TRIAL MONTH FOUR By the time graduation rolled around a month later, I’d corralled the butterflies into a cage, but an errant one escaped twice. Once, when I saw Rhys petting Meadow, who’d worn him down with her utter cuteness. Another time when I saw the way his arm muscles flexed as he carried groceries into the house. It didn’t take a lot to get my butterflies going. Hussies. Still, despite the annoying critters living rent-free in my stomach, I tried to act normal around Rhys. I didn’t have another option. “Do I get a medal or a certificate of recognition for my incredible restraint over the past four months?” It just so happened the last day of my trial period coincided with my graduation ceremony, and I couldn’t resist teasing Rhys while we waited for Ava to set up the shot on her tripod. She was our unofficial photographer for group photos today. “No. You get a tracker-free phone.” Rhys scanned the quad, his suspicious gaze drilling into suburban dads with beer bellies and WASP-y moms dressed in head-to-toe Tory Burch alike. “It’s been tracker-free this entire time.” “Now it stays tracker-free.” Apparently, Rhys had never heard of matching someone’s energy. I was trying to be lighthearted, and he was more
serious than a heart attack. Really, Bridget? This is the guy you want to flutter for? Before I could come up with a witty response, Ava waved us over for photos, and Rhys lingered behind while I squeezed into the shot with Jules, Stella, Josh, and Ava, who was controlling the camera through an app on her phone. I’d deal with my inappropriate flutters later. It was my last time on campus with my friends as a student, sort of, and I wanted to enjoy it. “You stepped on my foot,” Jules snapped at Josh. “Your foot got in my way,” Josh snapped back. “Like I would intentionally put any part of my body in your way—” “I need to Lysol myself to get your—” “Stop it!” Stella slashed her hand through the air, startling everyone with her sharp tone. She was usually the most Zen in our group. “Or I’ll post the candid and very unflattering photos I have of the both of you online.” Josh and Jules gasped. “You wouldn’t,” they said at the same time before glaring at each other. I stifled a laugh while Ava, who usually played reluctant mediator between her friend and brother, cracked a smile. Eventually, we wrangled everyone into a respectable group shot, then another, and another, until we took enough pictures to fill a half dozen albums and it was time to say goodbye. I hugged my friends and tried to swallow the messy ball of emotion in my throat. “I’ll miss you guys.” Jules and Stella were staying in D.C. to attend law school and work as an assistant at D.C. Style magazine, respectively, but Ava was heading to London for a year-long photography fellowship, and I was moving to New York. I’d convinced the palace to let me stay in the U.S. as Eldorra’s royal ambassador. If an event required a royal Eldorran presence, I was the person for the job. Unfortunately,
as much as I wanted to stay in D.C., most of the events took place in New York, so there I would go. I hugged Ava the hardest and longest. Between her family drama and breakup with Alex, she’d gone through hell the past few months, and she needed extra love. “You’ll adore London,” I said. “It’ll be a fresh start, and you have the little black book of must-visit spots I gave you.” Ava flashed a small smile. “I’m sure I will. Thanks.” She glanced around, and I wondered if she was looking for Alex. No matter what she said, she wasn’t over him, and she probably wouldn’t be for a while. I didn’t spot him in the crowd, but I wasn’t surprised. For a supposed genius, he could be quite the idiot. He’d said and done some hurtful things, but he cared about Ava. He was just either too stubborn or too stupid to act on it. I made a mental note to pay him a visit before I left for New York. I was tired of waiting for him to pull his head out of his ass. After one last round of hugs, my friends drifted off with their families until it was just me and Rhys. My grandfather and Nikolai had wanted to come, but they canceled their trip at the last minute because of some diplomatic crisis with Italy. They were both distraught over missing my graduation, but I’d assured them it was okay. And it was. I understood the responsibilities that came with the crown and the heir. But it didn’t mean I couldn’t wallow in a bit of self-pity. “You ready?” Rhys asked, his tone a shade gentler than usual. I nodded, tamping down the flicker of loneliness in my stomach as we walked to our car. Graduation, moving cities, saying goodbye to everything I’d loved for the past four years…it was too much change in too short a time. I was so lost in my thoughts I didn’t notice we were heading into the city instead of home until I spotted the
