Prince albert, p.8
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       Prince Albert, p.8

         Part #4 of A Step Brother Romance series by Sabrina Paige
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  "Touché," she says.

  "I don't know any other way of life," I tell her.

  Inside the castle, I show her my favorite places, the things that are a part of my family history -- the Chinese pottery that I broke when Alex and I were running through the house when I was nine, thousands of years old and super-glued back together; and the place where my sister and I shimmied off a low overhang from one of the windows when I was twelve and Alex broke her arm. It was the first time I'd gotten in real trouble, grounded from everything.

  Belle and I stand on the roof, looking out over the expanse of the estate, the lawn so vivid it's nearly emerald-colored. Everything out here, in the country, is more vivid and intense than the city.

  This place holds all of the important memories of my life.

  "This is where Alex and I would come up and get high, before I left for the army," I tell her.

  Belle laughs. "This isn't what I pictured," she says. "It's different from what I expected from a royal family."

  "It's all trappings, you know," I say. "All of this -- the castles, and the cars, and the planes, and --"

  "The media stories?" she asks. She stands a foot away from me -- too far, I think -- and glances at me, and I think I see her smile. Teasing me about my reputation.

  "I'd say those stories in the media are greatly exaggerated, but they're probably not," I tell her.

  She laughs. "At least you're honest," she says. Then, abruptly: "Why did you bring me here?"

  "I'm sharing royal stories -- the good ones, not the PR-friendly ones -- and you're not having fun?"

  "No, I. That's not what I meant at all."

  "Relax, luv, I'm just giving you crap," I say. "Other than playing hooky at tea? I wanted to show you the real Protrovia."

  "This is the real Protrovia?" she asks, her voice lilting. "Palatial summer estates?"

  "No, smarty," I say. "I'm just giving you a tour of the summer house. Come on. Now I'll show you the real Protrovia. That way, if you decide to go back to the States, at least you know what you're missing."

  But I don't turn to leave. Not yet. I stand there, and she looks at me for a minute, the expression on her face unreadable. "I'm starting to get an idea of what I'd be missing," she says, her eyes lingering on my face for a split second too long. Then the moment passes, and she clears her throat. "All right, Prince Albert. Sell me on Protrovia."

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  Belle

  “I’m not sure what I thought I was going to get when I told a prince to sell me on his country, but this was definitely not it.”

  “What?” he asks innocently. “Is it the shoes? Not flattering?”

  “Yeah, it’s definitely the shoes,” I say, my voice dripping with sarcasm. But I can't quite stifle the giggle that erupts in my throat when I look at him.

  Albie is wearing jeans and a grey t-shirt, a navy blue baseball cap pulled down low on his head, looking like any other guy his age.

  Except for the ridiculous, bushy, dark fake mustache over his lips.

  “You need a hat, too,” he says, producing a black baseball cap from behind his back, with the words ‘I Luv Las Vegas” written on it in bright orange typeface.

  I snatch the hat from his hand. “Are you kidding me?”

  “What?” he asks, shrugging, his palms upturned. “You’ll look like a tourist. It's the perfect disguise.”

  “Did you buy that for me in Vegas?” After claiming that he had no idea who I was, he produces something like this?

  “Nope,” he says. “I bought it for myself in Vegas, actually. But, I’ll admit, once you got here, I was going to leave it on your bed as a welcome gift.”

  “But your sense of decorum and propriety kept you from doing that? Nice,” I say, shaking my head. I slip the ball cap over my head anyway, pulling my ponytail through the back. “Fine. Let’s go wherever you’re taking me, Pornstache.”

  When Albie’s bodyguard sees us, he rolls his eyes and sighs heavily. “That mustache. Really?” he says.

  “Noah is just jealous because he can’t grow a sexy 'stache like this,” Albie says, leaning close to me to stage whisper.

  “From what I can tell, you can't either, sir.” Noah holds the car door open for me. It’s a black sedan with a taxi plate in the back corner of the rear window, a few years old and completely non-royal, nothing like the high-end SUVs with dark-tinted windows that are dead giveaways for the royal security detail.

  “Isn’t he coming with us?” I ask, watching as Noah closes my door and walks toward the SUV parked twenty feet away.

  I wonder how the hell Albie gets away with such laid-back security. This is how it was in Vegas, too. There, Albie had no major security detail. None that I noticed anyway, or I’d have definitely suspected something then. He’s the most famous prince on the planet. I’d expect him to have a team of bodyguards, like a rock star or a dignitary.

  “Absolutely,” Albie says, settling into the back seat of the car beside me. He doesn’t make a move, doesn’t put his hand on my leg or do anything inappropriate. I’m not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed with that. “He’s our driver.”

