TWO WEEKS AFTER MY DATE WITH STEFFAN, I LEFT FOR MY goodwill tour with Mikaela, Rhys, another bodyguard named Elliott, the palace photographer Alfred, Alfred’s assistant Luna, and Henrik, a reporter from the Eldorra Herald. Everyone loved my idea, including my grandfather, and the palace had worked around the clock to put together the perfect itinerary on short notice. We hit all the country’s most important regions, including the manufacturing hub of Northern Kurtland and the oil and energy center of Hesbjerg. I felt like I was campaigning for an office I’d already won, somewhat undeservingly, thanks to genetic lottery. But I had to do it. After years of living abroad, I needed to reconnect with the people of Eldorra. Understand the way they lived, what problems kept them up at night, and what they wanted that was within my power to give. In practice, the prime minister and Parliament ruled the country, but the royal family, as an institution, wielded considerably more power in Eldorra than in other countries. It boasted an eighty-nine percent approval rating—far higher than any politician—and the monarch’s opinions held a lot of sway. If I were to be a good queen, I needed to get back in touch with the people. It didn’t matter that I didn’t want the crown. It would be mine one day regardless. “It’s just us and a handful of staff,” Ida, the owner of the dairy farm we were visiting, said. “Our farm is on the smaller side, but we do the best we can.”
“It looks like you’re doing a lovely job.” I walked through the barn. It was smaller than the others we’d visited, but it was well-kept, and the cows looked healthy. However, I noticed half of the stalls were empty. “Are the other cows with the farmhands?” Behind us, Alfred’s camera clicked and whirred. The PartTime Princess headlines, which were already fading thanks to my dates with Steffan, had all but disappeared during the tour, replaced with pictures of me touring factories and reading to schoolchildren. I would’ve done the tour even if no one covered it, though. I enjoyed meeting with locals, far more than I did another tedious gala. “No.” Ida shook her head. “The dairy industry isn’t doing so well. Milk prices have gone down over the years, and a lot of farms in the area have shut down. We had to sell some of our cows for extra cash. Plus, there isn’t enough demand for milk to justify keeping so many of them around.” Despite her words, sadness flitted across her face. The farm had belonged to her family for generations, and I could only imagine how difficult it must be to see it shrink year after year. “Have you contacted your minister about the issue?” According to my briefing materials, the drop in milk prices resulted from a trade fight between Eldorra and a few other countries in Europe. Trade and tariff policies fell under Parliament’s purview. Ida shrugged, looking resigned. “We used to write to our officials, but we only got form responses, so we stopped. No one listens to us anyway.” I frowned. The whole point of Parliament was to represent constituents’ concerns. What were they doing if not their job? “You can write to me,” I said on impulse. “All of your friends and neighbors can write to me. If you have an issue you want addressed, write or email me and I’ll bring it up with
Parliament. I can’t guarantee legislation, but I can at least make sure your voices are heard.” Elin coughed, and Henrik the reporter scribbled furiously in his notepad. Ida blinked. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly—” “I insist,” I said firmly. “Elin, can you please share the mailing and email addresses with Ida before we leave? Actually, please share them with everyone we’ve met so far.” Elin rubbed her temple. “Yes, Your Highness.” She waited until we returned to the inn that night before laying into me. “Princess Bridget, the point of this tour is to create goodwill,” she said. “Not make things more complicated with Parliament. Do you really want random people writing to you about the smallest problem?” “They’re not random people, they’re Eldorrans.” I sat in the common room with Rhys while Elin stood by the fireplace, her hands on her hips. Henrik, Alfred, Luna, and Elliott had already retired to their rooms. “I’m not changing policy. I’m merely helping people get their voices heard. No,” I said when Elin opened her mouth. “I’m not arguing about this. It’s been a long day, and we have an early morning tomorrow.” Her mouth pinched, but she conceded with a reluctant, “Yes, Your Highness.” She was a master at choosing which battles to fight, and apparently, this one wasn’t worth fighting. She disappeared up the stairs, leaving me alone with Rhys. He sat in the corner, staring at the flames in the hearth with a brooding expression. Whatever was bothering him, it wasn’t us and what happened in the parking lot of the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was something else. He’d been moodier than usual since the trip started. “Penny for your thoughts,” I said. We’d barely talked the entire trip, unless good morning and good night counted as talking.
Rhys finally looked at me. The firelight flickered over his face, casting dancing shadows over his strong jaw and chiseled cheekbones “You seem happy,” he said. “Far happier than I’ve seen you at those fancy parties you go to in Athenberg.” He noticed. Of course he had. He was the most observant man I’d ever met. “I love it,” I admitted. “Meeting people, hearing their concerns, having something concrete to contribute at my next meeting with the Speaker. I feel like I can finally do something meaningful. Like I have a purpose in life.” That was one thing that had bugged me so much about being a princess. Yes, the monarchy was symbolic, but I didn’t want to spend my life just smiling for the cameras and giving lifestyle interviews. I wanted something more. But maybe I’d been thinking about my role all wrong. Maybe, instead of conforming to what being the crown princess had always meant, I could shape it into what I wanted it to be. A small smile touched Rhys’s lips. “I always knew you would make a great queen.” “I’m not queen yet.” “You don’t need a crown to be queen, princess.” The words slid over my skin, leaving a trail of tingles in their wake. I let myself soak them in for a minute before I changed the subject, painfully aware of who and what we were. No tingles allowed. “Are you enjoying the trip?” I asked. “It’s nice to be out of the city.” His smile faded. “It’s fine.” “Just fine?” Perhaps I was biased, but Eldorra was beautiful, and we’d visited some of the country’s most stunning regions.
