“Holy shit!” Olivia screeches. And jumps. “There’s a rat! A huge rat!”
“Don’t hurt him!” Ellie yells. “I saw him before. I was going to try feeding him. I already named him Remy—from Ratatouille—he’s cute.”
“Remy’s not gonna be so cute when he’s eating your toes while you sleep,” I tell her.
She points her finger at me, all cute and pissy. “You’re not helping.”
Olivia starts repacking boxes.
Ellie leaps towards her. “Wait, Liv! Back me up—sister code.”
“You can’t stay here, Ellie. There’s no way.”
“But it’s got character written all over it,” Ellie whines.
“I think you’re mistaking character for the message the serial killer wrote on the wall in blood, after he dumped the bodies here.”
Ellie scowls at her big sister, shaking her head, “Marrying a prince has made you soft, Liv.”
Olivia laughs. “I was never hard enough for Remy. Ever.” The new princess snaps her fingers. “Let’s go.”
She then follows her husband and Tommy straight out the door.
While I close up a box at my feet and lift it, Ellie stands in the middle of the room, turning in a half circle. She’s quiet and seems . . . tiny in the empty flat. Dejected.
I step up behind her. “There’ll be other places, Elle.”
Her purple tipped blond hair sways across her back as she shakes her head. “Not like this.”
“No, they’ll be better. Nicer, safer places. You deserve better.”
She spins around then, with a burst of righteous energy. The tips of her small ears go pink and her cheeks are rosy with anger.
“You ratted me out to Nicholas,” she hisses.
And there’s a devil inside me that wants to tease her, toy with her—like a lad tugging on a girl’s braids—just to see how she’ll react when I do.
“Yeah, I did.”
Ellie folds her arms, all adorable simmering fury—a pretty pussycat who just discovered her claws. “I didn’t take you for a narc, Logan.”
I shrug. “Now you know.”
She jams her finger towards my chest. “You are on my permanent shit list, buddy. I’ll never forgive you for this. Never.”
I lean in close, dropping my voice. “Since now you’ll actually be alive for all those years that you’re busy not forgiving me, I’m gonna put this one down as a win.”
She sticks her tongue out, then twirls around and stomps away.
And, Christ, even her tongue is cute.
Somebody fuckin’ punch me.
Six months later
FOR THE NEXT FEW MONTHS, Ellie stays put—at the well-secured penthouse with Prince Nicholas and Olivia. Their lives go on—there are social events and announcements and the occasional royal duty. The rest of their time is spent working on expanding the Amelia’s charitable diners. Eric Hammond, almost two years sober now, has thrown himself into the venture and works every day at one of the three locations—cooking, washing dishes, interacting with employees and patrons—doing whatever needs to be done to keep the places running smoothly.
The press still swarms the royal couple like a nest of annoying nits, publishing articles that have no truth to them. But Nicholas settles in happily to married life and his mostly civilian American existence. While Lady Olivia, her father and Ellie adjust fully to their celebrity-by-association status.
And Ellie occasionally . . . dates.
It’s a sore subject. Mostly because it irks the fuck out of me.
Her preference seems to be scrawny, self-important, worthless little twats. Ellie Hammond is a delicate prize, with so much to offer, and she’s selling herself too bloody short.
My mood is black whenever a new one arrives on the scene, and blacker during the few weeks they tend to hang around. Tommy always asks me if it’s my time of the month—and I tell him to piss off.
He enjoys playing the jokester, but he’s sharp; he notices things.
Then, one night, Ellie she comes home from an evening with her current tool, and I go from irked to furious in a red-hot minute.
And I’m not alone.
Nicholas, Tommy and I rush into the living room, where Olivia is calling for the butler, her voice electrified with rage.
“Where’s my bat?” she yells before yanking open the closet door, and yelling into it, “Where is my goddamn baseball bat?”
“Olivia?” Nicholas steps towards her. “What in the—”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph,” Tommy hisses.
Because he’s looking at Ellie’s face. At the burgeoning bruise just starting to form on the smooth apple of her right cheek. I’ve been in enough fights to know what I’m looking at.
Someone fucking slapped her.
Someone put his hands on her, and now he’s going to fucking lose them. I swear immediately and silently—to every saint I know.
“Olivia, please calm down,” Ellie implores.
“David,” Nicholas tells the butler, “bring a cold compress, please.”
My eyes swing to Liam, standing just behind Ellie—he was her security for the night. “What happened?”
“I was in the hall, outside the flat—she came running out,” Liam explains. “The guy was following her and I shoved him back, got her to the car and brought her here. I didn’t see the mark until we were on the road.”
Nicholas moves to Ellie, raising his hands slowly. “May I?”
Ellie nods and Nicholas gently inspects her injury, pressing with his thumbs along her cheek, feeling for broken bones.
“I’m okay,” Ellie declares calmly. “Mitchell had a few beers, we were watching the game—he had money on the Mets. And I hate the Mets. When the Cardinals hit a grand slam, I laughed—I was just joking. And he . . . pshhh . . .” She swings her arm into a backhand, and my gut tightens.
“He slapped me.”
Tears leak into her throat, choking her voice. “I was just . . . stunned, you know? But I only waited a second, then I grabbed my phone and got the hell out of there. I’m done with him. I think I’m done with all of them.”
And then Olivia is there—pulling her baby sister into her arms, holding her close, smoothing down the back of her rainbow-tipped hair.
“Nothing seems broken,” Nicholas says, anger making his tone like the sound of a tight guitar string. “But you should still see a doctor, Ellie.”
She shakes her head in Olivia’s arms. “No, I’m fine.”
“I’ll have a doctor come here,” Nicholas offers.
“No. I just . . . I want to take a bath and forget this happened.” She sniffles. “I’m fine, really.”
“What about the police?” Olivia asks, hard and harsh. “This is assault, and that asshole should be in jail.”
Ellie holds up her hands. “Please, Liv. If we file a police report, it’ll be in the papers. All over the internet . . .”
“Screw the internet!” Olivia hisses.
But Ellie looks her in the eyes. “I want to let it go. And I’m asking you to let it go too. Please.”
Olivia deflates a bit. She shakes her head, unhappy but resigned. “If that’s what you want . . .”
“It is.” She sighs deeply, pushing back her hair. “And now I’m going to bed, okay?”
Her sister’s eyes crease with concern. “Okay. Do you want me to bring you a cup of tea?”
Ellie smiles ruefully. Because Olivia sounds more like her husband every day. “No. I don’t want tea. I just want to sleep.”
And then she walks out of the room and down the hall.
While Liam talks with Tommy, and Nicholas and Olivia speak with bent heads in soft tones, I slip down the hall behind Ellie. I catch up to her just outside her door.
“Are you all right?” I ask.
And there’s a tortured note in my voice—anguished and sorry.
Her spine straightens and her hand stays on the knob while she turns around. Her blue eyes shine with unshed tears.