Washington Monument glowing in the distance. “Where are we going?” I straightened in my seat. “You’re not dragging me to some warehouse so you can butcher me, are you?” I couldn’t see Rhys’s face, but I could hear his eye roll. “If I wanted to do that, I would’ve done so the day after meeting you.” I frowned, more insulted than reassured, but my tart reply died on my lips when he added, “Figured you wouldn’t want to stay home and order takeout on graduation night.” I didn’t want to stay home on graduation night. It seemed so sad, but it seemed sadder to eat dinner by myself in some fancy restaurant. I had Rhys, but he was paid to be there, and he wasn’t exactly a chatty conversationalist. And yet…he knew exactly what I needed without me uttering a word. Another butterfly escaped in my stomach before I shoved it back into its cage. “Where are we going, then?” I repeated my question, intrigue edging out my earlier melancholy. He pulled up in front of a strip mall. There weren’t many of those in D.C., but this one contained all the trappings of a suburban outpost, including a Subway, a nail salon, and a restaurant named Walia. “Best Ethiopian spot in the city.” Rhys cut the engine. My heart tripped. Ethiopian was my favorite cuisine. Of course, Rhys could’ve chosen it at random without remembering the fact, which I’d let slip one time during a drive home. “I don’t believe you,” I said. “Best Ethiopian is on U Street.” It wasn’t. One taste of Walia’s injera sourdough flatbread and tibs wot beef half an hour later, and I knew Rhys was right. It was the best Ethiopian spot in the city.
“How did I not know about this place?” I demanded, breaking off another piece of injera and using it to scoop up the meat. In Ethiopian culture, the bread was an eating utensil as much as it was food. “It flies under most people’s radar. I guarded an Ethiopian VIP for a few months. Only reason I found out about this place.” “You’re full of surprises.” I chewed my food, thinking. After I swallowed, I said, “Since it’s my graduation night, let’s play a game. It’s called Getting to Know Rhys Larsen.” “Sounds boring.” Rhys flicked his eyes around the restaurant. “I already know Rhys Larsen.” “I don’t.” He heaved a long-suffering sigh, and I fought the urge to cheer because the sigh meant he was about to cave. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, I reveled in it like a kid in a candy store. “Fine.” Rhys sat back and folded his hands over his stomach, the picture of grouchiness. “Only because it’s your graduation night.” I smiled. Bridget: one. Rhys: zero. For the rest of dinner, I peppered him with questions I’d always wanted to ask, starting with the small stuff. Favorite food? Baked sweet potatoes. Favorite color? Black. (Shocker). Favorite movie? Reservoir Dogs. After I exhausted the basics, I moved on to more personal territory. To my surprise, he answered most of my questions without complaint. The only ones he skirted were those about his family. Biggest fear? Failure. Biggest dream? Peace.
Biggest regret? Inaction. Rhys didn’t elaborate on his vague answers, and I didn’t push him. He’d already given me more than I’d expected, and if I pushed too hard, he would shut down. Eventually, I worked up the courage to bring up something that had been needling me for the past few weeks. The honey wine helped. It made me all warm and buzzy, and it eroded my inhibitions with every sip. “About the indoor festival you set up for Rokbury…” Rhys stabbed at a piece of beef, ignoring the table of women ogling him from the corner. “What about it?” “My friends didn’t know what I was talking about when I mentioned it to them.” I’d checked with Ava and Stella too, just in case, and they’d both stared at me like I’d grown two heads. “So?” I finished my wine, my nerves jumping all over the place. “So, you said my friends helped you with the setup.” Rhys chewed quietly, not answering me. “Did you…” A strange lump formed in my throat. I blamed it on too much food. “Did you come up with the idea? And set it up all by yourself?” “It’s not a big deal.” He continued eating without looking at me. I’d known it was him since my phone call with Jules, but hearing him confirm it was a whole other matter. The butterflies in my stomach escaped all at once, and the lump in my throat grew. “It is a big deal. It was…very thoughtful. As was tonight. Thank you.” I spun my silver ring around my finger. “But I don’t understand why you didn’t tell me it was your idea, or why you did it all. You don’t even like me.” Rhys’s brow scrunched. “Who said I didn’t like you?”