He lifted those broad shoulders in a half shrug. “I’m not the biggest fan of Eldorra. Almost didn’t take this job so I wouldn’t have to visit.” “Oh.” I tried not to take offense. I failed. “Why not?” Eldorra was like Switzerland or Australia. Not everyone loved it, but no one hated it. The silence stretched for several long beats before Rhys replied. “My father was Eldorran,” he said, his voice flat and emotionless. “He promised my mother he would bring her here and they’d live happily ever after. She never quite gave up on that dream, even after he left and it became clear he wasn’t coming back. She kept talking about Eldorra, how she was going to leave our shit town and move here. She had postcards and magazine articles about the place all over the house. That was all I heard growing up. Eldorra, Eldorra, Eldorra. She loved the fantasy of the country more than she did me, and I grew to hate it. It became a symbol of everything wrong with my childhood. Still, I might’ve gotten over my hang-up eventually, but…” Rhys’s hand clenched and unclenched around his knee. “One of my last deployments was a joint mission. Both the U.S. and Eldorra had agents who’d been caught by the terrorist group they were tracking, and we were supposed to retrieve them. For diplomatic reasons, we had to keep our mission under wraps, which meant no air support. We were deep in hostile territory, outnumbered and outgunned. Our biggest advantage was the element of surprise.” Cold foreboding trickled down my back. “The night of the mission, one of the Eldorran soldiers—a brash, hotheaded type—strayed from the plan. We’d clashed from the beginning, and he hated we were using my plan instead of his.” Rhys’s expression was bleak. “Instead of waiting for my signal like we agreed upon, he fired when he saw one of the group leaders leave the compound. The one in charge of torturing the prisoners, according to our intel. It was a high-profile kill…but it hadn’t been our priority, and it gave
away our location. Everything went to shit after that. We were swarmed, and out of the eight men in my squad, three survived. The agents didn’t make it out alive, either. It was a total fucking bloodbath.” His words tripped something in my memory. A unit of Eldorran soldiers had all been wiped out in a joint mission gone wrong a few years ago. It had received nonstop news coverage for a week, and I bet it was the same mission Rhys was talking about. Horror and sympathy gripped my chest. “I’m so sorry.” I should be loyal to Eldorra, and I was, but loyalty didn’t mean blindness. Everyone messed up, and in Rhys’s case, the soldier’s mistake had cost him the lives of those he loved. “Don’t be. It’s not your fault.” Rhys rubbed a hand over his face. “It happened years ago, and yeah, it added to my huge fucking hang-ups about Eldorra, but what’s past is past. Can’t do a damn thing about it now.” We fell silent again, each lost in our own thoughts, before I worked up the courage to ask, “Why did you take the job as my bodyguard then? If you knew it meant having to visit Eldorra.” Rhys’s expression relaxed into a smirk. “You got a real pretty face.” His smirk widened at my exasperated huff. “I don’t know. Guess it felt right at the time.” “We always end up where we’re meant to be,” I said softly. His eyes lingered on mine. “Maybe.” He hated Eldorra, yet he’d not only taken the job but moved here permanently. For me. “Well.” I forced a smile, hardly able to hear myself over the roar of my heart. “I should turn in for the night. Early morning tomorrow.” Rhys rose when I did. “I’ll walk you to your room.” The soft creak of the wooden stairs beneath our feet mingled with the sounds of our breaths—mine shallow, Rhys’s deep and even.
Did he feel it, the electric current running between us? Or was it only in my imagination? Perhaps not, because when we arrived at my room, I didn’t open the door, and he didn’t leave. Goosebumps peppered my flesh, either from Rhys’s proximity or from the air-conditioning blasting through the hall. Even when you’re not there, you’re everywhere. In my head, in my lungs, in my fucking soul. His confession from the parking lot echoed in my head. We hadn’t talked about that night since, but maybe we didn’t need words. Rhys’s eyes dipped to my breasts. I followed his gaze and noticed for the first time just how thin my blouse was. I wore a lace bra, but my nipples were so hard they showed clearly through the two layers of flimsy material. I should leave, but Rhys’s molten gaze pinned me in place, erasing my earlier chill and leaving a deep, fiery ache in its wake. “You know what you said earlier? About how we always end up where we’re meant to be?” He grazed his hand over the side of my neck, and my heart thudded so hard against my ribcage I half expected it to leap out of my chest and into his arms. I couldn’t bring myself to speak, but I managed a small nod. The heaviness of the air caressed me like a bold lover’s touch, and I knew, deep in my gut, I stood on a dangerous precipice. The slightest movement from me, and I would fall. The question was whether I wanted to save myself, or if the pleasure would be worth the eventual pain. “Perhaps…” Rhys’s touch skimmed down my neck and over the curve of my shoulder. I shivered, my skin blossoming with a thousand more goosebumps. “I was always meant to find my way to you.”
