I WOKE UP THE NEXT MORNING SORE BUT SMILING. I HADN’T woken up in such a good mood in ages, and it took me a minute to remember why. Bits and pieces from last night came back to me, slowly at first, then all at once, and I blushed when I remembered the filthy things I’d said and done in this very room. But I couldn’t stop smiling. I need to make bucket lists more often. I lingered in bed for a while, reluctant to break the dreamy haze enveloping me, but we were leaving today for New York and I needed to get up soon. When I did, I found my travel clothes laid out for me on the dresser, and I realized the rest of the room was spotless. No wayward shoes littering the floor, no bikinis hanging over the chair or makeup scattered over the vanity. Rhys must’ve finished packing for me. I’d crashed so hard I hadn’t even heard him. My suspicions were confirmed when I went down to the living room, where I found him waiting next to our luggage. Gone were the casual T-shirts and board shorts he’d worn the past few days; in their place was his usual all-black outfit. I felt a small pang in my chest. I missed Vacation Rhys already. “Good morning, Your Highness,” he said without looking up from his phone. “Breakfast is ready in the kitchen. Our
flight is at noon, so we should leave in the next forty-five minutes.” My smile faded. Your Highness. Not even a princess. We’d agreed to keep what happened last night to last night, but I hadn’t expected such a one-eighty so soon. Rhys was almost colder now than when we’d first met. “Thank you.” I was so caught off guard I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “For packing and breakfast.” “You’re welcome.” My good mood from earlier drained away, but I hid my disappointment as I ate breakfast alone while Rhys checked to make sure everything in the house looked okay before we left. He saved the kitchen for last, maybe because I was in there. “Mr. Larsen.” It didn’t seem right to call him Rhys, given the chill hanging between us. “Yes?” He opened the now-empty fridge and gave it a cursory scan before closing the door. “I have a proposition for you.” He tensed, and I couldn’t hold back a bitter smile. “Not that kind of proposition,” I said. “And before I say it, I want you to know, it has nothing to do with…recent events.” I hoped I wasn’t making a fool of myself, but if I was, so be it. If I wanted something, I needed to voice it. Otherwise, I had no one to blame except myself when I was wracked with regrets over what-ifs. “You’re a good bodyguard, and I’m already going through enough changes with Nikolai’s abdication. I would like someone by my side who I’m comfortable with during the transition.” Rhys was so still he resembled a statue. “If I put in the request, I think the palace would be amenable to extending your contract until I’m more comfortable in my new role.” I took a deep breath. “It would mean you’d have to move to Eldorra temporarily, and I
understand if that would be too much. But I wanted to give you the option. In case you wanted to stay.” I hadn’t lied when I’d said it had nothing to do with last night. The idea had been brewing for weeks, and I’d kept putting it off. But we were getting down to the wire, and if I didn’t speak up now, it would never happen. Rhys finally blinked. “When do you need an answer by?” I fought back another wave of disappointment. Of course he needed to think about it. It was a huge commitment. But still, I’d thought… “Within the next week, before your contract officially ends.” He nodded, his expression neutral. “I’ll let you know my answer before the end of the week. Thank you for the opportunity.” Rhys left the kitchen, and I stared at the spot where he’d been standing. That was it. No smile, no hint as to whether he was happy or surprised or uncomfortable. Just I’ll let you know my answer before the end of the week, like we were nothing more than professional acquaintances. I tried eating another bite of toast before I gave up and buried my face in my hands. Bridget von Ascheberg, what have you done?
RHYS AND I DIDN’T SPEAK DURING OUR LONG CAR RIDE TO THE airport or the flight itself. Things between us were so strained I almost wished last night hadn’t happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to regret it. The aftermath wasn’t pretty, but the moment had been beautiful. Bucket list number four.
It’d been so much more than a bucket list item, but that would be my secret to keep. “You don’t have to, but…can you join me tomorrow?” I asked as Rhys set my suitcase down in my suite. We’d landed in New York a few hours ago, and we were staying at The Plaza until I left for Eldorra in two days. Nikolai would announce his abdication tomorrow, and I had my press conference after that. The thought made me slightly sick to my stomach. “For the speech.” For the first time that day, Rhys’s face softened. “Of course, princess.” It was funny how much I’d hated the nickname at first, but now it made my heart flutter. Later that night, I tried to sleep, but my mind raced with a million thoughts and worries. Costa Rica, Rhys, whether he would stay on as my bodyguard, the public’s reaction to Nikolai’s abdication and engagement to Sabrina, my grandfather’s health, my debut as crown princess, my move back to Eldorra… I squeezed my eyes shut. Breathe. Just breathe. Eventually, I fell into a restless sleep, plagued by nightmares of getting crushed beneath a giant crown in front of the palace while everyone pointed and laughed. The next morning, I woke up earlier than planned to get ready for my press conference and cover the dark circles beneath my eyes with makeup. I skipped breakfast, not trusting myself to hold the food down, but when Rhys showed up at seven o’clock sharp as promised, he insisted on ordering eggs and a smoothie from room service. No coffee. He said it would help with my anxiety, and surprisingly, it did. Nikolai’s speech started at eight, and we watched in silence as my brother—clad in his military dress uniform, his face taut but determined—delivered the words that would change Eldorran history forever. “…I hereby announce that I am abdicating my title of Crown Prince of Eldorra and removing myself from the royal
line of succession. This decision did not come easy…” The audience’s gasps were audible even through the screen, but Nikolai forged on. Most important decision of my life… My love for the country… Succeeded by my sister, Princess Bridget… I sat stock-still the entire time. I’d known the abdication was coming, but it was surreal to see and hear Nikolai announce it on-screen. After he ended his speech, the camera switched to a visibly stunned news anchor, but Rhys turned off the TV before I heard what the anchor had to say. “Do you need a moment?” He radiated such natural confidence and authority it almost soothed frazzled nerves. Almost. I had my own press conference coming up soon, and I wanted to throw up. Yes. Preferably a million moments. “No.” I cleared my throat and repeated in a stronger voice, “No. Let’s go.” I checked my hair and clothes one last time before we exited my suite. Everything a royal family member said and wore in public had hidden symbolism, and I’d dressed for battle today in a sleek Chanel suit, heels, and a subtle ruby, gold, and diamond brooch that reflected Eldorra’s flag colors. The message: in control and ready to take over. The reality: a complete mess. As Rhys and I took the elevator down to the lobby, a certain numbness set in, making the world around me fuzzy. Tenth floor…ninth floor…eighth floor… My stomach sank further with each floor we passed.
When we reached the lobby, the elevator doors swished open, and I saw a thick crowd of reporters clustered around the hotel entrance, held back only by security. Their shouting reached a crescendo when they saw me, and everyone in the lobby turned to stare at the source of the commotion. Me. I’d dealt with the press plenty of times in the past, but this was my first encounter with them as crown princess. It shouldn’t be any different, but it was. Everything was different. My breaths turned shallow. Pinpricks of darkness danced at the edge of vision, and my steps faltered. “Breathe, princess,” Rhys said quietly. Somehow, he always knew. “You are the future queen. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Inhale. Exhale. He was right. I couldn’t start my first day in my new role scared and timid. Even if all I wanted was to run to my suite and never come out again, I had responsibilities to fulfill. I can do this. I was the future Queen of Eldorra. It was time to act like it. I took a deep breath, straightened my shoulders, and lifted my chin, ignoring the stares of the other hotel guests as I walked toward the exit and the beginning of my new life.

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