family, is what people expect, Isabella,” she says. “Any behavior different from that is going to raise red flags. It will cause more media attention than I know you’d like to have on you. Reporters will track you down wherever you go in the States. The wedding will be the media event of the year. Here, in the palace – in Protrovia – we can protect you. There is a whole PR team dedicated to managing the publicity. There are bodyguards, security. The entire thing will be controlled. Everything will be handled.”

  “I don’t know,” I say, shaking my head.

  “I’m disappointed, Isabella,” she says. “I’d hoped you’d realize the potential for all the good you could do in Protrovia.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Sofia sighs heavily. “You’ve always missed the forest for the trees,” she says. “You think that being in the thick of things, administering shots to children and wiping sweaty foreheads, is noble. It’s far more noble to be the person that provides funding for other people to do those things.”

  “And that’s your goal, being Queen of Protrovia?” I don’t bother to hide the doubt in my voice. My mother has been involved with charity for years, but I’m not sure the power isn’t the most alluring part of all of this for her.

  “Think of all that you could do as a princess, Isabella,” she says. “I’ve already set up work for you with refugees, with children’s organizations. You’ll have a virtually unlimited budget at your disposal compared to what you had in Africa. Think of what you can do. Think of the children who need your help.”

  “I have to think about it,” I say, already feeling like the most selfish person on earth. My mother is offering me the chance to do a world of good, and I’m actually considering not taking it, just because I don’t want to spend the summer in the castle with my new stepbrother, who just happens to be the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.

  “I know you’ll make the right decision,” she says, smiling at me. “Take some time. You’re jet-lagged. I’m sure you’re tired. Relax, and gather your wits. Then you can tell me when you’ve made the right choice.”

  It’s less of a suggestion than it is an order. That much is clear.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  Albie

  “Hey, Cinderella.” I whisper the words, even though we’re the only two people in the hallway. A housekeeper at the end of the hall runs a feather duster along the window, and a member of the security team walks with purpose. When she sees us, the housekeeper quickly darts around the corner and out of the way.

  It’s silly, really, all of the pomp and circumstance that goes along with living in this place. It always made me uncomfortable, even when I was a kid.

  Belle whirls around and glares at me. “Are you following me?”

  “Whoa, whoa, luv.” I put my hands up in mock surrender. “Don’t get your panties in a bunch. You do wear panties, don’t you? I picture a thong. Unless you go commando. That would be more fun, as well as convenient.”

  She looks at me with wide eyes. “My panties are none of your business.”

  “I’m right about the thongs, though, aren’t I?”

  She ignores me, which is probably for the best, because that means I can use my imagination when it comes to what she’s wearing under those jeans. “Seriously,” she says. “Are you following me? How do I keep running into you? Isn’t this a giant palace?”

  “It’s three hundred rooms,” I say. “Three hundred and twelve. Give or take, really. Some rooms are under renovation, and some are considered public areas for tours and things. I’ll give you a tour, if you like. The very private, very special tour.”

  “That was a rhetorical question,” she says. “Stop stalking me.”

  “You’re full of yourself,” I say, standing close to her. She doesn’t move, doesn’t step back an inch, and I’m so close that I can smell the faintest hint of fragrance on her skin – something soft, lightly floral – lotion, not perfume. “I’d rather you be full of me.”

  She wrinkles her nose, an expression of distaste that should be annoying, but just makes me hard instead. Apparently, I find her distaste attractive.

  “You’re crude for a prince,” she says.

  “You’ve said that already.”

  “Obviously, nothing’s changed.”

  “I hope not," I say. "Persistence is one of my strongest qualities.”

  A small smile breaks through her face, and she shakes her head. “So, what, you just wear women down?” she asks. “I’d think someone royal like yourself wouldn’t need to resort to doing that.”

  “Not normally,” I say. “But you’re a special case.”

  This time, she laughs. “Because I find you irritating?”

  I put my hand over my chest. “I’m hurt, Belle,” I say. “Truly. But I don’t believe you.”

  “You don’t believe that I find you obnoxious?” she asks. “Because I can assure you, I really do. Even more so now.”

  “Just because our parents are getting married?” I ask. “You didn’t find me irritating in Las Vegas.”

  “Tequila has a way of making anyone entertaining,” she says. “And anyway, I hardly remember it. It’s all a blur.”

  “Is it?” I ask. The
way she says it, her voice hesitating slightly, makes me doubtful. Even through the haze of the alcohol, it’s hardly a blur in my head.

  “Truth or dare,” she says, sinking back against the leather of the limo seat. Her hair spills down over her shoulders, a cascade
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