DON’T LOOK AT HIM. If I looked at him, I would lose it, and I was already half out of my mind. The stress, guilt, and exhaustion of the past four days had seeped into my bones, turning me into a walking zombie. But I couldn’t help myself. I looked. And my heart promptly splintered into even more pieces than it already had. Rhys stared at me, so still he could’ve passed for a statue had it not been for the pain flickering in his eyes. “Had?” That calm, even tone never boded well. “It was fun while it lasted.” The words tasted bitter on my tongue, like poison pills of lies I fed myself to get through the next hour and possibly the rest of my life. “But people know. Everyone’s watching us. We can’t continue whatever…this is.” “Fun.” Still in that dangerously calm voice. “Rhys.” I wrapped my arms tighter around myself. The hospital staff had set the temperature to a comfortable seventythree degrees, but my skin felt like ice beneath my palms. “Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be.” Please let my heart break in peace. “The hell I won’t.” His gray eyes had darkened to a near black, and a vein throbbed in his temple. “Tell me something,
princess. Are you doing this because you want to, or because you feel like you have to?” “I don’t feel like I have to. I do have to!” Frustration seared through me, sharp and hot. Didn’t he get it? “It’s only a matter of time before the press confirms the allegations. Elin and Markus and my family already know. What do you think is going to happen once it’s all out in the open?” “Your Majesty!” “Grandfather!” Nikolai, Markus, and Elin rushed to Edvard’s side while I stood there, unable to move. I should join them. Make sure he was okay. But of course he wasn’t okay. He’d just collapsed… because of me and what I said. Because I thought, for one second, I could have a semblance of control over my life. If he died, the last conversation we had would have been an argument. “You will end the relationship and never see Mr. Larsen again.” “No.” Something inside me shriveled into a husk. “Bridget…” The sound of my name, deep and raw, scraped against my willpower, leaving dents in something that had never been strong to begin with. Not when it came to him. I closed my eyes, trying to find the cool, unshakable version of myself I presented to the public. The one who’d smiled through hours of standing and waving while my feet bled through my heels. The one who’d walked behind my father’s casket and held back tears until I crumpled into a ball in the bathroom during the wake. But I couldn’t. I’d never been able to hide who I truly was from Rhys.
I heard him walk toward me. Smelled that clean, masculine scent that had become my comfort scent over the years because it meant he was near and I was safe. Felt him rub away a tear I hadn’t even noticed had escaped with his thumb. Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him. “Princess, look at me.” I shook my head and squeezed my eyes shut tighter. My emotions formed a tight knot in my throat, making it near impossible to breathe. “Bridget.” Firmer this time, more commanding. “Look at me.” I resisted for another minute, but the need to save myself from further heartache paled compared to my need to soak in every last bit of Rhys Larsen I could. I looked at him. Gray thunderstorms stared back at me, crackling with turmoil. “The mess with the pictures, we’ll figure it out.” He grasped my chin and rubbed his thumb over my bottom lip, his expression fierce. “I told you, you’re mine, and I’m not letting you go. I don’t care if the entire Eldorran military tries to drag me away.” I wished it were that easy and I could sink into his faith, letting it sweep me away. But our problems went way beyond the pictures now. “You don’t get it. There is no happily ever after for us.” We weren’t a fairytale. We were a forbidden love letter, tucked into the back of a drawer and retrieved only in the darkness of night. We were the chapter of bliss before the climax hit and everything crumbled into ash. We were a story that was always meant to end. “This is it.” My mother died giving birth to me. My father died on his way back from buying something I’d asked him to get.
My grandfather almost died because I’d refused to give up the one thing that ever made me happy. That was what I got for being selfish, for wanting something for me. Future queens didn’t live for themselves, they lived for their country. That was the price of power. No matter how much I tried to change reality, it remained the truth, and it was time I grew up and faced it. Rhys’s grip on my chin tightened. “I don’t need a happily ever after. I need to be by your side. I need you happy and healthy and safe. Goddammit Bridget, I need you. In any way I can have you.” His voice broke for the first time in all my years with him, and my heart cracked in response. “If you think I’m leaving you to deal with this bullshit alone, you don’t know me at all.” Trouble was, I did know him, and I knew the one thing that would make him snap, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it right now. One last selfish thing. “Kiss me,” I whispered. Rhys didn’t question the sudden shift in my tone. Instead, he curled his hand around the back of my neck and crushed his lips to mine. Deep, hard, and possessive, like nothing had changed between us. He always knew what I needed without me saying it. I drank up every drop of him I could. His taste, his touch, his scent…I wished I could bottle it all up so I had something to keep me warm in the nights and years to come. Rhys picked me up and carried me to the couch, where he pulled my skirt up and my panties down and sank into me with exquisite, deliberate slowness. Stretching me. Filling me. Breaking me into a thousand pieces and putting me back together, over and over again. Even if my heart ached, my body responded to him the way it always had: eager, willing, and desperate for more.
