“Do you need to head to school?”
“Not yet. It’s finals week, so I have free study periods first and second.”
Without needing to look, I text Tommy that I’ll get Ellie to school—he should meet us there.
The rain grows stronger and there’s a flash of lightning in the gray sky.
“Is there somewhere particular you want to go?”
I don’t want her getting ill from the rain.
“I know a place.” And her little hand wraps around my wrist. “Come on.”
By the time we pass through the stone arch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s full-out pouring, the water coursing over the entrance steps in a hundred little rivulets. Inside the marble-floored foyer, it’s warm and dry. Ellie shakes the water from her hoodie and wrings out her long, multicolored hair and I catch her scent. It’s sweet—peach, orange blossoms and rain.
“My mom used to bring me and Olivia here all the time.”
I reach for my wallet, but Ellie flashes a student ID and slides two vouchers to the ticket taker. “I have guest passes,” she says, “and they have early-access hours for students.”
I’ve never been to a museum—not as a patron, anyway. The royal family has attended more museum events and galas than I can count, but my attention wasn’t on the exhibits. I walk beside Ellie from one cavernous room to the next, and she chatters away the whole time, like her mouth’s incapable of being still for too long.
“Did you always want to be a bodyguard?”
“No,” I grunt.
“What did you want to be?”
“Something I was good at.”
Her head tilts, looking up at me. “How did you end up being Nicholas’s guard?”
“I was in the military. I was good at it—got picked for special training.”
“Like, James Bond, Navy SEAL kind of stuff?”
“Something like that, yeah.”
Ellie’s head bobs as she thinks. Her golden hair is drying now, and there’s a soft wave to it. She stops in front of an Egyptian display, and the reflection of light off the sarcophagus casts her features in warm-toned shadows.
“Have you ever killed anyone?”
I’m careful with my answer. “What amendment in your Constitution protects people from self-incrimination?”
I nod. “I’ll go with that. Final answer.”
She’s not at all put off by my reply. Her long, pale lashes blink at me curiously. “I don’t think I could ever kill someone.”
“You’d be surprised what you’re capable of in certain situations.”
A few steps later she asks, “If you had killed someone . . . would you feel bad?”
I run my tongue over the inside of my cheek and go with honesty, no matter how it might come off. “No, I wouldn’t. There are some in this world who need killing, Ellie.”
I open the door for her and she hums as she passes through—into a fashion exhibit room, all low lighting and seductive red walls.
“So what’s with the dark clothes?” she asks as we walk down the hall. “Is it like a mandatory dress code they taught you at Bodyguard School?”
I look down at her. “You ask a lot of questions.”
“I like to know things.” She shrugs. “I’m a people person. So, what’s with the clothes?”
I finger the navy tie around my neck—the one I remember her liking.
“Knights have armor; we have dark clothes. We’re supposed to blend in.”
“Inconceivable! You’re way too fuck-hot to blend.”
I hold back a smile. She’s a flirty little thing—daring; she doesn’t know how to hide her feelings, and wouldn’t even if she did. If Ellie were older, if we were different people, I’d be giving serious thought to flirting back. I like to give as good as I get, in all things.
Out of curiosity, I ask, “What do you want to be? When you’re done with school?”
She sighs, long and deep.
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” Her head toggles back and forth. “If I wanted financial security, I would go into accounting. Become a CPA. I’m good with numbers, and businesses will always need auditors.”
I open another door for her to the next exhibit. “It sounds like there’s a ‘but’ coming.”
Her mouth sparkles with a smile. “Buuuut, accounting isn’t really me.”
“What is ‘you,’ Ellie Hammond?”
“I want to be a psychologist. Talk to people, help them through their problems. I think that would make me happy.”
Something tugs in my chest as I look at her—good-hearted lass. I want that for her; she deserves to be happy.
Ellie stops walking and turns to the display in front of her. It’s a bed—four-poster canopy, ornate and curtained with intricate, gold-trimmed, royal-blue and purple fabric. She reads the description off the plaque on the wall. “The bed of His Majesty King Reginald the Second and Queen Margaret Anastasia of Wessco. That’s Queen Lenora’s parents, right?”
She gazes back at the bed with a longing sigh. “Wow. I can’t imagine living like this every day. Servants and castles and crowns—how perfect would that be?” She points at the opulent bed. “Queen Lenora could have been conceived on this bed, right here!”
I flinch at the thought.
“Let’s not speak of it.”
Ellie laughs—a twinkling kind of sound. As we move on to the next display, she asks, “What’s the weather like in Wessco?”
I glance up at the glass ceiling where the rain still batters against the pane. “Like this. Mostly gray, kind of cool—it rains a lot.”
“I love the rain,” she says on a breath. “It’s so . . . cozy. Give me a rainstorm and a warm fire going in the fireplace, a soft blanket and a cup of tea in a sturdy brick house—I’d never want to leave.”
She paints a very pretty picture.
Ellie stops in front of a painting of the Crown Prince of Wessco, Prince Nicholas Arthur Frederick Edward Pembrook. It’s his official portrait, commissioned when he turned eighteen. He’s wearing his military uniform, looking regal and dignified. But because I know him, I see the resignation in his expression and the flatness in his eyes.
Like a hostage with no hope of being released.
She stares at the portrait, and her voice turns hushed. “He’s going to break my sister’s heart into a thousand pieces, isn’t he?”
I take a moment before I answer.
“Not intentionally. And not only her heart.”
One week later
MY BRAIN HURTS.
But it was worth it. The all-nighters. The cramming. The stunting of my already stunted growth from too much caffeine—all worth it. Because it’s over now.
I’ve crossed the finish line. Planted my flag on the mountain peak. Snapped the last Lego into place.
The only problem is . . . there’s no crowd to roar. I have no one to share the news with. Liv’s asleep on the other side of the world, Marty’s on a date, my dad’s “out,” a.k.a. wasted at a bar somewhere, and Cory, my friendly neighborhood security detail for the night, was snoring away at the coffee-shop table.
People probably can’t tell this about me, but I’m a sharer. I need to spread the word, like I need water or air or microwave popcorn.
Which is why I’m doing something stupid right now. I didn’t even tell Marlow, though she would’ve totally approved, the vixen.
I’m going to Logan’s apartment. I know it’s dumb, but I just can’t stop myself any more than a magnet can stop its stupid slide toward its one true opposite.
A few weeks ago, at the museum, I could’ve sworn I felt . . . something. A connection. Logan wore my favorite tie—that’s gotta count for something, right?
Logan gave me the address to the apartment he shares with the other security guards in case I needed it. And I’m standing there now. It’s a decent building—no doorman, nothing too fancy, but not a dump, either. I knock on the door of Apartment 409. I look up and down the hall, shuffling my feet, hearing “Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac in my head.