“MIGHT I SAY, YOU LOOK ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL TONIGHT, Your Highness,” Edwin, the Count of Falser, said as he guided me across the dance floor. “Thank you. You look quite handsome yourself.” With his sandy-colored hair and athletic build, Edwin wasn’t hard on the eyes, but I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm beyond my bland compliment. After weeks of frenzied planning, the night of my big ball was finally here, and I couldn’t be more underwhelmed. My dance partners had all been duds so far, and I hadn’t had a chance to so much as breathe since I arrived. It’d been dance after dance, small talk after small talk. I hadn’t eaten anything other than the two strawberries I snuck from the dessert table between dances, and my heels felt like razor blades strapped to my feet. Edwin puffed out his chest. “I do put a lot of effort into my appearance,” he said in a poor attempt at a humble tone. “Athenberg’s top tailor customized my tuxedo, and Eirik— recently named by Vogue as Europe’s top hairstylist—comes to my house every two weeks for maintenance. I also built a new gym in my house. Maybe you’ll see it one day.” He shot me a cocky smile. “I don’t want to brag, but I believe it’ll match anything you have in the palace. Top-of-the-line cardio machines, DISKUS dumbbell sets made of Grade 303 nonreactive stainless steel…” My eyes glazed over. Dear God. I would rather listen to my last dance partner analyze Athenberg’s traffic patterns
during rush hour. My dance with Edwin thankfully ended before he could expound further on his gym equipment, and I soon found myself in the arms of my next suitor. “So.” I smiled gaily at Alfred, the son of the Earl of Tremark. He was a few inches shorter than me, and I had a direct view of his balding spot. I tried not to let it deter me. I didn’t want to be one of those shallow people who only cared about looks, but it would be easier not to focus on his looks if he gave me something else to work with. He hadn’t looked me in the eye once since we started dancing. “I hear you’re quite the, er, bird connoisseur.” Alfred had built an aviary on his estate, and according to Mikaela, one of his birds famously pooped on Lord Ashworth’s head during the Earl’s annual spring ball. Alfred mumbled a reply. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that,” I said politely. Another mumble, accompanied by a crimson flush that spread all the way to his bald spot. I did us both a favor and stopped talking. I wondered who’d forced him to attend tonight and who was having a worse time—him or me. I stifled a yawn and looked around the ballroom, searching for something interesting to hold my attention. My grandfather held court with a few ministers in the corner. Mikaela hovered near the dessert table, flirting with a guest I didn’t recognize, and Andreas snaked through the crowd, looking like, well, a snake. I wished my friends were here. I’d video chatted with Ava, Jules, and Stella earlier that day, and I missed them so much it hurt. I would much rather spend my birthday eating ice cream and watching cheesy rom coms than dancing my feet off with people I didn’t even like. I need a break. Just a small one. Just so I could breathe.
“Apologies,” I said so abruptly a surprised Alfred stumbled and nearly knocked the tray out of a passing server’s hand. “I’m…not feeling well. Would you mind if I cut our dance short? I’m terribly sorry.” “Oh, not at all, Your Highness,” he said, his words finally audible and filled with relief. “I hope you feel better soon.” “Thank you.” I snuck a peek at Elin. She had her back turned as she chatted with the society columnist covering the party, and I slipped out of the ballroom before she saw me. I hurried down the hall until I reached the restroom tucked into a quiet alcove, half-shielded by a giant bronze bust of King Frederick I. I locked the door, sat on the toilet seat, and kicked off my shoes with a sigh of relief. My dress poufed around me in a cloud of pale blue silk and tulle. It was a gorgeous creation, as were my strappy silver heels and the diamond necklace resting against my collarbone, but all I wanted was to change into my pajamas and crawl into bed. “Two more hours,” I said. Or maybe it was three. It couldn’t be more than three. I must’ve already danced with every man in the room, and I was no closer to a husband than I’d been at the beginning of the night. I closed my eyes and rested my head in my hands. Don’t think about it. If I started thinking—about how the entire nation was watching me and how one of the men in the ballroom was likely my future husband—I would spiral. And if I started thinking about one particular man, gruff and scarred with eyes that could melt steel and hands that could melt me, I would end up on a path that could only lead to ruin. I’d avoided looking at Rhys all night, but I knew he was there, dressed in a dark suit and earpiece and oozing such raw masculinity several female guests fluttered around him instead of the princes who were usually hot commodities at such parties.