  “Is security always this lax for the royal family?” I ask. Noah slides behind the wheel of the driver's seat, tossing a backpack on the front passenger side.

  Albie turns toward me and winks, wearing his stupid ball cap and that bushy mustache.

  Despite my initial misgivings, maybe the royal asshole isn’t so bad after all.

  “Let’s just say that Noah and I have an understanding,” Albie says. “He knows that I’m perfectly capable of losing him, if I really wanted to. Kind of like today. We could have ditched out of the palace, gone through the tunnels, and skirted around out in town. But this way, he can follow me from afar and trust that I’m not going to try to lose him. At least not today, anyway.”

  “The Prince is under a bit of a delusion, I’m afraid,” Noah says, as he pulls down the drive. “He believes he’s more clever and unobtrusive than he is.”

  I choke back a laugh. “I’ve definitely gotten that impression.”

  “If you don't think my ‘stache is the very definition of unobtrusive, I’m afraid we can’t be friends any longer, Noah,” Albie says.

  “I feel sorry for you, Noah,” I say, shaking my head.

  “Why?” he asks, his eyes forward as he drives us outside of the walled estate and down the weaving, winding road toward wherever the hell we’re going. I realized that I have no idea what Albie's plan is, yet I’m blindly following his direction as if I don’t have a care in the world.

  “I'm sorry that you got stuck with this assignment to guard the prince,” I say.

  “It’s a sacrifice,” Noah says. “King and country and all.”

  Albie laughs, hitting a button that automatically slides up a partition between us and Noah. “That’s enough from him,” he says.

  “You guys are really close,” I note.

  “Noah tolerates a lot of crap from me,” he says. "He came on around the time my mom got sick."

  “I can only imagine the shit he must put up with,” I say, only half-joking. From the magazine articles and media frenzy that surround the playboy prince, I can definitely see how difficult it would be to manage him.

  I expect Albie to laugh, but when I look over at him, his gaze is focused out the window, his expression guarded.

  “How did your mom die?" I ask, even though I already know she died. The death of Queen Sigrid was all over the media after it happened. I was in my senior year of high school. I still remember the memorials, the songs written about her. And like everyone else around the world, I remember the photo of Prince Albert and Princess Alexandra, standing beside their father, staid and unflinching, pain written all over their faces.

  It's one thing to read about the death of someone in an online news article, or to see their face plastered all over the media, but another thing entirely to experience that loss first-hand.

  I should know
. My father's death when I was a child rocked me to my core.

  “Neuroendocrine Carcinoma," he says, his voice flat. "It's a rare form of cancer."

  "I'm sorry," I say, my words insufficient, the way words always seem to be when it comes to loss.

  Albie makes a sound in his throat, more like a 'heh' than a laugh, avoiding looking at me. "I'm sorry," he says. "I've heard it a thousand times. Just like you probably have."

  "Yes," I say. "It doesn't change anything."

  "No," he says, his gaze still fixated out the window. It's the first time since I've been here in Protrovia that I think maybe Albie is deeper than he appears at first glance. Until now, Albie didn't seem to have much running below the surface.

  "And now they're both getting remarried," I say, my voice soft. I'm not sure how I feel about it. I'm not sure I've had enough time to get used to the idea.

  It's not the fact that my mother is remarrying that takes some getting used to. She has certainly dated since my father's death. She even came close to getting married again, to a big Wall Street guy who ran a huge hedge fund. She called that off last-minute, which in retrospect, was a good thing, considering he was indicted a few years later for some white-collar crime I can't recall.

  “Yes,” Albie says, looking at me, his expression serious for the first time since we met. “Do you think my father can compare to yours?”

  The question takes me aback, and I can’t hide the question in my tone. “Your father is a king, Albie,” I say. “You’re literally the most powerful family in this country. And you’re asking me how your father measures up to mine?”

  The question is ridiculous. My father was a self-made millionaire, who built an empire, a fortune from nothing. All of that was before I was born, though. I grew up rich, with the best of everything. I never wanted for anything.

  But I know where I come from. And where I belong.

  And where I come from is definitely not royalty.

  “That’s what I’m asking,” he says, his gaze intense. “What I read about your father…his story…it’s amazing what he built.”

  I can’t help but raise my eyebrows. “Your father is a king,” I say, my words clipped. Talking about my father, makes the car ride suddenly more intense than I anticipated. This isn’t what I expected when I agreed to a tour of Protrovia.

  Being alone with the playboy prince isn't what I expected, either.

  I look out the window at the countryside passing in a blur as we drive, the greens and blues of the landscape and the greys and browns of the stone cottages whizzing by, and try to forget the growing tightness in my chest.