Rhys palmed my breast and swiped his thumb over my nipple, playing with the sensitized nub until a fresh wave of heat crested in my stomach. All the while he pumped into me, the slow, leisurely slides of his cock hitting a spot that made me see stars. “Rhys, please.” “What do you want, princess?” He pinched my nipple, the sudden roughness of the action causing my mouth to fall open with a gasp. You. Forever. Since I couldn’t say that, I settled for a panted, “Faster. Harder.” He lowered his head and replaced his hand with his mouth, swirling and licking while he picked up the pace. My nails dug into his back, and just as I teetered over the precipice, he slowed down again. I nearly screamed with frustration. Faster. Slower. Faster. Slower. Rhys seemed to intuit the precise second I was about to come, and he varied his speed, edging me until I was a dripping, whimpering mess. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he groaned and slammed into me, his mouth claiming mine in a bruising kiss as he fucked into me so hard the couch inched across the floor with a squeak. Lights exploded behind my eyes. I arched up, my cry swallowed by his kiss as another orgasm tore through me and left me drained. Rhys came right after me with a silent shudder, and we sank into each other’s arms, our heavy breaths mingling as one. I loved sex with him, but I loved the quiet moments afterward even more. “Again.” I wrapped my limbs around him, not ready to break free of our cocoon yet. Just a little more time.
“Insatiable,” he whispered, running the tip of his nose up my neck and along my jawline. I smiled at the reminder of our afternoon at the hotel. Our last truly happy time together before everything went to hell. “You love it,” I said. “Yeah princess, I do.” We spent the next hour like that, climbing high and crashing down together. It was perfect, as were all our stolen moments together. We fucked hard and fast and made love sweet and slow. We pretended this was our life, not just a snapshot in time, and I pretended like my heart still beat in my chest when the pieces lay scattered at our feet. “There’s no other way, Your Highness.” Elin’s eyes flickered with sympathy for a second before it vanished and her expression hardened again. “It has to be done.” “No.” I shook my head, denial digging its claws deep into my skin. “It’s too soon. He’s fine. The doctors said—” “The doctors said he’ll recover…this time. The fact is, His Majesty was hospitalized twice in one year. We can’t risk a third hospitalization.” “We can cut back on his workload,” I said desperately. “Have his aides handle the more strenuous paperwork and meetings. He can still be king.” Elin glanced at Markus, who stood in the corner looking grimmer than I’d ever seen him. “We’d discussed this with His Majesty after his first hospitalization,” he said. “He expressly said that if he collapses a second time, he would step down.” I vaguely remembered my grandfather saying something like that in the weeks after his first collapse, but I’d been so focused on Nikolai’s abdication the implications of it had gone right over my head.
“I realize this is perhaps not the best time to discuss this,” Elin said with another flicker of sympathy. “But His Majesty’s condition is stable, and we need to start preparations right away.” “Preparations.” Something terrible took root in my stomach and spread. It seeped into my chest, my neck, my arms and my legs, numbing me from inside out. Elin and Markus exchanged glances again. “Yes,” Elin said. “Preparations for your coronation as queen.” I’d thought I had more time, both with Rhys and to convince Parliament to repeal the Royal Marriages Law, but I didn’t. Time was up. “Do you remember Costa Rica?” Rhys’s lips brushed against mine as he spoke. He lay on top of me, his powerful body swallowing me up, but he’d propped a forearm on the couch so he didn’t crush me with his weight. “How could I forget?” It was one of the happiest memories of my life. “You asked me if I’d ever been in love. I said no.” He pressed a soft kiss to my mouth. “Ask me again, princess.” My lungs constricted. Breathe. But that was hard when everything hurt to the point where I couldn’t remember what it felt like not to hurt. My heart, my head, my soul. “I can’t.” I forced myself to push Rhys away. My skin immediately chilled at the absence of his heat, and small shivers wracked me as I got off the couch and walked to the bathroom. I cleaned myself and straightened my clothes with shaky hands while his gaze burned a hole in my back through the open door. “Why not?” “Because.” Tell him. Just tell him. “I’m going to be queen.”