“You.” “I never said that.” “You implied it. You’re always so grumpy and scolding me.” “Only when you don’t listen.” I bit back a tart reply. The night was going so well, and I didn’t want to ruin it, even if he made me feel like a misbehaving child sometimes. “I didn’t tell you because it was inappropriate,” he added gruffly. “You’re my client. I should not be…doing those types of things.” My heart crashed against my ribcage. “But you did it, anyway.” Rhys’s mouth flattened into a displeased line, like he was angry at his own actions. “Yes.” “Why?” He finally lifted his eyes to meet mine. “Because I understand what it’s like to be alone.” Alone. The word struck me harder than it should’ve. I wasn’t physically alone—I was surrounded by people all day, every day. But no matter how much I tried to pretend I was a normal college student, I wasn’t. I was the Princess of Eldorra. It meant glamour and celebrity, but it also meant bodyguards and round-the-clock protection, bulletproof vests and a life that was planned, not lived. The other royals I knew, including my brother, were content with living life in a fishbowl. I was the only one clawing at my insides, desperate to escape my own skin. Alone. Rhys somehow recognized that inherent truth about me before I did.
“Thoughtful and observant.” He was observant of his surroundings, but I hadn’t expected him to be so observant of me he saw parts of me I’d hid from myself. “You really are full of surprises.” “Don’t tell anyone, or I’ll have to kill them.” The tension cracked, and a small, genuine smile blossomed on my lips. “Humorous too. I’m convinced aliens have hijacked your body.” Rhys snorted. “I’d like to see them try.” I didn’t ask any more questions after that, and Rhys didn’t offer any more answers. We finished our dinner in companionable silence, and after he paid—he’d refused to entertain the idea of splitting the check—we walked off the food in a nearby park. “You’re really letting me walk around here without my vest?” I teased. The bulletproof vest hung in the back of my closet, unused since our trip to the mall. An image of Rhys’s hands on my skin in the dressing room flashed through my mind, and my face heated. Thank God it’s dark out. “Don’t make me regret it.” Rhys paused before adding, “You’ve proven you can handle yourself without me breathing down your neck.” He said it almost grudgingly. I had been more careful with my actions in recent months, even without Rhys’s explicit instructions, but I hadn’t expected him to notice. He’d never said anything about it until now. A pleasant warmth unfurled in my stomach. “Mr. Larsen, we might not kill each other after all.” His mouth twitched. We continued walking through the park, where we passed couples making out on the benches, teens huddled by the fountain, and a busker playing his heart out on the guitar.
I wanted to stay in that peaceful moment forever, but dinner, alcohol, and a long day conspired to drive exhaustion into my bones, and I couldn’t hold back a small yawn. Rhys noticed instantly. “Time to go, princess. Let’s get you to bed.” Maybe it was because I was delirious from fatigue and the high emotion of the day, or maybe it was because of my recent dry spell with the opposite sex, but a mental image of him “getting me to bed” flashed through my mind, and my entire body flushed. Because in my imagination, we were doing anything but sleeping. Images of Rhys naked, on top of me, under me, behind me…they all crowded my brain until my thighs clenched and my clothes rasped against my skin. My tongue suddenly felt too thick, the air too thin. My first sexual fantasy about him, and he was standing less than five feet away, staring right at me. I was a princess, he was my bodyguard. I was twenty-two, he was thirty-two. It was wrong, but I couldn’t stop. Rhys’s eyes darkened. Mind reading didn’t exist, but I had the eerie sense he could somehow crawl inside my brain and pick out every dirty, forbidden thought I had about him. I opened my mouth—to say what, I wasn’t sure, but I had to say something to break the dangerously charged silence. Before I could utter a word, however, a gunshot ripped through the night, and chaos ensued.

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