  “My family has ruled this kingdom for five hundred years,” Albie says. “Do you know what that’s like?”

  The question jerks me out of the melancholy triggered by thinking about my father. “Of course I don’t know what it’s like to be royal,” I say. My voice comes out harsher than I intend it to be.

  “No,” he says. “But your father – I read the articles about him in the business journals. He started from nothing. That’s something, Belle.”

  “I don’t have a pedigree,” I say stupidly. I don’t understand where this conversation is going, but it makes me feel anxious. My father has been gone for a long time, and I can’t remember the last time my mother and I talked about him.

  “Exactly,” he says. “Do you know what it’s like to do nothing? To have everything passed down to you, simply because you were born who you are?”

  “I haven’t exactly had to earn my way in life,” I point out. “I’m not a plucky girl from the wrong side of the tracks who’s had to fight her way through life to get what she has. My father left me millions of dollars.”

  “No, I don’t suppose so,” Albie says. “Except what did you do with the money?”

  I roll my eyes and look out the window, breaking away from his gaze. I’m irritated by the thought that Albie seems to have looked up everything there is to know about me just to satisfy his damn curiosity. “I’m not some kind of Mother Theresa."

  “No,” he says. “You took the money and set up a foundation, then went and spent two years in Africa working for a charity.”

  “Yes.” I don’t elaborate. I’m starting to feel overheated, claustrophobic in this car with him. I don’t like talking about myself, don’t like being the center of attention, and Albie is putting me on the spot. I don’t need to explain to this man – this stranger, whom I barely know – why I left when I graduated college, why I didn’t take the trust fund and blow it on some fabulous lifestyle, the way my mother encouraged me to do.

  “You should have some fun, Belle,” she said, looking at me with sadness in her eyes. “You’re too serious. Life shouldn’t be so serious.”

  She’d definitely never taken life seriously. Wealth, power, parties, socializing…that was what kept my mother going.

  She couldn’t understand.

  I didn’t want my father’s money. It was just a reminder of his death. And that’s the last thing I wanted to be reminded of.

  Albie doesn’t say anything else, and neither do I during the rest of the car ride. Instead, I watch out the window as we pass houses that are closer together as we come to a small village. I don’t know what to make of Albie’s questions, except to think that maybe he’s not as flippant about life as I thought he was. I’m not sure if that makes me like him more or less.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Albie

  I feel like I fucked up somehow with Belle, as if a cloud, a sense of heaviness, has descended over the car ever since I mentioned her father. Belle has me on edge since I met her in the casino. With her, I feel like I’m perpetually making missteps.

  That’s not something I do when it comes to women.

  I’m a master at bedding women, leveraging my status and privilege and wealth and looks to get into their panties. Belle should be no exception.

  But I’ve somehow managed to turn things melancholy instead of light.

  I’m the fuck-up prince, the irresponsible one, the man who doesn’t want to be king. I don’t do serious, so I have no idea why I’m having a remotely serious conversation with Belle about our dead parents.

  That’s fucking depressing.

  It’s like, the exact opposite of what I should be doing to get in her panties.

  Noah taps the brakes as we head into the small village, traffic slowing the vehicle to a near crawl. A banner with colored flags stretches across the archway at the beginning of the main road through town, a cobblestone path that is routinely closed to traffic. Today, that stretch of road is crowded with pedestrians, throngs of families who are here for a summer festival.

  I tap on the divider, and it goes down. “Turn right down here, Noah.”

  “I’ll go down and around town,” Noah disagrees, shaking his head. This isn’t the first time we’ve gone into the village, and Noah knows the back roads and ways to bypass traffic far better than I do.

  “Do you come down here a lot?” Belle asks, finally breaking the silence between us. I don’t know why, but I feel myself exhale with relief.

  “Alex and I used to sneak out here all the time in the summer,” I say. “It used to piss off my father.”

  “He didn’t want you running around with the commoners?” she asks.

  “No,” I say, laughing. “It was more of an issue with security risk than anything else. He’s perpetually convinced I’m going to be assassinated.”

  Belle raises her eyebrows. “Given who you are, that’s probably a legitimate concern.”

  I shrug. “He’s too protective,” I say.

  She glances at me from the corner of her eye. “Says the guy who went to Afghanistan?”

  “I flew helicopters,” I say. “And, thanks to my father, I wasn’t able to get close to any real action.”

  “There’s something to be said for staying alive – playing it safe,” Belle says, turning to look at me finally. The corners of her mouth turn up on the edges, just slightl
y, but the smile doesn't quite reach her eyes. Even so, the way she looks at me, her
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