We hadn’t had any time alone since that day outside the drawing room, but that was probably a good thing. I didn’t trust myself around him. I stayed in the bathroom for another few minutes before I forced myself to leave. Otherwise, Elin would hunt me down and drag me back like I was an errant child. I slipped my shoes back on with a small wince, opened the door—and walked straight into a wall. A six-foot-five, unsmiling wall. “Dear Lord!” My hand flew to my chest, where my heart beat triple time. “You scared me.” “Sorry.” Rhys didn’t sound sorry. “What are you doing here?” “You left the party. I’m your bodyguard.” He raised an eyebrow. “Put two and two together.” Classic Rhys. If there was a rude way to answer a question, he’d find it. “Fine. Well, I’m ready to return to the party, so if you’ll excuse me…” I sidestepped him, but he grabbed my arm before I could go any further. Time stopped and narrowed to where his large hand encircled my wrist. His natural tan contrasted with my winter pale skin, and his fingers were rough and callused, unlike the smooth, soft hands of the lords and princes I’d danced with all night. A knee-weakening desire to feel them slide over my skin, branding me as his, overtook me. Bucket list number four. My breathing sounded shallow in the tiny, intimate alcove. It wasn’t right, the power this man had over me, but I was helpless in the face of my heart, hormones, and the indomitable force that was Rhys Larsen. After what felt like an eternity, but in reality was only a few seconds, Rhys spoke. “I didn’t get a chance to say this earlier,” he said. “But happy birthday, princess.”
Thump, thump, thump, went my heart. “Thank you.” He didn’t let go of my wrist, and I didn’t ask him to. The air between us thickened with unspoken words. I wondered if we would’ve worked in a different life, a different world. One in which I was just a woman and he was just a man, unburdened by the rules and expectations of others. And I hated myself for wondering those things because Rhys had never given me any indication he was interested in me beyond physical attraction and professional obligation. None, except for the fleeting moments when he looked at me like I was his whole world, and he never wanted to blink. “How are you enjoying the ball?” I might’ve imagined it, but I thought I felt his thumb rub the soft skin of my wrist. Thump. Thump. Thump. “It’s fine.” I was too distracted by what might or might not be happening to my wrist to come up with a better answer. “Just fine?” There it was. Another thumb rub. I could’ve sworn it. “You spent quite a bit of time with the Earl of Falser.” “How do you know which one the earl is?” “Princess, I know every man who even thinks about touching you. Much less one who you danced with. Twice,” Rhys added, the word lethally soft. It should’ve frightened me, but instead, my skin tingled and my thighs clenched. What is wrong with me? “That’s quite a talent.” I’d only danced with Edwin twice because he’d insisted, and I was too tired to argue. Rhys’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “So. The Earl of Falser. Is he the one?” “No.” I shook my head. “Not unless I want to spend the rest of my life hearing about his clothes and gym equipment.”
Rhys pressed his thumb against my pounding pulse. “Good.” The way he said it made it sound like the earl had escaped death by a hair’s breadth. “I should return to the dance,” I said, even though that was the last thing I wanted. “Elin must be going crazy.” “Going?” I laughed my first real laugh of the night. “You’re terrible.” “But not wrong.” This was the Rhys I’d missed. The dry humor, the glimpses of his hidden softness. This was the real Rhys. “How does twenty-four feel?” he asked as we walked back to the ballroom. “Like twenty-three, except hungrier and more tired. How does thirty-four feel?” He’d turned thirty-four during the weeks we’d been apart. I’d thought about calling him on his birthday but chickened out at the last minute. “Like thirty-three, except stronger and smarter.” A grin touched his mouth at my half-amused, half-annoyed huff. When we returned to the ball, we found Elin waiting for us at the entrance with her arms crossed over her chest. “Good. You found her,” she said without looking at Rhys. “Your Highness, where have you been?” “I had to use the ladies’ room.” It was only half a lie. “For forty minutes? You missed your dance with Prince Demetrios, who just left.” Elin sighed. “Never mind. There are more potential suitors here. Go, quickly. The night is almost over.” Thank God for that. I resumed my dances. Elin watched me like a hawk, and I was too terrified to look in Rhys’s direction lest something show on my face that I didn’t want her to see.
