“They’re a noisy bunch,” he said quietly, “and they’ve got tempers like you wouldn’t believe. Or perhaps you would. But they’re good people. There’s a reason nobility comes from the word noble. The Baranovs showed me that when I was still a child.”

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“Wow, Jeffrey, sounds like you’ve got a serious case of man-love,” she teased.

He didn’t crack a smile. “They take nothing for granted; not their wealth, not our service. Nothing. And if someone shot me, he’d have his hands full with my king. I can dedicate my lives to them because they have dedicated theirs to mine.”

She chewed on that one for a moment, then added, “Really noisy. Hair-trigger tempers.”

“Pot, meet kettle. Kettle, meet pot.”

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“Oh, hush up. You and your unanswerable observations.” She was cupping her elbows and he realized that she was wearing only black leggings, flats, and a black T-shirt, and the sun had set two hours ago. He unbuttoned his suit jacket and slung it over her shoulders.

“Thanks. Stupid not to bring a jacket. Except I didn’t have a black one.” She pushed her arms into the sleeves and huddled into it. “Hey, maybe I would have frozen to death and then wouldn’t have to worry about any of this.”

“How nice that my career would have ended on a note of personal disaster, not to mention total disgrace.”

“Hey, nobody asked you to skulk outside my window.”

“I’ve been transferred to your detail,” he said, not telling her he’d slammed the paperwork through himself. Not telling her that the thought of someone else guarding her made him physically ill. “You don’t have to ask me to skulk. Skulking is what I do.”

“Great.” She kicked at a tuft of grass. “What, you get demoted? That’s a bummer.”

“Not…quite demoted, Highness.”

“Nih. Cole. Nicole. Nicole! You’re wasting your time, you know. I thought you realized when we met that I could take care of myself.”

“Nicole Krenski, private citizen? No question. Her Royal Highness the Princess Nicole? The world is a big place, and there are an awful lot of people who wouldn’t mind seeing you hurt. Or ransomed.” Or dead.

“I’m the same person I was two weeks ago,” she argued.

“Yes, Princess Nicole. To that end, you’re the same person you were thirty years ago: Princess Nicole.”

“My mom was right not to tell me,” she muttered. “She was right to protect me from all this.”

“Your mother kept you from your rightful inheritance, from your destiny. And for what? To keep you to herself.”

Nicole swung around and even in the near-gloom he could see her blue eyes blaze. “Do not ever shit on my mother, Jeffrey, unless you’d like a pistol-provided enema.”

“If I have angered Her Highness, I apologize.”

“And stop talking about me in the third person!”

“A thousand apologies.” He paused and swallowed a snicker. “To Her Highness.”

This time the kick landed on his left shin, after which she spent a full minute hobbling in a small circle and groaning, “Ow my God, oh ouch oh ow ow ouch ouch ouch ouch!”

“Do you require a doctor, ma’am?”

“No fucking doctor! Jeffrey, you are driving me batshit.”

“A thousand apologies.”

“Well, that’s two thousand for me, then. And we’re never going to talk about it again, are we?”

“Talk about what?” he said, playing dumb, which he did almost as well as Edmund.

“This,” she said, and caught him by the hair and pulled him down to her for a kiss that he thought might burn his mouth.

Chapter 24

T hey grappled, groped, and danced back and forth on the lawn, their mouths together, their tongues dueling, until Nicole lost her balance, Jeffrey lost his trying to grab for her, and they both rolled all the way down the south lawn.

How steep is this hill? she had time to wonder before fetching up against the trunk of a tree, hard.

She groaned.

“Nicole?” His face peered anxiously down at her, feeling her limbs, the back of her skull. “Are you all right? Do you need a doc—”

“No…fucking…doctors,” she moaned, wondering if he’d even realized he’d dropped the “Her Highness” crap. “Had my fill while I was watching my mom die.” She sat up and observed the line of pine trees marking the edge of the lawn. “Oh, man, I hope you’ve got a crane in one of your pockets. I don’t think I can get back up that hill on my own.”

“Why—why did you do that?”

“Because I’m clumsy and I don’t know the lay of the land.”

“Not that. Why did you kiss me?”

She extended a hand, more to feel his than anything else, and he pulled her easily to her feet. “Why did you kiss me?”