Oh, God. Every ounce of oxygen disappeared from my lungs. “You should go into your room, princess.” His voice was full of gravel, dark and rough. “Go into your room and lock the door.” I shook my head. “I don’t want to.” Whatever was happening, it was different from Costa Rica. We didn’t have a bucket list or excuses to fall back on. It was just him and me, making a choice that had been a long time coming. Rhys groaned, and with that one sound, I knew he’d made his choice. Breathe. Even when there was no oxygen, no air, nothing but him. Breathe. He dipped his head, but instead of kissing my mouth, he kissed the hollow of my throat. It was so soft it was more a whisper of breath than a kiss, but it was enough to make my knees weaken. I was a lightning rod, and Rhys was the strike that lit me up from the inside out. I closed my eyes and stifled a moan as he dragged his mouth up my neck, inch by inch. Just as the lazy possessiveness of his touch lulled me into a semi-stupor, he yanked me toward him with one hand and sank his teeth into the curve between my neck and shoulder. Hard. Almost as hard as the thick arousal pressing against my stomach and causing my core to throb with need. Rhys’s other hand clamped over my mouth, muffling my surprised yelp. “Tell me.” His voice lowered. “What would your boyfriend think about this?” Boyfriend? It took a minute before it clicked. Steffan. We’d gone on two dates. Hardly enough to be considered my boyfriend, no matter what the press said.
But I had a feeling that argument wouldn’t hold sway with Rhys, who loosened his hand enough for me to gasp out, “Steffan’s not my boyfriend.” The air thickened with danger. “I don’t like hearing his name on your lips.” Lethally soft words, each one delivered with the precision of a guided missile. “But you went on dates with him. You kissed him.” Rhys’s voice darkened further, and he pressed me further against the wall while wrapping one hand around my throat. “Did you do that to bait me, princess? Hmm?” “N-no.” I was soaking wet. The darkness of the hall, the roughness of Rhys’s voice, it all went straight to the heat pulsing between my legs. “I had to date someone after the ball. And I didn’t think you cared.” “I care about everything you do. Even when I shouldn’t.” Rhys’s grip tightened on my throat. “One last chance, princess. Tell me to stop.” “No.” I was all too aware that Elin, Mikaela, and the rest of the group slumbered behind the doors on either side of us. It would only take one late-night bathroom break, one light sleeper to hear us and blow the situation to hell. But somehow, the danger only intensified the thrill running through my veins. Whatever this was between us, it had been building since the moment Rhys stepped out of his car outside my house at Thayer, and I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. Rhys hissed out a breath and released my throat, only to curl his hand around the back of my neck. He yanked me to him again, crushing my mouth to his, and my world imploded. Tongues, teeth, hands. We devoured each other like the world would end and this was our last chance to feel something. Perhaps it was. But I wouldn’t think about that now, not when our bodies pressed so tight against each other we might as well be one, and I was falling, falling into an abyss I never wanted to get out of.
Mikaela had been right. You could tell everything from a kiss. I tugged on Rhys’s hair, desperate for more. More of his touch, his taste, his scent. I wanted to fill every inch of my soul with this man. He drew my bottom lip between his teeth and tugged. I gasped, so aroused I could feel my wetness slicking my thighs. “Quiet,” he rasped. “Or someone will hear.” He swept his palm up my inner thigh to my core and let out a low groan when he discovered how wet I was. “You’re killing me, princess.” He rubbed his thumb over my clit through my drenched panties, and I fought back a moan as I arched into his hand. He slid my panties to the side, and— A bed creaked behind the door next to mine. Rhys and I froze in unison, our breathing harsh. We’d gotten so wrapped up in what we were doing we’d forgotten all about the people sleeping just a few feet away. We heard another creak, followed by the shuffle of someone getting out of bed. Henrik, if the direction of the sound was any indication. Rhys cursed under his breath and pulled his hand away. It was the smart thing to do, but I still wanted to weep at the loss of contact. He opened the door to my room behind me and gently pushed me inside. “Tomorrow night. Gazebo,” he said in a low voice. “We’ll go together.” There was a gazebo behind an abandoned farm, about a fifteen-minute walk from our inn. We’d passed by it on our way into town. “And princess…don’t bother wearing any underwear.” The throbbing between my legs intensified. Rhys closed my door right as Henrik’s opened. Their voices filtered through wood as I tiptoed to my bed and
climbed in, my head spinning from the events of the past hour. Would the pleasure be worth the eventual pain? I only had to listen to the frantic beats of my heart to know the answer.

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