“Am I that boring?” “I’m sorry?” I dragged my attention back to my current partner Steffan, the son of the Duke of Holstein. “You keep looking over my shoulder. Either there’s something fascinating happening behind me, or my in-depth analysis of the palace’s architectural style isn’t as scintillating as I thought.” A blush warmed my cheeks. “My apologies.” None of my previous dance partners had picked up on my wandering attention, and I’d assumed he wouldn’t either. “That was terribly rude of me.” “No apologies necessary, Your Highness.” Steffan’s eyes crinkled in a good-natured smile. “I must admit, I could’ve come up with a better conversation topic than the history of neoclassicism. That’s what happens when I’m nervous. I spout all sorts of useless facts.” I laughed. “There are worse ways to deal with nerves, I suppose.” My skin suddenly burned, and I stumbled for a second before I caught myself. “Are you all right?” Steffan asked, looking concerned. I nodded, forcing myself not to look at Rhys, but I could feel the heat of his stare on my back. Focus on Steffan. He was the most enjoyable dance partner I’d had all night, and he checked every box for an eligible Prince Consort: funny, charming, and handsome, not to mention the bluest of blue bloods. I liked him. I just didn’t like him romantically. “It seems our time has come to an end,” Steffan said when the music wound down. The night was finally over. “But perhaps we could go out sometime, just the two of us? The new skating rink on Nyhausen is quite nice, and they serve the best hot chocolate in the city.” A date.
I wanted to say no because I didn’t want to lead him on, but that was the whole point of the ball—to find a husband, and I couldn’t get a husband without dating first. “That sounds lovely,” I said. Steffan grinned. “Excellent. I’ll call you later and we’ll set up the details.” “It’s a plan.” I left to give my closing speech thanking everyone for attending, and after the guests filtered out one by one, I hurried out of the ballroom, eager to leave before Elin could get a hold of me. I made it halfway to the exit before someone blocked my path. “Your Highness.” I stifled a groan. “Lord Erhall.” The Speaker of Parliament stared down his nose at me. He was a tall, spindly man with graying hair and eyes like a reptile’s, cold and predatory. He was also one of the most powerful people in the country, hence why he received an invite despite not being in the eligible bachelor age range. “His Majesty and I missed you at yesterday’s meeting,” he said. “We discussed the new proposed tax reform legislation, which I’m sure you would have contributed greatly to.” I didn’t miss the mocking undertone. I sometimes attended the weekly meetings my grandfather had with the Speaker, and Erhall had insinuated multiple times he thought I had no business being there. He was one of the Parliament members Edvard had referred to when he’d said there were people who didn’t want to see a woman on the throne. “Indeed,” I said coolly. “You’ve been trying to pass similar legislation for years, have you not, Mr. Speaker? It does seem it could benefit from new ideas.”
Erhall’s mouth tightened, but his voice was deceptively light when he responded. “I hope you enjoyed the ball, Your Highness. Husband hunting is surely a top priority for a princess.” Everyone knew the true purpose of the ball, but no one was stupid or untactful enough to voice it out aloud…except for Erhall, who wielded enough power he could get away with insulting the crown princess at her own party. There were even rumors he might be the next Prime Minister when he inevitably ran for the office. I resisted the urge to slap him. That would play right into his game. No one would be happier than Erhall if my public image took a hit, which it would if I was caught attacking the Speaker of Parliament on my birthday. “Let me be frank, Your Highness.” Erhall smoothed his tie. “You are a lovely young woman, but being the monarch of Eldorra requires more than a pretty face. You have to understand the politics, the dynamics, the serious issues at hand. Your brother was trained for it, but you haven’t even lived in Eldorra for the past few years. Don’t you think it would be best if you handed the responsibilities of the crown to someone more suited to the role?” “Who might that be?” My voice dripped poisonous honey. “Someone male, I presume.” It was unbelievable we were having this conversation, but no one had ever accused Parliament of moving forward with the times. Erhall smiled, wise enough not to give a direct answer. “Whoever you think best, Your Highness.” “Let me be clear, Mr. Speaker.” My face was hot and blotchy from humiliation, but I pushed past it. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing he’d gotten under my skin. “I have no intention of abdicating, stepping aside, or handing my responsibilities to anyone else.” No matter how much I want to. “One day, I’ll sit on the throne, and you’ll have to answer to me—if you are still in power then.” Erhall’s face darkened at my not-so-subtle dig. “Therefore, it’s best for everyone