“I told you why. Once you’re officially a princess—”

“Screw that, Jeffrey. Do you know how long it’s been since I got laid?”

He gaped at her.

“Well?”

Still he stared.

“Going on two years, buddy boy. And if you think I’m gonna be The Celibate Princess, your tailor’s been cutting your suits too tight.”

“I—I—I—”

“Put it this way. You can do me, or you can find someone to do me. Y’know, vet their credentials, make sure they’re not a security risk. That sort of thing. Either that or I keep sneaking out of the castle at odd times of the day and night looking for lurrrrrv.”

Even in the gloom, she could see him whiten. “You—you—you—”

“Are you sure you’re the smart one?”

“My IQ is 157,” he snapped, brushing pine needles out of his hair, “and you’re telling me I’ve got to fuck you or pimp you?”

“Wow, that’s quite a turn of phrase, Big Brain. But, yeah. That’s what I’m telling you.”

He threw up his hands and walked around in a small circle. “You’re just as bad as any of them!”

“Oh, hey. No need to get nasty.”

“My way or the highway.” Now he was kicking grass. “It ought to be on the Baranov coat of arms.”

“What is on the Baranov coat—”

“Nicole, I can’t.”

“Oh. Old war injury?” She swallowed a giggle as she saw him flush.

“I didn’t mean I physically can’t—couldn’t—I mean I’m perfectly capable—that is, the ladies have said—not that there have been a lot, but—oh, fuck.”

That was it; it was too much. Overload. She sank to her knees, laughing like a loon on uppers.

“I remind Her Highness,” he said grimly, hands jammed wrist-deep into his pockets, “that I am heavily armed.”

“Prove it, stud. And stop talking about me in the third person; I’m not warning you again. But first get me up this hill.”

“I’ll do the latter, but we’re not done discussing the first.”

“How about if I make it a royal command?”

“You couldn’t issue a royal command if I stuck my gun up your nose.”

“Oooh, is that your idea of foreplay?”

Muttering, he turned his back to her and brushed more pine needles off his suit. She leaped on his back and wrapped her legs around his waist. He was so surprised he nearly fell down again.

“Let’s ride, cowboy,” she said, then kissed him on the right earlobe.

He took the gradual slope at a dead run, clutching her legs so she wouldn’t fall off, and she rode him all the way to the top, whooping and giggling.

They were having so much fun, in fact, that they nearly knocked Edmund down the same slope they’d just come up.

Chapter 25

J effrey had his gun out, but whether it was to shoot himself, Nicole, or Edmund he didn’t know.

Disgrace. Dishonor. Death?

Edmund’s question, “Did you two lose something besides your minds?” was still hanging in the air.

Nicole hadn’t climbed down. She just glared at Edmund over Jeffrey’s left shoulder. He could feel the glare.

“What are you doing out here? It’s practically the middle of the night!”

“It’s nine-thirty,” Edmund said mildly. “Prince Nicholas went looking for you, Princess. He is still looking. So I suggest, Your Highness, that you get back inside. Now.”

It was amazing. He sounded totally polite, even deferential, but she knew it wasn’t a request.

Jeffrey, the bum who was supposedly watching out for her physical safety, dropped her like she was hot, and she hit the lawn ass-first.

“Ow, dammit!” Nicole reacted. Then, “Fine, we’re going.”

“Mr. Dante—”

“Jeffrey, your…ah…devotion to duty is commendable, but I am perfectly capable of escorting Her Highness back to the palace if you need to…ah…walk the perimeter. That is what you were doing, yes?” He speared Jeffrey with a laser-beam gaze. “Walking the perimeter?”

“Yes.”

“Very well. Good night.”

“Good night,” Jeffrey said glumly. There was no point in wondering whether Edmund had seen them kissing. The man saw everything.

“Hey.” Nicole was handing him back his jacket. “You’re not in trouble, right? Because I take full responsibility. I was the one who climbed out of my window and—”

“I enjoyed our walk, Highness,” he said loudly, drowning out her confession. “Reynolds will relieve me at the top of the hour, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Oh.”

Incredibly, she seemed almost hurt. But that couldn’t be right. He was saving her reputation at the cost of his own. It was for her own good. Surely she realized that.

“Fine. See ya,” Nicole said.

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