“We already knew that.” “You don’t understand.” I washed my hands and returned to the room, where I finally looked at him again. Tension lined his face and notched a deep groove between his brows. “I don’t mean someday. I mean I’m going to be queen in nine months.” Rhys froze. “That’s not all.” I could barely speak past the lump in my throat. “Because of the Royal Marriages Law, I have to—” “Don’t say it.” His voice was so quiet I almost didn’t hear him. “I have to marry or at least get engaged before my coronation.” There would already be backlash against me taking the throne so soon. You need all the political goodwill you can get, Markus had said. I hated it, but he was right. “I —” “Don’t. Fucking. Say it.” “I’m marrying Steffan. He already agreed.” It wasn’t a marriage of love. It was a political contract. Nothing more, nothing less. Markus had reached out to the Holsteins yesterday and made them sign an NDA before making the proposition. They’d agreed a few hours later. It’d all happened so quickly it made my head spin. Just like that, I had a fiancé, at least in theory. Per the agreement, Steffan would officially propose next month, after the furor over my grandfather’s hospitalization died down. As a bonus, the engagement would drive the allegations about me and Rhys out of the headlines, as Elin had not so subtly pointed out. Rhys unfolded himself from the couch. He’d already fixed his clothes. All black. Black shirt, black pants, black boots, black expression. “The fuck you are.” “Rhys, it’s done.”
“No,” he said flatly. “What did I tell you in the gazebo, princess? I said from that point on, no other man touches you, and I meant it. You sure as fuck aren’t marrying someone else. We have nine months. We will figure. It. Out.” I wanted to agree. I wanted to be selfish and steal more time with him, but that wouldn’t be fair to either of us. I’d already had Rhys for three years. It was time to let him go. No more being selfish. “What if I want to marry someone else?” Rhys’s nostrils flared. “Don’t lie to me. You barely know Steffan. You went on three fucking dates with the guy.” “Royal marriage isn’t about knowing someone. It’s about suitability, and the fact is, he’s suitable and you’re not.” I hoped Rhys didn’t notice the wobble in my voice. “Plus, Steffan and I have the rest of our lives to get to know each other.” A shudder rippled through his body, and hurt slashed across his face, so raw and visceral it cut through my soul. “I’m the crown princess, and I need to act like one,” I said, hating myself more with every second. “In all areas of my life. I can’t be with a bodyguard. I…” Tears clogged my throat, but I pushed past them. “I’m meant to be with a duke. We both know that.” Rhys flinched. One tiny movement, but it would haunt me forever. “So we’re over. Just like that.” It came out low and dangerous, edged with pain. No, not just like that. You’ll never know how much my heart is breaking right now. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. I wished I could tell him I’d never been happier than when I was with him.
I wished I could tell him it wasn’t about the throne or power, and that if I could, I would give up a kingdom for him. But I’m sorry were the only words I was allowed to say. The emotion wiped clean from Rhys’s eyes until I was staring at steel walls, harder and more guarded even than when we’d first met. “No, Your Highness,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He walked out. One minute, he was there. The next, he was gone. I crumpled, my knees giving out beneath me as I sank onto the floor and hot tears scalded my cheeks and dripped off my chin. My chest heaved so hard I couldn’t draw enough oxygen into my lungs, and I was sure I would die right there on the hospital floor, just a few feet away from the best doctors and nurses in the country. But even they wouldn’t be able to fix what I’d just broken. “You have to move.” “I beg your pardon?” “Your house. It’s a security nightmare. I don’t know who signed off on this location, but you have to move.” “Have you ever been in love?” “No. But I hope to be one day.” “Good night, princess.” “Good night, Mr. Larsen.” Snippets of memories crowded my brain, and I pressed my face into the blanket draped over the couch, muffling my sobs. “Your Highness?” Elin’s voice floated through the door, followed by a knock. “Can I come in?” No. I would be happy if I never talked to you again. But I had responsibilities to fulfill, and an engagement to plan. I forced my sobs to slow until they tapered off.
Deep, controlled breaths. Head tilted up. Tensed muscles. It was a trick I’d learned that had come in handy quite a few times over the years. “One moment,” I said after I got myself under control. I pushed myself off the floor and splashed water on my face before fixing my hair and clothes. I opened the door, my spine stiff. “What is it?” If Elin noticed any lingering redness around my eyes or nose, she didn’t mention it. “I saw Mr. Larsen leave.” My chin wobbled for a split second before I pressed my lips together. “Yes.” “So, it’s done.” She regarded me with a searching look. I responded with a short nod. “Good. It’s the right thing to do, Your Highness,” she said in a far gentler tone than I was used to. “You’ll see. Now.” She snapped back to her usual brisk self. “Shall we go over the plans for Lord Holstein’s proposal?” “Sure,” I said hollowly. “Let’s go over the plans for the proposal.”

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