involved if we have a civil relationship.” I paused, then added, “On that note, I suggest monitoring your tone when speaking with me or any member of the royal family. You are a guest here. That’s it.” “You—” Erhall took a step toward me, then blanched and quickly stepped back. Rhys came up beside me, his face expressionless but his eyes darker than a thundercloud. “Is he bothering you, Your Highness?” Erhall glared at him but wisely kept his mouth shut. “No. The Speaker was just leaving.” I flashed a polite smile. “Weren’t you, Mr. Speaker?” The Speaker’s lips thinned. He gave me a tight nod and a curt “Your Highness” before spinning on his heel and marching away. “What did he say to you?” Menace rolled off Rhys in palpable waves, and I was certain he would hunt Erhall down and snap his neck if I gave the okay. “Nothing worth repeating. Really,” I repeated when Rhys continued glaring at the spot where Erhall had stood. “Forget about him.” “He was about to grab you.” “He wouldn’t have.” I wasn’t sure what Erhall had planned to do before Rhys showed up, but he was too savvy to lose his cool in public. “Please, drop it. I just want to sleep. It’s been a long night.” I didn’t want to waste more energy on Erhall. He wasn’t worth it. Rhys complied, though he didn’t look happy about it. Then again, he rarely looked happy. He escorted me to my room, and when we arrived at my door, he pulled something out of his suit pocket. “Your birthday present,” he said gruffly, handing me a rolled-up sheet of paper tied with a ribbon. “Nothing fancy,
but I had it and thought you might like it.” My breath caught. “You didn’t have to get me anything.” We never bought each other birthday presents. The most we did was buy each other a meal, and even then, we pretended it was for something other than the other’s birthday. “It’s not a big deal.” Rhys watched, shoulders tense, while I carefully untied the ribbon and unrolled the paper. Once I saw what was on it, I gasped. It was me. A drawing of me, to be exact, in a pool surrounded by hills with the ocean in the distance. Head tipped back, smile on my face, looking freer and happier than I ever remembered feeling. The curve of my lips, the sparkle in my eyes, even the tiny mole beneath my ear… He’d captured it all in exquisite, painstaking detail, and looking at me through his eyes, I believed I was the most beautiful woman in the world. “It’s not jewelry or anything like that,” Rhys said. “Keep it if you want or toss it. I don’t care.” “Toss it?” I clutched the drawing to my chest. “Are you kidding? Rhys, this is beautiful.” My words hung in the air, and we realized at the same time I’d called him by his name again. My first time doing so since Costa Rica. But it felt right because, at that moment, he wasn’t Mr. Larsen. He was Rhys. And Rhys had given me the best gift I’d ever received. He was right—it wasn’t a fancy purse or diamond jewelry, but I would much rather have one sketch from him than a hundred Tiffany diamonds. Anyone could buy a diamond. No one except him could’ve drawn me the way he did, and it didn’t escape my notice this was the first time he’d ever shared his art with me. “It’s all right.” He shrugged.
“It’s not all right, it’s beautiful,” I repeated. “Seriously, thank you. I’ll treasure this forever.” I never thought I’d see the day, but Rhys blushed. Actually blushed. I watched in fascination as the red spread across his neck and cheeks, and the desire to trace its path with my tongue gripped me. But of course, I couldn’t do that. I could tell he wanted to say something else, but whatever it was, he thought better of it. “It’s no security alarm, but I can save that for Christmas,” he said with a lopsided smile. I grinned, giddy from the combination of his gift and his joke. There was nothing I loved better than seeing the normally serious Rhys joke around. “I’ll hold you to that.” “Good night, princess.” “Good night, Mr. Larsen.” That night, I lay in bed and stared at Rhys’s drawing in the moonlight filtering through the curtains. I wished I was that girl again. Not yet crown princess, soaking up the sun in a remote town where no one could find me. But I wasn’t. Perhaps I loved Rhys’s drawing so much not only because he was the artist, but because it immortalized a version of myself I could never be again. I gently rolled the sketch up and tucked it into a safe corner of my bedside drawer. Part-Time Princess. Being the monarch of Eldorra requires more than a pretty face. Let me be clear, Mr. Speaker. I have no intention of abdicating, stepping aside, or handing my responsibilities to anyone else. Until now, I’d been a passive participant in my own life, letting others make my decisions, the press run roughshod over me, and the likes of Erhall condescend to me.
Not anymore. It was time to take matters into my own hands. The game of Eldorran politics was a battlefield, and this was war.

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